YOU CAN'T SEE IT 'TIL IT'S FINISHED
Joseph Allen Hill
I stare into the sign; there is nothing else to do. The pig smiles. It is wearing a t-shirt and no trousers, and there is a slice of pizza on the t-shirt, and the pig’s drool-speckled grin reveals a murder of teeth. Murder is the incorrect collective noun, referring instead to aggregations of ravens or magpies, but it is evocative, sinister, elegant. The terminating r-colored vowel parts the lips, bares the incisors, and the latter’s glistening edges reflect the violence of the primary definition. Beauty is always more important than precision; that’s Ian’s Law. The pig qua pig is delineated in thick, cartoonish strokes, but the pizza is nearly photorealistic, but for a few sinuous lines slinking upwards from its surface, suggestive of heat, aroma, delectation. It is the platonic slice, covered in pepperoni and sublimity and gooey fibrils of cheese bubbling and dripping off a golden crust. I skipped lunch today, and I do not eat breakfast as a habit, and I am hungry enough to feel desire for this metafictional pizza, which, even within an ontology that allows the pig to “exist,” is purely representational. I wonder if that is why he might slaver so, if he is not Tantalus cum Porky, a tortured, hungry soul, madly desirous of pizza, with only a signifier to sate him, even as he himself exists only as a sign. I feel a kinship with this pig, whom I would otherwise find grotesque. Perhaps in another time, another spaciality, he and I could have been bros.
I am late. It is just after 8:00 and the sunny-sweet summer day has faded into little more than a buttercream smudge on the near-most edge of night. I take a picture of the pig with my phone. I post it with a caption that says: gpoy. I send Clutch a text: waiting outside. where r u? I look at the weather, then an image search of pigs, then an image search of cartoon pigs, then the wikipedia page on Porky the Pig, then the wikipedia page on trademark infringement, then the wikipedia page on Howard the Duck, then the wikipedia page on existentialism, then a list of words that are difficult to translate due to their hyperspecificity, then I make note of a dulcet multisyllable giving name to the mutual, recursive infection of one’s first kiss on the infinity of kisses to follow and those subsequent kisses on the memory of that first kiss, then I think that I am too old to attach myself to a word like that, then I think that all words in all languages are difficult to translate, if one is honest.
It’s going to rain later.
I receive a text from Clutch: ok.
Seven humans have liked my photograph of the pig, and one human, a young woman I am sort of dating, claims in a brief initialism that the image has caused her to laugh aloud. She emphasizes this with a pictographic representation of a smiling human face. I take another picture of the pig, this time focusing on its ample side-butt. And I post it without comment. There are a number of puns available, but I think it would be better to be “cool.” I do not think about the smiling human face, neither its pictographic representation nor its physical antecedent, and I do not allow it significance. I do not look into the :), and the :) does not look back.
A woman behind me, smoking a cigarette. She is wearing a black dress that terminates mid-thigh, a grey-brown faux fur coat that terminates just below the hem of her dress, a shiny black bow in the left anterior quadrant of her hair, just above where her bangs melt into an angular swoop, thick grey socks bunched halfway up her shins, and a pair of brown flats with plastic gems on them. It is a very mannered, overly-determined outfit, matchy-matchy and uninteresting to look at. I am embarrassed on behalf of all clothes everywhere.
“Yo,” I say.
“You’re late,” she says.
“Yeah,” I say. “Sorry.”
I think maybe we are supposed to hug. I have not seen Clutch in over two years. I take a step forward, but I stop myself on the precipice of her personal area. I do not actually want to hug her, I think. To do so would be pure performance, pure kitsch, a sniveling concession to das Man. So, I do not hug her. Still, I am uncomfortably close, close enough to remember things that I do not want to remember.
Smoke from the cigarette pours from her lips in a delicate stream and lingers in the air.
“Can I bum one off you?”
She is offended. Her expression turns angry-bored, resting bitchface x20. There is a slight pout on her lip, and she makes eye contact with me for the first time, just long enough for her to make a show of breaking eye contact with me. I guess our time apart has allowed her to achieve her dreams of being a full-on hard-hipster asshole. It is fine to not give a cigarette to another smoker when one is possessed only of a lean, hungry pack, but to scorn the very question speaks to, at the very least, low-level psychopathy, in both its primary and secondary subtypes.
“I just quit,” I say.
“Then why do you want one?”
“Because I just quit.”
“Then why don’t you buy some?”
“Because I just quit."
“Whatever,” she says, and she slips one out of her pack for me and lights it.
I take a long, luxurious drag. Parliament Lights. Very nostalgic. It’s like my lungs are in college again.
“It’s your fault, you know. I was a sweet, clean-living naif before we met. You set me on the primrose path to decadence and vice.”
“You were never sweet, Ian. You were just a baby monster.”
I blow a ring past her ear. “That’s probably true.”
“Let’s go. Rick is probably losing all his farts over this. ”
She walks through the door next to the pig. I drop my cigarette, take a breath, and walk behind her. The floor slips out from under me as I cross the threshold. There is pain and color and violence as the world blurs into the silent ineffable. I am undone. The material of me, or that which I call “me,” is scattered weightlessly into sense and perception. Shit is fucked, completely and utterly, both my shit and the all-shit of everything. I experience nausea on an existential level, within anatomical structures that I was unaware could house such sensations, a queasy kneecap, a seasick liver, pre-vomit eyebrows. It is almost like magic, except that it is bullshit and awful and I hate it.
Reality slips back in slow, syrupy drips. I am on my knees in a patch of soft grass, and Clutch looks at me, super-smug. I am still sick in my soul, and it feels like my bones are trying to escape, but I get up and play it off really “cool.”
“I tripped,” I say.
She rolls her eyes.
We are elsewhere. Another world or whatever. There is an aggressive odor here, a synthetic tingle in the air that conjures a contextless sense memory from childhood, the Micronauts or maybe the Gobots, lasers flashing and plastic squeaking and rainbow-sweetened milk on the tongue and down the lips and soaking into the carpet. The star-dappled sky alternates between striations of eventide pinks and purples, and green light from a distant sun solidifies into a lurid, wispy haze upon interaction with waist-high waves of fog that roll in and out from unseen nowheres, tingling on the skin and burning in the lungs. The pig from the sign stands before us, six feet tall now and bulging in every direction and standing in the way. His grotesquery is quadrupled by his promotion to three dimensions, perhaps in some metageometrical variation on the square cube law. I am unable to find even semiotic sympathy for him, and I am only hate. I cannot tell if he is man or machine, costumed or animatronic. The mechanisms moving his bulbous eyes and slobbery mouth are obviously mechanical, but is there a human person beneath the bulk? I find this ambiguity unpleasant, as all humans find all ambiguities.
“Howdy hi hi! I’m Pigmalion!! Welcome to the Pizza Dimension!!!” the pig squeals. It is the most derivative cartoon pig voice imaginable, reedy and obstreperous with a hint of oink on the nasal vowels, and the name is too on the nose to even approach cleverness.
“Yo,” I say.
It wraps its arms around me before I am able to react. It is soft and warm, and it smells of chitlins and cotton candy. As a matter of technique, this is maybe the best hug I have ever been involved in. There is perfect pressure, perfect warmth, such that all my edges begin to melt, such that the delineation between I and we becomes academic, such that I am filled with feelings and memories of an embarrassing nature. It is almost pleasant for a moment, and I wonder if maybe there is a pretty girl inside the pig, a pretty girl who might hug me like this all the time. Perhaps this is a fairy tale situation. I kiss the ugly pig, and it turns out she is a beautiful princess. I free her with the power of love/lips and then we go get coffee or see a movie and maybe there’s some hand stuff, and then after that we maybe we move in together, and then I get tired of her or scared or whatever, and then I meet a new pig, and it starts again.
I squeeze her back, though only slightly.
Clutch makes a laugh-noise. A chortle? Something like that. A partially-voiced sussurance accompanied by nasal hiss and sublingual derision. I pull away, and then I push her—it— off me.
“No thanks,” I say.
“Do you have a reservation?” it asks. “Or are you just jumping into the fun?”
“We know the owner. Or, like, God. Whatever,” says Clutch.
“Clutch and Ian,” I say.
“Oh boy!” it says. “We’ve been expecting you!”
“Yeah. So if you could just tell us where he is, that would be really cool.”
It points its trotter towards a long road winding its way through a collection of tree-like like protrusions in the middle distance.
“Have fun!” says the pig. It looks in my direction, but it is blank, its eyes blinking out of sequence and without rhythm, and its slack tongue catching the light in beads of salivaesque mystery slime. “And no crying until the end!”
I think that’s a line from a movie.
Clutch takes off, pushing past a group of dawdlers standing in front of a makeshift bar and easing on down the road. I follow. The ground has a plasticky give to it, a trampolinishness that causes one to sinks down with every step. It is fun for the first few steps, and then it is deeply annoying. We do not speak. She moves briskly. I do not worry about matching her pace. The preceding four sentences are also fair descriptions of our romantic relationship. This is an uncomfortable thought. I turn my attention away from words, to the alien mise-en-scene and all the novel sensations Rick’s little world has on offer.
The fog extends in every direction, and the tree-like protrusions are positioned such that they harmonize elegantly with the lines of the terrain. Walking closer, one notices that they are not trees, that they are arcade machines grown up from the ground in approximation of “tree-ness," a deception insinuated by familiar forms, the branch and the leaf. They have buttons and joysticks at waist-height and screens at face-height, and on the sides of each machine are almost-words, styled in a calligraphic neon and only resembling actual language, like the protean orthographies of dreams with a flourish of old-fashioned subway wildstyle. There are many young people here, drinking beers beneath the arcade machines and eating slices of pizza that hang like fruit from the tops of the machines, plucking them off plastic vines and shoving them into their smiling mouths. It is beautiful, and it is bullshit.
“This is a fucking rip-off,” I say. Clutch does not hear me, so I say it again, loud.
She stops, waits for me to get close. “What’s a rip-off?”
“This whole place.”
“We got in for free.”
“Not that kind of rip-off. It is a rip-off of me.”
She takes a long look around, puts her hand to her chin, narrows her eyes museumily.
“I don’t know. It doesn’t really look like you.”
“Ha ha. This is straight plagiarism of my whole aesthetic. Like a shitty version, but still.”
“I don’t see it.”
I flick through images on my phone and hold it up for her. “Look.”
In the lower left corner, a scabrous, primordial volcano spews noxious gas into the air. You can tell that the gas is noxious because there are neon-lime stink lines coming off it and because some of the neon-lime stink lines wind hazily around watercolor skulls. The gas itself turns to clouds when it touches the blue of the sky, and the clouds have faces, doe eyes and upturned noses and smiles that stretch their whole length. The grinning clouds putter above the treeline, ignorant, apathetic, happy maybe. There is a dinosaur below, in the foreground amidst the trees, a Tyrannosaurus in spirit if not exactly in anatomy. It snarls and rears its head back and flexes its beefy, bulging arms, showing off the sailor tattoo on its bicep and the glittering ring on its right pinky, and from its snarling, spittle-slick maw erupts a multitude of sharks, every sort of shark that comes easily to memory, hammerheads and great whites and tigers, spraying in every direction like vomit, biting at clouds they cannot quite reach and wholly eviscerating trees and stink lines.
It is my masterpiece.
“I’ve seen your dinosaur painting, Ian. I was there. This and that are entirely unrelated.”
“It’s the same thing. Childish imagery juxtaposed with absurdist adult signifiers. Nostalgia mixed with the grotesque. Rick was always a fucking biter. This here is the same thing but super dumb.”
“I think all this is pretty impressive. Amazing, even.”
“Kind of. But he stole it from me. That fuck.”
“I’m just saying. The man is a goddamn thief. He has snatched beauty from my eye and rendered it as burlesque. This is unforgivable.”
“Even if that dumb thing you just said is true, he made a fucking universe. And monetized it. You can’t even finish a painting, and he built his own universe. Maybe if you beg he’ll give you royalties. Or better yet, a job.”
Clutch and I did not part on the best terms.
She walks ahead, and I follow. The path empties out into a little glade, where a dining table is situated between a flowering arch of arcade-trees. A collection of disembodied lips hang in the air to greet us. I count nine of them. There is no appropriate collective noun for aggregations of floating lips. The best approximation might be a Rick. As in, a Rick of lips. This is appropriate, in that these lips are, to the best of my knowledge, all that remain of Rick as a corporeal entity. At the same time, it is inappropriate. This Rick is a singular entity, the only one of his kind. To mix singular the singular and plural so sloppily speaks to a linguistic decadence of which I will not be a part.
I have a lot of fun with these thoughts. Thinking thoughts is more fun than Rick’s dumb smiles. The lips attempt to convey pleasure at our revival, but do not so much smile as bare teeth in the manner of children or apes. Rick never learned to smile right, never figured out how to put the right curl on the lip so as not to implicitly suggest a desire for sex murder. Even with all his money, all his prestige, he cannot grasp the rudiments of human interaction.
Clutch rushes forward. She is unable to wrap her arms around all of the nothing that comprises, or does not comprise, Rick, so the lips rub themselves against her body for five or six discomfiting seconds while she stretches out her arms.
“Oh my God, Rick! It’s been too long,” she says. “You look great. Really cool.”
“It’s good to see you, too, Clutch. And Ian. What’s up, bro?”
The mouths move all at once when he speaks, and none of them are entirely in sync with the words which seem to emerge. The lips jump across space and appear in front of me. They touch my hand for just a second, but the second is one of the worst seconds that time has ever inflicted upon me. I jump back. Rick is at the table again before I can react further.
“Sorry,” he says.
“No problem, bro,” I say. I feel a little bad but not that bad.
We sit down with Rick; I on his left, Clutch on his right. A pizza appears, along with glasses of red wine. Rick mentions a vintage and region, but I do not care much for wine talk. The glass immediately refills after I sip from it, and this I care for a great deal. The pizza is good, but the sight of the pizza floating into Rick’s mouths is unpleasant, and that some of the mouths chew while others simultaneously speak seems a basic violation of etiquette, even for post-humans.
Clutch and Rick exchange small talk, but I do not participate beyond brief affirmations when my name is mentioned. I notice that his lips emit a low, persistent buzz when he is not speaking. The vibration has a metaphysical quality, as if responding harmonically with the frequencies of my thoughts. I decide not to ask after this, as it seems like a personal matter. My own reluctance towards candor feels weird inside, alien and sad. As much as I hate Rick now, the not-quite man I see on magazine covers and late-night talk shows hocking his dumb restaurant/art installation/pocket universe, I am unable to shake the Rick of our shared yesterday, who was, however dumb and annoying, almost an extension of myself. We three once knew each other as well as we knew ourselves. The separation between his personal matters and my own were indistinct, hazy, especially when Clutch was involved. Small talk seems vulgar now, but there is nothing else worth saying.
“How’s the painting, bro?”
“It’s whatever. Still figuring stuff out, but I’m seeing results.”
“That’s great, man. Just keep at it. You have so much potential. One of these days you’re totally going to blow up.”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“What about you, Clutch?”
“I don’t really have time for painting anymore. Work and stuff.”
“You have a job? Full-time?”
“I’m an adult.”
“Sorry. You just always said you only do the part time thing until you could make a living as an artist. Didn’t you make a bet with Becky Wendell that you would never, ever have a nine-to-five?”
“I was a dumb kid. Plus, Becky Wendell bet me that she would never have any children, and she’s got, like, four of them shits.”
“I guess we all had to grow up.”
“Maybe not all of us.”
She doesn’t look at me, but her tone is pointed.
“So how’s working for a gallery?”
“It’s really fun. We have a really great space. And we draw a really cool crowd. You’d love it, Rick. It’s exactly your scene.”
Clutch goes on for a while about her gallery, how great and awesome it is and how much artists have enjoyed working with them. She is giving him the hard sell, but I am unsure what she wants him to buy. Herself, I guess. The version of her that is her now. It is a little desperate, horribile visu. It is always sad when people who used to be “cool” are no longer. That’s Ian’s Law.
In describing the recent work they have shown, Clutch accidentally invites Rick to tell us his fucking life story. He explains that, after securing a residency at a university which he rather humbly describes as “in New Haven,” he stumbled upon this universe as a result of an experiment involving quantum physics and kinetic sculpture. When he arrived, it was a void, a plane of absolute nothingness beyond the human imagination. He was trapped here alone for what felt like centuries. His body faded away to nothing. But his consciousness remained. Then, I stopped paying attention, and some other stuff happened, and I drank some more wine. In the end, he gained absolute control over sub-reality and used his near-infinite power to become a wealthy, respected, god-emperor asshole.
“That’s so cool,” says Clutch.
“It’s not a big deal,” he says, like it is a big deal.
The pizza replenishes itself until we are sated. It is properly night now, and the sky is lit up by a golden moon with a face on it, an embarrassing cliche. I am a little drunk, I think. The wine is very good, and its infinitude allows one ample opportunity to indulge. Clutch is clearly enjoying herself, too, and Rick has many mouths with which to sup. The conversation flags once we are all filled in on the others’ current activities, and the silence allows uncomfortable memories to seep up from the wine-soaked hippocampus.
Finally, Rick lets out a long, groany sigh, zombiesque in character and unpleasant to the ear. I recall it from our youth. Whenever he wanted to have a talk about doing chores in our dorm room or ask a girl out on a date, it would pour out of him, as if clearing a path for his courage. Even when I pointed it out to him, told him that girls do not like it when you groan at them, he was never able to shake it.
“So I wanted to say I was sorry. When you guys got together, I was really shitty. You didn’t deserve that. I just didn’t want to be left out. Those things I said, I just...We were graduating, and everything was changing, and I didn’t want to be the loser, you know? The third wheel. The other guy. That’s not an excuse. Just an explanation. You two were always my best friends. I still think of you as my friends. I hope that you can see me as a friend again, too.”
“It’s cool. Don’t worry about,” I say.
“Yeah,” says Clutch. “It was a long time ago. We were all dumb kids.”
“It’s not like we were that awesome a couple, anyway. We fucked that up all on our own.”
She glares at me, and I smile. “Yes,” she says. “A lot of ups were certainly fucked.”
“Thanks. That means a lot, you guys.”
I am not sure if I mean it, if I really forgive him, or if I just want to think of myself as the kind of person who would forgive him. He called us a lot of bad names near the end, ruined a lot of would-be precious memories. But whatever. I probably would’ve forgotten those memories anyway, if he hadn’t been there. I am free, I guess. Free to not care. It is a pleasant sensation, but I’m not sure if I like it. Is this what it means to be a “good person?”
“Let’s get fucked up,” says Rick. “Like the old days.”
We do. The wine flows like water. Rick summons a band of animal-people. They are clearly animatronic, stiff and inhumanly proportioned, eschewing the ambiguous aesthetic of the doorpig for more of a New-Wave Rock-afire Explosion look. There is an octopus on the drums and a wolf playing a synthesizer and a goat playing a different synthesizer and a lady-snail singing lead. They are all wearing silver jumpsuits, and their music has kind of a chillwave/future funk thing going on that I appreciate. Heads begin to bop. More wine is drunk. Dancing breaks out. Just the three of us, dancing on our own. I do a dance I stole from a South African music video, wherein I move very slowly for a number of seconds, then lean back and point to the sky for a number of seconds, then do it again. Clutch spins in a circle, fluttering her arms arrhythmically. She laughs, loud enough to be heard over the music, and I remember how much I liked hearing Clutch laugh. Rick vibrates in time with the beat of the bass drum, and I notice that the stars above pulse along with him. This is very fun. It really is like the old days. We used to do this in Clutch’s dorm room most weekend nights. Just us, dancing and drinking and talking about how great we would be, too cool to go to other people’s parties, not cool enough to throw our own, just us against the world.
And then Rick moves in like he’s going to kiss Clutch.
“What the fuck?!” she screams. She tries to push him away, but her hands only graze the lips. He does not linger, though. He appears on the other side of me in a flash, his lips bent into frowns.
“Sorry. Sorry. Oh God,” he says.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?”
“I’m sorry. It was an accident. I thought I was getting something. Really. Clutch. I’m so sorry."
“My name is Lisa, you dick! Clutch is not a real person’s name. It’s Lisa. Lisa.”
“Sorry. Lisa. Sorry.”
“Jesus fuck. You always go too far, Rick. Always.”
“Stop saying you’re sorry. I don’t believe you. I don’t believe your little speech about how you acted when Ian and I started going out, and I don’t believe you now. You think all it takes is some pizza and wine for me to forgive you? You said shit to me that was not unsayable. Jesus. This is not fucking worth it.”
Rick is quiet, and the music stops. A record scratch would’ve been appropriate, but I don’t think Rick has the same appreciation for semiotic comedy as I do. Clutch glares at him, arms crossed, eyes dripping hate. I find myself wishing I had not arrived with Clutch, as that would allow me the opportunity execute a French exit without being a dick. I have never been fond of confrontation, and I have always been inclined to leave when there are too many emotions around. Finally, after an endless minute, a hopeful half-smile moves across his lips like a wave.
“I’ll make it up to you. I’ll show you something. You’ll be the first ones to see it. Trust me. You’ll understand. Just meet me at Pizza HQ.”
He disappears, and the arcade-trees in front of us part, revealing a new path.
“So, uh, you don’t go by Clutch anymore?” I ask.
“Shut up. You’re not any better than him.”
She begins walking, and I follow.
We walk for a good fifteen minutes, and there is a nightmare at the end of the path, a tangled plastic playland tessellating towards infinity. We do not see it until we are nearly upon it, and then it is all we can see. Slides and tubes and netting and ladders, every color, all together, composed inartfully, hysterically, without regard for shape or form or harmony. The eye is drawn in every direction at once, unable to find purchase. One is reminded of the visual complexities of the natural world, the fractal branching of blood vessels and the golden phyllotaxis of leaves in spring. And one is reminded of chaos and madness, skulls and scrota, that time you tried acid and spent the night hugging yourself realizing that the material world is an abattoir. It is as tall as a motherfucker, jagged as regret. A blood-glittered tube at ground level leads upward. Clutch crouches by this entrance and starts taking off her shoes.
“Are you crazy?” I ask. “Don’t go in there.”
“That hole looks like the devil’s cloaca.”
“Rick is in there.”
“Let him come out. Or at least come get us.”
“I’m not going to wait for that.”
“Why are you so antsy?”
“I want to get this over with.”
“Why are you still here if you if you want it to be over?”
“Why are you here at all? You hate Rick.”
“I’m not really in a place where I can turn down free dinners. Financially or nutritionally. The other day I ate a bowl of brown sugar for dinner.”
“Cool story, bro.”
“Clutch. For real. Look at that thing. It’s a gigantic fucking Borgesian labyrinthian mindfuck. Like, you go in there and you end up getting lost for twenty years, and then you turn a corridor, and you have to kill a younger version of yourself, and then you stumble upon a civilization inside and start a life and have a family and kids and then you die and when you die you just start going through it again, and then it turns out you were inside your own vagina the whole time, and you crawl out and you look down and you see a tiny you crawling out and it’s like an infinite regression of infinite yous crawling out of infinite vaginas. Also, minotaurs.”
“You’re a strange person, Ian.”
She goes inside. Fuck me. I go inside, too. At first, it is dark. Perfectly so. We can only go forward, crawling along on hands and knees, following the gentle curvature of the tube. A dim light appears after a solid ten minutes of crawling. Its source is a glowing image on the tube’s wall, a cartoon wolf with a grotesquely swollen belly. As we pass, it begins to crawl alongside us. At first, this is frightening, and I say a swear word, but it is clear that it exists only as image, another iteration of cosmic pizza magic. We continue our journey without comment. I notice, as we go, that the wolf’s stomach bulge is moving independently, as if possessed of a life of its own. The scene fills out as we go, with glowing trees and grass appearing alongside us. The wolf moves furtively, darting between obscuring bushes and rocks, dashing ahead and then waiting for us to follow.
The tube angles upward, and there are plastic footholds that allow us to climb. The wolf leaps over us, jumping to and from empty spots on either side of the incline. We eventually reach a fork in the path. The wolf goes left, and Clutch follows, and I follow. As we go, I notice that the movements of whatever it is inside the wolf are growing more violent, as if it is fighting its captivity.
“What do you think is in there?” I ask.
“Shut up,” she says.
The path continues, leading us up and down and through the maze. It is not as fun as I remember these things being. Gradually, the background images become more exaggerated, progressing from gothically skewed to a sort of feverish, sickly impressionism to a place of pure abstraction, just color and line and wolf.
“I actually kind of like this,” I say.
“You’re an idiot.”
“What’s your problem? Seriously, why’d you come here? We could’ve just left,” I say.
“I want to see what he’s up to.”
“Yes. Really. Maybe he has a really good apology. Maybe I’ve just been overwhelmed by curiosity.”
“Okay. But why were you so nice to him? Before he went full creep. You were being really nice. Some might say uncharacteristically so.”
“And what are you saying?”
“I am wondering if there might be some ulterior motive for this little adventure. I am wondering if this has something to do with your gallery. You were talking it up pretty hard. Last time we talked, you hated it. Now, you can’t shut up about it.”
“Congratulations, Professor Sherlock. You’ve solved the Strange Case of Go Fuck Yourself.” She sighs. “My boss found out we used to be friends.”
“So what? You want him to do a show?”
“Maybe. Maybe just make an appearance. Maybe say something to his famous friends. I don’t know. We’re not doing so great.”
“Sorry. I could do a show if you want.”
“Just saying. You got my number. Just hit me up on my mobile.”
She laughs a little, more bitter than amused. “I didn’t think I was still so mad at him. I kind of just put him in a drawer and locked it all away. And dinner was cool. I was genuinely proud. I remember when I met you guys, you didn’t know anything about anything. Rick was still doing charcoal drawings of old ladies’ hands. And all you wanted to do was make comic books about robots and tits. I’m the one who showed you what was what. And he actually made something great. I’m a little bit responsible for this. It’s cool. Even if it’s kind of dumb, it’s still amazing. But then he fucked it up. I always hated how you two got. Fighting over me. I never liked it. Not once. Not ever. I didn’t like the attention, and I didn’t like the little comments. I was the leader, not the girl. And then he goes and tries to make me the girl again.”
“It’s not your fault. Not this part, anyway. I probably shouldn’t have fallen in love with you. That was my bad.”
“Yeah. That was pretty big boner on your part. Falling in love with me is a decision that most people tend to regret.”
“How would you know? Aren’t you usually gone by the time they realize it?”
“So why did you follow me? Into the devil’s cloaca?”
“I don’t know. I guess even after everything, I still like you. Not like, you know. But I still like you. I didn’t want you to go alone.”
We crawl some more.
“Hey,” she says.
“Do you still have that dinosaur painting?”
“Yeah. I tried to sell it. Tried putting on some t-shirts. Didn’t really work out.”
“That’s too bad. I always liked it.”
There is a faint light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. The wolf stops halfway between us and it. It sits on its haunches, and its stomach shakes. Just as we pass, it bursts. I briefly see a person amidst the viscera, and I think I recognize the face, but the walls go dark before I can verify. It was Rick, though. The way he used to be. I know it. I think this whole place is some kind of self-portrait. Rick always had a flair for the emo.
We exit. We are on a beach. The sky is blue and the sun is out, and the air is warm and salty. We step out onto the sand. There is no water. Instead, there are plastic balls, crashing against the shoreline and stretching out into the horizon. It is the alpha and omega of ball pits. I think it is a little much, but it's actually a nice beach besides the gimmick. It has a good “beachiness” to it, and the sunshine pairs pleasantly with my fading drunk.
“Guys!” yells Rick. He appears in front of us. “This is it. My masterpiece. I’m going to install it soon. Out there. Make it into an event. Get some cameras and stuff. But I want you to see it first.”
“It’s cool,” I say.
“Yeah. Super cool,” says Clutch. Her voice catches on the lie.
“This isn’t it. Not yet. Just watch.”
We stare into the ball pit ocean. Balls rise up and begin to arrange themselves in air as if pulled by invisible strings. I recognize the shape as a shark; it can be nothing else. It is primarily composed of blue balls, with a scattering of red balls amidst its white ball teeth. The shark, which is at least thirty feet long and proportioned accordingly, flies above us as if swimming. It moves with an extreme elasticity, a sort of cartoon squash and stretch, giving it a sense of vitality. It dances in the sky, then turns its head up. A stream of green balls sprays upwards. The green balls arrange into dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurs in spirit if not exactly in anatomy. They land on the sand and rush around in every direction, chaotically, all around us. It’s a goddamn shark vomiting dinosaurs.
“This is it,” says Rick in a self-impressed stage whisper. “This is my masterpiece.”
“You son of a bitch,” I say.
I rush toward him and leap as if to tackle him. I go completely through him.
His lips appear as shocked as lips can appear without a face to back them up. “What are you doing?”
“Ian! Chill,” says Clutch.
I stand and take a swing at him. My punch does nothing. “You’re a thief. You know that, right? You are a thief and a hack and an asshole. Also, why didn’t you call it Arcadia? It’s so obvious. Pizza Dimension doesn’t even make sense. And Pigmalion? Come on, bro. Give it a big ass and call it Callipiggia or something. That literally took me two seconds to come up with.”
“What’s wrong?” he asks.
I throw some jabs and a cross. This is my first ever fight. I don’t know if I am good at it or not. I am not causing any apparent pain, but I feel my meaning is coming across. “You stole this from me. You stole everything here from me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“You fucking do. Stop lying.”
“I’m sorry, Ian. I really don’t.”
I put my hands down. “Whatever. It’s not like you’re a real person anyway. You’re like a ghost or something now. Rick is dead. You’re just a disgusting lip monster with delusions of being a nerd.”
“Fuck you, Ian.”
“You think you’re so cool. I take from our dinner conversation that you don’t have a real job? And I’m guessing you still don’t finish anything, right? You think you’re the coolest, smartest guy in the room. You sit in the corner and quietly judge everyone and everything. We get it. You like to read books. Who cares if you can’t express anything? You used to brag about how you saw things that nobody else could see, but you couldn’t see what was right in front of you. I was always better than you. You could be an okay critic, but I was always the artist.”
“Your entire body of work shitty version of something I came up with years ago.”
I retrieve my phone from my pocket, flick to the relevant image, shove it in his fucking face. He just laughs.
“You stole that from me.”
“The laws of monodirectional time would beg to differ.”
“I was talking about that kind of thing back in school. You said it was dumb. I guess you wised up.”
“You guys are being really dumb,” says Clutch.
“This is all me,” I say. I gesture at our surroundings. “And this is all me.”
A lance of sand rises up from the ground and goes through the shark’s belly, causing it to disperse. The dinosaurs flee in fear. More balls fly out from the ocean and arrange themselves in the shape of a man around Rick. The topmost of his lips occupies that traditional lip-space of a real person. The resulting figure does not particularly resemble the Rick-that-was, but there are many things that are more important than precision.
“No Ian. This is all me. The sand beneath your feet. The air you breathe. Everything here is me. I am the ultimate auteur. If you want to fight me, let’s fight. It’ll be like a Godard movie.”
I throw a punch. It hits. He throws a punch. It hits. I catch an image of Clutch out of the corner of my eye. I hoped, in a moment of weakness, to see her cheering me on, but she just looks angry-bored. He hits me again. I barely feel it. I don’t know if it is because of adrenaline or because his fists are made of hollow plastic balls. I tackle him to the ground. More balls fly out from the ocean and begin pelting me in the face. I do not react. I am a berserker. I am Diomedes on the day of his aristeia. I am Orlando raging across the continent. I am Spider-Man that time he had to lift a bunch of heavy shit to save Aunt May. This is the final chapter.
“This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen,” says Clutch.
I hit him a lot. Again and again in his dumb face. It is very satisfying. I see now why people get into fights. The physicality is a kind of intimacy, and anger can escape the soul without turning to poison when delivered to another via fist. I should’ve taken up fighting years ago. I begin to calm, and I realize that, if he is actually the sand and the air or whatever, he should probably be doing a better job at this.
“Are you letting me win?” I ask.
He shrugs, smiles sheepishly. “I’m not going to kill you, bro.”
I roll off him and onto the sand. I breathe deeply and quickly, trying to catch the breath I have lost from physical and emotional exertion.
Clutch begins to clap. “Congratulations. You both have giant penises. Are we done?”
“You never called me after graduation,” I say.
“What?” Rick says.
“I told you to call. Even after everything. But you never did.”
Something about this experience is familiar, a niggling recollection, an almost-memory. I take another look around. I see a little house a down the beach. I remember it. The real one belonged to Rick’s parents. It was dirty and decaying, and it probably should’ve been condemned a half-century ago, but we used to go there every fall and spring break.
“This is the old beach,” I say.
“Yeah,” he says.
Clutch — Lisa lies down next to us on the sand. “Remember that time we tried to play volleyball, but the volleyball we found was filled with ants?”
“Remember when that dog started hanging around, and Ian got really weird about it?”
“Most dogs are inherently racist. That’s Ian’s Law.”
“Shit. I forgot about Ian’s Law. I used to hate Ian’s Law so much.”
“It was a pretty dumb joke.”
“Remember when Becky Wendell came up, and we convinced her that I was my own twin sister?”
“Remember when we used to run around here whenever it rained?”
“I got sick so many times from that.”
“You still did it.”
“It was fun. Like we were kids.”
“We were kids.”
“We’re still kids.”
“I’m not even a person. I can’t leave this place, you know. I don’t even know what would happen if I tried. Maybe I’m me again. Maybe I’m just a pile of lips. I only ever talk to people when they come here for interviews. I don’t know how to act anymore.”
“Nobody knows how to act. That’s why it’s acting. If we knew, we would just be cool, and everything would be great,” I say.
“I wish I was cool. I used to be so cool,” says Lisa.
“I was never cool. I used to have fantasies about showing you guys up. I would prove I was smarter than Ian and that Clutch was always in love with me. I thought that version of me was gone. I’m sorry.”
"I don't forgive you, but I appreciate the apology," says Lisa.
"What now?" asks Lisa.
"We should talk," I say. "I always liked talking with you two."
Rick bums one of Lisa's cigarettes, and they share a smoke. I tell them I quit, but I have a smoke, too. One last time. We say we are going to meet up again after this. We say we are going to keep in touch, at least. We are going to be together again: a group, squad, a crew. We say all these things, and the sky turns to night and fills up with stars. Rick arranges three constellations that he says are us. We argue about the proportions and composition until we agree it is both a fair likeness and a pleasant image. A meteor shower starts. Rick says it is rain. One last time, he says. This is corny sentimentalism in the extreme, and I make my feelings on this known. They agree. Still. We lie there and wait for it to end.
©2016 by Joseph Allen Hill
JOSEPH ALLEN HILL is a Chicago-based writer. His work has previously appeared in Lightspeed Magazine. He was doing a 70s thing for a while, mostly involving vests and high waisted trousers, but now he is pursuing an aesthetic he calls “occult spaceboy,” which is pretty cool. You can hit him on the tweets at @joehillofearth2 and become a friend 4 life.