My coffee table had disappeared. The whole process of buying a new one was overwhelming with so many colors, sizes, and designs. I spent $70 on white wine and mussels instead, and I savored every bite until the last when I found the heavy price tag hiding inside a perfect moon-arced slit. After spending that much money, it felt like I couldn’t do any worse harm.
I dip into an alley behind a café with free WIFI. Messages light up, bombarding me one after the other like seagulls dive bombing a bread crust. The first round machine guns in from my mom, pissy and howling. Where are you? Did you pay your phone bill?
I try to add up the hours since I last had WIFI and get an impossible number. My brother’s messages and missed calls assault my phone next. Each is more self-righteous than the last. Mom is looking for you. Call mom. Do you need money?
Finally, my girlfriend’s messages come; they hit hard, leaving me with tiny cartoon bluebirds circling my skull. The last text reads, Did you eat today? At least try taking care of yourself.
A valid question and a bad sign if you’re into omens. And isn’t everyone? The messages slow to a simmer and stop.
Only family has patience for me, will put up with me, as my mom would say. They check in whether I want them to or not. There must be something familial in the way I suck out love.
My friends call if they need something: help to move a bed, dog sit, or score ketamine. Sometimes we put together enough words to meet for a beer. My father has been MIA for decades. Thank God. But just bringing that up sounds whiny.
The downtown dissolves into street after street of single-family homes. The main road, lined with wedding cake houses, slices diagonally through town like a messy wound.
I feel an itch to move, to disengage from the virtual tether that swarms silently around me. I begin walking like in a dream, full of purposeless purpose, and long to follow this road out of town, pacing my cinder block feet, one in front of the other, until I’m somewhere new.
Instead, I cross the street and skip into The Blue Alligator. It has saloon doors which I spring through and send violently swinging. I go in and out three times until I’m satisfied with my entrance. Only a middle-aged couple is inside. She picks from a basket of onion rings, and he works on a burger. I ask her for one, and she looks at me like I requested her firstborn for a ritual sacrifice. I move along, enjoying the anonymity of the space. I plop down before the bartender.
The Bartender: Large. Arms matted in thick hair. Tattoo peeking through the collar of t-shirt. Scowling as I deconstruct him. Unfriendly in general.
“Hello, friend.” I summon my cranial strength, flexing my brain for a clever pun. All I come up with is, “I’ll take a 98…..Please.”
“A 98. Or seven, seven & sevens.” I hide my smile behind my hand and hope he lets me leave with all my teeth.
“How much have you had today?”
“What’s today?” I ask.
He sighs loudly like a moody ox. “Pay first.”
I tip generously, but his attitude fails to improve as he sets out the cups and fills them one ingredient at a time- ice, Seagrams, 7up, lime- like a conveyor belt.
I sit over the drinks like a proud mother hen.
“Can you take my picture?” I ask.
He obliges. I send it to my brother because little brothers are supposed to piss off older brothers. Test the elasticity of their love. But the message, cut loose from any connections, hangs suspended in the ether, waiting for a side glancing WiFi signal to escort it to him at a future time when everything will have already changed.
“You expecting friends?” asks the bartender.
I shrug, then turn to the couple. “Help yourselves.”
They glance at each other and then at the bartender. He nods. They scuttle over, lingering in uncertainty, cautious of future expectations. The man, chameleon-eyed and red-faced, drinks half his cup in one gulp and then asks for a soda topper. The woman, resembling a fern, mumbles “thanks,” sways in place, and retreats to her fried lunch.
The smell of meat makes my stomach turn. I bite into a lime, wince, and then drink from two of the cups. The bartender dries glasses and eyeballs me with vice-principal scorn.
“Do you dream?” I ask him. He pauses, testing the water with his toe before committing.
“Only around daylight savings. Something about the time shift dislodges the mechanisms in my brain. It takes a few days to work itself out.” He doesn’t ask me about my dreams which is rude.
“The last time I slept, I dreamed I developed Alopecia. I was completely hairless.”
The bartender averts his eyes and drops his arms below the bar.
“I was smooth and beautiful and muscly all over. Then I walked into the sea, joined a pod of dolphins, and spent my life traveling the ocean.”
The bartender pauses, allowing time’s weight to add substance to his words.
“When teen males can’t function in a pod, they are expelled by the female leaders and form roving all-male gangs,” he says.
“Like pirate dolphins? That sounds awesome.”
“They attack other pods, raping and stealing resources.”
“Less awesome. You really shat all over that fantasy.”
The bartender doesn’t respond; he just disappears into the back room. The couple finishes their drinks and loiter in case generosity escapes me again. After I stare at them and drink a full glass in one long pull, it gets awkward, and they slough off, whispering miserly insults while I huddle over my drinks.
The souring sweetness of the cocktail kicks me in the stomach. My eyelids are canoes taking on water. My boots iron. I feel my age, my skin sagging under time’s weight. My hand slips off a glass, and it spills. Liquid glides across the wooden lacquer and creates morphable shapes I use to interpret the randomness of my thoughts.
The bartender comes back and starts wiping up the mess, destroying all my invented meaning. I lay my head on the bar. It’s cool and gentle on my forehead.
“Don’t be passing out in here.”
I take what’s left in my pocket and discretely slip it into my mouth, swallowing it dry. They work on my mood long before serious reactions in my blood or collisions in my brain occur. The anticipation makes me nervous. I notice my left foot tapping, and my senses sharpen. A pull from my drink gets caught in my throat.
“I read some drugs reconfigure the genetic receptors in your brain. They literally rewrite the codes which make you love what you love. It changes who you are.,” says the bartender.
“Sounds like being reborn.”
“I won’t argue with you. I’ve told myself many of the same things. There’s only one person you’re going to believe.”
Suddenly, I spring to life. I need to move. Make haste. Put something solid under my feet. Go, go, go.
I crow half an Irish blessing at the bartender as I skedaddle, jumbling up the wishes of tranquility and directions of the wind. It’s a thing my mother used to say.
I’m on the street and feel the magnetic pull of the road leading out of town. I stroll in that direction and flirt with the idea of running away, fleeing. I consider why, why I want to run, but I know that’s the question at every drink’s beginning, justified and transfigured by the time you see the glass’ clear bottom. Questions with clear bottoms, what a parlor trick of existence.
The road broadens. Small, old buildings become homes; they grow younger and younger as I reach the outskirts, like the trees of a woods. The young ones, fragile and unsteady, are further apart. More isolated and less secure. The idea of going sticks like sulfur in my nostrils.
A road sign reads:
Palouse 15. Spokane 60.
I find reasons to linger, weighting myself against the current. Two roads collide or split depending on which direction you’re going. On one side Eagle Lodge is hosting karaoke, and across the street, the Moose Club has square dancing. And in the crotch of the splitting road is a pet store with a Buy 5 mice get 1 free deal.
My brain starts shredding absurd possibilities. I want to split myself in three, go in different directions, and then meet my other selves for coffee tomorrow morning to compare notes.
I check my empty pockets in vain hope, play eeny-meeny-miny-moe to absolve myself of responsibility, and bang through the pet shop door.
The mice are kept in an open cage in the window. They scramble over each other, a swirl of color and design like milk dissolving into coffee. The mice vibrate with a kindergarteners-at-recess energy.
The shopkeeper sweeps over.
“What are we interested in today?”
THE SHOP KEEPER: Long bony fingers the color of whole milk. A smooth skull with eyes that blink self-consciously. Frozen crocodile smile. Thin and wispy. Wonders why I’m taking so long to answer him.
“Who buys these?” I ask, pointing at the tussling mice.
“Snake owners, mostly.” He picks one up and strokes it roughly while it squirms.
“They kill them and feed them to the snakes?”
“Mostly, they drop them in alive. But people do all sorts of things. One customer, and don’t go sharing this, buys 12 and keeps them all in the cage with their python.”
“The snake devours one per month, and the rest wait. The last living one gets released into the wild. Can you imagine living with your murderer? Waiting, each time you fall asleep for violence?”
“Yeah. It sounds like my childhood until my dad left.” I watch the mouse scramble over the shopkeeper’s knuckles just to have his escape route blocked by the ever-shifting terrain.
The shopkeeper perks up, shifting to a peppier tone, “So, what are we looking for?” He drops the mouse back into the cage. It lies frozen for a moment, then dethaws and jumps back into the fray.
“I want to surprise my girlfriend. She’s a bit peeved with me.”
“Well, that’s not at all unusual.”
“What about mussels?” I remember somehow this all beginning with some crustaceans climbing out of the sea. “Can I raise them at home?”
“You? No. Mussels need gentle, indirect currents to thrive. I don’t think you can provide that,” he answers.
“What else do you have?”
He guides me from animal to animal. I am a snobbish Noah. The puppies are too floppy and chaotic. The cats’ indifference is appealing, but their cuteness feels weaponized.
“Maybe she would like a rabbit.”
But the rabbit vibrates with nervous energy. Unsure whether to accept or reject my heavy-handed pats. The gerbil looks diminutive in my hand. The guinea pig is an alien, foreign and disoriented. The fish seem far away, and the snakes are too obvious.
“Birds?” he asks.
“I don’t want birds. We had them when I was a kid, and all they do is shit and squawk.”
Then it happens. The serendipitous instant when time makes sense and the direction of your journey, arriving at a specific moment, clarifies into meaning. I feel powerful with purpose.
“She’ll love it.” I pick up the young iguana and look deep into its matte eyes. It bites me hard on the forearm.
“Most people prefer something warmer,” says the shopkeeper. “It will get quite big. And it needs to be held every day to become acquainted with human affection. If you interact with it only randomly, it could become aggressive, even dangerous.”
I make baby noises at its blank face, “Da, da, da.”
“They will avoid you, so you have to prioritize holding it every day.”
“Can they regrow their tails?”
“Awesome. I’ll take it.”
In the taxi, I tap the plastic carrier, but the iguana only turns a lazy eye towards the noise. She’s perfect. I overtip, realizing too late the driver has no interest in listening to me read aloud from the Wikipedia page on iguanas.
I bound up the steps three at a time. The door is locked. I fumble with my keys, drop the iguana, apologize profusely, and then burst into the apartment.
Something is askew. Like I’m in a slightly diluted reality. The world feels off balance.
I realize the missing furniture. Half the dishes are gone. A heavy space exists where the coffee table used to stand. There are prominent holes all over my world.
I dizzily walk to the kitchen. The confetti shards of a torn letter decorate the countertop. I shuffle them around, catching word fragments which cause a searing pain in my gut. Edge of a knife….high stakes……start falling…..too much…..afraid of the future….I’m sorry……could happen to us.
I wipe the paper scraps off the counter and pick up the iguana. I think about screaming in her face.
“Welcome home. Enjoy.”
I set her down, and she scampers down the hall. Her short green limbs flow smoothly, the tips of her claws dragging delicately across the carpet. She tests the contours of her new landscape, the limits of her freedom, and the curiosities of her containment. I follow her as she pokes her head into each room, judging what I have to offer. Part of me wants to reach out, stroke her spiny back, but that feels like a beginning. A commitment to something that could destroy even more of me. I’m not sure how much more of me there is. She looks up at me. I smile. She licks the air, her swollen tongue darting lithely into space, tasting the heavy history that hangs around us. Then she dashes. Sprinting down the hallway. Her hips rise and fall in an uneven rhythm. She disappears into the spare bedroom. I hear the thumping of her tail as she buries herself deep in the closet.
I want to see something fall off and grow back. I want the world to prove it’s possible. Show that things can be new again.
I’m suddenly tired. My body goes flaccid, and I crumble gently to the floor. It’s comfortable here. I close my eyes and settle my cheek on snowflakes of torn paper. I want to sleep forever. Down the hall the iguana bangs around the closet. I should go to her, but it feels so far away and the effort might be too much for me to bear.
Michael Harper is a MFA candidate at the University of Idaho. Previously he taught kindergarten in Vienna. His most recent work has appeared in Manzano Mountain Review, Litro Magazine, Grey Sparrow Journal, and Decomp Journal.
© Variant Literature Inc 2021