Tuesday, June 4, 2024



Al Bruno III

This Town is a cluster of homes and businesses that mark the point where the highway begins to stretch across the open desert. The Town is slowly fading, with the population growing older and dying off, leaving their homes and dreams behind. I live in a trailer park near the scrapyard that employs me.

The woman on the other side of the trailer park is a middle-aged widow living off her husband's pension. Still, the money she receives barely covers her rent. She lives on a fast food diet and reads tabloid magazines by candlelight. To make ends meet, she sells her body. Her name is Muriel, and I'm her last customer on the nights I can afford it. Our physical intimacies are just a ritual; she knows I'm there because I'll pay dearly for not having to wake up alone.

One night, it was too warm to sleep. We sat on the bed in the dark, smoking cigarettes and talking. I thought to myself how beautiful she looked as a shadow; her every feature softened. It was only when she inhaled her cigarette that the orange pinpoint of light revealed the toll time and her husband's cruelties had taken on her.

Somehow, the conversation turned to personal photographs, and she said, "No pictures. I burned all there was after my Mamma passed on, and I told Joe I didn't want any wedding photos either. I don't want anything to do with any of it. I don't like the way photographs look. It's not that I dislike how a picture makes me look. I know I ain't a beauty queen. I mean to say that I don't like how pictures look."

In my long-lost university days, I studied psychology, and this sounded like a case of paranoia. Still, the bitter experience taught me never to judge or be sure. "Why did you burn your mother's pictures of  you?" I asked.

"By the time I was sixteen, I was staying out all night, drinking and screwing around. It didn't matter what time I came home, my Mamma was waiting up for me. She always knew who I was with and she always knew what I was up to. She would yell at me, but she always yelled at me, and sometimes she slapped and pushed. It was that way ever since I was twelve. I used to tell myself she was jealous because..." Muriel paused. I could hear how much she wanted me to believe what she said next, "...I was beautiful then."

"Go on."

"I was maybe twenty-one when the cancer took her. I started going through her things, deciding what to keep and what to give away or sell. I  started to find photos of me, not in an album or a frame. They were just stashed all around," Muriel lit another cigarette and shook out the match, "all the photos I found of me were ruined. She marked them up  with some kind of a pin."

"What did she do?" I put my hand on her shoulder, but she pulled away.

"She poked out the eyes. I didn't know why; I thought maybe she was crazy or she hated me more than I thought," Muriel explained, "I don't know what came over me, but I held one of those ruined pictures up to the light and stared through the holes. I saw something through them. I  looked closer and held the picture right up to my face. The holes were like windows. I saw where I was when the picture was taken. It was the old  playground off Sixteenth Street."

"How?" I asked.

If Muriel heard, she ignored me. "It was the same with every picture I  found; they all showed me someplace I had been, but everything looked spent and tired. I searched and found more photographs I never knew she took, some really new. She hadn't gotten to a few of them. So I poked out my eyes. When I looked through the holes, I suddenly saw the past. It was like I had gone back in time, and I was four years younger and heading out of the house to raise a little Hell. I saw every minute of it, even the things I had been too drunk to remember before. It was like a memory but brighter."

I was shivering. I told Muriel she could stop now if she wanted to.

Annoyance crept into her voice, "I don't know how it works. Maybe I don't want to. But now I'll never know if she was just a shitty mom or if she treated me the way she did, so I would run wild to spite her. I'll never know if I was just a puppet."

"So you burned all the pictures," I said.

"Just in case someone ever wants to try and look through my eyes. My life may be shit but it's mine," she got out of bed and threw me my clothes, "get dressed, you can't stay here. Not tonight."

There was nothing else to say; I pulled on my pants and shirt and walked back to my trailer with my boots in my hand. The ground was cold and rough under my feet. I thought to myself of what Muriel's life had become, of what it might have been. Instead of going inside, I sat on my front steps, looked back to Muriel's trailer, and thought of all the glossy magazines she had strewn about every room. I wondered what I  would find if I thumbed through one- would the pages be pristine, or would the eyes of choice celebrities be poked out?

But I never asked or looked for fear of having to spend all my nights alone.

Sunday, June 2, 2024




Al Bruno III

The desert heat pressed down on us, making every footstep a misery. We kept glancing up, hoping to see a town or a gas station beginning to resolve itself in the distance. Still, all we saw was the asphalt of the interstate, cutting a straight line to the wavering horizon. I was glad to have someone to walk with on this Hellish trip, but I rarely spoke. The man I walked with was the regional sales manager for a software company named Spaulding, and he talked enough for both of us.

"All I know is someone's getting sued. I don't give a crap if the car is a rental. This is lost wages and time," he said, "did you see those potholes? It's a wonder they don't have a wreck every week and twice on  Sundays!"

Both our cars had been damaged by potholes so wide they had almost cut across the road, yet neither Spaulding nor I had seen them until it was too late. We had been heading in opposite directions but ended up having to pull over to our respective sides of the road within a few yards of each other.

"And this is an interstate! With all the money we pay on taxes, they should be taking better care of these roads. They're the arteries of the nation. Shipping and commerce, you know what I mean?"

I nodded in agreement. Spaulding had tried to call a towing service and the police, but his cellphone couldn't find a signal. I, on the other hand, had no cell phone, no credit cards, and even my car wasn't properly registered. Ever since I quit my job, I had been living a ghost-like existence.

"How long do you think we have been walking for?" Spaulding said, "Must have been hours and not a single car has come by. There's a new off-ramp near Eden's Corners. I bet it's funneling off all the traffic. Not that it's any kind of excuse for this kind of shoddy upkeep. I mean, look at all those potholes! It never ends."

While none of the dents in the asphalt passing us now were as deep as the one that damaged our cars, they had a jagged quality I found singularly unpleasant. Each hole in the blacktop gaped like the mouth of a lamprey. I made sure to walk on the uneven, litter-strewn side of the road.

Spaulding pointed ahead, "I know the town up ahead, not much of a town really. The only business making any money is a scrapyard. They've got a store that used to be a Woolworth's, but it's owned by some old fart, he runs it by himself, and you can tell. His daughter runs the lunch counter, and she's not a bad cook. Just stay away from the pork chops."

Wherever this town was, there was still no sign of it, and the sun was beginning its downward descent. I did not want to have to walk this stretch of desert at night. There was too much emptiness here. The desolation left my stomach churning. I couldn't wait to reach the town my companion was talking about, but I suspected it would be some time before I could move on again. There was no way I could pay for the repairs my car would need.

"There are no kids; it's like some kind of a retirement community. Everyone's my age or older, heck, even the town whore is pushing fifty," he gave me a mischievous nudge, "but she knows what she's doing, so who cares?"

After another ninety minutes of walking and pointless conversation, it was dusk. I had heard about how cold it could get in the desert at night, and I didn't want to think of how dark it would get. I wondered quietly if we would see the lights from the town soon, and I worried that this was all some waking nightmare I could never escape.

My bladder groaned. I excused myself and headed for a nearby road sign. Spaulding called after me, "Don't shake it more than twice buddy!"

As I relived myself, I thought again of the circumstances that had brought me here, not just the potholes or the dwindling funds; I considered everything. There were times when I worried about my sanity. It wasn't so long ago that I had entertained such lofty aspirations, but now all I  hoped for was to sleep through an entire night and awaken feeling safe.

The sun had almost set, and the sky had turned a murky shade of purple. I  could barely read the print on the weathered old sign- 'BURMA SHAVE.' I  chuckled at the thought this was more of a relic than an advertisement. A sound reached my ears. At first, I thought it was the sound of wind moving through trees, but there were no trees, only solitary cactus and half-dead bushes. Then I thought it might be the sound of an evening tide, but that was an even more ridiculous idea in a desert. Finally, I  decided that it must be an approaching vehicle, and I quickly finished and ran to the roadside.

I found myself alone. There was no sign of my companion anywhere. I  called his name, but there was no answer. A faint slithering sound caused me to turn around just in time to see something pale disappear into the blacktop.

The gloomy dusk left me uncertain of what I had seen, but sometimes, I'm certain what I saw was a human hand slipping away as though it were being swallowed by oily liquid.

Spaulding had called these roads the arteries of a nation, but what might happen if those arteries became starved for blood?

As the last light of the day faded into darkness, I began to run, keeping my every footfall far onto the soft shoulder.



Al Bruno III

We live in a world of surveillance, cameras, code numbers, and background checks. Our every purchase and infraction is recorded by mindless computers and soulless bureaucrats. Our births, our lives, and our deaths are nothing more than information to be filed away.

It was after I had quit the University that I found myself a part of that never-ending process. I had secured steady and suitable paying employment in the field of medical billing, cross-referencing information for eight hours a day. The process was mindless enough; an insurer would call, and I would find the correct records and pass the information along. No names were part of the transactions, only numbers curtly passed from one disinterested voice to another. From what I understood, my fellow employees and I were merely there to correct database errors and investigate irregularities.

I worked in a wide room that was nothing more than a grid of half-cubicles and desks. I wore a headset and hunched over a computer. I had long ago forgotten that each sequence of numbers that passed from my lips was a life encapsulated.

The morning of the impossibly heavy fog, I walked into the building to find myself one of the few employees who had risked the drive. That meant a crushing workload and mandatory overtime, but I didn’t mind; I lived alone in a studio apartment that might have been a cell; I never went out on weeknights and slept through most of my Saturdays. Sometimes, I  would treat myself to a movie on a Sunday afternoon, but I always took great care to sit in the back row of the theater, for if I spied a single blemish on the fabric of the screen, it would be all I could focus on for the rest of the show.

The first few hours of my shift passed slowly; the diminished staff had created long hold times that left every caller with a litany of complaints and a waspish tone. I kept my tone apologetic and respectful.

Somewhere to my right, a coworker was coughing endlessly; behind me, another banged his mouse on his desk in frustration.


When I excused myself to the restroom I realized to my discomfort that someone was crying in the bathroom stall.

My lunch hour was quiet and lonely. I spent some of it outside smoking one cigarette after another until the sight of the fog began to play tricks on my eyes. It left me with a strange feeling of vertigo, as though I was slowly spiraling into emptiness.

The second part of my shift is when it began. The call was ordinary at first, but the voice on the other end of the line cut me off mid-greeting with a demand for information. I did my best to comply but had to ask the caller to repeat himself several times.

The numbers he gave me were wrong—completely wrong. Please understand that I am not talking about faulty account information or transposed digits.

I mean to say that the numbers themselves were wrong.

They were integers that existed outside the zero through nine that I had been taught and lived with for all of my years, but I knew these were numbers I was hearing nonetheless. I could almost see them in my mind,   impossible symbols that no human hand had ever drawn.

The caller made an impatient sound as I stared at my keyboard in dismay. Could any key express the characters the caller was describing? Though my college education was incomplete, I had studied enough to understand the concept of imaginary numbers, but this was more than that. These were alien numbers,  blasphemous numbers, and every time the caller repeated them, I felt an ache in my head.

“I don’t understand,” I finally admitted.

The caller simply repeated himself again and again, until the numbers sounded like a prayer in an unknown language. I disconnected the call and pulled off my headset. Shudders worked their way through my body. I looked at the windows. The fog had blunted the afternoon light, casting everything into shades of gray.

I heard the numbers again; I looked at my headset, but it was silent. Standing, I listened to those terrible syllables coming from the mouths of my coworkers; they murmured them with easy familiarity. I cried in alarm, but no one looked up from their work. I ran to find a supervisor, but he was also on the phone, speaking facts and figures that made no sense at all. He didn’t look up when I called his name; even when I  touched his shoulder, he did not react, and his flesh was clammy with sweat. I could see the veins in his forehead throbbing as he spoke.

There was a loud crack, and the lights flickered and went out. Something similar had happened the previous year; a truck had crashed into a telephone pole, snapping power lines and leaving us with nothing more to do but, while away, the remainder of our shifts with small talk and gossip.

Despite the dead phones and darkened screens, my coworkers continued to talk. In fact, they spoke louder and faster, their voices finding a chaotic rhythm.

I fled from the madness, leaving my job, apartment, and possessions behind.

As I said before, the modern world has reduced us to numbers, but what if the numbers we chose to do that with were the wrong ones? What if we have unknowingly reduced ourselves to nonsense?