By Jackson Pappin
A single peach-bottom acrobat slashed through a succession of blue sky tarps. Hannah ogled this naked woman. The woman held both hands aloft. Hannah once felt immune to spectacle in Richland. Not here, though, where visceral chance encounters feel more sacred than a random collision of events. Her palms itched.
Benny said, Go there.
Hannah’s eyes sharpened. She was focused. She wanted now, more than anything, to become part of this beauty. She wanted to run, fly, join the ivory acrobat. The naked girl slapped her chest. Then she ecstatically flung her arms high and twirled and zagged through the camps. She kicked up comet tails of dust. She whooped for the sun overhead.
Hannah could feel her leg muscles hardening, tightening. She believed she embodied the girl’s energy. She thought of, and then she saw the girl extend both palms outward, angling all fingers, bending, flexing. The girl was preparing the forms, gathering courage to launch into a tumbling or free flowing cartwheel. Hannah said she could aid the clumsy, timid girl. It was like she could morph into the girl’s fears and self-immolate. Then the girl might trust her musculature, her flow.
Benny said, like he was coaxing something hidden, Go there now. Go all the way.
And Hannah grinned. She gathered courage. Then she imagined the ivory acrobat’s thoughts. A kinetic frisson pooled in her mouth, Hannah said, Maybe this ivory acrobat was awaiting someone emboldened, graceful, a guide – a spirit like Hannah to emerge from their blue domicile.
The acrobat darted in through the bright blue waves of hanging tarps and she called to the handsome men watching her, ignoring the blazing warnings strafing her bare soles, like the heat was nothing to her if she zipped through the soft shadows of the shelters. Hannah forecast the acrobat’s next move when she said they would both take the plunge into ancient, votive tumbling.
Benny asked, Do you know how to do a cartwheel?
Hannah said, I don’t have the first clue if I remember what I learned when I was a cheerleader.
Benny felt this clever little comment meant that Hannah could teach someone else the role of the body in these moments, only if she managed to trust herself for once. Then yes, she could help the ivory acrobat.
Hannah abruptly stripped off her tank top. Her shorts and her underwear fell beside one of an overabundance of repeating wrinkled woven loops on the floor of the gritty domicile carpeting and the pale blue blankets she and Benny had slept on the previous night. She kicked away the rags and the clothing smushed up beside several green glass bottles emptied of malt liquor. The vaguely globular gray cotton loops made two sloppy raccoon eyes out of the dark carpet blended with the dust trail Tolliver’d brought in and scattered unknowingly at near three in the morning before the inevitable drunk slide dodging of torpor in his departure shortly before five.
Benny struck both his hands together twice.
Hannah said, I’m going. Here I go. I’m going now.
Hannah’s fresh verve rejuvenated a firing itch within Benny’s chest. He pulled a pencil from the pages of his notebook and sketched the emptied clothes on the floor. He enclosed their near violet loops with a spritz of telling shadows suggesting how they’d fallen from the pale blonde pixie. His forehead sweat lightly. He wanted the shadows in his intimate graphite vista showing the vacuum Hannah hollowed out for his emotions.
Everyone open to suggestion, everything open to interpretation, all of this quixotic universe landing softly in the spaces of white underneath and inside the curving pencil lines.
Hannah raced across the sand. Benny loved watching her move. She was free to fly right.
Benny then sketched the twin ivory acrobats darting and dipping and diving through the rows and ranks of blue tarps. They were athletic and graceful. They were conjoined by idealism, powered by unspoken impulse. Never dancing in direct proximity, until their flight paths overlapped. And the laughing girls hugged, grappling at their backs. They teased and grabbed and groped until an unseen force sent them out on the run, deeper into the circuits amidst the blue tarps. The shrill strafing paths of their siren calls ran aslant the swiveling faces of the spectators, basking in the heat of the spectacle on the sandy hills and slopes before the two acrobats gravitated back to each other, then away again, running deeper into the heat, sun splashing off their bright ivory bodies.
In the shadows of this sketch Benny gave away a new clarity that felt softer, like his lines were effortlessly falling into the pocket. He was born with a lust for vivification. He craved it. Desire, heat, clarity. Mirrors of polychrome. Benny was enmeshed in the ego’s un-peeling. He sensed, a primal afflatus, as if the reptilian sun’s mighty force warped the mind, and in order to adjust to this monumental heat, Benny thought why not use the momentum of his natural environment?
Benny was primed to atomize visual life. He believed he was settling into the life cycles and unnamable emotional grooves of Slab City’s molten malleable flows. Soon the lively vibrations from his scudding and glissading and galavanting pencil mimicked the ivory acrobats deftly. And the solace of a freshly envisioned and gentle composure encircled the ache in his curled hands.
It was not quite high noon and the hot air scorched his throat.
Tolliver emerged from a crease in the tall scrub beside the bonfire spot Benny thought he had remembered sitting some significant yards farther south.
Benny sketched Tolliver’s owlish silhouette on a new page. Wings jutting from the posture of the man glissading toward the domicile Benny and Hannah inhabited out on Slab City’s perimeter.
Benny imagined Tolliver actually reading lines aloud. Prose, poetry, maybe both. His lips were moving. Though Benny heard none of the words clearly, Tolliver bandied bright white pages out in front of his slanted ink and brand studded chest, until he pushed whatever prose he had on the pages all at once into the four panels of one, and then a second major fold. And Tolliver jammed the pages into the back left pocket of his cutoff jeans.
This afternoon, Tolliver’s huge blonde mane carried a raw platinum halation, its form frozen alive on Benny’s white pad.
Without a word Tolliver and Benny uncapped two fresh malt liquor bottles. They saw a new girl join the ivory acrobats. She was enormous, a mountain of muscular dynamism. She did not dance so much as she posed. She twisted a glorious curly black fountain behind her head and it hung aloft and aback her skull like a supple shockwave.
The towering woman planted her fists in front of her forehead and extended two fingers from each balled fist, creating two horns. The girls screamed when she ducked her head and scrambled forward. The peach-bottom girl cowered as Hannah pirouetted away from the oncoming body. A peal of her ragged laughter eclipsed the breezy opening of the blue domicile and both Benny and Tolliver clinked their great green glass bottles together and sipped their libations serenely.
Tolliver said, I once wished I was born a cavalryman. There was a dark undiscovered gemstone part of my imagination dead-set on wielding a mighty curved blade. I wanted to wield a sword that could not slash but swim through the flanks of men who darted past me and my bright white horse. I was enmeshed in this dreamscape of everything blonde and yellowed and neon xanthous and I fantasized about blonde women and I wore bright yellow hoodies. But I emerged from this odd golden fleece phantasmagoria one morning and realized how pusillanimous the color yellow was on me. Not anywhere else. Just me. I looked atrocious in the color yellow. All of my fantasies shifted. I was shapeshifting inside my mind. I was a man who could morph into the totem version of myself in conversation where I could play a role and not think about the words pouring out of my mouth. I was fly. I dropped out of college. I was writing poetry relentlessly. I gave everything I had to poetry and then all my lyrics gave me back was fever and longing and lust. I thought poetry was not enough to sustain a man. So I wrote fiction. I realized I was indulging the same cycles as before. I had passed through the same circuitry of life in at least four to seven instantiations of myself. I was not installing the messages and the emblems emerging from the traces of the fringe of the periphery of the edge of the truth between the lines. I would trade my word for nothing. I would trade my sword for my word. And I got my first tattoo after I finished my first true novel. And now I am covered in tattoos. And I am here with you. I don’t know what you want from me, maybe you don’t want anything from me. It’s just, I can see you are battling a darkness that manifests itself in the forms of an alien presence that you attribute all of your violence to, and I want you to know I have enacted similarly venomous forms in my own life. I cannot say I understand what you are going through but I do believe I can empathize. And that’s enough.
Benny tipped his green glass bottle toward Tolliver and Tolliver brought his sweaty glass bottle into an equidistant and well-balanced sharp clangorous collision. Both men smiled widely and wordlessly acknowledged its sound — two brilliant bright cutlasses clashing.
Benny opened his eyes after shutting them against the heat of the reptilian sunshine for more than a minute. He sipped from his great green glass bottle and pressed his left thumb over the circular opening as if to say finally, now, this is what embroils my sallow and slumped chest.
He traced a swastika with his thumb in the sand stream betwixt Tolliver’s frayed denim pant leg and his almost identical jean shorts. He felt a surfeit of stern and surly heat clamp down as if, somehow, the Southern Man’s hand had split the pixelation of this dimension and fallen onto his slim shoulder blade. He watched the ivory acrobats dodge the oncoming zaftig woman. The woman would not stop charging at the girls and deliberately upsetting the beautiful balance.
Benny said, My grandpa read Hitler’s book most of his life. He burned it before he died though. My family – we still have some leftover stuff smuggled out of the fall of the Reich.
Tolliver said, Your family…
Benny said, Yes. My family were Nazis. A lot of my relatives died in WWII. Both sides of my family fought on both sides of the war.
Tolliver said, How did you feel when you found out?
Benny said, Unsure, numb, I guess. You told me a story last night. I was asleep. I’m awake now.
Tolliver said, I did?
Benny said, You know the Southern Man. You conjured him too. Or at least a form much like his. You can feel it. He’s in my blood right now though. I am a descendant of this man’s energy.
Tolliver said, How do you know?
Benny said, I blacked out the news when I heard him tell me of my own folklore. The most challenging stories I know are stories and yarns that involve a family’s darkness. How can anyone who loves you that much commit acts so violent? How does that atrocity even begin to come from the same people who protect you, who have honored your future, and placed a faith in you by giving you all they have, their energy, their money, their love, their time, their soul?
Tolliver said, And now the familial escutcheon; that emblem – the symbol of your family is rising through your blood. You are becoming…there is no earthly way you believe you may adequately conceal this truth any longer. And so you are saying you are the next in a series from within your descendants? And you must reconcile this truth with all you wished your life to become?
The charging girl knocked over the first ivory acrobat, and she got back up on her feet quickly. Screams and laughter raced across the bright and dusty expanse. Tolliver looked at Benny, then looked away.
Benny said, The Southern Man told me it was like this: he said my grandfather was a part of programmed that lionized his reputation during the climax of the Nazi party’s mercurial ascendancy. The program was called, “Ionized Immolation.”
Tolliver said, And the Southern Man you see sometimes.
Benny said, Yes, my uncle is the Southern Man. And his killings are sacrificial in nature. They fuel our family’s shaman, mystic strains. It is an energetic reservoir I use and tap into as I formulate and send out the deeper messages in my art. This Southern Man told me, even though I could not hear what he was saying at first, that the Nazis discovered this mystic pathway but clarified the triggers in the most immediate aftermath of their triumphant battles in Africa and Poland. My grandfather was a huge part of this program’s success during the war.
Tolliver pulled both of his dark feet underneath the frayed denim pant legs and said nothing.
Benny said, So I must face this devastating truth of my art and I must decide what to do about it. My success as an artist was accelerating, but my uncle was killing people to fuel this success.
Tolliver lowered his eyes then picked up the anvil weight of his head and squinted. He said, How do you know this is not just metaphorical language? What if this is all hyperbole?
Benny said, It is possible. But he said there are photographs.
Tolliver said, So, proof?
Benny said, Art is the act of killing in creation. My grandfather established something of a metaphysic. Envision a celestial pipeline for my father, the man’s son, who also told my uncle this is all akin to a family trust, but one comprised of mystical truth and shamanistic image flows instead of tangible wealth. For the longest time, I could or would not acknowledge dark forces that gave me my gifts. And instead of confronting my demons in Richland, I ran to Slab City.
Tolliver inhaled deeply. The sun slipped down and began to illuminate the floor of the domicile.
Benny said, In Slab City, I am diving deep through my Shadow Work. In Shadow Work, the entire thought stream is elucidated all the sources are revealed, the conspiracy theories are shown as truth. There are many, a bounty of ancient Indian myths and legends, and the Romans too – all of these civilizations that produced great art were deep into bloodshed to fuel transcendence.
In the span of an indefinite amount of time, Benny showed Tolliver all pages of the sketchbook.
Tolliver said, My word. You can see all of this?
Benny was quiet as soon the sun dipped below the chromium archway of the blue wrapped domicile’s door. The shadows on the wall took on a multiplicity that both men could feel expanding and arising. However, only Tolliver turned around. He spoke slowly. A melodious southern drawl, a deep mellifluous flow, had always thrived and thrummed in his thought stream. Activated today, so he could the the truth in his stories, this ecstatic sinusoidal flow ruptured, sprawled. Now enhanced by a rejuvenating and deepening clarity, this colorful sparkling tone held onto the grace notes of an emotional range both awesome and alien. Tolliver felt in this music a reverence for what it was a witness to. He wanted to speak clearly, honestly. So he let his ego fall away.
Tolliver said to the long shadow on the back wall, Good afternoon, sir. Can I offer you a drink?
The Southern Man said he was just fine for now.
Benny sprinted from his perch. His soles scorching. He felt nothing.
Slab City is a space with no laws.
Benny jumped on the back of the zaftig woman. She had been smothering the peach-bottom acrobat in jest. His fingers collapsed around the zaftig woman’s throat.
Hannah’s scream lacerated the scalding airwaves.
Tolliver was transfixed, horrified, it was all so awesome and awful and gorgeous.
No one stood up.
Tolliver ran after Benny, though he knew he was no savior.
Benny’s fresh rage infiltrated no other portion of his face aside from his bright burning eyes.
Minutes beyond time elapsed.
Heat waves eclipsed the past.
Millennia were brought up to speed.
Benny stood over the lifeless woman.
Tolliver walked away.
Shock robbed his tongue. It seemed like Hannah was crying since the first ivory acrobat had vanished. He sat below the bright blue tarps. He wrote everything down. If there was no mortal punishment possible for this murder, then a record must exist somehow. His owl eyes seemed to no blink, although the jet black pools of his pupils reflected a blare and a bling erupting from the bleeding words on his page.
Jackson Pappin writes fiction, poetry, and screenplays. He has a small black dog.
Visual Artist Bio
Paige Welsh is Anastamos’s Creative Director. She is pursuing an MFA in fiction. Her thesis at UC Santa Cruz won the Chancellor’s Award.