The slash forum was discussing different jobs we see and how there wasn't much variety.
So I said I'd write florist/taxonomist slash. Only taxonomists have boring jobs so instead, a taxidermist, which has a lot the same letters.

So this is for the awesome Sundown.

It's pretty much a giant quilt of incoherency, but that's what you get for Writing Under the Influence.


I.

I remember the exact moment we decided to rob the 7/11.

Azul leaned up against the brick wall of the building on sixth street. The cigarette dangled from his lips, clasped between his teeth. He played tetris with one hand and just kept the other in his pocket, hips thrust forward, just to look mean. The only light came from the bare bulb poking into the alley, a glow that extended a few feet around us before losing itself in the night.

"What time do you get off?" Even though I had told him in the morning and we worked in the same mall anyway, in little square sections of independent commerce.

"Four."

Clicked off his game and tucked it into the back pocket of his khakis. Adjusted his hat to shield his face from the harmful UV rays of moonlight. "It's almost midnight now. You think you can get off early? I have some place I want to go and you have to come with."

"I can't."

"It's important."

Five days a week, I go to work at a flower kiosk in the mall. While there, I hand hibiscus flowers the size of china plates to tanned girls with freckles and loose skirts and hear them gasp; apple-petal cheeks brightening as they scurry off, giggling. While there, I pass a bouquet of yellow roses to a man with one front tooth; "They're for my wife," he will undoubtedly say and she doesn't really appreciate them because yellow roses are I'm-sorry-your-grandmother-was-in-the-hospital roses. While there, I sell flowers to impressive boys who want to prove to their insecure fuck buddies that their relationship really truly is special.

Azul is a taxidermist.

"Is it gross?" I had once asked. "Touching all those dead animals?"

He had looked at me severely, pointing at my face with a sharp pencil, mouth tucked tight into a thin line. For a moment, my eyes had met his and we had stared at each other for a long moment.

"No." The air hissed threateningly from his throat. "It is art; art is sad."

That had been the last time I had asked him anything about it.

I knew he had a sister named Claudia and that she was twelve years old and he hadn't seen her in four years.

Not exactly the most likely candidates to commit armed robbery in a convenience store.

And yet, perhaps we were.

"I can't get off work early," I said. "It doesn't matter how fucking important it is. I need the fucking money. I hate selling blood but I do it anyway, that's how much I need the fucking money."

I was always short on money. This month. Every month. The next month and the next month and the month after that. Both psychic and practical. Line up for your chance to touch me in the living flesh. The breathing flesh. Slide your hands down hands down hands down. This is a dangerous combination.

"Get off work early." Taking his hands in mine. "Just do it, Joshua."

"Why?" I wrenched my hands back from his, slamming them back into my pockets. Mouth rang with obscenities and head spun around and around in circles at the night blurred into one hoop of distorted lines.

"Because I'm going to knock over a fucking 7/11 and I want you to help me. Duh. Fuck." He threw his cigarette on the ground and it landed in a puddle, going out with a sizzle. Stomped it thrice anyway, working the frustration from his angular form.

"Really?"

I had always wondered how hard that would be.

"Yeah."

That's the moment we decided to rob the 7/11.

Getting away from the scene of a crime is like watching a film of two people getting away from the scene of the crime in a movie being played in slow motion.

Getting away from the scene of an almost-crime is like watching that film on a projector after smashing that projector with a rock. When I replay the scene in my head, it doesn't function right; the screen on the back of my eyelids is corrupted: playing the sequence forward and backwards and sometimes in colour and sometimes in orange monochrome and occasionally just a slide show of that nice Indian couple in the corner of the store, clinging to each other.

It's like a fucking movie.

Stopped at the counter and opened our mouths to draw guns and demand whatever was in the till. The man behind the counter in question looked at us and we looked right back at him.

"Give us all your money." I whispered, low enough to pass off as a cough. Just to make sure I could say those words.

"I'm sorry, I don't speak English."

Azul looked first at me and then at the man behind the counter and then had gotten bags and bags of chips, bottles of coffee and energy drinks, a five gallon jug of water. Pulled his wallet out of his pocket and handed over the money and taken his change and just left.

My heart sloshed against my ribs, tickling them up and down until it hurt too much to breathe. As Azul drove away into the endless night of the little border town —between Nebraska and Kansas where you only get five radio stations, where I was surprised they had heard of 7/11— I just banged my head against the window until my skull ached.

"Stop that." Azul slaps my shoulder. I can see his own chest leaping up and down. "Fuck. Fuck. They might have gotten the plates."

So we pull over in the next border town —firmly on the Kansas side— and pry the plates off our car and put them on someone else's car. We switch some more plates, partially to cover our tracks and partially because we both hate the sleazy tourists who stay in border towns on their way to big cities ready to swallow them whole.

Fuck those sleazy tourists.

We park halfway into a corn field. The corn stalks bend underneath the bumper, broken. We have back seat piled up with blankets and curl into those. They're not as warm as I wish they were, but they aren't as bad as I'd thought they would be. In the dark, can hear Azul breathing. Hand sneaks out from under the blanket and finds mine in the many folds of cloth between us. It's only the pressing together of palms, of the acknowledgement that finally, finally, the insanity of the consumer society has killed our common sense and we should just off ourselves now.

My name is Joshua. Have half a degree in fine arts and half a degree in failing out of college and working at a kiosk selling flowers to people who wouldn't give a shit if I keeled over dead in front of them. For the next two and a half days, an outlaw.

Afterwards, won't be an outlaw and didn't almost shoot someone without every drawing a gun.

"Where are we going?"

"California."

If I had a cell phone, would call my boss and tell her that I don't work at the torture kiosk any more. Goodbye, Dragon Lady. Hate you. Have taken one too many pills and finally realize that my dignity is not worth the minimum wage. Also, don't have a car so couldn't get to work on Monday anyway and you'd fire me because you can't make anyone else work the night shift.

Only did it because Azul did it.

Who needs a cat stuffed at one in the morning?

When we met, it was maybe 10:30, very possibly a Wednesday, potentially in the first week of April but it might be the second.

Azul's hair had reached down to his waist and been the colour of mud pies. Wove unusual beads into his hair, ribbons and ropes and feathers— all blue. All blue, all shades of blue, every shade of blue. Tossed his head and rattled, opal against sapphire against silver. Maybe all of it was coloured glass.

Had looked up at me from an uncomfortably dead cheetah. "Hey."

I had jumped at the sound of his voice, having been encompassed in silence for the past hour. Smiled, awkwardly as I could, and nodded. "Hey," had shouted back. My voice echoed over the flat glass and sloping cement. Blushing, shuffled a little closer. The taxidermy store smelt like leather and chemicals.

"I'm Joshua."

For a moment, he had looked a little surprised, as if he hadn't expected me to speak to him.

"Azul."

We shook on it, though I'm sure our hands lingered all together too long. From that moment on, my skin pined for his the way gods pine for their lover's. Found myself running fingers over palms over elbows and the inside of wrists.

"Did you always want to be a taxidermist?"

The wheat, the sky, and the sharp division between the two shift around him like dreamscapes. Wind rips through the open window and into his hair, forcing it in all directions at the same time. He slides his eyes over to look at me. One eyebrow raised. Shakes his head, puts his hands on the steering wheel.

"I wanted to be a sculptor." Touches his face with his hands, one and then the other, always keeping one firmly fixed on the steering wheel. "And you? Did you always want to be a junkie florist?"

For a moment, I debate which question to answer first before settling. "Why are you a taxidermist then?" The second question is a little more difficult, and the answer crystallises in my mouth over several seconds. "I wanted to be a painter. Now I arrange flowers because at least I'm making something even if it's not mine. It taught me not to care."

"Because it's art." Because it's art and it's sad. Looks in the rear view mirror just briefly before turning his huge eyes on the wall. Adjusts his glasses, not quite fitted to his prescription but only a dollar at the dollar store. The frames are green. "Why are you a florist if you wanted to be a painter?"

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

A florist because I take too many pills, or do I take too many pills because a florist?

Head aching, curl up against the door and peer out into the daylight. Corn flutters by on all sides, running into itself like a smear of golden paint. Run my fingers over the smooth glass of the window. Press two of the white wheels of pretty dreams and delicious indifference into my mouth.

"I'm a shitty student. I spent all my time doing art instead of writing about it."

Only that's not true. I did a lot of spicy drugs. Slept with a lot of fearful, slender boys. Kissed all sorts of inappropriate individuals. Dig my nails into my arms until the skin splits and stings to give birth to bubbling blood.

Without shifting his eyes from the road, Azul runs his hand through my hair. Fingertips over my flushed cheeks and over my neck and past my collarbone.

"We didn't actually commit a crime." Sounds beautiful in my head and ringing in my ears as it bubbles from his throat. "We just...happened to have guns in our pockets when we bought chips."

Those are almost all gone.

"But I said it." Press against his hands, desperate for the semblance of familiarity in them. "I said 'Give us all your money.' That makes it a crime, right?"

"But he didn't do it."

Shrugs and keeps driving, through his skin still presses against mine. Just our hands, but loans me that hand to trace lotus onto. Mouth poises to open, to impart some wisdom or truth because nothing can be gained with anything but truth. Teeth click. Shuts his mouth.

"Then why are we going to California?"

"It's where my sister lives. Anaheim."

"I've never been to Anaheim."

"Me neither."

We speak in spare lines of verse, the conversational equivalent to a Mondrian painting, nouns-verbs-adjectives to blue-red-yellow squares interrupted by black lines. Later, won't recall it exactly.

"We can't kidnap her," I say. "I already almost committed a crime. I can't commit one for real, we could go to jail."

As it is, all we have been doing is driving for twenty four hours that were not all in a row. Out of food. Keep refilling the jug with salty, rusty water from deserted rest stop. The only people we see are fat women with picnic baskets in that stretch of park and paedophile bathrooms right off the highway, trying desperately to control their children.

Like great whales wearing pink sweatpants.

Distinctly different from people who happen to be fat. You don't happen to be fat and take your kids to truck stops: there is a correlation.

Lot lizards swarm up to us, flash their tits and rub the swell of their breasts with manicured fingernails. For a moment, I sit transfixed. One of the girls has her nipples pierced, and can see the metal through her tight tight shirt.

"Go away!" Voice fierce like desert thunder, Azul shakes his hands at them and they disperse. Looks over at me and reaches out, ever gently, to brush the curls of hair from my face. "Hey."

We crawl into the back seat and lie tangled up, limb for limp. His breath ghosts over the stretches of skin exposed to the night air. "Are you all right?"

"No."

Props himself up on one elbow to look down at me and I up at him, though I don't move anything but my eyes. They have been avoiding his all afternoon.

"You didn't have to come."

"I don't...my whole life is gone." Stare at my hands. Thin and fragile, skin like the skin of a water lily. "I am more worried about how little I care than the fact that my whole life is gone.

My life is not really gone.

I am gone from my life.

My life is still there.

When the final light at the rest stop turns out, Azul finally leans forward to kiss my mouth. "Good night." We lie there, unmoving, unrealized, until sleep begins to creep out from everything and swallow whole the world that remains.

I threw my gun in the reservoir early on. Didn't want to have a gun. Didn't like guns. Knew Azul kept his, hadn't thrown it out with the rest of the stuff we junked in the blue bin on our way through Colorado.

"What are you doing?" I ask. Sit on the drying grass beside him. He has a gun in his hands and it looks infinitely wrong there. It's be an undetermined number of days since I last saw my gun, and even then it had seemed universally evil. Came with words wouldn't ever feel comfortable saying, emotions wouldn't ever feel comfortable feeling.

Drops the gun and stands up. Lies there like a dead snake. Takes my hands and squeezes them tightly. My face has gone hot again, baked by the heat of the son. My whole body wants to sink into the dry earth and stay there, buried in dirt.

The way our fingers twine together makes my flesh tingle. Like drugs— tighten stomachs and seal shut eyes and loosen legs and amplify moans of unbridled lust. Without the presence of the other, imbalance is achieved.

I am sure corporations are evil and I am sure I love Azul.

The only truths are told through a complicated story of human rights violations and evening spent in my apartment, curled up on the couch, listening to each other's breathing during the commercials. The most silent affirmation of adoration: waking up beside a warm bodies still warm after they open their eyes.

Don't trust anything, not even the sun.

Trust Azul.

Pull into a beachside motel, only there is no beach. Park the car and shuffle into the room, taking along the key provided to us by the tired-looking receptionist. At least she made an effort to smile. Didn't look disappointed when Azul didn't, but I did and she looked happier. Brighter.

The room is sparse. Azul climbs onto one of the beds and motions for me to join him. Cross the floor and stretch out beside him, cheek against cheek, breath twin puffs of air. "We're in Arizona."

"I didn't know we were that far south."

"We are."

Have only been to Arizona once. Hot, dry, crackling beneath every crunching boot like fire or rice paper. The grand canyon was had been dug out with a stick or a shovel or the pinky of god. Gave me vertigo. Spent an hour clinging to the rock, trying to remember my telephone number.

"I'm from California."

"Really?"

Azul shrugs and buries his face in my hair. "Yeah. My mother picked strawberries. She eventually met this guy she ended up marrying. My stepfather."

For a moment, expecting some painful history, snuggle against him.

"It wasn't dramatic. He gave her a place to live and another kid and he was good to her. She didn't have to pick strawberries any more. I made myself scarce, learned to climb pine trees." He tilts his face up and shuts his eyes as if rain comes out of the cottage cheese ceiling.

Auctioned off all my secrets, so after that, we sit in silence with only the television for background noise. Strokes my hair, presses open mouthed kisses against my eyelids, my nose, the hallow of my cheeks. Grow more hallow with hunger.

"Have you ever been in love?" Words escape my mouth before I can gobble them up again. It's too late: into his head, bouncing around. Turns an impassive eye on me, arches an eyebrow.

"I hate when people ask that." Shakes his head. His voice is unusually low and scrapes his throat as he speaks. "They always want a specific answer. The truth is never the right answer with questions like that. Ask what you want to ask."

"I don't know what I want. To ask or otherwise." Press my face into the pillow we share, inhale the scent of this man with whom I spend so much time. His entire body breathes and rattles and expands and contracts and grows into another shape all together if anything goes wrong.

When we have fused together into one body, I revel in the dizzying closeness.


II.

Azul left home when he was sixteen.

He loaded his clothes into his backpack and climbed onto a creaky metal bus. It crept over the landscape, away from the coast of California towards the endless cornfields that lay eastwards. Nebraska swallowed him alive, and he studied taxidermy for two years before getting a job at a mall in search of a taxidermist.

He once said aloud that taxidermy was art and that it was sad, and in a way both of these things were entirely true: it took skill and a good eye to make the animals look like they were still breathing, full ready to pounce back to life at any moment; cleaning the skins of once-wild leopards and bears and even house cats was tragic.

Azul lives in a brick apartment in a complex on eighth street. Every afternoon he wakes up and brushes his teeth and pets his cat —both dead and a prime example of his artistic talent— and then spends eight hours trying to figure out what to do with himself before going to work.

The sheer number of old women who bring in their dead dogs astounds him.

He has a boyfriend. Sort of. A lover of sorts, someone with the same stupid schedule so they can do things together. Even if he thinks Joshua is dependent —on pills, on good luck, never on Azul— he finds himself nonetheless drawn to his florist counterpart. Like magnets. Like buttered toast to the floor. Like stick figures in the same panel of a comic.

They are so similar it made his eyes sting.

Quietly, they sync their lunch breaks at midnight. This is as close as it get to being anything official: besides that, just a long string of going home and coming back. Sometimes, in the morning, that's what Azul finds to do— sleep late, curled around Joshua, face buried in his wild hair. He just listens to the breathing, to the in and out of air over Joshua's lips.

It is because of this, and also because Azul is tired of art having to be so sad, that he decides to do something stupid and irrational.

In the car, Joshua bounces up and down, arms wrapped around himself, head down. His hair is plastered against his face and he looks young and frightened. For a moment, Azul considers telling him what's going on, giving him the whole story, but this is for his own good and he wouldn't appreciate the genius anyway.

For a moment, Azul gives Joshua the opportunity to actually rob the convenience store. He has already dragged the boy into this existentialist nightmare, and if Joshua wants to convert to the church of bloody nihilism, he has every right to do so.

"Give us all your money."

The man doesn't speak English and Joshua sounds altogether too pelasant. In his panic, Azul just starts piling cheese puffs on the table. "We'll take these," he says, and he pays in cash. He swipes up the bags the confused-looking Sikh man hands him and wraps an arm around Joshua and just shuffles him out into the windy night.

"We have to go."

That had been Azul's plan, bouncing haphazardly inside his head, all along: we have to go. We can't do this forever. I can't soak the skins off dead things forever. I can't dress plastic statues in fur coats any more. You can't smoke cigarettes in the alley beside a mall after a day of arranging flowers into bouquets inspired by tiny pills.

That had been his plan.

"I'm sorry for never getting you any flowers or anything," Azul says, somewhere in Wyoming. The air through the half-open window curls around Joshua's face, making his hair whip around in all directions. His cheeks are pink with cold, but he grins anyway.

"It's okay!" Joshua shakes his head and his hair whips around his face only faster. The pensiveness that Azul attributes to misery is absent, but it has been absent a lot of times. It comes back, when it's dark and they're lying next to each other in a nest of tangled sheets, thinking in time to each other's heartbeats.

He imagines Joshua worries about things like money and pills and whether or not anything good is permanent and when he'll have to be alone again. Azul considers the possibility that he is wrong, which he might be, that nothing goes on inside Joshua's head as they lie there, glassy-eyed and half-way dreaming.

Azul finds it impossible to feel unsettled in that position, one arm draped over Joshua's hips. The anxiety at Joshua's prominent ribs and the hunger in his stomach and the indignation that has always plagued (that Joshua deserves better) soaks out of his skin and into the sheets to be washed in the morning.

The motel bed has a floral print bedspread. Joshua lies down on it and hugs himself with lanky arms. Azul climbs onto it beside him, leaving the other bed empty. Joshua shifts against him, all bones and lean muscles. He reaches up to click off the yellowed light.

"Are you okay?" Azul doesn't really mean to speak aloud, but now that he has it's not like there's anything he can do about it anyway. He tangles his hands into Joshua's hair, untangling it carefully. "You're being quiet again."

"I'm okay."

He presses his lips against the seventh cervical vertebrae in Joshua's spine. Beneath his tongue and his lips and the skin that belongs to him too, blood rushes furiously through a network of veins. He tightens his grip, pressing his lips down the twelve thoracic vertebrae.

Joshua towards him and shuffles down under the covers to kiss his mouth. "I'm okay."

That's the only answer he'll ever get, and that is why Azul kisses back and says nothing else.

They need no pillows to sleep.

Azul isn't sure when he decided to see Claudia, but he did. He made the decision maybe some time between the third toll booth and the second toll booth. Maybe somewhere between Wyoming and Colorado. Maybe sooner or maybe later.

"Where are we going?" Joshua had asked, and a split second later Azul had answered him.

"California."

Don't salmon return to their homeland? He asks himself this as they get closer and closer to the Golden State. He remembers reading about them fighting so hard, upstream, through dams and tributaries, to get back to the place where they were spawned. The way children return to their parent's beds. The way homing pigeons are homing pigeons instead of the regular, greasy kind that eat kids' onion rings.

Now they are in Arizona, where it is hot. Azul missed the all-encompassing heat of the south-west. They stood in one of the soup-bowl valleys, drinking in the nourishment of the sun through their arms. The familiarity makes him restless: he has come home and the land knows him, understands him. It's like his mother and he knows her and she knows him but their reunion won't be happy. There will be no reunion. He has to distance himself because he can't stay here, pining.

"I'm from California," he tells Joshua offhandedly, when they are watching TV. Joshua tilts his head to look over. "My mother used to pick strawberries."

Joshua over to look completely at Azul. Azul finds the attention captivating and their eyes meet, hands creeping over the starchy pillows to circle around each other. "Go on." Joshua's sharp little nails scrape over Azul's wrists, but it doesn't hurt. They just carefully trace cut scars that linger from whole other lifetimes.

"So she met my stepfather. And they got married. He wasn't a bad guy. Just...I don't know. Just kind of typical. White. I think they met at the library and I'm sure they had some great romantic comedy affair that I never paid attention to. My half sister is going to grow up to be a fucking knock out. I just kind of...avoided everything."

"Avoided everything?"

Azul shrugs. "He didn't like me."

They watch the news for a little while. People in bright colours that turn into blobs because this hotel is cheap— they smile bright white at the two of them, enticing them to buy with their last remaining dollar Crest Whitening Strips.

"Have you ever been in love?"

Azul wonders what Joshua is angling for. In asking that question, people always have an answer in mind or they want it to be story time. They don't want you to simply answer "yes" and be done with it, nor "no" and not offer some philosophical explanation of why it's taking so long to find a soul mate.

Azul has yet to be convinced true love exists.

He wonders what kind of answer Joshua wants.

"What do you really want to know?"

Joshua squirms, pointy bones jabbing into Azul's own bare ribs. "I don't know. What I want or what I want to know."

So Joshua does worry. Another suspicion confirmed.

"I don't want to commit a crime for real." Joshua's breath comes in sharp pants. He keeps trying to crawl into Azul, to become part of his body and Azul wants to let him. Wants to let him so, so badly. "Not because I think it's wrong or because I'm afraid of getting in trouble but just because I don't want to have to think about it. Will they catch us? Will they catch us? Drive faster and I don't want that."

Azul runs his hands along the kinks in Joshua's spine. He'd press his mouth against them and he could feel Joshua squirming. Made his entire body flush hot with red blood.

"I know we didn't actually do anything wrong in that fucking 7/11. That we didn't really have to leave but I wanted to leave so badly. You wanted to leave. We needed to leave and we did it but I can't keep looking back.

Carefully, Azul shifts Joshua in his arms, trying to keep hold of his constantly shifting lover.

Is that what they are?

Lovers?

You tell me.

Joshua shoves his mouth against Azul's, crawls against him and curls tightly to him. Azul shuts his eyes; His only thoughts are the name of his other again and against and again— Joshua Joshua Joshua. The heart beat he can hear may not be his own, but it matches the rhythm of his pulse perfectly. Breathing, too, is identical.

It grows deeper.

Azul draws daisies on Joshua's hips and the flowers snake up his chest and over his pert nipples. Azul's fingertips trace a circle over Joshua's cheek, behind his ear over his shoulder. Words from a language Azul remembers like a half-forgotten piece of advice— I love you and I love you and I love you with all my strength. He pretends that the sighs of Joshua's dozing mean I love you with all my strength too.

Even if Azul has yet to be convinced true love exists.

Sleep crawls in through the windows, covered in the dank scent of nightmares and slick slime from the bottom of a snail. It coves Azul and Joshua, spread out on the bedspread. The cloying tang of cigarettes hangs still in the air, closed up to keep the sounds of the highway out of their room.

There is no exact moment at which two people fall in love: instead, it is a process of becoming slowly more entangled in each other's sleeping forms until, one morning over scones, they become the same person in two bodies.


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