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Travis Jon Mader

“I don’t like love poems,” Craig says hatefully, crumpling my offering into a ball and tossing it at the horizon. He opens his mouth to say something else but decides against it and stomps away.

The nib of my fountain pen digs deep into bond. My hand twists make-believe characters into imagined situations, their fates dependent upon the tense of my verbiage. They’re just words I know, but words can mean so much more than the things and people they signify.

Craig consciously avoids me ever since he rejected me. Our paths never intersect, despite the wide arcs and parabolas I inscribe in the hope of our intersection. When he decodes my impending geometry he always changes sign and retreats along another axis.

I’ve catalogued my love poems to Craig: 37 so far, including the one I retrieved and smoothed out. That particular crumpled ode was by far the most unique, owing to the fact that it was the only one I’d ever gathered up the nerve to deliver. Some nights in my room I close my eyes, throw my spurned missives in the air and stand back as they settle to the carpet. Then I pass the time until morning studying them, hoping to discover cryptic patterns in the way they’ve fallen.

Craig doesn’t know it but I watch him all the time: from out windows, from behind trees, through binoculars, etc. I make a point of allowing myself to be seen by him at least once a day, so as not to arouse suspicion. I don’t really think I’m fooling him; he knows more than he lets on. He knows I’m totally crushed out on him. He just pretends to hate it.

Yesterday I counted how many times I’ve used the word “love” in my poems to Craig. Then I divided the sum in half and multiplied it by my lucky number 7. I figured the product was probably significant, a clue that would lead me straight to his heart where I belong. I stayed up all night trying to figure out the math.

Craig goes to the gym everyday, in baggy gray sweat pants. I know the print of his tennis shoes in the orange sand at the construction site on the way. I tried to steal a bright yellow hard hat from the construction workers so I could watch him up close incognito as he passed, but I chickened out at the last minute and ducked behind a nearby dumpster.

I’m starting to get bored with the lack of results re: Craig. I’m thinking of writing a story to kill time while I wait for him to come to his senses. I’m thinking maybe I’ll make Craig a character. I’m thinking maybe I should be in it too, though I’d definitely change my name. I stayed up late last night thinking up a plot.

At the gym, Craig works out for anywhere from an hour to ninety minutes, taking about fifteen minutes for a shower before leaving the way he came. Sometimes his fresh shoe prints crisscross his old ones and make X’s in the sand. I daydream about our paths intersecting so quietly and perfectly.

I’ve written the first paragraph of my story about Craig. I mean “Craig.” That’s to say, he’s a “character.” I go by “Max” in the story, don’t ask me why. That’s all I have so far.

Craig has black hair and blue eyes, with long eyelashes. When he walks his arms catch the breeze in a way that makes my heart skip a beat, corny as that sounds. I imagine my face in his, buried in his golden-brown skin. If that situation arose, I’d never let go, never pull my face from his sand. Sometimes I wonder if I’d suffocate and die but, truth be told, I probably wouldn’t care.

My story’s this: “Craig” walks to the gym on a weekday afternoon like any other. “Max” is in love with “Craig.” He watches “Craig” from a short distance away, snapping photos he’ll develop later that night at the One Hour PhotoLab. “Craig” is oblivious to his excited papparazzo and treads tennis shoe tracks through the sandy construction site with abandon. To be continued...

I haven’t finished my story yet. I’ve continued my surveillance, although I’ve made some minor adjustments which have ensured that our paths haven’t crossed for the last few days. He probably thinks I’m over him. Hardly. He was wearing new sneakers today, a different brand. While he worked out I studied his new imprint.

So the story picks up where “Craig’s” walking to the gym. Blah blah blah. (Eventually I’ll add more description here.) Suddenly “Craig” realizes his laces are untied! He kneels in the soft orange sand of the construction site and begins to tie them. The men in yellow hard hats don’t react fast enough. The ground beneath “Craig” collapses. The men in hard hats drop their Diet Cokes in shock.

I confronted Craig again today as he was exiting the gym. I was waiting for him outside. When he saw me he froze in his tracks. He didn’t know what to do, didn’t want to look at me, encourage me, etc. There was this weird pause, so I started to ask him about his workout small talk—you know, looking for an in. Instead, his face crumpled as he came at me fast, slamming me in the chest with the butt of his hand. As I hit the dirt, I heard him mutter “faggot” and trample away.

Craig” is disoriented. He’s fallen fifteen or twenty feet into a trench. The orange walls are caving in on him, loose clumps of sand that bury him up the waist almost instantly. He starts to scream, a hyper high-pitched wail that sounds wrong coming out of his mouth. Up above him, men in bright yellow hard hats peer down impotently.

Craig stopped going to the gym, or at least he didn’t go today. I couldn’t find him anywhere. Maybe he’s sick. It’s flu season, anyway. I decide it’s useless to speculate and concentrate on finishing my story.

“Craig’s” cries carry through the construction site. The yellow hard hats try to get at him: they lower lines and sandbuckets on ropes for him to grab a hold of. Every time they attempt rescue, an avalanche of orange sand cascades down on him. He’s buried up to his chest now.

Ok, I’m starting to freak out a little. Craig has disappeared off the face of the planet. I haven’t spotted him at any of his usual haunts for days. Should I call him? I don’t know his phone number, it’s unlisted. I try my hand at internet stalking, to no avail.

The police have arrived, plus the local news stations. “Craig’s” face is all over the 6 o’clock news, buried in sand fifteen feet below. MSNBC affiliates are on the way. He’s the biggest underground story since Baby Jessica. The sand is up to his neck now. He’s losing consciousness.

I decide I don’t feel like writing and sit in my room, rereading my love poems...thinking about Craig. My numerology experiments came to naught. I feel a sense of dread in my chest, but I try to shake it off. I can’t sleep and stay up into the early morning hours watching infomercials.

“Craig” has been buried up to his neck for eight hours. The pressure of the sand has begun to break down his muscle tone into bits of myoglobin that enter his bloodstream. Rescuers work feverishly to save him, exercising extreme caution as the walls of the trench threaten to bury him at any moment. In the blinding white Kleig lights of the networks, “Craig” is finally extricated from the orange sand and hoisted past the crowd. As the crane rotates his limp body over a veritable stadium of well-wishers, his workout buddies from the gym cheer and give each other high-fives.

It’s 4 am. It’s snowing on TV. Love letters are scattered everywhere. I try to count how many times I’ve used the word “love” in my life. I try to calculate how many times I’ve said “I love you” to someone besides my pillow. I try to imagine my life without the word “love.” Everything is going black. My emotions are caving in on me.

“Craig” is still conscious, stretched out on a gurney. Microscopic fragments of his toned musculature have drifted to his kidneys, blocking them, shutting them down. Toxins are building up. In the back of the ambulance, his vitals start to give out. “Step on it,” one of the paramedics yells to the driver, “We’ve got crush syndrome!”

I’m trying to be rational. I’ve got to get over him, I know that. I try to rationalize, but the need to see him is so pressing I can’t fight it. I don’t have enough control to think things through. I sneak out through my bedroom window, scramble down the trellis and aim my front tires towards the ER.

“Craig” spends seven hours in ICU before he dies. During that time, his parents, his coach and his buddies visit him. Most of them are only allowed to peer for a few seconds at a time through the glass that separates him from the nurse’s station. Around his prone body respirators and heart monitors whir and beep like a Kraftwerk symphony.

My car idles low in the hospital parking lot. My visor light is broken. No one can see the tears on my cheeks, not even me. I don’t know if they’re even there, and I don’t have the courage to lift my hand to see.

As “Craig” leaves his body, he sees his mom and dad at his side, pained expressions on their faces, choked sobs lodged in their throats. Oblivious, he zooms out through the ceiling of his room, passing through sheet rock and ductwork and wiring like it was air.

Our song plays on the radio. I never could make out the words, so I mumble along unintelligibly. From here I can see visitors going in and out of the hospital. It’s always the same: they enter as rushed, agitated shadows, silhouetted in the fluorescent glare that spills from out of the sliding glass doors; on the way out, they hold each other, huddling, their bodies a tangled graph of acute angles. More often than not, they hurry into their cars and pull away into the dark night. Sometimes they get in their cars, turn on the overhead lights and hold each other.

The roof of the hospital’s fading in the distance, and the bright yellow H of the heliport. “Craig” feels fine. Never better. He exhales and enjoys the ride, which kind of reminds him of Space Mountain. All of “Craig’s” memories start unfurling, rushing at him from all directions. They play across his soul like a million Sports Sunday simulcasts. I’m just a commercial.

My mouth kisses “his;” my fingers map careful approximations of his lips. In my hands, he smiles back at me comfortingly and says a last goodbye. I close my eyes and I’m in the room with them. The machines have been quieted; everything is still and peaceful and sterile. They stand grouped around him in the fluorescence like mannequins, people whose faces I’ve never seen, only imagined. His mother and father. Maybe a sister. A brother?

I try to count how many times I’ve used the word “love” in my life. I try to calculate how many times I’ve said “I love you” to someone besides my pillow. I try to imagine my life without the word “love.” I try to lose the quotes, but I can’t.

The orange sodium streetlights throw haloes when I look into their glare; my windshield’s spotted with tiny carcasses. Most of the cars in the parking lot have disappeared. I imagine everyone’s left by now. Visiting hours are over. Who were they here to visit? I wonder. Did someone die tonight? I watch a couple with a young kid walk slowly to their SUV, get in and drive away. As my runaway imagination begins forging their identities, I’m struck by the fact that everything’s simultaneously so fucking impenetrable and transparent. I turn the engine and pull out.

Craig is back at the gym—I think that’s his name. In any event, “Craig” goes to the gym every day, working out for anywhere from an hour to ninety minutes. I’ve written him more love poems, but I don’t fret about delivering them. I still watch him from afar, but I don’t fret about allowing myself to be seen. The game’s not important anymore, and I’ve laid off the composition for the time being. Of course “Craig” knows I’m totally crushed out on him, but he’s currently pretending to have forgotten all about me and my infatuation—which, for the moment, I find more than a little sexy. Overall, I’m satisfied with the way the plot’s progressing. I mean, I know they’re just words, but words can mean so much more than the things and people they signify. And I don’t want to mess things up.


Travis Jon Mader is a 30-year-old writer living in Houston, Texas. His work has shifted from playwriting to performance text to fiction and back again. Along the way he has worked with Edward Albee, Tim Miller, Anne Waldman and Elia Arce, among others. He is currently working on a book. 3AM Magazine has also published Travis Jon Mader’s “Cut”. An interview with the author appears in our “What the Butler Never Saw” column.

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