Somewhere in Florida
A man wakes up as the sun is rising. He rolls over and kisses his sleeping wife. This is vacation. He should be relaxing. But instead he’s going on a jog through the swamplands.
The air feels like curdled butter in his lungs as he steps onto the trail. The world around him — ferns, palm trees and other Floridian vegetation — shimmers in a pale orange light. Birds chirp. Frogs croak. Insects creak. The man puts one foot in front of the other, begins to pick up speed. The breeze is cool on his sweaty skin; the repetitive crunch of his feet on the dirt is meditative. Now the man is fully awake. What a morning to be alive, he thinks.
His wife, still asleep in the hotel, is dreaming of a bald eagle. It soars overhead, backdropped by a sky so blue that it hurts the heart. The eagle has a trout in its beak. The bird drops the fish and the fish tumbles through the air. The wife opens her mouth to accept the sustenance, but before it can slide into her esophagus, she wakes up and rolls over to find a blank space where her husband should be.
Back on the trail, there’s a great snorting and rustling from the ferns. Two hairy, four-legged creatures trot onto the dirt in front of the man. Unhinged beasts, he thinks. There’s only one thing I can do. The man steps forward, pounding his chest with his fist. Overhead, a pack of seagulls glides toward the sea.
New York City
A woman stumbles down the sidewalk, past countless bags of trash thrown haphazardly onto the curb. Her head throbs. Smeared on her cheek is mascara. There’s a desert in her throat, dry pebbles in her nose. She’s in need of a bed, but hers is so far away as to be insignificant. It’s early — just before sunrise — yet heat is already emanating from the pavement. A man dressed in ragged clothing is jumping from the sidewalk to the street and back again. He’s clutching a green Old Testament under his right arm, and as the woman walks past, chin tucked to her chest, she braces for an uninvited street sermon. But he doesn’t deliver. She hears the man mutter That’s the way things SHOULD be, and feels a wave of relief as she moves across the street and into a coffee shop. A bell rings as she enters.
She orders a 12-oz drip. The usual. She takes the warm cup to a booth by a window overlooking the street. The Old Testament man is still outside, stumbling back and forth, mumbling words to no one. The woman rubs her eyes. This needs to stop, she thinks. It isn’t romantic anymore. She pulls her cell phone from her pocket, causing a movie ticket to flutter to the floor. Disconnected images from the previous night flash across her mind: holding Hunter’s hand in the theatre, kissing him on the cheek, his fingers unbuttoning her pants as the movie flashes in a dark room. Guilt. Regret. The woman checks her phone. Three texts from Conor between 2:30 and 3 a.m.: Are you still coming?; Where are you?; Fuck it, I’m going to bed.
She orders a 12-oz drip. The usual. She takes the warm cup to a booth by a window overlooking the street. The Old Testament man is still outside, stumbling back and forth, mumbling words to no one. The woman rubs her eyes. This needs to stop, she thinks.
As she takes her first sip of coffee, her headache slips away like a raindrop down a windowpane. She picks up her phone to text someone, but before she can finish, a BMW slams into the Old Testament man. There’s a spidered indentation on the windshield. The man is face-down and motionless on the sidewalk, bleeding from his head. The Bible has been flung 10 feet away and is lying open on the sidewalk. There’s a lot of shouting and honking. General chaos. The woman considers going outside to help, but nothing moves inside of her. Instead she goes to the bathroom. This is not her problem. This is not her life.
A goat with immaculate horns — let’s call him Joe — is standing atop a rock, some 100 feet in the air. The desert around him is drenched in darkness. It’s unclear why this particular goat decided to climb this particular rock at this particular moment. And if anyone were to see this specific rock at this specific time — which, to be clear, they didn’t — they would likely wonder how Joe managed to get up there. The sides of the rock are extremely steep — basically straight up — making the goat’s ascent appear virtually impossible. Even Joe himself, though unable to formulate language-based thoughts, feels on an instinctual level that he’s gotten into quite the pickle. All of his goat friends have wandered off, but that hardly matters, because even if they were around, they wouldn’t be able to help him down. So the goat’s only option is to stand there, in that dead-eyed way that goats do, and wait for the sun to rise, upon which time he may be able to formulate a plan to get himself to the ground, where he can resume living his best life.
Unfortunately, we must leave Joe now. Feel free to draw your own conclusions about what happens to him.
There’s a closet in a house in the Georgetown neighborhood of Pittsburgh that nobody has seen in years. The person living at this residence is Alice Berkowitz, a 68-year old woman who most people would refer to as a hoarder. Every room in her three-bedroom, 1,300 square-foot house is stuffed with so much junk and trash that it’s impossible for a body to move from one space to another. The only clear path runs from the recliner — upon which Alice sits to watch Fox News and reruns of The Andy Griffith Show — to the refrigerator, which is overrun with maggots, yet full of food that Alice still inexplicably puts in her mouth. Alice spends much of her time mentally and verbally cursing the state of her country — which, on several occasions, she’s described as “unholy” and a “disgrace” — while being simultaneously oblivious to the fact that her own home is exactly both of those things. But that’s neither here nor there, because our focus is on the closet that nobody has laid eyes on in years, perhaps decades. Inside this closet lives a mouse — let’s call him James, James Mousesmith — who finds the conditions there quite suitable to his mousey preferences. He spends his nights sleeping in an old shoebox filled with insulation from the crawlspace. During the day he mostly just sniffs around his trashy paradise.
There isn’t anything objectively unique about James — he has gray fur, with a pink nose and whiskers, like most mice — but readers will be surprised to know that his great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-reat-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-geat-great-great-great-grandfather (let’s call him Wilheim Mousesmith) was present with Adolf Hitler on April 30, 1945, when history’s most notorious dictator committed suicide. Wilheim, in fact, was the last creature to see Hitler alive. Not that Wilheim — a mouse, remember — had any idea who Hitler was or any inkling of the horrible atrocities that awful German autocrat had committed.
It should be noted that Wilheim, too, died in that same cellar a few days later. By that point, however, one of his many sons (Christoph) had already begun a long journey to America. Christoph, against all odds, migrated to Spain, where he weaseled (or should I say moused) his way onto a ship that was delivering a large batch of olive oil to the New World. The ship docked in New York City, and through a series of events over the next seven decades, Christoph’s lineage ended up in Western Pennsylvania, where it propagated extensively. (In another high point in the Mousesmith family legacy, James’ great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandmother, Beatrice, climbed into the cleat of Pittsburgh Steelers legend Jerome Bettis and scared the everloving shit out of him one winter morning in 2007.)
If I knocked on her door tomorrow and announced that a small mammal living in her closet had ties to Nazi Germany, she’d probably scream a string of illogical explicatives at me, slam the door in my face and return to her recliner, where the sight of Opie Griffith walking down a country road with a fishing pole over his shoulder would remind her of an America that never actually existed
James, of course, didn’t know that he was part of something much bigger than himself, because mice are intellectually incapable of understanding such things. And Alice, old oblivious bitch that she is, had no clue that her home was harboring a creature of such unique familial blood. I don’t think she’d care even if she did know. If I knocked on her door tomorrow and announced that a small mammal living in her closet had ties to Nazi Germany, she’d probably scream a string of illogical explicatives at me, slam the door in my face and return to her recliner, where the sight of Opie Griffith walking down a country road with a fishing pole over his shoulder would remind her of an America that never actually existed.
Thomas Forsyth is 94-years old, but don’t think for a second that his age stops him from being active. Just yesterday, in fact, Thomas took his boat out on a nearby lake to fish with his son (George) and two granddaughters. The four of them caught seven catfish in total. Thomas, who grew up on a 300-acre farm, skinned the delectable creatures and placed them in the fridge to be eaten the next morning. And when the next morning came, Thomas awoke at 5:30 and put on a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt, which he tucked in tightly. He pulled the slick catfish filets from the fridge and deep-fried all seven pieces. He tossed some biscuits in the oven and began making scrambled eggs. There was a picture in the kitchen window of Thomas, perhaps five years younger, sitting next to a woman of about the same age. Thomas glanced at this photograph as he cracked an egg, causing an odd mixture of happiness and sadness to swell inside his stomach. He smiled and carried on, just like he’d always done.
The rest of the family awoke around 6:30, still in their pajamas. The feast was on the table, ready to be devoured, when they walked in. One of Thomas’ granddaughters, a 7-year old, complained about having to eat fried catfish for breakfast. George insisted that she stop being so rude, said that she should instead be thankful that grandpa had woken up early to make the family such a delicious breakfast. Then George brewed some coffee — which Thomas had forgotten to do in his rush to complete breakfast — and poured both himself and his father a cup. He added a splash of Irish whiskey to both cups and handed one to his father. “Cheers to a great visit,” George said. Thomas nodded and took a sip of the spiked brown liquid, just as his granddaughters were scooping eggs onto their plates and discussing the previous day’s fishing trip. Thomas gently closed his eyes.
Thomas, who grew up on a 300-acre farm, skinned the delectable creatures and placed them in the fridge to be eaten the next morning. And when the next morning came, Thomas awoke at 5:30 and put on a pair of jeans and a flannel shirt, which he tucked in tightly. He pulled the slick catfish filets from the fridge and deep-fried all seven pieces
Ten years prior, when Thomas’ wife was still around, the couple had taken a camping trip in the Maine wilderness. The second morning they were there, Thomas awoke before sunrise — just as he always does — and walked a trail circling a beautiful lake. Light was beginning to illuminate the world when George saw a large black mass lying near the shoreline. It startled him at first, but when he noticed it wasn’t moving, he crept closer. When his eyes adjusted to the darkness he realized what he was seeing: a dead black bear, with two dead cubs lying by its side. Thomas couldn’t believe it. There were no visible wounds, no blood. So strange, he thought. Nothing suggested that death should have come for these creatures, yet death had come, thoroughly and finally.
Thomas was visualizing this memory as he sat in the kitchen, eyes closed, listening to the chattering voices of his granddaughters. He wondered when his time to lie on the shore would come. Then he picked up a piece of fried catfish and got to eating.
Anton Sanchez is driving to work through the darkness on a winding country road when he notices a Ford Bronco in the ditch, turned on its side, brake lights on. Anton is a paramedic, commuting into the city to start a 24-hour shift. He’s run countless severe accidents during his 16-year career, the worst of which happened just two weeks prior, when a woman in a Honda Fit was partially decapitated after slamming into the back of a tractor trailer.
So one part of Anton thinks Maybe I should stop. Maybe I should see if there’s anybody inside of the wreckage. But another part of him has grown jaded to human suffering. Checking on the person inside of the Bronco would mean going out of his way to help someone else, and didn’t he already do enough of that as a paramedic? He’d already sacrificed so much of his physical health and mental wellbeing to work as a community servant. He’d brought his fair share of victims back from the brink of death. Wasn’t that enough? When he left the station each day, he was totally depleted of empathy. Is that awful? he wondered. Am I a bad person?
He weighed both sides of the argument: a good person, a true empath, would help a suffering human. This, he thought, was unequivocally true. But again, hadn’t he done enough life-saving? Hadn’t he collected enough good citizen tokens, as it were, simply by going to work each day and telling the public, in essence, I will be there for you in your time of need? Didn’t that count for something? Or did the fact that he got paid for his work as a paramedic negate, or at least lessen, the good deeds he’d done on the job?
“The problem,” he said, talking to himself in the car. “Is this idea that people are either good or bad. It’s foolish to believe that human nature is cut and dry.” Anton, I think, had a good point. A human being isn’t the same person from one moment to the next. Think about it: do you act the same way around your wife as you do around someone you’ve just met? Maybe you do, but I’m going to assume most of us don’t. The decisions a person makes are grounded more in each situation than who they are on a basic level. Moral relativism, I think it’s called. Or something like that.
Take Anton, for instance. In the past, he had stopped to help people who’d been in accidents, even when he wasn’t on shift. So did choosing not to stop for this particular accident make him a shitty person all of a sudden? Did it cancel out his collection of good deeds? I don’t think so, because a person isn’t inherently virtuous or unvirtuous. A person only makes choices that are virtuous or non-virtuous. There are a whole host of reasons why a person may react one way in one situation and a totally different way in a similar situation later on. Maybe they’re tired. Maybe they’re drunk. Maybe they’re distracted by a marital spat. Maybe they’ve just masturbated. Maybe their kid had just been expelled from school. It would behoove all of us to understand that there’s so much more going on beneath the surface of every human being, and that hey, maybe we should cut one another some slack when someone doesn’t live up to the lofty standards of virtuosity that we’ve set for all humanity — standards that, by the way, we often fail to meet ourselves.
“It would behoove all of us to understand that there’s so much more going on beneath the surface of every human being, and that hey, maybe we should cut one another some slack when someone doesn’t live up to the lofty standards of virtuosity that we’ve set for all humanity — standards that, by the way, we often fail to meet ourselves.”
Anton was thinking about all of this as he was driving around a blind curve on that dark country road somewhere outside the city. He was so lost in thought that he didn’t see the truck in front of him at a stop sign. When his eyes finally registered the vehicle, he screamed and slammed on the brakes. His car was skidding toward the back of the truck when he closed his eyes and hoped for the best, which was really all he could do at that point. And if, perchance, he hit the truck and died, would his soul have ascended to heaven? Or would it have slipped into the depths of hell? Or would his soul simply cease to exist, effectively negating the conundrum of morality that Anton had struggled with pretty much every day his entire life.
Somewhere in Florida
A boar is prancing through the thick underbrush with one of his buddies. The two of them have just awakened from a good night’s sleep, and now they’re up and about, ready for an early-morning meal. There they are, sniffing around and doing generally piggish things, when from up the way they hear a methodical pounding of feet coming their direction. Spooked, they flee onto the nearby trail, where they see a human male standing stiff as a pencil.
There’s a moment of indecision about whether this creature poses a threat. The two of them consider making a charge, but then the human male steps forward, pounding his chest and preparing for a fight. The hogs, sensing that this creature means business, flee to the other side of the trail and sprint through the underbrush as fast as their skinny legs will carry them. All the man can see as the beasts disappear into the vegetation is long blades of grass swaying this way and that as their thick bodies pass through. Upon this sight, the man thinks to himself, what a morning to be alive. He stops for a moment, trying to remember something forgotten, then continues his jog as if nothing strange had happened.
I’m not one to believe in vague portents, but after living through a year as awful as 2020, I’m not really sure what to believe anymore.
On the opposite end, there are the forgotten. The lottery nobody wants to win, but must be won by some. The unluckily lucky ones, the one-in-a-million that nobody wishes to be.
Jo never thought of himself as a river guy, per se, yet one morning he awoke in a canoe, floating down a body of water that clearly was a river.