Each day you emerge from Metro Center station and discover a chorus line of mumbling bums awaiting you on the street. They shuffle, they mutter, they bark, they shout at nothing.
They shout at nothing.
You walk by, wondering the same thing every day: what the hell are they yelling at? Like any metro passenger, you are a practiced eavesdropper, so sometimes you try to make sense of their crazed conversations with subdimensional beings.
“Frippety frop grap!” cries a man resting on a bench. You can’t tell if he’s quoting a Disney movie, imitating Bill Cosby, or speaking his own invented language.
A woman with a tattered Redskins hat stares right behind you and says, “Mama never thought she was going to hell until she saw the hooves.”
“The crack cocaine’s done drove down the price of whore,” wails one grizzled gentlemen dressed in plastic grocery bags. You stop, fascinated by his economic treatise. “Time was a man paid top coin for kitty,” he says, nodding like Socrates to a circle of newspaper boxes. “Now boy wants happy, he just lights the pipe.”
You clutch your briefcase and walk on by.
Every morning in your third floor cubicle you turn on your computer. You call the minutes between the Windows 2000 logo and connecting the last network drive your “thinking time,” and you spend them wondering why you’re not a famous actor or international spy yet. Lately, you’ve been pondering bums.
Weren’t bums once friendly, happy-go-lucky people? Didn’t they do odd jobs and hop the rails singing songs about America’s heartland? Wasn’t Woody Guthrie a bum? Or was he a hobo? Is there a difference? Maybe a hobo is a bum who rides on trains. What do they call bums who ride on, say, the metro?
You’re late for a meeting. Your boss drones on about vertical markets and leveraging thin-client synergy while you consider the larger questions of the universe. Are you seeing an increase in bums waiting for you outside the metro? Is that a function of a slowing economy, a deregulated mental health system, or an ambivalent society marching headlong into psychological entropy?
And who are they talking to?
Someone makes a lame joke about client-server architecture and everyone laughs. “Just give me my goddamn check,” you mutter behind the secretary’s horsey chortle.
What if vagrants are prophets refusing a call from God? The burning bush appears as some sort of argumentative creature requiring shouting and gesticulating. But then, why would God contact people so incompetent to act on his behalf, people who’d take his holy orders and sleep them off in a Thunderbird-induced stupor?
More importantly, why doesn’t he call you?
The gourmet coffee machine in the breakroom is out of Mocha Francais again, and you stalk back to your cubicle and write an angry e-mail demanding to know why. It’s such a simple thing, coffee; how hard can it be to keep a full supply?
A glacier of file folders chips away to the floor, but you don’t bother to pick them up. You review meeting agendas and approve spreadsheets and write documents you never quite remember. Outlook chimes with another appointment and you click the dismiss button; three more e-mails about scheduled system outages flicker on the screen as you delete them.
You launch PlanView to enter last week’s timesheets and wonder if bums punch into some cosmic timeclock and justify every second with some authority. Do they charge time to project GF230, Arguing with Trees? TR761, Stalking Rabid Squirrels in the Park?
As project EE210 scrolls by--Entering Timesheets--you feel envious. Their daily work may be differently worthless than yours, but at least they get to see the stars. Maybe those bums are the evolutionary avatars of new human beings who reject the work-a-day world and live in the province of the mind.
It still doesn’t explain who they’re talking to.
Since there is no project code for Spinning Theories about Vagrancy, you put all forty hours into project EF590, Administrative Time.
After another day successfully feigning importance, you walk to the station and try not to make eye contact with anyone. A man flings a Styrofoam cup full of what you hope is Mountain Dew at a lamppost while he shouts, “Eat that, bitch!”
The notion enters your mind that these people don’t find their invisible companions to be enjoyable at all, that they are stalked by forces from whom they never escape. The lovable imaginary friends who guard us in childhood become imaginary enemies, shedding fur to reveal scales.
“Jesus,” you say under your breath. How depressing. The sun sets behind the station and you shudder.
No explanation makes total sense to you, even after working the problem for months. The curiosity burns in you worse than Night Train, and you decide there’s no way to solve the problem without getting first-hand evidence. You’re going to have to corner a bum and just ask him.
You’re afraid to accost the ones at Metro Center. These are journeyman vagrants who have studied the art of filth-encrusted madness until they have achieved its highest art. Were there Nobel Prizes for urban anomie, this gauntlet on G Street would be headed for Stockholm.
Plus, you don’t need your supervisor seeing you holding an existential conversation with a lunatic, even if that is what you do all day working for him.
You wait until you get home to King Street. There, the bums are more sedate, more comfortable in their madness. They don’t shout at their demons until the sun has gone down and the shadows grow long.
It’s just that time when you leave the station. The few commuters who work as late as you do spread to their secondary forms of transit and you’re standing near the curb beside a man who will make everything clear. He’s even mumbling to himself already. You step closer, leaning to listen.
“Better not make the crows angry anymore,” he whispers.
You make the first move. “Hey! Over here!”
The man turns, raising a dirty paw to his mouth.
“I’m not going to hurt you.” You hold out your hands to prove it. “Peace, brother.”
He takes a step backward anyway.
“I’ve got to ask you a question.”
He whispers into his hand.
“Who the hell are you talking to?”
The man’s face spasms like an invisible sculptor is crushing it as clay.
“Look around you. It’s just you and me here, buddy. Who are you talking to?”
The man shakes his head like he doesn’t understand.
“I’m the only person here who is real.” You stamp on the sidewalk. “I’m the only one who is solid.”
“As solid as I am,” he says, almost too softly to hear.
Just then, your spouse drives up to the curb in the Acura.
“What did you say?” You approach the bum again, but he stands his ground.
A shout comes from your car. “You ready to go, babe?”
“Just a minute,” you say. “I’m asking this bum a question.”
Your spouse pauses. “What bum?”
"If Stephen King and Dave Barry sired a love child, sent him to Ivy League schools, gave him severed puppy heads for toys and mentally disturbed politicians for playmates, then their progeny might be Will Ludwigsen."
--Matthew Warner, author of The Organ Donor and Eyes Everywhere
Oscar Wilde wrote that "the real tragedies of life occur in such an inartistic manner that they hurt us by their entire lack of style." Not satisfied with that, Will Ludwigsen chooses instead to add humor and flair to the horrors that surround us.
Why settle for the lesser of evils in your newspaper when you can read an entire book of stories about urine-drinking, zombie-exploiting, plesiosaur-chopping, alien-dissecting, robotically-enhanced, beefbox-devouring lunatics instead?
This premiere collection by Will Ludwigsen brings together thirteen of his best horror, mystery, and science fiction stories from magazines such as Weird Tales, Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, and Cemetery Dance, plus three originals. Though the work of a single deranged author, these varied tales share a flippant disdain for common decency, courtesy, and sense. Witty and irreverent, they remind us that we have more hope than we think--if only because we have wit and irreverence.