The Treetops (2nd draft): Chapter 3: The Teddy

Mason led the Treetops to the Main Concourse, an asphalt line that bisected the park and was decorated with irregularly placed streetlights.  It was twenty yards wide, and at night completely barren, making of it an eerie black stone river.  One could almost watch the ghosts of wandering tumbleweed, emerging from nothing only to immediately disappear, as if they were too scared to exist.

This river, when viewed from above, looped, pooled irregularly, and split away from itself only to suddenly end in various places.  At certain times in its history, many groups including but not limited to those aligned with the local government, had taken the mission of finishing Norwood Park’s Main Concourse once and for all.

Colorful speeches and jeweled banners often spoke of resurrection, attaching a religious significance to mending this economic hub, but the reality of the job was too much.  Moral and economic bankruptcy on all sides of the effort had made the most noble hope crumble to nothing.

This meant that the concourse, which had been proposed and designed ages ago by people no one tried to remember, was like a mural born of committee politics.  It began with a goal, undoubtedly, but the issues of diverse eras had caused the public realize that they didn’t really care about Norwood park.

It was a forbidding symbol, the Teddy at night, and it’s reputation assured that law abiding citizens stayed away.  For these bystanders and potential witnesses, The Teddy’s darkness was a symbol of a world they intended never to visit.

Simon, vitalized from what he felt had been a victory over Mason, strode ahead of the group and spoke to  everyone like a camp counselor.  “Let’s find a spot and post up, see what breaks.”  Simon broke into a light jog, coasting out in front of the rest.  He strode out of one of the streetlights’ halos, shadowing him in the night haze while he looked back at the others, “Why’a you all so tense?”

Mason grinned, barely letting his teeth show.  Max noticed this anticipatory smile and called after Simon.  “I don’t think that’s real wise.”

Simon responded, “Whatever,” curt and sharp.  Hopping and boosting himself up over it with his arms, he sat on top of a garbage can, hanging his feet before its mouth.

As soon as he did this, two large, muscled gangsters rushed out from under the trees and knocked Simon to the ground, causing him to land painfully on his hip.  They were both wearing black tank tops, green suspenders and world war 2 era headgear.

“The summit is to take place in Norwood park, keep moving.”  These were members of War Helmet, a gang renowned throughout the city for its brutal discipline.  Simon tried to lash out at the Helmet who’d assaulted him, but before he could take a swing, two more grabbed him by each arm and held him still.

“That’s War Helmet,” Mason said casually, smirking and chuckling.  “They’re providing some of the security.”

“Security?”  Simon opened his mouth as if he didn’t understand.  His head nearly exploded with brush-offs he could offer in response.  After just a moment of consideration he closed his mouth and relaxed his arms, seeing that in a physical contest he would be overmatched and outnumbered.  “Understood.”  Simon frowned and lowered his head.

As they continued down the Concourse, Mason kept the dialog going.  “War Helmet comes from Port Ashland, I don’t know much about them, don’t mess with ’em though.”

“Yeah,” Simon said, defeated.

As quickly as the members of War Helmet had arrived, they disappeared into the darkness under the trees.  Art was intrigued by this show of mastery, and he searched the darkness for other members of this gang, crouching under low branches and peering up through leaves toward the streetlights.

“Stop looking for us,” a voice came from nowhere, loud and deep.  “The summit is to take place in Norwood park, clear the Concourse.”

“Or what?”  Simon trotted slowly into the middle of the black, solid path.  Stretching his arms to his sides, he straightened his right leg out in front of him, then hopped to his left.  “Come on, War Helmet, scare me, I wanna see your force.”

After around 15 seconds watching the willows, Mason tapped Simon on the shoulder and spoke softly into his ear.  “Unless you’re gonna go in there and look for them, I think we should go.”

With his mouth held open and his pupils flicking back and forth, Simon nodded and began to walk forward.  The rest of the Treetops followed, continuing an unnerved caravan.

 

The Treetops came to and passed what was affectionately referred to as the Big Fountain.  The Big Fountain had once upon a time been one of the city’s central meeting places, hosting all manner of political rallies and musical performances, but it had been decades since water had flowed through it.  Now it was simply a grouping of mold-covered gargoyles looking fearsome and portending doom.

On the edge of the Big Fountain sat a fairly nondescript group of street hoods, displaying no obvious colors and all facing in different directions.  They didn’t seem like a gang at all, as all of them were distracted by their own pursuits.  The tallest one, with his hair cut down to a light fuzz that covered his skull, quietly bounced a racquetball to himself on the edge of the fountain.

As the Treetops passed by, this apparent figurehead noticed Mason’s approach, and turned on his heel.  “Mason,” he spoke, “Who’re these?”

The Treetops stood together in a tight group, as if they only just now realized the danger of their situation.

A Skinny man in an undershirt waved, remaining silent.  His face was gaunt and his bones stuck out, making it appear as though he’d not eaten for years.  The streetlights circling the fountain made the divots and crevices in his face create shadows in his face.  The shadows made him appear ghostlike, but not the ghost of a person, more like the ghost of rumbles past.

“That was Jeremy, he runs The Numbers, they’re all right.”  From the fountain, The Treetops and The Heaters continued through a tight group of willow trees.  The trees were packed together such that they created a decaying canopy, moonlight shining through its gaps at different angles.

Max became uneasy.  “Who’re The Numbers?”  Max asked nervously, as though the answer would harm him.

“They’re from the outskirts, I think, by the train yards, I think.”

Waiting until the Numbers were out of earshot, Simon eventually proffered his analysis.  “The Numbers is a stupid name.”

“So is the Treetops,” said Art, casting his potentially offensive statement casually; just throwing it out there.  “And so is the Forty-Niners, and so is the Heaters.  Gang names are stupid.”  Art looked into Simon’s eyes, challenging him.  Simon and Art conflicted often, sometimes even coming to blows, but Simon was too scared after his encounter with War Helmet to tire himself out in this way, so he said nothing.

As soon as he invoked the name of the Heaters, which had already been the center of a contentious moment, Art looked Simon in the eye, seemingly daring him to make a move.  Simon silently kept moving, trying not to look at Art.

“The numbers is a stupid name,” Simon spoke, his voice tinged with anticipation.  “The Heaters is a stupider name though, it must be said.”

In an instant Simon was on his back, Mason standing over him with a cocked-back fist.  “Why’re you fuckin with me?”

Simon twisted and pushed up with his hands, backing Mason up and claimed his own patch of grass.  “Cause we don’t need you.  I don’t even know why you’re here, get the fuck out.”

“He’s here cause we wanted a guide,” Roly said, backing Simon and Mason away from one another.  “We weren’t gonna come up here with no plan.  Mason knows the park better than we do.”

“Oh wow he probably knows they got trees and stuff.”  Simon spoke staring into Mason’s eyes as they circled each other, Big D standing between them.  “Fuck that, like we can’t figure it out.”

As he stretched his arms out, Big D sounded like a toddler begging his parents not to hurt each other.  “Two is better than one right?  Isn’t that a good enough reason?”

Simon responded quickly, “No, I don’t trust Mason, he’s got a plan and I don’t like it.”

Purposefully and deliberately, Max strode out between them.  “Cool it, Simon.  Fact is, we weren’t gonna come without a guide and you know it.”

“But why couldn’t we come without a guide?  We got an invitation same as them, we’re not stupid.”

Max lowered his head and beckoned Simon with his hand to lower his the same way so they could speak more softly and privately with one another.  “I wasn’t comin’ without a guide, that’s what it comes to.  You wanna blame someone for nothing?  Fine blame me, but cool it, you’re not helping us, look around.”

Simon stood up straight, looked around and saw they were surrounded at all sides by the Heaters, many of them clutching weapons.  He looked left to right, seeing the whole situation.  “Okay, whatever.”

Mason stood silent watching Simon’s face, seeing from his expression that his apology had been insincere.  “It’s okay, whatever.  Want us to take you to Norwood now?”

Max felt sickened by Mason’s superior attitude, but he just said “yeah,” and they all moved on.

The Treetops (2nd draft): Chapter 3: The Teddy

The Treetops (2nd draft): Chapter 2, Mason and the Heaters

The Treetops all stayed silent as the train pulled into the Grayson Street station, where they had planned to disembark.  As the train slowed to a stop, the metallic click of its trucks colliding with the track sounded like gunshots to some, and they all had flashes of the bloody dawn this evening could bring.  Would the morning sun fall on a field peppered with bodies, or discarded weapons?  Would the summit be symbolized by a fully felt handshake, or a knife in the stomach?  Nothing makes you dread things going wrong more than considering what could be if things went right.

Big D was chuffed, or full of a bubbly, exorbitant cheer.  His head bobbed and his grin widened.  He stretched his lips as tight as he could, imagining his cheeks caught by fishhooks.  This was a habit of his, and he performed it whether or not he was undergoing any emotional strain, but this time he felt as though his blood were on fire.

The Treetops, D felt, mostly regarded him as a bit of a patsy.  He was without a doubt invaluable in a fight, and not one to be shook by the introduction of police sirens, but he was unlikely to be included in any planning or debate.  Though he was not really as dumb as many of his cohorts considered him, he thought it was valuable to play the doofus, for comic relief and overall group togetherness.  On this day however, though Simon had opened the door for a session of “Big D is stupider than. . .”, no one seemed to be in the mood.  A pallid silence lay like a body over The Treetops.

Max would just as well have stayed on the train, he didn’t want to attend the speech; he didn’t want to see such a beautiful dream melt.  It was spelled out in his mind’s eye, the headline splattered in blood on the asphalt: “NORWOOD PARK MASSACRE, FULL STORY ON PAGE 13.”  It would be the lead story, he imagined, for at least one day.

He grinned, as he could predict what Simon might say if he shared with him his vision of a nightmare headline: “No way we’d make it above the fold, a Norwood Park massacre would be on page 2 of the metro section, no doubt.”  Simon would grin while Max’s face drooped, knowing the truth of these words, and that nothing would matter anyway.

They all would be forgotten, Art knew, in the grand scheme of things.  Though legends and memorials did exist in the gangster world, the world they occupied, he didn’t take them seriously.  Everything was legend in the gangster world; vague, confusing, preposterous legend.  Did the founders of Hi Rize, which held a tenuous truce with War Helmet, the Gents, and the Rosies over the entire Southern half of the city, really all spend their entire childhoods on the 68th floor of the Spencer-Hasting’s homes Southwestern Campus?  No, of course not, but that’s what everyone said.

Art was the Treetops’ official historian, but it was mostly because he had the best imagination, and he could describe the most interesting ways for things to have happened.  Little Bit, the firebrand of a dwarf who’d recently become one of The Treetops biggest earners, had been killed accidentally by a civilian minivan three weeks previous, but thanks to Art, the Treetops rank and file believed the pigs had murdered him on purpose.

Only Art, Max and Simon knew the truth about Little Bit, as well as a host of other truths they held in the strictest confidence, and this served best to make them all wary.  They knew that underneath the sectarian posturing and greedy logistics of what it was to be a gangster, every heart beat the same, and all were prone to stupid wanton wrath.  So far, Max had been the only one to give his concerns public voice, but he was far from the only Treetop concerned.

Simon was scared just like Max, but he told himself he wasn’t.  Smiling wide, he hopped the turnstile on his way to the exit stairs, turning his body sideways and rolling over the top of it.  On the other side, he landed on his heels facing Art.  “Do you feel the air?  It’s electric.”

“Shut up,” Art pushed past Simon, rolling his eyes.

“Let’s put our war faces on,” Max bellowed as bellicose as he could, acting the leader again.  He jogged a few yards ahead of the others, turning in his last steps to look the Treetops in the eyes.  “This isn’t a fucking joke.  We gotta realize, um, this is dangerous.  This isn’t a thing we’re just gonna walk away from, um, unchanged, I mean, this is gonna change everything.”

Simon could tell that Max wanted silence, and he obliged at least for the moment.  His pure human instinct was to push back and show Max that authority in any form was a stupid dream, but it was easy to see Max floundering, and Simon wasn’t cruel or vindictive.  What mattered most to Simon was freedom, and he believed that whatever the cost, all people should be free all the time.  He realized however that open rebellion would not help at the moment, so he let Max say his piece.

Max’s voice was sober.  “I see them say in movies to keep your head on a swivel, and I think that describes it well.  Just be aware.  Don’t get snuck up on.”

After a pause, Simon interjected again, sputtering with laughter.  “Everybody heard Max, stay frosty and don’t get captured.”

Max laughed, looking at the ground, “Fuck you Simon.”

“If you are captured the agency will disavow—“

Max grabbed a fistful of Simon’s hair and pulled down.  “Shut up,” Max hissed into Simon’s ear, in no mood for nonsense.

Simon relented, lowering his head and raising his hand in the air as a sign of conciliation.  “Sorry man, just keeping’ everyone’s spirits up.”

“Whatever man,” Max responded, humorless and dry.  “Just fucking watch yourself, right?”  With his mouth open and his hands apart, slowly shaking his head, Simon returned the offense Max had given him.

“Ladies, please,” Art interjected from behind Max and Simon, “Pull out your tampons, man, we’re all friends.”  Roly and Big D started guffawing and slapping their thighs, saying “oh shit” under their breath while laughing.

Standing near the turnstiles of the Grayson Street station, The Treetops stared into each other’s faces and forced laughter as best they could.  They were all scared, but they couldn’t let it show, especially to themselves.

Chuckling and glad-handing, the Treetops struck out on to the sidewalk, claiming the staircase leading up into the station as their own.  Max, Art and Simon sat on the bottom stair, watching Big D and Roly jut out to look for Mason, whom they’d known since they were little, and who was meant to be the Treetops’ guide.

Mason was head of a mid-sized city gang, the Heaters, and he’d proposed squiring the Treetops to the summit.  At first, this had made Max and Simon nervous, they didn’t trust Mason.  “Why do we need a guide?”  Simon had asked aggressively, furrowing his brow.

“We don’t need a guide,” Roly submitted aggressively.  “But me and D grew up with Mason, we know him, he gives us an in, we won’t have to prove ourselves.”

“Maybe I wanna prove myself,” said Simon, staring out the window at a fixed point.

They both looked at Max, indicating that he would break the tie.  Opening his mouth, keeping silent, Max considered the problem, what should they do?

Before Max could come up with an answer, Art, who normally stayed silent as decisions were being made, proffered his analysis.  “We don’t need to prove ourselves.  If someone steps to us we’ll smash ’em and take what’s theirs.”

The Treetops waited for Mason at the bottom of the Grayson Street station stairs.  Simon clicked his tongue and whistled, trying to seem bored.  He raised up and started to wander, looping around, swinging his legs and sighing.  His eyes drifted upwards into the starless night. “”So-oo-ooo,” he inhaled sharply before smoothly resuming his speech, “Which of us isn’t gonna make it?”

Art and Max glared in response, being sure not to make a sound and remaining as still as possible.

Just as it had countless times previously, this tactic fell short, and Simon continued.  “I won’t make it, the funny one never survives.”

Max quivered silently with anger, and probably would have said something, but Art beat him to it.  ”You’re not the funny one,” Art was annoyed, he sneered and spat on the sidewalk.  “You’re the annoying one, the crowd cheers when you catch it in the face.”

Simon was energized that he’d drawn a mocking spirit from Art, “Five bucks says you die first.”

A loud, strong, steady voice cut the air.  “If you’re right it’s worth way more than five bucks,” Mason clucked and came out of the alley just as the Treetops walked by.  Mason had twenty or thirty mute soldiers trailing behind him as he emerged from an alley.  “If he dies first you can take his shoes.”

“No one’s gonna die,” Max spoke quick and angry.  “I’m sick of this shit, no one’s gonna die.”  Max’s skin, or the fluid under his skin, boiled and gas was released as steam seeping from his ears.

Mason, feeling the strength of having a large, silent servant class en masse behind him, cackled as he spoke.  “His shoes are worth at least five bucks.”

Max was famous for his anger, but like a clown, it was often used as a stupid parlor trick.  He erupted in blustery profanities from nowhere on a regular basis.  Many of his eruptions were saved on VHS tapes and tucked away behind rotting drywall, only occasionally to be unearthed by Max when he was drunk and at an informal viewing party.  All of the Treetops had attended these viewing parties, where people would cheer and throw things.

Many of the other gang’s leaders, particularly Mason, often looked at the Treetops as a joke, though they could fight, everyone knew.  There was no organized authority that stood watch over these fights, fights just happened, and seeped into the topsoil.  Many upstart gangs big and small had stuck their toes in Evergreen, and been penalized.

If you deal in Evergreen, a Treetop’s gonna spot ya and flip a dove, which was only their way of calling Simon, Max or Art.  At that point, whichever leader of the Treetops would make a call and get the rest of SAC in after them, which is what they called throwing bricks and rocks at any interlopers.  These colorful sayings and turns-of-phrase had become street speak in the Treetop’s section of Evergreen Estates, and were exemplary of the Treetops’ attitude.

They fought a lot, ran some light protection schemes, small-to-mid level larceny.  They stayed away from drugs, even beating up gang members for selling anything without permission in a neighborhood they occupied.  They’d once attempted to eliminate the drug dealers completely, but now they simply taxed and regulated the drug trade in the areas they control.  Drugs were like a tidal wave, they rotted neighborhoods from the inside out, and there was no fighting against them.  The Treetops ran Evergreen with a stiff tax on any dealers they came across, which was the Treetops’ chief source of income.

As soon as Mason made himself known by stepping into the streetlight, Big D emerged from the darkness and gripped his forearms.  Big D and Mason touched foreheads before falling into riotous laughter, slapping each other on the shoulder and swearing.  They hugged and cackled, speaking of that one time last year when Mason had run into that one girl they remembered from back in the day, the one with the huge titties, and she was wearing like a business outfit or some shit, and she acted like she didn’t even see him, but who cares cause she was a bitch anyway.  When they’d been in the same grade school back in Evergreen, they’d been very close, running in the same crew and always having each other’s back.

“Mason!  This is the guy I told you about, he runs the Heaters.”  Big D held his arm out towards Mason, giving him a formal introduction.

Big D jogged up and clasped Mason’s hand, holding it to his breast and gripping it tightly.  “Mason, these are the Treetops.”  He then introduced every member in attendance, indicating them by holding his hand out towards each in turn.  “Max, Art, and Simon.”

The Treetops’ leadership remained seated, each holding out their hands for Mason to shake, which he did.  After Mason shook their hands, Max, Art and Simon each stood up, putting themselves at his eye level and nodding slightly.

The most notable thing about Mason was his hat; a huge, ostentatious neon orange top hat, speckled with a green felt boa wrapped around its brim.  Behind him were four lieutenants of the Heaters, wearing plainly colored stetsons, each of which had with him two soldiers wearing bowlers.  Simon blurted an observation: “You guys should be the Hatters.”

Roly yanked on Simon’s hand and lowered his voice to rasp out a whisper.  “Shut up, they know, they don’t like to talk about it.”

Simon cackled, knowing full well of the bear he was poking.  ”I know, I’m just sayin, they’re all wearing hats, and hatters is pretty close to,–”

Roly pushed Simon’s shoulders, “they know, they know, shut up.”

Art and Max could both see the writing on the wall, and they each tried to grab Simon before he could do it, but they were too late.  Simon laughed loudly, coughing as he spoke his observation.  “Oh shit!  The name of your gang is a typo!”

It took both Roly and Big D to hold Mason back.  “Our name is not a typo!  It was a typo, but it’s ours now.”

Simon could see the situation was more serious than he’d considered and tried to backtrack.  “Okay, it’s your name now, begging your pardon, I meant no offense, sorry.”

Mason sighed and threw his right hand out in front of him, indicating that he let the insult roll off his back.

Simon, never one to leave well enough alone, continued.  “Level with me, though, the name’s a typo, right?”

Mason flared once again, but this time Roly was right next to him and whispered something to him, calming him instantly.  Mason finally admitted it, “Yes, the Heaters were supposed to be the Hatters.”

Art guffawed and slapped Mason’s right shoulder with his left hand, causing Mason to sneer.

After a few silent, calming breaths, Mason called out, “Right, let’s go!”  The Heaters and the Treetops began to make their way across the Teddy.

The Treetops (2nd draft): Chapter 2, Mason and the Heaters

The Treetops (2nd draft) Chapter 1

“Caius said no weapons right?”  Big D croaked as he lifted himself over the seats of the M train, pressing his hands and feet on the stabilizing rails.  He was watching Max balance a chef’s knife on his knee with the point down and the tip of the handle resting against his forehead.  The very tall, stick-thin gangster hoisted himself over Max, staring daggers down.  D’s question might have seemed like a threat, given their relative sizes and positions in the train car, but Max, the far smaller of the two, held all the power.

Max was annoyed,  “Yeah,” he began, taking the knife by its handle and casually tossing it from his right to his left hand and back again.  “I’m a stash it.”  He silenced Big D’s concern with a flick of the wrist.

Overpowered, Big D ignored the slight Max had given with his somewhat cavalier response.  He knew that he had no power, because he wasn’t even an official Treetop yet.

Both Big D and his brother Roly had joined the Treetops only two years previous.  Every member of the Treetops had to procure their own uniform, and Big D’s uniform wasn’t even finished.  D still had to find and steal shoes, but size 24’s were few and far between.

The Treetop’s uniform was cheap, that was its operative characteristic.  The Treetops came from the far Southeast suburbs, a place where incomes were very often subsidized by nickels earned recycling cans.  Their uniform was just a dark T shirt and jeans, often sheared at the knees with a knife or a broken bottle.  These uniforms were scavenged from fences and clotheslines, stolen from citizens and fished out of dumpsters, as they could not be paid for.

Big D had yet to find and steal shoes gigantic enough for his feet, so he’d had to buy them.  Since he wasn’t able to steal his shoes, he was technically a prospective Treetop, and on a lower social rung than the others.

Simon, one of the founders of the Treetops on the same train, saw that Big D needed to be reminded of his station.  “Fresh kicks, D, you rollin’ large, moneybags?” Simon purred with a sick grin on his face.  This was, for Big D, a joke he’d heard since he’d begun initiation proceedings, and he was growing tired of it.  His eyes flared and his lips spread apart showing his teeth.

Noticing the aggression growing, Max held a bare palm up above everyone, said “Not now,” and that was the end of it.  Max was the most senior members of The Treetops, and also quite smart, so he held a position of expertise and authority.  Max knew it was pointless to squabble, as the gang needed to stay calm.  He knew rash action could lead to disastrous consequences.  The Treetops’ destination was possibly now already drowned in bloodshed.  They were heading to a speech, the audience of which was to be made up of representative groups from gangs all over the city.  They all knew that this would create a tinder box of blades and egos.

It seemed that the impossible had happened.  It seemed that Caius really had brought everyone together.  It was rumored that he was very near to granting an immediate and retroactive amnesty to all on behalf of all.  As he put it in his weekly radio hour, which was broadcast on a low frequency unknown to the police, “All beef will be squashed and put to bed.”  It was fantasy, it was a fever dream.  Many including Max wanted to believe that Caius could usher in an era of peace, but considered it a virtual impossibility.

This speech was meant to be some sort of coronation, or state-of-the union, or list of commands.  If it was a coronation or a state of the union, many gangs would chaff under any kind of leadership.  The Nomads, for one, didn’t even have an official territory, they lived by their wits wherever they found themselves, and would surely refuse bearing allegiance to anyone.

If the speech became a list of commands, there was no telling how many would die.  Whatever happened, Caius would be killed, Max reasoned, very likely.

Max considered himself a student of human moves, of the way people at all times kept their eyes open for ways to gain personal advantage.  Just as it was in the straight world, in gangster society war was big business, and economics seemed to demand boodshed. Max knew that the peace Caius promised was a dream.  Beyond this pessimism Max reserved for the obsession with money, everyone knew the danger of the event they were nearing.

Bad blood ran too deep and too many gang leaders were agents of chaos to make a lasting peace feasible.  Threats had flown freely for many years, and gang backlogs were full of debts to collect and wrongs to revenge.

Despite all the bad blood, the speech was happening.  The morning of Caius’ speech, Max, Art, and Simon had all received messages in letters slid under their front doors inviting them to a “rebel summit.”  By that time, the grapevine had been alive with talk of Caius for months, and these invitations told everyone where and when they could see him; midnight, Norwood Park.

After much debate, the Treetops had decided to send a small running crew.  The running crew consisted of Max, Art and Simon, the most senior of the Treetops, as well as Roly and Big D, brothers who seemed like they were from a fairy tale.  Big D was tall and skinny, Roly was short and fat.  Big D was dumb and trusting, Roly was clever and spiteful.  Both of them could fight, and in defense of one another they were unstoppable.

The fact was that the Treetops’ crew was minuscule compared to some of the others.  Many of the other gangs certainly would come in force, and likely outnumber The Treetops by five or six times.  To reach Norwood Park, The Treetops needed to take the subway all the way from Evergreen, the southeastern suburb they called their ‘hood.  This meant that if they had a crew of twenty or thirty, they would very likely draw stares from the Pigs, so they kept the crew as small as they could.

Every gang and every gang member had the same mortal enemy, the Pigs.  They were all the same; liars and cheats, thieves and pushers, same as they said of the gangs.  The thing the gangs really hated about the Pigs was not the deception in their words or the evil in their deeds, it was their self-righteous swagger.  They walked their beats as if the neighborhoods belonged to them, but Caius had foretold of the day fast approaching when the Pigs would know what true power is and find themselves wanting.

Caius had risen to be a prominent figure in the world of the criminal underground through “The Bulletin,” his weekly radio show on 123.7 AM, a low-wattage independent radio station he ran out of his headquarters.  All the gangs including The Treetops were avid listeners, as Caius’s brash anti-authoritarian take on lifestyle and philosophy appealed to them.  “We must lay low on a day-to-day basis,” Caius said regularly, “but our time will come.”

Within each neighborhood, every gang had created a unique network of alleys, shortcuts, side streets and backdoors to avoid the Pigs.  Caius had told them, if every gang’s network were connected, the Pigs could never find them.  Caius sketched a plan with his words, that if a member of a gang had too much heat on him anywhere in the city, there could be a stash house on every block, and they would all be communal.  He encouraged all to imagine a future war, one where the gangs could unite, recognizing that they all had the same true enemy.

Caius called it paradise, utopia, and more than anyone else had before, he made people believe in it.  Caius, the revered one, he could make everything like it should be.

Roly sat across from Max and shrank his voice to a low growl.  His eyes were still and locked in to Max’s, holding them tight.  “So what do you think?  I’ve never met Caius, I don’t even know what he looks like, so why am I gonna listen to this guy?”  Roly’d heard the same rhetoric everyone had, and he knew that many were praying for the dawning of a new era, with some even counting on it.

“Everyone I’ve talked to who’s heard him speak in person says it’s like nothin’ else.”  Max rolled his eyes and opened his mouth wide, as if the top part of his head was falling away from his face.  “I don’t know, he might just be smooth, all I know is everybody’s gonna be there, and whatta you wanna be left behind?”  As he finished his question, Max closed his mouth and looked into Roly’s eyes.

“All I’m saying is we’re leaving our territory, that’s all.”  Roly’s face quivered.  He looked scared, which made Max nervous, as Roly wasn’t the type to be easily shook.

Simon giggled, “You scared?”

Roly’s eyes narrowed and and he tightened his lips, “No.”

Max interrupted, “Everybody listen up.  I know this isn’t ideal, we’re gonna be exposed.  But I think we can smash anyone, and if we can’t they’ll know us when we’re gone, and they’ll know where we come from.”  He looked over the Treetops as he spoke, and it gave him no confidence.

Simon blew contempt through his lips, “Yeah our names will be on official documents at the morgue.”

Max normally enjoyed Simon’s gallows humor, but he wasn’t in the mood.  “The morgue?”  Max stared at Simon, trying to show him rage, but it came across like terror.  At Simon’s jape, Art guffawed, but it was more in agreement than mirth.

Spurred on by the show of support, Simon continued.  “Yeah this is about to get blown up, man.  Caius said no weapons, but whatta they gonna do, check?  Fuckin’ forget it, this’ll be a free-for-all, I ain’t scared though.”

“So it’s agreed, we pack blades at least,” Max raised the point of his butcher knife to be parallel with his line of sight.  “Got mine,” Max grinned.

Big D seemed to be getting frustrated, but he wouldn’t dare try to tell Max anything, he’d learned his lesson.  He just tried to change the topic and shift focus from Max, “None of us have heard Caius in person, though.  So what—what if they’re right and he is the one?”D finished his statement with a trailing off voice, as if attempting to seem mystic, or like he knew some securet the others didn’t.  However, Simon was listening, and he couldn’t stand for what seemed like soupy-eyed optimism.

“What if who’s right?  The one!?”  Simon spoke quick and loud, loud enough so that everyone could hear his voice break.  “Caius’s head of the Eastside Forty-Niners, what if he wants everyone to be a Forty-Niner?  I’m not a fuckin Forty-Niner, I’m a Treetop.”  Simon hadn’t put his fear of the summit in such stark terms before, and he he put a colloquial capper on it for good measure: “I’m-a stay a Treetop, too.”

As Simon spoke, Max eyed him suspiciously.  His chin dropped, leaving him slack-jawed, portraying a knowing gloom.  “You holdin’ anything that shoots, Simon?”

Big D rushed Simon and held him by the collar, “I swear to god, if you fuck this up I’m gonna kill you.”

Simon laughed as he slid a snub-nosed .38 out of his pocket and threw it on the ground.  He sat back as far as he could and held his hands in the air.  “Fuck me man, fine, I’m not carryin’ anything.  I was gonna stash it before we got there, jesus.”

Roly looked at the gun for a few seconds considering, then pulled out his own and put it on the ground next to Simon’s.  “I believe in Caius, I think there’s too much money at stake for anyone to fuck this up.  So, we don’t wanna get caught with nuthin’.  Stash all pistols in the same place.”

“Money?”  Art said, his voice laced with a mocking suspicion, “There’s money?”  At the mention of money, Art’s ears picked up and his tail wagged.  Art had been standing on a seat near the door between train cars, but as he spoke he lowered himself to the floor and stood in front of the others.

Roly knew that Art’s blood ran green, “Well if Caius brings us together, the way everybody’s saying, we can make real money.”

Big D hated when gang members talked about money.  “This is fuck all all about money, this is about finding a way to live.”

Art rolled his eyes and stretched over a couple of seats on the train, laying still as he pretended to snore.  Max seemed to shrink in his seat, pulling his feet close to him and wrapping his arms around his knees.

They were all frightened, this was new, heading to a speech.  Workers and administrators and servants went to speeches; gangsters didn’t go to speeches.

The Treetops (2nd draft) Chapter 1

The Apple (100 word flash fiction)

“So far,” Colonel Johns said looking over the remaining rations, “it’s not lookin’ great.”

We were desperately starving, and there were six of us.  “We’ve got one apple, and that’s it.”

Chaplain Holmes’ eyes flicked from the apple to group captain Mandrake and then to the gunners Thompson and Dunbar, all of them craving to the point of breaking.

It was only Jimmy, the homeless orphan-turned mess hall boy, who knew what to do.  He lunged at the apple, grabbed it and flung it over the side of the raft into the ocean.

They all starved, but none were murdered.

The Apple (100 word flash fiction)

Sylvester (volume 7)

As I lay beside Sonia and covered her with my bare arm, for the first time in my life I had a dream in which I could fly.

I sailed above sand dunes in a desert, skimming just over their crests.  I whistled through the air at increasing speed, and had the sense that I needed to hurry, and feared that for some reason I would be late.  I didn’t know what my deadline was, but I sensed my time was almost up.

I hurried as best I could, and as my speed increased I began to feel that I would make my deadline, whatever it was.  There was a single great sand dune ahead of me, bigger than all the others, but as I approached its pinnacle, the ability to fly suddenly left me.  I plummeted down toward the sand, and at the moment I hit the ground, I started awake with a loud cough.

“You’re up?”  Sonia quested from the kitchen, where she sat at the small table eating a plate of eggs and toast.  “You slept for a while, you were tired, huh?”

I sat up and yawned, raising my hands as high as I could behind my back.  I swung my legs over the side of the bed and felt cold linoleum under my bare feet.  My eyes shot open and my spine straightened.  I trotted into the kitchen and took the seat opposite Sonia.  “I guess, what time is it?”

“Two,” Sonia said, crunching into her toast.  “Hungry?”

I said “Yeah” as I grinned, anticipating a tasty breakfast.

Sonia likewise smiled, pointing towards the stovetop at the laid-out components of a growing breakfast.  “There’s the eggs, bread, the toaster, and here’s the butter,” she indicated to a small dish at the center of the table.  “You know what to do, I’m already eating.”  She sat up in her seat with an impish grin on her lips, pointing at things with her fork.

I silently made my way to the stove top, cracked a couple eggs, and dropped their insides in a pan.  “Did you sleep?” I asked, over my shoulder.  I wanted it to seem as though what was happening was completely normal to me, and no big deal.

“Yeah,” she answered simply.  I breathed a grateful sigh of relief.  She’s playing it cool too, I thought.

I flipped my eggs with the spatula to my left and turned to the right, watching Sonia through the edge of my vision.  “Good,” I said, raising my two eggs over hard out of the pan with the spatula.  I placed my plate of eggs onto the table and joined it with a piece of toast, onto which I began to spread butter.  “So what’s up for you today?”

As I started to ask the question I could tell by the wrinkles in her nose that it was annoying to Sonia.  “I don’t know, what do you care?”  Her left eyebrow elevated slightly, indicating what could have been incredulity, but was more likely bitterness.

“I don’t know. . .” after this first phrase I let a pause hang in the air.  I thought about what I should say, and then I remembered our conversation from the night before.  “I care because I guess because I like you, whaddya want me to say?”

Sonia stepped towards the sink and began to slap her palms down on the counter to the side off it, laughing uproariously.  “Oh yeah,” she leaned over the sink and turned her head around to look in my eyes.  She smiled softly, as if grinning on her own in a private moment, and then lightened the mood with a joke. “Did we ever find a dick in the sky last night?”  As she said the word “dick” the teeth in her grin shined like the whites in her eyes and warmed my heart.

“No,” I said, returning her smile with my own as I did, “We can’t see stars in the city.”

“Right, of course,” said Sonia, taking the seat at the table opposite me.  We both ate our meals slowly, inspecting each other’s faces, staring into each other’s eyes.  “I bet if we could we would find dicks all over the place, though.”

I returned her comment with barely a pause, as if I were reciting written dialogue.  “I imagine cavemen did.”  I slowly took a bite of my toast.  “They probably saw whatever they dreamt about in the night sky.”  As I spoke I thought about the way that, in the past, before even literature, human imagination had to be ignited by perceived patterns in the stars.

“The stars were their TV, I guess,” Sonia chuckled to herself.  I couldn’t remember ever meeting anyone who chuckled as much as she did.  “I bet there’s lots of swastika’s up there too.”

I cackled furiously, and as we continued to discuss constellations, each of us burst into laughter over and over again.  We imagined seeing written messages in the stars like “WASH ME” or “FOR A GOOD TIME CALL—“ as well as comic tableaus that told stories of people falling on their faces.  Our discussion went on and on, accompanied by rising and falling waves of laughter, until I finally looked at the clock on the wall and saw that it was 4:03.

“It’s four already,” I said, smiling wide and flashing Sonia the most tender eyes I could.  “We’ve been talking for hours.”

Sonia, who’d just been sitting on the front room’s couch, yawned and stretched out onto her back.  “Yeah,” she said, allowing her voice to fade away as she stared at the ceiling.

“Yeah,” I parroted, thinking about all the things we could do together.  I imagined us as a private-eye team in the twenties; some cuckoo dame could come to us saying that she thinks her husband is cheating on her, but we would find something far more nefarious.  Or maybe we could be lovers and artists in 19th century France, discussing the signals god sends us through the clouds.  I could feel myself falling in love, for real, and then being in love.

I’d fallen in love in the past, or anyway I’d felt that great pain plenty, but I called it love only because of the cliche that “love hurts.”  This was the type of love I’d grown accustomed to, the unrequited variety.  This type of love is very sad, powerfully disruptive, and completely selfish.

I call this type of love selfish because when love is unrequited the loved figure ceases to be her own being, in my mind, and becomes my personal object of desire.  This both strips her of her own identity, and means that she can only become a symbol of pain in my life.  But now it seemed that I might actually get to “be” in love for a time, and I was excited to find out what that would be like.

As I sat on Sonia’s front room couch looking out the window, I daydreamed, allowing my conscious mind to flit around wherever it wanted.  “Have you heard back from your mom?”

Hearing Sonia’s question was like stepping on a bear trap, and I was instantly curled in pain.  Oh no, my inner monologue screeched, I forgot.  “No, I should probably head back home.”  I said coolly, as if everything were going splendidly and to plan, but inside I was a nasty cyclone.

You idiot, I cursed at myself silently through clenched teeth.  While trying to seem calm and in-control, I clutched at my right thigh as hard as I could, feeling the shape of the bone in my thigh.  She could be dead by now you useless, fucking loser.

“I’m in a show at Gallery Cabaret tomorrow,” Sonia chirped brightly, unaware of the emotional iron lung I was in.  “It’s a stupid kinda show, basically an open mic really, but you could come, the show’s at eight.”

“Eight o’clock, tomorrow?”  I spoke, thinking that I might not make it, because my mom might be dead.  “I dunno, might be working’ late at the store, Tuesday’s our inventory day.”

“Oh okay,” she said, chirpy as ever and showing me a smile.  Her cute, lovely eyes made me wonder why I’d lied to her.  Tuesday wasn’t our inventory day, and I didn’t understand why I’d claimed it was.  I said something nonspecific about hanging out later that day and got out of there.  I had one concern: I’d been away from my normal life for too long, and I needed to see about it.

Before I could look back on my own mind and guess why I’d become such a liar, I slipped my shoes on and hustled out the door.  I stalked onto the sidewalk in a big hurry to get home.  As I sensed a matt of flop sweat on my forehead I imagined that I probably looked disheveled, desperate and lashing out at the world with passion.

I half-grinned as I hurried along in my khaki’s, huffing and puffing in rhythm with the sound the legs of my pants made rubbing together.  ShvooBAH.  My fat little stub legs made this sound as they crushed into each other with a crazy rhythm.  It wasn’t more than maybe ten paces of this hurrying bullshit that my inner thighs felt like they would burn off.  But just as the pain seemed a bit too much, like my pants would literally catch on fire, I found the strength to go on.  I knew, as I saw Welles Park, which was about the midpoint between Sonia and I, I for the first time felt that maybe I would actually make it.

 

The pain was great and liberating.  My legs burnt and I breathed smoke.  I had collapsed onto one of the benches outside an organized middle school soccer game at Welles Park.  As I sat there panting and coughing, watching little kids run and run, my head dropped, planting my eyes on the sidewalk beneath me.  I closed my eyes, folding my hands between my knees.  I grimaced, bearing my teeth and emitting a painful groan; what was I thinking?

As had happened frequently during my life so far and was likely to continue happening for the foreseeable future, I raged at myself without understanding why I’d done what I’d done.  It was the right thing to do, I decided, to leave Sonia’s home for my own, as it may have been, but I shamed myself for doing it in such a sudden and unexplained fashion.

I considered going back, ringing her doorbell and waiting just outside for the door to open.  With the door open, I’d have been free to shower Sonia with kisses to my hearts’ content, but I realized in the middle of this thought that it would have been a terrible idea.  I calmed myself down, assured as I was  that Sonia really did like me.  I regretted leaving her as abruptly as I had, but I felt we’d really made a real connection, and that our connection could last for the foreseeable future.

I stood up from the bench and trotted home, the tension melting off my cheeks.

As I walked out of the park, my pace slowed greatly and I inspected every pile of leaves I came across, wandering over expanses of grass in lazy loops.  I retrieved my phone from my pocket and called my mom once again, expecting her to answer and place an order.  It was at that point around 4:30, and I knew that it was around this time on most days that my mother is overcome by a need to buy some liquor.

I rolled my eyes as I heard the start of the first ring, expecting my mom to pick it up after only a couple rings.  When she did not, and the answering machine picked up, I left a pointless message.  “Hey mom, how’s it going?”  I don’t know why I asked questions like this one frequently in voicemail messages, but I always have.  “Yeah anyway, so I had a great night last night and I hope you did too.  I’ll be home in just a few minutes, see you then.”

Theree was no real reason to leave such a message, when I could have just hung up.  I was suddenly gripped once more by the tremendous fear that I might discover my mother’s corpse.  As I turned onto my street, and stared down the long row of houses to the end of the block, my pace quickened again.

I thought about finding my mother dead on the floor, in front of the TV, with a line of drool trailing from the edge of her mouth.  Along with my fear that my mother could be dead when I arrived home came the sad realization that perhaps she’d be better off.  She’d been hurtling downwards into despair for as long as I cared to remember.  My biological father’s death, which occurred when I was only two years old, effected her more greatly, I think, than she ever let on.  Maybe if I found her dead, I realized, I could believe that she is once again with her love.

Of course, I don’t really believe that.  I believe after you die you will probably spend most of your time underground, and that’s about it.  If my mom died while I was out, I realized, then I wouldn’t get to tell her about Sonia, and that would mean that my mother died believing that I was lonely; and without anyone.  This fear more than anything, terrified me.  I’d been excited to tell her about Sonia the next time she was sober, but she could have died while I was out.

This possibility gripped my spine and pulled me forward, causing me to sprint down the final half-block, coming to a rest before my front steps.  As I slowed to a halt, my shoulders fell forward and I placed my hands on my knees.  Doubled over, I gasped for air as quickly as I could, believing that more air would stifle the pain in my legs.  I rarely run, because when I run my legs burn like the devil.

I moved slowly up my front steps and put my key in the lock.  I began to feel very powerful and conflicting emotions about what I might find inside.  I feared the grief that would overtake me when I saw that my mother was dead.  Though through my fear of the great sadness I would feel upon discovering my mothers’ death, I also anticipated great relief.  I thought a calming might overtake me, and it might be awesome.

This thought, that my mom’s death would be great, added a sharp layer of guilt onto my mess of emotions.  This type of guilt is very familiar to co-dependents like me, it is the guilt of not making sure your addict has enough of their preferred drug.  I didn’t need to worry, though, because when I opened the door and walked in, I saw my mother snoring, passed out on the couch.

As I’d long claimed to suspect, though actually I knew, my mother had several small bottles of vodka hidden around the house.  “Hidden” isn’t the right word.  I’d just say they were placed around my house, and while I was out my mother’ed downed a few.

She lay, passed out on the couch in the front room of my house, and I sighed theatrically, as if there was someone to complain to.  She snored loudly as I slowly approached to guide her into her bed, but before I did I noticed Scrabble was out and set up.  My mother had even put two words on the board, opposite each other; one for me and one for her.  I smiled, because this was the same shit she always pulled when we played Scrabble.

It was a joke we shared.  She’d set up a game of Scrabble for us, and she would place our first words.  Her first word would just be a random jumble she made on the spot, and my first word would always be something unbelievably good like “ZOMBIFY” or “PACKWAX.”  She would then say that these two words were completely random, and this meant that I began the game leading by one hundred and fifty points.

I never once bought it, though, and I would shake my finger at her.  I imagine I was probably really cute when I was five years old, sneering at my mother and scolding her.  “No cheating,” I would say, demanding that we draw again.  We would draw again, and she would absolutely destroy me.  I never was able to beat her, and I never will, because I don’t count it as a win unless neither player passes out before the end of the game.

My left hand rose to cover my mouth as I began to cry, softly and only a little before I was able to jam it back down my throat again.  Another wave of tremendous guilt overtook me, as I remembered leaving a message saying that I’d be home soon, and even suggesting a game of Scrabble “like old times.”  I thought this indicated that she was also excited about Scrabble, and that I’d driven her to drink by not coming back when I said I would.

I imagined her on the couch, setting up Scrabble, sitting and waiting.  Who knows how long she waited, but she waited.  I resented her to my core, for creating the circumstances that led me to feel tremendous guilt that I’d not made it home in time to play Scrabble with my mom.  She’d have been drunk anyway, I told myself, lifting my mother from the couch and guiding her into her bed.

She was very heavy, like me, and I wasn’t in great shape especially after the walk.  I regretted carrying her all this way, because I could have dragged her or just left her on the couch.  Grunting and straining, I put her over my shoulder and dumped her on her bed, collapsing next to her sideways over the mattress.  I realized then that I would love a sandwich, so I was off to make one.

Heading to the kitchen, I was excited by the possibilities.  Open-faced grilled cheese with bacon on top!

Sylvester (volume 7)

Sylvester (Volume 3)

3.

I thought a lot about the moment when Sonia told me not to apologize.  It was assertively kind, forcefully soft, and incredibly sexy.  I thought about the way her nose had flared as she said “Stop it,” and the way her cheeks had been kinda flushed like she was excited too.

There was a dusk to her face, I guess I would say.  It was exotic smokiness.  Maybe one of her parents was an Arab, or an Ashkenazi Jew, or maybe even South American.  Her eyes were slightly almond shaped and her casual bob hairstyle was thrown apart, wavy and black.  Her eyes were a hazy brown and I could not help but notice the collar of her shirt was a bit undone, displaying a more-than healthy shock of cleavage.

In my life, I’ve found few things as provocative as cleavage.  Sonia’s cleavage was what I might’ve called “hot,” like two pillowy-soft pound cakes with a matt finish  As I followed her to her house, which she’d assured me was just a few blocks away, I thought about what was happening in an excitedly detached way.

An attractive woman who appeared to be in her late thirties was leading me to her dwelling, where the two of us would “party.”   First of all, this was absolutely unprecedented, and I needed to acclimate to this new social landscape immediately.  I wondered what the word “party” had meant, and every possibility excited me.

Had she meant to imply that we would have sex?  I had had sex before, a couple of times in college and a few times since, but it had been a very long time.  It had been so long I didn’t even think about it anymore, or anyway that’s what I told myself.  Sexual desire is such an unconscious thing that I have no way of knowing whether I thought about sex all the time or hardly at all.  The psychologists say all the time, and they’re probably right.

So I wondered, if I were called upon to perform, would I rise to the challenge?  The possibility that I would not be able perform sexually scared me enough that I decided I would not have sex that night, even if it were offered.

I would refuse sex once, however, if sex was offered a second time, I would give it a shot.  Imagining Sonia offering me sex not once but twice made a slow smile tickle across my lips.  It felt possible.

“You’re not gettin’ any,” Sonia said, making me slightly disappointed, and far more comfortable.  Her eyes beamed up at me, and noticed the growing grin on my lips.  “Of course, anything’s possible.”  She smiled wide, opening her mouth as wide as it would go as she guffawed.

I looked away from her and stared straight forward, thinking that I should say something.  I didn’t say anything for what felt like a long time, or anyway long enough that I thought Sonia might feel embarrassed.  “Uh, um, uh—“ searching for words and considering the possibilities rendered me mute, like a mumbling idiot.

“Relax, there’s no pressure.”  As Sonia said these heavenly words she grinned sweetly and leaned her shoulder against mine, nestling the crook of my elbow against her palm and fingers.  “We’re just gonna hang out, and maybe you’ll meet my roommates.”

Roommates?  I figured that I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.  As I considered what this woman in her late thirties would be doing living with multiple people she called her roommates, I realized that I had one of my own.  Oh shit, mom!  “As soon as we get to your place, I gotta make a call real quick, if that’s okay.”

“Yeah that’s fine,” as Sonia paused before asking her next question, I realized what it was likely to be, and instantly dreaded it.  “Who ya gonna call?”

I knew I had to think fast, so I glanced at the catalog of references in my mind for a way to deflect the question without answering it.  I didn’t want to tell her so soon that I lived with my mother.  Luckily, I saw my best option instantly.  “GhostBUSTERS!

Sonia laughed for a while in a way that appeared genuine.  I figured it probably was, either in a genuine or an ironic way, real laughter.  As her laughter began to die down, she wiped her mouth with her forearm and chortled slightly, before returning to her question.  “No, seriously, who ya gonna call?  Your wife?”

“I don’t have a wife,” I responded instantly.  I considered briefly lying to her, saying that I should call my ex-wife to ask about our son or something, anything to avoid admitting to her that I still lived with my mother.  Thinking about it, though, I realized that Sonia’s situation seemed odd enough that I wouldn’t expect her to judge.  “I live with my mother, and she might get worried about me.”

I watched Sonia nervously out of the sides of my eyes, anticipating spirited chuckling or something, but I couldn’t detect any affect at all in her expression.  She just said “Okay,” but I wasn’t quite satisfied with that, and had to clarify Sonia’s understanding of the situation.

“She lives with me, I mean, I mean I look after her, I guess.”

Sonia shot back almost immediately.  “It’s cool, there’s no judgements.”  We walked up the few steps to her front door she remarked flippantly, as if it meant nothing, “I have a ten-year-old son.”

I was taken aback by this information.  I stood behind her, stunned and still, as she unlocked her front door.  “Don’t worry,” she said glancing back at me with a devious grin, “The kids don’t usually bite, just don’t make any sudden moves.”  She cackled as she slid her key into the lock and turned it.

 

When I was walking up the stairs behind Sonia and she was looking back at me laughing, my heart started beating a little faster.  I mean it must have, because I was breathing much harder.  I focused, believing that this moment could become monumental to me in the future, either for good or ill.

This could be the moment I met her, the woman who could change my life.  As Sonia unlocked and opened her front door I thought about everything she had told me about her life.  There wasn’t really much to consider, I began to realize  She told me she had roommates, and that she had a ten year-old son.  Was her son being playfully referred to as a “roommate?”

Thinking of it, I wondered whether this decision I was making was a huge mistake.  Could I be walking into my own linoleum-sided mausoleum, acting like a new father or older-brother role model for some rugrat miscreants?  I thought that Sonia might be a harried single mother angling for domestic support, and if this were the case, It probably wouldn’t be all bad.

I could pal around with a little kid, I bet it would be fun.  And if a youngster came to look up to me, or rely on me for emotional support, it could conceivably be emotionally transformative.

But as soon as I entered Sonia’s front door, a puff of smoke floated into view above the couch opposite the TV.  On the couch were two young adults, whom I guessed were college students, and I could smell that they were smoking weed.

I detected the odor of marijuana as I followed Sonia into the house and it took me back to my college days.  I’d smoked a fair amount of what the adults used to call “dope,” but it had never really been my thing.  Seeing the smoke, she said, casually, “Oh goddamnit, guys, already?”

The one on the left giggled a bit, “Already.”  They simultaneously erupted into cackles of a kind I remembered from discussions of John Cale and The National Lampoon.

“These are my roommates,” Sonia said, walking past me into the house and opening a side door.  “Jacob and Jason, I call them the J’s.”

Jacob and Jason erupted into giggles when Sonia called them the J’s, which I suppose had been her plan, because as they giggled she tried to whisk me up to her room as fast as she could.  It wasn’t fast enough, as after us I heard her young “roommates hoot and holler, with one of them yelling “you go girl” at the top of his lungs.

Sonia was beat red, and she almost seemed as though she was having a breakdown.  I’m kind of ashamed to admit it, but the effect that this set-upon, untamed world seemed to be having on her was very alluring.  I imagined her as I saw her, all wide eyes and gasping, clutching at shining moist collar, her lips open slightly pushing the air out softly but as hard as she could.

“Kids, ya know?”  She said as she closed the door and turned into her front entrance way.  Sonia’s apartment seemed full and fully-appointed.  The couch and the chairs around the dining room table seemed lived in, as though they were often moved and sat upon.

I was waiting for her to tell me who the young adults smoking weed downstairs were, but she was just concerned with entertaining.  “Take a seat, I’ll get us a couple drinks, vodka-tonics good?”

“—Oh, uh, okay, thanks.”

Sonia turned and confidently stalked into the kitchen, allowing the door to swing closed behind her.  I sat on the couch, and having seen the cable remote on the coffee table adjacent, I reached for it.

It was a familiar remote to the one I had at home, so I turned the TV on and leaned back, staring into it.  I heard the familiar opening tones of The People’s Court’s theme song burst from the television’s speakers.  This reminded me that my mother was waiting for the cereal I’d said I would get a while ago, as well as any surprise liquor she might have assumed I would get for her.

This concern was was swept aside the moment Sonia burst back into the room holding two tall glasses of clear liquid, each filled with ice and holding a lime wedge on its rim.  “Here is yours and here is mine,” she said before sipping from her glass and holding my glass out for me.  “So, I saw you in the bar last night, why didn’t you just come over, I wanted you to.”

I sipped my drink and was caught by her eyes again.  She wanted me too?  I never would have guessed that.  I reminded myself to keep steady, and not to show her how exciting all this was to me.  “Oh well, I don’t know, I guess I was tired, musta been drunk.”

“Nah,” Sonia began, chuckling as she did.  “you weren’t drunk, you just left.  Sorry I insulted you.”

That Sonia remembered the insult she’d paid me and felt some regret meant a great deal to me, but I could never let her know.  Immediately, I said “It’s all right,” bringing the matter to a close, and allowing me space to change the topic of conversation.  “So what’s with those kids downstairs?”

She hung her head and sighed in an agonized fashion.  “Just some kids from DePaul renting the downstairs.”  She said this, and without any emotive aspect to her speech, she took another long sip.  “They rented it out during school for the last two years, then they graduated, now they just live here.”

“Oh,” I said, taking a deep pull from what I was beginning to realize was a very strong gin & tonic.  “So, um, what else do you do?”

Sonia seemed vaguely offended.  “What, what kind of question is that?”

“I don’t know, one of the normal-type questions ya ask people, I guess.”  I thought that my answer seemed satisfactory, and that she would understand, but Sonia seemed to be railing against social convention itself.

“Normal questions, I’m so sick of normal questions.”

I thought that maybe she was sick of questions about herself and her life because she didn’t like the answers she would give.  I could understand, having himself been familiar with this type of dark dissatisfaction.  “Alright then, how ‘bout you ask a question.”

“When did you lose your virginity?”

“What!?”  I was surprised to the point of jolting my head back like I was dodging something.  The question seemed to come at me like a blow, but considering that Sonia seemed to be playing a different game from the one I thought myself familiar with.  I knew than that I had simply to let go, and a wide grin broke across my lips.  “Leela Heathcoat, freshman year of college.”

Sonia rocked back in her seat, rolling with laughter.  She slapped her thigh as she spoke, “Okay, now ask me a question.”

I dropped into my own mind, considering what my question would be.  For a moment I considered asking something general like “What is your favorite color?”  Then I considered briefly making a Monty Pyrhon reference, “What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?”  In the end I came up with a question I’d been dying to know the answer to.  “Why did you bring me here?”

She smirked shyly.  “I don’t know, I’ve been noticing you around, and I saw you at Harvest Time and . . .”  She trailed off as she lowered her chin to her chest as she beamed up at me with Kilowatt eyes.  “I kind of wanted to have sex with you, I guess.”

Sylvester (Volume 3)

Sylvester Volume 2

Chapter 1

I woke up in my heaven-feel of a bed, feeling like it was heaven.   But then inevitably I gotta pee, and that’s when I pry myself into the harsh morning air.  Harsh as the sky is blue; harsh as water is wet.  I love sleeping so much that for me all morning air is inhospitable.

Anyway I’m not a morning person, but there I am up at the crack of dawn, daily, and there’s nothing I can do about it.  Even on my days off, the instant sunlight hits my eyelids I’m up.  As soon as I’m up, the TV goes on

I love TV, and whenever anyone says there’s nothing on or that TV sucks now anyway, I just can’t relate.  In recent years the internet and Netflix have made it so that a lot of people just don’t have a TV anymore, but the TV has always been my light in the storm.  I don’t wanna say it’s always been my best friend because that’s weird and it hasn’t, but whenever the problems keep piling up faster than I know how to handle them, television’s there.  I guess that probably sounds weird too, but I don’t care.

With the TV muted I stick to watching Top Plays on SportCenter or seeing what they’re talking about on CNN, whatever I can stare at and lose myself for a couple of hours before I go to work.  On the morning in question SportCenter was just talking about the NBA finals which were going on at the time and CNN was showing President Obama talking into a microphone about the “significant progress” made against ISIS.  I rolled my eyes and went hunting for something more interesting to watch.

How It’s Made was on, showing an umbrella being fashioned by hand, so I stopped my flipping to watch it happen.  It turned out that making an umbrella by hand, one uses a sewing machine an awful lot, and I began to wonder if sewing machine use and maintenance would be a good skill to add to my set.  I thought to myself about everything I could do; I could repair ripped clothes, stitch disparate items together like parachutes and floatation devices, the possibilities were literally endless.  I often have thoughts like these, none of which have ever come to anything, but I don’t really expect them to.  I just like considering options.

Anyway eventually my eyes wandered onto a clock as it said 8:47 AM, so I had to leave for Harvest Time, my place of employment.  As much as I enjoy relaxing in the morning, when I finally rouse myself it’s also it’s own kind of joy.  I went with a smile to open the grocery store.

When I got there a few people are normally already there getting things ready, and everyday roughly a block from the entrance I find Guadeloupe chain smoking.  I like Guadeloupe, or anyway I like to maintain a cordial relationship with my senior register attendant, so I normally open with a joke.

“Shit’ll kill ya, ya know, I saw it on the news.”  She didn’t laugh, as she’d heard exactly the same quip from me countless times before, and she didn’t seem to be in the mood.

As I approached her, Guadeloupe flicked her cigarette onto the ground and stamped it with the heel of her boot.  “Fuck you Sil,” she said with a disdain in her voice that I preferred to assume was meant mockingly.  “We’re still waiting on the first truck, I called ‘em and they don’t know what’s goin’ on.”

My brow was furrowed, as this wasn’t the first time our produce shipment had been delayed, and it would mean that they would probably need my help setting it out as soon as it got there.  “Shit, we’re good for the morning though right?”

“Yeah, but not if people want fresh fruit.”

Just as Guadeloupe answered my question I saw the produce truck turn off Western on to Lawrence a couple blocks from the store.  I motioned toward it with my left hand saying “there it is, we just gotta tell ‘em again not to take Western.”

She took out another cigarette, lit it and began to puff away.  “They won’t listen.  They never listen.”  As she discarded her cigarette and stomped it into the ground, I could almost see the hate pour out of her nose as she exhaled, Guadeloupe hated truck drivers.  As she turned around and headed to the store’s back entrance, she spit on the ground.

“Just go to the loading bay, I’ll open up the store.”  I went to turn on the lights and unlock the door rather than load the produce because, in the off chance that it was her husband driving the produce truck, I didn’t want to bear witness to the verbal and physical beating that was sure to take place.

She hated truck drivers primarily, I figured, because she was married to one, and she claimed to have a full understanding of just how lazy they were.  As she was my oldest and most trusted employee, the forty-five year-old housewife-turned general manager Guadeloupe Izquierda and I had something of a friendship, which meant that I was her main sounding board for complaints about her husband Saul (pronounced Sa-ool).  She said that truck drivers never really kept to a schedule because they didn’t care to, and since most people can’t drive a big rig truck, “They got us by the balls.”

When I was first getting to know Guadeloupe 15 years earlier, I’d found it ironic that she harbored a resentment towards the trucking industry, as she was married to a trucker, but the more I got to know her the more it made sense.  Saul was never home, she said, always claiming to be stuck running long hauls at all hours of the day and night.  Her tangled, greasy hair fell over her face and stuck to her back, led by the mean scowl on her lips and the dark tension in her eyes.

As I watched the produce truck near and unlocked the front entrance of Harvest Time Grocery & Produce, I silently prayed to myself that Saul wasn’t driving it.  If Guadeloupe saw her husband at the wheel of the truck that was then a full half hour late, she would certainly end up beating him about the head and back with her meaty hands.  I’ve often felt compassion for Saul as I’ve watched Guadeloupe stock 25 pound bags of potatoes like they were nothing, and knowing that she was a terrifying and aggressive presence.  The few times I’ve actually seen and communed with Saul, the stick-thin six foot spectacled victim of his wife’s frequent and unexpected rages, he’s seemed like a fearful puppy.

 

As the truck neared Harvest Time thirty minutes after its expected arrival time, I turned the lights on and started the low rumble of Spanish-Language elevator music that was the store’s regular soundtrack.  Harvest Time was not an independent operation, but rather the largest part of a network of laundromat’s, corner stores, and bodegas owned by Jorge Garcia, wealthy Mexican immigrant and owner of what I considered the world’s worst haircut.

Garcia’s portrait, which held a wall space of prominence in each of his 8 businesses located in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago, made me at least chuckle silently to myself every time I saw it.  His hair was black and so greasy-smooth on top that it appeared like a helmet, which combined with the thick curls at either side of his head to frame his face perfectly.  It was like he was a robot with wires coming out of the screen that displayed his face.

I’d had a monthly meeting with boss Jorge (as he preferred to be called), and in the countless number of these meetings we’d had he always seemed like a paragon of management expertise.  I can only say that, I guess, because he owns so many businesses and they all seem to make money.

Anyway as I booted up the computer in my office, a cubicle-sized room in the back of the store I don’t really spend that much time working in, it occurred to me that I might need to intervene on Saul’s behalf once he got to the store, as a bloodbath would be bad for business.  Guadeloupe had anger problems, and if she took the opportunity to beat her husband in full view of any curious would-be customers, it might make things awkward, which could potentially lose us business.

I went out behind the store to rescue Guadeloupe’s husband from her clutches if need be, but she was just yelling at some new young truck driver I’d never seen before.  I sighed, relieved as I was not just on behalf of Saul, but also on my own behalf, as it was an unpleasant thing to see a grown man dressed down and humiliated.  I guess that might seem kind of selfish, at least to me, but I just don’t wanna be there for the uncomfortable sound of another man’s ego being pounded into dust.

Anyway me and Guadeloupe were the only people at the store upon opening at 9:07, ready to greet the flood of customer that poured through the front door.  I say flood of customer and not customers because just like normal, my first customer is a single man, and I call him a flood because he’s roughly six feet tall weighing three hundred and fifty pounds.  Those measurements are just my best guess, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he, Douglas Krandall, actually weighs more than four hundred pounds.  Every time I see him I remember the beginning Raiders of the Lost Arc and imagine him chasing me out of a cave, but he’s a really nice guy, and whip smart too.

“Hey Doug, the produce was a little late today, so it’ll be a few minutes before Guadeloupe sets it all out.”

Mr. Krandall nodded slightly looking me in the eyes and apprehended a shopping cart from the row of them adjacent to the store’s entrance.  Immediately after I told him that the produce was late, I wondered why I’d done so, as I knew well that the greens would not be his first stop.  His first stop that day, as it was roughly every other day, was the cereal aisle.  In the cereal aisle he normally retrieved at least four boxes of sugary cereal.

Though exactly which boxes he attained differed from day to day, they always included at least two, and as many as nine of the following cereals: Honey Nut Cheerios, Frosted Cheerios, Reece’s Puffs, Cocoa Puffs, Sugar Smacks, Raisin Bran Crunch, Frosted Flakes, Life Cereal, and Froot Loops.  Whenever he went through checkout with his collection, I found myself fantasizing about what he would have for breakfast that day.  Would he eat a normal-sized bowl of just one cereal?  No, I was sure he’d have a heaping bowl of a combination of at least two of them, but which ones and how much of each?  The most obvious combinations seemed to be both types of Cheerios and both Types of Puffs, but what were his final choices?

I didn’t dare ask, of course, as it seemed likely this man had likely fought a losing battle with his weight for his entire life, and he didn’t need me reminding him that he was essentially buying a lot of boxes of candy.  I’ve long figured that the fat guy who buys too much cereal probably has a sad life, and that he seems to be filling his mornings with a variety of cereal to quell a sickening loneliness.  Or, come to think of it, he could have children, and the cereal could be for his large family that loves him very much.

I don’t think he has a family though.  I think that these boxes of cereal are not purchased for anything but his own addiction, as he seems to have a real problem with self control.  I’m overweight, and I’m very sensitive to the stigma this brings, so I watch what I eat, or try to.  Mr. Krandall seems to have given up.  He must purchase boxes of powdered donuts, set them on their kitchen table and stare at them, overcome by the inevitability of it.  He must look at those donuts thinking to himself that he cannot resist them, and any effort spent combatting the desire to taste the donuts will surely be wasted.

I suppose we all have our addictions, though.  After I’d made sure all the produce was laid out and Guadeloupe had given the trucker whatever tongue lashing he’d had coming, she fumed to her spot behind the cash register nearest the door.

As I’d known for a long time, Guadeloupe had a big problem with rage, and it often expressed itself in her interactions with customers.  Saturday, June 13, 2015, was a day when Guadeloupe’s rage problem showed itself.

Around 4:15, which is normally the time when I have the largest solid force of customers coming through the door, Guadaloupe’s rage made itself known.  I like to say that when a large enough group of customers is attempting to enter the store at the same time, they’re a lot like water, in that they will press the door with the entirety of their being, and nothing can possibly get through them.  And then, if in front of such a crush of people, there is a single customer having an argument with a cashier, all hell’s liable to break loose.

This day, a customer was unsatisfied with the quality of our produce and went to the cashiers to lodge a complaint, and it was his bad luck that his cashier was Guadeloupe.  “Excuse me!?” she asked, with fire in her eyes and acid on her breath.  “You don’t want the fruit than don’t buy it, that’s it!”

She slammed her palms on the flat surface before the cash register, creating a sound not unlike a gunshot.  As the customer wavered backwards Guadeloupe pushed her face towards him, and his brusque manner withered into a warbling apology.  “Sorry it’s, just, I have a—“

“I know!  Go!”  Guadeloupe yelped as she gestured wildly and aggressively.  At that point the customer turned tail and scampered back into the produce section, concluding the most memorable event of the day.  I should say now that as you can see that though I enjoy my job very much, and it pays well enough, it is mostly all the time unbelievably boring.

When I was running a cash register, that was boring, but not as emotionally draining.  Being the manager of a grocery store is just like being a cashier, but oftentimes you have to fire people.  I mean it’s like being a cashier in that one day kind of melds into the next.  It’s incredibly boring because you’re doing the same kinds of things every day, and you don’t even get to deal with customers.  Don’t get me wrong, dealing with customers isn’t always peachy, but I prefer it to solitary confinement.

Customers at least have some variety to them, as a group.  They can at least give your days some color, like “remember when that lady with the crazy orange afro started screaming?”  “Yeah, I remember that, there was sugar everywhere.”  I actually used to have stories like that, but now I just deal with suppliers and logistics all day.  Since I became manager I just deal with a bunch a’ starched white shirts passing each other folders in a warehouse.  I don’t wanna say that the people I deal with on a daily basis can kinda seem to coalesce into a stream of reasoned decision making and managed expectations, and sometimes it kinda gets to me.

So as the clock ticked to 9, closing time, I started to pack the store up for the night.  I like working opening-to-close, for mostly reasons that aren’t “I can get more work done.”  For one, I’m the manager, I have an office, and it allows me to get a1-4 hour nap in the middle of most days.  I pretty much set my own schedule, which gets more filled than I expect most days, but on some days, I’d say at least once a week, I get to pretty much watch everything take care of itself.

At 9:13, another of my coworkers Halley Oldman and I locked up the store, said our goodbyes, and said we’d see each other again after the weekend.  At the end of every work week, I stand out by the backdoor for a while looking up at the night sky.  I don’t know why, I can’t see any stars ‘cause it’s the city and I can’t say for sure what really I’ve been thinking about any of the times I’ve performed this ritual, but I’m out there every Saturday it’s not raining.

 

I’m a casual drinker, I might even call myself a “social drinker,” but the society of fellow drinkers is not really what keeps me coming back to the bar.  I enjoy having my composure slightly impaired in the evening from time to time, and that’s the long and short of it.  For instance, Saturday night, at the bowling alley above the hardware store, there’s always a party going on.  By “party,” I mean mostly regulars sitting around drinking, and sometimes someone plays Prince on the Jukebox (it’s often me).  But they know me by name, so it’s a little like Cheers I guess.

At the corner of Lincoln and Argyle, roughly a block away from Harvest Time, is Lincoln Square Lanes, my bar of preference.  I like it because it’s a bowling alley, and I enjoy the sound of pins tumbling down.  After work I moseyed over to the alley (as I refer to it) and parked myself at the usual station.  I signaled by raising my hand to eye level for an instant.  Raymond, the bartender who’s last name I don’t know, pulled a cold can of Coors and planted it in front of me.

I looked around the bar, trying to see if there was some cleavage to lear at, and saw no faces I recognized.  The moss colored carpet had some new stains by the door indicating that someone had likely vomited while leaving or arriving at the establishment, and staff had lacked what it took to clean it up.  I looked at the stain and thought to myself: “charming.”  I’m still a sarcastic little asshole just like I used to be, only now I do it silently.

Just then, or several minutes later, Simon Despereau, one of my good buddies, busted through the door caterwauling like usual.  “Sil!  I knew I could count on you.”

“Count on me?”

“No one else is here tonight, man.”  Simon slapped my back between the shoulder blades, hard enough to make a sound.  “Look around man, no one’s here, where’s Heath?  Where’s Marge?  Where’s Jojo?  I feel like I’m losing friends every day.”

I suspected from Simon’s aspect while speaking that he was kidding, but I also sensed an edge of regret.  I know that Heath was one of the regular drinkers at Lincoln Square Lanes once upon a time, and I may have at some point known a Marge to come around on occasion, but Jojo was a name Simon definitely made up.  Being the funny guy I am, I felt like continuing the game.  “Yeah man, and where’s Lavondrias?  Crystal Cypher?  Alexander Hamilton?”

Simon collapsed into guffaws while remaining upright as he leaned against the bar.  Simon was a tall, thin man with a handsome face and darting eyes, a little like Peter Lorre in Casablanca.  He might’ve been a ladies man if he’d ever learnt how to speak to them, but he never bothered.  “Crystal Cypher murdered his family and ate them, then shot himself in the head.”

This man was a friend of mine, so though I felt Edgar might have just gone a smidgeon too far, I laughed as I shook my head and clapped Simon on the shoulder.  “I miss you during the week, want a beer?”  Though I did eventually buy Simon a drink, laughing and carrying on like I was having a wonderful time.  I guess I was having a nice time, come to think of it, as I enjoy moderate drinking and cracking jokes with people.

“I miss you too man, bring it in,” Simon declared as he pulled me in for an aggressive hug.  These type of gruff hugs were not uncommon for me and Simon.  I wondered sometimes how much this contact meant to each of us.  I don’t know how much it meant to Simon, as he seemed quite drunk, but for me they comprised the entirety of my physical human contact for the week.  I know there are people who just don’t like to touch other people at all, be it germaphobia or whatever, but I think I need some sort of physical contact.

Though I would never admit it out loud, and I would caution you, dear reader, from attributing any homosexual meaning to it, I felt a rush from Simon’s hug.  As he grabbed me and pulled me close, I clutched Simon in return, shaking slowly from side to side.  “So what’s up tonight man?  Seen any movies lately?”

This was a standard question shared between us, to be met with a standard response.  “Yeah man, tons of ‘em, they all sucked though.”

“Too bad man, maybe next week.”  Both I and Simon are movie lovers and each quite hard to please, so one of our main traditions is declaring our dissatisfaction with the current cinematic landscape.  I suppose I would prefer, given the choice, to have a friend with whom I could speak seriously, but to get one I’d have to open myself up, and I can’t do that first.  I guess this is a problem with being a funny guy, which I am, it sometimes seems like that’s all people want from me.  Maybe humor is all people want from me, or maybe it’s just all I give them.  This, like so many concepts in my life, presents itself as a type of chicken/egg scenario.

That’s not to say that my relationship with Simon is completely superficial and based on taste in films, but as soon as we’re drinking it starts to seem that way.  And anyway Saturdays at the bar all start to run together after a while, until I can’t tell one from the other.  There was one exception, the first time I met Sonia.

It was quite late, say around 12:30, right around the time I normally leave for home, and she came through the door looking thirsty and inquisitive.  She was short, five foot even, and displayed her pot belly proudly in a tight pink dress.  I thought it was fearless and sexy.  She wasn’t blind, and mirrors are plentiful, but she just knew that a belly suited her well.  Sonia’s comfort with herself was so sexy, in fact, that I was drawn into actually introducing myself to her.

“Hi, my name’s Sil, what’s yours?”

“Sonia, but I’m gay.”

Saying just these four words and than turning her back to me, Sonia seemed to me a fine example of pitiless directness.  I laughed aloud, and treated the dialog as if it were a game.  “That’s cool, I’m gay too, that’s my man by the pool table.”

I signaled over to Simon, hunched over the pool table lining up a shot.  Sonia laughed aloud, looking Simon up and down.  She responded, waving her hand as if she was slowly shooing my words away.  “Whatever man, I’ll see ya later.”

From there, Sonia stood, walked over to Simon, and draped her arm over his shoulders.  Simon, though initially startled, returned the favor by winding his own elbow around Sonia’s neck.  Having been suitably humiliated, I went home, concluding another night at Lincoln Square Lanes.  I don’t remember if I cried on the way home, but since I was a little drunk and very lonely, it wouldn’t surprise me to find that I had.

https://andrewhalteromniblog.com/2016/05/09/sylvester-volume-1/

Sylvester Volume 2