Cover image by Kody: http://www.fiverr.com/kodysteps2
Joseph Hartford was spending his vacation with his brother Witold in Arizona. Joseph never liked hot weather and preferred his own neighborhood in California, where the temperature fluctuated more to his liking, but Witold invited him to Tucson so he could get away from the cozy cotton-candy fluff of San Francisco’s Potrero Hill area and rough things up a bit more in the desert where the hot weather might cook out all the mental poisons in Joseph’s consciousness.
Witold was named after his grandfather who was born in Poland but had the ambition to head towards America so he could make a new life for himself. Andrei – Witold’s and Joseph’s father – changed the family’s last name from Harpinski to Hartford as his way of furthering his father’s idea of starting fresh. Witold, the oldest son, moved from San Francisco to Tucson with the same thought in mind. Joseph, Andrei’s other son, was known throughout the whole clan by the moniker, “The Family Tree.” The label was not related intentionally to any idea of an ancestral tree. Instead, they thought of him like a tree in the sense of his staying rooted to one spot, stuck in the ground, growing taller but never moving. When Witold gave the invitation for a Tucson visit, he did not expect Joseph to come over, not that he preferred Joseph to decline but he automatically assumed on getting a “no thank you” as an answer.
Joseph decided to take Witold’s offer because the money in his account was diminishing consistently until the following month, when he received his government check again, and he figured he could save money by allowing his brother to play the role of hospitable host and feed him. His ulterior motive in that direction was his wanting to save money for alcohol. A half-pint of Vodka was two dollars where he lived but he was curious how much was the price out of state. Even if he had to pay three or maybe four dollars for a half pint, at least he could dispense with that extra cash if he did not need to worry about food costs.
Witold was known in the past to be a connoisseur of various meats and spices, sometimes making a savory stew with turmeric and pork, other times conjuring up a tasty with meal sage and lamb. Joseph was more of the ramen-noodle-and-ground-beef style of chef, occasionally adding a can of mixed vegetables if he wanted to make something fancy. He relied on cheap restaurants for his meals, opting to dine at places where bums hung out in the front and smoked cigarettes and yelled. According to him, the ambience of a place and its outside surrounding was a good indication of its prices. Any establishment where the waiters wore tuxedos and ties, and the music was a lone violin, was off limits. Maybe once in a while he could afford to eat in a middle-class diner but his sense of principles dictated otherwise. He simply had a fear of spending money where the place looked too clean. He would not have turned down an opportunity to eat in a four-star restaurant if someone else handled the tab but he knew no one with that kind of money.
When he arrived at his brother’s residence early, having taken a cab there so he could pretend to have a lot of money and his brother would not suspect he was a freeloader, nobody was home. Witold had told him they would meet at the airport at six o’clock that night but Joseph arrived at two o’clock. He was bored and wanted to drink. Lucky for him, he noticed a liquor store a block away. After he purchased a fifth of Vodka – celebrating his rare decision to step outside of California – a fellow named Michael introduced himself. He told Joseph there was a party starting in a half hour at the house right across from the liquor store, and walked away. Joseph figured there would be nothing wrong in showing up.
Joseph was not ordinarily a conversationalist. However, when he arrived at the party called Trotsky and Bicycles, he was even less prone to talk with anyone. Suddenly, a woman, introducing herself as Patricia Gilbert, provided all of the chatter, drowning him in a sea of tranquil noise. He never found out why the party was named Trotsky and Bicycles, aside from knowing that was its name on account of a sign on the front door indicating so, and he did not care. There was plenty of whiskey to drink, allowing him to leave his Vodka for later, and most of the people were happy dancing to the ambient mixes of songs nobody remembered in their original versions.
Patricia approached him with a confidence as if she was his best friend coming back to answer his question. He was attracted to her outfit, especially considering most of the women he knew about would use an excuse against tucking in a shirt like she was wearing during hot weather, so he figured he ought to at least try responding after she uttered something. He thought he heard her say mention cartoons or balloons or library cards or wild cards so he improvised by letting words flow from him regardless their meanings. He thought she said “Whoa!” during their exchange and he was not sure whether she reacted towards the brilliant thing he talked about or his half-way stumbling from intoxication.
However, she grabbed his hand tight, as if wanting to make sure he did not do something embarrassing, and continued talking in such a way so as to make him forget she was holding on. After a while, he moseyed towards the bar, pouring more whiskey while she held his glass, and his concern over drinking too much of someone else’s booze overrode his realization her grip was still tight.
Finally, when she pulled him along, walking to her house a mile away in the woods, he realized she had asked him to go to her home only after they went outside. He had not heard her clearly but later realized what was probably said. He had been fine with going to a party hosted by a stranger and he was somewhat okay about talking with Patricia, but he felt odd about going to her house, not because he disliked her but because he wanted to return at Witold’s place before six o’clock. Also, he now realized she did not hold his hand at the bar. She extended her hand for him to shake while they were out by the road close to the woods. That was either one strong drink he had at the party or that was a bigger bottle he bought at the store than what he remembered purchasing.
As Joseph and Patricia were walking, he thought about telling her to come with him to his brother’s house but the alcohol effect was at its most realistic for him when he stayed quiet. He had not agreed to go with her as much as merely keeping from voicing an opinion. He figured he could pull his hand loose and she would release him. However, she acted like she knew he would try that and had her strategy already formulated.
There was a hint of a smile on her that led him to believe she had been through the procedure before. Was there a connection between her and Michael who invited Joseph to the party? Did they both know Witold and had discussed what to do with Joseph when he arrived in Tucson? Joseph never was in a situation like this in San Francisco where that kind of thing seemed more likely. Maybe there was more to Tucson than he had figured. He would apparently find out whether he wanted to do so or not.
Joseph had a strange feeling walking with Patricia as they headed towards her house in the forest. He was not sure if the area was incorporated as part of a city park or public domain to the utmost degree so Neanderthals could host kangaroo barbecues in the area but the place where she lived seemed to escape from her mind onto the ground in an almost impossible presence. Whether the architect was copying an abstract painter or worked from blueprints describing an acid trip, he could not be certain but its wild gray and brown cuckoo-clock exterior, mimicking a weird combination of Lincoln logs and Bauhaus chic, made him think twice before entering with her.
He forgot momentarily how they met, on account of his having drank an extreme amount of alcohol at the party just a half-hour ago where she and he had probably talked together but he figured on saying goodbye. They were holding hands so he tried to let go while she squeezed tighter and smiled. He said, “Please, Patricia. I need to get going.”
She shrugged. “The wilderness is no place to make protests. We are all united as individuals. I cannot fathom disassociating with you because then I would have to find new connections for my television and banjo.”
He could not allow her nonsense to take over him like an ant colony taking over an uncovered pizza. She was attractive, wearing a tucked-in black turtleneck shirt and dark blue jeans, black belt and black shoes with pink shoelaces. His impression of her appearance was that she wanted to get working on something, namely him.
She brought him into the house, while he dragged his feet stubbornly in an attempt to stop time, and he noticed the walls inside were a more harmonious bown in accordance with the green foliage outside, as seen through the large glass windows. She walked with slow shimmying dance-steps, gripping his hand in her vice-like hold, towards a room with books on wall shelves, probably a study area. There were two chairs close to each other. She pushed him down on one while she sat on the other, inhaling and exhaling calmly as though she had drank a cup of medicinal tea and could now relax. She said, “Tomorrow, I will bring you to my mother’s house. She will appreciate my knowing a man.”
He asked, “Did you attempt this type of too-intense closeness with women?”
She answered, “Only in the verbal sense but nothing like I am doing with you. Women are generally competitive and outdo each other, though they disagree in how they are doing so, but women are more able to entice men, especially buffoons like you who get drunk and forget how you met me. You’re lucky to be my first Attach Buddy.”
He realized his only recourse was to walk away, hopefully freeing his hand in the process, so he could go home and think about his relationships with women. Was he acting too much on what he liked physically about a woman’s appearance so he was learning a hard lesson towards becoming more spiritually-oriented? Maybe he was learning a lesson meant to describe his relationship with humanity in general and Patricia had merely showed up to provide the clues Joseph would not have seen if he resorted merely to thinking. As he still tried to escape, he told himself he no longer cared about reasons and now mostly craved chocolate chip cookies.
Patricia made sure always now to tuck in her shirts, not because she preferred that fashion style over others but because she used to be two hundred and seventy pounds. Her sister, Sherry, was still two hundred and sixty pounds and had no problem tucking in her blouses to skirts for a professional appearance at work, but Patricia chose to avoid as much self-consciousness as possible so she wore oversized sweatpants with drawstrings, occasionally needing to pull them up again when they fell down at the supermarket where she shopped. She wanted to make sure her pants would not be too tight to put on. So, to avoid showing the drawstring at her waist, she wore shirts un-tucked.
However, now she always wore belts with her pants, since her weight was one hundred and thirty pounds and wearing tighter clothing was an asset. She figured that, if she resorted to continue doing everything the opposite of what she used to do, she would be reminded to keep the weight off.
An extension of her weight attitude was her behavior attitude. Since she had reasoned no men would like her when she was fat, all men would like her when she was slim. If a man told her he liked her before she lost the weight, she would assume he was lying. Now, if a man said he disliked her, she would figure he was joking. If she decided to hold his hand and never let go, his trying to escape would be satire, not reality.
When Joseph tried frantically to shake his hand free, she felt warm and tingly like she was connecting with a puppet or cartoon drawing. His moments were the aesthetic equivalent of ocean waves or ceramic pottery. Plus, his hand motions were a nice counterbalance to the hot Arizona weather. His panic attack was an air conditioner for her. His screams were music.
Little anyone knew her aggressive attitude was in contrast to her feelings. She figured she trusted men enough to act outrageous with them so she would be courteous to what they wanted from her. Joseph would know how much she cared for his concerns by continuing to act ironically against them.
When he looked at her waist, she assumed he wanted her to un-tuck the shirt but her twisted sense of logic indicated her best bet was to make sure to do what irritated him, not because she really believed he was irritated but because she believed what she did not believe. She would simply not un-tuck her shirt or let go of his hand, regardless of her reasons why.
Joseph asked, “How did this monstrosity of a building get to be situated in the middle of a forest?”
Patricia answered, “My father was a ranch-hand and my mother was a nurse. Dad lived in the center of town, on a small part not yet developed where a few roads were, but he always daydreamed about peculiar things like how people lived quietly on the Canadian Rockies or how magical leprechauns could frolic through the Irish peat moss. Mom was not as intense about where they lived but she would sometimes go to the park and study insects. I sort of inherited a bit of both their interests and decided I would have a suburban house situated in the middle of halfway nowhere so then I could experience some of the city outside of the city. My Korean friend, Jihn, is an architect so he made blueprints for this house. I paid some carpenter friends of mine to build it for me. It took them about six months off and on but it was cheaper than hiring a firm to build it. There’s only one architectural firm in town so they are arrogant about their prices.
Joseph said, “It looks more like a rusty toaster than anything else.”
Patricia shrugged. “You’ll get used to it in time.”
Witold worked for a bakery called British Pink, a name having nothing to do with the inner workings of the business since their main specialty was Austrian-styled chocolate cupcakes. Perhaps a customer could ask for blue or green frosting on top for an additional fifty cents but no pink and the workers detested English scones. The boss, a Japanese man named Toshi, liked wearing black-and-white vertically-striped sweatshirts over blue leggings, pretending he was a college student at a mathematics academy in Rhode Island, and knew nothing about the contradiction between the name of his business and what food they made. He had merely looked randomly at two words in a fashion catalogue and settled for the name based on how it seemed to fit comfortably in his mind. His outfits were a by-product of that attitude. The juxtaposition of the colors on his clothes soothed him when he could not score quality acid from his next-door neighbor.
Toshi’s neighbor, a fellow who always answered the door wearing a mask and went by the name of Evan Nobody, had not been home within the last two weeks. Toshi was not upset with his neighbor’s disappearance but he wanted to know his “friendly acid tinctures” were doing “splendidly keen.” Little he knew that Evan was staying temporarily at Witold’s girlfriend’s apartment. The girlfriend’s name was Catherine Dailey and she wanted to buy tons of Evan’s supply at whim, any moment of the day or night. So, instead of Evan having to drive back and forth from his to her place, sometimes three or four times a day, he suggested to Catherine he crash on her sofa. She had no problem with that.
For no thought-out reason, Catherine decided today to spike Witold’s coffee with acid. She figured he was too uptight on the job, always doing everything correctly and making sure to stick with correct protocol, and he needed to incorporate some intermittent drug hallucinations in his behavior pattern. So, when he walked in the back room during the morning, and sipped the latte Catherine presented to him, he did not figure there was anything strange with his sudden metamorphosis from human being to wooden atlas. His ears were picking up the shoe-shaped sounds of wheelchairs so he had to mix his interpretation of cupcakes with special sugar packets of Watusi dance steps. He repeatedly moved his lips, feeling a sudden attack of paranoia on account of his guardian angel looked more like a robot than a suitcase, and he walked outside where he happened to pass by Patricia. She was thinking of holding his hand forever but she thought twice when, as he walked past her, he shouted, “I have no more crippled bludgeoned totemic fire. I just have a laugh and a look at the fingernails.” She would not have minded listening to him for a while but she was nervous about the possibility he would never shut up and her having to drown him out mentally might not work well in conjunction with her focusing on a tight grip.
Witold was now spinning around in a parking lot underneath the highway overpass. No cars were around and most everyone assumed the lot was abandoned thought that was not the case so he was pleased to present his interpretation of motor-navigation body concertos. As he kept spinning, misinterpreting his dizziness with spirited revelation, he mumbled, “Test of cans and chortle chew, approximating a stinky beef stew. With popcorn roads and Canadian pizza, who can tell a Shiksa from matzo? One two three four and all the other numbers, and some letters whatever they are, will fortify my cosmic eatery with box office mops and mid-deranged apprentices. I cannot feel many hums in the gallery and the potato man has come to roost.”
Finally, after he could not spin any longer, he fell down and went to sleep.
What Catherine did not take into her equation, but was not disappointed when it happened unexpectedly, was that the other works at British Pink would take tastes of Witold’s unfinished latte. Catherine was pleased when Bob Kline, responsible for working the machinery and now calling himself Bob Sandwich, felt slight irritation with how the cookie cutters could not be trained to work on their own without having built-in computer memories. He blamed that default on the invisible spectrum controlled by phantoms insisting on incorporating “petty folk-lore logic” into “every damn kernel of knowledge from knitting to casinos.”
However, Zachary McEvoy, the cashier, now referring to himself as “the other Bob plus two hundred” – meaning one was supposed to say the name Bob two hundred and one times to be correct when calling him – figured he could have an encyclopedic gathering of “worm knowledge” if he crawled through the desert at four o’clock in the morning, “hissing as the means of gaining access to the doorstep protecting the soul of worms kosher.” He means “kosher” not in any Jewish sense but as a substitute for the word “boiled” that itself was a substitute for the idea of “having no secrets.”
Toshi was not aware he had taken some of the acid he desperately craved when he sipped from Witold’s latte. His consciousness was too used to a combination of business exactitude and drug fantasy to act differently than the freaked out fellow he was already. The business part of him insisted there were no accidents in life and everything worked according to a set plan so, if Evan was not around, there was no acid. However, he craved acid even when he was already on it so, even though he now was on it, he did not know that so he craved it. He shook his head and said, “You’re all actors like planets revolving around the sun. The sun is a metaphor for us having no customers. Why the hell would you ring up the order of Miss Dinglebat when she is not here? You were taking the money and giving the change to nobody!”
The Other Bob Two Hundred shook his head. “We are all parts of the same planet so, conceptually speaking, we were giving the money to everybody. You’re just upset because your dealer, who goes incidentally by the last name of Nobody, is not here. You’re angry because we’re “Everybody” with a capital E because when you scold one of us you scold all of us.”
Bob Sandwich said, “You’re looking at books in the air to convince you of your misinformation. We are Teleprompters conveying nonsense and you cannot tell me we are against what we are against. What we are against… What we are against…” He repeated that phrase several hundred times to himself in a whisper.
Catherine was mostly concerned with Witold. He often had a case of the burps when he drank too much non-acid coffee so a spiked latte might render him victim to a belching spree reminiscent of a fog-horn. She wanted to find him so she could write her findings in her diary. Since her coworkers and boss were not going to notice whether she stayed or left, she walked out, figuring there was no easy way for her to find where he went except to blindly stroll wherever she could. She decided today not to use the acid herself because her intent was to observe everyone’s behavior through a sober mind. Still, she had to admit there would be a natural high attached to her adventure.
Joseph was lying on the floor while Patricia stood up, holding his hand and reading random sentences from various magazine articles. She wanted to appear grand and stylish, especially considering the way her outfit blended in with the color of her furniture in the sitting room. The fireplace was not lit but its “essence of ochre” made her smile as much as the nice warm albeit sweaty hand of her partner. Today was not the right time for even more heat but, if it was, she could imagine the yellow flame and the burnt umber logs balancing the intense nervousness when Joseph wiggled around and shouted. He reminded her of a dog she had, named Lili, as a child. Lili looked like an odd assemblage of a miniature Dalmatian and a zucchini.
Patricia’s father, Bert, who gave her the dog when she was ten years old, had figured she needed a creative outlet in her life to take away her phobia against somebody needing to milk the “ugly cows from Mars.” Her mother, Agatha, agreed. Bert bought Patricia the dog, thinking its tail looked like a paintbrush and somehow the dog and art must be related. Bert had an old armless mannequin he kept in his basement and it looked like a beige papier-mâché puppet speckled with black marks. He figured that his having a mannequin was somehow connected with Patricia having Lili but he was not sure how.
Patricia was thinking of her childhood with fondness, causing her to talk louder as she read from the magazines: “To determine the epidemiological features…”
Joseph was not sure what she recited but he responded, “Uh huh.”
Patricia continued, “The Johannesburg Art Gallery was the only venue…”
“Using the basics of nature as her essential…”
Patricia was irritated and talked louder. “Given a media-driven, image-obsessed culture that nonetheless devalues when not preventing…”
Joseph yelled, “Bravo!”
Catherine was outside. She hid in the bushes. Her inner guide, for once acid-free, pointed her in the direction of the forest with the idea Witold would be there. However, though she knew the man’s voice yelling coming from the house was not her boyfriend’s, it sounded like someone related to him. Okay, if Witold had a brother, she could freak him out as soon as she could devise a plan to get him away from whoever was the woman he yelled at. She figured that, if the man was related to her boyfriend, she was probably interconnected to Witold’s brother and feeling the vibrations of acid also even if the only acidic vibe was tension. She wanted to rescue the man so he could walk with her towards his brother.
She knocked on the front door. Patricia yelled, “Who is that?”
Catherine answered, “It’s someone.”
“Well, I’ve already got someone and his voice is far less womanish than yours.”
Catherine opened the door and walked in. “I’m taking your someone.” She found the room where Patricia and Joseph were holding hands. Catherine said, “Get up.”
Joseph said, “Gee, I’m popular.”
Catherine nodded. “Come outside with me.”
Joseph walked outside, following Catherine while Patricia came along, holding his hand.
Witold woke up, assuming he was at work. Somehow, the overpass and parking lot did not resemble his understanding of how British Pink Bakery looked but he was too tired to quibble with details. One of the pebbles on the ground must have been Bob and that beer bottle cap next to it must have been Zachary. He would ask them why they decided to turn themselves into objects as soon as he felt awake enough to ask questions. However, he wanted to be left alone and they were extremely small so he had no worries he could roll over and squish them if need be. They always asked him stupid stuff about mortgage loans… or was that his bank manager? They always made his arms itch… or was that his coat? He needed to get them out of his mind so repeated continually, “Bubble, bubble, bubble, bubble…” He hoped he could conjure up the Great Bubble God who would suddenly pop, exploding lavender-colored lime juice all over those damn pesky co-workers.
He needed to get up so he could walk and find the Bubble God. He was not sure he knew where to look, especially since he just made the fellow up and imaginary creatures were harder to locate than real ones. However, he figured that, if the Bubble God was nice enough to suddenly exist as a favor to Witold, the God would act favorably by appearing wherever Witold imagined he would. There was always some odd political factors keeping creatures from existing outside of their natural habitats but mind power could fix that. Witold would write a bill mandating all imaginary creatures be set free from the confines of people’s minds but first he would have to imagine a senator to present the bill for him in Congress.
He walked and noticed the weather turned hotter after he left where the overpass was and approached the non-shady outdoors. He knew the sun was an essential part of healthy living but what about the son? Wait, he had no son. He needed a blouse to cover his head but first he had to find a woman wearing the blouse. No women were walking by. Every time he told himself he needed to marinate his thought so hopefully they would mature and last in his mind, he felt guilty about leaving Bob and Zachary, even though they were pebbles and bottle tops and could easily report him for not following their lead and turning into an object himself.
Finally, he approached the forest. The weather was a little bit cooler. Thank goodness. He could serve cupcakes to the trees and ladybugs if only he could find his cooking utensils. They were disguised as air particles. Toshi hid the cash register, and then hid on top of a tree. Witold was concerned, not because he wanted to find the register but because Toshi stole his hair. Damn that Toshi! The stuff Witold felt on his head was cinnamon and whipped cream and he had to serve those to the customers as soon as some people arrived.
Suddenly, he noticed a fellow who could have been his brother holding hands with a good-looking but eccentric woman. Another woman was with them and she was good looking also but talked loudly. Oh yes, that was Catherine. What was she doing with the man who looked like his brother and another woman who was probably responsible for generating a heat torrent so the sky’s computer system could not log into a rain site and make the city’s problems go away? How dare she try that mischief and spend time with who looked more and more like his brother? By golly, he would march right over there and find out!
Joseph, upon noticing his brother looking zoned out on drugs, felt better about his own drunkenness. “Hey, Witold, old buddy and old brother. I came here early to surprise you.”
Witold was confused. “You came to my bakery to surprise me? Were you even supposed to show up? You live in California, right?”
Joseph nodded. “That’s correct but you asked me to visit you.”
Witold was nervous. “Shut up! You’re scaring the customers. I have to put this cinnamon away.”
“It’s on my head! Toshi put it there. Can’t you see?”
“All I see on your head is hair.”
“It’s not hair! It’s cinnamon and whipped cream but I might take the whipped cream for myself.”
Catherine smiled. “Hello, I’m Witold’s girlfriend. I’m responsible for putting him in this condition.”
Joseph said, “That’s very cool. Thanks.”
Patricia sighed. “You’re trespassing on my property and making the day seem too scattered. I’m with my new boyfriend, Mr. Never Stops Drinking. You can let us be, if you will.”
Witold shook his head. “This is not your property. I work here. Somewhere, my boss and Zach and Bob are hiding. Catherine, did you hide them?”
Catherine laughed. “No. I spiked your coffee with acid so you would freak out.”
Witold frowned. “Why the hell would you do that?”
Patricia shrugged. “Probably the same reason I have a new boyfriend. Boredom.”
Catherine shook her head. “That’s not quite true. Witold needs to mellow out and have fun. I imagine you do too, Mr. Never Stops Drinking.”
Joseph sighed. “Call me Joseph, please.”
Witold said, “But, if you’re Joseph, I’m supposed to go to the airport and meet you. You’d better hurry up and get off the plane before it lands in California again.”
Joseph said, “I’m not on a plane. I’m in the forest with you and your girlfriend and Patricia who won’t let go of my hand.”
Witold ran towards Joseph and pulled as hard as possible at where Joseph and Patricia were joined. He yelled, “Let him free, you freak! I have to meet him at the airport.” After one whole minute of pulling, he successfully separated them.
Joseph ran off, saying, “I’ll be at your place, brother, drinking my Vodka. You can believe I’ll need it.”
Witold walked slowly deeper in the forest. “I have to find some customers.”
Patricia yelled, “Now I’ll have to resort to reading the advertisements in film magazines!” She marched back in her house.
Catherine smiled. She noticed an ant crawling on a blackberry vine. The ant was looking for an interesting thorn to climb on. The vine resembled an old playground in Maine before the city ordinance declared it unfit for children, making the place officially abandoned but home to a lot of bored teenagers who had no other place to go so they sat on the dilapidated swings and talked about favorite potato chips. The current popular choice of flavor was cheddar and sour cream.