Nate Waggoner

Each morning Paula feels like dinosaur bones. You know how they’re not really bones, but sediment or silt or something that’s filled in the spaces where the bones used to be? She feels like dirt in the shape of an organism, embedded in earth. She feels like bone-shaped sediment if bone-shaped sediment could also be having a mild panic attack. The panic gets her up. Her mouth is dry. Her head pounds. She had half a beer before bed, which stands still, smirking at her, its remaining dark green liquid warm and flat. Everything too warm and dry in here from the radiator—outside it’s in the teens. She grinds her teeth in her sleep, is why she feels that way. She dreams of a filthy clown following her down the street, of her dad yelling at her, of losing the keys to work, of being tasked with the life of a stranger’s dying cat. She gives out little mid-range yips in her sleep, gasps, opens her eyes, closes them, on to the next nightmare. Pete doesn’t notice. He just keeps sleeping. Who knows what he dreams about.


Pete leaves the house, untangles his headphones and starts listening to “Lose Yourself” by Eminem. He’s going to walk to the train, then go to the copy place, then turn a resume in to the Strand. He stomps along to the harsh jerking beat, puffs his chest out, feels the breeze in his eyes and across his newly-bearded face. Stuffs his hands in his cardigan. “Success is my only motherfuckin’ option!” he mouths, “Failure’s not!” He hangs his head just a little but keeps his eyes forward and in brief spurts he really feels like a character in a music video, and doesn’t have to think, just enjoys watching himself stomp down the street towards victory. He replays the song. Yellow cabs and SUVs zoom by, a guy walks past Pete dribbling a basketball, a girl walks down the steps of a brownstone in a short black skirt and fishnets; Pete, almost unconsciously, gives her a half-grin and she ignores it. “I was playin’ in the beginning, the mood all changed.” Pete stops. He forgot the first thing he was supposed to do today—call his parents and ask for money. It’s already the 26th.


A fight is winding down in the usual way. It’s dark blue out. They’re on the steps. Pete has a bag of sour gummy worms in his hand.

“I guess we’ve just been driving each other crazy in this little room. It’s just been hard to get out.”

“I think it’s okay for me to admit, too, that I’m still hurt about what happened in Boston,” she says.

“That’s perfectly understandable. I’m crazy, though. I’m crazy since Charlie—since Charlie died.”

“There’s nothing anybody could have done, bud.”

“That’s not what I mean. I mean everything seems pointless.”

“Don’t say that.”


“Not just that he died. That he was, like, Patient Zero.”

“You keep saying Patient Zero and that’s not what that means.”

“You know what I mean. All he wanted was to help Africans. Nothing makes sense.”


The next evening, Pete walks twenty minutes to the 7 stop. The sky is black and clouds that look like dirty gray fabric creep along over a full moon. His hands sweat through a copy of Miss Lonelyhearts / Day of the Locust he’s reading. He avoids a broken sharp patch of sidewalk jutting up out of the ground. He sees a dirty Princess Elsa doll on the ground, a Yard Sale sign, a mattress, a white van with a phone number on the side, a skinny white cat running across the street, some dead trees, a big flat field fenced off, trash strewn around. He walks down the stairs to the subway, sees some Jamaican girls in tight jeans, brightly colored purses, wavy hair. Sees a middle-aged white man with a mustache and a fanny pack grimacing. Slides his card through, rams his body against the turnstile, slides it again, and it works. He pauses briefly, then heads to the Manhattan and Brooklyn-bound train. He waits a few minutes, re-reads a sentence, looks at his phone. Only the 7 has this faint chalky smell. The shiny silver train rumbles and blasts up to the stop and lets him and four young guys in sweatshirts and backpacks in. Pete sits next to an old lady. The young guys are talking loudly and reaching up and touching the ceiling of the train. At Grand Central he has to fight his way off, past the hot cloud of professionals pushing on. Walks up, past a choir in robes harmonizing spirituals, down to his connecting train. A ratty guy snaps his fingers and shakes his head along with nothing. A woman leans against a cart that holds a black plastic trash bag.

In Bushwick, Pete walks seven completely empty blocks, all identical abandoned concrete buildings, then one block where a man walks past him raving. There’s a boarded-up market with images of potato chips and deli sandwiches dancing all across it, and a tall projects-looking building, a couple dudes in hoodies standing out front, a single powerful orange light beaming down on its courtyard. Pete turns a corner and there is a noodle place called “TREEHOUSE” with a mural of an anime character on the side. There’s a Winnebago, out of which a harshly-tanned blonde couple are selling vintage clothes. He walks past windows through which he can see people playing ping-pong under a blacklight, bearded men dressed like lumberjacks, pale tattooed women in tiny gym clothes, laughing. A couple in leather jackets makes out, the man’s hand on the woman’s ass. A shiny old-fashioned car drives past blaring a song from The Little Mermaid. A skinny woman, black hair in a bob, form-fitting red dress, is kicking a car and flailing her arms around and two friends try to restrain her. She yells in a thick Russian accent, “Fuck you! You got no idea what the fuck I been through!”

Pete walks up two steps onto the stage in the small back room of the Seventh Circle bar, looks out at the twelve people in the crowd, picks up the microphone, which makes an invasive double thump sound. He says, “Hey everyone, welcome once again to the Heart of Darkness comedy show. I’m your host, my name is Pete Pilgrim. We got a great one for you tonight, y’know I was walking through Bushwick today, and I had a thought, y’know, and that thought was: Jesus fucking Christ.” Some scattered laughs.

“Jesus fucking Christ, he’s your fucking Lord and Savior. Do you have a motherfucking personal relationship with—” The joke lands adequately; he doesn’t have to continue. “No, but I was just thinking, holy shit, like, how dare we. And by we I mean white people. What happened? ‘Cause it’s like~ like gentrification is so horrible, you’d think we’d all be walking around looking remorseful. Just moping. No, everyone’s partying and dancing! Everything’s bars and beer gardens. Seriously, that is psychopath stuff! We’re only here because of psychopath stuff! And no one—you might go on a website that says, ‘How to fight the landlords’ or whatever. You won’t read it. You might share it on Facebook, but you won’t read it.” A woman’s voice titters.

“It doesn’t matter because we’re all going to die soon anyway. Oh, no, I don’t mean, like, ‘We all die.’ I mean I’m pretty sure we’re all about to die shitting blood out real soon. Which, people are like, Oh, the apocalypse, that would be kind of cool, actually. Guys, it really wouldn’t. Because it’s not like, oh, suddenly we’re all fending for ourselves in diverse but necessarily tight-knit groups and rallying and banding together, and we have to learn skills and speechify a lot about survoivallll and keeping our humah-nity. It would be like, your friend dies, and then your other friend dies, and you kind of try not to think about it… eh-heh… and then your mom dies, and you’re racked with grief and survivor’s guilt, and then more of your family and friends die, and then hospitals are understaffed and shutting down and there’s no police, no government, mass graves, and people are getting killed in other ways not directly related to the disease, weird crimes, cannibalism... You’re really looking forward to that shit?

“Ok, that was not funny. I need to work on my virus bit.” He mimes writing, as in a steno pad. “Add more goofs and chuckles… to the ass-bleeding virus routine. More yuks in there. Ugh. Our first act…”


Pete hangs around for a while after the open mic, is friendly, shakes hands, schmoozes, even laughs at his one friend, Jenny Hinkle, who got him this gig, making fun of him for being so grim and fuckin’ depressing. By like one a.m. it’s just him, the bartender, and an old, fat, thin-haired guy in a baggy brown coat, so drunk he’s just silently nodding off at his stool like he’s on heroin. Pete goes to sit at the bar, two seats away from the old guy. The bartender, a skinny young blonde woman with a tattoo of an owl on her left arm, seems way more invested in keeping the guy entertained than she needs to be. She’s picking the next song to play off her iPod, and she asks what he wants to hear, and he grumbles, “Beatles.” She doesn’t have any Beatles and puts on Patti Smith instead, and starts delivering a lecture on ‘70’s New York punk. The guy takes a little digital camera out and snaps a picture of her with the flash. Pete says, “Ugh, come on, dude,” and the guy either ignores him or actually doesn’t hear. The bartender, Lori, moves from 101 to 201, to punk bands Pete hasn’t heard of. She puts on the Jim Carroll Band. “The song is just a list of people he knows who died,” she says. “The album is called ‘Catholic Boy.’” She smirks. The chorus, Jim Carroll sings, “Those are people who died, died!” in a way that makes him sound like a little kid telling a story that he thinks you’d find incredible, you can picture him tugging on an adult’s shirt as he says it. As the song goes on, a female backup singer joins him on the chorus, more plaintive but equally urgent.

On the train back home, a couple, maybe six years younger than Pete and Paula, dressed in perfectly contemporary business casual, he in skinny slacks and plaid crisp untucked shirt, she in leather jacket, scarf, LBD, both with perfectly blemish-free skin and winter flush in their cheeks, black hair, all hands clasped together, smiles an inch apart from each other. “It’s okay, baby, we’ll do it next time,” the man says. “We have our whole lives together.”

Those are people who died, died!


The following week, Pete bombs even harder. He still hasn’t found a real job. The news about the virus has only gotten more terrifying, but now he’s shy about really going for it with the bit, so he flails. He stays out late again, gets very drunk, talks to a young bespectacled woman named Jamie for a long time in that loud blurry way you talk when you get too drunk. She wanted to be a veterinarian when she was young. She just ended an engagement. He dances with her slow. Makes out with her. Endures a blackout period of ambiguous length, the only memories he retains of which involve yelling his opinions about something at some people. Makes out with her some more, on a couch downstairs. He will remember fumbling with pants, belts, undergarments, genitals.

Pete and Jamie wake up early on that couch. Pete feels sudden panic, along with a powerful, debilitating head pain and thirst. He couldn’t possibly sleep more and feel better, because he has to deal with this immediately: how is he still here in the morning? What happened with this girl? What happened at all last night? What’s he gonna do? Vague visual memories start to come back. He runs to the bathroom and horks.

The bathroom floor is wet. Pete feels some composure return now that he’s vomited. He breathes deep. Jamie is still asleep on the couch, snoring. Pete walks upstairs, smelling the half-beer, half-cleaning fluid combo so many bars have. He walks past the stage, the bar, the stools and seats, to the big wooden door through which the light of dawn is creeping, grasps the cold and heavy handle, jiggles it for a second, and realizes that it’s locked. He pulls on the door, shakes it, pulls it again, and nothing. He throws his arms up and down and back in forth in a rage and then curls up on the floor, breathes deep some more, then closes his eyes. Five o’clock. They open at five o’clock.

A few hours later he wakes up and drinks some water from the faucet. He goes down to check on Jamie and she is just waking up. He tells her the bad news. They find themselves pawing at each other again, then screwing, using one of the condoms in one of the little condom fishbowls at the bar.

“Okay, now we do have to get out of here. I’m gonna miss work,” she says.

“I really don’t think we can get out of here. I think we just have to wait it out.”

“Yeah, well, that’s not an option for me.”

There are three windows, which are too high to climb. They break the windows first, then try to figure out how to get through them. They look in a closet for something ladder-like, but there’s nothing. They try stacking bar stools, but the stools just fall over. They take a break and eat some mealy potato chips.

“What if we call the cops?” he says.

“No cops.”

“What, you got a rap sheet?”

“Just... absolutely no cops.”

He tries to make a move and she knocks his arm away. She says, “I seriously gotta get out of here.”

He says, “Well, look. Stay with me. Maybe—I don’t know. I don’t believe anything happens for a reason, or anything is destined to happen, or anything like that. Not anymore. But—I don’t know. Maybe this happening, maybe it’s good for both of us. Maybe I end my relationship, you quit your job—we both clearly have some shit to figure out in our lives. But maybe we can redeem each other, too. I mean I can see the consequences of my own actions—and others, too. I can see the evil in the world. Things are closing in on us all, but maybe we can make the best of it, in an honest way, together.”

She gets on top of the bar, runs from one end of it to the other, then takes a running jump to grab hold of one of the broken windows. Her palms bleed as she hoists herself up, gets half of her body through. She pauses for a moment, lets her midsection rest on the broken glass, gasps, whines, then pushes the rest of herself through the window and outside of the bar. Pete can hear her body thud against the pavement outside, then a quick succession of slapping sounds as if she is dusting herself off, then her high-tops slapping against the concrete as she runs away.


Paula thinks: if he’s gone, he’s gone. If he’s dead, he’s gone. If he’s alive and gone, he’s never setting foot in here again. And I don’t wanna know. Not after scaring me like that. Not after that kind of a massive, inexcusable failure. There is beauty in that absolute end, that shutdown, the finality of it, the perfect slate of ambiguity, of who cares. She had called once, at two a.m. last night, and it rang a few times before going to voicemail. There could be no calling now. You have to have some principles, no matter how much you love someone, no matter how hard it is. You can’t be the image in everybody’s mind of the person who calls and calls and sends increasingly desperate texts, calls his mom. You’re thirty-two and you would just as soon never speak to his mother again, her condescending about your education, her needling and judging and prodding—she does it to you both. Did. You are seeing now what life has been like all this time—clinging onto the back of a truck that’s being driven off a mountain, and somehow both the truck and the mountain are made of his insecurities, his pedantically philosophical despair and angst, his confidence. She begins organizing his things into little piles she can take to the Goodwill—little notebooks, old DVDs from college, hoodies, boxer shorts, cargo shorts, ironic little rubber statues of dogs and shit, complicated board games. Maybe she’ll date some girls.


Pete makes one attempt at the running jump and falls several feet short of the windows and smacks his face hard on the floor. He sits there feeling angry and sorry for himself for maybe twenty minutes. Jacks off. Walks around. Tries to find a phone charger somewhere. Tastes all the beers, then tries to make some different cocktails. The Rusty Nail comes out good. He lies on the floor. Wakes up at four forty-three to someone unlocking the door. He stands to face whatever’s coming.

Author Bio: 

Nate Waggoner is a contributing editor at and founder of The-Tusk.com. His first novel, Dilettantes and Heartless Manipulators, is available from Snow Goose Press. He has written, drawn and/or performed for Shipwreck, Quiet Lightning, Write Club SF, SF Weekly, Willamette Week, Makeout Creek, KQEDPop, and elsewhere. He has an MFA in Fiction from San Francisco State University. He’s on Twitter at @NathanielWagg.