STRANGE REMEMBRANCES — Frank Smith

The wizard Atlas Sparks was lounging around his apartment on East 11th Street listening to records. In a few hours, he would be kicked out of the Holiday Cocktail Lounge on St. Mark’s Place for trying to destroy the world.

Smudging the vinyl, Atlas maneuvered a record back into its sleeve. He chose a new record from his roommate’s collection and plopped the disc onto the turntable.

Atlas’ life, extended by dabbling in different forms of magic, stretched behind him like a sack of groceries spilled on the sidewalk. The year was 1978. He’d done the whole hermit thing for a few decades, hiding out in the hinterlands, until he’d become tired of listening to the whirs and clicks in his brain. So he did what weirdos do—he moved to New York City.

The record popped and hissed as the needle cut along the groove, amplifying Donna Summer as she sang about feeling love. Between her sultry voice and Giorgio Moroder’s synthesizers, Atlas felt the love.  

Though he was very old, he’d aged in his way: slowly.  Silver amongst the chestnut, lines beside the eyes, a halting gate from old injuries, gray eyes burdened by melancholies—Atlas could pass for the kind of modern man who kept current on his library fines.

Disco, with its synthetic sounds and accelerated rhythms, was everything the future was meant to sound like. Above it all, Donna Summer soared on the sounds of technology, reminding Atlas that humanity still had its place. He was in tune; his third eye was open.

But all things end.

Familiar footsteps trod along the stairs.

Atlas sprung from the couch, clicked off the record player, shelved the records. As he crossed the threshold of his bedroom, the front door clicked open, sucking the air out of the apartment. Keys fell into a ceramic dish. A jacket thumped onto a chair. The TV set dialed on and off. A throat cleared.

“I’m home,” Jeremy hollered. “Anyone here?”

“Back here,” Atlas yelled.

“Were you listening to my records? Don’t lie. I can always tell.” Jeremy said.

Atlas loitered in his bedroom to give Jeremy a few moments to unwind.

Entering the cramped and cluttered living room, Atlas found Jeremy crumpled against the sofa with the top button of his trousers undone, shirt untucked, and a carton of milk in his hand.

“How was work?” Atlas said.

Jeremy sucked milk straight from the carton and moaned.

“Rough day?”

“So hot in these clothes,” Jeremy said, tugging at the collar of his dress shirt. Jeremy was a yeti, a yeti covered in a thick pelt of silvery fur, a yeti who purchased his business-casual wear at a big-and-tall store. When not slumped on the couch like a pile of garbage on the curb, he stood seven feet tall.

Atlas said, “You’re home early.”

“I blew it, man. I always blow it. God, I’m so stupid.” Jeremy finished the carton of milk and let it fall to the floor.

“I’ll get that later,” Atlas said. “What happened?”

“You know our horoscope books, right? The astrology series,” Jeremy said. He, worked in the editorial department of a small publisher of occult books.

“I don’t do horoscopes,” Atlas said.

“Right, well, that must be the one made-up thing you don’t believe in. Whatever. So our horoscopes…. Every year, we do one book for each of the signs—Aries, Taurus, Andorian, Kryptonian, and, well, I guess as it turns out, I’ve been reusing the same text every year.”

“On purpose?”

“I’ve been there fifteen years and no one ever noticed. I have a rotation. I skip years. Y’know ’79 will be all the same junk from ’77, and ’76 was the same as ’78. I’ve been using, basically, the same sets of material all the years I’ve been there. And so what? But, we hired a new production manager, and she started looking into my titles, and….”

Jeremy groaned. He dropped his head into his hands. “What am I going to do?”

“You hated that job, and you were bad at it.”

“You’re bad at your job,” Jeremy bellowed.

“I don’t have a job.”

“Oh, rub it in,” Jeremy said. “I had the publication schedule worked out for, like, years, man. No one else was as on top of their deadlines as me.”

“In retrospect, that mighta been the overestimation whut led to my eventual downfall,” he added.  

“You’ll find a new job.”

“I need money now, Atlas!” He stretched out his arms to indicate how his arms had paid for the grandeur of a sixth-floor walkup with floors slanted so severely that roundish objects collected below the easternmost wainscot.

“Money,” he added.

“Get a job. Don’t get a job. Why do you even want to have a job?” Atlas said. “I tried one once.”

Jeremy stared into the middle distance. He turned on the TV, and stared at Andy Griffith instead. Unable to concentrate on the television, Atlas forced words into the boxes of a magazine crossword puzzle. Time whiled itself away.

“I grew up outside a town like Mayberry, like the Bhutanese version of Mayberry,” Jeremy said. “Everything is groovy bucolic until you get caught eating one of Dzongsar’s goats and then you are persona non-grata.”

“Screaming mobs and pitchforks,” Atlas said, not looking up from his crossword puzzle. “The first time I visited New York, I swam here by way of the Black Sea.”

“Let’s get drunk.”

“I don’t drink,” Atlas said. “Drinking makes me sad.”

“You can watch me get drunk. I’ll show you how to do it with élan, some real pizzazz.”

 

The dimly lit bar was smoky and dank, with floors that reeked of hangovers yet to come. The bartender spilled more drinks than he served and the jukebox vomited up the same Rolling Stones song over and over.

Atlas hummed Donna Summer, recalling her breathy whisper, the echoing whistle of her voice, the mechanical disco rhythm.

“What is that?” Jeremy said.

“Just a song,” Atlas said.

“No, I know that one—you were listening to my records.”

“Of course, you have excellent taste in music.”

Jeremy wandered to the back room with a couple cans of Schaefer. He sunk into a booth, hiding in the shadows. Atlas sat opposite, at the edge of the booth, in the dim light.

When sober, the human mind can’t process the sight of a walking, talking, seven-foot-tall hairy beastie. The reality is too strange, so the brain overlooks the monster or replaces it with the familiar. That tall guy, he’s just really hirsute; no way could he be a yeti—yetis don’t exist.

Once drunk, however, the mind is dulled and horrors creep out of the dark.

“We were meant for better things,” Jeremy said. “I could tear any man here’s arm out of his socket and beat him to death with it. I’ve done it before. I know how I’ll die, brother. Do you? When all this craps out for good, I’ll return to the mountains. That’ll be it. I could be the last of my kind. Who even knows anymore? No one cares.”

“Where was this pizzazz you were going to show me?”

Jeremy drew his legs onto the bench and hugged his knees. He was tall, but lean. “Hey, wizard-man, why don’t you do us a trick?” he said.  

“I’m bored enough, you know.”

“Quit yer yappin’ and show me what you got. I bet they used to be terrified of you.”

“They were.”

Atlas cleared a space on the floor and drew his body into the half-lotus. Slipping into a state of absolute serenity, he closed his eyes and began to chant a well-chewed mantra, one he had repeated during the dark times, the bad times, the evil times. In this Gnostic state, Atlas observed the gears that moved the world, the astral meaning of everything, how to create—and where to destroy.

His chanting drew stares from the other patrons of the bar—bums and punks, uptown kids looking for downtown dirt, downtown dirt looking for cheap drinks. Like some kind of out-of-touch throwback to the Village’s bohemian years, Atlas created a hip, mumbo-jumbo kinda vibe that threatened to turn the dingy bar into a meditation retreat. People were getting annoyed. Plus, Atlas was blocking the jukebox.

After a few freaked-out drunks complained, the bartender decided he had to do something. Throwing down his rag, he wobbled over to the jukebox.

“What’s this?” said the bartender. He spoke with a heavy Ukrainian accent.

“End of the world, bub,” Jeremy said.

“Tell your friend to take it outside,” he said, nudging Atlas with his foot. “End of the world is bad for business.”

“Careful,” Jeremy warned. “You break him out of his chant, and it all falls apart.”

The low murmuring of Atlas’ mantra began to absorb all the sound in the bar—slurred voices, the jukebox, traffic noises creeping in through the poorly insulated windows. Atlas drew from the energy surrounding the room, going deeper into a meditative state as he began to align the necessary powers to break the world.

​_“Tell your friend to cut it out,” said the bartender.

“Look at me,” Jeremy said. “Look at me with your real eyes. Tell me what you see.”

Yellow eyes flashed in the darkness.

Nearly tripping over a chair, the bartender backed away. He raised his hands in the sign of the Evil Eye.

“Why would you do this?” he said. “My bar is a nice place. This is a home. We are good people here. We are all good people. Even you. Stop what you are doing. We are good people.”

The bar went silent. No more talking. No more Rolling Stones. Mouths moved without voices. A bottle fell to the floor and shattered noiselessly.

Home. This place is a home, he’d said.

Atlas’ knees popped as he rose from the dusty floor. The jukebox kicked back to life—playing a Donna Summer song not in its track listing.  

“You saved the world tonight, old man,” Atlas said.

 

Outside, the streets were slick with rain. Streetlights reflected in the puddles gathered by the curbs. The city in stark relief.

“You ever feel like you’re not a part of this place?” Jeremy said.  

“The city?”

“No, the whole world, like there’s something wrong about you, and you don’t fit.”

Atlas looked at his seven-foot-tall friend, his stooped shoulders and yellow fangs; his long, hairy arms protruding from the sleeves of his jacket; the digital wristwatch buried somewhere in the fur; his intolerably low tolerance for alcohol; his yeti-ness, his everything.

“You do fine,” he said. But Jeremy wasn’t listening.

“Look at that beauty,” Jeremy said.

The memory of a woman stood under a streetlight. She held a hand out from under her umbrella to check the rain. Her clothing was modern, though a little out of fashion. She had been a Madison Avenue secretary, or a typist at a law firm, or a mother working part-time in the city, or a graduate student picking up some office work.

She could see Jeremy and Atlas, and she smiled.

The low-beam headlights on a Chevy Impala passed right through her and she was gone.

Magic is real, but it is old, and it has been on Earth a very long time. There are soft places where the hidden levels of reality bleed through. Atlas and Jeremy’s ancestors wandered through one of these soft places long ago and never found their way home. Now they work crossword puzzles. They drink and have sex. They take jobs and lose them. They misunderstand what the stars tell them. They have lost their way.