Chapter Five

My first Sunday as a Lemellen Lemming I started as a linesman. A linesman’s job is simple, revolving mainly around the crushing of various foes. A crushed foe is one who has hit the turf so hard that he no longer cares to participate in the rest of the play. As a linesman, I would wait for the snap then, roaring viciously, I did my best to crush one foe. Sometimes I was successful in which case I would step over the crushed foe, thirsty for the crushing of another, or – as in defensive situations – I would launch myself bodily upon the crushed for thereby guaranteeing his crushed status. Needless to say, foes crushed in this latter manner stayed crushed.

The crushing of foes is simple but tests every limit of cranial durability. Despite padded helmets, each hit set in my head a titanic, dissonant ringing. By the third inning I could actually hear the onset of Parkinson’s.

I was then not even sure how a game of football is scored but knew it had something to do with multiples of seven. Seven is the number of completeness – the number of heaven and angels and light – which is why they chose it, I guess.

Since the second inning I had harbored a suspicion that we – the Lemmings – were winning; the twisted bodies of my crushed foes increasingly being attended by their team’s doctor was one indicator. Crushing foes is easy – stopping the ringing in your head is hard.

In the fourth inning, I approached John round-aboutly, edged up to him in a chummy way, and explored a statement: “I think we might win.”

John screamed and pointed behind me. I turned and found a stray foe charging, chin tucked in, and a full head of steam driving him. While John panicked I squared my stance and planted my shoulder in the foe’s belly, just above the V of his crotch. He ricocheted off, spinning in the air, and landing with a squeal, while I grabbed my helmet to steady the ringing.

Meanwhile, John swung and loosed the ball; a creature meant for the air, even time slowed to watch as it sailed above the crush and strife of the earth and field below. I missed the rest of the play – I was busy with the ringing – but John was laughing and slapping me on the helmet and shouting, “We won!”

I could have shared the enthusiasm but the last thing my head needed was a slapping on the helmet. I definitely had a concussion, maybe a fracture even – I could feel daylight on my brain.

It was just as well that I reserved my enthusiasm, anyway: football victories are lackluster at best. There’s no finality to it, nothing forfeited. Joe told me the losing team gets to take the field again the very next week, they don’t relinquish any land – maybe part of their field, at least, I’d hoped – they don’t even have to give up a single, weak player. I’d been looking forward to offering one as a sacrifice to our mascot, Larry the Lemming. Later I learned that Larry was actually just a costume with a geeky student inside. And here I’d been kneeling to him, scraping and genuflecting and deferring, “Hail, O dread god, Larry.” Embarrassing!  Some dread god he turned out to be – he wore argyle socks.

But we celebrated the victory anyway. The spectators drained off the bleachers in a tidal wave of humanity, flooded the field, engulfed the players and drowned Larry, damn charlatan that he was.  John and Coach Mike were tossed up on the froth of the wave, borne on the shoulders of revelers, and kicked about like flotsam riding the surf. The current of bodies dragged the whole team, screaming and suffocating, into the locker room; filled the clubhouse like an in-rushing tide.

There was glory in the victory, sure, but it was an ephemeral glory at best. Other than a hash-mark in a bean counter’s ledger – and an infernal ringing in my head – we had nothing to show for it.

The ringing didn’t start to subside until a couple of us were cooling over floppy slices of pizza at the mall that evening. Janice was there, some of her circle too. John and his girl Liz. Joe was throwing sloppy come-ons at Janice’s friends. With the ringing gone I heard it all: the chattering din, the squeal of sneakers on the tile floor, the buzz of high-voltage neon signs. There was John’s all-American, apple-pie baritone re-living the game play-by-play. There was Joe’s voice, squeezed through his sinus on account of a hit he’d taken during the game. His come-ons were failing so he switched tactics fluidly, “You know, my dad owns the Abercrombie store here.”

Finally one of the girls bit, “Really?”

Joe missed a beat. His slice – half-way to his mouth – stopped. The cheese slid off its face, slow and wet like a booger slides off a wall. “Well, yeah, my grandpa had built…”

We didn’t get to hear Joe’s grandpa’s story. Janice loomed out of her seat and gathered the group’s attention by a mere act of will. “I want to go shopping.” A glee of agreement leapt off the table; a whirl of scattered plates and hoisted handbags swept me up and away from my slice; a glower from Janice kept me from saying a word.

Janice was the kind of girl who shops like some men go to war. She marched into stores, her staff in tow, and marshaled the merchandise to herself. She went in with a strategy, she hit hard and scattered the salespeople about her. Each item she scrutinized exactingly: one skirt had awkward stitching, another was a shade too dark, a third an inch too long. All these she cast aside, collateral damage and civilian casualties.

The stores sent waves of salesgirls at us. Each one, Janice tortured and exhausted and, after grueling hours, turned them back, broken and crumpled. And immediately the store would reinforce.

In one store Janice pointed and commanded, “Look, Jack, a men’s section.”  I gulped and clutched my carbine close to my chest. “We can get you some new pants.”

“I already have pants.” But my words whipped back into the wind behind as she dragged me forth, a recruit in the wake of his sergeant.

First she tried shirts: “This one’s nice.” She held it to my chest and cast it aside. “This one’s gorgeous.” Another flew off the rack.

“No, I couldn’t…” a stiff glower preempted me.

“We’ll take this one.

Casting to both sides I plucked up a shirt covered in a pattern of little green men with laser guns. “How about this one instead?”

“I said: we’ll take this one. Dressing room. There. Now.”  I never figured out the purpose of a dressing room. If you’ve worn one pair of jeans, you’ve worn them all.

We left the store wasted and ruined behind us – as raped as Nanking ever was – and already a mad gleam in Janice’s eye searched out another. Sweat gleamed on her brow and I imagined I saw a rill of saliva from her anxious lips. She had already bought enough clothing for a small African tribe. I whimpered as her gaze settled. “There. Let’s go there.”

But I was saved any further consumer combat by John and Nick.

“Jack, old pal.” Really I’d only known John about a month. In a year I’d have graduated to ‘oldest pal’. “Glad we found you.”

Janice gave Nick a look the way she might throw a penny into a beggar’s cup. Then she turned a ray of anger on John.

John, though, was practiced in guerilla war, “Janice, some of the girls are waiting for you in there.” He picked out one of those stores stocked with frilly lace, delicate silk, and lush velvet, all of it meant for parts unmentioned. Janice’s hard look softened. “We’re taking Jack over to Spencer’s.”

Janice begrudged retreat. “I want all three of you back in this spot in exactly 45 minutes. Understood?” Nods. “Exactly 45 minutes.” More nods. “Exactly.”

John was already dragging me away even as Janice made for the parts-unmentioned store, scattered children and broken old ladies writhing in her wake.

“Nuttiest girl in a 10 mile radius,” Nick confided.

The store they pulled me into was only half-lit, its corners and nooks polished with the blue-purple sheen of party lights. A dirty song played over hidden speakers; a sly husky sound creeping up my back and sneaking into my ears. My shoulders rolled with a shiver and a taint as I passed into the dim maze of shelves.

Twilight wares. There were aisles packed with scented oils and strange rubber toys like model spaceships. There were aisles packed with glass sculptures for “tobacco use only.” One aisle had occult devices: Ouija boards and black candles, pentagrams and spell manuals.

I drew out a grimoire titled The Invocation and Binding of Dark Spirits. Inside were pictures reproduced from ancient woodcuts depicting jackal-headed gods with cloven feet and necklaces of human teeth. There were long lists of tortuous names truncated with Hs and Ks and apostrophes. There were diagrams of esoteric circles, binding sigils, and convoluted runes.

“Jack,” John hissed at me from the end of the aisle. “Put that Goth shit down and come over here.” I trotted after him, glancing back at a Satanic Bible, but I kept Dark Spirits with me.

We found Nick in a hidden corner, haloed in the cone of a solitary lamp, shoulders dusted with the soft, seedy light. “Check this out, Jack.” He was thumbing through a rack of magazines. The first he produced had a man in a football uniform on the cover, draped over him were two women, neither wearing more than a bob of platinum hair.

I tried to gasp but my breath caught in my gut.

Women like these –

In Wagner she was called the Lorelei; in the Bible, Jezebel; in the Middle ages, most appropriately, Succubus. There existed in legend this breed of unscrupulous, licentious, insinuative, wicked, wicked women; a breed of women both depraved and pernicious. They were those upon whom unwary heroes and unlucky seamen were broken and dashed out like ships against a rocky shore. They were those who purchased men’s souls with pleasures soon turned to sufferings. Looking upon them – hearing their sweet, ensnaring song – I shuddered.

“Look at this one.” Nick held up a second magazine, even less modest than the first were it possible. My breath, which had been stuck in my gut, was shocked out of my mouth with a wheeze.

“Hot, huh, Jack?” Nick.

The gritty song of the store, wailing soft and invisible, ground against the back of my neck like wet sand. My brain stem felt hot – hot and loud with a buzz like a monstrous beehive’s roaring; a sound like ichor-slicked antennas and filmy, fluttering wings, like clicking legs and pincered mandibles. The heat and the sound riled my stomach, threatened to upset me like a teetering cup full of bile and acid. I clutched at my gut where my breath had caught.

“We should be careful,” I warned, “better men than us have been trapped by these.”

John nodded sagely. “I wish she’d trap me.”

I served John a bewildered look but a crude voice stole his attention. “Hey, you kids! Get away from there.”

John exchanged some choice words with the proprietor but Nick was already pulling us both away from the halo-light of the magazine rack. We left the shop’s macabre grandeur behind, but the gritty, buzzing feeling followed me under the mall’s all-seeing fluorescence.

 

The unclean feeling stayed with me – like a soiled neck-collar – even after we left the mall. In the parking lot’s clear dark Janice slipped her palm into mine, wound her finger’s round mine, and we walked in casual tandem. But still, the collar hung on my neck.

It was John who led us away, Liz wrapped under his arm. John who led us through the dormant, downtown streets. John who led us into the park.

The night was cool and purple-black. A breeze ran in waves over the darkling grass and darted up into the shadowed trees, rustling and ferreting through their branches. A harmony of lowing wind and chirping crickets settled on the earth like a blanket and cooled our mall-worn ears. Far away, the din and lights of the mall backlit the horizon.

In the easy dark John led us to settle beneath the awning of a dusky cedar.

It was Janice who twisted up a spindly joint. She flipped it between my lips and, cupping her hand over it, sparked a lighter: strike, strike, flash. The smoke was hot and caustic – a gust of balefire in my throat – it raced back out in a storm of coughing and hacking.

Janice giggled and laid the joint on her lower lip. She pulled and puffed at it until its tip flare to life. Her chest filled, her rib-cage opened like a bellows, and, giggling still, she leaned forward and brushed her lips against mine. A ghost touch – a taunt – a temptation. Above us the cedar soughed and the night deepened.

I’d seen kisses before; on TV, in the schoolyard – my parents kissed sometimes – but I’ve never understood them – kisses I mean.  I’ve never understood the drive behind wanting to caress someone else’s tongue with your own. Seems rather pointless, in fact. And from what I’ve read it can be dangerous, a veritable expressway for transmission of germs and infection.

It’s a sloppy business anyway; it involves a certain flowing rhythm, like a snail’s frustrated and slimy progress. Snails are precisely what come to mind: kissing is like two humping slugs churning drunkenly against each other. It sure involves a hell of a lot of saliva. A hell of a lot. Strands of saliva stretched to infinity between our lips when we broke apart.

The joint left my brain buzzing like an electric light, occasionally I flickered and went out only to be kick-started again a moment later. I stumbled all the way back to Janice’s and, leaving her on the front porch, stumbled on home. I had come to understand then what breed of woman she was. A succubus.

My face and neck were lacquered with dry saliva; my nostrils overwhelmed with the sour taste. I wanted a shower. I wanted the buzzing to stop. I wanted to think straight again. I stumbled on, high, confused, and disgusted.

The rotted smell of stale spit was drowning me, following me; I couldn’t get away! In the suburban streets I broke into a canter, but my buzzing brain couldn’t keep up with my knees and elbows. Twice I spilled to the sidewalk, bruising and scraping. My breath came short and fast, I clawed at my face, scraping saliva off with my nails. Faster and faster, my heart, my breath, and my legs; flickering between the pallor of cold street lamps and the horror of nighted sidewalks. The earth and the skies rolled sideways and I hit the concrete again, scrambling up even as I fell.

Janice stood before me then. Haloed beneath a street lamp, her hair and shoulders dusted with a glow from above.

I screamed, thrilling terror. The stench! The reek! The sour smell and her infernal, insinuative song, they flooded my senses – a river of torrenting saliva.

I ran from her, but under every street lamp she was there again, smiling and patient in a million repetitions. And from every successive repetition I ran faster, screaming still.

Finally I saw my home and exploded through the door.

“And if the cloudbursts thunder in your ears.” In the cocoon darkness an old Floyd tune was softly crooning. My parents, huddled on the couch, were wrapped in that tune and a spicy-sweet cloud of pot smoke besides. They shot me terrorized looks as I flew in.

The radio whispered on, “You shout and no one seems to hear.” The living room was a cave – shades drawn, lights low. The darkness already calmed my heart.

“And if the band you’re in starts playing different tunes.” My parents watched from the couch as I dunked my face into a sinkful of soapy dish-water and came up sputtering. But, even after scrubbing, the shade of that sickly, rotted smell haunted my senses – it never again wholly left me.

The radio, “I’ll see you on the dark side of the moon.”

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About Ask Liesmith

All that is gold does not glitter. Not all those who wander are lost. The old that is strong does not wither. Deep roots are not reached by the frost. From the ashes a fire shall be woken. From the shadows a light shall spring. Renewed shall be blade that was broken. The crownless again shall be king. (---J.R.R. Tolkien)
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