CONFETTI PINK AND ASHY
by Brian Riley
Burbank, California, the November after September 11 and Brice Cooper has come home early from work yet again. Watching his 3-year-old son, Tyler, barreling towards him in a yellow plastic jeep, Brice tries to ignore the idea of anthrax floating in the air around them.
He braces himself for impact.
“Oof!” Brice pretends when hit with the vehicle. “Helllp, call nine one one!”
“Hehhhp!” Tyler laughs. “Ny-wah-wahhhn!”
Hysterical, the toddler reverses up the path.
Presiding over these antics from the porch, Jaclyn, wife and Mommy, drags on a slim menthol. She takes notice of how her new Annie Lennox hairdo matches the sun-bleached white of the patio set. Meanwhile, Felix the cat weaves in and around Jaclyn’s feet, massaging itself with the ironed crisp cuffs of her peach capris.
“Brice, just tell the woman what you’ve been dealing with,” she says to her husband, exhaling. “Tell her that you work in the mailroom at the studio, I’m sure she’s heard about the terrorist threats. And tell her you have to fly to Florida after the Twin Towers, like, just happened. Then say how your grandfather is dying down there – and you have to go say goodbye. It’s your own little trifecta of madness.”
“So you think she’ll do a prescription?” Brice asks, wincing with the approach of the jeep. Then crash. “Oof! Helllp, nine one one!”
“Hehhhp!” screams Tyler. “Ny-wah-wahhhn!” He reverses up the path.
“She’s a therapist, Brice, because you’ve made an appointment for therapy. Just give her a chance. You spend so much time trying to control how you feel, who knows what’s really going on in there. Her job is to try and help you figure it out.”
Brice groans with the weight of it all. “If I could just be more of a machine,” he says. “Animatronic. Like that.”
“Oh she is going to have a field day with you, baby, she really is.”
Here comes the jeep.
“Well whatever the case, I’m asking her for Valium,” he says, “at least for the flight.” Crash! “Maybe Xanax. Something to manage this nervous breakdown I’m having.”
Inside his pants pocket Brice counts out pills.
Leaning forward on her elbows, Jaclyn smokes the menthol down to its filter. “Will you just stick to what’s prescribed then, if she does that for you?”
With perfect comedic timing, as always, Felix the cat seems to mimic Jaclyn with a, “Mrow?”
Looking to laugh with Brice over that funny cat as they always do, she finds him instead long lost in thought. Frightened and sad.
“Yoo do, Dada!” Tyler demands, ramming the yellow coupe into his father’s shins again and again. “Do ‘hehhhp!’ Do ‘ny-wah-wahhhn!’ Do ‘hehhhp!’”
But Daddy’s counting out pills in his pants pocket.
Along one of the charming Burbank streets that his East Coast family insists are used on their favorite TV shows, Brice in his teal Ford Escort runs over an animal. It must’ve been a cat. Pulling over to the curb his eyes confirm that, yes, a small calico is running from the car and across a tightly groomed front yard.
It scrambles underneath the next yard’s porch.
“Son of a bitch,” Brice sighs. Godammit.
Placing a pill beneath his tongue as he jogs across the street and then the lawns, Brice traces the creature’s path, watching for any dark spots that would indicate blood. The only sign of the animal, though, is a low and husky mewling from behind the porch skirt. Going to where the porch meets the house, he peers through the small gap left where the latticework ends. He sees the cat deep inside there, crammed into the darkest corner, its butterball silhouette rising and falling with panicky breaths.
“Hey there,” he coos in. “What’d you do that for? You big dummy.”
The animal swells with a growl, pushing Brice back the few feet he’d entered. Daylight sneaks in past him, illuminating the crawl space enough for him to make out a carpet of twisted shapes surrounding the cat.
“What’s you got in there?”
Gradually his eyes adjust to the bent fingers and bent limbs sprouting from the dirt.
Clearer now. Torsos in a tangle. Cracked open husks spitting out bones and dusty springs of meat. A suitcase. Then two. A round metal canister, bread box in size, pumpkin orange and dark spots of gore and ‘FLIGHT RECORDER DO NOT OPEN’ printed on its side.
“Hey buddy?” says the homeowner to the man slumped beside his porch in an alarming daze. “Should I call for help? I can call nine one one.”
Partially consumed in the bulges of a giant peach couch as if being swallowed by the thing, Brice fidgets endlessly with his bottled water. He’s challenged himself to not let any liquid splash out. Losing for a third time, he finds the warped triangle of wet spots more troubling than he knows he typically would.
Well this shrink is probably reading into EVERYTHING.
Doctor Lyndsay sits facing him from a wooden chair that is blockish in its design while on her lap a yellow legal pad darkens continually with wild and curly notes.
“Okay, Brice,” she says, “now we’re on a roll. Let’s see if we can’t knock another one of these down. What’s another trick you think your brain has been playing on you?”
“Wellp,” he says, “in our hallway this morning between the family room and the kitchen I smelled my grandfather’s cigar.”
“I don’t know – did I? At first I thought my wife was maybe trying out a new air freshener. Jaclyn’s an atmosphere freak, if you know what I mean. She always has to manipulate the smells and sounds and temperature of a place.”
“An ‘atmosphere freak.’”
“But no, there was nothing. Just Grampa’s cigar.” He smells it now. “It was very clear. Right there, bam. From when I was a kid.”
“And how long did it last, Brice?”
“Just while it happened. Just in the morning.”
“So you’re not smelling it currently,” Lyndsay confirms. “Actively. Smelling this cigar.”
“No, not at all,” he tells her with some pause, “it was just a memory.”
The pen skates and slices across the pad.
“I guess I ought to come up with a cigar joke,” she says, not looking up. “Being a psychiatrist and what have you.”
Brice sits forward, pulling himself free of the cushions. “It feels like I’m flying into the fire,” he says. It comes out as a surrender. He registers for the first time a framed Warhol-like print of a cat over Doctor Lyndsay’s shoulder. “It feels like my life has become a series of connections – and they’re all now synced into this one big moment. A crescendo.”
“I’m not sure I understand.”
“Look at Florida,” he says. “With the flight schools being down there – where the terrorists learned to fly. And now the anthrax – it’s being mailed out of Florida. And now my grandfather, he’s dying, and where does he live?”
“Okay, right,” the doctor says. Intrigued, she fixes her hair, collecting any loose tendrils back into their bun.
“And it’s also where the president was when the attacks were being carried out. A school in Sarasota.”
“Wow, that’s right, too, isn’t it?”
“So what is it with Florida? These are real connections I’m making here, Doctor Lyndsay. I’m just putting together real facts, very systematically, like a machine.”
Brice follows her eyes to the couch and the frantic grid of water drops he’s splashed onto its cushions.
He forces himself to calm down. Consider what he’s said.
“Do me a favor and for now don’t overthink Florida,” she tells him, returning to her notes. “Because then you’ll never go. There’s a harmony to life, Brice, and you’re one of the lucky ones if you can see it. Though it doesn’t feel very lucky, I’m sure.”
Finishing the page of scribbles with a grand swoop and a dot, the doctor flips the pad shut then gets up for her desk. Brice finds himself lazily surprised that she’s not connected to the wooden chair with wires and motors.
He watches her remove from the desk’s top drawer a chunky block of prescription slips. He shifts in his seat, his insides instantly tightening with the prospect of pills.
“The Paxil we discussed, it’s an SSRI,” she instructs, writing, “with effects that you will most likely not feel for weeks. Sometimes it takes a month or more. For the interim, for the trip, I will give you something to keep you company. Something with more of an immediate release. Do you drink, Brice?”
“Casually,” he says.
“Well I’m going to ask you to consider changing that to ‘cautiously’.”
“He’s a recovering alcoholic,” Brice tells her. “My grandfather. He was a Brooklyn fireman. But he has thirty years or so now. Sober, I mean.”
The doctor hands him two slips. “All the more reason to think about abstaining altogether. Really make this visit about him.” Showing Brice out she says, “Let’s schedule a time for when you get back – at which point we can start connecting all those dots.”
On the Wednesday morning before Thanksgiving, Miami International is teeming with security measures the likes of which Brice has never seen.
Exhausted from the red-eye flight, he slides down to the pavement with his back against the wall. Brice is short of breath but also afraid of the air he has to breathe. In a slump he sits hypnotized, the yellow and black of the taxicabs like pendulums racing before him.
A bumblebee Grand Prix.
“Sleep,” he says he needs, the other arriving passengers stepping over his legs with their Samsonites and carry-ons fishtailing behind them.
An animal carrier passes by at eye level, the cat inside the cage door panting and tranquilized.
A shrill whistle blares.
“Move that vehicle!” shouts an armed soldier to a caravan, his neck purple and swollen. “Move it move it!”
Another army man quickly joins him, rifle at the ready.
Gas masks sway at every soldier’s thigh.
“Hold on, hold on,” Brice says, popping his cell phone from his belt.
“Bricey?” It’s Bonnie, his uncle’s wife, born again with Uncle Mac in a creek in North Florida, baptized and married after they both kicked the dope.
“Yer granddaddy’s wonderin’ what’s yer agenda, Bricey,” she says, her voice through the cell phone tin-canned and distant. “We cleared out the spare room for you but it still smells like a big ol’ cigar. And we don’t know if Alligator Alley is the best road for you to take today, Bricey, and that maybe Tamiami Trail would be better for the day before the holiday? Because you got a choice, you know. You’ve always got a choice.”
Voices in the background climbing over one another towards her.
“There’ve been critters on the Alley, Brice,” she continues like from underwater. “Your uncle, he’s so awful, he says if you run one over, throw in the trunk and we’ll have it for dinner instead of the turkey – oh, he’s just terrible. Be careful now, Bricey, okay? And we’ll see you real soon. And your Grampa, he tells you, ‘Hi.’” Then in a whisper she says, “You do have an idea of what’s been happening down here, right? They’ve hooked your granddaddy up to all sorts of machines.”
“Shh,” Brice pleads, nauseous. “I’m on my way.”
He claps the phone shut and then pulls himself up the wall, getting to his feet like a comedian doing a routine. “I’m movin’, I’m movin’.”
He heads for the restrooms, his insides cramping with nerves, each soldier he passes eyeing him with caution.
Lightning pulses through the clouds, snapping a bright silver sheet across the ocean’s black surface. The car lights up with it, a long dark sedan. This will be the vehicle’s fourth drive-by, its stoic-faced driver staring at Brice through mirrored aviator frames each time he goes by.
“Move along move along,” Brice mutters.
But now he’s getting nervous.
Of course the LSD isn’t helping. The scissored square of cardstock he’d touched to his tongue about forty minutes ago had caused him to swerve off Alligator Alley in his yellow Hertz, skidding to a stop just inches shy of a tree. It was Homeland Security, Brice just knew, forged ofjet fuel and germ spores, they rose from the swamp muck and trailed him from there. Yes, him, the studio mailroom guy with all the recent interest in Florida. The punk with all those strong feelings about the anthrax. They just need the perfect moment to pounce, knowing the out-of-towner can’t go anywhere until that blotter levels off.
The sedan moves along, picking up speed as it hits the bend in the narrow dirt road.
Sighing with relief but still shaky, Brice walks down to the water, lifting his face up towards a faintly building drizzle. Closer to the lapping waves the sand turns cool and doughy and Brice holds still to let it slowly devour his feet.
Turning his eyes to the sky Brice finds an ibis hovering there in the gray. Coming or going, he can’t yet tell. Flapping its wings in less than elegant stutters, the gangly white bird stays in place for an unnatural length of time.
Brice focuses on his heart rate, trying to align it with the beats of the bird’s weird wings.
“But are you coming or are you going?” he says.
Then the crunch of tires on stones as the black sedan returns. Brice turns to see the man inside staring him down once again.
The car crawls to a stop.
Brice yanks his feet out of the sand and trudges towards the vehicle. The driver remains void of expression as the young man approaches, his mirrored lenses filling with Brice as he leans into the passenger window.
“Alright, is this about the cat?” Brice asks.
“Say it again?”
But Brice doesn’t. He doesn’t say anything. There’s a gas mask flopped across the passenger seat.
“Hey, you want to come in out of that rain?” the man asks, sounding nothing like Brice expected. The sentences are high pitched. Each one comes out as a question. “Come inside here with me?”
Lightning moves again through the bellies of the clouds and the man’s glasses flash white, his eyebrows arching up with surprise. “Woo!”
Brice knows this is a cover. The glasses the driver is wearing are X-ray specs – as seen advertised in the back pages of comic books. But these are the real McCoy. He’s seeing directly into Brice Cooper, then, scanning and probing him of his secrets.
“Look, I don’t know it is about Florida,” Brice confesses.
“What what is?” says the man says, frowning.
“My grandfather lives near here. Up north a little bit.”
“Can you tell me why he’s sick?”
“Well I don’t know. What’s he got?”
“They’re saying that he has cancer.”
“Oh no,” the man says, shaking his head and pouting. “You poor thing.”
Brice is distracted by tears he had no idea he was letting out. They’ve been dropping from his face and onto the passenger seat, outlining the gas mask in dark, dime sized spots.
“C’monnn,” goes the man. “Come inside here with me, keep me company today?”
Brice backs away from the window.
Hurrying to his rental car parked further down the unpaved road, Brice sees the tall grass beside it alive with the movement of animals. Feral cats. They stalk him through the blades. Pour towards him from out of a cardboard box, empty cans and dishes strewn around it, its sides weathered and warping, caving in from the needling rain.
Climbing into the Hertz, Brice presses himself panicked and winded against the steering wheel. In his hands the thing feels cold and synthetic – its finger grips and control buttons useless and garish. Watching over the dash, Brice keeps the dark car fixed in his sights.
After some time, the sedan continues on, its brake lights dragging behind it like the stardust tails of comets, long and fiery and billowing with the waves of the incoming Florida tide.
Sneaking from the front door towards the guestroom, Brice is alarmed by the sight of a skeletal and waxy mannequin slumped in the blinking blue glow of the VCR’s reset clock.
But it’s just Grampa.
“I’ll come back,” Brice whispers as he slides into the bedroom. “I promise I’ll come right back.”
Flicking on the light he finds the room and everything in it shellacked with a coating of shiny tobacco tar. Standing still in the doorway Brice can see this sheen coming for him. Thin and syrupy hairs extend off the walls and furniture, reaching and grasping for him, connecting and tightening. He fears that in no time he will find himself woven into a gluey, amber cocoon.
“Keep it movin’,” he says to himself, shaking away the mischievous acid head. “Move along move along.”
After unpacking what he’ll need to get through to the morning (toiletries, pajamas, shaving kit full of meds) Brice plucks the alarm clock off the nightstand. Ghostly, nearly invisible wisps of tar stretch between the plastic and wood, twirling like a mini tornado in the downward gust of the ceiling fan.
While Grampa’s staple AM station crackles to life.
“…We had jumpers coming down first from the eighty-third floor. Then the hundred and third floor. That was a fall with a duration of ten to eleven seconds, with a descent speed of one hundred and fifty miles per hour. This was free fall.”
Brice pulls the clock’s plug to kill it, the cord sticking briefly to his hands.
“Enough now, let go!”
He rubs his palms together, quickly mesmerized by their circular motion. In his daze he hears sounds from inside the wall. The space behind the headboard. Scraping and scratching behind the wood panels. He puts his ear to the wall and against his head the wood is coarse and sticky. Suddenly Papa’s house is a seashell alive with whooshing echoes of wind.
And that scritch-scratchy sound. Louder now. An animal in the wall. Tiny claws and teeth. Nervous and high pitched squeaks.
Brice pulls his ear away with an audible pop!
From where he sits he can see into the living room and his grandfather asleep in his recliner in the soft strobe of the 12:00 12:00 12:00. Then from behind the chair slinks an electric blue silhouette.
“But of course,” Brice says.
The long-haired feline, a Persian, prowls in a figure eight around Grampa’s slippered feet.
Brice sounds out with some smooches and the cat stops and looks. Sits when it makes eye contact with Brice. Opens its mouth to meow but nothing seems to come out.
“C’mere, you,” Brice says. “Keep me company in here.”
Uninterested, the cat cleans its ears.
And with the LSD still lingering, Brice knows his eyes are playing tricks on him, the flashing 12:00 giving everything an illusion of movement. He stares at his grandfather’s feet, unsure if they’re moving or still. When he looks back to the old man’s eyes he finds them open and looking back.
Brice’s heart leaps into his throat.
“Bri-,” Papa says, having to wet his throat to try again. “Bricey.”
Brice doesn’t answer. Doesn’t move.
“Bricey, that you?”
Brice gets up from the bed and goes to his Grampa, the VCR light moving him along in slow motion. Finally, he bends down and wraps the frail man in the gentlest of hugs. “I made it, Grampa, I made it.”
The man caresses his grandson’s back with hands shaped of tissue paper and balsa wood bones.
“That’s real good, Bricey,” the grandfather coos. “That’s real, real good.”
Four AM and Grampa at the kitchen counter, naked from his belly up, cigar clamped in one hand, coffee mug in the other. Intravenous tubes and electric cords trail off his ancient frame, dipping behind the counter as if connecting the old man to a pedestal.
Brice imagines gears and axles inside his grandfather grinding with age, never fully catching up to speed. When the old man takes a sip of coffee Brice can almost hear the whirring of mechanisms. Then with the puff of the cigar, pistons sound out, operating its smoke.
“It’s nice you came, Bricey,” Grampa says. “Wish this wasn’t the reason you had to come see me, though.”
“I don’t mind, Grampa.”
Sipping his coffee, the grandfather drifts away. He puffs his cigar in deep contemplation. Then remembering something, he smiles. Suddenly realizing that his grandson is with him he says, “Hey, how’re you doin’, Bricey? Over there in beautiful downtown Burbank.”
“Yeah, I’m okay.”
Grampa squints through his cigar smoke at an infomercial playing on the muted TV as if trying to understand the plot. He gets a hoot out of a salesman dumping an ashtray overflowing with cigarette butts, sand and confetti onto a square of peach carpet.
“Oh ho ho,” Papa says. “Now whatcha gonna do? What a mess, huh, Bricey!”
Brice raises his eyebrows with surprise. What’d he miss?
“How’s that boy of yours?” Grampa asks. “And that lovely wife. She’s a doll, Bricey, she really is. She truly, truly is.”
“They’re doing great, Grampa.” Breathes. “They’re doing really really great.”
“Oh, that’s gooood,” the grandfather says, his movements slowing down along with his words.
Watching this happen, Brice wrestles back a sudden surge of tears. He takes a sip from his coffee, hoping to catch the sound of his choking up inside of it.
Meanwhile Grampa’s coffee sloshes. Ashes flick off his cigar. A ring of smoke wobbles upward. “Oh brother,” he says. “I’m a real piece of work.”
“It’s okay, Grampa.”
Taking some big breaths to build what he wants to say next, the old man raises his cigar and aims it at a kitschy plaque hung on the length of wall between him and his grandson. Brice can make out an American flag waving in the background and two smokestacks with windows towering in front.
“That was the day, Bricey” his Grampa tells him. “September the eleventh, that was the day. Oof, what a morning, what a morning. We’ll never recover. You saw like I did, those people up there, the ones we all watched coming out the windows. They were calling down for help, Bricey. Looking down and calling and waving for help, great big clouds of ashes above them. Ashes and office papers, storm clouds of ticker tape. Oh what a mess.” Squinting at the television, he watches the last of the ashtray debris getting pulled into a vacuum. “All I could think of was stretching a ladder up to them, helping them down out of those clouds.”
“Like we used to do back in the day.”
“Back when you were a fireman, Grampa?”
With his strength almost run out, the grandfather’s back is caving in, slumping him forward over the counter. The cords and tubes go taut. Still, he beckons his cat over, luring it onto the counter with a cup of treats he has there.
“When I was a boy,” he continues, “and then again when I grew up to be a real fireman – a heroic act, but a silly one, was saving a cat that might’ve found itself trapped up a tree. The thing about these cats though, Bricey, is that they can get back down. I mean they got up there for Godsakes. It’s the owner who goes all dopey. They see their pet up there, their little Snowball, and they think what, she’s gonna fall? But sure, it’s a scary thing, seeing your loved one up there, out of your reach, out on a limb.
“It sure was the way I felt when I saw those people stuck up there outside the Towers. Out on the ledge. And knowing they couldn’t get down. Then watching them come down anyway. Oof, now that. That was a sight. That was September eleventh.”
Without having taken a recent puff of his cigar, the massive white cloud that pours from Grampa’s mouth is impossible, yet it comes. He looks at Brice through the lifting smoke, a sadness in his eyes.
Brice finds himself also partially blinded as the tears come again. Looking down into his coffee he says, “I’ve been having to think that they jumped down on purpose, Grampa. Those people in September. That they made the decision to jump. It helps me to think of it that way. That they called the final shot. Like it was their one last big choice. I mean, even though they weren’t going to make it – they clearly knew they would die – they were in control of how they would go.” He wipes his eyes. “They were nobody’s dummies, those people that jumped. It was the most human decision any one of them ever had to make – and they made it. They jumped so they wouldn’t fall.”
With hardly any power left, the grandfather’s drinking and smoking has ceased altogether. Now all that’s left are a few chops of the jaw, tired and dragging.
“That’s real good, Briceyyy,” Each syllable an effort. “That’ real real gooood.”
His lower jaw drops. Head drops. A slow hiss whistles out.
Brice sits for some seconds, waiting, not sure if anything will happen next. The sudden quiet that’s there in the kitchen is surprising, proof of how much sound there had actually just been.
“Ohhh,” Brice says, rising in pitch, the beginning of a cry. “Oh Grampaaa.”
But no movement from the man, not another sound.
Then very, very low from the television is the vacuum salesman, not muted after all.
“…and here’s the best part,” Brice could hear him say, “it puts you in control of the level of your cleaning – EVERY SINGLE TIME!”
With a light thunk the grandfather’s hand drops from the handle of his coffee mug and onto the countertop. Startled by the sound, the Persian jumps down from the counter with a squeak. Then excited over the prospect of weaving around Brice’s ankles, it crosses the linoleum for them, meowing a few times with a lilt, as if asking questions.
About the Author:
Brian Michael Riley is a writer of both fiction and non-fiction whose work has most recently appeared in Edify Fiction, The Fix, Massacre Magazine, Page & Spine, Every Day Fiction, Deadman’s Tome, and Gay Flash Fiction as well as upcoming editions of Jitter Magazine, Stinkwaves and the literary journal Dissections. Also an illustrator and multimedia artist, Brian lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his girlfriend and their many, many pets.