UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION
It is what it is. Thirteen bodies slumped in hushed unison. All joined in an unconscious gathering, a circle of sorts. Piled beneath tables and under chairs. Wherever
* * *
“What do you want to be?” They asked you in preschool, when you filed in with mom’s fresh peanut butter and jelly sandwich, backpack strapped with confidence and vigor. You answered: a superhero, a pro athlete, the President of the United States. In elementary school: a race car driver, maybe a musician, an actor. What is it you want to do with your life? In middle school you wanted to be a teacher, a computer game designer, an architect. What will you be able to tolerate doing every day for the rest of your life? Explain why you are willing to do this until you die, until your last days on this earth.
When you are in high school they asked you again. Choose what you want to do. Pick your future. This is a multiple choice test, just so you know; we don’t really have limitless options. Just fill in the corresponding box and flow down the path of least resistance. It’s easy to think: what gives me the most options? Where can I make the most money? It’s easy to ask the questions now, out of fear more than anything else. You don’t want to end up like those people on the side of the street begging for stray condiments to suck down their dry throat. You want structure, security. By now you’re not stupid, you aren’t innocent. You want whatever means a three car garage. Three cars to be housed in that garage. The house too, white picket fence, some little kids running around. You want to know how to get your grubby hands on all of this.
When you’re finished asking questions, finished figuring out what it is you will contribute to society, they ask you; well what are you willing to sacrifice? An off-hand question when you’re finally making your precious twenty five dollars an hour. Can you come in on Sunday? We can’t afford giving you a bonus this year. It is what it is, just so you aren’t surprised. This is the world we live in. Just when you think you’ve made it, you realize everything was a house of cards toppling down on top of you. Now they ask you, do you get it? Can we count on you to do this without expecting anything more? Are you willing to remain static in your responsibilities to this company? If you want to keep your job, just nod your head. They thank you for your kind cooperation. While you walked out the door, they asked if they can count on you again, you know, to just sit there and take it. We’re taking liberties in translation here, but you get the point.
Fast forward sixteen years with a massive headache you can’t seem to get rid of, metaphorically speaking. The ringing and ringing in your ears: copy machines churning, computers buzzing, constant yapping of nothing important. You just want silence now.
Finally, silence is near, the light at the end of the tunnel. But somehow, silence seems like it is going to be loud as fuck. They ask you to come into their office. They speak in measured rhythm and tactical dialogue. Straightening their ties and dusting their suits while explaining the reality of termination. They want new, fresh, young. This isn’t multiple choice were talking about here. There’s one answer. And if the answer isn’t you, it’s somebody else. It is what it is, those are their exact words. Times, they are changing. It’s not you, it’s us. Repeat all bogus one liners for breakups. Over and over. And you knew it was coming, but still, this leaves a void.
To fill the void: crossword puzzles, daytime soap operas, pottery, sculptures. It is what it is.
If you could leap ahead in time and see the result of what filling the void without emptying the anger and aggression results in, this is it. If you could see the bodies resting in peace at the center of the room, you’d question their validity. Snarled in a suspended stockpile. Hands over feet. Feet over heads. Heads over unrecognizable body-parts. Unrecognizable body parts over cups of ice cream left unfinished, melting on the table. Pistachio, cookies and cream, chocolate, all dripping their milky residue where they stand. Think about that annoyance when there’s ice cream dripping on your hands and you can’t rinse it off. That’s called a bummer. Now, imagine that running lactose delicacy blended with chunks of human flesh, sprinkles of skull, and dollops of the finest hemoglobin. That’s called a really shitty day. That’s the kind of stuff you don’t get over without an army of psychiatrists and a whole damn fleet of Prozac.
Still scanning the scene, you can see their expressionless faces; that blankness when you realize these are not alive. I’m standing in the background, in the shadows. I’m holding the gun at my side and looking at pure destruction. It is what it is, you could say, witnessing my hands clutching the shotgun underneath my chin and pull down on the trigger with my thumb.
But now, back to me looking to fill the void. You can see me sitting in my car, sweating. Tracing the gravely grit of the worn steering wheel. Sometimes feeling power is better than being the mutt everybody keeps kicking on the side of the road. Think of a man with no pride. Think of a man with nothing. That’s me, perspiring and trembling because nothing is worse than this. Nothing is worse than being told you are insufficient. Nothing is worse than the crash landing of your ego courtesy of the candid consultation of your employer. Think of a man with nothing to lose and you’ve got the point.
The car is parked in the back of the Henderson County Mall, in the alley way. There’s a sign on the brick wall boldly stating, “No Parking.” I’m sitting there, hands gripping the steering wheel, thinking this is it. I always pondered something grander. I mean, if I was really going to kick the can at thirty nine, at least go out a hero. But, perhaps flaming out as the psychotic mass murderer is the most heroic action a slightly warped mind is capable of.
There’s a note taped to the refrigerator at home. It’s on yellow paper, written in pink glitter pen, adhered with electrical tape. It’s all I could find at the time. It says, “it is what it is.” Someone might read the rest of it. That Someone might be the wife I decided to settle down with. That Someone might care.
If we’re talking about that Someone, well, she could get to reading that note in a couple days, when the paper finally shouts at her and the pink glitter gets around to sparkling in her eye. That Someone might say, “Oh yes, my husband, he hasn’t been home in a few days.” And even then, that Someone might not read the rest. It’s still up in the air if that note will ever meet an audience.
“Back to the reality of being the failure you were born to be.” Don’t be alarmed, that’s just my father speaking out of turn. “Mild delusion” is the best way to describe the conversations I’m experiencing with the man responsible for the mental lacerations across my back. Sitting here, pretending I’m okay, pretending I’m not crazy isn’t really working out. Sitting here listening to the spitting in my ears of “it’s been a long time coming” and “you’ve dodged this mess for a long while,” is just getting old. Mild schizophrenia isn’t the best diagnosis, but it’s the only one that fits.
You can tell yourself you aren’t crazy all you want. You can tell yourself you are completely sane, but it won’t always do much. The mental image of the red faced hot-head screaming in the passenger seat seems to disagree with anything you can tell yourself. The only thing that gets him to shut up is if you turn off the engine and take out the keys. All that can get him off your back is accomplishing something. “You’re finally going to do something with your life.” If you can call mass murder something.
It would have been a fine day to spend in the mini-mall. Kids gliding through the crowds with smiles painted on their faces. Girls and guys, holding hands, prancing. Moms and Dads and Aunts and Uncles. Grandmas and Grandpas and Sue and Larry. That paper boy spending his hard earned cash. There’s Frank and Vinny and Lola and that homeless guy everyone ignores who keeps singing and singing but nobody wants to tell him to shut the hell up because they will feel guilty and think the natural charm of his brown teeth and cringing lisp will make it impossible to decline his request for two dollars and forty nine cents. It would have been a beautiful day for all of this if you don’t think about what is going to happen to all these people. To be fair it was a little cloudy. Sixty percent chance of showers, so they won’t be missing the best of days.
It is what it is. Just me strolling in through the front door, gun draped over my back. Nobody noticing the lethal weapon I’m grasping because they are too caught up in themselves to just look around. My echoing footsteps muffled by the gallop of herds of unassuming people. My slight increase in breathing is marred by loud, self-indulgent conversation. I lift the gun over and huddle over it.
Silence is best the moment preceding chaos. The moment when everything is so still it feels like time is slowing until you hit the fast-forward button and all hell breaks loose. Everyone turns and looks at me fighting with the gun and loading the slugs. Gaping grins, eyes white in amazement as I lift the barrel.
Seeing silence go is sad. Seeing chaos ensue sort of conjures tears. It is what it is.
It’s like trying to watch real life in fast-forward. Or rewind. Not really sure. It’s hazy, almost like those static lines are visible and people are just moving too fast. Running, crawling, jumping, sliding. Whatever they can do. There are people running forwards. Or backwards. Not really sure.
Now multiple blasts continue to sound through the halls and I’m just slowly making my way toward JC Penny. Or Macy’s. Not really sure. I’ve maintained the cooperation of that familiar voice, the father only in name, whispering words of encouragement by now. He’s becoming the mentor to the son he never gave a chance. And now that son has had enough of the world and its rules. What can you do to a man with nothing to lose and something to prove?
Here’s a clue: you don’t ease him in with half hour counseling sessions while probing his psyche with delicate dabs of medication. See, then you get this whole mess that’s about to unfold, and truthfully, nobody wants to be the one to scrub blood from the creases in the tile floor. We are talking about keeping it simple and this course is just too complicated.
More important clue: a man with nothing to lose and something to prove should not have access to a gun, at the very least.
Cut to the man with nothing to lose buying a Winchester Model 1897 and telling the employee that he would have his hunting permit in the mail tomorrow but was hoping to get out there today. That pesky father is reminding him that he never had a problem lying before. Why should this be any different?
“But, this isn’t a gun used for hunting,” explains the man behind the counter.
“Just tell him to mind his own goddamn business,” the voice persists in my head.
“Oh, really? Then what would you suggest for hunting bears? You know, the kind that gets up and walks on two hind legs.”
The note scribed in a glistening pink is still lonely on a vacant fridge as that Someone walks through the front door.
As it was before the silence, there were a good amount of people just enjoying the wonders of capitalism. Supply and demand. These people were just out getting some pots and pans, some jewelry for mom, or a new video game. Exchanging crisp bills and credit card swipes for the new fad. Signing their name for their fifteenth pair of shoes or some knick knack for Glenda’s new kid, then one for her other kid so he won’t get upset, and another for her other kid, and a few more of them because for the life of them, they can’t remember how many kids she’s actually squeezed out.
As it is after the bang, there are probably thirty to forty people scared out of their fucking minds wondering if they will flash to black or white. If he nabs me here, is it all over, or is there more than this? All they can think about is eternal salvation because that’s all you can really take from tragedy. You can only wonder if this asshole is going to hell for this. If he isn’t, we’ve got a problem, because that’s not fair.
If you’d like to focus on that Someone, she’s now gliding through the hallway just within the front door, gleeful as always. There’s something in her demeanor that so flawlessly accentuates her makeup, her lipstick, her jewelry. She’s prying off her shoes by way of her opposite foot without relinquishing her smile. There’s something about her happiness that screams out: apply within five minutes of rinsing face. Apply directly to skin. Remove within six hours of application. Almost as if her happiness has adjunct application instructions.
If you’d like to follow this Someone, she’s making a beeline for the fridge. She’s taking time to not notice the brilliant art project plastered on the door. With one hand applied to her forehead begging for the sweat to vanish, she’s opening the door and pulling out a bottle of water. She gulps it down, soothing her exhausted disposition. Now she’s using her time to carefully remove the bliss from her hair. Peel back from the base and lift straight up is what the manual might say.
My one member fan club is yelling at all these people running for cover that we’ll see them in hell, every last one of them, but only I can hear his sinister laugh. I’m running out of ammunition; one thing my brilliant mind has forgotten to calculate. There comes a time when you hit the end of the line.
So, now the echoes of the screams that could be dubbed in horror films have faded. The cracking of footsteps racing across the floor has dissipated. Stores are empty and quiet. Thirteen people stayed behind for the ride, but they aren’t breaking the awkwardness with small talk.
Yes, silence is better than police cruisers swerving through the parking lot and aiming their spotlights on the scene. Silence is better than this. The father who always said I’d be nothing is clapping and tossing me one last slug that is left over. He’s asking me how many shots I need to finish the job.
When the whole confrontation is over and the police start sectioning off the crime scene with that yellow tape, that’s when a certain someone finally notices the marooned letter fluttering in the wind. As soon as they start calling families and telling them the bad news, that someone is letting her guard down reading the letter. It is what it is.
What it isn’t: some kind of romantic tragedy. The two lovers separated by death and the mentally unstable man wishing they could live forever in eternity; that is certainly not this story.
What it is: some kind of personal struggle. The need to achieve. The desire to be capable in a world that seems so incapable of anything. Or maybe it really is just the ambition to die, to just say screw it all and see if that works, because this right now, this is not living.
By the time word spreads, the local news is there covering this thing, the national news is preying on another story for the good of fat pockets. And someone happens to be parked on the couch right in front of the television still gripping that ugly mustard colored note, not wanting to believe the last words, “this is not living.” She was really supposed to reapply another surface coat of joy, but that has taken a back seat. Instead, her emotions do the application automatically, no guide needed. They are bringing up feelings of abandonment, a loss of innocence. She doesn’t really give a shit about this guy who just exited the world in a killing rampage on a cloudy afternoon; she’s thinking about who she wanted to write her a letter and stick it on the fridge. She gives a shit about who he should be.
This Someone isn’t the type of person to recite the truth in the mirror so she can absorb it. She’s watching the sheriff give his press conference and can’t flip to a channel where this is not the top story. Now, I’m one of the most infamous people in the country but I’m not around to enjoy this fifteen minutes of fame. There’s Someone just napping on the couch, wondering what happened in the last twenty years and how difficult became so easy and simple.
There’s some pretty-faced field reporter talking about who the killer was and describing his life, what caused this disaster. Then there’s the someone sitting in her little home, all alone, not caring about who this guy they seem to be talking about was because she didn’t really know him. Somewhere, she knew it all this time. Someone is shutting off the television, placing the remote on the deserted couch, and going to sleep, because truth is too much.
For days and days, and weeks and weeks, the Someone, nestled in her home just sleeps and watches the aftermath. The continuous news coverage dies down and is replaced by human interest pieces on the victims. Dragging every piece of the story out until it’s stretched thin. The elderly couple, Jim and Rosanne, out for a bit of shopping, expecting their great grandchild to be born within days. The single mother and her two boys, Stevie and Davie, out for ice cream before the mom has to turn her kids over to the man responsible for their birth. Every day it’s someone new. And someone needs to know these people, every one of them.
She needs to know them through the screen, through the pristine vision of the media, through the legitimate sentiments of Oprah. She needs to cry, she needs to laugh. She needs to cry because she’s laughing. She needs to laugh because she’s crying. She needs to know because she wants to understand. She wants to understand how wrong she was and she wants to understand why.
She watches the court cases, alone on her couch. The families of the victims looking for what they can get out of it. The gauntlet of lawsuits. Families of Victims vs. Gun company. Families of Victims vs. The Mall. Families of Victims vs. The Crazy Son of a Bitch’s Psychiatrist. Families of Victims vs. The Pharmaceutical Giant. Whoever has a few extra bucks. The someone isn’t among the targets as it seems she had very little influence on my living. This makes a tear streak through her makeup.
She’s looking on, watching the opening of the memorial for the victims. The flowers, the granite slab with their names inscribed, the tears. It’s a beautiful piece of art really, a large block of stone remembering the victims surrounded by brilliant azalea’s. They read the names one by one and the families cry. You can tell who’s family it is by who they focus the camera on and who cries the most. She wishes the camera was focused on her. She wishes she had some symbol of remembrance.
For months and months, she sleeps and wonders. She hopes more than anything. Hopes it’s all a dream. Hopes this hasn’t really happened. She just wishes things could go back to normal and she’d forgive everything. She’d forgive everything if I just told her it wasn’t real, told her she’s safe, she imagined it. It was so much easier to be oblivious and pleasant that it got to being routine. Even if it wasn’t truth, she just wants something. Even if it wasn’t reality, she wants fantasy.
* * *
“Excuse me sir.” Flashing blue lights and beams from flashlights and dark figures approaching. “Excuse me sir.” Someone tapping against the window. Excuse me sir, can you please roll down your window?” I oblige, still confused about the rest of the day and night.
“Sorry, is there a problem?” I can sense the alcohol in the air rushing out to the cold outside.
“Sir, have you been drinking tonight?”
“Maybe just one or two.”
“Sir, it smells like a lot more than one or two.”
I reek of booze, I know this. I can still make out the sign to the side of my car that says “No Parking,” and for some reason I’m thinking that’s what is going to land me in a cell. Another officer explores the dark car with his flashlight.
“Do you have a license for that gun?”
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to step out of the vehicle.”
“Officer, officer. Really, I just had a few drinks and I was just sleeping it off for a few hours then I was going to head right home.”
“Sir, are you aware of the time?”
I jerk my head toward the dash when I realize the car isn’t on.
“Hey, don’t look at your watch.”
“Uhm. Well I went to Paddy’s at around six maybe. And I had a few drinks, so it must be around nine p.m.”
“It’s four in the morning, sir. I’m going to have to ask you to step outside the vehicle and either present a gun license or cooperate with what we tell you.”
“I don’t really have a license per se.”
You get the rest. The wild sirens and lights as the sun begins to peak through the darkness. The stumbling drunk being thrown in the back. Possession of illegal firearm. Disorderly conduct. Driving while intoxicated (even though the car was not on). Illegal Parking. The whole works.
There’s nothing much to say except this isn’t how it was supposed to happen. Not this way. In the end, I can’t even commit crimes correctly. “You win some, you lose some.” That’s what the boss mentioned after cutting me loose that morning, clichéd to the last bone in his body. It is what it is.
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