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Sleet

onehundredandseventysix

The ghost of a flea.
In a black dog’s ear.
Why don’t you?
Why did you?
No pain.
No tears.
Just a stirring in the stomach.
A little yearning in the vein.
Thirteen slips of the best part.
Those that are left.
Must learn the art.
Of rebuilding the remains.

If there was ever an augury.
It was ever an act.
An apple to keep the doctor away.
An Abel to hold the wolves at bay.

Propriety denies us.
The control of death.
The satiety of choosing.
A releasing breath.
Well.
Fuck you.
Your horse.
And all of your hope.
Fuck.
Most of all.
The Gods that you back.
The things that they promise.
Are the things that I lack.
But I’m OK.
There are teeth enough in my head.
To grind in my sleep.
Give unto me bread.
And if I’m still laughing.
It’s my cross and my curse.
It only starts being funny.
When someone gets hurt.

 

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Deadlock

onehundredandseventyfive

Iron blinds the sun.
Rises from dirt like climbing ivy.
Is fed by earth so red it’s black.
Knowledge binds the axe.
It rests in trembling hands.
The blunted edge of the human psyche.
It falls on paper and slackened rope.
Sharpens the impotence of hope.

Papa was a rolling stone.
But I am Sisyphus on the hill.
Weight against the boulder, thrown.
Day by day and pill by pill.
He had it all and nothing to do.
I don’t have shit and now I’ve got you.

What will you make of all this strife?
The creeching of the wicked mob.
This worship of a blameless life.
Existence as if it were a job.
Better the truth that we don’t tell.
Blessed the souls that ne’er rise from the well.

Trace

onehundredandseventyfour.jpg

I

Roy Buchman sat bolt upright with his legs crossed at the ankle. A brass ashtray stand stood on the floor just at the full reach of his arm. Each time he went to knock the ash from his cigarette he uncrossed his feet and sat forward with them placed flat on the thick, pea green carpet. Each time he sat back he hitched his pants at the knees and crossed his ankles once more. The crease in his grey trousers was as sharp as any line on the wood panelling, he observed, and pulled at his cigarette with satisfaction.

At the desk in front of him was Donovan’s secretary. She wore a sleeveless, green dress dotted with a pink flower pattern. Her auburn bob was as smooth as a mushroom cap. Her eyes were down on the typewriter before her,  Roy watched them flick back and forth like tiny birds flitting between telephone wires. He gauged how quickly they moved and found it agreeably human. The intercom on the desk buzzed and she flicked the receiver on, barely skipping a beat at the typewriter keys.

“Valery, Mr. Buchman is waiting I assume?” said the voice from the intercom.

“Yes, Mr. Donovan”.

She said it without looking up.

“Send him in” said the voice.

Roy smiled at Valery who continued to rattle out words on the typewriter without looking back at him. He cleared his throat gently and was afforded a little more time to wait as his reward. The sound of typing slowed down like a train chugging into a station. As the return key was stuck and the typewriter chimed Valery’s face broadened into a sweet smile. She looked up and aimed it at Roy.

“Mr. Donovan will see you now” she said.

Roy was getting to his feet as her arm appeared from behind the grand, engine-like typewriter to gesture towards the door. His eyes followed the line of slender, pink flesh to where it abruptly junctioned into a burnished copper claw. He froze, half risen. The hand turned slowly upward from the pivot at the wrist  The tiny bronze pistons and silver levers shone in the light of the office. Roy stood up fully and smiled back at Valery as her other hand reached,  very slowly, from behind the desk and came to rest on its edge. The metallic fingers, like the links in a bicycle chain, drummed lightly on the wood.   

Facing the door, his hand on the knob, he heard the typing strike up again. The speed at which the keys rattled sent a little chill down between his shoulder blades. It sounded like a Tommy gun.

 

II

“Roy, good to see you! Have a seat”.

“Mr. Donovan”.

“How many times? Mr. Donovan was my old man, call me Art”.

“Sorry, Art”.

“Ah, have a seat” a segmented, metal pipe of an arm, ending in a steel pincer, motioned him to sit down.

The couch facing Donovan was ice cold calfskin leather. Roy perused the framed drawings that adorned almost every inch of the wood paneled walls. All Art’s work, or so he would say. He probably hadn’t picked up a pencil in 30 years for anything but a quick sketch in front of the TV cameras. But this was still his work. After all, he paid a steady wage.

With one leg across the thigh of the other Roy drummed a foot up and down in the air as he waited for Donovan to speak. He winced internally for the thoughtless action and, as expected, Donovan’s head turned to where the girl in the corner of the room was quietly preparing the coffee. He paid a steady wage to acquire a steady schedule. His scowl was one of fatherly-disappointment.

Roy took this opportunity to admire the horror that stood before him. The face was strong and the hair was meticulously pomaded and combed. The pencil moustache could have been drawn in by the steady hand of any of the inkers who worked for the company, such was its rectitude. The head sat, like a baseball on a young boys dresser, on top of a console the size of a bank manager’s desk. Green and gold, polished to a dazzling sheen, it reminded Roy of those cans of olive oil one saw in Italian restaurants but on a grander scale. Magnetic tape reels span, shiny toggle switches stood to attention and banks of little electric lamps shone all across the face of it. The arms that came out of the side hung loose until needed at which point they coiled and flexed in the air like metal pythons, their servo motors hissing.

The girl carried the two cups of coffee across the room before, realizing she had forgotten something, setting them both down on the corner of the the console. The head glared at her through the rising steam until she returned with a small stand that she placed in front of the console, setting one cup of coffee on top of that and handing the other to Roy.

“Will there be anything else, Art?”.

The head turned slowly this and way and that in response. The grinding noise was either the gears in the console or the teeth inside the head, it was difficult to tell. The young girl left the room, closing the door indelicately behind her.

“Her father? The President. And you wonder how we got into this goddamn mess!”.

“You’re kidding?” said Roy.

“Started last week. He said he felt safer having her out of the White House and in the park instead. I should give him a job on one of the milkshake stands!”.

Roy sipped his coffee. One of the mechanical arms reached down to grasp the cup before it. It closed on it with the slow ferocity of a shark’s jaws under the water.

Donovan’s head smiled.

“So, what can I do for you, Roy?”.

Roy put down his coffee.

“I have some good news”.

“Some good news?”, one of the eyebrows arched.

“Well, no, I mean…. Something’s happened”.

With exaggerated slowness the arm drew the small coffee cup up and towards Donovan’s head. After having taken a delicate sip he brushed down his moustache with his lower lip as the arm, whirring gently, returned the cup to the table. Roy picked up his own cup and took a deep draught of the coffee. He put down his cup and hitched his pants slightly at the knee, staring down at the fine crease in the material. The crease would make everything OK.

“So, what can I do for you, Roy?” said Donovan.

“There’s been an accident in the park”.

Donovan’s brows drew together.

“Jesus. Was anyone hurt?”.

“I’m afraid so. One of the engineers was working on the FreedomCoaster. There was a mix up at the signal box. He’s dead, Art”.

“My god”.

The head lowered its head. The eyes were closed. Roy remembered one of the early films. A cartoon fox had made just the same gesture when its mother had been caught and shot by a hunter. He found himself waiting for a perfect shimmering tear to escape from the corner of an eye.

“Who was it?” Donovan said quietly.

“Erikson”.

“The Swede? Big guy; blonde?”.

The eyebrow once more tried to meet the ceiling but then lowered itself in respect of the situation.  

Roy took another sip of his coffee. He took out his pack of cigarettes and offered one to Donovan.

“Thank you. If you wouldn’t mind?”.

A claw twitched by the side of the console. Roy went over and placed a cigarette between the rough steel pincers, closing them softly on it. The arm whirred and brought the cigarette up to Donovan’s mouth where Roy lit it. As he stood in front of the console a slopping, sloshing noise like clothes being turned in a washtub came from within. The coffee going down. Roy looked up at Donovan, their faces barely apart. The head beamed a benevolent smile as if trying to cover the sound.

“Have we informed the family?” Donovan asked.

“Yes, I believe a cable was sent this morning”.

Donovan delicately wiped his lip against the corner of a pincer to dislodge a speck of tobacco that was lodged there.

“Will they be travelling to procure the body?”.

Roy swallowed hard.

“Given the nature of the times, and the injury, I thought it best that they be informed that the body was, uh, irrevocable. It seemed the kinder thing to do”.

“No use burdening their conscience or, indeed, upsetting their memories of the boy without cause, is there?” said Donovan.

Roy finished his coffee and swirled the grains in the bottom of the cup. He hovered by the table, unsure whether to proffer a parting handshake. Donovan gave the subtlest of nods that told him to leave without doing so. He had gotten to where he was by knowing how to herd sentiment and propriety as if they were sheep. As Roy was leaving Donovan called to him.

“The park’s safety records, Roy, what is being done about them?”.

He turned and watched the little pinprick head on top of its desk of gears and engines tilt slightly to one side.

“Umm, I hadn’t thought, Sir”.

“Art, please”.

“I suppose…” Roy trailed.

“I’d hate our reputation to be tarnished. Damnit, hundreds of people pass through these gates every day and we’ve never had a guest walk away with anything worse than his cheeks aching from the laughs he’s had. Given the nature of the accident and all…”.

“You’re right. The equipment is quite sound. It wasn’t even really the guy in the control boxes fault”.

“It wouldn’t be accurate to keep record of this kind of thing, if you ask me. It’s not a true reflection. I pride myself on the safety of this park” said Donovan.

“No. I’ll make sure people get the right view of things”.

The face lit up. Like a cartoon fox upon whom the light of the forest has fallen or a princess gazing into the eyes of her charming suitor for the first time. That was the tragedy of it. In spite of the mechanical nightmare of a body, the face was still so animated.

 

III

Roy walked across the park and back to his office. He felt the heat of the midday sun upon the bare patch on the crown of his head. He’d left his hat on the coat stand in the office. Donovan hated hats. A thin haze of dust hung in the air and the janitors with their brooms and pans worked like ants in the bleached light. Family groups wandered the paths and sidewalks, the bottoms of their shoes pale with the dust. Many of the kids had no shoes and they jumped in one anothers footprints playing some catch game they had brought with them from the sand farms.

He stopped and sat on a bench in the shade of a poplar. Looking up at the light filtering through the branches and teardrop leaves he wondered how Donovan had missed this one. The benches had all been placed in the glare of the sun, the angles had all been calculated. People who wanted to take shade could find it in the nearest ice cream parlour or gift shop.

He saw a couple heading towards him. Their slack jaws and eyes like dish plates told him that they had come from the park entrance. Before them lay the white picket fences, stencilled windows of malt shops and tin signs hawking gas and BBQ that they had come for. Of course there were also the rides; The FreedomCoaster, the Davy Crockett, the Haunted Townhouse. Thrills for less than a buck. Much less, now.

Whilst, before, people had come to be thrilled and scared, now they had as much of that at home as they were fit to handle. Today they came for the apple pie shaped slice of Americana that the park had previously delivered as an afterthought. They came for one last look at what the world was like before the bombs fell. The couple passed the bench and never even noticed him. Their eyes were fixed on the parasol of a stand selling fresh doughnuts, globs of batter glistening with grease and matte with powdered sugar, that sat further down the path. Their grey and frayed clothes billowed in the warm, dusty air.

Back in his office Roy put his feet up on the desk and opened the paper. Russian cosmonauts breach Earth atmosphere – what will they bring back? was the lead on page three. Ideas put forward included space virii, alien technology and detailed reconnaissance photos of each and every American domicile, missile installation and military base. He closed the paper and tossed it back onto the desk. He buzzed through to his secretary and ordered some lunch. When she came in 15 minutes later with his sandwich and a glass of milk he fixated on her wonderful pink hands as they set down the tray. He had an overwhelming urge to reach out and take them into his own hands, to feel their warmth.

“Thank you, Carol” he said, and the syrupy tone in his voice made her look at him askance.

“Is it real tuna?” he asked.

“Sorry, sir, no new shipment ’til the end of the month”.

She closed the door behind her and he peeled back the dry bread. The flakes of NearTuna were pink and brittle looking. He didn’t even like the real thing that much and he could swear that this substitute was getting worse by the year. Still, he found himself craving the things that he couldn’t have. The Japs controlled tuna. ‘We shoulda nuked them when we had the chance’ he thought. He bit into the sandwich and grimaced. It tasted metallic. He wondered if the boys in the canteen where fitted with the same ultra efficient metal appendages that Donovan’s secretary had had grafted. And that was another thing that the world could have lived without if they hadn’t let the Nips go on to conjure them up. Personally, he could live without any of that robot crap. He forced down half his lunch and chased it with his anti-rad medication and the glass of milk. The milk was heat treated. He pressed the intercom.

“Did they have any pie?” he asked Carol.

“I think so, Sir”.

“What sorts?”.

“Uhm, AlmostApple and Cherry”.

“Real cherry?”

“Yes, sir” he could hear her smiling at the excitement in his voice. “Would you like me to fetch you some?”.

“No. Nevermind”.

He’d never liked cherry pie.

 

IV

The next summons to Donovan’s office came a few days later. Roy ambled over on a rare drizzly day wrapped in his chemically treated macintosh. The rain was not something that you wanted on your skin. The park was practically empty despite the tickets being half price if bought at the entrance whilst rain fell. He walked down Main Street, the primary thoroughfare, and found one of the mascots sheltering in front of a shopfront under a green canvas awning.

He was never sure whether to acknowledge these things or not. Half of them were men in suits and half of them were automata and there was no way, at least that he had found, to tell which were which at a distance. It wouldn’t matter for long. The ratios were tipping towards the automata steadily enough. He assumed that this one, shying away from the adverse weather, must be human but, then again, the other kind were probably programmed to get out of the acidic downpour so as to save on the repair costs. He placed his faith in real cherry pie and tall glasses of fresh milk and waved to this, one of twelve incarnations of Washington the Happy Rabbit that roamed the park at any one time.

Washington waved back. Roy went over and stepped under the awning, taking out his cigarettes. He offered one to Washington and Washington waved it away with a large, white gloved hand.

“Miserable day, isn’t it?”.

Washington nodded his head and his happy, floppy ears bobbed up and down before his large, round eyes.

“Sorry? It’s a bit muffled”, said Roy.

The rabbit pointed to its head, pointed to the opened sky and shrugged his shoulders.

Roy laughed.

“Best place to be on a day like this is inside one of those suits, I reckon”.

The drizzle pattered in the flower beds in front of them. A siren went off in the distance, a dull whine, and they both looked out to where the sound came from. It was shut off abruptly and Roy breathed a sigh of relief that let out a thinned plume of grey smoke.

“Just a test” he said.

Washington stared ahead, contemplatively.

Out of the haze of rain a figure came walking down Main Street. As it drew nearer, Roy saw that it was another Washington. This one was soaked, the water dripped from the end of it’s long whiskers and glistened in its sodden fur. It strolled along quite unperturbed by the downpour. Roy glanced at the Washington by whose side he stood and saw no interest or anticipation. This second Washington drew nearer.

An unpleasant feeling crept across Roy’s shoulder blades like damp in the bones. He became aware of a strong conviction that, in the face of any odds, no man was beneath the both of these costumes. He was either watching one of those things walk in his direction. Or else he was waiting alone in the rain, shooting the breeze with one of them. The idea that, perhaps, neither, was a man and that he was alone in the abandoned park with only these machines was the idea that made his throat knot.  

The soaked rabbit came level with where he and the other stood. He waited with bated breath for some sign. He pictured it stopping and turning to stare at him. He pictured the other making the same move, seeing his reflection in its glassy, black eye. He felt as if he could hear each pinprick of rain hammering on the paved street and running into its grooves, roaring like a cascade.

The Washington that walked in the rain did turn, but only so that it could flip the two of them the middle finger. As he watched its cotton tail bobbing away into the distance he turned to the happy rabbit by his side. It did not turn to face him. Its glassy black eyes did not fall on him like a shadow coming down. It just stared ahead into the rain. 

Hesitantly he stepped out onto Main Street, watching the mascot from the corner of his eye. The large white, fairytale castle in the distance at the end of Main Street seemed pregnant with menace.  When he had got halfway down the street he looked back over his shoulder. Washington was still stood there beneath the awning. His nerves were pulled tight. It was perhaps only a trick of the failing light but as he turned away he imagined he saw it move and he broke out into a run. He only slowed to a walk as he came within sight of Donovan’s office.

 

VI

He heard voices beyond the door that led into the reception area. He recognized one as Valery, the secretary with the hands that could crush hot coals. There was also the voice of the girl with the coffee. The President’s daughter, Donovan had said. It went to show how revered the park had become in an age of ruined atmosphere and uncertain martial stalemate. He couldn’t remember her name. The other two voices were male and he did not recognize them.

“So, is it all, like, wires and stuff inside?” said the President’s daughter.

One of the male voices laughed pleasantly.

“It’s like a lightbulb. There’s a metal screw cap underneath. You just turn it and off it pops!”.

“No!?” came the reply.

“That’s right. We placed a divot with a matching thread in the torso and moved him from one to the other. Just like a lightbulb, as I said. You could even do it!”.

He laughed again.

“So I could be a brain surgeon?” she squealed.

“You’d be the cutest one I ever met, if so!” said the other unidentified voice.

Roy rapped on the door with the back of his hand and pushed it open. Four perturbed faces looked back at him.

“Mr. Buchman” said Valery.

“Hello. Sorry to interrupt, I have a meeting with Art”.

It was useless to prove that he was on first name terms with the boss. Everyone was, whether they liked it or not.

Valery went to the rolodex on her desk, the metal fingers separating out the sheaves with machine like precision.

“Buchman, is it? I’m Dr. Aaronson. This is Dr. Gauss”.

Roy shook hands with them both. The President’s daughter excused herself with a mutter and slipped into the office itself. Valery continued to flick through the rolodex. Aaronson smiled awkwardly at him whilst Gauss stared with a chill, clinical look. Roy felt like he was being sized up for “refit” as they called it. They both looked very young to be doctors. They were certainly younger than he was. But this was the way of things, now. Engineer and Doctor had become entwined branches coming out of the same trunk and the cutting edge was occupied by the young.

“Ah, here we go” said Valery.

“Try not to excite him too much,” said Aaronson “he’s still recovering”.

“He invited me” Roy retorted.

“It’s a serious change. He’s experiencing a very different level of ability and he might get carried away. Go beyond his limits. Try to moderate him”.

Roy looked scornfully from Aaronson to the icy glare of Gauss and went into the office.

“Roy!”

Roy’s lips moved but no sound issued forth. What stood before him, its hand outstretched, was consuming all the mental acuity he possessed. Six foot tall and so broad that the shirt was bulging and pinched as it struggled to contain the body, this was the new Art Donovan, nee Eriksson.

They shook hands and Roy’s bones felt as if they slid out of alignment in the grip of the solid, workmanlike fingers.

“So, what do you think?” Art beamed, grasping him by the shoulders and pushing him to arms length.

“It’s… you’ve never looked better, Sir”,

“Art! And I was talking about the parade, damnit, Roy? Did you not get the memo?”.

“My secretary just said I was to come over”.

“Tssk, that girl would forget her head. You need me to arrange an upgrade?”.

“No, Sir, that’s.. sorry, Art…. that’s quite unnecessary. I’ll have a word with her”.

“Where’s that coffee?” Donovan barked at the girl in the corner, the President’s daughter. But the bark contained none of the usual sugared contempt. In fact it was quite good natured. This was the old Art, the father figure bouncing his employees on his knee and scolding them warmly when they sicked up. Whilst his head was turned Roy looked to where the steel monolith of a console had previously sat. There was a broad rectangle of carpet barely half a shade darker than the rest. It would soon be replaced. The old Art was a stickler for the details.

The girl brought over the coffee and they took their seats as she sidled out of the room. Roy was, once more, on the calfskin sofa. He felt gooseflesh break out on the underside of his thighs from the cold leather. Donovan sat in a huge new high backed chair drawing on a cigarette held between thumb and index finger.

“So, this parade, then” he said.

“Everything is in place, as usual. I think one of the floats needs a new axle but we can make do”.

“No, no, no” Donovan said, waving the cigarette back and forth in the air. “This isn’t the standard Friday evening parade. I want something extra. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about”.

“How do you mean?”.

“Extra!” Donovan spat the word like two barrels being discharged in one pull. He stubbed the half smoked cigarette and drank off the coffee. His bottom lip came up to wipe down the moustache and he took a deep, quiet breath. Roy’s mind geared up to take in what was coming and retain it. He was familiar with the signals that signified a vision about to be outlined. He was less familiar with the sound of shirt seams popping as muscles bulged against them.

“I want the parade we had three years ago” he said with a slick smile.

“The Thanksgiving one?”.

Donovan didn’t reply. The pause had been for emphasis, not to invite questions.

“I want the kind of parade we had three years ago. I want a crowd so deep that that you can’t make out the faces of the ones at the back. I want floats that just keep coming. I want a marching band at the front and the rear. I want a fireworks display, I want to see the lights shining on their faces and I want that red, white and blue starburst we used to have at the end. I want the silence that follows. And I want the applause as the national anthem strikes up. Roy, I want my park back, damnit!”.

Roy shifted on the sofa and the gooseflesh returned. But it wasn’t from the cold leather and it wasn’t from the vision.

“I want that too, Art. We all do. But…”

“But what?” he picked up the pack of cigarettes angrily and wrenched one from the soft packaging. He lit it, his eyes boring through Roy’s skull.

“Why not? Give me one good reason”.

Roy could think of about ten.

“Well, the fireworks for a start. We’re not supposed to use them anymore, they interfere with the missile warning systems. I’m not sure we even have any that would still ignite”.

Donovan blew smoke as if he were blowing away the issue.

“We’ll buy more”.

“Where from, Art? No-one makes them anymore. The factories they made them in are munitions factories now”.

“Mexico. We’ll buy them in Mexico”.

Ah, Mexico. The answer was always Mexico. He wondered, momentarily, if he might be able to get tuna brought in from Mexico.

“We don’t have the kind of resources we had then” he retorted.

“No, we just don’t exercise them” replied Donovan, “It’s this damn war, it drags everyone’s dreams down to the gutter. If war is even what is still going on. Who the hell even knows anymore, the government runs the damn papers. I can’t make anything but propaganda films. That might have been OK back in the forties, for a time, but who knows when this thing will end? Again, if it’s even still going? This park is my world now. And I’m not going to let it get dragged down with the rest of the world. I built it to exist outside of the world, better than the real world.”.

Roy finished his coffee. He wanted to light another cigarette but did not want to tie himself any further to the conversation.

“I’ll… see what can be done”.

Donovan stood up with him and walked him to the door. There, he opened it for him and placed a broad, firm hand on his shoulder.

“I feel like a new man, Roy. I can’t explain it. You’ve always been my go-to-guy. Make this happen for me. For all of them. They deserve a better world, even if it’s just for one day”.

Roy stepped into the outer office and Donovan closed the door behind him with a smile. Valery was rattling away at the keys on the typewriter. She didn’t look up. She held up the metal claws and, as if she were flexing her wrists  from the strain, they span in rapid 360 motions from where they attached at the wrists, whirring like a kitchen blender. She flexed them back and forth and went back to her typing. He was stepping out the door when he heard Donovan come through on the intercom.

“Valery, get me the President on the phone”.

“What has she done now?” Valery said, without stopping her typing.

“No, not for that” came the reply.

 

VII

It was Friday morning when Roy Buchman woke, slumped forward over his desk and with his head cradled in his arms. A cup of coffee steamed weakly on the corner of the desk. He listened for the patter of typewriter keys in the small outer office that Carol occupied. He rubbed his eyes and took up the coffee, collapsing back in the chair. He reached for the cigarettes in the pocket of his jacket which hung over the back of his chair. He had slept abominably and this would be the only moment of rest he would get for the whole day. One cigarette and one cup of coffee. As he smoked and drank he tried to pick at and pull the threads of a lingering dream he had had during the night.

In it he had been running down a dark and deserted highway. His pursuer was some grunting, growling something with eyes that shone in piercing rays. As the light fell on him, throwing his twitching shadow into view like a portent of death, he would move this way and that to escape its gaze. Sometimes he would feel as if he had outrun it but then the light would fall again on his outstretched hands. Eventually his desperate run turned into the lope of some animal. He found his hands on the asphalt, his nails digging into it by a strange dream logic. Pushing forwards with his legs and hauling himself along with his arms. He could not remember if he had escaped the clutches of the force that stalked him from the shadows.

He stepped into the outer office. The fan was running and the window was ajar. Carol smiled at him from behind her small desk.

“Thanks for the coffee” he said.

“I figured you might need it” she said handing him a ream of papers with a pained look on her face.

“I got as much done as I could but this it what’s still outstanding”.

He flicked through the papers by their corner. Names and times of calls and a never ending list of demands and problems flew out at him like ink whipped from the tip of a fountain pen. He blinked away the fog from his brain.

“Can it be done?” he asked Carol, “Am I being dumb to even try?”.

There wasn’t a kind answer and Carol offered him a smile of solidarity in lieu.

“Oh , before you go” she said as he was stepping out of the door and handed him a brown paper bag rolled over at the top.

“It’s real tuna” she said with pride.

“Thank you”.

He was pathetically grateful.

“And there’s a slice of cherry pie tucked in there as well. For if you get a break for coffee”.

“What would I do without you?” he said.

The ribbons on the fan shimmered like minnows in a stream.

Outside the heat struck him with pleasant force. The sky was a painted blue. Dense white clouds looked as if they had been drafted in from one of Donovan’s idyllic cartoon worlds. He could hear the thrum of the crowds and the drunken, undulating fairground music in the distance. He had asked Donovan, pleaded, that they close the park for the day whilst they prepared. But no, that wouldn’t do at all – there had to be a showreel before the main feature.  

He spent the day chasing workmen, contractors and foremen through the heaving crowds of tourists. He moved between offices, on and off phones and between sites. It was like trying to sort grains of sand on a beach as the tide ebbed and flowed. The parade was going to run through virtually the whole park, ending on Main Street.

The evening was drawing in and he was practically falling asleep in the chair of one of the lean tos when the telephone rang. He had to clear away piles of paper and blueprints to get to the rattling phone.

“Hello?”.

“I want to speak to Roy Buchman”.

It was Donovan.

“Speaking, Art”.

“Roy? You sound like you’ve been swilling gravel”.

“No, no. Just been busy at it”.

“Good, good. How are we looking?”.

“Pretty much there”.

He looked to the scattered papers as if they would provide an answer to the question he was awaiting.

“How much is pretty much?”.

“We have the fireworks” he ventured.

“Damnit, Roy”.

The dramatic pause. The prince snatching the princess from the clutches of the wicked witch.

“You’re a goddamn genius! Where are you going to be watching the parade from?”.

He wondered. Once the parade was underway there was little use in trying to control it any further. He had men for that. Perhaps it would be better if he abandoned any futile dreams of control and tried to enjoy the thing? Against all odds they had pulled the pieces together. It was going to be a hell of a show.

“I might see if Pine would allow me to watch from his office”.

“Nonsense, take the box on Main Street. You’ve earned it. We’ve really put something together here”.

“But what about you?”.

Donovan chuckled. Coming down the decaying copper line the sound had a sinister echo.

“You’ll see” he said.

 

VII

Settled in the box atop the bleachers from which Donovan would ordinarily observe the parade, Roy watched the gnats and moths jostle and crowd around the globe lamps that lined Main Street, smashing themselves against the gentle light. The night was comfortably warm, the heat from the day’s sun caught and seeping from the asphalt. The crowds were as dense as Donovan had wished for. Crammed together like canned fish the mass of bodies shuffled with a mix of discomfort and excitement. The queues to get into the park that morning had stretched around the perimeter. Those who were inside now had plenty of experience. He looked up to a sky that was the dark, soft blue of crushed velvet. The bold clouds of the morning had melted into thin, creamy wisps of vapour. Not a star could be seen.

The lights appeared on the horizon and a ripple of excitement came down the lines of people. As the cheering and clapping and murmurs of anticipation died away the first distant notes of the marching band floated in on the light breeze.

The band stomped past, the hammering of their feet falling into step with the beat of the drums. The trumpets, trombones and flutes piped the great American and period standards in and amongst the whoops and clapping of the massed crowds. Immediately behind the band Washington the Happy Rabbit skipped along the asphalt. The whites of the children’s eyes shone like tiny moons as he waved his huge, gloved paws to each side of the crowd. He looked up and waved both arms back and forth, encompassing the whole bleachers. It was cheery gesture but, the face dead and unmoving as it was, it had the horrible afterimage of a man drowning.

Roy watched from the box atop the bleachers with a tightness in his throat. Washington raised his head, just a fraction, and his waving stopped. The noise of the crowd and the band seemed to drop away as Roy looked into the rabbit’s deep, dark plastic eyes. He heard a rain that wasn’t there. The sound of the parade came screaming, jerkily, back into his consciousness as Washington turned his head and skipped on, reaching down to hold out his hand to a grinning and grasping child.

It was everything that Donovan had dreamed of. Some of the costumes were a little threadbare, some of the floats not as luxuriously decorated as in days gone by, but the effect was as close to the real thing as it was possible to get. It was a million years from NearTuna, that was for damn sure! Roy wondered, with a tinge of disappointment, why Donovan wasn’t here to see it all going on. As the floats chugged past the rumble of their engines and the faint smell of diesel made him smile, they were proof positive of his success. Donovan would, as always, absorb the credit, distancing himself from the awareness of the hundreds of people involved other than himself. But that was OK. That was Art. The father who knew that his children’s achievements were his own.

The parade was dying down though the crowd had lost none of their enthusiasm. Roy could hear the strains of the marching band that brought up the rear becoming apparent. He saw the final float break the horizon. The fairytale castle behind them glowed with angelic light from the floodlights pointed up at it. He lit a cigarette and watched the crowd as he waited.

The women were dressed in faded print dresses, tattered around the hem. The men wore suits that shone with wear along the limp creases. The children wore whatever had been thrown together that presented them in the best light. Few carried lunch pails. Many would have spent what they might otherwise have spent on food for a day or more for the whole family’s entrance to the park. But they all seemed happy with their trade of bread for the circus.

The final float rumbled by. This was the one that Roy really wished Donovan had been here to see. It was Washington’s Happy House. A log cabin around which the flowers and woodland creatures frolicked. Each autonomous element whirled or chirped or bounced with gay abandon. The pianola housed inside plinked out its cheery melody. Washington himself, or at least one of his twelve manifestations, tossed candies and party favours into the crowds as he danced. WIth the music and automation and the sheer size and weight of the house the thing practically drank gasoline. It hadn’t been included in a parade since the start of the war for this reason. They had had to go further afield than Mexico to get it running. Some of the things they had had to do would not necessarily have been approved of by The President. Roy was relieved that he had pulled out of attending at the last moment. The amount of black smoke that the float coughed into the summer night would doubtless have drawn a few questions.

As Washington’s float moved past, Roy ground his cigarette into the wooden boards. Something wasn’t quite right. The marching band that brought up the rear of the parade should have followed Washington’s float. Roy looked down Main Street in the direction from whence the parade had come. He could hear the marching band but the music was still faint. He sighed. After all the trouble they’d taken the marching band had lost their cue and were out of sync with the rest of the parade. It wasn’t a fall at the final hurdle as such, only a stumble really, but it was an annoyance. He wondered how Donovan would react.

 

VIII

He jumped as the firework exploded in the air. He had been so engaged in thought that he had not seen the bright shell go up. His shoulders lurched when the light fell on his face and the report sounded. All at once the band struck up a louder tune and the first glimmers of light, reflecting off the twirling batons and polished instruments, appeared on the brow of Main Street.

Every face in the crowd turned to watch as the marching band, twice the size of the one that had begun the parade, made their way down the asphalt towards them. A gargantuan float followed close behind. Each foot was on the tip of its toes, all eyebrows raised to see above the head of those standing in front. Each face was wide eyed in anticipation and wonder. All except that of Roy Buchman. He could guess exactly what was rumbling towards them.

The float was truly gigantic. Adorned with prints of Donovan’s early artwork and festooned with lights, the bolts in the bleachers seemed to rattle as it drew near. A statuette of Washington the Rabbit, nearly twenty foot tall, saluted the crowds from a plinth at the rear of the float. Donovan stood before it wearing a suit that looked like some cross between a magician’s outfit and a circus master’s top and tails. He roared greetings to the cheering crowds as the marching band, coming up on the rear of the float, played medleys of tunes from his films. The thick tendons in his muscular neck bulged as he waved emphatically to each man and woman as if they were old friends.

Roy watched on in astoundment and admiration. He wondered how Donovan had got it together on his own? He realized that a small coterie of park staff, conspicuously absent in the previous few days, must have had a hand in it. That, after all, was Uncle Art. He wanted it to be a surprise for as many of his children as possible, even the ones on the payroll. Roy was lighting another cigarette and smiling a contented smile to himself when the first batch of fireworks went up and the first rain of mortars came down.

The sky lit up with cobalt flares of colour. The crowds eyes were all upturned. The fiery trials of the bombs were lost amongst the bursts of red and silver and blue. It was only when a shell came down on on one of the shops along Main Street, sending red brick flying and the dirt from the flowerbeds skittering across the ground, that the cheering turned into shocked and desperate screams.

The cigarette dropped from Roy’s mouth as, in the terrible drawn out silence that followed, he heard the hushed whine of another shell. He never truly recognized whether it was of a firework ascending to burst or a mortar descending to burn because his feet had already carried him up and over the back of the bleachers and the rest was a blur of noise and the reek of smoke as he lay winded in the dirt.

When he found himself again he had his arm around Donovan’s broad shoulders, desperately trying to haul the hulk of a man through the bloodied and deranged crowd. Fires roared all around and dense clouds of choking smoked filled the air. Everywhere there was the hellish sound of the injured moaning and their relatives screaming in despair. The sounds of mortars exploding came from both near and far. The whole park was being annihilated.

Donovan was rooted to the spot, his face turned to the sky. Roy glanced upward and caught a glimpse of what so enraptured him. The tiny grey smear of a plane against the gleaming moon. He tasted blood in the back of his throat. Only for the light of the moon he caught a pinprick of black fall from the plane and shoot across the white surface.

“Art!” he screamed.

Another mortar shook the ground.

“Art!”.

Donovan stared blankly back at him as the next round burst. They both looked towards the sound. The castle that stood at the head of Main Street was enveloped in a cloud of black smoke in which the amber glow of fire burned at the core. From out of the cloud came tumbling one of the huge turrets which slid and tumbled to smash on the ground below. A plume of debris erupted up into the air.

“We have to go!” Roy yelled.

And, like a child led by the hand, Donovan began to follow with stumbling steps. His eyes, all the time, on the castle collapsing in on itself.

 

IX

Roy Buchman sat bolt upright on the army cot. The floor of the bunker was linoleum lined over concrete and he could feel the cold seeping up through the soles of his shoes. He looked to the dark hallway that led into the storage room and then back to the two toned wall ahead of him. The top half was the colour of souring milk and the bottom half a seaweed green. The understanding that this would be his surroundings for what would perhaps be the remainder of his life, again, crept at the corners of his mind but was turned away once more.

On the cot by his side Dr. Gauss groaned and turned over in a half-comatose state. The last time he’d looked over there had been a dark stain of blood on the pillow upon which his sweat soaked head lay. Roy didn’t care to look again. Instead he reached for the anti-rad medication on the small stand next to his cot and swallowed two more and he felt a little more assured.

Donovan stepped out of the room he had co-opted as an office. The provisions that had been in there when they first entered the bunker were now stacked in the corner of the main room. There was plenty of space. The bunker was made to house twenty or so individuals. Roy wasn’t sure how many rooms there were in total – he had stayed mostly on his cot bed.

A large, white-gloved paw went up to his face and straightened the pencil moustache.

“Roy?”.

“Art”.

Roy glanced up. His brain still twinged with nightmare unreality every time he looked upon the little head sat seven foot off the ground atop the large brown body. The buttons on the red shorts that were stitched into the fur shone. Donovan polished them every morning.

“Did you manage to find the shirt?” the head asked.

“Yeah, it’s right here”.

Dr. Gauss coughed and moaned a little. Roy winced and looked timidly at the head peering down at him. It didn’t seem to have even heard. He reached for the sailor jacket that sat on the pillow behind him. It had belonged to one of the other mascots that had managed to find itself stashed in the bunker for whatever reason. Roy had felt like a grave robber unstitching it from the mascot that was stood in some dark corner, the black eyes staring back from a grinning face. He stood and handed it to Donovan who turned it over in his large rabbit paws.

“Which one was this off?”

“McKay the Wacky Mallard, sir”.

You drew him, Roy thought, you drew him decades ago.

“Hmm”.

As if Roy and the dying Dr. Gauss who lay guttering on the bed were not even there Donovan slipped off the shirt, split along each seam, that he had worn and unknotted the comically small tie. He pulled on the sailor jacket. There were no reflective surfaces within the bunker in which to appraise himself. He looked to Roy.

“Hmm. So, Art, I was wondering”.

He lowered his voice to a whisper.

“What will we do with…” and he tilted his head towards Gauss. “When it happens, I mean?”.

Donovan tilted his tiny head for all of a second.

“I need to see you in my office” he said, “I’ve got a little project we need to get to work on”.

And with that he turned and walked into the room he had commandeered, the white bobtail bouncing along behind him.

Roy didn’t go into the office. He stood and walked into the store room. The walls were lined with racks of shelving all of which were piled high with cans or sachets of food, blankets, medical provision and the like. He had read somewhere that the bunker was stocked well enough for up to twenty people to survive for 15 years. Enough time for the radiation to die down. He thought again about his anti rad medication. He would keep taking it, just in case. He imagined he could hear Gauss’s racking coughs even at this distance.

Some of the medical items were disturbed, syringes and packets of gauze scattered all over the floor. This must have been where Gauss hurriedly gathered what he needed as he had desperately tried to save Donovan’s former body. But the damage had been too much, apparently. The connections all fried or the bone all fractured. Roy hardly knew what was really inside the form that had once been Eriksson. Gauss had conceded defeat and, once Donovan was transplanted onto Washington’s neck, had disposed of the remaining pieces of each.

“It won’t rot. There’s no chance of disease, don’t worry about that” Gauss had barked at Roy when he had asked. Roy wondered just where the ghoulish castoffs had been stashed. It was too late to find out from Gauss himself. That would be a pleasant surprise one of these days. He thought in jest of Washington’s large happy head screwed onto the blighted form of Erikson, nee Donovan. It was a ludicrous thought. Such a thing stowed away in some dark corner of the bunker for him to stumble on one day. But perhaps it wasn’t so funny after all. He shrugged off a chill.

Searching through the rows of dehydrated and vacuum sealed food he found what he had been looking for. And, yes! There it was. He pulled back the folded flaps of cardboard. The silver tops of the cans gleamed up at him like a bank of spiders eyes. He took a breath and picked one up and turned the label to face him. It was tuna. Real tuna. He clutched the can in delight till his knuckles paled. But the tops of the can underneath didn’t shine. Without putting down the first can he picked up the one below. He dropped them both and turned the box round to read its contents. “10 x TUNA/30 x NRTUNA”.  Each box on the shelf was exactly the same. Row after row.

Roy sat on the cot bed. Gauss breathed quietly beside him. Donovan came out of the office. No mention was made that Roy had not followed him into the office. As time passed Roy wondered how many days they had been down in the bunker. Without the cycle of the sun and moon it was so difficult to say. He picked up a pen from the little stand beside the cot and made the first tally mark on the wall. He looked across at Donovan. He, too, was drawing on the moss green paint. He could still draw, the talent never went. He was drawing Washington. His foot on a mound of earth, he was planting the American flag.

Sing Like a Girl

onehundredseventythree

If you’re allowed to live.
It’s only because.
You stood under the salient flags.
And if you’re alive.
It’s only because.
Death didn’t pick you out at the dance.

You’re free to sob.
And you’re free to leave.
There’s not one fly on you.
Peter and Paul.
As much as I recall.
Had the same kind of reprieve.

I can’t understand.
Why you’d want.
Someone like me around.
You’ve got your wings.
And your bird is green.
But it never makes a sound.
I suppose you ring.
Around the houses.
Taking up a mortgage where you can.
I’m clipped.
And fucked.
With a little mirror bride.
A little parrot man.

But it’s a beautiful life to lead.
In a wooden caravan.
Going down the glue factory.
WIth your horse’s head in a bag.
Pinning notes in the Post Office.
“Who’s seen the cunt that stole my nag?”.
The old boy’ll run on goodwill.
By the grace of God.
They’ll pay a tenner for a big mare.
Fifteen if it’s shod.

Beggar

onehundredandseventytwo

Around blue fires.
Where animals cry.
To mountain.
To sea.
In cobalt light.
Are burnt by pleasure.
Scratch at a dirt.
That is full of golden teeth.

What lies in the tower?
That leans on the sky.
Above where electric light reaches.
And far below the stars.
Some horse-head matriarch?
Some red haired ghost.
Pale faced and screaming.
“Give back what you’ve taken”.
As lightning clashes.
Against the perished stone.

Chains hang loose.
Dusted with powder.
Always by your side.
To wrap around.
The necks of other lovers.
Around blue fires.
I sit idle.
And wait for storms to gather.

 

Junction

onehundredandseventyone

Tickets are touted in soaped over windows.
Advertising the fun of the fair.
In the grey sky above where the rain grows.
There’s the smell of burnt dust in the air.

The dancing clown splits into pieces.
And each hovering body piece spins.
This shit is the sign of a species.
That has finished before it begins.

The elephant wraps her trunk round your shoulder.
And you find that your popcorn is gone.
An alumnae of animal trainers.
Taught her to pick on the delicate ones.

The lion is either yawning or singing.
Invites you pull up a whip and a chair.
Asks that you check on his fillings.
But you used all the gas on the bears.

The sawdust is strewn with feathers.
The bleachers are caked with mud.
The man on the highboard comes tumbling.
Down into a bucket of Wild Bill’s blood.

Hark! Here strides the circus master.
His drunken top hat tipped to hide.
His cynic’s smirk in the face of disaster.
The sunken and hollow look in his eyes.

This is how we end the show.
Everybody take their share of the crowd.
Turn the lights down nice and low.
Pull up the tent and back to the road.

Reactor

onehundredandseventy

You’re a dressmaker’s doll.
And I’m a clockwork bull.
Beautiful idols, both.
Forgotten in a toybox.
And you’re full of little pinpricks.
And I’m full of little cogs.
Itching, both.
Inside the skin.

Sing the circle.
Sang the scalpel.
What begins in Death.
Must end in naught.
And I’m Red in the places you taught me.
And I’m black in the places that bind.
Threads of sickened memory.
Sew the cloth of time.

Fluttering in a bloodshot eye.
The crowd are gathering round.
To stick their pins in the snorting beast.
The great wild bull is lying down.