The Angle of Attack: Chapter 6


Chapter 6*

“So, this lady in Montreal. Julianne was it? Was she the only one?” I knew the question was coming but it still made me feel my pulse in my scalp, and I started wordlessly opening and closing my mouth. The therapist set down her notepad and pen and folded her hands, an unconvincing signal my answer would be somehow ‘off the record’. Heat crept up my neck and I was seized by a sudden urge to flee the room. “Don’t worry,” she said in a soft voice that reminded me of my mother, “you don’t have to answer that now if you don’t want to.”

“I never had any affairs,” I said finally as firmly as I could. This was true to the extent that my liaisons with other women, not that there had been so many, were so fleeting one had occurred in a public bathroom. Briefly intersecting with them in the tedious emotionless spaces of airport hotel bars, we continued on in our separate directions. Most openly wore wedding bands like me but, in accordance with some tacit adulterers’ rule, discussion of spouses was taboo as if temporarily erasing their existence somehow preserved their dignity, like an organ in a jar. Typically, the sex was as clinical and unsentimental as an annual physical and afterwards, after the false goodbye air kisses, there was no exchange of phone numbers or emails.

“Usually, I never even gave them my real name.”

“So they couldn’t find you?”

“So I could feel even more like it wasn’t really me but someone else.” Despite this attempted detachment I could never cum without actively fantasizing about Ally, toe-curling Ally with her tight trampoline body, and not say floppy Sharon Kane, sales rep from Boise, Idaho with lipstick on her teeth and dark red areolas mushrooming from her inverted nipples.

The therapist took up her pad again and jotted down something which, from upside-down, looked like “EVEN MORE?” She looked up and I hurriedly scratched at a non-existence itch on my craning neck. Focusing on the floor, the spiral patterns on the carpet seeming to shift under the pressure of my gaze, I said, “I have good reason to believe I was born bad.”

She raised an eyebrow, jotted something else on the pad, and said, “We’ll come back to that. What about Julianne? Did you contact her after she sent the sex tape?”

I lifted my bowed head. She had a slightly pinched face, full of fragile bird bones, inquisitive bird eyes, flat black hair with a white skunk’s tail stripe down the middle. I liked her and it seemed important at the time for her to like me too. “No,” I said. “I never contacted her again.”

The spiral staircase leading up to the second-floor entrance was steep, the uneven snow on it glazed in a layer of ice from a freakish bout of freezing rain earlier in the day. I had been barhopping on boulevard Saint-Laurent and gripped the railing with both hands as I gingerly made my way up the unsalted stairs. On the balcony, I turned and coughed wet clouds into the frosty night air. Mount Royal’s giant electronic cross was ablaze and the revolving search lights from the PVM tower raked the smattering of low-lying clouds torn apart on its dark hump. The city sparkled magically as it slid down the mountain’s southern slopes towards the black swath of the Saint Laurence river and the bright bridges spanning it.

“Not so magical anymore,” I grunted, turning back towards the door and pressing the buzzer.

“Paul!” cried Julianne, her face a mixture of surprise and joy until, after I stepped out of the shadows and into the puddle of light on the doormat, it turned to abject terror and she moved to slam the door. I blocked it with my foot and shoved her inside.

“What did you do?!” I roared pushing her deeper into the apartment. “What did you do?!” She tripped and went sprawling across the living room floor. Grabbing a fistful of hair from the back of her head, I yanked her to her feet.

“Paul!” she yelped as I twisted her arm behind her back. “Don’t! I’m Canadian!”

“Shut up. You shut up.” I frogmarched her into the kitchen and slammed her down over a chopping block countertop. Squashing the side of her face into the scarred wood, I bent over her from behind. “You destroyed my life. You. Fucking. Bitch,” I hissed down her ear.

“Paul, please,” she whimpered. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. Really. I was drunk. I didn’t mean to. I don’t know what happened. Please.”

I reached for one of the handles protruding from the knife block and pointed the tip of the blade at her mouth which was working away like a carp fish I had once eaten in Chinatown when I was a boy. “Say that again,” I said. “Say ‘I didn’t mean it’ again and I swear I will empty you.”

She didn’t say it again, but I realized she had started grinding her ass into my crotch and, despite my rage (or was it because of it?), I was getting hard. With her free hand, she reached back and pulled at my belt. “Just punish me instead,” she gasped. “Then fuck me whatever way you want. Any way you want…Captain Manson.”

And in a devastating whirlwind of lust and grief, that’s exactly what I did. None of it was committed to video this time around but, as I got dressed and watched Julianne spread-eagled on the bed breathing shallowly, I couldn’t shake the chilling feeling Ally was somehow watching me all over again all the way from Pittsburgh.

Julianne’s phone started vibrating on the nightstand and I picked it up. A picture of a smiling intelligent-looking woman standing on a sea cliff, gray hair standing on end in the wind, lit up the screen. The caller ID “Mom” was superimposed over it. I burned inside at the injustice of it and when “Mom” finally gave up and the screen went black, I lifted Julianne’s limp hand and pressed her thumb to the home button. It didn’t take long to find the video and attach it to a text message to “Mom”. My thumb hovered over the send button, trembling in the excitement of pure, black vengeance.

I couldn’t do it. Some terrible, unfamiliar internal brake stopped me, and I permanently deleted the video instead. I flung the phone against the wall in disgust with myself, scrawled “PIG” in bright red lipstick on the wall in disgust with myself, turned and spat on Julianne Robbins in disgust with myself, flung money at Julianne Robbins in disgust with myself, the bills drifting down through the air, through the sour odor of sex and sweat and violence, and onto Julianne Robbins’s sticky back and legs tangled in bloodied bedsheets.

“Honest,” I said as the therapist pressed me. “I never had any contact with Julianne Robbins again.”

We raced our bikes alongside the smashed and rusted train tracks, long abandoned and overgrown with thorny weeds since the airport was built decades prior. They skirted the northern perimeter of the wastes which had once, in the memories of the dead, been a bucolic patchwork of meadows and forest. Now, smack in the middle, only a single tree remained: an obstinate old weeping willow slumped against the sky. Beneath it was an antique wood and cast-iron park bench with a bashed-in brass plaque that read:

In loving memory of

MILDRED STANFIELD

who at age 42 was struck by

lightning and died here on this

her favorite spot

27 May 1921

Unimpressed, someone had spray painted “CUNT” in large green letters across the bench’s seat and back. This was curious to Harold and me since we had never once seen anyone else out in the wastes, not even other kids who opted to raise Cain in the nearby Macmillan River Gorge instead.

But hanging out on and around Mildred Stanfield’s cunt bench, sipping high-octane jungle juice pilfered from the oceanic stockpile of Harold’s lovable but suicidally alcoholic mother, had become a favorite pastime of ours. I loved watching the white, streaking contrails from the planes tearing the broad blue sky into sheets, cloud signatures of departure to faraway places. “That’s going to be me up there, one day,” I said for the millionth time.

“Yeah, yeah,” muttered Harold. “You crazy and you ain’t going nowhere.” He went on to berate me about how terribly I was doing in school (which was true except for math and geography) and how I wasn’t going anywhere, anytime until I “smarten the fuck up.” But Harold was speaking more to his own fears. His father had been a gangbanger who at the age of 24, to the surprise of no one, was killed in a drive-by, three of the bullets sprayed from the Uzi catching him in the face and demanding a closed casket funeral. To ward off a similar fate, he knuckled down at school and on the basketball court, convinced it would pay off one day with a sports scholarship to college. I didn’t like his chances (I didn’t think he was tall enough) and so we both took a dim view of each other’s futures.

“Sure shorty,” I sighed, gazing at the airport in the distance, the green lenses of the control tower flashing in the sun. So close and yet so far…

“Don’t call me that motherfucker.”

“Woah check out that bug, man,” I whispered, pointing at the winged creature, great hairy tail dangling behind it, that had lazily fluttered in front of us, long crooked antennae probing the air like they were receiving signals from outer space.

“What isthat?!” Harold whispered back, staring wide-eyed over the rims of his too-dark shades. As we leaned forward, a small black bird with a bright orange beak swooped in out of nowhere and swallowed it whole, as instantaneous and arbitrary as the lightning strike that had sizzled poor Mildred Stanfield. The bird landed on a patch of scrubby grass in front of us, cocking its head back and forth, orange-rimmed eyes alert and black. I imagined the bug being slowly digested, still alive and conscious, in its stomach.

“Awesome!” I cried, startling the bird into flight, arcing up over the rustling branches and out of sight. Harold and I stayed silent until I said finally, “One day I’m going to fly away just like that. And I swear I will never, ever come back to Hillsborough again.”

“Next stop, Hillsborough,” said a weary voice over the train’s intercom.

“Really? You don’t like novels?”

“I tried a few times. Gave up after the last one. Can’t remember the name of the book now but it was about this supposedly eccentric British character going on and on about his long-lost glory days at Oxford. But he had this BIG secret, right? Only thing that kept me reading. I figured he was a spy, maybe a gay spy. You know what it was though? He liked studying plants in his spare time. Plants! He was a closet botanist! THAT was the secret!” I almost shouted, slapping my hand on the table with a thwack that caused people at nearby tables to look over. I clapped my hand over my mouth and whispered through my fingers, “I’ll take manuals and handbooks any day. The New York Times on Sunday.”

“You’ve just had bad luck,” she laughed and as she did, I was captivated once again by her off-kilter teeth; those predatory arrowhead canines… I ached to run my tongue along the bottom of them…

I realized I was staring at her in the same longing way a child stares through the glass of a closed ice cream store. “We’ll soon be reading everything off this World Wide Web thingy anyway,” I said airily, popping the last bloody hunk of steak in my mouth and gesturing to the waiter for another drink.

“Oh God! What’s that all about?” she laughed again. She had put on a light touch of makeup and wore a simple burgundy dress deliberately cut to reveal only scant clues to the landscape beneath. She was quickly discovering we had little in common and, by the end of the date, had even sketched a chart on a napkin that looked something like this:

Likes Ally Paul
Foreign films/language ✔︎
Candy/desserts ✔︎
Literature ✔︎
Animals/pets/dogs ✔︎
Pot ✔︎
Democratic party ✔︎
80s music ✔︎
Yoga/gym/meditation ✔︎
“Art” ✔︎
Etc., etc… ✔︎
…Flying airplanes ✔︎
Skinned, decapitated frogs ✔︎

But she didn’t find me boring and, try as she might with the demure posturing, a wolfish hunger invaded her eyes when they moved over me, scanning, appraising. “Has anyone ever told you, you look like Al Pacino?”

“No, but my best friend in high school once told me that Al Pacino is blacker than me.”

“What?” she said, her head recoiling as if the word had been fired from a canon.

“Long story,” I said, spreading out the air in front of me with the palms of my hands.

“Well, you do. A very young one. And you’ve got just the right whiff of gangster with that gold cross around your neck…” I hadn’t realized an extra button had come undone on my shirt and I closed it sheepishly… “and that gold tooth. What happened there?”

I had just turned 16 and I had just lost my virginity. Lucy was two years older than me, not a virgin, and Harold’s sister. Earlier when she had pulled off my underpants, me as frightened and wide-eyed as a newborn, rather than screaming in terror at my flaccid mouse tail, to my astonishment she put it in her mouth until it was harder than a broom handle. Lying there now with her head pressed to my sweating chest, the long buzzing songs of the summer cicadas slicing the muggy air outside, I felt I could die happily, my life complete. I was about to tell her that in the fading light when the rusty hinges on the screen door protested and Aunt Carrie came wheezing in long before she was due back from church group.

Not long after Aunt Carrie had dragged Lucy by the hair from my bedroom and shoved her down the stairs of the front porch, hollering abuse after her, I approached her on tiptoes through the candlelit gloom as she ironed her flower-patterned dresses in silent fury. A floorboard creaked just before I reached her and she swung around startled, clipping me in the mouth with the tip of the iron. As I fell, her gold crucifix came away in one hand while the knife I held in the other went skidding across the floor.

“I went over the handlebars of my bike when I was a kid,” I said.

“I see,” Ally said.

~

To be continued…

*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available athttp://bit.ly/2u7rqcL

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 6), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Angle of Attack: Chapter 5


Chapter 5*

With complete loss of hydraulic control and non-functional control surfaces, the only way I was able to keep the 747-jumbo airborne at all was by applying nuanced engine thrusts to pitch the nose up into a lurching climb and then releasing just at the stall warnings. The downward pitch of the phugoid cycle, like a ship after cresting a wave on heavy seas, was rapid and sphincter tightening. Unlike a ship, slowly plowing its way across the gentle warp of the curvature of the earth, my trajectory was inexorably descending; down, down towards the jagged peaks of the low-lying mountains which I couldn’t see but knew were there in the continents of shifting darkness below.

With its vertical stabilizer and rudder gone, the aircraft also entered into a Dutch roll, simultaneously yawing right and banking right before yawing back left and banking left in large swooping arcs like the veering flight of a gull knocked back and forth by contradictory winds. The engine thrust countermeasures I was applying only slightly improved stability and my ability to control the plane was deteriorating fast. In desperation, I lowered the landing gear. This helped dampen the phugoid cycles, but the throttle developed a mind of its own and I wrestled against its capricious movements with both hands.

I saw it to the left, a mountain-shaped shadow against the shadow of the night. I lowered the flaps 5 units via an alternative electrical system and briefly gained some altitude. Lowering the flaps another 10 units caused the plane to bank to the left, and the nose began to drop.

“Sink rate,” said the Ground Proximity Warning System in an impassive voice.

“Nose up! Not so much flap!”

“Sink rate,” repeated the GPWS as if bored.

“Power, power… flaps up!”

“Terrain,” said the GPWS with a little more urgency as an emergency beeping sound and flashing red light engaged.

“Nose up… Nose up… power… POWER!!!

“Pull up… pull up… pull up…” hollered the GPWS over a blaring alarm.

The plane was uncontrollable and as the left wing clipped the mountainside, everything outside the cockpit windows flipped upside-down and went blank.

“Simulation complete,” said a chirpy digital voice.

“Damn you,” I sighed, pulling off the headphones and running my hands through my hair. Programmed to run Japan Airlines Flight 123, to this day the worst single-aircraft accident in aviation history, it was my favorite simulation.

“Flight time: 24 minutes and 6 seconds,” replied the chirpy digital voice.

“Not even close,” I sighed again. Back in 1985 the captain of JAL 123, Masami Takahama, had kept his fully loaded 747-jumbo airborne for an insane 32 minutes and 23 seconds after its vertical stabilizer snapped off, long enough for detailed farewell messages to be found in the wreckage. I was in a pool with some fellow pilots to see if any of us could break Takahama’s 32:23 mark. So far none of us had, although I had come closest at 30:48. The virtual reality of the simulator simply couldn’t generate that adrenaline-goosed fear, fear you could smell coming off your skin like something oily burning, of being on a real plane really going down. That’s no arcade game with high scores and when I had once programmed in my Lajes flight, after crashing ten times in a row, I never ran it again.

“Run JAL 123 again,” I muttered into the cool darkness, putting my headphones back on and opening a beer (I was hiding from my daughter who had obnoxiously bet me that morning I couldn’t go a single day without drinking).

“Launching JAL 123,” said the chirpy digital voice as the console came alive with humming lights, the warm throttle vibrating gently under my grip. “Have a nice flight.”

I was staring intently at one of my father’s war pictures. He was standing in a floating fish market on the banks of the sun-stunned Mekong Delta, shirtless in the heat, battered dog tags flung across his sweaty torso. Dark aviator glasses blocked out his eyes, but his eyebrows were halfway up his forehead and, wearing an alarmed ghost mouth, he was extending a large blood-smeared steel tray towards the camera.

“What are those?” I demanded, pointing at the crowd of squatting alienesque creatures on the tray.

“Oh, not that horrible picture,” my mother almost spat as she peered over my father’s shoulder. Waving her away, he chewed on the bottom of his lip a moment and then explained they were frogs that had just been skinned alive and decapitated. He studied my face and, finding no trauma there, went on to say that they were still very much alive in the picture.

“No way!” I marveled, pushing my face closer. They were as big as a man’s fist and with their skin peeled off, beneath the shiny transparent membrane left behind, stretched tight over their athletic headless bodies like vacuum sealed plastic, you could make out their purple organs and the white steroidal muscles bulging in their hind legs. “How?”

“I have no idea. But I swear their chests were rising up and down, up and down, and they were turning this way and that as if they were having a good old chat about the weather.”

“Wow!”

“Just after this picture was taken, they were tossed on the grill.”

“Disgusting,” drifted in my mother’s voice from the other room.

“Did you… did you eat one?”

He put his finger to his lips conspiratorially and flipped through the stack of photos. “Here,” he said, with a wink, handing me one. I squealed in delight. He had one of the frogs all the way in his mouth except for the long hopping legs which dangled from the corners like a hideous Fu Manchu moustache. Young Vietnamese boys were crowded around him grinning with oversized buck teeth.

“You are a terrible, terrible man, Tom Manson,” my mother called from upstairs.

I also caught some flack in the schoolyard for having the same family name as a psycho killer. The memories of the Manson Family murders, that searing image of “PIG” scrawled in the blood of an eight-and-a-half month pregnant Sharon Tate, were still fresh. Suburbanites across America were checking and doublechecking the locks on their doors and windows before going to bed, ensuring none of the kitchen knives were missing, their anxiety trickling down into the dreams of their children.

I sometimes wondered if I had some percentage of psycho killer in me considering what a lasting impact my father’s frogs had made upon me. Over the shrill protests of my mother, I coaxed him into taking me to Chinatown in the city to hunt for live frogs to eat. We didn’t find any but I was awestruck by the steaming bloody redness of Chinatown, the windows crammed with lynched glazed ducks and ragged pork sides dangling by the trotter on hooks, dishes filled with calves’ brains, testicles, chicken livers, pork kidneys, sheep’s ovaries; all that raw flesh and offal lacing the air with a sulfuric bite that caught in the nose.

“Pick which one you want, Paul,” said my father leaning down to peer inside the aquarium where schools of big hardy carp jostled for space. One of them appeared to be watching me out of a wide black eye on the side of its head, gills rhythmically pumping.

“That one,” I said pointing, and the cook instantly netted it up and out of the water. It landed with a thud on a wooden block and thrashed around for oxygen. The cook clobbered it over the head with a short wooden club which subdued it, but the rubbery brown lips were still working as if it were trying to speak while its tail flapped up and down. Holding it down, the cook vigorously took what looked like a windshield scraper to its sides, showers of translucent scales flying towards a large enamel sink where the water had been left running. After its scaling, the fish’s mouth was moving even faster, in outrage I imagined, and then the cook deftly slit open its belly, tugged out its stringy innards and flung them towards the sink. The fish shuddered a few times and went still even though I sensed it was still somehow watching me.

Straight from the grill, its sizzling body was slapped down in front of me, blackened soya-drizzled skin peeling off, melted eyes now turned yellow. The flung-away innards had been replaced with fried garlic, lemon slices, spiky green herbs, and anyone’s guess what else.

The power of that!

“Dig in,” said my father with a hesitant smile.

I did with a dedication that surprised him and as each mouthful of that soft delicious meat went down, I felt more and more superhuman.

Me: Do you have to call me Paul?

Melanie: Yes.

Me: I’m still your dad, Mel.

Melanie: btw – speaking of names, I’m changing mine.

Me: wtf?! 😳

Melanie: The papers are all submitted. I’m dropping Manson.

Me: I repeat: wtf?! 😳

Melanie: I’m legally changing my name, Paul.

Me: Why? To what? 😳 😳 😳

Melanie: What do you think? Mom’s name! 😀And I don’t think I have to answer the first question. I gotta go. Please stop texting me.

Me: Melanie, I…

I stopped tapping at my phone. She had gone offline. “Melanie Hightower… ?” I whispered just as a tired, relieved cheer rippled through the bar car. The train was finally, FINALLY underway again.

“I’m going to the lady’s room,” announced Ida through a long sigh. Everything about her was long: long arms and legs, long toes and fingers, long painted nails, long horse eyelashes, long tongue, long wringable neck, long asshole. Except her stylishly disheveled hair was cropped short, which she plucked at as she slid lazily from the plush highbacked barstool, the single non-long thing about her as far as I could tell. I watched her as she sashayed off. Whatever she was, there was no doubt she was a knockout. If she possessed one iota of the acting talent she laid claim to, she could’ve easily been a movie star.

It was mid-afternoon on a Sunday and the bar was mostly empty and quiet but for Manhattan’s hooting and hollering sporadically penetrating the green and red uterine patterns of the Art Nouveau style window panes. I drained my glass while waving at the peppy barmaid who bounced over.

“Quick, before my girlfriend gets back. Can you make it a double?”

I drank it down to approximately the level it was at when Ida left. “That’s about right,” I said, examining the glass.

The barmaid watching me quizzically over a fan of money she was counting and said, “Your girlfriend sure is gorgeous.”

I looked up at her vacantly. She had luscious soft hair tied up in a chaotic sideways ponytail and the faintest of freckles speckling the tops of her cheeks. The lenses of her funky blue-framed glasses made watery blue planets of her eyes. She was athletically built but not in a masculine way, her lithe body filling out the snug clothes she was wearing in subtle contours that excited the imagination, especially when leaning over the bar as she was now.

“You know,” I said, hearing the tiredness in my voice. “When I walk with her hand-in-hand down the street, the guys stare like you wouldn’t believe.”

“I bet.”

“But not at her. At me.”

“I see.”

“I can almost hear them thinking, ‘how did a dirt bag like you bag that babe?’”

“I see.”

“You know what though?”

“What?”

“I drink because she talks.”

This made her laugh, a musical laugh like fingers running up and down piano keys. “I’m Ally,” she said extending her hand.

“Ally?” The name of the bar was Ally’s.“You’re the…”

“Owner. Yep, that’s me.”

“Amazing! You’re so young.”

“What do you do… um…?”

“Sorry, Paul. I’m Paul. I’m a pilot.”

“Look who’s talking about being so young.”

“…cleared to land two five nine, hold short three zero,” came the instruction from JFK Control. The cold night skies over New York were more congested than usual and we had been stuck in a prolonged holding pattern circling the airport. I was holding up my phone searching for any imperfections in Ally’s boyfriend’s face.

“Come on, Paul, time to put it down,” said Gary quietly. I had already chewed him out for suggesting I was flying erratically. Or had he actually accused me of being drunk?

“Fine,” I said, putting the phone away, steepling my hands above my crotch, and gazing at One World Trade Centre. One of its eight massive glass and steel isosceles triangles, slicing all the way up through the façade from the 20th to the 102nd floor, was ablaze in blue neon lights. “Like a target,” I mumbled.

“I meant the plane. We’re cleared. Did you hear it? Two five nine, hold short three zero.”

“Disengaging autopilot.”

“Please Paul,” said Gary in a pleading voice. “Please sit this one out. Let me handle it.”

“I got this, Gary,” I snarled, shoving away the hand he had placed on my shoulder. “Notify Control.”

It’s all a blank after that until I woke up on an ambulance stretcher on the runway. Surrounded by flashing emergency vehicles and scurrying EMS workers, the plane was parked at an ungodly angle and all of its evacuation slides had been deployed, their thick rubber orange tongues lolling out on the tarmac. Uninjured passengers were wandering around in a daze. Then I saw it. As though opened up by a giant can opener, there was a gaping serrated hole chewed from the bottom of the plane’s tail section, machine innards dangling from it. I hallucinated for a moment the cockpit windows were melted yellow eyes. Not far away, Gary was talking to a group of police officers and glancing over at me with that pale, doleful face of his. When I tried to get up and go to him, I realized I had been handcuffed to the stretcher’s sidebar.

~

To be continued

*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available athttp://bit.ly/2u7rqcL

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 5), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Angle of Attack: Chapter 4


Chapter 4*

I had known all along that my parents weren’t really my parents. Not only did I bear zero resemblance to either of them, they were both Viking white while I was perpetually bronzed, my skin the approximate hue of a hazelnut. Right up until they died, we shared a tacit ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy by which I never asked, and they never told. It had held ironclad and true even on the occasions when I came home after the word “bastard” had been lofted in my direction in the schoolyard. My parents were real enough to me and besides I had more important things to agonize over, like my freakish penis.

That oblivious willful blindness came to an abrupt end almost immediately after I was packed off to live with my mother’s childless sister, Aunt Carrie. She lived in a shitty little house with faded yellow paint peeling from its melanomic sides. It was located at the edge of the flattened toxic wastes, realm of scavenging otherworldly blackbirds, that stretched out bleakly between West Hillsborough and the airport. From the outside, it had all the character of a storage container while the inside, cluttered with crumbling old furniture, was a spooky candlelit shrine to her husband who had died of lung cancer years before. Framed pictures of his sooty coalminer’s face were mounted on the walls of the musty rooms alongside large, immutably sadistic, crucifixes. I had always despised it and her.

“Go on and say grace now, Paul,” said Aunt Carrie, painfully squeezing my hand as we sat down to our first meal in the gloom of the kitchen, dusk pressing up against the windows, a shoelace of beef flung on a mound of gray mashed potatoes.

“No thanks.”

“It wasn’t a question.”

“I have nothing to say.”

“You will thank our Lord for the food in front of you or I’ll take it away.”

“Fine by me,” I said pushing my plate towards her. “My mom wouldn’t feed this slop to a dog.”

Aunt Carrie stroked the handle of her knife while tapping its blade against the side of her plate. The creased skin around her dull eyes was twitching and she began running the tip of her tongue along the bottom of her uneven teeth, probing at the gaps between as if trying to dislodge foul things stuck there. She leaned across the table, crucifix pendant falling from her throat, pushing before her air that somehow had the metallic odor of dirty coins. “Your mom?”

“Yeah, my mom!” I yelled.

“You listen up,” she said hoarsely, wagging the knife in my face. “Nicole may have spoiled you stupid, but she was never your mother. You know that, right? Sure, you do. What you don’t know is your mother, your real mother, was raped. That’s right. Raped by a black man. Got rid of you the second you were born. You’re nothing. Nothing but a godless… black… bastard… rape child…”

“‘Sup, niggas?” is how I greeted the lanky group of black boys smoking in the parking lot of my new school in West Hillsborough. Over the summer break, long and torturous, Aunt Carrie had so indoctrinated me with the “godless… black… bastard… rape child…” narrative, by the time school started up again in September I was wholly convinced I was evil incarnate, my darker pigmentation the physical manifestation of all that evilness irrepressibly pushing itself up to the surface of me. The boys stared at me, wide-eyed and speechless, as if they had all been simultaneously whacked upside the head with a frying pan. “Got a light?” I asked, a cigarette bouncing with the words from the corner of my mouth.

Never having smoked before, had I received the requested light, I would have buckled over retching and spluttering like a half-drowned person (which is precisely what happened when I did finally take my first puff off a cigarette). Fortunately, upon a signal from their leader, a tall seam of muscle improbably named Harold, I started getting the shit kicked out of me instead.

“Fuck, man! How much abuse can a nigga take?!” I protested from the pavement, rolling around, hugging my head. That question was promptly answered with another furious volley of kicks and punches.

“Hold up, guys. Hold up!” commanded Harold, pushing aside the others and bending over me. The massive afro mushrooming from his head, an array of multicolored hair picks embedded in it, blotted out half the sky. “I thought you looked, familiar,” he said, extending a hand and pulling me to my feet. “You’re that crazy cracker whose parents got blowed up.”

“That’s what I should do!” I said, slapping myself on the knee. “I should look up Harold!”

“What’s that?” said the shaven-headed millennial sitting across from me, pulling a headphone from his ear. Goddamn it, this unconscious talking to myself in public has to stop. Maybe, like this kid staring at me now, I should permanently keep headphones in my ears too. At least then I could pretend to be actually talking to someone.

“Sorry,” I said matter-of-factly, flicking imaginary bits of lint from my shoulder. “I just suddenly remembered I might have a friend here. That’s assuming we don’t all die of old age on this hell train.”

“Right on,” said the kid dryly, reinserting his headphone. He looked away and drummed rhythmically on his beer can with two fingers. His scalp was flecked, not unattractively, with divot-shaped white scars where hair didn’t grow, and I conjured the image of a Lilliputian golfer teeing off from there. Probably more likely he had gone headfirst through the windshield of a car. Whatever misfortune had befallen him, I sat there bitterly envying his youth, soft young features, big healthy oxblood liver, effortlessly summoned hard-on and, suppressing the sudden urge to brain him with the bottle between my feet, I thought of Harold again.

After the beatdown in the parking lot, Harold had accompanied me to the bathroom where I dabbed at my swollen boxer’s face. On the way, I tried explaining to him I was half black. “You crazy, man!” he cried, as he appraised the two of us standing in front of the mirror. “Al Pacino’s blacker than you, honkey! And that crazy long straight hair?!” He really liked the word “crazy” I was coming to realize, and he was right except that my hair, as black as the coffins my parents were buried in, fell in wavy riots around my shoulders and could scarcely be described as “straight”. That didn’t alter the fact that ever since Aunt Carrie had pierced the veil on my lineage, an infernal voice from deep within whispered with greater and greater authority over my enraged denial that it was all true, that there was something wrong and unnatural about me, something cursed that my violent spawning somehow explained.

The final buzzer of the day sounded and, as Harold and I shuffled through the fractured trash-strewn streets, we discovered we lived just around the corner from each other, he in a similarly despairing storage container house. “I got a ping-pong table in my basement if you want to play,” he said. I had never played ping-pong, but I’d have gratefully accepted an offer to watch dust settle in Harold’s basement if it would delay returning to Aunt Carrie’s morbid lair.

“Okay, I know,” he said defensively as I stared at his alleged ping-pong table. It was so battered and cracked and lopsided, the net a tattered nylon rag, it looked as though it had tumbled down a mountainside. “The ball flies at every crazy angle but if you master this table, you’ll be able to kick anyone’s ass. Even those crazy Chinese motherfuckers.” So, we began playing and that was the beginning of a friendship that lasted right up until the day Aunt Carrie sheared off the bottom half of my front tooth with the tip of a hot iron and I ran away from her and West Hillsborough for good.

Aunt Carrie was living proof of the inverse relationship between human goodness and religious fervor. If (human goodness) is inversely proportional to (religious fervor), the equation is of the form = k/(where is a constant, let’s say 60). So, if the equation is = 60/then doubling causes to halve as follows:

x = religious fervor
y = human goodness
1
60
2
30
4
15
8
7.5
16
3.75
…60
…1 (e.g. Aunt Carrie)

“I don’t want you to go,” said Melanie in that plaintive sing-song voice only little girls can deploy, especially when guilt-tripping their fathers. She was sitting up in bed surrounded by an army of stuffies, eyes drooping now that the last of the sugar and adrenaline overload from her birthday party that afternoon was finally washing through her. I had to fly and was feeling vaguely high on acetone having just spent an hour removing the hot pink glitter polish Melanie and her monstrous little friends had applied to both my finger and toe nails after some internal self-preservation mechanism had kicked in, mid-party, allowing me to pass out on the couch in the midst of all the chaos.

“You sit tight,” I said patting her hand and getting up from the edge of the bed. “I have a special something for you. Just from me.”

“I’ll go get it,” said Ally, leaning against the doorjamb, exhausted. She blew away an errant strand of sandy hair fallen from the pinned-up pile atop her head and waved me back down. “You stay with her.”

“What is it?! What is it?!” demanded Melanie, pupils dilating.

Ally returned with the box and Melanie set to tearing off the wrapping paper as if it was the first gift she’d received all day. “A globe!”

“AND a nightlight,” I said. “Here, watch this. If I take this little pin and push it in any city like tha-at… See, it lights up! Push it again and it goes off. So now when I go away, you can always see where I am, even when you wake up in the night.”

“Yay! Where are you going this time?”

“New York to Paris tonight.”

“Aw,” she whined as she illuminated the dots and spun the globe in its sickle-shaped stand. “No fair.”

“No, it is not,” said Ally.

“In the unlikely event everyone, including the air traffic controllers at CDG, hasn’t booked off on a month-long strike protesting some newly enacted labor law…”

“…Paul…”

“…one that so egregiously affronts French sensibilities for daring to require a few scraps of work actually be done in exchange for a big fat pay check and a booklet full of lunch vouchers…”

“…Paul…”

“…only the sacking of the city will do…”

“Paul!” cried Ally, waving one hand in front of my face and pointing at open-mouthed Melanie with the other. “You may as well be speaking Hindi!”

“Mom’s just saying that because she knows the next stop after Paris is New Delhi,” I said, stabbing the city alight with the pin. “The capital of India, a glorious land where cows have right of way.”

“So far away,” said Melanie in a faraway voice. “On the other side of the world.”

“But what happens if you keep going on past the other side of the world?” I asked as I slowly dragged my fingertip across Nepal, China, Japan, out over the Pacific. As it passed by Hawaii on the way to California, she smiled broadly, an all gums hockey smile ever since the Tooth Fairy had come knocking.

“You’re getting closer!”

“Exactly!” I said, taking back my faux military capand kissing the top of her Pippi Longstocking head. “So, as soon as I leave you, really I’m already on my way back home. Always on my way back home to you.” This was a total conceit (was it even me who had said the words?) but it had Melanie making gurgling noises and Ally wiping away happy tears.

   →                                              ↻

Rightwards Arrow                        vs.                         Clockwise open circle arrow

Over time, I was even accepted by Harold’s posse. “But don’t you ever call any of us nigga, nigga,” he had warned with lethal intensity, poking me hard in the middle of the chest. The memory of this unapologetic hypocrisy made me smile and I realized the kid sitting across from me had once again pulled a headphone from his ear, eyebrow raised.

“Really? Again?” I said.

“I guess your friend’s name is Harold.”

“Yes,” I sighed. “Yes, it is.” I didn’t know it at the time, but it was Harold who was being scooped up into plastic bags under flashlights in the darkness outside the train’s windows which, from the inside, bounced back the oblique forms of the drinkers, their flushed faces like Munchian apparitions in funhouse mirrors.

~

To be continued

*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available athttp://bit.ly/2u7rqcL

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 4), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Angle of Attack: Chapter 3


Chapter 3*

My parents had been driving back from the city after one of my father’s post-traumatic stress disorder sessions at the VA hospital. This was in the days before PTSD had even been coined as a term of art and was still typically, at least in the context of war veterans, referred to as “shellshock”. It was a jarring diagnosis for my father since he had been the one dropping shells from above to the shock of those below. It also probably did little for his psychological equilibrium having to pass through the burnt and broken bodies wing of the hospital on the way to the burnt and broken minds wing where he recounted his experiences at the Hanoi Hilton. Perhaps he could better be described as having suffered from “empathetic reverse shell shock” but I’m guessing, even in these ‘heady’ 21st Century days, ERSS won’t gain much traction as an acronym in the psychiatric community.

Almost home, they were approaching the narrow 19th Century overpass, nicknamed the Tightrope, that linked East Hillsborough, the wealthy “hill” where helicopter moms fought off boredom while the kids were at school with wine and/or affairs behind the thick curtains of mortgage free houses set back from the treelined streets on leafy well-manicured lawns, to West Hillsborough, the not so wealthy “hill” where fried chicken eating husbands sat out on decrepit bungalow porches complaining about the fried chicken eating blacks, a shotgun in one hand and a bible in the other.

Then it happened: an air-to-surface projectile randomly fell out of the sky and smacked into the car’s windshield at just the right angle and velocity to pierce both it and my father’s skull. Either already dead or unconscious, he reflexively stamped on the gas and veered into an oncoming tanker loaded with ammonium nitrate. The explosion was powerful enough to rattle the windows of my school’s lunchroom and, as we swung around to watch the fist-shaped fireball punch up into the belly of the cloudless sky, I didn’t realize that my childhood had just been extinguished, its ashes blasted high up into the blue with all that swirling black smoke. That I would never know any real comfort or contentment again until so many years later when I finally met Ally.

The train had ground to a halt alongside the Tightrope. The rain had let up and under the diluted late-afternoon sunlight struggling through moody clouds, I could still make out faint scorch marks on some of the old stones, the ones that hadn’t crumbled and melted in the inferno. At the time, some witnesses came forward and reported seeing a tall white boy, face concealed by the bill of a ballcap, heave a rock from the Tightrope and flee towards East Hillsborough, barely escaping the explosion himself. In the weeks that followed the police questioned a handful of tall white boys with no alibis, but no arrests were ever made.

The intercom crackled to life, snapping me out of it:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that we have stopped here because it seems our train has collided with something on the tracks (some sideways knucklehead has used our train to commit suicide)… CRACKLE CRACKLE CRACKLE…

…The police are on their way to investigate (tape off the area, confirm it’s not a crime scene, and bag up all the body parts for the coroner’s office)… CRACKLE CRACKLE CRACKLE…

…We have been informed this will be done as quickly and efficiently as possible and then we’ll be on our way again (we’ll be stuck here for hours)… CRACKLE CRACKLE CRACKLE…

…We will keep you updated on the situation and do our best to make you comfortable while we’re waiting (but we’re not offering free drinks just yet so don’t go stampeding to the bar car causing any more unnecessary death).”

A collective groan went up in the bar car. Or was that just me? No, a few more people, faces weary and sallow in the poor light, had trickled in as the day had worn on with an interminability, now confirmed, that demanded a sharpener. They reached for their phones and started tapping away, no doubt complaining bitterly to whoever was waiting for them. No one was waiting for me, but I got my phone out anyway and opened Google Maps. Fuck, I was so close to the cabin I had rented I could almost walk the rest of the way from here.

“Say, how much is left in the bottle?” I asked the bartender. He thumped it down before me, spat something black and indistinguishable into a wastebasket and, folding his arms across his reedy chest, squeezed from it a judgmental a-hem cough. “I’m guessing you don’t do kids parties, do you?” I said absently as I crouched to ascertain the level in the bottle.

“What?” he hissed, eyes narrowing to knife wound slits.

I raised placatory hands and said, “Listen, how about I give you fifty bucks for that and then I won’t need to bother you again.”

Now his eyes opened wide, blinking slowly as if awaking from a coma. “Wait a minute. I seen you before,” he said, leaning over the bar and pushing his harrowing face up into mine. I took a step back. His breath smelled like an armpit. “It is you. I know who you are?”

“Well kindly enlighten me,” I said irritably. “Because I have no idea.”

“I seen you on the news. You’re that pilot. The one who almost got all those people killed.”

My parents were buried in the East Hillsborough Cemetery late in the afternoon on a cold sunny day, blustery winds chasing stray clouds from the hard-blue sky and roiling the pink blooms on the dogwoods. There were two full-length black coffins, brass handles flashing in the sunlight, prepared to be lowered into graves set next to one another. There wasn’t much in either: a jawbone, spine, and some knee fragments in my father’s; a couple of ribs, a femur, and a shard of pelvis in my mother’s. Their combined remains wouldn’t have filled a coffin made for an infant.

As they slowly descended, the church bell ominously bonged off the hour while a wizened old priest, not long for the grave himself, intoned in a cement mixer voice “…for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return…”, I was suddenly dizzy from a seismic movement deep within my chest cavity and almost fell in after one. It just couldn’t be true. Just last Sunday, the three of us had been sitting in the bright sunroom, drowning pancakes in Canadian maple syrup, my father pitching the route for our road trip through the Midwest to the Ozarks where we rented a cottage each summer. How could they now just be charred bones locked up in those awful boxes slowly going down, deeper and deeper, into those awful dark holes?

Dust thou art… No, it was not possible this was happening. Everything around me was so alive, somehow in sharpened focus and warped at the same time: the glorious trees, the birds prattling in their branches, the young leaves, the bright bursts of flowers, the thick grass, the damp green moss spreading out over fading epitaphs on the old cracked tombstones, the ladybug zigzagging in panicked confusion across the toe of my shoe, the sniffling sounds of sorrow. How could it all just go marching on without them? And wouldn’t it be so cold and lonesome here at night, silent but for whispering breezes?

I felt a strong hand grip my shoulder, steadying me. “You alright there, Paul?” I looked up into the gentle gaze of one of my father’s old air force pals, a towering old warrior glittering in full uniform.

“Where are they?” I said in a tiny voice not my own and I realized that, for the first time since the principal of my school had called me into his office to tell me after much clearing of his throat “something’s happened”, I was starting to cry.

He knelt before me and pointed at one of the medals pinned above the breast pocket of my jacket. “You know that one’s the Air Force Cross, right?” I nodded uncertainly. “Your father got it because he was a very, very brave man. Think you can be brave now, son?” I nodded even more uncertainly, not sure if I was even really there, as the miniature bulldozers came to life, beeping and whirring, and pushed the mounds of soil and rock on top of the coffins in thundering avalanches.

“I just want to know where they are.”

“Do you want to be buried or cremated when you die?”

“What kind of question is that from a child at bedtime?” cried my mother as she tucked me in.

“I want to be cremated for sure.”

“What?”

“I was watching a show tonight with dad about coffins getting dug up with scratch marks and broken fingernails on the inside.”

Massaging her temples, she said, “As soon as this ‘conversation’ – she put air quotes around the word – “is over, I’m going to be having words with your father.”

“Imagine that, huh?! Buried alive by accident! Waking up in a box 6 feet under! Trying to scratch your way out! Nightmare!”

“Paul…”

“And then when you finally really die, worms crawling out your rotting eyeballs?! No way! I’m going to get cremated for sure!

“Paul!!!”

“I guess they don’t have to worry about waking up down there. Or worms…”

The B-52 Stratofortress bomber was developed between the late 1940s and early 1950s, entering active service in 1955. From 2013 to 2015, it underwent extensive upgrading with modernized electronics, communications technology, computing, and avionics on the flight deck. The fleet is now expected to serve on at least until the 2050s, possibly decades longer. The current life expectancy of an American is 78.69 years not taking into account human upgrades being developed. The annual U.S. suicide rate increased 24% between 1999 and 2014. The B-52 is immune to suicidal tendencies but not always to surface-to-air missiles.

The tinted windows of my hotel room looked down onto the yawning international terminal where hundreds of passengers were milling around, strangers all together in one place for the only time ever before, like a bag of ball bearings emptied upon a floor, scattering in every direction all over the world. In the background, behind the terminal’s wraparound glass, the huge long-haul planes crawled to and fro, engines roaring occasionally as if in protest to the sluggish pace. Soon I would be flying one straight westward into the glob of sun melting on the horizon, chasing the daylight all the way back to New York.

I opened Instagram on my phone again and stared at the picture, swallowing hard around the great lump in my throat. It was a funkily filtered sideways shot of Ally, remarkably the first one she had ever posted of herself on any social media. Even more remarkably, shielding her perfect undemanding breasts with her forearm, she was topless. Her other arm was holding a younger man’s jubilant face, scruffily bearded in the fashionable Game of Thrones style, to her cannonball-sized belly. She wore a wry smile, vampiric canines as seductive as ever, eyes blazing defiantly right into the camera. I read aloud the caption for the hundredth time:

5 months in! What a happy daddy! 😍😍😍

She may as well have written “This one’s for you, Paul, you lying piece of shit. Maybe now you can leave me alone?” It was only then it occurred to me the picture wasn’t a selfie. Who in the world would Ally have allowed to take that? Then I went cold and drained my glass. I scrolled through all the ‘likes’, half of them from mutual friends no longer mutual, each one a cut with a salted blade, and there she was. Melanie. Scrolling through the nauseating comments now, there she was again: “Awesome pic mom! 😍Even if I do say so myself! 😉”

I felt like I was going to pass out, just like at my parents’ funeral. I didn’t bother refilling my glass. I just chugged straight from the bottle and began writing comments, all of which I still somehow had the clarity of mind to delete before posting:

  • Aren’t you too old for this? [no, Julianne Robbins was half your age]
  • What about the Huntington’s? [no, she obviously finally got tested just to spite you]
  • Why didn’t you tell me? [no, she just has told you… with a sledgehammer]
  • How could you do this to me, Ally? [no, god no]
  • How does Melanie feel about this? [no, Melanie took the goddamn picture]
  • I FUCKING HATE YOU AND HOPE YOU DIE YOU HORRIBLE SLUT!!! [no, that could end up being read by a judge]

The cursor was blinking in the empty comments box when I glanced at my watch and almost cried out. If I didn’t leave that instant, I would delay the flight. I had run out of time to undertake my usual breath-killing ritual of ordering up an oniony burger from room service, camel chewing each mouthful slowly and deliberately, vigorously brushing my teeth after. On top of it, I had drunk more than triple what I usually drank before flying. “Too bad,” I muttered, wiping grief debris from my face, “thing flies itself anyway.” I loaded my mouth with mints, straightened my tie and cap in front of the bathroom mirror (the deranged face staring back at me a stranger’s), grabbed my bags, and unsteadily made my way down to the lobby to check out.

~

To be continued…

*Previous chapters of The Angle of Attack are available at: http://bit.ly/2u7rqcL

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 3), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Angle of Attack: Chapter 2


Chapter 2*

“Ve’ll be zerrre soon, Kyaptain,” said my relentlessly young Uber driver in a thick Russian accent. He was blinking at me nervously in the rearview, face aglow in the dashboard lights, as if I was a cop who was on to him. It was the uniform. The cheap polyester blazer with four yellow stripes inexpertly stitched above the wrists. The cheap plastic wings pinned above the breast pocket. The faux military cap emblazoned with more plastic wings, its visor lined with plastic yellow fern leaves. And all that plastic cheapness never failed to impart an unreal, almost mystical authority upon me. I found it intoxicating but, whenever I strode through airports under the glassy-eyed reverential gaze of passengers hungry to see confidence oozing from the demigod they would soon entrust their lives with, I could never quite shake the uneasy feeling I was an imposter, a fraud.

“Relax, kid. Where in Russia are you from?”

He took on the bewildered look of a child who has just been slapped and stammered, “I… I’m Polish.”

I cursed myself under my breath. Despite all the travel, I was hopeless with Slavic accents and should have known better. “Of course, you are!” I said brightly and, rather than quit while I was behind, continued, “you know, from my experience during layovers in Warsaw, you guys are far superior vodka drinkers to your Russian counterparts…” My voice trailed off as I only now noticed what it was dangling from the rearview: an AA issued sobriety coin and, judging by the intensity with which the kid was glaring back at me, I wondered vaguely if I was about to be driven to an abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of town and mounted on a rusting meat hook.

My phone binged. It was my wife:

Ally: Are you coming or what? (Strange. She sounds irritable.)

Paul [that’s me, that’s my name, Paul]: Got snarled in some traffic. Driver says there soon. I think he may be the youngest AA member who ever lived…

Ally: OK. (Curt and uninterested. I’ve been gone for days now. Try a heart.)

Paul: ❤

Ally: I’m waiting. (So much for that.)

Paul: ❤❤❤

Ally went offline and I stared at my phone frowning. We broke free of the traffic just then and sped breakneck across the bridge, the glittering wedge of city steadily magnifying in the windscreen, the dark river below. I checked my seatbelt and held on to it until we swung to an abrupt halt in front of my house. The driver, stony-faced, popped the trunk for me to get my things myself. The moment I closed it, he raced off as if he couldn’t put enough distance between himself and me.

The house was in total darkness but for the faint blue TV light flickering around the edges of the living room blinds.

“Ally?” I called tentatively, as the front door clicked shut behind me. “Melanie?” No response except for the grunting and groaning noises coming from behind the closed doors of the living room. I dropped my bags and walked towards them, zombie-like. Ally was sitting up ramrod straight on the couch, hands folded in her lap, staring impassively at the TV which was connected to her laptop. The girl’s face occupied most of the screen, a faux military cap perched at a lopsided angle on her head, the man behind her holding up a phone in one hand, the other resting in the curved small of her back. “Does your wife let you do this?” gurgled the girl whose scrunched-up face froze as Ally leaned forward and paused the video.

I collapsed on the couch, confused. Ally turned to me slowly, like she was being operated via remote control, and asked robotically, “did you ever give that girl a truthful answer to her question?”

“That’s not me,” I said, hearing an alien shrillness in my voice. I was pointing at the TV like the prosecutor had pointed at me during his closing arguments. My neck whiplashed sideways, and blood rushed to a burning hand shape on the side of my face.

Ally’s eyes were big and wet and wide and beautiful. “Goodbye, Paul, or whoever you are,” she said.

“…or whoever you are,” I whispered, the clouds beginning to wring themselves out again, pelting the windows with hard rain as the train gathered speed between the sleepy towns of eastern Pennsylvania. I glanced down at my watch and the needle of the second hand struggled slowly across my reflection like time was slowing down. My glass was almost empty again and I stood up to go see if the surly bartender was still alive somewhere.

“Almost got it,” I muttered emerging from the flight simulator I had had installed at grotesque expense in “Daddy’s Space”, an oversized windowless closet at the dusty end of the house which contained only the simulator and a narrow desk with nothing on it but a grotesquely expensive laptop I rarely used.

“Ah-ha!” my freckle-faced daughter shouted gleefully pouncing out of the woodwork behind me and pointing at the beer dangling from my fingertips.

“Jesus, FUCK!” I bellowed, startled half out of my wits.

“You lose! And you swore! I’m getting the clippers!”

“Beer doesn’t count, Mel!” I cried after her as she galloped from the room shaking her fists over her head, a wake of dancing ponytail disappearing around the door.

A few minutes later I was sitting shirtless in a chair in front of Ally’s floor-length mirror as thick whorls of black hair were shorn from my head, the clippers buzzing away like angry bees. I watched longingly as they slowly descended, oscillating in gentle arcs as if attached to miniature invisible parachutes, and landed softly in the cheerful lemon bars of afternoon sunlight cast across the wood flooring. I stared at Ally’s reflection in the mirror. She was simultaneously grinning and biting down on a knuckle as she observed my bovine grooming in the background.

“Don’t look at me like that,” she said, ironing her slender sides with the palms of her hands. “A bet’s a bet and Melanie’s right: beer is NOT a soft drink.”

Later that night, after Melanie had gone to bed, I stood in front of the bulb-bordered mirror in the ensuite bathroom as Ally stroked the stubble on my scalp. It was so short it wouldn’t have passed for a five o’clock shadow. She kissed my cheek with her soft, full lips and said, “you know, I kind of like it. Just can’t decide if you look more like a convict or a soldier.”

This eked a smile out of me, the gold crown on my front tooth glinting malignantly. I raised an eyebrow. “Which do you like better?”

Ally pushed up her chin with her forefinger and appraised the ceiling slightly cross-eyed. “I think that’ll depend on my mood,” she concluded after a moment. Wriggling out of her nightdress, a graceful heap of collapsed satin around her ankles, she led me by the hand into the bedroom. “But I want convict tonight”.

As I followed her leonine body, gym-toned muscles shifting like pack ice under unblemished skin which had always smelled faintly of flowers to me, my mouth literally watered in anticipation.

On 25 July 2000 in Paris, supersonic passenger airliner Concorde commenced takeoff bound for New York City. Unbeknownst to anyone, a titanium alloy strip had randomly fallen out of the sky onto the runway from a previous flight. One of Concorde’s tires sped over it sending tire debris hurtling at 140 meters per second into the underside of the plane’s wing which, moments later, exploded with such intensity it began to melt. Two minutes after takeoff, all that was left of Concorde and its occupants was an angry black scar carved out of the French countryside where a hotel once stood. On 8 January 2011 in Arizona, U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords was shot through the brain at point blank range with a 9mm pistol. Three months later, she was on her feet and coherent enough to travel to Florida to watch her astronaut husband blasted into space on the final mission of the space shuttle program (which had never fully recovered after the contrails of Columbia’s flaming wreckage fanned out over clear blue Texan skies seven years prior).

“My god, Paul! What are you doing?!” shrieked my mother bursting through the door. I was holding my foreskin between the blades of a pair of scissors. My mother pried them from my hand, and they went clattering across the floor. “Why, Paul? Why?” she sobbed kneeling in front of me clutching my shoulders.

In fits and starts, I told her how my elementary school gym teacher Mr. Brennen, a pink-skinned man with twitchy bottle-green eyes and ludicrous waxed mustache, made the boys take off their swim suits before showering while he watched. How all the other boys, with their shiny little helmet knobs, hooted and howled at my wrinkly anteater snout. How they had started calling me “Smegma” [defn. smegma noun: a sebaceous secretion in the folds of the skin, especially under a man’s foreskin]. How I had to lock myself into the bathroom stall just to piss, kicking all the while at the vile leering heads poking up beneath the door. How I was sure that the girls knew too because they had started snickering and pointing when I passed them in the hallways. How different and alone I was, an outcast.

“Why am I deformed like this, mom?”

“Deformed?” she whispered, her kindly old face riven by a network of anguished lines as if the bones beneath them were slowly breaking.

I’m not sure how she managed it but the next day Mr. Brennen pulled out of the school’s parking lot, to embark on an “extended leave of absence”, in a car that looked like it had been mauled by Godzilla and I was permanently exempted from the pool. From somewhere on high, my tormentors had been issued cease and desist orders and the severity of the punishment for violating them must have been biblical because now they blanched and shuffled away whenever they saw me coming.

Not long after that, I stumbled headfirst into the dismal abyss of puberty but experienced a joyous epiphany one afternoon while poring over a hardcore porno mag I had found discarded in a deserted parking lot: an aroused uncircumcised penis is indistinguishable from its circumcised counterpart. Boom! It was suddenly a world of possibility. Up until that moment, I had imagined that at whatever obscure point in the future a girl might dare intimacy with me, she would flee screaming for the hills as if having borne witness to the genitals of the Elephant Man. No longer…

“Still, to this day I have not once returned to a swimming pool. That reek of chlorine. Those hollow water noises. The chill…” I rolled over and realized the girl had fallen back asleep during my rambling, half-conscious monologue prompted by her drowsily murmuring something about going for a swim later. Over her shoulder, as still as death, snow-blanketed Mont Royal was mistily sketched in her window, pigeons cooing contentedly on the balcony. The snow storm had stranded me in Montreal, and I ended up getting a ticket to the hockey game where I had met her, a wholesome young grad student wholesomely named Julianne Robbins who turned out to have a serious thing for middle-age pilots stranded in Montreal.

I sat up on the side of the bed, sticky head clogged with cotton and mouth as rough as sandpaper. I rubbed the sleep gunk from my eyes and appraised the clothes littered around the bed. Amongst them were empty beer bottles and two boxes containing the congealed remains of smoked meat poutine. Suddenly wracked with all too familiar guilt, the unholy slurry of French fries, gravy, smoked meat, and alcohol lurched in my outraged stomach. I need a shower. I need to wash her off me. Under scalding hot water. Once she’s off me it will have never happened. I held my head in my hands. Where do all these dark appetites come from?

Little did I know that earlier that morning, while I was still passed out, wholesome young Julianne Robbins had opened my phone with my thumbprint and sent Ally a sex tape from the night before which I had yet to remember even making.

~

To be continued…

*Chapter 1 of The Angle of Attack is available at: http://bit.ly/2GAO9FE

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 2), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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The Angle of Attack: Chapter 1


Chapter 1

My license having been revoked pending my sentencing hearing, I sat in the bar car of the train lazily roaming westwards from New York City. It would stop at every speck on the map between there and my home town, so I had ordered a double in bleary anticipation of the long monotonous hours ahead. I churned the ice cubes I hadn’t asked for with an obnoxious pink flamingo swizzle stick I especially hadn’t asked for. They popped and collapsed and hemorrhaged greasy slicks of water, polluting the honey-brown liquor, and reflected distorted fragments of my sullen face back at me. I sighed, put the glass to my lips, and drained it in a series of slow swallows that ended with my face uptilted towards the ceiling where someone had somehow managed to sharpie the inspired words “You suck”.

“Another Jack,” I croaked at the bartender, all fumes and watering eyes. “And no rocks this time, please.” He scowled, his face an array of protruding bones draped in slack old man skin, and flung a bar towel over his shoulder as if this was the most exasperating request he’d ever encountered in his bartending career.

I shrugged and pushed the glass of defeated ice towards him. I ground the plastic head of the flamingo between my molars and the sharp end of the swizzle stick busily sketched abstractions in the air in front of my mouth. I felt eyes on me and turned to look down the bar. A curvy woman, with feathery strawberry hair and carefully applied makeup that successfully camouflaged her age, had installed herself at the end. She was peering at me, bemused, over the frames of dark purple sunglasses parked halfway down her nose. She re-crossed her legs under a short denim skirt and angled herself more in my direction. “Cheers,” she mouthed through a brightly lipsticked half-smile, raising her glass.

“Cheers,” I mouthed back, holding up an imaginary glass. She struck me as the kind of woman who likes to be spanked. Not all that long ago, a different version of me would have gone over to her, said “you look like the kind of woman who likes to be spanked” and let the chips fall where they may. Instead, I pretended my phone was urgently communicating with me and started patting myself down until I found it. I opened SMS, reread the last message (a nuclear bit of vitriol from my ex-wife) and then began earnestly tapping at the screen. Here is what I wrote:

Phxhv dhbxbbhd sjchdjrh chhehdh

dhcggdjcg dhdgdjcn dhhdjchhf

ffhdncf fjduhdj jdfhcbdjf fhfhfcjfndn

I paused when, from the corner of my eye, I saw the woman push her glasses back over her eyes and cross her legs away from me again, chin lifted as if something slightly rank had infected the air. Tapping out a little more gibberish for authenticity’s sake, I momentarily contemplated sending it, thought the better of it and put the phone away.

“Okay now, buddy,” snarled the bartender, bowing his head as he delivered my fresh drink cupped in both hands.

“Great,” I said. “I’d love another one of these though,” I added, extricating the swizzle stick from my mouth and placing it on the bar before him, the flamingoes’ head unrecognizable and foamy, like a spat-out wad of bubble gum. A blue vein inflated from where the bartender once had a hairline. I watched it pulsate through its lightning strike structure and said, “I’ll be sitting just over there.”

It was late fall and the dreary, sodden landscape appeared slightly melted through the rain spatters streaking across the train’s grimy window. In the near distance, the corroded carcass of a steel mill loomed over a town blighted by its shuttering, the liquefied colors of winking traffic lights regulating empty streets. A man in overalls and tattered red ballcap was wandering through a junkyard strewn with cannibalized vehicles, a scrawny German Shepherd at his side.

“At least he’s free,” I accidentally said out loud. Biting my lip, I looked around. No one had heard me and the woman at the bar had vanished. It crossed my mind that perhaps she’d never actually been there at all. I sighed. A month from now, just before Christmas, I would almost certainly be locked up. Perhaps for as long as 15 years my lawyer had forewarned me ashen-faced.

Here’s the only truth that now existed for me: I would rather die than go to jail.

My father had been the pilot of a sky-blackening pterodactyl, also known as a B-52 Stratofortress bomber, in Vietnam. During a mission in late 1972, a surface-to-air missile appeared out of nowhere and blew the belly out of his pterodactyl at 35,000 feet. As the burning wreck lurched into a nosedive, he and another crew member who hadn’t been incinerated bailed out from the flames into air so frigid they lost consciousness until waking up as POWs in the Hanoi Hilton. At least, that’s how he told it.

He said he wasn’t tortured, or even beaten much, after his capture. The war was getting long in the tooth and the guards seemed too weary to bother. Instead they threw him in a cell, about the size of a Parisian birdcage elevator, with a black infantryman drafted out of Compton and assumed the next morning one or both of them would be dead. Irritated to instead discover the two of them sharing cigarettes, they were separated after a swift rifle butt each to the face.

Over the next few weeks, before his release, my father was forced to look at photographs and watch films of North Vietnamese civilians who had been scorched into distorted, peeling shapes by American bombs.

“You do that! You do that!” they shouted in his ears and he would have rathered they shove sharpened bamboo shoots under his fingernails than show him more pictures.

When he came home from the war, he retired from the air force, buried his medals at the bottom of a footlocker, and never flew again. But he loved building model airplanes with me in the basement of our house, which smelled gorgeously of glue and turpentine, dreamily listing all their specifications and capabilities.

“I want to be a pilot too,” I declared one wintery afternoon as the old furnace clanged and groaned in the corner. I was only about 9 years-old but I think to this day that’s probably the most honest, heartfelt thing I’ve ever said in my life.

“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be, son,” he said, stroking a salt-and-pepper beard with long fingers, his eyes warm pools of kindness. “And do yourself a favor: stick to the civilian service.”

If a standard aluminum pop can was scaled proportionally to a cylinder of diameter and length equal to the fuselage of a Boeing 737, the aircraft’s skin would be about half to a quarter of the thickness of the pop can wall thickness; less than 1 millimeter. Nevertheless, the high electrical conductivity of aluminum will dissipate a direct lightning strike through an aircraft’s fuselage without causing any damage. The average thickness of human skin is .1 millimeters, but human skin is not made of aluminum and humans make for lousy lightning conductors.

I got my pilot’s license at the age of 19 and embarked on what my attorney had described to a deadpan jury as “a long and distinguished career during which he logged more than 22,000 hours of flight time”. A less hackneyed and more accurate appraisal would have been “a lonesome and mostly uneventful job almost all of which was performed by advanced computer systems”.

I read once that the number one enemy of a soldier consigned to the Western Front in World War I was sheer boredom only rarely punctuated by the sheer terror of battle when the sky rained blood and mud. Even though the chances of being blown to pieces, either in whole or in part, were approximately 1 in 3 during these brief interludes, the soldier, turbo-charged with pure adrenaline, never felt more primally alive.

I could relate to this somehow. It’s how I felt when my boredom flying was interrupted by storms and heavy turbulence that required me to take manual control. On one occasion a few ago, when I took off from JFK captaining a fully loaded Airbus A330, an unnoticed bird strike caused a fuel leak and, when both engines flamed out in quick succession halfway across the Atlantic, I found myself in charge of the most massive glider in the history of aviation.

“I think my balls just retracted,” muttered my copilot turning to me with a constipated face. “I mean, like, totally inside me”. At age 34, he had prematurely lost all his hair (perhaps due to his fear of flying) but for a ginger flecked monk fringe and, in the sudden blackness of the cockpit, his skull loomed like a translucent skin bulb under the bursting white stars action painted across the cockpit’s narrow wraparound windows.

“Better re-lower that gear, Gary. I’m going to need you,” I said popping a minibar bottle I had swiped from my hotel. Gary pursed his lips and pushed on his groin.

Although primary hydraulic power had been lost, normally the kiss of death for a plane and a pilot’s worst nightmare, the wing slats were still operational and the Azores Islands were only 150 nautical miles away. Turbo-charged with pure adrenaline and immune to the ghost wailing of passengers emanating up from the cabin, for the next 20 minutes I fought the dark silent machine’s instincts to plunge, barked instructions at sweating ball-less Gary, and thumped it down at Lajes Air Base just as the orange fire of dawn erupted from the horizon and burned down the cold North Atlantic night.

When the plane finally came to a juddering halt just before slipping off the end of the runway, I looked down and realized I had a tremendous erection. Gary slumped over his console, farted loudly, and cried.

It had been a spectacular sideways landing and, even though it was international news for a day or two and a clear cell phone video of it went viral on YouTube, I wasn’t quite hero enough for a movie to be named after me starring Tom Hanks and directed by Clint Eastwood. I was nonetheless rewarded with quite an extra dollop of adoration from my family. When I called my wife from Lajes she shrieked “I love you, I love you, I love you!” so loudly I had to hold the phone away from my ear. When I got home, my daughter followed me around the house gazing at me in wonder, chin in her hands, even when I sat on the edge of the bathtub digging wax out of my ears with a Q-tip.

A large flock of birds burst from the dense woods of the Blue Ridge foothills, as if fleeing the sudden appearance of something monstrous, and raced scattershot across the damp slate sky. It occurred to me, as I watched them disappear into the mist through the train window, that my attorney hadn’t once worked the Lajes landing angle at my trial. My heart sank as the train rocked and clackety-clacked. Is it possible I actually forgot to tell him about that?

~

To be continued

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Angle of Attack: Chapter 1), 2019. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2019 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Night Vision


“…and that’s exactly when all the lights came back on!” my older brother Phil chortled, ironing the crimson tablecloth on either side of his plate with large powerful hands topped with patches of rugged black hair, a thick gold bracelet dangling loosely from one of his unbreakable wrists. Because every last detail just has to scream gangsterish masculinity, I thought as the rest of the table snickered and giggled at Phil’s story, its lewdness only insinuated and so just falling within the parameters of appropriateness for a Christmas Eve dinner at which kids are present. My kids, specifically.

He had always had a knack for that, Phil. Pushing the envelope just enough to reasonably assure his audience, usually a gaggle of fawning women, he was a bad ass, but one with a vulnerable aw-gee-shucks heart. After all, here was a guy who not so long ago had been juggling two different women and when he sent the wrong text to the wrong woman and they found out about each other, rather than getting his balls kicked in as justice would normally dictate, they showed up on his doorstep arm-in-arm and treated him to a threesome. Little did he know that earlier in the fall, I had planned to murder him.

I glanced over at my wife, Judith. She was smiling at Phil, a crimson flush creeping up from the nick of cleavage at the flat neckline of her black dress and mottling her slender white throat. That slightly twisted shy smile belying a ravenous sexual appetite and adventurousness I had thought, until we started dating in college, only existed within the confines of my porn-inspired fantasies. It had permanently smitten me and now as she deployed it on my brother, in combination with blinking doe-eyes, a frenzied buzzing noise, like enraged bees swarming from a batted hive, began to fill my ears.

“Hey Dave, you got one of those itty-bitty bones stuck in your throat or what?” asked Phil’s latest girlfriend, Shelly. Allegedly a successful interior designer, the gaudy orange bangles on her anorexic wrist sang metallically as she waved ludicrously from across the table like a castaway. “You look a little peaked.”

“Yeah, Dad!” chirped my daughter who, normally all grunting teenage sullenness, had gleefully underwritten every spurious assertion Shelly had uttered over the course of the meal. Having discovered in one another a kindred vegan spirit, the pair had united in sanctimoniously boycotting my turkey and lamented its devastated remains now relegated to the end of the table where my mother used to sit.

“I’m just fine, Connie,” I said tersely while contradictorily shaking my head in an effort to dissipate the sordid images occupying it.

With her hands stuffed up her sleeves again, making a straitjacket of her hoodie (why did she always have to do that?), Connie said smugly, “it’s called karma, dad.” My son, Malcolm, only a year younger than his sister, snorted derisively at this, hacked a long flap of flesh from the turkey’s dismembered leg, and earned an appreciative nod from me by stuffing the whole thing into his mouth and making smacking sounds with his lips as he chewed predatorially.

“That’s not nice Malcolm,” Judith admonished half-heartedly. Malcolm looked to me and there it flashed once again. I had only first noticed it at a pool party Judith had hosted the summer prior. A broad toothy smile pushed out from a handsomely beefy face, he was in that fleeting moment (those teeth!) the spitting image of my brother who, himself, was the reincarnation of J.F.K.

In the weeks following the party I became convinced that my brilliant beautiful son, already getting rich identifying software bugs and vulnerabilities for big tech companies, not to mention the drones under construction in the garage, was actually Judith and Phil’s 15-year-old love child and resolved to prove it. But the test had exonerated Phil. Malcolm was my son after all. But the rage that had been consuming me went unabated with the news and as I gazed upon Phil now, sitting across from me with his hand in Shelley’s lap under the tablecloth, almost certainly molesting her judging from the strange alertness on her face, I fought to suppress the urge to ask Malcolm to hand me the carving knife so I could plunge it heel-deep into the slackening folds of his stocky throat.

“…and that’s exactly when all the lights came back on!” guffawed my brother-in-law Phil after reciting yet another thinly veiled sexual boast from a seemingly inexhaustible catalog. His boneyard new girlfriend, Shelley, who donned a ridiculous flapper wig with a silver sequined headband and smelled like stale cigarettes, exchanged rolling eyes with my sulky daughter Connie. Still, it was an amusing enough anecdote and we all laughed. Except for Dave, my husband. He remained stony quiet and seemed somehow transfixed by Phil’s builders’ hands pawing the tablecloth, the oily bristles bedecking them as appealing as unwashed pubic hair.

As fond as I was of Phil, I marveled again at his endless parade of younger women. Even the ones who weren’t exactly the pick of the litter (Shelley was a good example) were “doable” as men would say, usually with careers. What did they see in him? He was nothing standing next to Dave and I cold shuddered at the thought of those simian hands on me. I banished it with one of how Dave had been fucking me these past months. He’d always been terrific in bed but the sheer aggressive desperation of it these days was simply thrilling. I even had to get the legs of our bed bolted to the floor after it got dragged clear across the bedroom one night and we had to face our kids, too aghast to speak, at the breakfast table the next morning.

Snapping out of it, I realized I had been gawking schoolgirl-like at Phil as if he had swapped heads with Dave. Turning to real Dave, he had all the look of a man having his skull slowly crushed in a vice and Shelley said something brainless about him choking on a turkey bone. This was also new and less welcome. The first time had been during a pool party I hosted last summer. I was watching him watch our son Malcolm slinking along the diving board, arms outstretched in preparation for a dramatic leap, the swelling pride in his face suddenly dissolving into the same death mask he wore now. At the time I wondered if he’d suddenly, finally, come to the realization that his son was gay and an artery had exploded in his chest.

Dave was okay but later that night I walked in on him in the bathroom plucking strands of hair from Malcolm’s hairbrush and holding them up to the mirror light as if they were photo negatives. He was in such a state of squinting concentration, he hadn’t even noticed me come in.

“What the hell are you doing?”

“Jesus Christ!” he almost shouted, whirling around. “Don’t do that!”

“I repeat, what the hell are you doing, Dave?”

“Nothing. Just looking,” he said, shuffling his feet.

“Just looking? For what? Lice?”

“Looking for nothing, Judith,” he said firmly, a hint of menace in his voice. He held the flat back of the hairbrush up to my face like a microphone and said, “And don’t sneak up like that again, or I’ll pull up that nightdress and take this thing to your ass.” This made me laugh and I kissed him on the mouth. But he pulled away, his face a peculiar blend of horniness, sadness, and anger. “I got to get out of here for a bit,” he muttered, shaking a filament of Malcolm’s hair, still statically clinging to the end of his finger, into the toilet bowl. “I need some air.”

With that he abruptly left the house and drove off and I didn’t hear the crunch of gravel under tires, signaling his return, until long after I had gone to bed. Since then, meltdowns followed by nocturnal excursions had been slowly increasing in frequency. It faintly occurred to me he might be having an affair but whenever he came home, he came straight to bed and the last thing he smelled like was a woman. What he smelled like was the woods.

I guess he’ll be disappearing again tonight even though it’s Christmas Eve, I thought as I observed with some detachment Malcolm stuffing his face with turkey for no other purpose than to torment his vegan sister. I noticed that Connie had buried her slashed wrists in her sleeves again. Dave was as willfully blind to his daughter’s juvenile self-harming as he was to his son’s homosexuality. “That’s not nice Malcolm,” I said absently, more preoccupied with Dave’s mental state than Connie’s. Malcolm ignored me and grinned at Dave who dropped his hands into his lap. Interlacing his fingers, he pushed his palms together like there was a rock between them he urgently needed to pulverize, his knuckles fit to burst from the skin stretched tightly across them.

He stared placidly across the table at his brother, Phil, eyes not blinking.

“…and that’s exactly when all the lights came back on!” laughed my boyfriend Phil, a natural storyteller. And I could laugh along as comfortably as the others because Phil’s regular allusions to being such a stud were just that: great big stories. The truth was that if Phil didn’t get the Viagra dose just so, crushing the pills into powder and carving up the portions with a razorblade as if it were cocaine, he either produced a boiled vegetable or a pre-maturely squirting broom handle. On these occasions, Phil’s despair was inconsolable. No amount of reassurance on my part could dissipate the pall of failure and I could expect days of mopey avoidance tactics before he rallied the courage to try again. One way to alleviate his gnawing private anguish was to project this fiction of Casanova-esque virility upon the world. It seemed to work too considering his sister-in-law Judith, a minxy stunner despite the crow’s feet stamped around her eyes, was now gazing at him from under the thick dark brown bangs encasing her forehead as if she wanted to fling her panties at his face.

I adored him. His hands were so big they reminded me of my father’s when I was little, and he would grab me around the waist and toss me into the air. Also like my father, Phil always had me laughing, even when he accompanied me to the lemon-tiled room where lemon-scented disinfectant hung in the air and identical lemon-colored recliners were lined up alongside IV stands for the stricken to sit in and watch their hair fall out, the large rotating hand of the wall clock terrifyingly knocking out the seconds.

His cool and aloof brother Dave, Judith’s husband, had observed his wife’s ogling and now looked set to have a seizure. The contorted grimace suddenly replacing his composed sculpted features almost made me laugh out loud, but I held back and instead, as a diehard vegan, gently mocked him about choking on one of the vile turkey bones discarded on his plate.

Dave was something of a curiosity. Earlier in the day, I had sneaked out back to have an ill-advised cigarette. The late-afternoon sky was heartless and gray, a cold sun tangled in the bare tree branches as it sank behind the clouds. Dead leaves skittered across the pool’s debris cover and the lonesome wail of a semi rumbling down a nearby highway made me shiver.

“Could be worse,” I sighed. “Could be stuck in the lemon room.”

“Lemon room?” came Connie’s slightly hoarse voice from a shadowy corner of the patio. She was smoking a joint and the burnt rope smell hit me now as the wind changed direction.

“Oh, shit. Hi Connie. Sorry. Didn’t see you there. I just came out for a smoke.”

“Want some of this?”

I hesitated but my gut was aching, and I did want some of that. “Okay. But can you forget about what I said just now?”

“Okay.”

As we smoked, I noticed Connie’s glassy eyes were set just a little too far apart and her ears stuck out just a little too far from under her stringy dirty blond hair. It wasn’t that she was unattractive, but the best of her parents’ impressive genes had apparently skipped right over her only to take root and blossom gloriously in her clearly gay younger brother, Malcolm. Maybe that was one reason she looked so pained. “You know kid, you don’t seem so happy in your skin,” I croaked holding the smoke deep in my lungs, the THC surging through me and melting away the pain.

In a perfect deflection Connie said, “A couple weeks ago I told my dad his hoity-toity Dutch beer tastes like dick.”

“Uh-oh.”

“Right? It just came out before I could think about it. He’s barely been able to look at me since.”

“He’ll get over it.”

“But my dad’s so weird, it wouldn’t surprise me if he’s just pissed I dissed his precious suds.”

“Come on.”

“Trust me, Shelley. He’s a really weird guy. Especially lately.”

This intrigued me. Dave seemed like a pretty cut-and-dried successful suburban dad, with two half-decent kids and a BWM each for him and the hot stay-at-home wife/mom. I was about to quiz Connie about him when Phil suddenly emerged from out back of the garage (what the hell was he doing in there?) and I fled back inside before he could catch me smoking dope with his underage niece…

“…it’s called karma, dad,” Connie drawled, and I regretted having teased Dave. He genuinely seemed to be suffering. Malcolm leapt to his defense by being disgusting with a mouthful of meat and Dave looked like he wanted to kiss him. Phil too was relieved and, holding my hand in my lap, made circles in my palm with his thumb. But when Malcolm leered greasily Dave’s face froze and, turning to Phil robotically, stared at him with dead man’s eyes.

“…and that’s exactly when all the lights came back on!” I concluded with a chuckle. The story had been one of my less-embellished but it still drew laughs from around the table. Except for my brother Dave who just smiled tightly in his way, his sharp clean-shaven face and flashing eyes like a hardened Roman general’s surveying a battlefield. Even though he was the younger one, I had always been the one looking up to him. I had dropped out of high school to start a construction business and even though it had been successful (I bought a Mercedes when I was only 24 and Dave was penniless), Dave was the thinker, the problem solver. While the stock market was busy assassinating the careers of his peers during the Great Recession, Dave had somehow cashed in on it and now his name was on the outside of a tall glass building downtown.

And then there was Dave’s wife, Judith, ever the smoldering sexpot whose devotion to her husband had been total and unwavering throughout their long marriage. She was smiling nymphomatically at me now but her supernova eyes, black winged lashes fluttering, were staring straight through me as though I were a translucent apparition behind which something real and mouthwateringly desirable lurked. Like Dave’s dick, for example, which I suspected glumly he could instantly get up on command and control like a 20-year-old boss. I looked down at my hairy killers’ hands beached on either side of my plate. Dave had long slender hands, the kind you could imagine performing brain surgery on an infant, and suddenly all of my inadequacies seemed to assail me at once.

“Hey Dave, you got one of those itty-bitty bones stuck in your throat or what?” said my vegan girlfriend, Shelley, waving through the fog I was in. I looked up and Dave did seem in some distress, so it wasn’t right for Shelley to be antagonizing him about the turkey again. I took her hand under the table and squeezed gently in a signal to leave off. She got it and, in a voice recalibrated to sound concerned, said, “You look a little peaked.”

But it didn’t end there. My niece Connie, also a vegan, jumped in to taunt her father some more until my gregarious nephew, Malcolm, silenced her with a gruesome display of carnivorousness worthy of a caveman. That was something else Dave had on me: two great kids and of course, perfectly, one girl and one boy. I had always wanted kids and now that, deep into middle age, I had at long last found ‘the one’ in Shelley, she had just had her ovaries, fallopian tubes, and uterus removed. So, all I wished for now was for Shelley to survive and to be as good an uncle as possible to Malcolm and Connie.

“You want to check out my new drone, Uncle Phil?” Malcolm had asked earlier in the day.

“Sure,” I said, and Malcom led me out back to the garage.

“Here!” he said, proudly holding aloft the mechanical multirotor insect by one of its legs, a black box with a glass cyclops eye protruding from its belly.

“That’s a camera, I assume?”

“THAT is a night vision camera with a 3D facial recognition sensor. I just perfected it.”

I didn’t doubt him. I wouldn’t doubt him if he told me it could fire miniature cruise missiles and the Pentagon wanted to buy the patent. The kid was a genius going places. As he stood there reciting the technical specs (he may as well have been speaking Swahili for all I understood), I was distracted by how his free hand was parked on a thrust-out hip. I had noticed this effeminacy before but what kind of gay teenage boy builds drones in his dad’s garage? He was probably just in the sway of some androgynous pop band, I concluded.

“What’s the plan for it?”

“Well,” he said, taking his hand from his hip and running it though his thick mane of dark brown hair, “I– “

“Hold on,” I said, cocking my ear. I thought I could hear Shelley’s voice outside. Malcolm shrugged and resumed with the technobabble. I stepped over to a little window and peered through the bug corpses and garage residue smeared across its surface. There she was on the back patio huddled with Connie around a spliff, both of them looking frail and at risk of liftoff in the swirling winter wind. I wasn’t even angry she was doing drugs with my niece. Just saddened anew by her incomprehensible inability to quit smoking.

“… and maybe for dad as well!” declared Malcolm in triumphant conclusion to his response I hadn’t heard a word of until then.

“Sounds great, Malcolm. I’m going to go back to the house now,” I said, trudging from the garage and leaving him alone in disappointed silence.

So much for being as good an uncle as possible, I thought bleakly as Malcolm finally swallowed the turkey with a loud gulp and “Ahhhhhhhhhh!”

“That’s not nice Malcolm,” said Judith tinnily, a half-assed rebuke he answered with an open-mouthed smirk that somehow reminded me of me. Dave shifted awkwardly in his seat and turned to face me. I got that translucent apparition feeling again as Dave stared right through me. But his eyes were cold hard steel as if whatever it was lurking behind me this time was there to break open his skull and eat his brain.

I stood at the edge of the hole leaning on the shovel, steam billowing from my mouth and exposed skin under the blue light of the starfield overhead. The woods encircling the snow-dusted clearing were black and silent except for the occasional creak of frozen branches. Lifting the shovel, I harpooned the waist-high mound of chunky soil and hacked-off tree roots and wiped the sweat from my hands on the front of my jacket. I reached into my pocket and fingered the hard enamel shards, squeezing the pulpy masses clinging to their tapered ends.

I picked up the discarded hammer and, holding it before me, inspected the lone strand of hair caked onto its claw, the bulb of its DNA-rich follicle bobbing slightly in the still air. My arm fell to my side and I was about to drop the hammer into the hole where the jawless thing lay when I suddenly heard a whir, like riffling playing cards, approaching fast. The contraption streaked over the treetops and came to an abrupt halt, hovering above the clearing. As it sank lower into the basin like a spider on a thread, rotors spinning in a blur, it trained its dark monocle on me, a red light winking in unison with shutter sounds.

“Malcolm,” I whispered as a tingling sensation crept out over my scalp and the ground disintegrated beneath my feet.

~

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