Monday, September 3, 2007

A Chapter from a Novel I'll Never Finish...

My roommate Sheed was back in town all of a sudden and desperate to talk to me. He'd called from the subway as it emerged over Dyckman Street to let me know he was on the way home and wondered if I could meet him down in Marble Hill. I agreed and took what I figured would be my last look around the place since eviction was almost certainly imminent.

Sheed greeted me at the bottom of the steps to the 1-train with a broad smile on his face as though he'd desperately missed me. He offered to buy me some food from one of the many street vendors on 225th, but then eyed them suspiciously and hurried us away toward the waterfront.

Manhattan sat across the Broadway Bridge taunting Sheed and I for being too cheap or too weak to live in the city's most celebrated borough. I remembered staring out at it from the Brooklyn Bridge a few years back with the same contempt, perhaps disappointed that no planes would be careening toward anyplace I was likely to live.

Sheed stared down at his five dollar Times Square designer impostor watch and shivered slightly. He looked fairly disturbed, but I didn't feel that sorry for him since I was sure he was about to make me homeless. He looked up at me with a slight pathetic smile and began speaking softly.

“Keith...there are things people who share a roof should not keep secret,” he said. “In some cases, because of emergency. In others, because they are friends. I haven't been a friend to you.”

He paused and glanced up toward the sun as it prepared to crash into New Jersey.

“There are men who are looking for me,” he blurted. “I have done nothing wrong, but they think I did because...because of someone I know. Have you noticed anyone? We have had any visitors or the super been by or anything strange?”

“Nope.”

“Oh. Well, that's very good. It's a relief. Listen, I must tell you all about this thing that they want to do to me. I don't know why they want me or I do, but it's crazy!”

“Yeah.”

“Very crazy. I think we should have dinner or better we should go somewhere and talk it all over because this is not...you have been to Shea Stadium?”

“Not for a long time.”

He looked up and over my shoulder nervously. Something must have caught his eye because he got very agitated. I glanced around to see what he could possibly be looking at, but there was nothing except the usual pedestrian traffic.

“I am sorry. I don't think we can talk here now. Perhaps later this evening at Yankee Stadium?”

“I thought you said Shea,” I asked.

“A mistake. The place where the Mets play is Shea? Yes, the Yankees ballpark.”

“You have tickets?”

“No, no. Let's just meet inside the train station and we can figure out what.”

“Okay.”

“I see you there in one hour my man.”

Sheed ran out to the street and thrust his hand out to hail a gypsy cab. He caught the second one passing and waved absently in my direction. The car took off down Kingsbridge with Sheed doubtless feening for a hit in the back.

I processed what Sheed had just told me, though I hadn't really understood it. More pressing at the time was that I'd stepped in shit. Whether the shit was dog or man made was distracting me as I struggled to decipher Sheed's rambling. It was clear that Sheed was in some shit of his own, but who wasn't? Zenobia's laugh echoed in my ears.

An hour and a half later, I was at the Yankee Stadium subway stop. I was late because I'd been trying to air dry my pants after they'd gotten soaked from attempting to bust open a fire hydrant so I could get water to clean my shoes. Kids are geniuses.

Sheed was impatiently pacing back and forth on the platform. When he saw me, he grabbed me roughly by the arm and started to tug me toward the escalator. I punched him in the stomach and kicked him in the shin with my wet shit covered shoe. I didn't know what had come over Sheed, but it wasn't my fault. No one objected because he didn't fall down. If he had, the typical New York “he's had enough” looks would've started shifting my way, though it was unlikely anyone would have interfered. Even Samaria is drenched in blood these days.

Instead of falling down and causing alarm, Sheed started laughing hysterically. The platform cleared off except for a couple kids who thought a fight worth watching might be breaking out. Once I unclenched my fists, the kids disappeared. Sheed didn't stop laughing though. He walked toward the end of the platform. I followed at a slight distance wondering if he wasn't testing me somehow. In plain view was an opening in Yankee Stadium where you could see some of the cheap seats, but none of the action on the field. As a roar from the crowd buffeted us, Sheed began to speak between giggles.

“I am sorry buddy. I am so sorry. It's okay?”

“It's okay.”

“I am sorry buddy. It's so silly. I am very sorry buddy.”

“What's going on?”

“You don't know? You wouldn't know buddy. Ah, I am not what you think, but I am not what they think either. I thought you might be with them, but you're okay, buddy. The first day I knew you I said you were going to be good.”

“Sheed, you okay?”

“I am not that...not Sheed. Oh, my buddy, I am a shit head. I am a shit head.”
At that, Sheed let out a monstrous cackle that actually made me jump back. He rubbed his shin and spit over the railing onto the street below.

“Buddy, you're okay. You know why I never gave you the mailbox key?”

“No.”

“It's something so crazy. It's only in America. At home, my mother said I am someone special. In America, I am covered in shit.

He looked me in the eyes.

“Buddy, let me show you something. Only the bill collectors know this bad truth. Here, look at this.”

Sheed produced a crumpled Con Edison envelope from his pocket and handed it to me. I stared inside the little plastic window at the familiar address. The bill was made out to a “Shithead
Haxhaje.”

“Shit head?”

“Yes! Yes, I am a shit head. By name and by nature, I am a shit head!”

Sheed broke down in tears. Lacking anything else, I offered him a cigarette, but he dutifully pointed to a no smoking sign on the wall. I felt bad for him, but it wasn't my fault. I supposed his mother had done it.

“There's more buddy,” he said. “I am a shit head, but it's more than that. It is...well, I like marijuana.”

“I know shit head.”

“No, it's Shithead. Shih-Theed. It's Mauritanian.”

“I see.”

“It's okay buddy. Same mistake everybody makes. Anyway, I am smoking a lot. I smoke at least, like...a bag a day.”

“No wonder you never offered me any.”

“I am sorry buddy. No, I never knew you might want it. I am also...what is it? Stingy, I think?”

“That's okay.”

“But there's more. I smoke and to smoke, I have to sell sometimes too. So I sell, but only to friends and friend of my friends.”

“Makes sense.”

“Yes buddy, it's safe, you know? But the guy I buy from, he is also Albanian.”

“I thought you were African.”

“On my mother's side, but my father is a Kosovar Albanian. They met in Mecca.”

“I never knew.”

“It's okay buddy. His mother's sister--my grand-aunt--she was the one who lived in our home. Anyway, I go down to Sheepshead Bay every week to get a new supply because it goes fast. But this guy, this Albanian, he is not only into the weeds.”

Sheepshead Bay was down in Brooklyn, but it wasn't part of my Brooklyn. It was actually one of few affordable neighborhoods left in the borough, but that was because it was so remote and out of the way that the only people who lived there were Russian mobsters and hipsters who'd gotten bad directions. If Sheepshead was the source of Sheed's troubles, it was no surprise.

“Is that why you're always gone for so long,” I asked.

“Sometimes, buddy. It's that and smoking. You never know where it's going to take you.”

Or leave you, I thought, as a pop fly cracked loudly off of a bat in the suddenly silent evening air.

“So, is that your only job?”

“With our rent, is it a great surprise? No, I just buy and sell, like a Wall Street guy. I was even employee of the month once.”

“You get a plaque?

“No, I got arrested.”

“You were caught?”

“The FBI! They came for me three days ago. I was on my way home and they got me. It was right outside our apartment. I went right along though and they didn't use handcuffs. It would have been very bad if they had used handcuffs. Now I'm thinking the FBI don't even have handcuffs. Do you know?”

“I don't.”

“Of course. Why would you know buddy? You don't have to be arrested by the FBI. They got me good!”

“So what, was it for the drugs?”

“No, that's nothing. The Albanian was a liar.”

“Was he a mob guy?”

“No. He is al Qaeda.”

Sheed paused to blow his nose as I attempted to take it all in. My roommate knew a terrorist?

“It's not really al Qaeda, but it's like that. He is a Wahhabi. They are extremists who go around trying to get every Muslim into jihad. They say his group has ties to al Qaeda. Like that. The FBI said I was helping fund a terrorist group! I don't know about terrorists! Then they say my mother's cousin I only ever met one time was deported to Mauritania on suspicion last year, so that proves my connection! What I do now buddy?! I sat there and they said these things and I don't know what to do! They say they take my green card now unless I tell them something, but it's all nothing to do with me, man! I don't even know! So you see Keith, I am a shit head after all...”

He began sobbing uncontrollably, muttering in some strange tongue. His English had deteriorated as quickly as my lack of sympathy. Poor Sheed. He thought I was one of them and I thought he was one of them, but neither of us were anyone. Just shit heads maybe.

“Perhaps...” he mumbled through tears. “Perhaps you could say a word for me?”

“To whom?”

“The federals. When they come again, you could say I am all right.”

“I don't know.”“Please, it would go far. You are a citizen?”“Of course, but the thing is, I don't know anything about you. I mean, we live together, but I can't give you an alibi because I never see you. How do I say anything about you when I've only seen you about six times? I don't want to get locked up for perjury.”

“This is true buddy. I am sorry. I didn't think.”

“It's okay. I'm sorry too. I wish I could help.”

Sheed had composed himself. He searched the Stadium's upper deck for answers, but none were available, leaving his eyes glazed over with worry. I felt bad for him. I wasn't sure if he thought my unwillingness to help was legitimate, but he must have known I couldn't really do anything anyway. Even if he did think I was holding out on him, it must have been clear that I didn't owe him a thing. As I'd said, we barely knew each other, so why would he be worth going out on a limb for? What set Sheed apart from all the other protect me/fix me types a person runs into? Nothing, it turned out. He would get what he had coming like everyone else. Diagnosis: Patient inoperable.

The downtown express train rumbled to a halt in front of the now crowded platform. I shook hands with Sheed and told him I hoped to see him at home. He nodded then slunk toward the turnstiles without looking back. The train doors slid closed and Sheed and the Doppler roar of the Yankees' fans receded into the night. I stared at the faces around me, all in need of some remedy or another. There was no guilt. If we all had to suffer, how could there be any guilt?

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Royce Should've Never Been There

Like everyone, I'm disappointed by the news about Royce Gracie testing positive for the banned substance, Nandrolone following the Sakuraba fight at K-1. All I thought about was how much I stress to the kids class I teach that jiu jitsu is about technique, not strength. I always submit Royce as proof because at the end of the day, he is the best proof. The little man in the gi who came in and applied his art softly in an event full of hard men. Like most people, Royce was my initial inspiration. I've never been in the greatest shape and I've always appreciated playing a thinking man's game.

As the years have gone by since the early UFCs, Royce's star has dimmed and brightened. I wasn't a fan of a lot of the rhetoric that came out of the Torrance Academy back in the day, but as we would all find out, the man behind the message was Rorion, not Royce. Royce was the public symbol, but he wasn't the politician. When he went out there full of bravado and got put to sleep by Wallid during the Rio Oscars de Jiu Jitsu, the first seeds of doubt began to creep into my mind about whether or not I'd been sold a bill of goods. Wallid, after all, was one of Carlson's boys. Carlson, who had made no secret of his ideology that jiu jitsu needed to be supplemented with strength and conditioning because technique was sometimes not enough. The same Carlson who had put his young protege Vitor Vieira Belfort into the UFC with ground skills and hands to match, though few doubted he was getting along sans "special supplements" around the time he fought and lost to heavy underdog Randy Couture. In those days when the internet was still coming together and information was a little more easily manipulated, Carlson represented the Dark Side of the Force. Seeing Wallid on the cover of Black Belt confirmed it. This wasn't the jiu jitsu I'd embraced.

My infatuation with Rickson began around this time as I felt he had the purest expression of jiu jitsu, but it was an inescapable truth that his genetic gifts bore no resemblance to my own lack thereof and in many ways were the key to his success. A strange Japanese fellow by the name of Sakuraba began slowly doing things that made Wallid's clock choke seem tame. He defeated Royler and then Renzo Gracie. He drew Allan Goes and punished Vitor Belfort. He tapped esteemed non-Brazilian grapplers like Carlos Newton and Tiger White. But the old Jedi would return and put an end to this rampage. Royce was emerging from semi-retirement (after a quick less publicized preliminary match with Nobuhiko Takada) to challenge the Gracie-Hunter.

I watched the edited version of their epic contest on DirectTV. It left me unsatisfied and confused as the chopping left room for interpretation. "Royce probably won on everything but endurance" I reasoned, figuring the editing had painted a grimmer picture than was possible. When I saw the full length fight and subsequent defeat of young Ryan Gracie at Sakuraba's hands as well, it was clear that there was no doubt Royce had lost and lost convincingly.

That fight, Royce's 14th, seemed indicative of a changing of the guard. Perhaps it was time for the legend to retire completely. In fact, maybe it was time for the Gracie family and BJJ as a whole to cede the mantle of most effective combat style. It was time to recognize that this was truly a new sport called Mixed Martial Arts that required proficiency in a number of disciplines.

That was the path ahead as I saw it. Ironically it was around this time that I started to ponder studying more orthodox Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as I'd been practicing a style more akin to shoot or catch-wrestling up until then. I guess I was seeking legitimacy in this new combat sports epoch. Royce wouldn't be heard from again for 3 years.

Why did Royce come back to fight Sakuraba? Prior to his entry into the Pride Grand Prix where he faced Takada, he hadn't fought for 5 years. His legend was relatively secure. He would never stop being a pioneer. It's never been documented that he or his family were even approaching hurting for money. So why did he do it? At the end of the day, it was about family honor. His brother and cousin had lost and he, being the most known and revered Gracie short of Rickson in the MMA world had to step up and be The Man. It was a role he was arguably never suited for. He was thrust into the UFC due to Rorion's machinations and became an unlikely hero in a family of superheroes. So the gunslinger whose ten gallon hat kept slumping on his forehead was now the fastest draw. Except Sakuraba was faster. The loss would haunt Royce more than any other and would change the way his family and their style was viewed around the fighting world.

The next time we saw Royce it was against another Japanese fighter, Hidehiko Yoshida. Royce had elected to answer a challenge from BJJ's parent art, Judo, on what was perhaps the largest MMA stage the world had ever seen. Pride/K-1 ShockWave/Dynamite 2002 featured theatrics aplenty, but perhaps none were so memorable as the odd stoppage of Royce's fight as Yoshida told the referee that he believed Royce had slipped unconscious in a choke. Video footage clearly showed otherwise, which lead to an uproar amongst both the fan base and the Gracie family. But Royce could only be so angry. The fight, while ostensibly promoted as a Judo vs. BJJ or Japan vs. Brazil showdown was actually little more than a stunt fight. There was no family honor at stake, nor did the match have any significance in the larger picture of MMA rankings. It was part of a show clearly designed to entertain. Royce, unfortunately ended up on the wrong side of the show business and few were interested in his talk of honor or fairness. After all, Pride had a new hero to replace the beleaguered Sakuraba and Royce was little more than the Kingmaker.

It was role I suspect Royce chafed in.

If memory serves, it was right around this time that Royce started to distance himself from Gracie Torrance and went his own way. His book with cousin Charles focusing on Self Defense Techniques was doing well and his network of Royce Gracie academies seemed to have finally coalesced into a legitimate whole. Ryron and Rener were seizing the reins at the Torrance Academy and Royce seemed determined to truly carve out his own niche.

The culmination of this was a highly personal rematch with Yoshida at Pride ShockWave 2003 which ended in a draw, but was a victory for Royce in the eyes of fight fans everywhere. Royce came in like a man possessed and did what he set out to. Realistically, that fight would have been sufficient punctuation to an already storied career, but Royce wasn't done. Around the time of the second Yoshida fight, something noticable had changed in Royce. It wasn't clear whether it was a renewed hunger to compete and prove he was the best or simply a hunger for more high paycheck fights. The Yoshida fights alone had netted him more money than he'd ever made as a pro fighter, even more than when he'd defeated 4 men in a night to claim the sophomore UFC title.

Royce's next few fights would seem to suggest it was the latter that primarily motivated him. He fought what was clearly a showman's match against sumo wrestler Akebono then fought late replacement lightweight sensation Hideo Tokoro to a draw (which many feel Royce lost). He would go on to be dominated by UFC welterweight juggernaut Matt Hughes at UFC 60, almost 2 years to the date after he had been inducted into the that organization's Hall of Fame.

If ever there was a time to hang up the gloves, that was it, but Royce assured fans that he wasn't done. His return would be a year later in southern California in front of friends, family and students as he worked to avenge the most devastating blemish on his career. The rematch with Sakuraba had arrived.

The fight was lackluster. That much is certain. Royce was aggressive enough in the eyes of the judges to get a decision. Announcers and commentators around the sport quickly became apologists as they defended these two legends who eked out a match worthy of TUF 2. But it was vindication for BJJers like myself who had never quite gotten over Sakuraba's dominance of the Gracie family. BJJers have beaten Sakuraba since, but it was Royce (or Rickson) who needed to get the W or it didn't mean as much.

Then Royce tests positive for steroids and the whole MMA and BJJ world is turned on its head.
Many crawled from the woodwork to throw stones at Royce (most notably those who christened him the ever-so catchy Hoids Disgracie). I was in shock, but not in as much shock as I suspect some others were. After all, as some contend, steroid use is rampant in professional sports and MMA is no exception. But there are certainly different classes of athlete who use performance enhancing drugs and Royce seems to fit a very particular profile.

Young athletes are often caught juicing because they're looking for the extra edge to distinguish them from the pack and make them into a superstar. Talent is an unfair qualifier. Hard work has to count for something and if you want to be able to work a little harder a little faster, why not dope? That is, if you can escape detection.

Older athletes, on the other hand, seem to juice for the same reason Sammy Sosa told us he was putting cork in his bat. The older athlete finds his performance slowly starting to decline. He doesn't have the same snap on his punches or the same power to his hip bump and he's got the fight of his life coming up against his arch-rival in a fight that will be the capstone of his career.

What do you do?

You retire with that last loss on your record, the voice of reason might say, but it's easy to suppress, particularly when you consider that this is the fight you want more than anything and that most people think your adversary is at his weakest. But what if you're weaker? Worse than getting pounded into submission by a younger man is the idea of losing a war of attrition akin to the last loss where essentially you quit because there was nothing left in the tank. It's an admission that the fighter you were is dead and even in decline, your worst adversary is still a better man than you. Too big a risk. Don't take the fight. But you have to take the fight. Your family, your friends, your students all want it. Fans are looking forward to it. Sure it's a stunt fight, but it's the only stunt that matters.

So you spike the vein and you tell yourself "no chances." And you go and fight a fight so conservative that you can't lose.

At 40 years of age, Royce Gracie has fought a total of 19 fights. If he were a boxer, he'd be a rookie in terms of experience, but barring either Bernard Hopkins athleticism or George Foreman doggedness, he'd be looking for a gym that would take him on as a trainer. He, along with his cousin Renzo, Randy Couture and a few others are holding the line in MMA, teaching us what the shelf life in this relatively new sport actually is. The fact that we can call 19 matches in anything a career, let alone enough to make one a legend seems crazy, but when a sport is still in its growing stage, those are the facts. Royce, Renzo, Dan Severn and Ken Shamrock are the only semi-active fighters from those halcyon days of MMA's formative years. While all of them have endured pressure in staying active, none have known it to the degree Royce has, as America's standard bearer for what an MMA champion is. He is unquestionably THE pioneer, but he is also undeniably past his prime.

MMA as a whole needs to do a better job of letting its legends go before true lethal danger becomes the rule and not the exception. Fighters like Severn who are still fighting as they approach the age of 50, do us more of a disservice than anything. As much as I have loved the rennaissance of Randy Couture's career, I would rather see him enjoying retirment and adjusting to life outside the wars of the cage. Everyone thinks they have one more fight left in them, but what besides spectacle makes fans pay to see it? Ask any MMA fan and his proudest boast is that this is a sport now. Spectacle should be left to the past.

The question will always linger whether or not Royce should have even been in the cage in 1993. But there can be no doubt that the man once known as the "greatest martial artist in the world" should never have set foot in that ring on June 2nd. The mistake he made while trying to push his glory days just a little further will tarnish one of the greatest stories in all of sports. David, not content with beating Goliath, ultimately didn't think he could be successful without becoming Goliath.

Sunday, April 1, 2007

4/1

It's April, fools!!!

Two Crooks in Monte Carlo

So who made you?

Good old Rocky Rainier himself.

No way.

True.

What was he even doing there?

I don't know, but he was the one. Came right up to me on the floor and asked me how I was doing. I told him I was doing okay and he just gave me this cool smile.

And that was it?

Yeah, that was it.

So how do you know you were made?

I just knew.

You just knew?

Yeah.

Come on. He must have done something else. Said something maybe?

No, that was it. Just a how you doing and I knew.

Bullshit. What, did he have security surrounding you or something?

No, nothing like that.

I don't believe it. So you mean to tell me you walked away from a potential score on a Frenchman's smile?

A Moneguasce, and yes.

That's crazy.

Not when you been doing this as long as I have. See, when you're about to take a guy, you have to know him. Taking something from someone is intimate. It's like...being in love with them. You get to know their operation, their habits, their kinks. You know a guy like that then you look him in the eye and you know when it's enough.

Right. Sure you didn't just lose your nerve?

Hey, I've been on lots of jobs and nerve has nothing to do with it. When you've got the plan, you know what's going down. Nerves get left in the war room. Everything happens or it doesn't. Once it doesn't, it's over. You walk. Rainier gave me the look. He was inside the plan. So that was it. He was in and I was out.

So how much did you lose?

About sixty large for the blueprints and recon, but I made it up the next day.

How?

F-1 was the next day. I picked the right car.

Lucky.

It's been said.

The Technicality

Candace is the one who gets everyone out of a jam. There is no time to think or question when Candace is around because she has the blueprint in her mind as soon as she knows the situation. What you don't know is what she knows. No one argues with Candace. She's the attack dog. She's the savior. She's the dam.

No one knows Candace better than Darryl. They'd yucked it up at Christmas parties and inter-departmental meetings, but never in the office and never in private. Darryl knows the rules about that sort of thing and Candace had made them. It's a professional environment.

Candace can't sleep on Tuesdays because she meets with Roslyn on Wednesdays. Every detail has to be accounted for. One mistake and questions start getting raised. Attention is a bad thing in their business. Candace lives by this credo.

Candace walks into Roslyn's office Wednesday morning with a folder and a cup of coffee: black, one sugar, decaf. Roslyn is smiling because she knows the meeting is a waste of time. Candace took care of everything, as always. It's just a formality. Having confidence in your representation is the key to successful leadership.

"Help me," Candace whispers, but Roslyn doesn't hear her.

They wrap up at noon. Nothing is out of the ordinary. It's a short day for Candace afterward. She visits Sanjay in fiscal to conduct her daily audit. He speaks softly as he tells her about the day's debits and credits.

"What's this," Candace asks, holding up an unsigned check request for three hundred dollars.

"That's an oversight," Sanjay replies. "Logistics underpaid someone and they want an
emergency check for Friday."

"Why didn't they sign?"

"A mistake. It'll be corrected. Bob spoke to Darryl on the phone, so the signature is just a technicality."

"Well, make sure they get it by tomorrow."

"Don't worry. It’s just a technicality. It'll be taken care of."

Candace furrows her brow and stares at the invoice. Sanjay looks sanguine and unconcerned. No more words pass between them as she hands him the invoice and walks away from his cubicle.

It's five o'clock and Candace is staring at her phone, wondering if she should call fiscal to make sure Sanjay's got the signature. She taps the fingers of her left hand, index to pinky, like a pianist descending a chord roll. Halfway through a pen cap she'd been nibbling on, she picks up the phone and dials Darryl's extension.

"You've reached logistics," the voice mail drones in Darryl's deep voice. Candace hangs up before the beep.

It's never too late to make a mistake, she thinks.

Darryl lives across town from Candace in a Mitchell Lama Cooperative building. He paid fifteen thousand dollars for it and waited three years to get in. It hadn't appreciated much since he'd
been there, but that didn't matter. He wasn't leaving anytime soon.

His buzzer rings twice in precise intervals and he presses the button to release the lock on the downstairs door, mistakenly believing his Chinese food has arrived. Footsteps down the hall yield Candace instead of shrimp fried rice. He gapes for a moment then manages a smile.

"Come in, come in," he says.

Candace doesn't smile, but comes in anyway.

"Well, I'm a little surprised to see you here," he says. "To what do I owe the pleasure?"

"I needed to talk to you," Candace says with mechanic diction. There is never hesitation in her voice.

"Okay, well, uh, come in then. Sit down over here," he says gesturing to a sofa with a pair of dirty socks draped over the arm nearest the window. He swipes the socks in a swift motion as he rounds the sofa and heads for the kitchen.

"Would you like something to drink," he shouts.

"No, I'm fine."

"Well, I'll be in in a minute. I just need to finish up what I was doing. Are you hungry?"

"No, I'm okay."

"Alright, but there's some Chinese on the way, so--"

"Really, I'm okay."

Darryl stops talking and turns on the faucet. Candace looks around, matching obvious contradictions with the imaginary layout she'd designed of the place on the elevator ride up. The view is unimpressive, but the Spartan furnishings make excellent use of the space. It shouldn't be a surprise, she thinks. This is what he does.

The faucet turns off and Darryl emerges from the kitchen with a few wet spots on the bottom of his t-shirt. He grabs a remote off the sofa cushion and places it on top of the lifeless television set then he sits down on the same cushion the remote was resting on, two removed from Candace.

"So, what do you need from me?"

"I just had a quick question for you," Candace says, shifting in her seat despite herself.

"Is it something bad?"

"What?"

"You know, is it something bad?"

"I'm not sure...I--"

Darryl chuckles to himself and slaps his thigh.

"What are you laughing about?"

"I'm sorry..."

"What is it?"

"It's just, well, I'm not used to seeing you off-guard."

"I'm not off guard."

"Oh, come on. Who asks if it's bad that's over the age of ten?"

"Well..."

"See, I got you good. That was a kid question and you took the bait."

"I guess I did."

Candace allows herself to smile. She realizes she's talking to Darryl. The same Darryl she danced with at three Christmas parties in a row and had eaten lunch beside at every staff meeting for the past two years. He told her jokes when everyone else at the agency would only greet her with halfhearted hellos or reticent waves. Darryl was always different. I’m being ridiculous, Candace nearly says aloud.

But that’s the kind of thinking she always guards against. Her mother taught her at a young age that the man who makes you smile the most is the one you should trust the least. Who would she be if she forgot that in Darryl’s apartment?

“Why is it we’ve never done this,” Darryl says.

“Done what?”

“This. We’ve always had a good time at work, but we’ve never just hung out.”

“I don’t know.”

“We should do this.”

“Should we?”

“Why not? I mean, we have lunch together once a month, but why haven’t we ever had dinner?”

Candace is unsure of what to say for the first time in ten years. She clears her throat and tugs
her collar, uncomfortably warm. She wonders why she had to come to his home when a telephone call would have sufficed. Darryl is sitting a foot away, smiling at her, waiting for something that makes Candace want to run screaming to her office and attack a mound of paperwork or sift through an ocean of e-mails.

“There’s a signature,” she blurted.

“I’m sorry?”

“You forgot to, uh, sign a check request and Sanjay, he…”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.”

“So that’s what this visit is about?” Darryl leans back away from Candace. It takes everything she has not to yank him back toward her.

“Sanjay said he spoke to you, so…”

“Yeah, he did and it’s being taken care of.”

“Oh, good. That’s what he said.”

“So is that all you wanted?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, well that’s no big thing. I’ll handle it in the morning.”

“Good.”

Darryl laughs again in his hearty baritone.

“You’re making fun of me again,” Candace says.

“No, it’s just that you’ve got your style and I respect that.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know. You get things done. If it wasn’t for you, the agency would’ve gone under a long time ago. I mean, you don’t just do your job. You do it seriously.”

“Is that bad?”

“No, no, that's just you.”

As Candace smiles, she notices her lips are dry and starting to crack a little. Her tongue moves involuntarily to moisten them, but she stops herself.

"So was there any particular reason the request didn’t get signed,” she says.

"No, I told you. It was just an accident."

"You didn't say that."

"What?"

"You never said it was an accident."

"Well, you know. It's just a technicality. We got invoiced for a shipment of toner cartridges a little earlier than we thought."

Candace is cooling down. Darryl has her attention. Attention is a bad thing in their business.

"Who ordered the cartridges," she asked.

"Who? No one ordered them. We like to keep a back stock so we have them for emergencies."

"That's probably a good idea."

"We like to think so."

"It's very...convenient."

Darryl is forgetting dances at Christmas and lunch at staff meetings. He’s talking to one of his bosses.

"What are you implying," he asks.

Candace thrives on putting people on the defensive. It brings out the real her. She is what she does.

“I’m not implying anything, but your oversight could have caused some serious problems.”

“Well, it’s going to be fixed. Sanjay and I spoke.”

“Sanjay doesn’t approve the check requests.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that without everything in order, we can’t honor the request.”

Darryl lets out a long sigh and scratches his head. Candace is sitting up straight, her jaw set, her glare unwavering. The silence is a prison.

“So do you have it,” Darryl finally says.

“Have what?”

“The form. Did you bring it?”

“Darryl,” Candace says firmly, “I’m not a courier. You’ll have to go first thing in the morning.”

“Oh, so it’s like that?”

“That’s the policy.”

Darryl stands up and walks to the door. Candace smoothes her skirt and rises as well.

“Okay, well, thanks for stopping by. I’ll be in tomorrow.”

“You need to come early if you want that check.”

“I’ll try to be there.”

“It isn't too much trouble?”

“Not too much...but you know, I guess we can wait on the toner.”

“I'm sorry?”

"Well, really it's just for stocking purposes, so maybe I'll hold off.

For the second time, Candace isn't quite sure what to say. She thinks for a long moment before she speaks.

"Well, if the order is coming, you'd better have something in place," she says.

"I'll just see if I can schedule a re-delivery," Darryl says.

"Is that going to be a problem?"

"Only if you need some copies on the wrong day."

"Why don't you come in tomorrow instead?"

"I have some things that need doing. Personal. I might take a day."

"You know that has to be requested in advance."

"I have the time saved up."

"It doesn't matter. You know the policy."

"And so do you."

Darryl stares at Candace with a false smile. Candace stares back, but doesn't bother trying to look pleasant. Besides, a small flap of skin is protruding from her lip.

"Well, I guess I'll call in sick," Darryl says.

"Are you sick?"

"I am feeling a little queasy."

"Well, I'll expect a doctor's note by Monday."

"Yeah. Look, was it always going to be like this?"

"Like what?"

"This. Us. Is this who we are?"

Candace hesitates, but doesn't look away from Darryl.

"It wasn't a technicality," she murmurs.

"What?"

"There's a way things should be done. What can I tell you? You should...know."

"I didn't, but now I think I do."

Darryl walks over to the door and flings it open, but doesn’t look at Candace. He’s already trying to figure out where he will sit at the next staff meeting.

“Thanks for dropping by,” he says.

"It was no trouble. Maybe--"

Candace is interrupted by a loud buzzing from the kitchen.

“Excuse me, I have to get that, but we'll talk soon,” Darryl says.

“Alright, I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“First thing.”

“Good night,” Candace says as she steps out into the hall, but Darryl’s door is already closing. As she walks down the hall toward the elevator she feels something like satisfaction welling up inside her chest. It spreads quickly to her throat as the elevator doors open and a young Chinese girl carrying a large paper bag steps out. As the doors shut, it’s already traveled up to her nose, mouth and eyes.

By the time the elevator opens on the ground floor, it’s not satisfaction running down her cheeks or making her tremble. As usual, no one is there.

Disposal

Harris Elks pulled the knife out of his wife slow. She gurgled something like why as her eyes flared and then went cold like the tail lights on a pickup truck driving away in the night. He thought about answering her, but didn't. A grunt and a jerk and the blade was clear. She slumped away from him as if she was rolling over in bed. Harris let her.

Fifteen minutes later the room was clean save for a bundled up fitted sheet with a blood stain on it. Said sheet had been considered as a body bag or at least a tote of convenience, but proved too flimsy or too transparent to be either. Harris picked at the grit under his fingernails with his freshly polished knife, unconcerned about the fitted sheet as he'd never minded sleeping on a bare mattress. Elma was outside. Waiting.

He snatched up the sheet and trudged through the house toward the back door. There was a clear line through the dust on the unswept linoleum kitchen floor where he'd dragged out Elma. He made a note to mop and cursed at the thought of having leant his bucket to Marshall Dinkins.

Outside, the trees purred at the touch of the wind, letting go last season's brown crinkled leaves in preparation for the deep breath that was winter. Elma was lying on her back with her hands and feet bound straight up in the air inside a 250 thread count polyester/cotton duvet cover set on the back porch. Harris reached in his breast pocket for a dip of Kodiak as he stood on the porch staring at the lawn. Raking just then wouldn't have been worth a damn as there were just a handful of leaves clinging stubbornly to the brambly grass. Better, he reasoned, to wait till the lawn was near covered and then go over it with the bagged mower. He still had some of those leftover brown bags the town required for compost disposal. Come full autumn, they usually dropped off more.

Harris glanced back at Elma, little more than a protruding impression on the linens. Trussed as she was, she looked like a crippled Doberman that some cruel self-described pet lover had dressed up as a spook for Halloween. It wasn't quite right to pack her away looking so absurd. Besides, Elma had bragged to every man, woman and child about that duvet cover on the very day after the Christmas when her sister had given it to her and she'd slept her first night beneath it as if God Almighty was keeping her warm. The bags were better, Harris decided. He spat on the ground and walked around the porch to the cellar doors.

The must erupted out into the night air as he lifted the doors open. He swatted at an angry spider as he passed through its web on his way down the steps. At the bottom, next to a pile of old newspapers were the compost bags. He grabbed one and made his way back out into the night.

It was busy work, untangling the quick knots he'd made in the duvet cover to drag Elma off. The blood had started to seep through, leaving a spot on the porch that would require at least a sponging, at worst a mopping. He cursed Marshall Dinkins a second time.

Harris took the knife from his belt sheath and slit Elma's bonds. He was careful not to get any blood on his coat as he damn sure couldn't take it to the cleaners and he was afraid the colors might fade if he stuck it in the wash. After he'd loosed her and taken her out, he laid her on top of the duvet cover, so as not to sully the porch and thereby increase his cleaning burdens.

He niggled with the lip of the compost bag until he got his hand in and worked it open. The bag stood a full four feet tall. Elma was roughly five foot six or so. He went back to the cellar to fetch the saw.

When he got back to the porch, Harris realized that removing Elma's head would only knock off about a foot, which wasn't enough. He stepped around her and knelt down. Gingerly, he caressed her left thigh and then notched the teeth of the saw into the meat above her knee.

Before long, Harris was wiping sweat from his forehead as Elma's hide proved a little tougher than the logs he was used to. The blood dribbled out slowly onto the duvet cover and wasn't enough to soak through. Harris estimated rough time of an hour before the whole mess was over and done, less if he'd had the damned bucket.

An artery changed all that as his face was suddenly painted crimson. He flailed with the saw, almost slicing his own hand until he found the sense to cast it aside and set about choking Elma's leg. Somewhere in his mind, a levee broke and an unbidden tide of curses came crashing out into the night air.

After he settled down, Harris shoved Elma, half-dangling leg and all, over onto the middle of the duvet cover and wrapped her up in a bundle. The blood flowed freely now, soaking through the fabric as if it were tissue paper. Elma looked like some poorly made strawberry jelly roll in the soft moon glow.

With his coat ruined, Harris didn't give a second thought to slinging her over his shoulder and dumping her in the compost bag. He was tired of being careful and would just as well have done with the whole affair, even if it did mean his wife's jutting limbs making for odd company in the town mulcher.

Elma was a poor fit. Wrapped in the duvet cover, she was twice as bulky as she would've been and when Harris tried to put her in, the bag tore and he dropped her. Stood to reason, he figured. The woman had always been a poor fit and death was no cause to become cooperative. He went back inside to wash off his face and fetch a book of matches.

When he returned, the once white duvet cover was a saturated maroon. An opossum was pawing at it halfheartedly. Harris shooed it away with a stick and some fresh curses he'd held in reserve exclusively for animals. He dragged the bundle off the porch and down into the backyard, stopping about six yards out.

From his inside jacket pocket he pulled the silver flask Elma's father had given him as a wedding present. Its inscription read: "Apples don't fall far," a reference to Elma's mother. It was three-quarters full of a fine old Kentucky sour mash. The first quarter had been sipped not long before Harris had done the deed. The remainder, he regretfully used to douse the bundle that he less and less thought of as having been his wife of twenty-some-odd years.

The accelerant thus applied, Harris set about striking matches. On the fifth one, he got a light and dropped it onto the bundle. The fire burned for a few seconds and fizzled, but a sudden gust of wind gave it new life. The alcohol did the rest, coating the reddened duvet cover in a purifying haze of blue and orange.

Harris stood uneasily over the growing blaze. He was certain he'd have a burn spot on his grass and hadn't given much thought to what he might do with the ashes. Scatter them somewhere maybe, like husbands or wives were supposed to. He had no idea where he'd cast them given the circumstances, but it didn't seem right to just let the wind have them.

He stepped forward and nudged Elma with his foot until she rolled over. As he did so, she started to come loose from the duvet cover. He didn't stop her. The linen blazed on in the night, but she was free of it now and mostly unburned at that. Her wounds, it seemed, had either cauterized or bled out because there was nothing oozing from her body save a small bit of pus near her chin.

She stared sightlessly at Harris, accusing him of nothing, asking him for nothing. Still, he knew that God or the Devil wanted it one way and one way only and she wouldn't be gone until he did it so. And so he left her side and went back around to the cellar to get a shovel and bury her proper.

***

The sun crawled into the sky at around six-thirty, looking dull and disinterested in most everything it shined on. Harris Elks sat in his recliner dozing from the long night's work he'd concluded not one hour prior. Elma Elks lay in a mound out in the backyard, cut, cold and burned by a man she'd never loved and who'd never loved her. In the top drawer of her dresser was a Last Will and Testament she'd drawn up with her lawyer that had Harris' name on it and the words "Not one red cent" typed next to it. As to the event in their often contentious marriage that had led to Harris' decision to use his hunting knife for something other than flaying trout, it revolved around the discovery of the piece of parchment that lay folded beneath her will. It read:

Dear Elma,

I cannot believe that you continue on with that wretch of a man when I can give you so much more. He's worthless garbage and you would be best served if you just got rid of him and came away with me like we’ve talked about so many times. It's not that hard to get rid of a person, my darling.

With Love,

Marshall

As he'd fallen asleep, plotting how he would retrieve his bucket, Harris thought to himself that it was a hell of a lot harder than Marshall Dinkins supposed.

THE END
(C) Diami Virgilio, 2006

ATHEIST AFTERNOONS 2

For Ernie and Scott...

1 Page/12 Panels

Panel 1: Nick and Jake, two refined, yet ruffled sort of fellows sit at a bar, despairing of their existence and obviously wanting little to do with anyone. Nick is more well-kept, obviously of better means, but he looks as though he’s been through an ordeal. Jake is loose at the collar, with almost a Bogie look about him, but handsomer and less wrinkles. He’s got the look of a journalist, but a sophisticated staff journo, not your average hack who trolls the streets with the word PRESS stamped on his fedora. They’re both silently brooding beside each other with one unoccupied bar stool to separate them. Smoke wafts from Jake’s cigarette.

1 JAKE: So what did yours do?

Panel 2: Close on Nick, obviously interrupted from some silent reverie and more than a little surprised.

2 NICK: I’m sorry?

3 JAKE (off panel): Yours. The one that’s got you turning over glasses.

Panel 3: Jake takes a long, knowing drag on his cigarette as Nick remains poised, staring at his glass. His body language tells us he’s cautious to maintain a fa├žade, but his face is on the verge of a sigh, more than willing to unload it all.

4 NICK: I’m not certain I know what you’re talking about.

5 JAKE: Come on, I know a mirror when I see one. Who safer to confide in than the guy buying your drink?

Panel 4: Nick relaxes, but is a little confused. Jake signals for the bartender.

6 NICK: Buying?

7 JAKE: Sure. Bartender! Whatever he’s having and a double for me.

Panel 5: The bartender is pouring from a bottle of scotch into Nick’s glass as Jake nudges his empty glass away from him.

8 JAKE: So, what did she do?

9 NICK: Thank you. No, actually it was a he and he died.

Panel 6: Jake stares into his glass as Nick takes a drink.

10 JAKE: Sorry to hear it.

11 NICK: No trouble.

Panel 7: Jake uneasily shifts in his seat, slouching somewhat, as Nick pulls out a cigarette case and removes a smoke.

12 JAKE: Mine was a “she.” A “she” I followed all over the goddamn place before I realized I was wasting my time.

13 NICK: Mm. Did you love her?

14 JAKE: Of course.

Panel 8: Jake takes a drink as Nick lights his cigarette.

No words.

Panel 9: Close on Nick, exhaling and speaking introspectively.

15 NICK: Mine was pure gold, but not the kind you want to wrap around your neck or cluster into nuggets and lock away in a safe.

16 NICK: No, he was everything to everyone but the one he wanted. He was the best of times and he’s gone.

Panel 10: Jake looks at Nick as though he genuinely empathizes. His mouth is open as he struggles to form the words. Nick takes a drink.

17 JAKE: …so’s she.

18 NICK: Regrets.

19 JAKE: Yeah.

Panel 11: Nick stands up to leave as Jake turns to face him, dragging on his cigarette.

20 NICK: Well, I think I’ve had enough. I’m Nick, by the way. Nice talking with you…

21 JAKE: Jake. Tell me this Nick: Guys like us, why do we always end up in places like this with
the pieces in our hands?

Panel 12: Nick walks away as Jake sits slouching over the bar, dragging on his cigarette.

22 NICK: It’s how we’re made, I suppose.

(c) Diami Virgilio 2006

Who I am not

I am not a disciplined blogger...