I, Am Erica *
Haywire Car Alarm Deep In September Night
Haywire Car Alarm Deep In September Night*
Struggling with Punic *
Adventures in Reality: The Short Stories of David Alexander *
I, Am Erica
I went looking for Erica. She was missing for years. I was worried she was dead. The Erica I knew had become an excavation. Her boundaries had blurred. In the street she became invisible holding a prism. That gave her a breakdown.
She changed into something else than she had always been until I watched her slip away then vanish completely. She blew me a kiss she slipped down the stairs fell into a hole. She left without saying a word.
I forgot about her for awhile, but I kept having dreams I could not cut her from. I knew then I knew I had to find her. That I still loved her or at least believed in her I knew. I knew I had to help her. She was in trouble she was in pieces she needed me.
So I set off on a journey, carrying pictures in my head pictures in my head of Erica and what she meant to me.
In retrospect, I knew she had not been silent. She had warned her family and friends but nobody had paid attention. Like a cat, Erica had always had a talent for landing on her feet, no matter what happened to her, and everyone assumed the same would happen now, myself included.
But Erica stumbled and stumbled again, and then she fell. None of us believed what was right before our eyes, because we were unwilling to accept the simple truth. Erica had fallen. Erica was gone. Weep weep for Erica for Erica has fallen.
MEMORIES OF ERICA
Erica grew up on a farm in Ohio. Erica grew up in a city in California. In a beehive hut. Erica moved around a great deal when she was a child. Her father was the sky. Her mother was the earth. Her brother was deformed, a hunchback crippled by childhood disease. As a child, Erica had been sick too with an illness no doctor could diagnose. But this passed after awhile and she grew up in perfect health.
From an early age she displayed a talent for doing things out of sequence. Her family then lived on a mountain beside a railroad track. One day she told me that a bird had dropped a prism which she picked up and crawled inside. Spending years there. Wet as a sheet and shot full of cortisone because they didn't know what it was. Eventually Erica got out of prism and went down from the mountain. She was still young but not a child anymore.
Locked in the prism her mother and father broke up and left Erica to fend for herself. Packing everything she owned, which by now was only her prism, Erica left the mountain and went down to the highway where she thumbed a ride. She didn't know where she was going, only that she would not stay where she was because to do this was to break up in her own light.
To support herself Erica worked at a succession of odd jobs while attending college. She had been a nanny she had sold shoes she had tended bar she had waitressed she had given out fliers on the street. In college her major had been art history.
To to make ends meet she had to be inventive, she said. She'd buy honey oats at Pathmark at the sale price then go to Key and return them at the regular price she'd pocket the difference. She changed long distance phone companies every month just to get the cash incentive. She would stuff nickel rolls with slugs and trade them at Chinese take-out stores for quarters then run. She also played the lottery.
In her spare time she played in an all-girl rock band and hung out at a local bar where she shot pool to music on the juke box and drank beer until she got sick. Thursday and Friday mornings she listened to car horns blare outside the window and old telephone messages she'd forgotten about. She also did portraits on the street once she did one of me I still have it somewhere.
MY RELATIONSHIP TO ERICA
I was married to Erica for many years. We met when we were young and fell in love. I was Erica's brother. I tried to give Erica what she wanted but she became vindictive and turned away from me. In the end she said she hated me and that there had never been anything between us to begin with. She was my sister.
Erica complained that she held down a job all day and made all the money in the family. She accused me of not working, of being, as she put it, "a parasite" and of "living off her back." This was bullshit. I never took a penny from Erica. I supported her for years while she worked at a succession of dead-end jobs. I never failed her. It was she who failed me.
I went to war for Erica. I risked my life in Vietnam. Erica sent me Erica sent me to war to war. I was part of a line platoon in a province near the Cambodian border called Bin Duong. We rarely made contact with the enemy. When we did they were black shadows in the bush, firing at us, then disappearing.
I carried Erica's picture with me all the time. Sometimes I would take it out and look at it, not realizing how much Erica had changed while I was away. I was wounded and lost my arm. It was one of many pieces I lost for Erica over the years.
I came home with a Purple Heart. Erica and I lived in an apartment overlooking a park. The apartment was small but it had a nice view across a vacant lot of the lake in the park. Then one day I awoke to the sound of backhoes tearing down the fence that screened off the lot.
Soon there was a construction crew putting up a high rise apartment building across my window. They worked for two years straight and it got so loud you couldn't hear yourself talk. When they were finished my view of the park was missing. The building they erected blotted out the light the light the light there was nothing I could do about it.
I began to have dreams from the darkness of the building that had stolen my light I began to dream of Vietnam. Erica told me to apply for mental disability but I was too proud. I was still in Vietnam and I was dreaming of home. Erica always had been a drinker but now she began drinking seriously a bottle of vodka a day and sometimes a six pack of beer. She would get high and go to work and never came home.
Meanwhile the building outside my window kept stealing more of my light. Also now there was another window across the narrow alley separating our two walls this window had been closed. Until now closed this window had been now I saw it open. From across the alley in the window there was a face. This face I thought I recognized. I thought this face belonged to Erica.
I watched the face in the window of the building that was taking my light away grow larger and the face grow larger as my light grew tiny until one day the face in the window stretched out a hand and handed me a carpet.
I took the carpet into my apartment and looked at it in the dimness. The carpet was embroidered with scenes of my life. The past, present and future were all there. I sat on the carpet and stared at it. Before the darkness engulfed me I fell into the carpet and disappeared. I woke up inside the building across the street.
I was in one of the scenes in the carpet. I had moved into the apartment in the new building across from the old apartment in the old building. I got up and looked out the window but there was nothing but darkness across the alley. I shivered because I had been inside that darkness as my new building sucked up the old building's light and I felt like a part of me was still lost inside there.
For awhile Erica and I were happy inside our new apartment. I was able to help her stop her drinking and she came home from her job pretty regularly. The arm I had lost in Vietnam had grown back since we had moved into the new place. But then Erica sent me to other places to do other things and I lost an ear and part of my other arm. Sometimes we traveled together. We took trips to Italy and France where we did all the tourist things and spent money we never really had.
Then the bad things began to happen again. I had a dream where Erica had made a surprise birthday party for herself where she invited all her friends. She had either baked or ordered a large cake especially for the party and at one point the cake was cut into pieces there was a piece for everybody.
I got one of the pieces but inside my piece there was a little chunk of the darkness I thought I had left. As soon as I saw the chunk Erica shook her head and said she knew it would be me who got it and she was disappointed as usual. I asked her why and she said that I had cost her the child she had always wanted to have and that she hated me for it.
In the dream I turned to the window where blackness hung and inside this I now saw a poinpoint of light and a voice told me to bury my piece of cake in a far corner of the park. I went into the park in the night with the cake and buried it in a secret place. The cake grew into my arm. I heard laughter and when I looked up the light grew in the old building for the first time.
After the party the drinking started again. Erica behaved like a bitch and cursed me out in the old ways she used to. She began abusing me in a lot of different ways I'd rather not talk about here. Then one day I sat on my carpet and fell inside again.
I awoke across the street and Erica was gone. I picked up my phone to dial my number but the voice I had heard in the park told me that the number was disconnected. Erica was gone. I never saw her again. I kept seeing myself a lot though joined together like before. In the window in the window in the window.
A PERSONAL STORY CONCERNING ERICA
This is the time I took Erica for laser surgery. When I first met her I was homeless and Erica was living pretty much on the streets but had found a job doing some kind of office work at a public relations firm.
Erica got the apartment and put down a deposit but I still wasn't living with her then because I had other commitments at the time. Erica said she would sit by the window and watch the headlights of cars spiraling out of the park at night when I was elsewhere lonely lonely lonely which is when she began drinking.
She lost her job and had to make payments. I was deep underground my pieces scattered in the park by then I didn't help her she said. She said she had once worked in a whorehouse run by the mafia performing acts of bondage on men who wanted their asses whipped. She got her old job back but one of the tricks turned on her and raped her tearing her up inside she blamed me for it. To support me because I had no job.
Erica developed fibroid tumors as big as grapefruits she said. She went away for surgery came back with half her ovary removed. Years later she said she had developed adhesions her organs sticking together inside pain tearing her up the pieces buried in the park scattered in the darkness. Her body bent backward like a bow, supporting heaven while I lay underneath and suckled into me her blood going into me her milk.
Erica went to a surgeon who I remember had a very beautiful book of Persian calligraphy on the desk in his office when he told her about what the operation would entail. The catscan showed nothing but that wasn't conclusive. I had done this to her with my member which had been stolen and was now lost.
His name was Marduk he said he would use a technique hysterenterine laparoscopy. He would first pump her abdomen with carbon dioxide and dilate the cervix inserting the laser probe through an incision in the navel. If he saw the need for surgery he would use the light to cut away the parts of corruption.
I took her home from the hospital afterward. I remember when I got off the elevator the hospital stank of burnt human flesh. Erica was bleeding from her navel a cherry syrup of blood and saline solution used to scrub out the wound. Erica stank of burnt human flesh. I gave her the codeine Marduk had prescribed and lay her on the bed curving beneath her arching her body to heaven supporting me the hunchback bleeding on me. Erica had become a hospital.
For seven days and seven nights she lay bleeding on top of me on our bed. Erica cried out in pain and the heavens shook. I soaked up her blood like a sponge and my missing parts were renewed. On the eighth morning a bird perched on the air conditioner and whistled us up.
Erica could walk again. She was healed. Her incision had grown over and it was spring. She told me that we could still have a child if we tried. I said I wouldn't. Not in this dark place. My arm was full of her blood. I lived in a hospital.
EIGHT THINGS I NEVER TOLD ERICA BUT WISH I HAD
1. About the sound of snow shovels in hell.
2. About a bird that whistled me up one morning.
3. That pain can heal and liberate.
4. About burrowing in all kinds of mud.
5. About how, in a dark room, with eyes closed, the darkness is more familiar than the darkness you see with your eyes wide open.
6. That I dreamed I wore another shirt.
7. That it's all a question of rising and falling to higher and lower energy states.
8. That the dawn of awareness is frequently painful.
HOW AND WHY I BEGAN MY SEARCH FOR ERICA
Years had gone by since Erica left. I had still not found myself. I thought about her constantly. I know that I am still in Vietnam and that when my tour is over I can come back to Erica and she will still be the same as she is in the photo I carry with me. I was doing things out of sequence I was getting into fights. I am still wounded I had still not healed. Erica's blood drips on my pocket.
When my morning coffee smelled like antifreeze I knew I had to do something. I was back in my old apartment. Still in Vietnam. I had awakened in a room of stone walls covered with hieroglyphics. I recognized my face among the pictures in the stone. He who enters down into the pit and slays the sacrifices. I was stuck in a hole and couldn't get out.
On the stone walls I saw Erica pictures. She was eating my body in pisces on the stones burying the pictures where she found them. Watering these with the blood dripping from her navel. Only one photo was missing and that she had taken for herself to have my child. That I would not give her. To receive in their faces the fire spat. Caught the bullet in my arm.
That was the day I found a Michelin road atlas on my window. When I opened it there were fourteen circles drawn on the map in red magic marker. These circles were the same as the hieroglyphics on my stones. And then I I remembered membered dis. Pisces was the fish they had never found. Pisces was my road was my atlas.
Years ago I had parked my car on a street somewhere near my first apartment building and had forgotten where I'd put it. I had not seen my car in years and it had become unreal to me, something between a memory and a dream. From time to time I had dreams in which I walked down to where my car was parked and got inside. Sometimes I only started the car. Other times I drove the car places and bought groceries.
Sometimes I bought film and put this inside my camera with your photo Erica and stared at the camera until I had projected your image on the film inside.
Afterward I cut up the negatives and spread them in the gutter for you to find, but the birds snapped them up and carried pisces away. You never received them in the mail.
At other times I hung the trees and lamp posts with long strips of tape unwound from old cassettes you had made when you did your radio shows. The wind played the tapes as it blew across them but you did not listen you did not hear.
Now that I had my road atlas and my coffee smelled like antifreeze. I made up my mind to go down and find where my car was parked. It was no longer spring when I got outside. The streets had changed.
It was winter. My tapes had fallen off the trees. My negatives cut up in pieces, their images scattered on the wind. I couldn't understand the numbers anymore, or the signs. I only found my car because the bird whistled me toward it. But even my car didn't look like itself anymore. I was surprised to still find it parked where I had left it after all those years.
I looked down and saw something fluttering I looked up. The bird was covered with pictures from the stone walls. From its beak it dropped a long shiny strand of cassette tape the last one left of a telephone recording you had made long ago. I tied this piece to my car antenna so that the wind would catch it and play it as I drove.
I got inside the car and turned on the ignition. It started right up. There was still plenty of gas in car's tank. With my road atlas on the seat I drove onto the highway. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw my tape fluttering behind me I turned on my radio as I drove. I turned on as I drove my radio and heard the old program Erica had done as the wind played the tape and sent your waves out into the world.
With my radio playing my tape I drove down the highway in my car that was now a memory of my arm that had healed. I decided that I would drive to every circle on my road atlas where my pieces were buried. I hoped that somewhere between the circles I would find Erica or that Erica had left me messages within the red magic circles markers for my pisces. This light that surrounded me grew to darkness swallowing me as I went down into the pit with my bullet from Vietnam.
On the radio I heard the news that you had borne me a child and that our child was autistic. His name you called. I didn't get that part because the radio never said it. Your voice on the radio said that you and my son were wanted by the police for serial killings at the circles on my map. You had gone across the atlas with my son to kill you had gone back to Vietnam. I wept for you then. I wept for my son. I wept for myself. I drove my car my car. Looking for you.
TEN WORDS YOU CAN MAKE FROM ERICA'S NAME
THE STORY OF ERICA AND THE BEAST OF MANY FACES
As I have said, Erica and I traveled to many places. One of these was Venice, Italy. We went to a gallery there. We had been out since morning. It was hot. I remember. It was a hot morning I play the video all the time now I have all of it down on tape. We spent our honeymoon in Venice.
At the Accademia gallery there was a painting of a woman riding a donkey and this woman was named Babylon you said. You said this woman was married to the part that had never been found. You said this woman was a road map. I had to cut my knife out of my dreams.
We went out again into the brightness and my eyes hurt from the sun. I tried closing them but I couldn't. Now there was a deep hole in the earth outside the building. There was a repair crew working inside the hole I could hear them on the radio as I drove along the highway.
Suddenly a steam pipe burst and we saw the clouds shoot up. You told me you were leaving me then going away. I could stop you if I wanted. You were drunk but that didn't change anything. As you started to walk away from me I grabbed Erica by the arm. But it just broke off in her hand and she walked away toward the pit and slid down into the steam.
I ran to the edge of the pit because I thought that maybe I could still grab a piece of Erica before she did this last final stupid thing. I was almost able to reach out and touch her as she slipped away. I stretched out my arm and the tips of my fingers came as close as a hair to touching her face but the more I reached out the farther away she got until she was too far down for me to reach her anymore.
I could only stand on the edge of the pit and look down into it. The steam was still coming up but now and then the wind blew it away and I could see what was happening inside. There was a beast of many faces inside the pit. There were a thousand faces on the beast. The beast was eating something.
A thousand voices had the beast. The beast had a radio program and had made a tape of its broadcasts. Erica stood before the beast. I watched the beast. The beast trailed out long strips of tape and entwined Erica inside the shiny mylar strands.
Erica became a broadcast. Erica spoke in a thousand voices. Entered into the beast became what Erica had radioed. I went away on my honeymoon. I came back from Venice with a cassette of videos. I play these all the time now, over and over again.
THE CONCLUSION OF MY SEARCH FOR ERICA
I stood in the field in the middle of the circle in the crops. The circle had been made in the night before my window had grown the face in the light. I had been driving my car and listening to the broadcasts. I had stopped for gas from time to time and I had filled my tank at stations along my map.
I was working my way westward, in the direction of the setting sun, and listening to the stations coming over my radio as my car trailed the long strip of mylar tape from my cassette. From time to time I looked into my rearview mirror and saw my face reflected back at me and my face had become a mirror reflecting my face a thousand times again.
Behind me trailed the long string of tape from my cassette, fluttering in my tailwind. At ninety miles per hour I drove my car. The police were out looking for my wife and my autistic son. They had better things to do than stop me for speeding. I drove my car at two hundred miles an hour. Nobody could touch me. I never looked back.
When I came to the first red circle spring had come again. I stood in the field and searched for the droppings of a bird. I walked till I found what lay gleaming in the field. I stooped and I picked up. The negative I had cut up long ago. A part of your face was on it.
I got back into my car and drove along my map to the next red circle I had circled on the highway to another field and another circle within the circle of crops. It was still spring but changing now. I walked till I heard the bird and found the strip of film I had placed your image on. I joined this with the other and got back inside my car and drove on, listening to the broadcasts you had made long ago.
The police were on the radio they were still looking for you and my son but they could not find you. I stopped my car at other self-service stations along the road and filled up my tank with gasoline. At other times I pulled off the road and stopped at diners along the way until with repetition I ate the same food at the same diner reflected in a mirror till infinity.
I searched for you, listening to my radio, until spring became summer and stood in the middle of yet another circle my bird had led me. I leaned against my car and held my negatives up to the sun and the images came through as the light stung my eyes and I grew blind in the light. I drove through the summer from circle to circle along the highway driving at night because the sun hurt my eyes when I looked through the negatives I had picked up. On the radio they still had not found you.
It was winter again when I reached the final circle on the map and picked up the final negative. In darkness. I joined all the pieces together and drove away in the car. On the radio the police said they had caught the serial killers. I ate a sandwich I had made before I left and washed it down with nothing.
In my rearview I noticed my mylar tape was no longer trailing behind my slipstream. There was almost no gas left in my tank so I drove to the next self-service station to fill up. I can't remember ever arriving. The sun came up behind me, rising in the east and the police told me to stop my car.
I had no license or registration. My car had been parked on the street too long while I stayed in my apartment. I handed the cop the negatives I had joined together with the images of Erica on them. The cop asked me if I was drunk. I was weaving all over the road. I said that you were drunk Erica you were always drunk. All I wanted was to go to the next station gas my car up.
Erica handed me back my negative and told me to get out and walk toward the light rising behind me. I had no choice. They had been searching for me as I had been searching for you. I was a serial killer they said.
I had dismembered my victims and buried them in the circles on my map. Long ago I had left my apartment and gotten into my car. There had never been a bird. I got out of my car. I walked toward the light. I left my car where I had parked it and went inside the light. I was back in my apartment and there were two cops standing to either side. The first one, before the building went up in the night.
They took me into my old room and showed me who was sprawled face up on the bed wrapped from head to foot in shiny mylar tape unwound from cassettes. They opened the window and the wind came in and played the tapes and I saw I saw the video images moving I heard the broadcast for the first time in my life speaking.
My son and she had pieced them together. We were all on TV. They had pieced me together and left me in my tapes to be played through my video. None of it was real or ever happened. It was all on cassette. All my pisces. Rotting. I looked at the screen where a woman was telling how they had caught me in my car. She told the world. I, am Erica.
Copyright (C) 1998
by David Alexander
For more information contact: David Alexander
Picking up the factory-refurbished Sony cordless phone he'd bought from Damark, Joe Morshky hit the Talk button to get a dial tone.
His next step would have been to press one-touch dialing button "A" which he'd programmed with the number of Big Al's Piazza San Marco Italian Pizzeria, of which Morshky was a regular delivery patron. Except before Joe could even touch button "A" he heard a series of five rapid beeps and a rush of static.
Then came the voice of Morshky's upstairs neighbor, Fuckface, saying, " -- wid' a baseball bat I'm gonna fuckin' kill the cocksucker, unless I get my fi' dollars. You tell da prick dat fa' me!"
Morshky knew it was Fuckface talking because he could hear Fuckface's voice through the ceiling even as his voice came over the Sony. Since the walls were paper-thin, Morshky had no trouble recognizing Fuckface's voice, although he'd never before heard what Fuckface had been saying.
Morshky listened with the fascination of somebody who had just turned over a rock to find an infestation of carpenter ants sucking mucous from a writhing larval queen. Morshky was about to flip the rock back over when the subject of the conversation took a different tack, one concerning himself.
"I just got the word about Morshky," Fuckface told the other guy on the line.
"About fuckin' time," Fuckface's friend replied.
"Yeah, so listen. Red designator is 'fig bar.' Blue designator is 'the seven-thirty outa Newark.' Green designator is 'Altoona.' You got that?"
"Yeah, 'fig bar, the seven-thirty outa Newark, Altoona,'" the other guy repeated. "Who thinks up this shit, anyway?"
"Hillary Clinton's twat," Fuckface fired back. "Now lissen to da rest and don' gimme no lip. Implantation procedures require Alert Jacket One priority."
"No shit," the other guy returned. "Alert Jacket One. Ain't had many of them lately."
"The implantation was tricky," Fuckface said. "That's it for now. I'll call back later about dat fuck wit' da fi' dollars. Make sure ya tell dat fuck I'll break 'is legs if I don't get my fi' dollars."
"Later," said the guy and the line went dead.
Morshky's appetite for a big pepperoni and onion pizza was suddenly gone, replaced by a strange, nagging fear in the pit of his stomach. No, he told himself. It wasn't his name they'd been using. It was somebody else's. But no, bullshit, he'd heard it alright. So, he told himself next, those fuckers heard him too when he used the cordless and decided to pull something on him. Except they didn't have the brains to figure out stuff like 'Alert Jacket One.'
While he was standing there with a dumb look on his face, Morshky's wife Alice came over and asked him if he'd ordered the pizza yet. Morshky only half-heard her. She waved her hand in his face and he muttered, "No, not yet."
"Give me the phone, you jerk," she told Morshky and called Big Al's Piazza San Marco Pizzeria to place the order herself.
Later that night, as Morshky lay in bed listening to his wife snore, he began feeling the two Valiums he'd taken with the pizza begin working. He was finally getting drowsy when there suddenly came the shrieking of a car alarm from the street below.
"Aw, don't fucking tell me!" cursed Morshky, who crawled out of bed and shambled over to the window, chinking the slats of the blinds and peering out.
"Is it our car again?" Alice called from the bed, now awake too.
"Yeah, it's our car again," Morshky told her disgustedly. He could see the front lights flashing on and off in time to the shrill noises coming from the car.
"I told you to get that fixed," Alice hollered.
"I was too busy," Morshky said, going to his pants and taking out the alarm remote, then opening the window.
"What the hell are you doing?"
"Maybe I can turn it off from here," he said, thrusting out his arm. "This worked last time. Remember?" Morshky clicked the remote button but the alarm kept on screaming in the night. Finally Morshky realized it was no use. The car alarm had gone completely haywire. He'd have to go down if he wanted to stop it. Otherwise it would go all night and kill another hundred dollar battery.
Pulling on his pants, and a pair of sneakers and smoothing his hair in the hall mirror, Morshky ran to the elevator and took it down to the lobby. As soon as he was out the door, he thumbed the alarm remote button, but nothing happened. Cursing, Morshky went over to the shrieking car and clicked the button. Still nothing happened. He was too preoccupied to notice two men suddenly come up behind him, one of whom pressed a button on a unit of some type on his wrist, immediately silencing the car alarm.
"Initialize him," the other one said to the one with the wrist unit, who tapped out a sequence on its small keypad.
"Okay, Mr. Morshky," the second one said. "We've gotten you down here. So the worst part's over. By the way, we have you in a force field so you can't move or cry out."
It was true -- Morshky couldn't move.
"Who the hell are you?" he asked.
"I'm Smithers. This is Jones. We're agents of your government," the guy told him. "Your assistance is required on an urgent matter of national security."
"What is this, a joke?" Morshky exclaimed. "You with that fuck upstairs? You got my phone bugged?" He tried to shout for Alice to call the cops, but he couldn't do it, let alone raise his head.
"No joke," said Smithers. "You're government property. Kept on ice, but now activated."
"Bullshit," Morshky growled.
"Watch," said Smithers, who produced a spring-loaded knife and snapped open the blade, with which he made an incision in Morshky's forearm. The incision didn't bleed, and the guy took out a semicircular sliver of metal. Its perforations matched exactly those of an identical sliver he took from his pocket, and he lined up a series of numbers. "That's your identifier number," he said to Morshky. "Let's go. We have a rendezvous at sixteen hundred hours."
"No, wait," Morshky pleaded. "You're a fucking psycho. I have a wife. I have a job. I have a home."
"That's your programming," Smithers told him. "If you want us to take you back upstairs, we'll prove it. We can give you five minutes."
So they rode the elevator up to Morshky's floor and went inside his apartment. Except for a mattress on the carpet, a sofa and some other odds and ends, the place was empty.
"Where's my furniture?" Morshky demanded. "And where's my wife? Alice? Alice, where are you?" Alice didn't answer. "If you hurt Alice, you fuck, I'll see you in hell."
"There's nobody named 'Alice,'" said Smithers. "There never was. She was just part of the script we invented for you. Part of your hallucination due to a genetically engineered strain of mutant Ebola brain virus we infected you with in the Jurassic period."
"In the what?"
"Dinosaurs, Mr. Morshky. The Jurassic. About five hundred million years ago. That's where you've been the last few years. Working on one of our projects."
"You are a fucking whacko, buddy," Morshky angrily retorted. He was starting to shake. Wake up, he told himself. Come on, wake up, wake up.
"You can't wake up, Mr. Morshky," said the agent, as if reading Morshky's thoughts. "This is a controlled hallucination which we manipulate electronically. When you've carried out your mission, we will signal the virus to self-destruct, and you can then return to reality." Pausing, Smithers went on, "Now do you want to hear about your mission? It concerns your old friend Swaggarty."
"Fuck Swaggarty, whoever the fuck he is."
"You're being recalcitrant, Mr. Morshky," said Smithers. "Very well. We'll prove a point for your benefit." He turned to the first man wearing the wrist unit and said, "Jones, make a triceratops hatch out of Mr. Morshky's brain." Jones shot his cuff. "This is your brain on Ebola, Mr. Morshky," said Smithers as Jones keystroked, "and this is your brain on triceratops."
Morshky felt an intense pain in his head and heard a loud crunching noise, like that of something cracking through bone. He suddenly began thrashing around, as he caught a glimpse of two long, sharp horns and a bony rill emerge from the back of his head, and then the first part of the body of a baby triceratops.
Then something strange happened. Morshky knew he had to kill the guy with the wrist unit to stop it. Instantaneously he lunged at Jones with a flurry of deft martial arts moves. The agent pulled a weapon but Morshky quickly took it away and blew his face apart in a sloppy spray. The triceratops climbed back inside his skull and the hole closed up. The pain instantly stopped.
"You see?" said Smithers. "Even with a triceratops coming out of your head you were easily able to neutralize one of our most highly trained operatives. Now your five minutes are up. Let's go." Smithers handed him plane tickets to Paris and a passport from Zaire.
"Why Zaire?" Morshky asked.
"That's your cover. That's where we gave you the Ebola brain virus. Supposedly."
"You said you gave it to me in the Jurassic."
"Jurassic is a time, Zaire is a place. Don't play word games with me, Mr. Morshky."
"So now you're gonna drive me to the airport?"
"No need to do that," said Smithers. "Since you're already on the plane. Jones, he's on the plane, right?" he said, to somebody behind Morshky.
"Yes, we have him ready to transient to Phase 2."
"I thought I just killed Jones," Morshky said.
"You killed a digitized simulacrum," Smithers corrected. "It's pretty much the same thing. Don't worry about it. Now your five minutes have long since been used up. Aloha, Mr. Morshky."
A second later, Morshky opened his eyes. He was stretched out on the floor in the aisles in the economy section of TWA flight 802 out of JFK. The stewardess leaned over him, wanting to know if he was alright.
"Yeah, I'm alright, I'm alright," he told her testily, waving her away.
Morshky sat back down in what he assumed was his seat. Other economy class passengers were staring at him and some stage-whispered that he might be contagious. He pretended not to notice them, since they were only manifestations of his hallucination.
Just then there was an announcement concerning a black bag that was switched at the x-ray machine at the airport. "Will the following passenger report to the captain," the voice announced, and called Morshky's name. The captain turned out to be the same self-styled government agent who had first contacted him. Or at least he looked enough like Smithers to be his twin, though he pretended he wasn't.
"Can you describe the contents of the black bag, sir?"
"I didn't have one."
"Yes you did, your name is on it. See?"
"Since I'm hallucinating all of this I really don't care what you think. You can all go fuck yourselves."
"What was that about hallucinating?" asked the pilot. "Are you on drugs, Mr. Morshky?" The pilot traded glances with the copilot.
The copilot, who looked exactly like Jones, suddenly pulled a gun.
"Don't bullshit me! You're the same guy from back in Queens. You talk the same and you look the same. You're the one who told me I was hallucinating!"
"I told you what?" Mr. Morshky. "That you were hallucinating? Are you accusing me of being a drug dealer, Mr. Morshky? Are you a terrorist, Mr. Morshky?"
"Okay. Enough. I was hallucinating before, but now I'm not hallucinating. You're not the same guy from Queens either. And you wanted to know about a black travel bag."
"We can't impress on you the seriousness of this matter," said the copilot. "This gun fires a special pellet that will dissolve you into an odorless, colorless gas that will cause amnesia to the other passengers. Once they inhale you, they won't remember you ever existed. In fact, no one will. One last time, describe the contents or we will dissipate you into the stratosphere."
"Okay. A mushy banana. A paperback novel. Three pairs of Ban-lon socks. An apple. A bosc pear. Two hundred bucks in French currency."
"Good," said the pilot. "Those are not the actual contents, of course. But it is the appropriate code. Here is your bag back. Inspect its contents upon your arrival but not until then."
The copilot put away the gun and Morshky returned to his seat. The rest of the trip was uneventful.
Leaving the plane, Morshky heard his name called by a limo driver.
"Mee-shoor Mosh-M-mosh-Moshkeee?" said the man, hesitantly pronouncing the unfamiliar name.
Morshky identified himself and was soon on the Peripherique amid la circulation, as the French call traffic. An hour later, he had gone from Orly to a third-class hotel not far from the Eiffel Tower where the driver let him off.
Morshky walked into the lobby, carrying his black bag, and was welcomed by the deskman, a dark looking man he guessed was of Arabic origin. Alone in his room, Morshky opened the black bag. Inside, he found the Sony cordless phone he'd bought from Damark, or one exactly like it.
Suddenly, the phone rang.
"This is Maurice," a gruff voice said after he answered.
"Maurice, yer neighbor Maurice, dickwad. From Queens."
"Oh, that Maurice," Morshky said. He'd accepted everything. The Ebola hallucination had become his reality. "Are you in Paris, dickwad?"
"Don' call me no dickwad," Maurice shouted.
"Fuck you dickwad," Morshky said. "I'll call you anything I want, you numb-nuts jerkoff cocksucker."
"Hey, watchya mouth, or I'll come over dere an' brain youse wit' a baseball bat."
"You ain't gonna do shit," Morshky shot back contemptuously. "I can kill you with my bare hands, even with a triceratops hatching out of my head and you know it. So just say what you have to and fuck off."
There was silence as Fuckface thought that over, but he finally spoke up again. "Ask room service for a map. A Kronos Warp will open at the coordinates on the fuckin' map at 3:45 tomorrow morning. Swaggarty might try going inside the warp. Stop him before he does. If not, follow him inside."
"Thanks, dickwad," said Morshky and hung up on Fuckface. He didn't even have to ask what a 'Kronos Warp' was because he somehow knew that this was a time tunnel that would lead him back to the Jurassic period. He also remembered Swaggarty clearly now. Swaggarty had been Morshky's partner. They'd trained together for almost a decade for the Jurassic mission.
Yes, it was all coming back. Aliens from another dimension were tampering with dinosaur DNA in the Jurassic, mixing it with cattle DNA in the twentieth century and then transplanting this mixture of saurian-bovine DNA into human embryos they had surgically excised from female subjects in order to mutate the embryos into human-cattle-dinosaurs.
In turn, these would be introduced into the human population in order to have sex with normal humans, leading to the extinction of the human race and its replacement with mutant beings who would in turn be able to have sex with the aliens themselves. Therefore, the purpose of the aliens was nothing less than the creation of a planetary sex playground on earth.
Swaggarty's treachery to the human race was unpardonable, Morshky knew. As part of their training, he and Morshky had been set up as bait for alien abductions by posing as a homosexual couple living in a cramped apartment in downtown Manhattan. The aliens had taken the bait and kidnapped them, conducting bizarre DNA experiments over the course of several years. What the aliens didn't know was that both Morshky and Swaggarty had been infected with the bioengineered Ebola strain that caused them to hallucinate, and thus made them impervious to the aliens' mind control technologies.
At the same time, both Swaggarty and Morshky's hallucinations were being monitored by the CIA, enabling the Agency to compile a vast database on alien experimental techniques. From this data emerged the full picture of their true intentions on earth. President Hillary Clinton signed a special Presidential finding soon thereafter enabling the establishment of an elite, counteralien strike force that would be launched five hundred million years into the Jurassic using a secret time-travel technology developed years before.
Everything was in readiness until Swaggarty sabotaged the Kronos Warp supercomputer at its base in Zaire, attempting to shut it down and prevent the strike force from carrying out its mission. Swaggarty had become addicted to sex with the partially mutated beings that the aliens had provided him with onboard their transdimensional spacecraft, and he had been seduced into their employ by promises of being made the leader of the new planetary order once their ends had been achieved.
Fortunately, a backup program enabled Kronos Warps to be generated at random. But these warps could not be used militarily. Only by capturing Swaggarty and programming his hallucination to hallucinate him back in time to the moment before he sabotaged the Kronos computer could the damage be undone.
Morshky's mission was to capture and reprogram Swaggarty's hallucination. But it would not be easy. Swaggarty was a master of covert tradecraft, and adept at using the Kronos Warps to travel to any place and any time period he chose. It was obvious that the next Kronos Warp would open somewhere in Paris early tomorrow morning. Morshky planned to be ready when it did.
"Bonjour, Monsieur," said the voice of the deskman as Morshky used the telephone to call room service.
"A double bourbon and a map of Paris. Can you provide this?"
"But of course," replied the deskman. "I shall have them sent up right away."
In a few minutes, there came a knock at the door. Opening it, Morshky found the deskman waiting outside with a silver tray bearing his drink and the map lying beside the drink. He had him set down the tray, and reached into his pocket for a ten centime piece, but recalled he'd left the change on the dresser when he'd disrobed to shower.
Luckily, some sixth sense told Morshky to turn, because in that instant the deskman's face disintegrated and a hydra-armed creature armed with spiked aluminum baseball bats lunged at him. So, he realized -- the hotel had been compromised and he'd been set up to die. Morshky instantly went into self-defense mode and picked up the Sony cordless phone. Pressing the "A" button, he hurled it at the creature, barely reaching the window as a fierce concussion wave pounded his back, covering him with shreds of gooey pizza cheese.
A close shave, Morshky thought, as he picked himself up off the street, but he'd escaped. Still, he didn't have the coordinates. But his first priority was survival. Seeking refuge, Morshky hid for awhile in a brasserie on the Que D'Orsay among rough Parisian dockworkers, but he knew he had to keep moving. He believed the part about the warp opening at 3:45 AM, because Fuckface had told him and he was pretty sure Fuckface was working for the CIA.
But he still needed the coordinates to locate the place where the warp would appear. Darkness fell, and still Morshky was on the move. Fearing capture or death, he had knocked out a Parisian cab driver and stashed him in the trunk of the Citroen taxi. Changing places with the driver, Morshky had cruised the streets of the city from Montmartre to Les Halles in search of any clue to alert him to the appearance of the Kronos Warp.
Time warp, time warp, Morshky thought to himself as he shuttled passengers through la circulation. How would a time warp herald its arrival? He didn't know. Time warps were tricky things. They weren't like hailstorms or subway trains. And you didn't get time warp reports on the radio like you got weather reports. Morshky figured his only hope was to cruise around Paris and keep his eyes open. If he saw people running and gesturing, for example, then that might be a sign that a time warp was opening up. Then again, it might not.
It was close to three in the morning when Morshky was hailed by a fare on the Boulevard Montparnasse. Pulling over to pick him up, Morshky mouthed a soft curse of astonishment because the elegantly attired Frenchman was none other than Swaggarty.
"La Folies Bergere," Morshky's new fare told him. "And step on it. I want to catch the late show before it closes."
"Oui, Monsieur," Morshky said in a low voice, glad he had taken the trouble to disguise his face with a false moustache and had donned the cab driver's beret and eyeglasses. The cab turned from the Boulevard Montparnasse and swung onto Boulevard Raspail, which took them through the Arab Quarter and into the sleaze district of Paris.
"What's that infernal thumping from the boot, man?" asked Swaggarty. Apparently the original driver had come around and had begun getting lively in the taxi's trunk. Morshky recriminated himself for not having trussed him up more securely, but the cabbie had looked a little frail.
"The engine, she knocks, Monsieur," Morshky answered him.
"Well, it makes me nervous," Swaggarty said.
"Sorry, Monsieur," replied Morshky. "I shall have it fixed first thing tomorrow morning. My brother-in-law Gaston owns a garage on the Ile St. Louis. You may know the place. It's right across from the park."
"Just take me to the Folies Bergere, please," said the passenger. "I'm not in the mood for conversation."
"Oui, Monsieur," said Morshky and put on the radio to help mask the sound of the abducted driver's thumping. As Morshky drove, his mind worked feverishly to form a plan. Considering the lateness of the hour, the Kronos Warp would have to be opening in the vicinity of the Folies Bergere. Not that it mattered. Morshky's first priority was to apprehend Swaggarty, though he couldn't do this until he stopped the cab, and to stop before reaching his destination would be to invite suspicion. Swaggarty was surely armed and would react instantaneously.
Having no choice but to go to the Folies Bergere, Morshky completed the last leg of the journey and soon pulled over outside the burlesque house. As soon as Swaggarty got out, he would follow him, administer a quick sleeper hold, throw him in the back seat and drive off again. But Morshky's plans were thwarted as, instead of his fare, Swaggarty placed the muzzle of a gun against the back of his head.
"You didn't think that insipid disguise would fool me?" he said to Morshky. "Now get out slowly and walk towards the Folies Bergere or my weapon will speak with a tongue of hot lead."
"'Tongue of hot lead' is pretty thick, isn't it?"
"I happen to like it," Swaggarty returned. "And I'm the one with the gun. Now, allez! Move it!"
Minutes later, Morshky and Swaggarty were seated at a table with a good view of the stage.
"Nice tits on these French broads," Swaggarty said, sipping his drink.
"You didn't come here for the show," Morshky told him. "I know all about the Kronos Warp and how you sold out to the aliens."
"Bet they gave you that junk about hallucinations too. Ebola brain virus and all the rest," Swaggarty replied coolly, signaling the waiter for a refill. "Sure you won't have a scotch? My treat, after all," he concluded.
"No thanks," said Morshky. "And don't try to psych me out."
"Have it your way," Swaggarty said, rattling the ice cubes in his glass as he watched the revue with one eye and Morshky with the other. "But what they told you is a line of bullshit a mile-and-a-half long. Fact is, you've been duped by a sophisticated international heroin ring into acting like a total schmuck."
"I remember us back in the Jurassic. Kidnapped by aliens. Living together as a homosexual couple in Soho. All of it."
"Subliminal programming, they piped it through your TV. You watch a lot of TV right?"
"Yeah, I have cable, I mean I did in my hallucination."
"There you go."
"It doesn't make sense. Why use me? I was a nobody in my hallucination."
"You were the wrong guy in the right place. Your neighbor was stockpiling Pakistani heroin in his apartment. He used to ship it out in clay figurines he'd make. Posing as a potter enabled him to stay home all day without arousing attention. He got the heroin from Big Al's Piazza San Marco Pizzeria, which is how the ring found out about you."
"You mean through the pizza delivery boy."
"You got it," said Swaggarty. "The pizza delivery boy kept his eyes open. He told Big Al you lived directly below the heroin warehouse, so you were an easy target for a scam. They knew I had traced the main transshipment point for the heroin to the men's room of the Folies Bergere, and they wanted me dead. They needed a Judas Goat to lead them to me."
"Yeah? What about my apartment? My wife, Alice? And what about the triceratops coming out of my head?"
"Once they got you downstairs they drugged you with a painless pneumatic injector. You didn't even feel a thing. You might never have gone back upstairs. It could all have been drug-induced suggestion. Have you tried phoning your wife?"
"No. I thought I was ... I mean I am hallucinating."
"Well, it doesn't matter," Swaggarty said with a shrug. "It's time we went to the men's room. There's a ten-kilo brick of Pakistani white hidden in the water tank of the commode in the last stall." He took out a cellular flip-phone. "The minute they go for the horse, I call in Interpol and La Surete."
Not forgetting that Swaggarty still had a gun trained on him from beneath the newspaper he carried, Morshky had no choice but to do as Swaggarty told him. He didn't believe Swaggarty's story, although he had to admit that it did have a certain ring of truth to it.
Morshky's only option was to wait for the right moment to attack Swaggarty and commandeer his weapon. Then he would see what was what. That moment came when a drunken Japanese patron, exiting the men's room, stumbled against Swaggarty and spoiled his aim. Seizing opportunity, Morshky attacked with a lightning series of wing chun moves. Swaggarty was no match for him in unarmed combat. Few were. Moments later, Morshky was holding the gun and calling the shots.
"Get up and stand against the urinal like I'm doing," he ordered. "We'll pretend we're relieving ourselves until they come in for the heroin. If your story checks out, you can make your arrest." Almost immediately three men strode into the men's room.
"Swaggarty, you're coming with us. You did good, Morshky," said Smithers, now back in mufti. "There'll be a medal in this for you."
Morshky turned but trained his gun on Smithers and his men. "Not so fast. First clasp your hands behind your heads. I have a few questions for you."
"I'll just go get the heroin," Swaggarty said, making a move toward the last commode.
"Don't you move either," Morshky ordered him. "Get over there with them. I'll check on the heroin myself."
"Don't be a fool, Morshky!" yelled Smithers. "The Kronos Warp is in that toilet stall. It's probably active right now. If you step in there you may never return."
"Call Interpol," Morshky told Swaggarty.
"I can't," he said, after fiddling with the cell phone. "It seems to have been broken during the fight."
"See? He's a liar!" shouted Smithers. "I'll call on my own cell phone. I have a direct line to Interpol."
"Don't move a muscle," Morshky shouted.
But Smithers was already reaching inside his coat jacket. Morshky reacted instantly, his training taking over. The silenced automatic pistol spat a deadly fusillade of bullets which cut down Smithers and the two agents alongside him. In that instant, Morshky saw Swaggarty lunge at him, but pivoted just in time to empty his magazine into Swaggarty's belly. Swaggarty fell against the urinal behind him, covering it with blood and gore.
Morshky flung away the spent automatic pistol and tore open the door of the last commode. Lifting the porcelain lid of the toilet tank, he found an airtight plastic bag which was filled with a white, powdery substance.
So Swaggarty had been telling the truth after all, he realized. That meant he hadn't been hallucinating after all, at least not on bioengineered Ebola virus. Which meant ... he remembered that Smithers said he had a cell phone on him. It turned out he did, but not in the place for which he'd been reaching. That hid a shoulder holstered Webley automatic. The cell phone was in Smithers' left jacket pocket, and it worked.
Minutes later, Morshky had placed two successive calls. The first was to his home in Queens, where he assured his wife Alice that he was safe and sound. The second was to the French police, explaining the situation in the flawless Parisian French he'd been using throughout his stay in Paris, probably a result of the drug ring's subliminal conditioning, he surmised.
These matters having been attended to, Morshky realized he needed a double bourbon in a very great hurry. Besides, he had no intention of remaining in the men's room a moment longer than necessary. He would buttonhole the maitre 'd and very discreetly let him in on what had happened. Then he would find himself a table in the back where he could sip his drink and regain his composure until the flic arrived on scene and took matters in hand. Morshky pushed open the door into the prehistoric jungle. A triceratops not ten feet away was looking straight at him. It began to charge.
Word count: 3082
Copyright (C) 1997
by David Alexander
Struggling with Punic
There's a place called Posillipo. It's in Sicily. When Stanley saw the photos in the travel magazine at the dentist's he had a revelation. Something about it touched me someplace. Posillipo was where I belonged. I mean where Stanley belonged. I do this a lot, changing it around so I don't have to face it head-on. If it's somebody else, the better to cope. Like right now, sitting here and waiting for it to happen. It's better if it's Stanley. Not me.
I was saying about Posillipo, how I'd seen it at the dentist's that day, I guess it's years ago now. So insignificant, and yet so momentous. A framed print on a blue wall, or did I say a travel magazine? Anyway, then I had money. I was a yuppie or a nopie or whatever the fuck you were when you made more than forty k a year. I had health insurance and I had a bank account at Manny-Hanny and I was married and we took trips to Europe in those days. That night I said to Karen, why don't we think about changing our plans and go to Sicily instead in June, and I told her about how I'd felt this great connection with Posillipo and really wanted to go there. But she'd made up her mind to go to Paris, so I didn't push it. We never did wind up going there. It's funny, though, almost or maybe a synchronicity thing, but after that I'd keep seeing it now and then. Posillipo, I mean. In a Beat poem, on a bottle of olive oil, places that were out of context, and it dovetails with the thing about Punic.
I was on CompuServe for hours every day. After the job went, her divorcing me and the breakdown, I had to have something. With a piece of the money that started coming in when the disability checks arrived I bought myself a new computer and began going online. This is where I got into the Punic special interest group. According to the sysop's note the group was into studying an extinct language, the Phoenician language of ancient Carthage. Two members lived in Posillipo. In Punic, glottal vowel patterns substitute for definite articles, so you don't have an inflected speech cadence like you do with Latin. There are no equivalents of the letters "U," "E" and "O." A Punic speaker would not be intelligible to the Senate of classical Rome. I would usually log onto the system at four in the morning, the time the group met to practice. Punic, incidentally, is synonymous with treachery when used as an adjective.
In Punic, Stanley could say things about his life that it's hard for me to say in English. The first-person would dissolve, and the pain along with it. If it was hard to learn, so much the better. I would not know Punic as well as Stanley, and he could say the things in Punic that I would never say, maybe never think. A Punic Stanley would be a better Stanley. I tried hard to master the language, but so far I have only been able to make only so much progress. I'm keeping at it, though. I'm thinking this in Punic right now, in fact. Only it comes out in English. This doesn't mean that it's not Punic to begin with, only it ends up not being Punic. I realize I am out of control. It's hard because I stopped being Stanley. And too, there's the cold. So for the rest, I have to try to come back to the beginning.
This job of his was at Algonquin Mutual, one of the big insurance companies occupying those massive turn-of-the-century office buildings along Lower Broadway. Stanley Lugenfeld, having recently graduated from Baruch College of the City of New York with a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration, and having been duly granted a license to sell insurance by the State of New York, had been hired by the company as an agent.
They moved into the apartment in Bay Ridge where they had nothing except a kitchen table and a mattress on the floor to sleep on and a phone and a portable TV. That was enough for Stanley and Karen. They had each other. Nothing else mattered. Karen temped, usually as a legal secretary. Stanley kept telling her not to worry about the money, to find herself a permanent job with advancement potential. She wouldn't listen and told Stanley he wasn't making enough money yet to take risks with their income.
Stanley wasn't making his sales quota, that was true enough. He'd inherited clients from the salesman he'd replaced. But he just decided he would work harder. There was no way he was going to let himself fail. He got into the office promptly at eight and began working the telephone, prospecting for clients. He would cold-call from the neighborhood Yellow Pages, the small directories covering places like North Flushing, Kew Gardens and Dyker Heights, and placing a check mark beside every name. The company paid for the calls. Stanley could make all he wanted. After an hour, he was mentally numb from being insulted and hung up on by the people he phoned. And nobody was buying.
One day, Stanley was handed a bunch of clients by his supervisor, whose name was Arjuna A. Arjuna and who was originally from Jakarta, Indonesia. Arjuna had hired him and would look bad if Stanley got fired. He could tell at a glance that all were hot potatoes. But he phoned them anyway. One lived in the city projects in Coney Island. She wanted to talk about a whole life policy. Stanley went over in a cab, spending the last few bucks in his pocket. In the hall of the wing where the client lived, he was attacked by a gang of black kids who beat him down and would probably have killed him if a city housing cop hadn't scared them off. Stanley didn't tell Karen what happened to him when he got home from work.
She had the same pain when they tried having sex that night, and he told her that something had to be done about the cyst, or whatever it was, in her abdomen that she'd been complaining about. You go to the doctor tomorrow, he told her. You have it taken care of. She said she would, she wasn't gonna put it off. Days later she told Stanley that she needed an operation. There was something on her ovaries. A growth. Maybe it was benign, but you couldn't tell until a doctor went in there and looked.
She was afraid their health insurance wouldn't cover the operation, but he told her not to worry because he was, after all, an insurance agent. He knew all about it. He didn't know, actually, like not knowing Punic at the time. Nobody knew for sure, he doubted even Arjuna knew. It was deliberately kept vague so the company could use any number of loopholes to screw policyholders out of payment, especially in major medical cases where the payout could be in the tens of thousands. The company would not hesitate to shaft its own people; in fact, they were first in line. Stanley could not say in Punic that he didn't know, only English. So he said nothing.
Arjuna called him in a few days later and told him he was officially under review. Not Arjuna's fault, company policy. If he did not make his quota within the next thirty-day period, he would be thrown out of his cubby and would have to work out of his home until he produced the necessary sales figures again. Stanley asked Arjuna if he could jump from sales to management as a way out of his predicament. That way he would have a salaried job. Arjuna told him he would look into it but don't expect much. He, Arjuna, was himself under review.
Stanley left the office and had a double scotch at the bar around the corner. When the drinks were in him, he walked back to the line of phones and dialed a number in midtown. He didn't say this is Stanley Lugenfeld when they asked who wanted to speak to Mario Tedeschi, he said this is Mike French, his name from when he was in the business. Nobody in the business called it anything but the business. Only outsiders called the business other names.
Tedeschi remembered him and asked him what he wanted. Stanley told him he wanted to work. Since they called it the business, what you did in a business was work. Work was an easy word to say. Tedeschi had told Stanley when he'd quit the business years before that if he ever wanted back in, he just had to say the word. Stanley had always been dependable doing what they called stunts. Tedeschi could still give him work doing stunts. Especially with his equipment for the job. In fact, he could do some work that afternoon, providing he could pass an AIDS test which he could take at the office of a doctor who worked with Tedeschi's production company. Unlike before, nobody worked who didn't pass the test, and you got tested before every shoot.
You know Rod Eagle? Tedeschi went on. Eagle can't get it up no more, and his stuntman is burnt out. Stanley didn't have to ask if payment was still in cash. It had always been and always would be. Some things never changed.
Stanley came back to the apartment with five hundred dollars in crisp new twenties in his pocket. It had been a fast job, routine almost. The camera crew shot Rod Eagle in the preliminaries with two girls, then the filming stopped and Stanley went in to stunt for him. He did both girls with the cameras shooting close-ups only. Later, they would edit it so it looked like Rod was in there pitching the whole time. Not much had changed except the faces. Rod Eagle was one of the few guys from Stanley's time who were still in the business. But they still didn't use condoms and everybody pretended AIDS wasn't a problem. Since everybody on set had to test negative, nobody could catch it. So, at least, went the reasoning.
Karen told him that the specialist she'd gone to had scheduled surgery for the following week. It would cost twelve thousand dollars. He brought her the insurance claim forms to fill out and they filled them out together. She told him they couldn't have any sex for months, not until she was healed. No problem, Stanley told her. Just get better.
Back at the office, he removed more stuff from his cubby and handed in the claim forms they'd filled out. He also applied for a life insurance policy and a disability policy. Now was the time to do it. He knew from past experience that he could pull down enough doing stunt work to keep paying for the policies. If he became sick, if he got AIDS or whatever, he would get almost two grand a month from the second policy. If he died, Karen would be taken care of.
Stanley continued working on shoots, and putting the cash in the bank. He had moved his stuff from the office to the apartment where he had a desk in a corner. Karen thought the money was coming from the sales he was making, because he was telling her that he'd gotten a couple of good new clients lately from Arjuna. Don't worry, he said, because I'll be back at the office in a few months.
He went to a few prospects to keep up appearances, but most of his time was spent working on the set, even during when his wife was having her surgery. It was that night that he'd smoked some heroin with some of the other members of the cast. Smoking it wasn't like shooting or popping it. You got a whole different high. And it helped you work.
Karen's navel poured a cherry-colored mucous of blood and saline solution from where the surgeon had used the laser scalpel to cut away the diseased tissue, and the odor of cauterized flesh filled the bedroom. The cysts had been benign, but they had gotten so big that they had pushed most of her uterus up into her abdomen. They were fibroid cysts, as big as golf balls. Karen was in bad shape for weeks afterward, but she eventually was able to get around. The doctor said she was healing well. She'd be okay.
This was about the time when she'd asked Stanley if he'd seen her cross anywhere. What you want it for? he asked her. She said she just wanted it. Why? We don't use religious symbols in this household. I'm Catholic, she told him, okay? I want my cross. You wanna be a Jew, that's fine with me.
This is because you went to church and put ashes on your fuckin' head before the operation, what you found God or something? You becoming a saint on me? Later, she started in with the voodoo candles, the ones in the long glass tubes with the decals of Jesus, Mary and the saints on them. Afterward, there were wax candles of human figures in purple, green and black. This was just before Stanley had found the letters from France stained with human blood. The love letters with the bloodstains from the artist. She'd get better, he told himself. Give her time. The operation stressed her out. He tried to forget about the artist. Give her time.
Tedeschi tells him meanwhile that he needs him to play a top in a gay film he's shooting, a top being the man on top, the one who does it to the one known as the bottom. The top is the doer. The bottom is the doee. Okay, Stanley says, this is where I draw the line. I only do straight gigs, you know that. Yeah, but I need you to do this, Tedeschi tells him, and the implication is clear that if Stanley doesn't work as a top he's out as far as stunting goes. Stanley agreed. He had no choice. It wasn't the day he did the top gig or the day after that he first started popping heroin by injecting it into his arm, but it was soon after that. It becomes hard to remember exact dates now. Lot of things are hard to remember now. Cold will do that.
The money was better, at least twice as good. There was also some work doing overdubs in foreign films Tedeschi was producing for audiences here. Stanley had no trouble making the payments on his policies. But they were going to fire him soon, so he started going to a shrink to beef up his disability claim. He had made sure to write a mental disability rider into the policy. If a psychiatrist certified that he had suffered a mental breakdown, the company would have to pay. They would try to weasel, but Stanley had an insider's knowledge of the way the business worked. He would get the policy and they could fire him if they wanted. Fuck them. He found a lady shrink who worked specially with people in the business. He was high on heroin when he walked in and she needed no convincing that he was undergoing the nervous breakdown that Stanley intimated he was. In fact, it was the first time Stanley himself was truly aware of it.
He stopped working then, and sometime around this period Karen began asking him for the divorce. She wanted to go to Paris to live with the artist who was sending her bloodstained love letters. I was good to you, I healed you after your operation, Stanley said. You did it to me, Stanley, she answered. I was working as a whore while I was temping. A trick raped me and cut me up inside. I did it for us. For us, huh? Stanley said. Yeah for us, she told him. For the money. Take it or leave it.
When Stanley saw himself losing weight, he went to a doctor under another name, and he wasn't surprised when the HIV test came back positive. He just wanted to make sure. He wasn't concerned about the medication. He had other plans. His policy checks paid his expenses, and there was enough left over for the new computer with the big color screen. Punic was a challenge. He would sit for hours, mastering it, making it his own, making it live again inside the walls of the apartment in the small hours of the morning. Puia for "wife," clan for "son." Thu, zal, ci, sa, mach, huth, for the numbers one to six. As the months progressed, and I got thinner and weaker, Punic became my world. Punic began to germinate. The glory of ancient Carthage was revived.
And now, I am cleansed, I am shriven, and I have no fear. I can say who I am. I can say it in Punic, which is the language in which I think these thoughts, the language of the dead, newly resurrected. The language of treachery. I no longer struggle with Punic. I have mastered it.
They say that when you die of hypothermia, you just go to sleep. If you don't leave a note, nobody can call it suicide either. I used to be an insurance agent. I know all about that kind of thing. In Paris, it is cold in December. Along the Seine, on nights when the temperature drops below freezing, the clochards often stiffen in their tracks. I am not one of them. I am not a clochard. I am well dressed, a tourist on a trip, and the snow is heavy. This morning, I saw her, but Karen didn't notice me as I watched her before turning away. She went into what they call squats here, a place others have abandoned to anyone who can move in. She looked thin and pale, and not happy, but who can judge happiness on another's face? I've been sitting on the bench in the snow for awhile and I've been thinking about Posillipo. I can see it, beautiful and blessedly warm. And now I am finally almost there.
Struggling with Punic
I, am Erica
Haywire Car Alarm Deep In September Night
David Alexander sets strong and resourceful characters into settings that are simultaneously familiar and bizarre. His stories are everyones, at least everyone that is paying attention to the continual apocalypse of life and relationship on the cusp of the 21st century.
In Struggling with Punic, his main character is a working man trying to make financial and social ends meet, which is a familiar story. That he is losing ground is also a familiar story. The way he loses ground is compellingly interesting. His proposed solution to his financial and social problems include creating a set of tools with which to solve his problems. He supposes that learning a new language might give him the tools whereby he could solve the mystery of his life.
His I, am Erica is a beautiful love story played out in the hyper-realism of dreams that intrude upon the waking states of the main character so effectively that he must ask: Which is more real, the dream or the reality? The lover becomes so involved with the search for his beloved that he identifies himself with her, attempting to fill the deep boundary between the individuals, becoming her. Meanwhile, Alexander reveals the facts slowly, unfolding the story set within the dreamy context of emotional states.
In Haywire Car Alarm Deep In September Night Alexander carries the vision of modern life to hallucinogenic heights and answers the dilemma of dream and reality: Each are so vitally important to the person experiencing them that the question of reality becomes secondary. What is most important in life is common to both: an urge to penetrate the mystery, to be socially effective, to solve, to writhe in pleasure and terror. In the waking and dreaming states, the observant mind finds that each informs the other, each provides insight to the other domain, each provides a possible solution to the mind that desperately attempts to contain them both.
All of his main characters are men, although in Erica the distinction is fused, and written from the mans point of view. All of his main characters are committed to a relationship. In each case, his partner and him have the same kind of difficulties but the difficulties are so uniquely expressed that the characters cannot help each other. The abrasive world tends to dissolve the individual into the chaos of life in our time. The constant boiling and churning and evaporation of culture leads to dissolution of relationship and inspires a yearning for consistency and dependability, for something that reliably holds still, and incidentally the opportunity for great art.
As a critic, I feel compelled to complain about some failure of quality of the work that I criticize. However, I can find little to complain about. Alexanders characters are developed clearly through their actions. None of them spend much time complaining about their situation but instead face it squarely, dynamically, peering into the mystery, clearly seeing its details actively played out in visual and audio cues, and trying to interpret and solve. That they so often end in defeat in spite of their strengths, alludes to the awesome mass of the problem that we all face.
Copyright (C) 1999
by David Alexander