Friday, August 31, 2012

Issue #35 -- September, 2012

up down up right down left up
By David James Keaton

“Ironically, in my solitude, I had created something
that could only be used in concert with another human being.”
-Kurt Vonnegut - “Mother Night”

diamond mining

            The headlights behind me continue to mirror everything I do. Every swerve, sway, weave, drift, and jerk. On the last hill, I put my car in neutral and let it drift backwards a quarter mile but they never got any closer.
            I reach up and flick the rearview with a finger, expecting the headlights to disappear. But they keep pace a steady half mile back. I jam the brakes with both heels, step onto the road, and look back down the moonlit vanishing point. The headlights have stopped, too. Too far back to see anything but those unblinking white eyes, I can’t tell if the driver has stepped out on the road with me. I walk to the front of my car and slowly cross in front of my own highbeams. In the distance, the headlights finally wink at me, one at a time.

*          *          *

            Back in the car, Jay’s calling again.
            "What up."
            "What up."
            "Jay, what’s the most chrome you’ve ever seen on a car?"
            "The whole thing."
            "Yeah. Guy I knew. He started with the rims, moved to the bumpers, the hood scoop, then his hair, then the whole fucking car. When he hit the road, no one could see him. He crashed immediately."
            "I doubt it would be completely invisible. I’m thinking it would be like a mirror, everyone would see their reflections."
            "I was joking."
            Right before I left Toledo the first time, Jay met this girl we (I) called "Tea" because she had this gigantic pyramid of tea tins filled with weed, various drug paraphernalia, and grayish hard candy that had long since lost its rainbow colors. She was what kids these days call a “fake-ass hippie.”  More bandannas than '80s gang movies, tie-dyed crap everywhere, style-over-movement gear, you know the type. But besides all that, I never really liked her to begin with. For me, it was something about the way she transformed herself into what Jay seemed to want even though the smart, sharp-dressed pictures all around her (soon to be "their") apartment told another story. And she also started blaming me for every irresponsible thing Jay ever did, even though, ironically, every girl I’ve known has blamed Jay for every stupid thing I’ve ever done. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. Just like her actual personality, probably. Jay’s tendency to date this fake counter-culture type was as confusing to him as it was to me. But she must have seen a police lineup of his former girlfriends to start her campaign. And I probably could stomach some of this if her insatiable quest for a wedding ring from my boy wasn’t so goddamn transparent.
            I studied her hands when I first met her, just like she studied mine. And I could tell her third finger was desperate for a diamond ring just by the way it twitched and pointed at him every time a smile cracked his orange beard in her direction. The rest of her fingers were covered in silver and stone, hip, non-precious stones, of course. But not that one. That finger was thinner than the rest, atrophied, impatiently waiting with a white band between those gnarly knuckles. I could tell it carried more than its share of engagement rings through the years, and it wouldn’t stop fucking twitching until it got another one to weigh it back into submission. I remember sitting at their house one time, playing that video game where the little man with the light on his helmet has to navigate collapsing tunnels and gather as many jewels as he can. I called Tea into the room and told her to watch the screen. Then my thumb tapped the direction arrows on the controller rapid-fire with a carefully rehearsed "up, left, down, right, up, down, up" and the television screen was suddenly filled with hundreds of glittering digital diamonds for my little man to gather at his leisure. "Which one do you want?" I asked her, grinning through my bubble gum. Jay didn’t get the joke, but I know she did.
            "Hey, Jay, can you call me back later?"
           "Yeah, man, got a story for you. Don’t want to waste this alone time..."
            He’s gone, and I check my speedometer. Jay’s phone calls seem to ratchet up my driving to dangerous levels. I look up to the mirror, and behind me I see the headlights taking each turn as expert and as reckless as I do. I also see the heartbeat in my neck throbbing alarmingly, pushing blood, paranoia, and bad thoughts into my head. I remember the first time I heard a teacher talk about that artery, how I thought she was calling it "corroded" and how that name made perfect sense.
            I turn on the radio, fan, and windshield wipers, a combination of buttons, joysticks and switches that I know will momentarily overwhelm the car’s electrical system and draw off the battery, making all my lights dim.
            The headlights behind me pulse in the rearview mirror just like my dashboard.

            A horse pulling an Amish carriage clomps next to me, and I’m grateful they don’t have headlights or I’d prove them right about us assholes.
            See, the thing about jerking off is, if you wait long enough to do it, you don’t have to fantasize about anything.
            You don’t need the face or body of an ex-girlfriend in your brain or what you always did together or even the image of someone else doing the same thing on the page or a videotape. Wait long enough and you won’t need anything at all. It’ll be like blowing your nose, more like a sneeze actually, and with approximately the same level of collateral damage to the environment. And the thing about jerking off in a car, however, is that no matter what you do, you seem to let pressure off the gas pedal and slow to about five miles per hour without even realizing it. I swear I didn’t see that bandanna when I closed my eyes. You couldn’t prove it anyway.
            When I flick a ticking pendulum of semen off the rearview mirror and stop fantasizing about grandfather clocks winding down, I see the eyes idling and waiting patiently for me to finish. We both ease carefully back onto the highway and start driving again.
            Then I turn off the fan, windshield wipers, and radio in a different order this time to see what happens. I’m convinced that by doing this, I’ve somehow just made this car faster, as least for moment. I remember the chase scenes and cheat codes from my favorite video games, glance up at the eyes behind me, and feel the blood returning to my brain and feet until I can finally bury the gas pedal.

crayon rubbings

            Doing research for a paper around my ninth year of undergrad in Toledo, I saw a framed charcoal grave rubbing of horror writer H.P Lovecraft lording over a selection of his books in our town’s library. The price tag on it was eighty bucks. Dollar signs in my eyes, cash register noises in my ears, I immediately checked online and saw that grave rubbings of celebrities of James Dean’s stature were going for fifty to a hundred bucks on eBay. See, me and Jay had gone there once before just for the hell of it, and I asked him if he still had the map. He sure did. Roadtrip! We’d actually driven to Shipshawana first to try and find a Amish barn-building in progress, maybe lend a hand. Like we were the first motherfuckers ever to see the movie Witness.
            No luck. So we went for the grave and took a couple Poloroids.
            I quickly tried to gather as many people as possible to spread the misery in case shit went wrong, but Jay and Rachel were the only ones up for it, "Ray" being the essential member of the crew as she was always all "organ-I-zized" (her words) and, as I anticipated, already had a bag of paper and supplies happily swinging at her knees when I picked her up.
            On this particular day, Jay had plans with Tea for later that night, who he’d just met, and you could see from his newborn fist-like face that he needed shit to go smooth so that he could get back in time or else he was going to pull the pin on a grenade. Anticipating Jay’s need for distractions, I brought along my former favorite handheld videogame, the short-lived Atari Lynx, just to keep his hands busy. I would have brought him one of those fake preschool dashboards so he could honk the horn and pretend to drive, if I could have found mine in time, but a tiny hockey game kept his thumbs busy.
            But five hours later, I still couldn't find the graveyard. I swear you could light a city with the electricity coming off the back of Jay’s head when he realized I’d started circling the same block.
            We were going by the old snapshot I had taken and hoping the flat skyline in the background of the photo would be enough of a landmark to go by. But suddenly there were two graveyards in Shipshawana, Indiana. The Amish apparently had the lifespan of mayflies. Me and Ray were running giddy figure-eights in and out of gravestones as Jay watched the sun sink and started to lose his mind. We started weaving slower on purpose and peeking out from behind granite obelisks, trying to eavesdrop on the conversation Jay was having with himself, more of a debate really, each mutter punctuated with a savage rocket of saliva between his own feet. And when we finally found James Dean’s grave, it started raining real hard. Jay didn’t even bother to come look at it. He was clearly nearing a breaking point. I could tell by the way the rain turned to steam before it even hit his head. Ray was frantic, too. If the grave got soaked, the entire trip would be a bust. I didn’t care, and I figured Ray would get over it. But for Jay, wasting this much time was incomprehensible.
            Turned out the grave was covered with so much bullshit that it actually helped our cause. Big plastic flowers and glossy pictures of Jimmy Dean in gunfights poses and at least fifty bucks worth of pennies. I tried wiping it off with the towel I kept in my trunk for exactly this kind of emergency, and now Jay was stomping around the cemetery, smacking himself in the head. Then he started running around the graves, calling everyone names, screaming at the sky, and we gave chase. The only thing that calmed him down was his discovery of a giant, refrigerator-sized tombstone, too big for a grave rubbing, marked with the hilarious name, "Wigger."  Ray started taking pictures while me and Jay struck white-boy gangster poses in front of it, of course, and eventually, we all succumbed to playing the inevitable "let’s find our own names!" game.
            No luck.
            Jay probably would have been okay and resigned to the fact that he would never get back to Toledo anytime before midnight, but I decided to wind him up again. Ignoring the expression on his face that was saying "this close to attacking you, dude," I walked over to my car, stopped, looked around in horror, and pretended I’d locked my keys in my car. He was in slow-motion going for my throat when I ducked for cover and held up my keychain crucifix-style to ward him off. He spit again and closed his eyes to make me go away. At some point, I saw him playing with one of her bandanas, tying it to a tree. I would have fucked with him for it if he wasn’t on such a hair trigger.
            Anyway, the grave was way too wet for charcoal, so we tried to do it with crayons instead. Our soggy wrinkly rubbings looked more like psych-ward art therapy than anything framable, but I carefully rolled up rubbing after rubbing until we represented each color in the crayon box. Even the white one. I figured it was worth a try, in case the invisible letters showed up after it dried.
            Postscript to that trip. The soggy grave rubbings eventually got posted on an online auction, but, unfortunately, I included a picture next to the description. A couple weeks later, I got a dollar thirty taken from my checking account for eBay fees, which put my account under zero because I routinely took my accounts right down to the fucking nub. Still do. So I got a fifty dollar insufficient-funds fee. I tried explaining the situation to my "personal banker," but despite that title, she wasn’t all that interested in the details of my life. I still have a stack of sad, wrinkled grave rubbings stashed somewhere in a poster tube waiting for a good home just like the mangiest cats at the shelter. I’ve tried to give them away now and again at various sweet parties, but people always seem to forget to pick them back up on their way out the door. That’s okay though. It wasn’t the last scheme to crash and burn. It’s for the best. The only thing I might handle worse than disappointment is success. And the only thing I handle worse than that is everything else.
hockey strikes

            Jay almost got away from her at least once or twice. He actually dumped her so many times that it got to be a running joke, even with her. One time, I stopped by to finish our real-time six-month videogame hockey tournament. Somebody said the Red Wings had just lost the Cup to the Penguins, and even though we ended up living in Pittsburgh, we could give a fuck about those idiots. We considered video games much more important.
            Right before I got there, unknown to me, Jay had gone out the back door down to the dumpster. Tea buzzed me up, thinking I was him coming back from taking out the trash.
            I walked in saying "Where's Jay?" a split second before I noticed the boxes everywhere. She looked at me all serious and goes, "He left me again. Thanks for asking, asshole." And I didn’t know what to say and just started mumbling, "Uhhh, really sorry to hear that. I didn’t mean to...uh..." as I backed out the door.
            She got so close she was almost on my toes, and she said, "Have you ever thought about us?"
And right before I said something I would have regretted forever, Jay kicked the back of my knee behind me as he came back in and goes, "What up, fool?" She laughed and said, "Got ya!" and poked me in the chest and then went on with whatever she was packing, more than likely more evidence she needed to destroy to complete another personality change. I had to give her a little credit for the joke and thinking on her feet like that, and I think it illustrates our little not-so-friendly competition for our boy.
            I’d really love for her to know as much about him as I do. About how he values his relationship with certain videogames so much that he would never ever ever consider cheating. This really isn’t the case with her.
            The rules for playing our beloved hockey tournaments were complicated. In spite of them involving a decade-old, out-of-date system and a very unsuccessful and inaccurate depiction of the sport, for nostalgia’s sake it was our favorite and we took playing it very seriously. Way past its six-month expiration date. However, my own relationship with that game wasn’t too serious for me to try cheating every chance I got. Not Jay. The closest he’d come to cheating was denying that I would score, regardless of what the game was telling him. Bastard would yank on his controller cord and say, "Look, it wasn’t even plugged in! It’s cool. We’ll just adjusted the score in our heads. Okay, that says 5 to 19. It’s actually tied up 3 to 3. Let’s go..." 
            His fear of the popular myth that one limb grows stronger with the loss of its equal prevented him from playing the game, as I requested, with one thumb tied behind his back. But I do know he used a cheat code at least once. Problem was I could never prove it because I wasn’t sure what the code actually did. At first, I thought it was for invincibility. But that made no sense and could never really be tested because there were no weapons or fatalities on that virtual ice, and, of course, most hockey games aren’t played to the death. Then I thought it was for infinite lives. Again, no way to test that. Finally, I was convinced it was for slow motion, and that it only affected my skaters, and that it was a change almost indistinguishable by the human eye. The cheat code could have slowed me down just enough to miss intercepting that pass, just enough for him to get the jump on a computerized goalie that had memorized his every tactic, just enough for me to miss snagging an elusive loose puck in a corner that was rendered on the screen only slightly smaller than garbage can and with the same maneuverability. This sneaky slow-motion cheat code would be undetectable if I didn’t check the game clock on the screen with the one on my wrist. Games that should have been over by midnight would creep over into daylight, and I could never figure out why. Just like a three hour drive that, for some reason, seems to last three days instead.
            The only cheat I’ve ever seen successfully applied to this particular game was one of those joke codes that the programmers slip in to entertain themselves while clacking away on potato-chip covered keyboards in their cubicles. It was referred to as the "Lamaze Cheat" and if you tapped the right sequence of buttons, the tournament slots would fill up with games already played and jump straight to the final face-off. If you were playing "real-time" as me and Jay did, this would eliminate a six-month season, or, in the event of the hockey strikes that were a running gag in the League in the real world, a nine-month season. You’d think this inside joke would be enough for it to earn it’s nickname. Not quite. You see, besides jumping ahead nine-months to game seven of the finals, this code would also afflict every member of both teams with large, bulbous stomachs that hindered game play so severely that it was never worth bothering to cheat at all. The huge pregnant bellies on the digital men was funny enough, but soon we understood that either these little players couldn’t take a hard check to the midsection as successfully as before or, at least, our subconscious was making us flinch every time it happened so that all momentum of the match was lost. This was more than enough to psychologically fuck up our thumbs and make the game unplayable.
            Jay claimed he knew a code that gave you a gun, but he said it was a secret.

cheat code ethics

            I’m unsuccessfully trying to trick the mirror car into taking on-ramps with tiny squirts of turn signals and swerves when the phone starts bouncing impatiently on my seat again. I answer it and hope the shadow in the car behind me has to deal with the same phone call.
            "Duuuuuude, got some strange!"
            "From a stranger, I take it."
            "Stranger and stranger! Where you at?"
            "Outside of Pittsburgh."
            "Holy fuck you drive slow. So, get this, I'm at work…"
            "Since when?"
            "That hotel bar. I told you about that."
            "You got a job in the last three hours since I left and had some kind of adventure?"
            "No, man. This happened a couple days ago. Anyway, there’s this girl there for a convention, so I chattered her up a little bit at the bar while she waited for her team or whatever, and she’s telling me she’s there for seminar on environmental stress as a PR person for this mining company. And I start telling her all about hiking and being 'at one with nature,' too, you know?  And I ask her about what she thinks about mining diamonds. And get this! She tells me that she thinks it's ridiculous 'cause they can be man-made without seriously damaging the eco-structure, but no one ever bothers to do it that way. So, dude, I'm all excited because, dude, she works for a mining company and she agrees with me about the evils of mining diamonds? What are the chances?!"
            "Can I call you back?  I have a situation with this rearview mirror that..."
            " I buy her drinks for a couple hours, and I start to realize that she ain’t leaving! Seminar’s way over, and she actually ends up staying until I get off work. And we grab a table while their vacuuming and talk more about how our personalities and philosophies and respect for all living creatures is similar and how, at our respective jobs, we’re basically doing the same thing to..."
            "What?  How are you in any way 'doing the same thing?'"
            "...and pretty soon we're back up in her hotel room where I start fucking the shit out of this silly bitch. She tells me that she hasn't been fucked like that in a long time even though she has a serious boyfriend at home in Canada that she's been with for years. And she's fucking hot."
            "What exactly does she look like? You?"
            "Dude, she's hot. Kinda big, but cute. It’s not as important as what I’m about to tell you. So, while she's working on me, dude..."
            He pauses a moment, thinking he’s adding some suspense.
            "Dude. Dude. Dude. I decide to stick a finger up her ass. You know, for kicks?"
            At this moment I glance up and see a sign, of course, telling us both that we’re going the 'Wrong Way.'"
            "I’m, like, laughing and I tell her, 'Invader, sector nine!' and make this cute little alarm noise at the top of my lungs. And she starts going, 'Oh, my god, what are you doing?'  And I'm cramming my finger up there like I'm scratching a stack of lottery tickets and holding up the line at the gas station. And now she's like, 'Oh, shit. That’s not bad. I’m embarrassed because no one's ever done that.' So I say to her, 'Well, if you think that feels good, you're going to love this.' And I flip her over on her back and doink! jam my shit up her ass. She's all squirming around at first, but then gets into it, saying the same nonsense, 'I can't believe I actually like this,' and 'I don’t know why I never thought of this before,' and 'Is this a good idea medically?' and yap, yap, yap..."
            At this point I think I hear a voice in the background and ask him where Tea’s at, worried that he’s going to get busted.
            "I don't know. No, that’s not her. She's out of town, looking for another house. Did I tell you she’s knocked up?  I’m gonna be a dad. Hold on..."
            I hear a long string of keypad tones as his pushes buttons on his phone.
            "Who are you calling, man, I’m still..."
            He pushes about nine more buttons then sighs in my ear.
            "Was that supposed to be a song?"
            "No,  dude. You don’t remember?  That was the code for invincibility from Carjacker, the greatest game of all time."
            "No, I don’t remember. Maybe it’s the code that gives you another car just like the one you’re driving. Anyway, where was I?"
            "You had fingers working her ass like a grave rubbing."
            "So I’m hooking my thumb in her mouth and I’m cracking this ass for hours, dude! It's in-fucking-credible. But when I leave, I sneak out thinking I can't have her looking me up or I'll get caught. So I don't leave a name or nothin'. And on the way home, I stop at a gas station to wash my face since it looks like a week-old glazed donut so I can risk creeping back in the house. But dude, dude..."
            Now he’s finally whispering.
            "…dude, she's cool. You know why? Think about it. She's a PR person for a mining company and she totally agrees with me about the environmental distress caused by diamond mining and the rape of the environment and the impact of our..."
            "What would your girlfriend think if she knew all this?  Or how about the guy who sent his little princess off to her seminar with a tender kiss at the airport, and she comes home fucking reamed and acting different somehow that he just can’t put his finger on?"
            Jay starts laughing and describing tiresome reunion scenarios.
            "Put his finger on! No shit! Yeah, like, what’s up with the weird way she’s started bringing him his her ass! And how lately he keeps losing the remote her ass! Poor Canadian bastard, but he really should have been taking care of business instead of just watching all that hockey. Hold on, man..."
            He starts pretending we were talking hockey as he’s setting the phone down.
            ", if Detroit loads that team like Colorado did back in '99, hell, like we did with the '98 version of the same season, they wouldn’t need to stack so many defensemen up against..."
            The end of his phone thuds again, and I hear his voice fade off around a corner. Then, I hear the distinct sound of someone breathing who's trying not to breathe. I stop making airplane noise with my lips and yell out:
            "Hey! Finish the story about fucking that chick in the ass!"
            A girl’s voice. Slow and sinister. And a question with no question mark.
            "What did you just say."
            "Wrong number." 
            I hang up. Oops. The phone starts hopping in my hand. I hit the button but luckily don’t get it up to my ear quick enough.
            "What the fuck?!"
            "Sorry, Jay. Thought we got unplugged. You’ll make a great dad, motherfucker."
            I hang up again. And again. And again.

strange, stranger, strangest

            When I hit Fairmount, Indiana, I think that it makes sense that I’m back at this grave one more time. So many people fuck around with it, I’m surprised nobody’s tried digging anything up. Or digging anything down.
            Up down up right down left up…
            I always regretted not taking a handful of pennies off that headstone to cover some of the expenses of those roadtrips. I don’t make that mistake again. Even if it just pays for a couple feet of gasoline, it’s worth it just for how wrong it feels to steal them.
            I glance up to my rearview mirror and the sight of the headlights makes me hit the brakes with both feet. My car pitches sideways and almost into a ditch. Looking back, the eyes are gone. I can’t believe it. I count to a hundred and look back again. Still gone. I step out onto the road. My first footsteps in another state. I start walking back down the Morse code of dots and dashes and stop when I hear the rumble of the car. It’s sideways, too. That’s why I couldn’t see its eyes. And there’s the shadow of someone on the road, exactly halfway to me. I wave. It waves. I hold up my other hand. It does, too. We’re not close enough to make out any details like sex, race, or number of fingers. I put my bad hand down. It follows. Then I put my hand up. I get an idea.           
            Up, down, left, right, down, left, up. Now there’s four headlights behind the shadow. I do it again. Now there’s six lights. One more time. Up, down, left, right, down, left, up. Now there’s eight. I think I hear a laugh, and then we’re both running back to our cars.
            Inside, I delete Jay’s number from my phone.
            A mile later, I follow those same directions, of course substituting “down” with “neutral” and rolling backwards at a couple red lights until the cars behind me honk in fear and anger. After I complete all those turns, I look to the clock on the stereo to see if it’s slowed down. It’s blinking zeros, as if the girl who owned it never bothered to set it, so I can’t tell. It could be the battery finally giving out. I hope that I didn’t accidentally speed everything up with the wrong code. I promised myself I’d only drive for three hours, not three days. Then I type the last code into my phone and stop my car.
            On the road, I walk around my car to see if anything in the distance winks, and near the graveyard, I notice a pink-and-purple bandanna tied to the lowest limb of a dying tree near the ditch.
            The bandanna is at face level. Closer until it’s at eye level. Bend my knees until it’s nose level. The sweet rain and sweat and the idea of breathing in the scent of my first local redlines my senses so fast that I have to put a hand on the trunk to stable myself. The tree rocks under my weight. Leaning forward, I see a ring that her salt has burned deep into the bark. I bury my face and smell deeper. Deeper until I sneeze.
            The headlights flicker to get my attention, and I’m halfway to the other car before I notice a gun has appeared in my hand from nowhere. And I’m halfway home before I stop seeing the disbelief in her eyes, her naked hand up in horror like a child who thinks if she can’t see you, you can’t see her. And I’m halfway to the state line before I stop thinking about that bandanna detonating behind her windshield like a burrito in the microwave. I’m halfway to hell when I realize I’ll never stop this car again.

David James Keaton’s fiction has appeared in Pulp Modern, Needle, Crime Factory, Beat To A Pulp, and Thuglit, among others and is forthcoming in Drive-In Fiction and the Pure Slush novel-in-stories Gorge. He has a zombie fiasco called Zee Bee & Bee available at Amazon and Barnes & Noble and is also the editor of Flywheel Magazine. He thinks cheat codes are for pussies and only uses them if he has to. 


  1. DJK's at it again. If you used to think up was down and down was sideways you'll find another dimension in this superslipperyautodriveingfingersonyourpenus disneyland of the depraved
    (or the simply fucked up,basement-dwelling, diaper-wearing, cheat code-slinging, anal-boffing, james-dean-obsessing)
    inhabitants of this far backstreet of the Dark Side.
    Perhaps you'll live. Perhaps you'll die. But those headlight will never be far behind you.

  2. Yes, I know it's spelled with and "I" not a "U". I was excited. Quit crowing.

  3. thanks guys. your thoughts are much appreciated.

  4. ...A.J.'s summaries are the bestest ever.