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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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