“Hey! What are you doing in my dumpster?!” the burly restaurateur hollers from the back of his shop. I duck down, wolfing half a sandwich in a bite and dropping the rest as he struts across the alley.
“I thought I saw a shelf in here,” I lie, holding up a broken board as evidence. For some reason people are more offended by the idea of eating trash than they are about me decorating my home with it.
“Yeah, whaddevuh, just beat it kid,” he gruffs, poking a thumb fatter than my wrist toward the street.
“I’m beatin’!” I hop out of the dumpster like a scared cat. Halfway to the street, I turn. “Hey, you’re not hirin’ are you?” I’m always looking for work—anything, and I don’t want this guy to get pissed and start dumping bleach on his food. They have the best hoagies in town.
“For you?” he asks, thrusting his hands out palms-up and framing me with a helpless query. He waves, disgusted, and turns back into his kitchen.
I shrug and lope out of site. Life as a gutter rat is scary sometimes. You never know when some burly, three-times-your-size dickhead is going to cut loose and take out a lifetime of shit and suffering on you. I once had my jaw broken when a gorilla decided to use my face for a golf club against the fender of a car because I said hello in the wrong language. You learn to keep your mouth shut. You also learn to watch body language and develop a strong instinct for the best time to cut and run.
Things won’t be like this forever. I have even just now completed my manuscript. There is a spring in my usually heavy step. It is the quiet hope of a man who has just been informed that his parole has been approved, or that his missing loved one is coming home. This book is good. I already have a two paragraph summary written up. I recite it in my head as I walk:
All stories have very simple beginnings, the drop of a name, the changing of seasons. Robert Engel’s love affair with archaeology began as a simple dream in the mind of a child. Now, in the rainforests of Central America, that dream has begun to manifest itself and it may change the very nature of life on earth. Faced with an ancient prophecy he must walk a trail as the sole representative of humanity, a trail intended for a very different being. Can he prevail and save his species?
Gritty, suspenseful, and brimming with lavish detail and rich narratives, this tale ushers in a new era for fiction fans by stretching back and touching the Sacred. Imaginative, creative, and original, this story echoes ancient wisdom in the tradition of the warrior poets. An epic journey that is startling, though-provoking, and full of deep implications and questions. Sure to be the year’s best seller!
I felt kinda arrogant putting that last bit in there, but after much consideration I decided that I have seen some pretty lousy books that said that too, so I figure it must be like ‘creative visualization’…if you imagine hard enough you can will something to be. Even though my book is fan-fucking-tastic and I don’t need luck, it never hurts to have some just in case. My chest swells briefly. I am proud of this book. Without being conceited, my work is way better than anything Penn Sting ever dreamed of writing. The artwork is outstanding, too…
I turn to unlock the front door of the complex and in the reflection of the glass window, beyond my sleepy, brown eyes and dark features, I see it. I close my eyes for a minute. I just sent the manuscript by certified mail yesterday, which means I’m imagining things. I open my eyes, but it’s still there. Muted Prophecies: 1 Ahau. I walk across the street numbly. I pull a copy of the manuscript out of my pocket and hold it up. The goggle-eyed man atop the step-sided pyramid in the comic shop sign and the man atop the pyramid on my manuscript cover are identical down to the brush-stroke, with one exception: the name Rick Barber isn’t anywhere on the sign, which reads: Written by Penn Sting, Illustrated by Carl Toland.
I feel like I’m in a different, foggy, and possibly drug-induced world. The sun is up now, which means that I have been standing here, in front of the comic shop looking at the sign and my manuscript for hours. Since four o’clock, I have drifted, anchored by incredulity to this spot; turning my escape out of poverty over and over in my hands; opening it, closing it; touching the Illustrated by Rick Barber printed on the cover. For nearly four hours I have hovered here squinting at details beneath first, the flickering streetlight and then, beneath the first rays of morning. I have read it and re-read it more times than I can count and I remember writing it and drawing it, and rewriting and redrawing, inking, cutting, pasting, and scanning. I remember being struck by ideas for half a year until the novel was so exquisitely perfect that no one could ever turn it down. Of course, all of that is immediately called into question on looking up into the window and the glossy sign in front of me.
This has happened before. Once I designed a character and drew up six full issues with an extended two year plot line. On the day I finished it, I took it over to show my friend Larry. He showed me the pre-sales for a new series that was identical to mine and accused me of ‘somehow’ stealing manuscripts from the artist, though how I was supposed to have managed that, I’ll never know. That was six years ago, and he still looks at me with shifty eyes and hunched shoulders, like a boar who could charge at any moment.
I walk through the dingy halls into my tiny efficiency, pausing at my box on the way to retrieve the fan-mail I regularly receive from collection agencies. The walls are papered with painted mosaics in bright four-color dots framed by off-white trim like a comic book. Heroes are locked in defiant combat with arch-foes, struggling for the fate of humanity. I drop my keys and the mail on the table I made out of an old door and cinder blocks and flop onto the couch in a heap. Action figures stare at me from displays around the room; on top of the mini-fridge, clustered around the ashtray and Zippo fluid on the counter, on top of the dresser; a thousand tiny spies transmitting my precious work to corporate thieves who steal my dreams, steal my hope. There is no voluntary muscle movement, now. I am lying like a man waiting for death; the innocent prisoner who is freed, after his life is over, with an apology and a handshake.
Then I see it. I have lain here in this exact position before, but I have never before seen the tiny little hole. It is a small, jagged rip in the wall where the paint has cracked and it bulges strangely. I swear there is a weak light shining through and I feel like I am being watched by a million eager eyes. I watch, in awe, as a roach skitters into the strange fissure. I know I haven’t done anything horribly illegal, but I feel like I am being appraised and judged, like my soul is exposed to humanity. I feel small and frail. I hear murmurs now, a cacophony of whispers tearing into my heart and mind.
“Who…are…you?” I demand, my gnarled, knotted fingers clutching handfuls of hair on either side of my head as I try to shut out the deafening roar of whispers.
The whispers continue without acknowledging me. I hate being ignored and the whispers have taken on a harsh, grating tone. I also hate being perceived as small and frail. I attack the rip in the wall viciously, with my bare hands; prying my fingertips into the edges of the hole and digging my way out of this tiny illustrated box; peeling away ink and paper, ripping the border away to see what hovers so menacingly beyond—in the next frame.
The light is blinding and the whispers are now deafening, interspersed with screams of rage and shrieks of horror and heartbreak. Still I tear at the wall, ripping the hole open wider and enraging the whispers further with my insolence. I am burning beneath their stares. Greasy fingers smudge my glossy skin, staining and streaking me, pressing me back down into the page. My life is laid out, frame by frame, before their eager eyes. Every pain and sorrow is for their amusement, every thought and every sin open for their scrutiny. “Do I even have free will?” Or is my entire life just a twisted plot-line? I curl up in a ball in this new tiny frame I find myself in, with only vague images of roaches and a brown envelope lingering in my perception.
* * * * *
I wake with a start on my sofa. I don’t feel like I was drugged, which I of all people would know, but I don’t feel right. Something is off. I rub my rough hands over my face, running them through my short black hair. I take a deep breath and feel the pinch of anxiety churning gastric juices in my center. I make my way to the mini-fridge, trying to avoid making contact with the glaring action figures in formation there. I keep what little food I have here refrigerated, to protect it from bugs. The bugs are everywhere in this neighborhood. City workers try not to go in the sewers without special suits, because the bugs down there are so big and so numerous.
Some French bread and cheese should settle my stomach. I cut the moldy spots off the cheese block and wolf it down. I used to enjoy eating, but now I consume as much as I can as quickly as I can, so I can move on, like a scavenger. I wipe the grease from the cheese onto my jeans. My gaze falls to the table. A roach skitters to the edge the table, staring at me with accusing eyes, a tiny judge waiting to fill my ecological niche, but satisfied to feed off of me for the time being. The spiky hairs on its legs send a wave of revulsion through me. I am sickened by its horrible, disease infested visage. It chitters briefly, moving its antennae sickeningly. Others emerge and join it. Their glassy little eyes fix on me and they chitter to one another. I know they are talking about me. I can hear their whispers; almost understand their murmurs. There are so many of them now, that they practically coat the entire surface of the door-table and the assorted shit that is strewn about its surface.
Sweat glistens on my face. I can feel it beading up in my hairline even though there is a chill that has taken residence in my spine. No longer merely a swarm now, the bugs seem to be moving in unison, like a colony setting about a specific task. Suddenly the idea strikes me. Its absurdity dictates its inherent truth. The roaches have been the spies all along. My revulsion quickly turns rage. Everything makes sense now…my ideas being stolen, the whispers, the eyes…even the dearth of pimentos in the cheese spread when I left it out. It was them all along. “You!” I scream, jumping to my feet. “You are the ones responsible! You have taken all of my dreams; you have sold off my hope like a stolen wedding ring!”
The roaches were chittering louder now, rising up off of the table, climbing over one another’s slippery chitin shells. I kick the table over and leap towards the counter, swiping a bottle of lighter fluid. I fumble desperately with the tip and spray it onto the table where they are regrouping. I spray until the bottle is empty, soaking the door and as many of their revolting little bodies as I can. I pull the matches from my pocket and strike a match.
“Fuck you,” I say as I toss it into the center of their mass. Their chittering becomes a shriek, high pitched, almost deafening, but infinitely satisfying. I sit down on my sofa and begin sorting through the scattered contents of my table, still very pleased with myself and enjoying the glowing light of my table fire, the sizzling and popping of the bugs’ bodies indistinguishable from the popping and hissing of the wood.
Amid my fan-mail is a plain brown envelope. Its presence is disturbing and I hesitate, freezing in my movement as though it is going to grow teeth and attack me. I take a deep breath and stare at my brown, scarred knuckles. The cuticles are scratched and torn, puffy red. The hole in the wall is a foot long slit, swollen and pulsing. Sweat is beading on my forehead. I open the envelope and I am greeted by the back of a graphic novel. My breath shudders out of my nose. I close my eyes and turn over the book.
The Insignificant Life of Rick Barber
The book drops from my shaking hands onto the floor. The heavy cardstock cover drops open. My life is an insignificant graphic novel. There on the first page, I stand, holding scraps of paper and staring at a store window. I pick it up and see my life bared. Shrieks of murmuring intermittently rip through my mind. I live in an empty room with a board and illustrated furniture. My fantasies and my realities are colliding. I feel as though I’m falling forward at a hundred miles an hour, doomed to collide into the painted wall in a thin puddle of fluid and fragments.
My heart is pounding faster and faster, the veins on my forehead bulging. The pages flip, and my eyes are locked on the words and images printed there. My thoughts flow from me in the exact order in which they are written. The pictures are blurred and twisted. Bursts of white light blink in my periphery. The sweat from my hands is warping the pages now. The pages continue to flip and I realize that I can no longer tell whether I am turning the pages or the pages are turning themselves beneath my clumsy, grease and naphtha covered fingers. Faster the pages flip, and faster, keeping time with the deafening drumming in my chest. I close my eyes. I am falling so fast, as though I can feel myself moving through space at a million miles an hour, perched upon this rock. I am terrified to read the last page…
* * * * *
“Yeah, this unit just opened up yesterday, so I haven’t got it cleaned out yet, but it won’t take long to finish,” the older man rasped as he opened the door. “Kid took off. Guess he went to go find greener pastures.” He said turning on the light with his pudgy fingers.
“Whoa…” the young man said turning around in the efficiency.
“Yeah. Kid had some talent. Not sure what to do with it. Reckon I can’t throw it away. Even if he never comes to pick it up, it’ll be worth somethin’ someday.”
The prospective renter walked around the room, greasy fingers gliding gently across the surface of the murals on the walls and the drawings of luxurious furniture. He paused at the only picture that was not on giant sheets of paper. “What is this one made with?” he asked touching the glossy surface. “It’s like it’s inlaid in the plaster.”
“Yeah. I ain’t never seen nothin’ like that,” the landlord replied tugging his ear, arms crossed on his chest and resting on his bulging abdomen. “Reckon I’ll have to replace the sheet rock, so it’ll be a day or two before this unit’s ready, but like I said, them one-bedrooms are ready right now.”
“No, no…this one’s kinda creepy, but it’s so well done…it’s like having a van Gogh in your living room. Let’s leave it,” he said staring at the screaming, illustrated man. The sleepy brown eyes of the painted man glistened like obsidian, and his dark curls threatened to pop out of the wall. He seemed to be struggling, bound in the straight-jacket, as though he were trying to leap out of the wall, or being sucked into a panel in a comic book. At the bottom of the frame was a bold golden-rod colored box with black letters:
Next month: Dissecting the mind of Rick!
This short story first appeared in the OU Windmill, 2007. Reprinted with permission of the author.