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       Baltimore Stories: Volume Two, p.7

          
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Baltimore Stories: Volume Two
Baltimore Stories: Volume Two

Nik Korpon

Copyright 2011 Nik Korpon







Author’s Note

Some of these stories were published long ago (relatively speaking) and some in publications that evaporated into smoke. Some are from very early in my writing, and though I’d approach them differently now, I think it’s important to see progression. I like them all and wanted to give them a chance to be seen, to be read. None have explicit connections to Old Ghosts, but feel like they should. There’s also an excerpt of the upcoming novella that spawned all of these giveaways.

Thank you to all of the editors for believing in them (or letting me dupe them into believing.) Thank you to you, for reading this collection.





‘Cobwebs and Dead Skin’ is an excerpt of the novella By the Nails of the Warpriest (OW Press, September 2011) and was originally published in Dirty Noir.

‘The Reindeer Incident’ originally published on Do Some Damage.

‘List #2’ originally published in Everyday Genius.

‘The Mourning is the Dawn of our Love’ originally published in Gold Dust, Issue #14.

‘Pugs’ originally published in Colored Chalk, Issue #5.







Stories



Cobwebs and Dead Skin

The Reindeer Incident

List #2

Currents

Pugs









Cobwebs and Dead Skin





When the act of remembering becomes illegal, the artifacts that remain tell the stories our unconscious wants to submerge.

Motes of dust float in the manufactured light. Muted explosions from outside, bombs maybe. I creep along the edge of his tenement hallway. Most people walk down the center and, over time, work some of the nails loose. The easiest way to avoid being caught while stealing someone’s past is to pretend like you don’t have one. Imagine you’re not human and eventually you won’t need to imagine anymore.

Inside his apartment, I take small, soft steps. Clothing scattered around the room, cut to rags and stained with soot water. A mattress and sheet pocked with holes in the corner. Turned sideways in the middle, is a spool that used to house industrial wire, a plate with a few pieces of silverware on top. The wilting dandelion perched in a can is so sad I can feel my heartbeat slow. Two slivers of coal clack together in my pocket. The old man snores in rhythmic waves. This’ll be an easy job.

My fingers hover over faded pictures and yellowed notes stuck to the wall. The man snorts himself half-awake, mutters, then rolls over and resumes snoring. His hand nudges a green-and-white striped mug. I inhale, bite my bottom lip. Hanging alongside a newspaper clipping of two children is a piece of brittle paper, a funeral card, looks like. I remove the photograph tacked beneath it.

A log cabin. Two men stand on either side of the doorway. The photo paper is old, a style I don’t see except in antiquarian bookstores. The men are smiling the way fathers and sons do. My mouth goes dry, a fist in the back of my throat. I blink my eyes a couple times. Their arms rest on a symbol nearly two feet wide in the center of the door, patterned with familiar lines. Some type of Nordic writing along the border, probably telling who’s in the picture, when and where. I wipe dust from their faces, look at the funeral card, hold the two together and feel a phantom blade in my gut when I recognize the boy as one of my old soldiers. James was his name. The old man sleeping behind me is a shriveled, sadder version of James.

I pull a slip of paper from my pocket to check the address, check it again, make sure I’m in the right place. This is deliberate, it’s got to be him fucking with me. The Boss, that motherfucker will answer for this. I take a long breath then resign myself to the job.

Kneeling next to his bed, I lay out my kit on the night-table. Two cloth squares and one pipette of iodine. A needle, an empty vial, a round bandage. And the two slivers of coal.

His hair is thin and the temple is easy to find. A drop of iodine on the tip, the needle slides in without a bite. A little probing till I find the memory cortex. His eyelids flutter like there’s a flurry of ashen moths trying to beat their way out. Fingers claw and twitch. A wire oscillating fan pushes hot air around the room. Slowly, the vial attached to the end of the needle fills with milky liquid. I shift him onto his side to help it flow faster.

Outside the window, The City throbs faint crimson. If a red sky at night is a sailor’s delight, but the red is the flames of the Barrio that never stopped burning and we haven’t seen direct sun in years, then what the fuck do sailors know? This heat is tactile: instead of rain, we get condensation, a languid humidity that chokes the air. Each day we’re convinced it’s the day the smog will break, the day real light will cut through. Each night, we go to bed thinking tomorrow. Tomorrow will be the day.

As the vial passes the 10ml mark, his twitches become more violent and it takes both of my knees to hold him still. I press my thumb against his carotid artery until he falls limp. Memories seep from his temple, drip by drip. Something reminiscent of church bells rings out, but it might only be shots from home-modified weapons. In the distance, in the crack between a factory and its smoke stack, I can see the dull glimmer of Regent Pond, the pagoda next to it where the first congregations of The Struggle against The Party gathered.

‘Who the hell are you?’

I spin around, almost pulling the needle from the old man’s skull. A silhouette in the doorway, clutching a bag in his arm.

‘Get away from him.’ He has the kind of voice that accompanies a face painted with scars. There’s no wavering in it, but the timbre is higher than his bulk would suggest. He takes a step forward. ‘Get that out of him. Now.’

‘Just calm down.’ I realize how obnoxious that sounds. I know a man will kill for family without a second blink. Hand behind my back, I keep the vial level and the memories draining. It feels heavy, almost full. ‘There’s no problem here. Just be calm.’

The bag falls to the floor, spilling a survivalist cornucopia: two oranges, a chunk of bread, half a bottle filled with dirty brown liquor and a sprinkling of jagged metal shards. He takes two quick steps forward, a gash where his left cheek used to be, and fuck me if the genetics in this family aren’t strong: This man is no one if he’s not James’ father, the one pushed James to join The Struggle. I nudge the old man’s head back so the needle won’t snap and let my jaw go slack as the father’s fist kisses my mouth. It’s been some years since I felt something like that, not since the dying days of war, and the fucker might have a glove full of iron rivets. I stagger along the wall to keep the scuffle away from the bed. Rub the white dots from my eyes, and I look up just as he pulls something from his waistband. A flare gun, probably retrofitted.

The trigger clicks and I flinch.

Nothing.

He smacks the handle and I duck then he fires again and a hundred tiny metal bits speckle the wall behind me. He charges, wielding something small in his left hand. I step to the side, sweep his leg and use his own mass to send his shoulder through the wall. Before I can inhale, I find myself with a knee on his throat, ready to turn his weapon against him. The handle of a garden spade, sharpened to a blunt spike and reinforced with rusted metal.

His face is the picture of repentance. Eyes beg for mercy. Nostalgia sloshes around me: a man’s life, adapted weaponry, violence in the air. It’d be so easy to kill him now, it wouldn’t even be sneezing, but my face must project abject horror because the father scrapes a wooden comb across my eyes. I roll away but he’s on me before I can sit, hands wrapped around my neck. His finger placement is wrong, though, and I’m able to swallow, to catch my breath. To say, ‘Be calm,’ before I clap my palms against his ears. He rears back and I pounce, cinching the crook of my elbow against his windpipe.

With one twitch, I could sever his spinal column. With one hard squeeze, I could pop his eyeballs from his skull. With one well-executed yank using the right pressure point, I could remove his skull.

Five seconds and he’s docile as a baby bird. I set a pillow under his head then lower him to the floor, my fragile oath sworn at the end of The Struggle still intact. He’s not on The Boss’ list, not in the usual demographic I hunt either, but I’m sure there’s some sick fucker who wants to see what this man knows. I use my extra vial, fill it before he wakes.

I shove the father’s memories in my pocket with the funeral card and photograph, place the old man’s in the package for The Boss, then gather my kit and remove every trace of being here. Pulling the slivers of coal from my pocket, I stand between the two men, debating which one to anoint. The old man did nothing to deserve this, but I understand the weight the father carries, sacrificing his son by proxy. I lay the coal on the father’s eyes, whisper be well into the old man’s ear, then slink away. The two lie as quiet as an abandoned catacomb, full of cobwebs and dead skin.









The Reindeer Incident





It really wasn’t supposed to go down like that, hear? It’s just, well, a man can only be pushed so far before he’s bound to spring back. And, brother, I told that fucker that I’d spring, and spring like God’s guiding my hand.

‘And just so you understand where I’m coming from, his daddy’d been trying to beat out the missus and me for years. Probably since, well lemme think, at least since Eisenhower was down there. You’re a young-un, so mind, back then there wasn’t this whole spectacle gaggle of geese there is now. ‘Miracle on 34th Street’ and what-all. Back then, we’d just crack some Bohs and have us some neighborly rivalry.

‘Anyway, somewhere round ’64, ’65, things changed. Can’t remember exactly how it happened, but some money was laid, the stakes was upped, some decorations was tampered with. Huh? Course it was that sonbitch. Look, I ain’t the type of man to lose, but when I lose, I’m a man. I don’t go round no one’s house in the dark of night and stick pins inside the electric socket to blow out someone’s lights. Someone’s ass get turned to fried chicken that way.

‘What? Of course there was retaliation. I won’t strike first, but sure as shit I’ll strike back. Well, I waited till they were out shopping for their little one—the one in question, today, that is—then let myself in the back and gave their candy canes a little extra attention. Big Dick wasn’t none too pleased.

‘From there it just kind of, well, escalated. What do I mean by that? Let’s put it this way, the right kind of fiberglass insulation looks a whole hell of a lot like fake snow. One year you remove most of the screws in the gutter, the next you tarpaper some nails to the roof. A few years later, you’re spraying down the herd of plastic reindeer with acetone and to even the score, you get back on the roof with a can of black paint. You wouldn’t know it if I didn’t tell you, but when you got an illuminated ‘Peace’ over ‘Season’s Greetings,’ just cover up some of them lights, and sure you gotta look at it for a little, but you get one gander and all you see after that is ‘penis,’ five feet tall across your neighbor’s porch.

‘Shit, why’d you think we call ’em Big Dick and Little Dick when their name is George and Junior. What, about Little Dick? Yeah, I’m getting to it. See, you need to understand the basics of the situation so you understand the severity of response.

‘It was all in good fun, or close enough. And we had our rules. We never touched any of the Nativity, being good Christians and all, and we understood when something was over the line.

‘Anyway, after the fiberglass incident, things cooled out for a while. We were both getting on in years and thought an unspoken truce—’cause neither of us would concede to the other—would be best for our families. So we quieted down.

‘Till this year, that is.

‘I first caught Little Dick messing around with my decorations two winters ago. Childish stuff, you know, but there was a certain amount of fecal matter that pushed it from juvenile to what-the-fuck. I got Big Dick on the phone and read him the act. Next Christmas comes round, same shit—literally and figuratively—but worse. I ring up Big Dick again, threaten him this time. Little one’s creating a biological hazard, I tell him, breaking our cease-fire.

‘That? Nah, none of that was him. He’s a fucking sociopath, but that’s from those hoodrats been coming round here as of late. I mean, who thinks that KISS makeup looks good on our Lord and Savior? Sure, I got my dick wet to them a few times. Who the hell hasn’t. But chopping off the Blessed Virgin’s head and putting it in the cradle with baby Jesus? That’s just something I can’t step to.

‘Now, you might be one to say, “Hell, you monkeyed with their reindeer. How can you get mad about yours?” And you wouldn’t be totally wrong, but when I melted Rudolph and his friends, they was just those pieces of shit you bought from Caldor. You know how long I had to wait in line for mine? Animatronic reindeer ain’t cheap neither, specially when they’re brand god-damn new this year. That Japanese poly-whatever it is feels like real fur, and they got some supercomputer in their brain-pan so they make random movement, like real reindeer. These sons of bitches are top of the line.

‘So you understand why, when I walk out of the house this morning and see Little Dick balls deep in my reindeer’s butthole, you see why my first thought is grab my gun and tag the son of a bitch. Hell, way I see it, boy’s lucky I aimed for his leg. It all goes back to what I was saying about the principality of the whole situation, officer, about knowing what’s what. Some things should just be understood.

‘You can’t fuck a man’s reindeer and not expect to get shot.’









List #2





Ten-penny needle.

Fourteen-gauge fishing line.

Skin that stretches like rose-colored silk.

A metal skull, thunking against my kitchen table.

Her other cheek.

Articulated joints that moan and creak.

The one in her wrist that catches and almost tears through.

A small styrofoam cooler filled with dry ice and organs.

Two fists of incense sticks.

Fringed edges of her gangly legs, sheared away by a jersey wall.



A soldering iron with a twist of smoke.

A clutch of red, yellow and green wire.

Six fuses of varying colors.

A pink and white stargazer lily, dried and spritzed with lacquer, left over from her mother’s.

Two cases of paper towels.

Rolls of masking tape, a complementary cream to her skin.

Eight bulbs from an old thread of our Christmas lights.

Half a bat of fiberglass-free insulation, also left over from her mother’s.

A case of WD-40.

Two-hundred twenty volts to help her stand.



A wobbling gait that could be from her soccer injuries.

A shuffled step that could be from too much studying.

A crookedly-held elbow that could be from her grandmother.

A splash of freckles that could be sprayed oil or too much sun.

A cool whisper that could be pneumatics.

A slight wink that could be seizing.

A ______ ___ _____ that could be her mother’s.

A hole in the face that could be recognition.

A slash in the skin that could be a smile.

A thin, brittle hope that it could work this time.









The Mourning is the Dawn of Our Love





I look at the life monitor.

Beep.

Beep.

Beep.

Beep.

Spike. Valley.

Spike. Valley.

I turn my head back towards my grandpa, holding my grandma’s hand in his, raising it to his mouth, whispering softly into it. Maybe he thinks the vibrations of his words and lips will send a tremor to her nerve sensors, send electro-chemical signals to her brain, tell her I love you, Madeline. Keep fighting baby. Keep fighting. Don’t give up Madeline. Stay with me honey. Please don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me.

My eyes trace from his lips up her wrinkled arm, punctured with IV tubes, a canal map of veins running the full length. From her arm up to the divot at the base of her neck where her clavicles meet, the tip of her surgical iceberg sticking out in a half-inch scar, remnants of an earlier heart operation. Up to her face, much paler than it had been two days before when we played canasta at her kitchen table.

A light clamped to the shelf over her head, the only illumination in the sterile room. It drapes a milky pall over her face, exaggerates the shadows cast over her sunken cheekbones and makes canyons of valleys. The shadows quiver as her lips part: exhale, inhale, exhale, cough, inhale, choke, inhale, exhale.

The official diagnosis was a strand of medical jargon that sounded Russian; fifty-three letters long, all consonants but for four vowels and a hyphen. Grandpa translated it for me—she’d suffered her third stroke, though none had been this severe, and was now searching for her life in the uncharted abyss of a coma.

He called me yesterday morning, wailing, trying to tell me between gasps that I needed come to St. Edward’s because something was wrong with Grandma. Three hours, five traffic jams and two near misses later I was perched on a burlap-upholstered chair in her hospital room amidst a carnival of beeping monitors and LCD screens. The wheeze of her respirator, a gentle undercurrent that will drown me if I listen.

The television in my apartment is still on. My Playstation still paused.

My knees burn from lack of use. My body hasn’t left the chair for two days except to go to the bathroom, help him to the bathroom and get us food. The entire world has shriveled into the palm of our hands, resting on the back of hers.

‘You okay Grandpa? Need something to drink or anything?’

He doesn’t respond, only moves his lips and pulls the rosary one prayer further in their hands. I lean back and close my eyes. Twenty minutes later, his voice startles me upright.
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