Impression № 047: Les jours se suivent et se ressemblent

Another of Gaëtan Vanparijs’s slightly odd fantasies. Check out more of his art by going here.

* * * * *

A native of Brussels, Gaëtan Vanparijs is a young independent illustrator. He frequently exhibits and enters competitions to spread to share his universe. Through “l’étrange vie des autres” (“The strange life of Others”), he inserts a touch of the absurd into everyday life scenes, leaving each reader to his own interpretation. He has finished work on a book of illustrated Monsters’ Biographies,”Monstrueusement vôtre”. He is influenced by movies and the Belgian surrealism that surrounds him. More of his work can be seen at Flickr.

The Paradise of the Flesh

.
epito preferred to scrub his chopping-boards out
on the pavement. They dried quicker that way and the smell of bleach couldn’t overwhelm customers who were planning forthcoming meals. Pepito was very particular about the aesthetics of his profession, in which hygiene was as crucial a factor as origin of livestock or quality of merchandise. The display counter at Triana’s famous butcher’s shop was kept spotless. Chops, fillets, steaks and other cuts were neatly laid out in matching trays. Sausages of different varieties were tidily coiled and tubs of various types of lard, including bright orange manteca colorá dripping were regularly smoothed over with a spatula. Salted bones of varying size and shape adorned the shelves. Legs of cured ham, hoof intact, swung at eye level from the hooks overhead. Abundant plastic foliage and miniature flags decorated the tantalising array of goods that gave the Paraíso de la Carne, or the Paradise of the Flesh, its renown as the meat-eater’s Mecca.

At the Paradise of the Flesh, nothing was left to chance where stock was concerned. Only the very best chickens from Morón de la Frontera were allowed in the door. Five-star rated Jamón Serrano arrived by express courier from the Portuguese border town of Jabugo each Monday. Every type of organ and entrails, freshly excised from diverse carcasses, was readily available. The range even extended to rabbit, quail, partridge, chicken blood and bull’s tail. Customers from other neighbourhoods made veritable pilgrimages to Triana, to acquire superior victuals from the Paradise of the Flesh. Even the gypsies came in regularly, though they normally avoided payo, or non-gypsy establishments. However, even they agreed that this one was immaculate. Besides this, they believed that when it came to the pig, even its ‘oink’ was edible. Pepito’s gift for public relations and friendly banter were unparalleled in the area, so the majority of customers preferred to be served by him, rather than by the proprietor Lorenzo or his wife Nieves. Pepito was a paragon of patience with the choosiest of clients, encouraging them to be adventurous with offal or creative with giblets when they weren’t feeling inspired by the prospect of lunch.

By midday, the streets in the vicinity of the Paradise of the Flesh were always fragrant with the dense aromas of simmering pots. Base notes of mint and bay-leaf, saffron and paprika, nutmeg and cumin wafted in the air, carrying subliminal messages of enticement. Those who didn’t eat lunch at home ate at bars serving home-cooked food, but a bowl of something spoon-able always constituted the first course. From a sociological point of view, the ability to produce a milky white puchero broth with chickpeas and pork-fat, or a sufficiently hearty lentil hot-pot with spicy morcilla sausage had come to represent a sense of self-worth for housewives in Triana. Men boasted of their mothers’ and wives’ skills in the kitchen, taunting each other with detailed reviews of recent dishes, though at home they might only proffer grunts of approval.

It was just after Easter and people were back off the meat wagon now that Lent had passed. Consequently, the shop was full all day. Seasonal changes, such as the advent of Spring, appeared to produce certain maladies in Triana, mostly to do with the nervous system. The dangers of the East wind and the benefits of not removing vests before May were also frequently discussed in the shop during that time of the year. Yet, to everyone’s surprise, Pepito had been obliged to take sick-leave for the first time in over twenty years. His unprecedented absence caused a furore in the neighbourhood and provoked constant, hushed musings about the state of his health. Patrons of the Paradise of the Flesh were unashamedly curious as to the motive of Pepito’s malaise, speculating on numerous possible afflictions including tapeworm and kidney stones.

But the general consensus was that Pepito had suffered some sort of anxiety attack during the televised bullfight. This theory was stranger still, since Pepito was certainly accustomed to blood and guts. Lorenzo himself was a great follower of the corrida and had installed a TV in the upper corner of the store so that he and Pepito could keep one eye on the box, while they chatted to the regulars. Fanfares and shouts of “¡Olé!” rang out over the bustle in the Paradise of the Flesh all throughout the bullfighting season. Nieves didn’t rate the bullfight though, since the barbaric finale made her queasy, or so she said. However, she willingly sold the bull meat – the prized carnage the corrida produced – to those who could afford the costly delicacy.

The day Pepito was sent home to his mother’s in a cathartic stupor, the Paradise of the Flesh and its customers had witnessed a dramatic scene unfold at the Maestranza bullring. The revered Jesulín de Triana was headlining that year’s programme at the arena, in a tobacco and gold ‘suit of lights’ A sudden clamour, followed by momentary lapses in the running commentary, preceded close-ups of the matador, lying limp on the arena, covered in blood. The bull had driven a horn though his lower abdomen and his suit was being cut away from his body by paramedics, while everyone watched in horror. A cogida, or goring, was a rare occurrence at the bullfight, but it happened, occasionally, that the beast triumphed over the man. A misjudged movement of the cape could be fatal, especially if the mounted picadores hadn’t weakened the animal sufficiently with their lances beforehand.

Pepito had been completely, but covertly infatuated with Jesulín de Triana since the young matador had begun his career at Las Ventas in Madrid, several seasons ago. He had never met his idol in person. He could only adore him from afar; on television, in magazines and maybe once or twice from the back row of the Sol section of the Maestranza bullring, when a wealthy customer had given him tickets. Pepito worshipped Jesulín, who was said to be singularly gifted with extraordinary talent and style. Of pure gypsy descent, Jesulín’s lineage had conferred an even deeper passion for his chosen métier of matador, the grandest and most quintessentially Iberian male figure. According to the experts, gypsies had an innate understanding of the bovine mindset and could communicate with the species using mysterious bull-whispering techniques. But although Jesulín de Triana had risen to stardom practically overnight, as the dusky young darling of the corrida, his future was now uncertain.

For days afterwards, afternoon chat-shows achieved record audiences by repeating the goriest of the clips and offering early tributes to Jesulín’s aborted career. Reporters were sent to hound his family at the clinic, though visitors refused to comment on the calamity. Meanwhile, Pepito lay enduring his own convalescence, morose and tearful, on his mother’s settee, unable to contemplate normal life. His mother tried in vain to cheer him up with dishes of puchero broth and had the priest round to give a pep-talk. The G.P. diagnosed exhaustion, but the medication he prescribed only induced a semi-comatose state. Lorenzo and Nieves visited, but could not communicate with the uncharacteristically apathetic and anguished Pepito. As a last resort, Palmira from the bakery brought round her statue of the Virgen de la Esperanza, which was placed atop the television set to offer succour, but to no avail.

Though no one suspected it, Pepito was suffering from a ‘mal de amores’, a lovesickness which stems from long-term suppression of emotion. Not a soul knew of his true feelings for the young Jesulín de Triana, for he practiced restraint at all times, carrying the burden of his love deep in his consciousness. It ate away at his sanity like a self-inflicted, insidious torture which would never produce a confession. He had no particular desire to mingle with the élite of the bullfighting sphere, nor even to become part of Jesulín’s faithful entourage. He was content – given the impossibility of any form of union – to succumb to martyrdom of the soul and to silence the roar of his ardour in the face of gossip or ridicule.

Nearly two months had passed, and mornings were increasingly fraught and chaotic at the Paradise of the Flesh. By mid morning, Lorenzo had become short-tempered with indecisive customers. Nieves kept short-changing them in the frantic rush to serve everyone in time to get their pots on. Stock was running short too, now that Pepito wasn’t checking deliveries or carrying out his weekly freezer inventory. Pepito’s ongoing absence already threatened to jeopardise turnover. No suitable substitute materialised, in spite of Lorenzo’s continued endeavours to find an experienced stand-in.

Nieves had a Mass said and brought flowers to the Blessed Souls shrine, in the hope of divine intervention. When that didn’t work, she called on La Sabia, a local fortune-teller, who invoked healing powers from the beyond with the help of yellow candles and cloves of garlic. In desperation, Nieves was forced to telephone her sister in law, who operated the switchboard at the John of God mental hospital, though they had not spoken for years on account of an inheritance feud. They spoke between incoming calls, for over an hour. There was mutual reproach then repentance on the part of each, but Nieves managed to obtain details of a specialist who had supposedly cured numerous personality disorders. The man in question was an eminent authority who, by coincidence, was especially partial to fine Jamón Serrano.

Lorenzo accompanied Pepito to the psychiatrist’s practice as soon as a late afternoon appointment could be arranged. Pepito was reluctant to see anyone about his complaint, let alone a shrink. It took great diplomacy and insistence to coax him out of his hideout at home. His mother helped him dress and he shuffled out to the car, praying none of the neighbours would see him. Once they arrived, Pepito took the leg of ham out of the car, insisting that Lorenzo return to the shop. He had not forgotten that Fridays were especially hectic. The waiting room was empty, mercifully, so Pepito sat down to leaf through the gossip magazines while the previous case was dealt with. Before long, another patient was shown in and took a seat opposite. Pepito noticed he had a limp and wore sunglasses. As was customary, the newcomer greeted the earlier arrival with a whispered “buenas tardes”. Both squirmed inwardly at the ensuing discomfort of and embarrassing silence between two head cases awaiting deliverance from an all-knowing luminary.

Over the top of his magazine, Pepito glanced at the young fellow, wondering what kind of madness or obsession he might be suffering from. He didn’t look like a psychopath or a drug addict, in fact, the face was familiar. Holy Mother of God! Pepito felt his blood run cold and his palms become clammy, upon realising that it was none other than his beloved Jesulín, here in the flesh, in person, in the psychiatrist’s waiting-room incarnate. He hid himself behind the open pages, trying to order his thoughts, in spite of a sudden tachycardia that made him feel faint. There was no telling how long the awkward situation would have to be endured. At any time, the doctor might emerge from his den and usher Pepito in. He was in no fit state to even speak to the psychiatrist, let alone discuss his symptoms. Pepito had begun to consider making a run for it when Jesulín broke the weighty silence by asking Pepito if he had been waiting long. Hearing Jesulín’s husky voice for the first time, Pepito immediately felt as if he had been set free. His heartbeat steadied as the cloud of gloom he had been carrying inside his head miraculously dispersed.

Social interaction was second nature to anyone from Triana, hence two trianeros in one room, by default and despite being strangers, would automatically instigate a mutual interrogation about each other’s life and times. The ensuing dialogue gathered momentum and became a full blown heart to heart confabulation, as Pepito began to revert to his former jovial self. They chatted about their respective ailments, the bullfight, the cattle rearing trade, the meat industry, the dreaded arrival of Spring and of course, the cogida. As a result of that gruesome moment, Jesulín had completely lost his nerve, and not, as his family feared, his mind. Courage had simply abandoned him, as he lay prostrate in the clinic, and he could no longer consider returning to the ring. His Apoderado manager had insisted he see a ‘nerve’ doctor before he officially announced his retirement to the afición and the media. Although his wounds had healed fairly quickly, thanks to the expertise of the payo surgeons, Jesulín had no intention of baring the secrets of the gypsy soul to another payo who charged hefty rates for prescribing mind-bending medicine. Nevertheless, he had been pressurised into acceding to his Apoderado’s plea and had at least turned up for the appointment.

Pepito was devastated at Jesulín’s confession. His heart constricted at the tragedy of such a renunciation. The loss of this talented prodigy would be a serious blow for many. The shame of Jesulín’s cowardice would be borne by him for life. Other matadores would be asked to comment in the press and the whole issue could have potentially disastrous effects. Pepito knew a great deal about gypsy protocol, superstitions and general outlook on life. He was aware that dishonour to the bullfighting profession would signify financial and social ruin for Jesulín and his clan. But the specialist, Pepito agreed, would be unlikely to induce an about-turn in Jesulín’s current state of mind. Something far more miraculous was needed. That instant, he decided to take control of the situation and go out on a limb. Gypsies specialised in emotional blackmail and stopped at nothing to elicit sympathy from others. Pepito took action, intending to use a similar method.

As the conversation veered towards Pepito’s expectations of the “nerve” doctor, he feigned an impromptu, hysterical crying fit and admitted, head bowed, that he intended to commit suicide. There were plenty of sharp knives at the Paradise of the Flesh with which to do the job. The payo psychiatrist, wailed Pepito, would not be able to convince him that there were other solutions to his despondence, since he himself had no idea why such thoughts tormented him. Jesulín looked horrified and started to bless himself repeatedly and kiss the gold crucifix he wore round his neck. He got up to touch the wooden door-frame in panic. The concept of suicide was completely alien to Jesulín’s culture. Even allusion to it signified ill luck. After his own brush with death and subsequent survival, for a thoroughbred gypsy, it was inconceivable that someone should voluntarily bleed to death. Pepito dabbed his eyes with his handkerchief, certain that the reaction he had intended to provoke could save both of them.

Trembling, Jesulín sat down beside Pepito and took his hand. In the anonymous, neutral, soundless enclosure of the psychiatrist’s waiting-room he proposed a pact. His offer of an agreement between two tormented men of different race, one having given in to his fears and the other about to demonstrate limitless bravery, was the ultimate act of union between strangers. He swore on the life of his mother, and that of several other relatives, that he would return to the ring and fight again, if Pepito committed to staying alive. He pleaded with Pepito, looking into his eyes, urging him to take the vow. Pepito was so overwhelmed by his proximity to his idol and the intense poignancy of the moment, that he could only blubber his assent. They embraced and patted each other’s back and with that, the receptionist came bustling in to the waiting room, to announce that the doctor had been called away urgently to give evidence at court. An infamous arsonist was to be tried and the ‘nerve’ doctor was required to report on the treatment his ex-patient had undergone. Leaving the leg of ham on a vacant chair, Pepito and Jesulín marched out triumphantly, arm in arm. Jesulín wished all kinds of evil on the ‘nerve’ doctor, enunciating a series of gypsy curses. Pepito remarked that the building would be burnt to the ground as soon as the fire fiend had served his term and come back for revenge.

It was still daylight when they parted, in front of the statue of Juan Belmonte at Triana Bridge. Jesulín approached the statue and kissed his fingers after touching it. Belmonte, also a gypsy, had not only suffered a near-fatal cogida in Murcia in 1914 but had shot himself at the age of seventy, tired of a life spent tempting fate. The serendipitous encounter between the butcher and the matador ended with no further exchange or hint of continuity. They shook hands, as Jesulín hailed a taxi and Pepito started to walk towards Calle Trabajo. He arrived at the Paradise of the Flesh, unlocked the door and stepped inside eagerly. He took his folding table out on the pavement and went back in for his chopping boards. Then he went to the sink to fill his bucket and started to whistle a pasodoble as he picked up his bottle of bleach. Back outside, he savoured the scent of orange blossom from the trees for a moment, before he set to work.

Jesulín’s come-back, at the Goyesca fair in Ronda that September was spectacular. The event made headlines in all the media. Lorenzo poured free plastic sherry-glasses of fino for his customers, while they took in the televised corrida at the counter of the Paradise of the Flesh. The triumphant Jesulín was carried out of the bullring, this time, on the shoulders of his fans. The camera captured his handsome face as he kissed his crucifix. Pepito knew instinctively, that the severed bull’s ear Jesulín waved at the camera in salute to viewers, was the matador’s anonymous, yet very personal gesture of gratitude to him, for taking the bull by the horns.

* * * * *

Debora Garber was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1962. She is the daughter of the Jazz pianist Ian Henry and has lived in Spain since 1977. Her musical background and lifelong interest in ethnic music gave rise to a penchant for flamenco. She has written extensively on the subject of flamenco for publications, record labels and cultural bodies worldwide, becoming involved professionally from 1989 onwards. At present, she produces and tours work by top artists. 

Currently compiling a collection of short stories in English and Spanish, under the working title of “Triana: A state of mind”, the series is based on memoir, anecdotes and the unique mindset of the inhabitants of this neighbourhood of Seville. The Dublin Library Service included her story “The Clappers” in its Anthology, The Workshop. In 2008 she won the In the Write Light Award and recently took 2nd prize in the IV Certamen Literario Emasesa.

This is her first contribution to Snake-Oil Cure.

Flood Me Completely

.

rought you ashore to show you the places I adore.  Fish
slapping their poor bellies on
rock hard sand;  footprints where
the bears went.

The sky nearly hidden in the trees and mountains,
the hills and the slopes amaze my prairie- trained
eyes.  Isn’t it magnificent – all this for you and I?

Gazebos galore, hot tubs in every backyard;  Buddha
sits in the farmer’s market – providing the ancient
assurance of more.

These limited senses can’t cope with all this power
a forever burning fire, take me with you to the
center of this life giving pyre.

* * * * *

Gisele Vincent-Page lives in Canada and is the author of Strolling Down Heaven’s Gate, a compilation of prose and poetry relating to her 28 years of living with HIV. She has received the Poet of the Week  award on two occasions on Super Poetry Highway. Her poems have been published in Mused; Bella online; Poetry Soup; all things girl, Fanstory; allpoetry.com; Author’s Den; received the Poet of the Month award from The Writing Forum.  The Body HIV/AIDs Newsletter has also published one of her poems. She has written blogs for the websiteA Girl Like Me (AGLM).

Her previous contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Exposure № 076: Priests, Boxers & Shoeshines

Photographer Matteo Allegro brings us priests, boxers, and shoeshines.

 

“The Young Bootblack”:
This young boy was working as a shoeshine for the customers of a local restaurant in Phnom Penh. Cambodia.
“Training Ground”:
A young athlete is training at A.S.D. Bulldog’s Gym, Milano. With a 70’s Style Black & White treatment, I’d like to remind people of Muhammad Ali’s photos from that era.
“A strange encounter”:
A Cambodian priest looking after the entrance of an ancient temple in the Angkor Archelogical site. Cambodia.

* * * * *

Matteo Allegro is an Italian photgrapher who began taking photos simply for enjoyment before discovering a real fever for photography when in Tokyo whilst shooting with a compact camera. His passion has evolved in the course of his travels around the world, from his first  love for landscapes to a fervor and sensitivity for portraits. His other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Dr. Hurley’s Digest: Vol. II, Week 6

More this week in our First Ever Short Story Contest, plus fiction from editor DLR, poetry from a new contributor, and more photography from award-winning 15-year-old photographer Eleanor Leonne Bennett.

Short Story Contest

Poetry

Photography

Fiction

 

More fiction coming up this week in our contest, and other goodies for you to read and feast your eyes on!

None to Shoot With

This story is part of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure’s First Ever Short Story Contest.

.

o here I am with this strange creature, in this cave, and what can I do, shrug her off? She helped me out against a Dog. The Dogs are still functional, but lost and confused. No, make that: they’re functional, but short-circuited and for those of us who have stayed behind, it becomes our main occupation, it seems, to trick them or to disable them somehow. Well, our main occupation apart from organizing food and sometimes a place to sleep if you’re physically inclined to do that, but there are not many of us left around these parts now. I guess many made it into shelters. Most probably died. The Dogs take care of those. But this – woman? – she hasn’t talked much, but I assume she also has a reason for staying.

*

I was dodging Dogs. I was in a store with no roof, between the aisles, and the Dog was hovering just above the shelves, which were mostly raided or smashed up. I could see the Dog’s little red drone eye zoom in and out of focus. The warm parts of me would register with it. I hid in the freezers, which were beginning to thaw but were still cold enough to hide me from at least its temperature sensors. The Dog descended and landed with that sucking sound, right in front of the freezer I stood in. It scanned me. It reached out its tentacle and opened the door when this woman took the the thing out with a clean shot. She was on it in a split second, and I could see her yank out its main board.

She opened the freezer door and pointed her gun at me. She was dressed in some sort of armor suit. All I could see were her eyes.

“Weapons?” she asked.

“None to shoot with,” I replied which was sort of the truth.

“Human?” she asked.

50-50 chance.

“Yes.”

She let go of the door and put her gun away. Right answer.

“I know where we can go. If you’re looking for a place. It’ll be dark before you know it,” she said.

 *

Now we’re in the opening of this cave and are safe for the moment. It’s becoming ridiculous to leave full gear on.  She’s built a fire and put a can of beans in it to warm it up. She has all kinds of stuff in her backpack. Weapons. I didn’t manage to snatch anything when the attack sirens went off days ago. I’m unarmed. She has tasers. She has things that can disrupt circuits. She can disrupt circuits. I saw her do it to the Dog. She reached her hand right in the cracks in its titanium shell and tore out the processor. Better not take chances. I doubt there’s anyone around who could fix me. I doubt there’s anyone around.

*

“What were you doing in the supermarket?” she asks and takes the can of beans out of the fire.

“Hiding from the Dog,” I reply. She has taken her helmet off. She has short fluffy blond hair. It’s hard to look at her face. Unenhanced eyes are kind of gross. Like squishy balls. Hers are especially large. Not that I’ve seen that many this close. “I was looking for some food when I heard it.”

“What are you still doing here?” she asks. I can see the gun sticking out of her waistband.

“I was looking for someone.”

She stares at me for a moment.

“Food?” she asks me, offering some.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “My name’s Ez.”

Maybe if she knows my name it won’t be as easy for her to kill me because I lied.

“Laurie,” she says. “Well? Food? I have enough for now. You can have some.”

I’m starving.

“I would love some,” I say.

“Well, here it is!” She’s getting impatient.

I take a breath in. I reach back and slowly undo the latch in the nape of my neck.

“Air’s ok to breathe!” she mocks me and demonstrates by taking a deep breath in and out.

“Thanks for helping me out earlier,” I say.

Maybe if she knows my name and I thank her she won’t kill me.

“You’re welcome. Like, we’re the only people here. There’s even enough food. So, why wouldn’t I, right?”

“I’m unarmed,” I repeat “And I’m sorry I lied to you earlier.”

I pull the helmet from my head. She stops breathing. That’s her reaction. Then she lets out a sharp puff of air, looks away, but still holds out the can of beans into my direction.

“I guess the rules are not in effect here anyway,” she mumbles. And doesn’t shoot me.

“Who were you looking for?” she asks me, sitting down on the sandy ground, still staring ahead.

“Someone I am supposed to look after,” I reply. Way too long a story. “What were you doing?” I try to ask very carefully, but apart from her refusal to look into my direction, she seems to have digested it well. She doesn’t appear to have a hard time overlooking the former rules and the former differences, that are – she is right – not in effect right now, with nobody there to enforce them. At least the two of us, despite all differences, are dependent on the same things: air, water, food, sleep, not catching infections.

She reaches into her backpack and lifts out a handful of micro chips, then drops them back in.  “I was making a living.” She still stares ahead. “These sell well.”

“You’re a raider…” I thought they were a rumor.

“I have guns,” she says, neutrally, not threatening at all. “I know how you work. I know which connections to sever. If you, in any way, become a threat to me, I’ll dismantle you and sell your parts and leave your poor pink human guts to rot in the poisonous sun.”

I get a surge of sadness. It’s a deep feeling. One that originates somewhere in my poor pink human guts and grasps my heart.

“I won’t tell on you. I wouldn’t know who to tell,” I say.

“Sit down already! You’re driving me crazy standing there!”

I guess she does watch me from her peripheral vision, if she has that. Maybe it’s as hard for her to look at me as it is for me to look at her. Odd that it should go both ways.

I sit down about three feet away from her. She winces.

“You have friends?” she asks, suspiciously.

“Yes! Yes, of course.”

“I didn’t know that about you.”

If I told her now that the person I stayed behind for was a human, that’d push her over the edge. It’s too confusing even for me. Those feelings. So I don’t say anything. I start eating the beans. I really have been starving.

“Thanks for the food,” I say to her.

“You’re welcome.”

*

It’s mostly dark. The fire makes a quaint glow. It’s warm. It’s a good place to spend the night. It were, if I weren’t about to spend it with a human. She’s been going through the things in her backpack. Laying them out in front of her, arranging them, turning them. Sometimes she mumbled something or let out a little laugh, finally packed everything up, meticulously.

She has not dared to look at me again. I have lain down in the sand.

We won’t sleep. We don’t trust each other.

*

“Hey Ez ” she says, after shuffling about a little.

“Yes?”

“What kind are you?” she asks and sounds so shy inside her armor suit, with the guns all over the place.

“That’s a really personal question,” I reply.

“Really? Why?” she asks on.

“Hey Laurie, how did your parents die?” I ask back, to demonstrate the personal nature of the question she asked me. She’s fast for a human. She throws a handful of sand into my face. It gets into my eyes. I release them and try to clean them.

“Holy crap! Put them back!” she screeches. I’m absolutely unprepared for that reaction. She scares me a little bit.

“I’m sorry, but you made them sandy,” I explain to her. “Hand me that canteen?” She kicks it into my general direction, with her back to me. I pour a splash on my eyes, one by one, then put them back.

“It’s ok. They’re in again,” I say quietly. Humans are more outrageous than I thought. Or maybe just she is. There is absolute silence for about an hour.

*

“Hey Ez,” she says, “my parents died in a bombing. I was cut out of my dead mother’s belly. By a human. Humans trawl the wards after bombings to do just that, to get their numbers up. There you go. Shit happens.”

“Don’t throw sand now,” I say quietly. “Were your parents Enhanced?”

She tosses a handful of sand into my direction, but it’s a joke. She has a cute sense of humor.

“Yes,” she says between clenched teeth.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

“It’s ok. I’m not into the pro human movement, you know. People know it was bad luck that I am one. But I get along.”

It’s my turn now.

“I’m an EAL,” I tell her. “Eyes, arms, legs.”

“I know what an EAL is!” she hisses. “One of your feet could keep me alive for a month!”

I’m not brain enhanced, but my reaction time has been trained well. My reaction takes me into standing position and out of the cave onto the little plateau, overlooking the cremated remains of the bombed out Area below. I pump air into my lungs. I can’t stay here with that crazy, bitter human.

*

“Hey Ez,” she says, suddenly right next to me on the edge of the plateau. She’s moved so quietly. Maybe I envy her that. “Don’t worry. I have enough to sell for this time around. I won’t disconnect your feet.”

I lean against the rock and try to calm my breathing.

“Are you crying?” she asks. Suddenly, she is right in front of me, looking at me full on, with her big unenhanced eyes. Curiosity must have beaten her disgust. “Sucks to be emotional, huh? Sometimes wish you were an ESH instead of an EAL?” Emotions, senses, heart. Yes.

“I’m thankful for what I am. Emotions are important to what I do. Used to do.”

“What do you do?”

“I was a Racer. If you don’t emote joy, disappointment, or pain, you don’t sell well.”

“I used to like watching the races. So I guess you’re unemployed now,” she says slowly. “You must be a fine piece of machinery.”

She did it again. Little stabs.

“I am not,” I explain to her as patiently as I can, “a piece of machinery. Like you’re not a lump of meat.”

“Whatever,” she says, and walks back into the cave. She sits down with her back to the wall and puts another dry twig into the fire.

I join her and sit down opposite her, my back to the other cave wall.

“You’re kind of disgusting,” she says, and stares at me.

“I’m sorry,” I say, and cover my eyes.

“Not you as a machine. You as this emotional, sensitive being with all those disgusting condescending pretend-ethics. I’m not a lump of meat to you? Are you kidding me? I am nothing more than that to you and the only thing that makes you not see me as your absolute subordinate is the fact that I have guns and access to black markets that would gladly take a part of you.”

“You know nothing about me. Or us, if you insist on generalizing.”

*

I don’t know where to go, but any place seems better than this cave. So I get up again and decide to go find another sleeping place, although this has been cozy and safe – except for maybe the human.

“Laurie, thanks for the food. I’d better go.”

“And where are you gonna go?”

“Elsewhere. You’re scary.” I walk out of the cave and down the rocky path that leads up to the plateau from the scorched Area.

“What if a Dog spots you? What are you gonna do then?” she shouts after me. “Run?”

She turns into a little spot of light bobbing down the hill after me. Poor thing. Can’t see in the dark.

“At least take a gun!” she shouts, and tries to pull one out of her bag with the hand that’s not holding the flashlight. She takes a gun by the barrel and holds it out to me. She is so confusing.

“Aren’t you scared, giving me that?” I ask.

She laughs.

“Of you? There’s no way you could ever pull that thing’s trigger on me. You started crying when I talked about your black market value. You’re raiding a Dog-infested Area for food. You have no equipment other than your Suit on you. You’ve lost someone you were supposed to look after. You’re so not ready for this.”

“I never knew her!” I say back, but it comes out like a cough, something I couldn’t have suppressed.

I don’t move. Neither does she. She holds out the gun halfway between us.

“This is heavy,” she points out after a few seconds.

So I take the gun. Its weight seems to pull me down.

She sighs.

Then my heart stutters, because she takes my hand. She has reached out and is now touching my hand. The left one that’s not holding the gun. Her hand is touching mine. There’s nothing between our hands. I get hot, then very fast very cold. I get dizzy. My optical units produce little sparks in front of my eyes.

“Come on, I’ll show you how to shoot it,” she says and pulls me back up the rocky path by my hand.

*

I’m not meant to touch an unenhanced hand. It’s revolting, but it’s unlike anything I’ve ever felt before and when we’re back at the entrance to our cave, I couldn’t possibly learn how to shoot a gun. I need to just sit down and breathe.

“Guess I’ve found your weak spot, O mighty machine!” she mocks. “Want me to poke you some more?”

“No, please, no.”

I feel sick.

“Poke!” she says, but doesn’t actually touch me, although just that word has made me jump.

“Why can you touch me just like that and I’m like this?”

She squats on her haunches next to me. She looks at me and there’s something on her forehead, between her eyebrows. Something her skin does. Like little creases.

“Do your kind need sleep?” she asks and there’s something in her voice that reminds me of childhood.

“Yes,” I say.

“How often?”

“Every few days.”

“Do you need sleep right now?”

“Yes.”

“Is that why you’re behaving funny?”

“I don’t know.”

“I can tell you why I can touch you and then you can sleep and I’ll watch out for you.”

There are a few stars out now. It’s cool out here.

“I have raided EALs before. Dead ones. You’re the easiest and fastest to dismantle. You feel a little different when you’re alive, though.”

I am very tired. I can’t take anymore.

“And now I am supposed to trust you?”

“Yes, because I’m not a killer. I just take stuff that’s lying around.”

“But, Laurie, that’s exactly what I would be if I were to sleep. Stuff lying around. If I’m just a machine to you, I’d just be stuff lying around.”

Then I have an idea. Maybe now I’ve reacted too quickly and too close to her. She has pulled the gun on me almost the same instant I have grabbed her wrist – not touching skin, just sleeve. For a minute, we’re frozen. My right hand around her left wrist, her right hand pointing the gun at me. Then she starts panting.

“What are you doing? I’m going to shoot, I really am!” she says and sounds more irrational than I’ve ever heard her, and I’m afraid she’s actually going to shoot. So I act fast. I unhook my chest cover and put her hand on my heart. I hope I haven’t hurt her. I have no idea how much or how little it takes to hurt an unenhanced wrist. It’s pounding, my heart.

“There!” I tell her. “It’s not any different! That’s still the basic version. Just like yours. It’s racing because you creep me out, and it will stop one day, just like yours.”

She twists and struggles and tries to pull her hand away. I keep it there for just another few seconds, then let go. She stumbles backwards and falls into the sand, thrown off balance. She starts shaking her hand then wiping it on her pants frantically. I leave her to whatever little cleaning ritual she thinks she is accomplishing, and go back into the cave. The fire from earlier is still glowing. I curl up to keep warm and arrive immediately in that zone just before the unconsciousness of sleep.

* * * * *

Frauke Uhlenbruch, aka the Small Fish, lives (and works) in England (among others). Her current research interests include the writings of Dr Seamus Hurley, the resurrection of the dead, utopian social description, superhero comics, and remarkable modes of divine-human communication. Things that make her toenails curl up include people bumping into her backpack on a crowded subway train. Great music, road trips, and dancing on tiptoe on the other hand, warm her heart. Sometimes she gets bored with the contemporary world.

Her other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Exposure № 075: Color, Texture

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ward-winning 15-year-old photographer Eleanor Leonne Bennett tells us about some of her color photography this week. To see more of her black and white images go to Exposure № 073: High Contrast.

“Rain over oil” is a photo of an oil spill taken on a road in my home village.

“Time passes me” is a self-portrait. I’m kissing away the precious moments in time. It’s about letting go of something you never really had in your grasp.
“Urban decay – Morris Minor”: I have a Morris Minor car that is falling to pieces in my back garden. It’s a source of constant inspiration. It is fascinating to watch it fall apart and take photos of it doing so.
“Eleanor Leonne Bennett & Reza Deghati” was taken at the world photography festival in London, of the National Geographic Photographer Reza Deghati. It was an incredible day meeting him, the best day of my life photographing the world around me.
* * * * *
Eleanor Leonne Bennett is a 15 year-old, internationally award-winning photographer and artist who has won first places in contests from National Geographic, the World Photography Organisation, Nature’s Best Photography, Papworth Trust, Mencap, the Woodland Trust, and Postal Heritage. Her photography has  been published in the Telegraph, the Guardian, the BBC News website and on the cover of books and magazines in the United States and Canada. Her art is globally exhibited, having shown work in London, Paris, Indonesia, Los Angeles, Florida, Washington, Scotland, Wales, Ireland, Canada, Spain, Germany, Japan, Australia and at the Environmental Photographer of the Year Exhibition (2011). She was also the only person from the UK to have her work displayed in the National Geographic- and Airbus-run “See The Bigger Picture” global exhibition tour with the United Nations International Year Of Biodiversity 2010.  
Her other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Wrestling with Jacob

This story is part of Dr. Hurley’s Snake-Oil Cure’s First Ever Short Story Contest.

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ou gave birth to my country and my people. You know this? Birthed them into this world, Rebecca. All of them.”

The microwave read 2:45 AM. Five minutes fast. The man from the store sat at the kitchen table, his back facing the bedroom. The apartment door was bent and twisted behind him.

“I didn’t mean to wake you, Rebecca. I’m sorry. I just could not sleep. There are so many words in my dreams. So cluttered. You know this word? Cluttered?”

Becca Crawford was familiar with this word. Her apartment was strewn with Darla’s toys and clothing. Unfolded laundry and empty detergent bottles filled the living room. Her husband Terry had left all his baseball stuff behind jammed into the closets. All his old clothes smelled like dust and chalk. The shower drain was still clogged with his hair.

“What are you doing here Michael? You should—”

“Go home?” Michael said. His voice was wet. “Home where? Russia? Israel? No place.”

Becca noticed the broken phone before him on the table. Moonlight from the window caught the frayed wires, the empty plastic sheath and number keys scattered across a place mat.

“I don’t go home, Becca. There is no home. That is a stupid word. I have a room, yes. Apartment, whatever. Not a home. You make a home though. You always have.”

Becca had told the others at the bakery that Michael just needed a friend. He had no driver’s license, no personal I.D. Just a flimsy passport from Russia, filled with half-completed travels. Always leaving, he had told her while trying to select a loaf of bread. Never returning. He had shown her the passport, filled with exit stamps, but no entries. His teeth were false and they clacked when he spoke. No returns.

“You were the mother of Jacob, did you know that Rebecca? All of us with these names, names from the Bible. You were the one who birthed Jacob and Esau. You know Jacob? Father of all the tribes? The one the angel renamed Israel after their fight. They wrestled for an entire night; Jacob and the angel battling with one another. Neither side could gain the upper hand. Always in the struggle. I should have been named Jacob, no? I should have been one.”

Each morning he arrived with new purchases to display. Jim and Alicia tried to avoid the young man with the false teeth. He stared at your eyes when he spokes to you; he stared until you looked away and then he laughed. He brought all his purchases to the bakery to show them to Rebecca. New shoes and cellphones and TVs and the tattoo riding across the ridges of his back.

“Michael. You can’t be here. You need to leave. We can talk about this later. Darla is still asleep and she has school tomorrow and I have to work. Don’t you have to get up early?”

Becca didn’t know what Michael did exactly. He never explained it very well. He paid in cash. His pockets were always filled with ticket stubs and receipts. He kept track of everything.

“For what? To see the sun? It will be the same as before. It is the one thing that does not change. Even the moon changes sometimes. Even the stars do. I should have been named Jacob.”

Michael bought something from the bakery every day. Sometimes Becca saw him toss his sweet purchases in the trash as soon as he stepped outside the store. Jim told her it wasn’t healthy, this fixation the man had. He looked young, still had pimples on his cheeks, but what was with the teeth? What was with that tattoo on his back, the dragons and the whores stamped onto his skin? Becca told Jim to mind his own goddamn business and stop touching her arm.

“Names can change. They aren’t like the sun. You should not change yours though. We should all keep our Biblical names. Even in Israel, in the army, I kept mine. Rebecca, you should promise me you won’t change your name. You should do this. Tell me you will not change.”

Michael’s thick fingers flicked a piece of the phone onto the tiles. Becca stood behind him. She could hear her daughter sleeping in the other room. A lonely picture magnet hung on the steel refrigerator with Terry’s face staring out at the two figures in the kitchen. She forgot to take that one down after he moved back to South Carolina. She forgot to burn his clothes as well.

“Your daughter though, maybe you should change that name. What kind of name is Darla? Sounds like a whore’s name, no? Sounds like it came from the Terry man. The baseball man.”

It was Terry’s aunt’s name. The aunt who’d raised him after his mother got lymphoma and went on disability. Becca wanted to name their daughter Rachel, but Terry told her all about his years growing up with Aunt Darla. She drove him to all the tryouts, picked him up during rain delays and always had something to drink in the trunk of her car. At the funeral after her drunk driving accident, Terry had threatened to choke the pastor if he mentioned Darla’s fondness for the bottle. That was a warning sign Becca decided to ignore; she stacked it beside all the others.

“Sometimes I think it was Michael who fought with Jacob. Do you know that story? I think I told you of their battle. Jacob was all alone. His mother Rebecca had died many years before. He was to become the next leader of the chosen people, to return his people to their land. He waited behind with his flocks and sent his family ahead one night. Before he lay down to sleep, he was faced with an unnamed opponent. A man with no name, like in a Western. Like your Eastwood. They wrestled against one another from dusk until the morning came. Each fought for the upper hand, each struggled to gain a foothold. I think of this on nights when I do not sleep. Some people claim it was a demon, of course, and not an angel. And maybe that makes more sense.”

Another piece of the phone was tossed onto the floor. Becca leaned against the table and tried not to shake. Her heart rattled against her lungs. She should have listened to Jim and Alicia. Michael would not look her in the eye. Terry couldn’t either once he told her he had to leave. She didn’t stop him. She was tired of cleaning up his messes, filling out the forms for bail and paying the bar tabs down by the train station. Darla wouldn’t even look him in the face. Terry was a third stringer for a minor league team; a bit of tangled hair circling the drain. He was hospital bills and dust and three beers ahead of everyone else in her life. He was baggage.

When she dropped him off at the bus station, Terry told her he would send money. He would send a cheque when he arrived and finally got settled coaching for some high school team. He had connections back home, people who owed his Aunt Darla a favour. Becca was still waiting for something to arrive in the mail. She still got his credit card statements. Bulk purchases at liquor warehouses and cigar shops. She ran them through the garbage disposal at the bakery. Becca didn’t want to chance those fragments getting caught in the drains at home.

“And that makes sense, fighting with the demons. I do not sleep because I still see some faces. The ones we saw when they were blowing up roads. The ones who were children with grenades in their hands. I wrestle with their ghosts sometimes. I wrestle with children who have no eyes and who cannot speak. They hold my teeth, the ones their fathers knocked from my mouth in an alley. They hold all the fragments of their brothers that we left to rot in holes and pits and dark places. I wrestle with them because they have no souls. And they want mine.”

Michael showed her his dog tags once. They said his last name was Luppa. He told her he survived the nights in rehab while his face was rebuilt by reading the Bible front to back. It was more exciting than he thought it would be. It was filled with battles and murders and children of children, a lineage stretching back to the beginning of time. It didn’t all make sense of course. Michael did not understand why Samson’s hair was so magical, or how Noah could build a boat so big. Michael said the New Testament was boring. Just the same story told four times and if Jesus could really raise the dead, he could have taken over the world without the Romans’ help.

“But maybe it was an angel instead, yes? A test for Jacob to prove himself. I wish to have such a test, but there are no angels here. And so maybe it was the archangel Michael who wrestled him. The one from Revelations, the one who will lead heaven’s forces against all the whores and dragons we have spawned from our cities and our dreams. I showed you the tattoo, yes? When it is finished, I want to believe all of this will make sense. They send me here to be alone, to escape. I have done my service, but they still own something in my head, Rebecca.”

“Michael, we can talk about this another time, okay? Please. I won’t call the police.”

“Why would you call the police?”

“Michael, look at my door. I can’t go to bed with my door like that.”

“Then I will stay. I will stay and watch the door. I am used to the night watch.”

Michael’s heavy hand wrapped itself around Becca’s waist. She tried to pull away as he stood up from the table. Outside, the world was beginning to rupture around the edges. Pink bits of light bit away at the darkness. Michael’s breath pushed itself into Becca’s face.

“I showed you everything, didn’t I? Do you think it’s a coincidence we both spring from the Bible? You, a creator of nations, a mother to the father of the chosen people. And me, I could be that angel. I could be the one who gave Jacob his limp. The touch of my hand against his thigh ruined his leg forever. Did you know this? They taught us how to break a knee in training. How to break it firmly, how to break a leg so they will never be able to run from you again.”

Up close, Becca could see the scars running down Michael’s chin. That was where the shrapnel hit him, he had told her at the bakery. He took her hand and made her feel his skin.

“I know how to break a bone.”

“I know you do, Michael. You told me. You told me.”

He released her arm and sat back down at the kitchen table. Becca wanted to run, but she remembered Darla’s chest rising and falling in the other room. The neighbours here were all asleep or working the night shift. This was a building where the elevator always smelt like piss and dogs were tied up on balconies. Terry was gone and no one from work could call this place.

“Why did you take apart the phone?”

Michael flicked at the numbers. He didn’t answer her. Becca stepped back behind the counter toward her bedroom. She was too nice. Terry had barely paid rent during the five years they were together. Becca always gave the regulars extra frosting on their Danishes; she never argued with a work schedule that saw her rising at 5 AM to board a bus across the city while Jim and Alicia slept in until seven. She did not jaywalk at empty intersections until the light decided to change. The world was already chaotic enough, filled with Michaels and Terrys and all that revelation. She didn’t want a hand in the chaos. She was afraid she might lose it in the process.

“They use phones to make us die. You know this though. Like I told you. They will not face you like the angel. They will wait until you are in range, and they will blow off half your face so you can’t recognize yourself. They will make sure you are not the same. If you cannot touch them, you cannot assert your dominance. They will take your teeth and cast their spells and you will be left on that strip shuddering. I shuddered. That word. I did that until someone dragged me away. A phone is for those who can’t stare their enemies in the face, for those who want to listen, to speak without betraying their face.

“You can lie over a phone. You can tell me this makes sense. You can tell me I should go home. A Christian in Israel, still a Jew in Russia. I am no one in a nation; I am homeless like all those sick and dying dogs in Moscow. The ones who ride the subway as if they are people because they do not know themselves. I am a young man wearing the mouth of an ancient. I clatter around my own tongue.”

Becca continued to back toward her bedroom. She watched Michael remove his shirt, the black lines of his tattoo rippling with the effort. He tossed it onto the floor beside the fragments of the phone. His voice continued speaking. Becca paused before stepping into her bedroom.

“You gave birth to all of this, and I wrestle with the demons you left behind. I find them lurking everywhere, even in your bakery. I see them snickering behind us and I know you cannot hold a secret. I thought maybe you could help me rebuild things. They could only help me with my face. You told me of your Terry and your Darla, and I knew you could do better. I knew you could find better names. We are all wrestling through the night, and in the morning, some of us lose. Some of us awaken without a friend on a mattress in the dark. And it is always so dark.”

Terry was the religious one, if you could call it that. He called it the last resort. He sat where Michael was now one night and told Becca he could never be a true believer, but the science was just too depressing. Terry did not like to check his stats, his on base percentage or his fielding numbers. He despised the breakdown of his sport into columns and lines and algorithms. Not because they were wrong or misguided; they were all too accurate in fact. Terry couldn’t bear to see all of it laid out before him. He could not watch his thoughts, his dreams, all of it, reduced to chemical reactions. Terry told Becca he did not want a world where every cell was just slowly unspooling toward its own end. This biological pre-destination was just as bad as all those evangelicals preaching their guaranteed promises of redemption. All this decay was purchased in advance and Terry was tired of being confronted with the best before date.

“I followed you here, but I did not think I would come in. I am not usually such a rude house guest. But I am tired of this haunting, Rebecca. I am tired of trying to make all my friends from scratch. They want me to go back to Israel. They want me to sneak off with them in the night, to use my new face, the one no one will recognize. I am wires and wet work now.  I am reformed in all the wrong ways. I read those words about wrestling with Jacob, and I am always that angel who is losing. I am the one who must rename him, who must surrender part of myself. I am that demon or whatever it was that found him alone amongst the sheep. I need you to make me new.”

Becca disagreed with Terry. She watched his career spiral ever downward, his numbers declining while his waistband expanded. She watched his confidence crumble, the easy grounders slipping through his legs, the fly balls lost to the sun or to his hangover. She could not allow for some grand mystery to conceal the facts, to deny the reality she faced every day. The science inside the bakery was not a mystery, the science was sound and it was repeated daily. It was not all death and destruction. It was new and well-crafted and reusable. Terry told her all things had to end and he preferred not to see them coming. He left her at the bus station with a cross hanging around her neck. Bits of his chest hair clung to the chain.

“You need me here, Rebecca. You can help me create something new, just like your Darla.”

Darla did not talk much about her father. She was only four. She liked to play with the pieces he left behind. The well-worn baseballs and chipped bats he kept in the closets. They did not fit into his luggage. Becca stepped back into her bedroom and fumbled through the dark.

“We will have to start the world over, Rebecca. This is what I realized today. I realized it when you told me you didn’t know where to turn anymore. You told me you did not want things to stay the same. I can change all these things. Do not think anything of these problems though. Even the whores in the Bible, they are all eventually redeemed. Even Mary Magdalene.”

The bat was chipped at its tip. It was heavy in her hands. Michael still sat facing the busted door. His hands covered his face as if he were weeping, but there was no sound. A knife lay beside the phone on the table. The apartment was filled with pink and brackish light, glancing off the steel. The tattoo on his back featured a seven headed dragon with a woman on its back. It rippled as Michael spoke through false teeth and stitched lips. It seemed to enunciate his words.

“You gave birth to a nation, to all the tribes, and I know you can do it again, Rebecca. We can do it again. I just need to show you how it is done. I will show you one way or another.”

Becca crossed herself and swung. She still believed in physics.

* * * * *

Andrew F. Sullivan was born in Peterborough, Ontario. He has an MA in English in the Field of Creative Writing from the University of Toronto, where his thesis WASTE: a novel was awarded the Adam Penn Gilders’ Scholarship in Creative Writing. Sullivan’s fiction has recently been published by Little Fiction, Joyland, The Cleveland Review and Riddle Fence. Sullivan no longer works in a warehouse. You can find him at: http://afsullivan.blogspot.com/. This is his first contribution to Snake-Oil Cure.

She with the Jalebi Lights

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nd the evening sky,
It’s indigo blue,
With a fading pearl white
And its gentle girdle of light
Reminds me of you
And I think of calling
To tell you to take a picture…

A night so simple……it knows
We will come to ache for it
In the years to come.

* * * * *

Urvashi Bahuguna studies English Literature at St. Stephen’s College, New Delhi. She contributes regularly to Helter Skelter Magazine and her work has been published in Kritya and an anthology with Hachette. Her other contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

Someday, They, Too, Will Bury Us All In Carbonite

.
t was accidental, the discovery
he could walk through walls
like they didn’t even exist in the first place. It was an ability that came unannounced to him; something that didn’t trumpet its oncoming in the same way that an adolescent discovers he or she might be coming of age at the discovery of a moustache fuzz or bloody underwear. What was truly particular about this newfound talent was that he didn’t find out about it in his crib or at school – a time when such a “talent” might lead him or, God forbid, his parents to believe he was a superhero. No. He discovered this uncanny ability somewhere in his 20s, which meant that at least a good quarter to third of his life had probably just up and passed him by before he actually noticed this particular knack of walking through walls like a ghost. (Don’t ask him to be precise when it comes to the actual age he discovered this talent. He doesn’t really remember, but not out of forgetfulness. He, himself, has simply stopped caring about such moot details.)

Our hero – let’s call him Melvin, a lame name if there was one – found out that he could walk through walls in an office building, of all places. What day did it happen? It was never recorded. What time of day did it happen? It might have been morning or afternoon. What season did it occur? Nobody remembers, least of all him, and probably very few would even care, anyway. Besides, people have a strange habit of not noticing the exceptional in other people, and if they do they take it as a threat to themselves, their or their family’s wellbeing, their ability to pay the mortgage, that kind of thing.

Anyway, the job he was performing that fateful day was not important, either, as nobody in his office really took much notice of him. Melvin was mediocre enough to not be a threat, he didn’t play office politics, and he tended to ignore the banal office cooler chat of his colleagues. The only detail really recorded in his memory, and thus important to this story, is that he was walking along near his desk and, quite accidentally, tripped over one of the laces of his dress shoes, a pair now long disposed of. (Don’t ask him about the brand name. It, like most of the other pathetic details of his life, is now long forgotten.) His shoulder should have collided with a section of the soft monolithic gray wall, probably some kind of particleboard, but he doesn’t quite recall.

What he does remember is that it didn’t hurt. It didn’t hurt at all. In fact, it was quite pleasant and tingly. His body suddenly felt electric. And then, the sensation was suddenly yanked from him when he heard someone – a female – scream somewhere nearby.

“Oh my God! Melvin is trapped in the wall!” He flinched at this sound, and immediately turned around – thus tearing his shoulder and upper arm out of the wall. He meant to face the woman – was it a new admin assistant? A temp worker? Who knows? – but found that he could not. This was not because he lacked the motivation or courage to stand up for himself, no. Rather, it seemed that the lady couldn’t stand up to him. She’d fainted, sprawled out like a body at a crime scene. At this point, he decided he should slink away before he got blamed for this unfortunate event – he was the only one nearby and already he could hear the approaching shuffle of feet –  so he ducked into an intersecting corridor and made his retreat to the nearest stairwell. He ran up a floor, then down a floor using another staircase. It was easy to avoid detection as hardly anyone used the stairs. If you use the stairs, you, too, can be an anti-social ghost in your workplace.

Anyhow, he soon found himself back at his desk, trying hard to concentrate on his tasks that, to this very day, nobody remembers with much fondness. After all, nobody remembers how one pays the rent once you’re dead and gone, anyway. Melvin found, however, that he couldn’t get back into the swing of his work. Not because of the commotion caused by the fainted lady, oh no. It was because he felt the urge to plunge his arm into the soft woolen mesh of the cubicle wall, to see if what he’d experienced was a lark. After carefully checking to see if anyone was peeking into his cubicle or “prairie dogging” as the idiot sunshine-y girl with a boyfriend next to him was prone to do – God, what was her name again? – all he could bring himself to do was stick a few fingers through the wall. Much to his delight and utter surprise, his fingers simply went through the wall without making the slightest tear in the fabric. His digits vanished, disappeared. The thing that struck him, once again, was how pleasurable the feeling was, how the tingling sensation once again made him feel. It was like someone running a feather duster over the point where he made contact with the wall. As quickly as he realized this, he withdrew his fingers, and starting to feel another, more overwhelming sensation overtake him. Namely, that, if he continued, he would be caught or discovered by sneaky coworkers. His discovery was something he did not want to share. It was one thing to be seen as being special as a child and lovingly doted on by “authority” (though being labeled as special could also invite ostracism among one’s peers at a young age, too, he supposed); however, as an adult, he found that other people tended to be in revulsion or fear, not awe, of those with bizarre talents. Hell, just getting work done to deadline was almost enough to get his coworkers in a tizzy: he’d already suffered the slings and arrows of being told to “slow down, for Heaven’s sake!”

He looked around quietly and proceeded back to work, never once wondering just why it was that he could somehow break one of the laws of physical reality without much reason or rhyme, or why he didn’t drop to the ground from the chair he was sitting in and fall on his behind. He chose to banish these things from his mind, and continue onward with the daily drudgery.

During the days and weeks that followed, he continued to try to forget about his, for lack of a better term, “talent.” He found, though, that he couldn’t. It was everywhere. Every time that he came close to bashing his face, his hand, his foot into a door or a wall or a rock … there it was, that sensation again. It didn’t matter if it were accidental or not, he could plunge his entire body headlong into a cement barrier and discover that he could penetrate right through it and arrive, completely unscathed, out the other side. The feeling, the sheer sensation of being able to plunge a fist into a wall and experience pure, unadulterated joy instead of pain and hurt started to become addictive to Melvin. If the truth were to be told, in fact, he began – almost subconsciously at first – to think of himself as a Superhero with powers that could somehow change the world, for good or ill. In fact, every day on the bus into work, packed like a sardine in that tin can with dozens of ordinary, stinky and rather uninteresting people with nothing better to do than prove they had cellphones by talking rather loudly into them, he would imagine the ways he could put his powers to use. Perhaps more accurately, he would try to imagine the uses he could put his powers to. He found that there weren’t very many things one could do by simply being able to walk through walls other than haunt people. He couldn’t save babies from burning buildings or anything grandiose like that. Even if he could grab onto, say, a baby in a burning building, there were no guarantees that said infant would be able to come back with him – assuming that a wall offered the only escape route.

All he could think of were the drawbacks to having the power of being able to walk through walls. It was a passive power, one that would only allow him the opportunity to be a voyeur: he could spy on women undressing or, assuming he fell in with the appropriate spy agency, enemies of the state. Stuff like that. What particularly stymied him, however, was the fact that he felt straitjacketed by his powers. What would happen if he actually disclosed his ability to anyone? Would he be locked up in a cell of titanium steel while government lackeys prodded and poked him and ran him through all sorts of embarrassing tests? He had to wonder, and he had plenty of time to do so on the bus. The more that he thought about it, the more that he felt outright paralyzed by his inability to do anything useful with this power of walking through walls.

Coincidentally, he began to discover that his powers were growing and becoming more prominent with the passing of time. It was odd. It started with pens and paper slipping through his butterfingers. Then it gradually got worse and worse. One minute, he would be holding one end of the frying pan while he crossed his kitchen and the next minute, it would clatter to the floor along with his bacon, without any explanation for the slippage. His inability to hold onto physical objects just happened for no reason, and with more and more frequency as the months and years wore on. It was as though he’d suddenly obtained another secret Superhero identity: this time, the Clumsy Buffoon. What’s more, while he had succeeded in keeping his ability to walk through walls a secret, everyone in his workplace almost immediately noticed that he, Melvin, was starting to lose his touch. In fact, the girl beside his cubicle – the one with the boyfriend – suggested one day when he came over to drop off, hands shaking, a series of binders that he go get that checked out.

“That could be an early sign of Parkinson’s or something,” she purred cruelly.

He thanked the girl and continued on in his duties, but secretly wished he had the power to turn himself invisible so nobody would notice all of his foolish gaffes and public humiliations. He often wondered whether or not this was deliberate: the curse to his blessing, the yin to his yang. Whether or not his new ability was a bad thing, at least he was thankful that he lived in a basement apartment. Should his ability suddenly enable him to drop through entire floors, he wouldn’t have very far to go. Nobody would have to bury him; he could disappear entirely from sight. However, if this were to happen at his job, he understood he could drop through entire stories, presumably to his death.

However, such speculation is now pretty much moot as our hero Melvin suddenly, one day, found himself out of a job. It just up and went in precisely the same way his ability to control his motor skills seemed to be leaving him. All it took was some paperwork and a rather sorrowful meeting with his boss, who looked at him like our hero was a lost puppy. The boss spent much of his time asking, “Are you OK?” Melvin just sighed and said that this was probably the best thing that could happen to him, and it was time to move on anyway. Was there a personal reason for this sudden dismissal? Not really, though it could be argued that more socializing among his coworkers might have saved him.

Anyhow, what was done was done and nobody really missed him at the office, so these are just superficial details that don’t really add up to very much. (In fact, the guy that they hired to take his job turned out to be much better, anyway, so why cry about it?)

On the bus ride home from his dismissal, Melvin sat alone, clutching whatever belongings he had been able to rescue from his office, and mused to himself that reinvention as a Superhero, despite his initial misgiving, would be, perhaps, a good thing. He, for one, would be given the opportunity to try new things, try something different. He closed his eyes and simply re-imagined himself as being useful, someone who spent all day flying around and saving lives. He imagined himself as someone who would be on the front pages of the newspaper, day after day, like a Spider-Man or Superman – forgetting, of course, that these characters weren’t real. The truth of it, however, is that in spite of his best intensions, Melvin didn’t get very far in this new line of work. Sure, he was able to hire a tailor who could stitch together a cape and skin-hugging tights under the ruse that it was for a costume party he got invited to. It wasn’t anything special: just a skintight black outfit and cape with a brick as its center logo. (He could think up nothing better that would illustrate his uncanny ability to walk through walls.) He was proud of his new suit – one without a tie, he noted wryly to himself – and preened himself in the mirror after he put it on for the very first time, ignoring the obvious swimmer’s sag, “shrinkage,” between his legs.

Yet, once he stepped outside his front door one summer’s evening in this tight, sweaty outfit, reality dealt him a real blow: he was not quite ready for the front page, after all. While running to his first “job” to save a woman from a mugger in a rather dire area of the city he lived in, his feet got all tangled up and he landed with a thud on the cold cement of the street he had been sailing down. He did not disappear into the ground as he might have expected, though, and so the main sensation he received from this outing was one of intense and horrible pain. What went wrong? Who knows? Who cares? It doesn’t matter anyway, much like Melvin.

While walking home from this sad occurrence, bruised and battered, some teenagers on a sidewalk outside a liquor store pointed at him and laughed, then threw empty beer bottles at him. Their accuracy surprised him, as did the sensation of being pelted with glass that shattered all over his body. Now, that had hurt. (In fact, that had hurt a lot.) Anyhow, feeling inadequate and unsuitable for the job, he turned his mind to other jobs that would benefit from his special and unique talent. He brooded and brooded for days in his tiny basement lair, trying to determine what he needed to do to get ahead. He mused what it would take to have another job and have purpose and meaning, or, put another way, an identity of some sort that he could latch onto. He thought he could get into the drug trade. They always needed drug runners in that line of work, and maybe his ability to walk through walls could help him out of any sort of sticky situation? But then he realized that this had the potential of being a really bad idea, one as bad as being a superhero, so he got up, went to the fridge seeking the first of what would likely become a series of endless beers, and g

 

(Something happened. He doesn’t remember the rest. He got up to the beer, and the next thing he knew …).

 

                                              et in here?” cried the lady, the naked middle-aged woman he was presumably trying to save from drowning in the shower. He looked down, seeing how pathetic he looked, dressed in his superhero outfit, but wasn’t sure what he was doing. His vision was a bit blurry, but he was pretty sure that was his cock hanging out. He asked himself: What was my short, flabby cock doing hanging out of his suit like that? He then quickly tucked the flaccid weapon away, his face flush with embarrassment and the fear of having done something wrong, of having taken on a villainous role.

Shouldn’t I be trying to save this lady? This was my job, was it not? I’d smashed the barrier of the dull work-world and had struck out on my own as a Superhero, a consultant, no?

He sighed, glanced around, and noticed that his surroundings seemed vaguely familiar and, yet… strange – he’d never been in this room before, but it looked almost identical to the way his bathroom had been laid out in his bachelor pad. The same gray tiles on the floor, the same porcelain claw-footed tub. It was as though someone else had moved into his apartment and replaced all of his belongings with his or her own.

Then it struck him. He never felt more simultaneously scared and stupid than when the truth finally dawned on him: He was in another apartment in the same building. After all, hadn’t he seen this woman on the stairs leading into the building at least once or twice?

“Get away from me!” she cried, hiding behind the shower curtain, throwing bottles of Jergens at him. A bottle of conditioner ponged off of his head. Another plastic bottle plonked off his chest. This hurt and hurt a lot. Who knew that plastic could be so dangerous, so unsafe, so unreassuringly hazardous? This was something Melvin pondered, as he understood what it was that he had to do.

He leapt through the woman – So this is what having breasts feels like, he thought lazily – past her into the wall of the shower, and on into the next room. This time, however, he did not feel the pleasurable sensation that normally accompanied his

 

(Again, this part he doesn’t remember. Perhaps it just wasn’t worth recording.)

 

                                                                                     eviction notice had been slid under the door. Millions of green beer bottles were scattered around apartment as though they were kryptonite. Melvin sat on the bed, took off his suit and wondered where on earth he’d been. Try and try as he might, he simply could not remember a thing about his whereabouts during the last few days. It was like there were gaps, breakages in the film of his memory. Which was strange, he didn’t really recall ever experiencing any sort of memory loss prior to the strange events of this tale. He put his head in his hands and wondered: Why me? What have I done? What is going on here? Nothing is making any sense at

  

(Another gap in his memory. God, he was getting pretty useless now, wasn’t he?)

 

                        “And don’t come back you

 

(Another blank.)

 

            pounded fists into

 

(Yet another hole in his memory.)

  

felt nothing

 

(Still another.)

                                                                                    utterly frustrated and

(And again.)

 

            was published in maybe 1974 or ’76, and was about these kids who discover an egg in the forest one day. A boy and a girl. It was glowing. Its own source of energy, a source of power. And together, using the power of the magic egg, the duo had all sorts of adventures, saving the world from people who were wasting energy. It was an educational comic, published by one of the government departments. Melvin wasn’t sure why he remembered this pathetic little comic, especially now, locked up in the clink, but he recalled the irony: the boy and girl used up all of their power in their quest to rid the world of waste. By trying to educate other people, they wound up setting

 

(It’s happened again.)

being

(And yet again.)

a bad example

                       

(What happened next? Does anyone remember? Does anyone care?)

 

            after the jail experience, and, in the street, he discovered a wall. A concrete wall. Melvin put his hands on it to feel its coldness. He wondered why there wasn’t a word to describe something cold that emanated its coldness – sort of the opposite of warmth. He quickly banished the thought. He felt he had no use for superficial thoughts since the incident in the prison shower when he bent over to reach the soap. Which, in and of itself, was a thought he tried not to think about much. Not anymore. Instead he put his focus on the wall.

It seemed to offer freedom, in a very backhanded way. This was ironic, how something so cold and uninviting – a self-made prison – could seem to offer protection. A wall seemed so suddenly maternal to him. An escape from the drudgery, sameness and agony offered up by daily life. He thought of the old office. And home. The old office. And home. Both of which he no longer had. Both of which he had escaped from. Could that have been his best Superhero trick? Now, he knew the answer. Now he could know no harm. Not to himself, or others. And so he began to merge with the wall, meld with it.

It was as easy as walking into it and pretending like it just wasn’t there. And that was that. He was frozen, trapped in the wall like Walt Disney in a block of ice. Waiting to be reborn. Waiting for the possibility of being “cured” of his peculiar talent later on in life. And that was that. He was out like a light. Living a life in limbo, waiting for something to happen. Being dead-alive.

The last significant thing he remembered hearing upon taking up his new life in the wall just so happened to be the first thing he heard, thus making it the only thing worth recording or noting. It was the voice of some young kid, a boy probably not much older than eight or so. The words. He remembers them like bricks scattering, dropping off a wall. Or bricks still remaining in a game of Breakout on the old Atari system:

“Hey, that guy there,

                        that

            guy,

he

                                                                        just

                                    vanished                                             

                                                                                                into

                        a

                                                                        brick

                                                  wall.”

 

And the reply from another voice, a bum – someone without a history worth noting, shilling for change on the street, who somehow felt he had to add his two cents:                   

“Someday,

they,

too,

will

bury

us

all

in

carbonite.


Look what they did to Han Solo, trying to be a hero and everything.” 

* * * * *

Zachary Houle lives in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, where he works for the federal government as a Project Officer and is also an Associate Music Reviews editor for PopMatters.com, a pop culture webzine that reaches 1.2 million unique visitors a month. He also contributes regular book and music reviews to PopMatters. Houle has been awarded a $4,000 emerging artist grant from the City of Ottawa to write fiction, and was a Pushcart Prize nominee for a novella that appeared in Midnight Mind. His fiction or poetry has also appeared in places such as Broken Pencil, Word Riot, Pindeldyboz, Kiss Machine, The Danforth Review, Girls with Insurance, Thieves Jargon, Friction magazine, Megaera, and many others. His poem “Ode to the Long Lost Mini-Pops Album” was published in the book anthology In Our Own Words, Vol. 7 (MW Enterprises, 2007).

This is his first contribution to Snake-Oil Cure.