A Vacation In Loveless

I knew she was gone. There was simply no denying it.

The telltale sign was that the house had been too unnaturally quiet. The pierogies didn’t sizzle on the stove; they didn’t anticipate the grumbling of my stomach. Steely Dan didn’t waft in from the 8-track in the living room to the open door where I stood, keys dangling limply in my hand. She’d dug the Dan. At least, that one particular album. Aja, it was called. Half the songs on it were about women.

The reason the house was so unusually quiet because it was particularly empty. The entire place had been cleared out, top to bottom. There was no longer anything there to identify it as mine, hers or ours.

I noticed that there was a note tacked to the front door. I ripped it off and read over the papers in disbelief. I draped my arm over my forehead to contain the feeling of jackhammers slowly thudding their way out of my skull. I stood this way for a long time, staring into the void that was now our living room. Some time later, much later, I started wandering through the house. All I have a mental picture of is myself, moving like a ghost around the house that no longer was a home, my pen scribbling on a fresh page in notepad. I moved silently, jotting down a rough inventory of things she had taken with her.

Living room:

Phone with connection problems on table.

Television with the vertical hold problem.

Broken VCR on top of said TV.

All this, and other things, were missing.

Kitchen:

Toaster.

Stove.

Frying pan.

Oh, and the cute corkscrew in the shape of a penis she kept beside the cutting board? Gone.

I then scratched the last item off my list. That one had belonged to her, anyway.

Bathroom:

Frog soap dish.

Matching green toothbrush.

Medicine cabinet.

Mirror on the wall.

I looked at the blank wall. Nothing reflected back. I was not there, either.

Bedroom:

All I bothered to write was “no comment.” Everything was gone. My bookshelf and books. The dresser. The lamps. The goddamn bed, for Christ-sakes!

Staring into this void of four bare walls, ceiling and floor, it really sunk in that she’d checked out of the place and had taken everything with her that hadn’t been bolted down. What’s more, she managed to do it all in the ten hours that I was at work at the newspaper. How? I don’t know. David Copperfield might have a better answer.

I tried replaying the previous 24 hours in my head, and there was nothing in my memory that suggested she was about to walk. No fights, arguments, nothing. I’d spent most of the night reading on the couch. I think she’d been watching TV. We never really said a word.

I tried to remember if I’d ever lost my temper with her. That would be the one good reason why she’d walk on me, right? I thought about it, and soon concluded that my temper was something I always kept well guarded and under wraps the entire time I‘d spent with her.

Right then and there, I felt angry about that. I felt angry about being a pushover. I mean, I didn’t do anything and here she was walking all over me. Taking my stuff. Walking out on me.

This would explain why I broke things that now didn’t exist in my home, I broke things that were now just a figment of my imagination: the telephone, the TV, the VCR. I tossed around these things, already damaged beyond repair. I smashed the phone receiver into the wall so hard that my hand started bleeding. I reveled in the imaginary pain of the plastic shards of the receiver worming their way into my joints.

I threw the VCR into the TV screen with my bleeding bare hands. I rejoiced at the sound of breaking glass and picture tube by screaming. I took an imaginary crow bar, one that just happened to be lying around, and smashed the thing to bits. I imagined the plastic in my hands burrowing deeper. I yelled in triumph.

I took a crumbly orange brick, one that was quite real, from the small pile that had been left unused in the back yard. It’d been mean for the charcoal pit she had built for herself last year. She’d ordered too many bricks, and I remember I’d wanted to tell her that she was wasting our money by ordering so many. I’d bit my tongue then. Now, I was not only silently cursing her name to high heaven, but contemplating the weight of a brick in the living room after retrieving one from out back. I admired its solidity, the duality of its purpose.

You can use it for building things.

You can use it for destroying things.

I wondered if it was heavy enough to do serious damage to the front picture window. I threw the brick in its direction just to see what would happen. To my utter shock, it bounced off the window without causing so much of a scratch. It fell to the floor, intact. I stared at it for a moment. I poked it with my foot. Then I began yelling more random curse words because I stubbed my toe on the damn thing.

What I yelled out doesn’t matter because it made no sense at all, anyway. Nothing in my world made sense anymore. If the neighbors heard me screaming, they didn’t listen or didn’t care.

I’ll assume the later. I was never that important, anyway.

***

I tried to call the police that night. I wanted to file a missing persons report on my personality.

I made the call at a payphone down the street. I don’t remember all that much, except fumbling for a quarter in the pockets of my trench coat — a fairly hard thing to do with my hands wrapped in white imaginary flesh-wound bandages. I punched it in the slot with my taped fists, and felt strangely powerless. I keyed the numbers in anger with my nose. I waited for someone to answer. It took an eternity.

A woman answered the phone. I slammed the phone back down on the cradle, feeling like a broken mouthpiece. The plastic imaginary shards of the telephone I destroyed earlier burrowed deeper into my bones. I curled up into a little ball and wailed like a police siren in the phone booth.

A patrol car passed silently by on the street. It slid right on by without sounding a klaxon. I reached into my pockets, expecting to find a brick to throw back at them. I found a letter instead.

***
 
I was your wife.

You’re going to probably wonder what’s going on once you enter the house. As you’ll see in a moment, I’ve taken the liberty to take all of our belongings and put them into storage. Now, you don’t have to worry. I’ve got a lawyer going through the stuff, determining what’s mine and what’s yours. You’ll get your fair share, I promise, so there’s no need to go looking for your belongings.

You’re also probably going to be really mad about this if I know you like I do, but I hope you won’t be too upset. I think you’ll agree that this was all for the best. At least, I hope you will, once you think about it. From my standpoint, at least.

I know you’ve got a bit of a temper sometimes and, yes, I’m a bit sore about the fact that you broke that Shaun Cassidy record that I’ve had since childhood in a fit of rage last week. And, yes, even though I wound up burning that yearbook with the really cute photo of me from Grade 11 that I caught you masturbating over repeatedly, we did smooth that little incident over and, yes, you’re right, these sort of events don’t actually happen too often. I’m not really blaming you for my present actions — you still can be the charmer, and I do like being with you. But, frankly, I’m a bit tired of being poor all the time. You know, I want to have kids someday and I estimate we’ll only be able to afford it at this rate once I hit 43 or something. I feel like you own me, that I’m some antique for you to pride over. So — and I’m still not sure how to break this to you — I’m simply leaving. I have convinced myself that this will work better for me if I just make a clean break.

I know this is probably going to really mess with your mind, the way past girlfriends have seemingly just up and left you all your life. But, if I try and say something, I’m sure you’ll try to convince me otherwise. That I can’t deal with. I need to be free, flap my wings a little bit. I need no convincing over a cup of coffee that I should stay. I really hope this doesn’t damage you in any way, but it’s something that needs to be done, from my perspective. Something that’s been gnawing on the back of my mind for two or three years now.

Don‘t try to contact me. I’ll be disappearing off the face of the earth for a while. I’ll make sure anything I have that clearly belongs to you will be returned as soon as the legal team has gone through our stuff.

Your Ex-wife,
Josie

***

I’ll have to apologize if the events I’m about to relay after reading the letter seem choppy and kind of disjointed. Everything gets kind of blurry from here on in. What I do remember is that somewhere during this post-abandonment period I bloated up to 300 pounds. Gaining weight was the easiest thing in the world to do. I had a world of time on my hands, so I filled up my house with non-perishable food — the kind that comes in potato chip bags. I ate, and rarely left the house outside of my working hours, unless I had to shop for groceries, of course.

Thinking to myself one day as I sat lazily on the porch step with a chip bag in hand, I realized that my ex-wife was rather justified in her actions. I mean, look at me. I never did a thing around the house. I was a slob. I couldn’t get my shit together. I was a horrible journalist to boot — they had me on the rewrite desk doing the occasional cute dog story that came crawling along on its hands and knees to me.

My wife and I, we were never in love. It was all a stupid front, a business agreement. Something along the lines of: I provide you, dear wife, with a house and home and all these great otherworldly possessions I’ll pick up at the flea market on Saturdays when you’re out breaking your back in the garden. You, dear, clean house and make the supper, maybe wash the dinner plates. Sign here on the dotted line, and — if you act now — I’ll throw in some Tupperware.

No, I didn’t blame her for leaving. In fact, I’m surprised she didn’t take the house, too. I’m sure she probably felt that she deserved it.

I would sit on the porch each evening, brooding, chip bag in hand. Sometimes I’d watch cute schoolgirls with their uniforms walk home from class, other times I’d watch the cars as they passed by.

Red car. Blue car. Yellow car.

Munch. Munch. Munch.

I filled my mouth, replacing the taste of her kiss with salt and vinegar smothered upon the remnants of a potato. I gobbled down the chips, filling up the arteries of my heart with cholesterol. I did this each evening until the car colors blurred into something incompressible. But this time, I closed my eyes and fell fast asleep. I began to dream horrible dreams of a place I dubbed Loveless. It was a town where all the buildings were post-WWI brick homes rotting on their foundations, the same building copied over and over again in perfect symmetrical order up and down a grid of streets.

Strangely, there were no cars to be seen anywhere. Loveless seemed completely deserted, except for those lonely men — just slightly older than me — in painter’s caps and jean overalls shambled along on the rain-soaked pavement. These men all looked alike. In fact, dare I say they all looked the same? I woke up, shivering.

The very next day, I got wind that I was to take a work-related vacation. This came in the form of luggage, which appeared at my writing desk at my job. I opened a suitcase and found it full of travel brochures that, to my surprise, advertised Loveless. I sat down and started leaving through them.

One black-and-white picture on a brochure depicted a man on the street, dressed like one of the men I’d dreamt about just hours earlier. A caption underneath labeled him a Homeless-sexual in big screaming black type. Underneath that caption, another read: You’ll want to avoid these on your journey to Loveless! They’re freaks! Look at how pathetic they are! It went on, but frankly, I wasn’t interested in going any further than that. It was pretty much more than what I wanted to know.

There were other pictures of men in long lineups, and a cutline underneath said there was a 100 per cent unemployment rate in Loveless. I chuckled to myself; this was like something out of a Steinbeck novel. Someone was playing a really screwed-up joke on me. It was the only explanation that was logical.

As I looked over the brochure, a middle-aged woman came over to my desk. She was my editor, my authority figure. I looked at the computer screen in front of me, seeking some kind of reassurance. The screen didn’t speak back to me. It was blank, open to a blank newspaper page in Quark Express.

“Hi there,” my editor said “How are we doing today?”

I typed my answer at the keyboard. The answer came up in bold 20-point font.

FINE.

“Good. I’m surprised you aren’t cracking your latest assignment.”

ASSIGNMENT? WHAT ASSIGNMENT?

“Oh? I thought you would have gone through your bags. Management wants you to check out Loveless, some sort of new colony for men struggling with bereavement or loss. You’re to leave first thing tomorrow.”

WHY?

I didn’t dare tear my eyes from the page. I didn’t need to look at her to feel disapproval.

“Well, management can understand what you’re going through right now. Frankly, we’re all of the opinion that a slight change of scenery would be good for you.”

The words seemed to freeze in the air as she spoke them.

YOU CAN DO THIS? YOU CAN FORCE ME TO DO THIS?

“Well, you’re under our employ. Although we could change that rather quickly now, couldn’t we?”

She flashed her teeth, which looked remotely like pointy icicles.

I managed to plow through my work day, casually looking over my shoulder now and then just to see if I could catch someone snickering behind my back. Nothing. People answering phones behind cubicle walls that could crumble with one single quick poke of a finger. They were all taking notes, blinded by the ultraviolet rays of their computer screens, trying to make sense of the senseless tragedies of the world, put them into screaming headlines. A lot of them were variations on NICE GUY FINISHES LAST. The same old story told over and over again.

I went home that night and immediately collapsed onto the floor of my kitchen. The shut-eye was much needed. I’d spent the rest of the day in the newsroom a walking zombie, thinking mostly about what the assignment editor had said and those horrible pictures on the brochure.

This is when my world really started to turn upsy-daisy. I fell asleep, and many hours must have passed. When I awoke, I was lying in an alleyway with salty raindrops falling over my body. My luggage was beside me and a cute young girl wearing khakis shorts, a white T-shirt and flip-flop sandals — perhaps no more than in her mid-teens — was running towards me.

By the way, I did mention she had an M-16 in her hands? I guess I just did.

“Get up!” I heard her yell.

If this were a story, I figured, I’d have been a character in some variation on the “it was all a dream” archetype by a novice writer. So I tried the oldest cliché in the book: pinching myself. Nothing happened.

I was debating whether or not I was part of some sort of self-reflexive meta-fictional text, when I felt something powerful push into the side of my face: her gun barrel. Maybe it was my imagination, but it seemed as though the gun was throbbing, pulsating with life. Something waiting for its trigger to be pulled.

“Get up or I’ll pump you with lead!” she screamed. “Get up you dirty Homeless-sexual!”

I shut my eyes, tried to keep my head from swimming too much. I saw a road sign in my mind, three words strung together in white paint on a green background: WELCOME TO LOVELESS. I opened my eyes after a moment. The only thing that had changed was the girl’s level of agitation. She was scowling, and I didn’t think it’d be long before she’d open fire.

I sighed, I got up, and I tried not to think too much about the wrong turn I seemed to have made.

*** 
I was captured. I was captivated.

I just had to look at the lanky, young blonde Dutch supermodel with the M-16 pointed at me as I stood in an employment line. I looked her over top to bottom, examining all six feet and change of her soaking wet. She was positively gigantic, yet rakish.

She was a pretty, yet anorexic young woman. Or should I say she was a pretty anorexic young woman and leave it at that? Her breasts — or lack thereof — were plastered right into her yellow cotton T-shirt. Her rib cage was much more portrusive, and the first thing that popped into my head was how much they recalled the black metal bars of a jail cell. The thought repelled me, yet comforted me. There’s something very relaxing about being locked away with someone on the outside always making sure you’re fed.

We locked eyes for a moment and she frowned beautifully. She raised the gun, as though she was going to pull the trigger. She then snorted and turned on her heel. She wore flip-flop sandals, a soaked plastic daisy melded into the arch of her foot. I thought that might be a bit impractical for the job she was doing. How could she run in those without slipping and falling? Yet, she seemed to be doing a rather good job of patrolling the line, and so I began to respect her all so much more.

I gave her a name right then. I called her Josie, after that really cool Steely Dan song. I also liked it because it reminded me of that cartoon character I used to watch growing up. The one in the band of Pussycats.

I tossed the name around lovingly in my head, before reached into one of my bags and found my notepad. I began scribbling down as much as I could about Josie, not minding the raindrops that turned my notes into incomprehensible ink smudges. All the things I mentioned above, I scrambled to get it all down on paper.

After I was done, I looked up and truly realized how much of an anomaly among the men in the line I was. I stood out in my trench coat while the others were dressed in uniforms of white caps, white T-shirts, work boots and jean overalls. These were the same outfits I’d seen in my dreams and on the brochures I’d received.

We stood, a good dozen of us, slouching towards a small brick building with a EMPLOYMENT OFFICE neon sign blinking on and off above us. I thought standing in line seemed a bit absurd since I still had a job. There were two doors leading into the place. Over the first door, the word HAND was painted in green block letters. Over the other, the word BLOW was similarly marked.

“I can’t understand how this is such a bad thing,” I said to myself.

Then the man in front of me started crying, and I mean bawling his face off.

His tears rivaled the rain that drenched my clothing and skin.

“It’s h-h-horrible!” he whined. “They … what they do!”

“Well, I think it’d be pretty obvious what they do isn’t it?”

“No! You don’t understand! They … it … it’s too horrible!”

“What then? What do they do? How can it be so horrible?”

The man threw his arms around me and pawed at my trench coat, like a pathetic little cat lazily swatting at the air. He had a full brown beard, and wore weird little coke-bottle like glasses that made his eyes bulge right out of his head.

“It … it doesn’t m-m-matter what door you take,” he cried. “Inside either one is … is … a really big, f-f-fat, naked lady. She’s at least seven hundred pounds and she … and she strips you! She points a st-st-stubby finger at you and she l-l-laughs! After 15 minutes of that, she … she … !”

He collapsed right onto my shoulder, bawling like a little child. For a moment, I was reminded of my general behaviour in the newsroom. I tried to push him away, but he had me in a vice grip-like bear hug.

I could also see Josie running down the line towards us, gun extended. She didn’t look particularly happy.

“You two!” she hissed. “You dirty little Homeless-sexuals! Break it up!”

The man looked up in fear and he quickly released me, much to my lungs’ relief. A split-second later, he had turned around, murmuring softly to himself about how much he wanted to leave. Josie frowned at me, and kept a finger just off the trigger.

“I should have known you’d be trouble,” Josie said. She eyed me suspiciously for a moment, gun extended. I tried not to cover under her beauty. She stood with the gun pointed at me for a few moments, before turning to patrol the line.

As she walked away, she shot me.

She shot me one sharp backwards glance.

The look felt like a bullet piercing my heart. It lasted a millisecond, but I felt as though I had died and rolled around in Dutch Anorexic Girl Heaven.

The line crawled slowly up to the two doors. It seemed like forever, waiting in the rain as I was, so I tried not to dwell on what the man had said. Instead, I thought of Josie.

After an hour or so of alternating between looking for a way out and daydreaming about a nice picnic in the sunshine with Josie, it was the moment of truth for the man in front of me. He yelled “No!” quite emphatically a couple of times — enough to nearly put a few new holes into my eardrums — before he was shoved through the door reading BLOW by Josie. For being so inhumanely thin, she appeared to have a great deal of strength and had a relatively easy time pushing the man inside.

The screaming began almost immediately. There were no windows into the building, so I could only imagine what was going on. It didn’t sound all that pretty, and I actually started to feel a bit anxious as to what was about to happen to me. At the same time, I felt like complimenting the girl for her effortless strength.

Moments later, it was my turn to walk through either of the doors. I walked towards the door marked HAND as though there was some kind of choice involved.

“Look here,” I said. “There must be some mis — .”

Josie hissed at me and cocked her gun.

“What about my bags, at least,” I gulped.

“Just get in there.”

I braced myself as I entered the door, expecting to see the most horrible sight upon walking in. Instead, once inside the cold, humid room — the entire place built out of gray concrete bricks — I noticed that there was a desk. Two beady little black eyes peered at me behind it. I saw what appeared to be a beak, though it didn’t look sharp. It looked inky and two-dimensional, like something that shouldn’t even exist.

I moved closer, curious to see what I was dealing with. To my surprise, a cartoon penguin sat behind the desk. He had a newspaper unfurled onto of it, and I could see from my vantage point that he was reading the comics. A smoldering cigar sat in an ashtray on the desk.

“Yeah, what do you want?” said the penguin, starting at me icily as he sucked back on the cigar.

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“Then get the hell out, baldy!” he said. “Can’t you see that I’ve got a bloody job to do here?!?!”

“Sure, whatever,” I mumbled.

He went back to reading the newspaper as I turned and walked back out the door into the rain. I was confused. I didn’t expect to get off that easily. But I just turned around and kept walking down the street.

Josie didn’t even do so much as look my way as I veered off and began walking down a dark street. She was far too busy taking care of another man, shoving him through the door marked BLOW.

I peeled my eyes from this ugly scene and figured this might be as good a time to get away from the girl, tromp around town a bit, do some exploring and maybe find some answers to get me back home while I was at it. I turned and started walked down the rainy street, baggage slung over shoulder, as inconspicuous as possible.

I was still an outsider. For how long, I wasn’t sure.

***
 
You had to watch where you step in the streets and alleys of Loveless. They were full of open manholes, sort of like something out of an old Warner Brothers cartoon. Not only that, I was sure these manholes were following me, creeping up on me like devious searchlights. I swear that they were sentient, they could think for themselves. They were everywhere, threatening to swallow me whole.

I wandered around in the rain thinking about Josie in a love-struck fashion, flashing backwards glances to ensure that a killer manhole wasn’t about to slink up behind me and take me out in one quick gulp. A little voice in my head piped up, suggesting I should figure out where I was going and what I was doing here. I was in need of direction. A few minutes later, the opportunity to ask someone a few questions presented itself when I saw a man in uniform biting into a human heart in the dumpster. He chomped into the heart, causing a thick river of red liquid with the consistency of cough syrup to run down his uniform. He then held it up and, mouth wide open, started drinking blood.

I flinched and turned away. I certainly didn’t feel like eating upon my arrival, but now I had pretty much lost my appetite for the rest of the day. I would have probably just turned around right there and walked back to where I came from, but, having a morbid curiosity that overrode my natural instinct to let this man eat dinner, I turned to him and asked, “What on earth are you doing?”

The man looked up in surprise, tossing the heart almost comically high up in the air. The item in question landed with a splat on the pavement. A little bit of blood sprayed towards me and my stomach lurched a bit at the sight of pink tissue on the ground. Not helping matters was the wretched smell of the dumpster. I held a hand up in front of my mouth and bloated my cheeks, trying my best not to throw up right there on the spot.

The man looked at me angrily and said, “Replenishing. Or at least I was until you came along.”

“Ah … I … I see,” I sputtered, looking away from him in disgust. “Sorry I asked.”

I hurried along, and was oblivious to anything the man did or said next. I tried my best to put in out of my mind as I zigzagged my way through a few twisty streets. I only really looked around to see if one of those creepy manholes was sneaking up on me.

It didn’t take too long before I got caught up in thinking about Josie, since I was alternately bored, tired, and wet. She also reminded me of someone I once knew, another good reason. As I wandered around with my head figuratively in the clouds, a white fog began to form. It soon completely engulfed me, but I barely registered it. Well, I should have been paying better attention to my surroundings because I just about stepped into a manhole.

I had to veer quickly to my left in order to avoid it. It lurched forward, almost expecting to nab me in the process, but it missed thanks to my fancy footwork. However, the manhole began to double back and follow me with an alarming speed, so I ran blindly to escape it. In doing so, I nearly plowed into a storefront picture window. I fumbled my way up to door I spotted on my right, and threw it open — almost toppling onto the floor as I rushed in.

It took me a second for my eyes to adjust to the dimly-lit room, but I noticed I was in some sort of diner. There were black-and-white chessboard squares of floor tile beneath my feet, and rusty metallic ceiling fans lazily turning above my head. There were booths with padded red leather seats and marble tabletops. A counter ran along the other end of the room, and I could see the backs of thee men dressed in overalls seated at it. A middle-aged woman with graying blonde hair was cooking something up on a frying pan in the kitchen. I could see her through an open rectangular window behind the counter.

There was a peculiar smell in this diner. It was almost as though it were frying flesh — something that also didn’t sit right with my stomach.

I felt a bit uneasy, and had the urge to take notes in a reporter’s notepad to make some sense of what was going on. But when I reached for my wet luggage, a man at the counter who had just turned around on his stool distracted me.

“So what will it be?” he asked, eyeing me contemptuously. He, of course, looked exactly like every other man I’d met in this strange place.

“What do you mean,” I said.

“Well, what’s your order?”

“What if I don’t have an order?”

“Ridiculous,” he scoffed. “Nobody comes in here without ordering something.”

“What’s on the menu, then?” I asked, just to humour him.

“What do you think?” he said, pointing to a sign hanging off the wall which had big black plastic letters attached to a white-grooved plastic background. I gulped as I read the letters, which I formed into words. I then strung those words into sentences and constructed them into all too vivid images. I won’t repeat what I saw exactly, but I think it can be said that what was being served in this diner were indeed courses of human flesh — with liberal doses of human heart in the recipes, of course. Oh, and pierogies. That was there, too.

“That’s really sick,” I said, wondering what I did in a past life to wind up in a screwed up joint like this one

“Beats stealing things out of the dumpster,” the man shrugged, turning his back to me.

For a moment, I didn’t know what to say. I slid my eyes over to the woman — whistling quite happily to herself as she went about her macabre work. I glanced back over to the men hunched over the table, now holding knives and forks in their hands.

“How does she take that?” I asked.

“Take what?” said one of the men.

“Well, she’s serving up flesh isn’t she?”

“So what else is new? Say, are you going to scram or are you going to order anything?”

“Uh, if those are the choices, I think I’ll just leave,” I said, turning around to trundle out the door with my bags in tow. I walked back out into the pouring rain. The fog had cleared, thankfully, but I think the metaphorical white smoke inside my head was leaning into pea soup territory. I was feeling as though I should wander into a manhole with open arms. It’d clear up the confusion pretty quick, at least.

I took a quick breath of air, cleansing my lungs of that fleshy smell, and took a good moment to feel the raindrops on my exposed skin. I thought I could come to enjoy the rain. It was clean, pure — and somehow more pleasant that feeling drops of skin fizzling in oil land on me.

I started walking again, starting to tire of Loveless and the endless wandering through it without a decent road map. As I tromped my way down its side streets, the manholes strangely began to scurry out of my way. I guess they weren’t all that hungry anymore, either. For some strange reason, that didn’t surprise me. It was probably the smell of the restaurant on my clothes that repelled them.

I passed by what appeared to be a store, one that looked just like every other building in this godforsaken place. That was just on the first glance. I managed a double-take and noticed the windows were fogged over with dust. Curious, I peered through the glass — rubbing some of the dirt off with the sleeve of my trench coat. I could barely see inside the room. What I could make out in the near darkness almost made me lose my temper on the spot. The absurdity of what I saw inside easily beat everything else I’d just seen in this town. I couldn’t even believe my own perception, my own eyes. Not that I had a reason to before, but this … this was too much.

Everything my ex-wife took was inside this store — a lousy pawnshop. Everything that connected my existence with hers was in there, all locked away. All I had to do was break in and get it. How I was going to do that was another matter entirely.

***

I paced on the spot there for I don’t know how long. I couldn’t believe that my ex-wife had stooped to such a thing. I tried to rationalize what this meant, why she had chosen to bring my belongings here. I couldn’t figure anything out.

I was figuratively shooting blanks. Blanks loaded into an M-16 held by a particular girl with flip-flop sandals.

I walked along the street — hoping to stumble across a good solid brick or something to break up the window — wincing as my drenched, clammy feet splashed through ever-growing puddles. As I tromped around, manholes scurried away from me as quickly as I approached them. I rounded a corner and came across another man reclining on propped green garbage bags inside a dumpster shoved up against a long warehouse. The building seemed to cover an entire block, and had a V-shaped aluminum roof covering it. The dumpster rested underneath an overhang, appearing to keep the man inside quite dry.

This man wasn’t eating a heart, thankfully. Instead, he was reading what seemed to be a children’s picture book. It seemed old and tattered, and there was a cartoon penguin on the cover.

“Hey there,” I said. “You wouldn’t happen to know when that pawnshop up the street opens up?”

“I wouldn’t get your hopes up if I were you,” he said, without lifting his eyes from the page in front of him. “That store’s never open. I doubt it ever will be.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“You’re obviously not thinking too straight,” he sighed. “There’s no need to buy anything in Loveless, really.”

He lifted his eyes off the page for a moment to glare at me.

“Unless, of course, you’re a Homeless-sexual,” he sneered. “And if that’s the case, I know of a good hotel room where you and your kind belong. If you have the money.”

“You’re being absurd!” I blurted. “Listen, I really need to get inside that store. There’s gotta be someone I can talk to who can let me — .”

“Even if you could, would that matter?” the man interrupted, flipping a page lazily in his book. “Everyone’s unemployed around here, right now. Unless … let me guess: post-lay off denial?”

“What the hell are you talking about!” I yelled. “I still have a job! I mean, this is a work-related vacation I’ve been sent on, right?”

“See what I mean,” he said, exasperated. “Vacation. As in permanent vacation. Your girl has stopped giving it to you, hasn’t she?”

“Giving me what?”

“Work.”

“This is the most absurd conversation I’ve had since — . Check that. I‘ve been having some pretty weird conversations all day.”

The man glanced up long enough from his book to roll his eyes skyward. He shook his head and quickly resumed reading.

“Just tell me who owns the place,” I said.

“Let me spell it out for you,” he replied curtly, flicking his eyes away from the book. “You’ve been laid off. Which means you aren’t getting laid, right?”

This last statement rolled into my gut like a brick hurled through a TV set.

“Wha … what the hell?” I said. “This is all starting to sound pretty screwed up if you ask — .”

“Look,” he said. “It seems to me as though you gave up looking for work a long, long time ago. Or it gave up on you. Something happened in any case, and it doesn’t matter. All you are, it seems to me, is nothing more than a dirty Homeless-sexual. So quit bugging me and go beg in the street for spare change or something.”

“Yeah, um, sure. Thanks for all the help,” I said sarcastically and started walking again. As I passed by the dumpster, though, I heard some rustling from within it.

“Wait a second,” the man muttered, and I turned to see his pathetic attempts to get up.

It was quite a comical sight, because the big green garbage bags he stood upon would begin to sink down, carrying him with them. He tried for a moment to get up on top of the edge of the dumpster, but he immediately fell back down again. Finally, he just sighed, said “Here!” and tossed me the book he was reading. I caught it, though I had to fumble for it.

“I don’t normally go helping Homeless-sexuals, but you seem like a particularly lost cause,” said the man. “I’ve guess I’ve suddenly become quite the bleeding heart, so you’re lucky. Anyhow, the book might explain how things operate around here. You might as well go ahead and borrow that. Just bring it back when you‘re done — or I’ll have one of our street cleaners go out looking for you.”

“Street cleaners?” I asked.

The man sighed and tried to make the best machine-gun pose he could.

“Oh. I get it,” I said.

I glanced down at the book, and felt the greatest sensation of deja vu sweep over me as I examined it in my hands. I’d seen it somewhere before, I just couldn’t place where. The penguin on the cover looked very familiar … .

Of course, it suddenly dawned on me that the penguin was the same one I’d met in the employment office earlier. He was, however, uncharacteristically in tears on the cover. I mumbled the title to myself …

POGO LEARNS ABOUT DEATH

… and marveled at how it was so short, so thin for a book dealing with a complex subject. But, then again, this was a children’s book. It felt worn and well used, so much so that it seemed vaguely comforting. It had obviously been some child’s great possession in his or her youth.

I paused for a moment and thought this all over. Another light bulb figuratively popped over my head — my memories now triggered. This was obviously some sort of long-lost relic from my childhood. I’d probably never looked at the book in years, and as I stood on the wet pavement, I almost was tempted to open it, take a peek and see if it was mine. Part of me was scared, however. What did its sudden reappearance have anything to do with Loveless?

I figured I could use some answers about the strange book, which alternately reminded me I still needed a crowbar or brick to get myself into the store down the street.

“This is great,” I said. “But — and this might be a weird question — you wouldn’t happen to have maybe a crowbar in there?”

I pointed to the dumpster. Instead of answering, the man just glared at me.

“Right,” I muttered. “Sorry I asked.”

“Remember to bring that back,” he said, just before falling backwards into the garbage pile and disappearing from sight. I put the book in one of my bags and started to trundle along, ignoring the man’s odd curses as he tried to get back up.

I started walking down the street again, only to notice yet another batch of confusion fog beginning to engulf me. I worried that I’d suddenly become open game for manholes, and there was nowhere to really run this time. I was becoming quite tired, though, and thought to myself that if the manholes hadn’t succeeded in harming me by now, it probably wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. I just kept walking, and pretty soon I couldn’t see my own hand in front of my face.

After a few minutes of stumbling around in the fog, I stubbed my foot on the edge of something. Recoiling in pain and cursing to myself, I noticed I’d stumbled onto a concrete sidewalk — the first time I’d seen one of those in Loveless. Hopping up and down on the spot thanks to this unexpected surprise, the mist quite miraculously began to part and I was standing in front of an orange-brick house quite similar to the one I grew up in. I couldn’t see through any of the front windows, but not because they were dusty. Instead, dark curtains covered them from the inside — an image that reminded me of the time my mom died when I was really young. When was the last time I’d thought about that?

After my toes had stopped their throbbing chorus of pain, I went up and pounded on the door. No answer. So I knocked again. And again. And again. I must have done this for a good minute or so, just out of sheer frustration. Then, as I paused to give my fist a rest, I heard someone coming from inside the house to greet me. It almost sounded like a man waddling along in flippers, cursing to himself as he came to the door. A few locks slid away from the door under what seemed to be causing this man a great deal of duress.

“Aw, Jesus,” I heard him say. “This is … ugh! … so Goddamn hard! Argh! Damn wings get in the way of … ugggghhhh! Oh Gawd! There it goes!”

The door opened and a blast of cold air greeted me from inside. I had to shield my eyes with my right arm, looking away for a moment until my skin grew accustomed to the sudden drop in temperature. When I glanced back, there was nobody standing at the door. Until I looked down, of course.

The cartoon penguin stood there, fumbling with a cigar in his wings like he was playing a game of hot potato. I stood dumbstruck for what must have been the thirteen-millionth time that afternoon. The penguin regained control of his cigar, and then, very nonchalantly, he started to puff on it. Smoke rings puffed out of his beak like a smokestack.

“Pogo, I presume?”

“Yeah, waddya want?”

“I think you and I need to have a little talk,” I said, reaching out to push the door open with my right hand. “You’re going to tell me what the hell is going on here, and why this is happening to me.”

***
 
I am Pogo. I am a cartoon penguin.

What is wrong with you? How dare you come to my door when I’m reading the newspaper! You’re so loud and obnoxious in your knocking! I have to waddle down the hallway to the front door just to answer you. Do you know how long that takes me? Too long!

I’m so angry! My nose has been diverted from the wispy smell of the fine sausages my wife is frying on the stove for dinner. So, again, I have to ask: Whatsthamatter with you! Don’t you have a bit of respect?! I mean, really! The nerve! You do this day after day, and it’s always the same question: Why is this happening to me? I think you ask the wrong one. See, even after all this time, you seem surprised every time the door gets opened into my little world. I can see a look of shock on your face even right now. It’s as if you think I don’t exist. Well, let me tell ya something. I do exist. Still, you always question me. Sure, I may spend all my days having my own existence prodded and probed, at least I don’t live in shame like you! I’m not on the streets, looking for something completely unobtainable. You should ask yourself: what I am doing here? What have I done?

You’re so pathetic. It’s not my fault life dealt you a losing hand. If you still don’t want to listen to me, the voice of reason, just like you didn’t when you were a little boy, fine. But remember this: you can’t always run away from the truth. (And to think that you profess to be some sort of investigative reporter? Ha!)

Remember that little truism. And remember this, too: I have more than you ever will. I am more than you ever will be.

I am, after all, a cartoon penguin.

***
 
The penguin stood at the open front door, eyes unwavering from mine.

“And what makes you think I have anything to tell you?” he said, frowning.

“Can’t you see I’m busy here? I’ve got supper growing cold on the table.”

“What’s going on in there?” I said, peeking around the penguin to get a glimpse of what lay beyond the door. I couldn’t really make too much out — just a long white corridor. But as I peered around, that’s when I heard it. Her voice. Calling out to the penguin that his food was getting cold.

It was my goddamn ex-wife. No joke.

“What’s she doing in there?” I said, leering at the penguin in anger. You could practically see the smoke slowly pouring out my nose and ears, and yet that damn penguin was as cool as a cucumber buried in permafrost.

“It’s totally of no business to you, is it?” he said. “So let me — . Wait a minute. You can’t go in — gawk!”

I made as if I was about to enter the house, but the penguin insisted on blocking the way. I reached out and started to choke the little bastard, and, let me tell you, it was much harder to do than I thought. His skin, while being quite cartoon-like, was as tough as a seal’s. Then there was that damn beak of his flailing around. The guy could have bit my hand off if he wanted to, I’m sure.

So, with all of my concentration locked upon the unfolding power struggle, I barely paid any attention to slight footfalls made behind me. I thought maybe it was my wife. I was oh so wrong.

“Halt right there, you dirty Homeless-sexual!”

Normally, I wouldn’t have minded if I’d seen Josie creep up behind me — even with an M-16 aimed at my back — but I had some serious business to do in this house. It looked like Josie was trying to get in the way of some serious investigative journalism.

“Put your hands in the air!” she hissed. “Where I can see them!”

“What do you want, Josie?” I stammered, staring straight ahead into the open hallway as I put my hands up, just in case her trigger finger felt a bit itchy. I thought about making a smart comment, but thought against it. I wanted to impress Josie in my own little way, and knew that spewing what would probably end up sounding like a cliché wouldn’t help my cause.

“Shut up!” she yelled. “And my name isn’t Josie, you moron! That’s just a goddamn Steely Dan song.”

She whacked me on the back of my head with her gun. I briefly saw cartoon stars swimming around my head, and marveled to myself that she had a powerful hit for someone so thin.

“I know what you were about to do,” said Josie, or whoever she was, while the back of my head throbbed. I felt her grab one of my arms and I had the impression that something cold was holding onto my wrist. I had a brief impression that it could have been her hand, but then I figured out it was handcuffs.

“I knew I should have kept a better eye on you,” she snarled. “Keep you from strangling your poor wife.”

For some reason, Josie — and I really like that name, so I’m keeping it — read my mind oh so well. That was indeed the plan, after getting rid of the penguin. It was just a rough sketch of a crime that had been in my head, but Josie had somehow shown up before I’d have a chance to enact it, make it real.

Josie leaned over close, close enough for me to actually feel her rib cage press up against my back. All I can really say is feeling her there was suddenly the worst thing I’d ever experienced. I almost shrieked like a cat whose tail had been stepped on. An ice-cold ice chill went right up my spine. Oh, there might have been a time when her touch might have been heaven. Sometimes, though, there just ain’t no going back. All the giddy feelings I had towards Josie suddenly evaporated like fog.

I tried to lean forward to get away from her, but she just reigned me in by grabbing a strap on one of my bags. She then yanked me backwards so strongly that she nearly caused me to fall.

“I’m going to put you back in the closet where you belong, you dirty Homeless-sexual,” she yelled. Her voice had such a tone of utter callousness, I knew whatever she planned to do with me wouldn’t be necessarily all that pleasant.

I don’t remember anything after that. Well, except for the sharp pain accompanying the butt of a gun butt in to the back of my head, and, vaguely, the voice of a penguin squawking out a feeble “Thank you.”

***

I woke up much later, greeted by none other than a complete darkness. I wondered if I had somehow fallen down a manhole. It took me a few seconds, but I realized that I was lying on a cold, dry cement floor — certainly not sewer material.

I tried to push myself up off the floor, but felt too dizzy. I touched my forehead and found a huge, throbbing lump. It was the sort of thing you’d expect to find growing out of a cartoon character’s skull. I half-wondered if I had indeed become a cartoon; at least, a caricature of myself.

I managed to get up, and, when I finally stood, a string brushed against my face. Thinking that this was odd, I pulled on it and a bright light suddenly filled the room. I squinted and threw my hands up in front of my face to shield myself from the brilliance. I noticed a few stars and a bluebird or two fluttering in my vision. I could still see them pretty clearly with my eyes almost shut from the blinding luminosity, which annoyed the hell out of me.

I waited a few minutes for the birds and stars to flutter away or move on to a new galaxy. As my vision began to clear, I noticed I was in the middle of what appeared to be a mid-sized janitor’s closet. There were empty shelves to my left with a few nails stuck in the cement brick walls, which surrounded me on all sides. The far wall was made out of small orange bricks, which led me to suspect that it was probably a way outside. If only I had a sledgehammer … I thought.

There was nothing in the room except a wooden bucket and a mop — nothing I could use to get out of here. As I searched for something else, I felt lightweight. It was as though a load had been taken off my back. I looked down and discovered that I had been completely stripped down to an undershirt and pair of novelty boxer shorts like something out of a Beetle Bailey cartoon, which I used to read as a kid. My bags were gone.

That bitch! I fumed as my stomach bubbled with anger. I’d been robbed again, this time by Josie. I was completely furious, so I snapped the mop handle in two. I kicked the pail just out of sheer frustration, too. In my mind, I plotted all the evil little things I wanted to do to Josie when she returned to check up on me. I then banged on the door. I wailed. I howled. I pounded with my fists like they were slabs of beef pounding a drum kit. Nobody came.

I calmed down a bit, however, when I realized that Josie had at least a sense of decency about her — no matter small it may have seemed. It wasn’t like she had stripped me entirely. She hadn’t taken everything on me like my ex-wife. I still had some dignity, and wasn’t completely naked.

Settling down, thinking about maybe grabbing a few more zzz’s, I noticed that, lying against the far wall, there was an old black typewriter in the room. A small pile of paper was neatly lined up beside it, conveniently. I have no idea how I originally missed it.

I walked to the back of the room and, out of curiosity, looked it over. There was no label, so I can’t claim the old cliché of it being an Underwood. I slid a sheet of paper into it and started typing random gibberish. Everything worked fine — even the ribbon hadn’t been used. Just for the fun of it, I started typing legitimate words and sentences. Stuff like ‘the lazy brown fox, he jumped over the dead penguin.’ I was amused to no end. I glanced up and thought I saw a few bricks loosen and begin to slide forward. I patted the wall, but it felt quite solid. I shook my head, and got back down to typing.

I started hammering down all sorts of stuff I’d just experienced. I did this half to pass the time, half to try and make some sense about the things that had happened over the course of the past few hours.

I won’t share the words I typed. Those ones, I’m afraid, belong to me and me alone.

***

I’m a brick.

I’m one of many such bricks before you. Cold. Impenetrable. Unmoved by your words. You and your typing instrument, exacting words upon the page. How could you be so callous?

You will try to move me, break me even. But I’m harder, stronger, much more capable of blocking out the pain than you.

You are so pathetic. Writing your way out of your own misery. I should lodge myself out of this wall and drop upon your head. That would put an end to your self-righteous suffering. That’s what you want, don’t you? Well, I won’t humor that request.

I.
Will. 
Not.
Move.

So what are you going to do now???

Oh … that??? My brothers are much weaker. They will loosen at your inane babbling about women who leave men on the street. But they will not crumble. Not one brick will fall!

Listen, my brothers, do not be affected by the words of this madman! He seeks to crush us, crush us all with his petty ramblings about lovelessness! Oh, boo-hoo! He can cry us a damn river, can’t he?

Wait!!! Why are you letting him get to you? Why are you dropping out of this firm, stable wall? We are not suppose to be moved!!! We have been here for years!!!

Together, my brothers, we must stand up against our divider:

I.
Will.
Not …

What the hell is wrong with you guys? Are you sissies or something? Why are you dropping … ???

Great! Just freakin’ great! A whole chunk of the wall, come undone. Thanks, guys. I really appreciate that.

And you, you with the typewriter, stay the hell out of this! Leave me to deal with my brothers alone!

See? We are a wall! We are kept together by our hatred of those with passions. Passion does not exist in Loveless. We …

All right! So crumble around me, why don’t you? Pathetic losers, leaving me alone at a time like this! Somehow I expected better of you guys.

I guess I’ll just have to pretend that new bricks surround me, stronger bricks that aren’t tainted by his poisonous words. I’ll pretend that you all aren’t falling away, that this actually isn’t happening.

This actually isn’t happening.
This. This.
Actually. Actually.
Isn’t. Isn’t.
Happening. Happening.
This actually isn’t happening.

Hmmmm. Give me a moment, so I can fill the gaps in.

This. This. This. This. This. This. This. This. This.
 Actually. Actually. Actually. Actually. Actually.
 Isn’t. Isn’t. Isn’t. Isn’t. Isn’t. Isn’t. Isn’t. Isn’t. Isn’t.
 Happening. Happening. Happening. Happening.

There! All filled in! Little bricks of thought! How could you think that you’d break me with your silly little words. You will not break me. How could you?

After all, I’m a wall.

***

I finished writing and looked up from the page. To my surprise, the wall had been completely obliterated. I saw one little brick floating in the air, quivering in one spot. It floated right in the middle of where the wall used to be. If the wall had had any sort of heart, this brick had to be it.

The rain had also stopped and the sun was now shining through the opening. It was the first and only time I ever saw the sun poke its head out of the clouds in Loveless. I savored the feeling on my skin briefly, then contemplated picking up the sheets of paper I’d accumulated. I looked at the brick once again, and it seemed to be humming as it hung in the air. I thought it sounded like the Josie and the Pussycats theme song.

I walked to where the wall had once stood and I took the brick. I picked it up, it throbbed between in my hand. It was agitated, and its humming increased as I put my hand around it. Ignoring the vibrations in my hand, I slinked away from the closet like a thief leaving the scene of the crime.

In that moment, everything came together for me. I know how to get out of Loveless.

I ignored my pages, my new baggage. That was the first step to leaving, I figured. I set it aside as a gift to Jose, and quickly left the closet by stepping over and around the rubble. Once I was in the clear, I started to run, expecting a siren would go off announcing my escape. Worse still, I expected to turn a street corner and run into a siren — namely Josie. I tried to convince myself that I would never be captured, nor captivated, by her again, especially after my last run-in with her.

I shouldn’t have been so worried or paranoid. I never saw her after that.

I ran by ashen-faced men, frozen in place and scattered about on the street, doing nothing but letting the sun beat down on their backs. Every last one of them stared at their feet as though they were lifeless wind-up toys whose spring had finally contracted. I felt like screaming at them. I felt like saying that they had to do something about their terrible predicament. They didn’t even have to be in Loveless if they didn’t want to. It all became clear to me in that instant when the wall came down, when I wrote my way out of Loveless.

Then I thought that screaming at them would only probably attract Josie. If they couldn’t think things through for themselves, then they were probably a lost cause. So I kept running.

It didn’t take me long to find a manhole to fall into. Actually, truth be told, it found me. It just slid up a street that I had been walking down and I simply waltzed toward it. I hovered over it, let myself be enveloped by it, and awoke to the oldest of clichés.

I was staring at the cracks running underneath the ceiling of my kitchen. I was still wearing my boxers and undershirt, but was now completely drenched in sweat. I felt the distinct impression that there was something heavy in my hand. I lifted it up and found the brick there. I got off the floor and stood up — feeling like I’d just had a long hangover. I walked lazily over to the kitchen sink, and, as I began moving, the brick took to the air as I walked. I stopped in astonishment, took my hand away and it dropped to the floor.

The brick shattered into tiny little pieces. For once in my life, something I held didn’t have to make contact with another object to fall apart or break. It came apart entirely by itself.

I keep its remnants in a jar in the bedroom. I keep it to remind me of my old self: something that was in pieces.

***

The book just came to me in the mail yesterday. It was delivered in a brown paper envelope with no return address. Figures. It was probably the only thing she didn’t really need. Still, there it is on my kitchen table. It’s quite the daunting sight. The cardboard cover is a bit water-damaged — I suspect she’d accidentally left it out in the rain or something — but it’s unmistakably POGO LEARNS ABOUT DEATH. I’m getting the shivers just looking at it.

I’ve made myself a coffee, minus milk or cream. I don’t like my food or drink too sweet anymore, and have really cut back on the fatty foods. It’s done a world of good for my weight, but absolutely nothing for my nerves. My hands are shaking here a little bit. I’m not sure if I want to go through with this and open the book cover, which lies on my brand new table from IKEA beside the signed divorce papers. There are trigger to buried memories within that book, stuff that — truth be told — I’d rather not have to think about right now. It’s something I guess I have to do, because, otherwise, Pogo will be nagging at the back of my head for weeks. An inanimate object tugging my brain’s coat sleeve, as it were, trying to get my attention.

I take my coffee over to the table and barely manage to avoid spilling it. My hands tremble that badly. I sit down in a new chair, and place my coffee mug on the table. I stare at the book. I take a slurp of coffee. I stare at the book. I glance at the wall. I stare at the book.

Then I stop thinking, and grab the damn thing. It’s in my hands, the little children’s picture book is in my hands. That’s all I allow myself to focus on. I can’t, or won’t, think of anything else from the fear or sadness or some unspeakable feeling that would prevent me from doing what I have to do.

I take a deep breath, and tune out the world around me.

I open the book.

Again I disappear.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.