I Hate Myself and I Can’t Die [Jim #7, Short Fiction]

In Paradise, the snooze button gave you six minutes.  Jim hit his again.  He’d lost count.  Maybe two hundred hits, maybe a thousand.

Outside his window the sun was shining and the birds were chirping.  Every goddamn day with the sun and the birds and the breeze.  He buried his head in the pillow.

His phone rattled and chimed.  He grabbed it and squeezed out an eye.  Cherry.

Happy hundred!  Wanna party?

Had it already been a hundred years?

Na.  Let’s skip it.

He drifted.  The alarm sounded and he snoozed it.  Another rattling chime.

Oh come on.  Me and the girls made plans . . .

Great, Jim thought.  Free holes: empty, wet, dark, used.

Not hungry.

No pie, I promise.

Let’s do it tomorrow.

I want you to nuke my pussy.

That almost got Jim out of bed.  He’d pumped a lot of things into a lot of holes, but he’d never seen a clit go nuclear.

I don’t have that kind of energy.

Haha.  Are you Mr. Bummy Pants today or what?

Fuck you.

I’m just tired. 

I know just what you need, Mr. Bummy Pants.

Don’t –

Happy Hundred, Jim.  Good luck!

***

His door banged open.  A wild man with a beard and shining eyes grabbed Jim by the ankles and pulled him off the bed.  His head bounced on the floor.

“Goosh!”

“Art thou Jim?”

Jim sat up and rubbed his head.

“I art,” he said.

The man picked up the bed and threw it out the window.  Glass shattered.  The frame clattered on the walk below.  The mattress clung for dear life, impaled by a shard.

“I am Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton, and you are fortunate in the company you keep.”  He kicked over the nightstand.  “I am neither cheap nor easily persuaded.  And I’m the best.”

With a fist like a rock he made three neat holes in the wall.  He unzipped his fly and began to piss in the corner.  He spoke over his shoulder.

“You have exactly three minutes to dress yourself and pack one bag.  The bag may not weigh more than a stone.  It ought to contain knickers for all seasons and terrain.”

“I’m not packing a bag,” Jim said.  “Did Cherry send you?  Tell her she owes me a bed.  I’m not going out, I don’t want to go out.  I don’t care about the years and I just feel like sleeping for a while.”

“Two minutes,” Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton said.  He zipped up and kicked another hole in the wall.

Jim groaned and put his head in his hands.  He wanted to cry.  He listened as the Sir furthered the destruction of his bedroom.

“One minute.”

“Alright,” Jim said.  “Alright, I’m getting up.  I’m up.  Just give me an hour or so.  I’ll take a shower and get my shit together.  You hear me?  Let me get sorted, you British psycho.”

“Too late,” Sir Shackleton said.  He grabbed Jim by the shoulders.    “Look at this place.  It’s unlivable.  I’ve scheduled it for demolition.”

“You what?!”

But Sir Shackleton walked out the door without another word.  Jim hopped after him, one leg in a pair of jeans.

“What does that mean, demolition?  You’re not serious.  I like this house.  What’s wrong with a house?  People live in houses.  Sunnuva bitch.”

He got his pants on just in time for the front door.  A tank rolled through his fence and onto the yard.  Shackleton gave it a thumbs up.  Jim yelled stop! but it fired a shell and his house exploded.  It fired another shell and the house fell over.  Jim was pretty sure the third shell was just for fun.

“This isn’t funny!” Jim said.  “I was just taking a few days off.  A few months maybe.  Years.  It doesn’t matter.  Is it fucking crime to have the blues?  I had stuff in there!”

Sir Shackleton’s eyes clogged his throat.

“Was it the stuff of dreams, Jim?  The stuff of adventure?  Did it smell like the dead salt of acrid seas or the sour sweat of the jungle?  Was it a fist raised against winter and the hot blood of glory?”

Jim swallowed.  “Uh, no.  It was, like, albums and stuff.”

“Art thou a man?”

“Sure.”

“Sign this.”

“What is it?”

“Sign it.”

Jim signed it.

“Good.  My starship is down at the bar.  We’ll have to take a cab.”

***

Olympus was a mountain in orbit around a red giant.  Ten thousand miles from base to peak, with no planet to support it, the mountain spun like a top that the giant had flicked into motion.

“I have to climb that?” Jim said.

“You’re going to conquer it,” Sir Shackleton said.

“Listen, I get what you’re doing and I appreciate it, but can’t you just drop me at the top?  You go tool around for a while and come back and pick me up.  I won’t tell anybody.”

Shackleton slapped Jim through the face.

“Thou art Jim!  Thou art a man!  Every moment in a man’s life is a woman, Jim, a woman with brass legs and wrecking ball chicken-tippers.   Every moment is her walking by.  There she goes.  There goes another one.  Maybe the next one will blow your sad chubby a kiss.  And they’ll keep walking by, Jim.  It’s a doll train to pussy town and you’re not on it.    And you won’t be on it until you grab one of these broads by the throat, lift up her skirt, and open up the turnpike.”

Shackleton had both hands on Jim’s shoulders and his eyes were lasers.

“Open the turnpike, Jim.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“Open the turnpike.”

“Half way, just drop me half the way up.”

Sir Shackleton sighed and released him.  He handed Jim a piece of paper.  It was the thing he’d signed.

“Read the last paragraph,” Shackleton said.

The undersigned hereby agrees that, upon failure to reach the summit of Olympus in full compliance with the rules stated above, all freedoms shall be forfeit for one year and one day, during which period the undersigned shall be placed in the custody of psychotics and have experiences including, but not limited to, rape, torture, and mutilation.

“I really have to start reading these things,” Jim said.

A foot to his chest and he fell out of the starship and landed on his back at the base of Olympus.

***

Jim was a quarter of the way up when he heard a foreign but familiar sound.  He followed his ears, and sitting against a bare tree a young man played a haggard guitar.  Blonde hair hid the edges of his face and the noise he made was brutal and sincere.

Cobain looked up and saw him.  Jim felt like a gazelle coming upon a lion in the wild.

“Hi,” Cobain said.  It was friendly.

“Hey,” Jim said.  He took a cautious step.  “I, uh, heard you playing.”

Cobain ran his fingers over rough body of the guitar.  It looked like it had been hacked out of a stump and strung with wire.

“I didn’t think I’d ever play one of these again,” he said.  He moved some of the hair out of his face.  “Something about this place, I guess.”

“Yeah . . .”

“Sir Shackleton?”

“Yeah!”

Jim found a rock to sit on.  He sat with his elbows on his knees.

“It’s funny,” Cobain said.  “When you get everything you’ve got nothing.  Somebody comes along and takes it from you, then you have something again.”  He strummed a soft chord on the guitar.  Its imperfections rattled.  “You hear that?  That’s the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard.”

“It’s raw,” Jim said.

The two of them sat in like posture for a while.  The peak of Olympus was shrouded in distance and the vacuum was close enough to touch.  It was quiet.

 “Can I ask you something?” Jim said.  “I guess it’s kind of personal.”

“That’s alright.”

“Why did you kill yourself?”

Cobain looked at his guitar.  “You know, I can’t really remember what it was like to be in that space.  I remember being there, I remember the thoughts, I just can’t pick up the moment.  There was a lot of pain and I didn’t know where it was coming from, and I made a decision and everything was over.”

He moved some of the hair from his eyes.  There was a smile playing in them.

“The craziest thing about it was seeing it.  I just expected the world to go black, and then I was standing there over my body.  Like, the mess never occurred to me – it was all cerebral.  It was metaphysical.  But when I saw the chunks of my brain mashed into the ceiling, the whole philosophy of it seemed kind of absurd.  Less than absurd, like it didn’t exist.  It was more embarrassing than anything.”

Jim tried to think of something to say, the right question to ask.  He couldn’t.  Instead, he shifted his weight and looked at the dirt.

“What really fucked with me was when the angel popped up next to me.  He said, I bet you’d have written a kickass song about that.”

“Did you?” Jim said.

Cobain plucked a few notes.

“It’s a little rough around the edges,” he said.

He played a song.

***

The peak was a fist against the bleakness.  Jim pulled himself up the steep wall of the forearm one hold at a time.  His arms and legs burned.  It had taken a long time to get this far and it was strange to have the top so close.

He wondered how many people had made this climb.  How many had gone numb with happiness and come here to feel something again?  He wondered if Cobain would ever look down from here, or if he’d work at his song for eternity.

He reached the top and pulled himself up.  Ten thousand miles were beneath him, and as many thoughts behind him.  He stood up and breathed in.  The red giant burned a red hole in the sky.

Jim pulled out his phone.

Stock your shelves, bitches.  The nuke is hot.

Jim Home

Jarmo excerpt – Disenfranchised [New Fiction, Novel]

Disenfranchised

Pluffkin had been nipping purses and jacking wallets since he was nine years old.  As he often introduced himself, he was born to nothing, raised by the low, and he only drank from the top shelf. 

Aside from purses and wallets he was certified master of every sort of con.  He could deal himself a high pair and roll a hard six at will.  He had once relieved an old widow of five gold with nothing more than a jacket, a banker’s apology, and terrible news about a recent wave of counterfeits –  and after she made him her special tea and showered him with gratitude she offered him her only umbrella for the rain.  A more upscale hustle, he and a few buddies used to run the Oakridge Tumble on the rich daisies on Westborough and Central Plaza: one fool thief making a racket, one guard to take him away, and another guard to walk through and secure the premises of the frightened owner, snatching a few gold-lacquered candlesticks and silver cutlery for his time.   (That shuffle ended when Flack got his head shoveled in for scamming the wrong lumberjack, rest his soul).  His biggest score to date was eleven gold and twenty-two silver, a broad daylight transaction between an ambitious young graduate and a smirking entrepreneur.  

Always on the outside looking in, forever smash-grabbing and conning and looting, Pluffkin had pulled from the street the only philosophy that could support him – that earning gold was for the suckers not wise enough to steal it.  It was a code he believed in and lived by, and he understood it as the invisible pillar that kept civilization from crumbling.  Those daisies living it up in the inner city, they were nothing more than a savvy guild of thieves.  They were the ones wise enough to enfranchise the looting, to stamp it and market it and call it business, call it economics.  They had whole masses of men out in the fields reaping gold for payments of copper.  Their genius wasn’t in producing or manufacturing; their genius was in the hustle, the greatest con ever played.  It was a fact that Pluffkin saluted, and a position he aspired to.

That is why, when a storm of angry working men swept through the Reformatory shouting the words “Equal Opportunity!” and “Corruption!” and “Fair Share!”, Pluffkin’s heart sank in his chest.  When they came round to his cell and unlatched it, he grabbed one of them violently by the shoulders, and pressing him to the wall he demanded,

“Who told you?”

He looked around and saw the furious action of ragged men, men who belonged plowing fields and forging iron and whatever else suckers did to feed their families.  The excited glow of newfound freedom lit their faces as they marched and cartwheeled through the cavernous halls of the Reformatory, throwing wide the steel gates and setting loose every sort of murderer and rapist and beggar.

A burly man with spit caked in his beard paused as he ran by, a torch throwing red across his creased forehead.

“Gods bless you, son,” he panted, shaking Pluffkin’s shoulder with a comrade’s compassion.  “Those bastard’s can’t keep you in chains no longer.  The reckoning has come!”

As Pluffkin watched the torch sink into the black distance of the hall, several more men came whooping after him, slapping Pluffkin on the back and offering him their flyby congratulations. 

“Go free, son of man!” they shouted.

“Tyranny has ended!” they proclaimed.

“We gone light this bitch up like a dandy’s pyre!” someone added.

Their hollering filled the darkness, rattling down up and through the long halls, echoing and stomping and squealing.  It was the laughter of mad banshees, awakening from a long slumber and ecstatic to find that their voices could still wail. 

And each voice was an arrow that pierced his ego along with his dreams.  The one thing that he had ever been able to hold over other men was his secret knowledge, knowing that it was a world with thieves up on top and suckers on the bottom, knowing that the true worth of a man was measured by his cunning and his loyalty unto himself.  He had been sentenced by the court to serve six months for “swindling a good man of some repute”, had served only three, and somehow in those three short months the secret seemed to have gotten out. 

The suckers got wise.

The thought made him shudder as he searched for a way out of the chasm of the lower dungeon.  A world without suckers was a tree without roots.  A soft breeze and it would all be over.

The excited shouts of freed prisoners began to join those of the liberators.  Toothless, half-starved, jubilant faces skittered by, picking up the righteous chants or making some of their own.  Some of these men had been down here a long time, most for good reasons.  Pluffkin had spent plenty of his life in rotten company, and he knew lechers and psychos when he saw them.  It was the constant suspicion in their eyes that gave them away, a paranoia that made them jittery.

Finally he found the stone stairs that led up and out of the dungeon.  Once he navigated the labyrinth of upper level cells and hallways and the cheering clusters of victorious morons, he stepped outside into the bright cold afternoon sun and was accosted by a chaos leaps beyond his expectations.

Fires of pitch and hay grew into black plumes of smoke.  Taverns, smithies, homes were ablaze.  Those not on fire were swarming with desperate women, fanatical men, laughing children, all pulling what they could from the wreckage.  Glass mugs, picture frames, cabinet doors, mirrors, ash trays, chairs, broken off railings and torn up squares of carpeting, lamps, wash rags, bedding, bars of soap – people scurried through the streets with armloads of junk and faces full of exhilaration and wonder.  Hundreds of them.  Thousands.  And he could hear more of them down on other streets.  Two bodies hung from nooses outside a tavern called The Copper Pint, a poorly scrawled caption marking them “Suns of Greed.”  Pluffkin watched as one man hucked leather bound books out of a third story window, to his friend waiting with a wheelbarrow below. 

There wasn’t a second that passed when the air wasn’t filled with one of their battle cries.  It was either, “Free the poor!” or “Hang the king!” or “Zebithias!”  Pluffkin wasn’t sure, but he assumed the last was their leader, or at least the man who had whispered to them that powerful secret.

Pluffkin saw in his mind’s eye that pillar of civilization crumbling, one bar of soap, one empty desk drawer at a time.  The shroud had been lifted, and the suckers were hacking away at the pillar with generations of latent rage and anguish.  It was they who suffered and toiled, they who bled in the field, they who sweat in the shop, they who were the sacrifice necessary for progress, the willing victims of institutionalized thievery.  He saw it in their faces, the elation of a long awaited revelation, the eureka behind their eyes. 

Dazed, distraught and disheartened, Pluffkin wandered the teeming streets.  The Reformatory was near the edge of River End, and he knew the area well.  Or he used to know it well.  The whole thing seemed up in flame and looted to hell.  He watched as two women fought over a crystal chalice in the snowy mud, screaming at each other all sorts of obscenities, drawing even more obscene jeers from the men around them.  One of them finally twisted it from the other’s grasp and dashed her in the head with it and hurried away with her prize.  The woman she had dashed, a scrawny wretch of a thing, lay unconscious and facedown in the muck.  Pluffkin felt his blood heat when the laughing idiots around her moved on to other entertainments and diversions.  He walked over to her, bent down, rolled her over, scraped the mud from her face.

She wasn’t beautiful, and she wasn’t young, but goddammit she was a woman.  What the hell was wrong with these people?  All the years he’d spent running cons he never did anything half as despicable as those savages who just walked away.  As he looked down at her shapeless plain face, her ruddy hair, he felt a tinge of hope.

Maybe they don’t have any damned idea what they’re doing, he thought.  Maybe they’ve just gone mad.  It was a strange hope, but it was hope.

The woman’s eyes fluttered open, glazed at first before they came into focus.

“You alright, miss?” he said.

She looked at him, felt his arms cradling her, and went stiff with indignation.

“Well aren’t you the fucking hero,” she chided.  She threw his arms away, stood up, spit in his face, walked away.

For the life of him, he could not understand what had caused her to say and do such a thing.

“Power is need; fuck their greed!  Power is need; fuck their greed!”

Five men, faces black with soot, came dragging a sixth through the muddy street.  The man was in such a condition that Pluffkin’s stomach turned on him, and it took a hand over his mouth and a strenuous conscious effort not to vomit.  His right leg was broken, flopping along the ground, the bone protruding from his skin.  The whole left side of his body was horribly burned, and where his flesh wasn’t black it was an angry bubbling red and purple.  A face that was only recognizable as a face because of its location on the front of his head was swollen and bloody and broken.

His begging was a hopeless whimper, a choked plea that was already beyond the grave.

“Please – I’m just an armorer.  Chain mail, I could make you some chain mail.  Please.”

One of the men had a length of rope with him.  He fashioned a noose, put it around the armorer’s neck, and they strung him up.  His mouth worked desperately and silently.  His leg dangled horribly.  His arms were free to clutch and paw at the rope that was pulling him into death, but they were panicked and feeble.  His entire body convulsed, convulsed, was still.  Empty eyes in a shattered face, and his final expression in this life was the vacation of his bowls, shit and piss dripping from his legs and staining the snow.

Pluffkin had thought he’d seen men at their worst.  He’d once been an unwilling witness to a brutal gang rape outside of Dusty’s Tavern; he had been part of a black market winterleaf deal that went bad and got his accomplice’s throat slit; he’d seen the bloody aftermath of a loan shark’s collection methods.  But he realized now, as he stared up at the amorer’s wrecked body, and listened to the cackles of his assailants, that he had only glimpsed a shadow in the corner of the darkness.  Those things he had previously witnessed he at least understood.  The violence of lust, the greed that inspired treachery, the power of brute force – though outside his own code of morality, these things were at least within the realm of comprehension.  They followed their own internally cohesive logic.  But this – this was an abuse and a debauchery that soared high above his understanding. 

One thought haunted him above all others: What have they gained?

He pulled himself away from that place and moved to another.  And to another.  But it didn’t matter where he was; the chaos was everywhere.

A ragged man with a pointed beard declared from the roof of an inn that the best rum was free rum, and taking a swill from a bottle he lost his footing and fell two stories to his face.  Inexplicably, he stood up unwinded and apparently uninjured without having spilled a drop of the liquor.  He looked up at the roof, laughed, enjoyed another swill and went on his way.

Around the corner were several children, tossing between them a finely painted clay vase, laughing and spitting venom Pluffkin had thought impossible for such creatures.  Between them, her fine linen dress torn and muddied, a young woman stumbled about desperately, pleading with them.

“Please,” she begged, “it was my grandfather’s.  He was a good man.  It’s all that’s left.  It’s all we have left of him.  Please.”

A freckled boy with ratty curls of hair caught the vase in one hand.  “My grandy never had such a nice vass.  Never had nothin.  Cause of greedy bitches like you.”  He tossed the vase over her head.  She fell in an effort to intercept it, and chorus of heckling followed her to the ground.

“You dirty bitch!”

“Yeah!  What a dirty bitch!”

“Nice tits, bitch!”

“Ohhhh!  You hear what Kenny said!”

“Good one Kenny.  She’s a real titty bitch.”

“Titty bitch, titty bitch, titty bitch!”

The chant took on the poisonous rhythm of blind mischief, the kids tossing the vase about the woman, who lay weeping, soaked, begging.  Then her eyes found Pluffkin’s, and he saw in hers a terrifying bewilderment, the wide and shocked orbs of an animal whose world had just been ripped from its feet.  The shock, discovering its own uselessness, ascended to rage.

“Why don’t you do something!” she screamed at Pluffkin.  “How can you just stand there!  We isn’t anybody doing anything!  Why isn’t anybody stopping this!  Help me!”

“Titty bitch, titty bitch!”

Pluffkin, feeling every bit as lost as the woman, remembering the strange result of his last encounter, was about to quietly walk away when he heard a familiar jingle.  He glanced toward the freckled boy and saw a leather purse hanging dumbly from his belt.  A fat purse.  Probably nipped it from someone’s house, Pluffkin thought.

“Do I smell a titty bitch?” he said, sliding into the laughing circle.  He held up his hands, calling for the vase.  The little girl who currently held it looked at him, looked at the freckled boy, unsure of what to do.

“Don’t give it to him!” yelled the freckled boy.  “He’ll just give it back to her!”

But Pluffkin smiled at her, and she smiled back and tossed him the vase.  He caught it, and the children waited silently and expectantly.  He took two steps towards the woman and bent down as if to give her the vase.  The children gasped and moaned, thinking their game over, but as the woman reached for it he pulled it back and kicked mud and snow into her face.

“Titty bitch,” he said, and passed it over to the freckled boy.

The children cheered wildly, taking up the chant with redoubled voracity.  More importantly, Freckles was impressed.  He threw the vase to another boy.

“You’re smart not to trust anybody,” Pluffkin said to him.  “Most people, they trust too much.”

The kid’s chest grew bigger by half and his freckled head tilted up.  “I don’t trust nobody,” he said.

Pluffkin suppressed a grin.  When the vase came back to him, he walked it over to Freckles, handed it to him, crouched down to eye level.  The boy looked at him defiantly but couldn’t hide the respect and the fear from his eyes.

“If you’re really smart,” Pluffkin said, “you’ll take your prize and get the hell out of here.”

“Why?” 

“Because I’m going to drag this titty bitch down that alley and fuck her face until she learns some good manners.”

Pluffkin almost laughed.  The boy’s eyes went wide in sheer terror and his freckles turned ashen.  This game had just gotten a bit too adult for him. 

“Come on, guys,” he said to everyone.  “I’m sick of this bitch anyway.”

The little gang of hounds kicked a storm of muck on the disheveled woman as they ran past, Freckles leading them.  In a final gesture he turned back and raised the vase high and threw it against the side of a building, shattering it into several pieces.  When they disappeared down an alley, Pluffkin looked at the purse cupped in his left hand.  When he pulled back the string and looked inside, he laughed.  The kid had a small fortune on him.  There were no coppers at all, only silver and gold.  Fingering through the coins he counted almost fifteen gold.

“Please, don’t hurt me.”

The woman was staring at him.  She didn’t seem to have the strength to get up.

“I just wanted his purse,” Pluffkin said.  She scuttled back as he approached her, and he stopped and held up his hands.  “I’m sorry about your grandfather’s vase, and I have no intention of hurting you.  I’d like to share some of the loot with you.  For your assistance.”

“Loot?”

He held out three gold coins in his hand.

“Gold!” she screamed.  “Gold!  What am I going to do with gold!  You goddamn coward!  You kicked mud on me!  They came into my house!  My husband is dead!”

Pluffkin added a fourth coin, and he flinched as she let out a wail that shook his bones.

“I’m sorry,” he said.  He left the coins on the ground, and tried not to hear her screaming at him as he walked away.  The purse he tucked beneath the waist of his tattered pants, leaving only the drawstring and a small bulge visible.

What little pleasure he’d gotten from his heist quickly faded.  Everything he saw made him feel more lost, and he wondered what use was gold if there was no one around to covet it, no one to keep it sacred.  More and more frequently the looters he saw were drunk, and the looted beaten and torn if not dead.  The hollers and the cheers and the chants of the people had waned considerably, but it was still often enough that they would come rampaging by, shouting, “Born free!” and “Burn the gold!” and “Hang the king!”  Pluffkin felt the cold weight of the purse against his thigh as he shuffled out of their way, thinking it was more gold than he had ever held at one time and that these lunatics had rendered it completely useless. 

There weren’t any guards out here, none of the king’s soldiers to put the rebellion down.  From what he had seen, they had focused their efforts at the wall that divided the districts from the rest of the city.  They were letting the mad ones eat each other.

And theirs were ravenous appetites.  He wandered the streets, all littered with empty bottles and casks and bedding and broken stools and burning piles of refuse, with all the direction of a ghost returning to a place it once remembered.  Around him swelled the energy of life and chaos that he couldn’t define or comprehend.  A man running along the walk and breaking out all the remaining windows for no other reason than to hear the glass break; another trying to mount a spooked horse, taking a hoof to his belly, screaming in agony until he was silent; an old and withered raisin of a woman, with a fine mantle of fur draped impudently over her cotton rags, smoking a fine cigar from the comfort of a plush recliner that lay drowning in the middle of the muddy street; a couple of prepubescent teens probing each other in fascination in front of an inn engulfed by flame.

Unconsciously his legs carried him to a place he knew very well.  The Riverside Shuffle was a sprawl of a three story bar and casino, with a few rooms on the top level for anyone with enough scratch to purchase the services of one of the serving girls, and a kitchen that served food in name only.  His father, a man called Desh, had been a hard luck wheelwright and a poorly adjusted sucker; he went down to the Shuffle any time he had more than a silver in his pocket.  He often brought Pluffkin along to “help tote the winnings home” and on one such night he lost more than he was worth and fell from the table with a knife between his shoulder blades.  Pluffkin didn’t like his mother so much, and his sisters were hellish creatures whose only ambition in life was to reform him into a little girl; unwilling to go home, he haunted the Shuffle, the ghost of his father, until the owner took some pity on him and gave him some work.  Pluffkin soon proved his grit to Ribbald, the owner, and he wasn’t ten years old before he was cooking the books, soft-dealing the “copperheads”, or even beating the heater out of a half-drunk fish in a stand-up game of poker.  Ribbald showed him all the ropes, became a father and a mentor to him, showed him all the reasons Desh had been a sucker.  Pluffkin remembered with stark clarity the day Ribbald had planted a big hand on his shoulder and spoken to him as if he were an adult:

“Your father got axed because he was a sucker.  Suckers are scramblers, bottom feeders, wishers and hopers.  He should have wished for some sense, if he really believed in that sort of thing.  Look around you, damn near all of them just like your old man, hoping and wishing,  hoping and wishing.  Oh please give me that three of hearts; mother of mine I need to roll a seven.  But a thousand lucky turns can’t save a sucker, because on the next one he’ll just lose it all right back.

“Desh was a good man, if they come that way, but he was the worst kind of sucker.  He played to lose.  Never even tried to walk away.  He came to flush it away so he could tell himself rotten luck was the stick in his spokes.  Cause suckers can’t see themselves.  All they see is everyone else getting all the breaks.

“But you ain’t a sucker, Pluffkin.  You ain’t your father.  It’s got nothing to do with blood.  For every hundred suckers born there’s a wolf to lick them clean – clean as a temple bust, you hear me?”

Pluffkin heard him.  When he thought of that moment, surrounded by cigar smoke and the clatter of silver and gold chips wrinkling through the air, it rose up like a great tower that cast a shadow over all the rest of his life.  It was a shadow in which the wolf prowled, darting out of its cover only when some sucker wandered in too close.

Now, as he looked at the Riverside Shuffle, the only place he could call home, he saw that it was besieged on all sides.  At least fifty men surrounded it, waving torches or throwing rocks or wielding makeshift bludgeons.  Above them, leaning out of a third story window, was Ribbald’s shining old tobacco-creased face.  Pluffkin was amazed to see that it was peeled back in laughter.

“It’s all here, boys!” Ribbald shouted from the window.  “Everything you ever lost, what was never found!  Your self respect, your pride, your common sense – everything!  Hhey haa!”

He was forced to duck inside as a number of rocks clattered around the window, a few of them making it through.  The skirmish over, he poked out his shining face again.

“But you’ll never get it back!  I ain’t the giving kind!”

Inexplicably, Ribbald’s laughing, almost good-natured taunting was a contagion that spread through the mob beneath him.  Their shouts and their demands remained the same, cries of “Burn him out!” and “Hang all sons of greed!” issuing from their lips, but the venom was gone.  They might have been cheering on a horse race or heckling an out-of-key minstrel. 

“Ribbald!” cried one of the men wielding torches, stepping forward, “We’re fixing, at long last, to purify that golden ass of yours!”

“Is that Sodermock?” returned Ribbald.

“It is!”

“Not the goldsmith!”

“The same!”

“How is it you’ve not been purified yourself?”

“I lost everything I had at your damned tables!”

“Hey hhaa!” Ribbald laughed, howling it to the sky.  “Indeed, here stands the worst card player the land has ever known.  I myself have seen this man flush a month’s wages on a naked pair of jackals!”

The men guffawed, and the goldsmith’s face went red.

“They were ladies, you old bastard, and they nearly won!”

“And good fortune has come to you at last.  The worst hand is now the best; the losing strategy has won!”

“Enough of this!”

“Hang the prick!”

“Power is the people!”

Ribbald’s shining head rolled back in the deepest, most guttural fit of laughter Pluffkin had ever heard.  It sounded like the death rattle of a man who had just come to understand the nature of all existence, and finding it absurdly angled he was unable to hold it, instead letting it escape out his throat.

“There are a thousand princes at this sucker’s ball!” he declared from his euphoric height, “And lo! they are all prettier than I!”

The men with the torches and hammers apparently understood just enough of this statement to know that it was the gravest kind of insult, and their collective demeanor became grim and resolute.  The torches were set and flames began running up the walls, crawling at first and then rising faster and faster.  The men cheered as the flames engulfed the sign that marked the establishment as The Riverside Shuffle, and hollered with increasing fervency as they licked inevitably closer to the laughing visage above.  Just before the fire engulfed him entirely, Ribbald’s eyes came down on Pluffkin.

“Pluffkin, my boy!” he shouted through the cackling flames.  “It was good to know you!”

As he said it, the flames finally roared up past him, and the whole building became a pulsing, waving storm of heat.  As Pluffkin watched his home, and the man that had been his father, being reduced to so much smoke, he was scarcely aware of the men that surrounded him, grabbed him by the arms, dragged him forward.

“Good to know you, eh?”

“Then he should have kept his mouth shut.”

Pluffkin looked from face to face, seeing only hate and malice in all of them.  Dead-set eyes and sooted cheeks and foreheads, tangles of unwashed beards and the smell of stale sweat and rancid breath. 

“And what’s this here?”

One of them pulled at the string that hung from his waist band, and the purse opened and spilled its contents down his leg and onto the ground.  Gold and silver coins shimmering in the light of the fire.

“Saving that for a rainy day, were you?”

“Feed my family for a year with that, I could.”

“Goddamn sons of greed!  String him up!”

“You ain’t no better than us!”

“Feed him to the fire!”

“Rope!  Do we have any more rope?”

Pluffkin discovered that they did, when he felt the coarse twine of the noose tighten around his neck.  As they pulled him beneath a hooked post and threw the end of the rope over, he found himself wondering why the same people would liberate a thief and then hang him for thieving.  He felt his feet lifted from the ground and his breath cut short, and the blood in his face became thick and hot.  He didn’t have the heart to put up an honest struggle, and could only cling to the rope around his neck and kick his feet against the post. 

The last thing he saw, from the height of the post, was a mass of skeletal apparitions floating down the street, emaciated shades with green orbs for eyes.  Hundreds of them.  Thousands.  Moving toward him with the creeping conviction of a thunderhead.  As his vision blurred and began to fade, all that was left were those glowing green eyes, all of them looking at him, waiting for him.  In his final moment he mistook them for the ghostly messengers of the gods, come to carry him away to a place he had never believed in.

_____________________________________________________________

You can find Jarmo on Amazon right here.

Or check out some other short stories here.

Or get lost in Paradise with Jim over here.

The Face that Employed a Thousand Angels [Jim #6, Short Fiction]

Annual Cleopatra Lottery

Spend a Night with the Egyptian Queen!

Enter in person at:  777 Lay Lady Lane

We accept both chance and fate.

The Cleopatra Lottery is run by the Paradise Grant Committee and is in full compliance with the Pussy Pact.  All participants enter willingly and with full knowledge that their indulgence rights will be abused.

Jim read the flyer three times before he looked at the man who had given it to him.

“What is this?” he said.

“It’s the Cleo lotto,” the man said.  “We run it every year.  Winner gets to bury his bone in the Queen of the Nile.”  He failed at handing out another flyer.  “You must be fresh from the circus if you haven’t rolled for Cleopatra.”

“Yeah, pretty much.”  Jim read the flyer again.  It was a plain piece of paper, black and white and matter-of-fact.  “She’s the one with the face, right?  I mean, the thousand ships.”

“Nope.”

“Oh.”

“You there!  Cleopatra Lottery!  Lay Lady Lane!  Chance or fate, don’t be late!”

***

Lay Lady Lane was a long shining broadway of neon lights.  Marquis flashed the names of history’s most beautiful women.  Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy, Mata Hari, Pocahontas, Brigitte Bardot.  There were more that he didn’t recognize – Wang Zhaojun, Madhubala, Hwang Jini – and Jim lost count.  Above them all in the center of the broadway Cleopatra glittered.

Jim walked in through the revolving doors.  The lobby was crimson and gold.  The men in front of him and the ones pushing past him went through one of two doors, above which read Take Your Chances and Accept Your Fate.  He went to the help desk.

“First time?” the man said.  His nametag said Butch, Angel in Training.

“Yeah,” Jim said.

“Well, it’s pretty simple.  You go through that door, you get what’s coming to you.  You go through that one, you get something else.  It’s like, you walk the path or you roll the dice.”

“Dice?”

“Yep.”

Jim checked his pocket.  The dice were still there.

“What about this bit where my indulgence gets abused?” Jim said, showing Butch the flyer.  “I don’t like the sound of that.”

“Jesus.  Really?”

“What?”

“I mean, you’re here to roll dice for a chance to spear the queen and you’re asking me about the fine print.”

Butch, Angel in Training, had a point.  Jim laughed, shook his head, shrugged.  “Man, sometimes I just want to know what the hell’s happening to me.”

“Tell you what,” Butch said, “Here’s the short of it.  Lucy, her whole thing is everybody gets what they want, right?  She hates rules.  But what’s the first thing you want to do when you get to Paradise?  You want to fuck Cleopatra.  So Cleopatra’s got, like, millions of dudes trying to fuck her every day.  And that’s a shitty Paradise.  So Cleopatra rounds up all the scorchers, you know, your Marilyn Monroes and your Joan of Arcs, and they all march on Lucy.  And Lucy’s cool – have you met her?”  Jim nodded.  “Yeah, you seem like the type.  Anyway, she sets up this whole infrastructure and assigns a team of angels to field requests, they sort it all out and pass on the good ones.  Now Cleopatra just gets an email every week, and if she sees something she likes she can jump on it.

“It all sounds good, except Cleopatra – just Cleopatra – needs a thousand angels to sift through all these requests.  There’s a shortage of angels.  And there’s millions of dudes that are pissed off because of the selection process – they know damn well Cleopatra isn’t gonna blow some salesman from Alabama.  So there’s hardly an angel in Paradise that isn’t on fuck request detail, and everything with a dick is crying foul.  I mean, they don’t even have the personnel to do the whole meet and greet thing.  People are getting hit by buses, waking up here, they don’t know what’s going on.  They’re still clogging up traffic.  It’s a fucking mess.

“Finally Lucy comes out with the lottery and the Pussy Pact.  She tells Cleopatra and every other scorcher if they spread their legs once a year they’ll get angelic privilege.  To the hard-ons, she says you’ve got an eternity to win, if you don’t like it the Truth Road is that way.  That cooled everybody off, and we built Lay Lady Lane.”

“I guess that makes sense,” Jim said.  “So, this is just saying I might not win.”

“Pretty much.”

Jim said thanks and went to take his chances.

***

He walked out of the casino, rattling his glossy reds and shitting a grin.  He hadn’t lost a roll.  The room he walked into was all windows and cushions.  Light played on the marble floor.  An angel, not in training, greeted him.

“Congratulations,” the angel said.  “Please, if you’ll take a seat, fate will present the final challenger soon.  Feel free with the fruit and wine.”

“Is Cleopatra –”  Then he saw her.  She lay draped over a sofa, a bare and tan leg dripping from its side, one arm a triangle behind her head.  What fabric she wore was white and pulled taut by golden rings that pressed against her skin.  Midnight hair, cropped short, cut straight across her forehead.  Blue eyes.  They looked at Jim.

“Uh, hi,” Jim said.  He aborted a handshake mid-step, failed to convert it into a wave, tried to save it with a scratch and tripped over a pillow.  His dice skittered over the marble and came to rest at Cleopatra’s hand.  She picked them up and held them in her palm.

“Well?” she said.

“Those are my dice,” Jim said, pointing.

The angel chuckled.  Jim flushed.

“Einstein gave them to me,” he said.

The angel snorted.

“They are lovely dice,” Cleopatra said.  They were still in her palm.

Jim stepped carefully over the pillow.  He stood over her.  She saw him look at her breasts.  He cleared his throat and took the dice.

The other door opened.  A man in a white suit strolled through it.  Jet hair slicked over a sculpted head.  One hand disappeared into his jacket pocket, the other held a boot.

“There’s at least one man back there,” he said, “who thinks if you can throw a boot, you can change destiny.”

“Welcome, and congratulations,” the angel said.

“Angel,” the man said.  “Cleopatra.”  A nod for each.  To the angel – “So which kind are you?  The kind that takes my coat, or the ethereal kind?”

“I can manage both.”  The angel took his jacket, and the boot, and showed him to a seat.

“This is a lovely apartment.  Say, you there, I’m sure the lady loves the view, but mine’s obscured.  What do you say we dispense with flirtation and get down to business?”

Jim realized he was standing right in front of the Egyptian Queen with his ass in her face.  He took a breath, gritted his teeth, composed himself.  He wasn’t any less of a man than this guy.

“Business it is,” Jim said, and sat down.  He could see the angel biting his lip.  God he wanted to punch that fucking angel.

“It is customary for the representative of fate to choose the final game,” the angel said.

“I represent myself,” the man said.  “Fate’s your word, it isn’t mine.  I don’t want any part of it.  Besides, I’ve been out of ideas since I woke up in this crazy joint.  Let the kid decide, he’s good for it.”

Jim held out the dice.  “One roll,” he said.  “High roll wins.”

“Short and sweet.  I like it.  Who’s first?”

“You.”

He rolled a nine.

Jim shook, blew, rolled.  Eleven.

“Yes!”  On his feet, fists in the air.  “Eat shit, Bogart, the queen is mine!”

Humphrey  twirled a finger.  “Reel it in, cod slayer.  I’d say you should play it closer to the vest but you wouldn’t know how to wear it.”  He stood up, leaned over, spoke from the corner of his mouth.  “And I didn’t want to say this in front of the lady, but Joe Louis is taking a dive.”

“What?”

“The unknown soldier is going for a walk.”

“I don’t . . .”

“Your zipper’s down and I can see your testicles.”

Jim coughed and pivoted.  With his back to the queen he checked his crotch.  It was fine.  He double-checked.  No Joe Loius.

*Shit.*

He turned around and Bogart had her slung over his shoulder.  The actor kicked open a window, pulled a gun from his jacket and fired a zip-line into the gardens.

“What the hell, man?  You lost!  Angel, stop him!”

Bogart give him the dramatic profile, the last look back.

“It was a good roll, kid,” Bogart said.  “It just wasn’t meant to be.”

The two of them zipped out of sight.  Jim ran to the window and watched as the actor stuffed Cleopatra into the back of a Packard Super Eight and drove away.

“Can he do that?” Jim said.  “Why aren’t you doing anything?  You should be doing something!”

The angel was laughing freely now.  “Don’t beat yourself up,” he said.  “He does that every year.”  He doubled over.  “The boot!” he gasped.  “Oh, I almost died.”

“But I won,” Jim said.

“Eat shit, Bogart!  Eeeeeheeeheehehe!

Jim Home

Next Jim Story

The White Room [Short Story, Science Fiction]

           William Radke was a professor of English and Philosophy at Cloud University.  At one hundred and fifty, he was getting old, but he was still loved by his colleagues and nearly worshipped by his students.  It was a singular distinction that, throughout his long career, he had taught both Shakespeare and Nietzsche, Milton and Spinoza, Dickens and Kant.  He published a great deal, and though most of his work was of a  scholarly sort, Immortal Sons of Nietzsche was so widely praised it went mainstream and topped a few best-seller lists.  He’d shaken hands with the president, toasted the king of the Confederate States of Africa, sired fifteen children with six different wives.  He was pompous and jovial.

            Now, on the first day of his one hundred and fiftieth year, he entered the Center for Human Advancement.  It was a plain white building on an average downtown corner.  Twenty-five years, he thought as he walked through its doors, Do they really go so fast?  The entrance to the place was spacious, with a vaulted dome ceiling.  Everything was white, and the absence of color was only broken by strange paintings on the walls and a strip of blue carpet that led to the main floor.  He wondered, probably not for the first time, if this was part of the test, if they were watching him even here. 

            Well, let’s see what they think of this, he thought.  He reached deep into the front of trousers for a scratch and then shook his leg with a fart.  Score that, you government dogs.

            The main floor was larger still, but it was full of silent and anxious people.  He remembered with some nostalgia the first time he’d been to this place, one hundred and twenty-five years ago.  He’d been a dumb, pale, jittery kid, agonizing over what to say and how to look.  He almost missed the thrill of it.  But then he saw that version of his younger self, shaking in his shoes in the line in front of him, and he was happy not to be there again. 

            It wasn’t a long line.  Even in a big city, a quarter-centennial birthday only landed on a handful of citizens.  It was just a twenty minute wait to reach the counter.

            “Identification,” the woman said.

            Radke produced it.

            “One hundred and fifty,” the woman whistled.  “You must be doing something right.  And you’re the second one today.”

            “Never give up without a fight,” Radke said.  She was an attractive woman, and he smiled.

            “Well you can just take that back, and go ahead and fill out this form while you’re waiting in the lobby.  The Guide will take you there.  Good luck!”

            The Guide was a kid in a government uniform, forty years on him at best.  He was expressionless as he led Radke through a series of quiet hallways.  Something always unsettled Radke when he watched these government guys walk; it was like there weren’t any lights on up top.  They were just rigid motion under environmental distress.

            They came to a door marked Lobby #6: Age 150, and the Guide stopped and opened it. 

            “Please fill out the form and wait in the lobby until your name is called, Mr. Radke,” the Guide said.

            Lobby #6, like everything else at the HAC, was stark and white.  There were three rows of metal chairs, a table with a cup full of ball point pens, and a door at the front of the room.  A digital scroller over the door repeated in red letters, Your patience is appreciated.  Your time will come soon.

            Only one of the chairs was occupied.  Radke took a seat next to it.

            “Hello, Bernie,” he said.

            “Radke,” the man smiled.  “And here I thought you’d forgotten our anniversary.”  He put out his hand and Radke shook it.

            Bernie Staltzweiger had achieved his own success in the academic world, though not nearly as much as Radke.  His venue was history, his specialty ancient Rome, and Radke had always liked the man.  It was sheer coincidence that they had been born on the same day one hundred and fifty years ago.

            “So how many years has it been?” Radke said.  “I suppose it was that humanities conference.  What was that, fifteen years ago?”

            “Closer to twenty, I think,” Bernie said.  “Do you remember that red-head who introduced the dean?”

            Radke laughed, full and honest.  It ended in a minor coughing fit and a hand to the chest.  “Oh, I thought they were going to incinerate her on the spot.  That poor woman.  She couldn’t have been more than fifty.”

            “Well, she certainly lightened the mood.  Those damn things get so stuffy.  Hell, that might of been the last one I bothered getting to.”

            There was something in Bernie’s voice that bothered Radke.  He didn’t want to call it resignation.

            “You’re looking a little tired,” he said.

            Bernie spread his hands.  “You get old,” he said.  He looked at the door.  “This will be the sixth time we’ve gone through that blasted door.  Judged, ranked, accounted for.  Not a whole lot of people get to seven.”

            Radke thought for a moment.  His students would have recognized the look on his face; it was the blank stare that came before he pulled apt quotation from memory.  He found it, and he recited it with sincerity.

                        “Tis the witching time of night

                        Orbed is the moon and bright

                        And the stars they glisten, glisten

                        Seeming with bright eyes to listen

                        For what listen they?

            “I think I’ve heard that before,” Bernie said.  “Probably from you.  Who is that?”

            “Keats,” Radke said.  “Coming here always makes me think of it:

                        For a song and for a charm

                        See they glisten in alarm

                        And the moon is waxing warm

                        To hear what I shall say.”

            A tenuous silence crept up on the old professors.  It was eerie how well this poet, who had died all those centuries ago, had described the chamber that lay beyond the door.  It was a silence that, in spite of its fragility, remained unbroken until a large voice vibrated through the Lobby.

            “STALTZWEIGER, BERNIE.”

            The name also scrolled in red above the door:  Staltzweiger, Bernie.  Your time has come.

            When Bernie stood up it was the first time Radke noticed the cane.  His old friend had a bend in his back and groaned from the effort of standing.

            “Off to the races,” he said.

            “Oh, cheer up you old rogue,” Radke said.  “There’s some life left in those legs of yours.”

            Bernie’s smile was sedated.  The hand he put on Radke’s shoulder was shaky.  “I’ll see you on the other side, William.”

            “The Meeting Grounds,” Radke said.  “It’s just around the corner from here.  Let’s meet up, talk about old times.”

            Bernie nodded.  His cane against the hard floor was an ominous clack, clack, clack.  He fed his paperwork through a slot by the door and it opened.  He went through it and it closed.

            Radke shook his head.  There were failsafes, he reminded himself.  They didn’t throw you to the incinerator because they caught you on a bad day.  They’d see Bernie’s record.  They’d pass him through.

            It didn’t take long to fill out his papers.  He triple-checked each page and made sure he dotted all the i’s.  He considered checking yes in the other known aliases box, and writing Just Kidding,  but decided against it.  There wasn’t a government in history that had a sense of humor.

            When his name rattled through the room –

            “RADKE, WILLIAM.”

            and scrolled above the door –

            Your time has come.

            he fed his papers through the slot and walked through the door, confident with his song and with his charm.

 ***

            It was a white cube, about fifteen feet in length.  It contained nothing but four white walls, a white ceiling, a white floor, and Radke.  Reality felt suspended here, washed in government white and frozen in government time.  The brightness and the stark absence of the material world made him feel alone and singular, even on his sixth visit to this place.  Something as simple as a chair in the corner, or a coffee table, and the whole feeling might have evaporated.  But in the emptiness the feeling was very real.

            And the moon is waxing warm, he thought, To hear what I shall say.

            The voice seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, full and deep and resonating.

            “WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF THE HUMAN ADVANCEMENT CENTER?”

            Prepared for it or not, Radke flinched at the suddenness of it.  He shook himself and cracked his knuckles.

            “Well,” he said, “Do you want the short version or the long version?”

            “YOUR VERSION.”

            “Currently, it’s to ensure the efficiency of society and the quality of its members.  By systematically eradicating the lowermost echelons of humanity we maintain stability and productivity.  Originally, however, it was conceived as a means by which to purge the radicals that were perpetuating the Last War in the twenty-second century.  When the war finally ended, the government forgot to close the program down, and now we use it for population control and housecleaning.  And, of course, it provides security to handsome old stallions such as myself.”

            Radke wondered if any of the operators behind these walls had a sense of humor.  He’d never been behind the scenes, but he always imagined a room full of screens and a single technician at a microphone, behind him a group of analysts dissecting his words, his tone, his blinking patterns.  Did they ever laugh?

            “WHAT IS YOUR PURPOSE?”

            “I’m a professor of English and Philosophy at Cloud University,” he said.  “Mostly Nietzsche and Shakespeare, these days.  I’ve produced a number of articles and books examining the modern applicability of their works and the various uses we might put them to.  I’ve also argued extensively throughout my career that literature and philosophy are worthy pursuits beyond any practical applications, that the arts of reading and writing and critical awareness are the foundation of any real civilization.”

            “YOU ARE A PROFESSOR OF ENGLISH AND YOUR PREVIOUS ANSWER CONTAINS A DANGLING PARTICIPLE.  EXPLAIN.”

            Radke thought a moment.

            “Uses to which they might be put is a clause from which an asshole’s mouth might spring.”

            That one’s got to give them a laugh, he thought.  But the voice was relentlessly detached and inhuman.

            “WHO ARE YOU?”

            “Really?” Radke said.  He was actually disappointed.  “Well, to a government as pragmatic as this one, I suppose I am what my purpose is.  But that’s not what you’re asking, is it, dear operator?  Your obsession with me goes right to my core, to the essence of my being; you’re dying to know what makes this lover tick.  It is with profound sadness, and tragic irony, that I inform you that such knowledge does not exist.

            “You see before you a man, dear operator, but what sort of man is he?  He is old, he is intelligent, he is charming.  You even know his name, and it’s William Radke.  But you know as well as he does that he is none of these things.  These are the pressures of an external world that are no more a part of him than you are of them.  They are temporary, illusory, their definitions written in the sands of a delirious time. 

            “And I would show you my singular self, dear operator; I would cast off this shell and these identities and stand naked and unchained.  But alas, without the world that chains me I am nothing.  A spark in the wind, a speck in the eye.  This heart that beats before you cannot escape the body that sustains it.

            “Given this grave paradox, you will forgive my refusal, and shove it up your ass.”    

            They really must be laughing at that one, he thought.  He’d always been a confident man, and it had been a long time since he’d feared these examinations, but this was certainly the first time he’d enjoyed himself.

            “YOU ARE NEAR DEATH.  OF WHAT FURTHER USE ARE YOU TO SOCIETY?”

            “That’s more like it,” he said.  “I have hundreds of students, all of whom have worked incredibly hard just to attend my classes.  Several of the more promising ones are currently under my wing and I intend great things for them.  I’m also working at what I hope will be my magnum opus, a study of Milton through the lens of super-modern atheism.  I’m confident that it will be completed and published before the decade is out.”

            “WHAT IS THE CUBED ROOT OF ONE MILLION, FIVE HUNDRED AND THIRTY-SEVEN THOUSAND, SIX HUNDRED AND FIFTY-TWO?”

            “Pfffft.  B over twenty-seven.”

            There was a pause.  The voice never paused.  Radke imagined, in a comic twist, the operator becoming confused, and a big steel arm picking him up and dropping him in the incinerator.

            “PLEASE EXPOUND.”

            “Expound?” Radke laughed.  “Is that vernacular government-sanctioned?  Listen, it’s a stupid question.  The twenty-seven is the number of imbeciles it took to write it out, and the B is for horseshit.”

            A few moments later the white room dimmed and a door opened on the far wall.  In his mirth Radke bowed before he took his leave.

 ***

            There were no lines at the exit.  Radke supposed that if someone raised a racket on the way to the incinerator, they’d prefer it went unseen.  A man’s privacy extended that far, at least.

            “Well look at you, Mr. Radke,” the man behind the glass said.  “One hundred and fifty years old and in the eighty-seventh percentile.  What’s your secret?”

            “Don’t let the bastards get you down,” Radke said.

            The remark made the man tense up.  He laughed to cover it up.

            “Yeah.  Well, congratulations, good luck, and we’ll see you again in twenty-five years.”

            The man slid Radke’s renewed identity under a slit in the glass.  It was glossy, and underneath a new picture of his old face was all the familiar information.  Sex: Male.  Height: 5’10”.  Weight: 160 lbs.  Eyes: Blu.  The only thing that had changed was his Citizen’s Percentile, or city perk.  Down from ninety-one to eighty-seven. 

            Outside the sun felt strange on his skin.  The white room could have that effect, the surreality of it hanging around like a fog.  The bustle of legs down the sidewalk and cars on the road were louder than he remembered.  He walked about a half-block down the street and walked into The Meeting Grounds.

            At first, when he didn’t see Bernie there waiting for him, he didn’t give it a second thought.  Maybe old Bernie was in the bathroom, maybe he got held up with some extra paperwork.  Radke took a seat by the window and ordered a black coffee, laughing quietly to himself as he recalled his answers.  He’d have to tell Bernie a few of them. 

            Ten minutes went by.  Half an hour.  An hour.  But Bernie said it himself: they were getting old.  The geezer probably just forgot.  It wasn’t until Radke finally looked out the window, back the way he had come, that he understood.

            There was smoke rising from the HAC.  They gave you some privacy when the bad news came, but they didn’t hide the smoke.  They didn’t want people to forget.  Productivity and social stability.  Work hard and walk tall and be part of the future, or ride the chimney of the Human Advancement Center.

            Radke’s high popped like a balloon.  He watched the smoke rise until there was no more of it, and he watched a little longer.  He suddenly felt very old.

            Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, he thought, looking at the plain building down the road, I will fear no evil.  The Bible was melodramatic and insane, but the translators under King James did have a way of putting things.

            He paid for his coffee and walked outside to hail a cab.