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FICTION
Six Steps
Clovis Jaillet

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I

Every few rotations of the bicycle’s pedals, the front gear clicks and the chain jumps a link. Slow drums fill your head as you roll down the asphalt hill. Soon you’re rapping along. I just wanna race the Lambo’. Let’s roll the dice and gamble. Concentrate on the scarred concrete in front of you, be sure to dodge the cracks and potholes; to fall into one, you’ve decided, is to tumble into and beneath the earth’s crust, through the mantle, and melt into the core.

You follow disappearing tail lights through the intersection. Thunder sounds in the distance, and with a recent flash flood warning at the front of your mind, you pedal faster. Maybe the lightning electrifies the truck, frying the two men. You’d rather it not.  Let’s roll the dice and gamble.

Open the refrigerator door to the sturdy sound of rain pellets spitting at your tin roof. Watch the sterile light expose the plastic shelves. The last of a dozen eggs, half a tomato, some onions, stains, and a cardboard coffin home to unidentified remains of some past meal. An unsavory amalgamation of old fried chicken and home fries could crawl out at any second, threatening your hunger. At least there’s one appetizing thing, a can of cheap lager.

The clouds darken the apartment to eight p.m. Slump into the futon and gulp down the cold beer to the chatter of characters on your television screen.

After a slow hour, the delirious shrieks on the laugh track are unbearable. You switch the television off and sit on your porch with a Murakami piece. The tormented characters and their fucked up fantasies are exciting—a welcomed difference from Kundera. You follow the protagonist through years of isolation and self-diagnosed apathy. Anticlimactic reconnections with long lost friends and hopeless resolutions. Now this is a book. You read two or three chapters.

You’re inspired to go another round with some story you’ve been thinking up, a story about a kid (well, an adult by most standards) who comes up with the most detailed and revolutionary tales of fizzling realities. The tension, you’ve found, is that no matter how prodigious the story or song or image this young man comes up with, he can never realize it. Thus he is stuck, never materializing his alleged brilliance. This struggling kid’s (man, really) life becomes defined by a fear of never realizing himself. Your heart laces up and runs the one-hundred meter when you think of this idea—it’s a good one.

A blank page of eternity later, your back is tight from sitting. The metal folding chair doesn’t help. You’ve made no progress with your little story. You’re getting hungry anyway and the rain has come to a mist. You grab your wallet and phone and keys and earphones from your bedroom. It helps that you leave them in one spot everyday.

II

Slip a double sunshine.

A sandwich. You lock your front door and decide you should get a sandwich. And that you should walk (when you poked your bike’s seat, water bubbled out of the fake leather’s pores.) Rappers with cough-syrup voices join you on your walk to Saratoga’s downtown. We make love under pretty lights, I get a feelin' it's a trippy night.

The sidewalk looks like a half-assembled puzzle of bricks. The street is in similar disarray. You get to where the money goes and the cracked leather street transforms into blemishless slabs of concrete. Mixtures of century old buildings and corporate apartments. A historic downtown of expensive boutiques with shit clothes and shit jewelry. Silver bands of laser precision that cost four-figures, color-vomit sundresses with two hundred dollar price tags. Make it to Tutto’s, a small italian imported goods grocery and fresh deli. The workers know you and chat you up—the storm, their basements are going to be flooded when they get home.

Want what you always want. Daily made mozzarella with summer tomatoes and olive oil on bread that has a commercially perfect crunch. God damn. You grab a limonata too, and thank the cashier.

The door rings to your leaving and, to spice things up—you’ve realized now that today has not yet been a day unlike any other—a stallion of a horse falls from the sky and hits the sidewalk right in front of you. It lands square on its back and fucking explodes. Guts stick to the glass street display. Panforte and cannoli and castagnole and intestines. Those delicious waffle cookies and horse brains. The sidewalk is red and purple.  

Drop your bag at the sight and curse both God and his son. The limonata rolls out of the bag and snuggles up to the formless corpse. Italians yelling from behind the deli, come back in here kid, we’ll make you another sandwich. Grab another limonata, it’s on us. Your hand is still on the open door and you back in.

The workers joke at you. You slip? What got you so bad, kid? See a ghost? God? You don’t know what to say or if you should point out the horse guts on their window so you just laugh along and apologize for the sandwich.

While waiting for them to slice up more mozzarella and tomatoes, stare at your canvas sneakers and t-shirt. Splattered with bits of flesh and blood, a real Pollock. Some made it onto your arm. You want a shower.

You walk out with the second sandwich; the city had already cleaned up the horse and its innards. The slabs of red concrete is scrubbed grey again, the blood on you dries up and the stains disappear. It would be too much if another horse or two fell from the sky, so none do. The rain picks up and you hustle a jog back. Meal ticket, ticket, meal ticket, ticket, comma, uh.

III

You want to do something and you want to know what that thing is. You look around the room and see nothing. A half-full bookshelf, a T.V., the couch, the rug. You can’t do nothing again. You’ve done nothing for days. Maybe weeks. Maybe the whole year. Jesus, you’re twenty-one now, have you done shit yet? You don’t want to think about how you’ve done nothing or how nothing's been done because that’s all you ever think about.

Still, you’re not settled on how it all works. Maybe thinking about something is just as good as doing it. Mr. K, your chorus teacher in middle school, comes to mind. He used to say when you imagine the notes of a song, when you imagine singing the song, your vocal chords do the same movement they would if you were really singing. You’d probably be a much better person if thinking was the same as doing.

Don’t think about biking down to Dairy House to get ice-cream, or watching that movie people kept talking about, that clown one. Don’t think to read, don’t think to write that boy’s story or to call up a friend. Don’t think of going to the gym for once, or doing the weeks of laundry piled up in the corner.

Instead, remember the abandoned Air Force base in Stillwater you heard about. One town over, a twenty minute drive in your housemate’s car. Lighter, phone, wallet, keys.

It’s real dark now. Clouds, no stars, no moon. Manually unlock the truck door and get behind the wheel. Turn the engine on, but before shifting to drive, stick the aux cord into your phone. I’m high as fuck, you high as fuck. So we parasailin’.  
Maybe a low riding luxury car, an old Corvette, slowly rolls past on your way. The white body paint is new—the car’s a full moon under the street lights. You peer into the driverside window as the car draws near. A ghastly, multicolored incubus stares back, his red horns flare and yellow teeth grin in menacing hunger. You see his eyes blink.

IV

The base is at the top of the street, so park and walk up the hill. There is a bodysized hole in the wire fence—inviting.

The base is a beautiful mess. Crumbled walls and shattered windows, vines steadily consuming the concrete. Between buildings grow fields of tall weeds and mean thorns that tug at your socks. There’s a row of five identical barracks, large rectangular boxes with rows of tiny windows peeking out. Figure they are all the same on the inside too.

Sticky burrs hitching a ride, you move through the first barrack. The ground level: a hall of doors that open to tiny bedrooms with nothing but cathedral-like slits for windows. You decide to see a big bodied, buzzcut man in a sickly colored uniform sleeping on one of the shoulder-wide cots. He doesn’t seem too comfy.

Find the stairs to the second level and follow them up, though the middle of the floor is just about caved in. With a few light foot-jabs, test the floor closest to the wall. Sturdy enough. You shuffle along the hall with your back and heels touching the dusty cement.

Turn the corner and, smack in the middle of the hall, there’s a porcelain bathtub. The white’s stained yellow, and the paw-shaped bronze feet are speckled green. Muddy red water sloshes out of the tub and you’re pleased to imagine that there’s a person bathing. Whistling, too—sounds like the tune from Kill Bill. Offkey. You catch the long black hair of the person’s head and decide that he or she should be left alone, that maybe they live here and you just strolled right up into their home uninvited. Exit without making any noise. The cloudy sky had cleared up, and the moon turns the concrete bone white. The other barracks are probably inhabited, but you might as well leave them alone too.

Follow a gravel service road to a big metal door and a concrete frame. An entrance leading into the earth.  The fingers of plants grab at the rusty slab of metal and hold the heavy door just wide enough for you to slip through sideways. It’s dark, use the flashlight on your phone to see the stairs. They spiral downwards, with each step the air gets colder. At the bottom of the stairs, on the wall in front of you, painted in a dribbling red, are the words He’s down here. A warning or an invitation. Ignore it or accept it.  

Crushed glass litters the cement floor of the underground bunker, forties and fifths of whisky emptied and smashed. One room’s full of toilet stalls, shelves of canned beans and corn and something like tuna. Dead light bulbs smashed out of their fixtures and peeled green paint. The bunker is built like a tunnel, and you reach the far end.  

A single foot-wide, barred window lets a bit of the moon highlight the rainbow of graffiti on the opposing wall. Staring at you is a familiar beast; the same red horns, yellow fangs, and electric blue, hungering eyes you caught in the window of that car. Dried paint drips down the wall, forever melting the evil face. You must be the He who’s down here. Light your joint and smoke it down to the filter tip, blowing thick smoke at the demon. The colorful face wins the staring contest and, finding that a real defeat, you leave the bunker and continue your tour of the base.

V

Find the husk of a water tower in the middle of the compound. A building that once held water now ripped open by wind and time. You sit on the comfiest looking cinderblock.

Is that you? Is that you climbing the broken stairs that spiral up the water tower’s exoskeleton. Dodging rusted shards of metal, scrambling up and up, is that you? How would you do it, you wonder, so that you wouldn’t slip or fall?

You’d lean on the railings so that if a step gave away you could keep yourself up. The early fall wind would get colder as you steadily went up the flights, and soon it wouldn’t feel like September and you’d wish for a sweater or a beanie. For a second, for a second too long, you’d look down past your feet, through the building’s metal shell, to the ground fifty feet below. Maybe you would feel a lurch in your stomach that would remind you of when you were six and saw Paris beneath you from the top of the Eiffel Tower. Maybe you wouldn’t feel the lurch—you climbed trees as a kid all the time, you’d be fine with heights by now. You’d shake it off, vertigo or none, and reach the top of the stairs. You’d sit down and dangle your legs over the edge. From up here, on top the water tower, you would be able to see everything. A great view of the Hudson and Alpine Lake. If the sky is right, you’d see far into the Adirondacks. Maybe there wouldn’t be any clouds, the wind would have cleared it all up. You wouldn’t think of anything then. You’d have no problems or worries, just that pleasant nothingness we all really want. When you and the world are just what is and you fucking love it—you’d feel so warm you’d want to swing your feet back and forth and howl at it with all you’ve got. You’d sing something. Keep your head away from windows, Keep your arms inside the ride. Trust me with your body, Trust me with your life.

Maybe you’d get carried away though, maybe on the backstroke of a leg-swing your untied laces would catch a bolt that prods out. Your foot would get snagged and you wouldn’t have time to grab onto a metal beam and stop yourself from falling. You probably wouldn’t be able to see much of the world then; you’d be spinning and twisting and up would be down. The earth expanding as you close distance, the friction of the air against your body as you reach terminal velocity—holy shit.

Your mind wouldn’t matter much then, would it? You wouldn’t catch the smell of decaying metal as you bounce from rusted bar to bar. You’d maybe recognize the smell, but you wouldn’t be able to say that it’s the process of oxidation. You’d definitely hear your bones cracking against the impossibly hard metal or concrete, but there’s no chance that you’d be able to tell yourself: that pop, that crack, that tearing, is the popping of joints and the cracking of tibialis or femurs and the tearing of your biceps’ muscle fibers. Wonder if anyone would be able to tell the difference between a horse’s guts and your own, your exposed marrow or its. You sure as hell couldn’t.

Now, there is a good chance you’d recognize and properly process the concrete rushing towards you. This, you decide, is when the mind would kick in. What do you see? Your mother, maybe, humming Frère Jacques as you droop to sleep in your twin size bed, when you were young enough to dream about fiery dragons and lightsabers all at once. When you could drift into the mind of a knight or pirate and not carry yourself with you. When it wasn’t so hard to understand why or how. When you could lick a tootsie pop to its gooey core.

Distorted lyrics play through your head. If I had an option, I would do it all again. If I had an option, I would do it all again.

VI

In this moment, the frosty membrane blanketing my world was peeled away; gone was the patina of green rust over the bronze statue, gone was the blinding substance, gone was the veneer of flesh and blood. Left was the womb-like warmth of the mind. It was here, I said to myself, I am more.

The most lovely thing of it all was that it wasn’t left at just that. I saw that, contrary to everything I had previously determined, I had something to offer. Nothing grand or serious or even new, but my own—about the celestial purple of the milky way, perhaps, as I floated through it. Or something more earthly. So I turned to myself and asked, do you see, within an Aster’s orbiting petals, the sun at its center? Or, I asked, do you ever notice, when a tree blossoms in the sun, so that the light pierces the leaves, how the veins resolve into spindly images of a darker, cloudy green against a green much lighter? How the leaves become gentle expositions, nude pictures of their most precious innards? Maybe something more vast—how individual blades of grass, under the influence of a morning breeze or any harsher winds, transform into a single entity performing some cosmic dance?

Something deeply intimate could be richer. So I asked, do you remember the mellow smell you picked up some August day? Right when the sun tickled the tops of the cornstalks and the breeze pulled hints of blackberry, pond water, and manure through the fields and into the buttery cloud of your grandma’s cooking? When all you could do and all you wanted to do was to exhale and greedily inhale again? Some part of me said yes, of course, I always remembered. Some part of me said no, never.

In this enduring instant, once my brain had reached the concrete but the concrete had yet to reach my mind, I saw my little story, the one about the petrified boy (man, by all standards) and I completed it. I wrote the ending lines and I revised the beginning ones. I realized, reading over the man’s pages, it was a scratchy reflection, an unpolished mirror found on the side of the road.

Though I couldn’t laugh as I crinkled into the concrete, I laughed—why is it that an adult can’t resist chomping their way to a tootsie pop’s center?


Clovis Jaillet is a recent graduate of Skidmore College, where he studied Creative Writing and Philosophy.