lost ironies

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Tag: fiction

Noah Bones Chapter 4: Rabble Town

Late evening, darkness falling

It wasn’t really a town, only a bleaker neighbourhood in a bleak city. And across its busy Centre Street, lined with shabby carts, a threadbare sex trade, dead storefronts and hawkers, was strung a multitude of crackle screens, like paper lanterns hanging over a once brighter Chinatown, each screen with the face of the Chief Victor, leader of the Federated States, speaking, all day every day, assuring the People of the brightest and winningest of futures, interrupted only by advertisements.

Noah Bones leaned against a brick wall at a corner, sipping cheap street cart tea from a paper cup, watching an advert for a sugar confection called Pokyfun, a thin brightly wrapped bar of cheap genetically modified carob gown in rooved-over reclaimed asbestos mines in the irradiated Western Wastes, and tempered with hydrogenated pork fat, paraffin and microcrystalline wax.

The ad consisted of a bald mustachioed man in an orange pinstriped suit and purple tap-shoes capering madly across a stage to frenzied music with a Pokyfun bar in each hand as a line of scantily clad dancing girls in gold lame kicked and smiled deliriously behind him.

“Pokyfun,” the mustachioed one finally shouted, as confetti fell, bright coloured lights flashed and strafing jet fighters flew across the length of the stage on green screen, dropping napalm on fleeing victims, “it‘s the Chief Victor’s favourite bar!”

Then after a snowy pause, the Chief Victor himself appeared on screen to deliver a brief pre-recorded message, one viewed and heard by millions ad nauseam.

“I smell dog on the air,” he said, his creased pastel expression hardening, his small hands gripping the podium top. “Underground influences, enabled by Koslov himself, have delivered sham tidings. Koslov, the enemy. He’s the heaviness you feel. The promise of thunder, rumours of disaster. He’s what estranges us and isolates you, and why long ago I intervened on your behalf, placing all art and expression under my gracious care. Fake dispatch is a disease that weakens the Greater Plan, and undermines the righteous authority of your Great Leader—sad.”

“He’s stopped ad libbing,” said a man coming to stand next to Noah, and lighting a cigarette, the smoke mingling with the stagnant odour of Rabble Town.

“That’s old news, Markus,” Noah said, sipping his tea. “I’m not even sure it’s him anymore. Suddenly he’s downright eloquent. He must be being handled by some spook in the background. On the other hand, maybe he’s retired to some tropical island, laughing his head off. Or maybe he’s already dead.” Noah pointed at the image on the screen. “Maybe this is an automaton or data generated.”

“Then what’s the point of this meeting?”

“The point is that we’re here,” Noah said, “like we promised we’d be. The point is that Dr Vlad promised he’d be here too, sometime close to dark.”

Marcus sneered, “I don’t trust that little queer.”

“It’s too late for that. We needed an insider disenchanted with the Plan, and Vlad’s definitely that. He’ll be our push against their shove. Besides, Sylvia M says he’s on the square. That’s good enough for me.”

“I don’t trust her neither,” Markus said. “Vlad’s her little slave. There’s something kinky going on there. Plus he’s a puny little zealot, and I bet he’ll be cashing in big if we pull this off. While we’re sent packing with just a pay cheque.”

The video on the screens hanging above and down the length of Centre Street distorted for a second, the sound crackling noisily as the Chief Victor’s image disappeared, replaced by a manic ad for hand soap, featuring battle tanks and missile silos.

“And don’t forget,” said Noah Bones, “we’re just the hired guns. We aren’t the thinkers. That means that we—you—can leave anytime.”

“No,” Markus said. “We can’t. We’re in too deep now, know too much. If any of us left now, he or she’d be dead in a day.”

“Then why not just enjoy the ride?” came a voice from behind them, as small well-dressed man stepped out of a shadow cast by a street light. “We’re plotting history here. You’ll be heroes soon.”

“Or in a corpse pile,” said Markus, “awaiting trial, post-mortem.”

“Heroically dead, then,” said Dr vlad. “What’s not to love?”

____________________________________________________________________________________________

Noah Bones is a story written in short chapters, not quite flash fiction. This due to the fact that I now have a real job, and less time for writing.

Chapter 3
Chapter 2
Chapter 1

 

 

 

 

Noah Bones Chapter 3: Sylvia M

Read Chapter 1 here
Read Chapter 2 here
__________________________________________________________________

There came the words whispered, “Who’s there?” after a too long silence that followed her knocking.

“Sylvia,” came a female voice. “Let me in.”

Light shone through an eye hole drilled in the door. Then it didn’t.

“But you’re dead,” said the man behind it.

“A dirty rumour,” the tall darkly dress woman said. “Something I’ll deny, if pressed. Now open up.”

A bolt slid, loud in the hall that time of night, and the door opened a crack. A single bright eye peeked out.

“Hello Vlad,” Sylvia said, smiling halfly. “Open up.”

Dr Vladimir Cromwell knew the woman, Silvia M, and her clique well enough. He’d been forced into their plots before, as they raged against the Greater Plan. Violence and certain disappearance came to the noncompliant. He moved back and away from the door, and let Sylvia M enter.

“Cigarettes,” she said stepping in, “and the good stuff. I know you have it. None of that Rabble Town canteen shit.” Vladimir Cromwell obeyed. Vanished a moment into the dark regions of his well furnished apartment and returned with a deck of cigarettes, the package embossed in gold. He handed it over. Sylvia M lit up and unbuttoned her coat.

“There’s been a killing,” she said.

“There’ve been many,” replied Cromwell. He was a meek man, slight in a dark red robe that might have been made of silk. He could have been mistaken for a woman in the low light. His toes were nervously clenched in his slippers. His was an inescapable flamboyance which he tried to hide during the day, but not now in his own home. “The dead are stacked in common refrigerators in morgues all over town, each awaiting its criminal conviction and incineration. We’re overwhelmed.”

“No, none of them,” said Sylvia M. “The one I want you to think very carefully about was a high ranking Agent of the Greater Plan. He won’t be in a stinking corpse heap. He’ll be stored in his own drawer, as is his privilege. You’ve already done the autopsy, I’m certain, Dr Vlad. You’ll remember him for the tragic gunshot wound where his manhood once dwelt, and the fatal bullet wound to his head.”

“Yes,” Cromwell said after a moment, nodding. “I know him. Chief Justice Agent Ahriman, scheduled for pick-up tomorrow,  by a funeral chapel chosen by his family.” In passing, he said, ” It was a tragic wound,” and swallowed.

“No,” said Sylvia M. “You will not hand him over to a funeral chapel.”

“No?”

“No. You’ll lose him, instead. But let him not be so lost that he cannot be found again if necessary.”

“But lose him? What do mean? It would be a criminal act to tamper with the remains. Besides, it’s almost impossible to do. Certainly with the standard operating procedures I’ve implemented since my appointment as Chief of the Forensic Pathology Department of the Justice Bureau.”

“Then, Dr Vlad,” Sylvia M said, “what you’re telling me is that you’re the primary obstacle to my plan?”

“No, not at all. I….”

“Because small effete men frequently end up in stinking corpse piles, don’t they? There’s a prevalent prejudice against ladylike men in the Greater Plan, as you know. I’m no fan of the Plan, of course. I fight against it, and I disagree with many of its phobias. But some wonder how you’ve lasted this long.”

A male silhouette moved across the dark parlour behind Vladimir Cromwell, in the pale light coming through a window from the street, then disappeared.

“I’ll see what can be done,” the doctor said.

“Good,” said Sylvia M, now buttoning her coat and pocketing the deck of cigarettes. “And there’s the wine I enjoy.” She took a card from out of her handbag and handed it to him. “You know it. That Italian red. You’ve gotten it for me before.”

“Yes,” he said, taking her card. The fingernails of his soft hands manicured, and buffed to a glossy lustre. “It’s quite expensive, though. I’m not sure if it’s in my budget.”

“Have a crate delivered to the address on the card, and you know that neither I nor any of my people will be found there, so don’t get any ideas. The wine will find its way to me on its own.”

“Yes, alright.”

“These are dangerous times, Dr Vlad,” said Sylvia M, taking a different tone, smiling halfly again. “Especially for some.” Reaching out, she stroked the smooth lapel of his robe. “But the dead sleep like clouds, don’t they? Moved along by hurricanes, or, as in this case, by soft surreptitious winds? And when they’re gone the sun always shines, doesn’t it?”

“Yes.”

Pausing a moment, she looked into his sad eyes and said, “There’s shame in these rooms, Dr Vlad. There needn’t be, but there is. It’s because you somehow agree with the opinion others have of you. Shame’s a weakness; it reveals too much about a man. Don’t carry it out into the world with you when I’ve assigned you a task.”

“No.”

“Be sure to eliminate all paperwork, audio, video and data-chronicles. All physical evidence; identification, clothing, shoes, any trinkets found in his pockets. This Agent never existed as far as your forensics is concerned.”

“I understand.”

______________________________________________________________________________________

 

 

 

 

 

photographing Spencer

It’s just me and Spencer, alone in an alley on the Downtown Eastside. He’s struggling with the Brillo in his crack pipe.

“Just hang on man,” he says—“I just scored. I’m really jonesing.”

He’s been sleeping on benches, shoplifting and begging. He’s filthy, a stunning ruin of a man. Finally he lights the tiny nugget in the glass tube and inhales. Then he shudders, exhales and says, “Ahhh fuck me.”

I’ve come to take his portrait so he can send it home, but now he’s wrecked. His eyes’ve gone reptile, and he’s confused by gravity. It’s not the picture his family will want to see.

“Damn you’re a mess, Spence,” I say, and he grins at me with his blistered crack-lips.

“Go ahead then. Take my fucking picture.”

And bam, I do. Sometimes I think the D-300 sounds like a gun going off. Bam bam bam…. Holding down the shutter release, circling him. It’s evening and the light is runny, the colours blunt. Every line on his face is accentuated, every deep hungry hollow, every childhood abuse stitched into his psyche.

“Last I got my picture taken, it was the cops,” he laughs. But his buzz is changing, even now. He lights up again, inhales/exhales and says, “I’m running out already. Lend me some cash.”

“I’ll buy you dinner at the Ovaltine, but I won’t lend you money.”

“Shit, I don’t want no dinner. I can get dinner at the mission.” Then he says, “Check this out…,” and attempts a pirouette. He falls on his ass, and I catch the fall in six shots, like the frames of a motion picture. I’m not cruel; I’m just a photographer. I offer him my hand. He ignores it.

Now sitting in the gutter sludge, Spencer says, “My old man fucked me, you know?”

“Yeah, Spence. You told me.”

“Like I was a bitch. Tore me open every time. Stopped when I was about fourteen. Guess I wasn’t pretty no more. Kept beating the crap outta me, though. The prick had a heart attack a couple of years back, died. Shit his pants when he did, my brother says. My mother’s fifty-five. Looks ninety.”

“Pictures are for her, huh?” I say.

“It was hard for her. ”

I’m silent for a moment. Crows are massing overhead for their night-flight back into the suburbs.

“I’ll work on the pics tonight,” I say, “colour and black & white. I’ll track you down tomorrow. We can use a computer at Carnegie to send them home. Try to make that shit in your pocket last.”

“I don’t know where I’ll be tomorrow.”

“I’ll look for you, anyway.”

“No,” he says, handing me a grubby note, “I mean I really don’t know.”

He’s already walking away as I read what’s written on the slip of paper—

Please send these words with the pictures: All my love too family and friends. Good-bye. This is followed by a short list of email addresses.

I shout at him, “What’s this mean, Spencer?” Then I run after him, grab his shoulder and turn him around. “What’s this mean?” And I know what it means just by what’s on his face. I let him go. I’m just a photographer.

________________________________________________________

a Canadian over Hiroshima

In a favourite frequent dream he was Little Boy, released lazily from the fuselage, falling freely over the city with his eyes open wide, toward the topography and civil systems, framed by the compass horizon. This was the elegance of his descent, the landscape static below for that long minute, having been dropped from so high, decent divorcing distance. Then the dense second of his detonation, uranium-235 colliding, as he became the toroidal vortex that defined him forevermore.

He woke at 3:00 a.m., in the heat of that fire over Hiroshima. But he remembered quickly that it was August, and that the heat was merely the swelter over his dull prairie neighbourhood. He sat up in his bed, scanning the dark for ghosts. But until that night, there had been none. The dead had spent no time in his ordinary garden. They hadn’t peeked over its walls, or tried its gate. The dead danced on other planets.

He was a man of many regrets, prone to saying he had none. Alive to the murder/suicide in things, he wrote equations to forget, on his ceilings and walls, papering over the windows and writing over them. Kilometres of binaries, brackets, numbers, functions, powers and variables throughout the house, all in 4B graphite pencil. There were holes in things. He gauged their sizes and pinpointed their locations. Strings of calculus. He dusted carefully the boundaries between objects, a bit of mathematical fibre on a toothpick run along the cracks in things. 3:00 a.m. glowed in the dark. Fictitious, a fraud.

Time is equal to distance over velocity, t = d/v; anguish equal to isolation over remembering, a = i/r.

The Enola Gay, with a crew of 12, 7,000 gallons of fuel, and a 9,000 pound bomb in its belly lifted off from Tinian Airfield at 2:45 a.m. on August 6, 1945. The B-29 Superfortress had four engines and was propeller-driven, a heavy bomber designed by Boeing. It was advanced for its time, with a pressurized cabin, an electronic fire-control system, and remote-controlled machine-guns. The crew dropped the bomb over the city at 8:15 a.m.

A girl on the ground, at that moment, looked up at the silver bead falling in the sky, her head tilted back, her mouth open slightly. Curious at first. Then, “Raijū,” she said, a second before she was blinded.

She wore a blue cotton dress like any Japanese schoolgirl of her time, and now sat on a chair near the bedroom window opened inches to the night. “I saw you in the sky,” she said to him, “that morning. And for all of the enmity and cunning that delivered you there, you were passive and imbecilic, round and ridiculous, a silly tantrum.”

“But you misunderstand,” he said. “I simply have dreams.”

She looked around at the numbers on his walls, and said, “I felt your heat for a second, and then I was ash. A silhouette. A moment scorched onto a wall.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, his fists twisting the sheets, and at some point fell back to sleep.

She was gone in the morning, and he wrote a = i/r with a finger in the bathroom mirror’s morning steam. Equations and the dead have their silence, and they stand on stone.

 

 

 

 

 

how I began 2016

Thurston and I had been in high school together until grade nine when he was abandoned by his family, and was put into the care of social services. There he remained unseen until his eighteenth birthday, when I found him standing on a street corner downtown with a grocery bag full of his few personal belongings. 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. Clearly he hadn’t been the same since being abandoned, and it was out of a sense of obligation that I occasionally sat next to him, mostly only pretending to listen as he read in a whispery, card shuffle voice from poorly photocopied sheets of interstellar intrigue, or retelling his own story of familial rejection.

“Says here,” he said, last New Year’s Eve morning, reading form a toner smeared sheet of paper, “that SETI has released previously classified files. The information contained proves the existence of at least seven advanced alien civilizations in our galaxy alone.” I sat down and placed a chocolate croissant in front of him.

This was new intel. So, “Oh?” I said, realising then that I’d just committed myself to a vertical conversation without a ceiling or a landing pad. Stirring my coffee, I looked longingly at my unopened Raymond Chandler novel.

“I’ve known it all along,” said Thurston (of course he had). He bit down and tore off a flaky bite of croissant; crumbs went everywhere. “It was a Christmas Eve long ago when they came for my mother and sister deep snow dark the cars huge shapeless lumps blue parked along the avenue beneath the mercury vapour streetlamps they didn’t bother to knock.”

This was how he spoke, word salad fresh and crispy, with only a drizzling of commas. And I knew from experience what was on the page he was reading from: a marathon mixture of exotic punctuation, bombastic nonsensical sentences, 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, mostly unconsciously, like manhole steam beneath a dim lamppost. All of it taken from the curling yellowing edges of the internet, small densely packed Times Roman font on pages with nearly no margins, and completely devoid of graphics, except for hand-drawn moonmen and their rocket capsules. Many of the webpages had been in existence since the 90s.

Placing his ball cap on the table, I saw once again the mysterious tattoo on his balding head, a thin blue sequence of prime numbers, 2—3—5—7, looking, at first glance, like something done for him by a cellmate in a dimly lit death-row prison cell with a needle, India ink and a wad of toilet paper. The numbers were backward, though. So instead of the prison cell theory, I chose to believe that at some past point, in a moment of unrestrained madness, he’d done it to himself, in the mirror.

“It was like Christmas card salvation really,” he began again, “when the aliens came for my mom and sis. Salvation from the industry-dead rot of a city lost to the world. 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 in the end they made him into soap. I think of him whenever I wash. I say a little soapy prayer for him and the boozy carrion ashtray stink he had and the way he’d hid in a room down the basement 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 after that. It was an old and well told story, and I’d made that day’s offering of croissant at the altar of his madness. My sins were forgiven, and I began to get up.

But he pulled me back down as I rose, grabbing my arm too tightly. I winced. “Please don’t go,” he said.

The chair made a loud scraping noise when my ass hit the seat, but none of the other customers looked up. I was on my own.

“Christmas Eve,” said Thurston, “way long ago yeah you bet. They took my mother and my sister the grenade popping Christmas lights tearing the furniture to shreds my father already gone in a nightmare and now the last two people in the world I ever loved. My mother and sister taken up in a violet beam of light into the spaceship like 70s cable TV stacked lined resolution twenty-four hours a day of sci-fi reruns thick with code and insinuation. 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 intentionally or to the contrary and I’d been betrayed by television.”

“I’ve heard this part before, Thurston,” I said, but I had to admit that it was coming out stranger than normal this time. He sounded a little more vulnerable. Hopeless, or content to have arrived somewhere, finally.

“But did I ever tell you,” he said, “that I watched the spaceship fly away?” He paused and stared a moment. “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 actually know the trajectory and speed latitudes and longitudes. There’re government spooks who’d like to know, but I won’t bore you.”

I cocked my head and looked him in the eye, thinking I’d give empathy a try. “You may have alluded to it,” I said.

Actually, he never had. He’d always refused to tell anyone this part of the story, most of the coffee shop patrons accepting that all of his avoidance and befuddlements arose out of his never wanting to relive those horrible moments, so real in his mind if nowhere else. And all empathy aside, I wondered if I should be the one to hear the important details first.

“I looked out of the window,” he said, with a new clarity, “that special window of mine and I watched them streak across the black Christmas Eve sky. They flew over the chimneys of the yellow lit reduction plant a mile away where the ghost of my father now played lunchroom Nosferatu. Then it seemed to stop and set slowly like a bright moon on the horizon. I watched it linger there. It was finished with this fentanyl planet the foreign no-fly zones proxy wars the unceded land occupied territories the corporations and Trump-devout-open-carry-Christians. The aliens had moved at near light speed through the taint and tar of our wasteland above the institutionalised poverty and starvation. But it didn’t disappeared completely until after it’d stopped a moment suspended like a star and all of us who cared to look wished upon it. Because that’s what people do even in a shit-storm. But 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 left that night most of us supposed never to return but they’re back now. 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 who we are. That’s their plan. We didn’t invent the extermination of selfhood and the theft culture after all even if we are real good at it. That’s just a part of why they took 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? And why should I believe you? It’s too fucking weird, Thurston.”

“Yeah,” he said, “the tatty does look a bit fucked up but there are deeper meanings to simple things. I’m telling you this now because I’m not sure how much longer I have. But also because you’ve asked and some of us believe that you have a right to know. That’s just a fact. You see you’re at the centre of a system of orbits Jeffery. You’re like a deep hole in space that things can’t help falling into. Things that are good sure but things that aren’t so good like hatred too. Planets like hatred. Hatred like planets. Invisible because hatred is only a thought and thoughts are invisible. Somethings are torn from their orbits by their ferocity and that’s good but some never are. You won’t believe what I’m about to tell you naturally. But try to imagine a class of Number Sum Inheritors of Equation Legacies sworn to absolute secrecy and existing in unimaginable isolation in order to protect universal rudiments like gravity and time and that all desirable futures depend upon these Inheritors’ inherited knowledge remaining concealed from another class of predatory Opposites who would deconstruct current realities changing all possible outcomes to their own ends. Now try to imagine that sometimes in rare cases when an Inheritor is in possession of a greater truth than all others it means that that Inheritor is made unaware of who he is and what he holds. It’s done this way for his own protection certainly but mostly for the protection of universally accepted categories of pliable chaos necessary to ensure welcome evolutions. Then there are those of us who are Guardians of the Inheritors and the Guardians bear a mark.” He touch the backward numbers on his head. “Someone was watching over you even when I was gone all of those years. So the answer to your question: Why should I believe you? Is that you likely never will. Happily.”

“That’s a very serious burden to lay on a guy, Thurston.” And I wondered if I actually did believe him.

“I’ve told you this because the window I looked out of and watched the spaceship so long ago is all that protects me. The window’s a metaphor of course but a powerful one and it’s panes of glass are getting a little more brittle every day. It’s all that stands between me and them and therefore them and you. You shouldn’t be surprised if one day soon they find me dead in a culvert.”

“You’re right,” I decided. “I don’t believe you. You’re insane, and I pity you like everyone else.”

“Well now you know the basics at least,” he said, “and I feel a bit lighter for it.” He took another bite of his croissant.

He wasn’t in the coffee shop the next morning, and I checked the crime sections of the local newspapers for news of his demise. Nothing, and I was glad. I had an uneasy feeling, though. The night before had been one of uneasy dreams. Out of place stars setting on eerie horizons, and dark planets in a room circling slowly as I sat in the centre in a wooden chair turning in the opposite direction.

The barista behind the counter was new that morning too, his grin a little too wide and curled at the corners. I ordered a double shot latte, and recognised a constellation of stars in his foamy art that made me feel oddly lonesome and homesick.

“Chaos is a funny thing,” the barista said, holding out his hand to shake. “Hi, my name’s Bradley and I’m gonna be here for you from now on.” He was prematurely bald and had a shaven head, but didn’t have a tattoo.

Thurston’s body was found three days later.

2016 got even stranger after that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

everybody loves Mandy Patinkin – a Christmas story, sort of

It’s when you secretly slide it down into your lower frontal region that you realise why cheese is the most shoplifted grocery item in North America. It’s nutritious and a half pound of it is just the right size and shape to hide in your pants. In fact, I read somewhere that cheese theft was one of the primary reasons that most supermarket pharmacies opted out of methadone dispensing programs in the eighties and nineties. That means you have to be careful, because store security watches the cheese. Which is why I put it into the basket and walk around the store a bit before I sneak it into my jockey shorts.

That’s just something from the street, baby. I don’t care what you do with it. I mean, if you’re reading this, you’re probably all comfortable with a fridge full of cheese. And not that crappy orange shit they pass off as cheddar, either. You’ve probably got some Camembert, some Stilton or Parmigiano-Reggiano, maybe even some Crotin du Chavignol. Careful you don’t choke on it.

So anyway, you ever wake up with your head real messed up? Because you drank the night before, and it ain’t sitting well with the Olanzapine? Which is what you expected would happen but a friend had some cheap rye and you were feeling a bit lonely, so you helped him finish both bottles? Ever wake up like that? Probably not, because you can afford your own cheese. But it’s a bitch to wake up like that. I’ve had your conventional Betty Crocker hangovers and they aren’t anything by comparison. I mean it’s like you wake up and you’re suicidal and homicidal at the same time, but you don’t know what to do first. And isn’t it all about choices, man?

It was like that this morning and I wanted to sleep all day, but my landlady cut this six foot hole in my wall two weeks ago so the plumber could do exactly forty-five seconds worth of work and she hasn’t been back to fill it in. Now I can hear everything happening in the apartment above me. I mean I can hear the woman up there breathing. I can hear her light a cigarette and blow smoke. I can hear her thinking about what shade of lipstick to wear.

So there I am this morning lying in bed, eyes wide open at 9 a.m., listening to the woman in the apartment above me running her Swiffer back and forth over her linoleum like it’s some kind of aerobics—like it’s Swiffercise or something. And she’s listening to this lame-ass radio station playing Celine Dion and Michael Bublé.

So I get up, and I feel like shit. I mean you’ve got no idea. I can’t even puke my guts up and get it over with. Dry heaves are the best I can manage. Booze and court ordered atypical antipsychotics make for a whole different kind of hangover, baby. It’s like being in a food processor with the pulse setting cycling on/off on/off on/off on/off into infinity with Celine Dion and Michael Bublé sitting on your couch singing Don Ho tunes. At times like these, command hallucinations are redundant. I don’t need the dark shadow in the corner telling me to go downtown with a meat cleaver, but at least if it did it might ground me.

But I’m outta bed now. That’s my point. And I’m stumbling round like a fool. I even bounce off of the walls a couple of times. And I’m hungry. So I open the fridge and there’s the cheese. It’s orange and it glistens in its plastic wrap. It sits alone on a shelf in my otherwise empty refrigerator saying, I’m all you got, baby. Eat me. I reach in and gab it. Then there’s a knock at my door.

When I first met my neighbour Myron, I had one of those uh-huh moments. I remember looking at him and thinking, my god, the eugenicists were right! My thoughts rarely have exclamation marks but that one did. Over time, I’ve come to know his knock. It was him at the door. I closed my eyes with the cheese in my hand. What were the chances that if I stood perfectly still and didn’t make sound he’d go away? He knocked again.

Knock knock knock. “You in there, Nick? Got any weed? Nick? You home?” Rap rap rap. “Let’s smoke a joint, man. I’m feeling all strung out.”

Some of us are born with deficits. Others of us acquire them over time. Myron fits both categories. Once, in a drunken stoner of a conversation, Myron described an accident he’d been in. “It’s where I got my brain injury,” he said. He described to me how, as a kid, he’d nailed roller skates onto the bottom of the family toboggan, and rode it down the driveway. Into traffic.

“I remember seeing this big chrome bumper coming at me real fast,” he said. “It had an Alberta plate. It said Wild Rose Country just under the numbers. I was just a kid but I thought, wild roses must be real beautiful. Then, for a second, it got all bright, then real dark. It’s been kinda dark ever since.”

Knock knock knock. “Nick? I heard you bump into the wall, man. I know you’re in there.”

“Bugger off,” I yell.

“C’mon, Nick. I got the tinnitus real bad today. It’s making me crazy, man. C’mon. I know you got a bag of bud, man.”

I went to the door and opened it. “Why the hell don’t you tell the whole damn building?”

“What?”

“What do you mean what? You’re in the hall telling the world I got inventory. That’s fucked up.”

“That cheese?” He focussed on what I held in my hand.

“Shut up.”

Then looked up from the cheese, at me. “You look like shit, man.”

“Shut up.”

“Could I have some cheese?”

I grabbed Myron by the shoulder and pulled him in. “I thought you wanted to smoke a joint. You want cheese, too?”

“I like cheese,” he said.

“Fine. Sit down.”

I pulled a joint out of a small soapstone box above the electric fireplace and threw it at Myron. In the kitchen, I opened the cheese with a pair of scissors.

“You got a match?” Myron said.

I cut the brick of cheese into six chunks and threw one at him through the kitchen door. It bounced off of his nose and onto his lap. He looked down at it with his mouth open.

“You got a match?” he said again.

I grabbed a Bic off of the top of the refrigerator, and threw it at him. It bounced off of his forehead and fell next to the cheese.

“Let’s watch Mandy Patinkin videos on the YouTube,” he said.

“Mandy Patinkin? No way, man. ”

“C’mon, man. They cut off my internet.”

“Why you all hot for Mandy Patinkin all of a sudden?” I said. “You turning queer?”

“No. He’s just got a good singing voice.”

“Forget it, man. You’re in a Mandy Patinkin free zone.”

“Hey man, what’s wrong with you? Everybody loves Mandy Patinkin.”

“Fuck if I do,” I said chewing on cheese.

Then Myron said, “Check it out. I do a great Mandy Patinkin impersonation. Listen: Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

“It’s getting real gay in here,” I said.

“He’s a talented and sensitive guy who’s overcome great adversity—I read that somewhere.”

“Isn’t that swell.”

“I think so,” Myron said lighting the joint.

Then I said, “Hey, you know I knew a guy once that looked like Mandy Patinkin. His name was Dick. Dick Freed. He was even more fucked up than you, Myron. He dealt crack downtown. Smoked as much as he sold. One day, after a harsher than average encounter with the cops, Dick says he’s had it. Fuck the cops, the crack, the other addicts, sleeping in the alley. He says he’s gonna disappear, leave the city. Go to the country and live in the woods, or some shit like that.”

“Sounds good to me,” Myron said. “Can I surf some porn?”

“No,” I said. “Hands off the computer. So anyway, I tell Dick he’s full of shit. I tell him that every skidder-junky I ever met downtown says the same thing. They ain’t even got bus fare but they’re going to live in the woods or with the goats on some imaginary farm. They’re gonna get all clean and healthy and shit and start eating their vegetables. And then I told him that it never happens. I never met anyone that made it out. Talk‘s cheap, and it’s boring. And then I told him another thing; I told him to be careful because, in my experience, it was always shortly after a junky starts talking that kind of shit that he overdoses or gets knifed or gets, in some other way, dead. When you lose your focus on the street, you die baby. That’s just the way of it.”

“You got crackers?” Myron said, taking a monster toke. “Cheese needs crackers,” he coughed.

“I got ‘em, but you can’t have any. So, I run into Dick Freed a few times after that. One time, he’s all bandaged up. He’d just gotten his arm sliced by some crazy bitch named Helga in the Savoy. Not with a knife, but a broken beer glass. The next time, I’m pissing out back of the Washington Hotel and there he is, bleeding bad leaning up against a dumpster. Beaten for outstanding debts. I made sure he was still breathing, and split. Called 911 from the hotel lobby.”

“Can we listen to Howard Stern, man?” said Myron.

“Shut the hell up, I’m telling a story. Next time I see Dick is the last time. Months go by. Dick Freed is nowhere downtown. I stop thinking about him. Some other dealer takes over his spot on Hastings Street. His name comes up a couple of times in conversation—Whatever happened to Dick Freed? You remember crazy Dicky Freed, looked just like Mandy Patinkin?—that kind of shit. But he’s real gone, and I figured dead.

“Then it’s December, just before Christmas, and I see him. Dick Freed, walking up Hastings towards Carnegie. And he’s dressed real nice. He’s standing straight and walking kind of proud, like a real citizen. I mean, he actually looks out of place against the locals. I step aside as he approaches, and watch him coming.  When he sees me, he says hey there, Nick, and holds out his hand. We shake. He tells me that I’m looking swell, which I know I’m not. And I say the same of him, which he actually is. He asks if he’s been missed and I say that he has, by some. And then he tells me what happened.

“Back when I told him to be careful, that the shit he was talking was an overture to his own demise, he took it to heart. After the beating out back of the Washington Hotel, he begged five bucks and bought a lottery ticket. He lost. But he did it again and the lucky bastard won. He won ten million seven hundred thousand and change.

“So, now he lives in a nice little house in the woods on the Sunshine Coast. He’s gone off of the drugs and booze and he’s eating his vegetables. He said he was in the neighbourhood looking up old acquaintances. It was Christmas, after all. That was when he stuck his hand into his pocket and pulled out a crispy new one hundred dollar bill and handed it to me. Ain’t much, he told me, but he hoped it would take the edge off.”

“Wow,” Myron said, in a cloud of smoke. “That’s kind of a cool story. What you told him helped him to move on, to overcome. That must have made you feel good inside.”

“Not really. I was jonesing, and I figured there must be more where that c-note came from. So, I pulled the kitchen knife I’d hoisted from the dollar store and robbed the bastard.”

“What?” said Myron.

“Yeah. Turns out, the dumb shit was carrying more than a thousand dollars. He was just asking for it, man.”

“You’re a real sick bastard, Nick.”

“I guess.”

“You got beer?” he said.

“Not for you.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

respect and mercy

downtown 1947

He believed that he was king of all that he could remember, grey shades and crumbling orbits. Countless footsteps heard down hallways through so many closed doors, waiting.

He’d resurfaced for her because the offering was generous, and she was outlandish prey. An artist, she claimed, who painted her sins. The boys on the Drive didn’t like it, even though she’d always done right by them.

She’d arrive soon, and then become one more of his remembered things.

He waited, sitting at the window, tracing the outline of a handgun in his lap. One room in a slum hotel. The radio playing quietly—the blue music of insomnia. He’d have ham and eggs and coffee at an all-night diner down the street, after it was over. There was a waitress who worked the counter. They could talk about small things. He could make her laugh.

Nighttime was the best for what he had to do, though some rising-stars preferred the day. Best in the daylight, they alleged, so that the victim saw the killer’s eyes, could see him squeeze the trigger and watch the somehow slow moving slug travel through space. It was a young assassin’s conceit, as though his target hadn’t dreamed the bullet coming long ago, smelled it on the air and seen it in the clouds.

Now he hears a key turn the lock, and the door opens. Hallway light, a silhouette. “You,” she says, seeing him there. Hush. A small bag in her hand, groceries or gin. Sometimes a victim will say You, mildly and without surprise, but not all; some say Get out, foolishly. Others start pleading. Some fumble for a weapon, something purposely placed in an awkward pocket—suicide by hitman. He says nothing. Every killer severs his connection with speech, eventually. Only the essentials words remain. Without rising out of the chair, he holds out his blue .32 and motions her into the room.

She steps in, closes the door and turns on the light. She might have run, but most didn’t in the end. Most were fascinated. Death only came once; it was important to pay attention, important not to complicate one’s own certain extinction.

“I can’t make this right, can I?” she says. “They said that there was time for me to change my ways.”

This was going to be easy, he thinks. And the getaway: Second floor, stairwell clear of obstacles, no desk clerk until 7 a.m. The gun would bark, but most people couldn’t tell a small calibre gunshot from a slammed door. He’d only be a dark sketch moving in the hall to anyone peeking out of their door. Tomorrow he’d park his car at a pre-arranged location, and someone would walk by and toss an envelope onto his shotgun seat through the open window, and he’d drive away.

She’s a tall woman. In a wool overcoat and red dress, both purchased cheaply.

“Well?” she says. “Do you even know why you’re doing this?”

“For the money.”

“And for your reputation, I’d say.”

He pauses a moment and says, “I don’t get it.”

“You don’t have to,” she says, taking off her coat. “No one ever has to get it. Most don’t. The it of things don’t give a damn what you get. Wanna a drink?” She walks over to the dresser, opens a drawer and pulls out a bottle. There are two glasses on top of the dresser near the mirror. She’s turned her back to him, looking at his reflection.

“You’re a cool one,” he says.

There’s a side table next to his chair. The glasses go there. She pours, and drinks hers standing over him.

“I knew a guy once,” she says. “A real mutt. He liked to pull the trigger now and then. He wasn’t in the business, though. He just did it ‘cause it solved some problem in his head. He liked to shoot women mostly. Do you like to shoot women mostly? He said a woman got a certain look in her eye that a fella don’t, when she knew she was gonna die. He said it was better than money, seeing that look. He said that only punks do it for money; that a paid killer lacked refinement. Want some more?” She pours another glass for herself.

He holds out his glass, giving her a tougher gaze. She’s dressed like a school teacher. He knows better, but can’t help looking at her fingers, checking for chalk dust. They’re clean, elegant. One simple ring with a dark stone. Her face isn’t pretty but it’s proud. A proud woman with clean hands and a reputation, living in a shabby hotel room. It occurs to him to ask, “What exactly have you ever done wrong to deserve a bullet?” He asks this sometime, because those who want the killing never tell him why. Only when.

“Who says I deserve it?”

“Maybe you don’t,” he says.

“But maybe you do.”

He thinks about it. A person’s last words could be strange. He’d heard a lot. Confessions and denials. Apologies and remembrances—memories that only come in the end. Prayers like poetry. But maybe you do. Said without spite. Just a statement of possible fact. She had him there.

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he says, in spite of it.

“I don’t know. It just came to me. Maybe I’m stalling.” She squeezes the neck of the liquor bottle tight. Her hand wrings it like it’s someone’s throat. “I guess a person’ll do that,” she says. “Stall, I mean.”

“Take your time,” he says. “I got time.”

There’s a quiet half a minute after that. The radio playing a romantic tune. Someone might have called it a moment of connection. And then…

…she swings the bottle like a nightstick. It shatters across his forehead, his nose. He’s stunned and bleeding, as she snatches the gun out of his hand. He tries to get up but can’t. She swings again and slashes him across the cheek with the bottle’s jagged edge. There’s blood in his eyes, tiny shards. And through the smear, he sees her standing back with the revolver in her hand, aiming.

“Fucking bitch!” he shouts, hands to face.

“That’s my privilege,” she says.

“I’ll tear you apart.”

“Nah, you’ll just sit there because you’re stunned and all cut up bad. In a minute, your eyes’ll be swelling shut. You’ll be blind, then what?”

He leans back in the chair. “Fucking bitch.”

“Question is,” she says, “how’s a guy like you live so long when he lets someone like me get in such close proximity? When you get all conversational, like we met in a bar? It’s ‘cause I’m a woman, ain’t it? You’re just old and careless, and you’ve got a soft spot for a dame living in a dump wearing a dime store dress.”

“Just give me the gun,” he says.

“Really?”

“Yeah. You don’t know what you got there. Women aren’t so good with guns. You’re gonna hurt yourself.”

He’s grasps the arms of the chair, blood and gore drying on his face and clotting round his eyes. She sees him thinking. Arithmetic. Adding up the possibilities and dividing by the risks. She knows that equation. She’s done her own sums more than once.

“Just stay in your seat,” she says. Then, “What’s it you figure they do to an over-the-hill torpedo like you, huh? I mean, shouldn’t a fella like you know no one retires from this job? A guy like you who knows where all the ghosts are hiding? No, you don’t get outta this occupation alive unless you’re real smart. And you ain’t that smart, are you?”

“So, they sent a woman to kill me? And you pulled the reversal.”

“Sure. A real kick in the pants, huh. You should know, though, that I got respect and mercy. I know about you. You’re kind of a legend, and I figured you shouldn’t die in no alley. Sneaking up on a guy like you’s all wrong. So, I said I’d work it out. You think I actually live here, in this hole? What a sap. Now stand up real easy.”

“No, you can shoot me here. You’re right, I’m old and I don’t give a shit.”

“Nah, you’re gonna go lie down on the bed. I think you should die in bed. You’ve earned it. That’s what they couldn’t figure out, but I did. It’ll be sort of elegant. Respect and mercy, get it?”

He remains seated. More arithmetic, she guesses.

“Get up old man. I’m doing you a favour.”

“Fuck you,” he says.

“The bed, move. It’s your chance to die pretty. An angel with a hole in his head.”

“The boys on the Drive said you’d pull something like this,” he says. “That you like it fancy—that’s your problem. You’re an artist, like your pal who says you and me lack refinement. Yeah, I’ve heard about you too. Everything’s a gimmick. They don’t like it on the Drive, you know, too messy, too much evidence. They’ve had it with you. So pull the trigger, and see what they got to say about your little show.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that this is your night, not mine.”

“Stop playing the con,” she says, with a little less strut in her voice. “You ain’t in no position. Get up and over to the bed.”

“Kiss my ass.”

“Fine,” she shrugs. “We’ll do it your way, but it could’ve been beautiful. You pray to anything?”

“No, and I don’t gotta. Not this time, anyway.”

She’s not sure what Not this time means under the circumstance. More dead man tricks, but she doesn’t care. If that’s how he wants it, okay. She takes aim at the centre of his chest. A bullet to the heart, then she’ll put one in his head. Then have an early breakfast. She squeezes the trigger. Nothing. Just a click, louder to her ear, in that moment, than a live round.

He laughs short and quiet.

She squeezes again. Click. “What the….” Click, click, click and click.

“They said you liked drama,” he says, and pulls a revolver from his jacket pocket.

She was right, his eyes have swollen shut. His plan hadn’t taken this into account, but she’d been straight ahead last he saw. He squeezes the trigger, and his .32 shouts bluntly once and then again. A body is heard stumbling, falling.

Now he’s up and working blind, but he’d sat in the dark room for an hour before she arrived. He knows the terrain well enough, and he hears a gasp near where he stands. Taking to his knees, he finds her on her back with his hands, running one up and over her belly that still rises and falls. The hand finds a wet pulpy hole in her breast. Then it roves up the throat to her face, and over her proud chin. His fingers touch her mouth, nose and eyes and for a brief moment trace her tears, and then his hand arrives at her forehead where he plants the muzzle of his gun.

“Respect and mercy always kills the killer,” he says. “Your night, not mine.” And allowing her one last deep breath….

The envelope with the dirty bills inside wasn’t dropped through the window of his car at the curb. It was slid across a café counter. In the end the shards from the broken bottle had mostly blinded him. He’d sell the Chrysler, take taxis.

“So no more work for you, eh?” came a voice across from him.

“Retirement,” he agreed.

“That’s good,” said the voice. “You sit back and listen to the radio. Have a drink now and then. Look at the ladies—oh shit, sorry.”

“It’s okay,” he said, knowing that he ruled over all of his memories regadless. “The last woman I ever saw wasn’t hard to look at, and it’s what a man my age remembers what counts.”

 

 

 

 

 

a prison for doppelgängers

“You’re so like me,” she said quietly, repeating what she’d said each day for more than two years, like a morning prayer to a man’s image in the mirror, the north light from the nearby window settling softly on each of their opposite cheeks. “And that makes me very sad.”

He spoke too. They spoke in unison, his lips moving with hers, translating her words into a language of reversal—it only happened when they met in the mirror. “And yet you’re so different,” she whispered.

The framed oval mirror was cracked. It hung on a wall in a room of a tall derelict house, the last evidence that the structure had once been a home. The house’s backyard was now an untended wilderness of bees, spider webs and feral cats. It had been a good house once. She and her doppelgänger had come there by chance, wandering and seeking shelter. She touched the mirror with the fingers of her right hand, and the fingertips of his left met them.

“Everyone has one, you know”, someone had said one evening over wine, “a ghostly equal.” It had been an unexpected topic of conversation put forth by a friend at a table of friends, out of step with their harmless banter, but fitting in well with the dark and cold October night. An impossible idea, of course. As obscure and mildly fascinating as necromancy, and they had all laughed, though some very quietly.

Moments later, she was surprised to suddenly feel that she was neglecting some important thing and that she, in turn, was being neglected, as though expressing the idea of an equal had caused a chrysalis somewhere to fracture and reveal something she’d wrongfully ignored all of her life.

It had been a spell cast innocently in conversation, her ghostly equal summoned somehow without any comprehensible effort and waiting for her, as it turned out, on the sidewalk across the street when she left the warm rooms where the gathering had taken place.

A cab nowhere in sight, they walked away together. She took him in, and they had remained together ever since. A man as unkempt as she had become with the masculine equivalents of her features, appearing always at her side and in every mirror and every shop window, eventually driving her mad. And having done this, he’d sat with her in psychiatry ward quiet-rooms as she raved and cursed him. He comforted her in her newly acquired homelessness, and hunger. Stood next to her as she begged strangers for change. Guided her away from assault and other physical harms. And he now occupied the derelict house with her.

She looked away from the mirror. He crouched in a corner now, surrounded by blankets and empty tin cans.

“You’ve ruined me,” she told him. He looked at his hands, and didn’t reply. “I realised it months ago, naturally, but I can only say it now.” Birdsong and the sound of bees came in through a broken window over the yard. “The only thing that’s kept me from killing you has been fear of my own death, but that’s nearly gone.” This got his attention; they were startling words. She’d said similar things before, but not with such weary conviction. “Something you should have seen coming,” she said. She turned to look in the mirror again. He looked back. She smashed the glass with her fist. His face vanished, and her hand bled.

She breathed the words, prison. Solitary confinement.

He remained in the corner.

 

 

 

 

 

the Moon

shortened from the original to “flash fiction” size

1965

I checked my pocket watch, nearly midnight. It was late summer in Barcelona, and I sat at a table outside of a small café. A waiter nearby hinted with his posture that it was nearly time to close.

I put down my equations, and looked into the sky. The weak street lights and dimly lit storefronts did little to lessen the intensity of the stars and planets. One in particular moved fast across my field of vision, but not as quickly as a meteor. Then it stopped at the tail end of Ursa Major, and remained motionless.

It was Saturday night and the streets were still busy. I’d worn a fawn suit which I’d hoped would help me blend in. I’d needed to get out, but I shouldn’t have left my room. They were close. There was the faint telltale scent of ammonia in the air. They were watching. They had found shadow and were waiting. Perhaps there might be comfort in capture, I thought.

With this in mind, I picked up my notebook and hat and placed some coins next to my empty brandy glass, then walked into the crowd. My last night of freedom? Perhaps my cell would have a window, to watch the onset of autumn.

Some years later

I tap in Morse code on the wall of my cell, “Do they still use rockets?”

“Yes,” someone on the other side taps back, “of course. Can’t you hear the snap of the atmosphere whenever one breaks free? A guard has told me that they’ll be landing on the moon in just a few days. They’ll increase the Earth’s surface, when they do. They’ll create a whole new nation for men to die for. They’re launching tomorrow.”

Unlike me, whoever occupies the next cell isn’t in solitary confinement. He obviously has some limited access to the world, and is my only source of news. It’s a suspicious miracle, however, that he knows Morse code as I do. I wonder if he’s a liar, or if he’s even a prisoner.

Our dot dash conversation ends, replaced by a strange hissing stillness. I have no window as it turns out, and no way to measure time. They never turn out the light and there’s only one meal a day, sometimes none at all. The food trays slide in through a hatch at irregular intervals. It’s the same hatch my slop bucket slides through, back and forth. Occasionally, the food is drugged so that I can be removed and my cell cleaned.

This cube of a cell has absorbed me; all I have is its space. The demands made of space aren’t the same as those made of time. Space need only be occupied, and here I am. Time, however, must be up by dawn and dawn has been denied me.

A widely accepted scientific rule, called Newton’s third law of motion, is said to allow rockets to travel though empty space. For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. I believed in it once. A rocket engine is said to push on its own exhaust, created in the near vacuum of space. The exhaust, it is assumed, therefore, causes the rocket to move forward. The definition of forward, though, remains an open question.

I was close to providing an accurate definition, once.

The last time I saw the moon was the night in Barcelona. I barely remember it now. I’m certain, however, that it appears at night and sometimes during the day, that it has phases, and that its surface has been occupied for a very long time. Since before we had telescopes to look at it.

This is a recurring meditation. Dreams come when I sit awake on my mat. Psychosis. Voices. Meaningless conversations.

My most recent meal comes through the slot with a surprise. My pocket watch, the one they took when they incarcerated me. It sits there on a plate, next to the dry bread. I stare at it for a very long time, hear it ticking. I expect it to vanish before my eyes. It doesn’t and I pick it up, hold it to my ear. Then I sit in a corner with it. Its smooth cool and gold, with an engraving: On your becoming a Dr of Mathematics. All my love, Jessica.

Jessica? Yes, I suddenly remember: tall and elegant, brilliant, with the strawberry blond hair where June and July took refuge. We were to marry. How could I have forgotten? I haven’t thought of her for so long. It’s torture now, seeing her so vividly in my mind. The pair of us walking the grounds of the university, laughing at some absurd thing I’ve said.

I try the crown. The watch is wound tight. The hands say 10:33; a.m. or p.m.? It always ran a little slow. Maybe it still does, or maybe they’ve fixed it to run fast. Regardless, now I can measure time. I watch the hands for ten minutes. It all comes back to me: sixty seconds to a minute, sixty minutes to an hour, and so on. At some point I fall asleep.

I awake to tapping, coming through the wall. Morse code, somehow sounding emphatic. “The launch. The launch.”

I check for my watch, and it’s gone. But I see Jessica in the corner smiling. Holding out my hand, she fades.

Struggling to get up, I take the tin cup from the tray and spill the cold weak tea onto the floor. Then I tap out my reply: “What about the launch?”

“Successful,” comes the response. “Didn’t you hear the atmosphere go snap?”

“No,” I tap.

“They will be there in a few days, and land on the surface. Then the world will be a bigger place. The planet has gone mad.”

“What do you think they’ll find?” I tap.

“You already know, Doctor,” comes the answer. “Don’t you” Then, “Enjoy the rest of your stay.”

 

 

 

 

 

1947

There’s a feeling a guy gets when the creases in his pants are straight, and the part in his hair is just right. His shoes are shined and his tie is knotted into a perfect Windsor. He walks down the street and everyone smiles, and when they do he knows that they’re smiling with him.

It was the autumn of 1947, and my first hit single had made it onto the radio. It was called Samantha Samantha, and it was recorded by the Atticus Chips Orchestra with vocals by Ignacio Esposito. Samantha Samantha was on every radio and in every jukebox in the free world my agent said, and was being played by every band in every club and dance hall from here to Okinawa. The royalty cheques were rolling in, and the record company and the song-pluggers were screaming for more.

So on that late September morning, I was standing on the curb looking like a guy smitten with the world. A month ago I’d decided to purchase what a guy like me needed most, a brand new 1948 Cadillac. And now I was trying to hail a cab to take me to the dealership where I would finally take delivery.

I’d chosen the Series 62 from a brochure filled with elegantly portrayed models of the car, cruising down limitless summer sunny highways with jubilant drivers and joyous passengers all headed toward some undiscovered place worthy of their wholesome American euphoria. Other brochure models were depicted sitting fat in front of luxurious sky-high burgundy draping beneath massive gold, red white and blue Cadillac crests. And still others were parked in front of rustic heirloom Connecticut churches, very old and of obvious Protestant significance with drivers and passengers standing on roads admiring their cherished vehicles with their backs turned to God in His Yankee-built Temples.

The 1948 Cadillac represented the finest lines in ultra-modern design. It possessed a luxurious interior, and was propelled by the precision-built 90º V type 8 engine. It was going to be a joy to possess for a guy who half a year earlier was eating one meal a day of dry toast, sitting at an out of tune piano in a cold water walk-up. I was ready for a little bit of joy, so I’d chosen the two door convertible in Madeira Maroon. It was sporty, and oozed swank. Just like me, my ego said, inflated and ready to pop.

Now if I could get a cab, I’d be on my way to the Bean & Flintch Cadillac Land dealership to pick up my new baby. I finally caught the attention of a Blacktop stuck at a red light, and got in.

“Howdy, partner,” the driver said. “Call me Jimmy. Where to?”

“Bean & Flintch,” I said

“That’s that Caddy joint, ain’t it?”

“Yeah.”

He engaged the metre.

“You gettin’ yourself a Lac?” he asked.

“I’m taking delivery.”

“Hey that’s swell,” Jimmy said. “You must be some kinda operator. Them cars ain’t cheap.”

I thought about that for a minute – some kinda operator – and heard in my mind the down beat and chorus of Samantha Samantha, remembering the months it took to get it right on paper and then what it took to convince my agent and the studio that it would be a hit. Then there was the executive who’d said he was unable to discern the line between melody and harmony, insisting I was too young for a hit.

“Mozart was young, too,” my agent had said, pleading almost on his knees. Then there were the bribes and payola.

“Nah,” I said to Jimmy, “I was just lucky.”

Bean & Flintch was in the heart of the city and my previous trips by cab had been quick, but the traffic was heavy that day and Jimmy seemed to be taking all the wrong turns.

“You sure this is the right way,” I said, after he turned north onto Granville Street.

“Just enjoy the ride, Mac.”

“But you’re driving like a tourist.”

“I’ll get you there for less than two bucks,” Jimmy said. “Or I’ll eat my hat.”

His hat was a faux military style officer-looking number, with a brass Blacktop shield on the front. He wore it tilted on his crewcut head, with a taxi licence badge pinned on one side.

“That hat would be a mouthful,” I said. “And hard to swallow.”

“Then take my word for it, and relax.”

We stopped in a stationary line of traffic and he turned up the a.m. radio, and after an ad for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Samantha Samantha came on. I sat back and listened. It wasn’t my best work, but it was going to pay the bills for a long time to come.

Almost instantly Jimmy said, “That’s a red tune.”

“Red?” I said. Samantha Samantha had been called a lot of things, but….

“Yeah sure,” he said. “It’s red—pure commie. Just listen to the lyrics.”

“I have. It’s impossible to avoid. It’s been on the radio for weeks. Just sounds like a jukebox ditty to me.”

“That’s what they want you to think,” Jimmy said. “But it’s actually mass subliminal conditioning.”

“Mass subliminal conditioning?”

There was a lot of this going round. Cheap intrigue was in the air. Screw-loose politicians, pulpy postwar science fiction, and the dawn of the A-bomb. No more Great Depression, WW2 had been over for two years and the dead had left the room. People now had time on their hands and there was a fear vacuum, rapidly filling up with manufactured panic.

I lied: “I don’t get it.”

“You heard of a guy named Joe McCarthy?” Jimmy said. “He’s the new Senator of Wisconsin.”

“I read the papers.”

“Well,” Jimmy said, “McCarthy claims that there’s Communists and Soviet sympathizers inside the US. In the government and everywhere. And I figure the worst of ‘em’s gotta be the intellectuals and show people, like the crumb who wrote this song and the homo who’s singin’ it.”

Ignacio Esposito, a homo? What would his ever-orgy-ready teen-aged bobby-soxer harem say?

“Interesting.” I hoped it would end there.

“I mean it, brother,” Jimmy carried on. “Have you ever really listened to the lyrics?”

“I guess.”

“Well I know ‘em by heart. I made a point of learning ‘em.”

Jimmy turned down the radio.

“Listen,” he said, then he began to sing —

Share with me your selfish love
Don’t leave it on a shelf above
In a jar where it can never be seen
Don’t keep it private property 

Samantha Samantha
This is my manifesto
I want to be love’s virtuoso
Samantha Samantha
Let’s not show caution
And share all we have in common 

Jimmy said, “What do you think, huh?”

“You have a lovely voice.” Actually, he didn’t.

“You gotta agree; if that’s not some kinda commie malarkey I don’t know what is. All that sharing! — and a manifesto! — jeez!”

“It’s shocking.”

“And that’s just the first verse and the chorus. You wanna hear the rest?”

“No,” I said.

“Too bad, but I guess I got you convinced.”

“It’s free, by the way,” I said.

“What?” said Jimmy.

“First verse, third line is: In a jar where it can never befree’. You sang it, seen.”

“You sure?”

“Yes,” I said.

“You a Soviet sympathiser?” Jimmy looked at me in the rear view mirror, suspicion in his eyes.

“No,” I said.

“‘Cause I don’t want no Soviet sympathisers in my cab. I didn’t fight in the war to drive Soviet sympathisers around.”

“Would a Soviet sympathiser be on his way to pick up a Cadillac?” I said.

“He might.” Now he looked unsure, the suspicion momentarily gone.

“What colour is it?” he said. “Your Cadillac, I mean.”

“Madeira Maroon,” I sighed.

“Maroon? That’s like red, ain’t it?”

“As close as it gets, this model year.”

His look of suspicion returned.

“Red,” he muttered and shook his head. “Mass subliminal conditioning.”

Then he dropped the bomb. Others had before him. Now it was his turn —

“You fight in the war?” he said. “Asia or Europe? How many Japs or Nazis did you kill?”

“None. I wrote Allied propaganda in Toronto, for pamphlets, posters and movie trailers.”

“So you sat it out,” he said. “And now you’re making the big bucks.”

He was right. I did sit out the war. My talent for antipathy and jingoism had earned me a job writing debauched conflict dogma. The work was crucial, they said. So I ate in restaurants and slept in warm clean beds, often warmed by lonesome war brides, while other men did the fighting. Mine were the soft disgraceful hands of a propagandist. I’d always believed apologising for it would be insincere, but things change.

“Since the end of the war,” I said, as though it mattered. “I’ve tried to make a living as a song writer, living in slum hotels, starving, murdering cockroaches and using a communal toilet down the hall. Maybe that’s my meā culpā.”

“You don’t look like you live in a slum,” Jimmy said.

“I’m sorry. Things change”

“Say, what’s your name?”

“Wyatt Ziegler,” I said.

“So you wrote that song, then!”

“Yes I did.”

“You ain’t got no shame, fella.”

When we pulled up to the main entrance of Bean & Flintch the metre read $2.83, not two bucks.

“Are you going to eat your hat?” I said, pulling bills from my pocket.

“You’d like that wouldn’t you.”

“It’d be something to see,” I said. “Worth the extra eighty-three cents.”

“Get outta my cab,” he said. “Go get your Cadillac and run it into a wall.”

I handed him four dollars.

“You know,” I said, “maybe what I wrote for the war made a difference. Maybe I helped end it early, saved a few lives.”

“Maybe,” he said, staring at me deadpan in the rear view mirror, telling me without words to vacate.

I did.

On the lot, a man named Daryl was washing my new car. Tobias Flintch had escorted me from the office. Daryl was rinsing away the soap suds with a hose, using it to make unhurried figure eights. He was humming Samantha Samantha.

“It’s a pip,” Flintch said, grinning and holding out both hands as if to say, ta-da!

“Yes it is,” I agreed, quietly. “A real pip.” I weakly touched a whitewall with the tip of my Florsheim.

“Where are you going to drive her first, Mr Ziegler?” Flintch said. “I hear Oregon is nice in the autumn.”

He was a gaunt but dapper old man, coughing hard as he lit a cigarette. He wore a Masonic ring, and had a Rotarian pin on his lapel. But if removed from his dark suit and tie, and put blue bearded into unwashed plaid and dungarees, he’d look like any other bum I had to step over to get into my old hotel room. It was his thin cloudy smile and poorly disguised cruelty that set him apart from the rest of humanity. That, and all he’d left unsaid over the course of his sixty plus years. He didn’t give a shit where I drove my new car, now that he had my money. Tobias Flintch just wanted me to get it the hell off the lot, the same way Jimmy wanted me out of his cab.

“I don’t know where I’ll drive it,” I said. “Maybe I’ll just park it at the curb and shoot at it from my apartment window, with a .22.”

“Ah,” said Flintch. “Well, remember to bring it in for servicing.”

“I will.”

Flintch was now re-inhaling through his nose the thick smoke slowly issuing from his mouth, like a pimp in a tattoo parlour.

“Why don’t you take these?” he said, handing me a set of keys on a Bean & Flinch Cadillac Land key ring. His fingernails were sharp, and too long.

“This car doesn’t seem so important to me anymore,” I said.

“That’s fine,” he said. “Finish it up, Daryl. And you have a pleasant day, Mr Ziegler.”

“Yeah,” I said, watching him walk away.

Daryl waited a moment, then said, “Flintch sleeps in a coffin.”

“That seems possible,” I said.

“And never sneak up on his left.”

“Okay.”

“And never try to hand him anything made of pure silver.”

“Is my car ready?” I said.

“You know, a guy form the eastside bought one of these a week ago,” Daryl said, changing the subject and peeling the wrapper off of a stick of Juicy Fruit. “Right off the lot. No options. No custom work. Paid cash. He said that his wife had been foolin’ around behind his back, and that she’d fit real pretty into the trunk. Then he laughed like he was gonna choke, just so the salesman knew he was jokin’. But he wasn’t jokin’.”

“What? How do you know?”

Daryl stared at me a second like I was daft, like I wasn’t keeping up. Fear vacuum, I thought. The authentically dead had left the room.

“I guess,” he said, “that a Cadillac is never the same thing from one buyer to the next. The tank’s full of Hi-test, Mr Ziegler, and I’ve checked your oil. You’re ready to roll.”

“Thanks.” I tipped him a couple of bucks.

That evening I drove up into the north shore mountains, and watched the sun fall into the Pacific. Before the daylight vanished completely, though, I checked the trunk to make sure it was empty. It was. No Tobias Flintch rising from the dead. No bodies of cheating wives. Only an upholstered crypt too huge for my meager life, where a jack and a spare were buried like artifacts. Ignacio Esposito was on the radio, singing (I Love You) For Sentimental Reasons.