Max Halper

Max Halper is the author of the books Lamella and The Meadow and the Misread, both forthcoming in 2022.

THE MASTIFF by Max Halper

“My life is over,” I said in the dark my first night inside.

A full minute passed. “Shut the fuck up,” said my cellmate. 

A month later I hanged myself. I did it from the bunk with my undershirt. There was no pain. My cellmate slept through it. When he woke up I was so dead I seemed more a facet of the cell than an occupant. He looked at me and nodded, as if my body imparted some keen insight. He determined I had managed to escape, had bored a tunnel through the only wall in the prison they could not reinforce. Now I scrambled toward freedom, through darkness on hands and knees, driven by desperate hope, spying a glint of light, quickening—only it wasn’t light, but a trick of the eye, and the darkness twisted onward. My cellmate relocated my commissary to his side of the cell, and then sat on his bunk and waited for the doors to open for roll call. 

The way time worked inside was tricky: it smeared, pooled. Coagulated. Time curdled in prison. Then again, it was possible that time worked like this on the outside too. My cellmate could not remember. Sometimes he counted in his head, to try and stabilize the time, to ground it. He counted slowly. If he stopped counting, or ran out of numbers, the time would disfigure. He counted then, there on his bunk, waiting for the doors, my body hardening beside him.

Four years later he was released. They excavated his property from storage and led him out through door after door. The doors locked shut behind him. It was late November. The sky was the same gray as the prison’s interior. A van pulled up to take him to the bus. He climbed into the passenger seat and the van drove down a road he remembered only vaguely, as if from a dream. In the side-view mirror, the edges and angles of the prison distilled into points and counterpoints. The gray sky crashed over it all and the road buckled. A car whooshed past in the opposite direction, full of people.

“Something happened,” the ticket agent said. “Down in the city. No buses that way.”

My cellmate shook his head. “I’ll just take whatever’s going south.”

“No buses south,” she said. “You’re going to have to wait.”

My cellmate stood aside. A television mounted to the wall ran ads for cars and drugs. A woman on a bench near the bathrooms gawped into her phone. A pair of children chased one another along the perimeter of the terminal, their sneakers squealing on the concrete floor. A teenaged boy leaned across the counter at the convenience kiosk and whispered to the teenaged girl tending the register. A man in a suit slept on a bench beneath the television, surrounded by suitcases. My cellmate tried to determine what each of them was in for. 

An hour later the ticket agent announced that all buses were cancelled indefinitely. My cellmate went to the door of the terminal and waited for a guard to release it. It doesn’t work like that here, he reminded himself. It was cold enough to snow; the sky whorled off into tangled sheets of gray. A bus driver stood beside a concrete pillar, smoking. “Which way is south?” my cellmate asked.

The bus driver jerked his head.

My cellmate walked off without anyone’s permission. Something akin to homesickness gathered at the base of his skull. 

He walked along the shoulder. The road essed through a corridor of rufous trees. Acorns skittered around his feet. He had a dream while still inside that he walked along the shoulder of a country road in late autumn. He didn’t know where he was going, or where he’d been. He just walked, my cellmate, then he woke up in his cell. He remembered this dream only now, and felt suddenly unbalanced, as if the whole thing had listed to the side. He counted in his head; when he ran out of numbers, he told himself, his eyes would open, and he would be back inside. 

No trains running southbound. No trains running at all. It was too late to keep walking. My cellmate had the $160 he’d gone in with plus the $150 in gate money they’d handed him on his way out. He got a room at a motel by the station. The room had two twin beds. He sat on one, then the other. He watched the door. The room sloped endlessly in all directions. His shadow spiraled along his arms. That night he dreamed he crawled through a tunnel toward a guttering light. The tunnel emptied into his cell. He lay on his bunk and fell asleep and woke up in the motel. It was still dark. He parted the curtains. A light on the solitary telephone pole by the road revealed a veil of languid snowflakes. There were no cars in the motel lot. He drank from the faucet, pocketed a bar of soap from the shower. He waited at the door. 

He walked south along the train tracks. Snow gathered in his hair and across his shoulders. Daylight stole uncertainly around the crests of the trees; sometimes it seemed to retreat, and grow darker.

White sky, blue air, purple trees. My cellmate could not feel his toes. One-thousand-nine. One-thousand-ten. A silence of geese scored through the falling snow. Ahead, the train tracks disappeared into the mouth of a tunnel at the base of a speckled mountain. One-thousand-eleven. My cellmate took long steps. His breath bled through the cracks in his lips. The mountain was affixed at its distance. One-thousand-twelve. He curled his arms around himself. One-thousand-thirteen. One-thousand-fourteen. The snow flitted. The mountain maintained its size and shape.

It was impossible to determine for how long he walked through the tunnel. A full minute. Twelve years. It was pitch-black. He felt along the cold, rough wall. He counted, but the distance between each number—One-thousand-four-hundred-twenty-four, one-thousand-four-hundred-twenty-five—was immeasurable. The tunnel twisted onward. Years ago there was a blackout in the prison. It lasted days. The inmates were not allowed candles, and the staff refused to part with their precious supply of flashlights. There was disconcertion. One of the inmates, Gideon, a cop-killer, suggested they all tell stories to pass the time. Most of them grumbled off to their cells. The few remaining gathered in the dark dayroom. Gideon asked who wanted to go first, but no one volunteered. 

A dog trailed him along the train tracks. When he stopped, the dog stopped, expressionless in the uneasy snow. 

The shops, restaurants, and single motel in Wallkill were closed. He slept in the stairwell of a stout brick building off the main street. A man came down the stairs, paused and looked at him, then left into the dark morning. My cellmate continued south soon after. The clouds broke apart, and the sky behind was pale. The train tracks ran along a ridge overlooking the highway and the river. Cars traveled only northbound. Further along the traffic hardened, until the whole thing came to a standstill. Where the river crooked sharply east, two jets screamed suddenly from the north, scored through the sky so low my cellmate ducked, and thundered off toward the horizon. Later, he beheld a swarm of helicopters affixed high overhead, black specks biding their distance. He felt assailable below. 

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WOODEN SKY by Max Halper

She has beautiful veins. Like stained glass, he thinks. But everything is stained glass when he’s this high. Everything is one big hallowed tableau. This is what church endeavors to be, he thinks, on his back. If church and heroin did a collaboration, he’d be the Pope of that shit. The Dope Pope. Pope-on-some-Dope. He watches her veins through lashy eyes. He watches the needle, erect, rapacious. The back of his brain whistles, like tea in another room. He has no memory of anyone ever making tea. He must’ve seen it in a movie. But it’s tea. Everybody knows what tea sounds like. He doesn’t need a movie to tell him. He was born with that shit. Her veins, like stained glass. Like milky light. Like milky tea. He’s so fucking high. He did a huge shot. He should tell her not to do such a huge shot. Like she would listen. And he really can’t speak. He really can’t move. But it doesn’t matter; where does he have to go? Go to work? Go to school? Go to church? She feeds the needle to her vein. Even supine, his eyes two hairline fractures, he can see she’s doing a huge shot. She’s got the belt really choked. There’s gonna be a lot of light on this one. It’s gonna hit her like a fist. Like a train. But she deserves it. She deserves the light, as much as she can get. All he wants is for her to be happy. All he wants is for everyone to be happy.

Fat, like tunnels. A needle finds its stride in veins so fat. Everything about her is stride. Everything about her is fat. Beautiful, fat stride. Everything about her is church. “You’re fucking church, baby.” She bounces the needle on her fat veins. He wants to bounce on her fat veins. “You’re church,” but he’s not convinced words are coming out. He’s so fucking high. He did a huge shot. The whistling is abrading, like a bomb went off. Or maybe that’s only what happens in movies. He wouldn’t know. Movies are liars. Everything is liars. Everything except her. She’s church, and he’s the Pope. And together they’re the fucking Vatican. Together they consecrate the masses. She feeds the needle to her vein. It’s a hungry vein, fills its plate, doesn’t even say grace. The belt slides off her arm and her whole body rumples into a smaller body. Her head swoops and dangles. The bed sags as if someone else has climbed onto it. Gouache light bubbles around the fringes of the motel curtains. Everything is static. Everything about everything is one big hallowed tableau vivant.

They make her happy, and that’s all he wants. That’s all anyone wants. The bed feels fat, like stained glass he thinks. But he’s so fucking high. He did a huge shot. So much light on it. It’s completely the middle of the day, despite where the sun may be. He’s so far on his back he might as well be upside-down. He can barely see her through the jungle of eyelashes. She is a snarl of veins. A derelict church. That seething squeal is venting from her, a building crowded with children and fire. She hasn’t moved in a long time. But neither has he. Maybe she’s thinking the same thing about him. Thinking that… thinking that… what was he thinking? He’s so fucking high. He feels borne through a tunnel, pliant, prodigal. It furls him along the bed. There’s a smell, somewhere else. Dead flowers. Spoiled milk. But smells happen. It’s nobody’s fault. Nothing is anybody’s fault. Everything that happens happens to us. We are laic, we cannot read what’s written down. We just nod. We stand when You ask us. We repeat after You.  

Like estuaries from the sky. Estuaries seen from the sky. A smell like the mouth of a river, brine and blubber. Rounded, milkless glass. Something scuttles fitfully across the sandy bed, burrows, disappears. Oily seagulls charge into wind. The ocean is a silent maniac. There may have been someone else in the room, with too many shadows across their face. But they’ve gone. Now it’s just the two of them again. Him and her. Like it should be. Like it always has been. He is only himself when he is alone with her. This is who he actually is. Some people think they are only what other people think they are. But how can this be? How can you exist only in someone else’s mind? He’s so high. So fucked. He hasn’t moved in years. He might be growing moss and mushrooms, boarding mollusks. She is a fallen tree, half swallowed by the wet ground. They are ruins. A once great civilization. They used to roll heads down the temple stairs to their flock. Now they are barely discernable from the jungle itself. They used to be fat. Now they are rickety. They used to hear music. Now they hear only a shrill frequency, a dwindling pool of radiation. He feels a puissant kinship to the atrophy. It is beautiful. A beautiful return. If he didn’t know any better he’d say it is all a metaphor for death. But of course there are no metaphors for death. Only for being alive.   

Protuberant, proud. They stand when she asks. They repeat after her. He cannot see them because her arms and neck are buried in blankets, but he knows they are there. Wherever she goes, her veins follow. What would she look like if You removed everything except her veins, walked her around like that, made her try to live? Something gliding along the seafloor. Pliant, deracinated coral. He laughs. But it’s not funny. It’s wretched, a wretched image. “I’m sorry,” he breathes. He doesn’t want violence done to her, even in his mind. She’s had enough of that for a lifetime. For ten. He never means to think the things he thinks. How is even that out of his control? There is a knock at the door of the motel room. A muffled voice from outside. He sidles his dry eyes over. The chain-lock dangles free. Hadn’t he secured it when they’d first come in? He remembers doing so. When he was a kid he watched his older brother cut the eyes off a snail with a pair of Mickey Mouse scissors. The snail hadn’t bled. It hadn’t tried to get away. He’d asked his brother if it could feel pain. “Can you?” It was a good question. He still doesn’t know the answer for sure. He knows that she feels pain. He sees it in the ditches of her face. In the graying of her skin. He hears it when she speaks, when she cums, when blood whistles through the tunnels of her veins. He smells it wafting from her drowned flowers. Her spoiled milk. The door opens. Garish light gushes in, overloads the room with truth. The housekeeper stands half inside. Her eyes narrow. Her nose crinkles. For a moment all is still. A tableau of discovery. Then she recedes, closes the door, and the tawdry light deliquesces. He rolls his eyes back into place. She has not moved in a long time.

Despite the bruises. Because of the bruises. It was the first thing he noticed about her. A girl who wore her bruises on the outside. On her arms and legs. On her neck and on her back. Purple and yellow and brown. A garden of woe. She was barely hanging on when he met her. The earth whirled with such ferocity, strove to cast her into space. She clung to roots, wheedled herself beneath roots and down into the soil and buried herself in the dark there. It was not lavish, but it was safe. He understood that she could never come out. But she was light deprived, anemic. So he brought the light to her, and he burrowed into the dirt with her, and they’ve been there ever since. Together they ride out the furious, bucking planet. Together they are rooted in place. He finds he is awake enough to roll over. The bed whistles beneath him, as if to get his attention. Light gathers around the periphery of the curtains like an infection. He does his best not to jostle the bed. She needs her rest, as much as she can get. If it were possible he would let her sleep forever. But of course everyone wakes up eventually. There is only one cigarette. He’ll leave it for her. She’ll need it more than he does. And she’ll be hungry. Maybe he’ll walk to the Gulf and get some snacks. A fresh pack of cigarettes. That will make her happy. All he wants is for her to be happy. She is his church. She is the sky. He touches her bruised, milky skin. It is cold and dry. She did a huge shot. He never means to think the things he thinks. Sometimes it’s like his thoughts come from somewhere else, from someone else. Hurry and get her food. Cross the interstate. It might take awhile. Be back before she wakes, so that she doesn’t, for a second, think he abandoned her.  

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