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Monday
Nov132017

Wet Meat

Entered this flash fiction contest. Came a couple points shy of making the finals. Below is my submission for the second round. I was given the location the genre SciFi, location Rooftop Pool, object Almond Milk. Here it is:

 

That last summer of Swim Camp on the roof of the Alleghany Arms was also, it turned out, the last summer of everything else, pretty much.

Gregory was like eleven. The previous year, he’d thrashed around gamely in the pool with the other Campers; this year, though, he was terrified of the water.

Calling it Swim Camp was a stretch. It was just kids who lived in the building, in the late morning hours of Open Swim, which was when most of them would have been up on the roof horsing around in the pool anyway. This was my third year as a lifeguard up there. We lived on sixteen. I was supposed to be headed to Penn in the fall, so this would have been my last season lazily presiding over the pool, and Director, supposedly, of Swim Camp. That was back when there was college, still.

Gregory was one of these lactose kids. So at snack time, there was always almond milk. But Gretchen had moved into the building that year, and had a really bad nut allergy, so snack time was really vigilant and stressful for me. Gretchen knew to steer clear of Gregory and his almond milk, but he was not great with impulse control, and was always nearby her, sloshing his cup around.

I’d be there in my tall lifeguard chair, fingers flexing around Gretchen’s Epi-Pen.

Gretchen’s mom, obviously, asked if we could make Swim Camp a nut-free environment. Which we tried to do, for like two days.

Gregory cried for the whole time. The whole two days. Hours and hours and hours of bawling, which gave way to dry-eyed and hoarse wailing. So we caved. Gretchen, who was cool and smart and non-spazzy, took her life in Gregory’s dumb, sticky hands every snack time for three weeks.

Gregory was one of these rail thin, twitchy kids, looked like he slept maybe a half hour a night, with sunken green eyes big around as coffee cups – we all thought he was just naturally skittish and scared. Turns out his terror was justified and totally sensible. Because before we’d all decided on a name for them, before we knew to stay clear of bathtubs and toilets and pools, lakes and rivers and the sea, Gregory had seen the silvery tentacles of what we came later to call the Waterborne, straining out of the sucking intake on the floor of the deep end of our pool up on the roof of the Alleghany Arms. And it had wrecked him. And none of the grownups would believe his terror, which he tried to explain in faltering gasps between blasts off his inhaler.

That summer was the last season of anything. If we’d heeded Gregory, and other petrified kids, probably, we could maybe have stopped them. This was before the Waterborne had found their way into the sewers and the plumbing pipes, back when there was just this freak series of kids getting sucked into pool drains. In cities all over the Northeast. But instead of these kids just being drowned, when they’d shut down the filtration systems and crews would recover the bodies, they’d find their little legs stripped to the bone – fleshless, scalded off up past the knee.

I should have seen them. Those tentacles. Maybe I did. But mistook them for the wavery silver refractions of pool water in the sun. I wonder about this all the time, wonder if I saw but failed to believe.

In the last week of Pool Camp, Gregory gathered his proof. It was pretty cunning, actually – brutal, sure, but really smart of him to bait the pool that way.

That Tuesday, at snack time, he guzzles a big mouthful of his almond milk and squats down by Gretchen at the edge of the pool. She laughs a little, and he spits it in her open mouth. She starts seizing up, eyes rolling back. I scramble down from my lifeguard chair, Epi-pen in my sweating fist.

Gregory kicks her hard in the back. She hits the deep-end water with a sound like a flat stone, and sinks, convulsing on the way down.

I dive in from the opposite side of the pool, where my chair is. I slice down through the water, diving toward the point she’ll sink to.

I got to her. But she was at the bottom already, at the domed grate over the slurping intake. I remember there was a Band-Aid suspended in the water above her, waving like a grimy flag.

When I grabbed her arm to haul her up and jab her with the Epi-pen – up to air and safety – she was already anchored. Locked. I yanked on her forearm, harder and harder. I was pretty strong, then, and my lungs were full, and it felt like I was pulling on her skinny arm for an hour, watching the bubbles rise from her mouth. As my air gave out and stars were strobing at the edges of my vision, chest aching in pre-blackout, I felt the bones of her arm break inside my fist with a distant-sounding click. And I saw the silvery tentacles, wrapped around Gretchen’s leg, taut as bowstrings, tethering her to the darkness behind the grate.

I let go. I had to. I’d have died down there.

When I burst up gasping, Gregory was there, leaning over the edge of pool, aiming his phone down past me, at the silvery tentacles pulling Gretchen down, flaying the meager flesh off her twiggy leg.

Gregory’s video made the news, obviously. And was all over the Internet.

A team out of CalTech, where astrobiology was a thing, put it together that the Waterborne had traveled to us on meteors. Ashen carcasses turned up here and there where they’d touched down on land. But this world is covered with so much water, teeming with meat.

And like any well-adapted invasive species, the Waterborne have been able to find abundant food. And to reproduce. And to displace us.

Monday
Nov132017

Ablutions

Entered this flash fiction contest. Came a couple points shy of making the finals. Below is my submission for the second round. I was given the location the genre Mystery, location Sauna, object Newspaper. Here it is:

 

They were there again. These comma-shaped swipes of hair, left in the wake of a mop-stroke. Somebody else’s hair. Body hair. These lank, dead-looking tadpoles of somebody else’s pubes and pit-hair and navel lint. Baking on the floor of the sauna. It was gross.

Gerald rested his knuckles on the paunch-roll over above his hipbones, stared at the tadpole of dark hair, which he imagined he could hear sizzling over the ticking of the electric stove heating the rocks inside. He imagined he could smell the oily bodies the hairs dropped from – redolent like yeasty meat, the manifold bouquet of simmered atrophy when you cut a plaster cast off a healed arm. He hitched at his towel, considered padding back to his locker to grab his phone and take a picture of this sickening pollywog to show that guy at the front desk – Maury? Morris?

Gerald decided against it. He’d just bitch him out, like usual. Morris. It was Morris, wasn’t it?

Gerald was a bit of a fixture at the front desk at this club. He’d been a member for nearly fifteen years. He knew all the staff thought he was a pill, but he didn’t care – he paid good money to have a place for a swim and a steam, a treadmill and a sauna – and he felt it reasonable to expect it to be clean and well maintained. And if the price for this reasonable expectation was that the guys working here felt a little put out, then so be it – he was the customer, he was right. Always.

And he’d be goddamned if he’d permit this crisping pollywog of pubes to remain on the floor of the sauna without remarking on it to those responsible for its removal. Gerald had half a mind to march out of the locker room in his towel to talk to… what was his stupid name? Morton? No, Mario? Dammit. In one of the chain gyms – Gerald refused to call them fitness centers – he would never consider marching around in just a towel. But this was a Men’s Athletic Club, so it wouldn’t be the same scandalous kind of deal as if this was a coed place.

Still, though. Gerald would feel self-conscious. He eyed himself in full-length mirror on the opposite wall. His pointed ski-jumping little man boobs jiggled with every step, so the prospect of trudging across the vaulted lobby to approach the front desk was a little more than he could face – Gerald felt a bit mortified when he pictured himself in his bleach-smelling towel skirt, fwip-fwapping is way across the plush carpet of the lobby in his shower sandals.

He’d bitch the guy out when he was leaving. Dressed. In command. He’d give Morris or Maury or whatever a piece of his mind about the deteriorated condition of this facility. Gerald fwip-fwapped over to the bathroom area, pulled out a couple of tri-fold paper towels from the dispenser on the wall, went and hauled open the cedar airlock door on the sauna, bent grimacing to pick up the scalded tadpole of hair, the sauna exhaling its burnt breath. He walked the wadded pube creature, pinched hard between thumb and middle finger like something poised to wriggle free.

He dropped it in the wastebasket and caught sight of himself in the mirror again. He wondered, as he stared a moment at his high spotted forehead, the fastidious trim of his white mustache, if over time he’d become full-on peevish instead of particular. 

“Doesn’t matter,” he muttered at his reflection. “I’m not wrong.”

Later, after he’d baked in the sauna for a while, and had showered, he was pulling the Velcro on his shoe into place when he noticed, finally, that he had seen no one since he got to the club nearly two hours ago. Nobody. Not Front Desk Morty, not the midday gaggle of old racquetball guys, with their braced knees and trailing Ben Gay-smell. Not the valets out front, not the locker room attendant Gerald inwardly called Simple Jim. Not anybody.

It was unsettling. Hearing the sigh of the AC in the vents, the burble and lap of the pool echoing off the tile in the showers, the ticking of the sauna. But no footfall, no splashing, none of the thunder from upstairs as free weights hit the padded floor.

Gerald’s stride grew tentative as he crossed the lobby, toward the unmanned front desk. He picked his way across the woolen expanse of carpet. Each step seemed loud to Gerald – he could hear the edges of his shoes mashing the fibers of the deep pile; could hear each lazy swoop of the ceiling fan high above him; could hear the blood traveling through his neck.

He reached the desk. His mouth was dry.

His hand hovered over the call bell. But he did not strike it.

Folded smartly on the black walnut ledge, exactly parallel with the edge of it, sat a newspaper. The headline: “Shooting at Area Health Club: Gunman Slays Eleven, Kills Self.”

Gerald’s hand withdrew from the bell and dropped to his side. Droplets of sweat sprang up on his palms. He read on.

“Just before noon yesterday at the Excelsior Gentleman’s Athletic Club on South Magnolia, police allege that longtime staffer Maurice Gibson, armed with a pair of handguns, went on a rampage that left eleven patrons dead and nine wounded. In the ensuing standoff with police, Gibson turned a gun on himself. He was pronounced dead at the scene.”

Gerald’s gaze drifted to the masthead. To the date. September 18, 2017.

He looked at his phone. September 16.

Gerald backed away from the desk and made his wary way to the polished brass of the revolving doors.

He stepped out into the buzzing heat of the day and began walking.

Maurice. The desk attendant’s name was Maurice. Gerald would remember it now.

Friday
Mar172017

Listen, Dingus

Have been writing many, many short pieces over there at Medium.

If you've not already, your really ought to be following me over there.

You won't regret.

https://medium.com/@ian.belknap1

Do it. 

Go get.

Thursday
Feb022017

Manning the Ramparts

“It’s still out there,” he said. He wasn’t fully worked up, but she could tell he was headed that way. Not frothing, just the usual rolling boil. He was exhausting. Always had been.

She looked at him, now, as he stood tensed at their living room, peering through a parted curtain at the offending van parked out front. There were times lately where she noticed herself being a little disgusted by him. Now, in his agitation, was a such a time. He was only on his first goddamn cup of coffee, and he was already in a lather. Which was made worse, somehow, by the fact that he was still in the dingy long johns he slept in. They were all stretched out in the ass, making him look even more disheveled and pear-shaped than he already was.

She directed her gaze away from him, standing there all aggrieved and saggy-assed.

“Joel. Just leave it,” she said in the same kind of exasperated tone you’d use with a dog you caught drinking out the toilet for like the millionth time.

She turned back to her tablet and read the same goddamn line for the fourth goddamn time. Jesus. She just wanted to read the goddamn paper before she had to shower for work.

“Listen,” she said. “Could you grab me some more coffee?” He shambled over to her, eyes still fixed on the gap in the curtain where he’d been surveilling the van. He took her mug and headed to the kitchen, muttering.

“Idiot,” she said softly, at the screen of her tablet.

She didn’t even want more coffee. She was just redirecting him. The way you do with a toddler. He brought back her mug, trailing steam. He returned to the window. She read the same line again.

“Been out there for like thirteen days,” he said, in that voice he got when he was seething about something, but trying to sound like he was not seething. He also, she knew, tried to sound like he was estimating. “Like thirteen days,” he said. As though he didn’t know exactly how long that van had been parked out there, which she knew good and goddamn well he did. He always knew the particulars when he was on one of his tiny crusades. He believed that facts imbued his idiot causes with something like justice. In this, as with so much, he was entirely wrong.

She turned off her tablet. If she read this same line one more goddamn time, she was pretty sure she’d whip her coffee cup at him.

“I’m gonna shower,” she said. He gazed out at the van. He called it the Abduction Van. Cause it looked like the kind of van you’d see in an Amber Alert.

She turned the handle, held her hand under the faucet, waiting for the water to get hot. Was he technically correct? Sure. That skeevy-looking van should not be out there. Or the guy who owned the van should have gotten Illinois plates and a city sticker and all that shit. But he wasn’t gonna. He was gonna leave his beat-to-shit van right where it was, hulking on the goddamn curb like a dented primer gray pile of robot poop. And the handyman or whoever it was that owned the thing was probably not making a goddamn nickel now, in February, because everybody who might hire him was just hunkered in their houses waiting for a thaw to start refinishing their floors and shit.

And, yes, it sucked that this ugly space-and-a-half-taking van was out in front of our place; and yes, it is technically wrong that the dude has not gotten his Illinois tags and stuff; and yes, this unsightly Abduction Van represented an incremental increase in the hassles Joel encountered trying to park their car on the block – but guess what? Living in a city means dealing with all manner of inconvenience and indignity – it’s death by a thousand cuts. That’s what it IS. If you goddamn rail against every goddamn cut, you have no goddamn time for anything else.

But Joel was nothing if not compulsive – he pursued every inconsequential thing to the bitterest extreme. Because like every armchair revolutionary, the closer he got to being absolutely right about something, the more feverishly insufferable Joel became.

She couldn’t do this today. She had to get ready for work. Joel had time for this shit. He freelanced writing blog posts for a handful of search engine optimization companies – brainless, easy work she considered not merely beneath him, but beneath us all. As a species. Because his mind was effectively unoccupied, he could spend his days surveilling the offending van and its criminal owner.

The next day, after a crappy workday, followed by a tense dinner where Joel’s attentions remained divided, followed by passing out on the couch to Netflix and snorting awake in the dead of night to shuffle, teeth unbrushed, to bed, she awoke to find Joel skulking at the window with an even more crazed edge to him. He was just about dancing like he needed to pee. She said nothing and headed to the kitchen.

Joel had made no coffee. As she grabbed the filters, she made a mental note to use this fact in their next fight.

When she had a coffee, finally, she went out and sat in her chair and fire up her tablet to read the paper. Out the corner of her eye, she could see Joel bouncing on the balls of his slippered feet, head swiveling between the van outside and her in her chair. He was clearly bursting with a desire that she ask him what he was so keyed up about. She sipped her coffee, pointedly ignoring him.

Something happened outside. Something Joel had been waiting for. He flattened his nose against the cold window. She sipped her coffee. Joel, suddenly, was crestfallen. She suppressed a malicious laugh.

She rose to get ready for work. Joel followed her to the bathroom, and the bedroom, and the kitchen and the bedroom again, barely taking a breath in his incensed monologue about the note he had written to Van Guy, a note that Joel quoted liberally, using air quotes each time, a note that repeatedly featured the word “discourtesy” and told the heroic tale of how he snuck downstairs in the predawn to tuck it under the van’s wiper then hustled back upstairs for the big reveal. Then, in sputtering outrage, as she snagged her keys and made for the door, Joel told how Van Guy had plucked the note from under the wiper, balled it up unread, and deposited it on the curb.

As she left, the thought she might have seen a tear quivering on Joel’s lower lid.

“Idiot,” she said, as she made her way down the stairs.

Of course it escalated from there. Of course it did.

In the coming days, Joel called the city’s non-emergency number a bunch of times, anonymously, to narc on the shirking van. Then he let a bunch of air out of the van’s tires. His masterstroke, she thought, was when he scattered a bunch of birdseed and crumbled suet cakes on the van’s roof. Within hours, the criminal van was spattered and streaked with a Jackson Pollock’s worth of bird shit.

But ultimately, of course, Joel’s frenzy and fury led nowhere.

Because Joel, she could see clearly, now, was very much the idiot she’d been calling him for months. As his jihad gathered intensity, she soured on him completely – expressed as a line graph, Joel’s van fervor climbed in spiky ascent, while her Joel fondness plunged precipitously downward.

Joeal was an ineffectual turd and she had come to hate him.

Eight days after the bird shit caper, she kicked him out. Joel made like seven trips back and forth past the van as he loaded his shit into an Uber.

She watched out the window as the Uber pulled away.

“Idiot,” she said, really meaning it.

Saturday
Jan212017

Sparkle Turd

A week or so ago, I saw this clip of Donald Trump being interviewed by filmmaker Errol Morris about his favorite movie. Trump chose Citizen Kane, because he seemed to think this would be a selection that would make him appear smart.

According to Trump, Citizen Kane is a film about acquisition. Which I think is an apt and penetrating analysis, save one aspect: Mr. Trump – you have taken away the exact opposite of its meaning. You have managed to watch the rise and fall of Charles Foster Kane and have made an assessment of his story that is DIAMETRICALLY OPPOSED TO EVERY ASPECT OF WHAT IS TRANSPARENTLY AND SELF-EVIDENTLY THE POINT THAT ORSON WELLES SEEKS TO MAKE.

Honest to God, man – whatever its many narrative and cinematic virtues might be, AN ELUSIVE MORAL AMBIGUITY IS NOT AMONG THEM. There is literally not a single frame of that fucking movie that could lead you to reasonably conclude that it is ABOUT acquisition. It INVOLVES acquisition, certainly – it DEPICTS the main character having amassed a huge trove of artifacts to stuff his palace, but that is by no means the same as it being ABOUT acquisition. It CONCERNS acquisition, in that it portrays to devastating effect the HUMAN COST of a life squandered in acquisition.

To watch that fucking movie, and come away from it having concluded that it is the story of a successful man who buys a mess of stuff is only possible if you are the most literal-minded, Cliff Notes motherfucker that ever walked the earth. Because it takes a seriously remedial mind to watch that movie and MANAGE SOMEHOW TO ESCAPE ITS INESCAPABLE CONCLUSION.

Look – I don’t mean to harp on this one miniscule Trump failing. Especially since it’s nested inside a giant bulb of other Trump failings, tightly wound like a cabbage – leaf after leaf or bitter-tasting failing, clinging for dear life to the globe of bitter-tasting failure inside it.

I fucking realize that his job is not to be Film Critic In Chief. But it just seems like SUCH a perfect encapsulation of how this strutting, emptyheaded capon can look at the SINGLE MOST FAMOUS AND CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED MOVIE IN AMERICAN HISTORY and fail entirely to see the same sonofabitching movie that you or I do.

But of COURSE he takes it to be about acquisition – because he himself is about acquisition.

Because if you extrapolate from this one Errol Morris clip – and there is a distressingly vast body of evidence, now, to support this – our President – and he IS our goddamn President, in the sense that we are fucking stuck with him along with all the Oxy-popping hillbillies who put him in the Oval fucking Office – retains a fixed and impregnable capacity to look upon the world and to see what he wishes to see.

Which, to varying degrees, we all do, obviously. We’re all prey to our own wishful thinking and blind spots and habits of mind. But – BUT – I would hope that we at least endeavor to adjust our beliefs and discard our bad ideas BECAUSE WE HAVE REMAINED FUCKING CURIOUS AND LEARNED NEW THINGS AND, WHERE NEEDED, WE HAVE ALTERED OR AMENDED OUR CONCEPTION OF THE TRUTH.

If you have devoted your life to acquisition, you must therefore conceive of acquisition as a virtue; if you encounter people who have failed to – or worse, even – have CONSCIOUSLY AND WILLFULLY REJECTED the Cult of Acquisition, then, as a means of psychological self-preservation, you MUST vilify and marginalize and denigrate such people. Because where acquisition constitutes success, the believer MUST believe that any deviation from such a conception of success is aberrant, and presents a threat not merely to your own success, but to the philosophical bedrock that underlies your success. Hence the name-calling and pettiness and constant monitoring of what others are saying about you.

When the architecture of belief is so shoddily constructed, of course it requires constant upkeep.

But here’s what I know:

He is wrong. About everything.

He is wrong about Citizen Kane, obviously, but it is because he is wrong about so many other, much bigger and more enduring things, that he is wrong about Citizen Kane in the particular way that he is.

Because he is wrong about what is important in this life. Because he was raised by wrongheaded people who pushed him into his lifelong embrace of wrongness.

His ideas are wrong.

And he is wrong in his rhetoric.

And he is wrong in his conclusions about things.

And he is wrong in the answers he arrives at.

And he is wrong in the way that he frames problems.

And he is wrong in his analysis.

And he is wrong in the solutions he seeks.

And he is wrong in his humanity. Yes. He is that wrong. His wrongness runs that deep. He is wrong all the way to the base of himself.

He is a clown and a brute, to be sure. He is a huckster and a bully and a fraud.

But the reason he is dangerous, and the reason is he is now powerful, is that he is

Just

Cunning

Enough.

To have summoned his own shallow, shitty wrongness and to have heaved it toward enough of the fearful and the credulous, the damaged and the dumb that they have cast their fortunes in with his shallow, shitty wrongness, and have pushed us now to the precipice.

But this I know, and this I promise – to my children, and to my neighbors, and to you my fellow citizens, and to myself above all:

Whatever the perversions and subjugations and diminishments that lay ahead of us, whatever indignities and cruelties and violations are in store, I will know he is wrong.

However badly the sands of reality are made to shift underfoot, however degraded and downtrodden the factual is made to become, I will know he is wrong.

However stridently his supporters defend him, however clamorous becomes their chorus, I will know he is wrong. No matter how many breads, no matter how many circuses, I will know he is wrong.

Whatever the shape and breadth of the vast and fizzing clusterfuck that awaits, I will know he is wrong.

I believe he was born wrong. I believe he has rushed headlong into deeper wrongness all his life long. I believe that the more wrong he grows, the more convinced he becomes of his rightness. I believe his wrongness is of that calamitous variety that impels him to drag us all down into the slurping pit of his wrongness.

And it may seem small, now. But I believe that a solid little patch of knowledge – knowledge that he is fully and perilously wrong – will come one day soon to mean a great deal, maybe everything, even.

So I resolve to defend this solid little patch of knowledge against every incursion, against all the forces of erosion, against even my own sloth and despair. And however long he maintains his illegitimate grip on his current position, and however surrounded on all sides by his false majority I might become, I resolve to stand fast on this solid little patch of knowledge, saying over and over, even if only to myself:

He is wrong.