You Have No Power Over Me
by T. Sean Steele
I was at Devon’s apartment, straight from the airport, looking for Devon and Kim. Using Keeth’s money they had bought me a plane ticket to Chicago but then, after inviting me to a party here, both of them dropped out of touch. Well, I got on the plane and showed up anyway. I went into the kitchen. There was a scrap of paper taped to the counter in front of the liquor which told me how to make a drink. Three parts tequila. Three parts?
“It means three shots,” said a man next to me.
“If you say so, it’s good enough for me. Do you know where Devon or Kim are?”
“Not only do I not know where they are, I don’t know who they are.”
“This is their party.”
He fluttered his arms and unfolded himself to his full height, seven feet into the air.
“No,” he said. “This is your party.”
Not too much later, the man found me again.
“How are we feeling?” he said.
“We are feeling good,” I said. “But I still can’t find Devon or Kim.”
“I was watching you from the couch,” he said. “You might want to calm down a little.”
“You told me this was my party.”
“I know what I said, but you are hugging everyone until their backs crack. You won’t stop bitching and moaning about some wife you got in Reno. You put a potato in the toilet.”
“So what? It’s a party. I, uh, well, I might as well not even be alive, is that what you’re saying?”
“We’re not talking about life or death.”
“We might be. Where are Devon and Kim?”
“Again, I don’t know who Devon and Kim are. Let’s get you some fresh air. Let’s get you outside. Let’s go out on the porch.”
These days, I was one hundred and ninety pounds and my hair was to my shoulders. I rotated my socks between feet to keep everything fresh. I had murdered the past two months in Los Angeles doing nothing but walking and walking until one night I looked back and my coyotes were dead. Now I was saying hello to anyone I passed on the street. Not only that, I was saying howdy instead of hello. But the tall man said let’s go out on the porch and I said, “This apartment doesn’t have a porch.”
“Yes, it does. Half the party is out there.”
“No, the porch collapsed. A woman killed a bunch of people by making it collapse. Now there’s nothing. Only a garden which the relations of the deceased peed on to death.”
“I’ve already been out there a couple of times,” he told me. “There is without a doubt a porch out there. I’ll show you. Let’s go.”
“Stop telling me to go out there. I don’t want to. I won’t.”
“It’s in your best interest. People are looking for the asshole who left a potato in the toilet. Listen.”
I listened. The word potato murmuring through the air. Fine. I would go with him. But only to the threshold of the porch. I would not go over the threshold. Could he understand that?
“See?” he said. “Porch!”
“Yes… I see it… I think I need to eat something.”
“No eating. Eating shaves twenty years off your life.”
It was a brand new porch. The wood was unfinished. Fifteen or so people were out there. ‘Having a good time.’ But none of them knew! The tall man stepped out but I grabbed his shirt and told him, don’t go out there, this porch is going fall off the building. He laughed and asked why I cared about that. I was the one who said I might as well not even be alive, wasn’t I? “And you’re not going to die,” he said. “No one is going to die out here. If this porch were about to fall we’d all sense it. The hive mind would kick in. The collective, uh… the collective subconscious… the hive mind hasn’t kicked in, so the porch won’t fall. Everything is fine.”
He smiled but suddenly got nervous.
“Stop it,” he said. “I can feel you trying to overwhelm the hive mind.”
If I was overwhelming the hive mind, it wasn’t specifically about the porch. It was about what I saw behind the tall man. The back corner of the porch. Devon and Kim.
“Ah-ha! See over there?” I told the tall man. “Those two are Devon and Kim.”
“The two over there who look like you?”
“I know them. That’s not their names. Or at least they don’t go by those names to me.”
“What do they go by to you?”
“Keith and Beth.”
The porch tunneled down to the two of them. They spotted me and waved me over. It was clear they were not themselves. Their eyes were small and farther away than the rest of their bodies. Thwap! What was that? I looked down at my chest. It was the sound of invisible tethers snapping. I had had two tethers. One attaching me to Kim, the other to Devon. Thwap! I fell backwards and would have fallen completely if not for the tall man. He steadied me and tried to take me over to them.
“They want to talk to you.”
“I can’t talk to them,” I said. “This isn’t right.”
Being seven feet tall he was easily pulling me onto the porch. To make him let go I yanked a handful of flesh on his chest but this didn’t work. He used his free hand to haul a fist into my eye. “So sorry,” he said, and just as quickly he was pulling me back into the kitchen. “Let’s get you seated. You don’t have to talk to anyone you don’t want to. I can’t believe I did that. Time to go back into my hovel for a few months.”
I was out front of the apartment building, the invisible tethers hanging out of my stomach like guts, one eye swollen shut, or really not swollen at all but I thought maybe it would be soon, maybe in the morning.
A man in a wheelchair called to me from the curb:
“Hello, the sir with the backpack.”
He waved a power drill at me.
“I need help getting into my van. The lift doesn’t work anymore unless you use a drill to twist this thing up here to make it rise, but I can’t reach it. Would you mind helping?”
I helped him.
In exchange he offered me a ride.
“Thank you, but I don’t have anywhere to go,” I said solemnly.
“I can still give you a ride. Get in the back. You can keep Duchess company.”
“That’s my son. My name’s Duke, his name is Duchess. Just kidding. His name isn’t actually Duchess. It’s just what I call him.”
I got in the back. Duchess was in a car seat too small for him. He was scribbling all over his own arm with a black marker.
“Hello,” the kid said. “Can you draw?”
“Yes, I can draw,” I said.
“I want a tattoo of a bug. Can you do that?”
“Oh, sure. I used to draw bugs all the time in high school.”
Duke said, “How’s it going back there?”
The boy had fallen asleep but I was still working on the bug.
“Going great,” I said.
“We’re heading to my place of work if that’s OK,” he said. “That is to say, me and Duchess live in the apartment above it.”
“Where do you work?”
“I own and operate a low-end pizza establishment.”
The van rumbled over some ice in the road. Another thing to note about this van was that it looked fire-bombed. The inside, blackened. Char lifting from the floor. Also, the only seat in the whole vehicle was the one Duchess was strapped into. I sat on the floor next to him. A pizza place. Me talking to a little boy. An extreme portion of my mind overwhelmed the rest and understood what was happening here. The last bits of my life stuffed into a capsule tumbling down death’s throat.
First I carried the boy upstairs. I set him down in the hall then went back down for the man.
“Which of us weighs less?”
“He doesn’t have enough wrinkles in his brain, did you know that? In the summers I send him away to a camp. It’s hereditary in his mother. He had a twin but he met his end in the oil dumpster downstairs. Now I do what I can. I’m politically active.”
We went into their apartment which was foam green. Duke clapped and one dim light came on. There was a bird in the corner.
“Since I have you here, can you help me with something? I want to put my television on the wall.”
He showed me the television, turning it on and off.
“This television, but I want it up there in the corner.”
“I don’t know. I’m not particularly handy,” I lied.
He didn’t seem to hear me and rolled himself to two cardboard boxes. “The wall mount came today. Haven’t opened it yet. Let’s see…” He opened one box, but what he took out wasn’t a wall mount. It was a little plastic bubble, as big as his palm, which lit up red which he pressed it. A small red lamp. There were more in the box. Six more red lights. “I didn’t order these. What are these? Whatever.” He opened the other box. This one actually had the wall mount in it. “Here we go. OK. You take this. Slide it around on the wall up-and-down until I say stop and that’s where I’ll want it. Here’s a pencil. And then you gotta cut a hole for the cables.” There on the couch was a reciprocating saw.
In the end Duke didn’t like my work. He couldn’t stand, he explained, so it hurt his neck to have to look so high up at the television.
“And even if I weren’t bound to this chair, usually one sits down to watch television anyway, you know,” he said.
“I only put it where you wanted it.”
He wiped his hands on the wheels of his chair. He hesitated to say something but then he said it anyway, or at least he said something. Whether it was the thing he hesitated to say, I don’t know. This might have been something to replace the thing he hesitated to say.
“No one knows what they’re doing but me,” he said.
I coughed on some drywall dust. It must have been four in the morning.
“No,” I said. “You only know what you’re doing.”
A cloud wiped the moonlight from his face. He slumped over and left down the hall, rolling into another room.
“Hey,” he called.
“You sawed through the entire fucking wall,” he said.
I realized he was telling me this through the hole in the wall. I peered through it. There he was, in his bedroom.
“OK, look,” I said, “you made me do this.”
“What? I forced your hand?”
“No, you asked me to do this.”
“Stop looking through the hole.”
Now Duchess woke up. Earlier he had replaced the reciprocating saw on the couch with himself. His chin and one of his cheeks were shellacked with drool. I froze like he was a snake. But we had no problem. He looked at me pleasantly. He was in a good mood.
“Who are you?”
“I’m the guy who drew the bug on your arm.”
He studied his arms which were smeared in black marker.
“Right there, kind of under that smear.”
“That? That’s pretty spooky. Is it spooky?”
“No, it’s not spooky.”
He wanted to know where his dad was and I told him his dad was in the wall.
“I busted through the wall a bit,” I said, “so you can see him if you want.”
We went over to the wall. I lifted him up and we both looked through.
Duke had set himself up in a little tableau. The red bubble lights arranged around the bedroom. Him with a pillow on his lap, his hands arranged on it, upset but asleep in the chair.
“Looks like he’s asleep,” I said.
“Put me down.”
I put Duchess down and he bolted across the room to the front door, out into the hall. I followed him down the stairs and outside. He didn’t have shoes on and hopped along the frozen sidewalk around the side of the building into the alley. When I caught up to him he was at a dumpster trying to lift its lid. “Help me open this, please.” I pulled it open and held him up again so we could both look inside. It was full of black oil.
“After my brother they got a new dumpster,” Duchess said. “You know what that means.”
“They got a new one because they want it to happen again.”
Then he tried to climb into the dumpster, but he was too small and had no arm strength to hike himself over the lip. I stood there until he got exhausted.
“Please flip me in. Flip me in there!”
“Then just hold me over it.”
“You’ll squirm to make me drop you,” I said, picking him up anyway and holding him over the dumpster face-down plank-wise. Meanwhile I felt all right. My mind had thinned out to nothing. Whatever had happened earlier in the evening worried me not at all. It wasn’t even back there.
“All set, Duchess?”
“Look! It moved!”
“No, that was you spitting.”
I set him down and at the last second he tried to climb up my shoulders and jump into the dumpster. “Hey! No!” It ended up I had to sort of fling him down to the pavement.
“Ow ow ow.”
“If you won’t let me go in then at least let me put something in it.” He took off his sweater. “I’m going to put my sweater in.”
“Do whatever. I’m not a parent.”
I held him up under the shoulders and he dropped the sweater in. It floated on top, then oil pooled in the center, then it sunk. I took him back up to the apartment and he ran off to, again, do whatever. I looked through the hole in the wall then sat down on the couch.
“Do you want some tea?” Duke said through the wall.
“You can’t. The teapot melted.”
“It just did.”
Unprompted he started describing the time he first met me which unless I was seriously mistaken had only been a few hours ago. The description was in extreme detail to the point of being totally unrecognizable. “One of the prides of my life is that it is built on solid ideas, ideas which, if you look at them, wisp into nothing.” I think this part was about how I put the television too high on the wall. Falling asleep. In my pocket my phone rang and I smiled to myself. One of those smiles where you try to break all your teeth. Relief! Who could it be except Keith or Beth? I didn’t pick up. If they were calling me tonight they’d call me tomorrow.