He tilted the opening into the light and saw a gray chunk of brain tissue in slurry of crushed skull and blood. He took the helmet home, hidden under his coat as he hurried back to the theater, up the tiled stair, holding onto the slick, black-stained banister and skipping every other step on the way up to his apartment.
Photons first appeared in Happy, issue 19
“It’s twenty brad for the moving picture show.”
“Twenty brad. Picture show. You’re here for the picture show, right?”
“Across town it isn’t but ten brad. You’re sure it’s twenty?”
Little sparkling caviar eyes popped behind the Plexiglas window, “Two weeks ago it was twenty brad, two years ago it was twenty brad, and two and twenty years ago it was twenty brad. The price for the moving picture show has been and always will be twenty brad!”
“Either here or across town, it’s all twenty brad!”
Under neon overglow of humming signs (green, yellow, red and white, like onions and peppers spreading sweated-Mediterranean-vegetable lightglo around adjacent buildings, the digitized marquee scrolling through times and dates with red LED bulbs flashing on and off splotches of ketchupglo, and below it the white plastic sign with black lettering, surrounded by the rectangular boundary of clear glass orbs with flashing orange filaments fearing and chasing each other, blinkblinkblink all around the sign in light polluted night sky), the young man in heavy brown overcoat and bandaged fingers mumbled something inaudible and fished around his coat pocket until he spilled a pile of imperfectly oblong brads onto the counter. He spread them out in the tray and felt the blood rushing to his raw fingertips, it oozed a single glinting drop from beneath the bandages. “Should be about twenty, won’t need a ticket, thanks,” he said, smiling with crooked bastard teeth, the ticket-man thought. The patron wiped the dot of blood from his dirty bandage in the stainless steel tray. He hurried past the ticket box and into the door to his right, letting out a slight laugh, his smoke-white breath was stolen away in the velvet sheet night by the scientific theory that warm air rises.
After the man of bandaged fingers had entered the theater (the smell of sodium dichloro-s-triazintrione and artificial butter greeting him), another man stepped up to the ticket booth and put a stiff, shellacked human hand in the tray. Again, caviar eyes popped behind Plexiglas and the shrill voice called through the metal slits, “We can’t make change for that! Read the sign!” He pointed to his relative right, and the man opposite the window deciphered the sign beside him, there were little green circles around brads, digs, and thumbs, and one large, red circle with a broad line through a hand. He blushed and removed the petrified hand and tossed in a glistening finger.
“Terribly sorry, haven’t been out in so long, forgot.”
“Wouldn’t be caught dead carrying around so much anyway, what are you thinking?” The tray rattled out a pile of wan brads.
Poor ticket-man, he sat in his booth with tiny space heater and divvied the brads to digs, digs to thumbs, but no thumbs to hands, and definitely no hands for anything. When the movie had started, he sat bundled in the cramped ticket office and listened to the orchestras playing on the radio, softly, so only he could hear the group of men trapped in the little tin box. He rubbed the plastic nametag on his auburn lapel with pudgy, grease covered fingers, twirling the slick, round ends over the sharp edges where it read, “LARRY.” Instruments came to crescendo in the little booth, and the image of the young man in the brown coat and bandaged fingers appeared on the back of Larry’s eyelids. He cringed, brought the knuckle of his thumb to his mouth, and bit hard, trying to block out the incredible pain that was now flooding his body due to the sight of the young man with the bandaged fingers.
So many years ago, before the cold box with Plexiglas window and brad trays, before orchestras written by dead men were brought to life in tinny tone in metal box to bring a delusional sense of peace and happiness to his life, Larry had turned twenty-one on October 15, and the giant trees looming over the asphalt of his parents’ street let leaves drift downward in an eddy of rich yellows and dead browns, red streaks carving into flat space and spinning down to shrinking blades of thin verdant growth, almost that the shrill singing from within Larry’s childhood home had frightened them from their spiny branches and had sent them on their trip.
Larry’s cake was the shape of a beer bottle.
They sang the song whose tune and sincerity had long been lost on the American people, but the cacophonous blaze of twittering vocal chords still warmed the muscles in Larry’s face that afternoon, and when they had finished, his candles were blown out and the mint-green beer bottle was sliced and served, accordingly, with mugs of Celebrator. A present was dropped in front of him, plaid satin paper crinkling under heft of the object. Twenty pounds, at least, hidden inside cardboard walls and tacky festive wrapping. The exciting moment of the night was that when Larry opened the box containing a re-furbished typewriter-as-novelty. He had wanted one for so long, had read about them in microfiched magazines and familiarized himself with their wide use so long ago, almost as popular as computers. He had built a knowledge in his head so vast, so intense, that the campiness of the gift was overshadowed by the surreal presence of the machine in his existence. In minutes, he had the keys blasting on paper. His first sentence: Happy Birhtday to me!
When his face was warm with alcohol and his nose a bit red, and his mind drumming away into sleep, they came for him. His parents were in the doorway, watching in slow motion through all the commotion with sad, dawdling eyes as the men in heavy black outfits wrestled him from his bed and tied his arms behind him, then lead him away into the back of a van that smelled of moldy paper. A bee stung his arm and he fell asleep; the final sound of the night was his head bumping the glass.
He woke up to a room of himself. Dozens of young men like him were stuck in one large concrete container. Cement on the walls and on the floor and the ceiling, and just one door. It was metal and had no knobs, windows, or visible hinges. Four fluorescent lights made the room glow dirty gray, black in the corners, pale sick green all around the perimeter. Humming boxes above with putrid fluorescence forced Larry to see that the smell of the place emanated from feces smeared on the wall, a makeshift prophecy of digested fruit and cereal which, scrawled almost illegibly, read, “Honor decks the turf that wraps their clay.” Larry was sick in the floor drain and a random stream of urine washed away his vomit. It flowed pale yellow over the embellishments in the metal drain, running in and out of tiny pores and crevasses filled with olive carpet moss over brass grate, piss river whispered secret echoed drips from dark of slotted cover to say that the golden stream was being taken to flow away from this miserable place forever. He was sick again.
The young men were being taken out and brought in by twos. So many boys, all looked to be twenty-one, Larry thought it doubtful to be taken out and replaced anytime soon. Minutes lingered on in the constancy of sick light on porous concrete, and Larry felt he hadn’t been awake but a few seconds when the door opened and a voice broadcast though electric current fizzled from a speaker unseen, “Watson, Darrell; Williams, Larry!” Larry steadied himself to his feet, attempting to find firm footing through the grime of unknown wastes beneath him, which coated the shining concrete. He made his way through the crowd, his bare, clammy chest popping against the exposed shoulders of other young men with no faces worth looking at, and met up with whom he assumed to be Darrell Watson. His hair was cut short, causing Larry to fear the possibility for himself, so he laid a hand on his head. Bristles of stunted hair stroked the palm of his hand with its back and forth movement. Before he could fully hang his head with a completed sense of despondency, black gloves came out of the doorway and grabbed the necks of both Larry and Darrel and they disappeared into darkness. They felt only the dragging and winding of their feet along miles of moist, gritty concrete.
It all happened so quickly; Larry had only time to let the tears fall, he’d no time for weeping or sobbing. His hands were stuck in small metal boxes with leather straps over his fingers and a Plexiglas window on the top. The boxes were fixed in front of his face so he could see his fingernails, and then he heard a door open, footsteps, a loud metallic clatter and there was a nice looking man standing in front of him wearing a happy yellow and lavender tie. In his hand was a thin, rounded piece of metal about eight inches in length and a half an inch in width. He read to Larry information being projected from a box in the ceiling to the wall behind him.
“Your name is still Larry Williams and you will be employed at Big-Starz Tri-Plex in Danvers. You are overweight, disgruntled, and generally untidy,” he paused, looked the perfectly fit young man in the face and said, “You’ll adapt.” The man with the happy tie stabbed the metal instrument under the fingernail of Larry’s right index finger. Twigs of flowing pain, flashing like electricity, shot through his arm and he tasted something like iron in his mouth, he had bit his tongue, and now felt the syrup of life invading his taste buds. Blood poured slow and steady into the box as the fingernail was left to sway from the flesh. “The process through which you are going is normal. Your fingernails will be collected and then sent to the Department of Treasury, where they will be cleaned, painted, embossed, and shellacked so that they may become brads.” He jabbed the instrument under the nail of the middle finger. Larry’s tears carved terrible rivers like he had seen where beavers built their homes, but no beaver could build dams, not there in flesh, only burn and rot in the pain of their damless existence. His head was trying to twist away, but it was blocked by metal strips on either side of his ears, only his eyes could look away. The pain did not dissolve, and Larry found his eyes rolling back in front of him, focusing on the small metal boxes, looking through the Plexiglas like he had looked through television screens and he wondered if he was really feeling that cold rushing pain. He watched as the little nails held onto the cuticles and crept slowly back to torn, hemorrhaging flesh. “If you ever decide to break the law, you will go to jail and all of your fingers will be removed, shipped to the Department of Treasury, dried, embossed and tagged, shellacked and will then be digs and thumbs. When you retire, your hands will be removed and go through the same process.” He stabbed and stabbed, continued undaunted, a joke from him: “Didn’t know you were worth so much, did you?” The man with the happy tie laughed. Endorphins were piling in Larry’s brain like shit on a lawn, and he laughed, too. They were laughing together when the happy tie-man continued with straight countenance, “Now you’re on your own. You work at the theater until you’re fifty-three where you die of a heart attack. You won’t be married, or have children. You’ll be seeing about that in a minute.” He jabbed under another nail, blood-creating lakes in the boxes. Larry laughed, Yes! Take them off! Leave nothing! “Any contact between you and your parents is forbidden. They’ll be retired soon, anyway. They both drown on vacation. Hard to swim without hands.” Happytieman laughed and laughed and disappeared into darkness from which he had originated.
He was wheeled away into another room and was given a shot in the spine. His legs disappeared and a lady came in and sat in front of him with a small pair of scissors and a bucket. Larry’s boxes flowed blood in the bucket as they were removed and the raw flesh was cleaned with alcohol, a sheet of ice struck his face and lasted one dying second, then grew warm and his cheeks were heavy with pain and pumping blood. Again! Again! With blue latex gloves, she grasped his hands and removed all ten nails with the small scissors. Then, delicately, she wrapped the fingertips in gauze and tape and Larry almost laughed when she gave the bandaged digits a cheerful tap before she stood. She left with the nails in a bag and another woman entered. Larry smiled when he saw her. She took off his pants and underwear and he was upset he couldn’t feel anything down there. A Plexiglas shield was placed over his lap, then a knife appeared in her hand and tears exploded from the dam in his eyes. Tiny metal blade ripped through his scrotum and then with her other hand, just as fast, the wound was cauterized with a little red laser, the Plexiglas was stained with little dots of blood and charred flesh. The smell of burning tissue filled the room, and this time, Larry’s tears were falling from vanity rather than pain.
He was put on a plane that night, in a wheelchair, and flown to Danvers. An old woman showed him his apartment above the movie theater, which at that time had just installed the digital marquee above the big white sign with yellow bulbs that chased each other at night around the rectangle entrapping movie titles in lasso of light and pattern, and here, too, he would cry, but this time it was from the cold and loneliness, and the longing for the innocent happiness from what felt like so long ago when he was eating beer-bottle cake and the leaves on his street had been so beautiful in their decay. Larry seized the woman by the arm, her loose, fatty flesh almost melted in his hands, the fingertips of which were still very sore, and he knew he was holding her by the bone and marrow. “Excuse me?”
“Can I drink?”
“I beg your pardon?” Her voice was crackly and sweet, reminded him of his grandmother, she sat in a chair that rose up and down with a little black remote control; she had always worn a dingy white dress with gray-blue flowers blooming across her breast for eternity.
“Can I go drink? Go to bars?”
“Son, that’s up to you and your conscience, God willing you have one. Lord knows there’s enough as young as you don’t have God in ‘em ‘tall, let alone that voice of reason upstairs that say ‘Good’ or ‘Bad.’ You do what you like, but use your head about it.” She waved her hand in front of both their faces, adding, “Oh, your boxes are in the bedroom. And you start downstairs at seven in the evening. Tonight.” She left, but the smell of corroded linen lingered.
Her words rang sarcastic sweetness, “Whatever you’d like.” He’d thought of a jazzman improvising on stage.
Larry left to have a Grölsch, but he wound up drinking right through his shift at the theater. It didn’t matter. Years later, there he would be, and he knew it, on time in the cold Plexiglas box with the radio playing beautiful things. Time catches up with everything, he thought, it moves as fast as light and we are in it, experiencing it is inevitable.
A few summers before, the owners of the restaurant across the street decided to give the building a new façade. Trucks and dumpsters were parked outside for weeks, then the scaffolding went up and on it they kept a constant supply of dark red bricks, but all Larry could think, looking across the gutters and the slick tar street from the Plexiglas window to the sign of “Maggie’s,” was, I hope they tightened all the bolts.
There was a short man who ran back and forth in front of the construction site everyday, shoveling gravel and picking up debris. All the days Larry watched him, the little man never stepped inside the Port-A-John, just ran around it all day until he left for the day. Larry’s days had become consumed with waiting for the Hispanic man to use the bathroom.
Larry had flicked his tongue at the roof of his mouth while watching the Hispanic man run around, and had wondered what brain tissue tasted like. He knew well the metallic taste of blood, and he’d known the salty taste of scabs from when he was a child. Perhaps something like that, he’d mused.
Customers became upset in Larry’s obsessed weeks of watching the Hispanic man run around, ignoring the essential elements that made him a ticket-man. A day came that found Larry busy watching the Hispanic man run from the cab of a dump truck across the front of the building, he sprinted frantically with his hands at the seat of his pants. Larry was sure this was his moment. Blue plastic door swung open and clapped against the outside of the Port-A-John, then slammed shut and the little green square by the handle turned over to red, and Larry was going to time the man with the clock by the register.
An older gentleman yelled for Larry to take his dig and give him his ticket. Larry snatched the shellacked digit and printed out the movie tickets, not looking at the man through the Plexiglas, still staring at the large blue plastic outhouse. When Larry watched monster movies, the fake monsters used to roar like metal being distorted. He knew then that the sounds were identical, for the scaffolding collapsed on itself, falling to the right enough to roar with bending metal and snap and shoot off bolts to land itself and its brick payload directly on the Port-A-John. A mist of blue formaldehyde and red plasma sprayed onto the street and sidewalk, and dust evaporated to heaven and drifted away to the roofs of buildings. The Hispanic man’s bright yellow hardhat skittered down the street through the wreckage and stopped under a parked car. Larry turned his attention back to his customers, he handed back to a patron ten brads.
When Larry’s shift had finished that night, he’d tied the electric cord around the radio and had ventured out into the street, the scaffolding still in a wreck around the Port-A-John, and buttoned up his coat to his neck to fend off the quick, biting wind. Under the sedan, with dull orange spots from streetlight in the paint, Larry found the bright yellow hardhat, though up close it was scratched and chipped with many discolorations. He tilted the opening into the light and saw a gray chunk of brain tissue in slurry of crushed skull and blood. He took the helmet home, hidden under his coat as he hurried back to the theater, up the tiled stair, holding onto the slick, black-stained banister and skipping every other step on the way up to his apartment.
At first, he was unsure, just stared at the little soup before him in now dull-yellow bowl. It sat in its own glow for half an hour as Larry tried to figure out what exactly he was planning on doing with part of the poor Hispanic man’s brain. Fuzz came out of the radio first, then Larry turned the dial a bit and a section of violas tromped in his room. Yes, yes! He thought, Now brass! Yes! Wind! Percussion! Yes! The light bulb in the kitchen exploded blue when he turned it on, leaving black streaks of dead filament on the smoky white glass. His hand searched blindly in the drawer and he dropped a ladle on his foot, danced a bit, but then rejoiced upon the discovery of a fork. They were all at it, now, he thought. Higher, higher, the voice in his head cried, Strings! Strings! Yes! Larry’s feet pounded the meager carpet with thick heels marching across cheap brown carpet and he stood over the hardhat, fork in hand, and as the orchestra exploded he stabbed the purple and gray bit of brain (All together now! Higher, Yes! Octaves upon octaves! To light speed, Percussion! Faster than light itself, mass increasing infinitely the closer it comes. Brass!) and forced it in his mouth. Tofu, he thought, just like soy. It bounced around his teeth and he heard the soft wrinkled sections collapsing on each other, he swallowed, the clump sliding down his throat slowly, felt the leftover bits in the back of his mouth and around his teeth. His radio cut out, orchestra died and the sound was static noise of billions of plastic bags being rustled around the entire room. Larry tasted Hispanic sweat and blood, brain and a sliver of skull, the walls shrieked with scattered noise. His throat heaved into the helmet. When he had finished, he wiped his mouth and searched his room through thousands of sheets of paper with the line: Happy Birthday to me! written at least once on all of them, and, eventually, found a blank sheet. Larry clamped it in place in the typewriter and wrote: When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose. He tore off the sentence and placed the scrap of his own stolen makeshift prophecy in the helmet with his vomit and the Hispanic man’s brain. Fluids soaked slowly into dried wood pulp and the ink began to melt away. The radio came back on. Captain Brahms, he had thought, Warp speed, we’ve photons to catch.
Larry stopped biting the knuckle of his thumb when he heard the rapping at his Plexiglas window.
“Two tickets, please,” the man smiled, his arm bent around a healthy blonde. Larry’s left hand rubbed where his testicles should have been.
“Of course. Forty brad.”
A thumb dropped into the tray.
“Right, here you are, four digs, ten brad, enjoy the show,” he remembered the way a young girl had laughed at the hair combed over his bald spot one night. He patted his head, which he now kept shaved. His belly folding over on itself was suddenly very apparent to him. Used to be a runner, he thought. How in the hell?
He saw the young man with bandaged fingers leaving the theater, fumbling with the buttons on his brown coat. Larry left the box and grabbed him.
“I know what you think, kid, I know, I had to do the same damn thing.”
“And just what the hell are you talking about, you old porker?”
“Listen!” Caviar eyes flashed gold and white in street lamps now, “You don’t want what they’ve given you, I know. I know! Where are you supposed to be?”
“Where is the man who doesn’t need a ticket supposed to be?” It was flat and loud in the street lined with brick buildings and solid blocks of prism light.
“Right here, ass, what’s it to you?”
“What do you mean right here?” Their breath joined and made large cloud against twinkling night, and with the neon light shooting through, it resembled cotton candy.
“I’m a movie critic is what I mean I’m supposed to be here.”
The scaffolding fell in Larry’s brain, people like machines were being ordered, “Live” and “Die.” And where they install you, put the bolts on your soul and tighten them enough so you can’t go anywhere, that’s where you stay, he thought, to rust, to corrode; to soak in rain water and dust particles floating through space fabric, to age in relentless surroundings that only fade in time but do not go away themselves, always being built back up and improved upon, but it is the machine to be replaced, to be taken out and a new one added, no better than the last, but new, fresh. And wherever they put you, he knew, was uncontestable. Millionaires pulled from a hat alongside coal miners and garbage men. Movie critics and ticket-men. Orchestra exploded in his brain. Larry wrapped his fingers in his palm and swung sweaty meat through ice air, the young man’s face exploded blood from the eye, Percussion! but the edge of his hand took flight and connected with Larry’s nose, Strings! cracked cartilage and now they both bled. Cold air filled Larry’s lungs, they burned, and he knelt down, sucking in air, the tempo lowered, began rebuilding intensity. He felt a blow to the middle of his back and fell to his face, all that was left was the lonely drummer, boom, boom, then heard rubber-soled feet slapping asphalt away from him. Larry lay in the street, which was aglow with blue, red, and orange from neon and extended streetlight, in the distance he saw the front of the movie theater, the clear bulbs flashing yellow light, chasing each other forever around the white face. His cheek was freezing to the ground, but his chest burned and beat to the drum, his left arm felt like it was asleep. Blood bubbles popped in his nostrils as he let his eyes twitch backwards into the soy of his brain. He remembered the twigs, now thinking of them more like branches. Now more like stumps, yes, the stumps of pain running through his arms from each finger, and the happy tie-man almost mocking him in his memory. “Didn’t know you were worth so much, did you?” and it echoed like drummers and soloists and brass and rhythm. Now, percussion, now! His fingertips throbbed against the wet street, and he remembered bending over to tie his shoes so many years ago with the bandages, his digits feeling fat with the blood coursing in and out of distended flesh. Larry’s tongue lolled like a slug onto the asphalt, tasting the dryness of metal, of earth, of soil, of flesh, it was all the same, the tar in the asphalt, time passing as quick as light, always beating the melodies of life in sprints and decaying all things into thick black paste, and it seemed that he really had been told thirty two years ago, “Lonely, untidy, fifty-three of a heart attack.” A tiny river of blood ran into the side of his mouth and he tasted the iron-rich, life-giving, brackish fluid, a taste he’d become most attached to; a final bubble of blood like tom-blast exploded in his nostril.