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  •  Travis Flatt

Gordian Knot


Featured Image for Gordian Knot by Travis Flatt, Landing Zone Magazine
Photo by Lawrence Bridges

...Each thread

it spins with the finality of fate divides its head

from its body. And the poor thing,

even with so many legs, doesn’t know which way to run.

— "Spider" by Tom Sleigh

Thread 1 - A Monday morning in January, 2020

When Abdel texts me, I’m pissed. The phone buzzes and dances on my coffee table; I get killed at Call of Duty. He wants weed: that’s the only reason I hear from him. Our protocol is he comes here; our code is he’ll text, “What are you doing?” Today, he texts, “Come to my house, please.”

Normally, I’d ignore a text like that: I don’t deliver. But with Abdel, I want a job at his school. For months, I’ve dropped hints like sharing articles on Facebook: “Clearing Alzheimer’s Plaque in Mice,” or “Vagus Nerve Stimulator Restores Cortical Activity in Coma Patients.” A month ago, I emailed him to see if I could list him as a reference on my resume. I didn’t have any interviews. When he got tenure track,

I actually prayed he’d help me out.

I find my wallet, get dressed, and drive out highway 1-11. His place is an easy turn to miss, but I catch it because there’s this storage unit with a black vinyl sign that reads “Tattoos” in red.

Someone would get a tattoo in a fucking storage unit; that kills me.

Down at the end of his gravel drive, Abdel’s sitting on the porch with his hands in a blue hoodie’s kangaroo pocket. He looks light shit, greasy.

The trees and bushes are swallowing his house. I’ve only been here a couple of times and the inside is always tidy--though it smells like Persian food; I’m not sure where he’s from.

Today, it reeks of bleach so hard my sinuses sting. He leads me to the living room where there’s clear plastic tarp everywhere, and big HID lamps up on tripods in the corners like he’s trying to set up a grow room but doesn’t know what he’s doing. All of the furniture is gone except for a fold-out card table.

Abdel tells me he knows I’m a man who “respects caution and responsibility.”

“Fuck yeah,” I say, “want to get high?”

He just stands vacantly in the bright lights; he looks pale, yellowish.

“What’s with the tarp,” I say.

“Sit down,” he says, then seems to remember there’s nowhere to sit and disappears deeper into his place and returns with two aluminum chairs, dropping them on opposite sides of the table. “I’ve been calling it ‘the device,’ ” he says, and he indicates a rectangular box at the center of the table. It looks like a black, plastic iPhone case with the screen removed and replaced by tinfoil.

“What’s the device,” I say, and he says he stole the idea from one of his students. Abdel realized this girl--this engineering whiz kid undergrad--had stumbled upon something she couldn’t actually make work.

Now the thing works.

All there is on the table is the device and a black card--like a credit card--with a tiny blue button in the center. Nothing connects them: there’s just the box and the card.

Abdel says, “I want you to try it out anywhere--you could see the Colossus of Rhodes, or Da Vinci’s unfinished The Battle of Anghiari cartoon.”

There’s another pause. I feel like I’m supposed to say something, so I just nod and lift my eyebrows.

After about a minute, he says, “I ran diagnostics for safety first. I used organic matter: what I had in my refrigerator. I chose watermelon because of the high H20 content. But ultimately, that data was worthless. You can’t see them, but I have neighbors here--”

“Okay,” I say, “you did something with watermelons, and you have neighbors. What the fuck are you talking about?” He keeps looking at me like we’re in a play, and I’m saying the wrong lines. He goes on.

“Anything larger than bacteria presented complications. Bringing home test subjects might attract attention, and generally speaking, a person who lives this far out of city limits is suspicious. I’m referring to my neighbors. I used rescue animals--”

“Hey, alright--do you want to buy something or what, man. This is weird; you realize that, right?” I say and stand up to look around his house. He just goes on talking, only louder. There’s nothing to see: more tarp, and his bedroom is locked.

He yells, “Killing the animals weighed on me. But finally, one returned intact. It couldn’t tell me anything--obviously. So again, that data was worthless.”

I go back to the living room doorway. My pulse is pumping, and I want a drink. There’s most of a six-pack back at my place. I’ve known Abdel for years, and this is not Abdel-like. “Dude, I’m going to go,” I say.

“I need you,” he says.

He’s looking at me like an object: like he’s measuring me. I walk back through the plastic-covered living room, passing him and his table, and I’m to the foyer to get the fuck out of there when I hear his chair scrunch on the tarp, and he says, “It’s all been cogitated; it’s safe; it works; I’ll pay you three hundred thousand dollars.”

“For what,” I say. He’s standing in the bright, tarped living room, and I’m in the dark foyer.

I haven’t paid off my student loans.

“The device takes you,” he says. “The blue button brings you back.”

I understand; we sit. He tells me there’s this board in his bedroom for setting coordinates. He excuses himself to go back there.

That’s when I started making the list.

Thread 3- Halloween Night, 2022

Abdel didn’t think the device could take you to the future. He’d been afraid to test that because he figured it was too unpredictable, and therefore, unnecessary. It turns out you can.

I’m sitting in my car listening to Black Sabbath, looking at a man’s parked pickup truck. I watch him walk into a restaurant.

In the past--when “the past” meant something different--this man ran around with my wife, and they spent all my money doing it. This went on for over a year while I was in a deep, dark place and having trouble getting out of bed. They bled my bank account.

In ten minutes, I will walk into the bar of yonder restaurant with this lead pipe concealed in my jacket and bash in his skull. He always sits upstairs at the bar watching the corner TV. I’ve chosen Halloween because I can wear a mask; I’m wearing a Kennedy mask, like in Point Break. Today he’s in his usual clothes, a polo shirt and jeans.

Now it’s time. I’ve got the pipe, a Red Bull, and the blue button taped to my left palm.

I drink the Red Bull, and it’s like, “Whoa, shit, maybe that was a bad idea.” My heart is beating like Daft Punk at an undergraduate party, thump thump thump.

I hop out of my car, cross the street, and go inside. The host nods and glances at me; he’s a thin, little guy right out of high school, and I’m sure he doesn’t get the Point Break reference. He probably doesn’t know who the fuck Kennedy was.

I’m walking up the stairs, pouring sweat, and I’m tasting Red Bull (which tastes like Smarties candy) with a little bit of bile. My stomach acid is eating the butterflies. This restaurant has an odd layout. Downstairs, it’s the nicest place in town, but upstairs there’s a dark, seedy dive bar. The bar itself is long; there’s one small flat screen hung up in the corner, and the only tables are a couple of round four-tops.

One table’s full, the other’s empty. The man I’m after is sitting at the bar's middle stool with both elbows on the wood. The bartender’s talking to a waitress. As I walk, I let the pipe slip out of my right sleeve and into my hand. The rust helps my grip. The blue button is secure on my left palm.

I have the pipe way up in the air; the bartender yells, “Hey, what?”

My target is turning on his stool. A few people are probably yelling; I can’t hear over my heart.

Thunk. I crunch him a good one on the top of his head, and he falls off the stool. The bartender’s going for something--hopefully just a phone.

Thunk. I hit my target again on the side of the head: this one’s better because he’s crouched down on the floor and I have more momentum. I hope that’s done the trick; it’s past time to go.

I have to push by some girl in high heels on the stairs. People are definitely screaming. I hear screams and a pop from somewhere. Someone may be shooting at me; we have open carry laws in this state.

It’s tempting to push the blue button, but I can’t unless I’m by myself. I don’t know if I’ll just disappear, turn to vapor, a flash of light, or what--any of that could make the national news, especially if someone’s getting this on their phone. I won’t push the button unless I’m alone or injured. If I’m followed out to the street, that’s a huge problem. Someone must have a gun: downstairs, many people are on the ground.

I keep my shit together to walk straight out. Once I’m outside, I just say fuck it and blue button home.

Thread 5- A Monday morning in January, 2020.

I watch my car drive down to Abdel’s house from the parking lot of the Tattoo shed, parking behind it and out of sight.

My cat was safe and didn’t seem to notice when I materialized in my apartment. In about an hour, the first me is going to take his first trip. He’ll ask to be sent to see the Globe Theatre, although he will really just sit around in the grass outside Elizabethan London for two hours, blue button back, and kick the shit out of Abdel and make him teach him how to set the coordinates on the device.

I come back sometimes to feed my cat, Horatio, and take some money out of the ATM. Feeding the cat probably isn’t necessary, because I’m not sure that the present is moving forward. I still like to be sure.

And I miss Horatio.

There are lots of me's going to feed Horatio and get money. I have to avoid a traffic jam. I thought I’d have to be a traffic cop--instead I’m a civil engineer.

After waiting five hours behind the shed I walk down the road to Abdel’s house and finish him off--I can’t risk him untying himself and fucking with the coordinates on the device.

Thread 30 - A Friday night in December, 2017

The author is easy to find; he wants to be found; he wanted to get famous over his book.

When I first read it, I became obsessed. Earlier that year, I flunked out of grad school. Bitterness makes you cynical; misanthropy is intellectually lazy. The book was a self-published thing I found on a message board. I told myself I was reading it to learn economics, then it became empowerment, and then unity. I ignored the veiled fascist bullshit this author called “culture.”

Now--in this now--the author has caught fire on the internet--Reddit, Twitter, millions of YouTube subscribers--and he travels around college campuses giving lectures. Each rally has bomb threats, so the security is skin tight. After skimming a couple of articles, I figure out where the guy lives--he’s on the beach in Malibu.

I watch the people who come and go from his place. Some of his personal security play in LA hardcore bands. They’re big guys--very young--with thick necks and expensive tattoos. I wait, watch, follow, and find him smoking a cigarette outside a neo-nazi hardcore show, the kind of testosterone fest I would have gone out to back in 2011--my original 2011. I think I remember seeing this band when they came through Atlanta.

I got kicked out of that Atlanta show for fighting, went to a gas station, drank a forty in the parking lot, and got lost in the city trying to find the interstate back home. The street lights were pulsing like strobe lights. I called my wife from the road and I kept saying, “I love you.” She wouldn’t say anything back.

My first try, I watch the author from the back of the club and lose him in the crowd. The next few times, I stay in my car watching the alley outside. That pays off. Near midnight he steps outside to smoke a cigarette and make a phone call, but when he can’t talk over the noise, he goes to his car.

Thankfully he doesn’t have a car alarm, and I’ve learned off Google how to use a slim jim. The final time I’m waiting in the backseat. I do it with a bag over his head. Or was it piano wire? I remember his fingernails in my forearm. He had these really long nails.

I blue button when he goes limp, and the car starts to stink.

Thread 15 - A Thursday afternoon in March, 1990.

I comb through a Whole Foods parking lot and luck upon an Accord with an unlocked door. After five anxious minutes inside, I manage the hotwire. It works more or less as it does on TV--kiss the red wire tip to the blue. I Googled that, too.

My target takes his jog at dawn.

As a P.E.,. teacher, he was big on making kids run laps, and my little brother “ran like a pussy”--that’s what the coach said. This motherfucker made my brother hold three-pound dumbbells so he’d jog “like a boy.”

My brother started stuttering; a therapist fixed that in junior high.

The coach lives in a shit neighborhood: there are junked, rusty cars sitting out rotting everywhere.

Every Saturday, Coach runs up his sidewalk eight blocks and circles back. Today he’s wearing faded orange sweatpants and a white t-shirt. I’ve timed it right, and I’m cruising slowly down his street when he comes trotting out of his driveway. For a fifty-year-old, he’s in good shape--even if bald and leathery.

I veer off onto the curb.

I think he’s the first one. Or one of the first ones. Already I can’t keep them straight.

I stop because someone’s jumped out in front of me on the curb. It’s me; I’m standing on the sidewalk.

This other me stands there, waving his arms at me. He comes up to my window.

“He’s not a good one,” I say. I don’t look good; I’ve got stubble and circles under my eyes.

“What about my brother,” I ask myself.

“You’re brother is fine. You won’t feel good about this,” I say.

Coach has stopped running, and he’s looking back, confused: there’s a car on the sidewalk, and a guy is talking to himself--or to his twin. I figure I know best, and I’m starting to feel good about this. I feel empowered. I’ll let the guy off the hook, be merciful like God come to earth in a mother-fucking time machine. That’s when another black Accord passes us and runs Coach over, flipping him way up in the air.

We watch me get out of the second Accord and pretend to check Coach’s vitals, steal his wallet, and blue button home.

The second me blue buttons, too.

It turns out I just disappear, after all.

Thread 24 - Late at night in August, 2021

Abdel stinks so bad I’m worried about his neighbors. He’s way too mushy to carry out to my car, so I use his plastic tarp and wrap him up like a taquito--or Cleopatra. At four in the morning, I haul him out to my trunk, fold him in half, and drive to this rock quarry we used to throw shit in when I was in high school. It’s flooded now.

Thread 101 - Afternoon of Fourth of July, 2005

I lost the list, and I’m not sure I remember all the names.

I don’t know if this all just caught up to me, or if I’m worried about the ramifications in the present--2020 is when I think I last decided my present is?

Sometimes, you just have to cut clean. This hunting rifle was my uncle’s; the weapon is big and unwieldy. I’ve never been able to use it to cross a name off the list before. I’ve picked a spot in a little field where I used to walk my old dog, Hero. The field’s behind the back of some apartments. I’ve set up in the tall grass in that field.

I think love is when you’re giddy to be with the person all the time. No matter how old you are you feel like you’re breezy and untethered. Love is a careless feeling like you’ve become sixteen again. In love, you just want to do stupid shit; you want to find an empty parking lot or a backwoods road and feel each other up all night, even when you have your own house or apartment. That is the sensation of love; I don’t know how to describe it any better than that.

This girl I’m in love with over in the apartments that I’m watching--the adult me, the one holding the rifle--knows I’m going to propose this evening. I’m going to try to be romantic about it, but I will ruin the surprise. When I ask her to have dinner outside on the back patio with candles, she’ll see right through that.

We’re stupid kids, just graduated undergrads. We’re embarrassing to watch.

She was always going to say, “Yes.” I knew she’d say, “Yes.” But the look on her face is good. When I tell her I got into Grad school, her face is even better. I tell her that along with the proposal.

This was the best day of my life.

We’re on the patio, in love. I’m still on my knees and she just said, “Yes!”; she’s aglow.

I shoot myself in the back of the head. It’s a perfect shot: I go face down on her feet and her legs are covered in my blood. She’s screaming.

In the field, my sense of smell gets funny--the grass grows pungent, then rolls down like a volume knob. The sun is cooking me, and then I’m cold. The gun falls out of my hand--more like through my hands.

The knot it cut; the threads are severed.


Travis Flatt is a writer and secondary teacher living in Middle Tennessee. He has published in Ember Chasm Review, and his stories will feature in 2021 Flying Ketchup and Alternating Current Publications.

Lawrence Bridges is best known for work in the film and literary world. His poetry has appeared in The New Yorker, Poetry, and The Tampa Review. He has published three volumes of poetry: Horses on Drums, Flip Days, and Brownwood. As a filmmaker, he created a series of literary documentaries for the NEA’s “Big Read” initiative, which include profiles of Ray Bradbury, Amy Tan, Tobias Wolff, and Cynthia Ozick.

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