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"The Arcane and the Absurd" by Cassie Mayer

“Can you believe TikToks have become homework assignments now? No, for real, my roommate at school, she’s a business major right, and her final assignment for her marketing class is to make a Tik Tok representing the university. Now what kind of bullshit is that?! I take more stock in philosophy majors and all their assignments are just to think thoughts or regurgitate someone else’s. Academia is dead! Colleges treat their professors like Walmart employees dropping them at whim when the semester ends. Fuck, if I taught there I’d probably assign a Tik Tok too - it’s not like anyone cares anymore…”

Venting to coworkers is great because well, you’re bored, they’re bored, and it's not like they have anything else to do or anywhere to escape to.

“They told me I can’t wear my black scrubs anymore, can you believe that?”

“And I mean I know being a comp lit major, creative writing minor isn’t gonna save the world or anything but at least it doesn't try to be anything more than it is- I mean, I like to read and write and that’s it. Now THAT'S some real Academia!”

“You’re a narcissist, you know that right Astrid?”

“Well you’re a skinny emo fuck with shitty tattoos Devon.”

It is 11pm. They both think that they are smarter than the other but perhaps a close match intellectually. The self-described darkly dressed arcane finds her absurd and amusing. They are both caricatures of identities they maximize their daily effort into assuming.

Writing on the PeterPan bus makes her feel like Jim Carrey journaling on the train in the beginning of The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. One day she will feel like the Jim Carrey today who denies his acting career instead desiring only to paint mangos. How tropical and romantic!

He enjoys taking public transportation to random destinations pursuing an eternally unidentified muse. How does photography require a muse? Is it not simply capturing the present? He writes some poems too though, to accompany his photographs. Or should I say, “film”; the expired film produces odd shapes and colors which, in spite of its deterioration, has managed to outlast Devon’s grandfather whom he ceaselessly reminds all who are willing to listen that he was “a wildlife photographer for National Geographic.”

This was their first shift together in quite some time so they both had a lot to fill one another in on… or rather talk at each other about. Once one of them assumes the dominant speaker role in the conversation, the other is forced to listen, doing their actual job. Here, a one person task must always require two.

Devon had moved to Brooklyn but returned a brief three months later, tail between his legs, begging for his job back to their scummy corporate hospital manager. And he did get it back, with the condition that his black scrubs (which he had worn without fail at every single shift prior) be put to rest for good. Begrudgingly, he sacrificed his emo-boy garb for a paycheck.

“I’m such a sell out,” he whined to himself from under his black KN-95 mask, the sole survivor of the identity which has been stripped from him at the workplace.

The irony of it all is that he most definitely could have declined this condition and still have his job back. With a turn-over rate that high, the hospital couldn’t really deny any help they were offered. His stick and pokes of genderless creatures with pointy breasts and sad faces look more ridiculous than ever before in contrast to the navy blue paper-like scrubs which seem to float a half-centimeter above his close hanger shaped body. That body which promised him success as a model boy in Brooklyn secured only a few jobs with niche jewelry brands whose necklaces hung daintily above his chest tattoo which branded himself as “Free”, referencing the luminous variety of songs under this title including but not limited to: Mazzy Star, Angel Olsen, Lana Del Rey among other angelic, ethereal voices.

Financially and socially he decided himself more suited to living in suburbia for now. He thought being in the city would make him feel at home among people who were likewise unconventional and alternative. What he did not realize from his initial visits, he realized a short few weeks later; he was not as unique as he had imagined . The city is a big pond full of lots of small, pale, tatted fish with minor addiction problems just like him. The battle to assert one’s individuality there is far greater a feat than the area he and Astrid had grown up in. His individuality complex damaged and his pride swallowed, he embraced his poverty as an aesthetic and a decision to live with less rather than the consequences of trying to be someone he was not and chasing a dream that could only come to fruition with the generational wealth assumed by the Brooklyn boys who he was surrounded by.

Astrid envies his ability to have such a decisive and defined sense of self. Her identity requires a more careful fine-tuning that comes with the simultaneously languid and vigorous selection of language through which she expresses herself. The kind of expression that goes unchallenged from a young man but is flagged as hysterical and overly self-important when regarding women. Recently, while eavesdropping, she heard someone describe someone else as “estrogenical”; surely an insult, yet she actually found it quite endearing and has decided to reclaim it, incorporating it into her tweets and daily vernacular with her friends. Other words she has created outside of her abrasive academic animation include but are not limited to: “skibble-dibble”, “squapple-dock”, “hagger-daggers”, “boobacha” and so on. Many of these phrases are plagiarized from her father’s impassioned, unrefined story-telling slang. But can you even plagiarize your parents? She considers these colloquialisms to be inherited. She wants to be taken seriously but has a hard time removing the emotions which accompany having your own opinions in an apathetic world. For this reason her writing is almost entirely crap. Writing, while undeniably an artistic outlet, is for her mostly an emotional outlet. She has been therapizing herself in her diaries since elementary school in order to be able to refine her expression so that feelings are removed in her communication with the public world.

The transition from teenaged adolescence to young adulthood has been challenging for Astrid however as her feelings have inevitably bred with her world-view and she finds herself drawing associations and deeper meaning between concepts which do not require such analysis. Academica has absorbed her and she struggles to differentiate her reality from that of the characters in the books she reads. The psychedelics and stimulants only further muddle this life transition as you can surely imagine.

Devon, a few years older than she, entertains this existentialism which carries through every conversation the two have. He relays his firm, defined conclusions about life which have likewise been molded by psychoactive molecules years prior and minimally pondered. These conclusions come easier to those raised as boys; they’re not used to being told no, or accused of being too assertive. Gender, when determined by genitalia, discourages self-doubt in men and boys. Astrid believes that by asserting masculinity through being abrasive she too may not be met with doubt; her inner-monolog says otherwise however and “faking it till you make it” as her father always said is often met with hostility or the assumption of immaturity from girls with freckles and glaring eyes. She often finds herself wondering “Am I really a bitch? Or am I just acting like a man?”

For Devon however, asserting femininity invites others to be vulnerable with him. Even if that assertion is only evident through his frail frame and singular dangly swan earring hanging in the crooked hole of his earlobe firmly attached to the side of his neck. While it is wonderful how society is beginning to embrace less socially rigid tropes, celebrating a boy for being ‘secure in his masculinity’, in spheres of indie wannabees this often translates into the harnessing of feminine expression as a mechanism of accumulating social capital, facilitating a facade to garner the trust of alt-girls.

Between existentializing or dissecting one another’s lives, Devon and Astrid analyze the daily doings of the clinic, occasionally participating in them when necessary. The title of “Care Assistant'' makes their job sound admirable and important to the veterinary community, and while these assumptions are not untrue, in reality the job is far less glamorous. While they were often called in by the doctors when the hospital was short staffed to do things they were utterly unqualified for that surely only someone with a license should be doing, their only official duties aside from cleaning the hospital and doing laundry is to handle the bodies. To put them in body bags, take their paw print in clay post-mortem as a souvenir for the owners, and carefully (or not, depending on the awkwardness which the body asked to be handled or the strength of the assistant) place the cadaver in the freezer among the rest of the week’s dead. Bodies get picked up like clock-work, every Tuesday morning to be sent to the crematorium for private or general cremation, depending on the family’s wishes Most of the time the job required two assistants, asserting this for the late night shift is nearly laughable and considered among staff to be flushing hospital money down the toilet; especially since working past midnight means time and a half pay! No one minds watching them throw away money though , no one gives a fuck about their corporate bullshit. Astrid and Devon do not mind staying there until dawn. There is always more black coffee to make and drink into the night.

The intercom pings and the care assistants are once again called upon interrupting their conversation. Begrudgingly, they make their way to the ER side of the hospital away from the enclosed privacy of their dingy laundry room. Astrid tries to mask her exhaustion , standing straight and tall while he slumps ahead looking as exhausted as the moment he arrived, eyes with bags as black as those they put the bodies in. She strides ahead of Devon eager to impress and addresses the head tech, Melanie, to direct her to their task. She imagined something interesting, something that could simply not wait till morning. She was, of course, disappointed. Devon and Astrid must receive “Baby Muffin” from their grieving owner at the front door. Yes, the cat’s name is actually “Baby Muffin” and no, unfortunately she did not pass in-clinic.

“I’m sorry I didn’t bring her in sooner, it was just so hard to say good-bye and I wanted her siblings to be able to know she was gone, smell that she was gone, if you know what I mean.”

And with this parting explanation of the need for a lengthy bereavement period for her other cats, she walked slowly out of the smudged lobby double glass doors.

Baby Muffin passed away two days ago at home, peacefully in her sleep. She was twenty years old, and suffered from kidney failure. She is cold and stiff in her hair-caked faux-fur white bed which exemplifies the impression of her day-old corpse so deeply it appears as though its material has consumed her, her one and a half kilogram body grew out of the object of rest portraying more vivacity in its materiality than surely she had in months. Her mother is Margaret, a sweet, regular client with three other cats who has been ceaselessly haggling at the hospital for a senior discount for months.

It is difficult to describe the feeling of putting the corpse of a feline into a plastic bag without actually placing the corpse of a feline into a plastic bag. Margaret had one thing right for sure, Baby Muffin definitely smells dead. While loosening up her riger-morphosized wrist with the hair dryer, Devon and Astrid flip a coin to decide who would have the unfortunate task of placing her body in the bag and who shall have the slightly more favorable task of pressing her stiff paw into clay and scribing “Baby Muffin” under it. Like morbid arts and crafts. Devon was always heads, Astrid tails. Flicking it off of his gloved finger, Devon bent down to see what fate had chosen for them both. It was heads.

Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath through the KN-95 which still did not block out the smell of rot, Devon placed Baby Muffin with her bed in the black plastic body bag leaving only her front right paw exposed. Rapidly ripping off the gloves as one could never get accustomed to the sensation of lifting the limp and warm or in this case cold and rigid shell of a once beloved, innocent soul, he threw them in the garbage and began grabbing his belongings.

“Where the fuck are you going? Our shift doesn't end yet.”

“Ummm yeah sorry the bus doesn't run late today so I’m hitching a ride with a friend… Unless you could drive me? Oh? No? That’s what I thought. Peace bro, see you.”

He leaves early to catch a ride home with his friend who works at the Subway next door. He instructed Astrid, in his usual amiable au-devoir, to clock him out two hours from now, when their shift was meant to end. She checked the doctor schedule for tomorrow to see what appointments would be coming in on the General Care side.

“Oh, great,” she thought, exotic small mammals, “time to get punctured by feral, angry little teeth.”

Before she read or doodled, or did any potential side work to prove she was not entirely lazy (the bar is pretty low to be honest), she wrote a bit:

It is difficult to step off of the hamster wheel sometimes; to resist stepping into the bird cage and becoming a cartoon. Food isn’t a necessity when coffee makes you faster when you drink it until your stomach aches and by the time you get around to eating again, it’s utterly repulsive. Fingers and toenails are never too long or in need of a file until they are jagged, tearing holes in your socks or rubbing raw the neighboring appendage’s flesh. Ingrown. “You should be sure to come in at least once a month to have your pet's nails trimmed, or if you’d like you can learn to do it yourself at home!” *fake, toothy smile under the mask* Writing comes when thoughts repeat in the mind for too long and I want to move onto the next already. Sometimes the thoughts sit so long they blend into the pink matter imprinting, imprisoned in indistinguishable patterns like Baby Muffin’s dirty white fur in her dirty white bed. It is so unfortunate that more often than not that manifests in to-do lists which I take more satisfaction in creating than completing. To-do: bring Baby Muffin’s body to the vet; but maybe, perhaps we should let it sit for a while, we shan’t be brash or alarm the other babies (Baby Cakes, Baby Baby). Sometimes the very act of not writing or keeping it in my head is humbling; Being humble prevents disappointment, even if I am the only one ever reading. It is always more beautiful to imagine how I’d write, the medium through which I might transcribe it than to actually articulate it myself. Like I said, stepping off of the hamster wheel is hard. Tomorrow, I will hold one such hamster down on the table while he receives his treatment for urine scald, neglected for too long, without a wheel at all.

By this time of night there was nothing going on anyhow, besides, she enjoyed the privacy, a real time to be with her thoughts with no distractions, to pitch prose to the paperback pages of her little book but likewise was annoyed by Devon’s disregard for any responsibility at all. She wondered why she cared so much anyhow, would it not be easier to live as he did? The friends in the freezer beside her were good at listening anyhow and the broken dryer lulled her thoughts in rhythm. Woosh-woosh-woosh and so on… Like a lullaby…Sleep begins to call her urgently, with a veracity, without the nagging yet stimulating presence of her co-worker. This has happened before but never with a body on the table. Astrid… snap out of it…

The minute her eyelids pull themselves shut she peels them back equally as rapidly. Everything is the same. But where is the body on the table?

“Jeez, I must be really tired,” she thinks to herself, figuring that Devon must have just taken care of it before leaving just a half an hour prior.

It’s warm. The right side of Astrid’s seated body is pressed against the dryer. Warm towels on the table and on her lap.

“Right, I was just folding the laundry…” she decides.

She puts her face in the warm towels again and feels something underneath. Out from under the warm, bleach scented towels crawls out Baby Muffin with bright blue, vivacious eyes rather than fermented cold marbles.

“Oh my god, oh my god,” Astrid mumbles to herself as she snaps her body up from its previously slouched position trying to believe her eyes.

All of the sudden Baby Muffin crawls into her lap and begins purring, as warmly and rhythmically as the dryer. Astrid, too enveloped by the warmth surrounding her and the soothing sensorial script of the white dryer, white, towels, and white cat all warm, all surrounding her does not fight nor question what is happening to her. With a suave, slow swing upwards of her neck, Baby Muffin’s eyes met Astrid’s.

“We aren’t so different, you and I. You humans, worry yourselves so much with your silly fake little titles, trying to figure out your ‘identity’ or ‘aesthetic’ instead of just existing.’Who am I?’ Get a grip, who the hell cares? I mean hey, look at me, I just exist as I am and you all scoop up my shit, brush me, treat me like a queen. And now, here you are about to immortalize my print in some oven bake clay and send me off neatly, in a sleek black bag cradling me in my fluffy, beloved bed-abode to transform my flesh into dust. And please, don’t look so scared, you and I both know you haven’t put me in the freezer yet, Devon is far too lazy to do you that favor before leaving.”

“Wow,” Astrid was in mild shock and amazement at the beautiful specimen. With the speaking voice of what one imagines a siren would sound like, “the mushrooms have really cracked something in my brain for real.”

Unsure of what to ask what is surely a descendent of the Cheshire cat, she simply poses the question:

“So, what does it all mean then?”

“It means that life is long and you need not do more than exist to have your shit scooped and be adorned and adored like me. Chill the fuck out! Write something beautiful that isn’t so damn sad, pencil in permanent impermanence, manipulate the mirage, and be belligerent with your boldness. Daily glimpses into momentary bliss are surely more satisfying than swimming in the abyss searching for meaning where it doesn't exist, live a little, kid.”

With these potent parting words, the smell of rot returns, filling Astrid’s nostrils as Baby Muffin crawls back onto the table and lies down into her near fossilized white bed.

Astrid’s head shoots up with a start and she gasps for breath inhaling a tumbleweed of white cat hair. She begins hacking. Baby Muffin’s paw is still reaching out of the plastic bag waiting to be autographed. Astrid feverishly grabs her styrofoam office coffee cup and greedily takes a sip of the lukewarm liquid which washes down the dead hairs. She wipes the sleep out of her eyes and sits bewildered, in utter shock, not thinking of anything or moving a muscle, staying as still as Baby Muffin’s enchanted corpse. Eventually, she peers behind her at the clock which reads: 5:50am.

“Fuck! How long was I asleep for? Fuck! Ten minutes left of my shift,” she realizes with a start and begins tending to the task at hand, deciding she can think about her experience with this other-worldly entity once she can finally leave.

Alone with Baby Muffin’s once again lifeless shell she takes the water-less soap and sprays it on her cold little beans slowly massaging out the cemented litter and varied collected layers of grime with a washcloth. After rolling out the gray clay, with more compassion and less disgust for her preliminary remains, she presses the once pink, little beans firmly into the substance. She would wait to inscribe her namesake gifted to her by Margaret into the clay under her imprint until tomorrow. Life is long, Astrid decided, such a thing could wait for her next shift but now, she must go home to return to dreamland.

Astrid places Baby Muffin’s soft clay signature above the oven. She places her paw delicately back into the bag without looking at her body, only wishing to remember her with the vibrant crystal like ocean eyes which had come to her this evening. With the crisp snap of a zip tie, securing her, and her bed into their plastic hammock which will carry them on their journey to dust, Astrid gently carries Baby Muffin to the freezer and gingerly places her on the right shelf next to a sweet little puppy who had passed from Parvo days prior.

“Goodbye, Baby Muffin,” Astrid imparted longingly out loud before shutting the heavy insulated door.

Before leaving, after gathering up all of her things and finally, at long-last clocking out, she receives her notebook once more from her tote bag. Opening it to the page where a short few hours before she had wrote her rather negative, ill-inspired “prose”, in a fat red sharpie from the desk she proclaims in bold print:


Cass, a South Florida native is currently a rising senior at Clark University pursuing a double major in English and Spanish. This is her first (and hopefully not last) published short story.

Find her on:

Twitter: @cassiefras15

Instagram: @fromcass4u @cassiefras15

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