UNITED STATES—I slipped back into the empty theater of the mind where nobody was living. Some pigeons cooed and rustled in the rafters. There were cold logs from a campfire charred around the edges of the proscenium arch, where the gilded rays shone in sepia darkness. The hammer was back in my callused hand again. How did that happen? On the sidewalk, the barrel-chested seal lay, eyes closed. The white chest hairs shone like snow on a root-beer colored expanse of sun-darkened skin.

If you had this sidewalk for a mattress you’d want to close your eyes and dream and forget, float off in a daze. A yellow-eyed crow lighted on the dark power wires outlined against the turquoise, red and dying sky. Crickets sawed in the coalescing dead of night, still heavy with warmth.

The lights had gone out in the liquor store, now drenched in darkness. A clock, lighted by the bulbs of the refrigerator cases, looked at me from the wall. The clock was a liar. It was not possible so much time elapsed and the doors to the liquor store were chained. It was an unspeakable affront to the best laid plans, and I felt a disproportionate pang of grief at being denied the right to properly celebrate “The 4th of Halloween,” the new holiday I’d invented.

Now, for a passing moment, I regretted what had happened to my phone, not because it was a phone, but because it was my way of keeping time and arguing with this deceitful clock on the wall of the closed liquor store. The phone was, regrettably, pixie dust and electrodes sprinkled on the sidewalk after the hammer had done its liberating duty. Euphoria had turned to dread. And there was only dread ahead when confronting the missing nodule of time. I had an idea by the tail: The stress that mounted up again and again, like a quicksilver surface tension as the curvature of water ripens, stretches and finally births a drop of water. These were trivial things that early in the sine curve if their development reached an apex of siege, and one was caught in the talons of hysteric anxiety, such as I had never known.

The special period had done something, as imperturbable and steady as I was in my ways, the special period had eroded bulwarks of my being and suddenly I was vulnerable to pain off the charts. And then as the droplet cascaded from the body of water, in excruciating slow motion, and orbited off into space and nothing monumental whatsoever had happened, I glimpsed relief. Time and again it was proved to be no big deal, after all the epiphany of dread held me in its imaginary grip, proving that the “What more could happen?” courted in that unreflective question had an answer, but the “what more” –almost always now a perfect rhyme that would be laughable were it not so tragic, rife with consequences for real people out there, just like me.

But I was unscathed, and where the new catastrophic outcome, all that dread in its hyperbolic intensity, now dispersed by current reality, proved overblown. I chided myself always for overreaction. The “what more” of the “what more could happen” question turned out to be a hollow goblin, and taught me repeatedly, as it had over and over during the special period, it just didn’t matter, and it was nothing that some tokes of Mellow Demon couldn’t cure.

Over and over it was the same moth-eaten gag. It was a closed jack-in-the-box, in whose darkness lurked the jester. You could twirl the crank, and it didn’t matter if it was the first time or the five-hundredth, the tune would reach the same point and pop goes the weasel. Every time that evil little jester comes up gives me a start.

I sauntered down the dark side street, and with each passing step was less dogged by the implication that anything mattered. On the plus side, the special period that eroded the social glue that barely held us together, granted a store of days that proved anything was possible, nothing was written in stone and inherency is a dream. Within those fuzzy borders to was possible to peck through the eggshell mind and hold the frailties in peace, absolved of the kneejerk guilt. If I’m still just the child terrorized by the jack-in-the-box, why worry about when “What more could happen?” happens?

Now I was more certain than ever that the clock on the liquor store wall was faulty. It needed new batteries, and that much less time had elapsed. My conviction that I must somehow punish the Russian for his Neanderthal mores melted.

To be continued…

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Hollywood humorist Grady grew up in the heart of Steinbeck Country on the Central California coast. More Bombeck than Steinbeck, Grady Miller has been compared to T.C. Boyle, Joel Stein, and Voltaire. He briefly attended Columbia University in New York and came to Los Angeles to study filmmaking, but discovered literature instead, in T.C. Boyle’s fiction writing workshop at USC. In addition to A Very Grady Christmas, he has written the humorous diet book, Lighten Up Now: The Grady Diet and the popular humor collection, Late Bloomer (both on Amazon) and its follow-up, Later Bloomer: Tales from Darkest Hollywood. (https://amzn.to/3bGBLB8) His humor column, Miller Time, appears weekly in The Canyon News (www.canyon-news.com)