Half a blink after the smoke from the cigarette smoldering in the ashtray had curled into a hoary question mark and froze in perpetual query as if to ask, “What next, Dick?” Dick turned his head ever so slowly toward the kitchen.
Molasses. That’s what it felt like. A honeybee drunk on tree nectar, too dumb to realize it was slowly fossilizing into amber history.
One foot on the floor now, and Dick did realize, slowly, like the drip-drip-drip of a leaking faucet, that he had to close the refrigerator door before the thing inside it stopped time altogether. His mostly barren living room, with only a beat-up couch and a flickering halogen lamp, should have been an easy traverse. But the twenty-three feet from his bedroom to the kitchen seemed longer than all the hundreds of thousands of miles Dick had driven in his big blue bus, ferrying sweaty, obese people to and from Atlantic City for bouts of all-night gambling.
Not all the people on his bus had been sweaty and/or obese, but as Dick’s other foot reached the floor, it was the only image that had time to reach his mind. That and men boasting of the great whoring to be had in “AC,” men who carefully re-slung their wedding bands onto ring fingers before leaving Dick’s bus in Jersey City, or New Brunswick, or Manhattan. And the complaints-complaints-complaints from nicotine-stained mouths of saggy-eyed, droopy-breasted, cellulite-layered women who hated everything about their lives, their co-workers, even AC itself, but apparently not enough to stop them climbing back onto Dick’s bus every week in the hope that this time they’d strike it rich and show everyone back home how right they were about everything all along. And the barely-out-of-diapers-and-questionably-of-drinking-age crowd. The too-drunk, too-loud semi-literate morons who thought because they were away from Mommy and Daddy they could imbibe the half quart of Jack Daniels before they got on Dick’s bus for the three-hour ride home, and then, after shouting in pre-school English how much the New York Yankees fucking rule over the New York Mets, puke freely all over Dick’s seats.
Our children, our future, Dick thought. But no time for distractions as time distilled around him. In the thickening moment, Dick reached the threshold to the living room and figured that if the thing in the refrigerator had learned how to open the door, then he was in some serious shit, because, he thought, the freezer hadn’t worked since June.
Peering through the yellow tunnel of his living room and into the kitchen, he watched it emerge—the smoky, not-quite-there finger—a brown out-of-focus sausage that reached out from the tiny opening and spilled a crack of refrigerator light onto the kitchen’s dark floor. Dick would have shivered if he had had the time.
Another torpid step brought with it memories of his ex-wife with her Prada bags and Gucci belts always working late and Dick always wondering why his wife dolled herself up for work but fell asleep quickly with her back always to him, never wanting sex, never wanting talk, never wanting anything except to sleep and to preen herself in the mirror. And Dick remembered the thirty-eight caliber pistol he had bought off a friend-of-a-friend for seventy-five dollars and a free pass to AC, and how he had planned to kill the man with the four hundred dollar Bruno Magli shoes who was fucking his wife, then changed his mind and planned just to kill his wife as she slept with her back toward him, and finally settled, after a full bottle of Captain Morgan’s swallowed in a motel room next to the Holland Tunnel, to blow his own brains out as soon as he heard his favorite song on the radio, “Paperback Writer,” by the Beatles.
The song had never come on, and Dick awakened the next morning with head-splitting pain and a jab of motel sunlight in his eyes to the sound of Pink Floyd’s “Money,” the fourth time he had heard the song in the last twenty-four hours.
The joys of commercial radio, he thought.
But no time for bile-building thoughts as he passed through the bedroom door and landed two feet on orange carpet. Dick eyed the partially open refrigerator as a white mist tumbled lazily around four sausage fingers holding onto the door, fingers that shook and stuttered like an old, tattered film.
There was no mistaking it now. The thing inside was definitely trying to get out.
The repulsive fingers dredged up repressed memories of a highly caffeinated Dick driving thirty passengers over the Verrazano Narrows bridge, with sun reflecting off of the driver-side mirror, and “Paperback Writer” booming suddenly from the radio’s solitary speaker. Its unmistakable G riff fired off Dick’s emotions like hammer-clicks from a revolver, but Dick had no thirty-eight caliber pistol handy, nor was he the type of asshole to drive his sweaty, obese passengers off of the monstrous bridge and into the Hudson River just to keep his besotted promise made to the grim reaper in a beat-up motel by the Holland Tunnel.
But a tsunami of drunken thoughts slammed into his head, and all the bad energy conjured in that one desperate night crashed upon the sandbar of his consciousness. And, while Dick slowly drowned in his emotions, he wasn’t watching the road before him, or the sun reflecting from the driver-side mirror, nor did he see the way the bus veered lazily out of its lane. Dick swam against his eddying thoughts as slovenly women complained about his poor driving. He struggled for the shore of sanity as red-cheeked men slunk their ring fingers into erection-lined pockets. He gasped for air as underage youths dropped their clanking, empty beer bottles onto his newly cleaned floor. But the tide was too strong, the grim promise too great, and the weight of one night’s firm resolution drowned Dick in the immutable, absolute, and inescapable fact of his own mortality.
And that’s when Dick saw them.
Brown out-of-focus shadow figures fluttering like smoke in the wind, and yet not dissipating into the air, but cleaving to the outside of each passenger’s window with stuttering sausage shaped fingers. Heart thumping and mind reeling, Dick glanced into the mirror above his head and saw that a similar brown pile of filth sat upon his shoulder, a shadowy, mud-colored grotesqueness that wavered like hot pavement on a summer’s day.
It smiled at him.
And all this happening while the bus slammed into the guardrail with a spray of sparks, with Dick flailing to remove the smiling thing on his shoulder, while wide-eyed passengers screamed, the crowded bus reeled, and grinning piles of dung flew in a dozen different directions.
Awakening later in the hospital, concussed and disoriented, Dick forgot all about the grotesqueries, the memories tucked safely away like a bad dream.
And that was intentional, Dick thought.
As Dick stepped across the orange carpet in slothful time he felt his head throb, a constant reminder of his skull slamming into steering wheel sometime during the frightful scene on the bridge.
In syrupy time, Dick passed the couch on his left and wondered if it were possible to vomit in slow-motion, his fear and loathing building to an indomitable crescendo as the thing in the refrigerator had a foot on the tiled kitchen floor now and Dick still having twelve or more feet to go.
He remembered the confusion in the hospital, the pain in his forehead, the loss of memory, the questions from his supervisor, the mind-numbing discourses with wool-suited lawyers who smelled of cheap soap and old books, who had sat at the foot of his bed to make him sign waivers interminably until Dick’s left hand cramped permanently shut. And the New York City taxi-cab driver who nearly gave Dick another concussion the following day, after “Paperback Writer” had come on the radio again, and the loathsome things reappeared on both of their shoulders.
Dick screamed, begged the cabbie to stop.
The cab driver’s pile of slop had twisted its head, stared at Dick, and smiled. It whispered into the driver’s ear, and then the driver, who a moment before was ready to knock Dick into the next century, stopped the car, took a deep breath, and counted to ten.
At number seven Dick knocked the thing off his own shoulder and fled the cab.
Dick ran down countless grey Manhattan sidewalks under an endless steel grey sky, bumping pedestrians in their drab city colors, each ashen figure oblivious to the misshapen things fidgeting and laughing upon their shoulders. And this while Disney-like light spilled detestably onto the sidewalk from row after row of stores incessantly encouraging Dick to purchase their products that offered no solace from the little brown and squirming things that giggled at him as he ran through the streets.
A faint and retching Dick reached his company’s west side lot, opened the door and climbed inside his smelly bus amidst shouts from a balding, uniformed man watching the gate, and this while Dick’s little brown thing hastily approached from a city block away, its long monkey arms flailing erratically. The engine started up, the bus pulled out, and Dick prepared to leave Manhattan by the least trafficked route, his left eye constantly on the driver-side mirror. With heart pounding and head throbbing, the hospital band still on his left wrist, Dick saw the little brown thing sliding in between cars stopped in traffic, cars whose drivers had little smiling brown pustules sitting on their shoulders, pustules that leaned in and whispered thoughts into their ears.
The light was green and there was room for the bus to move, but Dick knew something was wrong when he wasn’t accelerating, when his foot upon the gas pedal did nothing but make the bus hum subliminally three octaves too low, when the 727 that passed overhead froze in freeze frame like those incessant pictures of the World Trade Center disaster endlessly replayed until the stock price of Xanax had made several thousand people rich. But as time congealed the brown squirmy thing slid between and leapt over cars as if the slowing of time had absolutely no effect on it. It climbed up the driver-side of the bus, smiled with transcendent glee, and jumped through the window to sit once again on Dick’s shoulder.
Dick shuddered, then forgot all about it.
He awoke, as if from a dream, stuck in traffic on Tenth Avenue, alone in his bus, which smelled of sweat and puke and cleaning products, a hospital band wrapped around his wrist and absolutely no memory whatsoever of what had just happened.
Through the Lincoln Tunnel, under the Hudson River, and at a gas station in Hoboken he stopped for coffee and made a phone call, fearing that something was terribly amiss. And after politely hanging up on the man on the other end of the line who was begging Dick to return the bus, the same bus that Dick had driven nearly half a million miles in the northeastern corridor of the United States, he decided he needed some food in his stomach and time to think.
At a diner called Malibu, but lacking anything remotely tropical, Dick ordered eggs and fries from the brown-haired blue-eyed waitress who smiled at Dick and did not ask, though it looked like she wanted to, about the white bracelet on Dick’s wrist. Food digesting, and temporarily sated, he emptied his pockets onto the table to reveal four quarters, two dimes, three pennies, and an expensive monogrammed pen Dick had found abandoned on one of the bus’s seats. He placed the quarters, one by one, into the jukebox’s slot next to him, scrolling to find three songs that would wash away any remaining unpleasantness lingering in his stomach.
One was his favorite, by the Beatles.
And this time, as fear pounded him into the seat and despair poured over him in waves, he decided to surf instead of sink, even though his heart was saying “oh-my-fucking-shit” and his vision was starting to reveal squirmy deformities smiling on the patrons’ shoulders. And Dick did surf, albeit poorly, as the waitress returned to him and asked him if he wanted more coffee. At first she didn’t smile and looked like she wanted to be anywhere but in a shitty diner called Malibu pouring coffee for an unshaven invalid who reeked of hospital antiseptic and old bus. But the dung-colored thing on her shoulder leaned in and whispered in her ear, then the girl turned to Dick and faux-smiled as she poured him coffee.
The thing on Dick’s shoulder leaned in and whispered to him. He did not hear what it said, but he found himself forcing a smile, then thanking her, even though he really wanted her to go the fuck away so he could drink his coffee and look out the window in peace. She walked away, finally, and he reached into his pocket to find a cigarette when something whispered to him it was bad for his health, that the second-hand smoke would kill the other patrons slowly, over centuries, and that it cost him too much money, that he should work out more, tone and clothe his body like those snazzy, classy men in GQ. So Dick left the pack with the unlit cigarettes on the table and stared at them, hands shaking, and tried not to look up at the other patrons with their wriggling lumps on their shoulders or glance too far to his right lest he see his own reflection in the window and discover the pitiful mess he had become.
Angry with himself, tired of the constant background tune of self-loathing, he reached up to his shoulder, grabbed the squirming thing, and flung it across the room. It felt like a chewed, drooled upon dog toy.
It skidded across the floor and slammed into the counter underneath the pastry window while the other blobs looked up at Dick. And for the few brief moments when the thing was not on his shoulder, Dick felt no remorse about having a cigarette in front of the others, did not care that he looked like an alcoholic mongrel dragged in from the rain, had no qualms about getting the fuck out of this diner without paying his tab before the thing could jump back on his shoulder again.
Dick was, for the moment, at peace with himself.
But the mumbling grumble that is the eternal background chatter of all diners slowed, and the clink-chink-clink that is the sound of forks scraping plates and teeth paused, and in that moment of molasses time the thing jumped back onto Dick’s shoulder, and Dick forgot again.
But not before he had scribbled a few letters with his monogrammed pen onto a napkin.
Dick paid his bill smiling and did not smoke his cigarette until he was outside and felt guilty doing so because his lungs were slowly rotting and his body would never be what it was when he was seventeen, when he worked out three times a week and made out with a pneumatic new girl each weekend. And, he thought, maybe his cuckolding wife left him because he had spent six out of every seven days on the road for a dozen years, was away every Christmas and Thanksgiving because they were the best paying holidays, and maybe she left him for that one time a sixteen-year-old prostitute from Oklahoma who went by the handle “Snuggles” had talked Dick into roadside sex over the CB radio. And maybe that was why his wife had hired a moving company to come one day while Dick was driving down I-95 with visions of a thirty-eight caliber flickering between red tail-lights, and why she’d emptied their apartment of almost everything Dick had loved except his beat-up, gray old couch, a cheap halogen lamp, his dust-gathering collection of self-help books, a dozen or so record albums scratched so badly Dick hadn’t used them in more than a decade, and a white-plastic children’s phonograph player left moldering in the attic.
Outside the diner, a cold wind whipping down Fourteenth Street, Dick blew his nose with an ink-stained napkin.
In dreamy time, Dick remembered all of this as he passed between the table and the halogen lamp while the thing in the refrigerator peered out from behind the door and glanced around groggily to get its bearings. And Dick realized that even though he was moving like a snail, his footfalls painfully slower than Buzz Aldrin’s hopping around the Moon, the thing in the refrigerator was merely taking its sweet time, as if it had just awakened from a pleasant nap, was having lots of fun stretching, and was in no great hurry to get out of bed and back onto Dick’s shoulder.
Well, Dick thought in a flash, it’s been in there for quite some time.
And Dick remembered heading home under a ceiling of cold, light rain. The morose, evening sky and Dick’s purposefully dim apartment mirrored his mood as he emptied his pockets, throwing coins and keys and a monogrammed pen onto the table. Out with them came a snot filled napkin face up with a few letters written upon it in smeared ink. Dick had lit a cigarette in the fading light and felt the cool caress of nicotine wash over him like a dirty yet soothing bath, and he climbed up into the attic and brought down his childhood record player with its moldy and frayed plug, knowing that there was only one song in the world which could lift him out of the doldrums and return him back to his soul.
Dick got as far as F in the G-C-D-G-G-F riff before he was screaming and scrambling to get the thing off of his shoulder, memories flooding back of smiling piles of feces and late-night promises to Death. Dick’s torso swinging, and the thing’s arms flailing, Dick managed to stuff the squirming thing inside the refrigerator and close the door. There was a ruckus inside for a few moments before it fell quiet. Dick stood there, leaning onto the door, with his body trembling softly and the little record player churning out “Paperback Writer” by his feet, its frayed power chord twisting haphazardly along the floor. Dick wasn’t sure if the frigid air or the gentle hum or something else entirely had calmed the thing in the refrigerator down, but when he let the pressure off of the door the thing inside did not push to get out. And seventeen cigarettes spent leaning anxiously upon the door did not produce a single sound from inside. He bent down to the phonograph and replayed the song, just in case, as Dick cracked open the door and glanced inside.
The thing lay sound asleep next to rotting lettuce, like a Coke-flavored slush puppy slowly melting on a summer’s sidewalk.
So with the phonograph set to repeat, its little arm swinging awkwardly back to the inside of the scratched, black disc every two minutes and nineteen seconds, its tiny speaker blaring a cracked and popping version of his favorite song, Dick sat down at his desk in the bedroom, pulled out his monogrammed pen carved with someone else’s initials, and hastily wrote down his memories inside a hoary mist of cigarette smoke, lest the thing get out and he forget again.
Shortly after, he had noticed the tap-tap-tap of his ball-point pen slowing, the G-C-D of the fugueing riff lagging, and the puff-puff-puff of his exhaled smoke stalling, as the thing in the refrigerator had finished its nap and was ready to resume its place on Dick’s shoulder as the cackling, dung-colored, and mind-altering grotesquery it was meant to be.
More than anything in the world, Dick didn’t want that again.
The refrigerator door swung freely now, the tiny twenty-watt bulb revealing the misshapen silhouette inside. And Dick thought that this was his last chance, that he had to dive forward and slam the refrigerator door closed before the thing inside had stepped completely out and onto the floor. So Dick, like a super-slow-motion Olympic long jumper, carefully placed his next footfall before the threshold of the kitchen in preparation to spring forward, ready to thrust all his momentum onward and upward in one final leap. And in the shifting angles of refrigerator light Dick glimpsed the distorted face of the brown figure, and realized with alarm, that it had stopped trying to get out of the refrigerator and was watching him calmly and, apparently, amused.
Dick’s momentum wobbled like the contortions of a lava-lamp blob, and he was acutely aware of how important it was that he have a foot to land on, lest he fall on his face. So with his second foot coming down to prevent such a catastrophe and Newton’s laws of momentum thrusting him forward, Dick leapt with all his might toward the refrigerator door.
The thing in the refrigerator started to laugh the kind of throaty laugh that someone who’s dying of lung cancer laughs, and Dick wondered if there was something utterly futile about him flying through the air head first toward the refrigerator that he wasn’t aware of, so on a hunch he looked back to his foot and remembered with a pang of fear about the tattered, old chord from the phonograph player that he had slung across the floor and saw with dread that it was now wrapped quite tightly around his ankle.
And Dick’s yelp, slowed by the procession of time, bellowed like a fog horn in the kitchen as the chord tightened around his ankle, both lifting the phonograph off of the floor and slowing his ascent towards the refrigerator door, and this happening while the squirming mass watched like a polite spectator at a monster truck event, waiting for Dick’s inevitable crash and burn.
Dick had to choose and had to choose quickly whether to save the careening record player with his free foot or try to close the refrigerator door with an outstretched hand. In the brief, flickering window of choice, both and neither seemed optimal.
Dick opted for both.
With the chord wrapped around his foot, and as he slowly fell back to the floor in a perfectly ungraceful arc, Dick tried to save the record player with his untangled foot while his left hand stretched forward in a hastily invented Yoga pose called “tethered-man-in-freefall-trying-futilely-to-stuff-thing-back-into-icebox.”
Behind him his foot maneuvered to keep the record from falling in kicks that would humble Pele, but the phonograph player lifted, tilted, and finally flipped over in mid-flight, putting an end to any glorious bicycle-kick save. With faith hastily redirected to his other side, Dick glanced forward and realized that he was coming down, even with his outstretched hand, at least three feet short of the door. And with his body slamming onto tiles, the record shattering into shards, and his heart freezing with ice, Dick collapsed into a pile on the floor.
The thing wobbled out of the refrigerator in real time, no longer slowing the passage of the clock, and sat on Dick’s shoulder, smiling and victorious.
* * * *
Dick awoke on the floor, mouth dry and refrigerator open, to wonder if he had come all this way to get a beer, and then thought otherwise because there was nothing in the refrigerator except rotting lettuce and an old Coke stain. Then he looked down at his favorite record scattered in a dozen pieces across the floor, and Dick lamented it, trying to figure out how he had found himself lying prone in the kitchen, and then he remembered his hospital visit as he looked down to his wrist.
There was a smell of smoke, and Dick ran back into his bedroom to find papers atop his desk slowly burning, apparently from a butt that had fallen out of the ashtray.
A moment later, with the fire snuffed and the window open, letting in frigid but fresh air from the street, Dick tried to read the remaining words on the scorched paper.
“…grotesque thing on shoulder… while on bridge… caused bus accident… went to hospital… in the cab… stole the bus from west side yard… with a diner’s napkin… the record… keep playing ‘Paperback Writer’ over and over again!”
Dick brooded over the visible words for a few moments until the eureka of recognition flickered through him. It was grotesque roadkill on the bridge which forced Dick to swerve onto the shoulder and caused the accident for which Dick was wearing the wristband from the hospital, and for which his head was throbbing. And, somehow, in his confusion, Dick had taken the bus from the west side yard thinking he was going back to work, when he changed his mind and came back home afterward to play “Paperback Writer” on his old phonograph, perhaps to soothe himself in his lonely, quiet home, and in his wobbly condition he tripped over its power chord and fell onto the floor, knocking himself unconscious again and unwittingly shattering his favorite record into a dozen shards.
He cursed himself for being so foolish.
Dick closed the window, and the refrigerator, and cleaned the broken record off of the floor, before finally lying down on a cold bed. A grotesque little voice in the back of his head told him that his current life was an exercise in futility. If he’d been more careful, then maybe he wouldn’t have gotten into the bus accident, and maybe, if he’d been less selfish with his job, less of a workaholic, his wife wouldn’t have left him, and maybe, just maybe, if he was less of a sweaty, obese, and complaining moron, then his favorite record wouldn’t have been shattered into a dozen pieces across the floor. Before falling into disturbed dreams and fitful slumber, Dick made a vow to change.