A collection of short pieces written by Rumpus readers pertaining to the subject of “Deep Trouble.”
Edited by Susan Clements.
I sat on a bench in the drunk tank of the Bannock County jail in Pocatello, Idaho—also known as Poca-fellow—wearing True Religion jeans, a tight-fitting t-shirt, and hot pink American Apparel skivvies. A man hollered from a jail cell at the desk clerk—anyone—for some Jack In The Box; drunk-food. There wasn’t so much as a shut-up: his carrying-on seized deaf ears.
Fox News blared on a television.
A woman lay sprawled out on the floor lifeless, she probably wouldn’t remember where she had spent the night, tomorrow. Her hair was a ratted mess and I worried about other detainees stepping on her split-ends, not purposefully, but because the crop of her hair was occupying so much floor space.
I had been in a vodka haze, but as soon as the deputy fastened the cuffs around my wrists, and they went click-click-click against my bony nubs, I knew I’d fucked up. The officer was a man I’d run next to on the treadmill at the gym, a cartoonish looking man similar in size and definition to Captain America, a man I’d served beers and wings to at Winger’s, a local restaurant where in animus I waited tables.
On the way to the jail he said that he hated seeing the good ones get caught. I was one of the good ones. I told him that I knew better. I caught his eyes in the rearview and he nodded in my direction like he suddenly remembered me—the bald guy from Winger’s—from where I had remembered him, and in his eyes I could see that he felt bad, but only a little.
I cried into the telephone, my one phone call, and begged a friend to come and get me, “They have my shoes—my shoes! I have been walking around a jail cell in black tube socks and skinny jeans.” He told me to relax, he’d be there in five minutes. In those five minutes I was booked. A female deputy with an obvious affinity for Aquanet-Extra-Super-Hold asked me for my in-case-of-emergency and whether or not I preferred male or female partners?! Her stiff blonde bangs hung above her eyebrows and beneath the thicket was some semblance of a forehead. She directed me to a gray wall and there she took my picture; the only evidence the world had that I wasn’t one of the good ones.
— K. Tyler Christensen
* * *
I was frightened. There were three men following me along the sidewalk. They had just been looking at a pickup truck with the front end smashed in, advertised for sale. When I walked by they peeled away and walked behind me. Even in daylight there’s something ominous about footsteps behind you, the nuisance of feeling that you are setting a pace. I would have liked to let them go ahead, but I didn’t want to slow down or turn, so I walked to the next stoplight without pausing. As a woman walking alone I won’t take risks. It becomes a game almost. Which block to turn down for a different route home. It’s good to be reminded of these things.
There’s one street I won’t take anymore. It’s a short steep hill behind the elementary school. I thought someone had dropped a shirt in the road, but actually they tossed it over the body of a cat, just one paw sticking out. For the next few days I rode my bike up the hill with a certainty that the carcass had not been abandoned. The night I rode past and saw curled dark organs reflecting the streetlight, the spring air suddenly smelled of decay. I dreamed about dead bodies in dark rooms, and eating something rotten with a fork.
I mostly feel safe walking at night in the city. It used to be that I went everywhere that way. One night I was leaving a date that I couldn’t stand any more. A whole bottle of red at dinner, and he wanted to try the absinthe—that’s what I was walking off. I came under the bridge of the freeway as it crosses a lake and saw a man on the other side of the road. He stood out in the dark because he was entirely naked. I don’t know whether he got off on the exhibitionism or the way my hips swung as I walked faster towards home. In the same week I saw him again, on another street that is generally busy. You’d think I looked closer the second time, but I was angry. I didn’t want to encourage him. When I took my boots to the cobbler to be re-soled, he told me never to bring them in that condition again—the heels had worn down past the foundation, making sharp angles.
— Amelia Apfel
* * *
“A soul” is what they tell their children, when asked to explain how the bad get to do what they want with the good and eat all candy and stay up late.
“. . .is like a deep well, or a second heart” that belongs to someone else, who wretches at the talons of young love in the jagged hours on the couch and decides to flee even as the last of the cinders smolder to a hiss. What to squeeze for admissions.
“Smudges obscure the surface,” as a patina of broken words, forsaken tenderness, betrayed intentions not unlike expecting the painting of a baby dressed in oil and feathers to take flight. Obscure the surface, not unlike the harbor town that never fades from storm to storm until at once the lighthouse quietly goes down during the shipment of the harvest bounty, and cannot be roused. Someone elusive holds the switch. The leak in this particular pail is lovingly sprung on one side so that one takes notice on the path to the final river, a row of posies is left.
“At the end of the day, your measure of clarity is taken. The soul that reveals her true color is allowed to pass the gates into eternal bliss.”
So the children are sent roaming, toothed with strips of paper for every remark, tasked with digging out the wick, promised or threatened with signet blessings so that the over- turned hand delivers each decree. They are sent digging for bones with rope, their palms after so much drawing from the deep waters eventually etched with telling lines, all the while a thirst goes unquenched and yet each one must secret a legend in their jacket pocket, a code of colors, depth chart, a test for the necessary parts per million fire to brimstone—terminating with a faint scent of how good good was supposed to be, ideally.
— Jeffrey Bennett
* * *
The potter turns the urn with his rough hands carefully examining every inch. Its unglazed surface is the color of freshly cut wheat. Its shape is simple, almost plain, slightly bulbous with two small opposing handles and a lid that locks with a twist. He tilts the urn to examine the interior. Unlike the common exterior, he has glazed the interior of the vessel with vales of numinous blacks. The glazes create a depth and a presence that rival the night sky. If he peers at its darkness for too long, he fears losing himself within it.
His glazes have always charmed the Gods. He has grown fat giving them the warm yellows of a summer day, the cool blues of mountain lakes, and whites that remind them of spring clouds. He has never created for them anything like this. But, Zeus requested it. And no one refuses Zeus.
He gently places the vessel on the workbench. As he gathers wood to build a crate for transport, he glances once more at the vessel. Filled with a sense of dread, he again strains to find a flaw sufficient to delay delivery.
This strange vessel has captured the interest of the workshops. Rumor and speculation abound. Most believe Zeus will give the urn to one of the daughters of Deucalion. They say her name is Pandora.
— Mark Starling
* * *
I hesitate typing the word f*ck. See. I have to put an asterisk where the ‘u’ should be so that I won’t offend you. But I really like the word f*ck. Actually, it’s one of my favorite words and I use whenever I can which is usually when I shouldn’t on account that I have small children. I grew up believing that f*ck was a terrible, no good, bad word. Saying f*ck would get you grounded at the very least and depending on how much vitriol was behind it, you might get whipped. But today is a different time where you are never but two clicks away from much more shocking things to see and read and yet I cannot stop censoring myself with that f*cking asterisk.
Two mornings ago my toddler daughter came to wake me up an hour earlier than usual. That same night my infant son woke up more times than usual and the combination of those events prompted and warranted a groggy, drawn-out “f****ck” from me. It was the first time she repeated it and I think I fell in love with the word even more. The sound of the word f*ck coming from a three-year old is, quite frankly, hilarious. It’s like a cat wearing a tiny suit. It doesn’t fit, it’s unnatural, inappropriate and so, so wrong and yet still, you smile. Then I was a little sad because I realized that it was time to retire f*ck from my vocabulary. How do you properly memorialize f*ck? Should I give it its due one last time and finally type it boldly, correctly, with all the letters displayed intact? Or should I pretend that it never existed and replace it coldly with a limp and substandard, yet kid-friendly, “fudge”? Should I hoard it and use it only for special occasions like my best perfume thus bestowing upon it an air of utter satisfaction? I’m tempted to just proclaim that now I’m a “progressive” parent and by using the word nonchalantly I will remove its connotation as “bad” and therefore my children will not be tempted to use it at all. Nah. I think I’ll keep every opportunity to say another favorite phrase of mine which was what my parents used to say to me: “You’re in deep trouble young lady.” To which I hope she doesn’t hesitate to say, “Ah fuck.”
— Shannon Lell
* * *
The paramedic stares into her vacant eyes. She’s only nineteen, the remnants of beauty still apparent behind her drawn face and pale complexion, underneath a black hole of make-up. Her mother is screaming in the background about how she watched that Intervention show and is so scared for her daughter and doesn’t want her to die. The mother looks burlap, like she’s had it rough during the years long barbeque of her life. Another girl, her sister, lingers behind everyone. She radiates fresh and innocent, wearing a green college hoodie and seemingly not jaded by life. Yet. The paramedic sighs and in a businesslike, unhurried manner he starts an IV. His partner is applying oxygen and assisting respirations for the young girl. Narcan is sucked out a vial and applied intravenously. Stand back, the paramedic calls out. They wake up quick. The cops put gloves on in anticipation.
Waking up with a startle as the paramedics hover over you with the cops hovering behind them ready for action. They say you weren’t breathing, clinically dead, and ask where you stash the heroin. Your mother appears rather grim. Your grogginess, the haze of black tar heaven you were floating in is abruptly shattered by medication the paramedics slammed into your sallow veins. You are alert and pissed at the disappearance of your high. No heroin, you defensively reply. A few people chuckle. You notice the hypodermic syringe still taped to your left forearm, tingling your skin like a soft wind. Tourniquets, lighters, spoons. The scattered “paraphernalia.” What a dirty word.
You stumble into the ambulance, horse-collared by the paramedic. He tries to lecture you during the ride to the hospital, but his words are meaningless. He says you will be dead in a few years if you keep this up. He says look in the mirror, see what drugs have done to you. Look at old photographs. Look at your sister who seems to have her shit together. Whatever. You are the bad seed, but he doesn’t get it. No, no one understands what you were forced to do to provide for your family, the abuses you suffered at such a young age. An alternate reality is the only chance at a normal life, to protect you from this leeching existence—you haven’t given up hope, you’ve found transcendence.
No one will take that away from you.
— Joe Amaral
* * *
The third time Adam got arrested, Lila was watching. She was on her porch roof when the cop car pulled up out front. “The lights weren’t on, but I recognized the sound, the way engine is different. Like it revs higher.”
She said there was yelling, something about bringing shame on the family. As if Adam’s dad hadn’t done his fair share of hauling disgrace into that house. Hell, he had a matching 12-piece set of shame luggage. Lila saw his dad standing in the doorway, while under the glare of the street lamp, two officers put Adam in the squad car.
“Did they put the siren on?” I asked, up on the porch the next day. There was a short breeze rustling the weeping willow above me.
“No, they just drove down the street. They turned left.” Lila passed two Diet Cokes through her bedroom window and crawled out next to me.
I looked through the skinny branches at the house across the way, trying to visualize Adam in handcuffs. But all I could picture was him as the Tin Man in the fourth grade play, clad in slippery Reynolds Wrap, sliding across the back seat of the squad car. “So, what do we do? Should we go ask his mother what’s going on?”
“I’m not going over there,” she replied. “You?”
“No,” I said as I popped the soda can open, listening to the hiss of gas escaping into atmosphere. “What do you think he did?”
“Stealing, probably. Maybe selling.”
Long tendrils from the willow piled in the gutter just below our feet. Lila’s dad kept saying he was going to cut it back, that it was blocking the rain from draining. Fortunately, Lila’s dad rarely did what he said. I reached up and started plucking leaves off a branch.
“I guess we just wait. He’ll probably be home today.”
“The only thing,” Lila started, then trailed off.
“What?” I asked.
“The only thing is they came and got him at night. That’s got to be bad, right? I mean, to take him away in the dark, that seems bad.”
“Everything seems bad in the dark. Everything.”
— Sue Gelber
* * *
I sat in the cushioned seat of the car, barreling down an interstate stretched through wilderness virtually untouched by human endeavor, propelled between the places I’ve known and loved by fate, not design.
“Fuck,” I was thinking, over and over. My eyes past drained, grief large in me. This is the whimper of the world’s end: the coexistence of multiple unmooring’s, fleshed out and served up resplendent. The day before, and a thousand days before that, I had been confident in my plan, knew where I was going, what I wanted. I took great pains to reinforce that future vision, worked hard at it. Had disciplines in place that most people thought were completely absurd. I awoke every day across years at four in the morning just to make sure every day supported and furthered the path I was following.
Now, though, I was just a lost man blasting down the straight tube of a highway going from nothing to nothing. All rugs pulled away within moments of each other, as if the universe conspired to make it so. There is also this: the breadth of illusion is infinite. Our blind spots are so ravenous they devour us whole, leave hollow people where we once put on flesh and mounted the world.
“If there was ever a time when you should talk to someone,” she would tell me, days later, “now is that time.” She would know I didn’t want to hear that particular suggestion, didn’t want to talk to anyone at all. She would then add, “but I know that’s not what you want right now.” Because what I would want more than anything, what I want more than anything is to drown in it so that I can somehow retain a vestige of the person I was before.
Finally, there is this: every single thing we know and love, every desire we have and embarrassment we carry with us, they are all fleeting. Even these words are disappearing from the screen as you read them. Particles falling apart the moment they form, endlessly. And I don’t know whether I am at perigee or apogee now, don’t know how long I will hold it together, with the weight of this. Now, just to get home. To be home at last. Then, regroup tomorrow.
— Mitch Major
* * *
The movers tell us they won’t take the computers. Or the cleaning supplies. Or the office documents. Take your important shit. Move it with that truck, they suggest. There’s a transmission leak in said shitty truck. We should sell it before we leave, I say. It’s fine, the gentleman says, it’ll get to Seattle. Six miles shy of the Continental Divide the shitty truck stops climbing. We pull to the side. Tap on the dashboard. Glare at one another. We are less than nowhere.
I open the door. Flames. I close the door. My heart seems to be choking me. Fire, I whisper. What? Get the fuck out, I yell, this time, quite clearly.
And we do. With alacrity. I don’t even grab my purse. We run to an outcropping of rock ahead and start dialing. No bars, no reception. There’s a moment where our arms simply drop and we begin to watch. I visualize walking to the truck, opening the door, and grabbing my purse. I visualize the truck exploding, vaporizing me into tree food. I don’t move.
The flames breach the firewall and light up the cabin. The fire creeps into to the back and finds the cleaning supplies. Our eyes burn. The gas tank ignites with a deflating hiss. We flinch as the tires blow, one by one, echoing in the ravine, rubbery firecrackers.
Up go the tax records and the passports. The laptops and my locket. Up goes the Drano and the rubbing alcohol and the bleach. Our jeans and our toothbrushes. It’s only stuff, the gentleman says, all replaceable. But I have nothing, I sob. No ID, no passport, no birth certificate, no money. I no longer exist.
Cars finally stop. Another half hour passes before the firemen arrive. The water freezes over the roadway and stops traffic. Worst they’ve ever seen, they say. I bet you say that to all the car fires, I say.
A tow man loads the hulking, steaming, hissing, smoking skeleton of shitty truck and tells us to come by tomorrow. We beg to be taken into town. We cram in with him, reeking of chemical fire. Tow man slows enough for us to tumble out at the gas station/motel.
The gentleman buys me a pack of cigarettes for my nerves. The cashier smiles and says, would you like a carwash with that?
— Camille Griep
My lizard brain: I do what it wants. I can’t believe I’ve gotten away with it for this long. My lizard brain wants to have sex. It wants to eat. It wants adventure interspersed with naps. For decades I even got paid for that: adventure, nap, adventure, nap. I took the naps at my desk and worked into the night.
My lizard brain wanted her. She and her friend were roller skating and trying to teach me. During “couples skate” they thought it would be fun to pull me around between them, making a threesome of sorts, shocking the normals. The minute we got well under way my lizard brain gave a sharp yank and pulled her down on top of me. Ssssssssss!
She figured me out quickly. She went directly to the lizard brain and made a pact. The fussy careful control module was in denial for six awkward months: too young, smart, athletic, tall. Too hot, was what it meant. My lizard brain had no doubt: Sssssssssss!
Now we’re in deep trouble, together, and I’ve never been happier. The lizard brain scored again!
Americans as a cultural group: our lizard brains seem to want to sit on the sofa, watch TV, and eat greasy salty food. We’ll vote for—that is, we’ll stay home and do nothing to fight the megalomaniacal deceitful resource-squandering tyranny of—anyone who looks like they will not interfere with the pleasures our lizard brains have become addicted to.
Now we’re in deep trouble, all together.
I can’t believe we’ve gotten away with it for this long.
And I can’t even be self righteous because I do exactly the same thing. I so rarely exercise self-control. Is it too late for us all to try something different?
Engrave it in adamantine: as a species, we hit a dead end, drowned in our own waste, and this was how and why.
— Julianne Chatelain
* * *
I was riding my bicycle up the parking garage ramps when I spotted the young homeless guy sleeping on the third level sidewalk. I was pissed. Pissed that some asshole had the temerity to invade “my” personal refuge. For months I’d been riding across town late at night, and grinding my bike up the four tiers to spend uncountable hours riding loops on the split upper decks which were open to the clear desert sky. I didn’t ride here because I wanted to. I did it out of necessity. I was depressed, angry, and wrestling with mental demons the likes of which I’d never imagined possible. The garage was my therapy, and had I not spent time every night burning excess hatred and energy by mindlessly looping—riding hard down the ramp across the lower portion, then coasting up the opposite ramp and across the upper slab of concrete—I’d have never slept, nor been able to engross myself in the miasma that was my daily life. Instead of continuing to the top, I descended, cussing and escalating my ever present anger. Pickling up a large, oval, softball-sized river rock from the front landscaping, I remounted and ascended my ramps. Gliding across the third slab I picked up speed and wrath, hurtling towards the interloper. I was about twenty feet away when he slowly raised his head to look at me. There was a shared moment in which we were both cognizant of what was transpiring. His eyes widened with fear or awareness, and for a quick second I realized he and I were quite similar. This only served to increase my rage, and I launched the rock. It skipped off the smooth concrete with a loud “clack”, smashing into my target’s face with such incredible force I could hear and feel the bones crushing and connective tissue violently torn asunder. The rock bounced and spun on the sidewalk while I sprinted by bike to the top of the structure. My heart was racing as wildly as my mind, but I rode my circuit as usual, before checking on my victim, who was sprawled, prone and still, in a pool of blood. I fled home, overcome by the emotion of taking a life. Racked with fear, but not contrition, I later rode back to the scene. He was gone, and by his absence, alive; only a black congealed puddle remained, the inescapable reminder of my transgression.
— Chris Mautner
Rumpus original art by Christina Weidman.