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Thursday, November 30, 2017

GLITTER AND ROUGE

   To borrow from Woody Allen, I'd hate to be thought of as a sadistic, hippophilic necrophile, because that would be like beating a dead horse. On the other hand, this may be an appropriate time to restate the obvious inasmuch as the obvious appears to have escaped the cognition of a great many. Doubtless you know the names of most of the accused and some of the personalities attached to those names may have struck you as unlikely candidates for engaging in female exploitation. The two big fields of  focus at the moment are entertainment and politics (it was Frank Zappa, I believe, who pointed out that politics is merely the entertainment division of the military industrial complex, so perhaps these two fields are not so far apart). And while the military and business office have long been known to turn blind eyes towards exactly the type of rancid behavior we now stand aghast at in Hollywood and Washington, the glitter and the rouge forever outranks even multi-starred generals, much less the white-collared executive at the Department of Redundancy Department at your school or place of work. 
   This being an essay about the inclinations of others towards aberrant behavior, it feels manifestly appropriate that I begin by talking about myself. Specifically, I will speak of ego and the role that vicious monster stages for itself in the heart, mind and loins of anyone who gets what he or she wants out of life.
   As a high school senior, I already knew I had talent as a writer. Doses of feedback from friends and faculty reinforced what I instinctive suspected. I was good--not great; not yet. But I was onto something and figured I'd give it the old high school try. One weekend I got drunk on Mogen David ("America's classic wine") and wrote several one-page fictional vignettes about some popular classmates. I showed them to a friend who knew none of these kids and he laughed himself to streaming tears. "Hot damn!" thought I, and stumbled off to get a bunch of copies made and stapled together.
   All day Monday I passed the sheets around and was rewarded with positive reactions ranging from wide grins of appreciation to hearty guffaws culminating in enthusiastic slaps on the back. "Shit, Mershon! You write this? This is funny stuff, man. You got the get down spirit. Fuckin' hilarious."
   Naturally I could not leave well enough alone and within days I found myself suspended for an offensive poem I had knocked out in ten minutes regarding the culinary habits of a certain universally disliked English teacher. But even she came up later and sotto voce inquired if next time I might write something about her that was, um, er, a tad more flattering. Even she knew I was good. Hypocrite.
    Soon enough I had evolved into a nebbish example of what a more distant generation would have termed a class clown. That was fine with me. My fortitude was limp enough that damned near any type of validation was welcome. But the rub lay in the inescapable fact that it is not always an easy or convenient thing for the class clown to get laid. I do not care if the male is sixteen or eighty-nine. Part of his image of himself resides in how he perceives himself through the eyes of the important women in his life. Three places reinforce this insecurity: Hollywood, Washington and high school-college. All three segments tend to glorify the schmuck. All three place image over substance. And all three have as their inner core essence an eventual meaninglessness that is so minute that today, if it were floating in my toilet, I would not even bother to flush it. All I wanted at the time was for some hot young thing to pierce me with her gaze, see through the mask of comedy and, placing her hands on my shoulders prefatory to the wettest kiss this side of the Dolphin pool at Sea World, say unto me, "Baby, even standing still you make my skin sweat."
    As I say, enjoying sexual congress (much less senatorial or judiciary) appeared  a bit remote as such options went. However, one of the young women classmates of mine also worked with me after school and as virginity was a cross neither of us cared to continue, we sort of did one another a favor and over night I turned into a swaggering (albeit skinny and awkward) man of the world. 
   My personal situation will resonate with a lot of guys and just like those guys it all sort of came and went and soon enough came responsibilities and most of us got on with our lives. 
   This is not what happened with Bill Cosby, Al Franken, Roy Moore and Solomon, among others. (That's right. In case it slipped some minds, Solomon had more than one thousand wives in his harem.) (And while I'm being parenthetical, Mark Twain, in the guise of Lucifer, reported his amusement that men dream of multiple partners, yet are incapable of satisfying even one, while women, who are more than able to writhe in sexual joy for days at a time, have little interest outside of monogamy.) These are among the men who, let's face it, were never going to be thought of as classically handsome and beyond doubt recognized that about themselves early in life. Their ability to make any type of major relationship coup was dependent upon them being successful in a field that would radiate some degree of glitter and rouge. All of a damned sudden a pudgy little guy with funny hair and glasses and a distinctly nasal whine could get a date and, after a while, even a wife. 
   But it was not enough, just as Solomon's concubines were not enough. Because the insecurities borne from being less than hunkish right out of the womb--those hesitations and self-doubts don't go away. Most of us learn to accept ourselves and smile with some embarrassment at our earlier fixations. But most of us don't have the power associated with being a comedian, actor, studio mogul or politician. 
   What I am saying is that the real deep down reason all successful men are successful has less to do with their talent or their ability to sense great opportunities than it does with their insatiable need to be accepted by every woman they meet. Mix an ego that is on life support with great talent and awareness and you are building an equation that often enough equals sexual prerogatives that only the man recognizes as his own. 
   It does not even matter that some of these men (Kevin Spacey and Matt Lauer come to mind) are moderately attractive. What matters is how these men saw themselves when they were boys. Yes, sure, some serial abusers such as the President were given the idea from childhood that women were simply put out there to be had and that he would somehow not quite be doing his duty if he didn't grab as much action as he could. But look again at those early pictures of Trump in military school. What a freak! "Hey, honey. My schlong is so impressive, believe me, that the Mohel wouldn't even touch it. Not that we were Jewish, you understand, but all the young Hebrews in the neighborhood, all of them friends of ours, believe me, they called up the brit milah people and most of them passed out from the sheer size of the thing and now--Jesus, ow it comes wrapped in hundred dollar bills, I'm telling you!" What matters is how programmed the kid is in believing that (a) daddy is the uber mensch, and (b) "number one ain't you/You ain't even number two."
   Please do not sympathize with these creatures. They deserve whatever scorn, ridicule and prison sentences they can get. But if we actually want to understand how this kind of barbarism happens, look no farther than the things most people are taught to embrace from diapers: glitter and rouge. 

   

Sunday, September 10, 2017

HILDA (Part One)

   "What are we going to do?"
   One minute Chuck worried about the Emperor of Japan Tent holding off the storm. The next minute he worried about Ann holding herself together. If he were to be allowed the luxury of alternating third worries, he would have also worried about his broken ankle.
   The Emperor of Japan Tent, which had been manufactured in Argentina, shook with each arhythmic blast from the Category 5 hurricane. The orange and yellow structure had been marketed as nearly indestructible, the adverb jumping from that sentence like a coked-out cheerleader whose boyfriend had just sunk the game-winning basket. Chuck had screwed the twelve flexible aluminum poles deep into the south Florida soil and even took the added precaution of securing half the poles by tightening nylon line around them that hooked to nearby palms. If the trees held, the tent would be inclined to do the same. Their new temporary home was, after all, nearly indestructible. 
   The tent had set them back seven grand, but it was the thirty dollar Coleman lamps that they valued more than anything. The early September temperature had dropped from the typically balmy eighty degrees to what felt to be the low fifties. Even though their watches said the time was a few minutes past noon, the four lamps fought against the dense darkness and even added some warmth that Ann in particular appeared to appreciate.
   His wife of twenty-one years never vacillated. Ann McCormick had hated storms her entire life. Chuck had made a half-assed effort to remind Ann before they moved from Tucson, Arizona to Okopie, Florida that nasty storms made their presence known along the Gulf Coast side of southern Florida, but once their daughter Elizabeth had opted to attend the University of Florida's branch at Okopie, all reasonable discussion ended and the only thing left was buying the necessary supplies and finding suitable accommodations. 
   They had handled the first of those matters when an eighteen-wheeler bumped them off the causeway and sent their vintage 1967 Ford Falcon into a spin. The Ford could no longer be called vintage. Indeed, it no longer resembled what might properly be called an automobile. 
   None of the people in cars heading the other direction stopped to help them, what with evacuation warnings alerting people to get out three days earlier. Chuck and Ann had decided they still had time to find a place, maybe just something temporary, until Hurricane Hilda faded into memory. After all, Elizabeth and her new college friends were told they would be safe as long as they stayed in their dorm rooms. So how bad could the storm be?
   "What are we going to do?"
   The tent had plopped out of what was left of the trunk and the lanterns (which they had intended as a gift for Elizabeth) had not suffered at all. Ann crawled out the passenger side window, no worse for the wear. For the first minute or two, while the power of adrenaline still anesthetized Chuck's injury, he felt unharmed and even had the presence of mind to hug his wife and assess the vehicular damage. It was only when he lifted his end of the bagged tent that the pain from his ankle roared up his right side like the blaze of a flame-thrower.   
   Chuck collapsed about a hundred yards west of the road. When he woke up, he noticed the pain had turned to numbness, so while Ann made useful suggestions, he set up the tent. Chuck was the first to acknowledge that he had limited "man-skills," so he had learned to take his wife's advice without many questions. Her father, Big Bill Buckley, had been in the Coast Guard most of his adult life and Ann had paid meticulous attention to the old man's every word. Chuck had been more academically oriented and although an understanding of social stratification surely had its place in the world, south Florida in the first throes of Hurricane Hilda was not necessarily one of those places.
   "What are we going to do?"
   He looked up at his wife and his heart filled with the same love he had felt the day they had married, more than two decades earlier. Those fiery blue eyes of hers had not changed at all. She still wore her blonde hair the same carefree way. She hadn't gained more than a pound a year since their wedding and she had been thin even then. The changes, he knew, and knew that she knew, had been on the inside. She had been stone-cold sober for the last two years, three months and four days. Not once had she faltered, not once had she complained, not once had she so much as behaved in what might be called an irrational manner. But he had noticed that when stress entered their lives, she seemed to struggle with her thoughts. The ideas would still come to her. It was just that she appeared to be choosing her words with more caution than when she had been drinking. "People with her level of addiction often keep themselves wrapped tight," the therapist had told him. "You may just have to get used to that."
    "One more time: What are we going to do?"
    "Sorry. I was just woolgathering." 
   "It is not wool that we need just now, darling. We have a thermos of cold coffee. We have one can of Spam and a baggie of crackers. We have this nice tent of yours."
   "Our tent. And don't forget the lamps."
   "Right. The lanterns are great. Oh, we have our lighters. We have our phones, which don't work, by the way. I suppose the cell towers have blown down. No offense, but you're no MacGyver. Neither am I. What we are is totally screwed. How's your ankle?"
   He reached down and felt the swelling. The pain was making its way back.
   "I wouldn't mind an aspirin, even if I had to dry swallow it."
   She reached into her purse. "We have three left. Here, bite this one in half. We may need to make these last. You want cold coffee?"
   Less than one hundred miles south of them, the Florida Keys had transmogrified into tiny dots visible to no one. As the southern wall of Hilda's eye dipped and swelled, any humans who had remained on the fifteen Middle Keys were either drowned or drowning. The Upper and Lower Keys had been luckier, to the extent that anywhere from eighty to ninety percent property devastation can be called lucky. The storm was more than five hundred miles across, with internal wind speeds in excess of two hundred forty miles per hour. Having wasted the tiny keys in its path, Hilda turned herself with unprecedented determination north and slightly east, bypassing most of the Everglades and making a destructive lean toward Route 41. From the flooded highway to the Gulf was less than ten miles. Halfway between was an Emperor of  Japan Tent with two occupants. 
   

Saturday, July 29, 2017

AMAZING JOURNEY

  Eight-track tapes remain to this day one of the peculiarities of the recorded music world. Even people who temporarily favored them often lacked basic understanding of how the cartridges worked and today mention of the eight-track is typically met with a smirk or a good-natured groan. Originally designed to snap into a slot on the automobile dash, the singular advantage of the eight-track was that it would continue to play the album recorded on itself perpetually. If one were to embark upon an extended trip across the country and believed in all sincerity that Steppenwolf's Sixteen Greatest Hits would never get tiresome, then one might plop an eight-track of that recording into the socket, crank up the speakers (which, it was not uncommon in such times, cost in excess of the automobile itself), and cruise. Each tape contained four "programs" or divisions which played in stereo. Four times two equaled eight, even in 1965, which is when the Ford Motor Company introduced eight-track players in their 1966 Mustangs. Because the tapes stayed in cars more often than they did on record shelves, they often picked up an amazing amount of dust and debris. Debris is not conducive to clean surfaces, so the recording industry's manufacturing arm countered this malady with the application of dobs of oil which kept the tape spinning safely but which also lay between the magnetic tape-reading heads and the tapes themselves, thereby muddying up the sound far more than one would experience on even the cheapest Sears portable turntable. 
   Not all of us who were in our teens in the early 1970s (the peak of the eight-track fixation) owned our own cars and instead made our way around the world on either bicycles, skateboards or roller skates. Strapping a forty pound eight-track player to the handlebars of a three-speed Huffy (yellow, in my case, with black racing stripes, monkey bars, banana seat, over-long sissy bar and genuine stick shift mounted on the frame, all sitting above a sixteen inch front wheel and twenty inch rear, a real competitor for bad ass machine of the neighborhood) was, to put it mildly, awkward, and being such an unserved market, the music industry set out to both include the eight-track in its basic stereo packages along with turntables and receivers, as well as making the eight-track player available as a singular entity for home use. 
   As it happened, in 1974 I was employed and used some of my meager earnings from the Blue Drummer Steak House to purchase from a stereo store (Crazy Ed's, I think it was) a handsome console stereo cabinet which included the by-then pro forma eight-track player. Even at the age of sixteen (one year for each Steppenwolf hit), I had amassed an enviable collection of vinyl records. To my presumed misfortune, I did not own (or even rent) any of the coveted eight-track tapes in vogue with my insular coterie of friends. Hope was far from lost, however, because my mother worked as a sales clerk at a department store called Heck's (an acronym of founders Haddad, Ellis and Cook). Heck's had a decent music department and a sprawling assortment of eight-tracks, some of which turned out to be second generation copies discounted for the consumer's alleged convenience. The very first eight-track I bought (and hold on tight because we are approaching the money shot of this piece) was one of those second generation compilations called The Who Again. No such album ever saw legitimate commercial release. I nonetheless owned a copy and with some care slipped it in the virgin slot of my new sound machine, recoiled in horror at the initial cluck that eight-track players made at the start of each "program," then settled in for the most amazing audio experience I had known to that time. 
   But first, an aside: I was, in those feckless times, a rather discriminating music listener (Aw, hell, I was a calculating snob). I cared not at all for the James Taylor folk singer brand of popular music, for instance, because people such as Taylor, Crosby Stills & Nash, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell and others seemed to want me to get in touch with myself. I knew myself quite well enough--too well, in fact. A better understanding of my neuroses and foibles would have only made worse what was already an untenable situation. Likewise, I loathed the blues pretensions of heavy metal with its attempts at bludgeoning my sensibilities into submission. Fusion was an abomination in the face of true jazz masters. Disco--just coming into vogue at the time--left me numb from its artifice. And I sure as hell wasn't going to listen to the Archies or the Partridge Family. 
   What I did like--what knocked all the grotesque recent memories of teenage oppression out of my quivering cranium--was rock and roll and soul music. Perhaps we will talk about soul another time. 
   The opening song on my newly acquired album was "Baba O'Riley," the first song I know of to use the synthesizer as an instrument rather than strictly for ambient sound affects. 
   Hearing a song on the radio in those days had its value. With the exception of bands such as The Beatles and The Beach Boys, most groups recorded songs specifically to be heard on portable radios with the treble built-in high and the bass nonexistent. Hearing The Who song on the radio had given me a mild satisfaction. Hearing it at maximum volume on my very own super-duper Crazy Ed's stereo system knocked me across the room with my legs wide and my arms over my bouncing head. 
  I never did quite get over that initial explosion, just as one never gets over that first real kiss, or the first sip of a strange wine, or the death of someone well-loved.  
   Next up came "A Quick One (While He's Away)," a mini-opera with brief movements looped together with a mature story-line, punctuated with the word "cello" thirty-two times (yes, I counted them). I wanted to hear this again immediately. However, one of the tragedies of eight-tracks was the absence of a rewind button. You had to wait until the "program" ended and then press the changer button three more times to get back to where it all started. So I waited. And I listened. And I became a better person.
  (It should be noted that the above version of the song is from The Rolling Stones' Rock n Roll Circus, a Who performance so good that it dwarfed everything else in that program and caused Mick and Keith to block the movie's release for decades because they didn't want to be showed up by The Who.)
   
   Thus began what was to become a life-long obsession with The Who, at least in the original line-up of Pete Townshend, Roger Daltrey, John Entwistle and Keith Moon, all thanks to a dollar ninety-eight cent second generation eight-track tape. 
(This is rock and roll. The above clip is from The Kids Are Alright, a far superior movie than the one which this writer will, it is hoped, eventually get around to discussing.)

Being a fan has not always been easy, as anyone who has suffered through the movie version of Tommy can attest, or as anyone who remembers the massacre of eleven fans in Cincinnati can avow, or anyone as disturbed as was I to acknowledge that it was The Who that introduced corporate sponsorship into modern rock concerts, or as anyone equally appalled as I by the fact that the band has released more greatest hits packages than they have albums of original material.


But being a Who fan also means recognizing that bassist Entwistle was among the first white rock musicians to use his instrument as more than creating "bottom" for the songs, that Keith Moon went beyond being technically brilliant and actually reinvented what drumming looked and sounded like, that Roger Daltrey's singing got better on every album the band released (except the aforementioned greatest hits), and that Pete Townshend was a songwriting genius.
   It was therefore with some disappointment that I walked away from Amazing Journey: The Story of The Who (2007). I'm not going to tell you who directed it because I don't remember and it is not worth the trouble to look it up. Just because someone has access to rare footage and can speak to the surviving members of the band, as well as the surviving managers and art directors, does not mean that person can capture the vitality of the performers in question. Yes, it's nice that Roger and Pete are still alive and like each other very much. What would have been better is to make a movie about the making of The Kids Are Alright. People will still be talking about fond memories of eight-tracks before anyone ever has anything positive to say about what is the most uninspiring biopic in rock history.


Monday, July 24, 2017

REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT

   You think your job at the Burger King, General Landscaping Office, Roto-Rooter, or Congressional Page Headquarters is rough? Unless you are bent over the lap of a contemporary Denny Hastert, you don't go home wearing your own bloodstains each shift. So be glad you are not a prize fighter named Mountain Rivera (Anthony Quinn) taking hard punches to the eye every night for seventeen years. Be grateful you don't have a desperate manager named Maish (Jackie Gleason) who pits you against a young Cassius Clay, or a kind-hearted trainer named Army (Mickey Rooney) who lacks both the power and intellect to persuade you that you need to retire while you can still see out of at least one eye. You could always get a job as an usher if they have any size forty-six uniforms, or else you could go down to the unemployment office and hang out with Julie Harris, talking about what a big deal you used to be. "I'm a big ugly slob and I look like a freak. But I was almost the heavyweight champion of the world." Hey, I just hope the last time you had your life turned inside out, it wasn't for purposes of other people's entertainment.
   Most of us will never know how any of this actually feels. The closest we can come is in Requiem for a Heavyweight (1962). 
   Rod Serling wrote the original script for the television series "Playhouse 90" (and not "Twilight Zone," although the recognition helped Serling's early career). Ralph Nelson directed and allowed Gleason, Rooney and Quinn to grind every raw and fractured emotion they ever possessed, perfectly blurring the distinction between traditional and method acting. The acting is so good and the writing so tight that the film works on the famous "two-levels of great movies." You know about the two levels, don't you? Oh, well, the two levels are: Level One: The movie is about what it appears to be about. Level Two: The movie is about something much bigger than what it appears to be about.
   Level Two of this movie is both subtle and immediate. Of what are our relationships made? Who can we really trust? And is there something inherently fishy about the social constructions that would allow for so much humiliation within the human condition? The heavyweight referenced in the title has less to do with boxing and everything to do with the screwing life often bestows on us.
   The movie is also about how drunkenly wonderful it is to have a real friend in your corner, someone who believes in you when there is no legitimate reason for them to do so, someone who trusts you despite not understanding half of what you talk about, someone who likes you for no good reason whatsoever other than that you seem to need someone to do so, someone who cares about you because they misconstrue your ignorance for charm.
   When Mountain Rivera walks into a bar, the younger fighters listen to his stories, but the joke is on Mountain because the others  unintentionally patronize his innocent vulgarity. His manager sniffs everywhere for some angle with which to shove Mountain further into destruction. And he's already so lowdown that he considers taking a job as an Indian Wrestler, where he wins one night and loses the next. 
   Even if this isn't the kind of deeper meaning that fills your particular cup, the movie screams out to you because of the street-level realism of Jackie Gleason. So strong is his performance that you may wonder why the hell he wasn't in more movies. Sure, he was in The Hustler, Don't Drink the Water and those Smokey and the Bandit films, but outside of the above, he is known for "The Honeymooners." Answer? There's Gleason, up against Anthony Quinn, who plows his way with his cheap suits and wrecked face and childish indignation and Quinn steals every scene that Mickey Rooney doesn't steal--and all Rooney requires is a silent sigh and the camera melts all over him. Gleason suffered the fate of being a good actor in the company of great ones. 
   In the process, he helped Quinn, Mooney and Serling himself shine. A very giving man was Jackie Gleason. 
   Best line in the movie: Mountain is schnockered as he boards an elevator on his way to a job interview. On the way up, he looks at a pearl necklace-style woman who is holding her poodle in her arms. Mountain looks at her and says: "I like animals--all kinds of animals.  Is that a dog?"


  
   

Monday, July 17, 2017

NIMZOBOB (Part One)

   This story was written by Lisa Ann Goodrich with Phil Mershon in 2015

  "Where to for you, Bub?"
  Fred leaned across the back seat to make a big production that he was exerting himself to open the cab door from the inside. Acrylic Falls offered only one taxicab company, but Fred did not intend to allow a lack of competition to infringe on personal courtesy.
  Tommy’s mouth twisted into a grin, revealing that the out-of-towner did not understand the question. The young man’s thin eyebrows drew together over his nose and friendly lines scrunched along his forehead. "Hi! I'm Tommy! Are you gonna drive my cab tonight?" he asked.
  Fred grinned back in spite of himself. He did not like to grin at men. He was not what a person would call homophobic. He simply liked things to be clear from the get-go.
   Fred waved the kid into the Crown Victoria and said, "Who you think going to drive you, Bub? Captain Ahab? Fred is who. Fred is me. Where you go?"
  Tommy continued to grin as he spoke. He buckled the seat belt over his thin waist and stated, "I'm hungry. Are you going to take me to a restaurant tonight?"
  Fred fought against the contagious impulse to grin back. He winced as his Cabdriver of the Year Belt Buckle cut into his midsection while he tightened his own seatbelt. "Look, kid. You hungry? I take you to food. What kind food you like?"
  Tommy rubbed his chin and licked his grinning lips. At last he replied, "I like good food."
  Fred wiped a palm across his arid face while signaling the honking car behind him in the hotel valet line to go on around. "Hokey smokes. You want good food? H'okay. You like Italian? I know lots good Italian food for you."
  Tommy shook his head. The gesture appeared playful. Fred would not have been surprised to hear the kid’s head jangle from the effort. The meter was already clicking away. A little decision-making time was good for business.
 "H'okay, no Italian. You like the German food?"
  Tommy made a face that made it look like he thought the Germans were serving sour lemons and limburger cheese at their restaurants instead of sauerkraut and bratwurst. Come to think of it, maybe the kid was right.
  "Chinese?  I take you to Chinese Buffet with miles of good food.”
  “No!  They use chopsticks!”
  "No good. Right. You could poke out you eye. H'okay. Let's see. Oh-ho!  You want really good food!  I know good Armenian restaurant couple miles down road. That where Fred take you,"  the older man announced with a finality which he intended to declare that playtime was over.
   Tommy's face lit up like a crate full of glow sticks. "Are you going to drive me in this cab to an Armenian restaurant tonight?"
  Fred faced the steering wheel. "You bet, Bub. I drive you in cab to restaurant full of Armenian food tonight is what I do!"
  Fred had been the Captain of the Cabbies in Acrylic Falls for as long as anyone who cared to think about such things could remember. Throughout those decades, he had met hard drinking millionaires, reprobates, college students crazed on nutmeg and cough syrup, concert-goers amped on the excitement of electronic death grunge, as well as more than a few average business travelers who did not care much one way or the other for advanced conversation. Fred fancied himself an expert at sizing up his passengers fast and sure. In his business, a guy needed to know if the fare was going to take you deep into the woods and blow your brains out. After twenty-plus years behind the wheel, Fred had never been robbed, rolled, or cheated on a fare. Considering that most of Fred’s fares were whacked out in some way or another, his safety record was impressive, even to himself.This skinny kid with the toothy grin struck him as no more bizarre than the typical customer a driver would meet on a Saturday night in Acrylic Falls.
  But Tommy differed from the others in ways for which Fred was not immediately prepared.
  As Fred shifted into gear, Tommy turned back to wave farewell to the doorman in front of the hotel. The doorman's response, if there was one, went unreported.
  "You staying at the Wintercrest, Bub?"
  Tommy spoke to Fred with a sudden intensity. "I'm Tommy," the kid clarified. "I'm staying at that hotel tonight."
  "Good for you, Tom-Tom. Girl at front desk always call Fred when she has customer."
  Fred was going to say "customer like you," but he caught himself. The driver continued to process the situation.The kid was maybe a little underweight, obviously kind of green, a guy with a voice like a squeaky door hinge, but clearly not a threat to anyone. Of course, the possibility always existed that the guy lacked finances. Fred had asked if the kid stayed at the hotel just in case. Every now and again some guy would flag down a driver under the pretense of being a guest, then run like Secretariat. Fred had chased after and caught his own share. But when the front desk lady called him directly, the risk evaporated.
  Tommy pressed his face against the rear passenger side window, gazing out onto the rainbow lights reflecting back up from the oil and grime of the new black asphalt along Hazington Road.The window fogged from his breath, making his view more kaleidoscopic. He mumbled something into the glass but Fred could not make it out.
  Fred kept his eyes trained on the sidewalks on both sides of Hazington. Granted, he had a fare in his backseat. But the kid wasn’t going far and Fred would need another trip or two before the night was over. On their left they passed a line of twenty-somethings waiting to pack themselves into the cineplex. The gape of Tommy’s mouth made Fred suspect the kid had never seen hipsters before. “Those just people trying to look cool like they not trying.” On their right they cruised by three bars sandwiched together, each one flashing a sign insisting that no cover charge was required. “All three places owned by same guy. He tell me one day he get so mad he fire himself. Then he give himself job next door.” The kid didn’t let on whether he got Fred’s joke. All he could do was gape and gawk. Just up ahead of the next green light hung a banner informing the world that an Arabian horse show would be in town from the twenty-first through the twenty-eighth. That show would be farther on toward the north end of the city. Where they were now was the old part of town, the part that tried to maintain the look and feel of the days when Acrylic Falls had been known as Tattsville. In those days, Fred had been one of the very few cab drivers in the area. He could have driven from one end of the village to the other and halfway back again in under fifteen minutes. These days you could spend fifteen minutes just waiting for a traffic light to change.
  Fred did not like to wait for traffic lights to change.

  He made a fast U-Turn seconds before the approaching red light. In futile response, both of the cars behind him slammed their brakes and blared their horns.
  "I like you horn, bozorami! What else you get for Christmas?" Fred completed the illegal turn, snuggling right into the open space in front of Aggie's Armenian Delights.
  The delights in question, as Fred knew from his own heritage, included a porridge called harissa, lamb khash, stuffed grape leaves, topik meatballs, and the one thing no one who visited Aggie’s could resist: shish-kabobs. Fred had eaten enough shish-kabobs as a child to last him his whole life. If a person wanted to have gas attacks for the next two days, Aggie was more than capable of accommodating.
  It looked as if the kid would not have much of a wait for a table. Unlike the new entertainment hubs Fred and Tommy had driven by, Aggie’s did not have obnoxious music with bone rattling bass flowing from it, nor was it surrounded by throngs of drunken wannabes and tourists in rented convertibles. Aggie’s bucked the trends and stuck to tradition. It was a family restaurant and did indeed have a regular following of the natives of Acrylic Falls, many of whom spent weekends up north at one of the natural lakes to enjoy the universe as they presumed it was intended.  
  Fred watched Tommy greet their arrival at the Armenian restaurant with all the excitement a cloistered nun would bring to a party with the Pope.The kid pried himself from the passenger side glass, leaned over the front and asked breathlessly, "Are you going to wait for me while I eat dinner at this restaurant?"
  The driver stifled a groan. "No can do, Tom-Tom. Fred got to work." He hoped the kid wasn’t going to stiff him on the tip just because the travel time had been so brief.
  Tommy leaned back in his seat and fished a wallet from his loose-hanging jacket pocket. "I'm Tommy. I want you to drive me back to the hotel tonight." The look on the kid’s face struck Fred as more of a plea than a question. The older man felt what he supposed was a small bout of sympathy for the young guy, one which he slapped away the instant he noticed that the wallet the kid was holding burst with currency.
   "Listen, I tell you what I do.You pay me ten bucks is on meter now. I wait here. I leave meter run. You eat you food. You come back out. I take you back to hotel."
  "I'm Tommy and that sounds like a good idea. What is your name tonight?"
  "Same as every other night, Tom-Tom. My name Fred."
  Tommy selected a ten dollar bill from the other currency in his wallet, placing it in Fred’s hand with all the caution exercised by people who transport hand grenades, then hopped out of the taxi, skipping toward the establishment with the enthusiasm of a kid going to the circus.
  Fred rolled down the windows and lit up a cigarette as he watched Tommy give him a delirious wave before he disappeared behind the darkened glass doors of the restaurant.
  As the meter clicked every twenty seconds, Fred drew on his thin Saratoga cigarette and glanced into his driver side mirror to monitor anything interesting that might approach. Saturday night was generally the most exciting night in this part of Acrylic Falls, as opposed to the newer part of the growing tourist town. Not many years earlier, some deep-pocketed developers had discovered that a few man-made lakes in the middle of the desert, coupled with year-round sunshine and an endless array of taverns with flashing signs somehow differed from every other town in America. Word spread that this was the place to be. A planned community popped up around those lakes complete with pricey golf-courses and elegant names to go with them. Indian casinos shook their tambourines directly outside the community to provide an additional outlet for the tourists’ cash in case they hadn’t spent it all at the overpriced specialty clothing stores and gourmet ice cream parlors. Acrylic Falls also boasted a succession of mid-level and elite hotels, some restaurants with what the owners hoped was an international flair, too few revamped roadways, far too many convenience stores and gas stations, and at long last a string of taxi cabs, all of them commanded--if not owned--by Big Fred Bagratuni.
   Fred had been in the taxi business since the days before Acrylic Falls had been anything other than a blip on a geriatric GPS system. Himself a native of Hrazdan, Armenia, at an early age Fred had migrated to south Chicago, found himself in hangdog love in Denver, divorced and destitute in Reno, incarcerated in Nogales, on the lam from Immigration in Phoenix, freed and legalized in Salt Lake City, and from that point forward driving cabs in the great southwest over the last twenty-some years. Fred recalled those days and nights as having been simultaneously carefree and full of adventure. The reality had been more of a struggle than he would care to live through a second time. After Salt Lake City, Fred had parked his wild ambitions and settled into the life of the greatest cab driver in America. Just as he had been good at making money behind the wheel, he found he was good at socking it away. Every time his Folger’s coffee can got full of enough cash to allow for it, Fred bought another cab at auction, licensed the vehicle and found himself a driver to pay a fat lease for the privilege of driving it. A lot of the drivers speeding up and down Hazington Road this night wouldn’t make back their own gas money. Fred tried to teach all of his guys to move slow when looking for someone to flag them down. He explained to them about tipping the valets and front desk workers, the doormen at bars and the bagmen at the bus stations. Three out of four new guys figured they already knew everything and so three out of four of them couldn’t pay next week’s lease, which meant Fred was supposed to take away their keys. Of the remaining one out of four who actually understood how to make money in the business, most of them came away from a Saturday night with a pocket full of cash only to see how fast they could throw it away on gambling, women or drink. Fred knew there was something inherently twisted about even his best drivers. Every driver he’d ever met had some kind of compulsion. And that was okay. Fred himself was not that much different. It was just that his old compulsion had been to live free of all responsibility and the one he’d picked up twenty years back was to be the greatest cab driver in America. Fred believed that a big part of his responsibility was to look after his guys. He had missed month’s of sleep helping out the drivers under his command. Most people thought that being a boss meant you just yelled orders at people all day long. Fred knew that a real leader worries about his guys. That philosophy--and the ability to throw the bull whenever necessary--had served Fred well. Within a few years Fred Bagratuni had amassed a fleet of fifty-two taxis, each one of the golden yellow Crown Victorias bearing the slogan "Where to for you?" in bold red cursive font. The company name, "Fred's Fine Fleet," radiated in royal blue block letters below. If Fred squinted he could almost see the Armenian flag in front of him each time he gazed upon one of his rides.  
  The modest tourist trap had been quick to grow and popular wisdom held that it was not going to slow down anytime soon. Just before the town's expansion really took off, some joker named Richard Conway dropped in and bought all of Fred’s Fine Fleet at twice what Fred would have asked for it, had he been so inclined--in cash. Fred didn’t know why this diminutive cowboy with the high-heeled snake-skin boots wanted a taxi fleet in Acrylic Falls, but at the time Fred hadn’t cared. The burdens of ownership had steered him from what he enjoyed most: taking people where they wanted to go. Besides that, Conway’s motivation had been none of Fred’s concern. All he had known for sure was that Rick the Dick (Fred’s code name for him) had bought up all fifty-two taxis for cash with the only stipulation being that Fred had to manage the fleet. Fred’s own stipulation was that his name and logo continue to grace the golden fleet and that his own personal cab remain in his possession. It was a sweet deal for Fred. And the job, while not especially painless, allowed Fred to be his own boss as well as the protector of the other cabbies. He knew how to manage the drivers and how to safeguard them from the fares which came primarily from the hotels or from the weirdos on the street. Whenever a driver had a problem--with a passenger, a cop, or some hotshot scumbag--that driver called Fred. Most of them did not even know that Rick the Dick was the owner now, not that it would matter to them. Fred would always be the boss.
  "Hey-hey, big Fred! What's the good word, amigo?" oozed a voice greasier than the shiny muk atop the asphalt.
  That was Rasmus, the one-eyed pimp. Fred had been to many cities. Not every town could claim a one-eyed pimp. Indeed, a clear majority of cities would have been less than open to the suggestion. Most places would have wasted little time rejecting such an offer. But if a one-eyed pimp possessed the tenacity and wherewithal to make a go of it, Acrylic Falls was willing to give that man a chance. Fred felt a chuckle bubble up from his waistline as he considered how the low-life had decided it was his mission in life to exceed the status of a cultural stereotype. His long flowing blue velvet robe dragged the street while his twenty-gallon hat almost brushed against the low-hanging monsoon night-time clouds. How the skinny bastard could hold himself up from the weight of those gold chains was more than Fred could fathom.
  "How you do, Rasmus?"
  "I do f-i-n-e, fine... Big Fred,” slurred the degenerate lifeform, his one eye swirling around his face for emphasis.  “Going for a ride, mighty man!"
  "No can do. I got fare inside restaurant. High roller. Got to wait. I get someone else for you."
  The pimp leaned in the window a bit closer to Fred than the driver would have invited his own mother to do. His one eye rolled skyward before settling its sight-beam on the driver.
 "Listen, Freddie. If I wanted one of your boys running lost in town tonight, I’d have asked for that, ya dig? Man, I need me one fine fat Freddie."
  "Hey, scumbag," Fred said, pushing back with one enormous shoulder. "You breathe that smelly salami dog breath on me one more second, I cut out you tonsil and mail to you sister."
  Rasmus backed up, flashing his teeth without smiling. His eye caught the street light and gleamed. "That's fine, Freddie. Don't mess yourself. Lots of rides waiting for me, brother."
  The pimp snapped his fingers. A late model Lexus pulled up beside him. The door eased open and the hooker behind the wheel said to get on in. They coasted off as Fred punched out his cigarette. The cherry’s sparks trailed after the Lexus before dying out. "Hokey smokes. Why you need ride if you got ride? Goofball degenerate. Whew. Is long night already."
  Over the next hour-and-a-half, a typical assortment of what Fred liked to think of as users, cheaters, and six-time losers milled along Hazington Road with no purpose other than to check out what every other aboosh-head was doing, each one hoping he was doing it better than the other. Fred liked the word aboosh-head. It was sort of a combination of Armenian and English to mean “stupid-head.” The Mexicans had their Spanglish. Well, Fred had his Armenglish. He made himself laugh sometimes.
  Fred was just getting set to light his seventh Saratoga when he heard feet racing out through the darkened glass doors of Aggie's. Squinting through the smoke that layered the front of his cab, Fred saw his fare running--if you could call feet that flopped like a drunken Bozo the Clown on a conveyor belt running--towards his vehicle. As Fred disgorged himself from the cab, he saw Aggie and his employee hot on the slipping heels of the Tom-Tom kid. The young man’s face was white.
  "Hey, you. Tommy-kid. What it is you do?"
  At the sound of his name being misspoken, Tommy stopped short and the two Armenian restaurateurs slammed into him. The kid stammered, "I-I-I'm To-to-to-Tommy! Are ya-ya-you going to--"
  Fred waved him off. "I'm going to leave you boney ass right here you don’t tell Fred what go on. Aggie! What is problem?"
  The old Armenian man spat on the sidewalk. "You want to know what's wrong?"
  "That is what I ask."
  "I tell you, Mr. Fred. He come in. He look at menu. He order shish-kabobs. He want bobs? We sell him bobs. This is our business. He eat the bobs. He drink a soda. He wipe his hands. Rub his belly. Magloski bring big shot the bill. He pay with big shot credit card. Magloski call in credit card. Credit card woman say to keep this fellow in the restaurant until police get here. Magloski give card back to this guy. Why he do this, I should live long enough to understand. Mister Credit Card leave without paying bill. We run. You call out his name. We bump into him. You start to ask stupid questions."
  "Hokey smokes, don't  cry me a river, Aggie. Tom-Tom, you pay this man in cash, h'okay?"
  "Okay, Fred."
  “Tom-Tom here got all the cash you need, Aggie. He no deadbeat. Big mistake. Everyone have nice day.”
  The kid trembled with such frustration that Fred grabbed the wallet and paid Aggie fifty dollars for the meal. Aggie’s countenance regained its natural levity. “Hey, kid. You come back again, make sure Fred here is with you. We forgive and forget, okay?”
  Tommy nodded and tried to smile. He still looked confused.
  As Fred returned the wallet to Tommy, he considered patting the kid on the shoulder, but the approaching sirens interrupted his thoughts.
  "Aggie, you cheap magoo. You call cops?"
  Aggie shook his head while Magloski began to cry. "I never call a cop in my life, Mr. Fred."
  His mind reeling from images of his night’s future earnings fluttering into the clouds, Fred turned to his passenger. "Tom-Tom, get in cab and shut up you face. Aggie, you have nice day. Magloski, I don't know."
  Fred closed Tommy’s door, then slipped behind the wheel of the Crown Vic and eased out onto Hazington Road. Five police units whizzed towards and around him as he made certain to heed the speed limit in an uncharacteristic display of respect for modern law and order. In the rearview he saw the patrols race into the frontway of Aggie’s. The Armenian would never turn Fred or the kid in. Aggie may have kept his brain in garbage disposal, but the man knew enough that if he ever wanted an out of town customer delivered again, it would serve him well to keep his mouth shut.
   As Fred moored the cab into the round at the mouth of the hotel, he waved off the ambitious doorman who had no doubt aimed to take a share of Fred's tip for the services. Fred said, "Listen, Tom-Tom. You okay now?"
  The kid grinned just as he had at the beginning of the evening. He appeared to have recovered from the ordeal. "I'm Tommy! You did me a big favor tonight!"
  The meter read one hundred eighty-five dollars. "It's okay. You good kid. Fare two-hundred bucks. Maybe you like to tip Fred. I don't know."
  Tommy reached into his jacket, retrieved the wallet--which still contained the credit card that had caused the night’s excitement--and pulled out four one hundred dollar bills. He handed them to Fred.
  "Whoa ho! Thank you, Mr. Tom. That very generous."
  "I'm Tommy! Do you want to take me somewhere else tonight?"
  "Tom-Tom, you keep throwing the money, Fred will take you where you go. Where to for you?"
  Tommy rubbed his chin for what Fred took for a contemplative moment. The Captain of the Cabbies had not quite dropped his guard. The police sirens still wailed and their units were heading up the hotel’s long scenic boulevard in their direction. Fred looked at Tommy. Tommy looked back at Fred.The captain wanted to believe in the good faith of the kid. Scratch a cynic, find a romantic, someone had said. Fred didn’t want anyone scratching him. What he wanted was for everything to work out fine.
 As if in response to Fred’s unspoken thoughts, the young man said, “I’m Tommy. I did not steal anything, Mr. Fred.”
 “Okay with me, kid. Where you get that card you used?”
  “I told you!  I am Tommy!  My brother gave me that card!”
  Fred decided that this was another of those things that was none of his business. What was his business was the abrupt and disturbing whirl of the propellor of a low-flying helicopter.
  The hotel doorman wandered back out and was inching his way toward the taxi. Fred told Tommy to stay buckled in and they roared off, followed by the shadow of the unlit helicopter.
  Earlier in the evening, Magpie Barkin, the night doorman at Acrylic Falls’ Wintercrest Hotel, had used his pocket scanner to read Fred’s Vehicle Identification Number. Barkin had been scanning taxis for months--ever since he’d first arrived at the Wintercrest--reporting the coded information back to the Central Command Liaison at headquarters in Richmond, Virginia. Magpie Barkin’s job description did not call for this degree of involvement, but the uniformed doorman did not intend to spend the rest of his life glad-handing tourists from Winnipeg into deigning to slip him pocket change. Had someone asked the Liaison back in Richmond what he thought of Magpie Barkin, that person would have replied that the doorman was a low-level asset, not even up to the position of “spy.” Barkin, on the other hand, considered himself far more crucial to the Operation. He had been sent here to perform a rudimentary function. But Barkin knew that only lazy and stupid people accepted their fates in life. He fully intended to show the decisions-makers back in Richmond that Mrs. Barkin’s youngest son had grown into a man who could be entrusted with all manner of essential tasks designed and implemented to preserve the republic. What this particular mission was, Barkin could not have quite verbalized. However, he could feel its importance with greater intensity every evening. Now as he watched the helicopter roar above Hazington Road in pursuit of that lazy-ass cab driver, Barkin’s theories were reinforced.
  Admiring the swirl of the leaves that circled overhead in the blowback from the airmobile propellers, Barkin whistled a self-composed tune, permitting himself the luxury of imagining the reaction in Richmond when they heard the news about his status in the Operation. Magpie, as everyone called him, had pegged Thomas Matthews as an operative. Before long, Barkin noticed that every time he approached Tommy, the guest began acting nervous. If he didn’t have something to hide, why would he be nervous? Yes, the guy was clearly an operative of some sort. Unlike himself, this Tommy person was just an errand boy, some feeb his own people had set up to make some surreptitious delivery of God only knew what. Just because those desk jockeys at headquarters couldn’t find their rear-ends with a flashlight and a two day head start didn’t mean that Magpie Barkin needed to rest on his laurels and let the whole damned country slip into the hands of the anarchists--no, not as long as Magpie was on the job.
  Looking through the window glass of the hotel the doorman observed Hazel Overturf, the front desk chick, pretending to count receipts while she was in all likelihood sending out nasty text messages on one of her many electronic devices. Barkin did not hold Hazel in much esteem, an opinion that had absolutely nothing to do with her routine habit of turning down his advances. She would get to see what real spy talent was all about just any time now.
 “Barkin here!” Magpie stated into his cell phone in his best official voice when he saw the incoming number on the Caller ID. He was doing all he could to not smile as he said it.
 “Barkin, you idiot! Your job is to communicate vin numbers and smile like the baggage monkey you are. Your job is not to call in helicopters!” screamed Ginger McGraw, his supervisor back in the bowels of the hotel. “One more of your 007 moves and you’ll have a new job picking up my dog’s turds!”  For an aging prom queen, Ginger McGraw was one tough cookie. And Magpie had been so certain she would be proud of him!
  Magpie’s smile hit the cobblestones, the sirens fell silent, the awesome helicopter full of Rambos and Terminators retreated, and the target had taken off. The doorman
glanced over at Hazel who seemed delighted by one of her sleazy texts.
 “Witch,”  he muttered and went back to his post to wait for the next Gucci-laden limo, while he finished the remainder of his long shift in shame.
                         ____________________________
 
   “We got company,” Fred said, looking at Tommy in the rearview mirror. “Helicopter chase kid with stolen credit card? No sense do it make. What you really up to, Tom-Tom?”
  Tommy tilted his neck so that it appeared he was speaking into his own left shoulder. “I’m Tommy! Are you going to get us away from that helicopter, Mr. Fred?”
  Fred swung the Crown Vic off Hazington east onto Paddy Street, a narrow patch of cobblestone favored by bar staff after their shifts had ended. The street being otherwise vacant, Fred rammed his foot onto the gas pedal and the car shot forward like a stone from a slingshot.
  “Hey, I am cab driver,” he said. “I do what I do.”
  Fred realized the kid had not answered the question, but he reckoned there was time enough for that later. The greasy lights from the twinkling taverns sheared across Fred’s line of vision, disturbing him not at all, especially when he saw the glow from the police disappear and heard the sirens fade away. The hum of the helicopter was now absent. He began to question whether they had been pursued in the first place. Of course, he could not discount the fact that he was a very good driver behind the wheel of an exceptional vehicle. Twenty-odd years in the business had taught him much about rising above the abilities of the average driver. As if to prove his own point and to take no chances, Fred clicked the Vic into neutral, punched the brake like an old man striking a cuckoo clock, swung the wheel hard and doubled back toward Hazington, shooting blind across the intersection, missing a tour bus full of out-of-towners, catching tread to a patch of oil that  zigzagged them across a dogleg of Switchback Boulevard. Switchback was a convenient mistake the city planners had overlooked when laying out the design of Acrylic Falls. It deposited drivers right into the passing lane of Peyton Pass, one of the smoothest two-lanes in the area. You could ride Peyton all the way to the nearest Indian Casino and not hit one stop light, even if you tried.
  Fred’s personal vehicle sported a modified engine, a 650cc that at one time had been used by some Mario Andretti wannabe. Fred recommended premium gasoline to all his drivers. In his own machine, he used nothing but jet fuel. His miles per gallon sucked, but his car could eat up the road. The fastest legal speed on Peyton was 65. Fred felt that was a speed better handled by grandmothers. “I do 110 backing out my driveway,” he sneered. That statement was not quite accurate, but Fred did not shy from hyperbole. Exaggeration was a form of art in the taxi business.
  About his cab’s ability to go faster than anyone else on the road, however, Fred told no lies.
  Slowing down not at all, Fred took hold of the taxi microphone attached to an old analog radio. Pressing the talk button, he said, “Three-five-nine?”
  He released the button, waited for the signifying beep, and smiled around another good puff from a new Saratoga. Three-five-nine knew about a few things that maybe even Fred did not fully comprehend. Of course, Fred himself knew about things that no damned driver in all of Acrylic Falls understood. That did not mean that he knew everything. Such things were what made the world interesting. Even crazy cab drivers had their value. That included Marcel, aka three-five-nine, who also had his uses. Fred intended to call in a favor.
  “Three-five-nine here, Captain. How’s your night, Fred?” came the preacher-smooth southern accent of Fred’s longest tenured employee.
  “I do fine, three-five-nine. Listen, what you twenty?”
  “I just dropped off a party of three at the Arpaio Inn, Fred. Right now I’m deadheading it back to town. You got a ride for me?”
  Every driver always got around to asking that question. Marcel wasted less time than most. “No, I got no ride for you. I need you do me favor.”
  Fred was met with a brief pause in the conversation. He knew Marcel was mulling things over and possibly even remembering the last time Fred paid off Marcel’s bookie, an act of generosity which had saved Marcel’s life. At last the driver came back. “Alright, Fred. What do you need?”
     “You double back to Arpaio Inn, okay? I be there five minutes. I want you take look at something for me. I got passenger with me.”
  “I’m Tommy!”
  “I know who you are, Tom-Tom. Three-five-nine, you be there when I get there, okay?”
  “Sure will, Fred. I’m turning around now.”
  “Over out.”
  In the back seat, Tommy sneezed and wiped his nose on his jacket sleeve.
  “Listen, Mr. Tom. Tell me about you credit card.”
  Tommy adjusted his jacket collar. “My brother Gerald gave me this card,” he said, sounding to Fred just a trifle defensive. “It’s my card. It has my name on it.”
  “I understand is you card. You have used the card before tonight?”
  Tommy leaned across the seat to be closer to his new friend. “I used my credit card to buy my airplane ticket. I used my credit card to buy my room at my hotel. I used my credit card at the Armenian restaurant that you took me to.”
  “You have any problems with card?”
  “I had problems at the restaurant.”
  “Yes, I know. You have problems with airline? With hotel?”
  “My card says my name is Thomas Arnold Matthews.”
  “Congratulations.”
  “I’m Tommy and I never stole anything in my life.”
  “H’okay, so no problems.”
  “That’s right, Mr. Freddie. Thomas Arnold Matthews never steals. My brother Gerald tells me to always tell the truth.”
  “Good advice.”
  “And to never steal.”
  “He good man.”
  “I do what Gerald tells me to do. He’s going to come and see me. He is doing important things now and said he might need me to help him. Maybe you will take Gerald and me to the Armenian restaurant and my brother will tell those people I am Tommy and I am good!”
    “Yes. Whatever you want. I drive taxi. Hush. Fred thinking.”
  Tommy stopped talking and went back to staring at the road reflections through the now smeared taxi window. He was thinking too. He liked the chubby man in the front seat. That was something that Tommy could understand. Tommy always understood goodness. This Fred-man was nice even though he pretended to be mean.  He was good. Tommy decided that nothing not good should ever happen to the Fred-man. He would make sure of it. Tommy knew that many people shunned him because he was different. He didn’t want anything not good to happen to them either, but he didn’t allow himself to remember those people and therefore he didn’t really try to help them when they needed it. Fred was different. Tommy would not forget.
  Blue lights in the parking lot improved the night’s visibility as the two men drew up to the Arpaio Inn. Fred  killed his headlights and coasted up next to the other golden yellow Crown Vic. His thumb motioned for Marcel to get in the front seat. As soon as Marcel was inside, Fred locked the doors.
  “Hello three-five-nine. Meet Tommy.”
  “Hi!  I’m Tommy! Are you going to ride with us in Fred’s car tonight?”
 Marcel looked at Fred as if one of them had lost his frontal lobe. “Pleased to meet ya, Tommy.”
 “Listen, three-five-nine, I tell you story. True story, but story just happen.” Fred recounted the incident at Aggie’s. He left out the part about the helicopter and the police cars.
 “Well, Fred, that’s very exciting, but I am not making any money listening to it. Credit cards get turned down all the time. What do you care? Can you get to the favor part so I can get back to work?” drawled Marcel.
 “Three-five-nine, remember you tell Fred you secret agent or some such horse poop when you back in Frankfort?”
 “Well, yes, Fred. You’re the only one who is supposed to know that. I am never going back there. No one is supposed to know I am here,” Marcel whispered through clenched teeth, his thumb indicating Tommy in the back seat.
 “Yes, yes. I know. Don’t worry. Fred never let you down yet, right?”
 “Right, but…”
 “No, ‘buts’, just listen. I want you look at kid’s credit card.”
  Fred snapped his fingers. Tommy produced the credit card. Fred accepted it and handed it to Marcel.
  Marcel--whose real name was Dale Devine, late of Frankfort, Kentucky, a former FBI man who had been terminated with extreme prejudice, freeing him up to pursue life as a private detective, at least until he’d been asked by the chief of police to close up shop or else face charges for failing to carry a permit--took the card from Fred and held it into the light. The standard sized bank card was made of transparent laminate. It felt lighter than the average piece of plastic--less weighty, yet somehow more durable. It bore no magnetic strip on the reverse. The account number and the name of the cardmember changed from green to purple by tilting the card at an odd angle into the light.
  “Thomas Arnold Matthew? That you?” Marcel said, peering at Tommy who was making shadows of himself in the blue hotel light. Marcel had already figured this Tommy as the kind of guy who liked to play with his own food. That didn’t have to be a bad thing, he supposed.
  “Here we go,”  Fred muttered shaking his head and rolling his eyes.
  “I’m Tommy! And that is my credit card.”
  “Nice looking card.”
  “Three-five-nine, I not call you out here to gaze in moonlight. You have special history with things like this. Don’t play games, h’okay?”  Fred whispered louder than most people shouted.       
  While Marcel didn’t want Fred to be uncomfortable or more agitated than he usually was, he allowed himself to feel good holding the upper-hand over his boss for just a moment.
  Marcel motioned to Fred to tender a cigarette. Fred obliged without taking his eyes off his employee. Marcel sucked in the smoke, coughed for effect, ran a hand through his hair (also for effect), and studied the card a bit more.
  “You know, Fred, nowadays you can scan your credit card right into your cell phone and then just use your phone to pay for damn near anything.”
  “That is not cell phone, three-five-nine.”
  “I have heard tell they’ve come out with these new cards that have like a GPS system built right inside them, but I think they call it PPS. Kinda like having a microchip inside your dog, except in this case it happens to be inside your credit card.”
  Fred watched Marcel enjoying the free cigarette. He did not appreciate Marcel’s sing-song drawled explanation.  “Why they do that?”
 “Well, I suppose if somebody lost his card or something, he could track it down. I imagine the main reason is to tell people what kind of stuff you buy so they can sell you more stuff. I don’t know. Thing is, this kind of thing doesn’t exist just everywhere, you know? I mean, I read in Scientific American where they’re thinking about maybe testing it out in some of the prefab towns.” Marcel continued with his toe-in-the-sand approach to telling what he knew for certain. He found himself somewhat enjoying this temporary control even though he was still upset about Fred spilling his guts. It had been several years since he had worked that infidelity case involving the Chief of Police and he was pretty sure the guy wanted him dead.
  Fred did not smile. “How we can tell for sure this card like that?” Captain Fred didn’t have much doubt that three-five-nine was onto something, but he was in no mood for speculation.
  Marcel popped the trunk lid, removed himself from the passenger seat and strode over to the rear of his car. He retrieved a toolbox and sat it down by his own rear wheels. “Go on and bring that card over here, will you? This thing’s heavy.”
  Marcel pried open the toolbox cover and extracted something that looked like a crescent wrench with a purple light on the business end of it.
  “What that is?”
  “Tender me that card, please. This, my friend Fred, is a crescent wrench. I adapted a signal detector for the end of it. Makes one hell of a weapon, too.”
  Fred shook his head. “Sure, as long as mugger has time to wait for you to get into you toolbox.”
  Marcel scanned the clear laminate with his cell phone, then allowed the purple light on his wrench to read what the application revealed. In response, the wrench beeped twice. Marcel repeated the process and received the same two beeps.
  “It’s got PPS on it, all right. Only working sporadically out here, though. Guess when they built this part of the access they forgot a few things. Cell phones don’t always work either. New style technology doesn’t operate in a lot of rural areas like this part of town. Thing is, most folks out here don’t care.”
  “Thank you for the civics lesson, three-five-nine. So all this chase across town with flying machines and popo is all over a piece of garbage credit card with kid’s name on it? I don’t believe it.”
  Marcel looked from Fred to Tommy. “What’s that about the cops? You never said--”
  “Don’t worry, three-five-nine. If the cops show up, I write you note. Thank you for favor. You go now.”
  The two men shook hands and parted ways. Fred stopped for a second and turned around.  “Hey, three-five-nine!”
 “What, Captain?”
 “Why you have that thing in trunk of car?”
 “Remember that you wanted to make sure your car didn’t have any of the new company’s trackers on it?”
 “Yes?”
 “Well, captain, I don’t want people tracking me down neither. And you know what else, Fred? That Armenian joint you took your guy to? They ain’t hooked up to the new system. Grandfather clause.”  He winked and hopped into the car and disappeared into the night.

  Fred did not know anyone named Grandfather Claus. Maybe that was what they called Santa in Kentucky.