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

Encountered

Taste, transfixed--
Accompany tendrils in tears.
Tiptoe tacitly to turn me,
Spread elbows around,
Drown in perspiration
Deliciously.
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 lingered...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.

"Hello?"

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.

"Hello?"

"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.

"Another?"

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

"Sure."

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."

"Why?"

"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.

Tuesday, November 09, 2004

UPTOWN VALHALLA
By Emerson Dameron

Thursday evening, 8:34 PM. I jerked awake on my brother’s couch in Uptown. “At least I don’t have a hangover; that’s a goddamn miracle,” I thought, right before the railroad spike went in one ear and out the other. I glanced at the coffee table. I shoveled my hands in my pockets. Wallet and keys were not forthcoming.

Fortunately, my sibling had a few twenties stashed in a Pokemon Stadium cartridge on the bookshelf. I left the apartment and plodded toward a local jazz club, rubbing the fresh, acne-like bumps on my scalp. It felt like a TB test was coming up wrong. A nest’s worth of defiant hornets buzzed ‘round my circulatory system. These weren’t coke bugs. I know what those feel like. They look for escape routes, whereas these li’l fellas seemed to be on some sort of reconnaissance mission.

I entered the lounge, flashed the backup ID I stow in my right shitkicker, dropped four bucks on a pint and sat down. The jazz cats played some amelodic baloney, very proficiently. I know free jazz players have talent, but I’m a born rock ‘n’ roller, and their particular genius is generally lost on me. I wasn’t sure what I was doing here.

As the insects darted around the bulging capillaries in my eyeballs, my shaky hands lit a backwoods cigar they’d found in my breast pocket. This was not a conscious act. Nor were the slurred fighting words I launched toward the statue at stage rear. Indignant jazzbos shushed me, index fingers to lips, but I remained a limp puppet, filled with an incoherent tirade not of my own design. Two ink-heavy bouncers escorted me to the tarmac. I returned to my brother’s, rubbing my eyelids, lost in confusion. In thirty minutes, I was snoring and dreaming.

I awoke a full eight days down. I saw no signs that my brother had been home during my slumber. His cable was out. Chicago Tribunes were piled at his doorstep. Atop the heap, my brother grinned at me from page one, pissing on the Arc de Triomphe. I carried the papers indoors and pieced together the week’s events.

It seems I pissed off those jazz buffs but good. Even after my exit, they barked for my head. The mass hysteria overpowered the music. The band left the stage. And in its place, a floor-to-ceiling Blue Beam hologram of Miles Davis emerged. Miles told this roomful of soul-patched aficionados and their awkwardly fashionable girlfriends that THE TIME HAD COME, THE OVERTHROW WAS IMMINENT.

As one, the jazzbos paraded solemnly down Clark and stormed Wrigley Field. One alpha saxophonist hijacked the PA, and using a circular breathing technique an aboriginal Australian taught him while tendering a blowjob, spent ten minutes on one note, at the precise pitch that causes listeners to void their bowels.

With its khakis thus soiled, the North Side’s power elite took flight to the ‘burbs, and the jazz fans assumed control of the city. They burned every book in the library system that was neither a biography nor an autobiography of a jazz musician. Chicago’s history was now officially the history of Chicago jazz.

Before the smoke cleared, the French army descended on Wicker Park, spraying its borders with impenetrable cologne clouds and establishing a colony on erstwhile American soil. The residents did not protest, so George W. Bush did not send in the National Guard. However, he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to declare holy war on the European Union.

Not one to risk his neck in the desert, my brother nevertheless enlisted when offered the opportunity to stroll Champs-Elysees, clocking street vendors with the butt of an M-16.

The United Kingdom remained neutral in the US/EU conflict, as the Irish Republican Army had conquered it while the world’s head was turned. With their fresh resources, the insurgent Irish issued a military strike on Cook County, USA, invading through a network of trans-Atlantic tunnels terminating beneath south suburban Gaelic Park.

Wicker Park was immediately carpet-bombed, effectively annihilating the world’s vintage industry and, with it, the American dollar. Legions of South Siders took up the Irish cause, including Mayor Richard M. Daley, who realized the bulk of US military might was stuck overseas and would not bail his fat ass out.

I needed a glass of water, but the faucets now ran with triple-malt whiskey, abrasive yet soothing. The sun shone through the windows, reminding me to brace them with masking tape. I ran a glass of the good stuff and plopped in a few ice cubes. A quarterstick detonated up the block. Everything was, for the moment, grand.

Emerson Dameron lives in Chicago. This story appears in issue #2 of his self-published unit-shifter Wherewithal. Contact emerson at hush dot com to secure a copy.

Monday, November 08, 2004

His Name Is Duncan
By J.D. Finch



He had never felt he’d better understood how cattle felt than now as her momentum, like an aura of concrete, moved him to the place he was supposed to be, a position of subservience in front of the editor’s desk.

“So what’s the plan Cal?” his editor asked him with a “let’s-get-on-with-it” urgency.

He gazed around the room slowly, put off by knowing that he was the lowest item in it, except for the waste can under a desk that itself was head level to him. He felt like a stone that had been thrown into a pond that had impossibly been decorated in ersatz Italian Renaissance and he was sitting on the bottom as the Boticellis, Cellinnis et al floated above him.

“Plan?” he parroted, as he squeaked his index finger quickly across the faux leather chair. “Oh, the usual, I expect”, he said casually, as if barely aware his attention was required. “Just keep typing until once again I find the magic formula that lets me create a story to transfix the masses.”

“Very clever,” the editor said. “Unfortunately the ‘masses’ decided that your last two were ‘misses’.”

“They were every bit as well written as my first two.”

“Yes,” the editor agreed, even though he himself had been more interested in baby bottles than books when the two bestsellers had been published.

“So it must be something else. Don’t you think, Cal?”

“People aren’t buying books; it’s an industry-wide problem,” he sighed.

“So you don’t think that the problem might be your image?” said the editor while admiring the yellow-orange glow of the tip of his Marlboro Light. A smokeless ashtray gently hummed in its open drawer and kept the haze to a manageable minimum.

“Frankly no,” he said flatly, in the way he sometimes used to make a point: a pose he used to convince that a concept was beneath him.

But of course he cared. And secretly he agreed with his editor. They both knew he was a fine writer, but he couldn’t compete with the new postmodernist darlings that were filling up the bestseller lists. The ones who threw all the book parties for industry insiders and the critics. The critics! My God, he couldn’t even imagine it!

“And what are you implying, that I’m old?” he said running his fingers through his graying hair. “Okay so I’m heading for 40 -- no biggie. Life begins at forty, isn’t that what they say?”

“If by ‘they’ you’re referring to my grandparents, you’re spot-on,” the editor said smiling bitter-sweetly. “Do you want to be categorized with them? Because I’ll tell you, if you don’t find a way to connect to the current pulse of things, within five years your career is going to be as dead as they are.”

When had the lit world become a personality contest? When had bookstore readings become a sort of cerebral talent show, a hokey 21st century vaudeville? And when had his editors become so damned young?

“If you cared about promoting my stuff as much as you do hanging with the latest wunderkind and altering yourself with the hot boutique drug, perhaps the sales would be more up to your expectations. How do you expect me to sell if I get no support?”

“You have the same support you’ve gotten from us all along. We haven’t reduced promotion for you by a dime. It’s you...you give us nothing to work with. It’s no longer enough to say ‘the latest by Caleb Duncan’ and expect the damn book to do back flips off the shelves.”

“Look at who’s reading today,” he went on, passionate, yet cool and unruffled. “Twentysomethings and younger. They’re clueless about Cal Duncan, -- you’re only a name they saw on their parents’ night tables when they were toddlers. They don’t want anything their parents like; they want their own stuff. They want their books, not their parents’. They’ve developed...oh, I don’t know, ‘taste’ for lack of a better term. They have pretentions and if you don’t appeal to them, you’re out of there. In two generations they’ve gone from magazines to zines to literary quarterlies to books, God bless ‘em.”

Duncan hated that his editor so easily verbalized what had been a racquetball of a worry bouncing and ricocheting off the interior walls of his guts for too long: he was becoming an anachronism, sliding inexorably into oblivion as surely as Quint in Jaws slid down the deck of the foundering boat until he could feel the fish’s tonsils tickling his...

Chomp!

“Look Cal,” said his editor solicitously. “I want you to do something for us.”

Duncan looked at him; the helplessness and doubt he felt etched his face with deep lines making him look like a runner who’d already decided to come in dead last, even before the starting gun had been fired.

“All right then, I want you to do something for yourself,” the editor said softening his tone as much as a man in his business could without being accused of the deadly sin of sentimentality.

He handed Duncan a business card that looked like a miniature Fillmore poster, with a bright tie-died pattern swirling around one of the sort of smiling simpering fools that Duncan called “nouveau gurus”. Duncan looked at the card: “Henry Blascomb, Planner of Events, Giver of SoirĂ©es, Supplier of the Unusual”.

“Now please excuse me,” said the editor as the herder arrived, again transporting another writer up to the desk by sheer will. “But be sure to give Henry a call, okay Cal?”

Duncan managed a pained nod as he left. He thought he felt a force keeping him clear of the receptionist and her charge as they passed and he smiled at the young…woman? What was she – sixteen? he wondered as the door closed behind him.

The receptionist had somehow already gotten back to her station, and was deeply involved in paperwork. He looked at the door. “Malcom Talbot Jr., Editor” said the Olde English brass letters, perfectly aligned with each other. One had to looked closely to see the slightly different burnish that told him the “Jr.” had been added later.

“His father was better,” he said aloud. “Much better.” If the human force field heard him she wasn’t letting on at all.

[e-mail jdfin2 at hotmail.com]

Thursday, November 04, 2004

Nightswimming, Ch 43: They Said

(As delivered to PEN America’s celebration of Books Beyond the Margins)

By Yinishye Nasdijj


It begins with hostility.
The kind of hostility that breeds yet more hostility.
I often ask myself about twenty times a day why it is
I am such a masochist to take the hostility
Publishing dishes out to me
And writers like me and the degree of sheer hatred that is directed
Toward me and the kind of projects I write
by mainstream publishing houses.
It's a crankhouse world of speed and the tongues of snakes.
The land of books. The hooks of shanks.
They said:
You've been recognized you fuck by PEN.
For your book about your son who died from AIDS.
I had been quietly slipping away. Not caring much anymore.
The only friends I had were whores.
Into that maladaptive haze.
The labyrinthine maze. Publishing. Had become too much.
They want too much. Every day, it was always something.
And me to touch. "Hello, Nasdijj?"
"Yaaa."
"Do you have a photograph?"
"No."
"It's great that the world recognizes you. You dumb fuck.'
"But you've become too difficult to deal with.'
"You didn't do all the divine interviews we asked you to do'
"You've been given every chance, and we're over you.'
"Your ideas for books are good ones.'
"Those books should be published. In fact, we would love to publish them.'
"But not by you. Nothing personal."
"But..."
"Goodbye, Nasdijj. We wish you the best of luck in your endeavors
and we hope that your books find a home."
Can you imagine?
Me in my truck to roam.
There's a movie lot somewhere
with a Leave it to Beaver set of a suburban house
it's a nice house with a white bay window
And apples on the wholesome windowsill.
And inside the nice house with the white picket fence
is a nice mom with a dust mop and high heel shoes.
And every morning she puts her panty hose on one leg at a time.
And mom is dusting all the books.
And baking nice white sugar cookies (no marijuana) for all the books.
And at night Sugar Daddy comes home and they have dinner with all the books.
And Daddy takes the books into the den.
Where he delivers long lectures on the sins of masturbation.
And all the books speak in tongues and whispers.
And all the books gasp and moan. For all the books have found a home.
And all the books are made from bone.
There are no more books to put on loan.
As most books know that they are prone.
To madness in the home for books. They have lost themselves in how they looks.
Publishing has some very odd rituals and notions. Witches and witchery.
Merlin. Cures and potions.
The belief that there are editors and publicists who wish me well is one.
Odd thing.
Still. My phone. It rings and rings.
It used to be that if a tiny, mainly unknown writer such as myself sold twenty thousand copies of his book in a year
which I can do if I want to literally go insane
in some idiot's version of a whirlwind tour
to ten-thousand bookstores where two people show up at each bookstore
to buy books
which is often two more people than often show up at bookstores I read in
that would be a good year
and a good run for that fundamentally unknown writer.
Fer sher. For today, twenty-thousand books is nothing
and if that's all you can sell in a year schleping around books
all over America
then prepare to pack your bags
because publishing is going to throw you into the street
and hags and wash its hands of the likes of you. Like rags.
Is that ALL your spook is, Honey, twenty-thousand books?
The world is happiness and the world is new. The world is red.
And white. And blue.
Today, it's not the editor who decides which books get published.
It's the people in marketing, and the publisher is usually one of them.
Sparkle, Danielle, sparkle.
In order for there to be books beyond the margins
there has to be another prerequisite
and that's lives lived beyond the margins, too.
The world is empty there's nothing left to chew.
On.
There will be virtually no books published beyond the margins and boundaries of anything.
Unless writers are living lives
and experiencing life as it exists outside the context
if homogeneric America.
That means black writers.
Native American writers, Hispanic writers, Asian writers, and poets.
Poets are writers who write poems.
All my warriors to your miseries.
And tomes.
It might mean migrant writers, waitress writers, truck driver writers.
And writers who rob banks.
Unfortunately, it does not mean poor writers because all writers are that.
Jill Davis (writers: let's start naming names) who is an editor at the Penguin groups told me this:
Maybe poor people shouldn't be writers.
She means people of color. Like me.
You will have a world of books with all the same voice if that's what you want.
It seems it is. What you want.
Diversity of voice comes with blood.
I live in my truck next to a shack.
Along the candycane railroad tracks.
I don't care what lip service publishing wants to pay
to keep its image of the heroic and the literary alive and well.
The reality is that publishing is hell.
Publishing is NOT looking for black writers.
You have no idea how many times I have been told by editors: "We are already publishing enough black books this year."
And I'm not even BLACK!
When I point this out to them
which they find extremely annoying and my email gets blocked
they say: We were confused.
But I'm the one washed up and used.
Publishing is not looking for Indian writers.
Publishing is not looking for Hispanic writers.
Publishing does absolutely nothing
to facilitate the publication of books beyond the margins.
What publishing wants are strictly bargains.
To wit: I dare you.
I double-dog dare you to go home, sit down, and write a book on AIDS.
It's a crankhouse world of speed that fades.
Trust me.
AIDS is so utterly far from the experience of most publishers
it's a virus that came from outer space.
Go ahead.
WRITE your book.
You will be erased. No one will publish it.
Can you imagine the publicist whose job is to get you onto Charlie Rose.
"Oh, my god. It's a book on AIDS. I suppose..."
My son was dead. He was twelve-years-old.
I was on my back on the bed of the Cheap Gin Hotel I was living in.
Wondering. Watching the spiders on the ceiling. Wondering.
What could I do about AIDS? ME. A nobody.
It's a crankhouse world and speed and tongues.
Children lost and children won.
A support group? I had no idea what a support group was.
It's a crankhouse world of speed and tongues of snakes.
Mamacita kisses our chocolate bakes.
Our support group is three-years-old, now, Sugar.
Who's your bitch now, Daddy?
We are a group of boys between the ages of ten and seventeen
Who meet once a week at my cabin in the woods
Where I live on a lake (where we go canoeing) in North Carolina.
We meet once a week unless one of us dies.
And then we go to the funeral and meet twice a week.
Of course, WW Norton doesn't think boys like this have stories.
Worth being told.
Our anonymity bought and sold.
It's a crankhouse world of speed and cheek. I call them MY BOYS.
My boys are different from the parents who gave them AIDS.
My boys all gaze. At some distant horizon I can never know.
Of rocking horses and Geronimo.
My boys are living with the disease where their parents mainly died from it.
Before the advent of the highly effective antiretrovirals
People were getting sick in cities. This is the social demography of AIDS.
In the seventies, people were leaving the South. Imagine that.
The calls of hookers and the calls of cats.
In the eighties, they were being diagnosed
And they were leaving those cities -- grabbing baby boys' hand.
Come on, honey we going to Grandma's house, to return home to die.
Like a dried up starvation titty mouse.
In the 1990s, they died, leaving children to cope for themselves.
In hells everywhere in the South from New Orleans to Richmond.
I know this: New Orleans is a big urban city. So is Richmond.
We like to think of New York as shitty.
Publishing in particular keeps its nose stuck up in that rareified air.
Manhattan is the beginning and the end of God.
I am the keynote speaker this year (and something of a lightning rod).
At a convention of the AIDS Coalition in Texas, and people who work with addicts, junkies-on-the-street, deaf mute punk boy bands
French Quarter Midget Transvestite Bars.
Houston whores in whore houses, boys in bath houses.
Arkansas drug treatment centers.
And all the Southern Underworld Crankhouse Crapshoot.
These are the people I love. Eat me, Random House.
The people that I care about and love to write about -- SHOUT!
It. From. The. Rooftops. They will all be there. People beyond the margins.
Without a care. Without these people there would be no books.
Mainstream or otherwise.
Can you imagine books without these people?
Mainstream publishing is a racist bitch.
Sparkle, Danielle, sparkle.
No one wants a book about an AIDS support group for young gentlemen.
Many of those young gentlemen are gentlemen of color. Imagine that.
Dark dark.
Such a book might upset the white suburban mothers of Soccor, Illinois.
Such a book would get edited down into the context of a toy.
It would at Norton.
A nice toy.
And do not kid yourself.
They buy books those mothers and the publicists know it.
The aforementioned people above
While colorful -- do not for the most part buy books.
A twenty-five dollar book could be twenty-five dollars of dog food.
Or at least enough dog food for you to eat to get you through the week.
I have eaten dog food. To survive. Being homeless.
Dog food and gin.
To books and poems and back again.
Here I am, Mamma!
Who's your bitch now, Random House.
I still dumpster dive for food.
It's rude. But it's reality.
We find that the best dumpster diving is at the University of North Carolina.
Or Duke.
Not the UNC or Duke places you attended your nice literary conference in.
But no.
We were the hobos in the back in the dumpsters.
Where all the spoiled bratty students throw half-chewed pizza out.
Do I BLAME publishing for my own homelessness? You FUCKING bet I do.
If publishing was open to the idea that people such as myself exist, that we write
What we tell the stories of ourselves, that our work is of any value at all..
I would not have had to scrape, beg, crawl
And dumpster dive for the past thirty years.
Of tears into my beers.
They warned me:
DO NOT TALK ABOUT CLEANING UP SHIT ON YOUR BOOK TOUR.
In my book about my son's death from AIDS
I discuss the esoteric experience of cleaning shit.
I arrived at a bookstore in California. There was no one there.
Not one solitary soul.
The publicists will tell you it was all my fault. I can only shrug.
So I read (to the walls) all about cleaning shit. Someone has to do it.
They said:
DO NOT TALK ABOUT TWELVE-YEAR-OLD BOYS
WITH AIDS WHO HAVE ERECTIONS.
THE NEW YORK TIMES WILL FIND YOU DISTURBING.
They did.
They should have. AIDS IS DISTURBING! Get it?
Bitch.
Twelve-year-old boys with AIDS ARE disturbing.
Get a clue.
But watch out.
If you dare to write about experiences or life
Is it is lived beyond the margins, push
Danielle, grunt, you cunt, push, it's a lot like having a baby
You will be shown the door in publishing.
It's a crankhouse world of speed and tongues of snakes.
It's rock and roll and Mamacita shakes. Her booty.
Publishing is my bitch.
I want to fuck that dead cow with a whip.
I know this, too: La la!
There isn't a publisher or publicist in this business
Who wouldn't kill for a celebrity book. I mistook.
Myself for one. It's a crankhouse world of speed and guns.
NOT a celebrity beyond the margins.
This in and of itself would be a contradiction in terms. Speed and tongues.
We are like germs.
The very nature of c-e-l-e-b-r-i-t-y is to celebrate.
In burns by solemn ceremonies.
Or appropriate rites (or feasts).
Those activities (such as circumcision) that demonstrate satisfaction.
Those of us who live at the margins rarely if ever demonstrate
Satisfaction
I CAN'T GET NOOOO
With refraining from ordinary
This is what people are who do not live anywhere near the margins do
Business. Note the word: business. Publishing is a business.
Publishing is not a business.
Not a serious one. They only work half the fucking year and they are lazy.
It is arrogant, bloated, pompous.
Self-inflated with gas, baby, and who's your dady now, and top heavy.
So top heavy that when it farts it barfs. Both ends.
Suspends credulity.
When its focus becomes enamored with the business of minutia
Publishing will always, always turn in comfort to the ordinary.
They will hate this.
And spit at me.
So fucking what.
That and fifty cents gets you on the fucking bus.
And you think I'm the one who's scary.
They said: I'm here to tell you to know your place.
You will never have lunch in this town of chaste. Snakes and rakes.
Which is why publicists do not think
This is a contradiction in terms, a publicist who thinks, outside of the box.
Or the bookstore let's-all-attend-a-reading-by-the-restroom-door scenario.
Where else can they put you? In maps? In fiction? In biography?
I hear that Paris Hilton -- that Great Talent Stupid Video Fuck -- is getting a million bucks.
For her memoirs.
When did books become GAY books?
When did books become BLACK?
Can they put you in NEW AGE books if you use the word -- COSMIC.
-- twice.
Yes. They can.
To survive. In publishing. You learn to scram.
Long, long ago, they said:
You migrant boys are stupid and illiterate. Shits.
We did not know math except we knew what a bushel was.
We did not know English.
But we knew that if we spoke Navajo
They would wash our mouths out with soap.
It wasn't the soap that was so bad. It was the humiliation.
They said our mothers were whores.
And that this, too, would be the stuff we would in time take into the darkness.
Hold it close to your breast at night.
That is where the margins are. In the shadows that we know.
In our horrid doubts like the spiders.
That crawled across the ceiling of the Cheap Gin Hotel.
A support group is a crankhouse world of speed and shells.
Of us.
They said America loves its children.
Anyone ever try to write a story about a black boy.
That you LOVE or made LOVE to and try to get it published?
Not since the invention of Houlden Moulden Caufield.
By Harriet Beecher Stowe has a book so perfectly perferated
The emotional edges of society as we know it. Expect strong sales.
That is the trouble with America and with publishing.
They do not know us, and they never will. They only pretend to.
They said: learning language in school was important.
And then if you lived on the margins
They failed you and they failed you and they said:
You have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome.
Bad writer. Bad writer.
I slap my own face. I do.
My mother was a drunk.
When she was pregnant, she was a double-dog-dare drunk.
Being literally barefoot and pregnant.
And working in tomato fields was not her idea of sobriety.
Her children pay the price.
But we have nothing of merit to say.
Certainly nothing observant.
That will find its way into the NEW YORK REVIEW OF BOOKS.
I was the only person in America to publically wonder.
After 9-11 (actually I didn't think it would get printed but it did).
If it wouldn't be better for American publishing to spread itself out.
And embrace more than just one tiny little island.
In its psychological geography.
Instead of going up and down.
Perhaps we should find sustenance by going across and back and forth?
Le hierachy.
But no. For this, I was called a racist by editors at A Certain House.
Random Fucking House.
Who sent me a contract that very week and published two of my books.
They said: everyone should earn a living.
Except the writer.
They really said this. To moi.
I was thinking: how foolish, don't they know I am going to QUOTE them?
Well, sort of.
They are the worst, most racist organization in America.
I wish I had never heard of them.
Who's your bitch, now, Daddy.
Publicists should earn a living from what they do.
Writers should never ever misconstrue.
Copy editors should earn a living from what they do. Agents should. Whatever.
Editorial assistants should earn a living from what they do.
To manuscripts. And to you.
The PARKING LOT ATTENDENT ears a living.
But not the writer whose work gives all these wonderful people JOBS.
The mailroom boy should earn a living by what he does.
Or nothing will get sent to us overnight.
How many writers do you really know who earn a living writing?
Perhaps you know a hundred. Please. The dogs are biting.
Or perhaps that would be an exaggeration.
I said: WHAT can I send you.
They said: we want to see it all.
Publishing is a world of lies.
My spies said: it's a crankhouse world of speed and tongues of snakes.
They said: we want a prophet. It was an earthquake of decorum shakes.
Or I thought they said WE WANT A PROPHET.
Actually, they said: we want a profit.
It's a crankhouse world of speed and tongues-of-snakes, publishing.
The snakes. They coil. They dance. They takes.
Publishing is the down here prison where the basements drip.
One toilet at a time of the open pit.
The pimping rooms of the empty sockets for their eyes. They do not love.
They just despise.
They said: WORDS, IDEAS are what we are about. Words. Ideas.
Rage. Is what the screams will shout.
A legacy of hate. Indifference cold. Infinitude is the horizon.
The sunset's margins old. Pushing. Outward.
Against these walls. Feels so alone.
The suburban malls. They said: be nice. It's not about pornography.
Publishing will spread your legs in iconography.
They said in high school English class, words, ideas will save your soul.
No one said there would be a toll.
They said your depravity they'd cut and slay. Skanks and ranks.
Cat calls today. They said: follow the rulz. The toolz. Are in your head.
Her best work sparkles twisting inside her bed.
They said: you fucking stupid trash will fail. Cooking soup, Mamacita.
The rats in jail. Crawl giggle all across the concrete floor.
They said we know you. Nothing moves. The book's a bore.
America the beautiful the open ranges. Mamacita stirs her spoon.
No. Nothing changes.
They said we will box you up and define your work. We will chop it down.
To pieces. Jerk.
You off you scoff. We will see you dead.
Your blood on walls is then to red.
In darkness shiver and then survive.
They call me CHIEF there is nothing to surmise.
Like cum from Indians only is.
They said Geronimo was fair grounds jizz.
They said history began when the white men came.
The lips of smallpox against the slain.
It's a crankhouse world of speed and tongues of snakes.
They load their guns. They dance. To blanks.
Going off around their toes. Your books will all find homes they do suppose.
Beyond the margins, they will lock you up. Restraints. The pills. The medication cup.
They said we own the margin's borders and all the territory in between.
Inside my binoculars the seldom seen.
Up close we care they said in words.
Ideas. Freedom. Inclusion. Turds.
Know this: that they care at all is a dangersome illusion. They own the words.
That is my conclusion. They do not want YOU. You want to be heard?
Don't say nothing new. No ideas blurred.
What slips from their lips are hideous slurs.
They only want what they own. The margins curve.
The rivers shiver. It's a crankhouse world of jack-the-giver. They said punch in.
Punch out. Be on time. No breaks.
Hey, I'm just the savage slime. Who steals and takes his sons and suns of rage.
To beyond the time where light is blades.
I've been shot (I am not joking). Left to rot. In the desert of AIDS.
I've been whipped by beauty and a black boy's braids.
I sing of ripe women and my eyes of lust. They drink my tears that taste of rust.
Breasts beyond the margins of the crushing thrust.
What they own is their misery and they can eat my dust.
They said what I write are the Indian books. Aisle twelve. In the crannies.
Labyrinthine crooks. Stealing crankhouse worlds and tongues of snakes.
They coil. They dance. For goodness sakes.
Our lists are only fishing and the writer is our bait.
What we're selling is indifference and the fire is your fate.
They said it's the corporation, boy. We own the store.
We own the idea and the ploy.
They never knew me in those torn margins where my songs were of the bird.
My images were moving but my flight was never heard.
They think they use you up and that the writer's burned and drained.
What they know of strength is nothing and nothing of my pain.
This poem is just my anger at thinking I have been betrayed. I'm not with them.
I'm only dancin' not summarily inflammed.
They think they used my crankhouse up and threw me back into the street.
Cuz they cannot hear no dancin' music of my feet.
To the music of my stories and star-to-star.
The loving flesh inside what I have been loaned.
It's my dreams, my water-streams, and the glowingfire moon inside my poem.
It's a crankhouse world of tongues and snakes. The land of books.
The hook of shanks.
I've been homeless but my vision skips along the margins but from where I roam.
They said your pockmarked veins and arms are only arms.
But to me they are my home. At the margins, it's about the seldom show'd.
Publishing is daddy's bitch and it's an ugly cast.
Of characters who can kiss my ass.
As for me
You'll find me living at the ending of this rainbow in the middle of the road.
Just a little writer (with a mouth) whose editor was a princess who now hops about something like a toad.