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Friday, August 30, 2013

WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?





Jainey Jo Olson: Yes indeed, boys and girls, women and men, living and dead of all ages, it is time once again to drop your iPods in the toilet, chew off your pencil erasers and move your hands away from your genitals because right here for the first time once again we have all gathered around the video prompter to play "What Does That Mean?" Tonight's special guests include retired disco ingenue and celebrated political analyst Wendy Rococo, famed defense attorney Gerry Spence, and rocket scientist Werner von Braun, the man so many of us mistook for deceased. And now, the wandering troubadour for truth, the man who took the unraveling of obfuscation out behind the barn and came back alone, your host and mine, Phil Mershon!

 [Crowd applause]

Phil Mershon: Thank you, Jainey Jo Olson, and of course our studio audience, as well as those of you watching at home from your sterilized cocoons. As you can see, tonight we have assembled three fine minds to unravel what exactly is being said and by whom. Let's start with legal mastermind, Gerry Spence. Love those fringes, my friend.
Gerry Spence: Thank you, sir. May I say that I admire your Keds? Socks, this evening?
Phil Mershon: Certainly not. Gerry, as you have no doubt heard, the Assad government in Syria is said by many to have used chemical and other weapons of mass destruction against thousands of its own people. In response, today Secretary of State John Kerry said the following.


[John Kerry via video]: "The U.S. government knows that at least 1,429 people, including 426 children, were killed in the attack. The U.S. knows that Assad’s regime has use chemical weapons multiple times this year. The U.S. intelligence assessment is based on evidence collected from thousands of sources. It was reached by officials mindful of the Iraq experience.” 
Phil: Gerry Spence, what we want to know is. . .
Audience: What does that mean?!?
Gerry: It's brilliant, really, the way the administration is going out of its way to distance itself from the deceptions of its predecessors. Unfortunately, what I hear in that statement is that Kerry, who, before he got old and in the way, was somewhat opposed to contrived military scenarios, is simply attempting to create a sentiment in this country that will say, "You've been lied to before, by Republicans and Democrats alike. This time, before we lie to you, we want to make sure you've actually seen the videos of children suffering and dying." That way the administration can shift the moral decision from the question of whether it's appropriate to respond to an inhumane provocation in a military manner or by some other means, shift it to a decision of what degree of military response shall we take. And what that means, Phil, is that they have already made a decision. In other words, some armed response will be forthcoming.
Phil: Wendy, your vote on Gerry's interpretation? Remember, this will be for five points.
Wendy: I think what we're forgetting is that Kerry used to be a Senator or something, right? Plus, if I'm not mistaken, he's married to Heinz 57 million dollar sauce, you know? So when big John struts it out, baby, you just know his pillow's got the fluff.
Phil: His pillow's got the fluff?
Wendy: That's right, sugar. 
Phil: General van Braun, your thoughts, sir?
Werner: I'm dead, you idiot!
Wendy: Not according to your pants, sugar.
Werner: Bah!You make an old man blush, my dear.
Phil: Wendy Rococo, this next bit of subterfuge is for you. This week, Dr. Cornell West appeared on Tavis Smiley's radio program to talk about the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. During the broadcast, Dr. West had this to say.
[Cornell via radio transmission]:“We saw the coronation of the bonafide house Negro of the Barack Obama plantation, our dear brother Al Sharpton, whose decline was supported by [MSNBC analyst] Michael Dyson and others who’ve prostituted themselves in a very ugly and vicious way."
Phil: Wendy, what was Cornell West really saying there?
Wendy: I'm glad you asked me that question, Phil, and I'll tell you why. You know I love the President, right? Well, I think that if anybody's vying for the position of house n-word, it might just be Dr. West. I don't know who that Dyson guy is.
Gerry: Wendy, Wendy, if I may? I think my esteemed friend Cornell was saying that the so-called contemporary civil rights movement lacks some of the courage brought to it by men such as Dr. King.
Wendy: What's you know about it, fringe cuffs?
Werner: Bah! She got you on that one, Copas.
Gerry: I thought you were dead?
Werner: Oops. Sorry.
Wendy: You saying we got tamed by the fame and the flame of financial success? That what you saying?
Gerry: What I'm saying is that there is no civil rights movement today in large part because the leadership was, first, literally assassinated, and second, because it assassinated itself with the aggrandizement of young men and women bent on rising above their class rather than with it.
Wendy: So no brother or sister gets to be rich unless we all gets rich?
Gerry: When the suggestion becomes that getting rich is the only way to achieve parity with the dominant class, then, yes, I see that as a betrayal of the interests of all people, black, brown, yellow and white. 
Wendy: Listen, fringe cuffs, you ever been high?
Phil: On advice of council, Gerry, do not answer that question. Our final exposition tonight is in regards to Kenneth Bae, an American citizen and Christian missionary sentenced this week to fifteen years hard labor in North Korea for what that country's legal force calls subversion. In response, former Chicago Bulls forward Dennis Rodman says he thinks he can get Bae released.
[Dennis Rodman via video]: "I will definitely ask for Kenneth Bae’s release. I will say, ‘Marshal, why is this guy held hostage?’ I could try and soften it up in that way. If the Marshal says, ‘Dennis, you know, do you want me to let him loose?’ and then if I actually got him loose – and I’m just saying this out the blue – I’d be the most powerful guy in the world.”
Phil: Werner von Braun, what is Dennis really saying there?
Werner: Look, you Americans are all a crazy bunch of kooks. To be superior to the normal crazy head, you must have what you call ego. The North Korean President, Kim Jong-um, he is a maniac, yes? This basketball player with the ink job, he gets to rule the net being shy? Herr Furher, whatever one may say of him, he had ego to spare. So this Rodman fellow--even his name is suggestive of brute animus--he wants to be the one with power. He hangs out with pornographers from Asia, brutal dwarfs with too much free time, heads of state. He tells dirty jokes to TMZ. They laugh with him as we laugh at him. But what do I know? I've been dead for years.
Wendy: Don't you put yourself down, sugar. You got that whole song and dance just right, baby.
Gerry: Maybe we should have a game show about what the hell Wendy and Werner are saying.
Wendy: You stay off my show, cowboy hat. 
Phil: You folks won't believe this. That's par for the course, I suppose. We have a three-way tie. That means that the first contestant to leap into the arms of a second contestant while tickling to death the third contestant wins this week's yet-to-be-determined grand prize. Oh dear! This is getting messy. Tune in next week to find out--Ouch! Hey, I'm not part of this, you bastards! Werner! Put me down!

Thursday, August 29, 2013

TRAMPLING OUT THE LITTLE FOXES



I'll be all around in the dark - I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look - wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build - I'll be there, too.
     Henry Fonda as Tom Joad

    Just as novelist John Steinbeck conveyed the rhythms of barren frustration in his militant and passionate novel, so did director John Ford etch in charcoal via aspect ratio 1.37 : 1 the shadows dripping from the cobwebs around the eyelids of the Joad family on their way from the dust bowl of Oklahoma to the great west Eden of California. Agony inches along every frame of The Grapes of Wrath (1940), daring and taunting any viewer to dare engage in supportive hope for the family sacrificed like the Son of God on the cross of the Great Depression.   
   One can think of this movie as an allegory of the migration of eager talent seeking the unimagined glory of Hollywood, but that crap is only fodder for press releases. The Grapes of Wrath was no press release. It was the artful use of pained reality as propaganda. Jane Darwell as Ma Joad teeters on the edge of banal sentiment every five minutes. But Ford knew how to slap the smirks off the cynics' faces. He used Henry Fonda as a morbid ghost of promise, just as he would do similarly six years later with the same actor in the role of Wyatt Earp in My Darling Clementine.    
   Tom Joad is an ex-con. While he's been away, he's grown tough, just as the rich man has grown fat and the poor people back home have grown isolated from their own collective potential. These people have endured the happy populism of William Jennings Bryant and his cross of gold. What they want is to stand on land that belongs to them, hoist their hands to their hips and breathe the air they love. Just as in Steinbeck's novel, the value here is in switching one group of owners for another.   Steinbeck and Ford aren't opposed to ownership or the essence of property. What they despise is some invisible hand of guidance wearing down the working man and taking away his chances. That said, there's not much point at this late date to idolize either man as some kind of radical in his profession. What both men were, however, was astute, stuck to details like a nail in a horse's shoe.   And it is details that stirred the poison passion of readers and audiences alike. Fonda alone pulls off role of the struggling thinker pitted against a life that allows little time for self-awareness or reflection. 
   Again, the tendency toward over-sentimentalizing heartache wears thin on a cynical viewership. Nonetheless, anyone alive today who heard parents and grandparents telling stories of the "old days" would do well to consider the panicked isolation this movie masterfully recites.

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord;
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.

I have seen Him in the watch-fires of a hundred circling camps,
They have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps;
I can read His righteous sentence by the dim and flaring lamps:
His day is marching on.

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel:
"As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;
Let the Hero, born of woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on."

Henry Fonda


    Lillian Hellman adapted the screenplay for the 1941 cinematic release of The Little Foxes from her own 1939 play of the same name. At the time, Hellman admitted that elements of the behavior of the Hubbard family came from her observations of her own family. Putting Hellman's words in the hands of director William Wyler (Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur, Mrs. Minniver) was a formula for success. With Bette Davis acting the role and speaking the lines Hellman wrote for the character Regina Hubbard Giddens, The Little Foxes blew apart every mannered nuance a heartless profiteer could feign.
   The plot centers on the Hubbard brothers battling sister Regina over the right to fleece Regina's estranged but temporarily returned husband Horace. The husband suffers from some debilitating illness, but his mind still contains riches which suggest that he made his money the old fashioned way, or at least the way it's written about in history books. But the plot really is of no concern, at least as far as I'm concerned. Indeed, I first saw the movie at a theater in Boston, where it was introduced by a local movie critic who urged us to ignore the political or class battle happening here and to focus on the soap opera aspects of the story. Naturally, I refused to do what the effete snob wanted me to do and instead dove right into the class struggle elements. But in truth, the realization to which Regina's daughter Alexandra comes is the complete technical knock-out this film delivers without flinching. Regina believes she has sheltered Alexandra (played by Teresa Wright) from the wicked nature of the world. What she has actually done, of course, is to inadvertently school the girl in an understanding of how coercion works. When the daughter threatens to reveal what she has realized (that her mother is a calculating passive murderess), the entire structure of power within the family slips back on itself and the rancid brothers eke away into the night, just as Regina (we trust) discovers how it feels to be ruled by her former captive.
   The intricate complexities of this masterful movie deserve to be enshrined. It is certainly director Wyler's best (if least celebrated) work. And it went a long way toward instilling the image of Bette Davis as a lethal ingenue. After all, Jackie DeShannon did more than just develop a catchy phrase when she co-wrote "Bette Davis Eyes."
Bette Davis

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

WHOOPS! THERE GOES THE 13TH CENTURY!

   
Philropost

   The premise of the movie Rollerball (1975) takes a while to reveal itself. We spend the first twenty minutes of this film looking on at a sport which is, to put it generously, somewhat eclectic. The game connects the violence of football with the design of roller derby, with the revved engines of motocross, the crashes of Nascar, the stuffing of basketball, the fielding grounders of baseball, and the suspension of sportsmanship and theatricality of the World Wrestling Federation. Oh, and let us not leave out the murderous impulses of physicians who execute prisoners with lethal injections. The best player in this, the only sport that matters, is Jonathan E., known to we folks at home as a young and beautiful James Caan. Being the best player at Rollerball is his big mistake.
    The story happens in 2018. By then, corporations have wiped out the concept of the nation. Cities still exist, however. Jonathan plays for the Houston Energy team. What Houston gives the world is all forms of energy--and a championship Rollerball team. The sport--as explained by John Houseman, the evil Bartholomew--exists to vicariously allow the masses to work out their bloodlust. But what must be maintained, asserts the CEO of Energy, is that each person must be reminded that the individual has no chance of rising above the class or team. Because Jonathon E. is so accomplished, his existence is a threat. Bartholomew orders him to retire. 
    Failing to understand why, he declines. Bartholomew is disappointed. Jonathan leaves. 
    But he wants to understand. He flies to Geneva, where the world library is housed. Jonathan discovers the library to be a librarian, played by Ralph Richardson, and a lava lamp-style computer named Zero, an apparent reference to things of a binary nature. Zero won't tell Jonathan what he wants to know. Jonathan leaves. 
    Jonathan gets invited to a party held in his honor. Expected to announce his retirement, he declines. Bartholomew is disappointed. Jonathan leaves.
    Jonathan Leaves would have made a good name for this movie, since it provides the only logical consistency in the motion picture. 
    Despite the fact that the concept of this movie is vastly superior to the plot, the acting, the editing, the directing, and the uniforms, that concept itself is worth anticipating. In the same way that Rollerball is an eclectic sport, so the politics of this movie are both Corporatist and communistic, both pro libertarian and pro government. 
   Even this confusion would be tolerable were it not for the miserable directing by Norman Jewison. Here he was with some mighty hot talents at his disposal, none more mighty and none more disposable than that of Mr. Caan. Probably, Lewison was aiming for some type of "acting without acting" stylism that he thought would amplify the sterility of the futurist society. With one exception, this does not succeed. The only scene--or segments of scenes--where the bloodcurdling essence of vacuity comes across is in the scene where a bunch of Luded and coked-out partygoers greet the dawn by drunkenly firing a flare gun at some innocent pine trees, the latter responding by going up in flames to the laughter of the soulless mannequins. That one brilliant scene does what the rest of the movie does not. It makes us angry. And anger is supposed to be the emotion consequent with this film. It is not. That is why this well-thought-out movie lands on its back and gets run over by an athlete on skates. 
    Speaking of violent images, they are plentiful, and even though the movie has dated in other ways, the violence here is just as contemporary as last week. A case in point is one where Moonpie, an accomplice and player of Jonathan, faces off against some Tokyo players, one of whom strips off Moonpie's helmet so that another can whack the back of his head with a lethal karate chop. That scene makes us mad, too, although there's no good reason for that feeling since Moonpie displays all the humanity of a statue of Porky the Pig. 
   That lack of humanity is perhaps the main reason why this movie fails to connect. Without some internal frame of reference or moral center with which to compare the interior events of the movie, we are unable to emit or revel or even imagine the tragedy that would otherwise be the lives of these pawns. That such talent was wasted on what quickly became known as a "cult movie" is perhaps the greatest tragedy of all. 
Philropost

Monday, August 26, 2013

THE NAZIS FROM SOUTH OF THE BORDER

   
Young Hitler

   Imagine a movie that has nothing to do with blowing up buildings or exploding car chases or sons undergoing sex changes so they can work in the strip club to put themselves through cosmetology school. Instead, imagine that these three male stars, each a tad long in the tooth, convey their respective roles with a modicum of understatement, knowing as they must that their very presence alone will be enough to muster public interest in the project, and yet each of the performances is so engrossing that you'd pay good money just to watch them breathe hard. Got it? Okay, now imagine that two of these three senior stars play very high-ranking Nazis who escaped from the Third Reich to South America where they plot world domination while the third big star represents a tired old Jewish man who has heard every stupid conspiracy theory in the book, and yet who has himself stared true evil in the eye and brought enough visceral strength to bear on the situation to restrain himself from blinking. I know that's a tall order to demand, but while we're there, imagine that one of these escaped Nazis has a viable plan for producing nearly one hundred Adolf Hitler clones and unleashing those young men on a planet which will be, to say the least, unprepared.
    With all this imagining going on, the engaged reader may suspect that contemporary audiences might scratch their heads and mutter, "Adolf who?"
   Right. Also correct.
   Such bespeaks the tragic nature of our contemporary malaise. None of that, it must be understood, reflects poorly on The Boys From Brazil (1978), the subject film in question. The reality is that while this film falls more than a tad short of excellent, it still avoids the putrid reek of other doom movies of the time, of which The Omen was the most unctuous. Based on the novel by Ira Levin (Rosemary's Baby), the movie stars Laurence Olivier, Gregory Peck, and James Mason. We are also treated to a very early performance by Steven Guttenberg. He plays a young idealist with his hands and face down in the dirt in Paraguay where none other than Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death, has gathered together a number of well-dressed henchmen to murder ninety-four male civil servants throughout the planet. None of the conspirators understands why. Niether does Guttenberg, who gets on the phone to Olivier to let him know there are Nazis in Paraguay.
    "What a news flash," Olivier smirks with condescension. "Nazis in South America. Let me write that one down."
   I would wager a year's pay that less than half the college students in America would have known that following World War II, several thousand Nazis were aided by European and American allies in their escape from justice, in some cases through the auspices of ambitious yet despicable operations such as Project Paperclip, and in other instances "ratlines," as they were called, sometimes facilitated by the Catholic church, and in others by the financial and tactical support of the Office of Strategic Services.
    As to some ready data on Josef Mengele, we turn to the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum:
Approximately 30 physicians served at Auschwitz during the period in which Mengele was assigned to the camp. As a requisite feature of their “rounds,” medical staff performed “selections” of prisoners on the ramp, determining from among the mass of humanity arriving at Auschwitz who would be retained for work and who would perish immediately in the gas chambers. Known as the “Angel of Death,” or sometimes as the “White Angel,” for his coldly cruel demeanor on the ramp, Mengele is associated more closely with this “selection duty” than any other medical officer at Auschwitz, although by most accounts he performed this task no more often than any of his colleagues. Undoubtedly, this association is partially explained by his postwar notoriety, but the ubiquitous image of Mengele at the ramp in so many survivors' accounts has also to do with the fact that Mengele often appeared “off-duty” in the selection area whenever trainloads of new prisoners arrived at Auschwitz, searching for twins.

    Mengele used his time in Auschwitz to experiment on twins. He was fascinated with the genetic and environmental factors unique to twins, so he performed all manner of surgical experiments on them, sans anesthesia, typically agonizing in the extreme, with a particular fondness for removing limbs. Mengele also developed a fascination with the irises of children's eyes and maintained quite a collection of them, extracted as they were from his murdered victims. 
    The Boys From Brazil extrapolates from all this and posits that Mengele had holed up in Paraguay to unleash his genuine Hitler youth (young boys cloned from the blood and flesh of Hitler) upon the world. To affect this, he recreates the environmental conditions under which his mentor thrived: a father much older than the mother, the former deceased, that latter extremely doting. 
    In point of fact, Mengele escaped justice by settling in Argentina, then Paraguay, and eventually Brazil. He was fascinated by eugenics and some evidence exists that he inseminated hundreds of eggs of concentration camp women with cells from Aryan men. But it is not the viability of the scientific possibility of this plan that matters. We live in an age, good or bad, when damn near anything is viable. The real issue is whether or not the United States, or any other country, would be susceptible to the wiles of snotty young Hitlers. And it is here than the movie fumbles its opportunities. Putting aside any moral quagmire that the movie makers wish to convey, the real horror is not whether something of a scientific nature can be created. We skipped over that Rubicon with nuclear weapons a long time ago. The issue is one of desire. What conditions would need to present themselves in the world in order for a Fourth Reich to take hold? To that, the movie makes not even the slightest nod of recognition. The only reference we get is when Gregory Peck, as Mengele, yabbers on about watching films of Hitler on late night America television. "The time is ripe!" he cheers. Maybe so. But you'd never get a clue about that from this otherwise persuasive film. In short, a lot of talent and not a small amount of work is wasted on a concept that could have been the movie of the decade.

Friday, August 23, 2013

POLICE AND THIEVES

   

   While the remarkable Antoinette Tuff talked down a young man with an automatic weapon and five hundred rounds of ammunition, undoubtedly preventing the murders of teachers and children, the one thought that kept washing across my mind was: Why do they always shoot up the schools? 
   Is that a loaded (no pun intended) question? It is not. 
   Matthew Ward in Louisville, Kentucky in 1853 picked up his pistol and killed the schoolmaster who had one day earlier punished Ward's brother.
   One hundred-thirteen years later, Charles Joseph Whitman climbed to the University of Texas observation tower, where he shot forty-eight people, seventeen of whom died. 
   In January 1979, Brenda Ann Spencer leaned out the window of her home and fired upon the Cleveland Elementary School in San Diego, killing two people and wounding eight others. She told a reporter who contacted her by phone that she was shooting up the school because she "didn't like Mondays."
   These are only a few from an easily-forgotten past. So far in the 2000s, there have been seventy-eight shootings at schools in this country. Seventy-eight
    Why?
    I believe the most reasonable answer is because public schools are the sources of intense pressure, some of it inherent in the nature of the institution, other parts highly preventable and far too often ignored. 
    Elementary schools, middle schools (or junior highs), high schools and even universities and colleges have extraordinary success rates in producing pariahs and then deliberately pressurizing those pariahs to the breaking point just for the amusement of the students, faculty and administration.
    Consider: An unpopular girl named Brenda almost misses the school bus, but runs out of her house in time to flag the driver. Out of breath and panting, as she boards the bus, the forty-plus students already on board loudly moan in disappointment. When Brenda begins to cry, the same students laugh in delight at the psychological agony they have created.
   Consider: Two weeks following a beating by several athletes in the high school, a teenager named Eugene curses under his breath in the Health class. The instructor dives from the podium, lifts the boy up from beneath the armpits and slams him against the wall, shouting "Nobody swears in my class!" Terrified, the young man points out that the other guys in the class cuss all the time. The instructor slams Eugene again and says, "They don't swear!"
    Consider: An attractive high school student named Cheryl is rumored to be promiscuous. Even the boys with whom she is said to have had relations not only shun her but taunt her publicly until she drops out of school her senior year.
    Consider: A fourth grade boy named Adam mentions to his school friends that his family is moving tomorrow and that he will never see them again. Instantly, he is grabbed by four boys who hold him in a supine position while a fifth boy positions a magnifying glass above the kid's throat until the sun ray burns through the skin.
    A fifth grader walking home from school with his violin case is set upon by two boys from his class who call him a sissy. One boy knocks him to the ground while the other pounds his head with closed fists, not stopping even after the victim had been unconscious for more than five minutes.
    These recollections come tripping back decades later. They are just things I happened to see, only a handful out of literally hundreds of such stupid actions. I'm sure you could add your own to this truncated list.
    Pressure. It builds within the spirit and body of a kid, wears away whatever resistance he may have, shows itself to embarrassed parents who are ill-equipped to deal with it, annoys the faculty members who would find the abuse amusing if it didn't disgust them so much, and tires school administrators who have no wish to invite the wrath of well-healed parents of abusive students. So the pariah child grows up unready for a grown-up world that exists only to reinforce all the nonsense he's been taught over the previous years. The boss doesn't like him, puts him on the night shift. His girlfriend leaves him because all of her friends say he's weird. He never talks with his parents, mostly because he hates them for letting other people get away with torturing him. His social skills shattered, he unintentionally antagonizes the police, alienates the clergy, and down right frightens his neighbors. He feels--has felt for years--that he owns nothing of value in this world. Power is a stranger to whom he has never been introduced.
    Through whatever machinations, he picks up a gun or two or three. He writes in his journal. His dreams are flooded with blood.
    He may not be able to do anything else right, but Lawd, that boy sure can shoot.
    As his conscience slips into neutral, his feet slip into Army boots and he slips into his combat mode. The target: the scene of the original crime.
   The Fullerton Massacre at California State University, July 12, 1976. The custodian, Edward Allaway, killed seven people and wounded two others. A diagnoses paranoid schizophrenic, he bought his semi-automatic weapon at a local K-Mart. 
    For six months in 1979, David Young was the sole police officer in Cokeville, Wyoming, his tenure interrupted by allegations of misconduct which resulted in his dismissal. After some strange time in Arizona, he returned home six years later with his wife Doris. The two of them entered the Cokeville Elementary School, taking 154 students and 13 adults hostage. 
   In 1989, Patrick Purdy entered the Cleveland Elementary School in Stockton and shot thirty-five people, including five children who died.
   As retribution for having received a failing grade years earlier, Eric Houston returned to his Olivehurst, California school where he killed four people and wounded ten others in the spring of 1992.
   Since then, we have clung uneasily to reports of the Wickliffe Middle School shooting, the Blackville-Hilda High School shooting, the Richland High School shooting, the Frontier Middle School shooting, the San Diego State University shooting, the Pearl High School shooting, the Heath High School shooting, the Columbine High School massacre, the Virginia Tech massacre, the Red Lake massacre, the Amish school shooting, the Northern Illinois University shooting, the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, and the Chardon High School shooting. Had it not been for the smart and courageous actions of Antoinette Tuff, we likely would be wringing our hands over the DeKalb, Georgia shooting. 
    Pressure. 
    Rather than obsessing over adding security or metal detectors, we might utilize the value we glean from our children as a motivator to employ people at our schools to identify and address the incidents that separate some students from their fellows. If the majority students silently collude against the pariah they have created, if the parents are in hiding or denial, if the faculty are too busy telling jokes about the abuse in the lounge, if the administrators are too worried about fall-out to address the psychological crimes, then the people employed to identify and act on the pressure that quite consciously gets heap upon the pariahs, then ground into their skulls with jackboots. 
    I don't mean to suggest that everyone who has a miserable childhood morphs into a mass murderer, although from the complete list of school shootings, one might suspect that such is just so. But the reality is that some of these isolated humans strike out in other ways. Some turn to crime. Others become police officers or join the military. Recognizing that the one thing they lack is the insulation of power, they may turn the abuse back onto themselves, believing suicide to be the ultimate expression of one's control over one's life. 
    The world outside is far too often an ugly place. School has never been very good at preparing people for the real thing. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

ALL THE PEOPLE I USED TO BE

   Parker Allen

   The six of them, four men and two women, finagled their way to the head of the outdoor line as the Mal-Wart doors swished open at precisely six in the morning. The sun strained to be seen over the foothills that surrounded the Phoenix valley, just enough so that the robbers could admire the gleam of expectation in the shoppers’ eyes shatter like paper-thin champagne glasses in an opera house. By the time the scores of early-risers realized what was happening, it had already happened.    Roscoe Young wheeled on his boots, whipping the mane of his blond wig, and sealed the entrance doors behind him with a specialty key, one supplied to him weeks earlier by a disaffected nubile and former store employee. He smiled back knowingly at the fallen faces on the other side, the sad ones denied the pleasures of a daybreak sale. Behind Roscoe, leaping over the first of twenty cash registers while fingering his false mustache like a caricature of Snidely Whiplash, Parker Allen grinned a greeting at the uncertain faces of the Mal-Wart staff while motioning with his Buntline Special for the accomplices to fan out through the store and round up any stray employees. Park Allen preferred to develop and maintain the support of the people whom he figured had no real stake in the matter.
   “Now in case you haven’t noticed it yet,” Park announced. “This is a robbery. Armed robbery.” He nodded towards the gun. The gun neither gleamed nor sparkled. It merely reclined in its owner's perch, awaiting further instructions. “I’m going to have to ask that no one operate their cell phones or any other electronic devices until the building has come to a complete stop.”
   Roscoe laughed. That Park Allen could act calm at the most stressful times. And that was good, Roscoe understood. After all, somebody in the gang needed to keep his head. Years of investing in securities, along with buying low and selling high, hadn't prepared Roscoe Young for the day-to-day life of an outlaw.
   Park continued. “Now, don’t worry about those shoppers out there. Just worry about staying cool-headed.” Hearing footsteps behind him, he stepped to one side, never losing sight of the nearly two-dozen blue-jacketed employees. “Duchess? What's the good word?”
   Stephanie crinkled her nose at the nickname.    “Just this guy. Name's David. Says he’s the manager. Worked here three years.”
   “Anybody works here three years,” Roscoe acknowledged, “gets to be the manager. Go stand over there with your associates. Isn’t that what you call them?”
   The store manager, who indeed did call himself David, frowned as he joined his underlings. Some of the associates looked terrified. Others appeared thoroughly disinterested. And a couple of them gave every indication of finding the robbery far more interesting than tending to stocking the shelves and sweeping the floors.
   The rest of the gang returned without report and paired off alongside the registers. Rachelle and Laramie read the "security anthem" written in tiny symbols on a sticker above the cash registers and coded open the first rung while Chet and Stephanie helped themselves to the second tier. Roscoe continued to stand near the glass walls, mollifying the dejected crowd outside by holding up three fingers and pointing to his watch. Parker kept a low hold on his revolver. “Everything okay out there?” he asked.
   Roscoe nodded without looking back. “Yep. Always is.” And that had certainly been the case. The Bell Road store was their third Mal-Wart and same as always everybody cooperated, especially the folks who didn’t know what was going on. Roscoe liked to joke that the main difference between a crime drama on television and what their gang was doing in real life was that in real life nobody ever got hurt.
   “Now we’ll be gone here in a few minutes,” Park explained, partly in an effort to speed up his gang in their work and partly to keep the associates entertained. “And after we’re gone, you’ll naturally want to pick up the phone and call the police. Now, you folks all know each other. Let me ask you: Who here will be the first one to call the cops on us? Who do you think?”
   One by one the employees looked up like sheep on the witness stand, their heads pointing without much subtlety in the direction of the young man named David.
   “Oh-ho!” Roscoe bellowed. “So that’s how you get to be the boss? You stab people in the back?"
  Park Allen nodded. “Yep, same old story. Duchess, you want to do the honors?”
   Stephanie crinkled again. “Please don’t call me that and yes I will.”
   From a purse that was almost bigger than she was Stephanie extracted a coil of twine. Motioning the manager to turn his back to her, she spun the spool around both his wrists a half dozen times, held the extended spool tight, and watched as Rachelle severed it with a pair of Mal-Wart scissors.   Stephanie knotted the twine as the manager stared at his shoes.
   “Finished?” Park called out to the entirety of his gang. Chet and Laramie held up tidy burlap bags bulging with ones, fives, and tens. They announced that they were more than ready. “Good. Okay. Now, we have to be going. We sincerely apologize for the inconvenience. Taking all your small bills like this is really pretty thoughtless of us. I’m guessing most of your customers will not have exact change, so this’ll kind of mess things up for you. Just make sure you don’t let this little weasel take our bad deeds out on you. And you!” Park addressed the manager. “Don’t be so eager to be on the side of the business. They were doing fine before you came along and they’ll be fine long after they’ve sacked your sorry ass. Read me?”
   “Let’s go!” pleaded Roscoe, unlocking the first of the two door keys. The gang bellied up to the entrance and as the second of the two locks spun free, they squeaked through the onrush of impatient shoppers, none of whom seemed at all concerned about the opened cash register drawers, the idle and open-faced associates, or the incapacitated store manager. More than five minutes elapsed before anyone got around to calling the police.


   They were cruising along the 101 Loop that circled the Valley when Park asked from behind the wheel, “So girls, how much did we haul?”
   They sat three across in the front and back of a 1995 Ford Taurus sedan, only one of several early model vehicles at their disposal. The girls rode in the rear with Laramie. After some quick counting, Rachelle responded. “Two thousand one hundred and eighty dollars.”
   Roscoe leaned across Chet and said to Park, “They stash most of it in those underground vaults. They can only get out so much at a time. By the time they pull out a few thousand bucks..."
  Park acknowledged, “Right, right. By then the cops are lobbing in tear gas. Duchess, Rachelle, don’t forget to hold out ten percent for tithing, okay?”
  They nodded.
  Parker knew that his colleagues didn't appreciate the need for the tithing. Half the time he didn't care much for it himself. Promises were promises, though, and he had made a deal with himself when this all began that one-tenth of their take would always go to the church that had raised him. Eventually the ritual took on the emotional numbness of superstition. All the same, the world had been letting them get away with things so far and Parker could see no value in upsetting the scheme of things.
   Laramie shook his head, a fact observed by Park from his vantage of the rear view mirror.   “Something you’d like to share with the rest of us, Laramie?”
   The middle-aged accomplice continued rocking his head. “Each of us pulls in, what? About three hundred apiece? Lotta work for just a little payoff.”
Park had been waiting for discontent. All smiles, he tossed his disguise out the window. He considered lighting a cigarette, saw that the two women were already smoking and thought better of it. He said,    “I guess you think we should be going after high-tech money, right? Something more white collar?”
   “Yeah, I do,” Laramie spoke with stealthy defiance. “Listen, Allen. The days of nickel-diming the local mart are over. These days, the real money is in bonds, municipal holdings, securities scams. Just ask Roscoe."
   Roscoe flinched at the sound of his name being linked with in-house treason. Park nodded, still all merry in the face. “I guess my time is up, then, huh? You know, since I don’t know how to commit that kind of robbery? That is a real damned shame. Hell, I figured liberating two grand from the largest employer in the world might just actually be a white collar crime. Shows I don't know much.”
   Laramie hardened his position while everyone else fell silent. Parker pegged Laramie as the kind of weasel who would take a concession and misinterpret it as weakness. Roscoe dropped his head and stared at his knees. A tension grew rigid in the car. Laramie said, “I think that we need new leadership.”
   Park’s foot slipped off the gas and the Taurus slowed for just a second. “Tell ya what, Lar.” Park brought the car to an easy stop right on the shoulder of the Loop. “Tell ya what. Since you’ve been bucking me and the rest for a couple weeks now, I think it’s time we cleared the air. Best thing to do is shoot it out. Right here. Right now.”
   Roscoe’s head lifted and swiveled to the left. He looked at Park as if their leader might have suddenly transformed from a master thief into a maniac. But he said nothing.
  Laramie’s tone thawed. “Now, Park...”
  Park waived him off. “Don’t you ‘Now Park’ me. You’ve been itching for this chance for weeks. Here ya go. We’ll do a duel, right on the 101. Shoot to the death. One that’s left standing gets to lead the gang. All in favor?”
   Four voices let out a collective if unsteady “aye.” Park opened the driver’s side door. “Get your gun and let’s get this over with. Folks, if I lose, I wish you all the best. Laramie, you ready?”
   Laramie cleared his throat, nodded that he was as ready as he ever would be and eased himself out of the back seat. As soon as he stood upright, Stephanie pulled shut the door and Park roared the engine, sailing the car back onto the road, leaving a querulous Laramie to wonder what the hell had just happened. Roscoe and Chet roared laughter.    Stephanie’s eyes glittered. Rachelle chewed on her thumb, trying to repress a smile.
   “Well,” Roscoe reckoned aloud. “That’s almost four hundred each, after tithes.”

   Four of the five remaining gang members sat on the living room floor in the newly acquired safe house. Roscoe occupied himself with a series of magic card tricks, all of which culminated in turning up four queens, seemingly at random. Rachelle, his girlfriend of two years, worked a New York Times crossword puzzle in pen. Chet, the youngest of the gang, stared at the portable television set, its picture blazing, its sound muted. And Stephanie, who had met up with Park at the same time Rachelle joined, studied with some intensity the photographs in People’s wedding issue. 
   Perhaps because he was the youngest, Chet took it upon himself to break the silence. “Roscoe, how’d you and Park meet up?”
  The amateur magician slid the playing cards aside and put an index finger to his lips. “Not too loud. Don’t want the neighbors to find out we’re here.”
   Chet appeared properly crestfallen.
   “It’s okay, honey,” Rachelle reassured him. “We just don’t want some local hero to call the realtor. Or the police.”
   Chet fingered the beginnings of the soul patch he’d been growing. “You all used to live here, right? But you moved out?”
   Stephanie grinned. “Naturally Park saved a key.   Then yesterday he called the realtor and told her he was some big shot from Pennsylvania, coming in two weeks to buy the place for cash. In other words, the realtor won’t be showing this house to anyone else for a while.”
    Roscoe tapped the top of a playing card. “I thought you wanted to hear how I met Park?” The wounded look returned to Chet’s face.
   “Both of us,” Roscoe began, apparently with some satisfaction at having mastered Chet’s attention, “had worked for years at the same multinational. I was a marketing VP. He was in middle management. We’d never met. But we were both laid off about the same time. Neither one of us could find a job. Not as good as the one we had. You know how it goes.” He paused, not so much waiting for an answer as simply to develop the proper rhythm for a story he had told many times before. “So I ended up working as a waiter. At Denny’s.”
   “Denny’s?” Chet’s face took on a boyish quality that even the patch of fuzz on his chin couldn’t mask.”
   “Then one day in strolls Parker Allen. Looked terrible. Jeans hadn’t been washed in a month. Needed a shave. Hair all messed up. And he really looked tired. Like he hadn’t slept in a week. He draws my table and orders a ton of food. Wolfs it down. And I know this guy’s gonna skip. Can’t have any money. So I bring the check. Twenty dollars and change. He says fine, but can he have another cup of coffee? The second I go back behind the counter, he shoots out through the door.”
   Roscoe paused again, noting that even Stephanie and Rachelle, who’d heard this story at least a dozen times, were somehow drawn in, their eyes wide with imagination.
   Roscoe grinned. “I hated that damned job. $2.13 an hour plus tips. So I chased after him. He couldn’t run all that fast. He was tired, like I said. Plus he was on a full stomach. So I yelled for him to stop, and when he didn’t, I tackled him. Knocked him right down on the grass. But when I spun him over to punch him out, the bastard was laughing. Laughing!”
    Chet pulled an index finger to his own lips.
The storyteller smirked. “Right. So now I’m furious. Just before I was going to knock him out, he sings in a little girl voice, ‘Run, run, fast as you can. You can’t catch me. I’m the gingerbread man.’ There was just no way I could hit him after that, you know.”
   “Good thing for you, you didn’t.”
   Everyone froze, as if the room itself had just jumped. Park Allen stood looking in from the kitchen, hands on his hips, his smile beaming out across the distance. “Don’t worry,” he teased. “I just got back, so I didn’t hear all the good things Cheese was saying about me. How’s it hanging, Kid? Duchess? Rachelle? Who wants to tell me where these sandwiches came from?” He indicated the dozen or so sliced and cut lunchmeat on wheat bread sandwiches stacked on the short table.
   “Now don’t flip out, Park,” Roscoe said, getting to his feet. “The girls were over at the grocery.”
Stephanie grabbed a sandwich, as if to protect it from eminent destruction. “The guy at the deli counter gave them to us.”
   “Really?” Park stepped closer to the stack, admiring its height. “And why would he do that?”
Rachelle swallowed hard. “Because we were hungry?” she asked.
   Keeping his voice low, Park paced a circle around his henchmen. “Oh, you were hungry? I see. I thought we had a rule? When we need food, we steal it.” He made it back to the stack and picked up one of the offending sandwiches.
   “Aw, for God’s sake,” Roscoe admonished. “The girls were there and the guy offered.”
   Park spoke around a mouthful of bologna. “Our rule is that we hit grocery stores for personal items, like razors, pantyhose, shaving cream, and that kind of thing. For food, we go to chain restaurants.”
   Stephanie cradled her sandwich like a child.    “You’re right. You’re right. Good though, huh?”
Park cackled as he joined the others on the floor.   “Yeah, it sure is. Kid, you get one?”
   Chet nodded as his gaze lowered in the manner of a modest pet praised by his owner.
    Seizing the opportunity to change the subject, Roscoe asked, “You take the money to the shelter?”
    Park nodded. “Yeah. One thing about it: if we ever need a place to hole up for a few hours, those Sisters will see to it. Say, what’s Laramie doing on TV? Turn that up!”
   Sure enough, the image of their former accomplice shone from the screen in living color.
   They watched the news telecast at 6pm and then again at 10pm, just to make sure they’d heard it right the first time. Laramie Ullum stood next to a podium, an attorney of his choosing on either side of him, announcing through those same attorneys that he had participated in that morning’s hold-up of the Bell Road Mal-Wart, that he had been an accomplice of Park Allen’s gang’s involvement in at least forty other robberies throughout the Southwest, that a percentage of the proceeds—estimated at hundreds of thousands of dollars—had been funneled into domestic terrorist organizations, and that he—Laramie Ullum—would be testifying to all of this before the grand jury in exchange for “substantial consideration” from the U.S. District Attorney’s Office. At this time, both reports concluded, neither the Justice Department nor the Office of Homeland Security chose to comment on the case, citing potential civil liberties issues that were at stake.
    After the first telecast, no one in the safe house spoke. Roscoe resumed his magic tricks, although he could not produce more than three queens at a time. Rachelle sputtered out the occasional soft obscenity while scratching out entries in her puzzle. Chet’s eyes narrowed to tiny hollow points as he gazed imperceivingly at the TV set. And Stephanie busied herself by writing variations of her name in the margins of her magazine.
   For his part, the gang’s leader paced between the kitchen and living room, punctuating his stride with periodic punches of his fist into his opened hand. The only consolation, he reassured himself, was that Laramie hadn’t known about the house. They’d be safe here for at least another day, or for two at the most. In the meantime, only two parts of the news report actually troubled him, one part being easily anticipated, the other completely beyond his kin to fathom. The first part—identifying the gang members and severely exaggerating the extent of their crimes—that was typical Laramie. Hell, if that’d been true, they’d all be in some country without an extradition treaty laughing up their martini glasses at that idiot traitor. But the other part—the part about terrorism—that part worried Park Allen a considerable bit. Not that there was a shred of truth to it. The Sisters of St. Simon and Jude ran a shelter for indigents, not a terrorist organization. The government had either planted that idea in Ullum’s head or he’d thought it up on his own, although Park was damned if he could figure out why.

   After the last broadcast, when Chet and the couples were nestled off in their respective beds, Park turned to Stephanie and explained his bewilderment. “If all Laramie’d done was tell them the truth, he’d have gotten maybe a six months suspended sentence. But when he throws in all these other crimes, plus the terrorism crap, even with that so called consideration, he’s still looking at ten to twenty years.”
   Stephanie grinned at him, hoping to calm his mood. He knew she hated for him to act this way, so he eased off. She elbowed him in the ribs. “He sure looked funny standing on that freeway when we drove off.”
   Park laughed and felt peaceful as Stephanie’s giggles mingled with his bellow. He loved the sound of her laughter more than anything in the world.
   Seizing the moment, Stephanie whispered, “Park, please don’t call me Duchess. I hate that. My name is Stephanie.”
   “You know why I do that?”
   She did not know, but had wondered.
   “I do that because back when I worked for a living, back when I had a big house and two cars and went to three parties a week—back when I had it made—I guess it sounds corny, but I felt empty because I didn’t have anyone important to share it with. Nobody substantial. But after I hit bottom I met you and for the first time I actually feel alive. And I promised myself almost two years ago that I’m going to make you the happiest woman in the world, someone people will look at coming down the street and honor and respect, like royalty. That’s why I do it.”
    For nearly two minutes, Stephanie lay so still that Parker couldn’t tell if she were breathing. He was about to ask if she was alright when she preempted him. “Honey, you can call me Duchess. I like it.”
   “How about Dutch?”
   She giggled again and that was the last sound Park heard that night.

   A little after midnight, the dreams came calling. Park had been having vivid dreams of late, something that hadn’t visited him in twenty years. This dream, or this endless loop of manifest content, replayed in his mind’s senses until nearly morning. In the dream, he sat outside a large hospital on a cold and windy day, wearing nothing but an ER gown, feeling hungry and wondering where all his friends were. He thought he saw some of them coming toward him and tried to stand to greet them, but was too weak to rise. When they finally approached, he saw it was a Mother and Father with their little daughter. “Laugh at the bum,” the Mother said. The child looked at Parker quizzically. “Go on, laugh at the bum,” encouraged the Father. Then all three of them burst into a unified laughter of ridicule. “Bum, bum, bum,” blubbered the child, pointing a bent finger at Parker, who checked his gown to make sure he wasn’t exposing himself. Looking to either side he noticed empty vodka bottles, broken mirrors with cocaine residue, and cold half-eaten sandwiches. “Let’s get the bum,” cried the little girl, and the family came toward him, their smiles suddenly full of dripping fangs. When Parker tried to stand up, he fell. When he tried to crawl away, he slipped. Against the open slit in the back of his gown he felt a breeze of hot breath with an odor of week-old death.
   Each time he had the dream that night, he woke up safely next to Stephanie, who purred comfortably beside him. And each time he managed to get back to sleep, the dream came creeping back, like a hangover that tricks you into thinking it’s over. By 6am, he gave up and went into the kitchen to make himself some coffee. And that was when he saw through the kitchen window the first of several federal agents in the process of surrounding the house.
    Stephanie shuffled and yawned her way into the kitchen, looking for Park. He tracked her movements, and before she could say a word, he whirled around to face her, made a series of spastic hand gestures, and watched her dash off to alert the others.
   By the time she unknotted Roscoe and Rachelle, and pried Chet from whatever dream fantasy he may have been having, Park had fired up the house’s exterior public address system. Roscoe and Rachelle positioned themselves at different windows while Chet loaded revolvers on the floor. Without looking away from the glass, Roscoe made a sweeping motion with his arm, which Park took to indicate that the place was indeed surrounded.
Park rolled his tongue around in his mouth for a moment, as if searching for courage in the cavity. “Let’s see what happens,” he whispered, and threw the switch.
   For just an instant the crackle of connecting leads escaped from the four obscured speaker boxes mounted on the brick wall in the backyard. Park inhaled, held it, and commenced to shout: “Who the Sam Hill is in charge of this operation?!?”
   They all watched from inside as the twenty-odd agents froze their advance, seeming to grip their rifles tighter.
   Park breathed deeply again and resumed. “This is Under Secretary to the Assistant U.S. Attorney General Myron Reddinck speaking! I demand to hear from the Agent in Charge of this operation! Pick up your bullhorn and speak!”
   A tall, stout man of about thirty years lifted an orange loudspeaker to his mouth. “My name is Commander Hadley Masters, Mr. Under Secretary, sir! May I ask your position in relation to us?”
   “That’s classified, Masters! And if you don’t mind, I’ll ask the questions here! Is that all right with you?”
   Masters looked profoundly confused. “Yes, sir!”
   “You have a face like an English bulldog! Anyone ever tell you that?”
   “Uh, no sir!”
   “Oh! Then I must be a goddamned liar! Is that what you’re accusing me of, Commander Hadley Masters?”
   “No sir!”
   “Are you a bulldog or the Commander of this operation?”
   “I am the Commander, Mr. Under Secretary, sir!”
   “Well, Masters, while your team of misfits has been parading around this house, the local police force has the Parker Allen Gang holed up in the same goddamned store they were in yesterday!”
   “Sir, the Mal-Wart?”
   “Very good, Masters! I see you got the memo! And I do not intend to lose the opportunity to subdue these pussy-faced terrorists to a squad of local cops! So, Commander Masters, you had best order your troops to return to their units and proceed to where the suspects actually are…or I’ll have you shot for insubordination! Is that clear as a Summer sky?”
   “Yes sir!”
   “As clear as an unmuddied lake?”
   “Yes sir!”
   “Then why the fuck aren’t you moving, bulldog?”
   “Sir, on whose authority shall I redeploy the agents?”
   Parker reflected on what a good question that was. Masters should get a promotion for that, if he didn’t get an official reprimand. “On the authority, you malingering moron, of the Attorney General of the United States! You may take the matter up with him, Commander! Then we’ll reassign you to issuing sodomy citations to three-balled polar bears in Juneau, Alaska! Do you like Alaska, Commander?”
   Masters wiped the sweat from the crease above his eyes. “No sir!”
   “Do you like three-balled polar bears?”
   “No sir!”
   “Do you enjoy sodomy, Commander Masters?”
   “Sir, request permission to redirect the Commander’s agents immediately?”
   “Commander Masters, if that gang gets booked by anyone other than your agents, I will personally fly you to Juneau and tie you down while the bears shit on your bulldog face!”
    “Understood, sir! All agents, withdraw and redeploy to 8316 West Bell Road! Suspects are still considered armed and dangerous! Notify local command—”
   “Belay that last instruction, you fucking imbecile! The PD will know you’re coming when you get there!”
   “Agents! Operation is redirected! Holster and retain all firearms! Redeploy under Code 6 and move out!”
   Sure enough, all twenty-some agents and their obedient Commander backed up, reconnected in the front yard, marched off to their unmarked vehicles, and sped away.
   A small round of applause met Park as he threw down the switch and turned around. Stephanie had even fallen over, strangling on her own laughter.
Park actually blushed. “Thank you, folks. But there’s not much time. They’ll be back here in less than fifteen minutes. Chet, this is important. I want you to take the women to the Toyota, drive it to the motorcycles, then ride three of them out to the campsite. I know you haven’t been there before, but they’ll show you the way. Once you’re on those bikes, if there’s any trouble, I want you to split up. Don’t lead the cops to the camp. Chet, make sure each of you has a weapon on you. Loaded.”
   Chet never once blinked. “What about you guys?”
“Cheese and I?”
   Roscoe Young sighed. “My name is Roscoe.”
   “Then I have done you a huge favor. Cheese and I will meet you all there tonight. Remember, if they catch us all together, it’ll be a long time before anybody hears from any of us.”
   At that admonition, they all shared the same countenance: dread.

   The camp, to the extent that it appeared to be one, rested almost twenty miles northwest of the Black Canyon Freeway in a large dry wash whose only other regular guests were the occasional Autumn run-off, rolling balls of mud-heavy sagebrush, and narrow, towering, skipping dirt devils. Nevertheless, the wash’s abrupt banks provided excellent cover, and on cloudy nights, such as this one, when the temperature dipped into the lower 40’s, you could use a small campfire with little risk of detection. The two men sat just downwind of the flames, back to back, their revolvers resting on their bended knees.
   “Listen, Cheese. When they get back, do you mind if I talk to Rachelle about something?”
   “You don’t need my permission.”
   “But she used to be a shrink, right?”
   “You think you need one?”
   “Aw, hell no. Well, I’ve been having this same nightmare over and over. Think she knows anything about dreams?”
   Roscoe adjusted his hat to better consider the question. “She might. She’s smart. So you think they’ll make it here okay?”
   “Oh sure. Like you said, Rachelle’s smart. Stephanie’s street smart. And that guy, Chet...”
   “You know he’s been to prison?”
Park shuddered at the utterance. “Chet? But he’s just...”
   “A kid. I know. That kid is twenty-seven. He did an eight year stretch for grand theft auto and aggravated assault. He’s only been out for two months.”
   “We only picked him up two months ago!”
   “That’s right.”
   “Wow. Some people never learn, do they?”
   Overhead, the clouds blinked and let through just a breath of moonlight. Even with that, you couldn’t see the city. Phoenix had tentacled out a lot in just the last two years alone, but reaching the camp from any part of it still required a monumental effort. For their part, Park and Roscoe had driven the Taurus to within half a mile of the garage where they’d stashed their Kawasakis. From there they managed to dodge much of the desert’s inherent treachery, at least until they came to within five miles of the hideout. Near the foot of an enormous boulder—so enormous it blotted out the sky and so incongruous it might have been a lone meteor from millions of years ago—rested two fueled-up dune buggies. After making certain they both started, the guys picked one and sailed across a landscape that might have flipped a lunar rover.
   “How much do we have left?”
   Park smiled at the way Roscoe always adjusted his hat prior to letting his ideas roam. “One hundred twenty-eight thousand four hundred dollars. You gonna shoot me for my share?”
   Roscoe ignored the question. “You ever think about what we could do with that money? All of us? Together? You’re a smart guy, Park. A good leader, anyway. I know the business world, so I could help with connections. The girls are hardworking and Chet would do anything for us.”
   Park sneezed at the cool night air and laughed at himself for not having a handkerchief. “I know what you’re saying, Cheese. I just don’t know if I have it anymore to make it in the business world. When I lost everything else, I lost who I thought I was, too. Oh, even before the fall, I pretended to be a great hard-ass of a manager. But inside I was always somewhere else, being who I really am. Just maybe who I really am is what’s sitting here right now.” The clouds overtook the moon again and the campfire spat in response.
   Parker understood what Roscoe was driving at. Hell, he’d considered it himself. He’d imagined the bunch of them running a bar somewhere in lower Canada, treating the customers right, and grinning as the money rolled in. But with all the things he’d done over the last two years that he’d never imagined himself doing, something fundamental within himself had changed. Or emerged. They had all changed, for that matter. Well, maybe not Chet.    “So the kid was in prison? He seems so innocent.”
   Roscoe nodded, this time without the hat adjustment. “I was thinking maybe he started out like we did. Not a manager or an executive. Just maybe full of himself. Full of anger. Ambition. Energy. And maybe he just found out one day that getting beat down wasn’t worth the trouble.”
   “Cheese, that’s pretty good. Rachelle’s not the only shrink in the gang.”
   Roscoe’s back stiffened against Park’s. “Listen. I heard something out there.”
   Park and Roscoe lay on their stomachs, facing the direction of the city, facing the source of the sound.    Separated by ten yards, with the campfire muted behind them, they lay with their guns drawn and secured in the dirt at the end of their arms.
   Roscoe whispered, “Who do you think it is?”
Park said nothing.
   “Maybe it’s that chump, Masters, and his brigade?”
   Park stared straight ahead.
   “Will you say something, please?”
   At last, Parker Allen spoke. “You know what I think? I think that I need to take a piss. So I really hope it’s not Masters. I’d hate to die with a full bladder.”
   “Calm under pressure.”
   “What’s that?”
   “Nothing. Look!”
   The beams of two flashlights twinkled and were gone. The men held their breaths. Half a minute later and a few feet nearer, the spectacle repeated itself. Roscoe focused straight ahead as he asked, “You know what I’m thinking?”
   Park nodded. “Me too. That’s okay. Let them come to us.”
   Half an hour later, the two people signaling were close enough to be distinguished.
   “Rachelle!” Roscoe cried, getting to his feet.
   “Stephanie!” Park half-shouted.
   The girls came running.
   Roscoe grabbed Rachelle at the hips and pulled her up to kiss her, spinning the both of them in a circle and laughing like virgin newlyweds. Park gave Stephanie a bear hug and planted a playful slap on her ass. “It’s good to see you,” everyone said.
   Roscoe let Rachelle’s feet down to the ground. “Where’s Chet?”
   She looked up at him. Even under the night clouds, he could see her eyes water over. “He’s dead,” she told him.
   Stephanie broke free of Parker’s grasp. “You don’t know that, Rachelle! You don’t know that for sure!”
   Rachelle turned to the challenge, as if through an air of wool. “We were on the bikes,” she explained.    “Riding the Black Canyon north. Chet was in the lead. Steph and I abreast behind him." She said nothing more.
   “What happened?” the two men said together.
   Stephanie looked away from Rachelle. “We saw it before we heard it. He flipped backwards off the bike. Then we heard a shot. The bike spun out. We almost ran over him.”
   Park seized her by the shoulders. “Are you saying he was gunned down?”
   Her lips trembled. “Yes, that’s what I’m saying! It had to be someone up ahead of us. So we dodged his bike and took the next off ramp. He separated at the exit and met up at the boulder.”
   Roscoe looked from one of the girls to the other. “You don’t mean you just left him there?”
   Stephanie stuttered, “Chet. Landed. Fell. On his head. Rachelle’s right. He has to be dead.”
   Parker ran his hands across his face. “I don’t get it! Why would the cops, even the feds, shoot him? In two years we have never so much as pulled our triggers!”
   Stephanie absorbed the ground with her gaze. “I don’t think it was the police. We heard on the radio. There’s a $500,000 reward for each of us. Dead, alive, who cares?”
   “Sweet Mother,” Roscoe shook. “It’s like the Old West.”
   She continued. “They know Roscoe and they know you, Park. They only know Rachelle and me by our first names, although they have pretty good descriptions. And they knew about Chet Wilkins. That was his last name. Wilkins.”
   Roscoe removed his hat altogether and held it in front of himself. “Okay, boss. This is the time for you to come up with a great idea.”
   Parker smiled, although the smile tasted bitter, like spoiled lemons. “Tomorrow night,” he said with the solemnity of a sacred vow. “Tomorrow night we blow the vault at Mal-Wart.”

   That next morning, at the beginning of what was—unbeknownst to half the Parker Allen Gang—their final day together, Roscoe and Rachelle had breakfast with a couple they met at the Sidewinder café. The Sidewinder catered to the more affluent set, those inclined toward ingratiating and being ingratiated, although it wasn’t always easy to tell who was doing which. The Davidsons were particularly taken by the young couple, especially Mr. Davidson, who found Rachelle’s purposeful cleavage to be quite the pleasant eyeful. The Davidsons were taken in another manner as well.   Rachelle’s purposeful cleavage afforded Roscoe the opportunity to pick the wallet from Mr. Davidson’s inner jacket pocket. And so, although this half of the gang of necessity paid for four light breakfasts—thereby violating one of their own rules of conduct—they did manage to compensate by acquiring a vast array of unsecured credit and charge cards, providing themselves with one of several means to an end.
   Two hours later, after some very fast yet calculated shopping, Park and Stephanie entered the Maricopa County Library. In his pale cream suit and hat, his grey-dyed temples and withering moustache, Parker resembled an aging academic in need of a young female assistant, a role Stephanie filled quite nicely in her flowing flower-printed dress. As they entered the facility, Parker whispered, “Duchess, I’ve never seen you more beautiful. You sure you know how to use these computers?”
   She assured him that she did and walked him over to the first one with high speed Internet access. While passersby winked at one another over the cuteness of the pair, they busied themselves: Stephanie showing Park how to find what he wanted, and Park soaking up the information.
   While Park and Stephanie drew condescending stares in the library, Roscoe and Rachelle, having donned a quick wardrobe change, made a call on the Foothills Construction Company. From their muddy work boots to their overpriced cowboy hats and through their starched denim overalls, they resembled middle income contract workers. It may have been Roscoe’s gold money clip or Rachelle’s ostentatious pocket watch that tipped the perceptions in favor of their being owners rather than laborers. Whatever it was that gave the nod, less than half an hour later, they left with all the explosives they would need for the evening’s festivities.
   With their preparations complete, both couples visited Symington Park to unwind a bit and share some unhurried time together. Roscoe rented a paddle boat for himself and Rachelle to take across the lake, and Parker and Stephanie sat together on a picnic table, sharing hotdogs and Cokes, making small talk with kids playing hooky, marveling at the way the Phoenix city-scape meshed with the landscape surrounding it.

   Mal-Wart closed at ten that evening, so a little after nine, the four surviving members of Park Allen’s Gang began entering the store. There was no similarity whatsoever in their attire, and because they staggered their entrances in five-minute increments, no one would have sensed that any of the four had connections with one another, unless the tiny headphones and battery-packed chargers they all wore gave it away, which they did not.   Each of them started out with an empty shopping cart and a list of acquisitions. As someone had joked years earlier, you could find everything you needed to live on in a Mal-Wart. Well, Parker and his gang could prove that to be true. By the time each had concurred on the total number of employees in the store, their carts were half full and ten PM had arrived.
   The instant the last customer passed through the exit, Stephanie and Rachelle began herding the employees to the front of the store, while Roscoe used his trusty key to once again lock themselves inside. Parker held the cashiers at bay, easing them with jovial chatter, and Roscoe removed half a dozen rods of curtain from his cart, draping them over the doors so that no one from the outside could see in. “That’s twenty-four of them,” Stephanie announced as she motioned the staff into the foyer. “Including this guy.”
   Parker laughed. “Look, Cheese! It’s the same manager. Well, Mr. Manager, guess they rewarded you by putting you on the night shift. Duchess, Rachelle, you want to secure his hands, please?”
   With Stephanie and Rachelle competently guarding the Mal-Wart personnel, Park and Roscoe were free to carry on with their business. In less than five minutes, Park showed Roscoe precisely what they were looking for. In the right rear corner of the store, behind a wall stacked high with paints, a bare shelf held its own, at least until Park pulled the shelf from its mooring, at which time the base of the paint can wall displayed rollers. “See? We just slide this to the left.” There before them was a narrow spiral staircase that descended to a very special part of the store.
   “Be hard to tell there was a store above us from down here,” Parker observed once they made it to the bottom and crossed into a dark and low-ceilinged room.
   “How does this work?” Roscoe asked.
   Parker was pleased to explain. “Simplicity through technology, my friend. As soon as a cashier up there gets two hundred dollars in their register, they signal a manager, who comes over and removes all the currency, except for ones, fives and tens. They need those for change. But he takes the twenties, fifties and hundreds back to his office where he shoves them into different tubes...”
   “One for each denomination?”
    “Right. Then he shoots the tubes down a suctioned shaft, where it disappears. Where does it go?”
   “Somewhere down here, I’ll bet.”
   “You win that bet. You know anything about hydraulics?” Roscoe shook his head. “Me neither. Has something to do with air pressure against fluid, or fluid pressure against air. Anyway, this gage right here” he tapped it with his foot, “has to maintain a pressure of at least 20 pounds per square inch to keep those tubes securely floating in their limbo. When the pressure drops below 20, the tubes all collect right here.” Parker indicated a steel chamber that resembled a safe, only because of the built-in combination lock on it front.
   “Now that manager upstairs has no idea what the combination is. Who’d trust him with it? So what we have to do is, first, sever the link between this conduit and the money chamber, and second, reduce the pressure to under 20 psi. Swing that hydraulic jack over here, will you?”
   A couple minutes later they had a block of wood wedged between the jack and the conduit. “Now,” Parker explained, “when we blow the conduit, the force goes up rather than down. We don’t want to blast a hole in the floor. You have that quarter-stick of blasting powder?”
   Roscoe slapped it into Parker’s hand, the same hand that wedged it at an angle between the jack and the conduit. Motioning for Roscoe to move to the far side of the room, Parker lit the fuse and joined his friend in the corner.
   The room’s acoustics made the explosion sound nuclear.
   Roscoe screamed, “Are you telling me they didn’t hear that up there?”
   “Let’s find out.” As they walked over to inspect the damage, Parker pressed the send button on his headphone communicator. “Duchess, everything okay up there?”
   She responded, “One of the employees popped the manager in the mouth because he wouldn’t stop complaining. That’s all.”
   “You didn’t hear an explosion?”
   “Nope. Nothing.”
   “See, Cheese? This room is so well insulated, they couldn’t hear one of your farts up there if you let it rip. Look, the conduit cracked!”
   “Meaning?”
   “Meaning that nothing is going past here and into the chamber. Now all we need to do is drill two holes in this section here, so the air and water are no longer pressurized. We could just blow it, but that might burn up the money. Who knows? Power drill?”
   Less than five minutes later, Parker had drilled two holes in the hydraulic canola and both water and air began gushing out from each. “Read that meter,” Parker suggested.
   Roscoe grinned up in amazement. “Parker, you’re a genius. It’s falling! 60, 50, 40, 35—”
   “You’ll know when it gets to 20.”
   Sure enough, a few seconds later, the first of the money tubes spilled out through the crack in the conduit.
   As Roscoe began tossing tubes into a duffel bag, Parker pointed out, “If you’ve ever wondered how this place can afford to pay people to stand at the door all day, just to catch a shoplifter, this is how. Today’s Friday. This is a superstore. Guaranteed they did eighty grand in business today.”
   Half an hour later, both bags were filled. Parker called out on his communicator. “We’re coming up, girls!”
   “Hold on,” Rachelle called back. “I think we have trouble.”
   Roscoe groaned. “What kind of trouble?”
    “Fuck me!” Rachelle squealed.
   Stephanie clarified. “The feds! Park, the feds are outside. Jesus, there must be two hundred of them! How did they know we were here?”
   Parker said to Roscoe, although not to the girls, “They know because I tipped them off.”
   “What’re you saying?”
   “Trust me, Cheese. It’s better that we know where they are. Don’t worry. Hey, Duchess, just stay inside. Don’t open the doors. Don’t let them see you. They’ll all be moving on in just a few minutes. Love ya, honey.”
   “Parker Allen, I love you too, but I hope you know what you’re doing.”
   “So do I. Hey, Cheese, you feel that vibration under your feet? Guess you know why you picked up so many explosives now.”
   Stephanie cut in from above. “Park, somebody set off a bomb!”
   “I know, Duchess. It’s the Bank One up the street. I’ll bet half the building’s gone.”
   Rachelle squealed again, this time with glee. “That Masters guy is screaming at the whole parking lot. Fuck me! They’re leaving!”
   Roscoe tapped Park’s shoulder. “They won’t come back?”
   Park shook his head. “They might, except for the fact that a second bomb is going off at the B of A across from the Bank One in five minutes. And five minutes after that, M & I gets the same fair and balanced treatment.”

   Park and Roscoe lugged two duffel bags crammed with tiny tubes crammed with cash up the spiral staircase, across the acres of store and into the foyer where everything was indeed just dandy, other than the manager, whose lower lip still oozed blood.
   “Now for the hard part,” Roscoe sighed.
   Park couldn’t meet his colleague’s gaze. “Right. You wanna tell Rachelle? I’ll talk to the Duchess.”
   Roscoe disappeared into the employee lounge and a few moments later Stephanie emerged, her headphones dancing from one hand to the other.   “What’s up?”
   “We’ve probably got about 75 grand between the two bags.”
   “Right. Quite a haul. Are we ready?”
   Park gently held Stephanie’s shoulders. “This isn’t up for discussion. There’s a black panel van out behind the store. You and Rachelle get in, hand the driver an envelope. There’ll be five thou in it.”
   “Park, what are you talking about?”
   “After Chet got shot, I realized it’s just a matter of time for us if we stay here. The driver will hand you each an envelope with fake passports and phony documents to match. Study them on your way to the airport.”
   “I am not leaving you.”
   “Don’t make this harder than it is. There’ll be two pair of airline tickets. The first pair will take you to Montreal. Stay in a hotel there for twenty-four hours. Then use—”
   “No! NO! NOOO!!!”
    “Use the other tickets to fly to Paris. Stephanie, YES! Rachelle speaks French, so you’ll be able to get along. You’ll also have a package waiting for you when you land. The Euro equivalent of $100,000 US.”
   “I said no!”
   “You have no choice. Listen to me. Cheese and I will catch up with you in about two months.”
   “If they don’t kill you first.” She brushed his hands off her shoulders and punched him in the chest.
   “Yes. If they don’t. But you two will be alive.”
   “If it’s such a great idea, why are you crying?”
Park handed her an envelope. “I always cry at great ideas.”
   “Give me a kiss.”

    A half hour later, the girls were on their way to Sky Harbor Airport and the guys had said goodbye to the employees, after securing a promise that they would not allow the manager to phone the police. The walked out the front doors, their duffels over their shoulders.
   “You know what I was thinking, Boogie? I was thinking that maybe you and I ought to get cleaned up, maybe get a couple rooms at a nice hotel, say down in Tucson, and in the morning, have the biggest breakfast of our lives. You know, ham, eggs, French toast, bacon, biscuits and gravy, the works!”
   “That sounds fine, Park. The occasion?”
    “I was thinking we could lay low for a while. I mean, hell, we’ve got plenty of money, even after giving the girls theirs. We can live somewhere between modest and highfalutin for a couple months, then hop a plane to Par-ee, and if we stop pulling jobs, the heat’ll back off.”
   “Maybe it will.”
   “That’s what I’m saying.”
   “That’s far enough, buckos!” a voice said from behind them.
   “Drop them bags, damn ya!”
   They turned to find two grisly characters with rifles trained on them. Park and Roscoe dropped their bags.
   “Let me guess,” Roscoe sneered. “Bounty hunters?”
   The first one ignored the question as he said to his comrade, “One million bucks standing right there!”
   His associate nodded. “One goddamned million motherfucking bucks!”
   “What’s in them bags?” the first one inquired.
   Roscoe spread his hands. “It’s two of your cousins. Oh, you know them better as Mom and Dad.”
   What happened next could have played out ten times in the span it takes to explain it. The first hunter discharged his rifle, striking Parker above the left elbow. That bullet had no more than broken flesh before Roscoe snatch-dragged his revolver from his shoulder holster and took out the shooter with a clean headshot. The second bounty hunter released his load into Roscoe’s midsection and a moment later lay dead from the retaliatory shot Park delivered.
   “Roscoe? Roscoe, how do you feel?”
   “Of all the stupid questions.”
   The gut shot had to be terminal. Parker had never seen so much blood in his life. He cradled his friend’s head with one hand and pressed against his belly with the other, trying to hold Roscoe’s guts in.
“Park,” Roscoe sputtered. “Don’t tell Rachelle.”
   “I won’t, buddy.”
   “I never fired my gun before.”
   “You always were lucky.”
   “Park, sing me that song.”
   “What song? Oh. The song.”
   Roscoe tried to swallow and ended up spitting down his own chin.
   Parker sang, “Run, run, as fast as you can. You can’t catch me, I’m the Gingerbread Man.”
   By the time the song was over, Roscoe was gone.

   Park had taken the precaution of securing false identification for himself. That proved to be helpful during his stay in the Arrowhead Hospital emergency room. Upon release, he called a taxi company with little idea where he’d tell the driver to take him and his two duffel bags. He waited on the corner, consumed with his own thoughts, consumed by loss, so much so that he didn’t notice the family approach as he waited by the curb.
“Look at the bum,” cried the little girl, jarring Park Allen from the darkness of his daydream.
   The mom, who resembled an older version of Stephanie, shared a smile with her husband, who looked like a younger version of Park, and together they paused so their daughter could take in the majesty of the unfortunate situation before them.

   Twenty-seven years and a few weeks later, Damein Smith, twelve year old explorer that he was, returned home with a diary in his hands.
   “Dad!” he hollered, out of breath. “I found a gangster’s diary!”
   Mr. Smith examined the small leather-bound document. It reeked from whatever fluids had washed across its cover over the years. But each of its weather-worn pages remained blank, except for a brief section right in the middle. As best Mr. Smith could make out, the words were:

Being a legend is a burden. The fact is that the man you may know as Parker Allen did not die outside that Mal-Wart in October. He lived almost thirty more years, the owner of a small horse ranch south of Flagstaff. He only killed one man, and that man needed to be killed...repeatedly. I don’t know if life’s worth the trouble. I don’t know if love conquers all. I just know that Roscoe Young was the best friend I ever had. All these years later, I still miss him. If there’s a Heaven, he’s there.
   The diary was signed “David Allen Wright.”
Mr. Smith gave the matter some thought and threw the diary in the fireplace where it was quickly consumed.


Dr. Konkle

   I was walking over to pay the Hawaiian Shaved-Ice man the hundred I owed him for the quinnella when a kid rolled up on his skateboard and jabbed a .22 into my ribs. Rick, the ice man, ran a neat little booking agency, taking bets on Turf Paradise races. If you knew how to approach him, you could bet quins, tris, exactas, or daily doubles all day long. For an extra five bucks, he even had a portable closed circuit monitor where you could watch your horses throw their jockeys. I didn’t suppose the kid would be amused by any of this.
   “Going for a walk,” he said, flipping the board off his foot and catching it under one arm. He was the type of cute little pudding head you wanted to strangle just for looking at you. He used his gun to motion ahead and to the left. I walked ahead and to the left. Rick would have to wait. After all, he’d only spend the money on something he liked.
   “You want to tell me where we’re going?”
    The kid spat from the corner of his mouth.   “Going to your funeral, you don’t shut up.”
   It made me happy that old gangster movies had an audience with the young.
   We passed an old guy with long gray hair, a brown parka, and striped shorts about half as thick as a sheet of notebook paper. He sat at a bus stop, his legs crossed in a figure two, the top one bouncing with enthusiasm, as if it were happy to have a purpose.
   Just beyond the bus stop stood the Madama Hotel, a great place to send out of town guests if you never wanted to see them again.
   “Walk inside and wait,” the kid said. I expected him to spit again, but he disappointed me. He didn’t follow me inside.
   The lobby was a humble affair, with a rainbow collection of colored chairs and sofas, the nicest of which had been cleaned around the time of Kennedy’s inauguration.
   A man popped up from behind the front desk.    “Help you?” he asked, if such can be considered a question.
   Ignoring the twenty-odd 'No Smoking' signs plastered on the walls, I popped one from my pack and met the man across the desk. “Got a light?”
   He brought a Bic up from his pocket and made it flame. “You Konkle?”
   I inhaled and smiled. “Somebody here sent a kid for me. Saved me from paying my bookie. Who do I thank?”
   The desk man rang a bell I hadn’t even noticed.
An old man not quite large enough to be a dwarf tugged on my jacket. “This way, if you please?”
   I tipped my smoke at the desk man, spun on my heels with what I hoped was a certain nonchalance, and followed the short guy across the lobby into an office with the word “Private” tattooed on the door. My escort waited just inside. I approached the man behind an old cherry wood desk. I recognized him at once.
   “You Konkle?” he asked. In only two words, he managed to convey half a dozen accents, all of them affectations.
   “My friends call me Dr. Konkle,” I said, looking around for an ashtray. The gray on the end of my smoke was arcing like a condemned bridge. “And you are Lloyd Shircore. To what to I owe the honor?”
   Shircore waved off my question as if it weren’t in a dialect of his liking. “Lefty, get Dr. Konkle an ashtray.”
   “Lefty?” I chuckled. “Is it still World War I and somebody forgot to tell me?”
   Again I received the dismissive wave. Shircore said, “His grandfather was a Bolshevik. What can I tell you?”
   Lefty heaved over an ashtray stand which I chose to ignore. “You can tell me what I’m doing here.”
Shircore frowned, not suddenly, but with a gradation that suggested such an expression was right at home on his mouth. “I got a friend named Bobak. Cecil Bobak. He says I ever need a favor, I should get in touch with you.”
   “In polite society,” I said, spilling ashes on the carpet, “You offer your guests a chair, possibly even a drink. And you make appointments over the phone. Not through some kid with a cap gun.”
   I didn’t notice Lefty move up behind me, but I found out he was there. As fast as I felt something brush against my pant leg, a tiny fist grabbed me by the scrotum and squeezed.
   Some pains are so precise and intense, they can change the way you see the world. Sitting across the desk, the frowning Lloyd Shircore changed from cream white to lavender to orange to green and back to his original color, or at least that’s how it seemed with every internal organ in my body screaming for relief.
   “You can let go now, Lefty,” Shircore said after half a minute or so. The midget dropped his hand and I hit the carpet hard and did not care at all.   “And get our guest a chair and a drink. He looks like a gin and tonic man to me.”
   I sucked down the gin and tonic, chewed up the lime and asked for a refill. Lefty obliged. And the third one tasted every bit as good.
   “You see, Konkle,” Shircore explained. “There’s this girl I want you to meet. She’s engaged to my boy. Her name’s Caroline Speaks. I don’t like her. I had her checked out. She comes up so clean she could be a dish of soap. So what’s she want with Joel?”
   My respiration no longer sounded like I was in mid-marathon. “Joel is your son? Have you talked to him about your concerns?”
   The frown waltzed along his face for a moment and then resumed its stationary pose. “Dr. Konkle, you know who I am, so you know that the people in this town often think of me as a criminal. Joel is no different from them. Oh, when he totals his Audi and needs a replacement, then it doesn’t matter how I earn my money. But if he’s not needing something, well, I’m just a corrupt father messing in his kid’s affairs. Now here’s the point. Cecil Bobak says you helped him in something like this. I want the same service. Hey, the girl checks out, I’m a happy guy in love with the world. She turns out to be a shady Sadie, you save my boy a lot of grief. But either way, Joel knows nothing about this.”
   Nobody seemed to care that I wanted a refill. I said, “Look, Mr. Shircore, I’m a retired psychologist.”
   “You’re thirty-seven and you were fired.”
   “I like to earn my money playing drums in a little jazz band down at the Cajun House. We play weekends. You should catch our act.”
   “You’ve done P.I. work off and on for the last three years. Your band stinks, although I hear you personally aren’t that bad. The deal is you bring me proof she’s clear, she’s dirty, I stay happy and you get six grand. Now get out of here, both of you. I need a nap.”
   Cecil Bobak owed me. Not only had his check bounced, but my crushed vitals had to be considered. Back in the office, with a pillow on my chair and feet up on my desk, I used my phone to confuse his secretary into putting me through to him on the golf course at the Country Club. I was glad he still had money for greens fees.
   After some polite swearing and protestations about his ignorance of the workings of financial institutions, he finally shut up long enough for me to ask him to arrange for me to attend a party where both Caroline Speaks and Joel Shircore would be holding court. My request was met with some swearing that was not at all polite. After he wore himself out, he said he’d call me back in a few minutes and hung up.
   I used the time to look over the file Lefty had given me. Three credit bureau reports all showed essentially the same things: Caroline Speaks, age twenty-seven, no aliases, lived in the same Scottsdale apartment for the last eight years, and liked to shop at high-end department stores. She still had plenty of room to grow on her indebtedness. She rarely missed a payment. The Volvo she drove was hers free and clear.
   Her motor vehicle report was a study in boredom. No tickets, no violations. Her Criminal Investigations Record was clear. I could see why the old man was troubled. Even with all his lawyers, guns and money, he didn’t squeak this clean. For that matter, neither did I.
   Her parents were from West Virginia. Father a coal miner, deceased. Mother a seamstress. No siblings. Caroline moved to Scottsdale right out of high school. Got a job working retail. Still with it after eight years.
   Her photograph worried me more than anything. Even in back and white, Caroline Speaks wore her beauty the way a used car salesman wears jewelry.   She had looks to spare, knew she had them, and knew that you knew. The photo caught her in half profile, her long dark hair draped over one eye as the other looked out at the camera with all the hunger a coke head brings to flake on a mirror.   “I’m a monster with teeth,” her closed lips seemed to say. “But you won’t mind dying.”
   The phone interrupted my highly unprofessional speculations.
   Cecil Bobak didn’t curse this time. After giving me the when—tonight after nine—and the where—the Zanex Room—he told me we were even and hung up. I had Tamla, my secretary, order a dozen roses from him to his wife. “Have the card read: To Anne, with all my love.”
   Tamla made a face I didn’t like. “I think his wife’s name is Beatrice,” she said.
   I told her she was absolutely correct, to send them out as I had directed, and grabbed my hat. “By the way, I need you to go out with me tonight.”
   She pushed back the baseball cap she always wore when she sat at her computer. “Dr. Konkle, we have discussed this before. I work for you.”
   “It’ll be work. Tamla, I’m on the job, as we speak.”
   “Oh.” One syllable, and she filled it with as much contemplation as a room full of psychics. “Then I’d be on the job, too. With overtime pay.”
   “I’ll pick you up at 8:30. We’re going to the Zanex Room, so dress appropriately.”
   “I always do,” she said, as unruffled as her T-shirt and blue jeans. “By the way, Rick called. He wants his hundred.”
   “Thanks,” I said. “But right now I have some shopping to do.”

   Caroline Speaks worked in the men’s department at McCains, a somewhat elitist fashion hole redeemed by the fact that you didn’t need an appointment to get in. I made a mental note to keep my receipts. Lloyd Shircore was the kind of guy whose accountants would insist upon supporting documentation for expense reports. Finding her was easy. Hell, I could have just followed the trail of drool left by the school boys from other departments sniffing around her in heated delirium.
   “Excuse me, gentlemen, but the young lady has a customer.” I smiled. She blinked.
   The three stiffs fractured a bit, backed away in different directions, and appeared to make little effort to avoid knocking over merchandise.
   “Welcome to McCains,” she beamed. “My name is Caroline. How may I be of service?”
   I pretended to look around her. “I’m a man of many faces, Caroline. Such a man needs an appropriate wardrobe.”
   “Oh, I agree,” she replied, even though I had no idea what I’d meant by that. “Konkle’s the name. Dr. Douglas Konkle.”
   “What can I show you today, Doctor?”
If one poured expensive molten chocolate into the finest brandy, and the mixture could speak, the sound would have tasted just like Caroline’s throaty voice.
   “For Monday’s, a lamb’s wool cardigan, perhaps a cotton shirt, silk tie, something from the Burberry London line, flannel trousers, a pair of Allen-Edmonds leather shoes. Tuesday’s I require a three-button wool jacket and matching blue trousers, something by Prada, I would think, perhaps some Berluti shoes. Ah, but Wednesday, such a problem. What would you recommend?”
   She motioned me still and circled me. My earlier image of the car dealer came and went. “For a man like you, I think a tan double-breasted wool-and-cashmere coat. It stays chilly at night here until April, after all. Then I’d slip you into a pair of delicious black corduroy pants and a natural breathing shirt to show off those pectorals. And I would sponge your tired feet in a dark set of A. Testoni shoes.”
   It had taken me half an hour to memorize what I would ask for and she topped me without a drop of perspiration.
   “I hope I didn’t offend your male colleagues.”
   “Boys,” she said, almost shrugging. “I keep explaining to them that I’m engaged”—she flittered the stone on her ring finger the way a butterfly fans its wings—“but they pretend to be deaf.”
   “Who’s the lucky fellow? Anyone I know?”
   She drew back for an instant, then relented. “Joel Shircore. I don’t recall him mentioning a Dr. Konkle.”
   “Joel Shircore? The private investor? That’s amazing. He and I haven’t been formally introduced, but I’m attending a function this evening at the Zanex Room.”
   “You are?”
   If one compounded the musical drawl of every native West Virginian into two words, it would have sounded exactly the way Caroline Speaks spoke. She knew it, too, coughing afterwards, as if the twang had merely been some phlegm caught in her long neck.
   “Indeed so. My, look at the time. Send that Wednesday attire to my office this afternoon, will you?” I handed her one of my old cards and a plastic rectangle to make an imprint for charging.
As I left, the boys resumed their sniffing escapades. It seemed to me that Ms. Speaks didn’t find their behavior all that objectionable.
   Three grown men, none of them clumsy in appearance, stood waiting for me by my Taurus. I thought about catching the security guard’s attention, or the valet’s, thought better of it, and soon enough regretted that thought.
   All three men were in their forties and wore loose-fitting suits—one brown, one gray, one blue—none of which had been purchased at McCains. The smallest of the three men would have appeared large leaning against a mature Saguaro cactus.    Brown Suit motioned me into my own car. He fell in through the passenger side. Gray and Blue sat together in the back. None of the tires exploded from the weight.
   Brown Suit said, “Start her up. Keep your hands on the wheel. Do like we tell you.”
   I turned the key. The motor purred. “You forgot to say: and nobody gets hurt.”
   He punched me behind my right ear, probably not as hard as possible, but hard enough that I still can’t remember the name of my high school.
   “I didn’t forget,” he said as we hit the road.
  We arrived at the offices of Joel Shircore Investments, Limited, without further incident.
   The three men delivered me to Joel’s office. Although they didn’t come in with me, the earth did not tremble, so I knew they weren’t far beyond the closed door.
   “You met with my father early this afternoon, Dr. Konkle,” the young Shircore assured me from within a suit too good for McCains. His screamed Rodeo Drive. “You used to earn your living as a psychologist, but the phone book has far better ones in it than you, some of whom still hold a license in this state. Your gambling proclivities are too insignificant to fall under my father’s gaze. The only logical conclusion is that he employed you as a private investigator. I want to know why.”
   Joel gripped the lip of his office desk as if he expected his skinny frame could actually shatter it.
   “You’re very well informed.”
   “Answer my question, won’t you, Dr. Konkle?”
   “Why not ask your father?”
   The young guy possessed his father’s knack for facial expressions. “Last chance, Doctor. Next time I ask, you can answer to the men who brought you here.”
   “Let me make a suggestion. Why don’t we ring up your dad on your speaker phone there? You can hear the entire conversation. I’ll tell him I screwed up and you’re onto our meeting. If he spills the beans, you get your answer.”
   He lessened his grip on the desk. I’ve learned to sweat on the inside and I was set to overflow.
   “My father has been apprehended. One of his assistants murdered in the process.”
   “Lefty?”
   He nodded.
   “You notify the police? This can’t have happened more than two hours ago.”
   “It happened,” he said with a sigh, “While you were at McCains. Another matter we’ll discuss later. Perhaps.”
   “You said apprehended. How do you mean?”
   He slid down the front of his desk, leaned against it and sat on the floor. “Did I? Kidnapped is a better word. No ransom, of course, but these weren’t the police. Not even in this town. Now, will you please answer my question?”
   “Your father employed me to do research on your fiancée.”
   Joel tipped his head forward and brought it up with a snap. “And what have you learned?”
   I patted myself down for a cigarette and came up empty. “Not much. If I had to guess, which it looks as if I do, I’d say your dad’s just being overly protective.”
   The young man glared and smiled at the same time, a trick I for one have never mastered. “You’re quite mistaken,” he said. “For instance, I’ll wager you assumed I’ve helped finance her lifestyle? Well, she won’t take my help and lives as if she doesn’t need it. Her parents can’t afford to help her. She’s an hourly employee at McCains. Very hourly.”
   “No commissions?”
    He shook his head. “I’ll tell you what I suspect, Konkle. I suspect she could tell us quite a lot about father’sdisappearance. It makes sense, doesn’t it?”
It didn’t to me, but I nodded. “Tentatively, let’s assume you’re right. My advice is still to call the police. You can’t sit on Lefty’s murder forever.”
   I received the glare and smile combo again. “Of course I can. My business interests differ from father’s more in appearance than in reality. I doubt the corpus delecti will surface any time soon.”
I really wanted that cigarette. I suspected where the conversation was headed. Joel didn’t keep me waiting long.
   “You will investigate father’s disappearance.”
   I spoke with all the candor I could muster. “You have a habit of putting me in situations where I have to refuse you. I don’t like refusing a man in your position.”
   “My three associates will provide you with all the assistance you need. What was father paying you?”
   “He mentioned six thousand.”
   Joel stood and pressed a button on his phone.   “Dusty! Bring ten K from petty cash. Sign the receipt on my behalf.” He dropped back to the floor. “The advantage, Konkle, of paying in advance is that the other person owes you.”
   I picked Tamla up at 8:30 sharp. She looked so good it bothered me a little. His hair was curled and the color of pineapple. It didn’t just catch the light; it waved it in. But as she had pointed out, she worked for me. We arrived at the Zanex Room at 9:05 and it cost me twenty bucks just to get a guy to think about parking the Taurus.
   I asked Tamla if she’d rather stick together or mingle. She looked around at the sweep of one million lights refracted in gold and surprised me by taking my arm. You never knew about some people.
   Someone had laid out the other guests like bumpers on a pinball machine. We manage to avoid tilting and made our way to the bar. Tamla called for a cosmopolitan. I stayed with gin and tonic. The bartender inhaled as if he were about to offer me a quote on the drinks when something behind me caught his eye and he went back to cleaning the bar with a dry rag.
    Tamla tugged at my elbow. We turned around just in time to catch the cool breeze of Caroline Speaks.
   I thought of a song lyric I’d not heard in decades. It went: “And she asks how are you? as she offers them a drink. The countess of the social grace who never seems to blink. And she promises to talk to you if you promise not to think.” I mopped the grin from my face and said hello.
   Dr. Konkle! You’re wearing the clothes I sent over. And it isn’t even Wednesday! Won’t you introduce me to your companion?”
   I introduced them.
   Caroline lacked a male entourage this evening. I’d no more than filed that observation for later review than I noticed that the Zanex Room, at least for this evening, was a couple’s venue. As far as I could see, Caroline was the only one in the room without a “companion.” She may have surmised my thoughts.
   “Joel will be here any moment. It is the funniest thing. After I selected your wardrobe this afternoon—” She turned to Tamla. “I’m sorry, but you’ll have to admit there’s nothing more exciting than dressing a handsome man?”
   Secretary didn’t flinch. “I dress all my handsome men.”
   Caroline’s forehead crinkled at that. “Yes, well, I was going to say, after you left the store today, I suddenly remembered who you are. Didn’t you write a book called Intuition and Other Parlor Tricks? I loved that book. Was that you?”
   I motioned a refill from the bar. “In my more self-important days. Yes, I wrote it.”
   For reasons unexplained, that courageous admission attracted some small attention. Tamla and I began growing onlookers from both arms.
Within a few minutes, Tamla was telling the story to anyone who would listen and to several who probably preferred not to hear. “Yes, he can talk to you for just a few minutes and tell you things about yourself—not everything, I mean, he’s no magician—that would surprise you.”
   This intrigued Caroline. “What can you tell about me?”
   I was ready for that one. “Nothing you’d want repeated in here,” I said around my lime.
   “Are you having a good time, dear?”
   Joel stepped up from behind us and clasped    Caroline’s hand in his own.
   I introduced Tamla and she informed Mr. Shircore that she was indeed pleased to make his acquaintance.
   Joel suggested that he and I should speak privately. I left Tamla in Caroline’s care, or perhaps the other way around.
   “I don’t suppose you have any news for me?”
   I shrugged. “A bit. You won’t like most of it.”
   “I don’t care for sugarcoating. Or for stalling.”
   “Your father’s dead.”
    That stopped him. I didn’t care for the shrimpy big shot wannabe, but I hadn’t wanted to tell him that. I plunged ahead. “You were right about him being kidnapped. They killed Lefty first, I imagine.”
   "They?”
   The cigarette wouldn’t wait this time. “Look, I know your father had Caroline checked out before he contacted me. She looked swell on paper, but there was something about her he didn’t like. He just couldn’t figure out what it was.”
   “And you could?”
   I blew out a cloud that would have choked Boston. “She was blackmailing your father, except he didn’t know she was the one doing it. Not because he was stupid, but because she was good. You’re smart. You wouldn’t talk your dad’s business around her. But face it, she could find out what she wanted through people near you, or near your father.”
   “Lefty! That squirrel-headed—”
   “It makes sense. Why else kill the little guy? They could’ve gotten to the old man without offing anyone else. But Lefty was a loose end.”
   Joel watched me smoke for a moment. Then he said, “You can’t prove any of this, can you?”
   “I think I can. We’ll know pretty soon. But think about it. The old man starts checking her out, she finds out about that from Lefty, and worries your dad will find out it’s her who’s blackmailing him.”
   Joel watched me savor my cigarette.
   “I decided to put your boys to work, since you offered.”
   Joel took a drag and handed the stick back to me.
  “The one in the brown suit, the one you call Arthur? He’s not that dumb. We got to talking about Caroline’s dad.”
  “The coal miner? What about him?”
   I offered him another hit but he wasn’t interested. All he wanted now was to hear my story. I didn’t keep him waiting. “Arthur used to work for your father. And when I suggested that ole Artie check out your bride-to-be’s family history, he remarks that your pop used to make business loans to the West Virginia mine owners. Never had much trouble getting paid back. But just about nine years ago, this one guy had his visible assets frozen during a routine government inquiry. So he wouldn’t pay. Or couldn’t. Then your father applies pressure. When that didn’t work, the mine owner found himself dead. His name was Elmore Gates, the man your intended called daddy. Step-daddy, it turns out. Speaks is the mother’s name.”
   I ground out my cigarette on the shiny hardwood floor. Joel crossed and uncrossed his arms.   “Caroline put father together in this, came out here to extort that information without revealing her connection.”
   “Blackmail was just a means. Revenge was her motive.”
   “Knowing she was on borrowed time, she had father and Lefty murdered.”
   “And lives happily ever after. Pretty neat.”
   Joel found a place for his hands. They parked on his hips. “You will repeat this in Caroline’s presence.”
   I said I’d rather not. He said he didn’t care.
   The five of us—Joel, Caroline, Arthur, Tamla and myself—met in a private room upstairs. You could hardly hear the clinking and laughter from beneath us. I repeated the story. Tamla fidgeted. Arthur held a canary in his belly, trying to look dutiful and grim while remaining very pleased with himself. Joel eyed Caroline. Caroline stared at me. When I finished, she commented, “That is an incredible story.”
   Joel’s bony frame vibrated. “How much of it does he have right?”
   “Want me to handle that one, honey?”
   I knew who had spoken before I saw her holding the Colt single-action on us. I knew because I’d heard a similar drawl earlier in the day.
   “Mrs. Speaks,” I declared. “I didn’t see your name on the guest list.”
   She tapped a glossy fingernail against her gun. “I brought an invitation,” she said.
   Loretta Speaks didn’t conform to my idea of a seamstress. Someone had poured her into a tight red dress. She wore her hair just a bit shorter and just a bit lighter than her daughter’s. Otherwise she stood out as a tall drink of water from the same gene pool as Caroline. She also stood out as the only one in the room holding a firearm. I’d found out earlier that Arthur ported a shoulder holster, but if he planned on drawing, he’d waited too long.
   “Tarnished, not ruined,” Mrs. Speaks observed.   “Our plans, I mean. Caroline won’t be able to marry the runt because now he knows what we’re up to, and besides, he’ll be dead. But we squeezed enough out of the old guy to get us into a new set up. Honey, you did real fine. Don’t you worry.”
   Caroline sashayed over to stand by her mother. She turned and looked back at the rest of us as if someone had passed wind and tried to blame it on her.
   Joel stood. I didn’t think that was such a hot idea.    He had his back to me, and I could see the skin along his neckline glow. I guess he’d had enough.
He took three steps forward. “Don’t point that gun at me, you hillbilly bitch.”
   Mrs. Speaks didn’t let him take a fourth step.
   The gun’s muzzle roared, a spark lit up the barrel, and Joel flopped backwards, landed, and was still.    He hadn’t hit the ground before Arthur dragged a Mag from beneath his brown jacket. With her gun at waste level, Loretta Speaks turned a few degrees, just before the top of her head exploded from Arthur’s blast. Her gun discharged all the same, hitting the big man between his shoulder and chest.
   I wished someone would scream. I couldn’t have been the only one fighting the impulse.
   Joel was too motionless to be anything but dead.    Loretta wasn’t gong to target shoot tin cans off fence posts anymore, either. Arthur looked to be in bad shape. His gun had dropped between his feet and Caroline had caught her mother’s Colt before it even had a chance to touch the carpet. She pointed that gun at me.
   “Shame to mess up such nice clothes,” Caroline said, her natural twang accented with a dash of hysteria. “But I got to shoot you all and be on my way.”
   My body uncurled until I was standing up. I said,    “Do you mind if I check to make sure Joel’s not alive?”
   She twitched the Colt in his direction and I inched my way over to his breathless body. I placed my thumb and fingers along his neck. There was never going to be a pulse there again. So I lied.
   “He’s tougher than he looks,” was all I had a chance to say before she shot him again.
   Those two seconds was all the time Tamla needed to grab Arthur’s Magnum, pull back the hammer, and squeeze the trigger. Unfortunately, she omitted aiming from her equation. She did buy me enough distraction to grab the .38 from Joel’s jacket and fire one round through Caroline’s abdomen.
   Caroline Speaks didn’t shoot anyone else that night. They DOA’d her upon arrival at Good Samaritan.
   The homicide detectives had a long night. From their point of view it was bad enough they had to keep all the non-witnesses downstairs from slipping away. Worse yet for them they had to wrestle with the Organized Crime Bureau to maintain jurisdiction over the case. Compared to that, accepting our version of events must have been easy.
   After checking with the hospital and learning that Arthur would live to sucker-punch another day, I drove Tamla to her apartment. She still looked good, especially having saved my life. Before she touched the door handle, I tapped her wrist and kissed her quick on the cheek.
   “It’s a little after five. Take today off.”
   She chuckled and shook just a bit. “I’ll be in by nine,” she said. She surprised me with a return peck on the cheek. “Apparently I need to protect you,” she said on her way out of the car. I watched her climb the stairs to her apartment, slip a key into the lock, step inside and close the door.
   You never knew about some people.
   I drove on home with my windows down, relishing the cool early morning air.




Mr. Floss

   When I awakened from my nap, I discovered that they had stopped selling Teem. The they in question was Pepsi-Co and the Teem in question had been my all-time favorite non-cola soft drink. Teem had been invented in 1964 as a competitive alternative to 7-Up and Sprite. It was just a little bit lighter than either of those two and had just a tad more carbonation and a touch more lemon-lime flavoring.      
    My wife laughed and said that if it was so important to me I could always drink Sierra Mist. I took a sip of hers and cursed the moon at the foul-tasting swill. "No, no no, no no no! I want Teem, damn you all to hell!"
   A little online investigating--a process Miriam, my wife, explained to me at considerable length--showed that Pepsi-Co had ceased domestic production in 1984. However, by "drilling down"--I was quickly hating the new lingo that had cropped up while I had been indisposed--we learned that the Phoenix branch of Pepsi was still churning out the product, marketing it specifically for the people of Pakistan, Ecuador, and Tasmania. However, a small amount of the glorious substance was trickling into a warehouse in downtown Phoenix, a warehouse which I intended to visit the very next morning. 
   The warehouse was named Ma's Dog's Paws. The sign out front had a drawing of a presumably female human holding the leash of a big dog with a bottle of Teem in its fist. I wasn't quite certain what that image was intended to convey, but I had more important things to do than analyze this place's marketing strategies. I knocked on the door and in mere seconds I shuddered from the explosion of what sounded like thousands of cans falling against the floor. The hissing and spraying of bursting carbonated beverages soon followed the initial blast and by the time the interior commotion had slowed to a stream, the door inched open and out popped a man who introduced himself as Grey Wing. He was not a Native American. He was not old. And he did not have feathers. Grey Wing was simply what he called himself.
   "How can I help you this cheery day, sir?"
   I shoved my hands into my back pants pockets and smiled. "We spoke on the phone earlier this morning."
   Grey Wing matched my smile, tooth for tooth. "Oh, you must be Mr. Floss! Pleasure to meet you, sir. I would invite you into the warehouse, but we're a little crowded in there today. Those rascals at Pepsi, they keep right on delivering the merchandise, yes indeed they do."
   "That's a good thing, I imagine."
    He nodded his head in the affirmative and said, "Naw, it ain't really all that good. No, sir. I mean, after all, it won't be long until I'm--we're--plumb out of room in here."
   I thought about this for a moment. I had been out of circulation--the doctors called it a coma, sure, right, a twenty-seven year coma--and it was possible that things had changed in ways I had not yet discovered. I asked Grey Wing, "You mean, not enough people realize just how delicious and refreshing Teem is."
   The man kicked the toes of his work boots against the dust at his feet as he said, "I share your love for the beverage, Mr. Floss." He then tipped his head up in my general direction and confessed. "I haven't had a customer come around here in over twenty years. We're about at capacity right now. When that next truck load shipment comes later in the week, well, heck-o-pete, I don't know where I'm gonna store the stuff."
   I made to look inside the building and Grey Wing held the door to prevent the cans from spilling outside. Still, as I peeked through the opening I could see there were millions of cans of Teem stacked all over the place. Grey Wing was right about running out of room.
   Then what seemed like an obvious question hit me, so I asked him, "You still take this stuff to the stores, right? You know, so that people can buy it?"
   His smile turned a bit sour. "What do you mean, do I take it to the stores? This is Teem we're talking about, Mr. Floss. This is a product so satisfying and delicious and so genuinely appealing to men and women of all ages that the public should get off its hind quarters and come to me, here at this warehouse, if they want the world's greatest soft drink."
   He had worked up quite a little sweat with that exhausting speech. I patted him on the shoulder to show I meant no harm. I said, "Grey Wing, how would anyone know you were storing Teem here?"
   He jammed his opened hands onto his hips. "We got that danged sign up there, don't we?"
   I brought home the first twenty cases of Teem that night. The wife was a little upset that I was more interested in this clear sparkling beverage than I was in taking a run at her, but I had my priorities in the right order. And I wasn't worried about running out of the fine stuff anytime soon. Grey Wing was happy, especially after I agreed that any new shipments could be diverted to our family garage. I even got off my lazy long enough to figure out a way to pay for my expenses. I set up a Teem stand right out front and sold cups of the world's greatest soft drink for ninety cents a pop. One of the kids who lingered around the pop stand asked me, "Mr. Floss, you were in a coma, isn't that right?"
   "Yes, Bobbie Jo," I nodded, not having a clue whether or not that was the child's name. "I was in a diabetic coma."
   She smiled up at me and as she did one of her teeth dropped off into her cup.