Truth titillates the imagination far less than fiction.
“Ya been keepin’ out of trouble?” my Uncle Joe asked.
“You know it! I’m the early bird gettin’ the worm and all that.”
“Don’t forget that you’re working hard to play hard, right? You look a little rundown–gettin’ enough rest?” he said.
“Oh, I figure I’ll sleep when I’m dead. Heheh.”
He hugged me, said something about the apple landing near the tree, and told me to keep up the good work. We wished each other a good-day-god-speed-happy-trails-goodbye-for-now. He mumbled something about my having greener grass as he turned and walked off into the sunset. I thought he might be vaporized.
I was counting my blessings on the way home when I passed a babe in the woods beating a dead horse. I didn’t know him from Adam, so I just tried to mind my own business. The winds of change made it feel like a dark and stormy night was approaching quick as a bunny. The town floozy was on the corner like clockwork shouting that “a hard man is good to find!” I thought she’d have thrown in the towel by now, but apparently there were still a few men of honor who would touch her with a ten foot pole.
As I turned the corner at Memory Lane, I tripped. Talk about taking a load off! Before I came to my senses, I was staring eye to eye with a green pill bug. Worried that he’d heard through the grapevine that I was not playing with a full deck of cards, I tried to beat him to the punchline. “Knock, knock.” I said. “Who’s there?” he replied. “Your mama!” I laughed like a hyena. He told me it was better to burn out than to fade away, at which point, he let down his hair, curled into a ball and started his rolling anti-moss-gathering maneuvers. I took this as a sign from God and began to watch like no one was dancing.
It felt as if a moment of truth was upon me. At the end of my tunnel vision, a light, brighter than a thousand sons. Either I had my wires crossed, it was darkest before the dawn (aside from that weird light in the distance), or I had indeed had my fifteen minutes of fame.
JT Conway, Payload Commander, saluted me formally just prior to severing the tether that had anchored me to the space station. It starts as a drifting away but soon I’ll be herdling through– Wait. Herdling? That’s not right. Soon I’ll be hurdling through space. Shit. That would be like slow motion leaps over a series of small meteors coming at me. I’m like an interstellar track star. But the oxygen in my suit is malfunctioning. I’m struggling for air. A darkening vignette creeps in from the edges of my vision. The next meteor is there already. I’ve misjudged it. My front foot clears it by a few centimeters. My back foot catches and I begin to cartwheel. An already meaningless down switching places with up as starlight specks blur into celestial arcs. Rate of rotation increasing. A moment before I black out I think: Now. Now I am hurtling.
Let’s say—hypothetically—that someone has a funny looking bald head. Lumpy with wider rounding at the back than at the front. You assume this guy thinks he looks cool with a bald head because he shaves it himself and seems to have a chip on his shoulder. A chip so heavy it lowers his left shoulder by approximately one inch. Plus, he wears this leather motorcycle jacket (but doesn’t actually ride a motorcycle as far as you can tell). The little social judge in your head throws him immediately in the “douche” category. And you move on because that’s what you do. Who has time to get to know people, right?
And then later, let’s say 17 days after you’ve sentenced him to the loser/outcast section of your mind, you find out from a co-worker who takes smoke breaks with one of the Douche’s officemates that he’s bald because his hair never grew back after the chemo. You’ve got your poker face on but there’s a neon green sign of the word “DOUCHE” in your head with a blinking arrow pointing at a bad caricature of you. The following week you hear someone in the parking lot ask him where he got his leather. It was his brother’s. His brother who died during a second tour in Iraq. Your internal projection of yourself takes on homunculus proportions. You scurry to your car.
A week or so goes by without you seeing this man who you feel you’ve wronged. Misjudged. Then you and he are walking in to the building at the same time. You hold the door open for him. “Good morning!” you say. He sort of grunts. “You returning from business or pleasure?” you say. “Excuse me?!!” he says. Turns on you. Chest kind of puffed out. “I hadn’t seen you around the parking lot in a while,” you say. “Mind your own business, stranger.” He punctuates this with a kind of finger-pointing and walks away.
“But that’s the thing, isn’t it? Essentially, the more you learn… I mean the more knowledge and information you absorb, the wider your perspective becomes on what it is you don’t know. That pool of potential knowledge that you first dipped your chubby toes in has become a veritable ocean.”
Stanley bobbed his head once in abrupt agreement. Joseph continued his soliloquy:
“So, really, the smarter you are, the stupider you become. In a relative sense.”
Stanley wasn’t sure a response was warranted (much less invited). He cocked his head sideways, giving a quizzical look. Joseph continued to be carried away by his own verbal momentum:
“It’s funny. You might have more understanding or a better grip on a topic, but you suddenly realize the depth of your ignorance. It’s astounding.” Joseph smirked, ran some fingers through his disheveled curls, brushed his sandwich remains to the ground, stood up, and turned back to Stanley: “I’ll see you tomorrow, my friend.” Stanley shuffled in that side-to-side way he had of silently saying goodbye. Joseph took the east exit from the park going who knows where.
Stanley continued to stand for a bit enjoying the quiet. Most of what Joseph said was irrelevant, but he liked the cadence of his voice. Whether you’re floating on top of a wading pool or a bottomless quarry, you’re still only touching the surface, he thought. It’s the only place you can breathe. Before he could give this much more thought, he had to claim the sandwich remains for himself lest the other pigeons get ideas of their own.
“Hellbound” began with a couple random questions: What if dieing was like jury duty? What if you got a summons in the mail and what if the summons you got let you know you were going to hell? From there, I thought about running to get there on time to see if your number was even called and then I got this idea to let each city block represent one of the nine circles of hell, ala Dante’s Inferno (thus, the bulleted list left to remind me of what each circle represented)…
I’ll be going to hell when this is all over. I already got my papers. I’ll be there to counsel and console the others. It must have been a quaint little club in the beginning… a corner bar with an infernal climate control issue. Now it’s more like the department of motor vehicles, or so I hear. I’m the first in my family to go. My parents don’t know yet. Well, maybe my mom does. She’s dead. I killed her. It’s probably the most humid place ever, ’cause that’s what gets ya–try summering in D.C., you’ll feel it. Drops of sweat bead up and start to roll down the small of your back just from breathing. The papers say not to pack anything and to call the main number the night before to see if my lot has been called for the day.
So I call the night before. Might possibly be the worst automated phone tree experience of my life. The recorded message cut off just before announcing lot numbers. I called back and heard a recording saying the number had been disconnected. I tried again. And again. No luck. Maybe this whole thing is some sick practical joke. What the hell am I supposed to do? I don’t know whether it’s my turn. Should I show up tomorrow? What if I show up and I’m not supposed to go yet? What if I don’t show up and I am supposed to go? Beads of sweat already rolling down my back. Fuck it–I’m going.
I get up early. No alarm necessary. I get dressed–which means putting on my shoes since I slept in my clothes. I don’t eat. I don’t brush my teeth. I walk out the door without having fed the cat or unloaded the dishwasher. According to the papers, it’s about 9 blocks away. Some sort of ragtag, urban marketing squad is stapling promo posters for DJ Beat Trish all over my street. Breathe. A reminder to myself.
The first block is long, but strangers I pass by seem unusually friendly. Unusually ordinary. Just as I’m getting to the corner, I swear the same dude I passed a minute ago passes again. Wait–there’s the old woman with the grocery cart. It’s like they’re doing laps or something. I cross the street. I never come this way. It’s the border of the red light district. The youngest of geriatrics asks if I’m “looking to have some fun”, unnerving me with a grin populated unevenly by gaps where her teeth once lived. I mumble excuses about being late. A door opens, a client scrambles out scratching manically at the crotch of his pants. Daylight is no friend of this district. I pick up the pace, but am left waiting for the light to change. Seven blocks to go. Why am I rushing?