Nick Locke


He watched them bury his student. The pubescent boy, splintered and bifurcated by a semi-truck, was lowered into the gasping maw of the Earth. The dirt wasn’t rich. It was parched, stiff, clumped, and black as the boy’s pupils. When they cast the dirt on the casket, it dived like birds and clattered like clay pigeons. And just like that, he died again and again and again. The dissonant rhythm of his interment contrasted his beatless heart, his heavy body, the acuity of an interminable filial pain. Each clod landed with a resonant knock on the coffin, seeming to be a desperate attempt to wake him. His mother grasped an undersized silver cross, which pressed into the cavern of her throat. With every knock, she winced and squeezed her religion between two fingers. It disappeared under her flesh, pressured by pink nails which whitened into half-moons under strain. When a layer of dirt shrouded him and the incessant thudding ceased, she loosed the symbol to dangle crookedly below her breast. She considered the cold metal and knew it was a trinket, a charmless thing and nothing more. The cicadas sang a chorus and the uninvited flies buzzed a eulogy fit for Dickinson.

The teacher felt lower than low. With the sound of his thoughts ricocheting off the walls of his claustrophobic studio, and nothing better to do, he pushed out his front door into the limpid day. It was a day so pure, so clear it seemed like a cruel joke. The teacher peddled along, his helmet crating his hate-filled thoughts in his ears. He donned reflective gold sunglasses so passers-by had to see themselves, judge themselves, before him. His meandering path raised him higher and higher, eventually depositing him onto the elevated bike trail. The bike path was reconstructed on top of train tracks, layered on top of a running hill, which was probably an elegant landfill, a semi-disguised harbinger of American overconsumption. And under all of that was probably the long-lost founders of Chicago, moldering resolutely under the earth.

The teacher pumped his legs, enjoying their tearing burn and his breathlessness. As he sped up, bugs pelted off him like hail. Butterflies, moths, and even mosquitos attempted to swerve out of his furious path. Drone bees might sting him on occasion, bumble bees drunkenly tickled him with their fuzz, and wasps, without fail, injected him with their hate-filled venom. Crickets leapt. He ducked under dive bombing birds and even a single confused bat shrieked below the copsed afternoon canopy. After redirecting their path, the low flying life didn’t consider the teacher for another second. They preened through the sky, ignorant of how deeply grounded he was, how low, unaware of the all-encompassing strength of this gravity to drag the beautiful things to the earth, and eventually below it.

The mundane shuffle of day camps, training-wheeled toddlers, and sinuous joggers barely registered to him as he brooded. The biker almost missed the shining moment of a lifetime. A tiny Latino boy, no older than five, rode on a power wheel reminiscent of a shrink-rayed black Cadillac. The sun-kissed boy had a fluffy poodle proudly secured in his lap, and easily resting on that poodle’s face were black Terminatoresque sunglasses. The fluffy king had no interest in shaking them off. He was not a plebian mutt, apt to ruffle his hackles and spray water in all directions after a bubble bath. No, this canine had class. The teacher coasted, mouth wide and slack jawed in astonishment. He felt serendipitously blessed, a mirth bubbling in his chest at seeing such a treat. The path was typically peppered with Nike shoes, blaring rap, sagging shrubbery, and chastising parents. They were normal in the most boring way. Not like this. With the small boy zooming around in a car fit for the blue-blooded elite and the puppy sitting so still, so pliant, the teacher thought how out of character, how strange it all was. The beauty of the tiny things pressed a tiny bit of darkness from his heart. He felt his lungs fill with the cool air of the afternoon. The bike moved a little faster. The breeze felt a little lighter. The corners of his mouth itched with the beginnings of a smile. If these children and puppies could find hope, why couldn’t he?

Lost in his thoughts, he was blasted in the throat by a fist-sized fly. It pushed into his cheeks and rattled off his tonsils. Startled, he inhaled a sharp, throaty breath. The fly, an aspiring Jonah, shot through the cavernous esophagus and twirled down inside the stomach of his whale. The kernel of life bloomed inside him, threading through his veins, coursing through his lungs, seeing through his eyes, sensing the air on his skin. The fly filled him—from the hair on his head to the edges of his toenails. The teacher skidded to a stop spraying gravel everywhere. The fly had probably feasted on dog shit, roadkill, rotten garbage, the soupy spoiled things tossed away in black trashcans and alleys that made people hold their noses. And that didn’t even include how the fly ate. The teacher knew they didn’t have a single tooth to gnaw. Instead, they regurgitated their slop, liquefying solid waste, and then slurped the residue through their straw-like proboscis. Now that buzzing carrion was inside him. He gagged, coughed, trilled his throat gathering mucus, and in desperation, gave himself the Heimlich. The fly reverberated his insides. It was no use. It was lodged in his gut.

The shaken teacher got back on his bicycle seat and resumed peddling. He regained his previous speed and when he gasped for breath, the booming sound projected from his mouth with the ferocity of a megaphone. The flies, butterflies, moths, mosquitos, bees, wasps, crickets, birds, and bats blocked his way more insistently. Dense clouds of every flying beast imaginable inundated his path. They blocked the sun. He couldn’t see inches in front of his face. The teacher swerved last minute to avoid a jogger laying on the ground with his hands protecting his head. He wasn’t sure if these were Hitchcock’s Birds or Cinderella’s legion of helpers. He screamed, trying to yell, “What do you want?” The vibrating cloud of life saw their opportunity and flew in a single stream into the teacher’s mouth. As the critters turned inside him, something truly turned inside him. Instead of resisting the persistent rumblings of life, he straightened his back, pinched his shoulders, brought his eyes to the blinding sun, and opened his cavernous throat. He drank them down in a quenching stream because, while they were the creepy-crawlies of the land, they were also life. He saw that now. They were the castaways, the in-betweens which lived on death’s door. Those things which bumped in the night, churned in the soil, solicited shivers, procreated, laid eggs, and kept moving. They didn’t give a damn if their brother was flattened on a pristine window leaving grotesque guts. The teacher admired their resilience, their dedication to flying through the pain, to their single-mindedness.

He spun his legs in a blurred circle, moving faster and faster trying to swallow life itself. With the stream swallowed, he finally felt whole. With the power of all these lithe creatures, he himself became lighter. It started with his head. He had only happy thoughts. He felt a pure ecstasy he had never felt in his life. The hairs on his arms raised, pulling at his flesh. His toes and feet started to lift away from the bike. His stomach lurched upward in a reverse rollercoaster. Even his ears perked. His fingers grasped at the bike until they could no longer and were pulled away by his levity. The bike continued down the path until it lost momentum, twirled in a U-turn, and crashed to the ground.

The teacher closed his eyes, sure this was a dream. He blinked hard. He opened his eyes to the soaring skyline. Life was too short to second-guess because that poisonous self-doubt would settle in his heart and pump through his veins. If a kindhearted boy could be unceremoniously plucked from the earth, why couldn’t he be raised above it? He thought that the same magic that took could also give if one stopped asking why. He swerved in and out of rooftops of squat buildings with kiddie pools in backyards, skimmed the waterfront creating massive waves, and for good measure, zipped low over the awestruck, gaping Latino boy-puppy convoy. The boy pulled the sunglasses down for the impressed puppy king to catch a glance. The nonplussed pup barked hysterically for the first time in his life.

The teacher rocketed parallel to thousand-foot skyscrapers, blasted through the cloud line, and narrowly avoided a commercial airliner before joining a streaking air show. His clattering insides eclipsed the rumbling row of the jets. These flying men, nostalgic for WWI Red Baron dog fights, corrupted themselves in their desire for speed. For them, flying was a means to an end: the jet carried the pilot who deployed the bomb which destroyed the city. In their superficial pursuit of blameless, distant carnage, these flying men would always find themselves slowed. The cruelty of man-made flight could never outstrip organic flight. The conditioned fighter pilots stared wide-eyed and blinkless as the teacher broke the sound barrier leaving them in his penumbra cone of unfathomable speed.

He looped, barrel rolled, stopped on a dime, zig-zagged, and blasted directly toward the sun. The people shaded their eyes, squinting at this single dot, until it faded and faded into a euphoric nothingness. He paused for a moment and considered the Earth that he had departed. The cityscape was portioned into green plots, run through by miniature toy-like cars, bordered by a winking cerulean lake. The objects blurred, so he summarized their broad strokes into pasteled swaths of colors and textures. He knew that when he descended, everything would come back into focus. He’d eventually return to the enlarged sharp edges and weighty malaise below the clouds where gravity was the strongest—to the wretch-inducing scents, the frigid rains, the hysterical crying, the random violence, the senselessness, the purposelessness, the meandering of his existence. But until then, the Chicago founders were under the boy he loved so dearly who was under the landfill which was under the hill which was under the tracks which was under the bike path which was under the puppy. He was on top of it all.

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