19
Jun
2012

THE LAST ORCHARD IN AMERICA, by Michael Peck — Part 5

In the last installment of Peck’s noir, published in serial here in THE2NDHAND txt, we left private eye Harry Jome being choked by a squatter in a house he checked out as the offices of two private eyes who are investigating his investigation into the death of Ben Bergen, brother of Sue Longtree. The plot thickens in this installment…

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

 

 

Chapter 16

“Hi,” the bearded man said casually into my ear with a blast of disenfranchised breath.

He pushed me farther into the room, paused my strangulation and forced me to kneel. The place was a shambles, the floor stripped to the plywood foundation and strewn with nails and screws and bits of trash fluttering in the wind and rushing in through a gaping hole in the east wall.

“Look,” I said when he released me, finding some fear to put in my voice. “I just bought a fetching suit and I’d like to be able to wear it if you don’t mind. I am trespassing, but I’m trespassing for a reason.”

“Yeah,” he garbled. “Yeah. Uh yeah,” and then, finality lacing his words, “OK. So? So what?” His intonation was freakish, like he’d been taken over by an untuned radio station.

I couldn’t be sure if he was armed or encyclopedically reckless. Turning slightly, I saw that my attacker was carefully biting the skin on his thumb, and not paying me any attention He was nothing but a deadbeat with long, sand-colored hair that knotted at the top of his wide head.

“You a squatter here?” I asked.

He’d forgotten all about me. Extraordinarily blue eyes snapped suddenly and there was kindness in them, but not a lot of kindness.

“Hey,” he said.

“Many people stop by?” I asked.

“Hey,” he told me.

“Don’t be shy.”

“Tomorrow,” he said.

“Tomorrow what?”

“Tomorrow it will be.”

“Not today though?”

He shook his head slowly.

“Nope,” he said.

“Are you sure?”

“Don’t I fucking look it?”

“More than most.” I thrust some dollar bills at him and brushed the debris off my pants.

“Who comes by here occasionally?” I asked.

“Two guys come by. They get the mail and right off. They don’t say hello or anything. Just get the mail and right off.”
“Is one of them fat and bald and shady.”

He considered the image for five seconds, narrowing his eyes, ran a hand through his knotted hair and narrowed his eyes some more.

“Yeah. And so is the other one.”

“Who else? A mean redheaded woman?”

“I’d like her a lot,” he said. “Bring her around if you can.”

All at once he lowered himself onto the floor cross-legged, rubbing his knees vigorously for warmth.

I started to leave.

“Guy named Lewishom,” he said as I was grappling away.

“What about a guy named Lewishom?”

“He came by and asked about the two guys who get their mail here.”

“What’s Lewishom look like?”

“Like ordinary. Blue sweater. Jacket. Head. Said he was a private eye and he was just curious.”

“Just curious about what?”

“About the two guys who get their mail here, and to let him know if and when they come back to get their mail.”

“What did you say to Lewishom?”

“I told him they both get their mail here.”

“Where did he say you could contact him?”

“A billiards hall. Daim’s Billiards. That was the one.”

“How about somebody named Wald?”

“No,” the guy said thoughtfully. “But I know guys by other names.”

“What kind of other names?”

“You wouldn’t know them, they’re not named Wald. Oh wait,” he said. “Wald, Wald. That sounds familiar.”

“Keep it moving along,” I said. “Maybe you’ll pick up some lint with it.”

“No,” he said. “I was wrong. It don’t sound familiar very much.”

The woman in the bonnet wagged her finger at me from a porch down the block, whose yard was filled with a gaggle of television sets in disrepair and plastic buckets overflowing.

“Thanks,” I said to her.

She said, “Vacant?” And nodding theatrically, she answered, “Vacant.”

I had another useless lead to go by, another big squeeze from all sides. Going from 51st Street back downtown was a short, wet journey, reduced to looking at the hint of a defunct metropolis. I passed a heap of cars in a fenced-in yard. Inside the parameter men were rooting for objects of value. Stained glass windows flickered at me from the white church on 46th Street, the sole business in the area that was still rolling high. On 34th Street there was the old train station, now a megalith of jagged panes of glass, a gouged exterior, one railcar out front for nostalgic reasons that had been forgotten long ago.

I kept on. The rain was flooding into my shoes, and the instant I was back downtown I went into a loud department store and bought myself a new pair of shining wingtips.

“What do you think about that?” I asked the clerk.

“About what, sir?” the clerk asked sleepily.

“These new shoes.”

“They’re good. If we sell them they’re good.”

“You bet they are.”

 

Chapter 17

On Saturday I spent the a.m. hours in my bathtub scouring old documents for any mention of the Longtree family, some photocopies of clippings, features and the rare photograph of men with beards in breeches and frigid women in billowing dresses. I perused back to the beginning. From what I could gather, the story went something like this:

In the mid-1800s they’d come over from Scotland, settled up north and didn’t budge from the area. Langley Longtree, Daddy’s great-great grandfather, was convicted of slaughtering his butcher in the old country and fled to America, disgraced but anonymous for a brief time. Apparently, Langley unsuccessfully tried to do away with some more people and eventually strangled himself in prison with his silk handkerchief. Daddy’s great grandfather, Gregory Longtree, tended the orchard and disappeared after a gruesome lynching of the mayor’s wife during a holiday weekend around 1900.

The narrative was as obvious as a madhouse frenzy, like something worse than the plot of a gothic romance by someone who didn’t like people, or cogency, very much.

As far as Daddy Longtree’s father was concerned, the only son among a legion of daughters, there wasn’t much. He built the orchard into profit and lived in relative peace until the double suicide at the inn. The daughters, however, pretty much wandered the orchard and eventually dropped off the record. History doesn’t generally notice those who don’t attempt to magnify it. The violence in the family didn’t take me aback; even in Sue Longtree there was something primitive and dreadful and cold. She was an arrogant mystery and there was no solution to her, just as there was none to her ancestors. It was a crazy story that included disappearances, reappearances of key figures, darkness and havoc. I couldn’t understand it.
I mulled over the Longtrees for about an hour, accompanied by a sloppy cello sonata by a German romantic who’d obviously had his heart broken continuously.

The sound of the rain was growing obnoxious. The tailor called to tell me that the suit might be ready on Monday. There was no chance it would be done before that. I was depressed about it but the tailor didn’t seem to care.

I showered and cursed my tailor while I examined the contents of my closet. Toweling off I passed the window and happened to notice Parker in the courtyard, shaded by a poplar and talking to a fat companion, who I guessed must have been Porter. Another man was a few yards behind them without an umbrella. Parker pointed out my apartment to his partner.

I decided to take a chance on a big detective agency with the hope that Wald was employed there, but didn’t hope for much. It was called the Bizby Detective Agency, and I walked to an office that signaled the very end of 34th Street, over by the swelling banks of the river.

I had no idea it could rain so much. Twigs and kids’ toys and cans floated down the street. The agency was in an old factory that used to manufacture rubber bands. Now the grounds were treeless and not a slip of foliage was visible.

Inside, the expansive single room building was spartan and off to both sides were labyrinthine corridors. Serious men in hats with files tucked under their arms roamed in and out of the corridors, an atmosphere hectic and mechanical, as though everybody had been spat out of a machine.

I was forwarded by a harried secretary to a cubicle in the middle of the main room of small desks, where a bluff of a woman in a brown wool suit was sitting with a file open in front of her. She had her head lowered but strained her masculine, lusty eyes to look up at me.

“I handle the men,” she said, crumpling the folder and delivering it to the wastebasket under the desk as though it were a ritual.

All around us typists hammered on keys with a sound as deafening as a catastrophic hailstorm. Occasionally all the typewriters would stop at once, and the woman would listen distantly and a little angrily until they resumed.

“One of these men you handle is someone I’m looking for,” I said.

“Yeah,” she said. “So?”

“I was hoping you could tell me what he’s working on so I could feel better about him bothering a case I’m on.”

The typewriters stopped again in unison and the silence lasted for about two seconds.

“That’s not something I can do.”

“Who’s the supervisor here?” I asked.

“I am. I hand out the cases based on our consultants’ abilities and do all the follow-up work.”

“You’re Bizby?” I asked.

“No,” she said. “You a private dick?” she asked.

“Sometimes.”

“We need more private dicks here.”

“Why can’t you tell me about this person I’m looking for?”

“What’s this person’s name and we’ll see where that leads us?”

“Wald?” I said.

“Walter Wald,” she said to herself. “Nothing I can tell you.”

“I bet you can tell me more than that.”

“We have strict policies here,” she said. Her head was still down and her eyes were getting used to my presence.

“So you have strict policies here. Strict policies are generally made for people who don’t comply by them.”

“Is there anything else I can do for you?” she asked.

“You must have something,” I said. “As one person in this rotten business to another.”

“Oh, I have a lot of files,” she said, her voice and face in monotone. Over the sound of the typewriters I had to lean close to hear what she was saying and it didn’t help that she was talking so low.

“The reason that I can’t tell you anything about Walt Wald is also something else I can’t tell you,” she said.

“I am really asking,” I said. I smiled brightly, and whether it was because no one had smiled at her in a long time, or because she saw how artificial it was, she relented.

“Mr. Walter Wald is no longer employed by Bizby,” she said.

She blinked and I blinked back at her.

“One morning,” she went on, “he was just gone. His stuff was gone. And there was a vulgar note for me taped to his chair.” The woman went on talking about the note and how rude it was and how lousy Wald was and how everybody complained that he couldn’t close a case if it had a latch, how he was probably an alcoholic. “Everybody’s an alcoholic in this business,” she said. “Except for the people who won’t admit it.”

I left through the sea of clattering, wondering what Wald was up to. Nobody so much as glanced at me.

 

Chapter 18

I took an overpopulated bus north to 24th Street, where a William Florence was located. Parker and Porter hopped on at the rear of the bus and stood with their backs facing me next to a grimy fellow with a large book who kept insisting that they find a seat.

At the next stop, a guy in a blue sweater got on and went for the rear and sat adjacent to the grimy fellow with the large book. The bus was becoming some kind of hardboiled convention.

The address for William Florence was in a bland neighborhood with a grassy median running through it and one or two trees that looked like they’d just been stuck there for later use somewhere else. It was a middle-class limbo fighting hard to appear upper-class. The yards were square and zoned with short fences and uncared for thorny bushes. Some kids with dirty knees were tossing around a rubber ball and a group of yellow dogs was watching them and itching their panting faces.

I tapped on the door of a little white house with lace curtains in the windows, a reclining chair on the porch and some spilled soil on the floorboards. Boxes of wine bottles were piled here and there.

The guy who answered the door stood behind a torn screen, feeble and in layers of bulky clothing. He was past seventy but well cared for. Meticulously combed gray hair, a gray mustache that wasn’t dissimilar from a Civil War major’s. Frosty air stirred in the apartment with the clatter of a second person on the premises and the sound of the local news.

“Yes?” he asked, drawing out the word until it almost resembled another.

Inside was the sound of the local news.

“William Florence?” I asked.

“Yes?” he said again.

“Do you know someone named Ben Bergen?”

“No, is he running for office or something.” The old man leaned on the doorframe and licked his mustache.
“Not really. He’s dead.”

“Why should I vote for him, then?”

“I’m asking if you’ve heard the name.”

“I have heard it from you just now.”

Something caught Florence’s attention out in the street and his wrinkled face wrinkled some more. The kids had Parker and Porter surrounded, and the dicks were trying to remain incognito, but the kids were relentless and kept badgering them to catch their ball.

“This neighborhood,” the old man said. “Never used to be like this.”

“What did it used to be like?”

“Not like this. We used to have parades once a week.” He waited for a response and went on, “I never said it was exciting. I’m just saying it never used to be like this.”

“How about the name Longtree? That sound familiar to you?”

“You seem very confused,” he said. “I already told your friend or whomever that I don’t know the name Longtree.”

“What friend?” I asked sharply.

“Man came here this morning asking about the things you’re asking about. Don’t you have a friend who came asking?”

“I don’t have any friends.”

“Maybe that’s the problem. So who are you, young man?”

“I’m a private detective and–”

“Oh,” he said jovially. “Like in those books? Those Dominic Early things.”

“Just like those,” I said.

“I didn’t know there were people like in those things. I’m glad you stopped by because I wouldn’t have known that.” And he slammed the door in my face.

Down the block the kids had dispersed into small delinquent cliques elsewhere. Parker and Porter were pretending to be engrossed by an electrician fixing a telephone pole, each glancing at me. The electrician appeared irritated by the two dicks.

Who’d been asking about the Longtrees? I asked myself, and I was about to start knocking again when another bus halted, aimed downtown and thankfully vacant, at the bus stop.

Hurrying to get on I abandoned Parker and Porter. Both men hustled to catch up, waving their arms at the bus driver who paid them no attention whatsoever. Through the rear window I watched the portly men recede in their disappointed anger. Porter threw his hat on the ground and Parker picked it up and mashed it on his partner’s head. They were so cute in their routine that they weren’t even cute.

I wondered, not for the first time, whether I was as inept as they were in this Longtree debacle. I was missing something and Sue was holding out, but on what I could only conjecture.

I returned to the office, got a batch of blank paper, and waited ten minutes before Parker and Porter drifted up to the building, out of breath and started to see me. Turning with my umbrella I let them follow me to city hall.

 

Chapter 19

The two hapless private dicks were seated on a bench right outside of city hall sheltered from the rain in a dilapidated gazebo. Both were in monochrome vests, sleeves rolled into sloppy bunches, suit coats folded in the empty space between them. To bait them I’d ducked into city hall carrying the stack of blank sheets and deposited the papers in the nearest wastepaper basket. I thought maybe the act would bring out their boldness and it did.

When they saw me Parker stood up, trying to be menacing and cool. His partner had given up on anything more excessive than tilting his head. Rain ran down both their faces, and I was discomfited by how closely they resembled one another.

“Jome,” Parker said in his razor-blade-on-whipped-cream voice. “Sit with us a second, huh? What do you say to that?”

Porter took the coats and set them on his lap and Parker and I sat. Three middle-aged guys sharing the silence of an existential dread. All we needed were bowler hats and canes and a box of caramel drops. We were as fascinating as ice melting in a drain. Parker and Porter moved to crunch against me.

Crisp leaves blew at our feet in a multicolored river.

“I brought my partner along,” Parker said, “because we want to know something and maybe so do you. This is my partner.” Porter smelled like cheap aftershave, and he was only about an inch smaller than Parker.

“What we’d like to know,” Parker said. “Is what it is we aren’t supposed to know.”

“What we don’t know yet,” Porter said. “Such as what’s doing at city hall these days?”

“But we are planning on knowing the facts,” Parker said.

I turned from one to the other of the private dicks, quickly evaluating the knowledge that they didn’t know a single thing about a single thing.

You two boys figure it out and I’ll be right here if you need anything,” I said.

“What stymies us,” Porter said, “is what’s going on with Sue Longtree and you and why’d you go into city hall like that?”

Parker said, “And we’re going to be around you until we find out.”

“The lady has you looking at a suicide,” Porter said.

“So what’s so big about it?” Parker asked. “It ain’t real fascinating but you and she are acting like it’s real fascinating. So why is it so fascinating?”

“What’s the real thing that’s going on here?” Porter said.

There was a little green park going brown across the street, and people in suits were hurrying around in the rain. Next to us on another bench was a man leaning our way, in full denim attire. A wind from the east blossomed and Porter clutched at the hat he’d thrown on the road a little while ago.

“Our affiliation is purely professional,” Parker said.

“Only thing professional about either of you is your absence,” I said. “And that’s debatable.”

Almost in unison they each took one of my arms in fat, quaking hands.

“Listen, Jome,” they said in a gravelly duet.

“Listen, Jome,” Parker said for a second time. “This is serious and we’re serious about it. Our employer would like to be kept abreast and our client is serious, too.”

“I’m sure your client is serious. Everybody’s serious.”

“What’s the drift?”

“There isn’t any drift. You said you have some information for me.” I brushed off their mitts, standing, and glared at them.

“Well,” Parker said. “When you throw us some information we can toss some back to you and we can play that till our arms get tired.”

I jerked a finger at Porter. “Why’s he so quiet all of a sudden?”

“Jome is funny,” Parker said to his partner.

“He thinks he’s funny,” Porter said.

“Yeah, and he’s not very funny.”

“He’s not very funny at all because he thinks he is.”

A woman halted a dog to urinate in front of us and the woman blushed at the three of us and walked off.

“Fuck you,” Parker said.

“I’m glad you’re being yourself again,” I said.

City hall was bristling with suits and briefcases. Somehow these goons understood less than I did about the Longtrees and Bergen.

“You’re not saying anything helpful,” Parker said.

“How about this,” Porter offered. “We’ll tell you something helpful and then you can tell us something helpful about you and Sue Longtree.”

I did my best impression of being impassive.

“All right?” Parker said.

Porter nodded. “Yeah, I think he might be OK with that.”

“There’s another guy on you,” Parker said. “Has the name of Wald and this Wald is sitting right over there.” He flicked his head toward the guy in jeans and a jean jacket and smiled.

“Thanks,” I said. “But that’s recycled news.”

“So what do you have for us?” Parker asked.

Porter said, “Because we’ve just given that to you.”

“As a gift.”

I adjusted my coat sleeves that had been crinkled by their bulbous mitts. “Once I get the drift of something I’ll be sure to let you know,” I said. I fell in with the conglomerating crowd. “See you fellows later.”

“That’s not very nice,” one of them said.

“Not very nice at all,” said the other.

When I passed him the man in denim quickly scurried to his feet and followed me along the sloshed avenue. I walked the bridge over the flooding river and he was there still, pausing when I paused. Reaching my apartment I saw him ebb and disappear further uptown. Sure that he was gone, I doubled back and took a cab to Daim’s Billiard Hall.

 

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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16
May
2012

Michael Fournier, Amelia Garretson-Persans, others at Portland Brew June 6

Michael Fournier we met on tour last fall with our All Hands On anthology, at the Amherst event. You may remember him for his contribution to the 33 1/3 series of books about records — he authored the tome for Double Nickels on the Dime, by the Minutemen, and for 1980s/early 1990s punk culture and history and its place in the American arts pantheon, you’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who gets it more. He’s touring with a new novel, Hidden Wheel (click through the cover image to order at Three Rooms Press’ site, or better yet, pick up a copy at the show!), after the classic Rites of Spring song of the same name, and will be joined in Nashville by local T2H editor Todd Dills and Clarksville, Tenn.-based master-in-waiting Quincy Rhoads and Nashville-based art-book maker and writer Amelia Garretson-Persans (check out the stop-motion animation she completed recently for Nashville’s “By Lightnin” band in the vid below), among others TBA:

@Portland Brew, 1921 Eastland, Nashville
June 6, 6 p.m.
Free

Join us.

Here’s a great description of the new novel from the 33 1/3 series blog:

The novel focuses on the art and punk scenes of the Midwestern city Freedom Springs, where an opportunistic trustfunder named Ben Wilfork starts an all-ages art/show space names Hidden Wheel. Max Caughin, who tags under the name Faze, gets famous quick with a series of paintings on CD covers. His buddy Bernie Reese donates sperm to raise money for a new drum kit so his two-piece noiserock band Stonecipher can record. Bernie’s romantic interest (and former chess prodigy) Rhonda Barrett does dominatrix work by day and paints her life, sixty words at a time, on giant canvases by night. Their fates intertwine in a story reconstructed by William Molyneux, a 24th Century scholar reconstructing the Hidden Wheel scene after a solar flare erases all digital data in his era.

The Band
Dead Trend started as a fictional band in Hidden Wheel, Freedom Springs’ biggest musical export. As I wrote the book, I also wrote Dead Trend songs — short blasts of punk focusing on 1986 topics like Reagan, the Berlin Wall and Chernobyl. Some friends and I put the band together this summer, with me playing drums and doing backing vocals. We have a 7″ coming out soon on Baltimore’s Save vs. Poison Records. In the meantime, our music is available via cassette tape — demo versions of our songs recorded this summer, as well as a live set recorded in Orono, Maine.

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01
May
2012

THE LAST ORCHARD IN AMERICA, by Michael Peck — Part 1

“Last Orchard” is a short noir that began its life as a Peck short story, published via THE2NDHAND’s pre-txt online magazine — it’s now being serialized in one installment per week via THE2NDHAND txt here. Keep your eyes open for future installments. Peck lives and writes in Missoula, Mont. Find more from him in THE2NDHAND archives or in our 10th-anniversary book anthology, All Hands On, released in 2011.

 

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


 

Let us practice every imaginable grimace. –Arthur Rimbaud, A Season in Hell

Chapter 1

Let me begin before everything got all cockeyed and deadly and confused. Before Sue Longtree and Daddy Longtree and the orchard and Cowper and that bridge out of this despicable city. I blame a lot of this on my tailor, especially on that suave suit he never did finish.

But I suppose if I wanted to go back before any of this began I’d end up starting just after the dinosaurs were hacked to death by the wind and the earth and rotted away into fuel and dirt.

And where do you begin a story, anyway? Do you select some random point, or is there a tangible place that can be flipped over and fingered? “This is where everything started,” you would like to say. But any moment is random. There’s not a definite beginning to anything. The idea of a beginning is a turgid con. There can’t be a beginning when everything is at an end.

I’m not a writer; I’m something more like a transcriber of degeneracy and hatred. Had I any poetic talents I would be talking about something better: Birds in migration, the pleasantries of intoxicated guests at a cottage on the Cape, beautiful women having a picnic on a rooftop, flowers peeling back to let in the morning.

Instead, I’m talking about rotting dinosaurs and wretched people who have built this city with their capricious greed and startling cynicism.

I should say that nothing about this makes any kind of sense: there’s no solution, I don’t really know who’s responsible, whether anything criminal has been committed by others, what my involvement in the Longtree situation really consisted of, or even if it consisted of anything other than a psychotic redhead’s unquenchable love of her own self. And what I remember about Sue Longtree: the wave of her red hair, a smile that had in parted lips a riddle with no punchline, a scent, a stupid hope, a hand grasping my arm at a symphony performance.

“Why’d you do it, Jome?” Cowper says.

I say, “I haven’t slept too well lately.”

And that should have been enough but it wasn’t and it isn’t.

The river is down below like a dark, wavering sheet and the men are closing in for the big squeeze, Cowper leading them, his face a featureless blank in relief against the massive spotlight behind him. I swing a leg over the metal railing, and then the other leg, balancing on the parapet like some mad acrobatic fool. The men’s hard-bottomed shoes pound the concrete behind me and they’re breathing heavily and I can almost feel their arms pulling me back.

It’s funny, but the water below is so flat it looks like I could bounce right off the surface and carom back onto the bridge and find it empty of these animals in uniforms, replaced by daylight and a view of the city that has been erased by the rain. And maybe that’s exactly what I will do, when I am ready.

The river is getting closer, its contours in the night like an approximation of what I imagine the afterlife to be like: black, trembling and not nearly deep enough. I put a foot out and my shoe drops off. I don’t hear it plop into the river.
So where do I begin when there’s nowhere to begin?

The morning I found Sue Longtree in my office I’d spent listening to a record of the adagio from a Mozart piano concerto, and I’d thought to myself that it was the simplest interpretation of innocence I’d ever pried out of the world. That sound — a soft piano fading — would be a halfway decent beginning, except that I’ve forgotten the tune it belonged to.

But anywhere, any place, anybody is at least a halfway good beginning, if such things exist.

 

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 the beginning and the end of any journey.

The river beneath the 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 yearned and 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 just begun to rain and the buildings out the window were becoming coated in a slick mirror of water that reflected the fading sky and the buildings within reach. 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. Or anything else. 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 and 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 flicking 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.

I was coming down with the initial chills of a cold is what I’m trying to spell out. 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, barely able to subvert a speech defect that slurred her words, with the physique of a sack and lips purpled by wine. The husband was decapitated by a train as he attempted to switch the tracks at some remote outpost beyond the suburbs.

“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 expostulated some more and fell silent. Perspiration slithered on her exposed skin like she’d just enjoyed a bath of turgid lake 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 under-appreciated as a transport to the afterlife.”

“Roger wasn’t stupid.”

“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 it 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.”

“And it certainly isn’t mine,” she hissed.

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.

The office was chilly but I left the window open a crack. 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 distribute my deflation of 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. Let’s you and me get a couple of eggs. It’s about time we had some excitement.

 

Chapter 3

May was humid so far.

The people walking the streets were dressed too warmly, and a collective grimace was growing wider by the inch, not at all helped by the pattering rain. Maybe it wasn’t the weather but the fact that unhappy people were steadily coming to understand their condition. But at least in the city you don’t have to be yourself 24 hours a day. Crowds of nobodies surge and swallow you in a great gulp, hustle you along to their nowhere, suck you into a civilization of aimless people attempting to appear busy. If I ever decided to long for friendship I could start talking to god or get a membership in a secret society.

At the 12th Street diner all the booths were taken. Eager employees and unperturbed excecutives were hunched together feasting on over-told stories about a certain cubicle, a shady bookkeeper, hoary bosses with a penchant for meanness. Beside me at the counter was a midget in a mustard yellow cardigan with a guitar case leaning on his leg, so that whenever he shifted, which was perpetually, he had to keep a hand on the case to straighten it.

The waitress was a mild teenager with braces and rubber bands in her shortish black hair, long unpainted fingernails and a demeanor so shy it would have made a pimp blush. She got my whole order wrong: the eggs were sunny-side up, the meat was ham. To her credit it was a highly unorthodox order. The coffee, at least, wasn’t ginseng tea.

Next to me the midget had his head in a newspaper and I found myself contorting to read the headlines as I ate. Suddenly he shot me an eye and hopped off the stool, taking the paper as he jumped away. There was nothing so attractive in the headlines anyway: death, mutilation, disease, an escalating crime rate, the subtle menace of germs and defeat, rape, pillage, genocide. It was too dirty to look at.

“I come here every day,” the midget said to me, folding the paper twice. “I sit in the same place and I don’t trouble anybody.”

I chewed my ham, watching him shake his head.

“Sorry,” he said. “I’m just in the mood for talking. You want to talk?” he asked.

“Talk about what?”

“You know what’s funny?” he said, and answered his question, “Nothing. I can’t think of a single thing that’s funny.” He straightened the guitar case. “Isn’t that funny?”

Depressive inclinations arose as I shoveled sopping egg onto unbuttered toast. At the end of the week I would be losing my office and shortly thereafter my apartment on a sunny avenue in the 4800 block. Letters had arrived from the respective invisible landlords, warning ungrammatically that I was three months behind. If I did not pay by May 15 I would be dragged into a courtroom and divested of my car and whatever else was reputed to have some value.

I was planning to leave town as soon as I could pay for gas. Now I wished I’d accepted the railroad widow’s money and fled, which wasn’t too chivalrous, but poverty isn’t chivalrous either. I scraped the plate clean and dusted off the driblets of food on the formica countertop.

“I mean,” the midget went on. “That’s only the funniest thing anymore. People are different everywhere, though. Some people think I’m funny just sitting here. I don’t know. I guess I am. But everybody’s funny in some way. Do you agree with that?”

“I’ll nod to that,” I said.

“Well, see you later if you come by again.” He grabbed his guitar case. “I’m here every day, so if you’re around I’ll be around.”

Another cup of coffee and a slice of cherry pie. I watched the waitress open a rotating glass case, cut the pie, balance it on a plate, rush it over, slam it down, hurry back, close the glass case, wipe her hands on a dishtowel, start the process anew for some other tired louse.

Before I had a second to lift the fork someone sidled in between the stools, touching my forearm with a bony elbow. In a churlish, clear voice, a woman asked the harried waitress where she could find Harry Jome. I was so taken aback at overhearing my name that I almost fainted.

Brilliant red hair was the first thing I noticed. The questioner was a slightly attractive, narrow-faced woman of around 35 or 40. Big dark sunglasses covered what were purportedly her eyes. In profile she had slightly masculine features that lend themselves gracefully to women of a particular attitude, and she certainly had that attitude. She was in black slacks and a matching turtleneck; the pinkish tint of her skin indicated that she hadn’t been in the sun for a few decades. By her subtle perfume, plush leather tote and air of astute arrogance, she was either wealthy or very wealthy. “Do you know where the office of a Mr. Jome would be? I believe it’s Henry Jome?” she said.

“Who?” the waitress said over the head of a customer at the end of the counter.

“Harry Jome,” I corrected.

“I’m sure it’s Henry Jome,” the red-head repeated. “He apparently has an office nearby.”

“Excuse me,” I said.

The redhead squinted at me from the corner of her frames and said, pouting her lips, “I was speaking to her if you don’t mind much.”

“Yes, and I’m talking to you if it’s not an inconvenience.”

“Well, I wish you wouldn’t.”

“You’re asking about Harry Jome?” I said.

“I was asking the girl about Henry Jome.”

“I’m doing you a favor, lady.”

“Well, stop it.”

Once again she tried to flag the waitress’ attention, but the young girl was too busy arguing with the cook to notice. The waitress screamed at the beefy man in white and blushed; she pulled the apron off and hurled it onto the grill. The stench of charred cotton brought scowls among the patrons. The former waitress took advantage of the furor in the kitchen to calmly open the register and clean out the contents.

It was my first smile in nearly three weeks.

“You see what you did?” I said to the redhead.

“I thought maybe you’d like a job.” She was backing away.

“Everybody knows Harry Jome,” I said incredulously. “Try the Santos Building. 3rd floor. If he isn’t in just wait a minute.”

“You his agent or something?” she asked.

“Harry is the kind of guy who doesn’t even need an agent,” I said.

She was out the door. Behind me two paunchy men in matching suits and porkpies were close behind her, pointing and hushing each other. One of them turned and winked.

The chef was cursing madly, his staff wreaking chaos and the diners all filing out in search of another diner. My coffee was drained but for a splatter of half-and-half at the bottom of the cup. I felt lonely.

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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04
Jan
2012

THEY WERE GODS — redux, by Kate Duva

Kate Duva (pictured, with chinchilla) performed this piece, with considerable laughter as part, alongside Jonathan Messinger, Jill Summers and THE2NDHAND editor Todd Dills‘ own “They Were Gods” riffs, published as a unit here. The performance was on the occasion of release of All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10, where you can find more of Duva’s work.

 

They were gods. King Tut. Genghis Khan. Crazy Horse. Erik the Red. Bootsy Collins, Elvis Presley, the Backstreet Boys. And I slept with them all.

It all opened up for me shortly after my 969th birthday. I was still active in my local singles’ adventure club, where a swing dance or a mystery dinner theater or haunted hay ride inevitably ended in a love marathon — but — I just burned out on the physical demands of it all, not to mention the danger of modern day cooties.

And then the perfect solution to the hassles of dating hit me — virtual sex. No technology involved — I’m talking séances. Ethical séances! — lest you think I raped Genghis Khan. I’m not a succubus. If anything, Mr. Khan had his way with me, but I can’t say I didn’t have fun. I always ask for permission, and I always get it.

Seances aren’t limited to the dead, I call in the spirit of my neighbor, the guy with a wife and newborn triplets and a dog that squirts its way around the block four times a day, and believe me, he’s always ready for a little action.

On September 3, 1988, Little Richard made an announcement that he had seen the light of the Lord and could proclaim himself a proud ex-gay — and you’d best believe I was in his bedroom the night of September 2.

My man-journeys do go beyond the strictly erotic. I don’t do it just to get my rocks off anymore. I had big plans when I seduced Donald Rumsfeld, for example, or when I appeared in Karl Rove’s secret chamber — those were genuine missions to dig up the dirt we need exposed to set America back on track, but I have to admit I found myself getting a little sidetracked by the humanity I found lurking under the surface both in Karlitos and Donny Boy.

I’m a bleedin’ heart. I’ll give a demon my breast. In fact, when I lived in Kathmandu I had a volunteer job doing just that. That is one culture in which they’ve recognized that it’s more cost-effective to suckle demons than to lock them up.

I did — get — a temporary case of gonorrhea when I slept with (God, I have selective amnesia when it comes to certain tortured souls) the vice president who shot someone and had the lesbian romance novelist wife — Cheney! Dick Cheney gave me the clap, a full-blown case of it, then POOF! It disappeared. No antibiotics. Just prayer, and a little shamanic healing from my meerkat guides. Clearly that was a psychic illness that manifested, ever so briefly, on a physical level.

It taught me that I can use that physical level wisely for erotic multi-tasking. I call in the spirits of men to help me open jars, or show me how to use tools — take a peek at my engine, check my oil — and one thing leads to another. Just think about who you could call in to check your oil. Ramses. Sun Ra. Alexander the Great. Homer. Rumi. Poseidon. Jesus. Vlad the Impaler.

So — moving along! What I’d like to do this evening is share some of my techniques in seductive séance with all of you so that you too can benefit from this sustainable technology of safe and pleasurable lovem– did you hear that? Whoa, did you feel that? Hahaha. Yeah, I actually need to get going now. It’s Genghis paging me. Ladies and gentlemen — I think I have a booty call.

 

A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT AT SO YOU THINK YOU HAVE NERVES OF STEEL? BY KATE DUVA

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19
Dec
2011

PIG SWEATIN’, by Jacob S. Knabb

Knabb is co-owner of Curbside Splendor Publishing and Editor-in-Chief of Another Chicago Magazine — he works as a janitor for THE2NDHAND.

 

for James Tadd Adcox, as per his rules and all at once

Me and Dawn Ray was out in the garage pig sweatin’ Pete Ramsey’s fat ass for pills while Harold and his band was practicin’ when Mindy Jefferson and Cancerdog Adkins come barrelin’ right up the driveway in his F-150 and got out and walked straight over to Harold and Cancerdog took to beatin’ him down into the ground never sayin’ word one with Mindy over ’em screamin’ you just better hope I ain’t pregnant cuz I’ll own your ass you barrelchested son of a bitch and that just went all through me ’cause everybody knows Harold wouldn’t fuck that skanky hollerbitch with Pete Ramsey’s dick so I walked right up and blacked her eye and that’s when Cancerdog turned on me yellin’ you best mind your own fucken business Nichole you purplehaired bitch and I screamed this is my fucken business because I just made it my fucken business and I shoved Cancerdog and told him you’re free lunch motherfucker and your whole family’ll die wearin’ wellstained churchclothes and then I grabbed Harold off the ground which is somthin’ considerin’ I only weigh a-hundred-and-five-pounds with my Oxblood steeltoe Doc Martens on thank you very much but that’s just how pissed I was because me and Harold ain’t like the rest of Boone County since he’s gonna be a famous country singer and I’m gonna be his photographer and document everything we do and show the world just what they’re missin’ while they sit in the bleachers at Skyhawk football games spittin Copenhagen into popbottles stuffed with napkins and most of ’em either laid off or on worker’s comp while their sons get their asses kicked and not a one of them will say a goddamn thing about the fact that the principal and the math teacher just got busted smokin’ meth on school property cuz they’re too fucken busy puttin’ stickers of Calvin pissin’ all over some NASCAR number on their freshwaxed 4x4s and callin’ in to vote for some TV dance show on Sunday nights fresh from church and full up with the spirit and clappin’ their guts out when their boys don’t fuck up against the Sherman Tide and their asses numb from bleacher metal and they make me want to puke and that’s exactly what I did I puked up big hunks of hamburger and strawberry milkshake and halfchewed nervepills right onto Mindy Jefferson and Cancerdog Adkins and Harold started laughin’ blood pourin’ from his mouth and Mindy and Cancerdog turned right around and got into that truck without even wipin’ any of that vomit off and they laid ten feet of tire gettin’ outta here so fast and I could feel Dawn Ray and them lookin’ at me and Harold like holy fucken shit did that really just happen as I turned to ’em with them halfdigested purple klonopins burnin’ my throat all to shit and fuck you if it wouldn’t of made a perfect picture.

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11
Nov
2011

INSIDE OUT, by Brad King

Last night I dreamed that I was back in art school.

I was doing these enormous, abstract paintings: They were luminous, expansive, and in brand-new colors, like gold and silver and the ocean combined, contained in tubes of overpriced plastic for consumer enjoyment and/or instant poverty for an artist on the rise.

I was proud of the paintings and thought they were special, but the teacher didn’t see it; she believed them to be especially bad, at best.

“I hear that you’re a writer, is that true?” she asked.

“Yes,” I said.

“That means you don’t devote enough time to your paintings, and we can see the results, can’t we, class?”

The class began to nod in approval of her insults, and the teacher’s face turned cold and mechanical, yet somehow giddy.

I didn’t say a word, to the teacher or the class.

“You’ll be getting an F for this course, rest assured, if you continue with this writing business,” the teacher stated.

I went back to my painting, with more fervor than ever, knowing deep down neither grades nor insults can devalue the worth of what you learn through experience.

When I finished for the day, I’d go home and plan for the next day of painting: The subject would concern what the teacher was about within, and I would paint out the product right there in class in brand-new colors — maybe ultramarine mixed with liquid bronze and evergreen forests — expensively tubed, of course.

 

MAN’S PLAN B

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18
Oct
2011

BIRTHDAY, by Dana Jerman

Chicago writer Jerman blogs here.

 

For Brandon L.

At a party at my neighbors’. She’s wearing a black mini skirt and black tights. I’m a tall banner in a too-short lavender V-neck sweater and jeans.

I don’t know her name. Never met her. She’s not the girl I came with. All I know is by the end of the night I will know her and that could be a problem.

A few hours and the party’s moved from the house to the bar, and we know a few details. Namely that she totally wants me. Including some of the most subtle racist shit I’ve ever heard — but I’m not sure she wants to admit that these aren’t really her own thoughts and words. I’m at least not so drunk I don’t know her heart’s not in it.

So, a number exchange and a cheek-peck later my girl who is not this girl asks to hit it and we go.

Now Tuesday, and last weekend is miles away. Three o’clock and the winter sun bright as summer. I go out to the back deck of our building to smoke a cigarette I must have rolled months ago, the tobacco crisp and dry.

Looking down at the mess of mops, brooms, rags by the doors, a flash of something half remembered: I was drunk and out here with my girl about a month ago. She’d gone in for something and I stayed out catching cold. Out thru one of those back doors downstairs comes bursting this couple. Ejecting themselves from a party with their kisses audible. Their gropes frantic.

It was just sexy and violent enough for me to think later I’d dreamed it up in all my stupor.

One pulled the other back inside after their fevered ritual and I guess I went back inside too.

This time I found myself going straight for the fone to dial her. Black-skirt-black-tights picks up on the fourth ring.

Now here’s “Hullo?” made of equal parts annoyance and obnoxiousness.

I immediately think: fuck. Why am I calling this altogether beautiful, altogether unremarkable girl? What am I going to say? And: Why am I resisting the urge to hang up?

And that’s when the tender wave of freedom realized me: None of this will matter. And it doesn’t have to go anywhere.

I could say whatever I liked.

Then I did:

“Hey! It’s me, the boy you met at the party on Saturday. Yeah, that bar was great. No, you didn’t introduce me to the bartender. Thanks, I thought you were well dressed also. No, really. Right, well it is a beautiful day and… Hmm, I’ve got a steady girlfriend. You know, you met her. Oh, yeah. Yeah, we’d love to. OK, what time and where? Yeah thanks, thanks again.”

Ten minutes tops was all it took to get back in it for another go.

My girl couldn’t wait. She’s not usually into this weekend-after-next-party racket, but her attitude changed. I watched that mouth of hers and it behaved differently.

On the way over she showed her cards:

“Want to play a love game?”

Was this really happening? Tell me this was happening.

“‘Love game?’ Uh, yes?”

“OK. I pick the girl for you. You pick the boy for me. We have to kiss them in front of each other at some point in the evening. No rush.”

I felt suddenly like it was my birthday and that here in the car on the way to a party on a Saturday night, all I had was all I wanted. The girl who was already mine had smiled at me and welcomed me home.

It was a good start.

 

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11
Oct
2011

ON THE FARM, MY FIRST DAY OF WORK, by Mickey Hess

Hess is the genius behind the following blurb for THE2NDHAND’s All Hands On: THE2NDHAND After 10 collection: “It is painfully accurate to call Todd Dills ‘Tony Hollywood, New York Screenwriter.’ That said, Dills’ collection offers a comment on modern life. The narrators within this collection of stories may bring to mind a more youthful Holden Caulfield, or Toni Morrison being incredibly shaky, or Richard Ford faking it. You know. Because the book came from a collective of well-regarded idiots. They’re nice. They’re compassionate people. But idiots, oh my God.” Mickey happens to be featured in the book. Enjoy his latest below, and find more from him here.

 

On the farm, my first day of work consisted of hog-tying. I had tie-dyed flannels on. “Deliver a lasso throw,” my employer recited. Jack Estes was his name, a rustic guy who expected us to take pride in the lasso, but when I ventured a toss, he ground his teeth. “Hog-tying’s a tradition, my friend,” he arched his back and intoned. “Out here we wear rustic shirts.” My colleagues looked at my tie-dye. One fellow was a black belt in aikido. Jack Estes was cracking his knuckles.

Then we stopped for the afternoon, famished from hurling lassos. We saw a belly-dancer, a Middle-Eastern original. Farmers rubbed her hips for good luck.

Sidetracked, we sauntered along the sidewalk on the outside of the nightclub, and Jack Estes laughed. I could have sworn he’d made a restroom stop in the bar, but he leaned against a street sign and pissed like a cement truck. He was Jack Estes, after all, and he was also our lasso employer.

Though it wasn’t all fun and Biblical references, we were shocked nonetheless when the truth emerged: after all he promised us townsfolk, Estes went pacificist when it came right down to it, like with Vietnam or belief in the rights of others.

A TUG OF WAR WAS ON

ORDER ALL HANDS ON

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18
Aug
2011

MARTYR MACHINE, by B.J. Carrick

Carrick is a native Chicagoan, and he studied under Bill Knott and John Skoyles during M.A. work at Emerson College in Boston. Currently a senior editor at the University of Chicago Press, artist and new dad, Carrick also digs “trying to cook foods that are delicious,” he says. Check out some of his artwork here.

 

It was a Mission Hill mid-rise, tired and white, with bad natural light—the artificial light inside was worse. The kitchen was the size of a minute, and cars wheezed down the Riverway all day. Good thing Boston beds down early: There were few night cars, and it is within the deep night when the most important decisions have to be made.

My preliminary sketches were in order. Our apartment building had a wooden roofdeck, and this is where I had spread out graph paper during mid-March afternoons, when the starlings returned, and made the initial calculations. I used blue pencils and black pens, for the sky and for the skeleton. It could be no other way. On a late-April evening I began  to build my martyr machine.

I lost a finger during the construction, but it was a very small price to pay for the salvation of your soul. The ropes would be of nylon and arachnid, and woven in the chill just before dawn, when the web slept; they would, of course, be five in number, and each would have to be secured, on one end, to an iron kettle. The space needed for the kettles initially caused me much anguish, because you always need a good and free pendulum, but I made a remarkable discovery on the day that green (spring) was reborn. The starlings had ascended from the arms of the oaks, revealing the gap. I would build upward from the deck into the twittering black that will always, if we wait too long, turn back into blue.

You received a religion from the chocolate racecars, a Valentine’s Day gift from a boyhood boyfriend who died. I thought that was sweet. I also thought you mascara-stamped the epitome of cool on my collar when you cried for the Bactrian camels, who survive on dry grass and salt water. But you were not sincere, as it turns out, and there would of course be consequences.

There was a system of pulleys and a seat cushion that needed to be measured and installed, but I am unable to communicate the explanation without using numbers, so I am going to have to ask you to trust me. You deserve nothing but mathematics, but today is an unusual day — I am in a verbal mood and unable at the moment, in this fury of release, to jeopardize the whole affair by fussing with the numbers. It did not involve a composite number. That is all I can say.

Finally that day came, in late July, when you took me by the hand and led me to the roof, the source of the heat. The sky was the color of liquid silver as you settled into your seat. I began to attach the ropes to your waist and limbs, and a single starling alit on the steel shore of your slander. You reached for the wrong ropes, fed up, and completed the movements that the machine was going to make anyway, despite you. You couldn’t find a word. You may smile, but you are now tied in golden knots behind my back.

 

THE2NDHAND’s 10th-anniversary collection is out and available — for ordering info, check out the books page.

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