2009 story submission by “Labruda” (Jon Labrousse)
Tom couldn’t have chosen a less ideal day for the funeral. It was too hot out, for one, and too late in the day. To make matters worse, there was a construction crew, a group of short men in orange hard hats, tearing down a building at the end of the alley. They were making such a racket with all their banging and smashing, that Tom kept fumbling through his eulogy.
“Hey, could you guys—” he’d tried. “Hey! Hey! I’m trying to—”
It was no use. They couldn’t hear him, and Tom was not one for confrontation. He’d just have to move on. This was not how he’d planned to say goodbye.
It was important to keep her close, Tom had decided, so he’d dug the grave in the garden box on the small patio behind his apartment, nothing but an old dresser drawer, really, filled with dirt and dandelions. The dirt was so hard and compacted that he’d needed to use a knife, as well as a spoon, to dig the grave. In it, he’d stuffed her remnants: a stack of grocery lists, a few poem fragments, some notes to self… Nothing finished, nothing important. Solid proof that she was gone; his muse was dead.
For a headstone, he’d found a large, flat rock down at the river. It had been his inspiration for the funeral. It was too big to skip, and a little too oblong. Stuck in the ground, though, it made the perfect, albeit, miniature, tombstone. On it, he’d scrawled simply, in his best handwriting, “Tom’s Muse, R.I.P.” For all she’d given him in the past, she’d never even told him her name.
Tom heaved a sigh and lit the candle he’d forced into the foot of the freshly filled grave. Unfortunately, the only candle he could find in his apartment was a bright blue “4,” a leftover from his 24th birthday party. He had no idea what had happened to the “2.” In place of incense, Tom lit the last good poem she’d given him, and let it burn in the green ashtray his grandfather had given him on his 18th birthday with a pack of unfiltered Lucky Strikes. “For the writer,” his grandfather had croaked, himself a three-pack-a-day man of 72 years.
In place of lilies, he plucked every dandelion from the box and laid them across the grave. “I don’t know what I’m going to do without you,” he whispered, running his finger over the smooth tombstone one last time. “Where will the stories come from?”
Tom stopped at the sliding glass door for a final glare at the construction crew still hard at work. They didn’t even know he existed, so he flipped them off and ducked into his apartment.
The TV was still on. Tom grabbed a Rock Star out of the fridge and flopped down on the sofa to catch up with the news.
“…was torn down today, despite protests from numerous activist groups and concerned citizens,” the news anchor, Kip Martin, said, before the camera cut to “William Johnson of Oregon History Today.”
“What we’re trying to say is that change is not good. You can’t just tear down the past—” William Johnson managed to get out before the camera cut back to the studio, and Kip’s famous smirk.
“The new Social Justice Center, Portland’s first public ‘Zero Energy Building’ will be built entirely from recycled materials. I don’t know, Mary, sounds like progress to me,” Kip chuckled.
Tom’s cell phone chirped at him. It was a text message from his best friend, Josh.
Tom checked his watch. It was almost 6:30. Already?
“Hens?” Tom texted back, referring to their girlfriends.
“Chicks!” Josh responded instantly. Which is why Josh had never kept a girlfriend longer than six months.
“Adventure…” Tom paused, and looked up at the TV. The news anchorman was looking right at him.
“…in other news, it’s been 33,249 minutes since Tom Jordan wrote anything more meaningful than a grocery list,” Kip announced, as if on cue.
Tom dropped his cell phone on the floor, and had to lean down to get it from under the couch, where it had skittered. In the brief moment he’d taken his eyes off the screen, Kip and Mary had passed the ball to the weatherman, who was announcing more sunny skies in the week to come.
“Commitment.” Tom texted back.
Tom was ten minutes late getting to the bar. He found Josh on the sidewalk outside, talking with two unusually short, stocky women with thick, curly hair. In the dark, they could almost pass for sisters. From behind, brothers.
“Hey Josh, sorry I’m—”
“There’s a waiting list, dude. Half hour, at least.”
“This is Emma and Nora.”
“Hi,” Tom said, barely acknowledging them. “Look, Josh, I’ve had a—”
“They know a place, what did you call it?”
“Gorgon’s Head,” Emma replied, her voice coming from deep in her chest. She was the taller of the two by an inch, or so.
“The Gorgon’s Head. Ever heard of it, Tom?” Josh asked.
Tom and Josh had made a point of hitting every bar in town when they’d moved to Portland after college three years ago, narrowing it down to a handful of regular haunts.
Tom shook his head, “No, can’t say I—”
“Let’s check it out,” Josh interrupted again. “Emma, Nora, lead the way!”
Emma and Nora hooked elbows and walked ahead of the guys, whispering to each other. Even their whispering had a deep, hefty quality
“What’s with the, you know, the dwarfs, Josh?” Tom asked as they fell into step. They were heading north, towards the River District. Not Tom’s favorite area to be in after dark, or during the day, for that matter.
“Shh. Be cool.” Josh put his arm over Tom’s shoulders and pulled him closer. “They approached me, man. And, besides, I promised you an adventure.”
“I know, but…” Tom watched Emma and Nora wobble along swiftly ahead of them. They both wore plain, earthy clothing: thick leggings under dark, wool skirts and cotton blouses. Tom was pretty sure either one could break him in half if they wanted to.
“I mean, they seem nice enough, but…”
“Just roll with it, dude. I said adventure, not wedding.”
After 5 quiet minutes of turning corners, Tom was sure they were just walking in circles.
“Are we almost there?” Tom asked.
“Is close,” Nora replied with a quick look back over her shoulder. Was that a grin? The girls slowed, so Tom and Josh could catch up with them, and they walked four abreast. The sidewalks were dark and empty. Tom had lost all track of where they were.
“So,” Emma asked, taking charge of the situation, “what you do for living?”
“I draw comics,” Josh bragged.
“Yeah, dark, creepy comics,” Tom added.
Josh shrugged. “It’s work. Hell, it’s fun work. At least I’m producing, Tom.”
Tom winced a little at the jab. Nora noticed and touched his elbow. “What’s wrong?” she asked.
“It’s just…” Tom let out a heavy sigh. Did he really do it? “I buried my muse today.”
“Muse? Are you poet?” Emma asked.
“Poet, writer, yeah. What I really want is to write stories.”
“Then write stories!” Emma said.
“It’s not that simple. They just—They gotta—They gotta come from somewhere, you know? I don’t know what to write about. My muse…”
Josh rolled his eyes and shook his head. “There are stories everywhere, man. You just gotta write ’em.”
“My muse is dead,” Tom muttered, more to himself than anyone else.
Nora patted Tom’s elbow. “Maybe you write about us, huh?” Nora’s lips slid open displaying a set of thick, blocky, yellow teeth, curved into a genuine smile.
“Here,” Emma said a few steps ahead of them. “Down here.” She was pointing down a stairway that led into the basement of a dark, brick building. There was a wooden sign swinging on a hanger above the opening. “The Gorgon’s Head,” was elegantly carved around a hideous Gorgon’s head, so carefully crafted that the snakes in her hair appeared to move when the sign swayed in the wind.
“Nice,” Josh said, and led the way down the steps. Tom grabbed him by the shoulder.
“Are you sure about this?”
Josh shook free of Tom’s grasp and tromped down the steps, and the girls followed closely after. Nora stopped and held the door open at the bottom, dimly illuminating the steps. “Come, Tom. We have fun, okay?”
Tom looked at the dark buildings and streets around him. He wasn’t sure he could find his way back to his apartment alone.
“Okay. Fun,” he said, trying to sound more sold than he was, and he followed Nora into the Gorgon’s Head.
They stepped into a large, open room with a bar in the back corner, and booths lining the walls. The booths were deep enough that Tom could tell someone was in every one of them, but he couldn’t see what they looked like. There was a dank, musty smell to the place, like a cave, Tom thought. Josh and Emma had already settled down at one of the empty wooden tables that filled the center of the room. Josh had chosen a table where they could see the television above the bar.
Tom pulled out Nora’s chair for her, and sat next to Josh. There was a short, stocky, thick-bearded man sitting at the bar, wearing an orange hard hat and filthy work clothes. He was intently focused on the boxing match on television. Tom looked up at the screen and blinked his eyes. Twice. Both of the boxers were about four feet tall and sported thick beards. Red-beard wore bright orange trunks, and Black-beard wore green trunks. Orange Hard Hat at the bar was clearly rooting for Red-beard, and he was quite agitated, pounding his abnormally large fist on the bar to emphasize each blow.
“How’s a guy get a drink around here?” Josh asked loud enough that Orange Hard Hat turned and glared at them briefly.
“What can I get you boys?” asked a deep, breathy, feminine voice behind him.
Josh turned to look into the belt of what had to be the tallest man he’d ever seen, seven feet if he was a foot.
“Boys?” Tom asked, glancing over at Nora, next to him. Was that stubble?
“And ladies, of course. Just a figure of speech.”
“Mead,” said Emma, and Nora grunted her approval.
“What the heck, mead all around,” Josh said with a flourish. Tom shrugged.
The bartender loped back to the bar to prepare their drinks, and Tom returned his attention to the television just in time to see Red-beard knock Black-Beard literally up and off his feet with a brutal uppercut. A short gasp escaped Tom’s throat.
Before Blackbeard could hit the floor, Kip Martin, the news anchor cut in with a news bulletin.
“It’s been 33,420 minutes since Tom Jordan wrote anything more thoughtful than a thank you card. News at 11.”
Tom nearly knocked Josh out of his chair with the power of his nudge. “Did you—Josh, did you see that?”
“I’m—what the fuck, Tom?” Josh asked, regaining his balance.
“On the TV, the news guy. Did you see that?”
Josh looked up at the TV to see the referee count “8…9…10,” and Red-beard run around the ring with tiny little steps, shaking his gloved fists in the air at his cheering fans. The camera panned quickly across the audience in a blur of bright orange.
“Dude,” Josh said through a scowl. “It’s just boxing. Chill out.”
“But it wasn’t—He was just—” It was no use. Josh was already talking with Emma.
A sudden thud at the bar demanded Tom’s attention. Orange Hard Hat pounded a sledgehammer (a sledgehammer!) three times hard on the wooden floor, shouting, “Sledge!” after each thump.
Tom’s cell phone chirped that he had a text message. He fumbled it out of his pocket.
“Where U?” It was his girlfriend, Lana.
He stole another, longer look at the two girls at his table: definite stubble. Except for Orange Hard Hat pounding on the bar, the rest of the joint had gone eerily quiet. Faces peered out of the booths, thick faces, all looking up at the bar, all watching him. He’d climbed up onto the bar and continued his pounding and chanting. The others were starting to grin; they were catching on. The leaned further out of their booths. No one else in the bar, Tom realized, except for himself, Josh and the bartender were over 5 feet tall.
Tom’s nerves were sizzling. He heard scuffling noises around him and jumped as something brushed past his hip. It was a little… person. Even smaller than the rest of them, they were thin with dark hair and darker features. They were all over the place. Thin, and no bigger than kindergartners, they were quietly moving all the tables out of the center of the bar. A steady chant started growing from the room around him. The same word, over and over, drawn out into two syllables: “Sle-edge! Sle-edge!”
Even Josh raised his eyebrows at Tom, and kicked him under the table, nodding, like, “See! Wow, I told you I’d find you and adventure!”
Tom stood up quickly, knocking back his chair. “I have to, I gotta…” He pointed at the cell phone in his hand as he backed away from the table.
“Phone call. Too loud.”
Josh and the girls had joined the chanting. “Sle-edge! Sle-edge!”
At the door, Tom looked back and saw that Orange Hard Hat was still on the bar, but he’d stopped chanting. The head of his sledgehammer was resting on the bar, his hands were folded over the end of the handle, and he was glowering at Tom. Tom turned and stumbled out of the bar, up the steps, and hit the street moving.
He wasn’t sure where he was, but if he kept walking, he’d hit Downtown, or the river, eventually, right? He just needed to keep moving until he found someplace familiar. There were no street signs at the corners, and the buildings all looked the same: squat brick, boxes. Worse yet, too many streetlights were out. If his muse were here, he mused, she’d know what to do. In her absence, he called his girlfriend, Lana. Lana of horoscopes and crystals, of incense and the senses, vegan Lana of deep spirituality and open chakras.
“Hey baby,” she answered.
“I’m lost.” Tom choked back a sob.
“I know honey, but it’s just writer’s block. You’ll get over it.”
“No, I mean really lost. I don’t know where—what was that?”
“Probably the monks.”
“The Gyoto Monks. I was meditating with them; they really—”
“No. I mean—there it is again. Hold on.”
Tom switched the phone to his left hand and reached into his pocket for his keychain. The meanest thing on it next to the bottle opener was his apartment key. Then the LED flashlight, then the bike lock key. Tom didn’t even own a car.
“Who’s there?” he shouted.
“It’s me, honey. Lana.”
“Shh, Lana.” Tom whispered into the phone. “I mean here. Over— Oh shit. They’re coming. They’re… They’re… squirrels?”
Tom tried blasting them with his LED flashlight, but the shadows kept approaching, slowly at first, but picking up speed as their numbers gathered. Hundreds of them. Thousands? How many squirrels could there be in downtown Portland?
“Oh my God, Lana, they’re coming after me.” Tom turned tail and ran as fast as he could. The squirrels were barking, low and guttural, and the skitter of their claws on the sidewalk made Tom’s skin crawl.
“Squirrels are coming after you, Chipmunk?” Lana broke in. “That’s just silly. Sweetie… Are you high?”
Somewhere further back in the darkness, something else was closing in, as well. At first, he’d thought it was just the normal clang and bang of the city, but it was getting steadily louder. Tom wasn’t sure what was worse, the squirrel incursion, or the rhythmic banging on what had to be trash can lids. An army of them. At least he could see the squirrels.
“I’ll call you back.” Tom slammed his phone shut and stuffed it in his pocket.
He ran down the block, rattling door after door until the glass door of a storefront finally pushed open. Just as he stepped inside and pressed back against the door, a mountain of squirrels piled against it, almost knocking him over. Tom leaned in with all his weight, but he couldn’t hold out for long. The squirrels were piled so high against the door and storefront window, that he couldn’t see the street. He could see nothing but a scrambling flurry of furry bellies, flailing legs, gnashing teeth, and beady little eyes.
Tom managed to turn the deadbolt into the doorframe just before his strength gave out, but refused to let go until the pile gradually tumbled down from the top and the vermin scattered. He pressed his ear to the door, but could no longer hear the clatter of the trashcans, either. Were the two somehow related?
“Where am I?” Tom asked aloud, suddenly aware of the dim glow, the smell of burning cloves, and a low steady hum behind him.
“Sorry to barge in like that,” he said, turning around, “but did you see—” There was nothing in the room but a lit candle on a short, square table, and an old man with a white beard and thick curly white hair, sitting in a wooden rocking chair that had probably been built for a child. He was wearing dark glasses and was covered in a bright orange afghan.
“It’s not every day that the squirrels are driven,” he croaked.
“I said, it’s not every d—”
“I got that, but what do you mean, ‘driven?’ Driven why? I mean, does that happen often?”
“Not for, oh, 23 days or so…”
Tom stared blankly at the man, trying to calculate in his head how many minutes there were in 23 days.
The man rocked slowly. “Hell of a story anyhow, now isn’t it?”
Tom looked around again, noting the nothingness of the place. Just a table, the rocking chair, and the man in it. There wasn’t even a door other than the front door, as far as he could see.
“What is this place?” Tom turned to decipher the letters through the storefront window, but they were backwards, and seemed to be in another language. When he turned back around, the room was still dimly lit, but the old man was gone. So were the rocker and table.
The walls were painted deep red, and there was a high, black counter with two large notebooks on it, blocking a curtained doorway. Behind the counter was a scantily clad, bald woman whose every inch of skin appeared to be tattooed. Tom fixated on the single diamond stud in her lip, her only piercing.
“That is so not cool, dude.”
Tom sputtered. “I’m sorry, I wasn’t staring. Honest, I—”
“Fuck that. I’m talking about the door.”
“Didju?” Tom turned back and forth between her and the door several times before he noticed the letters on the window had changed. He stopped and deciphered their backward scrawl: “Blaze-On Tattoos.”
“As in, unlock it, asshole, this is business hours. And if you’re some freak, or something, I will shoot your cock off,” the bald, tattooed lady told him.
The gun she had pulled from under the counter was impossibly small. Tom had to squint to see it, which made him chuckle. Which was a mistake. Which caused the tattooed girl to cock the gun and aim it at his crotch.
“Dante!” she called over her shoulder, a rise of warning in her voice.
“Look, I…” Tom started. He heard a stool screech against concrete behind the curtain. He turned and tried to push through the door. It clanked and he hit his head against it. Stupid. He’d locked the door! He fumbled for the latch, hearing heavy footsteps, and the swoosh of the curtain behind him. Got it! The latch turned.
Tom chanced a glance behind him as he pushed through the door, expecting to see a monster. “Sorry, I just—” The tattooed girl still had her tiny gun aimed low, but Dante was nowhere in sight.
Empty threats, Tom thought as he ducked out of the shop, into the street. He heard a solid thump behind him as the door swung shut, louder than the door should have been, and could have sworn that he’d seen a hint of orange, just a crescent, above the counter. After a quick scan of the streets for squirrels, he heaved a sigh and walked in the direction opposite from where they’d come.
Tom was tired. His legs were feeling weak, and there seemed to be no end in sight. He was becoming so desperate that he found himself looking for a safe corner or bench to curl up in and sleep. From Muse-less to Homeless in one day! He clenched his hand into a fist and was about to shake it and curse the dark streetlights for the hundredth time, when they flickered back to life, illuminating a street sign: NW Davis. Ahead of him, the gate to Chinatown beaconed. Tom didn’t dare look back. He checked his watch: it was almost two in the morning, way too late to call Lana. He’d call her in the morning. Completely demoralized, Tom put his head down and trudged home up 30 blocks of familiar, well-lit and -labeled city streets.
Lana was waiting for him on the steps of his apartment. They hadn’t gotten to the point in their relationship yet where they’d exchanged keys. She ran to him and he fell into her arms, grateful and exhausted. Lana let him rest a moment, then pushed him away hard, thumping him in the chest twice in the process.
“Asshole! Why didn’t you return my calls? I was frantic?”
“I mean, ‘Squirrels are after me!’ Jesus, Tom. I almost called the cops.”
“Why didn’t you at least let me know you were okay?”
“Please, I’m sorry, Lana, please, just listen. It’s… It’s been a bad day. The worst day of my life, in fact.”
“The squirrels?” Lana asked, softening.
“Forget about the fucking squirrels, okay. That shit was weird, but it’s not—it’s over—it’s not what I’m talking about.”
Lana stepped closer and put her hands on his hips. “What is it sweetie? We’ll make it better.”
“It’s my muse, Lana. She’s… She’s dead, okay. I had a funeral for her today. It’s official.”
“Don’t worry, hon,” Lana said, trying to sway Tom’s hips a bit. “You can just, you know, get a new one.”
Tom stepped away from her abruptly, leaving her hands awkwardly swaying invisible hips for a moment. “Another muse? What! Like I can just go down to Whole Foods and buy one? That’s not how these things work, Lana. I don’t even know why I’m talking to you.”
Lana dropped her hands to her sides and her chin dipped down. She was trying not to cry, but failing. In a tiny voice, she said, “I could be your muse,” and looked up at Tom through her bangs.
Tom’s shoulders slumped and he sighed. “I’m sorry, baby. It’s just, writing is the only thing I can do. The only talent I have. If I don’t write, I’ll… I’ll die!”
“You’re a beautiful writer, Tom-Tom.”
“But without her… her sweet whisper… Without her gentle gift of story, what use am I? I mean, what the hell should I write about? Tell me that, Lana. Whisper me that little secret,” Tom said with more acid in his voice than he’d intended, and sat down hard on the sidewalk, exhausted.
“You don’t choose your muse, Lana. Your muse chooses you, and gives you the stories you’re supposed to tell.”
“Tom…” Lana said, warning.
“What!” Tom asked sharply as an orange hard hat dropped onto his head, followed by the swift blow of a sledgehammer, knocking him unconscious.
Lana stood dumbfounded, staring at the short, squat, thick-bearded man wearing Carhartt jeans and a filthy white t-shirt. He rested the sledgehammer over his shoulder and gave Lana a wink and a broad grin.
“It’s for his own good, sweetheart, sometimes it’s not enough to give them a story. Nah. Some writers, you have to literally hit over the head with one. For starters anyway.”
“But, but,” Lana stuttered. “You killed him!”
“Not dead, just dreamin’. Remind him what I said, won’t you love, when he wakes up.” The dwarf picked up his orange hard hat from the ground where it’d rolled off Tom’s head, and put it back on his own. “He’s done with sweet and gentle. Dead and buried by his own hand.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m his new Muse, Dante, at your service,” the dwarf replied with a small bow and a chuckle. “Or ‘Orange Hard Hat’ if he prefers.
“Tell Tom, what he said is true: If he doesn’t write, I will kill him. I won’t have him burying me in a dried up flower-bed!”
And with that, the dwarf tipped his helmet and wobbled off whistling into the night, setting off car alarms with his sledgehammer as he went. Lana watched him go, missing sweet and gentle already.
© 2009 Jon Labrousse
Filed under: 2009 Submissions |