By Michael Fontana
Rain fell like dimes from a pocket. I lay face down on the grate, on the street, creak of dress shoes passing by. The grate blew hot so the metal of it heated to a boil. My bare arm lay on it long enough to where the skin burned. I thought it would blister so I raised it up. There was a bubble on it but it wasn’t a blister after all. It was a little planet.
How could I tell? I had seen much in my months on the street. I had lived inside of trees like an elf, inside abandoned buildings, inside shelters where nightly stabbings went unchecked. I decided it was safest out in the open where I could at least hear fatal footsteps coming and make a dodge away from them.
The grate offered some heat, boiling facedown while my backside remained exposed to bitter winter cold. I was a tall man so my form fully draped the grate. My clothes were already tattered so scorch marks didn’t mar them more. I smelled ripe like the dumpsters I invaded to seek remnants of other people’s eating.
I had heard of little planets forming on other people’s skin before but never mine. It was a precious item, like my body had become the universe and God, wherever housed, had selected it to unveil brand new forms of life. I was careful to inspect my little planet because the skin surrounding it stood membranous and thin. Within this fragility lay an amniotic fluid that sank with the slightest pressure of my fingertip.
I turned over on my back and then sat up though the heat burned my buttocks. I struggled to see inside the little planet through the fluid. Inside I swore, after a long spell of staring, that the whorls of my fingerprints began to move and gradually that movement took me inside the world. The fluid after all only lay above it all like clouds. Beneath the clouds worked centipedes.
The centipedes were nearly microscopic yet they undulated with their movements, working to build a bridge that led over a silver river where small automobiles hustled to and fro. Puffs of exhaust followed their every acceleration. The centipedes wore steel caps on their heads and spoke in broken cadences that resembled my own English but without any vowel sounds.
It became my mission and goal to protect this little planet from rupture in my days. I didn’t want to wrap it for fear of squishing it to demise so I carried my arm gingerly, the planet clinging just below my elbow. People assumed I was injured, which softened the normal stares I received, my beard growing like a haystack from my chin, my face creased with dirt, my hair long and alive with flies.
I walked along downtown streets in search of food. A dumpster left unchained outside a greasy spoon seemed inviting so I flipped its lid and wormed in, careful to lift the planet up and away from harm. As my feet flailed out of the dumpster lid I suddenly felt a hand grip my ankle and pull me backward.
“Out of there, filth,” a masculine and official voice said.
I kicked briefly free of the grip before it sought me again, this time unyielding, this time followed by a link of cold steel. A handcuff for my foot. How novel. Another hand clasped the second ankle and soon I was hauled out of the container and onto the concrete which I struck first with my nose, breaking its skin into blood. I maintained the little planet in suspension, away from harm as best I could.
“What’s your name?” the police officer asked.
I had long since given up speaking because it only led to more problems. Police, social workers and judges spoke a lot, always with the same end result to the merry-go-round ride: back out on the grate. I sought to pre-empt the empty ride by saying not a word.
“I asked your name,” the officer said again, this time seizing my ankle, adorned in its cuff, and giving it a twist. The torque contorted my face into displeasure: eyes crushed shut, mouth crooked. Yet still I kept the little planet in suspension, outstretched as if it might soon break away from me and find its own singular and independent orbit.
“You hurt?” He asked, now kneeling beside my head, touching my elbow gently, seeming to examine the planet as if to name it and claim it for himself.
I pulled it away from him.
He stood back up. “Uncooperative, eh?” He said. He gave my ankle another twist for good measure before dropping it.
The planet was unaffected. I could feel cars and centipedes inside it rumbling along bridges and roads, toiling in their way, unaware I was their protector and they were under what resembled pure celestial assault.
It was the only responsibility I held in the world, the only point to existence that I had been given and I damn well would defend it even with this gaunt and sometimes drunken apparatus. The officer had released the free end of the cuff so I was able to stand up. The empty cuff tinkled like raindrops on cement as I dragged it away.
“Where you think you going, buddy?” He said.
I said nothing. I continued to move, slow though my motions were, in the direction of lamps on the street where there just might walk witnesses. The officer walked more stridently and seized my arm, narrowly missing the little planet with his hand's brute force.
“You’re coming with me,” he said. “We have laws against vagrancy in this town.”
And then his finger tapped the little planet. Not hard enough to break it, mind you, but enough to send a tremor through it. I could feel bridges collapse within it, roads sever, centipedes grab their caps as their bodies contorted with the pressure. This made me very sad.
That’s why I tore my arm away from his grip. I did nothing else, just tore it loose and stood there: bug-eyed, wild-haired, gap-toothed, more animal than man as I imagined our creator to be. The officer responded swiftly. He removed a stick from his belt and struck me across the forehead with it. I fell backward and heard him say, “Resisting arrest, eh?”
My eyes remained closed and a thousand constellations bloomed into life behind them, the inside of my skull yet another universe bearing multiplicities of life. But instead of rejoicing for these new forms created, I wept for the old one. I could feel the little planet had burst open from the fall, its amniotic fluid creeping down my arm, its centipedes and cars and roads and bridges falling from protection of its shell to where the atmosphere lay lethal. Rain soon washed it all down into the grate, which steamed and seethed with its presence.
- - -
Michael Fontana lives and writes in beautiful Bella Vista, Arkansas. He is the author of two published novels, Sleeping with Gods and The Sacred Machine.
Thursday, August 28, 2014
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