In Amber Gehenna

In Amber GehennaBehind the bar dangles a ribbon of yellow flypaper covered in glass bees, some of them still wriggling. Wings vibrating, antennae twitching. All to no avail. They’re not the only ones stuck, of course. Here in this infernal tavern, each of us is both patron and prisoner. We are also the slime-throated slumlords of our own bodies, constantly making life hell for the poor parasites which inhabit the overpriced clapboard condos of our guts.

The original plan was to come down here to steal as much scenery as we could haul and carry it back upstairs with us to decorate the drab celestial wasteland where the home office is located. Now it’s centuries later and as you can see we’re still here, chewing our kin but not swallowing, or else gulping them down whole, preferably still squirming. It’s not the taste, it’s the texture, like they say. Hey, you like oyster shooters, right? It’s just like that.

Anyways, most creatures are trash, my barstool neighbor Keely being the sole exception who comes to mind at the moment, possibly because I’m too trashed to focus on any faces farther than arm’s length. No, but seriously, Keely’s not like the rest of these creeps; hair like coiled rope, arms like the open mouths of baby birds. The archetypal virgin whore. The bartender, whose real name is, believe it or not, Bartholomew Ender, plays a game with her; plucks a glass bee from the strip of flypaper, flicks it towards her like a cocktail peanut. She opens her mouth and catches every time, crunching down hard before the insect can sting the inside of her mouth, leaving its tiny crystal shard buried in her tongue, her cheek. The world spins tipsily with the sound of splintering wings and abdomens, tiny legs and multifaceted eyes.

Bart laughs and turns to me. “Bill was a good agent,” he says, continuing a conversation the beginning of which I’ve already forgotten. “One of the best. But he made some critical errors, the most egregious of which was the scarcity of female characters in his stories. Oh sure he’d occasionally mention women, write of them the way a botanist writes of an invasive species such as kudzu, or a carnivorous plant. Point of fact, for Bill a woman was pretty much just a larger version of a pitcher plant, little more than a stinky orifice filled with sticky fluid, designed expressly for the entrapment and subsequent digestion of men.”

I nod glumly. Poor Bill, turning out to be just another murderous queen blinded by his own hunger. And speaking of hunger, I tap the rim of my empty glass. The whorls of my fingertips are as deep and rough as the furrows of a rasp. Bart ignores me, keeps flicking bees into Keely’s open yap. By now her cheeks are puffed out and swollen with venom but she just nods amicably. She raps the counter with her knuckles and Bart slides her a pint glass of pearly liquid which she downs with great bobbing gulps.

On shelves behind the bar rest bottles of every shape and size, all of them wrapped in paper –butcher paper, newspaper, pages torn from magazines. Keely slams her empty glass down on the counter, sending her coaster flying. I pick it up; the damp cardboard disk sports a cartoon picture of some kind of weasel. “Struttin’ Stoat Stout” reads the caption. I whiz the coaster across the room like a goddamn ninja throwing star. Someone yells “Ow!” but I don’t turn around to look.

Oh my Keely! Even her name sounds like a shriek, a wild cry from above, though do not get me wrong, she’s not from up there. No, she’s not one of us.

Dripping jungle presses against the doors from outside. Bart peels back his lips, uncovering teeth the color of old newspaper. His gums are the color of my eyeballs. My hand curls around the bottle of hot sauce on the counter and without thinking I start sucking it like a teat. A circle of sick spreads across the counter from God knows where but nobody else seems to notice so I just file it away without saying anything.

Where do these strange glass insects come from, you may be wondering. Perhaps it’s time to interrupt our program to air some nature documentary clips. Is it possible that the reader’s curiosity will prove strong enough to warrant such an intrusion on the, let’s face it, less than compelling narrative sloshing around before him? Probably not, but it’s worth risking, to my mind, so let us now back warily out of the bar (for one must never turn one’s back on such a place; better to take one’s chances with the unknown dangers lurking outside) and focus our attention on a peephole that has just opened up, growing wider and wider, granting us a peek into the Late Mesozoic Age, an era which ended millions of years ago.

Dear Diary,

Today I went to this awful bar called Eet Proom. I had a read good time. I came to study, but met a woman from Austin. She was a Latina. There was no outside seating so she shared her table. We talked and I figured out she was not as self-actualized as she proclaimed to be. I actually never got any school work done. I came into the tavern to get away from the negative energy my roommate was projecting. Unfortunately I had to call her for a ride home because I have had a little too much to drink. I would I could say something so enlightening but I am too shallow. However I am having a great time. I came to the bar with a negative attitude and leaving with a positive one. I am going to feel like shit tomorrow. Catholic guilt is a bitch. That drunk girl told me I should read this Sharon Olds poem Sex Without Love but she’s full of shit.

Wait wait wait. I’ve lost track of… must have left a slime trail behind me, snail that I am… let me see if I can pick up the… there. Ariadne’s string serves us well.

Millions of years ago there were coniferous trees that, as they still do today, when wounded would bleed thick resin, or sap. And this sap would drip, drip so slowly as to seem motionless down the rough hide of these stiff, stately giants. (I suddenly wonder: why is it that so many of my yarns take place in primordial settings? Could it be that the present is too painful to write about? Do I just relate better to unevolved characters? (Look, this isn’t the time or place for such navel-gazing psychobabble. You’re losing them.)). So down the sap would flow, and woe be to the sucker whose tiny toes end up tap-dancing into the wrong place at the wrong time! Like the gullet of the pitcher plant, the sticky resin would trap the poor insect, eventually oozing around his carcass, effectively embalming it in a golden prison, forever displayed in amber Gehenna.

One day, a primeval hornet, barely pupated with her body still soft and translucent, found herself ensnared in the sticky substance. Instead of struggling to free herself, or giving in, she started to suck with her tiny proboscis, ingesting as much sap as her little abdomen could contain. Instead of killing her, the viscous tree-snot filled her with strength, and she beat her tiny wings, sending ripples through the sea of sap. The ripples went all the way back up to the hole from which the sap flowed, entering the pulpy heart of the conifer.

And the heart pulsed

And the tree shrugged

And the sap released her

And away she flew, heavy with resin. Her body remained shiny and slick, her youthful transparency preserved to pass on to future generations. She would bequeath her lack of opacity upon her children, and generation after generation of her descendents grew more and more glassy. After millions of years they have become nearly invisible. The swimming insects you see in the corner of your eyes are related to them, as are the crystal bees which, having been crunched into glassy fragments, have made their way into my darling Keely’s stomach, where they are not, alas,  content to rest.

Like a brick in the back of my head I have a flash of St. Mark’s place in New York, the narrow corridors between buildings, art students passing back and forth in streams with their black portfolios. For years I dreamed of living there, settling down, falling in love, but never quite made it. Why does it pop into my head now? I slam my fist into the wave of nostalgia which threatens to suffocate me. Shattered glass, shredded knuckles. Spiderweb of useless feeling.

(You know all my secrets; my fears, my failures, Bill. My crashing satellite, my collapsing tower. You know I’m just a rubber band ball of doubt. You know I couldn’t get it up if I tried. And I’ve sure as hell tried. I should bounce right back up to that barren asteroid I bungeed down from all those years ago. That’s right, Bill, just like you always said, I’m a regular little fucking prince, shitting bricks to clog up his own volcanoes.)

But before I’ve strained my poor reader’s patience to the breaking point perhaps it would be best to swing back around on the stool and focus in on our reluctant muse Keely, who is… not there. Where in Christ’s name did she go? It pays for the narrator to pay attention to his characters, no matter how inebriated he…oh, there she is. Shit. I was afraid of this.

My buxom barroom beauty is currently crouched before the basin in the sexless restroom, hurling her effervescent guts out into the toilet. The bowl fills with the chopped remains of five dozen crystal bees, give or take. Who would have thought there could be so many? But they’ve been landing on that flypaper all night, all week even, and now after a brief disappearance they make their return, minced and pulverized and marinated in digestive juices. The hopper quickly fills, crystal crumbs plinking melodiously into the water like wind chimes, like Chinese bells. Like fairy music.

Keely has always considered herself a hearty specimen, and in many respects she is, but this is where she falls apart. Only the hardest of hearts would find it impossible to feel empathy for this poor girl. Pretty once, or almost. Not as pretty as the girl who wrote in my notebook, “Dear Diary, Today I went to this awful bar called Eet Proom….” just a little while ago. That girl had wavy blond hair and enormous, nurturing breasts. Legs tiny and withered but her arms slathered in muscles from wheeling herself around. It took all my strength not to slip my own arm around her powerful shoulders as she was writing. “I’m trashed,” she admitted, and those two words were all it took to protect her from my advances. Believe it or not, I still do have a shred or two of well-cloaked decency left.

The retching from the lavatory wrenches at my heart, black as it is. Bart Ender whistles tunelessly, pretending not to hear. Later he’ll throw a guy out for nothing more than asking for an extra cocktail onion in his bloody Mary. Bart will throw the poor slob to the sidewalk and kick him to within an inch of his life. Now, though, he’s wiping the same spot on the counter over and over and over again. He wishes Bill was here, I can see it smeared across his face. Can’t say I blame him. Now there was an agent, murderous creep or no.

Finally the sound of flushing, again and again, and then the sound of running water in the sink as she swishes, gargles, spits out blood and slivers. Returns not triumphant exactly but not is as bad shape as one would expect. She’s seen worse. We all have.

“Get your ass over here, Keely,” I say, slapping the barstool beside me. I created you, now let me buy you a drink.

“Where’s that hussy who was writing in your book?” She demands, taking a seat. “The crippled tramp with the tits you couldn’t stop staring at.”

“The girl in the wheelchair? Ah, her roommate drove her home,” I say, unsure if this is the truth.

“Did you get her number?” Her eyes flash like sparks even in the dim light of the bar.

“I’ve got everyone’s number,” I say, reaching over to flick a sparkling thorax from her chin. “Now, let’s have another round. This one’s on me.”

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Seann Patrick McCollum has self-published ten books of poetry, with another two due later this year. As should be apparent, he is slightly obsessive and a control freak but otherwise completely harmless. He stands five foot ten in his socks and is patiently waiting for this whole internet business to blow over. His work can be found at

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