His girlfriend robs banks. This is what she does: she walks in, pretends to fill out a deposit slip, walks up to the counter. Once she gets there, she hands the teller the slip and points a gun at him. It's always a him when she robs a bank, but the newspapers haven't figured that out yet. She smiles. She speaks only in song lyrics: "Hold on tight to your dream. All your dreams are over now. It's a divine master plan." The teller fills a microphone bag with cash and gives it to her. Or he trembles and sweats and fumbles for the alarm switch. Or he passes out. Or he stares at her with a blank look until she waves the gun at the deposit slip, which reads, "Objects in mirror are closer than they appear" or "Keep right except to pass." When the teller looks down, she disappears onto the street. She does this all with a baby in a sling strapped to her chest.
He is a writer but not an author. He tends bar during the day shift. There aren't too many patrons then—just a handful of regulars. Most of them are out of work. Some of them are retired. One of them is an author. None of them talk to him.
He writes his ideas on drink napkins: snippets of dialog, scene settings, character sketches, plot synopses. Most of these he takes home with him at the end of the day. The good ones he transfers to coasters, puts the coasters in front of his regulars, sets their pint glasses on them. The author and the retirees read them. No one else notices.
At night he types his fragments into stories. They're never very long, usually just a few pages. He types them in two columns, the paper landscaped and folded in half. One column on either side of the fold. When he has finished typing he takes a needle and thread and sews the folded pages into a single signature.
He does not submit his work to anyone. He never deletes anything. He never makes typos. He starts at the beginning and works his way to the end.
When each story is typed and sewn, he puts it in a canvas Army surplus bag. He takes this bag everywhere. He rides the bus to the mall, walks into the bookstore, pretends to look for something to buy. When no one is looking he reaches into his bag, takes out a story, and slips it carefully between two books on the shelf.
"The sky is always falling down on me," she says. The deposit slip says "Fallen Rock Zone." The baby says something unintelligible. The teller trembles. The gun says nothing. She slips the gun between the baby sling and her chest when the teller looks down. By the time he looks up again, she is gone.
She never asks for money. The gun is never loaded. The baby is always smiling. They are the perfect picture: a Madonna and Child for the masses, robbing banks and warming old men's hearts.
He doesn't own much. He has three weeks' worth of clothes. He has one set of silverware. He has an Army surplus canvas bag, a spool of thread, and a needle. He owns no music, doesn't have a laptop or an iPhone. He owns only three books. He has a library card.
He has a broom but no dustpan, and he has a mattress but no frame and no box spring. He doesn't have a television. He has a coffee maker and two mugs.
He has a typewriter. It sits five feet away from the exact center of his apartment. It is not electric. The V key sticks. It is becoming increasingly difficult for him to find ribbons for the typewriter.
It is because of the typewriter that he began writing. He didn't purchase it himself. It was a gift, a random present from his girlfriend. "What do I need this for?" he asked her. She shrugged. "Something's gotta turn out right," she said. She set it down on the floor beside the door to his apartment. For a few months he used it as a doorstop.
The three books have no fixed abode. Sometimes they lay stacked on a windowsill. Sometimes he stands them side by side on the kitchen counter. Sometimes he leaves one on the toilet tank, cover face down. The others he stacks at the foot of his mattress and they lay there like a patient and faithful dog made out of pulped wood. One of them is by Haruki Murakami and one is by Jonathan Lethem. The third is a hardcover illustrated volume of tales from the 1001 Nights. You can decide which one is currently on the toilet tank.
He didn't buy the typewriter and he didn't buy the books. The books came from a cardboard box left in the entryway of his building by another tenant. When the books failed to disappear after a few weeks, his girlfriend carried them up the stairs and left them outside his door for him to find.
He looks at their pages but he has yet to read any of them.
She takes $877 in small bills out of the microphone bag. The singles and fives she transfers to a white envelope, which she seals. She writes "gothic revival" on the front and slips it through a rubber band that already holds half a dozen other envelopes. The tens she will slip between the pages of library books, probably encyclopedias. The twenties she adds to a cigar box she hides behind a carton of eggs in her fridge.
The baby gurgles and smiles, chews on a teething ring. The teething ring is an unloaded 9mm that has never been fired.
His girlfriend waits tables at a Greek restaurant. She brings him food he would never eat otherwise: dolmades, souvlaki, baklava. She always forgets to bring napkins.
At night his girlfriend sleeps beside him on the mattress on the floor. She sleeps on her side with her back to him, breathing so slowly and so quietly that sometimes he is afraid to touch her. He is afraid that her body will be cold, stiff. He is afraid he only imagines her.
She wears no clothes beneath the blanket, but she is not naked. She is never naked. She has a tattoo on her shoulder, Celtic knotwork. His eyes trace it in the moonlight. Sometimes he gets lost in the maze of the knotwork, wakes up to the sound of birds and finds her head resting in the crook of his shoulder, her arm draped across his belly. Sometimes he tells her stories while she sleeps. He whispers them to her tattoo.
His girlfriend wants him to get a dog, one that looks like him. He thinks about the blood pumping through a dog's veins. He thinks about its lungs expanding and contracting. He imagines its tongue lolling and its eyes watching him. He always says no. He imagines the consciousness trapped in the dog's body, unable to speak, to tell him if it's lonely or in pain. He cannot bear thinking about it. He gestures to the two books lying at the foot of the mattress. "I have a dog," he says.
He sets a pint glass full of beer on a coaster in front of the author. He has written a few lines on the coaster. The coaster reads, "She robs banks with a baby strapped to her chest. She speaks in song lyrics." The author reads a newspaper.
At the other end of the bar, a retiree's coaster says, "Samuel Adams Oktoberfest." It also says, "the grocer hates the priest but the priest doesn't know." The retiree hates the bartender but he doesn't know why. He also doesn't know why he keeps coming back to this bar, but he does it every Thursday.
She isn't really his girlfriend, the bank robber. Well, she is his girlfriend but she also isn't. His girlfriend is living and breathing; the bank robber is not. The bank robber's skin is pulped wood; she has arms and legs, shoulders and ears, and several spines, but she also has ascenders and descenders and serifs. Her blood is black ink pounded out of a ribbon by raised figures on a wheel.
He knows she is not his girlfriend, but he is in love with her anyway.
His girlfriend really does have a tattoo but she doesn't have a baby. She isn't sure she wants children, though she does want a dog. She doesn't know about the stories. She doesn't know about the bank robber.
YAW GNORW. "I don't wanna cast pearls to swine. I don't wanna go peacefully."
He delights in the words he sets on the pages. He doesn't limit himself to the bank robber who is and isn't his girlfriend. There are other stories as well. He writes stories about a man who kills good and innocent people before they turn into backstabbing, lying, greedy people. About an itinerant musician whose songs steal children's souls, which he eats in a soup with leeks and turnips. About a roving gang of city squirrels who perform daring acrobatic feats in the branches only to be crushed under the screaming wheels of taxicabs. He writes about invisible doorways hidden in the sides of warehouses and office buildings. All of these find their way to the bookstore, one at a time, waiting to be discovered.
He does not know whether anyone has found any of his stories. He doesn't look for them when he goes back with a new one to hide. He has never heard anyone mention that they've found one. None of this stops him.
The typewriter sits exactly five feet from the center of his apartment because the center of his apartment happens to fall inside the wall separating the kitchen from the living room. He sits with his back to the wall and types into the night, sews by the first rays of the sun, and goes to work at ten. He sleeps all evening, unless his girlfriend is there. Then he tries to sleep at night, her back facing him, the black and green ink of her tattoo sucking in all the light from the street lamps, from the moon. He watches her sleep and imagines her with a 9mm and a baby. He loves his girlfriend; he is in love with the bank robber.
BRIDGE OUT. "I will be calmer than cream."
He folds sheet of paper in half and slips it between the rollers. There is a small pile of cocktail napkins beside him. The living room opens up before him, and behind him, just a few feet away, is the wall, solid silently reassuring.
He lines up the page and pulls the carriage across. He types: He writes stories about a ghost who lives in a basement. She is a little girl, no more than six or seven years old. Her family has moved away but she still lives here, hiding under the utility sinks, peeking out from the heavy wire storage cages. Sometimes she looks through people's things. She is intrigued by what she finds—paintings and file cabinets, red wagons and macrame plant holders. Sometimes she remembers she is dead but most of the time she forgets. She is waiting for him to come back, the boy twice her age and twice her size. She has a message for him and a trick to play on him. The little girl-ghost whispers: "The truth won't save you now."
His heart aches for the ghost. He wonders how she died. Sometimes he can't bear thinking about it.
ECNALUBMA. "I ain't no hero."
This happens a lot. He loves his characters. They're part of him. They keep him company in the dead hours at the bar. They visit him when he can't sleep. They hide in the bodies of people he meets. Once his eyes locked with those of a man in his mid-fifties only to see the little girl gazing back at him.
Sometimes it horrifies him.
He thinks about other characters he loves. There are the detectives, William Hunt and Samuel Peck. Someday he will write their office, doorways made of words, sunlight made of letters streaming through windows made of ink.
HOSPITAL PARKING. "I'll take you where nobody knows you."
She leaves for the bus at the same time every morning. She carries the same things every time: a newspaper, a blank book, a black pen. The newspaper is always yesterday's, folded into quarters. The pen is a cheap roller ball. The blank book is wider than the folded newspaper, but not as tall. Its pages are unlined and meant for drawing. Aside from her name and address written in black roller ball on the flyleaf, there is nothing on them.
Another sheet between the rollers. His fingers move across the keys. The letters are hesitant. His fingertips are clumsy. He hits two keys at once, and two arms come together and stick. He has to stop, reach in, separate them. Sometimes his fingertips dance across the keys. Sometimes they fly. He types:
He writes stories about a woman who can't bear children. When the doctor told her, she was silent for three days, and then she wept three tears. She is a painter. Her walls are hung with portraits and landscapes from her own brush. The day the doctor told her the news, she started a new painting, a self-portrait with her nonexistent child. She paints it with her own menstrual blood. When it is finished, the baby in the portrait cries for three days.
...never mind the fact that he has no idea how a woman might paint with her own blood.
He takes a pencil and starts to write in the margin, neat graphite letters. He stops after one word, rereads it, hesitates. He decides to erase it later, after he has finished the page.
Every month she buys a bus pass. It is a thin rectangle of plastic with a magnetic strip on the back and the transit authority logo on the front. Its texture reminds her of matte photo paper. Every month a cashier slips a new pass across the counter. Every month the color of the logo is different. Every month she takes her old pass and punches a hole through it. She hangs it on a string of bus passes that tell the story of her time here. The string hangs over the entryway to her kitchen like Christmas lights.
Every morning she boards the bus, newspaper tucked into book, pen resting neatly in the book's hinge. Every morning she slides her bus pass through the reader and finds an empty seat. She boards after rush hour but before lunch. There is always time to kill before work.
She doesn't tell him where she goes in the mornings, and he is too sleepy to ask. She showers, dresses, pulls her messenger bag over one shoulder and kisses his cheek before she goes. On her way out she glances at the typewriter. If she is confused by its location, it doesn't register. She is too busy worrying about missing the bus.
She is looking for something. She doesn't know what it is or how to find it. She never talks about it. If you asked her about it, she wouldn't be able to answer. The best she could manage would be a shrug, a frown. She doesn't really know that she's looking for something. All she knows is that something is bothering her, and it sits just beyond her reach.
It's unsettling, this feeling. She wonders where it comes from, what it wants, what it's trying to tell her. Sometimes it suffocates her, presses down from the sky in an invisible blanket that squeezes all the air out of world. Sometimes it seeps up from between the cracks in the pavement. She doesn't always see it, but she steps in it and it sneaks its way into her pores. It is always between. There is no single word that could describe it, but between comes close.
It makes her restless, it makes her lost. She doesn't like being between.
He pulls the lever, removes the sheet, sets it on the floor beside him.
The bus shudders and slows. She wonders—Between what?
The doors hiss open and she steps down onto the pavement. She looks up, pulls her jacket tighter. Garish lighted signs hum down at her from across the road.
If he asked her where she goes in the mornings, she would lie. She doesn't know this, but you and I do.
She walks into the mall, stands on the escalator. There are people in the bookstore, the regulars. Most of them are browsing, but two or three read newspapers in the café, sip over-roasted coffee. One pores over the crossword, pen tapping against pursed lips. No one speaks.
She finds a table and sets the book before her, yesterday's newspaper folded and tucked inside, rests the pen on top. She orders a drink and sits down. After a moment she takes out the newspaper and sets it aside. She opens the book and flips the pages past her thumb. She has had this book for months but the pages still smell new. The pages run out and she flips them again. This time she chooses a page and random and stops.
A bored barista leans back against the counter, arms folded across his chest, hands gripping his sides. He is watching.
You and I aren't here.
The keys snap. The pages pile up. He types: She says, "Something is haunting these four walls."
The pen is cool in her hand. She presses the tip against a corner of one page and picks it up again. One dot. It's a start. She lowers the pen again, traces the tip in an arc from the dot toward the center of the page. She neither thinks about it nor forces the pen. It just moves. Part of her watches, detached, curious. An image begins to take shape against whiteness. She stops before she knows what it is, caps the pen and closes the book.
She stands, slips her things into the messenger bag, picks up her drink. She wanders onto the floor, pausing before shelves full of books. The shelves are labeled with categories like Fiction & Literature, Religion & Spirituality. She looks at the ampersands and wonders what the difference is.
The regulars move in a quiet haze. They gently pull books from the shelves, cradle their spines, lightly turn the pages. Some of them are looking for something. They frown as they skim the pages, close their books, slide them back into place before taking another. Others are less serious. They read a paragraph while standing, then retreat to an armchair. They sit, legs crossed, foot bobbing in some private rhythm. Were anyone to look, they would see expressions of wonder.
No one looks but you and I.
A small bell dings from somewhere inside the typewriter. The carriage slides to the left.
It is like this every morning. She moves from section to section, increasingly dissatisfied with the titles on the spines of the books on the shelves. She is convinced there is something here for her somewhere, if she could only find it. For a moment she believes she is on the verge of something important, of discovery, of an epiphany.
The moment slips away before it can materialize.
The regulars go about their business, oblivious to anything but the ideas swimming in their heads.
She meanders over to the novels. She pauses at Borges, glances at Calvino, lingers over David Mitchell. Her eyes scan the shelves.
It is like this every morning.
Somewhere between Patterson and Pearl, her gaze falls on something unexpected. It is a slim thing bound with thread. If it had a spine, it would not be wide enough for a title. She reaches out, slips it off the shelf from between two trade paperbacks. The cover is made of the same typewriter paper as the pages. It shows a title but no author, no publisher, no press.
She flips it over. The back gives even fewer clues. There are no quotes, no blurb, no photo, no price. There is only a short string of letters and numbers centered along the bottom. They offer no clues as to their meaning or their origin.
She looks around. The regulars read on. Their minds are elsewhere. They have left their bodies behind. Somewhere in the café section, a pen taps against someone's lips. You and I hold our breath and wait, watch as she quietly turns the pages. Her eyes scan the pages. After a moment she closes it, looks around again. She slides it into the messenger bag and walks away.
Thread snakes through eye, needle pierces paper.
She glides from the restaurant floor to the kitchen and back again, fills water glasses. At the end of her shift, she sits at the bar and eats olives and feta, sips from a glass of water. The booklet is a half-remembered dream. It slips back into her consciousness there at the bar. She waits until the bartender's back is turned and takes it from her bag. She sets it down before her, picks up an olive. With the fingers of her other hand, she opens the cover.
A loop becomes a knot. Scissors cut thread.
She reads at the bar until there are no words left, and then she reads them again. She wonders about the baby in the sling. She wants to know if the baby will remember. She wonders whether the writer has thought about this.
She turns the pages as she thinks about these things, looks at the shapes the words make. The paragraphs become outlines that shimmer. For a moment they look like buildings in a cityscape. She begins to think of them as people, each one a person with a story of her own. They converse with the other paragraphs, tell each other stories, trade theories on the meaning of life.
The bartender walks over, asks her what she's reading. When he slides the booklet back across the bar, it ends up sideways. The paragraphs look like dominoes. She wonders what would happen to the baby and the woman with the 9mm if all the words tumbled one by one. She wonders what their path would look like. Maybe it would spell something else.
She puts an olive in her mouth, chews, sucks on the pit. She turns the pages again, slowly. About halfway through she notices something, a pencil mark. She examines it more closely, realizes it's more than a mark. It's a word, one that someone wrote and erased. She picks up the booklet and regards the page at an angle. Enough of an indentation remains that she is able to read it.
It says, "SLIP."
She gathers her things.
She arrives during the lull between daytime and evening. None of the regulars are there. He isn't there either. He's gone to get ice. She takes a coaster off the bar, the pen from her bag. She notices how dim the light is here as she draws on the coaster.
She stands at the bar and waits. You and I disappear into the shadows.
He dumps the ice into the cooler, rests back for a moment and surveys the room. In half an hour another bartender will take over and he will leave. Everything is quiet. All the daytime regulars have gone in anticipation of the change of shift. The evening regulars are too carefree for their tastes.
He wipes down the bar one last time, puts everything in order. He drapes the wet cloth over the edge of the sink. When he looks up again, there's a coaster on the bar but no one to be seen.
He picks up the coaster and flips it over. Someone has drawn on it with a cheap black roller ball pen. The drawing is of a woman with a baby in a sling and a gun in her hand.
He looks up and his eyes meet those of the bank robber who is not his girlfriend. She smiles a bank robber's smile.
He blinks. When he opens his eyes his own gaze looks back at him from the window.
She slides the slip across the counter. MERGE. "We were the last ones to know." From the sling across her chest, a baby gurgles.
Circus writes, "I live in a small city in the Hudson Valley, where I work as a bartender and part-time professor. My stories 'Magic Trick' and 'City' were published under my pen name (Circus) in Cleaver Magazine
and Vol. 1 Brooklyn
, respectively. Once in a blue moon I can be found reading parts of my ongoing occasional series 'Radio Wiltwyck' at open mic nights. (Some episodes are available on SoundCloud, here