The Neighbor

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I was on a call, in front of my apartment building, telling a friend I couldn’t make it to trivia night because I had to get more work finished on my dissertation. He asked, “When’s that going to be finished–it’s taking forever.” “Soon,” I said. I saw a guy fumbling with a couple boxes enter into my building. I quickly ended the call and chased down the door before it closed.

The first time I met my neighbor was in the elevator. He cradled a box of papers in his arms and looked at the elevator’s floor buttons like they were about to tell him something interesting. There was another box at his feet with an Irish drum and a ukulele in it. I said, “Hi.” I said, “Nice bodhran. Nice ukulele.” He said, “Yeah.” That was the extent of it. We got out on the same floor, walked to the two doors closest to the elevator, and acknowledged that we were neighbors without acknowledging each other.

The next week, I saw a strange man get out of a green hatchback parked in front of the apartment building. His small, tasseled, black leather coat awkwardly hugged his soft body like an ex-girlfriend. He wore a newsboy cap, oval glasses, and fucking bike shoes cloaked by a pair of baggy boot-cut jeans. He turned, looked at me and either smirked or sneered, I couldn’t be sure. His beady eyes followed me as I passed. I felt that he was as judgmental as me. What a dick.

A couple weeks went by without seeing my neighbor. I forgot about him. His little coat, his newsy, and his wire rimmed glasses faded from my memory. But then he returned. It was hard to tell if it was him at first sight because it was nighttime and he had a head lamp on. He was by the front door, standing over his road bike, plunging his spandex-wrapped cheeks between its top tube. He was fiddling with his phone. I approached. He didn’t look up. I held the door for him and waited. After a moment he looked up, and then shewed me. Shewed me with a flapping hand. Shewed me and then smirked or sneered. I stood my ground, held the door, and he looked up again, raising his hands like he didn’t understand. I said, “Oh, I didn’t hear you say anything and thought you were swatting at something.” He said, “As if,” and looked back down at his phone. “As if.”

At 6am the next morning the knocking came. It started as a soft tap on my bedroom wall. It had a rhythm: boomp, boomp, boomp. But then it grew louder and faster, and then there was a soft whimper followed by a loud growl. A sex growl that was so vulgar and tactless, I felt less annoyed by being woken up by my neighbor having sex than sorry for his partner. But after his egregious sexual release, I heard her giggle, giggle like it was cute. Cute sex growls. I looked over at my girlfriend and she was staring at the ceiling. That growl will be seared into her mind all week, maybe longer even. The growling continued, every morning, the loud animal-like interjection soaking through our bedroom wall.

Things were going too far. The boomps and the growls and the annoying howls from his two miniature long-haired terriers began to wear on me. I couldn’t write in the morning any longer, I couldn’t read at night over the irregular strumming on his ukulele. I prayed for peace and quiet, for evenings in silence and mornings filled only with the sound of chirping birds and the whoosh from the local bus driving past. But things continued to get weird, and the frequency of our meetings increased.

The following week, I went on a walk to clear my mind and who was it coming toward me in full gallop but my neighbor, wearing an olive-green, wrestling onesie and a red, white and blue terry cloth headband. His pectoral flaps oozed through the straps of his ill-fitting suit, and I could tell the depth of his bellybutton from 50 feet away. Half inch. He and his girlfriend drew nearer, and I could hear him giving her running advice about proper running form. “Make your spine an oar.” “Envision that your feet are rocks wrapped in pillows.” “Don’t look at me, look straight, past the finish line, to your goal,” he said, all in the span of thirty-feet. They passed, and he gave me a nod.

It was at this moment, just after his incoherent mansplaining, that I realized that this psychopath is happier than me. In fact, way happier than me.

The reckoning came yesterday. It was a long day at work. My hands were swollen from swinging a hammer all day. The elevator opened and he was standing outside his apartment door in a blue kimono, both his dogs tied around his leg, with a bowl of cereal in his hand. He slurped a thimble of milk from his spoon and looked up at me. His dogs began to circle and bark. I’m sure the expression on my face asked the question that he immediately answered. “My dogs need a break from the apartment,” he said. “But this is the time of day where I don’t allow myself to put any effort into anything, so I can’t walk them.”

“I wish I hadn’t put any effort into anything today,” I said.

He nodded in agreement and pulled the lapels of his kimono a bit tighter to hide his chest hair.

“I have a regiment,” he said. “Sex daily, coffee daily, work M through Fri, lunch at 1pm, run every other day, bike to work three times a week, ukulele every night to settle my existential disquiet. All great, but it’s the hour after work, the block of my dia” (why he said day in Spanish, I have no idea) “where I don’t allow myself to put any effort into anything, when I feel the most special.” His face made that pained crease again; his smirk or sneer, I realized, was a signal of his hope that you understand what he’s doing and why he’s doing it. “Shit man, I must be boring you though,” he said.

“No, not really,” I said, in a state of confusion and pre-hilarity. “I’ve noticed that you take your regiment seriously.”

“You mean the kimono? Yeah, I’ve got a costume for every phase, changing into the right uniform for the job,” he said. “Helps me complete the task.”

His little greasy dogs stared at me, tremoring in place.

“Well…” I said, taking a step towards my door.

“What’s your best part of the day?” He said.

“Eating.”

“Besides eating,” he said. “Carnal desires are dope, but I’m talking about that human shit.”

“Human shit,” I repeated. “Okay, writing.”

“I knew it. I knew the construction thing was a front.”

“…”

“I mean, you’re not a football fan, I can see it, so you start tracing it all back, and nothing makes sense, man. You ever trace it all back while you swing that hammer, but none of it makes sense?”

His lips turned into the letter ‘o’ and he stood assertively still like he just dropped an existential A-bomb in our hallway.

“Yeah, well choosing the path of least resistance can keep the pedals moving, but a bicycle can’t get you over an ocean,” I said.

“BOOM!” He said and opened his fist, palm to the floor, to imitate a mic-drop.

“Keep doing you, man.”

“You too.”

I turned into my door.

“I forgot to mention,” he said, “that we play Settlers of Catan every other Friday night at 8pm if you and your lady want to come by?”

“What do you wear on your gaming nights,” I asked.

“My periodic table t-shirt,” He said, proudly.

“Sounds good. We’ll be there. This Friday?”

“Naw, next.”

I entered my apartment and both my cats were there to greet me. It smelled like the cat box. Feline wasabi. I pulled off my work clothes and looked at my dirty face in the bathroom mirror. Despite the grit and dust, I knew I looked better than I have in a long time. I reached for the hot water knob when I heard pounding coming from the other side of my bathroom wall.

“Put me in a story,” my neighbor shouted. “Enjoy your shower.”

“Yep,” I hollered.

I took a long, hot shower and watched the sediment on my body funnel down the drain. I toweled off and shaved. Clean, but alone. Liz was still working at a coffee shop up the street. I thought to myself, “I quit drinking nine weeks ago, so why do I feel so depressed?” My little cat waited outside the bathroom door and looked up at me when I opened it. “Have you ever tried to trace it all back, Kitten?” I asked her. “Tried to trace it back and ask yourself, ‘why do I always wait outside the bathroom door while dad takes a shower?’” She gave me one of her gravelly smoker’s meows, and I took her as answering, “No.”

I checked my email and saw that my university will not extend my deferment for another year. “It’s been four years… pay and finish or don’t… we don’t care…” was the gist of the head of the Postgraduate Department’s email to me. I checked the box and sent it to the trash bin.

I tried to write but was too tired to put down anything meaningful. I need a regiment, I thought. Liz came home and I told her I love her. I’ll write good words tomorrow. Better words tomorrow.

 

Throw Away Faces—The Cell of Nostalgia

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XI

       When I was a child in Glasgow I could see Ben Lomond[1] on a clear day from my father’s office window. It was not often but when he was free he would tell me stories of the Highlanders that lived above the city. He told me tales of the Highland caterans[2] stealing livestock for blackmail and tales of Rob Roy[3] MacGregor’s blood feud against the Duke of Montrose.[4] I would look at the dim outline of the mountain as he recited the long list of events that led to both the Stuart Rebellions.[5] And when he was done with those stories we would look down onto the city and he would tell me about the riots that took place against the Union with England[6] and the Malt Tax Riots.[7]

He said long ago our family were Highlanders, but not anymore, no matter what my grandfather and uncle said. He said that we were outlaws, but at a time when most men were. Back then there was enough lawlessness going around between those abusing their powers and the malnourished, that it was pointless pointing fingers at people from so long ago. Ben Lomond and the city below it held these stories.

When I was a few years older a factory was erected next to my father’s office and blocked our view of the Highlands. Ben Lomond was gone and Glasgow was too for that matter because all we could see out of the window was a wall of stones.

“They brought the Highlands closer to us,” father said, to console me the first time I saw that the view was erased, “all this stone and mortar is from there.”

His words did not console me. I recall it was about that time that I stopped daydreaming about the Highlands, what my ancestors might have looked like, and of Rob Roy. The tall buildings kept my eyes turned inwards, when maybe lang syne the vastness of Scotland’s countryside made men more contemplative of their relationship with the wild. Our summer visits to the Isle of Skye never made me feel that way. I remember my feet always being wet, and shivering in bed with little more than a sheet to keep me warm.

Upon my first break from university I visited our new country home in Bearsden. The white-capped Ben Lomond was framed inside a windowpane rising above my father’s desk in his study. It meant nothing to me, but it did to him and so I smiled and said to him he did the right thing to move mother away from the retched smoke of the city. 20 years had been too long in one place and Bessy, our old castle, had become a prison.

 

[1] Ben Lomond: Mountain north of Glasgow located at the foot of Lock Lomond. It’s doubtful from Enoch’s central Glasgow location on Byre’s Road that he could have seen the mountain, but I made it so.

[2] Highland caterans: A Highland band of marauders, professional thieves, and/or mercenaries.

[3] Rob Roy MacGregor (1671-1734): A Scottish outlaw and folk hero. A traditional Jacobite, MacGregor was pro-Stuart and Catholic. He was also a cattle herder, and engaged in blackmail to protect people’s herds from theft, sometimes from his own theft.

[4] Feud with the Duke of Montrose: After losing his lands he (MacGregor) waged a blood feud against his dispossessor, James Graham, 1st Duke of Montrose. The tales that follow include a series of adventures where Rob Roy escapes capture and execution. Bloody brilliant!

[5] Scottish rebellions of 1715 and 1745: The 45’ explained earlier (Pg. 47, note XXX) both were failed uprisings to reinstall the Catholic Stuarts to the English monarchy.

[6] The Act of Union 1707: At this time, England and Scotland were two separate states, each with their own parliaments, but under one monarch. Following the War of the Three Kingdoms (1639-1651) and the Glorious Revolution (1688), which saw the overthrow of the Scottish Stuart Dynasty from the English throne, the new Protestant English monarchy increased its effort to consolidate power on the isles. Scotland, politically fractured and near economic collapse, was forced into union in order to open England’s colonial markets for trade. The Act of Union expanded English control in Scotland at a time when Scotland was looked at as a threat, and physically speaking, a harbor for England’s continental enemies to exploit, namely the French.

[7] Malt Tax Riots: Began on June 23rd, 1725 in retaliation to the imposition of the English malt tax. As the economic promises of the 1707 Act of Union had yet to materialize, Scottish citizens took to the streets in protest and openly riot. The fiercest riots and anti-English sentiment existed in Glasgow.

The Elusive Salmon

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Across my little apartment is the city locks. The locks see every boat coming in, or going out to sea. Though there are a lot of boats coming and going there’s also a good portion of the day when the locks are empty, and when they’re empty in the late summer and early autumn, schools of spawning salmon enjoy the peace by leaping out of the water, and going plop back in.

I say plop because that’s usually all you hear. It’s not as easy as you might think to spot a jumping salmon. Try as you may, staring in one spot and waiting for a salmon to jump is a fool’s errand.

Today’s Friday, and I have no work to keep me from the locks. I was also here this past Monday, and the Friday before last, not working, instead listening to the salmon go plop.

The rest of my time spent has been in my apartment. I’ve been on the computer, looking through job postings. With the click of a button, another resume goes into the blackness. For each prospective employer, I tell them that I’m qualified, a quick learner, and nearly perfect. I wait and watch for a reply. I wait, and watch.

While I wait, I try not to think about how hard I’ve worked to be broke, how maybe my quest to define myself as independent, unique, and a stand-alone has greatly compromised my ability to write a good resume and cover letter—I can’t seem to connect.

I finally pull my eyes away from my computer screen and make something to eat, and when I return, another rejection letter has been sent from a web address that begins with, “donotreply.” Cowards.

All these rejections come when I’m not looking. It’s the second I break my will to force good news that the tech world tells me to keep fishing (and to follow them on Twitter, etc.). I get angry, and then sad, and then I tell myself that I’m an anomaly, a force of nature that their vetting algorithms cannot grasp or define. When these half-truths escape my lips, I become thirsty for alcohol; for a cigarette before I return to my seat at the gambling table.

Yesterday, I spent the day doing something different. My mother had called to tell me that my brother lost custody of his daughter and threatened to kill himself. He texted me later and asked me to take care of his life insurance policy. He then turned off his phone and disappeared. I spent yesterday hunting.

When a salmon goes plop and you turn to the noise there’s a gentle wake. It spreads and rolls from its starting point in perfect symmetry. The succession of arches spread until they are swallowed by the bigger currents surrounding them. They die into the fold.

My brother’s wake continued for some time before he jumped. Not off a bridge, or a building, but by text message. He contacted his daughter to tell her that everything’s fine. He was alive.

I spent yesterday guessing where my brother could be, but I didn’t know until I did. I haven’t seen or talked to him. I’m not at all ready for that.

Some boats have arrived now. In particular, a fishing vessel with three deckhands chattering in Italian. The salmon are still jumping, and I can hear that language too. I’m too tired today to apply for jobs. It’s a fool’s errand anyway.

Today, I came to the locks and saw a large salmon, looking green and pink, she jumped right in front of me while I was looking at the boats waiting to go out to sea. She went plop and I saw the whole thing.

 

Prologue: A letter, a manuscript, and plenty of murder still to come

Co-Dublin-Dublin-old-image-of-Trinity-College-and-Bank-of-Ireland-c.1910s-with-vintage-tramsPROLOGUE:

Dear Doctor Dooley,

You will not remember me, but you tended to a friend of mine who died many years ago. At the time when we met outside Glasgow I had no idea that we would be linked through a common fate, death following us wherever we settled. Unlike you, I did not choose an occupation waged inside the crypt; I became a lawyer. As I write I am aware of the irony entangled within my words, and I will leave it for you to ponder. I will say, however, that it was not the opacity, rigidity or even the aridity of the law that deadened my heart, but rather its miscarriage, and further still a disturbed individual who waged an ill-conceived crusade against a miscarriage of justice through an evocation of evil.

It is not my intention within this letter to explain the details of my ill-fated journey into the forests of the American frontier. Rather, I tracked you down some years back to find that you had long since departed for Ireland and I let the case rest. It was not until last week that I picked up the newspaper and read about the strange murders taking place in Dublin and their disturbing similarity to the murders I experienced in Seattle when I was a young man.

I have spent the past few days writing furiously to reconstruct the events of June 1889 in Seattle, as I saw them. I know of no one else in Dublin, and I am sure, based on your standing as a doctor, that you have the proper friends to contact if this manuscript moves you and perhaps compels you to inform the Royal Irish Constabulary of the innocence of the girls suspected of murdering their fathers, and also the resurrection of a killer. I leave this manuscript with you in good faith, as I left my friend in your care many years before. Let us pray for a more positive result than the conclusion to our first meeting those many years ago.

 

Your servant,

Enoch Campbell

The Sailor

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He was scared and I was sorry for having to draw blood a second time. He was a sailor, an alcoholic; a dry docked man too old to sail with a son cemented on the shore. His liver was crying for a break and he cried out when I stuck him a second time. He pleaded, “Don’t stab me again.” The Medic nodded at me to stick him until the blood was milked good to sample his blood sugar.

On the rig he was sweaty and grey. His heart rate started to crash and the medic asked me, “Josef, could you please undo the patient’s shirt.” We pulled the rig off to the side of the road. He was dying, or at least it looked like it. It felt like it. I stopped breathing and then I did breath and I became loose and open. We double-checked his patches, I swabbed his arm, and the medic gave him something magic, his BP cartwheeled then jumped back up, like an impossible acrobatic trip up a flight of stairs.

“I’m cold,” he said after a while.

I put a blanket around him and we continued for the VA. He had been in the navy. “That’s where I learned to love the sea,” he said. “I’ve passed through the Panama canal more times than my son has come down from Alaska to visit me,” he said. “Four times,” he said.

His son was in his dad’s living room when we had arrived on scene. He looked scared. The old man was worried that his son would never come back again because he got sick. “I’m weak and old,” he said. “I think you’re brave, sir,” I said. “No, I’m old and scared of everything,” he said. I didn’t know what to say to that, but I kept him talking until we arrived to the ER.

I keep dreaming about him. I keep dreaming that it was just me in the rig and I didn’t know how to fix him and he died.

14 -13 = 99

Dear Grandma,

There was this one time when I was young and in love that you told me a story about when you were young and in love. You were in the kitchen simmering milk when grandpa got home from work and the two of you started dancing in the kitchen. Your arms bumped into the saucepan and spilled the milk all over the floor. But, instead of cleaning up the mess you and grandpa paid no attention and kept on dancing on top of it. You said that when you’re in love nothing else matters besides moments like those. I imagine now, since your passing yesterday, that you and grandpa are dancing together again, not caring about the spilled milk, or of time, or of anything. You can stay in that moment forever. Your waiting is finally over. 

Your Grandson,

Josef

INDIA JOURNAL—DEATH ON THE ROAD TO DELHI

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January 8th 2013

There was no more fire blanket in Agra. No more mixing of heat waves and smog. Garbage fires burned like tea lamps. Seven boys and a full-grown cow hovered over a dying flame smoking on the street beside a burned out garage to keep warm. We mixed with the cold fog that suffocated the dirt alleyways. The soot soaked precipitation: an amorphous breath storm of nothing, pasted us to the walls, and we roved within it like moving pictograms appear to float in air.

A tuk-tuk chariot dropped us to the bus stop an hour early—an hour 45 in Indian time. We killed the added minutes conversing with two Germans about a tourist wearing a hospital mask taking pictures of a cow eating garbage on the side of the road. Some travelers here keep their head behind a camera, their senses hidden, everything at a distance to remain unaffected and deaf to the present.

We boarded the bus and sat in the very front. Above our heads, a 23-inch television sat precariously inside a cube cutout, propped up by a bible to keep it from falling forward. The bus was over-booked, so there was predictable chaos. Loud words slowly settled into begrudged acceptance. The Germans got on late and had to sit with our 22 year-old driver and his friends. Sardines were running this tin can. Two hours later we fought our way out of Agra proper, and the clock started. This was not going to be a 4-hour bus ride to Delhi.

The highway was a devil’s promenade. Grain trucks, hatchbacks, and motorcycles followed the dragon’s tongue north. The lizard’s cheeks were caked with bulbous sores of poverty—shacks, and camps, and mud hovels inhabited by the damned by circumstances beyond their control. It’s their birthright.

4-hour in, we had progressed 60 kilometers out of the 170 to Delhi. Endless tongue and timeless flatness swallowed time and left us stranded. I was fighting to finish the last two sections of On the Road: Kerouac’s decent into Mexico. At that moment I didn’t share his fascination or his feelings of freedom. Maybe two weeks ago when I was caught up in the bright storm of Bangalore’s flower market, but not now, not on this grey dead road, not on this rusted bus. The breaks hit, we slowed.

I saw the truck veer, the van pull, I saw the motorcycle flip and tumble like a weed of clipped springs. I saw the body of a young man lay like a baby on its side. He had baby feet. Their naked soles, fresh and pink, lay one on top of the other, toes curled in rest.

Time stopped because traffic stopped. Horns blared like trumpets calling the dead to action. Young men leapt from their hatchbacks and motorcycles and surrounded the baby, and like boys, stood there apprehensive to pick up the gentle soul lying so vulnerable and fresh. So, he just lied there alone. Like kings with myrrh and frankincense, the men on the bus all wanted to look at the child, they wanted to see the first born introduced to the world on the tip of the lizard’s tongue, in this universe that had lost meaning. I wanted to see the baby too, but just his feet.

Why no shoes? I asked myself. Why on earth would you ride a motorbike with no shoes on?

Our driver had a schedule to keep and forced his way to the shoulder to pass. The feet were no more, just a pulverized head lying bent back, an ugly retched throwaway face, no longer a beautiful baby boy. The apprehensive boys took pictures with their phones. I saw shoes stranded up the road.

I did something I haven’t done in years. I prayed. I prayed so hard that I curled up like a baby boy in my stomach and wished for the dragon to blow a breath and end this all right now. But, the devil sleeps in Delhi, and we were yet not close enough for him to care.

INDIA JOURNAL — DESPERATE DAVE — MUMBAI

Dave is from Manchester. He’s an alcoholic. Dave’s an alcoholic in love with a beggar. He said to me that he’s been offered sex for as little as three Rupee. He’s a Manchester City fan. He said that he’s been in Mumbai for six weeks; the bar manager at the Alps Tavern said he’s been living in the train station for 5 years. Dave says a lot of things.

Everyone in Colva knew Dave. The businessmen, the bar men, the beggars, the rug salesmen, even the dogs. The men at the Western Union knew Dave very well.

That’s how Joe and I met the skinny, chinless man I called desperate Dave. We were eating at the Alps when he invited himself to our table and said that he was desperate and needed help. He needed to get his money held up in the Western Union.

His eyes shifted nervously as he told us his sad story and his accent became chewier the deeper he took us down his well. To get his money he needed a name and an address so the money could be wired to someone beside himself.

“Why?” Was the question Joe, the two Aussies we had meet at the hostel, and myself asked. “This bloody beggar that I thought was my friend stole my passport.” He said.

Dave said that all Indians are liars and cheats.

The Aussies wanted no part in it, but Joe being Joe wanted to see where this was going to lead and agreed. I actually didn’t mind because Dave’s fear was honest enough and he appeared far too high strung to actually pull off a legitimate con. So I said to Joe, “Go for it.” But that my signature stays in my hand, so don’t ask me for nothing.

Dave got smashed quickly and we went outside for a cigarette and he knelt down nose-to-nose with a three year-old beggar girl and yelled in her face to fuck off and go home — home being a mat beside the curb on the opposite side of the road. She just laughed at him. Enraged, Dave picked her up and her two year-old brother and threw them over his shoulders and walked them across the street to where their mother was asleep in the dirt.

Supposedly Dave gets angry when he drinks. But I get angry when drunks exercise their insecurities. He was lucky to have read my stare right when he returned, and he apologized. He said when he gets his money he’ll get us drunk.

The next evening I accompanied Joe and desperate Dave to the Western Union and while they were dealing with that mess I saw that there were phones there and I wanted to call home but I knew it was too late there. Under the circumstances it wouldn’t have been the best idea anyway.

Anything with Dave is possible and sure enough the name on the money transfer didn’t match Joe’s name, as it was still in Dave’s, so Dave had to call his mother in Manchester to sort it out. Joe and I got a beer with Dave while we waited for the money to be re-wired, and found Dave when sober to be quite the pussy cat, of course—just a starved alley cat too afraid of life to live it; killing himself slowly to end it.

Dave got his money. We walked off into the haze of Mumbai’s night. Two hours later, when we were trying to make a night out of New Year’s Eve, we ran into Dave on the steps of the Alps, pissed drunk and probably broke again. He looked lost in thought, wondering when the next Joe Stockman would arrive off of the steel trains willing to help.

We counted off the new year at the Georgian gate on the harbor—exactly where we started our time in Mumbai—then headed back to the hostel and listened to the fireworks explode in our ears, the taxis honk continuous, and the cheers rattle off the brick façade of the Taj Mahal Hotel until morning. Then we left it all behind. Left Dave behind us for good.

THE SIMPLE TRUTH ABOUT A LION

I’m fully aware that I’m their driver. That’s what I get paid for. They tell me where they want to go and I take them there. It’s a transaction. They want to see the city; I take them through the neighborhoods. They want to go to a view; I can do that too. The glass that separates the front seat from the rest of the limousine best defines our roles; it’s just me captaining the vessel, I’m employed so the beautiful people can consume their champagne and not have to pay attention to the road. In this regard the tint to the window between compartments obstructs any empathy between us, and casts only a reflection. They can only see themselves, which I suppose, since it’s their adventure, is fair. They can’t see my face and I’m too busy to focus on theirs, which is natural and obvious and for the best I suppose. Our relationship is transparent, a means to an end; at least I know it to be so.

I’m not a taxi. And it may surprise you that the variation of passengers I pick up is quite limited. There’s the affluent couples: their subsets demarcated by age. The young preload on cheap champagne and wine before having me drop them at a swanky pizza parlor. And often in these scenarios the drunker the young man in the back gets, the greater his urge to impress his girl. He wants to know my name, thinking that if we are on a first name basis that he can ask me to pick them up more liqueur; to deviate from the schedule and pick up more friends; to ignore his brutish and suggestive advancements on the poor girl that has found herself alone with a spoiled brute.

The twenty-somethings are not the easiest, but the best. They love hard and hate hard and show it on their jacket sleeves and gown straps. They are by far the most honest, at least if they let themselves be honest about their fleeting youth. They drink heavily to understand each other. Spend coin to understand fine food. Talk about the failures of their friends as if they are immune to the same fates. There’s an optimism that comes with a young couple when they forget about the rest of the world and create their own. I wish it lasted longer because it is a beautiful thing to watch.

The married are different. Some happy, some not; but contentment and stalemate look the same behind the glass. The mundane details of the day become something to ignore, but an impossible vehicle not to use to steer conversation with. They look out the window more. Observe the passing buildings, the October trees shedding leaves, the down and outs picking through garbage cans. They are affected and tip well.

The elderly couples on their way to the opera, or to their favorite restaurant, say little but often are in love with the gentle stream of long love. They burn the bottom of the limousine’s seats like coals. If I could just take the twenty-somethings, and the breathless old lovers, I would be happy. It would be like observing flame and then embers without the dying.

***

Tonight is cold and cloudless. I’m off to East Moyer, an affluent neighborhood where the streets are lined with ancient chestnuts whose thick trunks stand strong and tangled like a giant’s hand holding a bouquet up from the ground. The brick side streets glow from the street lanterns casting yellow light down from above. Off the bluff lies the black Atlantic swallowing itself. The mighty houses here in Moyer make ants out of the multiple SUV’s parked in their driveways. Their interiors are particular and clean. Their white walls are adorned with original artwork, mantels dresses with antique clocks and family portraits, bookcases crammed with first editions and folios belonging in museums, liqueur cabinets stocked to elude to refined control and temperance. Or at least, this is what I imagine.

I park outside of 1118 Harbor and wait. The first to open the door is a young man in a suit accompanied with a young brunette woman in a black sequined dress. To follow is a pressed white shirt buckled down with suspenders, and a good-looking upright young man in a waistcoat and bow tie. Their dates push out the doorway also in sequins, feathers and furs. Their dress, laughter and the scattered nature of their departure tell me that they’re in their mid-twenties, off to dinner then a costume party, and have depleted the gin stockade from the liqueur cabinet.

“My good man!” The suit says to greet me, “Can you tell what decade we’re from?”

He’s grinning, happy, full of himself and it is fine. He’s olive skinned, hair thick and parted well. The soft brown in his eyes picks up the yellow light emanating from the brick street and I like him for it.

“Chase. Chase Velo.” He shakes my hand. “There are my fools for the night. Don’t we look so? We’re off to Franco’s for dinner and then the Metropolitan for a ball. Did you collect the champagne?”

“Indeed Mr. Velo, it’s on ice as you asked.”

His fools stand together looking more like tonight’s chosen children. The regal blond in yellow and a feathered headband cuts in the pause.

“Chase, we allowed to smoke in the limousine? It’s cold.” She asked, crossing her naked arms, and squeezing them, pretending I wasn’t there. Her strong features but soft manner is perhaps an indication of her personality, strong and tender-hearted, all in one.

“What do you say driver? How is it?”

The waistcoat with a face cutout like a lion came in before I could answer no.

“Classless Lucy… really.”

I remained looking at her, she faked unaffected, her eyes neglecting the twitch indicative of a prior bad decision she’s now believes she’s stuck in. She was the unfortunate. The silence that followed his remark from the others meant that he’s a cutter. Chase showed restraint, looked at his date, as she looked at the ground. The lion was one of those types that cares less for a girl to make them want him more, and it works somehow, but all for all the wrong reasons. Funny how you just know, sometimes.”

“You’re welcome to smoke outside at anytime, miss.” I said to damn the lion. “I can pull over when and wherever you like.”

“My kind of driver!”

I looked to the soft voice that said it. Tall, dark, a slipping glacier of finger waves pasted to the side on her temple. Lips meaty, and I knew then that she was with the bold looking young man tied up in suspenders. Why, because all his words I could tell stayed in his month as something to chew on. She was the talker.

“We can smoke outside the restaurant. Lets stop wasting time.”

“Vivienne called it.” Chase said, giving me a wink as if I was to understand his girl’s needs as well as the rest.

“Let’s crack the champagne!” She said looking up from the ground.

I opened the door and watched them group together, Chase letting Vivienne in first, Bee the talker leading in her bold boy, and the lion leaving Lucy at the end of the chain.

***

Four bottles of Clicquot spared of their worth and the beautiful twenty-somethings cascade out of my limousine in the same order they entered. Vivienne with tempered grace, Chase with eager flames in his eyes, Bee a fresh application of lipstick, her bold boy, frank barely able to hold in his intoxicated identity, The beautiful lion dim eyed, and Lucy steady like the champagne had made her sober. Chase opened a silver case and passed out cigarettes to his fools and lit each one before his own.

“Driver.” He shouted. I’m one leg away from reentering my vehicle. “Come have a cigarette with us.”

I’ll always share a cigarette with my clients. It’s the least I can do, and I like Chase, and really all of them, including the lion, even if I have the feeling that he’ll break my heart by the end of the night.

I refuse Chase’s offer and pull and light one of my own cigarettes. Bee smiles and asks.

“I don’t want to call you driver; it’s so rude I think. What’s your name?”

“…”

“Soft, but strong.” bee laughs, “Love it, fits you.”

“Could have we found a better driver?” Chase praises.

Lucy looks at her lion looking at Vivienne. Frank watches Bee turn into a future bedtime dream. Chase sees Vivienne’s chin lift the skyscraper on the other side of the street. I see them all loving hard and hating hard under the surface.

They ask me questions about their predicament, about the future when this moment will subside into long workweeks without the energy to pretend. I tell them to forget about that and live in the 20s. They loved that and walk into the restaurant excited to be dressed like they were from a better time, drunk with the belle epoch illusion, excited by the ideal of being inhabited by the ghosts that made life a meal.

I parked on the exposed roof of the parking garage the next block over and looked out upon the bead-lit city. For every light there is a body at least. And for every body there’s a potential to love, love like the love I’ve felt for so many women in my past. I don’t know why I’m just a driver, something of a facilitator, a guy in a suit with a map in his head of every side street that makes up the city. What about my potential? Maybe just as I drive without a destination for myself, I want to watch life proceed without any invested interest. That so, I don’t drive at all, after all. Maybe because I’ve hurt too many and have  been hurt too often. I’m protecting myself. I wouldn’t want to be the one to collide with this limousine.

I get the call to return. Start the night again.

The fools slowly meander out of the restaurant. The chain is breaking and the night is still young. Chase and Lucy come out first. They’re drunk. Lucy no longer refined; something inside has happened. They talk like they’ve known each other longest. Chase is the one to sooth the situation. Vivienne, Bee and the bold follow. There is no lion and I gather this is where the masks break.

The skyscrapers grow taller. I get out of the car and offer cigarettes to the three so Chase can do his work. But Lucy asks in a dull voice, to hide any register of anger.

“Where is Vic?”

“At the bar talking about himself.” Bee says out the corner of her mouth as I light her cigarette.

Then I do the last thing I’d ever expect. It was the look of disgust on Bee’s beautiful face, the hardening of Lucy’s; the moment where I saw that Chase loved two women and Vivienne knew. When Frank said out loud that the lion is an asshole, as if offended.

“’I’ll get him.” I said. “I know the bartender’s here anyway, not a problem.”

I didn’t wait for an answer. I walked into the foyer, passed the host, and cut through the clatter of silverware and crossed conversations, to enter the bar. There the lion sat with a scotch, a young woman checking her phone next to him, and a bartender raising an eyebrow at me, instinctually knowing who I was looking for.

“Vic, isn’t it? We’re waiting for you.”

“Well wait then.” He said smugly. “I’ll be right out.”

“Lucy is waiting for you.”

“She can wait.”

The young women looked up from her phone, looked at me, said please to meet you and that I have your number to Vic, and then left for the bathroom.

“Have you paid your tab?” I asked.

“Aren’t you the driver?” Vic bit. “What is the driver doing telling me what to do? Have a drink with me instead. I’ll pay.”

“Finish up and lets go.”

He looked into my eyes, searching for a weakness, and sure I have a few, but not for him, not now.

“You think I’m arrogant don’t you? Well, that’s not it. And even if I’m wrong, I can say at least that women love it. You may not, but what do I care about that? Did you not see the woman that just left? Did you not see her? See, you wouldn’t believe what arrogance can get you.”

“You’re drunk.”

“Yes I am, but did you not?”

“Yes I did. Now come on, Lucy is outside.”

“Chase can have her. Take her home, do whatever he likes. Doesn’t matter much. She’ll tire of him within days.”

“That’s none of my business.” I said. “Lets go.”

He drained his glass, stood up, swayed, and walked passed me to the entrance.

***

I walked behind the lion deciding if I’d let the glass break between my passengers and I. However, what business is it of mine to interfere in the lives of others? And Vic had a point, a sick point about his character. His arrogance did make him desirable. He is desirable. Something about his defiant features and his inability to care about the feelings of others over his own needs makes him a bastion for broken spirits. And if I could feel it, then anyone else could, Lucy must, and must hate herself for it. His friends must hate him too but love what knowing him can give them. It’s an evil thing, security, especially when every one of us is insecure except for a person like Vic. Loving him must feel substandard, but in the real word the hungry follow. I decided at that moment when he exited the door that I hated him like I loath myself.

The slap came loud. Lucy put everything into it. The lion laughed.

“Go fuck yourself.” Lucy yelled.

I could see the slap wasn’t just about the girl at the bar, but for everything.

He laughed harder and grabbed Vivienne around the waist. She fought out of it.

Chase came in between Vivienne and the lion.

“What the hell was that, Vic?”

The punch came quick and Chase was down on the sidewalk. Bee got in his face and he pushed her down easily. Lucy pushed him back and he slid his hand across her face and went to grab her hair.

“What are you trying to do!” Vic yelled.

And before I could step in Frank took hold of the lion’s mane and thrust his nose into the granite wall of the restaurant, Lucy trailing within his grasp. But when the head hit, the hand released, and the body fell loose. Frank stood over him, huffing loud now that all the words that had been caught in his mouth were expended. And Bee looked at him terrified, and Lucy looked at the blood espousing from her true love, and Vivienne looked at the sleeping lion wishing that he would wake up a saint, and Chase felt unloved because he was bleeding too, but alone — and I, standing there feeling helpless knowing now that there was so much more to this story then I could ever have imagined.

Vic came to, looking at his friends as if unaware of what happened, and rested his back up against the building staring off into space. Lucy put her hand up to his face and he pushed it away and she tried to put it back, while she sobbed, but he grabbed it and threw it away again while Chase longed for it because Vivienne had walked away.

The lion refused help and staggered to his feet. Spit blood in the direction of his friends as he trailed off. And I refused to walk after him because he didn’t deserve any attention at all. We all watch and admired.

“Where you going?” Bee yelled at him.

“To the fucking ball.” He said and slowly faded away down the street.

The rest of us sat devastated on the sidewalk, all dressed up with nowhere to go but home.

THE DUEL (SECTION FROM MY FIRST NOVEL)

The crows had brought Simon to the hill. He left his horse at the bottom and climbed up its steep face. He settled into an earthen cavity behind the ruins of a stone bunker. He peered through an opening. There were two duelers, one dressed in white, the other black, as well as their seconds, and a judge. The pistols were raised. The signal was given and a loud crack rang out. The crows jumped and cawed on the moss-covered stones above Simon. The duelers stood — unwounded — a lead tangle somersaulted down a mountain of the same, mounded in between them. Simon dismissed the obvious; he was unable to believe the improbable, a draw. And, the judge, Beth’s father?

The two-dimensional men on the hill thickened into a rounded quintet, working as one machine, pulleys and levers strung together by a shared principle, connected by a unifying theory: to perform a metaphor. Still, the task lay undefined, and its purpose cloaked in costume and formality. Conjoined twins, fused by the principle of balance, the duelers were at the heart of the mystery. Or was the father: the judge to blame? They stood admirably, unaffected by mortal existence, bored by the human echo in the hollow of time.

None of this explained why her father was there. It was a bad omen. This place was a place of fear, a trial. The men exchanged the guns for reloading. Simon watched the duelers. They moved the same, breathed the same; there was nothing distinguishable between them besides their appearance. Appearance had become arbitrary; death proven beatable. He knew it. What was left? Her father looked the same, but a wax copy, a facsimile of his former self. Something was wrong, Simon had gotten things wrong. He wasn’t dead, this wasn’t about dimensions; it was about something deeper. He was a part of it, concrete like the judge, not a symbol —  not a diamond thought — but a personal shackle, unwanted, not a part of the scheme, but solid and unforgettable. This place wasn’t a world, but a kingdom of memory.

Simon changed. The kingdom dissolved, the men evaporated, there was only the boy. He blinked, Simon saw himself, but it wasn’t him. The boy was perfect like the cable to a gondola. His innocence transcended all violence, all war. There was no longer a war, hadn’t been for years, not in the original sense. Yet, there was a fight still taking place. He was a participant, a performer trying to complete the saga. How long had he been on the run? He didn’t know. Where was he going? Did it matter? It would find him when the time was right. He had no control. The lack there of was a relief somehow.

Simon stood up in the vacuum to engage with the boy, but the hill returned, the men stood at attention. The Duel — perpetual — returned to dictate the sun’s decent. This is how the tides turn, by opposite twins. The boy was gone.

Simon walked around the bunker, exposed himself to the machine. The duelers did not waver. Jeffers, Michael, and the judge turned their heads. Their eyes scanned, they twisted their lips with disapproval.

“Young man,” Said the judge, “you are underdressed.”

“Painfully.” Michael whispered.

“Magnificent!” Jeffers trembled.

“I escaped.”

(Laughter.)

“Hiding?” The judge repeated.

“From the Capitol.”

“Which Capital?” Michael asked.

“The Capitol’s scouts.”

(They didn’t understand.)

“The Capital of what?” The judge asked.

The judged looked down, resisted a thought, looked up, unaffected.

“For whom?” Michael grinned.

“Magnificent!” Jeffers gasped.

“The Capitol is the government we are at war with.” Simon said.

“…”

The judge closed his eyes to rub out his impatience.

“As I was saying; you are dreadfully underdressed. We are in the middle of important business.”

“Yes, yes, important business, very important business.” Jeffers said.

He fixed his spectacles.

“What kind of business?”

“Important business” The judge fired back.

“Truly, of the utmost!” Jeffers agreed.

“A complete waste of time.” Michael mumbled.

“Remember Michael what happened the last time.” The judge stabbed.

Michael tugged the kerchief tied tight around his neck that covered a deep scar.

“There is a score to settle between the two gentlemen.” The judge pointed to the duelers. “All debts must be settled, all honor must be restored.”

“Debts are paid and honor restored, quite right, debts and honor, balance is in order.” Jeffers stuttered.

“Who offended who?”

Silence washed over them. Stuck inside of their own minds, Simon waited for them to resurface. They attempted to rescue any information that could reveal how the duel started. No answers. Jeffers broke the silence.

“We are here you see, well, here you see, because we must participate. Yes, participate. We must participate because we always have, all of us. Yes, but some do actively, yes like you, actively participate in this exchange.”

“Shut up you fool!” Michael said. “He hasn’t any idea what you are talking about.”

“I don’t?”

Simon received no answer. They looked at him, pitifully, and confused; all they knew was the duel, no particulars. They feared the forests, the gorges, and the desert most. All they knew was the hill. They knew nothing of the war, of Simon’s misfortunes, or of the witches. They had no answers. They were pulleys and gears; too busy performing from the inside to recognize forms from the outside. Aristotle was a myth.

“It’s time.” The judge said.

He looked sad. Long ago he had done something wrong; it ate at him like a wound at his side.

Jeffers and Michael returned to their places beside the judge whom assumed his position at the table. Simon stood behind Jeffers and the judge and faced the duel. Aristotle returned and stood on the far end of the hill, between the two duelers.  His green eyes cut the somber grey that had settled over the meadow. A cold breeze swooped down — the boy seemed to bend with the wind like a reflection.

“Who is the boy?” Simon asked. “Do you see him on the far edge?”

“Gentlemen raise your weapons!” The judge cried.

The duelers raised their weapons.

“Gentlemen, proceed on my signal.”

The judge lifted his arm in the air. Two explosions burst, Simon flinched. The two pieces of lead combined and fell. Simon eye’s fell with them. He looked up to the boy. Aristotle: emotionless. Simon continued to stare. Smoke tethered between them. Aristotle mouthed words as the judge spoke.

“Gentlemen, due to the results of this last exchange, have the honor of either the man wearing white or the man wearing black been satisfied?”

The boy mimicked the judge’s address.

“Never.”

The Second of each shooter went to retrieve their master’s weapon while the boy smiled at Simon. He slipped from the other side of the hill and was gone.

Simon stood stripped. The games were useless. He had played long enough. They had nothing to do with him; he had nothing to do with himself. Identity was the last prank. Jeffers had called him active, he had realized that he was more so concrete, like the judge, but the spectrum of his existence transparent. There had never been meaning for him. The cabin, Beth’s fortress, where had it gone? Everything was malleable. All contradictions.

“Where is the cabin?”

“You always have been my boy!” The Judge said, wet eyed. “I told those two buffoons the weather was going to turn. Like clockwork the clouds roll in. I tell you, young man, if there is sun in the morning, it is sure not to last. Awe well, that is just the way it is, just words from a traitor.”

In his mind Simon recalled the camp, the sewers, the rebellion. He saw the knight’s tattoo and the crows. He saw bombs, freedom: the totality of terror. He saw a witch and a trunk. He saw the Aristocrat. That sick twisted man without a jaw.

“Why am I here? Why are we here? What is the point to any of this?” He shouted.

“Don’t raise your voice at me.” The judge responded.

Jeffers peered through the chamber of his master’s revolver and mumbled to himself.

“Yes yes, why, the most beautiful word to flower from opposition… Opposition is the giver and the taker, the machine of machines, indeed the mover of all things. …Scales and balance, yes, scales and balance. Where was I? Why? Yes, debt and honor restored and enemies befriend enemies. Suppression begets suppression until the bridge breaks, until the bridge breaks.”

Jeffers slipped the bullet into the chamber and locked the carousel into place. His intelligence flickered from his beady eyes and ripened Simon’s. Michael reloaded, looked up, but lost his will to speak. They passed the guns back to their masters. The judge looked up to the sky, finding solace where the silver clouds overlapped, an embrace that obscured a blue sky he knew was underneath. The seconds took their places. The judge lowered his head and stood prouder than usual.

“Tell her that I’ve always loved her.” He said, without looking at Simon.

Simon felt worry.

“Gentlemen raise your weapons!”

Both duelers raised their weapons.

“Gentlemen, proceed on my signal.”

He held onto his lapels, smiled, pinched the brim of his hat, tipped it, and bowed to Simon.

The moment sat sticky, the breeze continued to blow, the judge took a second to wipe the sweat as it slipped from the canal between his mustaches. Simon turned his head; the boy was back, standing in the same place as before. Aristotle completed the circuit — Simon wanted to leave. It was time.

The judge threw up his arm and two bursts of blue flung themselves from each pistol. Simon closed his eyes. In the darkness he heard a buzz approach, like a propeller, coming right for him. He thought he would never get the chance to open his eyes again. But, the propeller never severed. He opened his eyes. The boy had both hands clasped over his mouth in horror (this wouldn’t be the last time, Simon knew). Simon looked down beside him, a bloody hole through the Judge’s neck. He wheezed and wheezed. Then silence. The breeze caught his hat and it tumbled down the hill. Jeffers and Michael walked up to their masters —both  jealous — to retrieve the pistols. Unaffected with the gruesome death of the judge.

Simon stared into the judge’s lazy green eyes and watched the silver clouds from above reflect and move across them. It was like looking down from the heavens, through the clouds, and onto the grassy hill. The dual perspective was not without injury. Simon shook, his bones ached. His heart tore. He looked at the judge’s fading lips, curled into a half smile, and himself smiled by terror to complete it. Aristotle had disappeared again. The round was complete.