The Case of Blaise by Eric Miles Williamson

miles


     Blaise called himself a full-time alchemist and part-time composer, but as far as I knew, he couldn’t figure an A from a G on a banjo, probably couldn’t play a goddamn throat warbler or a kazoo. No one ever heard him play a note, and no one ever saw a score he’d written, not until after he was taken out. He told us that he was a studio composer for the commercials we saw on television, but wouldn’t tell us which commercial jingles were the ones he composed, and so, even though he seemed to have some cash from those alleged commercials of his, and didn’t have to work like us, we suspicioned. He told us that the jingles paid the bills while he performed alchemical experiments and composed serious music, that one day he would only experiment and create art. One of those guys who thinks art can replace work. Asshole. We loved him. We loved him because he tried to do shit we couldn’t even think about doing, because we were too concerned about doing shit that actually mattered. Like eating, for fuck’s sake.
     Blaise is still alive, but he shouldn’t be. His alchemy consisted of searching for a formula that would solve a problem he’d never tell anyone about. When he met Cyndi, he didn’t know that she’d been running all over the neighborhood telling everyone that she was getting the hell out of Oakland, that she was going to get pregnant and marry a scientist, in that order. She wanted her ticket out, and every day all she heard in school was that science was where the bucks were, and so a scientist she sought, even though she couldn’t tell a scientist from a bartender. She had no idea that alchemy was an art long abandoned and dead, a relic of the Renaissance. So when Blaise moved to town—he wasn’t one of us, but instead a Southern Californian who grew up living on a hill—and he’d been to a community college in L.A. for two years, the only guy in the neighborhood, excepting Shapiro, who’d ever set foot in a real college and not just a union hall training course or cop school or refer/a-c camp. So why’s he in Oakland? Because his aunt died and left him the house. On 62nd Avenue, right in the heart of the ghetto, much to his surprise. He used to come up from L.A. summers when he was a kid and the hood was white, and that’s what he remembered, not the ornamental-iron cage with fried chicken bones on the lawn and junkies on the run from the cops hopping his fence every night like Olympic hurdlers.
     When Blaise moved to the neighborhood someone told Cyndi that he was an alchemist, and she asked what an alchemist was. A scientist, is what she was told, and then Cyndi went after Blaise balls out and titties turned upward. When Blaise met all the guys at Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, he told us he was getting married and he bought us drinks, and then he stood there smiling and telling us about how this woman, his love, his angel, his mythological Celtic goddess, made him shoot his wad five times the first night he spent boning her. Pregnant, we all thought. She milked him, and now he’s had it, the poor son of a bitch. We all knew better than to go near Cyndi, and she’d at one time or another howled at most of our windows—those of us who had good union jobs—late at night and begged us for our dicks. She even called Ed the Jew and whispered to him, “Please, Eddie, please come fuck me. I’m so wet. Please fuck me, Eddie.” And Ed the Jew, the ugliest of all of us, well, he was married to a beautiful sad woman, long dark hair and eyes that were older than the world, and he treated her like shit, threatening her all the time that he’d throw her out on her ass, telling her that she was lucky, bitch, that anyone would have her. And she believed him, even though any of us would have taken her in a flat second. Ed the Jew went and screwed old howler Cyndi, not telling her—like he told us afterward—that his pecker shoots blanks, and so there was no way she was going to catch him in her baby making snatch.
     It wasn’t long before Cyndi decided that she didn’t like scientists after all, particularly scientists who are composers as well, and least of all those of the genus Blaise variety. Blaise was an Italian—Catholic, that is—and so of course he married her when, a few weeks after the five orgasm evening, she announced the arrival of the swelling zygote in her quim. Blaise owned the dead aunt’s house, making him initially double desirable—a landowner—and making him an honorary citizen and another among the whitey minority, and therefore hated and fair and obligatory game for the blacks and Mexicans. Blaise became a local celebrity at Dick’s, showing up at six in the morning when we were having our pre-work vodkas, except Blaise didn’t leave. He’d still be there at noon when we came for our mid-day picker-upper. The baby was almost due, and Cyndi was going out of her mind because she didn’t want to live in Oakland—as if any of us wanted to live in Oakland, for fuck’s sake. Why’d I marry a nerdy goofball scientist if I was just going to have to live in this shithole! But Blaise’s science, she had discovered, wasn’t the science you see on the TV, the Berkeley or Harvard dude in the white smock making a killing designing weapons that melt the eyeballs of billions of gooks and turn their bones into interstellar dust, then coming home to his swanky house with a dock and a rowboat in which he stored a ukulele that he’d play her love songs on while he paddled around at sunset. No, Blaise’s alchemy consisted of a little shed he’d built in the backyard, an ice-chest filled with cheap vodka that came in plastic bottles, a stack of paper, some pens, a port-a-potty so he didn’t have to ever come out, and a door that locked from the inside so no one could bother him, especially his new bride. What he was working on? None of us knew, and when we’d ask him, he’d just say, “Yes.” We’d push him, we’d buy him drinks, we’d try to get him drunker but he’d just smile, even when his head was hanging, and he’d say, “Yes.” He was kind of fucked up, come to think of it.
     The day after the baby was born, the blacks and Mexicans welcomed Blaise to the neighborhood, Oakland fashion, the Mexicans stopping their low-rider in front of Blaise and Cyndi’s house, parked, and a black dude was walking past on the sidewalk and they opened fire, zip guns and pistols, the black dude a mess of meat strewn all over the yard and guts and blood splattered on the house’s windows and porch. That wasn’t the bad part, though, not for Blaise. The bad part, he told us, was that Cyndi really hated him after the “multi-cultural exchange,” as he called it. Cyndi hated him because when the bullets started flying, when they came through the front of the house and peppered the walls, Blaise grabbed the baby out of Cyndi’s hands and dove, protecting himself and the baby, while Cyndi, in some kind of chick state of shock, just stood there, motionless. She just stood there and most of the bullets missed her, but one didn’t. It went through a butt-cheek and lodged right in her asshole. She screamed, “They shot my ass! They shot my ass!” and Blaise laughed. He couldn’t help it, he told us, it was just so fucking funny, at the time. Even at the hospital, when she came out of the anesthesia and asked Blaise if she was okay, if she’d live, Blaise laughed even then, and he said, “You had a bullet stuck in your asshole, but someday you’ll shit just fine again.” Cyndi never forgave him, didn’t forgive him for not helping her out of harm’s way, didn’t forgive him for laughing when she got shot in the ass, and sure as shit never forgave him for making that crack about being able to shit fine again someday. And the more pissed off she got at him, the less he gave a fuck. She’d be hobbling around complaining about her asshole, and he’d tell her that someday he’d have the money to buy her a bionic asshole, one that would be able to shoot a turd three hundred yards with the accuracy to pop a Mexican square between the eyes.
     Blaise went to work harder than ever at his alchemy, or his composing, or whatever the fuck he was up to, locking himself away in his shed for weeks at a time, never coming out except to sneak some food or dump his port-a-potty along the fence in the backyard, making a dash back into the shed before Cyndi could catch him. She was still too fat from the baby and hobbling too much from her injured asshole to start screwing around on Blaise—Ed the Jew told us he wouldn’t even fuck her anymore, not without her asshole, because Cyndi’s asshole, Ed the Jew assured us, was exactly fifty-one percent of what was interesting about Cyndi—and so what she’d do was stand in the backyard holding the baby in the air and yelling at Blaise, calling him every name she could think of, screeching, “This is your baby! Your baby, you motherfucker! Some fucking father you are!” And one time she even wedged a two-by-four under Blaise’s shack and tipped it over when he was inside.
     She left him. She left him and took his baby, took his baby away, took away his child. They do that, our women. She left him, took the baby, and told him he was a very bad father, pointing and wagging her finger at him like she was scolding a naughty child, which, of course, is the worst thing you can tell or do to one of us. Christ, we know we’re bad men, no one knows that better than us. Hell, we know we’re bad human beings, but what we hope, what we want, is to make some goddamn babies and raise them better than we’ve been raised. We want to make up for our shittiness by producing people, kids, that are better than us, that have it better, that get the toys we did not get, desserts after every fucking meal.
      When Cyndi left, Blaise lost it. He sold the house and moved into a stucco apartment building that used to be a shitty motel just two doors down. He sold all his stuff. I bought his silverware. Louie, the bartender at Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, bought his velvet Elvis. “She told me I’m a bad father. She took my baby. She took my baby,” and that’s all we ever heard before he stopped coming to Dick’s. “She took my baby,” he’d say. “My flesh and blood, my progeny, my raison d’etre, my soul. My child is going to be raised by that harpy.” When he stopped making forays into public, we’d send recon teams to check up on him, and Blaise would just be sitting in the little apartment he’d rented watching CNN, mesmerized, bottle of vodka in one hand and a cigar in the other. There was no furniture in his apartment, not a scrap, just a TV on the floor and a boom-box that played the classical station even while the TV was blaring. No food in the fridge. Not even beer. No dishes. A bar of soap in the bathroom, but no towels, no washrags. What was weird, though, was the floor of his bathroom. It was lined with row after row of bleach bottles, and each time anyone pissed or shat in his toilet, he’d dump in a bottle of bleach. That was one clean fucking toilet.
      Everything that happened on the news was a sign from the gods for Blaise. A tornado would rip through some dipshit trailer park in Texas and Blaise would know, I mean he’d know, that the government was conducting secret weather-manipulating experiments that would eventually culminate in a cataclysmic weapon that would shear renegade neighborhoods from the map. Some carpet-pilot in the Middle East would mumble about Allah and then blow himself up in the market square in Jerusalem, and Blaise would have visions of angels warring in the heavens. A species of toad would go extinct in the rain forests of Brazil and Blaise would calculate the precise hour of mankind’s final breath. If a sandstorm in Egypt burned a whisker off the Sphinx, a curse had been unleashed and punishment was coming, the wrath of ancient demons rolling across the planet in a wave of sulphurous fire.
      Yeah, yeah. We’d seen this kind of shit before, so none of us was all too worried. It was a stage we all went through once in a while. That’s just the way things work. Louie, the bartender, was used to us having the occasional vision of doom. “It’s just the scaries,” Louie would say. “We all get them, the scaries. But eventually the scaries go away.” And he’d help whoever’d fallen off their stool, prop him back up at the bar, and pour him another cocktail. The scaries? No problem. That’s why God invented booze.
      We’d seen it all before, but we’d never seen a complete flipout, not Blaise-style. His ravings about gods and goddesses, his references to stuff we didn’t know shit about, his high-falutin cosmopolitical geoconspiratorial goop—well, we chalked it up to all that education he’d got himself at his fancy community college, all the crap he’d been served by his goofball hippie professors with more degrees than common sense. Hell, Blaise didn’t sound any more out there than the nutcases you could hear at any rally, in any bar, on any street corner in Berkeley, the Bay Area’s no-man’s hive of screwed up whacked-out pot-head acid-freaked zombies with degrees that were good for nothing but rolling their joints and wiping their educated assholes.
      Blaise had always talked like one of them, big words and ideas not that we couldn’t understand, but that we didn’t give a shit about. When he flipped out, when he started up his own personal Church of Incomprehensible Bullshit, when he started sounding like he’d been sucking on an exhaust pipe, we still checked up on him. But when he went over the edge, when he lost it utterly and went beyond what any of us had ever seen, we said fuckit. What’s the point? Not only was he was gone into Berkeley land, sailing away on some fumes none of us wanted to inhale, but instead of just floating away, he made a spectacle of himself, and even though we tried to bring him back down to earth, nothing we tried could tether him. He was gone.
      At first, there were merely Blaise sightings. Someone would spot him wandering the neighborhood, shaking his fist at the sky and ranting lines from Shakespeare or the Bible or some shit like that. Glenn said he spotted Blaise one time on the top of the bleachers at Castlemont High School, a piece of re-bar ten feet long in his hand and pointed like a lightning rod, and it was raining and Blaise was laughing so loud Glenn could feel the laughter rumble his feet as if a train were going past. When Tony Polizzi spotted Blaise, Blaise was face down in the gutter on 98th street, right in the heart of the darkest of Oakland dark. Not that this was a big deal, someone face down in the gutter. Hell, we’d all been there. But on that street? Where the nearest white man was miles away and where even in daylight the blacks would gut you at a stoplight if your work truck’s door was unlocked? What the fuck was Blaise doing there, anyway? Polizzi shoved Blaise into his truck and started back toward Dick’s, where people would take care of Blaise and Louie would pour him one of his fancy expensive vodkas, but when Polizzi got to the corner of 98th and East 14th Street, while the truck was moving, Blaise unlocked the door and tumbled himself out onto the street, rolling. Polizzi stopped his truck, but by then Blaise was off and running, howling and reciting some of that college shit of his, disappearing over barbed wire and into dark. After the Incident of 98th Street, we agreed to send Shylock Shapiro to Blaise’s empty apartment to check up on him, because Shapiro was the only one of us who’d been to college, some fancy Jew college in New York City, and because Blaise was obviously not right, and Shapiro wasn’t right either, and maybe they’d have some kind of college boy fucked up simpatico shit going on. Shapiro could hear music playing through Blaise’s door, some kind of classical shit, but it wasn’t quiet like classical music. Instead, it was loud, as if Blaise had hired an entire symphony orchestra and all two hundred musicians were right there in Blaise’s apartment. Who listens to classical shit like that? Only a madman. Shapiro knocked and knocked, beat on that door, and a black chick came out into the hallway and said, “You go, boy. Shut that crazy-ass honky motherfuck the motherfuck up. He crazy. And shit.” And Shapiro beat on that door, and finally Blaise answered and his eye was leaking blood, blood streaming down his cheek and neck and staining his shirt, not fast bleeding but a steady leak like a brake line or better yet like a transmission line, the red fluid oozing in visible pulses. Blaise held a bottle of vodka. He held it out to Shapiro, uncapped. “Have a drink, good sir?” he said. What had Blaise done? He’d jabbed his eye with an ice pick—Shapiro saw it on the floor, bloody—and when Shapiro took him to the hospital, dragged him there, actually, all Blaise did was rant about some dude named Glouster, about Oedipus, about how “mine eyes seeth not the evil of the world.”
     After the Incident of the Eyeball, we knew things had gotten out of hand, so we sent Owen Jorgensen after Blaise. Jorgensen was a retired Navy SEAL, and he was a serious person, Jorgensen. He worked for the Concrete Wall Sawing guys, demo—demolition. He loved blowing shit up, anything. Fourth of July he’d bring out all the stuff he’d swiped when he got discharged, his footlocker filled with sticks of dynamite and plastic explosives and detonators and all kinds of other goodies that made a statement, and he’d dance in the alley and we’d drink beers and duck for cover and laugh hysterical when he blasted a tricycle into the air or blew a crater into the asphalt. Buildings, though, buildings were his favorites, tearing them into rubble. There’d been half a dozen houses filled with Mexican gangs that’d been mysteriously blown to smithereens since Jorgensen retired and came home to the neighborhood. None of us minded one bit, because those scumbags were nothing but trouble anyway, pothead lowrider fucks. Jorgensen was the Concrete Wall Sawing explosives man, doing what he loved best, destroying. “It’s better to destroy than to create,” he’d say. “And the effects are more permanent and more sublime. Eternal.” Every time one of us had a problem, every time someone at Dick’s got fucked over by his boss, every time someone’s wife was fucking some Mexican or San Francisco lawyer faggot, Jorgensen would practically beg us to let him take care of the problem. “Address,” Jorgensen would say, and he’d put on his sunglasses and stare at us through them, expressionless. And we knew the psycho was absolutely serious, that if we would just give him that address, our problem would be solved, and solved utterly—utterly and without repercussions. And we loved him, and he loved us all, Jorgensen. He loved us, and he’d do anything for us, and he’d be able to take care of our problems without getting caught, because that’s what he’d done for a living. We needed someone tougher and smarter than us to get Blaise straightened out, and Jorgensen was the man for the Blaise problem. He’d been asking us to send him all along, telling us that he could take care of this shit, but we’d not wanted to send him, for obvious reasons. Now, though, now it was time for Jorgensen, and so we let him loose on Blaise.
     When we asked Jorgensen to take care of Blaise’s problem, of course the first thing Jorgensen thought was that we were putting a hit on Blaise’s ex, Cyndi. “About damned time,” Jorgensen said. He took his sunglasses from the pocket of his pea-coat and put them on. Jorgensen said, “Address.” Then he smiled. No, we said, it’s not his ex, it’s Blaise. Jorgensen stopped smiling. “Look,” he said, “Blaise isn’t my best buddy in the world, but he’s a buddy. I drink vodka with him right here in this bar. I have no problem with bitch ex’s, or with their new lover-boys, but I draw a line. No one I drink with is a potential target.” We were relieved to hear this, and I bought a round for everyone, and we drank together, us and Jorgensen.
     We took turns telling Jorgensen what we knew of the Blaise situation. I said, “Blaise bleaches the toilet after every piss and every turd, a gallon of bleach for every pint of piss.” Shapiro told of the Incident of the Eyeball, Polizzi recounted the 98th Street Occurrence. Glenn explained the Castlemont High Bleachers Improper Laughter Event.
      Jorgensen shook his head. “Every time?” Jorgensen said.
      “Every time.”
      Jorgensen said, “Something must be done.”
      Jorgensen told us that he’d do it right. He told us that first he’d cover the necessary intelligence, find out everything he could about the target. He led us outside to his F-150 and opened his tool boxes. They were filled with all kinds of stuff, boxes of ammo, pistols, disassembled automatic weapons, Tommy-gun shotgun cartridges to make streetsweepers with, plastic explosives and detonators we’d seen him fart around with every Fourth of July, sticks of dynamite. He pulled a cammie combat vest from the top of the pile and put it on. He checked it—pistols strapped to the inside, knives in a dozen pockets, metal Chinese stars that looked like they could mow down a telephone pole, grenades.
      He told us about the stuff. “Knee pads,” he said. “For CQB, Close Quarters Battle. A Super Lite bullet proof vest, Classified, you tell, you die.” He looked at us. We nodded. We understood. “First-aid kit for self-surgery, claymores, frag-grenades, Blackhawk assault vest, 40mm grenade launcher. A Surefire flash light with visible laser sight mechanism—hey, put the red dot on what you want to kill, maim, or destroy. Pop goes the weasel!”
      “But Jorgensen,” I said. “We just want you to take care of him.”
      Jorgensen jerked his head toward me. He stared. His eyes twitched. “You,” he said. He looked at all of us. “You, my friends, are sending me on a mission. Do you understand.”
      I said, “We understand, but.”
      “But nothing,” Jorgensen said. “You are sending me on a mission. On a mission a man must be prepared. If you shits understood this basic principle of survival, if Blaise understood this most elementary aspect of the nature of the way things work, he wouldn’t need me. And neither would you.”
      We looked at the ground.
      “Any more dumb-ass comments?” Jorgensen said. “No? Good. Now,” he said, and he continued. “Multiban-inter/intra team radio specific for spec-ops coms known as the an/prc-148, alternatively as the ‘lash’ which is the unit mounted around the neck and larynx throat-operated mike, the MSHR encrypted coms unit. I can whisper and my team will hear me like the voice of God. Flotation flak jacket configured as a raid vest with D-rings mag-pouches and accessory pouches strategically located. An LBV, Load Bearing Vest, will carry from 125 to 200 pounds of equipment. I carry one whole hell lot of shit.”
      And on and on he went.
      He tossed a grenade at Shapiro, the wimpiest of all of us. “Don’t drop that flash-banger,” Jorgensen said. He looked at Shapiro serious behind those sunglasses of his. He lifted a box and opened it and it was filled with electronic equipment. “Wiretaps,” he said, “to discern the nature of his communications and the possible effects of hostile incoming, namely, The Ex.” He lifted another box and opened it. “Night vision,” he said, patting the goggles with love. “An AN/PVS-7 and the new AN/PVS-21 see-through NVG, strobe light. If the target leaves under cover of darkness, tracking him will be as easy as trailing a semi.” From the same box he pulled a mini radar looking thing. “Ears,” he said. “His mutterings will be known.” He looked at Shapiro. “I’m counting on you to translate that college boy bullshit. I’ll provide tapes, you transcribe them, and then they must be destroyed. Audio recordings, unlike video impressions, are illegal unless proper consent is secured. That’s the law.”
      It wasn’t quite what we wanted of Jorgensen. All we really wanted was for Jorgensen to gather up some of Blaise’s remains and stop Blaise from destroying himself, scare the living shit out of him enough to make him stop acting stupid over a cunt and her deviously conceived progeny, because though we’d all been down, and were sure to go down again, we’d not seen anyone down as far as Blaise without rubbing himself out, shooting himself or gutting himself or drinking himself to death or just plain losing the will to live and letting his heart stop beating. Fucking alto, amigo. No mas, adios. We just wanted Jorgensen to slap some fucking sense into Blaise. Sure, Blaise was kind of weird, fucked up in ways we didn’t really understand, way out there because of all his college and books and big goddamn words. But Blaise was one of us, and anytime one of us went down, in a way we all did, we all dropped yet another rung down into the shitpile of life, and although none of us ever entertained any hopes of climbing any higher out of the shitpile, none of us for damn fuck’s sake wanted to go any fucking lower. We were all way to close to the bottom, and we knew it. Lose Blaise, and the next thing you know you can’t even afford Olympia beer. Lose Blaise, like we’d already lost Mike, Earl, P.J., George, Andrew, Joey Corollo, Clyde Lee, Bill Ware, Antonio—shit, lose Blaise, and it would take a lot of beers to get over it. Blaise wasn’t even bad off. He still had some money coming in from his jingles, Blaise. He’d been to college. He was nowhere near the bottom. He scrubbed toilets not because he had to, but because he wanted to, for fuck’s sake.
      We didn’t see or hear from either Blaise or Jorgensen for about two weeks, but one day, Jorgensen walked into Dick’s with a bunch of rolls of paper tucked beneath his arms. He was wearing his sunglasses and his combat vest. He looked bigger than he usually did. Really big. His chest looked like a 55 gallon oil drum, full. He was a big son of a bitch, for some reason. “Non-regulars,” he said. “Out,” he said. “Now.” Jorgensen looked at the new guy. The new guy left. I finished his scotch. Hell, it was some of that expensive shit Louie keeps only for show. No sense in wasting that stuff.
      Jorgensen said, “Clear the bar.” What, we said. “Clear. A clean bar is necessary.” And we took our beers and drinks and cleared the way. He set the scrolls on the bar and began unrolling them, grabbing cocktail glasses to hold the paper down. We sidled up to the bar to see what was the what. Blueprints, is what. Schematics. Detailed studies of all Blaise’s comings and goings, of every movement he’d made in the past two weeks. Arrows, dotted lines, stick figures, special symbols, skulls and crossbones, Spy-v-Spy little black bombs sparkling and ready to explode, color-coded indexed dated timed and stamped, notary-public. He’d coded a legend at the bottom of each scroll as if each were an atlas. “The life of Blaise,” Jorgensen said.
      We drank.
      “Blaise is a consistent person,” Jorgensen said. “Every day he does the same things at the same times in the same ways. As far as targets go, he gives any professional a hard dick. O-four hundred hours, Blaise leans out of bed, left hand on the floor followed by left foot and then right hand and foot, resulting in a four-point position resembling either a baby or a soldier, depending on one’s perspective and personal opinion. Soldier, in my opinion.” He gave us that look of his. He said, “Soldier.”
      There was a reverence in Jorgensen’s voice I’d not before heard. It was as if he were way too commiserate with psycho Blaise. Jorgensen understood something about Blaise that we didn’t, and I could tell the rest of the guys felt as funny about it as I did. Somehow I felt really small, like some fucking dwarf that didn’t understand the world of great men.
      “Purification,” Jorgensen said. “He crawls to the toilet, vomits, then pours a gallon of Clorox bleach into the toilet and scrubs with his hands, wiping the random splatters with bleach soaked toilet tissue, Charmin. After clearing of the stomach, emptying of the intestines and bladder, followed by Clorox and toilet tissue spot check. Sweat, the color and texture of cooled bacon grease, oozes slowly from temples, brow, neck, armpits, and groin.”
      “Jorgensen,” I said.
       “O-four thirteen, to the kitchen, clad in boxer shorts, plain white and uncannily sanitary. Open freezer. Withdraw Absolut vodka bottle, 1.75 liter, four gulps, Adam’s apple clicking once per gulp. Cap rescrewed, bottle reinstalled.”
      “Jorgensen,” I said. “We don’t need all the details.”
      He gave me another one of those looks of his.
      I think I might have sighed or something like that, an outsuck of breath or a shoulder-slump of desperation or resignation. “Jorgensen.”
      He, though, he, Jorgensen, he gave me a look like no one’s ever given me before or since, a look not of disappointment or sadness, no, a look of some kind of shock or disappointment or incomprehension. It was as if I’d said something or done something utterly unutterable, something so wrong that no human being, and certainly no one at Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge would ever say, something so bad that somehow Jorgensen’s faith, his belief in humanity, had been shaken, had been rended and ripped and torn and shredded and stomped upon. It was as if I’d told Owen Jorgensen that his work didn’t matter, and there’s nothing worse you can tell a man who’s having a beer at Dick’s.
      “You know,” Jorgensen said. “You know, details.” He told Louie to bring him a glass of bottled water.
      “Not a beer?” Louie said.
      “A soldier,” he said, “a man,” he said, “does not compromise his clarity,” Jorgensen said.
      “What?”
      “Water,” Jorgensen said.
      “Water,” Shapiro said.
      Jorgensen cut Shapiro a look.
      “What?” Shapiro said. “What? What? What.”
      Jorgensen bowed his head as if in prayer, then slowly raised it. He looked creepy, like someone truly serious. His head looked fucking huge. He took off his cap. He’d shaved it. His skull looked like someone had pounded it with a ball-peen hammer. You could see dents and craters. Fucked up, that head of his.
      “You boys have called on me,” Jorgensen said. “And do you know why? Why is this. Why is because I know the difference between that which is clear and that which is not, and these two things can be predetermined by he who nourishes clarity. Know the other,” Jorgensen said. “Know yourself, and victory will not be at risk. Know the ground, know the conditions of nature. The victory will be utter. If we know the face of the enemy. If you intend to win the war, it is proper to continue fighting. If loss is imminent, it is prudent to quit. If you do not know—well gentlemen, if you don’t know, you’re fucked.”
     Jorgensen took a sip of water. “I never fight,” Jorgensen said, “if I don’t know. In order to know, one must gather, one must ingest, one must become details.”
     He looked around the room. “Details,” he said. “Details, gentlemen. If you’d paid heed to details, you wouldn’t be here with the likes of me. Fuckup motherfuckers.”
      Someone bought Jorgensen a drink.
      Jorgensen pushed the drink aside and took another sip of his water. “To continue,” he said. “The target then returns to his bedroom, attires himself in unfashionable straight-legged jeans, Puritan label—Wal-Mart—and denim button-up shirt. Florsheim wing-tips, black. Returns to refrigerator, four more generous gulps of Absolut vodka. He then makes phone calls. It is these phone calls that pose the most interesting question concerning the target and his behavior.”
      Jorgensen reached into his ruck-sack and pulled out a small plastic box. Inside were a dozen cassette tapes, each labeled. He handed the tapes to Shapiro. “A transcript, accompanied by a translation of his psycho-babble. By seventeen hundred hours. Return the tapes to me so that I can destroy them with acid.”
      Jorgensen looked at us hard. “The case of Blaise is perhaps more serious and sinister than any of us had suspected. This is not merely a matter of Clorox.”
      “He’s that fucked up?”
      “You guys remember the Chavez girls?”
      We remembered. They were two of the sexiest girls in Oakland, and no one we knew had ever gotten to screw them. They were legendary. When one of them came into the Mohawk station, everybody fought for the chance to fill their tank, to, as we’d say, give them the hose. Their cars always left with the air pressure exactly on target, the oil, water, transmission oil, brake fluid, and windshield wipers checked. We’d be readjusting our dicks for an hour after one of them came in. About six months before the case of Blaise someone had killed both of them, raped them, chopped their heads off, and, according to Eddie Martino the cop, each of them had their hands and tongues cut off. It was pretty nasty. Cutting off heads is one thing, but cutting off tongues and hands, that’s another. That shit don’t make the papers.
      “Blaise may be the killer,” Jorgensen said.
      We laughed and tipped one. Blaise? Right. Blaise might have been a nut case, but he was one pussy-ass Southern California wimp. There was no way Blaise cut a girl’s tongue out. No way.
      “His phone calls,” Jorgensen said, “are to the coroner, the police, the morgue, the cemetery, the Chavez parents, and the girls’ friends. In that order, every day. He wants all the details, and he’s writing them down, copiously and with method. The tapes will tell.”
      Jorgensen directed us to his scrolls, and he told us the rest, indicating Blaise’s movements with his finger moving along carefully drawn and color-coded lines on the schematic. Every day Blaise would leave his apartment and walk to Cyndi’s house across town, a seven mile trek, and he’d just sit on the curb across the street staring, sometimes crying when he caught a glimpse of the kid. Then he’d pull a little notebook out of his pocket and retrace the steps of the Chavez girls’ last day alive, starting at their parents’ house, going to their boyfriends’ houses, on to Castlemont High, from class to class and Blaise would walk the halls—he’d convinced the guards that he was on the school board—and then to the Mac’s Lounge where they’d had lunch together, back to school, to the football field where they’d had cheerleader practice.
     Jorgensen paused. He knitted his brow and said, “Here the target deviates from the Chavez girls’ last day. He drives to Medeiros Liquors and purchases a liter of Absolut, opens the bottle, takes four gulps, caps the bottle and places it in the trunk of his car. He then resumes the day of the girls—to their boyfriends’ houses, each in turn, as the target could not be in two places at once.” At nightfall, Blaise would sit in front of the house until the time when they’d gone on their dates, Lucy and her boy to Skyline Boulevard to make out with a view of Oakland and San Francisco spreading out like a miracle and looking beautiful instead of ugly, Maria and her boy to the San Leandro Marina, the Oakland dumps to one side, San Mateo across the water of the bay, Tony Lema landfill golf course behind them, the smell of methane rising like a fog as they fucked in the car. And Blaise went to each place, squatted and with his chin cupped in his hands, staring, crying. The Chavez girls met up a midnight in Berkeley to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and after the show they went to the bathroom and that was the last time anybody saw them, except the guy who killed them. So every night Blaise would go to the theater, and the nights The Rocky Horror Picture Show wasn’t playing, he’d watch whatever was, then go into the ladies’ restroom at the exact time the Chavez girls would have.
     We shook our heads. We drank.
     “The ladies’ restroom excursions are not the fucked up part, nor are they the most incriminating,” Jorgensen said. “What’s fucked up is this. After the target emerges from the ladies’ room, he gets into his car and drives to Mountain View Cemetery, locates the graves of the Chavez girls—section one hundred sixty-six, row forty-five, lot thirteen, Lucy, and fourteen, Maria—and he lies down, alternately, for one hour sixteen to one hour twenty-two minutes, on their graves. After which he returns home and drinks most of the bottle of Absolut purchased during the day, leaving enough to drink in the morning, the ritual of which I have conveyed.”
     “Fuck,” someone said.
     “Yes,” Jorgensen said. “Fuck.”
     “The fuck,” someone said.
     “The fuck,” Jorgensen agreed.
     “What the fuck,” someone said.
     “I’m not the only professional on this case,” Jorgensen said. “The FBI and the local authorities are both very interested. Very interested indeed. Do you know how difficult it is to tap a wire that is already tapped? Do you know? Do you? No,” Jorgensen said. “No you don’t.”
     “Fuck,” someone said.
     “The target has an alibi. The night of the Chavez double murder, he was in the hospital with his wife, who had a bullet lodged in her anus. However, the anus alibi may be a cover for the crime. At least that is the suspicion of the law enforcement agencies interested in the case. They suspect.”
     Jorgensen pointed to his maps, took a pencil from one of his vest pockets, and drew an X over Blaise’s apartment. “The target must be silenced,” Jorgensen said. “He may be silenced through removal, relocation, or means more sure.” Jorgensen said, “In any event, the target must be silenced. Promptly, and permanently. For the sake of the neighborhood. For the sake of Blaise the Suffering Soldier.”
     He slammed his water back like it was a shot of Beam. “This briefing has concluded,” he said.
     He snapped his sunglasses to his face, rolled up his scrolls, and marched on out of Dick’s. He had to turn sideways to walk out the door, so big were his shoulders, and so much equipment he bore beneath his vest.
     We didn’t see Jorgensen for two more weeks, and so we figured that nothing had changed, or would. At Dick’s things stayed the same. I kept playing Cumbias and Rancheras and Merengue with Los Asesinos at the Mexican nightclubs and weddings and quinceaneras and parties while working days as a laborer, my most recent gig running the tar mop on commercial roofs, warehouses mostly, nasty rusted oversized corrugated tin sheds, sweating my ass off in the crude oil steam, actually getting to like the smell.
     The day Jorgensen resurfaced was not a good day. Louie, the bartender, had discovered that not only had some chick he’d banged twenty years before given him a child, but that she’d popped out a set of triplets. Three boys, now men, and they all hated him, because all the mother had done for twenty years, twenty pissed off Italian Catholic years, is train them, train them to hate the motherfucker who fucked her and left her pregnant in the Bronx, where Louie was from, left her knocked up in a roach infested walk-up, and then blew out of town to California, where all the pretty people lived. Louie the deadbeat, Louie the louse, Louie the no-child-support no-Christmas-present no-christening-card no-graduation-present no-college-fund no-count piece of human shit. The triplets had come in at lunchtime, and Louie didn’t know at first who they were, and then the awful fact began to dawn on him, the fact that there were three, that he’d knocked up a Maria and she’d had not one child but triplets. They’d come into Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge and bought a bottle of whiskey, bought the whole bottle, and told Louie they wanted three shotglasses. Louie looked at them, the three of them, huge Bronx men dressed in black tee shirts, muscles bulging, black Ben Davis work pants and even the baggy Ben’s weren’t enough to hide the huge thighs—these sons of bitches looked like they’d been working out their entire lives just for this meeting—and speaking in the old neighborhood accent and sounding exactly like him, looking exactly like him, four Louies at the bar all looking at each other, three Louies looking at Louie like they were going to kill him, talking about their deadbeat motherfucker father and how they were going to take care of his sorry ass, and just how they were going to do it, in great detail. They nailed that bottle, and they left Louie a c-note for a tip. The last tip Louie thought he was ever going to get, and he was sure that’s what the triplets had intended him to think. Louie was not in good shape. His hands shook when he poured our beers. And then, to ice it, Jorgensen walked in, and Jorgensen was excited, something we all thought impossible for Jorgensen, the levelest head of us all. His face was painted green and black. He was wearing his sunglasses. Sweat dripped down his face and smeared his warpaint. He had a big manila folder in his hand. He looked very serious.
     “Hey Louie,” Carlo Mendez said. “Hey, the scaries always go away.”
     Dave Campos said, “A triple-shot for Louie!”
     Jorgensen looked at Campos and Mendez with contempt. He said, “Non-regulars, out.”
     No one moved.
     “Now,” Jorgensen said. And he meant it truly. Something was up. Something was very wrong.
     The non-regulars were women. One of them ugly, the other a two o’clock special, suitable after a long night.
     “Don’t send out the beautiful ladies,” Shapiro said.
     Jorgensen said, “I will tell your tales first.” He said, “Would you like that, Shylock?”
     Shapiro turned to the women. “You have to leave,” he said.
     He tried to get the non-ugly’s phone number while he was helping her on with her sweater, but she’d have none of it. “Assholes,” she said as she stood. The porker was cool about the expulsion. She acted like it happened all the time.
     Jorgensen said, “The mission is complete.”
     He killed Blaise, what I thought. He tried to reason with the crazed alchemist composer, a struggle ensued because Blaise doesn’t have the common sense of a turnip, and Blaise lashed out, and Jorgensen, trained to react and to kill before being killed, Jorgensen whipped out some knife or pistol or grenade and stuffed it down crazy Blaise’s throat and that was that, end of Blaise. And now Jorgensen was human. Jorgensen needed help because he’d murdered someone without the sanction of the U.S. of A. Jorgensen never understood that you don’t get medals for killing people unless you’re killing people you don’t know and who’ve never done a fucking thing to you. Half of us had either killed someone, had someone killed, or had someone in the family do one or the other.
     “Blaise is gone,” Jorgensen said. “He will no longer be a concern.”
     He took off his sunglasses, and he looked at us, and the look was one of shame.
     “I have failed,” he said.
     If I hadn’t have known better, known it was sweat trickling from his forehead, I’d have sworn I saw a tear.
     He set the manila folder down on the bar and sat on a stool. The Raiders were not winning, Louie was all messed up, Shapiro’s wife had given him “one year’s notice,” told him that if he didn’t shape up and start making more money like a man, if he didn’t give her a real home, she was going to dump him. “And then she went shopping,” Shapiro said, “bought a bunch of expensive organic vegetables and fruits. Do you know how much that stuff costs?” It was shaping up to be a pretty rotten day.
     “Jack Daniels,” Jorgensen said, and we all knew that something was seriously wrong. No one ever ordered stuff like that except non-regulars. Why buy that stuff when Beam gets you just as drunk and costs half as much? Sure, you get a hangover, but you get a hangover from anything. Hell, if you haven’t had much to eat, you can even get a hangover from beer if you drink a few twelvers.
     Louie lined him up. Jorgensen tossed it back. “Another,” he said. Louie poured. Jorgensen drank. “Bottle,” Jorgensen said. Louie slid the bottle in front of him. Jorgensen drank.
     We just watched him, sat quiet and sipping. We knew eventually, when he’d had enough, he’d cue us in to the score.
     Jorgensen drunk is not a good thing, usually. It doesn’t happen often, because Jorgensen doesn’t like the mop-up work afterwards, retracing his steps and fixing the shit he’s fucked up, making all those phone calls. That can be some real work. Sure, when there’s women and when he’s happy, he’s a good drunk, like anyone is when he’s got a woman wants to go home with him. But when he’s going to go home alone, and when he’s not happy to start with, and when he gets drunk, and especially when someone messes with him, then, then Jorgensen drunk is not a good thing. He’s pretty quick with those knives of his, Jorgensen. He could be just sitting there at his stool, calm as ditch water, and if he’s had enough to drink, and if someone crosses one of his lines—and still no one is quite sure of what those lines are—they shift around all the time—once Polizzi ended up with a broken finger for putting cream in his coffee—if someone crosses the line the next thing you know Jorgensen has one of us on the ground, three or four knives in his hands, one of them at our throat.
     “I was posted in the park, approximately two hundred yards from the residence of the target,” Jorgensen said. “In a redwood tree.”
     And he told us what happened. “Feds,” Jorgensen said. “Stupid fuck started making house calls at the homes of kidnapped girls. Kidnapping, federal. Not good.”
     Jorgensen said he was perched in the redwood, binoculars trained on Blaise, when he saw the vans and unmarkeds silently coast to stops to either side of Blaise’s, engines turned off, vehicles in neutral, stealth mode. Two SWAT teams in full combat gear and two carloads of CO’s emptied onto the street and fanned out, surrounding Blaise’s apartment building. The exterior units used ropes to scale the walls, the interior units poised at the rear and front entrances. Then they stormed, crashing through Blaise’s door and windows. They trained their weapons on Blaise, smashed his face down on his manuscript, manacled his wrists and ankles, and carried him down the stairs, depositing him in the back seat of one of the unmarked cars. Blaise was limp, as if he hadn’t a muscle in his body, and he didn’t say a word. Jorgensen said he even thought he saw Blaise smile.
     Jorgensen looked at me. “T-Bird, I give you the remains of Blaise.” And he handed me the manila folder. It was Blaise’s symphony, scored, eighty pages, stopped mid-phrase in the ninth movement. “Is it any good, or is it as insane as Blaise is?”
     Everybody knew I played trumpet in the Mexican bands around the Bay Area, and they thought I was pretty damn good, too. But I knew I was just a first-rate second-rate player, good enough to sound badass at a wedding or in a bar, but far from being good enough to play with the pros. There are some things about creating art that cannot be learned, that either you got or you don’t. And I knew I didn’t. And on the construction sites, I worked harder and with more seriousness, because I knew that I wasn’t a trumpet player because of gift, but because of inclination. My gift was that I could labor for sixteen hours straight, keep up with the best of the Mexicans, and not pass out. My gift was that I was born to build pyramids.
     So the score? I couldn’t read that motherfucker. I could read treble clef, and only in the key of B-flat, the key of the trumpet, which meant that I could read music written for tenor sax and for trumpet, and that’s it, no mas. All that other shit, the key of E-flat, the key of what the fuck ever, bass clef, pentatonic this and mixolydian that, it was all a foreign tongue to me. I couldn’t even play chopsticks on a piano without fucking it up, and plenty of times I’d tried. Some guys, they can look at a score and actually hear the music, hear all the instruments playing, hear what the piece would sound like in a concert hall. They can look at the notes on the page scattered all over the place like some spattering of ink drops, they can see the mess and their brains instantaneously translate the gibberish secret code into a hundred and twenty musicians moaning a note, moving through a phrase, swelling to a crescendo, banging the muse. Not me.
     So here’s this score in front of me, and all the guys are there, Campos, Polizzi, Shapiro, Jorgensen, Louie. To make things even more fucked up, Pop, my father Pop, walked in. And Pop was a real musician. He’d played in the Oakland Symphony. He could play “Carnival of Venice,” and he knew his way around the ivories. He wasn’t a bar bum, Pop. He walked in and his arms were slick with grease and motor oil and his knuckles were bleeding from banging around under the hood of some fucked up Plymouth or Rambler. Pop walked in and saw the bunch of us sitting there in confused gloom and he said, “What the fuck?”
     “Blaise,” I said.
     “That bitch,” he said. “What now?”
     “He’s in jail,” I said.
     Pop looked at Jorgensen. “Well?” Pop said. “I thought you were his friend.”
     Jorgensen, steroid pumped Navy SEAL wide as a lube bay solid as a girder Jorgensen, he broke down. He choked, and then he sobbed, and his eyes glazed and got water. We looked away, but Pop didn’t. Pop stared at him. He gave him that look that none of us ever want to get, that look that says, You’re a piece of shit, asshole, and you know what? You, amigo, are not a man to be counted on. You are someone I will not call when the hour is late and the situation is critical. Fucked. You, fuckup, are on the B list.
     “Well?” Pop said.
     “You want me to kill myself now?” Jorgensen said. “I’ll fucking do it,” he said. “I will.” And he flipped out some big knife from somewhere in his vest and held it at his gut. “I don’t care. Just give me the nod.”
     “Hold off, Hoss,” Pop said.
     “Pop,” I said. “Jorg tried his best. The feds got Blaise. He’s gone. Adios motherfucker gone, bye-bye,” I said. I said, “But he left this.” And I handed Pop Blaise’s score.
     We all looked at Pop, watched him flip through the pages, watched the expression on his face. He first looked at the pages with scrutiny, brows knit. He pulled a Roi-Tan from his coveralls and lit it and puffed on hard. Then he raised his eyebrows, and he looked at us over his plastic Clark Kent black-rimmed glasses, looked at us like he’d heard something we’d said but wasn’t sure exactly what it was, like he was checking on us, looked at us as if we’d done something questionable and a bit on the shady side.
     He took his time. We drank some cocktails. It was getting on in the day. Louie’s triplets walked in.
     “Out,” Jorgensen said.
    “They stay,” Louie said.
     Jorgensen gave Louie the look.
    “They’re my sons,” Louie said.
     They looked mean as shit. Two of them were packing. They ordered cocktails, and Ed the Jew paid. Then he bought a round for the house, un Ed-like. Since cheap-ass Ed the Jew bought a round, so did Shapiro, not to be out-Jewed by The Jew. And since the Jews were buying, shit, all the Catholic WOPs and the Portugees and Danish Jorg and Heinz-57 me, we all bought rounds, and hell, we each had a dozen drinks lined up and Louie’s boys kind of liked that and so did we.
     We were getting pretty jolly. The triplets joshed at Louie.
     “Fucked our mama and left,” they said. “Made some triplets. Triple shot. Think you have one big-ass dick, don’t you?”
     “You little wops haven’t seen a dick till you’ve seen mine, boys,” Louie said. “You think you got dicks like your daddy? Triplets. Each one a third of Big Papa.”
     Louie slammed one back—he was drinking his girlie Crown Royals—and then he said, “So let’s see them, boys. Let’s see.”
     And Louie asked them if their dicks were as big as his, his big dick triplet-making Italian baby-maker. “You think you’re the only kids I have out there? I’ve probably made fifty or sixty of them.”
     The triplets stood up, all three of them and all at once and they dropped their pants and even though they all looked exactly the same in every way we could tell, drawers down they didn’t, and everybody started chanting, “Louie, Louie, Louie,” and Campos chanted a little too enthusiastically and when he saw us look at him he toned that shit down is what he did. We don’t need none of that shit at Dick’s, not even when we’re drunk. We chanted “Louie Louie Louie” until finally he stood on the bar and dropped his drawers and flopped it out, and holy shit. No question about Louie, no way. It was so big we probably all wanted to see him bone a woman we knew. He said, “That puppy’s how you make triplets, boys,” and we cheered and the triplets looked sheepy at first and then they looked really proud. They wanted to buy us drinks, and we let them.
     Pop said, “Trumpet.”
     “What,” I said.
    “You got your horn?”
    “In my car,” I said.
    “Get it.”
    “My drink,” I said. “After.”
    “Get it,” Pop said, and he meant now.
     When I walked outside my eyes blinded white. It was near sunset and the fog had coozed in and the white air was electric. Birds flipped and flitted through the mist like dark ashes. You could hear the trains. You could hear their whistles and their wheels grinding on the iron rails, the crunch and slide of metal on metal. Somewhere a pile-driver slammed rhythmic and sure against concrete, breaking a foundation. Something burned. You couldn’t make out the writing on the billboards on the other side of the street, but you could see the beer bottles and the bikinis and big fake splendid shiny tits. You could see happy white-toothed paper faces. Warning buoys sounded low and plaintive, and they sounded more like they’d lure sailors than avert them, cause sure as shit I’d go toward them instead of away from them, so beautiful and home did they sound. Come home, T-Bird, they called. Come home. On the Nimitz Freeway the semis slicked across the asphalt and circulated the air, and birds and crickets and frogs—frogs in Oakland?—even frogs belched a song in the drape of fog. Oakland is at its best, at its most beautiful, when you can only see twenty feet of it. Oakland is the most beautiful place on the planet, because I’m the one in it, and I, folks, I am a tuning fork over the asshole of beauty. Every note the city makes is tested by me, tuned by me, translated by me. It’s why I’m alive, and it’s why Oakland is alive. And I see it, the beauty, everywhere, in the dandelions on the lawn being poisoned by the suburban lawn fanatic, in the rust on the wall of the warehouse graffitied by the home boys, in the dead duck hanging by the neck in the Chinese grocery, in the fat roll of the retard Martinez boy who sacks my groceries at Pete’s Market in the hood, in the drool that hangs perpetually from the dwarf Tony Costello’s chin because his brain is so fucked up that he can’t even breathe without his sister alongside him saying in, out, in Tony, out Tony, in Tony, out.
     The fog curled and settled like some grandmother’s heartfelt Christian blessing. My navy surplus stationwagon was dewed and looked like it’d just had a new Maaco job and had been waxed, and I breathed. I breathed deep and true and splendid and full.
     I’m not being corny, and I’m not being ironic. Our beauty, our beauty in my neighborhood is in this: the world, asshole, is only what you can see of it. When you can see only very little, you see it better, you see it more true. We’re cloaked in a shroud of fog in Oakland we are, smothered. And we can’t see the next street corner. And so we examine what we can see, and we know it. We know the cracks on our sidewalks. We know who lives in what apartment, and we know the other senses—we know what it smells like when we pass the Borges house, when we walk past the GE plant. And even if the shit we see is shit other people would think is ugly, it’s just because outsiders are used to the shit they think is beautiful and don’t realize the ugliness of their own spreads, the ugliness of their maids, their gardeners, their plumbers, us. But since we are us, we can see beautiful shit they cannot see. We can see the beauty in a well-made fence, a properly poured driveway, a pregnant and fat and sad Mexican thirteen year old angel, a well demolished building. We, we who live in the ugly, we know beauty that doesn’t get into the art history books. We know what beauty is, and that’s what we got that the fancy fucks don’t. And when I stood outside Dick’s, fetching the family trumpet, which I’d been debasing, honoring, by playing in Mexican nightclubs and at bars when heretofore it had been played in symphony halls around the world by Grandpop Murphy and by Pop, been played before royalty and fancy ass rich fucks, when I stood outside it came to me that my place, my home, my Oakland, my Dick’s filled with drunken maniacal loyal and good men, my place on this planet was a good place, a good place that even though rough and harsh and miserable and awful was nonetheless a place more divine that any god the slaves could have imagined. My Oakland was mine, and it was Louie’s, and Jorgensen’s, and Shapiro’s, and the Oakland of ever other Oaklander that mattered, and we worked and we worked and in Oakland we would die and we would die beautifully and fulfilled, having done everything we were to do.
     When I walked back inside, I couldn’t see a thing except the bar lights, neon. The guys were quiet, working on their drinks.
     “Give me the horn,” Pop said.
     He oiled up the valves and he looked at me as if I’d just handed him a turd. “You ever polish this thing?” he said. “You ever grease the fucking slides? You ever empty the fucking spit-valves? You ever fucking play it?”
     I looked at the ground his barstool rested on. “Day job,” I said.
     “Day job what?”
     “Day job keeps me busy.”
     Pop shook his head slow and with a combination of sadness, loathing, and repulsion. Nobody worth a shit ever let his day job get in the way of what he was really all about. Day job. If you can’t do what you want after work, then the awful truth is you don’t want anything. Drink a goddamn beer, fuck your depressed fat wife, and sleep the good hours away, slob.
     Louie poured me another Scotch, and Pop flipped through Blaise’s folder once more, studying certain pages, whipping through others. Pop drank water. Jorgensen sat staring at himself in the mirror behind the bar, looking at himself through the bottles and post-it notes. The triplets were pretty hammered now, and they giggled like girls. The phone rang and no one picked it up. A wife, probably. They do that, even though they know where the hell we are. Shapiro and Ed the Jew were talking about money. No shit. That’s all they ever talked about, as if they’d invented it. Otherwise, they hated each other, called each other kikes and Shylocks and fuckwads. But when they were both at Dick’s, they talked cash, even though neither of them really had any. Otherwise, they’d be drinking somewhere else and not hanging out with us. Some non-regulars walked in. Jorgensen didn’t notice. They walked back out.
     “Percussion is important,” Pop said. “In this piece.”
     I nodded.
    “Who else here reads?”
     I said I didn’t know.
    “Any of you morons read music,” Pop said.
     One of the triplets did. So did Ed the Jew and Shapiro. Jorgensen said he was a mean drummer, played in the military band before he wised up to the action and became a SEAL. Weapons make their own sweet tune, he said.
     Pop said, “Make yourselves useful.”
     “I can play the trumpet line,” I said.
     Pop sneered at me. “The trumpet line?” he said. “How about the other lines? How about when the melody is violin or steel drum or oboe? How about when all the trumpet does is punctuate? How about then?”
     Tires squealed and someone screamed loud enough outside to make everyone look at the door.
     “Jazz,” Pop said.
     “Sorry,” I said. And I was.
     Pop gathered us around, and he made us rehearse, telling us what lines to read. The triplet used a spoon and a half-full water glass. Ed the Jew and Shapiro, they volunteered to play the call-drink bottles with their porcelain fountain pens, lining up the bottles in ascending order of volume like beautiful and expensive booze marimbas or xylophones. Pop told Jorgensen to use coffee cans and tomato cans and a barstool, beat upon by a spoon, but Jorg said no fucking way, he was all about the body, and would only use his hands and fingers and fists against his body, and Pop said sure without missing a beat.
     “How about me?” I said.
     “You turn pages.”
      I said, “Give me a break.”
     Pop said, “No one else here can read music. Someone who knows how to read music has to turn the pages.” He said, “And I’m playing horn.”
     Louie poured the musicians another round. We drank it. Pop said it was time. And we played.
     It was the most strange and beautiful and horrible depressing thing any of us had ever heard. We smiled, even though we thought we didn’t want to. Sometimes sad shit does that to you. I’ll never figure out why the fuck why.
     It started out with just the Jews clinking away on their marimba/xylophone booze bottles, fast and frantic, some kind of jungle melody, running up and down the bottles, the notes jumping across each other, not chromatic but instead in thirds and fourths and sixths and octaves, low-high high-low, clinking and the notes banging against the mirrors and against the linoleum floor, an echo but not a deep one, an instantaneous echo that collided against the notes and created a shrill harmony like the way sometimes the sound of a jackhammer meshes with the sound of the traffic, the traffic like clean grease, grease that’s never been working against a ball-bearing, working like that pure grease and oiling every rattle of the hammer, grating but natural, fluid, the way things should be. Then, while the Jews were playing, and they were truly playing, those Jews, playing as if they were telling us the parts of Exodus that we never hear about in the Bible, telling us about the angst and joy of Biblical Hebrew party-your-ass-off drinking and fucking and praying to a God that had the power to wipe out the Gentiles with a breath and would, while the Jews were summoning up their ancient Jew-god of vengeance and justice, the triplet WOP Italian Catholic joined in, and he wanted to show that even though his dick wasn’t as big as Papa’s, his soul was bigger, and because Louie had abandoned him and fucked him over and made him a bastard forever, he might not have had as big a dick but he had bigger balls, a bigger soul, a soul that would sing for eternity and that would redeem. That little shit played a water-glass like he was knocking on the doors of heaven, and he was going to be let in, he was.
     When Jorgensen’s part came in—and it would have been the tympani—Jorg peeled off his vest and his shirt and his pants and he stood there in his military issue tightie-whities. None of us had ever seen him in anything but a long sleeved shirt, protective cover since he worked as not only an assassin but a steel-worker, welding, showered by sparks and flame, Vulcan at his forge. First of all, he was one big sonofabitch, but we’d all seen big motherfuckers before. I’d worked with a construction worker just out of Quentin, a black dude named Fish, who was three hundred fifty pounds of iron, veins bulging through his skin like cables. Hell, Rich Kuam, who didn’t come around much around anymore because he’d finally met a hooker he liked and married her and now he was in some kind of domestic lockup, Kuam was big enough to carry a hooker on each shoulder, and we’d seen him walk into Dick’s plenty of times like that. Kuam would save his money up instead of going out on dates, and twice a year he’d drive up to the Mustang Ranch just outside of Reno and he’d get two hotties, bring them back to Oakland for the whole week, and they’d play house. He never shared. Was never broke. He always had something to look forward to. He was always happy. Kuam, he had the right fucking idea.
     So when Jorg took off his shirt we were impressed but not shocked. What startled was that he was covered, I mean covered, with tattoos. No skin showed that wasn’t inked. And you could tell that there were tattoos under his shorts, too. All the way up to his neck, down to his wrists, his entire feet, excepting toenails.
     There was nothing trendy about Jorgensen’s tattoos. They were all battle scenes, kills. None of that skull and crossbones dragon big-tittied women Celtic weave scorpion cartoon character Harley Davidson horseshit. Jorgensen’s tattoos were of himself, Jorg in the jungle breaking a drug lord’s guard’s neck barehanded, Jorg in a high-rise scoping a suit-wearing diplomat in the high-rise across the street, Jorg on his belly in the sand taking out a sheik with some kind of telescope machine gun rifle, Jorg in D.C., the capitol in the distance, slitting the throat of a businessman right there on the mall, a crowd strolling past oblivious, Jorg in scuba gear attaching a mine to a yacht, the water clear and the fish sparkling with color. Hundreds of tattoos Jorg had. We were glad he was our friend.
     His tympani part came, and Jorg was not only the best killer we’d ever known, but as he stood there in his underwear, his hands became a blur, open-palmed at first, high notes slap-clapping cupped-hand against his inner thighs, he showed us that in that military band he must have been one hell of a drummer. Then his hands flashed faster and higher, he tightening the cup of his hand and moving down his leg along his calves, pop-pop, pip, booming like grenades and gattling gunfire.
     This was all preamble, prelude, the background noise of some Los Angeles Oakland Sacramento San Diego Compton San Francisco Los Banos static of Blaise’s mind. The frenzy and rhythm of Blaise’s deliberate suck-ass life—and all of our lives suck because we want them to—the nicotine and narcotic haze of vodka and bliss, of hopes unfulfilled and a baby ripped from his womb and umbilical chord trailing along the asphalt a bloody line purpled with vein and white with curd as he watched the bitch-driven car slide away and gone and gone forever-fucking-ever and more and more permanent and ongoing, perpetual, done: the frenzy of Blaise’s life he’d claim unwanted but desired sure, the mess that was his life scratched onto the symphonic page, and us playing it, just the preamble, the backdrop so far.
     And I turned those pages, what I did. I turned them and with each turned page I felt my heart speed. My heart sped and raced and the reason it went fast like that was because I liked the music. Yeah, right. The reason it sped is because I was jealous. I was jealous and envious and I wanted to kill Blaise but I didn’t need to worry about that because if the feds didn’t kill Blaise they’d medicate him out of the voting pool, the fucks. It sucked, in a way, to be turning the pages for Blaise, for Pop, for Jorg and the Jews and the triplet. They were playing something, and I was spectating, somehow onlooking the place from where I’d sprung, somehow watching my Oakland instead of being part of it. I’d always felt this way, as if I somehow did not belong here, as if somehow even though Oakland was the only thing I knew, nonetheless I was not of Oakland. And this fucked me up sure. Fucked me up in ways that I don’t think I can even explain here, here where I’m telling everything I think because I truly don’t give a shit about your opinion of me, you fuck. I never felt part of Oakland because at the same time as I felt like I was way too smart to be bred of this shithole, and I knew I lived in a shithole, at the same time I could never live up to what was good about my Oakland, the Oakland of Pop and Grandpop Murphy, the Oakland of Shapiro and the retard Martinez, the Oakland that no matter what was my home. Here they were all playing, and I was turning pages. That was what I was doing, and even though the other guys might not have been noticing it, not with their brains numbed as mine was, I was noticing it, like I noticed everything else. Didn’t anyone else see what I saw? No, they didn’t. They didn’t because they were living in this life and not some life that doesn’t exist. Like mine. I was the guy who turned the pages everyone else in Oakland played. I turned the pages and they played.
     And then Pop played. The line didn’t sound like the line of a trumpet, and I looked at the score and saw it wasn’t. He was playing the flute’s riff, whistling plaintive through the percussive jackhammer airgun glim and scint. Pop played and more air came through the horn than note, a high note above the clink, a stream of precious metal, a wiggle cutting through sound like something sharp and narrow and tinsel through a vibrating wall of iron, of steel, of glass and girder and rail and air-compressored ripp-raff gunite wall, shimmering. His airy note cut through the near ecstatic whip of the triplets the Jews our Jorg and the clinking drinks and his note fluffed and sounding like a chapped lip bled. It bled into the air, spirit.
     The fucker. He knew, and I didn’t. He knew without having to think about it, without having to write about it.
     He played, and I listened, not only to Pop but to all of them, even to the New York boy, and listening a wash of contentment came over me like the cum of a woman, gush. It was not my job to participate in this. It was not my job to be this. It was my job—and this job had been conferred on me by powers distant and serious—it was my job to understand this, and to make you understand it. Do you get it?
     Get this: we were at Dick’s Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge, Oakland, California, warehouses surrounding our bar, docks in the distance, cranes groaning back and forth across tracks and dropping ISO’s from ships to trains that would take them to trucks and to your fucking grocery store. We were at Dick’s and our friend Blaise, our friend, had been lost, and he’d left us something. He’d lost his baby, his wife, his perspective, his will, but unlike you, he’d left us something behind, something of substance, not just some photo album or his great-grandmother’s fucking China. No, Blaise had not left us a trust fund or a painting by a famous son of a bitch worth bucks. What Blaise had left us something was all there was of him, what obsessed him, the reason he was willing, maybe eager, to lose that kid and that wife. What kind of man is this? This is the kind of man I want to call late at night, when I know no one else will answer the phone. This is the kind of man I want to get hammered with. This is the kind of man I want to be.
     And get this: for us, this might have been the most beautiful moment in the history of the world. This moment kicked ass. None of us would ever forget it. I for goddamn sure fuck haven’t.
     Pop, bearded greased coveralled Pop, his note was not just what there was of that symphony of Blaise’s, of ours. No. There was more, and there was more beauty and more disdain. Blaise had it nailed, hammered to the subfloor. He somehow knew us better that we did. He knew, rich jingle-ad shit, he knew something about us that all of us suspected, that all of us might have been able to say in a drunk moment. He knew it, and we’d never said it. Not to ourselves or to anyone else. But Blaise was saying it, and he was saying it without words, without all the bullshit innuendo of language. He was saying it through music, something we all of us knew nothing about but that we all understood, that all the miserable company that was humanity knew inherently, with instinct and surety and certitude, rattling around in our gonads. We felt pretty damned good. Like we were part of something we didn’t deserve and that we absolutely did. And Pop, he played well.
     They didn’t make it through the symphony. Jorgensen started getting a little crazy, beating on his back and the soles of his feet, and he scrambled some phrases and couldn’t focus on the sheet music and find his place again. He’d been doing some weird shit anyway, not really reading the music but instead playing his own version of Blaise’s symphony. And Pop’s lip was giving out because it had been a long time since he’d played a horn. I couldn’t even remember the last time.
     I closed the score. Louie poured a round of shots. Blaise’s Absolut. We lifted a drink in toast, but none of us clinked glasses. We didn’t say anything. We didn’t look at each other. We drank.


About the author: Eric Miles Williamson is author of 3 novels, 2 books of criticism, and a short story collection. He grew up on 62nd Avenue in Oakland. He was named by France’s Transfuge magazine one of the 12 Great Authors of the World, and he has won dozens of awards both in America and abroad.

Artwork: B Ellis Williams is a poet, visual artist, spiritual counselor, occasional philosopher, aspiring psychopomp, and priest-in-training. He holds an MFA in poetry from St. Mary’s College of California, and presently studies and resides at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley.

San Diego, California 1975 by Candace Eros Diaz

candace
Night Light

     Thanks so much for the ride, she said throwing her bags on the floor of the orange pickup truck.
     No problem, Mateo said accelerating onto the 805 Freeway, where you headed?
     Trying to get to San Francisco. How far you going?
     Going to Fresno. Gonna visit my mother up there, he lied.
     At the mention of his mother any concern the woman had about this mustached man who had pulled to the side of the road after only twenty minutes of thumbing dissolved.
     Cool. Well, if I could hitch with you til then that’d be great.
     No problem, he said and with this took his first real glance at the woman out the side of his thick-framed eyeglasses. She was skinny, scrawny even, stringy blonde hair pulled into a tight ponytail, no makeup. White trash, Mateo thought as he took in the details of her dirty white sneakers and pale skin.
     Since we’ll be together for the next six hours I guess I should catch your name, the woman said noticing the man hadn’t offered it up.
     Richard, Mateo said. He considered for a moment that the woman might not believe this lie. He thought if she hesitated, looked at him too closely, if he could read doubt on her face he would pull over and let her out. He would simply leave her on the side of the road and keep driving. He believed in signs. His half Yaqui grandmother warned her children and grandchildren to heed the sometimes-subtle signs the spirits put in their paths as a warning or a guidepost to go left or right, to jump ahead or turn back.
     Well, hi Richard. I’m Diane. Nice to meet you. She pushed out her open palm for a handshake.
     Mateo understood her gesture as a sign in his favor. He noticed the boney bulge at her wrist before taking her hand and giving it a firm shake. He felt the weakness in her hand and arm, thought how easy it would be to grip the narrow bone and snap it back. His mind lingered on the unnatural angle her broken wrist might make in his palm as he said, nice to meet you, Diane.
     At about twenty miles in Diane took off her shoes and rolled down her window, closed her eyes and said, I sure am lucky to have found you so quickly. I thought I might be out there all day.
     Mateo kept both hands on the steering wheel and stared straight ahead. He didn’t hear Diane call herself lucky because he was trying to decide which exit off the freeway to take. He understood getting off would most likely cause Diane to question the detour so he had to choose carefully. He had just passed an off ramp that was a sharp loop to the right—too risky because their weight would shift in the cab, bringing attention to a new direction. Another exit was a tourist trap with lanes of drive-through restaurants and packed gas stations. This exit would likely elicit the least amount of resistance but gave no privacy whatsoever and would not do. His gripped tightened on the dirty gray Naugahyde steering wheel and Diane sighed into sleep.

     A loud crack and thud awoke them both from their dreams.
     Oh shit, Mateo yelled letting the truck weave out of his lane and regaining control.
     What the hell was that, Diane said.
     A bird. I think we hit a big ass bird.
     A single crack in the windshield ran vertical along Diane’s side, a smear of bird blood and unknown bird wetness remained on the glass.
     Diane laughed brushing off the initial shock and fear of the noise, turned around to see flopping white bird feathers in the middle of the lane behind them.
     It’s not fuckin’ funny, Mateo said shaken by the surprise of the oncoming and now dead bird, but more so by the weight of this surely bad sign. He’d never seen a pelican or a seagull or any other type of huge white bird flying along this freeway and he’d driven this freeway most of his adult life. Yes, it was bad luck and its metallic taste coated his mouth. His eyes watered and he tightened his abdomen to stop from gagging on the nickel-flavored omen. He should turn around now. He should pull over and let the white trash out on the side of the freeway. He should reach over, fling open the door and kick the skinny woman out with the heel of his steel-toed boot.
     For the first time that day Mateo thought of his wife, Beatriz, at home round and swollen with their second child. They had fought that morning about money, about not having enough of it to buy Beatriz a new washing machine she said she’d need when the new baby came. Veteran’s benefits aren’t enough, Beatriz had said. Mateo said nothing. Why didn’t he bother finding another job to bring in more, she dug further. Mateo sat at the dining room table and said nothing. Her coarse black hair was a halo of curls, wild from a restless night of sleep, a baby’s knee or elbow lodged somewhere near her ribcage all night. Enduring this pain throughout the night made her brave enough the following morning to say to her husband, I should have never married you. With this, Beatriz finally struck at something solid and ungiving. Mateo rose from his seat at the table and without a word grabbed a hold of both her wrists, boney and weak just like the piece of cheap white meat sitting next to him now. He’d flung Beatriz, seven-month belly and all, on their second hand sofa, hard.
     Oh come on, Richard. A little bird guts never hurt nobody, Diane said stifling her laugh, looking back again on the receding dead white bird. She reached over and touched his knee in an attempt to ease the tension building up in the small cab of the truck.
     It was just an accident, she said recoiling her hand, her mood flattened from the moment before. The man Diane knew as Richard had pupil-less, tar black eyes that locked with hers for an instant. The pale blue color of her eyes were no match against the strength of his black stare. It was empty, nothing in front or behind it, one days later, Diane would describe as soulless, not tethered to the man’s body. She would recognize this moment as a revelation of the stranger’s character, a disclosure she ignored.
     It was true. When the woman placed her pale hand on Mateo’s knee a piece of him succumbed to her touch so that he dared to look, really look, into her eyes. He hadn’t expected it, hadn’t prepared for her small hand on his Levi’s, so was caught off guard. Her laugh at the impact of bird flesh to windshield, of cracked glass that would need costly repair made him angry. But the fear that he had not listened to a warning placed so prominently in his field of view that it nearly made him drive off the road and wreck his truck was larger than his anger for the woman. He nearly decided to ditch the girl when she reached over and touched his knee—confirmation that he did not repulse her. Her thin fingers distracted him from his more rational thoughts of abandoning his crude plan to take her into the desert. Instead her quick touch incited him, made her a compliant participant in her fate.
     And so he looked her in the eyes and knew he revealed something he was trying to conceal. His intentions betrayed his confidence and made themselves known to the woman.
     In the moment Diane would later define as the point she knew she was in trouble, Mateo gave her a thin smile and took the next freeway off ramp.

     He had no weapon. Just bare hands and clean manicured nails, his bulk from playing high school football, his precision in movements from flying helicopters in Vietnam, his failure. These all coalesced onto Diane Browers pinned down in the bed of a pickup truck in the middle of the desert just west of the Salton Sea. A moonscape, Diane would later recall, muted bone, faded cardboard colored mountains far off in the dusty horizon. The sun made its way down, the moon already up in the left side of her field of view. Her screams and the odd lapping of water on a distant shore sliced the deep silence of the landscape. The sounds of water in the desert disturbed her; the air heavy with minerals and pollution smelled sulfurous. Was she dreaming of this place?
     Diane Bowers tried to reason with Richard, you don’t have to do this, and then she begged, no, no, no you cannot do this, please, and then she fought. Thin nails tore at his flesh, fingertips attempted to gouge eye sockets because she had once seen on TV that this move would always work.
     Then that odd moment of surrender.
     The patter of desert animals at their dusk routine was loud in her ears—senses heightened when her will was rendered powerless. Gave in because she tasted blood in her mouth, and there was an ache in both her wrists and she knew they were at least seriously sprained if not broken. Then the pain of penetration, dry, forceful, tearing. Diane was a Christian and in that moment of surrender she believed in her God. She was spared from living the moment fully, absolved of experiencing the true pain it brought to her body and mind, pardoned, floating somewhere above the bed of the truck tucked into a beautiful corner of eastern San Diego County.
     It was easier than he anticipated.
     Richard, why are you getting off the freeway?
     He did not reply. In fact, he did not hear the question. He did not know exactly where he would go, but he trusted he would know the place when he came upon it.
     Where are you going? Where are you going?
     This time he only registered the higher pitch of her voice, like a teakettle rattling on the stove, it irritated him and he wanted it to cease. Perhaps it was his silence that triggered her. She began to scratch and claw at his arms, his neck, the door panel as if she would open the passenger door while the truck was in motion. As he got closer to the place he had to manage her lanky limbs with his right hand while driving fast enough with his leftso that she would not jump out of the car. He wished he’d brought a rope or duct tape, anything to control her movements—he nearly crashed into a giant boulder on the side of the dirt road. Another missed sign. She was stronger than she looked.
     Finally, he parked and forced her out the passenger door using the heel of his boot and a tight grip on her stringy blonde ponytail. He followed her out the passenger door not letting loose of her hair. He felt blood rush to the tips of his extremities when she fell in a billow of dirt and tried to scramble to her feet, screaming. With two hands, two feet and the privacy this corner of untouched flat desert land afforded he regained his composure and control. With one swift scoop and lift he slammed her body into the bed of the truck. The back of her head thudded on the rusted metal and again there was the high-pitched squeal he barely registered—perhaps it was words.
     It did not matter because to Mateo, Diane was only a weak bundle of muscles that provided just enough resistance to awaken the blood vessels in his genitals. The more she clawed and scratched at his flesh the weaker she became and the waning of her strength was an aphrodisiac like one he’d never experienced before. So in the moment when the ringing of her voice and the flailing of her arms finally stopped and she went slack beneath his weight he finally confided in her who he really was.

     Naked from the waist down and still breathing, Mateo collected her limp and filthy body from the back of the truck and carefully placed it in the cab. He deliberately avoided the woman’s pale blue eyes. Like a sleeping child, she did not resist.
     He drove once more, ignoring the drumming of an ancient Indian song booming in his skull. To its cadence he drove into the falling night of orange and red and polluted California air. Just before the sun completely dipped away from the day a signpost on the side of the thin road presented itself—Rock Mountain Quarry. At first he drove along the shallow shore of the cavernous quarry calculating how much pressure was required to pinch the woman’s breath off completely. Not much, he told himself, even with his already tired hands.
     The thing next to him stirred.
     He considered taking her again, but the spent nature of her constitution on the passenger seat did not entice him—her fight did and clearly there was none of that left. He drove further into the rich copper and clay red steps of the quarry.
     The beautiful striations of rock distracted him just long enough so he wasn’t able to see Diane Brower’s last bit of fight open the passenger door and fling herself onto the road.
     He had not expected this. Although he should have.
     In the moment Mateo heard the dull plop of flesh and bone hit earth, the white bird sent by the spirits as a warning came to him on the rhythm of native drums pounding from two generations away. He had not listened. He had not paid attention and foolishly believed he could outwit what was prescribed. He hesitated, then pulled over to the side of the road and considered picking it back up to finish what he intended.
     Mateo Flores left Diane Browers in the Rock Mountain Quarry, but not before she memorized his license plate number as the orange truck sped off into the cool summer dark.

 


About the author: Candace Eros Diaz (@candaceerosdiaz) is a San Francisco Writer’s Grotto Fellow and a VONA/Voices alum. She is the Admissions and Student Services Coordinator for the MFA Program in Creative Writing at Saint Mary’s College of California where she also received her MFA in both creative nonfiction and fiction. She is a recipient of a Vermont Studio Center residency and her work has appeared or is forthcoming in MARY: A Journal of New Writing and Huizache. She lives in Oakland, CA.

Artwork: Justin Schapker is a photographer living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

The Man Who Clicked by Jake Fuchs

harry dean2
trout mask






    “Do you know how to talk?”
     I asked this question because I had just asked him another one twice, different wording, same meaning, and he hadn’t said a single word.
     “What are you doing in my driveway?” That was number one. Silence.
     So then, “Look, buddy. Just what is it that you want?”
     And thirdly, my voice rising, “Do you know how to talk?”
      But he stayed silent, this presumably homeless man who had abandoned his shopping cart on the sidewalk and shuffled halfway down my driveway, eyes fixed on the bottles in my recycles bin. Or so I presumed at first. In fact, I couldn’t quite see his eyes because of the voluminous hoodie draped over most of his face. So perhaps he contemplated bigger game. If he noticed a bike or a skateboard—my son often forgets to take his vehicles with him before returning to his mom’s—would he not take that? A grimy blanket covered the heap of crap stowed in his cart. Whatever lay beneath it made areas of the blanket stick out at odd angles. It would be mostly crap, but there might be some valuable crap he’d picked up somewhere.
     But I was here, out of my house, outside with him. Whatever he’d thought he might take, he couldn’t now, so what that might have been hardly mattered. But it annoyed me greatly that he insisted on standing there before me, neither speaking nor leaving. What did he want me to say? What was he waiting to hear? I took a step back.
     He was something to look at, this guy, dwarfed by his clothes. Everything was baggy. His brown pants, perhaps an ancient pair of Dockers, had yellow stains around the fly, and had ballooned around him as he’d shuffled down my drive. Now he was still. Under the hoodie I could see some dark skin, along with a wide nose and a narrow-lipped mouth, but he could have been anything. Though he was a little guy, it made me nervous that he hadn’t backed off. Spotting him from my study window, I’d rumbled heavily down the steps, purposely making an intimidating clatter. Then I got up close to him on the same motive, to cow him, whereupon he’d stopped shuffling. But he didn’t seem cowed.
      I felt a strange impulse to apologize for asking him if he could talk. Instead, I said, “Look. Please leave.” For a moment I despised myself. Why had I said “please”?
     He bowed slightly from the waist. Then he inclined his head. His posture was that of a suppliant. Was he being serious, or was he mocking me? I couldn’t decide. Now I was sorry I’d said anything to him. I should have stayed in my house.
     “All right, take some stuff,” I said. “There you go, up there.”
     I pointed at the blue plastic recycles bin. I noticed then that he wasn’t carrying a bag or box to put things in for transport to the shopping cart. What then had he intended? To break into the house and steal small valuables, such as my iPad? Or did he want to lie down on the grass in my backyard and take his ease? Drink from my hose? Pee on my flowers? I was sure I still had some back there. Now I thought it odd that he’d marched up my driveway so slowly and obviously, as if asking to be seen. Usually when these people come up here, that must be the last thing they want. Down in the flats, the panhandlers plant themselves before your face so that you’ll give them money to go away. But the bottle and can snatchers, the mini-burglars, drift through these Berkeley hills like smoke. Not him. Had he wanted me to catch him? But he wouldn’t talk to me.
     I pointed at the bin again. Finally he moved in its direction, taking little mincing steps. When he got there, he picked out three empty bottles, two Chardonnays, one sugarless tea. Holding them against his chest with one arm, he returned to the cart; gently folding back the blanket, he thrust the bottles in one by one, bending his head down to see exactly where he was placing them. He reminded me of a library page carefully shelving books. He stood up behind the cart, put up his hands to push it.
     “Don’t come back.” I told him. “Okay?” Damn! Why had I said “okay”? That was sort of asking his permission, hardly called for regardless of how much liberal guilt I was feeling, if that’s what I was feeling. The bulky jacket he wore, a green, army-looking thing, had its snaps snapped incorrectly. I almost told him about it, but that might have kept him there unsnapping and resnapping, and what was I supposed to say then? I could think of nothing.
     Pushing the cart, he began his slow progress down my hill. I watched him roll away from me. Neither of us spoke. He had never spoken, only me. I kept my eyes on him, curious to see if he would invade the driveway of one of my neighbors. He didn’t. I went back into my house, where there was nothing to do. Work was pointless. I knew I couldn’t write anything worth keeping. I hadn’t in weeks.
     My son was with his mother. I was alone. I walked around inside my house.
     The following morning, out for the paper, I found the three bottles he’d taken arranged in a neat line at t he foot of my driveway. I looked around, hoping and not hoping that I would see him. Had I insulted him? Had he insulted me? What was the message encoded in the three bottles? He didn’t want my charity; that was obvious, but there was more to it than that. He wasn’t there to ask about it. I returned the bottles to the bin. Back in the house, I pretended to work.
     From my study I could see the street, and for a few days I looked out the window more than I wrote. It was all just typing anyway, dead words. I listened. If there was a noise outside that might be made by a heavily laden supermarket cart, then I was sure to look. It was surprising how many of these vessels rolled past, but few ever stopped, not even on pick-up morning, when the recycles were all set out on the curb. The carts simply sailed on by, their commanders paying us landlubbers no heed. I wonder what drives them, these homeless ones, why they keep traveling, even if only in little circles within my neatly parceled neighborhood.
     Then he came. I don’t know how I could have distinguished the rumble of his wheels from anyone else’s. But I must have, or I sensed him in a manner even more mysterious. Whatever the case, when he reached my house I was standing on the sidewalk. Though I wasn’t exactly blocking his path, it must have been apparent that I wanted to talk to him. The problem I foresaw was that he would think I intended to berate him for being there, in front of my house, since I’d told him not to come back. Now I regretted saying that.
     Looking past me, he pushed his cart slightly ahead of him and halted when its prow touched me gently at my waist. Sensing no aggression in that, I said, “Do you want a job?” That was the question I’d prepared. He could bag up leaves for me or use my hose to wash off my windows. We could do it together. That would lead to talk or some other form of communication.
     But it was again the wrong question. I might have been a rock for all the attention he paid to me.   He fixed his eyes on the cargo of rubbish in his cart. When I didn’t move, he backed up a few steps, then steered the cart around me. Midway he stopped, and I found myself staring into his right ear, at a small clump of gray hair. I said nothing. I wanted to, but nothing came to me. The ear swung away. As he wheeled off, he looked back, over his shoulder. He looked at me, into my face. I felt his eyes, and knew I’d missed my chance.
     This time I didn’t look after him as he rattled down the pavement, down our hill. I went back into my house and sat at my desk. I knew I should write, I really should. It’s what I do. He got to go where he liked and when he liked, but I was stuck and it wasn’t only my sedentary occupation. Even though I disliked my present life and place, especially the snotty folks who live up here, I wasn’t about to leave. I couldn’t. It was just too much to think about. Had I been able to follow him, maybe we would have eventually . . . what’s the word? Clicked. Nice, crisp word. Maybe we could have clicked. I’d hoped we were alike, both being alone and despised by everyone, but we were really different, weren’t we? We couldn’t talk. No clicking for us.
     Maybe he wanted that, or why else stroll down my driveway that sunny day? If so, he picked an unlikely guy, since I hadn’t been clicking with anyone.   Though I grasped the dictionary meanings of the words people spoke, I kept missing things, the point of things. I could only guess what others meant, and what I said back usually seemed to hit them wrong. Before my wife gave up on me and left, she kept complaining that I didn’t listen. But I did listen. I just didn’t get it, the point of whatever she was saying. It frustrated her no end.
     I sort of enjoyed that, but it was the same way with everyone, which was like being in solitary confinement. I tried with the cart captain, I had hopes for him; but he chose to want no part of me. He never came back.
     But some six weeks after his departure, another wayfarer dropped by, and this one pounded on my door. Maybe I should have been afraid, since it was almost midnight, and I was alone. Instead, I felt a kind of pleasurable excitement. I could guess who it was, a guy who appears in our neighborhood every few months—he lives in west or south Berkeley, not up here—and does this, knocks on people’s doors at night and asks for money. I was sure he was harmless. I went downstairs and opened the door. It was him.
     This guy’s schtick rarely changes, and everyone knows about him. We beheld each other. For him I had no questions, as a normal person would have, so he had a hard time getting the shtick started. I was willing to stand there all night. I had a feeling. But, after what must have been just a minute or two, he launched into his usual routine.
     “Real sorry to disturb you sir, but it’s an emergency cause my sister is sick and my car is broke down and I need money for taxi fare to the hospital. “
     “I don’t see any taxi,” I said, pretending to look around. I was just playing with him. I got it. I got his point and purpose. His bad grammar, an obvious put-on, didn’t faze me. I knew what I was going to do, and he knew I did. He persisted, played the game. An artist in his way, he was willing to risk letting me see that he was playing, that it was, indeed, a game.
     He sighed and said, “I ain’t called the taxi yet, naturally, not having the fare. She’s real sick. Back at the house. Headache and everything. I mean like maybe a brain thing.”
     “Who’s it this time, your sister or your mom?” Sometimes he said sister, sometimes mother. Oh, I knew all about him. He was written up in our neighborhood association newsletter, which brags about how liberal we all are up here while urging ethnic cleansing against any intruder not exactly like us. You were supposed to never give him money, but I was going to.
     He chuckled. He had me figured out, just as I had him, and each of us understood the other.
     “Didn’t I say sister?” he asked. “You know, I really don’t have time to talk, what with the sick relative and all.” That was good, relative. So I chuckled. Later I found out that our neighbors heard us chuckling there, in the middle of the night.
     It was all bullshit, everything he said. Lies, but I enjoyed his lies. They fit and comforted me like one of those expensive mattresses they plug on television, the ones that adjust to your shape and weight. And since he didn’t expect me to believe him, what made them really lies?
     I went for my wallet and returned with a twenty-dollar bill in my hand. “Here you go,” I said.
     He stuffed it into his shirt pocket and strode rapidly away, heading for the car he’d stashed someplace out of sight. I bet I could do his act as well as he does. I bet he could do mine.
     In the morning, the neighbors came over, interrupting my work to ask if I’d given him any money.
     “You didn’t, did you?”
     I told them I had and how much, and they became upset. It was wrong to encourage him, they said, and they went on for a while with their newsletter stuff about keeping our little hillside paradise secure against evil forces from without. That was their schtick and it was just as much bullshit as the sick sister routine, only worse since they expected me to believe it. The cart captain was different, but I struck out on him. I got rid of the neighbors by making up an imaginary task that needed doing, also bullshit. I understood them perfectly. I could handle them.
     I’d clicked. I could do it now. Fortunate me.


About the author: Jake Fuchs was born in New York City but grew up in Beverly Hills in a family headed by his father, the novelist and screenwriter Daniel Fuchs.  He now lives in Berkeley with Freya, his wife of fifty years.  They have three children and a delightful little grandson.  From 1971 to 2005 Jake taught English at CSU East Bay, specializing in 18th-century British literature.  He began writing fiction in the late ’90s and has been fascinated and tortured by the craft ever since. His short fiction has appeared in journals, and he has three published novels.  Death of a Dad and Death of a Prof are both satyric mysteries.  The third book is the more or less autobiographical fiction, Conrad in Beverly Hills. A fourth novel, the academic satire Posterior Trumpets is presently in the final throes of revision

Artwork: Michael J. Caligaris

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Dead Man’s Name by Jesse Steele

Read em and weep copy 


Act 1: And All That Came First
There was the war and mom and 21 guns
Mom collects a flag and I got a dead man’s name
Those were the first things.
Then there was the cigarette and the other cigarette and the borrowed knife
The book and the good book, and the preacher with the soft voice
Sure, that was part.
 
There was a great clatter of noise that opened a hole and some years fell down it
Picked up a tail outside the liquor store, but that was just in the movies
 
A house and a smaller house and two apartments that looked the same
On opposite sides of town, and a few uncles came around
Mrs. Taylor smiled and talked about potential and she smiled and talked about future but then she scowled while she patched up the blood and said you had to count to ten, breathe in, breathe out, and then you just had to keep counting…
                                                                                                but you couldn’t make it
                                                                                                                                    so what now?
 
The fire and the guy at the gas station with the long hair and the powders
Spread legs and fair trades and unfair ones that hurt too long
The deal about the basement party
 
Miles and miles and miles on a map
Trade the old car for the other car that got old
Trade a lot of things
’Til the man with the kind eyes and the long hair
And the quiet, and the wind, and the way he said it.
There was believing him.
And then there was watching them put him in the ground
 
And then the city the city the city
Ink into your skin somehow, put the neon in your blood
Counting the tips. Then cleaning the floors. Then the alleyways.
Then it gets hard to remember.
 
 
Act 2: The Wise Man
 A light is a bulb on a live wire dangling
and it stinks like blood and sweat and mold
And just what the fuck? but it doesn’t matter does it?
“It doesn’t fucking matter even a little bit,” says The Wise Man
and who is he? and why is he even here? and all of that
He’s The Wise Man.
So open veins and bloody knuckles and maybe that arm is broken after all
But one look at The Wise Man and you know it ain’t about you
“It ain’t about you” he says, maybe.
Now the whole grand goddam show must go on when there’s no understudy for the role
No more script to be followed
Just a IOU’s where story arc should be
Broken promises for characters.
and where the grand soliloquy was meant to bring the house down and the women to tears
well, there, there is only a tattertale collection of half-hearted poetry
Full of curses at unknowable, unnamed gods
Flashes of once remembered somethings
Hints of romance, flirtations with the passions
Smiling and winking at death
And the same at life
smiling and winking
smiling and winking
and it’s just too damn exhausting.

And The Wise Man is waiting for his time machine
Waiting for his second chance
Locking up his wisdom tight for rebirth
reading up on reincarnations and resurrections
Hoping either that the easterners were right and that Christ was all a lie
or that all the easterners were wrong and he himself is the christ
arisen.

 And this wise man, if you ask him
or if you don’t
He’ll tell you what he thinks he’s learned:
“You can’t ever live on what you’ve done.”
“The things you said and thought.”
“The things you loved. Left behind. Maybe loved and left behind.”
“Everything you’ve shouted. Everything you’ve built”
“Every foot and fist print you put in the dry sand and the wet cement”
“Not a single one of them will feed you tomorrow.”
“Not a single one of them will hold you tonight.”
“Not a single one will tell you it’s proud of you.”
“And all, all, will fade.”
“Because you can’t make them love you.”
“And you can’t make yourself loved.”
“Not with all the immortality our feeble memories and histories can muster.”
“Not with all the eternal libraries of genetic knowledge”
“Or the forever running waters of cosmic infinitum”
“Can you raise the subject from the photograph”
“Bring forth the builder from the monument.”
“Call back the grandfather from the progeny”
“Seed from the tree”
“Here,” he says. “Here! Here! Now! Here are your fucking dreams.”
 
Intermission: 
We will now be taking a short intermission. Please help yourself to refreshments in the lobby. Please help yourself to methadone before the community college. Please make a donation to the “the world could use one more burnout bartender fund.” It’s for the kids, after all. The houselights will flash when it’s time to return to your seats.
 
Act 3: Once Burned 
Stage lights up and my name’s ______ and I’m a fucking addict. I’ve been sober enough months I don’t count ‘em now. A lot of young faces today so I wanna talk about where it starts. Maybe listen or maybe tune the fuck out, but you aren’t fooling anyone. Know that.
 
First you think you’re a rebel. That’s before you get any of it — before you’re sticking shit in your arms. Maybe some shit happens before that but I’m talking about being a grown up. A lot of you wanna come up here and talk about your childhood. That’s fine, I guess. But not today. I want to talk about being a fucking adult but before. Before you know anyone. Before you even know what the fuck a rebel is, what you’re rebelling against, and what any of it matters.
 
So you find the shadiest fucking person you know and you convince yourself they’re the only person that understands you, and pretty quick you turn your one new best friend into ten new best friends, and suddenly your little cohort is running around like you’re the first group of assholes ever to close down a bar and piss on the side of a building.
 
Someone gets arrested,
someone moves away,
someone else comes out as gay and some one else takes it bad so one of ‘em goes away,
one kid actually dies someway you can’t even remember and everyone gets a bullshit tattoo of his name somewhere
 
— come to think of it, everyone gets a fuckload of tattoos —
 
then everyone starts fucking everyone else, and before you know it you’ve convinced yourselves you own the city or the night or the scene or whatever bullshit you and your stupid friends want to claim you own, and you’re having just enough fun that these delusions of grandeur get believable and you stop caring so much about all the things you used to think really mattered. But you’re still you, just a better you, you think. The fun you. The free you. The real you. Suddenly you’re the one who knows the truth when everyone else is kidding themselves. You shoot off for the fucking moon and it’s the ride of your life.
 
Of course, in between is a blur. It’s fun and it’s wild and you’re getting laid more often than you’re eating and you can’t remember what you ever worried about that couldn’t be settled by a bottle of whiskey and turning the music a little louder. There’s the blow and the X and about 10 billion cigarettes, and you’re counting up your tips and trying to remember if you’re short or if you stole from the register.
 
There are times you think about getting out, getting a day job, going back to school, but it always passes. One good night can scare a few weeks of anxiety away. Eventually you stop worrying about what you were supposed to be and if you’re lucky, you’ll actually have a vague recollection of those few glorious years where you’re really not worried about this life you chose. Eventually, and I mean eventually, your body starts to give you signs that are too glaring to ignore, but by then you’ve bought in and it’s easy enough to sell the whole thing to yourself in a new package you’re calling “life experience,” and you rationalize something about what you’ll want to say on your death bed and feel pretty alright about yourself most of the time.
 
By then you’re tired, but seasoned, and you know how to turn a dime into a dollar and a smile into a few weeks of honest fun. Then, before you know it, you’re just a sad collage of tattoos and hair dye that can’t remember which side of thirty you’re on without calling your mother. You’re never alone but you’re starting to get the sense that being surrounded by all these familiar faces isn’t as BoHo kumbaya us-against-them as you thought, and dear god has it always been this lonely?
 
By then, you might, if you have any shred of decency and hope, if you had any kind of upbringing where someone told you that you were worth a damn, by then you might entertain the thought that maybe it’s not too late. That thought will sustain you for a little while before you think “too late for what?” and every answer that crosses your mind is a laughable little stab at whatever remained of your sense of self-worth. No — not the surface stuff. That is long gone and probably wasn’t real to begin with. When you get to that point, honey, you’re stabbing at the back of the back shelf in the back room of the storage basement stuff. You’re trying to start fires with the last lighter on earth and good god dammit can I get a spark?
 
You want romance, kid? Yeah, I’ll show you romance. I’ll show you romance in a flash of light and a sixth month bender. I’ll teach you about love when you’re grasping onto the ceiling for dear life trying to figure out where you left your pants. I’ll show you destiny, beauty, passion, and all the sweet, sweet beauties of life in a row of tattooed women who traded names for verbs. They don’t care what you call them anyway because they sure as shit aren’t gonna remember your name. Tell them if you want to. Tell them whatever you want. If it strikes your fancy, tell them about your dreams, about your truth, about your rebellion and the whole long shitty version of your short shitty story.
 
You want that? I can show you that. I’ll show you all of it, and if you’ve got half a brain in your fucking head, you’ll vomit yourself clean after a week and never come back to my part of the world again. ”
 
 
Act 4: Old Haunts
 And you…
 
     You.
 
Sitting there reading Bukowski by candlelight like it’s something to do
 
Your Antoinette populism
 
Your tightrope cancan confidence
 
Well, there’s a special place in hell for tourists and bad actors
 
      With your maps and your scripts and your interminable dress rehearsals
 
      Treading heavily and flapping your gums about this that look over there
 
                    All in borrowed old shoes.
 
That pipe dream of yours.
 
That cynical little pipe dream.
 
        You took it.
 
Whatever it was, you took it.
 
And you think it’s alright. Because no one asked after it. No one asked where it had gone.
 
Well I’m not asking motherfucker.
 
But I see you.
 
Know that I know your name.
 
Know that I will not forget this is what you decided to be
 
      When you still had the chance to choose.
 


About the author: Jesse Steele is a white bread bologna sandwich from the Midwest who got called a writer on some trumped up charges from a while back. He currently works in community development in southwest Virginia, and spends most of his days idly tapping his fingers on desks hoping to Morse code out the cure for ADHD. Jesse currently performs poetry readings whenever he’s had too much to drink at parties, works on his novel manuscript just hard enough to never finish it, and publishes his political ramblings not-at-all regularly on tldrtheblog.wordpress.com . He believes in himself and his heart can fly higher than an eagle.

Artwork: Justin Schapker is a photographer living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

 

So John Spits by Mark Rapacz

johnspitz

           He’s running now. He’s off like a gazelle. Or, not quite like a gazelle. There was a time in his life when he ran gazelle-like. Or, had moments where he could achieve a gazelle-like bound, but now with his age, his job, his wife demanding children, his competitive years decidedly behind him, and the financials spreadsheet not going away—
           And if it weren’t for the trick knee he really would be off like a gazelle. He’d be off campus by now, out on the open road, heading toward the hills, but instead he’s here, hobbling down College Drive through droves of bikes that look old as shit being ridden by all these rich kids heading to class or somewhere else to do youthful things with other youthful kids who wear designer clothes under frumpy sweatshirts—
           John doesn’t know designer. He doesn’t have a fashion-forward brain. He has a brain that makes him do this at lunch with his legs and his anger and his unceasing thoughts on resource distribution in his decidedly fucked community—
          And other things like:
1. How his wife, a social worker in the poor area, works with real people– Mexican people with Spanish names and immigrant problems–real problems.
2. How he’s stuck in an ivory tower and works with rich kids–WASPy kids riding immigrant bikes who take their life of luxury and flip it on its head and present it like it’s the one full of real problems.
3. How is chafe isn’t going away. He’s seen doctors. Gold Bon isn’t helping, and–
          He’s not even by the Main Quad yet—oh no—he’s still here with his shitty knee, and nut chafe, and he’s thinking that people who come from privilege get the luxury—the goddamn luxury—to go through life having to prove themselves incapable before an audience of generous supporters, while the rest of us—we office schmucks and immigrant workers—have to prove ourselves capable before an audience of hateful critics.
         So John spits.
         He hits the bright red fender of one of the rich kids’ trashy bikes and he hears this kid—this girl shout at him, disgusted.
         But it’s the rich kind of shout and John has this innate ability to drown out the rich kind of insults with his extremely loud memories of his past, living in a suburban hellhole he thought was upper-middle class, only to discover in college he was probably lower-middle class or even poor-as-shit. Or, the people he hung out with convinced him through kindness, generosity and proper upbringing that he was poor-as-shit because they had those things in spades, and he spent most of his time pretending to have those things in spades, only to go home and do his best not to mention to his salesman father that his new college friends’ dads were, like, bankers and lawyers and doctors, and most of them had two of these in their families while he had, well, Ma who did all those other jobs—coffee pourer, teacher’s aide, bank teller, house cleaner—but most of the time didn’t do any of those things but made absolutely fantastic Cream ‘O Wheat.
         “You dick! You totally just spit on me,” she says. She’s wearing sunglasses.
They all wear sunglasses. The girl looks pretty good actually, despite the draping hoodie.
          “Umm … ,” John says and he’s wondering now why he stopped. Why he turned and walked—limped—back to this spoiled rich girl with the trashy bike who is expecting an apology because they all expect, deserve—are entitled to—an apology because of the luck of where they were birthed and who birthed them and why they were birthed, which all gives them this kind of authority, this kind of privilege—
          John is looking for that other word, but he can’t think of it because he was public-schooled in the middle of nowhere as opposed to private-schooled in the middle of everything, and—
          He looks at this girl who is quite pretty and has probably contributed more good to this world by the age of twenty than John has his entire life, despite clearly dealing with body dysmorphia issues for a good five to seven years, which John wholly understands because he dabbled in body dymorphia himself for about three years while trying to run 75-miles per week on 1500-calories per day.
          This generation. They’re so dedicated and smart and tech-savvy. And John knows this for a fact because he’s been to their commencement ceremonies. He’s seen their resumes and he knows where they’re off to and how this world has been handed to them on a platter, as long as they show they have ambition and drive and a sense of fashion and go on service-learning trips to the middle of Africa or Asia or wherever to teach middle school children the intricacies of international finance in a week-long course they call a Workshop Intensive that look super good on those resumes that they hand to Morgan Stanley, now, instead of Bear Stearns, all the while waking at 4 a.m. to hit the gym for an hour of cardio and another hour of muscle toning.
           Jesus F.
          And John’s read their research papers on this shit. And he’s told them good job. That their work is really impressive, but what he’s really thinking—what he’s really goddamned thinking—
          Maybe they are good kids. She does deserve an apology, but John’s already fourteen goddamn minutes into his lunch and he’s now having to think he might have to cut his run short, do the 5.5 mile route, which is just like giving up. And would this girl just give up just like that? Throw in the towel this easily?
          And dear God this girl is pretty, isn’t she? And she’s—
          The word is in entitled. She’s an entitled rich kid who got a little spit on the fender of her trashy immigrant bike she no doubt bought at a store called a boutique which specializes in selling bikes that only look immigrant and trashy, but are actually quite dependable—
          Fuck this.
         “Sorry,” John says.
         Or maybe he doesn’t say it.
         He definitely doesn’t wait for her reaction. He definitely does not make eye contact with her either because he knows the predatory eyes this generation has—they all have it—that viper stare, the kind that feels like two sharp fangs piercing his sac and draining his testes of all his manhood.
         His coworkers do the same thing to him, excelling at things John can’t, possibly due to the generations of socio-economic struggle entwined in his family’s genetics.
         For example, his coworkers eat quinoa with beet sauce for lunch. They make it themselves and pack it in a kind of Tupperware John has never seen in a store or on the Internet. It’s a fancier kind with these air-locking lids that clamp down and are clearly proprietary and sold at a kitchenware store John could never locate in a million years because John does not have the bull-headed confidence it takes to be a person who deserves that kind of superior lunch-toting technology.
         So he does this, the running during his lunch hour, and he finally runs by the Main Quad, then the Much-Revered Computer Science Building, then around the administrative training buildings, then by a ranch—yes, a ranch—and then the golf course where a bunch of old white men laugh and hold golf clubs and practice public urination off a fairly busy thoroughfare because—
         Oh, they deserve the privilege to piss on their golf course as the service workers and immigrants drive by in their dumpy trucks and rusty vans, and these old white men dangle their wangs in the eucalyptus air and think about beautiful financials spreadsheets and green grass that shouldn’t be green, but burnt brown and dead like the hills surrounding—
         The place should be a desert or a park or something, but instead—
          It’s like this oasis where old men piss out 80-year-old scotch processed by 80-year-old, failing kidneys in front of immigrants stuck in midday traffic on a road being expanded by other immigrants so they can drive their Teslas more quickly through American hills that smell like Australian forests—
          So John spits.
         One of them sees him spit and makes a whack off motion with his club, and this is an old man wearing respectable clothing and those wrap-around sunglasses, and John is now exactly 2.5 miles into his run, and he’s on a bike path right by the tee box, and there’s this white crane walking toward him. A bird that should be in the salt marshes. But here it is, bobbing its dumb head, stuck between a man who owns half the planet and publicly exposes himself on acreage that should be a national park and another guy, who’s angry and wearing short shorts and a tech-fabric T-shirt that makes his back break out in a constellation of vicious acne, but—
         This is what John deals with. He accepts this. He accepts the fact that dumb beautiful birds will stand in the way of social justice because if that bird wasn’t there, bobbing and weaving and eating bugs, John would walk right across that fairway and jack the geriatric in the goddamn mouth because he has deserved a bloody lip for at least half a century for raping and pillaging the have-nots on most of the seven continents—
    Not to mention he probably kills whales. Or knows the men who do all the whale killing—is probably golfing with them right now—and they’re actually not all old white men—they’re like poster geriatrics for a more diverse world—but they’re all golfing and wearing those clothes, the pastels and the wind-breaker vests—just clownish shit—but, likely, they’re all more than willing to pull their dicks out and piss on newly paved immigrant-made roads and that’s the crux of it—
          The Japanese. They do the whale killing.
          “You want to kiss me or fuck me,” one of them says in the strangest accent—maybe Armenian?
          Politicians, John thinks, from one of the research centers where the real levers are pulled, or at least constructed by the Highly-Polarizing Political Figures who work there.
          One full minute, John realizes, is how much time he has wasted, standing here and staring at these old men, while that white crane bobs its stupid head looking for wood bugs in grass that should be brown and dead and ready to light up like a torch.
         They are sucking his life, his time to be on this road. He could be 1/7 of a mile further down the trail, but these fucking—
         “Why don’t you all go rape Nanking … again,” John shouts—maybe—
         He definitely says, “What?”—maybe a little aggressively, too.
        “That’s what I thought,” the man says.
         That’s what he thought? That’s what he thought, what?—
         John does not have to waste any more precious time shouting down men covered in the liver-spots of Big Oil treachery and Lobby Hound manipulation.
         So he runs.
         He runs under the overpass where there’s a biker wearing a spandex outfit that matches his helmet and clippy shoes and even his bike—the entire get-up is worth more than John’s car. He runs along a busier road that twists through the foothills, where trees reach out and try to pull the hubcaps off all the imports—
         John loves those, the trees. Even the eucalyptus—that invasive fucking species. Trees make sense to him. They sit there. They grow. They drink water. They create girth and weight and height by separating the carbon molecule from CO2—
         They actually take that one little piece of air and turn it into a thing, a cell, cellulose, leaves, branches, roots, wood, bark—the shit redwoods are made of. To think—giant redwoods become giant from taking one little tiny bit of air. They take the C from the O2 and turn it into rock hard tree. They store it, they keep the carbon on the earth where it should be—
         And that little piece of carbon came from—
         Something like a meteor or a star—
         It came from the beginning of time, from the Big Bang.
         It’s stardust.
         He—they—the rich kids and geriatrics—are stardust. They are meat sacks storing the dust of the universe while they jam through the cosmos on a mother ship they all call Earth, orbiting in a place that is itself expanding, and here he runs on gimpy legs by trees that eat air—the very air that he, himself, is made of—that every goddamned thing is made of—
         Amazeballz, John thinks—
         Amazeballz? This? From a guy who works at an institution of higher education? A really good institution of higher education?—if you can believe the hype on the Internet, and where kids come and they learn and then they rule the world—in that exact order.
          We are stardust.
          John should be smarter than this by mere proximity to intelligence. His daily thoughts on his run should be, in some way, elevated. Because he’s with the birds and the trees, and he’s in a place on the planet that some claim to be beautiful, but these people don’t have the allergies he has. It’s his Midwestern lungs. They need to be cleaned out by the cold. These people don’t see the hills ripe to burn.
          It is beautiful.
          The trees are amazeballz, at least.
          But—
          It’s impossible to enjoy these trees while running along a beautiful but busy road because the cars try to hit him. John knows this for a fact. He sees them see him, and they swerve, maybe just an inch or two. They take curves a little wide and cross the white line, and they try to clip him. They try to break his back, and John knows exactly which cars will do it, too. The Audis and Land Rovers. These vehicles place real-live human pedestrians in the same phylum as orange construction cones.
         John is a triangle. His purpose in the Grander Scheme is to be on the shoulder of the road to be crushed by Land Rovers driven by Venture Capitalists racing to a lunch at some Fancy-Ass Place in the Hills, where the people sit on balconies and are handed a real-live newspaper like The New York Times—with the print and ink and paper and the smell and everything—telling everything about yesterday’s news, while they drink—probably espresso or some kind of spring water that’s impossible to get—and make business deals based on some nineteen-year-old dork’s idea that was dreamt up near the locker room where John changes into the moldy running gear that causes his nuts to chafe before he embarks on a 7.5 mile trek of self-hatred and localized, yet internal and intense, societal shaming because—
         Honestly, Land Rovers can really go fuck themselves. The people who drive those motherfuckers probably rape mice and/or starving children in the Pan-African-Asian region while practicing public urination as they human traffick their gold bonds to the nearest World Bank.
          So John spits.
         And he hits the tire of a truck driven by an immigrant worker who’s eating an orange at lunch as he’s pulled off the shoulder of the road.
         “Hey!” this man shouts.
         John stops. He’s only 3.5 miles in. Yet he stops again. He looks back. He smells the orange. It smells delicious, and the man—the immigrant worker in what is actually a really nice truck—is looking angrily at John.
         “Oh, jeez,” John says. “That was an accident. Didn’t know you were in the truck. My fault, man. My fault,” he says as he walks toward the man.
         “Why’d you spit on my truck?”
         John realizes he isn’t going to go away. The juice drips down his hand, and it will clearly leave that sticky orange film on everything, and it goes to show—
         This man truly doesn’t give a fuck.
         “Err,” John says.
         The man gets out. He is also hobbit-shaped. Perhaps more hobbit-shaped than John. John is envious of this man who carries his hobbit shape with such confidence. He pushes that barrel chest around. His legs, which look a lot like John’s stumpy legs, look load-bearing strong—like he could lift a pallet of bricks and swing heavy hammers and defeat hunger with hard work and drive. He’s avocado strong.
         Fertile. He’s probably got kids. Unafraid to feed them.
         This man is a—
         He’s a man. A real, live man.
         He has a belt buckle and forearms and that man-look and that cut to his jaw. He’s got facial hair growing everywhere.
         Shit.
        And now he’s standing inches from John, and they see each other eye to eye. Maybe John stands an inch taller, but that might be because of the orthodics and high-density cushioning in his designer running shoes.
        “I didn’t know you were in the truck, seriously. I just spit—because I’m running, you know,” John says, his eyes going where his eyes always go, away and down skipping right past his small dick that’s now—
        He sees for the first time in his nearly 20 years of daily running it’s barely, just barely covered by the smallest loin cloth of ultra-light tech-fabric. The outline clearly visible and this man—
        This man has on a belt buckle the size of a dinner plate and cowboy boots with silver tips and two-inch heels, and sturdy blue jeans that cup his nuts just right.
        “You’d really spit on my truck if I weren’t in it?” he asks. “You just run around spitting on people’s vehicles, friend?” he says.
        Friend, he says.
       “I just spit. The running, you know. You get moving. It builds up. You spit when you need to spit.”
       “You just spit. I hear you right, friend? In front of other people? You don’t think this is disrespectful?”
       And this man has a point. And this man isn’t even that angry. He’s just telling it like it is.
      And this man isn’t even that old. He’s got to be about John’s age.
      And he’s got to have kids and responsibilities and projects more complicated than financials spreadsheets, and John wants to tell this man all this because John feels a kinship toward him, because John likes to see it like it is and say it like it is as well, but—
      This man gets a call on his phone, and this man answers his phone while continuing to look at John, and he has those manly eyes where the fire of life burns, where the fire of knowing how to live the fuck out of life resides. He uses that speaker thing that some of those phones have. It’s like a cop phone. Crackle, crackle, blip, bloop, and he has a quick conversation all in Spanish, and it’s clear to John that this man, who is his own age, who is similarly hobbit-shaped, who has kids he needs to support, is also a leader of other men.
       And it’s clear this man sees that John sees this.
       And John is wondering if this man has ever had to do financial spreadsheets and put those numbers in little boxes that you need to get from Jackie, who always has that yoga mat.
      “It’s not disrespect. It’s just doing what I gotta do when I run,” John continues because this is true and it is a point of utmost importance. This man should understand physical labor and the unintended consequences of an animal body excreting its excess as a result.
       The man puts his finger up to shush John while he finishes his conversation.
       Blip.
       Bloop.
       John sees that his fingernails are beautiful and pearly white and so clean. Manicured. But this finger—this surprisingly androgynous finger that this man is holding up is also another command.
       Jesus this man can lead.
       And others follow.
       John is already following him.
       Because this man has his crew and his crew has got to be like John’s blue-collar uncles who call him professor
       Even when John reminds Uncle Bill he’s not a professor—
      And tells Uncle Jim he’s not an asshole—
      And shows Uncle Sal that he does for sure know how to work a wrench—
      See?
      But John knows well his immigrant uncles who worked shit jobs their entire lives. He knows Uncle Bill has to say that racist shit when he remodels his bathroom because he has that kind of know-how. Just like Uncle Jim has to say that womanizing shit about his second wife when he takes down trees and uses chainsaws. Just like Uncle Sal has to talk about how politicians don’t know fuck-all about jack-all when he takes a deer apart piece by piece with a carefully whetted blade in Northern Minnesota when the sun is down and the cold is out and the quiet of winter has finally come. Just like they all have to spit when they need to spit, and they all have to talk Polish when they drink blackberry brandy, and they all have to say those things while drunk—about being divorced and how rich bitches sound like assholes and old white men don’t deserve a dime.
      None of those fucks deserve jack—those leaders of men and rapists of mice and designers of eco-friendly but cost-prohibitive automobiles that sound like the wind.
     Like this man—this fellow hobbit—this man who works hard and leads people—
     Men.
     He’s gotta understand spitting.
     You spit when you need to, amigo.
     But now this father is confronting John on social injustice, shushing him and waving his finger?
      Blip. Bloop.
      He speaks.
      “You know my father was a famous runner. You ever hear of the Tarahumara? He ran those long races and won some, too.”
      Has John ever heard of the Tarahumara? How could this man even ask that? John has read Runner’s World. He had a subscription to that shit for years until it became the beauty and fad-diet magazine it is today.
      Goddamn right, John knows the Tarahumara. He knows their mysterious dominance in the 90s, showing up to ultra-marathons and killing it on 100-mile races wearing nothing but crappy-ass sandals made out of, like, twine and car tires.
      He knows about their genetic predisposition toward running awesomness—the slow-twitch muscles that give them an edge over the competition.
       He knows they hardly train and how they just show up and kick ass.
       He knows the legend of Caballo Blanco, the white man who infiltrated their kind and ate beans and rice and ran twenty miles a day in the high deserts of northwestern Mexico, who was later found dead in a ravine.
       Died on a long run.
       Running through God’s country.
       A white man dead in a brown man’s desert.
       If John could be so lucky.
       Fucking shit.
       Oh, yes, John knows the Tarahumara.
       But what John says is this, “You do any races?”
       And the man laughs. Slaps his keg of a belly and laughs some more.
      “Races? No, no. When I was younger, I did that. We played lots of games back then, didn’t we?”
       When you were younger you played games, amigo?
       This is not a game. This is life. This is 7.5 miles of peeling off the toxic crud that congeals to the skin when primal man steps into antiseptic offices. This is man reconnecting with his roots. This is man running his hunting trails and sniffing blood.
        We should be wielding spears. We should be beating our chests. We should be taking our mates by the hair and having them in the fields.
        We should have balls the size of sheep testicles that hang like avocados.
        We should be naked and thin and brown-skinned and swaddled in the desert sunlight and asleep on the cooling rocks under the falling moonlight.
        This is why John is here. This is why he spits.
        Because the truck is not there, and the road is not there, and the eco-friendly vehicles are not there. Neither are the mouse rapists, nor the riders of faux-trashy bikes.
        Or the financials spreadsheets.
        Or motherfucking yoga.
        This 7.5 mile run at lunch is when all that crap goes away, burned by the Tarahumara sun, made inconceivable by the primal man’s brain.
        He does not sense these things. He does not see them, so how could this man, this descendent of purer humanity, who ran atop the plateaus in lands that are on the other side of the universe of Tech-Start-Ups think it’s—
        “It’s not a fucking game,” John says.
       “What?” this man says, backing away.
       “This,” John says, pointing at his tech-fabric running shorts, his small dick pointing like a gun.
        Erect?
        Maybe.
        Half-chub?
        Sure.
       “This ain’t a fucking game. Comprende?” John says.
       “What kind of racist bull—” this man says.
        Fucking belt buckle.
        Goddamn boots.
        To think this man was supposed to be John’s Samwise Gamgee.
        To think this hobbit would go and turn on him like that?
        With his history?
        On their way to Mordor?
        The Tara-fucking-humara.
        His grandfather.
        A man with that kind of greatness in his genes?
        Living on rice and beans and wearing old car tires on his feet. Car tires that were made in the US of A, amigo. Up in Detroit, which was the Land of Innovation in its day, amigo.
        And that’s where this place will come to in the end after these hills burn, amigo. Another graveyard for hippies and hipsters and failing artists to come and reclaim the warehouse shells of success that once-was.
        Amigo.
       And as this man backs away, his hands up, one palm smelling of orange, the other of technology and static and blips and bloops, he says, “Calm down, friend. Just didn’t want you to spit on my truck is all.”
       But John just keeps walking toward him, and he leans into him, now realizing that his entire body is just brimming with adrenaline and rage and all the primal shit that—
       He has that smell about him. The fight or flight smell. The tunnel-vision. How he returns to this place of pulsing red and surging will.
       John looms over the man—now an inch away, foreheads nearly touching.
      And, indeed, John is at least an inch taller than this man—this leader of men—and, indeed, this man is cowering.
      And he makes a joke.
      Not Ha Ha funny
      But a joke told by a weak man, cowering before power.
      “You gonna kiss me, friend?” is what this small man might have said—
      But John doesn’t hear this type of shit anyway—will never hear anymore of it. He snorts like a bull, gravels the back of his throat, and—
      Made of stardust, the cum of the universe.

 


About the author: Mark Rapacz is an editor and partner with the neo-pulp press Burnt Bridge and the founder of its imprint Blastgun Books. His short stories have appeared in a number of publications, including Water~Stone ReviewSouthern Humanities ReviewThe BookedAnthology, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. His novella Buffalo Bill in the Gallery of the Machines was recently re-issued as a historically accurate dime novel and is available through IndyPlanet.  He and his wife currently live in the Bay Area, where he works at Stanford University and continues to write stories.

Artwork: Justin Schapker is a photographer living in Cincinnati, Ohio.


A Tight Spot by Jacqueline Doyle

 Herrington_ FOR DOYLE_A Tight Spot


Sure I felt like an asshole. We’ve all been in tight spots made us think about what assholes we are, gave us time to ponder. I had all night, and then some.
        Seasonal work was the best I done last year, working for Mel’s Electronics for the Christmas rush. Black pants, black shoes, white shirt, a Santa Claus hat and red vest from Mel’s with a nametag read, “Happy Holidays! My name is Dean. Ask me a question!” Mel said a year ago was better, but far as I could see, they were raking it in.
        It was late afternoon on December 23 that I rung up this lady’s purchase, almost $4000 mind you, and just happened to notice the address on her ID, 1255 Cold Canyon Road, because I used to live in an apartment at 1255 Canyon Boulevard, a different neighborhood altogether, believe you me. I hauled this big-ass flat screen Toshiba TV out to the lady’s Lexus SUV, which was chock-full of presents, and she says, “I got my shopping done just in time. We’re leaving tonight for a party at my in-laws and won’t be back ‘til late tomorrow. I’ve barely got time to wrap.” She gave me a two dollar tip, even though they’re not supposed to.
        That night I couldn’t help thinking about all those presents. Mel’s gives seasonal staff a 10% discount, whoop-dee-do, and I bought my girlfriend Jolene an itty bitty Coby TV for our bedroom, but it didn’t amount to much, and that big Toshiba sure would look good on the living room wall, you know how people hang them up like pictures now? And I was thinking this lady’s got insurance for sure, and it’s not like the TV belongs to anyone yet. Or the iPods with Memorex Speaker Systems for her kids, or the Sony HD Camcorder for her husband. That was just what she bought at Mel’s. Who knows what else was in the car. I’m figuring, they haven’t even opened their presents and got time to get attached to anything. They can’t miss what they don’t even know they’ve got.
        So I decide just to swing by and look at 1255 Cold Canyon Road, just take a look at the house and the neighborhood. I wasn’t planning nothing, just thinking on it, taking a drive.
        Well you wouldn’t believe all the Christmas lights and decorations. Deer made out of lights in the front yards, Santa in his sleigh with a load of presents, all lit up red and green. Long paths lined with giant light-up candy canes. Big houses. Big yards. Lots of trees. 1255 Cold Canyon was set way back from the road, and without thinking I just zipped up the driveway with my headlights off, figured I could always say I had the wrong address, that I was in the neighborhood to hook up someone’s new TV. They’ve got that service at Mel’s and other places, and some of the help do it on the side, slip the customer their phone number when they load stuff in their cars. “If you have any trouble at all with installation, please just give me a call, ma’am. I can fix you up for less than Mel’s will charge you.” I never done that, mostly because I wasn’t sure I could handle all those cables and directions.
        I sit in the car for a spell, drinking a beer.
        After a while I open the car door real quiet, then freeze, wondering was there a dog. But I didn’t hear nothing. The house was dark, with just one little light in the entry hallway, shining through the thick glass panes in the door. No porch light, no lights anywhere else. I walk through the unlocked side gate into the back yard, just cogitating, scoping it out. I bang into the recycling bin, which gives me a scare. But the neighbors are much too far away to hear or see anything so I figure I’m safe. Someone down the street’s got a repeating tape of Christmas music to go with their Christmas decorations, “Jingle Bells” to “White Christmas” to “Deck the Halls” to “Silent Night” back to “Jingle Bells,” where it starts up all over again. That would drive me crazy. I’m just as glad I don’t live in this fancy neighborhood.
        House this big must have a burglar alarm. I’m thinking how would you get into a house like this without using a door or a window. It’s not like I wanted to rob the whole place. I just wanted to scoop up those presents and run, wouldn’t take more than a few minutes tops.
        Well Santa must have been on my mind, because it just come to me. Why not the chimney? Chances are the tree’s set up right by the fireplace and the presents are all there for the taking. I was always a good tree climber when I was a kid, and I look around, and sure enough there’s a tall pine tree I knew I could climb. I’d already had a few beers and a peppermint schnapps at home and probably wasn’t thinking my clearest. Hadn’t really thought about how I’d get the presents out without opening a door or window.
        I climb the tree. The bark’s all rough, and I get sap on my hands and scratches on my face from the twigs and needles. But it’s also kind of fun. It smells good, makes me feel like a kid again. When I get up there, it’s just a short jump onto the roof.
        So I’m up there feeling on top of the world, congratulating myself on my climbing abilities and great idea. It’s a cold night, but not too cold, and the sky’s clear. You can see stars everywhere, and way far off, the lights of the city.
        The chimney’s got some kind of grate on top, and at first I think I’ll have to give up my plan. Wondered for a bit if I could saw a hole in the roof instead, but of course I don’t have a saw. But then I feel around, and the grate’s got four screws on the corners and it turns out you can unscrew them with a quarter, which I do, feeling pretty smart. Looking down, the chimney is kind of scary dark, but the opening looks big enough, and I figure I’ll feel fine once I’m in the living room looking at all those presents.
        I picture Jolene watching “American Idol” on this big screen Toshiba in our living room, painting her toenails like she does, calling out to me, “Come in here. You got to see this, Dean.” The two of us cuddling on the couch, her sitting with her feet across my lap, cotton balls between her pretty toes.
        Or me kicking back with some of the guys for a football game, pizza boxes and beer bottles all over the coffee table.
        “Jeez man, where’d you get it?”
        “It was a floor model at Mel’s,” I’ll say all modest. “Discontinued. You just got to be in the right place at the right time for a deal like that.”
        I get a good grip on the sides and lower myself into the chimney. Turns out there’s a ledge not too far down where I can rest my feet. I angle my butt against the side and reach down to grip the ledge. Wish I’d thought to bring a flashlight, but none of this was exactly planned, know what I mean? I can feel soot rubbing off on me, especially where I’m all sticky from the sap. I don’t know how I’m going to explain that to Jolene, and it’s getting darker as I look down. There’s a goddamn bird nest on one corner of the ledge, but at least there’s no birds. I’m farther down, barely holding onto the ledge with my fingers now, squeezed inside the chimney, feeling around with one foot, then the other, for another toehold. The chimney’s narrower below the ledge. I’m wondering how far down it will be if I just let go.
        So you know what happened. I slipped and got stuck in the chimney.
        Newspapers say I was wedged in there for ten to twelve hours. I don’t know about that. I only know it was a fucking long time, and for hours and hours all I could see was a small square of night sky and stars above me, and only if I bent my head back, which gave me a crick in my neck but was worth it, since otherwise everything was black. I knew Jolene must be wondering where I was at, and my cell phone was in the car between the seats. Not sure what I would have said if I’d had it. “Honey, I’m stuck in a chimney?” I was thinking about all the dumb things I done, mostly with my high school buddy Roger, thinking this was a two-man operation, and if he’d been along, things might not have played out this way. And thinking how Jolene says I should grow up and maybe it was time.
        The stars started to disappear as the light got gray, and then lighter, and then kind of washed-out blue with wispy clouds. By now I’m sober as a judge. Leaving the car in the driveway was a dumbass move, but at least they’d know someone was here, so it was a good dumbass move. “You won’t be here forever,” I kept telling myself, trying to keep my spirits up. Especially when I felt like I couldn’t breathe, with my elbows jammed against my rib cage like they were, and me fearing the worst. I’d suffocate. I’d fall asleep and crash down into the fireplace. Or they’d light a fire and I’d cook to death before anyone heard me calling out. Or the family would die in a car crash, and I’d starve to death here waiting for someone to find me. I closed my eyes sometimes, did this yoga breathing thing Jolene taught me. “Long exhales,” she said, “long slow breaths,” and I think that saved me much as anything. A few times I heard cars on the street and tried to yell “Help,” but it was like my voice didn’t work, and they were too far away anyway.
        Finally, after what felt like days, I hear car doors slamming in the driveway and then kids’ voices in the living room. “Ho ho ho,” I shout out, my voice kind of squeaky. The kids are shrieking “Mom, Dad, Santa’s in the chimney!” and the lady from Mel’s is saying “Oh my God! Get out of there!” Everything’s quiet again.
        It takes a while, but there’s sirens, then clomping on the roof. Two cops silhouetted against the sky, shining flashlights down the chimney. I was never so glad to see cops in my life.
        The whole family’s outside on the front porch when they lead me to the squad car in cuffs. I couldn’t look that lady in the eyes. All I can think about is that two dollar tip and, “You really screwed up this time, Deano.”
        “You have the right to remain silent.” Well I didn’t have much to say, did I? All night to think about it, and ponder other mistakes I’d made in my life, and I couldn’t even come up with an excuse for this one.
        Jolene visits weekends, says she really likes snuggling in bed and watching that Coby TV I gave her. I hope she’s snuggling alone, that’s all. We’re aiming to marry when I get out, have kids, do the whole grownup thing. It’s time.


Author Bio: Jacqueline Doyle lives in the East Bay. Her work has appeared in South Dakota Review, Ninth Letter online, South Loop Review, Southern Indiana Review, and Confrontation. A recent Pushcart nominee, she also has a “Notable Essay” listed in Best American Essays 2013. She teaches at California State University, East Bay and can be found online at www.facebook.com/authorjacquelinedoyle.

Artwork: Alexandra Herrington

Payback by Jacqueline Berkman

 Jessica Herrera_(Untitled)_FOR BERKMAN


            Tamara was yelling at Peter to get in the car, but her mind was on the garden of the Malibu house, sensing that everything could begin or end there. As Peter shuffled down the stairs with a morose gait, she envisioned a pebbled entryway and bougainvillea everywhere. It was all in the sketch she had meticulously detailed the night before, the sketch she would present to the new clients today, and she hoped, as she always hoped, she would appear cool and collected. The key, she figured, was to appear immersed in the wildlife of her work, oblivious to the aridness of the recession that had infected everyone else.
            “I didn’t have breakfast,” Peter said.
            “Your loss, buddy. Get in the car. Now.”
            They walked down the driveway to the Honda Civic that was parked under the hot morning sun. Peter shuffled to the backseat, his Spongebob backpack splayed out next to him, and Tamara, squinting into the rearview mirror, evaluated the state of her lipstick before pressing on the accelerator and driving off. She had to present her landscaping vision to Bradley and Julia Chapman, a cinematographer and his fashion model wife who were looking for the perfect landscape architect to complete their “rustic on the beach” utopia in Malibu. Tamara knew that to be that person she had to be prepared, and persuasive, had to imply that only by following the plans in her sketches would this couple be able to successfully pave their way towards beauty and truth.
            “I really don’t want to go to school today,” Peter said.
            Tamara squinted as she made a right onto Ventura Boulevard, shielding her eyes from the sun’s glare as she mentally reviewed how the hydrangeas and trellises would adorn the water fountain in the Chapman’s courtyard.
            “Please don’t make me go,” Peter said.
            Tamara sighed. “I thought you liked school, honey.”
            “I don’t like Max Wilburn.”
            What if they don’t like hydrangeas? Tamara thought. What if they think they’re overdone, tacky, and completely obvious? To Peter she said, “Who’s Max Wilburn?”
            “This kid in the grade above me. We got in a fight yesterday at recess. He pushed me really hard.”
            “What did you get in a fight about?”
            “He said I was hogging the jungle gym, and when I was walking back to class he pushed me.”
            Tamara sighed, turning left into the parking lot of John Burroughs Elementary School. “Well hon, you can’t hog the jungle gym. That’s for everyone to play on.”
            “But that’s the thing, mom. Everyone does play on it. I was playing on it with everyone else, and he kept telling me I was hogging it, but I wasn’t.”
            Tamara pulled up to the drop off curb and turned around to look at Peter. He was small boned just like her, and pale and wide eyed. His eyes were especially wide right now, in the telling of the story. And Tamara felt worried for her son, worried about the wide-eyed look that would inevitably make him seem too vulnerable, a “pansy,” a target for elementary school punks like Max Wilburn. Christ, she thought. Why couldn’t he inherit more of Raymond’s genes?
            “Honey, don’t let anyone push you around,” Tamara said. “You’ve got to be strong.”
            “But he’s bigger than me, mom.”
            “Well stay away from him, then.”
            Peter didn’t say anything. Tamara checked the time, fluttered her fingers against the steering wheel, and looked resolutely into the rearview mirror. “Peter, you need to tough this out. Stand your ground. Don’t let that jerk get to you.” When Peter sad nothing in return she said, “I have to go, buddy. I’ve got a big day ahead. But I’ll see you right after school. Try to have a good day, okay?”
            Peter slung his backpack around his shoulder, and she could see him take a deep breath and close his eyes, as if mentally preparing himself.
            “Just stay out of trouble. I’ll see you after school.”
            “Bye,” Peter said. He shut the door and walked over to the blacktop driveway where all the kids were standing, backpacks swinging, walking to their classrooms. Driving away, Tamara saw from the corner of her eye that Peter was still standing on the pavement, as if waiting for her.

            One hour and one freeway later, Tamara was over at the Malibu house, where Julia Chapman whipped up lattes on the espresso machine and listened attentively to the script that Tamara recited from memory about the potential of hydrangeas and bougainvillea.
            “I really do believe that with all of these plants working in tandem you’re going to achieve your authentically rustic California garden,” Tamara said, her face flush with nerves. “But, as with any garden, it’s going to take time and care. You’re going to need to be watchful and attentive, especially of the Mexican evening primrose. The roots grow fast in the warmer months, and you don’t want it to overpower everything else in your lovely garden.”
            “Of course not,” Julia said. “We just have to pay attention.” Julia nudged her husband, who looked increasingly perturbed by a recent text. “Honey, are you even listening?”
            “What? Yes. We have to make sure that plant doesn’t grow like crazy,” Bradley said, looking up. “I’ve gotta run back to the studio. The post production people are having issues with some of the footage.”
            “But honey—”
            “You just let Tamara take care of things, okay dear? You can trust her,” Bradley said, in a tone that Tamara thought was a more than a little condescending, the tone of someone who was used to used to jumping up at a moment’s notice and escaping from things.
            “Men,” Julia said, sighing, loud enough for Bradley to hear as he walked over to the Porsche parked in the driveway, his car keys jingling with each step he took. Tamara smiled, for lack of knowing what else to do, and it struck her for the first time that perhaps she had been only one of many landscape architects that they had consulted with, and that Bradley’s abrupt departure had signified that she had somehow failed their screening test. In the quiet of the kitchen, Julia Chapman cradled her espresso and studied Tamara’s sketches, a neutral expression on her face, and Tamara, clinging to her own espresso cup, wished she could read Julia’s mind to such an extent that it embarrassed her, in the way that all of her feelings embarrassed her when she felt them too strongly. When her cell phone lit up and an unfamiliar number flashed across the screen, she sprang up instinctively, glad, at least, for a physical action to divert her from sitting at that table. “Excuse me for a moment,” Tamara said, stepping out of the French doors onto the terrace, before answering her phone. “Hello, this is Tamara.”
            “Hello Tamara, this is Jeanne calling from John Burroughs Elementary School.”
            “Hi.”
            “There’s been an incident on the playground concerning your son, Peter.”
            “What happened?”
            “He was involved in a fight with another boy. We think he may have broken his arm. The paramedics are on their way. I just notified your husband, and he said that he would meet you at Providence Tarzana Medical Center.”
            Tamara felt a surge of nausea rise up her throat. “I’ll be there as soon as I can,” she said. She hung up and walked back into the kitchen, where Julia was still cradling her espresso and studying the plans. Tamara was momentarily glad that she could at least break this stretch of intolerable silence, that she had a mission that was completely independent of Julia’s aesthetic preferences. “I’m sorry, Julia,” she said. “I just got a call from my son’s school. They told me he may have broken his arm. I’ve got to go to the hospital. We’ll talk later.”
            “Yes, of course,” Julia said, “I hope everything is alright.” Her furrowed eyebrows were in the pose of concern, and Tamara sprinted to the car, leaving behind a memo that emphasized what a difference a chrysanthemum bed could make.

            I’m a stupid idiot, Tamara thought as she made a sharp left onto Malibu Canyon Road, a goddamn stupid idiot. Pieces of the conversation from the car ride that morning came back in fragments. Bully. Max. Pushed me. She had been indisputably distracted, yes, overwhelmed by her first major referral in God knows how long, but she had also been concerned about Peter’s meekness more than anything else, his vulnerability that made it so easy for him to get singled out and targeted by bullies. There had been that incident at Sam Stouffer’s eighth birthday party at the miniature golf course, where Peter repeatedly had trouble hitting the golf ball, swinging the club back only to come up with air. There had been those gaps of silence between the missed swings, followed by other boys’ laughter, and then Sam’s father’s gentle suggestion that it might be a good idea to get Peter’s hand-eye coordination looked at as they were leaving, party favors in hand.
            Tamara had thanked him for the advice, but what she remembered more was her difficulty trying to read that night before bed, how the words seemed to swim around in a blur on the page. She remembered turning to Raymond and telling him that she was worried about Peter and his meekness, his lack of coordination and his inability to relate to other boys. But Raymond, of course, had managed to dismiss her anxiety with a cool detachment, his signature inability to get worked up about anything. “So he’s a little clumsy,” he said. “Maybe he’s not destined to be a neurosurgeon, but he’ll figure things out.” He turned off his light. “Christ, Tam,” he had said. “He’s only eight.”
            It was easy for Raymond to say that Tamara thought, pressing on the accelerator as she snaked her way up the winding canyon. He had never been one to struggle with those sorts of things. Raymond was six foot two and raised in a family of meat and potato eating athletes. He had played varsity football and ran track in high school and now in his forties seemed to move with a relaxed and self-satisfied gait, as though he had nothing else, really, to prove.
            And even though she kind of resented his assuredness, about Peter’s well being, about everything else, she also envied it, because it was his confident ability to brush things away with a dismissive wave of the hand that she had never been able to master. All of the nights that Raymond had said, “Let it go,” and had fallen asleep the moment his head had hit the pillow, Tamara spent lying awake, involuntarily enabling thoughts to link up to other thoughts, as though she were constructing some sort of cerebral daisy chain.
            She merged onto the 101 South, turning up the radio in an attempt to ignore her heart’s angry thud and the intrusive images of Peter recoiling in pain, his arm bloody, his bones protruding.

            When she saw Raymond standing tall and composed in the waiting room of the orthopedics pediatric ward she burst into tears, all of that anxious energy and teeth grinding that had carried her through Malibu Canyon finally breaking down into untamed sobs.
            “I came here as fast as I could,” she said. “As fast as I could.”
            “Shh,” he said, running his hands over her back, her head nestled into the crook of his shoulder. She smelled the faint scent of his cologne, crisp and smooth, mingle with the staleness of the hospital.
            “Where is he? How is he?”
            “He’s sedated,” Raymond said. “They gave him morphine for the pain, and they’re about to operate. He fractured his arm.”
            “Morphine?” Tamara said. She associated morphine with her father during his losing battle with cancer, his rattling breath thin like a whistle, as his EKG flattened and his breaths grew smaller, imprints of the ones before them.
            “You need to sign some forms before they operate.”
            Tamara started walking to the reception desk before she turned to face her husband, her sturdy husband with his cornflower hair and pale blue eyes, and said “Did you know that a bully did this to him?”
            “The school mentioned that he got into a fight with someone.”
            “It was some kid named Max Wilburn,” Tamara said. “Peter was telling me about the kid this morning, how he’s always giving him a hard time, and I was too busy thinking about flower arrangements for the new clients because I am a terrible mother.”
            “No you’re not,” Raymond said. “Christ, you didn’t know this would happen.”
            “I should have known. I should have done something when he told me.” She wiped a tear from her eye. “I told him to tough it out. I’m such an idiot.”
            “Just sign the forms, Tam,” he said. “We will talk about all of this later.”
            So she went to the desk and signed the consent forms, and then they walked back to the waiting room, hand in hand. “We’re going to make the Wilburns cough up more than they’re worth,” Raymond said. “Those fuckers are going to pay.”
            Tamara blinked at him. Everything he said was right, but his voice was too calm, too steady, his hand too cool and smooth against her hot, clammy one.

            It was three AM, and she had just woken up from a nightmare where she was on a small boat with a bunch of people she didn’t recognize. There was a storm, and the boat was bobbing unsettlingly over waves. The captain was some kind of quiz show host, and he walked from one person to another asking trivia questions, and when a person didn’t know an answer he threw them overboard, tossing them into the choppy blue waves where the sheer weight of their exhaustion would drag them down, never to be seen again. In the dream Tamara kept thinking about how seasick she was, how her nausea would make focusing impossible, how she was bound to be tossed over any minute.
            When she awoke her heart was racing, and her skin was cold. She was in a sleeping bag on the floor of Peter’s room, and when she abruptly sat up she could feel the coiled muscles in her neck stiffen from curling up on the floor. She stretched her legs and listened to the rhythm of her son’s breathing, which, to her relief, sounded deep and even, not the breathing of someone who had been drugged by morphine. She stood up, grimacing at the sound of the creaking floorboards, and looked at Peter for any signs of pain, but he appeared to be in the midst of a deep sleep. His left arm was thickly bandaged, and his right arm was outstretched, dangling off the pillow, as if looking for some comfort that the parameter of the bed could not provide.
            Tamara sat next to him and combed her fingers through his hair, finally resting her hand on the bony crevice of his shoulder blade. She leaned against his bedpost and closed her eyes, trying to will herself to go back to sleep. But in that quiet moment in the dark she felt her mind carrying her back to a place she didn’t want to go, a window of time she had closed off and which, involuntary, she felt herself revisiting again.
            She was not much older than eight of nine, and she had accompanied her parents to a Fourth of July party at their friends’ house, the Whitby’s. Her parents had gone to the Whitby’s every Fourth of July, and she had always stayed at home, preferring to feign sickness rather than watch her parents mingle with all of the other adults, who seemed stuffy just by virtue of being adults. But there had been something different about that year. Her parents told her that the Whitby’s daughter Sophie was in town, having postponed her annual summer trip up to her grandparents’ beachside cottage in Santa Barbara, and that she was Tamara’s age, and that Tamara should start going to these parties and developing social skills anyway. And Tamara had felt a change within herself, too: when that Fourth of July came around she felt a kind of emerging restlessness, and she didn’t want to spend another languid summer day by herself, hitting a handball against the screen door while her depressed babysitter ate bonbons and watched reruns on TV. So she had joined her parents in attending the party at the massive Beverly Hills estate, and after being introduced to Sophie, who was actually two years older than her and a big boned mare of a girl, they broke off from the crowd and jumped into the pool. Their conversation was brusque, fragmented. They made no effort to get to know one another, but rather, in that primal elementary school way, assumed they were already on the same wavelength. After revealing a mutual dislike of Marco Polo Sophie demanded they play her favorite pool game, Colors, where one person stands in the shallow end of the pool with their eyes closed while calling out the names of various colors in the rainbow. The other person stands on the same side of the pool as the color announcer, and upon hearing the name of their color called, has to dash underwater and paddle like a silent warrior to the other side, all in the hopes that the first player will not hear movement and tag her.
            Tamara had played Colors before and had vehemently disliked it, having found the concept of being chased underwater far more frightening than being chased on land. But she wanted to get along with Sophie. And if nothing else, the game seemed a viable enough distraction from the world of the grown ups, who stood around talking about traffic and movie scripts, the husbands stuffing their faces with ribs while the wives daintily picked at their potato salad with patriotic toothpicks.
            Before she had tried to submerge the memory altogether, Tamara used to blame herself for what had happened. But in that moment in the middle of the night, with her son’s arm wrapped in a cast next to her, the facts of that day returned to her, in their unbiased, unadulterated form. She had picked indigo as her color. Admittedly, she realized now, as she must have then, that that was probably considered cheating by anyone who adhered to the Colors handbook, as anything outside the typical rainbow spectrum was considered a “stretch” or “unfair.” But something about Sophie had unsettled her from the moment they met. Maybe it was her physical largeness or her loud, boorish voice, but when Sophie naturally assigned herself to the role of color announcer while subjugating Tamara to be the floundering color with the assigned task of swimming to the other side untagged, Tamara felt doubly terrified. And so in some kind of absurd and indirect form of self-protection she had picked the most obscure color she could think of, a color she had only seen once in a 64 set Crayola box.
            “You cheated,” Sophie said at the end of the first round, after she looked over and saw that Tamara was still standing right where she started.
            “You didn’t call out my color,” Tamara said. She wiped drops of water off her face and felt herself break into a triumphant flush. Her adrenaline rose and in the empowering haze of the moment Sophie didn’t look like a mare but a chipmunk, dumb with her overbite, and Tamara felt released from fear, soaking in the sensation of lightness.
            “What are you talking about,” Sophie said. “I called out every color in the rainbow.” Her eyes squinted at Tamara, scrutinizing and cruel.
“Unless you picked emerald green.” She splashed Tamara.
            “Nope.”
            “Or magenta red.” Another splash.
            “No,” Tamara said, swallowing a mouthful of chlorinated water. “Cut it out, will you?”
            “Or let me guess, turquoise blue.” Another splash.
            “Cut it out,” Tamara said, and in a moment of fury so particular to an eight year old, she pulled a strand of Sophie’s dirty blonde hair, to which Sophie kicked her in the stomach and pushed her underwater, both of her hands clamping down on Tamara’s head, while Tamara’s eyes, opened wide, burned in the chlorinated depths of the pool.
            Plunked underwater, she couldn’t see anything but the flailing of her own arms, and bubbles, tons of them, produced by her gasping mouth as she kicked and pushed and fought for air. The more she struggled upwards the stronger Sophie’s hands pushed her down, and she felt her lungs start to burn. For a frantic moment she wondered if she would die. The alternative afternoon option of staying home and playing handball, overcome with heat and the numbness of boredom, was a longing that seemed, the longer she was underwater, to grow increasingly distant, a moment in time so delicious in its blandness that she would never be able to appreciate again. But, then, just as she began to feel faint, Sophie’s hands let her go, and she surfaced up to the world, gobbling up mouthfuls of air in between coughing up water.
            “What’s going on over there?” a woman with a large hat and sunglasses asked, a woman who Tamara didn’t recognize.
            “We were just playing a game, weren’t we Tammy?” Sophie said, to which the woman shook her head as if to say, “Kids.” Tamara, seizing this as her moment of escape, glided over to the tip of the shallow end, ran up the steps of the pool, and still coughing up water, ran out of the pool and through the throngs of mingling adults and past the field of grass, the sun hitting her back, never wanting to look at another body of water again. That was her first and last Fourth of July at the Whitby’s, and when the next summer rolled around she resumed making excuses about why she couldn’t go. She never told her parents about what happened, but she had swam hundreds of time since then, was decidedly over it, as she had told herself many times before.
             “Mommy?” Peter said.
             She opened her eyes. Peter was looking at her in the dark.
             “Hi, baby,” she said. “Go back to sleep.”
             “I don’t want to have any bad dreams,” he said.
             “You won’t,” she said. “I’ll protect you.”
             And he, taking that as sufficient enough proof, or too tired to say otherwise, closed his eyes and fell back asleep.

She could hear Raymond getting ready for work in the morning, fiddling in the kitchen, likely burning his toast, as she woke up and helped Peter out of bed. She walked him to the bathroom where she helped him brush his teeth and after, in an attempt to appease him, asked if he wanted to watch cartoons. He nodded, reaching over instinctively to change the channel, but the sudden movement caused him to wince, and when Tamara looked at him and asked, “How do you feel?” he only grimaced.
             They sat watching the bright, animated characters flash across the TV screen, the curtains filtering out the haze of a smoggy morning, while Tamara braced herself to ask the question she didn’t want to ask.
            “What exactly happened, honey?”
            “Max did it,” he said. His voice was constrained, as if it pained him to move his lips.
            “I know he did, but what happened?”
            “I was doing a flip on the jungle gym, and he said I was hogging, and I told him to go away, and he pushed me off.”
            “While you were in the middle of a flip?”
            “Yes.”
            She looked away. The thought of Peter getting pushed off the jungle gym, when he wanted nothing more than to rise above the tumult of the playground and find a moment of peace, made her sick.
            “Honey, I’m sorry I didn’t listen more carefully yesterday. I was really distracted. It was stupid of me.”
            He shrugged. “It doesn’t matter now.”
            They sat in silence, Peter absorbed in cartoons. Tamara grew increasingly upset by Peter’s frailness, how his cast overwhelmed his frame, how he seemed to almost disappear amongst the oversized pillows. She feared that already, at this young age, he was accepting the role of a victim, allowing defeatism to mingle with his blood.
            From the other room, she heard the phone ring. Let Raymond get it, she thought. She sank into the pillows and watched cartoon vegetables dance across the screen, stroking Peter’s hair as he leaned against her shoulder.
            Raymond picked up the phone on the third ring, answering with his typical, non-committal, “Hello.” She could hear him say, “He fractured his arm. How do you think he’s doing?” And then, “Honestly, what’s wrong with you people? Are budget cuts so bad that you can’t have a goddamn chaperone on the playground?” Peter seemed not to hear, out of either lethargy or pure absorption in the program, but Tamara, her fingers smoothing out Peter’s curls, felt her heart begin to pound as she strained to hear what was next.
           “You bet your ass I’m angry—” He was cut off abruptly, undoubtedly tapping his foot on the ground, before jumping in and saying: “Good, well I guess that makes you the expert witness then. I’ll see you and the Wilburns in court.” He slammed the phone down, and moments later, burst through the door. He looked relaxed, enlightened really, as he leaned against the doorpost in all of his masculine glory.
           “That was the Principal,” he said. “I gave her a piece of my mind.”
           “Good,” Tamara said.
           “Yes, it is good. These public schools are so inefficient. How about we sign you up for some karate lessons, Pete, so that something like this never happens again?”
           “Raymond,” Tamara said, lowering her eyes. Typical Raymond. Peter was just out of surgery one day, and Raymond was already thinking about self-defense classes, preventative measures, always having to be the problem solver. She was surprisingly angered by the gleam in his eye, the sense of satisfaction he derived from commanding the family in this way, as if he were some kind of sergeant. And yet, she was also amazed, because she could tell when he said, “I’ve got to run to the office now,” that he genuinely felt better, lighter, as if by expressing his anger in a three minute conversation he had really made a difference. He was a simple man, Tamara thought, calm until he got angry, and when he got angry he let it all out, like a steam engine, before ambling on, completely back on track.
            The little engine that could, she thought. She smiled a small, tight-lipped smile as she watched Raymond, briefcase in hand, whistle a tune as he climbed into his black Audi. Then she closed the blinds and turned back towards the television. Peter had changed the channel and an old Looney Tunes episode was playing, the Tasmanian Devil never ceasing in his quest to give Bugs Bunny some hell.

            It wasn’t until later that afternoon, after Tamara had given Peter his afternoon dose of extra strength Tylenol, and he was napping on the couch, that the quietness of the day caught up to her. She thought, again, about her visit to the Chapman’s house the day before: frantically driving to Malibu, her overly rehearsed presentation about the garden’s potential, Bradley’s sudden departure, Julia’s enigmatic aura, the abrupt call from the school. It had all happened less than 24 hours ago, but already it seemed like some kind of foggy, half-conceived dream. The unresolved nature of the meeting gnawed at her, and Tamara, despite her best efforts, was overcome by the desire to hear some sort of verdict.
            She called the Chapman’s at home, expecting that Julia might answer, which she did. She picked up on the third ring, her voice soft and almost musical. This time, Tamara’s speech came easily, no script required. “Hi, Julia, it’s Tamara. Listen, I’m really sorry about yesterday. My son fell on the playground and broke his arm, and I need to take a week or so off to take care of him. Can I check in with you next week?”
            “Oh,” Julia said. “I’m so sorry to hear that. But I think we’re going to have to put the landscaping project on pause for at least a few weeks. Bradley has to go back to Rome to do some reshoots, and he won’t go ahead with any design plans until he approves it all first.”
            Tamara paused for a moment, allowing that to sink in. “I see,” she said.
            “I love your ideas,” Julia said. “But Bradley’s got all kinds of his own opinions, so we’ll just have to wait until he’s back in town to see what he wants to do.”
            “I understand,” Tamara said.
            “I’m sorry again to hear about your son. Take care,” Julia said, adding, “I’ll be in touch.” And then her soft lilt clicked off, and Tamara listened to the dial tone, wondering if this time, perhaps, Julia had been the one reciting a script.

            That night, Raymond tucked Peter into bed, promising him plenty of ball games once he healed. Tamara figured that Peter’s enthusiasm was due to the fact that his father was talking to him and seemingly not preoccupied by the days work, even though Peter never really liked baseball and probably never would.
            She pretended to be asleep when Raymond walked into the bedroom, but later in the night, after he was long asleep, and she had been staring at the ceiling for hours looking for answers to an unformulated question, she tiptoed downstairs to her study and powered up her laptop. She found herself typing Sophie Whitby into Google, just to see what would turn up. After scrolling through a few miscellaneous images, including a picture of what looked like a grandmother focused at her needlepoint, and a woman standing in front of a palm tree holding a huge pair of overalls with a caption underneath that read, “Look how much weight I lost,” she saw a picture of a woman with blondish, reddish hair and a smile with teeth that were too large for her mouth. Underneath was an ad that said, “Need to sell your home? Contact Sophie Whitby, connecting buyers and sellers in the Tucson area since 1994”. With a sense of familiarity that produced a kind of nausea, she saw in the eyes of the woman the same squinting cruelty of the girl who had held her down in the pool. Her hair had clearly been through the ringer of dye regiments, and was now a battered looking copper color. And what had been the butch, intimidating quality she had carried in childhood had now morphed into an ordinary adult homeliness. For a moment, Tamara was tempted to call her, wanted to leave a voicemail pretending to be a prospective buyer and have this woman show up at some random house, primly dressed and roasting in her arid desert city, only to be greeted by silence. But then Tamara sighed, knowing that she was too old for such pranks. So she powered off her computer and stared at the black screen, a tingling energy brewing through her veins.

            Just two days post-surgery, on an overcast Thursday afternoon, Peter’s classmates and their parents started dropping by with get well cards and cookies. There was Dan Persky and his chatty mother Myra, socially awkward Jimmy Leavitt and his apologetic mother Patricia, even Sam Stouffer and his good-natured father Eric stopped by. The kids signed Peter’s casts, and Tamara could tell, from the emphatic voices of the boys gabbing in Peter’s room after he told them stories about getting wheeled through the emergency room, that he was receiving the kind of all-encompassing, devoted attention from his peers he had never received before. During a quiet moment when Myra and Patricia were talking amongst themselves in the hallway, Eric Stouffer turned to Tamara in the kitchen.
            “How are you doing?” he said.
             Tamara shrugged. “Fine I guess. Thrown for a loop.”
            “Sam tells me that kid Max is awful, a real bully. I hope they expel him.”
            “Yes, well,” Tamara said, drumming her fingers against the counter. “Fingers crossed.”
            Eric looked at her, as if really studying her. Tamara looked back into his big blue eyes, realizing, for the first time, that he looked a little bit like Raymond.
            “Have they apologized?” he asked. “The Wilburns?”
            “No,” she said. “Not yet.”
            Eric shook his head. “Unbelievable,” he said. “Makes me want to give them a piece of my mind.”
            “Raymond and I are pursuing it,” Tamara said, her face flushed. “We are going to take them to small claims court.” And then she added, “That boy Jimmy saw the whole thing. Patricia said she’d be willing to have him testify in court as a witness.”
            “Good,” Eric said. He dug into his jacket pocket and pulled out a small red book. John Burroughs Elementary School, it read. “All of the kids got this student directory at school today with everybody’s contact info, and I asked Sam to pick one up for you guys. Let us know if you need anything,” he said. “We’re just a phone call away.”
            “Thank you,” Tamara said. She looked down at the book, and then back up at Eric. “That’s very kind of you.”
             He shrugged. “Just trying to do the right thing,” he said. “For what that’s worth.”

            On Sunday night Tamara was perched upright in bed, stuck on the same paragraph of an article for nearly twenty minutes, when Raymond turned to her and said, “I think Peter’s ready to go back to school this week. Maybe Tuesday.”
            Tamara looked back into his unblinking eyes. He was serious. “Tuesday? You can’t be serious. He just broke his arm last Tuesday.”
            “Exactly, it’ll have been nearly a week of recovery time. He’s got his cast and his sling. He’s got energy. He’s feeling well. Obviously he’ll stay away from the playground, but I think going back will be good for him, show him there’s nothing to be afraid of. We need to show him that he can bounce back from this.”
            “Bouncing back is one thing, sending him back to school before he’s ready is another.”
            “Come on, Tamara, it’s for the best. We can drop him off, and then I can take the morning off work, and we can go talk to my friend Geoffrey who works at the firm down the street from my office. I’m sure once he hears what we have to say and that there were witnesses who saw Max push Peter, he can give us some solid advice about when we can take the Wilburn’s to court. Plus, he already said he could meet with us that morning at ten.”
            “You already asked for a time to meet with him?” Tamara said. “Why would you schedule a meeting without asking me first? Peter can’t go back to school on Tuesday, he’s not ready. This doesn’t feel right.”
            “What doesn’t feel right?” Raymond put his hand on her leg, letting it graze up her thigh. “Come on, Tamara,” he said, whispering into her ear. “You need to relax.”“I can’t.”
            “Just try.” He kissed her on the cheek, and then hard on the mouth, and as he climbed on top of her, his mouth traveling down to her neck, and then to her breasts, she felt her chest tighten.
            “Not tonight,” she said. She turned to her other side.
            “What’s the matter?”
            “Nothing,” she said. But knowing that that wasn’t enough, that there was a space growing between them, she added, “I feel like I can’t breathe.”
            “Take a Valium,” he said, and turned off his light.

            That Tuesday she got takeout Chinese for dinner, greasy noodles and orange chicken smothered in MSG, because she didn’t have the heart to stand in front of her kitchen and mix ingredients together. Somehow Raymond worked on her the past two days with the same hyper rationality that enabled his clients to trust him with managing their money. Tamara and Raymond had dropped Peter off at school that morning, his first day back, and then went to talk to Raymond’s friend Geoffrey, as scheduled, at ten AM. Geoffrey, who was composed and assured like Raymond, told them that, given they had all of the proper documentation and witness statements, they could have the Wilburns in small claims court within three to four months.
            Tamara kept thinking that she should have felt better, should have felt that things were progressing, but instead she had spent the day in a kind of anxious daze, repeatedly opening her curtains out onto the smoggy morning. She was momentarily relieved when she picked Peter up from school and saw that he was smiling, and his cast, just as he wanted, was completely covered by designs, but that relief subsided quickly, giving away to a lingering, insatiable knot inside of her.
            At dinner, she was nauseated by the sight of the greasy chow mein noodles that Raymond and Peter devoured, and she picked at her plate. She listened to Peter talk about how one of his classmates brought in cookies and ice cream for his welcome back party, how his teacher doted on him and let him sit on the cushioned couch instead of at his wooden desk, and she felt, under his falsely cheerful expression, that there must have been something darker, a burst of anger that would come bounding outward when they’d least expect it.
            “You’re not hungry?” Raymond said.
            “Not particularly,” Tamara said. “In fact, I don’t really feel very well at all.”
            Raymond looked up at her, his earnest blue eyes showing concern. “What’s wrong?
            Tamara struggled to explain what was wrong, racking her brain to try and think of the right word that would fit. “Nausea,” she said. “I think I’ll go to Walgreens and pick up some Advil.”
            “Okay,” Raymond said.
            She stood up and felt dizzy, pressing a hand to the table to steady herself. “Okay,” she said. She grabbed her car keys. “Be back soon.”

            She was in the car, her right turn signal tick-ticking, waiting at a red light before turning onto Ventura Boulevard towards Walgreens. But it was while she was sitting there, waiting for cars to pass, that she realized ginger ale and Advil weren’t going to help that dark, queasy feeling she had in the pit of her stomach. Sighing, her breath shaky, she fished in her glove compartment, past her registration and insurance forms, past a Joni Mitchell CD covered in dust, past a PTA newsletter, until she found what she was looking for: the John Burroughs Elementary School student directory. Flipping past the s’s, the t’s, the u’s, and the v’s, she found the name that she was looking for, and on the green light she made a left turn instead of a right.

           She told herself, as she drove over, that she wasn’t making a mistake. It had been a week since the incident and she had heard nothing, and she wanted to know why. She wanted face-to-face interaction, pure, not tainted by the formalities of court procedure, or by the second hand opinions of her husband and Eric Stouffer. She wanted to look Mrs. Wilburn in the eye and ask her how she could raise a boy who would think of pushing another boy off of a jungle gym, and then not even have the decency to call and apologize. Isn’t the point of child-rearing to raise your kid to be a decent person, she wanted to ask Mrs. Wilburn. Isn’t that what all of this is about?

            The Wilburns lived further into the valley, deep into Woodland Hills. By the time she got there the half moon had risen higher in the smog filled sky, which had morphed from a washed out denim color to a darker, richer blue. They lived on a quiet side street with only a few modest one-story tract homes. The rest of the street was barren. A bunch of houses were likely waiting to be developed, but currently there was nothing to show for it but a vacant lot covered by a chain link fence, filled only with a giant dirt mound.
            The addresses were hard to read, but she finally found their house, a crumbling stucco one story with peeling brown paint and shut blinds. She parked the car and was about to cross the street, but was jarred by the sight of a boy, around Peter’s age, emerging from the side door with a stuffed trash bag. Small, pale, head down and feet shuffling, he seemed almost pitiable. But as he hoisted the trash bag over his shoulder, his blank face morphed into a horrible grimace, and Tamara instinctively jumped back as the bag landed with a thud and the bin rattled, a plastic shout reverberating through the quiet dark.


Author Bio: Jacqueline Berkman is a writer based in Los Angeles with a background in publishing and public relations. She has a forthcoming piece of fiction that will appear in the Winter 2014 edition of the online literary journal The Writing Disorder.
Artwork: Jessica Herrera 

 

The Tenderloin by Vincent Chu

Anthony Fassero_For The Tenderloin


The smell of urine was almost unbearable, but by the corner it passed, replaced by the smell of wet vegetables from the curb. The restaurants, hip ethnic ones included, had closed up shop and pulled shut their iron accordion gates, and it was getting to about that time in the night when the population shifted, and the faces changed, and the passers through became outnumbered by the all-nighters. The street was freshly coated in the first rain of summer, and with it came all the smells that had baked into the concrete during June. The piss and bok choi were just surface level, Dean knew, the real smells would need until morning to be reactivated—if the rain kept on.

With a few in him, Dean kept his head low and walked fast, his fists deep inside a black workman’s jacket that was just humble enough not to draw additional attention. He liked to believe that on a good day he could pass for a drifter or weekend junkie and he felt a sense of pride whenever he walked past a bum and wasn’t pressed for change or conversation, though deep down he knew he was never fooling anyone.

As Dean turned onto Eddy, his thoughts came back to Mina. Three years, he reminded himself. Three years thrown away. A drunken one night stand was worse than an ongoing affair, Dean told himself, it suggested impulse and desire, excitement. Coming on Hyde, Dean caught himself thinking these sorts of thoughts and immediately removed them from his head, an act he had been performing with greater and greater ease as the evening went on.

Dean made a stop at the liquor store before arriving at All Star Donuts and Chinese Food. He had called Bud rather out of the blue and anyway, Dean knew, it was always polite to bring something when meeting a friend.

Bud sat at a window booth, a rain jacket around his bathrobe and a donut and two tall boys already on his table. He stood up when Dean walked in.

“The man himself,” said Bud.

“How are you, old pal?” asked Dean. He pulled out two more tall boys, Country Clubs, from a paper bag and added them to the table.

“You’re a fine friend,” said Bud.

“Kampai.” Dean cracked open his can. He pulled off his jacket which was soaked through. He had been walking for longer than expected.

“What are you doing slumming round these parts?” asked Bud.

“I met a coworker, for a drink. Then decided to take a walk. This place always clears my head,” said Dean.

“This place. It does something for everyone. Take take take, you got to give, brother. Eventually everyone gives something to the Tenderloin, you know.”

An underslept woman with silver hair stood at their table.

“Order something,” said Bud.

Dean wasn’t planning to eat, but it would be rude to drink for free. “Got any bear claws?”

The old woman said nothing and disappeared behind the counter.

“Problems with Mina again?” asked Bud.

“No,” said Dean. As much as Dean wanted to talk about Mina, it was a long, unrevelatory story, and he knew it wouldn’t help matters in the slightest. Anyway, that’s not why he called Bud tonight.

“Seriously, if you dragged me out of bed at this hour to listen to you piss and moan about this poor woman again—”

“We’re fine,” said Dean. “Since when do you sleep so early?”

“Where’d you go for a drink, anyway?”

“Over at Jonell’s Lounge, know it?”

“Jesus! What a shit hole. What kind of coworker takes you there?”

“He’s from Arizona. Gets a kick out of coming down here.”

“Of course. The crackheads, hookers, dope boys, homeless people. It’s not all like that Will Smith movie though, he should know. I never saw a bum round here that looks like Will Smith,” said Bud.

“I told him. He digs irony, like you. Right in the heart of beautiful San Francisco this refugee camp of addicts and have nots,” said Dean.

“I get it. There couldn’t be a Tenderloin in Phoenix. The methheads would melt the first summer.”

“So how’s everything, Bud?”

“I haven’t taken a shit in five days.”

“That’s awful.”

“We’re a generation plagued by stomach problems.”

Dean looked down at Bud’s jelly donut and malt liquor. “You should see a doctor.”

“I can’t afford one on my artist’s salary.”

“If I told one of these corner boys what you pay for your studio, you wouldn’t make it to sunrise,” Dean said.

“My apartment’s 300 square feet and above a massage parlor.”

“Your rent is more than a mortgage.”

“I’m still a starving artist.”

“And tuition at Academy of Art costs more than Ivy Leagues.”

“Some people think you can’t teach art. Not my folks,” said Bud.

“If I had your parents,” said Dean.

Bud laughed and took a healthy swig. “From what I hear, you’re the man with the paycheck on the way.”

“What does that mean?”

“Everyone knows.”

“What do you mean, everyone?”

“Don’t be like that, how much is it?”

Dean sighed, looking around. “Ten thousand.”

“Jesus! Ten stacks to move out so a museum can turn your building into its new east wing.”

“Hey, I loved that apartment. So did Mina. And I hate moving, it’s no small thing, you know.”

“If I ever get in bad at the card rooms, I know whose door I’m knocking on at five in the morning,” Bud said.

“Jesus, you’re not playing again, are you?”

“I do have some willpower over temptation, you know. How else do you think I live around here.”

“Just try not to tell anyone else, Mina thinks we shouldn’t.”

“You were always the lucky one, Dean. Straight-laced and lucky, even back in school,” said Bud.

“That’s not true,” said Dean.

The silver haired woman dropped off Dean’s bear claw on a warped tray that spun on the table. She went back into the kitchen. Aside from the old man motionless near the pay phone, Dean and Bud were the only customers left, and anyway, there was a bell hanging from the front door.

“I’ve got to confess something,” said Dean. He cracked open a second can. “There’s a reason I called you tonight.”

“So it wasn’t just the beer and Berliners,” said Bud.

“Your jelly donut?”

“They call it a Berliner, and they charge double for it, and I don’t mind, so long as I get to call it a Berliner.”

“It wasn’t just the beer and Berliners,” said Dean.

“Talk already.”

“Tonight, after I met my coworker for a drink, when I was taking my walk through the neighborhood, not half an hour ago—well, I think I saw the strangest thing.”

“Go on.”

Dean leaned in close. “I think I saw a prostitute get kidnapped.”

Bud paused. “What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”

“Well I saw this girl. She was a hooker, definitely. She was arguing for a moment with this man, this creepy looking guy, and all of a sudden, he forced her into his minivan.”

“Hookers don’t get kidnapped,” said Bud. “That’s their job, to get into strange cars with strange men.”

“But she didn’t want to,” said Dean.

“Now you know what some streetwalker wanted?”

“She looked right at me. I saw her face.”

“Jesus.”

“She was scared. And it looked like she didn’t trust this guy—this wasn’t like a pimp-hoe situation.”

“Was anyone else around?”

“I was alone.”

“Where was it?”

“Up Polk, that alley behind the old auto shop,” said Dean.

“Was she a tranny? Because nobody kidnaps a tranny.”

“She wasn’t a tranny.”

“How do you know?”

“I could tell, without a doubt.”

“Famous last words,” said Bud.

“She was young.”

“I saw a documentary about a transgender who started her hormone treatment before puberty—she was 12.”

“She looked like a regular girl from the East Bay, maybe Berkeley or Richmond. No older than 21,” said Dean, taking a pull from his beer.

“So what happened next?”

“The minivan drove off.”

“And I have a feeling you didn’t go to the police.”

“I found something on the ground.” Dean reached into his pocket and pulled out a cheap, beat-up smart phone. There was an iced-out Hello Kitty pendant dangling from the corner and the name Delilah stenciled in tattoo lettering on the back of the pink case.

“Oh shit,” said Bud. “What’s on it?”

“It’s off,” said Dean.

“Well, turn it on.”

“I was thinking, maybe that’s not a good idea. What if this is evidence. This girl Delilah turns up missing, and I have her phone.”

“You already took the damn thing and didn’t go to the police.”

“Should I go now?”

“You should see what’s on that phone now,” said Bud.

“What if there’s something weird on it?”

“Like what?”

“Pictures, videos—I don’t know, stuff I don’t want to see.”

“What if it’s stuff you do want to see. She’s a damn hooker after all.”

“What if it’s not even her phone,” said Dean. “It was lying there really conveniently.”

“You’re right. Someone could have put a tracking device on it—like one of those tracking apps.”

“Yeah.” Dean drew a long sip of his beer as he stared out into the dark and wet and windy street, a sea of black beating against the hull of their small but safe ship. “But why would someone do that?”

Bud glanced suspiciously around the room. “Maybe it’s some kind of scam, maybe you’re framed or blackmailed—maybe you’re kidnapped too. Maybe it’s like a Korean horror movie, and whoever turns on the pink phone gets kidnapped and thrown into a minivan. Then raped.”

Bud held a solemn expression on his face for a commendable amount of time before folding and showing his big crooked grin. Dean reached for his bear claw. “I called you because you live here,” said Dean. “And I thought you might have more insight into this type of thing.”

“The TL is my muse,” said Bud.

“Then what should we do, Frida?” asked Dean.

“Well, I have class at noon. So you should either turn on that phone or I’m going to bed.”

Without further discussion, Dean pressed down on the corner of the phone. After a few seconds, the screen lit up bright and then settled in to a softer operational glow. It was on now, like any phone.

Dean swiped and tapped as Bud watched patiently enough.

“There’s nothing on it,” said Dean.

“There must be something.”

“A few apps. No Facebook, no Gmail, no WhatsApp.”

“Recent calls?”

“Some privates. One received.”

“Picture gallery?”

“One picture. It’s her.”

“—Let me see!” Bud stole the phone out of Dean’s fingers. “She is a girl,” said Bud. “Pretty too. Too pretty to be out here.”

Dean snatched the phone back. “Now what?”

“Now, old friend, I’m going to smoke a bowl, rub one out and go to bed.” Bud tilted his 24-ounce can to the fluorescent light tubes hanging above. When it was empty, he squeezed the can just enough to put an identifiable dent in it, then he stood up, tightened the terrycloth belt around his waist with dignity, and zipped his rain jacket all the way up. “How’re you getting home?”

Dean sat back, dissatisfied, and rubbed his eyes. “My bus comes in 20 minutes. I’ll start walking soon as I finish my beer.”

“I can walk you to the corner.”

“I’m a big boy.”

Bud grinned. “I always forget. And the phone?”

“I’ll call the police tomorrow morning and report what I saw. Ask if I should bring it in.”

“Smart move.”

“Nothing else to do, right?”

“It was good seeing you, Dean. We should do this more often, really.”

“Yes, we should.”

“I mean it.”

“Enjoy your class tomorrow.”

“Oh, almost forgot.” Bud reached into his jacket and pulled out his leather-bound flask that he always carried with him at night. “For the road, like the old days.” He tossed one back then held it out for Dean.

“Why not?” Dean took a long drink from it then shut his eyes. He knew it was going to be cheap whiskey, but it made no difference.

“Give Mina my best.”

“Take care of yourself, Bud.”

Bud started for the door. “Dean, I know I’m not much for relationship advice, but get home already. It’s probably not as bad as you think.”

“Good night, Bud,” said Dean.

Bud was gone, and the door swung closed, and the bell jingled loudly, but the silver haired woman did not come out of the kitchen. Dean hadn’t eaten since lunch, but every time he looked at the bear claw, it only made him nauseous. He dropped his napkin over it and picked up the pace of his drinking.

It was only 2am. Mina would still be awake.

Like many men, Dean had always considered himself the type of guy that would leave his girlfriend if he ever found out she cheated on him, no questions asked, but now that it really happened, to him, it didn’t feel the way he thought it would. It had been a long day, the conversation in the morning, the tears, the explanation, the full day of work and now, the drinking. Still, he couldn’t go home and see Mina. He had nothing to say yet. Could a single action make you not love someone anymore? Once again Dean caught himself thinking these sorts of thoughts and removed them from his head, even more effortlessly and efficiently than the last time.

Dean took out the pink phone. The girl, Delilah, was pretty. She had dark eyes and big dimples and soft shoulders that, on their own, were able to suggest the type of body underneath, just out of frame. He thought it childish to think a thought like she’s too pretty to be a prostitute, so he came to the conclusion that she was too pretty to be a streetwalker, but not too pretty to be a stripper or online escort. He looked at his watch. It was over an hour ago now that he saw her. He left some cash on the table and found his wet jacket.

Outside, the rain was heavier, and the street was emptier than before. Dean rummaged through his jacket pocket and found an old cigarette he had acquired at a party with Mina two weekends before. He lit it and walked toward his bus, feeling like a nomad passing through a strange new city under the protective cover of dark. Despite the wind and rain, the night was not unpleasant, and Dean walked with confidence. But after a block, he stopped. Rather naturally, he stepped down into the entrance of an old laundromat, below street level. He then took out the pink phone again. He found the most recent received number, and without letting himself think twice, pressed it. He didn’t want to go home yet.

As the phone rang, Dean got down low, watching the street from a new perspective, that of a feeding pigeon or a sewer rat. After five long rings, a young sounding woman answered the phone.

“Hello?” she said.

“Hi,” said Dean.

“Hi baby, who’s this?”

Dean cleared his throat. “Do you know Delilah?”

The woman laughed, a soft, sensual one. “Sure, I know Delilah. Do you know Delilah?” She had a touch of Southern in her voice that he guessed she could dial up or down depending on the situation. He guessed she was currently dialing it up.

“I sort of met her tonight,” said Dean.

“She’s certainly not one you forget meeting,” she said.

“Are you a friend or relative?”

She laughed softly again. “You’re funny. I’m a lot prettier, but people do confuse us for sisters.”

“Have you happened to talk to Delilah tonight?”

“You tell me, baby. You’re calling me on her phone.”

Dean turned warm in the face. He put down the cigarette. “I found Delilah’s phone tonight, on accident. I called you to tell you I think your friend is in trouble.”

“What do you mean, trouble?”

“I saw Delilah an hour ago. This strange man picked her up in his minivan, but it didn’t look consensual. I was going to go to the police, honest, but I saw your phone number and thought—”

“Was it gold?”

“Was what gold?”

“The minivan, crazy.”

Dean stood up straight and looked around the street for some reason. “How did you know?”

The young woman laughed again. “Don’t worry, baby, that’s just Barry.”

“Her pimp?”

“Her fiancé. And as ugly as that creep is, Barry couldn’t hurt a fly.”

“Oh.” A car alarm went off nearby. Embarrassed, Dean chuckled. “Well, I guess that’s a relief to hear.”

“You sound all worked up.”

“I was assuming the worst, I suppose.”

“I think you watch too many movies,” she said.

“You might be right.”

“Let me guess, you thought some serial killer in a minivan was out rounding up hookers in the TL?” She laughed again, loud and hard, almost breaking character.

“Of course not.”

“Those lovebirds are always squabbling.”

“Fiancé or not, maybe you could still check on her,” Dean said.

“Delilah’s got three phones. I’ll call her right after I’m done with you. She’s a klutz, but even she can’t lose three phones in one night.”

“Thanks.” Dean looked at his watch. He missed his bus. “I’m sorry for calling so late.”

“It’s okay. I’m sort of a night person anyway. I’m Tiffany.”

“Dean.” He thought he could hear her smile through the phone. “So, do you know Delilah well?”

“I guess you could say we’re colleagues,” said Tiffany. “In fact, I guess you could say we’re both on the clock now.”

“Oh,” said Dean. “I don’t mean to take much more of your time, maybe you could tell me where Delilah hangs out. I’d like to return the phone personally.”

“I’ve got an idea.” Tiffany said. “Why don’t you come to my place and give me the phone. Then, I can give it to Delilah.”

“Now?”

“Yes.”

“I’d feel better giving her the phone myself,” he said.

“Thing is, baby, I could tell you a million places Delilah hangs out, but it doesn’t mean you’re gonna find her.”

“I guess you’ve got a point.”

“Besides, you sound lonely,” said Tiffany.

Dean laughed too loudly. “I’m not lonely.”

“Then why are you drinking alone at this hour?”

“I’m not drinking alone. I met a friend—I met two friends earlier for drinks. Now, I’m going home.”

“Did you think Delilah was pretty?”

“Of course.”

“Then you won’t be disappointed when you see me.”

Of course this woman could be lying, Dean knew, but it didn’t make a difference. He had already matched her voice with Delilah’s face.

“Come over,” said Tiffany. “We’ll have fun.”

“I can’t,” said Dean.

“I’ll take care of you, promise.”

“I don’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Are you married?”

“No.”

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No,” said Dean.

“Are you a priest?” asked Tiffany.

The phone vibrated. Dean looked at the screen, the battery was almost dead. “I don’t have a car.”

“If you say you saw Delilah an hour ago, my bet’s you’re still in the neighborhood. I’m staying at the Pacific Hotel, past Ellis down Jones.”

“That’s pretty far in there.”

“Far in where?”

“There.”

“You sound like a big boy.”

“I just wasn’t planning to walk in that direction,” Dean said.

“What direction were you planning to walk in?”

“The other one, home.”

“Well, now you can come to my home.” They both remained silent for a long moment. Then Tiffany asked, “So, what’s it going to be, sailor?”

“Okay.”

“Okay, what?”

Dean stepped all the way up onto the sidewalk and pulled his jacket tight, against the wind. “Sure, I’ll start walking.”

“How lovely,” said Tiffany. “Fifteen minutes it is.”

“Bye.”

“Wait, Dean.”

“Yes?”

“I need to ask you a favor.”

“What is it?”

“Can you pick me up some roses on the way?”

“At this hour?”

Roses, you know,” she said.

“Oh. How many roses?”

“Whatever you think’s appropriate. I usually ask my clients a dozen to fifteen for the hour.”

“Okay, then.”

“And when you get here, you need to ask the front desk guy for Tina.”

“Okay, I will.”

“And don’t take too long, baby. I have to be somewhere at four.”

“Okay.” Dean hung up the pink phone. He put it back in his pocket, turned around, and started walking in the direction of Jones Street.

One block from the Pacific Hotel, a man on a bicycle pulled up beside Dean. Dean was too busy struggling to remember if his bank statements showed the time and location of withdrawals to notice the man. It made no difference, but Dean felt an odd comfort knowing it would be an interesting clue for the police if, say, he were to disappear tonight. For the length of several cars, this man on the bicycle cruised silently alongside Dean, hunched over, one foot on his pedal, one foot floating over the sidewalk like an anticipatory kickstand.

The man on the bicycle suddenly asked, “My man, can you spot me ten bucks?” His voice was high and coarse.

Dean looked up. The man came close to him. He was older than Dean. He looked too clean to be a drug addict, but too bizarre to be completely sober. Dean told the man he had no money.

Casually, as if pulling out a map for directions, the man took out a tiny black pistol from the front pocket of his hooded sweatshirt and struck Dean in the face, right above his eyebrow, with the butt of it. In his life, Dean had never been hit in the face, let alone pistolwhipped, and he was confused. He stumbled to the ground. Once there, Dean felt kicks to his stomach and ribs, and it was only when he stopped moving that they seemed to stop. He then felt heavy hands dig forcefully through each of his pockets, back pant left and right, front pant left and right, jacket left and right. After one last kick, it all stopped.

Dean kept still on the sidewalk. He thought he heard a woman shout something from across the street, but when he opened his eyes the man on the bicycle was gone, and nobody else was around. Dean lifted his head a few inches off the cement and saw several tiny drops of blood drip to the ground. He crawled to the wall and rested his shoulder against it. His face was beginning to swell, and his head pounded. It was as if Dean’s body had never felt pain, and he was experiencing this new sensation as a researcher or spectator or tourist.

Dean felt his pockets. They were empty. His keys, his wallet, his phone, the pink phone, the $150 he had just withdrawn from the cash machine—everything was gone. His clothes smelled, and he was sitting in something wet. The man on the bicycle had taken everything. The man on the bicycle now knew the exact address of Dean’s apartment, and had the keys. Dean felt like throwing up.

When Dean got to his feet, he had to put a hand on the wall. He was still dizzy. He tried to walk, slowly, back toward Hyde. As his limbs moved, he felt like he could think clear thoughts again. He had to find a telephone. All Star Donuts and Chinese Food had a pay phone, he recalled. Or perhaps Bud would still be awake. You always give something to the Tenderloin, Dean remembered. That’s what Bud had said earlier. Dean began to jog. Then Dean ran, faster and more effectively than he thought he’d be able to. He had to hurry. There wasn’t much time. He had to tell Mina to put the deadbolt on the door.


Author Bio: Vincent Chu was born and raised in the Bay Area. His short stories have appeared in The Tethered by Letters Quarterly Journal, Bookends Review, Saturday Night Reader and WhiskeyPaper Magazine. He currently lives in Cologne, Germany.

Artwork: Anthony Fassero studied Architecture at UC Berkeley, founded a company called earthmine that I sold to Nokia in Nov 2012, and work at HERE currently. I live in Jack London square, and take lots of pictures. Some of them have been published before (including a magazine cover, album cover, etc.)

Aggressive Fiction by Justin McFarr

Rachel Shields_For Wesolowska-2


             Burton Fielding entered the classroom on the first day of school, more uncertain of himself and his future than he had been in eight years of teaching. More than uncertain, he was terrified. His soul had yet to recover from the drubbing, both physical and psychological, he had received the year before. Did he really think he was qualified to teach English to underprivileged, urban high school kids?

             This marked the beginning of his second year at the brick-and-mortar facility the students—a mix of African-American, Latino, Asian and Caucasian—called Oakland Tech. Nattily dressed in his weathered sports jacket, a navy Oxford button-up, tan khakis and cinnamon brown loafers, he peered up at the industrial-sized analog clock. The minute hand lay firm against the bubble-curved background, before abruptly stomping downward. It arrived above the sharpie-thick one with a sonorous clack.

             The six a.m. light of the classroom filtered through the half-parted blinds. Burton—thirty-two, black, with bony arms and a sharp mind—settled behind his desk. It was the same one from last year, with the top left drawer that always stuck. He gave it a tug, rattled the wooden handle for a few shakes. It wouldn’t budge. He slapped his hand on the top of the desk, pulled again on the handle and felt it fluidly slide open, peeked inside to discover a thin paperback, a Dover version of American verse that he had utilized for two of last semester’s classes. He flipped through it until his eyes fell to a poem by Longfellow, with its meaningful, weighted title: My Lost Youth. He read off the page, yet by the time he reached the last lines, his eyes had lifted and he was reciting aloud by memory.

              “I remember the gleams and glooms that dart / Across the school-boy’s brain; / The song and the silence in the heart, / That in part are prophecies, and in part / Are longings wild and vain. / And the voice of that fitful song / Sings on, and is never still: / ‘A boy’s will is the wind’s will, / And the thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.’”

             “Aw, shit, look who I got again this year,” said a husky voice two hours later, the booming declaration cascading off the final echoes of first bell. Terry Larsen, a heavy-set junior who had scored sixteen touchdowns for the Tech Bulldogs the prior year, drifted toward Burton from the busy hallway with his red-topped, silently brooding best friend Neal Flynn in tow. “Mr. Fielding, what up?”

             The teacher’s insecurity regarding his purpose at the school returned, and gradually smothered him like a textbook pressed against an exposed throat. Yet he managed a friendly smile. “Mr. Larsen, glad to see you here bright and early,” Burton said. “Bodes well for the semester.”

            “Yo, don’t get all excited, me being on time this once. Moms wanted me to make a good impression, right out the box. But, you know, ain’t making no promises we get past day one.” He laughed, moved to a seat in the back of the class, the servile Neal shadowing him all the way.

            Burton, from the security of his desk, watched the teenagers stream into his class, reminded that his transfer to one of Oakland’s most dangerous schools had been foisted upon him without his total buy-in. He had been teaching fourth-graders, quite happily and most contentedly, when the call came from the superintendent herself. She was well aware of his teaching style: subtle yet effective. That approach had yielded superior test scores for his Thornhill Elementary School students, who tackled their studies with uncanny determination and verve. The superintendent found she had little choice—as the years went by and the test scores increased and the accolades from parents and fellow teachers reached something akin to a fever pitch—but to send Burton somewhere he would truly be needed.

            Burton, after a full year of following the state-mandated curriculum and offering himself up as tutor, mentor, and sage to any and all willing protégés, realized there was nothing these teenagers needed that he could offer them. He wanted to reach out to them, motivate and help lead these disenfranchised youth toward academic success and a prosperous life beyond high school. The road he had traveled thus far to reach that goal, however, had veered off into bog country, an uninhabited wasteland where the silence was deafening and he was alone with his personal ambitions. The signs read, Abandon hope, all ye who enter here, yet despite the warnings he was stubborn and knew that to forge on was his only option. It wasn’t as if he was trapped in Dante’s Hell. It was only Oakland.

            The second bell rang, Burton glanced down at his lesson plan for the day, then stood and addressed his first class of the new year.

 #

             The end of seventh period found Burton working out a sore spot in his bony right shoulder, kneading his left knuckles into the muscle.

            “Tough getting back into the groove, isn’t it?” Harold Foster, a physics teacher who had spent nine years at Tech, ambled into the classroom sporting a friendly smile. Burton smiled back, gave his colleague a small shrug. “I’m afraid I missed the faculty meeting where they initially passed all that groove out,” he said. “How did you fare?”

            Foster leaned his prodigious frame—six-four, arms large and muscular, skin a deep, burnt umber, his bald pate and full, unkempt beard emphasizing his massive shoulders—against a clean surface of the cloudy green chalkboard and absently stroked his beard. “‘Bout average. Got the same bunch of little assholes and assorted odd ducks as I do every year. Could be there’s a decent scientist or mathematician set to bloom forth out of one of my classes this semester. I’m all about keeping an open mind, you know?”

            “Yes, you’re nothing if not open-minded, Harold. Do you still start everybody with an ‘F’ and work up from there during the semester? Or have you decided on a more optimistic track this year?”

            “Guilty until proven innocent. That’s the motto I live by, and one that hasn’t failed me yet.”

            “At least you have a motto, however cynical it may be,” Burton said. “Harold, I have no idea what I’m doing here. How am I supposed to connect with these kids on anything but an extremely superficial level? I went from thirty fairly attentive kids all day, every day, to more than two hundred restless teenagers over six periods. I’m completely out of my league.”

            “You’re not out of your league, Burton. You just need to radically accept your circumstances. Fifty minutes at a shot is simply not a lot of time to do anything all that meaningful. You just gotta teach to the ones that possess the brains and fortitude to hop on board your program, and allow the other little fuckers to miss that train and walk the damn tracks.” Harold’s arm dropped from his chin and joined the other cannon resting over his protruding stomach. “What is it you didn’t figure out last year that suddenly you’re going to receive an epiphany about this year?”

            “Nothing that I can exactly qualify. I’d just like to be more…I’m not sure…involved in the lives of my students. More hands-on, more mentoring, more helpful than simply following a lesson plan and fielding the occasional raised-hand query.”

            “Then that’s what you have to do: more. Why don’t you come up with a project, some kind of activity that’ll get the little bastards inspired enough to spend some time with you? Get them motivated so they’ll line up outside your class before first bell and after school, begging for you to Obi-Wan their Skywalking asses. Last thing in the world I’d want, a bunch of brown-nosers coming to me for guidance or supportive platitudes. But, hey, you’ve won Teacher of the Year and I haven’t won jack, so…I can see how you’d thrive on that mentoring bullshit.”

            Harold grinned and Burton realized that he was suddenly energized. This big bear of a man, with his proclivity for fast food drive-thrus and ample quantities of Trader Joe’s two-buck Chuck, had started wheels turning. A passage by Leslie Pinckney Hill entered his mind and without thinking he burst into recitation: “Lord, who am I to teach the way / To little children day by day, / So prone myself to go astray? / I teach them KNOWLEDGE, but I know / How faint they flicker and –”

            “How little I care.” Harold shook his head and pushed off from the blackboard. “Once you English prof-types start spouting poetry off the top of your beans, it’s high time to make for the exits. Adieu to you.” He backpedaled to the door, shooting Burton a sly grin before he disappeared.

            From the hallway, Harold yelled, “And good luck, you goddamn Pollyanna.”

#

            Luck had nothing to do with Burton’s transformation from insignificant outsider to Teacher of the Year: will and determination lit his path. Raised by a single mother in Vacaville, the poor black boy was stigmatized early on by his welfare-class standing. Later, he discovered his intelligence could be wielded as a formidable weapon to fight his way out of poverty. He was black, smart and weak, a deadly combination in an atmosphere of C-minus, white, bruiser types. But he was also a survivor and a bit of an idealist, who believed that taking full advantage of the education offered in the primarily Anglo, backwater California town was his ticket to the outside world.

            He had managed to get out, guided by certain high school teachers who had recognized that he was a born educator. They responded most favorably to his drive, discipline, honesty and tremendous love of learning. One mentor in particular, his freshman English teacher Mr. Kelsey, had helped channel the knowledge-hungry spirit within the teenager. The white lecturer introduced him to poetry, the spectrum of black bards from Phillis Wheatley to Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen to Maya Angelou. Privately, he encouraged him to craft his own verse, to find the creative expression that would allow Burton to embrace his own dreams, explore his singular struggles and triumphs.

           He escaped the oppression of Vacaville for the freedoms of UC Berkeley, where he spent four solid years immersed in the pursuit of academic knowledge before acquiring his teaching certificate, which led him to seven years at Thornhill Elementary and innumerable professional accomplishments and personal satisfactions. Now he was here at Oakland Tech, stuck in a hole of academic despair, struggling to escape yet again.

           The lack of effect he had incurred on the student body, fused with the school’s atmosphere of anger, aggression and fear, had beaten him down. He thought about Harold Foster’s suggestion—an extracurricular project designed to allow Mr. Kelsey’s mentoring spirit to live through Burton—and perceived it as a possible way out of the disillusionment he felt. He mused about the poetry and prose he had written in his own high school years, then flashed on the race wars and gang violence that permeated his current academic home. He summoned the feelings his creativity had engendered in him, the writing that had fueled his ascent from the land of repressed dreams into the world of his own making, before they were replaced with thoughts of random knifings, beatings and the occasional impromptu blasts of gunfire that occurred on school grounds.

            His brain stumbled onto the accord between the two poles of thought, and suddenly Burton took his first steps out of the hole.

#

            Three weeks later, Burton had secured the backing of Principal Genotti for his Aggressive Fiction contest, and lined up three judges to select the winners. He posted flyers on the scant bulletin boards that dotted the campus, but knew his best shot at entries and protege-willingness rested with his own students. So Burton focused his recruitment efforts on those whom he saw nearly every day.

            “It’s not ‘aggressive’ necessarily meaning violent or dangerous,” began the pitch to all his classes, “but more along the lines of meaty, with some real substance and emotion to it. But it can be raw, too. In your face and without limitations. You may submit anything that would be considered fictive: short stories, poetry, screenplays, song lyrics, comedic essays, graphic novels, virtually anything. I’ll impose absolutely no boundaries on subject matter, language, format or style. I welcome each and every one of you to participate and to approach me—before class, after class—with any questions, any issues or ideas, absolutely anything that you wish to talk about.”

            The deadline for entries was the Friday after the Thanksgiving holiday, two months away. Burton knew that the majority of students would begin writing shortly before the due date, and not a week or a day sooner. He did, however, remain hopeful that a select few would seek him out earlier rather than later.

            “Mr. Fielding,” a male voice ventured from his office doorway, “do you have a minute?”

            Burton heard the flat but unmistakable native California accent and looked up from his current project: grading a pile of essays on Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams short stories. His eyes blurred before focusing on an unfamiliar face, attached to a body that was halfway in the hallway and halfway in the classroom.

            “Can I help you with something?”

            “I, uh… I came about your contest. I want to win it, you know?”

            Burton chuckled inwardly, the cockiness of the student in scuffed blue jeans, hundred-dollar kicks and an ironic-seeming t-shirt (‘Where’s the beef?’) awakening his curiosity. He found it peculiar that the boy wasn’t from any of his classes, yet was the first student to show any interest in the contest.

            “You want to win, that’s a good attitude.” Burton gave him a welcoming smile. “Come on in. What’s your name?”

            “Byung Tranh, but everyone calls me Brian. I’m a sophomore, you know, and I heard about the writing contest, so…” The boy trailed off, his thought unfinished, like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

            “What can I do to help?”

            “You want to help me? To win? That would be fantastic.”

            “Well, I can’t help you win, exactly, but I’m happy to provide any guidance you may be looking for. Have you started writing anything yet?”

            Brian shuffled his feet to Burton’s desk, slid his backpack off his shoulder and dropped it to the floor. He rummaged through it, wrestled a science textbook from the bottom of the bag before removing a stapled set of notebook paper. With an odd ceremonial flourish, he placed it on the desk.

            “That’s only part of it,” Brian said. “I’m still working on it. And I’m planning to write more, you know. Maybe a lot more. We can enter more than one thing, that’s what the rules thing said, right?”

            Burton regarded Brian’s offering but left it untouched, aware of its array of possibilities, like a festively wrapped present from a mysterious stranger. “You can turn in as many submissions as you’d like. No limit, that’s correct. But I would advise going for quality over quantity. Your best work is really what we’re looking for with the contest.”

            “Yeah, okay. But we can enter more than one thing, that’s what you said, right?”

            “Yes. Brian, is it? You can enter as many pieces of writing as you’d like.”

            “Okay,” said Brian, standing to the side of the desk. He suddenly whipped his backpack over his left shoulder, said, “Bye,” and was gone.

            Unsettled by the abrupt departure, Burton thought that the boy was an oddity to be sure, awkward and peculiar. But then, he had imagined himself inelegant and ungainly the first time he appeared in Mr. Kelsey’s class, so who was he to judge based on a single impression. Besides, Brian’s interest in the contest appeared genuine.

            With no plans for the evening, Burton envisioned reading Brian’s unfinished work later that night, possibly with a glass of Shiraz and Art Blakey on the turntable. Perfection. For the first time since the contest began, he found himself hopeful and enthusiastic about the entire endeavor.

 #

            Weeks passed, with Burton feeling less hopeful and less enthusiastic about the contest. There had been barely a trickle of entries so far with even less interest from the students he had approached privately. The prize was substantial: a thousand-dollar college scholarship that W.W. Norton had ponied up, compliments of an editor friend of Burton’s. There was also a promise of publication for the winning entry in a future Sunday edition of the Oakland Tribune. Both prizes were ideal for the type of student he had initially dreamed up the contest for. He was eager to help those bright and talented writers—so much like him, if only they could see that—who needed the push to convince themselves of their literary skills and creative worth. A tiny sum of financial aid and the opportunity to see their work in print might be enough to make a positive impact on their lives, to allow them the path that Burton had forged for himself.

            But one by one, his star students had rejected his advances, citing, “Too much homework already, Mr. Fielding,” as well as, “I’ve got an after school job and my grandma to take care of after that,” or the soul-crushing, “I’m not even sure I’m going to college, so what’s a scholarship gonna do for me then?” Mostly, Burton faced general disinterest and even a measure of disdain for the project. The smartest girl in his fourth period American Literature class, Vanessa Johnson, wrote delicate, yet stunningly beautiful prose, and was genuinely hurt that her favorite teacher had constructed a contest that was so masculine in nature. Her writing was anything but aggressive, she argued. He disagreed with her, encouraged Vanessa to submit something, anything, and leave it to the judges to decide the merits of the submission. She passed, as did the majority of his most promising student writers.

            Brian Tranh, who had to date submitted twelve pieces of fiction, was one of the few students who took the contest seriously. The first piece Burton had read he thought dreadful, and the submissions got increasingly worse as they filled up his office in-box. Any hope he held out for the prolific sophomore had been dashed repeatedly over the past few weeks. At one of their first meetings, Burton had asked what had drawn him to the contest, what motivated him to write.

            “I dunno. A teacher of mine, back when I was a lot younger, like three years ago, told me he thought I was really creative and, you know, had a good imagination. I wrote a story I guess he liked and told me that I was good and should keep at it. There’s nothing else I can really do, no good at sports or even math, like I should be, I guess, so I’m thinking writing stories and stuff will make me famous or something.”

            Burton thought at first that he had perhaps found a kindred spirit, a boy whose family story subtly reflected his own upbringing. Brian’s parents were working farmers who had emigrated from Vietnam and landed in the Bay Area shortly before his mother entered her second trimester. They were of poor stock, barely spoke or even understood the language, yet struggled valiantly for the assimilation of their Asian boy into American culture, desperate for him to become a western boy in a western world. Their only son, the living legacy they pinned their own idealized hopes and dreams on.

            Determined to create a rich mentor-mentee relationship for the both of them, Burton had encouraged the apprentice scribe to write his stories and stuff, to follow his bliss, create his own fantastic worlds and personal triumphs on the page. Subsequent meetings with Brian, however, resembled horrific car crashes, head-on collisions that stopped traffic for miles, all of them handily avoided if not for a student driver who never should have been allowed on the road in the first place. At the last, particularly disheartening after-school meeting with Brian, Burton’s own idealistic hopes for the Tranhs’ singular child waned and he sincerely wished that the boy would just stop trying.

            “I just get rid of all those extra words and then the story’s good, right?”

            Brian had been seated in the classroom after last bell, fingering a heavily marked sheaf of papers, red pen scribbles covering most of each page.

            “Brian, it’s not that simple. What happened to the exercise I suggested?”

            “I don’t remember any exercise. What was it?”

            Burton took a breath. Held it, followed by a slow release before he spoke again. “I suggested that you take a short story, one that you particularly liked, by an author you respect, and transcribe it word for word. I said I preferred you to write it down by hand, rather than type it into a computer, but either method would give you the same result.”

            “Oh, yeah, now I remember. Nah, I didn’t do that.”

            “Well, Brian, I’d suggest…again, that you try it. Copying a story down like that gives you a sense of the author’s writing style. The rhythms of his sentences, the feel of his language, how his words mesh together with one another to create something stylistic and precise. The point is that you learn about how writers construct their stories, physically, so that you can then use those lessons to create your own story. You can even borrow similar themes, perhaps, or a structure, a shape that binds the plot and characters together into a compelling piece of literature.”

            “I can do that. Copy it down, change some names and stuff, then submit it to the contest, right?”

            Burton eyes widened, then tightly closed. It was at this point that he figuratively threw up his hands and wrote Brian off. He had no idea how to help this student who was, to his mind, utterly lacking in skill and imagination. Not to mention that he seemed to be a complete fucking idiot. It was becoming excruciating for the teacher to even be in the same proximity with this kid who just didn’t get it.

            “Brian, I think that’s all the time we can devote to this right now. Why don’t you go home, read over my notes and…think about them, okay. Just…think about the stories, your stories, and we’ll talk again. Later.”

            The boy left his office and Burton realized that with less than two weeks before the contest deadline, not a solitary student other than Brian had found the desire to petition him for guidance or help with the contest. He did have the occasional impromptu entry, however, given orally and with mock seriousness. Terry Larsen, the star receiver from first period, spent a week bombarding him with tongue-in-cheek poems and rap lyrics. The ever-present Neal Flynn stood by his side as an accompanying human beat box.

            “Stop lights are red / My contacts are blue / Loving the jail-bait ladies / Mr. Fielding how ‘bout you?”

            “All right, Terry, that’s enough for today, thank you for playing.”

            “Aw, come on, me and Neal just getting warmed up. You gonna love this next one.”

            At the end of the day, his mind stumbled upon the idea of reading a bit of Longfellow, for much-needed inspiration in the face of wasted effort and a thoroughly depleted sense of self-accomplishment. He pulled the handle of the left drawer that always stuck and wasn’t surprised when it failed to open at his initial tug. Burton wrestled with it for close to sixty seconds, jostling and tapping both the drawer and the desk itself until he decided the dead poet wasn’t worth it, and he went back to grading that day’s quizzes.

#

           Burton was in the empty Teachers’ Lounge, pouring a cup of lukewarm coffee into his psychedelic-hued KFOG mug, when Bhavya Narayan entered. Wearing a traditional salmar kameez—embroidered with gold and beading of pearl—that complemented the red, tear drop-shaped bindi on her forehead, the social studies teacher sidled up beside Burton conspiratorially.

            He inhaled an imperceptible breath, smelled the jasmine and sandalwood that emanated from her; it was a freshly scrubbed, clean smell. A devout Hindu, in her early twenties, she reminded him of the beautiful Indian actress he had seen years before in the movie Kama Sutra.

           “It appears one of my students has taken quite a shine to you and your contest.” There was mischief in her eyes.

            “Now who would that be?” he smiled. Then stopped. “You mean Brian Tranh?”

            “Yes, he is the one. He barely listens to my lectures anymore, so busy writing all of those ‘aggressive’ pieces of fiction at his desk. Are they quite good?” She filled her own mug with tap water, placing it with measured delicacy into the microwave oven.

            “As a matter of fact, they’re quite bad. Is that… surprising to you?”

            “Not surprising, no. Honestly, I do not think much of him as a writer. I brought him up only to tease you, if I am to be frank. Mr. Tranh is actually one of my poorest students. He did, however, at least feign an interest in the classroom material prior to the appearance of your contest.”

            Burton reddened, set his coffee down on the counter. “I’m sorry for that, I never intended it to—”

            “No apologies. It does not matter, really. He is but one of two hundred students who come to my subject. One can only serve those who wish to learn, as you understand quite well, yes?”

            Burton gingerly nodded, wanting without restraint to agree with her, but finding himself uneasy with the prospect of embracing this particular pedagogical view.

            “There is no use in overly concerning yourself with mediocrity and the merely adequate students,” she continued. “The exemplary ones, the boys and girls who display the capacity and skills to succeed, those are the students we are truly here to serve. The rest we merely babysit for eight hours a day. Do you not agree?”

            Burton did not respond immediately. Bhavya’s eyes, the color of Himalayan blue poppies, searched his own loamy brown irises for the reason behind his reticence. “I’m sorry,” he finally managed, “but I can’t say that I agree. Not that I’ve been here very long, but if that were true, it would be…well, sad. Wouldn’t it? For the rest of them, I mean.”

            “Ignorance is sad, Burton. Low test scores, very sad. Students with desire yet without talent…that is a special kind of sadness.” Bhavya paused to slip a tea bag into her microwave-heated mug. “Mr. Tranh, he is of the harmless sort. However, it appears that he is engaged in proving something by entering your contest so continuously. I trust that he will not be rewarded for his persistence if the merit of his work is not present. That would be sad for us all, quantity trumping quality for its own sake.”

            Burton, at a loss for exactly how to respond, simply took another sip of his coffee and waited for Bhavya’s tea to steep and the fourth period bell to ring.

#

            His classes had ended hours before, the sun was almost down, and Burton found himself planted on a swing in the abandoned playground of Thornhill Elementary. The Aggressive Fiction contest was over, the winner had been announced, and Burton was despondent. “The Stoop,” a short story written by one of Harold Foster’s ace science students, had won the prize, and rightly so. The nerdy, diminutive black sophomore—a kid just like him but one who Burton never met or counseled on the contest—had chosen to write about the darker side of urban life, with language that was raw and actions that were violent as well as emotionally unexpected. It was the best of a very small lot, if Burton discounted the twenty-three submissions belonging to Brian Tranh, and he had had absolutely no hand in its origin or development.

            He missed his elementary school students, had grown disdainful of his teenage wards, and was sick in his gut that the contest had been a personal failure. The only student who showed any motivation, allowing Burton to dabble in the role of mentor, was the prolific young Brian. Not, as the teacher had hoped and planned, the smart and talented kids, the low-income wunderkinds who would have ignited his powers of creative propulsion and surely catapulted those few brilliant students into the stratosphere and out of their hopeless lives. No, not them. Only Brian had cornered him day after day, to suck Burton dry with his inane questions and endless but unjustified reservoir of enthusiasm.

            “I think my favorite entry from the ever-prolific Brian was actually a close tie,” Harold had said to him earlier in the day, once the contest was officially concluded. “It’s between the TV script that was a literal scene-for-scene transcription of an old ‘Star Trek’ episode—”

            “Oh, you mean the one where he changed Spock to Bock and Kirk to Kent? I’m afraid I may have inadvertently inspired that bit of plagiaristic whimsy.”

           “Really? Well, kudos to you. Did you also have a hand in my other favorite, the haiku ode to Captain Crunch? Twenty lines long, I believe it was, masterfully fitting the form like a piano in an envelope.”

           Burton chuckled mirthlessly at the memory while his body swayed on the creaky swing. He wondered how, or if, he would last out the year.

 #

            “Mr. Fielding, I didn’t win,” Brian Tranh blurted from outside Burton’s front door. He shifted his weight from foot to foot, like a coiled spring anxious to leap. “I was supposed to win.”

             A Saturday morning, it was the first day of Holiday Break, two days since the top three contest winners’ names had been posted around the school. Burton had been cowardly but successful in his attempts to avoid Brian on school grounds, but now the teenager stood before him, his face grotesquely fixed into a mask of agitation and distress.

            “Brian, this isn’t okay, your coming—”

            “You told me if I kept writing, I’d win. That’s what you told me, right?” Brian’s voice took on a nasal, whiny quality that made Burton cringe. He didn’t know this boy, not really, and had no idea if he was capable of violence, so he treaded carefully. He refused, however, to relinquish control over the situation.

            “I’m not going to have this conversation with you here, Brian.” Burton spoke to him calmly, yet with the firmest undertones he could muster. “You come to my classroom after school, once we’re back in session at the new year, and we’ll discuss all of this. But we cannot… I will not… have this conversation now.”

            Brian looked at him with a mixture of confusion, hurt and despair.

            “I’m going to close the door now. Goodbye.” As he stepped back into the apartment and shut the door, Brian dropped onto the exterior passageway and cried.

“You said you’d help me, Mr. Fielding. Why didn’t you help me?”

            Burton threw the bolt on the door, his nerves rattled, then retreated to the back room where the stereo was turned low to the local NPR station. He struggled to engage himself in the program, even raised the volume for a story about migratory habits of the mayfly, but was distracted by the muffled sounds of crying that continued outside.

            By the time he decided to face his fears and console the troubled student, the radio piece ended and the sounds of crying had ceased. Burton peeked out the kitchen window and scanned the passageway for signs of Brian. The boy was gone and Burton stood alone at the door. He wondered if he should do something, all the while hoping that if he just did nothing at all, the problem would somehow disappear completely.

#

            Burton ran off to Boston shortly after Brian’s appearance to spend Christmas with a dorm buddy from Berkeley whom he had kept in fairly close touch with over the years. He never once mentioned Brian, or the fiasco of a contest he had devised, forcibly keeping the weekend visit light and laser-focused on his friend and new wife. He returned to Oakland on New Year’s Eve, and within hours found himself back in his classroom at Tech, sitting at his desk with the left drawer that always stuck.

            The school was deserted, the official start of the new semester still days away. Burton sifted through the pile of flyers, mail, and school notices wrapped in a bundle that had come from his in-box. Searching his desk for a letter opener, he continually failed to redirect his mind away from Brian. He was frustrated with himself for being so indecisive and outright scared during what could hardly have been considered a confrontation. But it was a violation. He knew Brian was severely lacking in literary skills, but expected there would have been at least a low-level strain of common sense in that brain to keep him from ambushing teachers on their own doorsteps.

            Added to Burton’s level of frustration: the phone message he discovered upon his return from New England. Humberto Numado, a Sunday editor at the Oakland Tribune, had received the winning story—“Thank you very much, it was a very invigorating read”—but was sorry to say that it would not be published. He cited its excessive use of the word “fuck,” and the extreme violence of the piece as reasons for their refusal. He apologized, wished his best to the winner and left the door open for next year’s winner.

            Why would there be a next year? Burton thought as his left hand fell to the handle of the problem drawer and yanked it toward himself. It refused to give, despite all his tugging and cajoling. Burton banged his right fist on the top of the desk, tugged at the handle again, and then pounded the worn oak furniture with both hands. Fury, impotent rage, coursed through his bony arms until, after nearly ninety seconds of violence, he was spent. He crumpled backward into his chair and stared dumbly at his throbbing hands.

            Burton slowly composed himself then reached for the pile of papers from his in-box. Among the official paperwork, two front-page sections of the Oakland Tribune jutted out, yellow post-it notes sticking upward from each newspaper. He opened the first one, dated December 26, and found an article about a Tech student who had broken into the school, climbed up the roof of the front building, and leapt to the ground below. The student’s name was Byung Tranh, ruled another casualty of the Christmas blues, a season when suicide attempts among young men flourished.

            Burton had to read until nearly the end of the two-column article to learn that Brian had survived the fall and was at Oakland’s Kaiser Hospital. Below the story another yellow postie was attached, in Harold Foster’s distinctive handwriting, which read: Don’t you dare try to place the blame of what he did on your contest or anything you did or didn’t do, because I know you will. This was all him. Not you!!!

            The other front page section, this one dated December 28, contained a six-column article about Brian’s suicide attempt. It took up most of the page. Mostly regurgitated information from the previous article, with the inclusion of extended passages from five stories Brian had submitted to the Aggressive Fiction contest. Burton wasn’t sure if he was stunned more by the news of Brian’s eagerness to take his own life, or by the fact that this noxious prose was staring back at him from a major metropolitan newspaper.

            A final post-it from Harold mirrored Burton’s astonishment. Unbelievable, it read, the kid’s now a published author. He’s got bona fide clips to show the world. Twenty bucks says he gets a book deal out of this whole thing. Holy hell!

            Burton stared at the newspaper, struggled to feel something for the student. Something emotional, caring, substantive. All he felt was numb.

#

            A few days later, school had resumed and Burton, back in his classroom, listened to the hall bells ringing like a toll struck specifically for thee. Terry Larsen, the star receiver for the Tech Bulldogs, with Neal Flynn ever in tow, strutted into Burton Fielding’s first period Literature class. He flashed a grin.

            “Mr. Fielding, how’s it going?”

            “It’s going, Mr. Larsen.”

            “So I guess I didn’t win your contest, huh? Thought my rhymes were pretty tight. Aggressive, too, with a capital ‘A.’ Maybe next year, huh? I’m ’a keep at it.”

            “Please do.”

            The football player headed to his seat, but this time Neal didn’t shadow him. Instead, he approached Burton. “Mr. Fielding, have you heard anything about that Vietnamese kid, the one who tried to do himself in? I’ve got a couple of classes with him, just wondering if he’s okay or not.”

            Burton looked up, surprised. “Brian Tranh? You knew him? Know him?”

            “Yeah. I mean, we didn’t hang out or anything, but he was always asking me about you in our other classes. I figured since he was writing all the things for your contest, you know, maybe you visited him in the hospital or something.”

            “No, Neal. No, I haven’t done that.”

            “Oh. Okay then. Just wondering.”

            Neal loped to his seat behind Terry, who play-checked him with a forearm to the chest. The second bell rang and Burton suddenly felt something stronger than numbness for Brian Tranh. He felt shame.

#

            Burton spent his night wrestling with those feelings of shame, mixed with guilt and regret. He wandered the small apartment trying to grasp onto something solid within himself, some truth about the goodness of his character that he could believe in. That he could respect. Neal Flynn, a kid he had considered—if he considered him at all—a dumb jock, had shown more humanity, more sense than Burton could even attempt to muster for Brian Tranh. He was sick with himself.

             In front of his faux fireplace, he stared at a framed certificate nailed above the mantle. It was a token of his hard work and determination, an honor that had been bestowed upon him after only four years of teaching elementary school.

            “Teacher of the Year,” the parchment touted, “awarded to Burton Aaron Fielding, on this day February 10, 2010, for his generosity of spirit, selflessness of mind and the continuous encouragement of all his students to succeed, regardless of personal limitation or academic shortcomings. One of Oakland Unified School District’s finest educators and a crusader for those who wish only to learn and to be taught.”

            It’s a lie, was his first thought upon re-reading the certificate. I’m a hypocritical elitist was his second thought, another overeducated snob, a fraud. An asshole. He lifted the glass frame off the wall and stashed it under a tidy pile of New Yorkers and Architectural Digests. He sat with his shaming thoughts and feelings of well-deserved guilt until he finally decided what to do next.

            On his lunch period the following day, Burton ran into Safeway to obtain a token of his sympathy—balloons wouldn’t do, a teddy bear was too childish, roses or tulips felt inappropriate for a teenage boy’s recovery room—and settled on a bouquet of wildflowers. He sailed down the hospital corridor until he stopped at Brian’s door, which was slightly ajar. He spied the boy under a hazy, over-washed white blanket. The face was somber, eyes downcast. Burton heard the low chatter of a daytime program from a TV he assumed was mounted across from Brian’s bed.

            He knocked, slowly entered the room. “Brian?”

            The boy glanced upward, his face transforming, his mood elevated instantly. “Mr. Fielding, hey, you’re here.”

“I should have come sooner, Brian. As soon…well, as soon as I heard.”

            Brian shifted in his bed, allowed Burton to observe his left arm, chest and both legs concealed in hard plaster casts. “Did you read about me in the paper?”

            “I did. And I’m sorry if—”

            “Did you see they published my stuff? Wasn’t that cool?”

            “It was, yes…cool.” Burton placed the vase on a table.

            “Hey, will you sign my cast?”

            “I don’t…I didn’t bring a pen. Is there one—”

           Brian grimaced then did a weird little shrug move, like he was embarrassed. “They don’t let me have anything in here I could hurt myself with. You know, on account of me trying to off myself.”

           Burton was at a loss for words, but his heart poured out, finally, he thought, for this young boy. So young, not a burgeoning adult but barely an adolescent. A hurt little child.

           He stared at Brian, not sure what to say or do until he remembered something. “Wait, I have it…yes, here it is.” He pulled a fountain pen from the front of his pea coat and held it out. “What would you like me to write?”

            Burton watched Brian raise his plaster arm from under the thin white sheet.

            “Write down what the secret is to winning your contest next year.”

            A poem by Wordsworth, one of the Romantic poets who had sparked a passion in Burton for transcendent and sublime verse, had been stirring around in his brain. He had thought of sharing it with Brian, reciting it aloud, but now dallied with the idea of writing out a few lines on the cast. Inspiration for the boy during his recovery.

            Set to write the first line of Wordsworth’s meaningful stanza, a realization hit. The poem represented something that Burton would want, a gesture and a sentiment that he would cherish from one of his teachers, one of his mentors.

            But Brian wasn’t him.

            What would Brian choose to have embedded in his cast? What words would spur him on, encourage and uplift his damaged spirit?

            Burton paused a moment more, then wrote: Get better soon. Then come to my office. I’m here to help. Mr. Fielding.

            Brian scanned the message, a rush of sanguinity flooded his humor and his smile. “To help me win, right?”

            “To help you win,” Burton said.

            He was unsure of what he’d just promised. He knew, certainly, that even if it wasn’t true, it was what the student needed to hear. Despite what he felt, staring at this dullard who would never win anything for as long as he managed to keep himself alive, it was what he needed to say.


Author Bio:  Justin McFarr was born and raised in the Bay Area. He received his undergraduate degree from UCLA, and his master’s degree from USC’s MPW program. His work has appeared in Scribendi Magazine, Flask and Pen, AlienSkin Magazine, Verdad, Wild Quarterly, and on the Controlled Chaos blog. He is currently at work on a novel that is set in Berkeley during the summer of ’76.

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