The Phantom of Truth appeared at the foot of my bed. His black robe draped over the mattress. His boney knees made the springs squeal. He pinned me to the pillows with a crocked finger as thick as a broom handle.
The Phantom did not fade in and out like a waking dream. He was a real tangible thing, buckling the floorboards, scrapping his hunchback against the ceiling, getting dust all over everything. He was a giant whose every movement shook the room. If he jumped he’d take the whole floor down with him.
It occurred to me that his long black robe was made from scales. I thought the robe might’ve been stitched together from snakeskins, until I saw it puff out on its own like the sack beneath a frog’s neck. The cloak had no seams. I couldn’t tell where it ended and the creature’s long arms began.
The Phantom leaned forward, his hood-like flesh pealed back revealing his chrome features. This metallic shape resembled a mask, but it moved like a face. It was hollow and expressionless, but it wasn’t fixed. The Phantom’s eyelids honed in on me, bending light like bubbles in mercury. His eyes were as smooth as ball bearings.
My reflection recoiled in his skin.
The Phantom’s presence was toxic. Fumes rolled off of him. He stunk of chlorine, sulfur, and charred cinder. He made my eyes water until they boiled over. In his smooth forehead, I watched blood pool in the corner of my eyes. Twin droplets smeared down my face. I turned away, forfeiting our high stakes staring contest.
The Phantom’s voice was a megaphone pressed against my eardrum.
“The way things were is the way they will always be. Everything you try to forget you will remember with more clarity. Everything you try change will preserve more securely. Everything you look away from you will see more clearly.
I pulled the covers over my face. “And just what am I looking away from?”
“We are the Phantom of Truth. We live in lies of omission, which is why we’ve taken up residence in your home.”
Then he said some other things.
The first week was surreal. I wore a scarf inside the house, not because it was cold, but because the walls stunk of rotten meat. The Phantom of Truth wore death like cologne. The lights dimmed in his presence, as the folds in his skin drank the juice from the sockets.
He shadowed me from room to room. His arms were as long and knotted as tree branches. They swung as he walked, knocking photos of my late father off the wall, case files off the coffee table, and books from the shelves.
When the Phantom stood in the den the ribbons of his skin fanned out like peacock feathers. They blotted any light that made its way through the blinds.
We could go hours without speaking, but the moment I tried to turn on the television the Phantom knocked the remote out of my hand. He couldn’t have me forgetting he was there, sitting on the couch, weighing it down like a seesaw.
His cloth-like throat puffed out as he spoke. “Your debt to truth must be paid before you can look away.”
“How about you tell me what it is and you go back to the Lady Gaga music video from whence you came.”
Of course the Phantom didn’t work that way. He kept me guessing into the evening.
When I left for work the Phantom held down the fort. Once he’d started nesting he wouldn’t go until his task was done. He was an indoor entity. Still, it felt like his arm span reached all the way into my occupation.
I was one of two public defenders in the small town of Pilgrim Valley. I had so many clients that I often met them during their preliminary hearings. I worked upwards of seventy hours a week and slept less than four hours a night. My red eyes and sluggish manner didn’t seem to bother my peers. This is a country where it was ruled an adequate public defense didn’t depend on the lawyer being awake the entire time.
I didn’t win a lot of cases. I just tried to lessen the losses. Most of my clients never saw the inside of a courtroom. I’d pitched them the district attorney’s bum deal and spun it like it was a major victory. “Congratulations! I talked him down to murder one.”
When I left for work the world outside was brighter than I’d ever remembered it. The void the Phantom had made of my home was so black the streets of Pilgrim Valley seemed white in comparison. The courthouse steps were blinding on the way in.
As the weeks stretched on I sustained myself on any faint hint of human kindness. I took refuge in social graces I once resented. I stretched out small talk with the courthouse guards, exchanged empty smiles with the clerks, and got a little too friendly with the district attorney.
I used to dread my daily grind. Now it was my only escape from the big black being waiting behind door number one. Still, I couldn’t stay away from the Phantom for too long. I had to come back just to repair the damage he’d done.
The Phantom spent his day dismantling anything I’d done to make my home welcoming. He pored my party games out on the floor and tore their cards down to confetti. He lined the broken stems of my wine glasses on the kitchen counter, pored my fine liquors down the sink, and melted my expensive cheeses in the microwave. He even smashed my father’s treasured antique dinner plates.
I rolled ugly carpets over the gashes the Phantom’s talons left in the hardwood. I covered the lacerations his claws dug into the sheet rock. I patched the cracks he was leaving in the house’s foundations.
The Phantom spoke over my shoulder while I worked.
“You are not to hold an audience until you can force our eviction. You are not to share your bed until your lie is cleansed. You are not to have nice things.”
I’d started wearing sunglasses indoors to protect my eyes from his effect. I spoke without facing him. “And on whose authority are you enforcing this sentence?”
“On truth’s authority.”
“Really? Can me tell me if truth has an appellate court I can contact?”
The Phantom’s silence was a clear “No.”
At night the Phantom spoke while I tried to sleep. I’d get up, go to the bathroom, stuff wads of toilet paper in my ears, and he kept right on whispering.
“Your clients are casualties of your incompetence. The best way to help them is to remove yourself from the equation. The courthouse won’t assign you anyone if you’re not around to take them.”
At first I thought the Phantom’s agenda was to convince me to stay in, to spend more time with him, to remove all my distractions and absorb every one of his statements until I had the epiphany that got rid of him. Then his suggestions got far less subtle.
“Your nightmares are vacations from your waking life. In the kitchen there’s a knife. Your life has no room to fit people in. In the kitchen there’s an oven. Your fantasies are joy that’s stolen. In the cabinet there is medicine.”
It was clear the Phantom’s lullaby wasn’t meant to put me down for just one night.
I went to work with my tie loose and briefcase hanging open. I wore sunglasses into the courtroom. My opening statements became tongue twisters that I couldn’t deliver. They didn’t end so much as taper off.
I sat and listened to the district attorney draw narratives out of his witnesses. He asked leading questions, made inferences that weren’t in the evidence, and I objected to nothing.
I was openly incompetent, hoping the judge would say something.
One day I came home, with my scarf and my sunglasses on, and prepared to survey the damage done in my absence. The Phantom sprung forth from the splintered remains of the front closet, grabbed me by the shoulder, snapped the glasses in two, and yanked the scarf from my neck. I spun on my axis, nearly giving me whiplash in the process.
The Phantom stood up straight, scrapping his head against the ceiling. The light fixture came crashing down behind him. The shattered bulbs fizzled out. The Phantom stood in the dark; his cloak-like flesh puffed out and sank with his breathing. The tattered strips that hung off his arms swayed like tentacles.
My eyes hurt so bad my pulse throbbed through them. I turned my gaze to the upended floorboards.
The Phantom pressed his chrome dome against my forehead. He pinched my chin and forced me to face him. The stink of him rushed into my nostrils so fast I tasted rotten eggs. My eyes changed in his reflective surface, turning from blue to red.
The Phantom said, “This evening will be every evening that ever was and is to come. The further you go your goals will move further from, and all your gains will amount to a zero sum.”
I fumbled for the knob, threw the front door open, and propped my wallet into the crack. The Phantom tried to knock it loose, but I scrapped my key along his knuckles. I stepped out onto the front steps. The Phantom dared not follow me over the WELCOME mat.
I made my stand in threshold with the sun at my back.
“Alright already! You’ve made your goddamn case. Maybe the way things were is the way they will always be, or maybe history doesn’t repeat itself. Maybe it just rhymes, like you do. What do you want to hear, that I lie to keep myself going? No shit. Who doesn’t? What exactly do you contribute to the conversation? You say there’s only darkness, but you’re the one blotting out the sun. Why should I take your word for anything? You’re the Phantom of Bullshit. You claim dominion over me, but I don’t recognize your authority.”
The Phantom reached for my throat, but its fingers recoiled. The sun was setting on him. The light glared off his chrome face. For once I couldn’t see myself in it. The Phantom tried to look away, but I grabbed him by the collar and pulled him back down to my level.
Then I said some other things.
This is my first collection of musical spoken word recordings. Each recording puts a satirical slant on self improvement, self medicating heartbreak with humor, and dropping the mic on depression. The recordings are scored with synth melodies, backing beats, and radio drama sound FX.