lost ironies

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Month: July, 2016

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook

Day #16

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #1: Once you have arrived at your assigned location, hunker down and wait for ancillary instructions from your Assignment Coach.

4 a.m.

A lamppost lit view from the window—crows quarrel over a dead rat in the gutter.

CNN, I haven’t turned it off for two weeks. Images of desert proxy-wars percolate through the cable; ISIS driving US Iraq-abandoned Humvees and armoured vehicles; teenage recruits firing AK-47s into the Mosul sky. Domestically, unarmed American black men shot dead while reaching for their ID; the unqualified buzzkill of the Republican National Convention.

The assignment is to instigate a shakeup, by diverting the ginger haired sociopath’s motorcade down the street below my window. I have his picture taped to the wall, a smug man in orbit round himself. He’s got Secret Service protection, naturally. That will complicate things. There’ll be revolution if I accomplish my assignment. A master class in failed democracy, for all those who care to attend, and everyone must.

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #4: Continue to take prescribed performance enhancing drugs until instructed to discontinue.

There’s food for a few more days, and I keep my iPhone charged. They may have forgotten me, or abandoned my mission without bothering to call. This happens from time to time. I continued to inject the methamphetamine they supplied me with in ever increasing dosages, against protocol, and my supply ran out two days ago. The situation has become dire.

The room’s haunted, or I’m hallucinating. The ghosts walk through one wall, across the room, and disappear into the other.

Out of boredom, I disassemble and clean the rifle twice a day, being careful with the scope. Its zero’s set. The octanitrocubane satchel charges are in an Eddie Bauer backpack on the nightstand. An RPG launcher, with rocket mounted, stands in the corner by the door, like an umbrella waiting for rain. I’ve spent days wondering if these are the right tools for the job, but they’ll have to be.

My room is well situated over the busy skid row street below, Central Avenue. The hotel is old, though. It disgusts me. It’s a slum, on the edge of a vast precinct of slums and housing projects. There are rats in the walls, junkies in the halls. Roaches fuck in the empty soup cans I’ve thrown onto the floor. The deranged and the addicted come here to die. A woman’s body was retrieved from the stuck elevator, yesterday. She died waiting for rescue that never came. Her screams and weeping went on for days, getting quieter over time, until only the hush of ordinary cruelty remained. She must have died slowly in the dark, jonesing all the way. Her body had been in there for a week, before a repairman found it. The rising smell alerted no one.

7 a.m.

The iPhone rings. For some reason the ringtone is Elvis singing Jailhouse Rock. I make sure that the triple encryption is on, and answer.

“Hello?”

“There’s been a delay,” someone says. “The target’s gone off the radar, so to speak.”

It’s a voice I know. A woman I must have met at indoctrination, or during training. Nameless, monotone. A survivor of enough assassination assignments, I assume, to have earned a telephone on a desk in a cubicle, surrounded by a hundred other Assignment Coaches, each managing multiple operatives in various stages of waiting, execution or flight.

“Yes?” I say. “What do you mean by delay?”

“I mean that you have to hold on,” she says.

“For how long?”

“We’ll be in touch.”

“Wait! Don’t hang up.”

“What?”

“I need things,” I say.

“We gave you expense money.”

“I can’t leave, though—in case….”

“Don’t worry about that,” says the woman. “The target’s stationary, for the moment. It’s his day off. He’s at the Marriott downtown, probably sweating all over some twelve year old they scooped at the mall. He won’t go mobile for another eighteen hours. Besides, yours is only one of several possible routes to the airport. The itinerary is open to change. Go out and get what you need. Get receipts.”

“I need more shit. I don’t think dealers give receipts.”

“Shit? What do mean?”

“Crank,” I say. “Meth.”

“Discontinue use. You don’t need it at the moment. Things have stalled. We’ll let you know when it’s necessary to start taking it again. Stand down, rest up.”

“You can’t be serious. Fuck, I need it. I can’t go without it now.”

“Symptoms of withdrawal are to be expected,” says the woman. “You’re sleep deprived. Take a nap, and endure.”

“You must be joking. I’m crashing like a Malaysian 777. I was told to take it, to keep myself ready. Now I really need it. You’re right, I haven’t slept for days. There’re ghosts….”

There’s a click, and a fresh silence on the line.

“Hello?”

Nothing.

I’ve been watching the dealers on the street from my window since I arrived. They’re mostly pink-cheeked, clean-jeaned juveniles who drive in from out of the neighbourhood. Their bosses use them because they aren’t hooked, yet. It’s thought that they won’t swallow, snort or inject the inventory. But when they finally do, which is inevitable, they’re damned where they stand.

10:30 a.m.

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #10: When told to stand-down by your Assignment Coach, rest, restock and study analysis.

For the first time in days, I leave my room to go outside, and pass through the lobby on my way. The lobby’s post-apocalyptic. It’s an impact crater. More ghosts. There are three frail old men, sitting in a shabby row. Threadbare clothes on a threadbare couch. Hoary hands on canes. I can see right through them. A woman in a corner confers with her own personal invisible, beneath a dark and dusty framed picture of a nineteenth century aristocrat on a stallion in the countryside. The clerk sitting behind the wire-mesh glass looks up from his internet porn; someone naked, in handcuffs on the screen.

Outside, the sidewalk’s a perpetual motion machine. Dead storefronts, faded graffiti, prison tattoos. Scammers, hookers, junkies and dealers. Bodies nudged over to the curb. Vehicle traffic hardly moves. There’s a slow procession round the block, men driving family cars, looking for bargain basement sex. Lunatics cross the street blindly. The cops cruise through occasionally, but never stop. It’s a bottleneck. Only a major emergency detour would force the target’s motorcade down such an impassable street. That must be the plan.

I haven’t changed my clothes or taken a shower for more than two weeks. I blend in. There’s a dealer I recognise from looking out of my hotel room window a few feet away, talking to a drag queen. The dealer’s white, dressed like a department store rapper, trying too hard. I approach, and stand next to him with my fists in my pockets, tight and trembling. He takes one look and walks away. Shit.

The drag queen looks me over.

“You’re some kinda fucked up, boy,” she says. “You gonna follow him, or just stand there and melt?”

I shiver and smile. Now I get it. I’m supposed to follow the dealer to a more practical spot. I go and find him in the crowd.

The deal takes place mid-block, away from the corner, beneath a broken surveillance camera. We’re surrounded, hidden in the chaos. Our eye contact is brief. He’s impatient.

“What you want?” he says, trying to sound bad, missing the mark.

“Meth,” I say.

“You stink, man.”

“I know.”

“You shit your pants?”

“I might have,” I say. “I don’t remember.”

“How much you want?”

“Fifty.”

“Fifty what?”

“Fifty dollars,” I say. “What will that get me?”

“What kinda junkie are you, don’t know what fifty’ll get you?”

“I’m new.”

“You’re a cop.”

“Hell no. Do I smell like a cop?”

“No,” he says. “You smell like a pig.”

“C’mon, I got the money here in my hand. See?”

What follows is a relaxed current of motion, a clandestine double jointed hand-off. The ease of it surprises me. I’ve never done this before, but something occult inside of me has assumed control. Drugs and money exchange simultaneously, in what looks like a failed handshake, after which the dealer looks away. It’s over, fast. I got more for my money than I’d guessed.

For the dealer, though, I no longer exist. If I was on fire, he’d just step away. He hates junkies. I should go and shoot-up, but I resent his attitude. I stare, and hate him back.

“You have nightmares,” I say, but don’t know why. Maybe it’s the same death wish that got me here in the first place.

“What? Fuck you. Fuck off.”

“It’s the junkies,” I say. “People like me, your clientele.”

“Don’t push it, freak. Disappear.”

“We occupy your sleep, like insurgents.”

“I’m warning you,” says the dealer, drawing a switchblade, making a show of it. It snaps open.

I can’t stop, though. Violent isolation and vivid cravings have transformed me, have somehow made me telepathic. I see deeply inside of him. He’s a piss-puddle of dread. The knife in his hand is meaningless.

“Junkies surround you in your worst dreams,” I continue. “Don’t we? Clawing at you, grasping and pulling you down onto the pavement. Legions of us. Tearing your skin right down to the bone, ripping out your eyes with our filthy fingernails, stabbing you with dirty syringes, each one of us looking for a fix. Ten thousand fixes, a hundred thousand. We want what you can’t possibly deliver. You struggle. You call out for your mamma. You seek Jesus. You’re desperate to escape.  You’re in agony, but we won’t back off. We’re mutilating you. Smothering you in our stench. But you can’t stop us. You wake up screaming; you’ve wet yourself. The fear feels like a bullet in your gut. You fumble like a fool, reaching for a weapon. But who are you gonna kill, nightmare tweekers or yourself? And when the nightmare’s all over, and you’ve put the panic back into its tiny cupboard somewhere in your sick little brain, you still know that you have to return here, this sidewalk, with your pockets full of junk, the terror phosphorescent on your skin. Just look at you, you pathetic sack of shit.”

His eyes are wide, chin back, shoulders up. I’ve tapped into something. How or why’s a mystery. Maybe clairvoyance is a gift of sleeplessness, appearing without restraint.

Without warning, he thrusts his blade into my side, through the ribs. The force of the blow, his fist on the handle of the knife, throws me off balance. I stagger and fall. He walks away. The fluid crowd fills his vacated space. No one looks down at me, as I scramble to stand.

Then I hear Jailhouse Rock, and answer the phone.

“Hello,” I say. The knife has pierced a lung. I’m coughing blood. I try to focus. I’m drooling dark red spittle.

“He’s moving,” I hear my Assignment Coach say. “We didn’t expect it. Protests are springing up across the city, and the protesters are way more organised than we thought they’d be. They’ve blocked nearly every possible escape route. His motorcade may be coming your way. Where are you?”

“On the street.” I touch my side where the knife went in. Lung blood, everywhere.

“Get back up to your room,” says the Coach. “You’ll know if the motorcade is coming your way when you hear three explosions a couple of blocks away. Car-bombs. The blasts will box them in on three sides, we hope. Turning left down Central will be their only option. The bombs will detonate simultaneously. Wait for them before you make a move. The cops will try to clear the street. The SUVs may even take to the sidewalk, but even if they do the convoy will be moving slow enough for you to get off your shots.”

Get off my shots.

“I’ve been thinking,” I say. “The rifle you gave me, and the SUV’s bulletproof glass, they don’t add up.”

“You have what you need. Take the initiative. Do what you have to.”

“Yes, but a little direction from your end would…. Hello?”

A familiar silence.

I run into the hotel and up the stairs. The lock on the door to my room is sticky—the key won’t turn. Several tries, and after dropping the keys multiple times, it finally opens. The rifle is disassembled and lies on an oil cloth on the bed. I’ll have to reassemble it. Where did I put the shells? Panic.

Rigs and other paraphernalia are on the dilapidated dresser. I throw down two small baggies of crank, and then look into the cracked mirror above the dresser. In just two weeks, I’ve become a zombie. What happened? Who cares? I begin the mix, using water from the swamp toilet down the hall. Two points—no, three points—to 12 units of water, then I load the syringe. There are still good veins in my arm, in spite of the bruising and spreading infections. Finally, it’s time to inject. The sting of the needle piercing the skin sets off a conditioned flow of endorphins in my brain, not the buzz I’m looking for, but at last a sign of hope. I’m moments away—

And in a second long precursor to catastrophe, time dies, and is then ferociously resurrected.

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Appendix 6, Sec. 9.7—Explosives in an Urban Setting—Lateral Damage: A blast wave is pressure expanding supersonically from an explosive core, preceded by a shock of compressed gases. The detonation of explosives in a city setting differs from that in an open area, like a battle field. In a city, the blast wave will be forced to funnel along the street grid, and be constrained by structures along its path, making the potential for significant lateral damage very high.

The sound of the blasts is deafening. The building quakes, and I look up from my arm in time to see the window shatter, and feel a fast moving wave of glass missiles, large, small and microscopic, wash over me as I’m pushed off of my feet and onto the floor.

My face and other exposed bits of me have been torn to shreds. My clothes have been ripped to pieces. I’m oozing blood and macrophage from the neck up, and I’m nearly deaf. The syringe remains full, but its needle is bent in my vein. Blood runs into my now lidless right eye, from above where the flesh of my forehead once was. I blink, and try pushing the plunger down. It won’t budge.

From somewhere nearby, I hear a faint rendition of Jailhouse Rock. I answer the phone: “What the fuck. Are you using nukes?” I lisp and slur my words. Large portions of my lips and cheeks are gone.

“It was a bit too much, I admit,” says my Coach. I can barely hear her, but it’s obvious that she’s rattled.

“Speak up,” I shout.

“We’re sorry,” she hollers. “We used ISIS defectors to build and plant the car bombs. We flew them in from Iraq last week. They’ll provide us with a plausible deniability mechanism, but they clearly lack the subtlety necessary for a more civilized milieu. That’s beside the point, though. Are you still viable?”

Viable? I’m on the floor with much of my facial epidermis ripped away, I have what I must assume is an ultimately fatal stab wound to my lung, and I still need a fix.

Standing up, I jam the iPhone between my shoulder and what’s left of my ear. It nearly slithers away in a smear of blood.

I try to remove the syringe from my arm. It breaks, but the needle remains steadfastly hooked into my vein. What’s left of the meth and remaining syringes have been blown off the top of the dresser, to who knows where. I begin to hack up blood again, more with each cough.

“I’m viable,” I say—cough, cough, cough. Spit.

“Good,” says the Assignment Coach. “Maybe we overdid it, but the plan worked. The motorcade was forced to turn left. We’re following it now, via satellite. They’ve stopped for the moment, but they’re headed in your direction, very slowly. There’re bodies everywhere, but there’s also a mob forming on the road. Mass-hysteria caused by the blasts, who knows? Radio chatter indicates that the police, wherever the hell they are, are preparing to use tear gas. Your neighbourhood’s gone berserk. Looting’s already begun. Looks like we’ve provoked a riot. Unintentional, but perhaps to our advantage. Get to work.”

I disconnect, and do a quick inventory. It’s time. The sniper rifle, the Armalite AR-50, even with the armor piercing incendiary shells, probably won’t do the job unless I’m closer. I’m going through serious withdrawal now, my hands too shaky to reassemble it properly, or get off an accurate shot.

I grab a Glock and extra clips from the nightstand, and the backpack of satchel charges. Then the RPG launcher, with the rocket attached.

Then I take a moment to tug at the needle hooked into my forearm. It’s good and stuck. Looking into the mirror again, I see the zombie only without a face, just gore and flesh fragments, exposed bone, teeth and lidless left eye. The zombie’s carrying a polymer-framed automatic handgun, rocket launcher and enough explosives to take down the hotel and every adjacent building for a block and a half. I open my hotel room door and run, through the haunted lobby and out onto the street.

Bedlam.

In a very short time, the desperate people of a desperate neighbourhood have risen up. Whore hunting family men are being pulled from their cars, robbed and beaten, their vehicles set ablaze. Pawnshops and convenience stores are being raided, the proprietors shooting back. Three motorcycle cops try to navigate and take control of the throng. They blow their whistles, sound their sirens and rev their engines, and are quickly taken down. A pickup truck drives by with thugs in the back, wielding AR-15s.  Suddenly, it looks like Baghdad, only with Hip Hop music and gangbanger wheel hubs.

Standing on a bus stop bench, I scan the stormy scene. Then I see them. A half a block away, approaching through the swarm, three SUVs. All of them with men wearing flack vests over their starched white shirts and striped ties, standing on the running boards, firing indiscriminately into the crowd with fully automatic assault rifles.

It’s my target; my long awaited love.

I jump off the bench, moving mechanically, getting closer, looking for the best vantage. I’m walking quickly, as implanted data begins to flow in my head, like an organic code. Then I hear, with my nearly deaf ears, what might be the screech of tires behind me. I turn round, and there’s the pickup, with seven heavily armed locals in the back.

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #28: Recruit local inhabitants to your ends, wherever and whenever possible.

The passenger side door opens, and a well-dressed man of the hood steps out, with a .45 auto in his hand. This is no department store rapper. From his stance and cold approach, I can tell that he’s something else, altogether. He’s a warrior, and this is the beginning of his war.

“Where’s yo face at?” he says, making me aware once more, that I’m a virtually faceless man, bleeding profusely from my side. I hack up more blood.

“Most of it’s back in my room,” I say, lisping and slurring.

He folds his arms and strokes his chin.

“And what’s that for, Frankenstein?” He points at the rocket launcher.

“I’m on an assignment,” I say. “You see those SUVs stuck up the street?” I thumb over my shoulder. “That’s the apricot dick-weed nominee you’ve been watching for the past year, saying he’s gonna build a wall and make America safe for white people again. Someone on high thinks he might win the election, so I’m here to frost his cake.”

“For real?” says the Warrior. “You a shooter?”

“Absolutely.”

“And that be him, Mr Whitey Man Tan?”

“Yup.”

“I hate that mother fucker.”

“He hates you more,” I say.

“He ain’t got no right comin’ down here after the shit he’s been sayin’.”

“Hey,” a teenager shouts from the truck, “his guards are killing everyone.”

“Shit,” says the Warrior. “How much you want for that rocket gun, you got there?”

“Waddaya you give me?” I say, my allegiance to the cause rapidly dissolving.

“Hundred,” he says.

“Two,” I counter.

“Deal.”

He pulls out a wad, and peels off the bills. I offer over the weapon.

“Glock for sale, too?” he says.

“No way. This chunk might help me get out alive.”

“Ain’t no one gettin’ outta this alive,” says the Warrior, and taking the rocket launcher form my hand, he aims it at me. I wink back, reach forward, and release the safety.

“Now you’re ready, my friend,” I say. “But don’t waste it on me.”

“Ain’t gonna,” he says. “Just seein’ what you’d do. You cool, for such a gruesome mother fucker.”

“Thanks,” I say, and pulling a small brown booklet out of my back pocket, I recite—

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #11: When attempting to disable a lightly armoured civilian vehicle with a rocket propelled grenade, fire first on the front wheels to disenable steering, forward mobility and braking capacity, thus rendering the vehicle immobile. Then attack the body of the vehicle with remaining rockets and or whatever weapons remain.

“Righteous,” says the Warrior.

Then I take a satchel charge out of the backpack, and recite again, The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #17: Nothing is bombproof, provided the bomb is large enough, and well enough placed.

“I’ll throw these in,” I say, pointing out the triggering mechanism. “You only got ten seconds to get the hell outta Dodge once that’s set. Then take cover, baby. Works best when placed directly under the vehicle, so you or one of your homies has got to get in close.”

“Fuck yeah!” he says, grabs the pack, and gets back into the truck. He smiles and waves as he and his crew drive away, up the street toward the stationary trio of SUVs.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

The Little Rules of Engagement Handbook—Rule #35: After successfully completing an assignment, wait for the Assignment Coach to contact you. Be patient, as this may take a while. Do not seek medical aid if injured, no matter your condition, as doing so may draw attention to, and compromise, your mission.

I think about Rule #35 as I lay in a morphine haze, watching a TV screen, from a gurney in a hospital emergency ward gone mad. I arrived here in an ambulance filled with six other seriously injured street people, and have been triaged to near the front of a very long line.

Fox News footage shot from a helicopter is repeated over and over as the world marvels at the unanticipated and improbable end of a wanna-be politician. Some mourn and some cheer as images of his body, in a lake of blood on the pavement fades into a television commercial for Walmart.

 

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perhaps

inside of you shines
so irrelevant a sentence
that if it escaped your
moist perhaps
would be his dry indeed

 

 

 

 

 

 

hat poem

if I could go back in time
to when my father wore a hat
1950 something, while he smokes a Craven “A”
(cold Commercial Drive or Campbell Avenue)
I could see the boxcars of his mythology
in the yard down Coal Harbour
empty and stinking of distance
and hear the radio in his room
commentary still sore from war
over the magazine shop near Main
I could drink from his bottle of rye whiskey
and know what it is like to have been abandoned
and found once more by the man’s own quiet eyes

there’d be a jack knife and nickles
in a saucer on the dresser
and the one lone hat
on a hook on the door

 

 

 

 

 

the republic of doo-wop

when I was a kid (10)
a crew came round
and tore down the local mountain
to maintain the integrity of civilization

but they weren’t to blame
it was a work order act of violence
and to us boys they were fascinating

the labourers at the coffee truck
the surveyors playing the angles
and the foreman dreaming of the weekend
of empty desert highways
finned Chevrolets and
any floral print damsel
other than his own untidy wife
riding shotgun in the republic of doo-wop

we watched them and drank Orange Crush
then returned the bottles for two cents
and that night I dreamed
with my fists clenched
of being anything else

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coffee with Thurston—a Christmas Carol in June

Thurston hadn’t been the same since the abduction. He and I had been in high school together, until grade nine when he was removed by social services and remained unseen until his eighteenth birthday. Now he sat at the same coffee shop table everyday reading conspiracy newsletters, while people bought him cups of coffee that he couldn’t afford. It was out of a sense of obligation that I occasionally sat next to him, mostly feigning to listen as he read in a whispery, card shuffle voice from his poorly photocopied sheets of intrigue, or retelling his story of visitation.

“Says here,” he said one June day, reading form a smeared sheet of paper, as I sat and placed a chocolate croissant in front of him, “that SETI has released previously classified files. The information contained proves the existence of at least seven advanced alien civilizations in our galaxy alone.”

This was new and, “Oh?” I said, guessing that SETI didn’t keep classified files, and realising that I’d just committed myself to a vertical conversation without a ceiling or a landing pad. I stirred my coffee and looked longingly at my unopened Raymond Chandler novel.

“I’ve known it all along,” said Thurston. He bit down and tore off a bite of the croissant, spraying flaky crumbs everywhere. “When they came it was on a Christmas Eve deep snow dark the cars huge shapeless lumps blue parked along the avenue beneath the mercury streetlamps they didn’t bother to knock.”

This was how he spoke, a fresh and crispy word salad, and I had an idea I knew what it might look like written on the page: a marathon mixture of exotic punctuation, misplaced sentence emphasis, fragments and run-ons, all of it advancing toward an abyss of post traumatic psychosis that lay in the centre of a shadowy flatland of memories that swirled like manhole steam beneath a dim lamppost. He was a man trying to be someone—anyone—in the absence of identity. I tried to keep up, but frequently failed.

Placing his ball cap on the table, he sat back to carry on, and I saw not for the first time his balding head with the mysterious tattoo, a thin blue prime number sequence, 2—3—5—7, looking like something done with a needle, India ink and a wad of toilet paper. It was done backward. At some past point, in a moment of unrestrained madness, he’d done it himself, in the mirror. He was about twenty-five years old.

“It was like Christmas card salvation,” he began again, “from the dead-industry rot of an abandoned city. You couldn’t tell a Chevy from a Ford it’d piled so high the snow that kept falling no wind it came down soft and smothering like the old country tales of forced asphyxiation and cannibalism my father told me at bedtime whenever he could until he disappeared one graveyard shift in a massive vat of boiling industrial kitchen waste and condemned animals cadavers at the reduction plant where he worked. What choice did they have they made him into soap. I think of him whenever I wash I say a small soapy prayer for him and the boozy carrion ashtray stink and the way he hid in a room down the hall and my mother mostly looking afraid.”

It might have been a stand-up routine, but it wasn’t.

“I think I’ll go,” I said, believing I deserved to be cut free. It was an old and well told story, and I’d made my offering of croissant at the altar of his insanity. My sins were forgiven.

Grabbing my arm too tightly as I rose, however, he pulled me back down and said, “Please don’t.”

The chair made a loud scraping noise when my ass hit the seat.

“That was the Christmas Eve they took my mother and sister,” said Thurston, “the grenade popping Christmas lights tearing the furniture to shreds my father already gone and a nightmare and now the last who I ever loved. They were taken up in a violet beam of light into the spaceship like 70s cable TV stacked lined resolution twenty-four hours a day of scifi reruns dense with code and insinuation. Cathode ray Coca-Cola war spelled backward like a belly wound. I’d been misinformed about aliens expressionless spacemen the egg-hatched big-brained animals with hovercraft hands and evangelical eyes. Hollywood had been wrong about them and I’d been betrayed by television.”

I said, “I’ve heard this part before, Thurston.”

Odd, though. He seemed desperate this time, to snatch up something skirting round the craggy terrain of his truth. “Did I ever tell you,” he said, “that I saw the spaceship fly away?” He asked the question with unusual succinctness. “That I watched the craft that ferried away what was left of my family? I remember its size and shape, the direction it took, its colour. I know the trajectory and speed, or speeds, latitudes and longitudes, but I won’t bore you.”

I cocked my head and looked him in the eye. He looked back with a strange and sustained candour. “You may have alluded to it,” I said.

Actually, he never had. He’d always refused to tell this part of the story, most of the coffee shop patrons accepting that all of his avoidance, peculiarities and befuddlements arose out of a dissociative disorder, his never wanting to relive those horrible moments. I wondered if I should be the one to hear it first.

“I looked out of the window,” he said, with a new clarity, “and watched it streak across the black Christmas sky.”

Then he paused as though he’d made a decision, and went on.

“It flew over the venting, mile-off yellow lighted reduction plant where the ghost of my father lurked like Nosferatu. Then it seemed to stop and set slowly like a star on the horizon, and I watched it disappear. It was finished with the fentanyl neighborhoods and foreign no-fly zones, the unceded land and occupied territories, the corporations and open-carry Christian fanatics. It was moving at light speed now, out of sight, having flown through the taint and tar of our slaughtered environment, and above the starving and the homeless where it had shone brightly, briefly and out of place, while all of us looked up at it like it was a star to wish upon. But it wasn’t. So, when the Dylan Thomas dawn came once more, the world just continued to fissure beneath the weight of its own disgrace, ensuring that One Christmas was so much like another, forever more.”

“You okay, Thurston?” I said. “You don’t sound like yourself. I mean you do, you really do, more than I’ve ever heard you sound like yourself before, but you really don’t.”

Leaning across the table then, he said, “They’re colonising us, get it? A centimetre a day, ten seconds a week. They throw us a trinket now and then like quantum physics, and while we kill each other trying to monetise it, they take more and more of what and who we are. That’s their plan, I guess. We didn’t invent the theft of land and culture, after all. But it’s never enough for them. They’re just like us; they always want more. So from time to time, when they go home to visit, they take a trophy, something extra, a sliver of what they’ve left behind in escrow. That was Rebecca and my mother.”

“Rebecca?”

“My sister.”

“Oh.” What else was there to say? “But why are you telling me this now, here in this crappy coffee shop, with your hat off so everyone can see that fucked up tattoo? Who’s ever going to believe you, looking the way you do? Why should I?”

“Yeah,” he said. “The tatty is a bit fucked up.”

“Well you just laid a burden on me, dude. So, answer my question.”

“I guess I trust you, that’s it. As far as believing me goes, you will because you’re a geek, an awkward white boy open to ideas in pursuit of any goddamn thing to believe in in this world other than the crap he sees on the internet.”

“There’s a lot of this shit on the internet,” I reminded him.

“Yeah, well I’m for real. You can still smell last night’s bottle of cooking wine on my breath.”

He was right, I could.

“And I’m telling you,” he said, “because sometimes it seems like that window I told you about—the one I looked out of that Christmas Eve—it gets a little more brittle every day. It’s all that’s stood between me and them all this time, and I can’t maintain my belief in this alias of mine forever. One day that window’s gonna bust, and you’ll find what’s left of me in a culvert.”

“I don’t believe it.”

He shrugged, and said, “So now someone else knows, and I guess I feel lighter for it. Maybe that puts you in the doghouse, but I don’t think so. You can just tell them, the retard didn’t say shit, if anyone asks.” He grinned, and took another bite of his croissant.

Maybe if it was a piece of fiction he wouldn’t have been there the next morning, but he was. No one had beamed Thurston up, or whacked him. His gauntness seemed a little greyer, though, and his thoughts appeared to have returned to their earlier disorganised state. His lips moved as he read his conspiracy sheets and sipped his charity cappuccino. But he looked up at me and winked as I passed him by with my Americano, out the door and on my way to work.

 

 

 

 

 

the doneness of stars

when young & less a destination
I graffiti flew
down brick brown alleys
& across bank tower walls
& how would you like your stars done?
the hotdog vendors would say
brightly nightly
nightly brightly
but never never
in the day

 

 

 

 

 

the producer

The producer drove east with all the windows down on Interstate 40 through the moon glow Mojave Desert. He checked his watch. It was 1:01 a.m., and he thought about all the chumps out there to the invisible horizon who’d dug their own graves.

He was ready to drive Pacific to Atlantic, to avoid the same fate. Hollywood was a history lesson. Now he hoped to end up in a small town. Maine, he imagined. That sounded good. Nice and anonymous. Maybe he’d write. Publish under a pseudonym. Use a woman’s name and remain underground as long as he could. Perhaps forever. Forever sounded real good.

The Ford was new but basic. It would get him where he wanted to go in simple proletariat splendor. He’d wait until New Mexico before he insured it. He laid his hand on the brown paper bag, content in his belief that the money could last a year or two if he was careful. Buy a house with cash like he did the car, and sit on the porch in the evening and make like it was all a Norman Rockwell print.

He got Barstow on the radio, the late night news. The LA crime Family had been up to no good. The body of a character named Rosy Cola, a mob up-and-comer, and two unnamed associates had been found in an alley with their throats cut. A professional hit the cops said. The wages of crime said the pious announcer. The producer wondered if it would be madness to write about it one day. Then threw his father’s razor out into the desert, leaving it behind doing sixty.

Hollywood California, in his office on the phone, a few days before, sort of in the late 1950s

“Thank you for calling Central Casting,” a cheerful switchboard operator said. “Call volume is extremely high, so I’m putting you on hold. One of our agents will be with you shortly. Thank you for calling Central Casting.”

“Son of a bitch,” Oscar Child muttered. “Goddamn bastard son of a bitch.” He picked up a sharpened pencil and twisted its tip into a note pad. “Fuck!”

In the near silence came the thoughts of a desperate man, who’d been placed indefinitely on hold: We all pray in the end, if not to God then to the End itself. (Oscar Child decided he preferred the latter, and composed his prayer.)—Dear End, you dirty son-of-a-bitch, let it be dignified when you finally knock on my door. You prick. Just a bullet or a quick toss out the window. Maybe a little something in a drive-by shooting. Please, no drawn out trip to the waterfront in the trunk of a car. No shit kicking preamble. No switchblades or icepicks.

Then there came a click.

The operator repeated herself, “Central Casting, The switchboard’s busy due to a high volume of calls. I’ll put you on hold and get right back to you.”

“No, wait. I don’t want to be on hold. I’ve already been on hold for ten minutes. Wait, no!”

Dead air all over again. Clicks and hiss and an overlapping ghost call, very faint and far away, a man’s voice, barely audible, shouting and crying, “Never in Burbank. I’ll cut my wrists first!”

Then the sound of a receiver being lifted out of its cradle and a woman coughing.

“Hello?” Child said, remembering to be cautious. These people were barracudas; they could smell fear. “Look,” he said, “we need a one legged woman. The right leg preferably, but a missing left’ll do if that’s all you’ve got. We can change camera angles if we have to.”

“What for?” said the woman on at the other end. Her chewing gum voice might have been familiar. Or maybe all dames sounded the same.

“A movie,” he said. “What else? This is Oscar Child speaking, the producer.”

“Who?”

“I don’t usually do the casting work, ‘cept in a pinch. But this ain’t no pinch. It’s just a rush call, so don’t go thinking I’m panicking or anything. Everything’s copacetic at my end.”

The line went quiet, except for the sound of other agents talking in the background.

Then the woman said, “Oscar Wild, you say? I’m checking.” Pause. “You’re not on my Rolodex, mister. Let me check the file cabinet. Wild, Oscar, right? Like that fag writer from a hundred years ago? I hope this ain’t no joke, fella. I don’t have time for joking around.”

“No it’s Oscar Child, Child. Willya just listen? We can talk about how much I hate my mother later. This broad we need’s gotta be an opera singer, too. It’s a Three Stooges feature, get it? It’s gonna be their big comeback. But that’s hush-hush, understand?”

“A one legged opera singer, eh? That’s kinky. Oh yeah, here you are, Oscar Child. You’re on the Rolodex, after all. A to C. But we ain’t got no dames with one leg that sings opera. I think we got a tap dancer, but I might’ve been drinking.”

“This is Central Casting, isn’t it?” Child said. “Aren’t you supposed to have a variety of experienced performers for bit parts? Who am I talking to?”

“It’s Rebecca Malinowski, Mr Child. We’ve worked together before, you and me. Remember, that circus comedy thriller with June Russell, before her bust went bust, with the riot scene in the second act with all the dwarves tryin’ to unionize but the circus owner’s a real fascist bastard and brings out the elephants and fire hoses, but the day’s saved by a strapping young and handsome but tragic quasi-socialist war hero whose probably a homo with a hula girl tattoo and a heart of gold? What was it called again?”

Birth of a Socialist Nation.”

“That was quite the call,” said Rebecca Malinowski, “200 dwarves, I’ll say.”

“Yeah well you came up short and we had to fill in an awful lot of empty space with non-dwarves. Wound up shanghaiing winos off the street, and had ‘em running around on their knees. Had to pay them extra hooch, thanks to you, for all the scrapes.”

“And what a flop, huh?”

“It was meant to be a statement not a block buster.” He wondered why it sounded like he was apologising. “It was for, and of the people.” He was tired of apologising for Birth of a Socialist Nation.

“I heard it was financed with mob money, too. What a mistake, I’ll say.”

“Look, just say you got what I need.”

“Well this is a rare bird you’re asking me for,” Malinowski said. “I guess we could run an ad.”

“No we need her like yesterday. The whole damn plot hinges on it. But don’t get me wrong, everything’s just swell on our end. I’m not worried, really. How about just some gal with the one leg, no opera singing necessary. We can do a voice-over, even if it ain’t in the budget.”

“I don’t know. I’ll check the files and get back to you. You may be in a pickle, though. I’m thinking we may have to charge a little extra.”

“No!” Child barked. “I mean I’m a good customer. You said so yourself. I’m spending other people’s money here. You’re taking advantage of the situation. It’s un-American.”

“Hey, I was in the USO, fella. I spent the whole Second World War in Honolulu slappin’ sailors. Don’t tell me I’m un-American.”

“You’re killin’ me here,” said Child, “you know that? And just before they blow my head off, my last request will be for them to drop my body off on your desk so you can live with the result of your jacking me around like the fucking useless bimbo you are when you could have done your goddam job. Hopefully I’ll crap my pants when my brains splatter so I really stink up your office and make you wish you were more accommodating businesswise when you had a chance. Put that in your pig shit crapping mother fucking Rolodex and smoke it, you US Navy slut.”

Click.

“Hello?” Oscar Child shouted. “Fuck.”

After throwing the phone across the room, he went into his bathroom and opened the cabinet, and stood looking in. Reaching the end of one’s rope, he noticed, came with a spookily calming sense of deliverance.

He knew what he had to do, but had only a vague idea of how. The alley behind the automat, greasy and dim. How ever it turned out, he knew it would be his greatest achievement.

Sitting the lowest shelf in the cabinet was his father’s old straight razor. He’d never used it before. It scared the hell out of him. He stuffed it into his pocket and put on his jacket.

a month and a half earlier—the meeting that led to this whole mess

“So zip it and listen,” Rosy Cola said to Oscar Child, who hadn’t yet spoken. They sat together in the busy Finster’s Automat on South Main.

Rosy was a smallish man with a boyish face and soft hands, and tried to make up for it with a cigarette behind his ear, a book of matches in his hat band and a balisong knife in his sock. Finster’s was Rosy’s favourite joint, and he was a late night regular for dinner and off-the-radar meetings.

Two of Cola’s larger associates sat a few stools down, slurping back their Spaghetti Bolognese.

“Washing the cash,” said Rosy Cola, “goes like this. And remember, I’m tellin’ you this because you’re a tenderfoot, not because I like you. I don’t want no case for you ruining an excellent opportunity out of ignorance.

“With the washing of the moolah,” Cola continued, “I give you the dough that stinks because it’s ill-gotten, see? Then you transform it into semi-legit assets by putting it into your bank account and using it to make a movie, and then paying me back my investment plus the profits, real square kinda. That’s the washing part, simple. ‘Cept it ain’t really washing unless I get the clean dough back after it’s got washed. That’s where the pay-back part comes in. You with me so far, daddyo? Then after you pay me back my investment and profits, you pay me what you already owe me from before with the interest. Isn’t that great?”

“Of course, terrific, wonderful.” Child took a bite of his lemon meringue pie, and chewed stoically.

“Now I gotta tell ya though,” Cola said. “I gotta a niece, see? A real brainiac this girl is, and she says a situation like this is called a paradox. And if I understand her right, a paradox ain’t a sure bet. You see, you’re gonna do this for the Family because you’re a bum who owes the Family big time, but you’re also a bum because your films are flops and that’s why you owe the Family big time. That’s the paradox. But I don’t want no flop this time. I want a masterpiece, a cinematic achievement that’ll have the squares and the suckers linin’ up. I want it to rake in the wampum, capisce?”

“Of course, sure, real capisce.” Child gulped his coffee and burned his tongue. “But it’s really a distribution problem.”

Cola said, “I get it. You was black-listed. No one wants to touch you or your sick degenerate commy merchandise. But that don’t mean you don’t still owe my Family and me twenty-three grand.”

“That much?” Child said.

“That much.”

“You sure?”

“That’s this week’s total,” said Cola. “But maybe I can get some other degenerate mooks I got on the hook to handle the distribution part.”

Oscar Child chased a crumb round his plate with his fork and said, “With all due respect, Mr Cola, I’m an artist, not just a business man. I’m not a machine. Besides, no one’s sending me scripts anymore.”

Rosy Cola stared back, quiet for a moment, unused to backtalk, visibly disappointed in Child’s negativity and straining to keep the murder out of his eyes. Then he grinned and looked down at his untouched tuna fish sandwich and glass of milk.

“There I can help,” he said. “I gotta nephew. He’s got a corker of a script for you, a real masterpiece all ready to go. The squares are gonna love it. It’ll star the Three Stooges, see? Larry, Curly and Moe. Their manager says they’re ready for a comeback, and my nephew’s script is golden. It’s a romantic historical drama with a message, understand? The Stooges wanna go straight and do some dramatic work. The script’s spicy hot and ready to blast-off, baby. You just have to raise the cash and put it all together.”

“But I thought you were making the investment,” Oscar Child said, “with the ill-gotten dough.”

“I already have. I bought my nephew’s script. Cost me ten grand. The kid knows how to bargain. I’ll give him that.”

“Ten grand for a script?”

“Now you see why success is an absolute necessity,” said Cola.

“Look, Mr Cola I’m broke. The standard Hollywood money’s out of the question. The studios and the legitimate lenders won’t come near me.”

“Then I guess you’ll need another loan. I’m ready to write the cheque.”

“A cheque?”

“In a manner of speakin’.”

“I’m not a good risk, Mr Cola. I think you know that.”

“But there ain’t no one in town who recognises my nephew’s script writing genius, but you will because what the hell else you gonna do? You’re the guy, see? You gotta read it. It almost sings. Sal, bring over the script.”

A couple of stools down, one of the big men put down his fork, rummaged through a satchel and then held up a stained, dog-eared and unbound type-written stack of pages. Then he reverently placed it in Cola’s small soft hand.

“Just listen to this,” Rosy said. “This is the opening where he’s setting the scene. It goes like this: The pong of richly orchestrated bosa nova is on the air. Poolside, there are cabana boys and a marimba band plays the Mexican Hat Dance. Happy hotel customers sip rum and pineapple cocktails, as dancing chiquita girls greet our three stars.

“Waddaya say?” said Rosy Cola, beaming like an imbecile. “Pretty damn classy, huh?”

Oscar Child said, “But how can the pong of richly orchestrated bosa nova be on the air if the marimba band’s playing the Mexican Hat Dance? And what’s a chiquita girl?”

Rosy Cola’s imbecilic beam faded.

“You listen to me,” he said, gulping back his milk and slamming the glass down on the counter. Then lighting the cigarette from behind his ear, he drew so hard that half of it disappeared first drag, and he inhaled like it was his terminal breath. “I don’t gotta do this. You’re just some pinko fucking castrato that owes me money, just like all them other deadbeats whose graves I had them dig themselves out in the desert. I could mail your intestines to yer fucking Aunt Tilly in a plain brown parcel, and there’re people in the Family who’d like that.”

“But not just anyone can write a script,” Child pleaded. “There has to be a basic talent. It’s not only an art, but a science. There’s serious technique involved. Technique that has to be learned. Some scripts take years to research and develop, to write and workshop, and then be rewriten again and again. How many scripts has your nephew written?”

“Just this,” Cola said, lovingly stroking the pile of smeared pages. “He’s only twenty years old, just breakin’ into the business.”

“Then he’s still a youngster. Let him go to school. UCLA has a great program. I know people on the faculty. I can get him in, even with a third grade education.”

“Don’t be a smartass. He’s got grade five.”

“Whatever.”

“I want a business plan by Monday?”

“Monday? Which Monday?”

“The Monday after Sunday.”

“This Sunday?”

Rosy Cola nodded.

“That’s only four days away. It’s impossible.”

“Your own hole in the desert,” Cola said. “Think about it.”

“Shit.”

“And I want production in full swing within the month. Actin’ and directin’, the works.”

Child said, “You don’t understand the business, Mr Cola.”

“Franky,” Rosy Cola said, and one of the big men got up, pulling the napkin out of his collar.

“Okay,” said Oscar Child. “Sure sure, alright.”

“Here’s some green to get you started.” Rosy slid a paper bag over to Oscar. “Get receipts and keep ‘em.”

Cola and his boys got up and went to leave by the backdoor, through the kitchen. But before they went behind the counter, Rosy said, “Hey Franky, waddaya call a fella sitting alone in an automat with a bag full of mob money and no choices?”

“I don’t know boss,” Franky said. “What do you call a fella sitting in an automat with a bag full of mob money and no choices?”

“HA! A Hollywood producer! You get it?”

Franky laughed and slapped Rosy Cola on the back. “Sure I get it! That’s a good one, boss!”

Cola said, “I already told ya, Franky. No back slapping.”

“Sure boss.”

*   *   *

Now on the highway chasing the moon across the Mojave toward freedom, Oscar Child remembered and hoped he’d have a chance, himself, to tell that joke one day.

 

 

 

 

 

physics lesson

the weight of bigotry is variable
its mass constant
hence the hungry dent in space
which is never filled