Fire shot from his mouth and in that moment I knew my friend was guilty. Of this I was certain…
It was a day like any other day: boring, monotonous, uneventful, not worth writing a story about - that’s why this story is about the day after that all-too-familiar twenty-four hours.
I awoke and thought about cigarettes. Day thirteen and I’m feeling…it’s hard to quit, but that’s nothing new to anyone who has tried, or successfully accomplished, the action.
I strolled down to the coffee shop and sat at the counter. I read the comics and then tried to read some of the detective novel I kept stowed in my pocket, but something was off. I was unable to get into that relaxed state needed to comprehend the letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, and chapters.
The woman came in by herself. She wasn’t much to look at, literally. She appeared just shy of ninety-five pounds; the skateboard she carried under her arm was as out of place as the smile she had on her unfashionably colored lip-sticked mouth.
She waited patiently for the girl behind the counter to wait on her. In that time I was able to take in all that she had to offer in a visual sort of way. I could keep my eyes on her for as long as I wanted without fear of being caught, because I knew she wasn’t the type to look at, or meet eyes with, a guy sitting by himself reading the comic section of the newspaper.
The girl behind the counter, Beth, came over and took the woman’s order.
“Medium French vanilla, to go.”
The smile stayed on her lips as she bent her head forward and stared at the counter. The skateboard appeared brand new, making me wonder if she ever used it, or if she just carried it around.
She paid for the coffee and then left. I watched her place the skateboard on the sidewalk and slowly, awkwardly, ride away with the coffee held outstretched and uncertain.
Beth asked if I wanted a refill and I said: “No…thanks.” I gave her two dollars; one-dollar-and-eighty-cents for the coffee, twenty-cents for a tip, and then left the coffee house.
On the short walk to where I lived I found my friend staring absent-mindedly at a squirrel on a power-line high above the street. This action is not that unusual when it comes to my friend. The weird part, I felt, was that the squirrel appeared to be looking down absent-mindedly at my friend. As I got closer I realized I had stumbled upon a staring contest.
My foot made contact with a broken bottle on the sidewalk, sending it crinkling and spinning, a sound that caught my friends attention and caused him to look at me, thereby losing the staring contest. The squirrel made a sound that appeared to be mocking laughter mixed with self-righteous content, and then ran off along the power-line and onto a building out of sight from us.
“Thanks a lot.” My friend said.
Sarcasm, when executed with subtly and deft precision, is an enjoyable pastime, but when attempted by my friend, sarcasm sounds immature and whiney. We went to my apartment and before I could turn on the television my friend had a cigarette in his mouth and a lighter in his hand.
I said: “No smoking in here, you know I quit.”
“So I guess we’re all quitting then.” Sarcasm…whiney, whining sarcasm.
I put a movie on: black and white; comedy; nineteen-forty-one; A&C.
I grabbed the rolling papers and quickly rolled a joint, lit it, took a drag, and then handed it to my friend. A few minutes later my room was a swirling white cloud, most visible against the glow of the television.
My friend put a cigarette in his mouth.
“I told you,” I said, “no smoking in here.”
My friend stood and walked over to my windows, which were covered by thick blankets. He lifted the lower corner of a blanket and let in a beam of sunlight that landed a few inches from my feet. Within the beam of light, the swirling grey exhalations were prominently displayed.
He let the blanket drop back down and then turned to me and said: “It’s nice out, I’m taking off.” He walked to the door and, with his hand on the knob, said: “You want to come?”
I looked at the television, I’d seen this movie several times and wasn’t really in the mood for it at the moment. Looking at my friend, I decided to spend my early afternoon outside for a change.
“No.” I said to him.
He shrugged his shoulders and left the apartment, smoke following him out into the hallway. When I felt he was out of the building and heading off down the street, I turned off the television and left my place.
In this town characters walk the streets like zombies in an Italian horror movie.
The grass under my feet is green, but in no way would I describe this park as a ‘park’; it’s too small and surrounded by busy streets, giving it the feel of an oversized highway-medium.
Three guys sit on a bench; the one on the right has a beard that looks as though it has reached it’s maximum length, the guy in the middle is shirtless and looks like you would see him on television being tackled to the ground by police, and the guy on the left has on a bandanna covering stringy white hair, on his face he wears sunglasses that appear designed for a woman. The three are facing the water fountain that sits ten feet away from them.
In the water fountain are two girls: one has red hair and a lime green watch on her wrist; the other is a brunette with a scar under her left eye and rotten bottom teeth.
The park didn’t feel like the right place to enjoy my afternoon respite from the dark corners of my apartment; there’s a darkness here that is thicker than the one I’m use to. Across the street is the library, a place I enjoy for several reasons: free stuff, quiet atmosphere, air-conditioning.
I was about to enter the front door of the library when I heard a sound approaching from behind, a sound I remember hearing a lot when I was younger: the sound of skateboard wheels on sidewalk. The door is held half open in my hand, my foot is on the verge of crossing the line that divides outside from inside. I turn and see the ill-shaded makeup and inexpensive skateboard from the coffee shop. I step back and hold the door open wide for her to enter. Awkwardly she gets off the skateboard and reaches down to pick it up. The smile is on her face as she walks by me and into the library. Her eyes are on the ground in front of her as she lets out the faintest ‘thank-you’ I have ever heard.
In the library she makes a turn to the right, leading to the tables surrounded by periodicals - I head straight upstairs to the movie section. Staring at the movies, I am unable to concentrate. I chose a comedy I’ve seen before and make my way back downstairs.
I find the skinny woman sitting in one of the chairs placed by the large window that looks out over the ‘park’. The skateboard is lying on its side at her feet and in her hands she has an open magazine. Her eyes are fixed on the pages as I grab a magazine and sit at a table facing her. Between us there are two tables and about twenty feet. The minutes pass and I notice she has yet to turn a page.
Time passes and I realize she is not reading. At irregular intervals tears drop from her face and silently make contact with the open pages on her lap. Her head is bent, not wanting to be seen.
I wanted to ask her if everything was all right, but being a stranger I didn’t feel it was my place to interfere.
A girl I went to high school with appeared at my side and said “I thought that was you, how have you been?” Her voice was loud in the quiet library and caused the skinny woman to become startled, grab her skateboard and, while rubbing the traces of tears from her eyes, leave the magazine section and then the library altogether.
I looked at the girl who I went to high school with and said as calmly as I could “I’ve quit smoking cigarettes! Please excuse me, I have to go.” I got up from the table and walked towards the exit, leaving the magazine I was reading open to the pages I was glancing at.
Outside the library I watched the skinny woman roll away down the sidewalk.
My friend shouted my name as he left the park and crossed the street coming towards me.
“Decided to come out after all, huh?” he said, as I continued watching the woman roll away. “Come with me, quick, there are two girls in the fountain having a splash fight!”
I turned and started walking back to my place, my friend quickly followed.
“What’s the matter with you?” he said, sounding caring and annoyed at the same time.
I stopped and thought about how I didn’t want to go back to the darkness of my room, yet I didn’t know how to spend my time outside.
Surprising myself, I turned to my friend and said: “Do you still have a skateboard?”
I hadn’t riddin’ a skateboard in five-and-a-half years
I always hated seeing someone walking with a skateboard, so as I walked home from my friend’s place with not one, but two skateboards, I felt doubly embarrassed. Yet it was dark and I hadn’t…well, you know.
One skateboard was new-school, meaning thin with tiny wheels; the other skateboard was old-school, meaning wide with bigger wheels. When I was sixteen, a friend purchased an old-school video and I became aware of the differences that skateboarding underwent when the boards got smaller. Flip tricks became more prominent but there was a loss, I felt, in the appreciation of pure sidewalk surfing.
A half-mile from my house I stood looking down at a slight decline in the road: a hill: a downward slope: a test and challenge urged upon myself by training from years past.
I dropped the heavier, more durable board to the pavement and kept the other board held tight under my arm. One foot was placed on the skateboard, the other on the pavement: the street: the safety of solid ground. Five-and-a-half years; I wondered why I stopped. I wondered when the last time had been and if I knew at the time that it would be five-and-a-half years before I would step on one again.
I started rolling forward down the hill, picking up momentum, and then the road evened out and I lost speed. I picked up the skateboard and walked the remaining way to my place.
After watching twenty minutes of the same movie I watched earlier, smoke filled my room and all I could think about was the skateboard sitting on the bed next to me. I let the movie keep playing as I grabbed the two skateboards and went outside.
Standing alone under a streetlight, I felt nervousness as though I was about to perform on stage in front of a group of strangers. The performance was unrehearsed and the audience was tough, because the audience was I, and if I’m dragging myself out here I expect to see something good.
I run and jump, landing on the thin board and setting myself off forward. First trick: a kick-flip. I step hard on the tail of the board, which sends the skateboard into the air. Quickly I push down with my forward foot to send the skateboard into a perfect three-hundred-and-sixty-degree barrel roll.
Five-and-a-half-years means I don’t land the trick. An incomplete rotation and I land on the side of the board, causing my ankles to bend at unnatural angles and my palms and wrists to bear the impact of my whole body’s weight as I crash to the pavement.
A torchlight burns, it’s morning and my friend is nowhere in sight. The park is deserted; save for the torch and I. In the morning mist I can see the first headlights of the day. At the foot of the Town Hall’s steps my bottle of water lays on its side and my half eaten candy bar lays wrapped neatly in its wrapper. There were three stairs, it took me over twenty-five times – thirty-two to be exact – to successfully go off of them on both the old and new-school boards.
The first lights of the morning belonged to a police car and, seeing as though what I was doing is considered vandalism, I decided to pick up my things, vacate the premises, and head back to my apartment.
After twenty minutes the coffee shop opened and I was the first one there, quickly followed by two women who appeared to be nurses and a man who appeared to be confident. I sat down at the counter and, because of my regularity, Beth waits on the nurses and the man before me: I see it as a compliment to my patience that she knows I’ll wait silently.
Beth, to me, once she is ready: “How goes the no smoking?”
I hadn’t been thinking about it.
“Great.” I say. “Thanks for reminding me.” A joke wrapped in, and based on, truth; the best ones are. She handed me a cup of coffee and then asked the confidence man sitting a few seats over from me if he wanted peanut butter or cream cheese on his bagel.
The scene: Beth is in back and out of sight, I have a detective novel and a cup of coffee on the counter in front of me, it is quiet and slowly the confidence man, sitting a few stools down from me, takes in a deep breath and then, slowly, he lets it out in a loud sigh, quickly yet quietly repeating the word ‘yup yup yup’.
I realize he is going to talk to me.
“You see those two chicks?”
In the story I’m reading, a fake cult is swindling people out of their money.
“Hey, did you see them?”
I look up from my book and to the stranger I say: “uh-huh.”
“Pretty hot. I mean, I would totally make out with either one of them, and by make out I mean,” the stranger/confidence man begins making a motion that could only be interpreted as the act of masturbation; needless to say, I didn’t get his point.
Beth came back when the door opened and a customer came in.
I tried not to look up and see who had just entered. When I finally did look I saw it was nobody I recognized, so I continued reading my book.
Screeching tires and a loud crash caused me to go outside along with Beth, the confidence man, and the person I didn’t recognize. Two cars sat steaming and spitting in the center of the street, their front ends crumpled together as if in an overly aggressive kiss.
From out of one of the cars came stumbling an elderly man who bled viciously from where his forehead made impact with the windshield; there was no movement within the other car.
Sirens approached and within moments I felt as if I was at a circus sideshow: The Car Crash!
I went back inside to my seat at the counter. My coffee was almost gone and I wanted a refill, but Betty was still outside, apart of the growing numbers forming to watch the inevitable proceedings. I placed two dollars on the counter and then left the coffee house.
When I was at the steps leading to my apartment, my friend, overexcited and out of breath, ran up behind me and grabbed my shoulder.
“There was an accident,” he shouted. “I think someone’s dead! C’mon!”
I entered my apartment and locked the door behind me. I felt the dark had been around long enough so I removed the blankets covering my windows, letting in the mourning sun and casting out the permanent night I had created.
The nights somehow became louder once I removed the blankets from my windows. The streetlights shone across my ceiling and the car engines outside were constant. Voices belonging to the young and old crossed back and forth beneath my window at a seemingly endless streak.
By two a.m. I’m usually sound asleep, but with the lights and sounds coming through the glass I decided to forgo sleep and instead watch the ever present passing parade on the sidewalk.
The scene: An overweight man with two leashed dogs coughs as he smokes the remaining nub of his cigar; three teenage boys speak in expletive-ridden English as they walk close together; a beat-up, faded yellow car sputters its way uncertainly down the center of the street making me believe that the driver is intoxicated.
At three a.m. I heard it, the sound of skateboard wheels slowly moving along the sidewalk. I expect to see the skinny woman but instead I see a boy alone. The light on my ceiling was the last visual I had before falling asleep.
In the shower I coughed and coughed until a piece of disgusting came up my throat and into my mouth. When I spit it out I saw a pinpoint sized droplet of blood. If I am to quit smoking then marijuana must be done away with.
A knock on my door and the sound of my friends voice interrupted my toweling off. I opened the door and without saying a word my friend entered and dropped a bag of bright green weed onto my bed. We smoked and then I told him how I was quitting; with bloodshot eyes he encouraged me towards my goal, then asked if he could have my…
I feel you now know the setup, so I’m ready to go into the story.
I watched the van drive away. It was white and didn’t appear to be an ambulance, because it wasn’t. If luck were on my side I wouldn’t have missed the first part of the event that led up to this van’s captive occupant’s departure.
The scene: Coffee shop; I’m sitting at the counter, coffee half-empty (half-full?), detective novel unopened, newspaper opened to comics. Betty; behind counter, folding napkins, looking off to the side as if doing math problem in her head.
The door opened slowly and in walked the skinny woman looking as she usually did, minus the skateboard. When she reached the counter I was horrified to hear her mumbling nonsense to herself.
Again Betty asks, “Can I make you something?”
The mumbling continues, causing Betty and I to make eye contact. Both of us are uncomfortable, and unsure of what to do. Thankfully, Betty takes control of the situation.
“Are you all right? Miss, is there anything I can do for you?”
The skinny woman continued her whispered mumblings while keeping her eyes locked on the counter. Her hands slowly began clenching in and out of fists.
“Miss, do you want me to call someone for you?”
The skinny woman shrieked and I felt a complete calm overtake me. It was as if I had never had a problem in my life, as if any trouble I’d had through the years was nothing compared to whatever life this woman was living.
Betty dialed 911 and the skinny woman stood silently staring. The door opened and a customer came in.
“Are you in line?”
To Betty, who still has the phone up to her ear: “Medium, light and sweet, to go.”
Betty kept the phone between shoulder and ear as she quickly poured the woman’s coffee.
Betty: “There’s a self service station for the cream and sugar against that wall over there.”
The customer takes her as-of-now black coffee and hands Betty three dollars.
Thank-you, the customer didn’t say, as she walked to the other counter and put milk and sugar into her coffee before leaving the coffee shop.
Betty followed the customer to the door and then, after giving one last look to me and seeing that I was all right to stay where I was, stood outside the door dissuading potential customers from entering while waiting for the police to arrive.
Just the skinny woman and I were left in the coffee shop.
Me: “The coffee here is pretty good.”
Me: “I come here almost everyday. The coffee here is pretty good.”
Me: “Yeah. Well, it’s all right…if you like coffee.”
SW: “I guess if you didn’t like coffee then it wouldn’t be very good.”
Me: “I think the coffee here is pretty good, so I come here almost everyday.”
SW: “There’s more than what you are, I mean, what you are doing.”
I wanted to ask what she meant, but I feared she would have no explanation. Through the glass front door Betty could be seen talking to the recently arrived police.
Sw: “Where do you think they are going to take her?”
Me: “I think they’re here for you.”
My friend walked by the window and waved to me. I was surprised he didn’t come in; cops don’t bother him much.
Sw: “Where do you think they are going to…”
Me: “They aren’t here for Betty, they’re here for you.”
The skinny woman leaned close to me and, as the cops didn’t enter, whispered: “How do you now they’re not here for you?”
Outside, the white van pulled up.
Betty entered followed by two police officers. She went behind the counter, got her purse, and then walked out of the coffee shop with the police officers. A key was placed in the door and the skinny woman and I were left sitting in the now closed, and locked, coffee shop.
Eventually the skinny woman fell asleep on one of the couches against the back wall. I continued my coffee experimentations, which were delicious yet preventing me from being able to stand, or sit, still.
No customers came to the door. The sun was long past set.
Sirens caused my eyes to open and my head to lift. A fire truck drove by; looking at the clock I saw it was four a.m..
The lights burned softly and for a moment I wondered what I was doing sleeping on the coffee shop’s counter.
The skinny woman was standing in front of the open bathroom door, staring into the darkness beyond it. From where I sat I could not see into the bathroom but, given the amazed look on her face, I moved to join her.
The bathroom I had used countless times before was not as it once was. The darkness I gazed into seemed as expansive as space: unlimited and ever-present.
A single pinpoint of light beamed deep within the dark: a star point within the abyss. Slowly the pinpoint grew larger until it formed a floating door, seemingly composed of mist.
The skinny woman stepped forward into the bathroom and towards the floating door. Her feet stepped on blackness; the floor and walls were non-existent. As her hand reached out to make contact with the ethereal passageway, I tried to shout-out for her to stop, but found my own fascination as to what was beyond this entryway was just as great as hers.
Instead of insisting that she stop, I walked forward to stand beside her as she opened the strange…
Blackness surrounded us on all sides. Looking behind me I saw only space, the coffee shop was gone, removed, unimportant.
The knob turned slowly in the skinny woman’s hand and then even more slowly the door began to open.
Five Six Seven
The hallway we were walking down was dull, dull, dull. The walls seemed to be made of cardboard and ever so often a door painted dreary green would come into sight. Neither of us tried to open the doors we passed, instead we both continued forward, knowing whatever waited for us at the end of the tunnel was what we were here to see.
A door of deep blue came up on our left. Unlike the other doors, it had a small window set in the center of it. The skinny woman stopped walking but did not look through the glass; I did, and saw: one abandoned merry-go-round, two streetlights flickering, and nothing; the all-too-familiar nothing.
“There’s a merry-go-round,” I said, still looking through the glass, “do you want to go for a ride?”
The skinny woman had continued walking and I had to give a little sprint to catch up with her.
My worries began to get the better of me. All I could think of was smoke; smoke from tobacco, smoke from weed, smoke from…from…from the door in front of us!
The door looked normal enough, which gave it an odd look when mixed in with the dreary drabness in which we were surrounded. The skinny woman went to open the door and my worries got the better of me.
Me: “What if the devil is in there? Not that I believe in the devil, but ‘what if’? Where there’s smoke there’s fire. Are you listening to me? Can you hear me? What’s your name?”
The skinny woman hesitated with her hand on the doorknob, she then turned to me and said: “What’s in a name?” I didn’t know if she was quoting William Shakespeare or Rodney Dangerfield.
Me: “There’s danger behind every corner. Why tempt it by opening doors? The way back is the only way forward.”
Sw: “To hear you speak of ‘forward’ as something other than a direction is only more inspiration for me to see what’s on the other side of this door.”
Me: “Don’t you see? You already have the answer: the other side! There is no mystery when you’re within the mysterious.”
Sw: “I ran away from home once. I was twenty three and living by myself…nobody knew I was gone.”
Me: “Open the door.”
Smoke billowed out over us then continued on down the hallway.
Into the room we went; our feet clicking on the polished marble floor, our eyes straining to see the walls that were several hundred yards away. The ceiling was as high as the sky, allowing clouds to float beneath it. I realized then that what I thought was smoke was actually a cloud breaking free of this room in search of a real sky to call its home (maybe).
After walking for twenty minuets we reached the center of the room. Marble pillars rose high through the clouds to the ceiling, an unnecessary adornment to this already excessively constructed room. The far wall came into view and with it the image of a large throne, which had seated upon it…
The skinny woman dropped to her knees and then to her side. Her wailing sounded impotent in the large space. I knelt next to her and through her thin skin I could see her bones breaking, crumbling, to dust. I screamed for help, knowing none would come.
Her skin began to loosen as her skeletal support deteriorated. Soon enough she lie deflated on the cold floor. She was dead. She is dead.
I ran as hard as I could towards the throne, towards the laughing that came from the person seated upon the throne. As I got closer I saw, yet didn’t believe, who was seated there. With sweat dripping I fell to my knees and looked up to the ruler of this strange place.
Me: “Why? Was she not innocent? Why not me? But you’ve already done it to me, haven’t you? Or at least you have tried. Tried and failed! Now I have brought myself here voluntarily! Give me a sign to let me know you’re not doing this on purpose!”
Fire shot from his mouth and in that moment I knew my friend was guilty. Of this I was certain…
I heard my name spoke and it caused me to awake.
Doctor: “And how are we feeling today?”
Me: “I’m all right now. You see, I’ve got it all figured out, and it’s almost over.”
Dr.: “What’s almost over?”
Dr.: “And why is that?”
Me: “It’s just a story. When the words disappear, so will I.”
Dr.: “You know that isn’t true, Betty.”
Me: “Sure it’s true. I’ll prove it, watch…”