The Long Black Clown Car

Though the major events of his life had occurred in Los Angeles and Manhattan the funeral was held in the small backwater where he’d spent the final years of his life painting and repainting the walls of his wife’s house different shades of green. No indications were left whether he’d found the desired shade. The choppy gradient between the final two shades suggested he hadn’t. His wife had, understandably, shown no interest in this project and had no light to shed on the subject. No one asked about it; there had been few visitors.

He’d been on the Ed Sullivan Show several times when he was much younger and not dead and Ed Sullivan was still on television. His estranged son showed up but none of the other mourners recognized him. They’d never met him. No one cried. The plain green casket was lowered into the ground with pulleys.

An anonymous admirer had sent a single rose. His widow held a banana and stood next to the grave and spoke.

“He…we all laughed a lot. And this banana…one of his bits, one of the ones he did on Ed Sullivan, it involved a banana. I’d do it but…uh…I couldn’t do it justice. You’d just have to see it. I have it on a tape somewhere.”

She dropped the banana in the hole. It landed next to the rose. A shovel was pushed into the pile of dirt next to the grave. We each took our turn shoveling dirt into the hole. The dirt concealed the long-stem rose, the banana, and finally the dead man.

Most of the mourners, friends of his wife and lifelong residents of the backwater, had shown up knowing he’d been on Ed Sullivan and little else, hoping to hear juicy tales of his show business exploits. However he had outlived whoever had known these tales. A small catered reception was held in the back of a sports bar after the burial.

“So…uh…how did he die?”

“His liver hardened.”

“That’s…terrible.”

“It solidified.”

“That’s…”

“Completely.”

“That’s…”

“Then he died.”

“That’s terrible.”

“It took about two years.”

There were more details about how his liver hardened. But the tray of pasta in cream sauce had been uncovered and the mourning had made us all very hungry.

The conversation after that mostly revolved around the quality of the cream sauce.

After we ate the widow read the note that accompanied the single rose to the people seated at her table.

“A wonderful companion, a shoulder in my times of need. I’ll never forget the wondrous times we had together; the way your body felt in my arms; the way my body felt wrapped in yours. I’ll see you on the other side.”

It was signed “Miss Bavaria.” No one at the funeral remembered a Miss Bavaria.

The widow guessed he’d arranged the delivery of the note and the rose himself before he died. As a practical joke.

“That’s the kinda guy he was,” she said. “Anything for a laugh.”

The Calling Card of Posterity, or: We’ve Tried Nothing (And We’re All Out of Ideas)

Night after night they sat in restless repose, watching beer commercial after beer commercial and car commercial after car commercial, not necessarily in that order, ten and thirty feet respectively from where a 24-pack of clearance-sale Budweiser resided in an ice box and from where a Cavalier resided in a carport, doors and skirts rusted out courtesy of design flaws and thirty years of being parked in that pointless structure. Some commercials beckoned them to rise while others intimidated them to remain in repose, or coaxed them deeper into their slouched reclination with sweet songs and elegant whispers. All the commercials served the same ends, of that they were certain, but in time they grew less certain and forgot entirely what the ends themselves were, only that all of the commercials were serving those ends. Then they became uncertain as to whether the ends were their allies or their enemies.

When they did rise, it was on command, at the beckoning of the television. The programming congealed into a continuous shrift of the intellect, but It was welcome, they’d said, We had the right to turn our brains off after a hard day of work, they’d said. There would sometimes be stirring programming snuck in-between the commercials: a noted athlete on a political tirade, or an allegory snuck past the censors in artful fiction, or a program that found humor in social discord, or a protest on the news. On rare occasions, the protest on the news would sometimes cease to be narrated and for but a moment, in the wild chorus of voices heard between the end of a news reader’s spiel and the first of the next commercials, some truth they knew to be incontrovertibly true would be heard and, just as quickly, washed away by a commercial for a 39-gem luxury watch, with all the finest movements and impeccable timing provided for by the large number of gems incorporated. They were not watchmakers and so did not understand why the gems made for such impeccable timing and movements, but the glints of light on them and the gold that housed them, the silver and gilded gears that surrounded them, made them salivate for water and their minds could not shake them of this association, even as they failed to comprehend it superficially.

Their most prominent source for the time, the display upon the cable box, glowed proudly with the hour.

The children, as expected, proved more responsible than the adults. Sometime toward twelve, after giggling their way through the Tonight monologue with hands clamped over their mouths, they would pull blankets over the unconscious adults up to their shoulders, and then slink quietly away to their beds. The adults would wake in the mornings, mouths dry with the pungent vapors of hops and ethanol, heads foggy with a night’s dreams of fantastic products inserted and infomercial scenarios throughout. Then, as expected, the children proved more wily than the adults, soon catching on to this trend and selectively turning to stations before they went to bed, ones which would be advertising items of interest to the children toward the morning and the more-remembered portion of the dreams in the adults’ slumber.

Though the adults disregarded any stray thoughts they had of obvious children’s toys, an affinity for the more technological of wonders permeated through, and soon the rusty Cavalier was outfitted with a GPS and a satellite radio, the Budweiser came to be housed in a refrigerator with a screen in the door that you could look up recipes on and order groceries through. Soon the cathode ray tube television that occupied the place in the family room that a throne occupies in a throne room came to be usurped by a smart t.v., the sort that records shows for you and goes on the internet and can use your cell phone as a remote control, slipped surreptitiously onto the wall with its scandalously-small footprint. With all of these changes the intellectual capital of the children rose, and in response to the customary cries of the adults of illiteracy with the new technology they would come and make the technology do what the adults could not make the technology do, and would increasingly chastise those of majority age for adopting the newest technologies and then still remaining the loyal base of media consistently informing them of their own powerlessness and lack of worth. They were convinced of their immobility even as the GPS in their car beckoned to take them on a three-state tour in the space of two hours.

The children came together in frequent meetings to discuss these developments, wondering with one another whether to smash all of the devices as they’d once considered doing with the television, or to continue attempting to usurp the influences upon their progenitors with positive ones. In the end, as the children became adults themselves, it was decided that the existing adults’ ignorant tendency to vote, validating fixed elections, would be permitted until the day the children had come to replace the fixed elections with true ones. They pushed the adults to exercise this civic tic through voting for American Idol contestants and new M&M colors, tried with futility to compel them to at least vote Democrat or third-party if they had to vote at all. When the children were still too young to seize upon the day for actions of their own, Election Day would be occupied by a ceremonial banging of their heads against one another. They began to understand and appreciate why the athletes did it, and soon ascribed a cultural warrior status to those who engaged in university sports for no immediate reward and at great risk to themselves. They were personally indifferent on the matter, but doing so pushed the adults from their fascination with gladiatorial athletics: the young had seized, had ruined it for them by injecting their politics into the adults’ sports. They had learned the trick when adults once dissuaded them from an interest in anime by pretending to think anime was cool too. With the television occupied all day Saturday and Sunday with college and professional sports, the adults found themselves uncertain what to do.

They took the three-state tour their car’s GPS had promised. They met people of the sort they never would have met before. They went on the internet and argued futilely and made friends with people who thought differently. They grew as individuals under the guide of their children and their own usurping technologies, the machinations that had pushed them down, from their careers and any belief in their own triumph, into their repose. The children finally went to them after this development, hoping their conversation to end with the return of the adults into the intelligentsia.

“Fathers and mothers, now have you found the source of your restlessness? Now have you found why your repose has been so uneasy all of this time?”

“We have. And we miss the targeted advertising. We hate shopping, but love buying. We miss the gladiatorial combat. We hate pain, but love seeing it inflicted. We miss social warfare. We love to be respected, but hate respecting others. We miss class warfare. We hate being poor, but love being richer than others. We wish we had never produced the lot of you, for we did not need to be awakened, or reminded of the forces which move against us. We knew these things once and we discarded them willingly, and had we known you would wrest us from our slumber we would have discarded your lot willingly as well.”

The children mulled this revelation over for a brief time, before deciding wordlessly, with glances amongst them, that the adults’ time was running out anyhow and as their successors knew now to shift from re-education to marginalization. Such it was that they came to sit the adults back before the televisions, disabling the “smart” functions that allowed them to convene with the outside world and urging them again to take in the algorithmically-manicured advertising as the t.v. had before beckoned them to do.

In the end, it was decided that the adults would be tolerated but disregarded.

The Meat Peddlers

We hadn’t slept. Something unspoken sat at a third place setting, chewing loudly. I walked back to the table. Kat grabbed the coffee from my hand.

“I’m a writer…and you…you might be a hipster. We’ll never make it in this place. We must elope-perhaps some Eastern Bloc country. We must resign ourselves to humble lives peddling meat on the sidewalks.”

I wasn’t sure whether “elope” was a slip or not. Kat treated it as such and the subject was never raised again.

The townspeople had taken to tarring and feathering suspected hipsters in the public square. This supplemented their usual regular Friday night mass burning of items elected officials deemed as having the hipster taint. A light jazz ensemble from a nearby college played in the gazebo. Local scout troupes had their meetings. It was very popular. The board was happy with the event turnout.

My coffee got cold. I had forgotten to drink it. I took one big gulp. “But what will I do with my three children?” Kat asked.

“The children can sell meat too. We can all be a happy meat selling family.

“It’s just too dangerous for us here. And there is, of course…the other issue.”

“Yes. My children are half-hipster.”

“Yes. They’ll come for them soon too.”

It had been 20 years since the event. A large parade enveloped the town. Paper mache floats crawled down the main drag, past the McDonald’s and the elementary school, past the DMV and the gas station. Large men waved mechanically from the sides of fire trucks. Police detailed the perimeter. This was the time to escape. But first there were things I needed to take care of. I needed to give over my half of the record store to my business partner.

I went in, unnoticed. I’d ironed my clothes. It was enough to throw the pursuers off my trail. I looked at the employees, filing vinyl in their flannels, wiping their big glasses. How much did they know of what was coming? They seemed blissfully unaware. So long as they had jobs, they were safe. For now. But the political climate was worsening.

I could’ve saved them. I could’ve saved more of them. I looked at the items in the store. The first pressing Canterbury prog LPs could’ve paid for several overseas passages. I could’ve saved them. Weeks ago. But there wasn’t time now. In the new world there would be time for such regrets. But there was no more time. Not now.

I composed the note to my business partner Peter, giving him my half of the store, a terse goodbye placed in the post script. We’d been close, but no one could know where I was going.

On the boat trip over we lost one of the children, little Morrissey, to scurvy. Kat was heartbroken.

And so we settled in a small country in what was the Eastern Bloc. It’s pretty obscure. You’ve probably never heard of it. We peddled our steamed meats in the public square, until a meat shortage forced us to peddle miniature meat pies with little actual meat.

The death of little Morrissey soured Kat’s disposition. I often would wake up in the middle of the night to hear her mumbling his name through nightmares, her hands tousling his absent pompadour. The other two children did what they could to cheer her. They tried, they really did. But their efforts were met with absent looks and pats on the back.

After a couple years, she gave up sleeping, or if she did sleep I wasn’t around to see it. She just cooked the little meat pies angrily throughout the night. When supplies ran out she’d put pots of water on the stove to watch it boil and hear it bubble. The other children came to accept this as normal. I took to wearing ear plugs to bed.

My advances were met similarly. We’d never clarified the state of our relationship to each other before our sudden voyage. It was my own fault. I assumed the decisive moment, the flurry of excitement and danger in our oceanic crossing would provide a spark. But it didn’t. Circumstances had brought us here, but no farther. I found myself friend-zoned by the enigmatic machinations of history, much like the dream of Soviet communism.

I hadn’t known little Morrissey well, though the other kids, Mogwai and lil Souxsie, came to accept my care taking with less reluctance over time. Someone had to watch over them and their mother.

The time came when meat prices rose beyond where even the pies were feasible. Kat’s furious baking had ceased. She still never slept, but now mostly just sat staring out the window of our little apartment saying little. The children enrolled in the local school, a one room hovel, while I sold black market cigarettes on the street corners. It continued like this for some time.

Years after, after the children had grown and gone away, news from the old country finally made it to ours. The feared hipster purge had never happened. Relations had eased considerably. The population had just elected their first hipster president. She was the same age little Morrissey would’ve been.

Kat grabbed my throat in the middle of the night, halfheartedly trying to kill me. I removed her hands my throat gently. She started crying.

“Why won’t you just let me kill you?

“I…uh…”

“I mean…it was all for nothing wasn’t it, wasn’t it? All of this. For nothing.”

“But all in all, we were happy, right? It was a hard life. Much meat went rotten. We stretched out meager ends. But it was worth it. We were humble. But happy.”

“I’ve lived your vulgarized dream of meat peddling too long. I was never happy, not for a second. I didn’t choose to be born a hipster. Did you ever know what I really wanted?”

“Umm…”

“I wanted a mid-range sports utility vehicle. I wanted a 401K. I wanted central air. I wanted to die in Florida. I wanted to have stupid arguments about where to eat. I wanted to ease out of active living into a canasta league. I wanted…we made a stupid bet on nothing. We abandoned our home. I lost my child. All so you could slum it peddling stupid meat products living out your Cold War fantasies.”

“But, all the public burnings…”

“You were just a coward. A real man would’ve stayed and fought. And apparently a lot of men did. I just…I look at you and feel visceral disgust. I see small stupid ambitions. And I have my own small stupid ambitions. And I could’ve gotten mine. But I’ve lived yours, and now we’re old, and there’s no time left. And it was all a waste. You could’ve sold meat out of a wagon back there. I never needed to be involved. You’re like one of those raccoons happy to steal others’ garbage, the little scraps of the spent bits of their lives under the protective cover of night. And all this time I’ve had no clue what to do. I should’ve killed you years ago. I should’ve gone back.”

“But how was I supposed to know?”

“I should’ve…”

She collapsed. I lifted her onto the bed. Her pulse was steady. I let her sleep for a while.

Don’t Molest Jake

We all decided, before there was any clear threat as such, that we’d rather Jake didn’t get molested. A petition was circulated under the title “We’d Rather Jake Wasn’t Molested” and it garnered several dozen signatures before it was taken to City Hall. The City Council included a statement regarding it attached to a bond issue. “After much thought and consideration, we have come to the unanimous decision that we’d rather not see Jake get molested” and it, along with the provisions for funds for bridge repairs, passed with a clear majority in the later county-wide vote. This was unusual because it was the first time the City Council had voted against Joe Bruno, who made a controversial public statement he had no position on the issue of Jake being molested.

We organized around the issue. When we weren’t working or at school we made signs with sharpie markers with rousing slogans like “Don’t Molest Jake” and “Dear Molesters, Jake is Gross, You Can Do Better” and held them in front of the Post Office. The weather was good that month and even after the unseen threat seemed to have passed we all still met there to hold signs and compare what we’d packed in our bag lunches.

Counter-protests emerged from the culture studies department of the nearby liberal arts college, who passed out small leaflets saying the main protest was being “molestation-normative” and that more effort should have been taken to reach out to Jake and see how he felt about being molested.

R. Kelly, when he was approached on the subject, said, suspiciously not in immediate agreement with the larger public sentiment that Jake ought not be molested, “Who the fuck is Jake??”

The local paper finally was able to do an exclusive interview with Jake. The article ran with a dramatic black and white cropped portrait of his face and the pull-quote “Yeah…I mean…yeah…I guess…I’d…it doesn’t sound fun. I don’t want to get molested.” The photograph was later circulated with the quote written over it on Facebook.

Some folks still remember fondly their days campaigning. “It gave us a cohesion. We haven’t felt that sense of community ever since. Who knows, maybe it would’ve been for the better good if Jake had gotten molested.”

Joe Bruno, to this day, has not commented on whether or not he approves in the abstract Jake’s speculative molestation. Although his later corruption scandals may have given him a false sense of security that he’d never have to confront the issue, there is still a public demand. We’re all confident someday the truth will come out.

The Library Books

image

I saw it again. There it was. I went to the margins with my mechanical pencil, set to scribble as was my wont. And in the margins already scrawled-the note I was going to leave.

I would’ve taken it as a happy coincidence, a signpost from a fellow traveler, and the first 16 times it happened I did. I had those silly teenage daydreams some beautiful mousy woman who sat somewhere else in the library was leaving coded messages and watching me, the desire in all of us to be loved, to be lusted after in a manner of reserve and sophistication…to have our personal paranoia vindicated, the full package, was somewhere if I could just crack the code (was it even a code?)-had I been able to annotate my daydreams it would’ve read “cliche…banal…”

But dreams are only tangible the way water snakes are, and my attempts to grasp, to encapsulate, to fashion the right scab so I could pick it, only made it more irritated.

The library was so quiet you could’ve heard crickets had there been any left.

Who else would be studying these esoteric topics? The library no longer had a card catalogue, so it was a slim chance that I could ask them and find the phantom commentator.

I looked around the library and saw only one other person, an elderly man looking over baby board books to check if they had dirty stuff before taking them home to his child. His children? He wasn’t the woman in the dream. I didn’t bother engaging.

If she could’ve followed my tracks, she must be my equal-no one else could’ve gone this far down the rabbit hole without some genuine interest. Maybe they could. Maybe they just did so out of a masochistic professionalism I couldn’t fathom. I barred this speculation. It flirted with the unknowable.

The little circles that dotted her “i”s…

But there could only be one. I’d worked too long and too hard on this. She…whatever it was couldn’t beat me to the finish line on this research. I needed to find her before she knew I was looking and end it all.

It’d be bittersweet with overtones. Like when spies kill each other in the movies.

I took the first step and, checking my peripheral vision, asked the desk clerk if I could get the name of whoever had checked out all these books. He pulled up the records. For most titles, I’d been the only person ever to take them out.

Was it the truth or a cover-up? A false flag?

Had I, this entire time, simultaneously wanted to fuck and kill my forgotten self?

Of course I had. I always had.

How had I forgotten?

Captured By Clowns

imageI was surrounded by clowns. They were sick of being second class citizens and entertaining your children. I’d been following them as a journalist.

But now I was under suspicion. They kept me captive in a supply closet. I was surrounded by face paints. I realized what they were trying to do-a psychological operation. They were trying to break me. They were trying to make me one of them.

For a few weeks I resisted. I’d scratch the days into the wall. I’d read the ingredients lists on the sugar packets they’d slip in with the coffee in the morning over and over to myself.

But resistance was futile. After a month I tried a bit of the face paint. A week later I learned to juggle.

I’m not sure anyone knows I’m here.

On the NSA

(This is a short story from my recently released spoken word album More Apocalypses That Probably Won’t Happen.)

They had found a way to democratize God. Video and audio and 3D drone scanners recorded everything and stored it in giant digital monoliths. You could have your life flash before your eyes without having to die. They sold tickets and built modest little rooms for stragglers and people needing to sleep.

The eternal recurrence was no longer an abstraction and actually became a popular activity among drunken college students and in fraternity hazing rituals. Some came out traumatized but no more than had with psychedelic drugs. Most found it very calming and looked at everything from a wider distance in the future.

Theological figures of all sorts flocked in droves to the machine despite their jealousy of it. Some mockingly compared the experience to absurd contraptions like the orgone box or 8 track tape deck but no one took these criticisms seriously. It was a new era, the thing to come and replace the internet entirely the way the internet had phased out physical media. It was a form of all consuming narcissism penitent enough to be acceptable and soon it would take over everything. People would walk into the machine multiple times consecutively to feel as though falling through an endlessly recursive series of paintings. Dope was legal by then and indulgences were frequently combined. Medic tents run by religious cults like the ones outside Grateful Dead concerts in years past now sat outside the machine with tea and cookies and orange juice. An amphitheater was built and over several summers they came to have a respectable free concert series. Reality seemed more and more to resemble Jones Beach; innumerable perfectly spaced garbage cans in the sand, the tide receding…

Alas we were the way we were and we are the way we are and the window was short and you can’t do that anymore. And now we all wonder what the next thing will be.


Guest post by Daniel Levine. Check out his first book here. He also just released a comedy album which you can hear selections from for free here.