Category Archives: Short Writing

“And a Pen to Steer Her” by Zireaux

Barbara Payton in the movie, Bad Blonde.

Barbara Payton in the movie, Bad Blonde.

A single blank sheet of paper slides across the table to me. Just one sheet. Just enough to satisfy the Statement’s only expression of generosity:

Use additional paper as required.

“Better be good,” says the officer, a new recruit in a new Akubra hat.

Good? This is what I do! I’ve been writing stories since I was five years old. Twenty-nine years of le mot juste. But this is precision work, and I’m not accustomed to the distracting shadows of a halogen lamp. Nor can this plastic ink-straw replace the heirloom Waterman pen your lieutenant confiscated from my home this morning.

And besides, this story is different. This story is a love story.

“You’ve written lots of love stories — ”

Yes (and please, young man, kindly desist from reading over my shoulder), but never — never! – have I written a love story about me. My head is throbbing. It still hurts to write. Whatever palsy infects my script comes less from my bandaged hand than a condition (inherited, I believe) known as Acute Blepharitis, which includes blurred vision, extreme sensitivity to light, the twitching of —

Philistinus uniformus – I see you glancing at your watch.

* * *

It begins like this:

“I’m leaving you,” she said to him one day as they kissed in the gardens, a doddering old sun sitting gingerly on cushions of orange-tinted hills.

“It’s over. I’m sorry.”

He struggled for breath. She turned, walked beneath the leafless jacaranda, over its fallen petals like lavender ice-chips, and down the grassy bank of a small lake, on which two braids of coppery water trailed a single black swan.

When her lover came to her – and she knew he would, he always came back – she whirled around quickly and kissed his lips. He could feel the heat of her cheeks. She could feel his racing heart. Their mouths felt drier, sweeter, more tender than they had just minutes before. Their fingers felt new, refreshed, sensitive, stunned, the way fingers feel when we first wake up in the morning.

* * *

The lovers returned to the gardens regularly. They would start on the eastern lawns, beside an agitated stream, and end up – some three, four, a dozen separations later – amongst the pink and yellow camellias to the west.

They’d take turns. He might say, “Well, this is it then. I’ll miss you. You won’t forget me, I hope.”

She’d frown, swallow hard, acknowledge the inevitability of their break-up. Her exquisite blue eyes would fill with tears. He’d turn and cross the flat narrow bridge – more like a wooden pathway with guardrails – that stretched across the water lilies. He’d slow down where the water formed a latex veil over the rocks, and the smell of moss and rotten wood, and the roaring in his ears and the frothy water filled him with despair.

She’d catch up to him, find him crying. They’d clutch and kiss beneath the pine trees. A long, hard kiss; a passionate embrace.

Then it was her turn.

* * *

Sometimes one of the lovers would vanish down a pathway. Disappear in shadows. They might lose each other for an hour or more. He’d find her sitting in the replica Shinto temple beside the Japanese rock garden. She’d find him on a granite slab bench watching children flying rainbow colored kites.

And then one day – this must have been the summer of 1989 (Be as specific as possible with dates and times) – after a particularly well-acted parting, she left the gardens without telling her lover and walked home by herself.

They met again the next day at the glass factory where she worked as an apprentice. She was the only daughter of scholarly parents (father a professor in Literature; mother a ditto in Archeology), with whom she still lived; but she lacked her parents’ academic interests. She liked swimming and painting and working with clay; and she enjoyed her glass-blowing apprenticeship. She relished the roaring heat of the furnaces, the urgency of blowing and shaping the amber-gold liquid before it solidified or exploded.

Her lover, on the other hand, cared nothing about glass; but he admired the vitreous beads of sweat studding the nape of her neck when she was working. He considered her beauty classical. That is, Hollywood classical — like a 1950s movie star, only she was thinner, with a dancer’s body, her chestnut hair funneled into a ponytail, her left-eye losing focus now and then, drifting outward.

Speaking of 1950s starlets, this morning I noticed you ogling my gallery of Barbara Payton pin-ups, Mr. New Recruit; and I will seek damages for the mess your drooling dogs made of my movie collection.

A dreamy tinseled blue, those eyes.

Read the rest of “A Pen to Steer Her”

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The Secret Pilot: H.G. Wells and “The Time Machine”

From the George Pal film of The Time Machine.

From the George Pal film of 'The Time Machine.' Let's erase this from our minds.

Let’s begin by erasing the distracting markings on the blackboard from previous discourses on “The Time Machine” – markings that, like some over-suggestive Rorschach blotch, will only make us think of movies and television portrayals of H.G. Well’s most classic tale. Because contrary to everything you’ve probably heard and seen about “The Time Machine,” it’s not a story about a scientist who travels into the future. It’s a story about a man who claims to know a scientist who may have travelled into the future (although he most probably didn’t) but through masterful wordplay and behavioral trickery attempts to convince his audience – succeeding, in fact, with our narrator — that he most definitely made the journey.

Time travel, of course, does occur in the book, but not in the way most people think. Which direction in time does “The Time Machine” take us — forward or back? Both. The Time Traveler (the real Time Traveler) flies into the future, while we fly into the past.

Is “The Time Machine” science fiction? Absolutely not. It’s not even “scientific romance,” as many critics call it.

It’s pure, unadulterated, romantic literature.

Herbert George Wells, or “Bertie” as his parents called him, was lying on what he thought was his deathbed when he conceived the story that would eventually be called “The Time Machine.” As great ideas were gushing from his mind, blood was gushing from his mouth. He was penniless and suffering from severe consumption. The year was 1888. Our Bertie was 22 years old.

Death, however, usually quite punctual for consumptive clients in those days, missed its appointment; and young Bertie, snubbed by the very thing to which he’d resigned himself, was granted permission to travel further into time. Had he died, he would have died completely, because the upstart biologist hadn’t written anything yet and his grand entrance onto the literary stage was still several years into the future. Had he died, we wouldn’t even know the name H.G. Wells. Just imagine!

Bertie had a rambunctious genitalia, and, as he made clear in several books (including a detailed autobiographical account of his many love affairs), it tormented him terribly. The organ was raised and nourished in the most conducive social climate possible – a time of belching iconoclasm, overwhelming questions about human behavior (not just Marx and Engels, but Thomas Huxley, Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, Henrik Ibsen, Ralph Waldo Emerson), the percolations upward of the shocking yet tantalizing observations recorded from Britain’s most distant colonial outposts (Joseph Conrad in Africa, Rudyard Kipling in India) as well as islands of inhabitation even more remote (Charles Darwin, Captain Cook, Herman Melville).

Only that which was scientifically verified was considered valid, leaving everything else — like legislation after a coup, life in Czechoslovakia after the Russians withdrew — open to experiment. Nor was science the thing of utility it is today. Rather, it was the beat of the new step — what music was to the 1960s. A good example, because as demonstrated by the Eloi people in “The Time Machine,” the concept of free love and flower children did not originate in the 1960s. Bertie was dreaming about it and living it — along with many others — eight decades earlier.

In fact, the origin of this classic tale, first serialized as “The Chronic Argonauts” and then transformed seven years later into “The Time Machine,” corresponds with Bertie’s elopement and co-habitation with a Miss Catherine Anne Robbins, a dainty, delicate young female student of his – almost as dainty and delicate as his character, the Time Traveler’s little playmate, Weena…although apparently not dainty and delicate enough for Bertie, who’d find many more Weenas to woo.

Never mind that at the time of the elopement Bertie was legally married to his cousin, Isabel. When asked whether he intended to divorce his wife before marrying “his little doll” (as the Time Traveler also refers to little Weena), Bertie said he no longer believed in marriage. He preferred loving freely and only wished his new partner in love would demonstrate more of his experimental nature in bed. So for all this talk about H.G. Wells being a scientist, or a brilliant inventor, he was first and foremost a lover, with a powerful, insatiable libido.

With this is mind let’s look then at Bertie’s Time Traveler…

Read the rest of this essay…
____

“The Time Machine,” by H.G. Wells, is considered a seminal work of science fiction. And yet according to Zireaux, it’s so much more than that. In his highly engaging essay, “The Secret Pilot,” Zireaux makes the case that H.G. Wells’ most famous novel, written when Wells was only 22 years old, is one of the greatest works of literature ever produced. Leading us on a journey from 19th century England to the Pacific Islands, through time travel, love, science and art, Zireaux makes some fascinating insights along the way — including a remarkable revelation (a first-ever discovery?) of what may be the “The Time Machine’s” biggest secret of all.

Related content: The “Leafy Light” of H.G. Wells and an Exchange with Susan Pearce

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“The Ballad of Pip and Poop”

The Ballad of Pip and Poop by Zireaux

“The Ballad of Pip and Poop” by Zireaux

IT’S OFTEN SAID this country’s sense of self was forged out of the furnace of war. If the same can be said about an individual, then I’d suggest no conflict is more transformative than the war between one’s dignity and one’s shame.

I can think of no other way to explain it; and yet without such an explanation, the story I’m about to tell, while familiar to many, will seem to others nothing short of inconceivable.

Metamorphosis, of course, is a form of travel. A travel through time. And travel can be fast or slow – which perhaps accounts for why this story, “The Ballad of Pip and Poop,” begins in Sydney’s International Airport, where every day some tens of thousands of passengers are transferred and transposed at speeds, and across distances, for which our evolution has failed to prepare us.

One such traveler was Mr. P. Gardienne. It was the morning hours of January 9th, 2011. His final destination, in fact, was Australia’s capital, Canberra – a destination he might never have reached if it wasn’t for Gopal the taxi driver waiting in the airport’s arrival hall; or for that matter, if Spit the Scribner hadn’t written the large white card that was pinned to Mr. Gardienne’s lapel when he, Gardienne, with sweat like gelatin in his thick mustache, finally emerged through customs.

Two cameramen and a midget with a boom-mike were following close behind the bewildered passenger. The arrivals hall was outside the boundary of their business; yet how could they resist pursuing this agitated twig of a fellow in an ill-fitting, silky gold, three-piece suit, silver tie, pointy polished shoes, a small leather tote-bag over his shoulder and – as if he were a piece of check-on luggage – that labeled lapel.

“Is he a relative of yours?” they asked the portly taxi driver.

But Gopal, having seen the white card, was already steering his spindly consignment away from the commotion (“please, please this way”), and the hyena film crew went skulking back to its den, to feast on another weakling from the arriving herd.

Gopal looked down at Gardienne’s oil-splotched leather tote.

“This it? This all you got?”

The shaken Gardienne, dabbing his forehead with a purple handkerchief, struggled for words, but spoke bravely: “Sorry to disappoint you, good fellow. I’d heard about the limpness of your loins, your wife’s despair. I brought a dozen frog scrotums as curative. I begged. I threatened. But apart from a million toykers, my tickets, my passport, Foofoo’s Famous Field Guide and my memories of mother, they took everything, I’m afraid. Everything.”

Gopal had a chance now to look more closely at Gardienne, to read in its entirety the big white card with its fancy filigreed script that was pinned to the man’s lapel:

MISTER P. P. P. GARDIENNE
BSC, M.PHIL, PH.D, R-TRIPLE-B TRIPLE-C,
ORDER OF THE MYNA, NUBILE LOREATE (NOMINEE)
C/O HER PRIME MINSTRELESS MADAM MISS JULYA GIZZARD

Biting his lip, looking around nervously, the hefty taxi driver gave a sharp tug to the curious tag and stuffed it into his pants pocket. “Lets’ go” – but rather than head toward his taxi, Gopal escorted his passenger to the bus terminal, exactly as instructed on Facebook by an academic cousin of his dim-witted brother-in-law’s sexy wife. Outside a yawning sun was cooking up a breakfast that smelled of cigarette smoke, car fumes and, for the few people gathered around the bus stop, the oily smell of the sea.

“Do not let him out of your sight,” Gopal instructed the ticket collector. He then turned to Gardienne, gently took the fellow’s bird-claw hand and spoke slowly, even haltingly, having forgotten so many words in his native tongue:

“Stay here. When the bus arrives, you board the bus. Three hours to Canberra. Mrs. Gypsy or Tipsy-something, I forget her name. A woman will meet you at the station.”

Read the rest of the story…

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Crim City 12: The Tunnel

Frida Kahlo, Me and My Parrots

Frida Kahlo, Me and My Parrots (1941)

Then an early thaw, a very wet March, and on April 13, 1993, a misshapen man came hobbling into the Demirovic’s apartment with a small box of jewelry he’d secreted in his underpants and bravely transported from a popular skiing village in Trnovo. The ruby-studded bracelet fit easily over Tatjiana’s pink child hand, while a gold necklace settled a diamond studded cross on the lowlands of Ms. Demirovic’s broad decolletage. The remaining jewelry — a diamond ring, two gold wedding bands and a pair of sapphire earrings — were given to my wife. Not to wear, but to keep safe in their black velvet pouch.

“She’s too old,” said the crippled courier on seeing my fast-developing darling. “No one will believe me.”

“But she’s just a child,” pouted Ms. Demirovic. “Younger than Tatja.”

Another two months would pass, with the miserable man sleeping fitfully on a divan in the living room, occasionally shouting in the night — “I know your family! Don’t fuck with me! Don’t make me kill them!” — and in Tatja’s room, in Tatja’s bed, my wife would try to bury herself deeper in the folds of a blanket that seemed to be shrinking every day.

There was talk of a tunnel. A secret, not very big, often flooded, with rumors of suffocation and drowning — but it led beneath the guns, the airport, to a place of safety and freedom. It offered yet another reason for my wife to curse her shameless, tameless growth. In her dreams the source of her frustration would appear as one of those talking parrots that South Seas pirates were known to adopt. A Macaw or a Lory, some flashy colorful creature that would sit on her shoulder in class and fluff up its feathers, spread its wings, dance about, say embarrassing things while the teacher attempted to conduct the lesson.

My wife would desperately try to shoo away the feathered jokester, but its talons would expand and dig into her aching joints, and its wings would flap wildly as it repeated the words: “Nobody cares! Nobody cares!” With a terrible pang of sorrow and self-pity, my wife would suddenly realize a horrible truth. It was over. Not just her childhood. But she’d outgrown the small of this world, the precious, the things worth caring about. The small was safe. The small would survive.

She would awake with her face snuggled beneath a pillow, or deep in a blanket-fold, mistaking it for the soft wing of the bird in her dream.

“Mr. Rodic” — the disfigured sleep-talker — “is your new father,” explained the Demirovic’s. “He’s adopted you, Jasmine. He will take you through the tunnel.”

When she thought of the tunnel, my wife imagined it no bigger than a rabbit hole, just like the one in Alice in Wonderland; but if she was the Alice of this story, then she’d already eaten the “EAT ME” cake. She was too big, growing too quickly. Not only could she not fall down a rabbit hole, but if there happened to be any gunfire (a real possibility) when visiting the tunnel, she was sure to get struck by a bullet. If there was a bomb, her over-sized body was sure to take the brunt of the blast.

When the morning came for her departure — a dark, moonless August 5th — the Demirovic’s wept. My wife, however, never thought much of the plan, never thought she’d actually enter the tunnel, let alone reach the other side alive, with Mr. Rodic, her fake father chaperon. She envied little Tatja, showed no emotion in her farewell.

She paused at the bookshelf for a moment and thought of taking one of the books (Rebecca West’s Black Lamb) in which she had secretly pressed her ant specimens. But the shelf seemed as good a place for her ant mandibles as anywhere. Instead she took a small collection of banal epigrams, compiled by a Uzbek charlatan named Zander Noznibor. “History is a set of lies agreed upon.” “Familiarity breeds contempt — and children.” But she was more interested in the number of pages (64), the number of epigrams (8 per page), the number of words per page, letters, punctuation. The space that snaked itself between the print.

“They’ll never believe us,” complained her new father. The streets were quiet. The stars illumined their way.

…tbc

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Crim City 11: A Study of My Wife

View of Dobrinja, Sarajevo.

View of Dobrinja, Sarajevo.

My wife was born in Sarajevo. Six weeks early, very small, a flighty wisp of a child — until her growth spurt, which started young and forceful and coincided to the exact day it seemed with the Bosnian war.

A riverside stroll through a park, or maybe it was a visit to the zoo; she can’t recall the exact excursion. But she was with a friend, Tatjana Demirovic (who would become famous in South Africa for her erotic poems before being stabbed to death in a home invasion). There were pigeons, a warm cafe, lacy-green lindens, folksy pop music playing on some picnicker’s radio, and — my wife remembers — a patch of edible violets that tasted of white-frosted wafers and candied moonlight.

The two little girls were standing atop a stone bridge, tossing blades of grass into the Miljacka, watching the tiny scars slide harmlessly down the glassy surface, when the river started to whistle and the stones began to spit. Pops in the distance. Screams, and Tatjana’s heroic young parents swept up the two children, their precious daughter, my precious future wife, carrying the terrified girls in their arms for several kilometers, until they reached their house, where my shy darling spoke to her parents on the phone, oddly believing, with the keen intuition of childhood, that she’d never see them again.

In fact she would see them again, just three weeks later, near the Old Synagogue in the Ferhadija district, but not when they were alive, or intact, or easily identifiable as the parents she knew.

The Demirovics lived in a salmon colored block of flats in Dobrinja, a densely populated neighborhood safe from the pock-walled terror of sniper’s alley but soon to become a kind of sandcastle for the incoming mortar shells to kick over. It was at this point that my wife began to fixate on — to envy in a way — the reliability of certain numbers and patterns.

Each morning she’d count the windows on the apartment block across the gaping enclave. Their number (64) was reliable, always the same. But then there’d be a shrieking ribbon of fear, another explosion, and as her rapidly maturing body billowed and bulged and expanded in the atrocity of Sarajevo, her only wish was to shrink out of sight. Amidst the smoke and the sirens, she turned her attention (truly envious now) to the small, the insignificant. From the eight story edifice of apartment windows to — while sipping chorba with a still undeveloped, unshootably slender Tatjana — the perfect rows of pale yellow floor tiles in the Demirovic’s kitchen.

Then it was the six sub-divisions in Demirovic senior’s bookcase, 129 books in all, mostly reference books, pocket almanacs, legal dictionaries, an encyclopedia, but some travel guides, adventure books, a few of the latest popular novels as well. At first my wife would try to read these books, and then she’d simply open them, stare at a page. She’d study the pattern of white space that had once wormed unnoticed between the words but which now seemed the primary organism coiled around an alluvium of print. She’d spend hours tracing, memorizing these designs, and it was in those hours that her clothes would feel tighter, her breasts more weighty.

Chess; the grain-patterns in the brown and beige squares of the wooden board. Then, with magnifying glass, the semi-translucent cells and sub-cells on the wing of a dead fly. The teeth on the mandibles of ants. And all the while she’d think back on the violets, so small, compact and safe, she felt, from all the gunfire despite such an abundance of beauty.

Summer’s warm transfusion. But soon the hours soured and cowered, the leaves began to splatter and spoil. The rain was a hardworking nurse, all buffeting small talk, a hasty slosh and scrub, until a clear line formed between the basin’s rim of mountainous white and the helpless city soaking in the dirty bathwater below.

…read more

Start from the beginning.

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Crim City 10: A Sniff of the Armpit

Samurai with sword, ca. 1860.

Samurai with sword, ca. 1860.

I cut-and-paste from my inbox:

Respected Sir,

Let me introduce ourselfs. We are Mutta Rescue Brigade (MRB) special ops named after late respected senior commander General F.U. Mutta, level 60 freedom fighter, second brigade rank.

All forms transport, including armor truck, speedboat and helicoptor on request service as needs. All 100% martial and soldier training with first class sniper, assault, machine, carbine, grenades, artillary, missilles, IEDs, bombvests, chemical.

“Fast, reliable, highest recommended.”
Five star rating.
– Henry Kruggers, Captain, Mermaid Luxury Cruise Liner

Faithfully,
Lord Mutta Fuk-Fuk Jr.
S.Corp, 8th Division
MRB LTD

And here’s another:

Dear Mister Honorable Pak de Pupkin,

We are fully aware your precise location, time in captivity, all private plus family matters in Banki. Plus home country of Canberra ACT Australia 2600. Max 3 day delivery to Kuala Namu Airport. Low low low cost plus season discount 20%. Txt 3999 or msg StealthE77 for quote plus time operation availability.

Sincerely,
StealthCo

“Don’t care,” my wife sighs, weakly coughing and rubbing her one good eye. Sweat-soaked hair and neck, she wrestles the twisted wet serpent of a bed sheet (a baby serpent in her gargantuan grip). “Any of them.” Her words are slurred. Anyathem. “Just do something, Siggy…Pup-kin…Take action. Like you did with that Samurai.”

“A semi-samurai.”

“Death is death,” she says. “Same result, same threat” — then throwing decorum to the barking dogs outside — “same sonofabitch whatever size.”

Our options have dwindled since her joints began to swell. No walking out the front door some hopeful early morning. Or escaping in the night with stolen weaponry to plunge our way through the jungle’s shaggy dark. Even the poison-laced meal idea, hotly simmering in my dear wife’s mind for many days, has evaporated completely from her pan of possibility.

“We’ve paid Binatang,” I say. “He accepted our offer.”

“He accepted our money.” She coughed. “So did the hookers he spent it on.”

“His great granddaughters, you mean.”

“Suspiciously” — spishushly — “young for just great-grand,” she grumbles. “Would need to be great great great. And why they all trained in Swedish massage,” which comes out shweedish mushaj.

“Genetic talent,” I tease, grateful for her voice, however stretched and strained; and more so for the priceless, salutary gift of her humor. Not long ago I might have wept at so much devotion; the way, in all her misery, she still insists on assuring me of the soundness of her faculties while pleading for my help. But now I see it differently. We’re strangers, she and I. My wife and me. Jasmine and Pupkin. Strangers yet dependents, duty-bound, respectful, married by circumstance, less husband and wife than a pair of non-identical twins, blonde Hippolyta and her Neverland Gnome, vital organs conjoined, each aware of the dangers of separation, yet desperate for the operation that will give us our freedom.

The good eye squints. A sudden squirt of daylight as the bamboo portière cleaves and releases the short and shriveled old Binatang. He wears an argyle sarong, sandals, no shirt (polished rippled resin for skin). He’s followed by his old schoolmate double, Mr. Raccoon, manager of the Little Glory Hotel who fed my wife the platter of cakes and who first introduced us to Binatang and his so-called “platoon,” two members of whom, brother and sister it appears, saunter inside with their AR-15s.

“I’ve brought our very best doctor,” lisps old Binatang, his smile a weightlifter hoisting a pile of blankets. The hotel proprietor is equally shriveled but unequally attired. He wears a silk paisley waistcoat, rose satin necktie, a top hat.

No hospitals, I’m thinking. No doctors you can trust. No clinics. No nurses. No emergency rooms. Not even a church or temple or mosque or monastery.

A graveyard. Banki does have a graveyard.

My wife is quick to lay open the coiled-up bedspread, stretching its meager serpent skin over the lower section of her shrinking but still very elongated body. Hard leathery hand against her spongy forehead, her red-enflamed neck, her thin milky wrist. Mr. Raccoon flips the covers from her feet and his large rubbery nostrils inhale the foot odor. A lift of her arm, a sniff of the armpit.

The prognosis is tersely spoken. She will not last the week, he says. And that’s it; the two old men are walking away, chattering in their dusty Bakat, having lived ten thousand weeks too long and expecting another million to go. The sibling guards kick, salute, spin, vanish. My wife is mumbling something I can’t understand. I’m not paying attention anyway. I’ve taken out my phone and my fingers are following an instinctive dictation.

A tap of the three. Then a tap-tap-tap of the nine.

…read more

Start from the beginning.

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Crim City 9: Blam! Blam! Blam!

South Indian film superstar, RajiniKanth.

South Indian film superstar, RajiniKanth.

“Down here,” I said to my hired minders, diverting them, turning away from, rebounding off the distant gaze of my magnificent wife. “The car is just down this street.”

We stepped over puddles, rounded a corner, another, plunged into shadow and moist fecal-smells. I’d select a car, that’s what I had to do. It was my only way out. “This one’s mine,” I’d say, then distribute my thank yous, shake their hands, everyone’s hand, even the boneless floppy-gloved fingers of silky Ms. Sylph. “Okay then,” and I’d send my hand diving into my pocket, playing the klutz, dropping, picking up, dropping, picking up my imaginary keys — “okay, see you, thanks again” — while they walked away.

If they walked away.

A shiver through the bag I was holding. Little tremors had been running through the waxy plastic handle for the last several minutes, but this time I pulled out my phone, answered it.

“Siggy? You okay? Just say yes or no.”

The Siggy in me wanted to speak, but the newly hatched Pupkin cut him off, thumbed the red “cancel” button and picked up his pace. Turned out we’d circled back to Blunderbuss Square. A crowd was gathered round what must have been one of those South Indian movie stars, all mustache and bouffant hair and globular shades as he pointed a pistol (or rather, a “glock,” I should say) at the foaming sky. His Indian wife, plaited hair roping down her glittering gold blouse, was covering her ears, squinting her eyes.

Blam! A hurrah from the crowd. Then blam! Blam!

“Listen, Pups,” the Umbrella Man was slowing his gait. “Leave the car. Leave it. Shouldn’t be driving now anyway, all jittery like this. We’ll put you up somewhere, Pups. Have a nap, a shower, settle the nerves.”

“Boss,” said Sax. “We got work. Got a text from Egor.”

“Sure. We’ll set Pupkin up at the X-Trade then. They’ll sort him out. Hotel, some food. Who wouldn’t want to give a pat to the Puppy-Man, huh?”

We passed through the open door of a fast food joint called KFC, though it looked nothing like a KFC. In fact, it looked like a barber shop. A blue caped customer appeared to be having his hair cut while eating fried wantons from a paper cup. There were only three types of food in the squat fly enclosure that served as a display case. Fried wantons. Fried fish cakes. And Bintang beer. The owner, sheers in one hand, cellphone in the other, circled his seated patron, talking into his fist and snapping the scissors and never quite cutting anything.

But the KFC had a back door, which was open, and through it, in the gaping shimmer of dark, I could make out a pile-up of shabby men and their makeshift machines, a sort of Internet cafe, only more crowded, less structured, huddles of men around single units, wires cascading down the tables. In front of the door sat a tobacco-chewing islander with a large gun, a kind of hunting rifle, I think, with a slender wooden stock (or “butt”?).

We didn’t move. Goldy and Sax were squashing their chins, working their phones. The Umbrella Man was whispering to his assistant. When I turned around, the backroom shadows congealed into an enormous, droopy-eyed fellow who choked up the entire doorway, squeezed out, stood before me.

“Pupkin,” I could hear Sax’s voice behind me. “Pick up your phone.”

Indeed, the duffel bag was trembling. I could answer, hang up, play dumb. I retrieved the phone, brought it to my ear.

“Hello.”

“You Pupkin?”

The little zipper voice in my ear didn’t correlate with the newly emerged leviathan before me, and yet it was clearly his gaping grotto mouth that was uttering those same words into his phone.

“Yes.”

“What’s your password?”

“I’m sorry?”

I started to lower my phone, but Bapi reached out his fleshy torpedo arm, raised my phone to my ear again.

“I’m Bapi.”

Just then another fellow emerged, smaller, wrinkled, feral-lipped, with a cigarette behind his ear.

“This is — shit,” said Bapi, “what’s your name again? Flinty? Flicker?”

The second man, greusomely grinning, said nothing.

“You heard of the Little Glory,” asked Bapi into his phone. “That’s where we’re taking you. What’s your password?”

This is when I turned around, seeking an explanation from the Umbrella Man and his crew, but they were all gone. And only my wife’s composed and radiant face, as she stepped eagerly into the KFC, was there to greet me.

“Who were those people?”

“Where’s the car,” I asked.

“I thought you took it. Who’s bag is that?”

“Drugs,” I said.

“A Lumia 610,” expounded Bapi, still speaking into his phone, big eyes loping toward my wife. “Pair of Nikes, wrist-gnashers, some ciggies, bit of gold, ain’t that right?”

“My money’s gone,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“Had to pay someone. Buried the rest. They told me to. It was the only way.”

The secret staggering blue of her eyes.

“I’m no longer your Siggy either,” I added. “Now please love, go have a look inside that door.”

___
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Crim City 8: Mixing with the Crims

An 18th century engraving of Geertje von Wolff.

An 18th century engraving of Geertje von Wolff.

A taking of a life? A taking of it where? From what? As if the life and the person were separate entities, like taking a battery from a phone, a little packet of cocaine from a hidden pocket in a track shoe.

We eat it, that’s what we do with it — like the Papuans and their kuru. We take the life, we swallow as hard as we can, as many times as necessary.

And then we wait. And then we go mad.

A killer now. Not just my thoughts, but molecularly, everything had changed. My body acted as if it had always known how to kill. It breathed just fine. It walked. It stood tall. Confident. It felt — not lighter, but more substantial, impervious, soldierly, autonomous, willful, solid, ready to do it all over again.

The problem was…the problem was the boy’s age. His age, his size. Despite his nasty wrist-blade, the blood stains on my back, his coked-up craziness, had he really posed a threat? If I’d committed a “murder,” a word which throbbed like an exposed organ, I was ready to gaze upon it, poke it with a stick, but not to touch it, not to examine it too closely. Which reassured me of my reason. Thinking deeply, analytically about a murder one has just committed is a sure sign of psychopathy; and while I was surprisingly comfortable in the thick pachyderm of my brand new killer-skin, the fact of the matter is, I could only analyze the situation for so long. I’m just not clever enough to be a psychopath.

We marched, our quintet, Goldy in front, Sax in the rear. The Umbrella Man, the silky sylph and I occupied the middle, like mimes performing a palanquin ride. I scrutinized the passerby, the shades and sunscreen, the grooves and the grins. Surely there were killers among them? If I could, if I had, then they could, they had. Like the realization, when coming of age, of so much lost virginity in the general populace. The pelvic pa de deux, the naked spread and sprawl and acting out like animals — was it really so common as a sneeze or a snort? Was killing like that? An ordinary bodily impulse? A surprising but all too natural emission?

Tourists with lip-rings, face paint, surgical masks. Cruise-ship fatties, backpackers, OE-girls slouching in sarongs. A rat-tailed father eating ice cream with his rat-tailed young son. A pair of shirtless American college boys, heads shaven, were having a laugh. “Safe enough, mister?”

“What’s that?” I said.

“Really? Bodyguards? You know you’re in Banki Kalgasa, right? Like wearing shoes in a temple.”

“Yeah,” jibed the other. “Part of the experience, mixing with the crims.”

“Come here,” I said, opening my duffel bag, digging out my cell phone. “Come on, take a look.” But the shrieking sun intruded here, dust-fingered, persistent, and the boys moved the phone this way and that, up and down, as if to keep it away from a frisky cat.

“What is it? Hard to see.”

“A kid.”

“That a kid?”

“A dead kid. I killed him.”

“You shitting me.”

“Crushed him against a tree. Look at the stats. Pupkin. Level three killer. That’s what it is, mixing with the crims.”

Land Zonder Wetten.

“How long it take to find your car, Pups?” interrupted the Umbrella Man, as Goldy stepped forward to silently reclaim the phone from the skin-headed skeptics. He returned it to my bag. The car was nowhere in sight. I’d noticed the absence of our little red Lark a good ten minutes earlier, but had decided to steer my troupe across an eerily quiet Blunderbuss Square (whispering hibiscus, a solitary grumbling raven), to what appeared a safer, more crowded part of town.

The car, I reasoned, was either stolen, or my wife had taken it and was searching the island for me. But then again, how could she be searching the island for me when suddenly there she was, a giantess above the noisy horde, her flashing, center-parted hair like some wild swooping bird protecting a nest, the enormity of her presence an apparition, a fabulous phantom from history, like Geertje von Wolff rising from the dead, looking at me with questioning eyes: Are you in danger, my dear? Should I approach?

And all I could think was, how did she even recognize me? How could she possibly have met this Pupkin before?

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Crim City 7: Umbrella Man Continued

Street dogs of Banki Kalgasa

Street dogs of Banki Kalgasa

It started to rain.

First, scattered gunshot across fat leaves. Then what sounded like an old shop shutter closing, being pulled down endlessly into an abyss; or a vast empyreal paper being crumpled, an unacceptable page, not badly written, but without any chance of passing the censors. Tossed into an incinerator. The deep inferno.

Or was it more than that? Not just a page, but a whole manuscript? A history, my history, the foundation of my inner self, my own personal Library of Alexandria going up in flames?

The dogs whimpered away from the ripples of wet. Beneath the leafy Tectona grandis, with a dead body serving as bolster pillow, I stayed remarkably dry. As did the Umbrella Man, expectedly. A man untouched by bullets, blades, water. He was standing a few feet away, more exposed to the rain, but his pixie assistant held the white umbrella firm, sacrificing her blue-gowned derrière to the steady lick of the deluge.

“First thing you do,” he said, handing me my hat, “is search him. Everywhere. Ears, mouth, teeth. There’ll be stash in that hand blade. Snow in the shoes. Phone somewhere. You getting this, Sax?”

One of the black-suited, now wet-suited bodyguards had demanded my cell phone. Seeing my stupefied state, however, he extracted the phone himself from my pocket. Scratched its chin. “No password, mister? Need a password on these things.”

He stood now, Sax, soggy hatted, his gun (what my wife would identify as a Mac-10 automatic) tucked beneath an upper arm. With his free hands he held the two phones — mine and his — gently lifting them up like infant twins at a zoo, letting them have a good look at my disgrace. “Yehuh, that’s a kill,” said Sax.

“Give him a duffel bag,” said the Umbrella Man, and Wet-Capped Custodian Number Two, whose name I’d learn was Goldy, tossed me a white plastic tote with a glossy orange image of a palm tree and a setting sun.

“Well? Let me help,” and the Umbrella Man knelt down, female sylph holding his halo. A deft removal of the boy’s shirt. Mini-packets of cocaine pinned to the inside. Then shorts (phone in pocket), shoes, necklace. Cash stuffed in hidden hollows, more powder. “Flying, no doubt. Like Icarus.”

He pulled out a pocket blade, flicked the gold earring from the boys left lobe. Then, with a sudden, unseemly exertion, he jimmied out two teeth and took the handkerchief which Goldy had proffered to wipe the blood from his fingers. He placed each item, including the carnassial hand-weapon, into the duffel bag, then held it open for Sax and his cellphones to gape at. “Under sixteen. Twenty-eight dollars cash. Couple grams white. Few cigs. Lumia 610 phone. Pair of wrist-gnashers. Nike Flynits, good condition. Gold earring, fillings, fake gold chain. Quartz watch — look at this, another gram in the casing.”

A moment later, Sax switched off my phone, plunked it into the bag. The Umbrella Man zipped it up, gave me a meaningful nod, pushed the bundle into my lap.

“Hold it tight, now. Nobody in Banki likes paying for things.” He stood up, the little umbrella imp stretching skyward like a ballet dancer. “What’s his name, Sax?”

“Pupkin.”

“What?”

“You know. The film.”

“Oh right. I know the one. That’s good. That’s perfect. Always so perfect, Sax. Password?”

“Puppydog99.”

“You got that, Pupkin? Don’t forget it, okay? Puppydog99. And don’t bother with the body. Dave’s been texted. Gravy-Davy. And if he don’t show, there’s always dogs. Dogs, rats, birds, bugs. Efficient.”

The rain gave up, or rather darted aside like a startled bird, and the tree-tops were already crowned with a nimbus of amber light. I could see the Umbrella Man walking away, his little handmaid beside him, his dry white slacks between the dark shapes of his phocine followers. Behind the muddy squelch of their shoes, a dread swept in, cold like the cold air after an even colder bath.

“I’ll pay you,” I called out. “I’ll pay you to protect me. I need to find my — ”

He turned. “What do you need find, Pupkin?”

“My car,” I said. “It’s just up the hill. Somewhere.”

“Okay, Pupkin,” he said. “We’ll get you safely to your car.”

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Crim City 6: Cooking a Poison-Laced Meal

Béchamel sauce with battery acid?

Béchamel sauce with battery acid?

No nightly news. No intrepid journalists. No embassies, or city council, or Committee of the Red Cross. No airport (although I’m told there are at least three helicopter pads on the island, probably more). No hospitals. No public transport, theaters, libraries, museums. No grocery stores. No decent pizza.

Each day we make a list of our options:

1) Pack up things, wake up in the morning, eat breakfast, walk out front door, catch motorcycle taxi to the Kalgasa pier, ferry to the mainland.

Risks: We’ll be kidnapped, mutilated, shot.

2) Stay. Wait. Make the most of bad situation. Carry on with Internet activity. Continue blogging. Contact old friend at New York Times.

Risks: Extortion, execution, torture, death. Having to extort from, execute, torture, kill someone else.

3) Request for help from friends or family.

Risks: What are they going to do? Why bring them into it? Who knows how far the threads of Banki Kalgasa are spun?

4) NZ Prime Minister John Key. President Barack Obama. Secretary Ban Ki-moon.

Risks: Really?

5) Plead with the ancient Mr. Binatang — bull-faced former vice admiral and supreme boss of this cloistered clan — for our lives, a passage home, with promises of untold bounty to be sent later.

Risks: Mr. Binatang never hinted at a ransom. Might offend, alarm, enrage.

6) Contract one of the local liberators who keep emailing us their special deals.

Risks: Emails might be intercepted. Not enough money. We’ve got $675 in pocket and another $4000 buried in a secret location, as per the Umbrella Man’s advice.

7) Cook poison-laced meal. Wife’s idea. Okay, fine. Where’s the poison come from? I ask. Lithium battery, she shoots back. Cell phone. Read about it somewhere. Boil it in water. Stir it into béchamel sauce, or a meat pie.

Risks: Cell phone batteries are required for our survival. Mr. Binatang and his crew grow suspicious of our desire to feed, they make us eat the dish first (like in the movies). Or they don’t die; they lock us in that mysterious metal trunk in the storeroom which no one ever opens.

8) Steal a gun or two. Mostly AR-15s, machine pistols, and some strange looking rifles from Burma, so my wife informs me, suddenly a connoisseur (she’s good at asking questions). Escape in the night. Long trek down pitch black jungle to the Merendam marina. Hijack boat to Sibolga.

Risks: Everything from self-shooting, snakebite, drowning, to the sort of heat-of-the-moment spousal arguments that leave one feeling downcast for a week. Also, see #1.

My wife has a headache, fever and a strange rash on her neck. “Not waiting here forever,” she says.

“I told you to leave me. I’m not your Siegfried, not the man you married. I’ll never be that man again.”

“Maybe I should have listened,” she says.

There are dogs, dogs everywhere.

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