Welcome back from your final shopping/baking/mental preparation weekend before Christmas. It SNOWED in New York this weekend and even though the sun came out the next day, the entire city seemed to forget how to function (and drive.. even underground subway drivers, which was odd and annoying).
Speaking of driving (get ready for an awesome transition here), today's story is an excerpt of a novel called The School-bus, the Grandmother, and the Pretty Little Terrorist. The author, Michael Power, calls this "your basic love-conquers-all kind of story," and he breaks down the title like this (paraphrased): The main character is hit by a school-bus and loses his leg; he returns to Wyoming after ten years and reconnects with his parents and dying grandmother; and then he returns to New York and falls in love with an Afghan woman who is mistaken for a terrorist.
Michael Power is a fiction writer, songwriter, and musician living in New York City. His first novel, The Zoo, was published in March 2009 by Cacoethes Publishing House, and his short story, Kiss of Death, was published by Writer’s Eye magazine and won fourth place in the Fall 2008 Coffee House Fiction Contest. Find out more about Michael at www.michaelpowernyc.com.
The Schoolbus, The Grandmother, and the Pretty Little Terrorist
By Michael Power
“Fuck off Max” he yelled when the cat stepped on his testicles. Now he was up. There was a moment in each of Alan’s days when the tide of the ocean of dreams receded and left him stranded on the sticky hot sand of reality. On the good days that moment did not involve testicle stomping but this was not one of the good days.
He raised one arm and swung it down to build the momentum necessary to raise his carcass from the mattress. He swung his legs over the side of the bed and with a pained grunt he found himself balanced fairly evenly on his feet. With the one eye that was moist enough to be opened, he squinted at the calendar that hung from the nail above his waste basket. It was May the second and it was 2,008 years after the purported birth of Jesus Christ. Alan let the shower get steaming hot before he entered it and then slowly cooled it until his flesh felt the sting of wakefulness. In the back of his mind, however tired and muddled the morning found him, a thought asserted itself into his consciousness: before you shower again you may meet someone, fall in love (or something like it), and be presented with the opportunity to have sex.. A thorough shower could only aid in that effort. After his shower he put on aftershave, antiperspirant and cologne to mask his natural aromas. In this way too he might be able to slip past the guardians of virtue to try his luck in the games of chance played in other people’s beds.
In his bedroom there was one window that opened on a closed alley between buildings and another that faced south and the wall of another building. This building was shorter than his so he got a fairly good glimpse of a patch of clear blue sky above it. This was the only place in his apartment that looked out on the natural world. On top of one of the taller buildings a few blocks south of his there was a water tower and in the morning the sun’s light gleamed off its metal bands in a most pleasing way. In the evening it did the same thing on the other side and Alan closed his eyes for a long moment hoping that the sun was on the other side, that the worst part of the day was behind him, that he could drink beer and listen to music and watch the sun pull the shade of night across the sky westward as it went. When he opened his eyes it was still morning so he sighed heavily and headed down the hall, stopping at Kris’ door to listen for his breathing. Kris insisted that he didn’t snore but Alan listened to breathing that was more than breathing. It was an inhaling and expelling of the environment conducted with such violence that it sounded like he was challenging the air to fight back. When Alan was satisfied that Kris was home and asleep he continued to the kitchen and gave Max his daily ration.
Alan and Kris had been living together for almost ten years. Longer than a lot of marriages, they often remarked. It could have been an awkward situation but because of their similarities it seemed right that they were roommates. In 1997 Alan moved from Wyoming to New York City and answered an ad Kris had placed in The Village Voice: “Roommate wanted. 2BR on W85 St. Split everything 50/50. Nobody too fucked up. A little is OK. Men only.”
“Why only men?” Alan asked.
“Why only men?” Alan asked.
“In the ad? You got something against fags?”
Alan could see the answer Kris wanted. He liked that about Kris right off – very direct. No bullshit. And no tolerance for what he perceived as bigotry. His bigotry meter was obviously on a pretty sensitive setting.
“I don’t have a problem with that,” Alan answered. “I was just wondering.”
“I just don’t think I could live with a woman unless we were lovers and I wouldn’t put an ad in the paper to get a lover. That would be so crass, don’t you think?” Alan nodded. “Besides, it would take all the sport out of it.”
Alan smiled, they clinked their glasses together and proceeded to drink themselves into such a stupor that when Alan woke up on Kris’s couch the next morning he had no memory at all of how he got there. He bought a bed that afternoon, the very same bed on which Max would soon be lying, cleaning the residue of breakfast from his whiskers and purring his way to a long day of napping in the patch of sun.
While his roommates enjoyed their domesticity, Alan quietly closed and locked the door on his way out and headed down the hall. Max yelled at him when he left. Max always yelled at him when he left. He could hear the cat's cries all the way down the hall to the elevator until they were drowned out by the blaring of Paul’s TV. Paul had been living in the building since before it went condo and Alan sometimes wondered if he’d been squatting there since before it was built. As he waited for the elevator he reflected on his neighbor.
Paul didn’t look good. The skin underneath his eyes was yellow and purple and perpetually moist. A milky discharge always flowed from his eyes or his nose, leaving behind a crusty yellow residue in the folds of his skin. He shaved erratically and hair always seemed to be sprouting from newer and stranger places on Paul’s head. He didn’t smell good, as if some small animal had entered one of his orifices and died there. He didn’t hear good, which is why the roar of his TV could always be heard in the hallway. Luckily for all concerned the building was constructed in the 1930s so the inside of each apartment was virtually soundproof.
Paul didn’t feel good either. His body was breaking apart and the thin reed holding it together was an insatiable lust that had infected his brain with the idea that if he could only stay alive long enough he might one day have sex again. Since he was convinced that Alan and Max were lovers he took a perverse pleasure in being as crude as possible when describing to Alan the unnatural acts he longed to perform on actresses, supermodels, newscasters and any woman unfortunate enough to slide into the quicksand of his consciousness. As the elevator descended Alan could hear Paul’s raspy laughter over a softly groaning female voice.
As soon as he pushed open the front door and left his building Alan began his daily tightrope walk to work. In the ten years since he’d moved east from Wyoming he’d developed an uneasy intimacy with the city of New York. She was exciting. Not even her harshest critics would deny her that. She was deeply beautiful too – only those blinded by ignorance could deny that. She was smart and sophisticated of course, humorous in an earthy as well as a witty way and she was, more often than not, decent, honest and hardworking. But she had a dark side that she showed far too frequently. She could be profoundly cruel. She could kill an innocent child for absolutely no reason and go on with her day as if nothing had happened. She was the beating heart of the human race and the icy indifference of Mother Nature sewn up in five bulging boroughs. Alan wouldn’t turn his back on her and when he was on her streets he was always on guard. He plugged up his ears with tiny speakers that played songs he’d heard before many times and walked up Broadway toward the hole that led down to the subway.
Underground his fellow commuters were catching up on what passed for the news in post-civil right, post-human rights, post-free speech, post-free press, post-democracy, post-American America that had continued with its life while they slept. The fifteen or sixteen corpses that their tax dollars had purchased were not deemed important enough to make the covers of the New York Post and Daily News. It looked like Lindsey Lohan was back in rehab. Everywhere he looked he saw the same image of an intoxicated young woman in the back of a police car. He saw it every day. Sometimes it was Paris Hilton and sometimes it was Britney Spears but it was always the same sickening game of misdirection. Somewhere in the twenty-five or so purplish-gray feet of intestines that twisted from his stomach to his anus he felt a new kind of rumbling, like a small hole had been torn in the wet fleshy wall of his guts and air or blood was bubbling through. He leaned back against the door of the train and a bright white light filled his skull. He wasn’t sure for a few minutes if his legs were going to stay under him but they did, and just long enough for the train to arrive at his station and dump him out onto the platform.
Back above ground it was hot and windy – a beautiful spring morning. It was a small taste of the intense, debilitating heat that was soon to come but the suns rays were made more than welcome on his face by the memory of winter’s cold sting that still lingered in his bones. He put on his sunglasses and felt invisible. He could stare at people now with the comfort of knowing they couldn’t see his eyes. There were so many interesting people to look at, from little children going off to school to beautiful women appearing in the types of outfits he hadn’t seen since the last remotely hot day some time the previous September. Alan’s eyes lingered on an old couple, then a young guy jogging, then a tired-looking woman walking her dog. All through his commute – on the subway, at Times Square, and as he walked through Bryant Park – Alan’s eyes feasted on human flesh of every variety. If he was the outgoing type, which he wasn’t, he could’ve stopped any of them and joined them in enlightening conversations about their lives and interests. He wondered why it was that as soon as he got to work he’d be surrounded by people whose lives would bore him to tears. Literal tears.
Maybe his legs were getting tired of walking or maybe the wakefulness of the shower was wearing off but a feeling hit him every day at just about this point in his commute. He started to get angry, not just at the people he worked with but at the whole concept of work, and the closer he got to work the more intense the feeling grew. From Bryant Part to his office his body moved using only muscle memory. In the same way that a pianist’s fingers fall on the same keys each time they play a familiar melody, Alan’s legs carried him down the same streets, past the same deli where he got the same coffee and buttered roll for breakfast, past the same pizza joint where he got the same slice of pizza with extra cheese and mushrooms for lunch, to the same office where they’d been dragging him for these last ten years as if they had no idea that his brain had quit years ago.
This must be how people stumble into marriage, he thought, how people cling to beliefs they’ve outgrown, how people feel pain in amputated limbs. He remembered suddenly and vividly, as if it were happening right in front of him, watching his uncle cut the head off a chicken. Alan and his cousins had all laughed as the bird ran around in circles trying to avoid the fate that had already befallen it. Maybe that’s what I’ve been doing, he thought as he put his key into the office lock – just waiting to fall down.