issue 37: july - august 2003 

 | author bio

J. Michael Slama


I’m unsure what possessed me to become a human torch. If not for me her face would still be beautiful. The others won’t let me alone to sit still and reminisce. They dwell on the stories written about me in their unforgivable newspapers. They move about, stare, ask questions, and receive no answers, not from me. I can no longer be with her, and there is no peace for me, having done what I did.
      Oh, how I used to revel in the swish of an empty bottle traveling over the canal, and its joyful burst against the brick wall. She couldn’t help but notice me one night as I noticed her noticing others in her red-lit room. I discarded my binoculars and howled at the world, exploding bottles beneath her window, more than four dozen before she bellowed go fuck yourself. Although later I found her foul language repulsive, on that mad night of rippling stars and sky in water, her words were like Gospel and Love, a sign to me that I should end my life of lonely debauchery, and win her heart. Obviously my thinking was befuddled, but I was smitten, and hope had stabbed me in the gut.
      I knew better than to attempt love, but when she swore into the night, my soul, or whatever, reverberated throughout my body, swelling my member. I’d rarely thought of imposing my baseness on anyone else before, especially a woman; perhaps a tree or a hole in the ground, never a person, for I despised my own stickiness, and the idea that another human’s touch could be pleasurable seemed a cerebral misfire. I didn’t care for women, until she instructed me to go fuck myself as I made beast noises by the canal, violently swinging my arms, tossing three, four, or seven bottles at a time at the brick wall beneath her window. Hearing her wail made me imagine a picture of the world I wanted to be part of, not necessarily a big picture, but a picture nevertheless.
      It happened that she took pity on me, as a result of what I once considered a fit of mental clarity. In early winter I’d thrown my chair into the canal along with my flowerpot. It may seem quite harmless to toss various objects into the canal on a daily basis, but it certainly can cause one pain. The mild guilt I suffered from murdering my violets gave me headaches; and my heart plunged into my intestines every time I peered out my window to check if my vibrant orange chair was still floating an inch below the black water. How I hated that canal. It was giving me an ulcer. Consequences of one’s actions are best avoided. Spring would eventually arrive according to science and habit, much to my disgust, so the narrow boats would glide past me once again. Perhaps the obstacle would impair some poor bastard's motor. Found out to be a legally irresponsible slug of a man, I would be in all the papers: Disrespectful Wankee Obstructs Canal.
      I enjoy locking myself away on my own terms, so I made a sort of contraption out of several hangers, two broomsticks, a mop, and a yard of rope. I went out into the white mist before dawn and attempted to grapple with what was once a quite functional chair, but every time I almost hooked or hooped or balanced the useless object, my left foot would sink in the muck, increasing the distance from my right foot, my groin muscles burning, so that eventually I was doing the splits. I was quite impressed with my flexibility. Smiling, I recalled my ballet lessons as an adolescent and straddled the distance between the embankment and the canal, manipulating my hooky rod contraption as the dark water oozed into my shoes and my body went numb. My robe unfastened, exposing my pubes as a young woman in a yellow hat said hello and an approaching boat blew its horn. Trying to cover myself, I collapsed into the water.
      If only she had let me be, then perhaps the boat’s motor would’ve ruined my face and our relationship wouldn’t have begun. I don’t remember being in the water, only coming to in her arms, coughing black water on her cleavage. She told me everything would be quite all right. I dropped my hooky thing, and she held me close and covered me with her coat. The boat crept past us, unencumbered by the chair. I told her I was afraid of the water and the law, and that I missed my chair. She removed her clothing (that’s how I like to remember it) and dove into the water, paddled around, and without much effort unstuck my chair. The violets too! I cried; and then exhausted, I dozed off.
      I awoke to the cool touch of porcelain against my thigh and asked her if she could possibly retrieve my mattress too. I’d stained it relentlessly, although it had done no harm to me. And I loved it when it was new or newly cleaned, but at some point I used too much detergent, so much that it couldn't be removed and I broke out in a rash, so I chucked it into the canal, and the darkness bubbled up. Now I imagine it floating out at sea, and I wish I were with it.
      She informed me I was lucky not to be fined because the queen-sized beast had barricaded commerce. It took five upstanding citizens to remove the waterlogged embarrassment, and the authorities wondered who would do such a thing. Placing her hand on my chest, she said that it was preposterous for me at this point to continue throwing objects into the canal, and that I should stop brooding because I was a handsome man who could have a future.
      I told her that I couldn't stop the warfare in my head, and that my liver was all stout and filth, but my thoughts seemed luxurious when I was sauced. She told me I could change. I said I would and told her that I didn't understand politics or fucky-fucky or sobriety. She said not to worry and that I could see her backside often. Well maybe she didn’t say that, but her wet body and general interest in me suggested it. She said I looked malnourished and if I were a good boy she would prepare a decent meal for me.
      I went home and bathed, then spent the remainder of the morning patching holes my fist had left in the walls. In the afternoon I wandered out to the market and purchased candles, a likeness of a great painting with giraffes on fire, five hundred count linen, and a new mattress. My heart all a pitter-patter, I hurried home, lugging the mattress as the general public eyed me suspiciously. I caulked, polished, and scrubbed, peeling my clothes from the floor, walls, and appliances; then I went to a launderette and filled all the machines. It was nearly six, and those who were waiting kept sighing, so I decided to abandon my clothes.
      Ginger arrived with vegetable stew and a bottle of milk, and asked me politely not to smash it beneath her window, but if I couldn’t resist, I should at least drink the healthy white substance first. I’d behave if she came in to supervise. We ate quietly, and I could sense my body thanking her for the vitamins. We had a somewhat serious discussion about me; she was concerned about my lack of concern. We agreed that we should become friends, and gabbed about torments unknown and the absence of love in the world. Blah, blah, blah. She suggested I find a respectable job. I showed her my books and admitted that I was a student. According to her I could find happiness without the highs and lows of books. Stupid fuck I was, listening to that. But she was so blasphemously gorgeous, and her smile made me smile, the possibility of happiness churning my insides.
      Knowing what I know now, I would have gladly inserted two freshly sharpened pencils into my nostrils and banged them into my brain on the kitchen table. Still, I mustn’t be so hard on myself; if I hadn’t destroyed her life, perhaps someone else would have, maybe one of the guests she entertained. At least I never intended to hurt her; in fact I never intended anything.
      After several bottles of wine she removed her blouse in mid-sentence; what she was saying, who knows. She enveloped herself in my Egyptian linen. I took a brief shower, put on my pajamas, held her hand as she slept, and counted the repaired patches on the walls, enjoying a soft new mattress. I didn’t wonder if I should leave her and return to my own country. Should’ve bolted, and she would remember me as a gentleman.
The next day she made sandwiches for a group of homeless people and asked me if I would accompany her. She was quite upset when they told her and her charity to burn. I gave them a tenner to smooth things over, whispering in her ear that she had a heart of rare quality.

      We went back to my place and gave into the sweet oblivion of pint after pint. Oh, the gentle afternoon on the sofa basking with her in the departing sun. I agreed with her that the self is enclosed in a semi-permeable membrane, which is capable of allowing the outside in and the inside out, depending on the will. I kissed her in the tender clumsy dark as her ankles cracked my spine, and I felt angelic for a moment, but then she began to yelp words I couldn’t associate with love, and I cringed.
      I wondered if perhaps my self was covered in wax. How I longed to be deaf. I told her that perhaps if she were quiet, I would be more semi-permeable. She was working herself up into a frenzy, and the only way I could rid my impressionable brain from the vicious permutations of her words was by staring out the window at the half moon in the canal, imagining what it would be like to be a piece of driftwood or an eel never surfacing. Those words, words my mother told me were naughty, I found them sour at first, but now they are ever so sugary without her, and every cursing ape I hear on the street, I associate with her yelping obscenities in bed. How I long to assist their moans, but it is best to keep to oneself. I’m capable of horrific accidents, too late for her though. Perhaps her body wouldn’t be broken if I’d ended the relationship before she moved into my apartment.
      I really didn’t mind sharing the place, but her sexual preferences became more varied and robustly feral. At a loss as to what we should do when I was deflated, I suggested we could both become artists. I stole a trombone from a street musician and exchanged it for a camera. She enjoyed photographing me at awkward moments: there are several pictures of my daily ear cleaning routine; one with my thumb shoveling out my nose; and another with me bashing a plate on my head. I felt quite honored by her gaze, and considered her an aesthete because she wasn’t able to sell any of her work. Although I respected her dark room no-entry sign, she wouldn’t hesitate to disrupt my writing by unzipping me without warning. One time I was finishing a haiku on the assumption of mortality, and she just tore off my clothes and ordered me to take her from behind.
      She decided we would travel to the coast and discuss our future. We were really getting on well, laughing as children laughed at my miserable paper kite, lunching by lighthouses, pretending we were married at inns. Instead of staying late in the pub, we retired early, and in bed she no longer cursed my mother and father.
      Embracing bare foot on gray sand next to a beached whale, we made jokes about my mattress. I was happier than before we met, and didn’t really know why, but I could see making a serious go of life if I could always be with her. I told her I could become a lawyer or a snack delivery person, so there was nothing to worry about. Isolated, except for the whale, we stripped and raced along the shore, our pink cold feet dancing with the incoming tide. As we made love wrestling in the waves, the whale flopped about, freeing itself.
      It was getting cold, so we dressed and went back to the car, but the windows steamed up, so I put the top down. I counted her toes over and over and rubbed her ankles on the dashboard as night set in, the sand glistening on our skin. I outlined her fingers in the sky as the fog swallowed each one. Kissing her, I felt bottomless, and I asked her to be my wife. From the dark it seemed, she conjured a bottle of very strong rum and mixed it with orange squash. We drank a little. Then she exclaimed, yes, yes, yes! and started to rave about my progress as an individual. Once I was a preposterous drunk throwing all I loved into black waters, but now I was better tempered and could live without shame. I’m not sure what she could see, but she suggested I could be an upright member of society, even possibly run for a local office someday. I wish I could remember that we drove all night and married in a quaint chapel in the morning.
      You told me that your close friend was pregnant, and even though she didn’t know who the father was, was keeping it; now that we were engaged, it was likely we’d be asked to be the godparents. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the seriousness of the situation, then burst out laughing. I gulped a double shot from the bottle as you gripped my hand, and asked me not to laugh since I was a good man with a future and such, a man who could help others. Still laughing, I thought about how it always seemed inevitable that I would fail, and even perhaps cause irrevocable damage to the world in the process. You giggled, asked if I wanted to see something beautiful, and got out of the car. You filled your mouth with rum, lit my Zippo, and blew, illuminating the edge of the cliff. I tried it several times, the glorious whoosh of fire streaming in the wind. You asked me to stop, so I swigged more rum. You informed me that we were only going to have a little, and if I wouldn’t stop my fever of night and discontent, you would leave me then and there. One more time, that’s all it took. My cheeks billowed with rum and the wind was still. As you lit a cigarette I coughed, igniting you, and your head of flames bobbed about, confused, until you fell into the sea.

J. Michael Slama 2003

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author bio

J. Michael Slama

J. Michael Slama is an MFA student at Fairleigh Dickinson University. Currently, he is writing a novel about a brewery murder. His story "Abash" will appear in the online journal The Cafe Irreal (issue #10). "Volatile" is his first publication.
e-mail: J. Michael Slama


 tbr 37           July - August 2003 

Short Fiction

Emily Carter:  WLUV
Anne Donovan: Anne Marie
Todd Shaddox:  The Hidden Art of Scatology
J. Michael Slama: Volatile

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