A Karmic Debt

by: R.E Hengsterman ((Header art by Michael Bernard.))

A short work of fiction which highlights the karmic pitfalls of human choice within the various versions of self…

“The course of our life is determined by an array of selves that live within each of us. These selves call out to us constantly – in our dreams and fantasies, in our moods and maladies and in a multitude of unpredictable and inexplicable reactions to the world around us.” — Hal Stone and Sidra Winkelman

One afternoon Richie Lack found himself in a Polaroid. Though more problematic than the awkward family portrait fashioned with the falsity of a smile, this was far more disturbing to Richie.

Richie Lack finds himself floating in a bath of Silver bromide (AgBr), cyan, yellow, magenta, and dark blue pigments swirling around him. Outrageous yes, but Richie Lack understands that one week shy of his forty-fifth birthday, the universe had collected on his overdue karmic debt.

Richie Lack’s present-day self, champion of the unfortunate, began his year with death. In the spring, as life blossomed, his parents passed away. His mother died first, becoming an anchor of death for his father, who died days later. Mother and father were his parents biological designations, though referring to them by these names never felt right considering his relationship with his parents was akin to renter-landlord, and they were to him all but an endless source of money. In typical Richie Lack fashion, he skipped their funera and waited until his bank account loitered near his overdraft limit before opening the stack of letters from the family lawyer. Three months after his parent’s death, Richie Lack drove home.  

In a town too small to hold secrets, an anxious Richie Lack slid into his best Sunday suit and headed to the law office of Wilfred Ellis, his parent’s estate attorney. Mr. Ellis, an angular man with a small office and a thin mustache, had paperwork sprawled across his desk, all clearly in need of signatures. As an only child, Richie Lack bore the responsibility of clearing out his parents’ house and discarding all the unwanted items. According to Mr. Ellis, there were several boxes in the basement marked with Richie’s name that he should not sell. The remainder of his parent’s estate, including proceeds from the sale of their house, were donated to charity.

Richie Lack had spent most of his formative teenage years holed up in his parent’s basement, a dank place that he retreated into as if he were a burrowing animal. Richie Lack was the poster child for teenage awkwardness. What befell him, beyond the chaotic frenzy of his maturing frontal lobe and adrenal glands that pumped out testosterone by the truckload, was overwhelming deep-seated contagious shame.

It’s hard to pinpoint why Richie Lack never bonded with parents, but his propensity for lying drove his parents mad from an early age. By the time he reached his teenage years the fracture in their relationship was irreparable. He often found himself grounded and isolated from the few friends he had. This forced Richie Lack to spend his developmental sexual years alone in the basement connecting with his father’s not well hidden collection of soft porn. He listened to Chuck Berry’s “My Ding-A-Ling” as he masturbated to Good Housekeeping’s Family Medical Guide. He paginated the women’s reproductive health and self-breast examination sections of Cosmo and cataloged his favorite Playboy and Hustler magazines while surrounded by a sea of youth trophies and discarded childhood toys. It was in his parent’s basement that Richie Lack became a shameful person. In the damp space under the house, Richie Lack made a discovery amongst his father’s observations of flesh that placed him on the wrong side of the universal karmic ledger. The trouble came, not in the discovery, but when Richie Lack acted on his discovery, triggering a torrent of ill-advised life choices.

In time Richie Lack muddled his way through high school and joined the military, but went AWOL soon thereafter to chase a young woman whose name he’d forgotten. This was his pattern. He’d chase one forgettable relationship after another driven by a choice that brought a chorus of pleasure and humiliation. By the age of forty, Richie Lack had become a sexual miscreant hurtling towards middle age without a single meaningful adult relationship. He went bankrupt thrice, moved home twice and floundered until landing a job as the manager of an adult video store.

An hour after meeting with the angular Mr. Ellis, Richie Lack stood in his parent’s empty house. He didn’t stop at his old room or his parent’s room. Instead he headed for the basement door, the basement being the one place in the house that defined a version of himself he could never shake. Richie Lack snapped the drawstring dangling from the exposed bulb at the top of the stairs and a metallic chink dinged in the darkness and with hesitation the naked bulb flickered to life. His eyes took a moment to adjust in the dusky light. But his nose, without hesitancy, inhaled the musty smell of stale memories. Richie Lack rummaged around the half-lit basement to the ethereal reverberations of Chuck Berry.

“My ding-a-ling, my ding-a-ling

I want you to play with my ding-a-ling

My ding-a-ling, my ding-a-ling

Your own ding-a-ling, your own ding-a-ling”

He rearranged several of the boxes, building a makeshift seat, then continued to explore, hunting until he found the familiar gunmetal gray box. On the top, in Sharpie, were written the words KEEP OUT. He opened the box and inside located a 6×8 inch Manila envelope. Moisture collected on his palms and the three-decade old glue of the sealed envelope offered him no resistance. He dumped the contents into his hands and out spilled a dozen nude Polaroids. The celluloid edges were yellowed and curled over time, leaving only the remnants of shadows and flesh.

Over the photographs of his mother, Richie Lack jerked off one final time and closed the loop on a younger version of himself, which fueled by an ill-fated bit of happenstance, had once made a shameful choice in masturbatory material. There was no one to miss him, but Richie Lack felt alive, wedged between the naked Polaroids of his mother. Floating in a bath silver bromide, cyan, yellow, magenta, and dark blue pigments. His Karmic debt paid in full.


R.E Hengsterman is a writer and film photographer who deconstructs the human experience through photographic images and words. He currently lives and writes in North Carolina. You can see more of his work at REHengsterman.com and find him on Twitter at @rehengsterman.

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