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Fiction by Bernard Reed

Nothing to See Here

It was a glorious July day. The sun was right overhead the swimming pool. On the diving board a shrimpy little boy stood with his back bent, trembling and with his mouth turned down. Other children waited on the ladder. He had no choice now but to jump.

C’mon!”

He took a step forward. All the stretched-out mothers down below were motionless, their sunglasses pointed in the wrong direction. The only people in the pool were splashing noiselessly in the far shallows. He thought of the trees and he thought of his house and his bedroom.

Juuuuump!”

Another step forward, but now the board was dipping. The water below smacked like lips.

It’s not that high!”

It’s not that deep!”

From the park the teenagers drove in the Corolla through the neighborhood and then onto the main road. For a while they were stuck in traffic. From the backseat one of them hung a cigarette out the window. Let’s get ice cream,” said the girl in the front, and they all agreed. There was an iPod plugged in to the car through the cassette deck and they were listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Finally traffic let up and they smoked another bowl. In the parking lot of the ice cream store it took them a few minutes to all get out of the car. The boy who had been driving said This place has a thousand flavors.”

It did have a thousand flavors. There were far too many to choose from. Inside, fluorescence came out of the walls and the AC screamed like a cartoon character. The teenagers found it impossible to narrow it down. Chocolate, the most commonly borrowed word across every language. Vanilla, an orchid. Even between these two a decision was absurd. The very world hinged on every offering. Coffee, strawberry, black walnut. An extremely annoying song was playing from the ceiling. Mint, mango, blackberry. Macchiato and bubblegum. What if one chose cookies n cream instead of butter pecan? Was it because one’s mother tucked them in at night? Because their father threw the ball with them or didn’t? One of the girls said to the person, Peach, please,” but then thought the others might not understand her so she corrected herself, Actually, rocky road,” but then remembered that her sister’s friend had said that rocky road was trashy. She looked at it and thought that it did look trashy. It was a trashy flavor. She wondered if any of the others were going to order it. No, wait,” she said. What if the flavor she wanted was not even there? Why would it not be? Where did any of the flavors come from? She blinked her eyes and the guy in front of her had already scooped the rocky road.

You can add another flavor,” he said.

#

That was fast,” the man on the other side of the counter said. I was expecting to have to wait.”

The locksmith brought over the new set of keys and placed them on the formica with the originals, which were attached to a leather fob. Everyone says that,” he said, and then, That’ll be six ninety-five.”

The man paid with a twenty-dollar bill that felt like it had just been taken out of the bank.

You’d be surprised how many people forget the keys on the counter,” said the locksmith.

I bet,” replied the man, tucking both sets into his bulky overcoat.

A few seconds later the locksmith was alone again. He sometimes played music and he sometimes didn’t. About every half an hour either Jimmy or Corey came in between calls. The phone rang occasionally. At four o’clock a woman came in and purchased a set of Uline padlocks. She was the last customer of the day before the office closed to the public at five.

Actually there was one last person who came in to copy keys, right at five. She came in huffing, like she’d been running to get there. He smiled and said hello.

Do I have time to get a key copied?” She rasped.

It only takes a minute.”

Oh thank god.”

She placed a heavy ring of keys onto the countertop and then lifted it by the one she needed copied, a basic cylinder key with a worn yellow casing at the top.

When the locksmith took it the first thing he noticed was that the key was engraved with the words DO NOT COPY. That only occasionally stopped him. The machine that cut the keys made the sound of metal slicing, and then the key was ready. Bringing it over, he saw that she was still breathing hard.

That was fast,” she said.

Everyone says that,” he told her.

#

…The henchman tasted blood. Time suspended; it was the same moment, or moments later, that his eyes flickered open and he saw nothing but smoke. Even the screams had subsided. Crackle and shatter. He must have broken a few ribs. Blinked again and there was the golden man, another good look at him as he was stepping through debris. A metallic creak wrenched the air. The red cape brushed biceps. Shining bands clasped the forearms. His breastplate appeared Romanesque. Against the uproar the henchman could hear the hero’s boots click on the pavement. He scrambled backwards, his palms crushing glass.

Standing directly over him the man in gold said, in a deep stereophonic voice, I am Helios Rex.” But the henchman already knew that.

A pair of wings, a thousand golden feathers, extended from behind Helios Rex, flushing the henchman into shadow. Sirens in the background were no longer getting closer. Above them the tall buildings curved inward, fumes surging where the bombs had shattered their flawless glass faces. A silence strung like seconds, as though written into a script…

#

I thought it was a pretty good time.”

You really think so? You didn’t find it unbelievably nefarious?”

The set pieces were unprecedented.”

Sure. You don’t think that was for a reason?”

Not everything is funded by the CIA.”

Not everything, but I mean, Hollywood.”

Look, it’s August, the world is sinking, I’m getting a Ph.D. in Comparative Paraphilia Studies, my mother fell off a cruise ship. Please, I need something to think about that I don’t have to think about.”

Don’t you wish?”

Goddamn, you’re the fucking worst, know that?”

#

If you DMed Elena Cairo she would come to your house and scry using your skincare products. The answer to any question existed in the relationship between cleanser and antioxidant serum; supposedly the most important revelations had everything to do with what kind of sunscreen you preferred. Even to Theodemir (government name Daniel Elgin) this seemed a little bullshit. But he bit the apple.

The light in his bathroom was gorgeous that time of day, cast against the shower tiles like golden milk. The first thing Elena did was put the toilet seat down. From the doorway Theodemir watched closely. It required the greatest intimacy to point her towards the shelf where he kept the vitals of his regimen. Their brands stretched the gamut, from drugstore generics to lavish retinol creams with only French and Japanese on the label. He was deeply self-conscious of a blemish that had appeared the night before, hovering above his left eyebrow. The next thing Elena did was request the details of his astrology; when he gave them she made a noise of what he hoped was approval.

Give me a specific question,” she said, and he did.

For a few moments she browsed. With shellacked coral nails she lifted the combination acne spot treatment and tone correcting gel, a pink ounce bottle with a celebrity’s name slashed across it in silver cursive. He had meant to put that one away. Almost he said I never use it,” but Elena was already moving on. His seaweed pore-cleansing exfoliator was down to its last. Why had he not, he thought, curated these things more wisely before letting a person he only knew from SPAN 141: Introduction to Spanish Grammar into his most personal space?

Here,” she said, grasping a white tube with a great deal of small blue letters on it. She tightened her brow and began to speak, almost a chant. Theodemir did not move.

Water aqua eau. Sodium C14-16 Olefin Sulfonate. Cocamidopropyl Betaine. Cocamidopropylamine Oxide. Apricot Kernel Oil. Acrylates Copolymer. Pumice. Fragrance. Piper Methysticum Rhizome Extract. Dimethicone. C10-30 Cholesterol Lanosterol Esters. Tocopheryl Acetate. Pentylene Glycol. Benzyl Alcohol. Citric Acid. Disodium EDTA. Vaccinium Myrtillus Fruit Extract. Jojoba Seed Powder. Phenoxyethanol. Potassium Sorbate. Chondrus Crispus Extract. Coriandrum Sativa Fruit Oil. Ethylhexylglycerin. Salicylic Acid. Proline Benzoic Acid. Alanine. Arganine. Threonine. Sorbitol. Citric Acid. Lysine.”

Her lips froze.

The answer is yes,” at last was her intonation. But it will be doomed.”

Oh my,” he said.

#

When Nick says on page forty that he is, quote, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life, unquote, this is clear acknowledgement that he knows Gatsby and Daisy are time travelers from the future. Given especially the dystopian significance we discussed earlier regarding the eyes of Dr. T. J. Eckleburg, and the fact that in the twenty-first century citizens of developed countries will never spend a moment of their lives not under direct surveillance. This explains the owl-eyed man’s shock when he discovers that all the books in Gatsby’s library are in fact actual texts, and not simulacra. This intellectual lifting-of-the-veil is the harbinger of late-stage industrial collapse, embodied in the proto-fascist decadence that Gatsby himself is actively helping to usher in. It’s just like what we talked about last week, and the symbolic socialist-revolutionary tendencies that can never be consummated between Jake and Brett Ashley. The rise of a venture-capitalist technocracy, coupled with the inevitable catastrophe of American authoritarianism, forces the bourgeoisie to do nothing but throw parties under the watchful eye of the state, and meanwhile no matter how real the books in the library may be, there’s no possibility of redemption for—”

Mrs. Patterson?”

Yes, Billy, what?”

Can I go to the bathroom?”

#

In 2008/2009 I was an extreme vegetarian and a tennis player also doing a decent amount of coke. And listening to like, MGMT and Interpol, and really excited about Barack Obama. I was also sleeping with men for the first time. I was falling in love with a Jewish grad student who worked the desk in the world languages department. He was way smarter than me but had somehow never heard of Nabokov. He was good at drinking all my wine, and didn’t complain when I cooked us frozen veggie burgers and spaghetti with Paul Newman sauce. He was good in bed but that was probably only because I was nineteen and he was twenty-three. One night we were especially having fun and we were up late because I kept doing lines. He suggested going to the McDonald’s drive-thru that was never closed.

I wasn’t hungry, of course, and I said, McDonald’s is the most wretched company on earth.”

He then proceeded to describe to me the miserable lives of the people in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru who were involved in the harvesting and processing of the coca plant, and how the economies of those countries and also countries such as Mexico, Panama, and Haiti were suffocated by the cartel, and how drug lords crashed entire airplanes full of people just to get rid of a single competitor, and how I was able to do cocaine only because I was white and and my parents didn’t know what I was spending their money on, and that I was allowed to complain about how cows and chickens were slaughtered by illegal immigrants in factory farms but that I shouldn’t act like I was taking some kind of higher road by refusing to eat at McDonald’s while on a binge.

I have since then been neither a vegetarian nor a user of cocaine, although I often go meat-free and will do a bump on special occasions.

#

The work of Alexandra Penso (b. 1981, San Francisco) has very little concern for the overt facts of her biography. Instead, her interest in artistic personas takes shape through carefully manipulated formal decisions and conceptual structures. Her mixed-media paintings and drawings are exceptional for their iconic forms (satanic self-portraits, bodybuilders, dead soldiers), attention to minutiae, and satirical humor, evincing a lightheartedness borne from variance among serial forms. Penso hijacks pre-existing signs and symbols in order to create an idiosyncratic appropriation of popular history, text-based narrative, and class awareness, all in the service of visually surprising the viewer into reevaluating what it means to experience art in real time.

Penso has been featured in numerous institutional exhibitions, including The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas, Madhavendra Palace, Jaipur, India (2017); San Francisco - A Nonfiction, Musée d’art contemporain de Lyon, France (2016); Don’t Look Back: the 2000s in Art, Public Art Fund, City Hall Park, New York (2014); the 2012 California Biennial, Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California (2012), and the Whitney Biennial 2006, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (2006). Her work is included in the permanent collections of Hammer Museum, Los Angeles; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt; Tate, London; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; and the Palais de Tokyo, Paris. Penso lives and works on Henderson Island.

#

The Pitcairn Islands (/ˈpɪtkɛərn/;[1] Pitkern: Pitkern Ailen), officially Pitcairn, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno Islands,[2][3][4][5] are a group of four volcanic islands in the southern Pacific Ocean that form the sole British Overseas Territory in the Pacific Ocean. The four islands—Pitcairn proper, Henderson, Ducie and Oeno—are scattered across several hundred miles of ocean and have a combined land area of about 18 square miles (47 km2). Henderson Island accounts for 86% of the land area, but only Pitcairn Island is inhabited. The nearest places are Mangareva (of French Polynesia) to the west and Easter Island to the east… (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pitcairn_Islands)

#

When Jimmy showed up at a quarter past five, the locksmith nodded his head and took off home. It was a Thursday in late October and the sunset was already leaking over the sky.

By the time he was walking through the courtyard of his apartment building the darkness was complete.

In the kitchen he opened the refrigerator and took a look and then closed it.

In the living room he sprawled on his sofa, made his body take up the whole thing, and unbuttoned his pants. His eyes fluttered closed. As he stretched, the open fly of his jeans seemed to yawn.

He became gently aroused by the thought of the global supply chain. How everything he owned had once been kept in enormous vessels slicing the waves of the planet’s oceans.

From his underwear he pulled out his enlarging cock, and he let his balls spring out, and with a casual wrist he began to play.

He wondered if anyone had had sex on the Titanic while it was sinking. Surely. The sinking of the Titanic was the horniest disaster in all of history.

He thought that he had perfect skin because he slept eleven hours a night and never put chemicals on his face.

He thought about the Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

He paused momentarily to sneeze. He imagined getting ejaculate all the way on his nose.

He wanted it to be possible to shoot his cum all over Census Tract 207, in Rock Island County, Illinois.

He wanted to masturbate with a gun in the room. With a television showing people arguing over Palestine and Israel.

Se preguntó si era posible soñar, masturbarse en otro idioma.

He thought that no two things had ever existed in the same room together.

He imagined a dark hillside dotted with lights from all the houses on it, tiny pinpricks the color of cantaloupe and honeydew. He imagined the road that led between, a lightless cord that made available to each of them so many separate things.

He wondered what this had to do with that. He imagined an invisible thread between a and b, x and y, and what mental exercise it took to pretend as though it was not there. He was in a trance about it.

At last he slacked his jaw and reached his ambrosial finish.

#

The boy jumped because he had no choice.

It was so much easier than he was afraid of. The busy sunlight of the summer day was swallowed by pressurized blue silence. He did not even hear the splash.

Outstretched, he plunged towards the pool’s floor. He stomped his feet, and his fingers grabbed at a flashing quarter that had appeared before him.

He kicked and kicked, and tried to reach it like it was the last thing he would ever want.

But he did not touch the bottom.

Bernard Reed

Twitter: @bernardreed

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