“You either get better at drinking whiskey or you get worse,” said the old man.
“Or in our case both,” said the younger man, who was not young, but younger than the old man. Relative to a young man he may be considered old. But in this context he was younger.
“If whiskey was a religion, I’d be devout,” said the old man.
“We are here every Sunday,” said the younger man.
They sat on milk crates behind the mercado, next to the dumpster. The scent of putrefaction no longer bothered their olfactory.
“When I die, I want to be reincarnated as a whiskey bottle,” said the old man. “I want to be manufactured somewhere in the Midwest — like Milwaukee or something — somewhere cooler. All of my component parts; the glass, the label, the lid, will be artisanally crafted by cheese-eating pensioners. The whiskey will be the finest in the world, made by the finest distillers from the finest mash.
“And I will be left on the shelf for 100 years, full of the finest whiskey,” he concluded.
“When I die,” retorted the younger man, “I want to be reincarnated as Zooey Deschanel’s favorite shade of lipstick.”
I worked in the boiler room of the great machine I didn’t understand. For years I slept in beds of coal, ate food pellets, didn’t see another soul.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t soulless creatures about. There were the demons in the fire of the furnace. Gremlins would steal my coal shovel from time to time. Then there were the coal eaters; inky shadow forms one could only see in the periphery of one’s vision.
The presence of these creatures was disconcerting, but they never caused me much trouble. The trouble came when a deep growling voice came to me while I was sleeping in coal. It said my name, which I’d nearly forgotten. It said I should step into the furnace. It said my home was in there. Everything I’d lost still existed in the flame.
Of course, at first, I figured it was a dream. I tried to put it out of my mind and shoveled more coal into the fire.
There were no days and nights. There was only shoveling, food pellets, and sleep. And the sleep grew more difficult. As every sleep time became interrupted by a horrible voice. The voice reminded me of all the things that I’d managed to forget. Family, friends, home, meals, love. He told me they all lived in the fire.
It got to the point that I couldn’t sleep anymore. As soon as I close my eyes the voice would come. The situation became untenable. I decided that I would speak to the manager.
I’ve never spoken to the manager before. I wasn’t exactly sure that a manager existed. But I figured somebody must be running some part of this machine that I don’t understand.
So I left my station. I didn’t know exactly which direction to take. All I could see in every direction was mountains of coal. Perhaps if I climbed the highest mountain of coal I could get a view of something else.
The mountain was jagged and painful as it dug into my feet and hands. My body wasn’t built for this. I was meant to shovel. It felt unnatural to use my body for anything other than shoveling.
Eventually I reached the top. I could see for what must’ve been miles in every direction. There was nothing but coal to be found. The climb confirmed what I had long suspected. No one was in charge. There was only the fire and the fuel.
I went back to my station. Exhausted, I tried to get some rest. But there was no rest to be had. The voice came again. It taunted my attempt to seek some escape. He said the only escape was in the fire.
I tried to shovel but the exhaustion was getting to me. I began to stare long hours into the flame. My arm and chin rested upon the handle of my shovel, I would stand yearning for escape. The demons in the flame beckoned. The furnace began to look like home.
This marks the beginning of a writing exercise. I am going to write short stories for 30 days. The minimum amount of stories I wish to complete in this time is 15. 30 is my stretch goal. Should be fun. Thanks for reading.
An Ocean of Trains
As Amber closed her work laptop at 5 o’clock, she saw Muffins at the door, leash in her mouth.
“You’re going to have to wait a few minutes.”
Amber went to the calendar on the wall and marked an X for the day she had just lived. Next week it will be six months of quarantine. Six months since parties, dinners with friends, picking up hot girls at bars. Six cursed months of abstinence. The only times she ever left the apartment were to pick up groceries and walk Muffins.
“All right, Muffins. Let’s get the fuck out of here.” Muffins knew those words very well. They meant she could go to the outside place and smell stuff. She got very excited, and she wanted to jump up and down, but you could only perceive her excitement by quickening of tail movement. Amber attached the leash.
Leaving the house, they were immediately pelted by those scorching August rays. Amber put on her sunglasses and her mask. Muffins was ready to walk.
They walked about half a block down the street, where they parted with the pavement in favor of a trailhead half obscured by tall grasses and cacti. This neighborhood was filled with hidden nature trails if you knew where to look. Amber and Muffins had been exploring for over a year and they still hadn’t found all the hidden gems that the neighborhood had to offer.
It was jackrabbit season. They were breeding like hamsters. Muffins could smell them all over the place and started darting left and right. Amber calmed her down with a couple tugs on the leash.
The trail forked and Amber stayed right. This was the path to the railroad.
Amber grew up in a bungalow next to the ocean. The churn of the waves always put her to sleep. There is something about a thing so powerful being so gentle — carrying so many monsters but yet singing so beautifully — there was nothing more comforting than this.
Now, landlocked, she always tried to live by the railroad tracks. Because trains are the oceans of the land. Great beastly churnings: an anachronistic steel leviathan lurching through the hidden boroughs of the country.
Amber and Muffins saw a male/female couple approach from the other end of the trail. They saw the woman and her dog and affixed their masks. As they passed, Amber steadied Muffins to make sure she didn’t jump up. The couple waved.
Amber said, “She misses people.”
The man said, “Don’t we all.”
Amber and her dog walked a ways down the path. She heard the bells ringing for the railroad street crossing. “The train is coming,” she said to no one. “I wonder if it’s headed to the ocean.”