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My license having been revoked pending my sentencing hearing, I sat in the bar car of the train lazily roaming westwards from New York City.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.

~

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (Night Vision), 2018. 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, 2018 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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Last Ride


Hauling himself to his feet, his bones creaked almost as loudly as the old floorboards. Clutching a mug in both hands, as if its steaming contents were an unstable potion at risk of detonation, he uncertainly navigated the cluttered kitchen and peered out the window. The comforting ember glow struggling upwards to tinge the warped horizon, ever more briefly each morning since the autumnal equinox, had now been completely banished from the sky and only a perpetual expanse of blackness, dense and stifling, stretched out over the flat empty ice.

“Fucking winter,” he spat bitterly, releasing one hand from the mug and rubbing eyes as swollen and red as a post-tantrum child’s. Fern-leaf frost patterns had spread out from the corners of the panes in a creeping invasion and he began chipping wistfully at one of the bolder fronds with a neglected fingernail.

“That’s no excuse to be spiking your coffee at 9 o’clock in the morning,” piped a shrill voice from behind, causing an in-progress swallow to redirect towards his windpipe. Doubled over hacking and spluttering, he rotated awkwardly and glared at his wife through tearing eyes. “I can smell it from here!” she cried, throwing her hands in the air like a rollercoaster passenger.

“What 9 o’clock, Mary?! What morning!?” he croaked, waving at the window. “This is the North Pole. In winter. It’s only ever nighttime. I–”

“You got out of bed half an hour ago,” she snapped. “It’s morning. And there’s work to do, you drunken old sack of shit.”

Thumbing away a line of retched-up spittle mired in the whiskers on his chin, he recovered his posture and Mary’s blurry lines came slowly into focus. Arms folded in damning judgment across a keg-shaped torso, her protuberant face was as hard as iron. The kind of face you could break your hand on if you punched it, he thought, perilously almost aloud. Her gunmetal-gray hair was yanked back severely from a narrow, furrowed brow and wound into its usual tight hand grenade of a bun painstakingly bobby pinned to the back of her head.

Was that really the same hair that had once, so long ago in a dream life, been so long and lush and wavy and velvety molasses-black and, rioting down her limber perspiring back, he had coiled up in both hands, like reins, as she shallowly panted and moaned and bit wincing pleasure into a pillow-cleared mattress thudding back and forth against a thin motel room wall making the cheap prints that hung there dance in obedient unison up and down their crooked nails?

A mythical stirring in his groin incited him to meet Mary’s wolverine gaze. “Ever wonder if our marriage has lost a touch of its sheen over the years?”

“God, you’re so dirty,” she hissed as if by some dark magic she too had just borne witness to the conjured memory.

“Wh… what? he stammered, eyes motoring side to side in confusion, as she marched over to him.

“Do you even remember where the tub is?”

Relieved, he gathered his wits and said, “I’m quite certain I do not.”

Scowling, her pupils unnerving vertical slits in orbs of reptilian green, Mary rubbed away a greasy slick from his thickly stubbled cheek and then appraised her hand as if it had just been up something’s ass. Wiping it on the front of his faded flannel shirt, she said “and find a goddamn shave while you’re at it.”

“You know, the kids are under the impression I have a bushy white beard.”

“The kids are also under the impression you’re a good guy.”

“Too bad,” he said, lighting a cigarette and reaching back to pick at the perimeter of his saucer-shaped bald spot.

“Yes, it is,” she said, tugging the cigarette from between his lips and dropping it into his mug where, after a prolonged fizz, it prematurely died in a choked off plume of writhing blue smoke snakes.

“The fuck?!”

“You make me tired Nicolas,” she said and, after some moments rummaging in the folds of her Islamically long and austere dress, brandished his handgun.

“Whoa! Wait! That tired?!”

She pulled down his half-raised hand and slapped the hefty piece into his palm. He looked down and his distorted face, alarmed open mouth a smashed black cave, reflected grotesquely in the gleaming lethality of the nickel-plated barrel. A fresh gun oil redolence, as intoxicating as new car smell, cut through the kitchen’s mustiness and he sniffed at the air like a suddenly curious dog.

“I cleaned it for you,” said Mary. “You’re welcome. Now can you please, please be a man, just this once in your life, and get out there and deal with Blitzen?”

Pursued down the torchlit corridor by a train of elves shouting questions and demanding instructions, Nicolas jammed his fingers in both ears and broke into a trot until he reached his office door. Swinging around, he raised his hands before him and shouted, “Quiet, you little shits!”

The elves fell silent and, from beneath the floppy visors of newsboy caps, looked up at him with hurt 19thcentury British orphan expressions on their sooty, overworked faces. “Okay, sorry for that guys,” said Nicolas with genuine contrition. “It’s just, well, the scabby old battle-axe has lowered the boom and made it abundantly clear that if I don’t take care of Blitzen today, she will take care of me.” This set the elves to huddled murmuring and distressed handwringing. “And so,” continued Nicolas, “just get back to the plants and make the best decisions you can yourselves. I’ll check in with you in a few hours and if you’ve fucked it all up, I promise to recuse myself from judgment.” Fanning them away with backs of his hands, he said, “Go on, now.”

The old iron hinges whined as the heavy oak door swung slowly closed behind him. The office was shrouded in stygian darkness and a faint cat pissy odor nettled the stale air. He kindled a couple of the beeswax tealights littering the tree slice desk, set down the gun on its thickly shellacked surface with a heavy metallic clink, and sank into a black leather chair so battered it might have been hurled from an airplane. He then yanked a half-empty bottle from a side drawer and, recalling he’d abandoned the mug with the drowned cigarette back in the kitchen, put it straight to his lips and held it up-tilted while his Adam’s Apple worked up and down his throat. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he lit a cigarette and opened the computer with all the apprehensiveness of a knife thrower’s assistant twirling on a wheel.

In the glow of the monitor, the news of the day played over Nicolas’s haggard face and the falling bombs in the swirling smoke seemed to deepen the old acne craters blasted from his cheeks during a tortured youth mercifully long forgotten. Storms of notification banners darted from the narrow blackness of the bezel and retreated again, quick as lizard tongues:

…we need 50,000 units of…

…the THIRD REMINDER outstanding account for…

…people are asking where…

…their attorneys are saying that…

…just trying to help find the…

…if you’re sober enough to…

…an investigation pending the outcome of…

…thinks your bookie knows about…

From some ghost icon in the dock, Mary’s face loomed into view until it occupied the whole screen. All Basquiat teeth and squinting fury, she mimed a neck-wringing and tapped emphatically at her wristwatch before receding back into the ether. With what witchcraft she had deployed to so tamper with his computer, Nicolas had never been able to ascertain. Cradling his head in his hands, he massaged his temples with his fingertips and stared blankly at the keyboard as if its arrangement of letters and numbers had been replaced with indecipherable ancient runes. A long tube of ash fell from his cigarette and crumbled over the ‘control’ key. His eyes began to self-irrigate and he whispered hoarsely, “What variety of man must I have been in a past life to have deserved such a fate as this?”

As if in answer to the question, the computer emitted a gong-like ding customized to indicate an email had been delivered to the “Still too young to be evil or dying” folder, the only one he remotely cared about. He looked up wearily, saw that HELP was the lone word in the subject line, and clicked open the message.

Dear Santa,

My name is Katie and I am 9 years old. My little brother is called Jimmy. We don’t need anything for Christmas. We just want this to go away: click here. 

Love,

Katie

A tall man, Nicolas strode towards the stable with unusual speed and resolve, the parched snow squeaking rhythmically beneath his boots like a squeezed balloon. In the east, where the sun used to rise, garish winking lights traced the jumbled outlines of sprawling interconnected factory complexes. A sickly pall of smoke lazily weaved through their chimneystacks and short angry bursts of flame from gas flares, like soundless artillery fire, consumed the stars in the night sky.

“One day soon it will all be at the bottom of the sea”, muttered Nicolas with grim satisfaction, the prospect of apocalyptic global warming, to which his operations were a significant contributor, a rare source of pleasure in his life.

The long stable door rumbled and crunched down its ice-encrusted guide track. Nicolas stepped inside and the air, laced with the strangely sweet scent of manure and feed, was humid and warm in the flickering torchlight. The spacious pens were doorless and the reindeer roamed about freely in what was more a recreation center than a barn. They looked up with a cheerful “Hi Nick!” except for Cupid and Prancer, who were lost to mid-coitus oblivion in a darkened corner, and Rudolph who was slumped over the bar, cocaine-flecked nostrils flaring as he snored.

Nicolas shook his head and walked over to Blitzen who stood quietly in her pen drawing a circle in the straw with her hoof. He patted the coarse hair upholstering her neck above the dewlap fringe, thick as a bull’s and supporting a massive array of arching bone branches exploding from the top of her head. “How you doing, old girl?”

“Never better, Nick,” she said softly as Nicolas cocked his ear to the faint rattle echoing up from deep within her vaulted chest. Her winter blue eyes burned into his defiantly, daring him to contradict that assessment.

“How’d you like to go for a ride? If you’re up to it, I could really use your help with something I got to do.”

“Ah… uh… okay…” she stuttered, pleasantly taken aback by this unexpected request. “You don’t want to take one of the others?”

“You’re still the fastest, Blitzen,” he said loud enough for the rest to hear, even Rudolph who grunted in his sleep. “And besides,” he said with a whisper in her twitching her, “I’ve always loved you the best.”

With a raspy coo, Blitzen sank to her knees in a camel crouch and, grasping a shard of antler in each hand, Nicolas hoisted himself up onto her sinewy back and lit a cigarette. “Where to?”, she said, rising and ambling from the stable under quizzical gazes.

“Set us down just there!” shouted Nicolas over the roaring wind as Blitzen wheeled out of the star-pocked sky in a steep dive and skidded to a shuddering halt through the icy snow drifts sculpted across the front lawn. The midsize house was a pre-fab identical to all the others ringing the horseshoe cul-de-sac, a half-gutted pickup stranded upon cinder blocks in the driveway. A string of multi-colored Christmas lights twinkled around the large ground floor window. The rest were in darkness. It was witching hour quiet except for an intermittent buzz broadcast from a dying sodium lamp caged behind thick glass atop the lone streetlight. Blitzen, sweat steaming off her back and gulping air, looked up at it with big eyes as if her soul were trapped in there with it.

“Alright,” Nicolas said, batting away ice pellets clinging to the fur of his bearskin parka and taking a long swig from a dented hip flask that had materialized during the process. “You stay here and keep your eyes good and peeled.”

“Why? Aren’t you going to be invisible in there, as usual?”

“Got to be a regular old break-and-enter tonight, Blitzen. That magic shit only works on Christmas Eve.” Ruefully rubbing a long slender chin that had once made women look twice, he added bitterly, “And then condemned to do the opposite of looting, goddamn it.”

“Sorry, Nick.”

“Back in a few… I hope,” he said, turning and tiptoeing around the back of the house from where Blitzen could hear the muffled tinkling of breaking glass. She watched as the narrow beam from Nicolas’s flashlight swept to and fro inside, dimly illuminating one window of the house after another. When it arrived at the last and largest of the three windows on the upper floor it froze in a hover and then went out. Blitzen held her breath and jumped when the window flashed brilliant incandescent white twice in quick succession, the second backlighting a black hydroplaning spatter drummed across the pane, and went dark again.

Moments later, Nicolas came trotting out from the back unscrewing the silencer and stuffing the gun down the back of his jeans. “Let’s get out of here,” he said breathlessly, his face lightly speckled in iridescent red. “Cops are on their way.”

“Where to?”

“I know someplace nice where the sun should be coming up right about now.”

“…so there’s an end to the horror of Katie and Jimmy,” Nicolas concluded as he and Blitzen meandered slowly along the bank of the lake, frozen solid and bejeweled in myriads of golden ice crystals hexagonally sparkling under a cold white disk of sun just launched skyward from the black treeline of tall steepled pines garrisoned on the opposite shore. “Even so, I doubt those kids have half a chance of growing up all there.”

“And the mother really filmed it?”

“Egged him on, even. No words.” He shook a bent cigarette out of his crushed pack and, hands trembling, struggled to light it. Hunched over in the effort, he struck Blitzen as more weighed down than the firtree branches bowed earthwards penitently under fat woolly mantles of sound-drowning snow. In that moment she saw all the sorrow of the world in him. “Fuck it,” he growled flinging the cigarette into a snow bank and spitting an obscene slug of brown phlegm after it for good measure.

“Why are we here, Nick?”

“I just wanted you to see it. I grew up in a village not far from here. Fished this lake in summer. I swear, you could reel in trout the size of firelogs back in those days. They’re pretty much gone now though I think…” His voice trailed off as Blitzen suppressed a series of coughs attempting to escape her lips pressed tight together in a twisted grimace.

He patted the rising and falling mound of her shoulder until she recovered and said, “I wish I could’ve grown up here.”

“There’s a valley just behind those hills over there which is a very popular playground for reindeer.”

“Really?”

“Oh, yes. Especially in winter. The snow is less deep there and underneath is a ton of that lichen, you know, that reindeer moss shit you guys can’t get enough of. And it’s premium grade. You want to take a gander?”

“I’m not really hungry right now, Nick. But thanks for choosing this place. I know what you have to do.”

Nicolas nodded and extended the hip flask to her. “Belt?”

“I don’t think so. Bit of a stereotype isn’t it?”

“Works for me,” he said, releasing the captive lid with a pop, sealing his mouth fellatically around the stout top, and throwing back his head. He tossed the drained flask aside and said in a sodden voice, “you might want to turn around now, old girl,” the cloud of condensed vapor billowing from his mouth distillery like. With a doleful glance Blitzen complied, muscle tremors rippling down her flanks as she stamped up puffs of diamond dust with her hooves. She lifted her head, the dazzling blue globes of her eyes gazing out over the silent lake, stoic and proud. Nicolas marveled anew at the sheer magnitude of her antlers, twice the size of the males, skewering the rising sun in a ragged eclipse.

“Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” she said, somehow reading his thoughts.

“A more magnificent creature never lived,” he said, cocking the gun.

“Goodbye, Nick.”

“Goodbye, Blitzen.”

The crack splintered the frozen air and lifted a storm of startled black birds into the air from the treetops, the sound of their furiously beating wings receding quickly. Blitzen wondered if the residual echo stretching out over the ice was the sound of her life departing, when she realized she was still standing. Turning, she saw Nicolas lying in a heap, as though he had fallen out of the sky, dark arterial vermillion unhurriedly blooming out over the snow from behind his head. Embedded within their shadowy grottos, his bloodshot eyes stared intently up into the broad blue as if he had seen something intriguing there just as the bullet was traveling through his skull.

Blitzen lay at his side for a time and then, rising, wandered slowly in the direction of the valley over the hills.

~

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (Last Ride), 2018. 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 Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2018 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Fifteen Brushstrokes of South Africa


LEGS DANGLING OVER the dock in Hout Bay devouring thick filets of freshly grilled snoek, a snake mackerel inhabiting only the most far-flung waters of the Southern Hemisphere, its tender meat glides off long curved bones absently flicked into the white surf boiling around algae bearded pilings. Gigantic sun-blackened stalks of deep-sea kelp wriggle like sperm tails across the beach’s wet sand, their rubbery flowering heads mostly decapitated and dumped elsewhere. Little black boys scamper around their serpentine corpses shrieking joyfully when freezing waves break over them. The peeling hulls of once-colorful fishing boats moored along the wharf wearily groan over the hardship of the sea.

~

THE LIGHTHOUSE CROWNS a storm-tormented sandstone pyramid, the last stubborn knuckle of Cape Peninsula’s tapering lobster claw before plunging into the ceaselessly churning sea. To the east is shark-infested False Bay, appropriately bite shaped and named for duping navigationally disadvantaged mariners into thinking they were in Cape Town’s Table Bay. A stone’s throw to the west is Cape of Good Hope, most southwestern point of the African continent, sadistically named for duping navigationally disadvantaged mariners into thinking they had rounded the southernmost point of the African continent and were merrily India-bound.

Hard-currency dreams of men floundered with their ships and swiftly sank here.

~

IN THE BLOTCHY patterns of sulfuric acid burns, the black heads of cow and calf are encrusted with callosities bleached white by feasting whale lice. Winking playfully through heavily calcified eyelids, simultaneous plumes of rainbow spray geyser from blowholes in rubbery reverberations. Saluting their admirers in Hermanus with Y-shaped tails,

they dive…

unwittingly into a loitering pod of Clockwork Orange orcas who instantly give chase into deeper, darker waters. Pitilessly harried, mother watches in anguished helplessness as her baby, wide-eyed and thrashing, has its tongue efficiently removed and consumed, the rest of its carcass discarded to sea scavengers in a diasporic cloud of red.

~

“… THE INDIANS?”

“THE Gupta family,” spits the middle-aged driver. “State capture. Zuma bled us for ten years for them. Now, only poverty.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You know what else? Less than twenty percent of us even pay taxes here. And when the Africans seize a prosperous dairy farm, legally, you know what they go and do with it?

“Not much?”

“They slaughter the cattle out of hunger and abandon it.”

“Sounds like Zimbabwe. Will Ramaphosa stop this madness?”

The driver tugs off his sunglasses and, staring into the rearview, his pale face is as terrible and devastating as the African sun on thinning hair.

~

THE SHEER SMASHED-IN rockface of Table Mountain, Mandela’s muse, rushes beneath the feet of pale passengers crammed into a pill-shaped, glass-wrapped cable car bobbing up a zip line at the stomach-dropping rate of 10 meters per seconds. Woozily summitting, the blasted granite formations of the Twelve Apostles meander in ancient brokenness along the wind-flayed azure coast. The labyrinthine path abruptly ends where a mighty cleaver from the sky has hewn a yawning canyon into the tabletop. A roiling cloud-fall, shoved along by an irritable wind, thunders like a gathering avalanche as it tumbles over

the lip

and races downwards towards Cape Town sprawling under the sun.

~

WITH NO STREETLIGHTS and the windows black in unoccupied houses, the narrow road weaving through Gansbaai is shrouded in darkness. An uncannily windless night, the soft rustling of surf is the only sporadic sound drifting through ghostly still trees. A faint incandescence tinges their vague outlines and, glancing upwards, a frozen wonder provokes a long descending whistle, like a falling bomb. The sky is alive with blazing outsized stars. It’s as if its dome of enamel black has shrunk closer around the earth and been riddled with thousands of ragged bullet holes through which gush the white flames of a cosmic inferno ignited by God.

~

THE RISING SUN percolates through the dust powdered shrubs and intensifies stray tawny patches daubing the shaggy black mane. Reclining on the waterhole’s grassy bank, his flaming eyes stare out intelligently across the dreamily rolling veldt and pinpoint some source of primal knowledge in the distant shadowlands.

Oblivious to the grazing kudu meandering closer in reciprocal oblivion, he placidly blinks until–

Crack

Leaping into a tight crouch, dark tufted tail swatting, hard muscles ripple down his lean torso. Lifting its corkscrew-antlered head the kudu freezes, mohawk fur fanning upwards along its spine, the narrow white stripes on its trembling flanks reminiscent of tearing from claws.

~

NATIONAL BRAAI DAY

Dusk

Wind kicked broken umbrella tumbles down the cold empty beach

The braai terrasse nudges gently into moody Mossel Bay

And pulses orange warmth

A glowing firepit heart

Mounted on a crumbling burnt brick tor

Patiently stoked by a black hand

Flame-licked meat sizzles and pops

Greasy smoke laces shivering palm fronds

And smears a gray sky grayer

Steaming volcanos of barbecued beef as hot as beer castles are cold

On robins-egg blue picnic tables

Contented firelit faces in deep falling night

Soft Afrikaans notes and tinkling white laughter

Healing communion

floats

A distant Zulu drumbeat                unheard across restive water.

~

“GREAT WHITE STARBOARD!” bellows the grizzled skipper of Apex Predator, the aptly named shark cage diving boat. Necks craning in one fluid synchronized motion, a primordial finned shadow the color of a livid bruise approaches at torpedo depth under effortless propulsion and circles through the chum of fish parts, bone, and blood. A large pregnant female, its cramped womb a gory arena in which dominant pups practice intrauterine cannibalism upon weaker siblings, with eyes as black as war. Copper sharks flee the glide path in terror and scatter out across Walker’s Bay while rubbery nipples under clammy wetsuits further contract to the size and hardness of apple pips.

~

STROLLING ALONG THE Promenade, the brilliant midday sun catches in the mist churned up by mammoth world-weary waves loudly braining themselves in explosive spumes against the winding seawall. Paragliders leap giddily from the flat peak of Lion’s Rump hill, their sails decorating a cloudless Cape Town sky in banana-shaped slices of vivid primary color. Sitting under bustling Oranjezicht Market’s gently flapping canvas chewing on thickly-sliced chips of fresh biltong, the music is funky, and a palpable weekend happiness emanates from the chattering crowds. Their homes, barricaded like prisons by demoralizing concrete walls topped with strings of brutal razorblade wire, seem so very far away.

~

VICTIMS OF THE “Cape Doctor”, a south-easterly wind that persistently rakes the Western Cape’s coastline, the trees are broken at the hips; upper halves smashed so far backwards, their capillarial branches appear frozen into a contorted shock of electrified hair parallel to the ground. Further victimized by wildfire, their bark is seared black and peels around avocado-green clusters of desperate, tremulous leaves. The conflagration has scourged the beauty from the land all the way to Knysna Heads where, in the dire township, an arsonist peers out from behind his shanty’s rusty corrugated door. In his smoldering eyes there is not one flicker of regret.

~

THE TAUT CONCRETE bow supporting the deck of Bloukrans Bridge (Africa’s highest at 216 meters) seems to spring organically from invisible abutment points buried deep within the scrubby stone flanks of the dizzying river gorge. From a darkened recess below its midpoint a figure emerges and falls, awkward and flailing, emitting a low stifled wail only mortal terror can generate. Now in a resigned headfirst dive, arms spread wide like an upside-down Christ the Redeemer, the elastic cord reaches its maximum extension and yanks the suddenly muted sack of adrenalin back skywards in the first of a number of long…

graceful…

oscillations…

jubilant…

~

THE LAST SLICKS of deep blue leach from Langebaan Bay and the cold night sky erases the surrounding hills with its blackness. A fire crackles from within the gaping mouth of the old farmstead’s hearth casting warmth and flickering shadows over walls crowded with the disintegrating maps and oxidized paraphernalia of hunters, sailors, and lumberjacks from a bygone age. The glazy bar swims in a welcoming pool of candlelight and the dining hotel guests clink glasses and murmur appreciatively between steaming aromatic forkfuls. If that wind snapping the rigging of invisible boats beyond the dark windows bodes a storm, there exists no cozier shelter on earth.

~

THE CRUNCH OF bike tires biting into gravel is amplified in the tamped forest air. A pallid spherical specter flits above the coniferous green canopy and the tang of pine rising from the endless brown carpet of fallen needles and cones catches in the nose. Crescent horned cows watch from between the trees with the same dark brooding eyes as apartheid survivors.

The trail ends abruptly at a clifftop lookout where an emancipated sun unleashes the explosive blueness of sea and sky clashing at the feet of imperious mountains. Storms River Mouth seethes far below and the serrated coastline,

towering,

staggering,

can conceive no end.

~

THE TINTED WRAPAROUND glass at the tip of O.R. Tambo’s kite-shaped bar is designed to mimic that of a cockpit. Outside, the huge long-haul jets lumber wearily, like sad men, in and out of ambivalent wheel chock placeholders.

It’s a physical sensation, goodbye: the gluey ribcage contracting around a twitching heart, the repetitive swallowing over rising hardness in the throat, the wincing over acidic eyeballs.

I know I’ll never see this place again.

Wheels lift off the tarmac reluctantly and the 777 crawls into the sky. The sculpted contours of the terrain steadily blur and fade from view just like all those freshly painted memories inevitably will.

~

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (Fifteen Brushstrokes of South Africa), 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2018 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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Bike Berlin


Earlier this month I spent a few days visiting friends in Berlin, Europe’s apex city on the coolness barometer. Its edgy, its gritty, and its bodies are almost as liberally graffitied as the walls around the U-Bahn (“Subway”) stations where Cold War era trains still clatter to and fro just as they did when the Iron Curtain was at its most dreary and impenetrable.

If you’ve never been, you must. After you’ve seen the regular sights, instagramming filtered pics of the Brandenburg Gate, East Side Gallery, Checkpoint Charlie, etc., and woken up at noon the next day in a cold sweat on the banks of the Spree after an MDMA fueled all-nighter at an over-hyped techno club, here’s just the thing to (a) recover and (b) have a righteously unique Berlin experience.

Pull up your pants and finish that half-eaten congealing döner you still have a death grip on. Be sure to keep it all down, even if it means re-swallowing bits of shaved beef and onion you regurgitate into your mouth. This is breakfast and you’re going to need it to get through the first two and a half legs of the epic 7-hour (but relaxed!) Berlin bike tour I’m about to lead you through.

First Leg: Prenzlauer Berg, Friedrichshain

 

After you rent your bike (you can get them everywhere), make a bee line to the first stop: my friend’s awesome bar Macke Prinz within a stone’s throw of famously rundown Mauerpark (“Wall Park”), former site of the Berlin Wall and its notorious death strip, now host to a ‘Bearpit Karaoke Show’, impromptu concerts, and a sprawling Sunday flea market peddling all variety of rummagables. Macke will be cicada-buzzing quiet in the early afternoon (it opens at 1:00) but, to take the last of the swelling off your bruised brain, gun a double espresso shot with a large sparkling water chaser on the sidewalk terrasse. The chirping of birds and tinkling of bells drifting over from the Zionskirchplatz Park across the street will immerse you in an amniotic sac of serenity that will leaden your feet and make you loath to leave. But it’s time to go and, not to worry, this will also be the end point of the tour where you can spend the rest of the night chatting with hip and quirky people of various ages, nationalities, and backgrounds over some quality beers.

Travel first via Kastanienallee, Kollwitzstraße, Marienburger Straße, and Hufelandstraße. These streets jackknife through Berlin’s kicking Prenzlauer Berg district. Unlike most of the rest of Berlin, which Allied bombing and Soviet artillery had reduced to a smoldering ashpit by the end of the war, some 80% of Prenzlauer Berg’s distinctive “Wilhelmine” buildings were tottering but miraculously still standing. Suffering the misfortune of falling into the clutches of the Soviet sector, they were shoddily maintained when not entirely neglected by the wretched GDR (East Germany). Rotting from the inside out for the duration of the Cold War, by the time of German Reunification in 1990, their blighted façades were more blackened and downcast than the faces of battered women.

Not anymore. Today, as you ride along confident tree-lined streets, some still quaintly cobble-stoned, they have been fully rehabilitated beyond even their original glory and boast the colors of a fruit basket:

The irony is inescapable that, standing next to the majesty of present-day Prenzlauer Berg, some of the once-coveted areas of former West Berlin (e.g. parts of the Wedding locality in Mitte) now seem little more than Brutalist prefab odes to Orwell where strawberry-haired metrosexuals, clutching neurotically at their scrawny girlfriends, would rather die horribly than be caught breathing in.

Moving along, Hufelandstraße’s sudden terminus is a leafy urban oasis, Volkspark Friedrichshain, the oldest public park in Berlin. Constructed in the 1840s to commemorate the centennial of Frederick the Great’s ascension to the Prussian throne, check out Großer Bunkerberg (“tall bunker mountain”) and Kleiner Bunkerberg (“small bunker mountain”). What’s up with making mountains out of molehills? These peaceful wooded hillocks are actually Trümmerberge (“rubble mountains”),* ‘built’ on top of wartime antiaircraft bunkers by the GDR from two million cubic meters of charred debris and unidentifiable body parts which was pretty much all that remained of district Friedrichshain in 1945. Cycle softly because you cycle on mounds of violently snuffed-out dreams.

Rumor has it a ghostly underground bunker world still partly exists beneath these “mountains” and there are secret entrances you can hunt around for if so predisposed.

Continue through Friedrichshain via Ebertystraße and Proskauer Str. Once you have crossed over Frankfurter Allee, it may be worth stopping and walking the bike down elegantly gentrified Niederbarnimstraße/Simon-Dach-Straße, heavily notched with trendy shops, restos, clubs, pubs, and cafés. An extremely popular hive of activity in the city, it’s so diverse I was struck by an interracial (and surprisingly attractive) lesbian couple strolling along, hands in each other’s back pockets and sharing a jumbo-sized bottle of beer, within literal spitting distance of a sulky young skinhead shuffling along harmlessly behind them and an elderly couple gazing down impassively from behind the flowerboxes of their balcony. In case you’re wondering, the practice of walking the streets with a beer in your paw is not only legal in Berlin, it’s so widespread you’d think the authorities encourage it.

This first leg of the tour ends at Boxhagener Platz (or “Boxi” as Berliners have dubbed it), the epicenter of Friedrichshain’s coolness. Bustling any day of the week, this box of green is especially worth a visit on Saturdays for the Wochenmarkt (“weekly market”). Chaotically crammed with food and drink stalls that will make you slobber worse than a Saint Bernard, it’s been up and running for over 110 years now.

On this corner, I was amused to see an aging communist on a soapbox being utterly ignored by the eagerly shopping crowds he was passionately exhorting to abandon capitalism. Regularly pushing a curtain of dirty hippy hair from his face as he became more animated, he was altogether unfazed by the fact that he had an audience of one: me. A foreigner pointing and laughing at him.

If you happen to miss the Wochenmarkt, e.g. because you’ve woken up in a compromising position on the banks of the Spree again, you can still go to the Flohmarkt (“flea market”) on Sunday where budding artists, furniture makers, fashion designers, etc., re-cram Boxi with stalls to flog fragments of their oeuvres, some of which are actually worth the few euros they are going for.

Second Leg: Kreuzberg

 

Exit Boxi, head down Warschauer Straße, and traverse the Spree at the Oberbaumbrücke span which links Friedrichshain to Kreuzberg (or “X-Berg” as Kreuz = “cross”). During the Cold War, Kreuzberg was the most impoverished district of West Berlin where, beginning in the 1960s, tsunamis of Turkish “guest workers” washed up “temporarily” in the so-called SO 36 part of it and, after successfully addicting the locals to their cuisine, never left. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Kreuzberg’s star began to rise until it became one of the funkiest areas to live in even though it remains a hotbed of extreme-left radicalism where cars are ritualistically overturned and burned, shops looted, and cops injured during the annually scheduled May Day riots. Don’t ever tell me the far-left possesses more moral persuasiveness than the far-right… 

Speaking of left, go left on Schlesische Str. and, crossing the bridge over the Flutgraben, you’ll see that the canal is lined with cool houseboaty-looking bars and clubs.

Make a mental note to return here, especially to the place on the right, “Club der Visionäre”, arguably the best open-air bar in Berlin where, during the day, the atmosphere on the willow-draped wooden sun terrasse is so relaxed its vacation-like. After dark, the volume of the electronic music goes right up as quality DJs materialize, ignite the party, and make the night over the shimmering canal water thump like the stage’s speaker woofers. 

Continuing up Am Flutgraben back to the Spree, take a quick (or long) leer at the throngs of sun worshippers congregated in and around the elongated turquoise rectangle of the Badeschiff (“bathing ship”), all of whom will inevitably be in an advanced state of nudity.

You’ll be as pleased as me to hear that Germans are historically the most comfortably naked people in all of Europe.

If you manage to unglue your eyes from the Badeschiff for a moment and turn right you’ll see “Molecule Man”, a towering 30-meter high aluminum sculpture which is actually three giant men wrestling each other in a standing position on the surface of the water.

Backtracking via Heckmannufer, enter Görlitzer Park, graveyard of the original Görlitzer Bahnhof (“train station”) which was mortally damaged during the Battle of Berlin and ultimately demolished in 1962, the last of its fractured iron bones and petrified wooden ties leading nowhere but still defiantly visible canal side. The groups of laconic Africans loitering around the entrances to the park are drug dealers hawking product in broad daylight as unabashedly (albeit in coded language) as cheese sellers at the Wochenmarkt back in Boxi. Make no mistake, Berlin, more permissive than an eye-batting daughter’s doting father, is four-corner saturated by more illicit narcotics than Ozzy Osbourne in the 1970s. Although drug-related violence has been somewhat on the uptick recently, raising the eyebrows of those not too knee-walking to read the headlines, it’s been quite a peacefully bombed city to date.

From the park, head along the beautiful green banks of the Landwehrkanal where the body of shot-in-the-head Rosa Luxemburg was unceremoniously dumped in 1919. Unmarred by violence today, Berliners young and old laze around here dreaming their dreams.

Go all the way to Kottbusser Brücke (“bridge”) and cross to the other side. Stop for a moment here and look down Kottbusser Damm which separates Kreuzberg on the right from the district of Neukölln (which has an even larger Turkish population) on the left. After Reunification, Neukölln was such a downtrodden and wholly reviled neighborhood, an apartment on its side of the street either lay fallow or was rented out for a fraction of the price of the exact same apartment a couple of car lengths away on the Kreuzberg side. Not anymore. Even though it’s infested by organized criminal Arab clans, as prices in Prenzlauer Berg and Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg have become increasingly stratospheric, the bohemians, artists, and students have migrated to Neukölln in droves and elevated its status, phoenix-like, to the number one hot spot to live in Berlin. 

Head back along Landwehrkanal until Hobrechtstraße.

Third Leg: Neukölln, Tempelhof

 

Close to the Neukölln Rathaus (“City Hall”) is the rather despairing Neukölln Arcaden where, if you’re patient enough to pick your way up the parking lot ramps atop the mall without getting run over, you will find yourself in Klunkerkranich, a rooftop bar where the views of ever-under-construction Berlin will get you buzzed quicker than whatever alcoholic beverage you order.

That Soviet-styled needle pricking the sky in the distance is Berlin’s iconic GDR-built Fernsehturm (“TV Tower”) which sprouts from the pandemonium around Alexanderplatz (or just “Alex” as Berliners call it) in the district of Mitte. Only from the giant steel and glass disco ball bulging between the shaft and the antenna will you get a more panoramic view of the city.

If your stomach is starting to grumble, forget about that garbage you choked down for breakfast and soak up the Klunkerkranich booze with an authentic döner on Flughafenstraße. Any place along here will do but, perched unsteadily on a rickety wooden sidewalk table junkie-watching, I devoured a delectable one close to the Boddinstraße U-Bahn.

Not for vegetarians (although there are plenty of vegetables swept under that carpet of meat) but if you’re a vegetarian, I’m not sure how you found yourself in Germany in the first place. Good luck finding a soy Bratwurst (“fried sausage”)…

Thirsty again? It’s worth going via Schillerpromenade to Herrfurthstraße and grabbing a beer on the cheerful sidewalk terrasse of Café Engels. Engels? Like Kreuzberg, Neukölln is historically rife with communist claptrap even though it too was part of West Berlin during the Cold War.

Carry on down Herrfurthstraße until you find yourself gazing out across a vast lightbulb-shaped expanse of flat, sautéed-brown grass. Here is the former site of Berlin Tempelhof Airport, site of the herculean Berlin Airlift of 1948-9**. The massive crescent moon terminal building hugging the upper right side of the bulb, with its smudged façades of shell limestone the color of old newspapers and preserved air traffic control tower at the western tip, was built between 1936 and 1941 as part of the Nazi era’s colossal Welthauptstadt Germania (“World Capital Germania”) reconstruction program.*** Although the war permanently interrupted its completion, it was once rivaled only by the likes of the Pentagon as the largest building in the world and dubbed “the mother of all airports”.

Formally closed in 2008, the aircraft in the skies overhead were replaced by the circling vultures of rapacious developers, euro symbols burning bright in their eyes. Its fate hung in the balance until Berliners decided by plebiscite to leave the defunct grounds and terminal building entirely unmolested. Renamed Tempelhofer Feld (“field”), it’s the largest inner-city open space in the world.

It’s also probably the most surreal as you interminably peddle down the fat centerline markings, arrowed and faded, of the 2-kilometer long 09L/27R runway where a steady stream of wide-body aircraft once thundered and hurtled ahead of their own turbulent slurries of jetwash violent enough to blast you and your pathetic Dutch bike all the way back to Café Engels like dried leaves in the wind. The sheer bigness of the space beneath the stretched-out Montana-esque sky has the effect of reducing the scattered figures on the ground; you and the other cyclists, rollerbladers, kite surfers, allotment enthusiasts, joggers, jugglers, baton twirlers, dancers, etc., to flailing Lilliputian dimensions. It’s worth stopping and snapping some pics here. You’ll find them so infused with existential emptiness that, even unenhanced with Photoshop, you can imagine them on album covers.

This is the highlight of the tour so, if you insist on doing an abbreviated version, don’t leave this section on the cutting room floor.

Exit the airfield at Paradestraße U-Bahn station, turn right and head back northwards via Tempelhofer Damm and Dudenstraße. When you hit Monumentenstraße, you have departed the locality of Tempelhof (named after the Knights Templar and also part of former West Berlin) and come to the end of this leg.

Fourth Leg: Schöneberg, Kreuzberg, Tiergarten

 

From Monumentenstraße, reenter Kreuzberg (this time at the western end of it) via the narrow inverted pyramid of Flaschenhalspark which expands upwards into the popular Park am Gleisdreieck (PaG). The maze of railway lines around the traffic junction of the Anhalter and Potsdamer freight yards literally became a wasteland at the end of the war which, over the years, unexpectedly transformed into a refuge for a rich diversity of flora and fauna fleeing the torrid redevelopment surrounding it. So much so that, just like Tempelhofer Feld, Berliners lobbied hard to protect this unlikely ecosanctuary. And they won: PaG was completed in 2013 and is today one of the most beloved parks in the city, vestigial signaling and railway facilities emerging here and there through the greenery endowing it with a Görlitzer flair. 

Follow the route up until Potsdamer Platz; the busiest traffic hub in all of Europe during the interwar period, pulverized to dust by 1945 (and, appropriately, site of Hitler’s bunker), left an unloved and barren no man’s land during the Cold War when cleaved in two by the Berlin Wall, site of Roger Waters’ 1990 performance of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, locus of the largest construction project in all of Europe after Reunification, and today an impressive triangulated array of gleaming office complexes serving as an altar to free market capitalists who ritualistically sacrifice pesky May Day communists kidnapped from Kreuzberg and Neukölln as a matter of compensation for their torched Mercs.

From here you enter the Tiergarten (“Animal Garden”), the city’s second largest park after Tempelhofer Feld. It is commonly assumed that it is named Tiergarten because the southwest section is home to the Berlin Zoo. While this is true, it has carried the designation since the 16thcentury when it was so thickly wooded it served as a verdant hunting ground, chock-full of deer and other wild animals, to the rulers of Brandenburg. By the winter of 1945, however, it more resembled a lunar landscape after virtually every single tree had been culled for firewood by freezing Berliners shivering not just from the cold but also in anticipation of the imminent arrival of marauding Soviet forces. Since then, the park has been reforested to the enchantment level of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale and today you can scarcely comprehend its relatively recent devastation. With romantic canals lazily winding through it, I find it the most pleasing and relaxing central park of any city I’ve been to.

Follow the water along the south side until you get to Café am Neuen See (“Café by the New Lake”), a charmed Biergarten under high trees with swooping branches. It’s imperative to stop here for further refreshment and watch in amusement as love-struck young men, gripped in a swell of impulsive gallantry, precariously navigate rowboats rented from next door by batting uncertainly at the water with heavy oars, their attempts to woo their nervously smiling girlfriends sitting in the back enjoying limited success.

If you feel like getting even toastier, head over to the western edge of the park and discover the Schleusenkrug (“Locks Mug”), so named because it’s another merry beer garden nestled by a canal lock which serves beer in mugs bigger than your face. It also has a reputation for its top-drawer Flammkuchen, an Alsatian “pizza” I can’t recommend more strongly.

Continue on to the Großer Stern (“Great Star”), a street-radiating roundabout including Straße des 17. Juni which bisects the Tiergarten from the Brandenburg Gate at the east end to its less famous counterpart, the Charlottenburg Gate, at the west end. The street’s name commemorates the date in 1953 when the Red Army partnered with the Volkspolizei (“People’s Police”) for a successful outing of target practice conducted upon masses of disgruntled East Berliner workers. In recent years, it has played host to a number of mega-events, notably the electro blowout Love Parade in the 1990s, Live8 in 2005, the start of the Berlin Marathon, and the city’s insane New Year’s Eve bash which converges down on the Brandenburg Gate and, dwarfing the one in New York’s Times Square, is estimated to be the largest annual party in the world.

From the middle of the Großer Stern rises the landmark Siegessäule (“Victory Column”) atop of which a bronze sculpture of Victoria, the winged goddess of victory (Roman equivalent to the Greek goddess Nike), stands with an upraised laurel wreath in one hand and, firmly gripped in the other, a military spear- its standard an Iron Cross quartering another wreath between shaft and blade. With her helmet peaked prominently with a spread-winged eagle, she is also the embodiment of 19th century Prussian military might.

Quite apt seeing as, by the time the monument was finished in 1873, the Kingdom of Prussia had decisively put its adversaries to the sword in the Second Schleswig War against Denmark (1864), the Austro-Prussian War (1866), and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1), the last of which culminated in the successful unification of Germany as an imperial power under the Prussian crown. Was it any accident that when dear Victoria was relocated from in front of the Reichstag to the Großer Stern in 1938 (another part of the Welthauptstadt Germania misadventure) her steady gaze was fixed more or less directly towards Paris…?

In any event, modern-day Berliners, who have an understandably jaundiced view of militaristic posturing, enjoy making Otto von Bismarck rotor whirl in his grave by irreverently referring to the column as Goldelse (“Golden Lizzy”). If you’re not too drunk or döner-bloated, you can attempt an ascent of the grueling 285-step staircase that tightly spirals up through Golden Lizzy’s innards and take in yet another dazzling view of the city from her observation platform.

Exit Großer Stern via Spreeweg and on to John-Foster-Dulles-Allee.

Fifth Leg: Mitte

 

The sun will be slowly bleaching out of the sky now, casting Kafka shadows down the gray banks of the Spree under a teething breeze. Follow the river past Kanzleramtssteg, up over the its arcing bell through Spreebogenpark, where talented buskers tragically play to an audience of no one (except you), and down to Marschallbrücke. This bridge is a less conventional vantage point to capture a pic of the Reichstag building; house of the Imperial Diet from 1894 until 1933 when it was almost destroyed by fire; neglected ruin throughout the Cold War; wrapped in aluminum-colored fabric by alleged artist Christo in 1995; and fully restored Bundestag (parliament of the Federal Republic of Germany) since 1999.

That teatless glass dome on the roof is a nod to the original 1894 cupola, which was widely condemned at the time for desecrating the neo-baroque lines of the rest of the building with its garish modernity, and serves as yet another impressive observation platform from which to view the city, especially at night. While the black-red-gold stripes of large German flags undulate conspicuously from its corner towers, equally large EU flags adorn its various other parts in a deliberate display of how engrained the principles of unity, solidarity, and harmony among all the peoples of Europe have become in the present-day German psyche.

Continue on down the other side of the Spree via Schiffbauerdamm and, assuming you’ve already wandered around Museum Island and stood gaping at the foot of the Berliner Dom, turn left on Friedrichstraße and follow the route all the way back to Macke (i.e. via Ziegelstraße, Tucholskystraße, Auguststraße, Koppenplatz, Ackerstraße, and Veteranenstraße). Although there are no particular sites to point out on this last sprint, delight in cycling through the heart of Mitte (“Middle”), the city’s most central district. If it has struck you that Berlin has no readily identifiable downtown it’s because, just like the country as a whole prior to unification in 1871, for centuries it was little more than a concentration of independent fiefdoms which only started getting knitted together (either voluntarily or by annexation) gradually after 1701, when the area was designated capital of Prussia, until it ultimately emerged as something resembling the incongruous quilt we have today.

Night having fallen, Macke will be hopping now. However, if your stomach is grumbling again, before settling in have a wander up Kastanienallee. For something on the fly, find the unassuming mustard-colored retro shack under the bridge by Eberswalder Straße U-bahn called Konnopke’s Imbiß. Founded in 1930, it has survived the Nazi era, the GDR era, all the post-Reunification demolitions and reconstructions, and still stands (albeit not the original shack) serving its renowned Currywurst. Sitting in the open air on a hard wooden bench, trains shaking the bridge overhead and armed with a miniature plastic fork, you’ll fish out the slices of sausage swimming in a lake of curry sauce while praying you can get it all down before the sodden carboard box teetering on your knee disintegrates. No, it’s not disgusting. It’s beautiful. And you won’t regret it.

If you’re falling down famished, stop in at the Pratergarten on Kastanienallee just before Eberswalder Straße. Founded in 1837, the Prater is the oldest and most historic beer garden in Berlin. Although it no longer plays host to bloody public boxing matches, open air theater, and incendiary political gatherings, you can still sit on the long wooden furniture under soft fairy lights strung through the trees and tuck into some traditional German food. I recommend the Sauerbraten, a seriously committed fuckoff hunk of pork served with a veritable Trümmerberg of mashed potatoes and red cabbage, all encircled by a moat of thick brown gravy. I repeat: it’s not disgusting. It’s beautiful. And you won’t regret it.

Back in Macke, bending the elbow with ein großes (“a large”) Veltins beer, you’ll get a much-needed break from drum and bass as the music in the bar is as diverse as its patrons. The last night I was there, I chatted with a 40-something German filmmaker with dark watery eyes deeply set in the sunken craters of his bulbous head. One of them interrupted the course of a thick long scar, bulging at intervals like a squashed worm, which originated on one side of his forehead, traveled all the way down the center of his cheek to the jawline, and split into an arterial delta that drained into the shadows under his spade of a chin.

I found him so amiable and frank that, after a gut-warming shot of Jägermeister, I finally collected the balls to ask, with a vague eye-nod, “so what happened there?”

“Ah this,” he said, touching the scar gingerly with one hand while taking a prolonged heater-crackling haul off his cigarette with the other, metal wrist bangles clinking together. “Little mishap on my motorbike in Mongolia. Also shattered my leg and lost my spleen,” he explained as missiles of smoke launched from his mouth and nostrils with each word. “What’s that expression in English? ‘Only a face a mother could love’ is it?”

“Yes, that’s it,” I laughed. But the scar actually suited him and his personality somehow and it occurred to me that this guy was kind of the embodiment of Berlin’s eerie dissonance: grievously broken and scarred while all the more unique and reconstructed for it, dark and simmering while cool and gregarious, edgy while relaxed, opinionated while tolerant, and most of all: limitlessly fascinating…

~

* Trümmerberge: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schuttberg

** Berlin Blockade and Airlift: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Blockade

*** Welthauptstadt Germania: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Germania_(city)

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (Bike Berlin), 2018. 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 Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2018 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

 

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The Sea (Part II)


More than a quarter century later I found myself in Brittany’s historic St. Malo again sitting on a rock away from the tourists, sipping beer (no cigarettes these days), and staring out over the sea where the crocodile jaw of the English Channel opens widest and devours the Atlantic. The sun was high in a near cloudless sky. It was cool and windy, a welcome respite from the crushing heat in Paris, and the air tasted like salt and fish. The tide was out, way out, exposing broad stretches of seaweed clad ocean floor, slippery jagged avenues mined with tidal pools that led to old stone forts harking back to the days of French corsairs and peg-legged pirates. Soon the tide would be coming in at the speed of a person walking quickly and, in a couple of hours, they would become craggy island clusters and I would be under several meters of thrashing water.

How apropos seeing as I was daydreaming about pirates and the horror of drowning at sea. Specifically, my imagination, warped at the best of times and depraved at the worst, had activated an image of pirates forcing a wretched captive to walk the plank over the Mariana Trench (You don’t? It’s a hook-shaped slice of the western Pacific between Papua New Guinea and Japan which is so deep, if you dropped Mount Everest in there its peak would still be two kilometers under water). Hands bound to prevent swimming and a light cannonball tethered to the ankle to ensure delivery all the way to the very bottom, what blinding terror goes through the mind of such a condemned man bobbing at the end of the plank as large impassive waves roll by far beneath his feet?

In those last few seconds before being nudged off the end by a leering gang of rum-logged sadists, could you even contemplate the steep fall through the air, sharply filling your lungs with your last breath as the water races towards your feet, the biting cold of the terrible splash, the instant tug downwards from the cannonball, the violent futile struggle craning your neck upwards as the liquid sky overhead fades and the water gets darker and darker, the pressure that crushes that last breath from your exploding lungs, resignedly breathing water as indifferent fish flit by effortlessly, and then the limp 10-kilometer descent to rest alone forever in an impenetrable blackness occupied only by a handful of undiscovered microorganisms. Not even this ghastly prehistoric deep-sea motherfucker can make it far enough down to visit your lonely bones:

Still, I thought to myself, it would at least be a pretty quick death and once you’re dead you don’t care if your final resting place is in literally the most remote, dark, and empty place on the planet, right? Right?!* I think I would prefer it to being trapped beneath the deck of a slowly sinking ship. After a couple of agonizing hours of gradual listing, the bow sinks awkwardly lower. You and your doomed companions instinctively pick your way as far aft as possible where a bulkhead blocks any further retreat. Bone-white panicked faces pressed against the portholes now mostly underwater, you listen to the rivets in the hull groaning louder under the increasing strain. The bow finally slips under the waves shorting out the lights and the slow, steady descent begins. Anguished wailing fills the compartment as the rivets pop out like champagne corks and geysers of seawater, stronger than firehoses, flood the compartment. The ship is almost vertical and, as you furiously tread water, there are only a few centimeters of air left between your gasping mouth and the bulkhead. Pounding your fists against the pitiless reinforced steel, you’ve almost exhausted the adrenalin coursing through your egg-beating legs and you cough up your first briny mouthful. You –

“What’s going on up there?” asked my let’s-sneak-up-from-behind-and-startle-the-shit-out-of-him wife, tapping my temple with her forefinger.

“Gaaaaaa!” I shouted almost falling off my rock. “Who are you? Where did you come from? And why are you impersonating my aunt?”

“I’m done shopping and came to find you! It’s almost time to get on the ferry.”

“The fe-fe-fe-ferry. Right. The ferry. Looks pretty rough out there. Let’s wait until tomorrow.”

“What are talking about? It’s perfect weather!”

“As soon as we get on board, I’m dropping my pants, bending over, and getting a shot in the ass. With any luck, I’ll never wake up.”

“You’re making less and less sense every day!” she cried, throwing her arms skyward. “Come on, let’s go!”

“Oh alright,” I grumbled, hopping down gingerly with my busted knee. Picking my way across the moraine-like seabed I stumbled across a sodden old running shoe, so battered only a faded outline remained of its Nike Swoosh. This instantly reminded me of the single running shoes, with feet still inside them, that have been mysteriously washing ashore in British Colombia and Washington State since 2007. Conspiracy theories abound but the most likely explanation is that the feet belong to suicides who ended it by hurling themselves into the complex waterways of the Salish Sea. As it happens, human bodies that don’t succumb to predation (i.e. get eaten by some giant honking sea beast) first will naturally “disarticulate”, or come apart at the joints, hands and feet first. Because a running shoe encases the foot in a flotation device, it’s little wonder they occasionally wash up on the shore (while the feet of suicides in stilettoes, for example, are never heard from again).

“What are you doing now?!” called my wife who had marched on ahead.

“Checking for feet!” I called back as I flipped over the shoe with a stick and sighed in disappointment to see it was empty. Tossing away the stick, I trudged after my wife who was walking away fast and, for some reason, holding the front of her head in her hands as if something was imminently going to burst forth from both temples.

Having finally been wrestled onto the ferry, we were underway and bound for Jersey, a Channel Island 65 kilometers straight north off the coast of Normandy, to commiserate with a friend also sentenced to turn 50 this year. The boozy Brits were in a carnival mood, swilling cheap lager and biting into heavily battered wedges of slippery battleship-gray matter with devastated pre-orthodontics era British teeth. When Whitney Houston drifted through the pipes, my ears started bleeding and I fled to the upper aft deck. Thanks to a taut wind and dark incensed clouds, I was mostly alone and (guess what?) my mind drifted out over the waves.

And waves are what I started thinking about. Rogue waves. Unlike tsunamis which have an identifiable cause (earthquake, volcanic eruption, glacier calving, meteorite impact, etc.,) and can be tracked, rogue waves do not have a single distinct cause, are unexpected, appear out of nowhere and, with heights towering up to 30 meters (100 feet), are the suspected culprits in the sudden and mysterious sinking of countless vessels, some as large as ocean liners. In 1995, the cruise liner RMS Queen Elizabeth 2 encountered and survived a 28-meter rogue wave in the stormy dark heart of the North Atlantic. Sometime later, from the psychiatrist’s couch, her Master recounted that it abruptly “came out of the darkness” and “looked like the White Cliffs of Dover”. To stave off capsizing, the ship had to literally “surf” the near-vertical monster wave…

Alone now on the ferry’s deck (probably because I had been unconsciously talking aloud to myself about killer rogue waves) in the dwindling light, I squinted out towards the distant gloom on the horizon and could have sworn I saw a Dover-cliff-sized wave frothily materializing there. I slowly clawed at my face in dread until I realized it was just the coast of France. That terrified me even more so I fled back below decks, ordered a double from an aging bar wench whose bony structure protruding from loose clothing and splintered teeth reminded me of a praying mantis, and hid in a broom closet until we slipped past stony Elizabeth Castle’s runway of a breakwater and mercifully docked in St. Helier.

After a merry couple of days romping around Jersey, with its windswept near-empty swathes of sandy beach still wistfully guarded over by old German bunkers, we returned to St. Malo where my rock was now invisible beneath a strong hightide breaking its back against the city’s fortress walls. We rented a car and spent the next few days zipping around upper Brittany and lower Normandy.** I delighted in getting lost in the narrow country lanes (i.e. after Google Maps lost its signal, which it frequently did) lined by dense cornfields with stalks as high as those that doomed characters get chased through in the movies. We were never truly lost though because, inevitably, the rolling patchwork of chlorophyll green, bark brown, and lemon yellow would disintegrate into a yawning blue vista where the boundless sea met the boundless sky and invited us down to yet another dazzling beach.

Although the sandy sections of these beaches were littered with bloated tourists half-drowned in suntan lotion and melted ice cream, it was easy to find seclusion along the rockier bits where the ocean had excavated shady hollows at the base of monolithic striated cliffs. One clear sunny afternoon, I discarded my sandals and abandoned my wife in one of these spots to wade in the gentle surf. After much splashing around like a toddler stomping in puddles, I came upon a small spiral shell, intricately painted in deep mauves and oranges. Examining the twisting pattern, which was somehow like a murmuration of starlings, I was once again struck by nature’s artistry, the magnificence of which, in my opinion, has never been matched by any human hand.

I was also reminded of the Fibonacci sequence. You don’t? This 13th Century Italian mathematician stumbled upon it by accident when tinkering around with rabbit populations of all things:

0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144, 233…

Each number in the sequence is the sum of the previous two numbers. Almost childlike in its simplicity, right? But there’s something else. If you divide any number by the previous number, you will get approximately 1.618 every single time all the way down the sequence to infinity. This banal enough looking number is actually much sexier than its famous relative, pi, and has been dubbed phi, or “The Golden Ratio”. Why? Because it is ubiquitous throughout nature from the microscopic to the cosmic. It describes, amongst countless other examples, the:

  • Ratio of anionic to cationic radii of all atoms;
  • 3-dimensional geometric helix shape that exactly mirrors the known ratios of our DNA molecules;
  • Ratio of females to males in any honeybee colony in the world;
  • Configuration of branches and leaves on trees and petals on flowers;
  • Proportions of human beings including height, eyes, ears, and even the relative dimensions of a woman’s uterus;
  • Relationship between the eye, fins, and tail of marine mammals;
  • Dimensions of the earth and moon and distances between the planets;
  • Structure of Saturn’s rings; and
  • Quantum mechanics of black holes.

As I stood transfixed by the shell, I remembered that the Golden Ratio of its spiral is synced with those of our fingerprints, hurricanes, and our very own Milky Way. Not to mention when a rare and unpredictable rogue wave rises up from the sea, ultimate symbol of the random dangerousness of nature, crests and breaks over a mighty container ship containing all variety of human endeavor and snaps it in half like a matchstick consigning everyone and everything on board to the lonesome deep (except for those containers with some buoyancy, perhaps stuffed with Nike shoes, that scatter and drift half-submerged along the temperamental currents of the open seas as spectral hazards to other vessels), it does so in compliance with the Golden Ratio.

There is an underlying pattern to everything.

The cliffs behind me suddenly caught on fire as the sun slung further into the west. I saw that the shade my wife was sheltering in was retreating so I plodded back to her.

“Don’t!” she snapped, straight-arming me the palm of her hand, her eyes unreadable behind bug sunglasses.

“What?”

“I don’t want to hear anything about walking the plank, drowning on sinking ships, rogue waves, or washed up feet in running shoes, THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!!”

“Here,” I said, pressing the shell into her hand and folding her fingers around it.

“A shell?” she asked, perching her sunglasses on top of her forehead.

“A gift from God,” I said.

~

* Near death out-of-body experiences hint at something else but that is a subject for another blog.

** Advertising pitch! When you go, you must go for dinner at L’Abri des Grèves (http://www.labridesgreves.fr/) in coastal village Cherrueix in Brittany (https://bit.ly/2PIE2jg). There you can sit on the terrasse beside the sea, spectacular Le Mont-Saint-Michel (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mont-Saint-Michel) looming prominently in the background, and have a huge plate of the freshest, tastiest mussels you have ever eaten washed down with a pint of the local cider for about 17.00€. Go for it!

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Sea (Part II)), 2018. 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 Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2018 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Posted in All (uncategorized), The Sea | Leave a comment

The Sea (Part I)


When I immigrated to Canada, it was done the old-fashioned way: by sea. To preempt the typical sarky comments from my alleged friends, no this is not a nostalgia piece harking back to the Golden Age of Sail and yes, commercial aviation had made some advances beyond dirigible balloons. Furthermore, I was only a toddler so I actually have no recollection of the weeklong voyage. By all accounts though, it redefined the concept of a “rough crossing”.

Only at sea about half an hour after weighing anchor in England, the ship was shaken bow-to-stern by a grinding crash. It hadn’t run aground but, convinced a collision with something had occurred, the crew about-faced the ship and beelined back to port. Hours later, an inspection concluded that no collision had occurred and the ship was perfectly seaworthy. Off we went again, passengers and crew alike suppressing nagging doubts: something had traumatized this ship… we heard it… we felt it…

Three days later, the black waves of the mid-Atlantic, large and angry by nature, were lashed into erratic towering walls of spume-streaked water under a howling gale. Lacerated by lightning, the even blacker sky vomited rain on our ship, now an insignificant white fleck bobbing in the boundless churning darkness. Almost unbroken thunder boomed through the chaotic violence like a commander’s voice through the fog of war.

It was only in this aquatic hellscape the crew finally ascertained the cause of the mysterious crash three days prior: the ship’s stabilizers had broken. This meant that the ship not only lurched up and down the mountainous crests and troughs of the waves, it also simultaneously rolled back-and-forth sideways. The combination of stomach-draining seasickness and abject terror led to 90% of the passengers and crew gratefully dropping their pants, bending over, and getting a needle in the ass that knocked them out cold for the next 48 hours.

I wasn’t one of them though. Apparently, I spent the entire duration of the storm obnoxiously scampering around and shrieking with delight every time the bow pitched so insanely downwards and to the side, it seemed certain to everyone (except me) it would finally descend into the deep and Davy Jones’s Locker* for good.

Despite the fact that today I get motion sickness just from walking down the street, I wonder if this is where my enduring love for the sea was born. As a young boy, I devoured every Adventure of Tintin I could get my hands on. Not because I cared less about that sanctimonious asexual boy-scout Tintin himself, with his insufferable cowlick and kickable white mutt, but because I adored crusty old sea dog Captain Haddock, irredeemably drunken and foul-mouthed and only remotely happy when at sea. I also read C.S. Forester’s 12-book Horatio Hornblower** series about twelve times, each volume a bible codifying the rum, sodomy, and the lash traditions of the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic wars. I dug up everything I could read about the Titanic disaster and repeatedly watched the brilliant and terrifying film Das Boot. All things nautical all the time!

MY MOTHER: What are you reading about now?

ME: Cannibalism on the high seas.

MY MOTHER: What?

ME: Great stuff. Sailors lost at sea and starving to death. Had to draw straws to decide which one would get killed and eaten.

MY MOTHER: How nice. You know, most boys your age are reading the Hardy Boys.

ME: They ate everything. Skin, organs… genitals

MY MOTHER [slapping her sides]: I’m going shopping now. I may never come back.

ME: They cracked open the bones and sucked out the marrow… Raw bone marrow!

MY MOTHER [halfway out the door]: Bye!

ME [talking to myself]: And when they finally got rescued, they got charged with murder. Not fair really. What choice did they have…?

My boyhood years were also punctuated by summer trips to England which, not surprising given it is impossible to be more than 70 miles from the coast, cemented my obsession. Clambering along the jagged lichen-encrusted shoreline of East Anglia**, the steady crashing of surf over dangerous rocks and nostalgic wail of gulls under clouds pregnant with rain was like siren song to me, as mesmerizing as the ghostly merchant vessels off in the distance silently tilling the cold gray waves of the North Sea.

“What’s going on up there?” asked my aunt tapping my temple with her forefinger. “You look bewitched.”

“I was wondering how deep it is. How many shipwrecks are on the bottom? How much treasure? How many skeletons? How many people get sucked out in riptides each year? Do they get eaten? I wonder if there are killer whales out there. Or great white sharks? Or giant octopus? I wonder how many unexploded mines there still are. Do they ever sink any of those ships out there? I– ”

“Thank you for that,” said my aunt curtly and, impersonating my mother, turned on her heel and marched off through the wind-battered scrub grass.

“What?” I called after her through cupped hands, mystified. After all, back in those days there was no Google or Wiki in your pocket (in fact the Internet was an embryonic mystery known only to the U.S. Department of Defense and God) so I was forever asking myself questions only trips to brick-and-mortar libraries might answer.

“Now… never… swim… sea… no… again!” she called back over her shoulder, half her words scattered by a stiffening breeze.

Some years later, not far into my twenties, I was fecklessly bumming around Europe after graduating from university. One day, in the early evening, I found myself in a tiny Portuguese fishing village sitting on a rock sipping beer, smoking a cigarette, and staring out over the Atlantic. Although a powerful storm earlier in the day had left the shoreline looking like something ransacked, the water was now calm, it’s gently rippled surface glittering fuzzily under a yolky sun which was flattening out steadily behind a thin bank of white cloud deep in the west.

Studying the turbulent little eddies lapping around the foot of my rock, I was distracted by a small group of women of varying dimensions and ages emerging from the lengthening shadows in the village. Gypsy-like in their colorful bandanas and floor-length skirts, they trundled towards the creaking wooden dock chattering quietly. As I watched them, one broke off and approached me with a wave.

“American?” she asked gesturing at my New York Yankees cap.

“Sure,” I said with a shrug, once again too apathetic to explain to strangers my England/Canada dissociative identity disorder.

“Cigarette?” she asked making her index and middle fingers a V in front of her brightly lipsticked mouth. She was probably still in her thirties, but the sun and wind had so prematurely seamed her face it reminded me of an old baseball glove.

“Sure,” I said handing her one with a sigh. I fumbled for my Zippo but stopped when I saw her quickly squirrel away the cigarette into one of the many folds of her skirt.

“Is okay… is for the… the man,” she said haltingly.

“What man?”

“The man man. The… how you say… husband man.”

“Ah yes, your husband. Of course. Where is he?”

“Out there,” she said turning her head, worried eyes blinking into the sun, now a defiant orange fireball drowning fast on the empty horizon. “He a…. a fishes man.”

“Right. A fisherman. Got it.”

“He come… now… he come soon… home…”

“Very nice. Lots of fish, huh? Suppertime?” I asked making eating gestures and rubbing my stomach.

“No… no fishes… no good today… not so much fishes.”

“I’m sorry,” I said, and I meant it.

The sun perished and the lantern room of a crumbling stone lighthouse perched at the end of a nearby spit of land flickered to life. Under the winking yellow eye of its revolving lamp the silhouettes of three rickety dinghies, their outboard motors coughing and sputtering, were approaching the harbor. “Oh! Oh!” squeaked the woman lightly bobbing on the balls of her feet. “He come! He come!”

Without another word she scurried off, clutching at her skirt as she danced around the beach debris, to join the others huddled at the end of the dock. Buzzing in anticipation, they swung bat-length torches through the gathering darkness. In a hail of shouted greetings, the dinghies cut their engines and their rusted hulls scraped noisily against the barnacle blistered stilts of the dock. Beneath their woolen beanies, the faces of the men were downcast, strained with fatigue and resignation as a few small silvery shapes flipped around in the mostly empty nets tangled around their feet. They clambered out into the extended arms of the women who, eyes pinched closed in gratitude, bearhugged them and pecked at their bearded faces with kisses.

The reunited pack trudged back up the dock arm-in-arm, my woman’s “man man” sucking thirstily on my cigarette. By the time it occurred to me to go down and offer the group the spare packet I had in my backpack, they had disappeared into the obscurity of the village’s narrow alleys, residual voices and laughter quickly dissipating until the only sound left was the hushed lullaby of the surf, it’s soft notes my only company.

I cursed myself for wholly selfish reasons: perhaps in return for the cigarettes they would have offered me to join them in their unvarnished camaraderie which in that moment, despite their obvious poverty, I felt a tugging urge to be a part of. I had been traveling alone for some time and when I turned back and looked out over the ocean, I felt lonelier than the isolated lighthouse, it’s metronomic beam vainly sweeping an empty dial of restive blackness, vast watery cemetery interring centuries of shipwrecked hopes and dreams.

A gull cried plaintively as it wheeled overhead against the bright smear of the Milky Way. I closed my eyes and, like a marooned Odysseus yearning for Ithaca, I yearned for Montreal thousands of miles away across the deep dark sea…

To be continued…

~

* Davy Jones’s Locker: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Davy_Jones%27_Locker

** East Anglia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/East_Anglia

Rough sea

© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (The Sea (Part I)), 2018. 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 Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2018 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Posted in All (uncategorized), The Sea | Leave a comment