The Pursuit of Love and Labor

Michael J. Riser


Michael J. Riser is a working writer from California. Inexplicably, he seems to have ended up as a student in Texas. His short fiction has appeared at Solarcide, his poetry in UNC Charlotte’s Sanskrit. He can be found on the web at on the rare occasions when his website is working.



“The reason we all live and work is that everybody wants to love and be loved. No matter how disaffected, fucked up. In our society it doesn’t take much to capitalize on it. You just have to realize that when someone can’t get it legit, they’ll happily pay for a fake.”


This spins around my head. It’s on the wind, like what I think my name might be, this thing that says my name is Jay, flying around in circles and winking at me.

My good foot presses down on a man’s chest. He makes gurgling noises, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t him doing the talking. It might have been me, or the memory of me.

I shake my head, trying to knock loose the useless details. I need to focus on my beat, protecting my town, finding my girl. These cut-rate sociopaths who used to buy from me, now they’re all out on the street just like the rest of us, hunting. We spend our days and nights running after vain dreams of career advancement, of love we chase under the delusion that mere effort can obtain it.

We believe it because They tell us to, and our Lords know better than our experience.

There’s a huge pair of lips two feet ahead of me. They could belong to Goliath’s wife. Artificially red, like electric red, they’re painted on the side of a gutted building I seem to keep wandering back to. It’s a corpse, like everything else in this neighborhood. You can picture how it died, struggling to breathe, choked out, but you try not to because remembering what the neighborhood used to be like makes you question whether things have to be this way.

This was a sex shop, hence the lips. Movies and novelties, lingerie, toys, except what they mean by toys is mostly giant dildos, these monster 8 and 10-inch cocks made of silicone and PVC, purple, black, and tan. Piles of them packed up in clear containers in the stockroom.

I keep coming back here. I wander in circles, and every time I come back there are reminders, things that swing on the air as if you could reach up and grab them. But you can’t.

Like my name. It’s there but it isn’t.

I think it might be Jayce.

The giant lips stand like beacons, parted slightly, whispering secrets there’s no one around to listen to.

Something says it’s time to walk. So I walk.

The buildings here have all grown up. This is just down the street from where I used to get Chinese all the time, on the other side of a hill where the houses were squat, happy little things. Now most have sprouted new floors, pale boards nailed together into networks of scaffolding, these Frankenstein additions stitched onto unassuming foundations.

The real neighborhood is high up, now. Everything goes vertical. Those we call They don’t like sideways things, so the architecture just keeps going upward, which makes it easier to look around as we walk the bottom. It makes the rest of us stare up all the time like we’re trying to find God.

There was a Baskin Robbins across the street. A copy center. A jeweler’s next to that, and a Korean market. The market’s the only thing along the strip still open, rows and rows of pink slabs wrapped in clear plastic film. The juices leak out onto the floor and leave the tile in a perpetual state of hazard.

From here, the hill beside the ice cream shop almost looks like a mountain through the forest of structures. There are tall stations climbing either side of the black road that goes to the summit, to Grizzly Peak and Skyline. I can’t remember the last time I went up, but what I’m after isn’t there. It’s down here, in the trenches, in the world.

The loneliness is crippling. There used to be cars.

Our neighborhood, with all this dirty urban splendor, sits cradled between the rolling giants of two hillsides. We’ve become little more than a trough in the middle, a hole for hog slop, eternally in the shadow of the things They’ve built. We’re a city of detritus that covers where people used to live and work. Some of the parasitic structures are convincing, almost like buildings themselves, with straight sides and opaque squares that would be windows if you could see through them.

And maybe someone can. Maybe They look down on us to laugh at the bruises on our knees as we grovel and beg our prayers.

These facades—made to resemble offices, apartment complexes, liquor stores—they block out the sun, wires crossing over the streets between them. These wires, almost like string, stretching the way guts might stretch, and you’d be tempted to laugh if you could still remember your childhood. Imagine two shapeless silhouettes standing at either end of a line with empty cans of beans or corn, talking to each other through someone’s still warm innards. Making those sounds They make like someone screaming under a thick pillow held over the face.

I look at the not-windows and something says, keep walking.

Sure sure. Walk walk.

I think my name but I can’t.

Clouds pass by, nobody sees the sun.

The big painted lips shuffle and stumble past again as I go, and the wind whips around my head as it talks.

“The thing about sex,” it says, “is that while it isn’t a substitute for love, they both pull a lot of the same strings. So somebody can be loveless, which sends em to us to satisfy the vacancy. And somebody can have love without sex, which sends em too. You know, like for the gratification, just the biology of it. Now sex without love, you’d think that would be the exception, because those people, they already know that just the one doesn’t do you much good. But they’ll surprise you. They’ll keep coming anyway, piling it on and crossing their fingers.”

Love is everything. Love is God. Like life without it, my name doesn’t do much good either. To have a name but not know it.

God, I’m so lonely.

I watch the buildings go past as I circle again and again the place I know love must be lurking. And I’m tired of walking, of my uneven legs.

There’s a shit motel here that’s had a skyscraper constructed on top of it out of wood and rusty nails. Right next door, built on the street next to the sidewalk, is what looks like a New York brownstone made from bricks and jagged panels of pressboard. It turns the sidewalk into an alley, long, narrow, and without light. If you look up, the cables crisscross above, a few of them borne down by the weight of dismembered hands hanging at intervals. With varying bits of forearm, eyes sewn into the palms.

This is how They see us.

I think.

My name.

A rustling in the corner demands my attention, and I feel that excitement in the base of my skull. This could be her. Here I’ve been walking for days, for weeks, in a trance and humming her name (which I don’t know either), and it’s only this rustling that heralds her. Instead of the expected fanfare, the angels on high with trumpets and loud voices.

An arm rolls out from behind a toppled trashcan, and I see her at last, just past the crest of a mound of garbage bags. She’s on top of a man, some random guy, twisting herself around, working her arms and hips. This all looks like the cheap porn I’m so familiar with, the memories of so many naked bodies on the wind around my head again, but it’s something else. I get closer and see the man coughing up blood that looks like cough syrup in the dark, bubbling this stuff up like oil from his throat. The woman twists a knife, leaning on it, so much that the blade has vanished, the handle disappearing into his chest.

Good girl, not taking any shit from these punks. She can defend herself.

She looks over and there’s recognition for just a second. For just a second I see this beautiful something in her eyes, and she rolls off her former predator into the side of the motel wall, all fear and reflexes.

“Jesus God,” she says.

The names are vaguely familiar.

“J-Jesus, you,” she says, but I’m not Jesus.

“J-j-j—” she says, and I just think:


I think my name is Jay’s Son, think I see it on the wind.

She’s up again, running down the alley before she’s even gotten her arms to her sides, but she’s heading the wrong way, deeper into the maze. I try to tell her to stop, but I can’t talk. I’m winded. I’m panicking.

Salvation whips around my head. Mine or hers, one at least is in question. There’s a purgatory in here somewhere.

The hands on the cables above us start to blossom, stretching their fingers out. The eyes sewn into the palms stare, cracked and dry, those eyes that never close, first from between fingers, then from the open sunbursts of hands spread wide. Under this canopy I see her, bright like a sign in a barroom window, lit and electric like the lips of Goliath’s wife. Under our sky with no light, full of sunbursts.

I begin to run, a stumbling kind of lightning strike. The holes in my head start to whistle and I can feel my jaw wagging because it’s still unhinged.

I want so badly to vomit.

I wish I still had both my feet.

She’s slamming into walls in the maze of this alley as it twists and turns, then holding her hands up to protect herself from a net of severed genitals. She runs headlong into it, at full bore, and these aren’t rubber ones, not PVC or silicone. The Things in the towers wrap them with ink for potency, use the bigger ones like catalysts when They speak strings of holy words, and I think of the silhouettes waving around tattooed meat while they chant into the wire-can telephones to each other. Magic wands made from flesh, wagging like dildos, black and white and brown all covered in scars.

“Kid,” the voice says to someone, and I don’t know if it’s a memory of me speaking or being spoken to. “Kid, just don’t think too much while you’re here. Not everyone finds it so depressing, but if you have a heart, man, it takes its toll. Watching people give up, roll over, walk down the low road because their legs hurt too much to walk uphill anymore. Nobody finds what they want here because that’s the gimmick. A pornographer can’t sell what people really want, because what people want—I mean what theyreally want—isn’t shit you can buy.”

I think my name is Jay’s Sin.

The woman trips and falls into another pile of garbage. She looks so helpless. So dirty.

“Come here,” I try to say, but it just comes out cmhnggrrr. “Let me help you, I love you,” but it’s just heehpuoo, ehuvghuu. My bottom jaw doesn’t seem to want to meet the top.

I think of Them talking, and wonder why they’d need tin cans when the air already reverberates with their choked proclamations.

I go heavy on my knees next to her, and she screams. I want to comfort her. I want to tell her it’s okay. The diseased thing the world was and is, how They turned it like sour milk, it’s nothing to be afraid of. As a work-servant I have privilege. I know her. I understand.

“Let me love you,” I say, and the words fall like an empty burlap sack onto the concrete.

I think, my name.

Looking back to see if anyone’s followed us, I see those lips, still shining electric red amid the dust.

“Son,” the voice says, “find something you really love to do and do it. This’s a shit job, and you sure as hell shouldn’t make a lifetime out of it. Don’t just work for someone else pushing this crap. Take it from me, I been at this too long, and I guarantee you’ll find better ways to spend your life than selling DVDs and rubber dicks.”

I think my name is Jason.

I think this is the love I’ve been looking for.

I try to turn her over, but I’m missing my right hand, the thing that’s now just a stump sewn up, cauterized, turned to leather. My fist is probably strung up on a wire somewhere, watching me, my own body endlessly betraying itself to Them.

The hand I have left is sometimes weak and arthritic, but I manage to get my love on her back with some effort, and she looks up at me. She resists.

I want to tell her to look into my eyes. Everything’s fine, just look into my eyes and see that I’m what They promised, you’re what They promised me, the shapes in the towers, those char-black ivory gods that have vaulted Themselves above us. They told us we’d find love.

She resists.

If she’d only look. If I could only speak.

The hook I carry is rusty and sharp, and it’s in my hand. The girl’s eyes have gone glassy, full of the merciful, narcotic peace that comes when you realize love is finally lost. That numbness when you can’t cry anymore and end up falling asleep with a half-finished drink in your hand.

I’m afraid things just aren’t working out between us.

The sound of dying love is the sound of meat, and juice gushes everywhere, making me remember the old store, all the bodies forever gushing on videos, the sludge in the back booths where you had to mop up all day long after the customers.

Despite what They told me, nothing seems to move in that unfeeling heart of hers. She reaches up her stumps to ward me off, but it’s no good without hands, which are in my bag. Defense is just a reflex, I try to say. Go to sleep, sweet girl—and I hush her with a whisper from the nothing of my face.

Another failed relationship. If only we’d learned how to communicate.

All I have left again is my labor, the eternal constant, so I get up and get back to walking my beat. It’s time to focus on the job at hand, and hope that next time the love might last a little longer.

I look up and pray. Fingers curl back into palms as mud-strangled screams vibrate the sky.

I look up and pray. Promises of love float by on the wind.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s