Drop 141: Lost

lizard kingLate afternoon, 32 hours in, and John had begun to lose hope. He was hungry and thirsty and tired beyond words. He didn’t know if he could survive another night.

The dust storm had come out of nowhere dropping visibility to zero and sending the Cessna into a spiral. He tried to radio for help but that was down too. He barely had time to grab his chute and jump before the plane dove. Through sand and swirling wind, it was a miracle he made it to ground, landing rough in a patch of thorny shrubs. The storm had moved on and it was eerily still on terra firma, with good visibility. Beige sand, rock and cactus stretched as far as the eye could see. He was somewhere in the Mexico’s central Chihuahuan Desert. This land was vast and desolate.

He was scuffed up and he’d bruised a shoulder, but he was otherwise physically fine. There was real concern, however, about making it out alive with no phone or supplies, knowing no one would miss him for days. He’d need water and food and mainly he’d need luck. He was no Bear Grylls. He didn’t know the first thing about surviving in the wild, about getting moisture from cacti or eating wild berries. Odds were against him, which made slogging though the desert, with no known destination, that much harder.

He made a tactical decision to head west, based on a dubious mental picture gleaned from glances at flight maps, of an area he’d never been to. Seven hours later it hadn’t worked out and he was in real trouble. Maybe every plan would have produced the same result. It was that remote here, and not in any way pleasant. It was hot and dry with little shade and except for a few insects, lizards and that one hare, he hadn’t seen signs of any life, let alone humans. In all the time he’d been walking the landscape had barely changed, and soon night would fall.

The temperature dropped considerably after dark, and the wildlife came out. He tried to sleep on the sand, then on a flattish rock but was kept up by the cold, the scorpions and the clouds of biting gnats. Daybreak brought massive relief, but it was short lived. He hadn’t had water in almost a day, food in longer and the cloudless sky framed a cruel sun. Without hat or sleeves his skin grew red and blistered. Exhausted, he pushed on, striving towards a fictional target, towards an invented savior, hoping against hope to find a person, road or stream. But this was a far-off corner of hell few others would think to visit. He took breaks beside boulders, tried to dig for water in the dust, catch lizards to eat raw, but this only tired him further and made his fingers bleed. He struggled on.

32 hours in, and John had begun to lose hope. He was feeling dizzy and had started to shiver. His feet were cut up and every step sent searing pain up his leg and through his back. He could not swallow, could barely see, and night would soon be upon him again. He knew that it would take him this time. That if he lay down on its endless sandy bed, under its callous, cold and silent darkness, it would take him from this world. He was so tired, so very tired and sore, but he kept walking, staving off an inevitable night. Maybe exhaustion would ease his passing. Perhaps delirium would cushion his journey from this realm. Perhaps insanity would—

‘Oi, mate. What you doin here?’ A hoarse chuckle. ‘Figured I was the only bloke crazy enough to venture to these parts!’ More laughter.

When John looked up the man was right in front of him: a big man with a round belly and full red beard dressed in khaki shorts, a pink polo, and a felt bush hat. John thought he must already have slipped some way into madness as it looked like the man held a pair of tongs in one hand, a beer in the other. ‘You lost or something?’ the impossible vision asked, stepping closer, and then laughing again. As John also stepped forward he saw more that he struggled to make sense of: tables and chairs; pots, pans, and cooler boxes; a large fire with a barbecue grill set up over it; several other people carrying cameras and microphones; and further away, a helicopter.

‘Welcome to the set of Bazza Barnes: Remote Kitchen,’ the big man said. ‘A beauty, isn’t it? And that makes me Bazza,’ he added, having reached John and sticking out a hand. John took it. It was like a bear paw. ‘You can call me Bazz, Bazzmaster or Badman B if you want,’ Bazza said, still shaking, and following with his customary laugh, which sounded much louder and deeper up close.

‘Remote Kitchen?’ John managed through his desiccated throat.

‘Yeah, yeah. You got it. It’s a cooking show. They fly me to some of the remotest places on earth and I set up a kitchen and cook one hell of a bloody tasty feast, if i say so myself, right there and then. I’m quite famous in Australia, but I guess you’ve never seen the show or you’d be acting more impressed.’ More laughter. It had begun to be deeply soothing. ‘Isn’t this place is crackers though,’ he said, looking around. ‘Brutal spot. Just brutal—but I guess I don’t have to tell you that by the look of things.’ He contented himself with huge squint-eyed smile this time. ‘How’d you get heres anyways?’

‘Plane crash. Sorry, please, I need water.’

‘Of course, of course,’ with a great wallop on the back. ‘You want sparkling or still? Cold or room temperature? Probably hungry too, aren’t ya?’ Bazza put an arm around him. ‘Let’s walk you over to camp and get you fed. Got a whole menu on the go: mini lamb burgers with tzaziki and crispy onions, grilled chicken with Sriracha mayo and crunchy apple beet slaw, a beef bourguignon that’s been on the low coals for hours, and a huge chocolate marble sheet cake. Oh, and I’ve got ice cold beer on draught. A corker of an amber ale. Figure it’ll hit the spot in this climate and I reckon it’ll taste better than sex to someone in your position—but of course, we’ll get you a few sips of water first, get hydration goin. That’s only reasonable.’ There came the inevitable laughter. ‘Then we’ll sit you down, feed you for hours and keep the beers coming. Oh boy, I’m glad you dropped in! Tonight is going to be aces. And hell, mate, looks like you going to be on Aussie TV too!’

By E.M. Vireo

Drop 140: Cough

I’m sitting in a café, warm croissant in hand, when the woman at the table beside mine coughs. Two wet barks seem to get the job done but a few seconds later a wheezing buildup ushers in several more. She tries to gather her breath, hand on chest, but another coughing spell overwhelms her. This one is even more violent, lurching her torso back and forth as it delivers its blows. She fidgets with her handbag to pull out a tissue, to cover her nose and mouth with while she carries on sputtering. It puts up little resistance. Teary-eyed, she grabs another while she hacks up phlegm, then spits into it twice. A green strand arches from her face as she replaces it, suffering through another agonizing round of deep lung spasms. It’s one of the worst bouts I’ve ever witnessed. She looks like she’s dying as it just keeps coming.

Everyone in the place cringes through another long spurt, and is relieved when she finally stops, a full two minutes after she began. She blows her nose one final time, scrunching up the tissue and adding it to the pile that litters the table in front of her.

‘Wow,’ she says, looking at her friend and smiling. ‘My cough is so much better today.’

By EM Vireo

Drop #139: Paper

IMG_2026Barefoot in soft pajamas, she went to the front door to fetch the paper. This flawed old medium, with its wide ungainly pages that kinked at every turn and stained fingers a disturbing blue, still did it for her. In the twenty odd years she’d been addicted to coffee, she’d found no better companion for her morning cup.

She walked past the kitchen, ignoring the high-pitched squeals. A glue trap had finally worked. Opening the heavy gray door onto suburbia, the crisp air teased with the promise of a pleasant day.

The paper lay on the front porch, just two feet away. Some mornings, victim of a wayward arm, it barely cleared the fence. She stepped forward to pick it up, noticing the two boys as she bent down: maybe 8th or 9th graders, maybe on their way to school. They’d stopped beside the elm tree just outside the yard.

‘You little shit,’ the bigger one said loudly, as she straightened back up. ‘I’m gonna make you eat my fist.’

Curious now, she waited and watched. The bully was already well into his routine: ‘I’m gonna make you pay,’ delivered with a curt little shove.

‘Please,’ said the little one. ‘I didn’t do anything. I didn’t–’

‘Shut up, faggot.’ He put a hard palm to the other boy’s jaw and pushed it away. ‘Or I’ll hurt you worse.’

‘Please.’

‘I said shut up!’ He slapped the kid twice before grabbing him by the collar and shoving him against the tree. ‘You just don’t seem to get it.’ He flicked him on the forehead, smirking slightly. He was good at being mean. This was what he did. This was what he was. ‘And now I’m going to have to hurt you.’

She watched motionless in her pajamas, from her camouflaged spot on the porch, holding her rolled up paper. She watched the children with her adult eyes, with a responsibility, a duty to intervene. It was all so close, so clear: the hollow sobs, the growing wet patch.

‘Oh don’t cry, you pussy,’ the bully scoffed. ‘Take a beating like a man—oh Jesus, you went and pissed yourself too. That’s disgusting.’

Too clear: the humiliation, the sad reality. She’d watched it all with her terrible adult eyes; now she’d had enough. She’d seen enough.

She turned and went inside, closing the door softly behind her. She leaned against it, too taken by the scene she’d just witnessed to move another inch. Playing back the degradation, the closeness, the keenness of those slaps, she slid down the hard gray wood, banging her head twice against it and pursing her lips as she slipped four fingers under her pajamas bottoms and into her panties. In the past she would have fought back tears but it had long been all too clear: what one is, what one does. The mouse still squealed but faintly, slowly dying but not dead.

By EM Vireo

Drop 138: CAB

steak knifeC  

Witnessed a bizarre and disturbing scene today while having a bite at my local joint. Two guys at the table next door were just eating and talking quietly and suddenly the taller one grabs his knife and stabs the other straight through the hand. There was no buildup, no apparent reasoning. Dude was pinned to the table, screaming like crazy while blood flowed freely from the wound. It was insane. Just bonkers.

A

‘Hey, can you do me a huge favor?’

‘Maybe.’

‘Can I borrow your van this morning and for some of the afternoon? Have to make a few pick ups for the show.’

‘Guess you’ll also need me to drive it, yeah?’

‘Yeah. Haven’t renewed my license yet.’

‘Typical. And you’ll probably need help carrying shit too, right?’

‘That would be awesome.’

‘OK, but on one condition: we don’t skip lunch.’

‘Course not. Sure.’

‘I’ve been craving a buffalo burger all week and today’s the day. Going to JJ’s for the full combo and I don’t want to be rushed.’

‘Fine.’

‘I mean it. I want to sit and enjoy.’

‘No problem. You got it.’

They make the first pick up at 10.30, the second an hour later. After the next, they bring it all to the theater and unload. It’s almost one when they get to JJ’s. Tim orders the double buffalo cheeseburger special with fries, onion rings and slaw, and a pint of Bass. Larry gets a grilled cheese and a soda. It comes first and he finishes quickly. He taps his fingers on the table for a second, looks at Tim, who is savoring his second bite, and says: ‘Hey buddy. You think you could speed it up a bit? I still have two spots to hit before three.’

By EM Vireo

Drop #137: POV

windowI visit Giorgos for the first time at his seven-flight walk-up. His roommate answers: ‘Oh, he’ll be back in ten minutes. You’re welcome to wait.’

I take off my coat, hanging onto it as I stroll around the small apartment. The miniscule bathroom has a toilet, sink and shower all in the same few square feet of space with drain in the center. No curtain, door or other partition separates the shower. There is a squeegee with broken wooden handle in one corner. Neither bedroom has a window and both smell of must. Each has a raised single bed so clothes can be stored underneath. There’s no telling where kitchen begins and living room ends. A stubby mini fridge with a gas camping stove on it crowds the front door. A fold out table leans against the fridge, closed. There is a couch and a crooked side table on which an old Dell laptop sits. A tiny square window is the only link to the outside and I now walk over to look through it.

The first thing that catches my eye is a large round fresh water receptacle off to the left, now defunct. Two dead pigeons are suspended in its off-black void. A rotary washing line, rusted and broken stands nearby. Its slack remaining cords cling to a sweater, pair of trousers and some underwear that have long been deserted. They hang hardened, tinged a fungal green. Nearby is a makeshift cemetery; maybe a single family took burial into their own hands. There are four tombstones. Two have cracked and another has disintegrated. One of the graves looks freshly dug up. They lie under an apple tree with a yield of rotten fruit, beside a polluted pond. The water here is a sick dull brown, probably from the sewerage pipe running into it. Two structures command the right side of the picture: a derelict apartment complex, half burned down, housing only debris, broken household appliances and other garbage now, and diagonally in front of it, an operational slaughterhouse. The pigs are heard screaming as they meet their end, their crudely hacked bits hang dripping off hooks from outdoor racks. The whole scene is luridly painted in various shades of blood.

‘It’s not a great space, I admit,’ the roommate says as I notice another small garbage dump closer by, ‘and we probably could have done better, but we just fell in love with that view. We simply couldn’t pass it up.’

By EM Vireo

Drop 136: Locked Up

padlock‘All done? I’m closing up.’

‘Yeah,’ she says, watching mating cranes dance on TV.

‘You sure?’

‘Yeah.’

He carefully seals the Ziploc bag, checking twice it’s airtight, and puts it in the small cloth sack. He pulls its strings tight and ties them in a firm triple knot. He folds over the slack and slides the sack carefully, face up, into the embossed leather satchel, pushing it gently into the corner to ensure a snug fit. The satchel goes into the metal box, which is locked with a combination of three 5 number combinations and two simultaneous key turns; the box, in turn, goes into a reinforced oak chest which is wrapped lengthwise, then widthwise in a heavy chain, which is locked with a half-inch padlock. All keys are now stored in a small pouch which is duly locked (by combination) in a small titanium case, which he places, by way of step-ladder, in the safe in the study at the back of the house, behind the master bookshelf’s oversized top row of books (East Asian night markets and Taxidermy). Upon his return, he gets back to the chest, cloaking it in a heavy blanket, which he secures with a full roll of packing tape. He carries it down the double flight of stairs to the basement and deposits it in the trapdoor under the Persian rug, which he then kneels down to roll back out.

‘Done,’ he says, getting back to Jade and plopping down beside her. ‘Phew!’

‘Huh, what?’ She says, watching a snow leopard hunt mountain goats on a sheer cliff wall, then looks at him. ‘Hey, give me the baggy again for a second. I need one more thing from it.’

By E.M. Vireo

Drop #135: Confrontation

I came home late. My roommate, Pete, usually hit the sack early but I heard loud talking coming from the back of the flat as soon as I stepped inside. It sounded angry too: ‘Get out. Please. Just get out!’

I locked up softly and took off my coat. ‘Damn you, bastard. Damn you to hell!’ Pete now screamed.

Was he OK? I’d only moved in a month back and knew little about him or his acquaintances.

I took a few steps towards the ruckus, listening. There was a bang, as if something was being thrust against the wall. Jesus, what the hell was going on? I grabbed a golf club from the nearby closet and tried to compose myself. I’m small and weak and I’ve never been good with confrontation. I’d certainly never had to deal with violence. A few more tentative steps and more shouting: ‘You’re hurting me! Seriously, I want you out now!’

I’ll admit I was scared. I went closer but wasn’t sure what to do.

There was an eerie silence now. No shouting. No banging. I stood with my weapon in the dark corridor for a minute, procrastinating, soaking in the growing fear.

Then the toilet flushed, the faucet ran for a few seconds, and Pete came out of the bathroom whistling. ‘Oh, hi buddy. When d’you get back?

‘Just a couple of minutes ago.’

‘Man, hope you didn’t need the John. I wouldn’t go in there for a while. Quite a battle, if you know what I mean. Not pretty at all.’ He grinned. ‘Hey, what’s with the golf club?’

By EM Vireo

Drop 134: Red Crystalline Truffles

tableI was alone. Some people hate eating alone. Some even finally realize, at a table for one outdoors, having the best lunch in all of France, with the best possible view, in the nicest possible weather, with the finest glass of wine you ever tasted, that nothing will ever be enjoyable enough to offset the weight of the ceaseless despair they’ve carried since adolescence, and, after a perfect dessert, head straight for the front of the nearest speeding truck.

I am not like that. Not at all. I like dining alone cause I like having free range, controlling the space, getting it right, but mostly cause I hate sharing. Especially this stuff.

I had managed to procure red crystalline truffles. Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of them. Few have. They’re sensitive things, and preposterously rare, growing only in a single fragmented patch of woodland in Latvia, and only under perfect conditions. Thing is, that only happens every few years (maybe more, but since they stick around for two weeks max, they’re likely to come and go unnoticed). They have no season, so their arrival is anticipated by a small, dedicated group of truffle diviners, or mud ticklers, as they’re known in local dialect.

Nowadays they use algorithms plotting humidity, temperature, air pressure and clay density to time the hunt, but still end with rough estimates at best. Red ghosts flourish at the onset of unusually wet periods, after particular combinations of (amongst other variables): evening heat, morning chill,  wind direction volatility, and fluctuations in slender mayfly populations (no one knows why), which means they must usually be harvested in torrential rains. To complicate things further, only a solitary species of half-blind endemic ferret has the nose to find and root them out. The ferrets, which are also unfortunately a dying breed, often strike out even when the truffles are surely there; so you can see, we are operating at miniscule odds.

Regardless, I had procured two beautiful specimens, whole and unblemished. It had taken a great deal of time, money, planning and sneakiness. I’d cashed in a few ancient favors and built a few new strategic alliances (I now owe an unclear debt to a Latvian gangster called Rudi Pipholš), but I felt it was well worth it.

Now, I know you’ve heard of black and white truffles, which fetch a price, and deserve to for their earthy funk, but these suckers put them to shame. Make them seem like McNuggets.

They rested in a folded cloth on the counter. I opened it up to have another look. Each was the size and shape of a roasted peanut shell, three nuts deep, still intact. They were a translucent terra cotta red, with silver veins streaking across the surface. They resembled odd precious stones, but were in fact more precious than that. I took another sniff, padding the fetish of anticipation. Rain soaked earth and river moss filled the nose, with an afterthought of nutmeg and cocoa. Then came subtler elements of laurel, malt, and perfumed spruce – and a cheeky whiff of fig! But the full scent would only bloom when cut.

I tucked them back in, put them aside, and started cooking. The simpler the better for this rare treat. I boiled potatoes and made gnocchi from scratch, then a simple sauce of butter, chestnut and sherry.

I already had the parmigiano, flown in directly from Italy with Donato on Tuesday (his check in luggage still stinks of it), and a special bottle of Sardinian red from ’04: L’assassino. It was one of a very limited stock from a vineyard with only eight producing vines, and ’04 was the last vintage – many say the best. Vintner’s dead, farm sold. This may well have been the last bottle left on earth. I’d waited on it for seven years, and I’d drink it now, alone.

This wine had been cultivated precisely to pair with truffle, and I’d found its soul mate. I opened the bottle and set it off to the side to breathe it all in. I believe a wine deserves a view on what it will pair with. Some time to adapt, to get into character.

I finished the pasta in the saucepan. I’d made enough for two but poured it all in one large bowl, my bowl. I sprinkled it generously with cheese, then shaved both red truffles on top, all at once, just like that. I did it quickly and carefully – sensitive as they are, the slivers ruin easily if they soak up too much moisture, or are exposed to too much air.

They were even prettier inside, denser, but shinier, with the silver streaks running all the way through them like lightening bolts. The smell coming off them was heady and complex, eliciting memories forgotten and comforts lost to growing up.

This was it. I’d gone all in. Salivating, I carried the plate deliberately to the table, which I’d set elegantly for one. I absorbed the last lush aches of anticipation, feeling a deep joy new to me: one true lovers must feel before first making love. It was time, at last, to eat.

I fetched the assassin, and brought her to the table. I sat down and poured a thin-stemmed glass.

Something fell loudly in another room and I dropped the bottle. Reflexively reaching for it, the tablecloth caught on my knee.

Down went the bowl, the bottle, and the glass, shattering onto the floor to paint a purple mess. The gnocchi, drowned in the wine, impaled by shrapnel shards of glass, were spread gruesomely about the scene.

I tried to pick up but the battle was lost. The truffles had turned, the moment had passed. And that’s the sad story of the red crystalline truffles. I should have warned you before, it had no happy ending. Maybe you guessed so already.

 

By EM Vireo

Drop #133: Office Party

‘Why you not drinking? You pregnant or something?’

‘Pregnant? God no. Just still hungover.’

‘Oh.’

‘Never want to see a bottle of vodka again. Never in my life—oh, and thanks, by the way.’

‘For what?’

‘For implying I’m fat. Sure, I’ve been hitting the cupcakes a bit hard, but pregnant?’

‘I didn’t mean … ’

‘God, imagine that though, being pregnant at our age, at our salary, with our men. Both Derrick and George are sweethearts but shit, they couldn’t raise a barn door with an army of Amish on meth. Parent! Oh man. I’d rather lose a foot at this point—no kidding. God, the practicalities alone. The time. The money and responsibility. They say it costs half a mil just to get them to 18. Where’d we scrape up that kind of dough with our mortgage and our debt? You got debt right?’ She swigged from her Diet Pepsi, looking up.

‘Some.’

‘See. Who doesn’t? And besides: I know it’s over-argued but I just don’t trust this world with its overpopulation and imminent pandemics. It scares the crap out me. And I’m just me. If I die: there it is, but imagine processing all that Ebola and Fukushima and fracking and shit with other lives dependent on your dumb ass—real human lives. I’d be a mess, 24/7.’

‘Come on. It’s not that bad.’

‘And that’s not even taking the white man’s lot into consideration. The inevitable shift in things. Just you wait till the Chinese get it together and the Indians adapt to keep pace. How you going to get anywhere in fifteen years as a Jones or a Smith?’

‘Tsk! Where d’you get this stuff?’

‘Online. Sometimes CNN or other tabloid news. I’m a voracious reader. But seriously, this is the last white generation that can con a worthwhile dream from the world, and now you add a kid to that ruckus? An utterly dependent being you must shelter and guide into the future—that future! Imagine the competition for schools, for universities—Christ! Even for pre-school. The wait lists, the prices! It’s going to be all Chang and Singh and Volkov. No,’–she shakes her head–‘you’d be toast unless you married into Sanchez or Ras el Hanout.’

‘Come on. That’s a blend of spices!’

‘Yes! And one you couldn’t compete with. Exactly what will your bundle of joy do in 22 years when he can’t find work and can’t handle the bills, and his parents are sick and poor but still alive? Maybe cancered up but on miracle meds, or maybe one has died to leave the other broken, never having been alone, with only a son left in the world as support and shield against a dark and ugly loneliness. The guilt we’d latch around them. We’d be liabilities—gross, festering nuisances. I have no pension, George only scraps, and he had that small heart attack last year. Our cholesterol’s through the roof and everything else has pretty much already begun to quietly break down. Imagine having an 19 yr old at 62! Ha! Pregnant. What a mad question.’

‘Yes.’

‘Anyway.’ She shrugs. ‘What’s new with you?’

‘We just got the news. We’re pregnant. We’re ecstatic.’

 By EM Vireo

Drop 132: Choices

burrata and heirloom tomato‘What do you think?’

They are standing outside the restaurant reading its menu, which is on a little stand.

‘Looks amazing!’

‘I know, right! I think we finally found our place.’

‘The salmon looks awesome.’

‘Yeah, and it comes with fennel and garlic mash. I just love fennel.’

‘Tell me a bout it! The only thing I love more is garlic mash.’ She scans a few more items. ‘What about the burrata and heirloom tomato salad?’

‘Oh my god, looks super tasty. Great minds think alike. Any others that grab ya?’

‘Yup, one more.’

‘Me too. Bet it’s the same.’

‘You thinking bouillabaisse?’

‘Boy, am I! Bouillabaisse is driving a Harley all over my brain.’

‘Yeah, those three stand out, for sure. Choices, choices.’

‘Yup—well, whatever we choose, we’re going to feast, girl!’

‘We sure are! I’m famished.’

‘We could even get all three.’

 

‘Welcome ladies, so happy you’ve joined us,’ the waiter says, handing them menus.

‘Oh, we know what we want.’

‘Alrighty, but just to let you know, we have a special today: rack of lamb with prune compote serve on—’

‘Oh, no, we’re set. We were looking outside.’ She smiles. ‘I’ll have the—’

‘Yeah, just to also let you know,’ he says, smiling back, ‘that we are out of,’—he leans over the table and points at an item on the menu with his pinkie—‘the bouillabaisse.’

‘Oh, well that makes it easier then. So, I guess she’ll have the burrata and I’ll have—’

‘Ooh, sorry, that’s the one other item we’re currently out of.’

‘Seriously? Boy, that’s kind of lame. Well, at least you have the—’

‘Just a second, ladies.’ The waiter presses two fingers to his earpiece. ‘They just made a liar out of me,’ he says, shrugging. ‘We just lost the salmon and garlic mash too.’

By EM Vireo

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