Mom lit her cigarette on the red coils of the stove. The tobacco burned slow. And you could smell maple syrup. One side of the neck would glow orange and start to smoke. Then she’d roll it along the edge.
“Girl fell asleep at her station again.” Mom rattles, “And I haven’t said nothing about the times I came over and checked on her, woke her up, made sure she was alright. I never told anyone. I didn’t report her to the super or nobody. Then the one time I have to cover they say ‘Keep an eye on her, if she falls asleep and gets hurt you’ll get in trouble’ and she was literally asleep standing up over the workstation when they were telling me that.”
Then she brings the tempo down and creates a seal around the cigarette with her lips and drags in purple smoke, then speaks while the ghost climbs out of her throat.
She says, “What was I supposed to do?”
Down. In my head.
I crack another soda. I’ve had like two today. Guilt abounds. I need to go work out some karma soon.
I download mom’s factory gossip. Then I store it remotely for her, like my ears are ports to my external hard drive brain. This is our relationship.
And I love her for it. It’s simple and we speak plainly to each other.
Our house always had this smell problem. Something that always made you relieved if you opened the door and it wasn’t there. But it could be back at any moment.
Not a strong smell. Just lightly polluting the air. You can barely define it. Like trying to catch a scent as it drives away.
I’d smell it and know mom’s gonna be on one. She’ll be in her robe staining her gold teeth purple with her hair wrapped up in a dirty towel. Ready to tell me about all the people she hates. About all the emails she hates. About all the television she hates. The politicians she hates. The food she hates. The weather she hates. The actors she hates. The songs she hates.
She rarely actually says the word “hate”. But how she says it makes it seem like she’s saying it. Her body language is aggressive even when she’s happy.
Jessup’s a deacon. Jessup’s my dad.
I never understood exactly what a deacon was. From what I gathered it was like the executive board of the church. He works from home most days except when he’s out getting coffee with people who are luring him for free advice that he lovingly gives.
When he comes in he walks by us both. They still don’t look at each other. They were living in different universes; two time periods overlapping in the same house.
Two people can be separated emotionally while not being fully torn apart. There’s a tangible sense of apathetic tension from a relationship that did not correctly recover from a wound. It’s like living inside scarred tissue.
Mom still speaks when the ghostly smoke climbs out of her throat. Her mouth sits open like a sewer hole.
Her voice travels on the smoke, “House smells funny again, Jessup.” She says this while pointing in the general direction of dad but she could just as easily have been pointing at the crucifix beside him.
He says, “I know. I gotta a guy coming.”
I nod at him, then turn and nod at mom. Non-verbally confirming this discussion is over. Then they make glances at each other that silently say, “You’re lucky the boy is here.”
Mom overdramatically squinches her wrinkly eyes tight, and bobs her head left to right while pouting.
She sniffed the air and recoiled.
“It’s so bad.” She says, “It smells awful.”
Even with the ripe stench of city sewage laced with decades of hard tobacco smoke, there’s no way she had any sense of smell left.
She was at the point where the stress of quitting cigarettes would kill her. So it was best if she continued enjoying them while she could.
She points her finger toward the crucifix over the hallway and says to me, “He says he knows what the problem is this time.” Then slips right back to begging me to stay and questioning why I would submit an appeal against my “Dismissed” status at the university. She suggests I take a semester off. Her empty nest syndrome is just a second installment of postpartum depression. So I can’t be sure if her request is coming from a rational place.
I say, “Look, once I get reinstated I’m moving back.”
Then I say my code phrase for whenever I need to work out my karma immediately, if not sooner, “I gotta go apply to some jobs.”
In my bedroom. The door is locked. I pull up my rollie chair on the plastic mat toward the computer while undoing my belt. It reminded of someone hugging me from behind.
I begin the ritual.
I make sure the VPN is on.
Evy-B sends his subscribers illegal URL links that are not copiable or pasteable. It disappears if you try to take a photo of it or screen shot it. Erases it from the screen. So you have to memorize the web address. And you will never forget it. You will never stop seeing it. Like knowing a spell or incantation by heart.
I open an incognito tab and type in one of the URLs I’ve memorized and it returns one result.
A single video file.
The one file name: EVY-B FUX CHIX IN ALL HOLES.
I right click and hit “stream”. Then it asks me if I’m sure.
Hitting ENTER felt like I was downloading a hex.
FMCA 4.5 was finally ratified yesterday. Here’s the snag. Pornography is legal again. But items which cause immense spikes in stimulation are now required to bear the insignia VCO, in bright red #f44336 in Futura Medium Font, with a thick border. Any items, digital or analog, are to be removed from any public access. VCO stands for Visual Cult Objects.
Some people’s work still makes it through the cracks.
A digital chime glistens out of my computer.
With a reminder:
- Job Interview Tomorrow At VGV
End of list.
My penis deflates in my hand. Like turning off a car.
I click the event on my calendar.
Everyone at college said that all my gum chewing and soda drinking was going to give me brain damage. They might be right. I have no recollection of applying to this place.
I remember that I was watching a DPZ piece once, and it took place in a coffee shop. EVY-B DEEP DICKS YUNG CHICKS ON A SACK OF COFFEE BEANS was the title. A disruptive venture from his traditional use of “x” for “cks”. I would have used the word “bag” for the word “sack” but everyone has their own style.
In the video there was a window behind them in which you could see the insignia of Van Gogh’s Vase. A coffee chain known for simulating that local coffee shop feel with the convenience and standardized quality threshold of a corporate chain. The original VGV is our town’s claim to fame. After it was acquired by Arto Incorporated the coffee tasted bad even though nothing had really changed in the beans or the method of make. It always tasted bad, but for some reason now people noticed.
The next morning, before I left the house for my interview mom reached out and rested her hands on my biceps. I held my breath as she said, “Okay, buddy, you need to chill. This whole tense neck thing.” She points all over me and says, “You look like a turtle holding in a shit. You need to relax.”
I kept my fists closed as I got on the bus. Keeping my jacket shut tight so no one can see I’m wearing a shirt with a collar. I pat my breast pocket and feel my mouthwash bottle for that little sparkling bump of confidence before my interview.
All of the heads of the passengers drift to the bus driver’s violent maneuvers in unison.
We’re like synchronized swimmers.
Buoys in the same ocean.
I have a weird feeling swirling in my stomach.
Maybe it’s this bus driver slinging all our guts around.
Usually I just let myself slightly pass out while barely keeping count of how many stops are left as I let my head gently float in the void of public transit.
But I didn’t want to risk puking on my only nice shirt.
An old man blew his nose across from me into a handkerchief. Then folded it into itself creating a greyish ply of snot in the middle of the hankie before putting it back in his breast pocket.
It made me want to work out some karma. Decompress a little before this interview.
I make disdainful eyes at the old man.
How come he can discharge in public but I can’t?
My stop is the next one.
I yank the steel rope wrapped in yellow plastic as hard as I can.
James Jacob Hatfield is a displaced engineer, a painter, and many other contradictions. His work has appeared in X-R-A-Y, Maudlin House, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Barely South Review, Chaleur Magazine, Havik, and others. His ekphrasis poem “torrents of lahar, No. 36” was anthologized by the North Carolina Museum of Art. He is a Sterling Fellow and a Weymouth Fellow. He is the creator and curator of the Gemini Sessions Substack. He lives in Durham, NC.