Apartment 25A stepped back from Jake as he stepped up from the parking lot. The too-crisp edges of the cheap apartment door flexed as if laughing. Next to it, to Jake’s left, a darkened window avoided his gaze.
The rubber soles of Jake’s scuffed work boots felt for traction on the concrete curb. Jake wiped sweaty palms from his unwashed black corduroy coat down to his unwashed black corduroy pants. For a moment, he swayed and blinked at the porch-light. The weak yellow enhanced his dark features. Jake didn’t own a watch and the clock in the decrepit Cadillac he drove had stopped at forever o’clock. It was night. He was sure.
Standing there, staring at the light, Jake forgot his name.
“Jake, you alright, buddy?”
The question held an urgency. Jake ignored his ‘buddy’ Bill. The light and its play were more interesting than the disheveled young man. Jake wanted nothing from Bill. What he wanted was to know how the light made everything crisp. Everything it touched seemed to cut itself from the background and float.
The light created essential beings.
“And it is no brighter than a candle.”
“What was that Jake?”
There were questions no-one should answer.
Jake reached his hand out and twisted it. The skin went black except for a small sliver sliced around the edge. A corona for his hand eclipse. An outline of gold.
His hand became more than a tool at the end of his arm, it became life.
Some cultures had worshipped the images he created. They painted them on smooth cave walls or on rough canvas and revered them.
Jake smiled and showed un-brushed teeth his new god.
“It looks like torch-light . . . Cro Magnon . . . Neanderthal.”
“Okay Jake, let’s get you inside. Raquel said it was cool if we blazed through. She’s got some good dope but you have to be straight dude.” Bill ushered Jake to the door. “None of this weird ass bullshit.”
“You have to have a bull to have bullshit, ‘buddy’ and—” Reluctant to hide god, Jake lowered his hand. “—I don’t see any bulls grazing on the asphalt.”
“It’s a figure of speech.”
“It’s no David, buddy. If you are going to sculpt, strive for perfection . . . channel Michaelangelo . . . I won’t call you gay if you create the perfect set of balls out of the words if, and, or what.”
Jake nodded Bill into silence as they took the small step up from the walk to the stoop. The light over the door, the light that had opened up mysteries, lost its divinity. Light became light.
“Monet . . . Degas . . . dots and swirls. Photons painting impression on vacuum. Art. Electromagnetic paintbrushes washing gesso for our eyes only. Agitated rods and cones jumbling rays of light into images for mind to decipher. Electromagnetic to Electromagnetic. A pulse beating rhythm on biological sculptures formed of fractual blueprints.”
“Jake, I’m knocking now, please shut up and don’t say anything that will—no—just don’t say anything. You know how edgy Raquel can be when she’s spun out.”
Jake raised his hand, winked, and made the okay sign with thumb and forefinger. Yes, everything was okey-dokey.
“You’re not going to stay quiet are you?”
“The Magna Charta led to the Constitution led to the Bill of Rights which guarantees my freedom to speak.”
“Come on, Jake. Raquel ain’t going to let us in if you run on about fractions and magma cartons!”
“That’s fractuals and Magna Chartas . . . and . . . what type of person would discriminate based upon a person’s fascination with God’s blueprint for reality or the rules that govern the manifestations of that blueprint?” Jake cocked his head and raised his right eyebrow. “This experiment in government has sworn to protect the civil liberties of all its citizens—gay, female, black, purple, two-headed, four eyed, and curious . . . ”
Bill shook his head, frustrated.
“Why do you always have to be like this Jake!”
“You!? Always!?” Jake clucked his tongue. “Bill, ‘buddy’, use I-statements. And never say always. Nothing is ever always one way or always another. Life—morphs.”
“Stop it, Jake! Act normal for once!” Bill struggled to keep his voice to a stage whisper. “Fuck your I-statements and fuck your fractuals and fuck your Magna Carton!”
“Charta, it’s Charta, Bill.”
“Whatever!” Bill quieted and pleaded. “Look, just be normal, okay.”
“Normal, Bill . . . what’s normal, Bill? How normal is it running from one end of town to the other so high that light and shadow mix into a twisted penumbra? This waltz of ours is very far from normal, Bill.” Jake pointed at the bulge in Bill’s waistline. “How many Indians are you planning to kill with that peace maker cowboy?”
“I need it,” Bill said sheepishly. “For protection. But the gun ain’t the point, you being quiet is the point.”
“Okey-Dokey, Bill . . . my silence shall speak volumes.”
Bill glared at Jake and waited a moment to make sure his friend was going to stick to his word. Satisfied, he turned to the door and knocked.
Jake watched Bill’s fist move back and forth three times. Each arc of motion was accompanied by speed lines. Cartoonish. Comic. Rapping knuckles spurred shock waves in the thin particle board door. Jake thought of vellum and parchment stretched. He thought of drum skins beaten in savage rhythm. He thought of amoebae surfing the waves on the backs of paramecium.
He thought spiraling thoughts but kept his thoughts confined to his mouth. His tongue felt like Scylla. His thoughts were Charybdis. Both threatened the staid pace of social normalcy.
A smile touched Jake’s mouth. Social normalcy in a meth-driven masquerade.
The window next to the door framed wriggling movement. Drawn blinds that cut off space from space began a strange dance. One slat clicked open and closed in time bursts. Like a hollow eye, the opening revealed nothing of the blackness of the mind behind. Jake thought the window wanted to mate with him. The flashing spot of black reminded him of a bug looking to fuck.
“Who the fuck is it!”
“You know who it is!” Bill said. “Quit tweaking Raquel and open the door!”
“Bill? It sounds like you. Who’s that with you?”
“Jake, you know Jake, Raquel.” Bill put his finger to his lips and pre-shushed Jake. “Now—will you open the door? We’re tired of standing out here.”
“Yeah, that’s you Bill, always complaining.” Raquel fell silent for a moment. The night breathed. “I don’t think I know no Jake, Bill. I don’t want to open the door for someone I don’t think I know –you understand where I’m coming from . . . right, Bill?”
Bill sighed and lowered his head. Jake leaned in using his grin like a whip. When he spoke, his voice was whisper cold.
“Can I speak now, oh Prince of Pistoleros?”
“Prince of Pistoleros? You stole that one, Jake . . . I’m surprised. You took the easy way out.”
“There is nothing new under the sun. Plagiarism is the highest form of flattery. A good line is a terrible thing to waste. Everyone quotes movies. And besides—” Jake straightened and shrugged. “—I was being sarcastic. Do you know what sarcasm is, Bill?”
“Not really, and I don’t think I like it all that much.” Bill looked up. “You want to talk to her? Fine, talk to her. She’s so spun out right now I don’t think she knows who she is. You get her to open the door and I’ll shit pumpernickel.”
“That would be something to see. And adventure in all that is human.” Jake put his hand to the doorknob. “Unfortunately no-one will be able to see that amazing feat of evacuation. Little Sammy Sullivan broke the lock last week. He wanted to make sure he had a place to crash whenever his parents tossed him out of the house. I believe he was a cuckoo bird in his past life. I think he is working out the karma incurred from tossing so many chicks from the nest.” Jake opened the door. Trent Reznor’s wails greeted them. “Wasted nights and wasted lives.”
“Raquel didn’t open the door. You can’t hold me to the deal.” Bill suddenly looked desperate. “I don’t owe you nothing, Jake.”
“That is what I said . . . Bill . . . even though I want to see pumpernickel pushed piping from your colon, I can’t, in good faith, hold you to the deal. We have entered a world of technicalities and I have no wish to involve the courts.” Jake waved an arm to indicate the darkened interior of apartment 25. “And the only arbitrators available aren’t very reputable. Your asshole is safe . . . for now . . . let’s go inside.”
“Yeah, let’s go inside.” Bill eyed Jake suspiciously. “And I don’t owe you, right, Jake.”
“Right, Bill, now go inside.”
Before their eyes adjusted to the dim interior, the smell of deprivation hit them. The smell was the smell of pond water, of sweet tea left sealed too long then opened in the humid air beneath a magnolia tree, of a dumpster full of oranges, apples, potatoes, and banana peels soaked through by rain then heated by the summer sun. The musk of too many unwashed bodies sweating ammonia filled out the stench.
“A den, a den of lions infested with ring worm and scabies.” Jake stepped in and bumped a booted foot into the soft thigh of a male seated on the floor. Jake didn’t recognize him. The man lifted his head and stared through Jake.
“And I’m not Daniel,” the zombie said through rotted teeth. “The hand of God is not upon me. This is the valley. I am the shadow. All who pass through me cry out in despair.”
Jake made room for Bill to enter and counted one more zombie on the floor, Little Sammy Sullivan, and Raquel. All were lost.
“Little Sammy Sullivan, karma’s thrown you from the nest again.” Jake closed the door without turning his back to the room. “There’s no profit in a cuckoo life?”
Little Sammy Sullivan, seated on the couch, raised his head. In his lap was a gutted piece of electronic equipment. Palsied fingers sifted a spaghetti of confetti-colored wires without guidance from his conscious mind.
“Whatever you say, Jake.” He smiled. “I like it when you talk.”
“Yeah, speech is a rare gift. We seem to be the only mammals who use it to lie to each other.” Jake nodded at the mess of electronics. “That piece of equipment has lost its coherency. You’ve killed it. The machine is dead and nothing will rise from the corpse. It won’t provide life to anything else.”
“No mushrooms will grow. No carrion eaters will thrive,” the zombie at Jake’s feet whispered. “The hyenas will starve.”
Bill looked around and cringed.
“It smells like a dead asshole shit rotten grapefruit into a cesspool.” Bill looked at Raquel who still was at the window taking snapshots with a single slat of the blinds. “Don’t you ever clean this place up? That looks like the same sandwich from last week. It was maggoty then! Now it looks like it come back to life.”
“Yeah, that’s you Bill, always complaining.” Raquel fell silent for a moment. The night breathed. “I don’t think I know no Jake, Bill. I don’t want to open the door for someone I don’t think I know—you understand where I’m coming from right . . . Bill?”
“What the fuck?” Bill said. “We’re already inside, Raquel. You ain’t got to open the door for nobody. What’s going on in here?” Bill looked at the zombies. “What the hell has got you gone like this?”
“Bill, are you out there? I hear your voice but I can’t see you?” Raquel continued clicking the blinds open, closed. Click-clack. Click-clack. “Where are you Bill? Did Jake eat you? Bill? Billy Bill lil lil lil lil lil lil lil lil lil lil lil…”
“She’s crossed over—they all have.”
“What the fuck does that mean, Jake!” Bill snapped. “Just what the fuck does that mean! They crossed over! What are they, in some kind of spirit world?—”
“Across the Styx, pay your toll. Passed the mouths of Cerebus. Through the gates to kneel before Hades himself!” Zombie number one said. “Journey down journey down. No pomegranates for the new Persephone…take up the stone Sysiphus . . . knit a sweater Martha . . . there is no escape.”
“I don’t like you very much ghoul,” Jake said before sitting next to Little Sammy Sullivan on the couch. “You’re ensnared in melancholy. A poor hare trapped by an age far gone. Victorian wags were better at delving into depression.” Jake cocked his head. “You’re taking all the fun out of it.”
“Hey, Jake! Focus huh!”
“I’m sorry, Bill.” Jake pulled a pack of cigarettes and a cheap Bic lighter from his coat pocket and lit up. The flame became clarity in the darkness. Four heads slowly turned and focused on the flame. Unintelligibly they whispered amazement. Jake let the flame die. He inhaled deeply to let his eyes readjust to the darkness. The zombies stared at where fire had been.
“What’s wrong with them,” Bill whispered.
“I thought I already said . . . they’ve crossed over.”
“I thought I already said I don’t know what that means.”
“You forgot to add ‘the fuck’ between the words what and that.” Jake grinned. “I enjoy your creative use of explicatives, Bill. They’re the only reason I spend time with you. It’s an education.” Jake passed the cigarette to Little Sammy Sullivan who slowly, vacantly, took it and smoked. “Anyway, they have crossed over. Stepped into the spirit. Entered the dark realm beyond. Hand them snakes and they won’t be bitten. Let them drink cyanide and they won’t die. Pierce them and they won’t bleed. Think of all the good stuff, water to wine, light bursting from between the eyes, walking on water.”
“There are no Messiahs, or Prophets, here,” Zombie number two said.
Bill looked down at Jake. He was confused.
“They are gods?”
Jake laid his hand atop the head of zombie number one and tilted it back. Zombie number one’s eyes closed and his mouth fell open with a wet sound.
“They are the living dead damned to look into the beyond and carry part of the long night back with them. They are petty demons lost.” Jake sat forward and took his hand from the zombie’s head. “And we’re going with them.”
”I-I-I don’t want to cross over,” Bill said softly. “I don’t want to be no zombie. I don’t want to die.”
“They aren’t dead, Bill.”
On the coffee table in front of Jake two large lines of white powder were laid out on a small pane of window glass. The razor used to cut the lines and the straw used to snort them sat next to each other on the table. They were both powdered with meth. It clung as if alive. Jake leaned forward and snorted one line using the straw. He sat back, eyes watering, teeth clenched so hard the muscles of his jaw threatened to split his skin. Smiling, Jake offered the straw to Bill.
When Jake spoke, his voice was hoarse and powerful.
“Take my hand and rise above this world.”
“I am the dragon,” Zombie number one said.
“I am the beast,” Zombie number two said.
“I am the harlot,” Raquel said as she stripped off her clothes.
“I am the lamb,” Little Sammy Sullivan said.
Silence sat silently on the breasts of everyone in the room. They stared expectantly at Bill who stared at the straw. He ran a hand through greasy hair, bit his lip, closed his eyes and opened them again.
Jake broke the long silence.
“Your mouth is dry. Your stomach is full of eager excitement. That excitement is spreading into your groin. It is even touching your asshole. Your heart is beating rapidly in a chest so constricted your lungs are having trouble finding air. Your hands and feet are warm. Your body is reacting as if preparing for sex.” Jake wiggled the straw, tempting. “Penetrate yourself with this. Make love to the universe. Cum so hard you die and are reborn . . . Euphoria, Bill. Euphoria.”
“You are confronting the unknown.” Raquel was fully nude. She pushed her body against Bill’s. “You are confronting the unknown.”
“Yes, Bill, become. One more night without sleep and we will both see through the eyes of those gone before.” Jake let his voice fall to a whisper. “Or—are you afraid.”
Swiftly Bill snatched the straw from Jake.
“Fuck that! I ain’t afraid of nothing! Push over so I can sit down!” Bill shook Raquel off him. She tripped over the feet of zombie number two and hit the floor hard. “And get off me, bitch! Everyone knows you got herpes! It don’t matter how dead I get, I ain’t never sticking my dick in you!”
Jake smiled wider and moved. As Bill sat to work on his line, Jake leaned back and allowed himself to feel the meth start through his system. Static night closed in on Jake. A veil of brown flies fell over the room. The zombies brightened in the new sienna-tinged reality. He watched Raquel stand. She was a naked wraith, a marionette jerking through a Slipknot video. She was a Stanley Kubrick creation. Jake was reminded of an old film running with frames missing. Raquel bent down and pulled zombie number two up onto his feet. She waltzed him through one measure of Hurt before together they pirouetted into the back bedroom.
The door shut with a muted click. The rest of the room was silent. Soon the song ended. The only sound left was the refrigerator periodically cycling freon.
“Tick, tick, tick, goes the midnight clock,” Jake said to no-one.