I sent this short story out to paid subscribers a few months ago but I'm taking it out from behind the paywall for a while today. Subscribe if you want to get every piece as they come out. It doesn't appear in my book A Creature Wanting Form but probably could have.
The guy had really front-loaded the tour with the grisly showstoppers so about an hour in the bowl was mostly cashed in terms of murderous celebrity mansions and the sights of historic atrocities. Now here the three of them sat in the back of the horse thing freelancing their own distraction.
The air smelling alternately of blooming star jasmine and humid sewerage and horse shit.
This is gross I know but do you kind of like the smell E said. Smearing sunscreen on her face.
Doing it kind of vomitously F thought.
The amount of hay in it I mean. It reminds me of. Of being a child.
It reminds me of right now F said.
The horse was currently shitting and two children from the other tourist group riding along in the cart were delighted by this development. Pointing at the turds as they receded into the distance behind them. Being flushed down the pipe of the street with everything else on it.
Wait you grew up on a farm right A said.
Well sort of E said. It had been a working farm. My great-grandfather was. Well I don’t know. Some kind of big guy. At some point. Back then. It was in the process of not being a farm anymore by the time I was old enough to know what anything was though. Being disassembled into just a house.
Farm entropy F said.
Sure. Farm entropy. There was a big little pig alive there still when I was in school and a sad old horse. And a corn field that was ten miles wide.
What was the horse called A said.
He was called Mr. Knees.
I don’t care for that A said.
I didn’t know any better! I was a child.
It wasn’t ten miles wide F said.
What? The farm? I don’t know. Don’t fact check my memories bitch she said.
I’m just saying. That would be an enormous farm. Especially one with one single horse.
What are you a surveyor? Ok it wasn’t that big. Fine. There were other horses before too but they all died. From the. Or were sold. I don’t know. It’s just how everything seemed bigger when you were young. When you couldn’t even reach the kitchen faucet. Or the doorknob.
When you couldn’t get out of anywhere.
They were making their way down a block now that was lined with massive nuttall oaks that seemed to grow parallel to the ground more than they grew upward. The guy had told them that was what the trees were called.
A squid digging headfirst into the floor of the deep ocean A thought. Scurrying to hide. Or to hunt. Both maybe. The agitated cloudy sand.
How old are the trees she asked the guy and he said they were older than anything. Well anything around here that has a name.
She looked over at F who was already going like alright buddy behind the guy’s back. Give it a rest Mr. Spooky.
Is this the poetry tour?
They had this idea to take seeds up to the moon. 1971. Apollo 14 the guy said. F was noticing a bulge at his hip as he turned back to talk at them that made him nervous. In fairness that wasn’t uncommon around here. It was the most normal thing in the world here.
So they took the seeds up to the moon and brought them back down again and planted them all over the country to. Well I don’t know actually. See if they would grow funny he said. Or not. Maybe just to have done it. There were two decent sized ones not far from here. Loblolly pines I believe. But the flood took them over he said. Washed them away. They left the plaques up for a while after but eventually the city came and took those down too.
E was thinking about giving some seeds a tour of space. Wondering what they thought all of that effort could have possibly imprinted on their lives as mature trees later on. Maybe it was bad for them. Like smoking cigarettes when you’re newly pregnant.
Which she was. And was doing. Not ready to quit yet because then everyone would know.
Furtive short puffs though that didn’t technically count.
Nothing too strange happened to the rest of the trees by and large as far as I know but some of them started growing horizontally the guy said. Maybe like they knew something other normal trees didn’t. To stay close to the ground.
Shit my phone is dying A said.
All of their phones were dying.
Everyone’s phones everywhere were dying.
Specifically in this instance however the phones dying on account of them having posted so many stories along the tour.
Of ornate tombs for example.
He was swimming now out into a red lake. He was on an outing with friends all picnicking on the grass and telling him it was too cold to swim this early in the season and he laughed and said he was going to be fine and then plunged so elegantly and swam down and down and from there the muck and the weeds knew he specifically was there and knew of him and grasped for him at the bottom of his plummet. Gathered him in close. As if he’d announced his visit ahead of time.
A voice was talking now to him saying to give in. A friendly voice mind you. These types of voices are always welcoming at first. Like the guys lying in wait for marks in the shadow of the old Cathedral.
It’s basically fine the voice said. It’s nothing. It’s like anywhere else over here. It’s walking through a door. Or a window. Like going out a window is what it is like.
How many stories high?
I don’t know we don’t have stories down here the voice said. Sorry sorry I got annoyed for a second. It’s just. We don’t measure it like that. It’s more like when you have to cross through into another state to get to a store that’s actually in your state. How the lines are drawn weird like that sometimes. No one remembers why. Do you know what I’m trying to say?
How the roads up there were designed by horses. How Boston is for example.
I’ve never been to Boston.
You know what I mean.
Well. Do you promise me I’ll be ok he said and the voice said you will be essentially fine. Just swim a little deeper for a minute real quick and let go.
Later when he was being interviewed by the news he said when he heard the words let go he pretty much left his body and went into this. Other dimension.
Like ejecting from a fighter plane upside down he said. The parachute erupting beneath you and then collecting you up as you fell. Like a kitten in a blanket.
Thrust into where he was an infinitesimal part of this self-sustaining light source.
Not the sun.
It wasn’t a lighthouse either so don’t think about a lighthouse.
Was it a lighthouse the interviewer asked.
No. Don’t ask if it was that because it wasn’t.
It was the most incredible amazing feeling he said. And then. And then. And then. It was all one consciousness. And it was incredible.
He said he knew everything.
Did he remember?
Did he remember?
He said he remembered his entire life if that’s what you mean.
I remembered my entire life if that’s what you mean he told the newspaper.
He saw his entire life. And he said when he saw his life he also. Well when he was looking at it the only thing that was different is that he knew how he was but he also knew how everybody else was. Feeling. In every moment of his life. And their lives. And they knew his life too. They saw him. And it was like the most comforting thing.
So he said.
They saw him even when he was jacking off?
Haha. He didn’t talk about jacking off. But then.
Because I worry about that sometimes.
Part of the light.
What if they can see us? My poor grandmother.
He didn’t mention anything about the jacking off stop it. But he said it was the most euphoric incredible feeling he’s ever felt. Peace. Calm. Happiness. Wonder. Of just being part of everything. Knowing everything. He said you know everything down there.
And then they said to him you have to go back.
He said I don’t want to. This is way better than being part of the dryness he said. On the land of Earth he said which was a weird way to say it he knew.
And they said no you have to go back. Thank you for your contributions and all but we’re going in a different direction. Like that. Professional but firm. HR had gotten involved. And then he got keelhauled back up like the weeds bench-pressed him into the sky and he landed back on the shore and he said getting vacuumed back into his body was the worst feeling he has ever felt. Worse than a compound fracture which he had also had when he was younger he said.
But he woke up?
Well yes how else would we know?
I would think it would be the opposite. That it would be euphoria to return to your body.
Like being born but you’re aware of it.
No crying this time. No screaming. No blood.
Right? I know. He said because because because he had experienced this euphoric moment of being out of his body and being and seeing everything.
It’s like coming down.
And then he woke up and they were giving him mouth to mouth on the shore.
Being proud of it later.
Some girl in her little shorts. He said he will never forget how her lips tasted on his.
What did they taste like?
He didn’t say.
So then the girl and all them asked him what had happened down there and later he told the interviewer guy that in the aftermath he had lied to his friends. The thing is there was no question he was going to lie as soon as he came back he said. No negotiation. He knew he was going to be a liar now. That was who he was and was going to be.
He said he lied because he didn’t want to tell anyone what the world really is.
Because he was embarrassed to have this knowledge.
Like a child who learns too early about what his parents are up to in the dark.
Or why one of them is never there anymore.
Where grandma went to.
But also because he knew they wouldn’t believe him.
He lived with this knowledge his whole life and then. Well. Not his whole life. But he’d never heard anyone talk about anything like this and he didn’t want to tell anyone because he thought that he was being crazy and then he read a book about someone who had experienced the same thing. It described exactly what happened to him he said.
Who knows he could’ve just completely been lying about it.
But the way he described it was completely beautiful. So even if that’s not what happened I can just believe that. I can believe that.
That’s so reassuring.
Yeah. Something about the chemicals in your brain maybe though? When you’re about to die. Somebody said that makes you feel good. That the body has certain.
Yeah. Sure. I mean that’s great. But then I was so tired and so.
Who was tired?
Me in real life. When I was watching this video I’m telling you about.
Oh I didn’t realize it was a video. That makes it. Well. That sort has a deflating effect. On my suspension of disbelief.
No. Stop. And there was music playing in the background. It was very calming. Like massage music. But scary kind of. A haunted massage parlor. It was like I was in a trance. Then I put down my phone. So I said I'm just going to try to be at peace and like at one with myself. And I’m going to just think about moments from my life the way he described it. So I fell asleep and I had dreams where like I was choosing to watch moments in my life. Like I became like him.
What if it was like streaming and you couldn’t ever decide on a part of your life to watch? Too much to choose from. Abundance wise. Or all they had available were seasons of your life you know sucked ass. The production had run out of money and you were just sort of in stasis. Zero character development.
No it wasn’t like that. It was very comforting. To learn about. Not learn. But to hear about at that time of the morning that I had insomnia. It’s a nice thought.
Well aside from the part where they watch us jack off.
It’s not like watching you. Well yeah. I mean if you go up into the light you’re probably going to have to watch yourself jerking off. Fine.
Haha. I don’t want to watch myself.
Who then? Who do you want to watch doing that?
When you die and you are going to be placed into the family tomb or whatever tomb it happens to be there’s a waiting period the guy said. Jostling the horse’s reins. After one person has been locked into the tomb the next person has to wait one year and one day to get lodging inside even if they die in the meantime.
Where do they go to wait A said.
Let’s say dear mam dies and you brick her up inside and etch her name onto the wall. You can’t disturb her transitioning for that entire time the guy said. If old dad’s poor heart breaks once she’s gone and he decides he wants to follow shortly behind her he’s going to have to hold for his turn. For the iron door to squeak again.
He’s going to have to be patient.
Where does he go meanwhile E said.
Around the perimeter of the garden there are coffin-sized drawers to wait in the guy said. See? Right there.
Like a death waiting room E said.
Just like that he said.
They even have TVs in there playing the cable news F said and A said wait really.
Don’t worry though the guy said it’s so humid and it gets up to 300 degrees inside the tombs so your grandparents are a pile of bones before long.
Oh thank god F said.
It’s like a slow cooker F said. The meat falls off the bone.
More or less the guy said.
There has to be an order to things. There has to be law. Even for the dead.
There’s a lake in Africa with 500 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in it and someday when it explodes which it will it will kill two million people. Eugene V. Debs said the Man of Galilee the Carpenter the working man who became the revolutionary agitator of his day soon found himself to be an undesirable citizen in the eyes of the ruling knaves and they had him crucified. There was a leaden sarcophagus that they had found deep underneath the Notre Dame cathedral after it burned down and they were going to open it. People were still arguing about how that fire had started years later when everyone knew it was some French worker tossing his cigarette insouciantly. The fastest runners were finishing the Boston Marathon and my aunt who always remembers that I hid out just under the window when they were shooting at those two brothers called me to ask if I remembered that and I said that I did. Somehow that burned into her memory as the most important thing that ever happened to me and maybe it was. A woman who had sued a Tennessee sheriff’s department after she had been pulled over and talked into being baptized right there on the spot on the side of the road by the cop turned up dead. A job advertisement from the federal Bureau of Prisons looking for psychologists touted how rich an opportunity it was. Flip to any DSM page and whatever disorder you land on you’ll find it here they said. Gillian Welch sang that every day is getting straighter and that time is the revelator. They were putting in some kind of heroic effort to keep the dwindling population of manatees alive in Florida and then I saw a paper sign someone had taped up in a window advertising their animal bathing business and it said they could clean lizards and parrots and rodents or insect cages and at the bottom it said I can explain the death of a pet to your child which seemed like another set of qualifications altogether. Someone on my phone was remembering when the government accidentally set off a panic about ballistic missiles heading toward Hawaii in 2018 and they said their brother got into a bathtub when he got the alert on his phone and texted his ex that he still loved her. There was a news story about a man who had been completely paralyzed and years later some scientists figured out a way to track his eye movement so he could manipulate a keyboard of sorts via a brain implant and he painstakingly typed at the rate of one letter per minute and after all that his message was that he wanted a head massage from his mother and that he wanted to eat a curry and to listen to Tool very loud and I thought those are three of the main things I usually want. To get a head massage from that guy’s mother mostly. There was a smiling lady next on my feed named Isla Tervo who was 39 years old and from Khao Saming Thailand and there’s a horrible misshapen second face growing out of her ear and she’s right there smiling so big and pretty. I wanted to send her all my money. I was on the roof lounge of a hotel overlooking the Mississippi river writing the longest and most interminable suicide letter anyone had ever read. A train was hooting by and a barge was groaning by and a canoodling couple a few couches down from me were waking up to the real world back from their reverie. Returning from the place we’ve all been to where no single other human is real nor has ever been real besides the one we are holding. And here for them now was the sight of me crushing out a cigarette I had burned down to the smelly part of the filter and hucking an emptied champagne glass at the stupid muddy river. Not reaching it by a long shot. A Hail Mary that gets batted down at the 5 yard line but still a decent enough attempt.
Mr. Knees was so tall I just remembered E said to no one. Changing the subject.
That was why he was called that. You would stand next to him and just come up to his knees. My grandfather was trying to sell him before he got sick not long after that. The horse got sick I mean. My grandfather too. Everybody got sick right around then. I remember we went in to say goodbye to him. I think I even prayed for him. I prayed for a horse.
I cried more when the horse died than my grandfather.
It’s all coming back now.
Do horses have souls?
I don’t know everyone thought. Each retreating to their own corners. Not wanting to think about that.
A was snapping another picture of a particularly large grasping oak. Mr. Trees over here F said.
Trying to imprison its elderly fluidity in stopped time.
Fuck fuck fuck she said as her phone died while taking one of the final shots.
They were clomping alongside a set of tracks that lined the middle of the avenue but no street car had passed by them in the last hour or more which felt incorrect.
This is why we couldn’t find a trolley to take us over here E said.
When we were young we’d have our birthday parties on some of the trolley lines the guy said. Have cake inside and everything.
This made the two children perk up for the first time since the turds.
Did you ever come up this way E asked and the guy looked back at her like she was a goddamned stupid asshole. Like she had just asked him whether he drank water out of the toilet.
A was instinctively looking at her dead phone now. Forgetting there was no point to it anymore. Staring at the black screen out of habit. Hoping maybe a little that it hadn’t actually died and there was some spark of life left in it.
Then there was the sound of a trolley horn and here at long last came one from around the bend up ahead. They figured they could take it to head back to where they were staying but they'd have to jump out of the carriage right now to catch it. They'd have to make a run for it.