By Michael Fontana
Back in the 1980s, it was simple enough for me to enter a drug store, fake a raspy cough, and sign the register for a bottle of codeine cough syrup. Sure it tasted chalky but its physical thickness gradually translated into a head thick with sleepiness and nausea, nodding down into myself to listen to the hum at the center of my being.
I always had a hankering for hot tea and spicy fried rice on the nod so one night I tottered down to the Chinese restaurant nearest my apartment. They kept the interior dark but the various dragons on kimonos and screens kept my eyes busy with their glitter. I hunkered down in a rear booth and breathed the steam from my green tea. The food was salty but good, tickling my throat, sweet crunch of sprouts and snow pea pods.
In the thick of this rapture, my friend Bill the Millipede visited me. It wasn’t clear whether Bill was an apparition of the codeine or if he was as real as me, assuming of course that I was real. The way things hummed and vibrated in that space, it was difficult to translate anything into reality, including myself.
Bill sat in my booth with a squeak of faux leather on his feelers. “What’s shaking, hombre?”
“You sound like John Wayne.”
“I’m into westerns. Spaghetti westerns are especially toothsome. The man with no name entering a town and dispensing justice with a hot iron hand.”
“Is there a point to this?” I asked this with my forehead in the palm of my hand, a headache growing slowly like a violet inside my skull.
“I’ve come to talk to you about the direction your life is taking.”
“It’s not taking a direction. It’s totally inert like a brick outside a human hand.”
“No, this is a direction. A poor one for a man of your aptitudes.”
“What kind of aptitudes?”
“You have a certain, I don’t know, flourish with words.”
“It doesn’t pay. Little magazines dispense themselves as rich reward.”
“There are jobs to supplement one’s creativity.”
“Who’s going to hire me like this?”
“Are we indulging in self-pity? It isn’t very becoming.”
I took a loud sip of tea. The rings in the surface contorted my face like a funhouse mirror. “It’s not self-pity. It’s pragmatism.”
“There’s nothing pragmatic about a poor man’s junkie.”
“It’s not like I ride the white horse. This is just goofs.”
“The stuff does alter your consciousness. Take, for example, the fact that you’re conversing with a millipede.”
“I’ll take it,” I said. A waitress sauntered by and gave me a look but then simply nodded and moved on.
“This is very Burruoughsian, you know. The typewriter bug from Naked Lunch.””Book or movie?”
“No matter. Cronenberg’s just as warped as Burroughs. They both fed off their own respective forms of junk.”
“This is reducing your creativity, not enhancing it. Don’t go romanticizing addicts like they have some key to a threshold of insight. Their brains are on the rack, being stretched to the limit. Not in a pretty way.”
“I make sure I create something every time I gobble down one of these bottles.”
“Some people create after every orgasm as well. There are saner ways to play with consciousness.” Bill fluttered his many legs like a wave in the stands of a stadium.
“You wouldn’t be here if I didn’t toy with my consciousness. I’ve decided that you’re a figment of my imagination. An entertaining figment, but a figment no less.”
“You think so? Then why am I able to do this?” With that he slapped a dozen or so feet into my teakettle and knocked it over so its luxurious green fluid seeped into the pale tablecloth like a moist lesion.
“Because I allowed you to,” I said, mopping at my trousers with a napkin.
“Then explain this.” Now he lunged across the table and kissed me with his tiny prickly lips. I swore I tasted tongue behind them.
“You all right, sir?” The waitress had returned and was methodically patting the wet tablecloth with a damp rag of her own.
I no longer saw Bill. “Fine,” I said, remembering to add a happy lilt to my voice, remembering to force a smile.
She smiled back and raised her sleeve. Out if its white depths came a dozen or so black and furry arms, thin as razors, all bent on tickling my head. That’s when I stood up gradually, brushed her arms away, hung the napkin from my belt so it covered up the growing wet spot on my crotch, and stepped away from t he table like it was a land mine.
Michael Fontana has been published in a variety of journals, electronic and otherwise. His most recent work has appeared in Arcane Twilight, Rope and Wire, Slow Trains, and Clockwise Cat. He works at a community mental health center in northwest Arkansas.
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