Hadda thought @ work-
A little bit of a new start on the old shit. More, really, an excuse to post something up on this rapidly rotting little blog.
The Sheik, he doesn’t hate me, that much I know. He doesn’t respect me enough for that kind of intensity of feeling, really. He pities me, maybe, he’s annoyed with me, yeah. But hate?
No. You have to be a threat to be hated.
The Sheik and I, we met forever ago in the Broken Promise. We both sat at the bar and ordered gin and the Sheik coughed twice. I looked over. He pointed his sunglasses my way and said: “Davey, I don’t think you’ve got the slightest idea how fucked you are, man.”
The Sheik, regardless of his other – and multitudinous – faults, knows how to leave an impression on you.
I did ignore him then, and went back to my drink and my notebook but whatever I’d been thinking about writing had been completely derailed. I shut my book and looked over.
“What’s that mean, man?”
The Sheik stared at the back of the bar and smiled and tipped his drink up to his thin lips. “I mean, man, that if I know who you are then some of the other folks up here know who you are and they’ll be coming to look for you toot-fucking-sweet.”
I sipped my own drink and slipped a smoke out from my inside pocket. “I’ve been here forever, man. If someone was going to come for me, shouldn’t they have already?”
The Sheik killed the rest of his drink while I lit my smoke. “Davey, Davey, c’mon. You know how big this place is, right? Don’t you think that it’s gonna take ‘em some time to get here?” He waved his hand at Brevan for a refill.
I blew smoke into the haze that had gathered on the Promise’s ceiling. “Time isn’t real here, right? Shouldn’t matter. They should be here as soon as they want to be.” Brevan slid up and took a fresh drink from under the bar, placed it neatly in front of the Sheik. He glanced my way and raised an eyebrow. I looked into my glass and saw nothing but wet ice cubes and a shredded wedge of lime. I gave Brevan a nod and he pulled out a fresh drink and put it on the wet coaster in front of me.
The Sheik pulled a lit cigarette out of midair and took a drag. “Davey, time isn’t real for you or me or, well, really, anybody here, right?” He swept out an arm to indicate the gathered imps, sprites, nymphs, souls and what have you that tended to congregate in the Promise. He leaned in close to me. “But none of us are from here, either. Rules don’t apply if you’re not from here.” He smiled and took another drag off his smoke. “Who do the rules apply to, Davey?”
I sipped at my fresh drink and took another puff off my smoke. I’d been kind of worried that something like this might be heading my way. Fuck.
I put out my hand. “So, what’s your name, man?” The Sheik slid his leather-gloved hand into mine and smile his thousand-watt smile.
Able to stand in the open, in crowds, in the dark without looking intimidated or suspicious
Knows when to duck
Can speak loudly without an undue amount of profanity
Looks okay in suit & trenchcoat
Knows which end of a gun to point away from himself
This goes back to characters in another thing, but what if the Neanderthals just weren't as good as we are at breeding? More selective, maybe, breeding with intent, or trying not to overrun the environment, or with females that were only able to breed a few times a year. Or, and this is the story thing, maybe they saw us crawling all over the place, fucking like bunnies and made a deliberate decision to step back, get out of the way. Maybe even breed in with us, keep the bloodlines going, keep the customs and gods and knowledge intact throughout the ages.
Mostly for notes, for the hotel story.
That’s the problem with the job, though, if you spend any time thinking about it. No matter how you dress it up, no matter how much you talk about pulling tags, getting on a run, no matter how much you play it up like you’re bombing your way through the world and fighting the good fight, you’re doing a job that requires only A.) You can read a map & B.) Are willing to kill your car for the sake of 75 cents a mile. That’s it. Absolutely it.
When I showed up for my interview I dressed nice, y’know? Sweater, collared shirt, khakis. Not suit-and-tie, but nice. That was enough to get me the gig. I found the place and I looked presentable. Everything else would work itself out. My first day of work, my boss didn’t even know I was supposed to be starting. He found my application in his Inbox, with a handwritten ‘Good Guy’ scrawled on the back by the guy who interviewed me. Such professionalism, such a high degree of work ethic.
The whole gig, it’s a loser job. Everyone you meet is on outs from something. Busted stockbrokers, failed teachers, guys who couldn’t cut it in the shark-infested waters of Connecticut real estate. Everyone is still wearing the nice clothes from what they used to do, racking up miles on the car they bought with the good money they were making on their previous gig. Losers, fucking idiots, every one.
Me? Sure, why not. Same loser but at least I hadn’t fallen from anywhere, right? I’d plateaued at 21, and this was the easy linear streak I’d followed. Factory work and driving jobs. Work where the rules are very clearly defined, what you’re supposed to do and what you’re not supposed to do are spelled out in very large letters and very small words. Simpleton jobs. No union, no benefits, no experience necessary. Come on it, will train the Right Person. Push this button, pull that lever, ten minute break at ten o’clock and another at two-thirty. No smoking in the building. No Running. Safety Glasses to be Worn at All Times. Jobs where they’re more concerned that you’ll fling yourself into the machine you’re running than whether or not you’ll do a good job. There’s no chance to do a good job, see? The job is either done or not. The good or bad of it is cooked into the process by engineers and managers. They don’t want you thinking about your job. They want you to push and pull and prod at the right times in the process. They want you to recognize the proper moment to install rivet A into hole 1, and they want you to pull down the safety shield before you thumb the big green GO button. You get it? You see it?
And this. Messenger work. My speedometer always buried past where there’s numbers on the dial. Always trying to slip in another job, another 10 or 15 dollars in my pay at the end of the week. That’s a half-tank of gas, right? Maybe less. A quarter, in these rotten days. Or part of an oil change. A fifth of tire that’s gone bald down to the steel belts. One-twentieth of a replacement windshield. No reason to replace the tape deck or even think about upgrading to a CD player. Why bother? Spend all day dialed into AM, 1010 WINS, CBS 880, listening for traffic reports every ten minutes, trying to figure out if I should be on the Whitestone or the Tri-borough, if the Cross-Bronx is more fucked than normal, if I should take 287 up into Westchester or if the quaint old Sawmill Parkway is my better friend today.
But for all of that, this is better. Better than standing at a workstation all day long, doing your damndest to look busy and counting clock ticks till your next smoke or till lunch or till you can escape until tomorrow. At least, at the very, very least, I’m outside and can see the sun or fight the rain. I eat lunch in parks when it’s nice out. I find little hole-in-the-wall delis on Long Island run by smiling Armenian couples who give me a little extra on my sandwich because I’m friendly. No insurance, no paid days off, fuck, even have to pay all my own taxes. But this is a little better. A little less childish. A little more manly. Slightly.
And I think this and the radio goes and it’s “Davey, pickup at Schmidt & Hoover, dropoff at the courthouse” and I’ve got a twenty minute window to make five bucks and I pitch my smoke and pop the emergency brake and go screeching out onto the streets, nosing my way into underground loading docks next to the UPS trucks and FedEx vans, breezing past security, flashing my badge at secretaries and getting the right spelling for the sig before I barrel over the courthouse and trot two blocks and run through the metal detector for the third time today.
So, sometimes, you get a tough one. Some guy who knows that there’s paper out on him, who’s maybe in denial about the situation or who’s just trying to buy some time, scrape together the cash to buy off the lawsuit or just jet his ass down to Rio until the whole thing blows over. And these guys, it’s like they’ve been planning for years to be ducking out on paper, dodging servers, laying as low as low can be. So they’ve got condos in those giant beehive arcologies, the places where you need a keycard or an escort to get anywhere near one of the residential levels, where there’s private cops running scans at every elevator, neighbor kids and janitors paid off to keep an eye out for anyone nosing around.
These guys, I’ve seen ‘em hole up for two, three months at a time, peeking out their windows at night, looking for you and your video gear down on the skywalk, on the rooftop café of the building across the avenue, sipping coffee and just waiting around.
But that shit just doesn’t work out for anyone, right? You’ve got a guy holed up and a guy waiting for him to bolt and that’s two guys not doing anything really productive with their lives. And on top of that you’ve got the wheels of justice refusing to grind along at all, what with the potential defendant sitting around on his couch, flipping channels and listening for running footsteps in the hallway.
I personally like to cut right past all that shit when I can, and I’ve learned a couple of tricks that work pretty well. The easiest, and this is what I’m trying tonight, is to figure out where the guy’s eating out of. That’s something you find, pretty much across the board. These fuckers don’t cook for themselves. I dunno what it is, but they just don’t. They order in everything. Three squares and midnight snacks, endless greasy bags and steaming boxes heading up the elevators and down the hallways.
And those arcologies, they’ve always got some kind of food court down on the lobby levels. A high end place with a bar and cloth napkins, a couple of places where you can take your kids on Saturday afternoon and a whole buncha automated stalls selling falafel, burgers, pad thai, whatever. Crap food, but fast takeaway food.
Not that the fast part matters so much. It’s the takeaway that matters, right? ‘Cause these guys, they pay some neighbor kid to play runner for ‘em. Give ‘em a couple of bucks to run downstairs and pick up some provisions. And so, yeah, you stake out the food court for a couple days, a week. You look for the same kid or same couple of kids to hit the stalls in the morning, in the afternoon after school, hitting the machines right before curfew. Kids taking away armloads of full steak dinners, rubbery western omelets, burgers with pickles and onions and diet cokes on the side. ‘Cause kids don’t eat like that. Kids eat French toast sticks and cheeseburgers and candy bars and chocolate shakes. A lot of the guys I’ve clipped would be free right now if they’d just think of things like that.
Yeah, so you just watch and that kid just jumps out at you. Maybe he’s got a funny haircut or wears the same sneakers all the time or has a chipped front tooth. Something that sticks in your head. And you see him working the machines at the Mediterranean place for a plate of lamb kebobs with rice, at the barbeque joint for ribs and coleslaw, punching up orders of pork egg fu yung, meatloaf and green beans, pizzas with black olives and broccoli. And that’s your boy.
This one is pretty young, maybe ten or twelve. Honestly, they all the same to me ‘till they hit twenty or so. He’s blonde with blue eyes, a deep summer tan and that kind of prepubescent energy that flings him from point to point like he’s getting fired out of a slingshot. He orders up a Cobb salad and an iced tea and drums on the order screen with his index fingers while the timer counts down. Two minutes for the machine to boil an egg, fry some bacon, chop some lettuce, dump it into a bowl and bag it. I get up from the table I’ve been nursing a cup of coffee at and walk up behind the kid. I pull out my Recovery badge, hold it open at ten-year-old eye height and clear my throat. The kid whips around, stares at the badge for a second and then looks up at me. The screen counts down to a minute forty-five.
I try out a smile that feels a little rusty. “Hey there.”
The kid just stares up at me. Fair enough.
“What’s your name, man?” The kid holds the stare, looking not so much scared but more like he’s trying to gauge whether or not I’ll try to grab him if he bolts. I shake the badge at him. “I asked you your name, kid. You got a name?”
“Is that a real badge?”
Fucking kids. “Why don’t you read it and tell me whether or not you think it’s real.”
The kid squints at the badge and the countdown timer clicks down to a minute thirty. The guy upstairs has gotta know to the minute how long his order’s gonna take, and if the kid dicks around too long it’s gonna be a red flag.
“It says you’re a Recovery Agent.”
“And that’s what I am.” I squat down and get eye to eye with him. “You know what that means?”
He stares at me with clear, clear blue eyes. “It means you’re a bounty hunter. Like Taybach.”
Fucking kids. TV’s the only reality. “Yeah, like Taybach.” Except Taybach flies around in a Porsche, bangs 18-year-old fashion models and spends most of his time drinking martinis and shooting fleeing murderers. I shot a guy once and they took away my license to carry for a year and a half “You like Taybach, huh?”
He nods. “Me and my brother watch him.”
I push up the smile a little more. “Yeah, I like him too. He’s a good guy. You like the good guys, right?” The timer hits a minute even and goes to double digits.
He nods again. “Sure.”
“Well, I’ll tell you, man, I’m one of the good guys, too. Like Taybach And I’m trying to get my hands on a bad guy, and I think you know him.”
He gets a little scowl going. “I don’t know any bad guys.”
I hold the smile on him. “I think you do, though.” I point at the ordering machine with my chin. “You’re ordering up for a guy who lives on your floor, right? Mr. Taylor?”
The kid’s eyes go wide. “He’s a bad guy?”
I nod. The timer hits forty-five seconds.
The eyes get bigger. “Did he kill someone?”
I force out a chuckle. “No, nothing like that. He took something that didn’t belong to him.”
The kid lets all his breath out in a whoo. “Like a bank robber?”
“Something like that.” Or not. Intellectual property infringement, which I’m not about to try to explain to a ten-year-old.
“Yeah.” I turn the smile into my best avuncular grin. “And I could really use your help to get him.”
He frowns at me. “Like how?”
I pull the Summons out of my pocket, the clear plastic catching the overhead lights. “You know what this is?”
He shakes his head. The timer hits thirty seconds.
“It’s called a Summons, and it’ll make it so Mr. Taylor has to come down to the police station to get arrested.”
He cocks his head at me. “Really? How come?”
I smile. “It’s kind of complicated.” I just let it hang there, but the kid just keeps looking at me. “Well, okay, if he gets this and he doesn’t come down to the station, then the Tac guys get to bust into his apartment and haul him away. And he probably wouldn’t like that very much, right?”
“Probably not.” He cocks his head the other way. “How come you don’t just go up to his apartment and give it to him yourself?”
Because there’s twenty well-paid private cops who’d love to taser me for trying to get to his apartment, kid. “Because if I did that, he’d try to get away and might hurt somebody. Might even hurt your brother, or your mom.” The timer hits fifteen seconds.
“My mom lives in California.”
“Or your dad, then.”
“I don’t know my dad.”
Jesus. “Okay, then your brother. You don’t want your brother to get hurt, right?”
The kid shrugs. “My brother’s got a gun. He won’t get hurt.”
Fuck. The timer hits ten seconds and starts to beep. The kid starts to turn. “Hang on,” I say and dig in my pocket. I come up with a wad of cash, fives and tens and a fifty sticking out of the middle. I pull it out and hold it up. “Help me out and this is yours.”
He snags the bill out of my hand and steps back as the delivery port hisses open. A plastic bag sits on a tray inside, holding a white pasteboard box, a plastic-wrapped spork and a sheaf of paper napkins. I slip the Summons into the sheaf of napkins and hand the bag over to the kid. He takes a couple of steps and then looks at me. “Next time, you should probably just open with the cash.” He smiles and runs off to the residential elevators in the back of the lobby.
I head outside and grab a cigarette in the smoking zone next to the lobby. I keep an eye on my watch. Years and years ago, a server had to put a Summons into a defendant’s hand, skulk around, sneak up on the guy, stuff it into his palm and then bolt before the guy punched him or shot him or whatever. And even then it was the server’s word against the defendant’s word as whether or not the summons was actually served. Ended up with a lot of yelling and screaming, a lot of bullshit clogging up the courts. Technology changes things.
The Summons tucked into those napkins was tagged with Taylor’s DNAprint and dusted with happy little nanomachines who just loved to sample every bit of skin that came their way, run a fast sequence, and check the markers against the print in the tag. So far they’d only tasted the county clerk’s DNA, my DNA and probably the kid’s, who more likely than not had peeled back the napkins to take a look at the Summons while he rode up in the elevator. No matches, and those little machines just keep looking. But as soon as it gets a 90% positive…
My portable beeps at me; new mail coming it. I flip it open and smile. Jonathon Richman Taylor, tagged at 9:57 p.m., radio flare sent out to Municipal Center, Summons served. I flip my smoke into the ashtray and dial up Taylor’s number. It bounces straight to voicemail. Hey it’s Jon, sorry but I’ll be out of contact for a little while. Leave a message and I’ll get back to you as soon as I can. And the beep.
“Hey Jon. My name’s Paul Peter, and I’m the guy that just served you. It’s…” a quick glance at my watch, “…just about 10 o’clock and I’m standing at the north entrance of your building. I’ll give you ten minutes to get down here before I put out a bulletin. And trust me, I’m a lot gentler than the Tac guys are.” I fold the portable shut.
He’s quick, which I appreciate. Seven minutes after I kill the call, he walks out of the building. Dressed in running shorts, tank top and sandals, he’s got about a week’s worth of beard and the pallid complexion of someone who hasn’t felt daylight in a while. I smile and he walks straight up to me. It’s not his first voluntary arrest. I pull out the zipstrips.
“That fucking kid. How much did you give him?” He puts out his hands and I zip his wrists together.
“Fifty. How much were you paying him?” I spin him around and give him a quick pat down. He’s just skin under the shorts and tank top.
“Dollar a run.” He sighs. “Fuck. I knew it wasn’t gonna be enough.”
I pull out a smoke and suck on it ‘till it lights. “Yeah, well, live and learn.” I walk him over to the valet bay and type in my plate number. There’s the grinding of gears and the hum of hydraulics and after a minute my Buick rises up on a stained aluminum launch plate. I unlock it with the portable and swing open the holding cell door.
“Okay, hold up.” Taylor stands there while I punch up his Miranda on the portable. “All right, listen up.” I hold it up next to his ear and the big bass voice rolls out. You, sir or madam, have been placed under voluntary arrest. If you require this notice in a language other than English, please indicate that now. A pause, during which someone who doesn’t speak English is supposed to know to tell me they don’t speak English, and then back into it. The agent to whom you have surrendered is not a police officer, but a private contractor who is licensed to perform certain peacekeeping actions under the Revised Public Protection Act. To better understand your rights, the agent is required to provide a hard copy of the Revised Public Protection Act upon request. Do you need a hard copy of the Revised Public Protection Act? Please respond now.
Taylor sighs. “No, I don’t.”
Thank you, sir or madam. Please wait while we verify your voiceprint and retrieve your file.
The portable plays light orchestral for longer than usual. It’s the end of the month and a lot of people are getting busted tonight, clogging up the Muni servers. Taylor shuffles his feet and flexes his wrists inside the zipstrips. I tap ash from my smoke and realize that I’m fucking starving. I always forget to eat on stakeouts.
The music fades out. Thank you. Your voiceprint indicates that you are Jonathon Richman Taylor. Is this correct? Please respond now.
I’m sorry, that response was unclear. Please answer yes or no now.
“Yeah, I’m Jonathon Taylor.” He clears his throat and shuffles his feet some more.
Thank you. You are currently under warrant for suspicion of Intellectual Property Infringement, a Class B felony. The contractor to whom you have surrendered is required to deliver you to the Municipal Holding Facility within twelve hours of this notice. Records indicate that the agent is Recovery Specialist Paul Peter, license number one-one-ess-kay-five-vee-queue-four-four-six-four. Please make a note of the agent’s license number for future reference.
“Got a pen?” I snort and take a drag off my smoke. We’re starting to gather a crowd. Always happens when you take someone downtown. Out in the ‘burbs they don’t even look twice.
In the event you are not in Municipal custody by…10:13 a.m…you will be considered a fugitive and a Municipal Tactical Team will be detailed to retrieve you. Do you understand that condition? Please respond now.
“Yeah, I got it.” He twists his head over his shoulder and looks me out of the corner of his eye. “So, okay, better not take the scenic route, okay?” I actually laugh at that one and then pitch my smoke into the gutter.
Thank you, Jonathon Richman Taylor. Your processing has been initiated at Municipal Holding and will be completed when you are taken into Municipal custody. Thank you for your cooperation in this matter.
The portable clicks off and I stuff it into my inside pocket. Taylor’s already stepping into the holding cell, leaving me with nothing to do but strap him to the flight table. Guy’s a real pro.
“Hey,” he says, as I’m stepping back to seal the door.
“I never got to eat my dinner. What are the odds of stopping off for a burger on the way?”
I laugh and seal the door. Funny fucker.
Again, I’m walking alone in the desert with my bag over my shoulder and the package under my arm. That bastard sun is hammering down and I’m so dry that I’m not even sweating any more. I can feel the cracks in my lips every time I open my mouth.
The old guy in Fort Stockton never said anything about bringing any water, just the beer and the smokes and the chocolate bars. I can’t tell you why it didn’t occur to me to grab a couple of icy cold liter bottles of Gatorade or whatever. Ah, fuck that. Truth, right? The old cocksucker didn’t tell me that I’d end up slogging along a desert highway at high noon, so it never occurred to me to think that I might have to deal with anything like that.
This is the life you lead when you figure that someone else will always be doing your thinking for you. When you base your work ethic on doing what you’re told to the very best of your ability, and never looking beyond that.
Look, there’s always gonna be someone out there who’s willing to tell you what do, who’s willing to take responsibility for sending you hither and yon to do whatever stupid bullshit. But odds are those people are taking their cues from someone else, and those people are taking their cues from someone else and so on and so on. Up the ladder till you find the last guy, the one who just fucking hates taking orders from people, the guy who’s only happy when he’s making his own decisions, taking responsibility for his own shit.
And that guy, he’s the one that you’re envious of. He’s the one with the car you wish you drove, the house you wished you lived in, the wife you wished you could fuck. The guy who looked at what was in front of him and decided whether or not he liked it and whether or not it was worth his time to deal with it. The guy who could never find the time to do things he didn’t see the point of, who couldn’t find it within himself to say yessir, yessir, you betcha sir.
Me, nah. I’m not that guy. I’m headfirst, chin down, eyes clenched shut, sprinting as hard as I can at something I’m not willing to look at, hoping that inertia or luck or the kindness of vicious strangers will bring me out of it, smelling like a rose. The guy who figures that everyone should be just a little kinder, a little more generous, a bit more forgiving. To me, at least. Because, y’know, it’s been a hard life and I need some help through it.
And you can get away with it for a long fucking time, maybe your whole life. I dunno. Long enough that you forget how to actually deal with things, how to decide between two (or three or ten) different courses of action. You forget that sometimes the easiest path isn’t always the right one. You forget that while you’re just slouching through your life, there are other people who see you as something to be used, to be sacrificed, to be chewed on for a while and then spit out when you’re not useful anymore.
And then you find yourself somewhere, sometime, rolling back the events that have led you to whatever deadly and intractable situation you find yourself in and realize that if you’d just been more popular in high school or stayed in college or dated that one girl, everything would be so much different and you wouldn’t be wherever you are, fucked in a hundred different ways and ready just sit down, weep your little eyes out and die on the side of the road.
I didn’t cry. I won’t give you that. Sorry. I just won’t.
But I sat. And I hung my head and listened to myself breathe and waited to die. There wasn’t a choice left that I could see. And dying, brother, when you’re in the right spot, in the right frame of mind, dying is damned easy. Dying is just not giving a fuck about forward motion anymore. Dying is deciding that you’re not looking forward to anything anymore and that you might as well go.
So, yeah, I didn’t cry, but I let myself die on the side of a desert highway in the middle of God only knows where. And I died for hours, friends. My legs died and my arms died and my brain withered away as the sun beat down on the skin of my dead neck and my eyelids slid across my dead eyes, clearing the sand from them.
And I died until I heard the shush of tires on pavement, and my dead ears perked up and a voice that sounded like marbles in a blender called out.
“You need a ride, guy?”
I lifted my dead eyes and looked at the cab parked across from me. Twenty feet of sun-battered yellow Checker idling ten feet from me.
A ride? Sure, why not?
I hauled myself to my dead feet and shuffled across the highway, wondering where this next not-a-decision was going to end me up.
C.M. Kornbluth wrote a story along these lines way back called Shark Ship about an entire seagoing civilization that never returned to shore. There were many, many ships with differing levels of technology (i.e., the main ship in the story makes all their clothing from felt but encounters another ship that, having launched years later, is equipped with looms and can fashion cloth from, shit, I dunno, seaweed or something), but all of them plied specific sea lanes to gather enough food to keep going. The idea was that each ship was self-sustaining and that any ship that lost essential equipment (as the main ship does when it loses its steel fishing net) was pretty well screwed, although they could count on sympathetic thoughts from the others.
I like the idea of the same kind of thing happening in the sky. An anti-technology society that relies more on basic skills like agriculture, weather forecasting and what would really have to be considered three-dimensional sailing than they would on computers, satellite maps or even the simple brute mechanisms that keep them aloft.
The funny thing about this place is that I don’t need to sleep. One of the funny things, anyway. Yeah, obviously there’re a lot of funny things about this place.
Maybe what I mean to say is that there’s this funny thing about me in this place, that I don’t need to sleep. Never. I don’t even have the urge to, never find myself yawning and thinking that it might be nice to lie down for a little while, kick off my shoes, get some shuteye. If there’s a plus to being here – and that’s a hell of an If – it’s that it always feels like it’s about an hour into what’s shaping up to be a really great party. You know, you’re into your second beer and there’s music everywhere and cute girls and people laughing and drinking and dancing all around you and you’ve got this sense that things are just ramping up and that in a couple of hours you’ll be having one of the best times you’ve ever had. It’s a nice feeling for a while.
Of course, the letdown is that things never quite get past that point. The party plateaued a couple thousand years ago and it’s been stuck there ever since. Everybody’s wild and beautiful and having a great time, but there’s nothing else. No sense of freedom from the mundane, none of that great breaking-the-surly-bonds-of-earth kind of thing. If you’re aware of it, and how can I help but be at this point, you know that the cute girl you’re chatting up will sleep with you in the wink of an eye, that the jocko homo type with the good weed will always be free with his pipe, that the DJ is always going to find that perfect track to keep things on fast forward. It’s all leveled out and you can’t help but think that everyone should just go home for the night and get some sleep and we can all go for breakfast tomorrow afternoon sometime and maybe just have a nice chat over omelets and mimosas.
Maybe that’s the problem; there’s not going to be a tomorrow afternoon. Or a tomorrow morning. Or a tomorrow. Everything is just here and now, the past has been washed out and the future doesn’t exist.
The Sheik keeps telling me that this isn’t Heaven, that Heaven is on the other side of the Big Gate, but I’m starting to think that he’s pretty definitively wrong. If you grow up way Catholic, you get told that if you’re good you’ll go to Heaven when you die and you’ll be living in blissed-out paradise for the rest of eternity. Drunk and stoned and dancing and getting laid endlessly fits that bill pretty nicely, doesn’t it? Maybe it’s just a lack of imagination, but I’ve got a hard time conceptualizing much else that would come off as paradise as well as this place.
Then again, I’m not finding it terribly blissful, right? Of course, I’m not dead and the rest of these schmoes are. They change, you see. If you track one of them – and, yes, I’ve got enough free time to do just that – you can watch them go from being a freshly dead sweet old grandma type tottering through Little Gate to being a slightly drunk merry widow leaning in close to an oiled surfer to being a sexpot milf dancing on tables and whipping off her top to ending up as one of the gorgeous, horny, scantily-clad cuties that cozies up to sweet old grandpa types as they come slipping through Little Gate. The crowd swallows up the new kills and makes them one of the mob. Lithe, tanned, perky, perfect…it’s like hanging out at a Playboy/Playgirl centerfold reunion. Wave after wave of embodied desire hitting you with straight-toothed smiles and smooth skin and delicately groping hands. It’s no wonder nobody ever makes it to Heaven.
I really don’t know why it doesn’t get to me the same way it gets to the rest of them. I’m alive and they’re not, I guess. I’m not malleable. I haven’t lost my gut or put on twenty pounds of perfectly sculpted muscle. I still need my glasses to see in any kind of focus. My pants are still stained khaki, my shirt a Ready Messenger polo, my shoes $20 Payless vinyl Oxfords. Whatever’s going on here, I’m still pinned to my place back home, have a slot back on ye olde mortal coil that I need to get back to one of these days.
But still, while I’m here I guess I get some of the fringes. I never need to sleep, never need to eat, to piss, to shit. I can rip out one hell of a belch if I want, and suppose I could fart like a backfiring semi if I was that kind of person, but nothing like that happens on its own. Never felt like I ate too much, drank too much, fucked too much. Everything even and easy and perfect. Every second I’m here I’m at the pinnacle of physical contentment. And it never ends.
This is why, if you’re still wondering, I feel the need to hop the wall and head to Mags’ place every once in a while. There I can sleep and overeat and feel my head go spinny after a few too many trips to the wine cellar. I can party with my girl and its great and then suffer for it the next day and have the variety of nausea and headaches injected into what’s passing for my life right now. I can luxuriate in pissing out a bladder full of merlot in the rose bushes out behind the house, of falling asleep after an amazing orgasm, of waking up and taking a bath and scrubbing away the sleep and feeling fresh and revitalized. I can feel alive. And you can’t know how much you can miss that feeling until it’s been taken away from you.
A little smoother than usual, I think. Maybe not. Meh. But I think this is the new hook, Chapter One. If anyone's in a mood to comment, drop me a line.
My watch calls it two o'clock, a.m., and the sky is nothing but giant black from horizon to horizon. There's no stars here, and sometimes I miss them.
Then again, there's no sun here, either, but I've gotten used to that. It's like being in one of the neon cities, in Vegas or NYC, once the sun's gone down but the streets have been turned on and there's so much light that you don't even cast a shadow and you don't notice when it's gone from day to night until you look up and see dark sky overhead.
And that's comfortable at least, because that's something you can hang out there as reasonable, make it into something you can relate to. This is a party town, right? Sure, sure. And the good parties happen at night, so it's got to be night around here 24/7. So, yeah, so long as you can keep from staring up at the starless sky, it's easy enough to believe that you've stumbled into Saturday night on Broadway, July 4th weekend on the Strip, something like that.
I'm just strolling through tonight, half an eye out for Sheik Europa, sipping a beer I got off one of the carts near Little Gate. The beer here is always good, smooth and cold and filled with tiny amber bubbles. I sip and I stroll and watch the show.
'Cause the street's always good for a show. Whenever Little Gate opens, which is every couple of seconds, and some battered old soul comes stumbling through, yeah, and the strippers and gigolos and the pushers and the gamblers descend on them, yeah, there's the show.
Put yourself into it, if you can. You just died, right? You were in a hospital bed and you heard your heartbeat monitor go flatline as the dark came in from the edges, or you heard skidding tires when you jaywalked across what you thought was an empty street or you were reloading your rifle when you heard the scuff of a boot coming around a corner and turned just as whoever you were trying to kill rat-tat-tatted you with a third-world copy of a Kalashnikov, right, and you're still screaming and clutching at your chest and trying to pray to the JC or Allah or Buddha or whatever to save your sorry ass and then suddenly there's all this light, and every sin you've been denying yourself comes running up to you, ready to party and give you anything you ever dreamed of.
Yeah, 'cause, near as I can tell, you only get through Little Gate if you were a devout whatever and followed all the rules and didn't spend a lot of time asking questions about the more contradictory sections of your religious text. The people who didn't believe in anything, were agnostic or secular humanists or whatever, they don't come in through Little Gate. I dunno where the hell they go. I'm figuring there's a place, but I really couldn't tell you. Everybody I've met here says this is it, the City and the Wilderness, but I don't buy it. If you don't buy into the game, maybe you get the option of not playing it. Of course, if you believed in something but didn't do all the shit your were supposed to do, ate meat on Fridays or cheated on your wife or whatever, you end up out in the Wilderness, and that's some rough shit, brother. Bet your ass.
And the funny thing is, most of those fractured old souls don't realize that they've haven't actually made it to whatever afterlife they thought they were headed to. Then again, you're an 80-year-old man who just kicked off from renal failure in a charity hospital somewhere and a Playboy-quality chick suddenly appears and lifts her skirt to offer you her shaved pussy, maybe you've found all the Heaven you figure you need.
Yeah, it's the sex that takes most of them down. The chicks are all smooth curves and naughty smiles, the guys are muscled shoulders and six-pack abs, and any of them are happy to indulge in whatever fucked-up fantasy you might have been harboring for the last couple of decades of your life. There's a more or less permanent open-air orgy going on about a dozen steps from the Gate. If, like me, you've got some other options to slake your lust the sight is less than appealing. And the squishing noises are enough to flip your stomach over.
It's not all fucking, although, yeah, there's more of that than anything else. There's the druggers, stumbling around all fucked up on something heavier and cleaner than the best dope they ever scored back home. Drooling, telling you about the amazing epiphanies they're having. Y'know, honestly, I hated that shit before and I still hate it. These are the ones that I'll occasionally pop in the jaw, send crashing down to the golden cobblestones, watch the blood flow from around their shattered teeth, kick in the ribs a couple of times. No real good reason for it, I guess. Just job stress and your basic Scorpio disdain for idiots.
What else. Right, there's the gamblers, the gluttons, the thieves, the wife-beaters, the husband-stabbers, the pedophile rapists and secret poisoners, the compulsive liars, the treasonists, the animal abusers, the, well, the whatever the hell awful vicious things people kept themselves from being when they were alive that they've given full reign to now that they've died, the most disgusting, base, disturbing crap you can imagine, all in full swing in the market, the bars, the gambling dens and whorehouse, the fetish warehouses were anything goes all night long.
Yeah, it's a show, always, and I'm just wandering through it, wondering where the fuck Sheik Europa's gotten off to, and thinking, as always, about Mags Verbosa and eyeing the wall next to Little Gate with a thought towards jumping over it and heading into the wasteland to see if I can find my girl at home in her little cottage.
It's tough to drive all night. Driving all day's okay, but all night is a grind. You're peering off into a dark highway with a corridor of light from your headlights showing you constantly refreshing blacktop appearing over and over and over through the windshield. I think that's what kills you, really. Having to endlessly reassess just what the fuck the road is doing in front of you 'cause you can't get the longview of it. We feel comfortable when we can take in a whole vista and plan our route points through it. Pick out what's safe and what's dangerous, slow down or speed up or just plain ol' stop if nothing makes sense up ahead. But in the dark, with that spray of white fanned out just in front of us, shit, there could be a goddamned hurricane floating around out there and you wouldn't know until the bastard picked you up and threw your ass halfway to Oz.
I'm figuring it's about how we're wired, y'know? We're daylight creatures, whatever the opposite of nocturnal is. Our eyes work great in daylight, like shit in the dark. So we just learned to go to sleep when the big yellow lightbulb in the sky sank into the ground every night. Smart, right? Sure, super smart. Good work, God.
And then Edison goes and fucks up nighttime for everyone by making it easy to light up the night like a weak-ass daytime. Okay, sure, there were lights before that – firelight, torchlight, gaslight – but not any kind of really portable light, right? I mean, sure, you could walk around with a torch or a lantern, but that only gave you light in a little circle directly around yourself. They couldn't throw light worth a tinker's damn. You went traipsing through the woods with a lantern and whatever you were looking for would see you coming a mile away and scamper off. Or, y'know, shoot you with an arrow, if it was that kind of thing.
So, yeah, for the vast majority of humanity's time on the planet we did the majority of our work between sunup and sundown and then had weak little firelights to screw around with after the chores were done. Of course, the screwing around time after the chores were done was pretty damned short 'cause you had to be up at dawn to get on with tomorrow's chores and, let's face it, today's chores just about wiped you out. So, yeah, figure that you'd light whatever little lights you had for dinner and then maybe a little light reading from the Bible or some charades with the family and then everybody into bed and sawing wood by like eight o'clock. Very healthy, very happy. Or, well, okay, with all the diseases floating around in ye olden times and the grind of subsistence-level farming and getting overtaxed and some wandering army stealing all your crops and killing all your animals when they stumbled across you, not so very much healthy or happy, but, y'know, at least you were working with your circadian rhythms and your body was in harmony with the sun. Probably in the process of getting ravaged by smallpox and syphilis as well, but, y'know, getting enough sleep.
But again with Edison, once humanity figured out that you could light up the dark pretty easily they didn't see any real reason to not do it. And once you extended your day by hours and hours, we started looking for something to fill up all that empty time. And, damned Edison, we ended up with the phonograph and moving pictures, vaudeville got arc lamps to pick out the jugglers and comedians on the stage, the wireless turned into radio and electricity to every home brought us seemingly endless entertainment and we suddenly found ourselves, collectively, with so much shit to do every night that we stayed up later and later, and that eight o'clock bedtime went right out the window. Television came onto the scene and we stayed up later, 'cause we were already at home, so why not stay up to watch the 11 o'clock news? And, hell, so long as you're up, why not watch the Tonight Show at 11:30? Shit, since the world is running on its own time by now, you don't have to be in the office until 9:00, right? Which means that you can crash at midnight or one, get some zzz's in, wake up at 8:00 and still have time for a shave and breakfast before you zip downtown in your shiny new car.
Except, of course, you've gotta be seriously whitecollar to be in at nine a.m. We bluecollar schmoes are clocking in at six or seven and working our eight hours at a drill press or an assembly line or behind the wheel of some kind of transport vehicle. But, y'know, all that fun late-night stuff is still out there, movies and clubs and bars and that old perennial television, so, hell, we don't want to go to bed early, right?
And, man, in your 20's, do you really need to go to bed early? Hell's no. Youthful stamina lets you get by on five, six hours. Two or three if there's a really good party that you don't want to leave. And you get used to that, start thinking that sleep is actually kind of optional, and that if you need to skip a night or two, sure, that's not a problem. Of course, if you discover the wonderment of speed, then, really, sleep stops even being optional and staying up for a few days at a time is pretty much mandatory. And that's all totally cool, really. You know why? Because we beat the sun, motherfucker. Yeah, truly, the sun has stopped dictating when we're sleeping and when we're a'waking. Because we can make our own light, and we can keep working and partying and watching tv until someone flips a switch and tells us it's time to fucking go to bed.
But the night driving, we can't beat that. Oh, sure, if you're on some nicely kept up superhighway with giant orange sodium-arc lamps lighting up every inch of tarmac, you're doing just fine. You've got that easy route right in front of you and you can just track along it with one finger on the seek button of the radio and another twitching the wheel when you come to a curve in the road. But if, like me, you find yourself on some rural Ohio backroad somewhere near the Kentucky border and the moon is waning to the new and you can just about make out the ditch to the side of the lane and the faded white line to the other, shit, man, it's an endurance test right up there with the Boston Marathon and the Tour de France.
Let me catch you up here, fast-forward you through my day. Okay, so, sure Bobby's dad shows up with that pretty blue BMW and fresh maps for Pennsylvania and Ohio. Sweet guy, really. And the job's starting to look okay, really. Youngstown is just over the border from Pennsylvania so it's a drive, but it's straight, it's less than a day and I'm looking to have the package in the right hands by mid-afternoon and crashed out in the cheapest hotel shortly thereafter.
Okay, so the address in Youngstown, it turns out, doesn't actually exist. The base gets ahold of the customer, the customer apologizes, says that they meant to say Akron, not Youngstown. Okay, sure, whatever. Honest mistake, right? I mean, c'mon, they may not sound alike, but they're both in the same state, right? Sure, sure. But, what the fuck, Akron's only an hour or so up the road. It's about 2:30, I've got plenty of time.
Except that base calls me up when I'm about halfway there to let me know that Akron's wrong, too, and that what they meant to say was Columbus. Ah, well, that's different, isn't it?
'Cause Columbus is another couple hours south, which means that I'm bumping into office staff quitting time, and I'd rather not find myself stuck in the middle of Ohio rattling the doors of a locked office building and thinking about going back to Connecticut with a loaded shotgun and a stick up my ass.
But, okay, okay, the base, they beg, they threaten, they mention the money, again, and I start calculating what 24 hours worth of this gig is gonna be worth. And I go for it. Really, this isn't the weirdest thing I've ever done, not by a long shot. Although it's about the strangest delivery I've yet to deal with.
(Fuck it. It's midnight and I'm bushed. Pick it up tomorrow. Have fun, y'all)
“Yeah, base, dead car, and these guys aren’t at the address I’ve got. Whole building’s shut down, dusty, like abandoned.”
“Huh. Okay, lemme check it out. I’ll call you back.”
And the phone goes dead in my hand. Fine. You guys check it out and call me back. Fuckers. At least Mac’s back on the phones and it’s not that asshole Jack. Small favors.
The wagon is dead like roadkill, just sitting on the blacktop in front of the garage. A grizzled Grandpa of a mechanic took about two minutes of fucking with the shifter and tinkering under the hood to figure out enough to tell me that the transmission had eaten pretty much all of its forward gears at some point last night and was now only capable of moving in reverse under its own power. At which point he chuckled and lit a Lucky Strike and commented that it would be a helluva ride back to Connecticut going twenty miles an hour and craning around to look out the back window. And then he asked me when I was gonna get the car off his lot.
Real sweethearts, these not-quite-Midwesterners.
The menu in a diner across the street from the garage indicated that my last five bucks was just enough for a cup of coffee, two eggs and hash browns and I smoked down my third-to-last cigarette while I ordered this fine repast from a geriatric in sky blue nylon uniform open to an inch above the navel.
I’ve noticed this kind of thing in small town diners. You’ll get this old hag of a waitress who’s been working the counter since the joint opened in the fifties, who seems to think that she’s still the hot number that she was back in the day. So, yeah, she’ll be wearing bright red lipstick that’s migrating into the wrinkles that march around her lips, she’ll have a big teased-up blonde dyejob hovering around her head, and she’ll be wearing this uniform with the plunging neckline and a hem short enough to reveal white cotton granny-panties if she so much as leans over the counter to wipe up a spill.
And okay, great, she’s a feisty old lady, reveling in her free spirited life and all that, but, really, the days when truckers and construction workers were trying to talk her into a quickie in the alley out back are at least a couple decades in the past. But that doesn’t stop her from flirting at me, calling me ‘hon’ in a rockcrusher coo that I’m sure is meant to be bedroom-seductive and shooting me a come-hither denture smile, leaning down when I ask for my two scrambled and hash browns, giving me a helluva view of two giant tits that lost the fight against gravity probably about the time I was born. “I’m Bertha,” she coughed out, tapping the stitching over her left swaying breast, “if you need anything, hon, you just call me.” I smiled and nodded and she shuffled off to deal with a middle-aged suit that sat down at the other side of the counter.
So, yeah, ordering breakfast while waiting for Mac to take me off hold was as far as my planning had gone. I figured killing my car to get to a closed-up building after sitting around in NYC until the middle of night had pretty much absolved me of having to think about, or give a shit about, the rest of this job. Messengers don’t have a helluva lot of reason to go above and beyond and getting this far put me, I figured, in line for whatever Ready had in the way of the Congressional medal of honor. Or, if nothing else, a loan against future paychecks so I could get a new car and have some future paychecks.
Bertha shuffled on back with a mug of coffee and tipped me a wink as she set it down. I smiled again and then busied myself with cream and sugar. She leaned on the counter, ragged nails painted fire-engine red, big veins chasing themselves across the back of her hand. “So, not from around here, huh?”
I stirred my coffee. “What makes you say that?”
She reached out and pressed her finger into the Ready Messenger logo stitched into my polo. “I know all the businesses in town, and that ain’t one of him.” She dragged her finger across my chest as she pulled it back.
I smiled. “Smart girl.” She revealed her dentures in a grin. “Yeah, just passing through on the way to a delivery.” I slurped my coffee, which turned out to be both weak and burned. Yeah, really not the Midwest.
“Figgered.” She leaned back and pushed her breasts at me. “You going to Philly?”
“Uh, I’m not really sure yet.” I tapped the phone on the counter. “Waiting for my boss to call me back on that one.”
“So, might be here a little while today, huh?” She pulled back her lips and showed my more of her dentures.
“Uh…probably not too long.” I took another sip of the coffee, which had managed to take on a bitter aftertaste. “Y’know, the messenger thing is all about rush, rush, rush.”
“Hmm, well, hon...” the cook stuck a plate up on the sill of his little window and dinged a bell. Bertha looked over her shoulder. “That’s you.” She shuffled across to the window and returned with a plate of watery eggs and mostly raw potato. Perfect. “Well, now, hon...”
And the phone rang. I snapped it up, smiling at Bertha, saw a 203 number on the display and hit accept.
“Davey, it’s Mac.”
“Hey, man, what’s the word?” I pointed at the phone and mouthed gotta take this at Bertha, who tipped me another wink and shuffled off to the suit at the other end of the counter.
“Uh, yeah, the customer sent an email over last night, but I guess nobody got it when it came in…”
“That reminds me, who the fuck’s Jack?”
“Jack, the guy answering the phones last night. Real dickhead, you’ll pardon me saying.” I scooped up a bite of the eggs. They squished when I bit into them.
“Ahhhh…don’t know him. Phones go up to the corporate office at night, so, yeah, he’d be someone up in Albany.”
I swallowed the eggs and washed them down with the tiniest sip of the coffee I could manage. “Yeah, well, he’s a fucking waste of space, man.”
“Okay, well, you can file a report on him when you get back if you want, but he’s probably someone’s cousin or kid or something. Dunno that it would do any good.”
“Okay, whatever. What about the customer?” I separated a few of the hash browns that looked like they’d actually come into contact with a hot part of the grill and forked them into my mouth. They tasted almost exactly like the dirt they’d been grown in.
“Right, yeah, they, uh, sent over a note saying that someone screwed up and they gave you the wrong address.”
“Jesus Christ…am I even in the right fucking town?” I peppered the eggs and tried another bite. The pepper caught a ride on the egg water and slid into the back of my throat. I tried not to choke.
A dry little chuckle. “Yeah, well, hate to tell you this but you’re not even in the right state, Davey.”
“Jesus, base.” And I’m kinda laughing at this point too, ‘cause, really, c’mon. “Lemme guess…Alaska, right? Japan? France?”
“Not quite that bad, but they need this thing in Ohio by end of business today.” Bertha sauntered back up and slid the bill across the counter at me.
“Ohio? Well, shit man, why the hell didn’t they just FedEx the fucking thing?”
“Yeah, well, they don’t sound like the most organized guys in the world. But you’re still on time, Davey. I talked to Bobby and he’s telling me that they’re good for it and that he’s gonna bill ‘em for your return time, plus per diem for meals and a hotel.”
Jesus. Thirty-eight fifty for, what, fifteen hours now? Okay, admittedly, be a nice paycheck this week, but still… “That’s great, man, but I’m off the clock at this point. Dead car, remember?”
“Yeah, well, weird luck there. You’re in East Stroudsburg right now, right? You made it into town?”
“Yeah, why?” I pushed my plate away and picked up the bill. $4.38. And Bertha had written her phone number along the bottom. My stomach clenched around the bites of egg and potato.
“’Cause Bobby’s folks live there and he keeps a car at their place.”
“Which helps me how?”
“Well it helps you ‘cause it’s registered as a Ready vehicle so you’re automatically on the insurance and he’s cool with you driving it to Ohio and then back to Connecticut.”
“Jeez…he must really want this account.” I dug out my wallet and looked inside, hoping that somehow there was something in there besides the one five-spot I knew I had. Not that I had any reason to believe there was.
“Yeah, well, they’re pretty big.”
“Okay, hell. Why not. Where do his folks live?”
“Uhh…” the white noise of Mac’s meaty palm covering the mouthpiece, “he says to tell me where you’re at and his dad’ll bring down the car for you.”
“Okay, uh…” I waved my hand and Bertha glided on over. “S’cuse me, but what’s the name of this place?”
She smiles like my grandmother. “This is Mags’, hon. Everybody knows that.”
“Right, thanks. I’m at Mags’, Mac. Bobby know it?”
The white noise again, and then a chuckle. “Yeah, he knows it. Says to stay clear of Bertha.”
“Yeah, well, thanks for the advice, but it’s a bit too late.”
Laughter on the other end of the line. “Okay, Davey. Bobby’s dad’ll be there in a minute. And, hey, I know this one’s a pain in the ass, but just think of that paycheck.”
“Sure, Mac. Only thing on my mind right now. Seeya.” I kill the connection, grab my shit and hop off the stool, tossing down that last five on top of the bill. Bertha smiles and blows me a kiss and I notice that her nylons are rolled down at the knee. My balls crawl up into my abdomen and I head for the door.