Sitting at one end of the bar, he looked out the window. The dim, wet, wounded light seemed to violate the laws of nature, blurring contours, mixing existences, falsifying circumstances. Cigarette smoke drifted up, giving the room a feeling of secrecy and possibility.
Everybody called him Mick. But God knows what his name really was – that is, what his story was. Nobody asked. After all, who would want to open up the possibility of having their own woes scrutinized?
Mick had just arrived. He asked for the one and only bourbon he wouldn’t drink; he just liked the smell of it, the color. Mere scene composition. He once read Hammett and believed that certain idiosyncrasies could fashion an image that helps one business, which Mick conducted in this bar.
Before the barman had put the drink in front of him, a young woman approached. Thin, tall, legs, she could save the world or a great part of it, he thought.
“No Mr. And its Mick, darling.”
Darling – he immediately regretted the trite and vulgar expression. Imitating literary characters could end up making a ludicrous character out of you. He knew that well enough. He had met his fare of pathetic jerks, for he had stolen stories from them. But then, talking to a woman like this had always make him nervous, namely, stupid.
“Mick, someone told me that you… Well, that you provided a certain service, if it can be so called.”
It’s a service indeed. Like most human enterprise. And suddenly he thought that she might work for the police or some newspaper; or worse, for Big Horace.
“Are you buying or are you selling?” he asked, just to gain some time. If she was legit, it was obvious that she was out shopping; there was no way she had story material to offer – not unless she got it somewhere. And maybe that was the case.
“Not so loud, sugar.” Sugar. Again, he cursed himself for the cliché.
The young lady got closer, her meticulously traced mouth almost touching his vulgar ear.
“I need a tight story. Not just an anecdote as they told me you sell. A whole waterproof past. And I’ll be paying with story. But not just any. I got it from my grandfather.”
“I’m not a barter.”
Now he was sure she wasn’t working for Big Horace from 136th street. Nor for the police or any newspaper.
“You’ll want to barter when you hear the story,” she said.
“Let’s go to my place. It’s just around the corner. You tell me what the story is, and I’ll decide if I make the effort to compose a past with the material I have.”
His apartment was in the lower east side. In an office building. It was cold and damp. When she stepped in, she seemed to recoil.
“Yes, it stinks,” Mick said.
“Yes,” she admitted. “It does.”
There was a sofa, but she avoided it, and sat on a chair at the round table. Her face was emotionless, as if she were looking for the appropriate expression according to the place and situation. She lit a cigarette.
“Why do you need a whole past?” he inquired, as he sat in the opposite chair, resting his arms over the table.
“Is this a standard question for every client?”
“I’m getting married. And our pasts are, let’s say, uneven. I don’t expect an equal past. Just one that no one has the temptation to look into.”
“How have you managed to hide your past until know?” Mick said, lighting a cigarette.
“I brought with me pieces of stories from my hometown that more or less summed up a past. Here, in New York, I bought some more stories from that fat black man who helped me to disguise the inevitable gaps. And some stories I picked up at the Absalom, the club my soon-to-be father in law’s is a member of …”
“He stole other people’s stories for you.”
“If you wish to call it that.”
“What if these people want to tell their stories again?
“A chance I’m taking. Besides, the black man makes people forget things about their stories.”
They remained in silence for a while. The piping concealed the endemic silence that in that kind of buildings fall at that time of the day.
“Aren’t you going to offer me a drink?”
“Sure,” Mick said. “I have whisky. A very bad one, in fact. Water. I might have some tea…”
“The whisky will do.”
“As you like.”
From a cupboard he extracted a bottle with no label. The liquid was approximately the color of regular whisky. She looked at it suspiciously.
“Don’t worry. It doesn’t kill. It’s just bad. A friend of mine brings it from North Virginia. Some guy he knows, a moonshiner, makes it.”
While serving a shot of the dubious liquid, he said: “It’s a good thing we don’t have to introduce ourselves each time by referring to our entire history chronologically.”
“Bad thing is that people, being insincere with their past, expect transparency in others.”
“Some people can afford hypocrisy.”
“That’s what I aspire to, among other things. I would summarize what I want with a word: privilege.”
“That’s what every kid should dream of.”
“Yes, sir,” she said and drank the whisky and put out the cigarette in an ashtray that piled up hopes, sorrows or who knows what anxieties.
“So,” she started, “getting back to our business here. I need a past to persuade the groom-to-be parents.”
“And I presume that the groom was convinced by more present and tangible… things.”
“Don’t be vulgar, please. But yes, something on those lines. Although, not in the extent, let’s say, that you imagine. Not until we seal the deal. That’s probably the only valuable teaching my mother passed on to me.”
“And a fine education that is, young lady.”
“What, suddenly you change characters? You were playing the big city private eye, remember?”
“I tend to become the stories – the soul – I deal with. Something to do with my profession.”
“I would rather say some personality disorder. But, hey, each to his own interpretation.”
“Indeed? Really, you need to get back to the former role. I prefer that one. Seems more appropriate for these dealings.”
“You should work for me.”
“Mick, I don’t want to work at all. Hence this request.”
“Yeah, me neither, babe.”
“Now you’re back. Or whomever you are when you’re acting like this.”
“It might even be me. The real me. Or whatever’s left. I’m a remnant of a man or, let’s say, the stories of a given set of people. So many times, have I been in contact for trade purposes with alien stories, that without noticing I might have sold mine for another. Or those I came to think were mine.”
“There aren’t such systematic mistakes. There are unconscious slips.”
“Don’t know what that is.”
“Me neither. I’ve heard it in a conversation and am pretty sure that it applies to this case.”
“I like the idea of the unconscious slipping into reality just to fuck us up.”
“Well, I don’t like that kind of latent, internal threat. So, I need a past that keeps it at bay. Some hard detritus of Christian education. Maybe some southern thing, that adds some sort of old aristocratic splendor. Some emphatic lie that drives away the questions. I mean, a certain hermetic prestige. Or an equally beneficial seamless compassion. In short, a story that deters inquiries into that past that is being insinuated.”
“You know they say that truth, or the search for it awakens the sense of wonder, and that’s what you fear. But once it`s found – the truth, I mean; or a decent surrogate, it ends up causing a widespread disappointment. And that’s probably what suits you better.”
“But, then, it’s said that with the disappointment often occurs a sense of offense, because all too often it brings down some security we had. That’s why we give ourselves to mystification: we look for alternative truth, one that we are almost sure not to find, while we mimic sincere commitment.”
“So, what do I go for, an immeasurable, heavy lie? Or a truth that evidently I don’t have and can’t afford for this situation?”
“We’ll see according to what I get.”
She looked at her watch to gesture the convention was at an end a conversation. “It’s getting late,” she said, as if the gesture wasn’t enough.
“Depends…,” he started to say but concluded immediately that he was tired to play anymore characters. And he also stopped to hide the triviality of the automatic things that men and women say and do, that is, those expressions and intentions that once had the sincerity, but whose use has already exhausted it, leaving just a remnant of hypocrisy, cynicism and obscenity. Mere recitation of slogans and common places, with that tone between a pastor and an insurance salesman: the cult and the product for sale. Well, maybe not that much, he thought, but close enough.
Instead, he said that the next day he would do some inquiries. He was already starting to plan in his mind, that is to elaborate a biography for her with the pieces of stories he already had. And somehow, starting to build her narrative made him feel content: the candid, fascinating hope of those who believe that words can determine the boundaries between beings – even to the point of defining existences, of subverting circumstance. Words assembled as an incantation or an ancient prayer: just the desperation we are subjected to by our imagination transcending what we are, or rather what little we are meant to be.
There were no taxis to hail. Anyway, she wanted to walk. The night was descending on the city. Or maybe it was that the summer was already over. She didn’t care which it was. She had had no faith at all in this venture, but slowly came to the realization that if she was to have any chance, it would be with what Mick could put together for her. She was thinking about an impenetrably tedious biography of long afternoons in the south waiting for someone to confirm the validity of existence: the postman, the milkman. Who cares, Mick would know how to compose a character that would also deliver that true lie: in other words, an outright perfect censorship in which it is the audience itself who enforces it. She thought of going back to Mick’s apartment to tell him this. But she decided against it: she sensed that he already had arrived at a similar conclusion and that if she went back in that emotional or metaphysical state, she could do something stupid. Her figure faded into the multitude of pedestrians walking uptown along 3rd Ave., just like a wound in a battlefield.
Who knows why Mick held on to that job. That hope. He certainly didn’t know – and neither did he wonder about it. He just let himself go. Perhaps because he was enthusiastic about the search for stories; he knew he would have to snatch some, that he would have to traffic probably with stolen European ones. Oh, that dizzy feeling that came with it all. Maybe he even though or sensed that it was the possibility of actually creating something that could come to resemble a truth, or at least a very plausible sincerity. Because he knew that it came out right, it’ll become her story. Or, better still, she’ll become the story.
He knew that eventually he’d have to go and see fat Horace. The stories he trafficked wouldn’t suit his present purpose, but he knew more than well that in certain stories there was an ethos that should’ve been part of some other more reputed biography. It happens all the time (as it happens that people were born with stories that didn’t belong to their lives; but most of the time they don’t even start to realize). He had always liked to think that his was a similar case: a somehow elevated soul trapped in the wrong narrative. But he hadn’t had time to comfort himself with that thought, since he came to know in his dealings that he had a very ordinary spirit: that of a cheating salesman or of an equally unethical, mediocre detective. In short, he was just who he was.
After that morning’s self-deprecating session, he decided to pay Horace the visit the next morning. That was the best time of the day to obtain a benefit from him. Today, he would wander around the bars in mid and upper town to check what he could pick up there. There were always people who didn’t care who’s listening, people that live stories unattended, so distracted as they are by the loud music, the drinks and the prospect of getting laid. But before, he’d go to some church. That Christian got stuck somewhere in his thinking process. And it wasn’t a bad idea after all. He had been contemplating it as a part of the plot, not the knot itself, but something that was core to it all: an old mid-west has-been Christian family that only has old days memories left in their family; a great-grandfather, the image of a vast corn-field – as large as a medium sized European country – that encompasses the visible, symbolic world, that is, their whole conscience. Yes, that was fine. And of course, one or two veiled misfortunes: a man that was born a laborer and came to make money somehow – oil, some patent, as a thug – and wanted his revenge against his past – or the idea he has about it – at her (“that gal I remember standing at sunset at the porch of the old house of the Callahan’s”; that figure, that idea, or summary of his frustrations – real and imagined), young not a woman yet, but already dispossessed of the remains of childhood; she’s to became his sacrificial tribute and, at the same time, the vehicle for that purported union between the sacred and the mundane. And everybody knows how men face and conjure their ghosts: killing or fucking. It was so, he thought, while looking for a church, in the caves, and it continues to be, though masked by complexity and depth: merely new symbols that facilitate the same sacrifice. Somehow, he concluded, between the cave and the apartment, we’ve decided that we had to justify our instincts of revenge, of shame, lust. Suddenly he saw a Baptist Church. “Amen,” he said. Although he didn’t get to see how, nor why yet, it seemed appropriate. A traumatic experience during her baptism in a cold river when she was twelve – her body starting to develop, men’s eyes haunting her – the white, wet dress body-tight, defining the shame that those glances enjoyed.
Horace lived and worked on the top floor of a brick building at Broadway and 136th.
And as far as Mick knew – which was little and prejudiced – he never left the apartment. A conjecture or rumor that was probable since he would most certainly die if he were to climb the eight flights of stairs.
The entrance hall stank of urine and sex. It reminded Mick that he hadn’t peed since the morning. He preferred not to figure how long it’d been since he last did something that could amount to sex. He started climbing the stairs wondering if it was a good idea that visit. After all, what could Horace possibly have that he didn’t. But he kept climbing and going through the human history of strong smells and stench. Humanity at its low. As soon as we fall enough to stop caring to masquerade our real being. Sad, he thought, and knocked on the door that had a big D letter on it. “D is for destiny,” he said to himself.
It had been years since the last time Mick had been there. The walls were covered by book shelves, each shelf containing up to two rows of books (buckling the wood notoriously) – that much he could remember. Excess seemed to be the distinctive feature in that place: he could count thirteen fans on, before Horace entered the room and interrupted him. He was fatter than ever. A huge mass of existences, Mick summarized those too many pounds.
“So, this is where the wind in New York comes from,” Mick greeted Horace.
“Ha. Still trying to be the funny boy in town. I’ve developed a head intolerance,” Horace explained pointing at the fans. “Besides, I like feeling a breeze when I walk, and since I can’t go out, this is the closest I can get to the wandering experience.”
Horace pointed to a leather sofa, while he sat in one that was obviously custom-made.
“What does the great Mick come to our hood for?”
“What a business that must be for you to come in person. Or have you changed, let’s say, field?”
“No, I haven’t. Just a client with a special request.”
“What would that request be?”
“A whole past. Interesting.”
“Actually, more than a past, it’s defense against the indiscretion of the indiscretion of the inquiries to her past that she needs.”
“So, it’s a she. The purpose of the assignment?”
“Not just any.”
“Elaborate a bit more, please.”
“She hooked a rich guy. Or, a guy of a rich family.”
“And the family want to chase away gold-diggers.”
“Who’s the family?”
“She didn’t say.”
“You didn’t ask?”
Mick shook his head.
“You’re getting sloppy, Mick. Anyway, she must have hinted something without noticing.”
“Her future father-in-law was at the Absalom Club. That’s all I got.”
“Yeah, I know.”
“You really know?”
“Rich, powerful people. I know. I move around, remember? I’m in the stories business too. You get to know this and other things.”
“Then you better be careful, man. No shit. Plain old sincerity. Those people ain’t like you and me. They are stylish, refined, all right, but have no morals at all. None. No inhibitions, suppression for certain impulses when directed against certain individuals. Those are really crooked people, Mick. I was thinking about selling you some story” – and he made a gesture that sought to mean the totality his books – “in some book, but not with this perverse people in between. Who knows what they would do to you. Because be sure they’d trace you.”
“You are so magnanimous.”
“Fuck you, Mick.”
“I’ll try. I think that’s the only way I can get some sex. Anyway, thanks. That’s why I want it to be flawless.”
“Why not invent a fake story?”
“It won’t work. Its core needs to be real.”
“Of course. But then, we can actually go to the books to get some spirit. This is what ultimately will give her the confidence to believe in it and not give herself away. That’s the important thing.”
“Certainly, it is,” Mick agreed, and he asked himself why was it that he didn’t like Horace when he met him thirty-five years ago. Primal response to competition, probably. Or that himself was just a moron back then.
“You’ll get something of this business…,” started Horace, but Mick interrupted.
“I’ll pay for your services.”
“You don’t ask how much, or what I want in return?”
“I have to do it. So, no, I don’t ask.”
“You are not doing this because there are big bucks?”
“Do you know if she’s going to pay you? And, for that matter, do you even know if you’ll see her again?”
Horace gave him a long stare. But there was neither the reproach nor mockery that Mick could have assumed the other man would have for him. There was understanding. Or something that was very similar.
“You haven’t even asked for money… You know what’s happening, right?”
“That I’m turning into an idiot.”
“Not that – although in your case, I wouldn’t be that sure. You aged. We aged. Some other time I would have had a good stupid laugh at your expense. And you see.”
“So goodbye to my waning, but existing, sexual longing,” Mick tried unsuccessfully to joke.
“So, this lady is young and beautiful.”
“Have you contemplated the idea that she might want to put you out of business? That she thinks you’ll put most of your stories, and some more, into the plot, and thus she’ll take them all in one sting?”
“No. But thank you for burying a little more my mood and self-esteem.”
“Ah, come on, you’d have done the same.”
“Probably. I don’t know. But now, I must go on,” said Mick, or the man that once thought he could dodge his destiny, whatever that’ll be. Only he didn’t know about old age. But then, who does? Everybody talks about destiny as if were something that somehow, by some miraculous quantum or religious jump, evades death.
“I might have something that you can use.” Horace grabbed a bag from behind his sofa. Inside, hundreds of small papers – from note pads and fliers to pieces of newspaper and books sheets. Different handwritings (arrogant, insecure, repentant, greedy).
“Here,” he said, taking a yellowish paper from the bundle.
Mick took it as if he was being handed a long-lost manuscript. He looked at it with attention. He read it a couple of times. “Yes, indeed,” he agreed. “This countryside field could do. Where is it?”
“I don’t remember. Or I never knew it. But it doesn’t matter. Actually, it’ll be better for you, since it would not interfere with the assembly or the pieces in the story,” said Horace without ceasing to search. “Hey, Alphonse,” he then said to one of his assistants, that was standing next to the following room. “Remember that story from that old woman from Kentucky or Georgia, or somewhere around those lost lands.”
“You mean the one about her working the land while the rest of the family was squandering what had not yet even grown?” said Alphonse, who could have been anywhere between thirty and seventy.
“No. It was something about a woman knitting a never-ending scarf while awaiting her husband or son coming back from war or something… No, that’s… Penelope.”
“I got it boss,” Alphonse said. “It was the story of an ol’ white lady that feared blacks would take’er land and kill’er.”
“That’s the one! God bless you, Alphonse. Her niece sold it to me.” Turning to face Mick, he said: “Could you believe that she sold it to buy a ticket to see the Yankees?”
“That same, boss. One night, durin’ one of those storms that can only happen in the South and mid-West and in certain regions of hell,” Alphonse said.
“The South and the mid-West are proper regions of hell,” Horace pointed out.
“Indeed, it is. So, as I was sayin’, one such night the ol’ lady heard someone insistently trying to open the door. She always had a shotgun at hand. She shot through the wooden door without askin’ or warnin’. She opened the door as soon as she heard the unmistakable thud of a defeated body fallin’ on the floor. Er grandson was layin’ there, his chest like the inflamed, open mouth of a carnivorous flower. He had been trying to unlock the door prevented by the wet cloths, the cold and the whisky still hinderin’ his moves. She shot herself on the spot.”
“He’s making this up. On the spot,” Mick concluded.
“Yes… How did you realize?” Alphonse asked.
“The accent: intermittent, inconsistent” he explained, and asserted: “He’s the source of your stories.”
“Of some. Not all. I do buy some here and there,” Horace admitted
“But just to keep the facade.”
“All these books…,” Mick started saying.
“Him. Although I enjoy reading a good story now and then.”
“Why the accent?” Mick asked Alphonse. “I’d probably would have bought the story as legit if it wasn’t for it.”
“Seemed appropriate for the story.”
“You’re not good at it.”
“I know. And I try hard.”
“I called her ‘babe,’” confessed Mick.
“Who?” Alphonse asked.
“My client. I called her ‘babe’ and some other equal stupid triteness.”
“Marlowerian…” Alphonse said
“So, you understand.”
“OK, ladies, how about we leave the pretenders anonymous moment aside and we focus on the task at hand. What do you have, Mick?” Horace
Mick took a notepad from the inside pocket of his jacket and passed it to Horace. The fat man read it as if he was perusing some material to use in an engineering project. He looked up briefly just to tell Alphonse to sit down in a tufted leather English wingback chair, and called towards the next room – there was no one there; just more books and a large table full of papers, and another opening to another room (maybe in a succession that tends to infinite). He called out for Lucinda. She was to bring a bottle of bourbon and some Cajun pork ribs.
“An appetizer,” he explained, and continued reading, nodding and moderately doubting. Once he was done, he asked Alphonse to the next room and bring the brown portfolio.
“I have there an extra something. You see, against all rumors, I do some higher standard commerce. I’m of the idea that one shouldn’t show too much of one’s business, one’s ability. Unless you don’t have any, in which case you’ll have to exaggerate. No offense.”
“None taken. I can acknowledge a truth when I see one. So, you’ve always had this… duality?”
“No. Since…” – he looked as searching for the precise moment.
“Since I came,” Alphonse said, entering the room with the portfolio.
“See? As I told you. Theatricality and pretense,” Horace said smiling.
“Who isn’t tempted to pretend?” Mick said.
Alphonse asked the other two for the notepad and papers and he passed the portfolio to Mick. They remained in silence reading and pondering plots – that is, traps for the eagerness of the listeners to interrogate.
A big old woman came in holding a large silver tray barely visible under the pile of ribs. She put the tray over a table Alphonse pushed from the shadows behind where Horace was sitting. She left and came back a minute later with two bottles of Bourbon Supreme and a jug of water.
“Now we eat, and then we build. Or perpetrate,” Horace ordered.
Once they were done, Mick said he would step outside for a minute. He needed to get some cigarettes. Horace offered him a cigar, but Mick said he didn’t like them. Besides, he needed the air.
“That’s like counting money in front of poor people,” Horace said laughing.
“No that much money, considering the air of this city,” Mick said.
“I guess so,” Horace accepted; not the idea, but the consolation.
At the entrance of the convenience store, to old men were sitting over apple crates on each side of the entrance. From afar it had seemed to him that they were conversing without looking at each other, just at their ideas. But once he got closer, he noticed that each one was talking with himself.
On his way in he overheard:
“I’ll remove the weeds tomorrow. And after stirring the soil well, I will plant vegetables,” said one.
“He usually comes on Tuesdays. He might as well come today. It has been the case that he came on a Thursday. I believe that, except for Sunday, he has come sometime on every day of the week,” the other said.
“Spinach. And tomatoes. Peppers, too. Radishes. Lettuce… Although with the spinach, the green is already covered. Basil, no doubt. Arugula. But this one has to be kept at bay, if not, it invades the entire orchard,” the first one said.
On the way out, until the distance and fury of the sounds of the city prevailed, he heard:
“He always comes one day or another. That amounts to a pattern. That is, it allows me to say with a high degree of confidence, that he’ll come some day this week. But while waiting, I will write the darn letter. I must put an end to that business once and for all. There’s no point in having a branch office in that forsaken town. I don’t now how he convinced me to open it in the first place,” the second man said.
“I need to put some guano into that tired soil too. Last crop the plants were as weak as they can get to grow. Starving, wrinkled stems…,” the other was saying when the words faded out, as if they hadn’t even been there at all.
Although it seemed to be a dialogue, the rules were different. The time it actually took place too. Or perhaps each one followed his own rhythm, and one was just ahead of a conversation that they’ve been reproducing for some time. “Maybe our conversation up in the apartment was somehow like this one,” Mick thought. “Or like any other, for that matter.”
“I’ve been thinking while you were away that if it doesn’t matter to you whether this lady comes back or not for her story, since you are doing it because some impulse or spiritual need, then we could as well adapt the material to your own good.”
“Why would I possibly want a story for… Oh, wait, not again…”
“Not here. In Jersey. Or the Hampton’s. Besides, people know you around.”
“And what kind of scam did you have time to think of?”
“Selling lands. Your lands. You need to sell them cheaper than you would like to. Suddenly your family’s debts caught up with you here… not here, excuse me, in wherever place we choose, and that’s why you sell them there. Something like that.”
“Oh, that could perfectly be done. I know someone that could falsify the property titles,” Alphonse added.
“I promised her…,” Mick started to say but Horace interrupted to dismiss the lame argument.
“Come on, Mick, it wouldn’t be the first time. And such a meticulous job for her just to marry up? After all, you were doing it already for yourself, so do it effectively for you.”
“And for you two…”.
“That way you can be recipients that magnanimous generosity of yours.”
“I don’t know. It certainly couldn’t be done here, which means that it can’t in the Hampton’s or Jersey either. Those are like branch offices of New York.”
“Boston, Rhode Island, Philly, there’s plenty to choose from,” Alphonse said.
“And the money?”
“I have some, don’t worry about logistics. Thing is, are you in?”
“She seemed legal.”
“Oh, fuck her. She’ll end up marrying him or some other hotshot. Think about you, Mick. Let go that self-sacrificing Marlowe character. Be yourself. Or better still, the man we’ll make up. She’s young, Mick. You, Alphonse and I, we are about to start our extra time.”
“You must tell the story of the land, that’s your family’s biography. You’re actually selling yourself with that land, your identity. They have to pity you and, at the same time, take advantage of the situation: that is, they won’t what to ask too much,” Alphonse put it across.
“We’ll use the woman’s story to link you to that tragic fate – to your family’s. You’ll be her grandson. The one she kills is your father,” Horace said.
“That’s too much,” Alphonse pointed out. “She kills her youngest son – his uncle. His father was killed by a black guy – because he used to go to shantytowns looking for young black women. That’s why she fears us blacks.”
“Why would anyone want to buy land in that lost forsaken game part of the world?” Mick asked, skeptic or just trying to look for decent ways of reversing things. Or maybe he was just scared of even fantasizing with the idea of a success for a change.
“We’ll set the story closer. Virginias or Carolinas. It’ll be an opportunity too good to be true to have hectares and hectares of land relatively close. You know, an investment. We’ll even make them believe there might be oil,” Horace said, his mouth full of anticipation.
“Is there any oil around there?” Mick asked.
“I don’t know. That was just an idea. It could be some mineral. Thing is you are desperate to pay debts that are choking you, you can’t think about possibilities and dreams about the future.”
A silence that even seemed to be respected by the outside noise installed between them. Almost like a truce. Mick could only hear the deep and difficult breathing of cetacean of Horace: there was something primal and comforting in that tide of air trying to keep a big man alive.
“Why do you do it, then?” Horace asked Mick.
“We all do things for some reason or other…”
“I know that much about human behavior. After all, I need to constantly embark in intellectual challenges – I’m limited to the mental world – to avoid thinking, acknowledging, or more accurately, succumbing, to my fear of death. Obsessive, almost paralyzing thought. And as you can obviously see, I do everything to get closer to it.”
Mick nodded without condescension, more as one who looks at oneself in a mirror that offers a deformed but, even so, almost perfect image. “I’ve been telling myself that I want solitude, you know? That I need it. That it’s my decision following an almost spiritual emergency. And thus, I act upon that conviction. I’ve sought desperately and successfully for it. It’s probably the only kind of thing we can achieve easily and utterly. It’s an ominous gratifying trap: it becomes by making you believe you’ve accomplished something ideal. And, of course, considering loneliness as an absolute, I addressed the matter in such way that even in the few instances in which, mostly unconsciously, I thought I could beat it (or beat me – always with the promise of love or a decent substitute), I ended up perfecting it. And well, with all this affair, I knowingly saw one of those opportunities to fight back – or to lie more perfectly, definitely to myself. That is, in itself, kind of victory.”
“Fears. Of death, solitude… Same terror: ways of settling into an experience that diminishes us,” Horace thought out loud.
“At least,” said Alphonse, “you never got to the point of disguising sadness as its opposite, like a one-man carnival parade.”
“What’s your motive?” Mick asked Alphonse.
“I didn’t ask for yours. I’m not part of this piece of binding conversation.”
“You’ve heard,” Horace said.
“You didn’t ask for me to leave,” Alphonse said.
“This sounds like a playground exchange,” Mick said.
“I already said quite more than I’d like,” Alphonse said, almost conciliatory.
“So, you look for a disguise. Or, the disguise,” Horace said.
“I was fine just yesterday. Enjoying life’s small pleasures: the whisky I don’t drink, the cigarettes I almost smoke, the women a desire,” Mick said with a faithless nostalgia, nearly an apostasy of his past, and he lit a cigarette which he would puff one or two times at the most.
Mick left around two thirty. The air seemed lighter than just a couple of hours earlier, as if the wind wasn’t coming from Horace’s apartment or from the Bronx anymore. He himself felt lighter. There was something promising in that enterprise with fat Horace and his… what was Alphonse? Sidekick? Handler? Anyway, besides the prospect of some money, there was something more transcendental about it: the chance of expanding beyond oneself, one’s life history – to overcome, or more precisely to pretend to overcome, those elements that make up sadness, renunciation, resignation.
He was arriving to Central Park when he felt a hard and sharp lump against his back, and suddenly out of nowhere, a face in front of his, ordering him to get into a car. In that state of surprise, and with the adrenaline refusing to kick in, he obeyed without even trying to throw a punch or say as if it was his any line from a Hammett novel.
The car rolled, and it seemed to him that that a conspiracy of no traffic and green lights was working against him. He thought that if they left Manhattan, they would kill him. He convinced himself of it.
They crossed the Queens-borough bridge. Mick was sure that if they took all that trouble they weren’t planning to kill him – if they wanted to, they would have done it where they took him. Incredible how even the most negative mind can elaborate chunks of hope. He didn’t stop to think about the fact that he was being driven without any hood over his head to prevent him from reproducing later the way.
It was dawning when they arrived at a mansion in the Hampton’s. And Mick said to himself: the gal. But what? The two guys that rode on the back seat with him took him straight to a shack in the woods at one side of the house. Once in there, they led him to a basement where they seemed to keep the cold that New York would get that winter and sat him on a chair. No ties. No talking. Not even the vulgar menace that he expected in situations like that. And that silence was the particle around which fear curdled: like ever before, it didn’t even produce images, or anything remotely concrete, only an asthmatic sensation that advanced like a gangrene or, at least, like it must advance in fast motion: black, irreversible. Fuck, they knew what they were doing. And, he became sure, he was already dead.
A cane appeared in the stairs. Then, a left foot. An old man walked down the stairs. He approached Mick with no haste. It was as if they had a pact with time and they didn’t need to rush nor to pronounce the trite words that the lack of time obliges one to.
The man stood in front of Mick and said with a neutral tone of voice: “You have something that is mine.”
“I don’t have,” said Mick, his voice like a weak thread. He cleared his dry throat. “I don’t,” he started again.
“Give him some water, please,” the old man said.
Mick drank. The clear, cold water went through like a cutting edge.
“I can’t have it. I don’t have anything. Not whatever it is you think I have or any other thing. I’m what you could call poor.”
The old man gave a look to the man at Mick’s right.
“You do,” said this guy. “Maybe you haven’t realized. It’s a story. A short one. Kathleen gave it to you.”
It just dawned on Mick that he hadn’t even known her name.
“She told me about a story, but didn’t give it to me,” Mick said.
“Well, she certainly didn’t have it any more last time we spoke to her. And before… leaving us, well, she said that you have it. She was very convincing, in a situation that, let’s say, well, you know, is extremely difficult to elaborate…”
“Impossible,” said the other thug. And Mick thought that these two, unlike those other two at the entrance of the convenient store (it seemed like a very distant memory), were coldly synchronized.
“Impossible,” went on the first one, elaborating even the mimicry of a conviction.
“She was pretty convincing,” Mick said.
“Not that much,” said the second guy.
Meanwhile, the old man had been watching as if someone had invited him to have an experience alien to his own circumstance.
“Mr. Johnson, we’re sure within a margin of error of, say, less than one percent,” the old man said. “It would be much more civilized if you were to give me what was taken from me, so that I could go back to my affairs and these gentlemen, if they don’t have any previous obligations, can take you back to Manhattan. You are sort of a businessman, so you would recognize a one-time, insuperable offer when you are faced with one.”
Mick didn’t respond. Not because he was calculating a negotiation strategy, but because he seemed to have forgotten the words necessary to offer a response to the problem.
“Let me help him, sir,” said the second guy, “maybe he doesn’t understand refined pronunciation. Let’s see, you have something; that was already established; you have to give it back to its lawful owner. There’s no room to bargain.”
“I think that you might have been still very elevated for Mr. Johnson here. Well, you have something. And you have, besides that, your, well, life. You can hand that something to us and continue, well, doing what you do, or not.”
The words refused to come out. And suddenly he knew why. That piece of story was part of the hope he was building. He knew that without that or any piece that has already added to the canon-like story, everything else would again become those minuscule parts, devoid of any expectation, of spirit. His mind, detaching itself of the materiality of the body, was against the possibility of losing that ambition although in doing so it was condemning itself to death. He struggled against that insane plan. Just a phrase. Just put a couple of words together. He went as far as being able to think the word “Yes” and, after grueling effort, the phrase, “Yes, have it, please”.
But finally, from his mouth came out: “A past, Mr., is just that which everyone claims and denies at the same time at one point. I’m just doing you a favor by holding to it. You’ll eventually want to dissociate yourself from that specific piece of biography, and then, it would be difficult. Now is the time.”
“Who said story or past or any idiocy of the sort, you lunatic?” exploded the old man.
“What you have,” explained the second guy, “is a password. A very important password. It’s arranged in that particular way just to make it easier to remember. But for those uninitiated, it’s just a… story, nothing else. A made-up story.”
“I can’t. That piece is part of a story now. It’s a place to exist… And it is all I got…,” Mick said desperately, still fighting the demented, paradoxical urge to keep it over his life.
“What do we do, sir?” asked the second guy, looking astonished.
“Kill him. Besides being ineffectual, I abhor torture,” the old man said with calm brutality and started climbing the stairs as if he was taking the burden of a colossal loss.
Once he disappeared, the first guy said to Mick: “Come on man, don’t do this to us. Just give it back. We’ll get you something else.”
“I’d love to, but I can’t. I tried to voice the words but it’s impossible. I decided behind my own back,” Mick said.
“This is crazy,” the first guy said.
“You realize that you are creating a hell of a story right now, eh?” the second man asked.
“That’s right,” the first guy said. “Now, all we need to do is switch stories. You give as the one we need, you take this one instead with a few necessary adjustments. Just minutes ago, you were in a lose-lose situation. Well, now you can gain something. Well, hell of a something I would say.”
But Mick’s mind had already burnt every single bridge connecting with that situation, most importantly, with his own life. He thought of the plan with Horace and Alphonse. It could have been a good chance, he said to himself without sorrow. He closed his eyes and waited.
© Marcelo Wio