Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Teaser

EXCERPTS FROM MY UPCOMING EBOOK NOVELLA

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A man observing at the edge of the crowd nodded his head and began walking toward his car.

Within minutes the area became filled with police vehicles, the air bombarded by flashing blue lights and the sound of sirens. Overhead, helicopters.

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"What is it?" the well-dressed man asked.

"Don't know, Mr. Walters. Something big."

At that moment the doorman's phone began lighting up. Everyone's phone across the city, and beyond the city, overflowed with texts and calls. Those closest to the scene tweeted like mad.

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In a live television feed, from a camera in a helicopter, lines of blue cars converged on downtown from all directions.

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They stepped onto the blue plywood stage erected for the speech. Kathleen Kallan stood where the senator stood. Bloodstains on the painted stage appeared as dark purple splotches.

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Playing on the network was video of white men in green fatigues target shooting. A militia group indigenous to the state.

"This is very good," Lilly said. "People need good guys and bad guys."

On the video, a line of automatic weapons fired as one. Black barrels emit red flame. The men who fired looked fanatical. Wild men. Neanderthals. They looked dangerous.

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The man was heavy set, with a dark red goatee. A generic white radical, he would've been, except his brownish hair was too long and he had a piercing through one of his eyebrows. Anarchist?

Kathy realized the man stared not at the door, but inside himself. His left hand vibrated.

"Agitated," Kathleen noted.

She felt she looked into the fires of Hell.

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"The bullet entered from a slight angle. From the left, a few degrees, as the senator stood on stage facing the audience. The shooter in the garage was positioned almost straight on, but not quite.”

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"Personality is like a puzzle you look at," the psychologist said. "You never get one set answer. You get possible answers."

The lanky, neat-bearded man read to them from his own report.

"--narcissistic, schizophrenic, paranoid, persecution complex, guilt, self-hate--"

"Everyman," Rodney said.

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“Pale face, like he never went outside. Very white. Strange kind of white. The ultimate white guy. Held everything at arm's length. Not a revolutionary. I can guarantee you this dude was not a revolutionary."

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"I was in the explosion. In the fire. I was there. That's true. Why wasn't I killed? I should've been. My friends died. All of them. My team, interpreters, liaisons. Everybody. I was listed as one of the dead.”

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The senator's funeral dominated television screens across the nation for an entire day.

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"Irrationality," the aide said to himself.

The word wouldn't leave his mind. Tangible dark clouds gathered overhead, waiting outside. The moment of the shooting, the universe opened and revealed to him its irrationality.

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David Chu watched an editor put pieces of footage together. They viewed a segment on a monitor: a long-distance perspective of what the plaza looked like now-- cordoned-off; empty; calm-- followed by a close-up of a woman screaming immediately after the killing.

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“I put the rifle together and opened the window half way, preparing to take a comfortable position. I took a few sips of water from the water bottle.”

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"I had a perfect sight picture on the target. I centered on the head. The trigger squeezed like butter.”

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Sunday, September 9, 2012

“Hoppenngger House”

A POP STORY

Cynthia Stone was in a straitjacket. She sat in the chair where attendants left her, outside a gray doored office. A steady echo of voices reverberated off the ceiling and floor. Footsteps multiplied, compounding on top of each other so to become indistinct. Doctors walked back and forth in front of Cynthia as if she didn’t exist.

“Has your admittance card been filled out?” a burly black woman dressed in blue demanded of Cynthia.

Cynthia Stone didn’t reply, didn’t know the answer to the question. The woman’s crimson tinged eyes frowned at Cynthia. She shook her head and walked away. This was some kind of state hospital for the insane. The tiled walls were pale yellow. Oppressively shiny. The only windows had bars over them. People screamed in the distance. They were in this place for a reason, as was Cynthia Stone. Cynthia had tried to kill herself by drowning in her bathtub. She’d been taken to a hospital afterward, where she tried to jump out the third floor window of her room. Then she was brought here. Cynthia didn’t know why they bothered—if she wanted to kill herself that was her business, this was still a free country, wasn’t it?

A gruff-looking sheriff’s deputy with a yellow-red walrus moustache strode down the hall, glancing for a moment at Cynthia, his glance one of contempt. This was the enemy, Cynthia thought in her mind. A young storm trooper, representative of the police state. “You’re evil, you trample on the people, this isn’t a free country anymore, you’re a pawn of Big Brother, you won’t even let someone kill herself if she wants,” Cynthia said to the man. Or rather, she thought she said this to him. Her mouth opened but no words came out. The fascist cop had probably come to aid in her destruction, Cynthia believed, until she saw him stop a tall, bearded, professorial man in glasses and a white coat.

“Doctor, we need to talk,” the sheriff’s deputy said to the white-coated man.

Their conversation took place in front of her. Pieces of words fell. Cynthia abstracted the information that the deputy’s name was Rakowski and the doctor was Dr. Norman Hoppenngger, leading specialist for the hospital. Cynthia focused slowly on what the two men discussed. Words and phrases began to make sense. They debated a new program of the doctor’s—and whether a person named Parker Kirby should be entered into it.

“It’s not just the people he killed,” Deputy Rakowski told the doctor. “It’s the gruesome way he did it. I saw the results. People were dismembered. Shocking things were done to their heads, their eyes. . . . I don’t enjoy talking about it. Parker Kirby is a brutal person. He should never be put into human society. He’ll kill again. It’s easy for him. He loves to kill.”

Dr. Hoppenngger’s mouth turned down and he blinked several times in agitation. “I’m sorry you feel that way, Deputy,” he said. “Let me remind you that I’m the expert on this subject. You’re a layman who sees people at their worst, and makes no attempt to understand them.”

The doctor stared at a clipboard, making an effort to control himself, so upset he couldn’t continue. His lower lip quivered. The pencil in his hand vibrated. After several minutes he looked again at the deputy.

“I wish you would read about the new program. We have a very thorough description of it in a handout you can pick up at the front desk when you leave. Believe me, I’ve put a lot of work and research into this project. More than that, I’ve put my heart and my soul.”

“Tell me about it, then, Doctor,” Rakowski said in an arrogant way.

The very appearance of the deputy, the badge, the uniform, the gun, was oppressive. Cynthia Stone felt sympathy for Dr. Hoppenngger, who looked about to stalk off in fury. Instead he pointed a shaking finger at the smug lawman.

“This new program is intended to develop the human, artistic side of these individuals, Deputy. We can’t blame them for their actions. The way these individuals turned out is because of society. All of us, you, me, are to blame. Their environment is to blame. Change the environment and you change the person. That’s the concept behind Hoppenngger House. You should see the location. You really should. I invite you to. The trees, water, shore. We’ve taken over a large  historic house overlooking the ocean, with a long, curving beach. This is where our artists will renew themselves. Quite a peaceful setting. Men and women will be reborn there. Regenerated. It’s beautiful. You should see it. You really must. I recommend you do.”

“Parker Kirby is one of your artists, I suppose,” Rakowski asked.

“Parker has special, unique qualities,” Dr. Hoppenngger said. “You’d be surprised. He has innate, precious talents that should be brought out, if for no other reason than for the good of the world. Oh, I know how you work. I know how your kind thinks. your mind is fueled by resentment and jealousy. You would destroy parker. His talents would be wasted. But we do not waste people here, Deputy. We rehabilitate them. They are not garbage, not human refuse. No, Deputy. No!”

With that Dr. Hoppenngger swiveled and marched off. His departing, angry footsteps mingled with the drum of other discordant sounds. The jumble of noises roared like waves into Cynthia Stone’s ears. The sheriff’s deputy touched the holstered revolver at his side, glanced at Cynthia in her straitjacket, laughed, then departed.

The flow of time resumed its nonsensical course. The conversation she overheard became a fragment of many disjointed sights and sounds filtering in to Cynthia’s senses. Dark-suited officials passed, doctors, a priest, other patients, no one noticing her. She was forgotten. Then round-faced orderlies surrounded her. Hands grabbed. The straitjacket was removed. She was given a shot and put into a room. A very dark room. Cynthia wondered what had been given her. She fell asleep.

The next thing Cynthia remembered, she sat in an office in a chair, not in a straitjacket. Bright daylight streamed in through a wire mesh window. Part of the light fell on her hand. Tentatively, she enjoyed it. How long had she been in a state of amnesia, she wondered? That’s what it must have been, because the last several days were a haze to her, a kaleidoscope of red, yellow, and white colors making little sense. A man with a beard, a white coat and a benign expression on his face sat at a massive square desk directly in front of her. The man didn’t say a word. His eyebrows raised, waiting for a response. Behind him a green plant stole the pleasant yellow light from the window.

“I had a nervous breakdown,” Cynthia said to Dr. Hoppenngger.

“If you wish to describe it as such that’s okay,” the doctor told her. “Actually, it was something more than a breakdown, it was a psychotic episode, but I see that your mind does not want to accept the truth of what happened so we’ll call it a nervous breakdown, yes, we can settle for that.”

The doctor flipped sheets of paper quickly on a clipboard, his voice at the same time in an unreal monotone reciting Cynthia’s schedule of medication, “. . . milligrams, Thorazine . . . twice a day, ten milligrams . . . once a day . . . Haldol . . . Darvon . . . Mellaril . . . Prozac . . .Librium . . . Limbitrol . . . five milligrams . . . yes,” were some of the more intelligible words honing in to her.

An ashtray with bevelled corners sat on the imposing desk, the ashtray’s glass angles playing with the light. Cynthia stared at the square ashtray, fascinated, transfixed. The ashtray was the level of the world she was at now. To comprehend meaning in anything more than that small object was beyond her.

A door opened. A woman whose blue plastic identity card read “Therapist” walked in and she and the doctor began to talk about Parker Kirby.

“That awful deputy is protesting Mr. Kirby’s transfer,” the prim woman informed Dr. Hoppenngger.

“Narrow minded provincial bureaucratic goon,” the doctor snorted, weakly punching a stack of forms on his desk. “I’m sick of his paperwork and delaying tactics, and his professed concern for the ‘victim.’ Parker Kirby is the victim—that’s what I can’t make that uniformed clown see. He wishes to sacrifice art because of the lives of a few insignificant insects, two or three of 300 million mediocrities and destroy the solitary artist—that’s what the sheriff’s office would have us do, Ms. Glemp. Perhaps because they see themselves in those faceless anonymities they’re so worried about?”

The doctor and therapist chuckled together at their private joke. Then the therapist was gone and the doctor faced Cynthia. He removed his heavy eyeglasses. His face took on a wry, unblinking, self-satisfied smirk.

“Uh, yes. Miss Stone. Well, now—yes. Mm huh.”

His face scrunched. A facial muscle twitched beneath his eye.

“Er, yes. I’ve been reading your file. I believe there’s hope for you. You seem to be a sensitive person. In your being there are truth-seeking qualities we need to bring out. Potential is buried beneath that untrod, mundane exterior. You have possibilities, definite possibilities, um, yes.”

Sunlight narrowed. A clock moved. Orderlies came. Cynthia left the office feeling worried. She didn’t know what the doctor had been talking about, was afraid he had expectations she’d not be able to meet. She found her gray clothed body put into a dark blue room where shadows gathered ominously in corners. Cynthia sat gently on the properly made bed, afraid to bother it. She sat without moving, waiting for something to happen.

Many days passed, or an hour. Cynthia was taken out of the dark room and put in another room and told to eat. The bright light in this new room shattered her eyes. Pieces of her eyeballs fell into her head. An artery in her brain throbbed. The top of the table she sat at was formica green. Vague fleshy items and plant materials rested on the table. Cynthia had nothing against plants. “Eat!” a voice rattled inside her ear. Her conscience? She couldn’t eat. Later she was taken back to the dark room and told to sleep. Cynthia sat in a corner on the cool floor and felt the unmoving walls. She liked this room.

Her life became a routine, one of eating and sleeping, or actually, not doing either, pretending to do both. Then she discovered the day room, which contained a television. Cynthia sat in the day room watching the television bounce interesting colors and scratchy noise off pink walls. The images made no sense. She spent all day watching television.

“I suppose that’s why they call this the day room,” she said to a red-faced man sitting next to her.

The man’s eyes stared in fright.

“Suppose? No, we don’t suppose, we can’t suppose, not here, not now, we don’t suppose anything, we can’t use that word, suppose, it’s unequivocal, it’s unsafe, it’s unsafe . . . ,” he continued, but Cynthia was again watching television.

Or affecting to. Really she was trying to figure out how to be like the other inmates. Her behavior differed in marked ways from the standard.

For instance: everyone except Cynthia tried to bum cigarettes off one another, involved in a perpetual hustle. Cynthia didn’t understand the motivation for cigarettes. Those fiery demons terrified her.

Or, other inmates told their life histories, to themselves, to the television, pointless selfish descriptions of trifles or elaborate, distorted, surrealistic other-planet tales that weren’t true, couldn’t possibly be true, could they, she wondered? The green table stared at her face. She went into her room.

Night. The hospital silent. A barred window shifted in front of her. Outside spread the ivy-covered brick wings of the hospital. The black sky plunged down, sweeping across unmoving lawns. Drops of rain fell onto the glass.

Cynthia walked down the corridor, had lost her way. The access to the last room revealed a heavy steel door covered with padlocks. Parker Kirby resided inside. This was the end of the hallway, the ultimate destination, what the world of the hospital led to. The darkest part of the soul. Distant sounds reverberated within, threats, muttering, crazed laughter, the pounding of walls, Parker slamming them with his body. Cynthia’s feet shuffled fast and she returned to her own room.

“What’s your racket?” another patient asked her one morning, a short, dark haired, thick browed man named Robert Cerano.

“What?” Cynthia Stone said.

They both sat at a small table in the coffee room. Above in the ceiling hovered dust covered yellow lights protected by iron cages. Tiny bugs scattered across the lights. A row of blue-red vending machines hummed mechanically against a wall to the side. Brown coffee belched from one of the machines, knocking a rolling wax coated paper cup onto the square tiled floor. Robert’s face pushed close.

“You know, your racket,” he said. “What are you taking up? I’m going to be a sculptor. I kind of like the idea of working with clay. I figure it might free the creative juices.”

“I don’t understand.”

Robert Cerano looked at her as if she were thoroughly dense.

“You know, the new program Doc Hopp is setting up. Hoppenngger House. You have to be an artist to get into it. I figure I can be an artist. Anything to get out of this place. Parker Kirby is leaving for the house today. They’re letting him out of his padded cell. I figure if he can go there I should be able to. After all, I didn’t kill three people—I only tried to strangle one. The Doc wants sensitive patients. Hell, I can be sensitive.”

Robert Cerano stood up.

“Better find yourself a racket if you want to get out of here,” he told Cynthia, pointing his finger. “But stay away from sculpting—that’s mine.”

Struggling noise bounced in from the corridor. The atmosphere in the coffee room tightened. Robert paused, listened.

“Here comes Kirby now,” Robert said with a malicious leer. “Going to watch?”

Robert disappeared. From down the hall came the sound of dragging feet. With curiosity Cynthia Stone stood and edged herself to the doorway. Four of the largest attendants led a straitjacketed figure, moving steadily toward Cynthia’s location. Bridled force flowed from the bound person like electrical current. Cynthia saw the face of the man: handsome, with penetrating blue eyes and a flushed complexion. Parker Kirby had yellow hair, a smiling mouth with gleaming ivory teeth and a thick neck corded with muscle. The ominous parade approached, forbidding, inevitable. Suddenly the tall presence of Dr. Hoppenngger appeared from a doorway and raised his hand, halting the procession.

“What is this?” he demanded. “Is this man to be treated like some beast? He’ll leave here freed of constraints. We liberate people here, not enslave them. Remove the straitjacket.”

The attendants looked uncertainly at one another. The doctor’s lips narrowed. The attendants did as he ordered. Their hands unbuckled straps, loosening the canvas restraint. When the straitjacket was off, Parker Kirby rubbed his wrists, flexed the muscles in his shoulders and neck, a satisfied expression over his face. Like a new man he seemed to inhale from the air and world around him. His entire being radiated power and health. He stood with a sense of triumph at his new freedom.

“Thanks, Doc,” he said.

Then he walked down the hall toward the heavy doors of the exit, attendants following behind.

The opening of the vacation house caused a flurry of excitement among the longer term residents of the hospital, which created satisfaction in Dr. Hoppenngger.

“These distressed people have no purpose in life, so I have provided it for them,” he bragged to the hospital staff.

Inmates strained their imaginations to develop interests that would attract the doctor’s attention. Cynthia Stone couldn’t think of an artistic endeavor to adopt, but was such a sensitive person the doctor discovered one for her.

“You are a writer, Miss Stone,” he told her at one of their sessions. “It’s in your nature. You have the innate qualities to be a writer, you must only bring them out. And you will. Believe me, I’m an authority on such matters.”

Every day after that Cynthia Stone sat at a table and thought of being a writer. She thought of other things also, about what led her to be placed in this institution.

Cynthia Stone was a shy young woman, twenty years old, extremely thin, with long, straight brown hair and a pale gray complexion. Her problem was that she didn’t know how to talk to other people, couldn’t make contact with them. She’d been raised by elderly grandparents and never left the house much, never developed interests or friends. In school she was the quiet child nobody noticed. Then she went away to college, with its social pressures. Her roommate, feeling sorry for her, set her up on a blind date. The evening was a disaster. So nervous she felt sick to her stomach, Cynthia was unable to make conversation, unable to look at the young man. They went to a restaurant. Cynthia didn’t touch her pricey food. The evening’s highlight came when she spilled her drink over the table and onto her date. His expression said, “How did I get talked into this?”

He found amusement about the date afterward though, because it became a topic of conversation around her dorm—Cynthia Stone the target of stories and jokes. The classrooms, halls, cafeteria—the campus—became unbearable for her. She left the school three weeks later, returning to the old house with the elderly grandparents. They were mystified at her return, and tried to get her to go back to the college. “I can’t,” she said, hiding in her room, withdrawing further from reality. Cynthia thought of drowning in water, how pleasant that’d be. A week after her return from college she tried to kill herself. That was how she ended here. At least she was lucid enough now to remember all of it.

The month after parker Kirby’s exit, Dr. Hoppenngger called Cynthia into his office and asked if she wanted to join his new program. She stared blankly at him, trying to decipher his question. To her his words were meaningless pieces of data lost amid the muddled minutiae of his office.

“You’ve improved,” the doctor told her as he tore apart his pen, his eyes looking disdainfully at the window. “You’re more in touch with the world now. You’re ready for change. I feel if we maximize your leisure time it will lead to a flowering of your talents. You need to relax, need an opportunity to build up your thoughts. A new environment will do wonders for you.”

Cynthia thought of the hospital, the shattering step it would be to leave this heavy-walled place. Life imposes impossible choices. The unassailable presence of the anointed expositor of established opinion focused upon her, dictating her answer.

“Okay,” she agreed, with a sigh. “I guess . . . I think . . . I’ll go.”

Her large, round eyes gazed around herself.

“I’m tired of these cold walls.”

The next morning a woman attendant drove Cynthia in a white state-owned van to her new residence. The reckless danger of automobiles, of speeding, mad-hurtling vehicles, of a road passing under tires—concrete and asphalt rocketing beneath the floorboards under Cynthia’s feet; all the destructive facts of civilization incensed her. She thought she must protest, instead watched the uncaring woman who casually turned while eating a sugary snack the large black steering wheel of the van.

“I don’t know how you rate,” the woman said above the whining of a motor, the rattling of windows and doors. “Get into trouble and you get to live in a big house by the ocean. Screw up and get rewarded for it. What a world!”
Cynthia didn’t respopnd, but hung onto an armrest. The winding road took them through a series of jagged cliffs, then sloped downward. Cool, fresh air seeped in through windows. Cynthia saw the blue expanse of water, beyond a shimmering orange beach. The sight was removed, as the van curved to the left past a row of tall evergreens. A pink, many-storied Victorian house swung suddenly into view, resting above the beach like a magical castle. The ocean shivered behind it. Large, gnarled trees the color of the now gray sand were next to the malformed wooden structure.

“HOPPENNGGER HOUSE,” read a newly painted white sign with black letters on a black iron fence.

The van halted at the end of a drive inside an opening in the gate. Blue painted steps led up to a burgundy door.

“This is the place,” the wide-faced driver told Cynthia. “Follow me. I’ll get you settled.”

They stepped out, Cynthia’s feet glad to be on solid ground. The attendant led Cynthia into the house and up polished wood stairs to her room.

“You’ll be on your own here,” the woman said as she opened heavy curtains to allow light into the dusty room, revealing a wood floor, tall wood furniture and a large, canopied bed. “Make your own schedule. That’s the way the doctor wants it. He must think highly of you. You’re next door to the star pupil.”

The attendant snorted, then left. Cynthia Stone stared at the patterned walls of her new home. The walls reeked of tradition and age. Her eighty year-old grandmother might’ve once lived in such a room. For the first time in her life Cynthia felt close to her grandmother. She recalled a yellowed black-and-white photograph of the woman at eighteen, a slender creature in a white dress, with dark eyes and soft, delicate skin. At that age they were much like each other, Cynthia realized, except her grandmother had possessed a core of strength, evident in her person, unmistakable even through the photograph.

Cynthia walked through the room. She touched the top of a narrow chest of drawers. The house she lived in with her grandparents was not nearly as old as this one, had been built in the nineteen-forties, yet Cynthia’s rooms in both houses, despite their differences, felt very much the same. On top of the chest of drawers in her other room, though, had rested a black-covered Bible. Atop these drawers existed nothing.

She stepped into the hallway. The door to the next room stood open. As Cynthia glanced in she saw the white-shirted back of a man working furiously at an easel, with a brush splashing shocking red splotches of color across the canvas. The mood of the picture was one of chaos, of anger. Cynthia drifted into the room, mesmerized by the lines and swirls, the emotion depicted. The message attracted her. Parker Kirby turned to face her, his eyes gleaming.

“Hello,” he said. “You must be the new inmate of this . . . asylum. I see you’re admiring my painting. Doesn’t it show the futility of existence? Doesn’t it express perfectly the absolute pointlessness of life, the awful injustice of the world? No one should have to endure such injustice. Better to escape from it. Don’t you agree?”

“S-sure,” Cynthia stammered with effort.

Cynthia said nothing more and Parker’s expression began to change from that of exuberance to one of uncertain hostility.

“I like your painting,” Cynthia told him, and Parker became happy again, turning with more forcefulness to his work.

“Not a painting. Art,” he said, sweeping a broad red line across the entirety of it, while Cynthia escaped to her room.

She soon discovered there were as yet only four permanent residents of the house: Parker, Robert Cerano, an attendant named Igor, and herself. Igor wasn’t the attendant’s real name. He’d been named Igor by Parker because of his hulking, slope shouldered appearance. The designation so fit that even Dr. Hoppenngger took to calling him that. In actuality Igor was more a servant than an attendant. Whenever Cynthia saw him he was lugging canvas and supplies up to Parker Kirby’s room.

The doctor visited his new clinic every day for several hours, to counsel his patients and to observe the overall activity of his program. Various therapists and experts were also frequently in and out of the house. This was to be Dr. Hoppenngger’s demonstration to the world that people were intrinsically good. Provide the correct setting, and evil would cease to exist.

Her first week, Cynthia Stone was unsure what to do with herself. The sessions with the doctor and the other professionals were the only thing that gave her days form. The rest of the time she spent downstairs in the kitchen nibbling carrots—Cynthia had always been the most birdlike of eaters—or upstairs staring out the window of her rosewood-smelling room. The upper levels were as Cynthia imagined they’d always been, quaint, fragile, with frilly lampshades and fringed rugs, push button lights, ornate woodwork over doorways and blue-pink pitchers of water on tables: a peaceful setting. The first floor had been remodeled into stark, utilitarian modernity, everything white and bare, particularly two large offices that were intended to be eventually used by Hoppenngger and his staff. At the back of the house—by the kitchen, where Cynthia spent most of her time—a pair of sliding glass doors had been put in. Outside, Cynthia knew, stirred the sandy beach and the ocean. Though the doors were unlocked and she was free to roam the grounds as she pleased, the world frightened her.

At night she lay awake listening to the sound of the ever-pounding surf. She heard other things—products of her imagination, she believed. A high-pitched laugh. Someone walking outside with heavy footsteps, circling the house again and again. Anxious pacing in the hallway on the other side of the door to her room. The knob handle on the door to her room turning, turning—but nothing happening. The turning would stop. The person would go away.

While in daytime bright sunlight would stream in toward her, the glow from the water and the beach, Cynthia would stay inside, away from it.

Among the projects Dr. Hoppenngger tried on his three patients was a new idea intended to “prepare them for life in the outside world,” as he put it, as if their release into society were soon to be realized. The doctor constructed mock situations for each individual, to simulate reality. With Cynthia this consisted of pretending to be in a store asking for products from a therapist playing the part of a shopgirl, while the doctor observed intently.

“I need: toothpaste,” Cynthia said tentatively. “And soap.”

“That will be two-ninety-five,” the shopgirl/therapist said.

Cynthia pretended to give the woman money and receive change in return. She put the imaginary change into her imaginary purse.

“Good, good,” Hoppenngger exclaimed, pleased with her and with himself. “You see how you can adapt to life when you put your mind to it? You’re making progress.”

The others did well at the mock situations also. Cynthia overheard Dr. Hoppenngger tell the therapist: “Parker Kirby always does fine at these examinations. It proves he’s cured. Who says he’s not ready for the outside world?”

Cynthia Stone wanted to believe she was making progress. She became so convinced of it that one morning she built up her courage and stepped out of the house. The moving blue ocean lay ahead of her. Cynthia walked to the amber colored beach and sat down, putting her hand into the warm sand. She wanted to go farther and touch the water, wanted to drown in it. She couldn’t swim and was afraid of the ocean, yet at the same time, attracted to it.

When she wandered back to the house she noticed a black and white police car parked in front. Cynthia couldn’t explain why those vehicles frightened her. Probably because they represented the impersonal, authoritarian state. Probably because she’d been taken away in one. Inside, Dr. Hoppenngger showed Rakowski, the swaggering sheriff’s deputy, around the house.

“he’s the most savage, brutal kind of animal,” Rakowski said. “When you consider the pleasure he took in what he did to his victims’ bodies after they were dead—“

They argued about Parker Kirby.

“Of course, he was out of his mind, “ the doctor said in a sarcastic tone. “But let’s not take that into consideration. Let’s not allow rationality to intrude into this discussion.”

Cynthia followed the two men as they walked upstairs. Dr. Hoppenngger took the deputy into a large room where light streamed through windows. Robert Cerano stood at a table working with clay with his hands, forming an impressive, unrecognizable blob.

“This man is sculpting,” the doctor said. “See the joy and pleasure he obtains from this, how his aggression is channeled into art?”

Robert paid no heed to his visitors, totally absorbed in his work, adopting the role of intense craftsman. To Cynthia it seemed he was fooling around.

“What’s the name of the piece,” the deputy asked Robert Cerano.

“I call it ‘Man and His Environment.’ It represents the struggle of mankind through the centuries against the forces of greed and selfishness. Notice the tension evident of the dynamic forces as they transmogrify the world, and us!”

He stepped back to admire his work. The grayish amorphous mound of clay sat mute on the newspaper covered table.

“Good, good,” the doctor said, a smile on his face.

“We have another Michaelangelo here,” Rakowski said.

He and the doctor stepped toward the next room, Cynthia trailing after from a distance. The deputy bristled, hesitating when he noticed Parker Kirby at his easel. Then he carefully followed the fearless doctor into the room.

Parker’s large chest expanded as he painted, sweat streaming down his reddened face, upon which was an arrogant smile. On the canvas in front of him glowered grotesque green and gray faces. While outside the room Rakowski’s expression had been different, now he went close to Parker, inches away, appraising the work, his attitude one of callous indifference. His hand, however, remained close to his revolver.

“Parker is truly an artist,” Dr. Hoppenngger exclaimed admiringly. “This is in oils. He works in acrylics also. He’s turned out some amazing works.”

The deputy must think them disturbing works, Cynthia thought to herself. Her foot brushed against the hard wood floor. Dr. Hoppenngger noticed her behind them and glared at her. Cynthia scampered to her place at a desk in her own room.

The voices of the doctor and Parker Kirby debating the significance of Parker’s work drifted to her.

Parker: “This work exemplifies the incapability of knowledge, the irrelevance of it in a disordered, irrational world.”

Doctor: “No, no, no, you’re wrong. What this work admits IS knowledge. Knowledge breathes through the very fiber and texture of it, the knowledge that the world is disordered and irrational, we are, after all, incapable of knowing and understanding it, the canvas shouts the difficulty of making any true statement. The knowledge of that is what we’re talking about.”

Bored with the conversation, Rakowski strolled into Cynthia’s room.

“Hi,” he nodded.

Cynthia was too shy to reply. She stared rigidly at a tablet of paper in front of her. The deputy stepped behind to see what she was working on. The tablet was blank; Cynthia couldn’t think of anything to write. She raised her eyebrows defensively. Rakowski shrugged his shoulders and whistled, a skeptical, humorous expression on his face. Cynthia remembered how much she hated police officers.

“Keep up the work,” the deputy said as he strolled from the room.

The visit of the sheriff’s deputy added an air of tension to the occupants of the house. Or rather, Cynthia Stone began to notice a tension which had always been present. The tension was expressed by the wild look in Robert Cerano’s eyes, by his sudden bursts of anger with the clay: “I hate you, I can’t take this anymore, the whole world is crazy, yes—it is—yes, ha, ha ha ha ha ha . . . ,” as he scattered clay across the room. It was expressed in Parker Kirby’s vacant stare at his own hands, in his pacing at night back and forth in his room, again and again, then his door opening, footsteps in the hallway, down the stairs, the sound of running outside on the beach. One night Cynthia built up her courage and looked out her window to the ground below, peering carefully through a thin crack in her curtains so she would not  be noticed. Her hand moved the curtain slowly. Over the span of five minutes, a fraction of an inch. Her heart beat in anticipation of the sight. The moon glowed. Parker was no longer running. He stood looking up at the window to his own room, shaking his fist at it, his face contorted with furied hate.

The next day as Cynthia Stone sat in the downstairs kitchen with her tablet, four words on it-- “Cold, black, running night”—Parker Kirby came up behind her, a confident grin on his face. He wore a new gray and yellow jogging outfit. One of his hands was behind his back, as if hiding something. With his other he took Cynthia’s thin arm in his powerful grip. Cynthia realized how strong Parker was, how easily he could kill her.

“Get a look at this,” he said, his eyes sparkling.

He pulled his other arm out to reveal how he’d sharpened the wooden ends of his brushes into dangerous weapons.

“Pretty good, huh?” he said. “The doc doesn’t know. He’s not so smart. Not half as smart as he thinks he is. The great doctor! The brilliant genius! The renowned intellectual! He’s not so smart, I tell you.”

Parker paused and looked with amazement at his sharpened brushes. His grip on them unconsciously tightened. Several of the brushes crumpled and fell in pieces to the floor. Parker Kirby was the strongest person Cynthia had ever seen. Powerfully built, his insanity multiplied his natural strength several times over. Crazy indeed would be anyone who’d seek to get in his way. Parker released the hold on Cynthia’s arm. He touched her long hair and her face—his pale blue eyes studying her. He smiled, put his head back and strolled from the room, returning upstairs.

That night Cynthia Stone filled with foreboding. She twisted back and forth on the canopied bed. Furnishings—a chest of drawers, a mirror—became huge. The room zoomed in upon her. Cynthia had a dream.

She fell, deep, lost in dark purple water. Slow waves beat across her face. Her mind froze. Blood cut off to her brain; she felt the gentle disconnection. Her body dropped away from  her, into an endless blue pit. Cynthia wanted it back. “Please,” she said. She looked up, toward fractured rays of light floating far on top  of the surface. She peeked into one of these rays like a spy, saw the green tiled bathroom she’d tried to kill herself in. Straps tied her. Surging black water enveloped her. As dark purple color rushed over her eyes and the world became silent, her soul cried out in despair, was lost, would never come back. All that remained: nothing. Depression. Void. The world ended. Two people were talking.

Yellow light flooded into her face. Cynthia sat up, wondered what time it was, how long she’d slept. A hum of distant sounds disquieted her. Her throat was dry. She tried to wake up.

The doctor was here, in the next room. Cynthia recognized his self-important voice. He debated something with Parker Kirby. Cynthia arose and stepped into the hallway to listen.

“We understand nothing in this world,” Dr. Hoppenngger said. “And so we cannot judge anything. You ask for an opinion of this particular work and I cannot give you one. You ask me to do that which I am unable to do. I can only tell you what this chaotic collage represents to me, my subjective experience of it, which to me is a positive statement that we do not really know, knowledge is fleeting, unknowable, unrealizable. Only the knowledge that we can’t know.”

“You understand nothing,” Parker Kirby said. “You know nothing.”

The sudden verbal assault disconcerted Dr. Hoppenngger. His voice took on an attitude of scholarly offense” “Well now, yes, wel-l . . . , no, yes, well, hm . . . , no, I must say, no.”

Cynthia stepped closer, to hear better. The room came into view. The two men stood facing each other in the studio-like work area. Both glanced sideways at a large canvas covered with vomit-like paint. The picture looked intentionally ugly. Offensive. The worst of the world, life, humanity. Violent. Bleak. The doctor’s arms were folded in a condescending manner, a pinched expression on his face. Parker Kirby wore a white, paint-splattered coat. Igor was in the room also, against the other wall, glancing out the window with his hands behind his back, not understanding what the two men talked about, not caring. The door to the room was partly open, so that Cynthia could see into the light-filled room while unseen in the shadowed hallway.

“To me, this painting is an affirmation of sanity in an insane world,” the doctor said. “Your triumph against it. It accepts no reality beyond that experienced by your mind. The painting is sane, and the world is not.”

“You’re all wet,” parker told him. “you contradict yourself on a daily basis. it shows you don’t know what you’re talking about. I can prove it. If I’m still crazy you’re wrong about this painting. If I’m crazy then everything you and this house stand for is wrong. Well, I’m crazy.”

Dr. Hoppenngger blinked, confused.

“Yes, if,” he finally said. “But I know that you’re not. You know that you’re not.”

Hoppenngger said this, but looked at Parker, as if not sure. The gesture of uncertainty angered Parker Kirby.

“Where’s your faith in me, Doc?” Parker demanded. “I don’t see it.”

As she listened, Cynthia felt squeamish tension rise inside her.

“Of course I have faith in you,” the doctor insisted. “That’s why you’re here.”

“You’ve never had faith in me,” Parker said. “To you I’m not a human, not an equal. I’m a toy, a puppet. You use me. You use me and the others to show your superiority, but all you care about is yourself. You’re a parasite who feeds on people such as myself who have the power of life.”

Parker’s fists clenched. His voice choked, as if he wanted to cry.

“You drain me, Doc-tor. You drain my energy. You feed on my uniqueness, drawing talent out of my pores. I feel it. You exploit the creativity of the artist. You’re not an artist, so you live through people who are.”

“I made you an artist,” Hoppenngger said. “I can unmake you. I make the definitions. I decide what you are.”

To this Parker put his hand through the canvas they’d been talking about, ripping to shreds his masterpiece.

“If you don’t quiet down I’ll have Igor restrain you,” Dr. Hoppenngger said, visibly dismayed at what had been done to the painting.

Igor turned from the window. Parker Kirby laughed.

“I’m an artist—an artist of violence,” Parker said to the doctor in a surprisingly calm voice. “And you’re a violence groupie. You love to hang around people who’ve done violent acts. We’re your heroes, because we’ve done the things you secretly wish you could do yourself.”

Parker Kirby removed one of the sharpened brushes from under his white coat. Igor instinctively took one step toward him. Parker stabbed Igor, then wrapped his arm around the man’s head and broke his neck. The body fell into a corner like a broken doll. This took little more than a second.

“Now, come, stop this, I insist,” the doctor said. “I command you halt byour rambunctiousness this instant.”

Parker grinned and began to advance on the doctor, taking more of the long, deadly brushes from under his coat. Hoppenngger stood frozen, his eyes large behind his eyeglasses, the glasses steaming. A look of naked fear appeared on his face.

“What’s the matter, Doc?” Parker Kirby asked. “You love violence so much. Now here’s your chance. Now’s the time for some violence.”

He thrust his arm forward several times. Splashes of blood sprayed, like the splotches of Parker’s work. The black bristled tips of paintbrushes stuck out of the doctor’s head and his neck. Dr. Hoppenngger began to fall. Parker held him up, removed his eyeglasses and looked at the eyes as he withdrew from his coat one more sharpened weapon.

“So you can see clearly,” Parker said in a happy way.

Cynthia pulled herself along the halls, foun d the stairway and stumbled downstairs. The shock of vision untethered her mind. Her hands held onto walls. Robert Cerano sat in the kitchen stuffing his face with food.

“Hey, what’s the racket up there?” Robert complained as food fell out of his mouth.

Cynthia knew she should warn him, but was unable to speak. The upstairs horror distorted the world. An image of the doctor hovered near, paintbrushes sticking out of him. Cynthia bumped into glass. She hesitated, opened the sliding door and stepped with bare feet onto warm sand.

Something impelled her to try to run, a sense of danger, of urgency. She had maybe five minutes, ten at the most, perhaps less, had to gain a head start. Cynthia knew that now that Parker was killing again he’d kill everyone who came into his path. She knew Parker had wanted to kill her yesterday, when they spoke and he showed her his brushes. He knew then that soon he’d be murdering her, gained pleasure from the thought. Cynthia walked faster than she ever believed she could. She tried to run, her feet were heavy in the sand, they sunk—she stumbled, fell, cried in desperation as she pulled herself to her feet. She didn’t want to die, not like that! If only she could gain a hiding place, to be out of sight when he stepped from the house. A mile away; yes, that might do it. She glanced back at the misshapen wooden structure. Parker Kirby was inside, doing his terrible work. His art. A spot of red appeared on the sliding glass door, like paint on a canvas. Cynthia pushed herself desperately along the beach, her feet already tired. Ahead were trees, steps, a path to the road. Yes. She needed time. She knew now in her heart she definitely did not want to want to die.

A feeling brushed her hair, she looked behind, it was him, dressed in his new gray and yellow jogging costume, a distant figure moving inexorably on the beach, running forward, coming for her.

“No, please no,” Cynthia screamed.

The bright spotlight of the sun—the world—was upon her, she was exposed to him, revealed, shown in full color, every part of her displayed by the white blaze of blinding light. She had a significant lead, in no way what she wanted. Parker took pleasure in the challenge. Cynthia sensed his long strides, rapidly closing the gap. She was running now as hard as she could but it was futile, pitiful against his bounding, joyous leaps. Parker Kirby reeked with happiness. More death lay ahead!

Then he was suddenly close, she saw his eager face, the yellow stripes on his jogging sweatshirt, the gleam in his eyes, red splatters of blood on his forehead. Cynthia ran into the water, would rather drown than be dismembered, than have her limbs pulled from her body, her eyes poked out. She envisioned her death, wished it were over, thought how terrible those final moments would be. Then—his breath, bearing down upon her. His voice-- “Cynthia, I’m coming, Cynthia, I’m coming for you.” He was in the water. His superhuman energy took him in one great leap after her but he slipped and fell. Cynthia ran onto the sand.

“Cynthia,” he said, laughing, exhilarated by the chase. His mood changed in a millisecond. Naked rage appeared on his face. “Cynthia!” he cried, he was running hard now after her and a single scream of ringing terror echoed through her brain, “No, no,” she said, he should be grabbing her and crushing her existence in his hands, but something else appeared on the beach, black, wide, a round red light on its top.

A police car hurtled forward at astounding speed; even Parker was surprised by it. He turned to face the monstrous metal vehicle. The car slid on the sand and stopped. Rakowski stepped out. Parker laughed and ran at the deputy, would tear him to pieces, Rakowski struggled for his holster, his revolver, having underestimated the distance between them, the ability of Parker to make it up. Cynthia turned her head, couldn’t witness that again, only wished the nightmare was over. A shot rang out, a quick pop, sharp, dividing the air. Cynthia turned, saw Parker running forward, a crazed madman, Rakowski facing him in a crouched position, weapon in both hands, the barrel of the revolver lowering, Parker three feet away. Another shot, gray smoke, a red mark on Parker’s back, alongside another, he reached, grasped, fell, tumbling face forward onto white sand. His expression showed a combination of emotions: surprise, fear, longing, relief. He tried to rise, the muscles in his arm twitched, then ceased. His energy faded off, disappearing for good. The world balanced.

Rakowski put his revolver away, after looking at it in puzzlement, then walked toward where Cynthia lay sprawled among footprints of sand. He wanted to say something, but was unable to. He gasped with emotion, could not catch his breath. Behind him stretched a clear blue sky.

“Come on,” he finally said.

Cynthia was so weak and exhausted she wasn’t able to walk by herself, Rakowski put his arm around her to help—or maybe to steady himself—the two people inched slowly along the beach. She realized both of them were shaking.

THE END

Sunday, March 18, 2012

More More Novel

A CENTURION

At night after the big game Rick Romeo stood on top of Tychon Stadium. Noises of the crowd lingered through the empty stands. The deserted field held flashback images of the intense action and colors that’d been there hours before. The field vibrated. Rick grabbed an iron bar for balance, feeling the rushing air.

The southern part of the city stretched out before him. That compressed landscape of tight streets of narrow rowhouses had once been his universe. Utterly cheap and flimsy housing built 100 years ago for a mass of immigrants. Somehow those cheap houses were still around. Other immigrants from different lands now dwelled in many of them.

Rick distinguished the checkered pattern of streets, a different ethnicity crowded on each one: black, Irish, Italian, Mexican, Vietnamese and Chinese. A colorfully loud mess.

The old city before him was slowly being overlaid by gleaming new steel venues, like the Tower or this stadium, islands of entertainment and business for the city’s fast-moving high-tech people, who could be of any ethnicity because they were a separate breed, almost a new species. Men and women like Tychon were constructing a new city for new people. The old city with its tough people, poor and working poor, was considered dangerous. Yet the new city of unleashed competitiveness offered a new kind of danger—more ruthless because it was more refined, less human.

From up here, his old neighborhood-- once as vast as the world-- looked contained. In the larger scheme, tiny. Rick saw oxidized green steeples rising up from the so-narrow streets, Catholic churches dotting the entire long neighborhood.

His family’s rowhouse had sat in the shadow of a church. Rick saw in his mind a truck selling vegetables on the corner. In summer, a rainstorm flooding the block, kids of the neighborhood splashing in the urban stream. He knew well the interiors of the houses, Roman Catholic, tiny living rooms smaller than Tychon’s office bathroom, the rooms filled with religious statues and pictures of the sacred heart of Jesus.

A bleeding heart. Other denominations, other religions raised their children to be attorneys or doctors. Catholic families once wanted one son to be a priest.

That was the ideology in which Rick Romeo had been raised. One of his aunts was a nun. The local parish priest was a dinner guest in his parents’ house. Rick himself after college had attended a seminary intending to be a priest—then left to enlist in the Marines.

As a young man Rick had sensed his own wildness. He sought order, discipline, hierarchy, direction. But the Church was no longer a force. He’d wished it were—it’d lost the interest of larger society and it’d lost credibility. The priests he met seemed weak and flabby. Some turned out to be worse.

Rick remembered a young parish priest when he was a child, Father B. Something of a social activist. One time during a sleepy mass, in the sermon Father B began suddenly to speak about racism, violence, and hate—to confront the parishioners themselves. Rick and his sisters and brothers at up in the pew to listen. They’d never heard anything like it. An exciting moment. The message of Jesus became a living fact. Father B later left the priesthood, leaving behind the timid, the corrupt, and the simple-minded.

The Church, instead of a refuge from tragedy, became itself a tragedy, good deeds swept away by bad, the flock’s innumerable victims with nowhere to turn. Children had been unprotected. They were all children adrift in an uncaring universe.

The early Church hadn’t been a sanctuary, but a jumping-off point for changing society, led by fearless men and women ready to face anything, including the lions. Where today were the saints and martyrs? Today, Tychon was the world’s church: church and pope combined. The huge stadium on which Rick stood was contemporary society’s cathedral.

Rick Romeo was a soldier—a latter-day centurion who thrived by obedience to authority. Yet, Jesus had won over centurions as well as the sick and the homeless. he’d believed that anyone—anyone, no matter how corrupted by the world—could be saved.

Rick stood next to huge letters: “TYCHON.”

Tychon represented order and hierarchy. He embodied leadership and certainty—a certainty Rick knew everyone needed. Tychon was dominance personified. He showed no doubt, no hesitation, bolstered by untold wealth and power, manipulating the city and the leaders of the city through hidden strings. Existing on a higher mental plane, seeing farther, knowing others for the fools they were and always proved to be. Yet it was all material. It could be counted and quantified. Everything was appetite. There was no love in Tychon’s philosophy, and no love in Tychon. All love had long past been squelched within the man in pursuit of his magical dreams.

Rick saw the pollution-covered spires in his old neighborhood. He knew that on Sundays the churches were half-empty, parishioners chased away by scandal and irrelevance. Many churches were closed or were on the verge of closing by a cash-strapped archdiocese imploding upon itself. The presence of the Church in the city dwindled. Proportionally it was now a small wooden structure, little more than a chapel, a lonely cross atop a leaky roof at the end of a deserted street. The Church had returned to its very beginning: scorned and neglected. Abandoned, as Jesus had been abandoned at his execution by even his disciples, except the youngest one of them and a few loyal women, while soldiers gambled for his few belongings.

The games meanwhile increased and strengthened by the day. All the games—not only the sports teams. New religions. New idols. History had been reversed, Rick realized. He couldn’t comprehend how. Pagan ROME had renewed itself, thrown off its restraints, risen from the dust and formed itself into terrible new arenas. He saw it for real in front of him. On all sides. The return of power and greed.

Would the poor and meek now be thrown to the wild beasts, sacrificed on the altar of might? Maybe it was happening and he couldn’t see it.

Rick felt himself wearing an invisible team uniform. He’d become a priest after all—for the wrong side.

The once-vibrant image of Jesus had become muddied, no longer visible, covered in filth and betrayal. An entire city of betrayal, Rick Romeo one of the betrayers. Yet in the tiny chapel in the midst of tragedy, in his mind, a small light remained, a brittle, scarcely-seen ray of hope, a way out—a personality he’d tried to follow and every time like an infant trying to walk fell down.

Rick saw the stretch of the neighborhood, of the city, up to downtown, past gray City Hall with its yellow clock up to the unfinished Tower looming gigantic behind it. Rick felt the city’s rising chaos, the struggle of ambition and pain. A conflict of ideas ran through him. The world’s continuous noise. Rick had escaped here, to the stadium’s highest point above the scoreboards, skyboxes, and video screens, seeking peace. He wished for a quiet, spiritual place.

Despite his disillusion with the Church, he still carried a rosary. It’d been years since he’d said an Our Father or Hail Mary on it. Rick took the rosary from a pocket of his wallet and looked at it, held it up before him, the black beads of a medieval relic, badly out-of-date in the hyper-modern age. He ran the beads through his fingers, then put the rosary away.

The Tower was today, was now, was the city. Rising strength. Rick saw its cruel outline against the inharmonious night.

Near its top, directly beneath the shadow of incomplete girders, shone a spot of orange light. Lara Vox broadcasting. By herself?

Low clouds parked behind the skyscraper’s summit, creating a blue-white halo effect in the night sky. The spot of light pulled at him. What was the attraction he felt? What did Lara represent? The power of ideas? Perhaps there, in that single orange light, Rick glimpsed an opening.

Fan Appreciation Day was the day after next. Rick Romeo saw the collision of opposing forces. He knew Lara Vox was behind the ill-advised protest, directly or indirectly. Maybe he could stop it. He needed to arrange a meeting with Lara Vox. He needed to see her face-to-face and hear more of her thinking.

The night sky deepened. Rick made a mental note to have Connie contact Lara’s radio station in the morning.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

More New Novel

DOG

Mary Dreads walked along the boundary to the Green Zone, sipping absently from a large paper cup of hot coffee while dragging Parker on a leash along the sidewalk behind her. Parker was her scruffy little dog, a dirty pale orange animal who to onlookers sometimes appeared to be passed out. On Mary’s side of the wide avenue sat tumbling down structures, many abandoned, behind fencing, condemned. On the other side of the avenue stood restored Victorian homes that were part of the Green Zone.

The Green Zone was the university, with surrounding blocks of large houses and chain businesses which were in every way an extension of campus. The zone was “green,” i.e., environmentally conscious, yet with its extensive campus police and isolation from the greater neighborhood it was another kind of Green Zone as well—a protected enclave amid a world of poverty. The sarcastic use of the term began during the Iraq War, taken from the name of the American compound in Baghdad. The name stuck.

The Green Zone contained the area’s show dogs. Not just the designated Best. The Only. At moments in her life Mary had skirted the line. The crucial divide. Credit or debit. First class or the mass. Nobles or nowhere.

Behind its barriers the Green Zone was expanding, like a living organism gobbling up the ruined landscape then redeveloping and gentrifying it. The dividing line pushed farther and farther out.

Mary walked slowly along the busy avenue, a flood of cars streaming past. The houses of the Zone’s outer ring across the avenue were colored burnt red. This was fitting, as they always faced the sun.

Mary Dreads was a small young woman with small features and pale brown hair which she wore in dreadlocks in order to be recognizable, along with bright-colored garb. She knew she was unimpressive. Nevertheless she saw herself as a key figure in the insurgency she hoped would transform itself into revolution.

Her idol was Sofia Perovskaya, a 19th century Russian anarchist. Mary had learned about her in college. After the men fell from the forefront, Perovskaya took charge. Mary saw no less an outcome for herself. She knew the cause would have many stages. It required patience—Mary had of that virtue a warehouse. She was like a toy bulldog that once set on its path couldn’t be stopped.

She’d read and seen enough to know the weaknesses of movements. To know which individuals would be useful to the cause, and those who’d be useless.

At the African Lion one night she and Miles had written down four kinds of personalities to avoid, using scattershot input from Top Hat.

1.) Talkers.

Top Hat preferred calling this category “Theorists.” Bullshit artists in late night bullshit sessions expending their activist energy on talk. Mary had known revolutionaries like this in college. They were the only kind she found there. Sure, talk was necessary. Top Hat loved to talk. But even he agreed that it needed to be focused on special moments. Talk to recruit, or to energize the cause. What Lara Vox did on the airwaves. Miles seldom talked, but was the brightest of them all. The biggest talkers never left the university. Soon enough they were at the front of classrooms, still talking.

2.) Compromisers.

Top Hat called them “Incrementalists.” These persons looked for any excuse to cash in a perceived gain. “Can’t we all just get along?” Uh, no, not if you want to change the world.

How do you get along with a jackboot pushing your face into the mud? Most Compromisers were professionals who didn’t want to change the current system at all. They looked for a place inside the system. Token opposition to the status quo. Their resume was important.

Top Hat and Mary had a one-word code between themselves for this kind of activist: “Liberal.”

3.) Factionalists.

There were fifty kinds of anarchist and 500 styles of Marxist. Are you an Anarcho-Syndicalist Trotskyite or a Green Third International Bukharin Socialist? None of these people were serious. They were ideologues. Purists. Maintaining the purity of their faction mattered most to them. The fundraising, pamphleteering, paying rent on a cheap storefront office, and the inevitable neverending internal disputes left no time or energy for anything else. Miles put it best when he said that for many people in this country, ideology was a prop. It allowed them to not think. They inhaled a ready-made set of beliefs to do their thinking for them.

For the serious revolutionary, specifics didn’t matter. Mary knew libertarians who were more dedicated radicals than many so-called leftists.

4.) Tourists.

Those who joined the movement out of curiosity, who played the role on whim as a kind of hobby or entertainment, or who saw opportunity for themselves in the cause. Or maybe they just wanted to get laid.

Often these four types were four sides of the same person.

Mary’s reading of history showed that two things mattered for any revolutionary movement.

A.) Leadership.

Leadership meant having a small group of dedicated activists setting an agenda that must be followed by everyone in order to have success.

B.) Commitment.

This meant burning your boats. Leaving the plow behind. No turning back. This was the only acceptable mindset.

These were their stated rules. Mary’d found though that you knew instinctively who was a genuine comrade and who wasn’t. You could tell by their eyes. Bart the Bard, for instance, wore Marxist paraphernalia, but it’s not what he was about, other than to show he wanted rebellion against the existing order. He lived for rebellion.

They knew it wasn’t numbers that mattered, but the substance of those involved.

What was Mary’s background?

This question, she knew, would someday be asked in history books. Mary cringed at the thought of her family, and the dreary milieu she came from. She hoped this question wouldn’t be asked too hard.

What was the cause of her disillusion?

Mary Dreads was born disillusioned, she decided. She knew the world she was expected to conform to, with its silly social rituals and superficial idols, its condescending authority figures, wasn’t for her. She saw on every side of her only shallowness. Therefore the need to change that world.

What a coup to have Lara Vox involved! The city’s radical superhero. The further they drew Lara in and utilized her special talents, the more the cause would benefit. Mary walked to an important group meeting with Lara Vox now.

Mary heard Parker being dragged on the sidewalk behind her, zonked-out as always. Not quite a fearless attack dog. Not exactly a fitting companion for a dedicated revolutionary like herself.

She’d found Parker five years ago in an alleyway. The dog was marginally more alert at the time. Mary carried him home, cleaned him up, took him to a vet for shots, then presented him as a gift to a friend with a young daughter. The friend was a famous professor who’d had the child late in life via artificial insemination.

Mary liked the lonely little kid. The celebrated professor had a full schedule. The well-behaved dog was perfect for a well-behaved little girl.

Four years later the professor showed up at Mary’s door in the west side neighborhood where Mary now stayed. The woman had tracked down her former student.

“I’ve taken a new position,” the severe woman said, her teary-eyed daughter standing obediently behind her. “We’re moving to Wisconsin. Here’s your dog.”

Mary Dreads wasn’t sure how an active radical like herself could take care of an animal. Mary’s solution was to take Parker with her everywhere. Including her sixteen-hour a week job at a pizza shop, where Parker stayed in the back room. Parker didn’t mind. Neither did anyone else. He attended all the revolutionary meetings. Mary thought of him as part of the movement.

Mary sometimes wondered if Parker was just old, or if he was retarded. She’d decided he was no more retarded than anyone else in this stupid town.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Another Novel Excerpt

AT THE ORCHESTRA

The silver limousine leaving the airport cut through the vast crammed brown-and-orange neighborhoods of the southern side of the city like a sharp knife. Along the broad avenue on both sides moved desperate broken homeless people in grimy dull orange-and-brown rags layered for the chilled air. The sky shimmered cold blue. Behind the shuffling or crying people stood block after block after block of dilapidated falling-down buildings, in contrast to which the sleek clean limo was a craft from another planet.

Tychon had missed the protest, happily. It’d been handled satisfactorily, from what he’d heard and seen on TV. It’s why one employed underlings.

He’d flown in early on his private jet from his business trip solely to see a concert. To represent himself at a cultural happening. The city’s renowned orchestra, which he generously supported, was to perform this evening Tchaikovsky’s Second Piano Concerto. Less well-known than the First, but in many ways more powerful, which meant for Tychon more moving. Yes, he could be moved, not by superficial causes, nor for sentimental reasons.

Funerals for instance did nothing to him since death was an unavoidable part of life. Funerals were social occasions good for networking. He’d been unmoved by death itself. Only the largest gestures could touch Arthur Tychon. He remained puzzled that anything could. Perhaps great art transported him to a higher plane, a kind of Valhalla above ordinary human beings, a level where he felt he lived anyway. Great art mimicked his own greatness.

Tychon looked toward the front, at the rearview mirror so the driver could see his eyes. His driver noticed and picked up his rate of speed. For Tychon there was nothing worse than to be late for an anticipated concert. The limo sped ahead amid a ruined world.

If Tychon could ever be made uncomfortable, it’d be from similarities between decayed portions of the city, glimpses of helpless vulnerability, and undisclosed corners of his memory. From shows of weakness, which strength pitied yet also fed upon, so that weakness became affirmation of strength. If he could ever be made uncomfortable.

He would meet his date at the concert hall: Alexandra, an attractive Polish-descent blonde age 35 who made herself available for Arthur Tychon’s occasional nights out, as well as for other things. As the limousine efficiently pulled up outside the monstrously ugly modern hall, Tychon observed her waiting reliably for him inside the glass doors, wearing a long burgundy coat which matched her healthy coloring. He appreciated Alexandra’s punctuality.

Their box seats, he noticed as they sat in them, were too far back from the stage. Not the best seats in the house. Alexandra liked to be seen with him, preferably by as much of the audience as possible, as he enjoyed being seen with her. Concert going was also a social occasion.

The Concerto opened the program, which meant they could leave early. Recreation for Tychon was brief, aside from watching the football games, which could be excused because he owned the team.

Lights dimmed. The pianist strode onto the stage to respectful applause. He walked like a gladiator. The virtuoso was fifty years old but looked younger. He gave a short bow, more a nod than a bow, and took his seat.

The pianist struck thunderous chords, jumping out of his seat as he pounded the keyboard. Tychon enjoyed this immensely. He wanted to see only strong men at the piano, only beautiful women on the violin. The great Russian concertos required a strong man with powerful hands to do them justice. He noticed the man’s hands—as large and sinewy as the Laser’s. The pianist displayed astounding dexterity with those hands, flawless coordination. Strength combined with accuracy. As fine an athlete in his way as the Laser.

Tychon sat back and enjoyed the performance. He noted the audience demographic: 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s in age. He was one of the younger persons here. Unbelievable! Symphonic music was a dying art. In fifteen years the hall would be all but empty.

He absorbed himself in the masterful construction of the piece. Classical music at its best was perfect logic. The war between logic and passion; the mind keeping at bay the chaos of the world and the dark forces below. Not even keeping away those dark forces, those awful passions, but using them, directing them, feeding on them, so that passion and logic and darkness became one and the same.

The excellent pianist paused from his labors to allow sounds of the full orchestra to enter the space. Tychon noticed how the conductor, controlling every individual musician, every particular sound, mixed them into one piece. In the concert hall the world became comprehensible. In the same way, Tychon believed he could hold the various parts of the greater world inside his head. The individual actors in his life. He studied them, saw through them, saw each individual’s strength and weakness, knew them as thoroughly as the symphony conductor knew the members of the orchestra. Tychon believed he could control the people in his world the same way the conductor controlled his people—controlled them and created this world of sound which the audience experienced. Those occasions, or those persons, Tychon couldn’t control he’d dismissed from his head.

What did it take to create a great pianist? Much watering of the plant from an early age. Assertive parents. tutors, lessons, schools, a conservatory, with much enforced listening. No doubt some ability. The ability had to be bullied, coaxed, guided, molded, lectured, shown. It’d be an obsessive investment.

Arthur Tychon had created his own prodigy, not exactly at music. It remained to be seen if the talents of the person would ever be fully realized.

As he listened, basking in the warm colors of the polished brass and burnished violins, Tychon visualized the orchestra dressed in the football team’s colors, green blazers and blue trousers with orange stripes. There was no prestige in owning a rock band. Corporate logos were slapped on the biggest of them. They’d already been bought. But an entire symphony!—that would be an achievement. It would further meld high culture with the games, to create an inspired experience. A religious experience in its way, tribute to the gods of today. He envisioned this very orchestra playing while his football athletes took the field. The greatest music. Wagner. “Carmina Burana.” “Zarathustra.” The famous Liszt fanfare. Beethoven’s Ninth!

He’d have to buy a full team choir also, he decided. He’d move the musicians out of this ill-conceived hall—it resembled a gymnasium—donations gone to waste; modernism without grandeur, which missed the point. Only if he, Arthur Tychon, was in charge would anything in this, his adopted city, be done right.

Those who designed the concert hall wanted it to be democratic. Which meant, mediocre. By his lights democracy equaled mediocrity. Amazing, the backward thinking of those who should know the realities of society or otherwise not be hired.

This hall wasn’t about democracy! It was an expression of will, a cavern of talent, a showcase of authority. The Orchestra was a celebration of hierarchy, from the conductor down, of the eternal nature of human society—a society which in its struggles, complexities, conflicts, its designations of lows and highs was greater than any imagined symphony. Yes, millions suffered, but to be at the top was glorious.

Democracy was America’s secular religion. Powerful individuals, whatever their political persuasion, Right or Left, properly treated “democracy” the same way he supposed religious people handled their faith—something to pay lip service to but whose commandments you broke at every opportunity.

Within the dark hall the pianist resumed playing. A thrilling flow of piano keys. Alexandra swayed in her seat as if at a rock concert. At least she enjoyed herself. Be grateful for small favors.

Did the magnificent playing register on anyone else? The rest of the audience was here for Culture. They sat in their seats like stuffed prop dummies.

Tychon saw only the glowing black-and-white keys, across which the hands moved with impossible dexterity.

The pianist sweat heavily as he played, enjoying himself, caught up in the majestic sound for which he was the fulcrum, the device through which to bring genius to the audience. Tychon moved to the edge of his seat. Here it came: unmistakable signs that the climax neared, was about to be reached. Sound built inexorably like an approaching wave. Power expanded through the hall—the power of art. The crescendo. Tremendous! The pianist’s hands raised and paused with a final flourish as the last notes reverberated. An exclamation point. Order restored. Might made right. Musical victory.

Tychon stood and yelled in appreciation.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Teaser

Excerpt of upcoming

RADIO PROGRAM #40

"I'm aware that I've outraged many powerful folks in this town. I know it. This moment at the sound of my voice there's a lot of teeth gnashing going on.

"Why do I have this radio station? Because it was the one way in this alleged democracy to have a voice. The only avenue through which to speak the uncompromised, unedited, unmediated Truth. We have as much speech in this country as we can control or pay for. All else is a magician's trick.

"Don't believe those who say they're for free speech. Distrust them. They're not. Real democracy presupposes a meeting of equals. Equals! The gap between rich and poor in this civilization exceeds that of ancient Egypt, or Babylon, or Rome. I haven't seen all in my excursions in the world but I've seen that.

"When someone tells you how liberal they are then be most alarmed. Those are the individuals who embrace most their own self-bestowed goodness, they can do no wrong, which means if you criticize them there must be something wrong with you and they'll act to quickly shut you down!"

Thursday, March 3, 2011

“The Tower”: A Pop Novel

A CARD

"The Tower" in the Tarot deck is the most striking card in a line-up of striking cards. Visualize a black tower against a blood red backdrop. A sudden bolt of yellow lightning crashes into the haughty structure at its top. The depiction of an instantaneous event.

The Tower card represents obstacle, civilization, corruption, that which must be overcome. Inherited knowledge. Power. The pretentions of man. Chaos. Collapse. Perhaps, America.

The Tarot is a pagan relic of an ancient philosophy. As such, it's a fitting tool for understanding a paganistic age, the hectic barbaric world we live in now.

A CITY

This story about an illustrated card takes place in a fictional city between New York and Baltimore on America's east coast. A city of neighborhoods around a tops-down center, of gaudy wealth alongside sweeping shambles of decay. A metropolis being tied together by idealists at the same time it’s flying apart.

THE VOICE

The voice broke on radio airwaves like a thunderbolt from the sky. A voice of authority. A woman's voice, but no soft wimpy woman's voice. Instead: throaty, aggressive, laughing, mocking. Challenging and inviting. A resonantly unique voice which reached into the inner core of those listening.

"Broadcasting across the globe from the 99th floor of the Tower, I am the voice of direction for oppressed peoples, freeing imprisoned minds from corrupt governments and monster corporations, bringing YOU the news in new ways. I am Lara Vox, your goddess of tomorrow, your voice of today."

A pause. Silence.

"What is this strange word, ‘radio’? What does it represent? What does it mean? Why isn't this medium completely archaic? Newspapers are dead, but you unclued-in people are still listening to your radios. WHY?!

"It's because you listen in darkness. You listen in your cars. In your bedrooms. In your nightmares. Radio is the voice of the submerged conscience. The disembodied voice. The literary voice. The voice of civilization, language, culture, communication-- of humankind's first awakenings, first storytellers-- b.s. tellings around campfires-- history's first Homeric poetry readings.

"Homer didn't need sight, and you don't need to see me. YOU. I'm speaking directly to you. You're getting with my words the real me. The inner me. The personal me. I'm your closest friend. I want you to envision me. Picture me. Please. What do you see?

"I am the fulfillment of your dreams."

THE TOWER

The unfinished skyscraper stood near the west edge of downtown, within view of everyone in the city and for miles around. It'd been part of a construction boom fueled by a misguided tax policy. Fences surrounded it. Hard hats could occasionally be seen on the ground around the entrance, but no one did any work. It violated every safety rule in the book. According to news reports it'd changed owners seven times. It was always in receivership. Funding to complete the project always fell apart.

The silver skyscraper protruded like a glittering knife into the sky. It stood in its incomplete state as an embarrassment to the local populace, but also as a symbol of ambition, the city's brazen desire or need to top all others. At least to match any other. Such a projection could be meant only to match an equal void.

The looming structure stood empty until an enterprising Lefty radio star from out of nowhere began nesting in its uppermost floor.
Who owned the skyscraper? Who was building it?

No one was sure when the office building would be finished, where it'd end, how high it'd climb.

RADIO PROGRAM #9

The unfinished tower stood as a mighty looking empty shell. Outside, it seemed a reflective impressive beacon wonder of technology. A silvery representation of wealth. Inside: an echoing hulk.

Through secretive effort Lara Vox had put together a radio station. This took many furtive journeys inside and out, dragging equipment, traveling up and down the sole working elevator marked by a green door. The door to another elevator shaft, one never completed, was painted red. Many trips taking the long ride to the 99th floor with radio consoles, or carpeting, or chairs. She'd brought other furnishings onto the high floor to create a cozy den she could live in-- paint, drapery, space heaters, a bed. Either she was a strong and inexhaustible woman or she'd had help.

The signal she'd adopted had once belonged to a nonprofit. At night, if you looked closely at the tower, toward its very top, you could see amid the wall of silent darkness, the purple sky beyond, a single glowing yellow light marking where Lara Vox conducted her broadcast.

First: music played. Hours of it. Lara wasn't a fan of jazz but she used cool pieces of jazz as interludes for her show. Cool jazz fit the nightworld mood of the Tower. Coltrane, Brubeck, and beyond. No singers-- hers the only voice. She wanted dots of random notes which fit the chaos of the city around her-- no minimalist classical junk either. She needed humanity present among the jumble. Nothing "hot." She was the heat on her show. Background notes only of blue.

Then: A sudden Introduction. This was always a surprise. Her voice was on the station a great deal-- as much as half a twenty-four hour period-- but there was no schedule. When Lara wasn't on, the listener had to wait. With anticipation. Frustration. Longing.

"Hello."

Had the music stopped? The husky, magical voice reaching inside your soul.

"Corruption breeds on all sides. You know it but you don't want to admit it, you want me to say it.

"So hello! This is the kick-butt creator of the Stay Awake Radio Rebellion: ME! Lara Vox. Herself. The One and Only. Not an imitation.

"Rants, reflections, information, guests, questions, commentary-- unapproved unADULTerated DIY for your listening reawakening. Furthering your deprogramming education."

Next came the body of the show when she told true stories of city mismanagement, cop beatings, and questionable private business dealings. Her research was eye-opening. Her targets were many.

At the top of the list, after the bumbling mayor, was billionaire Arthur Tychon, owner of the city's richest sports team. "The Temple of Greed," she labelled the team's newly built stadium.

"How many poor people in downtrodden neighborhoods were sacrificed for the Temple of Greed? How many homeless kicked into the street? How many laid-off teachers? What was the price of the palace of privilege, playground of fatcats engorging themselves to levels of burst with food and drink in skybox suites which are paid for by you the taxpayer? We don't want welfare for anybody so we certainly shouldn't have it for grabby men like Tychon!

"Who built that stadium? YOU did. With your tax money and license fees. When's the last time you were able to buy a ticket to see the game? What? They're all taken, you say? Handed out to corporations who deduct the cost as business expense for entertaining clients. I know, football's a ridiculous made-up game anyway. A billionaire's moneymaking scheme. . . ."

The show went late into the deepest part of the night, ending not when she grew tired-- Lara Vox never tired; she was energy personified-- but more likely, bored. She gave hints of sign-off time. She wanted you listening again, whenever she reappeared-- wanted you parked near a radio with expectation.

"You will listen to me every day. You will be shaken awake. You will go to bed dreaming only of me."

INFORMANT

"It's fiscal insanity," the man said in the room's dim light. "Tychon owes the city millions. He's not the only one. Instance after instance. The city's being raped."

He was an accountant who worked for the city. They'd met at a downtown bistro with motifs of silver and blue. The meticulous man gave Lara info on tax abatements for luxury condos along the river, and details on the stadium agreement and other issues.

"I know there are political concerns," the man continued while carefully touching the veggie burger on his plate. "The mayor's a good man. But I see us giving away the store unnecessarily and I ask myself, why is this happening?"

They sat across from each other in a back room. The accountant glanced around himself through his slim eyeglasses.

"The woman who owns this restaurant in fact is one of the more notorious real estate developers, known for using scab labor while obtaining, somehow, city kickbacks. The help no doubt are mostly underpaid illegals."

The tiny brown-skinned young woman refilling their water glasses didn't seem to know English.

"Note the mediocrity of the food," the man added.

Lara put the rolls of printed data into her purse.

"What can I do for you for this?" she asked.

"Nothing! I want nothing," the man insisted. "I'm giving you this to relieve my conscience. It's criminal. The city's being raped. Criminal."

He was a fussy, ultra-organized man with a tinny voice, as if unused to speaking. A Bartleby locked in his office. Unspoken words inside himself which now couldn't be stopped, like an opened faucet. Lara listened to them.

"I can't see you very well-- you're in shadow, and my eyes are poor. Accountant's eyes. I recognize you by your voice. There's no mistaking it. I've been listening to your radio program. I thought, 'Aha! An honest person.'"

"Quite a compliment," Lara replied seductively. "I hope I can live up to it."

SIGN

Lara was not beyond promoting her radio show. A large billboard with spotlights on it appeared downtown, showing huge black letters against a red background: "I WANT VOX."

THE REBELLION

Among those who heard the radio broadcasts of Lara Vox were the scattered clans of white radicals in the city known collectively as the West Side Anarchists.

The radicals were of two kinds.

First, nose-to-the-grounders who naively thought they could separate from larger society, like a religious cult, or the Amish. They were more interested in the trappings of anarchism than in actively making it happen. Food coops, boho clothes, looks, music: slumming. Behind the posturing, at the back of their minds was an awareness of the reality of dominant society, which they feared to confront in any fashion.
For the other, less numerous but more vocal kind of radical, the awareness-- the fear-- of power was at the forefront of their consciousness, so that it stood ominously in front of them, starkly visible at all times. They believed those who questioned society to be under a death sentence. They had nothing to lose by activism. They had everything to gain-- their freedom-- from the collapse of the mighty power of civilization.

Miles Milbank was the unoffical but generally acknowledged leader of the west side radicals-- leader because of his benign charisma and the need for group consensus. Miles took few stands, was in neither anarchist camp-- he angered neither camp-- but instead, with his calming words and detached attitude, floated above the mass.

Three whites sat in an African-American lounge in a west side neighborhood known as "The Bottom." The bar had a name like "The African Lion." A neighborhood spot. Its denizens drank cheap bottled beer and select mixed drinks made with rum or brandy. An array of plastic promotional beer company signs surrounded the lone uneven pool table. The three anarchists plotted at a white formica-topped table nearby. They played the odds that by taking a table at the back, discussing their projects and dreams under cover of the noise of billiard balls, they were safe.

Miles Milbank huddled with two of the area's more vociferous radicals, Mary Dreads and Top Hat, whose names were descriptive.

"Heard this Vox?" Top Hat asked.

"Indeed," Miles answered.

"Yes!" Mary said. "She's amazing."

Mary Dreads was a cute white girl dressed to look tough, carrying the affectations of piercings as well as her long hair. She wore shabby blue stockings with holes in them, too-tight pink shorts over that, and a faded yellow leather coat.

"You've got to find a way to meet with her," Top Hat advised the defacto leader of the city's underground.

Top Hat was an antedeluvian creature with yellow whiskers bursting out of every part of his face.

The three peered carefully about themselves, clutching tightly their beer bottles.

"Maybe someone should first call into her radio show," Miles suggested.

"I already have!" bragged Mary.

At her enthusiasm a small animal on the barroom floor beneath her chair looked up. Parker, her dog.

"Really?" Top Hat said to Mary, trying to focus on her with bleary eyes.

They pondered options as the dusky hum of the room in which they were notably out of place became, like an adopted cloak, familiar and alien.

A RADICAL

In daytime, young revolutionary Miles Milbank stood with hands in his pockets on a streetcorner on the crowded west side university campus, invisible in his stillness like a jungle animal hiding from, or scanning for, predators and prey.

He'd started his involvement in DIY radicalism as an alienated freshman at this very school, before dropping out altogether. Miles was recognized here now as the local radical. He encountered professors he'd sparred with as a student. They'd wryly nod, or smile, and in their innate caution, their trained wariness of disagreement, walk fast and maintain significant space.

Miles Milbank was tall and angular, with a tragic air about him. Hamlet in a local production of a Shakespearean play. He carried a sense of displacement. Adrift out of time. His forebears in east coast cities like this one had run this country. There was a sense about Miles of wanting to be in step with the times, yet everything about his being-- his pace, attitude, bearing-- was better suited for the colonial era.

Miles well knew his situation, knew his life was without direction, one of marking time. He blamed his mother who'd raised him. He sighed and touched on his cellphone to see if she'd called today. He wondered if he should visit her later.

His elderly mother lived in a decaying enclave just outside town known as the Old Line. Home of the area's old money aristocracy. Mrs. Milbank was of an obsolete class and generation. Miles felt that way himself, by extension. The impetus for his activism was to prove his relevance in a world that held for him no place.

His parents had Miles, their only child, at an advanced age. This added to his feeling of aloneness and isolation.

At least she casually slipped him bills when he'd visit. Twenties or fifties. She was happy to do so, despite her hints that stock market reverses and bank failures had cut into her legacy. For a free lunch at a pricey Old Line restaurant, Miles endured lectures on the theme of himself as disappointment and failure.

His mother's saving grace was that she was an intelligent woman capable of informed conversation. His father, who'd died when Miles was seven, had been a rather crude and moderately unsuccessful dollars-and-cents businessman. He'd read publications like Barrons, the Economist, and Business Week. His disappointment in Miles would've surely been greater.

Horizontal gray clouds in the sky above threatened rain. This increased his melancholy. Should he move out of the area? He didn't want to become like Top Hat, a local character unwilling to leave the university neighborhood, hanging around campus into his thirties, or later.

Instead of moving, Miles had been toying with a plan, a way to energize the local movement. The arrival of a personality like Lara Vox could be a way to turn that plan into reality.

Without realizing it he'd moved up the street. Bookstores, diners, shops, on all sides. Cars of students and staff lined up at a jammed parking lot. Horns. A clogged street. Red, yellow, green glass steel or stone academic buildings rising like fortress walls. Oppressing barriers. A man peddling peanuts. Steel cart selling hot dogs. Another: falfalel; gyros. Rumbling trucks. To the east, in the near distance downtown, the rising Tower overseeing everything.

A local hooker wearing too-heavy lipstick and a black vinyl jacket squeezed between the impatiently waiting vehicles. Miles smiled at her. Two very young and very pretty coeds with books, exiting a car, smiled his way. He smiled more at them.

THE STADIUM

In the southern part of the city amid mass rowhouse neighborhoods, surrounded by displays of lights, sat the gleaming new sports stadium. Tychon Stadium. It looked like a giant circular spaceship about to elevate. Huge steel pillars rose on all sides, covered with banners.

The entrance at the front of the complex appeared enormous. Spectators entering beneath polished girders received the illusion of a vast canyon. Inside waited a glowing green field. Electronic digital viewing screens shimmered with electric colors. Replays of famous games. Depictions of clashing violence.

On the side of the green field at the fifty yard line spread several levels of office suites punctuated by skyboxes. The suites contained team headquarters. Billionaire team owner Arthur Tychon ran other enterprises, those which had made his fortune, but the football team was his love. At a mammoth desk inside the highest row of offices sat the great Tychon.

COACH OF THE WEEK

Every year Tychon purchased a new one at a large salary and fired him midseason if the team wasn't likely to make the playoffs. He kept the coach the full year if it did, then fired him. The only thing Tychon wanted was a championship. For a man who'd won at almost everything he'd attempted in his life, this was appropriate.

Tychon's arbitrary handling of head coaches was an exhibition of Tychon's power, his bottomless wealth, and his ability to dominate the brightest minds. The most brilliant strategists were slow-thinking compared to him. He'd already gone through the most talented, most legendary coaching names, two who'd been lured from easy retirement by the salary Tychon paid, before having their stellar reputations destroyed by failure.

Tychon's thinking, as with all he did, came from pure logic. He paid better than any other owner. Should he not expect a commensurate performance? Did he not have the right to expect the best?

"There's never an excuse for failure," he stated in final briefings in his office, when the once-hopeful coach, now broken like a knocked-out fighter, was let go.

Tychon's extreme confidence came from his knowledge of himself. He knew, better than anyone, the deep reservoir of his talents.

In fact, despite the team's often dismal performance on the field, Tychon proved his ability in every other aspect of the franchise. The team, once the worst performer in the league, with scanty attendance at the rusted inadequate prior stadium, had become a money-making machine. Its name, logo, colors, were everywhere, assaulting city residents from each view of town, and through every form of media. The "branding," the foundation and uniting thread of team marketing, was superb. Every aspect worked, fabulously. Except one-- the team on the field. Every employee performed the best. Except the coach! Coaches! Supposed geniuses. Hyped by nonstop sports media as geniuses. Did Tychon ask too much by demanding a winning coach?

Lately Tychon had begun recruiting his head coach candidates from college ranks. There was sincerity on his part to this. Tychon wanted a coach of his own genius, an advocate not of caution but of extreme innovation. A master who could revolutionize the game, who in a season or two could remake the team to easily win the entire season. He asked from his coach the impossible. He lived to see, on the glowing green football field before him, displays of total dominance.

Eventually he'd find the person who could give him this experience.

THE DESTROYER

"Why aren't they practicing?" Tychon asked Anna, a production assistant.

Tychon stood gazing at the green field below, from behind glass, in the plush lobby outside his private office. Anna joined him at the window while nibbling a grape. Behind them a lavish buffet spread through the center of the big room, the buffet always there day and night, its trays of every kind of food and cuisine for every taste continually replenished by small white-coated servers, who adeptly switched serving trays, not-so-fresh to fresh, with unobtrusive dexterity.

On the field below, the team mascot did somersaults. No players anywhere to be seen.

"Get the cheerleaders rehearsing at least. This is a tourist attraction. I want constant activity."

Anna talked quietly on her phone. Within minutes the cheerleaders, who Tychon wasn't satisfied with anyway, appeared. She noted the time shown on her phone. Tychon had a meeting scheduled with a player and his agent in four minutes. She was tempted to remind him, but knew he'd know it. He wore no watch, carried no cellphone, required no log. The man had the uncanny ability to carry every point of needed data, including the current time, in the banks of his brain.

She saw now through a glass door Rick Romeo striding down a corridor toward them. Romeo was the boss's security chief. Twenty seconds behind on the thick carpeting followed the current head coach.

Tychon made no effort to step into his office. He'd conduct the meeting here-- a sign of the low priority he gave the request for negotiation.

Rick Romeo positioned himself next to the boss, on Tychon's right. The football coach by contrast sat in a nearby armchair, between two large plants. His lined gray face looked exhausted. He worked 19 hours a day, well over a hundred hours a week. His age was forty-three.

"They have one minute," Romeo said.

"They won't be late," Tychon stated.

The Destroyer's agent knew enough not to be late. Sure enough, the Samson of the Gridiron and his agent appeared on the corridor runway. The tall player in a three-piece blue suit looked younger than when playing.

"Who is she?" Tychon asked about the agent, a lean young black woman.

Like a detective, Romeo flipped open a small notebook and read from it in a low voice.

"Cassandra Lang. Columbia law school. Yale before that. Was on the volleyball team."

Rick gave other details then closed the notebook. The large gladiator limped into the lobby, the trim agent behind him. A ten-year veteran of the game, the Destroyer was the team's best player. His contract expired at the end of the season. He and his new agent wanted an extension at a large sum of money. The impromptu meeting was their idea.

"Good afternoon, Boss," the Destroyer said with an accommodating smile.

"Hello, Destroyer," Arthur Tychon replied pleasantly.

The Destroyer disliked corporate whites, but enjoyed playing up to them, feeding their egos. He appreciated Tychon because the ego was naked. He noted the billionaire's squat form, silver hair, and sunburned face, the quality of his tailored silver-gray suit, his small, slightly hooked nose and blue eyes. Tychon gave the impression of power. He was America's hierarchies-- to Destroyer, its racism-- personified. The Destroyer basked in the man's presence.

Behind Tychon stood a handsome, thick-necked white man about six feet tall in a burgundy suit with a white silk shirt and a black tie, with short cut black hair and a swarthy, chiseled face. Rick Romeo. Ex-Marine, ex-cop. Factotum. Hatchetman. Bodyguard. At the sight of Rick the Destroyer's smile turned into a scowl.

"As my assistant explained, Ms. Lang," Tychon said to the agent, "I have only a few spare minutes, but I wanted to show my respect for Destroyer and what he's meant to this franchise. We're immensely proud of the job he does on the field. We know no one works harder."

The Destroyer, whose real name was Herb, smiled again. He was proud of his work. He'd worked his way out of a north side neighborhood of extreme poverty. Of a high school class of over 800 students, four had gone to college. He'd been one of them.

In truth, he loved his job. The Destroyer pulverized good-looking white quarterbacks for a living. For Herb, it'd always been a game of "Get the white guy." He hated black quarterbacks also, of course, but could never encourage in himself toward them quite the same animosity.

The agent said to Tychon, "I know you'll want to demonstrate your respect and appreciation by rewarding the Destroyer for his work and the sacrifices he's made, including his many injuries-- shattered knees, back, concussions--"

Tychon put his hand up.

"We're not here to negotiate, Ms. Lang. I'll readily concede your argument. The Destroyer will be amply compensated, one way or the other-- at the end of the season."

The lawyer opened her mouth to say more, but Tychon raised his hand again.

"I assure you, Ms. Lang. I'm second to none in my admiration for your client. I respect efficiency. He's devoted his life to performing a task extremely well. Better than anyone has."

He turned his attention to the player.

"You were born with athletic ability, sure. You've multiplied that ability many times over through sheer effort."

Tychon meant what he said. Life had given the Destroyer few opportunities. He'd grabbed one offered. A sign of the man's instinctive intelligence, which he exhibited time and again on the playing field. For his one task of rushing the quarterback he'd imbibed every trick and nuance. Complete focus. Total efficiency.

"So what do you think, Destroyer?" Tychon shifted the discussion. "Will we win the big game in a few weeks against the Champions? Will you sack the Laser?"

"The Laser" was the nickname of an opposing team's renowned quarterback; the ultimate model athlete and cover boy.

"I'll crush him!" Herb said, looking at Rick Romeo as he did.

Rick's hazel eyes silently noted Tychon's question. Just another fan.

After the player and the agent departed, Tychon turned to the head coach, who'd sat quietly in the armchair.

"Is the Destroyer obsolete?"

The coach nodded affirmatively.

THE MAGNATE

The color scheme of his office matched Tychon himself: silver and orange. A chrome wall dotted with small square mirrors behind a large blue-silver chair behind a massive orange wood desk. Tychon touched a buttom which activated silent environmental fans taking away every odor. Then he used an orange-flame chrome lighter on a swiftly produced cigar. Smoking was illegal here, of course, but Tychon followed the philosophy of submersion. Floating beneath the surface. Doing whatever you wished as long as no one knew about it.

At a side bar stoic and obedient Rick Romeo made a drink for Tychon and one for himself. Scotch and sodas. He handed one to Tychon. The silver-haired man sat back comfortably in his blue-silver armchair, enraptured by the cigar. Rick took a standing position to the side, sipping carefully from his glass, a watching guard dog waiting to hear sounds from his boss. He allowed Tychon to relax. He knew the man presented the image of unflinching steeliness, but had weaknesses. The constant talk of perfection in part was bluff.

"Perfection," Tychon said as if cued, not knowing or caring how well Rick knew him. "Destroyer has given us perfection, up til now. We've paid him very well for it. In a just world he'd be further rewarded. But the world isn't just. Or rather, he'll be rewarded, but next year, by another team that'll stupidly take what's left of his broken body."

Tychon puffed on a large cigar and watched smoke from it quickly disappear. The hidden environmental filters. Amazing how fascinated such an intelligent man could become over toys. But then, the football team was a toy, just a very large one.

Tychon downed his drink with a flick of the wrist. He allowed himself one drink at the conclusion of business. When he arrived home later, in his limo, to a secluded new section of the Old Line, he'd undoubtedly have more. Now he stretched his arms and straightened himself behind his desk, thrusting out his jaw. He sat tall in the chair-- was as tall in it as when standing out of it, so that there was no change when he stood up. Disconcerting, the first time you noticed this. The prerogative of a height-challenged man.

Nevertheless, Tychon was impressive. The wide theater of props and tricks backing him, including the team and the stadium, were designed to impress. His piercing eyes and strong countenance, the Roman cast to his head, his vigorous form, the rings on his manicured hands, most of all, his words and the knowledge behind the words, were simply other parts of this. Not a performance. Not even a presentation. A full production.

"Everything in life is sales," Tychon spoke, reading Rick's thoughts. "Marketing. The veneer we show to the world. The world is show."

Tychon puffed on the cigar. He'd given this speech many times, Rick realized.

"People mistake my confidence for arrogance. One has to be confident to achieve. They don't see what I'm doing-- that I'm putting essential pieces in place that will benefit not just me, but everyone in the city. It'll benefit me also, of course. Benefit me most. That's unavoidable.

"Only the builder contains the entire picture inside his brain. One doesn't put up a plywood stand and begin selling. You need a machine to compete against other machines."

Jabbing the polished desk with a stubby finger, Tychon enumerated the changes he'd made to distinguish the team from the rest of the league. To make it the newest model against which all others appeared obsolete. This included more colorful uniforms with horizontal stripes at the shoulders to further accentuate the players' wide tapered bodies. New players were drafted and signed for their speed. It wasn't the best team, yet, but it was the most colorful and exciting team. High scoring games were guaranteed.

Tychon put out the thick cigar in a glass tray on the orange desk and stood up. Opening a drawer, Rick vanished all trace of the cigar. He left the glasses for a Mexican cleaning lady who'd be in shortly. They touched off the lights and stepped into the lobby.

At the long table of food in the reception area, the team's colorful mascot Bobo could be seen sneaking bread, fruit, and slices of beef. At the sight of Tychon he jumped in the air and went scampering away.

"Don't we pay the guy?" Tychon asked.

The door to Anna's office behind the buffet tables stood open, the lights on. Anna worked late as always. A radio in her office played. A talking voice could be heard on it. Anna appeared in her office doorway. Her face looked angry.

"Did you hear what that woman on the radio is saying about us?" she asked.

PIZZA ORDERED

Behind the radio station on the 89th floor, down a long hallway, waited a back bedroom. Lara's sanctuary. Colors of red and black. A scarlet bed sat at the center of the circular room.

Lara relaxed on the large bed while a taped two-hour interview played on the station. She loved the feeling of height, of weightlessness. The feeling of being above the clouds.

A rainy night. Weather assaulted the glassy heights of the lofty edifice. Too wet to go out. Lara punched in a number on her phone and ordered an xtra-large pizza from a renowned pizza shop toward the south of town, verging on Tychon's territory.

"I'm at the Tower," she instructed the person. "Will you be the one delivering it? Good. I'll buzz you in when you arrive. Take the green elevator to the 89th floor."

INTERVIEW

On the recording Lara Vox cut the hapless mayor into pizza slices.

"Though of course some of this occurred during the previous administration, I'm completely aware of the fiduciary responsibility I hold as Mayor of this fine metropolis!" the Mayor said in a surprised, high-pitched voice.

He'd not been prepared for Lara's revelations.

"Please. Cut the double-talk, Mr. Mayor. I have the figures in front of me. Tychon has been 'raping the city.' That's a direct quote from my source."

"I don't know where you've obtained your information. . . ."

"Do you doubt the numbers, Mr. Mayor? You question them? Truthfully?"

"I, er, please be aware that I'm not on the witness stand, Miss Vox."

He said this with a weak chuckle, a failed dry empty attempt at a hearty laugh. The Mayor wanted to dial up his hearty political persona, but in the midst of her surprises, couldn't.

"That's MS. Vox," Lara said.

"Sorry, sorry. I apologize to my women, er, female, er, constituents."

"The data, Mr. Mayor," she prodded. "Tychon has owed the city millions of dollars for three years. You paid for his palace--"

"The stadium--" the Mayor corrected.

"Billion dollar stadium," she added. "Paid for by we the taxpayers for the benefit of the team's billionaire owner, with future tax breaks thrown in. Welfare for the rich I call it, and yet it wasn't enough. Tychon's weaseled out of coming up with his trifling end of it."

"A very necessary stadium, MIZ Vox, when you thin k of the construction jobs, the, er, concession workers and the like, the spur to business, er, you know--"

"And the schools and neighborhoods and streets and services be damned!" her voice mocked.

A fresh assault of rain attacked the upper windows of the Tower as the Mayor's responses became more fumbled.

PIZZA DELIVERED

The green elevator hurried the pizza delivery boy ever higher. The doors hushed open. His eyes adjusted to scant light as he stepped out with the warm box. To his side: the radio studio, scattered lights of the city visible through floor-to-ceiling windows beyond. The structure swayed this high. His feet felt uncertain on the moving floor.

Before him, a dark hallway with a red glow at the end of it. Like a loyal slave he carried the precious gift. The young man stepped carefully down the corridor, on thick carpeting as the red glow moved closer.

Suddenly, a dark-walled room. Drapes, not walls. A beautiful woman sat on a scarlet bed. Sheets of white paper with words on them lay scattered around her.

"Oh. Hi!" she said, her striking eyes looking up, their intensity knocking him back a step. "Pizza! You're the greatest."

The large eyes studied the young man, undressed him, made him feel vulnerable as she handed him a too-large bill and told him to keep the change.

"Bye," she said in a husky voice, dismissing him.

The young man laid the hot pizza box before her. The penetrating eyes never left him as he turned and fled.

The image of the woman high in the skyscraper tower stayed with him as he continued his pizza deliveries into the night.

(END OF PART I.)