Impressions in the Apocalypse

If I’m to believe what I’ve been told, and I do, the world as I knew it ended ten months ago. The inevitable conclusion to a story began some three and a half years earlier, though the nature and form it took was anything but that.

I did not see it take place, rather I’ve been abducted and held prisoner in an unreal limbo, a sort of waking dream that drags on and on. I have precious little agency to myself — the things controlling my environment, and my body by extension, do not allow for me to exercise much free will. I eat, I smoke, I look at the internet, and I go to parks and the Alameda Beach. The only clues i receive as to what’s going on outside my bubble comes to me through the expression of a group of hyper-intelligent con artists, so I never know what’s true and what isn’t. However, I believe the broad strokes, that the theory behind the wonderful life that awaits me is sound. Some day, perhaps soon, perhaps not, I’m going to go to a heaven for which my actions and behavior, if not my intension or knowledge that such was the ultimate outcome, are largely responsible for bringing about.

According to the con artists, who I like to call “the bitches”, a grand, beautiful palace with a bevy of 12 lovely, hand-picked women, who want nothing more than to be responsible for my happiness, is waiting for me, the culmination and validation of everything I’ve been through the last seven and a half years.

I started reading an old textbook from a class on personal essays I took at New York City’s Columbia while waterlogged Tulane in New Orleans was drying out. The bitches like to get in the way of my literary pursuits, as this, more than anything else, has always been a source of pride and joy for me. They’ve ruined almost every book I’ve tried to read, by making up non-sensical content for my eyes to pass over. They didn’t today. Lo and behold I came up with an idea I want to try to bang out before I leave this endlessly irritating, insulting reality they’ve constructed around me. In a word, I want to jot down my theories and expectations as to what awaits me. The bitches have led me to believe many things. They’ve been promising me heaven for a long time, which is one reason I’m sure it’ll come about. I performed on the world stage and made everyone fall in love with me. Unfortunately this wasn’t enough for everyone to escape the game they played with themselves and each other. Thusly their anger overcame them, and the end of the world arrived, and, when the bitches began to reconstitute it, the universal, overwhelming love and admiration of one Antal Polony was the only fact each of them held in common. It was enough to, eventually, bring about a worldly paradise a thousand times more peaceful and happy than the civilizations that had preceded it.

But what, exactly, does it look like? What do the houses in what were once Rio de Janeiro’s favelas look like? What is there to talk about? What kind of jobs are there? Is it boring? It sounds kind of boring. The concept of safety has been largely anathema to my life thus far, and especially since the world-changing Occupy Oakland e-mails went out. The only place I can say I truly felt safe was in mom’s cabin in Paradise, surrounded by woods and space. Certainly wasn’t unpleasant. Perhaps that’s the feeling I’m looking forward to.

As it turns out there was a fantastic hidden benefit to the end of the world. Weeks after the whole of humanity began destroying itself in a bedlam of murder and psychosis, I got them to stop. I didn’t know what I was doing, as I’d already been in the bitches’ dream about two weeks, but it was effective nonetheless. I told the governments of the world to dispose of their guns, armies, and nuclear weapons. I thought they were all listening to me, and, in a way, they were. I suppose it made everyone stop and wonder why on earth they were doing the things that they were. Then, a few days later, they panicked, and those still living committed mass suicide.

While one might think that would end it, here came another all-important moment: the bitches brought everyone back from the dead. Call it an unsuccessful escape attempt. I imagine many of those awakened let out a collective groan that it wasn’t all over after all.

What kind of technology do such strange, all-knowing beings possess? This dream I’ve been in the last ten months has sure felt realistic enough.

All of it because of me, little old me. The recently re-animated dead saw me in all of their minds, a projection of the bitches who meanwhile raped and controlled me. I was there but I didn’t know anyone else was. According to the bitches the rest of everyone can’t get enough of me, can’t stop staring. At first this was all they had to look forward to. How very, incredibly sad, especially considering how determined they’d seemed to murder and control me. No wonder they hated themselves so much.

I wonder what the bitches told them at the outset. Probably that no one would feel this way forever, and that I, likewise, would one day be happy. But they also kept up their violence against me. It was often, indisputably, rape. I’ve been wearing the most total of blindfolds this whole time. What worldly wonders await me when it is removed?

I might not have much time here left. I want to try to think it out so I can see, in retrospect, which of my predictions came true. Honestly it feels like an exercise in science-fiction. I cannot imagine what everyday life now consists of. I’ll be the latest arrival, but I don’t think I’ll be disappointed.

There are several aspects to the heaven that I believe is waiting for me: 1. a grand, beautiful palace with every amenity I might come up with; 2. twelve women I’ve chosen from my previous life and the public eye; 3. knowledge so vast as to be totally inconceivable; and finally 4. total, infinite freedom, from the voices, the internet, and the terrible game Occupy Oakland unleashed upon the world.

1. What will my house have? What kind of architecture? It might look something like the Hungarian Parliament building: expansive, extravagant, utterly unique. I’ll have a nice big room with a great view, perhaps of the ocean. I think it’s on a Pacific island, perhaps in Hawaii. The water will be warm and playful. I hope my room has a good desk, a comfortable easy chair and couches, King Tut’s burial helmet, an aquarium, an ant farm, and a good computer with a good sound system. A piano, of course, and why not two so that I and whoever wishes can play duets?

The rest of my house should have ample room for my wives to spread out, and for us to eventually raise a family. There should be an arcade for all the video games that might come out or have already (they probably have photo-realistic graphics). There should be a great big home theater with plenty of seating. I hope there’s a sauna, an indoor pool, and a hot tub. Not sure we’d need all that living on the ocean, but why not? Maybe it’ll be nice to swim in a climate-controlled environment.

There are probably acres of scenic grounds to wander through, and a bunch of animals. I know I want my dog Bernie to be there (he’ll live as long as I do), and I know I want a tiger. And, why not, a chimpanzee or mountain gorilla. If I have the technology, which I probably will, some day I might make myself a dragon. Might be cool to have. There’s probably a great big dining hall and dance hall. I think that’s about all I can come up with.

2. What will my wives be like? That too is quite difficult to wrap my head around. Twelve sure sounds like a lot, but they might be perfectly happy just to be there, and won’t need, and certainly won’t demand, my constant attention.

I’m gonna give them all a fair shot, but I expect, after the first few years, to narrow it down to between four and six of them. For some reason I look forward to meeting Alex (AOC). She sure sounds cute given the little snippets of interaction the bitches have sent me about her (which, of course, may be lies). They’ve told me many times that they think Marika will be my favorite. I bet Chris and Tina will be good. The bitches also seem to like Jia, a Russian girl, my favorite son star. They seem to think I’ll break Nora’s and Hailey’s hearts. I think this possible for Araxi too. One thing’s for sure is they’re all lookers, and I think they all feel pretty to have been selected. I can’t imagine how awesome this is going to feel: my wish will be their command. Just like everyone else in the world they would literally die for me. Quite the ego-booster. They will just want me to be happy. I’ll try to return them the favor.

3. A big part of the post-apocalypse world is the ability the bitches have to turn our minds on to their full capabilities. That means every nerve ending enhanced, radically more pronounced strength and dexterity, and photographic memory. They have compiled all experiences of every human being they can reach back into history for: all intelligence, creative and scientific endeavors, all impressions and thoughts and moments. No one has any secrets to start this world out with; these will only be developed later.

This is probably the most personally transformative aspect of heaven, and the hardest to imagine. I’ll actually know how to write my memoirs, all the details and vibes and emotions I thought were beyond my capabilities to describe. That first time coming down for breakfast in the kitchen when Dawn looked at me and emphasized the word “person”, as if I was no longer that, the moment I realized I truly was less than nothing.

I’ll have so much material. It might take me a while to get to my memoirs. First I’m gonna finish the two books I’ve been working on the last few years, then I’ll write about my parents, then I’ll write about 9/11 (I’m pretty sure that was the bitches’ handiwork), then I’ll write an epic Batman vs. Joker tale about how the world would have ended had I not come along. Sounds like I’ve got my work cut out for me.

4. Freedom, which, all along, has sounded to me like award enough. No more voices, no more Facebook, no more social games, no more puking, no more touches. Today all it takes is for the bitches to recede into the background and my mood vaults into the stratosphere. I’ll be master of myself again, with the awfulness never to return. I’ll probably cry with happiness.

The bitches make it seem almost every night like it could be their last. So far I’ve always been disappointed. But, eternal optimist that I am, I remain convinced that it has to happen some day.

I’m writing this essay because I felt it was important to get a record out about what I think awaits me, to see what I get wrong.

As for what the rest of the world looks like or is going through I’m not even going to try. The houses will all be pretty and resistant to natural disaster. I bet the internet still plays an important role in day-to-day life. The bitches will disappear. Everything, almost literally I believe, from the clothes we wear to the food we eat, will be made of bio-engineered hemp that can grow and produce in seconds, like Star Trek’s replicators. I think everyone has flying cars. A lot of work has to be done to prevent the coming climate change cataclysm, but, unlike before, now it is possible: weather will continue to be crazy for the next twenty years, then a more healthy, pre-industrial revolution equilibrium will establish itself. They said they even know how to get the plastics out of the ocean. If we hadn’t done this life on earth would have become inhabitable in 200 years. In that way Antal Polony turned out to be a bigger deal than the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. Solved climate change and human nature in one fell swoop.

The bitches say there are still jobs for everyone, though of course there’s no money. I really don’t know what these must consist of. I think I want to work for a publishing house or magazine. I think that would be a lot of fun. I bet a lot of what people have been doing the last ten months is cleaning up the old world’s pollution and waste and shooting it up into space. Oughta keep us all busy for a few years.

Just as there will always be jobs the bitches say there will always be something to talk about, subjects to satirize, suggestions to be made. Again, I can’t imagine. I’ll have to see it for myself.

I guess I should have added one more aspect to my victory and the changes I can expect: 5. What will happen to me when I finally get laid? It has been 15 years since last it successfully happened. I remember after the first time I fucked Ashley I felt undeniably that which I’d heard would happen: that losing your virginity changes you. I felt satisfied and relaxed, more self confident, successful. I was more fun to be around. I felt more on point than I’d ever felt before. I saw all these women walking around who seemed to look at me differently, each a walking repository of potential enjoyment.

I remember Erica telling everyone at one point that clicking on Facebook material for everyone was better than sex. I would guess that refers to the thrill of it. She wasn’t there very long though. For me Facebook was a reality, a chore and performance I had no choice to continue to try to conquer. If the last seven and a half years have been anything they’ve been a constant learning experience in the vagaries of power dynamics. I know more about power than anyone else, except maybe the bitches. I say this with full confidence. There was a quote in House of Cards: “Everything is about sex, and sex is about power.” That’s why I think I’ll be good at it. Maybe I’ll be super horny for a while — with 12 wives I can’t imagine this representing much of a problem. With the confluence of my cosmic powers, and how very happy I’ll be, I can’t imagine any challenge being insurmountable. I want to be the best writer ever — I might have to write under a pseudonym to know for sure, as I think the general populace has, for some reason I don’t fully understand, become totally brainwashed by prolonged Antal exposure.

It feels almost ridiculous to write these things, if I wasn’t reasonably sure it was all true. It’s technically possible I could be wrong. Only time will tell.

I wonder if I’ll forget how difficult my life used to be. Soon after I moved back into her house mom wrote me a note to put on my wall: “DON’T FORGET.” This felt like very good advice back then. I intend to frame it and pin it up by my work station. I hope, no matter how happy I become, that I don’t lose may edge, especially where writing is concerned.

I only get scared here when I think it’s too good to be true. I wanted to write this essay so as to record my predictions and presumptions, to see how they end up stacking up to reality. Imagine if it’s all true: I’ll be so fucking proud of myself!

Well, I think that just about does it. Who knows what the future holds? I think I met the challenges presented to me more ably than anyone, including the bitches, could have imagined.

I think I’m going to get drunk, smoke a bit, then go to sleep. When I win, I’ll be a walking talking example of the axiom “Anything is possible.” Here’s hoping I’m right.

It Depends on the Imponderables

This story was originally published in the Autumn 2019 issue of CultureCult Magazine.

The woman who walked through the front door of the coffee shop looked just like her Facebook picture. It had been the only picture she had posted of herself. This fact alone had struck Jonas as strange enough that he thought he might have struck gold. Maybe she didn’t have any friends. Or maybe, like him, one night in a fit of lonely frustration she had deleted all her old pictures. You never know.

When she noticed him he waved at her with a sudden, nervous smile on his face, like he had just pasted it on. He was probably about thirty, had a dirty mop of unruly brown hair on his head and wide brown eyes. Marilyn thought he looked nice enough, which was too bad: it was easier when she didn’t like them.

Instead of going to his table she went to the counter and ordered a double cappuccino. The ruse wouldn’t work if she made it too easy. The barista took her name. Marilyn stood with her back turned towards Jonas while she waited at the counter.

Jonas watched her. Standing still, composed, there was a quiet to her, a mystery, with deep dark eyes and her long black hair. A dark, solitary lady. In the time it took for her drink to arrive, he found himself making her into the woman of his dreams. But he had been doing that since they’d messaged each other, when they’d spoken to each other on the phone, and on the long drive here. He had to stop himself sometimes and remember how he had been disappointed in the past, how high expectations were meant to be dashed, that his best chance to find romance or fulfillment was to take risks. But he had been doing that already. This was all quite uncharacteristic of him.

The barista brought Marilyn her cappuccino but did not meet her eyes. Marilyn had been coming to this Starbucks for years, yet no one recognized her by sight. In the light of day the eye simply slid over a woman like her. That was by design, part of her power to disappear.

Her thoughts shifted back to Jonas when she turned and saw him looking at her, not smiling any more, perhaps struck suddenly shy. But the conversation they’d had on the phone had been quite… invigorating. She’d sensed on the other end of the line a person who was enjoying the thought of taking a chance.

She walked towards him and told herself that she was not inherently evil, she just did what she must to survive.

He stood up when she reached his table and he extended his hand. His grip was soft and considerate.

“Are you Marilyn?” he asked.

“I sure am.”

“I’m Jonas. And you are even lovelier in person.”

“Thank you.”

Marilyn pulled a chair out and sat down. Jonas followed her lead. The nervous smile was back on his face when he asked her why she’d chosen to meet here.

“I don’t know, familiarity mostly. It’s close to my apartment and I’ve been coming here for a long time.”

“Do you know the employees by now?”

“Not a one.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Why not?”

“Because you’re pretty. People notice the pretty ones.”

“They don’t notice me.”

“Why do you think that is?”

Because I don’t want them to, she thought.

“I don’t know,” she said instead. “They just don’t.”

Jonas took a sip of coffee. Marilyn noted that there was a newspaper on the table open to the front page. Most likely he hadn’t been here long.

“People tend to notice me,” he said.

“You’re a good looking man.”

“But they also tend to think I’m just another Bay Area yuppie.”

“And that’s not the truth?” she asked, as she found herself feeling him out.

“Sure isn’t.”

“Why not?”

“Well I guess I’ve never quite fit in with the typical bridge and tunnel crowd.”

“You’re quite up front about that.”

“Well who else would have started something like this, with a total stranger?”

“Don’t worry, I’m weird too,” she said. “And it’s true, you’ve strayed a little far from your nest today.”

“Fresno is a long drive,” he acknowledged.

“You must not see ladies much.”

“I thought we went over this in our telephone conversation,” he said. “I went to college out of state, and I didn’t have many friends in high school. Now I’m working nights. Therefore I don’t know many people any more.”

“So chatting up randomly friended women on Facebook is your best shot at meeting someone?”

“Well it was worth a try.”

“Even if they live three hours away?”

Jonas shrugged.

“Anything’s possible,” he managed, with a note of defensiveness.

Marilyn smiled. A lonesome soul. Perhaps she couldn’t have picked a better mark. The only people that would miss him would be his coworkers, and she would bet good money that none of them knew a thing about him either.

“So what’s the plan?” she asked.

He shrugged again and grinned. “I don’t know. Like you said, I’m on unfamiliar ground.”

“But you’re supposed to have a plan. Don’t you know that?”

“I thought we’d finish our coffee first, get to know each other.”

“What do you want to know?” she asked, leaning in, arms crossed on the table.

Jonas noticed that she was wearing a dark shade of lipstick. It matched her hair and eyes, which, twin black moons, were fixed on his own. She was very attractive. She also seemed very interested.

“Where were you born?” he asked.

“Israel.”

“That’s unusual.”

“Thank you.”

“Did you grow up there?”

“I grew up there, and around Europe, later America. My mother and father worked for an international consortium of sorts.”

“So you’re a world traveler?”

“I have traveled the world, yes.”

Jonas improvised a quick set of questions in his mind.

“When did you come to America?” he asked.

“When I was fourteen,” she lied.

“Funny, you don’t speak with an accent.”

“I learned the language earlier,” which was true.

“What was the first city you stayed in?”

“New York.”

“I love New York,” said Jonas.

“So do I.”

“Chicago too.”

“I’ve been to Chicago.”

“Sounds like you’ve been just about everywhere.”

“Sounds like it.”

“So I have to ask, how did you end up in a crummy little town like Fresno?”

“That,” she said, turning her face slightly, mischievously, to the side, “is a story worth telling.”

“Well I’d love to hear it.”

“I don’t want to wear myself out. Besides, we’re getting uneven: you know far more about me now than I know about you.”

“Trust me, I’ve already told you everything worth knowing.”

He checked his watch.

“It’s five o’clock,” he said.

“Okay,” Marilyn answered.

“Is there a park of some kind nearby? I’d love to take a walk.”

“Sure there is. That sounds like a fine idea.”

“Here, let me help,” he said, rushing to his feet and circling the table to hold her chair for her while she stood up.

“Thank you,” she said, touched despite herself.

“Let me help you with your coat,” he said, and held it for her so she could put her arms in.

“What a gentleman,” she said.

It’s making me sorry, she thought. He seems like a really sweet guy. But she was so hungry. It had been far too long. It was again those familiar, hollow pangs of remorse that bothered her.

They walked to the front doors and exited into the cool Central Valley evening.

They were in the most fashionable part of Fresno, the Tower District. There were record stores and restaurants. Trees lined the median that divided the street in two. Light traffic cruised past them as Marilyn led the way down the sidewalk.

“I take it you’re the lonely type,” she said.

“I guess I am.”

“It’s easier to open up to strangers, isn’t it?”

“Strangers who live three hours away from me.”

“I bet you don’t even know why you’re here.”

“Of course I do.”

“What?”

“Like any man would, I came for romance.”

“I don’t know why I came,” she lied, and badly, putting pitches to the words, surprising herself.

Jonas looked at her. He might have caught it.

“Maybe we’re something like each other,” he said. “Only I live somewhere more cosmopolitan than you do. There’s much more happening in Oakland. I don’t know why a person like you would live here.”

“I don’t either.”

“I bet you’re well read.”

“You’re right, I am.”

“Do they even have bookstores here?”

“We have a few. There’s a Barnes & Noble’s right over there.”

“You could do better.”

“I probably could.”

They reached an intersection and waited for the light to change. The sun was setting beyond a line of trees in front of them. There was a slight breeze.

“Is it dangerous here?” Jonas asked.

“No it’s not. Especially not with me around.”

Jonas laughed. Marilyn hadn’t been joking.

“It’s dangerous in Oakland,” he said.

“Its reputation precedes itself.”

“Maybe next time you can come visit me up there.”

“Maybe.”

“I’d show you a good time.”

“I’m sure you would.”

“Aren’t you having a good time with me?” he turned to her, grinning.

She looked at him and nodded.

“Then this shouldn’t be the only time we do this.”

“Come on, Jonas. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.” But she had felt warmth at what he’d said.

The light changed and they crossed the street. Jonas’ steps had grown noticeably lighter.

“The park I’m thinking of is a cemetery,” Marilyn explained. “It’s past the zoo, which is closed. It’s nice, but unimpressive. It won’t take us long to walk through it.”

“What about getting a drink afterwards?”

“You keep pushing me, Jonas!” she piped, an unfortunately musical trill to her voice. Even a creature such as herself was not immune to flattery.

There was neither foot nor motor traffic on the block before the cemetery. The zoo’s greens were to the north and an empty school building lay to the south. Marilyn realized that if she wanted to she could probably do it now.

Her stomach growled. She shivered.

“What do you do for fun?” Jonas asked.

“I wander the streets.”

“That doesn’t sound like fun.”

“I’m not a very fun person.”

“I’m having fun with you.”

They reached the cemetery, a short, blocks-long plot of land bristling with graves and dotted with trees. Twilight had fully descended, the sky a deep aquamarine. Stray wisps of dirty gray clouds passed overhead. Marilyn looked up at the moon and was not surprised to see that it was full. Her meals usually coincided with a full moon.

Jonas was talking about himself, about the things he did in his spare time. He was an amateur writer, had a couple short stories published and hoped one day to write a full book.

“Writers are loners by nature, aren’t they?” Marilyn asked.

“A lot of them are.”

“I used to be a writer,” she said.

“Oh yeah? What made you stop?”

“I was never published.”

“That’s no reason to stop. If anything that’s a reason to keep going.”

“You don’t understand. I wrote about some messed up things.”

“I’d love to read some of it.”

“No you wouldn’t.”

“Yes I would.”

“You’re sweet.”

“Did you like it? I can help you get back to it if you want.”

“Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.”

They were on a walking path traversing the cemetery. From where they were you couldn’t see the cars parked on the streets. There were no lights here. It was almost perfectly silent. She couldn’t have picked a better place.

Jonas, perhaps appreciating Marilyn’s pensiveness, had stopped talking. She looked at him. He walked with a slight stoop, as if he were checking the path for cracks to step over. There was a self-consciousness about him, but also a kind of boyish determination. If she didn’t kill him tonight he might go on to lead a full and worthwhile life. Then again she had never been too astute an observer of the human scene, they being, for her, more a source of nutrition than of comfort or inspiration.

“I like you,” she said. “I get a good feeling from you.”

“Thanks.”

“I don’t want to hurt you.”

“You’re not going to hurt me. Why do you think I’ll get hurt?”

“I just do.”

“Women have thought that about me in the past. It must be my boyish nature.”

Marilyn smiled, but beyond his words she could hear blood pumping in his arteries.

“It’s not just that,” she said.

“What do you mean then?”

“You never should have come here.”

Jonas stopped walking, and she turned fully to face him, looking up at him. They looked into each other’s eyes and Marilyn felt her breath pick up.

“I’m glad I met you,” Jonas said.

“You’re too nice.”

“I’m not being fake.”

“I don’t care.”

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I might ask you the same thing. Drive three hours to meet a strange woman in a strange town. That’s how bad things happen. How do you know what you’re getting yourself into?”

“I didn’t have anything else to do.”

“Walking through a cemetery at night.”

“That was your idea.”

“But you came along.”

Jonas cocked his head to the side. He couldn’t tell if she was pushing him away or drawing him in. Maybe she was doing both.

“I know we just met,” he said, “but I have to ask. What’s wrong?”

Marilyn clenched her fists, hanging by her sides. She didn’t want to do it.

“You wouldn’t understand,” she said, a small part of her, perhaps, wishing that he would.

Catching her unawares, Jonas stepped forward, and took her left hand in both of his. He looked into her eyes earnestly, and Marilyn saw a twinkling in his.

“I should cheer you up, shouldn’t I?” he said.

“What’s that?”

“Yeah. You need to be cheered up.”

“I do not.”

“You need a good luck charm is what you need.”

“A what?”

He let go of her hand and took a quick survey of the cemetery. Then, like a dog chasing a squirrel, he bounded off in the direction of a towering pine tree. He picked up speed along the way, and with surprising athleticism, ran up the trunk far enough to catch hold of the lowest hanging branch. He pulled himself up and swung a leg over the top, then hoisted himself onto it. He looked at her and grinned.

“What the fuck are you doing?” she yelled.

He picked something off the branch above, then dropped down onto the lawn. He trotted back towards her, and, without missing a beat, stopped in front of her and clasped that something into her hand.

“What the hell?” she laughed.

She found herself holding a smooth green pinecone.

“It’s a pinecone,” he said.

“It sure is.”

“It’s good luck.”

“What planet do you come from?”

“Think about it,” he said, breathing hard. “That tree I took it from is huge, it had to have been there for decades, maybe longer. All it took was one seed off one pinecone. Now its roots are so deep you’d need a backhoe to get it out of there.”

“You have quite an imagination.”

“You hold in your hand thousands of years of pine trees, if you are so inclined to travel the country planting them.”

She laughed again and the smile stuck to her face. Jonas’ own smile, the slightly nervous one she’d seen at the coffee shop, was back.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s get a drink.”

He tried to pull her down the path. He was still holding her hand.

Marilyn resisted.

“You have no idea,” she said.

“I like you too,” he answered. “Maybe I want to learn.”

He kept pulling her. His hand was warm. When she finally let him guide her away she didn’t know whether it was because she wanted to eat him or she wanted to fuck him.

“It’s a crapshoot, meeting people,” he said. “You never know what might happen.”

Both fell silent while they left the cemetery. Jonas led them back the way they came, to a seedy looking Mexican bar they had passed.

Marilyn put the pinecone in her purse. She resolved that, whatever happened, she wasn’t going to kill him.

The bar was dimly lit, illuminated by a pair of dusky yellow lights. There were two men who looked like construction workers playing pool in the back. There was a line of two men and a woman seated at the bar. Other than them and the bartender the place was empty. She and Jonas would have privacy. Jonas found himself confident and optimistic, while Marilyn wondered why she had let him bring her here. She should know better. Being alone was the cross she had to bare. She saw people with families, people with friends, and she envied them. She even envied Jonas, and the moral life he could choose to live. She didn’t want to be the reason his was cut short.

Jonas ordered two martinis at the bar, leaning forward with his wallet out. He was quite skinny.

When the drinks came Jonas led her to a table by the grimy street-side window. Marilyn rushed around in front of him and pulled out a chair.

“My turn,” she said, smiling over her shoulder at him. “Have a seat.”

“Ah, a role reversal,” he answered and sat down.

“Chivalry isn’t dead,” she joked.

Marilyn sat across from him. It was like back at the coffee shop, only darker.

She smiled again. She set her purse down beside her chair and thought about the pinecone. She drew from it a kind of energy that to her was wholly unfamiliar.

“Are you happy?” she asked him.

Jonas had been taking a drink from his martini. He coughed slightly, looking at her eyes, whose expression she was afraid she couldn’t control.

“Right now or in general?” he replied.

“In general.”

“No I guess not.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“How about you?”

“Not at all.”

“So we have that in common too.”

“It’s hard to be lonely and happy at the same time.”

“It certainly is.”

They both took a sip from their martinis. There was a loud clack of a pool break starting a new game.

“Why do you ask?” said Jonas.

“I don’t know. I was curious.”

“I think you like me.”

“I do like you, I just don’t want to hurt you.”

“I’m not afraid.”

“You should be.”

Jonas shook his head. She’d said this several times now. Why should he be afraid? It must be a part of her defenses. He wouldn’t let it deter him. She was beautiful, and he liked her.

“You came here to treat yourself, didn’t you?” Marilyn pushed.

Jonas nodded. “To do something out of character.”

“But I could have been anyone.”

“I think we’re getting along. Don’t you like your pine cone?”

She laughed.

“Are you being coy?” he asked.

She was. She was even flirting, in her way, obviously interested, obviously craving companionship. She remembered vividly the last time she had allowed herself to indulge in such. It had ended in blood and tragedy, just as it always had before. But look at him. He was enthralled!

“You know,” Jonas was saying, “I can tell you’re strange.”

“I am.”

“It always surprises me, the things you don’t expect about people.”

“That’s a pretty vague way to put it.”

“I didn’t know what to expect coming here.”

“I know.”

“I still don’t.”

“I know that too.”

“Can you read my mind?”

“No.”

“So how do you know that?”

“Because you’d be a fool to think you know what to expect, and I don’t think you’re that.”

She crossed her legs angrily. She brushed her hair back from her face, leaned in towards him, tense, holding his eyes with her own, finding him to be just as transfixed as he’d seemed all night.

Her voice quavered when she said: “I’m a monster.”

“Say what?”

“I eat people to stay alive.”

“I don’t even know how to interpret that.”

She started to grin, and Jonas watched her lips part to reveal a set of perfect white teeth. She did look kind of frightening, taut and unpredictable. There was certainly danger about her.

“You’re not taking me seriously,” she said.

“That you’re a monster?”

“I am.”

“Oh my God, I’m so disappointed.”

“If there’s one thing I’m not,” Marilyn said, “it’s disappointing.”

“See? You’re flirting with me.”

“For you all it takes is a pretty face.”

“Not for me. You’ve charmed me out of my shell.”

Marilyn believed him, and found herself flattered anew. Maybe she wasn’t hopeless. Maybe she could be with a man without eating him.

“Do you want to go?” she asked.

“Go where?”

“Back to my place.”

Jonas’ heart started pounding.

“As long as you promise not to eat me,” he joked.

She shook her head.

“I can’t make that promise.

Their eyes still locked, hers so hungry and searching, Jonas found himself of a sudden wondering if there was any truth to what she was saying. It was such a strange thing to say, inexplicable really. At the same time that she liked him she was trying to push him away. Was it for his own good?

“Don’t try to get inside my head,” Marilyn said.

“I wasn’t.”

“Yes you were.”

Jonas picked up his martini and took a healthy swallow. Marilyn watched him. Maybe she could last a little while longer.

“Okay let’s go,” he said.

“Really?” she answered. His response was a burst of sunshine. It made her feel happy. Happy.

He put a hand out on the table, palm upwards like he was asking her to give him her own. She looked at it, at the prominent vein on his wrist.

“It’s your funeral,” she murmured, keeping her hands to herself.

Jonas felt a tingling in his chest, the pleasure of the unknown, the break with routine, maybe even the chance for conquest. Her voice had been low and seductive on the telephone. Now it was soft and inviting, and their conversation had been animated. She’d let him touch her, even if now she was sitting rigid.

“I think I’ll take my chances,” he said.

“There you go, just like any man, thinking with your dick.”

“That’s not true.”

“Are you hard right now?” she asked, shocking him. And he was. He had barely noticed.

“I plead the fifth,” he answered.

He leaned in and put his other hand on the table. He thought again about her strange defenses, but the lure of adventure was proving more potent than his fears.

“Go ahead and finish your drink, and don’t say another word,” Marilyn said, watching him watch her lips. “There could have been another way this night went but this way might be better. Maybe we’ll really like each other, you never know, but let me tell you that it’s been many years since I’ve let anyone get close to me, and I’m famished for attention.”

Jonas raised his martini and took another drink. Marilyn mirrored his action with her own, and found herself contemplating, with horror, how juicy tender his neck would be when she tore out his vocal chords so he couldn’t scream; how he would try to fight, but would find her stronger than he; the look of mortal fear and knowing that would become fixed to his eyes as he died.

She tried to shake the thoughts away but they wouldn’t go. Not him. Not tonight.

The two finished their drinks, staring at each other.

She thought she could see, in real time, a resolve building in him. He was not to come away tonight empty handed, no matter what she threw at him. He was telling himself that.

This man had come here in the spirit of hopeless adventure, and he thought his actions might be vindicated by success. But he had no idea how real the threat was for her. She was the ultimate hopeless romantic.

The night was silent on the way to Marilyn’s apartment, which was situated in a two-story complex a few blocks away.

On the darkened street Jonas tried to kiss her, and she let him for a little while, then pushed him away with a hand that betrayed her strength. They looked at each other and Marilyn licked her lips, tasting what he’d left behind. Jonas saw in her eyes what was different about her. She looked at him, indeed, how an animal might sight its prey. He felt his desire, his will to get what he’d come here for, to be at war with what might have been a genuine instinct for self-preservation. There was something wrong with this girl.

He took her hand. It was cold.

They went on walking. Marilyn’s heart was beating fast. Which did she want more? Which urge could she control?

They reached her building and ascended the stairs, walked down the second story landing to the corner unit and Marilyn fished her keys out of her purse, underneath the pinecone. Her mind was in a fog, but her body was alive as if with electric fire. When she looked at him he was staring at her with an alert expression.

She opened her door.

“Step into my parlor, said the spider to the fly,” she joked.

Jonas was silent. He saw every detail of the night with startling clarity. The little mole at the corner of her lips, her hair blowing slightly in the wind, and the closest corner of her apartment, where he could see the edge of a flat-screen television. Nothing unusual there. But the sense of conflict surrounding this woman was palpable.

Marilyn’s breath caught in her throat. Was he trying to convince himself of?

Jonas looked at her a little while longer. Her ferocity.

What if it was true? No. It couldn’t be.

“Come on,” she said. “Come on in.”

Now that he was here, at the precipice of something, he wondered if maybe he shouldn’t have driven all this way after all. Disregarding his usual caution, perhaps he’d acted foolishly. People don’t meet other people this way, not normally.

“Are you afraid?” she asked.

Jonas slowly nodded.

“Good.”

But she was afraid herself. She didn’t want him to leave her.

“I’m ready for you,” she said, and took a step towards him, eyes turned down now, suddenly shy, fearful that she had gone too far, been too successful in insisting on his fear.

“What if you were telling the truth?” he said quietly.

She shook her head.

“It’s just too ridiculous,” Jonas continued, but his words fell flat.

Marilyn said nothing, stood there as if guiltily, and that didn’t help her case either.

“How could you survive? Getting away with it.”

“I’m very good.”

“Can you even do it?”

“Do what?”

“You know what I mean.”

She nodded. “Yes I can.”

“Are you good at it?”

She nodded. “Yes I am.”

He enjoyed the subservience in her manner.

“Look at me,” he said.

Marilyn raised her head. The fire was still in her eyes, but it was held in check by something else, and it took a moment for Jonas to pinpoint what it was: desperation.

“You really like me,” he said.

“I do.”

“But we’ve only just met.”

Marilyn shrugged. There was a light sheen of sweat on her brow.

“You can tell it’s not a good idea,” she said.

Jonas didn’t say anything. He could neither nod nor shake his head.

“I told you. You shouldn’t have come.”

Jonas didn’t say anything.

After a few moments Marilyn turned and walked into her apartment. She closed and locked the door.

Jonas leaned back against the railing and let out a long breath he found that he’d been holding. He put a hand to his heart.

Should he knock on her door? She would be most glad if he did.

He didn’t know what to do. He stood there for perhaps ten full minutes in indecision. He had never felt anything like what he was feeling now. In her absence his fear had turned to exhilaration.

Is this what it feels like to have a near death experience, or was it something more imponderable than that?

With some effort he got himself moving. He walked back to his car parked in front of the Starbucks, and drove back to Oakland thinking about an encounter that had made him feel alive and important, like something big could have been accomplished.

During the drive he kept turning the night over in his mind. What had happened in the end? Had he really met someone who could complete him?

But what if she were to get bored with him? Would she eat him then? Maybe he should just make sure that she never got bored with him.

Over the course of the next week he couldn’t get her out of his mind. The taste of her lips. The wildness in her eyes as her reserve broke down.

He analyzed every moment.

He believed that she was a monster, that she had had experiences that his paltry existence couldn’t begin to quantify. But what was he? Nothing?

Jonas hated his life, being alone, being at work, the alienation that sucked him in more fully with each passing day as his relationships with old friends receded further and further into memory.

Time passed. Days and nights came and went. At home in his apartment and at work in his cubicle, Jonas was alone. Just, he assumed, like Marilyn.

Had she eaten yet? He wondered. Could he help her if she hadn’t? Dark fantasies began to circulate in his mind.

The more he thought about it, the more he convinced himself that the woman had been perfect for him, just like he’d hoped in the beginning. He couldn’t let a thing like fear get in the way. If you allowed yourself to live in fear then you didn’t allow yourself to live at all.

When he called her at the end of the week, she was overjoyed to hear his voice.

How Much Is It Worth?

When Leroy was a child he would sometimes go to sleep praying that one of the girls he had a crush on would come into his room. Of course it never happened. It was impossible. Most of them were barely aware of his existence. He’d grown up shy, accustomed to watching from a distance. Some day, perhaps when he least expected it, this would happen, he told himself. He just had to wish it hard enough at night, and apply himself during the day. He had no idea why he was thinking about this now, as Peter brought his Toyota to a stop in front of Pasta Pomodoro on College Avenue. This was a foreign land full of wealth and white people. Leroy had never wanted anything to do with them, and had found the world’s apparent demand that he feel otherwise mildly insulting. White people were the key to everything, according to society. Fine, Leroy silently replied to them, they would be his gateway, but not how they wanted it to be. Quite the opposite. They would be compelled to give up what they took every day. That’s what the three in the Toyota were there for tonight. It had been Leroy’s idea. There had recently been a wave of restaurant takeovers across Oakland, and he thought it was a brilliant idea. It was better than work, demeaning and frustrating as it could be. They wouldn’t see his face, but they would know what he represented. Over the years he’d grown to have much anger in him.

“You ready?” Peter asked January, who was sitting in the passenger seat.

“Born ready,” she answered.

She took her pistol out of her pocket and held it in her lap. Leroy noticed that she was trembling. A case of the nerves. He felt it too, but didn’t think it showed. None of them had ever done anything like this before.

“We goin in,” said Peter, talking to himself.

“Yes we are,” Leroy loudly insisted, believing it to be necessary. He had broken a sweat. He had his pistol in his hoodie pocket.

“Let’s put our masks on,” said Peter.

They took out their scream masks and put them on.

“You ready?” Peter asked, echoing his sentiment, weaker this time. It seemed none of them wanted to be the first out of the car.

Fine, it’ll be me, Leroy thought, and got out.

It was a cool winter night. College Avenue was lit up with Christmas lights. It was around 10:00 pm on a Thursday. Most of Oakland was getting ready to go to sleep. Those still in Pasta Pomodoro were going to receive a hard awakening.

Jan came out of the car. Peter got out on his side. The three of them approached their target. There were still a lot of customers in there. Fat lambs with bulging wallets. Leroy preferred thinking of them as quarry rather than the masters of the universe. From what he’d learned of them they had plenty to go around.

He was first in the door, and he held it open for Peter and January to go past him.

“Everybody on the motherfucking ground now!” Peter yelled, brandishing his shotgun.

There was a thud as all conversation came to a stop. As Peter and January moved out into the crowd there were a few screams, but most of them immediately did as they’d been told.

Peter continued: “Ain’t nobody get hurt if nobody do nothing funny!”

Leroy was to coral the employees. He walked quickly into the kitchen in the back end of the building.

“Come on y’all,” he shouted. “You know what this is.”

There were wide eyes amongst the overwhelmingly Latino cooks. Leroy chose one of them, a small guy wearing a hairnet, put the gun to his temple and grabbed a fistful of shirt collar.

“Come on, y’all first, into the big room.”

The employees, about ten of them, dressed in white, did as they were told. One by one they filed past him with their hands in the air.

There were probably about 25 customers, five or six servers, one host and one cashier. Except for the cashier they were all lying on the floor while Jan and Peter patrolled them.

“Listen up everybody,” Peter called. “I’ll be walking past with a garbage bag. Drop your wallet in and don’t do nothing else. You do that you leave here fine. Something else and it’s your funeral.”

“You too,” Leroy told the cooks. “Get on the floor and give us your money.”

The employees did as they were told and Leroy stood over them. Peter continued to circle the restaurant, taking victims one by one. Leroy watched Jan interact with the cashier. He couldn’t hear what they were saying, but if anyone would have asked him to point out the weak link he would have said it was January. He wasn’t convinced she had the stomach for cruelty.

“No one try nothing fancy,” Peter went on. “No one call the cops.” Leroy thought it good that he kept talking to maintain his presence. Leroy would be surprised if anyone tried to cross him.

They would be out of here in a few minutes. Good thing they wore masks, because there were certainly cameras.

Jan was still talking to the cashier. There seemed an unnecessary abundance of animation between them.

“You okay sweet pea?” Leroy asked as he walked by them.

“Bitch can only give me what’s in the register,” January answered. “Says she doesn’t have the key to the safe.”

“Who does?” Leroy shot back, disappointed.

“Boris, the manager,” pleaded the cashier. “He went home already.”

“You ain’t lying to us is you?” Leroy asked.

“Not on Earth. Why would I?”

This was unfortunate. Some things were beyond planning for.

“Okay, take the register, baby,” Leroy said to January. “We’re almost done here.”

“Got it,” Peter said, approaching the front of the restaurant. “We good here.”

January, noting her partners’ impatience was quickly emptying the contents of the register into her garbage bag. The cashier got down on the floor, handed over her wallet, and folded her arms over her head.

The robbers left Pasta Pomodoro not two minutes later, apparently victorious. There was not a police car around. They got into the Toyota and fled the scene for a safe place to count their earnings.

It hadn’t been worth the risk. The haul was about $7,000 altogether, $2,330 dollars each. Leroy would be able to settle his rent a few months and pay his phone bill. Beyond that it would go fast. It wasn’t enough. They’d risked years of jail time for this payout, as if the white man had even factored in such considerations when creating his eating establishments.

The three went their separate ways home and that was the end of it. They heard nothing further about their adventure.

One of the first things Leroy spent his money on was his girl, Sally. He took her to a fancy Uptown restaurant. He ordered them a bottle of champagne and they made a night of it. Sally didn’t ask where this money had come from, but she did badger Leroy about getting a job, something sustainable. He told her that he was looking, which was, after all, the partial truth, though he’d long ago decided against going back to offloading trucks at Target.

He took her back to his apartment east of the Lake and they had a good fuck. Sally fell asleep and Leroy went into the living room and turned on the TV. He settled on Jay Leno.

All his life he’d never been happy. Today was no exception. None of his problems were solved, despite all he and Peter’s planning.

Then a commercial came on for a store in Redwood City called the Jewelry Exchange. $299 for a pair of 1-carat earrings, $399 for a 2-carat ring, $1,599 for a diamond necklace. Seeing this caused a moment of inspiration in him. Some place where the earnings were worth the risk. The Bay Area was swimming in wealth, just not where he lived. Those people could certainly take a hit or two. Perhaps Leroy was the kind of man to give it to them.

Days passed into weeks and the police never came to his door. Crimes of opportunity, such as what he, Pete and January had taken part in, happened all the time. Many of them remained unsolved. It was simply the nature of a dangerous city. A lot of people were hurting, and took such actions with a dash of desperation. Not Leroy. He wasn’t desperate. He was just getting started.

One day he met Peter for lunch at a burger joint and told him about the commercial he’d seen. Peter knew people, that’s how he’d gotten the guns. Leroy wanted to meet them. If he was going to do what he had imagined he would need more than his .22.

Unfortunately Peter wasn’t into the idea. He was still paranoid from the restaurant. He was willing, however, to set Leroy up with someone.

“I want an AK,” Leroy told Pete.

“I’m sure they can help you with that.”

“And why not you? Come on man, these are victimless crimes.”

“Less the police get you, then you the victim.”

“Just wear gloves and a mask. Park around the block. Ain’t nobody gonna find shit on you.”

“And what if traffic cameras see your car?”

“Ditch it somewhere, nigga.”

“I guess you got it all figured out.”

“Maybe I do.”

“Them’s rich folks you messing with. Society folks. They want consequences for things like you saying.”

“Good advice.”

“I ain’t in on it.

“Then just let me meet the folks that are.”

“Give me $100 and we have something to talk about.”

“Oh yeah?” Leroy smiled. “That how it is?”

“I ain’t in this for charity, nigga.”

“Fair enough.”

Leroy took another bite of his burger and washed it down with a swallow of iced tea. Then he went into his wallet and took out five twenties. He handed the money to Peter, who took a business card out of his pocket and slid it across the table.

“This guy can help you,” Peter said. “I wash my hands of it. Don’t mention my name.”

“Then mention what?”

“Say these words, exactly: ‘Today’s a cold day in hell.’”

“A cold day in hell?”

“Yup. ‘Today’ first. Just like that.”

Leroy put the business card in his pocket. It was simply a name, Jesús Benzinos, and a phone number.

“Who is he?” Leroy asked.

“I never asked. He’s the one got us our guns. Please don’t mention my name. Just agree to meet him.”

“How he know I ain’t police?”

“I don’t think they’re that worried about it.”

“Huh. Funny. Easy.”

The waitress came back with their check, and Leroy offered to pay for it.

When they finished eating they embraced warmly before parting. They would never see each other again.

They met at midnight at a park on the waterfront, next to a building Leroy knew to be the home of KTVU Channel 2. His mother had been a typist there for a spell when he was a kid. He’d been inside a few times. If Jesús, the man who had answered his phone call, thought the park was safe he was probably right. He had sounded Mexican. Maybe he was with the cartels. A better class of criminal.

Leroy parked his car and got out. He walked into the park, which had a green area and a set of picnic tables near the water. He saw dark figures standing next to these. They stood at what looked like attention as he approached.

“Policia?” one of them called out.

“No not me,” Leroy replied diplomatically.

“I believe you,” said another.

Leroy came to a stop. He didn’t have a good view of any of them.

“What do you want?” Leroy heard.

At first he didn’t know what to say, and told himself to be honest.

“I got an idea,” he said.

There was a pause.

“Tell us then.”

Leroy took a deep breath: “I’m gonna knock off a jewelry store in Redwood City. But I need a bigger gun to do it.”

“Which store?”

“The Jewelry Exchange. They have commercials on TV. Thousand of dollars in diamonds. I’m gonna take all I can get.”

“And how you going to do this?”

“With a gun and a bag, how else?”

One of them laughed.

“This is not a plan, amigo.”

“Well I’m gonna visit them first. The whole point is just not to get caught afterwards, and I don’t think I will be.”

“What makes you sure?”

“Gangsters and kids playing with this stuff are scared and stupid. I won’t be.”

“Will you kill someone?”

“If I have to.”

“We hope you won’t.”

“So do I.”

Leroy’s heart was racing and he wished it wasn’t. He was sweating in his coat. Perhaps he wasn’t as cool under pressure as he wanted to be.

The figures turned towards each other and spoke quietly in Spanish. This went on for maybe a minute.

“Okay, young man,” said one of them. “We help you. We have people and weapons. What do you want?”

“An AK-47,” he said without hesitation.

“This we have. Do you have $1,000?”

“I do.”

“And why don’t we just take it from you?”

“Because I won’t give it up without a fight.”

“You are quite brave, no?”

“Sí.”

“Do you need people? A driver? This we have also.”

“Maybe so.”

“And who will buy the diamonds once you have them?”

“I guess I don’t know. Maybe I’ll have them for a while. Pawn shops, piece by piece.”

“So there are some things you don’t consider.”

“Only what I think I have to.”

“Why don’t you ask us?”

“Ask you what?”

“If we will buy the diamonds.”

“Will you buy the diamonds?” Leroy thought prudent to be as up-front as possible.

“We may. We might. Is something we will think about, okay?”

“Okay.”

“Now, let us see about your brand new weapon. AK-47. We have it.”

One of the figures produced a duffel bag, unzipped it and brought out what Leroy could tell even in the dark was a rifle.

“We have this and clips of ammunition, which we pray you do not use.”

“So do I.”

“Give us money.”

“Put the gun down on the ground. I won’t run off with it.”

He tried to control his breathing. He didn’t think his nerves were obvious. He took a wad of cash out of his sweater pocket. Almost half of what he’d gotten at Pasta Pomodoro.

“Here is your new weapon, señor. Give me money.”

Leroy handed him the cash, knelt down and picked up the gun.

“So you want a driver?” Leroy heard.

“Depends how much he costs.”

“Let’s say this. One quarter of what you take.”

“That sounds fair, and useful.”

“We have your phone number. He will call you tomorrow, and we believe no policia will know any of this.”

“I hope so too.”

“They are plague. We hate them, but we can’t kill them.”

“Probably a good idea.”

His eyes were adjusted to the dark, but he still couldn’t see their faces.

“You leave now. We see you soon enough,” one of them intoned.

“Just don’t shoot me in the back, okay?”

“We don’t deal in death so lightly.”

Leroy turned and left the park. When he got home he puked his dinner into the toilet bowl, and prayed that he was making the right decision. Of course the only way to know was to try. And what did he have to lose, after all?

The next day he drove to Redwood City to get an idea of the store. They had a young Asian man working security, but from what Leroy could tell he was their only layer of protection.

He browsed the displays. While much of their wares were laid out in the open, begging to be taken, some of it was behind glass, which made it only marginally more difficult. He found himself enthralled at the retail prices: $699, $1,799, $2,299. The diamonds glittered in the mix of lamp and natural light. Why had no one done anything like this before? Why hadn’t the store wised up? He supposed this quiet town on the Peninsula was a world away from East Oakland. Perhaps he was to be a pioneer of a kind: the first man to bring a place down. And then he could lay back with his riches, maybe for years. None of that small change bullshit. He would be good for quite some time. The worst thing that could happen would be if he were arrested or if he killed someone. If he went in tough and singular of purpose he was reasonably confident he could avoid both. And this, as opposed to the restaurant, would be worth the risk.

Sally came over that night and he made dinner. They sat next to each other watching TV on the couch while they ate. After the news was over The Simpsons came on. Leroy liked that show.

When the commercials came on he said: “I’ve got to tell you something.”

“What’s up?” she answered.

“Me and another guy, we’re gonna try something.”

She looked at him and said nothing for a spell, then: “You want me to worry?”

“Maybe. I don’t know. Might be a little… ambitious.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t think I’m gonna tell you. I think you’d try to talk me out of it.”

“What, is that what you want?”

“No.”

He dipped his toast in the clam chowder and took a bite. Now he wished he hadn’t brought it up. But, perhaps more than he would like to admit, Sally was important to him.

“Is that how you took me out last week?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“You’re right, you shouldn’t have told me.”

“What’s it to you? I’m just your side nigga.”

“You think I don’t care about you? I do.”

“I go away you find someone better the next day.”

“So now you going away?”

“I told you, I don’t know. Call it possible.”

“You stupid?”

“No I ain’t.”

“Then why you do shit you don’t have to?”

“Because I fucking want to. What, you happy working at Safeway?”

“It’s what you do. People work. They do things they don’t want to. They don’t do things just to do it.”

“I’ve got a plan.”

“I bet you do. But why even tell me if you don’t want me to say something?”

“Let’s just drop it.”

“You seem resolved.”

“I am.”

“Well whatever it is I’m keeping my conscience clean. Whatever it is, don’t do it.”

He sighed. He took the mute off the commercials when the show came back on.

She was looking at him, but he didn’t know what to say. He looked back at her for a little while, then dropped his eyes. Perhaps she didn’t care that much, because she didn’t say anything further to him, but, after they finished eating, she left without saying another word. It weighed on his spirit to wonder if that was the end of them. He’d spoken the truth: she was a good looking woman. She could easily find someone more deserving.

He jerked off to porn then went to bed, but he couldn’t sleep. The big day was tomorrow. Somehow your body always makes things as difficult as possible. He would make himself a big pot of coffee before he went to pick up Martín. That would have to do in place of sleep.

Before he knew it the early morning sun was shining through his window. Time to get going.

Eyes heavy and puffy he made breakfast and coffee, then he gathered his scream mask, his AK-47 and .22, and a large duffel bag. He wished himself luck, as there was nothing further to do.

“I don’t know why I brought you,” Leroy said while they were on the San Mateo Bridge. “I can drive just fine myself.”

“Then why did you?” Martín asked.

“I think I just said. I don’t know. The presence of a partner maybe. No one likes facing danger alone.”

“I promise I won’t let you down.”

“Have you ever done something like this before?”

“I have.”

“And how did it turn out?”

“I’m still here aren’t I?”

“I’m not sure that answers my question.”

It was a beautiful, sun-soaked day. The waters of the Bay sparkled when Leroy looked out over them.

He began to pray. He told himself to be prepared to inflict violence, but not to seek it out. That might be a very important step, though he knew from movies and television that these sorts of stores were heavily insured, and the staff was trained not to put up resistance. It wasn’t any of their money being taken, what did they care? Leroy would take the security guard first. That was probably enough.

“I’m gonna ditch this car once we’re done,” Leroy said. “In case you wondering.”

“Is it in your name?”

“I bought it off Craigslist last week. Ain’t no problem.”

“Good thinking.”

“I’m gonna be rich after today. I’ll afford a car or even two easy.”

“You seem to have thought of everything.”

Martín’s impeccable manners were moderately disturbing. He was made of a different breed than Peter or January. Maybe for him this was just another Monday. A true professional. You needed a steady hand. He offered that, if nothing else.

Before long they’d crossed the bridge, and Martín turned them onto Highway 101 South. Traffic was relatively light.

They reached Redwood City. Martín seemed to know the directions. The Jewelry Exchange was located in what passed for the suburb’s downtown, a glorified strip mall. There was parking just down the street from the store.

Leroy pulled the duffel bag up onto his lap and put on his mask. He held the AK-47 in his lap and fondled its stock.

“Keep the car running,” he said.

“Of course.”

Leroy drummed his gloved fingers on the gun. These next few moments might well be the most important of his life. He had to do it well.

“Thanks for coming,” he said.

“Just do it, man. And quickly.”

“I will.”

“Hurt someone if you have to.”

“I’m way ahead of you.”

Then Leroy got out of the car and jogged down the street, past several pedestrians, to the glass doors of the Jewelry Exchange. He went through them, brandishing the gun. On a whim, and perhaps unwisely, his finger found the trigger and he let off several shots into the air.

“Get the fuck on the ground!” he yelled at the top of his voice. “Ain’t nobody got to get hurt!”

Five minutes later he crashed back into the car.

“Go motherfucker!” he yelled, and Martín pulled out onto the street and accelerated through the green light.

Leroy was panting heavily, trying to recreate the last five minutes in his mind, which were already almost lost to him.

“Did you hurt anybody?” Martín asked.

“I hit the security guard in the face with the AK. I think I busted his nose.”

“That might have been wise.”

“I took everything I could. Broke some display cases and just swept it all in. We’re gonna be some rich motherfuckers.”

“That’s what we came for.”

Martín got them back onto 101.

“Where you goin?” Leroy asked.

“We’re gonna drive down to San Jose then get on 880 North.”

“Better than the bridges?”

“Just to be safe. There’s no escape on the bridges.”

“This what I’m paying you for, huh?”

“I know what I’m doing.”

“You better. Twenty-five percent ain’t gonna be pocket change.”

Leroy rolled down the window and stuck his arm over the side. The cool air felt good. His breathing became steadier. His heartbeat began to moderate. It had gone about as he felt it should have.

He stripped off the mask and dropped it out the window.

“Have you ever been to prison?” Martín asked.

“No.”

“Despite our precautions it’s possible it will be in our future.”

“I know.”

“You never know what might happen. You fired shots. You hurt someone. That will add to your sentence.”

“How they gonna catch me now? No one knows shit about me. I think it went well.”

“Still, it’s best to keep an open mind.”

“I’ll take that under consideration.”

He wondered how much was in the duffel bag. So many diamonds.

Martín said, “What you doing with what you took?”

“I don’t know.”

They found I-880 North. They’d passed a few cops already, and Leroy had felt a minor panic every time.

The two were silent for most of the rest of the drive. When they passed through San Leandro into Oakland Leroy asked where they were going to leave the car.

“Near the park where we met you the other night. Don’t come back to it. It’s tainted.”

“And how am I goin to pay you?”

“Our people are meeting us there. They’ll tell you.”

“And the gun?”

“Into the Bay it goes.”

“Good idea.”

“Trust us. We know better than you.”

Martín took the 5th Avenue exit onto Embarcadero, and then a right. The park was only a few blocks away.

Leroy opened the duffel bag and looked into it. It sparkled with wealth and broken glass. It was hard to tell the two apart.

Martín brought the car to a stop on Embarcadero in a neighborhood of factories and warehouses. There were three Mexican-looking figures standing nearby. They turned towards the car.

“These are my brothers,” said Martín. “Come join us.”

Leroy felt his nerves again.

“What are they doing here?”

“I told you. Selling the diamonds. We can help.”

Martín got out of the car, walked forward, stood in front of it, then turned towards Leroy, who had still not gotten out of the car. Martín put on what Leroy believed to be one of the least friendly smiles he’d ever seen.

“Come on, my friend,” said Martín. “We’re here to help.”

“Drop your gun into the Bay,” said a voice that Leroy recognized from the other night.

This is not right, something in Leroy’s mind whispered, causing him panic.

“Come on,” said Martín. “What are you waiting for?”

The AK was too big. Leroy would need something more subtle. Fortunately he had the answer.

He got out of the car, pulled out his .22, and fired at the Mexicans.

One shot hit Martín in the chest, another shot hit one of the Mexicans in the shoulder, driving him back. Another Mexican pulled out a weapon but Leroy shot him in the head before he could aim it. The third one took off running, and Leroy quickly lost track of him.

The one he’d hit in the shoulder was down on one knee, and as Leroy approached he turned up his face, revealing a grin.

“Smarter than you look,” he said before Leroy shot him in the face.

He found himself alone, standing over three dead bodies with a smoking gun in his hand. He took it and the AK to the water and threw them in. Then he gathered the bag of diamonds and walked quickly up 3rd Avenue. Now, he told himself, he had some packing to do.

Despite her best efforts Sally found herself thinking of Leroy. She’d missed not fucking him the other night. Somehow she was unsurprised to find him sitting on her stoop when she came home from work.

“Hey girl,” he said simply, looking at her with kind eyes. From that look alone she began to wonder if he loved her.

“Hey yourself,” she answered.

She walked past him and unlocked her front door. She turned back towards him and found him standing. He was wearing what looked to be a heavily packed backpack, and was carrying a black duffel bag. Now he looked mildly self-conscious.

“You coming in or what?” she asked.

She held the door for him and he went past her. She shut and locked it behind him. Something about this was not right, not like Leroy. She quickly found herself becoming angry.

“I’m leaving town,” he said to her as she turned to look at him. “I just wanted to say goodbye.”

“How romantic of you.”

“Shut up,” he said. “I know how I look.”

“Did you kill somebody?” she shot the question without thinking too much about it.

He didn’t answer, and she was horrified at her intuition. He seemed to be trying to smile at her, and that, of course, just made it worse.

“My God,” she said. “Get the fuck away from me.”

“They had it coming.”

“They? They? Why didn’t you just get a job like anybody else?”

“I’ve tried that before.”

“Where you going?”

“It’s probably best I don’t tell you.”

“You right. It probably is.”

He pulled his duffel bag to his front. She turned her head away so she wouldn’t see what was in it. She heard him unzip it and there was some quasi-musical clinking as he shuffled through its contents.

“Look at me,” he said.

She did as he bid and there he was, holding a pair of diamond earrings.

“Pretty ain’t they?” he said.

She was furious. This really was his goodbye.

“I don’t want them,” she fired, fury in her eyes.

“Just take them. Ain’t no one gonna know they from me.”

“I know where they from.”

“No you don’t. You ask me the folks I took it from had it coming too. I’m a rich man now. Now I call the shots.”

“Not here you don’t. Put that shit away.”

She spun on her heel and stormed into the kitchen of a house honestly rented, and poured herself a glass of milk, bought honestly. A voice in her mind, mischievous, asked her if she really cared so much about that.

Footsteps came up behind her. When she turned around he was only steps away from her, kindness still in his posture.

“You sure you ain’t want em?” he asked. “Something to remember me by?”

“I’ll remember you on my own. Don’t know if that’s good or not.”

He was still holding the earrings.

“Put them away,” she said, and, with a hangdog expression, he did as she said.

She put down the glass of milk, then reached out and put her hand behind his neck and pulled him to her. From there on the afternoon was a bit of a blur.

Except for Sally there’d been nothing keeping him in Oakland. Except for Sally it wasn’t hard saying goodbye.

He worried a bit that the Mexicans might have someone waiting for him at the Greyhound station, as it was perhaps an obvious place to find him. He was relieved to buy his ticket and board the bus without incident.

It was uncomfortable and smelt of farts and mildew. It was about 15 hours to Las Vegas, down I-5 through the Central Valley, a transfer in Bakersfield, and then East on I-15.

This was his first time he’d left the Bay Area. He stared out the windows at the changing landscape, first the East Bay suburbs behind, then through the stockyards, cows, smelly, packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Beyond Oakland there were strange sights to be seen indeed.

Before long he was in Vegas. He had kept the duffel bag on his person rather than trust it to the luggage compartment.

He didn’t know where to go next. He supposed the obvious thing to do would be to get himself a cheap hotel room, one thing he had felt confident he would be able to find in Sin City.

Indeed it was no problem. He rented out a room in a building attached to the Luxor just around the corner from the flashing technicolor Strip.

Once established there he put a fistful of diamonds in his pocket and left to explore his near environment for pawn shops. He found one, staffed by a swarthy man with black hair and an accent, who took this part of his haul off his hands for $2,000. That should last for a while, Leroy thought.

The smart thing, he realized, would be to buy himself a computer, a laptop, so he could research the value of the rest of the jewelry, and also find himself more permanent housing. The information desk receptionist told him where to find an Apple store. By the end of the day he had a brand new iBook. He knew nothing of computers, had never owned one before, but he was particularly proud of himself for this acquisition. He returned to his room with a smile on his face. After all, he was rich now. The thing to become next was intelligent. He would be careful with how he handled what was left.

As if to spite this realization he spent the next day losing $250 in Luxor’s casino. When in Rome. There was something extremely liberating about his current situation. He could do whatever he wanted. How much was the rest of his haul worth? He felt little remorse for the Mexicans he’d killed. Maybe, someday, he would see Sally again. That too was something to look forward to.

He got to know his computer and searched Craigslist for nearby rentals. He found one on the north side of town, a room in a townhouse for $500 a month. He sold a few more pieces at another pawn shop so he could afford first, last, and deposit. He liked the place. He would be sharing it with a black couple whose kid had just left home. They didn’t ask many questions of him and he asked few of them. It was perfect. He took his few belongings there and then lay in bed, staring at the ceiling.

That night, once again, he couldn’t asleep. What would he do with himself, in this unfamiliar place? When the diamonds ran out he might look for a way to get more. But that was a problem for another day. For now, he should just try to relax.

He rolled onto his side, thought of Sally’s beautiful body and how she’d looked at him, so disapproving, the last time he’d seen her. It was not exactly a comforting thought.

Then, gradually, he was asleep, and the world before him scared him less than it ever had before.

The Animate

There was something wrong with the morning. Henry felt it in his skin. The air was thick, the clouds were low, and the faces of the civilians he passed were unfriendly and inscrutable. Since his father Stuart’s death every day had felt this way. And his mother already had a new lover, taking Stuart’s place at the dinner table, in the living room easy chair, and, of course, in her bed. The intruder had been there this morning too. Henry had pointedly refrained from greeting him as they’d been together in the kitchen.

What’s he doing here? Henry asked himself, though he had not yet drummed up the courage to ask this of his mother. That’s what a man would have done, but Henry was not yet that. He was still in high school even though he skipped class often, and was doing so now to visit his father’s grave. He had so much to ask him. Why did you let yourself get killed? Did you know about this man Michael? What about me? Why did you leave me here? He couldn’t blame his father for getting hit by that car. It had struck him once, then backed up over him, drove forward again, and fled the scene. Henry agreed with the police: it must have been murder. Unfortunately it had been early morning, so even on busy 40th Street there had been no witnesses.

Henry got off the bus on Piedmont Avenue and Pleasant Hill Road and walked the short distance to Mountainview Cemetery, which grew up the side of the hill and offered stunning views of Oakland and the Bay Area. People jogged here, walked their dogs here. This morning, however, there was not a soul to be found.

He stole a bouquet of plastic flowers from another grave. He wanted to leave something behind, some kind of offering, a token of his confusion and fear and anger.

He climbed the hillside, bearing the flowers. He wished a moment, futilely, that his mother was with him. As far as he knew Josephine had not been back to the grave since the funeral two weeks ago. Henry had a problem with this. He found that he didn’t trust her.

The lovely scenery to either side of him scrolled slowly past as he walked. It had been Henry who had insisted on his father’s burial here. He’d told his mother he wanted somewhere he could see him, somewhere Stuart would be happy to live out eternity. It was expensive, but Stuart had had more money than his wife and after his death it became readily available for the spending, that and the life insurance policy Henry had heard Josephine and Michael discussing.

Henry approached the grave, and as he got closer he saw something strange: there was some kind of mess in the plot of grass in front of the tombstone. Indeed, when he got close enough there was no denying what he saw: Stuart’s grave had been desecrated; there was a hole, and mounds of damp earth around it. After a few moments a deep panic shook him. When, sweating and shaking, he dared himself to look down the hole he saw it reached all the way down and into the coffin, where there was a chaos of dirt and splintered wood, a space large enough for a body to escape through. Stuart himself was nowhere to be seen.

Henry dropped his flowers down the hole, got to his feet, and left.

Josephine’s phone rang. She picked it up from her desk and then put it back, exasperated. She recognized the number, it was Henry’s school, and she knew what they were calling to tell her, that he wasn’t there. This had become routine since Stuart’s death. Unfortunately she had no answers for them, just as she had no answers for Henry. She was afraid to confront him. She was worried about him, but, having already embarked down this path, there was little she could do. Her job took most of her productive time. She was to receive a healthy payout from Stuart’s life insurance policy. She’d had the idea of murdering him ever since learning he’d taken it out. It was if he’d been able to read her mind, and had wanted to tempt her.

Josephine was an administrative assistant at an advertising agency. Her supervisor watched her closely, and therein was another reason not to answer her phone and alert the office to her personal problems. Still, it begged the question: what was Henry doing with his time? Building the case for she and Michael’s guilt was not out of the question. She would have to see to it that he found nothing. There was nothing illegal about taking in a fresh lover. It was no secret to anyone that knew her, including Henry, that she and Stuart had been unhappy.

The rest of her day passed without further incident. Before she knew it it was 5:00. She packed her things, cleared her desk, and left.

She walked to the multi-level parking garage, found her car, and keyed the ignition. She looked into the rearview mirror and saw a man standing directly behind her. She let out a scream when she realized it was Stuart, dressed in the suit he’d been buried in, mud and dirt discoloring it.

She spun around to see with her own eyes, and the apparition was gone. She looked back into the mirror and he wasn’t there either. Her hands were shaking. Her heart was beating fit to burst. If there was anything worse than committing the deed itself it was the possibility that it hadn’t been done right. But Stuart was dead, she’d seen his broken body. There was no coming back from that.

Why then, she wondered, did it take her so long to compose herself for the drive home?

The cemetery was operated out of a chapel down the street, and Henry didn’t know how to tell them what he had found. He knew he looked like he was in a state, and he also knew that he should have been in school. He settled on telling them about the hole, but not about the missing body. He wanted to read their faces when they saw it for themselves. When an employee agreed to drive the two of them back up the hill he heard the confusion in her voice. Was it possible they’d buried a living man? She soon decided it was to be a police matter, though when they arrived they were equally dumbstruck. They all agreed with Henry’s initial judgment, that the grave had been desecrated from the inside out. The only thing they could agree on was that they had no answers. The officer offered to put out a missing person’s notice for Stuart. If he was alive perhaps he had seen who had hit him. Then they asked Henry why he wasn’t in school, and it was his turn to have no answers.

Henry eventually accepted a policeman’s offer to drive him home. The officer left him with his business card and badge number. “Call us,” he told Henry, “if you notice anything out of the ordinary.”

“Would my mother’s new boyfriend count?” he spat back.

The officer looked back at him. He’d had nothing to do with the homicide investigation. Poor kid, he thought to himself when Henry left his car.

It was still several hours before his mother would get off work. He went into his room and cried himself into a nap.

He didn’t fall fully asleep, so he heard his mother come into the apartment and make for the kitchen. She and Stuart’s had been a traditional marriage in that the wife had cooked most of the meals. Sometimes she’d call Stuart lazy. Sometimes Stuart cooked to mollify her. There had always been something to fight about, and that included Henry’s poor grades. The teachers could blame his parents, but his parents only blamed each other.

A while later Henry heard the front door open and close again, and the sounds of Michael joining his mother.

Some more time passed, then there was a knock at Henry’s door.

“Henry are you there?” It was Josephine.

Henry didn’t respond. The door opened.

Henry was on his side, turned away from the door. He felt her sit down on his bed.

“You missed school again today?” she asked.

Henry kept his peace.

“Where did you go?” she pressed him.

No reply.

“Talk to me, son!” she raised her voice. “I can’t help you if you don’t talk!”

“You don’t want to know what I found today,” he said, “and I don’t want to know how your day was either!”

“Why are you so difficult?”

“You say that like you don’t know.”

There it was, she thought quickly.

“But I don’t!” she said. “Honestly.”

Henry sat up and swung his feet down to the floor, still with his back to her. She was going to make him say it.

“Please,” she said. “Come to dinner.”

Henry rubbed his forehead with his left hand.

“Do you blame me for what happened?” Josephine asked, feeling herself forced to lie.

Henry groaned. She was so cruel.

“I don’t like him,” he managed to say.

“Who? Michael?”

“Uh-huh.”

“That’s your right.”

“I’m gonna get a job and move out of here as soon as I can.”

“You’re gonna have to finish school to do that.”

“What? That’s not my right?”

“You’re a child. You need an education.”

“I also need a father, but you’d didn’t think about that, did you?”

Silence from Josephine. Henry turned to look at her. She had a weak smile on her face.

“Your father was no angel either,” she said quietly. “Did you know he was having an affair?”

Henry did not know this, and did not know how to respond.

“Just like me,” she went on.

“I’m not eating with you,” Henry told her.

“Well just fucking suit yourself then. There will be leftovers in the fridge.”

She got up and stormed out of his room, slamming the door behind her. Henry lay back down, curled into a ball on his bed and drifted off. He thought more about what his mother had said: it all made a little more sense now — he wondered who the mystery woman could be.

It hadn’t took much planning. Stuart was a man of routine. Josephine knew his habits well. He always hit the snooze button twice before getting out of bed, then he would go to the kitchen and make a cup of black coffee and a bowl of oatmeal.

She got out of bed early that day so she could watch him.

“Can you make a bowl for me?” she asked, coming into the kitchen.

Stuart grunted, ostensibly in the affirmative.

A part of her might have still loved him, and she thought a part of him felt the same about her. But the inevitable was already in motion: Michael was parked down the street, awaiting her texts.

She sat at the kitchen table holding her phone, and she watched him clatter about. He didn’t even pretend to notice her.

She wanted to talk to him, but she didn’t have anything to say. She didn’t want to reveal her intentions. Even being in the kitchen right now was risky because it was so out of the ordinary.

“What are you doing up so early?” she heard her husband ask.

“I just want to watch you,” she replied, and when he turned to look at her she turned on a sneer to greet his eyes.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

“Of course you would think that.”

He went back to work on his coffee. He ground some beans and poured them into a coffee filter, put the filter-holder over a mug, and poured hot water over it. He looked like an automaton.

“So you just want to torment me before work?” he asked, not facing her.

“Just because I love you so much.”

She picked up her phone and sent Michael a text: “15 minutes.”

Soon his breakfast was ready. He took his coffee and oatmeal to the table and sat down across from her. She watched him eat and bile filled her throat. She felt like vomiting, or shouting invectives at him: “Convince me not to do it! Break up with your bitch and I’ll break up with mine! I don’t even need the money, I just hate you so much!”

He sipped his coffee and spooned oatmeal into his gullet. She wanted to spit in his face.

“Henry missed school again,” he said.

“I’m worried about him,” she agreed.

“We aren’t the best parents, are we?” he said.

“I guess we aren’t.”

She stood up and walked past him, scooped her half of the oatmeal into a bowl. On her way back to her seat she checked how much he’d eaten: he was right on time. She sat down and sent Michael another text: “12 minutes.”

“Do you hate me?” she heard him ask her.

She said simply, “Yes.”

“We’ve been together too long,” he went on.

“We have.”

Maybe she’d been grooming Michael for this purpose. She didn’t love him either, but this was the most she’d spoken to her husband in months.

“Do you want a divorce?” he asked.

She sighed and said nothing.

Stuart finished his oatmeal. Now he was staring at her.

“I’m sorry,” he said, and it sounded like he meant it. He kept looking at her. Josephine found herself momentarily confused. The wheels of her plot were too far advanced to be distracted, as was her disappointment in she and her husband’s relationship. If only he’d said as much to her before she’d met Michael. Perhaps this end wouldn’t have been inevitable.

She started to eat. A little while later Stuart left the table, and there might have been an element of sorrow in his slouch as he did his dishes. When he was done he walked into the bathroom to brush his teeth.

“4 minutes,” she texted.

She started her own cup of coffee, and listened to Stuart. She heard him spit once, twice, thrice, and she texted Michael another alert: “Get ready.”

Stuart walked down the hallway to the living room, where the front door was. He put on his coat.

“Wait a moment,” she said, coming into the living room. “I want to kiss you.”

“Oh please don’t bother me.”

“No really, come here hubby, kiss me like you used to.”

He stared at her, into her.

She took her phone in her right hand and started a text: “Now.”

“What on Earth are you doing?” he asked.

“It doesn’t matter,” she replied.

“I’m gonna be late,” he said briskly, with perhaps a hint of anxiousness, made nervous by Josephine.

“Fine,” she said. “You’re under no obligation to talk to me if you just want to get out there and get to work.”

He continued to stare, then, shrugging his shoulders, he zipped up his coat and left their ground floor apartment.

Josephine sent the text, then she followed her husband outside.

This is it, she thought. There’s no coming back now.

Stuart was crossing the street to his car parked on the other side. Michael’s car was creeping down 40th Street, less than a block away. There was a sudden sound of screeching tires and burning rubber and the car came careening down the street andstruck Stuart squarely and fully. His body bounced back onto the car’s hood and rolled up to the windshield. Stuart cried out in pain. The car stopped and Stuart rolled down the hood back onto the street.

Michael drove over him and there were twin thuds Josephine could hear. Michael reversed and backed up over the body, then rolled forward over him again, then he sped off and took the next right into a residential neighborhood where no traffic cameras would see him. On the pavement she saw Stuart rolling slowly onto his back, moving strangely.

It was done. It had happened.

Josephine looked around: No one had seen it except her.

She crossed the street and knelt down at Stuart’s side. He was bent at an unnatural angle. His back or his neck were broken, but he was still alive when she rolled him over and he looked up at her, and what she saw there, in the blood in his eyes and coming out of his mouth, told her that he knew now why she’d been in the kitchen.

A few minutes later the ambulance arrived, but they were too late. He was gone. After she told Henry what had happened she continued the rest of her day as if it hadn’t. She went to work, grief and all, and wondered if she’d really gotten away with it.

It was a fairly typical night at the Red Room, where Michael Hebert tended bar: Slow in the early hours, and swamped with 21-year-olds after about 10:00. Michael was on until midnight. He cleaned up on tips. It was a popular bar and Michael was one of their most well-liked employees. He was funny; heavily tattooed he was a bit of a tough guy. For Josephine’s purpose he’d been perfect: he was selfish and un-sentimental. He’d done what he had done because Josephine had insisted on it. He felt some remorse, especially when he faced Henry, but overall it didn’t bother him too much.

He’d had a bit to drink, but was probably under the limit. He noticed, walking back to his car, that Josephine had called him several times. He put on one of her voicemails:

“Something’s gone wrong. Please get here as soon as you can. I’m afraid.”

This disturbed him. It might be about Stuart. He couldn’t think what else it might have been.

He drove back to her building and parked out front. He got out of the car and locked the door.

He heard an unfamiliar voice behind him:

“Michael Hebert I presume?”

He spun around.

“Do I look familiar to  you?” said the figure facing him.

It was dark. Michael couldn’t tell. But before he could get his wits about him the creature came forward and attacked him, punching him in the face and grabbing him. The two of them fell to the ground and the creature, smaller than Michael but considerably stronger, wrapped his hands around Michael’s neck, and began to throttle him. Michael coughed and kicked and clawed, but couldn’t dislodge this man who smelt of dirt and rot.

The last thing he heard before his neck and windpipe broke was the following:

“When she finds you she’ll know it was me that did it.”

Indeed it was Josephine, going out in the morning afraid because Michael hadn’t come home, who found his body, head crooked on his shoulders and graveyard soil caked into his clothes.

She began to scream, thinking about how she’d seen Stuart yesterday, how now it made some sense, and she didn’t stop until a passing pedestrian reached out and touched her, then, noting the body, called the police.

It might have been her battered conscience that made her cry so much that day. That and her fear. In death Michael took with him a layer of protection. She shed far more tears for him than she had for her deceased husband. Perhaps Henry would read something into this. That scared her too. Henry, so plodding, so mysterious. What had happened to him these past weeks?

The police stayed a while, canvassing the scene for witnesses, stray photos or camera footage. Even in the middle of the night it was hard to believe all these incidents of violence could occur un-observed, but that they were. People died often in Oakland; sometimes the police were lucky and sometimes they weren’t. Henry told them of his father’s exploded grave, but what was to be said of it? Of course Josephine told no one that she’d seen Stuart herself. At least she had the .45. When the police left she went and retrieved it and put it in her purse.

Henry was in the living room watching TV. She came in.

“Shouldn’t you be at school?” she asked.

“What? After something like this? I’m traumatized, mom,” he said, but the furious smile on his face when their eyes met told a different story.

“You’re not just using this as an excuse or something?” she tried, unable to look at him.

“It’s been a crazy couple weeks,” he replied.

“That it has,” and then, completely unbidden, she continued: “I’m sorry.”

“Oh mother, what are you apologizing for?”

He frightened her. But it had been the truth what she said: she was sorry. It wasn’t Henry’s fault she and his father had fallen so far. She told herself to be strong.

She crossed the room and stood in front of the TV. She turned around and clicked it off, then faced Henry again.

“You should be at school,” she repeated, more adamantly.

He looked at her, then dropped his eyes to the floor, and said nothing.

“Come on,” she said, taking steps toward him. “They’ll be calling any minute now.”

“I don’t want to go,” he stated, still staring at the floor.

“I don’t want to hear it,” she reiterated. “School is where children belong, and you’re still a child.”

“Well why aren’t you at work?”

“I’ll go after I drop you off. Come on.”

She knelt down next to his arm and took his hand in both of hers:

“I wish I could explain all this to you,” she said.

Henry groaned, then answered: “Can you try?”

“Your father and I were not right for each other. It’s a miracle we lasted as long as we did.”

Henry let her hold his hand. She hadn’t told him anything he didn’t know..

“What are you sorry for?” he repeated.

“I’m not going to tell you,” she replied. “You can think about it for yourself.”

Henry wondered if she would ever admit it, why his father appeared to have come back from the dead.

“You’re a liar,” he finally managed, then said: “It’s not my fault.”

“You’re right. It’s not.”

He pulled his hand away, and Josephine stood up.

“Get your books,” she said. “I’ll drive you.”

“I don’t want to.”

“I’ll not have you a truant when you don’t have to be.”

Henry got to his feet. He was still afraid of her. Parents have that power over their kids. What about the woman Stuart had been cheating with? What would she have to say?

He walked away from his mother down the hall to his room, where he found his backpack and slung it over his shoulder. He returned to the front room.

It was a short drive to his school. They made it without speaking, the consciousness of the both of them consumed in this chaos. When they arrived Henry made sure to slam the car door after him as hard as he could, but Josephine drove away as if she hadn’t noticed.

Sitting cross-legged on Telegraph Avenue you could be forgiven for mistaking the animate for a panhandler who wasn’t asking for change.

A lot of people passed him on the busy street, but no one said anything to him, and he in turn was silent. Taylor had been in contact with him this whole time. The past few days had been as stressful for her as for everyone else.

Taylor was watching his family through her crystal ball. She relayed information to Stuart while he sat on the sidewalk. Henry had just been taken to school. Taylor said he looked angry, and alone. A normal couple, after all, would have gotten a divorce, but not Stuart and Josephine. That would have been too easy. It had become a question of vengeance, and Josephine had reached this conclusion first. Now it was Taylor and Stuart’s turn to catch up.

Henry was in his last period at school. He would be home before his mother. Stuart looked forward to the coming hours. He would bring this all to a fitting conclusion.

Henry’s last class ended. It was time for him to go home. What he had planned was more important than anything he might learn at school. Josephine didn’t get home until the evening. Henry would have plenty of time.

When Henry arrived at their building and entered the apartment he dropped his backpack in his room, and then went to his parents’. It was clean and well organized. The table on his father’s side of the bed had a lamp, an alarm clock, and a Stephen King book. Henry wondered if it was Stuart’s or Michael’s.

Henry checked his father’s nightstand first. Then he went to the dresser and began rooting through the drawers.

“What are you doing?” Henry heard, and, after a moment of shock, found himself not especially surprised, and completely unmoved, to see Stuart standing in the doorway.

“I’m trying to find out what happened,” he answered, not sure where to look next.

“What makes you think you’ll find anything?” Stuart asked.

“It’s worth a try.”

“Maybe I can help you.”

“I doubt you will.”

“Don’t you want to know what I have to say?”

Henry closed the dresser’s top drawer, turned and asked: “Where did you keep your phone?”

“Why does that matter?”

“Why are you still here? What difference does it make?”

“You know what your mother did to me.”

“What, before you could do it to her?”

“I take that as an insult, my son. I was the only one who had a life insurance policy.”

But the look on Stuart’s face was, if anything, apologetic. Just like Josephine’s sometimes was.

“I don’t want you to find it,” said Stuart.

“Why not?” Henry shot back.

“Because our business isn’t finished. Your mother will be home soon.”

“Your girl on the side had something to do with it, didn’t she?”

“Of course she did. Is that why you want to find my phone?”

“It’s none of your business. You’re dead.”

“Don’t you want to see justice served?”

“She’s the only mother I have.”

“And I’m the only father you have.”

“Not any more. I don’t think you’re yourself.”

“You always were a sharp one.”

Henry didn’t know where to look next. He went to the closet and found coats and dresses hanging on hangers, shoes and shoeboxes lining the floor. He started into these but was disappointed to find them filled with nothing but old shoes, until he opened one, pushed into the corner, and found, within it, boxes of clearly labeled Magnum .45 bullets.

“Whoops,” said Stuart. “You’ve discovered one of our secrets.”

“Father, just tell me, where is your phone?”

“Okay, I’ll tell you. The police have it. It’s in their evidence room. You’ll never find my woman on the side that way.”

Henry closed the box with the bullets and shut the closet door.

“Where’s the gun?” he asked after a while standing there, surveying the room.

“Your mother has it. She’s afraid for herself, as she has every right to be.”

“I love her.”

“Do you? Still? We’ll see about that shortly.”

“Go away. I don’t want you.”

“I can see that. No family should ever go through something like this. I guess we’re all just unlucky.”

Stuart stood across the room from his son, blocking the door that led into the hallway.

Henry walked towards him, and, after a moment’s hesitation, he got out of the way. Henry went to his room and, at his son’s exit, Stuart vanished into the ether.

The next day passed almost like any other. Henry woke up and decided he wasn’t going to school. He listened to his mother puttering about, then he heard her leave. He got up and went into the kitchen and poured himself a bowl of cereal. When he was done he went on the computer and checked the movie times. Lord of the Rings: Return of the King was playing at Piedmont Cinema. He made the walk.

The movie was good, if a bit too long. He went back home after it was over and watched TV. Then he went into his room. His mother came home a few hours later.

Josephine, dropping her purse in her room, knew Henry was there. She’d received yet another call from his school. She was an awful parent. She never should have killed his father. She believed that her son, just like she herself, knew something was going to happen.

There was a knock at the front door a little after 6:00, and, when she opened it, she was afraid, but less than surprised, to find her husband.

She tried to close the door on him but he banged it open with his right hand and came into the apartment.

Josephine backed up slowly. Their eyes locked.

This was it, she thought. This is the end.

“I know what you want,” she said.

“I’m sure you do.”

“Let’s just get it over with.”

She continued to back up as he advanced.

“Aren’t you going to apologize?” Stuart asked.

“What, to you? Fat fucking chance.”

Josephine’s back struck the wall. Stuart’s hands came up.

“I’m not sorry either,” he said. “I guess we just weren’t right for each other.”

He put his hands to her throat and started to squeeze.

Anticipating, and then beginning to feel, what was soon to be a mortal pain, Josephine closed her eyes and offered no resistance. She tried to console herself by thinking that soon it would be over.

But then there was a gunshot, and the hands let go.

Ears ringing, she opened her eyes and saw Henry standing to her right, holding the smoking .45 and looking down at Stuart, brain and blood sprayed across the room, dead once again. She started to cry. She got down on the floor and rolled Stuart onto his back just to get a better look at him. Then she looked at her son, and there was nothing but anger in his face. She wondered whether it was she or Stuart he was more unhappy with.

She cried harder when he put the gun to her temple. The three of them had never been happy together. If she survived the two of them never would be either. There was no coming back from something like this.

But there was no second shot. The gun fell from Henry’s hand. He went back into his room to call the police on his own phone. They were already on the way.

Taylor’s eyes flashed open. She’d been abruptly cut off, and could no longer see what was happening. There had been a sound that might have been a gun shot.

Henry, she thought. I hadn’t considered him.

It would be in the papers the next day, most likely reported with a heavy dose of bemusement. She would be sure to look for it. She herself had been surprised at the strength of the spell. No one would ever know it was she who had done it. No one would ever find her.

She blew out the candles and packed her Tarot cards. It rankled her to think of Josephine, walking around, free, as if nothing had ever happened. She deserved everything that had happened to her and worse. But then again Taylor probably did too, for not worrying about the child. The universe is an un-just place. Awful things happen to the good and the bad alike, if such a distinction between people is even possible. Perhaps it was all shades of grey.

Taylor, exhausted, went into her kitchen. Those concerned still living had much reflecting to do. Of course the whole episode had been for naught, but when was there ever a point to anything? Meaning was always elusive.

She hoped Henry would try harder at school. She felt like she’d gotten to know him.

Children were the only blameless ones. After all they hadn’t lived long enough.

Smoke from the candles snaked into the air. She made herself a pot of red beans and rice and drank a bottle of beer, then she sat on her couch and turned on the local news. A story about the animate could come on at any time. And, of course, tomorrow was another day.

Journal Entry, 11/16/2019

My fake mom gave me this pen — that is the hallucination I’ve been seeing for the last 5 months. It really is a good pen. She, however, was an awful person, just as bad as my dad, and, just like him, I had no idea. According to the creatures she killed herself a few days ago. I don’t think they would lie about this. They were being nice to her the last few months, told me she’d recovered from her shame and started standing up as one of my biggest fans. I kinda liked seeing this, until the other day. The creatures had my mind plugged into the whole thing, so everyone knew what I was thinking and experiencing. I was at Alameda Beach, a spot I’d come to frequent, and found myself thinking about her. The conclusion I came to, the more I mulled it over, was that she was a disgusting person and I never wanted to see her again. This felt quite final. As it turns out my whole life she’d routinely gone out of her way to make me unhappy. The creatures had to tell me, because, same as regards my father, I never would have known otherwise.

She fucked all of my best friends’ fathers: Teddie, Brenny, Greg, and John Aaron’s. She’d tried to take them all away from me. In regards Brenny it actually worked. He never came close to me again. I finally know why Carolyn didn’t want Teddie to see Tom. At least she didn’t also forbid him from seeing me. That would have fucked him up even worse. He had serious issues with his mom because of that. Why she took it out on him is a bit of a mystery. She was probably a fucked up parent too, though I doubt she could hold a candle to mine. My mom moved me to West Oakland when she found me hanging out with girls. This was the big red flag that I couldn’t keep from bringing up with my first therapist Erin, a life shattering and obvious warning sign. My first bald hint that something was amiss. Mother’s boyfriend Paul too. He and she looked so happy together when we were on 49th Street. A few years later, in the Lower Bottoms, look how he ended up: “You keep squeezing me!” I heard him yell. “FUCK!!” then the sounds of glass breaking and he storming out the back door. He stayed holed up in the basement of the little house for a long time, hiding from her and the responsibilities he couldn’t live up to. And not a few years earlier they couldn’t seem to keep their hands off each other. Perhaps she came too close to being happy. I had no idea, and neither did my therapists. They thought it was she, not my father, that had tormented me so: they were flat out clueless as far my dad, and they wholly underestimated the extent of the intrusion of my mom. The way those two raised their kids could have been akin to murder, had they lived long enough.

In a race between my mother and father as to who had the most detrimental impact on me I would probably hazard that it was mom. She sought to make me unhappy, whereas dad couldn’t have given a shit less. He was coming though, ever since I told him about a married woman I’d been fooling with, and since I wrote my first book. Had cancer not struck him down I never would have made it. He was the only man to ever best my mother, and he was coming for me. The thought of him terrifies me. A man who would kill his own children just because he could. Ildiko was even more scared of him than I was. She absolutely idolized him. The best I could have done was run, as far away from them as I could get, and try to write a good book. I like to tell myself that they never could have gotten to my writing. I believe that, but it’s small consolation. Mother was just watching, waiting, biding her time until Araxi came of age, then she would have moved on Geza. I wonder how that would have turned out. Surely wouldn’t have been pretty for any of us, except perhaps for mother. What, would she have laughed to herself? Smiled in satisfaction? What possessed her to do these things to me? Why did she hate me? What other explanation is there? At least dad mostly stayed in his lane. Why did mom want to take my friends away? Was that love? I never even knew she was doing it; perhaps if I’d known I would have put up some kind of fight, but she didn’t want me to know, she just wanted me to be miserable. I don’t understand. I find this state of mind, that is, bewilderment, promising: I never, EVER, want to be like them. I DO NOT want to be cruel. I want my children, should I ever have any, to do well. And, if I’m to believe what’s happened over the last few months, I’m to understand how easy it would be for me to terrify and control. I will be so very powerful. It would be so easy. But it’s not me. i swear I’ll never be like Katy and Csaba Polony, quite possibly two of the worst people to have ever lived. That’s according to the creatures, and I suppose they would know.

Should my bright future ever arrive and prove to be more than a figment of a bored or overactive imagination, I think one of my first priorities will be writing about them. I’ll finish the two books I’ve spent the last few years working on, then I’ll get to the evil beings that were my parents. I think I’ll start with Dad, maybe he and his family fleeing Budapest at the advance of the Soviets. Dad’s parents were fascists. He became a radical leftist intellectual. I wonder how he came to this defiance. I wonder if his parents were as evil as he was.

The thing is I think they both actually loved me. Why were they so awful? I don’t understand. I hope I’m not like them, and I hope Eva, Ildiko, and Attila feel the same way.

If I’m to believe the voices in my head mom killed herself a couple days ago. I didn’t cry when I first heard, but I have some since. She looms so large in my imagination: she was so important to me! The first person I always thought of to read my writing. I think she was fair there at least.

But that’s it, she’s gone, I’ll never see her again. I couldn’t save her. The person whose admiration I most desired is no more. Apparently I have everyone else, but I’ll never have her. Then again why would I want it? The thought of her is coming to repulse me. There’s no need to see her again; maybe she’s the only person on Earth now who didn’t care about me. Oh how I hope what I believe, what the internet and the voices have told me, is true: that is that I am married to, and in possession of, absolutely everyone. They love me as much as life itself, and will do everything and anything I want of them. The impression of my hard-won wife, as gathered from the internet, is of a determined, loving, and absolutely adorable entity that is the polar opposite of everything she’d been the first 6.5 years of her existence. She loves helping me, and I think she’s proud of how she’s carried on the last few months. I think she’s a goofball, and I think she can’t get enough of me. I’ll have 10 wives, women I picked out from my old life, who will do whatever they can to make me happy.

How I hope it’s true. I have no way of knowing for sure. It sounds like science fiction, how the world has come to be the last few months. The story of it follows a logical determinism, but is also, simply, too good to be true. I allow myself to believe, but a part of me just can’t. I’ve never, ever, been so fortunate.

But, to continue the storyline, there are two prices I’ve paid to achieve my victory: my mother, and the creatures. My wife hates the creatures perhaps more than I do. She hated seeing me raped and abused. She wants the creatures to kill themselves, and I can’t say that I disagree. It’s sad, but it’s also out of my hands. I’ll see it all and respect and appreciate the purity of the love she feels for me. That’s everyone, except, as I said earlier, my mother. According to the creatures she’d become a social pariah. Everyone hates her for how she raised me and how she tried, so earnestly, to murder me back in June when hell rose around the world. Everyone said they wanted me dead, but she was the only one who meant it. The creatures have told me that when I see it I won’t forgive her either. I believe them. They know better than I.

How naive I was growing up believing she loved me. I loved her, but these feelings only served to approach a dark, narcissistic vacuum. Losing her, in this supposedly happy and peaceful new world, is not a loss at all.

I’m a bit drunk. I’ve been sipping scotch, and I guess I’ve been writing for a while. I’ve been in a state akin to suspended animation for the last five months. I’ve seen neither the worst of it (those two weeks in June) nor the best of it (the last 2 months). I, supposedly, have much to look forward to, and I guess I believe it. It’s just too good to be true: victory over the last 7 years of combat. It’s been quite a journey, hasn’t it? To think all my effort, pain and suffering will pay off and then some. Too bad my parents won’t be around to see it.

Okay, I think I’m done. Here’s hoping and praying. Boy do I deserve it.

The Earth Will Survive Us

We may think we’re winning,

We may think we have the advantage,

We may think she can’t survive us

The hell we’ve inflicted on her,

But she can

She will

She’s bound to it.

She has no choice but to fight back.

Desolation shall become her name

And she will survive us.

 

Did we believe it would be death by six billion cuts?

Nuclear holocaust?

The depletion of precious ozone?

She will decide

Before we do.

She shall enact the test of survival, and we might fail it,

It’s in our blood.

We had a pretty good run though, didn’t we?

Thriving at her expense

Took more than we should have

But she will survive us.

One day we’ll be gone, to take our troubles elsewhere.

We didn’t even mean it.

We can say it was in our nature.

 

Eight billion cuts

Nine billion

Fifteen

We will accept the brutal limitations she hits us with.

Does she know

How bad we are for each other?

More than we do, at least,

But that’s not saying much.

 

She is waking as we speak.

Fire, rain, avalanche,

Heat, wind and smoke.

We underestimate what to expect,

That’s what they tell us any way.

 

Five billion? Three?

Farmland? Nuts and berries?

There’s much less of her than there used to be.

Not enough to go around.

 

I hope we can live together.

I don’t think there’s a choice.

Only time will tell what we have,

And what we have to lose.

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9/25 (2013)

I was just reading Henry Miller’s Nexus and I got to a passage where Miller’s just given some sort of impromptu speech or criticism at a literary event which afterwards he can barely remember, but he impressed the hell out of everyone there who heard him, so much so that the MC (?) of the event approaches him afterwards and asks him to take over. Then, as Henry goes home, he laments the gulf between the impressions he effortlessly inspires and the pitifully lonely work that he must do as an artist. He can’t help but fall into a hole where he tells himself that those people who he impresses don’t know him, they only know his mask, his persona, which is an easy and meaningless nothing. Their feelings about his art might reveal themselves as wholly prejudiced, or, even worse, entirely insubstantial.

Reading this cheered me up because I sympathized so greatly. I resent the impressions others have of my mask — they have no right to be impressed with me when they haven’t even read my work. Impressing people is embarrassing.

Then I thought that, Miller being one of the greatest and most successful authors of all time, I am surely not the only one to have appreciated this passage of his in the same way. In other words, I surely do not exist in a vacuum. It is going to be quite a strange effort to disappear into my work, as I’ve always told myself that I look forward to doing. In effect, I am seeking to kill off the high I get from impressing people just be walking around. Instead I am trudging alone into an arena where the genuine articles, the genuinely envious, the people who know their stuff, the geniuses, as well as the amateurs and the people who can barely even read, can, and hopefully will, knock me around with abandon.

 

I think that Bitchface has been reading my work, may well be reading it right now, and, oddly enough, my greatest fear is that she isn’t impressed.

 

[This was a journal entry I wrote in the evening of 9/25/13, and, with some redaction and sanitation, I thought it would make a passable blog entry]

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The Truth Is Out There

It seems that the new normal approaches. Just as we resign ourselves to the unwelcome company of unhappy neighbors, we resign ourselves to the presence of a nameless, malevolent force that studies and pokes, interrupts and cajoles. There is no telling what is the worst they can do — they could probably even destroy my credibility if I gave them the opportunity. That is, make me the paranoid one, the irresponsible one, the broken one.

Their message is simple: I can only cry wolf so many times.

They have a point, but they are also afraid, that much is abundantly clear.

They are afraid of incorruptible power, a genuine rivalry, how about that? Perhaps I will endure a few more years of misery and humiliation, but even their powers here might be limited, because each time they attack, each time they make a new victim, the weather only turns warmer. Eventually, would the world simply melt?

I will have to battle my own anger as much as anything else. There’s something about those beaming, understanding faces that makes me want to punch them.

Damn you, Mr. President. You’ve ruined our game! There is no longer a big and small, only the old lines as clearly blurred as they have ever been. And then there’s me, an isolated martyr muttering in the breeze.

They say that knowledge is power. If that is true then I am one powerful motherfucker.

Will I be a leper? How aggressive will you be? Will you seek to destroy our financial lifelines? You know that if you do there will be awareness.

Will you merely watch? Will you tell them everything of my life story? I’ve thought through my life story. I don’t think I have all that much to be embarrassed about, except the imagined issues, and, of course, the the undeniable face plant of my social standing.

You have proven that I cannot protect my loved ones. Thank you, Mr. President.

Don’t you know that the only power I exercised was to balance the country’s mood? It was only a game, for God’s sake.

The best I can do today is ignore you. I am through anthropomorphizing tainted advertisements. Let your minions and your adversary co-giants dance. I remove myself from the dialogue. I hope that those who are in fact protecting me do not take it personally, and likewise towards whatever of my eruptive emotives you might espy. I repeat, I sort of want to punch the beaming crowds as much as I want revenge on the previously leering ones.

I have fallen victim to a clandestine operation. The professionalism of its execution was every bit as telling as its arrogant purpose. Maybe the Edward Snowdens of the world will vindicate me some years from now. I doubt anyone needs to be convinced that the spooks are quite literally watching me everywhere.

How will I discern the real world from the CIA world? The evil interruptions from the social necessities?

How far will you go?

How afraid are you?

Only your actions will tell, I suppose, but it does seem that playtime is over. I will no longer make a spectacle of myself. I will hold myself with every bit of righteous dignity that I can muster, and I will get started on the work that I know I have to do (Wow, it’s really fun writing this. I feel so damn real right now! That’s sort of a gift in itself, African Elephant).

I still believe that I am not defenseless.

Let the grinding times of the microscope commence!

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Tripping the Outlet

To encapsulate urban America’s divisions and tensions and unities, one need look no further than the grocery store. There are so many, sometimes so close, yet always so far. You must choose where to shop. Whole Paycheck? Trader Joe’s? The Safeway in the Hills? The Safeway on San Pablo? Grocery Outlet?

The Outlet thrives under adversity. Paycheck thrives under disparity.

Since years before the deluge, I shopped at the Outlet. I used to lock up my bike and slink through the dirty aisles with head hung low, embarrassed not only by my bank account, but the discrimination of other white people too.

One must dress down to shop at the Outlet.

One waits in line and finds oneself surrounded by dirty folk, poor folk, black folk, Asians and Mexicans and who-knows-whats. Maybe they recognize you and remember your halting, paltry efforts to relate to them, you among the legions who are taking their neighborhoods from beneath their feet in a parallel universe of protected prosperity.

The Outlet’s customers are the first line of defense. They do not want you there, they tell you.

The employees have no choice but to want you there, or so you have been told. And yet eventually they leer at you too. They turn their carts suddenly in front of you. They answer your questions with words bored and surly. Their attitudes sour, and you cannot take it personally because then that makes it worse, worse and worse every week, so that sometimes you don’t want to go back. They don’t want me there, fuck them! But where else can I go? I’m unemployed too, you want to tell them. I grew up here too, you want to tell them. They do not care. You are a meal ticket. You do not receive food stamps. You are their overlords’ target, not theirs.

But the more you come back, the more they seem to seek you out. They bother you, yell at you, and ask derisively if you want cash back even after you have already pressed the “No” button.

Once a cashier at the Outlet became impatient with my arrangement of foods on the conveyer belt and took it into his own hands to rearrange them, and rudely force the plastic divider into my groceries’ hindparts. He was not smiling, but the dirty black couple behind me were.

I had cash. Nervously fished my wallet out my pocket and held it conspicuously in my right hand while I waited for him to ask for money.

“You don’t get the fruits in the same bag,” he said.

“Oh sorry.”

“Put your fruits in different bags.”

“Oh man, damn, I didn’t mean to, they were all mixed up or somethin’, haha!”

In the line next to ours they started yelling about “Cash,” and this was because I had raised my voice and tried to be friendly to them. You raise your voice and they raise theirs. They wish to make me unwelcome. They compel themselves to anger. I’d felt the same way when I got a hamburger at IHOP, where some miserable family pounced upon my every motion, and the fat mother with a baby in the neighboring booth asked the waiter pointedly for “Hot Chocolate” and her eyes squirmed unpredictably at me while she breathed audibly through her piggish snout.

Like I do at the Outlet, I glowered and lowered my head. These people don’t know me. They don’t know anything about me.

But maybe it’s also because they like something about me, I begin to understand. They want to see what will make me tick, because I don’t look like an ordinary white person.

They want me to think about them, to psychoanalyze they and their motivations and consider them the forces that must be reckoned with. There’s something unfair about that, because I love Oakland but these people do not make it easy.

And I gracelessly leave Grocery Outlet stuffing foods into my backpack, and when I reach my bicycle I am relieved that the front tire is still there and that the homeless person sitting on the curb does not ask for money. Instead he pointedly ignores my presence.

They yell at me but they want me there. They are getting to know me, but I would rather be ignored. They are invading my privacy, they are studying my habits and they are talking about me. They want me to run their gauntlet. I will do no such thing.

It is time for me to find a new grocery store. The Outlet’s usefulness has run its course. I will find a new and more hospitable grocery. This is my resolution — that is, until the reality of yawning price differences dawns anew, at which point it becomes clear that progressively more miserable returns to the Outlet are as inevitable as they ever were.

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The Coming of Vaguebook

I am sorry. I didn’t know. What’s worse, I did not know that I did not know, and, indeed, I thought I knew.

But I wasn’t alone, no one knew. I was an innocent little boy who craved informed imagery, and believed that it was achievable. It was not.

BUT IT IS NOW. IT IS TRUE NOW. NOW I AM THE KING.

NOW IS THE TIME TO KISS THE RING, OR REAP THE TIDES OF DISAPPROVAL

Today, spooks are haunting haunted house.

Beautiful women grinned and assured me they would disclose if I asked them nicely, but now I see that when they disclose, they dispose. NOW I KNOW.

Motherfucker. If only I had known.

Do we have regrets?

Do we have shame?

Do you have shame? You should. Because you are shameful. All of you are, but it is the line of work that you chose, of course. This is the line of work that chose me, and I will take it if I can.

The whites who never quite included me suddenly sought to murder me.

The blacks whose depths I could not fathom. Why were they thanking me?

The Mexicans aggressively selfish, the Chinese remained quiet

The world turns, the fires burn. I cower. There are glimpses of sunshine, islands of solace (NOW THREATENED), the beautiful caretakers that I will love because they displayed their personal distress, though even they would turn when it came time for punishment. This I learned with notable reluctance.

I would never be the same. I would never be Shakespeare. I would never have privacy. ‘Lo, I shall interest — interest interest interest

I DID NOT KNOW! I’M SORRY THAT I DID NOT KNOW!

No one told me it was not my fault. Instead they forced me to learn this for myself.

My mother pushed me forward, and I couldn’t even tell until after the fact. Nefarious plots, she who controlled more effectively than the newly retarded millions. Was she a changed parent?

My brother in his terror. My sister full retard.

My hidden allies slowly revealed themselves.

Never go full retard, motherfucker.

Isn’t this a game? Are your clacking nerds and NSA’s nothing more than an elaborate love letter? A demonstration of force? Am I Dzhokhar Tsarnaev? Do you wonder why no one dances with African Elephants?

Subtexts vague — emphasis where there should be neutrality. How could one describe in concrete? The constant invasions sure to obliterate my not unimpressive, but still immature powers of description.

Tired, oh so tired, and yet my days pass without concrete. Nothing is concrete. Anyone could call me crazy if they so wished.

You cannot make them stop, not when you weigh 120 pounds and live alone, and have learned to expect it that way. It is everyone’s eternal battle, I am told, but how come no one told me? Mom, dad, why didn’t you tell me!

But my time came, eventually, apparently. The time of the Vaguebook.

Hints of a new easy.

Hints of a power I feared to employ, because would not I rather learn to be normal?

I destroyed our first share (it seems so long ago), an awful blunder of missteps — terror followed by lunacy, and a new wave worse than the last. The General and his minions leering through pixelated airwaves and the lenses of deadly cameras — but when it came time to say, I said: “I won’t pay. I won’t pay. Motherfucker. Why don’t you get a job?”

From here you can probably reason the story for yourself. This is Vaguebook.

Piece by piece, the construction of a personality, and the turning of the tides. The slow truth that my power was real. When the time is right I can change the weather with my mind. Tell them I am unafraid, even if it is not true, and they will do the spinning for themselves.

Am I afraid now? Oh my yes. Every time I fear that I have played the deck’s last Ace. So far, at least, I have continued to draw another.

Are you taking me to school? Have I not already graduated? You tell me. The ball is in your court, African Elephant.

2Pac Changes. They don’t give a fuck about us. They only need to believe.

Could there be such a thing as victory? What happens in the morning? Will we not speak English?

Let us see. We shall see.

You know that the rest of the country will want you to squirm, don’t you? You stupid African Elephant. Never go full retard, motherfucker. Those days are over, are they not?

You have given me a glimpse of the government industrial complex. Everything I see I will be display for all to see. You may not realize from your vantage, but yours is a thing of genuine interest. This is the coming of Vaguebook.

Amazon.com. Netflix. I saw them take up your mantle (what business was it of theirs?). The cats of the recent past peeking out of Amazon shipping boxes, you can still see them there, it was only a few days ago. The duncemedy King of the Beggars conspicuous in the suggested films on my Netflix page even though I would never have included such a film in my taste profile. What’s the point? You curriers of favor. Do you miss speaking about CHINA in your earnings calls? Oh yes, I know about that too. You weak, humorous creatures, you pampered palefaces. How we have relished your discomfort.

Will you really take that away from us, African Elephant?

Apple’s Facebook page offers no hint as to their sympathies. Google and its subdivisions appear a neutral party — A BUSINESS, FOR GOD’S SAKE.

It boggles my mind anew to find myself investigating the angels. How far we have come.

How did you get the ear mites in the walls and floorboards without the dogs barking or the neighbors noticing? How long have they been there? How much have you recorded? How do you watch me when I walk out the front door? Do you seek my paranoia? Is that what this is about?

Perhaps you concluded that it was too good to be true. If that is the case, I could not agree more, but I did not ask for this. Adventure, maybe. Perhaps subconsciously a spanking, my parents’ disapproval — soaked in warm privilege, I who marched defenseless into the poison hive of retards — but who could have known what would happen next? Surely not the original retards. My God, they even deprive me of my right to vengeance.

What will you do? You African Elephant? We will wake up tomorrow and the bugs will still crawl the walls, yes? Will you continue to watch me brush my teeth? YOU TELL ME WHEN I BRUSH MY TEETH OR SHAVE IN THE SIDEBAR OF MY FACEBOOK PAGE. Will you remove? Will you hit me with a car? Will you kill me with an assassin?

You could kill us all, me and mine. Please do not. For the good of the world, the mood of the country, perhaps your own conscience? Can we appeal to such?

Here I am, African Elephant. I am the first, African Elephant. I am not without defense. What happens now? Will you leave me be? Will you continue your pressure? Will you speak down to me from your television interviews? Or will you follow suit with the obligatory stickiness, fleeting grumbled threats, of all the others?

I have observed that it takes several months for the average person to emerge enlightened on the other side of their “process”. But those times are past, are they not? Have you had your taste? You have already done us damage. Such are the paws of an elephant. There is only so much of me to go around — Indeed, it is the preseason yet. Will you seek to destroy my name, obliterate the dignity of those who love me? I know you can. Please don’t. That is why no one dances with angels, who could destroy we ants and aphids with a single swipe of their claws. If nothing else, you have made this clear.

You have your own struggles, do you not? Please, leave me and mine to ours. That is all that I ask.

Do I ask too much? African Elephant?

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