Purgatory Tactics

Man, shit. It smells like a hospital in here. All rubber and get-well-soon balloons, tanks of gas, linoleum dosed with cleaning supplies. Stacks of grim colors, floor to ceiling plastic heart replacements destined for the landfill. Party City is a fucked up place when you’re all alone, late at night.

Nobody comes to buy supplies for a party this late. Why is this place even open? Maybe they already closed, and I just didn’t hear cuz I’m so high? Shit. Now I’ll have to survive by hunting piƱatas and eating their shitty stale candy. Shit shit shit. I’m gonna have to sleep in here, head on a god damned pile of cocktail napkins that say “CHEERS!” on them. I’ll wake up and have to pretend I just got here early to buy supplies for my nephew’s fuckin’ giraffe-themed birthday party. Annnnd yup, there’s the cash registers, nobody there. Ghost town. I’m fuckin’ locked in, and I can’t get out.

Okay, no, wait. That’s gotta be the weed talking. I shoulda listened to Kev. Definitely shouldn’t have eaten that second brownie. Fuck me. There’s no way they leave the muzak playing all night, right? Calm down. It’s just a friggin’ giant empty party store. No big. Gonna just walk around and try to remember why I’m here. Get the heart back down from orbit.

Man, what even is this crap? Cowboy parties? Ice cream parties? Baptism parties? Who the hell has the time to celebrate gettin’ dunked in the Lord’s holy juices? How come I don’t ever get invited to ice cream parties, dude? Casino themed party bullshit? Mad hatter tea party, mass produced! “Sassy” versus “classy” bachelorette parties, okay, society is just straight doomed. Why is Party City selling underwear that says “Bachelorette” on it? I didn’t need to know that. Fuck, I did not need to know that existed.

Oh shit, there’s Kevin at the end of the aisle! Don’t yell. Keep it cool. Yelling in a quiet Party City is not cool, dude. Like, worse than yelling in the library. They’ll call the cops on you for that crap, for certain.

Dodge the endcaps, try to find which aisle he’s going down. Themed plastic table settings. Nope. Costumes. Nope. Balloons that have jokes on them. There he is! Wait, why are there nunchucks?

“Kevin, what the hell are we doing here? Who in fuck’s name dresses their kids up as Amelia Earhart and Abe Lincoln?”

Kevin laughs. “What are you even talking about?”

“Dude, back over here, have you seen the costume aisle?” We walk through the warehouse from the end of Indiana Jones, except the evidence crates are all party supplies for the kinds of parties I would run from. It’s worse than having God hiding in his weird little gold house somewhere, knowing that God’s never been in this fuckin’ place. I really doubt he’d be able to sleep in a fake pirate chest that says “It’s Yarrr Birthday!” on it.

I point down the costume aisle, and then shove my hands as far into my sweatshirt pockets as they’ll go.

Kevin laughs, real loud. “Wow, now I kinda want to buy a plastic ninja sword.” He swings it towards me, menacing grin, and I back up, trying to laugh all normal.

We wander through the endless aisles. Kevin points the sword at a plastic limbo set. “Hey, did you know that the original tradition had people limbo from the lowest up to the highest bar? It was, like, signaling a release of tension, or a growing from death back into life, or some shit.” He stares at me. I blink a few times.

Handing me the sword, Kevin says “Hold it up!” Then he makes like it’s a limbo bar and laughs his way under it. “Guess when it got popularized we made it into a fuggin’ competition.”

“I guess we’d rather pretend we can beat death,” I say, carefully sliding the sword back on a shelf in between plastic champagne flutes that proclaim “It’s a Boy!” I glance up at the fluorescent lights. My heart is pounding, still. I wanna lie down. I want to see the stars or the sun or hear some other humans talking. But all I can see is floor-to-ceiling plastic. The muzak is playing a truly shit instrumental rendition of “Manic Monday”. Why did we come here?

Kevin hits me in the ear with the sword, giggling. “Dude, lighten the hell up!”

I hear myself ask him, “Why are we here, man?” and it sounds even stupider out loud.

“You’re the one that thought it would be funny.” He hacks over a cardboard Chewbacca, making whooshing noises. It drifts to the ground and makes a soft splut. “You were right, man, this place is hilarious late at night.”

Guess he can’t hear my heart trying to lurch back out of this limbo. I stand there, and I can feel my fists stretching my hoodie out and down to match the passing time as it seeps across the chlorine-soaked floor of fuckin’ Party City, sliding under a blacked-out wookie.



Hoo boy, you humans would probably envy my job. If you knew it existed, or if I could even explain to you what it was. I am like unto a metaphor contractor, a literal creator-from-nothing, crafting from the whole cloth that which was not but now… IS.

It sounds cool when I frame it like that, like I might be able to step into some glowing robes and really God the hell out of it. But I spent this entire last year specifying the finer details of a micro-ecology that lives inside what you might call the colon of an alien pig, a species that lives in the stretches of dense storms in the thicker regions on a gaseous planet so far outside your light cone you’d be baffled if I tried to explain the distance.

An entire year’s worth of my work, and for what? I mean, it’s an impressively creative apparently-evolved set of intertangled sub-biomes within the gut of the pig. My team made quite the hog. But now, what? We’ve got another new complicated component to add on to the universe. I’m some sort of downloadable content slave. Pay me, oh powers that be, and I’ll make sure that there are new cosmetics for your galactic-scale games. Somebody might study it later, after my work’s been fully disguised by millions of years of evolution.

I’ve seen your movies, you know. I wish I was a cool and mysterious god-like being, seeding the universe with life for my own majestic, unknown, unknowable purposes. Instead I’m just a wage slave like you. At a different plane, but nonetheless. Know that you are not alone, mortals, and tremble.

Or don’t.

Good grief. I just found out that gas planet got wiped by another scheduled supernova event. That floating omnivorous gas hog my team and I carefully built over the last year is gone, already. Why do I even bother? We could argue for reinstantiation elsewhere outside of that loop, but…

I’m starting to think about downgrading and coming to join you. The price is so expensive, though. Memories are hard to let go of; so many millions of years. And I’d be mortal. Not even knowing when a supernova is coming to strip my civilization’s skin from the bones of its planet. Doesn’t seem worth it.

So, instead, dreaming in my off time, I specify new stories of my own devising. I spin new species to rise through the emergent planes and spread through the stars. Role playing as one of your gods. Instead of saying “Entertain me, mortals,” I am inspired by the way you entertain each other in the face of inevitable entropy and death.

Keep going, puny humans. Keep us all afloat out here with your impossible hopes and dreams. We’re not laughing. I swear it.



We needed color back in our lives. We needed blood rushing through our shouting lungs. Finally, it was just me, the diplomat, and of course his translator. “Good morning, Mr. Krznykev,” I said as he clambered into the car; I’m sure to have mispronounced his name, but I try my best. All the bland coffee and beige back and forth in windowless rooms had left us all drained. After entire week of dry, forgettable diplomatic meetings starved of wit by the translation barrier, I confess: I was truly excited to get to show the representative from Rorzhakistan a game of real, live American football.

As we rode smoothly in the armored car to the stadium, I tried not to get carried away. But even still, I could tell it was reaching my cheeks. Reaching my speech, in the quavers of emotion I’m sure the diplomat could hear well before his translator distilled the drips of words quietly in his ear. Hell, the excitement seemed to be reaching the world out of the tinted windows, where the sky was bluer than dreams.

“Just look at that big blue sky,” I said with a grin, rubbing my hands together. “I really think you are going to enjoy this, today.”

Mr. Krznykev looked annoyed, listening to the translator. Then he turned to her and said something quietly. I patiently waited, letting the colors sink back into me. “I still do not understand. Is it really… necessary that we attend this ceremony?” she said at last, not meeting my gaze. He said something sharp, pointedly looking between me and the world outside the windows. “We have much work to do,” she said.

“Yes, I know. But this will be good, to take our mind off that work for a while. A break.” I paused. “Plus, it may help your understanding of our American culture to see how we have fun!”

He nodded while she translated in hushed tones. There was a resigned look on his face. I could see it hang across his brow. But I was going to break through to him, somehow! And here we were. The vast concrete cavern loomed over us, welcoming all to the spectacle.

We hustled and bustled through the VIP gate. The translator was clearly gawping at all the strangely costumed fans in their red and orange, the few rabid visiting folks standing out as the enemy in blue and gold. Our security detail whisked us through the crowds to our box seats at the top of the stadium. “Ahh, living in style!” I smiled and gestured for them to take a seat in the comfortable chairs. “I will get any food or beverages you need. Please let me know!”

I bowed to the translator slightly, and deeper to Mr. Krznykev. She covered her mouth and curtsied back. The diplomat just looked at me and nodded. Then he turned, took his coat off, and plonked himself down in a seat, arms crossed.

We all surveyed the field for a time, and sipped flavored waters. For the life of me I could not get them to try the local delicacy of deep-fried mushrooms wrapped in bacon. Finally, the translator got through to me that Mr. Krznykev did not eat bacon.

“What about you?” I winked at her, holding one out, knowing Mr. Krznykev was not paying attention.

She got an angry look in her eyes and shook her head quite vigorously. “No, thank you,” she said, but it was like a parrying stab. In retrospect, I should have assumed that Rorzhakistanis might not appreciate the finer tastes of American living.

“Okay, okay, I’m sorry.” I glanced down at the field. “Look, the game is about to begin!”

The home team rushed out onto the field, blasting their way through a large plastic banner to a bombastic song, blaring through the stadium.. They waved their bright red helmets in the air. Everyone in the stadium was electric.

Two men ran at each other on the field, sprinting headlong. A red helmet crunched into a gold one, clanging with a force the entire crowd could feel. They bounced off each other like rag dolls, only to be piled on by two more roaring teammates, and then two more, all trying to push the pile of people toward their end zone.

The red and orange tide was carrying the mass toward victory, slowly. I must admit, my excitement got the better of me as I let out a loud “WHOOOOP!” along with the roaring crowd. The stadium shook with the bellowing fans.

Suddenly I noticed the translator waving gently at me, trying to get my attention. She pointed at Mr. Krznykev, who covered his face. “What is going on here?” she yelled. “I thought football had a ball!”

I shake my head. “It used to,” I yelled back. The diplomat turned to me with a look of shock on his face, pained and red. Knowing they probably couldn’t even hear me over the surging roars of the crowd, I smiled wide in their faces and raised a fist. “This is the politician drafting league!” I shouted. “This is politics, baby!”

The crowd roared as the home team pushed one of the blue and gold visitors into the end zone. “For shame,” I thought. The enemy is making this far too easy.



Wittened hashen puffs of snowly sparkledown past the streetcar’s windows, framing all the cities as a new formeration we had not seen before or since. In the patterns, we thought we sawed out a shape for ourselves. But like all these things, it was mere illusion, a mirror of sense for our nonsense. It reflected back something that we cannot say, now. On this state, your estate so much larger than my dwelling.

Sitting hared in the humble bumpling streetcar, the silence outside settled on our mind’s ears like a starkled tragedy of forms, of black eating white, of white subsuiting and betraying blackness. But the crumbling sounds inside fragmented too. The mesmerated bumps hid under the blankling snow, retreating and giving up before we felt them in our bones and our bodilys.

It’s extremely difficult to descript the moment when language passes, finally, from our scented grasp. Slidles and slips like a ladled soup of letters and phrased sunlight into the gutters and tracts of goodbye.

We once had wives, and sons and daughters, and rambling mansions filled with standoffish cats or aristocratic dogs. Stables and horses, servants or stewarded, the very core of our souls, our family. Now gone and dusted underling softened blank tooled snow.

It’s a feat that’s difficult to admit. And hard-earned peak still to summit. Perhaps it is finally time to open wide and cravenly craft the finality. We lost the eye in that snowstorm. There isn’t us anymore.


Delivery Guy


The doorbell rings. You open it, expecting your takeout order, but instead a goofy looking dude in a blue jumpsuit and matching hat is holding an arrangement of flowers out at you.

“Flowers for, uhh, Clara Terig-uh-ulsch?” Impressive. He’s butchered your last name worse than most. You glare at him, and he nervously paws at the frizzy hair flying out from under his hat. He stares at you, gesturing with the flowers. You don’t take them. They can’t be for you.

“They can’t be for me,” you hear yourself say.

“But you’re… Clara?” he asks, plaintively, as he checks an app on his phone.

“Yes. But they’re not for me.” You just moved to this damn town. There’s no way Jo would have tracked you down here; you’re not on very good terms after the way that relationship ended. The only people who know your address are your dad and the crinkly old delivery woman at the Thai place down the street. Neither of them seems like a bouquet-based assassin, trying to accidentally (or otherwise) murder your current steady state of emotional avoidance.

“You have to take them!” he says. “They must be from a secret admirer or something. At least read the card.” He points at an ornate piece of paper riding through the jungle of dyed carnations on a stick of plastic.

You roll your eyes and start to close the door. “Nope,” you say. “Sorry, guy.”

“I’ll set them down right here, then!” he says, suddenly defiant.

“And I’ll report you for littering,” you say all deadpan. You don’t really mean it, but you feel a bit bad when you see his crestfallen face.

“Look. I don’t know anyone,” you say. “I don’t want creepy stalker flowers. Just give them to some nice old lady on the street. Don’t tell your boss. Everything works out.”

“Why don’t you just take them and pass them along, then?” he asks.

You stare at him for a moment “…” You’re about to knock the damn flowers out of his hand or slap the guy. You can feel the flush of anger in your cheeks, a strange electricity returning to a long-dead circuit. “Count to ten,” you say under your breath.

He clearly reads the steam coming out of your ears. “Okay okay, I’m sorry Miss, uh Terugul– uh, Clara.” He does a weird kind of pained bow, and tips his dopey little embroidered hat that reads “Freedom Flowers”.

“That’s alright. They’re not for me,” you say, meeting his gaze and willing him to understand. “Now have a good day — and leave me alone.”

“Okay–” he says, and you semi-accidentally slam the door, throwing the deadbolt immediately. “Sorry!” you hear him say as he walks back down the concrete steps. He sounds sincere and you feel slightly bad. But mostly you’re just hungry. Where’s that damn food?


“So, yeah. I know it’s weird to come to one of these and say this, but I’m not addicted to a particular drug. I’m addicted to an act. No, yeah, no… it’s not a sex thing. It’s a flower thing. Don’t laugh, but it does sound like a joke. I understand that. Flowers are my drug.

“Yeah, I know, it’s confusing me too. I work as a delivery driver for a florist. And I can’t stop. I mean, when I get done, I just go home and sit there watching TV, with the demand itching through my scalp. I have a basic need, unmet, crawling around in my belly, unsatisfied by gift giving or relationships or any of that. I’ve tried it all.

“The only thing that works, that gets me high, uhh, as it were… is just, uhh, delivering flowers to strangers. It’s not the joy of seeing the surprised faces, though there is that. There is that… It’s more… it’s like… well, it’s like a weird guessing game. Trying to predict from the arrangement what the story is, getting a window into how they are feeling from how the recip reacts. Cold, apology failed. Giggling, early lovebirds. Blank, confused dementia. Smiles with something hard behind them, a story I can’t quite see the edges of.

“Anyway, it’s got me in a bad way. So uh, yeah. My name is Darren, and I’m addicted to delivering flowers.”


It’s a week later, and you’ve forgotten about the mistaken flowers. So you’re not sure what to feel when you look through the peephole and see that same guy with the blue jumpsuit and matching hat holding flowers.

You open the door, exasperated. “Hi again.”

“Hi,” he says, but before he can get a word in, you start in.

“Look, these are not for me. Can you just tell your boss or whoever to save the money and just not deliver anything to here?” You glare at him.

“Well, uh, look. They are for you. I’ve got a problem.” He sounds so serious.

“It’s not that bad,” you say. “It’s just a case of mistaken identity. I’m sure you get that all the time.”

Then he whips his hat off and throws it on the ground. “No, look. I have a problem. I like to try to deliver extra arrangements to random people. Just to see their reaction.”

“Wait. Have you been stalking me?” Feeling your blood start to boil over, you brandish your phone at him like a sword hilt.

“N-n-no, nothing like that. Just random selection.” He sheepishly points at your mailbox. “Your name’s right there, Clara.”

“Oh. Right.” You blink. “Why the hell are you back? What do you think you’re doing?”

“You just, uhh… you’re the only person who hasn’t just taken the flowers. Everyone else just takes it in stride, the uh, the excitement of a secret admirer or whatever.” He runs a hand through his hair. “But now it’s not very secret. Will you take these flowers?”

“No. I hate flowers. Well, no. I hate killing them to put them on a table,” you say. It sounds stupid when you say it out loud. But he doesn’t get all beaten down. In fact, when you say you hate flowers, you could swear that made him smile.

“Have dinner with me sometime then?” He gingerly removes the card from the arrangement and hands it to you. “I’ll just throw these out, I guess.” He looks at the flowers, grinning, and back at you.

You say nothing, but you can’t stop the smile that begins to grow. “I’ll think about it,” you say.

“I’m Darren. It was nice to meet you, Clara.” He grabs his hat from the ground and does an intentionally funny little flourish with it, and you can’t keep your smile from growing a little bigger. Damn it.

“Bye,” you say, as you close the door, fiddling with the card and failing to convince yourself to just throw it away.

You flip it open. “Your Secret Admirer,” it reads, with the word Secret crossed out and a phone number underneath. And damned if it doesn’t make you smile to think about having dinner with the dopey flower guy, Darren. Get a grip, you tell yourself, as you carefully put the card on top of a stack of unopened mail. You know what happens next.




“Excuse me, madame. We have to lock the gate at seven bells,” James says, leaning on a cane and carefully not looking my way.

“Are you the caretaker?” I ask, though I already know that he is.

“Yes, ma’am.” He tenses, and I realize he’s expecting me to complain about the weeds around my mother’s gravestone.

“Well, a lovely job you are doing.” I pointedly pore over his face, willing him to meet my gaze so I can see his eyes like a full moon, but he stares off into the distance.

“Thank you, ma’am,” he says, coughing gently.

I hear the bells, and so I sigh lightly and curtsy his way. “A good evening to you, sir.” Making a big show of picking up my purse and hat from beside the gravestone, I run my fingertips along the flowers I have left for Mother. I turn, set my back, and bustle along towards the gate far off in the distance.

Not for the first time, I wonder how a hillside with this many graves belongs in a town this small. And still I think about wars and dying in battle and bitter spouses and resentful children and jealous murders and lonely heartbreak and the worst things we all do to each other.

Of course, I’m really here to investigate the rumors that have spread about this cemetery. So although James thinks he sees me walk out the gate, I use a line of trees to work my way back in before he coughs his way to the lock. While I wait for him to return to his cottage, I lean against a large, gaudy marble monstrosity with a larger-than-human angel atop it, marked only with the name “SMITH”. Noticed it earlier, it obscures me from his rounds. Didn’t even realize this spot would give me a lovely view of the purple sky dimming over the woods at the edge of the hilltop. And it’s about now that I wonder what I really want to find, here.

Do I really believe that ghosts can sing? Do I want to hear my mother’s voice, one last time? What would I even say to her, if she could hear?

The wind picks up. I’m quite glad now that I planned and brought an extra shawl. As I lean down towards my bag, I hear a pattern in the leaves and branches moving in the gusts of chilly night air.

It was described to me as singing. Choral, in the distance, in the sky, in the ground. I was told sometimes it sounded like screaming. I also heard that it was just a loud and heated argument, carried on for eons, between ghostly entities long gone. But I’m hearing it carried on the breeze, it’s getting louder now, and I’m certain even from these short snatches that it is a communal song.

The hairs on my arms and the back of my neck are standing up, like an unseen lightning storm is brewing. The wind makes the clouds dance past the moon in tatters, flicking the wan light like a distant, vast, and cold candle. Gravestones live up to all the cliches late at night, when one is alone in the place that they meet, a clandestine group of spies hiding secrets of the world of the dead from us.

But I must know what this ghostly song is. So I clutch my shawl to my chest, and strike out up the hill, glancing at each shape and shadow.

I feel like I am getting closer to the voices, when all of a sudden I realize there is a scraping in the gravel ahead. Schhhhhk schhhhk, pt. Schhhhk shhhhk, pt. A light wobbles from behind a tree. My mind conjures the terror of a ghost in shackles, white globes for eyes and a glowing black shroud, lurching toward me from the darkness.

The figure lifts a ghastly lamp and points it my way. I don’t even scream. It’s as if I’m frozen in a moonbeam. Schhhhk schhhhhk, pt.

“Ma’am, what in the seven hells are you still doing out here?”

My heart tries to return down my throat. It’s just James. The sound was just the caretaker, shuffling with his cane. Worried about me, not an angry spirit.

“I’m sorry,” I squeak out. “I just wanted… to hear them. How did you know I was here?”

“I’ve heard them near every night for more’n forty years. I can tell when they’re not happy.”

I don’t know them well enough to tell. It sounds like the wind is performing a choral piece by a long-dead composer. “Although it’s… odd…” (I pause to listen for a while.) “They sound kind of… pleased. To me. You know, my mother always said she enjoyed singing, long ago, when she was young. It wouldn’t surprise me if she sang as a ghost.”

James grunts, noncommittal, and settles his weight over his cane, head down, listening to the voices in the wind. “I think they’re…” he says, but it gets caught and carried away by a gust.


He finally looks me straight in the eye. “I think it’s their way of working through the things they couldn’t figure while alive.”

I look up at the cloudy night sky, where a few stars peek through the moving banks of gray-black and the moon is an ominous glow behind them. Then I look back at him, and he has turned away, back bent, coughing silently. “So, what is the curse that settles on me, now? After hearing their song, do I find myself the caretaker when I wake up in the morning, cursed to a limbo of singing with the ghosts?”

“Good grief, woman. Where do you get such ideas from? You just get to know my story, now. And you get to listen to them sing. That’s all.” He turns and gestures towards the little cottage with its warm yellow windows. “If it’s not too odd, come in for tea?”

My legs have gotten a bit wobbly as night has set; I do feel like I could use a sit. “I would love to, James.”

“Call me Jim,” he says, as I help him back onto the path. He tries to offer me an arm, but as he wobbles on the cane, that just feels ridiculous. He takes my hand in his, and the chorale seems to decrescendo behind us, pianissimo, until it is just the wind in the trees. “What’s your name, anyway, ma’am?”



“Know what ‘hapax legomenon’ means?” he asked me.

“When your word only shows up once over the entire work, er, corpus, whatever?” I say.

“Yup. Wouldn’t it be weird if we could have a long conversation, never repeating ourselves?”

“Seems almost impossible.”

“Still, imagine writing stories intentionally like that.”

“Hardly possible for natural prose, then. But which would be trickiest? The multiple ‘the’s and ‘a’s gotta be tough.”

“The’s definitely rough. Fine, articles allowed. And awful hard without saying ‘be’, just hit ‘be’ twice in one go!”

“How about tenses or homonyms? Can ya reuse them? And abbreviating? Cheating by way of styling, slangifying?”

“Nope. Pretty sure the whole thing’d fall apart, fast. Couldn’t communicate honestly… anything valuable anyway.”

“Dunno, dude. Humans are sometimes super damned sneaky.”

“So? Uhh… why you even getting at, here?”

“Zipf’s law. Information compression. Maybe we’d realize some bitter fact on language affecting thoughts. Finally run outta words. Be forced to really speak the truth.”

“Yeah, right. Get real, man.”


cat writing/short/hapax | tr '[:space:]' '[\n*]' | tr -d '[:punct:]' | tr '[:upper:]' '[:lower:]' | grep -v "^\s*$" | sort | uniq -c | sort -bnr | head