The Aeneids

“The fallacy was obvious. It presupposed that somewhere or other, outside oneself, there was a ‘real’ world where ‘real’ things happened. But how could there be such a world? What knowledge have we of anything, save through our own minds? All happenings are in the mind. Whatever happens in all minds, truly happens.”

George Orwell, 1984

April Fourteenth

WHILE I WAS WORKING SOMETHING HAD BEEN GROWING INSIDE ME. It had been too subtle for me to immediately notice. Deep inside myself something horrible was brewing. When I closed my eyes, late at night, I could hear it, the sound of metal scraping against bone, my innards caught between the friction like hapless victims trapped in the molten heap of a car crash. Within the dark caverns of my body, I could hear the sound of something terrible emerging, veins rising out of the earth, reaching up and around telephone poles, slowly pulling them down. Quietly, the earth plotted its revenge.’

Those sentences are from the journals I wrote when I had first started working again after my term at the Ministry of Corrections[1], when I’d hit the ground running, the nine-to-five, the rat race, the vicious circle, the eternal return. I held myself in check then. Held the burnished glow of my former self tightly to my chest like a freshly shellacked violin. I thought of myself as the odd man out, the man against the masses, the ghost in the machine, the pale hero. History replays itself. First as truth, then as farce. That way you laugh on your way down.

Most of my good material is in my journals, but I’ve never let anyone read them, even though I quote myself in dialogues all of the time. My golden vocation. The auspicious indefatigable words of an irrelevant professional. I was wide-awake. Now you’ll most likely catch me yawning at my post. Most people don’t seem to notice they’re in the company of talent, not in the least bit! I smirk wide when I allude to my journals.

[1] Aeneas Ashbridge was released from the Ministry of Corrections after a two-year sentence for sexual misconduct under Thatcher’s Rosebush Act.

April Sixteenth

I was on the balcony on the eighth-floor of my apartment building at the Asphodel Meadows,[1] fogging up the air in front of me with my cavity breath. There were grottos in my teeth deep enough for gremlins of all manner. My mouth was a clubhouse for trolls and imps and ogres. Nearby, a solitary bird utterred strange clicks and vague human-sounding noises. The elephantine billboard at the street corner[2] said in giant caramel-colored letters:

THINGS ARE GOING TO BE OK

The most famous drink in the world and the OK Kola Company[3] still hounds the populace with their inane, browbeating, catch-phrases. The new OK Mousse is coming soon with twice the creamy taste of the original. Things are going to be OK. This world is conspiring to keep me from my beloved. I haven’t seen Heloise in nearly three years. She left me behind and I don’t know where she has gone. Her family won’t speak to me. They won’t answer my phone calls. They threaten to call the authorities if I knock on their door. I’ve run into a brick wall. She’s not listed anywhere. Doesn’t show up to any of our old hangouts. None of our old friends have seen her. They also tell me to let sleeping dogs lie. Do they mispeak? They are not begotten from love. I look for her in the day. I look for her in the night. I look for her in my dreams. And it is there that I come closest to finding her. There are clues to her whereabouts in my dreams. But they mutate between my fingers. Metamorphose as I’m inspecting them. Black is white. Up is down. Nothing is what it seems.    

A rotten gust of wind brushed my sleeve. It was a new day and things should have been OK but they were not. Everything smelled old and stale. I remember I used to try believing that every day was a new beginning and that everyone could start over if they really wanted. I didn’t have to be me and that guy down there, Chuck, the homeless guy, didn’t have to be a pile of rags on the sidewalk of Broadview Avenue. I remember how hard I tried to believe the motto that ‘everything could become new.’ Tall book talk! Everything I held dear depended on that wisdom.

The sky was gray. The air smelled like everything in the Narrows[4] all at once. I knew this smell well. It smelled like yesterday.

[1] Located on Broadview Avenue, the eight-storey high rise was built in 1945 by Morguard Real Estate in a neo-austere fashion.

[2] Located at the intersection of Broadview and Mortimer, the billboard faces northwest at a forty-five degree angle. Otto Normalverbraucher designed the advertisement for the iAM Corporation in 2000.

[3] The “OK Kola” formula was invented by pharmacologist Mason Oppenheimer in 1882 and widely used as a nerve tonic. During the First World War, soldiers drank the “kola wine” as an opiate elixir to dull their senses and steel themselves for battle. It later became a landmark in the soda business, bottled in Biloxi and sold nationwide as “OK Kola”, in turn making a fortune for the Oppenheimer estate. By the 1990s, the OK Kola brand had become one of the most valued commodity markers in the world.

[4] Queen City or “The Narrows,” is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, home to over 5.7 million people in a landmass of just under 600 km2. Fewer and fewer new homes are built due to the lack and high expense of new land; instead there has been a proliferation of buildings constructed since the 1970s. Queen City is known around the world as “the empire of stacked houses” or “the walled city.” New buildings are frequently built onto old buildings. The city’s heightening skyline looms over and dwarfs all other natural geographic features. “The Narrows” is a namesake that has germinated from within the native multicultural population, used commonly since at least the mid-to-late 1970s, in concert with the city’s burgeoning concern over architectonics.

April Seventeenth 

The strangest thing occurred to me on the street last week in broad daylight and nobody noticed. I was wandering the streets like usual, daydreaming (like usual), and some lady, probably in her mid-forties, was walking in front of me, dressed for business, confident as heather—navy-blue blazer, matching pants, black leather loafers. And she was in one crazy hurry too, swinging her purse and shopping bags ambidextrously, marching to the faint beat of some internal martial music, gears winding as if she were motorized. She looked so dull she could have passed for a man. Everything was quite placid and normal. Sol[1] was shining in the azure sky. Felicitous birds were chirping. There was a pleasant breeze. My thoughts calm and sober. I was feeling good. And then, out of the blue, the woman, not even five meters from me, fell into the sidewalk! Swallowed! Vanished! Dissapeared without a trace!

Gallantly, I hustled to the very spot where she had dropped out of sight—and nothing! There were no signs of foul play. I knelt down and inspected the sidewalk, feeling the cement with my fingertips. I ran my palm over the circular grooves and assymetrical cracks outlining the walkway, expecting a manhole or a trick panel, but there was nothing to be found! People continued walking past and around me like I was a nut (I must have looked strange just kneeling there on the sidewalk). They were all behaving like nothing had happened, carrying on with their affairs, unconcerned for this poor woman who just upped and vanished into thin air. Sidewalks didn’t up and swallow people. Or maybe I wasn’t up to speed.

Had I imagined the woman? Was it all a gag? Was she hiding somewhere, behind a car maybe, laughing at me because she managed to pull the wool over my eyes? Couldn’t we crack open the subminiature street cameras to have a teensy peek just this once? I wouldn’t have any of it. I stood from the sidewalk and walked around the phantom square. I tried to move on with the rest my day. I tried to be callous like everybody else. But I couldn’t get the lady out of mind, just up and vanishing like that. Where was she now? I tried to picture her smothered by the cement as if it were quicksand. I tried to feel her fear, her thirst, her hunger. I prayed with her, prayed for her escape and safe passage, our lips moving synchronously, in intimate tandem. Abnormal things were happening all the time in Queen City. X will mark the spot. This place is the devil’s triangle: ‘Nothing seems right, we are entering white water. We don’t know where we are. The water is green, not white.’

[1] Sol, he who wore a shining crown and rode a fiery chariot across the sky. Sol Invictus, the indefatigable contriver of light, light of truth and harmony. Perfectly spherical and consisting of smoldering plasma, Sol is not solid but three quarters hydrogen and is widely believed to be the final celestial metamorphosis of Apollo. He is the brighest star in the galaxy and is by far the brighest object in the firmament. The energy of his sunlight supports all life on Gaea.

April Eighteenth

I reprogrammed the out-loud voice on my office computer at work. It was not necessary to get the job done, but it helped me get through the day. It was part of the CPU’s software bundle. I think I was the only one who used it on a regular basis. I guess being mute does change things. Being unable to speak alters the way you look at the world. My speech pathologist said I would recover my voice in time. ‘When the perceived trauma[1] subsides,’ he said.

When I opened my mouth, no sound would come out. Like King Thestral in comix. Ruler of the Hyperboreans. Who could level a city with a whisper. Who’d undergone rigorous mental training to prevent sound escaping from his lips, even in his sleep. I worry for my enemies when my voice returns.

I reconfigured the computer’s speech rate in the virtual toolbox. He spoke at a faster, abrasive clip now like some high-strung rapscallion. My computer’s name was ‘Dennis.’ He was an iAM[2] (Interactive Administrating Machine), model number 1978. I didn’t name him. Some other corporate throb did. I just taught him how to speak. Well, my employer will have to forgive me if I need to stretch my ambrosial fingers over the keyboard every now and then. The label at the right of the monitor read ‘Dennis.’ I hated that goddamn name.

“Fuck you, chatterbox the iAM squealed, pronouncing chatterbox irregularly. Listening to the machine expressing itself, words don’t seem as natural as they once did. Things broken free from their names. I guess they don’t quill them like they used to.

“Down with big blue,” the iAM buzzed. I read that in a book sometime ago. It must have meant something important but I don’t remember anymore. I imagine an entire city leveled with a single whisper.

Some of my colleagues gathered together across the quarters are eating their lunch. I felt uneasy because I thought they were gossiping about me. I liked sitting alone. It lended a quiet dignity to my character, although I don’t think my co-workers can sense this quality. They can’t see anything extra-mundane. One of them said something super-duper and they all croaked like crickets. Another person glanced at me and whispered to the person sitting beside them. I wish I had a Technicolor wing, like a Monarch butterfly, so I could stroke it proudly right about now.

[1] A person with aphasia has likely incurred damage to the left hemisphere of the brain.

[2] The company began in the 1890’s after Irwin Abelard Madewell’s “Universal” tabulating machine successfully indexed the Amerikan population in the census of 1886. In the years that followed, Madewell streamlined the Universal and broadened its accounting capabilities, culiminating in the iAM*1900, which inaugurated the centennial, and ushered in a new era of programmed computation. The first tabulators that could print were introduced in the 1920’s. The iAM*1923, with it’s removable panel and net positive/net negative accounting capabilities, is said to have repelled the feared stock market crash of 1925 and helped Madewell’s design gain international distinction. By 1930, iAM business appliances were used in over fifty-two countries and were a staple in the accounting divisions of most major corporations. The iAM Corporation’s “Imagine” catchphrase has gained nearly worldwide significance. The iAM*1949 was the world’s first electric mass-produced computer, revolutionizing the modern age, and signalling the dawn of a new digital era. Irwin Abelard Madewell died of a brain anerysm in 1952 at the age of ninety-six. His three children, Ichabod, Francis, and Amy, are the joint succesors of the iAM Corporation’s rich and unrivalled legacy. Ichabod Madewell was chief engineer of the 1949 reinvention

  April Nineteenth 

On the bus, the engine below the seat hummed and hummed and it reminded me of how tired and hollowed out I actually felt. The IQscreen[1] overhead said that Chancellor Pu, the right hand of Emperor Li Dong, had been pied in the face by the Mal de Siecle[2] terrorist group at the Convocation of Kingdoms in Beyrouth. His face the worse for wear (first-degree burns) after it was discovered that the Mal du Siecle group had used an illegal compound of acids in the citrus pie, alledgedly violating the Protocol for the Prohibition of Acids and Bases in Pieing.

The lemon-lime curd was being thoroughly tested by field specialists for any violations occurring on the PH scale; meanwhile, the Franks denied the claims of affiliation to Mal du Siecle made by the Dong Dynasty. No official word from the Mal du Siecle group except for sightings of their logo (thistle purple stencil of a horse hung by the neck with the word ‘Overboard’ beneath) strategically graffitied over military walls in Beyrouth.

All my muscles ached, especially the ones in my legs. What do you call them? I could have joined a gym or something. Maybe my legs wouldn’t have hurt so much then. Now that I thought about it, I wish I were more proactive. So I surprised myself and I stood pat and missed my stop. I must have been going downtown. I hated going downtown. But neither did I want to move. I passed by a gym along the way. A few minutes later I was inside that very same gym listening to the woman at the front counter talking about membership formats.

The gym reeked of sweat and bad breath. All around me were these meaty bastards. Why couldn’t they just shut their goddamn mouths when they lifted? Didn’t they know that all those escaping amino acids turned to personality disorders when they were air-bound?[3]

The dark haired woman at the counter talked to me about nutritional supplements like protein powders. Her name was Veronica. Her skin was tropically tanned and she was wearing a neon-pink spandex outfit. I took out my scratch pad and wrote ‘I might be interested in picking up weights.’

Did I say that right? Veronica gave me a pitiful look that was also tellingly creeped out; she was probably worried that I may have been sick or something, that she may contract an illness and be unable to speak to her beach buddies about tanning oils and washboard abs and surfboards. She asked me a few follow-up questions about my health. I acted tough, like in a Western, and withheld information from her. She probably felt sorry for me. All the more reason to sign me up. Handled incorrectly, one of these murderous weighted machines could permanently put me out of my misery.

Veronica led me away from the front counter. She walked ahead of me, showing me the exercise machines and something called the Bilateral Universal,[4] I think. I looked at her from behind and measured up her legwork. A yearning ache battled its way into my spleen. She showed me the men’s changing room that was “fully equipped with sauna and showers.” I imagined puffy men lying around in steam, guzzling their imported, highly expensive, laboratory-concocted, shark-extracted, sperm cocktails.[5] I excuse myself to take a peek behind the striated meat-curtains, to goggle at the magic, the cogs-and-gears-of-glory at the-cutting-edge-of-the-industry, in case it’s where I needed to be.

The sauna room. I better get the hell out of here. I did not want see any one of those veiny bastards, especially not in any naked state. They might get some meat packing ideas and come after me with a moldy salami (I’m allergic to penicillin!) and then I would have been forced to retort all their thewy come-ons with a sharp kick right in the eye. I hated shower scenes from prison movies. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. I’ve done my homework. I know what goes on through the butcher’s window. What? Behind the easy-breezy meat-curtains. What? Around the corner, in the dark, out of public view. What?

That’s not too bad, it was a very bright toilet bowl—deadeye! I stared at the washroom door; I listened to the circulating fan; I lost myself in the ambiance and pretended to be interested.

I walked out of the men’s changing room; I could not wait to shake Veronica’s hand. She was way over on the other side of the gym, helping some tall, tanned fella at the counter. He talked and talked and giggled, obviously pleased with herself, and she put her celestial hand on his pithecal arm. How long have I been away? Veronica took a towel to his sweaty primitive brow and I stormed out of the gym before she could speak another word to me. I tried to get on the first bus I could find, but a vagrant wooly racoon turned the corner, right in the middle of the day, and I tripped over my own feet and fell onto my keyster. I raised my fist and cursed at the furry mammal it as wobbled away unconcerned. That’s what I deserved for trying to avoid it. Goddamn uplifted animals the world over.[6]

At home. I felt severely depressed, so I binge-ate with an ultraviolence rarely seen in these parts of the world. I hoarded everything I could possibly stomach—a large bag of potato chips, half-a-box of raisin cookies, a can of half-warm mushroom soup, and a few cheese sandwiches—igniting a war between the food groups. There can be no peace between dairy and vegetable, between the dehydrated and the processed, between…

On my way through the living room, I got clever and did this Tom Revolta[7] shuffle-step thing and my stomach turned the globe and I got sick and vomited all over the floor. I did not bother cleaning it up.

The evening news. “By boosting their cyber war assault, Huaxia has raised the ante in their long-standing feud with Amerika by hacking into sensitive social media web sites and doctoring current event feeds. It is a strategic maneuver that reveals not only the acrimony the Red Dragon feels toward Amerika, but also the threat it poses to the governments of all free nations.”

I crouched in the tub and the IQwater shot balmy jasmine over my head and neck and chest. It made everything serene and pure before I handed my body over to sleep. The IQwater felt like a kind mothering eraser. Entire days were cleared from my memory while I was in the shower, safe from investigative eyes behind the blue-crackle curtain.

The hallowed pellets pitter-pattered over my body performing tiny miracles. Eight soggy hours from yesterday were erased. Melancholy Tuesday from last week was completely snuffed from the history books. A colleague at the office took a dig at me about my messy hair and grimy shoes.[8] I’ll teach her the true meaning of ‘topsy-turvy’. I watched the maudlin days sail down the drain with all the restraint of a stoic. ‘Wacha gonna do with a piss-drunk sailor when the ship is rolling.’ My birthday gets caught in the drain along with my…

I stood in front of my bedroom mirror without any clothes on. My hair was thinning at the temples of my skull. My chest was sagging like an old lady’s ass. I was getting plumper at the waist, shoulders curling forwards. I have become quite the physical specimen.[9] A tsunami of anger crashed over me and I turned away from myself in disgust. Fourteen wrathful pushups later I was asleep.

[1] IQtech was patented by Henry Tomakin in 1999, and by late 2000, the company’s “W.H.I.Z.” microprocessor chip’s were as prevalant and ubiquitous in Amerika and Europa as doorknobs. It is the western world’s fastest growing technology and it is estimated that 3 in 4 homes are now W.H.I.Z. friendly. IQtech’s affordable and efficient designs have considerably improved the general well being of individuals across GreatAmerika as per the latest Q.O.L. measure. Bestowing a type of “intelligence” to most home devices and appliances, these preliminary innovations are only the beginning of IQtech’s vision of the home as “the footstool of harmony.”

[2] “The Malady of the Century”. The Mal de Siecle group has been active on the international front as a “terrorist” group since the mid-1980’s. They have claimed responsibility for several hostile coups, including “The Towel Snapping of Helvetia” in 1987, where the managing director of the World Bank Combine was violently driven into a coma being repeatedly snapped by wet towels while visiting a sauna, and the “The Tarring and Feathering of Barca Nona” in 1991 where the CEO of Triton Shoes had steaming liquid chocolate poured over him and goose feathers applied as an applique while he was exiting a haute cuisine restaurant. The group has described these terrorist acts and many others as “deeds that are meant to shock the world out of political ennui and melancholy; no dictator safe; no bad deed unpunished.” Political scientists like Bill Sikes theorize that “pranks and shenanighans are the 21st’s century’s answer to modern warfare” and that “World Wars will no longer be protracted affairs, fought by incalculable armies in swarmy trenches, jungles, and deserts; they will be surreptitious and episodic transactions, abruptly occuring under a feckless dustcloud of schoolboy absurdity.” 

[3] On a biological scale, it is impossible for amino acids to become airborne as such, although elements of an amino, like oxygen, may be considered atmospheric and may freely travel as a gas. 

[4] In bilateral symmetry, the sagittal plane will divide an organism into mirror image halves.

[5] Shark sperm became popular in the late 1980s as a muscle-building supplement in the bodybuilding circuit. It was banned and driven underground into the black-market in the 1990s due to the protestations of animal rights activists. Its efficacy has never been scientifically measured and may in fact have been routinely used as a placebo. Derek Dorsett, the “Black Hercules,” winner of the Atlas International bobybuilding competition in 1989 and 1990, was a well-known proponent of shark sperm.

[6] In Baron Jubrick’s 2001-2031: A Space Inventory (1964), the arrival of the monoliths implies a cultural uplift for humanity, if not an outright biological evolution. Uplift is a common motif in science fiction, where animals are often biologically engineered and evolotionary nurtured to mimic intelligent beings.

[7] The star of such popular films as Sunday Morning Hangover (1973), Texan Dandy (1976), Scraping-By (1979), and Penny Dreadful(1990).

[8] Natalie Abess: “F.Y.I. You need to look in the mirror before you leave home. Your topsy-turvy wardrobe is in shambles. It’s completely unprofessional. Your messy hair, your mismatched suit, your grimy shoes. Get it together before they fire you. I’m serious.” Aeneas Ashbridge: “Sorry.”

[9] At 5’11, 183 pounds, with a body mass index of 23%, Aeneas Ashbridge cannot touch his toes or complete a set of 20 pushups without significantly pausing between sets or becoming lightheaded. Despite retaining most of the musculature from his youth, his body has accumulated excess fat in the stomach region and now exhibits the dreaded “pear shape” whenever he wears tighter fitting pants. The greatest contributor to his weight gain is seldom exercising and a predilection for complex carbohydrates, including fried potatoes or “fries,” which he consumes to a greater than average degree because of an adherence to an unbalanced vegetarian diet that was adopted in 1993 for avowed moral and ethical reasons. 

April Twentieth

My mind was rabid at night! It was impossible to sleep through the howling. I aimed to gingerly moderate the chaos within my three-pound universe. I used to have epilepsy. Actually, I still did, but now it was firmly under the control of medication.

I don’t know why I said that. The truth is I don’t have epilepsy. Things may have been different if I did; they might have been better, happier. I might have gotten more attention from people. Trips to the doctors. Lollipops. Pats on the head. Ice cream floats at the malt shop.[1] Weekends at the zoo.

The epilepsy could have been a divine mark, a token of my unique covenant with the creator of this world. I might have shaken for Him! A divinely sanctioned shake! An infallible shake teeming with mystic rage! Instead, I have to settle for this unnatural epilepsy.

I could not stop thinking! It is all the same to me, but my body would be tired in the morning. And so I remained awake while my body did most of its nightly housekeeping. Clearing the neural pathways and such, testing the connectivity between the hemispheres and lobes and subdivisions, testing the pH levels of the cerebro fluid, the flow through the aqueducts, the moxie of the arachnoid mater.

It’s kind of frightening to witness the restorative procedure. It’s like being awake during surgery, listening to the surgeon flapping his lips about penny stocks or male stockings or golf handicaps, while his fingers expertly jostled your huffy appendix, prepping it for removal. Despite your apprehension (Guys, I’m awake here!), you kept your mouth shut. You did not want to interrupt the team. You chose to remain professional. You wisely nestled into the arête of the moment.

It reminded me of my office job somehow—infinite data configuring and processing. All I saw were fractions and percentages being worked out in my brain and through my body; my internal eye goggled by the swift and precise body algebra.

Bright morning light. I woke up groggy and sore. I do not even remember sleeping. My mind awoke a few moments before my anesthetized body. It’s a very strange phenomenon to feel like you’ve been buried alive. You say to your listless body, ‘Move, you moron, move!’ But it doesn’t respond to your barking commands. It has become autonomous and it expresses that newfound independence by lying inert. You man the helm again and tighten the reins, ‘Move, you idiot!’ Your body jerks back to life and distrustfully follows your orders once more. But for a minute there, you get a penetrating glimpse into something you’ve never seen before, yet it’s something you’ve always been aware of.[2]

I sat up on the edge of my bed and I stared absently at the carpet. How many threads were suffocated in the making of that rug? I reached over to the IQphone and called the automated weather and news guy. He was cordial. Always a gentleman. I listened but I did not hear a single word he said. The living room stinked like aged vomit. Maybe I would buy a dog so it could lick it up for me or maybe I would just move out of the apartment altogether. Anything to avoid cleaning that spectacular mess. A glass of water would do me good. Set me back on course.

I had been waiting for years! Years upon years! What for, you may ask? Well, I don’t seem to know, that’s the problem. I feel like I’m running on a treadmill with a broken switch, or like that guy who had to push a house up that neverending hill, every single day of his life, as a punishment. I’m not sure what I’m waiting for, but I think I’ll wait a bit longer, just a little bit longer. Maybe tomorrow it will come.

I couldn’t wait for Friday. I hated the other weekdays. Friday was always the best day out of the week during high school. The problem now is what to do with myself during the rest of the week. It was a shame to waste the other days. The calendar is a ridiculous thing. Do we really need it structuring our lives? I guess there was no real use in rallying up a mob about it. The sun and the moon were to blame, and there’s not much we can do about them.

Day and night were permanent. At least there was work to fill the space. You got to punch in and out on an unsociable machine at work, and it created an outline of you that was also permanent. Payroll records are as permanent as the true and the good and the beautiful, except payroll was none of these things. Bookkeepers go as far back in time as priests, their austere fastidiousness knowing no bounds because they worked incessantly, tucked away in dry low-lit rooms, amid stacks of ancient dusty books, absorbed by every letter and every number in front of their eyes, busy inscribing your name into the Book of Life.[3]

[1] Aeneas Ashbridge has never in fact been to a malt shop and only romanticizes the idea because of his fondness of reading Teen Harold comix while dining. Teen Harold was written in the 1940s when there was a proliferation of malt shops and was a popular hangout for teenagers.

[2] Sleep paralysis is a phenomenon where people are temporarily unable to move, for seconds, minutes, or even hours, whilst falling asleep or upon waking, characterized by complete muscle atonia, and is often accompanied by terrifying visions of a “ghostly intruder” in the room who threatens to cause asphyxiation. Individuals who suffer from sleep paralysis seem to have trouble distinguishing between states of wakefulness and sleep. Some experts believe there may be link and common ground between sleep paralysis and mental dissociative disorders. Pathological dissociative states include conditions where the individual suffers from a sense that the self or world is unreal, a loss of memory, fragmentation of self into seperate streams of consciousness, forgetting identity, and/or assuming a new self.

[3] Said to be the heavenly registrar of the Latidunarian Church as writ in The Book Of Heavenly Foundations, the last book of Holy Scripture, as written by Saint James Polycorpus.

April Twenty First

Nobody fights directly anymore. All healthy conflict has dissolved into seething subterfuge. The state has ensured that. These days, all meaningful blows are cast economically through underhanded investments and unmerited promotions. If I could, I’d spit on every dollar people earn just to show them that I am aware of what’s going on.’

That entry was a real gem. The tip of the iceberg, from volume three of the life and times of your pale hero. I should etch it into the washroom stalls at work. It shouldn’t be a problem. I always carried a blade with me. You never know when it’s going to come down or who’s going to bring it. I figured the blade makes me square with any one, that is, you have to like my chances. History replays itself. First as truth, then as uncertainty.

On the bus, a gorilla of a man bumped into me as he walked towards the back. He intimidated everyone around him as he sat down. He stretched out his legs, obstructing the path. I fingered the steel in my pocket. You never know when it’s going to come down.

I looked out the window at the cars and buildings and people shuttling past. I thought time was just like that, trotting along like a callous thoroughbred, dragging an equestrian through the muck; mindless of the tenor of the entanglement, the thoroughbred tows the equestrian along until he weakens and crumbles in the dirt.

My IQwatch said it was April 21st and 12 degrees C. My body temperature was 36.9 degrees C. Heart rate 67 bpm. The bus was travelling at 52 km per hour headed northwest on Broadview Avenue. My netbalance was 1284 dollars. There were 2 films and 7 albums on my iAM hawked from the Net, waiting to be digested.[1] My water filter was dangerously low to expiring. I had 2 late bills requiring payment. 7 unread eMessages. 0 phone messages.

I have not written a story in years. The last one I worked on nearly drove me crazy. It was brilliant. But I couldn’t pull it off. It was about a man who transformed into an airport. The only problem was that I couldn’t figure out where to take the metamorphosis from there. I suppose the character could have functioned as a regular airport, chartering flights and moving people across the globe, but that’s where the story kind of stood still on me. I mean, what happens from there? I guess the flights could have some jazzy metaphysical significance.

I spent four years, on and off, researching and creating blueprints for this imaginary airport. I called it the Milton Airport International Limited. Get it? M.A.I.L. ‘I with pure mind by the number four do swear.’ Don’t feel bad, neither did anybody else. I think I saw it in a movie once: ‘If you build it, she will come.’ Well, the four-letter word was out.

[1] One of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century made by physicist Lady Yuri Zhen in 1984. It is said to resemble a “global brain” or a “network of collective consciousness” that encircles the globe like a mesh, hence the populist descriptor “Net.” It is an organic organism that has evolved along with the geosphere and biosphere, functioning like a nervous system for the Earth, which has grown in step and complexity with humankind. The intelligence of this “network of atmospheric neurons” is collective and equally distributed along the net. It emerges from a dynamic network of non-linear interactions between its components and is constantly self-organizing, self-adapting, and self-evolving. It is an open system, flowing, as such it is difficult to define system boundaries. Elements in the system may be ignorant of the behavior of the system as a whole, responding only to the information available to them locally. The number of elements is so sufficiently great that conventional definitions are not only impractical, but cease to assist in understanding the system. It has been called the “network of networks working behind the cloud of clouds.” Humanity is able to “dial-in” and “siphon” the complex, unbroken, interplay of information but no technology has yet been invented that may domineer over its raw natural power and channel it in any resolute manner

  April Twenty Third

On the couch. Do I start my week over or sink even further? I cleaned the vomit off my floor this morning. There was no use in trying to evade the stench any longer. I am so tired of the whole affair. It is too existential. The barf, too Nekrasovian[1], too pretentious. It has been going on for too long. It is like gnashing teeth in a mirror. There’s no reason to play the scapegoat when nobody’s watching. I could write an account of it, a memoir or something, but what’s the point? I’m not going to trouble myself. There are too many books in the world as it is, and, besides, this story’s too old and too crusty. If you pat it on the head it grumbles like an old man taking his pills. It’s better to leave one’s self alone and I’ve been tinkering under the hood far too long.

I’ve propped a tyrant over myself for close to a decade now. It has been agonizing. I think it’s best to settle for an oligarchy when considering self-rule. That way, only your strongest drives lead the council. To set a dictatorship over oneself is brutal. The violence is always direct and immediate. It means suffering all of the time because you never quite measure up to your own fascistic standards. The burden is always too heavy and the pressure doesn’t cease until you’re crushed. A democracy is the worst of all—the weak drives temper the strong drives. You end up becoming a knave. Like I said, it’s best to leave one’s self alone.

I’ve rehearsed every experience you can imagine internally: How it feels like to contract typhus while performing an autopsy free of charge, being carefully shaved by a butcher and then promenading around the city showing off your re-attached nose, donning a peasant wardrobe shunning all social responsibilities and duties, on a mercurial quest to assassinate the Emperor, prostrating yourself before a holy man and kissing the Earth in repentance?

I’ve learned that if a person is motivated and wily enough, the entire history of the world can be reproduced and re-experienced internally.[2] From the yawn of the loftiest Monarch as he rises from his lavish bed at noontime, to the sigh of the poorest pauper crashing on a park bench under a blanket of newspapers at midnight, all of it, everything in between, can be dragged unto the stage or slid under the miscroscope. Every act can be resurrected from the ashen past and examined on the inside. No, it’s best to leave things alone. I won’t not go into it again. I will not tamper with history. I will not tamper with the truth.

To rule over oneself requires extraordinary endurance and strength. Somewhere along the road I lost control of the well-bred inner tyrant and solely identified with the rubbery victim squirming around my guts. If you turned me inside out, you could trace every scar, every wound with your fingertip. There’s an exquisite sadomasochistic record on the inside. Your voice is one of the first things you lose when you wage a war on yourself.[3]

After college, I thought it would be best to detach myself from myself and I haven’t dared look back. These days I see myself through a telescope from somewhere in space. I remember I used to say to my mother in my youth, ‘That star, Mum. I want that star! Give me that star!’[4] It’s funny. Sometimes you get what you wish for the most.

[1] Nikita Nekrasov (1817-1887). Famous novelist whose literary works explore the troubled psychology of characters living through periods of political, social, and religious unrest in his native Scythia.

[2] Late 20th century philosophers have hypothesized that such an undertaking may be possible with the advent of the Net; hawking for the plurality of these perspectives is a different consideration alotogether. Does the Net store the memories of individuals once they have perished or are they deleted and relegated to another realm altogether? How does the Net organize the collective memories of humankind and how can a technology be developed to effectively tap into this index? There are more questions than answers at this point in time and Aeneas’ claim that he may access the Net through mere introspection is grandstanding at its very worse and presently completely unscientific and misleading.

[3] Aphasia can occur suddenly or may develop slowly. Traumatic injuries to the head may cause sudden loss of speech due to lesions of the language-relevant sections of the brain, while tumors and neurological diseases can advance the disease progressively.

[4] Never having named the star he was pointing to, never knowing if it even was an actual star, it cannot be named with any certainty, and apart from several obsessive journal sketches and references to an “Abstrakta,” which is not a recognized star in the solar system, the “phantom” star shall be considered, without being too boldly judgemental, as another reminder of Aeneas’ eccentric, heterodoxical mindset, hereafter referred to as an “Aeneid” for shorthand and clarity of communication. An Aeneid being a statement of amplification, caricatura, egregiousness, misrepresentration, or pretentiousness. These are the five Aeneids

 April Twenty Fourth

I spent the early morning cozying in bed. It was chilly as hell out there. It’s good I kept my socks on. A behavior I’m not prone to repeating. Clothes smother me when I sleep. I like to keep the bare minimum on my skin, the essentials, a t-shirt and underwear, just in case I’m accosted in my sleep by a burglar or a bogeyman. I don’t want to look ridiculous in the brouhaha. Appearances aside, it could get uncomfortable real quick wrestling in the nude. If we were both nude and oiled up it would be different. It’d be considered Neo-Classical.

The shrieking wind dragged its nails across the window. I decided I was just going to lay comfortably in my sheets and enjoy the sound of the elements. What’s another late on my record? Here’s a big middle finger to the world.

There is nothing I have ever wanted more than to kill the voice in my head—the goddamn voice that always has something to say. When I walk down the street, the voice likes to report what it’s thinking. I never manage to do anything, to own any act, because the voice is always talking to me about something.[1]

Well not anymore. I murdered the voice in my head four weeks ago today. I got bone-tired of the dialogue. It was making me sick. It tainted everything I did with noise. Everywhere I went, everything I did, had a verbal soundtrack. Everything around me became intelligible. I had to be conscious of everything and everyone, all the time! So I figured it was either me or the voice that had to go because I was growing horribly pale, turning hysterical like an old shrew, and I hardly ever went outside when I didn’t have to. It was the voice’s fault. It had to be stamped out.

The biggest problem of all was that the voice could mimic anything. If it heard a song it liked, it would practice it all of the time; if there was a noise it appreciated, it would ape it all day long. The voice felt that it had distinct opinions about things, ideas it had to recommend: ‘I like his shoes, but his nose, he’s got to clip that thing.’

The voice would eavesdrop on nearby conversations and relate them to me. It got worse in the underground. It was like the trains inflamed it. It would chatter at such a quick clip that the single voice seemed to multiply and the crowd of them would stammer away endlessly, easily competing with the noise from the trains. It was there that I learned how to kill it. It was the underground that gave birth to my plans.

I invested a large sum of money in IQnoise machines. I bought a large unit for my apartment and an expensive IQmusic player with IQheadphones so that I could listen to white noise IQloops while I commuted to work. It’s not easy to hear the voice in your head when there’s concentrated IQnoise working against it. The IQnoise shreds the voice like shrapnel. At home, I would listen to the IQnoise machine at full volume while I did things. I even left it on at a lower volume while I slept. Little by little, the voice began to grow weary.

In the beginning it vied with the IQnoise, trying to match its volume and output, but it couldn’t. The IQnoise was steady and insistent, whereas the voice took frequent pauses to collect itself. It lacked the stamina for a full-out, bare-knuckle brawl. It began to stammer shortly thereafter, followed by slurred, unintelligible bouts of speech.

I realized then and there that the IQnoise would strangle the voice for me. It would grind it all the way down to gasps and gurgles. I played the IQtapes more, all the time in fact. I even played them at work. Nobody minded. I told them it was therapeutic sound. Everything I did was accompanied by IQnoise. There were streams of it all around me and I swam in it like a little pond fish.

It didn’t take long before it was all over. I can’t remember the exact moment it happened, but I remember what it felt like the day after. The voice in my head drowned in the IQnoise like a bloated drunk in a bathtub. It was like a flash-light went out in my mind, and from there, with each succeeding day, things became less and less familiar, but surprisingly, more vibrant. I felt differently about objects I had grown accustomed to. Things were less defined, more comfortable. Everything was one step darker.[2]

[1] This conflict is either an affected, fifth-degree Aeneid or a candid revelation of Aeneas’ fractured psyche, whose gravitation may be schizotypal in nature. The more relevant question is whether Aeneas’ delusions, if it can be said he is delusional, are monothematic, where a person’s delusional state concerns only one topic, or polydelusional, where an entire array of delusions take residency and arrange themselves like furniture in the psyche. Common monothematic delusions include The Delusion of Doubles: the belief that various people whom the believer meets are actually the same person in disguise. The Perpetual Reigning Empire: the belief that the phenomenol world does not truly exist but was a kind of hologram or illusion put forth to imprison living souls herded by demonic exploiters of mankind. Intermerphosis: the belief that people in one’s environment swap identities with each other whilst maintaining the same appearance. Reduplicative Paramnesia: the belief that a familiar person, place, object or body part has been duplicated. The Solipsistic Prime Mover: the belief that a person is the creator of the world and therefore able to manipulate the world to his or her whims. Subjective Doubling: where a person believes there is a doppelgänger or double of him or herself carrying out independent actions. The Unrecognized Messiah: the belief that a person’s world saving abilities have been denied or unperceived because a person has been relocated in time and/or purposely oppressed by the government, church, or any other autocratic institution.

[2] An insincere and a borderline fourth-degree Aeneid (Misrepresentation)

April Twenty Seventh

On the couch. The IQvision ticker reported another monolith sighting, this time in Stamboul in the Ayasofya courtyard. Exact same measurements as the first black slab that appeared in February in Glastonbury. It could have been a prank from the West to mark the fictional anniversary of Baron Jubrick’s 2001-2031: A Space Inventory. The Moslems were furious at the ‘idolatrous and blasphemous slab’ being placed amidst their place of worship but have no leads as to how this may have occurred within the courtyard’s patrolled area. Nut astrologers believed the Monoliths were alien technology that will usher in the Age of Pisces, while cinema enthusiasts believed the artifacts would fetch a fortune on the black market if retrieved.[1] 2001-2031 was the most boring film ever made. If film reality was going to roll into our own, couldn’t we please live in the carnivalesque world of Kid Wheeler,[2] which was full of pranks and laughs and tomfoolery?

On the balcony. I watched people scurrying below, holding grocery bags, going about their busy meaningful lives. I used to own a pellet gun when I was younger. I would fire holes through pillows and vases, but I could never hit birds or rodents. I wonder, from this height, if I could wallop the people below. I drank eggnog for breakfast. I made it myself.[3] It was the raw egg that worried me.

A small group of crows gathered on an electrical wire, fanning their black tails and bowing with each ‘kaah.’ Look at all those grocery bags! How much do people need to eat? I licked the cinnamon from my lips. It’s one of the few luxuries I could afford. There were others of course, but eggnog was one of my favorites. It’s thicker than milk and smoother than malted. It’s like celebrating Heaven’s Day in one cup.

My mother used to make a special dessert for the family on Heaven’s Day. It was a frozen sweet. I don’t remember the name of it. It was made of chocolate and it had these thin crispy biscuits inside. There were nuts inside the chocolate and a touch of brandy for flavor. I’ve never seen anyone else make it. Nobody even knows what I’m talking about when I mention it. I would do anything for some of that old-time sweetness.

I shoot invisible pellets into a family coming out of a church. I think it’s Eastre today for some religions. I don’t know which is which anymore. Everybody cuts the Savior from his own cloth to measure.[4] A loud and raucous laugh escaped my lips as a kid’s hat went flying in a gale. I headed inside the apartment. Saturday is Professor Whom day: ‘You will be eradicated.’

I washed the dishes and dried them with a rag. I fell between the dish racks, hanging on for dear life. The plates drying alongside me. I saw the tiny fissures in the ceramic. It’s so hard to keep it all together. What’s keeping the bristles in the toothbrush? Holding the expiry of the produce in the crisper at bay? Fluffing the pillows? Collecting the dust from the bookshelves? Opening and closing doors. Walking through. Opening and closing cabinets. Trapdoors. Falling in.[5]

[1] Accurate reportage with a semblance of first-degree Aeneid (Amplification). The above details concerning the monolith sighting are a statement of fact; only some specifics of the story have been omitted, while others have been highlighted. A standard of most journalistic practice, therefore all Aeneidian charges are dropped in this particular instance, and have only really been brought to the forefront for examination because they are scenting of caricature.

[2] Famous film director and actor in silent motion pictures such as The Wild Frontier (1921) and The Modern Man (1932). He became a wordwide icon for his slapstick comedic antics during the early part of the Century. His films are routinely mentioned on industry lists of the greatest films of all time.

[3] 2 cups of whole milk, 2 whole cloves, 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 6 egg yolks, 1 cup of sugar, ½ cup of rum, 2 cups light cream, ½ teaspoon of ground nutmeg.

[4] Yeshua ben Yosef, King of the Israelites (1-77 AD), “the Savior” who united the Kingdom of Israel by virtue of the “Golden System” of governance that cessated all civil strife amongst the twelve tribes. The repute of his leadership spread wide over the ancient world during his reign, and his Golden System directly influenced the governing bodies of the greater region of Palaistine, spreading as far West as the Roman Empire, which was initially discordant with the state of Israel although without ever any official declaration of war, eventually adopting Yeshua’s Golden System as their own in 168 AD, an ideology that is still arguably dominant today in an amended form. Yeshua ben Yosef is one of the most influential moralists and political leaders in the history of mankind. There are thousands of religious and political sects that view him as “the liberator of mankind from class bondage.” His Golden System is one of few successful socialistic political forms of government to have ever spilled outside the borders of philosophic texts. For over forty years, the Kingdom of Israel was a functioning libertarian socialist state, with a thriving economy and a decentralized government. After the death of Yeshua ben Yosef, the Kingdom of Israel fell prey to a form of radical authoritarian nationalism, which led to the Civil War of Israel in 84 AD, breaking the peace in Israel and scattering the twelve tribes across Palaistine.

[5] A third-degree Aeneid (Egregiousness), smarting of delicateness and hyperchondria. Perhaps a somatopsychic symptom of domestic overwork; however, there would have to be a trail of work to consider before graduating to a condition overwork. In this case, there is a nary a trace of domestic or civil production.

April Twenty Ninth

At the office. I peeked at Violet through a crack in my cubicle, who worked in the space beside me. I could only see fragments of her through the partition: her red fingernails on the keyboard, her milky hands guiding the mouse (the button on her left cuff undone), the sacred spot where her thigh met her hip. Everything was so hazy around me. I felt guilty but I’m not a bad person. I know it’s wrong to stare and I don’t want our relationship to be tainted from the very beginning. I supposed she knew my name; our rapport is decent the way it is. But it’s so hard not to look. She’s wearing black high-heel shoes today with a strap around the ankle. One can always imagine what they’d look like…

NOBODY FIGHTS DIRECTLY ANYMORE. THE STATE HAS TAKEN CARE OF THAT[1]

In the washroom. It took my whole lunch break to etch that into the stall. I had to be quiet, but I don’t really see why that ought to be. People feel free to come in here and let them rip anyhow. What’s so criminal about the sound of a knife scratching into…what kind of wood was this anyway? What a stench! I can’t believe these people. I hope they swell to high heaven with their rotten maggot air. I’d like to kick their rolled up newspapers right up their…

I would be overjoyed to get up out of here, kick in the door in the next stall, grab the unlucky bastard by the collar and shake him like a busted piñata, pebbles toppling out! I clenched my fists in the air, barely able to contain my anger, and the knife accidentally fell out of my hands and onto the floor, sliding just outside the stall door. Damn it! There was somebody out there running water! He’s going to see it and report me! But I did not care. Let them all know! I pushed open the door and coolly walked out. To my surprise, it was John Bull. He was running a comb through his hair. He didn’t take notice of me or the knife.

John Bull: 38 Avenue Road, owned a luxury penthouse condominium, a black Porsche, had a Master’s degree in business or something, sported a six-three, two-hundred-and-twenty-pound-frame, was a track and field star in college, an accomplished boxer who enjoyed bodybuilding and sailing his father’s yacht, general manager of the company that’s enslaved me, thirty-four years old, had neat, pomaded black hair, manicured finger nails, an absurdly expensive Swiss-crafted IQwatch, a collection of elegant, custom tailored suits, a gifted speaker with outstanding posture, the most popular man around, and was currently dating Violet Safronov, the woman who works in the cubicle next to me. I folded the knife and tucked it away in my back pocket.

I wondered what he was doing down here, in this specific washroom. Surely he had the key to the executive restrooms. I heard he does this every so often, but to what purpose I’m not sure. John Bull had the aura of a celebrity in this company. He doesn’t own Crocell but he’s the face of it, and much more. Everything he did caused a stir down in the trenches.[2] I heard about his mighty deeds nearly every day of the week. Here we were now, across from each other, and he didn’t even know that I was alive.

I turned the water on and washed my hands. The cold water numbed my palms. John Bull had a way of making everyone around him act in a self-distracted way. I breathed quietly in order to listen to him. I wondered if he had seen the knife. I watched him from the corners of my eyes. He puts his comb away, adjusted his tie in the mirror, and walked out the door. He just dropped off Violet from lunch, I’m sure of it. I see you, John! You don’t see me but I see you!

[1] Graffiti became a worldwide cultural phenomenon for youth in the late 1990s, first as a form of protest, in emulation of the proliferating “terrorist” groups such as the Mauve Nineties and The Black Spider, that emblematically used graffiti as a form political rebellion, and second as a popular form of individual expression.

[2] On March 26, 2001, the announcement of John Bull’s and Tori Rubbers’ annulled relationship arrived via the social media website, “Agora,” four full hours before Bull physically broke the news to Rubbers over a despondent candlelight dinner at Bruno’s on Maiden Lane. Having read the Agora news ticker known as “the Mint,” Rubbers originally disbelieved the report and met with Bull with only slight apprehension. The evening’s dolorous events confirmed in her mind that social media had permanently altered “the way things are supposed to happen,” with the effect sometimes preceding the cause.

May Second

I’ve been late for work eight consecutive days. I wonder if anybody will say anything? I’ve fallen into a pattern recently that’s difficult to break. Two-minutes late becomes four-minutes late, four-minutes becomes seven-minutes. My heart beats faster when I punch the clock. I wonder how the machine represents me?

Everybody I pass on my way to my cubicle gives me a choleric glare, but I don’t let the worms in their eyes frighten me. I’ve worn the same clothes to work five days in a row. I hope nobody notices.

When things get really hairy at work, I look for a nook or a cubby or an alcove where I may ply my trade in secret. I carry a tiny totem in my pocket that permits me to teleport to a likeness of the the ancient Hellenic city of Athanas[1]when I cannot breathe in this world any longer. It is like a lucky charm with teleportative powers. A miniature city carved out of ivory set within a crystal globe the size of medium pearl. Lentil soup for the soul in my employer’s house of atrocities. I will never tire of being called ‘your lordship.’

[1] A first-degree Aeneid (Amplification). exposing an extravagant, over-idealistic self-referential encoding. The imaginary city, named after Aeneas’ mother’s maiden name, is a delusional utopian mental construct and is indicative of Aeneas’ narcissistic self-image and inflated belief of self-worth.

May Fourth

It is a strange thing to hang from this crumbling rock but I will not pull myself up. The view is too great for me to turn away.

My memory draws up these laconic adages out of nowhere. I’m not sure what I meant by that phrase when I wrote it. I think I meant for it to be existential or something. Either way, here I am now hanging from this ‘crumbling rock’—that’s what my life feels like. I don’t get the second part of the quote though: ‘The view is too great for me to turn away.’ What does that mean? What view? What should I be looking at? What should I be seeing?

A loud thud against my window splits my concentration. It’s a pigeon. Nothing but a rotten pigeon. Life is just like that. There are always little arbitrary disruptions thrown my way just to derail my thoughts.[1] It has always been that way for me. When I was a student, I would bury myself in my small bedroom for days at a time, working away on one essay or another. It was so difficult for me to write those papers. I would be in my room all day long trying to find the inspiration to iron out my ideas. Sometimes it would take several hours to write a single sentence. Small bantam things always came my way, taking my hamstrung attention with them.

I would get an itch, for instance, and then that single itch would spread and multiply all over my body. Suddenly, I would be aware that my whole body was itchy. Apparently, my body was itchy all of the time, only normally I would ignore the sensation.

This is the conclusion I finally came to, this is the human condition: mankind is itchy all of the time, and sometimes even profoundly so—I am my head, everything else works against me. I scratch my stomach-itch in abject obedience. I scare the pigeon away. My bedroom is no place for a bird of that stature.[2]

A train of children head to school below. I don’t think I was itchy when I was their age. My fingers smell like banana. You smell like whatever you eat first thing in the morning. A proverb for all the people at my office who skip breakfast and come into work smelling like coffee and cigarettes, or even worse, like yesterday’s leftovers.

[1] A persecutory delusion. Whom or what directed these “arbitrary disruptions”? While not specifically isolated here, at heart, Aeneas believes, irrationally, that the government, aliens, or demons have demiurged these “accidents.”

[2] Presumably, a falcon or an eagle may have better suited somebody of his station and been a welcome addition to the doldrums of his bedroom.

May Sixth

“So, will you be spending Sunday with your mother?”

There’s nothing worse than having Mike Snitman in your nose first thing after lunch. Sniveling Snitman. They call him Snits in the office.

‘Why, what’s Sunday?’ I wrote with black pen over the imprint area of the scratch pad. The Amasia line from Captain Notepad.[1] Standard fifty pound white paper. Fifty-two cents per pad when you purchase five hundred. I hang onto them and file them away when my parley is especially memorable: elequent cursive over the two-dimensional bluish impression of the twain continents that adorns the stationary.

“It’s Mother’s Day. What’s wrong with you? Don’t tell me you forgot your dear old mother?”

 Everybody likes Sniveling Snitman. He’s such a good guy. He sincerely cares about every corporate event, every commercial holiday, every piece of information that crawls through this place, the price of this and the price of that, the price of gas, the daily newspaper, the corporate art that gets shipped to this place, the corporate coffees, the corporate meetings, the corporate lunches, the corporate mail, the corporate eMessages, the corporate handshakes, the corporate slaps on the back, the price of gas, the denigrating talk about the women in the office that in a roundabout way is corporate, the going rate of home mortgages, the leasing cost of one upscale car or another, the usefulness of home exercise machines, the price of gas, the effectiveness of capsule vitamins, how to best cook a steak on the barbeque, and so much more.

In short, he cares about everything that I don’t care about. He was also one of the only people that spoke to me on a regular basis. Even though he always talks about his trivial concerns, he’s not entirely evil. Maybe I shouldn’t be so hard on him, but I just can’t turn my damn head off.

‘I’ll visit my mother.’ I didn’t have anything especially witty to write.

“I sure hope so. Nothing is more important than our mothers, wouldn’t you agree? Well, except our car stereos and the dolls between our sheets. Hah, hah! Right?”

What’s he sniveling about now?

“Did you get the memo from upstairs? We lost the Debreziner account. That’s big, man! That could mean jobs here. Debreziner was a multi-million account. Somebody is going to have to take the hit for that one. A few of us are going for a drink after work to jaw the matter over. We’re really worried down here. With reason, right? From what I hear, Solondz is getting pressure from upstairs to bear down on us. He’s getting all the heat for Debreziner, but it’s not him alone. Solondz! That poor bastard.”

With Snits on your back, it’s like having a bad case of fleas: they get in your socks and in your hair, in your pants and behind your ears. I’ve got a bad case of the Snits and there is nothing I can do about it because he’s one of my only friends around here, only the occasional bites are turning into rivulets, and I don’t know how much more blood I have the courage to lose.

‘I have to get back to work, Mike.’ His scribbled name looms large over SuperAsia like a specter.[2]

“Don’t you care about all of this? The lights are on, but is there anybody home? Take a copy of the morning minutes. Read over them tonight and tell me what you think tomorrow. A lot went on in the meeting. I’m not sure, but there’s more to it than meets the eye. Hey, did you hear about John?”

He brought his body closer to mine, his stubby hand on my shoulder, pink balding head looking around for eavesdroppers, thick coffee-breath fanning across my cheek.

“He’s up to three-twenty five now! Can you believe that? That’s like benching you and me together like firewood! Hee, hee. How about that, huh! Okay, well, I’ll talk to you later.”

I’m bitten all over and there’s nothing I can do. Maybe I’ll get a dog to scratch the fleas off me. I rub the crystal totem in my pocket, yearning for a Hellenic getaway.

[1] Named after the hypothetical supercontinent, not the supermarket chain. Succintly stated, the continents of Gaea are said to have been prehistorically unified and not cleaved into Western and Eastern landmasses.

[2] The Eastern continent that comprises Afrika, Asia, Australis, and the Antarktic

May Ninth

I have no intention of visiting with my mother anytime soon. I haven’t spoken to her in many many years since my biological father died.[1] But I will visit with my grandmother who has been in my life since only recently. I have been doing my very best to take care of her, even though I don’t know all that much about her. Don’t get me wrong, the nursing home she’s living in is a great place. The Elyse Gardens Retirement Village near Mortimer Avenue (Building number 825, just down the street from the Civic Center and across from one of the elementary schools I went to). It’s a nice name for a retirement home.  She gets everything she needs at the Elyse.

My grandmother is afflicted with schizophrenia according to the doctors. What is schizophrenia anyways? What does it mean to be schizophrenic? Is there such a thing as a reality in the world and who can decisively say if the civilized world possesses it?[2] No, I don’t want definitions and I don’t want these types of answers. I have heard enough of them in my lifetime. I have had my share of meetings with doctors and psychiatrists.

Everybody points to chemicals in the brain as the answer to my grandmother’s condition. Chemicals in the brain are a half-truth at best! Chemicals in the brain are a case of mistaking the condition for the cause. Naturally, the specialists are aware of this, but they don’t let on as much.

I sent an eMessage to Mr. Solondz’s telling him that I’m feeling sick this morning and that I won’t be able to come into work. It’s going to look very bad for me, but I’ve got more important things to do today. Besides, what’s another blotch on my stained record? It’s like high school all over again. I am recurrently late and absent. What does that point to? What is the meaning of my being consistently late and absent? What can I say, it must be a chemical thing: ‘It’s the chemicals, sir, something’s a-matter with the chemicals!’

On the couch. There’s an old black and white picture on the IQbox today—some guy gets thrown off a roof and then they put a newspaper over him. It’s a movie about pigeons or something. “Some people think crucifixions only took place in ancient times. They better smarten up! Every time the mob puts the squeeze on a decent man and tries to stop him from playing his part as a good citizen—it’s a crucifixion!”[3]

How can somebody be crucified and not even know it? Can there be such a thing as an invisible crucifixion? The whole matter sounds ridiculous. What will they think of next? Isn’t a crucifixion supposed to be obvious? Isn’t that the whole point of a crucifixion? I don’t know about all this crucifixion business. But I do know that trees shouldn’t be implicated in the mess. It must be unavoidable, somehow.

Blood always finds its ways onto trees. It can’t be helped. It’s one of the Gaea’s deep mysteries. If it were up to me I would spare trees from being cut down entirely. There isn’t a story or a contract in the world worth printing or a crucifix worth crafting if it means cutting down a tree. The way things are now I’d say we’ve gotten our reward. Things have a way of working themselves out. The trees are slowly settling the score. With the score of global environmental crises looming on the horizon, can there be any doubt?[4] Our blood feud has sketched the millennia. The bundled pulp is laid in rows over cold factory floors, there is nothing I can do about that—but I write, that’s what I do in atonement. My boiling blood pored over paper. I hope my life will satisfy the trees in the slightest.

Lying on the floor. I’ve read somewhere that the entire universe is composed of numbers and that numbers are not merely aggregate indicators of amounts (like how are there are twelve planets in our solar system or that it takes Trismegistus[5] one-hundred-and-twenty-two days to make one full revolution around Sol), they are living deities, each with its own unique personality and occult powers. If my teachers taught math this way in high school, I might have actually paid attention, instead of surfing through the black holes in my mind and ending up in summer school with the rest of the flunkies.

A cross has four sides, so what does that mean? If the number four is a deity, he or she is probably some math geek with a cross fetish and a gluttonous appetite for inflicting punishment. In Hebrew, God’s personal name is a four-letter word made up of four consonants. I can’t write Hebrew, but in Roman it is rendered as ‘YHWH.’ Does that mean ‘YHWH’ is the number four deity? Then who is the God of all numbers? Phoebus the Radiant? Either way, I take back the geek comment. I should avoid probing too deep or pissing off the wrong deities. Who knows what rock I might kick over in my explorations and what size scorpion may be lurking beneath?

Cutting through an alleyway. A small bag of ketchup chips and a Cherry OK to wash it down. Written on the wall is: TERRY ROSE WHERE DID YOU GO?[6] I spray-painted that a few years ago in quite a few places across the Narrows. That was before Project Typhon and BOUNDLESS.[7] I thought I could walk to the park and have a turn on the swings. Bater Avenue to Floyd. I’ve always loved the name ‘Floyd.’ The word sounds fluorescent or something. It’s a cool word in any case. I wouldn’t mind if I grew up on a street called ‘Floyd.’ I grew up on ‘Grandstand’ and before we moved there we lived on ‘Frankdale.’ You can kind of tell what kind of person you are, or will end up becoming, just by looking at the name of the street(s) you grew up on.[8]

I currently live on ‘Broadview’ and before that I lived on ‘Grandstand’ and before that it was ‘Frankdale’ and before that…well I can’t remember that far back. Starting with ‘Broadview,’ well…the meaning is fairly obvious. Picture me on my eighth floor balcony, overlooking the expanse of Queen City. Granted it’s only the eighth floor. We’re not talking atop a tower-peak or anything. Still the view from the top of the building is quite far-ranging. I’d like to describe it as encyclopedic, but I can’t back that up. ‘Broad’ sounds about right.

‘Grandstand’ speaks for itself. My life has been one fearless grandstand against the Narrows—a steel-palm to the face, a granite-knee to the groin, a hammer-stomp on the foot. The unstoppable force versus the immovable object. Hercules versus Atlas, Achilles versus Troy, Socrates versus Athens, the Savior versus Rome. The heroic tradition continues. I couldn’t wait to reach the swings. I popped open the bag and crunched a chip. I slurped some Cherry OK. It only burned a little at first and then it was pure sweetheart joy. There was a guy running in my direction from the far end of Floyd. He seemed to be waving me down. I hastily swallowed the jagged, half-chewed chips.

“Hey, man.”

I half-nodded in acknowledgment.

“You don’t remember me, do you? We went to Coxburn together. Jimmy. Jimmy Cassias. That ring a bell?”

I shook my head.

“You don’t remember me, right? You’ve got amnesia? Is that it? You owe me money, Dimo! Two-hundred large!”

I tried to steer clear of him.

“You’re not trying to walk away, are you? You’re not trying to Dimo…Duma…what the fuck’s the difference when you owe two-hundred large! Give me your wallet! I’ll take what you owe.”

I pushed his roving hands away.

“You owe me money! Why so quiet, huh? You owe me! I knew you’d do this!”

He jabbed my stomach with something sharp. I turned to break his husky grip, but he held me tight by the shirt.

“Don’t do that. We’re old friends, right? Just give me the leather.”

Another jab to the ribs. He reached around and pulled the wallet out from my back pocket.

“Don’t make me do this, Dimo. Just pay up!” He opened up my wallet and rustled through the bills. “Thirty-bucks? You’re skint worse than me! Here, just to show you I’m not a bad guy, take your wallet back. I’ll get the rest from you next time. You won’t forget next time, right? Here’s so you won’t forget!”

Three more lances to the stomach and I was on the ground trying to regain my breath.

The ketchup chips and the Cherry OK had spilt everywhere. He must have been using a key between his knuckles. Rotten bastard! What the hell was he talking about? Owing him money? From Coxburn? I don’t think I’d forget a low-life mug like his. Two-hundred bucks? For what? If that was a knife I’d be dead right now instead of lying in a pool of OK Kola.

Speaking of knives, where’s mine? I must of left my steel at home! Damn it! He’s long gone now anyway. How could I’ve left my steel at home? What’s wrong with me? Here’s an opportunity to stand up for the oppressed and nothing! I go down like some little kid getting punked in the schoolyard, folding to his knees after one punch to the breadbasket. Alright, take it easy. It wasn’t one punch. I took like five or six jabs and with a key! He jumped me too. Acting like he knew me. He got lucky, that’s all. I’m going find that tricky bastard and pay him back rightwise! I always get tripped up with technicalities. If he challenged me straight-up, with no tricks or anything else allowed, there’s no way he could have beat me. I’ll get him back! Slippery bastard! Where are the authorities anyhow? All that BOUNDLESS video and nobody to survey it.

[1] Jean-Jacques Louis, Aeneas’ biological father, died of heart complications whilst traveling cross-country on a bus. In his will, he bestowed upon Aeneas’ his entire inheritance, including a ‘47-48′ Maurice Rochon rookie card, a bronze Attic helmet with a griffin crest, and his meager cash holdings. 

[2] A flagrant, world-contempting, third-degree Aeneid (Egregiousness).

[3] Crucifixion was an archaic and barbaric form of torture where a vicitim is nailed to a piece of wood, composed of an upright and transverse beam, and left to hang until dead. The Romans were very fond of crucifixion to humiliate insurgents against the empire. It is often cited as a political symbol of the oppressed agonizing under the boot of the empire.

[4] Every minute over 50 acres of tropical forests are destroyed. Mankind releases 37 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide every year. The level of carbon dioxide in the 20th century has been the highest in history. By 2060, 24% to 37% of our plant and animal species will be wiped out. There will be an increase of 23 inches in sea levels by 2075.

[5] The deified, planetary form of “thrice-great” Hermes Trismegistus, priest, philosopher, and king, who authored a plenitude of writings of “high standing and immense antiquity,” including the Corpus Hermeticum, which demonstrates the verity of the prisca theologia and includes the three parts of the wisdom of the whole universe. Hermes Trismegistus is the smallest and closest to Sol of the twelve planets in the solar and is the most rapidly moving. The Passage of Hermes Trismegistus across Sol takes place every four years when Hermes comes between Sol and Gaea, and Hermes is seen as a small black dot moving across the face of Sol. Transits of Hermes occur in May or November. The last Passage occurred in 1997 and the next transit will occur on May 17, 2001, Sol willing.

[6] Terry Rose was Aeneas’ oldest friend. They have known each other since birth and have been together through countless hairy situations. Terry Rose is 6’1, 190 lbs, with long blonde hair and blue eyes. He was quick to anger and more loyal than a St. Bernard, physicality indefatigable, and courageous beyond measure. He was also prone to dishonesty and often disrespectful of authority and institutions. A student to the “code of the street,” he was without belief in schools of higher learning, except for a conspicuous and ardent fascination with the figure of Yeshua ben Yosef, which is mostly due to the influence of Aeneas’ inordinate obessesion with all things Yosef, heedless of their historicity or apocryphal nature. His father, Andy, an obdurate thief and fanatical gambler, had driven his family to financial ruin and to the point of vagrancy on more than one occasion. His mother, Olivia, crippled by the shame of their destitution and her consequent isolation, more often than not, was rendered mute and delegated to utterly inconsequentiality. Andy disappeared without a trace sometime in Terry’s youth, leaving Terry to care for his mother and younger brother, Caleb. 

[7] The BOUNDLESS surveillance program was developed as a necessary tool to fight terrorism, prevent social unrest, protect national security, fight child pornography, and protect citizens. Project Typhon was initiated on March 3, 2000, after top-secret documents were stolen from the Octagon on June 3, 1999, and leaked in Asia the following month. The documents were purported to contain top-secret military Intel and the leak was labeled as “the most catastrophic blow to Amerikan intelligence ever” by influential Amerikan journalist and Evening News anchor Billy Batson. It is estimated over one trillion dollars were spent in generation of Project Typhon in GreatAmerika in 1999 and 2000.

[8] A completely invalid theory and a third-degree Aeneid (Egregiousness) to boot

May Tenth

A darkness is coming that will blanket Queen City like an ominous cloud.  A nefarious mass is fast approaching that threatens to swallow us whole. We are teetering on the brink of hell, my brothers and sisters. A large number of forces are currently acting against us, blunting the restorative activity of our souls. The most alarming of these forces is the increasing accumulation of men and women in cities resulting in more and more useless occupations: labor for the sake of labor and nobody knows what is on the end of our long fork anyways!

Where’s this numbness coming from if not our jobs? People commit crimes just to make news and sell more newspapers; waste creates new and interesting job opportunities; homes are built to store exciting new products. Those of us with any sense left take the money and run, becoming islands unto ourselves. What is left for a man to do? Buy the super-special-savings package: car-life-wife insurance, micro-kid-garden-wave set, ultra-thin-garage-tool-weight kit: two-for-the-price-of-one, buy-one-get-one-free, air-mile-rain-check, buy-now-save-later, club-pack deal.

These jobs that stupefy us are directly responsible for producing a craving for spectacle. Something has to happen all the time! Whatever it may be, it is there in plain view for all of us to see. Of course, it never is what it says it is. Different names and titles and packages is how it keeps us distracted and thirsting for more. But we forget to study the past. Where have we come from? Can the past tell us where we are going? We forget because there is so much, too much to remember. It is such a great weight to carry and for too long a time.

The last thing I remember is the height, the image of the height; there is such a great height for us to climb down from, to crash down. It is accepted because the spectacle is what we’re after anyhow, the payoff for a life of choking labour, needling morning bells, and grubby bus fare. There is nothing more exciting than a loud crash: a bang and a boom, we all fall down!

When I think of the immensity of our degrading thirst, I am almost ashamed to speak of the feeble attempt made in these journals to stifle it. Our coming fall is rattling in my ears, a shallow clicking behind my eardrums. Even the end will arrive too late to save us from our boredom.

Reflecting upon the scale of general evil, I shudder to think of our chances to survive the approaching darkness had I not a deep belief in a certain indestructible quality within us to oppose this spectral presence. The time is fast approaching when the evil of our city will be opposed by men of greater power than myself and with far more success.

Mankind will outlast the cockroach. This is my great belief. God will not smother us with another flood because even the waters are polluted and the Almighty does not like to get his sleeves dirty. We need more time. There is still time. Please wait for us. It’s not time.’[1]

Queen City. There will be a reckoning time for the Narrows, a sealed moment when our quarrel will come to head. You’ve got the squeeze on me but I’m getting closer to your black heart. I’m getting closer everyday and I will draw a bead on you! It’s either you or me that has to go.

I walked out on the balcony and gazed fixedly at the horizon. I was feeling more and more tired every single day. I didn’t know what to do to fix myself. My stomach felt like it was lined with barbed wire. I wanted to crank my head off my neck for a moment just so I could breathe comfortably. The sky was heavy with rain clouds. The Narrows would have to weather a storm today. A small flock of geese dashed across the sky. An armada of black bombers. I had a toothache that was driving nails into my sinuses. I could barely hold myself up from under the pain. Numberless pellets trailed down after the thunder and I retreated back into my cave to rest my foundering back.

The Myth of the Ubiquitous Man’ was a brief story I wrote while I was in high school at Coxburn. Maybe I was overly sentimental, but I could not help looking back. I remember being in that classroom, somewhere near the outskirts, staring pensively out of the window.[2]

Sitting alone at my desk, after years of shrewdly keeping to myself, harnessing all of my strength to remain composed, while every fiber of my body wanted to speak out, to be heard against my own will, I would heroically redirect emotions towards the inside the way a dam controls the flow of water in order to build a reservoir. It was the only way I knew of coping with the feeling that I would die from the humiliation of being a person like any other.

Every day I felt like I would be rendered to pieces from some unknown presence, from violent hands invisible. Building a reservoir was how I coped. I sat vigilant at the fringes of the classroom, watching the birds freezing outside the second-storey window, huddling together to brave the cold and I helpless to rescue them, wanting to feel the bitter bite of the cold with them.

The exam sheets were handed out face down along with foolscap paper. I hadn’t studied, as was my custom. I had barely attended class during the year. Wait, that’s an exaggeration—I was in school two-thirds of the required time, an admirable fraction upon reflection. There was one major question on the exam. I can’t remember what it was exactly, but I do recall that the question was fairly straightforward. Something to do with the media, I think,  examining the notion of books becoming bestsellers due to celebrity endorsement. I don’t remember exactly because I didn’t even care at the time.

I responded to the question indirectly with a fictional piece. The title came to me in a flash and I spent the first part of our allotted time, a little over an hour, contemplating the meaning of the title before I began to write. What came next was furious and original. I can’t even say where it came from or what kindled the inspiration; it was like a flame darting across my mind, inciting a big bang in the consciousness of my consciousness. I needed to act immediately. I pulled two pens out my bag: a red and a black.

There were two points of view in ‘The Myth of the Ubiquitous Man’ illustrated through alternating currents of dialogue. The red ink represented the thoughts of the man, while the black sketched the city view: the reflections of buildings, streets, and the surrounding industrial area.

A man cannot battle a city anymore than a flesh and blood being can antagonize a ghost, but this type of logic did not impede the Ubiquitous Man. He could be as spectral as his foe. Buildings and streets were not ethereal, they were solid and real, but this was only the outward form of an ancient residing evil. Some malicious entity circumnavigated these Druidical structures, tightening its stony grip over all who lived amongst brick and mortar. Red was vital, black was void.

There was the common material perspective of the city in black and then there was the red vision the Ubiquitous Man imparted. The ‘Ubiquitous Man’ was only one of many titles this man held. ‘The Hammer’ was another. What kind of man was this? What was he trying to accomplish?

He told his followers to keep his identity a secret. He tried to keep hidden, but the city knew all about him. It was conspiring to bring him out into the open where he would be powerless before the narrow sidewalks and the colossal skyscrapers; defenseless before the sewers containing agents of unspeakable horror, fuming noxious gases amidst the unassuming populace; lost below the numberless telephone wires, the veins of the city reaching across the landscape like dark industrial jungle vines, innocuous and stretched dormant until they are requisitioned to make a sortie.

Everything in the city was part of some secret operation to make the invisible visible and the Hammer was no exception. In fact, he was a very important target. The city bided its time, drawing him out, sinew-by-sinew. A squint here and a dust-up there, the Hammer knifed from left to right, in and out of corners and dirty alleyways, but it was getting harder and harder to hide in the city.

Through some enigmatic sleight of hand, the Hammer could vanish from sight like no other. I don’t know how he does it. When the going gets tough and his back is against a wall—poof—he was gone! Here today, gone tomorrow. He puts salt on those familiar words.

Cemeteries were once an excellent hiding place for him. The somber atmosphere of the tombstones lent itself to the subterranean nature of his schemes, and even if there were such a thing as ghosts in the morose surroundings, he would remain calm and sensible, confident all the while that he could teach them a thing or two about the haunting business.

He would stray through the city like some mangy alley cat, not having bathed in over a week, the words of Pylos John[3]waltzing through his mind:

‘We are not wrestling against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against wickedness in high places under various guises. Therefore put on the whole armor of truth and light that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand with the sword of spirit in hand triumphant.’

He drawled the words often, changing them each time. Mostly he would utter them to himself and he would get goose-bumps even without an audience. This is where the story neared its finale.

The Hammer told his followers, the few in number, to keep his teachings secret and invisible. Everything about him centered on invisibility. That was the way of the Hammer. The silent wrecker of cities, the mousy dissipater of civilizations, he was everywhere and nowhere. He was everything human that survived wars and economic depressions, widely outrunning disease and famine, loved and prized beyond the yoke of any government. He would come around every so often, whispering into people’s ears, giving shape to their dreams and voice to their buried anxieties, the people’s champion if there ever was one…if such a wishful character could ever exist, stories about them wouldn’t be necessary. Or was it the other way around? Are the stories written to record the deeds of these heroic individuals or perhaps to harbinger their arrival? I wish I knew.

[1] Composed on April 1, 1999, after a long and dark night of the soul. Half-sincere, with one eye on the page and the other turned inwards, in a reflective and self-congratulatory fashion, Aeneas imagining himself to be a serious writer, penciling serious writing, that will somehow be revealed to the world at large through some happy accident and change the course of history. A fifth-degree Aeneid: pretentious, dry, haranguing, pseudo-literary drivel.

[2] Staring moodily out of windows and other theatrical gestures is a staple of coming-of-age novels.

[3] Pylos John or John the Revelator, was a first-century philosopher and mystery-religion priest who believed that Yeshua ben Yosef had been resurrected from the dead, rose to the heavens, and would return, at the end of days, to judge the dissenting tribes of Israel and restore order to the world. The Enchiridion of John is one of the most influential monist texts from the ancient world, analysing the life of Yeshua ben Yosef and interpreting his writings from under an idealistic and exultant lens. The Enchiridion of John is a manual on how to live in concord with the risen Yeshua ben Yosef and The One.

May Eleventh

Mother’s Day. I woke up tangled in blue-gray sheets. Breadcrumbs pricked my back as I rolled out of bed. There was a book under my elbow.  I do not read very much anymore. Not since my college days. My bedmate last night was The Anatomy of Pensive Sadness. I’ve been reading it, on and off, for four years and I still haven’t finished it. There’s a bookmark between the chapters titled ‘Heroic Love Producing Sorrow’ and ‘How Cruel Love Bullieth Man.’ I read a few pages last night and then I fell asleep. Sometimes I read it just to sneeze. All those old pages, so full of dust. I loved the way things tingled after a strong muscular sneeze.[1] A prolonged ladling yawn was just as good.

I was in a bad state last night, pining over one thing or another, sifting through my memories, especially one day in particular I had spent with Heloise a few years back.[2] I had just received my letter of acceptance from college and we were both very happy. It was on a Friday, sometime in June. She came to my home first thing in the morning after I had called her.

I remembered opening the front door and she swept in like a warm summer breeze. It was sunny outside, so she was wearing a long flowery dress that just covered her knees. On her feet she wore a set of plum-colored slippers that had sparkling laurel ornamentation stitched to the fabric. Her graceful arms and shoulders were concealed by a light lavender cardigan, unbuttoned down the front. She was a sweet darling thing with beautiful raven locks that clung to her shoulders. Her walnut eyes highlighted by a brush of sandy shade.

She came in warm and loving, putting her arms around me pressingly for what seemed like an eternity, and her body and her aroma like a summer garden I fell into long ago as a child, wrapped in feathery Chrysanthemums and the dewy grass smoothing my shirt to my back, a moment so beautiful everything turned luminous with joy.

I showed her my acceptance letter and her eyes gleamed with enjoyment. Again she pressed me to her breast and I nearly fainted with pleasure. Heloise was my friend but not quite my girlfriend. We had never kissed, except on the cheek a couple of times, but those coral endearments were far from usual. I had bumped into her  the summer after I graduated from Coxburn in a café where I had worked as a waiter.

I had got the part time job at the Tarte Tatin[3] through a friend of mine who was a dishwasher. It might as well have been called the Taffy Tarturus considering the seedy things I saw going on there—the staff was notorious for sleeping with each other and with select customers, a real swinging joint. I was the exception of course and I’d like to believe that, Randolph,[4] one of my noblest friends, never acquainted himself with the Tarte’s underbelly either, wolf’s teats and all.

Six women worked there: six crooked necks navigating over twelve manicured feet, emerging out of inky-darkness to devour the men and women that approached the grounds of the café. Day and night the gossip spewed out of their mouths, discharging the half-digested limbs and skulls of their victims in torrents of brown, red-flecked ooze.

I had recorded some of their dialogues in a little black notebook I call ‘Tart Sayings.’ I was ashamed of the book and I don’t know why I bothered copying those loathsome phrases. I really can’t explain it. I suppose it’s because I held a certain idealized view about women until I got the serving job at the Tarte. I thought they were otherworldly beautiful, possessing neither corruption in body, nor stain in mind, creatures of angelic countenance and disposition that could only be approached by the worthiest of gentleman—men who had attained the highest degree of self control and made the mark of a champion in the world, combining the prized skills of a monk, a philosopher, an artist, a warrior, and a king. My ideas were stupid. I find them to be warty and hunchbacked now. They nauseate me to the back of my teeth and yet there is something there that still pierces my heart ever so slightly, a tiny moment of suffocation, but slighter than last year’s breathless sensation.

‘Tart Sayings’ does not reproduce the dialogues as I heard them. It provides neither context nor narrative. There’s a letter before the saying designating the speaker. For instance, in saying sixty-two ‘A’ (Alex) says: ‘I hear when a man is a vegetarian his —– tastes better.’

I ploughed through the raw dialogues and refined them in terms of brevity and clarity, making them succinct expressions of dark hellish sexuality. I left out the letters that made up the vulgar words. It’s funny, sometimes I have these dreams where I find the letters in the most mysterious and ridiculous of places. Once I dreamt I was having breakfast, eating that brand of cereal with the letter-bits, and the letters formed raunchy words in the milk of their own accord, and I ate those moist horny words in ravenous mouthfuls.

There was also this other recurring dream that plagued me, where I was standing in a pool of blood coming from the body of a man I had seemingly killed.[5] I don’t know how I killed him and the only reason I believe I may have killed him is because I was standing in his blood that was flowing everywhere. His dead eyes were wide open, staring into empty space, and his pastel lips were parted, perhaps from shock, perhaps from regret. I can trace the dark veins in his pale face. But I can’t tell where the blood is coming from because there are no visible wounds on his body. There’s just this dark puddle of ooze.

The dark roads were empty and the street lamps could barely illuminate the rural area. The night air was so rank and humid that I could barely breathe with everything tasting like copper. The saliva was growing thick in my mouth. I wanted to spit but I couldn’t find the bare cement. It’s all so bloody! All of a sudden this mob came out of nowhere and they were acting completely crazy. They were shouting and they wanted to know what had happened to the villager who went by the name of ‘Parsons’. I wanted to say something in my defense but I did not dare spill my saliva. The mob was so angry and defeaning that I couldn’t make out what they were saying. Their faces were in shadow. All I could clearly see were their hands, which were contorting strangely, making batty villainous gestures. Non-compis mentis!

Their shouts grew menacing but the mob remained transfixed, unwilling to trample the dead body or the streaming blood to get to me. I managed to make out certain phrases in the cacophony like ‘grab him’ and ‘let’s string him up’ that made me very afraid for my own safety. So I bolted. I ran like I had never run before, but I couldn’t see where I was going because I could only see through the bottom of my eyes, narrow slices of vision to avoid colliding into walls.

I entered a dark tapering alleyway, and I climbed atop a metal staircase that clanged as I ascended but headed nowhere, so I perched myself there like a pigeon. I could only keep track of my lumpish feet and my puckered mouth that was swelling with saliva. I couldn’t even pant from the chase because I did not want to spit.

All of a sudden I was cornered! There was no way out of this labyrinth of blind alleys and dead-end staircases! There was no way to pull myself out of there and nothing large enough to hide behind.

I could only turn back, but that way lied damnation, and those hands, those many wicked hands, ready to wring my neck! I was weary and desperate. There was nothing I could do, nowhere I could turn. I could hear my fate chugging up the metal staircases like a speeding train that’s about to hammer a clueless fox crossing the tracks at the edge of a forest’s clearing.[6]

All of its life the fox didn’t know anything, except perhaps the oily taste of its prey, the crispy sounds of rustling leaves, the light of the parent sun filtered through branches bedecked with flaring greenery and tweedling bird nests. But judgment abruptly fell upon the fox in the prime of its life, in its youth really, mangling its poor body and banishing the comforting sunny caress of life. Shadow blanketed the fox’s clueless eyes and it would never know anything again.[7]

No more breezy play in the wild, no more boisterous rolling in the dirt, or chasing fleet footed mice into bushy shrubs, no more lapping chilled water from the azure stream,  or afternoon nestles in the bank under the shadow of a heavy set oak tree. Where did this forbidding judgment come from and why did it have to fall on the fox at that precise moment? Was it because the clueless fox left the safety of the trees in order to cross over to the other side of the woods? What sacred border did the fox transgress to merit such a punishment or was fate like some random intercessional adding machine, producing sums apart from sanction, without request or a final objective?[8]

The mob finally cornered me like a wanted felon. Hands threatening me with grotesque gesticulations. Penetrating voices that refuse to be calmed. ‘Truly,’ I said, ‘I don’t know why the man is dead or who killed him.’ All I knew was that I was not guilty. But they wanted answers and I could not speak. The saliva in my mouth was as thick as cement. My stolid tongue and puffy cheeks were painfully frozen in place. I began to fumble through my pockets for answers and the cutout letters rushed to my aid! The missing dirty words from ‘Tart Sayings’! I might have been saved except phrases like ‘duck butter’ did not explain very much. I kept pulling letters out of my pockets, trying to make words on the pavement (‘circle jerk’), but they were no better than the first batch.[9]

I was in a dire pinch and the imminent threats only got worse. Out came the macabre pincers, and then I would finally wake up to the sound of my own screaming voice, just as the mob began tearing at my limbs with ropes, levers, and hooks. I hated to leave my dreaming body in such a bind, but when those pincers and leavers showed up, it was every godforsaken man for himself! Yellowbelly or no, I did not want to see what they did with those goddamn Roman contraptions. I was not curious in the least.

It’s uncanny how dreams haunt our waking lives. They affect us more profoundly than we can ever understand. We try to the brush them away like cobwebs out of the air in order to gain a clearer view of our surroundings, but we are constantly enmeshed in the silken threads of sleep, unable to gain a legitimate foothold in the world because we are held prisoner just above the ground. We are knotted to the unfathomable and something hideous emerges from the fog, snatching us away in its perilous jaws, and dragging us back to the void from whence it came.

I read a book sometime ago that compared our bright waking lives to a boat marooned in the middle of a vast ocean: a dinky rowboat drifting upon limitless waters that are dark to the core and impenetrable to the human eye. We can be swallowed at any time. The mere thought made me shudder. We are all trying to keep afloat, our hands anxiously clutching the boat’s sides to keep it steady, but the vessel rocks uncontrollably and from moment to moment the threat of capsizing is real. What’s more, the feeling of approaching danger will not subside, and you feel like you’re going to unravel at the seams, which is better than falling into the dark waters precisely because they’re bottomless. And yet, paradoxically, you hope you will fall into the dark waters because nothing can plummet forever.[10]

Of course you’ll drown. That’s a consolation but it’s hardly a relief. In truth, your heart pounds louder than it ever has before at the thought of the boundless space below. You know you‘ll die in the first few moments after falling into the water from complete terror. A tiny speck plummeting into the opaque limitless depths of the ocean—what’s a personality then, what’s courage or intelligence? Everyone becomes faithless at that point. It’s worse than a snake pit or the guillotine. It’s worse than anything.

Nothingness is the only escape from this fate; however, nothingness is just a restatement of the dark waters in the first place, but in the abstract. Things are more comforting in the abstract. Nothingness is not as terrifying as sinking into the dark blue waters and not being able to see more than five feet around you and suffocating in the infinite stillness. A scream can’t be heard in the abyss and you can’t muster the concentration for a prayer, not that it could avail you—God’s face moves upon the face of the waters, but in the void, you’re on your own, staring down darkness, the mask of the deep.

It was already four in the afternoon. If I did not hurry, I would not get a chance to see my grandmother today. I hated losing track of time whenever I am deep in thought. It’s like I’m outside of time. Everything earthly escaped me because my mind was somewhere else, maybe together with my soul, upwards, numbering amongst the carnival of stars—in the arms of the infinite and beyond, floating in space, dazzling with the nebula, riding the glowing carousel with the comets and the streaking stars.

I have forgotten what the visiting hours are on Sundays. Maybe Mother’s Day was an exception on the calendar, with the visiting hours being extended. I had not showered nor shaved and I badly needed some lunch. Toasted sunflower bread with sliced tomatoes and cheddar cheese slivers. Not bad. A sandwich with freshly squeezed orange and grapefruit juice on the side. Even better.

At the bus stop. It was slightly cold outside and very windy. My hair was being tousled all over the place. I matted it down with my palms and fingers every few minutes. The sycamore trees looked fire-golden. The brown and yellow leaves shimmied off the branches, garlanding the lance-shaped leaves of the evergreen below. I looked at my reflection in the glass of the bus booth. I could barely see my features, with the poster behind the glass covering most of the pane. There were a few strands of hair poking out. I was not as perfect as the guy in the poster. His hair was smooth, while mine was curly and tangled. I was also very pale. I bet he got lots of sun laying around the beach with his surfboard. He was shirtless and his jeans were fit lower, much lower, than they should have been. Maybe he didn’t like girls at all. There was always more to do with the boys anyway.

I didn’t play with girls much growing up. They were always slower than the boys. They didn’t understand my games or they found them boring, and they always put limits on what they would or wouldn’t do. Us boys always looked for limits and tried to break them. How far could you jump off a moving swing? Could you touch that branch on the way up and pull the leaves off the tree on your way down? These were the things that mattered.

With girls it was always different. It always started and ended with the ‘blah-blah-blah,’ their mouths seemingly bigger than their bodies. But it was always nice when they sat away in the distance and watched our antics, probably talking about who they wanted to marry or take to the prom, or something. I jumped just a little further for them, spoke a little louder, and made bigger gestures; in short, I made quite a dust up for the little Heloises and Lavinias of the schoolyard.

So many holes in my sneakers. So many lectures from my father: ‘I just bought these shoes for you last week and holes already! Do you know the value of a dollar? Do you know how hard I work to put sneakers on your feet and you wreck them by doing stupid things? Stop wrecking your shoes or you’ll go to school in your socks! Do you hear me?’[11]

That was the story of my life: everything is always wrecking around me. The sneakers weren’t even the beginning of the story. The plot begins much earlier with other accidents and a shipwreck; a boy marooned on a desert island without a prayer in the world—a boy versus the elements, facing danger and deprivation at every turn, and the many holes in his cheaply made, outworn sneakers letting in the crusty sand.

I got nervous whenever I came to the Elyse Gardens. From the moment I entered the compound, it would get harder and harder to swallow my spit. I actually had to think about swallowing or it wouldn’t happen. I liked it better when things would just happen without my interference. I really did not know what the underlying problem was. I loved my grandmother. It’s obvious you don’t want to be here. Since when do you celebrate Mother’s Day?[12]

I bought her some flowers. Maybe she’ll like them. They cost me about fourteen dollars from the local supermarket. Orange-hued tulips. You bought a bottle of expensive cognac for yourself the other day and some foreign films that cost almost two-hundred dollars. You think fourteen-dollars on a bunch of crappy tulips is doing the best you can do?

They came from a good place. I only wanted to make her smile. You’re going through the motions. You don’t feel anything for your mother or your grandmother. You haven’t thought of her all month. By the way, the noise machine ploy? That was crackerjack. 

In some ways, she was living better than I was, waited on, hand and foot. Activities were arranged for her to participate in. She had friends here. They would go on day trips together. The food was good. They had excellent IQvisions and IQstereos. The place was decorated with fresh flowers and green potted plants. They even had cactuses, large prickly ones I played with when I visited.

A horrendous start to the trip and I was not even through the front doors yet. I wished I could do more for her. When it came down to actually getting things done, not very much happened. It was a daily uphill struggle against inertia and indifference. I had all this love and enthusiasm within me, but I couldn’t keep the straps on those ponies and they simply scampered away.

The pearly gates of the Elyse. I got off the bus at the intersection and headed toward the rear entrance of the building. I was trying to avoid Petra’s stony gaze at the greeting desk. The sooner you arrived, the better the person you were. It was not even dusk yet. The sun went down in your heart years ago. Mealy-mouthed bastard. The sun shines on every impure place and yet it is not defiled. If I‘d wanted a sonnet, I would have commissioned a real metaphysician, not some two-bit dualist! Just beside the Elyse, a couple of men are finishing their installation of an iAM billboard advertisement. The poster said:

ONLY WITH BIG BLUE ARE YOU TRUE BLUE[13]

Advertisement lingo drove me crazy. It was just my luck. Long and Chong, the Vietnamese custodians, were having an early supper (or a late lunch) in the courtyard. They would sneak me in back.

I clapped my hands to get their attention and then I waved to Chong, the short benevolent Asian, seated crosslegged on the bench, voraciously devouring a large clump of white rice with some stewed rubbish spread over top, like pig’s ear in a ginger-ale sauce or something.

“Oh, ya!” He muttered back, doing a bang up job forming the staccato vowels with the cluster of rice in his cheek.

I signalled to Long, the older, shrewder bag of hair and ribs perched beside Chong, also sitting crosslegged, but neater, like a sealed pair of scissors; the plastic, overheated bowl in his hands loaded to the brim with the indefatigable pilaf. Momentarily shrugging off his natural enmity for me, Long jawed the words back, soundlessly, like a devocalized parrot or a badly-wired robot.

As a lifelong supporter of the feline community, Long and I were at odds with each other. It’s not so much that he disapproved of my affection towards cats, but that he skinned and ate their flesh! The decaying robot has been a lifelong cat meat gourmand.[14] And to this day I still think he remained unconverted to our Western sensibilities. Those yellow bastards! They’ll eat us alive. I swear it was the truth. His brother Chong had told me. I was making this up. The benevolent Chong confessed to me that he could never stomach the skinless pulchritude of the feline; but on the other hand, his brother Long was of another jaundiced kiln altogether, a heartless artichoke, really (a Supersian assassin waiting to be activated).

Chong’s ‘brudder’ lured unsuspecting cats into his home in Huax-town, using bones and organ meat or whatever ration he had lying around, and then club them over the head until they were dead! Chong reenacted the events with all the articulateness and self-possession of a Huaxian Shadow Puppet: zooming around the courtyard, he stammered nonsensical phrases in a hail of fetid slobber; he leaped into the sky with great audacity, gathering all the nutrition the microwaved pilaf could offer him, awkwardly bending at the waist in mid-air and twisting his flailing joints with obvious discomfort, but also with full, head-on salvo, imitating the action of the cat hunt in a broad range with his undernourished body, pocked smiling face, and humid yip-yap voice.

I sat down on the bench across the mechanical pair. They were in their own hermetic world, inhaling the pilaf in unison like a pair of wrinkled anteaters, the dead white of Long’s unsmiling eyes staring at me and then away into the distance, while his mouth and pea-green teeth continued their everlasting chew.

“Are you so very bee-sy today?” The benevolent Chong said to me in his usual, witty form, orangutan-smile gleaming.

I nodded emphatically. The bench top was littered like the floor of a sweatshop: bottles chubby with water, crooked straws peeping out, tattered orange peels lying about like deactivated gooks on a rice field, chopstick wrappers tugged from corner to corner, to and fro, wind in sail. They’re poisoning our water, I know it!

“You take care of…of…of…yoursef, today” Chong stuttered like a stuck, defunct car engine. His eyes rolled back and disappeared in anxious gestation, while his cankerous mouth sphinctered out the words in slow succession.

That was our signal. Those six (eight?) intricate words issuing from Chong’s ailing mouth indicated that the gig was on. Don’t ask me how I parleyed the deal or arrived at the no-problem signal with the benevolent yellow machine (B.Y.M.)[15] because it was mainly non-verbal: the way a slap to the face during a game of Scythian roulette increases the tension tenfold, or how a slope dancing on one leg during wartime warns of extreme face-peeling violence, tabi-toeing your way. I stood up from the bench and walked sideward the B.Y.M. He under-handed me the number-scroll and I backhanded him a ten-spot.

Main Crew Entrance. I unfurled the scroll, which was a rolled-back cigarette case, and worked out the numbers scribbled over the white. I could have saved the numbers from last time and banked the ten-spot for comix and bubble gum, but I had to keep my doorman greased and happy. The B.Y.M.’s smiling head made a ripe appearance aside the brick and stone; his eggroll fingers pointed to the first line of numbers and then to the door with the number pad. “Nhanh len!”

The B.Y.M. pulled a small plastic bag out of his pocket and handed it to me. It was a half-eaten bag of unshelled pistachios. The next second I was hugging the bobbing Chong for dear life and I could not let go. I was practically weeping in his arms. Good-old Chong! Always happy to see me. And it’s not just about the money. No, you’re right. It’s your winning, heart-and-home personality he’s responding to. Your love of classics on a dusty bookshelf. I wiped the dew from my eyes and read the numbers off the scroll. The B.Y.M. affectionately scribbled palindromes over my forehead with his eggroll. “Qua lon” he said mysteriously. 9-1-2-1.[16] I punched the numbers on the pad. The door unlocked and I entered the narrow hall with the pistachios in my right hand and the tulips in the left. The door shut behind. I look back at Chong waving through the glass aperture. Every goodbye could be the last.

That’s why I had trouble meeting people. I was afraid to say goodbye. When I met a person I liked, I wanted stay with them, through the night if possible. Because when the moon took occupancy and the stars scattered, when darkness rolls out the saxony and the sky looks like the ceiling of an underground cave, it’s a wholly different contest, unlike the one played during the day.

9-1-2-1. I had to memorize these numbers. It would really save me the hassle of the roundelay every couple weeks. Months, you mean? The night, it tinkered with people’s insides. Darkness had this wiretap-thing setup, see; it’s basically set-up shop in your head and you don’t even know it. I do not have to time to get into it now, but watch how people forget things the next day. Visions, decisions, confessions and obsessions, declarations of emancipation, code-words established, secret-handshakes forged, telling-winks, new ways of living, never going back to the old, watch and listen how it’s all forgotten the next day, how the joint is completely raided and overrun by darkness, flabbergasted suspects lined-up and jailed, and the following day the entire plan is forgotten. All the glorious feelings are gone. An evil conspiracy is in place. I’m shouting to you all, stay with your friends through the night! Sad eyes should rain fierce tears. Youth, rave and burn at the close of day.

I waded through the mosaic tiles, head down, trying to avoid the suspicious gaze of the custodial staff (they had seen me before, but still): Perdita, simmering a pitiful-pot in the laundry room; long-suffering Ernesto, straining the indecencies out of the wet-mop; Maricruz, pulling boulders of outrage from the heaping bins. With the added weight on my back (see: addled soul), I had no choice but to look down at the intricacies in the high-gloss floor, eyes directed starboard the paddling feet. Methinks I see myself in the sheen of the floor. The white-robed lights stationed in the ceiling poured their visage along the craquelure, and bending there, true-to-life, my shadowy portrait, like an inky description glimpsed in water at the bottom of a well.

I zoomed into the dull grain of the silhouette: the tulips on the left had undergone a dark adaptation, their orange hues represented by the molecular murk that had randomly taken on this-shape but not-that. I tried to collect the features of my face but they were immaterial. It was like seeing my reflection in the bathroom mirror at night. Methinks I saw myself in a dream, darkly, peering up, crazed, from a bottomless pit, or perhaps gazing down, anxiously, from a steep crag.

The bulb overhead fluttered its white-winged light along my lashes and I shut my eyes for a moment to dampen the dazzle. I reopened them and foundd coronas radiating in my field of vision. Deprived of my left hand, I dropped a salty pistachio into my mouth using the thumb and index finger of my right, while my other fingers clutched the crinkled pouch and the number scroll.

My tongue and teeth went to work on the wobbling shell and before you could say, ‘blessed are the chic,’[17] the roasted nut was undressed and the savory paste was swallowed. With the halos dissipating from my eyes like blessedness from the unholy, I unraveled the numbers from the scroll just as my feet docked at the threshold. The carcass fulminated from my lips and boldly ricochet off the doorframe, as dead as death. 1-2-9-1.[18]

The stairway on the left short cut. Even the service elevator ahead would have been more discreet than the main entrance, but this secret route made my passage through the Elyse nearly invisible and it allowed for some prized detours. I skipped the second floor altogether. Avoided the envious scrutiny of the old and miserly. With the codes in my hand I could ascend directly to my grandmother’s floor, except that wasn’t the most desired path at the moment. It was better to knife across the third floor and meet with Maximilian for a little, tender what I owed him from the bookie (he had laid a bet on a winning horse a few weeks back: ‘Absalom’), saunter over to the main stairwell, which led up to the foyer on the fourth floor, head over to see Lavinia’s grandmother, Vivienne, tarry a little, and continue on to meet my grandmother on the eight floor, via the clandestine route I paid so dearly for. Her room was last on the right, before the foyer, with a window facing west. We could watch the sun set together.

I took the steps two-by-two. One flight down. I peeked through the window at the entrance to the second floor. The goddamn place was a ghost town. I breathed out the kinks. A little fatigue never slowed me before. Remember that time your mother screwed up the laundry?[19] I remembered and each time that memory chastened me cruelly. What’s life without a little attrition, time and time again? So you always reminded me. Don’t throw out your dirty water until you get in fresh. A trouble shared is a trouble halved. Two heads are better than one. He who travels fastest travels alone. Don’t forget that one.

I’ve got a dictionary of proverbs in front of me. Do you really want to run the gauntlet? Page 155. A house divided cannot stand. Home is home though it never so homely. What you know, I know. And more. Hope springs eternal. The higher the monkey climbs the more he shows his tail. You can drive out nature with a pitchfork, but she keeps on coming back. He who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount. Page 224: There is nothing so good for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse. Nothing so bold as a blind mare.

Actually, that is a strike against you also. Not only did you fail to parry the blow, but you doubled back and struck yourself on the ass with the flat part of the blade. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I think you’re missing the point of the banter. What you don’t know can’t hurt you. Where is ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise. In the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. He that is half-hanged has an ill name.

What kind of ill-conceived game are you playing here? Know you nothing of repartee! Have you no agonistic spirit at all to speak of! What sort of combatant attacks himself, really? That’s not very sportsmanlike, is it now? I mean, what’s left for me? Be fair now.

You’re right. I shouldn’t have slapped my mother for ruining my best shirt. But that was the only good shirt I had to create an impression on my schoolmates; it was the only shirt I’d bought for the entire school year! I couldn’t have been older than twelve. I was only a boy. No, it was wrong. I knew it then and I know it now. But why am I still being punished for it. Take your medicine like a man. It’s only by learning to obey that you’ll ever learn to command.

The beams of Sol struck me full in the face and I felt my brow weighed down by his splendor. I raised my hand above my eyebrows, making shade for my sight, which was quick to flee. What is it, gentle Sol? Why do you caress my lashes? Is it to the window you are luring me? Phoebus was burning brightly in the cloudy sky and I could clearly perceive his slanting rays dancing through the buttermilk. Shine, light, shine! I felt the luminous energy from his rays penetrating my body with sagely advice: a spoonful of warm potato mash delighting the belly. Phoebus’ retinue swayed round my squinting expression like a chorus of belly dancers in a Mediterranean tavern. Watch that hip! How’s the Isis exchange today? The custard-yellow face hit me like a runaway pie. By the looks, you shan’t be long in the sky, yet you dawdle like a rooster on your high perch. Shine, Sol, shine!

My fingers hoed through the lines numbering the scroll. 1-5-3-4.[20] I entered facing the door to the restroom. The smoky darkness of the floor smothered me like a humid night, deprived of every star and planet; it thickly veiled my eyes so that again they could not endure to remain open. But how unlike the warm caresses of Phoebus was this billowing white smoke that stung my sockets. Like a blind man I moved through the chemically-laced clouds, arms outstretched, feeling my way along the wall on my left, trailing the poisonous curlicues to their source, to their founder, who, without a trace of doubt, could be none other than the esteemed, chain-smoking wordsmith himself, Maximilian Golga Ludovico.[21] I couldn’t believe they were letting that antediluvian syllogist smoke  indoors with all the geriatrics clinging for dear life. Why was it so dark on this side of the wing? Couldn’t they open a window if he was going to spark up those chimney-stacks? This place was worse than Darkhovin Nuclear[22] on a spring day and I couldn’t breathe in the fallout.

I pushed forward, slicing through the curtain of smoke, stepping into the room, wide-angle, like in a film-noir; Max, leaning back on his padded gliding-chair, legs up on the upholstered stool, glibly sliding, to-and-fro, head cranked back, exhaling a braid of smoke. His wild, silver locks spangled under the sidelight from the window, contrasting sharply with his broad tanned forehead and the taut stubbly cheeks.

“That you, boy? You got my boon with you?”

Max has always been compulsively abusive by way of greetings. Never one to make you feel welcome forthwith. But once you get past his stalagmite mannerisms, he’s quite decent.

‘I can’t breathe for the smoke you backslider.’

I held the scratch pad close to his face so he could read the text, which I know for a fact annoyed him and he never failed to articulate that displeasure with his mouth and eyes that crimpled in thirty-six inconsiderate ways.

“Stop your whinnying, you curly-haired Yeshuit, and haul your bony-ass in here or I’ll tender your undersized bollocks by way of settlement! Still plying your trade with the quill and quire, I see.”

‘Sunken and mute as a clogged flute. I’ve brought your favorite slippers, Emperor.’

“Sit down and unload your burdens you cheeky raccoon.” He lowered the silvery bushes on his forehead that concealed his judicious gray eyes in their hollows, far-ranging in their vision and persnickety despite his years (three-score and ten, last I checked), ready to swoop down on any shifting detail with feathered talons. If he dropped those brows any lower he would bushwhack the gray friars where they stood. I plopped down on the carved mahogany armchair by the bed and dropped the flowers atop the mattress. The pistachios I pushed into my pocket for later.

‘So, what’ve you been doing with yourself lately, MGL, apart from driving the nurses crackers with your cradle-robbing come-ons?’

The flannel-pajamed lothario puffed and puffed and the exhaust was thicker than a bus station’s. He had to put on his reading glasses to comfortably read from the scratch pad, which I held twelve inches from his face like a summons delivered by a foreign messenger. Reading my thoughts wasn’t exactly what he had in mind, but he’s probably starved for company, so it was a moot point.

He looked at me under his Brasso-mannered, wrinkled-browed expression circa 1968 (see: O Nonnos[23]), taking his lolly-time responding, bulldog-jaw in freeze-frame. For your information, I’m no Sonny Corvetto, you expatriated, Germanian, Ernst Holster-wannabe. A touch cruel. Like you weren’t thinking it! Where do you think I get my ideas from, weirdo? I really couldn’t say.

“Oh, my sweet boy,” Max said, sincerely moved for a moment by my muted plight, almost as if he’d forgotten about my condition and was just now made aware of it again. How he loved our badinage. “I suggest you place the spoils of my unfriendly wager on the flat of my hand, right-away, lest my ire come to a full boil.”

‘Dare I resist your olive-oil charms and see those man-sized limbs of yours become living things?’ I rendered the illusion palpable for a few moments longer, putting strain to the old man’s eyes.

“What these old dogs of war? Surely you know better than to rouse Briareus and Typhon from their furtive slumber!”

‘You mean Udolf and Bennito? Don’t remove those pokers from the fire on my account. Please allow these greenbacks to duly compensate for my rough entry into this, the den of Cerberus—may it quiet the din and prattle.’ The burden of perusal shifted from his eyes to his lips and back again.

His opulent, ivory-silk, brocaded smoking jacket made not-so lofty sounds against the leather material of the gliding chair, as he shifted positions to receive his filthy lucre. To fart or not to fart, that is the question. A bratwurst bugle by any other name. Fair is foul and foul is fair. A smarter man might have actually laid the bet, you know. You’re not cut-out for the bookie trade; you the lack the build and your physiognomy smacks-o-the-sensitive. A brooding, introspective, Montgomery Moody-lookalike,[24] if I ever saw one. Say, where did I see this guy? In Ruby River or A Spot Under Sol?

“Have you been to your grandmother’s yet?”

‘I’ve come straight to see you, old goat,’ I wrote on the pad, unnoticed.

“You’re a loyal boy. Much better than my own son. So, what news from the outside world? What racket and clamor out of the twin towers of Babel? The Sodom and Gomorrah of our fair, bright-eyed city!” If I could get the polyglot to natter-on in copious volumes he may forget about the perfecto long enough for me to catch a full breath. A stogie is never just a stogie.[25] Flunk what Froth said.

‘I haven’t been in that neck of the woods in a long time. Months even.’ He squinted and I battled the temptation to pie him in the face with my scratch pad.

“You can’t ignore the old neighborhood altogether, young man. Damn it! Do I have to put you on the payroll too for a simple favor! Testa di cazzo!”

‘Relax yourself, Max! I’ll stick my head in this week, see what’s going on, and I’ll call you with the scoop. Alright?’ I quickly scribbled.

“Now you’re being sensible. Raffiniert ist der Herrgott, aber boshaft ist er nicht.[26]

‘Yes, Herr Ludovico.’

“You have to understand, my wunderkind, that you’re my emissary into the towers now. Trusted friend, amico fidato, don’t let me down on this matter. Gott mit uns! It’s still my business to know.”

The same old obsessions week-in and week-out. His own children don’t give a damn about him. They’ve got his money. What else could they want? There isn’t even a picture of them in this room and that’s not normal for a man his age in a retirement home. Every room in the Elyse is a veritable cornucopia of remembrance and saccharine tribute. They’ve got more picture frames than Rayographs.

Max is the odd-man out at the Elyse. He is the ‘king-in-the-machine,’ and he is still trying to catch lightning in a bottle by the looks of him. By the looks, he’s insane. This isn’t a retirement home—it’s an asylum! And he’s on the royal throne. Whom the gods would destroy, they first make insane.

“The world is blind, my precocious boy, and you’ve come from the world. So what does that make you?”

‘We’ve all come from the world, Max. By that token, we’re all blind.’ I would have exercised my fingers if I’d known he sally me to such a degree.

“That’s why there are two eyes in our skull: one eye’s job is to watch over the other. But what is the root of blindness in mankind? Tell me that.”

‘Well, if heaven is the cause of every motion on Gaea, then…’

“Don’t say it, boy. Don’t you dare say it! You’re not known by me to be a blasphemer, so you’re no blasphemer at all. Those words of dissent are to have no tenancy in your head and zero platform on your tongue. I won’t tolerate any schisms between you and me! We’re not Dissonants[27] after all.”

And this is hardly Speaker’s Corner. Last I checked you weren’t a Latidunarian either. What are you exactly? What are you calling it these days? Max draws deep from the perfecto and exhales with righteous satisfaction. His feet could use a pedicure: them talons of glory! Framed on the wall in walnut with gold lip, is an artist’s rendition of the ‘towers formerly known as Golga’— two stately megalithic slabs standing in an L-formation at one end of the horseshoe-shaped residential, Bayard Rye Village.

Max started construction on the Towers in the late 1960s and named them after his mother’s maiden name. I’m not sure what Golga[28] means in Germanian but it does sound imposing. He finished construction on the Towers in the early 1970s, well before I was born. My parents and I moved into the Bayard Rye in the late 80s. Wherever you are in the Bayard Rye, you can always see the Golga Towers. If you’re treading down Flax Hill towards Knightsbridge, far east of the Bayard Rye Village, you can still see the topmost part of the Golga Towers, the panoramic Penthouse windows on the sixty-third floor staring at you in all directions like a string of austere eyes and the L-shape architecture like a shepherd’s staff, hauling back your own vision in return.

At 179 meters tall, wherever you go in an 8 km radius, you’re sure to see the twin marvel: the megalithic guards on the western point of the Caspian Crescent, unwavering in their watch of the Lampos Narrow that runs from east to west, from Honor Oak Rd to the Doneraile Strait, which bounds all the way north to the acme of the Narrows. If you were to find a glade during a hike through the Blue Fountain Forest, aside the fir and hemlock in the evergreen surrounding the Bayern residential like a wide shield, looking up, you could still see the peak of the Golga Towers peering over the isolated verdure of the wilderness.

“If the world has gone astray, in you resides the cause. Therein paces the depraved malefactor in meted incarceration.”

‘So I’m to blame for the blindness of the world?’

“Not you, boy, but your will, that ‘favor from on high’ that’s fallen into utter disrepute amongst your heathen class.”

‘My heathen class? You’re such a puritanical elitist, Max. A stalwart chip off the old Winetrough block.’

There’s nothing puritanical about his beefy Erections on the Hill. ‘We shall crank the mouths of our enemies…We shall stain the many faces of God’s worthy servants…’[29] Remember to ask Vivienne for insight into his fastidious, masochistic philosophy. I don’t want to know. How about your grandmother, then? One of these days you and me are going to settle the score once and for all. You’ll just end up chasing yourself in circles.   

“You okay, boy? You need a dottore? You’ve just about the queerest look on your face. Shall I yell for a disciple of the Hippocratic Oath? Say something, boy. Make some sign. Perhaps it’s just some foul play to report betwixt your ears, because you’ve the pallor of someone who’s just kissed the rim of St. Giles’ cup. Oh, marone i mi! I didn’t mean to upset you so.”

‘No, no, Max. I’m okay. I’m sorry. It’s just this damn ache in my head. It drives me up the wall sometimes and clear across the ceiling.’

Way to spoil the fun! I dare you to tell him what I’m saying! It’ll be like a séance. I am the ghost inside your head and I will haunt you till the day you die! Oh, Maxwell, so much to answer for!

“It happens to the best of us. Indigestion is the likeliest of causes, inflammation of the large intestine, possibly owed to a condition referred to as ulcerative colitis. I’ve had similar belittling attacks myself. That’s the price we pay for the erection of our ideals, the going rate for our spires and steeples. As a word of caution: do not put the stopcocks on the indignant flow of ether through your bowels. The impregnated air must be thoroughly belched! Only don’t perform your perfunctory custodial duties while in my presence. I dislike that type of corporeal debasement in the company I keep. It is strictly verboten!”

The old man was in a tizzy, exhausted by the afternoon’s course of reading. The perfecto was expired amid his creased fingers. I slow-panned across the mise-en-scene of the carefully organized room in glorious 35mm: a medium shot of the hand-painted, roan marble-top console with the curved legs (looked like teak wood, or maybe it was also mahogany); an extreme close-up of the acanthus leaf carvings on the rounded legs, pan along the finely textured dark-coat of the wood at a measured pace; dissolve to the coat of arms design at the center of the console, between the long drawers: a majestic, heavily-antlered buck gazing sideward, set amid the leafy plumage at the heart of the continental shield.

Pull back camera to the door. A deferred establishing shot, the suite splayed out in deep-focus. The king-sized bed at the left of the wide-angle: the deeply embroidered duvet with the bold-scaled paisley immaculately outspread; my grandmother’s tulip bouquet at the left-hand corner upending the imperial symmetry of the oak four-poster; adorning the heads of the four vertical oak-columns surrounding the bed-frame were carvings of acorns garlanded with oak leaves, probably symbolizing the fecundity of MGL’s mattress, which contain the silvern stains of Pan himself; the fruitful goat-legged bastard in the flesh! Horn-headed fertility resurrected between the Beefy Erections on the Hill! All’s well that ends well with all that follows. Where it falls the mandrake grows. That’s why they shriek when you pull them.

Above the bed, hanging symmetrically between the posters, was a framed reprint of The Tavern of Athens by Ruffe in full Technicolor glory: ‘Ruffe’s masterpiece and the perfect embodiment of the classical ideals of the Renaissance spirit.’ I’ve received a lecture/harangue on all the paintings that decorate the walls of his suite and on many others that did not survive the trip from the Golga Towers to the Elyse—his retirement suite was not large enough to accommodate all the furnishings from his penthouse, even though they constructed an extension to the suite especially for him, but as to why he’s not on the top floor, I do not know. All of the finer suites are on the top floors. He doesn’t even have a balcony. If they hadn’t linked up the adjoining rooms, he would have had a standard single room, instead of the luxury custom job currently in place. After living almost thirty years of your life on the forty-fourth floor of one of the tallest buildings in Queen City, in a penthouse with panoramic windows, featuring a soaring bird’s eye view of your surroundings, it must have taken MGL a long time to adjust to the blatant unforgiving gravity of the third floor.

There are three other paintings in the room besides the Ruffe. Zooming in on the right of the four-poster, above the brass-finished bedside chest with the curious bun feet, The Pledge of the Horatii by Louis-Louis Rococo made its martial presence felt, demonstrating the now infamous Roman salute: the three steely brothers with their resolute gaze were citadels of patriotic duty, symbols of the highest virtues of the Republic.

Painted before the Gallic Resistance, Rococo depicted a scene with the three Horatii brothers standing on the left, swearing upon their swords as they took their loyal oaths, their father in the center, who was holding up the weapons, and the women on the right, weeping for their brothers and husbands. I did not know my history very well, but I remembered MGL saying the painting dramatized a chapter of history where Rome was battling some other nation and two families where chosen from each nation to settle the dispute by fighting with each other. Three men were chosen from each family. The Horatii were one of the families. I couldn’t remember the name of the other family. But I do remember that a daughter of the other family was married to one of the Horatii brothers. And that one of sisters of the Horatti was engaged to a son from  the other family. Shaggbarkean stuff. Stories full of strife and lamentation.

There was more blood in history than there was sap in the veins of Gaea. Or maybe they’re one and the same. That’s what Shaggbark said in McCracken, I think. The green sea turns to red and, after a while, more stuff happens, and the red sea turns back to green. A talented paraphraser you are. A critic for the ages. Forty-thousand well-spent dollars in tuition and you’re no smarter than the bib on a baby. They say you can’t put an old head on young shoulders…wait until they get a load of me.  

MGL said the colors in the painting were intentionally muted as to de-emphasize technique in favor of content and to draw attention to the story behind the painting. The figures of the men were represented by straight lines, rigid in their upright posture, firm in their noble stance, unyielding like the marble columns in the background, while the women were curved like the sweeps and turns in the architecture that are secured and held-up by the steadfast pillars. The straight lines in the painting symbolize strength: the brothers’ taut, outstretched arms and the swords they collectively sweared upon, exemplified heroic valor. Outwardly they showed no emotion, while the tenderhearted women were in complete shambles, utterly collapsed beneath the weight of their sorrow.

The fact that two of the three swords had a curved blade was another intriguing pictorial detail. If my memory served me correctly, the straight blade amongst the curved in the bunch foreshadowed the historical fact that only one of the three brothers survived the melee, returning to Rome injured but victorious on behalf of the Republic. During the skirmish, two of the Horatii brothers were slain; meanwhile the other family had lost none of their original number, suffering only minimal injuries. The last surviving Horatii fled the battleground and the other family gave chase; however, they broke rank during the heated pursuit and this enabled the wounded, but brave, Horatii to pick them off, one by one. What presence of mind enabled him to accomplish this arduous task? What brawn and what stealth helped him carry out this gallant feat? What grace under pressure? It’s an incredible story. Larger than life. Things like that just don’t happen anymore. Nothing heroic happens anymore.

With the roll still feeding, I zoomed out from the Louis-Louis and walked the long-take around the room, taking it all in, like a fat-man at a Huaxian buffet. Panned across the window with the drawn, espresso drapes, the baroque-cast iron rod, the frilly Persian arabesque on the floor, light haloed across the lens, henna-top of the leather gliding chair, MGL’s silver tousle, the potbellied Grandfather clock in the corner, with the embossed illustration of a fox hunt at the base,[30] the stylized Golga Towers with gold lip, the rectangular Narcisse gilt-wood mirror (one of his most prized antiques) hanging above the marble console and reflecting the four-poster, and the Peasant Pete with the antique black and gold frame.

MGL always enjoyed the comparison between Peasant Pete’s The Babel Tower and his modern translation of it. I don’t think he was directly inspired by the Peasant Pete when he constructed the Towers, but he certainly had the Biblical story buried somewhere in the back of his mind. Over the three decades that elapsed after its construction, MGL had retained complete control over who entered the Towers and who remained as a tenant. That he’d rather have empty suites than degenerate occupants, was a favorite motto of his. The waiting list had more pages than a novella and he prided himself on this detail and the creative comparison (he adored offshoots from his architectural opus), let alone his numerous other dubious achievements in and around the Towers, data that he jealously recorded and collected and stored in titanic volumes that testified to the obsessive nature of his personality as much as the Towers manifested the grandstanding ethos of his vision, a desire to stand above the banal and beyond the commonplace, a grand gesture in our very own Bayard Rye Village.

If the pencil of history chronicled that Peasant Pete had visited Rome before painting The Babel Tower and was inspired by the Coliseum, then it must also take note that the Golga Towers in turn were no mere hobbyhorse of their traveled author, they were MGL’s idiosyncratic vision of the Shining City on a Hill, his residential translation of the Crystal Castle, his inland rendition of the New Island Utopia, his elitist reconstruction of New Tranquility, with Bayard Rye and the surrounding pastoral landscape substituting for Arcadia.[31]

It wasn’t like anyone could follow his imaginative trail, mind you. What the final purpose and meaning of the Golga Towers were, no one could satisfactorily extract from MGL’s labyrinthine mind or extrapolate from his fluent tongue. It was like the various parts of MGL that contributed to the construction of his modern utopia were not in agreement with each other. I would often catch him contradicting himself during his lofty speeches. But then again, I did not know MGL during the beginning of his campaign, only during the end of his reign as the unofficial king of Bayard Rye Village, when he was more of a wounded king than the vaunted steward of sophistication heralded from yesteryear.[32]

“Law is a ruler who can discern the tower of the true city. It is misrule that has caused the world to become malevolent. Your nature is not corrupt.” MGL put the expired perfecto back between his lips and reached for the lighter in his chest pocket. The potbellied clock said it’s quarter-to-six and I needed to leave.

‘I must be going, Max. I’m glad I came but all the same I must be going.’ I nimbly picked up the bouquet from the bed and turned to leave. MGL lighted the perfecto, puckering like a fish.

“You cheeky benedictive raccoon. For my sake you must stay. If you go away, you’ll ruin this shindig I am throwing.” The lyrics from his breath brawled for expression amid the dense exhaled cloud like an unattractive woman calling for a taxi to stop in the middle of rush hour traffic—a difficult task.

‘I’ll camp a week or two. I’ll stay the spring through. But I’m telling you, I really must be going. No, genuinely, I must be leaving.’

“Go, go. By all means. We’ll continue our discussion next time. Arivaderchi. And don’t forget your promise! My garden cannot tend itself. We must be on our guard lest the enemy sow tare amongst our wheat. Be diligent, my boy.”

‘There’s no need to repeat yourself, Max. I’ll take care of everything. See you in a couple days,’ I hastily scribbled.

He’ll forget the entire conversation by dinner-time. And judging by the current state of things, so will you. Whom the gods would destroy, they first dip in the river Lethe. Revenge is a dish best served cold. Keep mocking me and I’ll reveal my greatness.

“Mr. Ludovico, please put out that cigar. There are children walking through the hallway. At least close your door.”

The nurse barely noticed me as I slipped out—a broad-backed, thick-armed, Germanian-looking blonde.

“Get out of my room before I feed you to my dogs!”

The nurse nearly slammed the door off its hinges in vexation and muttered, “dirty old bugger,” as she stamped down the hall, sturm und drang. Those crazy Germanians! I would hate to see how they’re assembled in the factory. A typical Germanian can eat up to thirty-two kilos of sausage per week! And they drink beer by the barrel. There’s no pint or half-pint for the Goths. It’s by the barrel or nothing. I’ll have one-fiftieth of a barrel, barkeep!

A man chastised his three young daughters for running amok in the hallways. When he turned his back, they tweeted like nightingales and fluttered their arms.

“Stop it right now, I said!” What a flustered fool. I eavesdropped on the little ones as I skittered across to the main stairwell. I stepped lightly so as not to distract them.

“You be the swallow, Princess, and I can be the falcon that eats you up,” the older girl said to her younger sister with the braid.

“Daddee!” And she ran down the hall after her bossy father while the other two girls gave chase with arms outstretched, swooping like birds of prey.

“They’re gonna eatmeup, Dadeee! Help!”

She hung on to his long legs, gripping an inch of loose khaki.

“Who’s going to eat you up with the great, horn-rimmed owl watching over you?”

He raised his arms wide and charged after his two older daughters, fiercely flapping his arms in pursuit, and they doubled back in playful terror with the braided one struggling to keep up, her little legs leaping for joy. The man smiled as our paths crossed and I smiled back. The motion of his ‘wing’ fanned my face a little. Blessed are the peaceful ones. I zinged a pistachio shell off the exit sign like a cowboy buckling a tin can with his six-shooter.

My legs stiffen a little on the steps but they delivered me to the fourth floor in no time. Inside there was a bunch of geezers talking it up and doing laps around the wing like it was a racetrack. To hell with the conversational lot of them! I could have used a bed for a little. Spread over it like raspberry jam on warm toast. MGL’s four-poster was too lugubrious for my taste. With his pompous sheets and lofty mattress, I’d probably sprain my back or something.

“Excuse us, young man.” The old crumpet nearly ran  me over with her orthopaedic sandals and yellow jumpsuit.

“Haste, haste, Mary! It’s like we’re back in the old country. Just picture this stretch in front of us like it’s a hill from back home.”

Slow down, you decrepit hens! This wasn’t the Sydney 5000! They were too old for pasture. Maybe we could make tarpaulin out of their polypropylene hides. I ought to have loaded my six-shooter and walloped their cottage-cheese butts! Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow? I wonder how things were in the Bayard Rye. How long had it been anyway? I should peek around the old neighbourhood. It was long overdue. For Max’s sake. Hail to the King of the Bayard Rye Village! I wonder what kind of reception I would get. The prodigal son returns! Cue the wheels and sparklers! Aw, shucks, the red carpet is at the cleaners!

I’ve been putting off so much lately. Define ‘lately.’ There were so many things that needed tending to, people I’ve neglected, work that needed to be done. I haven’t written a story in such a long time. Sure I had my old journals in my possession, and sometimes they even comforted me on a rainy day, but progress is shouting at me like a penitent kneeling at the nave, full of decisive zeal.

I had a clear vision once. When I gather the complete body of my written works and ascertain their meaning, my quest becomes distinct again, strong and unobstructed, but that fleeting feeling lasts only for an instant, and I lose focus almost immediately after, with each successive day dimming the luster of my vision further, each moment growing foggier than the last, imagine how a window pane when it is besieged by the rain obscures all forthcoming looks attempting to press through, and then you’ll understand my soupy travail.[33]

I earnestly wish that I had a tenth of the dedication and perseverance that ancient Anglish sage[34] had when his sight began to dim while he was composing his epic poem. If only it truly were the bloodshot globes in my skull that were biologically defunct and not some sort of internal glaucoma that was afflicting my sight. I wore the wretched calendar around my neck like some stinking albatross that weighed me down daily with its giant maggoty wings and briny macaroni-beak. You weren’t worthy of the noble cross so they gave you the stinkin’ albatross. Why was this happening to me? Only a fool asks “why” when the barrel is square against his temple. In innocence there is no strength against evil. I wonder if that was a real potted plant by the window. How come some leaves were darker than others?

I drew the attention of an old lady and lured her disgruntled attention to my scratch pad. ‘Excuse me, Mrs. Grundy. What type of plant is this?’

“That’s not a plant, it’s a fig tree. And my name is not Grundy, it’s De Groot!”

‘If it’s a fig, where’s the fruit, De Groot?’

“You’re wearing them, Sunny.” I swallowed the wrinkly Resurrectionist’s exhaust, as bitter as gall, as sharp as a double-edged sword.

“Hah, good one, Esther,” chipped in Mary, riding shotgun the old bitty.

Those godamn leatherettes will be the gout of us all! I wish I could be there to tip them over just as they rounded the bend. I haven’t had a fresh fig since we stayed in Flamboro[35] back in the 80s. I used to pluck them fresh off the trees. There’s no taste and texture in the world comparable to a Flamboro fig.[36] Darling of my heart. Another visit I’m putting off. Figs with cinnamon-vanilla ice cream under a honey-walnut sauce. Book it! How come some leaves are darker than others?

Room 419. I hope Viv wasn’t asleep. It was a bit late for an afternoon siesta. I knocked twice but to no avail. I listened at the door but there was nothing. I raise my fist to rap at the door again but Viv finally answered. Her flaxen hair tied back into a bun. Blue eyes weary behind the thick-black frame of her glasses.

I raise the scratch pad before her eyes. ‘I hope I haven’t waked you?’

“Heavens, no. I’m so glad to see you, my curly-haired, Adonis. Come in and keep Viv some company on the chesterfield. I was just watching an old-movie on the box. Do you fancy a cup of tea?”

‘Heck, no,’ I swiftly jotted down, showing Viv the note pad as we walked through the narrow hall. ‘Why do you always ask me? Do I look sick to you?’

“One of these days you’ll come around.”

She put her arm around mine, leading me to the couch like I was blind instead of mute. There’s a purple wool blanket spread over the cushions and enough pillows to seat half a dozen cats.

“Like I said, I was just cozying up in front of the box, having a cup, watching Sergei and Sasha shaking off the snow in their cabin refuge. Please sit down. How about a biscuit or maybe a tart?”

‘Biscuit.’ Viv rustled off to the kitchenette. I lifted the cloth-covered Mistress Ovary[37] from the coffee table and looked for her bookmark between the pages, he said, fingering the leaves.

“Are those flowers for your grandmother?” Suddenly I felt like a big stupid balloon with all the stupid air left out of it.

‘No, they’re for you. I got you some tulips,’ I wrote in big bold letters, so she could semi-read them across the room.

“Oh, my sweet, sweet, boy. Bring them here and I’ll put them in water immediately. You’re so thoughtful. Let me give you a kiss.”

Viv’s always been very generous with her kisses. She was still going strong into her sixth sexy decade. She was nearly finished Ovary. She had read the last few books I had given her. That’s more than I could ever say about Lavinia, her grandchild, and my ex-love. Lavinia hated my taste in literature. Viv said she liked my taste in books more than Max’s. Before Ovary, I had given her The Blackpool Fables,[38] but she couldn’t get through it, so I just asked her to read certain selections from the book, like The Wife of Preston’s Tale and a few of the other shorts. Before that she read Vera Vareladiko and before that it was Middlesbrough (which she thought was a complete bore, but at least had determination enough to finish it). She would probably appreciate a trashy romance novel just as readily, but she seemed to like a challenge. I was thinking of unloading some Wolfia Spruce on her next. The Lace Trim on the Cockade or something. You don’t need a vast estate on the Anglish countryside to enjoy the fine sport of foxhunting.

“Madame Maison! To hell with Madame Maison and all of her ilk! Don’t get me started on that book. Let’s just sit here peaceably, enjoy our biscuits, watch Sergei and Sasha and listen to the restless howl of the wolves.”

Dark chocolate with orange tones. That’s not too bad. ‘Did you make them yourself?’

“Ha! That’s a laugh. You don’t know a La Sarre pastry from the cookie-cutter variety, do you? I’ve got chocolate-orange biscotins, butter tarts, lemon sables, madeleines…all freshly made for moi. And you see that box there, by your feet?”

‘Shoes?’ I reached down and pulled the lid off the box.

“That’s an understatement. There’s Blahbik and then there’s shoes. He’s on the short list. I like to call them pastry shoes, as in I like to have my madeleines while wearing my Blahbik’s. Presents from Maxy dear. He’s a sweetheart. He knows me best.”

Viv and Max go back to the 70s, I heard. She’s the only girlfriend of his I’ve ever met. She always looks done-up. Never seen her look anything less than elegant. Always classy. That’s her mode. She always smells great too. And she probably has the finest chin this side of the Atlantic. An arch nose like Olivia Rullman’s. Bibi Leighton’s eyebrows. Alana Twister’s vintage-blonde updo. The Kelly Favor mouth. The Lavinia Stroman cheeks. I could go on.

“Ohhhh, I love this part,” Viv says, all wound up. On the box the blonde gets on a sleigh and is ushered away and then the Tartar goes bananas. He runs into the cabin and starts breaking windows like a gorilla. I wanted another cookie but I did not want to disrupt Viv’s rapt attention from the Tartar. Here come the soppy strings…and what is that? A balalaika? Maybe the Tartar will do a dance on the snow for us. Goddamn Tartars with their bushy eyebrows and wooly mustaches.

“Ohhhh, Igorievich. Every woman needs an Sergei Igorievich in her life.” Viv snuggled up to me, resting her cheek against my shoulder, legs covered with the purple wool blanket. She lifted the saucer from the coffee table and sipped from the cup.

“Do you want another biscuit? Fetch me a couple of sables too while you’re at it.”

I got off the couch and headed to the kitchenette. It was the butter tarts I was craving. Raisin or walnut? Look at all those fancy little black boxes and pink-colored parchment paper. This La Sarre guy’s the real deal. I pitched a sable into my mouth on the sly.

“Are you sure you don’t want a drink. Maybe a cocoa?”

I shook my head and walked back to the sofa. I placed the sweets in her outstretched palms. ‘I can’t stay too long, Viv.’

“Rubbish. You just got here. They’re playing The Deep Slumber after this and I know for a fact you love Boogy. Whatever else you have to do can wait. Sit,” she says patting the cushion beside her. “Hand me those sables before my tea gets cold, won’t you? Isn’t that better now?”

Some warm cocoa wouldn’t be too bad an idea. The tart shell was still soft and the cream was so fresh. Within a handful of seconds it was chewed and swallowed. Viv looked at me in wonder.

“Shall I bring the box, my curly-haired, Adonis?” Viv says rubbing my stomach. She pushed off my thigh and got off the couch. In the kitchenette she topped off her cup and mixed me some cocoa over the stove after all.

“Be a dear and bring over the pastry boxes to the coffee table for me.” Each pastry got its own little box. Viv put  the steaming cocoa down on the coffee table for me.

“So what are we going to have first, hmm? I think I want…umm…a biscotin. And for yourself?” I was already grinding the madeleines between my teeth before I could answer.

“You incorrigible, devil! I know you can’t resist sweeties. Go ahead, stuff your gullet, but don’t cry to me afterward if your tummy doesn’t agree with you.”

I nodded my head embarrassedly and a few vanilla crumbs slipped out of my mouth. If she knew, why does she play to my weak points? A walnut tart ought to drown my misgivings in a cinch. The contrasting bitterness of the walnut made the ambrosial butter that much sweeter to the tongue. I rubbed the syrupiness along the roof of my mouth to heighten the effect. You decadent. I was getting drowsy.

“Here, mix the cocoa with the biscotin in your mouth. Isn’t that yummy?”

I bit off a piece of the biscotin and greedily sip the hot cocoa, stirring it luxuriantly around my mouth, against my cheeks, the confection dissolving amid the churn and roil, glazing my teeth with strands of sharp citrus and spatters of bitter cocoa. Feeling sleepy. Viv sipped from her cup and sat back on the couch with a couple of sables on her palm. She curled her legs on the cushion beside her. A sharp blast of wind deflected against the windowpane.

“It’s windy out there, isn’t it? Let her bluster, the precocious starlet. So many mists in March, so many frosts in May. But, who cares, we’ve got our fresh pastries and our warm drinks, Sergei and Sasha on the screen, and we’re all cozy under our comfy blanket, our feet up, what more can we ask for? Try one of the sables.”

I grabbed a handful from the yielding box and sat back on the couch, peering stupefied at the blurry images shifting on the screen. Swigged the cocoa. Vanished into the sofa cushion…

The root was black. The flower white as milk. Nyx and bones will break my stones but strokes will never hurt me. Bellow back gola theemein. It’s totally nichtian here. Sweet areola. Is it really the same when seen forwards or backwards? Missty Aeaea where have I seen you before? Was it a dream? You came into my room with your plum slippers and the light was blinding. The drought afflicting my parched rhododendron was overturned in an instant by your presence. Pinkish sweetly scented valerian. Healing all. Where did you go, my dark-haired one? Now I see your mannequins everywhere I go. Your erotic letter scribed over every detaining wall. The angelic cipher behind every mysterious face. Heloise. H. Vestal. Vernal. Virago. Vivandiere. Volant. Vulva. No, I didn’t mean that. Nebulous Aeaea. Is it really the same in the front as it is in the back? Healing all. Medicine from the apothecary. Are those harpies yelping in the distance? Soft hands delicately unclasping my sword belt, one stud at a time. Sweet basil wafting across my nostrils. You have made me lustful and pot bellied with just a couple of wags from your wand. Move your hand to the most forward section. Peel it back to the rawest part. Fragrant basil. Her lips are not yet closed. “Oh my boy, my boy, who is this?” Motherly love, holy and alert, comes bursting onto the scene. Her mouth is not yet closed. Gunshots. One, two, three.

…I stumbled off the sofa, nearly knocking the coffee table over with my legs. I heard gunshots and a woman scream. Charlie Clover, is that you?

“What’s wrong with you? You nearly scared the ghost out of me! Sit down, please. What gave you such a start? It’s only a movie! Relax yourself!”

I looked about wildly for a clock like a knight seeking divinations at the crossroads. I make a tapping gesture at the wrist to Viv.

“It’s about half-past seven. Calm yourself down! You’re hopping around like a rooster that’s slept past sunrise! You keep this up and you’re going to send me to the next world before my time!”

I groped about trying to find my bearings. I gathered my pen and scratch pad from the couch. Viv looks at me worryingly. ‘How long was I asleep?’

“Long enough to miss the beginning of the whodunit. I didn’t have the heart to wake you. You looked so cute with your porcine belly rising and falling. Settle down so I can calm my nerves. I can’t relax with you dashing about the place.”

‘I have to go.’

“Well don’t keep the kettle boiling at the boiler. I don’t want you to miss your rendezvous. I bet it’s some pretty little thing, too. Go on, shoo. We can watch a picture any old time. Let me pour you a glass of cold water before you go. You could use a wake-me-up.”

The tap water did me good, awakening the parts of me that were still sleeping. I waved goodbye to Viv and raced out the door into the hallway. I wondered if I had left anything on the couch. It was a shame about the flowers, but I couldn’t take them back. My stomach was so full. I pretty well cleaned out those boxes. What did she mean by porcine? My belly’s only swollen because I had glutted myself on the pastries. Not a six-pack by any means, but porcine? I really had to get back to doing sit ups.

7:45. It just goes to show what effect plans have on reality. ‘Head over to Viv’s, tarry a little, and continue to my grandmother’s.’ I thought something very casual was going to happen today, something exceedingly plain and natural, and this anticipation set in motion a chain of events that have snaked me around the board. Visiting hours were almost over, and now they were going to throw me out, and once again I’m going to be the bad (grand) son. I’m trying to figure out how these things worked. But maybe I was working too hard at trying to control events instead of letting them simply occur.[39] That kind of made sense. Maybe expectations always lead to disappointments. You’re a clever one. I’m trying to workshop this. Meanwhile your grandmother waits in utter destitution. That’s laying it on thick. That’s because you’re thick. Thanks for noticing. It’s no mean thing. Clean your diaper, you derelict.

1-9-4-3.[40] Four storeys were left to climb. Not a single pistachio left. My shooting days were over. Prodigality was a problem for me even in my youth. My step-father continuously lectured me on over-spending: the difficulty of earning bread versus the ease by which it was spent. I don’t know how far I’ve come since those early days. I’m finding it harder and harder to earn my keep as of late, while my lust to spend has completely outstripped my resources. I was gluttonous in so many different respects that it was impossible to secure enough fodder. Whatever happened to my charitable ways? I’ve devoted myself to self-improvement so completely over the last few years, that I’ve disregarded the fact that other people have needs as well and are probably incapable of helping themselves. You think buying stuff constitutes self-improvement? Golly gee! You’re one world-class navel-gazer! It’s because of the times. I thought you were done wanking for the day?

The eighth-floor. I was so tired from climbing stairs. I could make these steps my bed for the night. I punched the last of the numbers. 2-7-3-5.[41] If I don’t get out of this retirement home soon, they were going to retire me before I even get started. Through the glass I could see Sol departing. The last of his fiery rays shining off the glass at the entrance, so bright that it completely blinded me for an instant. Were I a devout pilgrim, instead of the kindly derelict plodding before you, and this were a holy mount, like Sinai or Athos, instead of geezer paradise, I would swear that I was turning a wall of fire on its pivot instead of a regular door.[42] So hot to the touch is the knob that I hastened my steps and entered straightaway. A couple of old goats grazing by the door momentarily blocked my entry. What in the world? Some odd procession was being conducted down the hall. Old people marching about the eighth floor of the Elyse, using its grounds for a May Day parade, was the last thing I expected to find.[43]

I tried to make sense of the details: one-two-three, count them, seven women were leading the pageant dressed mostly in light colors (reds, yellows, and whites), and there were four dancing women in the middle wearing leafy-green crowns, and at the back of the line, a single woman garbed entirely in shades of brown. Bizarre New Age music underscored the procession. I was at a loss for words. Forget it. I just needed to get myself across this…? Vernal confetti grass? Where had those old goats widened off to?

And then she caught my attention. The young one, singing, holding the colorful flowers, throwing them over the wizened leafy-green dancers. Eyes shining and pure of smile (cream white teeth/her lips the heart of magnolia). I almost passed out when I saw her pale white arms. In my mind I called her Virginia. Some of her features were similar to Heloise’s. But not identical. She sang like the vernal goddess of the woods. Queen Mab. Time-out-of-mind. She galloped through night-by-night. Maybe she led Adam from the garden dreaming of another benefice. Drumming in his ear, at which he started and waked, and being frightened, mumbled a prayer or two, then slept again.

Room 808. The same forwards as it is backwards. I liked it when things did that. What do you call numbers when they do that? I think it was a malapropism.[44] No, that’s when you used a number in a written sentence instead of the number: like 8 instead of eight. Never odd or even. That’s kind of how it worked with malapropisms. Never odd or even. Ma is as selfless as I am. Live not on evil. Are we not drawn onward, we few, drawn onward to a new era? On a clover, if alive, erupts a vast, pure evil: a fire volcano. Won’t I panic in a pit now?  Draw pupil’s lip upward. Rise to vote, sir! So many dynamos. Won’t lovers revolt now? Bombard a drab mob. I roamed under it, as a tired nude Maori. Drab as a fool, aloof as a bard. No sir—away! A papaya war is on.[45]

Grandmother never locked her door. I shut it behind me, locking the hullabaloo of the pageant outside. She was sitting on a chair by the window gazing outside. Her head was kerchiefed in white. She must have just washed her hair; she was always afraid of catching a cold. The blinds were completely drawn open and Phoebus was pouring his final radiance through the glass. I approached squint-eyed. Rays and halos centered in my bleary view.

She turned in her chair but I couldn’t see the expression she was wearing. “I didn’t hear you come in.” I stooped and my lips met her cheek mid-way.

“It’s windy outside. You should have dressed warmer. The air will penetrate your head through your ears.”

I hated it when she started nagging. I took off my jacket and threw it over one of the wooden chairs. The dust rose from the jacket and was illuminated in the radiance. My father stared at me from the frame on the console, immaculate in his Saturday night special. Billiards with the fellas, Mother at home with me. Saturday Night’s Brawl on the television. Sitting on the couch watching Alexsandr “The Gulag” Stunovich defeat Abdullah “The Scimitar” Rakin. Mother sewing a pattern beside me. Veggie pizza on my lap; an OK Kola in my hand.

‘What did you do today?’ I scratched over the pad less legibly than usual. A grandmother can always makes sense of a grandchild’s gobbledygook.

“Oh, you know, just some housework. I washed some plates. Took a bath.”

‘Did you go outside at all?’ I needn’t ask. She shook her head. ‘Do you want to go for a walk now? I can take you.’

“No, we’ll stay here. It’s too cold today. The sun is setting. Just sit with me.” I saton the chair beside her. “Do you want some food? I have potato salad in the fridge.”

I reflexively shook my head.

“What did you eat?”

‘A sandwich and a juice.’

“I’m putting you a plate. You’re going to fall down the way you are. You need some potatoes in your system.” She went to get up but I put my hands on her shoulders, gently coaxing her to sit again.

‘Really, I’m full.’

“Sometimes I watch you at work and I don’t think you packed enough lunch. So I make something quick on the stove to bring to you but I don’t know what street you work on and I think it must be close to your old school. But when I try to leave, they stop me downstairs and say that you’re home from school now. And I say to them that’s impossible because you’re still at work and that you need your lunch before noon because it’s too far to walk home to eat and I can at least meet you half way.”

My mother used to meet me at school or halfway at the park. This was before we moved to Bayard Rye Village. This was during elementary school when she got banned from the premises for trespassing and for disturbing my classes with her distraught and hysteric visitations. Like when we were on the main floor and the teacher was nattering about something and I was trying to make my friend laugh and my mother pulled back the flowing curtain from the outside, through the open window, and shouted at me for not meeting her or something and her face was flushed and her cheeks were full of tears and everyone laughed (including the teacher) and things were never the same again.

‘I’m okay, Grandma. I ate fine. The foods you showed me.’

“Even the cauliflower?”

I noded my head.

“Because you have to eat the cauliflower and the broccoli. That’s why we have the black rings under our eyes.[46]Your father hated those plants. And the cabbage even worse. He said they made him sick and he’d sound the bugle all night.”

‘I remember. I could hear him through the walls.’

“His hatred for those plants cursed us both. And now we have these black rings under our eyes as a reminder to be friends with all vegetables.”

That’s not why we have the rings under our eyes. The blackness is the external mark of our burdened souls. Not for my dad. He was an atheist. He hated beans and vegetables. On my grandmother’s old bookshelf I spy some of my timeworn books that we brought back from Flamboro. I only get to see them when I visit my grandmother. I store them here. Their absence and inaccessibility makes me appreciate them even more.

I got up and walked over to the bookshelf to have a peek. I loved the illustrations on their hardcovers. The bright, orange colored one was my favorite: rosy fingered dawn, the beaked ships lined-up abreast on the beachfront, fleet-footed Achilles, bedecked in the golden armor forged by Hephaestus, approaching the outmatched and heavy-hearted Hector, who’s bracing himself for the oncoming onslaught like the sand on the shore steadies itself against the rising tide and the looming crash of the infinite sea. Placed against the orange backdrop, lion-hearted Achilles looked like the rising sun in his magnificent radiance, while the breaker-of-horses, Hector, was cast in the deathly shade of Peleus’ son. It’s ironic that Achilles looked like the sun, yet cast a deathly shadow over his famed opponent. His gilded crest, which is brighter than gleaming fire and towers over Hector, represents the rays of the sun, stately and flamboyant on Achilles’ burnished helmet that houses the fighter’s temples and deadly implacable stare. His sword is designed so fearfully that even the Gods would cower before the promise of its awesome wrath. My heart raced beneath my chest, ever eager to join the assembly of Achaeans storming the gates of Troy. I’m a terrible actor but the Iliad brings out the Manzanilla[47] in me. I rage and bluster like a tropical cyclone until I get red in the face:

‘Beg no more, you fawning dog—begging me by my parents! Would to god my rage, my fury would drive me now to hack your flesh away and eat you raw—such agonies you have caused me!’

There are glorious illustrations throughout: the noble embassy pleading to Achilles, Ajax the Great towering over steely-eyed Hector, the tragic death of the lordly Patroclus, god-like Achilles ferociously charging the Scamander River, the ground-chewing chariot of lordly Achilles dragging the lifeless body of Hector back to the Hellenic encampment. The illustrations take up as much space as the abridged text but who cares.

As a boy, the pictures of the Ancient Hellenic warriors in heated, agonized combat made the greatest impression on me. I spent countless hours in my youth imitating the heroes from the Iliad. My friends and I held our own Olympics in Flamboro: Who could match the strength of Ajax? The wiles of Odysseus? The endurance of Diomedes? The leadership of Agamemnon? The valor of Achilles?

Naturally, we all wanted to be Achilles, but there could be only one lion-hearted Achilles in our group, and that honor was claimed by none other than the pale-hero kneeling before you. Of course, I wasn’t pale then, far to the contrary. The sun and I were allies in my youth and my body was sun-kissed all over. I was no stranger to the beach. But that was a different sun. That sun was in Flamboro.

“Get off the floor before you catch your death.”

Just imagine if it were winter instead of spring. To her defense it has been a little chilly these last few weeks. I think it’s called ‘Season Creep’ by the experts. But this is ‘Season Creep’ in reverse; it’s ‘Season Purge.’ Instead of the climate getting warmer earlier, we’re getting cold weather much later into the season than we’re supposed to. Season Creep was so modern in its outlook—what with its phrenological records, birds laying their eggs earlier and buds appearing on trees in late winter, global warming and rising spring lake peaks, like Dearth Nation a la carte, symbolic representation and disillusionment and frustration. Season Purge is much trendier. It’s all paranoia and temporal distortion here-on, with birds not migrating at all and trees being in a state of constant syntho-bloom. Mulligan stew,[48] here we come! Who wants thirds?

The Adventures of Heracles and Theseus. Another landmark book from my youth; two more legends that we imitated as boys. Was there anything more iconic than the twelve labors of Heracles? They were completely mystifying to me. As boys we tried our best to re-enact them and still we arrived no closer to their meaning; yet we still felt intimate with them, as if we were living within the fold of their truth, within the yoke of their death-cheating exploits. We couldn’t understand them as metaphors but as sacraments of an inner mystical tradition, heroic feats that laid the path of a spiritual system. I can’t believe I put that feeling into words. It was lying inside for years, shy and inarticulate. I bet it would look stupid on paper; so many of my thoughts look stupid on paper; I hate revealing myself to others. No one will ever be able to find me. I’ve made sure of that.

I’m as elusive as Theodore Theo.[49] A first-class escape artist. I can distance myself all the way to the moon by breakfast and be under your floorboards by noon without you noticing a single thing: a sleight-of-hand, a-trick-of-the-mind, an-illusion-of-the-senses. Trust me. I’m a keen study at the art of escape. I should take my show on the road: ‘And now, ladies and gentleman, our derelict hero will perform the escape of a lifetime! He will leap completely out of his own body, outwitting the paleness of his flesh in a single bound! The shackles of the skeleton will be broken! The noose of the flesh shall be unlatched![51] The prison doors of the senses will be completely unhinged from their moorings! Witness the death-defying spectacle before you and be awed to the very core of your soul!’

My favorite labor of Heracles has to be the slaying of the Nemean Lion or the capture of Cerberus from the mouth of Hell. Those are the two I have rehearsed the most. Stealing the apples of the Hesperides would place third. Heck, I even chewed the apples as I fled from groaning Atlas in grand style. Most of the boys and girls loved the panache I lent to my performances. The kids that didn’t enjoy themselves were only chagrined because of their eagerness to dethrone me as leader of the Little Punishers.[52]

What’s so significant about the number twelve anyways? Everywhere I turn it’s twelve this and twelve that. Is it a coincidence? It’s actually 8:12 on the clock right now! If you multiply the twelve signs of the zodiac by the twelve months on the calendar by the twelve fruits on the Tree of Life by the ‘number of the faithful’ (twelve squared multiplied by one thousand) by the twelve knights at King Mather’s Round Table by the number that divides space and time (being the product of the four points of the compass multiplied by the three levels of the universe), what do you arrive at?

The Life of Alexander the Great. Brazen Alexander, battering the Persian front, atop Bucephalus, dagger drawn and poised to strike, bronze-armor a-gleam; red cape positioned across the colt’s broad back, the front knot wired across the wide muscular chest and pulled tight as the princely horse rises on its haunches, forelegs tucked, raising Alexander up and away from the enemy’s reach. Noble, self-sacrificing horse! Would that every hero have a Bucephalus in his life to lead him through thick and thin, a trusty partner that will loyally follow your grueling path, whether it be through a perilous dark wood that is brimming with the immoderate appetite of many a beast, or down the craggy steps of Hell itself, with ‘La Porte de l’Enfer’ within fearful view, the world would be a much safer place.

How many times have heroes been beset by a bevy of problems without a partner to aid in the solving: a steadfast arm to support with spear and shield the dissolution of encroaching darkness, a faithful shoulder in hard times, or a warm devoted body in the cold rainy jungles of despair, resolute hands pushing against the sickness unto death, back into the yawning mire of gloom, keeping the dragon of the finite and the necessary at bay just a little longer, to perform what’s left of the magnanimous deeds that broaden the trenches of possibility. What an agonizing journey to make alone! I’m lucky to have had a Bucephalus or two in my life. ‘He spoke soothingly to the horse and turned it towards the sun so that it could no longer see its own shadow, which had been the cause of its distress.’

It was said they were born at the same time. Some even attest that they died synchronously. I don’t know about all that. I do know that without my friends prodding me on to higher peaks and steeper cliffs, I would not have achieved half of my meager exploits. And without them constantly wearing me out, I’d probably live twice as long to chew on the fat of my accomplishments too! They say Alexander slept with a copy of the Iliad and a dagger below his pillow every night. Must be nice, eh, Alex? A volume of Homer’s poetry annotated by the boorish Aristotle. Must be nice, eh? I certainly never had a teacher like him.

Who has? Goddamn it, are you still at it? I all but fell into a coma observing the monotony of your day. Lucky you have me to spice things up. Where were we? I was hoping you choked on your own tongue. Is that your newest strategy? To kill me with your dullness? Oh, my dear friend, I can dress up the dreariest of events. 

“Is that man bothering you, son?”

Is she talking to me? You know what, I don’t think you’ve met my grandmother before.  I don’t remember you coming around whenever I visited her. And before that…when did you first show up? How old was I? How have you avoided her gaze? What the hell are you talking about? Don’t be so shy. Introduce yourself to my grandmother.

‘Grandma, this is Sahkhla.’

“What’s he doing on your back, honey?”

Is she serious? You knew she’d see you! That’s why you avoided her all this time. So the cat’s out of the bag. Big deal. What’s your mommy gonna do anyways, take me by the ear?

“That’s exactly what I’m going to do, you awful man!”

My grandmother walked up to me, taking Sahkhla by the ear (I’m assuming because I cannot see him) and lead him to the door, opening and then slamming it behind.

“What a horrible man! Why didn’t you tell me about him before?”

‘I wasn’t sure if he was really there half of the time.’[53]

“Well, he’s gone for now. Awful. Just awful. Scaly, speckled, a face worthy of a murderer. Eyes burning. Pin-headed and thick-necked to boot. Revolting he was. You should have told me earlier. How long were you suffering from that beast? Didn’t I tell you to clean yourself? All those years when you bathed, didn’t I hang the bag from the doorknob with the soap and the towel and the comb? I did that to protect you from people like him. If you can even call their kind ‘people.’ Well, he’s gone for now, but he’ll be back. Even now, as we’re speaking, he’s climbing to the rooftop, to watch your path as you leave. But don’t worry, I’ll be watching too.”

The idea of his ‘reptile’ form leering from the roof gave me the heebie-jeebies. As unreal as her description was, I have to take Grandma’s word for it because she can see him and I can’t. In the past, I thought I’d seen something in the mirror, but that would happen infrequently, once in a blue moon. There was this one time when I was taking a leak in the dark, or once in a store-window while I was walking across a street in broad daylight, but it would always be a fleeting glimpse and the visual was always preposterous (especially in a dark washroom when you’re afraid as heck). It sure explains my nagging insomnia ever since I started living alone. I’m not sure how I ever slept thinking someone else was in the room. Now that I know for sure, I’ll probably never sleep again.

“Who are you talking to, sweetheart?”

[1] Sneezing is a reflex involving tension and release. A sneeze can erupt volcanically or pop like a series of firecrackers. There is medical evidence that sneezing releases endorphins.

[2] Memory Fallacy, sometimes referred to as confabulation, is a phenomenon that occurs when individuals remember something that never occurred. In the case of schizophrenics, whose ability to reason through thought is impaired, something imagined seems familiar and can easily be mistaken for an actual event. Continuously imagining an event also makes it harder for a person with schizophrenia to distinguish its source: is it familiar because it has been imagined or because it actually happened. This is how false memories are begotten in the mind. 

[3] Established in 1993 and located at 2533 Victoria Avenue. Foreclosed in 1997, when the owner, Giorgio Hestoboutsos, filed for personal bankruptsy.

[4] Randolph Ornette Coleman was one of Aeneas’ dearest friends. Having met in junior high school, where Aeneas mistook Randolph for his best friend from elementary, Richard Reed, and Randolph went along with the lark, prolonging the mistake in identities in good fun for a blithe six months. When the falsehood was discovered, by Randolph’s own admission, Aeneas was forgiving, and the hatchet was quickly buried between the two. They continued to be the best of friends until the end of high school at Coxburn Collegiate. Randolph comes from a long line of runners. His grandfather, Reginald, was a champion Stadion runner at the Nemean Games. While his father, Joseph, was an unexceptional athlete in every sense, genius having skipped a generation, his own high qualities being that of an exceptionally gritty and determined laborer, horse tamer extraordinaire whilst on the Coleman orchard. Having sold the farm after the death of Reginald Coleman, and arriving in Queen City, unable to find a suitable urbane occupation, Joseph took to worm farming to earn a living and raise his children. Randolph grew up through the hardships of his depressed father’s gambling and drinking the greater part of the inheritance from the Coleman farm. Due to the requisite austerity measures undertaken by the Coleman’s to survive big city life, Joseph took to using his family as “pickers” to lighten the labor burden of running a business. Randolph, along with his mother and grandmother, had great difficulties acclimatizing to the ghastly early hour sojourns into the godforsaken green belt far north of the Narrows; the dark and rainy and muddy locales, which were part-and-parcel to the worm industry, proved to be a little too rough for the Colemans, but struggle they did, supporting their father throughout their formative years and persevering themselves. As a runner, Randolph never rose to the heights of his grandfather, but continued the family racing tradition, winning several key local and greater city competitions from the word go. Randolph is 5’10, 165 lbs. 

[5] A dream of murder may indicate that an individual may have issues of repressed aggression. It may also symbolize aspects of an individual’s character that are deemed unfavourable and desirous of elimination. Alternately, it may be symptomatic of feelings of overwhelment, shock, and alienation, perhaps owed to having been betrayed by a person in waking life.

[6] A mixed and jumbled metaphor that cannot see the forest for the trees; one half of the world does not know how the other half lives.

[7] An attempt at Homeric sublimity; in vain the net is spread in sight of the bird.

[8] A contender for the Aeneid of Aeneids.

[9] Practicing onanism in public may be tried in a courtroom as a crime of sexual assault. Onanism in public, that is not directed at anyone in particular, will be declared legal in a future city in Europa, which will go without mention in order to avoid predetermination.

[10] Paraphrasing from the stoic letters of Ernst Holster from the collection The Ark of Mercy that Aeneas purchased from a used bookstore and devoutly studied, acutely feeling that someone had finally given expression to the countless existential riddles assailing mankind. Aeneas put Holster’s wise and masculine rebuttals to “mankinds existential malaise” to practice. The boat scenario Aeneas paraphrases is an allegory found in The Ark of Mercy, in a letter titled All The Riches of This World, that functions as a distillation of one of the “modern entanglements” Holster foregrounds in his essay.

[11] Confrontations with his step-father over money and acquisitions shaped Aeneas equally into a wastrel and skinflint. The application of either attribute is utterly random; Aeneas is never consistent with his imprudence or miserliness, nor with the things he prizes above others. For instance, his love of books is boundless and yet he will never purchase a book that is not sold second-hand. Yet, he will spend up to $200 for a bottle of champagne cognac. He will not spend money on water during his lengthy peregrinations around the city, dangering severe dehydration in arid conditions, but he sees no problem handing over exorbitant amounts on coats and jackets, which he collects obsessively, and hardly ever wears, opting instead to wear the same coat or jacket persistently for a “season” before chucking it to the wayside, never to don it again. There may be rhyme to these penchants but hardly any reason.

[12] In 2001, hearing voices in one’s head is a symptom of schizophrenia and may even be a prelude to dissociative identity disorder. In 2014, psychologists will encourage conversations with the voices in one’s head as a form of therapy. In 2031, dissociative identity disorder will no longer be classified as a disease and hearing voices will no longer be considered a hallucination. Various sociological phenomena, which cannot be discussed here, will unshroud the shady origins and cross-purposes of hearing voices.

[13] Refers to a marketing campaign that originated in the 1960s that designated any loyal iAM customers as being “true blue,” thereupon forming a sort of attingent, cliqued, “hip-to-be square” relationship with iAM employees. The campaign specifically self-referenced the famed “true blue” dress code of all iAM employees, which usually consisted of a white shirt and all-blue suit, and symbolized the caste advantage of being able to do business with and for the afluent iAM corporation.

[14] In Huaxia, the sale of cats and dogs for food is a 3 billion dollar a year industry.

[15] The growing use of initialism and acronyms in everyday exchanges is a 21st century phenomenon.

[16] From Aliquot the Medieval’s religious epic, The Celestial Farce, Purgatorio, canto 9, verse 121: “Whenever one of these keys fails so that it does not turn rightly in the lock, this passage does not open; the one is more precious, but the other requires much wisdom and skill before it will unlock, for it is this that looses the lock.”

[17] “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” Yeshua ben Yosef remarked to his inner circle upon an expedition to Mount Eremos.

[18] From The Celestial Farce, Purgatorio, canto 12, verse 91: “Come. The steps are at hand here and henceforth the climb is easy. To this bidding they are very few that come. O race of men, born to fly upward, why do you fall back so for a little wind.”

[19] Niobe Ashbridge had mistakenly added a bleaching powder to a batch of colored laundry in the washing machine, fading the blacks on Aeneas’ favorite and recently purchased sweatshirt, from the clothing line of legendary basketball star, Butch Graves. Aeneas had blown half of the clothing budget allotted to him by his father for the upcoming school year on one sweatshirt and was heavily relying on it to impress his schoolmates. Without the Butch Graves decoration over his chest, he felt like a lamb shorn of his wool.

[20] “When we had reached the blessed angel he said with a glad voice: “Enter here,” at a stairway far less steep than the others. We were mounting, having already passed on from there, when “Blessed are the merciful” was sung behind us and “Rejoice, thou that overcomest.”

[21] Born to Giovanni Ludovico and Gudrun Golga in 1919 in Kaiserslautern, Germania. A polymathematical prodigy from a young age, he fled Germania two decades later to escape the attrition of the Second World War. Landing in Amerika companionless, he quickly found work in Metropolis as a porter in a Roman restaurant and shared residence with other expatriated Europeans in a dilapidated boarding house. Maximilian quickly rose up the ranks at Don Vittorio’s, and due to his mathematical prowess became the resident bookkeeper before long. His ambitious nature never allowed him to settle, having learned to read and write in English, he began to dream of travel and reinvention. Arriving in Queen City in 1943 via rail, he swiftly found employment as an accountant for Empire Foods, a grocery chain operating over twenty stores in the Narrows alone. He applied to New Albion College in 1944 and began his undergraduate study in architectural science. He paid his way through college working full time for Empire Foods, leaving little time for anything extracurricular, and completed his master’s degree in 1949. Being the leading student of his class, applying an almost monomaniacal devotion to his studies, he was approached by the Otranto Group and began working for them in the fall of 1949. By 1955, Maximillian had become a partner with the Otranto Group and was considered one of the most sought after architects in the city. He spurred the Loda movement in Queen City, a movement that flourished in Amerika during the mid-50s, and proved influential until mid-80s. As an architectural philosophy, it was associated with socialist utopian ideology. In praxis, the buildings were colossal in character, fortress-like, usually exposing a raw concerete exterior. They were raw and unpretentious and rugged looking, becoming popular for educational facilities, government projects, high-rise housing, and shopping centres. The Loda movement communicated strength, functionality, and seriousness, in contrast to the frivolity and highly ornamented Rococo style of some 1930’s and 1940’s architecture in Queen City. By the 60’s, Maximilian had become a millionaire and withdrew from the Otranto Group, establishing his own firm, MGL Capita, in 1961. MGL Capita got out in front of the “streets in the sky” initiative and landed several lucrative city contracts, including the south Riverdale social housing project, which involved designing buildings with broad aerial walkways in long concrete blocks, true to the Loda ideal. In 1964, Maximilian married fashion model Harriet Braun and together they moved to the secluded fifty-acre Gloucester Island, where Maximilian had purchased an estate from airline tycoon, Oskar Reinhart, for over nine million dollars. In 1965, Maximilian net worth was said to have been over forty million dollars. The Ludovico’s shared the island with the Reinhart’s in relative ceclusion. In 1966, Harriet gave birth to Maximilian’s first child, Albrecht. Fortune continued to favor Maximilian, when in 1967, he began designing his magnum opus, a set of twin 179-metre residential buildings to be erected in the Bayard Rye Village, as a response to the population boom in Queen City. The towers were to have cost over two hundred million dollars to build. Maximilian invested over thirty million of his own money into the project. It was bold and daring move for one of the city’s most famed entrepreneuers. In 1969, Harriet gave birth to their second child, Brunhilda. By 1972, the Golga Towers had been completed and were the tallest residential buildings in Queen City with over 1.4 million square feet of residential space between them. Two years later the Towers had reached full occupancy, the Ludovicos residing in the penthouse of the North tower, having sold the estate on Gloucester Island, and Harriet’s parents in the south tower. The Golga Towers were considered a chic place to habitate in the 1970s. With a shopping plaza complex built into the main floor of the buildings, the residences were an integrated community unto themselves. Maxillian’s star began its descent in the 1980s as MGL Capita began to lose contracts to other competing firms. Maximilian’s unwavering belief in the Loda style stonewalled the approprinquation of interested clients. His mounting obsession with the betterment of the Towers, constantly revising parts of the buildings to increase their value and efficacy—structural touch-ups, be it expansions, extensions, and enlargements, replacements of beams, rafters, joists, steel grids, where possible, interior renovations, plumbing and electrical upgrades, repainting, carpet replacements, plastering, baseboards, light fixtures, paneling, ceiling trim, parquet, fixture refinishings, exterior renovations, replacements of siding, roof, masonry sections, awnings, fencing, frequent reinstallations of closed circuit television systems, miscellaneous security upgrades, heating and cooling enhancements, the amplification of amenities to include a clinic, a library, and a recreational center—led to his estrangement from his wife and children and ushered in the demise of the Ludovicos. Harriet finally filed for divorce in 1986 and claimed sole custody over Albrecht and Brunhilda. The annulment of their marriage cost Maximillian over forty million dollars. He managed to retain ruling ownership over the north Golga Tower but lost all propriety rights over the second. In their divorce hearings, Harriet indicated that she thought Maximilian was depressed and had never recovered from the loss of his parents upon emigrating from Germania. He had never spoken to them again and had never gained any information concerning their whereabouts. It was as if they had vanished into the fog of the Second World War, a misfortune many other families had experienced too. Greater than three-percent of the World’s population had undergone a similar tribulation; over seventy million bodies were returned to the Earth during the War. The tenancy rate of the Golga Tower declined dramatically after the divorce, as Maximilian’s infatuation with the Tower burned brighter and his compulsiveness grew greater. The building was in a state of constant construction and the ubiquitous surveillance cameras and the battalion of security guards patrolling the floors smacked of a totalitarian regime. The rents were raised annually to an egregious and unaffordable degree. If tenants were to Maximilian’s dislike, he would harass them until they willingly evacuated the premises. He grew more and more cantankerous and standoffish with time. He hardly ever left his penthouse in the years following the divorce. He lost all interest in architecture outside of the Tower, all interest in the world save for the society of Golga. By 1990, the Golga Tower was half empty. The south tower had been purchased by Morguard Industries in 1988 and renovated with the interests of the bourgeois in mind. Gone were Maximilian’s visionary flourishes. The main floor shopping center was closed in 1990 and became the head office of Morguard Industries. In 1992, Maximilian filed for bankruptcy and liquidated his ownership of the building. He recovered only a portion of what he had originally invested. Morguard Industries purchased the building for only sixty million dollars in 1993. Upon Maximilian’s deposition, the building was only one-quarter occupied and was left in poor standing, with many of Maximilian’s proposed projects and innovations being left incomplete. He was denied tenancy upon application for another suite by the owner, David Morguard. Maximilian lived in several Queen City apartments before finally moving to the Elyse retirement home in 1997, just a few months before his sixty-eighth birthday.

[22] Site of the worst nuclear power plant disaster in history. An explosion in 1982 released large quantities of radioactive particles into the atmosphere that spread over much of western Scythia and Europa. Forty-four people perished from the accident and negative long-term health effects on the populace, like cancers and deformities, are still being felt, two decades later.

[23] O Nonnos is a popular, award-winning, 1968 satiric crime film directed by Kosmas Papakosmas about the rise of the Hellenic mafia in Amerika using the nightclub circuit as a front to run their illegal businesses.

[24] Montgomery Moody was an Amerikan film and stage actor, notable for his portrayal sensitive and introspective young men. He often acted the part of the outsider and victim-hero in such films as The Stranger (1948) and Me and My Shadow (1956). He commited suicide in 1960 at the age of 41.

[25] A famous statement made by neurologist Ziggy Froth in his 1896 lecture on dream interpretation, highlighting the importance of symbolism in dreams as one of the keys to unlocking the mystery of neuroses and hysteria in individuals. Froth said, tongue-in-cheek, that “sometimes objects are merely objects, with no latent meaning: from time to time, we may permit a stogie to be a stogie.” It served as a comedic aside in his lecture on dream analysis, because those that knew Froth, knew that he had an oral fixation that he slavishly satisfied with cigars.

[26] “God is subtle, but he is not malicious.”

[27] A form of organized belief in Yeshua ben Yosef. Originated as a movement and reformation of perceived errors in the Latidunarian faith. It represents of one of major divisions of Yosefism along with Latidunarianism and Orthodoxy.

[28] Golga is an obscure Old Norse term meaning “to stand guard” or “watch over.”

[29] The words of Anglish Puritan Johan Skewis upon founding a new community in the early history of Amerika, “as a city upon a hilltop, watched by all peoples.”

[30] Maximilian Golga Ludovico was a known hunting enthusiast, having travelled all over the world in participation of a miscellany of hunts, which included hunting fox in Angland and elephants in the Afrikan bush.

[31] A Utopia is an idealistic community or society possessing near-perfect qualities.

[32] Fifth-degree Aeneid: a bake of pretentious nonsensical medievalisms.

[33] A delusion of reference is where a person falsely believes that trivial remarks, events, and/or objects in one’s environment have personal meaning or significance.

[34] Heterodoxical Anglish poet John Milton who composed By Light of the Morning Star in 1663 to the chagrin of the religiously conservative in his native Londinium.

[35] An ancient Hellenic island thought to be in the Ionian Sea. First mentioned by Homer in the Epic Cycle, stating that the island was named after its founder, Flamboura, who helped the Achaeans storm the beaches of Troy, listed in the “Catalogue of Ships” as a commander, “King of Flamboro, son of Dionysos, and loyal friend of Odysseus.” The eventual fate of the isle and its inhabitants is the subject of myth, having all but escaped the annals of the Ancient Hellenes. Hesiod makes mention of Flamboro in a fragment, making much of islands flora and fauna: “The plentiful winter rainfall that endows the island with dense vegetation, lovely are its currants and figs.” In The Sacred Narrative, Arignota says that Flamboro was a favorite resting place for Pythagoras, who “basked in the company of the islands many virgin springs and was a student to its viticulture that was unsurpassed in all of Hellas.” Ion of Chios wrote in The Triagmos that the “descendants of Flamboura are a proud, orderly, and patriotic people, that will abide by no rule except their own.” Diogenes of Athens spoke of a laurel grove in Flamboro “where girls were singing hymns in honor of Dionysus and invoking the deity by his various names.”There are several such descriptive fragments buried within the memoirs of antiquity, but we are left without a plenary account of the people and place. All vestigial references to Flamboro were seemingly vanquished by the rising sun of Rome during the Hellenistic Era. The place name reappears precipitously in history. In Konstantinopolis around the fourth century CE, a monastery by the name of Flamboro is erected upon the slopes of the fourth hill. At the Battle of Avarinos in 1823, there was an allied battleship named Flamboro that fought in defense of the Hellenes against the Uthman Empire. In the greater Queen City in 1978, the townships of Capetown, Blue Valley, and Keystone are amalgamated into the town of Flamboro with a population of 17,917. The land is devoted chiefly to farming and agriculture, with its main cultural attraction being a harness horseracing track called the Hippodrome of Flamboro. In 1985, Flamboro was disbanded and reintegrated into Queen City under the name Ancaster. And so our abridged register draws to a close.

[36] A chimera of the mind. Figs do not grow in Queen City Flamboro. They require a more temperate zone to produce fruit.

[37] Mistress Ovary (1852) written by Frank author, Gus Roberdes, is a seminal work of realism and one of the most influential novels ever written, dealing primarily with the social banalities and emptiness at the heart of provincial life.

[38] The Blackpool Fables (1474) written Anglish author, Joffrey Schumaker, is a text of unparalleled variety and richness on the subject of Anglish society during the Anglo-Frank war, told in a broad series of tales with contrasting themes and styles, from vivid characters from all walks of life during a countryside pilgrimage to the Irish Sea for the purposes of “taking the cure.” From popularizing the literary use of the Anglish vernacular to his panoptic representation of “sondry folk,” the literary influence of Schumaker’s book is inestimable.

[39] Most of the research in the field of self-control assumes that self-control is better for the individual than impulsiveness. Self-control demands that an individual work to overcome thoughts, emotions, and automatic impulses. Impulsiveness runs contrary to the starry influence of Sol.

[40] “Come, here is the passage,” spoken in such sweet and gracious tones as are not heard within these mortal bounds. With open wings which seemed a swan’s he that spoke to us directed us upward between the two walls of flinty stone, then moved his feathers and fanned us declaring “Blessed are they that mourn,” for they shall have their souls possessed of consolation.”

[41] Celestial Farce, Purgatorio, canto 27, verse 35.

[42] Of making many Aeneids there is no end.

[43] Historically there existed the May festival of Flora, Goddess of flowers, during the era of the Roman Republic, and the Walpurgis Night celebrations of the Germanic countries.

[44] A malapropism is the use of an incorrect word in place of a word with a similar sound, often resulting in a nonsensical or humorous utterance. Aeneas is thinking of a palindrome, which is a word, phrase, or number, that reads the same forward or backward. Curiously, in some instances he understands and uses the trope correctly, “The B.Y.M. affectionately scribbles palindromes over my forehead with his eggroll,” while in others he seems completely ignorant as to the function of the term, which may suggest that his forgetfulness is a studied affectation or that perhaps his brain is truly broken, malfunctioning from time to time.

[45] Constrained writing is a literary technique in which the writer is bound by some condition that forbids certain turns or imposes a specific form over his or her, commonly poetic, material. Palindromes are one such technique whereby a writer may flourish to achieve his or her desired aesthetic ends. Aeneas’ slant in this instance, his way of looking at things, is gimmicky and pure balderdash, his plastic mind, a top, which he spins for his own amusement.  

[46] Often a visible symptom of a serotonin imbalance in the body. Serotonin imbalance is associated with sleeping problems, mood disturbance, and aggressive compulsive behaviour.

[47] Laurentius Manzanilla, famed Anglish Shaggbarkean stage actor of the 1920’s and 1930’s and later a popular film actor, starring mainly in Shaggbarkean screen adaptations or Royal Palms prestige pictures.[48] The following description of mulligan stew appeared in a 1900 Queens City newspaper: “A traveller present explained the operation of making a “mulligan.” Three and three hobos join in on this. One builds a fire and another rustles an empty can or a tin or something. Another fetches some meat. Another potatoes. One fellow leaves to obtain bread, another has to gather onions, salt, and pepper. If a chicken can be swiped, so much the easier. The whole passel is placed into the can and boiled until it is cooked. If one of the men is successful in procuring “Java,” an oyster tin is used for a coffee tank, and this is also put onto the fire to boil. Incidentally, it may be mentioned that California hobos always put a “snipe” in their coffee, to give Java that delicate amber color. “Snipe” is hobo for the butt end of a cigar that smokers throw down in the streets. All hobos have large quantities of snipes in their pockets for both chewing and smoking purposes. A “beggar stew” is a “mulligan” without any meat.” Presumably you wouldn’t bump into any butts in the sauce.

[49] A masterful illusionist and escapologist who plied his art during the early parts of the 20th Century. There were many who believed Theodore Theo (1870-1922) had sold his soul to the devil to achieve fame. Many of his tricks, including levitational and teleportational death-defying maneuvers that boggled the mind, were considered affronts to the physical laws of the nature. Theo went on to write books of philosophy and even rewrote Yeshua Ben Yosef’s the Golden System, removing material he felt was extraneous to the cause of Yosefism. Believing to have received a revelation from a courageous angel, which risked its soul arriving on Gaea to deliver him from bondage, Theo’s writing was often imbued with a paranoid vision of the world, suspecting that the governments and religions of the world were manipulated by astral demonic entities that were bent on imprisoning mankind. He vanished in 1923 and was never heard from again. He was pronounced dead in in 1925 when a body was recovered in Brasil that resembled Theo’s and was found to be carrying several of Theo’s identification papers, including his passport. It was thought that Theo was exploring the Amazonian rainforest during his last few years, perhaps driven by some secret ambition for one last trick. Several letters found on his body confirmed as much. He was buried in Parisii in the Autumn of 1925 alongside famous musicians, actors, painters, and authors.

[51] A mixed metaphor: a noose cannot be unlatched.

[52] The Little Punishers of Flamboro were a young “posse of justice” in, of course, Flamboro and in 1985 they were either the terror or boon of the streets, depending on your age and perspective. The Little Punishers of Flamboro were comprised of the Alphas, Aeneas the Lion (aged 7) and Ariadne the Fox (Aged 8), the Betas, Richard the Roarer (Aged 8) and Nico the Red (Aged 7), the Protectors, Stelios the Brave (Aged 8) and Katerina the Clever (Aged 8), the Elders, Giovani the Just (Aged 9) and Samantha the Beautiful (Aged 9), and the Assassin, Pan the Fleet of Foot (Aged 8). When a Little Punisher turned ten years of age, they were forcibly retired from the group, though the collective had not been around long enough to find out, having disbanded in the winter of 1985 when Aeneas relocated to Frankdale.

[53] Mutual Psychosis is psychotic syndrome where symptoms of a delusional belief are transmitted from one individual to another. Inflicted Psychosis is where a dominant person initially forms a delusional belief during a psychotic episode and imposes it on another person with the assumption that the secondary person was not persuaded to begin with. If the parties are admitted to hospital separately, then the delusions in the person with the induced beliefs usually resolve without the need for medication. Simultaneous Psychosis describes a situation where two people considered to suffer independently from psychosis influence the content of each other’s delusions so they become identical or at least morbidly similar. Reports have stated that a similar phenomenon to Mutual Pyschosis had been induced by the military incapacitating agent WORM in the late 60s and most recently again by anthropologists in the South American rainforest consuming the hallucinogen Athabasca.

May Twelfth

Solondz’s office. History regurgitated itself. The surrounding blinds have their eyes closed because they could not bear to watch the garden-variety corporate persecution on display. If they had souls, the blinds would brim with tears of sorrow at my plight.

“With what’s happening around the office right now, especially with us having the misfortune of recently losing the Debreziner account, I would expect a little more from you than calling in sick on a Friday.”

I had a headache. Why does he expect more? I haven’t done anything for him to expect more. I wonder, is he going lay the axe to my roots?

“Our livelihoods are on the line everyday and you call in sick over a headache—you have got to be kidding me! Looking at your attendance record over the last four months, I’m left speechless by your recurrent absenteeism. You’re averaging three sick days a month so far this year. Last year was even worse. We sat down in January and you promised change. You’ve done nothing but break your word. You’re late on average 3.6 times a week, so it’s accurate to say you’re late almost all of the time. Your average lateness is 7.8 minutes, so it’s not just a couple of minutes here and there.”

‘I’m not paid for those late minutes. I’m not stealing from the company.’

“That’s not the point and you know it. I hope you’re not going to be uncooperative.” I shook my head. He approved and continued.

“This meeting isn’t a review of your performance; it’s just a conversation about your attendance record and how it reflects your attitude. We’ll discuss your output at some other point in time.” He could stick his nagging finger up his nose or go and accuse his pet hamster of sin and treason for all I cared.

“I have to write you up for this, you know. You were warned in January and now you’re being officially reprimanded in writing. Do you understand our expectation? We’re all under pressure here to produce effectively. You’re not the only one feeling it, but we can’t very well shirk our duties when…”

I told my brain to let my hand know when it needed to add a couple of words for conversation’s sake. As for myself, I had more important tasks to attend to. It was time I got back on the horse. ‘Through the arts man recreates himself in the image of himself. His ideal self.’[1] That’s what I had always said. I had been jotting down some ideas for a story recently, but it was very abstract, in fact, it was so conceptual in nature that I had a hard time attaching words to my thoughts. Pictures were the way to go. I had been sketching some. They were very odd to say the least; abstract to the point of being non-representational.

“I trust we’ve come to an agreement, then?”

I nodded my head. But I did not shrug my shoulders. Maybe I should have shrugged my head.

“Well, go out there and prove it. I want to see a demonstration of change in your attitude immediately.”

‘Those reports you wanted will be on your desk by the end of the week, like you said.’ I needed two sheets from the pad to relate my submission to the will of Solondz. What reports did he want? I will ask Snitman or just copy something of his.

“Just one more thing before you go.” Solondz’s breath smelled like a surgical wastebasket full of polyps and adenoids and stuff. No, on second thought, it smelled like a hatred for all living things. But that was only because he was dead inside and reverse zombies usually rot from the inside out.

“Don’t be late tomorrow.”

In the men’s washroom. It seemed I had to do get some serious work done today. They were trying to make a Johnny-on-the-spot out of me. They will have to lobotomize me first.  I’ll get off the hook somehow. There’s still a bunch of tricks I haven’t played yet. A slap on the wrist? Please! How about a Theodore Theo shackle-escape to trump their ploy through and through!

I nodded to Paul, who was standing at the urinal beside me.

“Just coloring the latrine a brighter shade of orange.”

Paul Buer’s soul was dead and he knew it. What was left was a sarcastic shell of a man. What the Jews called a Dybbuk. His possessor was the Crocell Corporation.[2] He represented one of the sixty-nine bodies in their possession. Crocell made him witty, made him find pleasure in teaching immoral expressions, made him eat foods and drink liquids that aggravated his ulcer like OK Kola, made him tempt other people to complain about their jobs, made him out to be a good familiar amongst his colleagues until they were caught in his trap, a snare that caused gangrene wounds in people’s flesh by corrupting their consideration of others (see: slander or the annihilation of other people by making false and malicious claims), made him take an inordinate interest in hot-rod trinkets like ‘suicide doors’ or ‘radius rods’ while ignoring more pertinent issues like visiting his heart-broken children that lived with his ex-wife or trimming the flaxen hairs sticking out of his ears, made him talk about stupid things all of the time like TV trivia or can you name this segment of a popular tune from the 1980s. Goddamn you, Paul, with your quicksand ways. In Latin, his last-name translated as something that stops or delays.

“Is this itching an eternal scrape?”[3]

I nodded to placate his need for recognition.

“Did you notice somebody vandalized the next stall? They carved some crap on the partition. That’s soo punk! The Bull will catch up to them sooner or later. It’s kinda funny though when you think about it: ‘Nobody fights directly anymore. The state has taken care of that.’ That’s some twisted shit, right there. Stupid, too. Solondz has to watch-out for guys like that. Vandal gets caught, vandal gets fired—bam! He goes off the hook, grabs a 12-gauge out of his closet, and comes back raising Cain in this place, a barrel at a time.”

Vexed, I whipped my scratch pad out and scribbled a message to my tormentor. ‘Yeah, but look on the bright side. You get the early retirement you always wanted.’

[1] The introductory quote to an essay written by Aeneas Ashbridge and submitted in 1993, in Mr. Needlin’s high school Philosophy class. Mr. Needlin was taken aback that Aeneas had the nerve to quote himself in what was intended to be an objective, historical essay analyzing the role of the liberal arts in society, and so he failed him without hesitation. Nobody contested the “D,” least of all Aeneas himself, who was too shy to plead a formal complaint, so the failing grade remained.

[2] The Crocell Corporation is a defense manufacturer, with an area of focus that includes drones and cyber security in support of its homeland security solutions. They also develop CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear and Explosives) detection systems in places around Amerika to identify potential threats.

[3] Paraphrasing the Knickknacks 1984 hit, “Why Does it Hurt?

May Thirteenth

As I was laying in bed staring at the ceiling, I wondered if I could make some modifications to the way I breathed, so I started messing with the rate and depth of my breath: I was making my lungs full, holding the air in place, exhaling slowly, pausing, releasing the remainder and then returning to a different rhythm. I somehow managed to switch off the autopilot for the breathing apparatus thingee; I now had to stop and focus on each breath I took or my body wouldn’t breathe at all. I was in so much trouble. How was I supposed to accomplish anything else now?

There was a fleet of sparrows on my balcony. How cute and innocent they were. They looked hilarious with their bodies all fatted up, hopping about on teeny legs. I wondered if they would have liked some bread or kernels. I think had some in the cupboard. I had to breathe again. Imagine just sitting around all day and making sure to breathe? What kind of life would that be? More like punishment or a prison sentence: ‘You are sentenced to sit on that uncomfortable chair and just breathe for the next six-years of your life for violating the…’

‘Hello, Solondz, yeah, can’t make it to the office today, seems I turned off my breathing autopilot.’ Oh, he’d love that. How do you explain these human problems to zombies like Solondz? For instance, if my stomach hurts because I ate twenty different things the night before, he doesn’t see why it’s impossible for me to make it into work. Zombies just don’t understand. They expect you to adapt to their undead way. That’s the tall and short of it. It was time to breathe again. I would take a deep breath this time so I wouldn’t have to do it again for a while. Are we automatons because we don’t consciously control things like our breathing? We are runaway vehicles on a highway with the breaks having been cut.

I was none too sorry about having that monkey, Sahkhla, off my back. I felt lighter and more peaceful.  But I was going have to shield my mind again. I opened my closet and gazed at the treasure resting on the top shelf. A stately Hellenic piece, six pounds in weight, and about twelve-inches ear-to-ear. A deep breath again. A sturdy strait for protecting the throat and chin. The brass designs on the cheeks, lionlike adornments from the tradition of Heracles, polished to a mirror-finish. And it was invisible to the naked eye. An enraptured helmet for a peerless fellow like myself. It was pretty dapper, I thought. I reached up and pulled the helmet down. Let us see how the old Corinthian fitted me.[1]

On the bus. I had my keys, packed my lunch, filled my water bottle, shoelaces tied, hair combed, deodorant spread, ears cleaned, teeth brushed. ‘Ready for battle, sire.’ A deep breath. I was a new man. Whoever heard of fresh starts on a Tuesday? I could understand on a Sunday or even a Monday, but a Tuesday? Not very auspicious. I just need to get to work on time. That’s the most important thing.

I wondered sometimes what was wrong with me, how I could be so lucid at times and so forgetful at others. Was it some kind of disease? It was written that if you have faith and open your mouth to speak on behalf of the righteous, the Holy Ghost will speak for you. I couldn’t say that has always been the case for me. Sometimes I opened my mouth and all that came out was a chinook of mystification. What’s the problem? Here I am, Holy Ghost! Speak! A deep breath again. Maybe I was a man of unclean lips. There was so much text in my head, but it was hard to evict all those letters. When the moment of expression finally arrived, I was tongue-tied worse than…well, yeah. These days, I could probably use a haunting.

“Excuse me, sir.” A lady plopped down on the seat beside me and wrestled for leg space. I had trouble turning my head with the Corinthian, so I just ignored her and minded my own business. There was a hawk circling the sky in the wide distant expanse over the Blue Fountain Forest, flaunting its mastery of the hunting grounds. I tilted the Corinthian a little to get a better look at the majestic view over Knightsbridge and took a long breath and let it out slowly.

“Your space ends here,” the lady said, pointing to my knee that was well into her leg area. I could barely hear what she’s saying through the Corinthian’s brass. She’s dug her spiny shoulder against my bicep trying to enlarge the space between us.

‘I can’t very well shrink my frame, can I?’ I hastily scribbled and then showed her the notepad.

“What are you writing? Just move so I might sit.”

Inflamed, I attacked the scratch pad with the vehemence of a lion. ‘Seats were made for man, not vice-versa.’ I flipped the page. The woman tried to read along. ‘Are you trying to chop me down to size?” I took a deep breath and then flipped over another page. ‘Stop jabbing me, Bengali!’ I scrawled with authority, pen-hand rending the air, head trussed-up in brass.

“Not Bengali, Urdu! What are you writing? This man is a racist!” She shouted to the back of the bus, arousing the attention of everyone around us.

Bengali might have been a misstep. Inches apart, we were not even looking at each other. She was talking to the audience across from us and I was looking up at their blank searching faces and down at the scratch pad for answers. I scrambled to take another breath and not panic.

“I will not calm down! We are new here and you step on us like garbage! Everytime you step on us!  Shame on you!” Still poking me with her shoulder, meanwhile, I had shrunk in the seat long ago.

‘Who’s stepping on you?’ I flashed the scratch pad, but she was no longer willing to read along. I showed my script to the incredulous people across from me, but they just look sorry for being caught in the middle of the ruckus. Besides, nobody read books anymore. ‘Drain the welfare system’ dry for all I care. Just stop shoving me’ I wrote only for myself to read, regretting the words a second later. Instead I shoved her back and she exploded out of her seat.

“This man hit me! Help! This man hitting me!” she shouted to the driver and to anyone who would listen.

“Sit down you crazy bitch and shut the hell up!” The wiry, moustachioed man seated across from me hollered. “He never touched her, I saw the whole thing. She’s just trying to rev him up. Isn’t that right, chief?”

After a brief pause I shrugged my shoulders. I didn’t know what he wanted me to say.

“There’s no two ways about it. This crazy bitch is the racist. I saw the whole thing. She started shoving him and he just sat there and swallowed it like any peace-loving citizen. She’s the crazy one. Call the cops, driver, and get her off this bus before she hurts somebody.”

The lady was dumbstruck standing in the middle of the lane between me and the moustache. Looking around for assistance, she found none between the peeved and the unconcerned. The bus grinded to a halt.

“What’s going on back here? Huh!” The pasty bus-driver with the cue-ball head inquired. I couldn’t see his eyes for the shades.

“This woman is causing the ruckus, boss. Throw her off,” the Mustache says in deference to Shades.

“Is that correct, sir? Has this woman assaulted you?”

The lady was totally dazed by the direction things had taken. No longer playing the victim, she’s was as meek as a lamb. She nervously pivoted her head looking for any supporter, but the only other minority on this end of the bus was a young Afrikan, bouncing his head to the earsplitting music on his IQphones, completely distracted from the proceedings.

“Madam, I’m going to have to ask you to exit the bus,” the driver said firmly.

“But…but, why? He hit me!” the lady said in complete astonishment.

“That’s total bullshit, lady. He barely nudged you and you were practically down his throat a second ago. You started the trouble. Get off the bus and let us get to our jobs,” the Mustache said.

“Calm down, sir,” the driver said to the Mustache. “Madam, step-off the bus or I’ll have to call a constable to the scene,” Shades affirmed.

‘It’s okay with me if she stays.I can move.’ All three of them read from my scratch pad. I felt guilty as hell for the situation coming to a head like this.

“Stay where you are, chief. It’s the Pakistani that needs to go. Who does she think she is, the queen of the city or something! Get off the bus, towel-head!” griped the Mustache. I feel for the steel in my coat pocket. I had to be ready just in case somebody makes a dominant play. I lowered the Corinthian over my eyes, surveying the scene anew through the narrow apertures.

“Somebody better get off!”

“Holy crap already! Do something driver!” somebody barked from the front.

“C’mon move this damn bus!” the emboldened quaffed, porridge-necked guy hollered from the rear.

Full of trepidation at the mob, the lady with head-scarf eased demurely between the driver and myself and stepped off the bus.

“About f’n time!” the Mustache whinged.

Unexpectedly, I stood and followed her off the bus. The Mustache hollered something derogatory at me as I exited: “Why don’t-cha just marry the sand-nigger and get it over with.” My head was spinning. What choice did I have? Wearing the Corinthian, it would have been an affront to the profession of the hero[2] if I didn’t follow the disgruntled woman and try to make amends for the part I played in the fiasco on the bus.

My IQwatch said it 8:32 a.m. I still had to time to spare. The lady was briskly walking in the direction I needed to go. We were on Honor Oak Road heading north. Industrial Road was intersecting just ahead. I wondered if she’s going all the way to Commercial Road. Did she work there? She must have got on the bus at the stop at Knightsbridge’s end. Did she come from the Bayard Rye Village? Is there any chance she lives there? I would really owe her an apology then. We’ll probably laugh about the whole matter afterwards. Bengalis in Bayard Rye?

She looked over her shoulder trying to find another bus or something and saw me following her. I had better catch up and explain myself before she got the wrong idea. Just as I approached, she spun and shouted, “What do you want from me!” Ready to protect herself. I admired her valor. She looked to be around fifty years-old. She’s had a ring in her round nose, which was probably stout enough to stop the water in a bathtub.

“I will call my husband!” She reached into her purse, probably for an IQphone to vouch for her threat.

I hastily scribbled’, I don’t mean you any harm.’

“You hit me!”

‘I would never hit a woman!’

“Hmmph.” She turned and stormed off again.

‘Do you live in Bayard Rye?’ I inquired while giving chase. It was difficult to write while walking, but I did my best to remain legible.

“What do you want! Leave me!” She was a quite scary-looking when angered. I wonder how her husband negotiated the peace in their household.

‘I grew up in Bayard Rye too.’ She glanced at my scratch pad, giving me a chance to make restitution. We crossed the light at the Industrial Road intersection. The Canvarco Railway Bridge[3] was a few trots ahead. There was a colossal billboard hovering on the right just above the bridge:

ONLY WITH BIG BLUE ARE YOU TRUE BLUE

“So you live in Bayard Rye…great for you! You must be very important man! You follow me to coffee shop and I serve great man who throws me off bus.”

Her witch’s chin was improbably devastating; she must have been a terror on the broom. I imagined sailors leaping to their death at the sheer sight of her passing overhead the mast on a hazy night. We entered the underpass and the passing cars created a harsh echo that reverberated off the cement walls and steel beams. It was so loud I could barely hear my own footsteps. The Bengali woman was about twelve paces ahead. She must have worked at the local coffee shop just across from Crocell. I did not drink coffee, so I wouldn’t know her from the devil.

“Are you following? I call the police!”

‘I work at Crocell. I’m just trying to get to work.’ I hoped she could make out my writing in the dim lighting of the underpass.

“Important man has big job at office while Saleema pours coffee at two jobs! Everyone drinks coffee. You people know coffee and donuts. Nothing more. You make me leave bus and now chase me! Saleema is tired.”

I had almost caught up to her. She was shouting again like a crazy person. I wondered what the people in their cars thought. She was flinging her arms around as she spoke, like she was casting spells at everything. She must have kept her flying monkeys in the storage place just up the road.

‘Take this money for a taxi.’ I pulled a twenty dollar note from my wallet and held it out for her. We were virtually abreast now. Her feet came to a halt. She looks at my face and then at the note and then at my face again, one hand on her waist, the other scratching her kerchiefed head. It was not a towel, despite what the Mustache said. It was silken like the ones my grandmother wore sometimes. She batted away the flapping twenty and crossed the street at the lights. She did not look back to see if I was following her. I let her walk ahead, clearing the gas station, before I started again for Crocell.

8:41. It looked like I was going to make it on time today. I passed the cleaners on Esander Dr. The shop right after was one of the most interesting in the Narrows, although it was impossible to see what was inside. From the items on display at the storefront (three small windows parallel to each other, waist high), it appeared they specialized in selling antiques or crafting furniture pieces that look like antiques and there was stained glass arranged with other fine-glass creations. The center window featured an ornate bronze picture frame with gargoyles and other gothic flourishes and within that frame there was another of a different style altogether, not bronze but silver, engraved with laurel leaves and acorns and other agricultural symbols. I pulled back the Corinthian to get a better look. The shop was called ‘The Interior Crystal.’ The doors were solid slabs of wood without windows. A serious artist must have worked beyond them. I was too chicken to enter.

Crocell Corp. I hated the windows at the side of the building. The entire wall was made of blue-tinted glass. It made everything look…I don’t know…just blue from the outside. Even a great artist like Pacheco had a blue period. This one was mine.

“Good morning, Crocell Corp. Please hold the line.”

Tabitha Plimpton. She deserves an underlined italic designation because she was round enough to be a place all to herself, like a satellite that orbited a planet, Selena circling the Earth. How could somebody be so physically attractive (lushly overweight like a Persian cat or a Renaissance nude), and yet be annoying to such an intolerable degree at the same time?

“Good morning, Crocell Corp! Good morning, please hold!” Like an adrenalized chipmunk in speech, irresistibly cute and bubbling with enthusiasm for the company banner, and yet you want to toss her into a backpack full of primed mouse-traps and throw away the zipper.

“Good morning, Crocell…oh, it’s just you. I thought you were a client or somebody else…good morning! Did your alarm clock go off early this morning?”

I wanted to punch her right in her porcelain-toned face, but it was too perfect. Even her second chin had boudoir charm. Sometimes when I looked at her in the morning, I mistook her for one of those stacked wedding cakes: the thick vanilla icing spread over her edible face, the pink ribbons and purple bows twizzled between the moussed ringlets on her enormous head, her corpulent layered torso that practically screams of fondant and sponge cake, the frilly spring dresses that flaunt her floury rotund legs and jujube toes. I’d love to have a slice of that cake for breakfast with a tall glass of milk. I didn’t need x-ray glasses to know she wasn’t wearing any underwear. Crocell liked it when their women left a trail that was easy to follow. I wouldn’t be surprised if Solondz buried his face in her chair long after she was gone. File that disclosure under ‘Things that Crocell Makes its Employees Do.’

Over the entrance to the office there’s was inscription in bold that nobody else could see. It read:

THROUGH ME THE WAY INTO THE FURNACE OF AGONY

I positioned the Corinthian correctly, aligned my vision, braced myself, and entered, expecting the worse, like a Snitman water-cooler chat lurking around the corner. Every time I passed through the doors and entered into the office it was like entering the foggy realm of a nightmare. I heard strange utterances, as if coming from a foreign land of danger: accents crawling with anger, words-of-woe carried by voices shrill and faint, hands beating against keyboards, people utterly defeated by their pain and anguish. I wondered where they keep the guided cradle and crocodile shears. Was it closet number one or closet number two? They were shielded with lead and only the Bull has the keys.

I wiped the drool from the punch-clock and I punched-in my Human Register Code, 20778, and then I entered my thumb into the scan-socket for verification and away we went. Being on-time was definitely the most righteous path at the moment. I was not curious to know what was behind closet number one. I promised Solondz to aim true. It was odd in the extreme that my H.R. code was exactly the same as my Coxburn student number. How far back does Crocell’s intel go?

Lunch time. As I walked back into the office after a stroll through the courtyard, Plimpton, the three-tier, told me that my morning-punch did not register in the system and that I will have to fill some forms out to correct the mistake. Those forms were a pain in the ass to fill-out! The many dates and signatures and reasons. What the hell! Even the punch-clock had it out for me.

[1] A defense of the mind against lower self-esteem and potentially depression. The man who believes he is Homeric hero or a prophet gains grand purpose from his delusion. 

[2] A monomyth is basic narrative arc or pattern that can be traced in various heroic narratives from around the world. Numerous myths from disparate times and regions have been found to share fundamental narrative structures and similar plot advancements. Amerikan comparative mythologist John Soup described such a pattern in his 1945 book “The Wardrobe of Proteus.” He said, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there met and a decisive victory struck: the hero returns from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow favors upon his fellow man.” According to Soup, there are 17 stages to meet along the hero’s journey: The Call to Adventure, The Refusal of the Call, The Supernatural Aid, The Crossing of the Threshold, The Belly of the Whale, The Road of Trials, The Meeting With the Goddess, The Woman as Temptress, The Atonement of the Father, The Apotheosis, The Ultimate Boon, The Refusal of the Return, The Magic Flight, The Rescue from Without, The Crossing of the Return Threshold, The Master of the Two Worlds, The Freedom to Live. Seredipitously, in 1945, a Polish proctologist, who was also living in Amerika at the time, speculated in an article written for the medical journal, Progress in the Procotological Sciences, that there were 17 steps to be followed in order to favorably pass fecal matter out of the colon while suffering from hemorrhoids without experiencing disadvantageous effects like infection or ruptures in the anus. It was rather glibly entitled TheSeventeen Stages to Successfully Defecate While Nursing a Hemorrhoid

[3] Frequently, Aeneas used to cast a nostalgic gaze upon the chugging train that raced past daily at the twilight hour. Where in the wide world was it going and could he follow? He meditated on the hobo style of living many-a-night upon returning from hikes through the Blue Fountain Forest, the hunger in his belly staunching the courage he needed to escape.

Cheaters

“No man, for any considerable period, can wear one face to himself and another to the multitude, without finally getting bewildered as to which may be the true.”

Nathaniel Hawthorne, The Scarlet Letter

I

UNDER THE SPREADING CHESTNUT TREE they leaned into each other for warmth that was escaping their bodies just as quickly as they could narrow the space between them. It was the rainiest and coldest April they had seen in many many years, stranded without an umbrella between them. Aeneas had left the office for lunch, and had no intention of returning, maybe at some point, but not today. Heloise was unemployed, but by no means unemployable, just unemployed.

There was a clear spot seemingly reserved for them along the road that turned onto the office buildings of Burman and Fellows. A single segment of the enclosing fence had been lifted from its moorings, and the path cut past the mist, magically into the forest. They settled against the cold fence that was freckled with precipitation, out of view from the cars that pulled in and pushed past. The raindrops flogged the earth around them, but the patch they were standing on was left dry for the chestnut tree.

“Want to go somewhere with me,” Heloise softly asked, resting her cheek on the damp breast of his coat.

“I always do,” he said, sinking deeper into her body, encouraging the ardor of her fingers.

“Okay, so what’s the hold up?”

“I left my car at work.”

“There’s a bus coming,” she said, unrolling her wispy elastic phone, which was the size of a super slim cigarette, and parsed through seven nearby bus schedules in 2.8 seconds flat.

“But we’ll get wet,” he said distractedly. Aeneas thought neither of the rain nor his abandoned car. Seeing how far his breath could extend from his mouth, he filled in the silence between the infinite patter.

Together they dashed down the path that led from the secluded country of Burman and Fellows onto Industrial Road, where the traffic ran rampant and busses traveled here and there in short intervals. They sprang along the walk and made funny faces at each other, holding hands the entire way. Aeneas felt his heart couldn’t keep up with his feet much longer, so out of breath he was, and full of mirth. They were soaked to the bone by the time they had reached the bus stop. Drivers were impatient along the road, honking at each other through the fog for no good reason, driving too close to the curbs, cutting through the swelling puddles, splashing sidewalks to vent their frustrations.

Heloise was hopped up on a designer barbiturate called Chronostasis, which created temporal illusions in perception, extending sensory impressions in time. She couldn’t face the day straight, which meant she was usually pinballing one designer drug against another, to better control her moods, and this stratagem never worked, but some days ran smoother than others. She heard a kind of madrigal in the ambient noise of the car motors, trumpets harmoniously blaring amid the honking.

For a moment the sun burst through the clouds, and she looked directly into the rays, the light filling her eyes without burning in the slightest. She pressed his palm with all the strength in her jaunty body and desired for him to squeeze back. “With all your might,” she said. The bus driver saw them late through the brume, and pulled in for a tight stop. And then the sun had disappeared behind the clouds again.

Aeneas had never been inside her before. He sat naked from the waist down on the nubuck leather sofa, feeling silly at his erect self. There was no camouflaging his desire for her. It was slightly humid in the room, and he could sense the moistness accruing under his thighs. He’d left the windows in his condo open for fresh air, all three of them, and the wind danced in the belly of the curtain. Heloise hopped around on one leg trying to remove her tight canary jeans, struggling at the knees and ankles with the bunching denim. But then, in distinct contrast, she slipped out of her electric pink lace panties with the fluidity of a ballet dancer.

She had just gone down on him, and he was in a sort of rapture in his headspace, breathlessly swimming in a moonlit pool filled with the most beautiful waterfowl he’d ever seen. He looked at her bare femininity, and blushed like a twelve-year old in front of the marquee at a peep show.

Looking him in the eyes, she reached down surreptitiously, her cold bangle brushing against his abdomen, causing him to recoil, and put him inside her. The pleasure was too great at first, overwhelming even, rushing through them like a hot spring, they were joined at the source. She moaned deeply from a place that had been too quiet for too long, and she felt this was her true voice, luxuriant in its resonance.

“You’re crazy, Aeneas,” she said, slowly annunciating his name with an arch mock-English accent, rocking her body over his lap.

“Why?” he answered, startled at her words. “I’m not,” he said, playfully squeezing her butt cheek, and then running his fingers in the gap between, smoothing the moistness.

“I’ll poop myself,” she exclaimed, batting his hands away sportively.

Aeneas partly lifted himself from the couch and drove deeper into her. His ear and neck were close to her lips, while her breath rushed up against him, and he trembled all over. She had had many men in her lifetime, but every experience with him felt like a first experience. It was difficult for her to explain. Even though he technically wasn’t hers, in their time together she possessed him in more ways than she could understand.

It was more than the feeling of a body on a body, more than a skin trade, so she naturally struggled with it, the spirit, if indeed that’s what it was. In a poetic narcotized moment, she thought of lightning striking a lake and then rippling across its face, electrifying the current so that even the fish and aquatic plants kissed the charge. But even that image was deficient in encapsulating her true feelings. And she expected more from the Chronostasis at seventy-nine dollars a pop.

If there were a bowl in the world that could contain her sighs and moans, Aeneas thought, he’d collect them all, and keep them at his bedside forever, or until he could be with her without restraint, whichever came first. His wife would question the bowl placed so near. But in it was contained the very first emotion that gave birth to all others, and he would treasure it as long he could keep the secret to himself. None of this makes sense, he thought. He thrust deeper into Heloise, and he could tell she had never allowed anyone this deep before. It filled him with bullshit macho pride at his size, but also something better, which he didn’t even dare to disclose to himself, how slippery that slope, once tread upon, how slippery.

She held his bearded face. Aeneas looked older when his cheeks and chin were bristled. He was almost thirty but he could have passed for a teenager. His body had filled out right after high school. He was lean and muscly and there was even some light hair on his chest and abdomen. It was his eyes and lips that made him look younger than his years. His grey eyes had no business being this wide, so late in life, and his lips were always in full bloom. Heloise found it impossible to resist him when she was this close to his face.

She’d put his bottom lip in her mouth, and looked perilously into his eyes while she softly bit the plump red flesh. Something feral would come over her and, again, she couldn’t explain it, and mostly wouldn’t even try. Sometimes he’d ask why she did the things she did, “I don’t know, stupid,” Heloise would say. “Why does it rain when the sun is still out?”

Aeneas would wet his lips before he spoke and it drove her wild. “In Rome they say, “Piove e c’è il sole, la gatta fa l’amore,” which means, “It rains with the sun, the female cat is making love.” Heloise shook her head. “No, no, no. Wrong, totally wrong, “ she said. “Sun showers are liquid sunshine. Didn’t you know the sun had a feminine side?”

Why did this truth reveal itself so late, she thought. Where was this feeling in her bed with Abelard? The Chronostasis was having its way with her. The moment of ecstasy was broadening and embroidering like a magnet drawing all kinds of metals to itself.

The brocaded carpet was a medieval cathedral and she heard the Sunday mass bells ringing, even though it was only Thursday. She wanted to lie on the altar and have God pour out of the stained glass and shower her naked body on the marble soleas. She would become swollen with the child of God if only he looked like Aeneas, and only if the parish would overlook the occasional somatic communion between the two, incestual or not. Why should the fruit die on the vine, she thought, and Aeneas cried out as he shot his semen deep into her.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I wasn’t supposed to do that.”

“Come here, crazy boy,” she said, and pressed his forehead to the superabundance of her breasts. She ran her fingers through his damp hair and made curls with the longish strands. He held her body close and inhaled deeply, and there was something childish about the way he exhaled, she thought, but she loved it anyhow because of its nakedness. Abelard would have ran off and jumped in the shower, while this man in her arms, who was a stranger by comparison, made her feel like liquid sunshine.

“What time is Lavinia coming home,” she asked.

“I don’t care if she does,” he replied.

“You will if she walks in on us.”

“The monitoring system has been on the entire time.”

“You’re fucking joking!” she burst out, and tried to get off his lap, but he held her tighter and just laughed.

“I’m only fooling,” he said. “I dialed out this morning before I left for work.”

“Won’t she ask why?” She felt him go soft and slip out of her.

“You want to do it again?”

“She won’t ask why?” she queried a second time, grabbing his hair and pulling it for added emphasis.

“Ouch! I’ll just say I muffed up the codes,” he said, and tried to loosen her grip on his hair by squeezing her wrist. “What do say, on the bed this time?”

“And if she calls your work she’ll know you left hours early?”

“I don’t care,” he said, and lifted her from the couch, his moist skin making a sticky, tearing sound on the leather, and walked her over to the bedroom, her legs wrapped tightly around his waist, trying not to knock anything over. He plopped her down on the unmade bed and went hard again in an instant. “Not bad, eh?” he said, and laid on top her and met her laminate wetness.

“Not like that,” she said, and pushed his body away, filaments of honey untwisting. “I want you like this.” She turned around and pulled his hips close, and their bodies aligned perfectly like two chairs set into each other.

“Okay,” he said.

II

There was a Greek restaurant on Richmond Avenue that had finally got the Hellenic cuisine right in Graceland after a long string of dreary, paprika-laden failures, and with the Michelin guide having recently added a second star to the restaurant in its annual rating, Anamnesis had received an influx of frenzied patrons who were hot on their heels to taste chefs Aris Leandros and Toula Xanthopoulos progressive signature dishes, like the lauded culinary marvel that was the “Gift of Athena,” which consisted of an edible miniature faux olive tree, and the luxuriant “Foloi Oak Forest,” which was a deconstructed black forest dessert assembled right at the patrons table.

Despite the difficulties of securing a table at Anamnesis without having to wait months and months on end for a reservation, Abelard Scrivener, miraculously some would say, had a standing table at Anamnesis, or at any other restaurant of his choosing in the downtown core, and this proved to be a highly desirable trait in a partner nowadays, partly because it guaranteed at least a temporary foothold in the upper strata of fashionable society, and also because it dramatically increased a socialite’s chances of experiencing the curated latest in the emphatic gastrointestinal pursuit of happiness.

Money could not secure a place among Graceland’s “it” circle, neither could fame, title, or any other blue-blood currency. It was now utility that lay at the heart of the movable feast. The desirability of what you could contribute was the only way to gain acceptance to the party and what was desirable was constantly changing. Abelard’s seat at the banquet was of priority because he was the senior director of strategy at Elysium Pharmaceuticals, the world’s most accelerated pharmaceutical company, purveyors of “legal highs,” and was a walking apothecary, perpetually weighted with designer drugs in his legal possession in order to field test the many tablets, tinctures, and tonics, and internationally popularize the business.

Anamnesis occupied a chimerical place on Richmond, neighboring the big banks and the stock exchange, imbuing the financial district where everything had a finite, measurable value attached, with a little culinary fantasy, where epicureans could gather under the Tyrian purple lighting of the restaurant, and consign to oblivion the hustle and bustle of the Richmond racket for an evening. The sharp April breeze whisked over from the lake was caught between the burnished corporate monoliths, generating the dreaded down-draught, which is what happened when air hit a building and, with nowhere else to go, was pushed up and around the sides of the structure, and then forced downwards, increasing wind speed at street level. A discreet doorway was surrounded by a frosted nondescript front, unsigned, nameless, save for a group of noisy smokers loitering the walkway in a granite mist. The valet stepped out onto the busy street to corral the cars into the validated parking a few blocks down.

Inside Anamnesis, near the centre tables, where Trent Stillwell, CEO of Horizon Zero Dawn, one of the leading VR technology companies in Graceland, dined most Fridays, sat Abelard Scrivener and friends. Stillwell was a big-ticket bachelor in the city, not yet thirty, and was said to be easily worth over one-hundred million dollars. He was seen with a different lady every few weeks, blonde, brunette, red-head, there really was no discernible pattern or preference, and had a table that neighboured Abelard’s, which was a pretty big deal for Abelard because the two were on friendly terms, often comping each other aperitifs, and exchanging witty small talk over the fricasseed murmur of the restaurant. Abelard was hoping to get invited to one of Stillwell’s parties in the near future and the fact that he was within striking distance was extremely exciting for him. If he could hitch his wagon to Stillwell’s star for even a fortnight, it would raise his profile in Graceland considerably, and he salivated at the social-climbing prospect, which was even greater than sex to his mind.

Abelard pinched the stem of the large Bordeaux glass with his thumb and forefinger, and elegantly lifted the crystal bowl to his faintly moistened lips, sloping the smoky carmine body to the back of his throat in demonstration to the others at the table the Abelardian way to taste that particular two-hundred dollar Cabernet. He then serenely nodded to the sommelier, who decanted the Cabernet into three more glasses after having refreshed the original, and then paused formally at Abelard’s side to await further direction. Abelard cavalierly brushed the foot of the glass with his fingers, and with this virtuosic codified gesture, the sommelier was sent away.

“I see you’ve trained them well,” Lavinia was first to say.

“He haunts his standing table weekly, with or without me,” Heloise added.

“Which also happens to be a great torch song,” Aeneas said, taking an indelicate swig of the Cabernet, only momentarily distracted from his smartHub to join the conversation.

“Abe doesn’t like romantic songs,” Heloise chortled. “A hummingbird couldn’t catch Abe listening to music.”

“I like to be an expert in the things I know,” Abelard said authoritatively. “With music, where does one begin?”

“If Abe can’t taste it or wear it, it’s not a thing at all,” Heloise quipped.

“That’s not entirely true,” said Abelard, softly biting into a Calimyrna fig decorous with Gorgonzola and goat cheese mousse. “I have a watch that rings Beethoven at canonical hours.”

“You mark the hours of prayer?” Lavinia asked playfully.

“Six, twelve, and six, faithfully.”

“Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, like clockwork, to recite the glutton’s prayer.”

Heloise advertently brushed the point-toe of her Louboutin’s against Aeneas’ straight-fitted trousers, and he lifted his eyes from the news broadcast on his smartHub long enough to see Heloise stick out her tongue at him through her wine-stained lips that matched her patent-lather pumps in hue. He silently mouthed the words, “Fuck you,” to her and she made a reproving face at his muted comment, while under the table, she raised her leg and placed the crimson four-inch heel of her shoe on the cushion between his thighs and rested it there. Aeneas couldn’t very well look under the table at the lace stocking casing her ankle or the silhouette of the stiletto that lay merely a millimetre or so from his crotch, and rendered the letter “Y” where there only should have been a “V,” but he knew it was there, and it made him think of the ten-letter word that had won him a game of scramble the other night, which began with letter “Y.”

“Yuppiedom,” said Aeneas, reading from the newly-opened tab on his smartHub, “according to author Victor Davis Hanson, is a young city that houses self-absorbed young professionals, earning good pay, enjoying the cultural attractions of sophisticated urban life and generally out of touch with, indeed antithetical to, most of the challenges and concerns of a far less well-off and more parochial Middle America.”

“That’s illuminating,” said Lavinia and drank a large mouthful of cabernet, pursing her lips, careful not to spill any of it, a brazen gesture that caught Abelard’s attention, who was drifting in and out of the conversation too, because he was keeping tabs on what was happening at other tables around the room, like a boat that goes with the tide, drawing near, and then skirring away.

“You still begrudge me the other night?” asked Aeneas softly, referring to their late night Scramble game earlier in the week, and he gazed at Lavinia’s milky cheek that was nearly translucent after the long winter, as she was looking away into the hazy distance of the candle-lit restaurant. He lingered on the freckled ear lobes that were pierced thrice and orange-hued like glistening Cowrie, the champagne brows that domed her periwinkle eyes, her animated mouth that held so many tactile secrets within its provocative labial rondure, her heart-shaped chin that was filled with hundreds of short little blonde hairs that she hated and waxed away every so often without Aeneas approval, because to him it was proof, the one outward proof he needed to remind himself that she was not human the way he was human. She was a different feline creature altogether, Faustian, shape-shifting, superior even, and  chronically unimpressed. Nietzsche would have had a field day cataloguing the genealogy of her morals.

“I begrudge you the last two years,” she said, looking Aeneas straight in the eyes for a change, through to the bottom of his oceanic soul, or so he thought, because she was always able to cut him to the quick with a gesture, a word, a glance, and what’s even worse, she knew it.

“From the branches hang olives that are a molecular synthesis of wheat, oregano, onions, and Kalamata olive puree. The leaves are a compound of sage, sesame, cornmeal and AP flour, and Cretan olives, and the trunk is an amalgam of whole wheat flour, thyme, walnuts, and Halkidiki olives,” Abelard was pedantically telling Heloise, and she rolled her eyes at his description of the hors d’oeuvre because she was certain she had heard it before, and because she knew he was really addressing Aeneas and Lavinia and hoping to wow them with his culinary knowledge.

“It’s just a piece of fucking toasted bread,” said Aeneas.

“You’re being rude now,” said Lavinia, shocked by Aeneas’ outburst, uncommon as they were, especially in restaurants, where Aeneas could shrink to the size of salt shaker, because he hated being waited on and he hated people watching him eat, which according to him, was as naked an act as using the toilet. He’d say to Lavinia, people don’t shit together, so why should they eat together? It’s an inane public custom and what’s worse, it’s shameful. People with an appetite for communal gourmandization are a step away from state sanctioned orgy parties. And Lavinia, who loved to cuckold him in conversation all the time would say, Oh, I don’t know, I just love a good sausage party.

“If you looked up from your smartHub for a second you would surely appreciate the complexity of the dish,” said Abelard.

“And if you looked down at my smartHub for a moment you’d appreciate that our troops are turning over a village in Kashmir as we dine at this very expensive, too expensive restaurant,” said Aeneas.

“Don’t worry about it, it’s my treat.”

“That’s not the fucking point, Abelard. Why do you always miss the fucking point?” Heloise pushed Aeneas’ chair with her patent-leather pump and it was perceptible enough to function as a four-inch warning, but it did not faze Aeneas who, probably because he was comfortable enough around his old school mates to act somewhat like himself, or he had forgotten himself, forgotten his manners, forgotten where he was, and decided he was going to be heard tonight.

“So what? We have troops in Kashmir settling some cross border troubles. Why should that stop us from enjoying the Tree of Athena?” said Lavinia, playing with the moon-shaped pendant that plumbed the depths of her dress’s plunging neckline, and nobody at the table could tell if she was being sincere or sarcastic or some new combination of both.

“Gift of Athena,” said Abelard.

“Because our new super soldiers are tearing up a village sweeping for terrorists and it’s being televised by some guerrilla news channel and they are literally mowing through women and children for no fucking reason at all.”

“After dinner we can try the Foloi Oak Forest that’s composed of a fantasia of dark and white chocolate mousses, trees contrived of sticks of dark chocolate and cotton candy foliage, soil of coffee and cocoa, and decorated throughout with spherical cherry puree and multi-colored icing sugar,” said Abelard, in abject disregard of Aeneas.

“You shouldn’t dip into your own stash, Abelard,” said Heloise, in an attempt to dial back the tension to a moderate spa level. “You know I like to do that for you.”

“There is a thin red line between business and pleasure,” Abelard chortled.

“And what is the chemical du jour?” asked Lavinia.

“A conscience in the lower classes is useful like castration is amongst  bulls,” said Abelard reproachfully.

“What the fuck does that mean, Abe?”

“It means I’m in desperate need of salvation.”

“I’m still wearing some?” said Heloise to Lavinia, pointing to her lips. “Want to try?”

Lavinia stood from the table and smoothed out her creamy tea length dress. She walked clockwise around the table, behind Aeneas who followed her every slinky step, and when she had reached Heloise, Lavinia bent down, and kissed her long and deep on the mouth, and when she came up for air, she said, “Black cherry,” sticking her finger in her mouth so as to smooth the flavours on her lips. “Yummy.”

“What is the Kappa Effect, Alex,” said Abelard, ostensibly pleased with himself. “The cavalry has arrived.”

 

Confession Book

Dylan Fremont is a writer and the stories he tells are about escape. His alias is Dylan Fremont. He uses an alias in order to impersonate himself so that he may commit fraud. Fraud is the tool he uses to enter deathtraps and then escape. In a different time, during an age of magic perhaps, he may have been an escapologist like Nicholas Owen, who escaped his torturers in 1606 and remained aloof until sometime in the 20th Century. He says, “the one-world-system is a deathtrap; but there has only ever been one world system and it is called capitalism.” 

What is your idea of perfect happiness? Just freedoms to do this or not do that. To be this or not be that.

What is your greatest fear? Being trapped in a narrow space or being trapped in space. Just being trapped, I guess. Or maybe simply being.

What is the trait you most deplore in yourself? Sincerity.

What is the trait you most deplore in others? Ego.

Which living person do you most admire? The Holy Spirit.

What is your greatest extravagance? Auspicious beginnings.

What is your current state of mind? Not jaded.

What do you consider the most overrated virtue? Success. Followed by purity. And then good looks.

On what occasion do you lie? On every occasion. Sometimes lies can reveal truth. It’s the truth that can be lifted from a cracked, distorted mirror that I’m most interested in.

What do you most dislike about your appearance? The back of my head.

Which living person do you most despise? The architects of the black iron prison.

What is the quality you most like in a man? Sensitivity.

What is the quality you most like in a woman? Toughness.

Which words or phrases do you most overuse? I am not really here.

What or who is the greatest love of your life? They know who they are.

When and where were you happiest? When I was a child, marooned on a desert island.

Which talent would you most like to have? Panhandling with objectivity and class, dignity intact.

If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? My conscience.

What do you consider your greatest achievement? Pity.

If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be? A two-headed herbivore eagle.

Where would you most like to live? Somewhere else.

What is your most treasured possession? The many coffee-stained pages I have torn out of the bible.

What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery? Being a minor character in somebody else’s dream.

What is your favorite occupation? Psychogeography.

What is your most marked characteristic? Camouflaged determination.

What do you most value in your friends? Sincerity. Depth of feeling. Intelligence. Moral vision.

Who are your favorite writers? Some of my favourite writers include Homer, Plato, Sophocles, St. John of Patmos, Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, Cervantes, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Jonathan Swift, William Blake, Friedrich Nietzsche, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Nikolai Gogol, Leo Tolstoy, James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Jorge Luis Borges, Jack Kerouac, Thomas Pynchon, Cormac McCarthy, and Don DeLillo.

Who is your hero of fiction? Odysseus. Or maybe Don Quixote. No, Prince Myshkin. How about Falstaff?

Which historical figure do you most identify with? Socrates or Diogenes.

Who are your heroes in real life? Social do-gooders. Those that feed and clothe the poor and steal coins out of parking meters.

What are your favorite names? Let’s say Orpheus and Persephone.

What is it that you most dislike? The pedestrian tyranny of questions.

What is your greatest regret? Wasted time.

How would you like to die? I haven’t decided.

What is your motto? Death to all bosses and mottos too.

The Crystal Furnace

“It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those that have lost it.”

Somerset Vaughan, Of Human Bondage

I

THERE WAS A RED-BRICK HOUSE in Riverdale the neighbourhood kids relished to visit because there were greater freedoms to be found there than in any other household from either side of the railroad tracks that divided Riverdale from posh Riverdale Heights. Built nearly a century earlier and situated on a quiet working class cul-de-sac amidst a cluster of other bungalows, the red-brick house had been handed down three generations of Roses, and had recently begun to reveal signs of premature decay.

The rainwater wasn’t being channeled away properly by the gutters and had seeped underneath the roof’s shingles, damaging the decking and rotting the rafters. As the leak had worsened over the years, it had saturated the attic’s insulation and turned the inside of the exterior walls into a mushy paste, permitting the mold to gain a foothold in the dry-wall and flourish between the walls and ceiling and baseboards.

The patriarch of the household, Andy Rose, was rarely found at home and when he was, he was as indifferent a parent and homeowner as they came. He kept midnight hours, sleeping in short stints during the day, seldomly embarking from the house before nightfall, which suited the Riverdale kids just fine, and even led to suspicions among them that he may have been a vampire, when in truth a silver bullet would have been the quintessential ingredient needed to stop him, or so Terry told his friends to propagate the backwoods myth of his father, who had always seemed to hit the ground running, and never had the time to do any of the domestic things all the neighbors seemed so keen to do.

The matriarch, Olivia Rose, try as she might, could not reign in her two impetuous sons, Terry and Caleb, given her own predilection for daylight hangovers and habitually crooking the elbow before noon. Olivia was nearly as vaporous as her husband during the daytime, making semi-occasional appearances in the kitchen to retrieve provisions from the refrigerator and cupboards, before returning to the bedroom where her husband rested and then locking the door behind.

Sometimes she’d give thoughtful pause while crossing the living quarters to scold Terry and Caleb into guilt for not cleaning the many scattered soiled cloths and plates and glasses off the hardwood floor, which was scored and creviced like the palm of a farmhand from the children’s innumerable games that were seraphical during the day when their father rested, and diabolic at dusk when he departed.

“Is there anything to eat,” Caleb asked his brother, who busied himself carving runes into a piece of a wood he had retrieved from the forest at Sherman Oaks, fashioning it into a staff with the help of a few sanding pads and varnish, which gave the stick a wrought fibrous texture that shimmered and beguiled his fantastical nine-year old imagination.

“There’s bologna in the fridge, Chancey,” Terry replied with no little consternation written over his face, so focused he was in the detail of carving these new runes into the wood, protective spells he had copied from a book on magic he had found in the Riverdale public library, which he now faithfully transcribed onto the staff with the help of Firebrand, the true-blue pocketknife his father gifted him when he had turned nine earlier that summer.

“Go fetch the bologna and the bread and I’ll carve you a sandwich,” Terry added, knowing his mother would skin him alive if he allowed Caleb, who was three years his junior, to handle a kitchen knife.

“Don’t call me, Chancey, you cheesedick,” Caleb said, as he bridged the gap to the kitchen with one feckless leap from armchair to ottoman that sagged and gasped under his weight like an overworked mare, and then once more mercilessly vaulting to the last pillow before the flexure of the armrest, his weight causing the stuffing to expose itself through a tear in the tatterdemalion fabric.

“The cheesiest dick of them all,” Terry uttered absentmindedly, unfazed by his younger brother’s taunt.

II

TERRY LET ABELARD COUNT THE MONEY the gang had scraped together over the last few weeks because he was their unofficial bookkeeper, but also because Abelard wasn’t like the rest of them. Having come from an upper-middle class family that lived in a three-storey house in Riverdale Heights, and his father a chartered accountant to boot, Terry figured counting money must have run through the family bloodline, and being leader of the gang meant giving his friends jobs they were suited for, like with Randolph, who was as reliable a runner as they came. So when they decided to spend a little of their hard-earned bounty to acquire provisions like five-cent Hubba-Bubba gum, Randolph was the right guy for the job, because he was quick and did not mess up any orders, and always came back with right amount of change.

In the dreary unfinished basement of the Roses house there was an old octopus-like McClary furnace that acted as the official treasury for the array of coins the gang had gathered from allowances, pickpocketing, and sheer dumb chance. There were so many dents, cavities, and indentations in the old McClary “Crystal” furnace, that it made hiding the gang’s purse a cinch. Terry had even taken to the habit of scattering the coins in seven different directions amidst the furnace for “security purposes,” as he called it. One time Abelard had caught Terry in the midst of one his finicky shuffling deposits and decided to interrupt him when he knew Terry was not to be disturbed while in the pit with the octopus.

“Mind your own business, Poindexter,” Terry said. “You might know a thing or two about counting money, but you don’t know anything about guarding it,” he angrily added, while peeking at Abelard from behind one of the octopus’ large round ducts with the galvanized housing to make sure he was not being spied on, and Abelard begrudgingly took him at his word, which is what the gang usually did with Terry, despite the occasional challenge or two.

Lavinia had come up with the bright idea of changing the coins into paper money during her last visit and Terry thought that was bang-up thinking, so Terry collected all the coins from the hollows of the octopus-shaped furnace, and the gang made a collective trip to Don’s Milk on Munro to make the monetary exchange, but Don, a second-generation Korean who had inherited the convenience store from his father, was sick and tired of the neighbourhood kid’s many coming and goings, and of being constantly on the look-out for them stealing, even though that hardly ever happened, denied them the currency swap, full-stop, especially since they had not even committed to buying anything during this particular stopover.

“Change is for customers only, ” he said.

“We don’t want change, we want money,” replied Heloise.

“Oh, forget it,” said Terry and summoned a quick meeting outside of Don’s Milk to discuss matters further. Their hard earned booty had been collected and saved towards purchasing a feast of sorts from one of the neighbourhood burger joints, a place by the name of “King’s Park” that was located on, coincidentally, King’s Park Boulevard, not too too far from the Rose’s house. The burger joint was locally known for its thick Neapolitan milkshakes and French fries which were cut thick and extra fluffy on the inside, as opposed to the crispy shoestring fries that McDonald’s sold that never filled anybody’s belly.

Most of the gang had already been to King’s Park with their parents, but it was a big deal for Terry to go with his friends, and with his friends only, and for the gang to pay their own way, that was important too. Terry’s parents had never taken him or Caleb to King’s Park, so he had never had the expansive feeling the others had of being able to order the trifecta of a burger, fries, and milkshake in one fell swoop. Thirty dollars would cover seven “King” combos. One for himself, Abelard, Aeneas, Caleb, Heloise, Lavinia, and Randolph. This was Terry’s grand plan for the summer and everyone decided to tag along.

Through prudent gathering and disciplined spending, they had amassed twenty-four dollars in only four-weeks time, which was a lifetime to some children his own age, and they were now a only a stone’s throw from dining at the court of the King. Perseverance was key. But Terry knew the gang was growing restless for a little adventure and being a good leader meant knowing when to push and when to pull.

“Seven Chupa-Chups will cost about seventy-cents, bringing the purse down to twenty-three dollars,” Terry said, which was hurtful in the short term, but in the longview, paper money was more legitimate than coin, and would motivate the gang over the last hump towards their final goal.

“Make the deal,” said Aeneas, and Terry agreed, and when those two agreed, usually everybody else agreed too.

III

“COME DOWN FROM THERE, YOU DUMMY!” Andy scolded Terry, who had climbed to the top of a neighbour’s home to get away from his father, who was likely to tan his back after catching Terry lifting a five-dollar note from his coat pocket. “I promise you nothing will happen.”

“You’re lying,” said Terry, leaning back from the edge of the roof like he was taking the sunshine in, his feet dangling at the side of the gutter, kicking the trelliswork that had enabled him to make the climb, and it was precisely this posture that had angered his father even further, because Terry looked so unfazed: unfazed at being caught in the act of pickpocketing, unfazed at being chased down the street by his father’s powder blue Stingray, unfazed at having to scale the rose trellis alongside the neighbour’s house in a matter of steps like a crazed alley cat, sitting on the edge of roof like it was the edge of a pier, with the wide blue expanse before him. It pissed Andy off because he wished could have seen things with the same pluck and the same sense of entitlement as his eldest son. But as soon as Andy became of aware of why he was so angry he immediately let the feeling go and his tone radically changed.

“Let’s go home, kid,” said Andy, straightening his clothes, tucking his shirt into his pants, and brushing a couple of the loose hairs off his shoulder, that may or may not have been his own, he didn’t want to think of his speculative hair-loss now. “It’s not worth it.”

“I’ll be home later,” said Terry

“It’s not worth it, kid,” said Andy, suddenly feeling at a loss for words. “It all catches up to you eventually,” he mumbled. “It’s nobody’s fault.”

“I’m the one doing this,” said Terry, almost uncharacteristically, even though he said mysterious things all of the time, and sometimes he even sounded much much older than his years. His father hardly recognized him at that moment and it made him sad to think how little he knew his son at all.

“Just remember, friends are not family,” said Andy with a sense of frustration, trying to get his point across to his son and futilely trying to convey a little bit more. “Get down from the roof before the neighbours call the cops.” He looked up at Terry again for a moment, shielding his eyes from the diminished sun with the palm of his hand, and then he turned to go away. “I’ll see you at home.”

Terry stayed on the roof until the sun went all the way down and then for some time longer. He couldn’t smell his father’s distinctive brand of cigarettes, so he probably wasn’t waiting for him in the driveway any longer, or even at home for that matter. The coast was clear. He could go home and play hockey with Caleb in the basement at any time of his choosing and not worry about getting skinned. But he decided to stay on the roof for a little longer and gaze at the moon’s silver face emerging from behind the clouds and then Terry howled and howled at his conquest.

IV

AENEAS LOOKED FOR TERRY AND CALEB EVERYWHERE he could think of: the schoolyard, the Sherman Oaks forest, the arcades, but the two of them were nowhere to be found. He went to the Rose’s home but nobody was answering at the door and all the lights were dim inside. The gang was supposed to be meeting at the house later in the afternoon, but Aeneas decided to get a head start on the day, having got clearance from his mom earlier after his daily chores had been completed.

He was beat from having mowed the lawn and having collected the cut-grass in double time, but if that meant he got an extra hour of time with Terry and Caleb before the remainder of the gang arrived, the aches and pains in his body would probably quiet down as soon Terry, Caleb, and him got to the task at hand, which was usually an honourable game of handball at the schoolyard that was great whenever it was just the three of them, and even when Randolph jumped in it was still pretty good, but whenever Lavinia or Heloise were around, or that sap, Abelard, everything was different, different and shitty at the same time.

Aeneas looked through the cracked and murky basement window one more time, and in the stark depths he dimly saw an old hockey card box laying on the ground that was leftover from their lark last summer, when Terry and him had saved nearly twenty-dollars between them and bought an entire box of hockey cards, and had nearly one-hundred cards at their disposal, which was unheard of anywhere. The semi-reflective box lay close to the “Crystal” furnace, too close to be merely a coincidence. He had a hunch about the empty box, in fact, a hunch about things in general, and Aeneas was usually pretty bang on when he had deep feeling in his gut.

When they last saw each other, Terry was looking for something to store the paper money they had recently acquired from Don’s Milk and what would have been a better container than last summer’s prized acquisition? Aeneas would have recognized that O-Pee-Chee box anywhere. He only needed to see a fraction of it to make out the rest. That’s how he was seeing the box in his dreams for months before the acquisition last summer and for months afterwards too. In bits and bobs, like a shining object seen through a keyhole. There was no doubt about it. So Aeneas decided to hit the road straight away towards King’s Park to investigate his hunch.

When he arrived at the corner of King’s Park Boulevard, his stomach rose into his throat so rapidly that he nearly choked, but it wasn’t because he was hungry or sick or anything. He saw a pair of bicycles laying in a metallic heap on the ground that glistened just beyond the front doors of the burger joint and one of the slanted wheels was slightly spinning from the gentle breeze. It was a beautiful sunny day and there were kids all over the patio contentendly licking from their ice cream cones and there was an air of summer bliss and merriment all over, but he did not have the nerve to go inside the burger joint to look for Terry and Caleb.

He walked slowly past the multicoloured patio tables with the sprung umbrellas and tried to look inside the burger joint but he could not see much beyond his own reflection in the window because of the refracted light from the sun that was hanging extra low that day. The smell of charbroiled burgers made his stomach suddenly rumble and his hunger almost made him forget why he was there in the first place, but he still did not have nerve to go inside, so he kept on walking and walking.

When he had crossed the street at Mortimer, he did not even notice that the pedestrian lights had changed to red and a few cars took to honking at him. But he kept on walking and walking, numb to everything he saw, and touched, and smelled, until he reached the furthest point he had ever been away from home, at least on his own, which wasn’t very far at all. He was hardly at O’Connor Drive, but it felt like a million miles anyhow, and then he came to his senses and he turned back for home. He was sure there was leftover meatloaf in the fridge. And he wanted some now.

 

Le Boucher

“Are you still to learn that the end and perfection of our victories is to avoid the vices and infirmities of those whom we subdue?”

Plutarch, Parallel Lives

I

EVERY MORNING AT ELEVEN the butcher tossed the expired, damaged, and discolored meats into the bone-can. When the can had filled to the brim, he would wheel it to the receiving dock and dump the spoiled meats into a larger disposal unit, which was emptied weekly by an outside team contracted to Loman’s Supermarkets for collecting organic waste. What this outfit did with the animal waste was a topic of endless conversation in the meat department. Were the putrid animal relics returned to the Earth? Were they sourced for ingredients to produce makeup? Ground into dog food? Or more insidiously, reconstituted into meals for the homeless?  Buzz sessions were a daily ritual around the bone-can while the fouled meats were knifed out from their packages in slimy clusters. A water-cooler for the blue-collar gaggle.

With hardly any effort the butcher slid the scabbed cooler door open, walked into the brisk refrigerated room, boots sticking to the greasy floor, slowing his tread, tipped back the container onto its wheels while grasping the cylindrical handle, and led it out towards the sprinkler room, which had a large drain built into the center of the floor with a catcher for larger loose particles. The sprinkler room lay between the electrical room and the garbage room just beside the receiving docks.

Many years ago the butcher had coined the bone-can, with considerable enmity, as “the great asshole of Satan,” a phrase that had withstood the trial of time. The bone-can doubled as a test nowadays, making trial of a butcher’s apprentice stomach. The mound of decomposing meats commingling was a sight not everyone could endure after breakfast. They didn’t slaughter carcasses onsite anymore, so the bone-can was as dicey as things got in the meat department. “If you can’t stare down the devil’s back-door, day-in, day-out, then you can’t cut it in this business,” the butcher had told his staff authoritatively and they took it to heart like the gospel truth.

Just before reaching the sprinkler room, the butcher stopped dead in his tracks and eased the can to the ground. “Stupid,” he said aloud to himself. He had forgotten to empty the bone-can of the spoiled meats before taking the container to be cleaned. For a creature of habit, such an error in judgment rarely occurred. He enacted the same rite every couple of days when the can had filled to the brim, instinctively knowing the best angle to recline the container for the drive, his raw callused hands, flushed from the refrigerated air, gripping the abraded moss colored handle, and adjusting the angle based on the weight being carried.

He disdained being sidetracked with things beside the task at hand. Daydreams were not for him. He was very conscientious of his routines, to the point of being meticulous, formalistic even, but not fussy. The other laborers adhered to his methods because they were clear and precise, on the nose. Not fussy. Just tried and tested. He reclined the can onto its wheels and retreaded his steps, backwards, in the direction of the receiving dock, deciding for the speediest route in order to correct his error.

“Watch out, old man!” yelled the tall, heavyset boy from the grocery department, narrowly avoiding the white coat and the square arched back of the butcher who was oblivious to the oncoming traffic for the garbage room. The butcher dropped the can onto its haunches and shook his head, ignoring the grocer’s affront. Not in fear of the boy’s three hundred pound frame, but uneasy of being chanced upon by some other putterer, as if his lapse would disrupt the balance wheel of the supermarket.

The butcher walked the bone-can to the receiving dock and dropped it on the ramp that was saturated with rust and grime from the steel leveling boards all the way to the metal braid that lifted and dropped the rollup door. The dull echoing sound of the petroleum can striking the metal ramp aroused the receiver from his stupor at his desk just a few feet away. “You heading for a smoke?” he said abruptly in the butcher’s direction without looking at him.

“Might as well,” replied the butcher absentmindedly, unnerved for having screwed up his morning’s circuit. He decided to mix his routine even further by taking a deviant second smoke break before his lunch.

The unruly alarm wailed as the pair exited by the door abreast the receiver’s dilapidated desk, which was held together and leveled by a two-by-four and some stacked meat totes that had been hastily gathered and assembled by the butcher to help his smoking buddy. The whole job was pitched together with an alacrity of mind that everyone at Loman’s had grown accustomed to. A contracted handyman would have charged half-a-day’s wage.

“When they gonna fix that alarm for you, Ben. Don’t it piss you off already,” said the butcher.

“They gotta get to my desk first. Then’s the alarm’s turn,” replied the receiver. “Why don’t you have a look at it later?”

“Rewiring alarms ain’t in my contract. It’s also a violation of my basic union rights.”

“Is that right, Jack.”

“Uh, huh. You just chew on that for a while, before you think of asking me again. Unless you want me returning them totes you’re borrowing to its proper owners.”

“No, no, no. Don’t do that. A broken alarm is one thing. A tipping desk is another. Them cheap fuckers will do anything to avoid a repair bill. ‘Maybe next quarter,’ they say. Well, I need to get my work done now. Can’t wait till next quarter. Up their asses with their bottom line and quarter reports. I can live with the alarm bitching all day long. I’m kinda starting to like it anyhow. Reminds me of my ex-wife.”

“Which one?”

“Oh, you know. All my exes live in Texas. That’s why I hang my hat in Grimsby.”

“I’ll drink to that.” The butcher said, squatting atop a sea green polyethylene milk crate. He eased a thin stainless flask from inside his butcher’s coat, unscrewed the cap, and swallowed a mouthful of whiskey.

“Geez, Jack. What are we doing in Grimsby? The end of the line.”

“I’ll drink to that too,” the butcher said and then swallowed another mouthful, quicker than before. The whiskey’s fiery descent pleased him, dulled his restless thoughts a little. A semi-crushed cigarette found its way into his mouth next and he ignited it with his utility lighter. He lit the receiver’s cigarette after that. “You change brands?”

“Yeah. That native shit was killing my lungs. Can’t fuck with the emphysema forever, you know.”

“You sleeping at all these days?”

“It ain’t easy to sleep standing up. But thanks for asking.”

“I dunno about that. Some of the hosers in my department do it all the time.”

“Stupid hosers,” grumbled the receiver.

“Yup,” equaled the butcher. “Stupid.” He pulled from his cigarette and it kindled in his lips. The smoke plumed and swept high into the brisk and bright autumnal sky that was marbled with clouds. The combined might of the tobacco and whiskey momentarily distracted the butcher from his thoughts, but because his hands weren’t busy with work, his mind drifted back to his careless manner from earlier and then riveted itself to other wending matters.

“How’s Gregor doing?”

“Having more fun licking his balls than I’ll ever have.”

“That’s only because you’ve never had the pleasure,” laughed the receiver.

“Amen to that,” the butcher added, but he did not laugh.

“You coming back inside?” asked the receiver, standing from the polyethylene milk crate, which stuck to his pants for a moment, eyelets clinging to the fabric of his dark jeans, before it hit the cement again, tilted, and found its equilibrium amidst the horde of littered cigarette butts.

“No. I’m gonna smoke some more,” replied the butcher.

“Buzz when you want back in.”

“Yeah.”

“You want me to ready the truck for the boner?”

“Suit yourself.”

“Ah fuck it. Do it yourself, Frenchy.”

“Yeah.”

The receiver bent his body and put the plastic card that hung around his neck to the door and the safety unlatched and the alarm grieved loud like before. He disappeared behind the gray weather-beaten door with the flecked paint and the rust colored sores that dug into the metal.

The butcher considered pulling the slim dog-eared Plutarch he was reading from his blood-dappled coat but he reconsidered. Instead his Gordian thoughts shifted to his ex-wife Niobe. She had said something to him the other night that bothered him while they were in the back seat of his car.

“You look like you’re in love, Jean-Jacques,” Niobe hummed. She rested her cowboy boots on the butcher’s lap and pulled her flared dress out from beneath her.

“You know I can’t get enough of your cookies, doll-face,” the butcher said, deep from years of smoking and years of hollering in noisy and capacious warehouses. “Is it just me or are they tastier now? And don’t call me that. My momma used to call me that and you ain’t my momma.” He straightened out his sweaty hair, which Niobe has twisted and curled in seven different directions, matting the black mane to the back of his neck, slanting it over his ears, lifting it from the moisture on his forehead. Beneath the dome light, the creases in his forehead drooped like clotheslines taut with wash.

“I didn’t mean with me. And thanks. It’s nice to know you can still compliment me even after I’ve pulled my panties back on.”

“Pull them down and I’ll tell you another.”

“Don’t change the subject on me. Is it one of those Grimsby skanks you work with?”

“You sure know how to kill a man’s buzz. Why don’t you just let me enjoy this a minute,” the butcher said, pulling up his trunks and jeans. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a fold of money. “Don’t spend it all in one place, you know. Maybe get the kid something nice.”

“You don’t have to be like that, Jack. I’m not breaking ‘em. I’m just a little jealous.”

“Jealous a’what? You have a husband.”

“That doesn’t mean I can’t get jealous when you cheat on me.”

“What’s the matter with you? You can be one crazy bitch sometimes.”

“Yeah, but you came good didn’t you?” She leaned onto him and kissed him impetuously on the lips, her right hand cupping his crotch.

“What a mind-screw you are. I pity that oaf who lives with you,” he uttered with the unlit cigarette between his lips. He emphatically struck a match against the box and animated the tobacco with it.

“Doug’s all right. But no one gets me hot like my Frenchman. Give me a drag off that cig.”

“Yeah, right. As long as the bread’s hot out of the oven, I’m your guy.”

“You and your supermarket jargon. You’re all lost up in that place. Always were. Give me a drag of that Lucky, will ya?”

He handed her the cigarette. “Regular work, regular pussy, what’s not to like?”

“You lousy pig! Okay, you can take me home now. I’ve heard enough for one night. You used to be classy, Jack.” She sat up hastily, flicking through the crisp bills with her briery fingernails, drawing tobacco with her ample lips. “How much is here anyways?”

“You’re telling me you don’t know by just eyeballing it? Maybe I should change the dome light.”

“Very funny. Forget it. I’ll count it later.” She leaned over and shoved the tuft of cash into the sprawled purse lying on the rubber mat. She straightened her hair a little in the rearview and then handed the cigarette back to the butcher without looking. She applied a fresh coat of red over her mouth and then slid a tissue between her scarlet lips.

“A little short this month. I had some unforeseen expenses.”

“It’s okay. You’re good for it, right?” she said, razzing him, her green olive eyes burgeoning beneath her thin-plucked brow.

“Oh, sure. You can count on ol’ Jack. If not, you can send Doug to break my legs. You know where I live.” He exhaled the robust tobacco smoke from his nose, the cigarette changing places, hand to mouth, mouth to hand, in an igneous trail of agitation.

“Forget Doug. I’ll break them myself.” She leaned in again and sucked his bottom lip, pressing against his thigh.

“How’s the boy?”

“Aeneas is fine. He’s playing the drums in school now, so I got him a training kit for the basement. He’s pretty good too. Playing a lot of the old classics his daddy loves. Deep Purple, the Moody Blues. You know which ones.”

“Yeah.” He rolled the window down some and flicked the cigarette outside. The trees shook softly from the veering wind and the tickled leaves coyly whispered amid the intertwined branches.

They’d come to this spot before. The smooth clearing beneath the weeping trees in front of the woods. It could be spooky at night. The butcher left the high beams on, saturating the dark woods with light. There was a .38 Special in the glove compartment in case anything but the darkness slunk out from the depths. Could be there were too many perverts itching for a peek.

“Come on, don’t look so glum. We did good with Aeneas. I was just kidding earlier. Don’t look so crestfallen.”

“I don’t know the meaning of the word. You decent? You ready to go?”

The butcher was startled out of his reverie by the 18-wheeler that was pulling into the receiving bay, trailer first. The driver was eager to unburden his carriage, engine chugging, wheels turning, slowing, stopping, then turning once more, until the trailer’s edge met the deck, and then the entire rig just shut down, transmission snuffed. The driver exited the cab and slammed the door behind. He walked past the butcher, nodding his lidded head, and resoundingly walked up the perforated metal stairs to the weathered door where he buzzed the receiver with an unflagging tintinnabulation. The butcher peered over at him with weary annoyance. Ben popped open the door and he greeted the bearded, boulder-sized driver, “Jerry! Long time no see!”

The rollup door came jangling up at the dock, the rig’s cargo door unlatched with a hollow thunk, cranked up, rollers squeaking, and then the hydraulic leveler started doing its thing, rising, unfolding, lip elongating, and then falling, bridging the gap with a dull thump. The receiver began unloading the rig with the electric jigger, making a bumping noise whenever he crossed the threshold. The butcher tried to ignore all these auditory distractions, the cigarette between his fingers smoldering to the core.

The butcher put out his cigarette and decided to return to his work. He was temperate with his drink and yet he slept till noon, he thought, And sometimes all day long. Yeah right, Pseudarch. Consistency. History will not permit it. He rapped at the ulcered door with his craggy knuckles and the receiver let him in.

II

THE BONE-CAN WAS SLATHERED with the remnants of beef, bison, venison, pork, chicken, turkey, lamb, veal, duck, rabbit, salmon, haddock, cod, tilapia, trout, all kinds of meat. The butcher sluiced the can with cold water and soap and he brushed the bloody matter out of the hard to reach spots along the brim, hard bristles scraping the coagulated blood and fat from the petroleum. Printed on one side of the can in white-stenciled letters was “Do not use for hot ashes, building material, debris, dirt, dead animals, solvents, or any other flammable liquids or solvents.” Further down was printed, “Max Load 70 KG or 154 LBS”. And just a little further below, an identification code, “214 # 0014 232”, lest this particular bone-can be mistaken for another. On the front of the can, stenciled in bold capital letters, was “ROTHSAY”, and below that, in descending order, “Inedible Meat Products Only. No Plastic. No Styrofoam. No Polyethylene.” There was an image at the center of the can of the Earth, also printed in white, encircled by the universal recycling logo, three mutually chasing arrows, a snake eating its own tail. “ROTHSAY Recycles. Improving Our Earth.”

The butcher didn’t pay any attention to the print tattooing the bone-can. After nearly two-decades of exposure to Loman’s beguilements, being constantly inundated with conflicting, usually hypocritical, information, the butcher had learned to look the other way, to ignore what he couldn’t change. He used to beat himself up over it, his culpability in the heinous act of dumping the unsold meats. Heinous precisely because it was avoidable. A meat manager with a tight watch over his counter, one eye on stock and another on his order guide, predicting commercial traffic like a meteorologist predicts weather, that is, studiously and conscientiously, could mitigate losses tremendously. But those types of managers were hard to come by.

Loman’s stores were getting larger all the time and the fresh-meat counters were getting wider and longer. Mass quantities were needed just to fill the counters. “Eye candy”, the store managers called it, sentiments that were empty of irony. The trays were stacked three-high, all the time. Never mind that only half of the fresh meat being merchandised sold. The counters had to be kept full to maintain an aura of plenitude. Robust, bounteous stock was a signifier of great fitness, no matter the cost, no matter the ecological burden. Throwing out meat was a part of doing business. They called it “shrink”. As in, something that should theoretically be diminished, after all, resources should never be squandered, but they never quite got around to doing it.

There was no moral imperative to brood over. There was only design and execution, sum and substance, point and profit, and that was the last word on the subject. The butcher would butt heads with management all the time over this issue and he’d give the meat managers hell, but there was nothing the poor bastards could do. Upper management could always find another puppet to push a button. They reiterated that maxim to their staff behind closed doors. “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen.” And every time a meat manager pushed a button, another animal died.

If Loman’s had pork tenderloin on special, stores would go through skids upon skids of the product at a time. One skid could easily hold fifty cases of pork tenderloin. Each case contained eight individually cryovaced packages of tenderloin, therefore four pigs had to be slaughtered per case. A skid meant two-hundred dead pigs, multiplied by the number of skids per store, multiplied by the number of stores. The number of the slaughtered was astronomical. And Loman’s always over-ordered. It was part of the “Super” credo. Superabundance. With his prices, he was practically conditioning people to overeat.

Everyone obeyed the great chain of being. It began with Loman, from the firmament, and progressed downwards, from the President all the way to the part-time workers on the floor. In between these pillars lay the great incalculable corporate chain. New links were being added all the time, lengthening the chain, and it grew more and more distant from ground level, from the stores, and thus more and more unfathomable as time went by.

Management was to introduce a new operating system in the New Year, the much-vaunted “C.A.O.” program that Loman spent millions of dollars to develop, which would order product for the counters on its own, without manual aid. The Computer Assisted Ordering program would purportedly increase the efficacy of ordering, replacing all manual ordering in time, and reduce “holes” on the shelves by over ninety-nine percent. There’d be less meddling from ineffective, dissenting hands. With the C.A.O. in place in the New Year, store conditions would be better than great, they’d be perfect.

All of this troubled the butcher. Computer programs replacing workers? There was nothing the union could do about that. Not even they could halt progress. And there was certainly nothing the butcher could do. Except get out. That’s what management always told him. He could always get out. But he liked being around the meat industry. He was used to it by now. Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven. It came to him like a calling. And no matter how hard he tried to keep things the same, the atmosphere, the suavity, it was always changing, would never stop changing. They didn’t build them like they used to. So he learned to stop caring about the stymieing invasion of enlightened technology, to be indifferent to the immedicable ritual of the bone-can. Sometimes he grumbled inside with indignation. Sometimes he grumbled from hunger because lunch was approaching.

After cleaning the can, he returned it to the cooler for storage, and geared for a return to the cutting block. Before he even managed to reach the floor to inspect his case, he was halted by one of his fledgling apprentices who was waiting by the produce department’s doors, the quickest route onto the busy commercial floor congested with shopping carts and baskets, the preferred route because it afforded an Archimedean vantage of his work. The beef to the left, roasts and then steaks, prime rib, sirloin, premium roasts, and then the strips, Delmonicos, porters, and tenderloins, then the lamb, the pork, the sausage, and the chicken. A modest display case by company standards. And yet the butcher’s yield was first-rate. He was peerless in the industry. Loman’s foremost meat cutter. They buried him in Grimsby where his artistry was lost amongst the common people.

His pismos were state of the art. Silver skin removed to a hair’s breadth. Flesh immaculate. Fat removed to the extent that whatsoever remained cast the steaks in the greatest possible marbled light, diameter proportionate throughout, defying reason, perfect cylinders, like they were carved from red marble. At the heart of Loman’s racket, Queen’s Quay, they’d come far and wide for his cuts, chefs and restaurateurs. He was a professional with distinction in the industry. In Grimsby, he was just another laborer, work serviceable, nothing else much mattered.

In Toronto, he had brought his own implements to work, a steak knife, a chop knife, a sticking knife, a skinning knife, a cleaver, a sharpening steel, and a block brush, all strapped to his butcher’s bandoleer. Quite a sight in fact, strolling through the supermarket like some savage relic, some olden virtuoso. In Grimsby, he used the company issued stock, steel so dull he could barely finesse a steak to his liking, to his lofty standard. Still, he left zero room for complaint. None of his cuts were uneven or lacked trimming. And he could still fillet or butterfly burningly close.

“Mrs. Crompton is here for her Chattelbreeund special.”

“Chateaubriand, Crawford. Cha-teau-bri-and. It’s a town in France. The word means noble castle. There’s no fucking “chattel”. When you gonna learn?”

“Sorry, Jack. She been waitin’ a while.”

“Let her wait.”

Mrs. Crompton came to Loman’s every two weeks for her beef tenderloin roast, like clockwork. Her husband was a Member of Parliament for the Progressive Conservative Party of Ontario, who happened to live in the Niagara region. He was out of town on business for the weekend, which meant he was backsliding with his mistress just a few clicks north of his luxury home on Niagara Stone Road, playing golf and then taking the yacht out for the weekend. Mrs. Crompton came all the way to Grimsby to get her meat, driving about 40 klicks along the Queen Elizabeth Way, which really was an excuse to invite the butcher over for dinner. A simple phone call would not do. Mrs. Crompton liked to add a little dash of ritual to their affair. Maybe I’ll get him to wear his apron tonight, she thought.

She would dress all the way up, classic black stilettos, ultra sheer stockings with the seam, fitted pencil skirt, short belted trench, black Wayfarer sunglasses, pinstriped short brim fedora, and most importantly the white, Hepburn opera gloves, come to Loman’s, drive the men up the aisles with her exercised body, her legato walk, pick up the necessaries for dinner that varied depending on if she was making Carpaccio or steak tartare or a plain-old roast, ordering the beef tenderloin last, which the butcher prepared for her like she was just another customer.

Watching her from the block, sometimes he’d get a vicious hard-on when the opera gloves touched her face, in sync with the coquettish, wife-of-a-statesman smile. She never washed the gloves, never took them off when they screwed, caressed herself with them, rubbed and poked and prodded, that was the Crompton special, and it drove him wild. She got off on the pretense too. The butcher’s red hands handling the meat with panache, the acute measurements, the knotting and cinching of the twine, gently strangulating, the sleek and violent slicing. The scent of sex off her gloves, brushing against her lips, it got her off, beneath the lace and finery, she was a heated mess, thrown from her equilibrium, but none were the wiser, only the butcher knew her dirty little secret.

“Steaked, Mrs.?” inquired the butcher, his red hands, redder from the blood, tying the meat with a single-minded intelligence of their own, looping, twisting, knotting, cinching, lopping the twine, and then sliding down to the next spot along the flesh.

“No, no, whole. Leave it whole. I’m making a roast tonight,” she said, startled and completely thrown from her reverie by the question. But a statesman’s wife is always quick to recover, swiftly sealing the cracks along the way.

“What’s that?” shouted the butcher in reply, not being able to hear distinctly for the fans.

“Whole! Leave it whole, please!” she said in a louder tone, politely yelling. She blushed from the attention, secretly thrilled by the foreplay.

“No frills, huh?”

“That’s right. Just me and the husband.”

“A little candlelight,”he said, rocking his head sportingly, with a neat sardonic expression slung over his face.

“No, no. He doesn’t go for that kind of thing. Just a roast and potatoes. Maybe some roasted artichokes or asparagus. A bottle of wine. We’ll see.” Her reflection in the pane. Featureless. A raw meat matte.

“Meat and potatoes. My kind of guy.”

“Mine too,” she said, biting her lip to keep from giving up game. She’s always fantasized about the back room. The rapid air of the cooler. The damp smell of cardboard. Her face pressed hard against it.

He pushed the trimmings from the beef into the chute atop the block, placed the four-pound roast onto the peach paper, lifted it to the scale, weighed it, printed a label, threw the roast down to the wrapping station, rolled it in peach, sealed it, and handed it to the lady.

“Is this AAA beef?” she said, looking at the label. The peach had bloody fingerprints all over, which the butcher had neglected to wipe off, staining her white opera gloves. They’d incorporate the cherry smears and blotches into the act.

“No it’s Angus, mam.” He raised his cap a little to get a better look at her coy face.

“From Alberta?”

“No, somewhere in the States, I think,” he said, wiping his bloody hands on his apron. His busy mouth stirred the remnant taste of tobacco and whiskey around with swagger. The seesawing made him want to spit, but there were other customers in line at the counter.

“Oh, well. It’s still good, though?”

“It’s excellent, mam.”

“Please, call me Flora. So you personally guarantee the quality of this meat?” She demurely looked into his russet eyes. She was trying to annoy him. And it was starting to work. He hated the extra attention.

“Yes, personally. In fact, if you find the meat at all disagreeable, I’ll repay out of my own pocket,” he said in a courteous tone in order to indulge her flirting, softening his manner, even sounding urbane in the process, smooth-tongued like a polished city man.

“Is that a butcher’s promise?” she toyed, loving to tease refinements out of him, graces that we’re hidden out of sight. She knew they were there quite early on in their affair. After a little wine, a litre or so, his cultivation would rise to the surface like the jeweled eyes of a cobra. She’d drink with him the expensive wines from her husband’s cellar, keeping up, every cup of the way, pouring through the Pillitteri like water, charming those savage jeweled eyes out from the dark. She’d flash her Salome grin, spellbinding him, wheedling out his dirty little secrets.

“No. It’s Jack’s promise,” he glibly said and hated himself for it a second after.

“Okay. It’s been a pleasure, Jack,” she said, putting the roast in her cart alongside the petite Parisian potatoes and fresh scallions.

“Indeed. G’day, Flora.”

“Good-day to you, Jack.”

Mrs. Crompton finished her shopping and left the store. She headed into town to run some further errands, drop off some laundry at the cleaners, get her nails done, her legs waxed, and then she would return home to shower and slowly prepare dinner.

The butcher returned to his block, did some last minute touch-ups to the counter, trimmed the skirting peach, rotated the steaks, removed the drier cuts, tightened things up, bringing out the red of the beef, red like a fire hydrant, moist side up, accentuating the raspberry of the pork, the dark wine of the lamb, laying the meat right for the Grimsby brood.

It was noon. He told the boys to have the block cleaned before he returned from lunch. But he didn’t get far. He was paged to the manager’s office over the PA system, which was something that had never happened before in Grimsby because the butcher and the store manager hated each other, and couldn’t stand to be in close quarters with each other, so he knew immediately that it was bad and so he braced himself. They must’ve smelled blood, the butcher thought, in light of the anomalous day he was having. He didn’t know how grave the situation was until he saw Longsteifler, the district manager, and union leader, Cross, in Ratched’s office.

III

WORKING IN THE MEAT INDUSTRY was hard labor for hardboiled types. The butcher had met some tough customers in his day, bruisers who’d made his days a grind to get through. The butcher did his fair share of cutting, earning his keep at the block. But it didn’t come easy. When he had first started in Toronto, the meat business wasn’t tame like it was now. You needed to be resilient to survive the feudalism. If you lacked fortitude in any sense, you’d be lighted on and tweaked and chafed until you broke down or got yourself into bleeding shape. The full-time varmints were brutes in those days. They’d drink and smoke right on the job. Life was a cigarette and a spot of Johnnie Walker, slagging in the chuck bin as if it were an ashtray, a receptacle of bone and fat and cinders.

There was one man in particular, an Albanian by the name Amyntas Kushtrim, who was nicknamed the Balkan Bear by his workers, who took an early interest in the butcher at the St. Clair location, and decided to groom him for better things. He was nicknamed the Balkan Bear because of the strength and amplitude of his bearing and also because he was immoderately hairy. When they wanted to call him by his proper name, they’d refer to him as Amen for short. “Amen, hand me that cleaver, will ya?” “Thank God for Amen.” “Amen to that.”

There was a nasty rumor trailing the Balkan Bear like a hound dog, that he’d nixed some guy in the meat department over a disagreement and stuffed him in the bone-can to get rid of the evidence. If you’d spent any considerable amount of time with the Balkan Bear, say the amount of time it took him to break down a carcass, which wasn’t very long at all, working from the extremities in toward the animal’s core, first with the knife and then truncating with the hacksaw, hewing and shearing and hackling with rambunctious transport, you’d think that perhaps there were legs to this rumor.

He was no artist with the knife, just a skinner, a boner, a hacker, a run-of-the-mill, mom-and-pop type of freewheeling butcher. He couldn’t seam for the life of him. His focus had been driven to dross over the years with the binge drinking, crooking the elbow so often he couldn’t straighten it out, popping the pharmaceuticals, “Suzy Qs,” “dilly dallies,” until he slurred and was permanently cock-eyed. But the sawing and the hacking and the cursing, he had those mechanics down. The Balkan Bear looked dangerous, talked dangerous, and dangerously scuffed around the building. But he got the job done, swifter than most. And he had a coronary way with the staff, a real backroom way with the boys. So Loman’s kept him around. So long as he remained useful.

The alleged nixing occurred well before cameras were implanted into the stores. Someone had filed a missing persons report, which drew the police to Loman’s, but there was no reason for the police to run a fine comb through the premises. And there were no suspicions circling around the Balkan Bear then. The police briskly kicked the tires, questioning some of meat department bruisers about the missing person, including the Balkan Bear, who was the manager. The guys didn’t say very much, they didn’t know very much, and the Balkan Bear, he was like Teflon, shrugging off their questions without compunction, allowing nothing to stick. Having discovered nothing at Loman’s, the police carried on with their half-hearted investigation elsewhere.

The guy who was missing, a scarred-up Slavic thug by the name of Goran Mladic, worked part-time at Loman’s in the meat department, and was chiseling the company along with the Balkan Bear. Whoever had filed the report did not know of their partnership. They were taking Loman’s to the cleaners, running a lucrative back door operation along with the driver who collected the foul meats, and the night crew receiver who was skilled at blotting out their footprint. The operation was fairly simple in design and execution. It had come from the top-shelf of the Balkan Bear’s dampened mind, who was no whiz, but had a melon seeded enough to understand the basic physics of criminality.

Mladic had met the Balkan Bear in some Wang-house in Chinatown. They both happened to be waiting for the same massage girl and so they’d struck up a conversation while she finished with her client. Serbian and Albanian relations were not always so good-humored, but Mladic and the Balkan Bear had no problem breaking the ice, and the conversation tipped towards crookedness without much foreplay. Both men were braggarts. It didn’t take long for them to flash their credentials.

The Balkan Bear planted the hush-hush scenario in Mladic’s skull, who was a willing and pliable accessory, having a longstanding pledge to the criminal fraternity firmly in place, having operated a skin house and a protection racket back home in Bosnia under the direction of the Brotherhood. Holding the surname of genocidal warlord was advantageous. It had helped him get on the good side of the Brotherhood quicker than if he had some common village epithet. There was more street cred in a name like Mladic than Stanko, which was his matronymic, or Vlasic, which was a common name from his village. Mladic was as timely a trade name as any.

The numerous indecent scars he sported were the direct result of his vulturine enterprising and he wore them like a badge of honor. Getting cut-up was a part of doing goon business in lupine Kosovo. Everyone carried a little something. The prostitutes he chaperoned were fond of hiding sliding knives on their body, in case a john got rough, or if they got into a sticky situation over money. The sliding knife was easy to operate one-handed, which made it popular amongst the working girls. One hand on the mark’s joint, the other on the handle. You just pressed your thumb on the button, applying pressure along the length of the handle, and the concave blade poked out, poised to scallop. The cavalier lightness of the knife with its plain edge action was all a call girl could really ask for.

Mladic fancied a straight razor himself. It became his trademark, along with the matching scars. The working girls were terrified of it. He also carried a homemade shiv for direct impact assaults. But he favored the razor when he got up close and personal, when he could savor the scuffle. And it sure made things bloody. The amount of blood from a slashed wrist artery was dizzying. Mladic felt there was dignity to his hatchet work when he used the razor, a sense of craftsmanship, it held an air of nostalgia for him.

 The particular razor he used, a vintage, 5/8, buffalo horn, with surgical quality stainless steel, was an heirloom inherited from his father. He used to love watching the ritual of his father shaving. Straightening the blade from the taut hanging strop, the rhythmic diagonal drawing across the length of the strap, the dawdling sighing blade, the twinkling pirouette at the tail. He’d warm the toilet seat cover while gazing at his father with rapt attention, hypnotized by the rise and fall of the blade.

Mladic was a refugee living illegally in Toronto. Crime didn’t just pay in his case. It was the only line of work that consistently paid. He did whatever it took to survive. He dealt drugs, pimped, kidnapped, stole automobiles, robbed homes, held-up convenience stores, trafficked arms, and more. But he wasn’t successful at anything. He spent his money as fast as he earned it. He had a drug habit, loved to gamble, and had an appetite for prostitutes, who he beat and even carved on occasion. He did everything except work a nine-to-five, which is was what the Balkan Bear put on the table at the Wang-house, with a little something on the side.

It was a four-way score. Nothing you could retire off, but a regular paycheck, with little to no hassle. Just a basic skimming operation. Product came in the backdoor. Stocked for a couple of days. And then pushed out again with the spoiled meats. In the bone-cans were fresh vacuum-packed cuts that were bumped wholesale to lesser vendors on the black market. The books were slightly cooked. Inventory counts adjusted. The shrink took a hit. But nobody noticed any leakage. The Balkan Bear had been running the scam for years. He had the same crew with him from day one, but was now recruiting another body for some extra help.

He needed extra muscle on the wholesale side, in case vendors got chintzy. There were other guys from his own department he could have recruited, but he didn’t trust them enough not to showboat to the others, flashing a little extra cash at lunch, or after work at the bar. And he couldn’t afford to bring in too many bodies on board. One extra guy was all he needed. So they forged some papers for Mladic and got him a part-time gig at the store. He’d only work two shifts a week on the Balkan Bear’s days off, ensuring full coverage for the skimming operation.

Everything went skippy for the first few months. Mladic adjusted to the working life. He’d tried his hand at butchering but was miserable at it. Maybe if he’d wielded the straight razor? He managed to be on time some of the time. And he did a bang-up job of pissing off the meat crew with his scrappy, misanthropic ways. Days turned into weeks, weeks into months, Mladic passed probation and earned his place at the block, but only because he got the gentle pass from the Balkan Bear. He became a protected member of the union, but it wasn’t the sort of brotherhood he was accustomed to. He was loath to contribute the three dollars a week the union requested for membership. He never had to pay for muscle work before. He usually was the muscle.

All in all, Mladic was a terrible employee, never quite earning his bucks the way the rest of the brotherhood did. His butchering skills were nonexistent. No customer service skills to speak of. In fact, the Balkan Bear had instructed him to stay off the commercial floor altogether, “to avoid suspicion.” His mug was an affront to the customers. If they’d horse-dragged him through the streets of Kosovo, face down, the difference would have been negligible. Of course, he didn’t tell Mladic as much. But he had one heck of a time explaining to his crew what exactly Mladic did at Loman’s. The littler said, the better. The crew just figured the Balkan Bear owed a favor, so they kept their mouths shut. Product came in and went out. The crew skimmed. The vendors got their pirated meat and paid fairly. The funds were distributed, forty to the Balkan Bear and twenty three-ways, and everyone was happy. Loman’s was none the wiser.

Business was booming in the early eighties. It was when Loman had built and solidified his wealth. He was at the height of his ambition. The LC brand (Loman’s Choice) had gone nationwide. The media buzzed with glad tidings. Customer’s thronged to the market place like obedient ants to empty the shelves of Loman’s Choice products. There were national commercials, celebrity endorsements on TV, product plugs in magazines. LC was everywhere. Homemakers rejoiced at the newfound ease of home cooked meals. Everyone wanted a piece of the action and Loman was overeager to re-invest in his own company. He put the brand on NASDAQ and the monopolists had a field day. The stock soared, the gulls gobbled it all up, Loman’s monomania hit an all time high. It vaulted him clear over his grocery competitors. He no longer owned a chain of supermarkets. He owned the supermarket. It was the place to shop. But Loman had wanted it to be the place to be.

He installed cafés into his markets. A hot deli where people could purchase some fast food and munch as they strolled around shopping with their kids. He built a woman’s only gym with an adjacent day care for children. There was a dry cleaner on site. A pharmacy. A Loman’s brand financial pavilion offering standard bank products. There was no end to his good ideas. The more he earned, the more he invested. He just kept feeding the gun-belt, firing off idea after idea, expanding the borders of his grandiose grocery vision, employing all and sundry, a workforce tenacious enough to drag his pyramid through the Canadian hinterland and into the sunset multinational. Loman would never miss a few thousand here and there from some picayune skimming operation. He was too elephantine for that, too intent on stomping larger quarry.

The skimming operation only hit a roadblock when the skimmer became the skimmee. Mladic had the bright idea of raising the prices upon delivery, without the go-ahead from the Balkan Bear. He caught a whiff of opportunity and snagged it, cooking-up some featherbrained scheme to augment his commission. Some of the smaller vendors resisted at first, but succumbed before long. What the traffic will bear. They were all making money. So what if the margins shrunk a little. Mladic intimidated them with his pitted, zigzagged face, and managed to re-direct the funds from those shrunken margins into his pocket. That was the new liberated score. Mladic’s ingratitude, bred in the moonlight, bred in the bone.

The Balkan Bear was none the wiser because his return remained the same, that is, until he decided to raise the ante himself. Prices were subject to change along with the season. When barbecue season arrived, the cost of beef rose fifteen to twenty percent in anticipation of the sizzle. The Balkan Bear had to recoup his losses somewhere. If he were paying more for his meats as a manager, it only followed that his vendors would have to swallow some of the inflation too in order to keep the victual flowing. He charged Mladic, in line with his role as middleman, to deliver the news.

What was a vulture from Kosovo to do? Mladic was enjoying the newfangled score a lot better. He was able to afford a little extra scag and more than one chippy a week. There was no way he was going to let things go to wrack and ruin again. He was done with those narrow ways. So he raised the prices again to cover the spike, but this time the vendors wouldn’t have it. Their margins were getting dangerously close to the red, so there was no use in going through all the trouble bootlegging for some bantam sum. They collectively showed Mladic the door and then the curb, four out of the first five along his route. He didn’t bother visiting with the other three.

He needed to scare up some new customers and quick. He wasn’t prepared to fall on his sword just yet. So Mladic went on a fishing expedition without The Balkan Bear’s knowledge, hitting the circuit pretty hard, but not angling too many takers with his new lupine prices. Muscle couldn’t help in these delicate matters. It wasn’t some pimp or dealer he was trying to racketeer here, these were legitimate business owners, who might have been in the market for illegally redistributed product if the price were right. Where finesse was needed, Mladic tabled brawn. It was a clumsy endeavor, through and through, and the vendors could spot his brittle antics a mile away, so they too gave him the boot.

But Mladic wouldn’t be shown out nice or easy. At his last visit, Bob’s Supermarket on Gerrard Street, just east of Cabbagetown, feeling stifled and exasperated, he started pulling down end displays on his way out, a colonnade of jarred pickles crashing to the floor, making one dilly hell of a mess. Bob wouldn’t have any of it. He didn’t call the cops. Instead he dialed Loman’s at St. Clair and asked for the meat manager. He knew the Balkan Bear from an earlier solicitation, when the Balkan Bear was canvassing for clientele for his black-market operation and was turned down by Bob, who already had a cheaper deal in place with the Chinese from Spadina.

Bob got him on the phone and he told him everything, threatening to call the cops unless some kind of restitution was made. Blanched by the imputation, the Balkan Bear mumbled an oath to pacify Bob, and by the time it took to get Bob off the phone, he’d already made plans how and when to nix Mladic. It wasn’t a question of talking to Mladic, feeling him out, squeezing information. The Balkan Bear knew he was guilty. Mladic had been tried and sentenced. Now was the time to time up loose ends. The Balkan Bear didn’t have any tolerance for double-crossing. He’d warned Mladic as much at their inaugural meeting at the Wang-house on Spadina. He laid his code down. “No funny stuff.” But what was a vulture to do? Funny stuff was the name of the game. Mladic had a short memory for oaths. Not being a man of honor, he had no faith in vows.

They were supposed to meet later that day at the store in order to settle up the day’s accounts. There was an enclosed cooler in the basement of the St. Clair location. They took the elevator down to make the day’s rounds, slicing and dicing in monk-like isolation. Only the meat crew were authorized to make the descent to that squalid and spattered room they called “the dungeon.” There was an electric floor saw there, an industrial grinder, and a circular slicer. All the slattern tools. Rugged, stainless steel equipment stands that harbored the many daughters of the trade, including the Balkan’s Bears favorite tool, an orange and black, polyurethane mallet, a specialized hollow hammer filled with lead shot, which minimized damage to the struck surface. The Balkan Bear kept these mallets in every space he occupied. There was one at the dungeon, one in his car, for chassis work, and one at home for extracurricular business.

Like Mladic, the Balkan Bear had cultivated a taste for debasement. He’d wrecked havoc in the suburbs with his dead blow mallet, guard dogs, meandering cats, and he was working his way up the food chain. He found himself ardently wanting to make house calls next. He’d stay up all night with a restless, fevered constitution, imagining these unannounced “visits,” point for point. Circling the placid, suburban neighborhoods, targeting just the right house, the merry traipse to the stoop, the papulous doorbell, the muted shuffling from behind the door,  his own heart racing like a colt, comportment as prosaic as the linden tree in the front yard. Pressing his cumbrous hirsute head into the pillow, he’d lick the brine from his swarthy upper lip, stargazing in the benthal night.

There was a brief scuffle with Mladic. No mallet, no razor. Only the Balkan’s cannonball fists bludgeoning Mladic’s face to pulp and shard. He was sacked and killed over the sullied dungeon floor in a locomotive matter of seconds. Next he made Mladic disappear into the cutting room, sectioned on the cutting table by virtue of the band saw, chunked into manageable cubes by dint of the cleaver, pressed into the grinder piecemeal, out he came multifid, bit by bit, by driblets, parceled into the bone-can, swept into the drain. Thereafter, the logical next step was to find a replacement for his pirating business.

IV

“COME IN JACK,” RATCHED SAID, leading the butcher into his office with a trained gesture both welcoming and guarded, shutting the door behind them. The friendly, animated look on Ratched’s face was swiftly replaced by some stony, draconian expression as he stepped past the butcher and between Longsteifler and Cross, who were standing across from each other on the taupe carpet, flanking the room, arms crossed over their chests, exchanging nervous humorless glances.

Ratched took his place behind his cluttered desk seated in his ox-blood executive armchair, a clutter that looked contrived in its disarray, dropped his elbows over some stat sheets and interlocked his fingers, stanching the blood flow at the knuckles, and catching the butcher square within the crosshairs of his tensed overlapping fingers. Cross nodded his head and verbally greeted the butcher, while Longsteifler mechanically lowered his eyes and tried to stare through him like an x-ray machine. He strongly felt that he had a faculty for reading people and so he did this.

The butcher reached up and lowered his cap over his eyes by way of an ironic salutation to union leader Noah Cross. His name a cruel joke, evincing a flash of advocacy, a ray of vindication, when in truth he stood for nothing but the worst of betrayals, a treacherous branding on the blue-collar federation. His name was like some twisted collation of Old and the New Testaments, some irreligious codex bound by the publishing press of hell at the head office in Brampton.

“Please, have a seat, Jack,” Ratched said, flagging the drawn chair that was also angled premeditatedly. The butcher shouldered the invitation aside.

“I’m fine where I am,” he replied. Longsteifler and Cross renewed their tongueless parley through wide censuring eyes. The butcher felt uneasy about the whole situation, it felt entirely rehearsed, the stooges flanking him like two esurient cranes, the binders and files arranged like bayoneted toy soldiers on the shelves, the jejune chair deceptively positioned in the center of the room like a wolf trap ready to spring, and seated behind the teak desk covered with scrawled papers and manila dossiers was Ratched, the spiteful rhadamanthine executor of the interrogation. He felt uneasy but betrayed nothing to his interlocutors.

The butcher’s bristly weathered face was incongruous to their expectations, catachrestic even. They knew his face well enough, especially Ratched, who could inspect it daily if he pleased, and therein laid the problem. The butcher’s mien suggested something trustworthy, something that hit close to home. His hardened features conveyed the very essence of the blue-collar man they all depended on to keep the business, with all its sticky work, afloat.

Nostalgia, sentimentality for the inveterate truths of the supermarket industry, it was the very opposite feeling they needed his face to summon. They wanted to be provoked to anger in order to embrace the loathing they shared for the butcher. What kind of man would poach a seventeen-year-old? Surely not this salt-of-the-earth type with his prairie eyes? But it wasn’t their parental protective instinct that had summoned the butcher to Ratched’s office.

The image of Loman’s as a family type business was important, yes, but that wasn’t the catalyst for this inquisition. Their grey orthodoxy, their bien pensant, was a pious sham. Nothing but bourgeois canting to preserve their fogyish white bread strata. It was the butcher’s iconoclastic views that drew the swarm. A longstanding grievance that now had a firm pretext for his dismissal, a discharge that Longsteifler and Ratched had dreamed about for years, a way around the union red tape and the butcher’s expert defense.

Loman himself had heard echoes of the butcher’s dissenting antics all the way from his ivory castle on the Bridle Path in Toronto. Zoe Vrabec was the gift horse they were all awaiting and she was a long time coming. Now that Loman was made aware of the grave situation in Grimsby, how the butcher was affecting worker morale and reshaping the culture on the work floor, how he was on the verge of corrupting another store, much like he’d done in Toronto, and Scarborough, and Ajax, and Wasaga, and Sarnia, and Thunder Bay, Ratched’s and Longsteifler’s future prospects very much depended on the butcher leaving their gift horse alone.

“Jack, don’t be alarmed. We’re all friends here. Eric and Noah have joined us to see if we can solve our problems amicably.”

“You’re the problem, Ratched,” the butcher spat out.

“Come on, Jack. Ted is trying to be decent about the whole thing. We’re all friends here, right Eric,” Cross said, nodding towards Longsteifler, who had his hands in pockets like he was shying away from the candor the men were employing. When he finally spoke, with no little coercion from Cross’ supplicating gaze, his voice was a little unsure at first, feeling for the right note of assent until he hit the choice modulation, the correct waffling frequency that conveyed just the right amount of soft politic a man of his authority was expected to supply upon request.

“Yes, of course, we’re all friends here and,” a slight hesitation, an electric pop charging through the cables, a sizzling misfire through the internal programming, a crackling failure in the executive P.R. system that took so many years to acculturate, so many painful years of coolness and restraint, of nurturing a culture of mitigation, of meeting people half way, of placating and redressing the V.P.’s when the shit hit the fan, all flushed down the toilet because of some upstart lackey butcher who was threatening to overturn the tables because he refused to find his place in the scheme of things, snarling at the fist that fed them all.

The electric banner of Loman’s placed outside the store flashed in his mind. He’d seen the man in person once. Shook his hand. It was his greatest business success at that point. Some press event that was held in one of his stores in ’92 that Loman had attended. The launch of a new designer line of products. “The Black Label.” Loman had slipped out of the limelight ever since. Receded behind his business like a puppeteer behind the curtain.

To hell with discretion, Longsteifler thought. This butcher might as well be standing on my lawn threatening my family. He was trying to motivate himself. To drum up courage. He so hated these face-to-face encounters, especially with men of the butcher’s ilk. His tender thoughts drifted sentimentally to the sedan in his driveway, to the two-storey in Roncesvalles, the cottage on Horse Island, the placid crystal waters, the pristine sandy beach, the tranquil lawn chair view of Huckleberry island in the distance, and finally little Albert’s university fees. This image of little Albert lining up to apply for Government assistance for his tuition fees, like some ghetto charity case, he envisioned it in his mind’s eye, community college instead of an institution of higher learning, pants down to his knees, Malcolm-X embroidered ball-cap in reverse, rap music thumping his brain to mash. Poor little Albert!

“Didn’t your parents teach you a single damn thing about respecting your superiors!” Longsteifler poured out in a reprimanding torrent of air and froth, that issued from his crimson face with so much velocity that the features on his face momentarily discombobulated and bedlamized like the harrowed unglued face of a skydiver.

“I don’t see any superiors,” the butcher snapped.

“Eric, Jack, please!” Ratched pleaded, standing from behind his desk, trying not to overstep his bounds with his district manager, but at the same time striving to get a rope around the unseemly jackpot their collective livelihoods depended on. They had to square this one.

These cornbread district managers, Ratched thought. Unless they were nourished from the very environs that birthed the butcher’s ancient caste, unless they climbed out of those jungles themselves, one rope-burned hand at a time, with the hyenas snapping at their feet, they could not handle themselves well in close quarters with these rowdies. Ratched was better equipped. The same Darwinian altitude had hardened him and the butcher. “We’re not here to accost you, Jack.”

“Then why are these bums here?” the butcher said, pointing slantwise.

“Excuse me?” said Longsteifler turning his crimson face from Ratched to the butcher and then back again, as if seeking justification from Ratched now for his previous outburst. All of this shuffling of control, this subcutaneous blurring of station and ranking, emboldened the butcher to stand his ground and mix it up further. He could have walked out of the room because of Longsteifler’s outburst, his breach of manner, delayed the proceedings for another couple of days maybe, but he wanted to ride the meeting out, curious to see what direction it would take now that he’d turned the tables.

This was the gamesman in him pulling the strings. Watching them tossing around the gavel of authority like a hot potato, a smile threatened to escape to the surface, but he repressed the hooligan feeling, and took in the whole scene with a forking glance. Like when he strolled past the service case with the meats, he leveled the lay of the land geometrically, rapidly extracted the gist of the matter and negotiated what was required to get the job done. Likewise, he anticipated the next part of the meeting. He didn’t know the accusation just yet, but he’d taken a guess as to the nature of it and he surmised that Zoe was somehow involved.

In his two-plus decades at Loman’s, the butcher had his pick of the crop, or more appropriately, the choice cut, which, if we were to consult a butcher’s argot, would mean something like a hanger steak, something the unrefined butchers in the business put for sale and the discerning one’s kept for themselves, something Jean-Jacques Louis, pulled aside and illicitly cooked on the heating pad right in the prep-room, charred on the outside, pink in the middle, slightly gamey, full-bodied.

The butcher had fallen prey to nostalgic reflection as of late. The Expo of ’67 crossed his mind on occasion. Fanette Pare and the Summer of Love. Lying on her bedroom floor at the dorm, listening to The Doors, “Before you slip into unconsciousness/I’d Like to have another kiss/Another chance at bliss/Another kiss, another kiss,” stroking her naked back in a reefer haze. There was Reina Dechamps under the carousel in the parking lot of Place Versailles in ’63. The lamb of the fair. Her white-knit winter hat with the fluffy pompons. Her big oval cheeks he laid a wet kiss on. And how could he ever forget Anna Karina on the big screen in Vivre Sa Vie in ‘62.

Zoe Vrabec worked in the bakery department at Loman’s. It didn’t help that Zoe was seventeen, but it hadn’t really hurt yet either. The butcher would be turning fifty in a few years and she’d be turning eighteen soon, and there were many pleasures to be found in her blossoming body, youthful smells and textures, emotions electric, spirit unmarked and thriving for experience, pleasures he’d forgotten with the older women in his life. He’d been a skirt man his entire life, un bon viveur, but his love affairs he could count with the fingers on one hand. And there Zoe waited for him, in the least likeliest of places, the least luckiest of places where his heart was concerned, in the bakery department of Loman’s Supermarkets, in all-white attire, flour speckling her chin, augmenting the fantasy.

Zoe was passionate in a way that surpassed all others amongst the butcher’s many dalliances, tying the lover’s knot at the drop of a hat, or an apron as it were, like when she took the butcher to the janitor’s closet, very near in plain audience, and tasked him in the French way, and he, being well favored by nature, tasked her in return. That was how they got to know each other. He’d seen her around. Spied her budding curves, but minded his own business otherwise.

She’d heard about him, about his reputation as a lover from the other women, heard his brusque, Francophone-bark in the back room, his Alpha-dog manner with Loman’s lackeys, bullying them with his acerbic wit that he wielded like a bayonet, even trumping the long-arm of management, who avoided him like the plague, and she couldn’t help herself, she wanted him, his élan vitale, all of him, very much, all the time. Perhaps some old instinct came calling, some wild compulsion, perhaps she dreamt herself into a western or a film-noir, her imagination beaming effervescent, and this brute was her master there.

She wanted him at Loman’s, out of her dreams, away from his spurs and fedora, in the back or front of the store, it didn’t matter, on top of the service case, her naked ankle dangling against the raw meat as the butcher serviced her, on the baker’s window, or over the back of some willing cashier, in the ’68 Camaro, in his bedroom, as the proud husky howled over his master’s conquest.

The romance of the restored ‘68 was undeniable. For classier affairs, some inexpensive motel at the airport strip or near the train station would do. He never brought women home. That was a firm rule. Even when a skirt played hard to get, he wouldn’t cave. Home is where he went to get away from work, it’s where he kept his valuables, and it’s where Gregor, the butcher’s twelve-year old Siberian husky, lived. There was no place for a skirt there anymore. He adhered to the rule when he was married and he obeyed the same rule now. Except with Zoe. She’d been to his place, thumbed through his books, drank his liquor, watched his old VHS movies, played with Gregor, and slept between his sheets.

She had recently needed money for school and the butcher had helped her. That was another unforeseen expense that put a dent into his cashflow. Zoe had been accepted to the University of Denver on a skiing scholarship. Not bad for a girl from Grimsby. But she needed help the rest of the way. Her Czech immigrant parents didn’t have very much money. The mother waitressed at a local restaurant and the father was a commercial rig driver, always in and out of town. They’d devoutly paid for Zoe’s frequent excursions to the Blue Mountains while she came of age, for the hotels and transportation when she competed provincially, and they even kicked in to get her a car for Denver, but Zoe’s living expenses were something they could not afford.

Books, clothes, furniture, food money, these were among the things Zoe would need in a new city. Until she was able to find a job in Denver, she needed money to tide her over. The scholarship covered her tuition and room. The rest was up to her. She had barely managed to save anything working for Loman’s during the school year and through the summer. When the butcher had asked her about her finances she answered bluntly, honestly, always straight with him, and so he opened his wallet to her. Modesty kept her from accepting his money at first, but he convinced her without much ado. Her little hands in his. She had never asked the butcher for a penny. She wasn’t that kind of a girl.

There weren’t many girls like Zoe in Grimsby. There weren’t many girls like Zoe anywhere. On Sundays, after church, before closing shop at Loman’s, she’d ladle hot soup into bowls for the local homeless, dressing sandwiches for the grizzly crew of forlorn contrarians and hangdog discontents. She wanted to escape Grimsby any way she could. Skiing was a means. Her dream was to be an actress. And she was a very devoted thespian, excelling in her high school drama classes, earning special praise for her parts in the extra-curricular plays the class put on, playing Nora Helmer in a chamber version of Ibsen’s A Doll House in grade ten, and then Ophelia in a modern revision of Hamlet in grade eleven.

She fully invested herself in these parts. Memorizing the character’s lines, making them her own, re-reading the texts for subtleties, learning about the time and the place, grounding the characters in their social context, the history of their performances, watching recorded performances on VHS, which she borrowed from the library on loan from another library in Cambridge, and even watched a couple of Hollywood productions in the cinema. The butcher had driven her to the York Cinema in Toronto in early May, where a double-header of Hamlet was screening, Olivier’s stentorian black-and-white from ’48, and Zeffirelli’s earthy 90’s version, with Mel Gibson playing the burdened Danish prince. She found Zeffirelli’s “sensual” version easier to relate to, her eyes glued to the screen whenever pixie Ophelia appeared.

Maybe it was the color in the picture that made all the difference. She wasn’t all that used to the black-and-white. The butcher yawned the whole time, his butt getting sore any which way turned in his seat. His roaming hands rebuffed. Her sparkling gaze fixated to the screen. He rolled his eyes at the pompous monologues. “To be or not to be.” Something-something. “Alas, poor Yorick!” Grumble-grumble. He promised Zoe not to leave for smokes. She chirped felicitously when the guy behind the popcorn counter flirted with her and asked if her dad wanted anything to eat or drink. The butcher coldly shrugged his shoulders and then Zoe stepped into him all haughty and kissed him on the lips in full view of everyone. “Don’t forget my change, buster,” she said to the popcorn guy, who’s face turned beet red as he rolled his tongue back from the counter and palmed Zoe the money.

“Toronto’s not much different from Grimsby, is it lover?”

“I guess not, kiddo.”

“Is Quebec any better?”

“You bet it is darling.”

“Take me?”

“Some day.”

It rained all the way back home and the butcher and his little baker girl romped to Marquee Moon while the ’68 burned up the asphalt. They made love in the car overlooking Port Dalhousie, the sweeping light beam illuminating their ardent expressions for a brief moment in the darkness.

“I love you,” she said, and tears ran down her roseate cheeks. He cupped her pale slender neck. There was nothing for it but to go down with her, to give himself over to the tidal waves. He drank deep from her lips and forgot himself all over in the merciful waters of oblivion.

“There’s no need for that kind of behavior, Jack,” said Cross distantly, tossing his two-cents into the fray, affecting personal injury with a sad sympathetic expression. J’adoube. The stock in trade of a glib union negotiator.

“Okay, here’s how we’re going to do things,” Ratched resumed, endeavoring to regain control of the room. On the wall was a framed photo of Ratched on a pier holding up a big fish vertically from a chain, a bass or a pike. Further down, there was picture of his smiling, four-piece family before the mint R.V. on a camping trip. “I’m just going to get to the point here. Jack, we were willing to tolerate your shenanigans as long as they were small fry. But this we can’t ignore. You’ve royally fucked up.”

“Get to the fucking point,” the butcher said. Even though he had figured out the destination of their chinwag, he still was eager to know for sure what dirt they’d managed to scrounge up, so as to measure the allegation, parry it, and then bat it back with extreme prejudice. Like a seasoned poker player who’d seen the flop and raised the ante, he now anticipated the river card to lay his next bet.

“You fucked up with that bakery girl, Jack. We got video of you and her in the parking lot,” Ratched said with visible discomfort.

“Is that right?” the butcher answered and there was something melancholy in his voice, a frog he needed to clear, a tell he needed to restrain.

“We don’t see any reason to involve the police at this juncture. But you’re done here, Jack. You have no business being with us any more,” Ratched concluded. Longsteifler scanned his subordinate with pleasure. Cross held his neutral gaze to the floor distractedly.

“Bullshit!” the butcher shouted contemptuously. “Cross, you got nothing to add? Don’t my ten bucks a week purchase me any defense from the union.” Had he anticipated this turn of events, had he sensed the accusation beforehand and was now merely playing the part of the hunted? Weak means strong and strong means weak, a rule of thumb at the poker table, but this game was more complex. Perhaps a new set of rules were required, a new measure of inquiry needed to assess the broad spectrum of tactics across the board.

Ironically, Cross was startled by the mention of his name in the same breath as the union. He snapped out of his daydream and scrambled to contribute to the conversation in a graceful manner. The problem was he had nothing of value to say at that precise moment and he knew the butcher would light on that fact in an instant. He didn’t want to arouse the ire of the butcher any further than he had already by being present in the room. There was also the ethical matter of the butcher being a loyal member of the union for the last two decades, a fact that made Cross feel superficially indebted to the butcher and obligated him to respond judiciously.

First he simulated a look of profound interest, of deep absorption, like he was resolutely wrestling with some portentous moral dilemma, and then a stern mood washed over him like the bracing splash of aftershave. He shook his head and opened his mouth with grave import.

“He’s right, Jack.”

“Get this asshole out of here!” the butcher erupted. “I don’t need his help.”

“Hold on a second,” Cross pleaded, his little satiny hands held aloft in supplication. “I didn’t mean—what can—?” he said in rapid staccato, hoping his earnest mien would fill the blanks. Beads of sweat were forming across his baldish forehead.

“Get him out before I defenestrate him out your window.” Cross looked to Ratched for counsel. “Don’t look at him, Cross, look at me! I’m the one paying your wages. Me and the rest of them ham-and-eggers down there you’re tweaking,” the butcher hollered, decisively pointing with both hands to the vitrine situated behind Ratched at the far end of the office. He hurled his fist at the door behind him and the door rattled in its frame. Longsteifler leaned sideways timidly, while Ratched made himself smaller in his chair. Cross, with his clammy hands still in the air, pushed himself back a pace from the butcher like a mime trapped in a box.

Ratched thought to call up security but resisted the inclination. Longsteifler thought about how much he hated being around these wheelhorse industry types, with their lunch-pail lingo and brown-bag attitudes. Things were much comfier at the head office. The air lighter. He could breathe easier. He despised doing the store tours. Walking the floor with Ratched and his ilk, the stock “guest” badge pinned to his sport blazer, the petrified looks from the staff filling the shelves, the damp jittery proletarian handshakes, it all amounted to nothing for him, a token for the workers, it nauseated him, the entire piddling pageant.

Cross pore through his mind, anxiously seeking for the definition of “defenestrate,” pronouncing the word over and over in his head, his internal lips and tongue masticating the word every which way it could turn, with little success.

The butcher turned the knob and opened the door. The fanfare from the hallway wedged in and trickled through the room like the ambient murmur of a river. “You!” he barked at Cross, “Out!” Cross peered skittishly at Ratched one more time and Ratched nodded in agreement. Cross cleared his throat, flattened his black polo shirt over his ribs with his perspiring hands, wiping them over the cotton material and leaving an alluvial imprint in their wake.

He made for the door that the butcher held open. “Good day, gentlemen,” he sheepishly uttered and exited without looking at the butcher who was scowling something fierce, lips held so tight they could have seared from the pressure, penumbral eyebrows engulfing the whites of his eyes.

“You too,” the butcher said to Longsteifler. “You ain’t got no business here.”

“What do you mean?” Ratched asked on behalf of Longsteifler, who was pressing his powdering gaze at the blood stains on the butcher’s cadaverous coat and apron. The apprehension Longsteifler felt, it was insensible to him, but it was there, large as an elephant in the room. He didn’t dare admit it to himself. Nor did he deny it. The cadaverous coat. The bloody apron. These were the accouterments of a primitive non-literate order that he could not understand. Maybe Ratched could speak the butcher’s language. He certainly could not.

“He ain’t union, he ain’t H.R. He’s got no business knowing my business,” the butcher said, still holding the door ajar.

“Eric’s here’s in an advisory role in lieu of Henry’s absence,” Ratched replied.

“His advice ain’t needed. Tell him to be on his way.”

Ratched and Longsteifler exchanged a terse look. A bleeping page over the P.A. cleaved through the silence in the room. “He’s right, Ted,” Longsteifler said. He nodded to Ratched and passed through the half open door, en passant, ignoring the butcher. The door slammed curtly upon his egress.

“Alright, Ratched, let’s have it already,” the butcher said, and then ambled deeper into the room, circling in front of the chair facing Ratched’s desk and fell onto it with a bowling thud.

“You’re one rude son of a bitch?” Ratched said.

The butcher leaned back into the stiff beige stacking chair, the sort of chair you’d encounter in a classroom, a similarity that likely informed the mind selecting the office chairs in the first place. The humiliating feeling in the principal’s office, that suppressing feeling in first period English or history, that was probably the intended goal of the décor. Now a grown man or woman, called into Ratched office’s, the belittling feeling of the chair, the beige plastic poking, jabbing, filling out your back, even if you’d done nothing wrong, cut down to elementary size, maybe secondary, presided over by Ratched in his executive, high-backed, rich-burgundy arm-chair, pneumatic seat height adjustment, waterfall seat edge for good circulation, tilt tension adjustment, brass armrest tacks, mahogany wood base with dual wheel casters, the boss of it all, the manila dossiers, the hefty binders containing the confidential history of the store and its employees, and the widescreen vitrine to lord it over them.

“Don’t I know it,” the butcher answered, and leaned back in his chair and when it didn’t yield to his weight, he rocked back harder, pitching the weight of his back into the beige plastic and it squeaked from the tension.

“You really think you’re something special, don’t you?” Ratched confidently declared, leaning forward in his chair. “You’re no cowboy. I worked stores out west. Calgary. Edmonton. Those some real cowboys. You? You’re just some union backed pepper. Nothing special.”

“So you’re a real stud hound, eh, Ratched? Sunk your spurs into some real good ones in Calgary? No need to fret. I’m sure your rodeo days ain’t behind you,” the butcher said.

“Yeah, but I’m not a fucking terrorist either,” Ratched snapped, losing control of his stung emotions, leaning over his desk with flattened palms, elbows pointing outwards.

The butcher halted his rambunctious rocking. The room was silent enough that Ratched could hear the butcher forcefully breathing through his noise. He continued. “Yeah, that’s right. We did our homework on your mother. The FLQ. Bombings, kidnapping, murder. That’s some messed up shit. That’s the kind of family you come from? No wonder,” Ratched said with righteous fervor.

The butcher exploded from his chair, fists bulging at the end of his white coat like two burly fisherman’s knots, but he paused at the threshold of action and considered, briefly, some bleak prospect, before leaning over Ratched’s desk, strong-arming the contents with a fluid raking motion, over and onto the floor with a loud crash, pencils over pens, dossiers, a calendar, a mug of cold coffee, which splashed all over the taupe carpet, and a picture frame, with a high-school graduation picture of Ratched’s gawky daughter, little bits of shattered glass everywhere. Ratched stood and unintentionally pushed the ox-blood armchair away with the back of his legs.

He reached for the phone and lifted the ebony receiver to his ear, nervously punching the three-digit extension to the security office on the ground floor. Before Ratched could connect, the butcher reached over the desk towards the phone and wrapped the extension cord around his index finger, tearing it from the wall. Ratched backed away from the desk even further, pushing the high-backed armchair all the way to the vitrine, still holding the listless receiver to his ear, even though the phone was amputated from the line.

The butcher lifted himself from Ratched’s desk, maw jutting out, and for the first time Ratched confessed to himself that he was afraid of this man, in these close quarters, without Longsteifler and Cross in the room, anything could happen. Things weren’t going according to plan. His strategy had derailed with the desk clearing.

On the other hand, things were going exactly as the butcher would have liked. It was his mode. To lay a violent shadow down with his body language, it was a natural tendency for him, precisely because it disrupted the chemistry of others. He’d learned that fact long ago. How to situate a multi-pronged attack, in poker, snooker, boxing, hockey, it was second nature now, a particular tone he’d strike, a specific gesture he’d drop, a peculiar expression he’d wear. Even in anodyne everyday exchanges, he rarely turned off that aspect of him that domineered over others, that measured and aimed to master an opponent in a matter of seconds. It was his bread and butter. How he made a difference in things.

“You were saying something about my mother,” the butcher said, looking Ratched in the eye, watching him break eye contact to survey the wreckage around his desk. “Continue.”

The butcher strode over to the wall just beside the desk that housed the picture frames. He stepped onto the toppled pencils and a couple of them snapped under the weight of his boot. Beside the picture frames of Ratched with the fish, and the four-piece family before the RV, was a certificate of “Excellence in Management” that Ratched had won at some supermarket award gala in the 80s, when he was managing a store out West.

The butcher jabbed his craggy fist right through the narrow sheet of glass, smashing the thin pane, and pulled the parchment from the glass with his fingers. He looked at the certificate and made as if to read it, but then abruptly crumpled it with both hands, making short work of it. Noticing his knuckles were scratched from the blow, he wiped the accumulation of blood from his hand with the crumpled parchment and then he threw it at Ratched, striking him on the chest.

Why can’t they hear the noise, Ratched thought, referring to Longsteifler and Cross. Neither man was within earshot. Longsteifler had gone to the hot deli for a cup of Joe. Even though he detested the in-house recipe, he needed it to calm his nerves. Maybe a cigarette after. He thrust his granulating gaze to the cash lady, atomizing her to the quick, and she trembled like a flickering flame upon returning his change. His radiating leer still worked. Cross had gone to the washroom to relieve his tension in a different fashion.

“You want me gone? You want me out?” This was where the butcher had been steering the conversation all along. The shawl of acrimony, the Vesuvian eruptions, the stone-cold stratagems, they were all negotiating tactics, trenchant avowals of blunt compromise that were misunderstood by the scheming trio as salami tactics, that is, as a divide and conquer undertaking, with the butcher attempting to eliminate the opposition, slice by slice, in order to dominate the room. On the surface, this was true. The butcher had cleared the table by cutting off his enemies. But the butcher’s true goal, after he realized what they’d dug up on him, was to have a one-on-one with Ratched.

He’d intuited the accusation fairly early into the proceedings and he knew that Longsteifler and Cross would only complicate things. Management wanted him gone. They’d always wanted him gone. It was just a matter of time before they’d manage to get him gone. The butcher had had a good run. But he couldn’t evade them forever. Especially with the way he carried on, speaking his mind, doing things his own way, battling policy and company standard when it conflicting with his way, “the better way.”

Whenever they’d tried to come down on him, he’d incessantly maneuvered the union rules to shelter himself, finding the loopholes in their disputes against him, marshaling support from his coworkers, unflaggingly demonstrating that his method was indeed the best. He always had his nose to the ground, expecting the worse, on the lookout for what was coming his way. You don’t live and work like the butcher did without having to pay the price. Everyone has to pay the piper someday. The butcher was now ready to cut a deal.

It was unthinkable for him. But from the moment he laid hands on Zoe, from the moment he let her reach into his pants in the janitor’s closet, this day was coming. A wolf only needs to get trapped once. When she put her mouth on him, when he leaned back and allowed it, with the brooms and mops as witnesses, his destiny was set in motion. Fait accompli. It was a done deal. And then Ratched had to go and mention his mother. It was a sore spot. She upped and disappeared over twenty years ago, without a trace. They didn’t know if she was dead or missing.

“Gimme fifty thousand as severance and I’m history.” It grieved the butcher to utter these words, wounded him in places too deep for language to convey. It was akin to selling out. But he had to take care of his own, to cash-in his chips while there was still a prize to be had.

For almost twenty years he’d made Loman’s his home away from home. When he’d left Quebec in his twenties, he was looking for the good fight. He’d come from a culture of bohemian utopianism. La belle époque. Anti-authoritarianism, free love, cooperative business enterprising, acid tests, and other hipsterisms survived the trip from Quebec, but the non-violent means he’d left behind like a shed skin.

He’d left behind the Quebec Aces and his dream of ever playing for Les Canadiens, his father, Professor Emeritus Etienne Louis, renowned Classical Civilizations expert, his mother, Winona Louis, who had disappeared, willingly or unwillingly, without a trace in the early 70s, the imprint of her left behind in their two-storey family home in L’Ancienne-Lorette, which his father had so painstakingly maintained in her absence, scholarly, like an archivist, as a means of keeping her shadowy presence tellurian, grounding the lingering residue of the life she had once lived in familiar objects, obsessively containing it within the articles she’d left behind. Heat, light, oxygen, dust, these were the enemies that degraded her memory.

He’d left the memories of his lovers, his neighborhood friends, the games they played, a Bruegelian cornucopia, the schools he went to, the hockey rinks he played in, the goals, the fights, the glory, Les Glorieux, the Forum, the malls, the playgrounds, the sights, the sounds, the smells, he’d left it all behind, his whole Quebecan life and all of its carnival lights.

Leaving Quebec was like dying and coming to Toronto was like awakening in some leaden-grey Dullsville, a placeholder of a city, Dog River, Moose Fuck, Upper Rubber Boot, with your memories of having lived a sensory life intact, but without anything quick or tender within you to trigger a response. Living in the ashen past was the best most expatriates could effectuate. The butcher still managed to make the best of it without ever attempting to get back to the land of the living.

“There’s nothing for you,” Ratched mumbled, putting the comatose receiver down on the shambles of his desk. “Loman’s denied you any such package. The union too. They’ve washed their hands. There’s nothing.”

“I’ll get my lawyer to—“

“You’ll get your lawyer to do nothing,” Ratched cut in, and the butcher allowed him to complete his train of thought, despite the fact that his voice trailed off between clauses. He was starting to regain some of the equilibrium that was scattered along with articles on his desk and wall.

“Loman’s gonna spend all of it, whatever your severance package may have been and more, on lawyers and judges, he’s prepared to spend it all, just to make sure you don’t see a single penny. You know how many friends he’s got in Parliament? I warned you. You’ve made this personal now. The richest grocery tycoon in the country and you wanted to take him on with your piffling shit. You’ve got his attention now.”

And that was it, the trump card Ratched had jealously stored up his sleeve for the last few months, until everything was complete, until every notable shred of evidence had been collected and assembled in his dossiers, the lunch-hour quickies in the butcher’s Camaro, the video footage of the 68’s gentle oscillations in the parking lot, the butcher’s unlawful drinking and smoking on the job, time theft, truancy, insubordination, violations of company policy, suspicions of back-door dealing, sweet-hearting, corrupting the youth, you name it, all diligently recorded. Even the hush-hush material they finagled from installing a secret closed-circuit camera in the backroom washroom behind the thick-rimmed, two-way mirror, a clandestine contrivance Loman himself had cash financed. Like in the boiling frog parable, the butcher had been submerged in tepid water for years, but temperatures had now become scalding.

He started walking around the perimeter of the desk towards Ratched, who cowered in the direction of the wall, not knowing what to do and expecting the worst. The butcher drew near to him and pushed him back against the wall with a convincing thrust to the chest. But it wasn’t Ratched he had set his sights on. It was the executive armchair he wanted, which he accosted with great vehemence, lifting it from the ground with a deep squat by the quadruped mahogany base. He placed one hand on the hub below the chair, the spoke print embedding onto his palm, and the other on the shifting telescopic column cover, hoisting it waist-high and leaning the seat-cushion against his chest and shoulder.

He took a couple of strides toward the vitrine that dimly reflected the scene from Ratched’s office and he saw the heavy Saturday traffic below, floor abuzz with the Grimsbian throng busily shifting and swerving their shopping carts across the thoroughfare at the foot of the lobby. Without a second thought for the welfare of those below, the butcher effortlessly lifted the ox-blood chair overhead and heaved it towards the vitrine, wheels squeaking amid the casters, where it made a great shattering splash and fell twenty feet below in a shower of spidery glass, luckily landing in a vacant spot between the shoppers, hitting nothing but the bare waxed floor.

The ergonomic design busted instantly, cracked through the gas-springed column, which had separated from the mechanism plate, causing the chair to fold into itself, legs dichotomized from the body. There was all kind of clamor from the floor, screaming and shouting, bounded by a wave of general panic. Somebody had mistakenly taken the chair for a body, thinking somebody had jumped from the second-story and broken in half at the waist. Another shopper dropped her basket to the floor, scattering her groceries wide, a flotilla of bright oranges pitched towards the broken chair and glass debris. People were pointing up to the broken vitrine. A deep and resounding drone circulated amidst the thunderstruck shoppers, reaching up all the way to the ears of the butcher who was peering through the breach. Ratched remained against the wall, mouth agape, stupefied like King Knut before the tide.

Several Loman employees were drawn to the scene like bees to honey, waywardness, disorder, delinquency, honey to worker bees. The meat clerks saw the butcher overlooking the accident from the fractured vitrine. He’d paid no attention to the razor-edged glass that hung overhead and cut the back of his neck as he withdrew from the rupture. Blood began to coat the back of his neck and brook down his throat and collarbone, making the wound look more serious than it actually was. Security finally burst into the office, arresting the black Goyan tableau.

IV

THE SECURITY GUARDS WERE WALKING THE BUTCHER DOWN two flights of stairs to the security office in order to contain him until the proper authorities arrived. They walked on either side of the butcher, two strapping men in their twenties, but they did not dare to touch him. He walked unaided, tending to the wound abaft his neck with some plicated paper towel he’d obtained from the men’s washroom just down the hall from Ratched’s office. All of the patrons on the second-floor stared at him with amazement as he was led past their parasoled lunch-tables. The collar of his coat was red-branded.

On the landing separating the open-concept staircases, the trio walked past an elderly lady who was minding her own business, head down, feet fixated on the tiles, eyeballing her loafers and utterly absorbed by what was sliding down the length of her heel. The butcher’s nostrils were overrun by the stench of fresh shit. He looked at the old lady who eased and guided the warm pile down her boot by tenting the pleat in her pant. Le esprit de l’escalier. When she was finished with her mishap, she swiftly absconded from the mezzanine, walking up the next flight of stairs, indifferent to the steaming muck she aborted on the landing, and made her way to women’s washroom past the lunch area.

By this time, security had ushered the butcher near the scene of the accident. The cleaners were busy sweeping the debris together in a circular compass around the disjointed executive chair. Employees from all over the store were gathered at the scene. Friends of the butcher. The butcher’s cabal from the meat department caught sight of him passing the wreckage and ran up to him with concern.

“You okay, boss,” said Atman, the young Indian boy who the butcher had taken under his wing for the last couple of years. “You’re bleeding,” he said, pointing to the butcher’s neck that was overrun with blood.

They were a strange pair, but they worked indefatigably well together. The butcher never having to repeat his commands twice or question Atman’s obedience. The young man eager to learn and improve himself, a blank slate for the butcher’s manifold experiences and ideas. He’d bucked his own father in order to learn from the butcher. Dropped any plans of post-secondary school and taken any shifts directed his way. Abandoned shifts, sick calls, last-minute additions, if he got the call, he’d be there before you could snap your fingers. Sometimes he’d drop by on his days off just to see how things were running. If the butcher needed a quick face up, even off the clock, Atman would do it for him and then get promptly lectured. “Never off the clock,” the butcher would chasten, “That’s the beginning of thralldom.” Atman would take note. He was a vessel of the butcher’s. One of the many illegitimate sons he’d fostered at Loman’s over the years.

“I’m okay,” the butcher mumbled. He looked at Atman and Crawford, the avid new hire Atman was chaperoning. “Take Crawford and head to back to the shop. This doesn’t concern you.”

“But boss,” Atman started and then hesitated. The security guards stood idle while the meat men conversed. They all knew each other. Gone for coffee runs and smoke breaks together. But it was different now. They were departmentalized by the situation. It was in Atman’s eyes. One word, one look from the butcher, was all he needed.

“Atman!” the butcher growled with a deathly stare. With that, the apprentices quickly acceded, turned tail, and headed back to the meat department. While the meat manager was on vacation, the butcher was running shop, sending orders, delegating routine tasks, commandeering the schedule, directing staff. Saturday was a busy day for meat at Loman’s. The Spaniard cleaning crew would have this mess cleaned up in no time and things would return to normal. The eager Grimsbians were here to shop. A little accident would not deter them. The next meat crew would not be arriving for another hour. There’d be no relief until then. Atman and Crawford were at the helm now. They could handle it. They’d been trained to run things. Even without the butcher.

At the foot of the produce department, by the grape display, stood the receiver. He nodded at the butcher when their eyes met. The receiver looked wretched. The butcher would have patted him on the shoulder if he were beside him. They’d known each other since Wasaga, going back twelve years now.

“Always get the receiver on your side,” he’d taught Atman. They’d been through a lot together. When the receiver went through his last messy divorce and was displaced from his home for a spell, he stayed with the butcher for six weeks at his apartment on Davenport in Toronto, wrestling with Gregor for the couch. They’d drink at the Irish pub across the street, where, to the butcher’s glacial chagrin, the receiver karaoked to Sinatra deep into the night, his distended brioche jutting out. They’d go through a case of beer easy watching the butcher’s beloved Habs pound on his Maple Leafs, griping and moaning out the side of his mouth the whole time.

The butcher was there when his first daughter had suddenly died from ovarian cancer when she was just twenty-eight. They held wake together. Carried the coffin abreast. Buried his beloved Caroline, shovels in hand, shoulder to shoulder. And then they held their own totemic wake. They stayed up together for three long days, getting foggy and fricasseed in pubs all over town, kerb-crawling black velvets along Jarvis, parceling out the railroad bible wherever they could, in any after-hour joint they could smoke out. None of it was honorable, but the receiver had to get the devil out of him, before he did worse to himself. The butcher stuck with him the whole time and got just as bladdered. That meant a lot to the receiver. It meant the world. Now the butcher was going the other way.

The receiver wanted to back him up. He was older now, but he felt he still had a say in things. He never cared for the butcher’s politics. He’d listen to his idealistic prattle after a bottle of good whiskey, hearken to his palaver while in a deep and lush haze, but he’d never internalize the butcher’s whacko theories. It was the politics that would get the butcher in trouble one day, the receiver always said. It didn’t take a soothsayer to see that coming. The receiver didn’t like to mix politics and work. He left that task to the union. That’s what his dues were for.

Security led the butcher around the corner and through the exit doors, disappearing from view. The receiver took a deep woebegone breath and returned to his post. He hadn’t felt this awful in years. When he reached his desk, a team of drivers were waiting for him, jabbering and heckling him, pink manifests in hand. He didn’t hear a word they said. He walked past the unshaved, flannelled cluster, and through the blighted, wailing door. If he ever needed a cigarette this bad before, he couldn’t remember the occasion. The bright autumnal sun greeted him, braced him at the pit of his stomach like a guardrail.

The butcher was led into the office, one guard in front, one in back. He had no intention of staying put, no desire to talk to the cops. The one in front had his back turned to him. He didn’t have the time or energy to waste on a scuffle. They’re just kids. Put the fear of God into them, he thought.

Over one wall were a series of embedded screens in tile formation like on a checkerboard or with chicken wire fencing, each seven-inch monitor observing a different part of the store. There were cameras strategically barnacled all over the store. You had to fix your stare along the ceiling for a minute in order to find the ubiquitous camouflaged watchmen. The butcher espied the terminal observing the meat department. He saw Atman serving a customer some meat at the case. Replenish, the butcher thought reflexively. The command ran through his mind involuntarily like a sleep-twitch.

The butcher had been tight with the previous security team before they’d been transferred to a different store. They often drank together at a local pub after work. He even sparred with one of them regularly at Tully’s gym, the watchman being a decent amateur boxer in his own right, having fought Golden Gloves in British Columbia. Despite being twenty years his senior, the butcher held his own, pushing the youth away with his forceful counterpunches, punishing him whenever he got too close and too comfortable with devastating combination shovel hooks to the liver.

It so happened that that watchman had obtained some classified video footage and he landed it straight in the butcher’s lap. It turned out that Loman’s cronies had come to Grimsby nightly, over a two-month period in the Spring, to change the tape from the CCTV camera rig, which was covertly stashed behind the two-way mirror in the employee washroom. In their haste, they overlooked the fact that they too were being recorded by the ubiquitous eye in the sky.

Being shrewd enough to know an opportunity when he saw one, the watchman investigated the washroom, perusing the suspicious thick-rimmed mirror, which he adroitly removed from the wall with the toolset he’d retrieved from his truck, only to find the diabolical camera rig behind, recording away insensibly. Isn’t that what the executives at Loman’s always talked about? Opportunity? He removed the damning evidence from the camera and pocketed it. And replaced the old tape with a new blank one. Sure, Loman’s cronies would have qualms about what he did, sure they’d notice how vacuous the fresh tape was, but what could they prove?

Management transferred him to another store on a hunch. Maybe it was glitch in the camera. Or maybe somebody had got to the tape. Loman would murder them if he learned they’d botched this. It’d be their jobs and maybe even more. So they pulled some strings and transferred the watchman and his partner to a different store. And the watchman sold the tape with the damning evidence, nothing special, people using the can, washing their hands, fixing their makeup, not much else, to the butcher for a tidy sum.

It was invaluable to the butcher. His coup de grace. The centerpiece of his conspiracy against Loman. His ace in the hole. Taping people in the toilet was a no-no. “Let’s see the courts throw this one out. Let’s see Loman’s PR system smooth this one over.” Loman would come out in the media as no less than a nasty, depraved, weirdo-pervert. There would be no out-of-court settlement. But he still wanted his fifty thousand buy-out for his many years of loyal service to the industry. The butcher was committed to writing his own ticket all the way down the line.

He had to get out of the security office, quick, before the fuzz arrived. His mind returned to the Mark 3 attached to his calf. He probably didn’t need the blade against these guys, they were mere boys compared to him, puffy designer muscles notwithstanding, but once a strategist, always a strategist.

“You better lay a lick on us both, Jack,” the thick-necked, tattooed watchman said, looking the butcher thoughtfully in the eye. “It’ll look better.”

The butcher turned and looked at the watchman’s beefy, stubbly partner standing in the rear. He nodded his sweaty, close-cropped head in agreement. “Not too hard, though.”

V

IT WAS THE SUMMER OF 1977. Shoeshine boy Emanuel Jacques had just been murdered. The city was in uproar over how seedy Yonge Street was becoming with body-rub parlours and strip clubs. Shortly after, unrelatedly, the Charter of the French Language was passed by the Parti Québécois. And Jean-Jacques was looking for full-time work because he’d knocked up Niobe and had decided to stick by her. He came knocking on Loman’s door and the Balkan Bear answered the call with open arms.

Jean-Jacques was hired as a part time clerk but his gung-ho attitude put him on the map in no time and before long he was getting the forty-hour guarantee. He had to stand on his toes and learn on the fly if he was to compete with the other ham-and-eggers for the lock. The minimum wage in Toronto in 1977 was $2.65. His take-home pay, after taxes and union dues, was around ninety dollars per week. Loman’s was not in the habit of paying overtime so Jean-Jacques had to settle for the ninety and stretch his paycheck as if it were elasticated. He hadn’t left Quebec with very much to his name. He’d loaded the Plymouth Roadrunner to the brim on a Thursday, with a couple of suitcases full of clothes and assorted knickknacks, like his hockey gloves from his brief stay with the Aces. He had five-hundred dollars in his pocket and the crumpled phone numbers of a couple of contacts in Toronto, friends of friends, with places where he could crash until he set himself up.

Jean-Jacques arrived in Toronto towards the tail end of March in ’77. It was a brisk four-degrees Celsius when he pulled off the Don Valley Pkwy on Adelaide. It was seven in the morning and he was desperate for a place to sleep. Six-hundred highway klicks through the dead of night had left him a little fatigued. He hadn’t slept the night before either. Coffee and amphetamines had carried him across the freeway. Jean-Jacques dialed the scrawled numbers from his pocket and they rang again and again with no answer. He grew impatient with the rote noise and dove back into his orange Plymouth and parked on George Street across from the Moss Park Armoury to catch some shut-eye. He lived out of his car the first week, having only dialed his contacts once more, with the same droning result. He nearly froze the second night in his Plymouth parked on Washington Avenue nearby St. Thomas’ Anglican Church. He went out and bought a thick woolen blanket from Honest Ed’s the very next morning, shivering to the very core of his body, his teeth rattling like loose coins in a jar.

Jean-Jacques was at his lowest ebb. He didn’t leave Quebec on the best of terms. He was twenty-nine and perennially dissatisfied. With McGill and the Aces being firmly in the past, Jean-Jacques didn’t really have anything on the go. He was knocking about from job to job, parking cars, washing dishes, laying bricks, banging around town mostly, bunking with friends, living out of a suitcase. He was a jack-of-all-trades but master of none. It was his wit that separated him from others. At school, it was amazing what he could hear in a lecture and how he’d synthesize the material he eavesdropped upon, eavesdropping because was always doing something else in the class room, scribbling away some notes on foolscap he had borrowed from some cutie in the second-to-last row, drawing pictures of cars he wanted to build. It was the act of eavesdropping that developed a sort of talent in Jean-Jacques for free thinking.

He would never hear the lecture verbatim. It was like watching television with the radio on. The two mediums bled into each other but remained intact. And so it was with the lectures. He’d hear the teacher’s voice, but he’d mostly pick up on the cues and subtleties of the material, packing and unpacking ideas in the air with one part of his brain, while another embossed the hood curvature of some muscle car on paper. His train of thought hardly ever ran on a horizontal plane during his youth. It was like an expressionist painter landing in the Ashcan School, Jean-Jacques way of thinking was misunderstood and often lambasted.

His own father, Etienne, could not stand to have a lengthy conversation with him because they differed in so many ways. Where Etienne built-up to a point, slowly scaling to the tip like William F. Lamb, Jean-Jacques leapt from peak to peak like some skydive daredevil. Nobody knew how he did it. It was almost like Jean-Jacques tapped into some unconscious frequency that discharged the prolegomena of any conversation or discourse. This is why they couldn’t keep him out of McGill, despite the fact that he never did any homework or take any notes in class. He’d write essays on the day they were due without any preparation and ace them. He’d improvise his way through tests and exams like Charlie Parker flowing through a melody.

He played hockey in the same mercurial way, seemingly eavesdropping his way into the privileged conversation. He found a way to channel the talent of Aces alumni like Doug Harvey and Jean Beliveau and Guy Lafleur. He was nothing to brag about during practice and was rarely spotted anywhere near a gym conditioning himself. He was smoking when he was ten years old and snorting burgers, fries, and milkshakes on a daily basis. He barely sat still long enough to practice anything. He worked on cars all the time. When he wasn’t working on cars, he was racing his buddies on Rue Saint Paul, Rue Notre Dame, wherever the action was good. But he didn’t practice. He just threw himself into the mix and did that thing until he did it right. Lapalissade.

He played hockey like his idol, Maurice Richard. When the game was on the line, a fire burned within Jean-Jacques to rise to the occasion. Not that styled himself after “the Rocket.” Aside from the number 9 stitched across the back of his jersey, there was nothing imitated about his stride across the ice. He scored and checked and fought too much and too good. He was irrepressible when he jockeyed to the net. His ice pals called him “Caribou Rouge” or “Red Caribou” because he skated without fear and could not be stopped when charging to the crease, antlers down. He had a native intelligence for the game that could be not be taught. There was an economy and unpredictability to his on-ice motions. He didn’t play the game in any traditional fashion, which made him difficult to read. Was he a speedy power forward with delicate hands or a thug who happened to be in the right place, at the right time? His stats were too impressive to ignore for long. The way he scored goals, threw his body around, and fought, was special. He landed a tryout with the Aces for the ’69 season.

Jean-Jacques was invited to training camp in the month of September. He showed the letter to his father, who shrugged his shoulders and said, “What about school?” He let the letter fall from his hands like a deciduous leaf and returned to his study, shutting the door behind him. Poisoned by his father’s reaction, Jean-Jacques wandered the streets listlessly. He found his girlfriend of the time, Fanette Pare, at one of the local delicatessens, and they went for a walk to the park together, taking turns on the swings while puffing off Marlboroughs. They lay in the Autumn foliage, bodies half covered by the Maple’s honeyed blanket, and they spoke about the future. She was twenty, in her second year at McGill, majoring in linguistics. She had hoped to become a speech therapist in order to help people in ways she couldn’t help her brother, who was born with an unconquerable stutter and still living with his parents well into his forties.

Jean-Jacques only wanted to prove his father wrong and to stay true to the dreams of his youth. He reached back to himself at fifteen and eleven and seven, handing down the invitation to skate with the Aces and he felt collectively vindicated. Every homeward call he’d ignored while sporting on the streets, every grounding, every punishment he’d endured at the hands of his father, lectures about how he’d never amount to anything if he ignored his studies, words that shackled him to the brick and mortar of his neighborhood, were rungs on the ladder to the hockey summit. When he ran away from home at ten years, and raced down the streets until his little heart almost burst in his chest, he ran and he ran, the neighborhood chant in his ears, “Caribou! Caribou!” The police found him three days later deep in the forest, half-unconscious near the ravine, nearly dead from hypothermia. His mother tore at her hair and face at the sight of Jean-Jacques ashen complexion, a waking nightmare that never left her sight. He didn’t leave her side for a year after that. Taking leave from her career as a domestic violence counselor, she challenged herself to home school Jean-Jacques for a year. In that lost year Winona rekindled her connection to her ancestral roots.

Winona was of Metis descent and started to rethink what that meant when she sat down to develop a curriculum for Jean-Jacques. Ce que chante la corneille, chante le corneillon.Her father, David Asham, was proud Metis and refused to speak English around the house. He addressed his wife and daughter in Michif, a mixed language consisting of parts Cree and Canadian French and First Nation borrowings. Her mother, Roselin Melanson, was of regular Quebec ancestry, parents and grandparents both French Canadian. The marriage dissolved after Winona’s father disappeared when she was five. David left the house one day to get some cigarettes and milk and never returned.

Roselin remarried a few years later to a respectable Union representative in the textile industry. They raised Winona in their household until she was nineteen, when left home in order to attend McGill and study criminology. She got an apartment in downtown Montreal and worked part time as a waitress to support herself. She met her future husband, Etienne, at McGill in a Canadian history survey class. They married shortly after graduation and Winona never returned home. She never became a lawyer like she had planned but became a social worker instead and felt tremendous satisfaction giving back to her community. She gave birth to Jean-Jacques when she was twenty-six. After twenty-two hours of intensive labor, Winona rightly won the naming rights over her son and named him after her favorite French philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, trumping her husband’s Ancient Greek predilections.

She hadn’t thought of her Metis descent for a good long while. She had thought of her father over the years but he was a marginal figure in her life. She barely remembered him. Growing up, there were hardly any photos of him around the house. Roselin desperately wanted to forget about David after he abandoned them, destroying most of his photos in a hot-blooded fit one evening. He hadn’t been the best choice in husbands. He smoked, and drank, and gambled, and fought on a regular basis. For some reason he thought many of these things were a celebration of his Metis ancestry. He flounced from job to job like a nomad while Roselin held down the fort with her legal secretarial position. But he was handsome and kind to Roselin and irrepressibly romantic. Coupled with the fact that he was Roselin’s first love made him difficult to forget. But she managed to do just that after three long years without a single phone call or letter from David.

Winona started connecting the dots. She called Roselin and asked questions about her father. Roselin admitted that her father had attempted contact with her again maybe ten years after he had abandoned them. He had cold-called Roselin one night and they spoke briefly before Roselin told him never to call back again and hanged up the phone. David said he was living in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan and mining for a living. He had asked after Winona. Wondered how old she was and if she ever asked for her daddy. Talking about David brought Roselin to tears and Winona changed the subject in order to appease her mother, chalking her newfound paternal interest to mere curiosity. But it was something deep seeded. She felt that she needed to learn about her father if she were understand her Metis heritage. She had reached the phone operator in Saskatchewan and asked if there were a David Asham listed in Moose Jaw to which she received a negative. Her search died in its early tracks. Her next natural inclination was to study history.

She took Jean-Jacques with her to the Redpath Library on McGill’s campus. She pointed out the gargoyles perched atop the roof and spun delicious stories for her little son. They spent long hours together in the beautiful Romanesque halls of the library. Winona reading books like The History of Canada by William Kingsford and the Chronicles of Canada by Wrong and Langton. Jean-Jacques was nose deep in Action Comics #241, “The Super-Key to Fort Superman,” which was the first appearance of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. He was happy to be away from school. He missed his friends, yes, but the bespectacled teachers, the yellow classrooms, the grey hallways, they were a distant vinegary memory now, and he wondered how long these golden dream would continue. Those two months they spent together in the sunlit halls of the library, Jean-Jacques would never forget. Redpath, with its high Romanesque ceilings and long stained-glass windows, was his Fortress of Solitude and he felt a sense of peace and discovery there. It wasn’t long before mother and son together graduated to texts and decisions of more complicated import. Il faut réfléchir avant d’agir.

VI

THE BUTCHER DROVE ALONG THE QUEEN ELIZABETH to his home on Victoria Avenue. It was a twenty-minute drive to the community of Vineland where he was renting a 1300 square foot home with a barn garage. It was much too large for Gregor and him. But it was all he could find on the short notice he was given when Loman’s had transferred him to Grimsby from Thunder Bay. He talked the owner down a little from his original asking price and put down a six-month deposit. He didn’t intend to remain past the term, but Gregor and him liked it so much they’d decided to stay. They’d been living there for over two years now.

The three-bedroom house was close to town and to the store. It had an enclosed porch and a country sized eat-in kitchen. And Gregor finally got his own room. A family could live comfortably here. For the two of them, it was a palace. The butcher was paying more rent than he was used to, but considering the comfort he and Gregor were living in, it was well worth it. It was time they lived a little. The Spartan routine was getting a little stale. The butcher was even thinking of settling down for the first time in a long time. He could afford to buy the home outright with his savings. With the recession still scourging real estate, now was as good a time as any.

He had thought a good many things. How he could buy some chickens for the barn garage, install a coupe with some nest boxes and a few perches. How could set up his weights and his heavy bag. He could get his tools out of storage and pick-up restoring automobiles again. Plant a garden in back. The spare bedroom he’d keep empty just in case. But he didn’t dare broach the subject. Not even with himself.

The knuckles on his right hand smarted a little when he shifted the stick. He’d probably decked the watchmen a little harder than either of them would have liked. The butcher was never any good at pulling his punches. “Not too hard,” the guy had said. He fell funny when the butcher struck him, making a sort of whooping sound. They don’t make them like they used to. He’d probably take the guys out for a drink sometime to make amends. For now, there were more important matters to attend to. The back of his neck was stinging. The blood had run dry, but he still needed to take a look at it. He’d be in one hell of a mess if his neck got an infection or needed stitches.

He ran into Longsteifler in the parking lot as he stormed out of the store. He was having a smoke, pacing around the lot, so deep in thought he didn’t even see the butcher coming. The butcher edged up to him from behind, just a foot away from Longsteifler’s heels, and said abruptly, “You gotta a light?” Longsteifler flinched and turned to face his querier. He took one look at the butcher’s no-nonsense expression, yelped, dropped his cigarette, and turned to run. But it took a full second for that to happen.

When his loafers finally got the better of the asphalt, he sprung himself north in the direction of the fences, towards the highway, accidentally farting from the exertion, khakis flung footloose, dancing in the wind. He was panting like a dog as he accelerated past the buggy-boy, who laughed his ass off at the sight of Longsteifler’s wild, panicked dash, zigzagging around the cars that were blocking his lane. The butcher chuckled too and made a beeline to the ’68. He had to get home and batten down the hatches. There was a storm of trouble coming his way.

He was making great speed along the QEW. The posted limit was 100 km/h. The ’68 was pushing 140 klicks, practically chewing the asphalt in its charge. He couldn’t afford to be stopped by the cops. At these speeds—he wasn’t thinking. He was inviting the very thing he was running to get away from. His dour mood had gotten the better of him. The public deposition didn’t help, being removed by security, the familiar faces in the crowd, looking on, maybe even reprovingly. But that was all his doing. He was always grandstanding.

He always swore that when Loman’s finally took him down, he’d scare up a spectacle so large everybody would notice. With the inception of industrialization, fearful workers used to destroy machines by tossing their sabots, “wooden shoes,” into the machinery. The ergonomic chair pitched through the vitrine was no different.

The ‘68 skid into the driveway, stopping just behind the pickup, the ‘85 cobalt Ford F-250. He had to get things ready in a hurry. He wasn’t sure if the cops could find him, but he wasn’t willing to wager his livelihood either. He had to pack a bag and get Gregor out in a flash. He made for the side door, slid the key inside and stepped past the threshold. Gregor wasn’t there to meet him like he usually was. And there was a foul odor in the air. It smelled like shit.

“Fuck,” the butcher said aloud to no one in particular. “Gregor,” he called out. No response. And then once again, louder, “Gregor!” But again there was no response. No barking. Not even the sound of his paws rustling on the hardwood. The butcher flicked the light switch and turned to walk up the stairs leading into the kitchen. Before he reached the top, Gregor’s fluffy, salt-and-pepper face peered around the corner. His heterochromic green and blue eyes were glazed and panicked.

“Hey, boy,” the butcher said in a coddling way, slowing his step, preparing for the worst. He was relieved to see Gregor was alert. For a second there he’d prepared for life without him and in that second there was an eternity of dissolution. “What’s the matter? You feeling ill?” Gregor started to whimper. He was too proud to begin the conversation with his master that way. But now that the butcher had broken the ice, Gregor swiftly abandoned his stoic posture.

The butcher reached the top of the stairs and entered the kitchen. Gregor was lying on the hardwood, his paws shielding his master’s slippers. The stench of shit was overwhelming, suffocating the butcher’s olfactory, but he didn’t flinch. He was used to it by now. It was tracked all over the kitchen floor. “Fuck,” the butcher said and Gregor whimpered once more, lowering his head onto his paws, flattening his ears as if chastened by the butcher’s remark.

“It’s okay, boy,” the butcher said, soothingly, bending to stroke Gregor’s salt-and-pepper coat. His hind legs were soiled. “Can you get up?”

Gregor slowly rose to his feet. His hind legs were late to respond. The butcher lifted Gregor’s tail to see the damage, but the husky emitted a growl and lightly snapped at the butcher’s intrusive hands. “Hey now. There’s no shame. I’ll clean you up quick.” He gingerly led Gregor to the basement, towards the laundry room, which was a wide area with a drain in the floor.

The butcher attached the hose and started to rinse Gregor’s fur with warm water. He worked some shampoo into the fur and scrubbed it around with a soft brush, building suds all over the husky’s hindquarters. Gregor didn’t give him any more trouble. After brushing the mess from Gregor’s legs and tail, he rinsed him off, and rubbed some perfumed lotion into his fur. Then he toweled him off, drying Gregor’s coat as much as possible. It would have to do. He didn’t have the time to blow dry him.

“Gregor, you stay down here. I’ll come back in a minute.” The butcher grabbed a pail and filled it with water, one quarter of the way, and added a little hydrogen peroxide. He took the pail and mop and headed back upstairs to the kitchen to clean the remaining mess. He was careful with the hardwood just in case he decided to buy the place one day. Not too much liquid. He gathered the majority of the diarrhea with paper towel. When the floor was reasonably clean, he put the wet mop to work, making figure-eight motions over the open floor, side to side, overlapping each stroke and flipping the mop-head as he moved back. The peroxide was working on the floor, but it still made one hell of a smell in the dirty compartment of the bucket when he strained it. The butcher then went onto his hands and knees and dried the hardwood with some rags. He hoped the shit wouldn’t stain. The entire job took about fifteen minutes.

“The cops are coming and I’m on my hands and knees like some fool.” Or maybe the cops weren’t coming at all. The butcher had taken sufficient care to cover his whereabouts from the state. Loman’s did not have his current address. The Ministry of Transportation was out of sync. Ditto the bank. He had a PO Box for any mail. He paid the landlord cash. He had negotiated a special deal with him to keep the bills in the landlord’s name. He just kicked up a little extra in rent every month. The butcher took these additional steps to keep his identity secret just in case of situations like the one he was facing. You never know when you’ll need an extra half-hour to bathe your dog and clean shit off your hardwood when the fuzz is on your tail. Nobody had ever called the butcher careless.

Gregor had been recently diagnosed with bone cancer and the vet bills were piling like a bad case of hemorrhoids. He wasn’t good with illnesses and doctors. When he came down with some bug, he’d ignore the aches and pains and fevers and carry on with his work or stay home and drown it with a hot toddy. That wasn’t going to work with Gregor. Bone cancer was something the butcher couldn’t afford to ignore. Gregor couldn’t carry himself like he used to. The butcher found that out the hard way during their last hike through the trees.

They were racing up the muddy hills of Wilket Creek, past the wild mushrooms and sapling trees, when Gregor’s legs swept out from under him and he slid down the wet hill, unable to get back to his feet. He struggled in the mud, twisting and thrashing among the twigs and conifer, but he couldn’t regain his foothold. When the butcher had reached Gregor, he just lay there sagely in the muck. He bent to lift Gregor and the husky gave a start as to help but faltered. The butcher managed to lift Gregor half way up before slipping and returning to his knees. He groaned and dug deep and with a second effort lifted the sixty-two pound husky. It was a long sloppy walk back to the car. Luckily there were no other hills on the way. The butcher never broke stride once. Gregor placidly hung his head, peering at the moving ground below.

There were signs of sickness with Gregor long before the collapse at Wilket, but the butcher had ignored them all. He’d lost some of his prodigious appetite. He wasn’t as energetic through the trees anymore. And there were the occasions when he’d lost control of his bowels. The butcher turned a blind eye to all these things. He changed Gregor’s food brand. Chucked the Loman’s brand to the wayside in favor of some organic type mash that had flax-seeds and blueberries and oatmeal on the card for triple the price. When that didn’t work he started cooking for Gregor himself. He made stews and roasts that Gregor hastily gobbled up, which seemed to brighten his mood in the interim, but the end result was the same. Gregor was struggling to get by and so the butcher began to reconsider his policy of no doctors and no hospitals.

After the incident at Wilket, he took Gregor to see a veterinarian. The husky’s first ever visit. The butcher had patched up Gregor himself when the need had arisen. Cuts and scrapes he managed, but this was something else. The first battery revealed the cancer. It was waiting to be discovered in a sunburst pattern around the femur. The medicines the vet prescribed took away some of the inflammation and helped reduce Gregor’s pain. The next course of treatment would be more expensive and more intrusive.

The butcher had awaited the news in the waiting room of the animal hospital at Yonge Street. The vets weren’t expert enough for the task in Grimsby, so the butcher shelled out the extra dollars for Toronto’s elite. The place came highly recommended from the vet in Grimsby. He was a good and humble elderly man. He couldn’t help Gregor himself and thought Toronto might be the better option. The butcher agreed and made the drive with Gregor in the passenger seat. Gregor looked for rabbits along the highway whenever his pain subsided, sleeping the rest of the time, making soft afflicted noises whenever the Camaro hit a bump or changed lanes aggressively.

The butcher had a history of avoiding hospitals. He wasn’t present at the birth of his own son at Mount Sinai hospital. His wife had done it alone. The hospital air had anesthetized him: it had made him numb, made him forget his own body, lose sight of himself, wander from the ground of his being. So he’d wandered to a bar on Church St. and got drunk instead, watching his beloved Canadiens outlast Cherry’s Bruins in game two of the Finals. His indignant brother-in-law had called him at the bar when Aeneas was born, just minutes after Lafleur scored the winning goal in overtime. The bar had been full of queers who were eyeing him strangely because he seemed so out of place, but the butcher did not pay any attention. The Molson in his hand and Le Canadiens were all he needed to blank out his worries.

Nothing newsworthy happened at the animal hospital this time around. He didn’t bail for a drink at any of the local dives. He toughed it out, waited for the dreaded news, numbly flicking through the sports section of the newspaper. He read about how the Canadiens were retooling for the coming season after missing the playoffs for the first time since the ‘69-70 season. He was just twenty-one then. Playing professional hockey himself, a short stint with the Quebec Aces of the AHL. Rejean Houle was hired as GM for the upcoming season, replacing the famed Serge Savard, the Savard of the “Spin-o-rama,” who’d played with the legendary Canadiens of the 70’s, hoisting eight Cups in a little over a decade.

The butcher remembered that Houle was drafted first overall by the Canadiens in ’69 too. The butcher thought it was an omen. But he wasn’t sure what it augured. He figured things couldn’t get much worse. As long as the Canadiens raised a banner to the roof of the Forum every few years, things would be fine. As long as St. Patrick was tending the nets, things would be okay. Roy was the Canadiens’ link to the legends of the past. And he would pass the torch one day to the next French-Canadian hockey hero.

Even as a little boy, he felt his destiny was closely tied to Les Habitants. A lot of little Quebecer’s did. A winning season concealed many sins for the Province, lifted many a dreary day. It was ingrained in the culture, the red-white-and-blue of the hockey sweater. “Real battles were won on the skating rink. Real strength appeared on the skating rink. The real leaders showed themselves on the skating rink.” Les Canadiens were the peoples shining beacon. It was the team’s last year at the Forum. Next year they would be playing elsewhere. Sometimes things changed for the better and sometimes they just changed.

He thumbed through the news. His inflamed, sleepless eyes cast a wide net over the print, gathering prodigally. He nervously awaited the CT-Scan to conclude its investigation. Waited for the news that Gregor would need chemotherapy if he were to survive. If the chemo didn’t take, they would have to amputate. The butcher signed the dotted line for the treatment to commence. The amputation he wouldn’t allow. Truth was he didn’t like any of it. “Chemo.” The word alone made him want to break something. But he wanted to give Gregor a fighting chance. What was the alternative? He was probably tough enough for the alternative, the famed Alexandrian solution, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He signed the dotted line and several thousands left his hands. The chemo was to commence in a few days time.

He left Gregor in the basement while he swiftly packed a duffel bag in the bedroom. A change of clothes. Socks. Underwear. A comb. Deodorant. I need a bottle, the butcher thought. Don’t wanna get stuck in some hotel with nothing but cable and a minibar. Dressing for the cut. He lifted the duffel bag from the mattress and walked it into the living room. He had a fifth of Walker’s ready to go. He packed that. The first aid kit from the washroom. He took some cans of dog food from the cupboard and packed them as well. And water. He took an empty jug from beside the fridge and filled it from the tap. He took these supplies to the pickup. Gregor was intently listening to the stirrings of his master from below, but he didn’t dare leave the basement until the butcher came to fetch him. He was a loyal and well trained husky. He’d been having trouble with the stairs as of late. He just licked the fur under his legs contentedly, waiting for a signal from his master.

“Fuck, what about Crompton? I can’t backpedal now.” He opened the screen door and went back inside to the kitchen. He opened the fridge and took out a piece of meat from the back of the fridge that was contained in a clear, zipper bag. It was a cow’s tongue. He got it fresh the other day, special order, from a friend of his who worked at an abattoir. The butcher then returned to the bedroom once more and removed a type of whip from the closet. It was made from the pizzle of a bull. It was shaped like a corkscrew and was about 50 cm long. There was a black handle on one end, with a leather wrist strap. It had a tawny, ochraceous color like dried pasta. He walked back to the kitchen and slid a little over the drying hardwood.

He took the bagged cow’s tongue and placed it within a larger plastic zipper bag. He then opened the freezer door and took the ice tray out and broke some cubes into the zipper bag in order to preserve the tongue for the trip. It wasn’t a long drive to Crompton’s, but he wasn’t expected at the house on Niagara Stone Road for at least a few more hours, so he needed to preserve the tongue as faithfully as possible. It was nearly two in the afternoon. She was expecting him at six. Gregor and him would have to drive around for a few hours. He took the cow’s tongue and the bull’s pizzle to the truck and placed them away from the maturing sun, which was burning its brightest above the house.

He organized and maneuvered things around the truck, stuffed his necessaries under the seat and in the glove compartment, to make room for Gregor to lie down. He rolled the bloodstained butcher’s coat and apron he was wearing into a ball. He felt the Plutarch protruding, so he removed it from the pocket and tossed onto the dashboard. “Fate leads him follows it, and drags him who resists.”

He usually left these articles at work. Loman’s had a laundry service that took care of the soiled coats and aprons every couple of weeks. He threw the balled bloodied vestures outside the truck. He put the cow’s tongue in a small picnic cooler that he kept on the vinyl hump for emergency sandwiches and beer. The eight-inch, two-pound tongue fit snugly against the Molson. The butcher then heard something and halted the cleanup. Gregor had started to bark. The butcher paused and listened. Gregor didn’t relent. Something was going on. The butcher exited the cab backwards, walked back to the house and opened the screen door, poking his head in.

“What do you want!” the butcher shouted, annoyed with the husky now. Gregor didn’t answer back. The telephone was ringing. Gregor was merely alerting him. The tolling came from the kitchen. The butcher headed up the stairs and wavered before the black receiver. He didn’t have time to spare but not knowing would kill him. Who is it? That question unleashed a torrent of doubts and suspicions. The fuzz wouldn’t call ahead of time. The caller was insistent. The butcher hashed things over. He had to know. He lifted the receiver from the base but he didn’t say anything, holding his breath.

“Hello?” the voice said. It was a young girl’s voice. The butcher recognized her immediately.

“Zoe,” the butcher softly muttered into the receiver and breathed a sigh of relief.

“Jack! Where have you been? I tried you at work and Atman told me something bad happened!”

“Yeah, darling.” The butcher drew a chair from the table and sat down. He stretched his legs and squeezed the muscles at the back of his neck with his callused hand, avoiding the gash that was giving him a headache, the gash that was beginning to clot over. No stitches after all. “Where are you calling from?”

“From a payphone outside a restaurant. I drove out to get some lunch. I couldn’t stand it anymore on campus. It doesn’t matter. What’s happening with you? I’ve been so worried,” Zoe said breathlessly.

“Calm down, kid. Things will be just fine.”

“I hate it when you call me that.”

“I’m sorry. Zoe, I hate to do this to you right now, but I can’t talk.” The butcher was looking at the large oval clock hanging on the wall beside the cupboard. It was a ten minutes shy of two.

“What do you mean?” Zoe fretted.

“I have to go, Zoe. I can’t stay here.”

“Why not?” she throbbed. “I’ve been waiting to talk to you for days. I got a calling card and—”

“I told you to call me collect,” the butcher said, exasperated, sitting up straight in his chair in order to peak out the window. He’d left the truck door wide open. He didn’t like that. It drew too much attention.

“I don’t want to burden you.”

“You’re no burden, darling.”

“You mean it, Jack?” Zoe said, with a note of buoyancy in her voice, sounding less despondent. That’s how things were with Zoe. She wasn’t exactly high maintenance, but she was very emotional, highly sensitive to Jack’s manner with her. She could pick up so much information from his tone alone.

He wanted to get her off the phone and that drove a spike into her heart. It was the last thing she was expecting from him. She dreamt of him every night. Held onto everything she could from their time together in Grimsby. His smell and taste were fading fastest from memory. She could only recall those unconsciously. In her dreams. Where he’d sneak into her dorm, where men weren’t allowed, and into her bed, and he’d make everything all right. It was like falling into a bed of hay. An apparition of pastoral bliss. He smelled like October and tasted like May, brisk and maply, poured warm and syrupy over her, but fleeting too, like a favorite season, nature ignited at the fading of the year, one last harvest, the last dribbling hours. His voice thrummed in her ear like the wings of a honeybee, anchoring there, pollinating her imagination with a coddling intimacy that lay just beyond her grasp.

“You know it,” the butcher whispered into the receiver, trying to console Zoe with a soft velvety tenor, using as few syllables as possible to spare his nerves any further abrasion.

“You love me, Jack?”

“I can’t talk right now, Zoe” His patience ebbed while Zoe winnowed her feelings.

“Jack,” she pleaded, reaching for him with her plum breath through the austere remoteness, 2500 klicks away.

“Darling, we’ll talk soon. I got the fuzz on my tail. I gotta skip out.”

“You’re in trouble?”

“Maybe. I dunno. I can’t take a chance.” Just then he heard a car approaching and he perked up his ears, waiting for a sign, tires crunching the gravel, but the car simply drove past and he relaxed back into the chair.

“How will I reach you?”

“I’ll call you at the dorm. I have the number.”

“You will?”

“I promise. I’ll say I’m your father. I’ll call tonight. Or tomorrow morning.” The pain in his neck was getting worse, coursing up and down his spine, across his trapezius, down his arms. He massaged the crimping muscles with his fingers, winced from the aciculated tingling. His back was buckling. Not from the cut. This was something other. It was like getting your nerves crushed and twisted around with a vice grip.

“Okay, daddy.”

“All right now.”

“Is Gregor okay?”

“He’s sick, darling.”

“Again?”

“Uh-huh. I just cleaned up.”

“Oh, poor Gregor. I miss him so much. I miss you both so badly. I want to come home so badly, Jack.”

“It’ll be okay, kiddo. Just tough it out. I’ll be coming down soon.”

“When?”

“Soon.”

“Why don’t you come right now?” She was squirming around a point she wanted to make, torsade de pointes, frustrating him as a result.

“I can’t, darling. I got things to sort out first. But soon.”

“Leave your shit and drive down. If you leave now, you’ll arrive tomorrow afternoon. We can find a hotel nearby and make love all night. I’ll even skip class the following days. We’ll have breakfast, bacon and eggs and apple pie, and then go see the mountains. Gregor can run around and breathe in the fresh Rocky air. It’s Grimsby that’s making him sick, Jack. I’m telling you. A husky needs pure mountain air.”

“Zoe, I have to leave. The fucking cops are looking for me. We’ll talk about things later. Vis-a-vis.” The butcher usually held back any French idioms from creeping into his speech. He’d trained his mind to repress that aspect of his culture. His lips, tongue, and vocal cords followed suit. Once in a while they rebelled. Once in while some jarring but occasionally mellifluous patois crept through the cracks.

“What happened, Jack? What did you do?”

“Not now, Zoe.”

“Jack.”

“Not now!” The butcher slammed the receiver down. “Goddammit!” Gregor barked resoundingly from the basement, wary of the noise. The butcher bent over himself, trying to outmaneuver the agony of his back. Where’s it coming from? It was shifting its circuit now, the needling pain was radiating from the center of his chest and he met it with his fist and pushed against it, clenching his jaw to meet the ascending pain, which was working through his molars like serrated floss. He needed to lie down, so he pushed the chair away, which teetered from the force and fell sideways onto the hardwood. He lay on his back, trying to catch his breath and temper the cutting paroxysm that had seized his body. This attack was nothing new. He’d had them before. But they’d gotten worse as he’d aged.

He hadn’t been to a doctor for a consultation. He’d figured there was bound to be a toll for the way he lived. And what could the doctors say? Cut back on the smoking, the drinking, the moonlight trysts. What else? Some other facet of his hard and fast living that he’d have to moderate, making a commitment to change, filing off the edge of his lifestyle until his indulgences were just nubs, that sort of thing, a prescription, a meal plan, a gym membership, some quite palliative functioning for a change. The roughhousing was catching up to him.

“Woof-woof!” The chair hitting the hardwood had more than alerted Gregor, it had sprung him from his convalescence, and he limped to the stairs. The butcher didn’t have a voice to cry out with. Gregor was going to attempt the stairs. The butcher heard him stirring below. One paw after the other, full of trepidation, Gregor lifted himself up the first couple of stairs. He’d taken a mean spill the last time. Slid down the entire flight as he was descending for a patrol of the basement. He lay there for hours before the butcher had found him stewing in his own filth. So humiliating for a dog of his stature, of his exploits, who in his youth had stood up to any alpha, no matter the breed, mounted any virago, hightailing it with the best of them. He still had his balls. Even though he didn’t have much need for them anymore, he still intended to make use of them. He was halfway up the first flight when he decided to cry out to his master once again. He planted his paws and raised his head, barking loud and hearty.

The butcher could hear Gregor clambering over the steps, but he couldn’t muster the strength to halt him. The pain in his chest and back had ossified his lungs. He had to force the tiny little fiery airways open, cranking the bronchioles apart. He tried to breathe deeply but his back flared up like hot coal. There was no use fighting it. The attack had to pass of its own accord. The more he fought it, the worse it flared. He’d learned that lesson over the years. But if Gregor fell down the stairs again he’d probably have to be hospitalized, or so the butcher concluded, as he lay on the hardwood and stared at the infinitesimal paint nibs on the ceiling. He was sweating profusely. He wished the kitchen fan could just turn on with a mental command.

The stairs creaked as Gregor scaled them. The butcher would have chastised the husky if he could breathe. There was no quit in Gregor. No yielding to the cancer that was eating his bones. And this made the butcher proud. He hadn’t abased himself before the disease. That meant he still had a chance. At least the butcher believed as much.

Gregor was panting and nearly out of breath. He conquered the last couple of steps and when he reached the summit he saw the butcher stretched over the hardwood. He carefully avoided the angled legs of the chair and sidled up to the butcher. He lifted a paw and made as if to pat him on the chest. The butcher turned his head with difficulty and looked at Gregor. He lowered himself at the butcher’s side, resting his head against the butcher’s elbow, mouth agape, purple tongue unfurled. Langue de chien, langue de médecin. Gregor’s warm panting breath thronged against the butcher’s ribs, which were moving in-and-out in a slow and pained cadence.

“It’s gonna to be okay, boy,” the butcher reassuringly murmured and they lay on the hardwood, waiting for the butcher’s equilibrium to be returned to him. And the clock struck thirteen.

VII

THE BUTCHER AND GREGOR DROVE OUT to Port Dalhousie together. The butcher had packed a few last things before they had departed, the most important being his notes, which he couldn’t believe he’d almost forgotten. He’d thought about it, his chronicle of Loman’s, as he lay helpless on the kitchen floor, the wretched minutes ticking by, and when he’d recovered enough to stand, he immediately retrieved it from the safe in the basement. Inside was the ‘51-52 “Rocket” Richard Parkhurst rookie card his mother had purchased for his twelfth birthday, which was probably his most prized possession in all of creation. There was also the bronze Attic helmet he’d purchased from a dealer of antiquities, which probably wasn’t authentic because the oxidization wasn’t even, and there were seams in the bronze, still he’d paid a hefty sum for it. There were no certification papers, the dealer confessing that it was stolen from a private collection. But that didn’t make it real and the butcher didn’t delude himself. It was still a fine helmet and he valued it. It had a griffin crest and an extended skull with a reddish-green patina. Helmets were usually passed down from father to son in antiquity. Or so the butcher’s father, Etienne, had taught him. It was a meaningful custom for the Hellenes, a point of pride and honor for the father, a right of passage for the son, a distribution of legacy for the bloodline. The butcher wanted to give it to his son when the time was right. He only hoped Aeneas would accept it.

The butcher’s kept his chronicle of Loman’s in the safe just in case he was robbed, it meant that much to him. The safe was hidden too, behind a faux polyurethane panel in the basement that concealed a tiny room between the paneling and the insulation. The space wasn’t much larger than a regular closet, only about three by five, but more than enough to retain some of the butcher’s valuables. Only the owner and him were aware of the vestibule’s existence. The chronicle was the only thing he’d written since McGill, which he attended for two disastrous semesters in ’71 at his father’s behest. After dropping out, he’d decided to leave to occupation of writing to others. “Life is action and not contemplation.” He hadn’t read Goethe, but chose a life of action nonetheless. Faire sans dire.

It wasn’t until the early eighties that he’d decided to pick up writing again. Considering all the crooked things he was seeing at Loman’s, he decided to write a journal, something to keep his mind busy when there was nothing else to do, when he was sick, or injured, or hung-over, or just plain tired. It began as a series of point-form anecdotes concerning the workaday grind. Something to remember his toils by. An afterthought. And then it became something different altogether. A type of journal that collated information about the corporate wrongdoing that he was privy to, like the contaminated meats that were sold during the Listeria recall in ’82, Escherichia coli and Shigella in 85’, Staphylococcus in ’88 and ’91, and then Listeria again in ’93.

Bloody diarrhea was one of the many symptoms of affliction. Fever and sepsis were another. Not all the meats from the cargo were tainted during a recall, so Loman’s sold them anyways, with discretion. They’d cook the books to cover any paper trails or they’d throw out a few token cases, and check off the appropriate boxes on the federal surveys. All the same, it was difficult to trace back the root of illness to Loman’s. There were other merchants on the circuit as well that could just as easily be blamed. None with Loman’s high falutin standards. They just couldn’t afford the fancy banners and outdoor light boxes to ward off suspicion. But you could say the ends justified the means. Loman’s was one of the largest employers in Canada. They even hired mentally disabled people to haul in the buggies from the parking lots. Equal opportunity and a slice of the pie for all. You just had to suffer gut rot once in a while to keep the dream alive. The butcher wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, especially if it meant nailing some part of Loman to the wall.

The butcher parked the Ford in Bugsy’s lot and decided to head in for a quick drink to take off the edge and kill some time before heading over to Crompton’s on Niagara Stone Road. It was only a quarter-to-three and the butcher wasn’t expected at Crompton’s home until six or so. He couldn’t wait that long. He had business to attend to in Toronto, or so he had decided while driving around with Gregor in the Ford, but he also didn’t want to leave Grimsby without seeing Crompton again, just in case it was the last time he’d be in town for a while.

When the husky began to stir after his master, the butcher instructed Gregor to remain in the truck, and rolled down the window a third of the way to keep the air fresh in the Ford. He wouldn’t be more than thirty minutes, directly after they could drive around a little more, perhaps stop by the lighthouse and walk along the pier, which would do the husky good to breathe in the fresh air, and be around the wildlife on the waterfront, the pigeons, the seagulls, perhaps spy some walleye or trout in the murky waters of Lake Ontario.

Bugsy’s was quiet and still and mostly vacant at this early hour. If it wasn’t for the televisions blaring the Blue Jays game and the commercials raising Cain, you could probably hear a pin drop in the place. The butcher headed straight for the juke box dropped some loose change into the slot, six plays for a quarter, and scrolled through a dozen records in a daze, slapped some buttons wearily before making his selections, Skynyrd, Nick Drake, Crosby, Stills, and Nash. Amid a bank of straw bales, white-boy blues, dobros and fiddles and the like, “Sweet Home Alabama” had just enough swing to keep his spirits bright-eyed, a smidgen of memory invested in the lyrics “Lord, I’m coming home to you” to remember past watering holes for no good reason, which is all the reason a man needs to feel nostalgic.

American Rose

“The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man.”

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell

 

AFTER CUTTING THROUGH A SLICE OF KEY LIME PIE in some dime store diner last week, I turned twenty one, and I figured it was high time I started stealing cars like my father before me, who was a car thief, and was shot cold by a lawman one night in a crazy getaway looking for the big score.

It was fairly late and fairly dark, and it started to rain over trees and trenches and trucks alike, but it wasn’t viciously cold or anything, so I left my varsity jacket unzipped, and let the tiny rooting fingers of rain poke around my neck and undershirt. I beat the pavement with my boots, which were ample and heavy, but well worn to make them feel like a second pair of socks.

My feet turned over street after street with a blind instinctive will of their own. I kicked around broken bottles unthinkingly in vacant alleys, and sometimes they’d shiver and explode like overheated lightbulbs. Broken bottles can reflect the street lamps and the moon in the most tricked out ways, trundling around and around like white smoke. I spied all kinds of locked doors set in the most bugged out places, in all sorts of sizes. I spotted little doors that no grown man could enter on his feet, and hopscotch hatches that led nowhere. Just outlines in the brick and mortar like the many hand drawn courts etched in chalk in schoolyards.

At the corner of Molton, I took a hard right, and tramped towards the outbuilding that was separate from the storage warehouses, and peered through the steel eyelets of the fence. On the other side of the barricade was a lot for luxury cars that were wailing to get out like children in an orphanage. Atop the fence were lines of barbed wire installed to give criminals second thoughts about climbing over, nothing a draped coat could not handle, so maybe the wire was only there to keep the many drunks and hobos from looking to put up residence in luxury for the night.

Protruding through the fence were some twigs with wild berries. I removed my lambskin driving gloves to get a finer grip on the fruit, and I plucked the blue, black, and red drupelets, dropping them onto my tongue, careful not to lose any. I chewed the sour pome, and imagined them to be magical fruit favoring me with speed, savvy, and cunning.

Inside the lot was a camera surveillance and guard patrol fitting. Standard security apparatuses. I should have probably scouted the place beforehand, and made ledgers and timetables in order to show the establishment all my hard work, but instead I removed my varsity jacket and draped it over the hooks. Then I gouged the steely apertures with my gloved fingers and went to work, trusting to the quick things my father knew, and left aside for me as a secret inheritance. Once over the barrier, I leaped down from the fence, silent as a feline, and glided toward the shadows to stay out of sight.

I did not fret over the jacket, even though it meant more to me than almost anything, because I knew it would camouflage well in the dark and sit tight until the return trip. The pitter patter of the rain ran interference for any harsh breaths that strayed from my lips, only for my weighty boots to fail me, turning mousy as I crouched against the brick of the outhouse. Some kind of sneaker may have been more silent, but yielded less in the way of traction and blunt force. The exhalation from my lungs hovered in the air like some double-crossing phantom that I could not suck back, so instead I thrashed it into a thousand particles with my fingers, and it writhed and rippled to retain its form before vanishing into the dark ether. I was more tactful with my next breath and emanated a finer waft through my nose.

My awareness of self and nature and location began to surge at full width, and not a second too soon. No detail was too small to escape my notice, and my mind absorbed all the nitty gritty like sponge at sea. My cauterized thoughts foamed from the spec-influx. Eyes, pinholed moons. Then to disrupt the violent locomotion of my thoughts, my ankles yielded, boots losing grip, crunching debris, and I dropped to my tail, pant bottoms wetted by the cement. I reached around to brush away the discomfort of the clinging sand granules.

All and all there were fifty-six cars in the lot. Eight rows deep and seven wide. There were Jags and Cadis and Beemers and Mazzis and maybe an Alfa or two. Nothing that I would drive personally, but nothing that I would not steal. The XJR would make a handsome prize. But the pick of the litter had to be the Sportiva Coupe. The Weber draft carburetors and the De Dion axle had me licking my lips. In my workshop she will be beautiful in her summertime state of undress. On the flip side of the outhouse, the corrugated metal door swung open. It was high time for the guard to make his dull round.

His jangling keys dangled in step, disrupting the silence of the night like a mess of baby birds in a nest of thistles. His swinging flashlight was the last living remnant of the disco era. Boots slapping the cement like factories of sludge. For some reason I could see everything happening before it happened, but I did not question that golden feeling because it was just one of those things. If I had remembered to sit for either breakfast or lunch, my stomach would not have been impersonating a laundry machine at this crucial moment, but who could afford to eat nowadays.

Windshields beamed like champagne bottles from the sleet. The guard started whistling Dixie, he said, to live and die in Dixie, away away. In a moment of deep transport, I believe us to be doing this together, like a criminal team, but maybe I was not being cynical enough. There was a weather helicopter pulsing and whirring the sky above like an eggbeater, and that is where my genius for maneuvering soared like a hawk. From that height, I could see all the angles. From there I could butter the toast on both sides. The guard had no chance with me, and to validate that boast I aligned myself with the shadow of the outbuilding, and dissolved there like a lunar eclipse, but the real moon did not follow. It just laid down bones and tiles across the parking lot, weary of its ephemeral nature.

The guard and I were looking at the same things, but we ticked in different ways. He was the jailor of the cars and I was their liberator. The barricaded lots around the city were the many prisons, but there is an escape plan for every Alcatraz. We were reading the clues to the mystery in reverse order. The crime had yet to happen in his book, while in mine, it was the spark plug of all my moments, which were only now occurring because they had always occurred, but probably not in the same order. I thought to myself, I had better look for a pattern in the guard’s motorized beat, so I crabbed towards the edge of the outbuilding. There I found a wide view of the parking lot, and I thought to myself again, hey, I can easily beat this guy. He was ticking off boxes on his ledger and turned in my direction. I inched my face back a little from the threshold to avoid his gaze, and finding nothing to occupy his attention, he turned to pace southward, unconscious of the high stakes game.

He was keeping time for the establishment like a metronome. By his next trip south I would be in the security office combing through the closet for the right key. Box twenty-nine on his ledger was the Jaguar X308 Sport. Twenty-eight was the BMW Z8 roadster. I made light tracks toward the office that vanished in my absence like stones skipping over water. It would get ugly fast if there was anybody else in the office, but sheer dumb luck counts too. To keep my own foothold in the game, I began a subliminal toll of the cars along with the guard. We had reached box twenty-six, and he ticked off the square that represented the Masserati 3200 GT, and I continued to keep time with him, tick tock, tick tock. I fox footed the lane that was a dead band to the camera.

Once I got near the door there was the old how do you do, but chances were there was nobody inside even monitoring, and even if there was, I would probably catch them dead to rights when I crashed the place, and subdue them, if that was the shot, otherwise a blind camera was as meaningful to me as a dead camera. At the foot of the open door, the fluorescent light cried murder, but it fell on deaf ears altogether. The camera copied my likeness into a form that would probably outlast my flesh and bones by a long shot, existing in a green zone like a phantom, long after the volcanoes had burped up the last of their killing ash.

I stepped past the open door, hurdling all of myself over the doorstep for good luck, and I was correct once again. There was nobody in the backroom at all. But that’s how the die rolls when you’re lucky. Inside there were flickering television screens and a mute radio. A red telephone with a strip of scotch tape above a row of buttons, blinking and then unblinking. Crinkled newspapers scattered all over the console. A buzzing computer spitting out heat. A microwave with the door left open and nuked spotty with dried sauce. A mini refrigerator sitting on the floor like a mutt on a short leash. A mounted closet full of dangling keys like cherries ripe for the picking.

The number nine key in the closet belonged on the lobe of that sleek little candy Coupe in the parking lot. I had a date with destiny tonight, deciding then and there to drive past the diners, past the bars on Harlow, with my arm around the passenger seat of the coupe, showing off to those juiced, Friday-night, Notre Dame boys. I always hated the Notre Dame boys. More so back in the day, when I was a starter for the Raiders. Like my dad used to say to me when I was little, you are Terry fucking Rose. The Notre Dame boys will say with their eyes, Terry fucking Rose, all American, the son of the car thief.

At car sixteen, the guard ticked off the box that represented the majesty of the Alfa Romeo Scighera. In the two dimensional world of the guard, and the establishment that molded him, the Alfa Romeo is just a bunch of lucrative mechanical parts welded together to be sold. At the end of the day, it is the same establishment that stamped its black mark on the necks of so many of my friends from Riverdale, and twisted them and wrung them out. That is why I dropped out, and not even to alternative school, but all the way out to the gutters. I saw it coming a mile away, and I escaped without no brand, no logo.

By the logic of the establishment, no car riches can bleed past the page. That is why those tick boxes are black, black like the barricade around the seat of a monastery, none may enter and none may escape. Except I have the number nine key in my possession. One of the hidden keys of paradise. The guard will attempt to defile my Sportiva with his pen stroke. Pouring black oil into her well, for that is how the English enslaved the ladies on the highlands, taking their virginity with ledgers and registers and pen strokes. The world is a strange place but there are forgivenesses even here. You may even crack open the odometer and roll back the numbers.

If I were captured in this two-dimensional world, and this were my prison cell, how would I survive? Would I come to know its coolness by lying on my side on the floor, or by the static fan that is unable to circulate? Stale air sparking with reflux from the televisions. I heard it like a fly contained in a foam-drinking cup. The latte room radiating color like a bruise biting into a shoulder. I said a prayer, brother brother, leave a light on for us. I looked at the television, and the pixels showed the guard making his final sweep of the lot. Number four was the Mercedes SL280, worthy only of the urine of a hobo. The guard’s image on the screen was like a childhood dream now shattered. If mirrors did not work on vampires, what of garlic and wooden stakes, and what of the holy cross?

I thought to myself, the guard will reach the end of the light spectrum, and I will see him doing things through the concrete wall like in a holy vision. He will turn East, like a godless Mohammedan, dark eyes to the top of the fence, spotting my varsity jacket tangled like a soldier in the barbed wire, and then he will finally put two and two together. By the time he does that I will be behind the wheel of my Candy Coupe like a bat out of hell.

The tyranny of Dog himself with all the plagues of Egypt, you know, the frogs, the lice, and the locusts, could not pin my shoulders to the ground. The Gods must be canine, for the hairs stand up on the back of my neck every time that wicked wind from the West slams me against a wall. I do not make bargains with the world. I misunderstood the Sunday school teachings by a landslide, and still only escaped by a hair. Dog this and Dog that. Canines and felines are separate classes of man. Is Dog alone the prolific? I fled the doghouse of mirrors and surveillance, and darted out amongst the automobiles that were my brethren. The guard was merely human, for he did not see me, or hear me, or sense me, like I sense all terrestrial things. Feelings are for me like colors. If he were a vampire, he would be reddish like perfumed sealing wax. If he were a werewolf, he would be old silver like a tarnished spoon, but he is only human, so his color is mud brown like a russet potato.

He did not feel me slipping between the automobiles to my wheels of choice. He did not feel the agency of my superiority at all, which made him merely human. Sometimes vampires and werewolves were contracted by the agency, and wore long human disguises to walk in the thick of society undetected. They are top-drawer watchdogs, with eyes, and ears, and noses of the highest order. A ruptured eyelet from the fence gnarled my pant as I passed, and tore fabric and flesh, and the fence rattled from our brush, betraying my exact coordinates, except the guard’s senses were dull like a weatherman’s, too dumb to even catch the wind blowing. By the time the fence’s vibrations settled into inertia again, I was already twelve steps down the line. My gouged leg radiating pain with electric antennae pointing in every direction.

Automobiles hummed in the distance like waves seeking to draw me from the shore. Come sail away, they said, come sail away with me was one of my father’s favorite songs, and I nodded in agreement. The sea reflections in the waves spark my memory, said the voice, and I wondered how these things were stored away like keepsake trinkets, in awe watching them synch up at just the right time. When being good wasn’t enough, you needed to be lucky. But I courted neither mistress because I was born to drive.

Trudeau

“The condition of man…is a condition of war of everyone against everyone.”

Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

I

IT WAS ELECTION DAY IN GRACELAND. I had lined up to vote in the party room located on the main floor of my condo. By the time I had arrived, the queue had already hit the double-digit mark. The anticipation in the room was palpable like a suspended shark preserved in formaldehyde. It was big enough to eat you. I had never exercised my legal right to vote, but there was something electric about Grace Trudeau that made you stand up on your toes. There was a buzz about “Teenage Grace” that you couldn’t buy nor manufacture, although many had unsuccessfully tried, like Transhumanist Dan Matthews who was running for office with the help of his access control chip implants, “I was born human but I believe it’s something I have the power to change.”

I had been late getting to the voting room because there had been a traffic gridlock in the downtown core due to a major department store being blown up. It was probably an IED planted in a mock suitcase or a stuffed animal propped with a whammy charge, two of the more accessible, or mainstream ways, to stage a detonative event, I am told, which must have really hurt stockholders because it was right before the busy holiday season when the dividends were said to be greatest by the finance experts. There were singed mannequins all over the street for the bus driver to studiously maneuver around, or at least I thought they were mannequins, because there were so many scattered blackened limbs, many of which found their way beneath the back tires of the bus. There was no word on the final death and injury toll, or any update on police leads or apprehensions, leaving the spectacle up in the air without any real closure.

Under the umbrella of asymmetric warfare, an incognito terrorist attack is like an own-goal in football: the defending player who scores the own-goal in the football game is credited with the marker on the stat sheet, with an annotation to indicate the precise nature of the goal. In the absence of a non-state actor to take credit for the bomb, the first person handling the bomb on the pitch was likely the bomb technician from the EOD squad, so he or she pseudonymously gets the credit for the own-goal IED on behalf of the state, until the legitimate saboteur happened to step forward.

I’m secretly obsessed with all the terrorist activities occurring in Graceland, glued to my smartHub every free moment I get, whether it’s a break at work or during the daily zigzag on the bus, I can’t disentangle my thoughts from the news, and much of my time is spent keeping score in the asymmetric warfare that is as much a spectator sport as football, and nearly as national in these provincial times. It’s worrisome to be an expert because I don’t exactly know where I stand on the subject of terrorism. Am I a supporter of the subversives, a pillar of the state, or do I merely wish to be caught in one of these acts of sabotage myself? The latter idea concerns me most, precisely because it seems to fill me with the most gratification, pleasuring me in places I thought were long dead. Throwing bottles at curbs is a senseless act too but that doesn’t stop me from smashing soda against cement.

I pre-registered at the first table set up by the entrance. There were pamphlets and loose papers scattered all over the table top, and two ladies were sitting at the edge of the folding table: a young Indian/middle-Eastern girl wearing a burqa, who greeted me, and an older European-looking lady, who asked for my voting card, who’s halter top was filled with breasts that in no way could have been native to her slim frame, but I could not help looking down her shirt anyway. Her full and perky breasts may have been as real as those on a mannequin, but there were no way her nipples were falsies because they didn’t look remotely hard. Fake nipples are always erect because there is no way for the brain to communicate temperature to modified beaks. My mind promptly recalled a slideshow of “the fifteen hottest actresses busted with erect nipples” I saw earlier in the week on the Net, for the express purposes of cataloging and indexing content in my mind. At day’s end, when I finally retired to my den, I would be able to VR retrieve “Digital Contra Analog Nipples” content and academically masturbate at my leisure. It’s not as creepy as it sounds. Disciplined academic masturbation is the means by which I assimilate the deluge of the hyperreal-authentic-fake. My cock is an invaluable cognitive wand that counteracts my continuous partial-attention behaviors.

It has also been so long that I’ve been in a real relationship that I have only recently started to order sex toys in the mail because: A) it’s high time I reactivated my genitals to their original purpose, B) I’m lonely and I’m forgetting the reason for having genitals, C) I’m acquiring a comfort with my body in my older age, D) I’m finally ready to explore the possibilities of being a bachelor having a tryst with a credit card and cutting edge sex technology. I received a contraption in the mail the other day that could have been from Babylonian times, it was so intricately packed with hoses and suction cups and chambered inner walls. Unable to afford the interactive V-R cams from Amazon, I had to settle for the open-box clearance unit that was probably barely green-lit for commercial use. I’d read the instruction manual to the Geisha3000 three times before I built up the nerve to actually use it. When I finally unraveled the alveolar-colored wreckage from the oversized box that practically screamed fornication to the security attendant, who’s name I dutifully read from his name badge like a third-grader, I undressed and smoked a cigarette on my bed in advance of the coital experiment.

I had only bought the cigarettes because it’s something I heard adults did when they had sex and I didn’t want to miss out on the full humanistic experience. I’m thirty-five years old, so of course I’ve had sex before, but it’s never been this long between sessions. So I smoked a cigarette and relaxed enough to be able roll Hot Wheels cars down the valleys of my slack arms. Low indistinct moans and faint dirty talk bubbled up from the sixty-inch television that was streaming porn from the Net, so I bumped up the volume for good measure. I attached the suctions cups to the various erogenous parts of my body, like the back of my neck and ears, the latter with the help of some bondage tape that was sold separately, and stretched out the mess of hoses so the flow of air was clean, and the machine went to work. The vibrations felt really good at first, so I decided to quickly light another cigarette, but I didn’t smoke it. I just left it burning on the bedside table as incense to heighten the erotic atmosphere, only to remember that the instruction manual made numerous allusions to the usage of oils with the Geisha3000.

Not having a predisposition that quickly leapt onto such subtleties, I assumed that any oil would be well to do, so I rose from the mattress and unplugged the Geisha3000 without disengaging any of the suction cups or the hot box itself, and walked towards the kitchen, more machine than man. To my chagrin, the cupboard was stripped bare of any oily reserve, with the exception of some old canola I’d been using for French fries that was nearly brown from the burnt floating potato husks. There was butter in the fridge that was a better second option, and through some ingenious thinking, I came up with the idea of melting the butter in a fry pan, and using it as the oil specified in the instruction manual.

The butter melted in no time, but luckily in my haste, I remembered to allow the butter to cool before applying it, so I poured it into a gravy boat for easy access. I also thought it better to apply the butter while in the kitchen instead of making a grand mess in the bedroom; so after the butter had cooled, I tipped the gravy boat and poured the warm butter along the length of my pecker, which, to my surprise, was still mightily supporting the weight of the hot box that was molded in the likeness of Jenny Chang’s privates, who is one of my favorite Net pornstars. After rubbing some butter over my nipples and lips with a turkey brush, I put the gravy boat down on the kitchen island and turned as if to return to the bedroom where the sound of live Net-sex was emanating from the television. I licked my lips in hot anticipation and tasted something like Thanksgiving dinner in my mouth and thought how strange. This is when things took a turn for the worse. Not seeing the butter pooling on the parque under the urgency of my ardor, I turned and slipped and fell to the ground, pecker first, causing a collision of such magnitude that it caused an injury to my body of the most heinous kind.

I was writhing in a pool of butter and a tangle of hoses, but I still managed to gather my wits about me long enough to remove the hot box with the quivering chambered inner walls from my pecker, and when I did, there was such an outpouring of blood from the vessel that I feinted and lost all consciousness. When I returned to my senses, it must have been nearly twenty minutes later, or so I gathered from the kitchen clock, and began to inspect the nature of my embarrassing injury, now that the percussive pain from my pecker had diminished to the ebb-and-flow of something slighter like a stumped thumb, or perhaps something just a little greater, say a metal toothpick pushed under the nail bed of a finger.

Not being a physician or having-little-to-no formal knowledge of human anatomy, I was able to deduct that the banjo string on my pecker had been torn and this was causing the bleed. Who would have thought that a little string could hemorrhage so profusely! There was a lesson in this somewhere, a caustic about the nature of the trivial and how everything is insignificant only until we’re in dire need of that thing, whereby it becomes the most important thing in the world, or that everything has its place in the wide world and its up to us to determine its right place, or something to that extent. I figured a pecker string was very low thing in the societal scheme of importance but it was still my pecker goddamnit! so I made an appointment with my Samoan physician and, to make a long story short, there was a small surgery involved and also a lengthy healing period where erections were banned, plus a care package was given.

II

I WAS IN THE VOTING ROOM LOOKING AT THE WOMAN’S BREASTS AT the pre-registering table and I thought of all kind of Jenny Chang things I could do to them, precisely because it had been so long since my last fuck, but I figured it was better to obey the care package instruction manual, and fully heal before attempting any strenuous post-surgical sexual activity. There is a neat little bump now on my banjo string that represented where the surgeons had made the reattachment. I handed the lady my voting card and she accepted it happily. I took one last look at her molded fulsome breasts before ushering up the line and I felt the banjo string in my pants sound one last gloomy twang at the capo.

I had tried to remain apolitical most of my life because I was enlightened in ways that made other people uncomfortable. To live and survive in Graceland you must be a scumbag or well on your way to becoming one. You’ve got to partake in some pretty terrible things to become an official citizen. It’s mostly standard schoolyard shit: crushing ladybugs beneath your boot heel for all to hear, placing dead frozen rats into other kid’s lunch boxes, spitting into a girl’s mouth when she’s making out with you in the stairwell. It’s part and parcel of Graceland; you grow up here, you do bad things. You do it for the jolt from the audience, for the orgasmic pump, you beat the drum, and announce your patriotism with a fist pump. It’s not something that makes me evil. It merely makes me a taxpaying citizen. Have you ever kicked a hungry dog in the face? Kicking a dog in the throat is child’s play. It’s like visiting the dentist or paying your phone bill or tossing your dead goldfish into the flange of your garbage disposal. You do what you have to do to get by and fit in.

The true radicalism lies in the workplace. The things I got away with in the office I couldn’t even pull off on a gonzo paintball terrain. I had invested ten years into my current job for the sheer pleasure of sinking my fangs into somebody’s else’s neck. I won’t say what I do or where I do it because it makes no difference. All jobs are the same in Graceland. Whether you’re picking up garbage or swinging a gavel, you need to be a hatchet man. When a country is at peace it turns its gaze within; that’s what one of my old bosses told me. It’s how a country strengthens itself. Always standing on its toes. Being in a constant state of readiness. “Get tough,” he said. So I toughened up. The tier of bosses just above me is an unapologetic boy’s club. They wear a set of false elongated canines around the office that looked like fangs. One gold cap for each tooth. It’s a symbol of their supremacy and it’s what I aspire towards. I’m on the cusp of a breakout. I can feel it. So I practice what I’m told and take my lumps as they come. Office life is a blood sport.

There was this one subordinate of mine, Todd Darling, who made the error of telling me that his mom had cancer as way of explanation for his struggles as of late. It wasn’t really that his performance was any different than usual; he just wasn’t taking his washouts well. He was less jovial and susceptible to the dumps. No fun to pick on. We all took notice and I lighted on his weakness of character. He was killing the morale in the office. So I just poured it on, as per the instruction of my most immediate report. He said, “Fuck him! Don’t bring your dirty laundry to the office.” So I turned up the heat. Poor guy didn’t do anything. But I couldn’t let his sick mother stand in the way of my potential promotion.

I micro-managed his projects for starters. Gave him a hard time when he needed to leave on time to visit his mom, even though there was no real pressing deadline over his work. Appointed one of our entry-level colleagues to supervise his work in my absence, which I’m told is an excellent demoralizing tool. Was constantly calling him away from his desk for pointless impromptu huddles that took away from his job and forced him to work through his lunch to get the bare minimum done. He held up for a remarkably long time. When his mother died at last, a few months down the road after I initiated “Project Darlington,” I remember he was making a coffee run for us, probably his third or fourth of the day, and never returned. I mean ever. He didn’t formally resign or call back or pick up his shit or anything. I got huge points in the office for that. I never let work get in the way of people management. I was taught that too. Think as a leader. Strategize for were you want to be. Act as though you already have the job of your dreams. Do I feel bad about Todd Darling? The rat race went guerilla a long time before I got onboard and daddy wants a set of gold fangs.

But that’s why I’m here. I mean to slap my vote on the table. I want change. Trudeau was only in her twenties, but she might be good for this country. If everybody changes, then maybe I can change too. It’s too hard to swim against the tide. The constituency says that she’s legit. Left but not too far left to be ineffective. She’s going to have to give the corporations a firm kick in the butt. Focus more on education and health care. I was reading the card with Trudeau’s platforms. Sanctions against and zero tolerance for domestic radicalism. We’ll see about that. Ending Graceland’s participation in the bombing missions against the Islamic state. That’s a little hasty. Guaranteed benefits for seniors. I don’t care about that. I’ll work until I drop dead. Not having a penny in my bank or a retirement package seals the deal on that front. Cutting EI premiums. Affordable renting housing units. Lower tax-rate on the middle class. These were policies I could endorse. Not to mention “Teenage Grace” was actually pretty hot. That helps secure the vote too.

I knew everybody in the queue by face but not by name, typical for condo living, which is like living in a cramped shoe with a thousand people you loathe; it’s more than a little uncomfortable seeing your middle aged neighbor in his faded dinosaur pajamas throwing out garbage after curfew, secretly sliding his sordid trash down the recycling bin because the other bins are locked in order to avoid a noise disturbance. There’s only a certain class of citizen that will do such a thing, putting their convenience before the greater ecological good. Of course it’s not okay to mix chicken carcass with plastic, used tissues with the cardboard box they came in, because nature will not sort your garbage for you. This category of citizen doesn’t mind getting caught, which is why they dump trash after eleven p.m. in the first place; they’re hoping to meet other degenerates in the garbage closet for the express purposes of mingling; your eyes meet in the bright hallway and say, “You are not alone.”

It’s the same people who hit the gym after dark and sweat all over the machines without ever wiping them down, secretly hoping to transmit some secret communication via their perspiration. The one’s who shit and piss in the salt-water pool and then promptly call the ministry inspector to have the pool shut down on a slew of health violations. They’re anarchists. They crack open the liquid soap dispensers in the men’s and women’s washrooms on the main floor of the condo and mix their excretions in the solvent. Inject candy bars with bordetella pertussis, whooping cough, on Halloween night, using ultra fine diabetic needles that leave no mark, except for a blown vacuum that most parents overlook anyways.

“What’s taking so long?” The guy in front of me said with a half turn. “It’s not like we have a life, you know.”

”Yeah, I know, geez,” I said to assuage his nervousness, which in turn aggravated my own into consciousness, which I’m fearful of, like the many rows of teeth in a shark’s mouth.

“It’s the Asian guy in front holding up the line,” the guy behind me said, who, judging by the cut of his gib, not to mention his slim mohair Gucci suit, which probably went for something like three-thousand dollars in the thread shop, is either a fresh-out-of-school defense attorney, or a pharmaceutical salesman. I’ve see him in the parking lot tons of times getting into his red V8 Austin Martin, while I pretended to get out of whatever cool sports car was within arm’s reach. “Who gave these guys the right to vote anyhow?”

I couldn’t believe the nerve and sense of entitlement with this guy. “It’s the twenty-first century, buddy, the Chinese have got the same rights as the rest of us.”

“That’s not what I meant, genius. The guy’s obviously a copy job.” I looked and listened closer at the situation brewing near the center table. There was an Asian man, probably in his early thirties, and he was arguing with the two ladies who were operating the voting booth. One was calling for some kind of technical support, while the other was diplomatically addressing the Asian’s concerns, as he looked to be agitated and on the verge of throwing a tantrum.

“What do you mean I’ve already voted? I just handed you my voting card. How can you possibly think I’ve already voted? It doesn’t make any sense!” he said, over-annunciating his words and looking less convincing by the second, almost as if he had something to hide, something rotten, like an iceReliquary in his closet.

“Sir, we have your Lagado contents authenticated and already on record from this afternoon,” the secretary at the booth said.

“That’s impossible. I was at work this afternoon. You can call my employer for confirmation. Here, take down his number,” the Asian reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a cellular, one of those fab, bendy transparent phones, rolled up into the size of a pack of gum, which unfurled on voice command like a dog that could roll or beg on cue, but better.

“That won’t be necessary, sir. My colleague here is on hold with the bureau,” the seated lady said gesturing to the thin black lady who was standing beside her, who had a head set on, and a holoViddy hovering in front of her face like a silk scarf. “This matter will be resolved shortly.”

“It better,” retorted the Asian who may or may not have been a copy-job, but was still guilty until proven innocent and was probably universally hated in the room anyhow for holding up the queue, unless there were supporters of the New Eugenics Party in the room. I don’t think he had a leg of his own to stand on. I noticed the security guards, located on either side of the center table like grim ancestral statues, clenching their automatics just a little tighter because of the ruckus, and then one of them, the guy on the left of the table closest to the door, noticed me noticing him, and he defiantly clenched his teeth beneath his lips, but I noticed that too.

“Who’re you voting for anyways?” The demi-lawyer asked me, chewing his bubble gum that smelled a little like beer.

“Like I’m going to just tell you.”

“That’s a conversation killer.”

“What kind of bubble gum is that?”

“Like I’m just going to tell you. It’s root beer. New I think. You want a stick?”

“I knew I smelled beer on your breath.”

“No, that’s the undercoating. They charge extra for that.”

“Trudeau does looks pretty good.”

“Yeah, but she don’t put out. You seen Mary Ruth’s videos?”

“You mean the campaign O.M.V.’s?”

“No, dude. Her gonzo videos.”

“She does gonzo?”

“Yeah. But not under her Christian name. Her professional name is Charisma Fur and she’s a great performer. All-inclusive, if you know what I mean. White, black, brown, red, yellow, every color of the rainbow. She does DP, DVDA, RTF, you name it. And she’s into water sports. I think I might vote for her.”

“What party is she heading?”

“Freedom Socialist.”

“No way for me.”

“Think about it, dude. It’s much better than Hatcher’s sex reforms. I don’t know about you, but I miss the rippers from the core. They usually gave me something to do after class. The milfs from mid-town. Those were crazy times.”

“Mary Ruth is too far left for my liking. Not that I’m a fan of the prohibition. But I don’t want Graceland to turn into Bangkok either.”

“I guess,” the demi-lawyer said, scratching his nuts like only a salesman could, adjusting his hips, and using his thighs as if they were a gentleman’s ball scratcher.

III

THE VOTE WAS BEING HELD IN THE CONDO’S PARTY ROOM that was decorated like a lodge, with tree stumps doubling as chairs at the bar island, and tea light fixtures shaped like branches. It was my first time here and I had lived in this building for over five years. I don’t usually party where I live. A.k.a. I don’t shit where I eat. Nobody can eat where I shit because I have this intestinal problem. It’s a diagnosed condition. I fear it’s cancer eating away at my ass. But my doctor assures me it’s only I.B.S. I’ve been scoped three times and the tests confirm my bowels are bad-tempered, irritable as a trapped rodent. So when I unleash my innards, be sure to get out of the way. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve taken to burning things in the bathroom to cope with the pollution. I started small, with matches and match-jackets, but the Horned Beast, as I’ve taken to calling my bowel movements, rose from the brown-and-green waters and unleashed a great plague over my life. Soon I was starting little bonfires on the washroom tiles to placate the Horned Beast, neo-pagan style, sprinkling loose matches onto the lit plicated paper that sparked up like human sacrifices from the dark ages.

I took pills to contain my gas. I also took pills to contain my anxiety. But that’s another story. There are pills for everything nowadays. I was also issued a medical card from my doctor to prove that I have I.B.S. because I was having trouble containing my gas in enclosed public places like cinemas and buses and elevators, so I was given a medical card to excuse the stench from the Horned Beast, which, let me say, was always tremendous. I was being kicked off public transit on a regular basis due to public complaint, which I found ridiculous, especially considering how bag-ladies, who were pissed-up all over, were allowed to ride the bus around the city, full circuit, until they awoke from their drunken stupor, but I, a loyal tax-payer, was immediately asked to leave the bus upon farting because I “should know better,” or because I “come from privilege.” Farting is not privilege; it’s necessity. And my medical card proves it. So up the public’s ass with “right and wrong.” My farts are beyond good and evil.

I reached into my pocket and took out the golden poppy pill-tube that contained the designer anti-anxiety pills that cost me thirty-five dollars per. Ataraxia. My lone saving grace in affairs of the public kind, for before me stood three Lagados that would weigh out the contents of my stomach the way God casts judgment upon all sinners, that is, with balance scales and a wide sword. Nothing confirms your identity like the contents of your bowels. Sure there are pills that can scramble the information in your shit, but then there are also ways to detect that pills are scrambling the information in your shit, so the point is moot: You can’t fuck with Lagados. We’ve come so far into the future with technology at our command but it’s still our shit that authenticates our identities.

It’s not the personal websites that do the job, which everybody had nowadays, designed to parade the chambered inner walls of your private life before the world, crying for attention like an orangutan’s flushed ass, exhibiting all your rare talents, you know, the photography, the poetry, the music, which practically scream snowflake to anybody who is paying attention, which is usually no one, even permitting a live POV cam, if that feature is enabled and the necessary ocular augmentations have been made. No, sorry, it’s your shit that reveals your genetic diversity best. Beads of acid were forming on my forehead. I felt like I was swallowing the little grape that dangled at the back of my throat, and it caused me to gag on spit or spit on gag or nothing at all. My feet throbbed in my shoes as if there was bad blood that was dying to be let out. Those were all signs of my anxiety. The Ataraxia should have been kicking in anytime soon

“Oh, man, I had this whale of burrito for lunch that’s dying for a swim,” I heard from behind me.

Who could think of shitting at a time like this? Sure, we’d been conditioned for this job since elementary school, when we’d vote for primary things like who’d be class clown, or team captain of the baseball team, or hallway prefect. They teachers would line us up before the Lagados, which were sort of primitively designed back then, hulking and overbright, like a boxy vintage popcorn machine you’d see at a carnival as a child, or those rustic British phone booths we’d see in docuVids during history class, Our parents would sign permission forms to make the process legal and then make us hold our poo from the night before or even two nights prior, so we’d be full to the brim and bursting come Election Day. Failing that, there was a whole array of pills or liquids the nurse kept in her waist-pouch that would do the job in a pinch, but those were more aggressive procedures, reserved for the stubborn or constipated children. I never had that problem. I could always poo in a jiffy. I suppose this eagerness was early sign of my I.B.S. in retrospect. But I wasn’t nervous about shitting in public back in the day. This was before the Horned Beast reared his ugly brutish head into my life.

All of a sudden the building had made this great snapping sound and we all sort of flinched and looked around at each other for reassurance. The security guards braced themselves and looked around the boardroom with their automatics directing their vision. The jumpiness of the guards caused a few of the men and women in the boardroom to yelp from nervousness, which I found a little disingenuous because we’d all been long accustomed to armed security in public places due to the escalating turmoil in the city, but I guess any attention was better than no attention, so they yelped away, showing off those tight vocal chords and supple diaphragms.

“It’s just the steel contracting from cold temperatures. It’s nothing to worry about,” said the man who stood directly in front of me, who happened to be my next-door neighbor. He seemed unaware of this fact until after he finished his thought and then, having gained the awareness, he brusquely, I would say even rudely, turned his back to me once more, before I could even nod or add my two-cents to the pot. I hated being lectured by know-it-alls. I felt like he had gained the upper hand with the comment on the building’s structure, which I had no way of verifying anyhow. For all I know it could have been a bullshit comment. But he still had gained the upper hand by laying out the idea and not allowing for a comeback.

That same neighbor and I had an altercation a few months earlier, that you might say was a breach of good neighborly conduct. I had been hard up for some picker-upper or a downer or anything that could have been remotely disruptive to the malaise that had spread over me like the measles, but I had extremely limited resources. Not that drugs were scant in the city or even in the building, only that I could be shy about obtaining such things and had little to no social contacts. There was an inherent awkwardness to my solicitations. I was lost without a prescription. I’d left my unit to take a stroll through the building to divert my thoughts, and as I was walking through the hallway in my slippers, I smelled something skunky that I recognized from my youth to be reefer. Incredible that something so agrarian was still in use in the age of designer drugs. I didn’t know what to do because I wanted some so badly. So I began to trace the smell and it led me back the way I came. It was literarily stemming from the unit across from mine, but I didn’t initially notice because of my sour grapes.

The door to the unit had been left ajar and I didn’t know what that meant. These days, front doors were willingly left ajar willingly to either welcome burglaries, to indulge sexual fantasies, or as an open invite to a house party. But which of the three could it be? We hadn’t even formally been introduced; I would have looked stupid if I’d misunderstood. I had always kept my head down whenever the neighbors were around, so we had developed no rapport to speak of. I knew they were a professional mixed-race couple without kids. The man had long dread-locks like he was Rastafari, but I had never seen his face; I couldn’t tell the ethnicity of his wife from the backside, except that she had a skinny white girl’s ass. The question was: did they want me to enter the unit? I was down for anything new as a welcome reprieve; I needed a vacation from the dumps. Reefer was just the ticket. It had been over a decade since my last puff, since my last beer party in the woods.

So I opened the unit door and stepped inside and followed the glorious trail of burning cannabis to its source. Past the hallway silently in my slippers, I stepped into the living room and discovered the Rasta laying on the couch in his boxers and smoking a fat doobie, whilst staring at a holographic image of a topless Hawaiian Hula girl swinging her hips seductively. It might have been a copy job of celebrity actress, Shona McPherson, but I couldn’t be sure. It was only a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity of awkwardness before I had even gained the Rasta’s attention. When he finally saw me beneath a cloud of dreamy smoke, I saw his eyes go comically wide, wider than a tarsier’s, and he said, “ Can I help you?” and I said, limply, “Do you party?” and it all went downhill from there. He stood up from the couch and acted all angry and defensive and made all kinds of idle threats to call security. Before I could even get another word in edgewise, apologizing and what not, I skittered away and was standing the hall fumbling with the keys to my door. He shouted a few more obscenities my way and slammed the door shut. The nerve on him! He was the one who had left his door open in the first place! I thought I was doing him a favor. I could have been stopping an unwanted burglary or abduction that was in progress. How was I to know? It was all in the past now. But he shamed me deeply and I was eager to avenge the mark.

Outside, the winds were relentless and unforgiving, shrieking like cats in a pressure cooker. There was a young shoeless Cuban-looking boy playing video games on the couch that was shaped in homage of neo-pop artist Max Headbloom’s “Strawberry Daiquiri Jellybean.” I had seen this expensive line of furniture being sold at Barrymore’s on Lyndon Street. Maybe it was a replica of the Headbloom line. There’s no way a six thousand dollar couch finds its way into a condominium without getting stolen. The constant zapping from the boy’s handheld console added to the tumult in the room like bees out of a dog’s mouth. It was unpleasant and unnerving and frankly I wanted to raise hell about it, but I nervous enough about the Lagados without the extra attention, so I kept my trap shut.

Every time the guard moved around, the hardware strapped to his body convulsed and joggled with the sound of leather stretching, how I imagined the saddle on a camel’s back, with its many pockets, would carp in the desert sun. The guards swiveled with those massive automatics pressed firmly to their chests, which were sized like a small motorcycles anyways, and I thought to myself how did we ever come to accept such grisly military scenes? And then I remembered, oh yeah, there were terrorists scattered all over Graceland like cockroaches, hiding and scheming in every penetralia, just waiting for the lights to go out. Who were these terrorists exactly and where did they come from? Were they our own, programmed from the inside? Or did they land on our doorstep from the outside world?

Willy nilly, I quickly worked myself up into a panic about the terrorist influence. Was it a germ that spread from coated public toilet seats? A compound dissolved into our paper cups that became active when heated? A digital signal sent to our idChips remotely and then disseminated intravenously? I scratched my head in a panic and felt the sweat irrigating my scalp, dripping off my fingernails. And then, just as my anxiety peaked and I prepared to throw myself on my knees, wrapping my arms around the thick burlapped legs of the guard in supplication, confessing every last festering detail of my rebellion, whether it existed or not, the Ataraxia dialed up and eased me back into my skin.

IV

THE CATERWAULING WINDS OUTSIDE REMINDED ME of the great snowstorm when nearly everything froze over in Graceland and we almost entered into the much-ballyhooed Ice Age scientists had been predicting ever since I was in elementary school. It stormed for something like ten days consecutively in December. The snow accumulated waist high in spots. An immaculate white sea had covered the land. Temperatures were freezing. Flurries made it impossible to see more than ten yards. Sweeping power outages made survival tantamount. People were dying all over. Stranded in transit. Freezing in cars. Forget about the homeless because they were an afterthought. Banks and pharmacies and supermarkets closed. Hospitals running on emergency generators, aiding only those in need of critical medical assistance. Graceland was in a state of emergency. Minister Hatcher summoned the army to help free us from our glacial prison. Delivering medicine, food rations, and blankets in their camouflaged military jeeps. It was something out of the movies.

Miraculously, the power in my building remained intact, lights on, heat pumping, service unabated. I serendipitously scheduled time off work before the storm had touched down, so I had been able to fill my cupboards to the brim with dry goods: beef jerky, dried fruit, granola bars, and ready-to-eat canned goods. I stocked up on bottled water. Bought canned juice by the dozen. Purchased a new can opener, a flashlight, a set of variety-sized batteries, and even candles, in case everything really went to shit. I had enough socks and underwear to survive any storm. Restocked the first aid kit. I was all set. So when the snow hit the fan, I relaxed in bed and watched television and ate caramel popcorn like the world’s richest kid. On the news, the army gathered and piled the bodies of the homeless around city blocks, forming neat flesh-and-bone pyramids ready for disposal. Black-and-white newsreel footage I’d seen in school of the Second World War flashed through my mind, and I felt historically validated for a moment, never wanting to wake up from this dream, nor history wake up from this nightmare.

My tenement lit up the dim white lands of Graceland like a Roman candle. The condominium’s underground utilities, the buried electrical lines, kept my neighbors and I with the comforts of civilization, whilst the listless residents of the townhouses down the block, the ones with their million-dollar mortgages and starlit backyard pools, were caught dead in the midst of a suburban, post-millennial horror-movie. I watched the late-night, kith-and-kin, candlelight vigils from my floor-to-ceiling windows, wrapped in a gilded comforter, feeling like a Roman magistrate surveying the wide barbarian lands along the silver yonder. What a figure I must have carved from below, starkly lit from back glow of the lamplight, like a golden god with scales in hand, dispensing grace or wrathful judgment as I saw fit.

The previous summer, I had befriended a local family at a little league game, where nine-year old phenom, Joey Applebee, played first base for the Jamestown Jammers. The Applebees were Joe and Susan and Joey and little Martha. I took an interest in the Applebees and was complimentary of little Joey even though I hated children and only watched the Jammers play because I loved baseball so and rarely got out to watch the big city boys wield real Louisville wood. Imagine the audacity, in this day and age, of having not only one child but also having two, when they should have been halving one. They had it coming, if you asked me, the bogeyman was waiting in the wings, but I still exchanged baseball trivia with Joe at the game, and even got invited over for barbecues and to try the golden lager from the basement bar. The entire time they had me over, I never once allowed myself to like the Applebees, never truly accepting the lawn chairs or the tree house as a reality, which I felt guilty for on a sociological level, because they seemed to take a liking to me.

Joe had a kind of lonely disposition and did things lonely people do all the time, like share too much information about his thyroid problem, or confess to me his illogical fear of “losing it all,” or his scalding car insurance rate, which was “eating into his early retirement plan,” but such earnest showcasing in the Age of Aporia was truly in bad taste; like an abused puppy that only shies away at first, and comes back eagerly to the outstretched palm for the next round of victuals, forgetting that the reassuring hand quickly changes into a fist. And so I raised my malicious hand and steadied it over the Applebees. I’d gaze at them through my widescreen window and enact many a dark fantasy in my mind, lifting and dropping my hands like a jazz conductor, clenched knuckles overcast their three-storey home.

Joe cooked a great steak on his sprawling BBQ and even admitted to having qualms about the whole GMO deal, but this didn’t make an iota of difference when I goosed his wife in the pantry, while she was unloading some crock ware off the top shelf. It was a gambit. We were right in the middle of the Hatcher reforms, and she could have dimed me out to the Sex Crimes unit, who were a telephone call away, who were hot to make an example out of everybody and anybody, but she didn’t blow the whistle for some unknown reason, so I continued to hound her, and began to implement a devious psychological strategy in order to abase her further.

First, I threatened to leave their house and leave Joe friendless and that had a surprising mild effect at first, where I expected no effect at all. She’d allow me to leer at her without calling for help. When that ploy grew weary I began to insinuate vague threats about her children and this stratagem had a more immediate and rousing effect. I began to pat her backside whenever we were unobserved, simultaneously whispering hot menace in her ear about how I’d pick up little Joey after school one day, and dump him in countryside for the farmers to have their way with him, or something crude like that, and then I’d reach around and erotically pinch her nipples, which seemed to deeply unnerve her, but she didn’t know what to do, so we played out the whole predatory charade.

It wasn’t about getting laid or anything like that with Susan; I just sorely wanted to play the part of the bastard. The shenanigans only really had an effect on me when Joe was hovering around the premises. Was there a designer drug that could induce a similar feeling of domestic danger to have spared me the trouble of the Iagogo? I pondered this as I lay on the carpeted floor underneath the crib of little Martha’s bedroom. When Susan had come into the room one day to check on her sleeping baby, I grabbed her by the ankle like some bogeyman from the crypt, and she shrieked loud enough to raise the little urchin from her slumber, who boo-hooed until she was rock-a-bye by her mother. I crept out from my hideaway, half way, my head decisively positioned between Susan’s legs, staring straight above at the interlaced muff that was surely fusty from the days hard-won labor, and my mouth couldn’t help but salivate. I squeezed her thin ankles and she moaned lightly, knees slightly buckling, but did that actually mean she liked the bogeyman gimmick, or was I giving myself too much credit?

And so it went for a couple of resplendent weeks in the month of August before good old Joe broke up the gang. I remember feeding the pigs and chickens in the Applebee’s mini backyard farm one Sunday. The sun was beaming brightly. There were milky butterflies dancing around the rose bushes. The sprinkler was watering the fresh grass and creating the most beautiful rainbow mankind had seen since the early days of the flood. And I had just shared the most intense bathroom experience of my life with Susan upstairs. As Joe was mowing the lawn and little Joey was taking wide swings at the soft ball resting on the tee, I snuck inside the house under the pretense of a shit-break, and I pulled Susan, who was in the kitchen washing dishes, into the bathroom with me for our most ingenious lark yet.

I unbuckled and pulled down my chinos in one fell swoop, before she even had time to question my mental fitness, and squatted over the pristine white bowl, unleashing something foul and primordial into its shallow depths. The Horned Beast came roaring out of my backside with the pent-up fury of a cannonball. Rusty shrapnel sprayed over the pearly tureen and I held onto Susan’s thighs tightly, her khaki Gap shorts pulled down, my face buried deep in her ripe crack, inhaling her rotten perfumes, while my own toxic event escaped the basin as I careened my ass from one side to another. She gagged and coughed and tried to escape my violent clutches, but I buried my nails into the soft pale flesh of her inner thighs and that staunched her rebellion, and thus we shared my deepest shame, the inner chambered walls of my most cherished secret.

When she had managed to regain her breath and ceased convulsing from the putrid cloud that smothered the room, that is, when she accepted the Horned Beast in his truest form, something wild came out of her in response, and she bucked wildly against my nose, which appendage I used to push aside the purple thong that separated us, and oozing from her cunt was this liquid that was sticky like sap, and I lapped it up like an obliging husband was sworn to, to have and to hold, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and all that claptrap.

And in that sealed scatological moment, with the bathroom door closed but unlocked, the window open and the curtain drawn, the pink frilly rug scrunched in ecstasy beneath my flip-flops, the tap water running like a brook for pastoral ambiance, Susan and I knew each other in ways few people ever had. When I had finished my fiery deuce, I stood from the bowl, and made Susan wipe my ass on an immaculate white face towel, and in a moment of rapturous transport, I asked her to look down at the tarred cotton, promising she would have seen the revelation of the Horned Beast, if only she would have looked, but she denied me that final satisfaction, and so we parted embarrassedly, as two lonely strangers failing to see each other in the night.

I returned to the backyard and the sun was blistering, having become noticeably hotter, without a single cloud in the sky to placate my need for shade. I had to squint my light-sensitive eyes in order to get around little Joey’s toys that were strewn all over the grass. The little germ nowhere to be found. Joe was watering the grass and flowers along the fence line. I approached him and tried to get his attention by whistling some song I knew from childhood, “She’s up all night to the sun. I’m up all night to get some. She’s up all night for good fun. I’m up all night to get lucky,” but he refused to turn around. I wiped the sweat from my forehead with my forearm and the wetness slicked the hair on my arm to one side, which looked kind of funny combed-over my tanned and freckled skin. Joe finally spoke with his back still turned to me.

“You better leave right now,” he said feebly.

“What’s the problem, Joe?” I replied.

“Please, just go. And don’t ever come back here.” Which meant he must have seen something happen between Susan and myself.

“Alright Joe,” I started, “if you want to be a little bitch about the whole thing, I’ll leave.”

And then I walked away from him, wanting to throw a softball at his head or something, as a final exclamation point to our neighborly exchange, but I just violently slammed the fence gate upon exiting. Just like that I was never invited over to the Applebee’s house again and my picket fence dream faded along with the sunset.

When the great storm had descended on Graceland, the neighborhood quickly went to the dogs, the hoarfrost seemingly dialing us back to the dark ages. My well-to-do Hyde Park neighbors, with their pretentious townhouses and heated garages, might as well have entered a time machine pointed towards medieval times, because they couldn’t have been any further removed from civilization. There was no way for the many Audis and Mercedes to cut through the unplowed streets. It was a solid week before the army managed to get near Hyde Park, so we were left to our own devices, with no easy escape. By day three, the tenants of my condominium had announced for a meeting to be held in the lobby. Even though I was more than settled with my earlier precautionary shopping spree, I still attended out of curiosity and, to be frank, resentment. I wanted to point a finger, or get into my neighbor’s faces and scoff at them. Still I tried to look anxious like the rest of them in order to better fit in. In truth, I never felt more at ease. I was in my comfort zone amidst the white scourge, as if the world had finally acclimatized to me, and validated the deep-seated fear and disgust I nested with on a daily basis.

There were no salty snacks or sugary refreshments waiting. It was a very drab affair. A great many things were discussed but not many of them great. Some people wanted to open the doors to those less fortunate in the neighborhood, a detestable idea, I thought. Thankfully others shot that charitable feeling down without my intervention, reminding the collective that they were sitting on private property, and that a unanimous vote would be required before any outreach program could be attempted. Some people thought that we should pool our resources amongst ourselves, so that at least our community would remain in good standing. Others booed and hissed at the mere mention of the anathema without the slightest prodding. Wouldn’t it defeat the purpose of the gold rush all together? Weren’t we all enduring the rat race for the precise purpose of filling our cupboards and closets to the brim so as to better compete with our neighbors? Wasn’t this just another trial to weed out the strong from the weak, the cunning from the compassionate, and the resourceful from the inept? The majority seemed to think so. Some of the other proposed tenets were uncontested and quickly enforced, such as the barricading of the lobby, which was swiftly performed by a group of us, by simply rearranging and vertically stacking the “pop” furniture that was lying around.

The building’s security guards were to be placed at every entry or exit, who were trapped here with the rest of us here anyhow and had to remain in service, and were to be paid with food, beverage, or entertainment, according to the remuneration of their choosing and in deference to the booty collected from the residents. Everybody had to dispense with something for the tithing. But under no circumstances would any visitors be allowed into the building while we were held prisoners to the storm. Everybody agreed to this last point. Although some yielded uneasily, which made me have my doubts about them. People could leave the building but they could not return. That was the rule we agreed upon. And what of stray parents and grandparents, some challenged? They would have to fend for themselves until the storm subsided, we concluded. Some of the ladies in attendance grew weepy at the presentiment; nevertheless, it made sense to everyone without a prolonged debate. The status quo had to be maintained. That’s what the maintenance fees symbolized, one grandfatherly fellow intimated, and many of us nodded gratefully in fealty to his wisdom.

By day five, the condominium had become a black market bordello for the enterprising. If you needed something, it could probably be found within the building, but only if you were willing to trade. The short squeeze was in full effect. Every day at noon, I heard a knock at my front door from an agent of trade, who according to the grapevine were called “Palmers.” I wouldn’t open the door, being only willing to talk through it: “Yes?” “What do need?” He’d say. “Dishwashing liquid,” I’d reply. “What’s for trade,” he’d ask. “A can a beans,” I’d respond. “Not enough,” he’d declare and then add, “Two cans of beans and two cans of vegetables, or no soap.” “It’s a deal.” And then you’d have to bring the tradeable goods to the door and leave them in the hallway for pickup by the next day at noon, which I wasn’t crazy about, in case of theft or if I was being misled altogether, but that’s how the bartering system worked. I don’t know who led this outfit of “Palmers,” but it was a tightly run operation. I fudged the hand-off a couple of times before the “Palmers” politely gave me the scoop and righted my errors. In total, I ended up grabbing some dishwashing liquid, breadcrumbs I needed for a roasted chicken recipe, fresh cream for my coffee, even though I had the powdered stuff, and fabric softener for the dryer, which I stupidly forgot to pick up before the snowstorm, and I kicked myself for losing that trade by a landslide, but I needed my sheets silky smooth, or else I wouldn’t be able to sleep.

By day seven, the trading market had grown unstable and I refused to open my front door at all. Reports of break-ins had spread across the building: “Knock-knock.” “Who’s there?” And then perchance a big boot through the front door and the thieves would run a spree from your cupboards and closets. Or even worse, after forcibly entering, the marauders would shut the door behind them, and the desecration of home and hearth would know no bounds. I’d call 911 periodically to report these crimes, whether they were a fiction or not, I did not care, but the police stations were so overrun with phone calls that I almost always received a busy signal. When I did finally reach a dispatch officer, they’d tell me to “hold on tight,” because there was no way for patrol to reach our building, and that the army would be arriving soon to save the day anyhow. I imagine anybody in the building with a firearm would be the undisputed alpha male or alpha female and that it was only a matter of time before weapons were brandished in the hallway.

Despite all my selfish preoccupations, I still couldn’t get the Applebees off my mind. I wondered how they were doing. A week without power was nothing to scoff at. Was little Martha still functioning? Little Joey as dynamic as he used to be? I knew Joe wouldn’t let his family go to wrack and ruin without giving it the old survivalist effort. I peered through my floor-to-ceiling windows with my binoculars in tow, and spied on the Applebee’s home that was a good 150 yards away. The snow flurried over the agape windows on the side of the house that were like dead eyelids waiting to be shut. The home was perched upon a hill that was bleaker than a skull. There was no living sign of the Applebee’s and I began to worry for the safety of Susan. Joe could go to hell for all intensive purposes. The children twisting in the wind and on the verge of oblivion. But I couldn’t dismiss Susan altogether. We knew each other intimately and that meant something. She’d encountered the Beast from my innards and lived to tell the tale, nay, she embraced the rendezvous, despite some initial hesitation at the overflowing grotesquerie. I wasn’t beyond throwing the Applebee’s a rope if it meant Susan and I resuming our unspoken courtship.

The task that lay before me was how I would escape the building now that it was prohibited. I left the apartment one night, thickly bundled like an Eskimo, and snuck down the west stairwell. I moved as quietly as a mouse down the steps, fearful of what I would discover at every landing. Before I embarked on my epic journey, I envisioned wannabe gangsters or pushers barring access to the next floor, without some form of currency exchanging hands, but there was nothing shady going on. The newfangled graffiti spattered over the walls cast the stairwell in an indigenous light: zig-zag patterns, obscure geometric shapes, stenciled hand prints, depictions of people making the beast with two backs, and the odd apocalyptic phrase thrown in for good measure. I moved down the flights effortlessly. Apart from some fresh garbage littering the stairs, soda cans, cigarette butts, crumpled tissues, and the occasional condom, there’s was nothing unusual to report, that is, not until I arrived at the main floor, when I heard a whisper bending from behind the staircase, a soft sleepy murmur, and when I turned to look, I saw a woman who must have been in her forties, looking a little worse for wear: hair frizzy and unkempt, face blotchy and makeup-less, yoga pants old and pilly and probably pulled a little too high, revealing an unattractive middle-age paunch.

“I’ll trade you,” she said. “What are we trading,” I said not wanting to ruin the game, despite the fact that she was sort of gross looking. “This,” she said, turning around to reveal an ass that was bounteous as the bushels of paradise. “But what specifically,” I asked. Without hesitation she made an immediate display of her garish wares and I nodded in salivating agreement. “Apartment 603,” I told her. Please understand, should the mission for Susan have failed, I needed a substitute valentine to curb my reclusive misanthropic tendencies. The heart that loves stays young, my father was fond of saying, before he died from heart disease while in his fifties.

In the adjacent vestibule waited the heavyset security guard with a face that was darker than licorice, which worried me at first, but he proved to be just as pliable, so I made mention of the Applebee’s livestock to convince him, my errand being precisely to rescue the pig and chickens from their glacial backyard torments in order to cook them. I led him to believe there’d be a grand banquet with roasted chicken wrapped in bacon and the bastard nearly fainted at the prospect of the great feast in the sky. We arranged a timeline and a secret knock between us for reentry: three full beats, followed by a pause, and then three more beats in a swifter measure. The snow had accumulated to the height of my waist. It took our combined might to force open the door, a tiny crack in order for me to slip out. “Godspeed,” the security guard said before he pulled the door closed. The task seemed all but impossible. I was breathing hard after a mere twenty yards, having to keep moving or risk losing the mission altogether, or worse, dying in my tracks. I kept trying to envision myself as a knight errant on some perilous journey, so as to inspire my march through the snow, but there was nothing heroic in my body to anchor that fantasy. Suddenly newsreel footage of POW’s on a death march flashed through my mind and the prospect of dying in a bed of snow made me shudder uncontrollably, over and over.

The Applebee’s home loomed somewhere in the dismal expanse. It was difficult to see more than a few yards ahead in any direction; the flurries leaching all light from the natural world. If it weren’t for the condo doubling as a lighthouse, I’d have surely drowned in the white sea. I wasn’t a third of the way before I fell to exhaustion. The snowsuit had repelled the blizzard and ensuing wetness with great success, but the excess weight and restricted flexion slowed me down significantly. I looked back to see the falling snow covering my tracks with great speed and realized soon the journey home would prove to be just as difficult as the present odyssey. It suddenly dawned on me that all this had happened before, but I couldn’t say how, or why, or when. Perhaps in a previous life I had undertaken such a journey with mixed blessings and dire results. For every bone in my body cried to return home to the safety of the tower, where my booty waited to be basked and sorted over, and I thought, maybe, just maybe, I should heed the advice of my vertebrae and cartilage, not knowing the full osteon depth of its discernment, but being fully aware of my scalpless own.

I could picture the scenario before my glassy eyes: I’d finally arrive at the Applebee’s home on the verge of death from the hoarfrost, struggling to enter the residence from the swinging back-yard fence, which would be difficult to pull open because of the snow pile, and then stride towards the back door that was all but buried by the blizzard. The home clamped down like a container on a freight boat, which always looked suspicious to me like some magical Rubik’s city sailing on water. I’d break the glass and unlock the door from the outside by reaching through the opening, careful not to tear my coat on the jagged teeth. I’d turn the handle and enter the dark kitchen, scene of so many intrigues between Susan and I. Oh, how many times she washed the dishes, and I’d spy on her stringy khaki buttocks from the common room, whilst secretly stroking the length of my member through my pants, despite the fact that Joe and Joey and even little Martha were in the room. It’s a perverse connection not many would understand and I know Susan felt it too.

I’d raise my voice and it would echo in the kitchen and hallway unrequited. I’d spark a handy battery-operated flashlight, and race up the stairwell to the upper floor like a jealous lover hoping to catch his woman in the act; my boots tracking snow all over the hardwood and carpeted areas, frantically rushing from room to room, looking for Susan, looking for any clue to their whereabouts. I’d rifle through the drawers in the master bedroom, which looked half empty, leading me to believe that the Applebee’s had packed and departed Graceland for a more hospitable place to wait out the storm. I’d throw Joe’s undershirts from the drawer and trample them underfoot. I’d tear at my coat in wild agony, tears choking my breath like some alien substance. I’d look for the hamper in the en-suite bathroom for one last Hail Mary pass in the dark.

In the basket I’d espy a series of Susan’s soiled panties and bras. I’d remove them one by one, extracting each essence from the chilled cotton like a hound dog: the earthier tones from the narthex, a profusion of aromas of coffee and sun dried fruits, the sweetness from the altar, floral notes accompanied by ripe fruit. I smothered my face in the entire spectrum of Susan’s undergarments. I sought out her bras and extracted its crisp acidity, its herbaceous undertones of oregano and black pepper and aged cheese. I’d arrange them over the king-sized bed in a lacy pile and dive in, twisting and writhing in Susan’s bras and socks and panties like they were flames, the bed a bonfire to the majesty of heartbreak. Time was a circular loop. I’d been to Susan’s oriel before, maybe a thousand years hence, perhaps during feudal times, but in this lifetime, we were destined to remain disparate, like Hero and Leander, the white sea holding our bodies as if it were the wreckage from a crashed ship. I returned to my condominium through the same stony path, and forswore the company of Susan Applebee forever, or at least until our next lifetime, my head filled with tales of frozen barnyard animals, prepared to blight the guard’s bacon-wrapped hope.

V

THE THREE LAGADOS WERE IMBEDDED IN THE CENTER OF THE ROOM like the knuckles of some serpentine giant; the blisters puffed and unpursed themselves, the inner contents of which, still the alabaster bowl, everlasting, from youth inwards, the same pericope retold in flipbook, when will the technology catch up to the shit, that mysterious fruitful technology that multiplies in the earth like a colony of cyborg ants. The Rasta before me, the demi-lawyer behind me, we marched to the cadence of some rabbinic bar joke, the punch line unmistakably involving Jehovah, the accuser, and his witness. The contents of the alabaster bowl fed through the pipe and into some mysterious thingamabob where a doohickey separated the waste from the lossless data and then transmitted the information to the main doodad, whereupon a vote was balloted, where in fact many many things, besides political inclinations, could be extracted if a certain bill from Minister Hatcher hadn’t been vetoed at the eleventh hour.

We stepped into the hollows of the Lagados and the rubicund flaps sealed the entrance with the moist-like faculty of an insect. I dropped my pants just as quick and quicker still, this wasn’t my first dance, after all, and the engine of destruction in my stomach sparked to life, and ground and gnashed its contents in all the hushed tones of a garbage disposal, out dripped the black oil and garbled shrapnel from yesterday’s Mandarin menu, the dim sum and fried dumplings, with mango-pineapple sauce, smoothed along the surface like coral reef. You know how people say when you’re about to die your life flashes before your eyes in a series of rapid images, this what happened to me as my butt cheeks got used to the air-conditioned ceramic of the bowl, and I, worrying that maybe it was a hallucinogenic reaction to the toxic event, pushed the blue button on the panel alongside me to increase the amount of A) fan circulation in the Pod, and B) deodorizer, of which scent, Misty Springs, permeated the Pod thoroughly, but cowered at the presence of the Horned Beast and was engulfed by it’s looming specter.

Was I dying, or were we getting killed, because outside the Pods I heard of wars and rumors of wars, and I, lodged in the middle of the battleground, taking a shit, the bar joke having relocated to feudal times, the butt of some cosmic joke. What an embarrassment to die on a toilet, toppled like a toy soldier, pants around the ankles, drooling like some dumdum, leaving behind a legacy that’s less likely to be parsed for divinations, and more likely to be flushed away for the shit that it is. Images whorled past my vision, dizzying me, popping like firecrackers, sparks scratching my eyes, cauterized wounds sealing the light-sensitive pain on the inside. Where did I go wrong?

I had an inimitable scrapbook to choose from. I thought I had would have been more joyous to chaperone myself through the limitless streets of my youth, riding the classic cherry-red Radio Flyer, hell bent to reach the end of the world or the end of the block, or whichever came first. Was it when I fell in love with that blue-eyed surfer boy when I was sixteen, even though I wasn’t gay, why was it happening, why why why? He never knew how I felt, but if he’d looked into my eyes in the alleyway late that night, after we’d gone skinny dipping in the public pool after hours, he’d have plunged into something oceanic, bottomless. I pumped my fist in the air, after scoring the game-wining touchdown in the semi finals against Whitehaven, after winning the admiration of the coach, the team, my brother and quarterback, Terry Rose, the crowd, and the cheerleaders. I’d seen this happen in other peoples lives, in the movies or something, and now it was happening in mine, if this was a life I was leading, I wasn’t even sure anymore. I flushed and flushed, sending away the Horned Beast from my bowels and more, away too went the sticky images in the brown cesspool, whirling and twirling so much like life and death caught in an arm wrestle.

I stood, dressed, and stepped out of the Lagado like an astronaut returning from an important intergalactic mission. My vote signed, sealed, and delivered. And there stood the guard before me with his smoking automatic and me square in his crosshairs. The boardroom was torn to ribbons or shreds or whatever other word would serve to describe walls and chairs and sofas and people that have been butchered by some mondo caliber gun. Everybody had been wiped out with extreme prejudice in the span of my squat, pinch, and flush. The Lagados beside mine had been bullet riddled but for some unknown reason mine was completely untouched by the heavy fire. The other guard had been slain. He was sleeping peacefully below his automatic now; how a lover of the ocean clutches a rock at the rise of the tide, the waves crashing against the rocks, receding, begging you to let go, fondling the full length of your legs, come find us they say, in the middle of the ocean, come find us. The slain guard looked so peaceful that I yearned to trade places with him. I heard seagulls in the expanse. The roar of the shore. And I pined for the depths of the ocean, to be in the arms of my beloved Leander again.

“Keep your hands where I can see them,” the guard hollered through his gas mask. I showed him my bare palms, arms outstretched, and he clutched his rifle so tight that I felt the veins in his hands would burst from the pressure.

“Are you a terrorist?” He asked me, sounding off like a barking dog through the voice emitter, but I was able to distinguish syllables enough to make a whole.

“I don’t—I don’t think so,” I stuttered in reply, not out of fear, but of breathless anticipation, not exactly knowing what I wanted, or how to get it. The building’s pandemonium alarms had been sounded, which were different than the fire alarms, and a whole different set of effects were triggered. The building was in full shut down mode. Metal bars extended over the windows to prevent easy entry. All exits locked. Elevator service killed. Passage from floor to floor limited by access cards, which only tenants possessed. In other words, we’d entered into a world of hurt to prevent the worst from occurring. Meanwhile I was locked in the boardroom with a crazed assassin and I had to decide whether I wanted to live or die.

“Then why are you still alive? The terrorists—they released some kind of nerve agent! It must have been you. There’s no other explanation!”

“I was in the Pod voting. Maybe the gas didn’t penetrate—”

“Then—how are you breathing—without a gas mask?”

“Maybe there was no gas. Did you think of that?”

“But it smelled like—death.”

“Aren’t chemical agents scentless nowadays.”

“I don’t know, maybe.”

He eased his grip on the automatic and alleviated the thrombosis in his wrist. The nozzle of the gun slackened a little and the odds of a headshot with an instant death decreased with every passing second. The Indian/middle-Eastern girl wearing a burqa was crumpled over in her chair, arms hanging lifelessly from her sides. The older European lady with the luscious breasts was pasted against the wall in crimson. The young shoeless Cuban boy looked like a cherub slain on the “Strawberry Daiquiri Jellybean” couch, ribs protruding from his chest where the man-eating bullets feasted upon him. Hyde Park had undergone a dark transformation and I was on the cusp of that high and beautiful wave once again. The security guard and I were about to share a life-changing experience.

“Consider yourself lucky,” I said to him.

“How do you mean,” he replied through the voice emitter, lowering the automatic even further.

“Take off your mask. There is no nerve agent.”

“How do you know?”

“Consider yourself lucky. You encountered the Horned Beast and survived. That is cause enough.” For some unknown reason, this moved the guard to remove his gas mask and face me, mano a mano.

“What do we do now?” he said unsurely, shaken by the vibrant fleshly colors of the massacre, having now removed the ocular filter of the gas mask, and probably looking for a companion to share in the burden of the slaughter, which was no mean thing in the scale of things. I paused for a moment plus to consider his question. Many of my neighbors, mostly dead, some dying, were laying about me, and something had to be done. Here was the opportunity I was looking for to make a clean break from the bad habits Graceland  had instilled in me, to make a positive difference in the lives of my neighbors. I wasn’t the cause of this tragedy. All I did was take a shit. All I did was register my vote. And that was the rub. My whole life had been leading to this one decisive moment. The meaning and final revelation of my I.B.S. The scales had tipped. It had dawned on me. This was my mess to clean up.

“What’s your name?” I asked the security guard, who looked to be on the verge of losing his lunch now, holding his stomach with one hand, rifle languishing in the other, and breathing in a series of rapid gasps.

“Bob,” he burped in reply.

“Round up any survivors for interrogation, Bob.” He looked me in the eye with his wan sweat drenched face. “There’s a terrorist in our midst.” And then he vomited over his combat boots. A great horned mess of pasta and rapini and sausage.

 

The Red Balloon

“I sit on a man’s back choking him and making him carry me, and yet assure myself and others that I am sorry for him and wish to lighten his load by all means possible….except by getting off his back.”

Leo Tolstoy, What Then Must We Do

I

RANDOLPH ORNETTE COLEMAN AWOKE ONE NIGHT in a sweat only to find a red balloon suspended at his bedside watching him sleep. It was the middle of July and the heat was sweltering. The air-conditioning unit in the living room was pulling the labor of twenty electric floor fans, but still the chilled air couldn’t brush past the bedroom’s threshold. Between him lay Precious, the two-year old baby that kicked and pawed him in her sleep, and on the other side of the queen bed lay Denisha, who was pregnant in her third-trimester with their second child. All the swiveling fan on the dresser could accomplish was cool the sweat on Randolph’s body when it swept in his direction, only for it to boil a second later, causing him to twitch uncomfortably on the firm mattress, until the next cool burst kissed his body and everything was alright again.

He was a cargo driver and had been replaying the day’s events in his mind while trying to sleep, where he had lost time and along what routes, which retail stores kept him waiting at the dock because the receiver was on break or unavailable at that moment. He chafed over every detail, how he could minimize his time in traffic, unload the dunnage and have it received in no time, double back to the warehouse, pick up another trailer, race across the various terminals on the grid, meet or exceed his daily quota, get home in time for some fried chicken with Denisha and Precious, quench his thirst with a fifth of Wild Turkey, watch some late-night TV, crash, maybe sleep, then wake up and do the whole thing over again, but better.

Randolph lifted his head from the marshmallow pillow and it clung to the sweat of his scalp for an instant. He hoisted himself on two elbows and his back was like grilled cheese on the damp sheets. The mattress sunk a little from Randolph’s beetling body and Precious slid that much closer. Her body was like a little furnace working overdrive in the night and the heat made Randolph restless. When would she able to sleep on her own? Randolph thought. He hadn’t made love to his wife in over a month and she didn’t seem to particularly mind, her face placid like a moonlit lake in the night, but he didn’t want to hold that fact against her. She was pregnant again, and pregnant wasn’t especially attractive to Randolph, besides it did make the sex burdensome, feeling more like a chore than anything else, but still Randolph felt the pangs of desire, further, it had turned him into a bundle of nerves lately, unsteady foot on the pedals during the day, tossing and turning in bed at night.

The red balloon with the silver ribbon floated at his bedside and it scared the hell out of Randolph. His heart was beating uncontrollably. It was creepy in an uncanny way, how a coat rack bedecked with hats and gloves and jackets might be mistaken for a burglar in the middle of the night. He reached up and lightly punched the balloon away and it bobbed to the other side of the cramped bedroom, the silver ribbon dangling like an umbilical. Hot holy hell, he thought and almost spoke the words aloud. He brushed the sweat from his forehead away with the back of his palm and the perspiration fell like a sheet over Precious’ naked leg, nearly startling her from her deep sleep, which Randolph did not want for anything. He patted her dry with the linen that was draped at the foot of the bed and she settled back into her rhythmic breathing before long. He reached over to the bedside stand and lifted the glass, careful not to drop it, and took a swig of water. Had the liquid been any warmer it would have been tea. He lifted himself against the headboard and sat up for a few minutes staring at the red balloon that was mostly blanketed by shadow in the dim recesses of the room, but he could still make out its puffed shape in the dark.

It began to languidly bob its way back to the side of the bed, to its original post, and again, for some inexplicable reason, Randolph grew frightened. Perhaps it reminded him of his youth, when he’d wake during the middle of the night in his dark cramped room, and every stuffed animal and toy soldier lining his shelves had a grotesque elongated shadow under the moonlight, a spooky vision that revealed the true nature of his cherished possessions. He’d pull the blankets over his eyes and cocoon himself in the linen until he fell asleep; he’d handle his toys apprehensively during the daytime, fearing the lingering vibes of the moonlit evening changeover. The words of his pastor came to mind: When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. Randolph refused to duck under the covers. It’s just a stupid balloon, he thought. And he decided he’d pop it in the morning after all, even though Precious seemed to be endlessly amused by it.

The red balloon had swept its way into the apartment one windy day, in through the open balcony door, and had remained with the Colemans ever since. Mysteriously, the balloon had not deflated at all in the forty days of its occupancy. Randolph figured it must have been made out of some special material, probably Mylar or something, and didn’t balloons filled with natural air last longer? It oscillated around the house harmlessly and had become part of the surroundings before long. Precious would tug at the silver cord periodically and the balloon would weave and wobble for a few seconds afterwards, otherwise it would drift like a regular balloon. But now, Randolph thought, the balloon floated with purpose, or maybe he’d fallen prey to his childhood inclinations again. He fell asleep against the headboard wondering all these fanciful things and awoke to a stiff neck and sore back that weren’t fanciful at all.

II

ALL DAY HE STRUGGLED WITH HIS DELIVERIES. The traffic was synched tight. He made some poor choices on the road that exacerbated the gridlock. And then he caught some bad luck at his early drop off points, landing behind some trucks and falling into a lengthy queue, or he’d pull in just as the receiver went for a coffee break, which delayed him further. All day he was stewing in the cab of his truck. The air-conditioning hardly held the fire of the sun at bay and beneath the windshield he felt like an ant burning below a magnifying glass. He looked for some classic music on the radio to momentarily forget his troubles, some Jazz or Motown funk to transport him from his broiling surroundings, but all he managed to dial into was the electronic dance music all the kids were into nowadays, songs populated mostly by drum machines, synthesized baselines, and processed alien-sounding vocals. Bad luck all round, he thought. He was restless in the driver’s seat of the truck, restless when his navy t-shirt stuck to his back, restless when his feet microwaved in his boots, and he tried not to make any mistakes, every turn of the wheel, every acceleration on the pedal, counted towards his final goal, which was doing his damned best to get back to the Denisha and Precious.

He tried not to let his mind wander to bills or groceries, what are we going to have for dinner anyway? Denisha had been so absent minded lately. She was spending way too much on groceries, not budgeting correctly, complaining that the allowance he gave her was meager, the money was never enough. He took to planning their meals for the week himself while he drove around town making deliveries. Scribbling down recipes and ingredients in his notebook during pauses in traffic. He was visiting grocery stores during the day anyways. He could look for food specials while his truck was being unloaded, killing two birds with one stone. Admittedly, he wasn’t much of a cook, but he scrapped together what recipes he could, golden relics from his mother’s southern-fried pantry, or from the many food programs on television.

It drove him nuts that he packed his lunch everyday, or that he’d skip breakfast in order to save some money, while Denisha would take daily walks around the neighborhood with Precious, and eat at any of the nearby food establishments without giving a second thought towards the finances. They had many arguments over this. Randolph tried to lay down the law, making it clear that she was spending money imprudently, showing her the arithmetic and hard-earned budget he’d worked out in his notebook. What it is, he said to her, is unfair. She said, to hell with your notebook if it means I need to live like a prisoner in my own home. He had to relent because he hated to see her upset. He was afraid of harming the child in her belly and then being blamed for whatever went wrong the remainder of his life. As of late, Randolph was taking to skipping breakfast and lunch to meet the needs of his weekly budget.

He worked ten to twelve hours day, six days out of the week. He rested on the seventh and went to church with his family. After church, they’d usually go out for lunch at Gus’s World Famous Fried Chicken, but lately they’d taken to skipping the starters to save a little money, the fried okra, the fried green tomatoes, the fried pickles, were now reminders of a happier, carefree time. If he could find any time for himself in the afternoon, he’d pick up his tenor sax and play some blues scales to the best of his abilities. He was named after a Jazz master but he never showed a similar talent himself. His mother had saved money for years and had bought the sax for Randolph on his fourteenth birthday. He had lessons and was part of the school band. His mother was so proud of him during his recitals. He was now thirty-four and the silvery sax was nearly twenty years old and in dire need of servicing. Most of the corks and felts and pads needed replacing. “Susie Silver” just didn’t sound like she used to, but Randolph didn’t have the cash flow for the necessary repairs. He strung together a series of notes and melodies from memory, and these snatches of harmony, as bad as they sounded to the neighbors, would ward off the dread of returning to the wheel as the placid Sunday hours ticked away.

It was the same routine every day except for Sundays. He’d wake up at four in the morning and be on the road by five. He’d pick up his first load between five-thirty and six, drive all day until five in the evening, and hopefully arrive at home by six for dinner. Sometimes dinner would be waiting for him on the table, or if Denisha had had a bad day, he’d have to help prepare dinner too. After eating, he’d clear the table and wash the dishes by hand, while Denisha gave Precious a bath, or else she’d do laundry, or straighten out the apartment, making beds, putting toys away, vacuuming. Sometimes, when time permitted, Randolph would pull himself together, and the Colemans would go for a stroll around the block, maybe get an ice pop from the corner store, watch the local high school baseball team practice on the diamond. Most of the times, Randolph would simply drink a hard shot of whisky or two and pass out on the couch, or they’d watch television until bedtime, which was usually around ten in the evening.

The same daily events swept Randolph along with only some minor variation in the details. He was still young enough to remember a different way of life, and at times he dreamed he was still young, even though he was by no means old. That was as close as Randolph came to a confession of defeat. He fought to improve his life in small increments. His mother had raised him almost singlehanded, sacrificing everything along the way to make sure Randolph was happy and strong. His mother was dead now, a casualty to stomach cancer, but her spirit lived on through him. My momma didn’t raise no quitter, he often told himself. She had named him after Ornette Coleman and had very high hopes for him. He tried his hand at college, mechanical engineering, and did fairly well at first, but dropped out in his third year after his mother had succumbed to the cancer. He felt there was little point in carrying on his education without her.

He bounced around from job to job in his twenties, repaying his student loan, drifting aimlessly, until he met Denisha, a friend of a friend, and she inspired him to pull his socks up in a way he hadn’t since his mother had departed. After a couple of years of dating, they had a modest marriage in a Presbyterian church, and had moved in together. Randolph was embarrassed that trucking was the best he could do for his family, but he thought maybe, if he could put a little aside, just maybe, he might be able to resume his schooling part-time and continue in his quest to be an engineer. He loved Denisha deeply and felt Precious was a gift beyond reckoning. So he would endure the dreaded cycle and look forward to the small pleasures life afforded him along the way. He played the lottery weekly and prayed his big break would come soon.

Tonight was leftover night. There was Cajun gumbo in the fridge. A bowl of spicy stewed shrimp over rice can’t be that bad, he thought. Although he would have killed for some smoked BBQ brisket and creamy slaw, or even Jambalaya, with chicken, Andouille sausage, and ham. His mouth watered at the prospect. He’d eaten nothing all day and was falling prey to hunger’s mirages. He unlocked the front door, hung up his ball hat, bent to untie his laces, and removed his safety boots by stepping on the back of the shoe, so stubbornly when he met resistance that he unglued the heel. Fuck’s sake, he said, and Denisha overheard him, shouting back reprovingly, Randolph! What’s wrong with you! He ignored her comment and walked into the kitchen to get some food and drink. The dinner table was not set. This fact, coupled with safety boot incident from a moment earlier, would have led him straight to the bottle for a stiff shot had the bottle not been sitting empty on the bookshelf.

Randolph removed the Tupperware with the Cajun Gumbo from the refrigerator and stuck it into the microwave for only two minutes because he liked to eat his foods half-cold. This habit was owed to a childhood predilection for rushing leftover food through the reheating stage in the oven. In the age of microwave ovens that heated food nearly instantly, waiting for warm food was a thing of the past, but technology was always racing to catch up to the whims of its patrons, even ones that were difficult to classify. He pulled a bag of frozen peach slices out of freezer, which were something of a delicacy in the Coleman household, and began to devour them, bit by frozen bit, cleansing his palette in preparation for the spicy Cajun. Denisha walked into the kitchen holding the baby against her hip with one hand and hoisting a transparent bag full of soiled baby diapers in the other. What are you doing? she asked. Eating some peaches, he replied. You know those are the baby’s peaches for when she’s teething? she said with a disgusted look congealing over her face. There’s enough to go around, he said, looking down at the peach half-moon in his hands that was encrusted with frost and feeling like a terrible father.

The microwave sounded and Randolph liberated the Gumbo with all its oniony and peppery goodness from its plastic container. He went to town on the shrimp and sausage and the Denisha gave him grief for being selfish and eating alone. And because he forgot to buy her the panty liners that she so frivolously wore, justifying the habit by saying that it somehow kept her privates cleaner, and in turn it was safer for their unborn baby. Randolph researched panty liners on Google and nowhere did it say they were meant to be used to daily to keep clean. He read that they were generally used for the absorbance of daily vaginal discharge, light menstrual flow, tampon and menstrual cup backup, spotting, post-intercourse discharge, and urinary incontinence. He didn’t want to probe too deeply into her feminine routines and ruffle her feathers, but he still conveniently forgot to purchase the panty liners because he was two days away from getting paid. He’d already met the weekly expenditure budget and loathed exceeding it. He made his bed on the couch that night and found the red balloon at his side before long. He wasn’t frightened by its appearance this time. In fact, he welcomed the balloon’s familiar presence to help take the sting out of his exile from the bedroom.

He tossed and turned on the couch, unable to find relief from the heat while he lay over the stiff cushions. It was stifling in the room. Even with the air conditioner running at fill blast, he could feel the humidity on the other side of the wall, picking and picking. The red balloon dawdled at his side unaffected by the heat and Randolph was envious of its Mylar skin and ethereal substance. The thought of hovering over the city’s airless skyline gave him a measure of comfort; being weightless, more air than body, was an idea that would have tranquilized him to sleep, if it weren’t for the constant jockeying in his mind. The traffic of the city was a riddle he couldn’t solve. He felt that if he could navigate better behind the wheel, he’d get out from under the grid permanently; if he could conquer that component of the job, he’d be ready for something else, something better even. The names of highways and streets scrolled through his mind. He laid out the major checkpoints and turned the wheel down one street and then another, chasing the perfect route through the grid. Jefferson, Colfax, Polk, then Calhoun, he mumbled aloud, in order to cement his itinerary for the first drop of his day, but he could barely hear his voice over the noise of the air conditioning unit.

Jefferson, Wheeler, Morton, and then Calhoun, he heard over the thrum in the living room, but his lips did not move. Randolph hadn’t thought of that sequence before, but now that he was presented with the option, it made total sense to him, of course, Wheeler to Morton, why didn’t I think of that? The red balloon drifted at the side of the couch and Randolph stared at it intently. He wanted to know more. Stevenson, Hobart, Fairbanks, Sherman. He plotted the checkpoints in his head and the lights intersecting the grid went green. Dawes, Coolidge, Garner, Wallace, Mondale. Everything seemed to click into place. The grid was lit. He could see a clear pathway to every checkpoint. A clear pathway home. His job made more sense to him now. There was an exit from the grid. He’d get home sooner every day. Spend more time with the family. Maybe help more around the house. Denisha would have the baby before long. And they’d be happy again. Tomorrow he’d put his secret knowledge to the test.

III

THE NEXT DAY RANDOLPH FINISHED HIS REGULAR ROUTE at three-thirty-five in the afternoon, which was ninety minutes better than usual. He was home forty-five minutes later and Denisha thought he had been canned when she saw him home so early. He reassured her things were fine. He was so enthusiastic and confident about the future that he even suggested they go out for dinner at Gus’s World Famous. Denisha thought he was going crazy. Gus’s? On a weekday? She asked. Let’s live a little, he replied. Denisha didn’t wait for Randolph to ask a second time. She got herself and Precious quickly dressed and they went out to eat. Randolph ordered two beers for himself right off the bat and Denisha ordered appetizers for them to share: fried okra, fried green tomatoes, and fried pickles They took a substantial hit on the bill. Randolph usually scoured the tab line by line for any discrepancies, but this time he settled up without much ado, even leaving a fair tip on the table.

The Colemans went for a walk through the park afterwards. There was a cool breeze stemming from the adjacent forest that took the char out of the smoldering sun. They had bought some ice cream from Diablo’s that was melting down the cone as fast as they could lap it up. Precious made googly eyes with every lick of the Tutti Frutti and Randolph and Denisha laughed and snapped photos of every cute moment on their cellular phones. They held hands the entire way and locked lips every so often. Randolph tossed his half-eaten sugar cone to a stray dog whose fur was grey and patchy. He then climbed a short tree on a dare from Denisha, who mocked his old age at every step and grunt, but she still looked on proudly. He tore a few verdant leafs from a high branch, folded them down the middle, and languidly sailed them down to her, before leaping from the trunk himself like an athletic sixteen-year old. When they got home, they put Precious to bed and excitedly made love in the living room. It had been so long since they’d lain together that they’d forgotten how right it felt when they did. He felt uneasy about getting aggressive with her in her pregnant state, but she assured him it was okay. I like it that way sometimes, she said. So he pulled her hair and slapped her backside until she climaxed. Afterwards Randolph slept better than he had in weeks. He wrapped his feet up in Denisha’s and rubbed them until he fell asleep.

It went this way for about a week. Randolph got home early every day and did things with the family and everybody seemed happier as a result. But happy came at a cost. The fried chicken and ice cream, and other curios aside, took a bite out of Randolph’s savings, and now he began to fret and was eager to recoup the loss before the next baby was born. The following week, Randolph decided to pick up another trailer instead of leaving early. So he went back to leaving work at five and getting home in time for dinner; this time, with an extra hundred dollars in his pocket per week. Denisha couldn’t care if it was one hundred or four hundred; she liked having Randolph home early and seeing the tranquil change in his temperament. It meant more to her than the things money could buy. But still, somebody had to think of the future whilst fortifying the present.

The new baby was going to need a great many things. If it were a boy, Precious’s leftover clothes wouldn’t do. Denisha had wanted to move to a three-bedroom apartment to accommodate for the new baby, but that wasn’t going to happen. Randolph couldn’t afford the cost of a three bedroom. The two-bedroom they had now was price locked at an affordable rate. The second they left, the property owners would jack up the price by at least two hundred dollars. It would be tough to find a three-bedroom apartment in the city for anything less than three hundred more per month than he was paying now. The extra trailer per day he was picking up now could pay the difference. But the way Randolph saw it, why not tough it out for a few more years and save that money instead for a down payment on a house, or failing that, on a new car at least. His rusted jalopy was on its last legs and was going to need replacing sooner than later. But it was the accumulation of all the little things that was driving him crazy.

Denisha was constantly bugging him about buying new things. She wanted a new stroller for the baby, even though they had a perfectly good stroller already. A second car seat, which in all likelihood was completely necessary, but every mention of buying something new just peeved Randolph right out of the gate. Bottles, bibs, sippy cups, swaddling blankets, there was no end in sight. Working later nights also meant Randolph was back on the couch again. He was too tired to argue about how the extra money would help them down the road. Denisha had been suffering from cramps the last few days and was extra cranky, so it made more sense to let her win the argument and give her space. She was going to see a doctor the very next day and Randolph needed to take the morning off to drive her. It was going to cost him his morning’s wages.

Randolph lay on the couch staring at the popcorn ceiling and listening to the oppressive drone of the air conditioner. He’d heard that people often meditated in situations like this. But he had no idea what that even meant, let alone what he should do. The red balloon wandered closer to the edge of the couch and wavered there. Randolph thought it looked a little deflated from when he’d paid attention to it last. He reached over and touched the silver ribbon, smoothing its ripples between his fingers; he pulled the balloon lower to the ground and then peered into its hollows. The kitchen light had remained lit to make midnight snacks for Denisha a less perilous endeavor. It also made it harder for him to sleep in the living room, but, as Denisha often reminded him, not everything was about him now that she was pregnant with his child. He looked shadowy in the fishbowl reflection from the balloon. The glint in his eye was the only living thing in his expression. He lay back on the couch and stretched out as far as he could. He had to bend his legs in one direction or another to fit in the slim cosset of the leather.

He was, more or less, a superstitious man and played the same six numbers on the lottery weekly: the birthdays of his mother, Denisha and Precious. Those six numbers had yielded a top prize of thirty-two dollars over the last two years. Nothing to write home about considering it cost him ten dollars to participate in the weekly draw. To say he played the lottery desperately would be an understatement. He might as well have been marooned on a desert island, with the lottery ticket being his only message in a bottle. Every Friday he shut his eyes and held his breath when they read the numbers. He prayed for the right numbers to be drawn. When that failed, he tried to will the numbers into effect. Denisha often thought Randolph would have an aneurism when he attempted to influence the draw from the couch. He tried everything but to change the numbers he selected. For some reason, he refused to accept that the birthdays of the most important people in his life shouldn’t also be the winning numbers on at least one jackpot.

Two, Three, Five. In the static of the air-conditioner he felt there was a voice he was decoding. Eight, Thirteen, Twenty-One. He stood from the couch and pushed the red balloon aside and it made a squeaky protestation. He looked for a pen and paper and quickly jotted the number sequence down. Two, Three, Five, Eight, Thirteen, Twenty-One. He was certain these were the numbers he overheard. There was no doubt in his mind that these were the numbers he had been waiting for these last two years. He wasn’t going to go to sleep. He couldn’t risk it. There were convenience stores open twenty-four hours. He would leave and find one now. Late hour be damned, he thought. He had to make his luck concrete somehow, before the sun rose and vanquished his winning numbers.

Randolph quickly threw on some dirty clothes from the hamper and a baseball cap and exited the apartment as silently as he could. He found a convenience store, “Bob’s Milk”, open twenty-four hours, not six blocks from his home, and he picked up a few things from the grocery shelves to dispel any suspicions. Sliced bread, beef jerky, milk, candy for Precious, and Denisha’s damned panty liners, which were double the price at Bob’s, but also the perfect alibi in case she caught him sneaking back upstairs. Randolph nodded to the cash attendant and they shared some brief midnight courtesies. When the clerk finished cashing out the items Randolph had selected, he asked, Will there be anything else? This was the keyword. Randolph slyly handed the attendant the numbers he had scribbled down earlier and said, UltraMega, please. The attendant read the numbers and languidly punched them into the lottery unit and out swooped a ticket with Randolph’s lucky numbers. Here you are, sir. Maybe a millionaire in the evening, the attendant said. This made Randolph smile from ear to ear.

All day next day Randolph couldn’t stop yawning. At the doctor’s office he could hardly stay awake despite having two coffees for breakfast. There were man-eating daggers in Denisha’s eyes when she managed to catch his attention. After a fairly long wait, the Colemans were called into the office and the doctor examined Denisha. He decided to send her for blood work and an ultrasound to investigate for signs of malpresentation. Randolph had no idea what the diagnosis meant and couldn’t follow the conversation’s trail at all. He was a babe in the wilderness. In the hallway, Denisha looked afraid and reached out to Randolph for reassurance. Everything will be fine, he said. Where’s the blood lab? she asked nervously. Randolph shrugged his shoulders. Can’t you do anything for me? she said and pushed his hand away from the small of her back. She walked further ahead in the bright and sanitized hall with Precious in her arms. Randolph put his hand down the pocket of his pants, feeling for the crumpled up lottery ticket, and it felt like the white sands of the Maldives.

The results came back and everything seemed to be fine. There was no reason to suspect that her pain and cramping signified anything out of the ordinary. The Colemans went home from the doctor’s in the late afternoon and Randolph was exhausted for not having slept at all the previous night. He lay on the bed for a quick nap and thirty-minutes later he was awoken by Precious who was wailing in the living room. Randolph elbowed the red balloon to one side and found Precious sitting on the floor with a pile of her stuffed animals, crying at the top of her lungs. Where’s mommy? he asked Precious, who wasn’t able to talk just yet, but seemed to understand him more and more lately. Denisha? he shouted. Denisha? She was nowhere to be found in the apartment. It would have been hard to miss her with her abounding bump. Randolph began to worry and yelled for her even louder. He was about to leave the apartment in search, when he remembered Precious, who was still sitting on the floor but no longer crying. He lifted her up and took his keys from the kitchen table and then left the apartment.

Randolph found Denisha on the floor in the laundry room. He put Precious down and rushed to her. She was lying on her side as the washing machines rumbled away like miniature tractors. He lifted her head in his lap and tried to rouse her by shaking and talking to her. Her skin color was paler than usual and she felt cool to the touch, which was strange considering the room was hotter than a boiler. Denisha baby, he said. Wake up. She came to within a few seconds and reached down to make sure her baby was still with her. Randolph, she said. What happened? I don’t know baby, he replied. Let me get you upstairs and we’ll sort things out. She was very unstable on her feet. Randolph had to steady her while carrying Precious in his arms. Once in the apartment, Denisha lay on the bed and Randolph sat beside her. She explained that she had felt really hot and dizzy and had just loaded the washing machine with their laundry and that was the last thing she remembered. We should probably go the hospital, she said.

Randolph would have agreed with Denisha normally, but the lottery result was going to be announced shortly, and he felt this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and that he had to devoutly supervise the selection of the numbers as if it were a sacred ritual. It was still a few hours away, but hospital care being what it was these days, it was all but guaranteed they wouldn’t be home before midnight, and there was no way he was going to watch the UltraMega from an errant television in the hospital waiting room. So he talked her out of it, insisting that she just needed bed rest, and she stubbornly agreed. Even though his tank was drained, Randolph graciously prepared dinner and played with Precious while Denisha rested. He even went downstairs to collect the wet laundry and then flung it piece by piece into one of the free dryers as if he were Brian Blades making jump shots, or maybe some other basketball legend from the past, Lebron James perhaps, or Michael Jordan.

The Colemans sat around the dinner table eating baked macaroni and cheese, with fried English banger sausages and creamed kale. This was Randolph’s specialty. Denisha was still out of it and barely ate her dinner. Precious was in her high chair playing with the creamed kale by slapping her plastic spoon against it. This irritated Randolph, as the kale splashed all over, but he couldn’t be bothered to discipline Precious himself, and Denisha was in another world altogether. He pulled the crumpled lottery ticket from his pocket and set it on the table. The draw was only an hour away. The Crayola sun was setting outside in the brightest tangerine colors he’d ever seen, melting down the sky blue sky like hot atomic wax. Everything he was doing, everything that was happening around him, Denisha drifting on one elbow, the bursting kale, the atomic tangerine sun, the illuminated numbers on the table, was imbued with a special significance, and occurring with such a crystalline precision that Randolph felt this was his night. Like Brian Blades, he couldn’t miss.

After Randolph had washed up and put the dishes away, sprayed the kitchen table with disenfectant, picked up the laundry from downstairs, that somebody conveniently had dumped on the floor because he was presumably late in picking up his load, he put Precious to bed and sang her a lullaby. Denisha was sprawled out on the couch and snoring away. Poor girl, Randolph thought. He was on the verge of crashing hard himself. But the draw was mere moments away. He turned the television set on. Some sitcom was just now ending. He hated sitcoms. He found them artificial and bereft of real life struggles. He liked sports and late night talk shows. Those were legitimate distractions from reality, he believed. Not some soft-boiled imitation. The lottery program begun. Bold letters on the screen in cobalt blue: UltraMega Ok! They wasted no time. The show lasted a few minutes sandwiched between programs, only long enough for the white balls to roll down the gutter in order to be selected. Randolph held the ticket with both hands. He raised the volume on the television, causing Denisha to stir. What time is it baby? she asked. He had closed his eyes and was ignoring everything but the television announcement. The red balloon hovered nearby.

The first ball escaped the masses and rolled down the narrow chute. One! the televised audience roared. Strike one, Randolph thought, and it pained him, but he did not lose faith. The next ball trickled away from kith and kin towards its destiny and Randolph could feel its descent every step of the way. Two! the audience exploded, but Randolph knew the result even before the choral eruption. Thirteen fell after five, and eight after thirteen. Randolph had captured four numbers. His winnings were probably into the thousands already. The next ball would decide everything. Scary how a little plastic ball can keep a man from what’s his, Randolph thought. He hadn’t opened his eyes once or moved at all. Denisha too hadn’t stirred since the program began. If Randolph were listening, he’d hear her soundly snoring again, despite the clamor from the television set. He was so fixated on his numbers, that time and space could have been obliterated all around him and he would have been none the wiser. The final ball began its fateful decline. He felt the declension like the plunge of a syringe into his veins. In his blood he felt the vast networking of numbers, each one fighting to get out of the tank, to express itself, each one dying to be the One. Or the three rather. Three! the audience thundered. Randolph opened his eyes wide and looked at the brazen numbers on the screen. There was no need to match them to the ticket. He already knew in his blood what they were. Randolph shook Denisha’s leg over and over until she awoke. What is it, Randolph? she asked sharply. We rich baby, he said.

IV

THE ENTIRE WAY TO THE LOTTERY HEADQUARTERS, Randolph thought of his mother, wondering what would she think of his pyrrhic victory? Would she be proud of him? He thought of doing things with his money that would make her proud. He didn’t know how much he’d won yet. The lottery agents would tell him shortly. His mind didn’t land on any specific figure because he didn’t want to jinx it. He called in sick to work for the first time in two years. His manager was in disbelief and asked him if he were sure. I’ve never been surer, Randolph replied. He considered returning to school to resume his engineering degree, but this idea made him nervous now that it was an actual possibility. He was so far removed from academics and so immersed in regular workday life that he found the concept somewhat impractical. So what then? His palms were sweating. It was especially humid. His shirt clung to his back and he hated the feeling.

The safest place he could think of keeping the lottery ticket was in the pocket of his pants and he could feel it was getting moist. Was it possible the numbers or barcode at the front of the ticket could be erased from his sweat? He wasn’t prepared to take that chance. He removed the crumpled ticket from his pocket by awkwardly adjusting his posture in the drivers seat and steadying the wheel with one hand. Everybody is driving stupid today, he thought. He turned the music on the radio down and then off. He needed to focus on the road. No funny business. He made up his mind. As soon as they cashed him out at the lottery headquarters, or wrote a check, or whatever is was they did, he’d take his winnings and head straight to a music shop and buy the most expensive saxophone they had. There was no way he’d find a Grafton model like Ornette Coleman used to play. But a nice top end Selmer tenor would do the job. And he’d commit to playing every day. No excuses.

At the lottery headquarters he was led from the front desk to a smaller interior office with carpeted floors and a print on the wall of an Edenic seaside resort with the word “Imagine” overlaid in bold capital letters. It was there he met with a lottery agent who proceeded to task him with a series of questions. Would he like to remain anonymous? This question puzzled Randolph. Would a gold medalist in the Olympics like his victory to remain anonymous? I want everyone to know, he told the agent. Would he like the money all at once or paid out in the form of an annuity? Randolph felt like the agent was trying to swindle him out of his winnings. There was mention of taxation purposes and then Randolph felt the government was part of the conspiracy also. He was asked to sign his ticket and to this request he obliged. Was offered financial advice services, an overture he politely declined. Do you have any further questions? Mr. Coleman, the agent said. How much did I win? Randolph replied.

The lottery ticket was worth $427,190. After taxes, Randolph was directly deposited $258,919. He felt like he had lost a limb. He was $258,919 richer than he was yesterday, but he felt like he was $168,271 poorer for some reason. He gave the lottery agent one heck of a time dismissing him. Randolph haggled for his taxed income harder than he’d ever fought for anything. The agent advised that the annuity option would greatly diminish the taxable amount on his winnings; Randolph looked at him through a blank and squinty-eyed expression. All this double-dealing financial talk left Randolph dumbfounded and afterwards he was happy to escape with any money at all. He felt like he was stumbling through a dream. So unprepared he was for these hard financial decisions. He wished he had somebody wiser with him. $258,919 is nothing to sneeze at Randolph Ornette Coleman, he said to himself, imagining his mother uttering those words in her best Sunday dress.

He fulfilled his promise from earlier and visited a music shop but he didn’t buy the most expensive saxophone after all. The Selmer Jubilee Tenor with black lacquer and related accessories set him back almost ten-thousand dollars after taxes. The salesman inquired if Randolph wanted to try the sax before he purchased it, a proposition he politely declined at the risk of embarrassing himself, it had been so long since he had played last, let alone played competently enough for an audience outside of his home. I’m very familiar with this instrument, he said. Right on, the salesman answered. Denisha would probably murder him for the acquisition but he had already planned how he would silence her: purchases for the house and baby worth an equal amount, maybe five-thousand or so would be sufficient, and then he crushed the receipt for the sax in his fist and tossed it onto the first garbage can he crossed on his way to his parked vehicle.

By the time Randolph got home in the afternoon, his winnings of $258,919 had shrunk to $208,648. He had stopped by a used car lot dealer and traded his beat-up old truck for a new Ford F-Series. The trade in was only worth $1200. The car salesman had only accepted the trade in as a gesture of good faith to lure Randolph, having smelled a sure thing the second Randolph opened his mouth. The remaining $35,252 he had to pony up from his account. The salesman hid enough bullshit fees in the final sale to compensate for the dud trade-in. And so Randolph luxuriated in his new car smell all the way home, barring one quick pit stop at the mall to pick up the diamond engagement ring for Denisha he could never afford. Just under five-thousand it cost him for a sparkling full-carat platinum solitaire. This was the man Randolph always envisioned himself being and he reveled in the newfound experience. He was wheeling-and-dealing like some uptown hotshot and no longer counting his pennies like some blue-collar deadbeat. He also picked up a little something for Precious from the toy store, nothing too flamboyant, it was only a large $200 plastic ivory pony with ultra pink hair, which apparently every kid wanted, but very few could afford, or so the saleswoman furtively confided to Randolph. He knew Precious would love it. If Randolph was ever this happy before, he could not remember when, or where, or why.

When he finally arrived home, he asked Denisha to come downstairs and she knew from his tone alone that he’d been up to no good. She knew his predilection for being showy when the opportunity afforded itself, which was rarer and rarer these days, but when they were in their twenties, and it was just the two of them, Randolph could showboat with the best of them, which is why she endured the rainy patches in their relationship afterwards, and also how. When she exited the building and saw the robust cobalt Ford rumbling in the driveway, she knew it was Randolph, and for a moment, she forgot her worries, her lightheadedness, the pain in her stomach, and the fear that something was wrong with the baby. For a minute, and maybe even a bit longer, Randolph was the cavalier every woman should be visited by at least once in a lifetime. He honked his horn three times and hopped out of the cab of the truck and dashed towards Denisha and Precious. He fell on one knee on the grass before Denisha and pulled out the little black box that contained the diamond. Have you gone crazy, Randolph, she said. Crazy for you baby! he replied, and, inexplicably, there were tears in his eyes. Will you marry me? Randolph felt vindicated after these long and painful years. He knew he was better than his circumstances and the lottery had proved it. I’ll always marry your poor ass, she said. I ain’t po’ no more baby, he said, and flashed a grin so bright it could have blinded a hummingbird out of the sky.

They dined like kings and queens that night at an upscale restaurant Denisha had been dying to visit. They ate lobster and king crab legs and gave no thought to the bill. This is how life should be lived, thought Randolph. For a moment he felt guilty for throwing those less fortunate under the bus. He remembered his pastor’s words, Better to live humbly with the poor than to share plunder with the proud, and those words might as well have been swords thrust into his heart. Yet the image of Denisha gazing proudly at her finger every few minutes provided ointment for the deepest of wounds. He still had to visit the ivory pony on Precious. They had plans to make for the future when they got home. And there was still dessert to look forward to. Randolph flipped open the dessert menu and landed on the baked Alaska for $22. A pretty penny for a sweet, to be sure, but, on this day, Randolph didn’t just want to live a little, he wanted to live more than the next guy.

When the Colemans returned home, full and sweet, Randolph and Denisha lay on their bed and mapped out what they were going to do with the money they had won. Precious sat in the living room within earshot to play with her newfound pony. She stroked the pony’s pink nylon hair and giggled in ways that would have brought a druid to his knees. Randolph and Denisha wanted to put a down payment on a home, of course. And Randolph wanted to invest in a truck in order to go into business for himself. He could lease a Peterbilt highway truck and trailer for a small down payment and become his own operator. Denisha was skeptical of this plan but liked the idea of Randolph being his own boss. She began to stroke his cock and he covered their bodies with a blanket. The diamond ring on her hand excited him more than any metal had a right to. You like that baby, she said. I love it, he replied. You need it bad, baby? she asked. I do, he responded. My big boy did so good today, so good, she moaned in his ear, and then he climaxed.

V

WHEN RANDOLPH WAS YOUNGER HE HAD OBTAINED A DIGITAL COPY of an old old movie from the 1970s called “Last Tango in Paris.” He didn’t like or necessarily understand the film, but the X-rating it had received at the time made it appealing to Randolph, who didn’t really go for the XXX porn that was everywhere, instead opting for something classier, preferably with a vintage hue. He had described the film to his friends “as a bunch of white people getting raped on the floor, but with subtitles.” What had captured his imagination, and which is why he returned to the film over and over, was a scene in the film where Marlon Brando looks through a window at an apartment across the street, where a black man is playing sax and there’s a black woman kneeling in front of him sewing a button onto his pants. Randolph rewound the scene over and over and would masturbate to its contents inestimable times. There was something about spying on them that really turned him on. The black woman with her afro tearing at the thread of the man’s button with her teeth, it sent shivers down his back. He always dreamed of reenacting this scene one day, but he never had the gall to ask Denisha. He never felt he was good enough at the sax to even broach the subject. He lacked the confidence in his playing. But now, with his brand new sax and a bank account full of money, he felt like he could finally ask for a blowjob while playing his black-lacquered Selmer. But there was one last obstacle.

The bedroom was broiling like always. Tomorrow he would buy one of those portable air conditioning units. There were going to moving soon, still a few hundred bucks wouldn’t kill him until they settled on a house. Denisha and Precious were fast asleep. The things that troubled him normally did not trouble him now. He was awake but he was not anxious. He felt he had a firm grasp on life for the first time. The fan propelled the red balloon along the foot of the bed and Randolph was glad at its appearance. It looked shabby now. It had lost its bright red sheen and was deflated by several degrees. He felt pity for the red balloon. His believed his good luck could be attributed to its appearance that fateful day on his balcony. It was one of the family now. Almost like a dog or an antique piece of furniture that been passed down several generations, bearing the oily handprint of his granddad, and his granddad before him, and so forth. There was comfort to be found in gossamery companionship of the paterfamilias. People on farms knew this fact, which is why they passed down everything of value to each other. Maybe the red balloon was the well-traveled legacy of the Coleman clan come to fruition? When it was late, Randolph’s sleepless mind would become as quixotic as the next guy’s. But he’d never remember his “visions” come morning.

He lay in bed feeling unsatisfied. He felt there was one more thing that was still eluding him. He wanted to be able to play the saxophone like a master, like the musical genius responsible for his namesake. He wanted to sound like Ornette Coleman on the sax. And he wanted a blowjob right after. The getting had been good as of late, but this time he was asking. He didn’t care if it was God or the red balloon or a genie out of Denisha’s ass that would answer his plea, he only knew that he wanted and that he wanted bad. The red balloon had made its way to the side of the bed and Randolph held onto its silver ribbon in a gesture of affection. You have to ask this time, it said. I have no problem with that, Randolph whispered. Then stroke my ribbon and ask me, it said. I want to play sax like jazz master Ornette Coleman, he whispered. Yes, Randolph. And then the balloon popped, startling Precious awake. Denisha awoke a moment later. What’s going on Randolph, she warily asked, still half asleep. Go back to sleep, he said, and soothed Precious by rubbing her back. I can’t, Randolph, the bed is all wet, she said, feeling the firm mattress around her in the dark.