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Irregular Symmetry

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One Chance

In a city of seven million, what were the chances that you and I would meet again?


It was a question I found myself asking on the night bus home. I even tried doing the calculations to soothe my head- but would it be as simple as 1:7 million? Or would it be double, or half? And what about all the other factors to be taken into account? I’m no mathematician, but the outlook wasn’t good.


I had been working some kind of introductions evening at the Museum of London that night, pouring champagne for pre-drunk and overexcited young lawyers (or something along those lines) whose firm were so kindly throwing them a welcome party to celebrate the life of alternating hard work and hedonism that surely lay ahead. Luckily, I was on the “early” shift, so at 12 I promptly put down my bottle of Moët, signed out and left my poor colleagues to deal with the dirty entrails of the night.


A cool rain was falling when I got outside, mixing with the city smog and dusting the streetlamps gold. I walked a little way until I found an overhanging roof offering just enough space to light the cigarette I had been gasping for all evening. The smoke rose slowly through the drizzle to the grey, cloudy sky, as if it were going home.


The circle line ran until 12.30, so I took one of the last trains eastbound from Barbican. The carriage was empty but for one navy-suited man who sat staring at a single page of the Evening Standard until I got off at Embankment. Only the lost and lonely wander between midnight and 4am. The sleepers are already sleeping, the drinkers still drinking. The few of us that remain aren’t headed anywhere.


I certainly wasn’t in any hurry to get home; only desperate to be free.


I came out of the station and past Charing Cross to find that I had just missed a bus, and the next wouldn’t arrive for at least 40 minutes. But it was of no bother to me: like I say, time moves differently during these strange hours.


There was an all-night cafe around the corner from the bus stop, where I often found myself after long shifts, so I entered the familiar womb of fluorescent lighting and paid for a cup of tea and somewhere slightly warmer to sit, along the front window. Outside, the rain continued to fall, drumming a pleasing plush-plush rhythm into the pavement.


In a matter of hours the cafe would be flooded with drunken revellers (and a couple of heartbroken sods) ordering chips and talking loudly about their love for life. (I knew, for I had been one of those people myself.) For now, though, it was almost silent: only the hum of the dormant deep-fat frier, the dull beat of the rain outside, an occasional crackle from the overhead lighting, and somewhere - at the back of my head - a metallic, percussive sound. I looked around, recognising worn-out faces of those coming off or about to start night shifts, either half-asleep or half-alive.


Then, you.


The rain had settled like dew across your hair, despite the umbrella chucked under the table, and droplets hung, glistening, on the host of silver bracelets furnishing your bare wrists, which crashed together as you scribbled intently in black ink on a wide sheet of paper.


Thus the symphony of scattered sounds was complete.


I thought about how, were I an entirely different person, I might go over and sit down across from you, ask what you were working on, and see if your eyes shone illuminate gold as I imagined they must. Time would slip by and I’d offer you another coffee and we’d stay, talking, or maybe quiet, until dawn; two strangers finding peace in an unforgiving city.


The fantasy disintegrated as I heard the screech of a chair across the floor. Sketchbook under one arm, canvas bag slung across the other, you walked slowly to the door, paused- as if to measure quite how badly you had damaged the silence- then turned, to look at me.


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Exit Strategy

People with IBS or stress incontinence always have a plan. This much, I have in common with them. I can sympathize with the woman with the queasy stomach who only books her seat on the Amtrak train after researching the locations of available bathrooms and calculating ease of access based on aisle width and a number of other factors. Lady, I know how you feel. You go to the zoo with your kid, and you have to plot out all the bathrooms on the tour map. Mark the range of exhibits you can access that are within two minutes’ walking distance of a restroom. Skip the orangutans because they are too far away from this public convenience. Same thing everywhere you go. Research bathrooms ahead of time, mark them out on your map, figure out where you can go where you will always be safe, never more than two minutes from a toilet.

I’m the same way with train tracks. Any exit strategy, really, but trains are a good one because they’re everywhere in Longmont. The town is criss-crossed with train tracks, their whistles echoing behind the soundtrack of every casual interaction. Far-away whistles sound mournful; up-close they are insistent screeches.

Really, any exit strategy will do; it’s just the trains are usually the most conveniently-located. I never go any where without an exit strategy. Like the man with the swollen prostate pressing into his bladder or with bowels constantly complaining of diarrhea, I enter a building or situation and immediately list all of my possible choices for immediate suicide. Unlike my incontinent kin, I never need to act on the opportunity. It just needs to be there, my safety net, my just-in-case bathroom. If I’m near Third Street on Main, I know that I’m not more than a block away from the train tracks. I can go lie down whenever I want, and it will only be a few minutes before a train passes. If I’m stuck in traffic at Ken Pratt Boulevard and Boston Avenue, I can always swerve onto the track.

Some people would carry a gun, but I have more dignity than those who wear Depends to the baseball game. You can call me crazy, but I call it prepared.

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microfictions - #3

The letter read: "Tonight I shall dream of you one last time, mum. They are going to do it tomorrow. With love, Justin."

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One Week, Okay.

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Malik

Malik was returning from his third job interview this week. In his
seat on the bus home, he felt a hazy nausea in his gut thinking
about the nonchalant attitude the last interviewer had…like they’re
gonna call me…not! His new shoes suddenly seemed to pinch the top
of his left toe, and there was a blister on his right heel from the
constant rubbing he felt with each step he took. He remembered the
salesman in the department store saying, "…these boots will be
perfect for a man like you…" whatever that meant.


He gazed out of the window at the buildings and small stores moving
past. As if for the first time, he was struck by all the ‘employed’
people scrambling within and without, seeming to show a resigned
boredom on their faces as they moved. They looked as if there was no
alternative to that life of busywork that paid them just enough to
return next week and do it all over again.

The street hustlers he saw knew, though. He could spot them
anywhere, their alert, anxious eyes, darting around while trying to
look ‘normal’ at the same time. They moved with a hungry urgency
that ‘straight’ folk just didn’t have. They knew their life was in
their own hands, because nobody else would give them one.

At least they had the right idea, he thought, even if they were
going about it in the wrong way. Every one of them he ever talked to
kept their big dreams and talked about what they would do when they
"got over… like Grover."

He smiled as he thought about Bruce, who begged him for a dollar
every time he saw him, but also told him about some scam he was
running on the ‘marks’ out there. A ‘mark’ was anybody who wasn’t
running his own scam; which probably included him too. Bruce called
him ‘book sense’ soon after they met twenty years ago, and hadn’t
let up yet.

When Malik didn’t have a dollar one day, Bruce told him, "Damn, man!
When you gonna get paid? What’s all that book sense gon’ get you,
running to Charlie with your suit on and your hand out? They ain’t
giving no real paper to folk like us!"

I guess he thought Malik should get smart and get a hustle like
Fred, his brother, who was a mail carrier with the Post Office. Fred
managed to slip a little grass and coke in with the bills and junk
mail he delivered daily - for his ‘special’ customers.

He pondered Fred’s fate and his own plight, when his reverie was
interrupted by a boisterous passenger getting on the bus…

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The Painter and the Pickpocket

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No Dress Rehearsal

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Self-Published Kindling

John found an ad on Craigslist: “FREE BOOKS. Self-published. Paperback. Could be taken apart to use for craft projects, or for kindling.”

The advertisement made me very sad. It could be a story in itself— only a little more cumbersome that Hemingway’s famous Shortest Story Ever. The trials and tribulatons of a lifetime were contained in that one ad.

John decided to call and ask about the books; It turned out to be a lawyer from Boulder who had self-published a novel and spent a lot of money on a lot of copies, but then hadn’t had time to market them.

“It’s called The Physics of Caribou Creek,” John said.

“Cool,” I said. It was the type of name I wished I had come up with.

“The worst part is that someone under one of the Big Six was interested in it. No, I don’t know which one. But they weren’t going to publish it unless he took out some of the ‘spiritual stuff,’ whatever that means. Doesn’t that suck?”

“God. Seriously? Wow. I can’t believe the shit they get away with.”

“I know, right? Everything’s trimmed and tailored to fit the mainstream. Not an ounce of diversity.”

“Well, no. Can’t have any diversity,” I said. “It has to be something everyone will like for them to bother publishing it.”

“It’s sick how they’ll give best-selling publishing packages for a celebrity tell-all but can’t risk anything on a new story from a new author.”

“New authors might not sell. New stories might not sell.”

“Fuck that,” John said. “There’s no good literature unless you take risks publishing something new.”

“Might not sell,” I said, looking around the empty bookstore, shelves neatly stocked with self-published books.

“So, anyway,” John went on, opting to ignore my self-depreciating jab at our store. “He decided to self-publish so he could keep the story as he wanted to tell it. I don’t know who the fuck he went through, but it sure wasn’t no print-on-demand site. He wound up with, like, a garage full of boxes of books but no one to sell them to. He works as a lawyer so he didn’t have time for marketing. And you have to be your own marketing company to move any amount of self-published books, but a whole garage full?”

“Jeez,” I said. “So he’s just going to give them to us for free?”

“That’s what he said. We just have to go pick them up in Boulder.”

“Well, looks like we’re going to Boulder,” I said.  

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I hadn’t thought of us that way. The fresh paint layer of the banister rail smelled sharp. Its black color glistened in the noon sun.

We’d had a heat spell lingering over the city for days, which meant many glasses of water next to my night stand. The shower head had started squeaking a few nights ago, too, yet I couldn’t stop switching it on. And off. And on again. The water felt good as it pooled beneath my feet and I breathed into it.

I hadn’t thought of us. Can you believe it’s been twenty years? Or fifteen.

But once we got going it made a whole lot of sense to me. And just like that I started doing nothing with you.