A Collection of Short Literature

The Sword of No Abiding Mind


The winter of 1994 pressed up against car windows and basement floors with the hideous apathy characteristic of low pressure systems. Men and women walked in little flurries, wary of the seeping cold, and cautious as they shut their doors. Frost rippled from blade of grass to blade of grass, pooling across windshields, and dripping into storm drains, and through all of it, the Roosevelt house stood against torrents of rain with little creaks of protest. Then, in early January, snow came in wet layers to Seattle and the house basked quietly in the glow of being wanted.
It’s second story circulated haphazardly from the top of the Roosevelt’s central stairwell in a series of unevenly sized hardwood chambers. The whole floor collected its temperature from the rest of the house in pockets of warmth, which hung mutely from the ceiling, or spirals of cold, which huddled in stalagmitic piles on the floor; finding their purpose only when inhaled in thick ribbons to drape the inside of a lung or press themselves into the corners of an esophagus. Year-round the stairs were arid with an asphyxiating cold, and even during winter while the first floor lay feverish with dusty heat, some mystery of architecture left the center of the house a column of frigidity. Steam from the downstairs bathroom would condense as it bumbled frothily against the air there, and as it did it stained the stairwell’s hazy perimeter into the boards of the ceiling and floor. This coldness ended with the steps, and only in the darkest winters did icy tendrils set out from the staircase in solemn exploration, rebuffed everywhere except for in the upper floor’s most immediate room. There, a broad and thinly paned window sapped the warmth from the center of the compartment, and the cold of the stairwell tended to pour into that void until it filled the room with a harsh and streaming chill.
The room, which was the smallest of the second floor’s four compartments was layered with years of Michael Roosevelt’s life. His bed crouched above boxes of elementary school art and a steel filing cabinet of report cards and baby pictures. Plastic dinosaurs smiled ruthlessly at one another from between books that Michael had pretended to read. And above the whole array hung vigilantly a spread of adolescent fascinations, which started with a string of posters and tapered off into a shelf of unabashed drug paraphernalia. These instruments, many of them delicately forged and intricately detailed, had been positioned on the room’s highest shelf since the death of Theodore Roosevelt Senior, and they shone with reverence. Not sitting upon the shelf, but blooming spectacularly from the corner was an enormous system of gold and blue pipes which Michael collected into a hookah when he awoke in the morning, and collapsed into drying steel components before he slept.
Michael savored this ritual, and as his conscious life had drifted in and out of rhythm with the world around him, the clouds of smoke had come to mark the time he slept from the time he stepped wearily towards his broad and thinly paned window and stung his nostrils with the air that swam coldly on its surface. Embedded in that rite was the mist of his breath against the glass, and the click of the space-heater his father had bought after college, and his fingers groping blindly through a sooty desk drawer, full of coals. The pattern of things would wash over him as he poured water from a vase into the tremendous base of his hookah, and he felt inundated by it as the condensation numbed the skin under the edges of his fingernails. Things were done during this time in steps, not perfectly and sometimes foolishly, but Michael was weary of deviation, concerned that if he slipped out of his own wake he might never find it again. So he would pull on his brother’s parka, which ran out to his fingertips from just below his genitals, and wearing only that, he would brave the stairwell and pad into the kitchen. There, he would begin to heat the chalky nuggets of coal he had fished out earlier, which had stained his palm grainily as he clutched them when he pulled his arm through his jacket sleeve. Ignoring Theo, who would tell him he looked like a child or to give him back his coat, Michael would stalk from the kitchen into the downstairs bathroom and run hot water into the bathtub and clean himself carefully and silently. He would put the parka back on without toweling, and would almost start to sweat as he retrieved the coals from the oven and slid them into a porcelain bowl. Little clicks from the sun-room, where Theo was working, would stop long enough to contemplate the noise of Michael marching unevenly back upstairs. Then Michael would sit and smoke and think weary syrupy thoughts.
He did this until the especially cold winter of 1994, when the space heater which Michael’s father had purchased after college ceased functioning, and while Michael bathed and almost started to sweat and swung himself awkwardly back upstairs the water in his hookah froze.
Michael entered his room and knit his eyebrows in confusion at the foreignness of the cold air it still encapsulated. Wrongness prevailed. He set the porcelain down on his dresser and turned angrily to the space-heater. Its dial clicked obligingly as Michael ran it vigorously through its settings, but acknowledged his presence in no other way. Michael kicked it a few times hopefully, then shook his head, and pushed it from his mind. He pulled a comforter from his bed and wrapped it around his waist and over his shoulders, then sprawled onto his side as he felt blindly for the Tupperware containers of shisha that he knew were stacked under his bedside table. His middle finger traced a soft-plastic edge, and he stretched himself to clasp it to the flesh of his palm. Straightened up, Michael popped the lid of the container with a pair of tongs he kept straddling a closed valve on the hookah’s body. He stirred the tobacco absent-mindedly before scooping clumps of it into the bowl. Then he stood, leaving the blanket and its protection piled on his bed. He walked to a roll of foil on his dresser and tore from it a square sheet the length of the space between his thumb and forefinger. Then, as he bent to seal the bowl he felt the cold of the room in his exposed balls and his breath caught in his throat.
He sat down, and closed his eyes, contemplating his next move. He bolted for his bureau, pulled on a pair of boxers, and then jammed each foot into a woolen sock by hoping awkwardly from one sole to the other. From the left inside breast pocket of his brother’s coat Michael produced a safety pin. He bent the point of the pin outwards and poked three clusters of holes in the center of the bowl’s foil, and then sat heavily back onto his bed. After extracting a coal from the porcelain bowl and positioning it on the top of the hookah, Michael took a gulping breath, and then a furious drag from the hose.
A mute staleness permeated Michael’s mouth, and his senses were overwhelmed again by wrongness. He coughed in surprise, and then pulled out the hose and examined the rubber diaper which sealed it to the body of the hookah just above the grommel. He peered down the length of tube, holding it to his eye with his left hand and straightening it with his right arm so that light, unobstructed, peeked through from the other side. Then Michael snatched up the coal from on top of the tinfoil and dropped it in his porcelain bowl. He placed his wrist on the lip of the base and tried to leverage the body of the hookah free, but instead of the grommel sliding slowly from the base, it stuck thickly. Michael lifted the whole thing to his face and ran one eye up and down the bowl. He tilted it to its side and the water remained in place, defying gravity with macabre determination. Michael blinked twice, then tapped the stained glass. It’s blue shade frustrating him as he tried to distinguish the patterns on the base from the frozen water locked inside. Michael blinked again, and in a flash saw the hookah dissect itself. The body came loose from the base with the grommel and pipe and bowl, and he swept everything away except the frozen water. It hovered in mid air, revolving as if a child pinned it to a glass-top table by pushing down on its center and flicking at one of its edges.
In the kitchen Michael phoned Georgia Scott. He called her baby even though she told him not to. While he waited for her to arrive he dressed himself and shaved, then he settled in the foyer and stared at his Chuck Taylors for a few seconds before standing back up and walking towards where he could hear Teddy working in the sunroom. Michael hovered absent-mindedly in his brother’s peripheral vision, then without speaking, turned abruptly back towards the front of the house. Instead of sitting back by the doorway he wandered into the living room and dropped resignedly onto a coach. A plume of dust shot up around the seat of his Dickies, spiraling and oscillating in the warmth of the room, vivid with thick specks in the light of early afternoon.  He reached into the right pocket of his starter jacket and fished out a dutch. Michael held the blunt to his mouth and gummed it loosely in place while he dug for his wallet. He pulled out a book of matches. The Swisher lit evenly and thickly. Smoke swelled and buffeted against the dust, breaking over the hapless specks in milky cloud banks that climbed lazily in the stagnant heat of the Roosevelts’ first floor.
Michael closed his eyes and wandered away from things at a casual pace. Some time passed before a horn sounded on the street and his eyes refocused
“Someone’s honking.”
“I know, it’s Georgia.”
Teddy had never heard of Georgia. Michael snubbed out the remains of the blunt and left it in an ashtray by the entryway. Michael’s mother had not approved of smoking in the house. He lifted up the hood from under his jacket and moved up against the door. The knob turned rigidly and Michael clambered awkwardly against oak with the right side of his body. He pushed into the outdoors and the warmth of the house strained out of his clothes and hair in thin streams.  Michael coughed twice and moved across the porch and onto the lawn where grass snapped, its crackle splitting and evaporating as it mingled with the chill of the air. He opened the car and settled next to Georgia; without looking at her he shut the door and turned up the heat. She stared at him expectantly. He exhaled smoothly and loudly then slid his pupils towards where she sat in the driver’s seat.
“Hey baby, thanks for picking me up.”
“Don’t call me baby. Where we going?”
“We’re going to Safeway on the top of the hill.”
“Please?.”
“Christ, will you please just take me to the Safeway on the top of the hill.”
“What’s wrong?”
“I had a bad morning. Please baby, no more questions, let’s just go to the Safeway.”
“Don’t call me baby.”
Georgia’s car was an ’88 Lincoln Seville and was well cared for. It shone with the heavy beauty of American industry as it devoured the icy cobblestones and asphalt on it’s way up the steep side streets of Queen Anne. Neither Georgia nor Michael turned on the radio but instead Georgia spoke softly about things that she conceived of and Michael listened to the noises of the car. He fell asleep without realizing it, and toppled back into alertness when Georgia parked, taking hold of his senses as best he could in the time it took her to kill the engine. He fumbled groggily at his door handle and pressed it open with his right shoulder as he stood up. His shoes slid in the slush under his door, and he pushed his gaze up into the sky where the afternoon remained. Michael’s brow wedged over his eyes to ward off the sun. For some reason he had expected it to be getting dark.
Georgia waited for a few seconds and then followed Michael towards the entrance of the supermarket. Outside the sliding doors he told her to get a cart and find a space-heater, then moved out of the cold and into the florescence of the inside. It smelled, he thought, all at once sterile and dirty. Georgia untangled a shopping cart and started down aisle four, ignoring the signs that hung overhead and instead glancing at the tops of shelves.
Michael splayed his fingers out across the deli sneeze-guard so he could lean across the counter and bring his face to within spitting distance of the man who worked there. The man was poorly shaven, and thickly built. He eyed Michael, unwilling to be the first to speak and suddenly unsure of a great many things.
“How are things Mr. Kaneer?” Asked Michael, setting the bigger man back on his heels.
“What things do you mean Michael?”
“How’s the family Mr. Kaneer, how’s your mother.”
“Everyone’s fine Michael.”
“Even your daughter? She must be fourteen this April.”
“She will be.”
“That’s a hard age.”
“It is.”
“You remember what I told you, right Mr. Kaneer?
“I do.” Gregory Kaneer, looked down at the fat on his hands for a second, then nodding at nothing he picked his gaze back up to meet Michael’s.
“How are the other things Mr. Kaneer?”
“Business is healthy Michael, but its funny you came in just now.” Greg paused a second to give Michael time to ask why it was funny, but Michael said nothing. “It’s funny because I just received a complaint about you, about things, and I was wondering if you’d heard and that was why you were here.” Gregory half-heartedly shaped the sentence to be a question, but Michael remained silent. “It was a kid, maybe seventeen, eighteen, came in here asking for you, said I’d moved something for you that was bad. He said his uncle’d taken some of it and he had died. I wasn’t sure what to do.”
Michael pulled a Subway receipt and pencil out of his back pocket, and sighed. “What did the kid say his uncle’s name was.”
“Tim Barkley.” Michael wrote down the name on the back of the receipt and underlined it.
“You sell to this guy, this Barkley guy?”
“No, but I sold some to a girl named Terry Barkley last Thursday. That bitch is crazy, she had her baby in here and was dropping cans and shit all over the place.”
“How old would you say she was?”
“I couldn’t say, maybe twenty-five, I dunno.”
“How much did you sell her?”
“Maybe half a gram, I dunno Mike, I can check the book if you want.”
“No, don’t worry about it.” Michael wrote down Terry and her age with a question mark next to it.
“What’d you tell the kid.”
“Told the kid I’d never heard of you, and I didn’t know what he was talking about.”
“This kid, was he blonde?”
“Sure.”
“He pretty?”
“I guess, you know him?”
“Maybe. Teddy knew a Barkley in high school, sounds like this might be his little brother or cousin or something.” Michael put away the pad and sighed again. “How long ago this happen?”
“Twenty, twenty-five minutes.”
“You know if the kid is still in the store?”
“I dunno why he would be, Michael. Like I said, I wasn’t sure what to do. You think there’s a chance he’s right?”
“Nah, forget about it Mr. Kaneer, sounds like a couple of yuppies. God knows what these weekend warrior couples do with junk once they get it. They dose too much and cut it with all kinds of stuff. It isn’t the smack Mr. Kaneer, it’s never the smack.” Gregory was looking at his hands again, and for a moment unconvinced silence wrung in Michael’s ears. “What’d your father do Mr. Kaneer?”
“He fixed vacuum cleaners.”
“Why don’t you fix vacuum cleaners Mr. Kaneer?”
“Vacuum cleaners don’t break like they used to, they started making vacuum cleaners that don’t break like they used to.”
“Do you know how fast I’d go out of business if they didn’t make people like they used to Mr. Kaneer?”
As Michael left the deli he grabbed a liter of whole milk from the dairy section. He cracked it with his thumb and middle finger and drank from the carton as he walked down the back row of the supermarket. He tried to think of where a space-heater might be and stopped suddenly. He wasn’t sure that Safeway sold space-heaters. Milk rushed against Michael’s mouth, and as he swore it dribbled down his chin to drip across the tops of his sneakers. He wiped his face with the his left hand and then shook it out; tiny droplets of moisture ricocheted off its back, spraying the air around him lightly. Michael shied his face away and his eyes bumbled against a row of napkins and paper towels. He moved into the nearest aisle and busted a roll out of its plastic wrapping. Dropping to one knee, he went to work on his left foot, letting a portion of the roll drape across the floor while using one end to wipe at the milk. When he switched legs he brought his right foot up from under the paper, and as his foot caught the towels, the moisture on the top his sneaker blotted the paper into budding transparency.
Things went out of focus. Michael stared at the black linoleum tile behind his shoe. Little hairs and specks of dirt textured its surface with a layer of grit. It thickened and blackened at its core. Nothing in Michael moved. A shadow incubated in the long moments of stillness, and determinedly that heavy shade began to writhe where it sat, dancing in a series of slow convulsions before curling back into a burgeoned fetal stain. Michael brushed his foot away and pressed his palm against it. The silhouette pulsed with warmth. He was moving to push his ear to the ground, expecting a heartbeat, when the blackness unfurled and broke violently. Beads of inky nothing webbed across the floor in a thin grid, sweeping up the shelves and out beyond perception.
Someone kicked at Michael where he knelt. The darkness retreated and he snapped back to the smell of indifference. Beads percolated on the back of his neck and he fought to catch his breath.
It was the Barkley kid. He was half a head taller than Michael and blinking and smiling and biting his lip. He wore rings of sweat deeply and proudly in the white cotton of his wife-beater and his gun was a greasy little .22 he had picked up anywhere. Michael exhaled. The stillness and silence of the air around the tile seemed to have lingered in the recesses of the aisle, muffling Michael’s senses with a startling irrelevancy. The Barkley kid was trying to look triumphant but kept crumpling into a grimace.
Inaction gave way to clarity and Michael moved smoothly to his feet. The Barkley kid reaffirmed something in his mind and his grip tightened and his locked right arm buckled minutely. The two men were in striking distance of another where they stood, and Michael had only to lean forward to bring the end of the barrel to his chest, which he pressed softly into his sternum.
A wail sounded, dancing down the aisle in forlorn notes of shock and confusion.
The Barkley kid jerked his attention away from Michael and into the space over his left shoulder. An arm jammed into the side of the .22’s barrel; It went off, firing twice into a shelf of Clorox bottles. Fingers clawed and writhed as they maneuvered for the grip. A wrist almost broke. The barrel jerked up into the air and released two more rounds, punctuating the violent apparition of throaty laughter. Michael tumbled into the other man’s chest. An index finger wriggled between a clenched ring finger and pinky. A fingernail cut a shallow trough of skin from the back of a knuckle. The laughing deepened, reducing the blonde’s eyes to happy slits. Punches landed. A nose broke. Someone spluttered through violence with bubbling mirth. Then, a howl. Michael stood and spat out a wad of clenched flesh, passing the gun easily from one hand to the other.
The Barkley kid gasped and tried to push himself along the floor, clasping one hand to the gash at his neck. Michael slowly devoured the trail of dribbled smears that connected the two men. The kid twisted his body, writhing onto all fours and pressing the toes of his shoes into the tiled linoleum. The blood on his hand made him slip as he tried to break into a run, and as his foot came up to counterbalance his toppling body, Michael caught it and pulled it violently backwards. The Barkley kid’s head cracked against the ground, and he did nothing else but tuck his knees in under his stomach and clench his arms over his chest.
Georgia came running up the aisle. Horror broke her words into guttural tones as she embraced him and sobbed into his chest.
In January of 1994, Michael closes the door of the Roosevelt house slowly. He braves the heat of the foyer and the cold of the stairs and walks slowly to the back of the second story. There, one vast bedroom waits, staring out onto Puget Sound. It has been empty since the death of his father, and in the desk there remains his ledger. Once, when Michael was very young, he had explored it’s contents, hoping to discover something unrecallable. Instead there was this:
A vast and imperceptible darkness has settled in the corner of Michael’s room. I came to keep him from crying, and it was lurking there, watching him. It is warm to the touch, but fickle. I do not understand it. I think it is there to keep me from knowing what my son will be. It is a small mercy, and I am thankful for it.
-11/08

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Writer from the American Northwest