M. Q. Stewart

Apollodorus Lost His Bright-Eyed Canary

Part I

1. Ground 0

August 20th

7:09 PM, Chinatown — Lower Manhattan

I was pouring sweat. I’d been marching down block after block at breakneck speed because I was under the impression that I would be late. As it turned out, the 7:30 bus had been cancelled. Our new bus would leave at 8:30 instead.

My comrades and I were situated at the Starbucks down the way from 19 Allen Street. Paul was explaining to Errol how Bitcoin worked. I wasn’t paying attention to them. There was a madman’s journal on the corner seat adjacent to us. The madman paced the café floor. The contours of his entire face sunk into a haggard frown. His black velvet jacket looked new. So did his bellbottoms and loafers. He went to and fro, from the window to his seat, muttering wordlessly the desperate inklings of a prayer or memory. Madcats seem to find me somehow, or I find them—like my buddy, Paul Covetz. He’d just informed us that the outside temperature of Greenville South Carolina would be 95° tomorrow. What a drag.

The madman continued pacing, but eventually we left that place. Though we’d gone, the image of that finely dressed villain would stay with me for some time afterward.

2. Preludes

8:29 PM, on the goddamn Panda Express Bus

All three of us knew that this was going to be an unpleasant ride, but it seemed like there was a restroom in the back, which was my chief concern. People in front of us were complaining about a mildew smell, and the heat—the heat? I’d been sweating this wretched cold out of my skin for the past three days! Heat meant nothing to me anymore!

Just then, Paul had looked over at my scribbling. I was jotting down the very details that you just read.

“Your notes are really accurate,” said Paul. “That’s pretty impressive actually.”

As a writer and a poet, this had made me very proud, so I lifted my head up high. Suddenly, I could smell the cat piss. It’s a good thing that my sinuses were so dammed up. All I had to do was keep my chin down and I could avoid the stench. A merchantman came aboard. He was selling Android and iPhone chargers for $5; fidget spinners; bootleg DVDs, two for $5; tampons. Tempting, but no one was interested.

The merchant left. The driver boarded. The engines started. The passengers fidgeted into their uncomfortable, rotting upholstery seats. The bus began to lurch forward. What had I gotten myself into? I was on a dangerous Chinatown bus, with two oddball characters (one a Marxist, the other a who-knows-what), headed to the South, for a chance to see the solar eclipse.

Commie Paul, a strange fellow indeed—he’d been planning this trip for months, which was smart, but it seemed to me that he had been slipping recently.

3. Just Yesterday

I had come to Paul’s apartment down in Flatbush to visit and talk about his desire to quit school. Mind you that at this moment in time, I was feeling very ill—not vomitus, but the lack of air entering through my nostrils had left me rather fatigued.

It was there that I met up with sweet Sita, a pocket-sized Hindu girl, with an attitude that made her three-feet taller, and a penchant for mispronouncing words that I adored more than the world’s greatest prose. She pulled out all of the usual cutie-stops, the talk of things both trivial and important, the swinging hips and defiant grins, the smearing of magenta lipstick on her shirt-cuff.

My usual conversational nature was being suppressed by my inability to breathe, a state that left me feeling wretched to my core.

“You’re so quiet,” Sita had said (more than once), and in return, I had nothing. My mind was blank. What I did have was a gift: a globule of citrus-flavored taffy edible that I hid inside a matchbox. Her initial response was lackluster at best, one of the first signs (that I should’ve noticed) that she was emotionally bankrupt.

Thirty minutes later, Paul finally arrived, with no shirt and no keys. His bike had been stolen. He’d walked back home from Manhattan Beach—where he works—in his flip-flops no less. He’s a communist and an attention-seeker. Constantly testing his luck for some kind of emotional compensation. This was likely the product of his corrupt Wall Street parentage. None of us can escape our shitty childhoods. Not I, not Sita, and certainly not Paul.

I wanted to go inside of the apartment, escape the heat, rest my tired mind and body, but Paul had no keys. The two of them spent the entire night walking the vacant Flatbush streets, talking to each other. I shambled behind like a zombie. Barely thinking, barely feeling, barely breathing.

4. A Gift and a Curse

I cannot illude you—absolutely cannot lie to you. I grew up with the classics, and I grew up with stories, and Led Zeppelin. I was raised like a student of the previous world, but we are children of the modern age. I would love to tell you that I used a typewriter to craft this prose-fiction, and not a highly intelligent super-computer. I wish that I could tell you that I had no connection to cyberspace at all. Alas, we are children of the modern world. And in order to keep this honest tradition of writers and their works, upheld by Vonnegut and Thompson, I must make a statement about the times as they are.

On that bus, on my person, in my pocket, was a piece of science fiction technology. Alas, I had a smartphone. It was more akin to Apple than to Asimov. It was a small, flat rectangle. It glowed when caressed. It didn’t have buttons. It was full of a million things that I would never use. It had a couple hundred things that I have used at least once. And it had a few mere functions that really mattered to me.

It was a blessing and a curse of the modern era that we were always in communication with each other—it still is, actually. I had all of my friends together on one small, flat rectangle. All fourteen of us could send a message to the “group chat” at any given time.

I say fourteen, though there were really four main friends, a few side friends, and a few others who had gone completely AWOL. The four major friends were Paul (the communist), Sita (the tiny dancer), Devon (the self-proclaimed pervert), and myself.

If I want you to know at any time during this account that you are reading an “instant message” from this “group chat” then you will see an un-indented line with the name of the friend in bold like so:

DEVON:

“We’re headed towards Nashville for the eclipse tomorrow. Guess what city we’re in right now, Monty.”

ME:

“Beijing?”

DEVON:

“MONTgomery! Hehehe.”

ME:

“Aha! That’s my place. We’re on the bus right now. If you’re going to be staring at the sun, don’t forget to pick up some protective eyewear.”

SITA:

“Did Paul bring his rice cooker? And yeah, get those glasses.”

ME:

“I can’t tell. Most of the outlets here don’t work anyway, so no rice for us.”

DEVON:

“Couldn’t find any place that sells them (the special eclipse-viewing glasses)... Thankfully you can look at it ONLY during totality. I will try to make a pinhole thingy instead.”

ME:

“It’s difficult to journal on the bus. I might try typing entries into my phone.”

SITA:

“A lot of busy places may sell ‘em (the glasses). Look for ‘em. If you are going to a park or something maybe someone will sell ‘em”

5. Blindness and Sight

The group chat reminded me: it was Paul’s desire to look at the deadly heat-rays of the eclipsing sun without protective eyewear; something we (as his friends) could only plead for him not to do so many times.

Paul was not an idiot by any means. He was as clever and charismatic as they come. Idealistic yet out of control. Controlled, yet unwound. His purposefully flawed decision-making cannot be attributed to the communism that he holds so dear, but to his own desire to stir-things-up, test his luck, or mutilate himself. After all, he was the one who planned this low-budget trip. One of these days, I knew that he would die at the hands of his own foolhardiness in some ironic fashion. I would laugh. Blind yourself a thousand times I say.

SITA:

“XD. Monty’s a chill and patient guy, he’ll be fine.”

ME:

“Lol, oh yes. I am getting some real writing done. It’s not even the *darkness that sucks. This driver seems to be in a dance with his brake-pedal. A tango, if you will.”

SITA:

“Ooh, we should go tango dancing some day. And I think that after you’re outta NYC it’ll get better (the bus turbulence, she means).”

*There was no light inside of the bus-cabin. So instead of an oil-lantern, I used my smartphone’s flashlight setting to see my own scribbling (stopping occasionally to flirt with Sita).

By this point, I have described Paul and his inanity enough. Errol, on the other hand, I knew less well. He was Paul’s friend; they knew each other better. He’d met our closed-circle, though he was not a member of the famed group chat. From what I’d noticed of him, he was a little bi-curious. I consider him to be the Patroclus to Paul’s Achilles. At any rate, he’d be willing to back up Paul’s revolution with arms and firepower.

Neither of them was in their right mind, of course. Paul had no revolution and Errol had no firepower, so it was all a playful daydream. The two of them talked a lot. At times, I would go quiet. Paul had a lot to say about a lot of things and I did not.

ME:

“We’re on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel, dude’s still tapping that brake as if it were love during wartimes.”

SITA:

“Ha ha!”

6. Wary of Racism

Besides seeing the eclipse, there was a big question as to what we would be doing during our 12-hour stay in South Carolina (which, due to the ineptitude of the driver, would become a 7-hour stay). It was Paul’s insistence that we find and desecrate a confederate statue. Particularly, he wanted to do so with the authentic Italian salami that I brought with us as a provisional measure. After doing some preliminary research, Errol discovered that there were not a whole lot of Robert E. Lee statues in Greenville. At any rate, Paul would be willing to salami a non-confederate statue, just for the heck of it. Like I said: always a trouble-seeker. The only reason that I took any issue at all with this was because of the recent events that took place in Charlottesville Virginia.

The USA has always been a stupid place, Vonnegut would tell you. It was full of racists, people who don’t like racists, and other folk who couldn’t give a damn about anything. Regardless of who you were, everyone was freaked out. There were these volatile rallies, protests, and counter-protests—people were getting killed! Because of this, I was genuinely worried that some neo-Nazis might jump us. Not because of me, I was as pale as they come, but Errol was Asian, and Paul was of Peruvian and Russian descent. In fact, Paul’s skin was particularly crisp, due to his refusal to wear sunscreen on the job. (It’s a well-known fact that lifeguards should put on sunscreen). The Alt-Right had been in an uproar lately because their precious Robert E. Lees were getting towed away—probably to be cascaded down and mixed with copper to mint pennies with Abraham Lincoln’s face on them. I hated Nazis as much as the next guy, but I was a writer and a poet, not a fighter. Still, I had to be ready, so I had with me the Brooklyn Brass, a pair of delicious, golden knuckledusters that I’d gotten for my sixteenth birthday. I had them hidden in my shorts. So if push came to shove, I would grab out the BB, Errol would take out his tiny pocketknife, and Paul would whip out the salami.

DEVON:

“Monty, keep it up, I wanna see the funniest one that you can come up with.”

ME:

“This dude (the bus driver) needs to ‘brake’-up with his girlfriend (the brake-pedal), and not be such a lousy driver!”

DEVON:

“It seems that his foot and the brake are kinda like us, inseparable.”

ME:

“Awe.”

SITA:

“^.^ awe.”

DEVON:

“Hugs.”

In the middle of this tender moment, I suddenly receive a private message from Paul.

PAUL:

“I’m stuck in the bathroom.”

7. Stuck in the Bathroom

I got up out of my seat and shook the lock with enough force to get it unjammed. Paul emerged.

“That was the first hardship of the trip,” he said.

I chuckled. “And the only one hopefully. It’s too bad that this bus is such a piece of crap.”

8. Transit

9:45 PM

We had only crossed the George Washington Bridge 20 minutes ago; we were barely inside of Jersey. With the way that this ignorant pedal-molester was driving, I knew that it was going to be a long night.

If you’ve ever seen the windows of a Lincoln Town Car, they are totally dark and you can’t see in, yet the driver and drivees can look out at you. The passenger windows of the Panda Express Bus were lined with a coating that produced a similar effect, only they had placed the see-through part on the wrong side. My vision was clouded by cheap film.

Pallid hole in my window,

A mist of smog-dirt,

Headlights pass me by,

Night light chariot,

Jungle of seats,

I wish that I could wipe the mist away and see, but I can’t,

The effects of my waning sickness, the stale air, the stop-start pedal dancing, the upholstery seats, so cheap that they felt like a bed of needles... was I high? In all likelihood, we had already ended up in a ditch somewhere, and this was just the long, dark tunnel on our way to purgatory. Nothing left but to numb all senses and accept our fate—give in to the terrible reality that we, mere mortals, had no real control over the “forces that be”. We were slaves to the cosmic joke, no life or meaning beyond the one that we could see.

Soon, hours pass.

11:18 PM

We arrive at our first rest stop.

“Really?” I thought. “That soon?”

We were in Delaware. I hadn’t slept a wink. I should’ve brought condoms. I’m not sure why, that’s just what it said in my notes: “Should’ve brought condoms.” Of course I should’ve. I would’ve done plenty more screwing if it weren’t for that. The bus is the perfect place for intercourse. Maybe I’d meet some sweet southern belle and spend the night in her arms.

Tired people with chapped asses and empty bellies waddled into the great big food court area that all great American rest stops have. Paul was fast asleep. The length of his body took up a row of seats. Despite our envy, Errol and I left the bus and let him doze quietly.

There’s a ritual for rest stops. The first order of business is to take a piss, lest you have to use the on-bus facilities and possibly get stuck. The second order of business is to mosey around—to look at all of the great things that are for sale. “Errol!” I cried. “Errol! Get me a quarter! I want a string-person!”

“I have dollars,” he said. “We could ask the guy at the Quiznos to split them for us?”

“Oh...” I said, judging the manager by the way he wore his neon-blue hotrod flames. “Maybe not... No, I really want a string-person.” We approached the Quiznos.

“We’re closed fellas,” said the manager, probably sensing that we were just a couple of liberal arts fags.

Errol and I left that place. Every store was almost closed and folks were giving us strange looks. I didn’t even really want a string-person.

The air outside was nice and cool. We watched as other passengers meandered back onto the bus, like a stray procession. Errol and I spent some time talking of things like tabletop gaming and human sacrifice. We climbed the nearby fences to test our finger strength.

“But if your heavily armored marines die in battle, do you bury them out in the yard? Soldiers of that caliber cost a pretty penny at the local D-20 store,” said I, at least two feet off of the ground.

“Heroes don’t die,” said Errol. “They reinc—”

RROANK!!

That stupid pedalast slammed his horn so loud—we were standing right THERE, too. He could’ve just as easily got up out of his seat and told us to get back on the bus. What a shame, Errol and I were only just starting to connect.

Part II

So, what happens next?

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