Daniel Talamantes is a writer, editor, and poet from California, USA. He obtained his MA in Writing from National University of Ireland at Galway and his BA in Literature and Writing from UC Santa Cruz. His work has been published in magazines both in Ireland and abroad. He is currently a contributor and editor for Wall Street International.
By Daniel Talamantes
Jason stood in front of New Skin—the second tattoo parlor located in Midtown—and sighed before opening the entrance glass-door covered with outdated punk and metal event posters. The walls inside were decorated with crude renderings of 90’s cartoon characters acting out in deviant ways. There were a few fraying lawn chairs incongruously scattered around a plastic table and magazines—including a vintage Playboy—disorderly tossed about the lobby.
At the front desk, sat—what Jason believed to be—a human fixated on some curiosity in its fingernails. Jason stood in silence as he watched the genderless individual with tattoos and piercings that populated the whole of its body. Though black metal music was sounding from the backroom, Jason was astounded by the fact that his presence was completely disregarded.
Just as he was about to interrupt the demon from his or her pedicure, he heard a series of terrified shouts from the backroom.
Tired of waiting for permission to enter through lobby divider’s ingress, he walked through the curtain and saw his friend Schmucker sitting in rotating barber’s chair with an indifferent, pasty countenance seated beneath a pair of Ray Ban sunglasses, as some other demon was putting an elaborate needle to his arm. Beside him was their friend Jelly, whose sweat was matting his orange curls and greasing his round cheeks. With big hand gestures and the seizure like convulsions of his thin frame, he was shouting profanities, and leaning on the seat of his chair to watch the procedure.
Schmucker gazed up at Jason, tilted his hipster mustache fractionally off axis, grinned sardonically, and said, “Can you take him out of here?”
“What’s the tattoo?” Jason asks.
“Mandala,” responds Schmucker.
“Funny…wasn’t it you who said that the cult of Eastern Religion was introduced into counter-culture by the CIA to divert the protest movement’s attention away from the Vietnam War? How’d you say it? Cult of body? Impetus of narcissist culture…”
The demon working on his arm paused for a moment and looked up, “I am a Buddhist.”
There was an honorary silence before Schmucker answered, “We all have drunk moments that shouldn’t be recalled.” The notorious cool-guy expression now harbored an annoyed look to his brow.
“It was your thesis in college,” Jelly added before beginning to yell in agony as the demon reinserted the needle in Schumcker’s arm.
“Can you just get him out of here!” barked Schmucker.
“He would make a good metal singer,” the demon said.
“He’s got jokes,” Schmucker responded, gesturing a palm towards the demon.
Jason, in his customary blue jeans and grey t-shirt ensemble, straight brown hair and pointed English face, looked down the street with his long fingers shading his eyes. Jelly was wiping the sweat from his forehead with the bottom of his shirt.
“What do you wanna do?” Jason asked, continuing to gaze down the street.
“It was like Sodom in there,” Jelly responded.
“Want to drive to West Side?”
“What’s over there?”
“Sure, you driving?”
“You have a car?”
They turn into the parking lot beside the fire-station and walked up to his seasoned, black sedan. Jelly then sparked up a cigarette.
“Why’d you do that?” Jason asked.
“You aren’t getting in the car with that.”
“Come on, man. We’ll just roll down the windows. No big…”
“It sits in the fabric. No good. I smell it for weeks.”
“I’m in no rush,” Jason concluded.
They stood there, baking in the heat, silently. Through an iron fence they could see firemen working out in a shaded portion behind the station. Jason and Jelly both stared as the firemen grinned with their carnivore faces and grunted in fraternization.
“You ever feel like someone’s watching you?” Jelly asked.
“No,” answered Jason scanning through updates on his Facebook.
“It ever upset you that there are so many blind spots? That every where you go there are multiple ways in which someone can secretly watch you?”
“Why would anybody be watching you?”
“Why would anybody be watching anybody?”
Jason moaned and rubbed his face with both hands. “What is the damn point?”
“It doesn’t worry you?”
“What difference does it make?”
“It doesn’t worry you: the immensity of our unawareness?”
“I don’t want to talk about this.”
“No one ever does. I think everyone is just too afraid.”
“No, it seems like you are the one who is legitimately afraid. Like, to the degree of a full on paranoid schizo. But, mostly, no one wants to talk about it because it is goddamn annoying.”
“I’m done with my cig’,” Jelly responded, jumping in the car.
They drove down through midtown, past two health-food grocery stores, four furniture boutiques, two bicycle shops, four real estate offices, and two taquerias. There was an advertisement on the side of the road for a Coors which sparked Jelly’s interest.
“Why do they say ice cold? If it was ice cold wouldn’t it be ice, or frozen?”
Jason grunted and turned up the radio a little more.
“Seriously, though, it should be ‘ice chilled’ or ‘cooled by ice’ in my opinion.”
“Nice bit. Been sitting on that sometime, huh?”
“No, it just comes to me. Happens all the time.”
They drove down the street. NPR was broadcasting some radio-documentary about droughts in India. Jason considered the relevancy to California’s six year drought. He thought about airing the topic, but considering who he was sitting next to, he decided against it.
There were several moments of silence, despite the white-noise of the radio, which began to perplex Jason. He hadn’t recalled a silence from Jelly like this since he’d known him. Then, he began to count those years. Seven? How has it been so long? Why is he still around people like Jelly? Where has his life gone? Jason glanced over to Jelly quickly to find he was furiously sliding and tapping on his phone.
“What you doing?” Jason asked.
“I am deleting all the photos of my ex. It is cathartic.”
“What are you in high school again?”
“It is zen. Like the emptying of self. I can go on without constant reminders of what happened. No more attachment…eventually, I will be pure again.”
“I think the mere fact that you are on Facebook contradicts anything you have to say about zen.”
“Coming from the king of misanthropes, it means nothing to me.”
“Social media is the highest form of egotism and narcissism. You are not purifying, you are only designing another way for the public to perceive your artificial identity.”
“Well, you have Facebook too. So, how can you be so errant? You can get off your high-horse.”
“I am not the one talking about achieving enlightenment through deleting photos of my ex.”
“Well, it is a start.”
“I need coffee.”
They pull up to a cafe near the San Leandro River. Jason was sitting out on the porch watching Jelly launch into a passionate and animated discussion about tea with the barista. She was pulling out sample after sample for them to try, together. On occasion he leaned his thin hips into the counter, got close to her face and raised his eyebrows in that smug way he does when he thinks he has a chance with a woman. Engrossed in their conversation now, Jelly was suggestively dipping his tea-bag thirty times. Jason knew what was coming next. He voiced over Jelly’s inaudible lips, “The thirtieth time, is prime.” It was always the same: the barista would giggle and he would lean in close to take a whiff of the tea with that proud, sophisticated look on his face. What would upset Jason, more than the juvenile poetry, was the fact that since Jelly invoked a number, he ruined the rhyme with an incorrect prime integer. All of this was over Jelly’s head anyway. He was a simple creature.
Jelly approached the table with a countenance of a proud show horse, that immediately triggered a sense of revulsion in Jason. “You see how I worked that? That barista was all over me. I think we have a good connection.”
“What was her name?”
“I don’t know,” Jelly responded.
“So, what exactly happened with Helen?” Jason asked, referencing the ex that he was methodically erasing from his social media accounts.
“Oh, you don’t want to hear this,” Jelly responds.
“No, I legitimately do.”
“Well, it’s gonna break your heart to know it wasn’t my fault. I know, shocking. Miss Perfect, who everyone thought would dump me in a matter of hours, ended up being the one who was dumped.”
“Well, you know how orderly and pristine she was…how everything in her studio was just so. She had all her fancy, glass pagodas and her shrines and yoga matt studiously in the corner. All her books on the expensive wooden shelf her dad bought for her and Yucatan tapestries aligned to some mathematically impossible degree of perfection. All the dishes always clean, the wooden floor displaying a near-perfect reflection of the room, and her bathroom like something out of an ornate hotel in Vegas.”
“Sure, I remember.”
“Well, you know how she was always so aggressively a believer and preacher of positivity. She’d chart the lunar cycles and the solar cycles and make adjustments to her diet and activities for the day in accordance to the best suited astrological advice in the local paper. She aligned her chakras, meditated for long stretches of time, never drank and never partook in anything that would tamper with her purity. She bought crystals that would match her personality and ones that corrected her insecurities and distasteful moods. You know all this.”
“So, why are you telling me…”
“You know I was forbidden to talk about politics, history, or science…really anything remotely academic. I couldn’t discuss anything negative about work, I couldn’t gossip, I couldn’t talk about anything our friends did that would be possibly negative. She didn’t want to hear about the troubles of my youth. She didn’t want to hear about my insecurities. Nothing about wars, or poverty, or revolutions, or anything suggestive of religion. Absolutely no religion! Unless it had to do with Buddhism or Taoism. She didn’t want to hear about jobs or economy…”
“Okay, yes. Jesus, I get it.”
“So, one day, I was sitting around at my house and she wasn’t responding to my texts. This was normal because she ‘didn’t like to corrupt her existence with the constant affirmation of living through others that only reached out for their own needs.’ But, several hours later I still had not heard back from her and I was beginning to get a little concerned. I figured that maybe she gave up on the whole phone thing. But, I knew she would have let me know beforehand, if this was a new direction in her life. I texted a few more times. Then, I began to call. I then called Alyssa and Jean to see if they had heard anything from her. They said they hadn’t and that I should tell her the hot-yoga class had been cancelled.
“I got on my bike and road over to her studio. On the lawn, the same clothes that were out to dry last night were still outside. She was also incredibly prompt with her drying. I hesitated before knocking on the door. I first tapped gently, but to no avail. I then knocked harder and heard the faint sound of her voice. Slowly, I opened the door. All the curtains had been closed and the lights were off. I was terrified and called out, ‘Hel…”
“How is the tea?” the barista was there beside them, directing a big grin at Jelly.
“Just wonderful…” he answered in a posh, self-indulgent way. They went on for a few moments talking about tea some more, before it regressed into a conversation about aphrodisiacs. He was grabbing her arm, she’d pat it and lift back her head, laughing at things that weren’t funny at all. The whole thing was developing so rapidly, Jason was concerned that he was about to have to defend himself against a pretentious, clumsy, salivating, four-legged and four-armed beast. He would be no match. After an exchange of numbers, the flirtation concluded.
“Almost better than sex,” Jelly surmised.
Jason was so upset by the whole transaction that he had become completely disinterested in the story’s ending. But Jelly continued:
“So, where was I? Oh, right…I turned on the lights and the place was a total mess. All her furniture was overturned, everything strewn about the floor, the top of a pagoda was lodged into a wall. There was shattered glass and porcelain everywhere. As you might expect I was incredibly aroused…”
He laughed loudly, as Jason stirred, unamused.
“No, but seriously it looked like an isolated, freak hurricane event had hit her studio before evaporating into nothing. After a brief assessment, I realized that she was under the sheets in her bed. Between the closed curtains, laundry outside, her curled in the sheets, lights off, and the particular way everything was destroyed, I knew immediately that it was all done by her. She must have had some maniacal fit. Carefully stepping over the wreckage, I approached her bed. I was about to comfort her, when a thought stopped me. I was so troubled by the whole scene, that I walked back to the door, closed it behind me, and decided it was over.”
At this point of the story Jason had removed his sun glasses and stared, mouth agape, at Jelly. Jelly leaned back in his chair, sipped on his tea, and exchanged solicitous waves with the barista. Jason, petrified in horror, stared down Jelly. He then leaned back, pushed his hands into his face, and blew into them.
“What’s up, dude?” Jelly asked.
“I gotta go.”
“Okay, where to?”
“No, by myself. I am going to go now,” he answered while standing up.
“What the hell, man? What am I supposed to do? You are just going to ditch me here? This is fucked up.”
Jason, lurched forward, and yelled, “You know what’s fucked…” But, then he composed himself and shook his head. “I’ll talk to you later.”
“How am I supposed to get home?
“Have your new barista girlfriend give you a ride.”
Jason stormed out to the tune of “Have a splendid day!” from the barista.
At the car, he leaned against the door. The warmth of the metal pressed against his thigh. He stared out at the old neighborhood. The dilapidated tenements, with their unkempt lawns, three with bench-presses in the driveways, another with four filthy cats sunbathing on a porch, and another with heaps of garbage and furniture and children’s toys. He put on his sunglasses and viewed it all through the sepia lens.
Meanwhile, Jelly was running out of the cafe, yelling about one thing or another. Jason was not registering a thing he said, but could see the barista watching his exit through a side window.
Jelly was now on the side, near the passenger seat door. He placed his sunglasses on the hood and continued litigating Jason—none of which Jason heard. Finally, Jason returned to the moment and said, “Alright, let’s go” as they got into the car.
Driving across the bridge, Jelly was silently brooding, when Jason hit the breaks. Jelly lurched forward with a yelp. “What the hell was that?” Jelly screamed.
“You almost broke my neck. Just hit the stupid thing if its too stupid to move.”
“I mean, you could have caused an accident. You took those driving courses…”
“Never stop for animals if in a precarious…”
“What!” Jelly responded, staring down Jason, who was grinning a devious grin.
“Your sunglasses,” Jason said pointing to the ledge of the bridge where a pair of sunglasses were teetering above the river. Jelly jumped out of the car and ran across the lane but just as he was about to reach them a gust of wind blew the glasses into the water. Jason pulled over to the side of the bridge and put on his emergency blinkers. He joined Jelly who was looking over the handrail. They both evaluated the scene for a few moments in silence.
A few miles down the road, the outlet of the San Leandro, which pours into the Pacific Ocean most days, was auspiciously dammed by a sand bank. Because of this, the river was nearly still that day and the two men could see a pair of burgundy, square eyes staring back up at them through three feet of water and several more feet of air.
Jason is the first to speak. “That’s a damn shame. Sorry for your loss,” he said indifferently, patting Jelly on the back.
“Dude, I can’t just leave them. Those are Ray Bans. They cost a fortune. I have to get them.”
“Well, best get swimming.”
“Absolutely not. I am not swimming in that quagmire.”
“Well, what do you suggest we do?”
Jelly looked at Jason with a pathetic, questioning plea to which Jason responded with a dejecting laugh. Jelly looked down defeatedly, before rising his head the way all idiots do when they believe they have a genius idea.
“I have a genius idea,” declared Jelly. “Get back in the car.”
They drove up to Jelly’s sad estate. There, Jelly walked out of the backyard with a fishing pole. Driving back down to the river, they returned to the bridge.
As they were debating were to cast the line a homeless woman, with a shopping cart full of crushed aluminum cans, shopped beside them and looked into the river. In a growling tone, accompanied with the putrid scent of cheap gin, she said, “Won’t be catching any fish in this river boys. Haven’t been a living thing in there since the 70’s, when the government poisoned the water so that the hippies would stop bathing in it. But, I respect the effort. I can show you a good spot for a small fee.”
“Sunglasses,” Jelly responded, casting the line into the water.
“No, I am in no need for sunglasses. I try to see the world as it is. Sunglasses were a ploy by…” grumbled the rank, conspiratorial, traveling woman.
“No, no, we are fishing out my sunglasses,” corrected Jelly.
The homeless woman, waddled up to the railing and looked down into the river. “I don’t see it,” he said.
“Right below me, here,” Jelly directed.
“Still don’t see it,” she answered, squinting her eyes, looking into the water like some leathered sailor on the Ship of Fools.
“Right there, dude,” Jelly asserted again.
“Oh, I see it now.” She started to laugh, before detailing her observation, “Almost as if Neptune down there got hip on us. What this town will do to you, I tell you. Are those Ray Bans?”
“Well, you aren’t going to get them that way.”
“Why is that?”
“Your hook isn’t going to sink that far down.”
“Goddamnit,” yelled Jelly throwing down the pole. He looked to Jason who shrugged with a grin. He was thoroughly relishing this.
“Here, I got something to anchor it down,” the homeless woman said walking over to her shopping cart. She pulled out a lock and tied it above the hook. Meanwhile, Jason returned to his car, grabbed a newspaper and sat on a bench located on the bridge.
“I like this lady,” said Jason. “Inventive. You could learn a thing or two from her, Jelly.”
Jelly was brooding again watching the homeless lady cast the line into the water. She was mumbling, working through a spiritual compromise with the hook and the sunglasses. “You know, I love fishing. Used to do it as a child with that son-of-a-bitch I called my father. There is nothing like it in the world. We live in this fast paced world. None of you youngsters would understand the virtue of patience that could only be found in a recreation like fishing.”
“You listening, Jelly?” Jason asked.
“I grew up in the mountains, where you’d go on the bank of some calm portion of the river, with a lunch box full of baloney sandwiches. And father, that son-of-a-bitch, wouldn’t say anything the whole time but: ‘Wait,’ ‘Be Patient,’ ‘Bring in the line,’ or ‘Cast out there.’ And finally after hours of waiting, of reeling in and casting out, there’d be subtle tremor on the pole, and then the line would get taught. He’d, that son-of-a-bitch, stand up beside you and yell out for you to reel it in. You be tugging and reeling and battling this unseeable thing that is causing so much tension. Then, the line would get closer and the thing would emerge from the water. It’s shimmering, rainbow luminescence would flash against the lattice patterns of the sun on the otherwise calm water. He’d, that son-of-a… would grab the pole and help you as you reeled in your prize. Finally, it would be in your hands: the heavy, slippery thing. It’s beaded, black eye staring into the heavens as it floundered in your hands. You’d remove the hook, take one last look, and return the pitiable beast back into the obscurity of the mystical river. Your father, that son-of-a-bitch, would pat you on the back, then open a beer and offer it to you. That is peace my friends. None of this new age crap. It isn’t anything you can buy. No, it’s finer than any liquor on this earth. It is real peace.”
The woman looked off into the distance. Into the green hills that sidled into the entrance of the complicated beach town. There she’d be by nightfall, after following the train-tracks, to some small commune of tents, to sleep another day with her empty shopping cart and the forty she purchased from the change she received for those cans.
Jelly looked to Jason for help as the woman continued her philosopher’s gaze. Jelly was about to tap the woman on the shoulder when she began to reel in the line. Jason could see from his vantage point, the dripping lock followed by a pair of sunglass hanging on a hook. Jelly took the sunglasses with the pleasure of a child opening a gift at Christmas. Jason stood up and applauded the woman, to which the homeless woman responded with a theatrical bow.
“I can’t thank you enough!” Jelly said, jerking around, as if trying to think of ways to repay her and then second guessing himself. The woman returned to her cart and began rolling onward. Jelly, in a rare act of selflessness, lifted his head in the way humans do when they think of a good idea that will benefit someone else.
“Hey! My friend, you can have this,” Jelly said, offering the fishing pole to the woman. The woman bowed again, before proceeding towards her next destination—whatever that may be.
Later that evening Jason and Jelly were drinking beers on the patio of a bar downtown when Schmucker appeared. He sat down beside them as they were laughing and trying to fish out a penny that fallen into Jelly’s beer.
“Damn, the beer is tainted now,” Jelly said.
Schmuker grinned in his sardonic way, looked at his reflection in the window and pulled out a comb to correct a stray hair.
“Well, let’s see it,” Jelly said, with that ridiculous grin planted on his greasy face.
Schmucker unrobed his leather jacket, placed it delicately on the back of his chair, lifted up his black sweater sleeve and undid a plastic covering tied around his wrist. With a proud look off into the distance, he showed the swelling, reddened mandala off to his friends. Both Jason and Jelly started howling in laughter. Schmucker’s self-satisfied gaze turned to them. He waited cooly for the reason behind all the mockery.
“Dude, there is a small swastika in your mandala,” Jelly said through a fit of laughter.
Schmucker’s face dropped as he looked down at the tattoo. Sure enough, in the very center of the ancient, cosmic weave, was a swastika—and not of the Hindu persuasion.
“Buddhist…” Schmucker said in shock.
“Demons…” Jason responded.