Excerpts from Lives of the Saints
By Alan Franklin
The guard comes in and offers us a cigarette; we mutely reject the all-too-obvious ploy. After that he never offers us another thing. For our part, we now plead constantly for cigarettes, but it does no good. Not that it matters: neither of us smokes, we just do it for something to do. Frequently we are made to pose in women’s underwear, or are chained to each other for hours, naked, in an unyielding embrace. These are the moments for which we live. If it ever occurs to them that Sabu and I are lovers, their revenge, I am sure, will not be pretty. Fortunately, they are homophobic blockheads, for whom acknowledging that one man might desire another is tantamount to self-annihilation. These crew-cut frat boys, fresh from squeezing the teats of the high school prom queen, are all rigidity and vacuity; they get to the desert and their exoskeletons collapse. All that’s left to them is fear and power, and a sea of interchangeables like me and Sabu, ready to drink their blood at the first sign of weakness. This is the sheerest nonsense, of course, though it is true that, in the long hours alone in the darkened cells, we take turns slowly shaping our teeth to points with a fingernail file we took from one of their fallen comrades. It doesn’t mean anything; we just do it to pass the time. I don’t even like the taste of their blood.
Nothing Ventured, Nothing Lost
I was on a park bench, sleeping. All around were small children, silent, eyeing me conspiratorially. It was early morning and I was covered with newspapers. Freedom demands its price, like all things. I say that not because I’m a philosopher, but because I’m an economist. Or was. I had to give it up, like much else, once I had thought it through. Still, I had my standards: warm as it was, I was not about to sleep naked where the children might see me; who knows the damage it might have done. Hence the newspapers. One of the larger of them—the children, I mean—was quietly urging another, smaller one to set them afire—the newspapers, that is—was even pressing on him the use of his cigarette lighter, despite the fact he could just as easily have done it himself. Oh, yes, he was anxious to see it done, but he didn’t want to do it alone; he wanted a collaborator, a co-conspirator. It’s touching, really, isn’t it, this ceaseless reaching out to others, this unstoppable urge to share? Even if all that’s being shared is criminal culpability. But isn’t this precisely what makes us human, after all? That and the opposable thumb. And upright bipedal walking. And language, too, improbably enough, as well as an unnaturally large brain. Consciousness also, I would think. And the sanction of the Almighty, some say. I wonder: would a judge have looked more benignly on their misstep then if he saw them merely as two playful scallywags sharing a lark, rather than a pair of youthful sociopaths-in-the-making bent on doing gratuitous bodily harm to a complete stranger down on his luck? Who knows? Who cares, really; even had he ordered them publicly hanged, little good it would have done me in the grave or encased in bandages and burn ointment from head to toe, another nameless victim of profitless arson.
I threw off the newspapers. That set them back on their little heels I can tell you. I seized the smaller one by the throat and throttled him until his eyes bulged out. Oh yes, I still had it in me. I’d like to say the other one stood glued to the spot, transfixed by terror, but he didn’t, he simply withdrew a fist-sized stone, smooth and round, from his trousers pocket and hurled it full-force at my unsuspecting topknot. Would it surprise you to learn they were gone by the time I came to? Give them their due, though: it was clear they’d done their level best to complete their mission before absconding, but the newspapers, still damp from the urine, had done little more than smolder fitfully. One more day of life! Oh well, you can’t have everything. Still, you have to feel for them—all that effort for nothing! No wonder young people today are reluctant to take on anything more demanding than a career.
They took me out to the stonecutter’s yard and showed me a pile of dirt as big as a small house.
“This needs to be moved from here to there,” they said, pointing to the far end of the yard. One of them handed me a shovel.
“Do well today,” he said, “and tomorrow we’ll give you a wheel barrel.”
“An incentive like that,” I said, “what could hold a man back?”
“Enough of your backchat,” said the other, “get on with it.”
By the end of the day I was sweating like a pig and had barely made a dent in the pile. They approached me obliquely, from the back of the row houses, and expressed their disappointment with my output.
“The quality of your work is beyond reproach,” said the one, “it’s the quantity that leaves something to be desired.”
“But knowing how much you wish to make a good first impression,” said the other, “we’re willing to make an exception this time and let you keep the shovel, rent free, and work through the night.” I thanked them for their generosity but insisted it wasn’t necessary. They insisted it was.
It was a moonless, starless night, and though I was at my best in the cool and quiet, the later it got the harder it became for me to see. The yard being littered with rubbish and bits of disused stone, much of my time was spent stumbling into things, crying out in pain, and dropping the shovel. Towards morning I fell in a hole.
When I came to, the sun was up and I was startled to discover the two of them standing over the hole and gazing off in consternation at the end of the yard. I peered over the edge in the direction they were staring: there stood the original pile, seeming untouched, in all its pristine glory.
“What do you suppose happened to the new pile,” said the one.
“It’s as if there never was one,” said the other.
Slowly it dawned on me. At some point early in the game I must’ve gotten turned around, and thereafter spent the rest of the night carrying the little bit I’d moved during the day back to the original pile. I sank back into the hole and steeled myself for the inevitable recriminations.
“Don’t think twice about it,” said the first as he looked down, “it could have happened to anyone.”
“Don’t even give it a second thought,” said the other. “As long as you’re alright, that’s our only concern.” I was lost for words. This is what happens when you stop looking for the good in people, I thought to myself. They even said I could stay in the hole and rest more if I wished to, so moved were they by my diligence, and insisted on putting sheets of newspaper over my head to keep the sun out of my eyes while I slept. Moved in turn by their tenderness, I rolled over and went back to sleep.
When next I awoke the sun was high in the sky and I was surprised to hear the sound of their voices instructing a new man in the niceties of the task at hand.
“This needs to be moved from here to there,” said the one, handing him a shovel and pointing to the other end of the yard, “but first, take some dirt and fill in this hole.”
“Do a good job today,” said the other, “and tomorrow we’ll see about a wheel barrel.”
“Don’t listen to them,” I whispered from beneath the newspaper, “it’s not wheel barrel, it’s wheelbarrow.”
She wore a hand-printed t-shirt that read: Piss me off and pay the consequences. Fuck me beyond all imagining, I said under my breath. In the morning I was alone again, just like before. Is that what I wanted, or what I feared? I called in sick. The receptionist said my absence would save the company money and I should stay out as long as I wanted. There was an explosion on the dragline that afternoon and my temporary replacement was instantly dismantled by the shockwave that followed—the footage from the security cameras, suppressed by the TV stations, was an immediate and protracted hit on the web. I never saw it, but I felt bad for the guy anyway. In the morning I reported back to work; at first they pretended not to know me, then they admitted that they did but were trying to avoid paying me unemployment benefits while the line was still down. How long will it be down? I said. Weeks, they replied, maybe months. No arguing with that, I said, and headed for the unemployment office with a smile on my lips and a song in my heart. That night I got shitfaced on red wine and a couple of percodans and passed out on the raggedy-ass couch in the living room. Jesus Christ it had been a beautiful day.
I was pronounced dead. What did I know? I’d never even been sick before, let alone dead. Still, I thought I would recognize the symptoms at least. No such luck. They had to send a letter informing me, otherwise I’d never have known. The little boy down the street read it to me. There was an awkward silence, then he burst into tears. I loved you so, he blubbered, what will I do without you? I don’t know, I said, I’ve never been dead before. Soon we were both blubbering. Can’t we just leave things as they are? I cried. Oh no, he said, my parents would never hear of it—they didn’t like you all that much when you were alive. Well, at least now they needn’t fear I’ll molest you, I said. He was silent again for a few moments. You know, he said, I don’t miss you as much as I thought I would. It’s early days yet, I said, give it time. Somebody should bury you, he replied, before you start to smell. I asked him if he would do it. I’d have to do it when you weren’t looking, he said. I’d probably have to hit you on the head with a shovel, to keep you from wriggling around. You don’t have to worry about me wriggling, I said, I’m dead. Who’s that behind you? he said. Where? I said. There, he said. I turned around to see and he hit me on the head with a shovel.
Alan Franklin is a songwriter and musician with the Detroit anarcho ska-punk band, The Layabouts. Over the years he has been a frequent contributor to The Fifth Estate and The Daily Barbarian. The excerpts in this issue are from a work in progress, Lives of the Saints.
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