click for homepage

            The Barcelona Review

Author Bio



The young man intended to go on his camping trip alone. But the old man appeared in his car at the last minute and gruffed: I’m coming too.
            The young man had no choice. He rolled his eyes and said: Fine. But I’m not moving the cooler from the passenger seat, you can sit in the back or sit atop it, I won’t lift a finger.
            The older, equally stubborn, sat atop the cooler. He buckled in and said: Safety first, if you want to grow old like me.
            The young man thought: I hate you I hate you I hate you I hate you.
            The young man blasted Mariah Carey loud enough to drown out his thoughts. Hehonked through the New York City streets, wound through the suburban streets, sped through the highways and freeways, and slowed to a crawl through the woodland roads, at which point he turned off the music, opened his windows, and listened to the wind. Goodbye to all who knew him. Hello to the forest, to the trees who accept any creature underneath their arms without capacity for judgment.
            The young man sought out the creek he knew as a child, parked his car as close as he could. He took a big sniff. The air was fresh. Empty. No one around. He tied back his hair in a ponytail and set up his tent, humming the Mariah Carey to the backdrop of the babbling creek and the clacking metal tent poles. Purple nylon sprang to life.
            The young man felt a thirst. The creek was low and jutted with rocks, the water not moving quickly enough for a safe drink. No matter, he had brought a thirty-pack of beers. He took a whiz then turned to the car.
            Of course, the old man was still there, sitting on the cooler, buckled in, arms crossed around his chest.
            The old man said: Try to forget about me, didja?
            The old man wore a ratty yellow-gray morning coat that reeked of mildew. His body was thin, slight, tiny even, curled up atop the cooler with his feet dangling over the side. He unfurled his knees slowly to the right, like joints on a very old door hinge, now sticking his feet out the passenger side. He said: Help me, why don’t you. The young man looked at him with disgust. Avoided the old man’s eyes, which were bright blue, just like his own, maybe even brighter. But the young man wanted that beer underneath his bum. He offered his shoulder for the old man to grasp as he climbed down out of the car; bony hands and fingernails dug into his clavicle. When that was over, the young man sprayed his shoulder with perfume.
            The young man said: Well, make yourself useful. Help me start a fire.
            The old man said: I think I’ll watch you do it.
            The young man moved to the car.
            The old man said: Don’t even think about using that sissy starter log.
            The young man found branches and kindling, heat-dried logs from his car trunk; there was a starter log there but he didn’t want to use it. The old man stared with piercing blue eyes as the young one constructed a teepee of sticks. The old man said: That’ll never work. The young one flipped him off as he took a lighter to the kindling. The teepee collapsed. The young man said: Well, what do you propose? The old one said: Heck if I’ll tell you boy. The young man said: You’re an asshole. The old one said: That’s your decision.
            The young one pulled his starter log from the car and rearranged the wood into a log cabin. The starter went up, the other logs soon after.
            Now the young man sat in front of the fire, seeing how close he could get his face without burning. Heat on his eyeballs, singing his nostril hairs. He pulled away, laughed, and grabbed another two beers. Marshmallows in the cooler: he threw them on the fire. They molted black and brown and shriveled onto the wood. They crackled in the fire; the old man cackled in kind.
            The young man said: The hell are you laughing at.
            How ridiculous you look, boy, in that rainbow shirt, pretending to be all woodsy.
            Fuck you.
            You mean to say, fuck you.
            The young man rolled his eyes and scooched over so his view of the old one would be blocked by the fire. He threw the beer back. The old man said: Arentcha gonna offer me one?
            The young man said: Want one?
            Hell na, I’m too old for that pisswater.
            The young man considered chucking his empty beer can at the old man’s face. He tossed it into the fire instead, into the melted glop of marshmallow. Hunger rumbled from somewhere under his shirt. Hot dogs in the cooler, now on a stick to roast. He said to the old one: Want me to pretend to offer one to you? The old man harumphed. Frogs croaked in the stream. The young one wondered what they would taste like over a fire. Or what the old man’s head would taste like if chopped off and put on a spit. Would the wrinkled skin turn hard and crunchy like a fried chicken wing?
            The old man said: So, let’s have at it. Have at what.
            Come on, let it out. The old man laughed. You know what you’re here for.
            The young one remained silent.
            Okay, then.
            The young man didn’t want to think about why he was there. But now the thoughts came. All he left behind. Getting fired, getting dumped. Getting left with nothing but a tiny studio apartment, thick with lonely heat. Too much, too much. Too much pain. Too much! He bashed his beer can on his knee to crumple it up, then into his other hand, gripping it, the crumpled edges now sharp cut into his palms, probably making him bleed, he didn’t look. Asshole boss. Backstabber boyfriend.
            The old man said, reading the young one’s thoughts: It was your fault.
            The young one glared at him and said: Fuck you.
            Come on, son. Getting dumped wasn’t your fault, he was a scoundrel. But getting fired, alllll you. Think you can just not show up for a week, ignore your phone, and not get fired? You got off easy. I’d fire yer ass after day one and put you on a list.
            The young man said: I was dealing with health issues.
            Fuck yer issues.
            The young man said: The world is going to shit.
            The old one said: Fuck yer shit. It’s you that’s shit.
            The young man felt for the knife in his pants pocket. He thought: Shut up shut up shut up shut up shut up.
            The old man raised his hands and said, Okay okay, I’ll lay off. Calm yer tits.
            The young man felt his heart pump and his head grow dizzy, like he was looking down from above. Panic attacks before and after every event… then every phone call… just thinking about it made him want to die. He slammed the rest of his beer and grabbed another. No more thinking about the past. And the future was a wrinkly black hole.
            The young man stuffed a flaming marshmallow into his mouth without blowing out the flames, burning his lips, suffocating it. Fire crackled. The old man laughed.
            Old man: I know why you’re here. I saw your note.
            The young one said: I haven’t written it yet.
            The old man stared. His eyes were piercing blue, brighter than the fire. His cheekbones one big wrinkle. His eyebrows, white, stuck out over his forehead. The flames made his head appear and disappear. But the eyes were always there, staring, sharp. Eyes laughing even when the old man was not.
            The young man said: You’re ugly and your coat is ugly and your eyes look like death and I will never be like you.
            The old man said nothing. He pushed himself slowly up, got up to take a piss by the creek.
            His back was turned. The young man gripped his knife. Thought about what it would look like sticking out of the old man’s back. He felt the knife’s blade with his thumb to make sure it was still sharp. One small flick made his thumb bite and bleed.
            The old man stretched after he was done. Raised his fists into the air, arched his back, gave out a howl. Then he returned to the fire. His old bones howled as he sat on the ground.
            Arentcha gonna offer me another beer?
            Do you want a beer, asshole?
            Hell na.
            The young man grabbed another for himself. He listened to the fire crackle and sucked his bleeding thumb.
            The old man said: This forest ain’t what it used to be.
            The young man said nothing, but he agreed. These woods had seen better days. The trees drooped under the weight of an evil green ivy, creating a landscape that looked mystical if you ignored the yellow grass all around. Where once these woods accommodated a chorus of bird songs at all hours of the night, now the only noises were the cackle of the fire and the croak of a frog.
            The old man said: All that ivy. Invasive. Looks nice, though.
            The young man hated to admit he thought the exact same thing.
            The old man said: Why’d ya bring me here, anyway?
            You prick. I didn’t want to.
            But you did, so. Ask away. I have answers.
            The young man’s thumb tasted like metal and marshmallow. He held it out to the fire. Cauterize the wound, heal it with fire. He considered throwing his whole body in. That could do the trick.
            The old man said: Hey. I’m talkin’ to you.
            The young man said: Isn’t it your bedtime?
            The old man said: No. Fine, don’t wanna play? I’ll start. Let me tell you a story. Once there was a boy who went to a cave. There he found the ghost of wisdom. The ghost told the boy he had all the world’s answers. The boy said, so give them to me! The ghost said, first you need to ask me a question. The boy asked, naughtily, What are all the world’s answers? The ghost harumphed and said, come on boy, you can do better than that. The boy asked, What is everything I will need to know? The ghost harumphed again and said, I’ll give you one more chance to get it right. The boy asked, What are life’s secrets? The ghost said, Pah! Stupid boy. And he threw a book at the boy in anger. The book pulsed with wisdom. It was large, stately, with pages dipped in gold and a thick leather ribbon. The boy opened it up. The words were all jumbled. If he took a step back and glazed his eyes over it looked like they were forming sentences and equations. But as soon as he took a closer look the words and numbers wiggled into gibberish. He sat in the cave deep into the night, blurring and examining the book of wisdom. He forgot all about the ghost. Finally, when morning neared, the boy had a real question. The words before him began to come into focus. But when dawn broke through the clouds, PAHH!! (The old man clapped for a bang.) Sunlight hit the boy and turned him into dust.
            The young man gaped at the old.
            Are you serious? he asked.
            What? the old man barked. You scared?
            You’re not gonna tell me the question he asked at the end?
            The old man smirked, satisfied. Your turn, now. Tell me a goddamn ghost story.
            Fuck you. The young man grabbed another beer. He held a marshmallow out to the fire. Bored of waiting for it to turn brown, he smushed it into a blazing log.
            Fine, the young man said. Once there was a boy and a ghost. The boy went to a cave far away. He was tired of it all. He wanted to crawl into the cave where no one would find him and turn into dust. But then this asshole ghost came along. The ghost was ugly and mean. And beyond all, annoying. He kept asking stupid questions and making stupid jokes. The boy was tired of it. So he went out of the cave and sat on the side of a river until morning, when sunlight finally made that stupid ghost disappear. Then the boy went back into the cave and he was alone at last. The end.
            The old man said: That was lazy and I’m not a ghost.
            He continued, after thinking: And where was the bang? It’s a shit ghost story without a bang.
            The young one said: Whatever. Will you go away so I can slit my wrists in peace?
            The old one said nothing.
            He sat beyond the fire, and his eyes, the same blue eyes of the young man, blazed brighter than before. His face, sagging and wrinkled, was the same shape as that of the young man, with the same thin cheekbones and heart-shaped mole by his left ear.
            The old man said, eventually: You know I can’t let you do that. You’d be killing me, too.
            Who cares about you?
            You do.
            You’re disgusting. Lonely. A loser.
            Only because you see me that way.
            You’re miserable. And you don’t deserve to exist. The young man crumpled up his last beer can and threw it at the older version’s face.
            The old man dodged it. He stood up. He was tall, taller than the fire, nearly as tall as the trees. His eyes blazed with a blue fire, then faded to gray, green, black, and back to blue. His image blurred and jumbled. His coat fell off his shoulders. Wrinkles faded away into burnt leather. English ivy in his hands, wrapped around his neck… he bundled it up into a lasso, began swirling it around his head, or was it the young man’s eyes that were swirling?
            The old man said in a deep rumbling voice: Give me the knife. Now.
            The young man, knife in hand, stood up. Drunk, he stumbled and tripped.
            He fell beside the fire. It would soon die out. The embers jumbled with the starry sky. They mixed and whirled. The world turned. It wouldn’t stop moving, back and forth and back and forth. The young man vomited into the fire, burning out the last embers, then laid back down on his back. 
            He stared up at the sky, spinning so fast. Too weak to get up now.
            But the vision of the old man did not appear up there.
            The old man made no noise. 
            Finally, he was gone.
            What’s the question?
            Fire burned out.
            Stars burned out.
            What is it?
            Maybe in the morning…
            Fall asleep.
            Go to sleep.
            Wait for dawn.
            The young man slept, and then he woke, with a question on his lips.

© 2021 Denise S. Robbins      

The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization