Years ago, my friend Dora Goss wrote this amazing horriblewonderful story, “The Belt,” in Flytrap. Maybe you can google Heather Shaw or Tim Pratt to see if they have back issues of their ‘zine. She felt the story was ugly, so she tried to tell it in the most beautiful way possible. And it was beautiful.
That got me thinking: I wonder if I could tell the most beautiful story in the ugliest way possible? So that’s what I did.
LISTEN TO ME
Does it really matter how I got here?
I got shot.
Some bumfuck kid showed up at the end of my third shift with a dumbass little cap gun waving around in the air. He was standing in front of a case of W-D-40, and across from a Nabisco display. It’s weird, the details you remember.
“You have to be shitting me,” I said. Which was dumb to say, but like I said it was the end of my third shift and I was dead on my feet. Maybe I was still a little bit stoned, too. Just a little, though. I was at work, after all.
The kid didn’t even bother to put on a mask or shoot out the fucking cameras.
“I have a GUN!” The kid’s eyes looked more crazy than scared. His fingernails were very clean, and his ears looked funny. If I’d been paying attention, I may have noticed that he had too many fingers, or maybe that the color of his skin was off. But I wasn’t paying much attention to anything but the gun, which was really small and weird-looking. I didn’t notice he was a fairy or an alien or a ghost or a wizard or whatever the fuck he was.
“Okay, okay,” I said. I lifted the drawer to hand him the twenties, and reached into it for the smaller bills, and the fucker shot me anyway, right in the hip. Or the gut. It was a real small bullet, I think. It only hurt a little. Warm blood seeped onto my crappy polyester uniform shirt, which pissed me off because I have to buy my own shirts.
While I clawed around at my belly like an insane squirrel he ran off, I guess. I sort of groped blindly around on the dusty, sticky counter behind the lottery ticket machine for the first aid kit I knew damn well was back in the office, and then the world went weird.
Or maybe I went weird. Or maybe I finally saw it the way it really is for the first time. Like I said, before the shot even came I was goddamned exhausted and a little fucked up.
I think I picked up the phone to call the cops, or I fell, or maybe I died but I don’t think so. Anyway. I got shot. Everything changed.
Instead of calling for help, I walked out the door into a howling wilderness – where I am right now.
When I was a kid, I always had the same fever dream: I was in the baseball field off Sauk Trail — the one nobody played at anymore since they put the power lines through — and there were all these other people there.
Like, all kinds: people I don’t know. There was a guy who looked like he pumped gas, and women in heels and lady-sport coats and diamond stud earrings, and guys in jogging suits with that dumbass stripe down the side, and little kids with grubby knees and snot on their cheeks and girls in soccer cleats. All kinds of fucking people.
And then there were these little tornado-like things, with dirt and sticks and other weird shit all mixed up in them, and the people and the little tornadoes were all doing this sort of dance. There was music; even the fiddlers didn’t miss a note or a beat as they jumped around with everybody else. Nobody got hurt by the string and bricks and nails and two-by-fours trapped in the tornadoes because they jumped through the center of the tornadoes perfect each time.
I stood on the edge and watched it all scared shitless because I knew what was coming next: the music skipped a beat or two, or someone stooped to pick up an earring, or — I don’t know what or why but things started falling the fuck apart. People crashed into each other and the tornadoes, and some got tied up with bits of twine and some got hit in the head and bled, but the most horrible part is that they kept trying to follow the same goddamned pattern. Musicians kept trying to get back in tune and rhythm with each other, but they were staggering around with bits of glass and hay stuck in their fingers, and the kids were falling into each other and stomping on each other’s heads and bellies to try to climb back into it all.
The creepiest fucking thing was that no one was making a sound except for the musicians who played no tune at all but louder and louder, scraping and shrieking and clashing, until the howling woke me up.
Then, I generally puked.
Walking out of the SuperAmerica after the kid shot me is a lot like walking into that old nightmare. Only I’m practically going deaf because everyone is wailing.
They’re screaming out of one side of their mouths, or they’re laughing like crazy people, or sobbing, or babbling in tongues or something. But the other side of their mouths are smiling.
And they’re in this complex dance gone-to-shit just like my dream, with the bricks and the tornadoes and the hay and the string, but they’re also walking down the street, driving their cars, checking their account balances, fucking, and smoking dumb-ass shit they shouldn’t.
The noise is fucking incredible.
At first I’m thinking it’s Armegeddon. But then I see that everyone is doing what they always do, totally oblivious to the half of them that is freaking the fuck out. The world isn’t falling apart any more than it ever was. The world is exactly the same. Nothing has changed but me.
And for some reason, I have stopped screaming or stuttering or whining or whatever I was doing before with the other half of my mouth. Or my other half. Or my other being. Or whatever the fuck it is. I think it’s because that crazy alien fairy guy changed me, with that little splinter of a goddamned bullet. And my other half stopped shitting himself, and I got to see what I’m seeing now.
The howling of the little tornadoes and the screaming, sobbing, and grunting of half of all the people is so loud that it swallows me up. I can barely stay on my feet. I have no idea how long I’ve been standing out in front of the SuperAmerica — hours, I think, because the sun is rising — and the general manager is suddenly all up in my face.
A tiny tornado spins around us and his second half is sobbing in a hopeless ragged kind of way. He’s heaving his skinny body with its soft middle through our conversation and the teeny little tornado with only minor head trauma.
The part of him he knows exists, though, is standing nose-to-nose with me, furious.
George is a good enough guy, really. Put yourself in his shoes. Without knowing I’ve been shot and can suddenly see the world for what it really is, he’s got a damn right to be pissed. I’m wandering around in front of the unlocked store like I’m tripping. And I’ll bet we were robbed some more; this neighborhood fucking sucks.
“I was shot,” half of me says to the angry half of him, and while I’m explaining about the shooting and I’m showing him the dried blood and telling him to check the video but leaving out the ooky-spooky stuff, the other half of me is talking to his sobbing half: loudly, trying to be heard over the tornado.
“You don’t have to do this,” that half of me says awkwardly as he wipes his snot on his sleeve and gets ready to leap through the wild tunnel again. “You can just stop.”
I am no good at this; I sound like a fucking idiot. I can tell he hears me, because he sorta shakes me off, but he’s still bracing himself to jump again. He looks really tired.
It doesn’t matter what I say. I even try to tell both parts of him with both parts of me: you don’t have to do this, stop trying to stick to the rhythm, walk away from the little tornado.
One thing it does do: George decides I’m feverish and hallucinating from the trauma and he calls an ambulance. He fills out Workman’s Comp paperwork for me to pay the bill. He doesn’t fire me.
You know, I fucking hate doctors, I really do.
All they do at the hospital is x-ray me and the doctor says (while his other half screams in agony over his dead sister) that the bullet is really small, and he’s afraid it’ll cause more damage if they take it out. I’ll bet Workmans’ Comp just doesn’t pay all that much for surgeries. I tell him I KNOW there was something on that bullet that infected me. I’ve been infected with fairy dust, I tell them. They tell me they test my blood, which of course comes out clean because they have no way of detecting fairy/alien/ghost/wizard dust. But I don’t know if they really do test it. They give me some antibiotics.
I finally sleep. How a guy can sleep through the ragged screams, panting, and howls of everyone around me would be a huge fucking mystery if I hadn’t already been up for like 30 hours or something. The sound of anguish and confusion actually turns into a sort of lullaby, and I realize that part of me was hearing this every night before I went to sleep, always.
I go back to work the next morning, watching customers drift through the aisles looking for cashews or diapers or crap-ass cupcakes while their other halves rage and howl and sob, when my mind explodes.
You know how some guys are always like: dood you need to fucking hear this/see this/smoke this/drop this/ it will BLOW YOUR MIND. And you’re all, well, that was a good song with nice heavy guitars or it made you very happy and see things that aren’t there but your mind feels pretty much the same?
Well, this music I’m hearing turns my brain inside and out and upside down. It sounds like every lullaby I’ve ever heard. Like every schoolyard rhyme. I’m hearing it for the first time, but I could sing along if I wanted.
It feels like a clap of thunder, like a hailstorm; like a hurricane so large it will sweep up the tornadoes, show us how hollow they are, and tear them to pieces.
I think well, shit. Now I really am going to lose my job, which I really needed and now what am I going to do, but there’s nothing I can do about it.
Because the minute I hear it, I’m out the door after that song.
For fuck’s sake I’m in pursuit of a song. It’s like the music has grabbed me by the skull and the nuts, and if I don’t follow it, it’ll rip them both off.
I can’t even hear what George says, if he says anything, but I’m down the sidewalk and going straight like an arrow toward the music. At first I get really confused because there are all these fences and yards and brick walls between me and her, but then I remember about roads and boundaries. I figure out some way of getting there, I think, without hurting myself too bad.
I am running, my breath hard in my chest like fire, across the city. My feet probably hurt; I have no fucking idea. I cross the street against the light; I dimly hear a truck driver shout fuck you, you goddamned cocksucker at me while his other half begs me to turn around and kiss him just one kiss for god sakes just one goddamned kiss.
I’m heading through downtown and out the other side; I feel as if I’m on a bicycle maybe, because I’m going so fast, or maybe my shoes are nailed to the pavement because I’ll never get there never never ever never get there.
But then I’m there.
I’m standing in front of a very small house in East Phillips — the roof is old, but the yard is raked and the trim is painted, even though the lawn next to it is full of garbage and some of the neighbor’s windows are boarded up. Someone is kneeling in the well-tended yard, her back to me.
That someone is a woman, weeding, while her other half is singing.
Maybe I get to bone her?
But I see, now that she’s practically 100 goddamned years old.
And hearing her music up close makes me ashamed I thought of boning her in the first place — old or young. Who can think of boning at a time like this?
“Me, that’s fucking who,” says my second half from its corner of my mouth, who may have stopped screaming but who is, sadly, still me.
I’m not sure what I’m expecting. I guess I figure she knows, too. That she can see the screamers and sobbers and the evil fucking tornadoes.
“Hi,” I say to her, because I don’t know what the good goddamn else to say and she hasn’t said anything to me, yet. I expect her to smile, now, and all of our selves will talk to each other.
But her singing self ignores me totally and her everyday self gives me the nervous stare of a lady in her own garden looking at a panting, sweaty stranger with wild eyes and snot leaking out of his nose from running halfway across town.
I feel so stupid; I probably look like an eager puppy dog, but her song turned me inside out. I don’t feel bad for my first thought. I want to be as close to her as possible in any damn way possible. The song is filling me up, pounding me down, washing away everything I hate in the rising tide.
“Yes,” asks the old woman suspiciously, looking up and down the empty street. She grips her trowel with strong, gnarled fingers, and her knee guards are covered in dirt.
I don’t know what to do; I thought if I just got to her, everything would be all right. Everything would begin.
“Can’t you see them?” I ask her, like a jackass.
She stands up very straight then and pins me with an angry blue eye. I’m thinking now she’s more like in her early 70s and sharp as a tack.
“You on something?” she asks. Her second half is singing more and more gloriously, now, higher and higher. Stronger. Clearer. I want to roll around in it, to scoop up the sound in big handfuls and pour it over the city.
“No!” I say. “Honest! I just . . .open your eyes!” I find myself bellowing over the sound of that singing. “God fucking damnit!”
My second self is pulling out all of the stops: yelling, trying to sing with her, jumping up and down and waving his hands in her face.
She begins to back toward her house.
I leap over the fence and block her way. “Wait!”
I don’t know what to do. All I know is this: for the first time in my entire fucking life, I have a purpose. I know I have to do something. Now.
She rears back from me like I’m infected with something and then I remember: I am infected. That thing that looked like a mugger infected me with his bullet, and I have to infect her.
How do I do it? Seducing her seems out of the question at this point, and I can’t imagine raping anybody, least of all a little old lady with the most beautiful fucking soul I have ever seen — but I don’t know what to do, goddamnit.
But then I know what to do, and I’m snorting up the runny snot in my nose while I pull her close, and she opens her mouth real wide to scream and then fuck me forever I spit a hocker in her mouth.
She starts spluttering and gagging, shrieking, as her second self sings blissfully away, like none of this matters.
She is trying to get past me into her house to call the cops, still choking and gasping, when her whole body goes rigid.
Her eyes widen. She sees.
And then she begins to sing. All of her.
The force of the song knocks me flat on my ass, and it spreads from her so goddamned fast I can’t even believe it — rushing out further than even I can see, which suddenly is really fucking far.
And what I can see is this: person after person, in downtown, uptown, alleys, houses, parks, cul-de-sacs, fields, cars, bicycles, busses, cities, towns. On dirt roads, on pavement, in the middle of jungles, across from garbage dumps, in penthouses, on ice floes, in one-room schoolhouses, in downtown skyscrapers, on airplanes, in love, in trouble. Dropping their kids off at school. Picking up whores on 31st Street. Scratching their balls. Throwing frisbees. Hauling water. Fighting. Running. Hollering at each other in traffic. Weaving their way through crowded streets on overloaded bicycles, wandering down nearly empty dusty roads. Picking peaches. Pulling sugar beets. Rolling cigars. Punching sheet metal. Killing chickens. Fucking. Sleeping in dirty huts or spacious villas. Driving water buffalo. Driving away from lovers, toward jobs, throwing balls, throwing bombs, throwing words, throwing up.
All of the people: all of them, everywhere, put down their pots and ploughs and fists, drop what they’re doing, and turn to listen.