There is a man standing beneath the El. In the shadows. He is wearing a black rain coat like mine. He is wearing black slacks and a black hat. Also, like mine. He is wearing black leather boots of unmistakable high quality. I am not.
I cannot see his face. He appears to be reading a newspaper although it is dark and there are no street lights. In the shadow of the El.
The man is watching me through some square holes he has cut in the newspaper.
I wonder how long he will stand by the trestle, not reading his newspaper. As I walk in the shadows of the buildings, not looking back in his direction.
There is an amusement park three blocks from the El. A large amusement park full of neon lights, cotton candy and rides. And a boardwalk overlooking the sea. I buy a newspaper at the corner newsstand opposite the amusement park. I burn two black holes in the first section with a cigarette.
A misting rain has begun to fall. I am leaning against a wall opposite the entrance inside the amusement park. Listening, reading through the dark holes of my newspaper.
I feel something against my leg, something like a newspaper cut full of holes.
The attendant in the ticket booth who has taken my money has changed his clothes. They look exactly like mine, like those of a man standing beneath a trestle, waiting without a newspaper.
I throw my cigarette at a mange infested dog digging in the garbage. He drags a bone like a human thigh out of the rubble. Into the night.
I examine the remains of the overturned trash cans, see a photograph of a man dressed in a black rain coat, matching black slacks and a black tie. I cannot make out his face. In the darkness. Perhaps, it is mine, perhaps not.
The man in the photograph is wearing black leather boots. I am wearing my best pair of black dress shoes despite the rain.
I may be trapped in the amusement park, may be confronting more serious danger than I could ever have imagined.
I enter a fortune telling lady’s booth. She is dressed like a tourist’s conception of a gypsy. Her hair is tied back in a severe bun that is hidden beneath a silk scarf. She motions me to sit on the customer’s side of her rude wooden table opposite the crystal ball. I see two men dressed exactly alike, holding their black hats close to their eyes passing outside her booth just beyond the slightly parted curtains. Their passing is an opaque shadow grotesquely bending into the grey dark night beyond the crystal ball.
The fortune teller’s voice is harsh and gruff. She seems afraid to speak of death outside her booth. Her eyes betray nothing. Like a photograph cut from a newspaper.
It is all in the cards, she says. The Tarot. The initial overturned card is a laminated photograph of a man dressed in black. I cannot see his face on the table.
Outside the gypsy’s booth the rain is a mist falling on the sea beyond the boardwalk. Two men dressed identically in black exchange sections of a newspaper. Each section is a checkerboard of newsprint and black spaces.
I hear a noise like an elevated train passing overhead. I am momentarily relieved. Perhaps these people outside have overlooked the train.
I see an effigy of a man dressed all in black, from his hat to his dress shoes, hanging from the highest arch of the roller coaster track. I hear the cars crashing down the ramp, screaming out toward the boardwalk.
Outside, I stare down a desolate row of neon shops, each promising hidden pleasures and sudden thrills. The yellow, overhead lights make everything unreal and dreamlike. It is so difficult to focus, so difficult to perceive human shapes amidst the artificial haze. I am most imprudent in this manner, staring out into the artificial light, in full view of anyone who cared to approach me.
“Shine Ya Boots, Mistah?”
“Certainly Not!” I say, stalking off into the nearest darkness, clutching my newspaper to my chest as I go.
I am in a hall of mirrors. Everything is irregular. The hall is the nearest darkness to escape within. A man with a slick black toupee and a face full of smiles takes my money. I see his smile bending in the infinite mirrored hall. The newsprint on his cheek. Distorted in a thousand places.
I hear someone laughing. Far away in the darkness. Beyond the mirrors. “Shine your shoes Mistah.” It is a laughing matter. For someone in full possession of a voice.
I light a cigarette. At least, a thousand different ways.
I am absurdly small at the waist. My chest is abnormally large and my face is exploding through my cheeks. My hat is a mere wrinkle drifting off the top of my head, floating away. Beyond the mirror. Where the sea is a mist.
Inside there is no mist. My hands are elephantine against the glass. My feet enormous. I am afraid to see my eyes stretched out like rubber bands, longer than a taut, live wire.
Someone is counting the veins in my eyes. Calculating the total on an abacus. In a sound chamber. Each vein is a dull metallic sound, the sound of a disk, the sound of a foot moving deliberately somewhere. In the mirrors.
My fingers are like spider legs. Terribly elongated. Reaching out, passing through glass. My hands are full of glass. The mirror gives way. I am a face with someone, dressed as myself, his black hat aslant, his neck taut and slightly awry. Hanging from a rope.
I throw my cigarette toward the sea. My hands are full of glass. Embedded in a thousand places, between the stains of the newsprint. I hear the roller coaster overhead like an elevated train.
I step behind the broken mirror. I am not without fear, lighting a cigarette in my own, my one way. Mirror glass cracks beneath my feet. In a sound chamber. “Shine Ya Boots Mistah!” I open the exit door. A poster sized reproduction of a man dressed in black hangs on the alley wall opposite the exit.
I toss my cigarette at the poster. I cannot see his face. Stretched a thousand times out of shape. A taut rubber band. Breaking in a hall of mirrors.
I hear footsteps in the alleyway. See two black hats. Shadows on the slick pavement, holding a length of rope tied in a noose. I am running like a mange infested dog. Dragging a human thigh.
I am leaning my shoulders against a pillar. Like a man beneath an EL. I pull my hat low over my forehead and turn the collar of my black rain coat over my neck. No one can see my face. The red ash of my cigarette burning the darkness. Perhaps, I will be mistaken for the other men. Those men without faces. I have forgotten about my shoes.
I am aware of the stillness. The dampness in the bones of me, stiffening. The dull pains behind my eyes. The glass beneath my fingernails. The darkness like a satin sheet. A veil.
I am staring out of my darkness. Seeing nothing. The silence is like a dog scratching the cobblestoned pavement, scratching the darkness.
I feel the pillar, the hand on my shoulder, shaking the scream from my lungs, shaking my heart in my chest like a marble eye in a shallow cup.
“How about a match, mistah?”
I am inside the nearest door. Outside, I see a man leaning against a pillar in an relaxed pose. He withdraws a pair of scissors from his black rain coat and begins to cut squares in the newspaper. I see a cigarette smoking on the ground near where he stands. Where I have stood. He is staring in my direction through the squares of newsprint. I see his black leather boots, the noose of rope around his waist as a belt.
I must proceed into the darkness, into the unknown building. I am walking in what appears to be a narrow corridor. There is a railing on either side of the passageway. The floorboards are old and rotten, the overpowering smell of dog urine and of vomit, the sound of the sea close by, beneath the building.
The hallway is irregular. The railings are constructed at odd angles in and away from the pedestrian. The floorboards are built in odd tangents, as well, slanting in upward or downward directions at unexpected intervals. The ceiling does not maintain uniform angles, forcing me to bend and crouch as I walk. What if I were to enter a cul de sac, bending forward into a wall, and am confined in a corner, unable to move, frozen in a grotesque posture, screaming until my mind fibers snapped like too tightly strung wires?
In an open, level space, I lean against the railing, resting. This funhouse, the amusement park is getting the best of me. Of my imagination. Only the darkness is uniform. The night bends like a funhouse floor. The sea rumbles down the rails beyond the boardwalk like a roller coaster. Voices are screaming. I light a match. The red ash of my cigarette burns.
Sufficiently rested, I walk, holding on to the slick varnished railing. The red ash of my cigarette hangs from my lip. A board cracks beneath my left foot. I am too startled to scream. My right foot slips on a patch of a moss like substance and I fall. I hear the bone, my left thigh snap like a piece of dry wood. The red ash raising welts on my chest. My glass wounded hands slip, clawing at splinters. In the vomit. The stains of my insides on the walkway.
The pain is more intense than my fear of the darkness. I drag my lifeless leg from the hole left by the broken plank. My raincoat is no longer black. Is a smear of vomit, of blood and mud like slime. I have lost my hat in the darkness. The sea against the foundation of the funhouse. Rumbling. The irregular bending of the sound down the multi‑leveled passageways.
I am trapped, holding onto the railing. Crippled. I touch a lighted match to my broken cigarette. In the darkness, the sound of leather boots approaching. A rope dragging along a wooden floor. The heavy steps of men collecting bodies. In a sound chamber.
I am desperate. Madly struggling down the railing suddenly bending upward, the floor- corridor declining and I, with it, sliding down a felt ramp into yet another vast unknown.
My voice on the rails, screaming out over the sea.
The felt ramp ends abruptly in the darkness. Two black doors like window shutters spring open at my first touching. I am propelled onto a foam rubber matting, which, despite its softness, does little to dull the excruciating pain the fall causes my broken leg. I am conscious only of the broken bone ripping through my skin.
The impact of my fall upon the matting causes the wall opposite the shuttered doors to become lighted. A full-length poster of a man dressed in black, from his hat, to his leather boots, fills the wall. Just like a laminated Tarot card. In a gypsy’s booth.
I am afraid of death beyond the screaming sea.
In a gypsy’s booth.
The sound of rope dragged down a multi‑leveled walkway.
Leather footsteps in a sound chamber.
Collected bodies tied against a pillar.
The red end of a cigarette burning through a shirt.
Reading newsprint through paper holes like eyes.
Like my eyes.
Cut full of holes.
I cannot see the faces.
The splinters in my thoughts.
In my thighs.
So much worse than glass beneath the skin.
The splitting of flesh about the broken bone.
Marrow on my skin draining like blood.
I feel a dog scratching through the garbage.
Through the vomit.
Clawing at my skin.
Pulling my broken leg bone through the hole in my leg.
Out into the darkness.
Alan Catlin is primarily known for poetry but that doesn’t prevent him for mixing and matching prose and poetry as the subject allows. He has published dozens of full length book and chapbooks, mostly poetry, over the years. Although he is not a genre writer he has somehow managed three Rhysling Prize nominations and a Bram Stoker Award nomination He didn’t win either award.