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Life Sucks


Bagsful of little bars of soap. My father was a trucker. He spend a majority of his time on the road or in crappy little roadside motels. The bathrooms of the motels were supplied with tiny, individually wrapped bars of soap, usually with the name of the establishment and its logo on the wrapper. One had a sleep walking bear in nightshirt and cap. You could trace my father’s journeys through the soaps. My father would scoop up the extra soaps and bring them home. I don’t know why. We never bathed with the little soaps. We used regular store bought soap like everyone else. I made good use of them though. I’d dump the bags out onto the floor and build things. The soaps were my Lincoln logs, my Lego’s, my Tinker toys. Or line them up like opposing armies and wage battle. The wrappers were of great use as uniforms. A tear in the wrapper was an injury. A broken soap was a fatality. Such were the limits of my tools and the range of my imagination.

One day we had a visitor at the door. A man holding a case in one hand and lugging a big metal tube with the other. A vacuum cleaner. A door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman. My father wasn’t home. My mother invited him in. It was her nature. He could have been wielding an axe for all she cared. The salesman explained the various virtues of the vacuum cleaner. He attached a flexible proboscis like an elephant’s trunk and sucked at the living room floor. The house was always spotless so it didn’t make for a very impressive demonstration. He went into his case for a large plastic bag and, with my mother’s permission, shoved one of our sofa cushions into the bag along with the proboscis, sealed the plastic bag and activated the machine. The cushion shrank alarmingly. When the cushion was returned to the sofa It was a shade lighter than the other cushion so he had to suck on that one as well. He went into a spiel about dust mites burrowing into the cushions. Then he detached the proboscis, lifted the machine to the ceiling and turned it on to demonstrate its overwhelming suckability. The machine clung to the ceiling of its own free will, growling furiously, trying to suck the entire house into its innards. While the machine hung groaning like an alive and awkward chandelier, the salesman retrieved a brochure and price sheet from his case. I could see that my mother was impressed but we hadn’t the means for the vacuum. He thanked her for her time and attention, kissed her on the back of her hand like I’d seen in the movies. She blushed. He left.

I wanted nothing more in the world than to be a dashing, traveling, door to door vacuum cleaner salesman.

We lived down a gravel road off the Highway. Route 35. We had few neighbors. The V.’s lived to our left, at the top of the hill where the road dead-ended. The V’’s were self sufficient, childless hermits. I had been warned away from them. I had never seen a V. let alone visited them. Sometimes I would go far enough up the hill to view the house. I was disappointed that it wasn’t made of ginger bread. They didn’t own a car. Seems that they would walk down the other side of the hill which was a shorter distance to the highway where they could hitch a ride if needed.

In the other direction lived, in sequence, my paternal grandmother, the S.’s who had a litter of daughters all older than me. Then the N.’s whose bespectacled son, George, a nerd before there was such a thing, was a very occasional playmate though he spent most of his time indoors reading comic books.

I remained inspired by Mr. Vacuum. There was an old red, cardboard suitcase, with metal reinforced corners to insist on some structural integrity, in one of the closets. I filled the suitcase with little soaps and set off on the road. I skipped the V.’s and my grandmother. The N.’s weren’t interested. Mrs. S., on the other hand. A gracious and friendly type, Mrs. S. fetched a glass of cold lemonade for me. I was no doubt sweaty and flushed from lugging the satchel of soaps. I displayed my soaps and as way of demonstration, unwrapped one as if the lady had never seen a naked bar of soap before. I sniffed it. It smelled like……soap. I noticed the new vacuum cleaner parked in a corner of the room.

All the while the youngest daughter Diane was watching me, seated with her hands folded demurely in her lap. She was 13, a couple of grades ahead of me in school. An older woman. Later and for a long while I was extraordinarily fond of older women. Now I can’t find any. Anyway, when I finally looked over at Diane she wore a faint smile and a warm, soft, penetrating gaze. It would take me a few years to learn what that look meant and how to exploit it. Mrs. S. asked me the price of the soaps. The thought had never occurred to me. Smiling, she went for her pocketbook and extracted $2. She selected several soaps. I went home ecstatic.

My career as a soap salesman was short lived. My market was paltry. Mrs. S. could only absorb so much soap. I moved on to other adventures.

When school resumed after summer break, Diane was absent. Not that I was looking for her or would have noticed except for overhearing my mother, who liked to gossip on the phone. Diane was with child, having been knocked up by Mr. Vacuum. Rather than Mr. Vacuum going to jail they had been allowed to marry.

I had a succession of dreams about Diane. It was always a variation of the same dream. Diane and I were in my grandmother’s chicken coop. She had the same expression I remembered from my visit. There were no chickens in the coop. Just the two of us and nests with eggs. I was probably struggling with the concept of reproduction. I could smell the absent chickens. The floor was littered with feathers.

It needed to be vacuumed.

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Notes from the Absurditarium


I am home for the evening. Tired. Long day. I have fixed a drink. A gin and tonic without the tonic. It’s better than a gin and tonic without the gin. I am not supposed to drink, therefore I do.

I work at the Absurditarium in a strip mall in the heart of the city. In the Contrarian Department. They assigned me to Contrarian because I am a reformed Conformist. My exact duties are to do the opposite of what I am told to do. I was to report to work every morning at precisely 8 a.m. so I started coming in at 9. Then 10. Then after a less than glowing performance review, I stopped showing up at all. I got a promotion to Asst. to the Chief Contrarian with a revised job description (it’s 3,224 pages) that says not coming to the office at all is fine. As a result I work almost all the time like a child laborer in a Dickens novel.

I feel I’ve been tricked.

I don’t receive a salary, instead they take a little out of my account every other week. I know I’ll be fired when I run out of money. Then what will I do? It’s a scary world out there without the protection of an employer. I gradually sell off possessions to survive. Books and records. Electronics. Furnishings. Spare organs.

Tonight I rest in my favorite chair. It will be the last thing I sell. I’m waiting for the Absurditarium to tell me that it’s my responsibility to rest in my favorite chair. It’s at that point that I will be forced to part with it. The same with my gin and tonic without the tonic.

Because I’m ordered to lead a moral and upstanding life, I steal to supplement my negative income. At first only foodstuff. A frozen t.v. dinner shoved down my pants. A fresh strip steak under my hat, blood running from my scalp into my ears. Fresh cheeses clamped hard in my armpits. The limburger was, perhaps, an unfortunate choice.

I joined a health club for the sole purpose of breaking into fellow member’s lockers and stealing clothing that will not fit me. I’ve absconded with jewelry and even cars to give away because I’m not allowed to enjoy them myself and the Absurditarium insists that greed is good and the poor are undeserving. I seduce fat, ugly housewives because they disgust me.

I was to visit Lucinda (I call her ‘Cinda) this evening but I felt compelled to deny the pleasure. I called a friend on my stolen phone using highjacked service and asked him to go fuck her.

What I have learned is that it is now hard to tell what pleasure is and that whatever it is or isn’t, it is damned hard to avoid. Perhaps that is the point. The cheap, warm gin without the tonic is like nectar. My solitude and the austerity of my surroundings is soothing. Thieving is an exciting and rewarding avocation. Working long hours everyday gives me a sense of fulfillment and belonging. Even the thought of “Cinda heaving and groaning under the loins of another man is not without a certain appeal. People learn to enjoy any hardship and privation because they love life most of all, however it is configured.

A few months ago the Absurditarium instructed me to commit suicide at my earliest convenience. So, I visit the doctor regularly and am the very picture of health and vitality.

I must not question the will and designs of the Absurditarium because I know not their purpose and plan. I question everything. I don’t know who or what to believe so I believe nothing and no-one which leads me back to the beginning. I curse God at bedtime even though I am a non-believer. All I know is that what the Absurditarium asks of us, demands from us, we give. Suffering joyfully.

I’m in the “catch and release” program. Like an undersized trout. The authorities, in the employ of the Absurditarium, arrest me, question me, drug me, probe and plunder me and toss me back into the stream of the streaming masses.

If being a Contrarium results in unintended results, serving the Absurditarium when I  shouldn’t or vice versa then why should I not act contrary to my own contrarianism. My gills hurt. I have been too long without liquid oxygen. Another gin and tonic without the tonic.

‘Cinda once asked, “What’s wrong with you? Why are you not rich and famous?”

“My not being rich and famous is what’s wrong with me”, I answer while digging under the sheet for her aromatic, moist bog.

She crosses her arms and clamps her loins together tightly. “You toil tirelessly and thanklessly into oblivion.”

I pull my hand free and go back to my book, smudging the pages with wet fingertips. “Bolivia is not such a bad place”, I say.

‘Cinda giggles in spite of herself and can’t suppress a fart.

When they say my writing is bad, I believe that it is good. When they say it is good, I know it is bad. Sometimes brilliantly awful. At other times awfully brilliant.

Those were the days before I sold the bed.

If I could stop being a Contrarian and go back to being a Conformist, I would. If only I could act on my beliefs. But that is the very thing the Absurditarium has stolen from me. My own beliefs, critically derived by my own intellectual faculties. Instead I am forced to select from the competing, shallow beliefs of others. Often the loudest and most prevalent opinion wins regardless of the facts which are never revealed.

I must sleep. Tomorrow I’m to report to the Chief Contrarian who will issue new orders.

Categories: Uncategorized

Ireland


Ireland circa 1995?

Bouncing in the back seat of the little cab. From airport to downtown Dublin. Big Irish face of the Cabby watching me with the rearview mirror. Talking. Talking. It’s a myth that the Irish speak English. I’m catching every 4th or 5th word. He might as well be reciting passages from Finnegan’s Wake. I’m jet lagged as all hell. I don’t sleep at 30,000 feet. Ever. I nod and smile in response to the Cabby smile. He could be calling a mother fucking son of a bitch for all I know.

The tiny hotel. Old school. My signature in the book on the desk. I surrender my passport. Big key on a fob. Up one flight of stairs. A small room just as I expected. I throw my single bag on the bed. I always travel light. Against my better judgement, immediately back downstairs, I drop my key at the front desk as required and head out into the Temple Bar District in search of a pint. Finding a beer in Dublin is as hard as finding a tree in a forest.

I learn several things quickly. One is to order a second Guinness as soon as the first one arrives. They come slowly, parked in order and moving along a shelf above the backbar. Nitrogen cascading through the brown liquid. The Guinness tastes better in Dublin than in the States. I don’t know why. Lesson number two. Pay fucking attention when you’re in a country where the cars travel opposite your expectations. A young lady saves me as I set to step out onto the street looking the wrong way. Grabs my collar and pulls me back to the curb as the the car whooshes by.

A bowl of Irish stew. Lamb based, as it should be. I’d never had lamb until my twenties thinking that it must taste of mutton, which I despise. The stew is delicious. Bear in mind that I had recently suffered the indignity of airplane food. I ask the bartender what makes the stew so good. He says Guinness. I look at my half full pint. I have another one on the pour. Then I realize that he is talking about the stew. The Guinness is the secret to the stew.

Friendly, accommodating Ireland. I meet dozens of people on my first night out. I will remember none of their names and little, in detail, about the evening. Late. Time for rest. I hadn’t taken note of the exact address of my hotel or any of the milestones along my journey. All of my travel documentation is back in the room. I have a vague recollection of the hotel facade and general streets-cape. That’s it. All I know is that I am over-pubbed. Pubbed-out. Pubfull. I need sleep.

I wander the Temple Bar streets sure I will encounter my hotel if only by accident. After an hour or so my mental fog has lifted. I can handle a few more pints while I ask the denizens of these fine establishments about the hotels in the area. Nothing clicks. Locals don’t spend a lot of time in hotels. I track down one of the more promising mentions. It isn’t the right one but it has a bar. I am prepared to check in, if I can – remember I have no passport in my possession. I explain my predicament to the proprietor. He gives me a list of lodging in the vicinity. One sounds right.

I can’t find it. It is very, very late or, rather very, very early depending on your perspective. I sit on a stoop to plan. Traffic is light in the wee morn. If I can manage to hail a cab and hand him the address it might all work out. The fog I had shaken earlier has rolled in again, angry and vengeful. It’s at this moment that I look up.

Across the street. Precisely across the street. How many times had I walked by it? It was beyond the hours to which access would be granted but I ring the bell anyway fully expecting to spend an few hour more on the street. Surprisingly. the door opens. I enter sheepishly. Lambishly. The desk clerk has a drink in his hand. That’s a job I want.

Thinking I’m Irish, tourists stop me often. Ask directions. They realize their error by my midwestern American lack of accent. I once had an accent but I shed it. I molted my accent. I help the tourists where I can and depending on my mood. I knew the direction to the River Liffey. Or to Trinity College. I try to joke with an asker by saying that I thought the Book of Kells had been checked out but could I recommend something by J.P. Donleavy who is just as colorful. Tourists are a serious lot. They try to cram a lifetime into a week or two. They work so hard having fun that it does’t seem like fun at all.

It’s time to move on.

I have no car. Don’t want a car. I board a train to Belfast with no plan except to work my way to the North Irish Sea. A layover in the Belfast train station. Enough time for a nap. I want to check my bag. I can see the outlines of the baggage lockers but they have been replaced by signs. “Unattended bags will be confiscated”. There aren’t any trash cans either. The Troubles.

Many train stops along the way. Colerain, for example. The tiny town of Port Rush, the end of the line, with a meal of fresh salmon pulled from the sea that very morning. Tears and free beer from old men who remember the big war and Nazi subs surfacing off the coast. They can’t remember the last time they talked to an American. A young man parked on the stool to my left is talking to me in a thick brogue. In the mishmash he keeps saying the word bird and staring past me. I follow his gaze and see a pretty, young woman at the other end of the bar. The Bird.

Another night in another small hotel room. Smelling pleasantly of the sea. Map spread on my lap the next morning. I see a Bushmills designation a short distance east of Port Rush. It takes a minute for my brain to connect the dots on the map. Jesus. H. Christ! I’m next door to a distillery.

I’m in search of a ride. An unoccupied cab sits in front of a butcher’s shop. I wait by the cab. Wait. Wait. Go into the shop. A fat man with a bloody apron is passing wrapped packages across the counter to an old woman. I ask about the cab. He holds up a finger to pause. Wait my turn. The lady pays and collects her meat. The butcher pulls off his apron. “Where to?”, he asks.

The Old Bushmill’s Distillery is as thrilled by my presence as the pub the night before. I have no concept of my sudden celebrity. After a sampling, dusty bottles brought up from the cellar. Bottles so old they have no labels. I’m charged a token of what I’ve drank. I had asked the fat butcher cabby to retrieve me in two hours. Two hours is waaay toooo long in a distillery.

Staff and driver pour me into the car.

 

Categories: Uncategorized

Incomplete: Fictions Started but Never Finshed


Telford

“Where are we taking the plant?” Junior asks.

“Not we. I. Where am I taking the plant? I’m dropping you off at 16 and dropping the ficus at Cindy’s. She loves house plants.”

“Oh man! I need to go home, man.”

“If you bum a ride you follow the driver’s orders. Your place is out of my way.”

“I thought you and Cindy were done. Whatchou see in that bucktoothed little girl anyway?”

“You still haven’t figured out that physical imperfections are where the character and charm come from. Show me a physically perfect woman and I’ll show you how fast to run the other way.”

“I imagine with the buck teeth she can maybe, you know, do a job on your knob.”

“Be careful Junior. I allow you certain indiscretions because you’re a friend and don’t know any better.”

Junior looks at Telford unsure if he has been insulted. “What’s a ficus tree?” Junior turns to examine the potted plant resting comfortably in the soil filled plastic pot on the back seat,  leaves bouncing happily as the old Buick rolled over the deteriorating city streets.

“A common house plant also known as a weeping fig. Native to southeast Asia and Australia.”

“How do you know shit like that?”

“I read. I listen. I pay attention Junior. We exist in a deep sea of information. I am swimming. Taking it all in. You, Junior, are drowning.”

“I pay attention,” Junior says, looking wounded.

“Nothing you learn goes to waste even if it doesn’t seem important at the time. Even the name of a house plant. Names are important. They are specific and distinctive. A ficus tree is a houseplant but it is not a rubber tree, though related I think. I’ll have to look that up. People’s names, especially first names, are not as scientifically grounded but still say a lot. Some would argue that a person’s name influences their destiny.”

“I never heard the name Telford until I met you.”

“Yes. It’s a rare first name. That’s your first piece of information. It tells you that it’s an old family name or my parents had imaginations. The latter is true in my case. My parents decided to endow me with a certain uniqueness from the get-go. It’s an old French name referring to the iron piercing profession. Not relevant because my family is Irish but interesting nonetheless.”

“…” Junior is still captivated by the ficus tree, draping his big arm over the seat back so he can talk to Telford and keep an eye on the ficus at the same time.

“Your name on the other hand…”

“Whatcha mean?”

“Junior. Has anyone of note ever had the name Junior?”

“My real name is Frank. Like my father. Frank Jr.”

“Use Frank. Junior sounds like a hick rocking on the front porch while whittling. Down a lonely, dark, inbred Kentucky holler.”

Junior scowled not at Telford but at the ficus which seemed to smile at him in its shimmering way. He was being upstaged and mocked by arrogant vegetation.

“Frank Jr., here we are.” Telford pulled to the curb. “Another example. The 1616 bar that reflects its address on 16th street but has been shortened to 16 for brevity’s sake.”

“Tel how am I going to get home?” Junior says this from the curb as he leans into the open passenger window. He imagines the ficus waving goodbye.

“First of all, never call me Tel again. Secondly, I can’t solve all of your problems.” Telford pulls away.

“She’s a little bucktoothed whore,” Junior screams at the exhaust.

###

In less that an hour Telford is back at the 16. He carries the ficus into the bar and sets it an a stool leaving behind an ample pile of leaves on the back seat of the Buick and along the trail into the bar. He orders a beer, a whiskey and a glass of water. He takes a drink of the whiskey, a sip of the beer and pours the glass of water on the ficus. The ficus slurps the water down in a single gulp.

“Why’d you bring the plant?” asks Junior.

“Cindy isn’t home.”

“Why’d you bring it in the bar?”

“So it won’t get stolen. And it needs a drink.” Telford asks for another glass of water and dumps it into the pot. “Or two.”

“Me too!”

Telford sighs. “Get Junior another beer,” he says to Nick the bartender.

Telford likes the 16. He likes the tin ceiling that dates back to the twenties. He likes the cheap simulated grain paneling, brick laminate and linoleum floors that date to the last renovation in the fifties. He likes the cracked bar stools that bleed cotton stuffing like the entrails of a disemboweled beast and spin so you can easily turn to see who just walked in. He likes the regulars who show up when the bar opens at 7:30 and who hang around most of the day spending their pension or welfare checks. He likes the lack of pretty people in suits or dresses asking for fancy cocktails. He likes the pizza cut into little strips and gets its unique taste from a layer of Swiss cheese under the sauce and toppings. He likes the prostitutes and transvestites though he has never made use of either. He likes that the beers are served with a juice glass cupped over the long neck. He likes The 16 a little less now that Cindy no longer tends bar. And he likes it a little more for the very same reason.

“You believe in reincarnate Junior?”

“In what?”

“You know. That you come back after you die but as something else. Like a tree or a sparrow. Or a ficus tree?” Telford looks over at his new, squat, shedding friend.

“I don’t know. Do you?”

“Not really. It’s like every other religious hoo-doo. Something to help salve the sting of mortality. But it’s fun to think about.”

“I s’pose.”

“Would you rather come back as an oak tree or a sparrow?”

“What?”

“Suppose you were allowed to choose your reincarnate but those were your only two choices.”

“I don’t know. A tree’s bigger.”

“A tree is bigger and you’d live for about a hundred and fifty years but you wouldn’t have much fun I imagine. And the sparrow would shit on you out of spite for its terribly short life span.”

“So a bird then.”

“And yet to be solid and stately and part of a cool, tranquil forest. Your leaves tickled by gentle breezes.”

“So a tree then.”

“I’ve always wanted to fly. Under my own power. I don’t like airplanes much. And the long life span of an oak tree is not guaranteed. You could just as easily end up as a coffee table.”

“I’m confused.”

Telford pays his tab and rises to leave. He puts a twenty on the bar in front of Junior. “Don’t drink it all up. You still have to get home.”

“I can walk.”

“It’s a long walk Junior. I can give you a ride but it has to be right now.”

“I’ll stay.”

“Your choice.” Telford gathers the ficus in his arms. He looks at the leaves gathered on the floor, shrugs and walks out the door. The door tinkles when it opens or closes.

Twenty minutes later Cindy walks in. That’s an understatement. Cindy doesn’t walk, she glides. Her feet never seem to touch the floor. She glides with her shoulders thrown back. She is a presence larger than her 110 pounds. Cindy suffers from high self esteem, a quality she shares with Telford. It has made their relationship frequently untenable.

Cindy looks at the floor, sits down beside Junior and asks, “Who made this mess?”

“Telford,” Junior says. Junior has the opposite problem. Cindy terrifies him so he says nothing at all or musters false bravado. He is thinking of trees and sparrow.

“Has he turned into a tree?”

“He bought a fukus tree. For you.”

“A what? Nick I’ll have a gin and tonic.”

Junior is afraid to say more. He knows he fucked up but can’t quite fathom how. So he goes for broke. “Now that you know. Tel is gone. And maybe you know we have time on our hands we could you know go over to my place and hang out. We’ll talk about carnation and trees and sparrows. I can buy you a potted plant.” Junior points at the $17 on the bar in front of him.

“You’re out of your mind.” Cindy takes her g and t and moves away.

###

Telford arrives home at dusk, the failing light accenting rather than masking the details of his small apartment, the tiny physical world that he sometimes embraces and sometimes needs to escape. The ficus tree leaves a leafy trail in case he needs to retrace his steps. The quality of the light and the cool temperatures foretell the change of season. Telford can see it, smell it and feel it. He places the ficus on the kitchen island and drops into the old leather club chair that he inherited from his grandfather through his father. Someday he will pass it on but he knows not to who, his progeny non-existent and living relatives few and unworthy.

The ficus looks out onto the empty street. Telford should assemble a dinner but his appetite has failed him as it so often does. Without lifting the lights against the encroaching gloom and looks at the potbellied stove vented through an old disused fireplace, thinking about cherry or apple firewood and a glass of Scotch or Port. Basking before the cast iron with a book. And lights. Yes, the lights. He reaches over and pulls the chain on the table side lamp. Wishes he had wine, cheese and crusty bread at his disposal. Indecisiveness grips him on evenings like this. Inertia holds sway. Shortly he dozes.

She enters like the ghost he sometimes imagines her to be. Wordlessly she approaches. He smells her before he can fully comprehend her form, trying to assemble the pieces in his groggy, out of focus state. Not perfume. An honest, authentic scent, like yeasty bread, that never fails to arouse him. She hikes up her skirt and straddles him. Gamey naked sex on his lap. Takies his face into her palms. Leans forth and presses her warm, moist mouth to his own at first reluctant. Mingled meaty lips and tongues. She never closes her dark, almond eyes during their lovemaking. Vaguely Asian. Slavic. His own personal Hun.

So light on his lap that he doesn’t notice her rising until the fumbling at his belt and zipper. The inserting and resettling and the slow, slippery rising and falling. The O shape of her mouth in ecstasy from her pent up needs. Her fragrant syrup. palms pressed on his shoulders as he pulls her forth to achieve the perfect angle and degree of friction. He leans forward and manages to capture a small breast in his mouth, licking at the bulbous areola and small stiffened nipple. She achieves a shuddering orgasm under his ministrations. He has learned that her orgasms can arrive even before penetration through such tender attention to other erogenous zones of which she seems to have more than most women. Presaged always by a predictable rhythm to her breathing. When she sends that signal he hurries to catch up but so fascinated by the bundle of nerves and moisture and heat in his lap that he finds it hard to concentrate on his own loins. So, instead she slips to her knees and finishes him with her mouth, his seed sliding down her chin.

A word has yet to be spoken. She rises and moves soundless to the bathroom, and after the flush and wash, on to the bedroom where he finds her atop the covers fully closed and already asleep and snoring softly. Telford undresses her and snuggles to her backside with his arm draped around her small but supple waist.

###

He awakens before dawn with an aching need to relieve himself. Her side of the bed has been abandoned yet some undefinable aspect of her remains, perhaps only in his mind. He’ll sleep no more so he sits at the kitchen island before the ficus. He notices a partial bottle of red wine that had escaped his attention the evening before and despite the early hour he uncorks it and pours a glass.

“Coupling pleasure and procreation is brilliant,” he says aloud. “Is it so with all animal species or only humans?”

The ficus leaves shimmer in the gathering light. I wouldn’t know. My woody nature exempts my kind from such concerns. You’re not going all creationist on me are you?”

“Not at all. An evolutionary gimmick to help perpetuate the species. Let’s not talk about the churches perverse and warped attitudes on sex. I’m simply fascinated by the overwhelming impulse to breed and all the reasons and consequences. It’s not a if we’re a threatened kind.”

“You’re concerned aren’t you?’

“No. I am not.”

“Then what sent you down this path?’ A leaf shudders and falls.

“Okay. Maybe a little. She doesn’t practice birth control.”

“Religious reasons? She wants to be with child? She is of the age where the impulse kicks into high gear.”

“More a matter of interfering with her bodies natural processes and rhythms, she claims.”

“Spiritual rather than religious then. A hippie. The everything happens for a reason type.”

“I don’t think so. More a way of exercising another kind of control. She’s make appropriate decisions when she needs to.”

“She’s complicated.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

“Nor should I. I only met her yesterday.”

“Or this could just be a case of careless, mindless fucking.”

“Fornication. Orgasms.”

“Blow jobs. Cunnilingus.”

“Anal sex. Hand jobs.”

“Menage a trois. Rim jobs. Hey, how do you know of such things?”

“They’re carried in the wind.”

It is fully dawn. Telford stifles a yawn.

“You need to either go back to bed or shave and shower.”

“Yes. I need to get a move on. Do you need a glass of water?”

“I’m fine. Thank you.”

###

Telford arrived at the office early. His boss, short stocky male pattern bald with eyeglasses that could fry an ant on the sidewalk Kenny, was already there. Except for the daily change of clothes (more than Telford can manage) one would think Kenny never left. Telford made sure he encountered Kenny several times before retiring to his tiny office to do the New York Times crossword puzzle until several other workers arrived. He then slipped out the side door and drove to the 16. It is the last week of the month and he is already over quota. 16 is a small account of his so he can always log this visit as a sales call if questions arise though it would be hard to justify so many visits for so little business. As expected, Junior is there occupying his usual stool at the bar.

Sometimes Telford and Junior would sit at the bar. Not talking. With drinks. Letting tie wash over them and though not cleansed at least soothed. Watching and listening and thinking to the degree that one is capable which is what life is pretty much about.

“Moo! Mooooo!”

So realistic it was that Telford looked about for the cow. And saw nothing but moping Junior and the barkeep talking to a gentleman of portly countenance with fingers like sausages wrapped around a rocks glass.

###

“It’s a rare condition,” Frank Moo! says. “Only affects me when I’m under stress. When I’m nervous. Kind of like stuttering I’m told. Baaaaaa!” he says with a sheepish grin.”It just happens. No forewarning. I’m not always aware after the fact. People’s expressions are sometimes the only clue I get. Heeeeee. Haw.”

“There’s nothing that can be done? Medicine? Therapy.”

“My neurologist can’t even greet me with a straight face. I’m not sure of the exact name of the syndrome but he calls it barnyard tourettes. As if i didn’t know he was making fun of me.”

“So, instead of spontaneously cursing you make animal sounds.”

“Yes. Cock-a-doodle-do. Even talking about it can bring it on. Can we change the subject? Ooh ooh ash aah!!”

“Of course. But one final question. Please. I’ve never seen a gorilla in a barn yard.”

“A very rare condition indeed.”

Later that night when Quinn arrived at Telford’s apartment for extracurricular credit, as he spent himself into her, he couldn’t help himself. “Oink oink Heee haw hee haw ooh ooh aah aah.”

Untitled

Trespasser

In the President’s weekly address to the nation he discusses the Nativist Protection Act passed into law several months ago. Detractors called it the anti-immigration act or the xenophobe act or the homogenization act but detracors have been silenced. It’s not that the government censors the press. There is no need. The press censors itself. Corporate owned media and government form a seamless, impenetrable wall that the truth cannot breach. Today Nativist Protection is being positioned as a successful jobs creation program. Work building a wall along the 2,000 mile southern border continues at breakneck speed, the largest and most expensive public works program in the nation’s history. Detractors also argue that the wall is as much about keeping us in as it is about keeping them out. The smart, courageous and resourceful began jumping ship years ago. The concept of a passport is obsolete. To leave you must have special permission, special papers signed by your prefect. Such permission is unlikely and even if possible at all will require months of patience and significant bribes. Only the wealthy now have the means to leave but they are the ones who want to stay.

###

Mid-day. Sun shining bright but diffuse. Autumn is on the way, such that it is these days. Cooler temperatures. A breeze. A whisper of the oncoming season. You can smell its arrival. The aroma of memories. The first day of school. Pumpkins on the vine, apples in the orchard.

Spence stands in front of an empty storefront on the wrong side of town, Near North they call the old, compact and run-down neighborhood on the outskirts of the city.. The squat two story, flat roofed building caught his eye on the way to a used book store he once frequented. The “for sale or lease” sign has fallen from the window and lays on the floor inside. He squints and cups his eyes with his hands to block the glare as he tries to make out the hand written phone number at the bottom of the sign. Like an eye examine at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles. He can’t be sure of the final line, 8 or 6. 3 or 8. 1 or 7. He writes down his best guess in the journal he always carries.

Spence is not his birth name but that need not concern you. He feels comfortable with his new identity like a new suit that is perfectly tailored for his size and style.

As he passes the door he gives the knob a twist. Spence has spent a lifetime testing doorknobs on closed shops and vacant buildings. It’s a dangerous habit but he enjoys the rush, especially on the rare occasion when the knob yields. Even then he will rarely open the door. He will not violate the space. He is not a thief but he knows that doesn’t mean he wouldn’t be shot as an intruder. Once he opened a door to a darkened space and reached around and found the button to lock the door from the inside but on his way on down the street he fretted rather than rejoiced because he imagined that the shop keeper had left for a moment with his keys inside the shop. To grab a coffee or to his car nearby to retrieve an item only to return and find himself locked out of his own property.

Such are the thoughts of an innocent trespasser. If there is such a thing.

You have no doubt guessed that this particular door is unlocked. And on this particular occasion he enters, if only to verify the phone number on the sign. He congratulates himself for having gotten the number correct although he is yet unsure of how it will serve him. A pile of mail, dropped incrementally long ago through the mail slot in the door, has been pushed aside, and rests, yellowing, against the wall. Bills. Sales flyers. Mostly bills. None of that matters now and it’s amazing to consider how little it really mattered then.

Instead of leaving immediately he walks through the vacant shop which grows progressively darker as he moves away from the sunlit window. In the back is a staircase to the second floor. He climbs it with the familiar excited trespasser’s quiver in his stomach. He is in uncharted territory. At the top of the staircase, navigable from light through a window at the upstairs landing, he finds another door. Also unlocked. He enters a light flooded room with floor to ceiling windows. An apartment. Sparse furnishings. A beat up sofa with a crumpled throw. A desk and chair. A few personal items. An empty backpack. Bare minimum toiletries in the bathroom – toothpaste, toothbrush, toilet paper. A comb with strands of dark hair. There are no furnishings in the bedroom. No bed. No dresser. A faded sundress with flowers, a pair of jeans and a few other items of clothing lay neatly folded on the floor. A pair of weathered shoes. Panties sorted in two small piles. Clean versus soiled. In the kitchen he is shocked to discover a working refrigerator holding wine and cottage cheese. The power is on. As is the water. He flips a light switch on, then off. Runs the faucet. This is someone’s home, such that it is. He has gone too far. He sits for a moment at the desk. A generous description. More a table with a drawer. The books and a pad of paper with etchings qualify it as a desk. A work space rather than a platform for adornment. Henry Miller. Barry Hannah. Stanley Elkin. Walker Percy. Old books. Men’s books, he thinks, save for the lone Margaret Atwood.

The thought that rushes his mind – I belong here. In a space like this. What Spence is thinking when he hears a  noise. He rushes down the stairs preparing his story as he goes. “I couldn’t read the sign from outside and found an unlocked door. Please forgive my transgression.” But there is no one. He exits and continues to the bookstore.

The same guy from decades ago when Spence was a young man thirsting for knowledge. Before he left to seek his fortune only now to return to the nest disappointed and guilt ridden and ready to accept whatever retribution is his due. The same bookseller only much older with greying hair and sagging jowls and a shuffling gait and even less business than he had before. There’s nothing like the smell of a used bookstore. The smell elicits every basic instinct. The need to read. The need to think. The need to shit. The need to fuck. Someday science will catch on and capture the aroma so women, who are not pretty, can dab it behind their ears and enjoy the musky fruits thereof.

Mike or Mark, he thinks, is the booksellers name. He can’t trust his memory. Time erases certainty. M. chews on an unlit cigar. Spence takes the Peterson pipe from his jacket pocket, holds it up in questioning fashion, smiling at M. M. nods his approval. Spence remembers that cigars and pipes are permitted but not cigarettes. Spence loads the pipe and lights it, drawing hard. The first bowl of the day is the most pleasant. The last leaves him cotton mouthed. Spence never knows when to stop, which bowl will be the last pleasant one and which one is the culmination of habit and compulsion. The story of his life. Spence and the shopkeeper have yet to exchange words. M. hands him an ashtray and he settles onto an overstuffed sofa behind a coffee table stacked with books and magazines. After the bowl, Spence rises and locates the fiction section. Just as he remembered, literary fiction only. No popular garbage. He sold as often as he bought here and he wonders if he’ll find his embossed initials on the title page of one of the volumes.

Spence spends the next two hours wandering among books, carrying them one by one or in small piles to the sofa, relighting his pipe and then taking books back to the shelf for careful and precise alphabetical re-shelving. M. and Spence communicate in short declarative sentences and grunts of affirmation. Spence thinks he remembers a dog but knows better than to ask. The dog’s absence and the elapsed decades render the answer obvious. Two more customers had entered, browsed and exited the store without making a purchase. Acquaintances familiarly but not effusively addressed by M. This store represents a lifestyle but not a livelihood.

With dusk upon them, Spence plucks an old, hardbound copy of Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe from the shelf. $5.00. A find. It probably should be $30.00 or more. He pays and steps back onto the desolate sidewalk. As he re-passes the squat building he sees lights on the second floor. She’s home. He wants to stop in and introduce himself. Perhaps confess his trespasses if the exchange goes well. Give her the book he just purchased. There is no doorbell that he can see. He knocks and tests the doorknob again. He wants to know she is secure. It turns but the door is latched shut from the inside. Relieved, he launches a half-hearted “Hello!” to the glowing windows above. There is no response. The street lights flicker on. There is a chill in the air. He has a few blocks to walk to the Albergo, a small family owned hotel where he is lodged. Italian style with twenty or so rooms at the most. An Italian restaurant on the ground floor where he will order a simple meal of spaghetti with oil and garlic sauce and garlic bread. A bottle of Chianti that he will drink alone. In its entirety. He might spend the rest of his life there, he thinks, smiling to himself.

###

There is talk of war. Always there is war or talk of war. The beating of drums. Profits to be made. Jobs to be created. Death and destruction are a good business model. Prettily packaged as patriotism. A ready supply of raw material. Dump the inevitable waste, destroyed or broken bodies and lives, back on the taxpayer. This is why Spence asked for the television to be removed from his room. The astounded proprietor, Dominic, complied only because the room was paid for a month in advance. Spence could tell that he was now viewed with suspicion. He could have simply refused to turn on the television but it would have sat as a reminder of something very wrong with the world. It was a cancer that had to be excised. His only contact with the outside world was the telephone which he uses to call the number jotted in his notebook. A nonworking number he learns from the recording. He fantasizes about the empty storefront. A smoke shop perhaps. Selling tobacco, pipes and supplies. Comfortable chairs where old men can sit while they talk and smoke. He’d also sell magazines and newspapers, relics though they are, and, perhaps, beer and whiskey. An oasis of civility complementing the used bookstore.

The next day he walks back to the used bookstore and makes note this time of its name. Brave New Word. He has no recollection of that name. How could he have forgotten? The sign doesn’t look very old. Perhaps the name is new. As he strolled past the squat vacant storefront he tested the front door again. The knob turned and the door gave way but he did not enter. The woman upstairs doesn’t have keys, he concludes. She can only secure the building when she is inside. Why? Perhaps she is a squatter. There are many these days.

He queries M. at the bookstore. The cigar chewer stares as vacantly as the storefront which he says was abandoned years ago. It was last a coffee shop. The store owner lived alone upstairs above the shop. One day he was found by a meter reader, hanging from a gas pipe in the basement. He knows nothing about the attending circumstances and has no knowledge of a tenant. This is all the information the laconic bookseller offers, saying with gesture and expression there is nothing more forthcoming.

The bell above the Brave New Word door jingles. In walks a young, pretty woman. Young in a relative sense. A small woman with dark, shoulder length hair. Small can fool you with respect to age. So can neglect. In opposite directions. When she takes off her sunglasses he can see the experience in her expressive dark eyes. The weight of difficulty and concern in her gaze. She is carrying two books. He recognizes the volumes from the apartment.

“Hi Mike”, she says as she presents the books to the bookseller.

So, it is Mike. 

“What have you got for me, Polly?” Mike asks her but his eyes are on Spence.

“Trade”, she says walking to the bathroom at the back of the store after she lays the books on the counter.

He’s protecting her, thinks Spence.

The sink, soap dispenser, and paper towels are outside and to the left of the bathroom door used by men and women alike. Spence studies Polly out of the corner of his eye as she carefully washes up. Mike continues to watch Spence. After she dries her hands she disappears into the stacks. Spence lights his pipe and buries his nose in The Master and Margarita.

On her way out with two fresh books she bends over the counter and gives Mike a kiss on his furry cheek.

She turns to Spence and smiles as she opens the door. A healthy but jangled smile. Like the keys on a damaged piano. Not from the class that can afford orthodontia.

###

The abolishment of unions, the minimum wage, overtime pay and all mandatory paid leave through the Freedom to Work Act rolled the clock back to pre-industrial revolution days. Even child labor laws were scrapped. It’s not unusual for people to work 12 to 14 hours a day, 7 days a week just to survive. Fewer workers working longer hours. DNA tested workers so as to weed out the flawed among us. An exhausted work force is a compliant workforce, they understand. Labor surplus. Unneeded, unproductive citizens turn to other means of support. Namely crime, which calls for more police and more aggressive policing. Police outfitted and armed like an occupying force, permitted to kill at will to keep the peace. Peace and submission are synonyms now. Being poor is a crime, being homeless is a capital offense though homelessness is rare these days with the abundance of deserted housing. The homeless are mostly insane and the insane are the most expendable.

###

Sometimes he wishes he was a bird. Swooping down and feasting on seeds, scraps on the ground that seem to be in abundance. Eat. Breed. Soar into the sky and view the earth like no other species. Without guilt. But he knows he is earth bound and that guilt will dog him like a hungry jackal following the scent of the wounded and bleeding.

###

His usual meal of spaghetti with oil and garlic. Garlic bread to dip in oil. A bottle of Chianti. His physical hunger is the only appetite he still harbors.

She enters wearing the same faded sundress under a battered leather jacket he hadn’t noticed among her belongs. Nervously zipping and unzipping her coat as she takes a table near the window. She retrieves from the jacket pocket a handful of bills and coins. She spreads the money onto the table and counts. Twice. When Dominic comes to the table she asks if she is allowed to order from the children’s menu. Dominic nods in the affirmative. He’ll take any business he can get. A child’s portion of spaghetti and a single meatball. As Dominic walks away she counts the money again. Breaths a sigh of relief.

When her paltry meal arrives Spence summons the courage.

“Miss. I don’t mean to interrupt but I’m not sure I’ll be able to finish this bottle of Chianti. Would you care for a glass?” All the while, her raw, damaged beauty gathers in his throat like a delicious but too rich meal.

She looks at him, silently, for a moment. “You’re the guy from the Word.”

“The Word?”

“The Strange New Word. That’s what I call it. The Word.”

“Yes. I remember you. You came in to exchange some books.”

She smiles her vaguely feral smile. “I know it’s not a lending library but Mike allows me that privilege.”

Spence lifts the half full bottle of wine from the table and gestures. “Should we get you a glass?”

“That would be lovely,” she says.

###

Spence’s life has been reduced to a duffle bag with a few shirts, pants, underwear and an extra pair of shoes. A beat up book bag that had been a gift from Maria long ago. A handsomely worn affair suitable for a 19th century barrister. Maria took every opportunity to provide the rich and powerful Spence that she loved with appropriate accessories. Montblanc fountain pens. Borsalino fedoras. The current, older, down and out Spence was harder to care for, harder to outfit, harder to love.

In the valise is every dollar he has scraped together from the sale of assets, the pillaging of his bank accounts. After all the debts were settled and Maria had her share it was less than he would have expected but bountiful enough in this day and age. He doesn’t trust banks. The country careens from one financial crisis to another but only those of modest means are made to suffer. And a bank account provides an easy trail to his location. In addition to the money are the documents harvested from his laptop which is also no longer a useful tool and besides another trail for his pursuers, if they exist at all. He printed the evidence, destroyed the hard drive and tossed the eviscerated carcass into a trash can. The echo of the evidence that floated among the cyberspace clouds has no doubt long since been purged by the people who would be damaged by his revelations although they certainly respect his intelligence enough to know there are old fashioned hard copies. Which is why he must be vigilant. And why the valise also harbors an old snub nose Smith and Wesson 38, fully loaded. A police pistol from an earlier era, an antique of sorts. Staring at the compact weapon he realizes what a fool he has been to be wandering the streets without it and equally fool enough to believe that it will be adequate defense against what they will be packing.

Perhaps they don’t fear the documents at all. There is no free press or free internet access through which they may be presented. What’s he going to do, make copies and hand them out at street corners? If he did they’d be able to portray him as either a mad man or a traitor. They are smart enough to know he is smart enough to consider all of this and may be content to keep  his secrets and live out his life in peace if not in comfort.

Of course he is concerned about the security of the valise but he thinks it is safer in his room than in the possession of Dominic who would be alerted to its importance if asked to vouchsafe for its safety. Housekeeping is on a request basis only and operates as a point of purchase service. Other than food from the kitchen, from Dominic’s wife Isabella, a plump little woman who is rarely seen, you are pretty much on your own at the Albergo. Spence likes it that way.

We’ll see how it all plays out, he thinks, as he closes the book bag. Slides it under the bed and lies down fully clothed atop the covers and falls asleep.

###

In the few days since his arrival, Spence has re-explored Near North, so different and yet so much the same. In addition to the Albergo and Brave New Word, amid the vacant buildings, are scattered businesses and dwellings also hanging preciously by a frayed tether. Most notably, for the moment, the Barrelhouse, a bar and occasional music venue. It is at the boundary of the neighborhood and attracts the adventurous from beyond. Risk and fear are tourist commodities. Misfits, mostly. If there is trouble to be found in Near North it will most likely be at the Barrel. He is told they have been operating without a liquor permit for years, brewing and distilling in the basement, and judging by the quality of the drink, he doesn’t doubt it. The officials, loyal patrons, leave them alone. The Barrel has a certain rough hewn charm and feels relatively safe in the day-light hours, especially with the snub nose at his ribs. He has already become fond of the home-made gin. Rosie keeps a quantity of it for him in the freezer.

###

Walker King wasn’t really Spence’s kind of guy. Spence is a moderate, a centrist, a middle of the road type. King is far right. Was in his heart from the beginning. There is no longer a need for disguises. He can openly be an extremist, a fanatic. A tyrant.

King has a gift for oratory. A big man with a booming voice. Spence had a reputation for clear and concise prose that was both thought provoking and humorous. When he looks back on his journalist days he can find few gratifications. The profession was already ill. You could hear the death rattle. The Times was succumbing to what Spence refers to as the great shift. Digitization. Shorter attention spans. Less willingness and ability to analyze, to dig for the truth and less tolerance for it when it reared its ugly head. Opinions and slogans rule. Bumper sticker politics. A pol who can inflame the populace’s emotions with a clever phrase is the winner, especially if he has a pile of cash at his disposal.

Spence could coin a phrase faster than the Mint. When King asked him to serve as chief speech writer and P.R. man for his Senate campaign Spence was dismissive at first. That is, until he saw the number of zeros on the check.

###

They called it the Rapture Virus. It killed quickly, within a few days of infection and in the last hours the infected were overcome by a euphoria as the virus reached the brain. Visions, hallucinations. Soaring through the clouds. Beautiful visions. Speaking with God.

Hordes of religious fanatics tried desperately to contract the disease, believing that the afflicted were blessed and entering the gates of heaven. They received blood transfusions from the diseased. Managed all manner of exchanges of bodily fluids. Sex with the dying, adding to their already substantial bliss. A perfect excuse, Spence thought, for them to engage in acts their religion condemned. A release that God would forgive.

But the virus was as selective as the Almighty, affecting only certain chromosomal configurations leaving many immune. In the beginning it was not known who was susceptible and who wasn’t. It would destroy entire clans while close neighbors were spared. That’s why, in the aftermath, mandatory genetic cataloging became the law.

The rapture claimed upward of 30% of the population according to government estimates. Nobody trusts government estimates of any kind. Certain neighborhoods were epicenters of the virus. People fled these neighborhoods if they could and even after the virus had played out these places were shunned. A full decade after the virus was eradicated the scars of place and psyche remain. Fear and superstition prevail as they always have. Near North was one such place. Today it has maybe 25% of its pre-virus population. Or less. Nobody really knows. There are no public funds a census nor much interest. People are gradually coming back but it will probably be another decade before it s fully restored, if ever.

###

The next time he saw her something had shifted. She plopped onto the chair across the table and flashed her charming, tangled smile. It’s surprising what can spring from a little kindness. A glass of wine. He could tell she had something to say. He signaled to Dominic for a second wine glass. He poured without her having asked.

“I live a few doors down from the Word,” she said.

“I know,” he responded without telling her how.

She took a thoughtful sip of the wine. Not quite a sip. Not quite a gulp. But definitely a mouthful.

“I’m in hiding,” she said.

“So am I,” Spence confessed.

She didn’t seem interested in his problems. It was clear she was overwhelmed with her own.

“If he finds me, he’ll kill me. If he saw me here with you, he’d kill us both. I’m sorry. We shouldn’t be talking.”

“A jealous husband? A boyfriend?” He didn’t see a ring on her finger.

“A monster. He beat me. He kept me locked up. May I have another glass of wine?”

He pours, then asks. “How did you escape?”

“This,” she says pointing to her glass. “Alcohol is my friend and my enemy. When he drinks he is more violent but he also becomes careless. He passed out before remembering to lock me in.”

“Why didn’t you go to the police?”

“I did. The first time.  They serve the highest bidder. He has money. I have hardly any at all. They took me back to him and collected their fee. He nearly killed me that time. I couldn’t walk for a week. In my condition I was no good to him for my primary purpose. That infuriated him. So each time I was on the way to recovery he would beat me again. After each unsuccessful attempt to abuse me.”

“The primary purpose, the abuse, being sex.”

She nods her head and finishes her wine. Spence empties the bottle in her glass. Signals to Dominic for another.

“I went to the only person I knew I could trust,” she says.

“Mike.”

“How did you know?”

“Seems obvious.”

###

The Free to Own Act was the first piece of legislation sponsored by Senator King. It called for the privatization of all government services. Schools. Police and Fire Departments. Social Security. Medicare. Parks and Federally owned land. Prisons. The Postal Service. Public utilities. Public transportation. Everything. The military. Even the justice system. Relative bank accounts foretold how every court case would be decided. Justice was openly for sale. Most regulatory agencies were abolished. No more Environmental Protection Agency. No more Department of Health and Human Services. No more Department of Education. The public received, in compensation for losing the public realm, stock certificates meant to represent the value of those assets. The stock had no mechanism trade but could be sold on the private market to fellow citizens. It was as pointless as the stock was worthless. After passage, while the multi-nationals fed at the trough, protestors built a giant bonfire in D.C. to burn certificates. Drones brutally decimated the protestors. Those that survived were arrested for treason under a recently inserted clause in the Homeland Security Act. They will never again see the light of day if, in fact, they still exist.

###

In the rear on the second floor of the Albergo is a sitting room. Not a lobby for hotel check-in which, oddly enough, happens downstairs in the restaurant. The room is a library of sorts. Most of the books are cheap, mass market paperbacks, guest leave-behinds. A little sign mounted next to the bookshelf reads “If a book walks away with you please leave one or more behind in its place”. The suggestion seems to have worked. The shelves are packed and the over-flow spills onto the large table in the center of the room and on the cushions of the sofa and chairs. But the Albergo’s day has passed and it’s doubtful the inventory will change much in the future. Reading books fell out of fashion long ago even though the printed relics from the past, especially fiction, are more believable and contain more facts than the sanctioned sources of today. That this room and the Word exist within walking distance of each other is nothing short of a miracle.

The windows overlook a narrow cobble-stone alley and a vacant lot where a building once stood. Spence sits on a scarred leather club chair bathed in soft, morning sunshine. It is the first day of October. His journal rests on his lap. He is not reading. He longs for the days of abundant printed material. He sips coffee from the machine on a counter with a sink. A breakfast station. Dominic DeCapite brews coffee early in the morning and sets out as many bagels and servings of cream cheese, plus a few, as there are guests. Spence came into the room as Dominic was setting up and helped himself to a bagel. There are seven remaining, meaning the hotel’s census is probably 8 or fewer.

He sips coffee that has gone tepid and stares out a window that needs to be washed from the outside. His mind is more or less blank although Polly and her imperfect smile wander through aimlessly. Spence doesn’t believe you have to be doing or thinking something at every moment. He believes that more everyday.

An elderly couple who seem to have permanent resident status enter the room, pour coffee and place two sliced bagels slathered with cream cheese on a plate. They sit at the mahogany table that hints at the elegance and luxury that once was. Spence has never seen the couple apart. They circle each other tightly like celestial bodies locked in an unbreakable gravitational embrace.

The other guests, he is learning, are fleeting entities. Here today, gone tomorrow and with the exception of a shady, bald character who seems to have no more purpose about him than Spence. A drug dealer? They’ve all found a momentary way-station along the road to nowhere.

Spence likes to sit in this very chair at this very time in the morning and watch the bagel parade, imagining circumstances and fates. Theirs and his.

###

Elections occur in November, which matters not at all. The Responsible Voter Act revolutionized the electoral process. Money always determined election outcomes but RVA has simplified and streamlined the process. Cut out the middle-man. Responsible means invested which means only property owners and their immediate family retain the right to vote. They are free to exercise their responsible privileges for the betterment of all. If that sounds a lot like the feudalism of old then you’re starting to catch on.

The new law also dovetails nicely with the Freedom to Live Act which recognizes an embryo as a person and bans abortion and all forms of contraception. Abortion and contraception are, of course, more rampant than ever (especially with so many couples declining to subject a new life to the cruelties of today) but it is less safe and subject to severe punishment. In fact, abortion is classified as murder. The Responsible Mother half of the equation gives a woman the right to cast a vote for each of her minor children and any entity existing in her womb on election day. Even though you are required by law to vote, nobody much cares because election results are all but a foregone conclusion. The winner will be whoever the corporate elite anoints and lately that has been Mr. Walker King.

###

In passing the storefront of the squat building on his way to the Word, Spence glances upward to Polly’s apartment and sees a man pass by the window. A bald man. He can’t be sure but he thinks that it may be the sinister man from the Albergo. He moves to the sidewalk across the street for a better viewing angle, standing and watching and listening. The man does not reappear. What he is expecting he does not know. Lovers embrace? Conflict? Feeling the foolish and all too conspicuous voyeur he walks on. Most likely, Polly simply has a gentleman caller, what you would expect of a young, pretty woman. And yet, he feels unsettled.

The Word is closed. The sign on the door indicates the shop’s days and hours that he hadn’t noted before. Tuesday through Sunday, 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. It is Monday. Spence is pretty sure Mike was here last Monday but an idle man stops paying attention to chronology. Perhaps Mike is open when he feels like being open. He tests the doorknob. The door is locked.

He passes Polly’s window on his return trip back to the Albergo. It is early evening but the approaching season suppresses the natural light like a shear blind. Polly’s apartment is lit but there is no sign of either her or her visitor.

He enters the restaurant, hears Dominic making a fuss in the kitchen, and proceeds to the elevator at the rear. The elevator is an old accordion gated affair that rises or falls fitfully after you press a button. Even though Spence’s room is on the 4th and top floor, he usually uses the stairs since the elevator is a mildly terrifying and disorienting experience. It is too confining and the numbers on the buttons are worn away so you have to employ a certain intuition until you memorize the location for your floor.

As he pads along the worn but clean hallway carpet, he digs the old fashioned key out of his pocket before looking up to see a strip of light seeping out from under his door. He is positive he left without any lights on. They’ve found me, he thinks, feeling the hair bristle on the back of his neck.

In his left jacket pocket is the compact but weighty Smith and Wesson. He withdraws it and point is at the door. If it is locked and someone is inside waiting for him, by the time he gains entry, he’ll be dead. If it is unlocked, if he bursts through the door suddenly by the time he locates the target within the room, he’s dead. He wants to test the doorknob anyway so he steps forward and with the lightest touch gives the knob a gentle partial turn. It is unlocked. He considered this to be unlikely but there it is.

There’s a table with a lamp and a battered armchair at the other end of the hall. He settles into the chair and tries to slow his heart down. His palms are sweaty. He plays through the scenarios. He could abandon the hotel forever. He could go downstairs and rent another room from Dominic, an awkward situation to be sure. Or, he could sit for a while watching the door and hope that once the intruder has found what he came for, he’ll leave. He turns off the lamp. In the darkened end of the hall, in a chair that is more comfortable than he had imagined, his fear begins to subside. If this is to be the end then this is the end, he thinks, and it will come in equal measures of tragedy and relief.

Spence glances at his watch. Forty minutes have elapsed. He finds within himself a new resolve. When the door opens, if the intruder emerges and heads to the elevator or staircase, he’ll let him leave. If the intruder detects him, he’ll empty the gun in his direction.

More time elapses. Despite the tension he’s beginning to feel drowsy. He’s tired of holding the gun. It’s at this point that the light explodes from his room. The door has opened. Spence stands and points the gun, his hand on the trigger. A figure emerges, turning to close the door. Spence has the target but he does not pull the trigger. He wonders if he will ever pull the trigger. If he has trigger pulling within him.

But in this case he does not pull the trigger because the form in the hallway is a small woman with a ruined smile.

###

It hadn’t been hard for Polly to talk her way into Spence’s room. Dominic recognized her and had already made certain assumptions.

“He found me,” she said.

“I know,” said Spence.

Her puzzled expression.

“I saw him from through your window on my way to the Word.”

“He was stupid enough to turn the lights on otherwise he’d have me. He is cruel but stupid.”

“He’s bald.”

“Yes.”

“I may have more bad news. He might be staying here. In the Albergo.”

It was hard to imagine that a woman as fair as an alabaster marble statue could be further drained of color. Nearly transparent, she leans forward, face in her palms. She recovers quickly and begins in a tremulous voice.

“He’ll spend the night at my place. Waiting. Maybe he’ll move in. I can never go back and I can’t stay here.”

“We’ll deal with this in the morning.” Spence goes downstairs to buy a bottle of wine and two pastas to go. The Albergo isn’t staffed for room service. When he returns he can see that she has been crying but her appetite and thirst for drink are voracious. He retrieves a send bottle. Dominic greets him each time with a mischievous smile.

“Why don’t you have a t.v.?”

“It would remind me of things I’d rather forget.”

“You wouldn’t have to turn it on.”

“That was Dominic’s argument. But why have it at all?”

She ponders this and then begins to talk. Harrowing tales of the family’s poverty and desperation. The lack of basic necessities including regular meals. Her father’s transformation from bread winner to criminal. Her sister’s prostitution. He mother’s suicide. Then she met Norman who purchased her for an evening and tried to keep her for life. Debasing her in every possible way. Giving her to his friends. Renting her out to groups of rich men. And now even though she is almost free (she’ll never be entirely free until the scourge of Norman has been eliminated). She has no family that she can locate. Everything is gone, vanished to the point that she’s not even sure it ever existed.

Spence is thinking, this is what Walker King has done. To her. To me. To everyone. No! Face facts. This is what I have done.

###

Here is how propaganda works. You take a word or phrase that evokes positive emotions. A word like safety or freedom or responsibility. Then you redefine that word. The word becomes a shiny veneer over the rot and the hate and the greed that it now represents. A magic trick. Sleight of hand. Freedom came to mean freedom for the privileged. Cheap labor. More corporate profits with which to buy the government to assure more privilege and more propaganda. Corruption with impunity. A dumbed down populous can’t easily see through the ruse, the fog of words. The echo of what the word once meant is still there to distract you. A shocking number of down and outs still buy it, still think that any job, even one at slave wages matters. That they are entirely at fault for their predicament. That they are not worthy. That they can only be free by doing the bidding of, and making richer, those that already are free.

Responsibility. Freedom.

###

Exhaustion won over anxiety. The wine helped. She fell asleep on the sofa. Sitting upright and proper with her hands folded in her lap. Her head thrown back on the cushion. Spence studies her dirty dress. Her dirty hair. He’ll take her shopping tomorrow. Clean her up. Now he gathers her up and carries her to bed. He removes her shoes. Pulls a permanently stained sheet across her. The room is warm. Takes a thin blanket with him to the sofa.

###

In the middle of the night Spence senses her presence before she touches his cheek. Before she drops to her knees to kiss him. Before he realizes she is naked. A small breasted beauty tugging at his boxer’s. He lifts his ass to let them slide. Before mounting him. He slides into the warm, snug wetness of her. Before the yelps of her climax. Before she arranges her thin self beside him on the sofa and falls asleep.

###

They called Spence the Dowser. Give him the most common, mundane information. A bio. The text of a speech. Anything. He’d know where to dig. How far down to drill to find the inconvenient event or relationship. Any failure, no matter how small or insignificant or irrelevant to the matters at hand, can be transformed into a scandal. Attach a half truth to the truth, then attach a bald face lie to the half truth. Even if the lie unravels later the damage will have been done. Turn outright lies attached to harmless, meaningless truths into a deadly weapon. That is how they destroyed King’s opponents.

###

When he awakened from his Chianti induced nap she was gone. Not gone gone. In the bathroom he rubbed cold water into his tired eyes, dried his face and grabbed the key to head downstairs.

He pulled on the blazer, noticing that it needed dry-cleaner attention. He felt the heft of the S&W in the pocket at his waist.

In the restaurant Polly was standing at the tiny, rarely used, bar in front of the kitchen. She was arguing with the sinister, bald man. He had her by the wrist. She was trying to pull away. Dominic stood nearby as an interested spectator. As she tried to free herself, the bald man raised his free hand as if to strike. Spence pulled the gun from his pocket. It fired without his intention.

The casualty was a dusty bottle of Campari. Dominic stands with arms raised as does his chubby wife who had joined the fray. The bald man had dropped to his knees, hands on his head in a pose which seemed to be familiar to him. Polly ran to Spence while the blood red Campari dripped from the shelf to the floor.

“No! No! Don’t shoot”, she says.

“What’s going on here?”

“A misunderstanding. It’s not Norm.”

“What then? What was he doing?”

“Propositioning me. He thinks I’m a call-girl.”

The bald man rose to his feet. Crossed the room and walked out onto the street.”

“Where did he get that idea?”

Polly stares at Dominic whose hands had dropped to his side. Spence spends the next several minutes explaining the scenario to the hotel proprietor. The stalking. The abuse. The confusion of identities. Dominic would hear none of it. He wants them out of his hotel. When Spence relents and asks for a refund of the balance of his room rental Dominic looks dismayed and confused.

“We’ll be back down in a moment”, Spence says.

Polly follows Spence to the room. Spence pulls the bag from under the bed, opens it and retrieves a stack of bills without counting them.

“The one thing I’ve learned in life is that this solves more problems than not.” He says this waving the cash at Polly.

“Let me,” Polly says reaching for the money. “The one thing I’ve learned is the power of a woman.”

He hands her the money and follows her to the door.

“No. You stay here,” she says.

He sits on the edge of the bed. He has taken the pistol from his pocket and lays it beside him.

Time is relative. It seems that Polly has been gone forever. Just as Spence is getting ready to go back downstairs, thinking something has gone wrong, she returns.

“It’s all taken care of,” she says. “You were right, he was easily bribed.”

“So, we’re staying?”

“For now. I need to lie down. Do you mind.”

Polly undresses to her panties and climbs into bed. She is asleep almost immediately. Before gathering himself to go downstairs to confirm the state of things, he picks her pants up off the floor to fold them and lay them aside. There is a bulge in the pocket. The thick wad of money.

###

They find a hardware store with a locksmith who agrees to, for a very reasonable fee, come by and swap out the locks on the squat building without ever questioning their authority. As luck would have it, the locksmith also deals in used firearms. Almost everybody deals in firearms. The pistol paradox – owning a gun makes you more safe but if everyone owns a gun everyone is less safe. Spence buys an old Browning 12 gauge and a box of shells.

He had questioned Polly’s desire to maintain the apartment. She argued that she liked the space and its location and Norm was going to track her down no matter where she went. And given the incident at the Albergo and their tenuous existence there they had better have a landing spot if things got ugly. They were now prepared, they were armed and dangerous.

It was getting on in the evening. They were tired. They decided to stay in the apartment for the night. They could both fit onto the sofa. Spence thought they should try to find a mattress in the near future.

He undressed but Polly soon made it clear she was not ready for bed. For the first time she took him into her mouth. Her exquisite flawed mouth. He once received a hand job from a girl with a congenitally deformed hand. It was better than that.

###

The heady days. Cash. Caviar. Cars. Country estate. Concubine. The corner office that overlooked the pretty park. The twenty five year old assistant that assisted him once, sometimes twice a day. Assisted him on all fours on the Oriental rug. Missionary style on the plush leather sofa. Astraddle on the passenger seat of the Jaguar. Leaning, legs spread, palms planted on the big plate glass window so they could both view the pretty park. Lisa’s job covered many positions.

Maria knew and decided to play the same game. A game where you can score but never truly win. A game that culminated on occasion in team play with Lisa, Maria’s best friend Jill and others whose names have long been forgotten. A game where the rules were made up on the spot.

It would be disingenuous for Spence to lament having been sucked into a vortex of false success. He helped create the vortex.

Spence has undergone a strange conversion. From nightmares based on psychological fears. Loss of status. Loss of income. Loss of security. A transition to honest physical fear for his ability to go on living day to day. Surviving. He has discovered how little he needs and that knowledge has shaped his wants. He now has a focus. Narrow focus. Half practical, half something else he’s reluctant to apply the obvious name. Polly.

###

People are talking about a new Rapture virus outbreak. Somewhere in the east. Each person who pretends to know or to know someone who pretends to know reports a different location. There is no official news, of course. These rumors have circulated before and never come to anything, that we know of.

The two prevailing interpretations of the Rapture virus among the religious are that the virus was sent by God as a gateway to heaven for the virtuous, as ridiculous as that may sound given the reputations of a vast number of victims or the reverse –  the old saw that the virus was sent by God to punish us for our wickedness which provided a gateway more or less to the mean and/or politically motivated to blame enemies, real or perceived. The virus started with and was spread by minorities. Or immigrants. Or homosexuals. Or atheists. Or followers of any faith other than your own. The arena for hate and vilification was as large as the world.

 

 

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Jack and I


My father rode toward us on the gravel road leading through the farm, past my grandparent’s house and toward our own humble abode farther on. I was maybe 12, maybe 13. There’s no one left to verify details. He rode a horse or, more precisely, a pony. A large pony, not a little circus pony. Who knows whether Black Jack was a large pony or a small horse. It didn’t matter.

I had been visiting my grandmother when my father and Jack (the descriptive part of the horse’s name would quickly fall away) approached over the rise where the old barn sat. Visiting grandmother rarely involved interacting with her but rather fooling around in or on top of the smokehouse or pulling a branch from the weeping willow tree, stripping its leaves and pretending it was a whip. Or pumping water from the well in the backyard for the purpose of…pumping water. Or stealing apple slices left to dry on a tarp laid out on a big table in the sun. Or throwing stones at chickens. I hated chickens beyond reason. Living, dirty, squawking, pecking, shitting chickens, that is. I would throw rocks at the chickens to the dismay of my grandmother if she caught me. I would later accidentally kill one with my new bb gun and shove it under the crawl space. You can imagine the consequences. I despised chickens all the more after the chicken massacre where a specific, vindictive chicken chose to cause me such grief.

My grandmother’s regular Sunday fried chicken dinner, on the other hand.

So you can imagine how exiting an addition was Jack to our small world, especially so since his arrival was unexpected. Seeing my father on a horse was nothing short of comical. He was not a farmer as my deceased grandfather had been. He was a truck driver. He had ventured up the road hours ago to visit a neighbor with which he was on friendly terms. On foot. Since he spent so many hours with his ass planted in a truck cab I understand now why he walked at every opportunity, sometimes for considerable distances. How exactly Jack was acquired is today something of a mystery. Probably via a trade which is how my entire extended family lived their lives and conducted business.

I might as well call my father by his first name. So Cliff (my father) arrived with Jack and I was hoisted up to enjoy the remainder of the ride. It wasn’t the first time I’d ever been on a horse but farm animals other than the beastly chickens left the farm with my grandfather. It was still a working concern in the realm of corn and tomatoes and tobacco and such but other than the tobacco sticks that served as imaginary weapons or horses and used to hang and cure the leaves from the barn rafters the tobacco itself and other crops were not very entertaining. Maybe Cliff thought that a companion in the form of an incorrigible horse (we’ll get to that later) would tide me over during the summer when I was largely without playmates.

After much marveling at the animal while Ruby (my mother) shook her head disapprovingly, Jack was put up in an abandoned stall in the back of the barn where he had ready access to to a barbed wire fenced field with plenty of grass to feed on. There was a corn crib and a field of corn next to the barn. Ruby knew that Cliff was a part time husband and father and that in a day or so he’d be back on the road with the 18 wheeler and Jack’s care would fall on the shoulders of her shy and undersized son whom she couldn’t imagine would be up to the challenge. Now that I think about it maybe the work and responsibility imposed on me was, more than the companionship, what Cliff had in mind.

We learned about Jack’s meaner proclivities in fairly short order. On the very first night after his arrival as we sat, after dinner, as a family unit in front of the television we heard a clumping disturbance outside. Then my mother screamed at the horse muzzle steaming up the picture window, stomping and hoofing loudly at the wooden front porch. It seems Jack was not happy about being excluded from the family’s affairs. We weren’t accustomed to evening visitors at all, especially those of the equine variety. As I recall the front door was not only unlocked but left open like most of the windows in the summer months so the night air could find its way through the screens.

We took Jack back to the barn where we locked him in the stall. When Cliff and I went back the next day to find and repair the breech in the fence and to check on the animal, we found the door to the horse stall still intact but splintered and barely on its hinges. The next full day was spent on sweaty repairs in the hot sun with Cliff cursing frequently and colorfully as was his nature even under the most favorable circumstances. Then we reopened the stall and let Jack roam free to test his containment.

Cliff had ridden Jack easily and effortlessly without the animal’s resistance. Perhaps Jack sensed the weight and strength of Cliff’s authority whereas when I mounted him alone for the first time I was savagely bucked from his back, landing on the hard ground with the wind knocked out of me. I got quick instructions on handling the animal though I was warned not to try to ride him until Cliff had returned and could supervise. It seemed it was important to keep the animal’s head up with taught reins. The head down position was that which gave Jack the leverage to thrash and buck his hindquarters. The next day Cliff left for a week or more on the road. He left us with Warren’s phone number for use in the event of disaster. Warren was Jack’s previous owner.

It turns out that owning a horse is not all it’s cracked up to be. It’s mostly about oats and heavy buckets of water and brushing burrs out of his tail and shoveling shit laden straw out of the stall and daily exercising on foot for I was not allowed to let Jack out into the field unsupervised. Walking a horse rather than riding one is about as entertaining as watching chickens peck at the ground.

When Cliff returned my riding lessons continued. I learned how to cinch a saddle. You put the saddle on the horse’s back, tighten the cinch at his belly, wait for him to breath in and tighten it again but not too tight. Weeks later I would sit at my grandmother’s kitchen table crying while she plucked pebbles form my raw and abused back and applied rubbling alcohol after Jack dragged me down the gravel lane. The saddle had slipped to his side while I had one foot stuck in the stirrup. When I was retrieved, injured and humiliated, Jack was peacefully munching grass at the side of the road, such was his callousness and disregard.

In short order I learned Jack’s various tricks for dismounting riders mostly achievable due to  my failure to be stern and authoritative. There was the dragging my leg along the barbed wire fence tactic. The drop and roll in the dust gambit. The buck or the bite, of course. And the famous off-switch. The off-switch was when Jack simply refused to move forward, often at the most inopportune time, a mile or so away from home. I didn’t wear spurs and I could kick at him with all my force while realizing that I was causing very little discomfort.

Winter time was the worst. I would trudge to the barn in the ice and snow to attend to Jack’s needs before catching the school bus. The next spring what little progress I had made in becoming Jack’s master had thawed away with the ice. He might as well have been purchased from a stranger the day before.

There came the stepping into a yellow jacket’s nest while tethered to a tree fiasco. My mother and one of my much older sister’s (she was married and re-domesticated already) friends waded into the swarm with a burning broom like a torch to ward off the bees while releasing Jack from his cruel captivity. Then the bursting through his enclosure to feast on the adjacent corn field excursion. They call it foundering. Apparently a horse presented with an unlimited food supply will literally try to eat himself to death. And on and on.

Jack was not without his tender moments when he would nuzzle at me with his hot breath huffing from snotty nostrils. He seemed to truly enjoy my company while I was not astride. I never came to terms with his mean and angry side but I had a theory about its origin after I learned what gelding meant.

One day I came home from school. Jack was not in the barn. He was not in the pasture. He was no where to be seen. It was explained to me that the expense and trouble of Jack simply didn’t measure up to our enjoyment of him. He had been sold earlier that day. I was saddened and without appetite. I don’t remember if I cried. The bittersweet memory of Jack lasted but a few days before I found other more meaningful distractions on the schoolyard in the form of fillies of a very different breed but still of a spirited and temperamental sort.

The important lesson learned early in life was that control of other living beings is largely an illusion. No matter the species.

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The Path of Enlightenment


The Road to Wisdom and Enlightenment is a difficult one. As soon as you are on your way under bright, cheerful skies and whispering trees swaying in a fragrant breeze with chirping birds you suddenly step into the:

Mud Puddle of Surprise. Life is full of expectations. Good and bad. If you expect the best, good things tend to happen. If you expect the worst, bad things may befall you. But no one expects the big, juicy Mud Puddle of Surprise and that sucking sound as you extract your heavy sodden sneakered foot, no, as you extract your sodden sneaker sans foot from the muck and wriggle it back onto your muddy sock.

As you squish onward you think about the lesson learned which is, be all aware, up and down and around and around. But you find you are still a novice on the Path of Enlightenment when you stub your toe on the:

Boulder of Pain and Suffering. And it’s not even your muddy toe but the other pristine one. As you hobble along squishy on one side and throbbing on the other the meaning escapes you unless it’s only to doubly remind you to be attentive and aware or to always, always wear steel toed boots. In any event it’s hard to imagine you would have overlooked the:

Bowling Alley of Anguish and Despair where you learn the important lesson of keeping control of your balls lest you drunkenly toss one into the adjacent lane where she looks at you and you look at her and forty minutes later the two of you are knocking it off in the backseat of your father’s 1973 Buick Park Avenue which proves to be a serious but temporary setback to continuing back into the Bramble Patch to Enlightenment where you will encounter:

The Defecating Bird of Paradise who teaches you that what can shit on your head will shit on your head as if you hadn’t learned this lesson already from your ex-wife and former employers and fickle friends and relatives and strangers, well, fucking everybody you have and will encounter on the Gauntlet of Enlightenment until it culminates in something like:

The Creamy Whip Ice Cream Cone of Near Disaster wherein while taking home a cop’s wife with whom you have had, uh, interesting relations, unbeknownst to said officer of the law… well, taking her out for a treat after a previous and far more profound treat and find yourself with a service revolver to your temple and very, very specific instructions regarding your future if indeed you have one which was under debate at the moment.

The common thread is that it is all too easy to become distracted from your search for beauty, truth and wisdom by women and money and shiny objects and find yourself on lesser trails which can lead you to such places as the Corporate Cubicle of Absurdity which lies in a maze where the beginning is also the end.

This has been an abbreviated tour on the Obstacle Course of Enlightenment. We haven’t touched upon the Tombstone of Illicit though Stimulating Opportunity with its Perfect Elevation Relative to your Height and reminds you that while you are striving to be mindful and  aware try also not to be excessively aware of the wrong things and neglect the goal of leading a moral life which requires not diddling the neighbors cute, little wife.

Unless she demands it. Vehemently!

The Circuitous Detour of Enlightenment has yet to reveal its true purpose and destination and you can only hope that it doesn’t turn into the Interstate of Ignorance where at every exit there is a Waffle House or a Cracker Barrel.

 

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How Far to Ride


I see myself

Driving a new car

Laughing blonde at my side

 

She sees herself

In my new car

Enjoying the ride

 

How far

How far

How far is this ride?

 

I see myself

Driving a borrowed car

Smiling brunette at my side

 

She sees herself

In a borrowed car

Trying to decide

 

How far

How far

How far is this ride?

 

I see myself

Driving a rusty old car

Nasty redhead swept by the tide

 

See sees herself

In a rusty old car

As a reluctant bride

 

How far

How far

Just how far

Is this ride?

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