Zachary Howatt

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I swallow ugly words. If you pulled on my tongue, a drain snake of hate would slide up my throat, tickle my uvula, force my gag. One slippery gurgle, then they’d bloom on the rug—the foulest words you’d ever seen. But they don’t ever come up. I don’t let them.

I know what I want to say, but it’s hideous. Somehow I forgot I’m hot shit. What’s different?

Last week, I was sick and spitting phlegm into tissues at the desk. I never left early, even though I wanted to lie down. Something untouchable held me there.

My bosses depend on me. I won’t live if I let one more person down.

I sat at the desk, passing thoughts through the coral pores of my brain. I made it to Friday.

That weekend, I was mugged in Roberts Alley. A truck driver asked me to pay for his lunch. I would, but I don’t have any cash. I showed him my empty billfold. He didn’t give up. He pointed to the VFW. There’s an ATM right around the corner. There’s an ATM, he said. Let’s go.

He marched me past the bar. I printed him a twenty. Don’t lose that character of yours, he said. You’ve got the right idea—he tugged on his own mask, nodding to mine. Respect.

While I watched him leave I coughed up a pearl of mucus. I went outside to spit it out. The air was fragrant like a burning cross.

Later, in church, I realized the man didn’t have a gun. I knelt, put my weight on my elbows, on my knuckles. My head spun. I prayed for the long list of things I pray for these days.

Earlier tonight, I sat alone in my apartment, naked by the A/C. An invisible hand sat on my forehead while the machine dully hummed. It pulled my skull open like the skin of a sticky nectarine. Isolation so thickly fogged the air that I could wrap its arms around me. I sat and stared at a spot on the floor where a puddle of ugly words would be if I unclenched my teeth. The words would be wet and reflective—a mirror for myself. I stared at the spot until the light from outside slithered down the hall. When it went, there was just a void beyond my feet.

Now I’m muttering to myself on the toilet. I’m scratching these pages, looking for the person beneath the blankness. He could help me if I could only find the right words to dig him up—less ugly words. He’s been there before, in the wilderness, to make my fear docile. Why isn’t he here now?

I know exactly what I want to say. There’s no easy way to say it, but the words come easily.

I feel like I’ve lost my way back to my soul. I can’t remember hating myself this much. What brought this feeling? Is it heartbreak? Jealousy? Stress? Anxiety? Is it a lifetime of depression? Is it the times my family couldn’t say they loved me without wincing? Is it my own erratic standards? Is there a way forward? Where do I go from here? Who will save me from this feeling? If all I have is me, how can I find it in my heart to love me again?

The words dribble shamefully past my legs and plop into the toilet. I wipe my mouth and close the notebook.

Tomorrow, I’ll submit my two weeks’ notice. I don’t have a plan. For the first time, my future self is a featureless blob. I don’t know where he is. He could be hiding somewhere in my apartment now, lurking, waiting for me to let my guard down.

I want to run out into the night where it feels like something might happen to me, something dramatic. I keep thinking of the truck driver in Roberts Alley. I keep wondering about the gun, about who I’d be now if he’d had one. Even without bullets, I bet he could’ve shot me full of the feeling I’m waiting for.

Howatt is also a filmmaker and has worked on such pieces as Kinesthesia, also featured in this edition.