Author: Will Ludwigsen (page 6 of 7)

Postcard Story: Shaking The Boxes

[From time to time, I write a story in an hour based on a stock photo or other image.]

Mail Room

Detective Beeler leaped atop one of the mail conveyors and held up his hands to get our attention. It was cold on the floor so late at night and the heaters hadn’t yet kicked on so I could see his breath.

“Men, we appreciate you taking time from your families to help the NYPD so close to Christmas, but when we explain why, we think you’ll more than understand.”

I understood. My supervisor Eugene, who actually had children of his own, didn’t seem to; he stood off to the side with his sleeves rolled up and his arms folded, frowning at the cosmic inconvenience of it all. Some of the other guys didn’t look too happy either.

But for me, hey, what was I doing? Sitting around in my boarding house listening to the radio? Leaning out on the fire escape to watch the snow gather on the heaps of garbage below? When the police called us back to the distribution center, that was fine with me.

“If you’ve been following the papers the last few months, you know all about the Brooklyn Butcher. If you haven’t, well, maybe you’re better off not knowing that some sicko has been killing women and children and mailing their body parts to newspapers and the police. We don’t know who he is, only that the packages are postmarked 11256.”

I knew something about it, sure. I’d been reading the papers just like everybody else, wondering what the Butcher would send next. One week it had been a woman’s pale, lithe arm still with the silver bracelet on the wrist. Another, it was a child’s foot in a Buster Brown shoe. Then there were the ten days in a row when fingers arrived one after the other, boom boom boom. They weren’t all from the same person.

“This time, though, we’ve got a problem. When a cop or a newspaper man gets an ear in the mail, it sure isn’t fun, but at least he can handle it. I mean, we’ve all been in the War. But kids…shit.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “This year, the fucker is sending Christmas presents to kids. That’s what he calls them, ‘presents.’”

I remembered that letter now, the scary one sent to the Post with the untraceable typewriter letters. ON THIS MERRY YULE, I SHAL SEND THE CHURLDREN OF THE CITY SOME NISE FLESHY TOISE TO PLAY WIT. THE BEST TOISE ARE PEEPLE.

Beeler nodded. “Yeah, presents. So somewhere in this heap of Christmas packages there are some scary fucking things and we have to find them.”

I raised my hand. “How will we know which are the scary things?”

Beeler pointed to me. “I’m glad you asked. I’m guessing you guys aren’t too used to listening to the packages you deliver, but that’s the key here. You’re going to have to shake each one gently and listen for how it thumps.”

“How it thumps?” Eugene was always slow.

“Yeah. So you pick up each package and shake it gently. Most things, your toys and your candy, they’ll make something like a rattle, a little hollow. But something like, say, a hand makes this rasping sound as the flesh rubs against the cardboard. It’s a lot more solid-sounding, too. Kind of a ‘ssss-thump.’”

I made the sound with my tongue against my teeth and lips. Ssss-thump. Ssssssss-thuuumppp.

“Don’t be surprised if you come across any Leakers, either. That’s what we call the packages that have a little bit of blood pooling in one of the corners. Try not to handle the blood directly of course, and just put it in this bin. This is the Leaker bin.”

I raised my hand again.

“You’re full of questions, aren’t you?” Beeler said.

Eugene folded his arms. “He usually is.”

“What do we get for each thing we find?”

Beeler hunched his shoulders a little to peer down at me. “What do you get? You get the satisfaction of keeping a child from finding a severed penis on Christmas morning, that’s what you get.”

I nodded. “Okay, sure. I completely understand. Absolutely. I just thought we might make it…fun. You know, because it’s Christmas.”

“I’m not sure this should be fun,” Beeler said, “but whatever you need to do to find these things…well, we’d greatly appreciate it.”

Eugene pulled the big green button and the conveyors creaked to life. Beeler jumped down, made sure his revolver was secure, and then reached into the boxes like an old pro.

I began to whistle “Sleigh Ride.” Then I picked up the first box from my favorite pile and listened for the ssss-thump of a lucky child’s best present ever.

My Top Three Books of 2015

With four whole days until Christmas, let me tell you the good books I read this year that you SHOULD have bought for yourself or others.

(As always, my recommended books of the year are the ones I read in that year, not the ones published in that time. I read books to get AWAY from the cultural zeitgeist, not to fall into it!)

There are in no particular order, except perhaps subconsciously.

A Head Full of Ghosts, by Paul Tremblay


I have mostly a handshake-and-Facebook acquaintance with Paul, which is too bad because I suspect we probably get the same kinds of complaints about our work from a certain subset of cretinous readers: that it doesn’t go “far enough.”

I used to wish that there was a better word than “horror” for stories like ours (and Laird Barron’s and John Langan’s and Livia Llewellyn’s etc.) because it comes with a lot of clumsy expectations. Now, I just hope more books like A Head Full of Ghosts keep stretching that frontier into more subtle psychological territory.

It goes plenty “far enough.”

The blithe description of the book is that it is about a teenaged girl whose apparent demonic possession becomes the subject of a documentary TV show, but like the show itself, that’s a gross misunderstanding of what’s really happening to Marjorie Barrett and her family. This is a book as much about the stories we tell ourselves about our own fears as about the fears themselves, and every character is wrong about the possession in ways that are far more scary than a demon.  

Tremblay does an amazing job with the tiny accumulating details of real fear, and the effect reminds of me all the best parts of Steven Spielberg’s (nominally Tobe Hooper’s) Poltergeist: the horrors come knocking on our middle class doors, chased away by the worse things already within.

The Martian, by Andy Weir


If there was room between all the shit about Jesus in the Inspiration section of the bookstore, I’d shelve The Martian there.

Why? Because no matter how bad your life is, no matter who has dumped you or betrayed you or fired you or cut off your leg or called you a failure or denied you a small business loan, it will never be as bad as being marooned on Mars.

And no matter what you think can fix your life — self-help books, prayer, AA meetings, cults, shooting up a movie theater, traveling to Bali, coloring in books with markers — nothing will work quite as well as screaming briefly and then solving the current goddamn problem right in front of you before going on to the next.

Mark Watney starts this book well and surely fucked as many of us have been. We usually have water and oxygen when we’re fucked, but hey, bad is bad. Watching Watney rationally (and with humor) face his problems one by one with every resource he has (brain included) could certainly be a lesson to almost everyone trying to fix the world from debate stages and Facebook.

You look at what’s actually in front of you — not what you want to be in front of you, not what you hope to be in front of you — and you use 100% of it to make the next ten seconds 1% better than the last ten seconds.

Sometimes all you can do is survive to solve the next problem, but somehow, that’s always enough.

Working Days, by John Steinbeck


When John Steinbeck wrote The Grapes of Wrath, he wrote a journal at the same time, a place where he could grumble about what he was working on that day and what was coming next, and the result — Working Days — is one of the most useful books you will ever read about writing.

Why? Because it tells you that doubt and chaos and distraction is normal. And that it’s possible to work through them.

Now that I’m thinking about it, Working Days is The Martian but for writing a book. Steinbeck is stranded on Planet Joad and he has to make the best decisions each day to survive to make more tomorrow.

And the result — SPOILER ALERT — is The Grapes of Fucking Wrath.

One word and one sentence and one chapter at a time, folks.

Eight Reasons I’m Not Going to Teach Creative Writing Anymore…and One I Might

As this semester comes to a close, I think I’ve come to a decision about my teaching career, and I think that decision is that it’s basically over.

1. I’m skeptical that writing is learned effectively in a typical classroom setting.

Writing is learned by epiphany: you try different things and see which ones feel right. Sometimes that’s accelerated by placing yourself in the path of possible epiphany, writing a lot and reading a lot and also perhaps through classes or writing books. But in my too-large classes with students of vastly different abilities and interest levels, it’s almost impossible to do anything but present the broadest (one size fits none) principles.

2. The only classes I can teach as an adjunct are the very basic ones that serve as general English credit, so 80% of my students have no interest in writing, certainly not getting better at it.

And I have no idea what to do with them. Try to reinforce the basics of grammar and punctuation that they never learned? Encourage them to be more creative, though they don’t give a shit? Focus on the 20% who are interested in writing instead? I never know.

3. I’m not giving my students what they need, which is mostly time.

Adjuncting is my part-time job pursued in the evenings after eight hours at my regular one, and what the students need most is hours of individual mentorship in everything from where commas go to how to send stories off for submission. I do the best I can with manuscript comments, but the best success I’ve had has been during casual one-on-one conversations with individual students: “What’s up with you and semicolons?” I simply don’t have the time to do that with a full time job in addition to teaching.

4. I don’t like reading people’s unfinished manuscripts.

Basically my students need to be told one of two things: “Keep doing this” and “Stop doing that.” The problem is that they hand in work that is way too close to composition so I’m telling them things they’d probably fix themselves in a rewrite. I never feel like I’m saying enough of the right things at the right time.

5. I don’t need the money as much as the other adjuncts.

Adjuncts are paid for shit, and many of the ones at my university work multiple teaching gigs all over town. Every time I teach a class for my credit card money, that’s one less that some poor bastard living off this shit will get.

6. There are standards and rigidity and accountability coming.

To their credit, my English department is trying to establish a baseline of actual repeatable results for the students, but all I want to do is say weird funny things about writing until someone accidentally learns something. It’s only a matter of time before calling myself “the Hannibal Lecter” of the English department or saying Halloween is Satan’s birthday results in a complaint and a long awkward talk.

7. It upsets me that students don’t leave my class cheering or weeping with the inspiration to write.

Hideous confession time: I am far more motivated by entertaining people than teaching them (mostly because the results of the former are way clearer than the latter).

8. Yes, it saps time and energy from writing.

Though I did manage to rewrite a novel this year with some better time management, my day job suffered a little and the writing could have gone better.

One reason I might teach again:

If I get an opportunity to teach/mentor a smaller group of motivated students in the way I want — “Hey, let’s hang out and write and read what we’ve got and talk about it” — I’d jump at it.

You learn writing by doing it a lot, trying new things, being honest with yourself about the results, and getting firm feedback from someone experienced that you trust. If I could help that, it might be worth it…to me and to the students.

Won’t Someone Think of the Children-Eaters?

We all know that children are annoying. Countless scientific studies have proven they don’t even have souls until they’re about fourteen or fifteen, and maybe not even then. They’re loud, they’re unpredictable, they’re narcissistic – they’re basically tiny drunks we can’t send to detox.

So when a heroic adult breaks free of our deliberate societal delusion about the saintliness of children, there’s cause to stand up and cheer.

This Minnesota woman – I hesitate to use her name because her next job search is going to be complicated enough without Google dragging her down – responded to months of systematic terrorism from her shrieking child neighbors just as you or I would.

This is the look of a woman thinking, "Screaming children left toys on my porch and I'M the one in a jail jumpsuit?"

This is the look of a woman thinking, “Screaming children left toys on my porch and I’M the one in a jail jumpsuit?”

By sending little anonymous notes about how she wanted to eat the children. Because you might as well put that degree in Psychology to use.

Threats to eat children have a long and noble tradition all the way from folk and fairy tales like Hansel and Gretel up to noted serial killer Albert Fish. They’re how we keep kids in line. I’m the man I am today because my father wasn’t above shaking a bottle of barbecue sauce in my direction when I got unruly.

Here, a brave witch faces down terrorists the only way she can: with a wicked recipe for shepherd's pie.

Here, a brave witch faces down terrorists the only way she can: with a wicked recipe for shepherd’s pie.

Not long ago, we used to believe it took a village to raise a child. And sometimes, when those children are yelling and running around and leaving toys in your yard, you need a village witch to step in with a few minor cackling threats and some subscriptions to magazines under the name “Your Tasty Children.”

What we don’t need is to put honest witches in jail under charges of misdemeanor terroristic threats.

The simplest way to avoid this would have been for those children to have been raised in a far-off Dickensian boarding school. The second simplest way would have been for this woman to have had a better plan than “1. Send threats. 2. Scare family. 3. Family finds it safer to abandon a house with twenty years left on the mortgage than to let children get eaten.”

Rest assured, this will have a chilling effect. Gone are the days when we could dig traps in the park or hose down trick-or-treaters with impunity.

And when the chaos ensues, when a generation grows up without fear of being eaten, we will reap what we have sown.

Appearance: Necronomicon 2015, Grand Hyatt Tampa, October 9 – 11

I consider Necronomicon to be my home convention, one I’ve been attending since I was thirteen years old, and I’m always nostalgically pleased to be a guest!

This year’s event is once again at the Grand Hyatt Tampa from October 9th to the 11th.

I’m serving on these panels:

  • Friday, 4pm: How can SF Writers Keep Ahead of the Future?
  • Friday, 6pm: The Perils of Premature Publishing
  • Friday, 9pm: Making It Scary
  • Saturday, 11am: Crossing Genres
  • Saturday, 12pm: How RPG-ers Morphed Into Writers

I hope I’ll see you there!

Postcard Story: First Contact

[From time to time, I write a story in an hour or so based on an image. Sometimes I’ll reprint my favorites.]

There’s only so much you can do when the Nazis bomb your boy’s house, especially when you’re trying so hard to resemble a stuffed elephant and not entirely succeeding.

You just have to kind of go quiet and let the human clutch at you while his people do their best to clear the rubble and find his parents. You can’t say anything, that’s for sure, certainly not about how the Nazis will be hiding or hanging from the gallows or foaming at the lips from self-inflicted cyanide in just a few years.

You also absolutely cannot mention that humans will be standing on their Moon in one quarter century or connected all over their planet in two or shaking hands with creatures like you not long after that. And you can’t let it slip that there will be a lot more rubble between now and then.

Here’s what you can do.

You can stick close to your human, not letting anyone dunk you in a washtub to get the dust off of you and find out what you really are.

You can make sure they find his science fiction magazines and the book about dinosaurs.

You can tumble out of his arms at just the moment when the air raid wardens start talking about how they wish the bloody Huns, all of them, the women and children too, would get marched into their own goddamned gas chambers.

You can keep him away from the torn iron bars and bent nails.

You can nudge him toward the charred engine of a V-2 so he can ask what it is and be told by Warden George McAllister that it’s an “awful waste of a rocket, that’s what it is.”

You can remind him to look up, look up from the windows of his train from London just as the black night goes its blackest, and when he whisper-asks you if all of those suns have wars going on around them, you can somehow tell him that some do, yes, but not all.

You can sit with him on the window seat of a country home while all the other children play outside and read The Time Machine together.

You can resist the box, the sack, the closet shelf as he grows older, reminding him by your presence that yes, he survived and yes, it was for a reason.

You can make him wonder how neat it would be to get a degree in physics. You can help him decide that another in linguistics at the same time might be handy in ways he’ll never expect.

You can do your best to keep him away from hate and from war and from disappointment at his species, human though he is, and even when he can’t, you can help him try again.

You can hint, ever subtly, whenever he’s alone, that we’re on our way.

A Pitch Session!

Some exciting things have been happening with my writing.

My collection of weird stories In Search Of and Others and my impeccable track record of selling only barely speculative stories to Asimov’s Science Fiction magazine caught the attention of some pretty heavy hitters in Hollywood, and long story short, I had a pitch meeting.

At Marvel Studios.

Here’s what I gave them, more or less verbatim.

The film opens with the camera focused at ground level on a lonely stretch of road in the middle of nowhere, and a vintage convertible sports car zooms over our heads. The license plate says STARK, and now we’re following Tony Stark and Bruce Banner on their way…somewhere. We don’t know where yet because all we see is two guys in civilian clothes eating Funyons and drinking soda on a road trip.

Yeah, they have adventures: they stop at the Longaberger factory and the world’s biggest ball of twine, they help a battered wife escape from her husband at a truck stop, they get a flat tire, they accidentally ingest mescaline, they get into a fist fight at a biker bar somewhere in Texas. And between it all they talk, and we find out slowly that Nick Fury has died poignantly of cancer or something, and they both feel guilty for not being there when he died.

Hey, you’re the continuity guys. If Nick Fury isn’t really dead, that’s your thing. He’s dead for this movie, that’s the point.

As the trials and annoyances of the road press upon them, they argue more and more until Magneto destroys their car and strands them in the desert, unlikely to make it on time. They argue, they weep, they hug, and working together with a new emotional understanding, they do get to the funeral with, I don’t know, Black Widow’s help or something.

It was hard to gauge their response, but they gave me a great goody bag and some old fart greeted me with “Excelsior!”, so maybe those are good signs.

I’ll keep you posted!

Postcard Story: Love in the Balance

[From time to time, I write a story in an hour based on a stock image.]

Photo courtesy of

Photo courtesy of

Ever since he first saw Wanda Lee behind the counter of her father’s pharmacy, Chuck knew that one day he’d ask her to marry him.

He even had the line picked out: “What would it take to get you behind the wheel of a Chuck Timpless Chevrolet…for the rest of your life?”

But Chuck knew you couldn’t rush a deal. That was the difference between him and the other salesmen at the car lot, guys like Johnny Earl who’d make whipping noises behind the backs of buyers who said they’d have to ask their wives. Chuck focused on the long game, and if he didn’t sell a particular car to a particular customer today, well, that was okay; Detroit was always making more cars and God was always making more customers.

The key to a sale was not needing a sale.

So his courtship of Wanda Lee largely involved sauntering over to the pharmacy after his bachelor’s dinner at Woolworth’s, mounting the Wate and Fate machine, dropping in a dime, and tipping his hat to Wanda while the gears clicked out the little card. The weight number — a trim buck sixty five, thank you very much — never changed, but the fortunes did. GOOD NEWS IS COMING FROM AFAR it might say one day, and SAVE TODAY FOR TROUBLE TOMORROW the next.

He didn’t read them closely because he was reading Wanda closely, watching her reaction through the glass. She seemed to be a nervous sort, her shoulders tensing and her eyes going narrow when she saw him in what Chuck thought of as a coquettish wince. Or maybe a flirtacious grimace.

But that was okay. It’s what buyers did, begged you to sell them the dreams they didn’t know they had. Chuck had a pocket full of dimes for that machine, long enough to wait out his fate with Wanda Lee.

One evening in October, though, he received a different kind of fortune. The only reason he looked at it twice was because he noticed the word LOVE.


He blinked at it a moment but then shrugged. He’d always imagined that wizened crones somewhere in the Chinese countryside typed the messages for the Wate and Fate company, maybe throwing coins or yarrow sticks with that holy book like he’d seen in the war. Sometimes a weird one would have to come through. That’s how you knew they were true, right? They were supposed to be a little vague to give you room from interpretation.

The next day, the message was OUR HEARTS MAKE WISHES AND CALL THEM FEARS.

“Huh,” he said to himself, glancing up at Wanda who was watching from behind a display of medicated powders. She made no sign of guessing what the fortune said, but then, she seldom made a sign of anything in his direction, furtively returning to work or to one of those notebooks where she was always writing.

“That girl’s a weirdo, you know,” Johnny Earl told him more than once. “Reading those books all the time. You don’t need that.”

The third evening, the card told him YOU WILL BE KILLED BY A CAR, which seemed a very specific metaphor, uncanny even. But it was a big world and there were cars all over, and if you weren’t literally killed by a car, you might be killed by the press of mechanical civlization it represented. That’s what Mrs. Childers in high school English might have told him once.

Chuck looked up and once again, Wanda looked away.

On the fourth evening, it said YOU WILL BE KILLED BY A 1957 CHEVROLET BEL AIR.

“Sedan or coupe?” he asked aloud to the machine, though he knew it couldn’t hear him. And even if it could, surely the spools of fortune cards were shipped from their Chinese temples in armored trucks, delivered across the sea in guarded cargo holds, shipped to little drug stores all across America in sealed boxes. Who would dare tamper with the Wate and Fate machine?

He glanced up. A cloud smeared something like a beard across the blue. The sky knew him. It was watching.

He swallowed and inserted another dime.


He shook the machine, not sure why, and then he tried another.


Chuck Timpless stumbled back from the machine. Would he sell or would he live? What kind of question was that? Couldn’t he do both? Couldn’t he sell cars and own a house and marry Wanda Lee and eat the meat loaf she made for dinner in a baby blue apron and still live? Couldn’t he do that?

The Wate and Fate machine said no. The Wate and Fate machine, cold white metal, did not love him or hate him. It merely weighed him, his body and his soul, and it told him what was.

Chuck slipped in another dime. The next message had to be happy, right? It had to be.


Somewhere down Main Street, a door opened and Chuck recognized the din from Sammy’s Bar. From the television inside, he heard a familiar voice that didn’t quite break through the haze of his thoughts. “It shall be the policy of this nation…” came the words, but they didn’t find their way to meaning in his brain.

He put in his last dime, his last hope for a message that made sense, that made it better. Down the sidewalk, he heard the quickened patter of running footsteps and just behind them, the huffing voice of Johnny Earl.

“Jesus, Chuck! You gotta come listen. That goddamned fish-eating mick is about to nuke the Russkies!”


The Wate and Fate machine clicked its wheels and calculated his destiny, but Chuck Timpless didn’t wait to read it. He loped off to Sammy’s Bar with Johnny Earl to see that message instead, the one shimmering in black and white on the TV above the liquor bottles.

The last card fell with no one to catch it, no one to read it, and to no one it said COME IN AND ASK ME.

Wanda Lee shouldered past her father to the back room of the pharmacy, crying.

A September Stroll

On September 11, 2001, I worked as a technical writer at the U.S. Mint building on Massachusetts Avenue, and our building wasn’t far from the Capitol.

I’d taken the Metro to Union Station that morning, bought a bagel, and walked the few blocks to work under a very blue sky. I was about halfway through the bagel when there was a sudden slowdown of our network. Being me, I went to a reliable news source to see what was going on and this is what I saw:

Bad news, folks! Servers are down! In other news, there may be some injuries at the WTC.

Bad news, folks! Servers are down! In other news, there may be some injuries at the WTC.

It took a few tries to call my (now ex-) wife, and when I said, “I think the United States is under some kind of coordinated attack,” she snapped in a terse and half-awake daze, “What are you talking about?” I got calls from friends (William and Tom, shout out!) and also my brother-in-law Marty, who raised the possibility that I should, perhaps, see about going home instead of hanging out near the Capitol building during what might be an ongoing…thing.

Huh, I thought. I’ll go ask my bosses.

When I went to my boss’s office, though, he was already gone. So, too, were the rest of the staff; they’d forgotten me. I was a contractor in my first month of employment there.

So I got my things together, stuffed them into a backpack, and started for home. I knew the Metro would either be crowded or shut down, so I simply walked. And because I’m terrible with directions, I headed for the only place I knew how to get home FROM: the Lincoln Memorial.

It was probably the safest eight-mile walk of my life. There were almost no other pedestrians, only men in suits on street corners holding M-16s and peering at me with my giant sapper’s backpack full of books. None of them stopped me because, hey, white guy!

I followed the Mall, passed the Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial, and then crossed Memorial Bridge. That’s when the smell of burning plastic hit me from the smoldering Pentagon, and I continued down the center of the surreal deserted GW Parkway with its plume of smoke to my right. Marine helicopters passed overhead, circled the Pentagon, and then continued westward, and my only guess was that they were taking congressmen to look at the damage.

I made it as far as the marina on the other side of the airport before I reached a point where the parkway was no longer blocked off. By then I was exhausted and dehydrated, and my wife came to the barricades to pick me up.

I guess it’s somewhat telling that my 9/11 experience was mostly alone. I spoke to my mother and my friends on the phone briefly when I could get through, but for most of that walk, it was just me quietly wondering how the world would be different now, hoping that terrorists wouldn’t think to attack the Smithsonian, wondering if there was an accessible hose or water fountain at the marina. That’s what I do in a disaster, shove everyone away from me. Sometimes that’s good and sometimes it isn’t.

I didn’t see any of the images until later, which might be why I’m still a little obsessively compelled by them today: I’m still catching up.

Or maybe I’m just still a little guilty that my 9/11 was a literal walk in the park compared to so many others’.

Postcard Story: Riding the Rails

[From time to time, I write a story in an hour based on some stock image.]

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

As runaway companions go, Jimmy wasn’t bad. He could read fifty different kinds of hobo sign, knew the difference between poison ivy and Virginia creeper, and always gave you at least half a tin of potted meat if he had it. He could hold his own in a conversation about Dick Tracy or Brick Bradford, too.

In fact, the only thing that complicated traveling with old Jimmy Day was that he had to carry his brother around in that milk can.

The thing looked heavy, and though he’d fashioned canvas straps to hang it off his back, Jimmy wasn’t always able to leap into a boxcar as easily as I could. There was also the care and feeding to worry about, and when we’d set up camp off in the woods by a railroad yard, he’d always have to pour water or chunks of hot dog inside.

Colin was his name, the brother in the milk can.

I figured there were just a couple of possibilities for what was going on with Colin. Maybe there had been a real Colin who’d died young, maybe as a baby, maybe in his mama’s womb, and Jimmy had just taken on this milk can as a symbol of his dead brother’s spirit. Maybe there’d never been a Colin at all and Jimmy just made him up, adopted him as an imaginary traveling companion who would never leave him like his parents probably had. Or, hell, maybe Jimmy was just pulling my leg with the most persistent practical joke I’d ever seen.

But as much as I mulled over those possibilities on the hoof with Jimmy, walking the railroad trestle ties or crashing through the woods, none of them ever seemed quite right.

When Jimmy talked about Colin at all, it was about something he needed.

“We’re gonna need to pour off Colin’s pee in the next couple of miles,” he’d say, breaking the beautiful silence of a sunrise. Or he’d knock on the side of the can, saying, “Quit squirming, you little shit.”

Look. Though there were a few kids back then who ran away from home because their folks just couldn’t afford to feed them anymore, a lot more of us left because our families were full of monsters. There was only so long I could last with my old man before he either killed me or I started getting used to the belt and the fists, before I started thinking that was the way the world worked and it was good. So when Jimmy came walking with me, I just figured he’d put all of his scared into that can and called it Colin.

It’s funny to think now that Jimmy and I were only together about six weeks total, and funnier still to think that everything he needed to know about me and I needed to know about him could get transmitted between us in about a third of that time. He liked the Cubs and I liked the Indians. He’d read the Count of Monte Cristo and I hadn’t. He thought that if a guy could learn how a radio worked, he could pretty much write his own paycheck. I thought if a guy could get into the woods, he wouldn’t need a paycheck.

I lost Jimmy near Glenmont.

We woke up that day from our lean-to in the far corner of a farmer’s field — Jimmy was a genius at lean-tos — and we crouched our way through the corn to the water pump. We cleaned ourselves up as much as boys like to do and Jimmy tipped a little in for his brother and sloshed it around.

“These locals ain’t gonna do it for us,” Jimmy said finally.

We’d been hopping the short trains all the way from Pennsylvania because they went slower. When they creaked through an intersection, you could jog alongside a flatcar and leap onboard even with a milk can strapped to your back.

“What we need is some thunder. A big one, heading all the way out West. I’m not even talking Texas or Oklahoma. I’m talking California.”

I wouldn’t have admitted it then, but Jimmy was pretty much in charge of my own running away. I’d planned to build a placein the mountains somewhere and be a modern Daniel Boone, but California sounded good to me if Jimmy was going there.

“It’s like the whole goddamned country in one state. They’ve got mountains. They’ve got deserts. They’ve got snow. They’ve got an ocean. They’ve got Marlene Dietrich, for God’s sake.”

“You don’t gotta sell me on it,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“Colin wants to be in the movies,” he said. “I told him he doesn’t have a face for it, but he’s got a dream and we’re going to Hollywood.”

“Okay,” I said. There was no stronger way to agree between guys like us.

He clapped me on the shoulder. “They’ve got woods there, too.”

We followed the tracks to somewhere near Cleveland where all we could do was wait for the right train and the right cargo. Hoppers and gondolas weren’t good, full as they usually were with coal or gravel. Flatbeds weren’t fun, either, with the wind liable to blow you off. Boxcars were best, even if they were a cliche. They’re like rolling hotels. You can keep your Pullman cars; Jimmy and Colin and me slept best on packing straw.

While we camped and waited two days for just the right freight, a question came to me that might be gentle enough to get at the truth about Jimmy and that milk can.

“You think your mama ever worries about Colin?” I asked.

Jimmy, smothering what would be our last fire with sand, paused to think that over.

“Maybe every now and then, I figure,” he said, finally. “More him than me. There’s folks that go and folks that stay, and they don’t like much to think about the other in case they’re wrong.”

I don’t know what expression crossed my face, but it made Jimmy say, “And sometimes there are folks who can do both and know when, folks like us who are going to find somewhere we’re supposed to stay.”

We heard the rumble along the tracks before we saw the locomotive, and then the whistle sang out and we knew our ride had come, carrying our future with it.

We backed away in awe at the sleek new engine, and I’ll admit I was nervous that we’d ever latch on. It had slowed for the turn, sure, but it would take heroic leaps from both of us to make it. Our best bet would be a flat car with plenty of room for error, but all we saw were boxcars.

“We gonna do this or not?’ Jimmy said, bouncing on his toes with Colin on his back.

I watched. I counted. I took the best estimate I could and pointed to a car with an open door. Jimmy grinned and nodded, and then we started to run. With the biggest leap of luck in my life, I rolled inside.

Then a half dozen things happened at once but I only saw three: Jimmy reaching for the car, one of Colin’s straps breaking, and Jimmy’s ankle getting caught between the rail and the tie. He cried out quickly, still cheerful I guess, and Colin’s milk can bounced into the car and then back out again. Jimmy reached but didn’t make it, but the strap was caught and the pulling began. He had just enough time to unhook Colin and not enough time to unhook himself.

Jimmy was ripped, that’s the only word for it. He was stretched to the limits of his body before the two halves split somewhere in the middle of his torso where all the squiggling organs lived. I screamed, not that he heard it, and I swear that the last thing I saw before the cloud of blood was his eyes right on me and a peaceful smile on his face.

Then he was gone and the milk can was rolling down the gravel embankment to the stream.

I jumped off, leaving my bindle behind. I screamed all the way down those tracks to where he’d been, the wheels of every empty boxcar squealing with me, but there was nothing left where he’d been but a lot of red rocks.

It hadn’t been my fault. It hadn’t been his. It had been Colin’s, that’s what I decided. That’s what made me run shrieking down toward the water, and that’s what made me kick that milk can a hundred times until my toes went numb. I called it names. I told it to fuck itself. I fell down beside it as the rapids washed over us and I screamed into the hole that I hoped it would die.

The stream was freezing but I didn’t feel it. I splashed in the shallows, lifted the can, and tipped it so the lid fell open. I shook and shook, knowing nothing would come out.

But then it did. Then Colin came out.

Or slithered might be better to say. Or oozed.

There came this hollow sucking noise like when you’re pouring cold beans out of a can. A bulge of peachy flesh bubbled out at first, and it grew longer and longer like a dollop of pancake batter. I kept shaking, both myself and the can, until Colin fell into the stream with a splash.

What Colin was, I couldn’t say. What he looked like — he looked like dough. He looked like clay. He looked like a streak of smeared paint. He looked, Jesus help me, like a fried egg with that single panicked eye of his swirling in every direction, searching for Jimmy, not sure why he was so cold and so wet. What he had instead of arms and legs were nubs, and they groped for stability on the smooth rocks.

It was the eye, that eye looking at me, pleading with me, at least as human as mine. It was that bubbling cry from a hole in the flesh, something like the cooing of a pigeon.

I stomped in huge strides back to Colin, slipping on a stone and gouging my knee on another. My blood raced downstream but I didn’t cry out. I crawled to Colin, told him to hold on, told him I was sorry.

Colin. Jesus Christ, there was an actual Colin.

I held the can as best I could for Colin to get back inside, but he’d grown weak. His flesh was turning blue, almost black at the edges, and he needed my help. He took my hand with the last strength he had, and I guided him slowly back into his home, into his shell. It wasn’t a pleasant sensation, no, his body, but there was a strange comfort to him, too.

I had to curl his sides a little to get him inside. I had to gently fold his head. I had to tilt the can to let gravity do its work, and I had to carry Colin out of the cold and build a fire to warm him.

I’ve never said I was sorry so much in my life. It was my chant. If Colin heard, he didn’t say. There just came a time long after dark when I knew I could stop, when I knew it would never be enough.

I guess I could have been a lot of things if it hadn’t been for Colin. Maybe I’d have gone to college after we got to California. Maybe I’d have written a book or bought a ranch or built myself that cabin in the woods.

But Colin wanted to be in the movies, and by fucking God, he was going to be in the goddamned movies.

You’ve probably seen the movies he’s been in. You might remember a little-known art film called Citizen Kane where he played a milk can in Charles Foster Kane’s childhood home. You might remember him from the backroom at Rick’s in Casablanca, too. It was after that that he got a reputation for being something of a good luck charm, and that got him roles later on in Gunsmoke and Little House on the Prairie and pretty much every Western you can think of. He’s one of those eccentric artsy little things that Hollywood likes to indulge to feel bohemian, I guess.

One thing I’ll tell you is that Colin didn’t work for free. Though he wasn’t much of a materialist — the only vice he developed was a fondness for coffee ice cream — he needed an assistant to take him to the studio on time, to help him get clean, to buy him the ice cream and spoon it gently into the can. And that assistant really only needs a roof and a bed and a place to read books.

Colin’s last role was in Unforgiven. We’ve got a picture of him with Clint Eastwood at the retirement party that Clint’s agent has promised to sue us for if it ever goes public. There was talk of an honorary Oscar, too.

I think Colin’s getting sick. One of the ways I know this is that he isn’t asking for ice cream as much. Another way I know it is that I’m starting to have dreams, dreams about Jimmy, dreams about the railroads, dreams about the open spaces and lonely creeks between here and those tracks near Cleveland. I’ve been testing out the weight of that milk can these days, wondering if I can carry it. I’m not as strong as I used to be and never as strong as Jimmy, but Colin doesn’t weigh as much anymore either.

Last night I dreamed of the cabin Colin wants to give me. I dreamed of where he wants to die and where he wants me to live.

Older posts Newer posts

© 2017 Will Ludwigsen

Theme by Anders NorenUp ↑