Old Shoes

Josh leaned against the kitchen counter, a half-empty coffee cup in hand, and faced Tuesday morning like he had the previous thirteen long days of work: with grim determination. He had slipped out of bed quietly, letting Jessica sleep in. Little Louie was quiet his crib, Josh’s reward for a 4:00AM feeding. The little guy would be going to physical therapy today and no matter how cheap the co-pay was it was still more than they had in their bank account.

Medical bills added up faster than bounced check fees. The overtime from work softened the pain and kept them afloat, but it felt like they were always treading water. Sometimes they’d slip under and would have to fight to break the surface to catch their breath and a break.

Today was a break day.

Through the kitchen window Josh watched the dawn. The sun had started its ascent and would soon be in full view. A bluebird landed on a stump and began dancing in and out of the shadows. The little bird had a routine; it would pick up some seeds and berries, fly away, and return a few minutes later. There must be empty mouths and hungry bellies nearby.

Josh drank his coffee and watched the bluebird while working through the day’s schedule in his head. He would be supervising a motor replacement and knew he could knock out a few inspection reports while the crew was executing its scope of work. The extra money he could charge for the reports would go a long way toward paying down bills and filling up the pantry

Josh rinsed out the empty cup and set it in the drainer, then picked up his tennis shoes and sat down to put them on. They were a worn-out pair of white running shoes that weren’t capable of running any longer. They could only amble along; their youth a distant memory of summers long ago. Josh looked at them and smiled, remembering why he couldn’t let them go.

The surf was a soft translucent blue beneath frothy white foam. The warm sand slipped inside his shoes and squished between his toes, but he didn’t mind. The touch of his lover’s hand held a sacred magic. It felt like they were floating down the beach.

Warm sand, blue sea, small white ships dotting the horizon. The euphoria of love’s first blush. The eternal promise of yes.

Josh picked up his keys from the counter, glanced out the window at the bluebird, and left for work.

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Into Darkness

It was Tuesday afternoon at Mustard’s bar. Roderick sat in his usual spot and ordered his usual beer. The place was empty, except for Roderick and the bartender, Joe.

A Three Stooges clip came on the radio. Joe glanced at the analog clock on the wall, 3:20. He looked at Joe, “Hey, your clock’s still fast. Are you ever gonna fix it?”

“When the drunks leave on time and quit shitting on the bathroom floors, I’ll set the clock to the right time,” the bartender laughed.

The stale air contained the stench one expects to find in a downtrodden bar. The air felt heavy, as if the bar mourned its impending demise. Mustards, like the city of Columbus, dreamed of better tomorrows within a nightmare of perpetual failure. Neither could escape the creeping death that was central Ohio. The current inhabitants might not remember the region’s dark legacy, but that didn’t change its nature. Its nature destroyed lives. It distorted the destinies of all who were foolish enough to live there.

Joe squinted at his cell phone, cursed something under his breath, then plugged it into a charger on the counter behind him, and then glanced at Rod. Rod held his beer in his hand and slowly spun it with his fat, dirty fingers. The soggy silver label flipped and flopped against dark green glass with every turn. Rhythm found form; form found function. Turn, turn, drink; repeat.

Half a bottle later Rod pulled out a crumpled pack of unfiltered smokes from the pocket of his flannel and tapped one out. He placed the straight end in his mouth, lit it with matches he found on the bar, then took a slow drag. He stared at the dissipating smoke in the bar mirror. White grey faded into the dark shadows clinging around the edges of the windows against the far wall.

“I had the weirdest weekend, Joe. Like… I’m talking some seriously fucked up shit, man.”

“The bartender’s expression didn’t change when he looked up from the paper, “Yeah, kid, we’ve all had those. Did it involve women, booze, or both?”

“Both, of course,” Rod laughed hoarsely. “I got a call from a friend in Reynoldsburg. Pete drank himself out of college a few years ago. He has a new girlfriend now, and she’s got a good job. They rent a nice little place near 270. You can hardly hear any traffic at all. We’re not great friends, you know. But he’s alright. It’s not like I don’t like the guy. We used to hang out a lot until… we didn’t.” Rod scratched his arm absentmindedly.

“Oh, yeah. I see that all the time,” Joe said, and pulled a bottle out from under the bar. “I refer to them as friends of convenience.”

“Exactly. I knew you could relate. Well, he calls me the other day… hey,” Rod looked at his beer, “give me another beer, man, this one tastes like shit.”

Joe lifted an eyebrow and looked at Rod, but said nothing as he grabbed another bottle from the cooler. “OK, but drink this one a little faster. They tend to go bad after a couple of hours.”

“Thanks.” Rod said taking a drink, “Anyways, Pete tells me they solved the food crisis. I didn’t know what to say. I never heard of no food crisis. He didn’t sound drunk. He sounded serious. Have you heard anything about a food crisis?”

“No, I haven’t,” Joe said while pouring Rod’s old beer down the sink before tossing the empty into a large grey plastic trash can. The bottle landed a sharp clatter and the sound of breaking glass. “Then again,” he added, “I don’t keep much food at home. I generally eat when I’m here.” He walked to the sink behind the bar, fiddled with something in the sink, then began filling it with water. A cloud of steam began to rise from the sink. He squirted some soap into the slowly filling sink. Rod could see a mountain of soft white bubbles started forming on the surface of the water.

“Yeah, me neither. I hadn’t heard about it, but I congratulated him ‘cause I didn’t know what to say. He ask’d me to stop over for dinner Saturday. I looked at my schedule, found two beers and a moldy package of hot dogs in the fridge, and told him I looked forward to catching up on old times. Food is food, right?”

“A man has got to eat,” Joe said while cleaning glasses with a brush. The soapy water sloshed in the sink. The edges of his rolled-up sleeves were wet. Dingy water dripped from his hands. The black hair on his forearms glistened in the gloom.

“So, I go over there. The place looked nice, like a blue-collar Hallmark card. Pete’s happy to see me. The inside is also nice, real nice. There’s a game on tv. His girlfriend, Tammy, was in the kitchen making a salad. I brought a twelve pack. We put it in the fridge, grabbed a few, and walked into the living room. Pete sat on the couch. I sat in a recliner. The Indians were playing the Tigers. Kluber was having a great game. The food cooking in the kitchen smelled good. They looked happy, and there was a good vibe about the place. We spent a few innings catching up on old times. Pete then said something about the president, and something about immigration. I didn’t know what he was talking about. I never listen to none of that shit. That stuff bores me to death.”

“They say talking about politics and religion never ends well,” the bartender said, setting his empty shot glass down on the bar.

“I don’t know nothing ‘bout that. I’m a nobody. Ain’t nobody in Washington gonna do anything to help guys like me irregardless of who we vote for. My vote don’t mean shit. It’s why I quit voting. They always screw us in some way. It don’t matter what they say. It don’t mean that’s what they gonna do.”

“That’s how it goes. It’s been that way for as long as I’ve been alive. You’d think we’d learn, but we never do. Not really. If politics were like drinking we’d have far fewer problems in the world, and a lot more Fridays.”

“Yeah, that’s why I never give them no mind. What’s the point? Anyways, we’re enjoying the game, drinking some beers. Tammy comes in, grabs one, and sits next to Pete. She said dinner should be ready in about 20 minutes. I thanked her and Pete for having me over.”

“It sounds like your friend is doing well,” Joe said while placing freshly cleaned glasses on old stacks that looked like they had been there a very long time. The glasses near the bottom had turned a dull brownish-yellow.

Rod looked at his beer, and decided he preferred drinking from a bottle, and dammit if he didn’t need another one. He tipped his empty towards Joe and continued. “She’s a stripper, and takes good care of herself. Her body is tight. Her legs are tanned and toned. They looked great in that mini-skirt. Her face was OK, but something wasn’t right. I think she would look better without all the makeup.”

“Sounds like she is a looker,” Joe said and set another beer on the bar. He then grabbed a package of peanuts, and peeled off the tinfoil wrapper. The vacuum pop sound momentarily filled the emptiness, drowning out the soft purr of the small radio.

“Yeah, she’s fine, but I knew something had to be wrong with her to end up with a guy like Pete. And then things got really strange.”

“Strange how,” Joe asked. “It sounds like a normal weekend to me.”

“Well,” Rod said, “Pete kissed Tammy, and then looks at me and says, ‘You know, Tammy’s got needs. She really gets turned on if someone watches us doing it, you know what I mean?’ Ain’t that some weird-assed shit?”

“You’re joking,” Joe said. “He really said she likes it when other guys watch her having sex?”

“I wish I was joking. She smiled and nodded, then said it really gets her going, but that it was hard to find someone to watch. I didn’t know what to say, so I didn’t say nothing.”

“I would have said that I’m a born again Christian and premarital sex is a sin against God, Allah, Buddha, and Joe Buck, especially Joe – fuck you Kyle Schwarber – Buck,” Joe said and laughed while grabbing a handful of peanuts and shoving them into his mouth. While chewing he asked, “So, what’d you do?”

Rod’s eyes grew wide, “I was frozen, like a deer in headlights. I didn’t say nothing. Kluber struck out the side. The game cuts to a commercial. They set down their beers and started making out. After a few minutes Pete starts whispering, ‘You whore, you fucking whore.’ He gets louder and louder, then rips her blouse open. Buttons fly everywhere. One even hit me in the arm, right here,” Rod pointed to the spot on his arm where it hit him.

“No… shit…” The bartender slowly shook his head. He looked at Rod the entire time.

“She begins to moan. He slaps her once… twice, then kisses her deeply. She grabs a handful of his hair and pulls his face to her neck and tips her head back. Her grip tightens. I’m starting to feel uncomfortable… but I can’t look away. Pete pulls up her skirt and lets his fingers get down to business. You know what? She wasn’t wearing any panties. Tammy ain’t got no tan lines.”

“Out of all that, you noticed her tan lines?”

“Yeah, she’s got a great ass, and legs to die for. Of course I noticed. By now they’re getting into it. She whispers something in his ear and lets go of his hair. Pete jerks down his jeans while she gets up on the couch and faces away from him. She lifts her ass high in the air, and it is a true thing of beauty, with a cute little red and blue heart tattoo on her left cheek. He grabs her waist and they get busy. Real busy. I didn’t know what to do, so I drank my beer and watched.”

“They started having sex in front of you and you just sat there?”

“Well… kinda. Tammy looks over to see if I’m watching, and then starts losing control. She’s writhing on the couch like a wounded snake. Pete’s shirt is drenched. He starts shouting, ‘Take this you bitch,’ and really lets her have it, if you know what I mean. She fucking loves it.”

“Talk about uncomfortable. I’d recommend never going to their place for family game night,” Joe said. He put a fist to his mouth, burped, then set the container of peanuts down on the bar. “I just lost my appetite.”

“It was weird, but she’s a stripper, and really hot. Her legs start shaking real bad. I’ll tell you what, Joe,” Rod says tapping another smoke from his crumpled pack with hands that trembled slightly. “I thought she was having some sort of seizure. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up. She cries out and goes completely limp. Pete laughed, but he didn’t stop.”

“She passed out and he kept doing it? You’re right, you definitely had one fucked-up weekend.”

“Yeah, man. He didn’t stop, but he had to hold on to her hips ‘cause her legs started to slide apart. About 5, maybe 10, seconds later she starts moaning, and saying his name, but it’s a real low, guttural sound. Pete bends over and kisses her gently. I ain’t never seen nothing like it. They finished with a flourish. She didn’t move for a few minutes, then walked to the bathroom on rubbery legs. Pete gets up, grabs a couple of beers from the fridge, hands me one and says, ‘Thanks. That was great. I owe you big time.’ He then went to the bedroom and changed his shirt.”

“No shit,” the bartender asked slack-jawed. “What happened next?”

“Well, the Indians scored. The kitchen timer goes off, and suddenly I could smell the food again. My appetite returned. Tammy called us to the dining room. The table was covered with food. There were mashed potatoes and gravy, corn on the cob, a large salad bowl, and the main dish. It looked like a huge roast. She grabbed a bottle of red wine from the fridge. It looked delicious and smelled even better.”

“I guess they planned to reward you for their hard work,” Joe said, and smiled.

“When I sat down I got a good look at the roast. The skin was golden brown, and it was wrapped in bacon. I noticed what looked like a joint on one end, so I asked Pete if that was the neck, and he says, ‘It’s a joint all right, but it’s not exactly a neck. It’s a knee.’ A knee, I asked, like you know, a human knee, and he said ‘Yes, it’s a thigh. I call it muslo della portorriqueña.”

“He said your roast was really a human leg,” the bartender asked, taking another drink from the bottle under the table, not bothering to fill his shot glass. “Wait, let me get this straight. They fuck in front of you, and if that’s not weird enough, they then want to serve you roasted thigh? They’ve got to be kidding.”

“Yeah,” said Rod, “I thought he was joking. Ain’t no one gonna eat another person. That’s beyond fucked up, but Tammy… she said she’d been working on a special glaze for it based on some French recipes. She fucking marinated it overnight. If someone said that to you, what would you think?”

“I would have thought they were pulling my leg, so to speak. There’s no way I would have believed either one of them,” the bartender said.

“That’s exactly what I thought,” Rod exclaimed, and laughed. “So I says to them ‘That’s a mighty fine slice of thigh you’ve got there. It looks like my favorite cut. Give me a big ‘ole piece.’ Pete cuts me a large piece, and we begin eating. You know what? It wasn’t bad. Pete suggested trying it with Tammy’s gravy. I did, and it melted like sweet butter in my mouth. Pete looked me and said, ‘I like it better than chicken, and pork chops, but it’s not quite as good as a well-cooked filet. Nothing beats a filet paired with a fine pinot noir.’”

“That’s true. It’s hard to beat a good filet. So what was it, exactly, you were eating,” Joe asked, “I’m guessing some locally sourced cow. Maybe one that had been in an accident and couldn’t be sold through normal channels.”

“I figured I was eating some kind of roast,’ Rod said. “I had a second helping. It was good. After I finished my plate I relaxed with another glass of wine.”

“Wine? I’ve never seen you drink wine, before,” Joe said.

“Well, it tasted alright. I prefer beer, but it was better than water,” Rod said, and took another drink. “When they were done I asked them if this had anything to do with the food crisis, and Tammy said, ‘It sure does. We got a month’s worth of meat from just one teenager.’”

“One teenager?” The bartender said, forgetting to close his mouth. His eyebrows furrowed, he gritted his teeth, and his jaw and demeanor shifted once from left to right. He gripped the rag he was holding in his hand tighter. Roderick noticed the bartender’s knuckles flashed white momentarily, then they relaxed. Joe exhaled slowly. “This can’t be real…. You can’t be serious,” he finally said.

“Yeah, that’s what she said. I thought I’d heard her wrong, so I asked her what she meant, and she said they’d found a hitchhiker a few weeks ago. His name was Marco. He came over from Puerto Rico ‘cause of the hurricane. Tammy said she was real excited about having a new playmate.”

“They found a hitchhiker and wanted him to watch them have sex? I don’t think drinking was the only reason your friend dropped out of school,” Joe said while shaking his head.

“Well… he was kind of crazy,” Rod said. “Maybe his drinking kept him sane, cause none what happened that night was normal. Tammy said Marco watched them do it for a few days, but when they asked him to join in, they found out he was a she… a transgender.”

“So, he was the wrong kind of playmate?”

“Yeah, I guess it was a case of circles and squares. She said that by this time they’d grown tired of him, so they slaughtered him, fed his innards to their dogs, and put him, ummm… her in the basement freezer.” Rod finished off his beer.

Joe sat down on the stool behind the bar. “Let me be the first to say that you have the most fucked up friends I’ve ever known. Were they high, or tripping on something? It sounds like they were really messing with you? And that’s not right. I’m getting angry just hearing about it. if I thought for one moment that they were serious I would be on the phone with the police.”

“I didn’t believe them. Sure, they like having people watch them fuck, but this was just too much to believe, so I ask’s her, if you really killed and slaughtered a teenager, you just committed murder. Pete said, ‘No, that’s just a moral taboo society places upon itself; the ultimate hypocrisy against humanity. It is a denial to the reality of human nature.’ I was like, ‘but it’s still murder, Pete,’ but Pete said that America’s rich military history reveres those who have ‘murdered’ the greatest numbers of our enemies, and illegal immigrants were society’s modern enemy. This he an abomination on multiple fronts; a mentally deranged immigrant from Puerto Rico, who probably gayed her way into the states. She wasn’t even a real man, and doubtful she was a true-blue American. I admitted he had some good points, but that this wasn’t an enemy. It was just a kid. Pete said Marco wasn’t a kid according to the Bible.”

Rod laughed. “I figured they were just fucking with me, ya know? Pulling some crazy Jesus-crispy crap.”

“Whenever someone starts referencing the bible, I know they’re full of shit,” the bartender said, and laughed. The tension drained from his face. “Puerto Rico is part of America, and neither Marco’s religious, nor sexual identity are criteria in determining citizenship. That sounds like some bizzarro right-wing bullshit to me. I think your friend’s been brainwashed by the lunatic fringe.”

Rod lit his last smoke, balled-up the empty pack in his hand, then tossed it into the large grey trash can. The late afternoon sun had slipped further down towards the horizon. The cigarette’s orange cherry burned brighter than the growing mélange of shadows and dimming light slipping through the windows and running along the far wall behind him. The darkness silently crept towards the bar. Rod flicked the cig with his middle finger, knocking the fragile white-grey ash to the dirty wooden floor.

He looked at the bartender for a long moment, then his eyes focused on something much further away. “I told them I wanted to take a look at Marco, if he was around. They said he was still in the basement freezer.”

“Let me guess, the freezer was empty,” Joe said.

“No. Pete opened up the freezer and stepped away. I walked over and looked down. Dead blue eyes stared up at me, and through me to somewhere; someplace that wasn’t here. Perhaps he found his childhood home through the veil of death? A place free from the pain of this mortal coil.” He sighed. “Sure enough, there he was… well, most of him, minus what was on the table and in our guts. His eyes were wide open. Open. It looked like his mouth was still gasping for breath, even in death. His tongue was frozen against his lower teeth by a pink-streaked puddle of frozen spit. The basement walls started spinning, and so did my stomach. There was a large wash sink in the basement. I don’t know for how long, but I threw up into it for a long time until the dry heaves burned my throat. I was weak and shaking and drenched in sweat when I stood up. I told them I had to leave.” Rod looked down at his hands, he felt hot tears welling up in his eyes, which burned. Burned with the images, with the memories, and with the knowledge of what he’d done.

The bartender’s eyes grew wide. He dropped the bottle he was holding, and it smashed into pieces. He didn’t seem to notice the puddle forming at his feet.

“I walked to the stairs, but Pete stood in front of the steps and wouldn’t let go. I tried to shove him out of the way, but I had no strength left. I’d left the last of it in the sink. He punched me in the stomach and I doubled over and gasped for breath. I figured my face at that moment must have looked a lot like Marco’s, and the dry heaves began again. I sunk to the floor. When the worst of it had passed I tried to stand up mumbling, ‘let me go, I won’t tell anyone,’ but he wouldn’t budge. He pulled me by my shoulders and stared at me. Tammy then grabbed me by my hair and yanked my head back. I knew I was going to die.”

Joe slapped his hand on the bar, “But you’re here. How did you escape.”

“She pulled my head back, then began kissing me. She slipped her tongue into my mouth. It tasted like cheap wine and onions. I didn’t know at first what she was doing. She grabbed my hand and slipped it under her skirt. She was drenched. I couldn’t believe it. She felt me through my jeans, and I started getting hard. She unzipped my pants and placed her hand inside. I realized I had forgotten about Pete. I looked up and he was standing on the steps smiling down at us, working his dick with his hand. I bent Tammy over the steps and we started doing it. Pete joined in. You know what? Near death experiences are a real turn on. When we finished I walked upstairs to the bathroom and washed off the sweat and sex and drank a few handfuls of cold water. When I walked back into the living room they were sitting on the couch watching the game. There was a fresh beer sitting next to the recliner. I sat down, drank it, and smoked a cigarette. The game soon ended. The Tribe won. I got up and left. Pete thanked me for stopping by, and Tammy said to give them a call anytime. I walked to my car and drove home.” Rod exhaled. “And that’s it. Talk about one fucked-up weekend.”

“Have you called the police,” Joe asked. The bartender’s eyes were round white things offset by pinprick pupils.

“I thought about it all night but realized I couldn‘t call the cops on ‘em. They could have killed me, but instead took me in. It’s like I’m a part of their family. It wouldn’t really be right for me to call the cops now, would it?”

“You asshole,” Joe spat out. “They committed murder. Murder… and worse, much much worse. Now you’ve become a part of it. I can’t let this go.” The bartender reached under the bar and pulled out his Smith and Wesson M&P .40. He pointed it at Rod with a shaky hand. “I’ve known you for a long time, Rod. I think of you as a friend, but I can’t let you…” he wiped his glistening brow with the sleeve of his shirt, “I simply can’t let you get away with this. Jesus. I think I’m going to be sick, but you stay there until the police arrive. I don’t want any trouble. I don’t want to shoot you.”

“The world is overpopulated. In the grand scheme of things, did they really do anything wrong?” Rod’s stared at the barrel of Joe’s gun, watching it slowly weave back and forth like a snake charmer trying to mesmerize a deadly cobra.

“Nothing gives them the right to kill an innocent kid. You just stay right there, pal. I’m calling the police.”

“Joe,” Rod said then laughed softly, “This isn’t necessary, man. I’m just fucking with you.” His eyes watched the gun dancing in front of him.

“What, you mean this is all bullshit,” the bartender asked incredulously.

“Yeah, man. Tammy’s not a very good cook. The roast beef came out looking like charcoal, so we ordered pizza and wings, and watched the game.”

“Did they have sex. Was that real, or just more of your bullshit?”

“It’s all bullshit,” Rod laughed. “She’s a stripper, and smoking hot. I whacked off when I got home thinking about her and her legs, but we didn’t do nothing. That’s just guy talk. I’ve had a few beers today and… well… got creative like Shakespeare. Before I knew it I was telling you my own version of A Farewell to Arms.”

Joe lowered his gun and slowly shook his head, “But all the detail. What really happened.”

“We watched the game, and Pete had to change his shirt cause he spilled beer on it. He had to go to the basement to get it because they hadn’t brought up their clean laundry. Tammy thought the roast beef had gotten freezer burned from their piece-of-shit freezer in the basement.”

“God damn. You really had me going there. Hey, sorry about pulling the gun on you. It sounded so real. I really thought you’d eaten a human being. You should write that down shit. It’s a great story. The next couple of beers are on the house.” Joe clicked off the safety and set the gun back under the bar.

“Thanks, and don’t worry about the gun thing. More guns means more safety, right,” Rod asked and smiled. “You’re right. I really should write this shit down. It must be pretty good if I can get you to believe me. Do you got a pen?”

“There were so many details. It’s still hard to believe you made it all up.” Joe laughed and grabbed a pen from the cash register. He tossed Rod the pen, picked up the remote control and turned on the tv at the end of the bar, then reached up and turned off the radio sitting next to an empty bottle of cheap scotch.

A local reporter’s face filled the screen amidst a sea of flashing red and blue lights. “This is Sandra Berger with WBNS on the site of a grisly discovery. Residents at an apartment complex in Reynoldsburg found the remains of a body. I’ve been told that identification found near the victim indicates this is likely the remains of a teenager who went missing a few weeks ago. Details are still coming in, but I’m hearing they’ve found her head, along with a few belongings, including her identification. They’re still looking for her body. An officer stated off-the-record that this looks similar to recent rash of murders. They believe this may be the work of a serial killer. The crime lab has been working the scene most of the day, though reporters weren’t allowed near the scene until just a few minutes ago. WBNS will keep you updated as new information becomes available. This is Sandra Berger, back to you, Marty.”

Joe’s face froze. He looked at Rod, and then turned around to pick up his cell phone. Rod grabbed his empty bottle and hit Joe behind his ear. The bartender dropped like a sack. Rod jumped over the bar, grabbed a plastic bag from under the counter, slid it around Joe’s head, and cinched it tight. He then locked the front door, turned off the lights, and lowered the window shades. He went back to the motionless body, waited, and watched for movement.

A few minutes later he picked up Joe’s phone and removed the SIM card, then turned on the garbage disposal and washed it down the sink. The change in sound told him the disposal had done its job. He pulled his cell phone out of his pocket.

“Hey Pete. It’s Rod. I’ve thought about it, and I’m in. Call the crew. I’m at Mustards. Do you know remember when the bartender put you in the hospital a few years ago?” He grabbed another beer from the cooler. “Yeah, that’s him. Twenty minutes? Sure, that will work. Have them call me when they pull around back. See you in a few hours.”

Rod sat back down in his usual seat. He drank his beer and stared at the encroaching darkness in the mirror.

New Year

Another year has come and gone. The only thing we have to show for it are a few more wrinkles, aches, and pains. The myths of aging gracefully are a lie. Every decade of life adds another layer of quiet misery that slowly, silently, and without any sense of decorum snuffs the life from the living. Time is the choking hand of the reaper tightening his grip around our throats.

And on that uplifting note, Happy New Year Everyone!

Chumly the Cat

Note: I’m using this story as an exercise. It will be continually revised for some time.

The human mind is an island of entropy in an ocean of ignorance.
– The Mentalist Creed: 1723

As Jen’s rotting corpse filled the bedroom with a noxious odor, she was busy in the kitchen cooking a scrumptious chicken noodle soup for dinner. This is the story of the not-so-recently deceased Ms. Deveroux, and her cat, Chumly.

Donna’s aging Volvo pulls into an empty parking lot. On the horizon the sun is momentarily resting after breaking through a veil of darkness. The keys in her hand jingle against a coffee mug while she punches numbers into the office security system. Lights flicker to life, shutters open, and the day’s first pot of coffee begins brewing.

Nervous fingernails tap on a formica counter as she glances at her watch. “Damn it,” Donna mutters under her breath. “If I knew she wasn’t going to show up I could have slept in.” She takes another drink of coffee, hoping the bitter caffeine will compensate for lack of sleep.

He carefully washes her blood off his hands and forearms, scrubbing all the nooks and crannies until his flesh screams at him to stop. The water in the basin looks like a melted pink rose, silently swirling into the drain’s welcoming darkness. The taste of nickel lingers, resulting in a sheepish grin, like a crooked cop at a shooting. In the hallway a black cat slowly licks a front paw, never taking his eyes of the man in black. The gems on the cat’s collar glow softly in the dark. “It’s for the best,” thinks the cat, “and now it’s time to get rid you, too.” At that moment the doorbell and phone begin ringing.

The sounds cause him to stop what he was doing. He turns off the water, silently dries himself, and leaves the apartment without bothering to close the front door. The sun has left the horizon and begins slowly ascending through a cornflower blue sky. The rush hour traffic is heavy at this time of the morning.

Jess is trying to maintain his bus schedule, and punches the accelerator when he sees the traffic light turning to amber. He’s already 10 minutes late, and the grumbling from the riders has become a white noise of angry bees buzzing around a nest of impatience. Some bees are louder than others. “I can’t be late again,” bemoans an anonymous rider. Beads of sweat begin forming on Jess’s brow.

He didn’t see the man in black walk out in front of his bus until it was too late; the screams of the passengers, the man in black’s calm demeanor 10 feet in front of a speeding bus, the squeal of brakes and smell of burning rubber, the eyes of the man in black not closing until his head explodes against the bus in a crimson halo.

>>>>>>>> (20 August 2014 edits) <<<<<<<<

At that moment the office bell rang out, letting her know that someone had opened the front door, which led into the waiting room. Donna tapped out her cigarette, walked through the office, and entered the waiting room with a formal, “Hello, may I help you”?

There was nobody there. Donna looked around to be sure, but the only thing she noticed was the time on the waiting room clock. It was 8:41. She opened the front door thinking that someone might have left a package or a delivery note, and stared at the “Welcome” mat on the door landing. There were no packages or notes on the door or landing. She was alone.

She walked back towards the patio. As she crossed through the examination room she noticed movement out of the corner of her eye. Along one of the walls was a large floor to ceiling mirror and for a moment Donna thought she saw her friend, Ms. Deveroux, sitting down the examination table.
Donna glanced at the table. Empty. “Ok,” she thought to herself, “get a grip, Donna, get – a – grip….” She walked out to the patio, and lit another cigarette. She didn’t seem to notice her trembling hands.

:::::
12 Hours Earlier

Ms. Deveroux was in the kitchen making chicken noodle soup for dinner. She’d been feeling ill the past few days, but had recently awoken feeling quite refreshed. Her fever had broken; the antibiotics had done their magic. She reminded herself to call her friend, Edith, after dinner to let her know she wouldn’t be able to mall walk in the morning. Ms. Deveroux wanted to sleep in, and see how she felt after her physical therapy appointment tomorrow morning before she committed to any more back into her. Then again, she figured Edith would likely stop by anyway just to see how she was doing. Ms. Deveroux’s cat, Chumly, happily chattered to her while rubbing both of her ankles in a never-ending figure eight, also known as an infinity symbol.

“Chumly sure is happy to see me,” She thought to herself, absent-mindedly reaching down to scratch her beloved behind one of his ears. He reciprocated by leaning slightly into her fingers, letting the nails scratch itches he couldn’t quite reach himself, well not without some effort, which went against the kitty cat code of ethics. Little did she realize that Chumly wasn’t merely talking to her, which of course he was, for that’s what cats do, but he was actually in the middle of a sacred feline ritual.

Between magical meowings Chumly was chiding his human caretaker, “I told you not to wear that windbreaker last week. You needed something warmer, you hairless ape. Now look at you. You’re dead, and I have to fix this mess if I want a nice dinner. Oh, the things I do for you. Have you cleaned my litter box yet? I doubt it. You never think of me. Yet here we are on another journey, and, as usual, you don’t even know what’s going on. Oh, why do I bother? ”

If one were to look into the kitchen they would have sworn that Chumly was conversing with a ghost, which cats do rather well I must admit. However, this Ms. Deveroux was in the kitchen making dinner, but there was one little problem, she was a ghost, and her physical body was still in bed.  In the corner of the kitchen a white light began to glow, and then slowly begin spinning in a clockwise rotation. As it did so it grew larger and larger, eventually becoming a large tunnel of soft white light. Violins could be heard emanating from somewhere deep inside the tunnel. Ms. Deveroux was at a crossroads. She could move on if she wanted to, and once she realized that she was dead, but Chumly wasn’t interested in being an orphan, and would have none of it. Chumly knew he had to work fast if he wanted a nice dinner this evening.

His meowings became louder, and his ankle rubbing more fervent. The gems on his collar began to glow. Slowly the music faded away. At the same time Ms. Deveroux’s spiritual being – the one that was currently making dinner in the kitchen –became a solid being. Blood began to flow through empty veins, flesh became warm, and all the while Ms. Deveroux continued making soup, oblivious to everything. The tunnel of light began shrinking, and a few moments later it was nothing more than a bright speck of light in the corner of the room. Then, it winked out. The corpse in her bed faded away. The blankets covering the body slowly drifted downwards until they were peacefully resting on the bed again. The smells of chicken noodle soup filled the kitchen, and it smelled delicious. Chumly’s stomach growled.

Chumly was looking forward to a good meal, and nothing beats chicken noodle soup. In another room, in another place the dead Ms Deveroux remained, along with a hint of chicken noodle soup that hovered in the air for a few minutes before fading away. That Brock never saw Chumly again.
The next morning, as Ms. Deveroux was getting ready for her appointment with Donna, she realized she had forgotten to call Edith the night before, and had subsequently missed their morning mall walk. She hoped to call her after her appointment with Donna, and perhaps take a walk in the early afternoon. When she left for her appointment Chumly was sleeping happily on her bed. He had been in such a good mood the night before, and boy did he love chicken noodle soup. Ms. Deveroux felt certain that he was glad she was feeling better. She looked at her watch as she walked into the office and noticed it was 8:01AM.

Donna looked out from the examination room, and exclaimed, “Ms. Deverouox, it’s so good to see you. I was starting to get worried about you. This is the first time you’ve ever been late.”

Ms. Deveroux looked at the clock in the waiting room, and was shocked to see that the time was actually 8:41. “Oh my,” said Ms. Deveroux, “I had no idea it was that late. I thought it was eight o’clock. In fact, my alarm clock, and kitchen clock are also off by twenty minutes. I'm so sorry.”

"That's quite alright, Ms. Deveroux. I'm just happy to see you. You can come on back now," Donna said. And with that, Ms. Deveroux began her new day.

Chumly rolled over, scratched an itch, sat up, and looked out the window. "I wonder if she realizes what a cross-dimensional time shift is? Oh, well, she'll figure it out," and with that he laid back down, fell asleep, and dreamed about chicken noodle soup.

Burroughs’ Savage Baboon

Speaking of rats, did I ever tell you the time I got lost in New York’s subway system? I was wondering around the J line. Passing nodding junkies, under the crunch of broken needles and bloody condoms – the detritus of lost souls – I rounded a graffiti-covered corner, when my pet baboon saw one of J line’s dog rats: Rats literally the size of a small dog, and thought it was another baboon. It attacked, savagely ripping off the rat’s head in a scream of rage, as a spray of rat blood and brains splattered wetly against one of the tiled walls. It looked like something from Pollock’s dark period.

The baboon then proceeded to fuck the dead rat’s newborn fleshy orifice. The mouth of the rat head, laying in the corner covered in its own blood, continued to bite the air and scream in silent fury. I gobbled up the rat’s ectoplasmic essence with grimy fingers that glistened in the yellowed light.

The Cost of a Living Wage

Our society is failing to provide a living wage for tens of millions of Americans. In 2012, the total percentage of American workers making less than 1968’s minimum wage was between 39.6% and 46.6% ($22,339.20)[1].   An unsettlingly large percentage of Americans currently struggle to live at, or below, the poverty level. It is why America has more children living in poverty than almost every other developed nation in the world, with the exception of Romania. In 2012 there were 21.8% of children under the age of 18 living in poverty[2]. Americans need a living wage.

There are many who say we’re already giving millions of dollars in government benefits to a bunch of lazy, entitlement-rich malcontents. Why should they get a “free ride”? Well, the simple truth is that over 90% of those receiving benefits are: the elderly, the disabled, and those in a working household[3]. This misconception is one of the radical rights, formerly known as those crazy neocons, talking points, as this recent headline clearly illustrates, “Why work when you can live comfortably on the government dole?” [4]. This headline comes from the necon paper The Washington Examiner. It is bankrolled by billionaire, Philip Anschultz, who also repeatedly tried to get intelligent design creationism taught in America’s public school system via The Discovery Institute, of Seattle, WA. Yes, one of the most conservative groups is located in the heart of Liberalia.

My biggest concern in all this is how it will affect our future. No developed country, other than Romania, has a higher percentage of kids in poverty than America. We’re living with crippling income disparity, as evidenced by the chilling fact that many Wal Mart employees will have to work for nearly 800 years to make what their CEO, Michael Duke, made in 2012[5]. The effects of this on society are troubling.

Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel prize winning economist, eloquently stated, “The price of allowing the US to continue down the path of inequality, as 1 percent of Americans now control 40 percent of the country’s wealth, is the undermining of economic growth, the erosion of democracy and the growing instability of American society itself. American income inequality presents a frightening specter, he argues, for the global economy.  The risk is that the middle class is going to be harder and harder hit, and that there will be prosperity for only the few at the top. But the middle class is important for stable growth and a strong democracy. When a society becomes more and more divided, it becomes increasingly class-driven, and it’s very hard for democratic processes to work well in that kind of society.”[6]

We’ve seen the impact of money’s influence on legislation. In the past there was Enron’s contribution to the energy bill, which was a disaster. Currently the Koch brothers’ are hell-bent on profits, and have already destroyed thousands of jobs in renewable energy field by using pseudo-science, and good old-fashioned lobbying. They’re also bankrolling the Tea Party, and were behind the Tea Party’s failed attempt at blackmailing the government via a government shutdown. Doesn’t this undermine America’s ability to achieve stable economic growth, while robbing the chances for millions of Americans to follow their dreams?

This reflects poorly on our culture. Today, different factions of society aren’t separated by minor ideological differences; they’re separated by trenches of hate. We’ve gone from a land of opportunity, to a land where tens of millions of children live in poverty.

Our politicians, bought and paid for by Lobbyists, Inc. have become their spokesmen. A few of the 1% club have actively tried shaming us into doing things against our own self-interests, e.g. Romney’s 47% comment vs. the fact that the vast majority of said 47% come from staunchly Republican states[7]. If we don’t turn this trend around soon, and learn to help one another, things will get worse.

A living wage isn’t merely an economic issue, but a moral issue that reflects society’s values.

 

[1] http://www.ssa.gov/cgi-bin/netcomp.cgi?year=2012

[2] http://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty/about/overview/

[3] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/ezra-klein/files/2012/09/2-10-12bud-f1.jpg

[4] http://washingtonexaminer.com/examiner-editorial-why-work-when-you-can-live-comfortably-on-the-government-dole/article/2537928

[5] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/23/walmart-wages-to-ceo-annual-salary_n_3140618.html

[6] http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/americas/united-states/121226/joseph-stiglitz-us-income-inequality

[7] http://www.businessinsider.com/mitt-romney-47-percent-no-income-tax-map-red-republican-states-2012-9

Death of the American Dream: Income disparity and our burgeoning two class society

If you’re earning less than $10.74 an hour then you’re making less than your grandparents did back in the 60’s, when they were working a minimum wage job. The $1.60/hr they made in 1968 is worth $10.74/hr today. With that in mind, it’s hard to deny the painful truth: wages have decreased by over 32% since 1968 for 99% of Americans. The reason? A money and power grab by the top 1%, and the resultant income disparity that will eventually result in the elimination of the middle class. Raising the minimum wage to the levels of our grandparents would go a long ways to helping those most in need.

Real Value of the Federal Minimum Wage, 1968-2012 (in 2012 dollars)x

 

Bootstrapping is what made America great. But ask any of the tens-of-millions of working poor if hard work is enough to prevent them from living paycheck to paycheck? The sad truth is that repressed wages have turned the American dream into a nightmare. Couple this with the shocking fact that over 45 million Americans lack decent healthcare, while millions more are one check away from losing their coverage, and an ugly picture of our modern day American lifescape begins to take shape. How did we get into such a predicament? Are we still the greatest country in the world?

Since 2009, 95% of the income gains have gone to the top 1%, and that’s actually down from the 121% in gains they earned from 2009 to 2011. Odds are good that many of our grandparents will work until the day they die – their dreams died a long time ago. This is what happens when people aren’t paid a living wage. Many of us face a similar fate if we allow this income disparity to continue unchallenged. The irony is that employees today are far more productive  than they were back in the 60s.

If we were to tie the minimum wage to production, it would currently be around $22/hr. From 1973 through today, technology and education have resulted in tremendous gains in worker productivity. Unfortunately compensation hasn’t followed suit.

 comparing productivity with hourly wages, inflation-adjusted with the Consumer Price Index (CPI)

We face an uphill battle. Now that money is the driver behind free speech (e.g. Super PACs) the voices of the poor and middle class, i.e. you and me, have been nearly silenced by roar of the 1%. They’re creating large swaths of low information voters who actually believe the half-truths being sold to them. How many of you have heard the Job Creators meme? It’s almost as ubiquitous as the socialized healthcare meme, and the compromised Canadian and British health care systems memes. Which are false, by the way, as many of my Canadian friends will happily attest to.

Out of 141 countries, the U.S. has the 4th highest degree of wealth inequality in the world, trailing only Russia, Ukraine, and Lebanon. The reason for this disparity is simple; corporations are influencing legislation through lobbying efforts and Super PACs, and then reaping financial windfalls. The more they win, the more everyone else loses. Months before their epic (and well documented) collapse, Enron Corporation had three of their top officials secretly meet with [then] Vice President Dick Cheney, who was heading the energy task force. These officials were instrumental in crafting legislation that gave Enron, and their ilk, hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks and other benefits. How could such extreme corruption influence policy? Greed is green, and money is the great equalizer. Many former Enron employees, having lost everything, will be working until the day they die. The first step is to raise minimum wage. The minimum it should be raised to is the levels of our grandparents, $10.74/hr. Ideally, I’d like to see it also reflect the vast gains in productivity, and would be happy with a minimum wage around $16/hr. It would instantly and drastically improve the lives of tens of millions of Americans.

However, the 1% club wants to horde all money, and it has become even more obvious over the past decade. One of the greatest periods of economic growth occurred during President Clinton’s term, 1993 – 2000. This resulted in income growth across the board. During this time incomes for the bottom 99% grew by over 20%. While still repressed, they weren’t backsliding. However, from 2002-2007 incomes for the bottom 99% grew by a mere 7%, while those for the top 1% grew by almost 70%. This is, in large part, the result of policies enacted by the Bush administration – including sweeping tax changes that benefitted the top 1%. Most of these were implemented after the Enron debacle, even though Enron executives had a hand in crafting the legislation.

Change in income and share of income from 1979 to 2009

Today, the 1% aren’t content with merely working in the background. The Koch brothers and Rupert Murdoch are bankrolling the Tea Party, and there’s no doubting the poisonous influence these Puppets of the Plutocracy have had on Washington. Tea Party members were instrumental in shutting down the government, as part of a bluff to undermine President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, because having over 45 million Americans living paycheck to paycheck, and living without adequate healthcare isn’t unfair enough. The bluff quickly unraveled hours after the Koch brothers, in a face-saving move, publicly stated that they weren’t behind the shutdown (nudge nudge, wink wink). Following this announcement, a rash of meetings ensued to resolve the crisis and limit the political fallout. But how does this affect you and me?

The influence the Koch brothers have had on our country has been devastating. Their meddling with renewable energy legislation, using Koch-supported think tanks and junk science, among other tactics, has resulted in the elimination of tens of thousands of jobs, higher utility costs, and more pollution (not to mention the long-term effects of said pollution). On the upside, the Keystone pipeline will create upwards of 50 jobs. The Koch brothers have spent over $67,000,000 from their family foundations to deny the existence and extent of global climate change, promote fossil fuel use, and undermine renewable energy legislation. But the most immediate impact has been the tremendous loss of jobs.

Today, thanks to the influence of big money on Washington politics, we’re being told & sold even less of the truth, while a new charade of morality carries on. Change starts by addressing income disparity. I’m not talking about higher taxes. That’s a tough sell, though the tax rates during Clinton’s presidency didn’t affect economic growth, and in fact possibly helped to spur growth. Giving people a living minimum wage, one that’s adjusted for inflation, is the logical next step. And $16/hr would be a great starting point.

The regulations and policies being instituted today to address income disparity pale to those enacted during the New Deal (after the Great Depression). The result of the New Deal permanently reduced income concentrations until the 1970s, which, coincidentally is when this current run of income disparity started. Coincidence? Until drastic changes are enacted to address this issue, income concentration will compromise economic stability, eliminate the middle class, and kill the American dream for tens of millions. We’ll be left with a two-class society of excessive wealth and extreme poverty.

Unless we face this issue head-on we may be witnessing the birth of America’s Plutocracy.