09
Nov
2014

Excerpt from Michael Peck’s new ‘Last Orchard in America’ — Kickstarter live

Last Orchard in America by Michael PeckThe audio excerpt above from The Last Orchard in America, read by author Michael Peck, sets the tone for what is to come in the voice of narrator and antihero of sorts, private dick Harry Jome. The book is available today via a Kickstarter campaign launched just a week back to fund its printing. If you haven’t taken a look at the book as yet, the main page for it is set up at this url here in THE2NDHAND’s books section. The Kickstarter campaign you can contribute to here. We’re getting closer to the goal of $1,000 or more there — big thanks to all of you who’ve contributed thus far, seeing lots of familiar names there among the writers and readers who’ve supported THE2NDHAND over its 14 years of existence thus far. Rewards at the $25 contribution level include past T2H collections — Peck was featured in the 2011 All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10 — and other of our books. At higher levels, a variety of prints from Last Orchard illustrator Vinson Milligan remain as well. All, of course, coming along with a copy of the new novel itself. Read the story of how the book came to be via this link to the Kickstarter campaign, and, for now, here’s another brief chapter, No. 2, picking up where the above audio section leaves off.

CHAPTER 2

I was at the window looking out over the intersecting bridges spanning the city. Great hulking sculptures of metal and steel, able to withstand the fleeing and the returning with equal ease, layered on top of one another like a crazy staircase. Bridges are the strangest of modern conveniences, a street with no land underneath, a nowhere boulevard that can carry you across seas and lakes and rivers, transporting you to the elsewhere you yearn so vaguely to be. A bridge is neither the beginning nor the end of any journey.

The river beneath the webwork of bridges was sleek and consoling in its dangerous malaise, condemned to thrash, like all good rivers, against the encroachment of civilization.

A drop of rain struck the glass and eased down reluctantly. A siren careened three stories below in the street for a while, found its miserable destination and became a loose, fragile memory among a thousand others that one soon forgets. Then another siren joined in from somewhere beyond the first and the duet spun off to opposite fringes of the city, a cacophony of parting goodbyes in a town that is built of them.

It had been raining for weeks and the buildings out the window were becoming coated in a slick mirror of water that reflected the faded sky. I studied a calendar on my desk, trying to intuit what day it was, but the calendar was from last year and I’d never been keen on math. I sat back in my chair and grimaced at the ceiling.

I yawned, trying to surprise myself.

There was a blue and white marble on my desk that I began to roll back and forth on the uncluttered surface. The ninth or tenth time I was too slow and it bounced against a copy of a dog-eared Dominic Early novel that I’d been meaning to read. The marble dribbled onto the floor like any other sad, useless thing. I peered closely at the little round speck dreamily, urging it to keep rolling, but my momentary optimism wouldn’t take. I left myself alone.

Sitting in the same position for hours, romanticizing the days you wasted in the gutter, you tend to disremember that the street exists, that there is something beyond the flickering wall clock in the berserk simplicity of a familiar room. That maybe you’re a self-propelling organism with the nerve to feel all right; your body an urban development project and the brain a ticket-window to a carnival that is always vacant, though some silly bastard keeps the hallucinatory rides well oiled and moving along.
Lousiness doesn’t achieve much more in one day.

That morning a middle-aged woman visited my office and offered me $400 to investigate the death of her husband. She was a babbling matron with the physique of a sack and lips purpled by wine, barely able to subvert a speech defect that slurred her words. The husband was decapitated by a train as he attempted to switch the tracks at some remote outpost beyond the suburbs. I tuned out what she was saying for a couple minutes, her mouth jabbering, until she noticed me not listening, and raised her voice.

“It was mysterious,” the woman said. “In a week he was going to blow the lid on the Switchmen’s Union and some people—and by that I mean some people—didn’t like the idea much. And so you can imagine what I think.”

“Why was he going to ‘blow the lid on the Switchmen’s Union?’” I asked, and the woman must have heard my stultified tone, because she looked like she was going to spit on my desk.

“Roger said something about,” the woman paused, recalling, “black market goods being loaded onto freighters by certain squalid switchmen.”

“What kind of black market goods?”

“He never mentioned.”

She gave a harrowing account of the switchman’s life, replete with dinner routine, the hour his alarm sounded each morning, his Sunday yard work. Finished and breathing hard, gray hair clinging to her forehead, she expounded some more and fell silent. Perspiration slithered on her exposed skin like she’d just enjoyed a bath of swamp water. It was disgusting to me.

“Any witnesses?” I asked.

“Just the engineer.”

“What does he say?”

“He was asleep.”

“So he wasn’t really a witness.”

“He was there,” she spat.

As bluntly as I could I told her that her personal grief was not a good enough reason to suspect assassination. People get in the way of trains sometimes. “Basically I don’t like or trust people who sweat profusely,” I said aloud without really meaning to.

“You have the mouth of a dog,” she said.

“Not every freak death is a conspiracy,” I said. She tore into a plastic bag of tissues. “Stupidity is extremely unregarded as a transport to death.”

“Roger wasn’t stupid, if that’s what you mean.”

“I do, and I’m sorry, but anybody who gets his head knocked off by a slow-moving train is challenged in some special way. Wouldn’t you agree?”

I could have taken her dollars and done nothing but sit around and stare at them for a week, then report to her that I’d been unable to uncover anything conclusive. Maybe I was feeling lazy; possibly, I simply did not care. From Malthus one learns that the cause of all evil and crime is overpopulation, and ever since Pinkerton it has been good private policy for someone in my line of work never to meddle with unions.

“I thought you did this kind of thing,” she said, rising with tissues clasped in each hand.

“Honestly, I don’t know what it is I do anymore. It’s not your fault. I’m disillusioned, is all.”

“It certainly isn’t mine,” she hissed. “I ought to spit right on your desk.”

She sobbed out to the hallway. As the elevator descended her whelps grew distant and stopped altogether, then resumed through the open window. I watched her hustle across the street against the light, nearly getting plowed down by a dump truck.

Thinking about the easy $400 I could have acquired, I tucked in my once-white dress shirt and propped a suit coat on my shoulders. A year and a half ago I’d nailed a portrait mirror to the backside of the door. Intended as security to inspect every angle of a client, it served mainly to deflate my vanity. Not a handsome man, perhaps, rather plump and grim under the eyes, the kind of looks certain women appreciate from a distance and realize, on closer scrutiny, they are very mistaken. But I wasn’t out for any woman. I’m sure they’d had enough of me, too.

Well, Harry Jome, I said to myself, stepping into the plank-floored corridor, whose walls were painted in indignant swipes of yellow and red. Let’s you and me get a couple of eggs. It’s about time we had some excitement.

Catch the next few chapters in this excerpt at Vol. 1 Brooklyn.

You can order the book via this link.

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28
Jun
2012

THE LAST ORCHARD IN AMERICA, by Michael Peck — Part 6

In the last installment of Peck’s noir, published in serial here in THE2NDHAND txt, private eye Harry Jome was making good progress on identifying the private eyes/goons tailing him, all as his “case,” the suicide of Ben Bergen and the curiosity of the Longtree family, gets ever more murky. Herein we learn something significant about Jome’s past — from none other than Sue Longtree herself…

Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).

 

Chapter 20

Illustration by Vinson Milligan

There were a few worthless characters in Daim’s, ensconced in the crosshatched shadows surrounding the nine or ten tables. Felt and leather pockets shone in the meager light, and the floors were scrubbed with blue chalk and talcum powder. Behind a glass-topped counter that wasn’t filled with anything a grizzled guy in coveralls was playing with a penknife. He snapped the knife closed when he saw me and picked at his beard.

I’d been inside Daim’s three or four times for a couple of games on a job once, a minor marital squabble that netted a few dollars and not much else. Wes Daim, a stagnant guy in his mid-fifties who had done nothing but smile constantly and looked like he might implode at any moment from some inside joke. What impressed me about the place was the enigma of the farthest table in the rear. It was roped off and marked with a sign that read Do Not Touch. Only four balls were on the table, the eight ball, a solid and a high stripe, all lined up against the same rail, with the cue near the center of the red felt. I’d asked Wes about the unfinished game and he had mumbled something about an interruption eight years ago, and had walked into the bathroom and come out red-eyed, not wearing the fake smile he had gone in wearing. I didn’t pry anymore into it, nor had I been in there since.

Wes didn’t own the joint anymore, and the guy in coveralls was not nearly as friendly, or friendly at all.

“Someone named Lewishom comes around here,” I said to him.

The old guy pried some glue off the glass.

“You came in here just to tell me that?” he asked, not looking at me.

“It was more like a question. His name is Lewishom.”

Out of the shadows a glum kid of eighteen or less sidled up to the old man with a pool stick.

“Lewishom isn’t here just now,” the kid said.

“You have good ears,” I said.

“People at school tell me that all the time.” The kid relaxed his grip on the stick.

“You know Lewishom pretty well?” I asked.

“Yeah, he’s my uncle,” the kid said. “He’s a good guy. I think he would wonder what you want.”

“He would wonder that,” the bearded man agreed.

“I need to tell him what I want.”

Pool balls clanked together behind me, whispers coming from the back.

“He won’t be back for a few days. He’s away,” the kid said.

“Where is he away?”

The kid and the beard glanced at one another.

“We’ll tell him you stopped by,” the beard said.

“Who should I tell him was looking for him?” the kid asked.

“I’ll tell him myself,” I said. “Where do you suppose I can get to your uncle?”

The kid let his eyes wander over to the proprietor’s and the bearded man gave a slight nod.

“At the burlesque club,” the kid said.

“Which one?”

The bearded man said, condescendingly, which didn’t seem to be his nature, “The only burlesque club in town.”

The kid gave me an address on 27th Street, and I hustled over, soaking my ankles in a series of puddles as I ran. I was going to get something fresh out of Lewishom.

The joint was called Shays Burlesque and would have been a useful definition of chintz. Polished dance floor covered with tables and chairs, booth-lined walls with candles running the length of a built-in shelf, and a dark wood bar that could accommodate nine or ten individuals. Dangling above the bar was a chaotic fixture of jagged, translucent shards that filtered a reddish light onto the rows of upscale liquor. For all of its glitter Shays was the opposite of dazzling. Besides Lewishom, easily identified by his tattered blue sweater and sitting in a booth close to the stage, the place was deserted.

I pulled up a stool and sat at the bar, ordered a club soda from a bartender who was obviously drunk. “We used to have 12 girls doing five shows a night,” he said, holding my five dollar bill out and scrutinizing it. On his forearm a violin was tattooed.

“How many girls you got now?” I asked.

“Still 12. But it ain’t the same.”

“What’s that symbolize?” I asked, pointing at the ink on his arm.

“A violin,” he said, and went to the mirror and started disarranging the bottles there.

By the stage Lewishom was bent at his table; he pinched out the candle’s flame in front of him, relit the candle with a lighter at his elbow and snuffed it out again.

At five after five the show started. Twelve girls pranced onstage wearing black corsets and white stockings and garters. Their moves might have been burlesque, but they just looked disordered and tired. A stocky man to the right was beating on a piano and a tall blond fellow was behind, wearing a dumb expression, and slapping his upright bass like he’d had a long-standing grudge against the instrument. The whole thing was amateur and the routine just made me sadder than I could have ever been at the moment.

All the while Lewishom was twisting his head, apparently following one of the girls with his eyes. From where I sat I couldn’t tell which one, and even if I could, the garish spotlight drained every girl of any personal features.

The show lasted a half hour with no break and the girls danced off the stage while the musicians struggled to finish the song.

Lewishom stood uncertainly and headed out a side door marked THIS IS NO EXIT. I went out the front. On my way the bartender raised his arm and showed me his tattoo again. I circled the building, grappled through a wet crowd and reached the alleyway. Lewishom was already talking to one of the girls while he shed the ash of a cigarette onto his shoe, and finally dropped the butt and stamped on it forcefully.

The girl was in a tan raincoat and I could see by her visible stockings that she hadn’t changed after the act. She was olive-complexioned and plump, a red silk scarf on her head.

I crouched beside a dumpster, close enough that I could hear Lewishom’s frantic talk and the girl’s coolly supercilious replies. In a couple of minutes it was so rainy I was getting used to being wet.

“Must be cold in that,” Lewishom said softly.

“What do you want?”

“I want to buy you a drink and take you somewhere warm.”

“I already told you no. I tell you every night and you keep not listening. You’re here every day.”

“But you haven’t told me no tonight yet.”

A pause.

Lewishom continued. “I’ve never seen you in the daytime, you know that? I bet you look good over a plate of toast.”

“You’re creepy,” she said after a minute. “I’m going to have a drink all right, just not with you.”

“I’ve got some money and I’m going to leave her once this thing is taken care of.”

“I don’t want you to leave her; she’ll be almost upset or something.”

“She’s always almost upset. But I’m telling you, the second this thing is over we could travel away somewhere.”

Silence.

“I don’t understand,” Lewishom said, much louder now. “How you can be so–”

“Because it’s fun,” she said and giggled.

“It’s not fun for me.”

“That’s why it’s fun for me.”

All of a sudden I heard the door creak open and someone exit the club. A few distraught whispers ensued. The girl and a blond man wheeling a huge music case went by me without noticing that I was there. She had the musician’s arm.

Leaving my spot behind the stink of the dumpster I saw that Lewishom was still rooted to the spot, shaking the rain out of his cuffs and just looking miserable, illuminated by a spazzing bulb above the door. He looked at me and walked back inside the club without bothering to look at me again and I decided to let my questions drop for the moment.

 

Chapter 21

I was exhausted all over but couldn’t fall asleep till about five on Sunday morning, on the semicircular sofa in my living room. I was staring at the ceiling like it was etched with some of the answers I wasn’t getting, falling into dumb dreams about childhood and snowfalls and Sue Longtree, waking every few seconds in a sweat. My dreams were taunting me. I dreamt of everything but it was all the same. I was ready, alert. Sounds that didn’t bother me now bothered me. The quiet yearning street beyond the window with the infrequent car horn. The off-kilter ticking of the clock. The interminable tapping of faucets competing for annoyance.

When I came out of the last menacing dream I was on the floor and Sue Longtree was bending over to shake me. I tried pinching the ceiling. Sue replaced a pillow that had tumbled off the sofa.

“Don’t leave your door unlocked,” she said.

“What the hell do you want? I haven’t been sleeping too well.”

We sat next to each other on the sofa. I ironed the fatigue out of my eyes with my thumbs. I was morose and hot.

“You leave a trail of cynicism wherever you go,” she said.

“And so what do you want?”

“Nothing much. It’s Sunday.”

“What’s so great about Sunday?”

I saw that she was wearing a nice-fitting pencil skirt, her lipstick hyper-realistic against the  rest of the picture.
“I know you’ll tell me how you found me,” I said.

“A phone book.”

“Rich people don’t own phone books.”

“I do, and that’s how I found you.”

“I’m still not convinced you own a phone book. Invite me over sometime and prove it.”

“Do you own a phone book, Mr. Jome, or do you just dial women at random?”

“I can’t afford luxuries.”

“You can now.”

“Now it’s too late.” I started to get up but she put a hand on my thigh, enough to quit thinking about getting up ever again.

“Too late for what?” she asked, digging around in her purse for a cigarette.

“All the numbers I need belong to people I don’t need. Mostly them, or their ex-wives or my ex-wives.”

“At least they’re in the plural.”

“Most awful things are.”

She tapped the cigarette on her right knee, or rather the stocking that covered it. Her hair looked good. Indecent snapshots of her body kept me busy while she lit the cigarette: slim breasts, protruding bottom, a swath of pubic hair kept neat and trimmed like a railroad track. A gold Zippo flicked in her palm with a little ruby lodged in the side.

“I don’t believe,” she said, “that you can be so dramatic.”

I crawled out of the gutter in my mind and said: “Anyway. What are you here for?”

“I’m here to have a conversation with you.” She blew smoke off to the side. “What is it exactly you do?” she asked.

“This.”

“What else? Where’d you come from?”

“Well, I was young and pretty soon I was older and what happened in between makes no sense to me and won’t to you either. I studied medieval philosophy in college, learned just enough to twist any thought I could ever have, married twice and divorced twice. I spend at least three hours a day wishing I was doing doing something else than what I’m doing.” I leaned closer to her and she didn’t object. “I have a deep, almost religious disinterest in everything and the world treats me the same.”

“You’re interested in me, though.”

“My interest is piqued.”

“I think something else is piqued too.”

“I also get excited when I watch a tarantula in a glass cage.”

“Is that what I remind you of?”

“No, but a tarantula in a glass cage always reminds me of you now.”

She smoked in short, abrupt puffs, holding the cigarette close to her eyes.

“Does it?” she whispered.

“I think so,” I said. “I forgot the question.”

With the cigarette she was doing something more than smoking. The pursing of her lips and the strange eyes when she inhaled were about as distracting as a kid on a tractor.

“Do you mind if I smoke?” she suddenly asked.

“Not at all. Just somewhere else.”

She grinned weakly and stood, sliding on those fat sunglasses. It was the kind of face that would make you starve to death at a buffet.

“Then I’m afraid,” she said curtly, “that I have an appointment somewhere. Why don’t you want to come over tomorrow night?”

“You say it like you’ve already asked me. Will Parker and Porter be there?”

“Who’re they?” she asked.

I grinned wide. “Nobody.”

“You’re so smart you’re almost moronic. Pick me up at 7:30 tomorrow, and if you’re late, pick me up after that. But a string quartet is playing and I’d rather not miss it. At least not the Schubert.”

She dropped her cigarette into a glass of water on the coffee-table, watching it float there with obvious pleasure.

“I wouldn’t have pegged you for a Schubert fan. More in the Wagner line or somebody like that.”

“He’s the only one I know,” she said. “I don’t have the energy for that kind of thing.”

She fired up another cigarette while she was in the doorway.

“What do you have the energy for?” I asked.

“Nothing much,” she said. “But I’m learning.”

She lingered there in the doorway, pouting at me.

“How did you find out about me, anyway?” I asked. I sat up a bit on the sofa, not taking my eyes off her for an instant.

“I wasn’t kidding about the phone book,” she said.

“I mean altogether. How and why did you find me in the first place?”

“The first place was the first place I looked.” Sue didn’t smile and if it was possible for a joke to be remorseful hers was. “I researched you,” she said.

“Am I very engrossing?”

Her answer was an ambiguous scrunch of the shoulders. “You’ve had some trouble, so I guess that makes you entangled. And sad is another of your tendencies. I’ve had trouble, too,” she said, leaning on the doorframe. “So we’re close, Harry.”

“What did you find out about me?”

Sue spent the second cigarette, mashed it on the hallway floor, and put another in her mouth. This one she didn’t ignite.

“Not much,” she said. “Just a lot.”

“There isn’t a lot about me.”

“There’s enough to get a vague picture.”

“But I don’t like being photographed.”

Sue looked beyond me. “You spent some months in an institution right after you finished college,” she said, and her eyes found me, and there was glee in them, at how uneasy she was making me. “What were you in for?”

I got up and wiped some dust off the bookshelf.

“What were you in for?” she asked again.

I kept dusting, finally said, “I flailed when I got into the world. Some people flail, and I flailed and I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. How’d you find out about that?”

She glossed over what I had said.

“And then you’re a private investigator all of a sudden.”

I didn’t appreciate the way she was talking, but she hadn’t said anything untrue.

“What happened in the madhouse?” she asked.

“Madness.”

“I know, and that’s why I hired you. Wasn’t that your question? We’re both a tad crazy.” Sue was whirling the cigarette in her hand anxiously. “There’s three kinds of people,” she went on, watching the movement. “Those who need to be coddled; the ones who want to be pushed away; and lastly, the kind you aren’t so sure about.”

“Which one are you?” I asked.

“I’m not so sure.”

“People like to make generalizations,” I said. “About other people. Not about themselves though.”

“Like that?” she asked. There was a very faint, very cute dimple on her left cheek. Our gazes were tightly fixed on each other.

“Just like that,” I said.

Sue Longtree dropped her cigarette and walked a heel over it without having lit it. I swiped away another ball of dust and when I looked at the doorway the doorway was empty.

Out the window I watched her cross the courtyard and nod at a man with no hat sitting hunched on the bench in a loud blue sweater. Her bright umbrella faded away, blurred by colorful awnings and vendor’s carts.

I returned to the sofa and sat there till 10:30, so tired I wasn’t tired in the least, wondering what I was going to wear that night and feeling sour that my suit wasn’t ready yet.

I shaved diligently, nicking myself in several spots, threw on a bit of some aftershave. According to the mirror I was not looking grand. Now that I was moving around I was more tired than ever, in that hazy limbo between sleep and wakefulness that was quickly becoming for me a disreputably sustained present.

 

Chapter 22

Iillustration by Vinson Milligan

The rest of Sunday I floated around the apartment, wasting time cleaning, drinking coffee and talking to myself. I took a short walk in the rain, but I couldn’t outpace the compulsion to see Sue Longtree. I missed her and it was peculiar, insofar as I didn’t even like her very much.

Sunday evening had no sleep for me, and the rain was a score to my insomnia — propulsive, horrible, desperate. I tossed in bed until 5:15, flopping into a dream and back out with an irregular onrush of frenetic dreams, unsure whether they were dreams or fragments, indications, of a new reality. The world outside was morphing into all the dreams I wasn’t having, as nagging as a hangover. I was down, and rather than simply picking myself up I was digging down further.

I wasn’t sure when I’d quit sleeping, nor could I recall a night where I’d slept more than an hour. The long minutes drooled by — sweating, crazy fierce things. I had no one to be upset with. Because I couldn’t sleep I was also unable to wake.

For some foolish reason I was expecting dawn, sunlight, chirping birds and all the rest. But the rain was perpetual and the external city had the veneer of polished silver and bronze. I dragged myself out of bed and dressed.

The city was hazing over and the dirty streets were becoming less populous, fog and rain determining the shapes of landmarks. It was a little after 4:30 and I was levitating alone in a hushing elevator that blew dull music and belonged to the company that employed another William Florence.

On the 29th floor the doors clicked and parted and I was standing in a reception room of the Allied Insurance Company. The outfit controlled the whole floor, and the waiting area was shiny and transparent; some designer had gone to a lot of trouble to make the place as uninviting as possible. Shards of jagged white glass hung from the ceiling. Likewise, the walls were dark and quite glossy. All in all the place was nothing but perfect lines and zero decoration.

Behind a modernist desk a pouting secretary with too much indifference and a neat bob in her brown hair was polishing her wedding ring with a tiny scrap of cotton.

“I’m here to speak with William Florence,” I said.

“Not here,” she said, continuing to scrub.

“Where can I find him?”

“Not in here,” she said.

“Another address? He’s gone for the day?”

“Look,” and her eyes swept over me quickly. “He’s not here. Is there something I can do about his not being here?”

“There is, but it’s not a nice thing to say to a woman.”

She seemed to enjoy being insulted and smiled wanly at me with a big, white mouth, and stuck the wedding band on her index finger. Before pushing at the intercom button she was already talking into it.

“Mr. Perle. Someone for Mr. Florence.”

In another room a man’s subdued voice calmly replied from two places at once. “Is this gentleman a client?”

“She looked at me questioningly. I nodded and winked at her and she nodded and winked back.

“He says that he is.”

“Seven minutes,” the man said. “No. Eight minutes and show him in.”

“This Perle is very particular,” I said, checking my watch.

“Mr. Perle is very particular.”

“That’s quite the ring,” I said, pointing at the diamonds. “You have some fellow who has you all to himself?”

“This is my sister’s ring and her husband is an engineer. She lets me borrow it when he’s working on weekdays.”

“Why would you need that?”

“It worked with you.”

“I’m easy though.”

“All fellows are easy. Just smile and pretend like they’re too smart and they’ll do anything.”

“You got it right,” I said.

“You can sit over there,” she said without specifying where. “Mr. Perle is very particular.”

I stuck my hands in my trouser pockets and circuited the room. There was no sign of any chairs, or anything remotely relevant to insurance. Diplomas were archly displayed on the black walls like carcasses in a butcher shop. Photos of company parties and outings attached with rectangular captions explaining where they were taken and who was in the picture.

Laguna Beach. Mr and Mrs. Fred Schiller on a twin paddle boat.

Juneau. Mr. Perle and Mr. Freely enjoy a discussion and a schnapps onboard the U.S.S. Scuttlefish.

Toronto. Mr. Shumley, McDaniels and Peterman at the top of the CN Tower.

Next to these ostentatious example was a list of organizations that had benefited from Ally’s money-grubbing. A few feet down the wall, frames bearing senators and actors embracing Ally spokespeople and executives in warm poses.

In most of the pictures where he appeared Perle exhibited as a sallow and serious dark-haired man keen on anonymity, unaware that he was being photographed.

The intercom crackled.

“Tell him to come in,” Perle said.

“You can go in,” the secretary said.

“Thanks, you’ve been real swell about it,” I said.

I stepped through a tinted glass door that she held.

“First door on the left,” she murmured and withdrew.

I didn’t knock.

Perle’s office was expansive and burgundy and neat. Modernist paintings and landscapes lined the wall without any distinction of style or period. Perle was sitting forward on a leather settee, his serious, uncompromising face following me across the room. Wire-rimmed spectacles sat on the top of his brownish gray head. The nickel railheads of the settee shone fantastically in the track lights. Perle’s hands were pure white, and the tight-fitting tan suit was so well pressed he looked naked.

“I appreciate you seeing me,” I said.

Perle’s solemn face didn’t do anything.

“How’s the insurance business?” I asked.

He stirred finally, and when it dawned on him that he might have to speak, he said in a clean voice: “The insurance business has been doing remarkably well throughout history.” He studied my rainy shoes. “Are you a client of ours?”

“Not in the technical sense.”

“Then in what sense, please?”

“I’m a private investigator and I’m looking into the Longtree family. Ben Bergen specifically. Know him?”

I waited for a response, or some kind of reaction but Perle was inscrutable. His expression was as undemonstrative as a sack full of drab neckties. “Is there a question in that babble?” he asked. He looked at the clock on his desk.

“You have four minutes and you can begin with a name.” His eyes roamed.

“It’s Jome and I’m wondering if a man named Florence is around.”

“He was. One of the consultants for Ally.”

“What happened?”

“He doesn’t work here anymore.”

“Then what happened?”

Perle squinted deeply.

“Let’s just say he doesn’t work here anymore.”

“All right. He doesn’t work here anymore. Why?”

“Mr. Jome, I believe you mentioned someone else’s name that you are investigating. How is William involved in that?”

“Bergen used Florence’s name?”

“And so?” What did this Bergen do? Did he rob a laundromat?” Perle grinned wolfishly, as though he’d just brought an audience to its knees.

“I don’t know why Bergen would have used Florence’s name unless they were close. Is Florence working on some assignment.”

“You have one minute,” Perle said, this time not even consulting the clock for justification.

“Why won’t you tell me about Florence? What’s the trouble?”

“Business is trouble.”

“I’m not intruding.”

“You are intruding and now since I have allowed my time to be wasted, I’m going to waste your time for a minute, Mr. Jome.” He put the glasses on and aimed his eyes at me. “Do you have insurance? Everybody in the world needs insurance.”

“I can think of one person who doesn’t.”

“Who would that be?”

“You.” I stood and shook my head. “Not going to tell me anything about Florence?”

He stayed on the settee.

“Nobody told you?” he asked.

“Told me what?”

“That everything is a game. And if you don’t know that, Mr. Jome, then you obviously aren’t winning. It surprises me no one told you that.”

“Maybe I heard it when I was researching an article called ‘How to be Condescending’.”

Perle’s tight mouth tightened more.

“I like the way you are,” he said.

“And I like the things you say. Thanks. Call me if you decide to feel right.”

I was reaching for the door when I spotted it, mixed in with the other artwork. It was the drawing of the orchard that was in the Bergen place. All the lines and sloppiness of the thing were identical; it was unsigned.

“Who did that one?” I asked as Perle studied me studying the drawing.

“I have no idea.”

“It’s on your wall.”

“When you’re rich you can afford to be ignorant of modern art. You can have it if you want,” Perle said.

I went back through the secretary’s station. The girl was still polishing her sister’s wedding ring.

“Get some fennel tea and a bottle of 90 percent,” I said.

“Does that get tarnish off?”

“No. But it might take the edge off you.”

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. Order via this page.

 

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09
Jun
2012

THE LAST ORCHARD IN AMERICA, by Michael Peck — Part 4

In the previous installment of Peck’s noir, published in serial here in THE2NDHAND Txt, lust begins to seriously cloud private eye Harry Jome’s judgment — not just for his commissioner, Sue Longtree, but for near every living thing that pushes into his vision. A wild chase to understand Longtree’s brother’s suicide in upstate Sutter Falls, N.Y., leads to a meet with the proprietor of a golf club with indoor foliage near as wild as the Longtree family orchard’s, and along the way Jome seems to find himself tailed, investigated as well…

Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).

Chapter 12

Late on Friday afternoon the cop from Sutter Falls accidentally took my call after I told the secretary that I was a local politician.

“This is Banes,” the cop said, his voice dripping with nepotism.

“I’m Harry Jome and I’m not a politician,” I said.

The voice immediately roughened up.

“Why would you say you were? I don’t see the sense in that.”

I said the name Ben Bergen, and when that didn’t flip the switch, I said William Florence.

“William Florence. Suicide,” the sergeant said with the tone now of a blunt tool. “What else?” he asked.

“You mean Ben Bergen,” I corrected.

“Whatever you like to call him. Guy had no identification and checked in under the name of Florence.”

“You’re pretty thorough,” I said.

“If that’s an insult you can go climb a pine tree; if it’s a compliment, thanks, we all appreciate it.”

“How’s things up north?” I asked.

“Not too bad. A few minutes ago a couple of the boys brought in some coffee and I drank it.”

“No doubts that it was a suicide?”

The sergeant breathed heavily. “Yeah. If there ain’t nothing else we have some real things to do here. So you can get off my line, buddy.”

“The maid was the first person in the room?”

“What’s your name again?”

“Jome.”

“What’s your last name?”

“Still Jome.”

“Jome, I pretty strongly suggest that you call the motel yourself and get the hell off this line. We have a big zero over here and there’s other messes to sweep away from town.”

“What about Daddy Longtree? He in your jurisdiction?”

“What the hell kind of name is that?”

“British, I think, but I don’t know why that should matter. Ben was supposed to be visiting him. Longtree Orchard.”

“OK, Jome,” the sergeant said gently. “Ben Bergen. William Florence. Whoever. Now get off my goddamn line. You boys need to quit molesting us.”

“You boys?”

“That fink Lewis-something. I don’t like him and I don’t especially like you and you can tell him I said that.”

“What’s this Lewis-something want?”

“Same thing as you. Same thing as everybody.”

“And what’s that?”

“What we don’t have. We can’t give you what we don’t have.”

“You got nothing, huh?” I asked.

“And lots of it.”

He either fell asleep or hung up. I flipped open my notebook and was shocked to see its condition. First I noticed the absence of my notes and the mangled tear at the head of the binding. The pages had been ripped out aggressively. I wasn’t too upset, as what information I had stored in the notebook was easy to replicate and not very demonstrative to someone unfamiliar with the people who made up the Longtree case.

The second revelation was an embellished business card, an eye peering through a split, billowy cloud. Parker & Porter, Consultants is what it said. There weren’t any particulars, as in what they consulted in, nor an address or contact information. On the reverse of the card, in measly scribbling, was the blatant warning and observation: Fuck You, Jome. I really needed a lock on my door, or a brand-new profession.

 

Chapter 13

Clover’s Bar was the kind of joint that had all but shut down without anyone noticing. Its entrance was off an alleyway adjacent to 19th Street, along a portico lined with the sick geometry of spent bottles of beer. The interior was washed in signed photographs of celebrities, all forged in the same hand and snowed with dust.

The jukebox off in a corner was on, playing a song about a cocaine fiend who can’t find anywhere to get any more cocaine.

Sue Longtree was already drinking a whiskey sour amid the decay as I joined her in a booth. When the barman wearied of watching me motion at him, he came over sullenly and I ordered a soda water. Sue looked at me over the red and white straw in her glass. Near her elbow was a plaid wallet.

“I’m surprised to see you in a place like this,” I said.

“It’s the only spot where I don’t have to be around people like me.”

I stretched out my hands. “I don’t have much more for you that I didn’t have this afternoon.”

“I was hoping you’d have something for me,” she said. “Something small, at least. What happened with Montero?”

“Nothing.”

“Why’re you being so coy?”

“Because.”

It was so dim in the alcove where we sat that it was almost blurry. Sue was wearing a shade of lipstick that did not flatter her ordinary lips. She’d changed her clothes for a black V-neck sweater that was cut low and that didn’t seem to cover anything beneath it. One sly nipple pressed at the wool fabric. The jewels in her necklace were disheartened in the meek light.

“Go ahead,” she said. “I enjoy knowing where my money’s gone.”

“How’s your husband?”

“Weak. Disgusting. Infantile.”

Soda water was brought to me in a pint glass, carbonation hissing at me and spilling onto the table.

“Well?” I asked.

“It would be pretty outstanding if you told me what’s going on with you. You seem mean. You said you wouldn’t be mean to me anymore,” she said churlishly.

“I never said that, and why’d you hire these people to search my office?”

One corner of her mouth twitched. “What people are they?” she asked.

“Parker. Or Porter. Or both. I don’t know. I wasn’t there. And somebody named Lewis something-or-other.”

She bit into an ice cube. “That wasn’t my doing,” she said.

“I’ll argue with you.”

“So argue then.”

“And doesn’t it seem slightly odd that your brother would use the name William Florence at the motel?”

“Before you said it wasn’t.”

“Now I’m saying it is. Who’s William Florence?”

“You’re the detective.”

Across the bar a man in a sharkskin suit pulled a chair out for a lady in a green sequined dress. Immediately they started squabbling and picking at the pretzels in front of them, the woman chuckling in a cruel way at the man.

“I don’t know what I am,” I said.

She drained the whiskey in a short sip, a giggle flickering in her green gaze. Then she spat an ice cube into the glass. “So?” she said. “So what? I’m paying you to find out what happened to Ben and you’re just–”

“You already know what happened to him.”

“–twiddling your face at me. I know what happened to him. I don’t know why and that’s what you’re for.”

“There’s something else,” I said.

“If there’s something else maybe you can tell me what it is.”

“If I knew what it was I’d tell you.”

A man in a blue sweater sidled up to the bar and leaned into the barman’s ear and went out. I’d seen the man before, in the same sweater, but Sue interrupted my recollection.

“What do you have on Ben?” she asked.

“I don’t have anything. You want me to make something up?”

“That would be an improvement.”

“You’re cold and you’re demure.”

“If my personality bothers you you can hand me back the load of money I gave you.”

“All right,” I said. “It’s true that I don’t have three nice things to say about you and right now I can’t think of two of them.”

Sue grinned, circling her emptied glass on the table and peering at me with something like condescension.

“You haven’t had too many cases, have you?” she asked.

“Not like this,” I said.

“Your worst problem with me is how much you like me and how much you’re willing to prove that you don’t.”

I wanted her green eyes and the flex of her jaw and that single nipple that jutted at me. She was the kind of woman who needed something to prevent her from thinking. Her slender arms were hairless, with thin fingers splayed out like claws. The supreme awfulness of the place settled in. I was yearning for her and she knew it and I had just found out.

Fifteen minutes later I’d divulged what I knew so far about Ben and the Longtrees. She wasn’t thrilled.

“I’d kind of expected you to have this all wrapped up by now,” she said.

“I’m going to check the public archives in the morning,” I said.

Faraway glimmers shot into her eyes.

“Why would you do that?” she asked.

“Why wouldn’t I do that?”

I stood and the barman stared me down as though I were ducking out on the tab.

“I’ll get this one,” Sue said.

“Good,” I said. “I’ll get the next one.”

“The next one?” she asked.

“It would only be fair.”

Sue smiled wide. “I really do think you like me,” she said.

“I haven’t said otherwise. But this isn’t really about who likes whom better.”

Sue ordered another drink. “Have you ever heard the name Wald?” she asked.

“Not really.”

“He came by my house asking about you.”

I fixed a quizzical look on her. “Why would this person do that?”

“I wouldn’t ask you if I knew.”

“You wouldn’t tell me at all if you didn’t know more than you’re saying. What did he ask?”

“Where he could find you.”

“And you told him you don’t know.”

“I told him where he could find you. He seemed to be investigating something. He brought up the name William Florence before I’d admitted to anything.”

“I’ll look into it,” I said.

Not waiting for her smile to become more irritating, I left Clover’s, expecting the rain to have eased up but finding that it had become clangorous on the streets. Wald didn’t ring any bells. I didn’t think I’d ever heard of him, but I would very soon. What did he want with Sue? How did he know about her, or about me for that matter? I wasn’t quite sure what to figure on.

I stayed out of the rain for a minute, sheltered underneath a busted neon sign. I peeked into the window and saw that Sue was still smiling at me from inside, a tight, lascivious smile that prodded me in the trousers.

 

Chapter 14

Back when I was a fresh, eager kid I spent the weekends I was not getting plastered at the 6th Street Library, pouring over Aquinas and the other deadly serious boys, the plague, the buying of indulgences, murderous kingdoms, fiefdoms and all the rest of that drab stuff. It was there that I’d met Wilma Baxter, a short, pallid girl with long bangs and straightforward eyes. For a librarian she was rather boozy and flippant and we went a few rounds but it didn’t amount to much of anything. She still worked there.

The library was a graystone, Brutalist slab that stretched the length of the entire block. The morning after my meeting with Sue at Clover’s was relentlessly rainy.

Sue told me that she’d foraged around but most of the vintage documents and clippings were buried or locked away. A stipulation in some will also kept all public records dealing with the Longtree clan off limits for the time being, and so Sue hadn’t come away with much but frustration.

Several stuffed-looking employees attempted to show me to the newsprint section of the archives, where reading machines buzzed tiredly. I stooped at the information desk amid a huddle of zealous amateur historians all vying for the big hunch, and requested some editions of the local paper that would include the name Longtree. The name isn’t a common moniker, but the clerk was afraid, he said, that the information was privileged. He was lanky and he was looking at me like I should have been wearing a tie and a cravat.

“I was testing you,” I said. “Get me Wilma, will you?”

“Is Ms. Baxter expecting you?”

“Well, we had sex a few times.”

The guy fumbled for the intercom and paged the woman, his voice cracking like glass.

Wilma had become even more of a sardonic woman, only now she was a few years older and didn’t care half so much about appealing to everyone as she did in school.

“Nice of you to come by just to see me,” she said in a tone, that, were it a color, would have been copper.

“You come in handy now and then,” I said as she took my arm and led me to an uninhabited reading table in a corner where the shadows lurked. She was in a dark pencil-skirt, and her figure cut into the skirt, emphasizing how broad her hips had grown. Her bleached blond hair was brushed straight back, and there were creases at the corners of her mouth from smirking too much at idiots.

“After all,” I continued. “You do fancy yourself in love with me and you always have. Ever since back then.”

“There’s a lot of love in the world and you are a very slim part of it,” she said. Books were piled all over the table, spilling onto their bindings.

We sat quite close across from each other and stared. Her perfume was so strong I felt like it had been sprayed in my face.

“You look pretty different, Harry,” she said, her eyes fixated on my mouth.

“I didn’t mean to surprise you,” I said.

“You didn’t surprise me is what I’m telling you. Different is good.”

“I thought different was bad.”

“It depends on what you mean by different. And, I guess,” she said, taking one of my hands. “What you mean by bad.”

I felt her touch in my ankles.

“Could you get some stuff for me?” I asked suddenly.

Wilma loosened her grip. “Oh,” she said. “What would you do for it?”

Someone in a blue sweater flashed by and started looking at the titles on a shelf nearby.

“I’ll be nice to you.”

“Anyone can be nice to me,” she said.

“Then I’ll be rude.”

“You are rude,” she said. “But I like you and I like thinking that sometimes you might think about me and take me to an expensive dinner for example.”

“Nope. I don’t think about you and I won’t take you to dinner.”

“You’re romantic,” she said. “And dumb. But honest.”

She ushered me into a room the size of a phone-booth laid on its side and sat glaring at a screen of microscopic type.

“What do you need?” she asked.

“Anything with the name Longtree stamped on it,” I said.

Wilma kissed the back of my neck and went away when I told her to go away. Twenty minutes later she returned with some clippings in an overstuffed folder.

“Just don’t take the originals with you, huh?” she said.

“You might lose your job for this,” I said.

“Not when I’m married to the head librarian as of last Tuesday.”

“Lucky girl,” I said, patting her waist.

“Lucky guy,” she said.

The work was tedious. Every once in a while I surveyed the slow bustle of scholars in the rooms beyond.

Daddy Longtree’s folks were devout Methodists, the founders of Longtree Orchard, and also of a colonial inn on the grounds that had been quaintly dubbed Longtree Manor, but since then had been torn down to make room for more trees. Asked by a newspaperman why he had come to this country to start an orchard business, Simon Longtree responded, in that folksy eloquence of the period, that he couldn’t have achieved much else with a name like his.

The article was written 20 years after the events, an homage to the Longtrees and printed in a bland Sutter Falls newspaper. Around that time the Longtree business was shipping apples all over North America and considering whether or not to export to Europe. They decided that they would not export to Europe.

Simon and his wife Margaret were discovered in a luxurious suite at the inn by a gardener who’d come asking about his paycheck. Margaret was on the floor in her nightdress, a knife sticking out of her stomach. Her husband had drowned in the bathtub; there was an inconsequential bump on the back of his head from the soap holder. The fall hadn’t knocked him out and, it seemed, Simon Longtree drowned fully alert.

But it was the conclusion to the report that struck me: “The various tragedies meted upon the Longtree relations appeared then to have reached a bitter — yet considering later events — not more bizarre crescendo.”

When I was finished with the article I searched for a William Florence in the city directory. There were two leads, the first living on 24th Street, the second a business address on 2nd. Browsing through a pamphlet-sized census I learned that Sutter Falls did not claim a resident with Florence’s name.

I took away some photocopies of the juicy material from the rest of the Longtree files. Wilma wasn’t at the information desk, but I didn’t feel much like waiting to exchange more libidinous awkwardness with her and stepped out onto the massive library steps.

Rain stuttered on the cab’s roof as I advised the driver how to make egg salad.  Getting out of the vehicle at my apartment, rain pummeling the sidewalk, the city was condensed into a gray, melodramatic lingering place.

 

Chapter 15

After the library I went to a tailor’s, to a guy named Cramm I’d sometimes heard about. What I needed was a suit and a good one. Nice gray seersucker with a single-breasted coat and a matching vest.

By the time I was being fitted for a suave pricey three-piece at Cramm’s little basement haberdasher’s I was jubilant. I hadn’t bought a suit in a while. The tailor didn’t seem as excited as I was. He was a grim-eyed, balding man with pursed lips and a fraudulent grin that wavered at the least provocation.

I put half down.

“I’m not usually open on Saturdays,” he said by way of explanation.

“Me neither,” I said.

“And I do not work on Sundays.”

“So when will it be ready?” I asked. “Are there any days you do work?”

He shrugged lazily, making the shrug look like a lot of work.

“Wednesday maybe. We have a lot of orders at the moment. I can’t promise anything.”

“How about quicker than that?” I asked.

“I can’t promise anything,” he said.

I paid him an extra $5 but he still looked uncertain, so I left, suddenly sour. Late afternoon had brought stronger rains and sorry clouds that roiled and swept by. I found a restaurant uptown and played with the salt and pepper shakers awhile. The waitress was puffy and liquored. I ordered a cheese sandwich on rye and a glass of milk.

Who cared that some guy had offed himself in one of those moments of weakness meant for the stage? Why a woman like Sue, who had the scruples of a hungry fish, would go through the trouble of hiring a private detective for this didn’t register any kind of sense. Maybe there was more to it. Maybe she was just daffy, like the rest of them — Bergen’s wife a drunk, father a hermit, and Sue too crazed for anything sobering. So the Longtrees were a nuclear collection of sociopaths and suicidal agrarians. To me it was as empty as a wedding vow, and I was being paid — thinking about it was directly against my own interests, whatever my interests were aside from the money in my freezer.

In any case, I was pretty joyous about the new suit, in spite of the rain.

I poked around the newspaper for a minute while the tired waitress kept sliding the receipt closer to me.

Back at the office I rang some contacts in the journalism racket and found out that Parker & Porter Consulting was a legitimate operation, at least on paper. Also that their offices were at 301 East 51st Street, a depleted junkyard section of town. I eased myself out of the office and into a cab. The windows were fogged and I wiped my finger into the condensation until the cabbie told me to quit mussing up his vehicle.

51st Street was drenched in the quietness of all drenched neighborhoods, but the kind of crouched hush that can get loud in a hurry. The trash bins were excessive and overflowed with water, the cops were nowhere, a few residents wandered back and forth on broken porches. They were all black and white and frustrated.

Number 301 had a row of busted windows. A dirt path led to a sheet of plywood that doubled as an entrance. Two orange and white signs warned me that trespassers would not be tolerated. I had to hop onto the sloped porch from the ground. I pounded on the door and heard nothing but the porch dislodging under my feet. Radio news rehashed the events of the world from somewhere close by.

“Vacant,” someone said behind me.

An old woman in a bonnet and white flats was staring at me when I turned, going back and forth frenziedly in a rocking chair on the next porch over.

“You know if someone was here a while ago?” I asked nice. “Two guys maybe?”

“Vacant,” was all she said.

I said thanks and started down the destroyed steps. Halfway down the steps I pivoted abruptly and kicked the weakened door off its bottom hinge, and slipped inside the place. I stood silently for a minute, watching the spray of wood as it fluttered to the floor. There wasn’t much to the place except for a roll-top desk and a moldy teabag on top of the desk. I took a step in and paused.

Relieved of it rungs, a warped wooden ladder was propped on the wall, alongside a few dozen boxes with paperwork spilling out. I was cocky about breaking through a door for the first time and took a couple of footfalls into a wreck of pink insulation flowering around me and a collapsing ceiling, went over and grabbed a handful of papers from the boxes, reading contracts from cases and the occasional tax form.

Whoever he was, the guy sprang on me fast from my periphery. Then there was a scuffle as he wrapped my arm behind me to pin me against the wall, a beard tickling my spine, and he had me by the neck tight in the crook of a muscle. It happened so quick my first response was to laugh, and I gave one long chortle before I couldn’t laugh anymore and didn’t want to and he was laughing too.

 

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. Order via this page.

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27
May
2012

THE LAST ORCHARD IN AMERICA, by Michael Peck — Part 3

And so continues the saga of down-and-out private eye Harry Jome in this noir penned by a favorite of ours in Michael Peck. Check out more of his work out in our 10th-anniversary anthology, out last year (including the short that was the seed for this serial novel/novella). In the last installment, Jome was commissioned by Sue Longtree to investigate the suicide of her brother, Ben, in a session spied on itself by one if not more of the resident rats in Jome’s office, among other haps. He also met the deceased Longtree’s wife, Carol, in a drunken stupor. The plot thickens herein…

Download “Last Orchard” .doc for your eReader (check back periodically — the file will be updated as new installments become available).


Chapter 8

Beside the entry in my notebook marked Carol Bergen I wrote, drunk, uncooperative, enticing. Underneath Sue Longtree I jotted nuts and couldn’t conjure anything more definitive about her. It was quite an extant list that could have easily meant nothing at all.

I propped the window and rested my elbows on the sill. In the jumbled fog of the distant hills a despondent spot of blue sky was intruding; within seconds it was not there and the gray was everywhere and everything in view. Short, angular skyscrapers glinted insipidly. Further off to the east the bridge over the river was spindly and delicate, far away and no more than a future tense, or a past one. Straight down below on the street a dog scurried by trying to catch the raindrops in his gaping mouth.

I dialed information and the operator connected me to the Sutter Falls Police, which was probably two guys in straw hats arguing heatedly over who is going to sit shotgun in front of the desk fan. A breathy woman breathed that no one was available to talk. I gave her my office number and she hissed that someone would return my call later that afternoon or tomorrow. If she said goodbye I didn’t hear it.

I put the recently un-hocked pistol in the drawer, wondering if I should keep it with me but resolving that I probably wouldn’t need it for quite a while.

I acted like I was locking my office and headed for the stairs when I noticed the stationary shadow around a bend in the hallway with grimy loafers. I slammed the stairwell door and the shadow recessed, dragging a man out of the darkness. He was at least 45, obese and panting, taller than me by a couple of inches. The only hair on his head beneath a loud porkpie hat was coming out of his nostrils. A flamboyant green silk shirt was unbuttoned to the collarbone beneath a plaid suit.

He saw me fast but not as fast as he would have liked.

“I’m lost,” he stammered, his hands supplicating.

I took a step toward him. He replicated my movement backwards.

“What’re you looking for?” I asked.

“A tobacconist.”

“Not here you’re not.”

“You mean there isn’t a tobacconist’s here?”

“Not in the slightest.”

“I guess I must be in the wrong building.”

“As far as I know there isn’t a tobacconist’s shop in a three-mile radius. I’m actually not confident that they exist anymore.”

“What’s the address here?” he asked.

“The wrong one,” I said.

“Is it 227?”

“You look like you’re not looking for a tobacconist’s,” I said.

“Is this 227?”

We stared at one another until integrity was inescapable.

“Go ahead,” I said, cocking my head at my office. “It’s unlocked. It’s never locked. Not sure what you expect to find.”

“What is?” he asked, mock confusion staining his reddish jowls. “What is unlocked? You joking or just kidding?”

“The office, you worm.”

Anger and sweat dripped from his big chin.

“Just leave your card on the desk in case something’s missing,” I said.

He was so flabbergasted he was amused. Following me to the stairwell, he said, “You have some dire problems, friend, and I’m not sure that they can be fixed.”

“You muddled or something? You’re blushing like a virgin. You want to search my office, so search my office. I saw you waiting out there for me to leave. Now I’m leaving.”

Between landings he said, “Fuck you.”

“Sue doesn’t trust me? She had to hire another dick?”

“You always treat strangers like this?” he asked.

“Only ones who are trying to get friendly and like to hide in the shadows where they don’t belong.”

“I’ve had tougher people than you,” he said.

“I bet you have, and you like to hang out with girls who like to get lost.”

“Why don’t you get a new shirt?” he said.

“I’d borrow yours but I think the Navy is using it to do maneuvers.”

“Fuck you,” he said.

“Come back and see me sometime. You impress me with your vocabulary.”

“Fuck you again,” he said, louder and gentler. The man was making a Broadway hit out of two syllables.

We took the stairs abreast of each other, throwing small insults wordlessly back and forth. In the rain he scampered away like a frightened nocturnal animal.

 

Chapter 9

Thursday morning was a long, unvaried stream of curt phone calls and abrupt answers that didn’t lead anywhere. It was imperative that I speak to Bergen’s widow before anyone else. Sometime after nine I dialed Mrs. Bergen — it was a lovely number and I had it memorized. A slab of meat was sizzling in the background, a bubbling close to the phone.

“Yeah?” Mrs. Bergen hollered, then, cupping the receiver: “Dot, you stop it, goddamnit. What do you think you’re doing that for?” and back in my ear. “Hello?” A kid started crying.

She sounded relatively sober. I hung up and rushed over with an umbrella.

Daylight was a premature baby as it dangled in the trash-filled crevasses of the city and did nothing but be gray and forbidding. Frightened hobos rooted around in garbage bags left on porches, unsuccessfully warded off by stingy proprietors and the rare, intrepid patrolman. The cab I was in stopped at a light change and I was hypnotized by the freak show outside that replayed anywhere your eye wandered. I loved hating the city, and I hated myself too, for carrying it around with me. Every city is alike, and the people living in it, too. Only thing that varies in an urban ditch like this one is the amount of traffic on a weekday.

The Bergen residence was in the same condition as I’d left it the day before, golf clubs glinting in the short grass, a Mercedes stuffed halfway in the garage. Now the pink bicycle was orphaned on the walkway. I knocked instead of pressing the buzzer.

Carol Bergen pulled the door back and let out a draft of steaming air from inside. She was in tan slacks and her brown wig was properly on. Minus a glass of liquor in her hand she looked naked, wholly depressed at having nothing for her hands to do. Her crazed eyes were apparently not the product of booze at the moment, but something much older and deeper.

“It’s possible,” she said lackadaisically, “but I’m not convinced we’ve met.” She eyed me like I was a boulder that had just rolled onto her doorstep.

I introduced myself for the second time in so many days.

“Feeling any better?” I asked.

“Why shouldn’t I be feeling any better?”

“Your sister-in-law hired me to look at Mr. Bergen’s suicide. I mentioned this to you yesterday, but I’m not sure you were here yesterday when I talked to you.”

The little girl, Dot, was at the door now and stood looking at me with big, wondrous brown eyes that were not curious eyes. In her left hand she had a ratty, discolored blanket, and in her right she was holding a highball glass poured to the lid with milk.

“Go play somewhere,” Carol said.

Dot watched me for another ten seconds and slinked off, leaving her blanket in the alcove.

“She’s a good person,” Carol said of her daughter. “Quiet, though. It’s scary sometimes.”

“Would she have anything to say about Ben?”

“Ssh,” she said harshly, turning to glance down the hallway. “My daughter is minding her business and she doesn’t want to hear about her father.”

Carol Bergen shut the door quietly and crouched on the uppermost of the front steps, protected from the rain by an overhanging, shingle roof. Huddled, arms-crossed, she seemed more petite when not drinking, 5’2” or 5’3”, less than a hundred pounds. I stood where I was on the porch, wondering if she would try to suck my lips away again, desiring somewhat that she would and knowing that she would not.

The breeze messed up in her hair.

“Why is Sue prying?” she asked.

“This seems important to her.”

“Ben hated her. All the time she kept trying to come around, but he really hated her. Ben didn’t hate anybody. But he hated her. Of course, you must have noticed that she isn’t normal.”

“In what way?”

“In every way.”

Nearby a swing set creaked on busted hinges. Obnoxious voices of bird and human mounted in unintelligible tandem, and the rain was hitting the tips of my shoes.

I said, “Whatever Ms. Longtree is, she’s curious about Ben’s death and that’s all I’m doing here.”

“Is it?” Carol asked suddenly, as though asking us both. “She cares about herself and how much other people’s problems could affect her.”

“That’s fine. I was hoping you could tell me why she’d care about those things?”

“Is that what she asked you to find out?” Carol gave a fake laugh.

“So why do you think Ben smashed himself?”

“You talk like your ideas were put through a meat grinder,” she said, lighting a cigarette. The wind blew the smoke into my nostrils.

“He was happy,” she said in a low voice.

“How happy was he?”

“Is there a measurement of happiness?”

“In this example, yes.”

“And what’s this an example of?”

“Whatever you tell me it is, I suppose.”

She inhaled and peered at the lit tip of her cigarette for a few seconds.

“He was fine.”

“That’s the extent of it?”

A curl of her wig hooked into a doleful eye and she swiped it away with the pinkie of the hand waving the cigarette. She puckered her lips in an attempt to refrain from saying anything important or insulting, and then resumed.

“That’s the extent of him,” she said.

“Depressed? Agitated?”

“That’s a profound question.”

“Sometimes they need to be asked to illustrate just how stupid they are.”

“Ben worked four days a week at the club,” she said, exhaling a laborious plume of smoke. “We had arguments over money, the color of the carpet, the worthlessness of the maid. Never when Dot was in the house, though. On Saturdays the three of us went shopping for groceries — you know, apples, tomato sauce, salted butter. Our sex life was ordinary, since I suspect that’s one of your forthcoming questions. Ben voted in major elections. He loved swimming at the Y and talked about the area near his father’s place. Vacation twice a year, usually to the family’s cottage in North Carolina. Sometimes to Key West. In fifteen years of marriage we experienced approximately ten months of misery from each other. And that’s adding up every second. Not so bad, huh?”

“Sounds like you’re reciting from a movie treatment.”

“I thought that’s what you wanted.”

“I do. I wasn’t complaining. Ever meet his father? Daddy?”

“Once about eight or nine years ago. I remember the old man was dirty and condescending at the same time. I didn’t like him.” She shook her head and straightened the wig. “I didn’t like him for a second.”

“What did Ben think of him?”

“He hardly mentioned him unless he was drinking, and that was rare. When he drank wine he told stories about the orchard and his sister and all that.”

“What about the orchard?”

“Nothing about. Ben was happy up there, and when he visited Daddy for the last time…” She broke off and plucked nonexistent dirt from the knee of her pants, then continued. “From what I can tell he liked it up there, but his relationship to Daddy I couldn’t tell you much about. There was something weird between them, but I wouldn’t guess what it was.”

“Something to do with Sue, you think?”

“All of Ben’s problems had to do with Sue or Daddy Longtree in some way.”

Carol Bergen extinguished her cigarette on the sole of her black flat and tucked the butt in her pants pocket.

“Then he behaved as always?” I asked.

“You’re kind of callous, aren’t you?” she said, a hint of a reprimand in her voice.

“This isn’t complicated,” I said.

“It was nice of you to stop in,” she said, rising to her feet. “I have to go check on Dot, make sure she hasn’t started taking after me.”

“Maybe I can help you,” I said, and it sounded dumber than I imagined it could.

“With what?”

“With whatever you need.”

“You’re cute,” she said. “You’re so cute you make me wheeze. Go bother somebody else now.”

“Perhaps you wouldn’t mind telling me something truthful about your late husband,” I said.

She had her hand on the knob.

“He’s not late. He’s dead. He’s been dead for a long time.”

“Not that long,” I said.

“Long enough,” she said.

She burned the end of a fresh cigarette and took a short, nervous puff.

“It’s not that I care overly much,” I said. “Don’t worry about me getting too close to anything.”

“You couldn’t get close to a balloon. And I don’t care either. I have to go inside now.”

The kid was standing there as she swung the door open and closed it. Another squandered nice afternoon. I was lethargic and didn’t know where to go with this business. No one could tell me anything important, except for the fact that approximately everyone I was dealing with was crazy or learning how to be crazy.

From within the house I could hear Carol yelling at Dot, and the kid not replying. Must have been hard co-habitating with a quiet child. Somewhere buried in me there was an almost nostalgic fondness for people, and that’s what I was feeling towards Carol Bergen.

It was warm, and the rain sprayed my wrists and ankles. A fancy silver car idled by as I was expanding my umbrella and stepping away from the house. The driver’s hand waved out the open window at me, mistaking me for a friend or at the very least somebody who would wave back at him.

I waved back.

 

Chapter 10

I went to the office for a while and thought and the thinking didn’t amount to much save to exhaust me. I sprawled on the sofa in the dark. Sounds came from the building, from below me, and I tried picking them apart and locating their origin. One sounded like someone trying to push a statue out of his way, and another — a grating echo — was the noise of a thousand hurrying ants amplified. I was shortly sleeping a sleep that wasn’t really sleep, but more like a shutting down of awareness, and each time I snapped awake I was hyper and ready.

Dreams that night were wayward and sick. Men positioned on rooftops carried small toy knives and shotguns, their presence threatening, fearful. Garbage bags hurtled from tall windows, the inhabitants of the city unseen. And the balding fat man who’d tried to creep into my office appeared at every intersection.

“Can you spare a mink?” he asked confidentially. “Or can’t you.”

“What do you want a mink for?” I asked him.

“Or can’t you?” he repeated nastily.

Then the nightmare turned fine: I was horizontal on a bed in Sue Longtree’s boudoir, engaged in a euphemism that is typically followed by childrearing. Sue was quiet and kept morphing into all the women I had known and had over the years. Frankly, it was distasteful, but succubi rarely behave like ladies. Just before culmination I was alone, the shouts of the women ringing in my ears. I was sprawled on a dirt highway and the orchard was on the horizon. The place was in black and white, charcoal and ink, exactly as it was in the drawing at the Bergen place. I rarely recalled my dreams, but this one was especially memorable. I was stirred awake at dawn by a mis-timed alarm clock in the next office that wouldn’t shut off. I banged the walls with my fists and the noise finally subsided and someone on the other side of the wall groaned and let out an irritated, “Okay. Jesus.”

Grappling with consciousness I had a great desire to sock my id in the jaw. Hot air stirred in the office. There was a presence in the close room that I attributed to the garbled dreams that hadn’t felt like my own.

“Who is it?” I said to the emptiness.

I was still in my coat and the rain from the folds had seeped into the sofa. Without many prospects I grabbed the Dominic Early novel from my desk and staggered out into the hallway. I listened for the others I knew must have been in the building — where had that alarm clock come from? — but the only sound was of my heightened listening.

I took a cab to my apartment and leaned my head into the icebox to cool off, peeling back a bountiful bunch of twenty-dollar bills. The money was frigid, the way money ought to be.

I called Sue Longtree and told her to meet me at the bar around the corner, Hank’s, in about a half hour.

“Why?” she asked. “You have something?”

“I don’t like eating breakfast alone,” I said. “And you need to tell me some more about this.”

“I’ve told you everything I can.”

“Then make up some stories and tell me those.”

I stripped in the bathroom, showered, lathering myself with a bar of soap I’d been saving for the occasion. The hot water was good and I was starting to lean into a wakefulness. I had two black suits in my wardrobe, one with a button missing and one that was too narrow at the shoulders. I chose the button missing variation. A new suit was the epitome of what I needed right then, and I decided to pay a visit to Cramm, a cheap tailor who wasn’t too bad with thread.

I clicked a record onto the player in the corner, Bartok I think it was. Violins screaming in lonely synchrony, but it discomfited me and I took the Early book with me when I left. I had a few minutes to spare.

As I came down the stairs someone scurried out the door, but I didn’t think much of it. I put $900 in the landlord’s slot. It was raining like the sky had gone mad, and maybe it had, and I stuck close to the awnings of buildings as I went.

Hank’s was a bare, 24-hour restaurant and bar that was well-known for serving homemade fruitcake in all seasons and for hosting underground poker marathons. Three gamblers, not counting the guy face-down, were playing hands of Texas Hold-Em, and they looked to have not rested in four or five days, and in Hank’s, it was probable that they had not.

I ordered sausage links and toast from Hank, a droopy-eyed Austrian who could play anything on the accordion except a right note. He was in a red shirt and tan trousers covered in variegated hues of paint. He took my order and didn’t say anything.

Early’s book was called An Incidental Murder, and it was a supremely silly tale about a private detective who tries to shoot himself, misses his head by an inch, and accidentally kills the guy in the next apartment. As far as plots went it was muddled and fragmentary, and by Chapter 12 I was glad to pick up my head and see Sue hurry by the window, close her umbrella as she came into the restaurant, and glance around for me.

All of the gamblers but the unconscious guy perked up quickly at her entrance, eyes prowling her curves, and immediately deflated when Sue sat across from me. Her hair was tied back with a ribbon, nails freshly painted red, and her smile was one I could have sucked out of a straw.

“You like that nonsense?” she asked of the dog-eared novel in front of me.

“It’s daft,” I said. “Pointless. Drab.”

“You should be a critic.”

“Who says I’m not?”

“What isn’t pointless and drab?” she asked.

I shrugged and pushed my plate to the side.

“Nothing, I guess. One thing isn’t.”

“What’s that one thing?”

“I haven’t found it yet.”

She stuck a tuft of hair under the ribbon.

“So what do you want, Harry?”

“I wanted to have breakfast with you,” I said.

“You’ve already eaten and I’m not hungry. I told you how busy I am with the divorce and everything else.”

“What everything else?”

“Everything else,” she said.

“I keep forgetting you’re married.”

“So do I. That’s why it didn’t last too long.”

“I’m wondering what I’m supposed to be doing with this.”

She took a card from her purse and jotted something on the back.

“This is the address of the golf club where Ben worked,” she said. “The manager is a slippery asshole named Montero. Maybe he can tell you something, but when he does just be aware that the truth is probably the opposite of what he’s saying.”

I looked at the card, back at her serious face. I yearned to say something, to straighten her out, but I got lost in her frown.

Sue said, “I have to be somewhere.” She slipped out of the seat, her umbrella dripping rain onto the floor. “Thanks for the breakfast,” she added.

“Let’s do it again sometime.”

She turned, then stopped. The gamblers were studying her studiously.

“What do you really want?” she asked.

“I suppose I don’t know. I suppose I’ll tell you some day. I suppose I won’t know then just as well I do now.”

“You’ve got a sense of humor,” she said. “Meet me at Clover’s at six, six-thirty tonight and we can have a real talk, like people.”

After she left the gamblers grumbled and ordered coffee and one of them scooped the cards into his breast pocket. The game was over. One of the fellows jabbed a finger into the sleeping man’s shoulder and he rose up, startled. Then he lay on his crossed forearms once again. As one of the gamblers was passing me, he paused and slapped his palm amiably on my table. His eyes were opening and closing slowly, regularly.

Talking fondly he said, “That’s some dame, huh?”

“Yeah,” I said. “She is some dame.”

“You can always tell,” he said.

“Tell what?”

“What kind they are.”

“What kind is she?” I asked him.

His head twitched. “That one I can’t really tell,” he said.

I agreed with him.

 

Chapter 11

I arrived at the country club where Bergen had been employed at around 11:30, my stomach heaving with the six or seven cups of bad coffee I’d drowned at the restaurant. The receptionist was a priggish woman in white pants and shirt, with a bad case of glowering. She told me that I could wait while she inquired after Mr. Montero, the starch fairly discernible on the edge of her tongue.

“Mr. Montero might very well be preoccupied,” she said.

“I’ll wait for him.”

“Who shall I tell him is waiting?”

“Jome,” I said. “Just inform Mr. Montero that it’s about an employee of his. If you don’t mind.”

“Of course I don’t,” she said.

“That’s good of you.”

The club’s lobby was posh and decorated with veiny plants that touched the ceiling, a few cigar boxes with tees, five or six bright caps. I sauntered around a minute while the receptionist went into the back. Another man was seated alone at a card table, staring ahead as though in the throes of a remarkable dope addiction. Dull jazz peppered out of invisible speakers and struck the brown and burgundy walls. I felt flattered just to be in the rich cigar-fumes the club exuded. Outside some laughing men were spinning manically around in little golf carts, carousing through puddles and getting soaked. I didn’t understand the appeal. But to be fair, I didn’t understand the appeal of anything, really.

The manager, Montero, was lean and tan and had long arms. He came out from a back-room of blue lockers and coat racks, probably sixty years old, and grinned as though he meant every inch of it. He was dressed like the other golfers who’d been passing chattily by — khakis, floppy cartoon hat, white spiked shoes — but his attire was slimmer, the kind of fit that makes you want to snap your fingers rhythmically. There was a moment of hesitation after the the receptionist pointed me out.

“Mr. Jove,” he said, jerking his hand toward me. His accent was strange and I couldn’t quite place it.

“Jome,” I said.

“Yes.”

Montero’s grin eloped from his eyes when he glanced at the vacant man at the card table.

“That’s Corviss,” the manager said in a whisper. “He cannot be communicated with when he goes into these trances of his. Occasionally he is incapacitated for an entire two days, and we sometimes have to simply leave him when we close at seven. His wife is dead and that may have something to do with his condition. Still, it is unfortunate and we are hopeful,” here Montero lifted his eyebrows, “that Mr. Corviss will find another location to do his fretting.”

Montero had an uncluttered way of talking. English was doubtlessly his third or fourth language, and he went about trying to prove that it could be good enough even for him.

I followed him into the rear of the club, where several wealthy men were lounging with their backs against the wall, exchanging inane anecdotes that were about as humorous as nicotine. Those same gigantic plants were sprouting everywhere.

“What’s with the forestry?” I asked.

“It regards cleaner oxygen. Better for the health of our members. I’m glad you appreciate our botanics. I bred them myself.”

“Must have been uncomfortable.”

He smiled tightly at me over his shoulder, the joke lost or not very funny or both.

His office was equal parts dingy and clean. Ill-lit, stained glass lamps suffused the niche in partitions of uneasy light, as though the room had been specifically graphed to provide the least amount of illumination. An extravagantly red desk, bare except for an expensive fountain pen and a box of note-cards, separated us. Montero slapped a pair of white gloves on his thigh and placed them gingerly off to the side of the desk. I could smell that it was nice wood.

“I collect Tiffany lamps,” Montero said as I contorted into the upright chair. “That chair that you are sitting in was designed by William Morris. Do you know William Morris?” Montero looked at me thoughtfully. “And this table – I’m terribly sorry, but please do not touch your hands on it, thank you, Mr. Jove — this table belonged to William James, who was apparently fond of sniffing at the variegated odors of the oak. Do you like it somewhat?” He nodded at me for approval and kept nodding until I approved.

“It’s fine as far as William James’s desks go. I’m here about Ben Bergen,” I said. “One of your former instructors.”

Three unique alterations of a scowl fleetingly tugged at his thin, tan face.

“If I remember correctly he was not a gifted player,” Montero said. “But he was an erudite teacher, if I may so use that term.”

“Use whatever term you like. What I’m most interested in is Mr. Bergen’s psychological state towards the end of his job here.”

“It was a long time ago,” Montero said. “And why is Benjamin curious to you?”

“He killed himself and now his sister wants to know why.”

Montero was put off by my bluntness and partly scoffed.

“I didn’t know,” he said.

His eyebrows twitched, but they’d been twitching since I got there.

“Ben was a cordial fellow,” Montero said. “I was not so acquainted with him to offer an evaluation of his character. He was a good teacher and that’s all I needed to know. Ben, of course, had his intense bouts of silence near the culmination of his time here, and he would often not talk to any of the staff for days.”

“Did he ever mention anything to you?”

“I remember that I was shocked when he offered his resignation.”

“Why shouldn’t he have resigned?”

“I didn’t ask him.”

“Ever hear the name William Florence?” I asked.

Montero shook his head, then stopped shaking his head, and shook his head some more. “It does sound familiar.”

“How familiar?”

“Somehow familiar, but not so familiar, Mr. Jove.”

“What else? There must be something else. Bergen’s sister had me come over here for some reason.”

“Frankly, Mr. Jove, I have nothing to add but what I have already mentioned,” Montero said. His brows lifted, and his eyes suddenly glinted in the semi-darkness. “I do have this.”

He pulled on the white gloves and slid a drawer back open. He held a four-by-six frame up to his eyes and studied it for a moment. When he handed it over I saw that it was a drawing, the same one adorning Mrs. Bergen’s wall.

“Perhaps this is something. Ben gave it to me quite a while ago, for my birthday. I can’t fathom how it would help you, Mr. Jove, but it’s really a nice piece, don’t you think?”

I scanned the blurred contours of the gray and black orchard. There was no difference that I could tell between the two copies.

“Who drew it?” I asked.

“I haven’t an idea,” Montero said, and I believed him. “But you may keep it. Perhaps I will need a favor from you some day,” he said, in the cadence of a schmuck feigning inner knowledge of the underworld.

“Perhaps you won’t get it,” I said. “I could be ungrateful.”

Laughing for the both of us Montero rose like a bird from a feeder. I put the drawing on the desk. Just to be radical I ran a forefinger over the surface of William James’s desk and heard Montero gasp at the air. In the anteroom the golfers were giggling at a joke a newcomer had just told. They looked at me and stopped giggling.

I took one glance at the clubhouse as I headed back to the street, now optimistically inclined to find a cab. The course beyond the formal building was little more than a flat green monotony interrupted with sand traps and carts — elegiac and quite foolish. I unclasped my umbrella and started back downtown, the rain tickling my back. After five minutes a cab pulled to the side without me waving it down. I told the driver to take me to my office. Though he didn’t appreciate the suggestion we did have a lengthy and enterprising discussion on the wealthy and on the weather.

TO BE CONTINUED…

 

PECK is among more than 40 writers featured in our 2011 10th-anniversary anthology, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10. Order via this page.

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03
Apr
2012

PREGNANT MONSTERS, by Philip Brunetti

Philip Brunetti lives and writes in Brooklyn, N.Y. Find more from him by searching his name here. Brunetti commands a special section in our 10th-anniversary anthology, released last year, All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10.

 

Download .doc version of “Pregnant Monsters” for your eReader.

 

All of the monsters are pregnant and I want them. I don’t know why they are monsters. They weren’t born monsters. They were born baby girls, infants, and then became toddlers, children, adolescents, adults — and at some point monsters. Usually they became monsters after they got married and right before — or right as — they got pregnant. And once pregnant the transformation became complete: swelled bellies and ankles, bent backs, widened hips, bulging, tired eyes… I don’t know.
Monsters. I love monsters.

 

* * *
I had wanted to make my wife a pregnant monster, but she wouldn’t let me. She was too smart for that. She’d figured out that life wasn’t worth living. Or really, that life was so worth living — from beginning to end — then why try to share it with a little hairless creature without teeth? Other things are meant to be done: Grand Canyons explored, Italian coasts considered, Icelandic spas stretched out in. Touristy things crossed with adventurous things. An early-21st-century march up the hill of variety and magnificence. Technologically drowned in data, but still resplendent and set in waves. Waves of fear — violence — joy — growth… The tremendous ache of freedom.

 

* * *
It happened at an X-mas party first. There was a pregnant woman standing in the center of the room. She held a red-plastic cup in her right hand and laughed lightly. She had a swelled belly and a husband in a plaid shirt and dark jeans. She seemed to order him around without words. He circled her like a rogue planet now caught in an intractable orbit. He circled his wife’s belly — and their precious package, growing pink flesh inside an amniotic cocoon.

I was stoned. I crossed my legs and put my drink atop the walnut speaker to my left. The hosts had a turntable too, cool. I looked at my wife. I flirted with my wife. She was dressed in all black, just opposite me. A gothic Christmas demon — just like I’d always wanted. But then here was this beastly woman, this pregnant monster, this strange lady with imperfect skin, a couple of jags taken out, craters on the moon’s surface. I’d gotten close to her. I stood within three feet of her and stared at her astonishing, savage face. She had canines at the corners of her lips. A vague trace of the animal left in her. Her belly was a bowling ball under a denim dress. A dainty denim dress. Who knew denim would give — but this denim was elasticized and enwrapping.

Her jittery husband stood off to the side like a preying hawk. He might swoop down on me with talons intent. But no, he was a mush. He couldn’t handle his liquor. And he wanted to play instruments in a band still. That was a laugh.

 

* * *
I didn’t do anything. What could I do? I never do anything and never can do anything. I followed the pregnant monster into the more furnished part of the loft and guessed her months along.

“Six?” I said. I was being vaguely harassing, just like women like.

“Almost,” she said. Her smile spread. Her lips were dark red. Her eyes off brown over milky white. She told me she kept thumbtacks in her purse to ward off the wicked.

“How did you know I was wicked?” I said.

“I didn’t say you were,” she said. She shot me a look — a desire to deflower me. To open her pregnant legs and let me hard-on first inside. Then any other body part that might fit: a fist even. Could I fill up that cavern bearing a newly forming fetus? Would my purple head bounce against a trampoliny skull and/or shoulders? Had it turned yet? Probably not. I’m not interested in such short-lived anatomic. I only want the monsters, the mothers, I suppose.

 

* * *
We stopped talking. Her husband reminded me of a band that wasn’t Nirvana. My wife had taken refuge in the glassy eyes of a middle-age, spiky-hair queer. She knew him, they were catching up, discussing leather products or something. I wandered into the back rooms and found three people smoking, including the large host. He had some artwork hanging in the hallway too. I liked an obscure one filled with dark blunt webs. Strange ones that can cancel the sun and brim the brain darkly.

“How much for the dark-web one?” I asked.

He had a long lumberjack beard and white t-shirt on. Black jeans. Black boots, maybe. “I don’t know,” he said: “But look at this.”

He pulled a smaller canvas, about the size of a NO PARKING sign, from behind a desk. It contained an ink blot resembling a herring human that’d begun to melt into a puddle of self.

“The Disintegrating Man,” he said. “That’s what I call it.”

He passed me the pipe and I inhaled deeply. And deeply again. I saw the lights of night out the opposite window through the bent Venetian blinds. I liked the piece, but didn’t like it as much as the nameless dark-web one. I told him I liked it and I liked the title too. In fact, it’d been title-less. I’d named it “The Disintegrating Man.” I simply inserted the title into the host’s head serendipitously. We’d both thought of it at the same time, but it’d come out his mouth. He gave birth to it, and I stood to the side and laughed over it. I took another hit. Good weed. Good Christmas weed, just like Santa used to smoke.

I left the room before I got overly tempted to play an organ that was there. I was about to flick the switch and start key tinkling. Tinkling without talent.

 

* * *
Back in the other room with my wife. What would I do with my wife, except love her? Keep loving her. A droll prospect. How can you keep loving? Love’s detonated, not kept. I’d detonate my love — like a bomb. The bomb of love. Here in this room, with my wife, again.

I went up to my wife. I told her I’d wanted her to become a pregnant monster, but I understood she didn’t want to be one. This I understood. I understood also that I was a miserable wretch who should never have children. I couldn’t care for anyone or anything, aside from my wife and cat. My parents and siblings and friends didn’t count — because they were from long ago. I’m talking about loving something new, creating something new, bringing a new being into existence. If it is a new being. If this is existence. If everything is what it seems. If, etc.

 

* * *
I walked out of the party with my wife. We had to go to another party. It was the Christmas season and parties were detonating all around and we were discharged from one into another.

At the next party I looked again for a pregnant monster, but couldn’t find one. It was a pity. Anyway I knew a pregnant monster was there: she just wasn’t showing yet. I walked round the room, hunched over, and pressed my right ear against the bellies of all the young to just-under-menopause-age women. I even asked a few to lift up their shirts, skirts, aprons, whatever. My wife rolled her eyes and flirted with the tallest, darkest, handsomest man there. He held a bottle of champagne like a bowling pin. I couldn’t decide if he was going to smash it over my wife’s head, my head, or twist his arm into an unorthodox pour. It didn’t matter. I had work to do. I kept resting my ear against the belly skins of strange women. Most giggled, a few cursed, one kneed my mouth, another shoved me off, then begged me to bring her a drink. I obliged but abandoned her when I found out she was menstruating. Not even close, I thought.

 

* * *
Later in the night, maybe a year later in the night, we were riding the subway home to Brooklyn. My wife had fallen asleep and her head tilted onto my askew shoulder and she slept a shaky, bobbing sleep. I scanned the subway car. A thickset, sad-faced, stark-naked woman sat alone at the end of the car. The corner loveseat. Not a stitch of clothing on her. Just her thickset body, a few folds of flesh, and a curved abdomen protruding as if she’d swallowed a beach ball. Entranced, I dislodged myself from my seat and gently nestled my wife’s head upon the window’s ledge. Meanwhile, my impregnated streaker stoically sat to the side, unfixing her sad face without breaking into smile.

I got down on all fours like a cat without a tail and crawled across the subway car. It was 4:30 in the morning and no one was aboard save the solitary streaker in shock mode. Though clotheless, she wore an Aunt-Jemima kerchief and had off-hue color skin. Something between bare-ass blue and screaming Munch pink. A decimated human being; a precarious pregnant monster. A madwoman.

I crawled along the car farther and came to her crossed feet. They were broad and unsurprisingly soiled at the soles. Her heavy hands crossed in her lap, blocking her wide bush. I stopped mid-crawl and sat up catcher-style on the balls of my feet. In fact, I wish I’d had a catcher’s mitt because, as I crouched, the woman’s water broke and she slimed me. Streaming watery blood and stinking fluids. I looked into her eyes and she smirked. She lifted her hands from her lap, opened her legs and gushed some more. I was half soaked and stranded in an amniotic puddle.

Soon a pale purple head appeared. She hadn’t meant for it to appear, but it appeared. She tilted her own head back and started to grunt and groan painfully. She shimmied in her seat and the purple head undulated out past its ears. Lots of gelatinous ooze slid and slinked down the gray bench seat. After the head flowered, a bare pink shoulder appeared. In a matter of moments the whole tragic birth was done and I sat with the slimy son in my stained lap. I grasped its ankles, dangled it upside-down like in an old obstetrician’s photo, and slapped its muculent ass. It screamed mightily in my face and I almost dropped it.

Though breathing heavily, the woman appeared relieved. She had a gleeful look on her face. A gleeful, lusty look. For a moment, I wanted to mount her messy mound. Dig in to those dewy, bristling pubes and ravage her. But the little living creature was out and she was a monster no more.

 

* * *
“Don’t tell me your dreams,” my wife says.

“It wasn’t a dream,” I say.

“Your dreams are like a puppet show I don’t want to see,” she says. “That’s another reason we don’t have kids. I never want to go to puppet shows.”

“Neither do I,” I say.

I’m frying eggs at the kitchen stove. The oozing egg whites and bleeding yolks bring back the irreality of my existence. I remember the queen mother of the subway with a bellyful of baby, a wombful of wee one. All come out to catch me. Or, for I to catch it. The livid, brain-colored blood mother like an alien princess of netherworlds and underworlds of ovarian fates.

“How can I be more comforting and supportive?” I ask my wife. She’s toasting some bread on the oven’s grill. Then she’s buttering it as the oil in the pan below me is sputtering and singeing my skin. A singeing like self-flagellation.

“There’s nothing you can do,” my wife says. “There’s everything you can do.”

“Everything and nothing,” I say.

Again and again.

Where are the pregnant monsters? I think. How did I ever get lost in a life without a pregnant monster? Why isn’t my wife a pregnant monster?

These questions and more and more questions and more and more eggs cracked and broken and bleeding.

 

IN THE ARMS OF TUESDAY WELD

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01
Dec
2011

THE BUMP, by Mason Johnson

Catch Chicago writer and editor Mason Johnson live, performing with Daniel Shapiro, at our Nerves of Steel event Tuesday, Dec. 6 at the Hungry Brain in Chi. Details here.


3/8, 2:38 p.m.
I found a bump — a pimple or wart or something — while pooping at 2:30 p.m.: the optimal time to poop. Even though the bump is not on my penis, it is in the general penis vicinity, which is a little worrying.
I think that I will keep this bump a secret.

I’d have investigated the bump more, but I had to get back to my desk before Miranda saw that I was gone. I’ve realized that I take too many washroom breaks. That I pee a lot. I fear Miranda will notice how often I urinate. That, because of my geriatric bladder, she will find me an unsuitable mate. Will not want to fuck me.

Miranda cannot know how often I pee.

3/8, 6:45 p.m.
At home, I stare at the bump amongst my brown, wire-like pubes. It’s a lone bump on an otherwise flat surface. A lonely bump. I worry that it might be too lonely, being the only one of its kind on my lanky, alabaster body, but have no desire for it to multiply.

I am torn.

3/10, 3 p.m.
The bump has grown to three times its initial size; it shadows my pubic hair, reaching for the sky to fly to freedom, but it’s grounded and weighed down. Weighed down by me.

Weighed down like me.

I feel for it.

My belt rubs against it. Shocks of pain emanate through my body. Like a message. Like the bump is trying to say something.

Maybe I should stop wearing belts, but my slacks would look ridiculous. What would Miranda think?

What would Miranda think? Is she pro-belt?

Suspenders… ?

I saw her in the elevator earlier. Stood in the back, debating whether to make small talk or not, but I couldn’t stop wondering if that liquid I was leaning in was urine. Sometimes the delivery boy pees in the elevator. Sometimes I lean in it.

Not on purpose.

I didn’t end up talking to Miranda. I did notice that she’s shaped like a shell-less turtle though. A beautiful, shell-less turtle.

I want to be her shell.

3/16, 10:43 a.m.
And then it was gone. The bump and its voice, whispering in electronic vibrations, the sound of digital watches. Yes, the bump hurt, but the pain spoke to me. The bump told me it loved me, it triumphed through my days with me, the bump complained with me — the weather, the traffic, the assholes, complaining about the asshole who pisses in the elevator. Together the bump and I would imagine punishing this man, tying this man’s penis to the back of a Ford truck, driving off at full speed, his penis still attached, let’s see if he pisses in the elevator now, we’d imagine saying. The bump and I talked about how we would record this, making it into the single most effective piece of advertising in existence, selling Ford trucks like they were hot cakes, the hottest cakes, making millions. Most of all, what was missing after the bump seemed to disappear was that feeling of longing we shared. The lemmings we would send each other, our sighs, pronounced Miranda.

I saw Miranda in the hallway on my way to the washroom. She said hey and I replied by saying, “I wanted to give you everything, but I no longer have it. It has popped out of existence. I am so sorry.”

I didn’t say this with words. Obviously. I said this with my eyes. I have very descriptive eyes.

They’re blue.

In a bathroom stall I saw that the entirety of my crotch was covered in goo. Green, like Chicago relish. I put my finger in it — it was viscous. I put my finger in my mouth — it was tasty, like cheap candy, like watermelon Jolly Ranchers. The taste brought the beat of the bump back tenfold, the tap-tap-tapping of the bump on my brain, like fingernails on a wooden table.

I knew what to do.

3/19, 12:36 p.m.
Miranda’s birthday: our boss brought a platter of cookies and made Miranda wear the office sombrero as everyone sang to her.

People introduced themselves to me.

“Hi, when’d you start workin’ here?”

“Two years ago.”

“Oh…”

I didn’t have a present for Miranda, per se, but I did have something I wanted her to have inside of her.

As everyone sang, I put my hand down my pants, touching the bump that was now constantly leaking ooze, and rubbed said ooze onto two cookies from the platter.

The moment everyone was done singing, I handed Miranda the cookies.

“Two-cookie minimum for the birthday girl,” I said

She’d have smiled, but she was too touched to show an expression.

She took the plate and bit into a cookie and then, well, she choked.

Shit.

Her mouth made the shape of an O, but no scream came out. “Somebody help!” one coworker yelled.

“Is there a doctor here?” I imagined another coworker screaming, to make things more dramatic.

We didn’t need a doctor, though. I knew exactly what to do.

Having never been trained in the Heimlich maneuver, I went to the only important training I’ve obtained in my life: my karate training. For my 12th birthday, my uncle Joe had gotten me a month’s worth of lessons. I learned only one thing in that month: how to thrust my fist into someone’s solar plexus, popping their lungs like rubber balloons, forcing every air molecule out of their body.

Finally, I thought. I can use my deadly hands for something good.

I wasn’t going to waste any time, I punched Miranda immediately. Hard. Quickly. In the middle of her chest.

That bitch went down like a ton of bricks.

On the ground she was red cheeked and winded, but alive. She stared up at me, her eyes wet, her two chins miserable, but she was grateful for her savior.

She was grateful for me.

3/20, 10:32 p.m.
HR sent me home for the rest of the week. Said I needed “a rest.” They are rewarding me. I’ve saved the life of a valued employee. They owe me. They said we’d talk come Monday about my future with the company.

This can only mean good things.

I will walk in Monday morning and, for once, I will not rush to my desk, avoiding the gaze of strangers. Instead, the strangers will meet my eyes. They well pat me on the back, one after another. Standing before my cubicle will be Miranda. She will be blushing, her eyes will be looking down at her feet, in her hands will be a box of chocolates. “I wasn’t sure how to say thank you,” she’ll whisper.

“Silly,” I’ll say. “I’m supposed to give you candy, Sugar.”

Yes, I will call her Sugar. It will become my nickname for her, both in and out of the bedroom.

And then I will take her in my arms. I will lean her to the side. I will kiss her.

Then I’ll get a promotion.

My life with Miranda will be wonderful. The bump might be a third wheel, yes, but a good third wheel. Like a tricycle. She may even grow little bumps of her own, scattered around her body like treasures that I’ll search out as if I’m on an Easter egg hunt.

Most of all, we’ll be happy. Together. Perfect.

Miranda, the bump and I.

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16
Nov
2011

PIG, by Paul Kavanagh

Kavanagh’s The Killing of a Bank Manager was published by Honest Publishing. Kavanagh lives and writes in Charlotte, N.C.

 

He asked a number of silly questions. His wife was sure he had found out about her affair. She had been sleeping with John. They met every Wednesday at a cheap motel. They did things that she would never do with her husband. Sometimes she didn’t want to go, but she always did. The questions had nothing to do with the affair; the questions pertained to the streets that made Uptown. Next it is the kids’ turn. Mike wants to go to bed and jerk off. Carol is on the phone talking to her good-for-nothing boyfriend who wears makeup and listens to music that tells him to commit suicide. Peter is tucked up in bed dreaming of tractors, diggers and Superman giving him a helping hand to dig the biggest hole ever.

So you’ve pointed the spotlight, you’ve done the SS routine, twisted arms, pulled ears, played with Betty’s boobs, next it’s off to the shower. You’ve no dignity left so you jerk off. It’s all yes O yes. Betty walks in but you don’t stop. The last time she saw you like this was on your honeymoon. You might not be embarrassed but she is. After you have washed yourself down you stand in front of the mirror and you say things will get better. You rub yourself down and then throw the towel in the basket. You put on your pajamas and say that you will wear the grey suit tomorrow. Betty says something about the time. You tell her it is going to be a busy day. She goes into the bathroom, undresses, brushes her teeth. Before she can say goodnight you are asleep.

Betty looks down at the sleeping man. She thinks about John. She grabs the sheet, wishing it was John’s penis. She wants to put it into her mouth and feel the bulge, she wants to feel the come seep from the aperture. Betty climbs into bed and the heat from her husband touches her. John bent her over and inserted his penis into her anus. It hurt. He whispered something; Betty tries to recall the words as the penis burrowed down into her anus. Betty rolls onto her side and gently caresses herself. John removed his penis from her anus and filled her rictus with his come.

It is a troubled sleep but nobody will know. Betty climbs into the bed, you are unaware. You are standing on Tryon, you are naked. It’s the same dream over and over again. You are always on Tryon and you are always naked, the only difference is that the people that point, mock, laugh always merge and change. You awake around three in the morning in a cold sweat of dread. How is it going to end? you want to know. You think about getting up, but you don’t have the energy. Sleep is welcomed, even though it is a Trojan horse. Even before the first Z you’re right back on Tryon naked as the day you were born.

Betty dreams of John. There are many Johns and they are all naked. They grab her and violently throw her down on the bed. The walls are covered in peacocks. The peacocks had their plumages displayed. The eyes are watching her. The Johns turn Betty over and they all insert their penises into her orifices. The eyes never blink. There is no turning away.

So you wake up in the morning. You’ve already showered, so after brushing your teeth, you put on the suit. Lately you have been eating like a pig. You start even before sitting down. “Here he goes the old human trashcan!” thinks Mike.  “It is disgusting; heart attack city here we come!” thinks Carol.  “The race is on!” thinks Peter. You’re acting the pig now, but your dignity was stripped away many months ago. You’re oinking all the way to the door. Betty will take the kids to their schools. You once did the drive, but a couple of months ago you told Betty that you wanted to use the bus. You told her that you had joined a group. You called it the bus group. She laughed, but conceded it was a good idea. Now after work you get together before the bus and have a couple of drinks. She’s fine with it. Now when you get home you’re in a better mood.

Off to work. Betty places a kiss upon your forehead. She’s been doing it now for twenty years. Her lips are glowing embers. The pain is too much, but you don’t flinch, you welcome the pain. She will not kiss John with the same lips. “Have a good day at work,” says Betty.  You smile and nod your head. On the bus you act important. You act as though you have the world on your shoulders.

It is amazing how quickly you dematerialize. Nobody gives you a second glance. It’s the times. But under the pink fluff, behind the huge belly, behind the snout, behind the huge grin, you know, wallowing in the sweat, you know, the disgust, the shame, shame is a funny thing; to some shame is a perpetual rainfall that drenches, for others shame is an absent friend, shame can be the torturer, shame the nagging wife, shame is that clown the follows you into that interview and pulls down your pants, shame is that star linebacker that pushed your face into the mud, shame is the businessman that huffs at your tie, shame is the prostitute that collapsed into a mess of laughter at your naked frame, shame is that cheap pop song that won’t leave you alone.

 

GUNS

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07
Nov
2011

THE OBLIQUE STRATEGIES ZINE | Wing & Fly

Just prior to my trip to Chicago last month (hey folks in NY, MASS, PENN, we’re headed your way Nov. 17-19) I got an email from Mairead Case and Erin Teegarden looking for volunteers for an “oblique strategies” zine project that involved the use of the eponymous deck of cards made by Brian Eno and Peter Schmidt that offer randomized techniques toward solving various dilemmas. In the project Case and Teegarden described, writers were asked to pick an original piece to revisit, using the “oblique strategy” on an assigned card toward a redraft / rewrite of the piece.

Case and Teegarden made zines featuring eight pieces written in such a fashion, one of them mine, on the occasion of the Chicago Calling Arts Festival, a multi-arts fest celebrating collaboration and culture. The “oh bleek strategy!” I worked from was “Retrace Your Steps.” Given that I was preparing for the Chicago events at the time, our Stupidist Manifestos were high in my mind. So, here’s the retracing of my manifesto, followed by the original. Enjoy:

 

STRATEGY: RETRACE YOUR STEPS

Would that it were not a cable news catchphrase: Lean Forward

-17. There is we. It exists.

-16. The little girl and I play for keeps, a movie is broadcast on a pile of woodchips, another girl dares the little girl to do what she herself just did. No, I say, shuddering.

0. I speak much and often in the first-person plural about things that have nothing to do with anyone but myself. Is it about me? It is. More than likely, anyway.

1. Wanting send-off, intertextuality, life to imitate art and vice versa.

15. There was a reading in a cellar for books. I had returned briefly. I had been gone a long time. I was not yet a father, though what would be a daughter was a reality in the womb of the woman accompanying me to the reading, who by this time knew it. I tried to smoke cigarettes as far away from her as I could get. It wasn’t far enough.

19. I read the rest of Shklovsky, including his 1920s Soviet military expansion notes; his biographical sketch of Mayakovsky, that pompous ass, on honeymoon on Greek beaches and cafes; his third factory. I read Bolano and well remembered conceptions of movementeering, of schools of aesthetic thought that above all else held themselves in somewhat satirical regard during moments of high philosophical import. Friends laughed, drunk with it all. I laughed with them.

20. A picture in a box in someone’s closet of three humans, two men and a woman as young and perhaps drunk as they look, one of the men with his mouth wide open as if an ape high as a kite. This picture is the essence. This picture distills the day of its taking – stars in high regard, beer patios, drive-by shootings.

24. Surrounded by dumb, loud music, surrounded by bodies, sweat, someone proffers a name. “Listen: ‘Stupidism.’” “I like it.” “No, listen: ‘Stupidism.’ You don’t get it.” “I like it.”

33. There was another reading. I used the first-person plural to make myself sound as if I had a core of humans at my back who were ready to tear down the walls with me just to get to her. I didn’t think it worked, then, but it did.

38. There is no we.

39. We were not at the airport – or on the avenue in Brooklyn running parallel to the East River, Greenpoint, where I last saw her — when she gave me the book, a full-edition photocopy of the book, rather. It held stupid lessons in stupid art, in stupid love, some of the lessons all the more true for their stupidity. “We are in the business of the creation of new things.” That’s one, if extrapolated. “Routine we transform into anecdotes.” Another. “Insults aimed at us can always be jotted down.” The ultimate.

56. I drank a measly quite hefty pint of whisky at a party. It all ended well, after the brief headache.

 

THE STUPIDIST MANIFESTO

We are the lesser primates among humanity — we require digital extensions with pens — but we wear the label proudly, hopefully, forcefully. Apes unite!

We live in a time of intelligence. Everything — from bombs and insurance policies to mood medications and the interfaces that guide our communications devices, which is to say nothing of the communications devices themselves, to the multiplicity of the choices available to us (make it the smart choice, goes a commercial local to someplace in the anonymous American wilds, for a particular brand of soap) — yes, everything, is smart. Everything, except for ourselves, and by extension our literature. Where we might achieve success, ever defined by money and happiness, our literature can only be a good read, a page-turner, a titillating memoir of a CEO come from the brink of financial ruin to a truer self-understanding. Malarky, we say, a word with a rich history that we well know. And this: if we are being excluded from the panoply of intelligence amassing in veritable constellations, or massive, very real military ranks, around us, what can we be but stupid?

It sounds like an insult, but let us embrace it. Philosophs and litterateurs the eons over have played games of definition, after all. Let us be stupid like the fox, that trickster of folklore, stupid like the fools of Shakespeare, like the Invisible Man of the modern American canon, he who once warned us to beware of those who talk of the spiral of history, for they are preparing a boomerang. We hold our steel helmets at the ready. The messengers of the new intelligence amass at the gates to the halls of the literature. The Stupidists meet them, remanufactured typewriters and pens stolen from office garbage bins our weaponry, cast-off printouts from PowerPoint presentations our ammunition. We fill the empty backs of the prints with exquisite stupidity. We need not loaves and fishes — we feed the armada with words.

The Stupidist needs not the comfort of home, she draws sustenance from the road, the experience of the new. And when in Rome, when immersed in the culture of the humans, the apes lives on the rooftops, ever roving, well above the umbrella. The Stupidist is a litterateur for the unsuspecting. We are in the business of the creation of new things.

 

PAST WING & FLY

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23
Aug
2011

DEAD CENTER, by B.J. Carrick

He dips into his assets and makes a determination. The funds are there. Some rates would have to be negotiated, but the numbers make sense. His ability to calculate has become dull. The fresh red pencil fleshes out the skills.

The money would not really be leaving his cold pink hands. His life savings would be cashed in, held briefly in foreign hands, then diverted to his new home; he’d flip assets like Helm and Manuel. He would own the boards beneath his feet for the first time.

The place is large and on the outskirts. The city is a mess that far north—diverse but unnatural. Gunfire. The poor and minority are being kicked out slowly as the city ruptures and bleeds out, and they are pissed off. The majority is up in arms. He has three bedrooms. He is 25.

He banks days and paints nights and weekends. The banking pays the bills. He has a brother who’s a doctor, with no concept of holidays. This is fine with him: holidays are a bonus chunk of time for painting. His brother is all he has left. The rest of his family didn’t survive the last war.

A few years go by and he sells. He wants a place closer to the city, with a little more noise. He needs a bigger edge to paint against. The second place has two bedrooms and the traffic is bad. He gets a cat at age 30. His assets are increasing.

He quits his job at the bank and plays the stock market awhile. The funds are there. He paints more and gets a show at a local cafe. The response is tremendous. He prints a stack of business cards, secretly. They turn out nice. He gets a lot of email. People love his work, but they don’t buy it.

The paintings are mainly of forests. There is usually a central figure, but it is not human. Maybe a large or white or burning tree. The texture is the key. He paints with oils—very little linseed for a thick mix.

His selling price on the second place is twice what he paid. He empties his account on the third place: one bedroom, downtown.

The city is sharp-angled and gray here. He is very aware of his walls. He has room for a basil plant in his one window — he snips the leaves and crushes garlic onto his frozen four-cheese pizza. He can afford frozen food, and doctors it up nice.

He paints a horse and a woman holding a fan.

He stands, frozen, in a tiny square in the city’s dead center.

MARTYR MACHINE

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31
Jul
2011

BACKYARD EGG FARMER’S OPEN LETTER TO THE INTERNAL REVENUE SERVICE, by Tim Brown

Brown works as a librarian at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., where he lives and writes.

 

I’ve got Form 4868 (Application for Automatic Extension of Time to File U.S. Individual Tax Return) here in front of me. The instructions seem straightforward enough: I must record my personal information, including my occupation, and then calculate my estimated total tax liability, the total tax payment I already made, the balance, and the amount of the balance I am sending in along with my extension form. But in the time it takes to do all of these things, I could just about file my taxes. For consolation, I did some quick research and found that I am among an estimated ten million Americans in this pickle.

I woke early yesterday morning, the day before the deadline, with the intention of filing my taxes as soon as I completed my chores: Watering and fertilizing my vegetable garden; staking tomatoes; sewing additional rows of lima beans and sugar snap peas; fitting the stems of crookneck squash with tinfoil collars to protect them against insect borers; planting marigolds to redirect such tourists as the Mexican bean beetle to my neighbors’ yards; snaking my gloved hand through beds of money plant, Queen Anne’s lace, and phlox to extract smartweed, greenbrier, and poison ivy; cleaning my pet chickens’ compact coop; and dusting their fresh bedding straw with diatomaceous earth to ward off mites. As evening approached, I stood outside the coop with an aromatic cigar and a glass of chardonnay, and recited a few poems by Gerard Manley Hopkins. His words and “sprung rhythm” quiet the hens, especially at this time of year, the height of their annual egg production, “When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush.”

As you see, one chore led to another, until darkness descended and I found myself doing a load of laundry, including the denim bib overalls I had been wearing. After running the load through the dryer, I discovered that I had left my checkbook in my overalls (till then, I had drunk but one glass of wine). With the checkbook in tatters, the dryer looked as if the seed head of a dandelion or a cattail had exploded inside.

Not only did my checkbook contain all of the charitable contributions I made this past year, which I need to itemize to attach to my 1040 (Individual Income Tax) Form, but it also contained all of the cash payments that a local farm-and-garden-supply store gave me for my organic, free-range eggs. My hens produce between one- and two-dozen eggs each week, even during winter, when the heat lamp in the coop supplements the sun.

As a farmer, I operate by the motto “Intensive variety!” My entire yard — front and back — is just shy of one third of an acre. In my backyard I grow a little bit of everything, from asparagus to leaf lettuce to zucchini. Recently, I have branched out into fruits — blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, strawberries, muscadines, and scuppernongs. Still, my chickens’ eggs are the only produce I claim to make a profit on. This cherished sum grows suspect upon close examination because of my rising production costs — organic feed and herbal wormer treatment as well as cigars and wine.

Once I get my checkbook pieced back together, I shall complete my 1040 Form and then send it in along with my remaining balance and a dozen fresh eggs. I trust that FedEx can deliver them overnight and intact. In addition to your understanding, I ask for a personal favor: Might you consider changing my recorded occupation from “college librarian” to “college librarian and backyard egg farmer?” This nominal change may not qualify me to get a coveted “Farm Truck” license plate from my State’s Department of Motor Vehicles, yet it would give my vanity a shot of 10-10-10. Later this spring I am going to visit my parents, whose neighbor used to be president of my hometown’s 4-H Club. Although retired, he continues to cultivate a crop of future agronomists. It would thrill me to surprise him with my new official title, to give him one more opportunity to “hurrah,” as Hopkins likes to say, “in the harvest.”

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