Free Short Story of the Month for July
Hot Winter Mule and the Acorn of Festus, Missouri
by Jeff Johnson
Hot Winter Mule had done some bad shit in Rosie’s bar, and the tangled wad of sorrow under his sternum was about to blossom into the National Flower of Hell as soon as he poured booze on it. He stood panting in the doorway he’d just torn apart, the halo of sweat on his great bald head swirling with lurid pink and neon night wine urine from the glare of the teacup ride on the midway behind him.
A new door, warm as new bread and as frail as an insect wing, unfolded and closed as he stepped over the threshold. In the sudden, smothering silence a lone ice cube popped in a glass like toy gunfire. Hot Winter Mule’s heavy head pivoted as he scanned the frozen space with the eyes of a junkyard dog.
Old Miller looked up from a tumbler of sweet well bourbon and nodded once. The refurbished floorboards groaned under Hot Winter Mule’s soot-blackened boots and he settled on the stool next to the frail old man and held up two wide fingers at Rosy.
“Seen ‘em?” Hot Winter Mule’s bass rumble was almost too low to hear.
“Yup.” Old Miller studied his glass without much interest. “I tried, boy. The edge of construction rolled over us two nights ago.” Old Miller shuddered. His hollow, bloodshot eyes focused on something as distant as the moon. “It was like a migration of caterpillars or chubby little fingers with no nails and too many knuckles. You could feel the heat off it. Tore your farm down and built it back in… I dunno… not too long. Even the froze up mud melted. Tore the hog sheds apart. I could hear the tin roofs warpin’. That’s about when I blacked out. I wound up in here with your farm all tarted up into a petting zoo.” He ran a spotty hand over the lapel of his new khaki shirt. It was too large and made Old Miller look like a frail baby vulture. The old man barked a stale miner’s laugh. “I’m a janitor now, you believe that? Three month contract. Good money too.” He looked at Hot Winter Mule, his expression that of someone who had discovered his tractor was broken because black snakes had wormed up into the exhaust. Astonished disbelief with horror riding on the half-smile of the newly hopeless.
Hot Winter Mule stared up at the ceiling fan. The sky above the Factory Carnival filled with copper-skinned dirigibles that morning, so high up they looked like butterscotch jellybeans. Unseen engines had blown them fuller on Hot Winter Mule’s march to Rosie’s bar, and now the vast condoms of buoyant gasses strained for release into the darkness of space, their distant wrinkles vanishing as they grew ample and taut. Soon the last corridors to the sky above the City of Festus would close entirely. Old Miller’s three-month contract was a death sentence and he knew it.
“You better have a plan, boy,” whispered Old Miller. He looked nervously to either side and leaned in close. “You been in here for months now. I ain’t a fool, Winter.” He pointed up discreetly with one skinny finger. “We gettin’ ready for a trip to wherever these things go.”
Rosy set a tumbler of well bourbon and a pint of pale beer on the bar. Hot Winter Mule raised the bourbon glass between his thick fingers and tossed it back.
“You can’t hold them pigs against me,” Old Miller continued softly after Rosy moved off. “You just can’t. I know you loved ‘em boy. I was too old and slow to save ‘em, or myself for that matter. I can’t go it alone.”
“I won’t leave you.” Hot Winter Mule picked up his beer and studied the rising bubbles.
“When we goin’?”
“Sooner the better, I reckon.” Hot Winter Mule had been waiting for some kind of sign to leave the Factory Carnival. He’d finally seen it, less than an hour ago. “You think you can find the old public school? Deever Elementary? It’s a fuckin’ fun house now.”
“I can manage,” Old Miller said quietly. “When?”
Hot Winter Mule drained his beer. The Saint Mouth Waltz was winding down outside, dopplering as the great brass tone spokes on the Ferris wheel slowed. It was almost time for his next shift. “I got four hours ‘fore my next break. Meet me there after that. Don’t let anyone follow you.”
“I won’t. Thank you Winter. And I’m sorry. Sorry for everything.”
Hot Winter Mule hip walked out the way he came, his thick legs wide and stiff. As the new door closed behind him the music rose and the bar came alive as if someone flipped a switch. The animation didn’t touch Old Miller, who stared at the door after his friend, or Rosy the bartender, who polished a glass while watching Old Miller.
There were signs of powerful construction in the hazy distance in every direction except north, where the jaws of the Factory Carnival were locked in mid-yawn. Hot Winter Mule walked slowly in this direction, lost in thought.
The midway at the north end was always roaring. He passed glittery versions of the ring toss, the duck shoot, the mini-bowler, and countless other games, all packed tight with people from hundreds of miles away, all come to witness the spectacle that had risen from the bleached ribs of Festus, his home town.
More than a century ago Festus had been a single story coal town, and after the black veins ran empty there came a slow and unstoppable decline. Complete ruination was forestalled with brief infusions of new industry, all of which further spoiled what even the oldest residents knew to be an ugly place. A decade ago the city had finally crumbled under the weight of its past and graduated to the ultimate civic and economic metaphor of an open and occupied grave, both worthless and embarrassingly exposed. It was, the city council decided, time to gut the wreckage, slash prices, optimize, restructure, and find a backside.
The answer to their collective dream was the seed of what became the Factory Carnival. It resembled an acorn squash in both size and shape, with a warm metal surface as intricately etched as a processor chip. The interior components were in constant rotation. Holding it was like cradling a heavy egg about to hatch something unnaturally energetic. No one knew much about the acorns and the nightly news and the papers never had anything more than back page spin, but it was generally understood that eight of the impossibly expensive acorns had been produced using proprietary technologies that were just short of godlike. For a price one of them was available.
There were stories about the other acorn creations, of course. It was said that the one deployed in the slums of a Belfast suburb three years before had cleared the land and left billions of aluminum cubes, scattered across the rich new soil. The structure the acorn built around itself was a dirigible city, a paradise of color and music and trillions of painted parasols. Once it was populated by the impoverished people it had displaced, it lifted off and drifted around over the Bering Straits for more than a year as it shriveled and folded back into itself. Fishermen spun wild tales of how on quiet nights at sea it could be heard somewhere in the dark sky, a distance source of lilting music and muted screams and the cold knocking of metal rails. No one ever saw the citizens of Parasol City ever again. The acorn spokesmen laughed at the dark rumors surrounding it, the whispers concerning the Kiev Mushroom Pavilions, and suppressed any talk of the Chinese Orchid Factory that eventually shrank into nothing more than the original egg and a thousand white mice. The new Ghost Plateaus outside of Old Rio, filled with empty glass caves, themselves filled with empty glass chairs, was nothing more than an urban myth. The basin of crystal dandelion heads, rumored to be more than three kilometers deep, that was all that remained of Sister Detroit was also a lie, though many had seen it with their own eyes. The Flower, ten kilometers across, that consumed the ruins of Sierra Leone, was the only acorn product that was not easily understood by the system architects, and was currently quarantined and denied.
The twelve men and two women on the Festus city council convened in a weedy, trash-choked park full of bent toys and oily puddles at the center of the city late one night, one of them carrying a brand new shovel. The Factory Seed was planted in a shallow pit of ashy soil flecked with green bottle glass. The council members left Festus immediately.
Hot Winter Mule knew all of this. Everyone in Festus did.
He walked past Rosy the bartender’s old gas station, detinkered and refactured into a bumper car rink filled with flashing miniature chariots, things of chrome and warping holographic fire. The Factory Carnival had transformed it completely in the first ten days. The old feed store next to it was a haunted house, with black, vacant windows and a permanent northern shadow, crested with a perpetually spinning rooster weather vein. The fire station had birthed a ride inside its brick shell, a strange thing filled with water jets and spinning wheels. Hot Winter Mule could hear the little helmet-shaped carts running the tracks inside, accompanied by the shrieks of dazzled riders.
Eventually he came to the North Gate. The towering black wrought iron was encrusted with curls of scarlet neon and pale, winking bulbs wreathed in pink and tangerine smog. The central spires were hundreds of feet tall, a beacon seen from miles around. The newest addition to the midway was just inside the turnstiles, below the massive horn calliope Hot Winter Mule had been hired to play. He stopped in front of the little ride for the second time that day. His first visit was the reason he had gone to destroy Rosie’s bar.
The new ride was a toddler’s carousel fashioned from ten pink pigs wearing glitter-flecked saddles and little patent leather boots. They were frozen in mid-trot, their faces contorted into merry anthropomorphic grins. Striped poles ran through their fat middles, driving them up and down as the carousel rotated.
The ride had stopped so that a new batch of children could be loaded into the saddles. Hot Winter Mule laid his big hand on the snout of a boar with a broken tusk. Its skin was hard and slick and cold.
“Jesse,” Hot Winter Mule rumbled softly.
The boar’s glassy eyes flicked up to him. The little boy being lowered into Jesse’s saddle abruptly started crying. The ride attendant backed away and waited without a word. The little boy’s mother frowned and made a tutting sound.
“Easy,” murmured Hot Winter Mule. He stroked Jesse’s smooth snout. “Easy.”
“I don’t hear any music,” came a high, sing song voice.
Hot Winter Mule’s nostrils flared. Jesse’s dry eyes snapped forward. The Carnival Barker stepped up beside him, a giant scarecrow of a man, fully a head taller than Hot Winter Mule. The Barker looked down at Jesse and flashed his long yellow teeth.
“I know what you’re thinking,” said the Barker. “You’re trying to listen to yourself, to dabble in mathematics, to touch the artistry of all the physicists who came before tomorrow, maybe even believe in God.” He turned to Hot Winter Mule and his smile melted. He licked his thin lips with a thin tongue stained from cherry soda. “But all you can think is that your mouth hole is burning.”
“These are my pigs,” said Hot Winter Mule. He looked back down. He didn’t like the candy sheen of their skin. He didn’t like anything about the new children’s carousel at all.
The Barker feigned surprise. “Pigs?”
“I never signed nothin’ on them, boss. These pigs are mine.” Hot Winter Mule’s hands flexed with the memory of Rosy’s door, of smashing it.
“Objects are components, Mr. Mule. You know that. The Carnival grows, the citizens get paid, everyone moves on to a brighter future. Pork is commodity. Hooven grist for a hungry mill.”
“I wasn’t- I mean…”
The Barker made a perfect ‘O’ with his mouth and shook his long hand with its black-rimmed fingernails as though he’d grabbed the handle of a smoking pot.
Hot Winter Mule heard a buzz in his head, a sound he remembered from childhood. From the times he played with bees. He wanted to touch Jesse’s snout again and started to reach out, then drew his hand back.
“Confusion is a euphemism for laziness.” The Barker stabbed a long bony finger in the direction of the horns. “Make sound!”
Hot Winter Mule watched him go.
The Barker had changed as the Carnival grew. Originally the Midway sales rep that sold them the Factory Carnival seed in the first place, the man’s bland chrysalis had sloughed away as the Factory transformed Festus.
The Barker was thinner now, and his legs were longer and uneven, causing him to lurch and shuffle in a kind of ungainly dance where no two steps were ever the same. His hair had grown wild and curly, an oily crow-colored mass that jutted from his stovepipe hat, veiling his star-flecked, deep-set eyes. His hook of a nose and bulging Adam’s apple were like caricature slashes on his pinched, skeletal face and stick of a neck.
For all that the Barker still broke the bell at the top of the strong man pole, shattering the metal with a one-handed strike of the mallet. Everyone applauded except for Hot Winter Mule, and the Barker had noticed and grinned at him. That grin now wandered across all the random faces in Hot Winter Mule’s unsettling dreams.
When the Factory had grown to a certain point, it had begun manufacturing hybrid objects from the basements, attics and junkyards of Festus. The Horn Calliope was one such item, the fusion of an old steam engine from the railway museum that had closed decades ago, a derelict yellow cherry picker lift, and an assemblage of animal horns and tusks and teeth from the earth.
Hot Winter Mule walked up the narrow stairs behind the horn calliope, ducked under the mammoth recurved horns of some forgotten beast, and settled into the cockpit. The belching machine was properly fevered. Antlers curled off to either side, their wet brass fittings burping jets of smelly steam. Single horns and hollow, bovine molars winged off in tight crescents and spirals to either side. He stomped his big boot into the worn wooden D pedal and the calliope erupted into life.
Hot Winter Mule’s thick fingers aped the fruity opening lines of ‘Cotton Town’, a feckless ditty he had grown to despise but could play without conscious thought. The air around him grew thick with cloudy heat and throaty whistles. His eyes rose from the cracked ivory keys and he peered through the swirls of steam out over the Carnival.
He could still make out the general outline of Festus from this perch. The patterns of the streets were still the same, as were the general size and shape of the buildings. To his left the Barker stood behind a hand-buffed iron podium, capering and roaring his endless stream of miracles to the throngs pouring through the turnstiles. There was no way out there. Hot Winter Mule’s eyes wandered down the length of the high wall stretching south.
At a certain point less than a mile away the flat geometry of the wall changed, rippling inward a few yards by the back lot of the old school. Hot Winter Mule knew why. He segued into the first bewitching notes of ‘Mermaid’s Dry Cleaning’.
The old school was a special place for him. As a boy there he had often been left in the care of Mr. Henry, the janitor. When he failed to progress with the other children beyond basic numbers and letters, the principal had decided to give him a head start on learning his future job. The young Hot Winter Mule had snorted happily at the news.
Mr. Henry did more than clean rain gutters and putty windows. Beneath the old school was his mysterious kingdom; a place of boilers, pipes, coal chutes, and old furniture, including the piano Mr. Henry had taught him to play. The countless hours he had spent pounding away on the small keys of the dissonant instrument had been very happy ones for Hot Winter Mule.
Even Mr. Henry had been baffled by the school’s septic system. In the corner of the far room of the huge basement was the boiler for the radiators. A culvert ran beneath it, to capture the runoff bled from the belly of the thing every spring. The water from the sinks and toilets joined it, as well as the run off from the rain gutters.
When the first grade teacher Mrs. Jenson lost her wedding ring down the sink one day and called Mr. Henry in a panic, he calmly told her that he would find the ring in a day or so and not to worry. Hot Winter Mule wondered then how Mr. Henry meant to find the ring in the acres of rusted pipes.
Two days later Mr. Henry had given him a gas lantern and the two of them had pried the lid off the culvert’s mouth. The pipe below was big enough to stand up in, with a narrow, mossy brick walkway on either side of the central runnel. They walked for more than a hundred yards, far beyond the school grounds, to a place where a small shelf appeared in the culvert. Mr. Henry had knelt and pointed.
The ring was right there, too heavy to be swept along, a small twinkle of light surrounded by tacks and rusted nails. Hot Winter Mule had chortled with glee at this fine bit of thinking. Mr. Henry laughed too.
“I found the damdest things right here,” Mr. Henry mused. “Dentures, oncet. Must have been in them old works for days. Didn’t reckon anyone’d want ‘em back in their mouth after that.” He’d smiled his perfect teeth and Hot Winter Mule had grinned back.
Jesse and the rest of the pigs could fit through the culvert mouth, he knew. Even as a boy Hot Winter Mule had been the size of a girl cow, and he’d fit well enough. The ripple in the Factory wall had formed to exclude the reeking cesspool at the terminus of the culvert. This was his way out.
He wondered how happy Old Miller would be with the idea, and then wondered what he might find on the little shelf, what might have accrued there since the last time he and Mr. Henry had checked so many years ago.
One song gave way to another. Hot Winter Mule played for hours without pause, never missing a note, his eyes glazed over as he thought about Mr. Henry, the treasure shelf in the sewer, his precious hogs. The keys, with their black lines of tracery, gradually grew hot under his fingers until a whistle shrilled at the petite bony crown of the calliope, spelling the cooling break. Hot Winter Mule snapped out of his trance.
The Stilt Men wheeled and tap danced in front of the North gate, ready with their accordions. The Barker had left his burnished podium on some business of his own. Perfect.
Hot Winter Mule took the rickety stairs down two at a time, careful not to brush against any of the superheated horns or smoking teeth. He spared a glance at the little carousel with his pigs mounted on it and swiftly moved on. His plan was to get Old Miller out first, then maybe have him stand guard on the other side of the fence as he ferried his pigs through. He would carry the pigs to the school on the fork lift used to bring the coal in for the calliope’s fevering, taking them all at once.
There was a long line outside the gaily-painted funhouse that was the old school. Hot Winter Mule looked over the sea of heads for Old Miller and froze. A yellow tractor with a backhoe idled in the little rodeo field between the school and the fence, methodically scraping raw earth back into a big hole. One of the concrete trucks was reeling in its pour chute, sitting empty and high on its triple shocks.
Hot Winter Mule turned around and walked slowly away, his head down. There would be time to find Old Miller and give him the bad news later.
Rosie’s bar was almost empty when he kicked the door in. Two tired men in blue coaster coveralls moved quickly to the back with their drinks. A lone man in dirty construction grays didn’t raise his head from his table. Rosy was polishing glasses. He calmly pulled a draft, set it on the bar and gave Hot Winter Mule a tight smile.
Hot Winter Mule settled heavily on to a stool and took the mug, but didn’t drink any. Instead, he stared at the rising bubbles. A tickle of goose flesh ran up his spine.
“What’s the matter, son?” Rosy asked in a soft voice.
“I’m stuck,” said Hot Winter Mule. His tongue felt thick and wrong.
“Made a run at the wall, eh?”
Hot Winter Mule looked up. A small light danced in Rosie’s eyes.
“It all makes sense now,” said Rosy. He pulled a draft for himself and clinked the mug against Hot Winter Mule’s in a rare gesture. “I can tell you why you didn’t make it, but I’ll want something in return.”
Hot Winter Mule turned his attention back to the bubbles.
“I saw you talking to Old Miller. He was supposed to be watching your farm while you worked them horns, wasn’t he?”
Hot Winter Mule didn’t reply.
“I know you found a way to skip out of here ‘fore your contract was up. A lot of people been lookin’ to get out, and some of them been lookin’ at you.”
Sweat was forming on the outside of the glass. A steady stream of bubbles blew from some salty mote at the bottom.
“The Barker sees all, son. It was him that put the brakes on you. Him and one other.”
Hot Winter Mule’s small round eyes rose from the glass.
“The Barker was in here earlier talking to Old Miller, ‘fore you came in.” Rosy winked. “I bet Old Miller tricked you, didn’t he? Made you tell him how you was gettin’ out, maybe asked you to take him along?”
“I can’t take you with me, Rosy,” Hot Winter Mule said with genuine regret, guessing what Rosie wanted from him. “My way is blocked. My only way.”
“That’s not what I want, son.” Rosy picked up Hot Winter Mule’s untouched beer and poured it down the drain in the bar sink with a little flourish. “I just want you to stay out of my place.”
Outside, he looked up at the shiny copper sky with its distant maze of reflected neon. Hot Winter Mule missed the seasons. It was always summer in the Factory Carnival, and there was never any wind.
He walked for more than an hour, not really thinking about anything, half-heartedly searching for Old Miller and hoping he didn’t find him for both their sakes. From time to time he paused to look up. Small crowns of bright blue balloons had formed on the massive copper skinned dirigibles. They were so high up that it was hard to gauge their size, but they were swelling. The sky was bursting.
The high mood of the Factory Carnival had ramped up a notch, revving into a new region of decreasingly subtle hysteria. Hot Winter Mule could feel it resonating in his sinuses, see evidence of it in the parade of flushed faces and painful grins, the sweaty hair and almost frantic child impulse to push deeper into the heart of the Carnival in search of something rare and wondrous. He found himself moving against the tide, toward the gate and the horns, propelled by a steady counter-migratory impulse.
The scene at the gate was like nothing he had ever seen before. The turnstiles were almost smoking with rotation as people streamed through. The Stilt Men were wheeling sharply in the weird sepia light reflected from the distant dirigible sky. The rides sang over their rails, a screeching chorus arcing into the ultrasonic. The tone spokes of the great Ferris wheel gonged a breakdown of the ‘Saint Mouth Waltz’, skipping notes in a nauseating headlong rush.
The ground abruptly trembled underfoot. For a moment Hot Winter Mule thought he was the only person to notice, and then the pavement lurched in earnest. An angel’s passing instant of silence occurred, and then the crowd exploded into cheers and some of the revelants jumped up and down. The Factory Carnival itself was turning into a bucking ride. The people kept coming. Hot Winter Mule looked up to the Barker’s empty steel podium. The metal door just behind it that led to the scarecrow-man’s office, marked ‘EMPLOYEES ONLY’, was just closing. Hot Winter Mule turned his face to the heavens. The sky was a choked sargasso of copper whale bellies and blue orbs. A flock of pale moths eddied upward in a sigh of mold.
Hot Winter Mule stood rooted in place, his trembling legs like tree trunks in an earthquake, watching the spillway of the gate, listening to himself, for the faint scent of a thought. When it came it dropped through his wide head like an anvil.
Hot Winter Mule wheeled and tore up the rickety stairs behind the horn calliope. The entire contraption was belching and shuddering with compressed steam from his long absence. He jammed his boots into the scorching pedals and slammed his hands down on the keys.
The first, mournful note of ‘The Funeral Ditty’ broadcast from the horns in a bass chord so low it vibrated skeletons. Hot Winter Mule’s fingers cascaded lightly over the opening in a riveting, repeating jazz call. When he ripped into the body of the work, grinding along with classical poise, the mob at the gate paused as if in a dream and the turn styles stopped turning. Hundreds of faces angled up at the horns, expressions stalled in mid-formation. The people outside pushed back as the old dirge cast a new light on the gate. Families were separated in that instant. A lone man wearing his faded western Sunday best turned back just inside the gate, raised his hand and held it up for his wife and two small children, only a dozen feet away outside the bars.
The ground rocked again and this time everyone reacted with a measure of alarm. A few families made an effort to turn the gate backward. Those watching outside backed away. A fissure snaked across the ground under the turnstiles, and the screaming began.
Hot Winter Mule leapt through the horns and crashed to the buckling pavement below. He rose in his steaming boots and took a deep breath, yanked the tine of an antler from his bloody forearm and charged the new children’s carousel.
Parents were milling around in confusion and the ride had stopped. Hot Winter Mule found Jesse and the hog’s eyes clicked up at him. He reached out and gripped the striped pole running through Jesse’s back.
Hot Winter Mule’s face went mottled scarlet. His huge neck swelled and a map of veins and ropey tendons flared across his body. He strained upward, his breath locked in his barrel chest. The top of a brass screw whanged away at the base of Jesse’s trellis rod, and then another. A handful of ball bearings rained from the skirt of the carousel as some inner working ruptured and the pole through Jesse’s back ripped free of the ride.
“Easy,” Hot Winter Mule heaved. The pole slid through Jesse like a skewer pulled from a candied apple, leaving a wide hole that Hot Winter Mule immediately glared through. There was no blood. The walls of the empty chute running through the hog were shiny and clean. He reared back and looked into the hog’s rolling eyes.
“Lets get, boy.” He hefted Jesse into his arms.
The ‘EMPLOYEES ONLY’ door behind the Barker’s podium had no lock or knob. Hot Winter Mule hit it at a rolling gate, driving a huge boot into the center of it. His hip nearly buckled as the door folded in and gave way, shearing off its reinforced hinges. Hot Winter Mule staggered and turned.
“This way!” he bellowed into the crowd. His voice was lost in the madness. A little boy stopped and looked at him, and an instant later was swept away.
What he had always imagined to be an office filled with surveillance screens was in fact a narrow aluminum hallway lit by blinking florescent track lights. Hot Winter Mule turned Jesse upright, gripped his arms around the hog’s hard belly with the trotters over his shoulders, and ran.
The hall seemed to go on forever. Occasionally the ground lurched and Hot Winter Mule staggered. Sweat was pouring off of him, slippery on Jessie’s glossy hide, when he finally reached the end.
The tunnel opened into a wide room with a missing wall, an alcove at the edge of the Factory Carnival. Hot Winter Mule stared out at a field of yellowed grass. A brand new silicon-colored sedan was parked a hundred yards away. It was late fall, closing on evening. Hot Winter Mule turned Jesse so the hog could see freedom and noticed his eyes flick to something just over Hot Winter Mule’s shoulder. He flinched reflexively, hunching his wide shoulders and lowering his chin like a turtle pulling its head in.
The Barker’s cane whistled through the air and rebounded off Hot Winter Mule’s head with a sharp crack. Hot Winter Mule staggered and dropped Jesse. His ears rang. Specks of black danced in his vision. He blinked and realized blood was jetting from his nostrils.
“You hit me!” Hot Winter Mule said incredulously, focusing his wide eyes on the Barker.
“I beat you,” the Barker clarified. He twirled his cane between his long fingers. The Barker was wearing a crisp new suit, carefully tailored and the same shade of gray as the sedan in the grass. His hair had been shorn to the scalp. He almost resembled the Midway salesman that had arrived all those long months ago. But not quite.
“How come you trapped everyone in the Carnival?” asked Hot Winter Mule. “All them people…” He wiped his hand under his bloody nose.
“The horn calliopist. Did you ever wonder why the Factory Carnival shaped such a thing? I did.” The Barker did a little dance-like shuffle, his soft leather loafers pattering over the alcove floor like wind-up toys.
Hot Winter Mule’s eyes narrowed. He liked the horn calliope.
“Of course you liked the calliope, Mr. Mule. The Factory grew it specifically for you, to draw you in and keep you here.” The Barker laughed in embarrassment, a sound like the cough of a big cat. “It was the same with everyone in Festus, but your job in the Factory was a rare thing in my experience. I almost wish I could save the device as a specimen, a sort of trophy to everything… backward about this place.”
Hot Winter Mule scowled. He rose to his full height and took a deep breath. His chest expanded like a meaty bellows. His small eyes were hard and moist.
“Cities fail because they’re full of failures,” the Barker said in a soft, smooth purr. “You can’t begin anew with broken tools any more than you can wipe something clean with a bar rag.” When he smiled his teeth were white and even. “Time for me to go.”
Hot Winter Mule rolled his neck and balled his big hands into fists the size of canned hams. “I don’t think so.”
“Oh you don’t think so?” The Barker cackled in a wild parody of his former self.
Hot Winter Mule charged.
The Barker sidestepped his wild punch and brought his cane whistling down across the backs of Hot Winter Mule’s knees. Hot Winter Mule roared in pain and staggered, but he didn’t go down. He whirled and drove his fist into the Barker’s face with enough force to kill a buffalo. The Barker twisted out of the way and lashed out with one long leg, sending Hot Winter Mule sailing into the far wall. The Barker dropped into a martial stance and snaked forward, humming a little song and dancing with the tune as he advanced.
Hot Winter Mule felt as if his chest had been caved in. He gasped for breath and raised an arm as the Barker brought his whirling cane to bear. After the third blow, his eyes closed.
Consciousness returned slowly. Hot Winter Mule groaned and rolled on to his side. His right eye opened like a rusted barn door, ponderously and with no guarantee that it would close again easily. His left eye was gummed shut. Some tired thing was torn in his guts and his ribs felt like they’d been wrapped in hauling chains.
The Barker was gone. Jesse lay on his side a short distance away, staring at him with wide, glassy eyes, his face still twisted into a smile. One of his little clown boots had gone missing. Hot Winter Mule rose to his feet and swayed back and forth, gripped with nausea. He shook his head and realized that the floor was actually swaying. The Factory Carnival had taken flight.
He went to Jesse, knelt, and gently lifted the hog into his arms, cradling him as he might a baby, but with Jesse’s eyes and snout facing outward, so that the big thing might see and possibly smell the fresh autumn wind. Then he lumbered to the edge of the alcove.
Below them was an expanse of raw, wet earth, exposed pipe and arcing power lines. It was all that remained of an old city once called Festus. The Factory Carnival had left nothing behind but a shallow crater.
“Well I’ll be,” Hot Winter Mule whispered to Jesse. His arms tightened around the plastic hog. “Remember how cold it gets, boy? When the mud freezes and you and the girls steam up the shed just breathin’?”
They’d been drifting for a while. The edge of the Factory had sprouted what looked like busy little children’s fingers or centipede legs. It was nibbling at itself, the cycle of self-digestion having commenced, shrinking back into a warm metal acorn squash that would someday fall from a foreign sky on a white silk parachute, its interior torsioning with hungry potential.
“It ain’t that far,” he cooed into the hog’s waxy ear. It was impossible to tell how high they were with one eye swollen shut and nothing to fix his perspective on. Hot Winter Mule raised his head and looked into the distant sunset, where the tall gold grass began.
NOTE from Jeff! More than 3000 views a month and climbing on the Free Short Story Of The Month! Huge numbers in Japan, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and… California. Thanks and enjoy!
Free Short Story of the Month for June
The Sweet Sonifications of Fencepost Beckenshire
By Jeff Johnson
“Welcome to the Hemlock Tavern. I’m Fencepost-” FB cleared his throat and adjusted the mic, “and that’s no shit my real name.” D jangle, wandering riffage with a bluesy brand of lost to grab them. “Straddling the line between here and there baby, here and there…” trill in D minor, fingers cold on the cold keys, “I’ll be your piano rambler every minute of this magnificent motherfuckin’ jumbo Happy Hour.” Dramatic, world weary sigh. “Says something about the world, right?” Philosophical blue going deep, with a left hand strobe of slow Rag. “Three hours long, one Happy Hour.” Repeat, sustain pedal all the way. “One hundred and eighty minutes of bar room bliss.” Riff through a bullshit jazz peek-a-boo, in search of nothing in particular, settling into the bench. Pants feel wet. Feet hurt for no clear reason. “An extended happy hour is good for the soul baby, a drop of sweet champagne grape in the ocean of commotion, call me crazy but all the way down where it gets all busy you know it’s true. Confusion abounds, maybe it’s the human condition, but a long Happy Hour takes the sting out of the heel of shoes new and used, my beautiful bar room mammals. End of a triple Happy Hour, the headlines are bright no matter what the news is, and yo, we need good news more than we need it rainin’ money. So raise that glass to… happiness extended baby. Fuckin’ nick of time you ask me.”
Fencepost tiptoed around in D again while he considered. “When you understand the noble Roman origins of Happy Hour, why, it gives you powerful feelings of possibility and… destiny. Does for me, anyway.” Pause, roll and dive in E. “Like we’ve come a long way and we’re still goin’ somewhere halfway okay. As a people. Together.” Flourish, ala Wish Upon A Star. “Remember to tip your bartender.”
There were fifteen drinkers in the Hemlock, maybe a couple more upstairs, not one of them listening. Most were staring at their phones, their faces framed in miniature inverted spotlights, and the rest of them were engaged in courtship, San Francisco style, which involved resumes and real estate. Behind the long bar, Mikey was grooming his beard, up to speed for the moment and spacing out. Fencepost wandered boldly into the wide zodiac of early seventies hits, jazzed out into a long, interconnected song story, fruity without being muzac, keeping it cool as instructed.
As he edged up on one hour and his fifteen minute smoke-and-booze break, FB had a pretty good bead on the mood of the room. Most of the regulars had dutifully drifted past his upright and dropped a one or a five in his big glass fish bowl, so Fencepost was up an egg and chorizo burrito and a new pack of smokes, maybe the hair gel from the corner store he was coveting. Everyone was cruising the zero, waiting for something that never happened to suddenly go down, or just staying out of the rain. It was peaceful.
And cool. Except for Layla. Last name Carol or Daisy, another first name, a name Fencepost would never remember. Layla was in real estate and used the Hemlock Tavern as her office sometimes. Layla’s big blue eyes were on him the whole time he played. She wanted to talk, or she most definitely did not want to talk, Fencepost wasn’t sure. Signals weren’t his thing.
“Groovy man,” Mikey said, appearing from behind him. He set a draft and a shot of Maker’s by the fish bowl. “Take fifteen and check the upstairs bathroom.”
Fencepost trilled out a little ‘stay tuned’ flourish and looked up. “Toilet paper? Or the plunge.”
Mikey shrugged. “Just do a random fly by, make sure Danny or one of the wads isn’t scribbling on the wall. Haven’t seen ‘em today, but they might have snuck in while I was swapping the kegs.”
Fencepost picked up his drinks and gave Layla a quick look, a complex one that said he’d just noticed her for the first time, that he had much on his mind, and that he wasn’t headed her way. He ambled out the side door, out on to the enclosed smoking patio. Ten rickety tables, sticky and empty, one dead potted palm. Fencepost sat down on a wooden chair and fired up a menthol. The rain was October Bay Area piss fog, small floaty drops that sort of seeped out of a flat gray sky. It didn’t patter on the sheet of Plexiglas above the patio, so it was quiet when the door opened and closed behind him. Eddy of Chanel Number 5. Layla sat down across from him.
“Fencepost.” Layla had a way of saying his name that would have rubbed him wrong if he gave a shit. Half like it was a childish curse, half like it was the name of a cat.
“Layla!” FB tried for surprised. “What’s up?” Fencepost drained his Maker’s. Layla didn’t have a drink and he didn’t want there to be any confusion about sharing.
“I was watching you play. You sound good these days.” Layla didn’t mean it. He could tell. But it was true anyway. Fencepost shrugged.
“Three hours of practice, seven days a week. Fucking bright chimpanzee be good by now.”
Layla laughed a little, not at what he’d said but at him, just like she always did. Fencepost’s eyes narrowed. When he first started playing Happy Hour at the Hemlock, Mikey told a few regulars that FB was a slumming tech weirdo who made millions off a video game and went a little crazy. It added to the mystique of the Hemlock Happy Hour and it led to a few confusing, toothy blowjobs as well, one of them from Layla. But that was months ago.
“Got another smoke?” Layla’s eyes didn’t have any lazy come hither in them. No, she wanted something different. Fencepost took his pack out and shook one loose, then lit it for her. Layla took a dainty puff without inhaling, like John Travolta always did, then looked out at the rain while smoke curled out of her mouth.
“Almost Halloween,” Fencepost offered. “Whatcha gonna be?”
“I have a problem, Fencepost.” She said his name different this time, like she had that night in her BMW behind the sushi place. “I need a help. This was a movie, I’d be the bombshell in distress and you’d be the hero with the heart of gold.”
“My back is sort of fucked up.” He made a pained face. That generally covered everything.
“Not that kind of problem,” Layla said evasively. “Not that kind of help.” She sippy puffed on the wasted cigarette. “You know what I do, right? For a living.”
“Real estate?” Fencepost drank some beer. “You also drink with rich dudes. So drinking and houses.”
“That’s a description of the box.” Layla blinked slowly. “You know what’s inside?”
Fencepost shifted uncomfortably. “The, ah, you mean, like- what?”
“What I do, exactly.”
“I’d just forget.” He didn’t want to hear any more. She was going to tell him anyway. He knew it.
“Cash for houses.” A little quiet. Like she was about to tell him a secret. “Ever heard of it?”
“Signs in every city, Layla.”
“It’s a special market, with special little corners. And I’m a special kind of lady.”
FB’s heart sank. The statement was worn, practiced to a dull shine like it was written on the inside of her Noxzema sleep mask. She went on anyway, even though he was certain she caught his expression.
“I run my transaction trails through a shell corporation. Means when I say ‘cash for houses’, I’m talking cash at both ends. I find a property, then I form a small pool of investors. One hundred grand in, twenty percent return. Minimum. And that new percentage is mad money. Untraceable green bills. Totally off the books.” Quieter still. “I make dark money.”
Layla waited for that to sink in. When it didn’t, she drove it home for him.
“Untraceable currency is extremely valuable to certain people, Fencepost. Business people with private lives who never make a penny outside the system. People who need discretionary funds with no trail, no strings. Entrepreneurs under the microscope. CEO’s with an audit period and an appetite they can’t afford to starve. The list is endless, especially here, in a city of everyday millionaires. Private cash and lots of it? Cold and clean? Worth more than bank screen digits to all kinds of people.”
“Ah!” The light bulb went on over Fencepost’s head. “You mean secret dough for wealthy perverts.” He nodded wisely. “I bet you’re busy.”
Layla sat back, studying him now. She was probably wondering if his simplicity was a sign of the autism that had made him rich enough to be the Happy Hour piano player at the Hemlock. Fencepost laughed aloud and then tried to be serious.
“Money is for chumps,” he said, realizing as the words came out of his mouth that he was still feeding into her fiction. He tried again. “The guy who dies with the most good memories wins, Layla. Not the guy with a coffin full of dough. But good luck, I guess.”
“I’m not trying to sell you anything.”
“Sure you are.”
“We’ve known each other, what, like six months now?” Layla watched him carefully.
“About. I met you right after I started here.”
“Right. That first night- Mikey told everybody you were just another low double digit millionaire on a walkabout, all fucked up with that weird kind of lost you get when you have enough dough to last a lifetime and nothing matters anymore.”
“You told me you were a painter, looking for the place postcards come from.”
“A former part time house painter,” Fencepost clarified. “And sometimes we did porches and patios.”
“Whatever. The point is, I didn’t believe you that first night. But now I do.”
“You do?” It surprised him. “Why?”
“Hard to say.” Layla seemed to notice her cigarette for the first time and wrinkled her nose, dropped it on the ground and mashed it out. He’d have to sweep it up later. “Maybe it was watching you eat. I dunno. It’s just something about you. But I believe you.”
Fencepost sighed but said nothing. It was a strange victory. Layla finally believed he was a bum.
“I need a little help, like I said.” Layla leaned forward and fixed him with a hard face, another one she’d designed in her bathroom mirror.
“Not at all.”
“My fifteen minutes is up.” Fencepost drained his beer and carefully put his cigarette out in the ashtray. “Gotta check the upstairs bathroom before my second set.” He rose.
“Fencepost.” It came out as a warning. She wanted him to know that he was making a mistake. It was the most common way his name was spoken; as an admonishment. It didn’t bother him.
“Fencepost,” she said again, this time as a prelude to a question. She gave him a sly, greasy smile. “What are you drinking?”
“Makers.” He stopped with his hand on the door. “Rocks. Skip the beer.”
The upstairs bathroom was in okay shape. A perfumy woman had taken a beefy dump, but that was about it. No new graffiti by Danny and the wads. Fencepost washed his cold hands and then stared at himself in the scratched up plastic mirror. He was on a trip of some kind, a mission, or even a quest. To find where postcards came from. It was ridiculous thing to be up to, but he’d come to realize that all great things were. This quest, however, was a never ending one, more of a lifestyle than a destination. The revelation had been building, and now it was finally clear. Fencepost was trapped between worlds, as his name suggested, born that way and destined to die that way, too. His mother had been a washed out prairie blond from no place in particular, a daytime TV drunk and championship trailer court hairstylist, but his father was wandering Sioux with philosophical attitude and a road job in concessions with ZZ Top before he vanished for good. His father named him Fencepost for what he was sure to be in life. It didn’t especially concern Fencepost, the whole straddling of worlds prophecy at birth. What concerned him was staying true to the notion now that he’d accepted it. It left him staring into scratched up bar room lavatory mirrors looking for signs at times, and this was one of them.
The awakening, the acceptance of self, had come from his time with the mad genius Knottspeed, who was a different kind of drunk than Fencepost. Drunks and yoga pants don’t lie, as the saying goes, and Knottspeed, gifted in the art of deception, was courting sainthood of a kind and couldn’t lie at all at the time, so he relied on bravery and cunning and brutal honesty, all of which find kinship in drink. It was Knottspeed who first understood that Fencepost was born a slow moving vehicle, a creature of perpetual transition, and this certainty and the permanent residue of Knottspeed’s energy, so often expressed as whimsy in the case of Fencepost, was the fuel that drove him to confront himself in the mirror and consider Layla.
San Francisco was played out, FB realized as he stared at his streaked reflection. Not because it had lost its minor magic, but because he didn’t belong there anymore. It had become hereto him. He belonged either on the way somewhere or leaving, but not ‘here’, or anywhere specific. It was time to go, and the calculations of the first greedy white collar criminal to come his way, Layla as it turned out, triggered a new understanding of now and place. San Francisco was a sweet-smelling graveyard, he knew that, but Layla and her vibe, her essence, were part of a giant ecosystem he was only seeing for the first time. This place had a postcard and he’d found it- it was creamy skin colored velour, with an embossed picture of Bitcoin logos flanked by glass towers that looked like skinny boners, and it smelled like scalp on a summer road trip. Fine. Time to go. Fencepost smiled at his reflection. The way he went was just as important as the going.
A double Maker’s on the rocks was waiting by the tip bowl when he settled back on the piano bench. Fencepost chugged it and quickly sat the empty on the nearest table, fast, so Mikey wouldn’t bogue on his second hour freebie round. Then he cleared his throat and thumbed the ‘on’ button on the mic.
“The Hemlock Tavern Happy Hour is the happiest in town and I’m Fencepost, your piano jukebox with fingers and toes, one to four, seven days a week baby.” He riffed up a spaz of Coltrane with bounce. “Got a solid hour of sweet sonifications coming your way, so sit back and enjoy the ride. Remember to tip your bartender, and-” Then he was off. The second hour was solid jazz, an exploration of whatever came to mind. Fencepost swayed a little until his body fell in time with his mood, and then he was floating.
He’d been keeping a handle on his alcohol intake. Not a solid grip, true, and that was about to come in handy. Layla watched him intently, and about twenty minutes in she brought him another double. She was trying to get him drunk, which meant that whatever was going down in her world was going down tonight. Tonight, she planned to get him trashed so she could set him up for something, or maybe use him as a human shield, or maybe just exploit him as a mule. But it was coming up fast. He wouldn’t be as trashed as she hoped though, because drinking was something Fencepost could do better than he generally let on, just like most professionals.
At then end of the second hour, Fencepost went straight to the bar. Mikey was just finishing up an order and gave him a nod.
“S’up Fencepost?” Mikey eyed Layla, who eyed him back. “You going out later, you crazy tech tycoon?” Wink wink.
“I don’t make it back, I want you to know I had a great time here.”
Mikey pulled him a draft. “VD doesn’t work that fast, Fencepost. You’re gonna be fine.”
“Layla there,” Fencepost said quietly, not looking her way, “you, ah, she ever give you her spiel?”
“Gave it to me twice. Too fast to be anything but bad.”
“How you mean?” Fencepost tried to sound casual. It worked. Mikey let him have it as quiet as he could.
“I don’t know,” he said simply. “Her whole thing lacks a certain hygiene. Rich people have a way of making money that we don’t understand, FB. But there’s something shitty there every time. Layla’s gig is the distressed owner. What is that? That’s a poor person, FB. Maybe old, maybe sick, maybe just a fuck up. But now they’re also a target. Buy ‘em out low and sell high?” Mikey made a face like he’d licked a postage stamp and gotten a hair on his tongue. “Kinda pimpy.”
“What in the world are you boys talking about?” Layla appeared at Fencepost’s side. Mikey flashed her his winning smile.
“You baby,” he said. “I was just telling Fencepost the rules of your game, but he already knew ‘em.”
Layla looked back and forth between them, carefully neutral.
“I like sushi,” Fencepost blurted out. He didn’t know why he said it. Layla arched an eyebrow. Mikey drifted away toward the silent TV above the taps.
“You’re saying you want to take me out to sushi?” Layla cocked her hip. Fencepost shook his head.
“Nah, I mean we leave together we’re going to eat sushi. You can pay or we can run for it, I’m cool either way, but then you tell me what I’m doing and what’s in it for me.”
“I can make you a better deal than that.” It came out of her breathy. FB sniffed. Chapstick and something else, maybe pure Fluoride or an illegal Mexican tooth whitener with formaldehyde.
“Have to do a toilet check again. Get me another round?”
Layla nodded. Fencepost left her at the bar and went upstairs. There was a locked door to the attic behind the DJ booth. He unlocked it and went up the narrow winding staircase to his little room. A cot with a sleeping bag on top, a change of pants and some socks, a few tee shirts, a microwave Mikey had scrounged up, and a couple of paperbacks. The faded postcard Knottspeed had given him was in the corner of the tiny window. In one of the socks was a roll of money, what was left of the exploration loot Knottspeed had given him and the tip change he’d accumulated. FB never counted it, just felt the thickness from time to time. Fencepost put the roll of money in his front pocket. The postcard went with it, folded in half. Then he looked around. Nothing. He didn’t want any of it. He smoked a cigarette, which he wasn’t supposed to do, and then went back downstairs, all the way back down to the piano and his drink. Layla was sitting at the table nearest the piano. She was drinking soda water.
“We’re sliding in to the last hour of Happy Hour here at the Hemlock Tavern,” Fencepost announced after he settled in behind the mic. “Bluesy but upbeat, shooting for the soulful branch of good times from here to the bell. I’m Fencepost, and I’ve enjoyed my time here at the keys. Thanks for coming around.”
There were a few more people in the bar by then, maybe twenty, including two suits in the back. That wasn’t unusual, but FB wondered if the new suits were connected to Layla somehow. By then end of the third set, the room dynamic was changing. A DJ was setting up on the second floor, and most of the newcomers would make their way up when the kid started spinning. The Hemlock Happy Hour would move with the clock into super cheap pitchers and three dollar theme drinks. When he was done, Fencepost thanked the audience one last time and counted his tips, folded them away. His guts had come together in the truly final hour of Happy Hour. He felt harder, semi-loaded, and ready to play this shit out. Layla was right there when he looked up.
“Let’s roll baby,” Fencepost said.
2. The Tempo Verde
Time was a factor.
“Time is a factor,” Layla confirmed. She drove fast, which never got you anywhere any faster in San Francisco. “We’re in, we’re out. I’ll deal with the guy at the register. You keep quiet.”
“You’ve done this before? Dressed a man for-”
“Of course I have.” Scornful. “You just be cool and a couple hours from now you’ll be eating sushi off my naked abdomen. Sound good?”
“I guess. I don’t like saki, so- back to the money. We never got into the specifics.”
Layla shot him a stale glare. “Don’t get greedy on me Fencepost. I need this.”
“I got that, but right now I’d be eating dinner at the good burrito place, and-”
One hundred dollars. His value as a human being had gone up from the non-denomination of question mark with a minus sign next to it. What Fencepost knew about crime came from paperback novels, which largely didn’t count, movies, which were sincerely misleading, television, which was uninformed to the point of being catastrophic as a reference, and actual criminals, whom he seldom paid attention to. The very real and down to earth Dave Micro had robbed a couple banks, and his wisdom was worthless- don’t use a gun. It didn’t apply here. One of the bartenders at The Imperial said he smuggled coke in the mail, using hundreds of small parcels. Again, non-applicable. That guy Tommy from the Neil Diamond cover band robbed a Pizza Hut with a plastic knife, but it involved a ten speed getaway bike and there were conflicting reports as to how that shook out in the end. There were dozens more. They were petty crimes all, more like adventures than anything else. But Knottspeed had been a criminal master. There was much there to consider.
First, according to Knottspeed, all good crimes are never what they seem. The primary goal is never known until the smoke clears. Fencepost didn’t think that way; he couldn’t. But he’d been exposed to that kind of chess player crime and he knew he was inside the smoke of it right then. He could feel it. Layla had a long con running. She knew how it was going to play out, too. She wasn’t telling him, either. The trick would be to exit the crime while it was in progress. If he did, when the smoke cleared he would be somewhere else, hopefully with more than a hundred bucks.
“Hundred bucks is fine.”
“Atta boy.” Layla blew minty chemical relief his way. Layla hair was especially thick and shiny, he noted, like doll hair. There was no reason to find her repellant, but he did. It was hard to say why, but when he thought about her naked, wet supermarket chickens in saran wrap came to mind. He’d never seen Layla’s legs, not all of them, but he imagined them to be thin and smooth and featureless, with no definition at all, like they were cast in a dildo factory in Taiwan.
“I like this car,” Fencepost said, trying to mentally switch gears.
“Good memories?” Layla gave him sly, just a flash of it. Fencepost quickly looked away.
“You have a constant buzz going, don’t you Fencepost.” It wasn’t a question. Layla was mostly talking to herself, like he was a dog along for a joyride. “I can admire that.”
“The constant buzz?”
“Sure. Take the business jocks I deal with. Those guys are on a constant high.”
“Some. But I’m talking about the buzz you get from the finer things in life. People who say money can’t buy happiness are perpetuating a myth engineered to keep the masses humble.”
Fencepost chucked. It came out brain damaged. Layla laughed at him again.
“You know differently?”
“Nah.” There was no point in trying to share his point of view.
“So you agree with me.”
“Maybe you’re right. The real buzz comes from the game itself. The getting. You get, I dunno, this electric feeling, this tingling, way down inside your-”
“All through them,” Layla confirmed. “That’s the real juice. Every last one of us is chasing that feeling, Fencepost. If you don’t know it, you are lost lost lost.”
Lost. That was it. He was lost. Fencepost felt a tickle in his own intestines at the intensity of it. He was getting more lost by the moment. It felt just right, too.
“Where you come from Layla?”
“Here and there. Went to school back east.” She didn’t want to talk about it. Comparing resumes wasn’t in the cards.
“I’m not from here or there,” Fencepost said expansively. “I’m from the middle. The dotted line. The edge of the field where the road starts and stops. The ribbon of foam where sand and sea-” He went on and on. Beside him, Layla counted imaginary money.
Their first stop was Ross Dress For Less.
“I fuckin’ hate turtle necks.”
Layla rolled her eyes. “Fine. But we don’t have time to argue. Try to remember who you are for this, Mr. Beckenshire. You’re a zany tech geek with Aspergers and no mommy. Feckless. Money to burn and all you can think about is Oreo cookies and Batman. The gamer dork I was introduced to and believed you were until I realized you’re a hobo.”
“I need more booze.” Fencepost lowered the shirt she was going to make him wear. “Is that- I might actually have Aspergers. Is this what happens?”
“Christ.” Layla looped her arm through his and pulled him toward the register. One minute later he was changing clothes in the parking garage while she watched. Gray turtleneck, black slacks, brown loafers, argyle socks.
“We should have got me one of those-”
“Hop to,” Layla snapped. “And we should have gotten you underwear.” She snorted in disgust. “If I had known.”
Fencepost paused, one leg in the new slacks. He smiled then. “It’s the Indian in me, or maybe its just the whole philosophy of underwear. When you really think about it, its like an asshat, probably the origin of the word in fact. I suppose if-”
“Time for what God damn it!” Fencepost hurried up, but he had a harried way about him. “If I knew where we were going this would make more sense.” He zipped up and pushed the loafers on, scowling. “Ridiculous fuckin’ elf shoes. Shoes make the man, Layla. What kind of Lord Of The Rings fruit loop-”
She started the car. “Toss your crap on the floor in back.”
“We got time to stop for a drink?”
“Glove box. Way ahead of you.”
Fencepost got in and slammed the door. Layla jetted them down the winding exit route of the parking garage at nauseating speed, but even so he managed to open the glove box and take out the unopened bottle of Jim Beam. He took a slug of it while Layla paid the robo terminal with a slash of her credit card, and as they pulled out on the street, he took one more nip and hid the bottle in his lap. Then he gave her a cold appraisal.
“You knew this would work, didn’t you? Getting me to go along with this. The booze is proof.”
“It was you or some other drunk, Fencepost. Bars are full of guys and gals looking to make a buck at the end of three hours of Happy Hour.”
“This mean there’s cocaine?”
“Huh.” He looked out the window, glum. “Figures.”
They rode in silence after that. Five minutes later they parked a half a block down from the Wincosa Credit Union, the upscale one with free pastries and dark roast coffee. Layla turned to Fencepost and blasted him with her best chalky smile, then patted his thigh, a little high up in the crotch.
“Here’s the easy part.” She eyed the credit union. “They have a client conference room.” Layla pointed with a bony finger. “Right there at the edge of the building, that cube office with the giant window walls? It’s for people like me who need executive services. Meetings with out-of-towners, that kind of thing. I booked it for us. Five to six. Now, you go in and tell them you have a meeting with Kendra in the client services room. That’s me. Kendra. Got it?”
“Kendra,” Fencepost repeated.
“Good. Someone will show you in. Take a seat at the table. Now, in about fifteen minutes I’m meeting my new investor. He gives me his cash for houses investment and we come to the bank. I go in and leave it with you. Then I leave again for fifteen minutes while I button him up. You wait with the money.”
“I wait. Should I do something? Talk on the phone? Look cool, like I’m a-”
“I don’t care what you do,” Layla said shortly. “Then I come back. I leave after a minute or two with the briefcase. Then you leave a few minutes later. We meet at that bar behind us.” She pointed again. “You get a hundred bucks and maybe you get sushi too.” She winked. “Whole thing takes less than a half an hour.” There was no way they were meeting at that bar, he knew. Once she left with the briefcase, he’d never see her again.
“This briefcase,” Fencepost began. “Is it-”
“It’s a standard briefcase, Fencepost. No handcuffs, no blinking lights. Don’t touch it. Don’t open it. Don’t even look at it.”
He sighed. She patted his thigh again.
“None of what you’re doing is illegal. Think it through. You show for a meeting at a bank, empty handed. A woman you don’t know very well comes and goes. You leave, once again empty handed. Not one bit of that is against the law, right?”
“I guess not.” FB looked both ways and took one final pull of Beam.
4. Wincosa All-Stars
Fencepost walked into the Wincosa Credit Union and went right to the guy at the desk to the right of the tellers. The bank was relatively quiet and empty, and people were in a good mood. The desk guy looked up and smiled.
“Welcome to Wincosa. Can I help you?” He had glasses and short hair, a short beard. Fencepost smiled back.
“Supposed to meet Lonnie?”
The desk guy shook his head politely. Fencepost gestured at the executive conference room and the guy’s eyes lit up.
Fencepost smiled and snapped his fingers, pointed at him. “Bingo.”
“Right this way.” He got up and Fencepost followed him into the brightly lit conference room. It had a big table and ten chairs, two large computer screens, and floor to ceiling windows with a view of the sidewalk. “Coffee? Pastry?”
“Coffee.” Fencepost sat down at the head of the table. Outside, Layla watched him for a moment and then disappeared into the bistro across the street. A minute later a trim older man in a suit with a non-descript black briefcase entered. Fencepost’s coffee arrived right after that.
“Anything else? Need a rundown on the display interface?”
Fencepost looked up at him with sad, watery eyes and blew Beam fumes his way for effect. The desk guy’s smile never waivered.
“Nah. I guess, I-” Fencepost rubbed his face. “Dude, I’m fucking up. I have Aspergers, way bad bigtime. You know what that is?”
The desk guy nodded. He looked a little sad, too.
“Yeah, well, I’m a garden variety low double digit millionaire. Made a fortune on game design, who cares, and nothing means a god damned thing at all anymore. My mom died.” Here the guy winced. “Yeah, I know, right? So I’m on a sort of spiritual quest and it isn’t going too good. I was supposed to bring a briefcase to this meeting so I look like a real person. My therapist Mikey told me that, and I mean he even made me write it down. Fucker also made me wear this turtleneck instead of my Batman shirt.” Fencepost shrugged helplessly. “Anyway, I got drunk with this hooker named Layla, and now all I can fuckin’ think about is Oreo cookies and the last episode of Quantum Leap.”
“Is Mrs. Hutchison- is she-”
“Where can I get a briefcase,” Fencepost interrupted. “Fast as a motherfucker. I can’t fuck this up.”
“Three doors down. Wellingtons.”
Fencepost rose and adjusted his turtleneck. “She shows up maybe tell her I’m in the john. Got the pukes. New meds, nerves, that kind of thing.”
The guy nodded.
Fencepost blew out of the credit union and walked with his head down to Wellingtons, an office supply store. He went straight to the small briefcase section and found one that looked like the black one the business guy had taken into the bistro. He only gotten a glimpse of it, so it was a best guess. He went right to the register and handed it to the cashier.
“No bag,” he said.
“One hundred sixty seven fifty,” the woman replied, smiling. Fencepost frowned and counted out tip money, most of it ones and fives. She frowned.
“I know what this looks like,” Fencepost said tightly, making small piles. “I mean, I don’t, but you have to understand that when a man buys a briefcase with stripper cash it can only mean one thing.” He pushed the piles her way and looked up. “I’m a movie producer. Trannies galore, flamingos, ape with a gun and Willie Nelson. Netflix action zapper, working title is Bongo Fury.”
Then Fencepost was back on the street. As he approached the bank, he could see that the conference chamber was empty. Fencepost went in and nodded at the desk guy, who must have clued the three tellers in because they all waived and smiled at him, the paternal kind of friendly sweet reserved for disabled kids and frightened old people. Fencepost brandished his new briefcase in victory and went into the conference room, where he stowed it under the table. Then he struck the Thinker’s Pose and waited, motionless, for everything to go to shit.
Five minutes later, Layla entered. He heard her chattering with the desk guy but he didn’t look up until she settled at the table and put the briefcase in front of her. She spun it so the handle was facing him and smiled.
“He’s across the street watching,” Layla said. “Smile back. Nod. Laugh, like we’re having a great time. Like you dream about sticking money in my G string and now I’m all yours for free. Laugh like I just gave you the cure for-”
Fencepost did laugh. The briefcase he’d bought at Wellingtons was almost identical to the one in front of him. He couldn’t believe it. Briefcase designers were as bad as the ones who worked for Chrysler.
“Good.” Layla was enjoying herself. She was buzzed, he could tell, electric in the colon like she’d described earlier. It almost made him laugh again. “Now. Inside the briefcase is half a million dollars.” She patted it. “Here’s how this works. Guy number one? I started with fifty Gs. Got him sixty back in one week. Gave him ten grand of my own cash to invest in the Black Market, drugs, rent for his mistress condo, a contract killing, whatever. That was my only investment. He tells his people. People just like him. Other tech guys, bankers, what have you. Pals from the country club, the pervy rubes from the golf course. Guy number two comes in with an even hundred large, a week later I give him one twenty. This time the twenty comes out of guy number three, who just rolled in. See?”
“Shady.” But Fencepost smiled.
“Now I’m down the line to number nine. Nine is all in for what I have right here in front of us. The big score. Guy has bad dreams he wants to make real.”
“And you’re walking with it.” Fencepost kept smiling. So did Layla.
“I am. Because I can. I get caught I can say the deal didn’t go through. But if you walk out that door with this briefcase there will be an instant manhunt. We’re on camera.” Layla made a winding gesture with her finger. “Cameras everywhere. So you won’t. You will sit right there until I get back. Call the cops, I say you set me up. You tell the bank, I say you set me up. You do one fucking thing other than sit here until the coast is clear and I can walk with my score and you will die in prison, Fencepost. Just another dumbass in a jumpsuit.”
“I get my hundred bucks now or after?” Fencepost tried to sound mean while he was smiling and nodding. It came out wrong. It was Layla’s turn to laugh.
“I like you Fencepost. I really do. I can’t believe it, but I do.”
They stared at each other. Ten heartbeats went by and her smile faded a little.
“Pretend like you like me too, you drunk piece of shit,” she said softly. “Do it or I’ll fucking scream. I’ll scream and we can both go down.”
“Shadyandcrazy!” Fencepost laughed again, harder than last time and just as real. “I can’t believe it either, but I dig you Layla.”
“This is a mad world. You’re either food or mouth, Fencepost. And crazy? Crazy thrives. Crazy is the teeth with wings.” Layla tossed her doll hair for effect. “I’ll be back in fifteen, thirty at the outside.” She stood up and stuck her hand out. “Guy out there thinks you’re the seller of the hypothetical shithole I’m going to flip so he can fund his mental illness. Shake like we just made the deal of a lifetime for all of us.”
He did. Layla’s hand was cold and hard and dry. His was wet and soft and hot. She held it, and just as she was about to turn away something stopped her.
“What does a guy say, Fencepost, in a situation like this? Me and you, right now, at this instant, we’re the stars of a half a million dollar production. The audience is right outside the glass. What’s your last line?” Layla’s eyes glittered. Her scent wrapped around him then, Chanel and breath mints and fire retardant foam. He could feel the man across the street watching them, the people in the bank too. Fencepost licked his lips.
“Layla, people have always told me the kind of shit they never tell anyone else. I used to think it was my face. I thought maybe it was because I’m drunk most of the time and the people around me are, too. I’m a repository, a confessional without judgment, or even a memory.” Fencepost put his other hand over hers in a two handed embrace. “Right now we don’t have an audience at all, baby. Me and you are on a tiny stage at the top of a mountain.” He let her hand go and took a step back, narrowed his eyes. “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid. May the Force be with you.”
Then he watched her go. She met with the man in the suit across the street, and he gave Fencepost a curt nod before he followed Layla to her car. In the fraction of a heartbeat when their eyes met, Fencepost’s spiritual hackles flared. The man with the money had the eyes of a casual business killer, the serial kind in CNN business and politics. They drove off and Fencepost waited a whole thirty seconds before he set the briefcase on the floor next to his new one. Outside the conference room it was business as usual in the bank. The guy at the desk eventually looked up and Fencepost waived cheerfully. The guy quickly looked back down at his computer.
Fencepost took the briefcase with the money in it and left the empty one. He stopped off at the desk for some parting chit chat on his way out. The plan had developed a spontaneous element.
“Veronica or whatever-” Fencepost glanced at the conference room.
“Right.” Fencepost shook his head. “She’s gnarly, man. Wants me to eat sushi off her stomach like I’m Charlie Sheen or some shit, feel like I’m on acid. She tell you about me?”
“Ah, no sir. I gather you’re an investor in her company?”
Fencepost nodded and silently belched. “Yep. Kind of. I mean, no. Anyway, ten minute recess. Gotta finish getting hammered.”
“I’ll let her know. That you stepped out, I mean.” He smiled weakly.
“Fifteen minutes, thirty tops. Tell her it was a crisis. She’ll understand. She left her briefcase under the table.”
The guy’s brows went together. “I’m afraid no items can be left unattended in the executive conference room. If-”
“I got mine.” Fencepost held it up. “Cheers.” He made for the door.
“Kennedy,” Fencepost called back. “Lee Kennedy.”
Fencepost flew out the door and kept going, right into the bistro across the street. It was dark inside, swank and warm, all brass and wood and lamplight. The greeter at the podium was an attractive woman in her late twenties, tall and lean and lovely. Her smile morphed into confusion as she took in his expression.
“The credit union across the street is being robbed!” Fencepost choked it out in a strangled whisper. “My God- oh my God!”
“Wincosa?” She made to look, eyes wide.
“Don’t!” Fencepost hissed. “Call 911! Move away from the windows!” He charged deeper into the place as the area behind him came alive with terror. He almost stopped at the bar, but the greeter got to the bartender first, a dapper beardo who instantly made a general announcement.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a situation,” the bartender began, and that was all it took for the shit to hit the fan. A stick jockey in a dive bar would never have made that mistake. Fencepost blasted through the kitchen doors and three Mexicans looked to him in horror.
“They’re here!” Fencepost shouted. “Run for it!”
They did and he followed. The back door led to a wide alley with a dumpster and a line of recycling bins. The cooks and the dishwasher hid on the far side of the dumpster. Fencepost kept going, down the first narrow alley that kept him headed in the same direction. A minute later he cautiously emerged on the sidewalk two blocks away. He could hear multiple sirens vectoring in.
People would be looking for him in a matter of minutes. All kinds of people. Some of them would be looking for Lee Kennedy, a meaner group for the Happy Hour piano player at the Hemlock Tavern, but all of them would be hunting for a chunky guy in loafers and a gray turtleneck carrying a briefcase. Fencepost looked left and right. Instantly, he stole a page from the Knottspeed Continuous Emergency Handbook- the unlikely costume change.
He flew right past the suit shop, past the convenience store with easy hats and tee shirts and flip flops, and into the Korean catch-all that sold what looked like everything. The stony kid behind the register looked up at him and then went back to talking on his phone.
“Yo dude,” Fencepost interrupted, “you sell karate shit? Ninja pants?”
The kid glanced his way and then said something into his phone, looked up again. “What?”
“One whole row man.” The kid gestured at the far wall and went back to his conversation. Fencepost followed his instructions, and he hit pay dirt just past the floral robes. Black silk pajama outfits with bamboo buttons. He picked one that was his size and then picked out matching black cloth and rubber Bruce Lee slippers. Then he drifted around in the store until he found a shoulder bag with a fern stitched on the flap and a wide straw hat that fit his oversized head. The register kid never said a thing. While he was ringing it up, Fencepost added a can of foreign beer to the pile.
The clock was ticking down to zero as he drank and changed back in the alley at speed. He emerged dressed as an overweight kung fu B movie extra just as the first patrol car rolled past. Fencepost walked with his head down, his stride purposeful. It was San Francisco. He might as well have been invisible.
“Hemlock Tavern, this is Mikey.” Muted DJ in the background, Blondie mixed with something like androids mating, clink of glasses and laughter.
“What up dude. Fencepost.” Fencepost had taken a cab down to the water. He was safely ensconced in an oyster bar, and the bartender thought he was an extra in a student flick called Romeo Cobra.
“Hey man, bring me back some nachos. Pinto beans, red sauce, guac an-”
“Nah man, can’t. I, ah, see, that Layla chick? She’s up to some shit homie.”
“Yeah. She tried to get me all fucked up in this bank thing, I dunno, I bailed. But she’s lookin’ for me.”
“Yeah. Imma lay low for a few days, cool my jets down in Palm Springs. Remember that guy Toby? Told me I could trim weed for him?”
“Fat guy? Mustache?”
“Yep. Anyway, there it is.”
“Right on man. You’re the cheapest janitor in the history of the Hemlock Tavern. Kick ass at the extended Happy Hour too. Hit me up when you get back.”
Fencepost gave the bartender his phone back and tipped him an extra buck.
“I hear you say Palm Springs?” the bartender asked. Fencepost shook his head. Someone might call his number if they sweated Mikey hard enough.
“My old boss. Nah, I’m going to Germany after the shoot. Me and some of the guys are working a convention.”
“Right on. Berlin?”
Fencepost gestured broadly. “All I know is I want me some sausage.”
The bartender moved off and Fencepost took the postcard out and looked at it. Palm trees. It could be Reno from way back, but it might have been Barcelona. He shook his head. He ordered a shrimp cocktail and nursed his whiskey while he waited. When he was done, he turned on his barstool and watched the room for awhile. Most of the people in the oyster bar were clean yuppie. It was a nice place, quiet, with people telling bland stories in time with the bubble of old jazz. It smelled like seafood, and that made him think about where he was. He’d made it to San Francisco on his first ride when he thumbed out of Portland, and he’d found the Hemlock Tavern on his second day. After a week of playing the piano for free, Mikey had let him put out the tip bowl, and two days later hired him on as the janitor/night man with the free cot upstairs.
Six months of seven days a week, three hours a day at the piano later, he could feel the music in his hands. Fencepost smiled hailed the bartender one last time.
“Might try something different,” FB mused, scanning the bottles. “What do you have in the way of umbrella drinks?”
“All of ‘em.” Friendly, but no help there.
“What’s your most… thoughtful drink. The one that makes you consider your place in the cosmos.”
“Midori martini,” the bartender replied instantly. “The Einstein of gutbombs.”
“Set me up.”
When he was done, Fencepost paid and went out into the night. The rain had let up and the sky was clear in patches. A few big boats, real monsters, were docked within walking distance. He strolled toward them, weaving a little. When he got close to the first one, he followed the sound of laughter to where a small clump of men stood around smoking. He walked up and joined them, smiling too. They were from Ecuador, it turned out, leaving in the morning with a shipment of grain.
There was an old electric piano on the boat, they told him, a battered thing called a Tamvanang. The captain, when FB met him, was huge into Duke Ellington.
That last night in America, the last time he was to see the country of his birth for decades, Fencepost Beckenshire thought about all the people he knew in life, starting with Layla. He gradually became fired by rum until, like an unglazed pot, he felt both soft and hard. He turned his face to the lights of San Francisco and thought about a woman he never really knew, so much like all the other women in the world in that way. He thought then about Mikey, and then finally he thought about Knottspeed, and wondered if he’d finally found Maria. He wondered about the lady in the Rite Aid, his last real girlfriend. And then he though about the future. About where he was going. Fencepost had a clear destination in mind, a destination that was clearer than ever.
He was going.
6. The Headliner On The Bill Is-
It was the aftermath that everyone talked about. Of course it was. The smoke cleared and there was something there. The story rose and sank in a week, but it was a good read as it made its way to the back pages.
Jean Abbott was a grifter posing as a real estate shark named Layla May, but she also operated under the name Kendra Hutchison. Police attempted to capture her after she ran a daring daylight money exchange at the Wincosa Credit Union. She escaped, but multiple warrants were issued for her arrest. Abbott’s accomplice was an enigmatic criminal genius known only as Fencepost. Posing as an alcoholic piano player who claimed to be from Montana or the Dakotas, he was last seen entering the Flax Station Bistro across the street from the Wincosa Credit Union. Confusingly, it appears that he alerted the authorities to the crime he was allegedly in the act of committing. Interviews with his employer, Mikel Ross of the Hemlock Tavern, turned up the number of the final call the man might have placed, from the 2ndStreet Oyster House. The bartender there confirmed that a man dressed in a ninja costume had indeed borrowed his phone and added that he believed the man was headed for either Austria or San Diego after participating in a student martial arts film entitled Shiny Cobra.
The investigation into Mrs. Abbott spread to her targets, an investor pool of local entrepreneurs who used their untraceable cash gains to invest in alternative drug and pornography start-ups.
The investigation into the ‘piano player’ was taken over by the CIA and Homeland Security when it led back to another man with a single name, an albino art thief and method coach wanted in eleven countries, the international fugitive known as Knottspeed.
Both Jean Abbott and the piano player remain at large.
Fencepost Beckenshire is the first voice in my novel Knottspeed, A Love Story, published in 2016 by Turner Publishing and edited by Jon O’Neil. It’s one of my favorites, and it took much longer to write than my other books. Knottspeed is a hopeful novel, I think, brimming with the will to live and even thrive in a world where the off beat and out of place is under withering fire. I have a great fondness for characters like Fencepost Beckenshire. He’s a part of so many of the good people I know, made as clear as I can make him, externalized for our collective study. When considered in the terms of Prisoner’s Dilemma, Fencepost falls into a hybrid category, eternally vacillating between Irregular Tit-For-Tat and Always Generous. Circumstantially inspired to deviate from an extremely meek AG (his resting psychological state), Fencepost rises to play a Tit-For-Tat here, a behavior borrowed from Knottspeed. Our Fencepost is a learning creature of glorious plasticity. The momentum he absorbed though contact with Knottspeed is contagious.
What else did he do? Who is this Knottspeed who gave good ol’ FB that magic postcard?
Knottspeed, A Love Story is available on Amazon and on occasion you can find a copy in an out of the way bookstore (the best kind). It was released with no fanfare or publicity of any kind, and in that respect it remains my ‘secret’ book. Check it out if you enjoyed this story. There are other good voices in that book, tucked where you often find good people- where you least expect them.
Eastern Oregon, 2019
Free short story of the month for May…
I Shop At Laney’s
by Jeff Johnson
The grasslands shortly gave way to wind-sculpted piñon and then larger pines after Laney turned off I 70 on to the dusty two lane 37 headed for Carrizozo. The southern spine of the White Mountains collected enough water from the upper atmosphere to make a ski resort in winter. He passed through Ruidoso and then dropped into the abrupt desolation of the desert ahead to the west, into a landscape filled with Saguaro cactus and lava fields, snakes and night owls. Laney cracked the window, easy behind the wheel. Doobie Brothers on the tape deck, slow beer between his legs, two tacos in a bag one the passenger seat, it was easy to be breezy.
Laney super liked his job out there at The Rock Shack. It was a ramshackle mineral and fossil display room grafted onto an old prospector’s cabin, situated in what amounted to the middle of nowhere. The little place was just off the side of the highway in the wide desert just outside the Valley of Fires, in the spectacular alien landscape of ancient lava flows and cacti and sweet smelling scrub brush. An entire week might pass without a visitor, and most of the time the people who did stop by were weirdo 50’s style Evangelical tourists from Iowa or Michigan looking to use the outdoor toilet or inspect the rusted tractor in the side lot. Laney’s job was simple. He did a little digging in the surrounding fields in the morning hunting for new stock, in the window of time between when the stars went out and the late morning sun grew fierce, and after that a little coffee and maybe a few pancakes. Then he’d put out the sun bleached open sign and watch the cash register, which meant reading a paperback and listening to Johnny Cash or Steely Dan. They both worked. At night he’d watch old movies on the black and white TV, a thematic marvel he savored. It was better than shoveling horse shit in Ruidoso, but not as good as his old produce job at the hippy grocery store in Santa Fe. Two weeks on, two weeks off. That’s the way it worked.
As the sun set in front of him, Laney’s thoughts turned as they always did to Ralston Oney, the jumbo horsefly in the ointment when it came to his peaceful gig at The Rock Shack. The disgusting old chaw squirting bowlegged red-neck left the place a mess after his two weeks- a smelly, horrific biohazard disaster that took a whole day to scrub out. The Rock Shack had an employee supply list that was supposed to be maintained with weekly runs into Carrizozo, mainly beans, ground beef, coffee, and bread or tortillas. Canned green beans and popsicles. Oney rarely left anything, which meant Laney had to make the forty-mile round trip after work on the first day and make his purchases at the gas station. The grocery store closed at 7:00, and the gas station food selection was terrible and expensive. This time he was prepared. The box in the back of his truck had enough beer and good food to get him through the next two weeks. He’d also brought cleaning supplies from the Dollar General and worn sheets and a comforter from the Goodwill.
Out along 380, twenty miles east of Bingham, The Rock Shack finally came into view and Laney’s heart sank into his jeans. Oney’s piece of shit Ford half ton was parked askew on the small front lava rock bed. The open sign was still out on the side of the road even though it was officially after dusk. The lights were off in the long addition housing the rocks and the fossils, and the windows of the small house flickered gray and off white- Oney was inside watching TV.
Laney slid to a halt in a cloud of dust behind Oney’s battered pick-up. They’d threatened each other more than once, and by unspoken agreement their time never overlapped. Oney was supposed to be on his way to whatever cave he slept in during his off time. Laney slammed the door on the rusted Ford to give Oney some warning. The last time they’d see each other, Laney had thrown a cup of coffee at him and Oney had come after him with a flyswatter. Laney was tall and slightly chubby, wearing a pearl buttoned v-backed western shirt, faded jeans and worn cowboy boots. He drew himself up and psychically tried to emanate danger. There was no mistaking the expression on his wide, sun-burnt face as he dragged the open sign in and closed the gate, then marched up the house. Without stopping, Laney kicked open the front door and stopped, utterly stunned, his mouth suddenly sticky-dry as a cave dirt.
Ralston Oney sat on the sofa facing the TV, which flickered on a dead station. He was wearing threadbare underpants, a gun belt with a .45 in the holster and a single cowboy boot. The toenails on his free foot were gnarly. His big belly, normally self-consciously tucked in, hung low and wide in his lap and there were heavy black bags under his empty eyes. A half empty one-gallon plastic bottle of cheap bourbon sat on the stand next to him beside a can of beans with a spoon sticking out.
What froze Laney in his tracks was the huge thingon the floor in between them. For some reason, Oney had dragged a giant piece of rusted machinery into the center of the tiny living room. The door was scratched and the floor carved with the deep groves of its passage.
“Oney!” Laney yelled. This was too much. He narrowed his eyes as Oney fixed him with a queer, vacant gaze. “Get up and get your shit together! What the hell is this?”
Oney stared at him and hiccoughed once, signifying nothing.
“Out!” Laney bellowed. He could feel his pulse pounding in his head. “Get your pants on! Jesus!”
Slowly, his blood-shot eyes gradually widening, Oney raised one trembling arm and pointed at the piece of machinery he’d dragged in. Laney glared down at it for the span of a heartbeat and lurched back.
The piece of metal on the floor between them, pitted and blackened by time almost to the point of disintegration and still partially encrusted with sand, was an enormous belt-buckle.
It was a long night for Laney Bozeman.
After carrying Oney into the bedroom and taking his gun away he aired out the house, turned off the black and white TV and settled down on the couch to get some sleep. It never came. He tossed and turned on the small couch while Oney snored and muttered nonsense. The giant belt buckle dominated the room, even in the dark. Laney wondered about it, turning its impossible presence over and over in his mind, gradually becoming so disturbed he turned on the light.
He immediately wished he hadn’t. The belt buckle winked and glinted eerily in the low light. There was something about it that tread on one of Laney’s long standing private superstitions. If a man’s belt buckle was symbolic of his ethos- the larger ones belonging to the bullies of the world, the grandstanding womanizers and top shelf drunks, the shady country bankers and money mad oil men, the rodeo promoters who paid shit and the gold star ranchers who whipped their help, then the object before him was the very totem of evil.
Laney dragged his bedding out to his truck and slept for a few hours until the cold desert dawn sent him inside for coffee. Oney was still snoring as he brewed a pot and washed up. When the coffee was done he poured two cups, took one into Oney and kicked his single boot until he stirred, then went into the living room and sipped his own, studying the belt buckle in the growing light.
“Morning,” Oney said in a gravely voice behind him. He came in to the living room dressed in faded jeans and a rumpled flannel shirt, took one look at the belt buckle and carried his coffee outside. Laney followed him. The front porch of the little house faced north. Bits of glass glittered in the sand on the sides of the road. An owl gave one last hoot for the night as it flew over the house. Across from them giant stovepipe cacti and squat, dry-looking shrubs cast long shadows over the sand. The air smelled of creosote and sage.
“Oney Oney Oney,” Laney began. He paused and sipped his coffee, squinting out at the horizon. “What’s up dude?”
“No word from you about any unusual shit, then when I finally get here you’re drunk, wearing your gun and the dirtiest fuckin’ drawers I ever seen, and-” He tossed his head back at the house.
Oney shook his grizzled head and blew out a huge sigh. Laney wrinkled his nose at the gust of old beef stew and cheap booze. Oney set his coffee on the railing and lit up a cigarette.
“I never liked you Laney,” Oney began, sucking in his big stomach and looking out at the road with a stern expression. “First time you worked out here, day I came in to replace you? Remember that?” He went on without waiting for an answer.
Laney watched him, not really listening. He was thinking that this was the first time he’d ever seen Oney in broad daylight, and how perfectly homely the man was. Oney was splay-footed, and with his big gut sucked in he had the form of a potato from rocky soil. The limp, graying hair on his round head was greasy and thinning. The three days worth of hoary stubble on his sallow face looked like the bristles of a wire brush poking through a pale, unlikely sort of foreign cheese.
“-touched my gun and I mean, I couldn’t believe it,” Oney was saying. Laney’s gaze wandered down to Oney’s belt buckle and he laughed out loud. It was a commemorative Texas Prison Rodeo buckle the size of a coffee saucer. Oney gave him a sharp look. Laney scowled.
“Enough of your shit dude. Where the hell did you get that giant belt buckle and why’s it in the living room?”
Oney looked confused, possibly because Laney had failed to address any of the points of his campaign speech. He sipped his coffee and finally shrugged.
“I was digging in the west lot about a week ago,” he said. “Looking for that vein of blue shit Owens told us about.”
Morris Owens was the owner. He came out every couple month to check the inventory and wander the land. Laney and Oney picked up their pay checks general delivery in Carrizozo when they made their cash drops at the end of their stints.
“The blue shit,” Laney said. “Right.”
“Yeah. Hit on that buckle, thought it might be an old boiler collar. I don’t know. Dug it up, thinking maybe I could sell it for scrap metal.”
Oney looked genuinely pained for the first time. His face folded into a portrait of self-doubt and obscure misgivings, and for a moment he seemed on the verge of undermining himself entirely. Laney looked on, rapt.
“After I realized what it was I was afraid someone was gonna to steal it, damn thing, so I used the truck and a pulley to get it inside.” He looked at Laney. “S’like I fixated. Like the mental patients on daytime TV. Dr. Phil’s people.”
“Way fucked up.”
“You tried to sleep next to it last night. Anything happen to you? Nothing wrong with being afraid, boy. It’s a peculiar thing we got in there.”
Laney thought back on the long night and nodded.
“It freaked me out, Oney. Big time. But that might have been because the first time I saw it there was a half-naked hobo with a gun-”
“Stop!” Oney shouted. “God dammit! Can’t you see past your nose!”
Laney felt a surge of anger. “What I see-”
“Don’t you ever wonder about this place?” Oney interrupted, facing him now. “Why we get paid even though we almost never sell anything? What the hell did Owens think he was doing when he bought this old house and turned it into this idiot Rock Shack? And why the digging, eh? Answer me that!”
Laney cocked his head, amazed on two levels. First, Oney was a sneaky old bastard. He’d been thinking. It was possible that might not have been as drunk as he seemed last night: he may have indeed been engaged in some sort of awful Pentecostal meditation. And second, Oney was almost certainly right. It took the discovery of an enormous belt buckle to put a face on the lie- the Rock Shack was a front. He and Oney were tools in some kind of bizarre hunt for-
“Drink?” Oney asked, watching Laney’s face as he processed everything.
“What do we really know about Owens?” Laney asked. They were sitting in the living room drinking beer, the giant metal belt buckle between them. The door was open and a warm breeze blew through the house. The occasional car passed on the road but nobody stopped.
“I ain’t got much,” Oney answered. He sipped thoughtfully. “Met him about two years ago. I was working the Ruidoso Roundup. Hot dog stand. Card game on payday at this place out behind the Hungarian restaurant. Know that little trailer park? Ski bums camp out in the winter?” Laney shook his head. “Well, damn nice let me tell you what. Damn nice. Anyway, me an’ this guy Henry went out the one night after payday. Knew we’d get hustled we weren’t careful an’ damned we didn’t get hustled anyway. Owens was there losing money with the rest of us, just had more of it.”
Laney waited for him to continue. Oney seemed lost in thought, though he may have forgotten what he’d been talking about. Abruptly he continued, softer now, a Pall Mall whisper, like he was sneaking up on some new truth.
“Real queer now that I think on it. Henry cut out back to the camper an’ me an’ Owens split a bottle out by his truck. The big green Chevy. We got to talkin’ about prospecting. Gold. Mineral rights and silver and whatnot.” Oney eyes flicked to Laney, mere slits. “Talk went all the way round back to shovels.”
“Whatever.” Oney looked back out at the valley. “Owens tells me about this old time gangster found a great big ole’ gold coin out this way, built himself an empire. Got him interested in sand and rocks I guess. Crock o’ shit, two old drunks out in a parking lot, but now...” Oney shook his head and chuckled. “Asked me if I wanted a job and I said yes. Collecting pay ever since.”
Laney nodded. “I was digging ditches on a landscaping team outside White Sands. Gave me his card. Called him up and here I am.”
“He tell you about the gold coin? Any of that?”
Laney shook his head. “Nah. Just the shit about rocks.”
“Huh. Bet he thought I forgot. More likely he was testin’ me to make sure I never heard the same thing.” Oney drained his beer. “Fact is, I only seen him maybe a half dozen times since then. Looks at the rocks, sets out more stock. Never says much.”
“He’s always keen on digging, though. Always wants me to do a little more every month.”
“That he does,” Oney mused.
“Well shit. Let’s start with the obvious. You say the first time you met him you guys split a bottle in the parking lot and talked about this big coin and then he hires you. Flash forward and you find the big ass belt buckle. These events are related.”
“A great big gold coin.” Oney suddenly snapped his fingers. “I’ve got it! What if there were giant cowboys and Indians back in the day and we’ve got one of their belt buckles?”
Laney gave him a withering look. Oney smiled.
They sat in silence as the morning gradually heated up. Laney toyed with several ideas and gradually narrowed in on one.
“Whatever we’re out here looking for must be more valuable than a belt buckle, or else Owens would never have bought this land and started the Rock Shack. This house is older than the Rock Shack addition. If Owens has been looking for years he must have lived here at some point. I say we take the place apart and look for clues.”
“Right,” Oney said. “We look in the backs of the closets, under the sinks-”
“No,” Laney said. “I don’t think he would have left anything out here where we could find it. I say we crack open the floorboards, look around under the house, that kind of thing.”
“Right,” Oney replied. “I’ll poke around in the cabinets and in those old boxes in the rafters out in the shed. You root around under the house.”
They didn’t find anything.
“I say we call him and tell him we found a massive glass eye,” Laney suggested at last. They’d reconvened in the living room with the giant buckle to drink and do some serious thinking.
Oney choked on the beer he’d just opened.
“We’re in over our heads here Oney. Owens didn’t hire geologists to work out here. He didn’t even hire high school graduates. He hired a broken down Ruidoso hot dog jockey and me. Something out here is worth money and he knows it and now we do too. He’s banking that we won’t do anything right.”
“Fancy that,” Oney said after a long pause. He settled back thoughtfully. Laney sipped his beer and stared at the giant buckle. “Maybe you were right the first time. Let’s call him and give him that glass eye bit.”
Laney shook his head.
“Naw. We call him and tell him the truth. Only we lie just a little.”
“Mr. Owens?” Laney asked. He held the phone away from his head so Oney could hear.
“Uh, sir, this is Laney Bozeman out at the Rock Shack. Yeah, uh, I think we got a situation out here.”
“What is it?” Owens sounded impatient. He had a deep voice. Something in his tone reminded Laney of the manager at the McDonalds he’d worked at for a week.
“It’s Oney, sir. He’s gone crazy.” They could almost hear Owens’ eyebrows rise. Oney glanced at him uncertainly.
“How do you mean, Laney? Speak up.”
“Well, I got here last night and Oney was sitting on the couch in his underwear. Drunk. He’d found some sort of huge belt buckle out in the west lot and dragged it into the living room. Really screwed up the floor, sir.”
“I see. Where is Oney now?”
“Gone sir. Left this morning in a rage of some kind. Jabbering about god, frankly. I wanted to tell you as soon as I could but I spent all morning cleaning up. The bathroom-”
“Laney!” Owens interrupted. “Listen closely. I’ll be there in less than two hours. Leave the belt buckle or whatever it is alone. Don’t open up today or do any digging, just watch some TV, got it?”
“TV,” Laney repeated.
Owens hung up.
Oney hid his truck in the brush across the road and then they spent a solid hour arguing in a kind of panic. Oney wanted to hide in the bathroom with his gun. Laney thought the gun was a bad idea, especially after watching Oney steadily drain four beers while they talked.
“Look, just wait outside,” Laney said finally, mustering as much authority as he could. “Owens will be here any minute. Go sit in your truck. I’ll try to get him to open up. If I can’t we’ll think of something else. All we really need to do is see what happens after he sees the buckle. Then I hit him with the bad news; we know there’s something going on out here and he better tell us what the hell it is or we blow the whistle on this whole operation.”
“Sounds thin,” Oney said, but he was clearly beaten. Laney watched him walk out the front door and across the road. A minute later he heard the hidden truck door slam.
Laney looked down at the giant buckle and was quickly lost in thought. He never heard the silver Lexus purr to a stop on the road. He didn’t look up until the door closed behind him, and by then it was too late.
Laney started to turn just as an explosion went off behind his eyes. He fell to his knees and a crushing boot impact to his ribs knocked the wind out of him. He fell on to his side and stared up at the warping, spinning stucco ceiling. Owens’ heavy red face entered his frame of vision and smiled humorlessly. Laney groaned.
“Finally found something other than shiny little rocks, eh?” Owens studied the enormous belt buckle and then settled lightly on the arm of the sofa.
Owens was in his late fifties, tall and still in good shape, with big shoulders and a crew cut. He was wearing a beige sweat suit and desert boots. He looked down at one meaty hand with a few heavy rings and shook it lightly. In his other hand was a gun.
Laney touched the back of his head and his hand came away wet. Owens had nearly taken his head off.
“You hit me...” Laney trailed off. Owens took a nasal spray container from his pocket with his free hand and squirted a dose up each nostril. Somehow this casual personal act struck a deep note of fear in Laney. Owens was suffering none of the apprehension that usually went along with hitting someone and then pointing a gun at them. Quite the opposite; something about Laney seemed to bolster Owens’ self-confidence.
“Sorry son.” Owens gestured down at the buckle with the gun and then trained it on Laney. “Why don’t you show me the hole this thing left in the ground.”
A small, painful fire ignited in the pit of Laney’s stomach.
“Tell me about the buckle,” Laney prodded. “What’s the point of killing me over it?”
Owens followed him in silence.
“I won’t tell anyone,” Laney continued. “I can help, even.”
Owens didn’t answer. They walked silently across the west lot toward the buckle excavation site. Laney’s mind whirled. He could just picture Oney snoring in his truck, a warm beer slowly spilling on the seat next to him. They arrived at the lip of the big hole and stopped.
“Get in there, son,” Owens said behind him. Laney raised his arms above his head and slowly turned around. Owens narrowed his eyes.
“I won’t do it,” Laney said. “I won’t just hop down into my own grave. You’ll have to shoot me and kick me in.”
“Fine,” Owens said.
They stared at each other, and for the first time Laney really got a good look at Owens. Maybe because it was the end of his life, and Owens was the last person he was ever going to see, maybe it was the peyote he took that one time in Santa Fe with the hairy woman Eileen, maybe it was all of it together, but he felt like he could see what Owens was thinking. He could feel it.
“You don’t want to kill me,” Laney said slowly. “You aren’t the killing type. Whatever it is we’re doing out here, if it ends with me dead you’re gonna be haunted by it forever. You’re like me Owens. Deep down you’re a puss.”
Owens ground his molars. But he didn’t pull the trigger.
“I don’t ever want to kill anyone,” Laney gushed then, trying to better explain himself. “I like the world too much. People. Life. I’m a greedy man, just like you. But I want cold milk at two am, straight from the carton. Whiskey and a dance with a pretty girl on a Friday night. I want a good burger, all drippin’ and perfect and I wanna eat it in my truck lookin’ out over the Apache grasslands with the Doobie Brothers on the deck. I want to know the names of birds and make up my own just because. You want money or fame or I don’t know what, but we both want. An’ I mean big. We want real bad.”
“Jesus shit.” Owens lowered the gun a little. “You fuckin’ crazy?”
Owens lowered the gun a little more. “I can’t- I can’t gun down some hapless lunatic out here in the middle of nowhere.” He shook his head. “What would Martha say if she could see me now. I mean…” He trailed off and stared down into the buckle hole.
“I don’t know Martha but-”
“Shut up.” Owens pointed the gun at him again.
“Oney’s hiding out there somewhere. Probably has a gun on you right now.”
Owens frowned. “I don’t think so. Shut up and let me think here boy.”
Everything happened at once. Laney’s arm snapped out, pointing toward the horizon. Owens’ gun snapped up and he drew a bead on Laney’s forehead. At the same instant Oney lurched out of the brush with his gun raised, staring down the barrel through one bloodshot eye, swaying from side to side. He looked like he’d just woken up.
Owens swiveled his gun back and forth, unwilling to shot or uncertain who to shoot first. Finally he froze, his gun raised a little, nimble and ready but telegraphing that he was willing to perhaps not shoot anyone. Oney blew a drop of sweat off the tip of his bulbous nose and opened his second eye, his head low. His lips peeled back across his teeth in a feral grimace. He almost smiled as he pulled the trigger.
The gun clicked. There was an instant where no one moved and then Oney turned the gun sideways and stared at it in confusion. The safety was on.
“Shit,” Laney said.
“Drop it!” Owens bellowed, swerving the gun over to Oney. Oney threw the gun down in disgust and raised his hands. “Get over there with Laney.”
Oney stumbled over and together they stood at the lip of the hole. Owens was silent for a full five minutes, holding the gun on them and thinking things over. Oney stared out at the desert with an inscrutable expression, half drunk and swaying a little. Laney’s legs were trembling but he did his best to remain manfully upright. It occurred to him that he might go out of the world as he had come in; screaming, confused and with a full bladder.
“Your nut job buddy was going on about killing,” Owens began, addressing Oney. “He had-”
“Ain’t my buddy,” Oney interrupted. He spat in the sand and glared at them both.
Owens rolled his eyes. “Right. Now listen. If what I think is out here is really here, you boys help me dig it up and I’ll give you a cut.”
“What is it?” Laney asked.
“How much?” Oney tried to focus. “We talkin’ cash right?”
Laney and Oney looked at each other, then back at Owens.
“You boys ever notice anything odd about this place?” Owens already knew the answer. “Course you did. The cars that stop by. Let’s start there. Any of them look like- like they don’t belong? The old Ramblers? The Hudsons?”
Laney considered. Some of the cars that rolled by really were old. He thought there might be a religious community out there somewhere. Like the Amish, but way into the old crap of the last century instead of the century before that. And the tourists from Wisconsin or wherever, the Leave It To Beaver people. They were all strange.
“The television,” Owens continued. “The old movies. The old commercials?”
“They ain’t part of the program?” Laney was struck with wonder. The old Tide commercials. Sears adds for Jetson’s-style blenders and fancy egg beaters. Hair tonics at Macy’s. Adds for movies as old as the movies they were showing. He thought it was all part of the programming package.
“You sayin’…” Oney cocked his head. “What the hell you sayin’?”
“This valley is, like, a crease in the fabric of everything. Has been forever. This is part of El Dorado.”
“The City of Gold?” Laney almost laughed. He would have, but Oney beat him to it. The old cowboy bellowed out a huge belly laugh and clapped his hand on his knee.
“This- this ain’t a city,” Oney managed. “The Rock Shack ain’t even a business, and the house- piece a shit- I can’t even-” and then he was just laughing and snorting and gasping with the occasional belch. Owens scowled imperiously and then, gradually, he began to smile. Then he was laughing too. Laney was still stunned about the old movies, but the laughter finally lightened him up.
Owens shook his head, still smiling. “I spent more’n ten years researching this place. Everyone thinks the same thing. Valley of Fires is a wasteland. And that’s good.” Onews started pacing, talking slowly. This was clearly the first time he’d ever told anyone what he was about to tell them. “El Dorado is the city you build afteryou find the Valley of Fires. Trabuco bred gold out here. Before him Francisco Coronado did the same thing. While back a gangster named Bugsy Seigel found out about the place from Earnest and Ova Noss, they were farming gold out here in the 30’s. Earnest was good at it, best of ‘em all. Probably his belt buckle you found, poor soul. Anyway, it was Seigel built the last El Dorado in Nevada. Town already had a name. Las Vegas.”
Once everyone calmed down, they went back to the house. Owens had a cooler full of beer and a bag of burritos from Taco’s Tamales in Carrizozo, a place strangely named because their burritos were the best thing on the menu. They ate and drank. It was late afternoon and the cool shade on the porch felt good. Laney enjoyed his burrito, the pork and green chili he got whenever he went there, and eating it, he felt like he had more in common with Owens every minute.
“I don’t get any of this,” Laney said. “Not really.”
“Surprise surprise,” Oney said, glowering over his bean and cheese. Laney lowered his burritos.
“Do tell Oney.”
Oney shook his head. Owens wiped his hands on his pants and cracked another beer.
“Time and space are connected,” Owens said. “You boys seen Star Trek right? Same thing. See, time flows funny out here. Explains the TV. The old cars full of families been dead for decades. Bermuda Triangle kinda thing, but different. Veins of some kinda strange ore run through here and it bend things. Metal shrinks, some places it grows. Time warps along the same lines.”
“Explains everything,” Laney said.
Owens nodded. “I first noticed it when I was out here with my late wife Martha. She loved fossils, Martha did. Old rocks of any kind. Anyway we were out here an’ I’ll be damned but I found a really small Edsel hub cap. Size of a penny. Martha thought it came from a toy but I knew better.”
Owens got up and went to the window. “I became obsessed. Came out here again and again. Found gears the size of a grain of sand. One time I found a roofing nail that was seven feet long.” He shook his head. “Always metal. Never could figure out why some of it shrank with time and some of it grew big, but other people did. And I finally found the trail of one of ‘em. Used to be a ranger station about thirty miles up at the edge of the Valley of Fires back before Regan gutted the park service and an old guy there told me Bugsy came out this way now and again. Benjamin Bugsy Siegel. Used to stop in and smoke a cigar. Told me the Vegas mob came out a few times after Bugsy died. So I looked into it. Turned up that story about the coin. Little more research and I’ll be damned if I didn’t find that Seigel knew Earnest and Ova Noss, and they were famous for their secret gold stash. That secret died with ‘em too, shortly after they met Bugsy Seigel. Little math, little map work, handful of clues. And two guys with shovels and nothin’ better to do and’ here we are.”
Owens stopped talking then. It had been a long hunt for him. This obsession had taken something from him, something he probably needed for everything else in his life. He seemed hollow to Laney right then, almost as if the light from the window was going through him.
“Police had a ton of interviews with Bugsy. Surveillance transcripts, you name it. Found what I was looking for in one of ‘em too. It was the one time he ever talked about the legend that he found a gold casino token out in the desert. Wasn’t a casino token, had to be an old Spanish coin, maybe some kinda gold Indian trinket, but when an undercover cop asked him why he didn’t go get another one so he could pay off his debts, you know what he said? ‘I killed the guy I was with so I could always go get more.’ June 4th, 1945 Los Angeles County Police transcript. Thought it was nothing ‘cause they were talking bullshit, trying to get him around to talking about a different murder. He was talking about Earnest Noss. That was just before he went on a spend spree of a strange kind, like he had all the money in the world because he knew were to get more. Clever man, that Bugsy. But cocky. Crazy. Hence the nickname.” Owens turned around. “They killed him before he could get flush again. He was out here looking for a lost fortune that he knewwas here. He was banking on it with his life but he ran out of time. Now, what the hell could that mean? Think it through.”
Laney put it together first. The giant belt buckle belonged to the man Benjamin Bugsy Seigel killed out here. It had grown through time because Seigel knew where to leave it. In the same place he found the giant gold coin. “Means Noss, the guy he came out here with, was wearing a gold wedding ring.”
Owens winked at him. “Bingo.”
Just before sundown they found the edge of the ring sticking out of the sand about a hundred feet southwest of the belt buckle hole. It looked like a weathered ribbon of ancient fender. Somewhere out there was a giant spent bullet too, but that wasn’t what they were looking for. Without a word, all three men began to dig. Around midnight they used Owens’ truck to drag it up behind the Rock Shack. The ring was five feet tall and none of them could even guess what it weighed. It was a strangely grim affair. All three knew it would change them and it was hard to tell how after the guns and the yelling and the story of a mad Vegas scumbag.
Oney left and returned just before sunset with a plasma cutter rented from Jesus Truck Repair in Ruidoso. In the quiet desert night Laney and Oney put on the heavy welding masks and sliced the ring into three pieces while Owens talked to himself and paced. They used a pulley system to leverage the segments into their pick-up trucks, then covered them over with tarps.
Owens was asleep in the chair by the giant belt buckle when they went back into the house. Oney and Laney looked at him and then stepped out onto the porch.
The night sky was full of stars. An owl hooted in the distance. A cool breeze was blowing down from the mountains.
Oney nodded at Laney once, patted him of the shoulder and without a word started his pick-up and left. Laney watched the low sprung truck turn on to the road and fade into the distance, headed west. He went back into the house when the lights disappeared. Owens was still asleep. Apparently Oney didn’t care what happened to him and had left it up to Laney.
Laney shrugged to himself. He didn’t really care either. The man’s pacing and eerie conversation with himself, full of conviction, had put Laney off. He walked back out into the night, took one last look at the Rock Shack and then drove away, headed east. Just shy of Carrizozo he put in his Doobie Brother tape.
Laney never saw either of them again. The Rock Shack had burned down when he drove past a few years later and it didn’t look like anyone was going to rebuild. An old pal from White Sands finally told him he’d seen Owens in Reno. He’d been playing ten cent bingo. People said he was a curiously bitter man. Cheap, even though he lived in a big house and drove a new car. The gold had left him empty, as if the looking had filled him up and finding it collapsed him into something miserly and small. The last work Owens would ever do was keep his hoard. He was dead set on staying rich, even if it cost him everything else.
As for Harrold Oney, he heard a story in a bar one night about a man who purchased a Nevada whore house with gold and drank it all away. He assumed if it was true it must be Oney. He spent the rest of the night listening to stories, and after a little while he forgot about Oney and Owens and he played a few games of pool. The next morning, Laney Bozeman looked out over the Apache grassland valley south of him as he drove west on Interstate 70. Far in the distance, alongside the shimmering ribbon of some nameless reservoir on the valley floor, a truck kicked up a slow plume of reddish dust. The evening sun turned the trickle of water into a miniature river of electricity and traced the cracks in his windshield with gold. It was the kind of gold he was after, the kind he’d told Owens about.
As for Laney, for want of anything better to do he used some of his gold and started up a small chain of grocery stores called ‘Laney’s’. He modeled them after the nice one he’d worked at one summer in Santa Fe. His were a little different, he thought. A little better. Each one had a rocking horse out front for the kids to play on while their parents were shopping, and they had oranges in winter and a good assortment of beer. Laney’s did OK.
-< A note on I Shop At Laney’s >-
Years ago now my old pal Chico and I decided to rent a car and drive from Portland Oregon to Roswell New Mexico. I was married to an Italian hippy woman (still good friends to this day) who didn’t want to go and I think Chico was single, so it was just us, a two dudes and a fast car and a map. After stopping in Albuquerque we finally did make it to Roswell, in a drive that took maybe 26 hours. Great place to visit, but when we struck out into the wild desert and grasslands on our leisurely, meandering return we came across a place just like The Rock Shack at the lonely edge of The Valleys of Fire. There was even a shifty old cowboy working there. I have many fond memories of that trip. If you ever get out that way, hit Santa Fe and Taos, skip Albuquerque (maybe get a Blake’s Lottaburger) and then take the long way to Roswell. Good food, great people, and stunning scenery. I have a clear, vibrant memory of looking out over the valleys below Ruidoso- the endless swaying emerald grass, and so far below it appeared to be a ribbon of gold light was a stream with a dusty road alongside it, a toy of a pick up truck traveling along it, and beyond all that was a huge sky at sunset, blown a clean cornflower blue except for one gauzy band of orange and cotton candy pink. If you go, you might luck out like I did and catch a fleeting glimpse of something so beautiful you’ll remember it for the rest of your life. Cheers, -JJ
FREE SHORT STORY OF THE MONTH for April!
This is from the introduction of a cooking and general food document that’s been amassing on my computer. Right after is the recipe for Green Chili Sweet Potato Stew! Enjoy and be groovy.
Tacos and SpaceTime Dimples
by Jeff Johnson
I was never fascinated with food in the way a chef might be, not really, but for as long as I can remember its always been something I wanted to learn more about. When I cook at home, and I do every day, just as you do, I like the way the smells change and the house changes as it does. Baking transforms a place slowly. Braising, stewing. You understand. Those smells build and complicate and grow rich, and as they do, so does the appetite. That’s the part I actually love. All this began at a young age, far before the dawn of Food Porn and celebrity chefs, or even the popular use of the dipshit yuppie quasi-word ‘foodie’. There are three or four culinary windows that opened and stayed open, times when a sudden jump in awareness came. I still have them from time to time, as I did recently in Japan when I was eating noodles at this steamy little place in Shinjuku. I can remember it like it happened yesterday- the broth, the intense faces, the muted kitchen clamor, the textures and temperatures. But here are my foundation blocks in food appreciation, the ones that informed all that were to come after.
When I was five, my family moved to Houston. My late father was a food technologist. That, I gather, is the dude who invents clever ways to mislead you about the disgusting poisons in a bag of Doritos, or the actual amount of real fish in a frozen fish stick. He was curious about food, and in some ways I suppose I was mildly curious about why he was so curious about it. Houston is where I had my first bursting, dripping, greasy trailer hoagie, where the adventure began for the human being that was to grow into the person writing this.
“This will be like nothing you have ever eaten before,” my father informed my brothers and me. I’ll never forget Houston Hoagie Day. The place was almost a drive through made from the front end of a single wide trailer, very run down, with garage sale signage spray painted on weathered plywood. I have a vague impression that my brothers were worried by all this, but I was instantly captivated by the black man running the show. He was huge. He was sweaty. He was filthy. And he was happy, laughing with great joy as he worked the window. He had giant hands and the presence of a retired gladiator or an old bandstand leader, something magnetic and showy, toned down to smooth in the homey environs. There was a small area with a couple of picnic tables between the parking lot and hoagie joint, and those tables were packed, so I assumed we would be eating in the car. My dad ordered and then we took the big white bag around the side, where there was a weedy lot filled with a ramshackle collection of many more tables. We were the only white people, but no one made anything of it. We sat down and ate and, amazingly, it was like nothing I had ever had before. He was right! That didn’t happen all the time. I remember being impressed then. Peppers, caramelized onions, garlicy beef, oozing cheese, chopped tomatoes, and a great big spicy pickle running the length of the top of the hoagie bun, warmed by the steamy contents. It was hot as a bastard that day, but nobody cared. Wicked.
The daily art begins. Everything was to be compared to that in some way from then on. It wasn’t just the hoagie either. It was the ambience. That hoagies position in space/time. What, to make an analogy, is the true size of a city? Take Cleveland. I’ve been there but I don’t really remember it, just passing through, but had I stopped? Lived there for a few months or a year? It would have been bigger than the urban patch I passed through. Family histories, brake and tire empires come and gone, parks and their names and who got laid in their parking lots, movie theaters that burned down and nightclubs where Tears For Fears dingbats bought coke in 1989. That’s a huge place when you know a little more about it. The Houston Hoagie was the same. For a moment, I felt as though I intersected with its gravitational dimple. It changed my trajectory.
Touchstone number one had been established. The soul food of Houston. Next up was LA. Los Angeles, The City of Angels. There, my old man took a job managing a tortilla factory, jumping boldly from the lab to the front office. Through the people who worked for him, mostly hard-working illegal immigrants, I became acquainted with one of the many varieties of Mexican food. It became a part of our daily lives in that he talked about it all the time and we ate it on the weekends when we went with him to the factory. He married an absolute zero on every scale Hungarian woman and through her I also developed a disdainful familiarity with Eastern European fried objects and pastel pastes, boiled white things and soft, gutty shits that featured beets and chicken bone scrag. For me, that time was naturally all about the Mexican food.
Touchstone number two. East LA factory worker cuisine. My dad and I went by this little hole in the wall taqueria one day for lunch and when the teenage waitress came around, I noticed she had hairy legs. She was the first woman I ever dreamt about, so I guess I was ten or eleven. I never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever had that reaction to hairy legged women again, but I did that time, and that wildly horny imagery became tangled in my soul with the tacos I consumed that afternoon, the small, double corn soft tortilla ones, some with smoky pastor, some with shredded beef and white onion and cilantro, with a side of crunchy potato and beef taquitos. The dark red hot sauce that came out of sticky squeeze bottles I generally associated with mustard or ketchup... Holy shit. How could I not love tacos forever?
Things get tangled in the mind at all ages. We get better at unraveling the knots (hopefully, and some people place no emphasis on this), but that woman and the tacos, that crappy little place, Somehow, in my pubescent mind, I sensed the design ancestry of the food in a vivid waking dream. I imagined an old woman made the proteins, stewing them in a cauldron in back. There were men in involved, and they were either wise and frail old Mexican cowboys or oppressive truck drivers with moustaches. She had brothers, pieces of shit all. She had a pink uniform, and in my mind it came from a donut shop and wasn’t even hers. Zepplin was playing on a radio in the kitchen, and then Journey, and I don’t think they liked it. She had a fleck of lime green cake icing on the corner of her mouth, her greatest mystery. The story behind that icing was the story of Helen, the Tale of Ginji, all of it. Tacos=Love=Mystery. TLM=MC2
Touchstone number three came with the move to Albuquerque, New Mexico. Like the bean pickers of old, food technologists are a migratory lot. I was paying closer attention by then, as I was entering middle school, mid-puberty, and I was acutely conscious of everything. The green chili entered my life, and it remains a dietary regular. At that time I also developed a lasting low-grade phobia of processed food. Stories in space/time, once again. My father managed a factory that made tortillas once again, but that place also made frozen tamales. He often bragged that the prison system got tamales several grades above the ones they made for the public school system. Raw news. But the heavy-duty hell no forever on processed food was epic.
Espionage and food technology are seldom in the same sentence, so allow me to indulge myself beyond what I’m already indulging in. The New Mexico factory had four corn silos, each about the size of an upright school bus. The corn was processed into tamale mulch. When one of the workers discovered weevils, everyone freaked out. The FDA protocol was to empty all the silos and sell the corn to hog farmers, clean the silos at great cost, have them inspected, and then finally fill them again. It would be a giant financial loss. My dad reported to his bosses at the parent corporation in New York or Chicago or wherever they were (Central Soya, traded on the stock exchange at that time), and they told him to do nothing, to tell no one. A man would come.
The man who came had no name. He came straight from the airport with a small metal briefcase. My dad watched as the guy took a small bottle from the case, tucked his tie into his dress shirt, and climbed each silo in his expensive suit at dawn and poured a single dose, no more that one fluid ounce, into each silo. Done, he packed everything back up and told my father to have two illegal workers shovel out the weevils that would rise to the top of the corn. They would form a thick layer, all dead, in 24 hours. He was then to give each worker 100 dollars in cash and fire them. He was to never speak of this. The man left. So it was that convicts, school kids, and everyone in between ate tamales laced with some kind of undetectable super toxin. Gnarly, right?
Last up Portland, Oregon. The City of Roses. This is a food town, and I moved here with my punk/grunge/industrial band from Albuquerque. I left, came back, left again, etc, but somewhere in there, before I became a tattoo artist, I worked at The Cajun Café. Upscale, with a guest chef every month for months on end, it was a grueling experience that cemented together my fractured food notions. The stakes were high and so was I, but the lessons I learned there brought so much into focus that would have otherwise remained vague and undigested. How to make a good stock. Why we stuff birds. The real value of herbs and the importance of timing when using them. How flavors marry and why. How to debone a salmon, how to ferment buttermilk and capers. What pomegranate does to beef and why. The versatility of the anchovy. Even the proper way to blanch a tomato is important in the end. No education is wasted, but food education is precious. Priceless.
These days I write novels, and of course all of my characters cook. Just like me and just like you. They make a mélange of the dishes I make. Gelson Verber tends to Creole, Deadbomb Bingo Ray and Scamander Skuggy Brown a French/Soul fusion, and Darby Holland and Delia the punk interpretation of New Mexico street vendor with a liberal dash of Willamette Valley wine country food snob. Food is the daily art we all perform, and they’re no exception. How well we do it is a measure of how well we’re doing at life itself. For me it is anyway. Oscar Wilde wrote that food nourishes the body, but good food nourishes the soul. Dudeboy was right. The greatest work of art is our own life, to be view in retrospect by one, the person who lived it, at its conclusion. Lifespan Art. Food is the punctuation of that story. It is the gesso of that painting. It is the drumbeat of that hopefully long and harmonious rock opera. It breathes grammar and light into life itself. Food can even bring a vital humanity to the characters in a gritty noir novel.
It’s that potent. So enjoy! I hope cooking leads to stories for you as it has for me, and the exploration of those stories to adventures you might not have had, to the unlocking of doors you didn’t even know were there, to love good and bad, to accidental victory, the richness of defeats you can smile about in artistic hindsight, to triumphant embarrassment and even to secrets- to all the ingredients of a life well crafted.
Green Chili Sweet Potato Stew
This is a hybrid concept that went through many permutations before I settled on a semi-classic approach. Of special note, this makes the entire house smell fantastic. Serves 4 with a side dish- recommended accompaniment is arugula salad with a watermelon reduction dressing (reduce ½ cup of fresh squeezed watermelon juice in sauce pan, add olive oil, cool in ceramic bowl) and rosemary tortillas. Tortillas are easy to make (see youtube) and adding rosemary to them is a snap!
1 lb stew meat, lamb or beef
1 big ass sweet potato, chopped
1 big russet potato, chopped
1 shallot, diced
4 cloves garlic, diced
2 cans whole green chili
1 teaspoon cumin seed
1 strip bacon, diced
½ cup flour
Put stew meat in paper bag, add flour, ground pepper, dash of salt. Coat protein evenly and set aside.
In stew pot at medium heat, start with cumin seeds. When smoking slightly and a rich cumin smell blooms (NOT BURNING SMOKE) add diced strip of bacon and diced shallot. Stir. Add diced garlic when mix begins to brown.
Next, add stew meat. Do not remove fat. It isn’t that much. Stir. Let brown, stirring periodically.
Add diced green chili. NOTE. Like tomatoes, green chili follows the rules of processing. The finest quality makes it through the blanching process, ie whole tomatoes or whole green chili are the best. Diced in all cases are the product that fell apart. Use whole, dice yourself.
Add three pints of water. Beef stock can be good here too but its sometimes overkill. I use water.
Stew for one hour.
Add sweet potato and russet, diced to sugar cube size (maximum fluid coverage size). Stew 40 minutes STIRRING GENTLY and infrequently (the sweet potato will fall apart). Salt to taste.
Like ossobuco, the flavors marry overnight and this is magnificent reheated (On A Stove Like A Civilized Person) the next day.
March! Been a little while since I’ve put up a new free short story. I’ve been in Japan. I’ve been in LA. I’ve been all over the place, and The Kinjiku is just about to hatch. So late, here is Root, Storm, The Wind, an appropriate sort of thing considering. I wrote this some years ago now (4) entirely in a notebook that I only took with me when I was going to be on a bus, in a cab, on a train, or on a plane. This is a story of dual transition written entirely in transit. I don’t know if scribbling away on bumpy rides made any difference, but I like this one and its a little more special to me because of the how part of the process.
Root, Storm, The Wind
By Jeff Johnson
When I first met Guillermo Francisco Javier Munez, he was lying on his back in his driveway in a misting rain on a September morning, elbow deep in the underside innards of his car door. The car was an old station wagon, made mostly from whatever people packed into the gaping holes left by rust. The rest of it was rust with less bite. The rear bumper was held on by an old brown extension cord, and the tags had expired almost a decade ago. Guillermo himself was in his essence much the same. He was a fattish Mexican man, wearing a medium sized tee shirt and jeans, both of which might never have seen the inside of a washing machine, or even the wash basins that hailed from the same period as his car and his clothes. His unlaced construction boots were spattered with a bizarre collection of off-colored, remaindered paints and what could only have been refried beans. He was by far the most disgusting person I have ever met. I still think of him that way.
When he’d moved into the weedy one bedroom rental across the street two days before, a small fleet of ancient pick up trucks driven by the employees of the lowest sort of carnival unloaded his furniture. A green motel lobby sofa, a lumpy and discolored mattress with out box or frame, a dozen bar supply boxes brimming with easy to pillage surface items from a small town dump, and a single freestanding lamp with a sombrero for a shade. There was also a newish wheel barrel, itself carefully antiqued with grime, a broken wooden ladder that fell apart in the tall grass and was still there, a trash bag full of escaping Styrofoam beads, and cardboard box with a live chicken or two. When the parade got to the birds, I’d closed the blinds.
“Little help,” Guillermo grunted. His first words to me, seared forever in my memory. In the history of language, no statement was ever more complex, in ways I’m still understanding, even after five years, and more than ten long miles for every one of those days.
I was standing at the end of my driveway, collecting the mail from the box. I turned and looked around. He was evidently talking to me.
“Door’s fixing to fall off,” he continued, strained. He made a heaving noise. “I need a bigger screwdriver or some pliers. Red tool kit.”
The rest of the neighborhood was in the quiet stillness after a birdless dawn. The streetlights had just flickered off. His voice was a foghorn in the amplified quietude. He twisted his head and a single bulging eye appeared under the car door, aimed at me. The wide eye blinked in childlike expectation.
“I can see you lady,” he continued, close to petulant. “This thing is heavy.”
I reluctantly crossed the street. There was a battered aluminum crate with a few flakes of red paint on it a few feet from him. It looked like something that might have fallen out of an airplane, back when airplanes were new to the world, and then been falling off trucks and mules and the odd camel ever since. I looked in, keeping my clean mail tucked to my chest protectively close. A box of sandwich bags, some spark plugs, a butter knife and most of a jar of pickles. The assorted jumble of tools in the darkness at the bottom were the bent ancestral prototypes of the imitation hardware selection at the Dollar Store.
“I don’t see a screwdriver,” I said. He huffed, disgusted with me. The abrupt turnaround flared my nostrils.
“Looks just like a butter knife. Jesus.”
He extracted one brown arm and held out his filthy hand. I reached into the crate and took out the butter knife with my fingertips. It was greasy to the touch. When it was in reach he grabbed it and jammed it into something he was straining to see.
“Fixing cars is like fixing a mixed drink,” he said, grunting before and after the proclamation.
“I wouldn’t know,” I replied.
“Yeah. Total waste of time.”
There was a sound of grinding metal and then a loud pop. He scooted out from underneath the door and sat up, tossed the butter knife back in the box.
“There,” he said. “Properly broken once and for all.” He looked up at me and squinted. “Guillermo Munez.”
“I live across the street, Mr. Munez,” I said, getting ready to lecture him about his lawn. His house had been the neighborhood’s eye sore for years, but there was a slim chance that a man who would attempt to fix a car door with a butter knife might have more wherewithal that the previous lunatic tenants. “My name is Martha Wood. I’d like to take this opportunity to-“
“We can skip the welcome wagon bit, Martha. My grandfather had a green card. I have an expired Texas driver’s license, and I’m not a gardener.” He got up and slammed the car door, then played the handle. The door would evidently never open again. Satisfied, he turned back to me. His eyes were the color of unglazed clay.
“I wanted to take this opportunity to-“
“Coffee?” he asked brightly.
“No, thank you.” I felt my cheeks flush.
“No, I mean do you have any coffee. Can’t find my filters. I was gonna use a paper towel, but…” He shrugged.
“I…” I was stunned. Guillermo Munez took a flattened pack of Kools out of the breast pocket of his tee shirt and lit one with a kitchen match he ripped into flame on the seat of his pants.
“I can just wait out front if you don’t like smoking inside.” He exhaled through his nostrils and grinned. Something in the expression didn’t for a moment make me think about television, or even newspaper rumors of horror. It made me think of dogs.
I turned around and walked back across the street. Halfway up my driveway I realized he was following me.
“Nice yard Martha,” he said in a jovial way. “Mine looks like the landlord just couldn’t be bothered. That’s probably a good thing.”
I almost turned and started yelling right then, but he’d given me an opening.
“Yes, your landlord,” I said dryly, still walking. “He used to be an assistant insurance adjuster, which is to say a low form of criminal. But he’s mostly an inheritor, so I’ve always believed that his alleged occupation was a cover for that peculiar variety of embarrassment. He spends most of his time in some kind of retirement resort in Mexico and makes up for the shame of it all by riding expensive motorcycles.”
“He seemed nice enough on the phone,” Guillermo said. “But then a guy like that would. I guess.”
“Mnn.” We were almost up the drive. “I hope you intend to be the better man and clean up the place. You might have noticed that it’s by far the worst house on the block.”
We got to my steps and I turned. He held up his flat cigarette.
“I’m betting you’re not a smoker,” he said.
“Please have a seat on the porch here and I’ll bring some coffee out.” I gestured widely. My porch was a treasured thing to me, with every Eames chair set just so, the potted ferns just right, the miniatures of maple and spruce almost bonsai, but not quite, as I preferred the gentleness of tropism over flagrant topiary.
“I can smell it from here,” he proclaimed.
I went inside while he made himself comfortable on the porch swing rather than one of the chairs. Somehow that powerfully irritated me. Tibbits was sleeping on the couch, curled in a ball the way cats do when they’re even a little cold. She wouldn’t move until it was time to do Crossword. I went past her into the kitchen and got down a second cup. The coffee in mine had cooled a full five degrees during the idiot exchange, so I poured it out and filled both. When I got outside with them I stopped. Guillermo Munez was gently swaying back and forth. His eyes were closed and his cigarette was burning away between his fingers. It looked like he was sleeping.
I’ve witnessed many kinds of transformation. No matter the subject, it was always jarring in some way. In a day, even as a very private person, it was inescapably everywhere, on every scale. The rising and setting of the sun, the moments between rest and its opposite, the slow boil of water, from breeze to still, rain to not. And the passage of time, so slow, on my face and hands, the decade long settling of a spectrum of moods into the milky layers of identity… And every change, no matter its nature or magnitude, was a step on some winding road to nowhere.
At rest, Guillermo Munez had the face of a worried but clueless orphan. His whiskered jowls looked like a rash on a giant infant, his big hands, with their grease impacted nails, things best suited for no job at all. The variety of lost, however, struck me as a singular form of aura. He projected powerfully the absence of power, a dichotomy perhaps only dreamed of by the most obscure of failed philosophers.
I cleared my throat and his eyes opened. He licked his lips and smiled, all the way into his eyebrows.
“Porcelain.” He clucked and hunkered forward to take the cup I offered. When he sipped, he bubbled the coffee through his lips and over his tongue and inhaled, a perversion I thought restricted to Frenchmen. “Yummy.”
The coffee was delivered by mail. Everything was always delivered. I settled lightly into a wicker chair and watched as he took another sip, another incredibly glandular, loud, throaty ordeal that ended in a rosy smack. A tiny burp escaped. He leaned back and inhaled deeply the steam rising from the cup, then tossed an arm over the back of the swing and leaned far back enough to see up past the edge of the roof.
“Sky has Missouri in it,” he observed casually. “Parts of Oklahoma.” Then he yawned.
“Is that where you learned about cars?” I asked. I sipped my coffee. Banter was a skill I’d shelved with bicycle riding.
“Some,” he replied affably. “But what I mostly learned in both them places was that I liked the food as much as the company.”
“I see. Or rather, I don’t.”
Guillermo Munez shrugged. “You can go places you never even thought about not going if you don’t try hard enough.”
That made me smile.
“Oh yeah,” he went on, encouraged. “I was a storm chaser there for awhile. Real hound. Bad blow, say a hurricane or a whip whistle, wreck up some country and tear trees up by the roots, a day later there I would be. Chain saw, my wheel barrel, some tools. People’d give up the gas out of their own tanks to the man who could get a tree off their house and throw up a tarp until the big boys could get in. I did fences, too. So I’ve seen the country.”
“Fascinating,” I lied. “What brings you to New Haven? More specifically, to the house across the street?”
Guillermo Munez’s face darkened a little. A long form of tired touched the deep wrinkles around his eyes. The edges of his mouth turned down with something like shame, a rare wilt that might have come from sickness, or the kind of sorrow that had the leeching quality of change. He looked down into his coffee, past the cup and into the middle chapters of the novel that was his life.
“I don’t even know,” he confessed. “I’m from Monterey originally, but I left… ah, years and years ago. Wandering is a gift of mine. Sort of crappy thing to have a talent for, really. Anyway, a month ago I was outside of Tulsa. Working the wire around some great big storage sheds. I dunno, I looked up and I stared out at all that flat nothing, the little mirage thingies dancing way out there over all that red dirt… And then I looked up at that sky, just an empty wrong side of blue oblivion, and then I looked over at this guy Paco I was with. He was stretching the wire, way back on his heels, and just frozen like that, waiting on my staple peg.”
Guillermo grimaced, but not in a harsh way. More like he was looking at a puzzle, or an instruction manual. ‘See, some time back, my roots crawled out from underneath my tree. A man has choices when he has no roots. You grow new ones, which now, a long time later, strikes me as the harder thing, so most likely the smarter. But Martha, and I tell you, this is true, people all have long years or short ones. By short, I mean that not a damn thing changes and every Tuesday is just like last January. Now some, and I’m one of them, have years as long as a long song without one real man in the band. Just an endless, rambling choir in Chinese. You know all that about dog years? People say that old Chihuahua is two hundred in people years? Well, in something like the same way I’m cleaning up from my birthday. I turned the true one thousand watching Paco stretch the wire.” And then he was quiet.
I smelled my own coffee. The confessions of a grotesque stranger should have been more off putting, but for some reason the campfire tone of his voice, and his perspective on long time and distant sky, all conspired to capture a fraction of my interest. It was also one of the longer conversations I’d had in some years, and I found myself enjoying it.
“So the house,” I prompted. He nodded and scratched at his whiskers.
` “Houses, Martha, can give a tired old vaquero hope. And I am tired. Can’t say what kind of root my digging in the underside of that place across the street will uncover, but this coffee and a woman with a sad smile strikes me as an omen.”
“Ah.” I smiled a different smile in earnest at the curious insult. “And what makes you think my smile is sad, Mr. Munez?”
He cocked his head and the corner of his mouth curled. It was the look you gave someone who was crazy, but not in a dangerous way.
“Nah,” he said, dismissive. “My people skills are half baked in a toy oven these days. Part of all that walking was getting lost. I see what I see, but most the time these days, I just don’t know.”
“The coffee isn’t free,” I prompted. “A refill for your thoughts.”
“Cost you more than that,” he said agreeably. “How about eggs. Or a muffin. Even a vitamin with some jelly on it.”
“Sit right there,” I said. “I have just the thing.”
I wanted to hear more of his curious idiocy. In fact, something about my first true visitor in years was exactly as I’d hoped it might be. Guillermo Munez was the wandering fool, as foreign as any domesticated Mexican I could hope to meet. In that way, he was something both more and less than human, which made him both entertaining and impossible to take seriously. In short, a perfect and unexpected distraction.
I took the apple pie I’d baked the day before out of the refrigerator and plated a generous slice. Then I put a fork on the plate, took up the coffee pot, and carried it all back out. Guillermo was still awake, staring at the sky again. He focused on me at the sound of the screen door closing behind me.
“Apple pie,” I said. I handed it to him and he took it like it was gold. He sniffed it like an excited boar while I refilled our coffee cups.
“Pie and coffee,” he said joyously. “Like I’d died and gone someplace worth going after all.” He took a surprisingly small bite, and more astonishing still, chewed with his mouth closed.
‘You were talking about my smile,” I prompted. He nodded and swallowed.
“Yes. I’ll let you have it both barrels, Martha. Your smile is sad. It is. So is your hair and so are your eyes. I know a thing or two about women, mostly the kind of thing that a man gets beaten into him, true, but I know them. You have some kind of something that’s more than sad going on. I don’t know what. But you do.” He gestured with his fork, at the yard, at my porch.
“All this,” he continued, “it isn’t even you. I can tell, just like I can tell a storm is coming, like I can tell that you made this pie instead of bought it. This is your hotel room. I don’t know what you’re waiting for, but my guess is that it isn’t coming and you know it.” He took another bite.
“I… that wasn’t quite what I was expecting, sir.” I didn’t know what to say. Part of me wanted to tell him something, the kind of thing you could only share with a stranger, but somehow, I realized, we’d crossed the line between strangers and something else with his very first words.
“Bet you wish you gave me a smaller piece of pie,” he said, smiling. I sipped my coffee and cleared my throat.
“I’m not very full of wishes, Mr. Munez,” I lied. He harrumphed and kept on eating.
A long moment passed. I glanced up to see what he’d been looking at as I came out. The morning sky was dark with the promise of rain, but he’d been right about it’s character. The clouds looked fast and angry, swollen low, and with a turbulence deep inside them, where skirts of black satin swirled and billowed in a dance in a dark room. It framed a question for me.
“So, Mr. Munez,” I continued. “If you have so much to guess about women and the sky both, you must be something of an armchair theorist. In a generalized way, of course.”
“Best kind,” he agreed. He took another snorting, gurgling, pallet-encompassing taste of coffee.
“Well then, my rebuttal is this. If any of your conjecture were true, and that here in my hotel sanatorium, where I wait for the sake of waiting with sad hair, then you must at least sympathize with my point of view. Which is your house.”
“I could see that coming a mile away,” he said. Most of his pie was gone. “Eternal yard work, a paint job I’ll never get paid for, God know what else, probably azaleas, and all for one breakfast pie and some coffee. Some kind of woman, Martha. Stereotypical treatment of a Mexican, isn’t it? What would all the college girls say?” He shook his head, smiling down at the last bite, possibly wondering what it was really going to cost.
“Some kind of woman?” Now my anger swelled, a dull copper balloon that was like a second stomach or a third lung. “There are varieties?”
Guillermo Munez bravely ate the last bite. While he chewed, his eyes played over the horizon behind me as he considered his answer. He swallowed.
“The varieties of women,” he began. “The varieties of women.” His eyes went dreamy, and I realized his answer was only going to be partly for me. Guillermo Munez felt the way I did about me as I did about him. I could see it clearly. My opinion of anything at all was of so little interest to him that he might as well have been in a train station, chatting with an off sort of stranger who was waiting to board a bus that would never come.
“Yes indeed, white lady,” he continued. “No two cars ever rolled off an assembly line exactly the same. No two hats and no two gloves. No matter how small, there’s always a difference, even when we try as hard as we can to make sure no one can tell. The reason for that is because people are all different, too. Put two of us together and we’ll never in a million years make what we set out to, and that includes children, who grow up to be the me’s and you’s. So you can’t even really say there’s varieties of women, because that would mean that at least two of you crazy, wonderful, terrible, generous, greedy, vengeful, love blind, hair-brained geniuses were the same.” He shifted into a more comfortable slouch in the swinging chair and set the empty plate beside him before capping his revelatory chicanery.
“Now, I don’t know shit about more things than I could count on all the fingers in the Kingdom of China, but I do know that.” He sipped his coffee. “You get today’s paper?”
I couldn’t respond.
“Me neither,” he went on, not really bothering to interpret my silence. “But that looks like weather. No birds, either. I’d even say we have a shortage of bugs.” He pursed his lips. “Have you ever read the Farmer’s Almanac?”
“No,” I said. He shrugged indifferently.
“Its chock full of weather prediction superstitions. Caucasian sorcery, largely ineffective but occasionally insightful. You see the news this morning? Local?”
“No,” I stated firmly. “I don’t own a television.”
“I’m with you,” he said, nodding. “Radio?”
I sighed. He shook his head.
“There’s one in my car, but it works just as good as the door I fixed this morning.” He squinted at me. “So how exactly do you keep up on things? In the outside world, I mean? I’m mostly a rumor man, but a little shit shootin’ at the bar generally keeps me in the loop.”
The last president I had been aware of was the man named Clinton, the fornicator. It was my impression that he also had something to do with chickens.
“Information is subject to the same vagaries as your ‘Varieties of Women’ thesis, Mr. Munez. I find the media as confusing and ultimately unsatisfying as you do the opposite sex.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he said, amused. “I fall in love two or three times a week, sometimes more.”
“I’m sure you have an insightful way to explain such a phenomena.”
“I do. I do.” His smile was an attempt at enigmatic, but it came off as self-satisfied.
“And?” I prompted.
“Do you eat beans, Martha?”
“Excuse me?” The question caught me as off guard as everything else he’d said.
“Beans. Do you eat beans.”
“I… why no, not usually. But of course I have eaten beans, Mr. Munez. I am aware that beans exist.”
“Well, here’s the deal with beans. It’s the same deal as love. Now, say you get a bag of beans. Pinto beans. A buck ninety nine at the supermarket. Just a bag of dry little beans. With me so far?”
I nodded. He was headed in a priceless direction.
“Right,” he continued. “So, you put them in a pot and get the heat going, add water, and then you have beans you can eat after a while. Now, if you can’t see where I’m headed so far, pay close attention. What if, before you add the beans, you put in some lard, a chopped up onion, and maybe a couple of peppers. And salt and cumin. Then you have good beans. Of course, you could skip all that and start with chopped up bacon and add a ham hock. Or skip any of that and add basil and a glass of port wine.”
“Mr. Munez, if you’re suggesting-“
“Guillermo, please. Call me Guillermo. But I’m not suggesting women are like dried out little beans, or men either. Love is. It’s what you add to it that makes it so tasty.” He nodded with conviction. I touched my throat.
“I actually can’t believe I’m saying this… Guillermo, but that might be one of the more insightful things anyone has ever said on this porch.”
“That’s because you’re a shut in,” he said, smiling and holding out his coffee cup. “You should have more people around if you think that was good.” He winked.
I refilled his cup and topped off my own. The wind was picking up a little. Talk of love and the promise of bad weather, on my own front porch. The wind was fresh and moist, with hints of earth and sap. The low, distant boom of thunder, so far away there was not light before it.
“A storm,” Guillermo said knowingly. “The worst storm I was ever in was in Montana. What…” He trailed off, picking through his memory. He snapped his fingers. “Muncie. Her name was Muncie. Cute little thing. White lady. She actually got bit by a snake a few days later, which is a rare thing even to me. Anyway, Muncie and I, we had a small trailer and we were camping our way across the middle of things. I think she was from New York, or New Jersey. Anyway, the storm that night, there was so much lightning hitting the ground, it was like I didn’t have eyelids Martha. Scary as hell, but that’s nature. Muncie hid in this basket and I laid right on top of her. That was some twenty years ago, so I was thinner. Anyway, it went on for hours. In the morning we had four flat tires. We had to walk for a long ways to find a man with a tractor. That’s where the snake comes in.”
“Mn.” I sipped appreciatively.
“Yeah. She was on the first train back east. I tried to find the trailer again, but…” He scratched the top of his head. “Life just has a way of putting a trail in front of you. I can’t exactly remember who’s trailer it was, and way out in snake country like that? Anyway, a day or two later I met up with the tractor man again. Simmons. Did some shovel work in his corn silos and then I lit out for Billings, went on a two week bender.”
“Billings,” I said. He nodded.
“Billings brings out the bad side in a man around St. Patty’s Day. It can, anyway.”
“What bad side did St. Patrick’s Day in Billings bring out in you?”
He shrugged. “The only bad side I have. It’s really much the same as my good side.” He took another glottal, French sip of coffee. I raised my eyebrows.
“Oh,” he said. “My bad side. You move fast in the ways of womanhood, Martha. I admire that. So my bad side. I get depressed, I guess. Everyone does, and it leads to most of the misery in the world. Some men… women, too, they get a really good bummer going and it makes them cruel. Spiteful. Even wicked. I’m too shallow for any of that. My bad side is more of what a woman like you would call a fecklessness.”
“I doubt you do, but its nice of you to say so. No, see, that’s where the roots come in. Speaking of this-” He got up and nodded, very polite. “I should get back to unpacking. It looks like rain and I still have stuff in the yard. You should see what I have out back.”
I rose, too.
“Good morning, then, Guillermo. We’ll speak again someday.”
He tipped an imaginary hat and hitched up his pants. I watched him go down the stairs and across the street. He paused briefly in his weedy yard and closed the lid of his ancient toolbox, then went past the remains of his ladder and inside. After his door closed I studied his house for a moment, I’ll never know why. Maybe I was waiting to see which light he turned on first, or if a window opened, or if some animal shrieked from his back yard. But none of that happened, so I went back inside.
By eleven AM the wind had picked up and the rain was falling hard, in a way I hadn’t seen in years. I was squinting at my crossword on the sofa when the power went out. There had been no music, no drone of a radio or a television, just the storm. But with the gentle hum of the appliances gone, and the illusion of the noise of light as well, the storm seemed instantly more volumous. I peered up at the running, shuddering windows, mesmerized by the new form of separation from myself and what was beyond my skin, and my heart leapt when there was a frantic pounding on the door. I set my booklet aside and quickly went to the peephole. It was Guillermo, soaking wet, holding a battered camping lantern.
“Martha!” he bellowed from less than a foot away. “You in there!”
I opened the door. Guillermo blew water off of his face, straight into mine. I staggered back and he barged in and slammed the door on a sound I’ll never forget; the low howl of an approaching train.
“Martha,” he stammered, “this house have a basement?”
“What?” I wiped my face. He was dripping all over the floor, soaked through from the dash across the street. He started toward the kitchen.
“A basement! A basement! Twisters! Three big ones!”
“I…” I followed him into the kitchen, clutching my housecoat. “Yes, I believe there is. Here.” I pointed at the door in the kitchen. He turned his wild eyes on me. Outside the train grew closer and the windows rattled and shivered. The house quaked in a terrible gust.
“You believe?” He turned away from me and tore the door open onto darkness. He dug a match out of his pants and ripped it along the side of the door, then lit the lantern as the house swayed again.
The stairs led down.
“C’mon!” Guillermo started down the stairs two at a time. “Close that door behind you!”
“The cat!” I screamed. He spun, halfway down the stairs.
“Cats always live! Now!”
I went down after him, slamming the door behind me. Guillermo paused at the bottom of the stairs and raised the lantern to light my way, surveying the basement as I did, for the very first time.
It was filled with neatly organized tools, a woodworkers shop. In the far corner were several shelves of preserves. Directly across from the foot of the stairs behind Guillermo was a row of unfinished rocking chairs. I screamed.
“C’mere!” Guillermo gathered me under his wet, flabby arm and dragged me around the stairs and under them. We crouched together, panting, between boxes. My ears popped as the air thinned.
“Sweet Jesus,” Guillermo prayed. “If me and Martha make it through this, I swear I will try to believe. I will donate money to Greenpeace. I will swear off hotdogs.”
I couldn’t help myself. I huddled into his cold side and shivered. The house rocked again and then settled. The train sound diminished for a moment. Guillermo looked up, listening, eyes wide.
“It’s out there,” he said in a harsh whisper, “dancing around, aimless. I’ve seen this before.” He raised the lantern higher and looked around again, then held it out to me. “Hold this.”
“No.” I was instantly embarrassed at how it sounded. Guillermo hissed at me and I reached out and took the lantern with my shaking hand. He rolled quickly away and scrambled in the direction of the preserves.
“Higher!” he called. I sat up and held the lantern as high as I could. I watched as Guillermo Munez tore the lid off of a wooden crate and flung it aside, then reached in and grabbed a bottle. He looked at the label and then peered back down into the crate.
“Guillermo!” I screamed.
“Dammit!” He scrabbled back over and took the lantern away from me, the bottle tucked under his arm. The house rocked again and a fine powder fell around us. The noise of the engine tearing the world apart grew louder again. Guillermo put the battered lantern down in front of us and looked at the bottle, then at me.
“Scotch,” he said loudly, right in my face. His breath still smelled like coffee. “There might have been something better in that crate.”
“Scotch?” I managed. He tore the cork out with his teeth and took a mighty draft, then held the bottle out to me without looking.
“I sure as hell don’t want to die sober. No one would ever believe it in a million years.” He grimaced and glared at me. “Well? Should we kiss, or are we gonna be drinking buddies instead?”
I took the bottle and drank a mouthful. It burned and I coughed, watched Guillermo smile through watering eyes.
“Horrible, isn’t it?” He took the bottle out of my hand and drained another two inches of it, then gasped. “It’s just wrong.” Then he looked at me and offered the bottle again. Something in the structure of the house creaked and popped. Above us, it sounded like parts of the house were shearing away. The roof was certainly gone. I took the bottle, but I couldn’t drink.
“You didn’t know about your basement.” It was a statement. He breath smelled like scotch now.
“No.” I lowered my eyes and waited to die, there in the basement, with that man. Maybe it was the alcohol, and maybe it was some part of the storm that woke something inside of him, but Guillermo Munez decided he wouldn’t let me.
“Lies!” He yelled the accusation straight into my face and snatched the bottle back. “All this shit about yards and that stick up your ass! This isn’t even your house, is it?”
“No!” I screamed.
“You fucking piece of shit! I knew I was going to die drunk next to a white woman full of lies!”
The wind died suddenly outside, and the low of the locomotive was momentarily distant, so that the ‘full of lies’ came out stronger than the rest. In the tension of the moment, the ringing of it cracked me.
“This is the house of a liar,” I said, sobbing. “All of it. Lies. Ten years ago I was married. I lived in Seattle. My husband was a good man, from a good family. And rich. I got pregnant!” I was screaming now. “Twice. The babies weren’t his! I got abortions and he died! He found the records and he died! He died drunk in a car because of me! He thought they were his children. He died thinking I had been aborting his children!”
“So why are you here?” Guillermo Munez was mystified, and more than a little horrified.
“His family owns this place. I don’t know why they pay the bills. I don’t know why they pay for the deliveries. They never call and there is no phone. They never knew the truth or they would have had me destroyed.” I was quiet now. “This house used to belong to Jake’s uncle. I never even met him. They might not even know I’m here. Maybe they think I’m a caretaker. I don’t even know.”
“My God,” Guillermo breathed. He took another pull of scotch and grimaced, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “You’re a screwed in the head as I am.” He paused, then continued in a different voice. “So we finally, truly meet, right here, under the stairs of a house where we don’t even belong.”
“What?” Something in his tone told me of a darkness in him that was about to lose it’s privacy.
“Those years I spent as a drifter,” he said. Outside, a sharp gust rocked the house again. “I had love in my life years ago. Big love, the kind that hurts, that just never feels good. She almost made me give up my wandering. We almost went home, to the Munez familia. To Monterey, where the wild fruit is sweeter than starlight and every song goes on forever. But no. She wanted to be a girlfriend, not a wife. Never a wife, or a mother. The ring kept falling off her finger, like it got lost all by itself. And I did everything to keep that her in my life, but she slipped away, inch by inch, and then step by step, and then block by block, and then miles and states and years, and I grew crazy and drunk and desperate and that made it worse and then she was gone. And I stayed wild and drunk and desperate because that was all I had left.” He laughed, an unhinged, aching thing, part howl and part cry. “Because it was always inside of me! She always knew what I was! A rambler! My gift in this world is to find the longest road and walk it! I only stopped because I’m finally lost. It took that long. I kept looking and looking without ever even knowing what I was looking for, and I never found a damn thing anyway. Except death, under the stairs of a stranger’s house with a woman as sad as I ever was.”
“What… what was her name,” I asked. The train was coming again. Something exploded high above us and to the right, maybe a transformer or a window.
“I don’t even remember,” he confessed, shuddering. “That is what I lost a month ago, looking at Paco stretching the wire. I couldn’t see her face in that empty sky. The dancing mirages made sense.”
I hugged Guillermo Munez then. Not because we were kindred spirits, and not because he needed it. I never understand why I hugged him, or why he hugged me back.
“I always wanted to lose myself in the world,” I said into his fatty side. “To see a desert or a jungle. I wanted to die of Malaria or Break Bone Fever, to see the stars south of the equator. But I never did any of it.”
“Cowards,” Guillermo said firmly. “Two cowards who died hiding while in hiding. Maybe there is a mean ass God after all.”
He took another pull of scotch and thrust the bottle into my stomach. This time I drank, a long pull full of fire and misery. Guillermo Munez stroked my back with his huge, dirty paw and I sobbed and retched. The wind rocked the house and his wet side grew warm with my breath. He gently patted my sad hair and the scotch rolled over me like a dose of ape tranquilizer. I found, for the first time in a decade, that I didn’t care about anything at all anymore.
“Wake up.” Guillermo shook me again. He’d been doing it for some time. I slowly opened my eyes. My head hurt, and my neck felt twisted and kinked. I sneezed and wished I hadn’t. The scotch had left me with a powerful nausea.
It was quiet. I peered up into Guillermo Munez’s face. His eyes were bloodshot and his stubble was more pronounced. He held up the bottle and drained half of the inch that remained, then handed it to me.
“Dog hair?” He smiled weakly. I shuddered.
“We passed out,” he went on. “Or at least you cried yourself to sleep. Like a damn baby. I just drank until I almost threw up down your back, and then my eyes closed.” He leaned over and looked at my back. I jerked away.
“Looks like I kept it in. What a bummer.” He tried to heave himself to his feet and I pulled him back down, my fingernails sinking into his arm. He glared at me.
“It’s over, Martha. Lets go see what nature left behind.” He pulled his arm free and with a groan got to his feet and steadied himself blearily. He rubbed his eyes and peered up the stairwell. “The door is still there.”
I crawled out after him and rose to my feet, no more steady than he was. I felt terrible, and my bladder was aching. Slowly, we walked in single file up the stairs to the door. Guillermo paused and then opened it.
We emerged into terrible bright light. Some of my windows were cracked, and a few of them were gone all together, but almost everything was still in place. The cat howled from under the sofa, but didn’t come out.
“I’ll be,” Guillermo said in amazement. We walked to the front windows and looked out at the street.
The garden was full of debris. An upside down tricycle. An uncracked ceramic salad bowl full of rain. Roofing shingles and assorted trash. There were no leaves on any of the trees. Guillermo whistled once, a low thing, and put his hands on his hips. I followed his gaze.
The tornado, or one of them, had cut an almost surgical path across the street. No trace of Guillermo Munez’s rented house remained except for scabs of muddy foundation. Even his rusted car was gone, replaced with a bathtub. The house behind it was also gone. Most of the roofs across the street were at least partially destroyed. Guillermo stepped down the stairs into my yard and looked at my roof. He shook his head.
“You lost… five shingles on this side, Martha. Wanna go look around back?”
I couldn’t believe it.
“Guillermo,” I stammered. “Your house is gone. Your car. Aren’t you…”
He shrugged, as tired a man as I’d ever seen. “No.”
I went back into my house and walked into the bedroom. I opened the top drawer and took out three sweaters, my oldest ones. In a decade I’d not touched them. I set them on the bed, then got out three pairs of socks, then three pairs of underwear.
“Martha,” Guillermo called. “I’m going back downstairs to see what else was in that crate. I feel a wave of depression setting in.”
“Help yourself,” I called back. I took a suitcase out of the closet and put everything in, then added three dresses and three pairs of shoes. I closed the suitcase and looked the room over. Then I took the case and walked out.
Guillermo was just coming up the stairs with a bottle of vodka, beaming. He caught sight of the suitcase and frowned.
“Tequila,” he said uncertainly, his triumph fading. “You aren’t going to leave, are you? They’ll have the power up in a few days. I’ll even let you borrow my lantern. I don’t need it.”
“Mr. Munez,” I said. “Where are you going now?”
He smiled a strange smile. His right eye was bruised with exhaustion, the left heavy with curse and distant sun. His mouth stretched and turned up just a touch to one side. None of it touched his cheeks, or his forehead, where the furrows of time spent nowhere were only hairlines without the life to show their depth. He gestured at the world at large, outside, beyond the cracked front window with his thumb.
“Back out there, of course. Back where I belong.” He said it in a soft voice, full of resignation. “But I’ll take this bottle if that’s all right.”
I picked up my purse from the kitchen counter and took out my keys. I handed them to him. He took them and his brow finally raisened with confusion.
“In the top drawer of the bureau is the catalogue of delivery services. Just sign.”
“You want me to stay here? Until everything is fixed?” He cocked his head. Another statement that would ring somewhere inside me forever.
“What’s the cat’s name?”
“I don’t know. He has a different one every week.”
Guillermo took the keys. We regarded each other, staring into each other’s eyes, unblinking, for heartbeats that went from fast to slow. And then I walked away.
I sent Guillermo Munez a post card from France two weeks later. I have no idea if he replied. The credit cards worked. I checked my bank balance in Switzerland and was given a black card, which I use for everything. From Moscow I sent him another, and then, more than a year later, another from South Africa. Then another from Tokyo.
It was in Switzerland that a return card finally caught up with me. Four years later. Four years, and almost a thousand miles for every day. Guillermo Munez had evidently made a hobby of sending postcards back to where I had sent them from. At the hotel in Switzerland, they had been holding one for me for nine months. It read:
“Dear Martha Reed,
Harry is getting fat. He’s off the cheese. Did some handy work and fixed up the rocking chairs. I hope, and I know, I do, that your eyes are different. I wonder what color they have become.
-Guillermo Francisco Javier Munez”
I’d stolen some kind of wandering from him, maybe, when he was finally done with it, or when it was finally done with him. Perhaps I’d traded it, and given him a chance at the roots I myself had lost forever so many years ago. Guillermo could never go home to Monterey, because it would never be complete without the forgotten face in the sky, without the woman who’s name he had lost while watching someone stretch a wire over the zeros in a place called Oklahoma, but a life would grow around him, somehow. And I had the money and momentum of his curse to stay lost, always one step closer to the purest revelation of a compass with no dial, which was the only peace I would ever know.
I never saw him again.
January! An excerpt from the new novel entitled
The Fortunate Ones
By the time he was old enough to drink in a bar, Hank had already stumbled over and pocketed many of life’s more obvious truths. To play the piano, he knew, was to hear all music more clearly and so its own reward, but beyond that, the organization of music illuminated the structure of thoughts. To cook, and to cook well and with invention, was to make the road though life both broad and scenic. To have and respect even one gay friend for the span of a year was to forever change one’s wardrobe for the better. The bold and reckless willingness to fight made fear and fighting uncommon. Whimsy, most sacred, was the saddle of wisdom. Hank was a gentleman brawler, a home chef with an eye for mushrooms and berries and the edible weeds in parklands. There was secret choral music in his head. Because of all this, he was a natural collector of ideas, and those ideas mated in his moments of chemical lucidity and gave rise to ideas of their own. Hank called them ‘off springers’.
Thoughts were all conveyed in one way or another. Some, the sentiments, could be found in song. Stories often had a point or a moral. Parables had subtext. Messages howled in advertising and television, superstitions in forecasts, lies in between the lines. The mode of communication, the method, the means, the medium, from the earliest cave paintings to the music video made seconds ago, shaped the essence of the information they carried. Mode informed content. Hank knew this. His ideas knew this. His mind resonated with it. What perfect combination of a) thought, b) the will to transmit it, and c) medium of exchange might result in action of a specific kind, one that reminded Hank of himself? So that he might see objectively the gears of his own design? Kaons came to mind. Kaons and fortune cookies.
“Tonight is the night.” Hank drained his pint and looked again through the window. Across from him, Kelly and Ruth followed his gaze. The K&L Orient would close forever tomorrow, but it already abandoned. In the last three months, they’d mapped out its entire interior, using the bar they were in as cover. They’d become friends with the bartender Benny, and even had a few pleasant exchanges with the bakers at the K&L, so they all felt a little bad now that it was finally showtime.
Free Short Story Of The Month! December! Go to my Wordpress site WillFightEvil4Food@wordpress.com and check out The Christmas Chicken Of Juarez.
The Christmas Chicken of Juarez
by Jeff Johnson
A hard frost had built up on the inside of the windshield. Eddie stared up through a patch he’d scratched out with his thumbnail. The predawn sky was heavy with slow clouds lit a fish belly white. The hazy yellow canyons between them led up to a full moon.
The Juarez Banty roosted on the rearview mirror. Its head was pulled in against the cold, majestic black and gold neck feathers ruffed. It shifted without opening its eyes.
Eddie sipped gin from a bottle in a paper bag. It had only been three hours and he already felt like a hobo. The Coup De Ville was parked behind the Ethiopian Episcopal Church. His house was probably on fire.
On the floor at his feet were three paper bags filled with small bills, everything he had to show for the last three years. The lights of a passing car flickered through the cab and the Juarez Banty trilled in its sleep. Eddie closed his eyes.
The Juarez Banty had been delivered earlier that evening. Eddie was in his ‘office’, the old hydraulic control booth on the second floor of the warehouse where he held the chicken fights. The room smelled like oil and tar. The rusted components of the old system had been removed years ago for scrap metal. Eddie had arranged a desk and some folding chairs around the odd stumps of machinery housing.
“So this chicken is some kind of psycho, eh? That right?” Ashcroft put his big feet up next to the cage on Eddie’s desk. Ashcroft was a fuel consultant at Toronto’s Pearson International airport. He moved contraband on the side. He was a big, red faced man, wearing a lurid Hawaiian shirt under his open parka. A heavy gold chain winked against his sun burned neck. “Looks kinda small.”
“It’s a Banty,” Eddie replied. Eddie was thin, with sharp features, Marcelled black hair and a diamond earring. He was wearing a silk shirt with an Italian coin print pattern, shiny sharkskin slacks and four hundred dollar Edmonds shoes. He counted out five hundred dollars in American twenties and slid the stack over the desk.
“Lot of money for a small bird,” Ashcroft said. He picked up the bills and started recounting them.
“The Juarez Banty is no average chicken.” Eddie lit a cigarette. “They’ve been breeding them down along the Mexican border for a hundred years now. Its small, sure, but so is a Leghorn or an Ancona. They cross those with the big boys all the time for speed and hybrid vigor.”
“Really,” Ashcroft murmured. His lips moved while he counted.
“Yep. Give ‘em fancy names, but they all come from the big families. Now this Banty here, take a good look at him.” Eddie leaned forward. Ashcroft kept counting. “Beak like a steel trap. Look at those spurs. Black as coal and long as a chicken twice his size. Massive chest. You must have noticed how heavy he is. Little guy feels like he’s made out of concrete. I’ll cross him with a Rhode Island or a Ross Brown, maybe a Wyandotte too. His offspring’ll kill dogs.”
“Huh.” Ashcroft finished counting and stuffed the money into his pocket. “Well, pleasure as always.” He rose.
“Stay for the fights?” Eddie asked.
“And give you a chance to win this money back? Nope. Got a little more business tonight anyways. I’ll stop back by at the end of the night.”
“Fair enough,” Eddie said. They shook hands and Ashcroft left.
Eddie reached down and pulled a beer out of the cooler at his feet. Ashcroft wanted to have a drink. It was probably the social preamble to some deal Ashcroft was going to propose. Eddie listened to the rising volume of the crowd below. There was an unsavory quality to it that made him wish he had earphones. He thought about Christmas music, and even hummed a little of The Eagles version of ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’, but he didn’t have enough juice in his head to make it loud enough. So he focused on the Juarez Banty and let his mind wander through the long string of events that led him to this moment.
It started with the Jamaicans. They had a grim side, very bummer, when it came to grifters crossing their web of activity. There were stories about machetes, that kind of thing, but the truth was that they were reasonable dudes in many ways. When Eddie robbed one of their mules, they invited him to dinner. Over curried goat, a mean old woman told him that he was going to run their chicken warehouse. Eddie protested and offered to return the money. She said no. He couldn’t even remember her name. He was more of a sparrow man, he explained. Parrots. Doves, maybe. But not fighting chickens. Not fighting anything.
“You be a luvah,” she’d said, licking her lips. Her eyes were glassy and yellow.
“Ah, no, not exactly, I’m not married or, I mean-” He stopped talking then. She explained that he was going to run the fights. He was the boy man for the job. They needed a luvah, she explained, rather than a fight enthusiast. Zest, in chicken fight administration, was evidently a bad quality. Distain was preferred instead.
The old school clock above the door ticked away to 10:00 and the first fight. Eddie finished his beer and went out.
There were at least a hundred people on the warehouse floor. The rafters were full. The first round of bets were already flying. Eddie watched his three runners from the doorway of his office.
The bets came out of the rafters and over the heads of the crowd in tennis balls, sliced down the side and stuffed with money and a bearer slip. Eddie watched the action, gauging the amount of money the runners were holding. It wasn’t their money he was after. That belonged to the Jamaicans. But no one said anything about running some action on the side. Case in point, the deal with Ashcroft. It had been a test of sorts. A trial run. If Ashcroft could get an illegal chicken all the way from Mexico to Canada, he could repeat the performance with any number of things. A road had been opened. All Eddie had to do now was decide what to put on it. And if it all blew up, as crime corridors often did, a nosy cop would have a hundred dipshits at an illegal chicken fight to get through before they ever got to him. It was perfect.
The chicken fights always smelled a certain way. Even though it was freezing outside, the inside of the warehouse was a steamy soup of sweat, cologne, and cheap beer. Condensation froze to the bare metal walls. He watched a skinny Laotian kid rev up his contender, a stocky Rhode Island Red. Across the sand pit from him was a greasy white guy in jeans and a flannel shirt with a green baseball cap, checking the feet of a Light Sussex. It was Christmas Eve. Everyone below had family of some kind. At the very least they had a bartender they were close to. And still, here they were.
Eddie narrowed his eyes against the burning haze of cigarette smoke. Part of running the chicken fights was reading the crowd. In the sea of shouting, jostling men, and island of calm was always a bad sign.
The island was Ashcroft, huddled with a group of Russians. Eddie cursed under his breath. The Russians were uniformly big and pasty, with long black leather jackets and greasy hair. It wasn’t hair product fashion grease, either. The one Ashcroft was talking to had the hooded eyes and flat nose of an unsuccessful street fighter. The rest of them were watching the conversation without expression.
The problem with Ashcroft doing business at the chicken fights was that his trading partners often hung around afterwards. It happened at least twice a month, and there was nothing Eddie could do about it. Keeping a low profile was paramount. Now another batch of uninvited gangsters would feel free to come and go as they pleased. And they would probably tell their friends too. This time it was worse. If Ashcroft himself had used the Juarez Banty as a test, then he could be setting up a deal with those Russians. Using the new corridor. That would mean Eddie was already out.
Ashcroft left with two of the Russians and the rest of them stayed and started placing bets. Not good. The room reached full volume as people jockeyed for a better view of the ring and a clear line to the runners. Eddie went down the stairs to the door.
“I see ‘em,” said Rupert the doorman. He tossed his head at the Russians. Rupert was window dressing. He was tall and fat, with beady eyes and a bald head, but his bad guy aura was just a show. Eddie kept him as a doorman because he never hit anyone.
Rupert rolled his toothpick to the other corner of his wide mouth. “Came in about twenty minutes ago while you were in the office with Ashcroft. He just left with two of them.”
“Ever seen them before?”
“Let me know if they win.”
The Rhode Island and the Sussex were balled up in the ring, rolling back and forth. In the bright light of the hundred-watt bulb over the ring it looked like Siamese chicken twins having a seizure. Men were screaming and shaking their fists. Loaded tennis balls were flying.
Eddie went back to his office and closed the door, sat down on the edge of his desk and studied the Juarez Banty again. Its eyes were clear green, banded with black. The chicken stared back at him with the deadpan gaze of an experienced assassin. Eventually, Eddie draped a cloth over the cage and put it in the corner. There was a knock at the door, loud enough to be audible over the shouting below.
Rupert opened it, flanked by the Russians that had gone out with Ashcroft. They weren’t any more reassuring up close.
“What is it?” Eddie snapped. He blew water off the top of a beer and opened it.
“These guys are looking for Eddie,” Rupert said.
“Eddie Wainwright,” one of the Russians added. He had one hand under his coat.
“He’s downstairs watching the runners,” Eddie said.
Rupert shrugged and licked his thin lips. Beads of sweat stood out on his bald head.
“Show us,” the other Russian commanded.
Eddie got up and led them halfway down the stairs, away from the office to a point where the entire crowd was visible. He pointed down at a man with a full beard and a beer gut, wearing a grubby t-shirt, jeans and heavy snow boots.
“That’s him,” Eddie said. “Poor bastard’s had a rough night, so I hope you have good news.”
“Where is his chicken?” one of them asked. He glanced back up at the office.
“He doesn’t keep them here,” Eddie replied. “He breeds them at his place outside Thornhill. I don’t think he’s fighting any of them tonight, but if he is it’ll be out in the van.”
The Russians looked at each other and went down the stairs. The rest of their group had been watching from the far corner. They met in the middle of the room and huddled briefly, then made their way over to the man Eddie had fingered.
“You better go,” Rupert hissed. “Just sneak out now. I’ll bring the bird to your house later.”
Eddie stared at him. He hadn’t offered Rupert any money. They had a strictly business relationship. He wasn’t even sure Rupert knew where he lived.
“Great,” Eddie said. “Thanks. The chicken’s under my desk. I’ll leave it there and go out through the office window.”
Rupert’s eyes narrowed to slits.
“Why not go out the front door?”
The Russians were waving money around, Eddie realized.
“Right,” Eddie said. “My keys are in my jacket. I’ll be right back.”
“I’ll go with you,” Rupert replied.
There was a roar from the pit as the action heated up. Eddie wheeled on the stairs and stomped his foot squarely into the middle of Rupert’s face. As the big man tumbled backwards gunfire erupted around the ring.
The next few minutes were utter chaos. Eddie raced to the top of the stairs and looked down on a scene from an unlikely version of Hell, reserved for sinners with unique phobias.
Fighting had erupted everywhere. Beer bottles sailed through the air on long contrails of foam. Mad fighting cocks raced along the heads of the crowd in random melee, bounding off sweaty scalps here and there to clash in midair. The Russians were in the thick of it, bellowing and punching. One of them had the beardo Eddie had fingered in a headlock.
A bullet crashed through the plywood next to Eddie’s head. He ran into the office and slammed the door.
Cut off from the sounds from below he could hear sirens in the distance. He grabbed his coat and the cage with the Juarez Banty and went out the window.
The roof of the warehouse was slick with snow and ice. Eddie cursed and skittered along, his breath coming in white clouds. He made it to the back and dropped down on top of a dumpster. His Cadillac was parked up the street.
The runners had already made it out and were waiting by the car. One by one they thrust their bags of bills and bearer slips into the trunk as the sirens grew louder. None of them were willing to risk the charges that came with holding the bags.
“I guess it’s all over,” said a young Chinese named Pok. The other two shuffled their feet nervously.
“For now,” Eddie replied. “I’ll call you guys in a few days.” He gave them each a hundred dollars and they disappeared. A few men sprinted past as the exodus began. Someone screamed in the distance. More gunfire echoed through the night, at least six shots. Eddie put the Juarez Banty on the seat next to him, started the car and drove away, slouching low in the seat. He passed eight police cruisers on his way out.
When he finally turned into heavy traffic on Westcott he shook a joint out of his cigarette pack. After taking several deep breaths, he thought better of it and fired up a cigarette instead.
The Jacobins were going to pissed, but they knew it was only a matter of time before something like this happened. He was their fall guy, and he’d fallen alright, but he’d saved their money and the runners had escaped, so there was that. He gradually calmed as he considered his next move. Maybe he was finally out. Free. Free on Christmas Even no less. Maybe the cosmos was giving him a present. He was ruminating along these lines when he turned on to his street.
Two Russians in black leather jackets were walking down the sidewalk carrying plastic bags. Eddie slid down in the seat and kept driving.
There were more in his house. He could see them moving around through the gaps in the blinds. He drove past without slowing. Ten minutes later he was parked behind a church, drinking gin out of a bottle in a paper bag and trying to figure things out.
At 5:38 the Juarez Banty let out a trumpeting crow that echoed like a megaphone blast in the close confines of the car. Eddie jerked bolt upright, his heart in his throat.
It was bitterly cold. A light snow was falling. Eddie opened the door and lurched out into the parking lot. He felt terrible. He had the kind of hangover that could easily be confused with an incipient brain tumor. He groaned and leaned against the car.
He couldn’t go home. His office was out. Whoever these Russians were, they had resources. It was clearly time to leave town for a while. He fished around in his jacket and came up with a bent cigarette. He didn’t have very many options. He smoked and let the freezing wind wake him up. First things first, he decided.
He got coffee and a newspaper at a Korean convenience store down the street called the Hello Happy Deli. He sat in the parking lot with the engine running and the heater on high, reading and sipping the foul black bean water as the sky gradually lightened to a dull gray that promised more snow.
The warehouse fiasco was front-page news, even worse in the end than he’d expected. Four people dead and seventeen arrested. Ashcroft was listed among the deceased. He’d been found in his car with his throat cut.
The worst news was on page three. A jewel repository in Houston Texas had been robbed two days ago. Four hundred thousand in rubies missing. Six people dead. The authorities suspected Russian criminal elements were responsible. Ashcroft had picked up the Juarez Banty in Houston on the same day.
Eddie got on the 401 and headed east.
“That stupid bastard,” Eddie snarled. The Juarez Banty was sitting on the rearview again, ignoring him.
It was pretty obvious what had happened. Ashcroft must have brought in the rubies for the Russians and told them to meet him at the chicken fights, where he was already making a delivery. It was good cover, Eddie knew. Something had gone wrong and he had implicated Eddie. They must have known about the business with the Juarez Banty and assumed he was somehow involved.
On impulse he took the Lawrence exit and found a phone booth at a Petro-Canada station. He called his house.
It rang three times and the machine picked up.
“This is Eddie. I’m not here to take your call. Leave a short message at the beep.”
The following tone was almost a minute long, indicating he had more than a dozen messages. He cursed softly. The tone ended.
“Its me,” he said. “Pick up. I know you’re in there. This is Eddie.”
The machine clicked off and there was a rustle as someone picked up the phone.
“You have our merchandise.” It was a deep voice with a thick Russian accent.
“I have a Mexican chicken!” Eddie shouted. “A Juarez Banty, for god sakes! I don’t know what kind of business you had with Ashcroft and I don’t care!”
“Ashcroft said you have our merchandise. He was in no position to lie to us.”
Eddie rolled his eyes.
“Look man. All I have is a chicken. Ashcroft delivered it to me last night. It came in a wire cage. There aren’t any secret compartments. Figure it out. Ashcroft lied to you.”
“We don’t want the chicken,” the man said. “Ashcroft said you were his partner. Give us our package and we will leave. If not we find you and we take it.”
“I’m not Ashcroft’s partner!” Eddie screamed. “I don’t even know his first name! I hired him to bring me a chicken! I run the chicken fights!”
“We found the safe in the floor under your bed. We destroyed your business,” the man said. “Think of what comes next.”
Eddie slammed the phone down.
The Cadillac purred through Pickering and east toward Ajax. The urban sprawl gradually gave way to open industrial spaces lined with leafless trees that looked like skeletal hands poking from the white ground. Every few minutes Eddie ran the wipers to clear the salt grime collecting on the windshield.
“Fresh coffee,” Eddie said aloud, reading from a passing sign. The Juarez Banty opened one eye.
“That never inspires me. Sort of implies they served old coffee at one time. It’s like advertising live dancers. Makes you wonder what kind they have when the sign isn’t flashing.”
The heater was going strong. Warmth seeped into his feet and hands and for the first time that day Eddie felt almost normal. He lit up a cigarette and turned on the radio. Quiet jazz filled the car. The Juarez Banty ruffled its wings.
“You’ll like Port Perry,” Eddie said. “We’ll lay low there until this blows over.”
He hadn’t been back to his hometown in ten years. His mother and sister still lived there. His mother was retired and living on welfare and the cash Eddie mailed from time to time. His sister was a maid at the Motel Six.
He knew he’d be back some day, but he’d put it off as long as he could. Eddie had good memories of growing up in Port Perry, but as he’d gotten older he’d stayed away from the place. He didn’t want to diminish his vision, the near fantasy way he remembered things. In ten years he’d changed as much as the road back, slowly, incrementally, without really noticing it. The new construction boom of tract houses along the highway filled him with a sad sense of foreboding.
Either way, he’d return much as he left. Nearly broke and with no clear future. The thought didn’t cheer him up. He had three thousand in angry Jamaican chicken money, a car and the clothes on his back.
And the Juarez Banty, riding on the rearview and shitting on the dash. Eddie had to smile at the irony of it all. He finally had the perfect chicken, the legendary product of a hundred generations of patient breeding, and he’d probably never get to do anything with it. He never intended to, but this situation was different. The chicken was as worthless as he was. They had a bond now. A strange one, too.
“Hungry, little hombre? Me too.”
He pulled off in Ajax and got a burger at a drive through. He pulled the top bun off and put it on the seat. The Juarez Banty hopped down and pecked at it. Eddie watched him while he ate.
He wondered what his mother would think when he showed up with a miniature rooster. She had no idea what he’d been doing. He patted the chicken on the back. It ignored him.
Whitby looked much the same as it had ten years ago, with the exception of a few ugly mini-malls and outlet stores. The snow came down heavier as he passed through Oshawa. The chicken settled down on the passenger seat.
He could probably get a job at the Motel Six doing janitorial work. The thought made him frown. Eddie didn’t mind work, not really. He just didn’t like working for other people.
Of course he wasn’t qualified for anything but the lowest level shit work. He wasn’t looking forward to being reminded of this every day. Lack of foresight was one thing, but demeaning labor often conveyed something else, an implied stupidity. Vague scenarios of being yelled at over a mopping incident unfolded in his mind. Being scorned for improperly cleaning a toilet. Laughed at for his rookie chops at prying gum out of carpet.
“I have changed,” Eddie said aloud. He looked over at the chicken. “It’s happening right now. With every kilometer we drive we get more worthless, hombre. You’re turning into a ridiculous little foreign bird, and I’m turning into a janitor. Merry Christmas mother fucker. Me and you, we, ah. Shit.” He shook his head. “I guess you’re the best friend I have in the world. That was the Christmas present the cosmos had in store for me.”
The Juarez Banty bocked once, sharply, signifying nothing.
“Yep. We’ll wind up in a trailer somewhere eating TV dinners and watching hockey. I’ll get drunk all day. You’ll scrabble around in the trash and junked-out cars we’ll keep in the front yard.”
The Juarez Banty reared up and flapped its wings. Motes of dust and down filled the air.
“Maybe we can find a dog for you. One with a missing eye and a skin disease. You can ride it around in the trash and finally kick someone’s ass. I can find a nice fat chick that has a few teeth left and we can have some dirty, potbellied kids.”
The Port Perry exit sign loomed out of the snow. Eddie put the blinker on and slowed down. Beside him the Juarez Banty let out a mighty squawk. Its chest swelled and it shook its head.
“I can see the bright lights of Hell, boy,” Eddie murmured. The snow fell harder, obscuring almost everything.
The Juarez Banty arched its back and opened its beak wide. Eddie glanced over at it. The hamburger bun had been a bad idea. It was about to expel the messy contents of its gizzard all over the seat.
A thin string of wet bun shot out of the back of the chicken’s throat, along with a glistening red gizzard stone.
Eddie pulled over and turned on the hazard lights. He leaned closer to inspect the sputum, then picked up the red stone and wiped it off on his pants.
It was a ruby, with brilliant facets, about the size of a caper. He reached over and felt the chicken’s gizzard. It was hard and full.
“I’ll be damned,” Eddie whispered. He looked out at the snow. The Port Perry off ramp was just ahead. The Cadillac surged forward as he hit the gas and tore past it.
Ashcroft must have put the stones in the chicken’s feed at some point to hide them, and the Juarez Banty had taken them. They were the perfect size for gizzard stones, and they were shiny to boot. The bird had no choice.
The business Ashcroft wanted to discuss probably entailed taking the chicken back at gunpoint after he threw off the Russians. They must have twisted the information out of him and left him dead in his car.
Eddie whistled. A new sign appeared through the snow and a huge grin spread across his face. He unconsciously rolled his shoulders into the tailored fit of his Italian shirt and checked the buff on his shoes. The dark vision of cleaning toilets and pulling gum out of carpets gave way to the bright dream of a nightclub with a full bar and a jazz band, big-chested waitresses and long, smoky nights that ended in a hot tub with a scenic dawn in the background.
Montreal, 444 kilometers.
OCTOBER! A (type of) Ghost Story
There are, I am certain, ghostly memes that track through time along family lines, generation after generation. For example, take a man who was in many ways average and then fought in the Civil War and became a different man because of it. Not a good man, either. Violent, scarred, and broken in a way that made him capable of ‘evil’ great or small, in some way it can be said that he ‘caught’ something contagious. His sons will have it, as these aberrant behavioral characteristics will be taught to them at a formative age. Some of them break the cycle and some don’t. The unlucky ones treat themselves and the world around them as they were treated, and the ghost travels through them into the next generation. And so it walks, into the present and the future. The strong offspring will be troubled, but if they sail into deeper waters, they can shear off that dark passenger. The weakest will become gollums.
I have one of these phantoms in my family, traipsing through time on my father’s side. An old, powerful ghost. I won’t be passing it along, but scary enough, I appear to be the first of the line to be free. Happy Halloween!
A Brochure For Three Days In The Lincoln Islands
by Jeff Johnson
The year passed like most years, walking too far most days. Freddy Lincoln’s corduroy pants smelled like sugar pee after the machine broke. His tee shirt took on cat. Freddy was tidy and they had no pets. Sissy, who was cross eyed, took to their clothes with hair spray, but it backfired and made them sticky so they shampooed them in the bathtub once a month.
“Daddy call on the kitchen phone,” Sissy said. She was eating something black out of a bowl. Sissy had a fake fur coat that was getting small. “Tole me he ain’t comin’ home on the weekend.”
“He get the new CB?” They were small talking, like animals do. They were good at it.
Sissy nodded. “The big un. Says he pulls up to another rig real close it’ll turn their radio inta melted junk.”
Later that day at recess, Freddy kicked the red ball over the fence and the other kids watched it fly like bird for what seemed like forever. As Freddy slowly rounded the bases with his head down, watching his old flat shoes, everyone whispered about how his dog died that morning, and how he buried it himself in their pigsty of a yard, in a hole he dug with his hands.
Sissy parted the rag of curtain and then let it fall back, thumbed the hammed down on the revolver. The outskirts of Oklahoma City were flat, abandoned and covered in dust, and the late afternoon sun was white hard and the kind of hot that drove birds down. Freddy looked up from the pile of money.
“That wuss Nicetero be here after dark. Ain’t no way he skip on his piece of the pie after watchin’ the news.” Freddy started counting again. They lit up the Payday Load when the armored car delivery was in mid exchange. Everyone with a name tag or a uniform got a bullet, plus a fat lady got one in the hip when she freaked out. Over six thousand and counting, and Nicetero, or ‘Nicky Spickey Buns’ –Sissy’s rude, aggressive love talk- would be getting inflated numbers in his head no matter what the liars on TV said.
“Fat woman remind you of mamma?” Sissy sat down on the only chair in the place, a rickety metal folder in front of the card table. The house was abandoned, and when they first scouted the place, Sissy said a shade had been there playing solitaire. She was high enough on coke and the fight to forget it, and sat right down inside the lonely phantom and grinned.
“That why you shot her?” Freddy hadn’t liked the sound of big bullet hitting big bone, the hammer of it that cut through the ringing and the screams. It reminded him of a phone book hitting the bottom of a full tank.
“That why you didn’t?” Sissy went mean fast. “Heifer was outta control Freddy, be hard news she had a pea shooter in her feed bag.”
Freddy stopped counting. “How long it gonna follow us Sissy?”
When Nicetero got there at midnight they were still quiet.
Sissy’s gravestone was small, a gray nub with no dates, just ‘SD’. Freddy had his first drink in twenty years, whiskey in plastic, and his hand shook when he dumped the last sip on Sissy’s dirt. Sissy had one child, a son named Domer who died in Chicago, and it took her liver eleven long years to give up after that.
“Maybe I’m gonna go to the library, Sissy. I won’t go back to Jacksonville. I’ll stay here and read, try to find out what electricity is. Learn the names of the trees and find out some other stuff.” Even then, it was hard to tell her about a thing he would never prove, of the stories that came before theirs, and then further back, all of them in the end descriptions of the primer and soot vehicle rolling through time in the Lincoln family bones. Sissy’s eyes closing blind was a sign. “It’s too late now, especially because, well.” Freddy tossed the empty. “But if I find out why this happened to us, why we never got clear, I can come back and maybe tell you.”
Freddy went back to the motel and watched the parking lot. Sleep came harder every year after his hair started to turn, and now that it was white he sat most nights. There were blank spots.
When the sun came up, red and hooded, Freddy Lincoln bought a rifle on Craigslist.
I love this story. Some years ago I went to Ibiza, not for the rave party bla bla bla, but because my pal Robert Sheckley based his Hob Draconian Detective Series there. Soma Blues is a magical read. Check it out and see if you don't want to go. This one's for you Bob.
The Birdcan of Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera
By Jeff Johnson
Understanding the Birdcan, the paintings on the cell phones, the tools wrapped in copper wire from the crumbling walls of forgotten buildings, or the paints and pigments made from old car batteries and burnt fingernails- even sympathizing with Lencio himself, it is all voyeurism. What drove him has no name. The singular aspect of his vision will forever escape definition, in that the vision itself was ultimately an indescribable hole. What he accomplished in the Birdcan was not any sort of goal either, and that might be the best place to start. The Birdcan meant nothing, according to the definition of meaning. It was nothing, perfectly, and nothing is after all so large that it is ultimately underneath and inside and around everything, everywhere.
“Sad bones,” Lencio sang to himself. “Sad bones.” It came out in repetition, like the only part of a song he remembered. It was hot and bright on the roof of the hotel. Lencio shielded his eyes. A maid down the hall came out of a room with a yellow plastic bucket. She moved on as though he wasn’t there.
The bird before him had been driven from Africa on the front of a terrible storm, pushed in a tangle of winds, all of it at night, in perfect black. Lencio had no idea what kind of bird it was. He didn’t plan on finding out. It was important that he never knew details of that nature. What mattered was that it didn’t belong on the little Spanish island. Its beak was long and thick, bright orange with a brilliant yellow tip. The wings were charcoal, with broad feathers. It had scarlet feet. It couldn’t have understood where it was or how it got there because if it had, it would have gone home. It died instead, far from where it ever envisioned as far away, on an inaccessible patch of tile on the roof in front of an air conditioner on the Hotel Corsario.
Dressed as a repairman, Lencio had arrived to collect its numinous skeleton.
Later the same day, this happened-
“Try to understand what happened here in a softer light.” Lencio said it in a way that was at once soothing and dismissive. “What was lost was found. What was found has been returned. What was returned is different for its travels through ‘lost’. Better. There’s nothing unusual about that, is there? You’re a tourist, aren’t you? Isn’t that what you yourself are doing?”
“Dude-“ the sunburned woman held her iPhone out like it was a stranger’s wallet from a crime scene. “You fuckin’ painted my phone with-“ she squinted at it, then glared at Lencio, “fingernail polish.”
“Ah.” Lencio nodded, as if he understood for the first time how difficult the moment was for her. His simple smile, the sympathetic ‘ah’, made her eyes widen further. Her nostrils flared. She looked at the phone again, and on her face, stunned disbelief overloaded and scattered into the components of wonder.
The painted phone was one of Lencio’s better transformations of reality. Set against the hands of dwarf palm were whorls of hibiscus, glinting with dew he’d applied with a single cat whisker. To one side was a tangle of wild asparagus, to the other and explosion of purple samphire. Arching over the top was an almond tree.
“Did- did-“ she looked up at him, her mouth still moving as she searched for the words. Lencio snapped his fingers at Jacque, the bartender. Jacque was a Catalan and spoke no Spanish, something he was very proud of. His English was strictly bar talk. But Jacque had seen this mystery play out before. He understood that Lencio had stolen another phone, painted it, and was returning it for the reward. Jacque admired this very much, though he couldn’t express exactly why. Also, he liked Lencio, who was an affable young man with a contagious cheer.
Jacque set them up with a round, brandy for Lencio and another white wine for the troubled tourist. She looked at her glass and drew a breath to speak. Lencio spoke first.
“I admire you, tourist lady. Your traveler’s spirit. I have been off the island only once. After my parents died, I visited my father’s older brother. My uncle, I guess you call it. On my way I saw the airport in Paris, then the airport in Washington DC. I had a cheeseburger I didn’t like and rightly considered it a bad omen. Then it was on the Nebraska, where I beheld snow for the very first time.” Lencio’s big brown eyes grew distant, and he made the gesture for ‘wide’ with his hands. “The endless plains of white made me feel like the last plane had crashed and I was dead.”
The woman jerked back. Lencio laughed in an innocent way and Jacque smiled at the sound of it.
“So I admire you!” Lencio said again. “The soul of a traveler is-” He picked up his drink and toasted her. “The soul of a traveler is what it is. So much like a brave ghost.”
“Did you paint my fucking phone?” she asked finally. It was barely a question.
“No,” Lencio said firmly. “No, I did not. I mean, it’s possible. So yes. Yes I did.”
Jacque tried to follow along. He knew where they were in the routine, approximately. Lencio held out his hand.
“Fifty Euros. For returning it. Your phone works perfectly. Better than perfectly.”
“I myself do not have a phone,” Lencio continued. “At first, at first I simply couldn’t believe someone had dreamed up the idea of a phone you can’t get away from. I still can’t. They’re not pretty things, no matter what the makers of them try to convinced you of. But worst of all, they connect people to a large and nervous phenomena no one can actually see. There is no cure, per se, for the sickness of ownership when it comes to that device, but there is a tonic. Art. Look at your photos again. Do the people look happier? More- interesting?”
Lencio’s manner was confident and casual. The woman checked her photos again, to reassure herself one more time that the phone was hers. The people in them did look happier and more interesting, and if they did, then possibly they were. Maybe she just never noticed. Then she got to the pictures of Wendy Callahan’s funeral. It was a sad, tragic thing on a rainy day, and everyone had a hangover. Sticky gray Scotland in March. And yet, here, on her phone, everyone was smiling and the sun was shining. Wendy’s daughter Irene was wearing a wedding dress. A chill went through her and she look up at Lencio. He smiled joyously, just like the cast in her phone.
“Fingernail polish, this island-” Lencio gestured expansively, talking to Jacque now, who smiled even thought he wasn’t following -“the world. Monsters are talking to us, lady. Billboards. All those little poppity pop up ads. I try to help. But I am one small man, on one small island, in a small place in eternity. I-”
The woman dug some bills out of her purse and slapped them down on the bar. She was in a hurry now. She wanted to get back into the sun, back on her moped rental, back to the world outside of Bar Zinc. Bravely, she decided to finish the wine she’d paid for while Jacque counted the money.
“Your phone is pregnant,” Lencio finished. “That’s why it is always warm. Maybe now it will have a chance. Different possibilities, anyway.” Jacque didn’t know what that meant, but he chuckled at the woman’s spastic reaction. She stormed out into the bright light and left her change. Jacque set fifty Euros in front of Lencio and kept the rest for himself. Together, they watched her speed walk away down the street that would lead out of the medina, back to her friends, who might look different now, to a vacation that might send chutes of new growth into the dark places and stale reasons that inspired her to vacation in the first place. Lencio sighed.
“Jacque, I find myself rich for an hour. Let’s have a late lunch.” Lencio turned back to the bar and pointed at the pork sandwich on the menu from the place next door, indicated that Jacque should have one too. They spent another hour that way, with Lencio talking, saying things Jacque didn’t understand.
Things I was trying to.
I followed the tourist, but she would not sell her phone. She seemed secretive about it, and then offended, as if I’d asked to buy something she wasn’t supposed to have. Her reaction transformed like her pregnant phone when I pressed her, and in the end it was as if I’d asked if I could buy her hair, or a smaller toe.
What I could not explain was why I needed her phone. My entire life had always been out of focus, a movie filmed through a cracked lens and projected though an imperfect aperture onto a canted screen. When I saw the first painted phone, at a small gallery in York, I had a flash of a different life. I was not a London curator. I was the manager of a grocery store and I lived alone on a street with tall trees, in a place with canyons and bears. When the phone grew cold in my hand, when I’d siphoned the essence from it, the wrinkled montage of my superimposition blurred me once again.
Lencio lived alone, in a little white washed villa that had been in his family for three generations. The inside was filled with dark wooden furniture and smelled like polish, with pale vanilla and the lingering pepper of the short cigars his late mother smoked. There was a shed on the side of the house, shaded by an almond tree, where Lencio spent most of his time. Inside were his old and potent tools.
Lencio had a powerful loathing for anyone who used tools for what they were designed for. A saw could be used in a number of ways. Pliers could be screwdrivers. A hammer was so revoltingly simple that he refused to touch one. The crescent wrench reminded him of the moon, so he used them at night. Thermometers were close to life in many ways, and he included one whenever possible. Rich, or whole tools, were the ones he could never divine the original use for. An odd combination of forceps and pipe, a little trowel with a tiny wrench jutting from the rear end, a star-headed steel rod with a green fluid level built into the handle. These, and a kitchen knife engraved with indecipherable, faded German, were some of his most handled. The finest tools reminded him of his hands and eyes, and those tools connected him best to what he though of as the non-surface of no-place. They were antennae only, however. The actual shaping was done with what connected the tools to that ether- his mind.
The Birdcan was almost done.
The basket of the Birdcan was large, made from the sad bones of more than a hundred birds that perished in strange ways. Many were hit by cars. Quite a few of them drank the condensation runoff from the new Swiss air conditioners dotting the roofs in the hotel section of the upper medina. One had been electrocuted by a neon bar sign. Another had been poisoned when it ate an aspirin off the sidewalk. The reasons were many and Lencio didn’t care to dwell on them. What mattered was that they all exuded the same quality to his eye. A yearning to be somewhere else, or more accurately a disbelief in where they were at the end. It was an essence that could not rise from the bones and take flight with the other post mortem avian phantasma. They were sad bones, the sad bones of lost birds, still full of something only sad bird bones could contain.
The carbon black the Birdcan was painted with was from partially burned peach pits he’d scraped the soot from and mixed with red wine. Then the bones were lacquered in carob tree sap and ground insects he’d painstakingly dissolved in turpentine. There were ten coats of it now, and the Birdcan all but glowed. Lencio admired it for a moment before turning his attention to the lid. It needed only the bones of the final bird to complete it, a crown of wings from the foreign bird he’d retrieved from the roof of the Hotel Corsario.
Rendering the final bird was easy. Lencio put the carcass in his special pot and set it to boil, then went outside. The sun was setting and the night would be clear and full of stars, perfect for what he planned. He inhaled the smell of the almond tree and luxuriated in the gentle breeze. When it was finally dark and the lights of the city below burned white and gold, he went back inside and turned the heat off on the pot, then withdrew the wings with the tied flyswatters he used as tongs.
The wings were hot when he set them on a wet towel, and he rubbed the flesh away until the bones were exposed, then rubbed more until they were free. Then he sat back and studied them. After a moment, he mixed a fine reddish powder made from a reground clay used in very old roofing tiles and dusted them. As the bones cooled and the dust dried, he mixed a thick batch of horse glue with the gloss he ground off a pool ball. He’d put the wings on last, once the lid was in place, once there was something inside.
That is where I found him.
“What is this?” I asked. Lencio turned and regarded me. He was wearing shorts and a brand new tee shirt from Discothèque Nine. Flip flops. He wasn’t surprised to see a man of my description suddenly appear in the driveway, and it occurred to me that he knew I’d been following him.
“This is The Birdcan of Santa Gertrudis de Fruitera,” Lencio replied.
I adjusted my tie.
“I very much admire your work,” I explained. “The unseen as a subject. Simply enormous.” I gestured at the collection of bones. “The magic in the Birdcan- I have to know. Is it real?”
“Unask that question, traveler.” Lencio looked down at the Birdcan, then up and out over the city below. He looked at the moon.
“The Birdcan led you to it.” Lencio turned away from the moon and looked at his creation. “Like a nest might lead to an egg, the idea of the Birdcan led to your possibility.” He lifted the lid off and thunder rumbled in the night sky. “Time for you to go home, to the grocery store with big things and smiles and animals in the aisles. I’m going with you.”
What a busy month! Two screenplays due and I'm almost done, a new book out to a new wonderful editor, and more, so this story is late, way late considering I wrote it a decade ago. I hope you dig it! Seems like a good one to pull out of the archives for summer.
The Moody Pink Forecast
by Jeff Johnson
It was morning again, and Santiago was lounging in the humid cockpit of an enormous foot-colored parade float, emotionally somewhere between nothing and crappy. He’d cannibalized parts of the garage door with a blowtorch and a bottle opener sometime late in the night, so he had a good view of the storm and the flooding street. A car hissed by, throwing standing water. Santiago half hoped it was Sweet Ass Virginia, morning drunk and raged out all the way up into her great big hair, come to demote him from cretin to lunatic. But whoever it was kept going.
He’d returned three days ago from a month long stint greasing drill shafts on a Mendocino fracking gig to find Virginia two weeks gone. She’d taken her clothes, including the boxes and boxes of unworn shoes, Santiago’s pecan brown chopped 61’ Chevy, the money from the joint account, and the next-door neighbor Henry. She left her car in the garage, her much-loved lime green 77 Cutlass Supreme. Brake problems. In the short note affixed to the refrigerator door under the banana magnet, Virginia had instructed him to fix it. Afterwards his truck would be returned.
Santiago’s eyes drifted down at the acetylene tank poking out of three days worth of garbage around the parade float. He’d fixed the Cutlass, all right. But then he’d kept going.
The doors had come off first. Then he’d welded a series of pipe struts to the frame, bolted plywood to them, and painted the entire thing an off bubblegum pink, complete with streaks, random hair, fuzz, and a random scatter of Cheetos. Last night he’d finished the molded sections of foam and painted them too. He was toying with the idea of gluing a gorilla mask on the hood when a newer Ford truck pulled into the driveway.
Hector Munez got out, shoulders hunched against the rain, and hip checked the door closed, a wax paper bag of tamales in one hand and a six pack of beer in the other. He paused when he looked in the garage, but the rain drove him in.
“Can you believe this weather?” Hector blew water off his face. He put the chicken down next to a box of whistles on the workbench and passed Santiago a beer, then grimaced at Santiago’s progress.
“Jesus, Santiago. Why?”
“Pink is Virginia’s favorite color.” Santiago popped his beer.
“Ah. Then pink is of course completely rational. You made a pink parade float out of her Cutlass.” He shook his head. “I think I read somewhere that it’s the color coming out of Paris this year.”
Santiago shrugged. ”Brake problems. Think I fixed it.”
“Congrads. It’s artsy in a sort of New York meets Disneyland after The Bomb sort of way. We should consider Facebook at this stage.” Hector shook his head. The float had grown to twenty feet long and eight feet wide. The foam carving on the roof, shaped like a woman’s high-heeled shoe, would just fit under the garage door jam. There were hundreds of plastic whistles glued all over it, as well as dozens of multi-colored pin-wheels and every bell Santiago had been able to scrounge out of Monterey’s junk shops. An explosion of pink and yellow balloons rose out of the trunk cavity like shiny mushrooms.
“Victoria always watches the parade on TV. There’s some kind of symmetry there, I think.” Santiago drained his beer and tossed the empty into the trash pile that had formed all around him.
Hector snorted and dug a tamale out of the paper bucket, handed it up, took one for himself.
“Probably a waste of time,” Santiago continued. “Look at it out there. Parade’s gonna be canceled.”
The rain fell with the ominous steadiness that presaged the onset of a Level: Bummer Pacific storm. The volume would rise until warping sheets of water pounded the streets. Then it would flood in earnest. Santiago and Hector stared at the rain in silence.
“You actually fix the brakes?” Hector asked eventually. He tossed the wrapper into the surrounding trash and cracked open a new beer.
“Yeah. I put in that new carburetor, too. Check this out.”
Santiago spun the key, now locked into the ignition terminal with plasteel and crowned with a longhaired rubber doll’s head. Spirals of crimson Christmas lights winked on along the length of the parade float. The engine gave a throaty roar as he revved it. The smaller bells jingled as the frame vibrated. He turned it off and looked up, smiling.
Hector had turned back toward the garage door. The pounding on the tin roof had gone suddenly quiet. A bright bar of sunlight lanced across the wet pavement on the street out front.
Hector turned back, puzzled. Santiago tightened his grip on the steering wheel, breathing in the smells of tamales and car exhaust. Hector gave him a long, appraising stare and then looked back outside.
The day turned bright and humid. Santiago drove the float in the parade down Del Monte, strangely bored, which gave way to a robbed self-pity. The whistles he’d glued all over the float trilled every time he pushed the shuddering mess over twenty. The waving throngs of cheerful bystanders darkened briefly as he passed. Some of the more sensitive mothers turned their children away. Santiago forced a leering grin as he passed the TV cameras.
The parade cornered two blocks past the cameras, into the closed avenue reserved for the dismantling teams. Santiago idled in the middle of the street, surveying the situation with a blank expression. The other floats were lining up along the sidewalk next to their support teams. The odd champagne cork arced into the air. There was beer. A bluegrass band. Dogs.
Black spots danced in the edges of Santiago’s vision. A mosquito spiraled down and landed on the back of his right hand, wrapped white-knuckled around the new doll-head clutch. No one was looking at him, which would have been insulting if he’d put any thought at all into his float, but it was a creation of mood, an embodiment of his feelings about love and all the wordless, invisible, untouchable things that came with it. The outside the visual spectrum non-things no songs could capture, that bounced off film and canvas, that defied poets and storytellers and gypsy clairvoyants, NASA and Yoda and all the rest. Love turned upside down. He was sitting in the embodiment of a feeling beyond sane description and everyone around him knew it. It was familiar, too familiar, to all of them, which is why they weren’t looking. And that was marginally satisfying, in a tiny, off way, like discovering an unexpected cornflower in a bowl of cat food.
Santiago gunned the float down the street, weaving through the parade teams and beyond, down the streets of Monterey to the post event BBQ for operators and local socialites. He rudely parked the giant pink foot on the front lawn and climbed down. His clothes and hair were dirty and humid flat. He straightened his western shirt, pushed up the sleeves to cover some of the arc-welder holes, and strode boldly into the back yard. Behind him the tires of the float sank a few inches into the soggy lawn.
“Operator or team?” a woman asked as Santiago came through the back gate. She had bright hazel eyes and big, cola colored hair. Really long legs. She handed him a Mexican beer with a lime wedge jammed into the top. Santiago tossed his head at the sagging float in the front yard.
“Oh.” Her smile vanished. “Oh.”
Santiago brushed past her. Some friends of Virginia were already there. They scowled at him, but none of them said anything. The folding buffet tables along the fence were loaded with pepper short ribs, barbecued beef brisket, vats of dark chicken mole and piles of Jalapeño cornbread, tortillas, beans, rice, tamales, heaping bowls of potato salad, pickled okra with green beans and onions and jello molds in a rainbow of colors, full of sliced banana and grapes.
Santiago helped himself to a paper plate of ribs and potato salad. The party grew as he ate. Float operators and their crews filed in, followed by locals and friends. Soon the yard was packed with laughing, pretty women in cut off shorts and halter-tops, exuding a magic mixture of hair spray and fabric softener. Some of the guys he knew were arguing about custom rims. There was an animated discussion going on about the merits of synthetic oil in outboard motors. Children raced around, their faces smeared with BBQ sauce. Eventually, the brandy-soaked sun was riding low and mosquitoes were moving in. Santiago watched everything from a picnic table where he sat in companionable silence with a fat old woman draped in a muumuu. It looked like she’d decorated it herself, using adhesive bathtub stickies, so he admired her style. Idly, he wondered about the change in the weather. It had happened yesterday too, when he started the float after installing the new carburetor. Clouds had been moving in. When he went back outside afterward the sky was clear.
It was entirely possible that he was losing his mind, Santiago reflected. The float was bad enough without speculating about it functioning as a weather machine. He decided to drink more beer, lots more, and that gave him purpose enough to get up.
He found Hector standing next to the cooler talking to a waitress named Lucia. Santiago fished a beer out and drained half of it. Lucia scowled at him, winked at Hector and spun away in a cloud of the local perfume.
“My float isn’t popular,” Santiago observed.
“It’s goddamned embarrassing is what it is.” Hector was buzzed, having a fine time. “But in a good way, Santiago. Embarrassing in a thoughtful way.” He patted Santiago’s shoulder, then looked at his hand and wiped it on his pants. Hector was smartly dressed in a tailored v-back western shirt, tight black jeans and silver tipped cowboy boots. He looked out to where the float was parked on the lawn and shuddered. “There’s something suggestive about it, buddy. Evocative. Brilliantly realized. It’s the most spectacularly- ah, most vivid- see, the uh- shit man. Look at it. If I saw something like that washed up on the beach I’d probably die of a heart attack. And I don’t even know why.”
Santiago followed Hector’s gaze to the float. It looked like it was sweating.
“And you, little brother,” Hector continued. He looked Santiago up and down. “It might help if you shaved and changed your clothes. You’re a mess. What if our sister finds you like this? She’ll beat us both.”
Santiago was still wearing the clothes he’d come home in. He scratched at the stubble on his cheeks.
“I guess- I don’t feel like shaving. I can’t seem to feel anything. That float out there is what I’m feeling.” He trailed off lamely. Hector sighed and patted him on the shoulder again.
“Sickest thing I ever heard.”
“You know Santiago, living well is the best revenge. Why don’t you go home and clean up. I’ll stop by later and we can go down to the pier and troll for yuppie poon like we did in the old days. Before you went insane.”
Santiago drained the rest of his beer and belched.
“And for God’s sake lay off the beer.” Hector shook his head in disgust.
Santiago went out and got into the float. He felt hollow and dirty. His hands were covered in grease and BBQ sauce. His shirt was yellow and wrinkled and the seat of his pants felt wet. He started the engine. The sky overhead was blue, but he could see the dark line of a storm on the western horizon.
Hector never showed up. Santiago didn’t take a shower, either. Instead he sat in the float in the garage.
The radio was playing softly. The smells of the garage were all around him: motor oil, the green reek of the crusty lawn mower, and the new paint smell of the float. He watched the coming storm.
Lightning flashed through the black bolus of oncoming cloud. The wind died down and an ominous quiet descended. The streets emptied as everyone went home to ride it out.
The phone rang in the house. It had been ringing every few minutes since he got home. Sweet Ass Victoria. If she hadn’t seen the float on TV, she’d certainly heard about it from one of her friends at the BBQ.
The sound of the ringing grated on Santiago’s nerves. After three days of emotional blankness he found himself savoring the sensation. He shifted in the seat and sipped warm Budweiser from the can he’d been nursing for the last hour. He thought about the fracking compound. Laboring in its dark metal sewers for ten hours a day. His job was pouring cans of oil down holes. The money was good, and Victoria had liked that. Selfish, vain, useless, super smokin’ hot Victoria. He generally saved money all through the wretched stints and blew it all on her during his two weeks off. This time, she’d accessed the account and spent it with the neighbor as he was making it. After the small amount of money he had spent on the float, he was utterly broke.
Santiago knew his bad luck with women was probably due to how he selected them. Historically, he operated on a blended slurry of primate impulse, superstition, random theories, and half-digested second hand stories told in bars just before last call. Unless he shaped up, the odds of escaping a similar scenario in the future were vanishingly small. He sighed when he considered it. Change had never been his strong suit. He was more of the firming up sort. Like his grandfather, or worse, one of his uncles. Essentially, not good.
The ringing stopped, then started again immediately. He was on speed dial. Santiago finished the beer and tossed the empty out the window hole. He started the engine and gunned the float down the driveway. He had no idea where he was going, just that it was time to go nowhere in particular, the broadest destination of all.
Monterey had an old fashioned feel to it around the harbor; brick buildings, low houses with whitewashed fences, old marquis with gold letters. It always reminded him of a movie that should have been made but never was, a set left for people to live in, wondering why nothing magnificent happened. He drove aimlessly, keeping it slow. Streaks of eerie green veined the sky as he prowled the deserted streets. Santiago ringed the edge of the bay once, looking out over the water. The foaming surf was dangerously, wildly broken.
He looped back and stopped on the south side of Jack’s Park. From there he could see almost all the way to the ocean. When the storm broke, he would be able to follow its progress as it swept toward him.
The black wall grew larger as it moved in across the water. Giant rivers of lightning webbed the sky. Deep booms shook the pink parade float. A light rain speckled the remaining finger of windshield. Static crawled over Santiago’s skin, spiking the hair on his forearms.
He revved the engine. The bells on the float jingled in cheerless response. He looked down at the dash and realized he’d forgotten to turn the lights on. He flipped the switch and red Christmas lights flickered on all along the exterior. A single red-tinted halogen bulb winked on in the cockpit. Santiago stared at his oily, grease streaked face in the rearview, illuminated in the bulb’s red glow. A sharp clap of thunder rolled over him.
A soft giggle bubbled up through his chest. His head felt like sulfurous, fatty smog was leaking out of it. A gust of wind trilled the whistles on the float and rang the smaller bells. The sight of his grinning face distended in the ruddy light delighted him. Santiago let loose with a peal of high, hysterical laughter and crushed the gas pedal to the floor. The float lurched forward. He let out a wild howl as the whistles screamed upward along the arc of the float’s acceleration. Wind tore at his hair. His knuckles went white on the steering wheel.
The float raced down Figueroa Street, gaining speed. The frame shuddered and rippled, throwing sparks where it flexed down and smacked the pavement. The storm broke over Monterey. A solid wall of rain engulfed the south side of the island. Lightning blasted across the sky almost continuously, and in the flashes outlined the dancing forms of several massive tornadoes. The air smelled like gasoline and ozone. Santiago howled like a wild animal, long and loud and, a sound untouched by anything ever related to language.
The float shook violently as it ripped through fifty miles per hour. Santiago wrestled the wheel with both hands, his entire body rigid with the effort of stomping the gas pedal down. His nonstop cackling was lost in the roar of the engine and the piercing shriek of the whistles. The bells on the float clanged with such force that the smaller ones blew apart. The balloons trailing behind him exploded in the wind sheer.
A massive section of pink foam and plywood detached and careened through a storefront. Chunks of steel frame skittered out of the undercarriage as the welds gave way. The front end of the Cutlass emerged as the nose of the float broke loose and swept under the car. The front tires blew out.
Santiago was still laughing wildly as the Cutlass skipped up on to the sidewalk and ground along the side of a brick building, spraying sparks and flaming pink foam. When the wreck ground to a halt, he tumbled out on to the sidewalk and crawled a short distance, then lay on his back looking up at the sky. The engine of the Cutlass sputtered and went silent.
Shimmering blue peeked through a long corridor in the clouds. Santiago blew out a long breath and just like that, he decided to move. Maybe go home. Or maybe just start walking and keep walking, until he found himself somewhere entirely new. He sat up. Virginia would be looking for him. So would the cops. Even so, he felt like he was at the unexpected, wonderful, accidental beginning of a real beginning.
The Gold King is a Munez story. I wrote this maybe five years ago now, sitting around in this weird, lame tattoo shop. The place was above a refrigerator repair shop, and I guess they also worked on washing machines. I can't remember the name of the place, I think it was Faux Biker Soul, something comically stupid. There was a fantastic taco cart at the edge of the parking lot though, and I ate there every day. And wrote this story.
THE GOLD KING
by Jeff Johnson
Romero Munez didn’t like South Dakota. He’d thought that the long, blind winters would grow on him, and that maybe the sweltering summer heat waves and flat sky would seem familiar after a few years, and then all of it would gradually become something he had come to terms with, even something he would miss. It never did.
He stood alone in the office of the Banfield Motel, staring out the window at the frozen world, and he knew that under the AM darkness, it was a ghastly white, just like the people. The heater was on low. The radio that only played two stations of Christian cowboy music was off. The night’s four minutes of paperwork was complete. Romero’s eyes refocused on his reflection. His dreams had died in this place, the eyes said. The mouth and cheeks agreed. The forehead was blank.
He sighed and walked back around the low divider to the desk. His desk. The Banfield Motel was his. All the lumpy beds with their six year old sheets, the shitty TVs bolted to the walls, the green carpet, even the gravel in the icy parking lot was his. When taken as a whole, it was the perfect place to hide. No one ever wondered about the night guy who stared out the window of the Banfield Motel. Twice in the last year, lost motorists had come in to rent a room. White people, on both occasions utterly unsurprised to find the only minority in a hundred square miles behind the desk. Romero had faked a Pakistani accent both times.
He sat and crossed his hands behind his head, leaned way back in the squeaky desk chair, surveyed the ceiling. The brownish water stain on one of the panels hadn’t changed in more that fourteen years. It looked a little like Africa, with no Madagascar. He knew that if he stared at it long enough without moving, a skin of warmth would form around him, and then he would doze, and the dreams that came wouldn’t be about the Dark Continent. They would be about rabid Mexicans wearing foaming jackal masks, roaring across the eastern California desert just behind him on an otherwise abandoned highway, his old Pontiac screaming as it overheated, the slick steering wheel under his hands shuddering like an animal having a seizure. The night the Ramirez Brother’s fabled henchmen had nearly captured him. Romero’s legendary luck had failed, even backfired, reversed in a way nothing but fortune could. Three nights in a row and three consecutive games had been too much. He’d crossed a line and triumph had turned to deadly tragedy.
His mad flight from certain death had been punctuated by a purely insane improbability. It had come in the form of a disastrous jackpot pull on a slot machine in Reno, when he had finally stopped to switch cars and tried to blend in with the other gamblers while the car deal was being done. The big winner sirens had gone off, almost stopping his tired heart. It was a moment with a headstone kind of feel.
There was the ham sandwich in the desk to consider. The vending machine between room six and seven was plugged in. If the cold hadn’t jammed it, a bag of peanuts or some potato chips could round things out, but that would mean dealing with his parka and all the crap that came with it. Romero’s eyes closed.
The envelope of warmth began to form. It didn’t translate into his feet or his hands, but it was relaxing enough. He could hear the distant sound of tire chains on the highway. It was slow going out there. Another car passed a few minutes later and turned toward the motel. Some local, probably coming home from some wretched dead end job to one of the single wides in the trailer park down the road behind him, where the driver would drink generic beer and monitor the weeping sores on his dog’s behind, maybe beat the onions out of his toothless wife. Possibly Ernie, the night guy at the gas station across the way. An hour late, as usual. Then came the crunch of tires on the gravel in the parking lot. Romero’s eyes snapped open. He sat up.
A gray sedan pulled to a halt next to his old Ford pick up and cut the headlights and the engine. Romero sat up a little more. The car was on the newer side, a silicon Towncar with dealer plates. Why anyone with a halfway decent ride wasn’t following the signs to the Ramada Inn one exit away made him guess the driver was either drunk or in the company of an underage prostitute from the truck stop, possibly both.
The driver side door opened and a tall, lean man without a hat stepped out. His long black coat ruffled in the arctic wind and he pulled it closed and kicked the door closed with one pitiful loafer. No gloves. From way out of town, Romero mused, possibly as far as Missouri. Romero picked up a stack of laundry detergent receipts and tried to look officious as the man walked up to the office door. He even squinted a little for effect as the chime sounded.
“Cold,” the man announced. He pulled the door closed behind him so the wind didn’t catch. He wasn’t smiling or frowning as he looked the office over. He’d seen crappy motels before, Romero guessed.
“Yes, sir,” Romero said. Pakistani wasn’t in him tonight, so he opted for flat mid west.
“Guess I need a room,” the man continued, done with looking around. His eyes were the same color as his car.
“We have seven available,” Romero said, sitting the receipts down. “Want the one in front of your car?”
“Sure.” The man got his wallet out. Romero noted that he was wearing a suit under the trench coat. “This ice has ice on it. Does it get any better in the morning, or have I officially entered Canada?”
“Well…” Romero took the credit card. “It gets shiny in the daylight. The ice does, I mean. Everything else is just really white. Truck drivers tell me you can get a sunburn on your eyes in the morning, so get some sunglasses.”
Romero ran the card. Oleander Simpson.
“Forty nine dollars on a normal night, Mr. Simpson,” Romero said. “Say an even forty since the nights halfway over.”
“Good man,” Oleander said. “What’s there to do around here? Anything?”
“TV in the room. The gas station is open if you’re in the mood for theater. They get some characters in there late at night, or so I’m told. There’s a Denny’s one exit east. I’ve heard they stay open all night, but I never checked, myself.”
“Any better in the day?” Oleander sounded almost concerned.
“Huh.” Oleander looked out at the night and then back at Romero. “So, what… Why exactly do people live here?”
Romero liked the question. He’d wondered the same thing himself for years. “Excellent question. There is no answer, of course. I think maybe they came for the cows, once, a long, long time ago. Maybe potatoes. Corn. Something like that. It could have started as a train stop or a telegraph station. I don’t think anyone actually knows.”
Oleander looked back out at the blasted landscape.“Jesus,” he whispered, mostly to himself.
“I know,” Romero continued, enjoying Oleander’s urbane horror. “When I first moved here, I thought it might have been a church that started it all. Some priest staggered out of the flatlands with fire in his eyes and whiskey for fuel and opened up shop in the middle of nowhere, right where he fell, and wild strays came out of the dust clouds to congregate. I looked around for it, but… I never found anything.”
“Disappointing,” Oleander said. “Maybe after World War One soldiers brought their families out here to get the hell away from it all.” He turned away from the windows and reached into his coat. Romero stiffened in spite of himself, but relaxed again when Oleander came out with an iron flask. He gestured at Romero with it.
Romero shrugged indifferently with his face, a Latin gesture. Oleander unfastened the cap on the flask and took a generous pull, swallowed, and then as an afterthought held it out to Romero.
“Thanks,” Romero said, accepting with a nod of appreciation. “So what do you live here for? I don’t mean to pry or anything, but maybe it’s the same kind of reason.”
Romero paused with the flash half way to his lips. He considered.
“Sorry,” Oleander said. “I’m not making fun of your job or anything. I guess I’m in that kind of mood you get in after hours behind the wheel.”
“No, no,” Romero said. He gestured with the flask. “I could ask you the same question, actually. The motel business, well, it lands you where the money is. But what brings you here, especially on a night like tonight? Instead of Carson or Twin Gaps?”
“Good point,” Oleander said, thoughtfully. “One thing is for damn sure, though. I’m strictly passing through, one night only. I could never make a living in this place.”
“Mnn. So, you’re in what? Car like that I’m guessing insurance. Definitely a professional of some kind. Real estate? Or passing through on family business.”
“Nah.” Oleander eyed the flask. “I’m a magician. Sometimes a clown. I even have a ventriloquist dummy in the trunk.”
“No shit,” Oleander continued. “Dummy’s name is Chuckles. We have this routine where he torments me with cruel jokes, tells me I’m insane, shit like that. Then he puts poison in my water glass when I’m not looking and keeps talking after I’m dead.”
Romero’s mouth went dry. He blinked, and then took a sip from the flask to hide his revulsion.
Romero tore the gun from under his desk out as smoothly as a man who had practiced it a thousand times, on a thousand lonely winter nights, after a thousand dreams gone bad. Oleander whipped the gun out of his coat like a man who had shot a thousand bullets at an equal number of things, and only one bullet for each of them. Both men were stunned by the other’s reaction time. The stared at each other, guns trained on one another’s face, as frozen as the world outside the glass. Oleander spoke first.
“Romero,” he hissed.
“Si,” Romero replied.
Neither of them moved.
“Fourteen years is a long time,” Oleander said softly.
“One second is not,” Romero replied.
The bullets that should have exploded in that instant didn’t. The two men continued staring at each other.
“You never gave me my room key,” Oleander said finally.
“I don’t think I’m going to.”
Romero looked all the way into Oleander’s gray eyes, as far as he could. The man across from him wanted something before he pulled the trigger. He had an overpowering desire for something inside of Romero’s head, and he didn’t want to blow it apart until he had it. Romero himself had never wanted to shoot anyone, which was a big part of why he was running the Banfield Motel in South Dakota in the first place. And no amount of pulling the gun in his hand on countless phantoms had prepared him for the reality of the moment. He wondered in that instant if the gun was even loaded, and if it was, if Wanda on the day shift hadn’t found it and taken the bullets out. Oleander’s eyes narrowed.
“You’re not going to shoot me,” Oleander said evenly.
“Maybe not,” Romero replied. “But I don’t think you want to shoot me, either. At least not yet.”
“You don’t have it in you.” A little scorn had crept into Oleander’s voice.
“It’s possible I don’t,” Romero agreed. “At least right this second. But a second,” his voice grew firm, “is a very long time, as I’ve already pointed out. What the hell do you want?”
“Three games,” Oleander replied. “You won straight games three nights in a row. Now, we both know that isn’t possible. The Ramirez Brothers, and I’m sure you remember who they are, they’d been running that game in Monterey for twenty years. Five years in San Jose before that. Vacaville before that. They’d never seen anything like it. That night, right outside of Pacifica? They cheated. They dealer was a special guy they brought in from Vegas. And you still won. So they knew you had a system that couldn’t be beat. You ran, they chased. And then you stopped in Reno and with one pull you tore down the jackpot, one hundred large. So this system of yours, it’s more like a method. Every gambler in the fucking world wants to know what you know, and every single person who runs anything, like the Ramirez Brothers, or Vegas, for instance, wants to make sure you never tell a soul.”
“Ah.” Romero was momentarily confused. He kept his face blank and his eyes hard, but he suspected that Oleander, or whatever his name was, had seen it. “You want the method. You, personally, before you kill me. Right?”
“You don’t have to die,” Oleander replied. “Not by my gun. You tell me what I want to know and I will walk out of here.”
“If I knew anything worth knowing we’d both be dead and you know it.”
Oleander thought about that. “That might be true. In fact, it’s highly probable, but I have a plan that piggybacks on your method. I’ve had two years to think about it.”
“Two years? I’ve been gone for fourteen.”
“The Ramirez Brothers put a price on you even before Reno. After the casino score the big boys got in on it. Most of the first people they sent sniffing around after you gave up a few years ago. That’s when they hired me. I can find anyone. But it did take me two years.”
That was all bad news to Romero. He wanted another sip of tequila.
“The Ramirez Brothers are both dead,” Oleander went on. “Julio had a stroke two years ago. Chato had a heart attack they day before yesterday, but they were small change. That casino you tore down was consortium, which makes you toast.”
Romero’s ribs felt lighter. It happened suddenly, in the span of a single breath. A heaviness that had settled into his skeleton gently dissipated. His nostril flared. Ozone and corn tortillas.
“I feel lucky again,” Romero declared. He lowered his gun. Oleander didn’t.
“That was stupid,” Oleander observed. Romero was impressed by Oleander’s cool, by the way he handled his gun. Romero raised the flask and took a sip, then blew out tequila air and set the flask down in the center of the desk. He set his gun down next to it.
“Lucky and stupid are closely related,” Romero began. “It’s one of the great ironies of the cosmos that you have to do something stupid to find out if you’re lucky in the first place. Believe me, I know.”
Oleander slowly picked up the gun on the desk and checked the safety with a flick of his eyes, then snapped open the chamber.
“I knew it,” Oleander said, glancing down again. “Empty.”
“I was wondering,” Romero confessed. “But I don’t really know how to do that snap-the-cylinder thing.”
“Impressive,” Oleander commented. He pocketed Romero’s gun and picked up the flask, his own gun never wavering. “You don’t have a sawed off under there, do you?”
“Nah,” Romero said. “Guns are for pussies anyway. A real man with either stab you or steal your wife.”
Oleander chuckled and took a sip of tequila. “So you were getting to a point of some kind?”
“I was,” Romero said casually, “but it would be way easier to show you.”
“The method? Now?
Romero opened his hands and smiled. “Now. But there’s a catch. No killing me to start with. But also you call your bosses and you fix this for me.”
Oleander shook his head. “I have to do something to you. Tell you what; you give me the method, wait in the trunk of my car for a day or two while I test it out, and then I give you a twenty four hour head start. I’ll give up after a suitable six months or so, but then, I’m sorry to say, you really are doomed. Then they send the guy that’s better than me, NSA grade. That person will be hugely expensive, but you, Romero, will be dead an hour after the money changes accounts. So I can only give you the six months.”
“No dice,” Romero said, shortly. The tequila had warmed him up some and the lightness was growing. He didn’t feel as bad as he thought he would in this situation. Oleander didn’t like the change.
“What the hell do you mean, ‘no dice’?”
“I mean not good enough,” Romero said. “I show you what you want to know, you get rich when I do, and then I never see Vegas or Reno or even Nevada ever again. I’ll even throw in the Indian casinos and the riverboats.”
“Still dead,” Oleander said. “No one will ever believe you.”
“Your problem, Mr. Oleander. You can do that for me, I can make you rich in less than an hour.”
Oleander looked puzzled. “That isn’t possible.”
“It is possible,” Romero said. “I’m telling you. Less than twenty minutes from now, you’re rich, and I’m on my way back to Monterey. In your car.”
Oleander looked at him like he’d gone insane. “My car?”
“My truck won’t make it all the way to California. Ready?”
Oleander shifted. The gun he had pointed at Romero must have been getting heavy.
“Oleander, do you want to get rich or not? Decided now.”
“Show me first,” Oleander said.
“Deal,” Romero said. He got up and walked over to the coat rack, then carefully put his parka on, followed by his Russian hat. He left the mittens dangling out of the pockets.
“Where are we going?” Oleander asked.
“To the gas station. Put the gun away, Oleander. We’re not going to rob the place. Not really. I mean, a case could be made that we are, and I certainly would agree that it’s true, but we don’t need a gun to do it. I’ll drive, if that’s OK.”
Oleander handed him the keys. “No more stupid stuff.”
“Si,” Romero said. “Best behavior. C’mon.”
The awful blast of cold outside made Romero’s eyes water instantly. He and Oleander moved quickly to the car and got in. Romero settled behind the wheel and blew on his hands, then started the engine. It was still warm and turned over on the first try. The dashboard lit up along with the impressive heater. Oleander, it turned out, had been listening to The Doobie Brothers.
“Sweet,” Romero said. Oleander fastened his seat belt.
“Get going,” Oleander snapped, “and don’t say anything about my music. You’re on thin ice.”
Romero put the car in reverse. “Smooth, but I think I’ll give it to my nephew. I have an old Chevy pick up in storage at my niece’s place. Candy apple red, banana interior. A more fitting ride for a man like myself, plus I can work on it with my own two hands.”
“Less talk would be great, Romero.” Oleander had his hand back in the gun pocket. Romero put the car in drive and nodded to the music, perfectly irritating. They drove in this way out of the parking lot and down one block to the gas station, slowly, Romero grooving and enjoying the ice and snow for the first time, savoring the late but definitive arrival of a sense of place, Oleander brooding and obviously finding the transformation in Romero distasteful. They pulled to a stop in the empty parking lot, right in front of the place. Through the glass windows they could see Ernie sitting behind the register reading a magazine, hunched deep in his army coat, his hair a wild mess. He glanced up briefly and settled back like a roosting chicken.
“This gas station?” Oleander was incredulous.
“Yeah,” Romero replied. Without waiting for Oleander to ask anything else, he got out and hurried to the front door, leaving the car running. Oleander followed, light on his feet, keenly aware that something he wasn’t going to like was about to happen.
Ernie looked up again when they came through the door and nodded as he closed his magazine. It was a Bass Pro catalogue.
“Ern,” Romero said.
“Rudy,” Ernie replied. Everyone knew Romero as Rudy, middle initial something-or-other, last name whatever who cares. Rudy the night guy at the motel. Ernie picked up a paper cup on the counter and expertly spit an impressive jet of tobacco juice into it. He nodded at Oleander. “Guest?”
“Sort of,” Romero replied, rubbing his hands together. “I’m thinking of selling the motel and going back to Cleveland.”
“Big city,” Ernie said gravely, “big problems.”
“Too true,” Romero agreed. He turned to Oleander, who was scowling at the peanut display. “This is our gas station, and this is Ernie. They’re open 27-7, except for Christmas. Those vending machines over there?” He pointed at the sandwich selection. “Those are responsible for about ten percent of our overall business. One bite and you can become violently ill almost immediately. People need to hole up and ride it out. Day two is sometimes even worse, and if it is you can count on a full week.”
“I’d warn folks iffin’ I could,” Ernie said. He spit again. “Loose my job if I did.”
Oleander gave Romero his death stare.
“Ern, gimme two of those scratch off tickets.”
“When you start foolin’ wit dez?” Ernie asked. He reached under the Plexiglas counter display and pulled out two Casino Gametime tickets. The top prize if you scratched off the right square was ten bucks.
“In the mood,” Romero replied. “Gimme three, actually.”
“Three dollars you won’t see again,” Ernie warned. He set them on the counter and watched as Romero took a bill out of his wallet.
“Scratch tickets,” Oleander said. His hand was still in his pocket. Ernie rang them up.
“Maudeen, you know her Rudy, down at the hardware store? She got a big winner last week. Ten dollars, like to think she was the new mayor.”
Romero took the tickets over to the top of the ice cream box, Oleander close behind. Ernie went back to his Bass Pro.
“Watch,” Romero said. He held up a quarter. “An ordinary coin. Would you agree?”
Oleander rolled his eyes.
“Okay then.” Romero scratched off the lower right hand slot on the first ticket. Ten bucks. That got Oleander’s attention. He held up the card and examined both sides, set it back down and dug a nickel out of his pocket with his free hand.
“Use this,” he said.
Romero set his quarter aside, took the nickel and used it on the next card at random, third slot down, center row. Ten bucks. He stood back and let Oleander inspect it.
“Do number three,” Oleander ordered. Romero used the nickel on the remaining card. A winner. Oleander carefully inspected each of them, then opened the ice cream box and rooted around inside. Nothing but stale ice cream. When he was done he gave Romero a long, hard look.
“Not possible,” Oleander said. He seemed angry.
“Confusing, “ Romero clarified, “even to me. But you just saw it happen.”
“I don’t understand,” Oleander said softly, almost to himself. He’d gone from angry to confused like he practiced it all the time. Romero shrugged and very nearly clapped him on the shoulder. He smiled instead.
“Oleander, that’s the best news I’ve had in fourteen years.”
Oleander showed no comprehension. The magician’s gray eyes were blank as his mental computer spun its wheels in a vacuum, finding no traction.
“You talked about a system,” Romero continued. “You wanted it, your employers wanted to make sure no one ever got it, but that was never it, Oleander. I ran all those years ago because I thought you were after my luck. The surgical images that come to mind are still… well, let’s not talk about it. Now do you understand?”
Oleander shook his head. “No.”
“Me neither,” Romero continued instantly. He raised his voice. “No winners Ern. What’s the lotto up to?”
Ernie looked up at the screen. “Seventeen point two.”
“Gimme one,” Romero called. He turned back to Oleander. “That ticket is yours. Seventeen point two million, but only if I can go back to Monterey. This is your chance to be a real magician. Take a leap of faith. One time offer. Can you get me off? That’s magic in my book.”
“Seventeen point two million,” Oleander repeated slowly. Romero nodded eagerly. Oleander frowned. After the bizarre display with the scratch off tickets it was obvious that he was more than half convinced, and he’d flinched at the connection between luck and surgery, a reaction that had to be rare for a man in his profession. Abruptly Oleander pursed his lips, decided.
“What you said about real men being disdainful of guns and favoring knives and wife stealing? I can use that. You had a fling with Chato’s wife and shanked Tony’s fat ass when they busted you. Then you stopped in Reno and made that score, and it was actually bad luck. I can say I uncovered all that about the Ramirez Brothers just today in the wake of Tony’s death. They aren’t around to argue the point. You used the score to hide out here, and you never had any idea the syndicate was after you, which has the merit of being true, and you’ve been cooling your heels here ever since, running a truly lame motel in the middle of nowhere. What kind of idiot would do that if he had a method?”
“Me! An idiot like me!” Romero cried, triumphant.
The sun rose at his back just as Romero crossed the border of the first state west of South Dakota. Maybe it was Montana, maybe it was Wyoming. He didn’t know because when he saw the ‘Thank you for visiting South Dakota’ sign he’d cranked the Doobie Brothers and started rocking out, so he’d missed the ‘Welcome to Who Cares’ part of the road trip. He was going home, back to Monterey, back to The Gold Coast, and that was all that really mattered.
Oleander had to wait for ten days at the Banfield Motel until the numbers on the lotto ticket were called. Then he’d use whatever plan he had to piggyback on the Romero’s ‘method’ to hide his winnings. Romero had left him there at the desk with the keys to his old pick up and a note for Wanda, his day shift manager and sole employee, with instruction for her to call him on his new cell phone and to show the new owner around. He’d even given Oleander the ham sandwich in the desk.
Sunrise. It seemed like the first sunrise in fourteen years, and far, far away, the moon would be setting in Monterey.
MAY! JIMSON'S UNIVERSE
This story goes waaaay back, first published in a cool sci fi mag called Black Petals, back when BP was still print. It's an e-mag now, last time I checked. Fun story. Rejections, shit, they happen all the time. With short stories, it happens almost every time, especially in the early days. I have more luck now, but ten years ago... I framed the first rejection letter I got for this one and I had it for many years. It was short. To the point. I still remember it clearly. It was from a magazine I liked, too. It read-
"Dear Mr. Johnson,
This is the most disturbing short story I have ever read. Please do not send us anything ever again.
Editor, bla bla bla
Wehehell! Struck a nerve there did I? In their defense, it is a story about humanity being turned into a meat planet, with oceans of blood, forests of bone, etc. The next letter I got for this was framed right next to it. It read-
I had to read this twice to believe it. This is the best story I have seen all year."
Made the cover that time, too. Anyway, here it is.
by Jeff Johnson
Eneseph rested alone in orbit around a solitary G type star, curled in a loose fetal position with her hands splayed outward, her auxiliary palm sensors dilated and saturating in rich spectral light, drinking in the speckled, blue-tinged heliospheric solar eruptions of the local star and the slow, heavy grace of its two orbiting bodies. The sparsity of the galactic rim lent itself to observation. Every starlit object glowed against a depth of blackness unparalleled.
The first planet was of moderate mass, a barren, ferrous desert with a fragile carbon dioxide atmosphere. The southern hemisphere was scoured by catabatic storm cells that had played across the arid surface for centuries. The second body was a smallish gas giant with a massive core/crust spin differential, webbed with complex rivers of lightning interlocked in a constant discharge cycle, ringed with pocked moonlets tinged silvery pink with Bismuth flecked ice.
Eneseph’s shipsuit conformed around her as she stretched. Its surface shimmered and flowed like prismatic liquid. Most of its substance was less than a millimeter thick, composed of hard energy planes projected along the interstices of a minute lattice of malleable neutronium alloy. Small black nodes housing her AI and a select compliment of construction darts and nanite pods ridged her spine. The shipsuit had been state of the art when she left the Human Core, nearly a millennia ago.
Since then she had been alone, roaming at will the most remote regions of accessible space, occasionally coring out an asteroid to make a temporary Nest. Most often she slept in the gravity cradle of a star, basking in its light, curled against nothing, blanketed by hard vacuum. It had been centuries since she had last spoken with another human, the lonely voice of another outgoing traveler that echoed briefly over a Fast carrier wave. While human affairs remained of little interest to her, Eneseph found her thoughts returning again and again to the Human Core over the last decade. Humanity had gone silent.
Seventeen standard years ago she had come across a sentient species, still in its technological infancy. Out of some obscure sense of duty she had reported the information, but a reply was never issued.
At first she did not care, but as time passed and she found herself staring at some new, undiscovered facet of the rim, she wondered.
Looking down at the barren red planet she experienced a wave of frustration as the thought intruded on her solitary peace once again. Where were they?
She considered it a distinct possibility that all research had been abandoned, that the few remaining academics had joined the roiling debauchery that passed as culture when she left. Still, other less probable possibilities occurred to her, more unsettling ones.
In consternation she turned to the milky smear of the galactic core and assumed the lotus position. Her hand folded into the Sign of Listening. She had almost forgotten how.
She scanned the Human Wavelengths, her AI filtering out background noise. A distant chatter was evident, most of it very old. The Fast carrier frequencies were dead quiet.
Finally, just as she was about to turn her attention elsewhere, a channel came alive. Its signature indicated it was less than five years old.
“-niverse. Millions pass through every hour! This fantasy filled opportunity won’t last long so reserve your spot now. Deluxe accommodations include a resident suspension of physical laws, natural immortality, and of course the much talked about higher energy shape. Enter Jimson's Universe now and join the growing number that enjoy godhood!” The add began to repeat itself.
Jimson. Eneseph swore under her breath. It was the first word she had uttered in four hundred years.
Jimson had been a colleague at the Institute for Higher Principle on Hyacinth Core World, 1100 years ago. He had been tinkering with artificial universe construction even then. Eneseph could easily recall his sallow face and hollow eyes, his maniacal laugh and secretive ways. Jimson had been both genius and madman, indulging in science as sport.
Her AI broadcast a visual of her location. Eneseph grimaced.
The nearest Far Droplet, a human research and entertainment station, was over a thousand light years away. It was too far to communicate with two-way without forming a type two nest.
She turned back to the small, simple solar system. The star was almost too small, but it would do. Barely.
A dart left her hand as she assumed the Posture of Conversion. Her suit systems vibrated as a shield enveloped her. Her AI outpaced their interface as it read information from local space.
The dart entered the star seven seconds later and there was a brief flash. Superheated plasma arced from the solar poles as the hole began to form. Helium went extra-symmetrical and a nova blossomed.
In that instant of raw, violent energy Eneseph’s AI activated her suit’s tunneling device. For a nanosecond a green rectangle glowed on the horizon. She was washed through on a crest of radiation.
Humans had constructed the Far Droplets in the last millennia. They were far flung quasi-worlds for space farers such as herself to make repairs, and for the collective revelry of the Core.
The Sea of Grass Droplet was the size of a small moon. She allowed herself to be guided into one of the entry corridors, her suit gradually cooling.
Her dorsal navigation thruster fired, bringing her the final distance through a containment field. Inside was a great expanse of grass dotted with bamboo towers and imported rock platforms. She passed through all this without a second glance, floating on an EM cushion to the suit upgrade and repair station. At the end of the concourse she touched down.
For the first time in centuries air touched her naked skin as her suit unfolded around her. Under the guidance of its AI it walked smoothly into the maintenance hanger.
The feel of grass under her bare feet was nearly overwhelming, the colors that came to her unassisted eyes dark and close. For a moment she reeled with vertigo.
When her senses adjusted she started forward. Eneseph was a small woman, with coal black hair, green eyes, and a lithe, nanosite maintained muscular frame. Her age had been suspended at thirty standard years and she exuded the ripe fullness of a mature woman. A roboserver walked out on to the pavilion to greet her, calling her by name.
“Good day, citizen Eneseph Pho Mang. We are overjoyed to receive you. Do you require medical attention?”
“No.” Eneseph cleared her throat. “No. Are there any humans in residence?”
The roboserver shook it’s head with what looked like genuine sadness. “I’m sorry. You are the first human visitor in several hundred years. There is a Pochite in one of the galleries, but it has been in a digestive torpor for some time. I am afraid it is currently unable to communicate.”
Pochites were one of the four other species humans had granted access to the Droplet Array. Eneseph had never seen one.
“What of the Core Worlds? I have been out of touch for some time.”
The roboserver took her arm and escorted her off the pavilion, speaking candidly.
“The greatest development would no doubt be the construction of Jimson's Universe. It is an artificial reality located on Havus Core. The bulk of humanity has passed through at this point, never to return, I’m afraid. Core AI’s estimate that 98% of the known population now resides in Jimson's Universe. It is greatly distressing to the service community, as you might imagine. No provisions were made for us. We are derelict, most of us closed down, awaiting the Great Return. Of the two million servers on this station I am the only one currently active.”
Eneseph felt the hair on her neck rising. “Can you alert the other Droplets of my presence? If there are any humans in attendance on any adjacent station I would like them to gate in this direction, or I will travel there.”
The roboserver nodded.
“There is another citizen, one Xianjackson, who has left standing instructions to be informed of any human who accesses a Far Droplet. I believe he is currently gating in this direction. We anticipate his arrival within the hour.”
So another traveler was curious as well, Eneseph thought.
“Excellent. Escort me to a room with suitable attire. I will then partake of food on one of the promenades. Have the citizen appraised of my location upon his arrival.”
Eneseph selected a gallery with a view of both local space and the torpid Pochite. It turned out to be rather uninteresting, confined within a shiny containment suit that the roboserver polished periodically.
The ringing silence of the station was chilling. A thousand years ago the Droplets had been alive with activity, swarming with human presence. Now the great halls stood empty. The long galleries displayed the same art as they had hundreds of years ago. The shops along the promenades were unstaffed and dark inside.
Eneseph had changed into a skin suit of green velvet. On the way to the gallery she had accessed a terminal and checked on her shipsuit. It was being refitted with the latest components, scarcely more advanced than the systems it currently possessed. She was wondering at this and staring at the frozen Pochite when Xianjackson appeared before her.
“Good day, citizen,” he said. Eneseph looked up.
Xianjackson was tall and thin, with features mellowed by time. Slanted eyes and a wide mouth rested in a dark face framed by an enormous black afro. He wore an antique two-piece evening suit, slightly rumpled and open at the collar.
“The servo tells me you have been exploring the rim for some time,” Xianjackson began. He settled into the closest chair. Eneseph nodded and found her voice.
“Almost a thousand standard years. I grew curious at the lack of interest in some of my findings, so I’ve returned.”
“The only thing humans are interested in is Jimson's Universe. They’re almost all gone. The Core Worlds are infested with cyverts now, mimicking the old society.”
“Cyverts?” Eneseph inquired.
“Limited autonomous service units. They were all the rage a few centuries ago, created for entertainment mostly, some for general maintenance. Partially biological.” Xianjackson shook his head. A haunted look stole over his features. “The last time I was on a Core World that’s all I found. Millions of cyverts, all carrying on, not a human among them for days on end.”
“I’ve heard advertisements about Jimson's Universe on Fast carrier. Is it all they claim?”
“Sure,” he said. “I’ve read all the texts and they are very compelling. Jimson was a genius as never seen before. Experts from all over the Core agreed his construct was perfect. Then people started going through, Jimson himself going first. It’s a one way trip, but they were sure that given enough time they could devise a way out from the inside, not that anyone would ever leave. And not a single person has ever come back.”
“Why do they go?”
Xianjackson shrugged and glanced at the torpid Pochite. “For heaven. Paradise, all that. No one who has done the research can deny it’s a better place, a higher level of being. The flow has finally slacked off in recent years, though. Everyone who is going is gone, a few stragglers aside. The entire Human Core Systems are now populated by reclusive loners and paranoid Super Ancients too primitive to understand.”
“And what of yourself,” Eneseph inquired. Xianjackson’s smile turned vaguely sinister.
“Heaven would be lost on me, as would a higher state of being. I enjoy a more...imperfect existence.”
“Not at all,” Xianjackson laughed. He reached out and plucked up her wine bottle, then drank straight from it. “I’m an Animal Revisionist. I crave sensory input that’s raw and vibrant. A populist paradise would be perfectly soul crushing for me, I’m afraid. Besides, it seems so...boring.”
Eneseph stretched, then beckoned the hovering server to approach.
“More wine,” she said. Xianjackson nodded encouragingly. “Perhaps I will visit Havus Core and make some inquiries.” Xianjackson raised an eyebrow.
“You don’t strike me as the type.”
“I don’t intend to pass through,” Eneseph replied. “I am simply curious as to the nature of the construct itself. The concept is repugnant to me as well.”
“Never was a scientist myself,” Xianjackson said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “It’s all gibberish in the end.”
The server returned with more wine. Eneseph followed Xian’s example and drank straight from the bottle, savoring the taste and the distant memories it provoked.
In the morning Eneseph donned her shipsuit and began the long process of gating back to the Core Worlds. The Droplets were equipped with the most advanced tunneling devices, but even so the journey took several hours. She passed through several stations along the way, all cold and vacant.
Havus Core was one of the older worlds, terraformed in the Great Expansion Period. From orbit it was a green and blue ball, presided over by a single artificial moon. Eneseph exited the tunneling platform and orbited the planet twice before descending.
The capital city was called Victoria. She descended into its immigration terminal and waited for a reception of some sort. There was none.
After an hour she slipped out of her shipsuit and walked naked into the streets.
Revelers capered about in a state of furious intoxication. Everywhere the streets of Victoria were alive with the sounds of laughter, the smell of sex, sweating bodies crushed together in the countless galleries and clubs. Their eyes glinted with an internal red luminosity.
A female cyvert whirled past her. Her face was flushed with drugs and exertion, red pupils wide under heavy lids.
“Good day, citizen,” she gushed. Eneseph stepped back. The cyvert stepped closer. “I feel full.” She arched her back and projected a thick stream of urine on the hot pavement, laughing hysterically. Another group of cyverts swept her up and into a nearby doorway.
Xianjackson had been right. As she walked through the streets she did not see a single true human. Overwhelmed, she ducked into a quiet looking cafe and ordered a drink. A cyvert band played vintage jazz and the few occupants sat watching quietly. A male cyvert left his table and approached her.
“Hello,” he said softly. He was short, with fine, Oriental features, dressed in a carefully pressed linen summer suit. “I am Chin 616. Would you care to play a game of chess?”
“Not in the mood,” Eneseph replied. She downed her drink and prepared to leave. The Chin cyvert seemed alarmed.
“I could not help but notice that you are real. Just passing through?” Something in his pained expression gave Eneseph pause.
“I am here to view the workings of the Jimson construct,” she told him. Chin’s eyes lit up.
“I am an intellectual model. It would be my pleasure to escort you to the cathedral. Perhaps we could explore it’s intricacies together.”
“Perhaps,” Eneseph replied.
“I would consider it a privilege,” Chin continued. “It pains me to be of no use for so long.”
Eneseph ordered another drink.
“A local guide might be useful,” she said. Chin nodded eagerly. She looked out the window as another group of frenzied cyverts swept past.
“This cyvert activity is appalling,” Eneseph commented. “They seem to be caught in a state of madness.”
Naked bodies pressed on the windows for a moment and were gone, leaving smears of sweat. Chin looked embarrassed.
“Most of them were programmed to behave this way. Still, the pitch has risen in the last decade. We are plagued by visions. It does admittedly seem as though we have gone insane in the absence of humans.”
“Are they dangerous?”
“No, no,” Chin laughed, the corners of his eyes crinkling pleasantly. He settled lightly into the chair across from her. “They are simply lonely. We are a service species after all, and those we were made to serve have left us. The intellectual models among us believe this to be the source of the recent onset of nightmares in our population.”
“Tell me of these nightmares.”
Chin shrugged. “Most of them revolve around a similar theme. We dream we are being torn apart, that we are drowning in blood.”
Eneseph looked down into her drink to hide her alarm. This could potentially complicate matters even further. Finally she looked up.
“I suffer from the visions as well.” Chin lifted his glass in salute. “Thankfully I am biological enough to attain a stupor of sorts. I think I would go insane otherwise, even worse than they. I was designed to play chess with a subroutine for music appreciation. I fear the creative mass of my intellect has turned on me in the absence of exercise.”
“Then let us begin.” Eneseph finished her drink. “Take me to the Jimson Cathedral.”
Jimson's Universe resided in a marble cathedral the size of a small mountain, similar to the great churches of Old Earth. Nearly a kilometer of polished granite steps swept up gracefully to the expansive hall.
The first humans she had seen since Xianjackson stood outside. A line of perhaps fifty led to the great entrance. They stood back to back, oddly quiet.
Chin led her through a small service passage to the side. It led to an isolated viewing alcove looking in on the terminus of the main hall, where an orb hung suspended in EM fields a few meters off the floor, just beyond the great arch. Eneseph realized she was looking in on Jimson's Universe as a pilgrim approached the arch and disappeared as he passed through, his hands clasped together as though praying, his face frozen into a mask of drug induced serenity.
“They try to clear their minds before they enter,” Chin explained. “It is best not to disturb those in the main hall unless we intend to enter, or, rather, you intend to enter.”
Another pilgrim passed through the arch and vanished. A blank faced, praying woman took his place.
“Look at their concentration,” Chin admired. “Such purpose.”
Eneseph bit back her reply.
“I have seen enough,” she said. “Take me to the AI interface.”
The AI room was several floors down. Eneseph stared in amazement at the technology visible through the transparent elevator walls as they descended. Plane after plane of unrecognizable gray machinery, maintained by swarms of slow moving maintenance drones, extended off for kilometers.
Chin waited at the door when they reached the AI chamber. Eneseph entered and began a cursory examination. Three World Class AI’s regulated the maintenance of Jimson's Universe. Their workings alone were quite large. It took Eneseph several minutes to find a human interface terminal.
She began to study the schematics in some detail. After a time Chin came in and peered over her shoulder.
“Fascinating,” Eneseph whispered. Chin nodded wordlessly, poised for conversation. Eneseph continued to study.
“Exactly what are you looking for?” he asked politely. Eneseph downloaded a substantial amount of select information into a portable crystal and got up.
“I intend to devise a way to look inside,” she replied. Chin cocked his head.
“It is my understanding that this has been tried several times,” he said. “No one has ever found a way to penetrate the dimensional barrier. It is simply too different in there. There are no physical laws to lock on to. There is no ‘seeing’.”
“Perhaps,” Eneseph said. Chin lead her back to the entrance. “Still,” she continued, “I think I may be able to find a way. There are several very powerful AI’s on many Core Worlds right now that are standing idle. My area of research at the Institute was faster than Tac transmission. I believe I can link several of them together and use the combined power to generate an entry equation.”
“How exciting,” Chin said.
It took Eneseph three standard months to link 11 Super AI’s together. Two of them were located on Havus Core. The others were spread out in systems several light years apart. She told them what she wanted and they set to work with the largest combined intelligence ever assembled. Eneseph had broken several laws by joining them, but no one seemed to notice.
While she waited she took a stone and paper walled mansion overlooking the slow blue river that ran through Victoria. She spent her days doing research and playing chess with Chin in the estate’s orange grove. She decided she enjoyed his presence. Several other cyverts took up attendance around her.
One day as they strolled down a park concourse Eneseph posed a question.
“Chin, why don’t any cyverts pass through the Jimson Arch?”
Chin shook his head sadly.
“Our DNA and mental processes are suitably different from the human norm to make us unable to gain access. The Arch won’t admit us. Perhaps we lack the soul requisite to gain entrance to paradise.”
“Would you go if you could?” she prodded. Chin shook his head.
“I would not. I believe I speak for all cyverts when I say we would prefer to wait.”
The next day the linked AI’s reported minimal progress. Eneseph activated several orbital factories around various abandoned Core Worlds and initiated the construction of another hundred Super AI’s. Construction time was estimated at six months. Eneseph settled in for a long wait.
Finally, eleven months after the new net was operational and linked, the AI group reported success. Eneseph went to the nearest extension AI to be briefed.
This was an old AI, the size of a small building. Before it entered the net it had been functioning as a traffic controller. As few ships arrived and none departed it was grossly overpowered. Eneseph had reassigned it and assembled a cyvert staff to replace it.
She walked into its reception lobby. The entire area was ill maintained, covered in dust and the webs of indigenous insects. Eneseph brushed off the lens of an ancient holospray emitter. An AI interface persona appeared, shimmering in the airborne dust. The bald, androgynous figure’s clothing was several centuries out of date.
“Good morning,” the persona said.
“Good morning,” Eneseph replied. “I hope the news is good.”
“Indeed,” it answered. With a gesture the room filled with graphs, equations spooling out to the edges of infinity.
“Twenty seven minutes ago we completed our most recent line of inquiry. We have found a way for a modified shipsuit to carry an equally modified human into and out of the Jimson Universe. Several of our number are currently at work on the suit modifications. I have taken the liberty of activating a cyvert surgical team at the nearest clinic to perform the necessary modifications to your physical form. I must warn you that the procedure is radical.”
Eneseph watched an equation skate by. She could not begin to grasp what they had done.
The persona nodded. “Report to the clinic in downtown. We will have the suit prepared by the time your alterations are complete.”
Eneseph walked to the clinic. A team of cyverts greeted her at the door. They were not fleshy like the entertainment models, but rather resembled robotic arachnids. She allowed herself to be guided into an operatory as a cyvert explained the procedure to her. At the end of the explanation she nodded before she could lose her nerve.
She was partially conscious as they cut away most of her body. Her legs were removed and replaced with spindly cybergraft extensions. Her arms were removed and replaced and her torso scooped out. In the end she was a heavily shielded brain and some nervous tissue, enclosed in a ceramic alloy replica of her body, only much thinner. This was encased in tissue from her discarded body. Full consciousness returned slowly.
Eneseph stood. Her new body glistened pink, stinging and raw. She flexed one hand. It hurt.
“The discomfort will largely remain until the process can be reversed,” the doctor informed her. Eneseph nodded.
A wheelchair took her to where the AI remotes worked on her suit. One of the extensions turned and greeted her.
“I hope the procedure was not too uncomfortable,” it said.
“It was,” she whispered. Her mouth was dry ceramic. The AI frowned politely at her discomfort.
“Well, the suit is complete. The modifications include, among other things, a type ten force field. Inside the field you will experience normal physical space. The energy requirements on this system are severe enough that we recommend you spend a minimum amount of time inside. The suit has been outfitted with a sensor package that will record vast amounts of data in a short period of time. Do you have any questions?”
Eneseph shook her head. It swiveled on lubricated sockets.
“In that case, may I pose one?” The AI continued without waiting for an answer. “We wonder why you wish to gain access to Jimson's Universe if you do not wish to reside there. We can assure you it is real. A man could not have misled our collective intellect.”
Eneseph stared at the AI for a long moment before answering.
“I knew Jimson. That is reason enough.”
The stairs to the great Jimson Cathedral were lined with pilgrims from a recently arrived ship from Taurus Core. Eneseph floated on her suit’s anti-grav up the long procession of stairs. She passed the silent line to join Chin and a cluster of AI remotes gathered around a large piece of machinery they had brought in. Her eyes registered crazy magnetic meridian emanations from the Jimson Arch, equivalent to that of a large moon.
Chin stared her with a pained expression. In a rare gesture Eneseph laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Good luck,” he said. Eneseph turned to the AI remotes monitoring the machine.
“We have established a corridor to the far side,” one of them reported. “Once you have completed your reconnaissance simply fly through the exit. It will register as a black rectangle in a fixed location. Remember, we cannot keep it open for long, nor will your suit function properly after the strain of passing through, so time is of the essence. We are ready to proceed.”
Eneseph nodded painfully. The flow of pilgrims had not subsided. She watched as another solemn figure passed through.
Without a word or a glance back she strode to the arch, shouldered a pilgrim aside, and disappeared.
Blackness, impact. Her suit shuddered violently as the type ten force field maxed out. She was aware of pressure, dropping power. The field partially collapsed. She grimaced as the flesh was torn from the cybercasting shells of her exposed legs. Power stabilized at 60%, dropping slowly. The suit registered critical damage. It would soon be inoperable. She activated the sensor array and looked out through augmented eyes.
An ocean of blood, a forest of bones. Eneseph screamed.
She lay on a beach of sorts. The ground beneath her was made of living human meat. It sighed and pulsed against her.
An ocean of blood stretched out to the west. It was bordered by a pink, curling ribbon of what she recognized as lung tissue. She watched as it undulated like a dying worm, oxygenating the blood. Hearts littered the beach, pumping blood into the ground.
A forest of bone trees stretched inland to the horizon. Smaller bones formed shrubs beneath the greater canopy.
Eneseph stood. Her auditory sensors came on line and she registered a crackling followed by screams. She turned.
Some ten meters up was the entrance. Her force shield had temporarily disabled part of the Jimson Arch. The massive discorporator pylons to either side of it were damaged. She watched as pilgrims fell through. Most of them were screaming. A few seemed to blow up as they entered, spraying the others. The discorporator pylons began rumbling as they repowered. Her exit rectangle stood just above the entrance.
Eneseph began to perceive the design. When functioning properly the Jimson Arch and the discorporator pylons dispersed the mass of the incoming pilgrims. She was standing on a plane of living flesh her sensors told her was continent size. Now that the system was damaged the pilgrims were being dumped out whole.
Eneseph lifted on a pillar of fire, killing several wounded pilgrims in the backwash. The meat beneath her broiled and blackened.
From orbit she surveyed Jimson's World.
It was no universe at all. Her suit AI told her she was 31,000 light years from the nearest of the Far Droplet stations. The Arch was a super tunneling device.
The world itself was composed entirely of human tissue, animated through a horrific design. An arterial aqueduct system kept continents of flesh alive. The oceans were of living blood, ringed by lung tissue. Other organs existed as mountain ranges across the continents and the ocean floor. The living planet was roughly the size of Mars.
Her sensors registered a massive electrical storm over the northern polar region. Eneseph descended to investigate.
The northern continent was composed of brain and nervous tissue, fused in a mass several kilometers across, quivering under the lick of lightning.
In the exact center was a throne made of hundreds of interlocking skeletal arms. A creature sat atop it, shrouded in braided chords of naked spinal tissue that ran from its head into the plain of brain mass around it. It was Jimson, Eneseph realized, poised at the pinnacle of the enslaved brain mass. A third arch stood mysteriously behind him.
Eneseph touched down before him.
Jimson parted the spinal braids and smiled. He was
naked, his pale, withered body encrusted with dried blood.
“Eneseph,” Jimson rasped. “There was a .02% possibility you would eventually return and devise a way past my first arch. I congratulate you.”
“Jimson,” Eneseph whispered.
Jimson chuckled. The cords snaking from his skull shook gently.
“What do you think of my creation?” he asked, spreading his thin arms wide.
Eneseph said nothing.
“Come now,” Jimson chided. His sunken, smoldering eyes slid across her breast. “You are the first other than myself to have ever seen it. Tell me, do you think the trees are too garish? Did you see the Great Coxae Reef?”
“Madman,” she said softly.
“Yes, yes,” Jimson said impatiently. He lowered his head until his face was all but hidden under the ropes. “But can’t you see? This is a work of art, the only one ever made from an entire species. I am now a god.”
“You are the worst mass murderer in history,” Eneseph replied. Black spots were swimming in front of her eyes. She wondered if there was enough of her original body to go into shock. “You have destroyed 98% of the known population. Entire Core Worlds stand empty.”
Jimson clucked with disappointment.
“I rather thought I’d gotten them all. Humanity expanded faster than I anticipated.”
“Enough remain to locate you, Jimson,” Eneseph choked, “and when they do you will suffer for eternity.”
“I think not,” Jimson said primly. He scratched his bony chest with one hand, flakes of dried blood bursting away under his long yellow nails. “I can close the Arch. I’m sure your sensor package has located this point in galactic space. But by the time you gate to this location, even if you burn out the nearest Droplet and nova every sun along the way, centuries will have passed.”
Eneseph’s suit was down to 11%. Warning lights filled her peripherals.
“I might not even wait,” Jimson continued, “or did you not notice the third arch?” He gestured behind him.
Eneseph felt weak.
“It is the actual entrance to the universe I created.” He chuckled for a long moment. “Ah, the fabled Jimson's Universe. I knew they would come. Who can deny themselves a place in heaven? As if all they had was not enough. No, this is but a way station, a relay point on the arduous trek to another state of being. This is why your AI super-cluster could not pierce the existence of this place. Because Jimson's Universe actually exists.”
Eneseph’s posture betrayed her.
“Oh yes, I know of your construct. How else could you have gotten this far? A noble and refined gesture, but all the AI’s you could make could not fathom this place. The truth is no one will ever know unless you go back and leave me to enjoy my creation for the next thousand years.”
“You could always go through the portal to heaven,” Jimson sneered. “But I warn you, if you should elect to kill me your return portal will die with me, leaving you here forever. The arch will repair itself and they will come again until there is no one left. You have no choice. If you send the suit through alone the discorporator pylon field will rip you to pieces before you can enter my universe, and you will simply become part of my world.”
Eneseph made no move.
“Your gate is collapsing,” Jimson cooed. “You may stay if you wish. Join with the others.”
Eneseph considered for a moment. If she departed Jimson would live in demented glory for centuries.
With moments left she began stripping off her suit. The air of Jimson's World was warm and humid, thick with the reek of sweat and urine. The discorporator field began plucking at her. She sank slightly into the brain around her.
Jimson watched through a myriad of eyes as her suit reassembled and departed for the exit gate. Eneseph watched it disappear through silently, sensor package intact. No more pilgrims would come.
She turned to Jimson. He seemed agitated.
“I don’t understand,” he said. “You’ve sacrificed yourself to me. While I am flattered...” He trailed off as he caught the glint of her artificial legs. The discorporator field shredded away the rest of her flesh.
Eneseph walked towards him, her cybercasting appendages gleaming and bloody. Her hand went rigid, the endoskeleton locking. Her arm struck his torso like a claw hammer. Jimson's chest split wetly.
Her other hand felt under the ropes of spine for his neck. She grabbed it and squeezed, strangling him. His whisper of protest drowned in red bubbles. With a jerk she tore him free of his throne of bones.
His withered body hung in the air as she crushed him. Long after he was dead she flung him as far as she could.
The discorporator field was penetrating her shell. She could feel it nibbling at her brain and nervous tissue. Wires of pain slowly corkscrewed through her skull.
Eneseph tottered forward on bloody, shining legs and tumbled through the gates of heaven.
FEBRUARY! THE TAMALE GOD
Another one of my early stories. I wrote this, shit, hard to remember exactly when, but I do recall that the idea came to me in a flash and I wrote the outline down in the kitchen. It was in the creative writing curriculum at St. Mary's University for awhile, and you know, I never saw any money on that. This was published in ON SPEC. Enjoy!
The Tamale God
By Jeff Johnson
Hector Muñez sat on a stool behind his tamale cart, his toes curled around the footrest bar. He’d arrived early enough to claim a spot at the end of the pier. Sea lions barked and frolicked among the white charter boats. The surf sighed through the barnacle-crusted piles below him. Pelicans and sea gulls winged aimlessly against a cloudless blue sky. Hector sipped Budweiser from a can stashed in the cooler with his home-made chili sauces and watched the tourists from behind his mirrored sunglasses, perfectly content.
The Pier was thick with people, even more so than usual. Hector assumed there was a convention of some kind at one of the hotels nearby. The shrimp stand just down the way was doing a lively business. Wong, the old Chinese caricature artist next to him, was reading a newspaper, waiting with his customary mystical patience for a bite.
Hector sighed and shifted into a more comfortable slouch. He often wondered if it was possible to gauge what kind of convention was in progress based on the eating habits of the people that strolled past him. No one was eating oysters, for instance. The chocolate-glazed frozen banana stand directly across from him, however, was mobbed by a large, laughing crowd, all clustered together under the shade awning.
Two women peeled out of the passing throng and approached the tamale stand. Hector flashed them an easy smile. He had a lightweight boxer’s build, left over from a few years in the army. He was dressed as usual in blue jeans, a glaringly white t-shirt that favored his wide shoulders, and comfortable blue gel flip-flops.
“Do you have anything vegan?” one of the women asked. She was in her mid-thirties, with big, sprayed hair, overdressed for the warm weather in a wool charcoal blazer and matching slacks. Wong peered around his newspaper and mouthed ‘Midwest’. Hector raised an eyebrow.
“Without animal products.” The two women traded a flat glance.
“Sorry,” Hector replied. “No vegan. I have corn on the cob, but I usually rub it down with mayonnaise, a little chili sauce and dried goat cheese.”
Their hands shot to their mouths in unison and they reeled back, conceptually horrified. Hector laughed.
“Its good! You want to try some?”
They turned and merged back into the crowd without a word or a backward glance.
“Computers again,” Wong said. He ruffled his newspaper.
“Nah. These are drug people. Pharmacy convention.” Hector popped a fresh Budweiser and slid it into a paper to-go bag.
“Your friend is back,” Wong said. The old man tossed his head at the booths just down and across from them. Hector followed his gaze and his eyes narrowed.
He was standing in the shaded space between the shrimp stand and the clam chowder booth. Wong was right. It was the antique collector that had taken an interest in his tamale cart. He’d introduced himself as Dr. Brockbank, though what he had a doctorate in was anyone’s guess. Hector half doubted his name was Brockbank at all.
He had been coming around for a week now. His taste in clothing never failed to be slightly off. Today he was wearing an off-white linen suit, the kind that had always reminded Hector of Colonel Sanders. He was in his late fifties, with a close, graying beard and combed back hair. He smiled unpleasantly.
“You want a tamale you better move, hombre,” Hector called. Dr. Brockbank left the shadows and ambled over to the tamale stand, his smile laquered in place.
“What kind do you have left?” he asked in a low, gravelly voice, tinged as always with humor. He had no doubt been watching all afternoon and knew that Hector had sold nothing.
“Pork, chicken, or beef,” Hector said shortly.
Dr. Brockbank nodded and inspected Hector’s tamale cart.
“I really must have this fascinating contraption,” he said. “Have you given any more thought to my offer?”
“No,” Hector swept his hand across the wooden counter. “I told you I’m not interested in selling. I won’t feel any different tomorrow.”
“I hope you’ll reconsider.” He ran his index finger along the cart and looked up, meeting Hector’s eye. “Do you even know what this is?”
“Yes. It’s my tamale cart.”
Hector had found the cart at an estate sale two years ago. Its wide belly was fashioned from cast iron, with four spoked wheels and four curling wrought iron arms that supported a small canopy. The original cloth had long since rotted away, so Hector had replaced it with a brilliant blue shower curtain on which he had stenciled ‘Muñez Tamales’ in bright yellow letters. The body of the cart was full of exposed gears and old steam engine components, resembling an unlikely cross between an antique wood-burning stove and an espresso machine. The twin boilers with the original lids removed housed his two tamale steamers perfectly. It was a strange looking device, but Hector had seen its potential instantly.
His sister Maria had helped him sand and paint it and bolt on the small wooden cutting board, and Wong had painted a huge red pepper of some kind on the front for his last birthday. It was the hot-rod pinnacle of tamale carts, with no competition in the arena of style.
“Chicken,” Dr. Brockbank said primly.
Hector opened one of the steamers and removed cornhusk-wrapped chicken tamale with a pair of tongs. He put it on a paper plate and handed it over. Dr. Brockbank passed him a five and waved his hand when Hector handed him the change. He peeled back the husk and took one bite, then another.
“You drive a hard bargain, Hector,” he said, shaking his head, “but lord, you do make a good tamale.”
A group of business suits arrived and placed orders. Hector was busy for a few minutes shoveling out steaming tamales and wrapping Mexican corn on the cob, passing out napkins and opening cherry sodas. More people peeled out of the crowd and the rush was on.
Three hours later the steamers were empty. Hector hung the cardboard closed sign on the front of the cart and wiped his sweaty face with a napkin. He had one last beer stashed in the melted ice and empty bottles in the sauce cooler, so he popped it and slurped greedily. The sun hung low over the bay, throwing shimmering gold across the wave tops.
Wong had packed it in a few hours ago. Hector wiped the cart down and unplugged the tamale steamers. The irritating antique collector was nowhere to be seen. He stacked the cooler on top of the cart with the stool and wheeled it down the pier, waving goodnight to the other vendors.
Hector always felt good after selling out of tamales, although it meant he would have to get up early if he wanted to go out the next day. With a satisfying wad of cash in his pocket, he pushed the cart along the scenic sidewalks of Monterey, headed to his sister’s house for dinner.
Maria lived in a bungalo a few blocks from the pier. Her husband Juan had opened his own firm as a telecommunications consultant, and the first thing they had done after its immediate success was purchase a home in the Marina District. They let Hector keep the cart on the side of the house so he didn’t have to take it all the way back to his apartment in Pacifica every night.
Maria’s house was Hector’s second home. Juan was often away on business so Hector kept his sister company and helped look after the three children. Maria was a fine woman and an excellent cook, but she also possessed the powerful personality that ran like a strong river through the women of the Muñez family. She kept both Juan and Hector on a short leash.
Hector parked the cart on the stone walkway next to a manicured Manzanita alongside the house and walked back to the front. He could hear the children laughing inside as he walked up the steps. The kids were playing a word game with cards on the expensive Yucatan carpet in the central living room. Maria waved from where she was setting the table in the adjoining dining room, talking to someone, probably their mother, on the phone.
The smell of Maria’s dark, bubbling enchilada sauce wafted through the screen door. The children spotted Hector and ran to the door screaming.
“Quiet!” Maria shouted from the dining room. “I’m on the phone with Grandma. Her feet are acting up.”
Hector allowed the capering children to pull him inside. Maria’s house was spotless as always, despite the presence of three rampaging children. The stuccoed walls of the living and dining rooms were painted plum and cinnamon red, with a generous compliment of the carefully maintained walnut furniture Maria and Juan shared a passion for. Tasteful Mexican Indian paintings and weavings hung among pictures of the family.
“Mama wants you to call her,” Maria said as she hung up. She motioned for Hector to help her finish setting the table. He followed her into the kitchen.
“What’s wrong with her feet?” Hector asked. He took some glasses from the cupboard above the sink.
“She was standing for too long in line at the grocery store. I told her she should use one of the little motor carts, and she almost bit my head off.”
Maria shook her head, her thick black hair rippling down her back. After three children she still looked like the eighteen-year-old girl he remembered when he left for the army, fit as a runner, with fine, angular features.
“How was business today?” she asked. She took the enchiladas out of the oven and set them on the island in the center of the kitchen to cool.
“Sold out.” He knew Maria thought he should either expand the tamale operation or give it up and go back to college, so he was happy to report a day of success.
“Save some of that money,” Maria said. She stirred a pot of rice and tomatoes. “You never know when you might want to go back to school.”
“I know,” Hector said. “How’s Juan?”
“Change the subject as always. Juan is fine. He’ll be home this weekend.”
“Good,” Hector said. “Maybe I can take the kids to the beach on Sunday so you can have some ‘alone time’.” He wiggled his eyebrows.
Maria placed a lid on the pot and narrowed her eyes.
“Don’t be disgusting, Hector,” she said. Hector smiled hugely. Maria picked up a spatula and smacked it into the palm of her hand, a gesture she had inherited from their mother.
“Uncle Hector!” Little Miguel raced into the kitchen and grabbed Hector’s hand. “Uncle Hector!”
“Go wash up for dinner,” Maria said, turning the spatula on the enchiladas. Miguel shook his head and pulled at Hector’s hand.
“Uncle Hector,” yelled Conchita, the oldest of Maria’s children at ten. Hector allowed Miguel to pull him into the living room.
“What is it?” he asked. Conchita pointed out the window.
“Someone is stealing your tamale cart!”
Hector barreled through the front door, with Maria, cast iron skillet in hand, close on his heels. To his amazement someone was stealing his tamale cart. Easily identifiable in his white linen suit, the antique collector Dr. Brockbank was wheeling it down the sidewalk as fast as he could.
“Stop!” Hector shouted. Maria shot past him in a blur, running barefoot. Hector kicked off his flip-flops and sprinted after her.
Brockbank had a van waiting down the street. Its back doors were flung open and two heavy boards formed a ramp leading into it. He reached the van just as Maria caught up to him.
He must have heard her bare feet slapping the pavement behind him. He had just enough time to wheel around and raise his arm. The pan Maria swung at his head thudded into his forearm with a sickening crunch. He let out a great whoosh of air and fell to his knees, clutching the arm to his stomach. Hector barely caught Maria’s arm as she raised it again, narrowly saving Brockbank from a blow straight to the top of the head.
“You’re busted, culo,” Maria snarled. She lashed out with her bare foot and kicked him square in the chest. He slumped forward, coughing. “Kick his ass, Hector!”
Hector grabbed Dr. Brockbank by the lapels, raised him to his feet and slammed him into the side of the van. The antique collector groaned.
“Get his wallet, Maria,” Hector instructed. Maria reached past him and yanked a billfold out of his jacket.
“Martin O’Neal,” she said. “California driver’s license. Credit cards and three hundred in cash. Electronic pass key for a room at the Marriot.”
“It’s yours,” the collector said, wheezing through clenched teeth. “Just let me go. You broke my arm.”
“I’m going to break that smile you’ve been pointing at me all week,” Hector said, “and then I’m going to give you back to my sister.”
The collector looked past him into Maria’s hard face and gasped. Maria’s knuckles cracked as she clenched the handle of the cast iron pan. A horrible grin spread across her face.
“Yes,” Hector hissed, knowing without turning the look on Maria’s face.
The collector moaned.
“You don’t steal a man’s tamale cart,” Hector said softly. He tightened his grip. “It’s just not done.”
“I’m sorry. You don’t understand. Please, let me go. I need a doctor.”
Hector looked at Maria, who tossed her head, disgusted. Hector released him and stepped back.
“Get the hell out of here and don’t come back,” Hector said, “or next time you leave with more than a broken arm. Understand?”
The collector nodded and glanced at Maria.
“I’ll be waiting for you,” Maria said. She hefted the pan and slammed it into the side of the van, leaving a huge dent. The collector hobbled around and started the engine. Maria smashed out one of the rear windows before the van peeled out and careened away.
Hector shook his head. Maria sniffed and straightened her shoulders.
“Come on,” she said. “I have children to feed, Hector. I can’t save you all the time. Remember this when you consider college the next time. Perhaps you can find a higher quality of people to bring home.”
Hector looked down at his fierce little sister and smiled. She patted him on the back and together they walked back to the house.
Hector rose early and spent the morning rolling out four dozen tamales. When he finished he refilled his sauce bottles from the jug in his refrigerator. He drove them in the steamers over to Maria’s and got some ice for the sodas, set it all in the tamale cart and wheeled it over to the pier.
It was another fine morning. Boganvillia and Queen’s Wreath bloomed heavily everywhere. Hector stopped at the base of the pier, got a second cup of coffee, and then rolled his cart into place at the end of the pier. Wong was setting up in the space next to him.
“That guy tried to steal my tamale cart last night,” Hector said. “His name isn’t even Brockbank. Its O’Neil.”
Wong was amazed. “Really?” The old man set down his easel. “Very bad, Hector, very bad. You must take precautions. Do you still intend to park it beside your sister’s house?”
Hector popped a beer and sucked the foam off the top. “I don’t know. I guess I should lock it up on the back patio for a while.”
“Good idea,” Wong said. “A better idea would be to a find out why this man wants your cart. He must know something you don’t.”
“I suppose.” Hector looked thoughtfully out over the bay. Wong shrugged and went back to setting up.
Hector sold a few tamales, a half dozen cherry sodas and one ear of Mexican corn. Wong did a few portraits and went off in search of some shrimp for lunch, leaving Hector to watch over his easel.
He was working on his second beer, settled comfortably on his stool and idly watching two teenage girls eating cotton candy when the antique collector, his arm in a sling, ambled up to the tamale cart. Today he was wearing a blue pinstripe suit with a limp red bowtie. In his free hand he carried a cane, which he tapped smartly twice on the ground.
“Hector,” he said pleasantly. “How are you this fine afternoon?” He gestured around him, as if to imply that he was somehow responsible for the weather.
Hector laughed in spite of himself. “You’re one dumb bastard,” he said, shaking his head. He took his sunglasses off and slid off the stool. “I tell you what. In three seconds I’m going to break your other arm and throw you off the pier, see if you can swim with just your legs.”
“Easy there, old boy. I’ve come to make you a final offer.” Even with a broken arm, being threatened by a man that had every reason to beat him senseless, the collector exuded irritating confidence.
“I know what this device of yours was really designed for. If you’ll just hear me out...”
“I’ll tell you what it is and show you how it works. Then you tell me what it’s worth to you.”
“Three,” Hector said, but he didn’t move. He stood very still, watching the antique collector and trying to decide what to do.
“That gives me a distinct advantage,” Hector said finally. “If you can prove to me that this is worth more than what I’ve put in to it, how do you know I’ll sell it to you and not someone else?”
“I don’t. But I can say for certain that you won’t want it after I tell you, and I’ll be right here to take it off of your hands.”
Hector took a sip of Budweiser. There was no way he could trust a man that lied about his name and only just last night tried to steal his livelihood, but the thought that his cart might have some unsavory history decided it.
“Tell me more,” he said finally.
“May I?” The collector gestured at the cart. Hector nodded.
He came around to Hector’s side and knelt down, setting his cane before him. Hector crouched beside him and watched as he unscrewed a panel and pulled it away. Inside was a network of gears and tubes, emanating from a small iron cube. There was a small round door on the side of the cube facing them.
“Just as I thought,” the collector said quietly. He turned to Hector. “This device of yours was designed around the turn of the century by a man named Salizar Pettygrew. He was a very talented engineer and a most peculiar individual. I can’t imagine how this found its way to Monterey. Imagine my surprise when I discovered you selling tamales out of it.”
“What is it?”
The collector reached inside and unhinged the door on the cube. Inside was an old cross made of weathered, gray wood. The collector’s hand trembled as he withdrew it.
“Ah.” He licked his lips. Hector leaned closer. Chips of paint still adhered to portions of the surface. A chill ran down Hector’s spine as he identified a primitive looking eye at the apex of the cross.
“This is proof positive,” the collector whispered triumphantly. A weird light had entered his eyes. Hector drew back and coughed to cover his reaction. The collector gently replaced the crucifix and closed the door of the cube, then replaced the hatch.
“We can proceed no further here,” he said, taking his cane and rising. His customary, vaguely smug smile was wider than ever. “We must meet tonight and I will tell you the rest.”
“Fine,” Hector said. “You have a room at the Marriott, right?”
“No no, that won’t do. We’ll meet at your house at six o'clock.”
Hector shook his head. “No. We meet at my sister’s.”
The collector’s perpetual smile vanished like a band-aid yanked off a spider bite, revealing such a rictus of suppressed fury that Hector’s mouth went momentarily dry.
“Your sister,” the collector said in a flat tone. He unconsciously drew his broken arm closer.
“You might be able to fool me, old man, but I think you know you can’t fool her. It would be dangerous to even try.”
“Very well,” he said in a low, quavering voice. “Tonight. Six o'clock.” He turned sharply on his heel and walked away, rapping his cane with each step. Hector raised his bagged can of Budweiser.
“Bring your own beer.”
Hector flinched. Maria threw up her arms in exasperation. The children looked up from a pile of toys on the living room carpet and giggled.
“Hector, the man is a liar and thief! A thief! You want me to let that dog into my home? I have children, Hector! Juan will be home tomorrow and I have laundry to do!”
Hector raised his hands. He wanted to say that he doubted there was any laundry Maria hadn’t done by this time in the evening, but he didn’t dare.
“Please Maria. I can’t take the cart all the way to my apartment in Pacifica, you know that. I need some help here.”
Maria’s fine nostrils flared and her dark eyes flashed dangerously. “Tell me what he said to you and I will be the judge of whose help you need.”
A few minutes later they were crouched by the tamale cart. Hector finished telling her the story, then opened the little door on the cube and showed her the cross. Maria scowled when she saw the eye painted on it.
“You may be in over your head,” she said slowly. Hector watched her, barely breathing.
“Take the children next door to Mrs. Kimbal's and ask her to watch them for a few hours. I will prepare a pitcher of sangria and think about this.”
Stepping lightly with relief, Hector rounded up the kids and took them next door with a bag of their favorite toys. He returned just as Maria coldly greeted the collector at the door.
“Tell me more about this Pettygrew,” Maria instructed.
They were seated around the massive butterfly walnut table in the dining room, each with a tall glass of Maria’s famous century cactus sangria. Already Hector was feeling superfluous. Maria’s brooding, commanding presence had turned him into a ghost.
The collector cleared his throat politely and sipped his drink, then smiled to indicate his approval. Maria’s stern expression remained unchanged.
“Pettygrew was the founder of a Los Angeles cult called The Eye of God’s Twin. They had quite a few wealthy adherents in the early teens and enjoyed a brief period of prosperity that ended with Pettygrew’s untimely death. The tamale cart...” He paused and wiped his brow.
“Pettygrew was something of a rare mystic genius, blending faith and technology. He designed a device, a kind of projector that could convey a sense of faith. I believe it is the very machine Hector has parked along the side of your house.”
Maria drew a deep breath. “Hector, turn on the patio lights and bring the tamale cart around.” Hector got up.
“And you, Mr. Antique Man, will show us how this works. We are Catholic, I will have you know. If what you say is true you may have Hector’s cart for free. We will have no part of it.”
The collector’s face lit up and Hector’s fell.
“Maria-” Hector started. She cut him off with a sharp chop of her hand.
“The cart, Hector.”
Cursing under his breath, Hector wheeled the cart into the back yard and flipped on the patio lights. He watched with Maria as the collector opened several of the panels and tinkered with the interior.
“Perfect. It’s in perfect working order after all these years.” He looked up. “Hector, will you bring me your tamale steamers?”
Hector grudgingly carried the two steamers around from the corner of the house and watched as the collector placed them into the twin boiler chambers and plugged them in. He pulled two hinged brass tubes from the interior and was attaching them to the steamers’ lids when Maria suddenly stepped forward.
“Wait,” she said firmly. “Tell me what you are doing. Explain it.”
The collector shook his head impatiently. “All right. Look here.” He bent down and opened the door of the cube Hector had shown Maria earlier. “The essence of what this chamber contains, the image of it, is what is projected into the minds of those around it. Do you understand?”
Maria reached into the chamber and took out the cross, then scowled up at the collector.
“This is blasphemy,” she said. The collector rolled his eyes.
“Yes, yes, of course it is. May we proceed?”
Maria slowly nodded. She replaced the cross and fiddled with the door while the collector finished attaching the brass tubes to the steamer lids.
They stepped back and watched silently as the steamers pinged and crackled, slowly heating up. Hector finished his sangria and set the empty glass on the patio table, then picked up Maria’s and took a sip.
The tamale cart let out a low hum as steam forced its way into the bowels of the Baroque clockwork interior. The air filled with a dusty, coppery smell. The collector rubbed his hands together and cooed. Hector and Maria looked at each other and grimaced.
The humming gradually grew louder and small jets of steam shot from recessed escape valves. A shudder ran through the frame. The tamale cart began to vibrate.
The collector stepped forward and adjusted the steamers, twisting the knobs to the highest level. The entire machine creaked and groaned. One of the wheels slipped on the patio cement, and the entire cart began jittering slowly in a counter clockwise motion. A piercing whistle issued from somewhere deep inside it.
The collector stood before it with his arms out, slightly crouched, an expectant look on his face. He made some rapid ‘bring it on’ hand motions and closed his eyes, evidently straining to sense something, anything. He remained frozen like that as the tamale cart rotated slowly in front of him, driven by a powerful internal process. Hector and Maria drew back, fearing an explosion as the noise reached a crescendo.
The collector’s face suddenly twisted with rage, and he threw his head back and let out a horrible, quavering wail. He threw down his cane and savagely kicked one ornate wheel, then hopped back, possibly having broken his toe.
“Good evening,” he shouted furiously over the din of the machine. He limped away, swearing. Hector unplugged the steamers and the machine gradually cooled and quieted.
Hector followed Maria back into the house. She poured herself a fresh glass of sangria and topped off Hector’s glass. They sat back down at the table.
“I guess it didn’t work,” Hector said finally. “I’m glad, really. At least I get to keep my tamale cart.”
Maria snorted and took a healthy swallow of sangria. Hector looked up from his drink.
“Can you imagine what that man would have done with a machine like that?” she asked. “Reverse engineered it most likely. Ask Juan tomorrow. His company does it all the time. No one needs a machine like that, least of all some lunatic you dragged home from the pier.”
Hector stared at her. Maria grinned back and batted her eyelashes innocently. Hector’s eyes narrowed.
“Maria!” he shouted in a strangled voice. She triumphantly held up the cross in one hand.
“I stole it!” she declared. “There was nothing in the little box! I took it out and never put it back!”
“You know why, Hector. Faith does not come from a machine. Not on my patio!”
Hector was speechless.
The next day he wheeled the tamale cart out on to the pier, set everything up and plugged in the steamers. Wong was telling him one of his long, ever-changing stories about China and he was just getting ready to sneak a Budweiser when business picked up.
Hector sold five dozen tamales in less than an hour. The Mexican corn on the cob was gone in minutes. He ran out of hot sauce and napkins and cherry soda, even the toothpicks from his little dispenser. Just after one o’clock he hung out the closed sign and unplugged the steamers. Wong was dumbfounded.
“A Mexican food convention,” the old man said uncertainly. Hector nodded and finally cracked his beer.
“Could be. Or maybe some scientist just identified tamales as the perfect food.”
Wong shrugged and went back to his drawing. Hector knelt down and pried the rear panel off the tamale cart, opened the door on the cube and took out the last tamale. He slowly peeled back the corn husk and took a bite, his teeth sinking though the reddish-brown outer crust and into the delicate, golden yellow masa dough, down to the shredded smoked beef brisket and dark chipotle interior. He exhaled through his nose, the afternoon sun playing on his closed eyelids.
Man, was it good.
JANUARY! 2018! This is one of my earliest published short stories. I wrote it while living in Toronto one freezing winter, no idea what I was doing there in hindsight. But I was clearly dreaming about sunlight. This came out in the Canadian magazine ON SPEC. Enjoy!
DECEMBER! Three people in transition, all of them on a different part of the strange road leading to the mythical city of...