The Booth

He closed the apartment door and walked down the corridor. While he waited for the elevator, he put his hat on and buttoned his jacket. Inside the car, a man and a woman smiled sheepishly at him. The fluorescent lights flickered. The flagrant smell of sex, tangled with cologne and perfume, clung to the paneled walls. On the ground floor, they exited first and he followed. Whatever they had going it wasn’t enough to last. He shrugged and stepped outside the building.

The dull light of dawn hung like a netting above the city. He headed west, toward Fieldston, carrying a brown paper bag and limping slightly in his usual manner. A flock of pigeons noisily took to the air a second after he trespassed on their sidewalk. They left sticky feathers and diarrheic droppings behind. At a street corner, he picked the morning paper from a kiosk and a pack of sugar-free gum. His mouth tasted of stale coffee grounds. He cleared his throat and spat.

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Twenty minutes later, he entered the subway ticket booth. He exchanged a perfunctory greeting with the man he replaced. Five days a week, he spent forty minutes going to and fro, plus a quarter hour at the grocery store outside either apartment or booth.

Commuters with an attitude whizzed by. They hurried to their shops, offices and meeting rooms. He ranked them by the clothes they wore and pictured most in desolate, poorly lit cubicles. Some of them sat back and stretched their legs on mahogany desks in refined offices with large windows offering expansive views of the cityscape. All of them though, everyone, just like him, had nothing better to do but to go back and forth.

At noon, he pulled his lunch and a thermos out of the paper bag. He absentmindedly munched on a tuna sandwich. The lettuce was soggy and tasteless. He sipped the hot coffee. It was infused with a metallic tang that he had stopped to notice. Human traffic dropped from the thousands to the hundreds. The stress associated with his workload, that of accepting exact cash and dispensing tickets, went down a notch. He unfolded the paper and read, not paying much attention to the wars ravaging countries in other parts of the world. It certainly wasn’t his fault. Nor was police brutality, city-council corruption or vile presidential candidates. Once, some years ago, he read that anyone who was worthy of becoming president won’t run for the office. It stuck with him and made up the core of his political belief. That was the reason he won’t even vote. Disgusted, He shook his head.

Shortly before rush hour, when the second wave of humans flooded the subway, he punched his card and unlatched the booth’s door. A turbaned man nodded affably and took his place behind the thick glass. On his way up the stairway to street level, a discarded gum stuck to the back of his shoe. He cussed under his breath and limped east.

Down In Smoke

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“Women! You can’t live with them. You can’t live without ‘em.”

“So true! They’re like popcorn.” I ruminated and took a slow drag. Smoke descended on the table like chemical mist.

“What do you mean?” He asked, “Women are tasty, ephemeral and frail?”

I hadn’t put any thought behind my words. They were the bastards of a threesome of beer cans.

“Precisely.” I crushed my cigarette and lit another.

Leaving in twelve hours, I had resigned myself to be molested on both sides of the great divide by people, mere people, who held absolute power over my destiny. I had to pass, with poised docility, the obnoxiousness of sunburnt, potbellied men whose armpits stunk down to seventh hell before the crossing, and then, twenty-four hours after the travail of travel, the scrutiny of uniformed inquisitors with swollen egos and a worldly empathy smaller than a scorpion’s pussy.

“Ask not what you can do for your country but what your country can do for you,” I blurted, savoring the misquotation.

“Cheers, buddy. Kassak! May you go and return safely.”

“The pussy of this place’s sister. It’s but a grotesque mutation of those who reign over it. JFK wasn’t more important than America. Was he?”

“No, but Hitler, the little shit, was bigger than Germany. Stalin’s mustache thicker than Russia. Idi Amin fatter than all of Africa. And we, here, in this goddamned place, eat, sleep, fornicate and ultimately die beneath the feet of tyrants who are larger than life.” He gulped down his fifth or sixth. I lost count. “And you know what? All of the third-world dictators were propped into their chairs by the Americans.” He burped. “Yet, and here’s the irony, this is where you’re going. America!”

“For once, I wanna live the life of the blissfully ignorant. I don’t wanna give a shit anymore about Middle East politics or the massacre of Muslims in Myanmar. I might even get a dog and feed it better than these children of a lesser god. I’ll post pictures of Rex, that’s my Lab, lying in bed and sticking its tongue out on Facebook.

“You’ll get hundreds of Likes!”

“I’m gonna miss you.” I looked away and smoked.

“I’m gonna miss you too, man. And, I’ll join you as soon as I close shop here. We’ll start a Hummus joint together. We’ll call it Hummus Tartous.”

“Hey, we can hang a copper plaque on the wall and write in cursive that Hummus started in Tartous, spread to Mesopotamia, and eventually inundated the whole world. Americans like this sort of shit. And they’ll buy it, eh!”

“Millions of them support Trump and the others turned Bernie Sanders down. They’ll buy anything.”

“I think I’ll change into a white racist bigot once there. Trump is Great!”

“Yeah, the pussy of his mother.”

I was glad the night had fallen. I avoided his eyes but when I looked, there was nothing to see except two dark pits in the infinite blackness of this place.

The Art of Shaving

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Whether a man is a rapacious glutton or a Sufi hermit, he is essentially a slave to his desires. He overindulges in carnal delights on one hand or in abstinence on the other to satiate his physiological drives or his spiritual compulsions. Being but moderate in my pursuit of revelry and a devout secular humanist, I heed idiosyncratic thrills with pious abundance. Come evening, for instance, I smoke one roll of tobacco that costs next to nothing to buy but days and weeks to acquire and cure. I light it with reverence and draw its smoke between sips of amber Scotch, which I can’t, for the life of me, imbibe unless poured in a specific glass that I call Véra. Such is the case with shaving. For ten minutes every other morning, I have elevated the elimination of my facial hair, save for my mustache, to a hedonistic feast of self indulgence.

I like growing a beard. In fact, I wore one for years. Had it not been for the indescribable joy shaving brings me I would’ve kept my beard forever. Perhaps my mustache is my way of rebelling against ephemeral fashion.

I feel sorry for the poor sods who hate shaving but have to. I would hate it too if I had to use disposable razors and gas-propelled foam out of canisters. Ewww… No way! I have turned a dreaded chore into a zen moment of aloof extravagance.

I’ve used every conceivable blade on my face, disposable Bic shavers, electric, wet, dry, three in a row, and five in a row, to name but a few. I shaved in the shower and out in the field. Gosh, I shaved whilst floating in a river once, but that’s another story. After close to 6,000 shaves by my count, I couldn’t find anything that comes close to using an old Merkur Classic razor, a boar hair brush, a stainless-steel bowl and a tube of Hamol shaving cream. Sure, many a shaving enthusiast might dismiss my choice of boar hair for a brush instead of a badger’s as that of a boor. I look at it differently, however. I strive to possess the highest quality tools I can afford. I can conveniently buy the best boar brush in the world but only a mediocre pure badger’s. The same is true about my possession of a German Merkur razor instead of a Japanese Feather. I do use Feather Doubled-Edged razor blades almost exclusively, though. The almost is dictated by the fact that I’m not allowed to pack double-edged blades in a carry-on when I choose to fly light.

Running a blade across one’s face is a most intimate affair for a man. I seek solitude, like a Sufi mystic, and pamper myself to unabashed excess, like a lascivious rogue, or gentleman, depending on the observer. I have to yet fulfill my ultimate shaving fantasy, though, a mysterious woman giving me a close shave with a straight razor on the morning after.

The Voice

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The cellphone Stephanie bought me rang, breaking the silence into tiny shards. It must be her, checking up on me.

Had I eaten? Was I warm enough? Had I heard from social services? Anything she should bring me on Friday?

At the other end, a woman who didn’t sound like Stephanie said hello. Her voice cascaded through the earpiece the way the white satin sheets slid over my naked body in the Hotel Rouge a lifetime ago. I hadn’t spoken a word all day.

“Who’s this?”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I must’ve dialed the wrong number.”

I cleared my throat. “But, but… you sound familiar. Your voice, I’ve heard it somewhere. Sometime before.”

“Perhaps in a previous life!?” She laughed. An irresistible small chuckle that didn’t stop but dissolved unhurriedly.

Emily? My first love, my sweetheart. Could it be Emily? But we haven’t spoken since I left to Vietnam.

“Are you there?” The woman asked.

“Yes! Can you talk some more, please? I’m still somehow groggy…”

“And, you’re trying to figure out if you know me.”

“Yes, I am.” I replied.

Ellen! It must be Ellen. My lovely bride. But wait a minute, Ellen died twenty years ago. She had cancer. Oh, my darling Ellen. “I’m so confused. I don’t know what to say. You’re not Betsy, are you?”

“Who’s Betsy?” She asked, seemingly amused.

“My ex-wife. But she wouldn’t call and she doesn’t sound anything like you.”

“Then I’m not Betsy. Listen! Who’s been on your mind lately? Someone you often think about.”

“No one. They’ll never come back and it only makes their absence harder.”

“Do you live alone?”

“Yes.”

“Any children?”

“A daughter. Stephanie. She visits once a week. So!”, I swallowed hard. “You really dialed the wrong number.”

“Uh, huh.”

“I’m sorry I kept you waiting. It’s just that…”

“That you’re lonely.”

“I guess so. And, you have such a beautiful voice.”

“Hmmm, you still got it in you, old man. How old are you?”

“Seventy-two.”

“That’s good enough for me. But, where are you?”

“Modesto, California.”

“That’s not too bad. I live in San Francisco. My name is Michele Wright, by the way.”

I felt light-headed. The possibility of daring to hope was intoxicating.

“I’m John Forest.”

“Like the Franciscan Friar.”

“I have no idea who that is.”

“Never mind. Say, would you like to get together for a cup of coffee? Do you drive?”

“I’d love to, but I don’t have a car.”

“I have to come to you then. You can take me to your favorite café in Modesto.”

“But… What if?”

“What if we don’t hit it off? Let’s leave that until it turns out to be the case. How about Saturday? Are you free on Saturday?”

I nodded as if she could see me. “Yes!”

“I have your number. Until then, John.” She hung up leaving the sound of her laughter behind.

As a huge grin wrinkled my face I popped a Warfarin with a swig of water.

 

*Photo “By the Window”, Edvard Munch, 1940

‘neath the Albert Pike Library

DungeonWe stand in front of an almost unseeable door, cleverly concealed behind moth-eaten tomes on the last row of bookshelves in the Humanities section. The professor leads the way down a flight of stairs to the mechanical room. Our boots clunk against the gangway as we scurry toward the steam boilers. Under the last one’s chimney, he opens a hatch in the floor. I squeeze through first sliding down a tubular chute. He dispatches the backpack then closes the hatch behind him and jumps. Save for one monolithic door, we find ourselves in the middle of a stark anteroom. Above us, the Pike Library is deep asleep at this hour of the night.

I unpack the gear and arrange it on the floor. The professor takes the can of WD-40 and douses the door’s rusty hinges. While I light the torches, he produces a brass key from the folds of his academic robe. He fearlessly looks me in the eye, yet with a hint of concern he asks.

“Are you sure you want to do this?”

I nod, affirming the inevitable. “Let’s go then. From here on we have to remain silent.”

The flames flicker as a rank draft sneaks through the widening gap of the door redolent of sweat and defecation. I fight the impulse to puke, barely able to repress the bile rising up my throat. The professor looks pale and old, as if twenty years have passed since we left the world above.

We climb down an endlessly twisting stone stairway. Rats squeak beyond the reach of light. The echo of water dripping somewhere reverberates against the sandstone. At the landing, seven shafts radiate in a half-circle like the spokes of a wagon wheel. The professor points to the second one from the right and proceeds. The air becomes heavier as we sink further into the bowels of the campus. A faint humming grows louder deforming and transmuting into orgasmic moans of werehyenas and ghouls.

We emerge into a high-ceiling corridor, flanked on both sides by a dozen massive doors. The professor retrieves a ladder from the shadows and leans it on the crossbar above the door labeled XVII. I climb and peak through the transom window. A proscenium, illuminated by chandeliers, torches and sconces is filled with grotesquely naked figures kneeling on semicircular kneelers and chanting in unison. On the stage, directly below, an old wizard with a belly that hides his genitals and an older witch with drooping, wrinkled breasts utter incantations in an alien tongue.

He pulls at the cuff of my pants. “How many?”

“A hundred-fifty, maybe more.” I answer, coming down.

“Let’s kill as many of the bastards as we can. I’ll get the two fuckheads first.” He says, grinning.

The professor pound-hugs me and ruffles my hair then he unsheathes his sword and I heft my ax, shattering the darkness with shafts of fire. Alea iacta est, we cry as we blast in, blinded with fury, stabbing hearts and crushing skulls.

Sayonara

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Overnight the gale quit. The breakers retreated from the battered beaches and joined the dying whitecaps offshore. At dawn the swollen sea was still brooding over its latest outbreak, taking deep, heavy breaths to calm down. It wasn’t the first time the sea got this angry, nor would it be the last.

Fish emerge from the depths to feed nearer to the surface after the storm. I, too, am jittery and need to take to the sea. I cast off Sayonara, my 18-foot boat, and ease her out of the cove. Once clear of the shallows, I open the throttle three notches short of full and head to the farthest fishing ground known to me or to any of the islanders. Tiller loosely held in the crook of my arm, I light up a roll of tobacco and savor the smoke and salt as they course through my airways in a hedonic twirl.

Halfway there, the archipelago disappears below the horizon. The boat has no instruments since I seldom take her this far out of sight of land. I glance at my watch then at the sun and adjust my heading. That’ll do! I always talk to myself when between the sky and the sea. We’ll be there in seventy minutes. This time I talk to Sayonara. I move forward to fetch the baskets. I’ll get the lines ready.

I dead-reckon our position and slow down into a two-minute counterclockwise turn releasing a half-dozen droplines laden with baited hooks. The floats bob with the swell in a perfect circle. As I reach for the second batch of lines the engine sputters making the hairs at the back of my neck stand on end. Before I could reach it, it falters and dies of starvation.

The reserve jerrycan under the bow is full, though. I fill the engine tank and bleed the air from the pipes. These things happen, eh! I attach the hand-crank and have a go at restarting the engine. My hand, slippery with squid and diesel, loses its grip. The hand-crank, jerked loose, barely misses hitting me in the head as it plunges into the sea. My fifty years of seafaring have finally caught up with me.

***

I set a piece of fuel-soaked cloth at the end of a plank on fire and wave it high overhead. This way, I have a better chance to be spotted at night by a passing freighter or a trawler. After a few nights, however, when no one comes to my rescue, I stop. I’d choose spending my life lost at sea over being grounded without giving it a second thought. All I left behind was an empty shack. I don’t even have a dog. I could survive out here for months, for years, or until the next big storm hits. I lay my back on the foredeck and open my eyes to the stars. The boat squeaks and creaks. We’ll be fine, I run my fingers over her weathered wood, Sayonara.

Stranded

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The bus plows through the blizzard until a shapeless whiteout swallows the world. I brace myself against the seat in front of me and grab the arm of the woman sitting by my side. I sense her resentment but there’s no time to explain. The driver, blind as a bat, taps the brakes. The bus skids for a couple of hundred feet before it hits the railing on the side of the road. It isn’t a violent crash by any means yet it’s strong enough to knock one of the passengers, a young girl, off her seat. She removes her headphones with shaky hands, her purple hair’s all messed up.

The engine whines before the driver reaches for the ignition switch and kills it. The smell of fear pours like a thickly slime along the aisle. Groans of panic rise before the manic storm mercilessly silences them all.

“Is anybody hurt? You’re Okay ma’am? How about you, sir? Good!” The bus driver yells at the top of her voice, going around, visually checking the fifteen passengers, one by one. A man, wearing a toque on his bald head, helps the driver get the girl to her feet. His goatee is made up of long, scarce hairs, like the beard of a real goat. The woman by my side forgets or forgives me. She searches her purse frantically for her cellphone. We’re out of coverage, but she doesn’t know it yet.

“Calm down everybody, please. They will send another bus for us soon. Just stay in your seats while I call for help.” The driver doesn’t know that the cellular tower closest to us was just knocked out of service. No one’s coming till morning. We’re stranded in the eye of a snow storm twenty kilometers south of Ottawa for the next fourteen hours. I, of course, know. I know everything.

The bus driver, Ellen Thompson, is on brink of divorce. She would make up with her husband tomorrow. Over the next few months they would try to glue the broken pieces of their marriage back together, but he’s dying. Cancer would spread undetected until it would be too late. He has less than a year to live.

After refreshing her makeup, the purple girl puts her headphones back on and stares out of the window. She would bounce back and forth between meth addiction and recovery, until her neighbors, alarmed by the foul smell coming out of her apartment, would call the police. They would find her dead. Strangled.

The man with the goatee too. Tragedy would strike him one day. He would lose a yet unborn son. I grab my head with both hands and cry.

“Are you Okay?” Brenda asks. She would become my girlfriend but only for a short while. She would do her best to cope with my mood swings, to break through the wall I have built around myself. But eventually, I would wear her down. How could I ever tell her. I know everything.