Huntsville-s Stubborn Scrooge

scrooge and marley 2

As Don Johnson made his way through the yard of his Elkins Lake home, he paused to admire the trees, the bushes, the eaves of the well-appointed homes dripping with festive lights, the electrified manifestations of a robust Christian superiority. “If only I had had snow trucked in from Houston at taxpayer expense,” he thought. “No one’s looking at the books these days.”

That was because he, Don the Don, had villainized all those who  displayed a bent for the unclean thinking that leads to insurrection.

“We, the movers and shakers, we rule here unchallenged for the glory of Almighty God,” said Don to himself. “Is there not now a Hobby Lobby and might there not soon be an Academy and a Chick-fil-A? Is that not my doing along with Buxton Consumer Analytics of Fort Worth, Texas?”

Then a mist rose from a Nativity Scene. In it, Don soon could discern a face, which he thought he might recognize from portraits hanging in the halls of Huntsville’s back rooms. It was not angry or ferocious, but it looked at Don as it had while Don sat scheming beneath its portrait, sternly and with unquestioned authority. The hair of this dour face was stirred, as if by breath or hot air, and, though the eyes were wide open, they were perfectly motionless. That, and its livid color, made it horrible.

As Don stared fixedly at this phenomenon, it was a Nativity Scene again. Yet now the Baby Jesus seemed to be smiling ever so slightly. Don wasn’t sure why, but he felt uneasy. What was that baby up to?

Don entered his home and felt instantly safe and warm. He forgot all about the strange spectre on the front lawn. He had married well, raised a family, and his home was bright and full of love. Yes, indeed, the Lord had smiled upon Don Johnson.

Yet, as the clock on the wall chimed twelve that night, Don awoke with a start, mistaking the toll of bells for gunfire.

“Lanny Ray!” he shouted.

“Go back to sleep, Don,” said his sweet and gentle wife. “Lanny’s not the crazy one; that’s his ex-wife. The courts said so, and I heard it from somebody at bunco.”

“Right,” said Don, adjusting his night cap and settling back into his comfy bed. “But they’re all armed, you know. AK 47s and what have you. Even George Russell supports the Second Amendment.”

“Good, he’s a constitutionalist,” Don’s sleepy wife said. “Just what you always wanted.”

She was fast asleep again when Don heard from the floor below a clanking noise as if someone were dragging a heavy chain across the kitchen tile.

“It’s humbug!” said Don. “I won’t believe it.”

His natural pallor blanched further, when, without a pause, it came through the bedroom door and passed into the room before his eyes.  The same face: the very same. In its suit with the wide lapels and the wide chevron tie. The chain he drew was clasped about his middle. It was long, and wound about him like a tail; and it was made of cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses wrought in steel.

Though he looked the Phantom through and through and saw it standing before him, though he felt the chilling influence of its death-cold eyes, Don was still incredulous, and fought against his senses.

“How now!” Don said. “What do you want with me?”

“Much!”

“Who are you?”

“Ask me who I was.”

“Who were you then.” said Don.

“In life, I was Ed Sandhop, Gibbs overseer.” Don invited the ghost to sit and he sat as if he were quite used to it. “You don’t believe in me,” observed the Ghost.

“I don’t,” said Don. “And I have no time for you this Christmas Eve. I’ve spent over five thousand dollars in gifts and must make the rounds to receive the thanks and fealty of the little people who so depend on a nod from me from time to time to be reassured of their worth.”

The Ghost sat perfectly motionless, its hair, the legs of its trousers, and the tassels on its loafers were still agitated as by the hot vapor from an oven. “Do you believe in me or not?”

“I do,” said Don. “I must. But why do you come to me?”

“If a spirit goes not forth in life, it is condemned to do so after death. It is doomed to wander through the world—oh, woe is me!—and witness what it cannot share, but might have shared on earth, and turned to happiness!”

“You are fettered,” Don said. “Tell me why?”

“I wear the chain I forged in life,” replied the Ghost. “I made it link by link, and yard by yard, fifty-seven years; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it. Is its pattern strange to you?”

Don trembled more and more.

“Or would you know,” pursued the Ghost, “the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself? It was full as heavy and as long as this, three Christmas Eves ago. You have labored on it since. It is a ponderous chain!”

Don glanced about himself, expecting to find himself surrounded by some fifty or sixty fathoms of iron cable. There was nothing.

“Perhaps, jealous Phantom, you miss in death what I now control,” Don said. “To frighten me out of my rightful role, that might be more your mission than the merciful one you claim.”

The Ghost, on hearing this, set up a cry and clanked its chain hideously.

“But you were always a good man of business, Ed,” faltered Don, who now began to apply himself to this in hopes of banishing Sandhop and returning to an uninterrupted sleep.

“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands. “My own life was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business.”

Don smiled with condescension, realizing  that this Ghost had misunderstood him completely. Sandhop may have been a poor Christian—if that was indeed what he was confessing—but Don had a reserved room in his Father’s Mansion. He was sure of it.

“Wipe that sickly smirk from your visage,” the Ghost bellowed and rattled his chain. “It reveals the unseemly and unchristian thoughts that seem to circumnavigate your small mind.”

“Don’t be hard upon me, Sandhop! Pray!” said Don.

“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits.”

“I—I think I’d rather not,” Don said.

“Without their visits,” said the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first when the bell tolls One. Expect the second at Two, the third when the last stroke of Three has ceased to vibrate. For your own sake, remember what has passed between us.”

The apparition floated through a closed window and upon the bleak, dark night. Don went straight to bed. His wife stirred, half awake. “What’s wrong, honey? Can’t you sleep?”

Don grumbled about a bad dream, a talking ghost, the fault, no doubt, of an undigested apple-dumpling.

His wife yawned. “That’s Melville, dear,” she said. “You mean ‘an undigested bit of beef, a fragment of an underdone potato.’  No need to worry. There’s more of gravy than of the grave in what you saw.”

THE CLOCK STRIKES ONE

Don slept through the chime of the clock but awoke feeling someone pulling on his big toe. In the dim light from the frosty moon let in by his window, he saw a being with wild hair. He sat bolt upright in bed. “Intruder!” he shouted or thought he had, yet his wife remained asleep.

Don leapt from the bed as the Spirit beckoned him to the window. It was a strange figure—like a child, yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium. Its hair, which hung about its neck, was white as if with age; and yet the face had not a wrinkle in it. It wore a denim shirt and filthy, worn blue jeans. Its bare feet were shod in sandals, despite the cold outside, and its toes were long and gnarled, the toenails split and dirty. It cackled, grasping Don’s soft, clammy hand as it flew with Don through the window, which had flung itself open in anticipation of their flight.

“Unhand me, you crazy fool, you George Russell,” said Don as he and the Spirit drifted over the rooftops of Elkins Lake. “What do you want of me at this hour?”

“I am the man who loves Huntsville most of all,” said George. “I am the Ghost of Huntsville’s Christmas Past.”

They lighted within in a woodland home and Don recognized it instantly because Sam Houston himself stood in the middle of the scene, making merry with his family and friends while house slaves waited on them hand and foot.

Despite being aware that he was clad only in pajamas, Don broke free from George Russell and hurried to greet the Great Man, the one who now stood in concrete sixty-seven feet tall on the interstate highway and who looked like a big glowing dildo at night from six miles out.

“Don’t bother, idiot. He can’t see you,” said a voice behind him, one he recognized from just an hour before. Don turned to see Sandhop and his chains seated in a wooden chair against the wall.

“This isn’t how this is supposed to work,” Don said. “I’ve read my Dickens. You disappear at the end of the first part.”

“I’m directing this scene,” George said, “and who better to narrate a Huntsville history lesson but the Gibbs Mafia’s greatest and most feared consigliere?”

Don took a seat next to Sandhop’s ghost, as it rolled its large transparent eyes at George’s foolery, and watched the Houstons’ rustic Christmas unfold.

“Sugar is twelve dollars pound this year, thanks to the War. Too bad we didn’t think to hoard it at the dry goods store,” the Spectre said. “We could have marked it up another two bits.”

“Even the Houstons couldn’t pay that price,” George said.

“Houston was as poor as the rest of us,” grumbled Sandhop’s ghost. “We didn’t grovel at his celebrity until much later. Drunkard, Indian lover, Union sympathizer that he was.”

“What are we doing here, spirits?” Don said. “What am I supposed to learn from this visitation?”

“Who do you see in this room, Johnson?” Sandhop said. “I see the old families of Huntsville, the children of those who erected the first trading post and welcomed the first stage coach line.”

“I see,” said George, “the rise of an enlightened society, a small but progressive city on seven hills, just like Rome, which might have been the seat of government rather than home of the nation’s largest penal system and a public diploma mill.”

“I see a cash cow,” said Don. “Or calf. The city is young.”

Then Don found himself in a large stately home across the street from the present-day Sam Houston Memorial Museum. It was crammed full of all manner of  knickknacks, antiques, books and other junk. Lots of junk, some of it obscene. A crazy person lived here. Clearly.

“What is this place?” Don said. “And why are we moving so quickly from scene to scene without the proper transition?”

“It’s called the quick cut,” George said. “Very popular since MTV. Nobody’s got the attention span to hang out in 1862 for a whole hour. So now, let’s talk about me.”

“So this is your house?” said Don, doing a quick appraisal of the furnishings.

“I’m going to turn it into a museum,” George said. “And they won’t like it.”

“Who?” Don said, hoping soon for another “quick cut” right back into his bed.

“The Gibbs, the Smithers, their offspring and descendants, Joe Smythe, the shot caller from New York, the one who had me falsely arrested for protecting my trees,” said George, and then he gave Don Johnson a tour, ending in a room full of pots made by Gibbs slaves, just a portion of his vast holdings of Walker County history. “You know, Mary Laura insists her people didn’t own slaves.”

Don would have agreed that George’s many collections were impressive. For example, these simple ceramic pots, which filled a table nearly a football field long. They had been inscribed, before they were fired by slave hands, with the date of their making. Beyond these walls, on land cleared by men and women who had been bought and sold like livestock, Huntsville’s first plantations were built. Don had never given this any thought, but now the plantation business model—the huge profit potential afforded by free labor—charmed him. Here was something to commend Huntsville’s history after all.

He looked George in the eye as he and this wild-eyed, sex-crazed spectre shared a moment of clarity. Don smirked. “You’re just like me,” he told the Ghost of Christmas Past. “Weathly, white, entitled. But you wouldn’t hoard this shameful pottery if it were your own family’s dirty secret, would you?”

Then Don found himself on his knees in front of Black Jesus in Oakwood Cemetery. He looked up into the tarnished face of Christ. “Dear Lord, what was my take-away in that last scene? I must have missed it.”

“Yeah, I don’t know whose idea it was to let George direct that segment,” sayeth Black Jesus. “Rise, Don Johnson, and listen. First, you were supposed to get that the Gibbs founded this town and they still own it. It rankles their settlers’ souls that George has preserved more of their history than they have, because it’s not his to buy and keep. He’s not entitled to Huntsville’s past, present or future. And neither are you.”

“Me? Pray what did I do, Black Jesus?”

But, though He smiled ever so slightly, the Lord was silent.

THE CLOCK STRIKES TWO

Don woke up in his own bed as the clock began to chime, and just as he was ready to dismiss the previous hour and sleep willfully through the next, a petite figure appeared at the foot of his bed, a short, trim feminine form of  post-menopausal age. She wore a whistle around her neck, which she brought to her lips and blew. Its shrill call had him on his feet before he knew it.

“Why are you still in bed? There’s so much to do!” this determined spectre said. “Jane is counting on you.”

Don gathered the bedclothes about himself and glanced over at his wife to make sure she was still asleep. “Nancy?” he said sternly to the ghost. “Nancy Franklin? What are you doing here?”

“I’m the Ghost of Christmas Present, and I’m so proud that Ed Sandhop entrusted me with this hour of his program. So get up!”

Don barely had two feet on the floor when, head still spinning, he found himself in a crowded room in a home he recognized. Again, he was self-conscious at being under-dressed and without his wife, who, many joked—behind his back, of course—was his only “human credential.” Don often had to fake the warmth and interest in others that seemed to come naturally to her.

“Maybe you’re a sociopath,” said the Ghost of Christmas Present, who must have read Don’s thoughts. “But anyway, I’ve got things to do, so you go sit over there with Ed Sandhop. They can’t see him, either.”

The Ghost of Sandhop barely acknowledged Don as he sat down. “Here we are again,” said Don, hoping Sandhop would make conversation. “What now, Spectre?”

“There’s that smirk again,” Sandhop said. “I urge you to get before a mirror and practice something pleasing and subtle. You really would shudder to see yourself on the television.”

Don stopped smiling and scowled, looking at all the party bustle. “Wasn’t I invited?”

“This year,” Sandhop said. “But you’re losing ground. You know that, don’t you? You’re at least that smart, I hope.”

Don was reminded of the Night of the Long Knives, the first city council meeting after the Nov. 5, 2013, city election. Two newcomers, both from Elkins Lake, took their seats at the dais and the incumbent rubes took over, nominating one of their own and ousting Don from his post as mayor pro tem. “It’s not my fault,” Don said.

But Sandhop’s ghost sat silently, gathering a length of chain in his hands much like a consigliere might prepare a garrote for use.

“Okay, so it is my fault,” Don said quickly, though he was sure that it wasn’t, but the Spectre let his chains slip through his hands. Don leaned closer. “But why is it my fault?”

The sigh of a spectre is a chilling sound, a deep, hollow whistle on a cold, icy night. Don shivered, waiting for Sandhop’s ghost to speak.

“You’re arrogant yet weak and poor of judgment, and not very bright to boot,” the Ghost said. “So all your clumsy schemes and machinations are transparent for all to see. And look what’s happened! Public discussion! Insurrection! Ronnie Allen!”

“I won’t be accused of transparency, sir! I don’t care how fearsome you were in life and are now in death,” Don said. “Look, I menaced lots of people, I got them fired, I made deals, I maneuvered. I swelled our ranks, adding several worthy movers and shakers to fend off the previous council and all those who fancy leadership without our permission.”

A spectre’s laugh is perhaps even more frightening than its scowl or sigh. Its chuckle rolls over slowly, laboriously like the cold and massive engine of a war machine.

“Movers and shakers,” said Sandhop. “The term is comical to our ear. What do you village idiots think you move and shake? Your sphere of influence is the size of a farthing, whereas the Gibbs are the largest landowners in all of Texas. Surely you know that.”

Don faltered again. He knew only his own worth and a little of the portfolios of his rich closest associates.

“This is a town of a mere twenty-eight thousand free souls and only an eighth of them vote,” the Spectre resumed. “This is how it has always been. And so it has always been that the largest export of our city is parolees. All over the world, one says, ‘Huntsville, Texas’ and it means prisons and the busiest death house in the free world. Good for tourism, I’d say.”

“Are you not Little Eddie Sandhop, the one who worked his way up from bottom to top?” said Don. “If something’s rotten in Huntsville, it’s your fault, not mine.”

“Back in my day, we knew how to keep the rabble calm and at bay, but you have increased their numbers by increasing your own, by admitting all into the inner circle who hate who you hate and support your retail schemes, ” Sandhop said. “That has never been the golden key.”

“Common purpose, soldiers in arms. Do you say that isn’t how it’s done?” Don said incredulously.

The Ghost cast its vacant eyes over the convivial scene. “Who are all these people? That crook over there, the pole dancer and the hairy-faced redneck over here, that loud mouth constructioneer, those grasping harlots, these angry and crass low-church Christians. The Gibbs are a refined and worldly people. Where did you come upon these rustics and lickspittle?”

“They want the same thing you do, Ed,” Don said.

“They do not,” said Sandhop’s Ghost, pointing his ghostly finger. “We do things one way around here and everybody knew it, or, alas, they did.”

Then Don, watching his near future unfold, brightened as he saw himself enter the gathering with his wife on his arm. Everyone turned to greet them.

“See, they like me,” Don told the Ghost. “They really like me.”

“Zeus’s beard,” the Spectre said wearily. “They’re just being civil.”

THE CLOCK STRIKES THREE

At the chiming of the clock, someone sitting in a chair near the bed struck a match and lit a cigarette. Don watched its red glow intensify as the smoking spectre took a deep drag.

“Jack Wagamon?” Don whispered fearfully. “Is that you?”

The ghost began hacking and snuffed out the cigarette. “Actually, I don’t smoke, but I thought it would be a nice touch. Turn on the light by your bed.”

So Don flipped on the light and squinted at the ghost in the chair. He was a young man in a trench coat and Forties fedora pulled down over his eyes.

“Show yourself, Spectre,” Don said tremulously.

“I can’t,” said the Ghost. “It’s my mother. She couldn’t handle the scandal if it got out.”

“What do I have to do with that?”

The Spectre smiled. The part of his face Don could see was Dick Tracy handsome with its square jaw and chiseled manliness. “A lot, councilman. Now out of bed and on your feet. One last stop.”

“I won’t go with you unless you reveal yourself,” Don said.

“They call me Fractal Bob,” said the Ghost. And just then a gorgeous blonde gun moll popped in, standing behind Bob with a ghostly pistol pointed at Don’s head. “And she is Carissa.”

“You heard him,” Carissa said. “Get up.”

Don gladly obeyed.

“You’re the ghosts of Christmas Future, I presume,” he said as he found himself with his two companions in the middle of a chilly fog. All he could see, aside from their stylishly dead silhouettes, was his bare feet on turf grass. “What is this place?”

They began to walk through the fog until it cleared, revealing a large, half-finished brick school house. Don knew this place, and he began to smile.

“Knock off the creepy smirk, Buster,” said the beautiful gun moll.

“This is Gibbs land and this is a new school,” Don said. “The bond issue must have passed! So when will the new middle school be finished?”

“It won’t be,” said the ghost of Fractal Bob. “Typical Huntsville. The school hired an unqualified contractor who had cost overruns out the ass and the district ran out of money.”

The two ghosts led Don inside the half-finished structure, where weeds grew knee high from cracks in the concrete foundation. “But look,” Bob said, “they woulda had this bitch wired for hundreds of plugs. Just what you all wanted.”

Don and his ghosts popped in and out of every section of town so that Don could see the decay in essential services and loss of the city’s inner charm. “The hospital only takes inmates now. Civilians have to drive to Conroe or Madisonville,” Bob said, as the three of them hovered above the interstate. “You should see Madisonville and New Waverly these days. Crazy growth there, but a shit ton of our local businesses failed, thanks to you and your tax breaks to chain and big box stores.”

“And the Huntsville Item folded,” Carissa said.

Don clapped his hands with glee. “See, there’s a silver lining in every bad situation. Pray tell, Spectre, what deserving scourge befell them?”

“They kept running George Russell’s letters and then one day they plastered George all over the front page,” she said, “and you all convinced the local businesses that were left to cancel their advertising.”

“Merry Christmas to me! That’s wonderful,” Don said. “I suppose somebody started a new paper more friendly to our cause.”

“Yup,” said Bob, “but it died too, just like the Huntsville Morning News. They didn’t know shit about running a dying industry. And without a newspaper to read the news from every day, KSAM went silent, too. So now Average Joe doesn’t even know who’s county judge or who sits on city council. The latest crop of movers and shakers have all moved to The Woodlands.”

“Maybe without a local newspaper to make them feel important, they realized they were just the little kings and queens of nothing,” Carissa said.

“You smug spectres, how is it you have the nerve to be so irreverent, so blasphemous and so impudent?” Don said.

Then Don found himself again enshrouded by fog, and his spirit guides were gone. A figure approached, striding deliberately at Don as he stood there shivering in his fog-dampened jammies. Just as he was about to call out to the figure, he recognized it. Ed Sandhop, now without chains or other supernatural encumbrances.

“Who’s left then?” Don asked Sandhop, “if my movers and shakers are all gone?”

“We are,” Sandhop said. “And the people who are content to do as they’re told.”

“What has become of my family? What about my church and Alpha Omega Academy?”

“All fine,” Sandhop said. “All as quiet as church mice. No more fighting, no more factions, no more letters to the editor. No more obstacles. We have one way to run this town and you couldn’t handle it.”

“But what of city council?” Don said. “I so dreamed of becoming mayor one day.”

Sandhop smiled as though he were enjoying a private joke. “You’re not on the list,” he said. “Sorry.”

Then Sandhop extended his arm and pointed his finger, directing Don into the fog, and Don was terrified the Phantom had condemned him to endless wandering. “No, Spirit! Oh no, no!”

The Phantom’s finger pointed the way unrelentingly.

“Spirit!” Don cried, clutching at its sport coat. “Hear me! I am not the man I was. I can be more sinister and controlling; you know I have it in me. I can get better at manipulating the course of events. I can cast out the rubes and the peasants from the inner sanctum while protecting the likes of you and me. Jane, she once believed in me. Ask her now for some recommendation of my worth.”

But the Phantom wavered not.

“Surely you’re not saying Jane is nothing more than overseer herself, that her chain is as long as yours and mine,” Don said.

The finger.

“Why show me this, if I am past all hope?” In his agony, Don caught the spectral hand. It sought to free itself, but he was strong in his entreaty, and detained it. The Spirit, stronger yet, repulsed him.

Holding up his hands in a last prayer to have his fate reversed, Don saw an alteration in the Phantom’s face and dress. It shrunk, collapsed, and dwindled down into a bedpost.

THE END OF IT

Don awoke with a start in his own bed. His dear wife lay beside him and he shook her awake to share the revelation that had come to him over the course of these three terrible visitations.

“Where’s some paper and something to write with!” Don said. “I must make a hit list right away. I’ve got to be everything Ed Sandhop was and then some. Hurry, help me! Or the whole town is going to hell in a hand basket. I have seen it!”

“I’ll make some coffee,” she said.

Don had a dozen names on the hit list before the coffee was ready.

“Shouldn’t you be buying turkeys for indigent families or sending Christmas cards to the naysayers, Don?” his wife said.

“I’ve got to call the churches and Jane, Sally, who else? I can’t be expected to fill out this new hit list by myself. You know those naysayers have one and we can’t be without one, either,” Don said. “Wait, I’m sure Jane’s got names left over from Sandhop’s day. The list just needs to be updated.”

Then Don’s body suddenly felt very heavy, weighted by coils of iron. He looked down and saw the yards of heavy links that Sandhop had been schlepping around in Don’s wretched dreams.

“You totally missed the point,” his wife said. “Ed Sandhop gave his life to the Gibbs when he could have done anything, gone anywhere, been anybody. And here we are, and you’re doing the same thing. Don, we’ll always be newcomers here if we stay here twenty more years.”

Don felt on the verge of tears. “But I’m a mover and a shaker,” he said. “If we’re not ‘in’ we’re ‘out.’ If we’re not ‘in,’ we might as well be named Wagamon.”

“What does that matter?” his wife said. “Huntsville is a pretty place where good people can live a simple and uncomplicated life. There are lovely people here and fun things to do, things that accomplish next to nothing but uplift the soul or gladden the heart. There is so much that people like us can do to make this a better place, a happier place, a caring place for those less fortunate. Live and let live, Don, and you set yourself free. You’ll be saved once you realize you have nothing to prove.”

So Don did it; he stood and let the chains of ambition and discord fall from him, and his soul soared. His wife beamed at him with the love and joy of their first days together.

“God bless us, everyone,” she said.

Suicide Caucus

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Jet lag is a motherfucker, and in my dreams, I could still hear the undulations of the Grand Canal against the stone walls of my Venetian hotel.

“You live a charmed life. No real job, travel the globe on Mom and Pop’s dime,” Johnny Stompanato said when I staggered into the kitchen for a cup of coffee. “He does, this bright boy.”

“Just don’t ask him about his girlfriend,” said my father, sitting across the table from Johnny Stomp, both in nearly matching Hawaiian shirts.

“You lose another one?” Johnny said.

“She went on to Paris without me,” I said, pouring weak-ass Folger’s into an SHSU mug, “I haven’t heard from her since.”

“Charm and good looks will only get you so far, Bobby,” my mother said.

“What are you two up to this morning?” I asked Johnny and my father.

“I’m going to put up Andy Brauninger signs in Ward 1,” Dad said.

“And I’m coming right behind him taking them down,” Johnny said.

“That’s not nice,” my mother said.

I laughed at the sidelong glance Johnny Stomp gave my mother, the Rachel Willeford supporter who accused Brauninger—a man she’s never met—of being the George Russell Manchurian in the race to fill James Fitch’s unexpired council term. But Willeford, after a three-week dodge of the voters of HTX, finally announced she was dropping out to follow her financial advisor husband to Georgia.

From Italy, we followed the theories and rumors about Willeford’s withdrawal on Facebook. I had my own: She’s not dropping out,  she’s getting a divorce.

“That’s not nice,” my mother said.

“It’s not nice that she refuses to tell the voters what her plans are,” said my girlfriend, Carissa, who had come with us on our tour of Italy.  “It’s not very nice to Andy Brauninger, either. Does he keep campaigning, keep putting up signs, keep printing up mail-outs?”

He would have to do that anyway, I said. It’s too late to take Rachel’s name off the ballot. She could still win, but since she can’t exactly vote  “yea” when Don Johnson tells her to from Georgia, the seat would be vacant another year, long enough for Sally Nelson and Maria Thodos, aka McIver, to find another nicely coiffed straw dog.

“Bob! Now I just won’t have that kind of talk,” said my mother as we sipped espresso at a sidewalk café. “No one in Huntsville is devious enough to pull something like that. You’ll see. Rachel will let everyone know she’s leaving as soon as it’s convenient.”

Mom was right. Finally, after her husband announced at a meeting full of Establishment wags that he had been transferred out of state, Rachel came clean in the Huntsville Item and justified her tardiness by explaining that her husband’s clients had to be notified first.

“What are we, chopped liver?” my father said. “I understand wanting his clients to know, but couldn’t we all get the news at the same time?”

“Rachel thinks council is just another Huntsville civic club she’s been invited to join. It’s not business,” Carissa said. “Business comes first and thirty-thousand taxpaying citizens can jolly well take a number.”

“That’s not very nice,” my mother said, and I tensed at the white-hot lasers that flashed from Carissa’s eyes. My girlfriend was about to fuck my mother up in a country where I didn’t want to go to jail (Amanda Knox), so I stood up and held out my hand to her. “Hey, honey, let’s go shoe shopping!”

Now, here in late October, even my mother was going to vote for Andy Brauninger. The thought that Fitch’s council seat would stay empty another year if Rachel “won” was more objectionable to her than risking a vote on an independent thinker or, worse, a naysayer water boy.

“That’s nice, dear,” my father said. “I admire your civic spirit.”

“Me, too,” I said.

“Boooolshit,” Johnny Stomp said. “There’s no such thing as an ‘independent thinker’ in this town. You’re either run by those drunk, oobatz liberals like that fanuk kid with the suspenders—what’s his fucking name?— or you want what’s best for this community. Don Johnson says we can’t count on Brauninger to play for our team, so that means he’s wearing the crazy town jersey. End of discussion.”

“Boooolshit,” I said. “Brauninger is the perfect candidate for council. He’s Clyde Loll with time and ethics, and he’s not afraid of the Johnson cartel—they can’t do shit to him, he’s retired. He’s never even met George Russell, and I doubt the Big Mashugana’s famous terror tactics would make him blink, either.”

“Fuck what you know, bright boy,” Johnny said. “These days, the tea party and the Liberty Caucus vet and run these fuckers for office after making them sign a pledge they won’t raise taxes, no way no how. That’s how they lined up Ronnie Allen, Ronnie White, Fitch, Scudder and now Brauninger and Joey Rod.”

“This does not compute,” my father said. “How can Kendall Scudder be a flaming liberal and a card-carrying member of the tea party at the same time? How can you sit here one day calling Obama a red-winged devil and then today tell me Huntsville’s libertarians and tea party conservatives are the spawns of Satan?”

“Because Johnson & Co. said so,” Johnny said. “If we can’t raise your taxes, we can’t stock our government slush funds, which means we can’t develop the west side or build things for Sam Houston State, and that means a lot of Huntsville’s richest and sneakiest shysters can’t earn. These homegrown anti-tax terrorists got to get with the program. Fine, screw with Washington, but around here you better shut the fuck up and do what you’re told.”

“Nice,” I said. “Why don’t you link up with our liberals? They might fall for your tax and spend crap.”

“Working on it, kid,” Johnny said. “They lap up our civility shit  like warm milk spiked with cheap bourbon, and then they fill up their Facebook pages with whatever we tell them to.” Johnny Stomp chuckled like Tony Soprano counting vig. “Beautiful. Too bad there ain’t more of them.”

“Can’t you see you’re committing political suicide?”

My dad smacked his forehead. “Bob, shhhh!”

“More and more folks are starting to see through your scams, people who want low taxes and real economic development that brings in jobs,” I said. “That’s a bipartisan fantasy based on accountability and responsibility—not some shady opportunism that has to be window-dressed with smiley bullshit out front and pushed through with threats and intimidation behind the scenes.”

“We can make all youse sound like raving lunatics any time we want,” Johnny said. “Ask the Best Council Ever. Ask Kendall Scudder.”

“You better not count those Ward 2 chicks before they’re hatched,” my father said. “Not everybody’s fooled by Tish’s sloppy Bearkat rah-rah and all her experience from under Gene Pipes.”

I choked on my coffee and my mother slapped me hard between the shoulder blades.

“They know who Tish works for. They know she’s got to fill that seat for Johnson & Co.,” Dad said. “That means raising taxes for special interests.”

“You fucking liberals,” Johnny said. “Always crying about special interests.”

“Since when is small local government ‘liberal’? Since when is zero-based budgeting ‘liberal’?” I said. “You know what’s not ‘conservative’? A ten and a half percent tax increase and a one million dollar budget deficit. What about trying to get a two million dollar tax-funded water line to your property under the guise of a university research park?”

“I wondered about that, too,” my mother said tentatively.

That from Mom was the last straw for Johnny Stomp. “Well, fuck all youse anyhow. As Don Johnson’s sitting at the head of the table, I’m gonna eat, and your limp-wristed mayor and your true blood minority ain’t gonna change that. Now excuse me while I get the fugatz.”

Mom got between Stomp and the kitchen door. “You’re not really going out there to pull up Andy Brauninger signs, are you?”

“Naw, little lady, I’m gonna go vote for Rachel Willeford so I can cancel at least one of youse out,” he said and patted her cheek. “Now, ain’t that nice?”

Cake or Death?

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Carissa and I had come from the summer cotillion that I had been forced to attend. I say “forced” because no bloke wants to attend a cotillion, which involves a monkey suit, pre-cotillion purchases of chrysanthemums bound in satin ribbon and treacherous pins and the need to stay sober enough to remain gentlemanly yet wittily charming at all times, even when being asked questions that rake through scabbed-over ego ulcerations such as, “So what do you do for a living, Bob?”

By the end of the evening I had acquitted myself well—except for a miniscule tear in a strategic piece of red lace, my fault though not through a boorish gesture but the unfortunate snag of a cufflink as I removed her wrap. “Don’t worry, Bobby baby,” Carissa said. “It can be mended.”

“I’ll buy you a new one,” I said, and she smiled gently because Bob actually can’t put together enough change for a domestic beer during happy hour.

I dropped Carissa off at the family compound at Elkins Lake and went to mine, where I found a woman about my age sitting in the living room with my parents. Nobody was drunk, so I figured she must be a newcomer to the neighborhood. She jumped to her feet as soon as I walked in, still in my suit and tie. The bright gleam in her eye said she was happy to see me, yet I noticed right away she was wearing a big rock and platinum band on her ring finger.

“Yes, he is very handsome,” my mother said, “but he doesn’t have a job and no prospects, and despite all you see here, he’s not independently wealthy.”

So, maybe they were drunk.

“Mom, I have a girlfriend,” I said and then I smiled at the new neighbor. “And you’re married.”

The woman blushed and extended her hand. She wore a yellow floral dress with a retro full skirt, she had bobbed red hair, brown eyes, and a golden brown tan. She looked like a perky girl detective, like she must have driven up in a roadster. “Jennifer Wisocki,” she said.

“She doesn’t look Japanese and neither does her husband,” my dad said.

“I bet Wisocki is Polish,” I said, while she beamed at me in a way I was accustomed to. It was usually followed by, “Oh, you have such cute dimples,” to which I responded, “Yes, but they’re a bitch to shave.”

“Jennifer has just moved down here with her husband. He has a job at the college,” my mother said.

“We love it here,” Jennifer said. “We’ve met so many nice people.”

My dad snorted. My mother elbowed him in the ribs. Jennifer’s eyes were still on mine, so I pulled another smile from the reserve of cotillion charm still left in me. “I’m glad.”

Then Jennifer left. I went upstairs to hang up my suit and then I came back downstairs for a glass of water. Mother was at the kitchen table working a crossword puzzle.

“How was the cotillion?”

“Don’t ever do that to me again.”

“How did Carissa like it?”

“She loved it.”

“She has money, Bob,” Mom said. “You do whatever she wants. If she likes cotillions, you like cotillions.”

“Ma, I want to take care of her, not the other way around,” I said, swallowing a Xanax.

“You’d better get cracking, Bob,” said my father, standing in the threshold in his PJs. “That Carissa has the longest legs I’ve ever seen.” Looking at me over my mother’s head bent over the crossword puzzle, he nodded at me significantly. “Your mother’s very long waisted,” he said, putting his hands on his own hips. “Little short legs.”

“You two are disgusting,” my mother said.

“So, you met a new friend,” I said.

“You sure Wisocki isn’t Japanese?” my father said.

“What’s her story?” I said.

“She’s thirty-seven. Used to make good money herself but left it so she could come here with her husband. From Dallas. Two little boys. She’s a Baptist. I don’t know about him. If he’s Polish, I guess he’s Catholic, right?” Mom said, never looking up. “Renting a place around the corner from the Mondays until they can buy. What’s a three-letter word for ‘anger’?”

“Ire,” I said. “I-R-E.”

“Oh, I knew that.”

That was back in August. We didn’t see Jennifer Wisocki again until the week after Labor Day when she returned the plate my mother used to deliver brownies to her boys on their first day of school. But Mom wasn’t home, just Carissa and I. We were lounging in the shade of the backyard with the water mister blowing on us, and we invited Jennifer in for Chianti and antipasto. She was nothing like the woman I met on cotillion night. The playful gleam in her eyes, the flowery extravagance of her presence was gone, withered.

“This is very nice. So unexpected,” she said and smiled wanly. “And you’re such a gorgeous couple.”

Carissa cut her eyes over the bowl of her wine glass at me and gave me a look uniquely hers, one that conveys warm, silky and secret streams of carnality. I’m sure Jennifer never noticed, but I had to cross my legs. “So, Jenn. How’s it going?”

Jennifer’s wholesome freckled face crumpled, and we were afraid she might cry.

“We can’t find a house to buy. They’re all ridiculously over priced for the space and condition they’re in. The schools are terrible. My boys are repeating work they had in Dallas this time last year. It’s like they’ve both been held back a grade. There’s no good place to buy groceries. I can’t find a job. My doctor asked me what church we went to and then got irritated when I wouldn’t tell him. Nobody ever asked us that in Dallas. What does that mean? If we don’t go to his church he won’t treat us? And we’ve switched congregations twice. The first two someone said something horrible, and one time it was the pastor himself. And they wanted to make sure we knew who to vote for in the local election in November. At church! And we’re not even registered to vote yet.”

“Welcome to Huntsville,” I said.

“How do people like you live here?” Jennifer said, and then she did cry, two crystal  orbs rolling down the tanned and prominent cheekbones of her girl detective face.

“Get her a tissue,” Carissa said, and I jumped up, grateful to have a chore that would take me away for a moment.

I was conflicted, of course, having been born and raised in Huntsville, having missed these tall pines, spring wildflowers and the drawl of soft voices when away in cold, hard places like Boston and New York. But I knew exactly what Jennifer had run into.

Carissa met me in the kitchen as I was rushing back with a box of tissues. “Don’t try to recruit her,” she said urgently.

“For what?”

“Naysayers,” Carissa said. “She’s also met George Russell.”

“Crap,” I said.

“Don’t talk shit about anyone, don’t call anyone a crook, a liar or a hater,” Carissa said. “Just be sweet and follow my lead.”

We rejoined our guest, who was still weeping. “Tell him what you just told me,” Carissa said, pouring Jennifer another glass of Chianti.

“Oh, well, I was just telling Carissa that my husband and I were invited to a party and [this older lady] pulled me aside. We had a wonderful chat for a few minutes and I really liked her. She seemed very smart and on top of things, a real go-getter. I wanted to sign up for whatever she needed me to do. Then she started telling me about how Huntsville was infested with evil people and that Richard and I must stay away from them at all costs. She didn’t say ‘or else,’ but she might as well have.”

Of course, Carissa and I knew who this lady was and I bet you do, too.

“I kept asking her which people she meant and what they did that made them so evil.”  Jennifer’s eyes welled again and she dabbed at them with tissue. “She told me about this horrible man—this crazy George Russell person—who makes pornography about young girls being stabbed to death and their bodies eaten. So I just about died when I finally ran into him. He  looked down the front of my dress and then asked me to be in one of his movies. Just like Mrs.— said he would.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said, and Carissa patted Jennifer’s shoulder.

“ Mrs.— said this man was in control of a group of zombies who do terrible things to anyone who tries to run for office or start a new business. They make up things about you and call and email you to tell you if you don’t stop, it will only get worse. And they’re growing all the time. They’re evil, she said. Pure evil. And they can only be stopped if the good people here stay away from them, far, far away. So Richard and I, of course, we want to be good people, too. So we thought we’d stick close to Mrs.— and her people. Go to the doctor’s office they told us to go to. Have lunch or dinner with who we’re supposed to. But it all started feeling very ‘Rosemary’s Baby.’ And then one night Richard and I got a sitter and met some of his students at [a certain bar]. A few days later I got an invitation to one of the ladies’ clubs and, without even thinking, I mentioned that we’d been to that [bar].

‘Oh, no!’ they said. ‘You can’t be seen in there. That’s one of their strongholds, the evil people.’  I just laughed it off and said something about not seeing anyone with horns and a forked tail in there, but these women didn’t think it was funny at all, and I haven’t been invited back.

“Then yesterday one of the professors called Richard an asshole when he caught him explaining eminent domain to a group of students and accused him of hating veterans. But Richard fought in the first Gulf War and his dad died in Vietnam. The guy said, ‘Look, you’d better pick sides quick in this town or we’ll pick them for you.’  Pick sides? I just don’t understand!”

It was all I could do to keep my mouth shut as Jennifer sobbed a few seconds more. Then she dried her eyes and looked off into the sunny backyard where the lawn sprinklers were going full blast just like the water mister despite a third month of water restrictions.

“It’s like being invited in for cake when the choice is ‘or death,’ ” Jennifer said. “Tea and cake or death? We’re moving to The Woodlands.”

“Oh, no. I hope you don’t do that,” Carissa said. “We need nice, normal people to move here and stay.”

“That’s right, Jenn,” I said. “You should stand up for yourself. Socialize with whomever you want to wherever you want to. Pick your own doctor and your own church.”

Jennifer lifted her chin defiantly. “You’re right. I should.”

“That’s the spirit,” I said. “Put campaign signs in your yard. Vote for whoever you want to. Write letters to the editor, speak up at public meetings. It’s your right as an American cit—”

“Wait a minute,” Jennifer said, her eyes widening in sudden recognition. “Oh, my God, I haven’t been sitting here with—. You’re not—. You’re mother isn’t—? And you’re father, he’s not—?” She jumped to her feet. “Oh, shit! You’re him! The evil son!”

And then Jennifer almost tripped over the barbecue pit to get to the sliding glass door, which—thankfully—gave me time to throw it open before she burst through it and cut herself to pieces. Carissa and I watched her stumble through the house and out the front door. Too bad for her it was still daylight.

Carissa smacked me upside the head.

“Nice job, Patrick Henry,” she said. “We almost got one.”

Your land is my land

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Once upon a time there was a little girl named Dana who pulled the wings off butterflies until she realized she could get her brother, Alvin, to do it and it was just as much fun.

Dana sent Al around with a big fat magic marker to write her name on other people’s shit, and when she wanted it, she sent Al to take it. Then, by the time they were teenagers, Dana and Alvin were stealing cars. Here’s how that worked. They would find some hooptie for sale in the classifieds and as soon as somebody bought it, Dana would send Al around to scare them into selling it for half of what they’d paid for it.

“We didn’t know this car was for sale,” Al would say. “And we need it to take our crippled old granny to the doctor.”

“Fuck off, greaser,” the buyer would say. “I answered the ad in the paper and bought it fair and square.”

“Sell it to us—or else,” Al would say, clenching his teeth and balling his fists.

“Or else what, you juvenile delinquent?” the buyer would say.

And then he would find out. Al would come in the night with a tow truck and winch, haul off the car and it would sit in granny’s driveway until she really was old and crippled. But Al would leave behind a little cash on the buyer’s doorstep. Not exactly grand theft auto. And this served the greater good.

Of course, I am totally making this up. I don’t know if SHSU President Doctor Dana Gibson has a little brother, and even though I can totally see her pulling the wings off things, I don’t know for certain she did that either.

I do know that she’s a coward and so do you.

That’s why you don’t see her anywhere in the mix in Huntsville’s latest reality show episode, “SHSU Land Grab.” Doctor Dana is up in the Ivory Tower filing her acrylic nails while her poor secretary fends off the public and Al Hooten, the Hand of the Queen, makes a fool of himself in the press.

Don’t you wish you were at the meeting in which Dana and Al cooked up the best public relations scheme in Sam Houston’s history?

Dana: “What are we going to do, Al? The regents didn’t give us permission to bid on the old Armory building yet and now that tattooed A-Rab is gonna get it!”

Al: “Cool your jets, Dana. I’ll tell council to eighty-six the asshole’s bid. I’ll say we didn’t know it was for sale and Maalouf swooped in on his camel and stole it out from under our Master Plan. I’ll bring Yebra and some other humble-pie, buzz-cut veterans with me for show and tell during public comment. Piece of cake, sisterwoo.”

Dana: “You’re sure there’s no public record emails showing that we asked for the appraised value of the land twelve days before the bid closed?”

Al: “Pish posh, my queen. Leave this to your Hand. All the usual fixes are in. We can count on Mac to step out of the room while we bludgeon the A-Rab to a pulp. And, of course, there’s Don Johnson and his five guaranteed votes.”

Dana: “Ah, yes. Well just for good measure call the Plumber and tell him to show up at council in a red, white and blue shirt to underscore the point with the peasants. I mean public. Are you sure we can’t have them pipe in the theme from ‘Patton’ while you speak?”

But in a stunning upset on July 2, things didn’t go SHSU’s way. City council accepted Tarek Maalouf’s bid for $50,000 over the $600,000 appraised value. Cha-ching! And Hooten stormed out of council chambers in a transvestite-grade huff. (Also, it’s not nice to use veterans to lie to the public. I hear they don’t like that too much.)

Hooten’s head might be on a pike right now if Gibson had another good candidate for Right Hand. You know how capricious these queens can be. But Hooten’s still coming to work. And we don’t know why Don Johnson didn’t deliver what HMH board gal pal Gibson wanted or why Joe the Plumber of Ward 1 didn’t vote with the rest of council to accept the sole bid for the land. Council’s entire discussion occurred, probably illegally according to TOMA, behind closed doors in executive session. (I like what you did, just not the way you did it.)

Too bad the Huntsville Item missed it when, at the August 20 council meeting, Emmett finally revealed why he would rather kiss SHSU’s ass than add commercial property to the tax rolls. He’s ditched economic development to campaign on Prohibition.

First he wanted to send the cops to shut down Maalouf’s bars on Sam Ave for public “harassment” because of the noise they send bouncing over the rooftops of Ward 1. Chief Lunsford explained that, this not being a totalitarian police state, such a move was probably not legal.

Then Emmett went on and on about the fire station sharing the driveway with what he is sure will be yet another Maalouf bar. Mayor Woodward assured him the fire chief was FINE with it and Tish Humphrey—yes, you read that right—politely told him to shut the fuck up so council could move on.

The Item didn’t even mention the Bizzaro World spectacle of Jack Wagamon commending council for acting in favor of economic development while invoking the infamous words of Lanny Ray, “taking the hard right over the easy wrong,” as Don Johnson smiled benevolently.

If things keep going like this, errbody in HTX might one day get along, and I would be out of a job.

Tarek spoke at council, too, showing signs he’s dug in, no matter how many times Gibson’s good ol’ errand boys wheedle him or Greg Abbott’s thugs threaten him. If Tarek can hold onto his land, that might save other small businesses in the blue and orange zones that Gibson has claimed for her empire building. And Al and Dana might learn what it feels like when a couple of bullies finally get punched in the nose and all the other kids laugh.

How to become a naysayer

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“So,” I said to my father after he’d watched his first Huntsville City Council meeting since voting “no” on the doomed $65.5 million school bond election, “you want to become a naysayer. Well, I applaud your goal. But becoming a naysayer is, as you realize, a significant and life-changing event. It is not a small matter by any means.”

“I understand,” my father said. “Are you going to turn me away three times like the Jews?”

I shook my head and smiled warmly, my hand on his shoulder. “When a hater like you wants to become a naysayer, the rabbis—I mean the rabble rousers—are required to try to dissuade him. Only the very sincere make it through the entire process.”

“I’m ready,” my father said. “That Don Johnson guy is a lying jerk. And most of the rest of them are morons and tools. Where do I sign up? Wagamon Printing?”

“Patience, Dad,” I said. “Becoming a naysayer means that most of what you were taught about economic development and raising taxes until now will be irrelevant, and in many cases wrong. You must drop everything taught to you by whatever gr–d-heads you once followed or read about. People sometimes ask me, ‘Can I convert to naysayerism and still believe in the Old Mayors?’ The answer is no. This is not something negotiable in naysayerism. Naysayer doctrine about Gr–d is core and inviolate. Non-naysayer beliefs about Gr–d invalidate a conversion (and faith in Bill Green is a prime example of a non-naysayer belief about Gr–d, no matter what anyone tells you). So this could be a major change for anyone contemplating conversion to naysayerism. If this is difficult for you, then you should not be considering conversion at all.”

Dad poured us both another round of single malt Scotch as we sat under the dimmed chandelier above the dining room table. In the kitchen, my mother was baking an apple pie to take to a Christian Women’s luncheon.

“Okay, so no more rounds of golf with Bill Green,” he said, “and I’ll pull over and piss on his monument on Veterans’ Memorial at least once a week.”

“You must also accept the fact that the Constitution, penal code, open government acts and city charter define what is right and what is wrong, what is a conflict of interest and what is public record, what elevates a person and what lowers him. Human beings do not make those determinations. Chamber presidents, hospital CEOs, judges and DAs, city council members and county commissioners don’t actually police themselves, and every decision they make is subject to established law,” I said.

“Got it,” Dad said. “I can no longer admire a backroom deal, the strong-arm tactic or an illegal executive session.”

“Dad, your lifestyle will also change, as well as the way you think about many things. Even the meaning of some words will change, especially if you have been a hater: words like ‘civility,’ ‘community partner,’ ‘economic development,’ ‘synergy,’ ‘indictment,’ and others.”

I reached across the table and, for the first time since I was eight or nine years old, I took my father’s hand. His eyes in their baggy sockets welled with tears.

“It also means that your relationships will change. Not all your friends will be happy that you’ve become a naysayer. Worse yet, your family members—even Mom—might disown you, as often happens.

“When your Rotary Club buddies sit down to eat a meal, you will often not be allowed to join them. You won’t even be able to attend some of their joyous occasions, like poker games and the Chamber Gala. Nor will you be allowed to attend Jane Monday’s Derby Day parties or sing in the Men’s Choir.”

“Man,” Dad said, shaking his head. “Your mother’s going to shit about Derby Day.”

“She’ll get over it,” I said.

“What about George Russell? Is he going to start making sense all of a sudden? Will I want to bank-roll slasher porn and forget to wash my feet?”

“No!” my mother yelled from the kitchen.

“But you might vote for a known Democrat if he’s running for City Council,” I said.

“Shit,” Dad said, his face in his hands. By the mournful way in which he ran his hands over his nearly bald head, I was sure this was the deal breaker.

“As a convert to naysayerism,” I said, “you will be a naysayer—a full-fledged naysayer. Think about the word ‘naysayer’ for a minute. It’s a title we bear proudly, yet it’s a word that comes from many mouths as a curse and insult. Of course, that’s stupid. It’s like when a little boy thinks he’s insulting a girl by calling her ‘girl!’ Not only is it not an insult, but it should be borne proudly and openly.”

“Proudly and openly,” Dad said.

“Yes, once you become a naysayer, you will bleed naysayer blood,” I said.

“So if they round up all you naysayers in the middle of the night and gas you in a chamber, they’ll come for me, too?”

“Yes!” my mother yelled from the kitchen.

“And once you have become a naysayer, then the Old Mayors, the chamber of commerce, the Rotarians, all the churches in town, even the Optimist Club, will say you are always a naysayer, even if you stop believing,” I said.

“Can’t I just sit back and vote against their tax and spend horseshit when it comes up?” Dad said.

“If it were only that simple. When you join the naysayers, you become equally responsible for watching out for their every shady move and you suffer with us together,” I said. “I must warn you of this, however: Do not announce your intentions in a public forum over the Internet. And think twice before writing a letter to the editor. If you do, you are likely to get dozens of emails from every sort of crank and idiot that exists. Then, after Mickey Evans gets wise to you, you’ll be off their email list and added to ours. It isn’t worth the annoyance.”

Mom, while eavesdropping in the kitchen, had become inspired. Bright-eyed with urgency, she ran into the dining room.

“Honey, maybe you could reform the naysayers, teach them how to be less nasty and more reasonable. Just like this thing, this monument to Bill Green on the veterans’ parkway. There was no reason to talk about the man like that on TV, like he was a common criminal. Was there? I mean, if this is really just about raising taxes and school bond elections, you can be nice about it, can’t you?”

Dad wavered, obviously in the final struggle with his inner demons. I refreshed his drink.

“I’ll be as nice as they let me be. But as soon as they start pulling shit, I’m going to throw down,” Dad said. “We’ve got to stand up and be counted.  We need to show up at public meetings in uniform or something so these jokers realize just how many of us there are now.”

“Maybe you could wear SHSU polo shirts,” Mom said.  “Everybody’s for the Bearkats. That looks unifying rather than dividing.”

“We’d look like a bunch of bright-orange pussies,” Dad said.

“Mom, the haters don’t want to unify this town,” I said. “They need division. It’s their smoke screen. They’d lose almost everyone in their ranks but the most hard-core grafters if they didn’t lie and steal and then bait everyone who disagrees with them into looking like paranoid assholes.”

Dad rose to his feet. “We need armor and pole-axes. We need horses and banner men. We need a flag!”

“How about something like this?” my mother said.

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“No, no, no,” my father said. “Too many of us have been tiptoeing around these crooks for decades. Let’s show them we’re serious:”

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“Holy shit,” my mother said. “Bob, talk some sense into your father!”

“I bet Delora King would hoist this bad boy,” Dad said.

“Oh, I’m sure she would, ” Mom said. “Tish Humphrey still cries when she talks about what Delora said to her at her first council meeting.”

“And you can forget ‘naysayers,’ Bob. That word belongs to the victims, not the victors, and winter is coming,” my father said. “Lock and load, kid. It’s election season. From now on, we’re not naysayers. We’re NAYSLAYERS.”

Just then, the oven timer went “ding.”

“Oh, good Lord,” said my mother as she ran to take out the apple pie before it burned.  “Converts are always the worst.”

The Stuff of Dreams

spadeAll characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

THREE

Butch Jackson’s body was still at the morgue when Maggie called in a painter to remove his name from the doors and windows of what had once been the Fractal Bob-Jackson Detective Agency.

When Maggie arrived at work that morning, Frack was sporting a long past five o’clock shadow, his breath smelled of bourbon and he needed a change of shirt. Detectives Raymond and Wagstaff were in Frack’s office, examining the .38 that Fractal Bob had taken off the little hood who’d broken into his office before dawn.

A Colt just like it had killed Butch, and Frack had once carried one, too, when he, Wagstaff and Raymond had been cops on the same beat.

“Don’t try to pin anything on me,” Frack said. “I haven’t carried a heater like that since I left the force. It’s too bulky for a man in my line of work.”

“Your line of work,” Raymond scoffed.

The trouble was, there were a lot of .38s mixed up in Butch’s untimely death. Too many. Not only did the little hood Joel Crock have one, but so did Butch himself. So did Councilman Finch—or rather the ex-councilman—the man Frack and Butch had been hired to protect.

“I didn’t know he was a cop, too.” Frack said.

“Finch had been trying to pass some law keeping thieves from fencing grandma’s stolen gold locket when somebody did him in,” Wagstaff said. “Councilmen Simpleton and Smirkle tried to keep it off the books.”

“If you ask me, only a couple of crooks would try to stymie a law like that,” Frack said. “But whoever killed old Butchie got the drop on him good and proper. He hadn’t drawn his own gun and his overcoat was still buttoned.”

“Somebody he knew,” Wagstaff said. “Or somebody he wasn’t afraid of.”

“That probably leaves out any hood,” Frack said. “Maybe a dame, a friend, a cop or somebody important.”

Raymond snapped his fingers. “That’s right! Councilman Simpleton used to be a cop, too, and he invented a bullet for this very gun.”

Frack laughed dryly. “If you say so. But it sounds like you boys better pay Simpleton a little visit, see if you can get to the bottom of this.”

“Innocent until proven guilty,” Raymond said.

“So I’ve heard. They tell me that’s what juries are for,” Frack said.

Just then Butch’s fiancée burst in. She was a knockout. The cops noticed.

“What’s with the painter outside, Frack? Butch has been gone less than a day, and you’ve already rubbed out all trace of him,” she said. “You’re a cold-hearted little bitch.”

“Butch’s girl,” Frack told Wagstaff and Raymond. “Miss Darlene Splendor. Evidence that Butch was at least lucky at something.”

Raymond stepped forward. “We may need to ask you some questions, Miss Splendor,” he said. “Where were you when Butch was plugged?”

Darlene made a fist. “Stow that patter or I’ll give you a knuckle sandwich.”

The boys were smitten. Wagstaff took Darlene by the arm. “You’ll need to come downtown with us.” He looked over his shoulder at Fractal Bob and winked. “But we’ll play nice. Scout’s honor.”

When the detectives had gone, Frack shed the day-old shirt and, in trousers and wife beater, shaved at the small sink in a corner of his office. Maggie produced a fresh shirt and a cup of coffee.

“What did you do with Miss Musucara?” he said.

“She’s with Mother,” Maggie said.

“Oh? And what does Mother think of that?” Frack said, wiping shaving cream from his face. He reached for his clean shirt.

“She was on the verge of a green hemorrhage,” Maggie said, tying Frack’s tie, “but I told her Musucara was a witness you needed to hide before somebody put a bullet in her.”

“That’s not far from the truth.”

There was a knock at the outer door and Maggie hurried to answer it. Frack had settled in behind his desk with his coffee when Maggie slipped back in.

“It’s the floogie from yesterday,” she said. “She insists on seeing you. I think she’s running away.”

Frack had Maggie send the woman in. She was in quite a state: peroxide curls whorled around a pale, angry face, and her tiny eyes were as wide as they would go. But she’d made an attempt to gussy up—in a new hat, flowered dress and open-toed pumps—and she carried a small battered suitcase.

“You told them what I told you,” she said as soon as she stepped inside. “Are you trying to get me killed?”

“Look, sister, I sent my partner to keep an eye on Councilman Finch on your word there was trouble in store, and he took a bullet for it, so don’t bother telling me what kind of danger you’re in,” Frack said. “Who are these people you’re mixed up with and what’s so important?”

Maggie stepped in to smooth things over. “Won’t you sit down, Miss—?” she said. “How about a cup of coffee?”

But Miss— wasn’t in the mood for a polite chat. She leaned over the desk and jabbed a red-nailed talon in Frack’s face. “I should have called the cops, but they’re in on it, too. Your people! Ransacking my place, going through my things. You think I don’t know what you’re looking for?”

“I don’t ransack, sister, and neither do my ‘people.’ You got me confused with the  hoods and gunsels you hang around with,” Frack said. “I’d take this up with them.”

“I’m leaving,” the woman said. “I’m going far, far away from here so none of you can touch me. Maybe I’ll get into the pictures and one day, you’ll all see me on the silver screen and feel sorry for how you treated me.”

Then she hoisted the small suitcase, which she dropped on Frack’s desk.  “You people want it so bad, you can have it.”

“What’s this?” he said.

“You’re so smart, you figure it out,” Miss— said, and then she turned on her heels, leaving the case on the desk.

“Good night, nurse,” Maggie said after Miss— had slammed the door behind her.

“Poor sob sister. She’s all right,” Frack said. “She thought she’d finally made the big time only to find out she’d been used again.”

“Open it, Frack,” Maggie said.

“You open it, angel,” he said. “If it’s full of her unmentionables, I don’t want to know. I haven’t had my breakfast yet.”

“Let’s hope it’s not locked,” Maggie said.

It wasn’t. Maggie opened the suitcase and whatever was inside cast a bright light over her face, bathing it in a queer absinthe green glow. Frack looked on in alarm as Maggie’s eyes almost burst from their sockets and her mouth dropped open.

“What is it?” he said.

Maggie turned the suitcase around so Frack could see for himself. He felt the same greenish glow on his face as his jaw, too, went slack with surprise, his eyes widened and the muscles in his gut knotted. He snapped the case shut. “Quick, precious, lock this in the safe.”

. . .

 Carissa Musucara appeared, looking stunning in a crisply tailored red suit—even though she had not slept a wink after having been spirited from her well-appointed room at the Belvedere and dumped in a small bedroom in Maggie’s mother’s flat a few blocks uptown.

Maggie opened the suitcase for Carissa, and Frack noted that the green glow no longer phased him, not like the way in which awe transformed Carissa’s  soft eyes and bow-shaped lips. Stricken with shock, Carissa closed the case gently.

“So—what do you make of it?” Frack said.

“We must call the Colonel,” Carissa said, removing her hat and then her gloves. “Immediately.”

But Frack didn’t know the Colonel, so he insisted on making the first call, this one to Maggie’s brother, Hi Landsman, a retired newsman with more than his fair share of horse sense. Landsman left his backyard project to take the trolley downtown. As soon as he arrived, Maggie pulled the suitcase from the safe and threw it open. “What is it, Hi?” she said. “We’re all very nonplussed.”

Hi looked up from the suitcase, stroking his chin. He smiled. “You actually used that word correctly. Most people think it means ‘nonchalant’ or ‘blasé’ but it actually means ‘bewildered,’ as in ‘stopped in one’s tracks.’ It’s French for ‘no more.’ “

Incroyable!” Carissa muttered impatiently under her breath.

Hi closed the suitcase. “It’s stamped right here: ‘Property of the City.’ It’s the plans for the perfect public project. It’s exactly what the city needs, it won’t cost the taxpayers a dime, it will create hundreds of good jobs, it will be flawlessly executed by staff and contractors who know what they’re doing, and nobody can speak out against it without looking like a petty, delusional Scrooge. Whoever pushes this through will term-limit out as a city councilman and get a plaque nailed to it in his honor. This, my friends, is the stuff of dreams.”

So what was the floogie doing with it?” Frack said.

“What’s a ‘floogie?’ ” Hi said.

“This has to go straight back to City Hall,” Maggie said, grabbing the suitcase by the handle. But Frack, Hi and Carissa rushed to stop her.

“Look, angel, somebody lost or traded or stole this, then somebody found it and then somebody died over it,” Frack said. “Something smells fishy here. If it’s just a good piece of public policy, why all the hubbub? What the hell kind of town is this anyway?”

“A rotten one. I’ve been telling you that for years,” Hi said. “Got anything to drink?”

. . .

It took the Colonel hours to assemble his team in the gritty, dimly lit offices of Fractal Bob’s Detective Agency. Maggie entered Frack’s office to announce the leader of the motley crew of political eccentrics. “Col. Reginald E. Lighthouse,” she said.

Frack stood, extending his hand, “An honor, sir.”

“Ah, yes,” Lighthouse said as the others in his entourage gathered around. “It’s a pleasure to meet a man of service. You were wounded at the Western Front?”

“Just a little shrapnel in the hind quarters,” Frack said. “It only hurts when I sit down.

“My protégé,” Lighthouse said, introducing a young man in uniform, “Lt. Ken Dahl. He’s only stateside for a short time.” The handsome young soldier blushed as Carissa batted her lashes at him. Then Lighthouse seized upon the suitcase. “And how is it that you came by this interesting artifact, Fractal Bob?”

“It’s a mystery,” Maggie said. “Some no-name floogie brought it to us.”

“What’s a floogie?” Hi said.

Then, just as they had all gathered around the suitcase to open it, Frack’s favorite associate, Little Sister, bolted in wearing an overcoat and  moth-bitten fedora pulled down over her loose chestnut locks.

“Well, well. Look what the cat dragged in,” Frack said.

“Let’s see how you look after twelve hours on a Mexican train,” she said as she shed the hat and coat and hung them next to Frack’s on the stand at the window.

“Mexican train?” said Lt. Dahl. “What were you doing in Mexico?”

“Don’t ask,” Frack said.

And then they opened the suitcase. Frack stepped back to watch them gaze inside. Hi joined them. “You know what you’re looking at, don’t you?” he said.

Lighthouse began wringing his hands. “This is bad, very bad.” Carissa put her hand on the colonel’s arm to calm him. “No, it’s good, very good. We’ll return it to the best, most honest city councilman we have left and tell them we support it.”

“And the rest of the council will shoot it down,” Little Sister said. “They won’t let it see the light of day unless some fat cat can make a lot of dough out of the deal.”

“But wouldn’t that sap it completely of its power?” Frack said.

“Exactly,” Lighthouse said. “They won’t touch this. They can’t.”

“Not their orders,” Dahl said. “Not why they were elected.”

“They were elected to make rich people richer and this only benefits the taxpayers and local businesses and the generations of them to come,” Lighthouse said.

“Now you know why the floogie had it,” Maggie said. “It was all but worthless to Councilmen Smirkle and Simpleton and their friends. Maybe she was smart enough to see its value.”

“What’s a ‘floogie?’ ” Hi said, pulling a small dictionary from the pocket of his tweed jacket.

“What value?” Carissa said. “They won’t use it, and we can’t either. We don’t have enough seats on any council or commission, so we’ve got no power and no leverage.”

“And no public support,” Frack said, “because as far as the citizens know, you’re not for anything. You’re only against things. A golf course, a swimming pool, a research park, better schools, enough safe drinking water, a new highway, new shopping centers.”

Carissa bristled, and her cheeks flushed. “We’re not against any of those things. We’re against the graft and corruption—”

“The slush funds of taxpayer dollars, the illegal awards of bids, the shoddy construction, the open meetings act violations, the walking quorums, the conflicts of interest, the character assassination,” Lighthouse and his crew said. “Arson, murder, specially trained killer deer.”

“Listen to yourselves,” Frack said. “You sound like you escaped from the loony bin. Who can blame the rest of the town for dismissing you?”

“Shut up, Bob,” Little Sister said. “Whose side are you on?”

“The side of the little people, all Americans under one flag regardless of color or creed. Mom and Pop and their three kids. Our boys in PT boats in the South Pacific. Cops on the beat, firemen in firehouses. College students, senior citizens, widows and orphans, furry little critters that eat out of garbage cans. I’m even for the rights of fat cats, though they’re not for mine,” Frack said. “Whose side are you on?”

They fell silent for a moment, each pondering what to do with the suitcase.

“It’s a good thing the other side is so arrogant and stupid,” Hi said. “Can you imagine what would happen if they actually used this? If they, for once in their lives, thought about what’s best for the city rather than what’s best for  the greedheads and fat cats?”

They shuddered in union.

“It would mean they could do whatever they wanted forever and ever, and no one would listen to the likes of us again,” Carissa said. “There would be no hope for our candidates and no reason to bother writing another letter to the editor. They could pass any bond they wanted. They could give out our tax dollars to any shyster who stepped up to the podium in Council Chambers and asked for them.”

“The gratitude of a grateful city. Trust in government. A golden shield,” Little Sister said, “for every backroom deal to come.”

“Quick, Frack,” Maggie said. “Put that damn case back in your safe.”

And everyone agreed.

“Better change the combination,” Lighthouse said. “Just to be on the safe side.”

Frack crouched next to the safe with his hand on the dial. “To what?”

“Something easy to remember,” Maggie said.

Frack looked up at Carissa’s beautiful face, her huge green eyes doleful and tragic. Then he grinned at her, a tad too wolfishly for the somber mood of the room.  “Say, sweetheart,” he said, “tell me your measurements.”

THE END

The author wishes to salute the memory of Dashiell Hammett, John Huston and Humphrey Bogart and to give a slight nod to the short-lived career of Quentin Tarantino.

A Tough Day at the Office

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All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

TWO

The beat reporter from the newspaper caught Frack before he could burst through the door of Councilman Finch’s Bush Street apartment building. “What gives, Fractal Bob?” he said. “The cops are all very hush-hush.”

“Just a couple of rounds of who killed Cock Robin,” Frack said. “Talk to the DA. If you can find him sober.”

Frack followed detectives Raymond and Wagstaff inside. They rode the elevator to the fourth floor and as soon as they got off, they saw him. Councilman Finch, hopping around like a live one.

“Where’s the stiff?” Frack said.

The detective in Finch’s apartment took the other three to the window and pointed at a small form on the floor. “Here,” he said.

It was a bronze statue in the shape of an owl. Somebody had hurled it through the councilman’s window with a note, typewritten on a torn scrap of university stationery. “GET OUT,” it said. Signed, “Hoot.”

“Who do you suppose Hoot is?” Wagstaff said.

“Beats me,” Raymond said.

“What does Councilman Finch say?” Frack asked the detective, but before he could answer, a bustle of activity at the councilman’s door caught their eye.

“Look! Finch! He’s leaving,” Wagstaff said.

The detectives formed a clot in the doorway, blocking Finch’s path, and the pale-faced, bleary-eyed city councilman set down his bags in the threshold of his home, cluttered with shards of broken glass and nosy coppers.

“What’s with the owl, Finch? What’s the bird mean? Who’s Hoot?” they said.

“Look,” said Finch, his thin lips pressed in a resolute line, “give this letter to the mayor. I’ve got nothing more to say. You boys don’t know who you’re dealing with. If I were you, I’d leave it alone.”

Frack put his hands on his hips and stood squarely in front of Finch. “But I’m not you,” he said.

Finch smiled dolefully. “But you will be, shamus. You can’t fight these people. They’re used to winning, and they’ll do whatever they have to. They don’t care what it does to this town.”

They let the councilman pass.

Frack buttonholed the detective. “Did Finch give you any clue about the bullet hole in my partner?”

“He’s been home all night,” the detective said. “Packing his bags.”

Frack left the detectives and walked the eight blocks to John’s Grill for a late dinner. He’d asked the waiter to hurry his order of lamb chops and a baked potato and was smoking a cigarette when Carissa Musucara slipped into the seat opposite him.

“Well, hello,” Frack said smiling. Carissa was wearing a black lace dress with a plunging neckline, which showed a little bit of cleavage. “So you heard?”

The filmmaker’s daughter was beaming. “He’s alive,” Carissa said over the piano player. Frack noted the shape of her perfect white teeth.

“Yes, but my partner’s dead. I sent him out to keep an eye on your Councilman Finch, and somebody put a hole in him.”

The color drained from Carissa’s beautiful face. “Oh, Bobby baby. I’m so sorry. Perhaps it was an accident, something completely unrelated.”

“Oh, you think so, do you?” he said, eyebrows arched, as the waiter arrived. Frack ordered Musucara dinner and a gin and tonic. “So what’s he to you, this Finch?”

“He’s a statesman,” Carissa said. “The real deal. He stood up to the fat cats for as long as he could and then when they finally came after him—.” Then she fell silent, looking suddenly morose.

“He left gracefully,” Frack said. “He’s a good boy, Councilman Finch. Too good, maybe. What do they have on him?”

“What they have on anybody, Frack. Power. Your job, your livelihood. And then once they pull that chain around your neck tight enough for you to feel it, you’ll do whatever you have to do to pay the rent and put the food on your table,” Carissa said. “No one is too insignificant if they want to send a message. Why, one time Councilman Smirkle tried to get a hat check girl fired because she made a joke about his taste in music.”

“That’s a coward’s way of doing business,” Frack said as the waiter brought out their orders.

“Another drink, sir?” the waiter said.

“Yes, please, and keep them coming.” Then Frack looked into Carissa’s bottomless green eyes. “So who is this Hoot character and what’s all this to you?”

Carissa looked up at Frack through a fringe of long black lashes. “Oh, come on. I don’t believe someone who’s been a private dick in this town as long as you have doesn’t know who Hoot is.”

“You’re right, precious. I just wanted to see if you’d give it to me straight. Or maybe you’re playing me a little to see which way I’m going to come down on city politics.”

“Hoot is a lackey for the college. He reports to the Roundtable, the movers and shakers, the one and only board of directors over the whole town,” Carissa said.

“So Hoot’s just muscle,” Frack said. “A gunsel in a nice suit and tie.”

“Exactly,” Carissa said. “It’s the Roundtable you have to worry about.”

“And wouldn’t it make sense to send someone like you to find out what someone like me is up to?” Frack said, a snarl creasing his lips.

Carissa smiled with real mirth. “Don’t get ahead of yourself, Bobby baby. It’s not becoming. They don’t even know you’re alive.”

“So they don’t. Check and mate, precious.”

Then Carissa’s gorgeous eyes darkened. “They tried to destroy my family,” she said. “That’s what I’m doing here. We stood up to them. Or tried. Just like Councilman Finch. We called them cheats and liars and they didn’t like that.”

“Yes, well, they are a very sensitive bunch.” Frack offered Carissa a cigarette and then he lit it for her, enjoying the thrill of her touch as she cupped his hand. Then he lit one for himself and pushed back from the table a bit. “Is the district attorney on this Roundtable? The mayor?”

Carissa scoffed. “You know the answer to that. The weak-willed and feeble-minded make wonderful stooges if they have a little power, but they’re not fit for a place at the table.”

Frack pulled a sealed envelope from his inside coat pocket. It was Finch’s letter to the mayor. He passed it across the table to Carissa. “Open it, precious. Let’s see what Finch wanted the mayor to know.”

Carissa tore open the envelope and read the letter aloud to Fractal Bob.

“Remember why you’re here. You’re here to serve the citizens. You’re not here to serve yourself. You’re not here to serve a certain group. You’re here to serve every single person that lives and works in the City. That means the people that voted for you. That means the people who voted against you. That means the people that didn’t vote. You’re here to serve everyone. And that’s my charge for you, as you continue down this road. Remember that you’re here to serve each and every person.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Frack said.

“Just what it says,” Carissa said.

“What a sap. And for this my partner was killed?” Frack tossed down a few bills for the tab and got up. “Want me to walk you home, babycakes?”

“Not tonight,” said Carissa, smiling coquettishly, her eyes reeling Frack in while letting him dangle uncomfortably. “I’ll take a cab.”

. . .

These were the wee hours of the morning in which Frack, wide awake and mulling over a dilemma, debated: booze or coffee? Booze. Frack poured Dimple Pinch and rolled a cigarette. Then he crumpled Councilman Finch’s letter to the mayor and set fire to it in his ashtray. “For all the good it would do,” he muttered to himself.

Then Frack heard something—someone trying to jimmy the lock on the door of the darkened outer office. He snapped off the light at his desk and hid behind the wooden filing cabinet to the left of his office door. The outer door clicked as the lock yielded to burglar’s tools and then Frack heard a shuffle along the hardwood floorboards as someone crept through Maggie’s office to her desk.

Luckily, Maggie kept things nice and tidy. There was nothing on her desktop for the burglar to rummage through, and all the drawers and cabinets in the outer office were locked. Maggie kept the keys in her purse, which she kept with her. It made Frack grin to hear the burglar sigh in frustration, but he was soon crossing the floor toward Frack’s inner office where he would have a lot more luck if he weren’t stopped soon.

The burglar came through the inner door and entered a dim pool of light cast on the floor by the streetlights outside. He was a small, slight man in an overcoat that almost swallowed him, and he brandished a .38 just like the one that killed Frack’s partner, Butch Jackson. Frack let the burglar get all the way inside before he jumped him, yanking his overcoat down to pin the burglar’s arms at his sides and snatching his gun. He forced the little guy into a chair and snapped on the light. Then Frack pointed the gun at him.

“Breaking and entering. This is a fine way for a copper to act,” Frack said.

“I’m no copper,” said the surly little burglar.

“This is a cop’s gun. The second one I’ve seen tonight. Where’d you get it?”

“Found it,” he said, rubbing the peach fuzz over his thin upper lip.

“Why’d you kill my partner?” Frack said.

The gunsel gave Frack a surly smirk. “Got to show we’re serious every now and then. Otherwise, the citizens might get overconfident, forget who really runs the joint.”

“ ‘Overconfident.’ Now there’s a two-bit word for a nickel-and-dime boy like you. What’s your name?”

The kid smiled again. He wanted Frack to know just who he was. If he’d been classy enough for calling cards, he would have produced one. “Joel Crock,” he said, proud of himself.

Frack sat down, the .38 still trained on the burglar’s pump. “Crock of what?” Then Frack broke into a big grin of his own as the gunsel’s face and name finally registered. “I know exactly who you are and who you work for. Councilmen Smirkle and Simpleton, I presume. It’s a little telling to find a name like yours on their roster. Just like the Nazis, pulling their henchmen from the police blotters. And how’s that working out for them?”

“Keep it up, gumshoe. They’ll be picking lead from your liver, too,” Crock said.

“The cheaper the hood, the gaudier the patter,” Frack said. “I believe that’s how that line goes, anyway. So what’s so interesting you had to break into my office?”

“Who told you about Councilman Finch?” Crock said.

“The guy on the street corner. What’s it to you?” Frack said.

“Can I have my gun back?”

“Go borrow another one,” Frack said. “And if anything happens to a certain flat-foot floogie who visited me yesterday morning or the lady who hired me yesterday afternoon, you’ll have me to answer to.”

Crock was on his feet now. He made a fist. “Be careful, mister. You’ll get ahead of yourself.”

Frack let the unarmed Crock back his way out of the office, and once he’d heard the outer door close behind the little gunman, he locked it. Then he picked up the phone at Maggie’s desk.

“Good morning, angel. Yes, I know it’s early. You know the dame in here yesterday? Miss Musucara, right. Go pick her up at the Belvedere and bring her here straight away. She’s not safe. Thanks. That’s swell of you. You’re a good man, sister.”

 TO BE CONTINUED.

(Yes, Again.)

Hardboiled

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All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

ONE

Fractal Bob was rolling a cigarette in his small, dimly lit office above the department store when Maggie slipped in.

Maggie, his ginger-haired secretary—known for her keen intuition and ability to pound out 120 words per minute on the Remington at her desk—grinned teasingly.

“You’ve got another one, Frack,” Maggie said. “But this one’s a knockout. You’ll want to see her.”

“Shoo her in, Precious. By all means,” Fractal Bob said. He was lighting the hand-rolled cigarette when the woman walked in.

She had legs from here to eternity. Her eyes were a bright, limpid green and her hair the color of champagne fizz. Dressed from head to toe in scarlet, she smelled of French perfume. Her voice was soft and husky as she introduced herself.

“Carissa,” she said, lifting the red veil from her feathered hat. “Musucara.”

“Musucara,” Frack said, smiling. “Irish?”

Carissa Musucara laughed purringly, batting her long lashes against delicately rouged cheeks. “Italian. My father works in film. ”

“I don’t know what my father did. I’m a bastard,” Frack said.

Carissa drew herself up, emphasizing her leggy five-foot-nine frame.  Her lips formed a pout. “Really?”

Frack laughed dryly. “Only kidding, angel. What can I do for you?”

“I want to report a murder,” Carissa said.

“Then you want the police station, angel. I’m the guy you call to get the goods on a philandering husband—or wife—or track down city hall graft and corruption, exposing government misconduct— ”

“May I sit down?”  Carissa said.

Frack pulled out the chair in front of his desk. “How about a cup of joe or something stronger?”

But Carissa wasn’t interested in Fractal Bob’s meager refreshments. “That’s exactly what this is about—graft, corruption, misconduct.”

“Last time I looked, murder was a little more serious than simple misconduct. Let me call a detective for you and then what’s say we head over to the Stardust Room for a drink?”

Carissa wrung her gloved hands. “But the murder hasn’t happened yet, and the police aren’t interested in preventing a crime. I need you.”

“Strange,” Frack said. “You’re the second dame in an hour who’s come in to report a murder before it happened.”

“Dame?” Carissa said witheringly.

“My apologies, Miss Musucara. I shouldn’t have lumped you in with the first one. Nevertheless, she seemed just as interested,” Frack said.

“Oh, in what exactly?”

“You wouldn’t be talking about the Councilman, would you? Jim Finch?”

Carissa jumped, startled. “Why, yes! That’s exactly who I mean. Oh, Fractal Bob! You must do something to stop this.”

“Oh, I have, angel. The Councilman is perfectly healthy, and he doesn’t have a clue about why anyone would think otherwise.”

Carissa sat on the very edge of the worn tufted, leather chair. “You spoke to him? Yourself? How long ago?”

“Not me. My Girl Friday. So why is everybody so sure Councilman Finch is a goner?”

Carissa looked away, her huge, absorbent eyes taking in the bright white sky through the grimy windows behind Frack’s desk. He became morosely distracted, waiting for her reply. He and beautiful, mysterious women like this one never mixed well. Not for long, anyway.

“I want you to follow him,” she said, eyes once again on Fractal Bob. “Keep him safe.”

Just then, Frack’s partner barged in without warning. “Oops, sorry,” he said, leering at the two of them.

“Butch Jackson,” Frack said by way of introduction, “Carissa Musucara,” and Butch hovered lasciviously over her, extending a clammy paw. “My pleasure,” Butch said, shaking the young woman’s hand.

“Her father’s in film,” Frack said.

“Oh, really?” Butch said. “My brother’s a bit player at one of the studios. Maybe you know him.”

“She doesn’t,” Frack said, waving Butch aside. “Take a powder, why don’t you? The lady and I have business to wrap up.”

Carissa opened her purse and withdrew two big bills. “Will this do?”

“To tail a guy for nothing? You bet, angel, but I admit to feeling a little guilty,” Frack said.

“Don’t. Just keep an eye on him,” she said. “For as long as it takes.”

“How long will that be?” Frack said.

“I wish I knew,” she said, eyes downcast.

Both men jumped to their feet as Carissa rose gracefully from the battered chair. She handed Fractal Bob a card. “I’m at the Belvedere. I’ll wait to hear from you.”

Frack sniffed the scented card. “Chanel No. 5,” he said.

“No. 19,” she said, a brief but flirtatious twinkle in her eyes. “I’m not like every other girl.”

“Indeed,” Frack said, and then Carissa Musucara was gone.

Butch snatched Carissa’s card from Frack’s fingers. “She brings a smile to my lips,” he said.

“She brings poetry to mine,” Frack said. “Of her choice virtues only gods should speak. Or English poets who grew up on Greek.”

“You’re an odd one,” Butch said. Then he took one of  Carissa’s bills from Frack’s desk and snapped it. “This looks right, and there are brothers in that big bag of hers, I bet.”

“You can only tail Councilman Finch so long before it looks like the racket it is,” Frack said. “Who is this guy anyway?”

“The Boy Scout in a den of thieves,” Butch said.

“I heard he was a bit of a skirt chaser.”

“Yeah, well who isn’t?” said Butch and then he headed to the door.

“Where do you think you’re going, partner? It’s not happy hour yet.”

“Stand down this time, Frack. I’m on the Finchster and the daddy’s girl,” said Butch as he pocketed the lady’s hundred-dollar bill. “Maybe you saw her first, but I spoke first.”

Frack chuckled dryly. “You’re engaged to be married, Butch. Got a handkerchief? Well, remember to use something else to wipe off her lipstick before you go home tonight.”

“Sure thing,” Butch said and winked.

As soon as Butch was gone, Frack settled back into his chair and poured himself some bourbon. Maggie entered in hat and coat, ready to say good night.

“What’s with you, sad sack?” she said.

Frack began rolling another cigarette. “I nibbled meekly from her proffered hand. She was the sickle; I, poor I, the rake, coming behind her for her pretty sake. But what prodigious mowing did we make.”

“Oh, for crying out loud,” Maggie said. “You’re already pulling out Theodore Roethke?”

“Butch has gone to do her bidding, and I’m sitting here like a sap.”

“Good,” Maggie said, “then maybe this time you’ve dodged the bullet.”

Then, hit by a sudden thought,  Frack sat bolt upright. “Before you go, precious, get me Little Sister on the phone. I want to know what she knows about this bird Finch and the floogie who was in here blabbing about him before the blonde bombshell came in and did the same.”

“Yes, sir,” Maggie said, pulling off her coat. “I’m on it.”

• • •

Frack was dreaming about shells exploding all around him in the French countryside and dying men moaning in the damp darkness when he awoke to the pounding of a couple of ham-sized fists  on the door. Adrenaline pumping, he hurried to let them in. It was two burly detectives, Raymond and Wagstaff.

“Calm down, you bulls. You’ll wake the dead.”

The detectives pushed their way into Frack’s little flat. “Get dressed. You’re coming downtown,” Raymond said.

“I’m not going anywhere with you thugs. What’s this all about?”

“Butch is dead,” Wagstaff said. “And where were you tonight?”

Frack hesitated, gathering his wits about him. “Butch, dead? Where?”

Down by the docks, they said, still lying there, body half warm and shrouded in midnight fog. So Frack dressed quickly and made Raymond and Wagstaff drive him out there.

Given the lonely hour, no one was on the streets but the cops and Fractal Bob. Butch lay on his back at the bottom of a ravine, having fallen down from the street where he’d been hit. Two men stood over him, holding an electric torch. Butch’s face was a mess from the fall and he’d lost his hat in the roll down, but his overcoat was still buttoned.

“What’d they kill him with?” Frack said.

Wagstaff took the gun from his pocket. It was a .38, a Colt revolver.

“You sure that’s not your gun?” Frack said.

“That’s the gun we found,” Wagstaff said.

“That’s a cop’s gun, boys,” Frack said. “What’s going on here?”

Raymond lunged at Frack menacingly, but Wagstaff caught him and held him back. “What’s that supposed to mean, you lousy gumshoe?” Raymond said.

“My partner’s dead and the murder weapon is a standard-issue policeman’s gun,” Frack said. “So you tell me. What gives?”

Just then, another cop scrambled down the alley toward them. “Let’s go, gents. We’ve got another one,” he said.

“Who?” Wagstaff said.

“Some big wig,” the cop said. “Name of Finch.”

TO BE CONTINUED

 

Backlash

birds of a feather

On Mother’s Day 2013 there were a bunch of hung-over women in the pews of Huntsville’s churches, having drunk hundreds of gallons of chardonnay the night before.

The night before, two-thirds of those who turned out said NO to almost $70K in bonds to be used to build a brand new middle school with a fine arts center and a lot of electrical outlets. And the ladies and gentlemen of the city’s tony neighborhoods began slamming booze as soon as they made it home from the Hawkins Administration Building, where Saturday night’s victory party turned to shit as soon as early voting results came in.

“We thought we had friends in this town,” said my sister, Patty, a teacher, who had come with her husband, Ben, to my parents’ house for Mother’s Day brunch after church.

But the night before, they learned some of their friends were not their friends at all. They found out, watching the results from that Elkins Lake box come in,  that some of those who voted to scrap the bond, some of their Vote Yes partners, had lied. They had given lip service to the bond, staked Vote Yes signs in their yards, traipsed cheerfully into “leadership parties” hosted by the Vote Yes PAC chairwoman. And then voted NO in the privacy of the voting booth come May 11.

Drinking was the first response of a wounded elite that was used to getting its way. Here’s the second.

“You know what this town deserves? Total annihilation,” said Ben, an asshole wearing a golf get-up in pimp daddy colors. “We should rain down napalm on the entire town. Just kill everybody.”

“If you’re serious, I bet I can get a hold of some napalm,”  I said. “My friends have assault rifles and a variety of small arms. I wouldn’t be surprised if they have napalm, too. And some of them are Democrats. Isn’t that cool?”

“Mother,” Patty said, “make him shut up.”

But it was Mother’s Day, and Mom had a headache, so my father said, “Shut up, Bob.”

I poured champagne into my mother’s glass of OJ and handed it to her because I am a good son. “Here, Mom. Hair of the dog.”

“Don’t tell me you voted no,” Patty said. “Even Kendall Scudder voted yes.”

But I hadn’t voted at all because I couldn’t make up my mind. It was a choice between kicking children in the teeth with hobnailed boots or depriving a prison guard’s family of milk and medicine for the next twenty-five years.

“We needed that bond,” my mother whined, lowing like dairy cattle in Chupacabra country. In her mind, the bond was the lone antidote to a Dickensian educational landscape in which hundreds of Huntsville public school students suffered daily indignities that kids just 20 miles down the road were spared. “Why our kids? Why us? I’ll tell you why. It’s the haters and the naysayers.”

“And more,” I said. “The naysayers just picked up a whole lot of new friends.”

“Indeed,” my father said gleefully. “Me.”

In the cold light of morning, the Yes bond people were facing their worst fears. Huntsville was slipping farther and farther from the shores of economic redemption and the consequences would be apocalyptic. But you couldn’t blame Superintendent Steve Johnson or PAC chairwoman Sally Nelson for this. Oh, no! This would be the legacy of selfish earners and old family property owners, not — as some would have it — their cash-poor counterparts in Huntsville’s trailer parks who, as everyone knows, don’t vote. This bond defeat was the work of Tea Party contrarians and outside agitators who had convinced even crusty old conservatives like my father to vote against a brighter day.

“I went to school in a building that’s still standing,” Dad said. “Look at the White House. It was built more than 200 years ago! By slaves and Scotsmen! Do you think the Obama Administration doesn’t have enough outlets to run their socialist computers and their socialist laser printers? How stupid do you think we are? Schools have to be torn down and rebuilt every fifty years? Come on!”

“Napalm,” said brother-in-law Ben. “Raining down on the whole town.”

I remember when Ben and Patty were hippies and wanted to move to Oregon to live on a commune. I remember them taking me to the state lake on a picnic and listening to them read from one of the nonsensical counterculture novels of Richard Brautigan, either Trout Fishing in America or In Watermelon Sugar. I remember in one of these books, there were rats eating the bodies of their dead comrades and one of them said, “When my mother was young, she sang like Deanna Durbin.” To which I replied, “Who the hell is Deanna Durbin?” Ben and Patty didn’t know. They didn’t move to Oregon, either.

“And who the hell is Donna Piñon, and when did the libertarian fringe get such a voice in local politics?” Patty said.

“Raising taxes to improve public schools is a Democrat move, isn’t it?” I said. “This county votes two-thirds Republican. These bond results make perfect sense to me. Unless it really was just about economic development, and then it’s a Republican idea and that means it wasn’t about Huntsville’s kids at all.”

“It’s the Item’s fault,” my mother said. “They could have published the pictures we took of the terrible state of these schools and that would have convinced even your father that we needed to do something.”

Of course, everything that goes wrong in HTX is the newspaper’s fault. We all know George Russell, the Big Mashugana, owns a controlling interest in the Item. And George is a hater of all things bright and shiny. You can tell by his collection of historic eyesores lining 19th Street and University Avenue.

“How much napalm you got, Ben? We can start with the Item,” I said. “We can park a catapult over at the post office and just start lobbing — ”

“You watch. A bunch of teachers are going to leave HISD this summer and move to Conroe and Willis and The Woodlands,” Ben said. “The whole town just gave every teacher in this district the finger.”

“And every kid,” my sister said.

“And every person who worked so hard to get that bond passed,” my mother said.

“The whole town just gave the finger to bond salesmen and contractors and people who want to raise our taxes,” my father said. “Don’t be so damned dramatic.”

In In Watermelon Sugar, the sun changes color every day, which makes watermelons of different colors. The watermelon sugar is used as the building blocks of all civilization, or what’s left of it after an apocalypse just like the one facing Huntsville after May 11 when Sally Nelson and J.D. Davis and Brian Smith and the rest of the gang did not get their way.

Except for that, In Watermelon Sugar has nothing to do with the bond failure, but I liked the thought that instead of disaster, Huntsville might be evolving into something more sustainable on a scale its citizens could afford, something that might be free of all this bickering over what really amounts to nothing more than money. Filthy lucre.

What would it be like if, with all the greedy speculators, the grandest assholes left town in a bilateral purge of ill will and gridlock? Maybe Sally would tear down the multimillion dollar behemoth she and Ivo put up on the shores of sweet little Sunset Lake before they go. Maybe the Big Mashugana would sell his old houses before he moved to Italy to live out the rest of his crazy life in the midst of wine grapes and olive trees.

“Dream on,” Patty said before slipping outside for a cigarette.  I followed her. “You look better,” she said. “You’ve gained some weight.”

“Thanks.”

“Africa, Bob?” she said, smirking. “I hear you have a girlfriend.”

“It’s more like she has me.”

“Well, little brother, you’ve always been whipped.”

“You’re not really moving to Conroe, are you?” I said.

“Don’t listen to Ben. He’s just pissed,” she said and then she  ground out her cigarette under the sole of her sandal. Her toenails were painted gold.   “After the dust settles, we’ll regroup and try again. This was just a fluke.”

Don-t Naai With The RLI

23October201201

[LAST in a series about my 120 days in an African prison. Huzzah! — Fractal Bob]

It was raining as they slung Jerry Dorsey’s dead body onto a stretcher and took him away, and they dragged me to the warden’s office, where I stood for hours handcuffed to a vertical steam pipe. Eventually, a rather meek guard brought me a chair and a cup of hot red tea.

The tea was gone, I had stopped trembling, and my clothes were nearly dry when I finally met with the warden. “What do you know about this? Who is this man Jerry Dorsey and how were you going to escape?” said the warden, in a crisp brown uniform and black beret.

I looked into his stern, beady eyes. “I don’t know, sir.”

I fully expected to be beaten, at least about the head and shoulders, but instead I was allowed to return unmolested to Cell #3. The bright sun had dried out the yard, and I found young Legson waiting for me under the eaves.

“All right, Father Bob?”

“All right, Legson.”

One-Eyed Paul and the rest of the prisoners gathered to hear the tale of my dawn encounter at the east fence with the goons and the bloody passing of the brave Texas satirist, Faux Fractal Bob. I produced Faux Fractal’s spectacles from my shirt pocket and the men passed them around, noting the spatter on the left lens, droplets of blood aspirated from Faux’s torn lungs as he spoke his dying words.

“And who is this Echo?” they asked.

“A beautiful woman,” I said, “who waits for him overseas in Texas, USA.”

“Oh,” they said rapt and wistful, “that is both lovely and tragic. Who will take his place with her?”

“Me, of course,” I said.

That made them chuckle. “You, you threadbare ghost? You skinny mirage of a man?”

But I went to sleep feeling strangely comforted and thinking about the cup of tea I had had that morning, served in a blue ceramic cup, a deep blue, the color of the ocean, the color of freedom. And when I closed my eyes that night, I had no idea how prescient it had been, a signal, a harbinger of things to come.

The next morning, I was chasing Maria the milk goat when Chrome Yellow ventured into our yard and, catching sight of me, strode up. By now I had the goat, no easy feat since she wasn’t wearing a collar, and was leading my lactating friend to the milking stand.

“Where did you get a milk goat?” said the Chrome as Maria’s kid Kenny began munching the tail of his shirt.

“Watch out,” I said right before Kenny munched his way to Chrome’s left ass cheek. Chrome whirled around, bellowed and flapped his arms, and the little kid ran away.

“I hate it when they look you right in the eye,” he said.

“Yeah, those amber irises with the satanically slit pupils,” I said.

Chrome shuddered. “Like my sister.”

I was pretty good at milking, believe it or not, and Chrome watched me until I stopped to massage Maria’s tired udder.

“We’re leaving,” he said. “You and me. They’re coming for us at noon. The Rhodesian Light Infantry.”

The Rhodesian Light Infantry? This made me laugh, but I didn’t bother to answer, and Chromium stood there until I finished milking. He looked into the pail of goat’s milk as I lifted it. “Well, that’s disgusting. You didn’t even wash those udders — ”

“Teats,” I said.

“—with anything before you milked her.”

“A little dirt is the least of my worries,” I said, walking away.

“They’re coming at noon,” Chrome called after me. “The RLI.”

“So you said.”

But at noon, just as Legson and I were filling our bowls with corn mush mixed with fresh goat’s milk, the prison guards arrived and asked me nicely to come with them.  “Your friends are here,” they said.

“I don’t have any friends.”

“Your friends are here,” they said.

“You’re going to shoot me.”

“No, your friends are here,” they said.

“Oh, my friends are here. Then let’s go. But I’m taking the boy with me,” I said.

“He stays here,” they said. “He is RUF.”

The Revolutionary United Front, blood-thirsty rebels who kidnapped little boys and trained them to commit unspeakable acts of terror.

“It’s a lie,” Legson said, wrapping his arms around my waist, but the guards peeled him off me as the child sobbed, and I was forced to leave poor Legson in the yard.

At the entrance, the guards gave us back our passports and wallets, and then they threw open the gate.

“But no one is here,” I said.

“Go,” they said.

So we went, and that was it. The savannah spread before us, and the desolate expanse of tall grass was terrifying. We walked as if into a hot, dry, and blinding dream.

“What just happened?” I said.

“They’ll be here soon,” Chrome said. “Keep walking.”

“What happens if they don’t?”

“I’ll kill you and eat you,” Chrome said and he smiled to show me his teeth.

Then I could make out something coming toward us. It was a beat-up Land Rover with South African plates. Inside there was just one infantryman, the driver, wearing rumpled camos and a bush hat. He rolled down the window. “You,” he said to me. “Get in. Quick.”

I hadn’t even gotten the door closed before the driver took off, leaving the Chrominator behind to curse us as we sped away.

“Col. Reginald E. Lighthouse, I presume?” I said, buckling my seat belt.

The driver extended his hand for me to shake as the Land Rover lurched over the ruts in the road. “Bob Sablatura,” he said. “It’s the middle of the day. Col. Lighthouse is nocturnal.”

I started to introduce myself, but Sablatura cut me off. “I know who you are.”

We had a 24-hour drive south by southwest through Mozambique and Zimbabwe to the airport in Johannesburg, and Sablatura was determined to take it in one stretch. “Eat something,” he said, and I reached into a paper sack full of protein bars on the floor board. “Just a bite or two or you’ll get sick.”

His name sounded familiar, and I seemed to recall a by-line from a rival Huntsville rag, The Observer, which my father would pick up out of the yard and throw straight in the trash, along with the Item, which he read only for the sports.

“It’s a good thing you’re headed home, because once again, Huntsville is headed for Hell in a hand basket,” Sablatura said.

Amy Lee, the Item’s free press publisher, has been run off by the medical mafia, James Fitch will have to vacate his city council seat if he can’t find a new job in town, a county constable has been indicted on a Class C misdemeanor for calling a pencil dick a pencil dick. The city hired an $80,000 consultant to rebrand Huntsville as something more than a small college town with a lot of prison guards living in mobile homes and a $60,000 firm to check people’s credit card receipts to see where they spend their money—a little noticed but real invasion of privacy in the quixotic quest of significant outside retail development.

The city council tried once again to punish free speech, this time targeting a couple of its own members who had publicly challenged the will of Don “the Don” Johnson. And now, the school district has enlisted people like bond brokers and the owners of construction companies to help come up with a 65 million dollar bond package, including 50 million for a new school in a town with a school population that hasn’t grown in five years.

“I might as well stay here,” I said.

“Buck up,” Sablatura said. “I don’t have any fight left in me, but you do.”

What if Huntsville is already too far gone? What if we can’t even have a civil dialogue on simple and fundamental questions, like which do we go after first, retail development or light industry? Or which do we fund first — new ball fields or teacher raises?

“We have some smart and independent elected leaders, but are there enough of them to save us? I’m afraid it’s all but over, and the outcome of this bond election, no matter which way it goes, will only make things worse,” I said.

You can look at Facebook and letters to the editor to see the escalation of finger-pointing and hate speech. With every election comes vandalism, like campaign signs stolen or defaced with obscenities or racist slogans. Each is a rung on the ladder of oppression, the last of which is social genocide — since wholesale slaughter is still illegal. “And in Huntsville, we’re already there,” I said. “You’ll lose all your friends if you get spotted having lunch with someone on the wrong side of their side. You can lose your job. You can lose your reputation, your dignity, your privacy, your peace of mind. In Huntsville, politics is a zero sum game. And we’re all at fault. I’m at fault. But you can’t stand around holding your johnson if the other side won’t agree to a cease-fire.”

“You’ve given me the best reason of any why you can’t get people who work in Huntsville to live there,” Sablatura said.

But here’s a modest proposal, he said, based on the premise that democracy is damaged goods in Huntsville—our voters just can’t be trusted—along with the democratic experiment in diversity.

1.) Eliminate unnecessary taxing entities and government bodies. Unincorporate Huntsville, abolish the city and school districts but maintain county precincts. Keep commissioners court and a county judge. Elections will be held once every decade to fill expired terms with voters to come from a class of property owners.

2.) Relocate everyone in Huntsville into homogeneous zones within geographic precincts. Assign residence according to explicit criteria such as race, religion, socio-economic class, occupation, sexual preference, political party, taste in bourbon or what have you. Those living in each zone will be expected to set up an association of residents, build their own schools, houses of worship and medical centers, and support their own retail and business sectors. It might also be nice if they started up their own community newspapers. I mean newsletters.

3.) Create a bureaucracy to issue passports for travel between zones where permitted by law. Otherwise, make everyone observe zone boundaries and STAY HOME. The only social intercourse permitted between zones will be—you guessed it—trade.

“I foresee some practical issues,” I said. “Like some Elkins Lake Democrat might be pretty stubborn about selling his 3,500 square foot home to move into a two-bedroom in Precinct 3.”

“Nothing is perfect,” Sablatura said.

The sun had gone down and come up again, and at nearly noon on the next day, Sablatura parked the Land Rover in a sugar cane field about ten miles from the airport.

“End of the line,” he said.

I thanked Sablatura again for having rescued me, even though my future seemed even more uncertain. I got out and watched him drive away until the Land Rover melted into a wavering mirage. And then I stood there all alone, the wind whipping my shirt against my ribs, as a jumbo jet flew overhead, just a couple of miles above the cane field. Under its roaring engine, I began walking in the direction of the airport.

And then I saw her, a long-legged woman in a flowing dress standing beside a shiny black SUV. And I knew instantly who she must be. I began to run and when I reached her, I almost threw my arms around her, and I might have if she hadn’t taken a big step back.

“Bob?” she said.

“Echo?” I said, my heart convulsing with gratitude and desire because she was oh so lovely.

“Get in,” she said, so I reached eagerly for the handle of the shotgun seat. “Back seat,” she said as her nose wrinkled. “You smell bad.”