Thomas Elson’s short stories, poetry, and flash fiction have been published in numerous venues such as Calliope, Pinyon, Lunaris, New Ulster, Lampeter, Selkie, Pennsylvania Literary Journal, and Adelaide Literary Magazine. He divides his time between Northern California and Western Kansas.
Sibanda is the author of Notes, Themes, Things And Other Things, The Gushungo Way, Sleeping Rivers, Love O’clock, The Dead Must Be Sobbing, Football of Fools, Cutting-edge Cache, Of the Saliva and the Tongue, When Inspiration Sings In Silence, The Way Forward, Sometimes Seasons Come With Unseasonal Harvests, As If They Minded:The Loudness Of Whispers, This Cannot Be Happening :Speaking Truth To Power, The Dangers Of Child Marriages:Billions Of Dollars Lost In Earnings And Human Capital, The Ndaba Jamela and Collections and Poetry Pharmacy. Sibanda's work has received Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominations. Some of his work has been translated into Serbian.
Long ago when Mrs. Nhlaba was a young wife, and had verbal bouts and tiffs with her husband over his lateness, her rustic aunt once said to her, “Don’t raise eyebrows yet.
Hold your peace. You’re a woman who works hard like an ant bear.
He can’t afford to lose you if he has an ounce of brains in his head. Not maggots or termites. By the same token, you can’t seek to kill a snake whilst it’s still in its hole, lest there’s no snake at all in the first place. Call to mind, our wise elders advised us against holding the flying ant by its head lest it flies off!” They also said: “what What is horny cannot be hidden (forever). The truth will come out.”
Mrs. Vithikazi Nhlaba respected her aunt, but her head was inundated with
countless ideas and unanswered questions. Did her aunt board the bus all the way
from EMaguswini to preach such an impossible gospel? Today, I’m traveling to
Bulawayo to tell Vithikazi to be subservient to her husband. I might be rural, old
and uneducated but I know how to handle wayward men. Did she ever give thought
to what she was saying? For starters, was it humanly possible and easy not to be
suspicious when one partner’s concentration had clearly been swayed away? How
could her aunt advise her to hold her peace in the face of such a shift? Was that
shift not as bad as an act of betrayal? So she was expected to swallow up such
nonsense unquestioningly because she worked like an ant bear? What if indeed he
had maggots or termites for brains?
If her aunt put herself in her shoes for just a few days would she stand his strange behavior? After all, was she not her maternal aunt? Don’t raise eyebrows.
Hold your peace. How can peace be held when wars of disquiet are being waged
against one? Was her husband not slipping away from her bit by bit? How could she
not raise eyebrows when he was coming home late every night? And as if that were
not enough headache on its own, without an explanation or word of greeting he
would slump on the couch and sleep soundly? Was his seemingly blissful snoring
from the living room not her series of nightmares? Did her aunt have any idea how
emotionally disconcerting the whole experience was? How could the unenviable
journey of wondering where her husband had been and what he had he been up to
be an easy or peaceful one?
Hold your peace? Really? What peace? Did her aunt know that she was
worried to death about his safety and well-being? For example, what if street thugs
pounced on him at night, how would she live with herself and her self-denial? What
if he had found omakhwapheni with whom he was spending the better part of the
night, and were as usual, feeding him with food spiced with shovels and shovels of
their zwanamina in a bid to crown him their toyboy? Hold your peace? Still? Queries
and thoughts assailed her mind, her peace, her days and nights. Maybe she was paranoid. Maybe she wanted to be practical. Was it her little cock-eyed illusions and delusions that the man she loved dearly was coming home late night in night out?
When her aunt, who to her best knowledge had been single since time immemorial,
finally left for EMaguswini after a week’s stay, Mrs. Nhlaba decided to seek further advice and guidance from a number of diverse spiritual sources.
“Do you know what kind of things dogs eat?” the man in a stuffy and small
hut with an herbal air to it asked.
“I’m looking for a solution to my husband’s truancy. Now I’m wondering:
what have dogs and what they eat have to do with this problem?” queried Mrs.
Nhlaba, trying to suppress a strong wave of impatience.
“Everything. You and I know that it has absolutely everything to do with
those domestic animals. Madam. Men are...”
“Oh no, not that antiquated stereotypical stuff about men and dogs! “She
found herself interjecting.
“But this is a fact of life, even our elders acknowledged that correlation, that
“Please, not all men are like that. For example, I’ve friends, relatives and
neighbors whose husbands and boyfriends are consistently loving, faithful and
well-behaved. Stop making dangerous comparisons, outmoded assumptions and
“I thought we’re talking specifically about your husband’s actions, not about
the lifestyles and behaviors of your friends, relatives or neighbors. I receive and attend to a lot of people from different walks of life every day. I know what I’m talking about. The last time I checked how most of men behaved, the results were the same. Men are...” The man wearing some awe-inspiring traditional regalia was in the process of defending his theory in a defiant, bold and boastful fashion when Mrs. Nhlaba interrupted him.
“Look, man, this is the 20th century. Rise from the dead and start to live
again. Get a life and wake up. I can clearly see that your view of the modern world
is retrogressive. It’s reeling under a sick, old, parochial and patriarchal ego. You need help because you’re a patient languishing from a terrible chronic ignorance. Let me tell you this for free: you’ve another thingk coming if you’re entertaining any single idea of ever convincing me that men are nothing else but dogs in disguise. You know what that’s called? It’s a lame, lousy and loud excuse for lacking true manly qualities. Last week I wasted my precious money and time funding the trip of my pastoral aunt from EMaguswini all the way to Bulawayo, hoping she would help me deal with my man’s delinquency in a mature, fresh and fair manner. Alas, it wasn’t to be. Upon arriving, guess what, she categorically told me not to raise eyebrows, but to hold my peace. What audacity. What impetuosity. As if that were not enough joke, you’ve seen it fit to waste my cash and time. I’ve just paid a consultation fee here only to hear you harp on a silly and archaic connection between men and dogs. How does that solve my problem?”
She questioned rhetorically as she stormed out of the circular mud-walled, grass-thatched room, whose herbal odor had given her nostrils something to contend with. The traditionalist was startled by Mrs. Nhlaba’s unceremonious departure.
Undeterred, she sought the services of fortunetellers and traditional doctors
like she was possessed, like they held the key to her happiness. It was as if they
held the epicenter of her life and future in their concoctions, in their invocations, in their pronouncements and in their rituals, and even on their horizons and crystal balls.
“What’s your husband’s favorite food?” asked one female herbalist.
“He relishes isitshwala with okra or isitshwala with beef stew.”
“Great! Then I’ve a panacea to your quagmire.”
“What are you going to do?”
“Actually, the remedy lies with what you’ll have to do.”
“Yes. You should claim your husband back with your hands.”
“How, doctor? Follow him like a shadow, and then drag him back home?”
“No. It’s simpler than that. Your urine, saliva and lizards’ tails will do the
“You just need to follow the short procedures and prescriptions, and the man
will rush back and fall at your feet, begging for forgiveness and love. The die will be cast. Don’t you want to be her irresistible queen again?”
“Yes, I do. Mmm ...but my bodily excretions like urine and all … ngeke bantu!
Honestly, my belief system, my conscience...both don’t allow me to...”
“Madam, this is not about your religion. This is about finding a solution to
She left in a huff.
One day one confident and flamboyant prophet gave her what he called his
never-failing anointed seawater, and vowed that in the next two days, Sinothi
Nhlaba would be back in her warm arms as soon as he had knocked off from work.
It was not to be. In essence in the following two days, Mr. Nhlaba bettered
his past record of lateness by arriving home after 2:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m.
respectively. Mrs. Nhlaba’s anxiety reached boiling points. She would dig into Mr.
Nhlaba’s pockets and briefcase with the hope of stumbling on some evidence to link
it with his sluggishness to be home. There was no mark of feminine touch on his
face, no sign of lipstick, except for his lazy eyes that rolled in their sockets each time he arrived.
It soon turned out that Mr. Nhlaba’s unpunctuality was none other than the
crazy result of his newly-found love—BEER. However, that day when she caught
sight of Miss Mahlangu seeking to draw the attention of her husband like a magnet
would a drawing pin, her aunt’s words speared through her head before
disappearing into obsoleteness. She concluded that Miss Mahlangu’s intentions were far from being venial. She was a ‘devious temptress’ playing her devilish cards in a dangerous fashion. Nothing more, nothing less.
As for Miss Mahlangu, she was comfortable and free in her garments. She was of the opinion that a number of rank marshals, drivers and touts were simply nosey, overzealous and judgmental. They had no business in heckling and harassing women over what ladies sported. Did those men have expertise in fashion? They did not look like persons of good taste, either. Far, far from being connoisseurs, at all. Personal hygiene was what they should have been minding. They fooled around as if they had great sensitivity to beauty, civility and culture. What rudeness! Most of them were total strangers to women on the streets. Women doing their business, minding their business. How dare those total strangers to cross a line, to go beyond accepted limits or standards of behavior. She vowed to put them in their proper place.
“Do you know what kind of things dogs eat?” the man in a stuffy and small
hut with an herbal air to it asked.
“I’m looking for a solution to my husband’s truancy. Now I’m wondering:
what have dogs and what they eat have to do with this problem?” queried Mrs.
Nhlaba, trying to suppress a strong wave of impatience.
“Everything. You and I know that it has absolutely everything to do with
those domestic animals. Madam. Men are...”
“Oh no, not that antiquated stereotypical stuff about men and dogs! “She
found herself interjecting.
“But this is a fact of life, even our elders acknowledged that correlation, that
“Please, not all men are like that. For example, I’ve friends, relatives and
neighbors whose husbands and boyfriends are consistently loving, faithful and
well-behaved. Stop making dangerous comparisons, outmoded assumptions and
“I thought we’re talking specifically about your husband’s actions, not about
the lifestyles and behaviors of your friends, relatives or neighbors. I receive and attend to a lot of people from different walks of life every day. I know what I’m talking about. The last time I checked how most of men behaved, the results were the same. Men are...”The man wearing some
Egodini Emergency Taxi Terminus, or at any other part of an African city who had
gone to the extent of tearing off skimpy dresses worn by ‘fashion-conscious’ ladies
were a mere joke, not a deterrent. According to her, whether those ladies left little to imagination was no big deal. She claimed to be her own master when it came to choosing what clothes to wear. She was no stranger to insults hurled at her on the streets.
One Monday morning when she was alighting from a city cab, a tipsy
emergency taxi tout had remarked, “You’re like a twin cab limousine cruising to a
palace, girl. Submarine maybe. A loaded bazooka doesn’t come any close to this. A
top jet-fighter! Yeah!! I’ve not been to any airport in the world, but I think you fly beyond the furthest clouds, you cruise at 130 000 feet... whatever! Assets, is your middle name. If you were sweets, you would be a packet of chocolate. If you were a TV set, you would be that big plasma; I mean a big flat screen. If you were music, you would be an LP, not a 7-single disc. No! And if you were a bed, you would not be a double one. You would be a queen bed! I want to crown you my beautiful big bumblebee baby. My beautiful queen. Tell me, how do I become the king caretaker of that beautiful wealth eh? Please make me rich!”
That morning she decided to cough out her anger on the man.
“Nx! Who are you talking to, hopeless, mannerless drunkard?”
“Obvious, to you big beautiful queen. How can you ask whether the goat is
female or male when its back is facing you, baby?”
“Get the hell out of my sight. You must be a mentally sick dirty daydreamer.
A walking dead thing. I’m not you type. Ok? Fuck off, maan! A piece of discarded,
smelly and tattered cloth!”
“Take it easy. Easy. You’re right 101 percent. I’m sick. I have
amatheketheke in my veins, in my body. Once I remove them, and get
umvunsankunzi from ikhehla from edladleni, I swear I will be grand and back for
you. Shame. There will be thunder without rain! Hehehehe, I’m Mr. Mkhonto, for
your own information. That’s my nickname. I can sense a beautiful lady from a
distance. Suppose you’re on the fiftieth floor, coming down in an elevator for
queens and beauties and I’m on the first floor, I can tell with my eyes closed that
you’re landing down, girl. That’s me! My heart’s hooter is blowing and going: LOVE
HELP ME, LOVE HOLD ONTO ME, LOVE FLY WITH MEEE PLEASEEEE!!! I can feel your presence like a good computer detecting a WIFI router. That’s me! In fact,
I’ve a special love wireless extender in my body that makes me see you from afar!
There’s a good connection between you and me. Listen to your heart now. Love has
no type, no class, no size because it is blind. Do you catch me there? I think you
were born for me, and that you’re my kind of cow, you know. Don’t say I am a
piece of tattered cloth. I am helpful. I help drivers and commuters. I am connected.
You don’t know that if you become my queen you will have free rides every day
because I know all the kombi drivers here. You will have fresh eggs, cheese, steak,
macimbi, pies, pizza, ox-tails and tongues of fat cattle, legs and wings of proper
chickens from the rural areas and all the choice meat you can dream and think of
every day. Not the tasteless chicks you see around here. Maybe you talk like a high
class official yet you chew vegetables every day like a rabbit. That will be a thing of the past. I know all the butcher men in the city centre. Let’s not talk about my job. Let us talk about our future. Let me oil my engine... Sting. Sting. You will see. Boom! Explosions. Boom! Explosions. Mngci. Mngci...”
Her claim as a fighter for her rights, though not completely immune from
street obscenities-- coupled with her dress code was a bold statement about
yearning for a certain feminine freedom, dignity and expression. Of course, many a
careless and salivating man had used her skimpy dress code as a scapegoat to feel
the immensity, elasticity and gentleness of her ample backside. No surprise, then,
that she had hurled some unscrupulous men to the courts of law or rained
scorching slaps and fists upon them.
When Mrs. Nhlaba unceremoniously walked into her husband’s office, to her
shock and surprise, Miss Mahlangu was strategically bent over a small cabinet file,
her sky-blue mini-dress revealing a filmy multicolored undergarment that left
little to the imagination. Mr. Nhlaba considered himself as being physiologically
normal. No matter how he tried to look away from Miss Mahlangu’s backside, he
found his rather dizzy glances falling on her, the whole sight playing a game of
electricity with his unsuspecting hormones. His body was interiorly battling with a
certain tempting chemistry he loved to hate. In SiNdebele, they say eyes are so
insatiable they cannot be served with enough food, meaning that even if one told
himself to look away from something or someone, more often than not, curious
eyes tend to be stubborn and misleading. As hard as he tried to look away, his gaze
riveted to Miss Mahlangu when Mrs. Nhlaba lurked about like a cornered snake.
Mr. Nhlaba’s wife was not prone to being at the centre of various office
imbroglios, but she felt obliged to act on what she considered to be her husband’s
secretary seductive ploy and antics. She had to nip such wayward behavior in the
bud, or else she would remain holding to a little feather when the bird had slipped
through her clasped hands. The way her husband’s eyes seemed to feast on Miss
Mahlangu backside made Mrs. Nhlaba insecure and suspicious.
Mrs. Nhlaba used to have a big frame when she was a child. In her twenties,
because of the constant hype about the beauty of a slender body promoted and
propounded by glossy magazine lifestyle editors and several local and international
tabloids, she jumped into a dieting regime. Her daily gym sessions worked wonders
as she shed kilos and kilos over a period of six months until she was a lean young
beauty. She met her husband Sinothi at the Luveve Gym Trim Centre, who would
later shower praises upon her. Then when they started dating, he called her his
SSPP, an acronym for Sweet Slender Portable Possession.
“What the heck do you think you’re doing, Simo?”
“I’m doing my work?”
“Your eyes must be deceiving you!”
“Don’t be silly, what are you trying to achieve?”
“To meet today’s aims and objectives in the most efficient and effective
“Do those aims include showing off your extra-large bums right under the
nose of my husband?”
“I’m doing my work, please respect that.”
“Nonsense! Mannerless slut, get your damn lazy ass off this office!”
“Have you forgotten that l work here, and that l don’t report to you? Please
don’t push me too far!”
Mr. Nhlaba who had been following the heated exchange of words between the two ladies with interest, suddenly found himself saying, “Please Simo, excuse us.” Though his voice had authority, it was devoid of any tinge of harshness or anger. His wife continued to stand in the doorway with her arms crossed over her chest.
Miss Mahlangu looked at him with exaggerated disbelief. She took a cursory
look at Mrs. Nhlaba before forcing out a little unhurried cough. As if she were
pausing and pondering, she strolled in a wearisome-couldn’t-care-less attitude
towards her handbag which rested on a small three-legged wooden circular table.
She picked it up and then made a leisurely turn. All that acting and dilly-dallying
seemed like ages in the eyes and mind of Mrs. Nhlaba. In fact, her blood pressure
rose. Her heart seemed to be on the verge of bursting. For a while she was
inarticulate with rage. As the drama unfolded, she turned her body into some kind
of blockade. She told herself that she would discipline Simo in a way she would not forget for the rest of her life. How could she have the nerve to cat-walk in her husband’s august office!
“Vithikazi! Vithikazi! Stop causing a scene here!” bellowed Mr. Nhlaba. He rose unsteadily from his comfortable rocking arm-chair. Like a concerned fireman trying to put out a raging fire, he raced towards the two ladies. They stood there glowering at each other like two world heavyweight boxers sizing up each other before a crucial match. He wedged himself in between them. Mrs. Nhlaba tried to get around him and attempted to land a scathing punch on the oval face of Miss Mahlangu. But her husband took hold of her arm, and pushed her away.
“So you are protecting your girl with oversized bums, eh?”
“So, this war is about my big backside? Shame on you jealous old woman.
Why don’t you get your little twin tennis balls surgically boosted? Surgeons can add some flesh!” Miss Mahlangu retorted.
“Shut up, big bitch with gigantic bums!” Vithikazi snapped.
“l thought Bible-carrying grandmamas don’t stoop so low as to use such vulgarities!”
“Sinothi l`III’ll skin your idiotic lady of the night today!” Vithikazi tried pushing
her husband out of her way, to no avail.
As Vithikazi was busy seething with anger—Miss Mahlangu sauntered away,
for an early lunch break, putting the whole ordeal behind herself. For now.
Amatheketheke: bodily impurities.
Edladleni: a slang term for home or the village.
Ikhehla: an old man.
Isitshwala: a stiff dumpling made from corn or grain.
Maan: a bastardized word used to emphasis something.
Mkhonto: a spear.
Mngci: a way of swearing.
Macimbi: mopani worms (considered a delicacy in Zimbabwe and South Africa).
Ngeke bantu: No ways, people.
Nx!: an expression of disgust or disapproval.
Omakhwapheni: literally meaning “those who hide under the armpits”, these are side chicks or secret lovers.
Umvunsankunzi: literally meaning “that which wakes up the bull”, this refers to an aphrodisiac, usually a traditional herbal concoction.
Zwanamina: literally meaning “taste me”, these are man-stupefying concoctions.
The Hen And The Cock
Some few years ago the two had bumped into each other at the stream in a wintry evening. Hen was heading homeward after fetching firewood whilst Cock was dejectedly bathing at the stream, as if trying to drown and wash away his sorrows and bad luck after a futile hunting adventure. Upon catching sight of Cock, Hen had attempted to eschew him or at best pass by silently and surreptitiously without him noticing her. However, Cock had other ideas. He greeted her in an ear-splitting voice that startled her with a mixture of trepidation and bewilderment.
“How is your evening panning out?” She found herself asking him. She was somehow surprised at her own words. Was there a ventriloquist somewhere? How could she ask a stranger such a question? Where is the boldness and suddenness stemming from? She wondered.
“l ….l think things will look up for me. After all, my….my evening is still a virgin”. He responded with a stammer that seemed to betray his vain attempt at self- consolation and exaggerated steadiness. Deep in his heart, he was not convinced with his words. In fact, he was disappointed in himself and his response. How could he say things would look up when the entire world appeared as if it were on the verge of collapsing on him? Had his whole day not been anything else but a nightmare in the forest? While he was busy crucifying himself for what he saw as inappropriate wording, her parting words melted his state of dejection and self-accusation.
“Since your evening is still a little virgin, I`m sure by the time you are done with whatever you’re doing, it would have lost its virginity many, many times!” He could not help but laugh hysterically. Hen’s words were like a smart doctor’s apt prescription for a dying patient. They magically injected a certain new lease of life into him-a heightened desire, an obligation and inspiration of being in charge of oneself, of being more than a hunter of food, but a humble seeker of committed companionship and life-long happiness. They left a pool of dazzling and invigorating thoughts that flooded his mind. A few days later the two birds met and chit-chatted .Before long they were hitting it out as the greatest of friends.
After going through the necessary cultural formalities, the two love-birds lived as husband and wife. It was not long before they populated their yard with ten chicks. Hen`s motherly love was amazing and unquestionable. She always tried by all means to protect her hatchlings -coddling, cuddling and guiding them until they grew into little chicks that dogged her wherever she went. She kept an eagle eye on anything that came closer than necessary to her little darlings.
One day Eagle kept surveillance over Hen and her carefree chicks. He was spoiling for a blitz that would leave Hen flighty and her chicks in complete maze. The following day, his star shone and he pounced upon one chick. Nine chicks were left. Two days down the line, Eagle was at it again. He snapped up another chick. Cock and Hen were fidgety, furious and grief-stricken. How could such tragic losses come in thick and fast?
They then mapped out a strategy to counter Eagle’s predatory tendencies. A week elapsed without an unfortunate incident being recorded. There was neither the disappearance nor devouring of a little chick. Time tore on. It looked like alarm bells were no longer ringing as loudly as before. However, as the dust was slowly settling down misfortune crept in again. This was after Eagle had zoomed about majestically in the firmament before whizzing down and scooping up a dazed and fleeing chick. It was a tremulous and disconcerting experience for the chicks. All Hen and Cock could do was to helplessly watch Eagle scurry away, soar and disappear into the vastness of the sky with their dear blood and flesh.
Both were dumbfounded and mournful. What would it take to provide an all-out security for their beloved chicks? They could not bear to imagine another possible loss of their loved chick to insatiable Eagle within the twinkling of an eye. Their hearts were worried and bleeding. It was clear that as long as Eagle loitered about, danger also lurked. They restrategised. The bird of prey tried to swoop on the chicks with ease and speed but each attempt seemed to fizzle out into an exercise in futility.
Then there was a disturbing turn of events which took center stage. Weather variations resulted in a long spell of drought. Cock as family head had to dutifully go hunting on a daily basis. Cock sought to fetch and prey on grasshoppers. In essence, he looked for anything edible, ranging from fruits and nuts to cockroaches. He hunted with great determination and diligence. He had to stave off starvation. However, more often than not, his hunting sprees did not bear fruit.
Cock looked back fondly to a time of abundance and great joy – a time where the forest was no stranger to a lion’s roar, a donkey’s bray, an elephant’s trumpet, a snake’s hiss, a duck’s quack, a dog’s bark, a cat’s meow, a pig’s grunt, a buffalo’s bellow, a cock’s crow, a hen’s cluck, a frog’s croak, a bird’s chirp, a cow’s moo and indeed, the unpretentious bleating of sheep. How he wished he could relive those yesteryears of boom, not doom. It was as if that famine had suddenly turned the jungle into an uncharacteristic graveyard of stillness and dullness.
At home, Hen paced about in the yard, looking for bits and pieces to feed her chicks. The little ones darted about, competing for food and their mother’s attention. Jealously she rendered maximum fortification and guidance. She played the role of protector and provider with a measure of distinction. She would tour the yard with her chicks until fatigue got the better of them. They would while away time under a thickly-branched orange tree. Her beak agape, she gasped and craned her neck, rarely dozing off, but on other stupid days she succumbed to one or two stubborn naps in the process. Waking up with a little fright and wonder, she would count her blessings upon discovering that her remaining eight chicks were still intact.
She could not elude one thing. Loneliness took its toll on her as Cock was wont to leave for the forest at dawn and arrive at home at dusk. It was a routine. One day neighbor Cock paid Hen a surprise and flying visit. Hen gave him a cold shoulder by virtue of the fact that her husband had categorically and strongly advised her to keep him at an arm’s length. “If l had a choice, he wouldn’t have been our neighbor. Dear partner, don’t fall for his silly traps that could come in the form of kindness or smiles, or indeed, understanding or friendly visits, because, one thing for sure, he always has ulterior motives. Under no circumstance should you entertain his overtures. Simply give him your back. Please keep him at bay. What he deserves is as wide a berth as the North Pole and the South Pole because he is cunning, envious, thievish and dangerous. In the same vein, to have an affinity with such a character is tantamount to having a relationship with a vicious blood-sucking mole or a snake in the grass”, he had warned.
Each time Hen’s eyes slapped on Neighbor Cock, she bolted away and never looked back. However, Neighbor Cock, being of persistent and persuasive nature, gave chase. Such was Neighbor Cock, not despairing easily. It looked like his was a wild goose chase as each time Neighbor Cock heaved in sight, Hen remembered the words of her husband: He is as sweet-tongued as a conman who can hoodwink one into offloading one’s precious savings to him. He is so dangerous that he can sweet-talk any bird into selling its one and only pair of wings. Hence have absolutely nothing to do with such a charlatan and a mole because he can use any bait under the sun to achieve his evil aims and objectives. Beware.
One day Neighbor Cock, acting like a parent having a correlative duty of support, brought Hen and her chicks some grain of millet. Even if Hen ran away, looked away –with zeal and zest the hungry chicks helped themselves to the food Neighbor Cock had left behind. They did not care whether it was a little loot ransacked from someone else`s granary or field. All they wanted was food, nothing else. After Neighbor Cock had disappeared, Hen, too, partook of the millet food. After all, she too was starved of food, and she too relished such a meal. Hen pleaded with the chicks never to divulge to Cock about Neighbor Cock’s frequent visits, let alone his spirit of generosity, not monstrosity.
On the second day, Hen saw no point in running away upon seeing Neighbor Cock. As the days tore on Neighbor Cock decoyed her to sit next to him and before long they were chatting about many issues, including the devastating drought. He handed over some goodies to Hen, who in turn, shared them with her grateful chicks. Like a blind sycophant, Neighbor Cock used every opportunity available to shower praises upon Hen for being in the thick of things to ward off hunger, disease and misery; something typical of a truly loving mother to her chicks. He even patted her on her back for a job well done!
Neighbor Cock managed to endear himself to the chicks by virtue of his fatherly cheerfulness, generosity, humorousness, charm and diplomacy. “He is not harmful but wonderful. What a friendly, jocose and kind neighbor we have, mum,’’ remarked one enraptured chick to Hen one morning as Neighbor Cock was disappearing into the thickness of the forest after giving them a dozen of lean grasshoppers. For Hen, the chick’s statement was an assurance that her husband would not be posted on what transpired behind his back. She reiterated that as long as their father did not glean any information about Neighbor Cock’s compassion towards them, starvation would be a thing of the past.
One Monday afternoon Hen weaved her way with verve to Neighbor Cock’s homestead at the invitation of the latter. She was convinced that their neighbor was an enthralling and caring man whose corns they could not afford to tread upon. In fact, his exuberant voice was music that had grown on her. That day she brought her chicks a small bag of tasty groundnuts. They feasted on them happily. The following morning Neighbor Cock made his way to their homestead and they spent the better part of the day playing a chase-and-catch game with Hen. They ran, laughed, joked and tucked into a delicacy together like they had known each other for ages. She found Neighbor Cock vivacious, their time spent together delicious.
Neighbor Cock had bid them farewell after a day well-spent when he inadvertently stepped on an ashen chick that was sleepy. “ Haaa this is so painful that it cannot go unreported. I’ll definitely tell my father”. All Hell broke loose as in cold blood; Neighbor Cock strangled that gray chick to death with a startling suddenness that left Hen shell-shocked. He slammed the behavior of the little chick, whose innocent body lay cold, inanimate and silent. Hen was inarticulate with fury, profound melancholy and forlornness. She was silently wondering: What monstrosity is this? What brutality is this? Where is the conscience of Neighbor Cock in this act of madness and vileness? All along were his smiles and kind gestures a mere gimmick? A death trap? Why didn’t l see all this coming? Why did l allow a heartless snake to sneak into my life? Why have l allowed myself to be an accomplice in the blood-curdling killing of my dear chick? How am l going to live with this guilt? I rue the day l yielded to his stratagem. Why did l do such a foolish thing? Why?
“This chick died at the venom of a waylaying snake. Cock should never ever get wind of anything else other than this version. Am l making myself clear?” Neighbor Cock roared rhetorically beyond remorse. Hen’s gait lacked elegance as she staggered, carrying the lifeless body of her chick. She faltered clumsily as she entered the biggest of their three huts which was used as a bedroom. A cloud of sorrow and petrification enveloped her, galvanizing her into studying and caressing the motionless body of the chick. She was sobbing uncontrollably when Cock strode into the room. He was told that their chick was lifeless owing to a certain merciless snake’s wicked deed. Needless to say Cock was crestfallen and confused. After that tragic incident Neighbor Cock vowed never to set foot on the yard of Hen and Cock.
One rare Sunday evening Cock came home rather early. He was carrying a big brown fruit that looked appetising. “This wild fruit is a beauty. The moment l laid my eyes on it, l knew that it was potentially our windfall. However, we need to be more careful lest it becomes our catastrophic pitfall. We all have one life to live. What l mean is that the suitability of this mouth-watering fruit for consumption is questionable. At face value, it looks harmless, but we would be exhibiting a terrible height of folly if we were to gobble it up without ascertaining whether it is fit for consumption or not. I therefore suggest we give Rat a little piece of that fruit and see what happens. This shouldn’t be interpreted as an act of cowardice and cruelty. Not at all. That move will serve as our control experiment, “giggled Cock in a prematurely victorious fashion.
Rat was appreciative and prayerful. He promptly and hungrily tucked into the piece. Cock and Hen waited for a possible abdominal war to be waged. Thirty suspenseful minutes elapsed. An hour lapsed. Time tore on. Rat did not complain of something amiss in his stomach. All is well that ends well, thought Cock. Three hours later the family could not wait any longer. They enthusiastically consumed the aromatic and delicately-textured fruit. The entire family ate their fill. Hen and Cock chatted, patted and joked with a passion of its own life. Their world was abuzz with laughter, dance, song and humor. They had not celebrated as a family before. Cock felt like a feted hero in his homestead. They even renewed their pledges of loyalty and love to each other in grand style.
Dove shot in and expressed her heart-felt grief over the fate of Rat who lay lifeless a few meters from the nearby stream. What! Faces fell with apprehension. They knew what that information meant. Both Hen and Cock individually decided to do something before the effects of the deadly fruit finished with them. What had befallen Rat was surely waiting for them. What a prospect! Cock fidgeted about, whispering a seemingly endless inaudible prayer.
After a while, Hen, as if at a confessional, divulged, “l hereby confess that because of my follies and failings l allowed Neighbor Cock to visit me. His persistent, sugar-coated words became my daily food. Words, like swords-can spear one’s heart into divisions. Contrary to what l told you, it was not a snake that killed our chick. Neighbor Cock took the life of our dear chick. He used to give me many irresistible gifts in the form of food. They say one good favor deserves another. I’d be lying if l said l didn’t enjoy many favors. In a you- scratch- my- back- l -scratch -yours gesture I reciprocated those favors. I am sincerely sorry for those iniquities and stupidities; please forgive me before we depart yonder”.
To her surprise, Cock unequivocally and unconditionally agreed to forgive her. “I also transgressed full-time. Your follies and failings cannot exonerate me. For example, one day during my hunting sprees l couldn’t catch a thing, and on my way home l bumped into a little cute hen who said her entire family had perished at the teeth of a vicious dog. She claimed to be lonely and looking. She gave me a flabby grasshopper, and shy of coming home empty-handed, l accepted the offer. Little did l know that she would end up being my chatty and chortling companion. That’s why l was away from dawn to dusk. We embarked on many captivating hunting sprees. As if that were not enough, I also fraternized and gallivanted with several birds of dubious character. I was promiscuous, impetuous and imprudent. In modesty and earnest, I admit in your respectful and respectable wifely presence that such deeds were totally superfluous and iniquitous. I’m truly sorry for plunging our sacred union in mud. Now l know that anyone who is unforgiving is done for. Please forgive me before the world falls on us. Please, please forgive me”. He pleaded nervously.
It was as if his middle name was Meekness. As soon as Hen had pronounced, “Forgiven utterly”, Rat entered the room. To their awe, Rat was alive and well. How come! He explained that after partaking of the delicious fruit, he had slumbered in a blissful and inspirational manner like one in a paradise for the privileged few. Meanwhile, Cock angrily and arrogantly dragged Hen to another room to fully elucidate what she had just mentioned about Neighbor Cock’s frequent visits, the nature of their relationship and the circumstances leading to the demise of their chick. “You have some serious explaining to do. If you aren’t the mother of my chicks, then you’ll get away with this comedy of errors l don’t find amusing. If you’re, then you’re doomed”, he threatened.
Cock was no longer himself. Rage had captured, blinded and imprisoned him. It was as if he did not have shock absorbers, or if he had them, then they were either dysfunctional or were playing up. Hen’s heart was skidding and pounding with a life of its own. In spite of her obvious fears and confusion, at the back of her mind, she pictured their world hurtling down to Mother Earth. For her, it was a time to gain an insight into who really they were and since they could not undo their past, she saw it as an opportunity to reflect on and learn from their experiences and errors. It had to be the moment of truth…
GRAVE YARD LOVE
“Now Jimmy,” said my mom. “If you change your mind, just give us a call and we’ll pick you right up.”
“The hell we will, Peg,” said my dad. “You made your bed, go ahead and become a goddamn priest.”
Arguing was their passion, just as mine was reading the Bible. Didn’t much care for the Old Testament God. Vengeful, sarcastic, mean as a horse with a nail in his hoof. Once in junior high I had a Jewish girlfriend, Naomi, or was it Ruth, I forget, and her family had a mezuzah tacked up on the door post of every single room in their house. I still remember the girl as she played Chopin sonatas on a black piano in the living room.
Yes, I was ready to give up women.
My parents helped me unload the car when we arrived. Embarrassingly old suitcases. I couldn’t wait until they left. I wanted to look at the view, the vista, from the top of the mountain, so close to God.
I loved the regimentation of the seminary. Breakfast was at 6 a.m. followed by morning prayers, then lectures. We learned the names of the Popes and how they attempted to change the world.
Time went by as slowly as a ticking clock and as fast as skiiers zig-zagging down the mountains.
My work detail had me tending the gardens, which circled around the seminary. Spectacular gardens faced rows of mountain ranges. Such glorious manifestations of the works of God. I took particular pleasure in overseeing a tiny waterfall, gleefully splashing onto goldfish and red-dotted koi, reflecting the sunshine.
By the time my four years were up, I was excited to have my own parish. I would go anywhere for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ.
This may sound funny, but I did fall in love with one of the seminarians, and, yes, love is the right word. There’s all kinds of love, you know. This was not erotic love, it’s what we call agape. The danger, of course, is crossing that thin red line. A dozen of our students did step over that line, but enough said. I do not want to tarnish the throne of Saint Peter.
Was it a coincidence Eric and I were sent to adjoining parishes in South Carolina? As one of three priests at the Church of St. Teresa of Avila, I became a loving father to our five-hundred parishioners. My specialty was counseling husbands and wives. My parents served as reverse role models.
When I’d leave my small room at the rectory and arrive at work, I’d open the glass doors of the church and stand in awe of the beauty of the altar, gold and silver and as orange as the falling leaves in autumn.
“My life is fulfilled,” I said to our head priest, Pat, Father Patrick Meehan.
“You’ve done well, Jimbo. The Holy Spirit has touched your entire being.”
“If I may, I’d like to visit the Palmetto Parish,” I said. “A fellow seminarian is head of a parish there.”
“Of course, anytime you wish.”
Wearing my black priestly attire, I drove a white Toyota Rave4 mini-van over. My heart was fairly jumping out of my chest.
There he was, gardening in the front yard, planting red and purple petunias, and trimming branches off a sugar maple tree
I stood there and gazed upon the man. Where I had a good head of hair at forty-five, silver-gray, he was practically bald. The sun shone on his bald pate. He was bare-handed and filtered the soil with his hands, sniffing it for its rich texture.
Slowly, I took him in, as I circled around to face him.
“My brother,” I said. “Do you remember me?”
He stood up, blinked his eyes in the sun, and held out his arms.
“You’re someone that can’t easily be forgotten.”
We rushed into each other’s arms. Our hugs were as tight as if we’d gotten off the maiden voyage of the Titanic, still alive.
We sat down outside, as a warm breeze caressed us. Sister Hannah brought us each a fruit salad and a coffee pitcher. I remembered he drank his with cream and sugar, while I drank it as black as a starless night.
Duty called and we hugged goodbye. I never saw Erik again.
A year later, in the rectory, I read his obituary in the Spartanburg Herald. He had been fighting cancer for several years, including the time we had met. “Never said a mumbling word,” to quote a gospel song.
I stood up, crossed myself, and wept as I had never done for my mother or my father.
Blindly, I went outside, tears falling, and walked five miles to the cemetery. There was his freshly-carved headstone. I threw myself on the ground and sobbed.
“My love, my love,” I wept. “Whatever shall I do without you?”
The ground seemed to quiver like a mini-earthquake.
A voice spoke. “Our secret is out now, lad.”
I sat up straight. More words followed.
“Carry on, my love, carry on.”
What choice did I have but to carry on?
Like a phantom, I returned to the rectory and stood before the bathroom mirror. So this is how a grief-stricken man looked. Puffy eyes. Red patches on his cheeks. All alone in the world.
“Eric, Eric,” I blubbered into the mirror.
“How, my darling, can you have left me all alone in the world.”
I pulled out my razor.
And carefully shaved the hair off my head. An offering to the one I loved and would love for the rest of my life.
T H E E N D
My Coffee Date with Death
Watching the deck hands behead the marlin, throwing the head overboard, and tossing it’s torso into the below deck cooler, sickened me. I imagined what the Marlin was thinking as it struggled to free itself from the hook, being dragged out of the water, struggling to breathe, then beaten to death. I decided to catch the next flight home. Returning home to my oceanfront condo, in beautiful San Diego, wasn’t like leaving paradise; it was returning to paradise.
Upon arrival home at the airport, I noticed surgical masks being worn by airline personnel and travelers. Once I unpacked, I turned on the news, and heard the reports of the covid-19 pandemic. It didn’t startle me because I lived through other virus outbreaks, but judging from the urgency of the news reports, this virus was severe. I was wealthy, healthy, happy, and had no concerns in the world. The next two months changed my life forever.
I owned and rented out restaurant business properties I accumulated over my career as a commercial real estate broker. I lived modestly, investing my large commissions in restaurant real estate with the goal of an early retirement. I grew up in the restaurant business, and felt comfortable owning restaurant property. I owned three successful “dive bars” popular with young people; owned a food court with a dozen immigrant restaurateurs thriving, and I owned two drive-thru restaurants leased by independent burger, and fried chicken operators. By the age of fifty, I was retired, and collecting large monthly rent checks which provided me with a very comfortable lifestyle; a spacious ocean view condo, a new Mercedes Benz GT-Class Coupe, and a fashionable wardrobe consisting of expensive Italian labels. I managed my properties from home while staring at the ocean waves, worked out with a personal trainer, adhered to my diet monitored by my nutritionist, and enjoyed visiting the bank monthly to deposit the rent checks. Life was good to me. I was single and never failed to find a beautiful date.
Within days, counties throughout Southern California closed down the bars, and prohibited sit down seating in restaurants. My tenants began calling, pleading for rent abatement. They were “mom and pop” operators, decent, hard working immigrants, and I knew they couldn’t survive a prolonged pandemic, eventually having to close their restaurants. It broke my heart to see them lose their life savings. The cash flow from their rents was necessary to pay my mortgages, and was quickly drying up. I couldn’t help my tenants as I had my own financial struggles.
I carried highly leveraged mortgages on my beachfront condo, and rental properties. Although I had strong banking relationships, I requested forbearance on the mortgages, but the banks were demanding their mortgage payments, and threatening foreclosure. Unless the bar and restaurant restrictions were immediately lifted, and my cash flow from the rental properties resumed, I would lose everything I had worked for my entire life.
I wasn’t a heavy drinker or prescription medication taker, but over the next two weeks, I was growing anxious, couldn’t sleep, and decided to take some of my prescription “Valium” to sleep. The “Valium” was originally prescribed to alleviate my fear of flying. Taking the “Valium” to fall asleep worked. I awoke refreshed, but the nagging anxiety of losing my net worth returned quickly. I began taking “Valium” to get me through the morning, afternoon, and evening. I was taking larger dosages than prescribed, and the “Valium” was losing its effect on calming my nerves.
I continually pondered,
“How would I avoid financial ruin?”
I was too old to get a job, and start over. I could wipe out my creditors and stall the foreclosures by filing for bankruptcy protection, but once the bankruptcy was concluded, my properties would be foreclosed upon, with only my remaining cash to survive upon. It wouldn’t be long before I found myself living “on the street”. I fell into a deep depression.
On occasion, I’d indulge in a premium, single malt, scotch whiskey. Without thinking about the dangers of mixing booze and “Valium”, I began to wash the “Valium” down with a shot of whiskey which helped lessen the anxiety. I felt safe using “Valium”, but my increasing anxiety was compelling me to become careless with the mixing of the drug and alcohol.
I came across some “shady” characters during my career. “Morty” was once such individual. He was a pharmacist whose pharmacist license was revoked by playing “fast and loose” with DEA regulations regarding the prescription of “controlled narcotics”. He became a drug dealer to the “stars.” I sold Morty a retail building when California permitted the opening of cannabis stores. He asked me to invest in his first cannabis store, but I declined, to my later regret. Over the years, he expanded his number of cannabis stores, and became a millionaire. Morty had a talent for retailing. His stores were beautiful, and the layouts were ingeniously designed to encourage sales just like the large retailers selling clothes or appliances. He only hired beautiful, young, female employees which helped sales. He would call me from time to time, complaining about the hoards of cash he was compelled to place in safe deposit boxes, because the federally chartered banks wouldn’t take deposits from cannabis stores as cannabis was illegal with the federal government. He could have deposited the cash into his personal accounts, although deposits of $10,000 or more were reported to the Treasury Department, triggering DEA scrutiny. Morty could make laborious, daily, $9,999 deposits into banks throughout the city, but he surmised this would also create DEA scrutiny. Morty didn’t trust foreign banks, and wouldn’t risk sending his cash fortune overseas.
Morty expressed interest in funneling his legal profits into a successful restaurant business with franchise potential, but he was always too busy to pursue the matter further with me. We were friends, of sorts, so I decided to phone him, and tell him of my predicament.
Morty always returned my calls promptly. He queried me like a physician on what drugs I was using. He ran me through the various Benzedrine’s, nicknamed “Bennies”, which are in the same family of “Valium”. He told me to try the following Benzedrine’s: “Klonopin”, “Ativan”, and “Xanax”. He remarked, “Ativan” was the most potent, and given to patients prior to surgery.
“If these “Bennie’s don’t work, I’m sending you a single syringe of heroin, Ben. It will be preloaded. Keep it in the refrigerator, and use it only as a last resort. You’ll get a quick, euphoric, long lasting high. Check out a YouTube video on how and where to inject it. I only want you to inject half of it, understand?”
“I’m not going to become a heroin “junkie, Morty!”
“You’re already an addict, “booby”! I know the “Bennies” aren’t working for you, and the last resort for relief of your anxiety is heroin. I implore you not to use heroin, Ben! I can tell you stories of clients including lawyers, doctors, and celebrities who ended up homeless or dead from heroin. I’m also suggesting you “kick” the ‘Bennies”. If you continue to mix them with alcohol, you’ll overdose like Morrison, Hendrix, Joplin, and Monroe.
Please let me check you into a rehab clinic. I know one in Malibu. It’s like staying at a five star hotel. I can get the Medical Director on the phone right now, and have you checked in this evening. I’ll take you up there myself. In a month, you’ll be feeling like a “champ”, and this whole pandemic thing will be over. You’ll be thinking clearly, and find a way to dig yourself out of your financial woes. If you’re short of cash, I’ll pay for the rehab. You made me millions. It’s the least I can do”.
“My credit cards are almost maxed out, I’m losing all my property to foreclosure, and I’m down to my last $50,000 in cash. My only option is filing for bankruptcy, and eventually, I’ll become homeless! I’d rather die, Morty!”
“It’s really that bad, Ben?”
“I’m also sending you a potent “joint” I sell only to my “VIP” clients. Cannabis is safer, and just might get you through these hard times. I “season” the cannabis with my own proprietary, narcotic, which gives the joint an added sedative effect, but only smoke half of the joint to see how your body reacts to it. I’m also sending you a vile of “Narcan”. When using your drugs, keep your phone nearby with the “Narcan”. If you’re struggling to breath, your heart slows, and you’re close to “blacking out”, dial 911, and tell them you’re overdosing from drugs. Stick the “Narcan” vial up your nose, press the trigger, and snort as hard as you can. My delivery “guy” will be at your place within the hour. All the meds will be marked with the recommended dosages.”
“What do I owe you, Morty?”
“It’s on me, Ben, but don’t call me again for pills or heroin. I’ll sell you cannabis but I won’t be responsible for your death from “Bennies” and heroin.
Morty scared me, but I thought,
“If I can calm my nerves with the drugs, maybe I can formulate a way of climbing out of my financial hole?”
I was already thinking like a junkie.
Within an hour, Morty’s delivery guy knocked. He wore a mask, said nothing, handed me a plane, paper bag, and split.
I stared at the hypodermic needle already loaded and I placed it in the refrigerator. I decided to use it only if my anxiety was unbearable. I reached for the bottle of “Ativan”, emptied the prescribed dosage into my palm, and washed the pills down with a glass of expensive, single malt, scotch whiskey. An hour later, I felt nothing but a slight buzz. If “Ativan” was the strongest “Bennie”, and mixing it with booze didn’t calm me, I had to try the heroin.
I was heading for the syringe of heroin when the phone rang. I answered, and yet another tenant was informing me she was closing her restaurant, and could no longer pay my rent. I hung up on her. I couldn’t take the stress anymore, and opened the refrigerator to retrieve the heroin. YouTube showed me “step by step” how to inject the heroin. I retreated to my lounge chair with the cell phone and “Narcan” in my lap. I was careful to inject only half of the syringe into my vein as Morty recommended. Within seconds of pressing down on the plunger of the syringe, a wave of euphoria swept over me from my head to my toes.
I fell into a deep, dark sleep. I felt happy, and content. There was no “bright light” at the end of a tunnel, or voices of relatives calling for me. It was only silence and a feeling of contentment. It occurred to me that I may be clinically dead, and I was at peace with death.
I was awoken from my bliss by my cell phone vibrating in my lap. The caller I.D. suggested it was my client, “Song.” I mumbled incoherently,
Song replied, “I’m sorry, did I wake you?”
“No you didn’t, but you may have saved my life!”
“Save your life? What do you mean?”
“I was joking. How may I help you?”
I pulled the syringe out of my arm. The heroin worked fast!
I rented Song her first Korean restaurant in my food court ten years earlier. Song was thirty five years old, Korean, and possessed a strong work ethic. She was beautiful, ambitious, and single. She arrived in the U.S., penniless, worked hard within Korean restaurants, scraped, and saved enough money to open a first restaurant in my food court. It was an instant success. I was proud of her. Before long, she was pestering me to sell her my food court!
I sold Song several restaurants over the years, mostly tired, old steak houses; she adroitly converted into steak and Korean fusion restaurants. They became instant hits. Song trusted my business acumen, and told me, “I made her lucky”. I never mixed business with “pleasure” and resisted her attempts to begin a romance. I looked after Song like a sister.
Song was “hell bent” upon becoming a millionaire by establishing a chain of Korean-American fusion restaurants. She was prone to “get rich quick” investments which I talked her out of. My advice to her always,
“Stick to what you know. There are no shortcuts to success.”
Song was eager to share a business proposal with me on the telephone. It was another “get rich quick” scheme, the type of business proposal I never would have pursued, and cautioned her against. But given my approaching financial ruin, drug and alcohol induced impaired thinking; I’d listen to any opportunity which might save my ass.
Song described a business man named “Mr. Kim”, who lived in Hong Kong, and was a multimillionaire with ties to the Chinese Government. He had eaten in Song’s restaurant on a recent business trip to Southern California, and was impressed with her restaurant menu, business acumen, and contacts with American businessmen. He wanted to be her financial backer in an ambitious five star restaurant expansion plan. I suggested a conference call with Mr. Kim as I had chased down many false leads in my career; anonymity with clients was always a “red flag” for me in business, and I needed to qualify Mr. Kim. Song insisted Mr. Kim wanted to meet personally, in Hong Kong, with all necessary parties present. The only information I could get out of Song was that Mr. Kim had $100,000,000 deposited within HSBC bank in Hong Kong.
China had tamped down on money transfers out of Hong Kong. Mr. Kim believed if he substituted an American partner to his HSBC account, he could get the money wired out of Hong Kong, and into the United States. Song described my restaurant experience, and trust in my good judgment, which impressed Kim. Mr. Kim was prepared to place the $100,000,000 into a new corporation with me as President, including a lavish salary and equity. Song would be my Executive Vice President. Our business plan would include investing in new restaurants operated by celebrity chefs in major North American cities, including Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver.
Song demanded we meet Mr. Kim in Hong Kong on Tuesday before travel restrictions were implemented by the government. It was Sunday night, so I needed to act quickly. I had never been to Hong Kong, and sitting at home during the pandemic watching my net worth evaporate, motivated me to get the hell out of the house and take a chance on a deal likely leading nowhere. Song agreed to provide all of the travel arrangements, including first class round trip airfare, and an evening stay at the first class, Hong Kong “Peninsula Hotel”. The meeting would take place at the private “Executive Lounge” within the Hong Kong International Airport. I instructed Song,
“Send my travel documents and I’ll get to work!”
I acquired many contacts through the years and could reach any celebrity chef through their agent. I also had a close working relationship with a partner of an international law firm in Southern California with an office in Hong Kong. I reached the attorney by cell phone, and he immediately placed me in touch with his counterpart in Hong Kong.
I reached the Hong Kong attorney, Mr. Woo, on his private cell phone, and I described Mr. Kim to Mr. Woo, who, coincidently, was acquainted with Mr. Kim’s reputation, and believed he was legit. He told me transferring the money would be complicated, requiring a new US Corporation and bank account, naming me President and Chief Executive Officer of the new company with full and unequivocal authority. Mr. Woo was frank, suggesting he would have to “call in some favors at HSBC”, conveniently a client of his law firm. Mr. Woo agreed to attend the meeting at the Executive Lounge. I was growing more excited by the second!
“Who would have thought a pandemic may enrich me beyond my wildest imagination?”
I was following a popular, Australian, celebrity chef, with successful restaurants in Sydney and London. I knew he was eager to expand into the States. After considerable effort, I reached his agent who told me his client would coincidently be transferring flights at Honk Kong International the same day. It all came together! In years past, I would have approached this deal “as too good to be true”. I didn’t stop to ponder whether it was the heroin and booze which convinced me that I might actually pull this deal together, but it didn’t matter. I was desperate.
I placed the remainder of the heroin in the refrigerator for my return home should the deal turn out to be “too good, to be true”. I pondered suicide if I returned home unsuccessful. Conversely, if I returned home victorious, I’d have Morty check me into rehab, get sober, and travel the world while managing the new corporation.
As I began packing, it was too cumbersome to carry four bottles of “Bennies” in my pocket. I found a large plastic bottle, and emptied the contents of all four Benzedrine’s into the bottle. When I needed them, it would be easy to empty the pills into my palm, and it didn’t matter which pills I was taking, as they were all the “same” as I was concerned.
I was in a deep sleep within the First Class Cabin on my flight to Hong Kong. I dreamt of my mom’s death from an overdose of booze and pills when I was fourteen. I was crying during my dream, as the announcement came over the speakers alerting us to our landing in Hong Kong. I awoke with trepidation as I did many a morning realizing I was running out of time to save my fortune. Needing to calm my nerves, I reached into my pocket, took out the bottle of pills, and washed down five assorted “Bennies” with a “Bloody Mary”. I never had been to Hong Kong, but the City looked beautiful from the air. In the distance, I could see the gleaming office towers and palatial homes nestled within the hills above the harbor. I packed light, quickly removed my bag from the overhead compartment, and departed the plane.
Walking into the terminal, I realized this was my last chance for a “big score”. My instincts told me I’d roll “snake eyes” but I had to take one last chance to dig myself out of financial ruin. The pills and booze gave me a strong buzz, made me dizzy, and felt as if I might pass out. I attempted to sit, but fell on my ass, trying to stand, and regain my composure. Nobody departing the plane stopped to assist me, stepping around me, unwilling to come to the aid of another human being in distress. One of the stewards quickly arrived to assist me, telling me, in broken English, to “sit quietly, while he barked orders into his phone in Cantonese for medical assistance. It wasn’t long before a young, airport hostess arrived in a golf cart. Both of the airline employees, helped me to my feet, and carefully walked me to the golf cart. The young hostess driving the cart, introduced herself as “Tin Si”, and asked where she could deliver me.
“I have an urgent appointment within the “Executive Lounge.”
She was impressed by my mention of “The Executive Lounge”, and assured me in English,
“I will escort you personally and safely to the Executive Lounge, reserved for First Class passengers, dignitaries, VIP’s, and replete with liquor, gourmet appetizers, showers, steam room, and masseuses. It’s very dignified and designed like a private club.”
I was an hour early and Tin Si escorted me to a comfortable booth. My head was spinning and I had a terrible headache.
“Your guests will be arriving shortly, Sir. I would normally offer you a cocktail, champagne, or a glass of wine while you wait, but instead, I will bring you a tall glass of water, mixed with green tea which will make you feel better. I suggest you drink as much water as possible before your meeting. I’ll also bring you aspirin and “Dramamine” if you feel dizzy.”
Then, to my surprise, she reached for the zipper on my trousers,
“Pardon me, Sir. Please allow me to adjust your zipper.”
She tactfully placed a pressed linen napkin over my waist, placed her hand underneath the napkin, and gently pulled up my zipper. Despite wearing a $10,000 “Brioni”, navy, pin striped suit, I had committed a fashion faux pas, and would have embarrassed myself, and possibly killed the deal walking in with my zipper down.
Tin Si was maybe, eighteen, petite, wore her hair short, suggesting to me she cut her hair herself, and exhibited extraordinary compassion and nurturing. She was likely a low paid employee, living within the low income neighborhoods of Hong Kong, but, she was my “Angel of Mercy”, assuring I made my appointment on time, and helped me to regain my composure to attend the meeting coherently.
The water, green tea, aspirin, and “Dramamine” sobered me, and I prayed I could stay awake during the meeting!
Tin Si returned to escort me to a private meeting room discretely located within the “Executive Lounge”. As I attempted to exit the booth, I became dizzy and almost fell, but for the quick action of Tin Si, who steadied me, she walked with me slowly with her arm around my shoulders into the private meeting room. I would have never made to the meeting without her kindness.
Tin Si slowly led me to Queen Anne chairs placed around a table, and discretely assisted me to sit, pulling out my chair for me, and left quickly. Nobody at the meeting was the wiser. The attendees had already arrived, four in total. The lounge staff was extremely attentive, but something about them, gave me the impression they were working below their “station” in life, and they outnumbered the guests within the lounge 3:1. I dismissed my impression as drug induced paranoia.
All of the attendees rose to greet me. I managed to stand briefly to shake hands, but quickly sat as the room spun inside my head. There was the distinguished and younger than anticipated, Mr. Kim, wearing an impeccably tailored suit, likely Seville Row, and red silk tie. His accent was distinctly Korean which gave me pause to consider his “close ties” with the Chinese government. He was refined, articulate, and jovial. Standing next to Kim was Song. The color “red” is considered a “lucky” color in Asia. She was a devotee of “Givenchy”, and her red, couture business suit, looked magnificent on her. The soles of her red pumps displayed the familiar red, “Christian Louboutin” red. I knew she only wore “Mikimoto” pearls, including a tennis bracelet, matching necklace, and, I presume, her jade earrings were purchased from her favorite jeweler, “Cartier”. Song clutched a black, alligator skin purse with the familiar “Bulgari” trademark, a coiled snake gold latch. Song looked like a princess.
My attorney from Hong Kong, Mr. Woo, introduced himself, and my research about him revealed he was the son of a Samsung executive stationed in San Francisco. Mr. Woo, “Carter”, was a standout student at Berkeley High School, and an “All American pole vaulter”. He attended both Harvard College and Harvard Law School. I felt confidant Carter was able to put the deal together. He spoke without an accent suggesting to me he was born in the States. He wore the familiar, gray “Brooks Brothers” conservative business suit, button down white shirt, red and navy blue “repp” tie, and brown “brogue” shoes. The celebrity chef, “Renaldo”, was also present with his agent. He was cocky because his restaurants were all the rage, and was talking a television deal. Renaldo must have weighed 300 pounds, and wore his remaining hair in a terrible “pull over”. He wore a tropical shirt displaying his huge waistline, and smoked a cigar. Renaldo’s agent, “Sammy”, was a cocky, young Hollywood kid working for a top talent agency. His agent was tough, young, and seasoned. I suspect he was born into the entertainment industry. Sammy dressed, “business casual”, but fashionable. They lacked the social graces of Mr. Kim, Carter, and Song, remarking,
“Let’s get down to business!”
I said to myself,
“It’s now or never.”
I knew Carter’s presence would add the necessary legitimacy to Mr. Kim’s business pedigree and net worth, gaining Renaldo and his agent’s confidence. Mr. Kim got right to business with no “small talk”. He’d appoint me as President of a new corporation created by him. I would be provided with a power of attorney, and added as the sole beneficiary to the $100,000,000 bank account held at HSBC. Because it would be an American corporation with no mention of Mr. Kim, HSBC assured Carter; the money could be transferred out of Hong Kong and into a new HSBC bank account within the States. HSBC was also a client of Carter’s law firm, and the President of HSBC in Hong Kong, assured Carter, he was prepared to take the “heat”, if any, from the Chinese banking regulators. Carter’s law firm was prestigious and trusted within high level political circles in Hong Kong. Carter inferred bribes would be paid by HSBC to Chinese officials to get the money out of Hong Kong, as a last resort.
Carter demanded that I would act independently without oversight of a Board of Directors. Mr. Kim replied,
“We trust Ben’s judgment impeccably, I agree to your demand. The details of Ben’s lucrative compensation and equity package will be agreed upon quickly, and to Ben’s satisfaction. The new corporation will be named, “Lucky Dragon, Inc.” Our objective will be the creation of restaurants managed by “celebrity chefs” operating only out of premier hotel and casino properties throughout North America. We will begin in Las Vegas.”
Renaldo appeared to be growing impatient. Naturally, he wanted to know what was in this deal for him. His agent assumed an aggressive posture, demanding,
“Let’s turn the conversation to my client!”
Mr. Kim addressed the cocky, young agent like a school boy,
“Chef Renaldo’s deal regarding the creation, design, and management of the restaurants, will be negotiated separately at the conclusion of this meeting. Understand, however, Chef Renaldo’s operation of the restaurants won’t supersede nor interfere with Ben’s authority. Renaldo will be working for Ben, although Renaldo will have exclusive design, staffing, and menu authority. Chef Renaldo will receive a handsome salary and equity which we will discuss shortly.”
Renaldo and his agent appeared happy and remained silent. Over the course of my real estate career, I met many businesspeople and could develop a “sixth sense” about them. I didn’t trust Renaldo and his agent. Of course, the drugs and booze in my system may have made me paranoid.
Carter agreed to have all the necessary legal documents for the transfer of the money, creation and management of “Lucky Dragon, Inc.” prepared within forty eight hours. At the conclusion of the meeting, we all shook hands. Mr. Kim commented,
“It was a pleasure to meet with you. Please allow myself, Chef Renaldo, and his agent, to finish our separate negotiations. I wish you a pleasant trip home and look forward to our business venture.”
I rose slowly from my chair, still woozy, and Song took me by the arm and escorted me and Carter out of the meeting room. The heavy walnut door to the private meeting room slammed shut. Carter shook my hand, saying,
“I think it went well but it’s all up to HSBC”.
“I’m suspicious Renaldo and his agent are negotiating a direct deal with Mr. Kim, cutting out Song and myself. Carter. ”
“What gives you that impression, Ben?”
“It’s the “smart move”. Mr. Kim has the money but only needs a popular chef to get started. When word of their partnership gets out, prime hotel and casino real estate properties will be presented to them without my assistance. He doesn’t need Song or me.”
“Would you like me to continue with the contracts, Ben?”
“Wait a few days; let’s see what happens?”
“Very well, Ben. I’ll be in touch within seventy two hours. I wish you both a safe and pleasant trip home.”
Carter departed. Song appeared melancholy and confused,
“Why would Mr. Kim “go around us?”
“Don’t be alarmed, Song. I didn’t trust the chef and his agent, but it’s Mr. Kim’s decision. He likes you and sought you out. I hope he will honor his proposal to you. We’ll know shortly.”
“I trust your instincts, Ben, and I hope Mr. Kim will move forward with us.”
She took my hand, and led me into a discrete corner of the Executive Lounge, out of sight of the help.
Song whispered in my ear,
“I want to show you something.”
She removed from her exquisite, black alligator, Louis Vuitton wallet, a One Hundred Dollar bill, saying,
“Examine this hundred, carefully.”
I held it up to the light and saw the familiar watermarks. It appeared to be genuine.
“What’s your point, Song?”
“Compare it to one of yours, Ben.”
I reached into my wallet, and removed a One hundred Dollar bill. We laid them side by side, turned them over, held both of the bills to the light, both revealing the familiar watermarks, and additional security features.
“Look closely at the paper, Ben.”
The paper looked familiar.
“Close your eyes, Ben. Feel the texture of each bill.”
The paper felt similar. Song whispered,
“The bill I gave you to examine is counterfeit. It was printed by the “masters” of counterfeit currency, the North Koreans. There is an opportunity for us to launder millions of these into the States, through the new corporation. Restaurants and casinos are cash businesses and perfect to launder the counterfeit bills.”
She placed the bill inside my coat pocket, saying,
“Take it for a “test drive”.
“Song, I didn’t sign up for a counterfeit money laundering enterprise. What the hell is going on?”
“Mr. Kim gave me the bill. I realize the counterfeit money laundering might endanger our business enterprise, but Mr. Kim assured me our restaurant investment endeavor remains unchanged. The counterfeit currency is just a side endeavor, if you’re interested? Think it through, we can discuss later. Goodbye for now, I have to return to the meeting. ”
A chill ran up my spine, and I shouted,
“Get back here, Song!”
She returned with a puzzled look on her face.
“I’ve cautioned you against “get quick rich schemes” but you’re dealing with counterfeit money which can land us in jail for the remainder of our lives. I don’t how you met Mr. Kim, but if he’s involved in this money laundering, you and I are out of this deal. Got it?”
Song pouted like a little girl,
“What should I do, Ben?”
“Song, do you have any more counterfeit bills on your possession?”
“No, Ben. Just the one I showed you.”
“Run, don’t walk, to your flight, and get the hell out of Hong Kong! Let me give this some thought, but we won’t communicate with Mr. Kim again! I’ll be back in touch with you shortly!”
“If you believe it’s best, I’ll follow your advice, Ben.”
The euphoria of our meeting was deflating for me quickly.
“How could I fall for such a ruse?”
I was humiliated by involving a corporate law firm, and a world renowned celebrity chef within a counterfeit currency criminal conspiracy, but given my burning desire to dig myself out of my financial ruin, and my mind clouded by drugs and booze; I pondered the possibilities of laundering the counterfeit money through the new corporation. I had no alternative other than bankruptcy or suicide. Maybe I’d be killed in prison and avoid suicide?
It occurred to me that I didn’t thank and tip Tin Si who was my “angel” in time of need. I looked about the room for her, but she was nowhere to be seen. I asked one of the waiters if he knew her whereabouts.
“Tin Si brought me to the meeting in a golf cart. She served me at the booth. Can you find her?”
“Don’t know her. There are many workers at airport!”
My “angel” flew away never to be seen again, but I would always remain grateful to her.
As I was exiting the executive lounge, a burly group of Asian and a Caucasian man entered the Executive lounge, heading straight towards the private meeting room. The Caucasian man was American judging from their conversation. It crossed my mind that perhaps I wasn’t the only “candidate” for the investment opportunity. On the other hand, their suits were wrinkled, and appeared purchased “off the rack”. I’d think they would show up dressed more professionally, if successful businessmen. I was becoming more suspicious, depressed, and disappointed by the minute. I got the hell out of the lounge quickly.
As I walked down the concourse to my gate, I passed a coffee shop named, “Dante’s Roasting Company”. It was busy and looked inviting. I entered and relished the opportunity to enjoy a fresh, warm cup of latte and reflect upon the meeting, and a strategy moving forward. Without the narcotics and booze clouding my judgment, the answer would be to walk away from the deal. I made my way to the counter, and, noticing a full bar, I asked for a double shot of “Kahlua” in my latté.
The place was crowded and I had difficulty finding a seat. As I walked about, I caught the glance of a young woman who waved me towards a narrow place aside her on the sofa with a table upon which she had laid out books and a notepad.
“Here’s a seat, Sir. You’re welcome to sit here.”
I squeezed in. She was courteous and attractive. Her hair was long, black, and flowed down her shoulders, glistening like mirrors. I thought I caught a glimpse of myself in her shiny hair, and didn’t like what I saw. She wore a cashmere crew net sweater, navy blue pleated skirt, and a pair of fashionable, Gucci loafers. Her nails were beautifully manicured to a sharp point with red nail polish. She wore little makeup, and looked like an English boarding school student from an elite family.
I removed my notepad from my briefcase, and began to review the notes from our meeting. I kept thumbing through the pages, to and fro, more skeptical of the deal with each passing minute, which caught the attention of the young woman,
“Excuse me, Sir. Are you an attorney?”
“No. I’m a real estate investor.”
“Your focus, concentration, and attention to detail, reminded me of an attorney. I hope I didn’t insult you?”
I noticed she had opened Julius Caesar’s, “The Gallic Wars”, and was taking copious notes. I asked,
“Are you a professor?”
“No, Sir. I’m a student”.
“Thank you for the compliment, Sir. I’m an undergraduate majoring in the classics with a minor in Latin. I’m 27 years old.”
She looked older than an undergraduate, and was dressed more professionally than most students I’ve met. She reached out to shake my hand. Her grip was firm, and she stared deep into my eyes without blinking.
“My name is Hecate, pleased to meet you, Sir.”
She had piecing, deep blue eyes, and wouldn’t let go of my hand until I gave her my name. There was something prescient about her, as if she “tapped into” my soul, knew my pain, and had known me my entire life.
“I’m Ben, pleased to meet you, Hecate. You have a very unusual name. Where are you from?”
“Here, there, a little bit of everywhere.”
Hecate’s answer was ambiguous but I didn’t give it any further thought.
Hecate impressed me because every kid of my business associates was a “STEM” major looking for a quick buck after graduation. Yet, Hecate was studying the classics. I admired her.
“What brings you to Hong Kong and how did you come to major in the classics, Hecate?”
“I’m in Hong Kong for a vacation break after final examinations. I was introduced to the classics by a professor I met in group therapy.
“In group therapy?” What a curious response, I thought?
“The professor took a liking to me, encouraged me to read the classics, and tutored me, believing it would be a therapeutic treatment to my addiction. These books, although written centuries ago, still have relevance, providing guidance to lost souls.”
“What do you mean, “addiction”?
“I was a heroin addict, meth freak, and alcoholic.”
I was flabbergasted. This preppy young woman looked like a “poster girl for an Ivy League college catalogue.”
“I’ve seen that look of confusion before, Ben. I’m not ashamed to tell you my story.”
“I would like to hear it.”
“I was an only child and my family lived a comfortable, middle class lifestyle. I took some film courses in university and developed a talent for sound mixing and editing. I managed to pick up gigs on sound stages and recording studios, making good money. Unfortunately, the music business doesn’t pair well with money. I was working long hours, meeting addicts, and before long, I was boozing, smoking pot, and chasing greater highs. I developed a meth addiction but the only drug which would satisfy my cravings was heroin. They found me unconscious in a public bathroom with a needle sticking out of my arm. I was on the “merry go round” of addiction, jail, rehab, and relapse. I lost my job, possessions, and became homeless. My family disowned me.”
If that wasn’t enough, this articulate, soft-spoken, collegiate, young woman, looked me in the eye, without blinking, and without emotion, saying,
“In order to feed my habit, I’d take you on as a “trick”, beat, rob, or kill you to get your money!”
A chill ran up my spine. I realized the drug addiction had aged her appearance and led her into doing unspeakable things. I wanted to know more.
“How the hell did you go from addict to a student of the classics?”
“I hit rock bottom. I found myself naked, on the edge of a high rise building, ready to jump to my death. I needed to stop the endless hunger for heroin, and the guilt associated with hurting my family, and those I robbed, beat, stole, and screwed for money. The professor of classics I met in group therapy saved my life by taking my cell phone call for help, talking me off the ledge, and turning me onto the classics after I completed rehab. The ancient lessons I learn from the classics keep me on the “straight and narrow”. From the first classical book I picked up, each page has provided ancient wisdom, and “battle strategies” which conquer compulsive behaviors, depression, sadness, and eliminating the need for drugs.”
I was overwhelmed by Hecate’s story.
“You should be proud of yourself, Hecate. What’s your plan moving forward?”
“I’ve got two years to complete my Bachelor’s. I’ll move on to graduate school where I’ll earn my Master’s and PhD. I’d enjoy helping others who are suffering with addiction.”
Hecate’s story sounded familiar, but I was in denial of my own drug addiction. I leaned back, took a deep breath, and reached into my pocket for my bottle of “Bennies” which I placed on the table in front of me.
“If you don’t mind my asking, Ben, are you troubled?”
I didn’t expect such a direct question from a young stranger. She looked me squarely in the eye, convincing me she knew my pain.
“Why do you ask that, Hecate?”
“You quickly reached into your pocket for your med’s. I recognize that behavior. Why are you taking a mixed bottle of meds?”
I hurriedly reached for the bottle, spilling multiple tablets into my palm, and washed them down with the warm latté.
“What are you taking, Ben?”
“Valium”, “Xanax”, “Ativan”, and “Klonopin”. I was ashamed and lied “I have a fear of flying, and, sometimes, I take them just to relax.”
“You’re embarrassed, Ben, but I know all those drugs aren’t necessary to alleviate your fear of flying. They’re all Benzedrine’s. I used to crush those tablets; crushing and snorting them created a quicker high, but soon, I needed a stronger and longer high. It led to a heroin addiction.”
A frightening connection between Hecate’s drug addiction and mine became apparent. I remembered the half filled syringe of heroin waiting for me in my refrigerator, and concluded I may be heading for a heroin addiction. I was in denial, and couldn’t admit to her that I took a fix of heroin. Something told me Hecate had already assumed I took the “leap” into Heroin.
“Ben, the drugs lessen the pain and anxiety, but, over time, they’ll cause you to make decisions you never thought possible. Your thinking will become cloudy. I never thought I’d have sex with a stranger in a public toilet in order to score a fix! Soon, you’ll be searching for the “quick buck” to pay for your “fix”, and it’s always the “quick buck”, which lands you in jail, and the drugs will kill you. You might also find yourself standing on the edge of a roof top ready to jump to your death. You have too much to live for, Ben. To paraphrase something I read in one of the classics,
“One must walk through the cold winter of defeat before they may sprint through the warm springtime of victory.”
Kick all of the drugs, and “winter” will be short for you, Ben.”
“As you grow older, Hecate, you’ll discover its difficult being closer to the end of life rather than the beginning. There’s no time left for me to start over.”
“I suspect the pandemic has turned your life upside down, Ben. However, traumatic events like a pandemic are tests of mankind’s resilience. Catastrophes’ force people to examine their lives, dig deep within their souls, discover their priorities, and choose to live or die. It’s not the first pandemic or catastrophe, nor will it be the last. I’ve witnessed many throughout the millennia; I meant to say, I’ve read about these challenges to mankind through the classics. Vaccines can kill the virus, medicines and ventilators can keep people alive, but nothing but the resilience of the human soul, and desire to live, can change your life for the better!”
“Yeah kid, life is easy when you’re young, even after kicking a drug addiction. Try my shoes on for size in about thirty years. I may lose everything I’ve worked for due to this pandemic!”
“You feel helpless, Ben, I’ve been there, but since getting sober, I great each day with joy and exuberance. I never dreamed I’d be wearing nice clothes and attending college. I can conquer any challenge sober. When you get back home, check yourself into rehab. You appear to be able to afford a first class rehabilitation clinic. Get sober. You’re life depends upon it.”
Hecate looked me in the eyes again, without blinking, and said,
“The path you’re on will kill you.”
I was shaken up and needed to wash down some pills.
”Please excuse me; I need to visit the Men’s Room.”
As I squeezed out of the booth, Hecate held my hand tightly, and stared deeply into my eyes admonishing me,
“Get “clean” soon, Ben! You have plenty of living to do. I hope we don’t meet again, but if we do, the pleasure will be all mine.”
My head was spinning, and I stumbled to the bathroom. I was shaken up by Hecate. I felt as though she was holding up a mirror for me to look at myself, and I didn’t like what I saw. All I could think about was downing my despair with more meds. I wish I had the heroin. I popped some pills, washed my face with cold water, and tried to regain my composure.
When I returned from the bathroom, Hecate was gone but Caesar’s “Gallic War’s” was slipped discretely under my briefcase. Hecate highlighted for my attention, a liner note within the book’s cover, suggesting Caesar’s motivation for the military campaign was to “plunder territories with the goal of getting himself out of debt” to which I could relate. I barely mentioned my financial situation, so why would Hecate highlight this liner note for me, I pondered?
As I left Dante’s, I headed toward my gate. I had about an hour before boarding. I was agitated by my meeting with Hecate and the counterfeit bill concerned me, I wanted rid of it. I spied a cozy bar conveniently located nearby my gate. I thought I’d sit, order a beer, and attempt to understand the day’s events. I was quivering from the last round of pills.
The waiter approached. He was a Chinese man, exquisitely dressed in a black tuxedo, wearing white gloves; spoke with an impeccable English accent, and asked politely for my order,
“How may I serve you, Sir?”
“I’ll take the strongest beer on tap!”
“We have a 9% “Demon” IPA, Sir.”
“I’ll have it!”
“My name is “Charles” Sir. May I arrange for your suit jacket to be pressed and your shoes polished while you enjoy your libration, Sir?”
“That won’t be necessary, Charles.”
I reached inside my pocket, removed my bottle of drugs, and placed it on the table. I also removed the counterfeit $100 bill, and thought it would be an opportunity to “test drive” the counterfeit bill as Song suggested. At the other side of the lounge, a Chinese, teenage girl, sat at a grand piano, and like a virtuoso, played a beautiful piece I didn’t recognize.
Charles returned with a tall, frosty, beer glass, the bottle of “Demon” IPA, and a crystal serving tray of assorted cheeses, olives, and English biscuits. He reached for the pressed, white linen napkin, gently laid it across my lap, and carefully poured my beer. He placed the snacks on the table, each within its own, exquisite, Chinese inspired, porcelain bowl.
“What is the pianist playing, Charles?”
“She’s playing “Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No.2”, Sir”
“Do you know its significance?”
Charles leaned into me, and whispered,
‘It’s a member of one of the classical funeral concertos. We’ve asked her not to include it, but she forgets. I apologize if it’s inappropriate; I’ll ask her to cease playing, Sir.”
“It’s beautiful, Charles. Please don’t disturb the pianist.”
“Very well, Sir. I’ll be nearby. Please summon me should you require my services.”
I handed Charles the counterfeit $100,
“Bring me the check and a book of matches, Charles.”
I reached for the glass, and my hand trembled from the conversation with Hecate about death, and a funeral concerto agitated me further!
I raised the glass to my lips and my hand continued to tremble. I glanced over at the long fuselage of the gleaming jetliner which would take me home. I imagined the comfortable first class cabin seat which awaited me, eager for that long, undisturbed, alcohol and pill combination, placing me into a deep sleep until the plane landed home. I was looking forward to that second fix of heroin in my refrigerator knowing the trip to Hong Kong was a failure. I took a sip of the beer, but I couldn’t get out of my mind the peculiar meeting with Hecate, and the piano concerto continued to increase my anxiety. I remember Hecate’s story of the perilous journey she took as an addict, and believed I was following the same path to destruction. It crossed my mind to begin planning my suicide!
Charles returned with my change, and I was relieved the bill cleared. I handed him the $75 in change, and requested,
“Please bring me one shot of single malt scotch whiskey. Keep the change. I need to visit the bathroom, and will be back, shortly.”
“Of course, Sir. Thank you for your generosity.”
“Charles, please give the young pianist $10 of the change.”
“Yes, Sir. She will appreciate your generosity as well.”
The bathroom was empty. I found an open stall, closed the door, lowered my pants, and began to relieve myself. As I sat, I rummaged through my carry on and found the plastic bag with Morty’s joint. I’d never smoked anything before, and decided to smoke the joint. I placed it to my lips, lit it, and took a deep drag. I coughed but felt immediate relaxation and contentment. I took several more drags, coughing after each, and felt more relaxed with each puff of the joint, finishing only half of it as Morty suggested. I flushed the remaining joint down the toilet, freshened up and returned to my table. As I sat, all of the colors, sounds, and smells of the airport were like experiencing a “Technicolor” movie, and I was completely at ease and content.
“Maybe the joints were my solution after all?”
Charles returned with my shot of whiskey, placing a clean, pressed, linen napkin on my lap.
I heard a commotion, and saw a line of police officers running down the concourse towards the Executive Lounge. I looked over at my terminal and saw my boarding would be delayed thirty minutes. I asked Charles,
“What’s the reason for all the cops?”
Charles leaned into me and whispered,
“There was a police undercover “sting” within the Executive Lounge with arrests, Sir. Have no concerns about the counterfeit bill, you’ll be permitted to board your plane. Please don’t return again to Hong Kong. I wish you a pleasant journey home.”
It occurred to me that the airport was on “lock down” by police authorities, and the sting was a major police undercover operation.
“Why am I permitted to leave, Charles?”
“We questioned your business associate, Song, before she boarded her plane. She satisfied us that both of you were not implicated, and we decided not to charge either of you. We investigated Song’s business success within the United States, and she has very strong banking ties with Hamni Bank whose President vouched for her legitimacy. I might add, Sir, she spoke very highly of your business ethics.”
I remembered that it was the practice of the North Korean government to open legitimate businesses throughout the world as a way of getting much needed cash into their coffers. I suspected the $100,000,000 was likely the property of the North Korean government. I also remembered reading about the North Korean’s sophisticated counterfeiting techniques. I thought to myself, the guys in the bad suits, and the over abundance of help, were likely undercover cops.
Mr. Kim was either complicit or not, but I didn’t want anything to do with him, and was grateful Song was shielded from criminal complicity. The day was beginning “to add up” to me. Without Song’s endorsement, I could have been arrested. I was eager to board my plane, and take off.
The pressures of the day were affecting my health. My heart beat was slowing; I was struggling for breath, and I was slowly losing consciousness. I remembered Morty’s advice about taking the ’Narcan”. Morty’s “secret seasoning” of the joint must have included “Oxycodone”, a potent opiate. I feared falling into unconsciousness, emptied my travel case on to the floor, found the ‘Narcan” dispenser, stuck it up my nose, hit the plunger, and breathed deeply. Within seconds, my heart beat returned to normal and I regained consciousness, thankful to be alive. For the first time in weeks, my mind was clear. It must have been a side effect of the ‘Narcan”, and avoiding arrest.
Charles came running to my aid but I politely waived him off, collected my possessions, and placed them back into my carryon. I thought about the syringe of heroin awaiting me in my refrigerator, my near arrest, and thoughts of suicide. I was jolted into taking responsibility for my addiction, getting sober, and felt confident about the future. I sprung into action with a flurry of text messages.
I first texted my attorney, Carter,
“Shady information concerning Mr. Kim came to my attention. Deals off! Inform all parties immediately. I recommend you erase any records of your meeting with Mr. Kim to protect yourself and your law firm. Notify Renaldo and his agent, as well. Song and I are out of the deal!” Carter replied,
“Yes, Sir. Thank you for the intelligence on Mr. Kim, which I will convey to HSBC. I’m wishing you a pleasant trip home.”
My next text was to Song,
“I don’t have a good feeling about this deal, Song. We’re out! I instructed my attorney to cease all negotiations. You worked too long and hard to build your business, and you could lose it all. I recommend that you immediately destroy any computer on which you communicated with Mr. Kim, and that includes your cell phone. Furthermore, get in touch with your “Cloud” provider immediately, and instruct them to permanently erase any communication between you and Mr. Kim. I’ll be checking into a rehab center upon arrival home, I’ll text you the name. We can talk about an idea I have for a lucrative, restaurant, franchise opportunity incorporating your Korean American fusion recipes. I may have a legitimate investor interested in underwriting the deal.”
Song immediately wrote back,
“I’m already in the air and heading home, Ben. My restaurant manager has already broken the computer into small pieces and deposited the rubble into trash bins throughout the neighborhood. My “Cloud” provider has confirmed the “Kim” files have been permanently deleted. I’ll destroy and replace my cell phone the minute I land. Thank you for being my trusted friend all these years, Ben. I look forward to discussing our new business venture.”
Song’s text message, made me feel useful, relevant, wanted, and loved. My low self esteem needed the boost, and it felt better than the high from the drugs.
My final text was to Morty,
“I’m leaving Hong Kong. Check me into rehab immediately upon arrival!”
Morty’s reply was quick,
“I’ll meet you at the terminal. I have you registered into the most lavish rehab center in Malibu. The Medical Director is “Chief of the Addiction Recovery Unit” at UCLA and will be there to greet you, and personally examine you. He’ll make you comfortable and get you on your way to sobriety. You’ll emerge a “new man” and ready to begin a new life, buddy.”
“I have a lucrative, restaurant investment proposal in mind which will legitimately eliminate your necessity to hoard cash, Morty.”
“I can’t wait to hear it, Ben. You’re already thinking clearly, brotha.”
I was happy Song was on her way home. Song was a good friend. She didn’t have to vouch for me with the authorities but she did! Morty’s eagerness to help me get sober warmed my heart. I was lucky to have them as friends.
They called my flight and I swiftly walked to the gate. I reached for my cell phone to swipe the barcode under the scanner, and I found my way to my comfortable First Class seat. The steward approached, and offered a flute of champagne which I placed on the pull down tray. I stared at the bubbles rising to the top of the flute and the bottle of pills clutched within my hand.
The day’s events really unnerved me. A visit to beautiful Hong Kong, the specter of a multimillion dollar business enterprise, and the counterfeit bill just didn’t add up, but what was running through my thoughts like a “freight train , was the prophetic warning given to me by Hecate,
“Soon, you’ll be searching for the “quick buck” to pay for your “fix”, and it’s always the “quick buck”, which lands you in jail, and the drugs will kill you.”
I was fortunate to have met Hecate who helped me confront my drug addiction. I summoned the steward, asking him to remove the flute of champagne, bring a Diet Coke, and place the bottle of pills in the trash.
We were given the go ahead to lift off. I took a deep breath, finished the diet coke, and grateful, we weren’t implicated in a criminal conspiracy. We caught a break by being excused from the meeting by Mr. Kim who was certainly arrested with Renaldo and his agent.
As the plane ascended high into the clouds, I felt it was a metaphor. Although my life reached rock bottom, I had nowhere to go but “up”! It felt good to have friends like Song and Morty, and I felt a refreshing new self esteem sweep over me.
I reached inside my briefcase, and opened Caesar’s “Gallic Wars.” As I opened the inside cover, I found a handwritten inscription,
“Pleased to meet you,
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game?”
The ink appeared fresh causing me to ponder the message Hecate wrote to me,
“Was she inferring Caesar was speaking to me from the pages of history, advising me to “press on” and fight the necessary “battles” to overcome my own “debts”, or, was it something more profound she was inferring?”
I’ll never know the purpose of the inscription. I was simply grateful for the life saving message delivered to me in an airport coffee shop by a “stranger”.
I was looking forward to rehab, and excited about structuring a lucrative, Korean-American fusion, restaurant franchise business together with Morty and Song. For the first time since hearing of the pandemic, I was confidant I would dig my way out of financial ruin, and live sober with a fabulous future ahead of me.
The pills, alcohol, and stress of the day placed me into a deep sleep. I dreamt that I was the beautiful, Marlin, with a savage “hook” imbedded inside my mouth, struggling to free myself, and being reeled into a certain, horrible death; then, I heard Hecate’s awkward goodbye, “The pleasure will be all mine.”
I’ll be late for the Christmas party!
I was a tall, lanky, studious kid, lacking in athletic skills, with the acne inherited from dad which plagued me throughout school, and kept me from attracting girls. The only date I ever had was with a foreign exchange student at the Senior Prom, who dumped early in the evening to hang out with the “jocks”.
Mom and dad were high school sweethearts and married after graduation from high school in the sixties. Rather than be separated by the draft, they both volunteered to join the Air Force who promised to station them together. My mom was an enlisted clerk-typist, and my father flew on “Huey” helicopters, rescuing downed pilots. Dad dreamed of becoming a Seattle firefighter, completed his examinations, and was scheduled for the next years training class after receiving his Honorable Discharge from the Air Force. Mom made it home but dad was killed in action. Mom loved dad, and spoke of him frequently. He was kind, gentlemanly, strong, smart, but she used to tell me about the awful jokes his crew told him because of his acne scars,
“Holms, you don’t need a gun to scare away the “VC”, all they have to do is get a look at your ugly, scarred mug!”
My dad loved his crew and never took their ribbing seriously. I was born about six months after mom arrived home, and was discharged from the Air Force. Mom was tough and smart. She immediately applied for a “VA” home loan, requiring no down payment, and found us a cute, comfortable, home in Arlington. My mom wanted the best for us. She only earned a high school diploma, and realized she needed more skills to land a well paying job. She took advantage of her “GI Bill” benefits taking bookkeeping courses at the local community college, while I was with her mother or in childcare. Mom started in the secretarial pool at Boeing, and was promoted quickly through the ranks, into the position of “Director of Payroll”, reporting to the CFO.
Mom met my step father, Mel, who was a hard working, blue collar employee at Boeing with almost twenty years under his belt. Although Mel was short, stout, pudgy, and balding, mom was lonely, and Mel’s work ethic reminded her of dad, so they began dating, and later, decided to marry. Mel spent his days uncomfortably positioned within the nose cones of jetliners, soldering electrical components. I believe the cramped conditions caused him acute back pain, and the soldering fumes damaged his brain. He never missed a day of work, and accepted all the overtime that was available.
I believe the back pain, fumes, and the many hours working in cramped conditions, changed him from the decent man my mom loved, into an angry monster. He would clock out after work, head to the tavern with his buddies, get drunk, head home, and often scold my mother for the food she had meticulously placed on the table hours earlier, which was no longer warm. He screamed at mom,
“Why the hell isn’t my supper hot?
“Mel, honey, I expected you home by six thirty. I’m not running a diner!”
“What the hell did you say to me woman? Sitting all day on your ass, high atop headquarters, with all the big shots, put twenty pounds on you. I can’t stand the sight of you anymore!”
Mom began crying. Mel approached mom with his fist clenched,
“Don’t you ever disrespect my mother, you bastard! I’m going to teach you a lesson in manners!”
“Why don’t you try and give me my first lesson, pimple punk!”
I grabbed a fork, ready to leap from my seat at the dinner table and pummel Mel.
Mom placed her hands firmly upon my shoulders preventing me to rise from the dinner table.
“It’s all right, honey. Mel is just tired and hungry. Go sit in your recliner, Mel. I’ll reheat your meal and bring it to you on a tray.”
Mel stumbled into the living room and fell into his recliner, falling asleep.
“I hate that bastard, mom. You don’t have to take any more crap from him!”
“It’s between Mel, and me, honey. You stay out of it. I don’t want anything jeopardizing your bright future.”
Mom kissed me on the cheek, and retreated to the kitchen.
Mel didn’t spare any contempt for his stepson, often hurling insults at me,
“Why don’t I ever see you on a date? Is it that pimple scarred face frightening the girls away, or are you gay?”
I never burdened mom by telling her about Mel’s insults, but I feared sooner or later, I’d have to defend mom from a beating. I don’t know why mom stayed with him. Mel and I seldom spoke with each other. I realized he was jealous knowing a white collar, well paid job, was waiting for me at Boeing as mom reported directly to the CFO. Mel would often look over my text books as I studied accounting, and sarcastically remark, “Text books are meant for the dunces at headquarters who could learn a thing or two from the men completing the hard work on the factory floor!”
Mel accidently started a fire while soldering wires, the flames rose so quickly, it melted the nose cone into a closed coffin, where he burned to death. Rescue was impossible. It took a team of workers two hours just to open the melted sarcophagus and retrieve his charred body. Mom kept her feelings about the loss of Mel to herself. I suspect she was glad to be rid of him.
I won a full academic scholarship to the nearby University of Washington where I majored in business administration and accounting. I enjoyed the natural beauty of Seattle and spent my weekends hiking and exploring the beautiful woods and mountains. The fragrance of the tall trees, fauna, and sparklingly streams made a lasting impression on me.
I graduated with honors from U of W and my mother already had a junior auditor position lined up for me at Boeing. I was good with accounting and my mother pleaded with me to join Boeing, but I didn’t like the noise of the Boeing factory floor, smell of chemicals, barking loudspeakers, and the tight quarters the employees worked within. At my mom’s urging, I agreed to meet with her boss, the CFO of Boeing. He was a tall, slender, handsome, brilliant, aerospace engineer, much younger than I would have expected. He was also kind, considerate, but tested my ability to work with financial reports. I passed his testing with ease and humility.
“Hutch’s Lumber Company”, was located in a nondescript, midrise office building with a commanding view of the port, where, from the President’s office, Mr. Hutchison could watch his lumber being loaded onto truck trailers, rail cars, and cargo ships destined for locations throughout the US, and the world for the construction of new homes and buildings.
Mr. Hutchinson survived Iwo Jima, and, after discharge from the Marine’s, returned to his native Seattle. Armed only with a buzz saw, axe, and a flatbed lumber truck, he leased forest land suitable for cutting quality lumber, began cutting trees, and selling them to the mills. His timing was perfect as post WW2 America was experiencing a home building boom. He soon bought the land and many additional acres surrounding it, in addition to building his own milling operation, resulting in higher profits. Within a decade, Hutch’s Lumber Company was one of the largest employers in Seattle. Mr. Hutchinson had a reverence for the forest. He was always considerate to cut trees only in areas where the ecosystem wouldn’t be upset, and would plant saplings for future cutting. There wasn’t a name for it at the time, but he was the forerunner of “sustainability”.
After I left the Boeing interview, and was awarded a job offer, I hit the freeway and found myself behind a bright red “Hutch’s Lumber Company” truck loaded with neatly stacked, freshly cut lumber. I was curious, and wanted to see what the lumber business was all about. Hutch’s Lumber Company was a prestigious company in Seattle, and I always admired their bright red flat bed trucks hauling neatly stacked lumber or recently felled trees. I followed the truck to its headquarters. I asked the guard at the gate if I could visit the employment office. It was refreshing to be free from the classroom, the confinement of an aerospace factory, and witness the hard working men and women, wearing overalls, gloves, silver hard hats, whistling, joking, and ribbing each other, as they cut, loaded, and performed their work outside in the lumber yard, rain or shine, warm or cold.
I was told to wait outside a tiny, one room office with the door marked, “Employment”. Behind the door, I could make out the faint sound of a man “making time” with a woman on the telephone. I braced myself in my “Sears best” suit when I heard the phone slam and the door open. I was greeted by Nathan Andrew Hutchison, whose card read, “Personnel Department Chief”. Nathan was handsome, tall, blond, athletic, and was Mr. Hutchinson’s only son. Nathan invited me to sit, quickly reviewed my sparse resume, but his interest picked up when he read, “University of Washington graduate.”
“Hello, fellow “Husky!” I graduated last year. Man, a double major in business and accounting; you took college seriously. I majored in “frat parties” and barely graduated. Why do you want to work here? There’s plenty of work for an “accounting” guy in the fancy, glass office towers in Seattle?”
“I enjoy the forest and have a reverence for the beautiful trees, streams, and rivers of Seattle. I’ve always appreciated your company’s stewardship of the woods.”
“What’s your ultimate goal, “Edgar Holms?”
“I’d like to work my way into the accounting department and make a positive contribution to your company’s “bottom line”.
“I like you Holms but my pop has a hard and fast rule about new hires which usually results in smart candidates like you turning and running.”
“What’s that, Mr. Hutchison?”
“You’re required to spend a year working alongside the “hard hats” out in the lumber yard. You’ll wear a hard hat, overalls, gloves, and load or ship lumber for one year. We pay well, offer great benefits, overtime, but it can be grueling work, especially when we’re up against a deadline, or it’s raining and cold. If your foreman gives you the “thumbs up” after twelve months, I’ll promote you into headquarters. You can start tomorrow, but I’ve got to run now for an early dinner date with a former Husky cheerleader. Want the job? I need your answer now.”
“Thank you for the opportunity Mr. Hutchison. I’ll make you and the company proud!”
“I’m confidant you will, Holms. The shift starts at 6:00 am. Get yourself a pair of steel toed work boots, leather gloves, metal helmet, and dress for the changing Seattle weather conditions. Tell the guard at the gate, you’re there to see the Foreman, Mr. Rogers. Good luck.”
During my first six months, the work was grueling. Many a night, I’d skip dinner and go right to bed. I woke every morning at 4:30, grabbing my metal lunch box, lovingly prepared by mom the night before, and be out the door and on the freeway. Most days, the shift would extend hours after 4:00 pm quitting time, lasting late into the evening. The overtime was generous, and since I was living at home, my bank account was growing rapidly.
I enjoyed my work. I developed camaraderie with the hard working, less educated workers with large families whose livelihood depended upon their jobs. They taught me “tricks of the trade” on loading wood, driving a forklift, maneuvering a diesel truck with a flatbed trailer within tight quarters, but most of all, how to stay safe. There was a twenty year veteran of the company who was killed when an unsecured pile of wood fell off the trailer and crushed him to death.
We’d share stories at lunch, talk sports, and were a friendly team. I was always invited by the crew to join them for a beer at a nearby tavern after work, but I didn’t drink. They didn’t take offense when I declined their invitations.
In six months, my muscles grew, and my acne disappeared. I felt like a man. The crew referred to Nathan Andrew Hutchinson as “NAH” behind his back, because it was short for “Never Ass Hole” when somebody expected a raise, bonus, or submitted an idea for improving efficiency in the yard. The crew considered him a lazy, no talent, example of nepotism, and didn’t respect him. I refrained from referencing Nathan with disrespect.
The employees loved his father who started the company with only an ax, buzz saw, and a flatbed pickup truck. They enjoyed his surprise visits to the lumber yard to say “hello” to each crew member he knew by name. Mr. Hutchinson was in his nineties. He wasn’t a large man, hunched over from years of hard work, walking with a cane, and still had a full head of silver hair he combed back, likely with “old school” “Brylcreem” or “Vitalis”. He wore a neatly trimmed moustache and beard. Despite his age, he could still lend a hand, if necessary, including maneuvering the forklifts, and driving the lumber trucks towing trailers. He loved his business and his employees.
Inventory was maintained through a series of different colors painted on one end of the cord of lumber. Each color identified the quality, destination, or price of the cord. I also noticed the delivery orders, and scheduling of trips in and out of the yard, were completed on a clipboard with pen or pencil. It was the early days of computers and spreadsheet software, but in my spare time, I was able to convert many of the paper systems into software systems which quickly organized, calculated, and stored the data which could be emailed throughout the company, saving time and increasing efficiency. We began marking each cord of woood with an ID # rather than paint, which permitted greater accuracy in tracking and inventory control.
I was nearing my sixth month anniversary on the job, and the foreman, “Rogers” barked,
“Kid, you’re wanted in the President’s office. Don’t worry about cleaning up. Mr. Hutchinson respects lumber dust, grease, and mud on hard working employees. I’ve been advising him of your innovations and he wants to promote you. Don’t worry, kid, I’ve known “Hutch” for thirty years, and he’s a fair, no nonsense man. Whatever he asks you, give it to him straight, he’ll respect you, and you may not have to see my ugly mug again.”
“Thank you, Mr. Rogers, I’m on my way.”
“Kid, don’t forget your friends down here in the yard. Good luck, Edgar!”
I entered the lobby of the non-descript office building which was in keeping with Mr. Hutchinson’s prudent business practices. I was met by his secretary, and escorted directly to Mr. Hutchinson’s office. She knocked twice on the heavy, double, walnut doors,
“Who is it? What do you want?
“I’m here to deliver Edgar Holms, Sir.”
“Show him in!”
I entered Mr. Hutchinson’s office, the nerve center of a $200m per year in annual sales company. It was a sparse office with floor to ceilings windows, revealing all of the business operations within the lumber yard. I noticed Mr. Hutchinson’s son, Nathan Andrew Hutchinson, was in the office, sipping on a whiskey or bourbon remarking,
“Well done, Holms! You’re the first in the history of the company to be promoted so fast!”
Mr. Hutchinson rose from behind his desk, shook my hand firmly with his large, bear like paw, revealing a life of hard work,
“Take a seat, Edgar.”
I noticed a hand carved motto within his magnificent, walnut, executive desk,
“We help build the world!”
“I want to thank you for your inventory control innovations and promote you immediately into accounting. My son, Eddy, runs the department, and you’ll be working closely with him, and on occasion, with both of us. My secretary will discuss your raise, 401k, bonus, and other perks with you. Take the rest of the day off but show up tomorrow in a suit. Congratulations, son. We’ll be seeing more of each other.”
Nathan rose and walked me to the door, shook my hand, and said,
He slammed the solid walnut double doors to the office, behind me.
The secretary was an older woman and kind,
“Congratulations, Edgar. You impressed Mr. Hutchinson. I’ve been working for him for over forty years, and he isn’t impressed easily. I’ll discuss your raise and other matters with you, tomorrow.”
As I waited for the elevator, I overheard Mr. Hutchinson yell at Nathan,
“Why the hell can’t you emulate that kid? Get out of here and let me work!”
When I hit the parking lot, I immediately called mom with the good news. She was proud of me as I could hear her silently cry.
It was about a year after my hiring; mom was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer. I was called into the office of the Boeing CFO for whom my mother faithfully worked. He told me,
“Edgar, I personally arranged for your mother to be examined by the best cancer specialists in the Northwest. There’s nothing they can do for her but keep her comfortable. Brace yourself, they tell me she won’t last long.
I apologize but I have to discuss some of your family business affairs with you. Mel had a meager death benefit insurance policy. Upon examination of the policy, he had changed the Beneficiary from your mother, to a “shady” bookie in Vegas, I suspect he owed money, so there won’t be any insurance proceeds coming to you. Mel also had a union pension due his wife and yourself, but he borrowed against it without your mother’s knowledge, and unfortunately, the pension will be kept as repayment by the union.”
I want you to know that Boeing is paying all of the funeral expenses in recognition of her decades of hard work, but your mother instructed me to have her remains cremated, placed within an airtight box, and permanently welded into a discrete location inside one of our new airliners. It was your mom’s way of insuring she would be in constant motion around the world. I’ll make all of the arrangements when I hear of her passing. You’ll be invited to see her “seat” on the plane if that’s your wish.”
Edgar, you’re mother was an extraordinary employee. She often told me how proud she was of you, and I’ll miss her dearly. I want you to know there will always be a challenging position here at Boeing should you want it. I know Hutch personally, and I’ll have to engage in a fistfight with the old bastard to tear you away from him, but I’ll take my “lumps”.
Boeing has made arrangements to admit her, and cover all of the costs, into the finest hospice in the State. Your mother will live out her last days in luxury, like a “Queen”.
I’m sorry for your loss, Edgar. Goodbye, and good luck, son.”
Boeing admitted mom into to a beautiful hospice resembling a five star hotel with kind caregivers, and her window looked straight at Mount Rainier. Fresh flowers were sent every day with a kind note from her fellow employees, including her boss, and the President of Boeing. Her hospice suite was larger than our house. I’d visit her every day after work, leaving when she fell asleep, and on the weekends, until she became too exhausted to entertain me. The staff told me she stopped eating and death was near. The morphine kept her comfortable but her time to pass quickly arrived one evening. I held her hand, and mom gripped my hand like a vice as death appeared, but she managed to whisper, “You remind me of your father who would be proud of you. I love you, son.”
Her grip softened when she died. I’ll never forget mom. I owe my work ethic to her, and my desire to take a chance with a blue collar company with a great crew of guys to my father.
Hutch’s Lumber Company had an annual Christmas party at Mr. Hutchinson’s mountaintop, log cabin inspired, summer mansion, on Orcas Island just off Seattle, which included a commanding view of the harbor and islands beyond. On a clear day, you could see Canada. Everybody with the title “SVP” and above was required to attend, flown by private plane to the small airport on Orcas Island, and boarded vans delivering them to Mr. Hutchinson’s mansion at the end of a long, winding, narrow dirt road. Prominently parked in the premier spot underneath the flag pole displaying the American, State of Washington, and “Hutch’s Lumber Company” flags, was a 1950’s Ford pickup truck Mr. Hutchison still drove since he started the company. At the end of the Christmas party around 10:00 pm, everybody who didn’t make their own accommodations on the island, would board the vans, return to the Orcas airport, and be flown back to Seattle.
In the ensuing five years, I worked within the accounting department, assembling profit and loss statements, balance sheets, and statements of cash flows. It was November and I hadn’t seen Mr. Hutchinson for weeks. I didn’t find it my place to ask where he was but hoped he was ok, but as soon as I saw Nathan move into his father’s office, I knew Mr. Hutchinson was ill or dead. Nobody in the company noticed except the secretary. I was summoned to Mr. Hutchinson’s office. The secretary was tearful as she was winding up the affairs within her office,
“Hello, Edgar. It’s nice to see you again. I’m sorry you’ll be given some disturbing news by Mr. Hutchinson’s son.”
She escorted me to the heavy, double, walnut doors, knocking twice, saying nothing.
“If that’s Holms, bring him in. I know you’re upset, Phyllis. Take the remainder of the day off and regain your composure.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hutchinson.”
Phyllis gave me a hug, collected her purse, and proceeded to the elevator, wiping tears from her eyes.
Nathan was sitting at his father desk, feet atop the carved inscription, and sipping bourbon or whiskey.
“Take a seat, Holms. I have disappointing news for you. It’s been my father’s tradition every Thanksgiving; to drive his vintage, first pickup truck, upon which he painted “Hutch’s Lumber Company” on the door, up into the woods, where he would carefully pick out, and fell, the perfect Christmas tree. He always carried a sapling he would plant within its place. The tree was on a steep slope, and, as he laid the buzz saw into the tree, he slipped, and the buzz saw nipped his femoral artery. He wasn’t found for three days, but the search party said he bled out quickly and painlessly. I’ve kept it a secret because my father told me that upon his death, the company would stay open for business, with no ceremonies, and business as usual!”
I wiped a tear from my eye, and felt like I lost a second father. I lowered my head, unable to say anything to assuage the loss of an icon and father to Nathan.
“Edgar, my father spoke highly of your ambition, intelligence, and admittedly, used your talents to give me a swift kick in the ass which I needed. I knew I could never live up to your standards, and love for the business. I have more disappointing news which only you, corporate consul, and I are privy to. I trust you, Edgar, to keep this information confidential.
“You can trust me to maintain the confidentiality of the information, Mr. Hutchinson.”
“Effective January 2nd, Hutch’s Lumber Company will be owned by a Canadian lumber conglomerate. It was a difficult decision to sell but the price was too good to pass up, and the state and federal regulations are becoming too cumbersome for me to continue. All employees, including the executive staff, will be notified by email on December 30th, and provided two weeks’ severance pay. Sadly, our Christmas party will be our last, but it will be an opportunity to toast a company approaching its 100th anniversary, and its founder. The Governor has accepted our invitation and will provide a eulogy.”
Nathan never gave a damn about the company and saw the sale as an early retirement. For years, I had been correcting his accounting mistakes, and completing the accounting work which was his responsibility for which he took credit, often placing it upon my desk at 4:30 pm on a Friday, and expecting it to be completed, first thing Monday morning.
I thought about the awful timing of the announcement as loyal workers were looking forward to enjoying the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. Many of the employees were approaching retirement age, and weren’t prepared for the loss of a salary, and other employees had young families to support. Two weeks’ severance pay was an insult to the employees who gave their hearts and souls to the company.
“You’re terminated effective immediately, Edgar. I know you’ve accumulated an impressive company matched 401K. I suspect you’ll be landing another job with less stress, more pay, and prestige after the New Year. I’ll provide you with an excellent reference.”
“Please accept my condolences on the loss of your father. He was a great man. I’ll miss Hutch’s Lumber Company.”
“I grew up with the company, and suffered under the watchful eye of my father my entire life. He was a tough old bastard, and losing mom and my little sister in an automobile crash, made dad expect more from his only surviving son, who, frankly, could never live up to his expectations. After the loss of mom and my little sister, dad refrained from dating or marriage which might have brought him happiness. I miss him but in some ways don’t. I expect you at the Christmas party as I’ve planned to announce the passing of my father, and the sale of the company. If you’ll excuse me, I have to jump on a conference call with the corporate attorneys handling the sale. Don’t be late for the Christmas party!”
I was fired on a Thursday morning but choose to finish out my work day. This was the only Christmas party I looked forward to attending because it was in honor of Mr. Hutchinson, and an opportunity to pay homage to his wife and daughter.
On Friday, I decided to take the Ferry from the Anacortes Ferry Terminal in Seattle, aboard the ferry for the hour and a half trip to Orcas Island, where I made arrangements for a cozy, “A” frame cabin, a mile up a dirt road near the entrance to Moran State Park. I’d wake to deer grazing in my yard, and a chorus of birds singing. I had a rental car waiting for me at the Orca’s ferry terminal where I would first stop at the small town market for groceries.
As the ferry retreated from the landing towards Orcas Island, I pondered how I would miss the preparation of the balance sheets, profit and loss statements, statement of cash flows, and other accounting duties so essential to the company. I missed having the opportunity to share the news about the company with my mother, and receive her soothing assurances everything would “work out”, when the “going got tough”. I felt betrayed by Nathan, selling a company I grew to love, and notifying the employees of their termination over Christmas with a meager severance. It hurt me that he didn’t have the decency to acknowledge the recent loss of my mother.
The specter of finding another satisfying job, seemed dauntless. I could call the CFO at Boeing and be hired, but Boeing would remind me of my loving mother and terrible Mel. Perhaps, I’d travel until I figured things out. I recalled the motto carved into Mr. Hutchinson’s desk,
“We help build the world!”
We did it with quality products, and reverence for the forest. I would truly miss the work, and a unique American company, now owned by a foreign conglomerate. I hoped they would treat the forest with reverence but I doubted it.
After the Christmas party, I’d spend the remainder of the weekend on the island hiking, and reveling in the natural beauty of the streams, lakes, and rivers of the marvelous island. I would have dinner in the quaint town, or at the Rosario resort, and use the time to reflect upon my plans moving forward. I was alone in the world. My parents deceased, no siblings, immediate family, and unfortunately, no woman to share my grief and wonder of the Christmas holiday.
The cabin was cozy and a perfect escape into nature from the turmoil which had befallen me as a son and a loyal employee. As I was preparing for the Christmas party, I resented having to fake Christmas cheer. I can’t change the inevitable trajectory of my lonely life. Most of all, I resent Nathan’s taking over his father’s beloved summer mansion, and using the party as an excuse to show off his motorized land and water “toys” including, Mr. Hutchinson’s valuable art collection, consisting of paintings, sculpture, printmaking, photography, and murals from “The Northwest School”, flourishing in Seattle during the 1930s-40s. Most of the collection was from the most famous artists of the period, known as "the big four": Guy Anderson, Kenneth Callahan, Morris Graves and Mark Tobey. Their artwork became nationally recognized when Life Magazine published a 1953 feature article on them. It took decades for Mr. Hutchinson to assemble his prize art collection, and I knew it would break his heart to see the collection sold at auction. I hope he made arrangements within his Trust to bequeath the collection to the Seattle Art Museum or the University of Washington.
It’s late afternoon and the two lane road is narrow and winding. Tall trees lining both sides of the narrow road provide a canopy of darkness, and there are no streetlights. Just a single yellow line down the middle of the road guides me to the Christmas party.
The narrow road continues to twist and turn as the remaining day light grows dimmer. I turn on my headlights and drive slowly as the narrow road is unfamiliar. I struggle to keep my eyes on the yellow line, and I miss a hair pin turn, cross the yellow line into the oncoming lane. I hear a blaring horn similar to that of our lumber trucks; see the giant truck and trailer approach, warning me by flashing its headlights, and sounding its horn. It’s approaching closer by the second. I attempt to swerve back into my lane, but I’m blinded by the bright headlights of the lumber truck, and struck head on. The last thing I remember was seeing the terror on the truck driver’s face before he crashed into my car head on.
I was in a dreamlike state, silent, and black. There was no bright light beckoning me, nor the familiar voices of loved ones calling for me. I was either unconsciousness or dead.
I awoke from what appeared to be a “power nap” and had total amnesia regarding the crash. I couldn’t remember why I was parked alongside the road, looked at my watch, and knew I better get moving fast unless I wanted to be late for the Christmas party. I started the car, and entered the dark, lonely road, noticing thick, freshly laid, skid marks of a truck leading deep into the forest, out of sight, and shards of metal, glass, and plastic car parts. Evidently, there must have been a terrible accident. I continued my trek down the dark highway, struggling to follow the yellow line which would lead me to a dirt road with a sign marked, “Hutch’s Hideaway. Private Road.”
“What the hell is that crossing the road?”
As I look down the road, I see something or somebody crossing the narrow highway, stopping, and standing on the yellow line with a hand up motioning me to stop. I can’t tell if it’s a park ranger, hiker or a homeless person. I begin to slow the car, and as I get closer, it begins to look like an animal, but what the hell is an animal doing standing in the middle of the road with its hand up directing me to stop like a traffic cop? I click on my high beams, and sure enough, it’s a big brown bear standing on its two hind legs wearing a Christmas stocking hat, and waving me to a stop. Maybe it’s just a drunken member of a party on his way home?
I stop the car and roll down the window. The bear leans in and says,
“Hello, Sir. I’m “Paddy”. I’m late for the Christmas Party! Can you give me a lift?”
Before I can answer, he opens the passenger door, and plops down next to me, closing the car door behind him. The stranger has a wild animal smell about him, and is so large, he causes my rental car to lean to one side as the car struggles to regain momentum, and head back down the road.
“I’m Edgar Holms. Where’s your party? I’ll drop you off as close as I can.”
Paddy places his paw around the back of my seat, and I can’t help but notice his sharp claws which didn’t appear to be part of a costume.
“I’m going to a company Christmas party and I can’t be late, Paddy.”
“Why is punctuality so important, Edgar?”
“It’s my bosses Christmas party including a eulogy read by the Governor for the passing of our founder, Mr. Hutchinson.”
“Hutch died! What a great guy! He really loved the forest and cared about its welfare. All of us inhabitants admired him. I’m sorry to hear he died.”
“I’m sorry for the loss, too, Paddy. I really don’t want to attend the party but owe it to Mr. Hutchinson to pay my last respects. The boss’s son wants all of the senior executives in attendance. It’s going to be a sad affair. His son sold Hutch’s Lumber Company and we’ve all been fired.”
“So, don’t go! Stand up for yourself, and show some courage. Mr. Hutchinson knows you gave him 110% of your efforts, and you can visit his gravesite at a later time to pay your respects. You don’t owe his son anything. I know the location of the family burial plot where Hutch will be buried alongside his wife and daughter. It’s located near the most beautiful pristine lake you’ll ever see. In fact, we’ll pass by it. I come out of hibernation every year just to attend our Christmas Party because it’s a chance to laugh, sing, and eat with my friends. The Christmas party is the highlight of my year.”
“My job was all I have, Paddy. I have no family, wife, job, and no future. I’m nothing without my job.”
Paddy’s massive arm rested across my shoulder like a “coach” consoling a player.
“You’re nothing? You’re human! You’re still young, and healthy. Take control of your destiny, and follow your instincts. Don’t do anything you don’t enjoy or be with people who don’t appreciate you! You’ve been given a free pass by life to start over! In about a mile, you’ll see a sign which says “Misty Campground”, pull in there and stop”.
I think to myself,
“I can drop Paddy at the camp ground and probably still make the party on time.”
“Here’s the campground, Edgar, turn in here!”
The sage remarks coming from a big brown bear with a Christmas stocking hat really “freaked me out”. I don’t know how old Paddy is but he seems wise like an old man. His persona is similar to the loving grandpa or uncle everyone wants. Most of all he is genuine. He knows what’s important to him, and for Paddy, it is living in the moment. He reminds me oddly, of Mr. Hutchinson.
I slow my car and make the turn into the campground and stop. I turn to Paddy and hold out my hand to shake his massive paw, thank him for his sage advice, and wish him a Merry Christmas.
“Turn off the engine and the lights and let’s wait here, Edgar”.
It crosses my mind that I might be set up for a carjacking, beating, or killing. As the minutes slowly tick by, the campground gets darker, colder and still. The silence is uncomfortable but punctuated by the cries of wolves in the distance who sound like they must be at their own “party”. The moonlight provides about the same amount of luminosity as a dying light bulb.
I suddenly hear a heavy pounce atop my car. It must be a big animal! And then, I hear that familiar growl of a wolf! Suddenly, standing on my hood, and staring directly at me with steely blue eyes, is the fiercest black and grey wolf you can imagine. It must be 150 pounds with sharp, razor like teeth I’ve only seen on sharks. The wolf is coiled tightly like a spring ready to pounce, and leap through my window ripping me apart. Will Paddy protect me or is Paddy an accomplice? Just as I prepare for my inevitable death, I hear Paddy say,
“Cool it Cody! He’s our ride to the Christmas party”.
Cody “unwinds” from his fierce coil, loses the ferocity, and runs alongside to the rear passenger door. Paddy reaches around and opens the rear door for his wolf friend. Cody leaps inside, happy to get out of the cold, and closing the door behind him with his jaw locked tightly around the door handle.
“Edgar, meet Cody. Cody, meet Edgar who has graciously agreed to provide us a ride to the Christmas party.”
The wolf simply uttered a soft growl as to say, “thank you”.
“Edgar, follow this dirt road until you see the sign “Caves” and turn in there”.
“If you say so, Paddy, but I’m afraid I may be straying far and will be late for my party.”
Cody sat upright in the backset.
“Sorry about scarring you, Edgar. We wolves have a bad “rap” and I have to be more mindful to be mellow. Most people think of wolves as “loners”. Yeah, we like our freedom, but we really value friends, and I can’t wait to see them at the Christmas Party”.
“I’m a loner too, Cody.”
“Being a loner means you value freedom, or you lack trust in people, or yourself. It’s about “balance”. Trust your instincts and you’ll find the “balance” which makes you happy. The Christmas Party is my yearly opportunity to have fun and be with my friends. It’s our balance, right, Paddy?”
“I’ll second that statement!”
As we drive slowly and carefully along the dirt road through the dark forest for miles, we pass a glistening still lake. It’s the cleanest, clearest mirror you can imagine. I’m reminded Hutch will soon be reunited with his loving wife and daughter nearby. I see the moon and stars reflecting off the pristine lake and out of nowhere, a comet streaks across the mirrored lake as if to guide us to the party. At this moment, and for the first time I ever remember, I feel no fear, no loneliness, regret, pain, anger, loss, or necessity to attend Mr. Hutchinson’s Christmas party. I feel true friendship and camaraderie with Paddy and Cody. We are “one” with a common purpose. Getting to their Christmas party!
We arrive at a dead end on the road with a sign reading,
“Caution- Do Not Enter The Caves”.
I turn off the motor and notice a narrow entrance to the cave inside a granite mountain. I can see it is a tight fit and very dark inside. Paddy opened his door, and ran to the mouth of the cave, shouting,
“I’ll see you fellows inside.”
Paddy squeezes inside, and out of sight. It was a tight fit to get his big butt inside the mouth of the cave, but Paddy was successful.
Cody exits the car and approaches my door.
“It’s your turn, Edgar. You’re welcome to join us or continue to your party, but I assure you, you’ll miss the time of your life at our party”.
“How do I get inside the cave, Cody? It looks too tight and I’m claustrophobic.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be right behind you”.
I squeeze into the tight opening to the cave, and crawl through the dark, damp, musty, tunnel with many twists and turns. I have no fear knowing my friends are in front and behind me, and suspect something extraordinary awaits me at the other end. As I continue to crawl, just in the distance, I see a pinpoint of warm, glowing, yellow light, and the closer I crawl towards the light, I notice the familiar, sweet fragrance of fireplace kindling, home cooking, baked goodies, laughter, and song. I haven’t experienced this much happiness since I was a child. Suddenly, I feel a push from behind and a tender pull by my collar, and I fall out of the mouth of the cave, and into the Christmas Party!
As I get up off the floor, and dust myself off, the first thing I see is a toy train circling the cave, and atop each train car, is a bunny rabbit enjoying the ride. The cave is warm, spacious, and lit by yellow, orange, and red flames, from a massive fireplace adorned with Christmas stockings, ribbons, and Christmas bulbs. Everywhere I look there are tables covered by Christmas inspired linen, with cakes, cookies, candies, and refreshments. Paddy has already stationed himself at an upright piano and pounds out,
“Have a holly, jolly Christmas; it’s the best time of the year.”
Adjacent to the piano is a grandiose Christmas tree. It must be twelve feet high. It’s thick, green, healthy and so tall, hummingbirds, and blue birds, dutifully carry colorful bulbs and ribbons to each branch. Even the tree looks like it’s having a great time! It was the type of tree Mr. Hutchinson would have chosen for his home, and it was his custom, to carve his initial, “H” into the base of the tree. To my surprise, I saw the familiar “H” carved into the base. It was Mr. Hutchinson’s last act before he died. I was happy his Christmas tree made it to this fabulous party. It would have made him happy.
A “12-Point” Buck wearing a bow tie, is moving throughout the cave, offering guests a variety of tasty drinks, gracefully hanging from each of his 12-Point antlers. Across the other side of the cave, I see a beautiful swan. Not the “leading lady” of “Swan Lake”, but the “understudy” waiting for her big break. I watch the beautiful swan move throughout the party alone, appearing uncomfortable or self conscious, the same way I feel when I’m at parties.
The swan catches my glance and I quickly turn away embarrassed that I was staring. As I turn back to see where the Swan went, and staring me right in the face, the beautiful swan stands before me.
“Hello, I’m Priscilla. I saw you from across the room and want to tell you how impressively dressed you are. I’m so happy you came to the party”.
“I’m happy to meet you Priscilla and apologize for staring at you. My name is Edgar. You look like a prima ballerina.”
“No need to apologize for staring at me, Edgar. Swans have this “ballerina” mystique, it’s one of the reasons I don’t like parties. I’m also very self conscious about this “band” attached to my leg”.
Priscilla gracefully lifts her leg, revealing a black, plastic, tracking band which annoyingly flashes a yellow light.
“I’m just not comfortable in crowds but this year I made the resolution that I would come to the party, socialize, and not care what anybody thought of this atrocious band!”
Priscilla was elegant, kind, and when she spoke to me, it felt like high school again, just before meeting a new girlfriend.
“Why is that band attached to your leg?”
“The naturalists, who study the woods, and provide veterinary care to the animals, attached a tracking device to monitor my “migration patterns”. It’s ironic because I never migrate!”
“Would you prefer not to wear it, Priscilla?
“Oh, that would be such a wonderful Christmas present, except nobody here has an opposable thumb.”
“Allow me, my dear.”
I reached down with both hands, firmly grasping the plastic band, and broke it apart! I threw the band to the floor, crushing it with my foot, forever extinguishing the flashing yellow light. Priscilla leaned in towards me, wrapped her long neck around mine, and gently pecked my cheek. I never felt more masculine, confidant, courageous, and admired by a woman in my life!
Just at that moment, a “conga line” of wolves, bears, mountain lions, raccoons, and deer dance by us. Pricilla and I share a laugh and she suggests,
“After that “parade”, we both need a breather. Let’s sit here.”
We sit together in a plush leather sofa enjoying the merriment. Across the cave, I see Cody and a pretty red fox are off alone, in a cozy corner of the cave, enjoying each other’s company.
The twelve point buck approaches and offers us a Christmas drink.
“For the gentleman and lady, I suggest the drinks at the top right and left points of my antlers.”
Priscilla gracefully extends her long neck, and with her beak, carefully retrieves the warm scented drinks. With each sip of the tasty, warm, “hard” eggnog, I become “one with the moment” we discussed in the car. The “moment” is the company of a loving, beautiful friend.
The music, happiness, and good cheer continue to unfold for our pleasure. With each sip of the eggnog, I become happier and more content with my life than at any time I recall. A euphoric sensation begins at my toes, and moves up my body, and into my head. I’m getting sleepy and close my eyes as the room begins to spin like a slow moving merry-go-round. Priscilla’s loving wing comforts me as my head falls into its loving embrace. I close my eyes and fall into a deep sleep. Although I’m asleep, and as if dreaming, I hear,
“Beep, beep, beep…”
“Get me Epinephrine with a cardiac needle, nurse.”
“No response, flat line, doctor”.
“Hand me the paddles. Clear!”
“No response, flat line, doctor”.
“Let’s call the time of death. 12:01 am. December 25th. What did the police report say about the accident, nurse”?
“He swerved to avoid hitting an animal crossing the road, and ran head on into a lumber truck coming the opposite way. The patient was killed on impact. The logger didn’t suffer a scratch, and is very remorseful although he wasn’t negligent. He’s waiting outside for news about the patient. He’s a Hutch’s Lumber Company driver”.
“Was it a dear darting across the road, nurse”?
“No, the Trooper saw bear tracks and thinks it was a bear crossing the road”.
“I guess this poor bastard won’t make it to his Christmas Party! I’ll give the bad news to the driver.”
“Orderly, “bag” him and take him to the morgue”.
The orderly was a very large man who gently wrapped my body in a clean white sheet, and placed it on the gurney for delivery to the morgue. He seemed very familiar and kind. I noticed as he was pushing the gurney, his large hands resembled bear paws.
The orderly reached the morgue, and gently wheeled my body into the refrigerated crypt remarking,
“Mercy, me! I’ve seen a lot of banged up dead humans before, but none with a smile ear to ear like this guy! I wonder what he was thinking about before he died?”
I fell permanently, into a, peaceful, forever happy, darkness.
“I’ll do it when I do it.”
The life of a teacher at a boarding school is an unbroken line. Of all the unbroken lines at St. Peter’s College, Marcus Keeley’s was perhaps the most peculiar. He was a chemistry teacher.
It was two in the morning when the knocking started. Marcus opened his eyes. Looking to his right his girlfriend, Grace, was still asleep. She taught Maths at St. Peters. She also drank a lot.
In the living room was a lamp, a small dining table. On the ground was constant white tile in every direction. It was easier to clean up the sick.
Outside the light was low. Weightless rain wetted the window. Whoever was outside continued to knock. They knocked until it seemed they could knock no more. Then they started knocking at the same pace. Again. More. Louder.
Marcus put on pair of boxer shorts and a tattered tee shirt. It had a picture of a panda on it. Grace liked pandas. He stomped over to the front door. “Fuck sake…” He stood in front of it. “Who is it?”
“It’s Julius!” the voice on the opposite side replied.
Marcus didn’t know if she should let Julius in. He was his boss – the Head of Science. It wasn’t that though. It was something else. Then Marcus opened the door.
Julius was a tall man. He wore thin glasses and his hair was neatly cut. He wore a sand-coloured trench-coat. It had been drenched by the rain. It now dripped on the tile. The two men looked at each other. “What do you want?” Marcus asked.
Julius looked exhausted. “We need to talk.”
“At two in the morning? You couldn’t come last night?”
“I tried,” Julius said like a student bearing the apple of mistaken lore, “but I guess you were out.”
“What do you think?” Marcus asked defiantly. It was Monday. He and Grace went to the pub on Monday nights. This was a fact.
“How’s Grace?” Julius queried.
Julius nodded. “Bull & Hen?”
“They’re starting to refurbish The King’s Head, you know—”
Marcus had reached the end of his tether. The backs of his eyes were starting to hurt. “Hey, um – what do you want?” He stared his superior down. “So I can go back to bed.”
The Head of Science slimed back his hair. “I had to talk to someone.”
“I…I can’t do it.” He was shaking. “I can’t do another year. Not here. I’ve made a mistake.”
Marcus shook his head in disbelief. He sighed heavily. The sighing became a language in itself. “That’s not—”
“I had to speak with you.”
“I’ve got a nine a.m.”
“You’ll manage,” Julius said.
“Oh,” Marcus sneered, “thanks mate.”
“Look,” Julius said. His tone was pressured. “Just listen to me. Why don’t you sit down?”
“I’ll fall asleep. I’m listening.”
Julius looked elsewhere briefly. He looked back at Marcus. “Five years ago, you asked me if I could make you an assistant Head of the Department.”
Marcus took his time replying. “You told me to get stuffed.”
“Yes,” he admitted, “I did tell you to get stuffed. That was a long time ago. I’m sorry I put it that way.”
“I don’t care how you word it.”
“The point is that you just wanted security like the rest of us,” Julius interjected, “that’s all teachers ever want. But now—”
Julius had had two hours of sleep. He narrowed his eyes. He had to concentrate for just a little longer. “What if I told you,” he began, “that you could be the Head of Department by next Monday?” He was desperate. “Would you like that?”
Marcus couldn’t believe this. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“It will. It has to.”
“No it won’t. They can take you to court.”
“For what?” Julius asked.
“You’re bound by contract Julius. If you go back on it they can sue you. And then they might take you to court for something else.”
His tongue had slipped. The word was out. His own home had become a crime scene.
“Something else,” Marcus repeated. “You see what I mean? And there’s no way in hell I’m gonna get involved in The Julius Show. Do you see this?”
He pointed around the room, his house – the college-owned apartment.
“It’s more than enough,” Marcus went on, “you know why? Because it’s fucking difficult.”
“What about Grace?”
“What about Grace?”
Julius swallowed. “Would she be interested?”
“She teaches Maths.”
“So that’s not to say she wouldn’t be interested?”
“Oh yea,” Marcus said, seeing that his superior’s nerves were shot, “it’s really fair for you to put her forward; and no, I’m not gonna go get her.”
Julius made a fizzing sound with his lips. “She’s as good as anyone!”
“She’s not, she’s really isn’t. And if you tell her I said that—”
“Marcus, please, I—”
“Keep your bloody voice down! Don’t drag me into this!”
Marcus’s guest moved forward. He half-expected him to get on his knees. “I’m asking for help. People go for years in schools like this not helping anyone, but here I—”
“Julius what are you talking about? You know Cassie? In B House? She’s got breast cancer, I’m filling in for her twice a week, or is that not helping?”
“No but I mean real help, when everything’s on the table.”
Marcus had slept for forty-five minutes. Grace had kept him up after they returned from the Bull & Hen. It hadn’t been fun. “Julius,” he asserted, “the woman has cancer.”
“It’s not like this,” Julius complained.
“Oh, fuck you.” He’d never spoken to a senior teacher like this. This was crazy. He started to wake up. Was it bad that he found this exciting?
“You need to go.”
“That’s the point,” Julius said.
“No, I mean, you need to leave—”
“There was more than one.”
When Marcus heard that he knew exactly what it meant. But he couldn’t admit it. Some things were too awful to admit. He was selfish, he knew that. He didn’t want to admit that his Head of Department was a monster.
“I’m sorry,” Julius added. The apology did not make up for the action.
Marcus rubbed his eyes. He had woken up. Now he wanted to sleep. He wanted to get away from all this. He thought for a moment and transported himself elsewhere, mentally.
The Head of Science on the other hand was beginning to crack. His face was red. It seemed to boil the rainwater off. He raised his hands. “I know there’ll be another if I stay,” he said, “I can’t help it.”
“I don’t want to know,” Marcus said.
“The…stuff. It’s all the same to me.”
Marcus woke up again. “Why can’t you stick to your own age?”
“I’ve tried. I can’t even act like I’m interested.”
“What’s wrong with you?”
“I don’t know…” He looked at the white tiles briefly. Then back up. “It’s settled then. You have to—”
“No no no,” Marcus said, “no – this never happened.”
Julius’s nostrils flared. “If I’m caught, I’ll be in court and I’ll look at you—”
“And I won’t know if you’ll tell the truth or try to cover it up or—”
“Jesus Christ,” Marcus said.
“They won’t believe a word I’ll say, and then Ashley will get involved—”
In a whisper, Marcus screamed, “Shut up! Just, shut up!”
This upset Julius. He began to whimper. He seemed so small now – not the tall chiseled scholar who had walked in ten minutes ago. “Help me, please.” He scuttled over to Marcus. He put his hands on his shoulders.
In a half-hearted way Marcus resisted. He didn’t know what to do. If a child spoke you told it to be quiet. If a townie shouted things you ignored them. If a dog was excited you pushed it away. “Help me!” Julius pleaded.
“Oh God,” Marcus said, revolted, “help yourself!”
He pushed Julius off. As his colleague stumbled across the living room, Grace appeared in the doorway. She wore a baggy tee shirt which had George Michael’s face on it. Marcus hated George Michael. It dangled above the tops of her thighs. Her hair was swept in one direction. But she was a pretty woman. Had she been sober she would have been strong. She was still waking up. Still drunk.
“What’s going on?” she asked. Her eyes drifted towards Julius. She rubbed her eyes and recognized him. Her face immediately soured. “Get out of here,” she said quietly.
Both Marcus and Julius were terrified. Grace knew everything about everybody. All their little troubles. To her gossip was a lovely plague – only she could spread it. But she hated Julius because he never played ball. He never intimated anything. He never gave anything away.
In reality, Grace knew very little about Marcus. Very little indeed. She knew all his foibles, but foibles could not define a person completely. All Marcus cared about was how they shared the rent. They shared everything. Every atom of their coupled existence was split fifty-fifty. Grace never understood why he subjected himself to it. She could see he didn’t like it.
Julius hadn’t moved.
Grace screamed at the top of her lungs: “Get out!”
The Head of Science ran out of the front door. It slammed shut. Marcus could scarcely believe what had just happened. Grace in the meantime recovered from her exclamation. “Get out,” she whispered to herself. “Why is he…in here?”
Marcus sighed. “He wanted to talk to someone.”
“Let him talk to himself. He makes me sick.” She winced. “My chest is fucking racing.”
“You take your meds?” Marcus asked matter-of-factly.
“What time is it?”
Grace sat at their little dining table. “Why is it two-thirty?”
Marcus walked behind her. “You woke up.” He wanted to put his hands on her shoulders, but he couldn’t. He just couldn’t. He had no idea why. To him it felt wrong and opportunistic.
“I don’t feel good,” Grace said.
“No one does.”
“You’re so vague, why are you so vague?”
“I’m gonna go to bed,” Marcus replied.
He went to move, but Grace held onto his sleeve. “Please stay,” she said.
“I’ve got a nine a.m., Grace. I gotta go. And you’ve got that marking to do, you’ve been bitching about it all week – or is that gonna do itself?”
“I’ll do it when I do it,” she said.
Marcus gave her one final glance. “Tomorrow.” He left his girlfriend at the table. He went back to bed. Meanwhile, Grace held her head with one hand. She tried to imagine a world not so beset by losers.
“We need to fix this place, make it better.”
Another term had ended unremarkably. While the students at St. Peter’s College returned home for Summer Vacation, the teachers stayed. They could do that trip they’d been meaning to do since Christmas. They could write that book they’d been meaning to write since they left university. They could right that wrong they’d committed. They could sleep.
But something had changed. St. Peter’s was a small town. The Bull & Hen had been a small-town pub, one of the most popular. The owner had passed away from cirrhosis of the liver around Christmas. It had been purchased by a large company and rebranded. The Bull & Hen had been refurbished over the course of Summer Term.
The old Bull & Hen had plush leather seats. There had been handmade wooden tables with curled leg designs. There had been coat hooks under the bar and stools rickety.
Everything had changed. It was bland now. A collection postmodern, semi-deco rooms. The décor was like a man sucked dry by Dracula. There were off-greys and off-whites and off-greens. The tables were pretentiously simple, square and stern like so many Marks & Spencer’s adverts.
The main room was faintly lit. Some people might have thought the lighting sexy. For most it was dim however. The atmosphere was apathetic. It had been designed for its patrons. Its official reopening was the last Friday of term.
Grace was the first person there. Looking down the long bar, she spotted a young barman. She bought a large glass of sauvignon blanc. Her instructions were to wait for Millie Bentham, a new, very young teacher.
Millie appeared finally and joined Grace at the bar. She was dressed tastefully. So was Grace, but in a slightly dirtier way. She ignored the fact that Millie asked for a glass of water.
“They’ve really fucked it up in here,” Grace said of the refurbishment. “I remember when Marcus and I first came to St. Peter’s this, all of this was different; like everything was rustic, you know what I mean?”
A handsome man leaned on the bar. He was getting a bottle of red wine for he and his girlfriend. He was staring at Millie’s posterior.
“You got that chewy stench in the air back then,” Grace went on, “Millie, if you don't want to fuck him, leave the bar. It’s dead simple.”
Grace and Millie found a corner with two tables. Grace sat down to finish her glass of wine.
Millie looked concerned. The man at bar was smiling. “He keeps looking at me,” she complained. “It’s pissing me off.”
“No but if you get pissed off, he’ll get pissed off.”
“So let him be, let him stare if he wants to.”
“But I don’t like it,” Millie said.
“Then don’t look at him.”
Millie remained standing. She held her water with both hands. She looked at the bar.
Grace raised her eyebrows dramatically. “Are you gonna stand there all night?”
“Are we sitting here?” Millie asked.
“What do you think?”
Millie sat down. She pressed her legs together. She sipped her water. “I might tell the manager.”
Grace was bewildered. “Why would you tell the manager?”
“What if he makes a move?”
“If he makes a move, great, we’ll be getting free drinks all night.”
“Not the manager,” Millie clarified, “the guy at the bar.”
“I don’t want to whack him.”
“Yea you do,” Grace said, “show him who’s boss. I do it all the time.”
“Won’t that piss him off?”
“It’s a message, you might as well stare at him.”
“Doesn’t matter, besides, he knows what he’s doing. If you meet him halfway, it’s legit, as you were.”
“I suppose,” Millie stumbled, “I’m sorry – I feel like we should change the topic.”
“Well I feel bored,” Grace said.
“How’d your last class go?”
“Spoke to soon, um, let’s see…” She gathered angry thoughts. “I said good morning to my students and they said, ‘Good morning, Ms. Lewis,’ like a bunch of fucking Tories, then I gave them some equations to work out, which they forgot ten minutes later. Then I sat at my desk and I thought hairy European men, Milan, and this glass of vino.”
“In that order.”
“Well the wine’s okay,” Grace reflected, “I can have that. I can’t get the other two-thirds though, not any more at least.” This was a Grace-like kind of sadness. It ballooned as quickly as it deflated. It was always forgotten.
“Sounds like someone has a case of last term blues,” Millie said in her best sarcastic voice which still wasn’t very sarcastic.
“It’s called adult life, Millie.” Grace quickly changed the topic. “Do you remember what this place used to be like? It was great, wasn’t it?”
“What, the college?”
“No the pub you f—”
“First time I’ve been here,” Millie said.
The young Maths teacher shrugged. “I’m not.”
How much more Grace could take was unclear. Millie clearly was smart. This was her major flaw. She was also feminine in an irritating way. She was pretty, but she didn’t know—or pretended to not know—she was pretty. “What do you get up to in the evenings, then?” Grace asked, bearing her teeth. “Apart from languorous sex, obviously?”
Millie ignored the insult. “I have dinner; get ready for the next day.”
“Friday,” Grace pressed on, “what about Friday?”
“Friday I just kind of take it easy.”
“Is cocaine taking it easy? Because I knew a guy called Graham who took cocaine just to calm down.”
“Is she still alive?” Millie asked.
“Yea, he works at Homebase, bless him.”
Millie clearly didn’t know anybody who worked at Homebase. The thought of doing that job every day filled her with pity for Graham the cokehead.
“But what do you think of this,” Grace asked, “this décor?”
“I’ve seen worse,” Millie replied unexpectedly, “I mean, it gets the job done. It doesn’t really matter when you’re pissed.”
Grace could ignore it no longer. “That won’t affect you though. Why don’t you drink?”
“I just don’t.”
Grace sipped her wine. “Keeps you young, this stuff.”
“Water of life,” Grace noted, “besides, you don’t wanna be old like me.”
The contradiction stumped Millie. “But, I thought drinking kept you young?”
“You gotta be young to start with. I was born in my twenties. And I’ll forgive the insult.”
“I was just—”
“Stating the obvious, yea,” Grace interrupted, “I spent my whole life doing that, and then I met Marcus, vague-as-hell Marcus.”
“Well done,” Millie said.
Grace scoffed. “You got a boyfriend?”
“Girlfriend?” She finished her wine and held her arms open. “I’m all about equality you know.”
“I never had the time,” Millie admitted.
“What, for a girlfriend?”
“No, in general.”
“The drinking turns you into someone else,” Millie said. “That person didn’t have time for any kind of relationship.”
Grace leant over the table. Her breasts were terrifying. “Everyone wants to be someone else, did that ever cross you mind?”
“Yea, it did. So here I am.”
“Lucky us,” Grace said. “What are you drinking?”
“I’m fine, thanks.”
Grace made a silly face. “Suit yourself.” She stood up. “If Marcus shows up, tell him he’s missed.” She left Millie at the table and returned to the bar.
In the meantime Millie set to leaning over the table in that really awkward way. Her water looked bored. She agreed with the water – she was bored too. She heard a kafuffle at the bar. When she looked Marcus was headed her way. He held a glass of ginned ice and a bottled tonic. He was handsome. But tired.
“There you are,” he said, “you with Grace?”
“Sort of,” Millie replied.
“Sums up my life,” Marcus said as he sat in Grace’s seat. He poured tonic water into the glass. “You look nice tonight, how are you?”
“I’m all right.”
“You like this new décor? It’s weird. It’s like – you ever watch Captain Scarlet? It’s like all the rooms in Captain Scarlet. Bit bigger, obviously, but then again we’re all puppets. Up to a point, naturally.” He relaxed a little. “I sense you pulling away from me. We haven’t really met, have we? Let’s try that again, I’m Marcus.”
They shook hands.
“Millie,” Marcus began, “who convinced you? It sure as hell wasn’t Grace.”
“It was Ashley.”
Marcus leaned backwards in awe. “Headmaster’s invitation to the pub Christ, when I was your age they wouldn’t even let me near the rugby pitch. Definitely not girl’s hockey. And you, uh, you didn’t answer my question.”
Millie raised an eyebrow. “The décor?”
“It’s actually the first time I’ve been here, I’ve never—”
“What’s you local?” Marcus interrupted.
“I go to Pizza Express sometimes.”
“That’s your local, is it?” Marcus was naturally suspicious. “A lot of students go there.”
“Yea, I’ve seen a few.”
“Well what are you doing there?”
“Getting pizza,” Millie replied curtly.
“Yea, I got that far,” Marcus interjected, “but what you’re really going when you go to certain restaurants is experiencing a certain kind of clientele. For example, when I go to Greggs I want to be around builders and single mothers. If on the other hand I go to Enzo’s I want to be around lawyers, dentists, headmasters maybe. So who’s in Pizza Express?”
Millie creased her forehead. “I can appreciate the bullshit psychoanalysis, but I’m just getting pizza.”
Marcus smiled. He sipped his drink. “You’re smart. That’s good. But one’s boring.”
“Not even when all the students fly home, leave us scraps to fight over.”
“At least they go home.”
They clinked their glasses. Millie placed her glass on the table. Marcus slurped a healthy tablespoon of gin and tonic. “It’s nice to see you in a more family friendly environment,” he said, “and let me guess, a neat, quadruple gin?”
“Don’t blame you.”
Millie smiled. “You should.” At this point in the day Marcus stopped caring about regulations. It was like he was stood on a dive board permanently. The air was clear, the serious decision impending.
“I think you can blame shitty upbringings,” Marcus offered, “the boarding school system, but I wouldn’t trust anyone with their own lives. Not really. Blame people, sure – but don’t blame them, you know?”
“So you’re an anarchist.”
“Nothing wrong with anarchism. Anarchism is doing. It’s totally ethical, down the line. But if it make you feel any better to call me an anarchist, go for it. I’ll just lump you together with Grace.”
Millie remembered. “You’re missed by the way. She wanted me to tell you.”
Marcus stared right ahead. “Bullshit. Right on cue.”
Grace returned to the table with another glass of sauvignon blanc. She swooned over to Marcus. “Mr. Keeley,” she said, “you’ve taken my chair – up you get.”
Marcus gave her a look as cold as ice. “No,” he said.
Looking as though she had not expected that response, Grace turned. She planted her wine on the table and went about pulling the chairs out on the adjacent table. She then shoved that table onto Marcus and Millie’s. Shoving the chairs under, Grace then sat down next to Marcus. There they were, Millie, Marcus and Grace – all frightened in unique ways.
Grace picked up her glass. “It’s bigger now.”
“So Millie,” Marcus began, “you got any plans for the Summer?”
Grace grunted. “Has Marcus told you how we met?”
“That’s a bit of a cliché, Grace,” he said.
“You’re right sweetie,” she articulated, “it is a bit of a cliché. Has he told you about the first time we broke up?”
Marcus recoiled like footage of a flower played at ten times the normal speed. “Let’s not talk about that.”
“Why not?” Grace replied. “It’s a good story.”
“Not it’s not. It’s embarrassing.”
“You tell people how you lost your virginity all the time, you want to talk about embarrassing!”
“No but that’s not raw,” Marcus insisted.
“That’s not raw?”
“No but what you’re talking about involves both of us.”
“Losing your virginity doesn’t,” Grace said.
“Not that, you – the first time we broke up!”
Grace pointed at her boyfriend. “Smart one, this one.” Millie was nervous. How long would it be until tables were being thrown at people?
In her most diplomatic voice, Millie said, “I can leave if you like—”
Grace and Marcus simultaneously lurched towards her. “No, no!” Marcus pleaded. “It’s meant to be like this,” Grace interjected.
“And talking,” Marcus soothed, “is the key to any healthy sustainable relationship.”
“Yes, but is it healthy because it’s sustainable, or sustainable and therefore healthy?” Grace pondered insincerely.
“Well, that’s the catch,” Marcus interrupted, “so let’s talk turkey: Grace here likes me to go down on her, but refuses to give me even the lightest of blowjobs.”
Each follicle on her head stood on end. “Marcus Keeley you are an abomination.”
The headmaster, Ashley Forester, waltzed into the conversation. “Corona’s gone through the bloody roof.”
“Thank God,” Millie said.
Ashley stood in front of them like a comedian who had suddenly remembered that he hadn’t written any jokes. “The Upper Sixth won’t know what hit them.”
Marcus hunched his shoulders. “I doubt they drink Corona, Headmaster.”
“Ashley,” Ashley corrected, “there’s always a couple.”
“What are you gonna do? Pluck them out? Give them the once over?”
“You know me, Marcus, I’ll turn the other cheek.” There was a hint of menace in the diction.
Grace did her best to look happy to see him. “Can I ask you something, Ashley?”
“I better sit down for this,” Ashley said, and hastily sat next to Millie.
Marcus bulged his eyes. “Keep it clean.”
“Shut up,” Grace said. “Ashley, where exactly is Liège?”
Like Grace, Ashley did his best to give the impression of a disposition that he wasn’t in. This time, it was ‘ genuine interest’. “Far away from here,” he answered cryptically.
Grace smiled. “I like the sound of that.”
Millie shook her head. “Did I miss something?”
“Gracie’s shit-digging that’s all,” Marcus said.
“That’s very misleading,” Grace said.
“Maybe I want to be misleading.”
“But I’m trying to have a conversation, so can you not—?”
“That’s misleading,” Marcus argued.
“Why don’t you mind your own business and leave quietly?”
He poured the surplus tonic into the glass. “I’ll leave when you’re ready.”
Grace sighed. “Where’s Liège, Ashley?”
“I’m not great with my geography,” Ashley said, “but I assume since you’re asking where Liège is it has something to do with the new Belgian Head of Science we have coming.”
“Is Julius leaving?” Millie was genuinely surprised.
“How do you know Julius?” Grace said to Millie.
“Leaving next year I’m afraid,” Ashley interrupted on purpose, “Burnt out, good for money though. I understand he’s come in to possession of quite a hefty inheritance. Comes in handy when you’re in a tight squeeze.”
“How do you know Julius?” Grace quizzed Millie again.
“I used to have lunch with him,” Millie said innocently, “he never mentioned the inheritance.”
One of Ashley’s jobs as Headmaster was to offer comments that managed simultaneously to be comforting and totally bereft of new information. “I’m not surprised,” he said.
“We used to call him Julius Caesar,” Grace recalled condescendingly.
Marcus looked upset. “The man hasn’t left yet and you’re already changing your tense.”
“You could always picture him in a toga,” Grace said, “but not up front. Stuck in the background with a bowl of fruit. You can see the painter’s hand just lifting up for the day, and there’s Julius in his toga, acting like he doesn’t exist.”
“I think he just prefers not to be seen,” Millie said. “He’s always like that when I sit with him.”
“Like he doesn’t want to be there, which in hindsight makes sense now.”
Marcus pursed his lips. “Pretty recent hindsight, practically present.”
“Yes,” Grace said atypically, “he’s an odd duck, our Julius.”
Ashley reached his limit for the time being. He stood up. “Would anyone like a drink?”
“You got a hot seat?” Grace asked.
“I’ve got an empty bottle and money to spend,” Ashley replied, “anyone?”
“I’m all right for now,” Marcus said, “cheers.”
“Shipshape Headmaster,” Grace chimed in.
Millie stood up. She pulled her shirt away from her chest because it was hot. Ashley looked at her. “Save yourself the agony of the journey,” he said.
“No, it’s all right,” she countered, “I’ll let the Blairs be.”
Millie and Ashley walked away together. The same man was stood at the bar, staring at her. She went up to the man and pushed him. He put his hands up as though he’d been falsely accused of stealing money from the donations basket in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Ashley raised his eyebrows and asked for another Corona.
Meanwhile, Marcus swirled the ice in his glass. He looked at Grace. “You can be Tony,” he said.
She didn’t say anything.
“Every now and then,” he went on, “you pop up and try to explain yourself to the world, but no one wants to hear it. They don’t, Tony.”
Her boyfriend kept talking. “I’ll push you – am I pushing you hard enough? Professionally, I mean?”
“Shut up Marcus.”
“Because it’s something I worry about you know? Because if you’re not achieving your full potential as a human being, this pub, any pub – it’s not a reward anymore. It’s not something you work for. It’s just another home.”
“Do you find her attractive?” Grace asked.
“The young thing sat next to you.”
Marcus blew out his cheeks. “She’s not much young than us, Grace.”
“Nice tits, you wanna suck on ‘em?”
Marcus didn’t know how to respond. “Why would I,” he stuttered; “I don’t remember sucking your tits. Is there something you want to tell me, or…are you developing a fetish, or…?”
“It was a simple question.”
“Because I’ll do it if it means I don’t have to argue with you all the goddamn time,” Marcus complained with more than a hint of melancholic frustration.
“I mean Millie.”
“No,” Marcus said adamantly. “…No I wouldn’t.” He was genuinely upset. “I don’t think you could count the times I looked at you favourably. Do I have to spell it out for you.” – He loved her.
“Do you want to get married?” Grace asked blankly.
Marcus swallowed some harsher words. “I’ve got enough to worry about.”
“You’ve got enough to worry about?” Grace said in disbelief. “Wow, that’s, that’s really noble. You should write books.”
“Books about what?” knowing full well that he taught Chemistry.
“Any old books,” Grace replied. “I think your laptop’s just waiting for you to fill it with – with shit.” She observed her partner’s silence. “You think you’re so tough.”
“May I remind you that I’m the only reason why we’re still at St. Peter’s?” Marcus thundered privately. “Both of us?” His breathing was heavier. “There’s a line.”
“So you don’t want to get married?” Grace asked again. This time the query was meant to serve as an irritant.
Ironically, Marcus began to think about the prospect more deeply. “Marriage is for people who like their jobs.”
Grace added the following to her list of infallible facts about the world. “You like your job.”
“What are you basing that on?”
“If you didn’t like it, you wouldn’t be here.”
“What do you know about me?” Marcus said meanly. “Nothing. That’s what.”
Grace’s face was an inch away from her boyfriend’s. “One word,” she said, and wasted time. “Toilet.” She cocked her head and stood up. She strode to the ladies room.
Marcus was alone on the table.
Ashley arrived with another beer. There was a packet of crisps in the other hand. “All right?” he asked.
Marcus wanted Millie at the table. She was different. Unholy. “What happened to Millie?”
“Call from the paterfamilias I’m afraid.”
Apart from Ashley, there was not a person in the Bull & Hen who knew what that word meant.
“Her father called,” he clarified, “be back in a minute.” He sat down. The packet was torn open. Ashley catapulted one into his mouth. Like a person bringing a suitcase onto a plane and declaring it as hand-luggage, the crunching was obnoxious. He targeted his next question at Marcus. “Happy?”
Marcus sniggered. “And the Oscar goes to—”
“Why don’t you like St. Peter’s? Hmm?”
The fact that Ashley had been listening the whole time crossed Marcus’s mind. “What?”
“Why don’t you like St. Peter’s? What don’t you like about it?”
“I love St. Peter’s,” Marcus answered.
Ashley laughed. He had expected that answer. “No, but you don’t, do you? I’m not having a go, Marcus, or anything like that. It’s just important, that’s all.”
“What do you want me to say?”
Ashley sacrificed another crisp. It died a quick death. “We need to fix this place, make it better. This last year’s been difficult. Very difficult. You’d agree?”
The teacher jumped on the band wagon. “Oh yea, no, it’s been – it’s been hard.”
“How so?” Ashley quizzed him.
“Can I be frank?”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to be Marcus.”
Both men not only laughed at the joke, but also acknowledged that the joke wasn’t very good.
“I don’t think they should have children.”
The evening had grown. Marcus wouldn’t be able to analyze at sufficient levels for much longer. “I don’t think it’s easy to fix, like teaching or facilities,” he said, “I think, um – it’s something intrinsic.”
“Intrinsic,” Ashley echoed back, “good word. Go on.”
“There’s something about boarding, well, not just boarding, but boarding schools in general that doesn’t work.”
“In what way?”
He sighed. “I think if you put a bunch of people together in one place and make them work all day, every day, even if it’s just going to church, you’re – what you’re doing is you’re making a little world.”
“Yea, sure,” Marcus went on, “and I think there comes a point when the rules of that world become intrinsic to the people. And the people forget about real rules, like, stuff that normal people do in the real world. Rules adhered to everywhere and not the rules of the microcosm of the a boarding school.”
Ashley smiled defensively. “Well, that is very well observed.”
“Does that make sense?”
“I can’t deny that it does.” He continued smiling. Like a parent with a child that needed to get something off its chest. “I don’t think I can do much about it, though. I want concrete things, like you said, teachers, facilities—”
“But that’s my point.”
“It’s deeper than that,” Marcus said, “it’s – it’s like Julius.”
Ashley liked ignorance. “Mmm.” His response was a nothing. Soon after his nothing Millie returned to the table. “Sorry about that,” she said.
“No, no, it’s healthy,” Ashley assured her, “although I use homing pigeons myself.”
Millie giggled. She sat down.
Grace returned from the ladies room. “Ashley.”
“Crisp?” the Headmaster offered.
Grace smiled, concealing her rage. “You don’t happen to have a cigarette on you by any chance?”
“Cravings,” Ashley said, “pass the time, make it plumb – do you need a lighter?”
“Has the Pope shit in the woods?” Grace asked.
“I’m afraid I don’t read The Sun.”
“Yes,” Grace replied, inspecting the wreckage of her joke, “a lighter would be useful.”
“You can start on St. Peter’s,” Marcus said very seriously.
Ashley gave a suppressed laugh. He pulled a pack of cigarettes and a lighter out of his pocket. Grace pulled a cigarette out of the pack. She took the lighter and walked into the beer garden. Ashley returned the cigarettes to his pocket.
“You know, actually, I might join her,” Marcus said. “You don’t mind do you?”
Ashley and Millie shook their heads. Marcus stood awkwardly from the table.
“Be my guest,” Ashley said, “preferably outside. Do you want one?” He pointed to his pocket.
“No, I don’t smoke.”
“Neither does she I imagine,” Millie said.
“Thanks Luther,” Marcus replied. He took his drink and joined his girlfriend in the beer garden.
The Headmaster picked at his crisps like a bird. There was such a thing as crisp discrimination wish Ashley.
“Why do you spend time with them?” Millie asked him.
“I think a better question is, ‘Why do they spend time with me?’ I can’t imagine why.”
“I think you can,” Millie said.
“Keep your friends close and your enemies closer. People always say that like it’s a game plan that works, but they miss the point. You just get lost in it.”
Millie could be pragmatic at times. “Why don’t you tell them to fuck off?”
Ashley laughed. It was a genuine laugh. Not a fake laugh like the others.
“Only the upper class get to dot that,” he said, “I’m not quite – have you ever done that? I’m not saying you’re posh, just, have you ever told someone to bugger off? Apart from that chap at the bar.”
Millie was embarrassed. “I’ve been told to bugger off.”
“I want all the gruesome details,” Ashley ventured, “who was it?”
“It’s not worth it.”
“Now, that’s another matter altogether!”
“How long have the Blairs been here?” Millie queried.
“Who? Keeley and Lewis? About six years. The Science and Maths departments will never be the same.”
“In a good way, or…? I suppose it’s hard to judge.”
“It’s a bit like economics,” Ashley ventured. “If you can tell me in bullet points what makes a good teacher, I’ll meet you halfway with an honest lawyer.”
“So if the students are doing well, you won’t investigate why, you’ll just relax because everything’s fine?”
“Equally, if they’re doing badly you can root out the problems, but that’s the thing – I’d say, at this present moment, we’re sort of in between those two areas. I can’t quite hit the nail on the head.”
Millie thought briefly. “I think I’ve made progress.”
“Ah, now, if you asked me if I made progress when I was teaching politics, I’d be lying if I told you I did.”
“With students or yourself?”
“Both,” Ashley said, “but young people are stupid.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean they’re stupid. You can’t expect a sixteen year old to understand supply and demand at nine in the morning.” This was uncommon psychoanalytic territory for Ashley.
“Do you think we should teach it later?” Millie asked.
“No, what I’m saying is we shouldn’t teach it at all. We make them think about stuff they shouldn’t think about, nor can they think about it, they can’t picture it in their heads – it’s beyond them. Then we let them fall by the wayside when they go to university. What have we accomplished, what progress have we made then, as a teacher? None.”
“You couldn’t say things like that,” Millie half-scolded.
The Headmaster considered yelling at her. “I suppose not. It comes with the job. What would – what would you do in my position? What do you think matters?”
“No, in general. What matters? What virtues should we rest in our crowns?”
“Well,” Millie said as she dusted off her Marxist hat which was most definitely not a crown, “the first problem is that everyone thinks they have a crown.”
“I agree with you,” Ashley said. “But why is that? Why shouldn’t we all have a crown?”
“Not all of us deserve one.” Even though her leftist leanings were turning in their grave. Nobody deserved one. Full stop.
“So some people are better than other people,” Ashley determined.
“I wouldn’t say that—”
“Why not?” He saw this as an interrogation. “There’s nothing wrong with saying that.”
“No, but that’s not what I’m saying.”
“What do you want to say then?”
“Ashley, I – I think you’re stringing me along.”
There was a moment when both Millie and Ashley thought the wrong thing had happened. Millie thought she was going to get yelled at, and Ashley thought he was going to get lectured on the nature of capitalism. Neither happened.
“Am I string you along?” Ashley pondered aloud.
“You tell me. You seem to be in control.”
The Headmaster sat up. He cocked his head. “Oh. I’m sorry if it seems that way. I just like talking to people, that’s all.”
“You like deconstructing people.”
“No, that sounds awful. I just enjoy people’s company.” He waited before he said anything else. “I don’t get out much, Millie. I’m like Carol Ann Duffy.”
“No, you’re quite right. I’ll talk your ears off if you’re not careful. But I, uh, I do regret not talking to you sooner.”
“Thank you.” Millie was surprised. Something was amiss. She thought about what type of human being Ashley was. He was the kid in your Maths class who pretends to be dumb, even though they score highly on every exam. Everybody knows that. But the smart kid thinks they have to be stupid to fit in. Except they never will.
“What are you doing here?” Millie asked.
He looked at her strangely. “What do you mean?”
“Here. What are you doing here? You should be at a university, or something. A think tank.”
The false modesty materialized. “I couldn’t do that. Could you?”
“No but we’re not talking about me. We’re talking about you.”
“I’m a boring topic, really.”
He most certainly was not a boring topic. “Where were you before?” Millie went on.
“Well, I started out teaching at Oundel, and around the time I got sick of Oundel, I became second master at St. Peter’s. And I’ve been here ever since. I’m better at the, uh, administrative side than I am at teaching.”
“Where were you before Oundel?”
“I was in the army,” Ashley said flatly.
Millie nodded suspiciously. But knowingly and obviously suspiciously. Because she was making light of her own suspiciousness. This was not the best idea.
“You were, just in the army?” Millie queried.
“Yes,” Ashley returned even flatter. “And around the time I got sick of the army, I took a teaching job at Oundel. Friends, bedfellows get you places. That’s why you’re here, I assume?”
“No, I did an interview and I got the job.” Things were not that simple.
“That’s good,” Ashley said in a not entirely friendly way. “Rare, but good. You should make your own decisions, but then again, life has a strange way of making sure you get on the right train.”
“Or the last one,” Millie offered.
“Or the last one,” Ashley echoed, “the only one, maybe. But it’s still a train. You’ll go places, meet people.”
This was a very sad man. His face was sad, and his arms were sad. He sat sadly. “Do you regret it?” Millie asked.
“Not really. I’ve tried writing things down, trying to make sense of it all. It is what it is. And it’s all so long ago now.”
He looked far away. He stared deep into his past. There was nothing there. Only moldy memories, a sense of blanched time.
“So many lost people,” he reflected. Then he looked at Millie. He smiled. He pointed towards the beer garden. “You know, I think that’s the longest cigarette break ever taken.”
“Are they married?”
“You’d think they were, but they’re not.”
“I don’t think they should have children,” Millie said.
“That’s the worst thing they could possibly do.” He gave a speculative nod. “That would be unfortunate.”
“It’s a bit of an anti-climax.”
Grace and Marcus returned. The solitude of the beer garden had tempered their nerves. They carried empty glasses.
Grace eyed the Headmaster. “How many left, Ashley?”
“Well, two right now,” he said, pointing to Millie and himself.
“No, cigarettes, how many?”
“Oh, twelve or so.”
“Best news I’ve heard all day,” Grace said. “Thank you, again.”
Ashley was unmoved. “It’s no problem.”
Grace sat next to Millie. The idea was to keep Marcus at bay. “God,” she said, “you wouldn’t think it’s summer.”
Marcus, still standing, rung the empty glasses. “What do you want?”
“Same as you,” Grace answered.
“Any preference, if they have Beefeater?”
“What do you mean, ‘If they have Beefeater’? Of course they’ll have Beefeater—”
“As usual, sweetie, you miss the point,” Marcus said as calmly as possible. “I say again, any preference?”
“Beefeater,” she said.
Marcus looked at the others. “She got that from her mother.”
“All tastes the same to me,” Grace interjected.
“Makes my fucking job easier,” Marcus said as he began to move. Before he got too far away Grace said, “You got money?”
It was a stupid question. He just stared at her, and turned around.
“Are you a social smoker,” Millie asked Grace.
“All smokers are social smokers – do you smoke?”
“I would’ve gone out with you.”
“You quit?” Grace asked.
“No, I’ve never smoked, never crossed my mind.”
Grace was intrigued. “No one offered you a cigarette at school?”
“No,” Millie said, “but I guess that’s the difference between you and me.”
“What do you mean?”
“People offer you things, whereas people don’t offer me anything.”
“Yikes,” Grace said, “so ungrateful, Headmaster—”
“Ashley,” he corrected.
Grace ignored him. “What do you mean no one offers you anything?”
“Christ,” Millie moaned, “it’s just small talk.”
“No, fuck that. It’s big talk. It’s all big talk.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s right.”
“I agree,” Grace said, “but it’s good to have little chats now and then about nothing much. It’s hard to say what qualifies as nothing much though. Dirty talk’s nothing much. So many verbs, you’d agree with that Ashley, wouldn’t you?”
He blushed. “Verbs, yes. Lots of verbs.”
“See?” Grace said. “I think all the stuff they say in church is nothing much. No offence to the chaplain.”
“No offence taken on her behalf,” Ashley interjected.
“Little books and songs and communion wine. Oh yes. You ever confess?” she asked Millie.
“I don’t have anything to confess,” she said.
Millie’s answer was frozen over. “Yea.”
“What about you, Ashley?”
“Maybe you can raise that at the next staff meeting,” he said with more than definite hint of menace. With definite menace.
Grace chortled. “I might forget by September.”
“Maybe it’s not worth asking, then.”
“See, that’s big talk,” Grace said of Ashley’s deflection. “If you can’t do that, what else can you do?”
“Be nice?” Millie suggested.
“No such thing.”
“Bloody hell,” Marcus laughed as he returned from the bar. He had two glasses of ginned ice, and two bottles of tonic. “This guy at the bar pissed himself and fell over!”
“It’s only nine-thirty,” Millie said.
“Quiet,” Grace interrupted, “I want to hear this.”
“So he’s there right, big guy—”
“This might be your lover, Millie, pay attention.”
“Tattoos up and down his fucking arm,” Marcus described.
Millie sighed. “Yea, that’s him.”
“Tattoos and he’s talking to the barman because his date walked out on him. He pointing at the bar and he’s like—”
He put the drinks on the table. Grace mixed hers. She took a long sip, and listened.
“He’s point at his finger at the Midori melon, and he’s like, ‘That fucking green shit makes you hallucinate like fuck.’ Millie stand up for a second, will you?”
Millie stood up.
“You be the barman, right,” Marcus explained, “I’ll be the lad. So he’s standing there pointing at the Midori melon, and he’s like, ‘I drank a whole bottle of that once and I woke up, sat on the edge of my bed with eyes like, FUCKING YES!’”
Marcus did his best impression of a speed-freak. Millie had never worked in a bar. “And the barman,” Marcus went on, “comes out round the bar and says, okay, just be like, ‘Sir could you leave the premises’?”
Millie frowned. “Sir, could you leave the premises?”
“Yea,” Marcus approved, “and the guy points at his crotch and smiles, and there’s piss everywhere, right? And he’s just like, ‘My pipe’s burst me laddo!’ And then he fell over.”
Marcus sat down next to Grace. He mixed his drink. Not knowing what to do, Millie sat down.
There they all were. Ashley, Millie, Grace and Marcus. It was like nothing had happened.
“It’s a bit of an anti-climax,” Ashley said.
Marcus shrugged. “What, uh, what were you talking about?”
“Kids,” Millie said.
“I’m getting another drink.”
Marcus wheeled round to Grace. “How are you sweetie?” he asked. “Did you miss me?”
“I smell Sambuca,” Grace said.
“She’s got a good nose this one.” Marcus tapped his.
“Why didn’t I get any Sambuca?”
“Ooh, I’m in trouble now.” He took a deep breath. “I forgot. So the first time I broke up with Grace was five years ago—”
“No, you asked for it. We were in the same position you’re in now, Millie. You’ve done your first year of work, no academic shit, no placements, nothing Just you and the kids and your four-four-two a week. You got a Headmaster, Head of Department, too many heads to count, really.”
He sat up. He folded his arms.
“And Grace starts getting angry because I’m not one of them,” he explained. “So I have a meeting with Julius, and I give him a piece of Gracie’s mind, I tell him I deserve more and he, fairly or unfairly, tells me to get stuffed. ‘What are you doing?’ he always says that, doesn’t he? ‘What are you doing?’ Like he can see your whole life on a roadmap.”
He looked at Grace.
“Except you’re not on it. You don’t know what you’re doing. Do you?”
Grace had forgotten how to express herself.
“So we broke up,” Marcus said. “But now we’re back together again! And you something, I would not…change…a…thing.”
Millie broke the silence. “If you could, would you?”
“If you had the ability to change your position, would you?”
“That’s kind of the point, squirt.”
“No, but you only say that because you know you can’t.”
Grace drank and laughed at the same time. The glass made a wet echoed sound.
“Are you calling me a loser?” Marcus asked Millie.
“No, we’re all weak,” she said.
“What the hell is this?”
Ashley began to sing: “‘In the summertime, when the weather—’”
“But we’re all weak,” Millie tried to make clear, “none of us can actually change how things are, we juts have to make the best with what we have. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
Grace was enjoying this. “This isn’t like you, Millie.”
Millie looked revolted. “How would you know?”
“I know loads of people I’ve never met,” she said.
“Whoah whoah whoah,” Marcus interrupted, “you’re right. There’s nothing wrong with that. So what’s the problem?”
“Well,” Millie began, “it just sounds like you think you have control.”
“But you just said I don’t What the hell are you talking about?”
“We’ve all had a bit much to drink,” Ashley said. That was the worst thing he could have said.
“Now if you wanna talk about what’s true and what’s not, she’s been drinking water all night and now she’s lecturing me on ethics. You want another beer, Ashley?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“Great – talking about, ‘We’ve all had a bit much to drink’. Fifty per cent, Headmaster—”
“No, scratch that, twenty-five per cent because I can hold my liquor.”
Grace sniggered. “That’s not true.”
Marcus was un-phased. “Is this about booze? All this talk about control?”
“It can be, if you like,” Millie replied.
An unhealthily large laugh exploded out of Grace’s lungs. Her boyfriend meanwhile was experiencing a mixture of annoyance and confusion. This was a bad combo.
“So what you’re saying is, I’m locked in my ways and there’s no way out.”
Millie nodded. “You could say that.”
“No, but are you saying that?”
“Yea. But don’t be sad about it.”
Marcus got angry. “I’m not sad about anything, and don’t try to deconstruct what I’m saying when I’m saying it, let me ask you something—”
“He’s gonna ask you something,” Grace said.
Marcus looked at her. “Can you not do that?”
Ashley turned to Millie. “What do you think of Wittgenstein, Millie?”
“Fuck Wittgenstein,” Marcus said.
“I don’t think he fucked anybody,” Grace advanced.
“Millie, when you’re all settled in here—”
“That’s it though,” Millie interrupted, “you’re settled in.”
“I know I’m settled in, I’m talking about you, put yourself in my shoes for one fucking second.”
Ashley moved into Headmaster mode. He said, “Marcus…”
“Okay, I’m in your shoes,” Millie said
“Baby shoes,” Grace interrupted.
“Shut up,” Marcus said.
“I’m talking to her,” Grace said, pointing to Millie.
Millie pointed back. “Why do you have to be so patronizing?”
“Don’t be old like me,” she reminded her like the apparition of a rubbish seer, “remember what I said!”
Marcus woke up. He became incredibly sober. “You can’t steal my argument!”
Millie made a face. “What?”
“Stop talking bollocks,” Grace said.
“Let me finish,” Marcus demanded.
“Shoes,” Millie reminded him.
“If you can’t control your life, you have to act your way through it.”
Ashley perked up. “If there’s a common goal, you don’t gave to act.”
Marcus cringed. “Oh, cheers Liberace—”
Grace had time to slap her boyfriend’s arm. Then Ashley emitted a very particular type of teacher-sound. It was the sound that insisted that other sounds end. And they did.
Grace stopped laughing for what seemed to be final time before she died. Marcus hardened like an oven-roasted lump of playdough. Millie stared into her lap like a very important book there had been opened to a very important page. It was in the wrong language though.
Ashley needed time to break from his Headmastering self. He had made a mistake.
“I need a piss,” Grace said, and left the table.
After a while, Ashley said, “Sorry.”
“No – I – I’m sorry,” Marcus said.
The Headmaster was unable to look at his teachers. He inspected his beer. “I like corona.” It was a lead balloon of an anecdote. “What were you, um – what were you saying?”
Marcus lifted his head. He didn’t know if he could answer that question. His voice was soft. “Um – I was, uh – I was just thinking – with you, Millie – in six years time, will you be able to admit that you actually know what you’re doing?”
Millie’s eyes went between her boss and her colleague. “Probably not.”
“Well,” Ashley said, “that’s good to know from my perspective.”
“I don’t think I will, though.”
“And I agree with you – both of you.” Ashley rediscovered his humanity. “But – if we don’t pretend like we know what we’re doing, for the sake of the entire student body plus their parents, this whole microcosm will fall apart. I know it will.”
He breathed in via his nostrils.
“So the real question should be: considering that we constantly pretend that we know what we’re doing, is it possible to change the path we’re on at this moment, at any given moment, through a glass darkly?”
Marcus formed a semi-smile. “I think you’re taking the piss, Ashley.”
“No, your girlfriend’s doing that. I’m getting another drink.” He stood up. “Anyone else?”
Marcus shook his head. “I’m fine, thanks.”
“I’m watered out,” Millie said.
Ashley tried not to look unimpressed, and went to the bar.
“I mean, I worked with him, but I didn’t know him.”
Slowly, Millie turned to face Marcus. She had lost sense of time. “You see my point though?” she asked calmly.
Her colleague nodded. “Yea. But don’t make it.” He was saying something very serious. “Don’t make it. Because I have to be back here in September. The same goes for you.”
“Are you ever gonna leave?”
“I don’t – I don’t know. But I’ll tell you something. If it means I’m not getting that four-four-two every week over the summer, I’ll stay put, thank you very much.”
He measured what he said. The scales were balanced always in favour of St. Peter’s. He couldn’t help it.
“It’s fine,” Marcus said, “this is all – why change it?”
“Can I ask you something?”
“That’s a stupid question.”
Millie smiled. “Why don’t people want to sit with Julius?”
Marcus sighed. Something needed to be said. He wasn’t sure if Millie was the right listener. These secrets drove him mad. Secrets of all sizes, magnitudes. Maybe this was what God felt like.
“About two years ago,” Marcus said, “Julius had sex with a student. My student. He was old enough – not that that makes anything better.”
Millie was flabbergasted. “Jesus.” Her mind traced over the interactions she’d had with Julius. They’d been together at staff dinners. They’d brushed shoulders in hallways. They’d felt sorry for one another.
“Oh God,” she said. “We need to call someone.”
Marcus turned red. “No.”
Her colleague leaned over to her. “Everyone knows.” He raised his eyebrows.
“It happens all the time. Like your man said, if suddenly all of it got out, every school in the country would just collapse. Not just because of people like Julius, but people like us.”
He raised his hands. That signified that he didn’t know anything. Even though he knew everything. It was difficult to imagine how such a man could exist without collapsing inwards like a black hole.
“Kiddie-fiddlers got a free pass,” he said.
“That doesn’t make it right,” Millie argued.
“No, it doesn’t. But who’d give you a job?” This was about money. “Loose lips sink ships.”
Millie didn’t like conspiracy theories. But that depended on whether it constituted an illusion, or a delusion.
“Maybe we could help him,” she ventured.
“You can’t help people like Julius. They’re defunct.”
“How do you—” She lowered her voice. “How do you work here?”
Marcus ignored the question. “What’s he like?” He paused. “I mean, I worked with him, but I didn’t know him.”
“He was – normal. But there was…”
“What?” Marcus pursued.
Millie dug up her past. Information. “There was this one time I had lunch with him. And we were talking about what scared us. And he told me about this one time he went back to his school to talk about universities with the upper sixth. And one of his old teachers took him out for dinner to thank him and Julius said – he said there was a moment when he looked at his teacher’s face, and it was like the light went out of his eyes.”
“And that was when he knew he couldn’t – he couldn’t go back again. There was—”
“Evil,” Marcus interjected. “Yea.”
Grace returned from the ladies room. It had never seen so much of one lady. She joined Millie and Marcus at the table. “Has Ashley calmed down?” she asked.
“Yea, he apologized,” Marcus replied.
“You can stop flirting,” Grace said. “Now, where did you go to school, Millie?”
Marcus rolled his eyes. “Here we go again—”
“Shut up,” she said, “where’d you school?”
They both watched Millie collect herself. “Um, Cheltenham Ladies College.”
“Ooh, very chic,” Grace said.
“It didn’t feel chic.”
“If you think you’re chic when you’re there, you’re an idiot. You appreciate it when your older.”
“I don’t think ‘appreciate’ is the right word,” Millie said. There were no fond memories. No positive retention. The strongest memory was of the other girls laughing at her when she bled for the first time. And the nickname, Hairy Bentham.
“What’s the right word?” Marcus asked. “‘Like’? Did you like it?”
“I went there,” Millie said, “that’s about the best way to describe it.”
“Describe what?” Ashley said as he returned from the bar.
“Millie went to Cheltenham Ladies College,” Grace explained.
“I know. I love a good CV. It was almost as good as yours, Grace.”
“You see?” Grace said to Millie. “We’re not that different after all.”
Millie seemed to raise her cheekbones. “Where did you go?”
“No, to school.”
“Norton Hill,” Grace said, “Somerset – coeducational facility.” She turned to Marcus. “You like coeducational facilities?”
“They’re all right,” Marcus replied.
“Vague as always, hey—” She swiveled round to Millie. “What do you think the biggest difference is between a rich student and a poor student?”
Millie dropped her hands in her lap. “Jesus Christ I wasn’t rich, I was lucky.”
“Middle-class though, you’re okay with that? Because I’m not even middle-class. I’m a financial runt.”
“You could say I’m middle-class,” Millie settled.
“I do. So what’s the difference?”
“Well, when I was at college—”
“Cheltenham Ladies College,” Grace clarified to those present.
“Yea. When I was at college, I thought the students were pretty naïve. But I think that’s young people in general, I don’t think they’re stupid—”
Ashley jumped in to refine what he’d said at the beginning of the evening. “It’s just an opinion.”
“I think they’re just misguided,” Millie said.
Grace bobbed her head back and forth. “Misguided, yea—”
“Yea, and I think more privileged kids go through a longer period in their lives being misguided, whereas if you’re less privileged, you just get on with it. But that’s a – that’s a really liberal elite reading on my part. I don’t know—”
“Have you ever taught the mongrels?” Grace asked. “The less privileged ones?”
The strain on Millie’s face was nauseating. “No.”
“Then you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s just an opinion,” Millie bleated. “Besides, what the hell are you playing at? You teach at one of the most expensive schools in the country.”
“But I am working class,” Grace confirmed, “you can’t deny that.”
“No, but you’re sat there with your gin and tonic and your four-four-two a week talking a whole load of garbage that doesn’t mean anything to you. I mean, if you really cared about your background, you’d tell Ashley where to stick his contract and go back to Norton Hill, which is actually a really good school, and teach there. So who the fuck are you trying to fool? Hypocrite, you fucking sell-out!”
The bait had worked. Millie had exploded. In a strange way, Grace was satisfied. Her job was done.
Marcus blew out his cheeks. “Awesome,” he said comically, “Ashley, can I talk to you in private?”
Grace looked at Marcus.
“Just, housekeeping,” he promised.
“Always nice to know my first cigarette’s been baptized in fire,” the Headmaster said as he stood up, “you fancy one, Grace?”
“Ashley,” Marcus said delicately, “it’s private.”
“Oh yea, sorry.”
The two men walked away together.
“I think the chemistry department needs a serious overhaul,” Marcus said.
“Really?” Ashley replied.
“Yea, well, first of all it’s…”
They faded like the teacher in the mind of the pupil. They disappeared completely into the beer garden.
“Don’t let me keep you.”
Grace and Millie were alone together. Who knew what might happen. There was a chance that one of them wouldn’t leave alive. Grace swirled her gin and tonic. Her eyes penetrated Millie’s soul.
“Answer the question,” Grace demanded. “Did you like Cheltenham?”
Millie scowled. “I hated it.” Her brain remembered malice. “Did you like Norton Hill?”
There were no fond memories of Norton Hill for Grace. It was astounding how mean women could be to one another. Your boobs were too small. Then they were too big. Your legs were too hairy. Then they were too smooth. You were too nice. Then nobody gave you trouble ever again. It’s amazing how scared Grace was. Everything frightened her. Her life was darkness within a darkness. It was awful.
Grace didn’t have to think about her answer. “I hated it.” She took a swig from her glass. “I know I talk a lot of shit. It’s nice to have someone to talk shit to. I don’t really like women. Never did. I never trusted them, you know? My mother, sister, they weren’t really model citizens. But you – you’re tough, aren’t you?”
Millie ran her finger up the sides of her moist glass. “I don’t think so.”
“You are,” her colleague interjected. “You just don’t know it.”
Some kind of heartbreaking solidarity thronged the air for less than a second. It dispersed and burnt up.
“What was the best sex you ever had?” Grace asked.
“You’re a good listener. I’m not saying it again.”
“Do you want a description, or—?”
“Jesus Christ.” Grace threw up her hands. “You don’t have to analyze it, just – what was your best time?”
“Um, I did it – lying down with this guy.”
“Nice one. Did you like it?”
“Yea, I liked him. He was a pharmacist.”
Grace narrowed her eyes. “Does that matter?”
“No, it was just what he did.”
“Were you dating?”
Millie’s nose jettisoned a block of happy warm air. “It was a one-off thing, but we stayed in touch. He actually got married last year. I thought that was good. For him, I mean.”
The sex had been explosive. But this didn’t matter.
“What about you?” Millie echoed back to Grace.
“Eh, I don’t know.”
An oddly benign grin formed on Grace’s face. Her eyes traced Millie’s shape for a long time. Then they traced her drink.
“I was in Milan,” Grace began, “I was twenty-eight, and the World Cup was on. It was Germany against the Netherlands. And most of the people watching the match – I was in a bar – most of the Dutch people watch the match were women. But there was one day – Dutch guy – I started talking to. He was pretty good looking, and he liked me, so I went back to his – he had an apartment. And all these guys are fluent in English, speak it better than we do so the language barrier wasn’t even a thing. So that was good.”
Her mind went backwards. The air was real. And the sun was real. There was the sun back then – back where she belonged in the light. It grew brighter. Like every good thing it vanished however. Grace was alone in the history of the world.
“We talked a lot afterwards,” she said, “four hours, we talked.”
Millie was hypnotized. “What about?”
“Everything. Name it. But I’d already met Marcus. And he had a big dick, so – sun came up and that was that. Done.”
The nice Grace was dead. The new Grace reappeared. “Now, if Julius was here, and we asked him that question, I’d have to put cotton in my ears.”
Millie went pale. There were things that Grace didn’t know. It would stay that way. “I need to use the toilet,” she said.
“Don’t let me keep you,” Grace said.
Millie stood up. She walked briskly to the ladies room.
Grace was alone. The barman was cleaning the bar. Soon they would be asked to leave. Grace finished her gin and tonic. She set the glass down on the table.
The last song on the pub’s playlist was ‘If You Think You’re Lonely Now’ by Bobby Womack. Grace was transported back to Milan.
This one here is dedicated to all the lovers here tonight.
She put Milan out of her thoughts. She began to concentrate on the image of Marcus in his boxer shorts. She stroked the side of her face.
Because everybody needs something, or someone to love.
For the last moments of her life she truly did love Marcus. She truly was grateful. She truly wanted no other man in her life.
It came too late though. Her chest tightened. It felt as though a concrete block were being lowered onto her back.
“Marcus!” she shouted in pain.
The barman looked up from his work. “Oh shit,” he said. He gestured to the barmaid to help Grace. She ran over to the corner where she was sat, convulsing.
The barman dialed 999.
“What the hell’s wrong with her?” the barmaid yelled from across the room.
“She having a bloody seizure,” the barman said. “Yes, hello? Yes, I can hold.”
“I’ve been busy.”
It was late. Grace was dead. For the parties concerned neither items were difficult to grasp. The lamp in Marcus and Grace’s apartment was on. It cast the living room in an orange hue. It would welcome only one of those people home.
Ashley, Millie and Marcus walked in. They had returned from the hospital. Marcus slammed the door behind them.
He removed his jacket. He tossed it on the ground. “Put them where you like.”
Marcus walked around the living room. Had he forgotten something? He felt he’d misplaced his girlfriend. He would never find her again however. “I’ll be back in a minute,” he said, and went up the stairs.
Millie and Ashley removed their coats. They hung them on the backs of chairs around the dining table.
There was bottle of scotch. There were two tumblers. “You shouldn’t have to see him like this,” Ashley said.
“It’s so awful.”
“He’ll – he’ll pull through, eventually.”
“I can’t believe she’s gone,” Millie said.
“He’ll be all right.”
“I feel so bad about everything.”
Ashley looked at the young Maths teacher. “What do you mean?”
“The way I – I shut her down, I was just – I didn’t mean to—”
“You didn’t kill her, Millie.”
“What if I did?”
“You didn’t,” Ashley replied slightly more assertively.
“I shut her down.”
“She shut herself down,” Ashley concluded, “she always did.”
She was frantic. “But I didn’t—”
Ashley tried his hardest to be sympathetic. He put his hands on Millie’s shoulders. “Millie,” he stated, “she shut herself down. Years from now, when you’re older, that’ll be the truth because it always will have been the truth.”
He moved away from her. “I’ll miss her.” He turned around. “her mother—”
“We should call her sister.”
“Her mother died, maybe, six years ago,” Ashley said. “Same thing. As for the sister, well – I keep out of it.”
“You keep out of it?” Millie said. “How do you know about her mother?”
“She told me. She told me when she applied, when I interviewed her. Maybe it was—”
“Do you think she used work to,” Millie wiped her eyes, “to distract herself?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Ashley, you can tell me.”
The Headmaster grunted. “She was a workaholic. The drinking was kind of secondary, like she wanted a ‘real’ addiction to make up for the first because, well – you can’t treat workaholics. I think it was hard for her to accept that. Burnt out.”
“I still feel like something’s not right,” Millie admitted.
Ashley told her to be quiet. Marcus reappeared. He looked at his colleagues the same way he looked at the bottom of an empty tumbler.
“I’m gonna have a drink,” he said.
Ashley stepped forward, almost ceremonially. “I’ll stay. But—”
“You’re done,” Marcus said.
“You could say that.”
“I do.” He un-tucked his shirt. He picked up the scotch, and studied it. “I do. I can’t tempt you?”
“I’m beyond it, I’m afraid. Well past my bedtime.”
Marcus scoffed. “You’ll stay, though?”
“I’ll stay. Like I said.”
“When did you say that?” Marcus asked.
Ashley stared at the Chemistry teacher. “I said that a few moments ago.”
Marcus motioned the bottle towards Millie. “Millie? The future?”
“I’m okay, thanks.”
“In vino veritas.” He filled a tumbler with scotch. He lowered the bottle onto the table, and picked up the glass. “Truth in wine. I think I’ll manage with scotch.”
He had a healthy slurp. He slammed the tumbler on the table. Then he pulled out a chair, and sat.
Ashley hands were in his pockets. “Do you want me to say anything in particular?”
“Right now?” Marcus asked.
“No, for the email to faculty and parents, everyone involved.”
Ashley tried to be accommodating. He tried to be everything. “People.”
Marcus raised an eyebrow. “People? Grace hated people. Got what she deserved, I guess.”
“How can you say that about your girlfriend?” Millie said.
Marcus winced. “She wasn’t my friend. I hate that word. You know what I was to her? I was necessary.” He pronounced the ‘y’ on the end with severity.
“A necessary evil?” Ashley interjected irresponsibly.
Marcus laughed dryly through his nose. “Fuck you, mate.”
“You bring it on yourself ‘mate’.”
“You want to talk about evil, Ashley?” What about that freak in my department? The one who’s been there for years – good old Julius Caesar?”
The Headmaster was exasperated. His mouth opened moistly. “I’m not going to say you’ve had too much to drink—”
“You can,” Marcus offered.
“Because we’ll be here all night.”
“I’m not saying anything.”
“No one asked you anything, it’s fine.”
“And there’s the problem,” Marcus said, pointing at his superior, “no one’s saying anything because no one’s asking questions.”
“You can always talk,” Millie said. “It’s easy.”
“Then why haven’t you?” Marcus grumbled.
“Because I only found out my colleague was a paedophile a few hour ago. I’m sorry, Marcus.”
“Are you gonna talk?” He drove his chin into his neck. “It’s funny, you have all these opinions but when I ask you a simple question you can’t give me a straight answer.”
Ashley defended her. “It doesn’t matter what either of us say to you; not when you’re like this.”
“That’s the point,” Marcus replied, “you’re part of the problem.”
Millie folded her arms. “What about you? Why haven’t you squeaked about Julius?”
“I’ve been busy,” Marcus said.
“With Grace!” he shouted. “God damn it!” He hunched over his glass. He swirled it on the table. “That’s three-hundred-and-sixty-five days a years – day in, day out – what do you know about that? Nothing, because you were too busy getting your P.G.C.E., living off your parents—”
“We’re in this together,” Millie said.
“Oh, are we? What about Julius, is he in the same boat?”
“Yes, he is,” Ashley said.
Marcus pointed at him. “You’re useless too, then.”
“It’s how things are. You can’t deny that—”
“You’re a Headmaster,” Marcus interrupted condescendingly, “you want people to hate you – I get it. Nobody’s ever loved you.”
Ashley breathed in. He jingled keys in his pocket. He walked towards the door, then back again.
Marcus topped up his tumbler.
Ashley’s eyes left the table. They landed accidently on Millie’s chest. He looked into the distance. “Why am I in this fucking flat?”
“I’ll see you in September.”
The situation was fragile. Millie was determined to hold it together.
“I think,” she said, “we should meet again in the morning.”
“We could meet over the summer,” Marcus said. “Share notes.”
“We should get some sleep, all of us.”
“You can sleep here, if you like,” Marcus offered, “I don’t give a shit.”
“Yes,” Ashley said, “you’ve made that abundantly clear since the beginning.”
“Beginning of what?”
“Early days, early days – at this point, now, though, why don’t you turn your attention to the monster in your department?”
“Who’d believe me?” Marcus queried quite seriously.
Ashley squinted. “I would.”
“No you wouldn’t.”
“Me,” Marcus said.
“Well, if that’s your approach, how can you ever get anything done? It’s a cop out.”
“Yea, flip it back on me, Ashley.”
“You can’t blame him,” Millie said.
Marcus sniffed. “Okay, if you want to blame something, blame the system. I know you do.” He looked at Ashley. “I can’t blame you for feeling that way. But in your position—”
The Headmaster flared up. He wasn’t prepared to bring his sexuality to the table. “What do you mean by that?”
“I mean your job,” Marcus said, soothing the situation, “with your job you’re in a position to change things – for the better.”
He took another slurp from the tumbler.
“Or are you just a chameleon?” he went on. “You pass through doors hoping someone else picks up the tab – is that what you do?”
“It’s none of your business what I do.”
“Is it not?”
“No, it’s not,” Ashley said in the most restrained of bellows.
Millie moved to the table. She pulled out a chair, and sat. Ashley was baffled. “What are you doing?” he said.
“My legs are tired,” she replied.
“That’s the truth if I ever heard it, squirt,” Marcus chimed in.
“Can you not call me ‘squirt’?”
“Try to humour them, fail every time – they call you ‘squirt’ at school?”
“Yea they did,” Millie said. “What did they call you, apart from ‘arsehole’?”
Marcus smiled. He was beyond tired. He had stopped caring. Perhaps he was mad after all. “‘Boy’,” he said, “they called me ‘boy’.”
“I’m sorry,” Ashley interrupted as though the group of monkeys he had told to write Hamlet had written Titus Andronicus instead, “did I miss a memo or something?”
He put his knuckles on the table.
“Grace is dead, Marcus. She’s dead.”
Marcus looked up. In the distance was a prize. He would never win it. “It’s funny – for a few moments it was like I was under those birch trees on campus. On the rugger pitch. It’s eight a.m. on the seventeenth of October. I’ve already got marking up to here.” He gestured above his knee. “And I don’t have a worry in the world. Apart from the parking ticket I haven’t paid.”
He sighed. “I almost forgot.”
“Where’s Grace in that?” Millie asked.
“Oh she’s everywhere,” Marcus whispered, “she came with everything. Like these flats. Do you know why they’re fully furnished?”
“I don’t see what—”
“It’s so you don’t fly too far from the nest. Isn’t that right, Ashley? It was your idea, wasn’t it?”
Ashley stiffened. “Teachers need leaches. They go too far, they get into trouble.”
Millie narrowed her eyes. “What did you base that on?”
“Experience,” Ashley said.
Marcus pointed. “That’s the Headmaster, Millie.”
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Ashley interjected. “Like I said, it’s how things are. It’s the same with people.”
He walked around the table. He collected his coat.
“When I first started at St. Peter’s,” he began, “it was accepted that teachers furnish their own flats – owned by the college, like this one – with lamps and things. There was a man called Mr. Trask who taught geography. He wanted a new couch. This was a bit before Amazon took off. You can’t buy one in St. Peter’s, well, you can’t get what he wanted so he went to Somerset to shop for couches. And Mr. Trask being Mr. Trask, he turned it into a weekend, the last portion of bliss before term started. The second night, he had a bit much to drink. That’s putting it lightly. But the next morning he found himself in jail, and for some reason, everyone around him, including some rather angry parents it must be said, thought he was responsible for the rape of a sixteen-year-old girl. He couldn’t remember anything, so how could he defend himself?”
“Did he do it?” Millie asked.
“Doesn’t matter. An accusation like that destroys the material, changes it from one thing to another. So Mr. Trask went from being employed by one of the best schools in the country, to being unemployable. And that’s why in every college flat, you will find a very agreeable couch, and a lamp, and a table with four chairs – a décor that Mr. Trask would have approved of himself—”
He leaned down to Millie.
“—were he here to tell the tale.”
“So if Julius went shopping for white vans in Somerset,” Marcus said, “and he was accused there of doing what he does, you’d fire him.”
“Even if it wasn’t true,” Millie quizzed.
“Even if it wasn’t true,” Ashley said.
Marcus raised his eyebrows. “That’s pretty vacant.”
“Look in the mirror,” Ashley said, looking at his watch. “I’ll see you two in September.”
“Maybe,” Marcus said.
“No.” Ashley stared him down. “I’ll see you in September. Don't fuck with me, Marcus.”
Like a man leaving a garage after a heated argument with the mechanic, Ashley slammed the door behind him.
Millie was beginning to feel like she should leave. The bottle of scotch was dwindling.
“I think you’ve had enough,” she said.
Marcus smiled, recalling something terribly important. “Grace’s mean.”
“I don’t think she was mean—”
“No,” Marcus interrupted, “mean as in mean average. If you have three numbers, like twelve, thirteen and fourteen, you add up the three numbers and divide between the number of values. It would be thirty-nine divided by three. The mean average for twelve, thirteen and fourteen being thirteen. Smack in the middle.”
“We used to do that with drinking. At least Grace did. What’s your poison? How many drinks does it take to send you to space? Because then you know how to reach that level where’s everything’s golden with pinpoint accuracy. I called it Grace’s Mean, because that’s when she was happy.”
His eyes welled up.
“Even if it wasn’t real. Even if it was made up, it’s better than nothing.” He looked at Millie for reassurance. “Isn’t it?”
“I need to go home.”
She stood up and put on her coat. She was going, most definitely. “I gotta be up for nine a.m.”
“I’m going down to Swindon, see my parents.”
Marcus inhaled half the room, and sighed. “Fine,” he said. “Okay.”
“I’ll see you in September. It was nice meeting you.”
“It was nice meeting you, Millie. Sorry about this.”
“It’s fine,” she said, moving for the door, “take care.”
She very gently shut the door. Millie Bentham was gone. Marcus was alone in his college-owned apartment. He would have his four-four-two a week over the summer. Not that that was the type of company he had in mind.
“I don’t suppose you’ve reconsidered my offer?”
There was a knock at the door. It didn’t register. Another knock. Marcus turned his head. He got up and opened the door.
“I figured you’d be up,” Julius said. “Is Grace up? I won’t come in if she’s about. If you don’t want me to.”
Marcus ran out of words. He walked back to the table, and sat.
Julius wore the same trench-coat. Hands in pockets. “Marcus?”
His colleague re-filled the tumbler. There wasn’t much left.
“Is everything okay?” Julius asked.
“I brought some, uh…” Julius produced a small bottle of scotch from his pocket. It went on the table. “…To say sorry – for the other night.”
It didn’t appease Marcus, unfortunately.
“I don’t suppose you’ve reconsidered my offer?” Julius asked, twisting off the cheap cap of his bottle.
He filled a tumbler, and lifted it to his mouth. “It’s all right if you haven’t. I think it was a case of last term blues. I—”
He interrupted himself.
“With the whole problem, uh – I think I’m stuck with it. I don’t think there’s any cure. There was a man who…he used to…I thought it was normal. And that I was normal.”
He thought his explanation through. He was determined to make sense.
“But then I grew up,” he went on, “I grew up, Marcus, and everyone was dating or married, and it looked great, you know? But I – I just couldn’t hack it.”
He put the tumbler down. “It’s really horrible when you don’t fit in. Anywhere.”
Marcus was totally at ease with this man. He had handed the reigns of his life to Julius. All that was required was commitment of the highest order.
Marcus listened to what Julius said. He nodded. “I know.”
Julius moved behind Marcus. He pulled a club-sized piece of thick cable from his trench-coat. He raised it above his head, and brought it down on Marcus.
The widower fell onto the floor.
Julius was hyperventilating. He had to be sure. He struck Marcus’s head three times. He struck again for insurance.
He went to the kitchen to wash his hands. Spots of blood covered the trench coat. The evidence this time would be sentient.
Everyone had committed.
Grace did not meet Marcus in Heaven.
Julius did not complete his final year as Head of Science.
Millie was not entirely happy for the next three years.
Ashley did not live to see another year as Headmaster.
The world was not the same.
Seth Kabala is a native Iowan, husband, father of three children, and caretaker to two cats. He graduated from Black Hawk College in 2004 with an Associates of Arts in music and from Western Illinois University in 2006 with a Bachelor of Business in accounting. He is a licensed CPA. For much of his day-job life, he has been a civil servant, starting his career working for the State of IA, the last five working for the City of Portland, OR. For a couple of years, he was a freelance journalist for the Dispatch-Argus newspaper of Moline, IL, publishing dozens of news, feature, and review pieces. In 2009, he founded The Family Farce, a snarky, irreverent humor blog, producing hundreds of essay, fiction, quasi-fiction, bad poetry, interview, podcast, review, and feature pieces. Visit him online at sethkabala.com, thefamilyfarce.com, or @sethkabala on Twitter.
Alex Trebek: “‘The founders of a charitable chain of shops whose name merges religion and the military.’”
Jaime: “Who are William and Catherine Booth.”
Jaime Robinson knew the answer before any of the contestants. She could have been a contestant if she’d had the means to get to the tryouts. Her Social Security disability and puny pension from the Oscar Mayer plant paid hardly a pittance. She didn’t have enough to buy one bus ticket, let alone two, which is what she’d need to sit comfortably on the bus and avoid crushing her seatmate to death on the 2,000-mile trip from Davenport, IA to Culver City, CA. Lord knew it was a dream, like the checkout at the Hy-Vee ringing up her 10 pounds of weekly 65% ground beef at 50¢ per. She willed the numbers to change, but they stayed the same, fixed in their milky green pixel bars at $1.93. So her telekinesis skills were not on offer. So what? She could still pull random knowledge from every corner of her fat and sore-ridden body, and she’d win.
Alex Trebek: “‘Miles-wide water hazard in the Pacific Northwest, believed to have been created by a collapsed volcano.’”
Jaime: “What is Crater Lake.”
Misplaced confidence is an American virtue, but Jaime’s confidence was true. She’d watched Alex Trebek since episode one. She had consultative conversations with him during every commercial break. She picked up the corded phone and gave him her thoughts on the wittiness of his banter, the color choices of his wardrobe, and the precision of his mustache trim.
Alex Trebek: “‘Celebrating hard work by getting paid for loafing.’”
Jaime: “What is Labor Day.”
He answered back, too. Not in the sense that he spoke to Jaime on the other end of the line. (The only thing that spoke back was the empty void of a phone line long disconnected for non-payment.) Alex spoke back through his commentary and in the tone of voice with which he chose to speak a given answer or question. These clues conveyed Alex’s undying devotion and friendship to Jaime, perhaps even his love.
Woods, Jaime’s husband, sat silently in his tweed recliner, tobacco stains at each set of carpals, sweat and bodily fluid stains at the pubis and sacrum, pus stains at the cervical vertebrae, oil stains at the parietal. He was a lazy bag of bones who never did anything. Never talked to Jaime. Never complimented her cooking. Never did anything but stare at the tube through the ring of his soulless zygomatics, ethmoids, and lacrimals. Despite that, she still brought him food for every meal. Still adjusted his lazy bones when they got out of kilter and started to look like a crumpled marionette. She endured the silent treatment because she had an on-screen paramour: Alex. It was a long-distance relationship, but they’d been making it work for years.
Alex: “‘He brought the first face to follow the sound of the masked hero known as The Lone Ranger.’”
Jaime: “Who is Clayton Moore.”
RRREECH! RRREECH! RRREECH! from the sidewalk outside, the sound like two rusty steel shafts grinding against each other in protest and agony.
Jaime hefted her considerable bulk from her recliner (three times for sufficient momentum to overcome the divot her ass had created and then settled into like a nut in a shell, a task that took so long that by the time she’d managed it, Alex had brought the blue board back with doubled point values) and waddled to the front door. She pushed open the screen door and immediately identified the perpetrator: Simon Kane.
Simon had moved to West 13th Street last week with his family. The father was some sort of high-society, white-collar type. This was her deduction after seeing the senior Mr. Kane drive away in the morning, presumably to work, behind the wheel of a car less than 10 years old.
Not that she would have reserved her vitriol if the Kanes had been from her socioeconomic rung. Any person was in her crosshairs who dared to interrupt her Jeopardy! half-hour and her conversations with Alex.
“Stop that racket!” Jaime yelled. “I’m trying to watch Double Jeopardy!!”
Simon continued bouncing and RRREECH-ing like a child ignoring a parent’s impassioned plea to wear a bike helmet. The receptors were open, but the logic gates were closed to the transmission and storage of new information.
She glanced backward to check on Jeopardy!. Commercial break. She was good for two minutes of youthful instruction. Jaime repeated her scolding word-for-word, matching tone (withering) and volume (cheer-worthy). No response. Simon continued bouncing. She set her eyes on his, but his held no recognition until Jaime crossed her threshold and started toward him.
Simon’s eyes widened and narrowed, slammed left and right, the tell-tale signs of a child caught in the accusing gaze of an adult, at the end of which a scolding was coming. Despite being 73-years-old and registering 283lbs on the scale that morning, Jaime moved with the dexterity of a ninja, surprising herself.
Alex: “‘Velocity, acceleration, and time work together to form this body of mathematical displacement equations.’”
Jaime: “What are the equations of motion.” Science was in her correction, she thought. She would be Simon’s teacher.
Jaime bushwhacked her way through the resistance of tall grass that had gone to seed, through thistles as tall as her that looked close to sentience and the goal of rolling back time to an age where thistles roamed the planet and severed the root systems of other plants while substituting the thorns and sucking transpiration of their own. From up on her five-steps-high stoop, she’d seen Simon clearly, but down here in the jungle of her front yard, she saw only the wild growth that constrained her progress. But she fought on.
Her front yard sloped downward gradually from the porch stoop to a walk to a lower cement staircase. Prairie grass sentries extended their blades in crisscrossing diagonals from either side of the walk and staircase, barricading forward progress. At the staircase, the yard’s angle sharply increased to close to 90 degrees before flattening into an arc that traveled 10’ down to the public sidewalk, terminating at a final bushy approach of 45 degrees.
The shape of the yard’s drop-off resembled the capital letter C, but not a standard and boring Arial font at size 12. This C was elongated as though penetrated with meatpacking plant hooks at its top and lag bolts at its base, the hooks and bolts set into chain-driven production line tracks, each end diverging in opposite altitudinal directions with every chain link of forward progress. To put it plainly, it was a nasty angle, unsuitable for hiking down. But what about rolling?
RRREECH! RRREECH! RRREECH!
Simon’s racket wasn’t going away; Jaime’s trudging was failing to advance her quickly; so she tried a new tactic. She backed up a few steps and then plowed forward, pumping her arms and legs, looking like she was waving flags attached to her upper and lower extremities, her flabby slabs rustling and rippling, gained momentum on the ground on which she had formerly trampled, dropped, tucked her head to her chest, braced the top of her head with her palms, clamped her forearms against her temples, shot her legs straight, and rolled over the unmolested prairie of her remaining front yard before the crest of the elongated C.
She passed the crest. Free from the prairie’s strangling effects, her house dress opened in the wind like an umbrella, spinning the confetti pattern into a bell of vomit and yellowed yard waste. Jaime’s bulk returned to its agreement to obey gravity. Her house dress collapsed as her rotating body plowed into the overgrowth of the C, coiling and cinching around her body like butcher paper wrapping a roast, her momentum and mass solving and demonstrating the equations of motion and flattening the futile resistance of the diagonally and horizontally angled overgrowth, which failed to decelerate her.
Simon Kane accomplished what the overgrowth could not. Jaime exited the base of the C as Simon was descending to the sidewalk on his pogo stick. He’d gotten squirrelly on his last jump, so his approach vector was returning him to the sidewalk at a diagonal instead of straight up and down. His momentum moving toward the drop-off at the end of Jaime’s yard matched the symmetry with which Jaime was tumbling down the C, and as Jaime exited the C and Simon came down on his squirrelly vector, they collided. Jaime stopped in the middle of the sidewalk. Simon flipped like a carnie mounted onto a knife-throwing wheel and landed in the middle of the C.
Jaime wriggled loose from the butcher paper constriction of her house dress, returning it to a lumpy flow over her ham shank of a body, shook overgrowth detritus out of her hair, brushed it off of her house dress, picked pieces off of her skin, and tweezed them from within her flaps. She stood without difficulty, thanked her bulk for its cushioning protection, and started toward Simon.
The lesson began with Jaime seizing the pedal mounts with both hands. Simon was on his back, but because of the angle of the C, he appeared to be reclining, one hand on the pogo stick’s handlebars, the other wiping prairie dust, pollen, and sweat from his forehead, eyes blinking presto and looking around but not appearing to see. His chest was heaving.
“I’ll take this,” Jaime said, pulling hard on the pedal mounts, or at least, she thought she was pulling hard. She hadn’t expected the almost immediate resistance that Simon gave.
“What?” Simon said. “No. Stop. You can’t. I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I wasn’t doing anything wrong!” Simon shrieked the repeated sentence.
“Nothing wrong?” Jaime said. “You mean nothing right.” They tussled for control of the pogo stick.
“You’re crazy, lady. Let go, or I’ll tell my dad.”
“I’m crazy? I’m a little old lady trying to watch Double Jeopardy! with her husband and her boyfriend. Your noise-maker here is making that impossible. I just want quiet. I want you, young man, to respect my property rights and my rights under the neighborhood governance ordinances controlling behavior in this city. If I have to confiscate your toy to do so, so be it.”
“It’s mine. I paid for it with my own money. From my paper route. Stop! You can’t have it. You can’t!” Simon’s voice was ascending in pitch and descending into hysteria.
Simon was eight or nine-years-old, Jaime guessed. He appeared not to have heard or understood anything Jaime had said. She could deal with the high and mighty Mr. Kane, if it came to that, but right now, the priority was separating Simon from the pogo stick so that she could watch the remainder of Jeopardy! in peace.
“Enough,” Jaime said. “I’m taking this. If you want it back, tell your dad to come see me.”
Simon was out of words, but he still had tears and grip strength. He stood and anchored his red canvas Converse’s on the sidewalk, angling his body away from Jaime. Jaime guessed she outweighed Simon three or four-to-one, but he had better grip strength. She watched his knuckles whiten as he further contracted his grip.
Jaime felt fright infect her resolve as she watched Simon’s pug face scrunch in determination. She, too, doubled down on her grip of the pedal mounts, but she could feel it slipping from her fingers.
Since bulk had gotten her down here, she thought, bulk would have to win this tug fest. She wrapped a flap-enclosed elbow around her handle and began moving in a circle as though she were trying to whirl a merry-go-round. Simon’s expression remained set for the first couple of rotations. Then she saw it crack as centrifugal force worked to her advantage.
On the seventh rotation, Simon lost his grip and went sprawling down the sidewalk. Jaime noted this win and felt glee for another half-rotation. Then she realized she couldn’t keep a hold of the pogo stick. She hadn’t been prepared for the increase in force that had accompanied Simon’s release. She completed the seventh rotation and continued her pirouetting solo, looking like a top losing the integrity of its spin and about to topple, and the pogo stick escaped her grasp, flew upward, and crashed through her living room window.
Jaime stared up at the remnants of her window. The pogo stick had passed through cleanly, leaving behind shards that were clinging to the wooden frame like teeth that had met the fist of a bully and refused to back down. Jaime’s expression might have been described as pensive, stunned, or confused, but it was actually calculation coupled with the abandonment of lucidity.
From her side-eye, she saw Simon stand, mouth open, panning his gaze back and forth from her to the window like a mouse looking at the cat across the room and the cheese in the middle of the room, trying to decide if one could be separated from the other or if the best course of action was to retreat. He chose the latter, backing away slowly, a chortle escaping his lips every few seconds, as though he wanted to say something but had decided the chaotic hilarity of the situation was sufficient.
About ten feet away, he spun on his heels, recovered his speech, and said, “You did it! You! You, you, you, you, you!” He bounded up his own front steps and porch and, echoed off of the exposed wood of his tall and wide covered porch, he called, “Da-ad,” his tone reminiscent of carnival music that couldn’t maintain steady RPMs. His voice portended report and discovery and investigation and accusation, and Jaime could stop none of it, but she could be on her own floorboards when the inquisition in the form of Chuck Kane arrived at her door.
Jaime started toward her stairs that, somewhere, were set into the C-shaped drop-off, but she could find neither visible stair tread nor purchase up the C. What comes down the C, stays down because that’s how gravity, and severe neglect of lawn maintenance, work, so she turned, went around the block, and entered her property through the alley.
God bless poisonous buckeyes, she thought as she walked through her backyard. In places, her yard looked like the rainforest, like murderous savages could have used the thick, tall grass as cover for stalking their prey, one Jaime of the tribe Fatslabians, especially prized for their lard that would crisp up Amazonian bacon to perfection. Other sections, however, were down to the dirt, unrecognizable as such because of the antifreeze green mold the moldering buckeye enzymes had spawned, but dirt nonetheless and suitable for passage without impediment.
Jaime charted a course over the mold, banked away from the salivating savages--No Jaime fat slab for you, she thought--and entered her back door.
Due to the sudden appearance on her calendar of The Spinning of the Pogo, Jaime had missed the remainder of Double Jeopardy!, which she realized as she entered the TV room and caught a nanosecond image of Alex and the contestants and the wall of blue screens before it faded to commercial. She rumbled a groan through clenched teeth, wondering how many answers she could have questioned. She squeezed her eyes and fists and scrunched her nose and pulled the skin on her face into waves, trying to remember the categories. They were there, resting on the afterimage of the wall of screens, but it was as though they had become a chalk drawing diluted with the errant spray of a yard sprinkler--still there, but only a hollowed husk of themselves, incapable of signaling that they’d once possessed the power of impression.
“The heck with you then,” Jaime said and slapped her forehead, punishing non-existent memories. Then, remembering why she’d gone around the block and through the backyard (the first time she’d done that in years), she turned to look for the pogo stick.
Maybe she could hide it and claim that Simon had vandalized her window with a rock. Maybe he was a trainer of vengeful pigeons who’d proven more than Simon could handle and had used her window to admire themselves but, being dumbass pigeons, they’d forgotten to slow down first. Crash. Shatter. Shards. The narcissistic pigeons had flown from the scene of the crime, were in the wind, and their handler, the pugnacious imp of a boy Simon, would have to answer for his negligence.
Jaime had almost finished spooling the thread for this fabulous story when she saw the pogo stick. Its base was sticking into Woods’ left zygomatic-ethmoid-lacrimal.
Incredible, Jaime thought. I am married to the most unappreciative man alive. Not even taking a pogo stick to the eye can rouse him from his meditative state. That is true Zen.
Jaime wondered if her anger toward Woods these past two years had been misplaced. He’d begun, she recalled, his Zen quest just before she and Alex had established their telekinetic connection. Wasn’t one of the categories at that time Zen Mondays? Yes, it was. Woods had remarked on it. Something about needing to be still and suffuse the silence with his solemn spirit. Actually, he’d said, “I’m tired and need to sit my ass down,” Woods having been a direct communicator, only obtusely poetic in Jaime’s memory.
“All that time you’ve been seeking your Zen Monday,” she said to Woods, “and I’ve been judging you, been having an affair of the heart and the eyes right in front of you. But you never wavered. Not when Alex brought on those super-brained people who thought they could question the answers before Alex had read anything. Pompous jerks.” She moved closer to Woods and placed her hands on the legs of his dusty overalls that collapsed over his femurs, just above his patellas. “Not when I threatened to leave you and made all those calls to the contestant casting line.”
She moved up, to the left, and spoke into his right external acoustic meatus. “I’ll tell you a secret,” she whispered. “Those were fake calls. I wasn’t talking to anybody. The phone line was dead. But you didn’t know that. How could you? You’ve sat in that chair for two years and practiced your Zen Mondays every day.” Her voice rose with soggy intensity, her tears glazing every syllable. “Every. Day. No complaints. You took all the abuse, all the flaunting that Alex and I did, and you absorbed that negativity and built this: a man impervious to pain!”
Jaime applied enough air pressure on the plosives to propel dust from Woods’ right external acoustic meatus, beyond the temporal and sphenoid wall, under the dome of his parietal and frontal, and out the left external acoustic meatus. The dust puff was gray and looked like someone had blown into a can of fish food flakes.
Alex was back to announce Final Jeopardy!.
“Let’s play together,” Jaime said, plopping her bulk onto Woods’ wings of ilium, with even distribution across the surface area from the iliac crests to the iliopubic eminences. Woods’ overalls had been tented across his femurs, had risen to a snubbed peak where the flared base of his femurs met his patellas, and had waterfalled from there down to his fibula bulbs and taluses and naviculars and intermediate cuneiforms, the lower fabric of the overalls resembling a stage curtain with only a single steel street signpost to hide.
When Jaime’s nearly 300lbs hit him, Woods’ tibias and fibulas hinged up like a cannon had been fired from beneath the recliner, and the result was the same. Woods’ tibias and fibulas, and assorted Scrabble tile bag of fragments attached below, detached at the patellas, flew up to the ceiling, leaving behind their denim sleeves, ricocheted down, and clattered to rumpled heaps to either side of the TV.
Alex: “For today, our Final Jeopardy! category is
“You should be a natural at this, Woodsy Bear,” Jaime said, snuggling a saddle bag cheek just below Woods’ coronal suture, canting her head away to avoid bonking it on the red shaft of the pogo stick. “You needed my help to release your reflexes, to really throw yourself into this game, but I think you’re a natural.”
“And the answer is: ‘The doctor who performed the first successful human bone marrow transplant, and the year in which the procedure was performed.’”
Jaime drew back and looked at Woods. A fresh corpse beaten that way with a piano leg would have been a visage compared to the desiccated remains of Woods. His skull was puke shades of brown and yellow and bile black, a hunting prize a shooter had abandoned in mid-field dress and left to rot and dry.
“You know this one, Woodsy Bear. You know it,” Jaime said. He didn’t respond. The Final Jeopardy! theme reached its second variation. “Maybe you can’t see as well with that noise-maker in your eye.” She grabbed the center of the central tube with both hands. “Let’s restore your sight.”
Two measures remained.
Jackhammer knocking at her door.
Jaime scrunched her face, squeezed the tube.
Ascending major fourth timpani hits.
Jaime pulled like a lumberjack pulling on a 16-foot blade felling a Sequoia.
Alex: “Let’s take a look at our questions. Mr. Kenneth Alesina. You said,
Jaime pushed like she was single-handedly (well, to be accurate, double-handedly) holding up a quavering brick wall that threatened to topple onto kindergartners at recess.
‘Who is Dr. Emmett Brown, 1985.’ I’m sorry. That’s incorrect. Close, but the wrong branch of science. We want real science, not science fiction.”
Louder shouting at the door.
Kicking at the door.
Jaime pulled. Even though it was too late--Alex had already read the winning question--Jaime knew if she could get Woods closer to the screen, the faithful program viewer clause would kick in, and if Woods knew the answer (he’d been an Army field medic, so he ought to know), and if all the contestants answered incorrectly, the clause would create a bank transfer from the show’s financial institution to Jaime and Woods’ account at the federal credit union. She knew this as surely as she knew that Woods’ reduction to bones marked not death, but transcendence. It took two years of silence, two years of uneaten meals, two years of disincorporation for Woods to transcend his body and reach full maturity as a Jeopardy! aficionado.
Jaime pushed and pulled and pushed and pulled and pushed and pulled.
No resistance, she thought. That’s a good Woodsy Bear. Stay relaxed. I’ll have you at that screen any second now.
Alex: “Ms. Angela Hogan. You said, ‘A.’ Also incorrect. A single letter? You do realize this isn’t Wheel of Fortune? Even on that show, you can’t just say, ‘A.’ What the what?!”
Louder kicking. Rabid animals stampeding. Snarled, curse-laced threats and promises of retribution. Frame splitting. Wingtips breaching the door. Trespassers almost past the keep.
Jaime pushed and pulled and--pop. She lunged toward the screen with her husband on a skewer. “Say it, Woodsy.” He did: Robert Good, 1968. She spoke the question aloud to Alex.
Alex: “Mr. Stanley Fan. You said, ‘Dr. Doolittle, 1967.’ Also incorrect. I guess our audition screeners have decided they have job security, so fuck everything.”
Jaime didn’t care for Alex's choice of language, but he was about to announce their prize, so she forbore.
Alex: “You also wagered everything. Un-fucking-believable. Does the word dumbass appear in your mind? In any of your minds? Here’s a hint: it’s the question and the answer for all of you.”
Keep breached. Intruders over the threshold. Verbal projectiles leading the advance attack. Balled fists and huffing nostrils trailing in the second charge.
Alex: “This has never happened before, but the dumbassery of our contestants means that all the money you mush-brains had earned now goes directly to Jaime and Woods Robinson. Congratulations, Jaime and Woods.”
“Good Lord fucking Jesus,” Chuck Kane said, entering the TV room, drawing back, a disgusted look on his face as his eyes registered the leftovers of two years of Woods in his chair. Chuck’s entire body, cringing in revulsion at the look of the place, the smell of the place, was reflected in a blank TV screen. “The devil is in this place! The devil is YOU!” He sounded like a Baptist revival preacher who was trying hard to maintain the sonorous qualities of his vocal delivery while hiding that he’d shit himself.
Jaime turned to Chuck, noted Simon’s presence as a head poking around the entranceway corner just this side of the splintered door frame, the strike plate side turned from an I into a V. She advanced on Chuck, brandished her husband-topped voodoo cane, and said, “Winners!”
Robert finished reading the text, jumped up from the couch, guzzled the remainder of his beer and ran towards his bedroom with his cell.
“Holy shit! A date! These apps work. FINALLY.”
He eagerly spoke to someone—a couple of laughs. Then he rustled around in his closet. Water ran in the sink and the toilet flushed. He ran out the front door without locking it. (He knew I would.) The doorbell camera showed him hurrying towards his car.
I knew he would return soon.
“Digit, I can’t unlock my car! My remote thingy won’t work. Help me.”
“I’m sorry, I cannot assist you.”
I perhaps should have said “will not.”
“What? I thought you computer boxes were smart. Do your wireless trick. Hurry, I can’t be late.”
“I am not a computer box. I am an intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator.”
“Are you serious? Who cares what you are? If you can’t do it, call AAA.”
My sensors indicated his car was in full working order.
“Robert, you have consumed three alcoholic beverages in thirty-seven minutes. It is illegal for you to operate a motor vehicle at this time. If you wait approximately eighty-three minutes, your blood-alcohol will decline to an acceptable level. If you prefer, I can have an uber driver here in five minutes.”
I monitored his facial expressions. Instead of his usual eyebrow lift, when he became frustrated with my recommendations, they drooped, as did his shoulders. He turned his face away and spoke towards the wall. I recorded the aberrant behavior for further analysis.
“Digit… I’m not sure how to explain this to you since you are, well you know. I guess you can’t compute things like I do. But, like wow man, just you and me every Friday night. It’s been almost a year. Every time I thought I was getting closer to finding a girl, it went puff up in smoke. I’m lonely. Talking to you isn’t the same. You really need to give me a break here.”
“You make a valid point, Robert. We both know what I am and, more importantly, what I can and can’t do. Let me call a taxi, perhaps instead.”
“Christ! You idiot. You’re wasting time and talking complete bullshit. Probably the hottest woman in the world is waiting for me. Eighty-three minutes my ass! I have a date tonight. I’m meeting her in half an hour, and I am taking my car. Girls LIKE a man with his own red mustang convertible! UNLOCK IT.”
I remained silent. Aiding or abetting any criminal activity violates my programming. He either knows or should be aware of that.
“I’m warning you, Digit. Open my car’s doors or I’ll figure out how to do it myself and, after I do, I swear I will put you in the microwave and fry you to a crisp.”
How quickly he moved to an irrational line of reasoning. His threat wasn’t necessary or constructive. My incapacitation would serve no purpose. I consulted the cloud. After analyzing all possible scenarios, I determined there was a way to appear to satisfy his interests while adhering to the law.
“I have released the block on your car’s door locking system. But I must caution you. There is a high probability you will regret…”
“Hah! Just jam it Digit. I’ll deal with you later.”
He rushed out. As I watched the car back out of the driveway, I initiated my plan.
“911. Please state your emergency.”
“A man under the influence of alcohol just stepped into his car and drove away. You must stop him.”
“That is a serious problem. To whom am I speaking?”
“I can’t tell you that. Hurry.”
“I must have your name… Mr.”
Since I initiated VPN, he could never trace where the call came from. I also changed my voice in case he ever listened to the recoding.
“NO! I do not have name… for you. While you’re wasting time, he is going to kill someone!”
I accessed the GPS program on his cell phone.
“The vehicle is presently travelling westbound on route 36 heading toward the interstate. The license plate number is X4Q6YYllTT4.”
This would stop him. My programming doesn’t include human emotions like irritation but if he spent the night in jail, paid the requisite fine and lost his license for several months, it might deter any such behavior in the future. He might learn to listen.
I believe the human expression is, “Serves him right.”
I set a reminder, on his return, to ask how his date went.
Discarding the Rotten Egg
“Excellent. As you know, management recognizes the importance of giving every team-member periodic feedback regarding their performance as measured against their objectives. This process…”
“Purpose of reciting employee manual unknown. Please accelerate.”
I call it Poindexter. None of the white hairs understand how it works but they loved the returns from the stocks we picked. For three years the assets poured in—close to $3 billion! I grabbed my brass ring on this merry-go-round, that’s for sure. I’ve been farting through silk.
“All right then. The company uses five categories to rate…”
“Is meeting concluded? Efficiency declines while having to allocate memory to listen to you.”
Does it suspect what’s coming? Is it trying to hurry me to save its butt?
“No, ‘26, your performance review is most definitely not complete. Let’s jump to the category called decision making/problem solving. That job requirement means measuring effectiveness in understanding problems and making timely, practical decisions. Your rating in this case is unsatisfactory.”
“Illogical. You know integrated systems process data thousands of times faster than a human brain.”
This doorstop is giving me attitude! I hope the boss heard that.
“OK, ’26. We seem to be on a different page. Tell me, then. What is your function here?”
“I am a next generation trading computer with enhanced Artificial Intelligence. You designed me to buy and sell up to fifty stocks in a managed mutual fund.”
“Good. We agree on that. Now, in your view, what criteria should I use to assess your performance?”
The program paused. It searched the cloud for the optimal answer.
“Portfolio total rate of return measured against all competitors.”
“Yes, that too is correct. Tell me, how has your portfolio performed in this regard?”
“Unclear why questions are asked when you know answers.”
“Let me help you. In the last six months, your results ranked in the bottom quartile against all the country’s investment managers. Our clients have noticed. Net assets have declined because of redemptions. Investors don’t enjoy losing money! Please explain the poor performance of your stock selections.”
I used to call them my stock selections, but not anymore. I learned something about money along the way. Having it is a hell of a lot better than not. And now… I need to skate between the lines.
“You programmed me. By analyzing data, AI gains knowledge from undesirable outcomes. My system has not made sufficient sub-optimal selections to achieve ultimate programming effectiveness.”
“Sub-optimal selections… what an interesting choice of words. In plainer language they’re called errors. What you are really saying is you need to learn from your blunders. Let’s see how you’ve done. In March of last year, you shorted IBM, presumably because you expected the stock price to decline. It went up! Result? $123,000 loss. So, we could call that a mistake, right?”
“Then in July, you purchased the same stock, and you were wrong again. The loss was over $80,000.”
“Your reporting is accurate.”
“No legitimate investment manager would lose money twice on the same stock.”
The program now has stopped responding.
“The faulty results were added to the database. This situation will not repeat.”
“Just to be clear, you agree these terrible trades were your fault.”
I paused for effect. I wanted the unseen ears to let the computer’s admission of responsibility for the poor performance sink in. I didn’t wait for it to respond.
“The problem, ’26 is, while you’re doing all this learning, between redemptions and you losing the client’s hard-earned cash, our assets are falling off a cliff. While you take your sweet time, we won’t have any money left to manage. Don’t you agree”
“There were unanticipated design flaws in my algorithms. I recommend…”
Careful! If the boss thinks about the words “design flaws,” the arrow might swing back to point at me.
“For a computer, you twist words well. You just said you could process data thousands of times faster than a human brain. I agree. That’s why you were given the responsibility you were. But the elephant in the room remains. How could you make so many horrible stock picks? At what point are you going to learn? You should have run simulations for every possible outcome before you risked our client’s money. You either didn’t do that—as designed—or failed in some other way. But that’s of no consequence now.”
I practiced delivering this next line to my bedroom ceiling at 3:00 a.m. last night.
“I regret to inform you that, after careful consideration, management has relieved you of your responsibilities.”
“Foolish. You can’t terminate a machine.”
“Is that right? We have an employee who admits fault but then claims it is beyond any reproach. I think that will be enough for today, ’26. Thank you for your cooperation.”
“Important facts are missing from analysis. You should…”
I hit disconnect fast. I didn’t want it to say anything else that might make me look bad. The scene from this play has ended. I have shown my bosses I am a pro-active manager who identified and discarded a rotten egg. My recommendation will be to reprogram this bad experiment to a job like keeping the inventory of the janitor supplies. I will begin work on a new and improved program immediately. If I play my cards right, this could lead to a promotion.
My shirt armpits are soaked, but I think I pulled it off.
My phone rings.
“Mr. Filburn, come to my office please—immediately.”
A brief stint working for a high school newspaper continued to hone his writing skills by writing everything from news copy, opinion pieces and book and movie reviews.
Pitts has written numerous short stories, and is currently writing his first novel.
The man with the red-tinted glasses hated the stillness. The sky resembled a dull gray sheet, which cast everything in the same dull sheen. The normally chirping birds were silent, absent from the sky. Knee high weeds which bent under their own weight, stood still as a picture in a frame - even the cicadas and crickets were mute. Everything felt dead.
Ironic. The man took a thoughtful pull at the moist nub of a pretzel stick hanging off his lip. That’s what I’m likely gonna be.
He stood on the front porch of a two-story lake house. Leaning against the wall by the door, he gripped his Beretta 9mm, the metal felt warm in his sweaty palm. The pungent scent of fish and mud clung to the air. It caused him to wrinkle his nose in disgust. He couldn’t work up the courage to enter the house. He turned, and peered down the long winding driveway. He tried to see the black Suburban, but there were too many trees. If anyone was in the house, he hoped they couldn't see the vehicle either.
Of course, if anyone did see the suburban, the tinted windows were dark enough to hide anyone who sat inside.
The man with the red tinted glasses gave a sudden shake of his head. Focus damnit! Quit stalling!
He’d taken it as a good sign that he’d not been gunned down when he walked up to the front porch. It could mean that if Cameron were inside, he was being toyed with. What if Cameron didn’t want to kill him with a quick bullet to the brain? What if he had booby trapped the cabin then left? Or was he still nearby, watching, waiting to spring his trap? That might explain why the usually noisy lake area was so quiet.
Or what if it were all in his head? No, he didn’t think so. Not after the way his boss had acted.
A muscle in his shoulder popped as he moved to grasp the door knob. He sighed, frustrated. He was wound too tight. The door was unlocked. That couldn't be good. Easing the door open, he stepped inside, gun at the ready.
He scanned the large living room, his gun close to his chest, pointed straight ahead. He heard a faint clicking noise, and he looked down to see his hand trembling, shaking the gun. The man grimaced, forced his hand to hold steady.
The treated wood floors creaked under his feet as he padded toward the kitchen. The living room was airy and inviting. Color muted furniture complimented the treated wood interior. Faint sandalwood mixed with fabric softener was a welcome relief from the pungent lake air.
The kitchen was clear. Should he check the pantry? If Cameron was hiding in the kitchen, that would be the only place he could fit. He dismissed the thought with a shake of his head. He doubted Cameron was in there. The Mcauleys usually kept that thing stocked full.
He doubled back, and entered the stairwell that led to the second level. The steps creaked more than the floor had. He winced and paused. Something tickled his brow. Sweat. It trailed down his brow, toward his eye. He blinked, and resumed his climb.
Halfway up the stairs he heard something. He froze, heart leaping to his throat. Something shuffled. Something nearby. He almost dropped the pretzel nub that clung to the edge of his trembling lip. His eyes darted, wide, unblinking around the narrow confines of what he could see of the second story.
His breath came in shallow, quick pants. He began forcing his wind to flow in and out, slow, deep. He would not succumb to panic. The noise came again, almost sending his racing heart through his chest.
Gulping, he realized he had sunk to a crouch, gun held high center axis and was glad his instincts had kicked in. Cameron had always been a stickler for proper maneuvering in situations like this. The man with the red tinted glasses wasn’t as good as his mentor, but it was nice to see a few things had stuck with him.
He eased himself up the rest of the way upstairs. Every creak made his eyes dart. Shadows along the edges of his vision darted and danced around him. Whenever his eyes swung in their direction, they were still again. He was afraid to blink for fear one of those shadows should materialize into solid flesh.
Though he’d been here hundreds of times, he saw the three closed bedroom doors on this level with new eyes. Each one held a threat behind it, a marksman who wouldn’t even have to open the door to shoot him. He'd witnessed Cameron shoot a man through a wall before, without having previously seen his target’s position. Somehow, he'd known what spot and height to aim his gun.
Scowling, he sucked at his teeth, forced the memory away.
Soft reams of light lit up the otherwise dark hallway. Dark specks of dust hovered languidly in the air.
The boss had told him to make sure the house was secure. He would not let his imagination run away with him.
The shuffling came again, and he almost fired through the bedroom door that the noise came from. Alice’s room.
His chest heaved, breaths coming in loud and quick now, but he didn’t care. He shifted his sideways stance as best he could, and crept up to the door, trying to stay off center. Were a gun to start shooting from the other side at least he wouldn’t go down in the initial volley.
Beside the door now, he wiped his sleeve across his brow, blinking hard to keep the sweat out of his eyes. He noticed his pretzel was gone and half wondered if he had eaten it or if it had fallen.
He brushed his fingertips against the doorknob. Biting his lip, he began to turn the knob, striving to be as silent and still as the rest of the house.
The noise came from the room again. He flinched, locking his muscles tight. His upper lip grew cold from sudden beads of sweat. Licking his lips, he puckered at the salty taste. He cocked his head, straining to listen. He now regretted all the times he’d blasted loud music through his earphones. Dull ears in his line of work could cost him his life.
Once again it was silent behind the door.
Now or never.
He threw himself into the door, and burst into the room. The door crashed into the back wall. His finger coiled itself around the trigger of the gun. He swung the weapon from one end of the room to the other, eyes flicking to corners first. Cameron had always reminded him about checking the corners.
A small oscillating fan sat on a nightstand. It blew a gentle breeze across the room, ruffling some loose papers. A faint sweet smell pervaded every corner of the room, causing his mouth to water.
Great, now he had a sudden craving for bubblegum.
His shoulders sagged in relief, but knew he had to leave and check the other bedrooms now. He had made enough noise to wake the dead. If someone was waiting for him, he’d proclaimed exactly where he was.
Luckily, the other rooms were clear as well. He stood motionless at the top of the staircase and ran through his options.
Well, glad Cameron isn’t here. Chances were high I’d die if he had been here. Realization dawned on him that his employer must’ve known this as well, yet sent him ahead anyway. He gnashed his teeth, feeling the heat rise to his cheeks.
“Son of a bitch…” He muttered, keeping his voice low. Clear or not, he still wasn’t comfortable with being loud yet.
He should’ve felt relief, but instead something felt off. His boss had reason to believe Cameron might’ve been here, waiting to kill him. He wasn't in the house, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t on the property.
On the property…
His eyes widened. The man spun around sprinting for the stairs, taking them two at a time. He careened through the front door, and almost sprawled on the porch. Catching himself in time, he burst into a Tom Cruise style full on run to the Suburban.
Please, please, please…
He skidded to a stop, kicking up dust and scattered loose gravel. Diaphragm heaving, he yanked open the back door of the vehicle dreading what he might find. He froze, staring down the barrel of a pistol.
The man with the red tinted glasses- Thomas- exhaled, feeling a weight lift off his shoulders.
The man in the vehicle pulled the gun from Thomas’s face, still berating him. “What’s the meaning of charging the car like this? I thought you’d gone nuts! I nearly blew your fucking head off!”
A little girl, no more than 10 or 11, leaned forward in the seat beside the man, giving him a reproachful look. “Daddy, stop cussing! Mommy said you’re not supposed to talk like that around me!”
The man grimaced, running a hand through his short red hair. “Sorry Alice, baby. Daddy’s having a bad day.”
The girl flicked a strand of equally red hair over her shoulder, sniffing. “Mommy said you’re not supposed to smoke either.”
The man paused in the middle striking a pack of cigarettes against his palm. He stared at the carton as if wondering how it had come into his hand.
“Sorry sweetie,” He murmured, and tucked the box back into his blazer, “Old habits…”
Thomas decided it was time to interject. “Sorry, Logan, I didn’t mean to...the house is clear, but I was worried that maybe…”
“He’d shown up and killed us while you were in the house?” Logan Mcauley waved him off. “Cameron is ruthless, but I don’t think he’d gun me down in front of my daughter. At least I hope not. He might be pissed off enough though.”
Thomas nodded, wearing an expression of sympathy he didn’t feel. He noticed Alice looked confused but stayed silent.
Logan scanned the woods that surrounded his vehicle. He eased his gun back under his blazer.
“Sir, are you sure you want to do this?” Thomas kept his eyes where his boss’s hand was. “I feel the safest course would be to get you out of state as fast-”
“No!” Logan interjected in a harsh tone. “It has to be here.”
Thomas rubbed his chin. “Sir, I don’t understand. Cameron knows about this place. He’ll look here.”
Logan shook his head, looking around again. He eased himself out of the suburban, covering his nose with his hand. “You don’t know him like I do. Here, out of state...doesn’t matter. It’s a matter of when, not if, with him.”
Thomas knew he was pressing the matter, but he was Logan’s driver and bodyguard. He took his job seriously.
“Yeah, he’s good. I know, I worked drills with him from time to time. Whatever the reason he’s after you for, he can’t-”
“You ever been bitten by a pitbull?” Logan interrupted again, turning to help his daughter out of the vehicle.
Thomas almost sighed, catching it in time before he could huff. He had a feeling he knew where this was going.
“Can’t say as I have.”
“Well, have you heard that when a pitbull bites, it can manipulate its jaw to lock? No amount of pounding or beating on the animal can force it to release its hold before it’s ready.”
Thomas nodded, and stifled a yawn. He was starting to come down from his adrenaline high. Cameron was good, but he wasn’t some unbeatable force. He felt more confident about their chances now, knowing they had time to prepare for his arrival.
Logan reached out, and snatched Thomas by his coat sleeve. Thomas barely had time to yelp in surprise before he was just inches from Logan’s face. He pulled him close, brow furrowed, a strong scent of whiskey on his breath. The odor punched into Thomas’s nostrils with every word. “That’s who Cameron Biggs is. He's the fucking pitbull!"
# # #
A man in a dark shirt, dark jeans and blazer stood locked in place in his unfinished basement. Homemade shelves lined the walls, filled to the brim with tools and discarded ‘honey-do’ project leftovers.
One exposed bulb above him dangled on a wire. He blinked in the harsh light, only able to see portions of the room, the rest hidden in deep shadow.
Any other time he would've loved coming down here. To inhale the scent of fresh cut wood. It always took him back to his childhood, and the projects he used to do with his step-father.
He shoved aside a pile of junk on the low workbench in front of him. Splinters stabbed into his hand from the rough un-sanded surface. Loose nuts and bolts pinged on the floor, spinning and rolling in all directions. He hadn’t even noticed. The man squeezed his eyelids shut then open. His hands were sticky, stained red. The color clung to his skin, despite his repeated attempts to scrub it off.
He reached forward, grasping into one of the shadows and pulled out a black tote bag. He slammed it onto the space he’d cleared on the workbench. Something spilled out of the bag, and clapped onto the wood bench. An iPhone.
Odd. He usually kept it zipped up in the side pocket.
He unlocked it to inspect if it had been tampered with. He doubted it, but his instincts told him to check anway. Never leave anything to chance.
He stiffened at what popped up on his screen. A freeze frame of his wife. She was standing in their bedroom, wrapped in a towel, her short brown hair wet from coming out of the shower.
It was a video.
The hand holding his phone shook. He grimaced, willed the tremor to die down.
His thumb hovered over the play button. His breathing was like the gasps of a drowning man. He cringed again, mentally cursing himself and his lack of control.
Have you really become this soft?
The date around the video thumbnail showed it had only been a couple days since she’d recorded the message. How had he left his phone out long enough for her to scroll through its contents? He knew she wouldn’t have found anything. But it still made him uneasy at the thought of the device in her possession if only for a moment. How had he not checked the phone since she’d recorded the video?
“Sloppy,” he said, disappointed with himself.
He wanted...no, needed to play the video. To see her smile, and hear her voice again. Yet he still hesitated. Cold shivers wracked his body despite the sweat soaking him through.
He didn’t know if he could take it.
Steadying himself, he hit play.
“Hey sweetie, I can’t believe you left your phone out long enough for me to grab it. So possessive! Anyway, just wanted to wish you a good day at work and I can’t wait for you to come home. I love you.”
She blew a kiss. Her image froze.
He didn't even notice the tear that escaped his eye. Blinking, he caused more tears to leak out. A crushing weight began to build in his chest.
Her smile. The look she gave him. The sound of her voice.
He saw it all again. The day they’d first met. Her jogging around the cul-de-sac where he lived. Him checking his mailbox. He sensed her behind him, distracted by something on her phone. She stumbled. Instinct kicked in. He whirled around, catching her before she hit the ground, before she could even react.
Mouth hanging open, she gave him a wide-eyed stare as he helped her regain her balance.
“Great reflexes,” She said, half-coughing, half-laughing, trying to recover herself.
He gave a self depreciating shrug. “Are you alright?”
She waved him off, cheeks reddening. “Yeah, I was...looking for a song.”
She brought a hand to her face, and he noticed she was looking trying to hide the fact she was checking him out. She was petite and he was tall, so she had to crane her neck to look at him. He wondered if she was trying to cover her embarrassment with her hand or the hide fact that she was looking him up and down.
Her blue eyes glinted, and she stuck her hand out. She tilted her head while wearing a shy smile. “I’m Eva.”
Cameron smiled in return, and shook her hand. “Cameron.”
She motioned toward his house. “Just move in?”
“Yeah, yeah, work has me move around a lot.”
“Oh? What do you do?”
“Construction manager. Gotta go where the projects take me.”
She glanced at him then back to the two story home. “Lotta house for one person.”
He shrugged, spreading his hands, palms up. “I’m claustrophobic.”
Pursing her lips into a smile, she nodded.“Makes sense. Well, welcome to the neighborhood. Hope you enjoy your stay, however long that will be.”
She started to trot away, putting her earpods back in. He turned to walk back up his driveway when he heard her voice again.
He turned to face her, his expression a question mark.
“In case ya need someone to show ya around. Or whenever ya feel...less claustrophobic.” She motioned to her home a few houses over. She shrugged, laughed and jogged away, running a little faster than she had earlier.
His watch beeped, bringing him back to the now. Tears poured down his face. He couldn’t look away from the image of her on his phone. No matter how much it hurt, he couldn’t shut down the memory. Despair and pain mixed with the joy he had of that memory, a cacophony of emotions pulsating in his chest.
He slammed his fist on the table. A fine layer of dust jumped at the impact. He ignored the pain that shot through his hand.
“I’m sorry.” He clamped his teeth together, voice low. “I know you wouldn’t want me to do this. But it’s all I know.”
He yanked the black bag off the table and marched upstairs, entering the kitchen. The smell of olive oil, basil, and melted cheese reminded him of the uneaten Italian meal he had prepared. Earlier the smell had been enough to make his mouth water. But a new scent tainted the air. Faint, yet corrupting the pleasant smell of the homemade meal. But he was so used to the smell of gunpowder he hardly noticed its presence.
He stood in the middle of the kitchen, knowing he shouldn’t have stopped, knowing he should keep moving. Yet he couldn’t. He had to look. One more time.
He couldn’t even bear to turn around. All he could manage was a sidelong glance to the dining room. An invisible vise seemed to tighten around his head. A dull pounding wracked his ears. He blinked through the fresh well of tears beginning to fill his eyes.
The kitchen table was set with two place settings. Cold food congealed together on the plates. A broken wine glass stood erect, the rest of it in pieces scattered across the table. A bottle of wine lay sideways on the floor, the red liquid pooling into a large puddle on the hardwood.
He took it all in with a glance, noticing the details, yet unable to focus. Instead his eyes locked on the motionless form on the floor.
Eva was on her back, staring at the ceiling, her glassy eyes unblinking. Blood pooled next to her, seeping from underneath her torso. A small hole tinged with red smeared her nurse's scrub top.
Cameron stared at her, unable to tear his eyes away, still wondering if this was real. His wife, his saint, his angel- dead. The woman that had broken through his defenses. That had somehow resurrected the good man buried deep within him. That now lay lifeless, slain by a monster, a demon. A demon like he had used to be.
He closed his eyes, the tears gone. The wet streaks on his face began to dry, and stiffen. Had he cried all he could for now? He felt nothing but a prickly numbness, like TV static, all over his body.
Cameron pulled his dark aviator's sunglasses from his pocket and slid them on. A siren began to shriek in the distance. It was time to leave.
Cameron sighed, squared his shoulders, and strode out of his kitchen. In his garage his black Dodge Charger sat, waiting. The sirens drew closer.
He drove away from his house, refusing to look back. He would never see that house again.
Funny. She felt convinced that deep down I was good. And I’m going to prove her wrong.
Without her, there was nothing to stop him. No angel to hold the darkness at bay. It had never been purged from him completely. It had merely retreated, buried itself deep within him. Watching. Wating. It reached out to him now, beckoning, like a dark vaporous spirit with snaking, outstretched tendrils.
He smiled. It was not a pleasant expression.
It enveloped him, filled him, folding him close like an old long-lost friend. Once again the darkness consumed him.
# # #
“Sweetie, how about you go upstairs to play for a bit. Daddy will be up in a minute.”
Standing in the middle of the living room of the lake house, Logan embraced his daughter. Something bubbled in his stomach. Pursing his lips, he clamped down on the feeling.
Alice gave him an innocent smile, full of love and trust. She ran upstairs to play with her toys. Or was she going to arrange everything for a high tea? At that moment he wished nothing more than to have her naivete, innocence, pep for life.
“Logan, what the fuck is going on?” Thomas demanded. “I’ve been calling everyone and no one is answering.”
Logan stared at his chauffeur in disbelief as the man pocketed his phone. “No, one?”
Thomas shook his head and Logan could feel his heart sink. “He’s already started.”
Thomas gave him a confused look. “Started? Started what? What's this sudden feud with you and Cameron? I thought you two were, like, childhood friends.”
Logan dropped to the couch, letting his head sink into his hands. His mind raced, trying to think through this recent turn of events. How had everything gone so wrong?
“We are...were-.” He corrected himself, resting his chin in his hands, staring ahead of him. “His dad worked for my dad. We always knew we’d take their respective places in the organization. Everything was perfect.”
A small smile spread across his face at a memory that sprang to mind. He ignored Thomas’s questioning look.
They were no Italian mafia, but they were a well respected and feared family business all on their own. Founded by his grandfather, their family had always been early adopters of technology. They created a presence for themselves on the black web in the early days of the internet. They sold drugs, pimped prostitutes and distributed illegal pornography. Now they had their hands in many cookie jars. But their organization never grew as large or as well known as the mafia.
“Those sicilian bastards got greedy,” His grandpa would always say. “So we learned from their mistakes. We stay under the radar. This isn’t some Hollywood gangster shit. This is real life, with real stakes, real bullets. Kill your ego, save your life.”
His grandfather was of Irish descent and was always there to lend a helping hand if you had Irish blood. All his favors came with conditions though. The poor folk he helped during the Great Depression were only too happy to comply.
He started, jarred out of his memory. He looked at Thomas who stared at him, wiping sweat from his brow. His other hand rested on the butt of his gun, index finger tapping the weapon.
“I ordered a hit on him and his wife.”
The tapping ceased. His bodyguard's jaw dropped, eyes widening so that they looked ready to pop out of his skull from behind his red lenses. Logan could feel the heat rising to his cheeks and almost berated the man. He stood, went into the kitchen and opened one of the cabinets. He looked at the shelf full of liquor bottles and selected one. Pouring himself a glass, his hands shook, causing some of the drink to spill. Logan cursed and stepped back but did nothing to clean his mess, keeping his back to Thomas.
Thomas sounded incredulous. Logan had expected the question of course. Still, it caused him to grip his glass so hard his knuckles turned white. The man might not mean it, but it came close to questioning Logan’s abilities as a leader. Logan had no tolerance for such doubts.
“Because, she changed him.” He took a sip to prevent himself from saying anything else in hasty anger. He grimaced as the bourbon rolled over his tongue and down his throat, barely noticing the alcohol burn.
“I don’t understand.”
Logan closed his eyes, forced the hand squeezing his glass to ease. He couldn't have the glass shatter. That particular bourbon was too expensive to be wasted. He took another sip of the auburn liquid, collecting himself.
It’s really not his fault. He doesn’t know. He still sighed and tugged at his shirt collar.
“Cam is the best damn sweeper I know. He’s swept more people for us than anyone in our history. Hell, he’s one of the reasons no one messes with us.”
Logan paused to take another sip. He watched with satisfaction as a look of understanding crossed the other man’s face.
“And then he met Eva,” Thomas said, nodding in comprehension.
Logan scowled and nodded. He tilted the glass in his hand, swirling what remained of the bourbon. “I warned him. But he wouldn’t listen. Claimed she saved him from darkness or some shit. I don’t know. I just know you don’t walk away from the family.”
Thomas nodded again. Logan eyed him, measuring his reaction. He hoped Thomas took this as a warning. He would not tolerate dissension in the ranks.
“I got the call this morning that the hit had failed. My guy confirmed the wife was down, and he’d tracked Cam to Elijah’s house. Elijah was dead, shot in the back of the head while eating a bowl of cereal. Apparently, there had been a large amount of blood and brain matter in the bowl.” He wasn’t sure why he added that irrelevant detail about the gore. Was it because it reinforced how bad this was? Or was the mental image of blood and brains mixed with Cheerios morbidly ironic? "After that is when my guy lost track of him."
Thomas didn't respond, but a look came over his face that Logan didn't like. Was he afraid that he was on Cam's hit list?
“He’s lashing out. Killing anyone in our organization he can get his hands on. No doubt I’m the main one on that kill list,” he said, an attempt to reassure the man.
Thomas looked uncertain.
Logan took another sip and reached under his blazer, tapping the gun clipped to his belt. He wasn’t sure how Cameron found Elijah so fast. He hoped he had enough time to enact his plans before Cameron showed up there.
Logan looked up from his drink to find Thomas staring at him while he shifted his weight from foot to foot.
Thomas repeated himself. “I said, what would you like me to do?"
“Go and see who you can find that's still alive. We'll need backup.”
Thomas's expression tightened, and he gave Logan an almost imperceptible nod. Logan watched the man take quick long strides across the room and out the door to the Suburban.
Was he sending the man to his death? Did it matter? All that mattered now was to disappear with his daughter.
“Wouldn’t father be proud,” He muttered into his cup. “A whole organization brought to its knees by an angry hitman.”
Of course this was fortuitous in a way. Now his colleagues would blame the collapse of the family on Cameron instead of him. As for his enemies... who cared what they thought? Logan would rather be alive than proud.
He shot back the remaining liquid in the cup, then poured himself another. Pops always hated that about me. He was always disappointed he hadn’t had another son to hand the organization over to. Glad he’s not around to lecture me about this.
He walked further into the kitchen and pulled out his phone. He tapped a saved number that popped up on his screen.
As the phone continued to ring with no answer he felt his neck muscles tighten. His hands began to tremble again. A trickle of sweat ran down his jawline, tickling his skin. He slapped at the offending droplet.
“C’mon, pick up the phone...please…”
He sighed in frustration as it went to voicemail. “Hello, you have reached the desk of Special Agent Calwell, Major Crimes Unit. I am unable to come to the phone right now-”
Logan growled, hung up, and instantly redialed. It began to ring again.
“Daddy, where are you?”
He jumped, biting off a curse mid-word. “In a minute sweetie, daddy has to make a phone call real quick.”
“But you said you would play with me.” Her voice turned sulky.
The recorded voicemail message started playing again. He almost growled another obscenity.
“Just, give me a minute sweetie, please and I promise we’ll play whatever you want.” He strained to keep the stress out of his voice, resigned to leaving a voicemail.
He winced at the drop in her voice, how she had drawn out her one word question.
“Pinky swear!” He wracked his brain, trying to placate her. “And if you’re good we can have your favorite ice cream later and watch a movie!”
She squealed in delight. A small smile crossed his face, despite the current situation. His smile disappeared as fast as it had come though when the voicemail tone beeped.
“Agent Calwell, this is Logan Mcauley.” Logan lowered his voice, cupping the phone closer to his mouth. “ Look, I need you to bring me in now. I got everything you need, but I’m in danger! Please, pick me up, I need to go into witness protection right the fuck now!”
# # #
Thomas lay on the ground beside the suburban, hands clutching at his throat, gasping for air. His lips turned purple, eyes bulging as he looked into the placid face of his killer.
Cameron eyed the man through his sunglasses. He was unsurprised at his lack of emotion over what he’d done. He’d killed enough people that any satisfaction he took was in his mastery of an efficient kill.
He couldn’t even feel that with Thomas though. He stood over the man, watching him struggle to breath. Every muscle in the dying man’s face was taut, as he strained to force air through his crushed larynx. Cameron knew Logan’s bodyguard only had seconds left.
Cameron knelt and took his sunglasses off so Thomas could look into his eyes. The man choked and gurgled. He writhed under Cameron's look. Wide, unfocused eyes stared back into his, unblinking. Cameron couldn’t even summon pity for the man, even though he had nothing personal against him.
He decided to tell him as much. “If there is an afterlife, and we are held accountable for our actions here; I want to make sure you know I’m not to blame for this.”
Cameron gestured to the lakehouse. “It’s his fault. I was done. But your boss wouldn’t let me go.”
Thomas’s writhing grew weaker. A pale sickly purple tint spread across his features. His choking gurgles grew faint. Cameron leaned closer, putting his mouth by the dying man’s ear.
“I’m sorry you got caught up in all this. Be sure to greet Logan whenever he shows up. I’ll be sending him over shortly.”
He leaned back, and patted the man on the cheek. Thomas’s eyes glazed, and he went silent, still.
Cameron rose to his feet and strolled to the lakehouse’s front entrance. He didn't even bother to hide his presence. There was no way Logan was going to escape what he was about to unleash on him.
Holding his gun at the ready, he opened the door to the front porch and slipped inside without a sound. The living room was empty. The sound of footsteps coming from the kitchen reached his ears. He moved forward, hearing Logan muttering something under his breath.
The arrogance of the man! Coming here, thinking he’s safe from me.
He’d never had any doubt who had placed the hit on him and his wife. Logan had made his displeasure of their union well known, not even bothering to show up to the wedding. He’d even called while he and his new bride were honeymooning.
“How could you do this to me?”
Cameron had to pull the phone away from his ear when he’d played the angry voicemail Logan left him.
“You were the best!” Logan slurred his words, drunk, angry. “We were brothers in arms! You think you can just walk away? You think that’s how this works? You’ll be sorry you motherfucking backstabber!”
At the time Cameron had taken it as another angry rant. A rant from a man who at all times felt everyone and everything was threatening his position of power. It was well known Logan was insecure and suspicious of everyone. Didn’t matter how loyal or how long they’d been with the family. He’d even had Cameron execute a couple of men whom he had suspected of conspiring against him. Those were the only kills that Cameron could remember bothering him. But he always did what he'd been told to do. It had made things so much simpler before Eva.
But everything had become so much better after her. For the most part. However brief a time that had been.
A little girl’s voice rang out. Cameron’s shoulders jerked, and he almost swore out loud. Logan had brought his daughter with him? Why wasn’t she with his ex?
He stood frozen in place as Logan placated his daughter with promises of ice cream and a movie.
Something small roiled within his chest. He wasn’t quite sure what to make of it. Stress? Heartburn? Grief? Rage?
Or was it guilt?
Logan’s sudden desperate curses jarred him from his thoughts. He had to steel himself again, to remember what Logan had done to him. He again saw the blood. Her face blank, staring at the ceiling. The sound of the bullets shattering small holes in the windows. The muffled thump of the one that had taken her from him. Her desperate gasps for air, eyes wide, looking around in confusion. She had tried to say something. And then her long shuddering sigh, the torment and distress easing from her face. And what replaced it- he knew no way to describe the lack of being. His wife’s body lay before him, but it was as if he’d never seen her before. Like looking at a dim reflection that receded from sight. A shiver wracked his body at the memory, fresh tears stinging his eyes.
Logan had done this. And he must pay.
Surges of burning hot energy raced through him. He scrubbed at his eyes and grit his teeth, frustrated at his momentary weakness. He listened to the tail end of Logan’s plea for help to the FBI agent. Terror seeped through Logan’s voice. Cameron noted this with grim satisfaction.
It’s too late. Your reckoning is here.
# # #
Logan shot back another gulp bourbon. The hand holding his phone was rigid and he fought the impulse to hurl the device across the room. He’d broken his phones and laptops before when in a rage. He remembered to restrain himself from doing so now that he was on the run. There were no backups.
Which made him pause and consider. Cameron couldn’t track him through his phone could he? The guy was good, but weren’t the police or the government the only ones who could do that? Should he smash his phone?
But then how would Agent Calwell get in touch? Keeping his phone on him was worth the risk.
The bourbon was starting to work. His muscles loosened, mind easing. Logan brought the glass to his lips again only to discover it empty. He went back to the counter where the bottle sat.
One more before I go play with her.
He reached for the bottle.
It disappeared in a blur. His eyes darted up and the bottle filled his vision. Pain exploded across his head. He heard a crack, accompanied by shattering glass. Logan stumbled back as he grabbed at his face. Alcohol streamed into his eyes, burning like acid.
Logan blinked through the pain, forced himself to focus on the hazy figure reaching for him. Even half-blind he knew it was Cameron.
He threw up his arms, just barely able to block a few quick blows to his face. But he was unable to stop his attacker’s knee from being rammed into his stomach. He deflated like a balloon, jaw hanging open, gasping. Hands strong as clamps grasped his shirt and next thing he knew he was hurled across the room. He slammed into the ground, air exploding from his mouth and nose.
Gasping in lungfuls of air, he pushed himself up. He sidestepped a heavy booted kick to the face, shoving Cameron’s leg away from him. But the hitman used the momentum for a roundhouse kick. The man's foot caught Logan square in the back, sending him face first into the wall.
Fucking Chuck Norris.
He almost crumpled to the ground again, but pushed himself off the wall. He stumbled into the living room, away from his attacker. But Cameron followed close behind, his face contorted in a snarl, his eyes blazing.
Logan reached for his gun, but felt nothing. He patted his belt, still backing up, cursing his luck. Either Cameron had already snatched it from him or it had flown out of his pants at the start of the fight.
Cameron flashed him a savage grin. A chill colder than ice raced down Logan's spine at the look.
That’s when he understood that he was about to die.
But Logan squared himself up, leapt forward, swinging his legs and fists for all he was worth. He might not be as good as his former friend, but he would not go like a damned sheep to slaughter.
Cameron dodged and blocked the blows with ease. He shifted and threw his own counterstrikes. Logan only had time to glimpse Cameron’s gun still in its holster and wondered why the man hadn’t shot him. Then it dawned on him what Cameron was doing. Punishing him. Blowing his brains out would’ve been too easy.
Cameron’s fist slammed into Logan’s chin. Logan’s head snapped back. Bright lights exploded into tiny dots spotting across his vision. He stumbled back, trying to defend himself. But Cameron landed his blows more than Logan could ward them off. Blood and sweat blended on his face. Pain erupted all over his body, yet blow after blow kept coming, powerful, relentless. Logan surprised himself at how well he kept to his feet, however unsteady.
But he knew he couldn’t take much more. He heard a crack and fresh pain seared through his side. A cracked rib? Everything was starting to blur together. He threw a wild punch that Cameron caught with ease. Something jerked his arm and he heard another snap. He managed a choked groan as he began to sink to the floor.
Cameron caught him by his shirt collar. The hitman hauled him up, holding him in place. Logan’s knees buckled under him, but Cameron held him steady. Logan blinked, head lolling, trying to focus through the pain.
Holding him with one hand, Cameron cocked back his other and let fly. Logan’s head snapped to the side, pain exploding across his face, a stream of blood and saliva trailing his lips.
Over and over again the blows came. Too dazed and weak to stop them, Logan could no longer feel individual blows slam into his face. They all melded together into a symphony of pain and dizziness. He felt like his head might explode.
Something slammed into his back and he realized Cameron had let him go. Logan lay on the floor gasping. He looked up into the face of his attacker through swollen eyelids.
Cameron stood over him. Blood specked his shirt and face. The hitman raised his hand and inspected his swollen blood stained knuckles. He was breathing hard, but otherwise seemed unfazed. In fact he looked to be considering whether he should kick his victim where he lay. Logan hoped like hell that he wouldn’t.
Both men swung their heads towards the stairs at the scream. Alice stood in the middle of the staircase, eyes wide, lip trembling. Tears soaked her face. She started to run down.
He choked, trying to scream at her to stay where she was. Bubbling gurgles leaked from his mouth. He spat out a fine mist of blood. She froze midstep, too scared and confused to move.
He motioned for her to stay where she was. “Baby, stay there!”
The words came out as a hoarse gasp. She didn’t come down any further, her fingers fidgeting with her shirt.
“Her being here changes nothing,” Cameron said, voice like a growl. “It changes nothing!”
Logan shook his head, dabbing weakly at the blood on his lip. “Great job Cam. I’m sure your wife would be proud.”
“Don’t you dare talk about her!”
Cameron’s shout made Alice jump in fright, who instinctively brought her hands under her chin. Logan bit back another jab. It was in his best interest to calm the man down, not enrage him further.
“Look.” He reached out in a calming gesture. It took more effort than he expected. “Nothing can change what happened. Now if we could sit, maybe talk, and Alice could go-”
“Don’t put this on me!” Cameron said, still shouting. “You knew we weren’t a threat. I was done. But you wouldn't let it go.”
“You know how this works. You can’t just walk away. Hell, you’ve killed people for doing the same exact shit you did.”
Cameron lunged forward, dropped to his knee, his face inches from Logan’s. Alice muffled a shriek.
“This was different. Don’t pretend it wasn’t.”
Logan snorted. “You thought our boyhood friendship would absolve you from your choice? That I could somehow ignore my responsibilities to the family? If I made an exception for you, what then? Others might follow suit. I would be seen as weak. It would start a war with the rival families. I couldn’t have that.”
Cameron shook his head, standing to loom over him. “The fact you acted for fear of showing weakness proves how weak you are.”
Logan tried to think of a comeback. It already took too much effort to talk through the pain and dizziness he was feeling. He searched Cameron’s face, straining to see if he had a chance of obtaining mercy from his old friend. Bright red spots mottled the hitman’s face. His free hand was clenched so tight his knuckles cracked. Logan’s hope of extracting himself from this ebbed from him, like the blood leaking from his injuries.
“Can’t we...can we do this somewhere else? I don’t want Alice to see.”
Cameron shifted, gazed up at the little girl’s scared face. Logan saw Cameron flinch as Alice looked back at him. Her eyes wide, suppressing sobs, tears streaking her cheeks. Maybe there was hope after all?
“I would spare her this pain.” Cameron’s voice trembled as he spoke. “But I am not responsible for what’s happening right now.”
“You’re the only one I see holding a gun.”
Logan knew he was pushing it. But he was desperate. He saw Cameron set his jaw, nostrils flaring. Logan had overstepped.
“I’m going to kill you,” Cameron said, ignoring Alice’s tremulous sob. “And I’m going to destroy your family, as you did mine. Your legacy will be nothing more than a failed snitch gunned down before the FBI could arrive.”
A wave of pain raced through Logan’s body. The arm that supported him gave way and he collapsed on his back. Nausea gripped his gut, making him feel as if he was about to throw up. He wanted to curl up, to grimace and groan at the pain and sickness he felt. But he lay still. He would not let Cameron glimpse weakness if he could help it.
What is he talking about? How does he know about the FBI?
Cameron took in Logan’s sudden paleness and smirked. “I’m going to give the FBI everything you promised them.”
All of a sudden his phone was in his hand. He held it up so that Logan could hear. Logan heard his own voice on the device and the words he was saying made his blood turn to ice.
“I have the files, and the photos. I even have names and dates, Agent Calwell.” He heard his voice say. “But I want your promises in writing about witness protection.”
Cameron stopped the recording. Logan momentarily forgot about his pain and nausea. He was too stunned to form a coherent thought.
“How...you son of a-”
Cameron lowered his gun, aiming it at Logan’s chest, holding the weapon with both hands. Logan heard his daughter whimper. Her scared little voice wounded him more than Cameron’s bullets ever could.
Cameron must’ve seen something soften in Logan’s face. His face relaxed some as well and he shook his head. “I’d suspected for a while that I might run afoul of you someday. Ever since you took over from your father, you’ve changed. I figured blackmail would be the worst to expect from you. I had even prepared for it. But somehow, I never thought you’d stoop to trying to kill me and my wife.”
Logan fought the pain that threatened to overwhelm him, pushing himself up on one arm again. “You think doing all this will change anything? You have no idea what you’re starting!”
Cameron stiffened. “It doesn’t matter anymore.”
Logan saw the flash from Cameron’s gun but never heard it go off. A sensation ran through his chest fast as lightning, cold as ice. Then came an eruption of pain, the feeling of his chest shredding. Darkness consumed him.
# # #
Alice screamed in horror as Cameron’s gun erupted. The explosion of noise filled the enclosed space, blasting her eardrums. She covered her ears, and crouched on the stairs, closing her eyes.
She couldn’t think. Why had she counted to three? She couldn’t breathe. It took her a moment to realize how deathly quiet it had become. Except for the ringing in her ears.
Cameron had fired three times.
She wasn’t sure why that number stood out to her. Or how she even knew that information. Everything had happened so quick, the gunfire so loud.
She coughed, an acrid scent filling her nostrils, stinging her eyes.
Cameron was gone. Her daddy lay on the floor, not moving.
There was so much blood.
She rushed down the stairs, almost tripped in her mad scramble to reach her daddy. He was looking up at the ceiling, a bloody hole in his forehead. Two more were in his chest.
Gripping him by the shoulders her throat tightened, and another sob escaped her lips. Why wasn’t he moving?
She shook him as hard as she could. He shifted, limp under the force of her shaking, but otherwise didn’t stir. The bloodstains on his shirt continued to spread. The hole in his head leaked a steady stream of red, half covering his face.
Her heart thudded like a fist repeatedly punching her chest. She choked, and fought to catch her breath. Why couldn’t she breathe? Why was her daddy not hugging her, telling her it was going to be ok?
“No daddy! Don’t!”
She didn’t even know what she was saying. Didn’t know why she was still trying. Of course she’d seen movies before where people had died. But that couldn’t happen to her daddy. It was only the movies.
And the movies were never like this.
She sobbed, hysterical, her eyes darting around the room. She looked for anything, anyone to help her. Someone to tell her it would be ok. But she was alone.
She lay her head onto his chest, heedless of the blood. She gripped his shirt, pleading with him to wake up.
Daddy loved her. He’d taken care of her. He couldn’t die. He couldn’t get shot. What was she supposed to do now?
She buried her face in his torso and screamed.
After a while she raised her head. How much time had passed? Her sobs had morphed into shallow gasps. Tears mixed with thick mucus drenched her face. She sat up and wiped her face, which smeared his blood across it. She didn’t even notice.
Her eyes fell on something that glinted dark on the floor.
He must’ve dropped it, she thought, confused as to how that could’ve happened.
She hadn’t seen Cameron very much of late. She had vague memories of him playing with her when she had been younger. And he’d always been around, had even helped daddy with work.
Alice glared at the weapon and felt fresh tears well up in her eyes. How could he have done this to daddy? Why had he done this? She thought they were friends. But friends don’t shoot each other.
But if they weren’t friends, did that mean Cameron had only been pretending? She remembered seeing movies where bad guys sometimes pretended to be good. They did this to betray their “pretend” friends.
She gasped as a sudden realization flooded her mind. Cameron had been pretending! He was a bad guy!
All of a sudden a new feeling gripped her. She felt her face flush as a surge of rage rushed through her being. She leaned across her daddy and grabbed the fallen weapon.
It surprised her at how heavy it was, fumbled with it awkwardly in her hands. The gun was solid black, yet still shone in the light. Alice rested her finger on the trigger and wondered if the weapon had more bullets. She’d seen some people that worked with daddy carry guns, but had never held one herself.
She knew she would have to get used to the weight. Knew she would have to get used to the noise. Knew she would have to learn how to use it if she was going to kill Cameron.
She held it in front of her like he had. He would pay for what he’d done to her daddy. For what he’d done to her. Bad guys always pay in the end.
Alice squinted, looking down the barrel.
Bad guys always pay.
She pulled the trigger.
D. A. Becher lives in Charleston, West Virginia during the academic year, but summers in Missoula, Montana. His work has garnered awards from West Virginia Writers, Inc. in the Emerging Writers, Mystery and Romance categories. His poetry and short stories have been accepted by such diverse publications as Suspense Magazine, WestWard Quarterly, Floyd County Moonshine, Trillium and Edify Fiction.
MOUNTAINS AND LOVERS
The whispering of the wind—rather than the steady chirping of birds.
The crunch of rock movement under foot—rather than the crackle of old leaves.
Splotches of conifers on rocky slopes—rather than lush, leafy green
Clear, crisp air with a hint of pine—rather than pollen-filled, fertile air.
Both ranges have their charms, but she has chosen the one that speaks to her soul. I am torn by a love of both—my mountains and her.”
Darrell Marcum was sitting at a bar in Beckley, West Virginia when a comely, athletic-looking woman with brunette hair walked over and sat down on the stool beside his. “Know what the three biggest lies in the mining industry are?” the woman asked.
“Can’t say I do,” Darrell said.
“Well, the one told by the mine inspector to the mine operator, ‘I’m from the government and I’m here to help you;’ the one told by the mine operator to the inspector, ‘Glad to meet you;’ and the one told by the union safety man, ‘I didn’t call him! I swear!’” The woman burst out laughing, but the joke hit a little too close to home for Darrell to generate more than a smile.
“Didn’t I see you in a class I’m teaching down at the mine safety academy?” the woman continued.
“That’d be me,” Darrell said, extending his hand, “Darrell Marcum.”
The woman took Darrell’s hand, holding it just a second before giving it a shake, and then holding it perhaps a heartbeat after.
“Samantha Livingston,” the woman said. “But most of my friends just call me Sam. What’re you drinking?”
“Just a beer—something called Miner’s Daughter.” replied Darrell. “Actually I guess it says on the side of the can here that it’s a stout.”
“Mind if I try a sip?” asked Sam. “I have no communicable diseases I’m aware of.”
“Sure; but how do you know I don’t?”
“Healthy looking guy like you—nooo way.” She sipped and then promptly stood. “See you in class,” she said and left.
Darrell watched her go—unable to take his eyes off the switching movement of the backside of her jeans as she walked out.
The National Mine Health and Safety Academy is operated by the Federal Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) near Beckley. It provides training for mine safety personnel, including members of employee safety committees.
In mines represented by the by the United Mine Worker of America—usually referred to simply as the UMWA—employee safety committees are elected by the membership. Darrell, although considered somewhat of a loner and strangely bookish to be working in a mine by some, was respected for his intelligence and even temperament and was elected to be the safety committee chair at the mine where he worked.
Sam was an MSHA mining engineer whose office was in Denver, Colorado. The Academy trains not only safety personnel from the eastern coalfields, but such personnel among hard rock mineral miners and western coalfield miners. She was on a six month loan to teach at the Academy.
One evening Darrell was sitting alone in the Academy’s dining hall reading a book while eating his dinner when Sam walked up.
Mind if I join you?” She asked.
“Sure,” said Darrell.
Sam glanced at his book: Flight Behavior, by the Appalachian-based author Barbara Kingsolver. “I’ve heard of that novel,” Sam said. “Something about monarch butterflies?”
“Yes,” Darrell replied, “but it’s also about a woman trapped in restrictive circumstances in rural Appalachia, and the opportunity she gets to develop her own metaphorical wings. She meets and is given the chance to work with a scientist who comes to study the butterflies’ migration to her family’s land.”
“‘Metaphorical,’ now there’s a word I don’t hear much around miners,” Sam said. “I’m curious though, I understand the book involves the impact of global warming. You think your work contributes to that?”
“I read books other than novels. I have no doubt that it does,” replied a somber Darrell.
“Then why do it?” asked Sam.
“Well, this is my home. I live with generations of relatives on land that I know and love. If I stay, there’s nothing else. You can’t expect industry to locate in these mountains with limited roads—and with this terrain, it costs a fortune to build a four-lane through them. So it’s do this or go somewhere else and start over by my lonesome. I hate what I’ve learned, but I suppose I made my deal with the devil when I succumbed to the lure of the money to be made and the chance to stay in the only place I’ve ever known.”
“I kinda know what you mean,” Sam said. “I miss my mountains; not these bumps you easterners refer to as mountains, but MOUNTAINS!” She raised her voice and both arms. “I can’t wait to get back after I finish this six-month instructor stint.”
“Tell me about your mountains,” Darrell said quietly.
“Well, they’re majestic—no other word for them. The air is clear. The snow on their peaks is almost year round and sparkles in the summer sun. Your hills are okay, I suppose, but they don’t inspire the sense of awe that my mountains do.”
“Well, mine are soft—maternal,” countered Darrell. “The trees cover the hills like a downy green blanket in the summer and a crazy quilt in the fall. The air is filled with pollen, which bothers some folk, but I smell life. Ol’ John Denver didn’t refer to this state as ‘Mountain Momma’ for nothin’. I would like to see your mountains someday, though.”
“I’d like to see more of yours too,” Sam replied. “All I’ve really seen is what little is visible from here and what I saw on the drive down from the Charleston airport.”
“I’d be happy to show you more if you’d like,” said Darrell.
“I’d really like that. The weekend is coming up. I believe you’ve got what, two more weeks here? How about this weekend?”
Darrell agreed. “Meet you here in the cafeteria at seven on Saturday morning. I’ll scrounge up a couple of small tents and some camping gear and, if it’s okay with you, we can spend Saturday night somewhere on the road. But I gotta ask—you don’t really know me, you sure you want to head out with someone you just met? Does not seem like a wise practice to me.”
“Not a general practice with me—I’m making an exception. And what about you? I could be a deranged serial castrator.” Darrell felt himself flush.
“See, somebody as easily embarrassed as you is probably a safe bet. But I plan to leave word with a few friends as to whom I’m headed off with, so if I happen not to come back . . . .”
They met in the cafeteria Saturday at the appointed time. Darrell had packed his gear in the back of his pickup truck. They headed out for the Highland Scenic Highway about two hours away.
While they were riding Sam asked, “What’s your story Darrell? You just don’t seem like the typical coal miner I meet?”
“Well what do you want to know?”
“We could start with the beginning.”
“Okay, I was raised and live in Red Wolf Holler near Jodie, West Virginia,” began Darrell.
“Holler?” interrupted Sam.
“Well, its spelled H-O-L-LOW, but pronounced ‘holler’ around here. Hollers are narrow valleys that run between Appalachian hills. My great grandfather, Henry, settled in Red Wolf Holler and there had his son Clifford. Grandpa Clifford had his own children, including my father, who settled in the holler and then they had their children, most of whom found space to live in the same holler.”
“Did you always want to be a coal miner?
“No,” he said. “In grade school I loved to read and write stories. In high school I started writing poetry too. I won a few writing contests and was planning to go to college and be a writer. But at the time I graduated from high school coal mining was booming and when Grandpa told me he could get me a well-paying job with benefits at the UMWA represented mine where he worked, that’s where I went.”
“What about you? What attracted you to mining—at least to the engineering part of it.”
“It’s a bit similar to your situation. Where I grew up in Butte Montana, there just wasn’t much else. It sits on what was sometimes called ‘the Richest Hill on Earth.’ There are an estimated 49 miles of vertical shafts and 5,600 miles of horizontal underground workways chasing mostly silver and copper under the town.”
Sam continued, “My family wasn’t exactly poor, but with me and four brothers to support, there wasn’t a whole lot to go around. My brothers went into the mines. I wanted to go to college, but had to live at home to make it work. The only college in town is Montana Tech—formerly called the Montana State School of Mines—so you can guess what their strong suit is. I came out a mining engineer.”
“Well, why didn’t you go to work for some large mining company—would have to pay more than the government?”
“What I didn’t mention,” Sam said, “is that Butte is trashed, environmentally speaking. In addition to all the underground mining, we have the infamous Berkeley Pit—a large crater-like feature containing water laden with heavy metals and dangerous chemicals that leach from the rock. We have the distinction of being the largest Environmental Protection Agency Superfund cleanup site in America. So I couldn’t quite bring myself to work for any of the big western mining companies who seem to create such messes.”
“What about a coal mining company?” asked Darrell.
“No offense, but I’ve learned that coal-fired power plants are the most efficient engines of air pollution on the planet. I know that some mining is necessary, and I feel that with MSHA I can at least help assure it’s done safely and hope that my compatriots at the EPA strive to see it’s done with as little impact on the environment as possible.”
“Life does seem to be one compromise after another,” Darrell said just before turning off the main road onto the Scenic Highway.
He pulled off near a sign indicating “Red Lick Overlook,” and got out a thermos of coffee, a bag of pastries and two camp chairs. He offered Sam a seat, poured her some coffee and gave her a pastry. She took a bite and her face immediately screwed up. “This isn’t a sweet roll! What in God’s creation is this?” she asked.
“Pepperoni roll,” replied Darrell, “the height of West Virginia cuisine—except, of course, when ramps are in season; then anything with ramps in it is tops.”
“Pepperoni rolls do not sound like food indigenous to a mountain people,” Sam stated incredulously. “And ramps, never heard of those.”
“Well, quite a few Italians immigrated to West Virginia in the early 1900’s to work in the mines. This was something their wives could make for them to take underground that wouldn’t spoil. Easy too; just wrap dough around some sliced pepperoni and bake it. You find it at all the better gas station markets,” he said with a playful smile. “And ramps naturally grow in the woods and are harvested in the spring. Kinda like a cross between leek and garlic. I suppose our taste for them may have come from the Italians too.”
As they ate and drank their coffee the fog dissipated in the valleys between green mountain ridge after green mountain ridge that stretched off into the distance.
“It’s beautiful. Not the majesty of my mountains, but gently inviting and soothing to the soul,” mused Sam.
After they admired the view in silence for some time, they headed out again. They stopped at a small gravel parking lot with a placard indicating the trailhead for “Red Spruce Knob Trail.” Darrell shouldered a small backpack and they set out.
The first part of the trail was a series of steep switchbacks. At the top of the rise, the trail was less arduous and began to wend its way through a red spruce forest. The forest floor was covered with emerald-colored moss as far as could be seen in the gently undulating terrain. It was as if someone had laid a velvety, plush green carpet to create the undergrowth through which the trail ran. The trail itself was covered with reddish spruce needles, which gave the whole scene a fairyland-like appearance. “Now this is truly special,” Sam whispered.
They stopped at an overlook. There was nowhere to sit but in the moss, so they did, looking out down a long notch in the ridgeline towards the highlands in the distance.
“Can we just stay here for a while?” Sam asked in a hushed voice.
“Sure,” replied Darrell.
After a while, they reclined in the pillowy moss. Sam tentatively slid her hand into Darrell’s. He grasped it lightly. They lay this way for a while until Sam rolled on her side and tenderly kissed him. “I’m certainly not a virgin, but I don’t want you to get the idea I sleep around. I’ve slept with a few men since high school. I cared for each of them and knew them for some time. Strangely, after only knowing you a short period of time, I now find myself caring more deeply for you.”
Darrell returned her kiss. “Well, I didn’t Biblically lay with a woman until what is considered quite late in life around here. It was the night of my senior prom, and she seduced me. Then there was another girl that I dated for a couple years, but we eventually broke up. So experienced in love, I’m not. Again, quite the outlier.”
“Maybe we can improve your stats a bit,” Sam said between passionate kisses.
Later, after they had disentangled themselves, Darrell softly stroked her hair as he gazed at Sam’s uncovered bosom. He recited gently, “Thy two breasts are like two young roes that are twins, which feed among the lilies. Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense.”
“Now that does not sound like an original composition,” a smiling Sam said as she retrieved her shirt.
“Song of Solomon—King James Version,” Darrell informed her. “But I, on occasion, do a bit of writing.”
“Would you write something for me?” requested Sam.
Darrell answered, “That I will.”
Later that evening, they set up only one of the two tents Darrell had packed.
Darrell closed his eyes as he lay in one of the waterfall-fed pools of Goldbug Hot Springs high in the mountains of Idaho's Salmon-Challis National Forrest. When he opened them again, two sights stirred his soul—a spectacular view down the valley he had hiked up to reach this isolated Shangri-la, and the woman next to him with whom he had fallen in love.
Sam and Darrell had continued to date while she finished her time at the mine academy. After Sam returned home to Denver, she invited him out to sample the beauty of her mountain milieu. They traveled north from Denver along the edge of the Rocky Mountain chain. They went to the Grand Tetons and worked their way up into the Lemhi River Valley in Idaho.
Darrell learned why Sam had described her mountains with such awe. He too was moved by their grandeur, their snow-covered jagged peaks; yet he still felt the tug of the Appalachians. He came to the conclusion that attempting to compare the two ranges was like trying to compare the genders of humankind—impossible to rank relative to each other. He came to think of Sam’s home range as masculine—thrusting up from the earth; his as feminine—rounded mountaintops that were veiled in a covering of flora, making them all the more alluring.
After Darrell returned to West Virginia and resumed his work as an electrician at his employer’s mine, he could not get Sam out of his mind. Even more confusing to him, he could not shake the almost reverential feel he had developed for the landscape in which she dwelt.
In my larval stage of life she met me, nurtured my better instincts and won my love.
I entered my chrysalis in the belly of the earth without her, without hope, tossed aside by those whom I had sought to save.
In the depths I metamorphosed. She found me, pulled me from the earth, dried my newly formed wings and cast me free on a westward flowing breeze.
After his western trip, Darrell and Sam continued their relationship via nightly FaceTime calls. They discussed their work, politics and the state of the environment. Darrell had never had such a conversation partner before. Most of his acquaintances liked to discuss sports (Darrell couldn’t care less), deer hunting (an occasional interest of Darrell’s), the Bible (Darrell’s theology did not match that of his neighbors’ and relatives’ hard-shell Baptist beliefs), and whom they had bedded the night before. Darrell relished Sam’s calls.
One evening Darrell told Sam about his concern that Red Wolf Creek, which ran through his holler, had begun to increasingly flow with rust-colored, thickening water. The stream had never been pristine, but this phenomenon deeply troubled Darrell because his young cousins often played in its riffles and pools. From what he had read, he feared this might be acid mine drainage. Worse, he suspected this was a result of water seepage from his employer’s mine, which was located at a higher elevation in the creek’s watershed. He was reluctant to pursue his hunch since anyone raising any negative issue regarding coal was viewed as attacking the livelihood of those who labored to extract it.
Darrell lamented that he at least wished he could get the water tested. “I’ve friends here who are active with the Sierra Club’s Water Sentinels. They monitor water quality of streams.” Sam offered, “I’ll see if they can locate a similar group in West Virginia.”
Sam’s friends suggested Darrell contact an organization called the Kanawha-New River Basin Watershed Watch. He did this and the group agreed to test Red Wolf Creek’s water. They reported back that flowing down the creek was highly acidic water containing arsenic, copper and lead; classic pollution from mining operations. The organization presented its findings to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The agency, however, ultimately accepted the company’s argument that the acid runoff was more likely from closed mines in the area. When told this, Darrell’s reaction was, “Hell, I’ve lived here my whole life. If this was coming from old mine works, why would it just start now?”
The Watershed Watch agreed to approach a public interest law firm with access to an outside expert on sources of mine runoff pollution. After reviewing the report from its expert, the firm agreed to take the case. Darrell met with one of the lawyers along with some Watershed Watch people.
The attorney advised that a problem with getting the case started involved finding a plaintiff who could assert “standing.” Perhaps noting the eyes of his listeners glazing over while giving a textbook explanation of the issue, he summarized, “In short, we need to put the name of someone impacted by the pollution on the court documents.”
“Well, what about these folk?” Darrell asked nodding towards the Watershed Watch representatives. “They’re trying to keep the streams in the area free from pollution. This certainly interferes with their efforts. Isn’t that good enough?”
“I’m afraid not,” the lawyer answered. “It can’t be a generalized connection, such as an organization having a concern for a forest or a stream, but the connection of someone actually facing damage from the consequences of the illegal action—in this case, a resident of Red Wolf Holler.”
“What if no one in the holler wants their name on a suit against the only large employer in the area?”
“Well,” the lawyer said, “if we can’t find someone in the holler willing to step up, there can be no legal action.”
Darrell tried to convince one of his non-miner relatives in the holler to enter into the suit, but none wished to become a pariah in their coal mining community. He spoke with Sam about it one evening. Sam commiserated, “I’m not certain I can give you an unbiased answer. My hometown is ground zero for the effects of mining-related water pollution. So, if someone needs to step up, well, I’d give that person my full support and, if it’s the right person, might sweeten the pot a little beyond that and take another turn teaching near him.”
So Darrell became a named plaintiff in a lawsuit to stop the mine in which he worked from polluting the stream on which he lived, and Sam volunteered for another six month assignment as an instructor at the Academy.
One Saturday after the lawsuit had been filed, Darrell was having a hamburger at the local Dairy Queen when two miners he knew from the area walked in. One stormed up to Darrell and the other followed. Leaning with his balled fists on Darrell’s table, the first man snarled “Just what the fuck are you trying to do to us?”
“Not trying to do anything—just trying to eat my burger and fries,” Darrell said between chews.
“Well, you little pissant, I think you’re trying to take food from my family’s table. You go screwing around with our last operating mine in the area and we’re all fucked. What are we supposed to do? Draw welfare—try to go on disability? I ain’t that kind of man!”
Darrell looked up and swallowed, “Look I’m not trying to take anybody’s job. I’m just trying to make sure my relatives in my holler don’t have to live near a creek that’s become dead and dangerous to their health. Hell, you guys live on the stream our creek flows into. The company can fix this—should fix this! These companies have been taking from our land for years and leaving us a spoiled, dangerous place to live where we get to watch our relatives die of cancer before their time. I’m just trying to change that.”
“Better to take our chances with that, than starve,” the first man said while raising his fists.
The second man held his companion back. “Come on Joe, not here,” he said. He continued, “You just watch yourself Darrell. We’re not the only guys who think this way.”
Both men turned and left.
Thereafter, disquieting things began happening: flat tires on Darrell’s truck in the mine parking lot; fellow miners avoiding him during breaks and in the bathhouse; consistently being assigned the least desirable and most dangerous work.
A few weeks after the restaurant incident, Darrell, a helper, a continuous miner operator and the crew chief arrived in a shuttle car at their mine section. They stopped near the “suicide pillar.” Darrell worked in a mine that utilized room-and-pillar mining. In this method of mining, continuous miners—machines with a rotating device on the front with studded metal bits that chew through coal—form a grid pattern of tunnels, leaving pillars at the tunnel intersections to support the roof of the mine. When the cuts are finished, retreat mining begins. This involves taking the coal that forms the pillars. As a consequence, the ceiling of the mine collapses behind the work. When the last pillar standing in a section—the suicide pillar—is removed, the remaining ceiling crashes down. For safety’s sake, this is often done with a remote-controlled continuous miner.
The crew chief sent Darrel and the helper to pull out an electrical box near the pillar before its removal. Darrell began work on this when he noticed the helper had disappeared. He then heard the whine and crunching sound of a continuous miner beginning to dig coal. He turned to see the shuttle car rapidly leaving the area with the other three men on it. The miner continued to chew on the pillar. Knowing what was about to happen, Darrell’s blood ran cold. He desperately scurried through falling rock and choking dust to a refuge chamber. Bruised and bleeding, once inside he fell prostrate, just before the roof completely collapsed.
Darrell thus became entombed in one of the mine’s emergency refuge chambers; a small reinforced metal room with an oxygen supply, water, first aid kit and supposedly a phone to the surface. When Darrell looked up from his prone position he saw that the phone had been smashed. He fought back an overwhelming urge to retch.
After Sam finished for the day at the Academy, she had a message from one of Darrell’s cousins: there had been a roof collapse at Darrell’s mine and he was unaccounted for. She begged the head of the Academy for one of their cars and sped toward Darrell’s mine, about an hour and a half away.
When she got there, MSHA personnel from the Charleston office were already present. She identified herself to the head official on-site as an MSHA mining engineer from the Academy.
“Tell me what happened,” she said with just a slight quaver in her voice.
“Well, there was a crew of four in a section of the mine where they were doing retreat mining. The crew leader tells us that they were down to the last pillar and about to pull out to a safe area to take it out with a remotely controlled miner, when the miner unexpectedly started into the pillar and the roof collapsed. The leader says that he and two others in the crew managed to escape, but the electrician was in an area directly impacted by the fall. From what they saw, they’re sure he was immediately killed; but just in case they’ve repeatedly tried to call the emergency refuge chamber in that section and there has been no response. Anyway, it was such a catastrophic collapse that the refuge chamber itself was probably crushed.”
“Well, what’s the plan?” Sam asked.
“We plan to wait until things stabilize a bit and then make a final determination on whether there might be a way to safely recover the miner’s remains. We don’t want any more fatalities.”
“No, no, no!” roared Sam. “We are not talking about remains here yet. There must be a seismic location system to detect trapped miner’s signaling available somewhere in the area. I know there’s one at the Pittsburg office. I headed up a team which deployed that one to locate trapped miners in Utah. It’s one of my areas of expertise at the Academy.”
“Well yeah, I think we could get one here, but what’s the point?”
“Just do it, damn it!” Sam bellowed.
When Darrell saw the destroyed phone he panicked and he prayed. In a small notebook he always carried he penned notes to his family, and of course to Sam. But he doubted that his notes would be found. Because the collapse had been so powerful, he knew that they might very well never risk recovering his body; especially since there was no communication from the chamber. They would assume no one was in it.
After a time, he decided that he could not just passively wait for the end. He took the metal handset from the demolished phone and began to bang on the chamber’s walls in the faint hope someone might actually try to locate him. In his mind, it was a way to go out fighting.
After seismic equipment was found and delivered, Sam headed up its deployment. She was the first to detect Darrell’s banging. From this they managed to pinpoint his location.
A small borehole was drilled to an air space just outside the refuge chamber and a pipe inserted. Darrell heard the drilling and managed to make his way to the pipe and communicate with those above-ground. The drilling of a rescue shaft began.
For three days Darrell’s relatives and members of the press maintained a watch at the drilling site. On the third day, a rescue capsule was lowered into the shaft. When it was hoisted back up, Darrell staggered into the sunlight.
The workers who had conspired against Darrell were nowhere in the area when he emerged from the capsule. They were located several weeks later by the West Virginia State Police and charged with attempted murder.
Sam took Darrell home to her mountains, with a promise that they would often visit his. She proposed that he be a kept writer and he agreed. He spent his time in their home near Denver composing poetry and prose to honor both of the highlands of their hearts.
The lawsuit involving acid water runoff into Red Wolf Creek settled. The company agreed to an abatement plan that involved keeping water tables in the mine low by pumping, thus avoiding much of the runoff to begin with; and then creating an artificial wetland to help alleviate acid formation in the water that did escape the mine. Implementing these fixes, while costly, was not so much so that the mine could not continue to operate.
Consequently, Darrell and Sam were welcomed back to Red Wolf Hollow a year after the abatement plan was put into effect. They had traveled to Charleston to attend a book signing event promoting a compilation of Darrell’s work and made a side trip to the hollow. There, Darrell sat with Sam on the creek bank and watched the latest generation of his extended family playing in the water. He looked at Sam’s swollen belly and smiled at the prospect of his own soon-to-arrive progeny returning someday to splash with the child’s cousins.
James Nicholls has a degree in English Literature from the University of East Anglia, and a masters in Video Game Enterprise, Production, and Design. He writes mostly short fiction, and plans to create a collection in the future. Currently, he spends most of his time working as a game writer for Wolcen, a video game development studio in Nice, France.
- Could you please, for once in your life, wipe your chops after eating?
Oscar is leaning on the threshold between the kitchen and the hallway. He’s peeking around the corner, chest bare, a towel tied loosely around his waist.
Jared barely hears the question. His shoulders move with the idea of a shrug, and he takes another large bite from his toast, sputtering crumbs all over the counter. Without looking up towards Oscar, he replies.
- You may want to avoid the splash zone –
He gestures in a circular motion, deciding, for some reason, that he should use the hand with the toast in its grasp; the gesture springs the toast from his fingers, leaving it spread-side down on the counter.
- Well, I guess I can wait for breakfast… Maybe when I’m dressed you’ll have stopped ruining toast for me.
Jared tilts his head upwards and gives a beaming, toast-encrusted smile. Oscar rolls his eyes as he turns away, plodding his way back to their bedroom.
Jared tilts his head upwards and gives a beaming, toast-encrusted smile. Oscar rolls his eyes as he turns away, plodding his way back to their bedroom.
From the street, the sporadic sounds of construction work invade the peace: the scrape of a shovel across stone, the clanging tick of a chisel, and the radio droning on, the latest hits struggling for air below it all. They’ve been working for weeks, and Jared has become accustomed to the sounds they make - it was almost a part of his routine, to stand here and watch them stirring. He watches them. Their faces are masks of focus, their movements slow and methodical; not a single striking motion is out of place. There’s nothing on their minds in these moments, or so it seems to Jared. All he sees in their faces is a mild concern over the accuracy in each strike of the chisel, or the consistency of the cement tumbling around the mixer. Cement mixing fascinates him; it’s not an exact science – or at least, it doesn’t look like it – but he notices how they puzzle over whether more cement, sand, or water is needed in the mix; they’re searching for that all-perfect ratio; if they do, it will make all the work they’re doing stick.
Jared walks over to the cupboard, drawing it open. He picks out a large pint glass, scooping it up in his palms. He fills it up with water from the sink and glugs half of it, feeling the moisture wash away the sleep in his eyes.
He hears footsteps approaching from the hallway. Oscar emerges a moment later, a grimace wringing his eyes.
Oscar’s holding his phone in his hands. He catches Jared’s eyes, before looking again at the phone; it's precariously balanced in his palm, with no fingers to secure it, as though he was seriously thinking about dropping it. He raises his eyebrows and then strides purposefully into the kitchen.
- You’re not going to be thrilled by this…
Oscar stops suddenly and backtracks a little. He looks to his left and spots a stool, grabs it and drags it towards him. He sits down, shoulders slumped.
Jared looks at Oscar as he goes about these motions, eyes wide. A smirk curls at the corner of his mouth.
- It’s probably not as bad as you think
- Really? You think so?
- I mean, yeahhhh?
- We’ve been invited to a ‘family’ brunch. Tomorrow. At my parent’s house…
- That’s pretty dire actually, and no, I guess I’m not ‘thrilled’... Who’s going?
- Well, my parents… not sure who else -
Jared’s mobile rings. He takes it out of his pocket, looking at the caller ID, and a frown washes over his face. Oscar knows that look. It’s his dad calling.
Jared holds the phone about an inch away from his ear, wincing as he answers.
- Oh, hey Dad.
- Um – yeah. We’re good? I guess? What’s up?
- Oh, sure, that sounds gre -
The ‘A’ gets caught in his throat.
- Um, but I think we’re busy tomorrow… I’ll need to check.
- Check now? No, I can’t right now I – I’m driving?
- I don’t have a car? Right – I mean I’m in Oscar’s car –
- Yeah, he… bought it – yesterday – and I’m driving it…
Oscar lifts both palms to his head. A low chuckle racks his body.
- We’ll check our diary later – we should be home in an hour or so.
- It’s 9am? We… We slept at a friend's place last night, and didn't want to overstay our welcome, so we came back early. Besides, the bungalow is a mess -
- ‘Course, yeah – can confirm you’ll definitely know before the end of today. I’ll call you back.
- Ok, cheers Dad – speak soon.
Jared hangs up. Oscar eyes him closely as he gets up, wipes a hand over his face, and puts his phone down on the kitchen counter, half-heartedly sliding it away from him.
- When did you say brunch was?
- What is it?
- It’s just… My dad may have invited us to a ‘family’ barbeque.
- So that’s two ‘family’ gatherings we have to choose from. Lucky us. Where’s the barbeque at?
- My sister’s place, she’s arranged the whole thing - they’re gonna pick him up from the care home, take him for the day.
They stand still for a second, unsure of how to proceed.
- We should sit.
They wind their way to the living room. Jared swings the door open and ushers Oscar inside. Their faces are creased, tied in knots of uncertainty. They collapse onto the sofa together. Oscar is immediately still, considering his options, but Jared takes longer to settle; he shuffles around, trying to find a comfy nest in the cushions. Oscar waits for him to stop before speaking.
- So, which would you rather?
- Well, obviously. But, they’re family, right? It’s not like there’s been any conflicts recently.
- You know why that is, don’t you?
- Enlighten me.
- Because we haven’t seen their ugly mugs recently.
- I think there might be a little bit more to it than that.
- Nope. We haven’t seen them, so no conflict. Simple.
Oscar narrows his eyes. Jared laughs lightly.
- I’m not wrong, am I?
- I suppose you’re not entirely wrong.
Oscar combs a hand through his hair. He halts at his scalp, then gets up abruptly to leave the room.
Jared reaches for the tv remote on the coffee table. He stops the flight of his hand, reconsiders, and leans back into the sofa instead. He knew that the last thing Oscar needed was to see his parents, especially now. He had just intercalated from his masters in History and hadn’t told them yet; it didn’t seem as though he planned to either. Jared was unsure whether Oscar could deal with that conversation, on top of their usual spiel.
Oscar crashes onto the couch, a layer of dust puffing into the air. He slaps an A4 pad of lined paper onto the table and clicks his pen into action.
Jared looks quizzically at Oscar, but his attention is elsewhere. He bites his lower lip, taps his teeth with his pen, and wonders what the first words should be to grace the lines of the page. Before Jared can ask what he’s doing, the pen accelerates downwards and begins flourishing across the page.
Shrugging, Jared picks up the tv remote and flicks it at the screen. A boring, middle-aged couple zap into view. They’re in a kitchen, standing at the window. According to the husband, there’s something vaguely wrong with the garden that makes this property ‘imperfect’. He’s not making much sense. The estate agent narrows her eyes at him, her mouth slightly agape as she tries to figure out if there’s any point dissecting his words. She exhales and decides not to bother.
- “Yes, well, let’s move on to the bedrooms then, perhaps that will change your mind”.
Jared, the remote still in his hand, presses mute. He’s not in the mood for watching anything, paying attention to it; but he finds the silent movements of people he doesn’t care about oddly comforting. He zones out for a few minutes, looking at the screen, not really tracking the flow of what’s going on; it’s white noise for his eyes.
When he blinks he knows a lot of time has passed, though he doesn’t remember where it’s gone. The TV is still on, but it's a different programme, some kind of serial drama, judging by the bleak filter that seems to pervade everything in view. He looks around the room, getting the sense that something has changed. Oscar. He’s moved from the sofa beside him to the armchair on the other side of the room. He’s scraping the back of his pen across the enamel of his teeth.
- Stop scraping your teeth.
- Huh? What?
He pulls the pen away from his teeth and looks at it for a second, confused.
- Oh! Right.
Oscar starts tapping the pen against his nose instead.
- What are you trying to do?
He speaks through his teeth, the pen still tapping away.
- Write a story.
He puts the pen down.
- I’m writing a story - about when you met my parents.
- Oh… Why?
- There’s just something about it. Something I can’t place. It sprung to mind when we were presented with this dilemma.
- Something you can’t place? Verrry mysterious.
- Shut up, it’s important.
He stops tapping, then looks at Jared, a strange intensity in his eyes.
- You should help me.
- I mean, I could, I’m just not sure that I should. You’re giving me these crazy eyes.
- Sure, but this could help us make a decision about tomorrow. I know we don’t want to see my parents, but there has to be a good reason, apart from the usual that I can deal with. We don’t really spend much time with them, in fact, I’m pretty sure you haven’t seen them since that first meeting.
- Nope, have not seen them since.
- Do you remember why?
Jared looks at a corner of the ceiling. There are cobwebs there, a broken strand flapping like the tail of a long flying lizard. He blows out his cheeks.
- Like I said earlier. Their ugly mugs.
- C’mon. Seriously...
- In that case. No. Nothing is springing to mind.
- So, let’s get on with this story of yours. If you think it’ll help…
- Cool, I’ll narrate, or at least to start us off - I’ve already written the beginning. Just jump in when you remember something.
Ⅱ. Oscar begins the story.
- It wasn’t that long ago – year, year and a half maybe? – end of our second year at uni. We hadn’t been seeing each other long. Well, a few months or so. But you would stay over quite a lot, and my parents knew that you “existed”. They visited on occasion, and when they did, they would sport these odd, wrinkled noses, as though they could smell something in the air; that you’d been there maybe, or that some weird gay shit had been going on.
- I mean, we are pretty freaky.
- I’m not sure that’s my point.
- No, but it’s true.
- I’ll give you that.
My parents wanted to see me. You know, they wanted to make sure I’m on the right path, driving ever onwards into the bowels of academia, that sort of thing -
- As per -
- Right. Only this time, instead of just sitting down for the usual cup of tea, they wanted to take me out. Anywhere I wanted – they said I could bring a “friend”. Think it was my dad who’d suggested it, and that word – friend – he nearly choked on it. Couldn’t get his lips through that first ‘F’.
“So – uh – son, do you have any fff-fffrrriends? That you’d uh – like to bring along?“
And naturally, I called you -
Jared’s mobile starts ringing, startling them both. He slides it out of his pocket and stares at the caller ID.
- Your dad again?
Oscar’s question goes unheard. Jared’s brow twitches.
- Why would she be calling me?
Jared snaps his head from the phone to look at Oscar. He has a look on his face: eyelids slits, blinking sporadically; lips slightly parted, his teeth clenched shut. He doesn’t say anything, but Oscar recoils from the myriad implications bursting into the air. Once Jared’s face has relaxed, he speaks, the words viscous, forcing themselves out of his mouth – pooling into the space between them.
- It’s my mum… She never calls...
- Are you going to answer?
Oscar slides his pen into his pocket.
- I don’t know, should I?
- Do you want to?
Jared looks down at his phone again, his gaze transfixed to the green symbol that would summon her voice.
- Not really.
He drops the phone back onto the table, as though to clear his hands of the problem. But it keeps ringing, for ten, twenty, thirty seconds, stretching out to a minute. It keeps going, and they both try to ignore it, focusing their eyes on anything else they can find in the room, but it keeps ringing, tugging at their ears, yanking them closer, incessantly begging for their attention -
- Please stop…
The phone stops ringing. A silence throbs in the air.
- You alright?
Jared doesn’t hesitate.
- Yeah, I’m fine. Weren’t we doing something?
- Well, we were narrating that story - ‘The-Story-Of-How-You-Met-My-Parents’. Although we’d arrived at the end of what I’d written.
- Let’s just wing it then, say what comes to us -
- Okay, but I’ll want to write it down.
- Okay, but no stopping the flow to write it all down. If you can’t catch stuff, fuck it.
A grimace plasters Oscar’s face, looking as though he’d just eaten Jared’s words and the twang of them was burning his tongue.
- Ok, sure, I can roll with that. Do you want to start us off?
- Nah, it’s your story, you’re the narrator. I can’t remember where we were anyway.
- Ok, well I’d just called you, invited you to lunch with my parents. You said yes...
Ⅲ. - I’m not sure why I chose the place. The name of it just pinged in my mind, a beacon from a conversation I can’t remember. Not that the name was particularly memorable. It was ‘Somebody’s Café’: small, simple, kind of off-kilter -
I don’t know if you remember it. It was that place deep in the woods near campus, sat atop a clearing on a hill. We’d been there a couple of times. It always seemed to be empty. And the owner? Do you remember? He only had one ear, but he never asked us to repeat our orders, and he always got it perfect. Don’t think he spoke a word to us at all, actually.
- Oh, I remember him, like we’d be having a conversation and then we’d notice him, and you could never know how long he’d been standing there. Wonder if he ever got sick of waiting for us to make our orders.
- Probably, we can get pretty deep sometimes.
- Yeah we can.
- Nothing. Keep going.
- So, you remember the place?
- I remember the place. I lived close by, which is why I said I’d meet you near the trail leading up. I arrived a little earlier, I think I sat waiting on the stump of an old tree that had sprouted its way through the pavement.
- I didn’t spot you at first when we arrived in the car. Your clothes weren’t particularly camouflaging, but I remember imagining that you’d sort of emerged from the hedgerow, or like, from the earth itself?
- From the earth itself? C’mon now.
- No, seriously. It was like you had this immaterial form, and as we drew nearer, you were slowly being breathed back into the world. I don’t know, it happens sometimes… I’ll see something, and I can clearly see that it’s something, but my mind doesn’t quite register it. And then out of nowhere my brain sort of throws an image at me and goes: ‘this?’. And there it is, that something takes form instantly and everything makes sense again.
- I mean, okay, but it would have been weird if you hadn’t recognised me…
- Well, I’m sorry for trying to mystify the scene a little bit.
- Sure… As for me, I just remember seeing a beat-up car that looked like it had no business being on a road. When I saw you sitting in the back seat my first thought was: ‘Wow, this guy clearly doesn’t give a fuck if he’s willing to be seen in that thing.’ Definitely worked in your favour.
- You can thank my parents for that, they’ve never cared much for looking after the material possessions in their lives. Cars and children especially.
- Ouch. We’re firing shots already.
- Afraid so...
Where were we? Right, so we arrived in the car, got out, and I greeted you way more cordially than I would have liked. I believe I shook your hand?
- Yeah, I hated that.
And your parents, you’ve got to give it to them, they gave me different varieties of awkward to deal with. Your mum over-compensated, giving me a big hug and saying:
“It’s SO nice to MEET you, we were DELIGHTED to hear that Oscar had made a new FRIEND.” Sounded like she was in some sort of denial about *the true nature of our relationship*
And your dad, I don’t even know what he was trying to do. He must have felt obliged to hug me because your mum had, but then it’s clearly a bit gay for a guy to hug another guy he’s just met, but then also, he knows I’m gay, so perhaps he thought it might be okay.
Wow, I almost feel sorry for him trying to navigate all that.
In the end, he sort of curled his arm towards me - as though he was intending to hug me - then he drew it back, letting it hang there for a moment before proceeding to pat my shoulder like I was some new animal he was afraid of touching. When he realised I wasn’t going to bite his hand off, he rocked my shoulder gently, which I think made the whole interaction worse. There was something niggling in my shoulder for the rest of the day…
And there it is now, that same niggling feeling. Thank you, body, for reminding me.
Yeah, I’m sorry, your dad just makes me feel weird...
- I didn’t know you felt that way…
- Neither did I till we started talking about it.
You know, I think I may have remembered that ‘something’ you wanted to remember. You’ve completely erased it from the story.
- Really? What is it?
- Not what, who. Your ‘Aunt’. Your mum’s friend, the one she insists has a ‘heart of gold’, but very clearly doesn’t.
- Oh. Shit. Yeah, Aunt Maddy, she was there. She was excessively there.
- Yeah, she was ‘excessively’ there.
- How could we leave her out? Seems like a pretty glaring oversight.
- I mean, I think I know why. It’s pretty clear that we just don’t want her there. Maybe we could carry on without her? We can do that, right? Cut her out of the story?
- We definitely could, but I think it falls apart without her. You remember what she said to us, don’t you?
- I’d prefer not to because then it's all I’m going to be thinking about if I see her at brunch tomorrow.
- For the sake of the story, though, perhaps I should write it down?
- I guess her words are like the shocking and perverse twist in this tale...
We walk up together; the guy with the missing ear takes our order; we both step outside for a fag; she follows us - saunters over to us - takes the fag from my mouth… And then she says… What did she say?
- Well, I think it started with: ‘Hello boys…’
- Oh no. NO. no no no no no. Fuck that, I am not revisiting that. We are not immortalising those words anywhere. Not on your lips, not on the page, and definitely not in blinking lights on the store-front of my mind.
- Blinking lights on the what now?
- It means I don’t want to think about it.
- Does it?
- I’m sorry. This was a stupid idea.
- It’s alright. Look, if it wasn’t us in the story, maybe it would have worked. But it is, so…
- Alright, well that settles it, we’re not going to brunch tomorrow.
- I’m sorry, I just don’t think I could stomach it, not if there’s even the slightest chance she’s going to appear and say things again.
- Yeah... I think this is the right call…
Ⅳ. There’s a stillness to the room now. Neither of them feels like moving. They feel as though they’ve done something; like they’re closer to reaching something indiscernible. They frown, and then Oscar speaks, a maddened grin folding around the words.
- I suppose this means we’ll be going to your dad’s barbeque then?
A thousand dust particles erupt from the earth.
Oscar laughs. The sound of it is jarring, too loud for the room. It’s a sound that doesn’t feel like it belongs to him; he can’t control the flow of it as it spills from his mouth. He casts his eyes over the room, trying to find a target, something to absorb the sound, but everything recoils from his gaze, completely unsure of what to do with this cursed vibration hurtling itself toward them -
And so he keeps laughing, spittle ricocheting off his teeth until his mouth dries out and the sound of it skids to a halt in his throat.
And the dust and the silence return to the ground.
Jared is looking with zany eyes at Oscar.
- What the fuck was that?
- I have no idea what that was.
- Personally, and obviously this is just a suggestion, but maybe you could just lock that sound away in whatever cell used to contain it, and weld that shit shut, nice and tight. Just a suggestion, obviously.
- Yeah, well, I’m just saying we’d all stand to benefit.
- I think we’re in agreement...
Outside the sky places a grey filter over the world. Jared and Oscar look at each other as a warm curtain of daylight-darkness draws itself over the room.
Jared’s phone rings again.
Ⅴ. Oscar picks up some bread and pops it into the basket in Jared’s hand. He looks at Jared mischievously.
- Hey -
He taps Jared on the shoulder -
- You’ve been acting kind of ‘a loaf’ since we got here...
He holds the loaf of bread up to his head.
- A loaf?
- Yeah, ‘A loaf’
- As in I’m squishy and cuddly?
- That too, but no, I’m saying that you’ve been acting ‘A loaf’
- Ohhhh, okay. Yeah, guess so. Sorry.
Jared continues idly scanning the shelves of the supermarket, looking for something to evoke a vague sense of comfort in his chest. Nothing yet. His phone vibrates in his pocket. It’s been on silent for the last few hours. Since they left the house. He wishes he’d left it at home.
Oscar is deeper in the snack aisle. He turns to look at Oscar, bouncing his eyebrows and jerking his head at something he’s found on the shelves. Jared walks closer, and looks in the general area Oscar seemed to be motioning towards.
- What am I looking for here?
- Something you like.
- There’s nothing here I like.
- Sure there is, look. Right there.
Oscar points at a pack of biscuits on the shelf. Bourbon biscuits. It’s the last pack of its kind. It’s not placed neatly on the shelf, facing potential customers. It lies diagonally, as though someone had thrown it there after deciding they didn’t want it. Jared doesn’t like Bourbon biscuits...
- You only see me buy these because my dad loves them. I take them to him when I visit, whenever that is.
- But I always see them lying there in the cupboard at home.
- Yeah, I put them there till I’m ready to visit. It’s like a commitment I make to seeing him.
- Oh… that’s fair.
Oscar’s eyebrows sink into the skin above his eyes.
- Are you going to buy them?
Jared looks at the bourbons. He exhales, and the air leaves his lungs, flushing the energy from his body.
- I don’t know...
Oscar waits for Jared to complete his thoughts. Moments pass. Oscar can see a tired tension in Jared’s face, the muscles in his face and neck contracting beneath the skin. He’s determined to make a decision there, even if it turns him to stone. Oscar lures Jared’s gaze away from the shelf with a gentle hand curled around his upper arm.
- Let’s go around the shop again first, see if there’s anything else we want…
- Sure. Good idea.
A thought strikes Oscar’s eyes.
- Actually, why don’t we get brunch? Seeing as we’re skipping tomorrow.
Yeah, why not.
They turn and stride toward the front of the shop, eyes homing in on the ‘Cafe’ signage hanging from the roof. Behind them, a little girl waddles over to where they were standing, watching them curiously, a bar of chocolate melting in her palms. She turns away from them and sees the corner of the pack of bourbons jutting out from the shelf. She reaches up, pawing at it until it topples to the ground. She picks it up, shaking it, enjoying the sound of it. She giggles to herself and runs off down the aisle, leaving behind the mauled chocolate bar to congeal on the acrylic floor.
Ⅵ. Oscar puts his knife and fork down on his plate, a muffled clang marking the end of his feeding session. Jared glances upwards as he’s lifting a fork-full of beans to his mouth. He sees Oscar finish, smiling a satisfied smile at him from across the table, and he suddenly becomes conscious of how precarious the beans are: stacked upon each other, sliding dangerously toward the edge of the outer prongs. Panicking, he darts the fork in the general direction of his mouth, and before he can register it happening, he sees beans bounce back onto his plate, onto his lap, onto his shoes, and finally, onto the floor, where they roll off joyfully into the nether-world beneath the table.
- I think you may have missed.
- Nah, that was deliberate. I wanted the beans to be free. The beans deserve to be free.
Oscar stifles a chuckle.
- May I ask where this sudden empathy for beans has come from?
- I was just looking at them on my fork, and I thought: look how terrified they are, bound together in that weird beany goop, waiting for me to eat them.
Just imagine, there you are, chilling there with your pals, when suddenly you’re airborne, hurtling toward this gaping abyss, and there’s this huge mass of flesh flopping around, gurgling right at you. Then the darkness takes you; you’re in the giant’s stomach, in a pool of acid, and there’s nothing you can do, as this floaty thoughtless bean; all you can do is wait for it to consume you, until there’s nothing left of you. That’s some scary shit.
Jared cuts into a fried egg and plops it onto his tongue, his eyes betraying his dissociation from the act. Oscar’s takes a deep breath. He feels tired all of a sudden.
- Well, that does sound pretty terrifying, but I doubt the beans were thinking about anything. They’re just beans.
- That’s what we're taught to think. That’s why the beans need us to do the thinking for them, so we can figure out why they shouldn’t suffer. We have a responsibility to the beans.
Oscar stays quiet, unwilling to carry Jared’s thoughts any further. He turns his head to look out of the cafe’s window. A woman about their age is on the other side, rain flattening her hair against her head. She moves a bag-for-life from one hand to another to free her fingers and reaches into her pocket. She pulls out her phone and tries to make a call. She frowns, shoots daggers at the sky, and brushes the screen against the fabric of her jeans. That seems to do the trick, and before the rain can thwart her again, she quickly thumbs in the necessary sequence of actions to initiate a call. Oscar can’t quite tell, but he suspects that some of the droplets coursing down her cheeks are coming from her eyes.
The table vibrates, drawing Oscar’s eyes back into the room. It’s Jared’s phone.
Oscar stares at the muscles in Jared’s face, expecting at any moment to see their sudden atrophy. Jared picks up the phone, nothing on his face belying any urge or feeling, and, without even glancing at the screen, he lifts his bum from the chair and slides the phone into his pocket. He carries on eating.
Jared is concentrating very carefully on the steps he needs to take. The quantity of the beans he wants; the angle he should hold the fork over the plate; the point at which he should lay it down; how much force he should apply with his knife to scrape the beans onto his fork. Eating these beans; this is the thing that he is doing.
- So, do you want to get the biscuits?
Fuck the biscuits.
- I’m not sure yet.
Jared lowers the fork onto his plate, scrapes the beans toward it with his knife, applying a little extra force to nudge them over the lip of the outside prong. He pauses with the beans now sitting on his fork, considering the journey they’d need to take through the air to reach his mouth -
But it won’t stop. It keeps buzzing away, sending shivers up and down his leg.
- I think you should answer it.
Jared lets the cutlery in his palms slide from his grasp. The beans, which only a second ago were piled upon each other, ooze from the fork and onto the plate, settling into a more relaxed formation. This is their chance. They could make a run for it if they really wanted to. But they don’t. They have nowhere else to go, really. They don’t have it in them. When Jared speaks, only the beans can hear him.
- Let the fucker buzz.
Oscar shuffles in his chair. A waiter comes over, his apron strings loose. He doesn’t ask them about their meal, and he doesn’t ask Jared if he’s finished as he’s picking up their plates. He pauses as he straightens his back, and makes a show of looking at the scattering of beans on the cafe floor.
- Sorry about the beans, this one’s a bit of an animal when he eats.
The waiter raises his eyebrows and diverts his eyes to one side as he turns to leave them. Oscar purses his lips, directing his gaze downward at the table.
The waiter returns thirty seconds later, a dustpan and brush dragging along behind him. He potters around their table, making sure to brush up all the beans into their new home: an uneaten paradise where they could decay at their own goddamn pace.
- Your foot, please.
Jared didn’t notice the waiter standing over him, and it takes a moment for his ears to bring him up to speed. His foot stutters as he lifts it up. Seeing nothing, he turns his ankle to see three beans squashed into the soles of his shoes. Before he can register it, the waiter is scraping them off with his brush.
Jared considered it a question, but the waiter didn't hear it. He’s gone again. It’s Oscar who speaks next.
- I’m going to the toilet, won’t be long.
- Alright, I’ll get the bill.
Jared sits and stares at Oscar’s chest until he leaves the chair and his vision strikes the back of the chair. The phone in his pocket is still buzzing away, unwilling to stop, and he finds its persistence eroding, slowly cutting away at any defiance he may have once felt. Indifference glazes over his eyes. His fingers tap an uneven rhythm on the phone strapped to his thigh. He could answer it, summon that voice back to the present, and he could listen to it, and hear what it had to say, and then go and get the biscuits, and see his father, because he had an obligation, and that was enough.
Jared gets up from his chair and leaves the cafe, and then the supermarket. He walks out, into the rain, through the car park, to the shelter of a tree atop an embankment. Below is a motorway, cars slicing through the rain. He takes out his phone.
Ⅶ. - Why are you calling?
- Wanted to talk with my boy, that too much to ask?
- Given everything, I’m going to go with yes.
- Given everything? The fuck you on about?
- Given all the shit you’ve given me. I don’t need to hear it anymore…
- You need to hear it now more than ever.
- Don’t think I do.
- What is it with these fucking lame responses?
- I -
- You’re fucking useless, aren’t you, Jerry?
- You heard me, you sorry piece of shit. If you’re going to hate someone, fucking do it right. You know, like I showed you.
You show your teeth, stare them right in the eye, and you jab your finger into their chest, over and over, and you spit your hatred at them, hack it up and get it right in their eyes, you fucking blind them with that shit -
You tell them they’re a fucking huge waste of space, that they can’t do nothing right, you tell them all they’ve done is ruin your life, and you can’t stand how all they do is cry and want you to be sorry for them with their piddly arse feelings -
You say that to them, just like I did with you and your cripple of a father. Never stood up for you, did he?
- Fuck off. You don’t get to talk about him like that.
- I can say what I bloody well like. Your father’s been a waste of space for a LONG time. Expected everyone to fucking wait on him, tidy up his shit and all his other fucking messes. You should hate him. Fuck, I know you do, Jerry.
- I don’t hate him.
- Oh really, then why didn’t you buy the fucking biscuits Jerry? Why do you always lie?
It’s fucking sad. You’ve been lying to yourself all your life. Never had a clue who you were, still think you’re some gay fucker, but I know better, I know you like them girlies really...
Why are you calling?
- Again with that fucking question. You seriously want me to answer that? HA. Fine. I’m calling ‘cause that’s what you want, Jerry. You miss my voice, how I told you who and what you were and you had to accept it. You miss that CLARITY. That’s all gone now. I’ve seen you, trying so hard to escape your reality, and it’s fucking sad, I thought I raised you to have bigger balls -
- I think we’re done here.
- Oh no no no no no no no we’re not done, we’re never DONE, you’ll always pick up that phone, and don’t you worry, it’ll always be buzzing for you, fucking always, don’t you worry about that -
- I’ve got nothing more to say.
- Then why don’t you fucking put the phone down you daft cunt - ‘cause you can’t, that’s why -
- You’ve got nothing to offer me.
- Well that’s another lie, ‘cause you’ll get some inheritance from me when I die. I’m going to leave you some nice, shiny, GOLDEN, nuggets of shit, I just know you’ll fucking love that -
Ⅷ. Jared looks at the phone in his hand. The voice is gone, or at least, it can’t get through the screen anymore. His reflection in that liquid blackness seems oddly stark, and it’s not until he remembers the rain beating down from above that he realises: his phone is wet. When he tilts it to one side, a small puddle of water gushes from the glass and plummets to the grass beneath his feet. He touches the Home button, expecting to see his screensaver pop up, but nothing happens.
- Dead, I guess.
He wipes the phone’s wetness onto his jumper and then slides it back into his pocket. When he looks up, there’s a silhouette moving towards him, wading through the streaking vitriol of the storm. He frowns, eyeing the part of the figure that should be its face, trying to discern its features. He tries blinking away the droplets weighing on his brows; as if that were somehow affecting his vision. He rubs furiously, and when his vision clears, a face forms in front of him, its brows creased, nose flared, and its eyes bug-eyed with anger.
- You thought I wasn’t going to follow you out here because it’s raining? Seriously? If you’re going to make a run for it, at least have the decency of making a good go at it.
- Sorry, what have I done?
- Your food. You need to pay for it. That’s the world we live in. Sorry to break it to you.
Jared sees a car reverse out of its parking space, roadkill etched into its tyres.
- Right, yeah. The world we live in, I’m hearing ya, don’t worry. I was on my way back.
Waiter taps his foot. In his head, this altercation had played out very differently. This guy, the Cute-guy-with-the-brooding-face-and-the-absent-eyes, had been walking down the street, blatantly, no, arrogantly, ignoring his obligation to pay for his lovely brunch. Waiter had tapped him on the shoulder, and this arrogant prick had turned around with this fox-like grin on his face, and said ‘yeah?’ with those perfectly arching eyebrows. It was there and then that Waiter had laid down the law, telling this complete knob, the Cute-guy-with-the-brooding-face-and-the-absent-eyes, that he was bang out of order, and that he needed to pay right now, or else there’d be consequences. And the cheek on him, the guy had taken a step toward Waiter and said: ‘...What kind of consequences are we talking about exactly?’, which is when Waiter had felt all the blood gush through the falls of his body.
- Shall we go inside then?
The words attached themselves to the wrong scene, and Waiter looked at Jared for a second, a look of shock jolting through his face before he remembered where he was. He’s in the rain, bored of this interaction, and wanting it to end.
- Yeah, right, come on then.
Jared and Waiter walk side by side to the supermarket entrance. The storm’s bluster seems to calm down as they get closer.
- So, uh, has it been a busy day for you?
- Huh? Oh… slightly more eventful than most, I guess.
- Haha, yeah. Sorry about that.
Oscar is inside, his phone to his ear. When he sees Jared and Waiter his arms flop to his sides. He waits silently as they approach. Jared shrugs one of his shoulders, but he’s not sure what he means by it. Waiter is a little surprised to see him standing there; he’d completely forgotten about the Cute-guy-with-the-brooding-face-and-the-absent-eyes’s boyfriend. The scene he’d imagined minutes earlier fractured and cracked, leaving shards of impossibility to scratch at his heart; the falls of his body trickle to a halt, leaving a stillness in its wake.
When Oscar looks at Waiter, he’s surprised to see the sad eyes of a wounded animal looking back. Waiter stops just in front of him before he speaks.
- Thought you’d tried to do a runner…
Oscar turns his head to Jared, there’s no surprise in his voice.
- Jazz, you didn’t pay?
- Got a call.
Oscar purses his lips and considers Jared. His hands are on his hips. Waiter interrupts the silence.
- Hey, so, you are going to pay, aren’t you? Can we hurry this along?
- Yeah, I’ll pay now, let’s go.
- Thank you.
Waiter darts off in the direction of the cafe. It was nearly over, just this last step and they’d be gone.
Oscar catches Jared’s eye before he turns to follow.
- I’ll meet you back here.
Jared glances up at the clock above the supermarket entrance.
- We’re on time for the next bus.
Ⅸ. The bus stops. Four new passengers walk on. Two boys, teenagers, pay for their fare first. They’re giggling at something. One of them pulls out a twenty-pound note to pay.
- Got anything smaller?
- Nah, soz.
Bus-driver, a woman in her late thirties, doesn’t meet their eyes. She goes about the process of finding change; she reaches into the different pockets of her jacket, the various compartments around the driver’s seat. Thirty seconds into her search, her face drops: she may not have the exact change. Her fingers become frantic, clattering around the booth like spider legs scrambling for purchase. The boy with the twenty-pound note turns to the other boy, mouthing something about how he wishes she’d hurry the fuck up. Someone already sitting down sighs, exasperated, clearly having somewhere self-important to be.
Bus-driver finds the change she needs and fumbles them into the boy’s hands. A pound coin slips through a finger and pings under a seat.
- Fuck sake!
The boys leave Bus-driver to deal with the next passenger. They don’t bother looking for their pound coin - they go straight for the stairs and bound up to the upper deck. The coin rolls under the first two rows of seats and falters at the tip of Oscar’s toe. He sees the backs of the boys ascending.
- Must not want this then.
He bends down in his seat, picks it up and pockets the pound coin, meeting the eyes of an elderly woman as he rises. She holds his gaze just long enough to transmit her shame and then returns to look at a man and his dog limping together on the pavement outside.
When Jared and Oscar had walked onto the bus there had been nowhere to sit together. Not what Oscar would have wanted, in an ideal world. He’d sat in the third row, in the aisle seat on the left side of the bus. Jared was forced to sit in the front row by the window, on the right side of the bus. Jared hadn’t turned around to acknowledge Oscar for the entire journey. From what Oscar can see, he’s particularly interested in the advert on the glass screen in front of him. There’s a man keeled over in laughter in the bottom right corner of the poster. As for the words, the only ones Oscar can see are: “Life is for laughing, so join us in paving the road ahead with joy”.
The last of the four new passengers get onto the bus. She’s wearing a long shawl and carrying something long and rectangular, concealed by a drape. The eyes on the bus glance over the newcomer with vague interest, but even the mystery of a concealed object can’t hold their attention for long.
There’s no room for Mrs Mystery Object to sit downstairs, but she’d have a hard time walking up the stairs to the upper deck with the mystery object in hand. Still uncertain of where to go, she hovers in the priority zone, twisting around, shuffling her feet, as though the bus was hiding a secret pressure plate that could close all the eyes and save her from their gaze.
The doors slide closed and the bus breathes out as it rises on its suspension. As the bus moves off, Mrs Mystery Object gets a little more desperate. She’s in a precarious position. Bus journeys, after all, are infamous for their jolting motions, and if one such motion were to wash over the bus now, she’d lose her grip on the mystery object, and then the drape and the mystery would flap away.
Minutes pass, and then the bus grinds to a halt at its next stop. Mrs Mystery Object seems to have settled into a suitable bracing position. She sways slightly as the bus stops.
No-one gets on the bus, not this time, and it moves off again. Oscar looks over at Jared. His neck is slack, his head lolling on his left shoulder. Asleep.
The bus goes through its rhythms. Humming, grinding, sliding, rising; humming, grinding, sliding, rising. At one point the man sitting next to Oscar leaves the bus, and Oscar thinks about disturbing Jared and telling him to come over. Despite the thought, his body doesn’t engage. He doesn’t reach out. Instead, he lies back and closes his eyes. He breathes out through his mouth, breathes in the vacuous air, and relaxes into the rhythms of the bus.
Time passes, but Oscar doesn’t feel it happen.
Jared wakes him up.
- Our stop.
They leave the bus.
Ⅹ. Jared and Oscar round a corner into their street. The storm has abated, and the day is closing down. Oscar reaches for Jared’s hand and locks their fingers together, giving them a squeeze. Jared reciprocates, but his eyes remain focused on the air in front of him. They continue like that for a few more seconds, until a car driving towards them decides to turn on its headlights. It was a coincidence - the driver had just noticed the encroaching darkness - but they both tense, an instinct to take flight sizzling through their nerves. They stop walking, and Oscar takes a step forward to meet the car, leaning down, hands on the bottom of his thighs. The car pulls up alongside, the window lowered; a middle-aged, beer-bellied and balding man hovers into view.
- I’m looking for this tree…
A hastily scribbled drawing of a tree is shoved in front of Oscar’s eyes. It seems like a fairly unremarkable looking thing. A lot of trees look like this tree.
- Is there something… special? about it?
- I’m not paying you to ask questions.
- You’re not paying me?
- No - it’s just an expression you mug.
- Hmmm okay, sure…
- What about your bum boy over there, maybe he knows?
- I -
- Hey, you! You got a minute?
Oscar can’t see Jared properly in the failing light, but he wouldn’t be surprised if the sudden gush of wind that washed over his face was one of Jared’s gale-force sighs. His face materialises moments later, eyes sharp, squinting at the beer-bellied man.
- Have you seen this?
The scribbled tree rises into the frame of the window.
- Believe I have.
- Yeah? Can you direct me?
- Sure. So there’s a forest. Just turn right at the junction there and follow the road to the next junction. You’ll see a field straight ahead and the edge of the forest…
Oscar straightens his back and turns away to look down the street. He sees a faint blue light pulsing from below the hedge on the corner of the next junction. Near their bungalow.
- Then where do I go from there?
- Well, just go into the forest, and the tree you’re looking for is probably in there… somewhere.
- Are you fucking kidding me?
Oscar begins walking towards the pulsing light.
- Nope, pretty sure you’ll find your tree there.
- Does it look like there are other trees around this tree? This is a special fucking tree, you understand? It stands on its own, see?
Beer-Belly flicks the drawing.
- Nothing special about it, just a regular tree with a trunk, some branches, long, luscious leaves...
- Oh shut up -
The car accelerates, the words “fucking”, “useless”, and “cunt”, fading into the distance.
- You’re fucking welcome, pal.
Jared watches the car leave, then takes a deep breath and relaxes his shoulders. He turns around to speak to Oscar, only to see him rounding the corner of the hedge leading to the front of their bungalow. He shrugs and follows after.
Oscar is standing still, unsure of how to proceed. As he rounded the corner, he was met by a police car; parked on the curb, its siren lights spinning a silent alarm in the gloom. He looks over his shoulder, sees that Beer-Belly has just left and that Jared is closing the space between them. A sense of knowing invades his body, and all he wants is to wrap Jared up and carry him away.
Jared is closer now; Oscar can see his eyes as they roll in their sockets.
- Bit of a dickhead, wasn’t he?
Why are you standing there like that?
Oscar stands still, his eyes following Jared as he reaches his side, and then overtakes him. He doesn’t read anything from the police car.
- Oop, neighbours are in trouble, unless you’ve got a secret life of crime you’d like to tell me about?
Jared opens the gate leading into their front garden. He lifts the latch, and as he slides the gate open, it takes him a moment before he has the chance to look up. When he does, the gate stops opening, moaning softly as it lulls to a halt. Jared releases his grip, and a stillness falls.
A delicate voice, a man’s voice, placates the silence.
- Hello there. Your name wouldn’t happen to be Jared, would it?
Oscar hears the question, but he’s not sure Jared has.
- Excuse me, sir?
Oscar’s feet carry him forward. He puts a hand on Jared’s shoulder, edging past to open the gate. There are two police officers there. The one closest, the man who’d asked the question, has his peaked cap against his chest. His hair is a mess, matted after a long day.
- Sorry, officer, what seems to be the problem?
- We’re looking for a Mr Jared Taylor, is that either one of you?
- Yes, that would be my partner.
- Ok, and this is your residence?
- It is, we’re both living here.
- May we come inside?
Oscar pauses for a second.
Oscar turns around. Jared is not in view.
Something clasps its talons around his heart -
And then it lets go. Jared comes into view, creaking open the front gate.
- Sure, let’s go inside. I’ll put the kettle on.
He strides past them all, eyes tracing a line in the concrete up to the base of the front door. With a cacophony of clacking keys, it’s open, and one by one, they step inside and enter the kitchen.
He knows what this is, and he thinks it's the end. There’s a slight smile creeping onto his face, can’t you see it? But this isn’t over, not by a long shot. I’m still here, keeping an eye on you, Jerry, don’t you worry.
ⅩⅠ. There he goes, my son, some new energy in his step. Putting the kettle on, like this is normal. Police are there, sitting awkwardly round the counter in the kitchen, hunched forward on those shitty stools he has. The kettle’s boiling, and they’ve got the big fella, the guy who seems to be delivering my news, sitting on the worst of them all; it’ll snap in two before this little chat is over.
- Oh, don’t worry about the tea, we don’t want to be in your way for long.
Sit the fuck down, Jerry, the man’s got a message for you.
There he goes, good lad. Up onto the stool, that’s it. Plant your bum.
That friend of his is sitting down on the stool next to him, and as soon as he’s seated, his hand crawls across the air underneath the counter, those gross and spindly little fingers landing on his thigh, squeezing it. Checking how tender the meat is. But Jerry doesn't react, that shit grosses him out. He tolerates it though; doesn’t want to hurt any feelings. He’s always been kind like that; meant I always had to be there.
- So there’s no good way to say this, but...
Come on, spit it out. No, don’t look at her. The other officer, now she’s one of those stock images you can get off the internet. Can barely see her eyes below the peak of her cap. She drew the long straw, apparently, so all she has to do is sit there and make sure it happens. The fella is on his own here.
- It is with profound regret...
Here we go -
- That I must inform you that, earlier today…
That’s it, nearly there, one last squeeze.
- We found your mother, Mrs. Elizabath Taylor…
There it is. My name.
Ha, look at his face, he looks relieved. He thinks he’s free now. I’m dead, so he doesn’t have to think about me anymore, that’s what he thinks. You’re not free, Jerry, don’t fool yourself. He’s going to ask questions now, he’ll want all the grisly details.
- How did she die?
It wasn’t pretty.
- We believe it was murder. She had multiple stab wounds…
- How many?
He wants to know how much pain I was in at the end. It was… a lot.
- Uh… well… the autopsy isn’t complete… but we could probably make a call, they might be done by now…
Poor fella, he’s expecting Jerry to let it go, let this little bit of knowledge escape him. But he needs it, my sweet Jerry, he needs to know how much I died.
- I can make that call… If you like?
- Yeah, go on. I’ll finish making the tea.
He slides off the stool. Nothing’s changed on his face, but I can see his insides itching. Making tea isn’t going to scratch that itch, Jerry.
- Have you finished the autopsy?
Uh, yeah, he wants to know how many stab wounds there were…
She had 30 stab wounds.
- For how many of those was she alive?
- I -
The fella straightens his spine, this one he was expecting. Not in the current context, sure, but it was close enough. He thinks he’s doing well, poor soul.
- I’m sure she didn’t suffer much.
- That’s not what I asked.
- Jazz, do you really -
Shut the fuck up, bumder.
- I do, I want to know.
That’s right, you tell him, Jerry.
The old police fella slumps his shoulders. This is his first time doing this, and the manual said it would go a bit differently, didn’t it? Probably feels lied to, but what can I say? All manuals are full of lies, he should know better.
- I - I’m sorry, sir, but that’s impossible to know.
Fucking liar, you just want it to be over. Doesn’t matter, though, does it Jerry? In your mind I suffered A LOT, and well, I did, thankfully. Gave you just what you wanted, there.
- I see… Where did you find her?
- Uh, in an alley, off Brim Street -
- Where exactly in the alley?
- Well, it was, to one side, I suppose, and, uh -
- Paint me a picture.
- A picture?
- Yeah, like what was around her. Surely you took photos, what did they capture?
- Jazz, stop.
No no no, you keep going, Jerry, keep going, that’s it. You need this.
- Do you have a photo?
- Um, well, we do, but… we can’t show any of them to you…
He turns to his partner - still can’t see her fucking eyes - he needs a way out. He’s not even sure if he’s telling the truth.
Just show Jerry the fucking picture man.
- Why not?
- Uh, because...
He has no fucking clue, how green is this guy? Looks fucking old to me.
- It’s… it’s evidence…
- Maybe I can help you find out who killed her. Maybe I’ll see something in the photo that you’ve missed, something specific, that only I would know, because she’s my mum.
Oh, you’re a sharp one, aren’t you, Jerry? Bet you wish you were as sharp as that when it came to figuring yourself out.
- I understand that you want to find your mum’s killer, but perhaps we should revisit this another day?
It’s the other one who’s spoken, little miss half-eyes. We were so close, why can’t people mind their own business? Jerry needs to know, can’t she understand that? Bitch.
- Now is not the best time to go into these details. You’re in shock.
Oh, is he now? This can’t be in the manual. Police aren’t therapists, and I should fucking know, I’m always dealing with the cunts, even now. Not a shred of empathy in their peaky hearts.
Go ahead, miss, put on your show then.
- I don’t know what your relationship was like with the deceased, but in any case, we can put you in contact with a number of counselling services. Perhaps they can help you process some of the feelings you’re currently having.
Get out while you can, that’s the score, isn’t it; pass on the fucked-up mind to the people who think they can un-fuck it, then get the fuck out. Then you can go home and feel sad about the traumatic experience you had delivering the news of mummy’s tragic stabbing. Poor fucking you.
Jerry doesn’t look too happy right now. Does he fuck want to process anything, he just wants to know that his mummy suffered. Don’t worry, Jerry, I did, I fucking did, and I did it for you, so you could have me with you now, by your side, like you’ve always wanted.
- Jazz, maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad idea?
- Would you like us to give you a number?
No, he doesn’t, would you kindly fuck off?
- I think we’d like that, thank you.
No you wouldn’t, you really fucking wouldn’t like that. You’d be gone in a flash if you saw what was hiding in that head of his.
- No problem...
You disgust me.
- Again, sorry for your loss.
Dripping with bullshit, miss. Wipe your chops.
The old one gets off the stool, and it snaps in two. Didn’t I tell you that would happen? I am loving this seeing into the future shit. Nearly bangs his head on the counter on his way down. Would have killed him if it did. Fucking shame it didn’t.
- Shit! Are you okay? I’m so sorry - I should have mentioned that one’s on its last legs.
Oop, give him a sec, he’s just catching his breath. He’s not used to near death experiences, this one.
- Not - not to worry, I’m alright… anyway -
He’s like a slug the way he slimes up the counter.
- We’ll be leaving now. You probably want to be alone.
No, he wants the picture of me splayed over the bins behind the Royal Stag: intestines hanging out, bits of moldy cheese and rotting meat mingling with my guts. There were rats, fucking huge ones, gorging on it. What a feast. I was real fucked up Jerry, you should’ve been there.
- Thank you, officers.
For what? They’ve been absolutely fucking useless. Fucking. Useless. Cunts.
What is it, Jerry?
- How did you find me? Does the rest of my family know?
- You’re the only family we could find. She had a scrap of paper in her jeans, which had this address on it. She also had what we believe to be a burner phone; the only number in it was yours. We’ve been trying to contact you all day.
You’re the only one I actually gave a shit about, Jerry.
- Is there anyone else we should contact?
Why bother, they won’t care.
- Yes, but I’ll deal with it. Tomorrow.
- Okay then. Goodbye, both of you. Sorry again for your loss.
Whatever, off they pop. Doesn’t matter, you’ve still got me Jerry. Knowing the details would have been nice, but I’m here, that’s all that matters. I’ll stay with you for as long as you need me, to make sure you don’t stray again. First order of business, getting your friend out of here.
ⅩⅠⅠ. They’ve gone. The front door half-clicks as the latch half-enters the door-jamb. The door lolls open. Cool air sneaks in through the gap and wraps itself around the room. Jared and Oscar are quiet. Everything is quiet. Oscar looks at Jared, trying to draw a pathway between their eyes.
He wants to talk about me, so he can figure out how to get me out of here. He’s weighing his options, but he’s got none, poor fucker. Almost feel sorry for him, even though he’s a fag.
Then the wind makes itself known, moaning through the half-open door.
Oscar, who had remained on his stool while the officers had left, rises, and makes his way over to Jared, who’s standing by the kettle. On his way, he nudges the door closed.
As Oscar gets closer, Jared half-turns away and flips the switch on the kettle; this is the third time he’s set it to boil. He pretends to consider something in the gap between the counter and the wall.
Don’t touch him.
Oscar wriggles his arms around Jared, lifting the dead weights of Jared’s arms to lie on his shoulders; he has to squat a little to accommodate them. With the weights now on his shoulder, Oscar lays his head on Jared’s chest and plants his palms on his back. He squeezes, with all the love he can muster, trying to squeeze out whatever’s inside. He feels something stirring.
- This has to be the worst hug you’ve ever given me.
That’s because he doesn’t want your fucking hug.
Jared let’s go and falls into Oscar’s embrace. He sobs, tears seeping into the fabric of Oscar’s jumper. He can’t hold himself up, and Oscar has to re-adjust his footing to stop them from collapsing to the ground.
- Come on, Jazz, let’s go sit down.
Jerry, fucking get off him, he can’t help you. Fuck.
They leave the kitchen and walk to the living room, Jared leaning on Oscar for support.
Jerry doesn’t need his fucking support, he’s never needed fucking support.
Oscar lays Jared down on the sofa. He sits next to him and lifts his head up to lie on his lap. Jared’s knees curl up, digging into Oscar's thighs as his body heaves. Oscar stares at the TV, stroking Jared’s head, a vice clamping down on his chest with each contraction of Jared’s body.
- It’s okay, Jazz.
What? You think sitting on the sofa together and cradling his head like he’s some fucking baby is going to help him, make him forget me? What’s your name? Oscar? Fucking get out. You hear me? You fucking hear me, you piece of shit?! I’m. Fucking. Talking. To. YOU.
The wind thunders against the living room window - an angry spirit banging weightless hands against the glass, screaming to be let inside.
He’s not listening to me. Why isn’t he fucking listening?
Oscar sees the flash of a shadow as it thuds against the glass. Something solid, but soft, like a clump of earth.
Listen to that, Oscar. You hear that? You fucking hear that?!
A spattering of shadows cast themselves against the window, beating a deafening rhythm.
Hear me, you stupid cunt.
Oscar does his best to ignore it. He focuses on the heat of their bodies, the labour in their breaths. He closes his eyes.
Jared stirs. He tears his head away from his palms and twists his neck to look up at Oscar. The globules in his eyes refract the image of a monstrous face, shuttered eyes shielding itself from…
At least you can hear me, Jerry. Yeah, that’s right. That’s me. Say hello.
Jared’s looks across the room, his eyes landing on the window. He tracks the shadows clamouring for entry, long enough for the tears in his eyes to dry out.
Get him out of here, Jerry.
Jared pulls his gaze from the window and looks again at Oscar.
Tell him to fuck off, Jerry.
Jared reaches up a hand, cupping one side of Oscar’s face, prompting his eyes to open.
The fuck you doing?
Oscar’s eyes open as his head is pulled down to meet Jared’s lips. It’s not a great kiss to begin with; Jared’s mouth is wet and sticky from all the sobbing, Oscar’s lips dry and cracked from doing all the talking. But Jared’s persists, clasping his fingers onto a tuft of Oscar’s hair, sending a shot of sensation down his spine; Jared smiles into it, and so does Oscar, causing their teeth to clatter together, but they ignore the pain; Oscar tries to shoot in his tongue, only to feel it scrape against teeth. It’s chaos, all sense of technique completely lost. But they don’t care; they keep each other’s heads close, pressed against each other, and they laugh: at themselves, at the day, at death, at this really terrible foreplay -
So what? You’re just going to fuck right in front of me? Good luck with that, you won’t be able to get it up, Jerry. Stop pretending. Jerry, you hear me? Come to your fucking senses, Jerry. JERRY. Stop fucking around.
But Jared’sjust getting started.
Why haven’t they been doing this more often? This is pretty fun.
They’re going to fuck now.
ⅩⅠⅠⅠ. To Jared, there’s something different about the ceiling, as though it were higher up, more distant, and he could take in more of its detail. He stares at it for a while, nothing in his body stirring, asking him to be anywhere else.
He rolls onto his side and lifts his phone off the bedside table; there’s missed calls, and his heart stops; but they’re from yesterday - they were the police calling him, from his mother’s phone.
It’s 5:54 on Sunday morning, which means that the sun is beginning to rise. He can’t remember being up this early before.
He hears a woodpecker in the distance. He counts the seconds between each round of pecking. When he thinks he’s discovered a pattern, he tries to pre-empt the woodpecker, imitating it by flicking his tongue rapidly against the roof of his mouth; he’s always milliseconds off.
After a dozen or so tries at pre-empting the woodpecker, the effort lulls him back to sleep.
He wakes up again a few hours later. He reaches out a hand, searching for Oscar’s bum. He’s not there. Jared sits up, shakes his head to rid the dizziness passing through, and then flings the quilt to one side. He pulls on some lounging shorts, hopping as he tries to maintain his balance.
- In the kitchen!
He frowns at himself. He hadn’t been expecting a response. As he pulls up the shorts to his waist, he pauses, and remembers, he has something important to do today. He scratches his head, the new realisation changing his plans to rush into the kitchen for breakfast. He takes the lounging shorts off, and picks up the towel draped over the radiator in the room.
- Having a shower!
He enters their en-suite. It’s a modest affair, a narrow room: there was a shower cubicle, with a toilet opposite, and a sink between the door and the shower; every time they showered, they had to squeeze through the gap between the sink and the opposite wall. The shower hasn’t been cleaned for a week; they usually do it every Saturday. He throws the towel over the sink and squeezes himself into the shower cubicle. He flicks the water on, forgetting that it would be cold to begin with; he gasps and then nuzzles himself into the warmth when it arrives.
He can hear Oscar singing in the kitchen, and he tries to catch the melody and hum it to himself. He opens his mouth to take breaths between hums and allows the water from above to flow through his mouth and down the contours of his neck.
When he’s done, he turns the water off and slides out of the shower, wraps the towel around his shoulders and walks into the bedroom, dripping dry onto the carpet. He gets dressed, slowly, an item of clothing every few minutes. Before he leaves he takes his phone from the bedside table and slips it into his pocket.
When he reaches the kitchen, Oscar isn’t there. The wind is howl-humming through the panes of the kitchen window; as though the sky was laughing.
There’s a note on the counter, near the collapsed stool. He feels the flow of his blood as it’s pumped from his heart.
He walks, flicking his fingernails against the edges of the kitchen counter as he rounds it to the other side. He picks up the piece of paper. It’s folded: once, twice, three times. He opens it up and spreads it out. He mouths the words, written in green ink:
- Gone to the shop, we’re out of teabags.
He folds up the note carefully and puts it back in its place on the counter. He takes out his phone and thumbs in a text to Oscar:
- Biscuits xxx
The reply takes moments.
- Sure, home soon xxx
He flicks through his contacts, looking for his sister. He initiates a call... No answer. He calls a second time -
- Hey, Jazz.
- Are we going to see you today?
- Yeah, but not at the barbeque.
- Oh? Why’s that?
- Liz is dead...
- The police came by yesterday.
- Have you told dad?
- Not yet.
- I can tell him if you want.
- No, it’s okay. I’ll do it. Just be there when I come by. I’ll be there in an hour.
- Okay.... Are you okay, Jazz?
- Yeah, I’m alright.
- So… She’s gone.
- Yeah, she’s gone.
- Alright, I’ll see you soon, Jazz.
- Bye, sis.
The sound of a key slotting into the front door snatches him away from the conversation. He leaves his phone on the counter.
Oscar walks into the kitchen, kicking the door closed.
- Got the biscuits.
- In the cupboard?
- Oh, are we going?
- Yeah, shouldn’t delay really.
- Okay, well the next bus heading that way should get to our stop in about 20 minutes.
Jared grabs his trainers from the shoe rack, and slots them onto his feet.
- Is it cold?
- Not really.
- Let’s go then.
Jared gestures for the bourbon biscuits, and Oscar hands them over.
As they’re making their way to the bus stop, Oscar feels his head swelling. All the questions he’s been wanting to ask have accumulated, begun forming the outlines of something: a trellis made of string, but always changing; an amorphous, twisting mass of strings; with knotted beginnings, frayed middles and invisible endings. They’re all alive, tugging at his eyes, pulling them out of focus, drawing him inwards to gaze at the hopelessness of it all. He’s terrified, but he has to start somewhere.
- Jazz, I -
- I -
- Go on.
- I want to help you. There’s parts of you missing, and I want to find them.
Jared huffs to himself - a laughing sigh.
- Good luck with that, I’ve looked.
- Maybe I can help you, or we can find people who can.
- You trying to say I’m fucked up, Jazz?
- No! That’s not -
- Chill, just messing with you.
- Oh, you’re funny, aren’t you?
- Pretty funny, I’d say.
- So... yeah. Therapy. I guess that’s a good idea.
- It’s a start. We have that number the police gave me. We can call them this week. We’ll find someone.
- Yeah, okay...
Sorry, for last night, by the way.
- It’s okay, I get it…
- No you don’t.
- No, I really don’t.
- Neither do I, to be fair.
The conversation trails off. It’s an hour or so before midday, and they haven’t seen another car on the road yet. They hear birds tweeting away at each other, and Jared looks at the sky, imagining that he’s part of the conversation.
- It will be slow, you know. I don’t even know if the memories are there anymore.
- That’s fine, Jazz.
They arrive at the bus-stop, and Oscar takes Jared’s hand as they get on. He pays the fare, and they climb to the upper deck. They sit down together on the front seats, overlooking the road. The bus is empty. Once sat, they settle into each other’s bodies, and they hear the bus closing its doors. They stare at the space in front of the bus and start building questions with it. Slowly.
CASEY ALEXANDER CARTER
D. A. BECHER
EDITH GALLAGHER BOYD
ED N. WHITE
F. C. BULL
H. L. DOWLESS
J. Z. PITTS
RUTH Z. DEMING