Friday, December 31, 2004

by Mickey Hess

In a restroom someone has drawn the left half of a pot leaf. Like a lesson in symmetry, one of those explore-your-artistic-talent kits you get in the mail. Underneath it someone else has written "Please finish." As if he can’t wait to see how things are going to turn out. There is no more of this anticipation left for 2004. It has done, mostly, what it will do. Snow outside my office window, falling on the giant stone statue that looks to me exactly like the W symbol of one of my favorite rap groups. At night it is illuminated by spotlights. In the sun it casts a Wu-Tang shadow over our campus walkways. I bought a Wu-Tang Clan DVD to make me feel better about Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s death. But the concert footage, from only five months ago, has the opposite effect. ODB sits in a folding chair through most of the show, and looks like he’s too tired even for that. There’s a moment during "Cherchez LaGhost" when Ghostface walks over and sings directly to him, caresses his cheek, as if to ask "Are you ok?"

The end of things makes us think of their beginnings, and of where we expected or intended them to go. Has 2004 done what I wanted it to, and is there promise that 2005 will work harder? I remember a night last December: I am driving home from an out of town reading listening to Ol’ Dirty’s Return to the 36 Chambers: The Dirty Version. I received this album years ago as an Easter gift from my mom, the CD nesting in green plastic grass among Cadbury eggs. But tonight I’m listening to it differently. There’s some urgency there I never considered. Listening to such an amazing album, one I’ve memorized so thoroughly, creates an anxiety all its own. I’m barely two verses into "Brooklyn Zoo" and my mind is racing ahead to "The Stomp" or "Dirty Dancin'". It’s like the track listing can’t keep up with me. An hour later it’s the same thing with the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill, the first album I bought with my own money. Then Ill Bill Is the Future, my new favorite CD, and a throwback to the Licensed to Ill era. The track sequencing is put together so smoothly that one song flows right into the next. I anticipate these changes. I’m one verse ahead of Ill Bill. I have no time for end fades on songs, no time to listen to the chorus repeating fainter and fainter until it disappears into dead silence until the next song begins. I like songs that begin with sirens, with gunshots and threats, albums that keep it moving. Driving home to Louisville at 2 in the morning, though, I’m wondering what this anticipation costs me. I look for ways to make things move quickly, to keep them exciting, but this now has me looking for endings everywhere because I’m ready for the next thing and the next. And that’s the problem tonight. I’m impatient with the Beastie Boys. I’m yeah-yeahing "Time to Get Ill," hitting the track advance button because by verse two I already know what time it is. It’s time to move on. On my second listen tonight, I fast-forward through the ends of some songs. This is blasphemy for me, as I believe the Beastie Boys should not be interrupted. I justify it as excitement for the upcoming track, but it turns into something different. Soon I’m skipping entire songs. "Girls" seems to be null and void now. "Slow and Low" is better on the live in Japan bootleg. I turn to the Wu-Tang Clan, scoring a mid-Indiana hour with their first album. "Hut one, hut two, hut three, hut! Ol’ Dirty Bastard live and uncut!" Exclamation points at the end of every line. I skip the slow songs, rushing through to the CD’s end, and the silence hits me hard. There’s no more Enter the Wu-Tang. That’s the end. I know for the rest of my drive that this is part of a larger problem, this inability to appreciate "Protect Ya Neck" while it’s playing, and my need to always look ahead to the next track, as if things can only get better. I fast forward through 2004 and its long car rides, through the New Year’s Eve countdown, my birthday party, and a funeral. When I was a baby, my mom tells me, the only way to get me to sleep at night was to take me for a long drive in the car. This stayed with me, and when I first got my driver’s license I used to fall asleep even on a short drive to work. Tonight, though, I do not fall asleep. I do not switch out Enter the Wu-Tang for Wu-Tang Forever. I do not push play.

Mickey Hess wrote a book called Big Wheel at the Cracker Factory. "Looks pretty good," says one reviewer.

Sunday, December 19, 2004

by Moe Bowstern

I had been fishing on the Jennie Lynne about a month when we caught the octupus. It oozed out of the moneybag and fell plop on the deck after what salmon we caught spilled into the hold. Normally Fred was quite casual about the ocean wonders we sometimes inadvertently snagged, but the octopus got his attention.

"Hey, wouldja look at that guy," he said, and Susan and Dave obliged him, peering at the pulpy red mass from around their raingear hoods.

"Let's eat it!" I shouted from the skiff. I have eaten octopus twice; once in a chewy soup and another time lightly grilled at a barbecue. It tasted okay, nothing too special. Mostly I wanted to challenge the moody boat cook, who I thought didn't feed me enough.

"Aww, we can't eat this guy," Fred said, "Watch." And the four of us watched as the octopus, whose boneless body stretched about four feet across, squeezed itself off the boat and into the water through a scupper five inches wide and two high.

The next day, fishing the same area, we brought up another octopus. I prepared myself for a new episode of Denizens of the Deep when Fred surprised us by running into the galley, where he grabbed a knife and stabbed the octopus repeatedly in the mantle. I was dumbfounded. The moody boat cook was grumpy. Fred dropped the octopus into the hold with the salmon. At the tender that night the moody boat cook informed Fred that there was no way in hell she was gonna cook the octopus. "You killed it, you cook it," she said. Fred thought that was just fine, as cooking sometimes relieved him of the incredible daily pressures of the first-year salmon skipper. He chatted with the skipper of the tender about the best way to tenderize an octopus. "You gotta beat it with a hammer, or you'll wear out your jaw chewing on it"

"Nah," the mate on the tender offered his opinion, "You just barely cook it, just sear it. The mantle is the best part." Fred wondered aloud about marinating procedures in relation to the cephalopod.

Next morning after we pulled anchor Fred jumped into the fish hold with a knife. He had decided to cut the octopus up and marinate it for a day, then lightly fry it in olive oil with onions and garlic.

June daylight comes early in Alaska, and though it was 4 a.m., there was enough light in the fish hold for Fred to see that the octopus had . . . disappeared. For a few moments he panicked. Days before, we had spent precious fishing time replacing the boat's faulty reduction gear. Fred had an instant and terrible vision of the octopus crawling through the engine hatch from the fish hold, wrapping itself around the works and dying in some inaccessible corner of our cramped and tiny engine room, forcing Fred to fish it out of the black and oily depths of our inner bilge. I came around from where I was coiling up anchor line on the bow to see Fred pop up from the hold. His hair stood in a spiky nimbus around his head and his eyes were too wide for that early hour. "It's gone," he said.

Fogged by little sleep and no coffee, and accustomed to Fred's irrational ravings, I feigned deafness, "Huh?"

"The octopus. It disappeared. It crawled into the engine. Oh, why didn't I carve it up last night! Lazy," he shook his head, silent, "Well, I guess we'll just have to see. Get in the skiff." That was my cue to grab my hat, beg coffee from the moody boat cook and go freeze my butt off in the predawn gray of the early morning set.

The first set of the day is usually a miserable affair, with the entire crew sleepily resisting the full realization of another long fishing day. I passed the hour that it took for us to set the net and bring it back on cursing--cursing our stoveless boat, the slowness of morning coffee preparation, the failure of the sun to fully rise and warm me, and the cruel bite of the wind in the open skiff. By the end of the set, when I was again hooked up and looked hungrily, hopefully towards the galley, I had completely forgotten about the rogue octopus. Getting up early paid off; we made another set immediately, as most of the boats fishing around us were still on anchor. After the second set, however, we faced an hour-long wait until we could fish again. Susan pumped out the fish hold as I headed into the galley with breakfast on my mind. From over my plate of pancakes, I heard her stop pumping and climb down into the fish hold. "How disgusting!" she hollered, "Fred!"

"What?" Fred looked down from the flying bridge.

"I found the octopus," Susan sounded dismal. I left my breakfast and joined Dave on deck. Susan tugged at the bottom of the sump pump, which she investigated after finding it clogged. Slowly, slowly, she extracted the missing octopus leg by leg out of the two-inch sump hose. We discussed awhile on deck as to whether the octopus had died of its stab wounds sometimes in the brief night or if it had survived until morning, when the suction of the deck pump had turned the entire creature inside out within the sump.

We still don't know, but we did learn a few things. That octopi don't die immediately when stabbed in the mantle and that skippers don't have the same opinion two days in a row.

Moe Bowstern comes from a storytelling family. Telling in this day and age doesn't always work; no one has the time for anything over a minute and a half so she started writing stories in 1993 as a way of explaining to her urban peers the summer life she led as a commercial salmon fisher in Kodiak, Alaska. These stories led to her first zine, Xtra Tuf, and there are 4 issues of it, all about commercial fishing, free to commercial fishing women (must prove it with an authentic and salty tale). Her newest zine, Second Set Out, features 10 years of writing for other zine editors. "Scupper Supper" is the first story in it, and was originally published in Mudflap #6 a decade ago. You can also read her stories in the anthologies Drive: Women's True Stories from the Open Road and Steady As She Goes: Women's Adventures at Sea (Seal Press). Moe still fishes now and then (she's always looking for a new fishing adventure, if you need a deckhand) but mostly she lives and works in Portland, Oregon USA. You can order her zines from Microcosm and Last Gasp. Write to her (no zine orders at this address please) at P.O. Box 6834, Portland, OR 97228 USA.

Monday, December 13, 2004

by Joe Meno


In our History Class, we had to do a twenty-minute oral report on An Event That Changed America, and Mike and I were listening to a lot of old metal records and also very into serial killers at the time, and the girl, Dorie, who was put in our presentation group because she looks as about as hooked on drugs as Mike or me, well, we decided what the heck, and told Mr. Aiken that we were going to do it on the Boston Strangler. When Mr. Aiken asked why we thought the Boston Strangler was an appropriate Event That Changed America, I thought we were busted right there, but Mike said, "It has greatly affected our sense of trust and comfort," and Mr. Aiken nodded, impressed, I guess, and he gave us a check-mark on our assignment sheet and him giving us the big OK was our first mistake.


At the same exact time, Mrs. Madden’s, Mike’s mom, got her divorce finalized and she finally lost it, and one day, while we were in her kitchen, smoking, she said to Mike and me, "That’s it. I‘m giving up they both of you as human beings." She said, "Fine. If you want to be anti-social, fine. If you all want to grow up without any prospects, it doesn‘t bother me in the least." So now we can smoke dope in her basement as long as we don’t do something stupid like trying to drive later. And no fucking around, as she put it, between boys and girls. We can have girls down there but no going all the way. That was her terminology. No going all the way. If either of you guys get a girl pregnant, you‘ll be out on your ass. She said that to me and I’m not even her kid. The bad part is she took out all the telephones in the house and called the phone company and they came in and put in an actual payphone. I mean, right on the wall, like Mike’s kitchen is a bus stop or something. So Mike doesn’t hardly ever call anybody anymore. Also, before the divorce got signed or whatever, and before Mrs. Madden completely flipped out, you could go over to Mike’s and dig around in his fridge for like some left-over pizza and some Jewel-brand soda pop, and eat it there, over the sink, standing up, but nope, none of that now. There‘s a goddamn lock on the fridge. So Mike and his little brother, Terry, who’s only twelve, well, they got to buy their own groceries or pay their mom for meals. Seriously. Mike’s older sister, Jean, who has a big round face, the way I like a girl’s face, kind of mean and smart-mouthed, you know the kind, the kind of girl who looks at you like you aren’t nothing, and then makes-out with you just because she’s bored, well, Jean, who’s two years older than me and Mike, seventeen, well, she saw the payphones and the lock on the fridge and took off with the road manager from the band R-E-O Speedwagon, who are very big in our neighborhood, because one of the guys, the drummer I think, went to our high school. Jean leaving has killed Mike, being his older sister and all. She would buy beer for us and tell us what girls like you to do and how to get them to at least consider having sex with you by saying stuff like, "I feel like you‘re the only one I can say personal stuff to." The other night, we had two girls down in the basement, two girls who Mike had met at the 7-11 and who were definitely Catholic, because they were as clean as any girls I’ve ever seen, not just their hair, but the way they talked and smoked like movie stars and even crossed and uncrossed their legs. Well, we passed around a bowl and the girls got high and then I had put on "I can’t fight this feeling anymore" and I had my hand up this girl’s shirt and was feeling her up over the bra and she had her eyes closed, like if she had her eyes closed she wasn’t going to have to go to Confession next Saturday or whatever Catholic girls got to do, and well, Mike, he just stood up suddenly and said, "What the fuck?" and I said, "What?" and he said, "Don’t you got any goddamn consideration for my feelings, man? I asked you not to play this record anymore," and I said, "I don’t get it, it‘s a good record," and he said to turn that goddamn thing off unless I wanted to go in his backyard to do my dryhumping. Which I did not. A girl, on a couch, is a lot more likely to just lie there and let you do what you want than if you‘re, say, in the backseat of a car or under her back porch. I don’t know what goes on in their heads, if they just look up at the ceiling and count the tiles or if they are thinking about their homework assignments or imaging you are somebody special like Scott Baio, but if you can get them on the couch, you are half-way there, my friend, or so I have seen.


Dorie, the girl in our history presentation group, is the only girl I have ever loved from afar. Most girls I do not care enough about to spend the time thinking about. I am not one of those kind of guys who is particular, like Mike, who’s been in love with Lisa Hensel since fifth fucking grade, even though everyone in the modern universe knows she’s never going to have anything to do with him, because, well, she is like on Student Council and is always handing out Mothers Against Drunk Driving and D.A.R.E buttons. I mean come on, Mike, get over it. There are tons of other decent-looking girls who want some non-descript, renegade, loner-type to de-virginize them so they can have it over and done with and never see the doofus again. That’s where I like to think I come in. Monica Dallas. De-virginized. Kelly Madley. De-virginized. Kathy Konoplowski. Not totally de-virginized, but close.

Dorie, in our history group, is not like that. She’s smart, as smart as anyone, but not nerdy, and she smokes, and wears the same Iron Maiden "Somewhere in Time" tee-shirt everyday, which must have been black but is gray now and soft from being worn so often. She is tall and skinny and has long greasy brown hair that is cut in bangs. Fuck. No girl has bangs in our school. They wear their fucking hair in ponytails. I mean, fuck. The last thing that gets me about Dorie is kind of weird, but, well, she always has hickies, you know. Which means she fools around. I don’t know. I like the idea that she fools around and doesn’t care about it, like fucking around in high school to her is not like getting married, which is how some girls think of it, because I asked her, "You got a boyfriend or something?" and she said, "No," and I said, "Well, what the fuck happened to your neck?" and she said, "Some asshole mauled me," and I said, "Somebody I know?" and she said, "Shit, I don’t even know his name," and it was like I fell in love with her right there maybe.


Mike’s mom and dad are now definitely getting split and the paperwork’s definitely been signed his dad made it obvious by going out and buying a brand new, red, convertible Cadillac, big beautiful chrome bumpers, automatic roof recline, and Mike and I were at the mall, killing time with this new Cop-Killer game at the arcade and then we were outside, waiting for the bus, throwing rocks at the seagulls and we saw his dad cruising by with some blonde in this red convertible and they were both laughing like they had known each other their whole lives. Mike’s dad saw us and pulled over and said, "Get in, dudes, I’ll drop you off," and Mike’s face got all red and he said, "Mom’s supposed to pick me up," which was a total lie, and his dad nodded and said, "See you later, dudes," and pulled away and I asked Mike, "Hey, man, are you all right?" and he just frowned and said, "Jesus Christ. This is not how I imagined my sophomore year going at all," and I said, "Yeah. Shit," and then just to say something, I said, "Maybe we should stop by the library and see about this Boston Strangler dude," and he said, "Maybe," but we just stood there, not saying anything else, waiting for the bus, not even laughing when a group of junior high kids showed up, and they all had New Kids on the Block tee-shirts on and everything.


Mrs. Madden, who is very thin and blonde, with short hair, who might be hot if she wasn’t so nervous and twitchy, and well, crying all the goddamn time, well, she has made it obvious that the divorce has gone through by wearing the same see-through yellow nightgown all day, which is beginning to get dirty. Also, she has started smoking, which she did not do before. And drinking. Canadian Club whiskey. We were down in the basement smoking dope and it was late and I was going to sneak home and I came up and Mrs. Madden was sitting on the floor with a bottle of Canadian Club and watching Mary Tyler Moore reruns. I thought about it as I was walking home. When I got there, my dad was crashed on the couch, which is where he has slept for the last couple of years, and upstairs, I could hear my mom sewing, the sewing machine going, at like two in the morning, and I thought nobody anywhere over the age of eighteen was glad to be living.


At this time, I decided it would be cool to have lines shaved into my hair, you know, like Brian "the Boz" Bosworth from the Sooners, like where you have long hair in the back and the sides are short and there are lines like shaved into the side of your head in a cool pattern. I had seen Bosworth on TV and it looked cool so I asked Mike to try it and he wouldn’t do it. I mean, I even went to Osco and bought a hair trimmer kit for twenty bucks and there I am and no one will do it and I even asked Mrs. Madden and she said she’d do it for fifty bucks and it was like everything else. You get a good idea and people go out of their way to make it hard on you. Here, I was the one who said, let’s do our report on the Boston Strangler and Mike won’t go to the library and Dorie like is never in class or at home because she’s out getting hickes from people she doesn’t even know and already, it’s the weekend before the oral report is due. So shit.

Dorie finally calls back because, well, she’s got to pass this class, like us, because she’s smart but doesn’t give a fuck about school, and so she comes over to Mike’s on that Sunday and we plan on doing the report, but Mike, he’s in a mood, and he keeps playing "Changes" by Black Sabbath, which is a very weak song if you don’t happen to know, where there’s like a piano, a piano on a fucking Black Sabbath song, and Ozzy kind of mumbles about going through changes, and all Mike does is lie on his bed, and I point out all the crazy stuff to Dorie in Mike‘s house, the payphone and lock on the fridge, and the bowls and one-hitters lying out in the open and she just shakes her head and says, "Mike, your home-life is definitely fucked," and he lifts his head up from the bed and says, "I totally know."

"Well, what the fuck are we gonna do about this report?" she asks. "I got two books from the library but I don’t have time to read them. I got to be at work in like twenty minutes."

"Work? Where do you work?" I ask. "You’re only fifteen?"

"My dad’s restaurant. Dockie’s."

"The fish place? On Kedzie?" I ask. "How long have you been working there?"

"Since I was a kid. I’m the night manager."

"The night manager? You’re like a kid. How can you be the night manager?"

"My dad needed help, you know, he had back surgery and there’s nobody else so I go there at night and help him. Plus," she says. "This guy, Duane, the cook, he usually brings some dope to smoke."

"Is he the guy that fucking mauls your neck?" I ask.

She looks down and then lifts one eyebrow and says, "Jealous?" and I say, "How old is this dude?" and she says, "Twenty-five," and I look at her and realize I am so in love with her, it is not even funny. I want to ask her right there if she would maybe think about being my girlfriend and she could wait until we are married before ever doing it with me, but she says, "So what the fuck are we gonna do tomorrow?" and I say, "I dunno," and then I ask, "Have you ever cut anyone’s hair?" and she says, "My dad’s," and I say, "Do you think you can cut lines in my hair like that football player Bosworth?" and she says she can try and she does it like in five minutes, right there in Mike’s basement, with my hair on the floor by the pool table, and it looks badass when she’s done and I say, "I’ll give you a couple of bucks," and she says, "Just make sure this report is good," and I say, "It’ll be the best fucking report Mr. Aiken has ever seen," and it’s like we’re going to kiss, but we don’t, which is OK with me.


In the end, we opt to do a skit, because Mike thinks it’s the best way to disguise that we have not done anything. It goes like this: Mike is the detective telling the class about historical facts, "The year is 1962, Albert DeSalvo works at a rubber press during the day, at night, he tracks his quarry all over the city of Boston," and I am the Boston Strangler, and I have a stocking cap on because he had one on in the book Dorie got, and Dorie is the victim, and she is sitting at the head of class, filing her nails and chewing gum and doing whatever victims do before they get strangled, and right there, I decide to do something different. Instead of going to strangle Dorie, who is looking bored, and lovely, man, really lovely, well, I creep up the side of the classroom and strangle Lisa Hensel, the girl Mike’s been in love with forever, and she starts screaming, but I cover her mouth and Mike sees what I’m doing and shouts, "The Boston Strangler has struck! No one can tell where he will commit his evil deeds next!" and he runs besides Lisa and says, "Another victim of this unpredictable killer who is impossible to predict!" and by then I’ve strangled Debbie Otis, who gets the drift, and falls out of her seat, playing dead, and Mr. Aiken starts shouting, "OK, guys, that’s enough, that’s enough," but I don’t stop until I have my hands around Dorie’s neck, and it is long, and soft, and I think I can feel her breathing, oh, God, I can actually feel her breathing, and there, there are two hickies popping out of the top of her shirt and I want to kiss her more that anything in the world, and she can tell, probably, because she looks up at me, and blinks, but like a girl, with all her eyelashes, which is something she never does, and I decide not to murder her, and instead, well, I just run out of the room and hang out in the cafeteria because the lunch ladies there know I‘m cool.

Joe Meno hails from Chicago, Illinois USA. This appears to be the short story that was expanded into his latest novel Hairstyles Of The Damned, published by Punk Planet/Akashic this year. It's his first on an independent publisher and perhaps it's not a coincidence that it's also his best. Contact him at profjoe13 (whereit'sat) aol dot com.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

by Edward Mujinga

They walked quickly down the road, down the hill towards the station. A little of the early morning mist still hung in the valley. The air was fresh. The pavement fluctuated in width so where the kerb had crumbled away Tonda, the younger of the two, was obliged to step into the gutter. He bobbed up and down gaily, not minding the inconvenience in the slightest, for he was in fine spirits; his large head was swinging from side to side, observing all the familiar houses decked out in the year’s first dusting of snow. He was a stocky man, in contrast to Honza, who was taller and thinner. They were marked out as brothers by the colour of their piercing blue eyes. As they hurried along beside the train tracks, they greeted the villagers clearing the snow from pathways and threw hastily gathered snowballs at a few favourite dogs.

"Sun’ll probably melt it by ten o’clock anyway" sniffed Honza.

At the station they stamped their feet to shake off the excess snow and clapped their hands. Tonda told a rude joke which made his companion guffaw great clouds of steaming breath and caused Mr. Mrkev to turn around and give a stern look in their direction. Then they ducked their heads to step into the tiny ticket office, where they bought two return tickets for Prague.

"Nice to see you again young Honza" said the grizzly old lady behind the desk.

"Thanks Mrs.Tatarka, I’m enjoying being back."

"Snow in November? Whatever next?"

"Yes. The village looks beautiful though."

"You’ll be here for a while I hope. It’s such a nice time after university, with all your options spread out in front you."

If only you knew the half of it you dear old bat, thought Honza as he smiled and nodded his head like an obedient child. Then he heard the hoot of the train at the bridge and was spared any further questions.

On the train, Tonda opened up his book (‘Space Menace’ screamed the cover) and was soon immersed. Honza watched him for a while, amused at his rapt expression, then slouched down in the seat and turned his attention to the fields flashing past. His eyes flicked back and forth, he was amazed that the landscape could look so different despite the number of times he had already travelled through it. Only the man-made stuff was recognisable as the train eased its way into the familiar grey outskirts of Prague. He closed his eyes and drifted off into one of his favourite reveries, imagining walking around the streets of a deserted city, with no other people around to spoil his appreciation of the terrible grandeur of all the empty buildings, the silence of a place finally at rest. Then there was a roaring in his ears and when he opened his eyes they were in the tunnel under Namesti Miru; most of the people in the carriage were already standing up and buttoning their coats.

The two brothers stayed seated. They exchanged a smile as the train slid into Hlavni Nadrazi, which broke into laughter when they heard the antiquated jingle of the public announcement system, the one that they used to enjoy singing along to so much when they were kids.

"I don’t think they’ll ever change it" said Tonda.

"How could they?"

When they got off the train, they entered the city. Everyone seemed to be running from one place to another and the brothers found it hard to stay together, caught up in the crowd flowing towards the exits. They battled to the steps and descended into the main station. It made Honza feel alive to see all the movement, to hear snatches of a thousand conversations, to observe the pickpockets sizing up the tourists and the police following the pickpockets and the drunks watching the police and the tourists holding their maps upside down and looking lost. They helped a bewildered French couple find the platform for the train to Dresden and then continued. After getting attacked by a swarm of Japanese schooolchildren and picking up a stick for a polite elderly gentleman who turned out to be as drunk as a newt, they made it into the fresh air. It felt a few degrees warmer than back in the village. Tonda screwed up his nose.

"Phooey, it smells of piss here."

"Come on cowboy, this here odour is the authentic healing air of Prague central. Where’s the snow?"

"None here. Be yellow anyway. So where we going?"

"Vaclak then Starometska?"

"Sounds good."

They struck off at a fast pace towards Wenceslas Square, flowing along in the stream of office workers. Honza had not been to Prague for a year or so, and he was enjoying being back. He could tell Tonda was happy too, from the way he was staring at the shopfronts, the cars, the pretty girls.

"What’s that noise?" asked Tonda as they neared the square. They could hear some sort of discordant music, it sounded like some cooks banging pots together and chanting. They quickened their pace imperceptibly and bent their heads forward in unison. As they came around the corner, the sunlight glinting down the square dazzled them momentarily and then they were surrounded by flowing orange robes and unearthly singing.

"Hey, it’s the Hare Krishnas!" cried Tonda excitedly; they were in the midst of a group of sweet young disciples with shaved heads and trusting eyes who danced around them, shaking tambourines and thumping drums. Honza had a broad smile as he watched them traipse off down the street. Once one of his friends had told him that they all wore Nike trainers under their robes and he had never known for sure if it was a joke or not; he had been happy to confirm that it was. Like all true adepts, they wore sandals.

"Only in Prague eh?"

"Hare Hare Christmas."

At a relaxed pace, they followed the distant chanting and happily told each other how much better and less commercial the square used to be. The Old Town Square was also a disappointment, its beautiful cobblestones dominated by a group of twee little sheds selling souvenir crap for tourists, and even worse, a bar selling beer and mulled wine.

"As if they’re weren’t enough bloody inns already in Prague" moaned Honza, "You know, a few years back, I used to enjoy sitting on the statue of Jan Hus with my friends from college and smoking a nice big reefer, just chilling out watching the people. Then they made it a fineable offence to sit there and put benches around it, now if you sit on a bench all you get to see is drunken English lager louts getting more hammered. What’s the point in that?"

"It’s a terrible, terrible disgrace grandad" replied Tonda. "But hey, isn’t that Professor Mason?"

Although Honza had no particular wish to see his old tutor, Tonda was already waving him over so he had to pull his face into a serviceable smile.

"Tonda, Honza, nice to see you both again."


"What brings you to Prague?"

"Oh, just a social visit" lied Honza.

"I was just on my way to Puzzle Books. Do you fancy joining me?"

"Sure, why not?" Tonda nodded enthusiastically and propelled Honza around so that the three men were lined up with Mason in the middle. He was a classic avantgarde theorist, with de riguer wire rimmed spectacles, a black suit with a black polo neck underneath, and a black leather attache case which he clutched to his chest as if it contained all the secrets of the universe, which of course it did--for him at least. He was indeed an excellent, passionate teacher, but Honza had followed the usual course of first falling under his spell, then tiring of his routine and finally rejecting the source of his knowledge so as to evolve his own standpoint. Such is the inevitable cycle, both men knew it, but it made meeting like this slightly awkward. To make matters worse, now Tonda was Mason’s student and in the first flush of infatuation, despite Honza’s frequent attempts to make him see sense. So Tonda rabbited on as they left the square and passed under a small bridge into a courtyard with a few shops scattered around it, both men listening respectfully to a rather unsophisticated critique and waiting for a decent moment to interrupt. When Tonda finally paused for breath, Mason interjected "Interesting Tonda, very interesting. And now Honza what exactly have you been doing?"

Honza opened and shut his mouth. He hated these questions. And especially today. At the door of the bookshop, Mason turned towards him and fixed him with a special look.

"Better perhaps not to catch you off guard like this" he said and gave a rare curt smile.

"Now if you excuse me I must make an order. But first let me recommend this to you both."

He plucked a book off the nearest shelf and handed it to Tonda who grabbed it as if it had just fallen from the very skies above. Honza gave it a short glance but preferred to brood on his recent inability to respond to direct questions.

"Look Tondik, I feel like a walk before I meet Jitka. See you at the train station cafe at seven?"


Tonda looked a bit surprised, but he would plainly jump at the chance to spend more time with Mason, his unofficial guru, so Honza was able to slip away out of the shop and breathe some fresh air.

He felt like getting away from all these people, all these buildings, all this energy. He wanted to be walking in the forest near his house, with the calm trees and the subtle sounds of nature, not stuck in the middle of this constant roar. He pushed past groups of people taking photographs of buildings so frenetically it was as if they were about to vanish and followed one street after another as the turnings popped up in front of him. He dived into a passageway and miraculously came out back on Wenceslas Square again. He frowned and wondered how it had happened, he wanted to get to a park and had planned to go to Letna but that meant retracing his footsteps over the Old Town Square and he disliked going backwards, so instead he decided to go to Vysehrad. He crossed the road quickly and started walking up the hill. The air was brisk but not cold and without really looking at the people he passed, he marched up through IP Pavlova and down a footpath. He stopped for a moment to look across at the two towers of the Vysehrad cathedral, standing as dark and as proud as ever and something in his heart lifted a bit. The tears that had been pricking at his eyes retreated and he skipped down the steps. By the time he reached the park he was smiling again, and he ambled around the citadel, checking all his favourite views and places to sit; but there were also a lot of other people everywhere, drawn out by the afternoon sun. Inane chatter invaded his thought, clicking cameras interrupted his own mental photography, he felt himself growing irritated again. He was stood looking down towards the Vltava, watching it snake underneath the railway bridge and he decided he had time to walk over to Andel, have lunch there and then go to the hospital.

Halfway across the bridge, Honza stopped for a moment and looked down at the water. Some swans were swimming in a line towards the campsite island and he wondered how toxic the water was--it looked rather brown. He had seen a few fisherman dotted along on the waterfront,yet he had never seen any of them catch a thing. Furthermore, he could not understand why they did not take the car that was always parked nearby and head out of town to where the river was less polluted and the scenery nicer.

Still thinking these thoughts, he reached the other bank and decided to hop under the railing, take a shortcut down the slope and walk along the riverside path. The gradient was quite steep and he was distracted by his thoughts, so he slipped and landed smack on his arse. He stood up slowly and rubbed his behind, feeling a little bit foolish. A loud laugh made him jump and he turned round to see a genial old fisherman, decked out in the usual uniform of a lumberjack shirt and tatty green trousers.

"Saw you fall over you young tyke! Head in the clouds I'll bet."


"Fancy a spot of rum to erase the memory?"

The old man waved a small hipflask and beckoned him over. Honza shrugged and gingerly picked his way to the riverbank, where the man had a small camp set up. There were two rods, set on stands with the lines extending out into the river. He had a expensive looking foldable chair into which he collapsed with a grunt and various accroutrements set around it, such as a radio, a flask for a warm drink, the remains of his lunch and a book.

"Sod this" he said, and put the hip flask back into a pocket, "You look like you need a proper medical-sized shot."

The man pointed to a tree trunk which looked like a good place to sit and pulled out a bottle of rum from his bag, producing also two plastic beakers into which he poured a sizeable splash.

"Best of luck."

"Your health."

Honza was a bit bewildered by this unexpected generosity and now the rum was burning at his throat. He coughed and wiped his mouth.

"Strong stuff eh sailor?"

"Yeah. Hey, can I ask you a question?"

"Go ahead young man, go right ahead."

The old man nodded magnanimously and carefully adjusted his rods.

Honza blew his nose and thought how strange and beautiful it was that with some people one can instantly feel at ease.

"Why sit here all day? I mean, granted you must like fishing, but I mean, why not take the car and drive out to Karlstejn or Dobrichovice and have a fish in the countryside where the water’s fresher?"

The man looked at him sharply.

"It’s the same river here isn’t it?"

"Yes, but-"

"No, no, I quite understand. The thing is that you misunderstand the purpose of my fishing."

"Do I? Why I never even-"

"Well you see the thing is, I’m not sitting here because I want to catch fish, or even because I actually enjoy fishing. My sole intent in being here is not to do anything else. You follow me? So actually the fishing and all this gear is quite extraneous. I’m here because my wife is not here, my troubles are far away, the neighbours don’t exist. Here and only here I’m free."


"And I’ll tell you another thing, the location does not matter either, except for the fact that I need to be near the river. It could be Decin, Dresden or Hamburg for all I care. Now tell me something. Have you ever listened to the river?"

There was a pause. Two swans appeared heading for the bridge. Honza realised that this time he was actually supposed to say something.

"Er, well, yeah, I like to sit by the stream near my house and listen to all the noises it makes. I find it a lot more soothing than the noise of the city actually."

"Exactly" The old man grinned delightedly, "That’s exactly the point my dear boy. I knew you understood. That’s what I’m doing here, escaping the city and listening to nature. You can learn a lot from this river. Try and listen. Go on."

Honza looked around at the discarded cigarette packets, McDonalds wrappers, beer cans, old boots and ripped plastic bags on the dirty river bank and wondered if he had met a loony. Still, he understood what the man was talking about, so he listened harder and caught the sound of a gentle, powerful lapping. And something else too, something beyond words. He smiled.

The old man jerked his head enthusiastically.

"There you go. You hear it too I know. Another shot of rum?"
"Yes please" said Honza mechanically. He did a very quick mental calculation and realised that this would have to be lunch. The rum tickled his throat and warmed his stomach.

"It’s funny how the river is always changing yet always the same. I mean the water that went past two days ago is probably somewhere like the North Sea by now."

A train rattled over the bridge above and they had to wait until it passed before continuing.

"Yes, young man, yes, but think about it further. The water flows past and goes on and on, and eventually gets evaporated back up into the air--who's to say this cloud above hasn’t come back from the North Sea even? Maybe if it rains tonight some atoms of the water that went past here last week will end up precisely at this point again. Who is to say? This universe works in much more mysterious ways than we can ever imagine."

Honza looked at this man, a new friend and a broad smile broke out across his face. He handed back the beaker and shook his hand.

"It was nice to meet you. I’ve got to go meet someone. Good luck with the fish."

"Who cares about the fish? Goodbye!"

Honza walked up to Andel, looking anxiously for a street clock until he saw one at Na Kniezeci and realised he still had enough time. He bought a Tatranky and loitered at the bus stop, watching an old lady slowly shuffle her way across the tarmac, her frame bent almost double. The bus ride passed in a blur of thoughts. Then he reached Motol and saw Jitka, waiting on the steps. She had her hair pulled back into a bun and looked more serious than usual, more business-like in her best clothes.



"Look, I’m sorry about the other day ..."

"Me too."

"I said some things I didn’t mean."

"You can be a real bastard if you want."

She smiled her toothy grin and her eyes flashed. He kissed those sweet lips and hugged her tight. He looked at her again and he could see that she had been crying, her make-up was a little bit smudged. He tried to remedy the situation as best he could and she wriggled away from him.

"You still wanna do this?"

"Uh huh."


"Yes. Now give me another hug."

Honza held her tight again and told himself that the universe works in many vague and mysterious ways. She was crying when he looked at her and he could not think of any words which were adequate, so he just hugged her and held her until it was time. He wanted to tell her about the old man but not now.

"So, you sure you don’t want me to come with you?"

"Yes. It’s better like this."

He still didn’t understand why it was better like that, but if that was how she felt, then that was how it would be.

"So let’s meet later, say six o’clock, Old Town Square?"

"Okay, fine, see you then."

She kissed him but already her eyes were far away, lost in a distant realm where he had no ticket to travel. He stood up and watched her push the doors open, a small smartly dressed woman pushing with her shoulder against the ponderous heavy doors of the hospital. Then the doors swung slowly shut and she was inside.

He went back to the bus stop and stood there, lost in thought. A bus came and went and he only noticed when it was too late. He laughed and waited for the next one. He had a little over three hours to kill so he went back to the Old Town and wandered aimlessly around the tiny streets. He stopped for a cup of tea then headed for the Old Town Square, buying a falafel on the way. As soon as he got there he remembered how the rampant commercialism had annoyed him earlier in the day and wished that he had arranged somewhere else to meet. He munched his food thoughtfully, trying to ignore the shouts echoing over from the bar area, watching the people walk past, all different, all unique, all running at different speeds but somehow managing to exist together in such a delicate four-dimensional space. He squinted at a figure in the distance who reminded him of the fisherman, but it was someone else. He imagined himself at forty or fifty years old, wearing the checked shirt and camping trousers, leaving Jitka at home to sit in his own private space under the Vysehrad bridge. Just him and the river. It was quite a nice idea. Then he turned his attention to the stage by the bar and was amused to watch a choir of small girls murder a version of 'White Christmas'.

"Good God, it’s only bloody November and they want us to start buying Christmas presents" said Jitka as she sank down beside him.

"Hello ..."


"So, how was it?"


"Well, come on, I want to know if you’re OK or not."

"I’m OK. But it was horrible. Degrading. Weird. Never again."

"No, definitely never again."

He squeezed her tight and hoped she was not harbouring resentment against him. In some obscure way he felt that he deserved it.

"When’s your train?"

"Seven thirty, like always. Do you want to come?"

"I can’t. Got work tomorrow. Next weekend maybe."

They sat for a bit and watched the people walking past them. Then the clock struck half past six and it was time for him to go.

"I love you."

"I love you too."

At the cafe, Tonda was full to bursting with newly acquired knowledge, spilling his coffee in his eagerness to greet Honza and get him seated. Honza took a seat and ordered a coffee; he nodded when he judged it appropriate and concentrated on stirring in the sugar.

"So you see Kant’s theory of aesthetics is ingenious. He blends the mystical and the scientific and takes a leap into the void of human understanding centuries before the ‘rational’ scientists come along and tell us that the brain works with synapses and electrical charges."


"Yes. When he talks of the aesthetic function being performed by the faculty of the imagination rubbing together with the faculty of understanding, he’s making a fundamental insight into the working of the human brain. Quite astounding for a man writing in the eighteenth century without the discoveries of modern science."


"Once again philosophy leads the human quest for knowledge."

Honza sighed to hear a maxim he had heard too many times before and put his head in his hands. The table felt cold against his forehead. He was compelled to hurt his brother’s feelings.

"Look, to be honest, I’m not in the mood to hear a word-perfect rendition of a Mason lecture right now Tondik. I am familiar with these views already remember and to be really honest I think they’re a load of horseshit."

Tonda started to reply, then thought the better of it. He scratched his head then prudently changed the subject.

"Where’s Jitka? She’s not coming back with us?"

"Not this time, no. Drink up, let’s go."

And so back to the train, an identical version of the one they had caught so early that the morning, which now seemed more like yesterday. Honza wanted to get home, to have a bath and then sleep. Outside the window it was already dark. Tonda had got the message that Honza wanted to be alone with his thoughts, so he was immersed in the book which Mason had recommended.

The train moved slowly out of Prague and as it trundled over the Vysehrad bridge, Honza looked down at where he had been sitting with the old fisherman and ruminated on their conversation. It was certainly correct that man could learn a lot from the nature around him, but Honza felt that this was only part of the picture; man could also learn a lot from his fellow man. He looked over at Tonda, wondering what he was thinking about. Their eyes met and his brother flicked him a grin. Honza smiled back and decided he had done enough for one day. He was tired. He relaxed his shoulders and settled down in his seat, listening to the train clattering along, the rhythmical shunts and bangs which would form the benign soundtrack to the journey home.

edward betrand le mujinga lives in a squatted nuclear bunker in holland. his only companions are two brave czech cats. he is stockpiling short stories for an eventual assault on the literary establishment and occasionally publishes a fine zine called (unsurprisingly) mujinga. issue sixteen is currently thrilling the masses. to gain a copy of this esteemed publication, email bintang (whereit'sat) seznam dot cz --trades, mail art, collaborative offers, weird things and unsolicited goods are welcomed. he thanks you for your time and hopes you enjoy this story, which appeared in a previous issue of mujinga. and by the way, if you feel like publishing a short story by him, please do get in touch.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

A couple of poems by Bonnie MacAllister

south philly crossed

they fought once more
at the art fair--
amidst oils and encaustic,
salting brushstrokes for
doubly priced canvas.
his t-shirt bore the brand
of his wife: trite and boring.
quickly inverted, she had to laugh
as she stroked him on the porch later.
"could she make you feel this way? "
she asks.
we stride by a fountain
fenced off--
preventing a drink or a piss,
hiding a skinny corpse
and an italian's sweat.

14 June 2004


Taste, transfixed--
Accompany tendrils in tears.
Tiptoe tacitly to turn me,
Spread elbows around,
Drown in perspiration
Filll and spread,
Stretch me to oblivion.
Tortoishells spy,
Trying to mimic hinds--
Bound lightly by bites,
Myopic mitosis measured--
Do not divide--
Permeate permanently.

16 June 2004

Sunday, November 21, 2004

The City Without Walls
by Jeff Somers

I was curiously reluctant to go up to the three of them after the funeral. With the gray sky behind them and the wind playing with their hair, their ties, her skirt, they looked otherworldly, tall blond gods resplendent in their grief. I'd never known them all that well, in the first place. I didn't really know anyone at the funeral any more-they were all people I used to know, now. Familiar faces, fatter and grosser than I recalled. Except for the Benderbys. Except for William Benderby, of course, lying dead and much changed in his coffin.

Looking at them made me feel ugly and stupid. Mickey Benderby, youngest, still glowing with athletic charm, blond hair almost white-he was, actually, almost an albino, so pale he might be transparent. But a healthy flush in his face made him boyish, and he dressed in dark clothes to give himself gravitas. He wore his expensive suit as if he'd been born in it, the gold cuff links not looking at all ridiculous on him, his windswept hair not too long, and agreeably messy, as if he'd swung out of bed in Amsterdam, boarded a plane, and arrived just moments before the ceremony, looking pressed.

Carol Benderby, the oldest, slim and blank-faced, stood next to Mick, smoking a cigarette, the wind stealing away the smoke as she exhaled it. She was beautiful, not as pale as Mickey, with a wonderful body and a steady, appraising stare that made men want to please her, to get some reaction from her. She turned to say something to her brother Daniel, and smiled in a low-wattage, smoky way that made her whole face seem to glow with untapped energy. I'd had a crush on Carol when we'd been younger, when I'd known William, but then I think everyone who met carol crushed on her. She was pretty and tiny and rich.

Daniel looked older than Carol, but wasn't. He had cleaned up for the funeral but it hadn't helped much; he still looked hungover. he was darker than his siblings, and his beard, though just shaved that morning, had already gathered like scummy storm clouds on his face. His tie was undone. As if by some will of their own his clothing was undoing itself-a button there, a knot here-until eventually he would be slovenly and sour, which was his natural state, so it was perhaps not surprising that he reverted to it instinctively. Still, he had an aura of command about him, the sense of a man used to being obeyed. He was the sort, I remembered, who instilled fear in people who didn't know him.

Standing all together, the Benderby children-no longer children, but that was how I remembered them, a decade ago back in school-drew every eye, the natural subjects of all thought and conversation. Rich, talented, attractive people, related to each other, all still single and still mysterious. All the Benderbys were like that: Thick as thieves with each other. I remembered accompanying William home one semester break, when we were still enamored with the egalitarian world of college and thought maybe we could be friends, and being struck by how the Benderby family seemed to have endless secrets between each other. Secret ceremonies, passwords, anecdotes-over three days at the huge house in upstate New York, I'd been almost constantly confused. The Benderbys almost spoke in code. If you didn't know the stories, the inside jokes, you were bewildered.

I never went back. William never invited me again anyway.

I hesitated a moment more, and then forced myself to walk over to them. I'd known them, a little, after all, and I chided myself for being childish. Feeling oafish and clumsy, I slogged through the mud towards the surviving Benderby children. When I was halfway there, the three of them noticed me, and watched my approach with calm disinterest, eyes hooded, bodies still under huge black umbrellas.

When I stopped in front of the trio, searching for the right words, Carol shocked me by holding out a pale hand, large for a woman of her size.

"Stephen," she said with a faint smile, a ghostly thing that might have been timid, or mocking. "Very good of you to come."

I blinked in confusion, feeling foolish in damp pants and a small, compact umbrella that did not really offer much protection. "You remember me?"

Her smile ticked wider. Behind her, the brothers continued to stare at me with something resembling interest. Mick dragged on his cigarette with his hands in his pockets, expelling smoke through his nose.

"Of course! You and William were such good friends in school. It really is good of you to come. William would have been pleased. Is pleased, I supposed, somewhere."

I realized I was still holding her hand, staring up into her gray eyes. I wanted to snatch my hand away and apologize, but she didn't seem at all uncomfortable. She turned her head a little.

"Mickey, Danny, you remember Stephen Drake? William roomed with him in freshman year."

Mickey just nodded at me, but Daniel said "You came up to the old house that summer, stayed a few days."

I nodded, feeling ridiculous at the flush of pleasure I felt at being remembered. "Yes. Some time ago."

A few seconds of silence, then, and I knew the time had come for me to leave. I pulled my hand reluctantly from Carol's and nodded vaguely all around. "I'm very sorry for your loss. I'll leave you alone now."

"Thank you," Daniel said with a sort of half-bow. "For coming."

I turned away, shoes squelching damply. I imagined them behind me, under what had to be a football field of umbrellas, dry and manicured. I'd never had money. It hadn't bothered me growing up-I wasn't poor, by any stretch, and I didn't feel any need to be rich. Until I roomed with William Benderby. William taught me to envy money. No, that wasn't quite right. The Benderbys taught me to envy money.

William brought me home over Christmas break. I'd been more

than happy to leave my poor mother alone over the holidays to join him; we'd lived together for five months and liked each other, shared a sense of humor and some sensibilities. Back in the dorm, he'd just been William, my room-mate. More handsome than me, easier with girls, but not that different.

We took the train. William had insisted, saying it would be an adventure. In his torn jeans, white oxford shirt and blue blazer he was almost a caricature of a rich kid, but I didn't notice. He was quiet, sitting across from me in the cheap, torn vinyl seats and staring out the window. I'd been disappointed, expecting our usual banter and joking, but he'd just sat there with one of his unfiltered cigarettes behind an ear, watching the trees go by outside. It was funny how often that happened when I was younger: Things took on the feel and weight of regularity over a period of time, and then suddenly changed, snapped back to reality. Reality was never my choice.

At the train station, a car was waiting. A bluff, red-faced man in a bad suit greeted us cheerfully, taking our bags and loading them into the big black car. At first I'd though he was Bill's father, but that didn't make sense, the way they shook hands and spoke so vaguely to each other. In the back seat I started to get really uncomfortable, because William was quiet, and I started to go over all of our conversations. Had I misinterpreted? Had his invitation been grudging, or polite? Had he expected me to know better than to accept? Was he resenting me?

The house was big, up in the foothills somewhere-you had to drive almost an hour from the train station to get there. William just sat and smoked, not talking, the whole way, and when we pulled into the drive in front, he glanced over at me and offered me a ghostly, half-smile as a consolation prize.

The three days that followed were in slow motion. Danny, Mick, and Carol arrived shortly after we did, all of them tanned and slim and easy with themselves. I felt disfigured. They Moved with such grace and confidence-I always felt like someone was going to yell at me, and didn't like to be left alone by William. But the others just did whatever they felt like. Smoked cigarettes, raided the locked liquor cabinets-it didn't matter. They talked like adults and were witty. They dressed stylishly in a casual, off-the-floor way I envied. They knew everything, about everything.

William was the worst. He looked like he was good at everything naturally, without even trying. Any subject that came up, he had some experience with. His siblings obviously regarded him as the brightest and most charming of them. I was realistic: I knew I was intelligent, and not bad-looking, and had talent for certain things. But compared to the Benderby children, I was gross and useless, a mishappen leper. I could only conclude that their money had something to do with their success, their health, their happiness.

Because they were happy. It would have been bearable if they'd been miserable, if they'd been jealous, dysfunctional richies whose money had ruined them. But they were bright and witty and pleasant, and when I woke up on day three and knew I was going home, I was disappointed and glad simultaneously. I loved the Benderbys. I wanted to fuck Carol until she screamed my name, and I wanted to be counted an equal by Mickey, Danny, and William. But they were driving me crazy, making me feel inferior. Or I was making myself feel inferior, and what was the difference?

No one made a big deal out of my departure. I got the impression they would forget about me the moment I was gone, and I felt like I'd failed somehow, that William had expected something of me that I hadn't delivered. Post-adolescent bullshit angst, I'm sure, but it lingers still. I took a taxi back to the train station and went home, depressed. Things were never the same between William and I after that. We stayed friendly throughout school, but never roomed together again. I saw his brothers and sister from time to time when they visited, and they were always cordial, interested. But William and I weren't friends any longer, and I hadn't seen him in five years.

And now he was dead.

"Steve! Hey, Stevie!"

I paused and looked down at my shoes, which were the best

ones I owned-or had been-and which were now being ruined by the sucking, grasping mud. Turning, I resisted the ridiculous urge to shake my feet free of the offending mud, and managed to slop more onto my cuffs. Sighing in resignation, I looked up. A blading, heavyset man was taking mincing, dainty steps towards me, his own umbrella huge, protecting him and a good slice of ground around him. He looked familiar, but I couldn't place him. I knew there had to be people at the funeral I hadn't seen in some time; I studied his face carefully as he danced closer to me. I felt damp and tired.

Panting, he skidded to a halt in front of me, but had to stand almost two feet away because of the circumference of his umbrella.

"Steve-you're Stephen Drake, right?"

I nodded, offering him my best mystified half-smile. "Yes?"

"C'mon, I'm not that fat. It's Darryl-Darryl Simmons!"

Recognition sparked, a single memory: A big, red-faced kid after twelve beers, jumping into the air in the living room of my rented house and decimating the chandelier in one shot. "Holy fuck!" I said, grinning as I shook his hand. "Dimmons!"

He laughed awkwardly. "No one calls me that any more, but yeah. Listen, you rushing home? Wanna have a drink?"

I wasn't rushing home, but I wasn't in the mood to have drinks with someone I hadn't seen or even thought of in years. I offered him my regretful smile, but before I could get another word out, he reached out and grasped my arm.

"Listen, I don't mean to be rude or an imposition, Stevie, but I've got to get something off my chest, and you're the only friendly face I see here." He blinked at me for a moment. "Well, not all that friendly, I guess, but friendly enough. Come on-one drink! I'll buy."

His outburst had done nothing to convince me to stay, so I dialed my regretful smile to maximum regret and shook my head a little, looking down sadly at my ruined shoes. "No, Sorry Darryl-sorry about the Dimmons thing, old habit, you know-sorry but I've got to be getting home."

His hand tightened on my arm. "Come on, Steve-I'm serious." He looked around and leaned in towards me. "Listen, what I need to talk about, it's about Billy. Benderby," he added, unnecessarily.

I knew I shouldn't take the bait, but I couldn't resist. "What about him?"

Darryl looked around again and then back at me, his face an unhappy mask. "I think Bill Benderby was murdered, Steve."

I blinked. "Excuse me?"

He nodded gravely. "And I think he was murdered by them."

I followed his barely-thrust chin, and found myself staring at Carol, Mickey, and Dan Benderby. They were all staring right back at us.

"Look, I know it seems crazy," Darryl said around a mouthful of

cheese fries. "So maybe all I need is to talk it out, say it out loud,

and maybe I'll conclude it's crazy too. Okay? I saw you and I thought, there's someone else who knew William when he was alive. I just had to talk to you."

I nodded noncommittally, looking around. The Blue Moon Saloon was a rathole, with rickety furniture and a vague smell of fish in the air. At two in the afternoon it had four patrons, two of whom were Darryl and me. I sipped my stout and tried to see my watch without being too obvious. "All right, Darryl, here I am. Why do you think William Benderby was murdered?"

He leaned back and picked up his own beer, free hand rubbing his belly absent-absentmindedly. "Well, for one, he told me."

"Excuse me?"

"Before he died, he told me he thought he might be murdered." Darryl sighed, taking a prodigious gulp from his glass. "We started spending time together again about a year ago. Ran into each other by accident. Not that we were great friends or anything, but we started having lunch now and then, chatting." He smiled sadly. "Friendly face, and all that. I think we were both the type who hadn't kept a lot of friends, and found ourselves lonely."

"So, in the course of a nostalgic trip down memory lane, he leaned forward and told you he thought someone was trying to kill him?"

"Not someone," Darryl replied. "His brothers and sisters."

I smiled. "Come on."

Darryl nodded. "No kidding! We were at a bar, getting kind of drunk on Martinis, which Billy liked to drink. I don't much care for 'em, but when Billy bought the drinks, he bought whatever the fuck he wanted to drink, and fuck you if you didn't like it. After his third one, he asked me if I was his friend." He shook his head. "I was touched, you know? Back in school, to be honest, I'd always wanted Bill Benderby to be my friend. Not 'cause he was rich, because he was cool." He shrugged, shaking his head. "Anyway, he kind of broke down, told me he feared for his life, because his brothers and sister were plotting to kill him. I figured he was just morose and drunk, you know? We've all been kind of. . .morose and drunk, from time to time, huh?"

I nodded, mainly to avoid having to discuss this with Darryl.

"I didn't really put too much into it, you know? I kind of forgot all about it. I didn't see Bill for a few weeks-we only saw each other a couple of times a year anyway-and then, pow, I woke up one morning and got the news that he was dead."

The smell of his cheese fries was making me sick. "But not murdered. He was drunk and fell down a flight of stairs. Broke his neck."

Darryl looked up at the ceiling. "Yes, that's the story." He looked back at me. "Listen," he said, his voice suddenly serious and calm, "I thought of what he'd said immediately, of course, but I didn't think about it too hard. It's ridiculous! People you know don't get murdered. But when I got here, when I saw them," he paused, plucked a gooey fry from the plate and waved it around. "I don't know, Stevie. I saw those cold bastards and I thought, shit, they could have done it."

For a moment, we stared at each other.

"So, uh, that's why I wanted to hash this out with someone. Someone else who knew them all, a little." He fidgeted, popping the congealed fry into his mouth. "Am I nuts? Wait," he held up a greasy hand. "Start here: Do you think those fucking automatons, the Benderbys, could kill William?"

I thought about it, sipping my beer. It didn't take me very long. "Sure. Sure they could." I was startled at myself, but as I considered it again I realized I meant it. The Benderby kids struck me as people who could kill someone. Even their brother. I shook myself and set my glass down firmly. "But that doesn't mean they did, Darryl," I pointed out. "Come on! You're accusing them of fratricide."

"Of what-no, murder. I'm accusing them of murder."

I regrouped while he shoveled another handful of fries into his mouth. "Look, Darryl, this is nuts. Billy might have been depressed, paranoid-unbalanced. It could be a coincidence."

Darryl squinted at me and said through a full mouth "You ever know Billy Benderby to be susceptible to moods, mental breakdowns, and such?"

"I haven't known the man for ten years. Who knows what happened to him."

"You know. Bill was a fucking rock. He was one of those guys you knew would never need help. Or guidance. Or anything."

He was right about that. William had always given the impression that he was always completely in charge, never rattled, never bothered, never worried. I'd always assumed it was a laziness, of sorts, born of knowing that if he failed, he was still fucking rich as hell.

I spread my hands. "What's the motive, then, Darryl? All murders have to have a motive. Did William mention one when he was accusing his brothers and sister?"

"No," he sat back, chewing. "No he didn't go that far. Seemed to get a little embarrassed that he'd even mentioned it, clammed up."

"There you go. It just doesn't make much sense, Darryl." I looked around, trying to find our waitress.

He sat in silence for a few moments, licking his fingers, and took a pull from his beer. I almost felt sorry for him, for some reason. As if it mattered that his ridiculous idea about William had fallen apart.

"Listen," he said suddenly, animating. "Will you talk to them?"

I blinked. "Excuse me? Talk to who? The Benderbys? About this?"

He nodded enthusiastically."Yeah! Come on, Stevie. In know it's crazy, but...put yourself in my position. A friend of mine-of ours-told me he was afraid of being murdered. Not so long later, he's dead. I feel like I owe it to Billy to investigate, to at least make sure." He leaned in closer. "What if...what if he was murdered? Think about it, Steve. Your own blood, cutting you down. I think that's worth a visit, a phone call."

"Then why me? Darryl, he confided in you. Maybe you should talk to Mickey, Dan, and Carol." This felt, to me, like a master stroke, and I searched the bar for the waitress again, feeling my departure was imminent.

"No, Steve-they won't talk to me. I've been hanging around with William, don't you see? I've run into them with him a few times. They'd be suspicious." He blinked. "I think they are suspicious, actually." He looked at me directly. "It has to be you. You knew him, and them, so you could come up with an excuse to see them. But they know you haven't spoken to Billy in years, so they won't suspect you."

I stared at him. "That's crazy, Darryl." Mainly, though, the thought of putting my will against the Benderbys' combined will made me sweat. I saw their cool, blank stares and pictured myself insinuating myself into their lives, asking questions, interrupting them in some way. Bothering them. It seemed impossible.

"Okay, it's crazy-just talk to them! Ask Carol out for a drink, run into them somewhere, whatever. just get a feeling. If you come back to me and say I'm nuts after you talk to them, then, okay."

"Then okay, huh?" I tossed some money onto the table and stood up. "Sorry, Darryl, but your vague unease about something William said before he died isn't good enough to get me to humiliate myself."

He stared at the bills sitting damply on the table. "So that's it, huh? You're afraid of them. Afraid of looking bad in their eyes."

I shrugged my raincoat back on and picked up my small umbrella. "Good to see you Darryl. My advice is, don't let these paranoid fantasies get a hold of you."

But on the drive home, I kept thinking about it. I kept seeing their

blank, burned eyes. The way they'd formed up as a group, a wall

of Benderby ready to resist any attempt to break through. The look of them-calm, cool, rich and obviously together-stayed with me until I pulled over to the side of the highway, flashers on and rain pouring down onto my car. Traffic sped by me as I sat drumming my fingers against the steering wheel, trying to ferret out the stone in my shoe concerning William Benderby-a man I'd barely known, and hadn't seen in some years-and his untimely death. After a few minutes, it was obvious: What bothered me was that I could see his brothers and sisters doing it. Killing him. I couldn't imagine why, or how, but I could see them doing it.

I put the car back on the road carefully and drove home thoughtfully. Damp and tired, I parked illegally and walked home hunched over my feet, staring at the damp sidewalk, feeling defeated. Inside my small apartment, which was, at least, dry and acceptably neat, I took off my damp shoes and slouched on the bed for a moment before picking up the phone and calling directory assistance. I let the operator connect me for a fee.

"Hello, Darryl?" I said.

"Who is this?" He sounded tired.

"Steve. We spoke this afternoon."

"Oh, yes!"

"I'll do it. I'll call up Carol Benderby tomorrow and at least feel her out. I'll let you know."

There was a moment of silence. "Can I ask what changed your mind?"

This time I hesitated. I wasn't sure how to respond, so I humiliated myself by smiling in the empty room. "Maybe I just want to see Carol again."

He didn't respond right away, and I gripped the phone nervously, feeling ridiculous. "Okay-I think that's great, Steve. Thank you-it makes me feel better about the whole thing. You'll let me know what happens? If anything?"

"Sure, sure."

We hung up, and I sat there for a few moments, feeling foolish. Then I finished pulling off my clothes and crawled into bed.

The next morning I woke up early, called in sick, and spent two hours getting dressed and groomed for my phone call to Carol Benderby. I felt it was very important to have a psychological edge when speaking to her-I knew it was ridiculous, in a way, but I was intimidated by the woman, and thought that if I felt cool and collected, I'd have a chance of not sounding perfectly foolish when she answered the phone. The end result saw me showered, shaved, and dressed in a tie and sports jacket, on my third cup of coffee, staring grimly at the phone on the table in front of me. I felt like a jackass. Still, after a final sip of black, bitter coffee I picked up the phone and dialed the number I'd gotten from directory assistance.


It was one of the brothers, and I almost hung up. I froze and stared at nothing for a few moments, trying to formulate a plan on the fly-for some reason I had assumed Carol would answer, and all of my carefully planned patter was formulated with that assumption in mind. The wrong voice left me flummoxed.


"Hi!" I had no idea which brother it was. I ran through my options: Guess, pretend I knew but omit the name, pretend I didn't know the brothers and just ask for Carol-but this took so long the anonymous Benderby on the other end of the line lost patience. I heard the cracking sound of a phone receiver being transferred from one position to another.

"Yes? May I help you?"

He was polite and precise in his diction, but there was a slight slur to his clipped tones, a softening around the vowels, and I thought I would take a chance.

"Daniel? It's Stephen Drake."

An embarrassing delay, then, as he obviously didn't place the name immediately. I sat there in breathless silence, wondering what I could do to cover the faux pas for both of us. But he recovered with a nasty little laugh.

"Oh-yes, Stevie, how are you?"

Translated, I thought, it was how did you get this number?

"Fine, Daniel, fine. Sorry to trouble you. I'm actually trying to reach Carol."

"Ah," he said wetly, with an obvious leer, "Carol! She isn't here, Stevie. Can I take a message?"

I had an immediate sense that she was, in fact, standing right there, smiling. I felt foolish and warm, suddenly. The goddamn Benderbys.

"Just let her know I called, and ask her to call me back-here's my number."

I read it out and he made a verbal show of taking it down, repeating each digit and reading it back to me. I imagined him drumming his fingers and rolling his eyes as we went through this charade.

"Thanks for calling, Stevie," he sang out, before I could say anything more, and the line went dead.

I went through the rest of the day resenting everyone. My suit itched terribly, and my shoes pinched my toes. I kept replaying Daniel's voice in my head, and each time it grew more mocking, more knowing, more dismissive. Eventually the technical wizards in my mental crime unit erased the background noise and digitally enhanced my memories so that Carol's mocking chuckle could be heard clearly when Daniel had exclaimed Carol!. I saw her clearly, standing there next to him in a sheer teddy, gorgeous and amused that I would think she'd spend time with me.

The problem was, instead of being angry, I was humiliated. I wanted the Benderbys to think of me as an equal, as someone they could conceive of spending time with. Being dismissed by Daniel like that burned on the way down.

But when I got home, there was a message on my machine from Carol. She sounded perfectly normal, pleased, even, to have heard from me. She left her private line and said she looked forward to hearing from me. I poured myself a mild drink and sat next to the machine, sipping and thinking. Had it all been in my head? Was I still a kid, a self-doubting eighteen-year-old who imagined a gulf between me and my betters? The goddamn Benderbys had money, that was it.

It wasn't of course. They were also blessed with looks and brains, which just made the money overkill. But still: I sat in the quiet of my dusty apartment and thought, they get lonely, too. They have doubts, too. They had faults. Daniel was a drunk. Who knew what the other two had to hide.

And, I thought reluctantly, maybe they'd killed their brother.

I called her back, and she answered on the third ring, sounded breathless and then, to my surprise, delighted to hear from me. I pictured her at the funeral, and even if it had been her brother's funeral, it didn't jibe with the muted, monofaced woman who'd stiffly introduced me around to her brothers. We didn't have too much to say, and danced around a little-I got the feeling she was wondering why I'd called, and eventually made a date for dinner the next night. After I hung up I realized I'd never seen her away from her brothers. I wondered if she'd shine more brightly away from them, or less, if she'd be different, or more herself.

I spent the night drinking. I didn't intend to, but one cocktail turned into two, and then three, and then one with dinner, and before I knew it I was drunk and listening to music at high volume, wandering around my apartment with a drink in my hand, thinking. I did this, sometimes. At first it was fun to be a little high and contemplative, moving through my own space. But usually I got depressed after a while, and I always woke up hungover the next day and good for nothing. This night I got drunk on Scotch, clinking the ice in my glass as I padded, barefoot and still in my suit, through the place, taking an obscure joy in my own space, spartan and bachelor as it was, but arranged to my liking, according to my sensibilities. I ended up out on the fire escape, the poor man's terrace, thinking about William Benderby, and whether his own family had killed him.

On the face it, absurd. The Benderbys had been strange, aloof rich kids, but they were family. They stuck together. That had been one of the things which had bothered me so much when I'd visited with him: The Benderby kids gave you the distinct impression that the only people who mattered were them, that if you weren't related to them, if they couldn't smell your genetic code on your skin, you were just furniture. Bill hadn't given me that impression when we'd been alone at school. It was only when we were immersed in his family that I got the feeling, strong and certain, that they considered themselves a race apart.

By midnight I was bombed, and sleepy, sitting on the fire escape and watching the trees in the backyard. I fell asleep there.


I glanced up at the bartender, startled, and considered.


I didn't want to be drunk when Carol arrived, but she was late and I didn't want to just sit at the bar. A drink would at least occupy my hands. The first Scotch had threatened to reignite my hangover, but about halfway through everything had settled down again, and now all I felt was a little sluggish and very hungry.

She arrived a moment later, just as my fresh drink was placed in front of me. She was apologetic, and awkward. She was wearing a knee-length skirt and a white blouse, her hair up in a bun. She smelled wonderful. A three-second erotic movie, starring her and quite ancient, unspooled in my mind, there and gone. I was instantly eighteen again, unsure of myself and tortured on a nightly basis by visions of Carol Benderby.

She leaned in and kissed me on the cheek.

"I'm so sorry! Something's come up. We have to go meet Danny and Mick."

I tried to cover the sinking feeling of terror that enveloped me. I took a gulp of Scotch.

She touched my arm. "I know, it's crummy of me, but it can't be helped. I'm sorry! But we have to go. They're waiting."

I stood up on wobbly legs and fished in my pocket for money. "What's happened? Would it be better if we just canceled?"

She made a shocked face. "No! No, I feel badly enough about this as it is. No emergency-just something's come up. I tried to call, but you'd already left, and I don't have any other way to reach you."

We walked to another bar a few blocks away. I was in a daze, and struggled to be polysyllabic as she chatted gaily. It felt like a setup, as if she'd decided she couldn't meet me without the support of her family. The goddamn Benderbys were like one unit with three bodies. When she reached over and took my arm in a calculated gesture of affection, I was suddenly alarmed, and convinced that there was a plan being followed here. Something had rallied the Benderbys.

Arriving at the new bar, my conviction that this was a setup solidified: Mick and Dan were seated at a bar table, two empty chairs ready and waiting for us. Dan slouched over a full ashtray, his tie undone and his jacket wrinkled. Mickey beamed at us, crisp and bright-eyed, looking clean and vibrant, a new penny. He held a cigarette in a strange way, pinched delicately between his forefinger and thumb, away from him as if he didn't like the smell and found cigarettes distasteful. I had the immediate impression they'd both been there for quite some time, and it was easy to imagine Carol with them, plotting. I felt foolish, and covered it with bluster, made easier by the two Scotches sloshing around inside me.

"Drake!" Mick shouted, waving. "Good of you to come. Sorry about busting up the date."

He held out his hand and eyed me flatly as he said this, and I shook back with calculated force.

"Yes, we feel badly about it," Dan offered. "It can't be helped, though. Car here is our only ride home."

"We'd take the bus or something," Mick said without enthusiasm, "but we took a poll and between the three of us, we have about three dollars."

Dan laughed and pinged the side of his glass with a manicured nail. "We know the guy who owns this place," he said, sounding amused. "We run a tab."

"Speaking of," Mick said, straightening up. "What'll everybody have? It's that time again."

We ordered drinks, and Mick made his way to the bar. For a moment we just sat there, unsure of what to say to each other.

"I'm sorry, again, for your loss," I said soberly, feeling foolish. Dan and Carol looked at each other.

"That's nice of you, Steve," Dan said. he looked from Carol to me. "No, really, it's very good of you to be concerned, but it's okay. We'll always miss William, but what's done is done. We're not a family that believes in being overly emotional. Bill did what he did and he's gone. The rest of us are still here."

Carol put her hand on my arm and squeezed. "That's sweet," she said, smiling.

I knew I was being conned.

"And now," Dan said, slapping the table loudly with his hand. "No more 'so sorries' or 'how are yous', no more dour faces and whispered condolences, yes?" He nodded at Carol and then turned to nod at me. "Yes? Yes! Motion passed. We've ruined Car's date but we can at least aspire to being entertaining about it. Steve, the drinks are on us, and we'll sing and dance if you like. Though I don't recommend that you ask us to."

Carol laughed. "No! Please don't."

Mick arrived with our drinks in a complex arrangement held in place by friction and surface tension. Extracting drinks from this arrangement proved difficult, but after a slight spillage incident we each had our cocktail, and an awkward moment of silence descended on us. I looked from Benderby to Benderby, getting angry at this intrusion and manipulation-anger fueled by an undercurrent of embarrassment as I contemplated the fact that Carol had only agreed to meet me in order to manipulate me into this meeting.

I settled back and tried to look relaxed. "So, what does everyone want to talk about?"

They looked at each other in turn, three gorgeous siblings. in the face of that fierce, beautiful light, I took refuge behind my glass and sipped Scotch desperately.

"Well," Dan said with a grin-so easy, I had to bite my lip to stop myself from smiling back. "Steve, we have to admit we set you up. We all wanted to meet with you."

I nodded. "Why?"

The Benderby Look again, a quick scan of each other's eyes, slight nods of their heads, and then it was Dan again, the Master of Benderby Ceremonies.

"Well, we think we know what's behind your sudden interest in us."

"It's that supreme motherfucker," Mick interrupted. "Darryl Simmons."

Dan winced a smile. "C'mon, Mickey," he said, his bright, clear eyes on me. "Don't be a dick." He shrugged his eyebrows at me. "Mick's a little pissed at Darryl, you'll have to forgive him. Steve, I'll be plain with you: We suspect Darryl's spoken to you, and that's why suddenly, after ten years, you want to date Carol."

I fought off a wince and gripped my cold glass tightly. "I see. Sure I saw Darryl at the funeral." I started to say something more, but then hesitated, and closed my mouth.

Another Benderby Look. "Well, Steve," Dan said with a slight hint of exasperation, subtly communicating his disappointment in my denseness and anti-Benderby attitude-a disappointment that beat at my face like a warm wind. "We think he told you he think we, uh-sorry Car-killed Billy."

"Fucking asshole," Mick muttered. fiercely, knocking back his own drink.

"Mickey, please." Carol said, offering me a nervous smile. "He's upset."

I looked at them all. I was conscious of the gulf between us: rich, beautiful Benderbys and people like me, whom they sometimes liked, sometimes pitied, and always treated with the sort of careful politeness that managed to convey amazing depths of disdain. "He mentioned this to me," I said, and took a long sip of my drink.

Dan and Mick stared at me, waiting. I imagined they were willing me to keep talking. I could feel their feathery thoughts against my face.

"Jesus, Stephen," Carol finally muttered, collapsing back into her seat. "What did you think about it? This isn't a game."

"Oh, really?" A flare of anger broke through and I fanned it a little, grabbing hold and letting my burned hands make me even angrier-I thought anger was really all I had against them, the goddamned Benderbys. "So luring me out here under false pretenses, ambushing me, ganging up on me-that isn't a game?" I struggled to find a tone of tired disdain. "You could have just asked me, Carol."

She looked away, and a tiny thrill of triumph whipped through me. "I suppose we should have," she said to her lap.

Mick slammed his glass down onto the table. "All right, Drake," he growled, his words a little soft and squishy, a little watery. "We're asking now."

Dan reached over and put a hand on his brother's arm. "Sorry, Steve," he said with a quick smile. "Mick's upset. He doesn't mean to be rude."

"Of course not, but he has a point," Carol said, reaching out to touch my arm again. "We're asking now, Steve," she said. "Did Darryl talk to you about Billy? About. . .us killing Billy?"

Mick's face darkened again, and he slapped the table hard enough to make our drinks jump. "That little bastard had better not ever step in front of me," he snarled. Dan was up immediately, pulling him away from the table. "Okay, all right, excuse us, Steve."

The brothers walked away, Dan with his arms locked around Mick's shoulders, pulling, Mick stumbling to keep up.

I stared at Carol over the rim of my glass, and she stared back at me. We regarded each other for a moment.

"You believe it," she said, her voice flat. "You think we killed William. Our own brother."

I nodded. "I didn't before. Before I was just curious. I believe it now."


"Because of this little drama tonight. I'll admit I wanted to get a feeling-Darryl planted a seed and I had to see for myself. I thought I'd dance around it a little with you tonight, get a feeling. Instead, I'm met with the full-court press from the whole family. Which makes me suspicious."

She leaned back, pulled her handbag towards her, and began rooting around in it, finally producing a pack of cigarettes. I didn't recognize the brand, and they were unfiltered. I shifted uncomfortably in my seat, stopped myself from gulping more Scotch, and wanted nothing more than to go home.

Lighting her cigarette with a thin silver lighter, she regarded me for a moment. "We didn't kill our own brother, Steve. You're here because someone you hadn't seen in a decade pulled you aside and told you about a conversation he'd had with William-yes, yes, he told us." She waved smoke away from her. "Darryl is a very strange man, Steve. He's been bothering us for years now. Hanging around. Acting like we're all great friends-William was always the nicest of us, always the one who took in the injured animals and the pity-cases." She paused, as if suddenly wondering if I was bright enough to put myself in the latter category. "William was a sweetheart, and he didn't have the heart to make Darryl go away. but he never liked Darryl. He felt sorry for Darryl. And Darryl took his pity, and his niceness, and turned it into this weird hero-worship thing, where Bill was his great friend, confiding in him, and his brothers and sister were bad people trying to hurt him." She paused to stare at her cigarette, her beautiful face flat and still. When she turned her gray eyes to me, I imagined I could feel their force. "Darryl needs help. You're the victim of a delusion."

I considered this, and had to admit it could certainly be true.

Across from me, she suddenly sighed and leaned forward, a palpable softening of her demeanor that surprised me. "Listen, Steve, I don't know you all that well, but I remember you as a nice guy, and you seem to be one. You're not the first person Darryl has convinced to come at us like this."

I blinked. "What?"

She smiled sadly. "I'm sorry. It started a few years ago. Darryl would make up these things, these little dramas. First we were plotting to disinherit William, take his share of our family's money away from him. Then, having failed that, we were supposedly physically abusing William, beating him, but in subtle, clever ways that never showed any marks. Darryl made stuff up like this all the time, and every now and then he would dig up some old acquaintance of William's and convince him that these things were happening. Every now and then he'd be so convincing they'd actually try and intervene. Usually William would talk to them, explain things, and that would be that. but, of course, William's not here any more. So we have to convince you, I suppose."

I digested this, careful to keep my face blank. But my nerve broke under her steady gaze, and I brought my glass up to roll it across my forehead.

"Jesus," I said.

She nodded, once, crisply. "I know-none of this is fair to you, I suppose."

I stood up as Dan and Mickey returned, still whispering. Dan broke away, spreading his hands. "Not giving up on us already, Stevie?!"

I shook my head and gulped down the remainder of my Scotch. "Thanks for the drink. I gotta go."

They didn't try to stop me. There were no fakely hearty protests, no scrambles to buy me one more for the road. Carol didn't move, or even look at me. I had to push past Dan and Mickey awkwardly on my way out, and I kept my eyes down. I imagined I could feel Mickey staring after me, but didn't credit it. I was afraid of Mickey, and would probably imagine his eyes on me a lot.

I walked home. A long way, but I felt drunker than I should have and wanted the air to clear my head and my blood. It was damp and heavy out, cool enough, but filled with repressed rain that the city didn't want to absorb. It was like swimming home.

The goddamn Benderbys were too smart, and too confident. facing them, it was impossible for me to resist them-it was like facing a hurricane-force wind and trying to breath normally. They sucked all the air from the room and left you relying on their words for air, and I didn't trust myself. But then, of course, what they'd said made sense. I didn't know Darryl any more than I'd known Billy. Ten years had gone by since I'd last hung out with Darryl, and even ten years ago I hadn't exactly known him intimately. How did I know he wasn't a nutjob?

Grimly, I considered the possibility that they were all nutjobs. I resolved to go home, take a shower, enter a twelve-step alcohol program, and never see or think about any of them again. But when I got home, there were messages waiting for me.

I stood in the dark, hands in pockets, and stared at the blinking red light on my answering machine. Two messages, and I had good guesses as to who had called. With a feeling of true foreboding, I pressed the PLAY button. Darryl's voice filled the air.

"Hey, Steve, it's Darryl. . .anxious to hear how your meeting with Carol went. Give me a call!"

The usual click, a beep, and then Carols' voice.

"Hello, Stephen," she said, sounding formal, cool. "I wanted to apologize for this evening. Cowardly to leave a message of apology, I know, but. . .I am really truly embarrassed. We thought we were handling this situation the best way possible. Please give me a call at your earliest opportunity."

Please give me a call at your earliest opportunity. . .the flatly formal words rang through my head like a weak echo. It was as if she were finalizing an awkward business deal-which, in a way, I guessed she was.

The silence after the messages was oppressive. I felt lonely-the night was barely begun, but mine was over. I could try and dig up some company, I could kill another bottle by myself, or I could lay around until I felt sleepy enough to go to bed. None of the options appealed to me, so I wandered around the apartment a little, hands in pockets, shiftlessly running my tired eyes over everything. When the knock came at my door, I turned and stared at it for a moment-it was so unexpected, I couldn't process the event at first. As I stood there, dumb, the knocking was repeated, louder, and suddenly morphed into a pounding that shook the door in its frame.

"Drake! Open up. Let's fuckin' talk."

It was Mickey Benderby, and he sounded very, very drunk. I'd seen Mickey appear to be completely sober after a long night of drinking, so this apparent inebriation worried me very much. How drunk, I wondered as I stood in the twilight of my dusty apartment, did Mickey have to be before it showed?

The pounding on the door became really loud, loud enough that one of my recalcitrant and unfriendly neighbors actually opened their door to complain. I only heard them as a blurry voice behind all the noise, but Mickey paused in his pounding.

"Fuck off! Private business, your fuckin' ashhole."

The pounding returned, so far advanced that it was really more like he was throwing himself against the door.

"Drake! Open up you fucking coward! You little shit! You nothing! Open the fucking door so we can talk like godfucking adults about this bullshit!" he screamed.

The door shuddered, the hinges visibly pulling away from the frame.

Where, I wondered in stunned astonishment, were his handlers, the ever-faithful brother and sister, who, I imagined, had been walking Mickey around bars and quietly sliding gold credit cards across tables ever since his growth spurt and hormone infusion?

The door was struck again, with a sharp crack of splintering wood filling the air. I was spurred into action: I took my hands out of my pockets and jumped a little in shock.

Mickey was just barking my name at this point: Drake! Drake! Drake!, each exclamation point accented by an assault on the door. When it finally crashed inward, splinters and light spilling in from without, I was paralyzed, and just stared at the shadowed figure of Mickey Benderby, richest psychotic alcoholic in the universe as he advanced on me, his hands just black fists at his side.

"You fucking shit," he growled, suddenly dropping the volume now that he was inside. Behind him, I could see forms, shadows, and hoped my neighbors were calling the police. Or at least marking the time of my death for the reporters.

I wanted to move. I very much wanted to move. But as he stalked towards me, I couldn't manage it. I just stared at him in shock. He seemed huge, a bubbling mass of beer muscle and watery eyes, and when he reached me and took my throat in one hand, cinching off my breath as if he'd been out in the hall practicing it all night long I could only bug my eyes out and stare at him, working my dry tongue around in my mouth spastically.

"You and Simmons, you little cockroaches," he hissed. His face wasn't making any sense to me: Too puffy, too twisted, too full of dark red blood. He wasn't human. He was Mickey Benderby, richest killing machine in the world.

Around the edges of my vision, a dark band began to form. My head felt stuffed with sand.

"Smartasses!" he growled. "Fucking smartasses. I had Billy riding me my whole life, and then I got you and fucking cockroach Simmons. Being smart-" his hands tightened on my throat. "-asses all the fucking time!"

I managed to raise my arms and put my hands on his shoulders, but a curious lethargy had crept over me, and I just flopped them onto his shoulders, as if hugging him. I was too weak to do anything else, so just left them there, but gravity took over soon enough as my knees gave out and I started to sink to the floor, dragging my useless arms with me. Mickey stayed with me, bending down almost gently in order to keep his hands around my throat. He wasn't even speaking English any more. He was just panting and grunting. The air between us smelled like used liquor. The dark band around my vision thickened and gelled. Everything inside it became pixelated, as if made up of huge blobs of color.

Suddenly, unexpectedly, a shiver of manic desperation shouldered its way through the gathering gloom and I tried to struggle out of Mick's grasp. I kicked my rubbery legs and twisted a little, and then paused, because someone was standing in the doorway. Two someones.

The dark band around my vision narrowed further, until it was circling Carol Benderby's face. I imagined our eyes met, but I couldn't be sure.

Jeff Somers publishes The Inner Swine. This is from the latest issue.