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The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes

Barbarism Begins at Home
William Better

So there's this guy and he's walking to class. His walk to class from his apartment is typically a half-mile, maybe more but probably less. It feels longer when he's heading back to his apartment, but on his way to class a half-mile seems like an appropriate distance designation. Today is different though. Today he is heroic and frugal and maybe even heroically frugal. It may be better to use the terms "heroic" and "frugal" independently of each other for now. Everyone loves thrifty people when they don't need favors from them.

He walks the half-mile, the same one, every god-damn day, to his classes, which bore and excite him in accordance with the ebb and flow of the quarter. The quarter, the unit of measure in an unchanging wave that has represented the last two years of his life, is only beginning, again, in June, as it began in March and will again in September. The hero's life is schedules folded into schedules, and there's a part of him that likes that. It's not irregular for him to line schedules up, side by side, into the far future, where the word "plan" represents nothing more than an abstract set of desired outcomes. However, he is subject to some forces which cause him to do unprecedented or at least slightly unpredictable things.

Regardless of whatever scientific, pseudo-scientific, or unscientific forces are behind the hero's behavior on a day-to-day basis, today his actions are unusual. He abandons banal, self-imposed servitude to the mundane and strikes out to do something different.

On this different today, which isn't today, our hero uses the two hours between his classes to walk West towards Half-Price Books, which is a four mile epic tour of the off-campus terrain, but our hero thought it was a good idea at the time. There are some days when even he would admit that he's health-hazardously overweight. Those aren't days of introspection though, they are days when he compares himself with men and women who've made their health a priority, and seem to have gleaned stories of good genes and long life from fitting it into their schedule. This today, when he leaves for his walk, he probably only concedes that he's more than barrel-chested, and pretending the combustion engine was never invented would be a benefit to his health.

It's not that the walk is that much damn hotter than he expects it to be, or that the stretch of Lane Avenue between the Schottenstein Center and Half-Price Books that is sidewalkless and clouded over by the stench of cow-shit was unanticipated. Persistence leads him to be flanked by a pet store, a "sidewalk cafe," and a furniture store which we could say act as a buffer to the shit-cloud, but he's probably just walked out of it. When he considers the prospect of the insufficiently air-conditioned bookstore and the walk back to campus, he believes he's worn the wrong shoes for this adventure. The bag he has with him, a narrow brown leather square with a divided pouch on the inside and a foliage lining, as well as a back pocket for papers, indicates that he's clearly ended up here on a whim, and he doesn't believe he'll get to his next class in time.

Our hero is the humble type, and wouldn't do something like figure out how much he's saving by going to a second-hand retailer instead of, say, a campus book store owned by a major book seller (thirty-five dollars cheaper, and you can replicate the experience if you want to ) just to pat himself on the back, but would have to admit that he feels a little better about himself when the cashier complements him on the bag he is shoving his purchases into.
"That's an excellent bag you have," she says as he signs the merchant copy of a credit card receipt.
"Thanks. I'm pretty sure it'll fit all of these books too."

He distracts himself from the left foot-right foot-repeat portion of his journey to class, a Physical Anthropology class which is integral to the hero finishing his biological sciences survey and subsequently successfully navigating the elaborate obstacle course The Ohio State University has put between him and graduating with degrees in Philosophy and English, with short sips from a bottle of green Gatorade and thoughts about how damn hot out it is and why the woman's compliment has resonated with him so deeply. It's possible that he's just really hard up for a date and willing to take any kindness and fully integrate it. He begins to chastise himself for being a vain materialist. He doesn't criticize himself for believing the mind/matter problem is a non-issue, but for putting too much value in his possessions. He drifts into other distractions.

There is a man dressed in all black and our hero starts to empathize with him, but then he notices the man in black is neither sweating nor apparently uncomfortable, and he goes back to feeling sorry for himself. He is, at this moment, like a man who has spent days trying to cross the desert with only his canteen for company after shooting his mule for stubbornly clinging to its disposition.

With the man behind him, he is close enough to Page Hall, the building where his Anthropology class will be all quarter, to consider how late he will be. Between the building and the hero, a woman is walking perpendicular to his vector. She is wearing black knee socks and a fitted brown-and-black minidress. It covers her butt.

She doesn't wear sunglasses. That surprises him. Everyone wears sunglasses. She points her chin in the direction she's going and it's seems to pull the rest of her along. Across the bisecting line the woman is making in the ground between the hero are two heterosexual couples that are leaving the building through a pair of functional ramps that flank the purely aesthetic stairs outside of the building, so they're not alone.

This next part is one in a million, though too slap-stick-ish to be real: On the sidewalk, both of the men do the same thing the hero did. They look at the woman with nigh-butt-covering minidress. One of them is immediately punished for it. The blonde woman he is leaving with hits him on the shoulder. However, the hero knows that that other guy would get his later. Oh,yes, he'd seen that look. And you can bet the guy who was with the other woman saw it too.

Then again, maybe the hero is terribly biased by his chronic girlfriendlessness and is projecting the way the hybrid smelly lavatory/concession stand/projector booth at a drive-in movie theater would if it were nuclear powered and the people in charge of the concession stand had stopped making popcorn and selling fountain drinks due to poor attendance and didn't turn the AC on in the bathrooms because they thought that reinforcing our inborn fear of expelling waste in a public place whetted the appetite and left all that beautiful fission to burn through the frames. As far as the hero's concerned these people are young and in love and in the middle of some argument conducted with body language.

He sits on the gratuitous steps and flicks open a cell phone he bought because he watched Star Trek. On the other end of the phone is his brother, who may have been the hero of this story if we were listening to some sort of national epic but instead he's just a tertiary character that our hero calls to tell an anecdote which he found immensely entertaining.
"Brewskies Beer Distributor," the brother says.
"Hey, Alex, It's me. How's it going?" and his brother tells him some of the stories the hero misses when he's at college, the details of small family business, rural politics, and his brother's constantly unfolding schemes.
"...probably be in Columbus after the fourth. Check out your new place," his brother says.
"That's good," he says, "I won't have a couch or anything. And bring food. My roommates are going to adopt my grill. We can go over there if you want to cook out."
"Why don't you take it with you? You're always leaving shit behind!" the brother says.
"Well, I don't think it counts as 'leaving it behind' if I discuss it with them, and besides, there's no place to put it."
"You know what I mean, what about mom's table."
"That was different," the hero says, "I just wanted to get out of that house. And it got so that anytime I called to say I was going to pick something up, I couldn't even get an answer." Which isn't entirely true. The hero had a key to his old house for three months, and still has an archive of saved text messages as evidence of replies.
"Whatever, man."
"Oh, hey, I saw something funny just now," our man says.
"Oh yeah," our man's brother says and then, "hey-hold-on-one-second," The hero can hear his brother asking someone if they would like anything else, and then telling them a total that is further away from twenty dollars than a single case of "premium domestic draft" should be, "Okay, go ahead."
"Alright, so I'm walking to class, and there's this really tight girl and she's really scandalously dressed. Like, knee-high socks, this dress that just barely covers her ass"
"Big boobs?" his brother asks.
"No, modest bust, not quite that comic-book charactery. Short black hair, like chin-length, but clipped upwards so her hair continued a line that her chin made. Oh, and get this: no sunglasses either."
"Bold," the hero says. There is a three-second pause on the phone line. "So anyway, these two couples are walking by, and the guys totally checked this girl out. And they got caught."
"By the girl?
"No, by their girlfriends or whatever. This one woman stared at her boyfriend like she was going to eat his head."
"Man, I hate it when that shit happens," his brother said.
"Cory catches you checking other women out?"
"All the time. We get home and she starts yelling and throwing phones. Short of plucking my eyes out, I don't know what to do."
"Stop buying new phones?" he says and they laugh, the way they don't get to whenever the hero is at home and busy with filling in for his family at their store or enjoying the quiet of a part of the world where everything isn't within walking distance of everything else. "But I'm wondering what it would have taken to make this a blameless situation."
"What do you mean?" the hero's brother asks.
"Well you know, what has to happen to let these guys off the hook?" the hero babbles in the way he has since he became convinced there was always a better word out there, somewhere. The way he speaks has given his brother experience in the fields of scan reading and surveillance, "What manner of man has to walk by to provide a smokescreen for a guy's wandering eye? Or does this girl just have to be so incommunicably hot that the impulse to stare spans sexual orientation?"
"I don't think women check out men the way we check them out," the brother with the filled-out resumé says, "We do it like we're checking for oncoming traffic. But, I don't know, maybe if some Chippendale's-type dude walked pass. The surreality of that would be enough to make anyone stare. Those guys always are dressed ridiculously. You know. The bare essentials of role play. Bow tie, cuffs, and hot pants. Cowboy boots, Stetson hat, and hot pants. Hard hat, ax, rubber hot pants."
"Seen a few Chippendale's models, Alex?"
"What? No! Cory got a calendar at a baby shower."
"Sure she did--"
"I just mean that something that farcical would provide the necessary cover to save those guys from drawing any heavy fire," his brother said.
"So other than these hypothetical strippers that are going to some hypothetical bachelorette party on campus, what do you think?"
"I don't know."

The hero doesn't know either. He asks other people over the next few weeks. He always begins with the details of the woman, her knee socks, and her uncovered eyes. Sometimes the figure of the woman in the short dress is a matter of concern--
"Well, does she have a big ass?"
"Would you say she had more of a pear shape or an hourglass shape?"
--and sometimes the concern shifts to other things--
"Why are you on about the sunglasses? Was she Asian?"
"What about the dress? Do you know who made it? Well what'd it look like?"
--but everyone has an idea of what sort of man would have been required for a comically balanced situation.
"A bad boy-type. Mess of hair. T-shirt," says a man outside of McFadden's, "Ripped up jeans and bright Vans."
"Some guy out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalog, except actually wearing the clothes."
"Chicks respond to money, right? Maybe a business suit with a Bluetoothed-earpiece, so everyone could see that he was always busy."

What baffled the hero more than anything though was the confusion around the question asked about "balance. "
"And what I want to know is what it would take to make this situation balanced." he would say after he told the story about the dress outside of classrooms and bars and on porches.
"What do you mean by 'balanced? " he was asked, and he never really knew. He didn't want his anecdote to be pointed, but maybe he was just asking people this question to distract them from summing his story up in a couple sentences, or as an effort to characterize men as intentless animals and women as overbearing authoritarians or alternatively as objects men were not supposed to look at.

It didn’t and doesn't matter. The hero visits bars. He spends money carefully. He walks to his classes. Time's metered march moves on

Willie Beter January 2009

If You Want Peace, Prepare for War
William Better
The Hero is one of the people in the filling station’s convenience store. He wears snug black jeans that disappear into tall black riding boots like cavalrymen wore when tilting towards each other in green fields, heroes all

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