Written by Lucas Pralle
Narrated by Larry Anderson
Remember when I told you about how I first learned of this peculiar story over a game of cards in a country tavern brimming with smoke, good drink, and bad decisions? Well, in my case, perhaps murder involving cards is a better description than game, like a murder of crows greedily and unmercifully descending upon my already meager sack of coins with such unshakeable precision, that three knotted old men—my compatriots in this one-sided war—had been wiped clean hours earlier. This left just me and the master-storyteller-slash-king-of-cards himself sitting before me; and let’s not forget, the one gold coin that used to be mine but was no more. I slapped it upon the table in defeat.
The final straw had been drawn, and the horse had made off with the farmer’s daughter, or something like that. All I knew was that I no longer possessed any gold.
I watched as my skilled adversary sat back in his chair, ran his meaty and scarred fingers through his long grey hair, pulled it back, and tied it with a small strip of leather that he had produced in his swift and balanced motion. To look upon his was face was to look upon Mt. Niedling or another stone awash in a great river—with all the deep pocks and scrapes that a millennia of time, wind, and fury will bring. This was the first instance I got a good look at him. I was too interested in my cards and my losses before. This was also the first time that I noticed the sapphire glow emanating from his left eye.
He reached across the table and delicately picked the coin up, rubbed its face with his thumb, twirled it between his fingers, and placed it soundlessly on the table in front of me.
“Keep your coin,” said the man.
I looked at my almost empty grog of beer and my losing hand of cards. It was time for me to go home. At least I had a significant buzz from the beer, and I would be that much lighter, having been relieved of all my coin, including the one in front of me. I pushed it back at him.
“Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t need your charity. I think it’s about time for me to leave anyway,” I said as I pushed the gold coin even further toward him and began to rise from my seat. In about the time that it takes a widow-making snake to make its mark, the old-timer had my hand in his iron grip. I looked into his blazing half-blue gaze.
“Nobody said anything about charity,” said the man, seemingly amused, but also quite seriously. “Besides, about the best thing I could offer a young man with the world ahead of him, like yourself, would be a lesson in cards. Myself, on the other hand, I have something to ask of you.”
I swallowed hard. The fact that the grey-haired monument across the table from me still had my hand in his brawny grasp worried me less than the fact that he was asking for my help. He had a satchel full of gold on his side that would throw a full-grown horse off its step and feed a family for six months, maybe even a year, and I imagined he could venture down the darkest of alleyways and fend off an entire troupe of bandits if needed. What could he possibly want from me?
A cold realization hit me. What if he wanted to fuck me in my ass?
“Sure,” I said, smiling and not masking my discomfort. I sat down and clenched onto my seat with my buttocks so hard I could hang from it.
He released me from his grip, sat back himself, and raised his hand with two rugged fingers pointed at the timber ceiling above his head. A smiling bar maid brought over two frothing silver grogs before I even understood what was happening. He pushed one of the grogs over to me as the maid left with my old one, and a sizeable tip.
“All I ask of you is your ear and some time to allow me to finish my story,” he said as he raised the grog up and took a healthy drink. I followed suite. “After all, all an old man like me has left are his stories. When the fires of the heart have burned to ash, and the quests that you have spent your life pursuing, some completed, some not, no longer belong to you, then it’s time to tell your story. You’ll see. Soon enough. But in the meantime, I humbly ask you to listen to mine.” He took another big draught from his beer.
And so I listened.
Have you ever thought about what the difference is between dreams and our waking lives? Surely, there have been times when you have awakened, maybe with heart stirring, the mark of fear or joy still on you, maybe both, and wondered what brought you there. Pieces to a puzzle or perfect nonsense, it’s tough to say, but the mind, and perhaps something else, had been somewhere and had done something.
There are those that say they can remember their dreams with precision. I have never been blessed with such a responsibility, to know dreams, for what they are. I’ve always awakened with my heart fluttering and mind spinning, wretchedly trying to cling to phantoms of memory, loss, love, hate, and other feelings so vast that I lack any frame for understanding them.
How is this possible? Do these things, these feelings, these places and actions not belong to me? After all, they existed within my sleeping mind, or somewhere, moments prior to my waking, and although I may not be able to recall them on command, various shiny bits and other fragments will remain hidden until my end, perhaps beyond, flashing their existence from time-to-time, in a daydream or a memory that some would say does not belong to me.
“Stand, Luland,” said Lily, as she stood tall above me and extended her hand down to where I sat.
The water surged over the waterfall and crashed into the river so violently behind us that the rumble of it squeezed my heart and my lungs. The band of warriors with mud scrawled faces that had brought me there, to that precipice, and to Lily, watched closely, with arms crossed. I could tell by their anxious expressions, shifting feet, and sideways glances, that they too did not know what was next.
“Stand, Luland,” said Lily again. This time kneading my mud encrusted hair with both her hands and touching my wind burned cheek. She pulled my head into her, where the hair of my beard and her crotch intermingled and I could smell the deep, untamed scent of her. She stepped away, held out her hand once again, beckoning. And through an enormous amount of pain, ligaments snapping, bones grinding, and muscles stretching—I stood.
The warriors looked to one another in affirmation before they turned down the hill, away from the precipice. Their mission, at least for now, was completed.
Lily took my hand and led me to the edge of the dark grey rock jutting out above the raging waters below. The wet stone under my feet was slimy with lichen and cold. The water rushed past the abrupt edge above and raced down in a great torrent, thundering as if it would split the earth at any moment. A pervasive white mist billowed up over our heads, almost up to the point where the water had plummeted from in the first place. Lily led me by my hand until my toes were at the very edge of the precipice. I felt no fear. She put her arm around my waist and her head upon my shoulder. They were warm.
Lily pointed to the eagles flying overhead. I squinted and could see their silhouettes against the hazy mid-day sun. The mighty birds flew in and out sight. I watched one swirl in the sky until it flew too high for me to see, on the other side of the mist, until it returned and began swinging gracefully with another. Or was it a different bird? I realized that I had no way of knowing for sure.
Lily reached up and pulled my ear down to her small, warm mouth and began to say something. I leaned closer. The roar of the waters below was overwhelming. She tried to tell me again. And I still couldn’t make out what she was saying. I could only feel her warm breath upon my ear.
I looked to her, confused. She turned my naked and dirty body to look at her squarely and placed an index finger upon her lips to quiet my questioning.
And then she pushed me from the high precipice, under the flying eagles, into the billowing waters below.
After opening her package from Sergei, that contained a pair of jeans, which Sergei should have had absolutely nothing to do with in the first place, Lily turned her car around to confront him. She would have been happier with a box full of pubes. She could have understood that—just another lonely asshole trying to make their mark on the world, like a school shooting or somebody with a sharpie drawing dicks all over the church pews. But this was different. This was commerce, this was personal, and Lily couldn’t begin to fathom Sergei’s role in at all, except inexplicable creep. Motherfucker.
Lily pulled her ’98 white Corolla with rattling exhaust into Sergei’s driveway on the west side of Madison and parked. She looked down at the opened box and purple jeans upon her seat, out the windshield at the creepy old brick house, and at the garage with cracked, white paint.
“I’m going to die,” said Lily to herself. The parcel sat menacingly on the seat. “Over a pair of jeans,” she said as she started blasting the rin-tin-tin horn of her Corolla. It sounded like it belonged on some kid’s toy or at least a clown car.
After about ten seconds, there was the brushing aside of a kitchen curtain, and Sergei hesitantly opened the rickety front door of his house. Lily rolled her window down and poked her head out.
“You’ve got about five seconds to explain to me how you knew about those jeans, how they ended up in your possession, and how you knew they were late,” said Lily, furious.
Sergei closed the door behind him and stood atop his dilapidated cement steps. A few bright yellow dandelions had sprung up through myriad cracks. He squinted up at the sun before he began to speak. “I didn’t know how to tell you,” said Sergei. “Not after all this time, but now something has happened, and I don’t know what to do.”
Lily leaned back into the driver’s seat. She was beginning to sweat in the mid-day sun. This sucked, and her crappy car didn’t have AC. She looked at the mermaid bobble head on her dash lazily bouncing back-and-forth.
“Shit,” said Lily before she opened the door of her car. The rusted hinges squeaked as she struggled with it, pissing her off even more. Sergei was still standing on the top of his steps. He leaned against the rusted rail and crossed his legs like a giant insect. Lily walked out front of her car and sat on her bumper. The worn suspension groaned under her weight. She crossed her arms.
“Well?” asked Lily, irritated.
“The catalogues, the pants, the blouses, the special television remotes, the non-stick adhesive, and the flower pots, shoes, baking pans, pruning knives, cricket alarms, and cat toys—they all come from here,” said Sergei, motioning to the house behind him.
Lily took a deep breath. “You mean the bullshit catalogues and cheap crap that Diane obsesses over?”
“Yes,” said Sergei, nodding his head.
Lily sat and stared at him, with his sparrow-black hair and pirate beard for a moment, thinking. “I’m going to call the cops,” said Lily. “You are insane.” She stood and turned to get back into her car. Sergei interjected. Lily stopped and listened.
“Your dad, he’s the one that sends the things. He sends me a list. The stuff doesn’t really come from here, I don’t know where it actually comes from. I just make the catalogues and make sure that it ends up at your house. That’s why I needed the office supplies.”
“Are there others?” asked Lily.
“What do you mean?”
“Others, do you make catalogues for other people?”
“No, just Diane, and recently, you.”
“So instead of sending a letter, or I don’t know, picking up the goddamn phone, Gary has sent these catalogues, to somehow communicate with his family, like he cares?”
“He cares, that’s why he hired me,” said Sergei. “But our regular correspondence, the orders and checks and such stopped recently. I don’t know what’s going on. This has never happened before. I’m beginning to worry.”
“Can you call?” asked Lily, before realizing that she was now enmeshed in this ridiculous charade.
“I even tried that. I’ve only called once before in the past seven years, about an order of cotton candy; it had gotten wet and melted. It was an especially waterlogged year. Floods all over the country. We made it through that though, but now, when I called, there was no answer.”
“So what’s the deal, why did you call me here? You’ve obviously been watching me,” said Lily. She cringed at the thought of craggy Sergei in a tree next to her apartment with glowing green binoculars up to his eyes, jacking off.
“I wanted to finally come clean,” said Sergei. “That’s why I approached you in the store. But then things got serious, and I lost contact with Gary. I was lucky to save the pants.”
“Fuck the pants,” said Lily. “The pants and the other bullshit are the reason why Diane’s life is so fucked. It’s the reason why my life is fucked. Diane’s replaced her ex-husband with material objects, and he’s been pushing it to her like some dope dealer. So instead of being without just an asshole father, I’ve had my mother taken away from me too. Just because you’re in contact with someone, or whatever this is—I don’t know what this is—it doesn’t mean that it’s real. This is America. This is some mom and pop bookstore getting bulldozed with mom and pop in it to make way for a Wal-Mart. Fuck America. Just because you fake-sold something to us, meant that it was supposed to mean something? That’s how we were meant to communicate and bond?”
Sergei stood straight up again. The golden tassels on his jacket swung in the wind.
“If Gary didn’t care, then why would he go through all of this trouble?” asked Sergei. “He didn’t know how to express himself to you and Diane, so he did what he could. Maybe it wasn’t the right way, but it was something, and now even that has stopped.”
“So what does that mean?” asked Lily.
“I want to go find him. I have Gary’s address,” said Sergei. “He still lives near Seattle.”
“And how do you plan to get there?” asked Lily.
Sergei nodded at the white car that Lily was sitting on. “You think this hunk of junk is going to make it to Seattle?” asked Lily, laughing. “If you’re so worried about him, buy a plane ticket.”
“I’m afraid of flying.”
“Get a bus ticket then,” said Lily.
“Don’t you want to see what happened? Don’t you want the chance to say something to him?” asked Sergei.
“No, he gave up on my mother and I a long time ago. He’s dead to me. You better start looking for a different ride if you want to find your boyfriend,” said Lily as she opened her car door with a painful screech. “And if I see another one of those catalogs, I’m going to call the cops.”
Lily started her car. A loud mechanical groan emanated from her broken exhaust system. Sergei remained at the top of the steps, crestfallen. Lily drove off to tell Diane what she had learned.