Throwing Stones

Photo by staale.skaland.

We stood in our soaking trousers in a tight circle around the dog where it lay motionless on the ground, it’s head at a strange angle that made me queasy to look at. I watched for its tongue to move, or its chest to rise or fall, but there was nothing, no motion at all.

Tommy knelt down next to the dog. He reached out his hand out to touch it but caught himself, teetering on his heels as the action almost sent him toppling over on the dog.

“There’s so much blood,” he said in a whisper, as if talking to himself. And there was. Standing this close we could see the sharp gash on the animal’s head, just behind its left eye socket. Blood oozed from this jagged tear and dripped slowly to the ground.

“I didn’t mean to. I– I just threw it and I didn’t think it would–” Jimmy stammered, not quite able to make himself say it. “I didn’t mean to throw it that hard, it just flew and — but you know I didn’t mean to, right?” Whether he was talking to us or the dog I couldn’t be sure, but either way no one was listening.

“I think I can see the skull,” Tommy was enthralled. “Yeah, that’s bone right there, that white stuff under the fur.”

Jimmy’s continued to talk over Tommy’s grisly post mortem. “I didn’t mean it. I just threw it and– You know I didn’t mean it, right Mitch?”

He turned to me. I could see him out of the corner of my eye, but didn’t turn to respond.

We had been sitting on the opposite side of the river, throwing stones — skipping the flat ones across the surface of the water, and tossing the round ones too just to hear a splash. It was a sunny day, one of the first real days of summer, and the world around us seemed to hum with lazy anticipation.

I skipped a rock across the river and heard it clack satisfyingly on to the opposite bank.

“Big deal,” Tommy said, “I skipped a rock across Spring Lake last summer that made it all the way across, that that lake is way wider.” As he said this he side-handed a flat stone, but it sank to the bottom with a plunk on the first hit. He shrugged as if this didn’t disprove his statement.

“Yeah well I skipped a rock across Puget Sound once. Beat that!” Jimmy said, smiling as he lobbed a rock overhand in to the bushes on the other side of the river. After three summers of baseball he had the best arm of all three of us, and we all knew it.

“Prove it,” Tommy said.

“You prove it,” Jimmy said. And that was that.

Tommy walked back to a rotted-out log to sit and stew, picking up pebbles between his legs and dropping them back to the ground with a clatter. Jimmy and I continued to throw, pretending not to notice.

A loud bark echoed across the river, and a dog bounded on to the rocky bank on the opposite shore. It had a collar, but no owner followed it on to the river bank. It was a brown mutt with a long lively tail and ears that flapped around its head as it ran. It looked too well groomed to be a stray. We watched it for a moment, saying nothing, then Tommy stood up on the gravel behind us with a crunch.

“Hey Jimmy, I bet you couldn’t hit that dog,” Tommy said.

“Why would I want to?” asked Jimmy.

“Fine, I guess you couldn’t do it then.”

“I could do it, I just don’t want to.”

“Right. Because, you can’t do it.”

“I can!” Jimmy’s tosses became faster, more aggressive.

“Yeah, yeah.” Tommy was getting to Jimmy, and he could tell. A wicked grin spread its way across his face. “Your dad can’t throw worth shit either, so I guess it’s no surprise.”

Jimmy’s father had been on a tour of duty overseas for a year and a half now, and Tommy knew it. He also knew that the last time someone had talked about Jimmy’s father like that he went home with a torn shirt, bleeding from the mouth.

“Fuck you Tommy,” said Jimmy.

“Come on guys,” I said, stepping between them, but Tommy continued.

“Fuck your mother. After all, your dad’s not around to do the job.”

“Shut the fuck up!” With this, Jimmy picked up a rounded stone and threw it across the river with a force that looked like it should have pulled his arm clean out of his shoulder. The dog caught sight of the stone in mid flight and, no doubt confusing it for a baseball, bounded across the rocks and jumped for it with its mouth open. As the rock connected with its skull there was a sickening, muffled thud, and the dog dropped to the ground.

We stood frozen for a moment, saying nothing. Then, without a word, I waded in to the river, stepping gingerly from stone to slippery, submerged stone. After a few steps, Jimmy followed. Then finally, Tommy waded in after us.

Now, Jimmy stood next to me on the opposite bank with tears gathering in the corners of his red-lidded eyes.

“You know I didn’t mean it, right Mitch?”

I glanced at Jimmy now, not turning completely to face him. I couldn’t look him in the eye, but I nodded, and that seemed to be enough.

Tommy stood up from the dog’s side. “Guys, did you look at all the blood?”

Without thinking I cocked my fist back and threw it at Tommy’s face, connecting hard with his left cheekbone. He took a step back in surprise and tripped, landing hard on his back. He groaned and rolled to his side, and already blood was leaking from his left nostril, leaving a red trail across his cheek.

I had never punched anyone before, and the pain was immediate. The point of impact at my knuckle exploded, and I felt reverberations through my arm all the way to my shoulder. But I didn’t let on. I couldn’t, not in front of them. Even as my hand throbbed I just opened and closed my fist, staring down at Tommy where he lay on the dry stones, a few speckles of his blood already dotting the rocks near his face.

“Mother fucker!” Tommy shouted, but his eyes stayed tightly shut, his face like a clenched fist.

Jimmy just stared at me, a single tear leaving a shining contrail as it rolled down his chin. I looked at him for a moment, still flexing my aching hand, then turned around and waded back across the river.

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Out Of Body

Photo by Mike Lacon.

At exactly 5:36 p.m. on October 7, 2007, Cheryl Heinz, a 46-year-old pediatric nurse and part-time Sunday-school teacher, lost control of her 1992 Subaru Legacy sedan and skidded into oncoming traffic, where she collided head-on with a black Ford Explorer SUV.

The larger vehicle collapsed the front of her small car as it decelerated from thirty-five miles per hour to zero in a little more than half of a second. Cheryl’s body, still traveling at thirty-five miles per hour, broke free of the seatbelt and collided with the steering column, breaking seven of her ribs, two of which punctured her lungs. Her forehead slammed into the windshield, cracking both her skull and the shatterproof glass. By 5:37 two onlookers were on the phone with 9-1-1 operators while Cheryl lay unconscious in the front seat.

Seven miles away, 52-year-old Gary Trudell, the owner of a small bookstore, was walking home from work when a blood vessel in his brain ruptured due to an undiagnosed aneurysm, causing a massive hemorrhage. He collapsed on the sidewalk seventeen yards from the door to his apartment. It was six minutes before his neighbor found him to call for paramedics at 5:42 p.m.

By 5:51, both Gary and Cheryl were in separate ambulances on their way to Valley General hospital. Gary arrived at 5:59, and Cheryl less than a minute later. Both were wheeled, unconscious, into the emergency room and were immediately set upon from all sides by nurses and surgeons.

Gary would later describe a feeling of “floating” or “weightlessness” as he discovered that he was looking down at his unconscious body among the bustling nurses and paramedics. He felt a sense of calm and well-being, even in the midst of the chaos. As he watched, the scene grew distant as though seen through a retreating zoom lens. Gary turned to the hallway door, which opened slowly to reveal a “perfect beam of light” from which emanated several voices. Gary couldn’t make out most of what was said, but he could recognize among the voices that of his mother, who had died a year earlier. Following the voices, Gary stepped forward into the light.

He found himself in standing on a hill looking down at a lake that reflected the perfect blue of the sky above. In the distance behind the lake a mountain range cut the sky in to jagged wedges. All around were uninterrupted fields of grass. He recognized the place immediately; it was the scene of a recurring dream from his childhood. And just like in the dream nothing happened, he simply stood, looking at the water, the mountains. He felt what he would later call “a sense of oneness with the world around [him]” and “an overwhelming feeling of love and of being loved … unlike anything [he had] ever experienced.”

Three rooms away from Gary, Cheryl’s punctured lung collapsed and quickly filled with blood. The heart-rate monitor flat-lined at 6:04 p.m.

Later, Cheryl would claim that she watched from outside her body as the sharp peaks of the monitor went flat and the lead surgeon began to administer electric defibrillation. She would also be able to recall the names of every doctor and nurse that operated on her, despite being unconscious (or clinically dead) the entire time she was in the room.

As the doctors worked, Cheryl turned to he hallway door. Outside, a fluorescent light flickered and went out. She stepped out with bare feet and looked both directions down the dark hallway but saw no one. To the right she heard soothing voices, telling her to follow them, that everything would be all right. Cheryl found herself following the sound of the voices down the hallway. Along the way, the lights slowly dimmed and finally went out, leaving Cheryl traveling in the dark.

Over time the voices grew louder. They shouted at her, seeming to reverberate within her skull. They screamed at her, laughed at her. She felt something rip away her surgery gown. A hand gripped her throat while something wet slid down her back. She felt more hands touching her, pulling her hair, fingers sliding into her mouth, up her nose, between her legs. She tried to scream, but found that no sound would come.

The voices continued to laugh. They told her to pray to God, to ask him to save her. But she couldn’t talk. She tried to pray in her head like she had before going to sleep as a child. She asked God to save her, but the voices just got louder. She prayed to Jesus for salvation, but none came.

The hands began to claw at her flesh. She felt them tear away her skin, rip out her hair. They pulled back her fingers one by one until she heard the knuckles snap. They tore away chunks of flesh, and eventually her legs, her arms. They ripped open her stomach and she could feel them pulling out her intestines. Before long, “it felt as if [she] had no body at all, that it had all been ripped away,” and that “all existed were those voices, screaming at [her], mocking [her].” In that moment she knew that no one could save her, and she felt a greater despair than she had ever known.

Two days later, on the afternoon of October 9, both Cheryl and Gary woke up in their hospital beds at Valley General Hospital. They both recounted their experiences to their loved ones, and later to researchers of out-of-body experiences and other near-death phenomenon.

Gary, who denied any religious affiliation, called his experience “life-affirming” and said that he believed he had visited what others might describe as “heaven.” Cheryl refused to draw any conclusions from her near-death experience, calling it “a horrible nightmare, nothing more.” But after recovering from her injuries she declined to continue teaching Sunday school, and stopped attending church entirely a few months later.

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Beginnings

Photo by TwisterMC.

I hope to make this as concise as possible. My life has not been a remarkable one, at least by historical standards. I did not kill anyone, I was not elected for anything, I never made a video that went viral on YouTube. But I stand in firm belief that every life deserves to be preserved, no matter how mundane.

To that end, I’ll start at the beginning.

My life began, as most do, with a fair amount of screaming, I imagine. This assumption is bolstered by my later experiences with my mother, who’s purpose in life seemed to be that of a human car-horn, blasting decibels in the face of anyone who cut her off in traffic or prepared her coffee incorrectly. Early on in life I took to wearing the hood of my jacket at all times when running errands with my mother, so as to limit the number of witnesses who could later recognize me in the wake of potential eruptions. The mental picture I keep of my mother is that of a face, so screwed up in anger that it seems more veins than flesh. Her teeth, always eerily, impeccably white, are fully exposed by her thin lips, which are pulled back in to tight pink lines. Her hair is in disarray, pulled back in to a hasty ponytail as if bound for some unspeakable crime. Her nostrils are flared like those of a bull, and her heaving breaths do nothing to take away from this impression.

In short, it is easy to imagine my mother giving birth to me. In fact, even now I can picture the event with such clarity that I could have been standing there, right behind the doctor’s shoulder dodging spittle and profanity.

Equally clear is the picture of my father, standing, hunch-shouldered, a few feet from the side of the bed. I can see his fingers twitch as he half-heartedly reaches out to comfort my mother, mumbling something that I’m sure sounds like ‘there, there” in his mind, but really sounds like someone making confession through a rolled up bed sheet. Every now and then he might approach the bed, do something gallant like grab my mother’s hand, just to be beaten back again by a wave of curses so strong it’s surprising he stayed on his feet. He was a tall man, and thin, with limbs like a weeping willow and joints like knobbly tree roots. To see him stand was to wonder how the feat was accomplished, as it did not appear that the laws of physics would allow so slender a creature to stand upright without teetering slowly and toppling to the ground.

I am always tempted to picture the doctor with a moist cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth, grunting commands to my mother like I imagine a obstetrician in the 60s would do. The only problem is that I was born in 1986, and thus, this assumption is pure fantasy. But indulge me if you will, in picturing the smoke from Dr. Gyno’s cigarillo filling the room with a fine mist. And picture further a single, cone-shaded lamp swinging just behind his shoulder, as though it were an interrogation room, not a birthing suite.

This is the scene of my birth.

Of course there were nurses bustling in and out of the large swinging door, all entering with paper smiles and leaving in tears, wounded by my mother’s wildly lashing tongue in a way they would have sworn was physical in nature. I’m sure she quickly gained notoriety in the hospital, as she did later in life in the PTA and other school organizations, of being someone best avoided if one were to go through life with an illusion of pride left intact.

For that reason, I imagine the large room as empty, save for the looming, smoking figure of the doctor hovering over my mother and the slight frame of my father, pressed against a wall just outside of view. I picture the single lamp in the center of the room casting looming shadows of angular hospital equipment against the wall, stretching and shrinking with each lazy swing of the chain that holds the bulb suspended from the ceiling.

And then, with one final shriek from my mother that cracks the windshield of every car in the hospital parking lot, I slide in to the doctor’s thick, callused hands. All seven pounds, eight ounces of me.

“It’s a girl,” he might have said, his cigarette dancing in the corner of his mouth with every syllable.

Maybe then my father emerged from the shadows, bending his bony knees to lean in over me next to my mother, their faces like twin moons in orbit above my red puckered face. I’m sure each of my parents saw themselves in me as I do now — my father’s twig-like frame, my mother’s piercing stare. But it may also have been apparent to them then, as I shook my balled up fists and kicked out at nothing, that there was something else entirely. An element of creation that, for all the recognizable pieces, was something original. Something unique. Something more than just a random swirl of their own DNA.

And then, I imagine, they turned their wide-eyed faces to each other over me as two words passed soundlessly between them: “What now?”

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Here Lies Sparky

Photo by AdamBindslev.

Tom plunged the blade of his shovel into the damp sod of his backyard flowerbed. He pushed down on the worn wooden handle and separated a clump of black-brown dirt from the surrounding earth. It was heavier than he’d expected, soaked as it was from the rain the night before. At least the hole wouldn’t need to be that big — he glanced at the trash bag-shrouded bundle in the dewy, overgrown grass to his right — no more than two feet deep, three at the most. As he brought his heel down on the butt of the shovel for the second time, he felt the first icy pinpricks of rain against the back of his neck, then his bare arms. He heard a low rumble in the distance. Not promising, but this should be quick work, he thought.

After a few more shovelfuls, Tom set down his tool and knelt to pick up the trash bag. He placed the bundle in the hole and pressed it down with his hands, trying to make it fit. But despite his efforts, the top of the black plastic lump still rose inches above the surrounding flowerbed.

“Guess you should have laid off the ol’ Kibbles n’ Bits, eh Sparky?” Tom said as he lifted the trash bag back out of the hole and dropped it once again in to the unkempt grass.

Sparky had been his daughter’s dog, a white and brown Jack-Russell Terrier. But now Sparky was the lifeless resident of a Hefty trash bag. Kim was away at college, so the role of canine undertaker had fallen to her unwilling father who had found Sparky stretched out, looking a little too relaxed, in his favorite napping spot earlier that morning.

After a few more shovelfuls,  Tom once again tried to fit Sparky’s remains in the hole. Closer this time, almost flush with ground level.

Tom hesitated; the rain was starting to come down harder, upgraded now from a mist to a steady shower. Maybe he could just leave it this way, spread a thin blanket of dirt over the dog and call it good. After all, it was just a dog — not even his dog, technically — and the back of his t-shirt was starting to soak through.

But no, an opossum or coyote might dig up the poor mutt. If that happened it would just create another chore for Tom, and picking up mangled pieces of Sparky from around the yard sounded even less pleasant that what he was already doing. Although it would be fitting in a way, he thought as he picked up his shovel. It seemed like he was always picking up after that dog; his shit, his toys, the balls of his fur that collected on the carpet. Picking up pieces of Sparky himself might be the logical conclusion to their relationship.

When Kim’s mother was still in the house it wasn’t so bad. Tom had made it clear when they got Sparky that he would have nothing to do with it — he’d never liked dogs. So if Kim and her mom wanted a dog, they could clean up after it. When they had started going through the house to divide their things it was assumed that the dog would go to Kim’s mother’s house. After all, Kim would be there most of the time, and, as her mother was quick to point out, Tom didn’t even like dogs.

And yet, Tom had insisted that Sparky stay in the house with him. He said there would be no room for the dog in the townhouse with her mother and that Sparky would need a yard to play in — all of which he supposed was true, though he didn’t really care. He even claimed that he and Sparky had become very close, which was an outright lie. The truth was — and he barely admitted this even to himself — he was afraid that without Sparky there, Kim would never feel at home; that for her, home would always be with her mother because that’s where Sparky was. He told himself this was irrational, but Tom still held defiantly on to the dog he didn’t like, and for the next five years cleaned up all of his messes, including the final mess Sparky would ever leave: his own mortal remains.

Tom scooped the last few shovelfuls of dirt on top of the plastic bag, then got to his knees to smooth the soil with his hands. The rain was coming down hard, collecting in Tom’s hair then dripping down his face and off the tip of his nose. Tom stood up, wiping his hands on his soaked jeans. As he looked down at the mound of Sparky’s grave, he wondered when he should break the news to Kim.

Later. He nodded to himself as he walked back to the empty house. Later was probably best.

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The Man With The Black Umbrella

Artwork by Long Tran, 2012

There was nothing so dramatic about it, really, the way he slumped over; one moment upright, alive, human, the next an inanimate shell, crumpled in the backseat of a convertible.

Even the blood wasn’t so bad. There is no casual way to describe someone’s head being blown apart, but there wasn’t anything so dramatic about that either. Just a face that wasn’t a face anymore — a complete piece of flesh in a moment made unwhole.

The man with the black umbrella had seen it happened before, and it was no different when it happened to the president of the United States.

A title like that could make people forget that he was just another human being, made of the same flesh and bone as the rest of us. It could make them forget that a bullet could do as much damage to him as it would to anybody else. He was not a god. He was just a president. And if there was ever a reminder of that, it was fired from the barrel of a sniper rifle at 3,000 feet per second one afternoon in Dallas, Texas.

It was a normal bullet, and it caused the normal amount of destruction. Nothing so dramatic about that.

The drama was what came afterward, with the screaming wife scrambling to reach across the now lifeless body of her husband, trying to shove expelled brain matter back in to his skull. It came with confused yells of the crowd, almost drowned out by the roar of the engines as the motorcade sped off down the road.

The man with the black umbrella turned, expressionless, and paced slowly up the hill away from the crowd.

That’s where people get confused. Sitting in their rec rooms, eyes glued to the flickering glow of the TV screen, they think moments like this are dramatic: the loss of a human life. But the man with the black umbrella knew better.

He had seen men lose their lives before, handcuffed to water pipes in abandoned storage closets, kneeling on the dusty floors of warehouse basements. He had watched as the gun was raised and the trigger pulled, with all the ceremony of flipping a light switch. He saw the blood expelled and that familiar lifeless slump of just another piece of meat, reduced to what it always had been.

There was nothing so dramatic about it, really. There were no screaming wives, no shouting crowd, no stories on the news or articles in the Sunday papers. There was no emotional swell of music — just the dying echo of a gunshot, then silence.

The man closed his umbrella as he reached the street on the other side of the hill. He stepped down to the pavement, then let the tip of the umbrella tap the ground as he crossed. He listened to the confused shouts fading behind him, the sirens, the screams.

But at the center of it all, a death was a quiet thing. The man with the black umbrella smiled quietly to himself as he stepped up to the sidewalk and tapped his way down the street.

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Rapture

Photo by dibytes.

The family huddled close together on the scuffed hardwood of their living room floor. On their knees, they clasped hands in a tight circle, shoulders almost touching. The father was an older man, balding, with a round nose that protruded from his face like a sweaty doorknob. His skin was porous and each crater glistened in the light of the single lamp in the corner of the room. He closed his eyes and mumbled the same words, over and over.

“Our time has come. May God have mercy on our souls.”

Again, and again, and again.

His wife trembled next to him in a high-collared green dress. She had been pretty once, maybe beautiful. Now her thick blonde hair was pulled back in a tight bun, save for one rogue strand that clung to her damp forehead. Tear tracks ran down her cheeks as she tried to control her sobs, keep them contained like wild animals within her chest. She sniffed once and squeezed her eyes shut as she turned her face to the cieling, swaying to the rhythm of her husband’s prayers.

Across from her, a small boy stared at his mother with eyes and mouth wide open. He was six, not old enough to understand what was happening. But he still turned to glance at the clock compulsively. Two minutes until the big hand reached the twelve. That meant it was almost one o’clock. That was when his father said it would happen.

He had seen his father pray many times; before every meal, before bedtime. But it was never like this. This was different.

The girl next to him had thick blonde hair just like her mother’s, only hers was pulled back in a disheveled ponytail. She was older than her brother, and those years showed through her cutting gaze as she stared across the small circle at her father. Her eyes were the cold blue of arctic water, and her unwavering stare had the temperature to match. She displayed none of the fear of her mother, none of the confusion of her brother. She knew exactly what was happening.

Through it all, the father prayed. “Our time has come. May God have mercy on our souls.”

Again, and again, and again.

The mother swayed, the daughter stared, and the boy continued to glance back at the clock. The big hand moved through one minute, then two. Then three. Then four. Finally, it read two minutes past one.

“Father,” the boy whispered, as if he were afraid that the word might turn around and bite his tongue. The girl turned slowly to look at her brother, but their father did not hear. Glancing at his sister, the boy mustered some courage and whispered again, “Father.”

“Our time has-“ the man faltered. He opened his eyes and looked at his son, his eyebrows gathering like stormclouds. “What is it?”

“Um. Well, it’s- The big hand is past the twelve. Shouldn’t it have happened by now?”

The man paused for a moment before answering.

“God keeps his own time. He goes by no man’s clock.” Closing his eyes again, he continued. “Our time has come. May God have mercy on our souls.”

The children exchanged glances but said nothing. Their mother opened her eyes and glanced at the clock herself. She tried to sway to her husband’s words again but couldn’t find the rhythm, and finally stopped. She looked down at the bare floor between the family and sniffed one more time. The minute hand kept moving, just as it always had. Five minutes past one. Then ten. Then thirty.

“Our time has come. May God have mercy on our souls.”

Again, and again, and again.

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Checking Out

Shopping Carts

Photo by seanomatopoeia.

“How are you today, ma’am?”

It was a greeting Jeremy had used so many times as a grocery store clerk that the words no longer carried any meaning as they left his tongue. Like when you say ‘apple’ twenty times in a row, you no longer see a mental picture of an apple. You hear ‘a’ and ‘pl’ and together they make nothing, just sounds.

When he said “How are you today, ma’am” this time, his thoughts were really on the chest of Connie, the new girl at the register directly across from him, and how her frumpy red vest that passed for a uniform somehow accentuated her rather generous curves rather than camouflaging them, as they seemed to do to everyone else. At the exact moment he said “ma’am” in fact he was noticing the heavy roundness of her left breast in her skin-tight white long-sleeve through the large sleeve-holes of the vest. This was why he was so surprised when he received this reply back:

“Fucking terrible.”

The usual reply was obviously, “fine” or “good” or even “great,” sometimes ironic and sometimes genuine. But to hear “terrible” sent him reeling, to say nothing of the profanity. It violated the careful ritual that was dealing with strangers. The jarring reply pulled his mind away from Connie’s significant side-cleavage and back in to the world of the living, where he found a cigarette-thinned woman with over-tanned skin roughly the texture of tree bark. She was wearing loose-fitting cotton clothing that appeared to have been intended to serve as workout clothes sometime in the early eighties, and her hair, an artificially crafted replica of what might have been a righteous hair-metal mullet, sat on her head like hair-shaped paper machet helmet. Her face appeared to have been designed by a two-year-old with a worn-out brown crayon, and at the corner of her mouth rested a livid red sore that appeared to be thriving in the moist crack of the woman’s face. He found he couldn’t think of anything to say, then, stiffly, he countered: “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Me too,” the woman said, heaving a family-sized block of toilet paper on to the narrow black conveyor. “Woke up this morning smelling shit. Not exactly the way I planned to spend my day off, I tell you. I walk in to the bathroom, and sure enough: Shit! Sewage water leaking back up the pipes like a motherfucker, overflowing all over the floor. Looked bad and smelled like a dog’s asshole.”

Jeremy stood in captive silence, speedily scanning every item with the hope of sending this woman on her way as quickly as possible. The items that had followed the toilet paper were two types of toilet plungers, a mammoth block of paper towels, five cans of “pumpkin-spice” air freshening spray and three wholesale boxes of heavy-flow maxi pads.

“And then Randy came over and what does he say? ‘I told you not to put all those damn pads down the drain, Doris.’ And that’s all he has to say for himself, just standing there shaking his head while my apartment flooded with shit water. And that’s what really set me off, you know? What does he know about my god damn lady problems? I go through two of these boxes with every period,” she paused to viciously tap the cardboard packaging on the last maxi pad box, “Every period! And you think I enjoy that? You think I enjoy feeling like Niagra Falls every time god decides to remind me that, yet again, I have failed to bear fruit? The answer is no. And I told Randy so.”

Throughout this tirade Jeremy had nodded at random moments and chuckled nervously at the louder parts in what he hoped sounded like commiseration. He had placed the last box of pads back in the cart and was waiting for payment by the time she finished. But even as she keyed her information on to the small touchscreen she didn’t stop.

“So after he was so insensitive he still couldn’t even do anything about it, worthless piece of you-know-what.”

She slammed the touch-pen back in its holder and looked at Jeremy, as if expecting him to say something. All he could do was contract his upper cheek muscles and shrug, unsure of what the physical result of this looked like to Doris. After a few more eternal seconds, she breathed out heavily and shook her head as if Jeremy was one of them too; another Randy. Another lazy-ass landlord who couldn’t fix anything and who looked down from his ivory tower of male-ness on her alarming woman problems. With that she turned, gripped the handle of her cart, and walked quickly to the exit, her once-white flip flops clapping behind her.

As she turned through the sliding doors, Jeremy managed to choke out “Have a nice evening,” which was both too late to reach her and completely inaudible to anyone more than five feet away. Not that it mattered; he said it more for himself than for her. Having re-established the script, he looked longingly across the checkout lanes, but Connie was nowhere to be found.

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Ichabod Shrubb

Schoolyard
Photo by roger4336

Ichabod Shrubb could see around corners. It’s not the kind of thing you’re born with, he was quick to point out. You have to work at it, like a muscle. At first you can just barely see what’s there, like you’re looking at something out of the corner of your eye. But the more you just stand there and try to see something, the more you can.

It was how he spent most of his recess periods; standing at the corner of the school, appearing — to the untrained eye — to be staring at nothing. But really, he was looking at all his classmates on the other side of the school. Laughing, playing foursquare, running around with their arms pulled inside their jackets. He occasionally wished he could join them in their games, but he was cursed with the burden of talent, and real talent demands to be perfected.

On one gray day a group of girls in puffy winter jackets came up behind Ichabod during recess.

“He’s so weird, he’s just standing there,” one of them whispered.

“Hey Icky, what are you doing?” one sneered, in a way that suggested that anything he said would inevitably make him the object of ridicule.

“I’m teaching myself to see around corners.” With this statement he made a particularly concentrated face and held out his hand toward the corner of the building like he was trying to move it with his mind. But that’s ridiculous. He was just bending his vision around the corner to watch Sammy Jenkins win another game of foursquare.

The girls tittered as they ran away, their white-sneakered heels kicking up behind them. But Ichabod paid them no mind. As he had heard his father say, ‘The masses never appreciate real talent.’

A few days later, Ichabod was standing at the corner, as he usually was, when there was some kind of uproar on the foursquare court. Sammy Jenkins had hit the ball out of bounds, and he was, by all rights, out. But he was refusing to give up his prized spot as server and take his place among the rabble of the line. The crowd cried out in protest, but Sammy picked up the ball and stomped off of the court — the playground equivalent of flipping over the checker board.

If anyone had been watching Ichabod Shrubb during this sequence of events — which they weren’t — they would have seen his usually steely concentration flag at the first outcry at the foursquare court. As the commotion grew, he became anxious. He started shifting from foot to foot, biting his lip. As the sound from the other side of the school rose to a din his will finally broke, and he ran around the corner toward the foursquare court—

—and ran squarely in to Sammy Jenkins.

The red rubber ball bounced out of Sammy’s hands and rolled back toward the court, which was now silent. For a moment, the two boys stared at each other, too surprised to speak. Eventually Sammy brushed past Ichabod with a quiet, “Move, weirdo,” before stalking back in to the school with his shoulders hunched.

The crowd of children around the foursquare court stared at Ichabod in disbelief.

“How did you do that?” One particularly small but big-eyed boy finally asked.

Ichabod straightened up and looked at his classmates. “I can see around corners,” he said.

“Can I learn how?” The boy asked.

Ichabod sized the boy up and said, “It will take some hard work, and you may never be able to see around corners as well as me, but you can try.”

For the next few weeks Ichabod was accompanied by a small crowd at the corner of the school every day, each child staring, trance-like, at the outer corner of the building. The recess teachers were baffled. The foursquare court lay deserted – save for Sammy Jenkiss bouncing the red rubber ball by himself. A few children claimed that they were beginning to see something, but none of them ever had the success of Ichabod. Inevitably, the crowd broke up to go back to their usual games, and this time, Ichabod joined them.

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The Comedian

New York, New York
Photo by Dude Pascalou

It had been another one of those nights; the kind of night that left him feeling like a dried out husk, with everything moist and human drained out behind him on the sidewalk in a line leading back to the comedy club.

He was a comedian, though, as he joked to himself, that was like calling yourself a doctor if you killed people for a living.

That was the kind of joke he enjoyed, but it never seemed to work on the crowds. Those blank faces, staring up at him on the stage, waiting for him to say something that would make them laugh, that would make them forget their own miserable, boring lives for a few minutes. They came for entertainment; they came for escape. But all he could offer them was a spotlight aimed straight in to the darkness they were trying to forget.

He knew what they wanted. He had seen those acts, those jesters that danced around and tickled your funny bone. They were the class clowns, the comedians that wanted nothing more than to bring a smile to every face in the room, even when they weren’t performing. They usually succeeded too.

But they didn’t do anything deeper. They didn’t make anyone rethink their lives, didn’t make anyone re-examine the way they live and why they live at all. That’s what Ron tried to do. But usually all he succeeded in doing was making everyone in the dirty little club more miserable than they had been before he started – including himself.

The streets of New York were made for depression. Not to cure it, but to augment it; to amplify it until it’s not just a whisper in your ear anymore, but a cacophony. Every slick sheet of pavement, every aging tenement building with with walls blackened from decades of soot, every steaming manhole cover made Ron feel even emptier, like someone was scraping out his viscera with the side of a spoon.

Whoever romanticized this place had obviously been in love or high on cocaine.

Ron heard footsteps behind him; quick ones, like whoever it was actually had somewhere to be. By comparison, Ron realized his own steps were slow and shuffling, and he could only imagine how he looked — a poster boy for Prozac, no doubt. It was a thought that just made him sink deeper in to himself, his steps slowing even further.

The steps approached from the rear and passed him on the sidewalk, then stopped.

“Hey, you’re that comic right?”

Ron looked up. The man with quick steps was standing in front of him. He was well dressed, an executive type.

“Sometimes,” said Ron uncertainly, bracing himself for whatever was coming next.

“You were great, man. I loved that bit about the guy, you know,” he made a gesture like rolling dice next to his groin while pretending to hang himself with an invisible noose.

“Oh yeah, thanks man.” It was a bit about a guy dying while performing sexual asphyxiation, then having to explain himself to Saint Peter at the gates of heaven.

“Great stuff, dude. Love it!” And with that the man was gone, quick-stepping his way down the sidewalk with impeccable posture.

‘Great stuff.’ The words resounded in his ears, drowning out the chorus of self-hatred that had preceded it. Suddenly, the scraping feeling stopped and he felt full of… something, like cotton candy.

Ron hated cotton candy, but to imagine being stuffed with it like an edible man-shaped teddy bear was not entirely unpleasant.

And suddenly the street looked different. Where before he only saw slick black pavement was now a thrumming, busy promenade, alive with cars and with lights dancing across the surfaces of pot-hole puddles. And the buildings — before he saw age, but now he saw history. He thought of all the people who had ever lived in them, all the laughter and children playing, running out the front door with a ball and a mitt, just like he had done once, long ago.

Realizing that he had been slouching, Ron pulled back his shoulders and straightened up, relishing the cracks that popped their way up his spine. With quickened steps, he continued on his way down the sidewalk, whistling “New York, New York” as he went.

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Misfits: Superheroes For The Slacker Generation

It’s a story as old as time — well, at least as old as the 1930s: boy (or girl, let’s be all-inclusive here) is an outcast among his/her classmates. Nerdy, unpopular, whatever. Boy/girl is involved in some remarkably implausible accident involving radiation, or chemicals, or something just scientific enough to be convincing without making someone curious enough to actually think about it. The chemicals/radiation mutate the boy/girl in some way, causing them to develop strange, supernatural powers, which are conveniently always useful in combat situations.

And voila, a superhero(ine) is born.

But what does a superhero do with those powers? The answer (at least prior to the advent of postmodernism, when everything got a bit murky) is fight evil. You know, bank robbers, rapists, Nazis. In other words, the kind of people who could be found wearing ski masks in the middle of a summer day in downtown Manhattan. With a preliminary “Swoosh” and a couple of “Whiz,” “Bang” “Pow”s, said superhero(ines) would keep the forces of evil at bay and fly off to the sounds of a cheering crowd.

And that’s all well and good. That is, assuming that fighting evil would really be a young twenty-something’s response to taking on some strange new powers. But (and here’s getting back to that whole postmodernism bit) is that what would really happen? I mean, really?

The answer, at least according to the show Misfits is an unequivocal “No.” In this program from across the pond, five young people doing community service are involved in a strange lightning storm (just scientific enough, eh?) and develop superpowers. Obviously. You have your run-of-the-mill variety: telepathy, immortality, invisibility, time-travel; and then your oddball: the power to become uncontrollably sexually attractive to anyone who touches you. Notice how there’s not a snappy, one-word name for that one. That’s because it hasn’t been done before.

But aside from clever new superpowers, the really fascinating thing about Misfits is what the characters do with their new powers:

Pretty much what they were already doing without them.

That isn’t to say they don’t use them; they do. Mostly to kill their probation workers, a grisly necessity that becomes a running gag. But what is perhaps most notable is what they don’t do with their powers: fight evil.

The show even points to the fact over and over again. Early one or another of the characters bring up what they could be doing with the powers, like taking on the bad guys and stuff. But the suggestion is always half-hearted, and is quickly shot down as being ridiculous. Which, as the show points out, it really is.

There might be some 22-year-old out there right now who, if given a superpower, would jump out the nearest window and start pummeling some shady characters. But I, as a 22-year-old and therefore an expert on the subject, would not. And I would be willing to bet that most people my age (or any age for that matter) wouldn’t either.

What would we really do with them? Misfits’ answer is that we would just try to stay as normal as possible. The characters on the show never seek out conflict; it always comes to them. The pilot episode offers a good example. In it, another character has been affected adversely by aforementioned mysterious storm, and the Misfits have to use their powers to stop his violent rampage. But what is key is the different motivation. They don’t do it to fight the forces of darkness or to protect the innocent, they do it to protect their own asses. In almost every conflict with a “bad guy” the characters either run away or try to ignore the problem before they lift a finger to stop it.

And I totally get it.

I relate to the characters on Misfits more closely than I ever have to Clark Kent or Peter Parker. The do-gooder attitude of past generations’ superheroes has lost its sheen. Most young people today would rather run down pedestrians in GTA than fight crime, and Misfits captures that attitude through every one of its characters. They aren’t trying to save the world; they are just trying to keep everything as normal as it can be. Instead of seeking out justice, they are seeking out a point of stasis that always seems just beyond their reach. In this respect, their powers just seem to get in the way rather than do them any good.

The caped crusaders that leap across the pages of pulpy comics are objects of ridicule for the Misfits. The boyhood ideals of their fathers and grandfathers have lost their sheen, and they are left with the harsh reality of what it means to be different in an already confusing and alienating world. After all, who has time to save the planet when it’s difficult enough just to hold yourself together?

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