Originally published in the online magazine TheAvantGuardian.com (no longer exists) on April 4th, 2010.
<<previously… well, let’s just say that some parties involved believe that I alone am at fault. For what? you ask. The short of it is, all past and future vanished in a puff of smoke, including but not limited to all past and future episodes. All that’s left is this one rapidly disintegrating moment, and without a past it’s like reading a book made from the torn-out pages of other books. If it ever starts to make sense, maybe you could help me out. I do pay well. Sometimes.>>
New Orleans, the day before yesterday.
You know the big bang never happened here? It was a bang everywhere else, but here it was more like a loud, wet thwap that started everything – like the sound a soggy pancake makes when you throw it against a bowling ball that’s been dipped in grease. Thwap and you get lush swamps, beastly oak trees and caterpillars that will kick your ass. Thwap and you get shotgun houses, coffee and chicory and a population of trumpets so thick that you trip over them in the street.
Thwap and I found myself in the middle of Dutch Alley; a lost little sliver of space between the French Quarter and the river. There aren’t many shops there; just benches, light posts, a few fountains and… statues.
The Aspect was kneeling down on the stone walkway, ink dripping from the sewing needle held so carefully between her fingertips. The man, who had long since relinquished his name, had his trouser leg pulled up as The Aspect ever slowly stitched tiny words onto his flesh, squeezing them in between the sentences that already wrapped around his leg like snakes. If the man had pulled off his shirt, he’d be covered in strings of words – all squeezed together so tightly that his skin would have to be stretched out for them to be the least bit legible. And the ink that wrapped around him like a tornado all varied in age, some of it so old and faded that the words were nearly lost, with the oldest sentence being one hundred years old to the day. What a day that must have been for him.
“That’s it,” The Aspect said. “There’s no more room. It’s finished.” She stood and stretched.
I find it strange how such a prolific artist as her could have only a single tattoo. It’s right on her shoulder, and she wears tank tops to show it off. The tattoo is breathtaking, let me assure you, but unfortunately I must keep its description to myself, since I’m sure she wouldn’t want to be recognized on the street. Gods know she doesn’t need one more reason to hate me – I have a hard enough time bargaining with her these days.
A resigned horror came over the man’s face – like he was facing his very own death. In reality, of course, it was the other way around. “I… I don’t know if I can go back,” he said.
“Of course you can,” I told him.
He lifted up an arm, his eyes tracing the spirals upon spirals of letters across the skin of his forearm. He looked like he could be in his thirties, but his tired eyes gave him away. “I had a wife… a job… children. How can I go back to that now?”
“Remember last week,” I said, “when I asked you if you had any qualms about going back to your life? How I said something about it being terribly important to figure all that out before today? And you said ‘no’ – that you were just yearning to have your life back?”
The Aspect stepped between us and glared at me. “Don’t be an asshole,” she said. “You have no idea what he’s been through.”
“It’s just that this burden,” said the man, “is the only thing I’ve known… for so long. I didn’t think it would be hard to let go, but it is.”
The Aspect turned to him and embraced him, holding his head against her shoulder.
“You gave up your wife, your children, your entire existence,” I said. “You watched everyone you know die. You’ve already given up much more than you’re being asked to give up now. And in return you will get back all that you lost.”
My humble associate, Scape, tapped me on the shoulder. He so rarely says or does anything beyond floating just behind me, that he’s quite easy to forget. But what he does say or do is usually of the utmost importance. Maybe I should mention here that Scape is a mosquito, and that his body is the size of a possum’s, and just for fun I’ll throw in that he likes to wear vests. Rather than coordinate his vests with other clothing (of which he wears none), Scape picks out his vests according to the season. It was a cool day in the beginnings of spring, and his vest was brilliant green with a blue, fluffed handkerchief sticking out of the pocket.
The man looked up and locked eyes with Scape, and my associate hovered closer to him.
“I feel so lost,” the man said to Scape.
My associate waved his large, feathery antennae in the air, then opened his mouth wide like a snake’s (something that took me a couple of years to get used to, though I’m not entirely certain that it’s his mouth, or that he really has a mouth). His mouth opened into a large, wide rectangle, about the size of his whole body, and he spoke:
My associate’s “mouth” closed, his antennae brushed over the man’s face. The man crossed his arms.
“You don’t have to listen to them,” The Aspect said. “They’re both con artists.”
“Do you mind?” I said to her. “I am paying you, aren’t I?”
“No, they’re right,” said the man. “It’s time to finish this.” His eyes followed Scape as my mosquito friend drifted backwards through the air until he was beside me. “Thank you,” the man said to Scape. A long sigh escaped his lips and words upon words trickled out from underneath his shirt and trousers, faster and faster until they were spilling and sloshing together down the curves of the stone sidewalk and then spiraling down the metal drain, down into the heart of the city. He almost fell and The Aspect had to hold him up. The man suddenly seemed so frail and skeletal.
“You know what I was?” he asked, his eyes glowing above the sunken cheeks. He seemed to be speaking to all of us, to any of us. “It was 1910, and I was a butcher.”
I pulled a wadded up piece of paper from my pocket and smoothed it out. “I’m not really a poet, but I had to come up with something original, something for you to pass on to the next person.”
He shook his head. Then he looked into the eyes of The Aspect, who was still holding him up. “You,” he said.
“Me? I’m not a poet either. Probably less so.”
“Yes you are,” he whispered
She closed her eyes, put her lips to his ear and whispered for several moments. When she was done, she stepped away from him. There was a tear camped out on her cheek, a bead of salty water that had set off on a journey, but now refused to go any further. The man slipped back in time, like an actor vanishing between the hidden break in the curtains – leaving only a metal imprint of himself, standing there in the alley, gleaming in the afternoon sun. He was a butcher.
“You look like you could use a drink,” I said to The Aspect. I wanted to wipe the tear from her cheek, but was pretty sure she’d punch me.
She licked her lips. “Just pay me,” she said. “So I can be done with you.”
“Alright.” I reached into my jacket, pulling from an inside pocket a bubble the size of my fist. “An entire afternoon’s worth of the city’s daydreams, as promised.”
She reached for it and I stepped backwards.
“Now don’t just trade these to any old bartering bastard in the French Market,” I said. “I don’t want to have to hunt each one of these down in a month.”
The Aspect walked up to me and snatched it out of my hand, then did that thing that women do where their entire body is almost touching you and yet not touching you at all. Her breath brushed my neck and cheek when she spoke: “Remember who’s the amateur here.” Then she was gone, her footsteps hovering behind me like perfume.
I turned to Scape. His feathery antennae bobbed in the air. I took one last look at the statue of the butcher. “Thwap,” I whispered, “and you’re a statue in Dutch Alley one hundred years in the future.”
We left the statue, passed through a break in the flood wall and headed up to the levee.
(link to next episode will be here when it’s published)
story and photos Copyright 2010 by Andy Reynolds