It's a beggars life, said the queen of Spain
But don't tell it to a poor man
'Cause he's got to kill for every thrill
The best he can
Everywhere around me
I see jealousy and mayhem
Because no men have all their peace of mind
To carry them
Well I don't really care
If it's wrong or if it's right
But until my ship comes in
I'll live night by night
WHEN he was of age, he moved out of his mother’s house.
After two years upstate, one of aimless travel, eleven in the city, and three months of shelter in place confined to a two-bedroom apartment on a street below sea level, which dead-ended in a chain link fence abutting a freestanding brick facade crumbling under an accumulation of kudzu, he moved back in with her.
For some time, he’d lacked access to broadcast television, and the near-celebratory tone advertising had taken toward cancer in the interim alarmed him.
The pharmaceutical jargon. The tumbling side effects. The vocal fried narrators, who resurfaced every seven or so minutes to ask, ―Are you going to let cancer keep you from partying at Six Flags this election?
And answered before he had time to shake his head, ―No way! Because you don’t settle for less.
He could remember when illness had been regarded with reverence. When someone got diagnosed, the subject was broached tentatively. Culture affected commiseration.
At some point, however, society had pivoted from cure to treatment. Cutting people open and pumping them full of narcotics and radiation until they were just undead enough to get sick from something else had proven more lucrative.
With so many forced to reckon with malignancy, without means to distinguish between correlation, causation, and arbitrariness, not to mention the sensation of a new plague, far less pestilent but more contagious, cancer had ceased to hold the public’s gaze.
The media abandoned dread. Tumors were touted as character-building, rites of passage.
Cure was a word that didn’t refer to material reality. The zeitgeist was a ghost. It said, ―Get used to it.
And set its sights on further secreting the killer into a cache of ambivalence. The brutality normalized, like brutalities before it.
He watched toddlers shaved bald roller-skating over zydeco music. Cyst-ridden testicle drawings wading through concentric circles of ambiguous fluid.
He heard, ―The best hospitals for the best humans.
―Thirty percent off when you bundle your hysterectomy and double mastectomy in the next thirty minutes.
―Tell your story.
―Your distress is special.
―It’s what makes you you.
But cancer stories weren’t unique. He knew people got cancer from corporations, which paid politicians to not pass legislation to restrict their ignoble environmental practices, waste management policies, poisonous food and drug production, or provide their employees health insurance.
There was too much to fix. Modern convenience depended on the ubiquity of abnormal cell replication. No one knew how to initiate the conversation, let alone go about redressing the hazardous chemical exposures associated with paper and pulp manufacturing, for instance.
If they wanted Feather Soft Three-Ply more than not getting cancer, was that not their right?
Despite predictions, supply chains stayed intact. The more taxpayers moved their bowels at home, the more direct-to-consumer distribution expanded. Justice was relative. Wiping was universal, a part of life, and life almost as inevitable as its terminus. Why bother putting Axis Paper LLC in the crosshairs for simply accelerating it?
From the couch in the living room at the turn of the cul-de-sac in the middle of the island abutting the epicenter of infection, he could twist and contort himself, squinting into the mess of commercials.
Under the blankets draped over the recliner in the corner, dextrose and morphine bags dripping from their respective IV poles, he could accept his mother’s fate.
He could refresh the Department of Labor mobile app and his email, both of which he did frequently.
We Miss You, a subject line materialized. His heart rate increased. The bold flash of from: Yesternights inscribed a shadowy glow across his closed eyelids.
He opened them.
We’ve got permits in the works for future indoor events, the email proclaimed.
Yesternights was his former employer.
He adjusted the volume on the television. His mother leaked. A wet incessant excretion. The health aide was in quarantine. She wouldn’t be back until he couldn’t remember when.
He contorted himself into a standing position.
He was planning to say, ―Mom, in an inquisitive way. To turn her rice-like body, ask if he might do something for her.
She smelled incorrect. Stale and vapory. Half not-woman. How had that panting scant anatomy ever known how to preserve him?
He decided the most he could do for her was nothing, for the moment. He could do nothing for her as a rule. In fact, they’d been told to do nothing indefinitely.
He lay on the couch. It was as he remembered it. Material reality was a dream.
He looked at his phone. His email refreshed.
The subject line read, Your TosFech Outdoors Echo AR-II Drop-In Binary AR Ten Trigger has shipped!
Then it sounded like the world was ending. A roar of white noise. Panasonic. It was coming from the television.
―Show your bones how much you love them, it insisted. ―May cause liver failure, kidney failure, suicidal thoughts, and chimeras.
HE’D never been to a virtual funeral before.
It was the same as other funerals. People glassy, cockeyed with oblivion, separated by inscrutable barriers, gaping through filters, veils, resolute.
They suppressed their grief like coughs at supermarkets. In the corner, a number indicated how many had taken the trouble to log in. 73 gave way to 71, then jumped to 79.
Nearly everyone’s microphones were set to mute.
He clicked on a square surrounding the upper half of a person he recognized well and zoomed in. This person had kneeled on concrete basement floors, adjusting frequencies, pedals, like him. A musician. Until, unlike him, they’d started getting invited to Europe to DJ and tour, attracting crowds at the most respected DIY clubs on both coasts, leveraged their success to purchase a foreclosed warehouse with an acre of outdoor space in Woodhaven, and been generous enough to offer him a job. A person who’d introduced himself as Sascha a few years prior, and who’d chew you out in an Instagram Story thread if you still referred to them as him.
He watched Sascha chew their lip. He inferred the faint, implicit movements off camera. The swoop of a wrist. Probably checking their Bandcamp sales, Patreon supporters, Substack subscriptions. Or otherwise drafting a post about how someone they knew was dead.
He browsed through the rest. Kids with spiderwebs on their necks. Overgrown mullets. A woman vying to look like a teenager in a tartan plaid robe, untied at the opening so he could see most of one of her breasts. Painstakingly applied makeup. Flushed cheeks. The appearance of having emotions.
The one unmuted person remarked on the deceased: a young unlicensed tattoo artist, who’d migrated from Portland to Poughkeepsie to a part of Brooklyn people under twenty-five contended was Queens. His ex-roommate, Mica.
―Mica was, like… They were like…
He scrolled through nodding faces. Fake punks picking acne. Noise bros smoking imported Chinese cigarettes.
―Mica was everything.
―Wrong, he rebutted loudly, unwittingly, automatically in the voice of the president.
His mother stirred in the recliner. A hardcover book, spine broken from months of being reopened to the same page, slid off her lap.
Then several people had unmuted their microphones and were singing in a lagged attempt at unison. It sounded like “Auld Lang Syne.” It was September.
―Mark, his mother drooled.
He’d lowered the volume on his noise-canceling headphones to temper the chorus, but she couldn’t know that. He didn’t answer. He held his phone limply without realizing it.
He shrugged the headphones around his neck, massaged his brow, trying to look patient.
―Can you get me some water?
―Yeah, he said, and shrugged the headphones the rest of the way off so they fell on the keyboard and caused him to exit the teleconferencing app.
He ran the sink for twenty seconds, let the stream swarm his knuckles until it was cold. He filled two glasses, got two beers from the fridge, and delivered them to the living room.
The television blinked images of an animated letter O, which stood for Oxaineon, which was a supplemental medication for people suffering from fused vertebral tissue due to immunopulse laser extraction.
―Nausea, blindness, intuition, a foreboding scruple like you’ve been here before, gum erosion, tooth decay, angst.
―Thank you, his mother sniffled.
―Oxaineon, the television hissed. ―Your perspective just got a little more… Comprehensive?
It took a minute before he was approved to reenter the virtual funeral. Someone he didn’t recognize was brandishing a scrapbook, pointing to different things Mica had symbolized to their youngest cousins.
―Mica hated their family, he said.
He noticed some shifting among the attendees. His microphone was not set to mute. He clicked the icon until it showed a red line through it and sank into the couch cushion.
―What, his mother breathed.
She dropped into a long, wet coughing fit. When she’d finished, she propped herself up.
―What’s wrong with the TV?
He pulled back an earpiece.
―Nothing, he said.
―Why’s the volume so low?
―You were sleeping.
―What are you looking at?
―I’m in a Zoom meeting.
―For work, his mother asked.
―Are you going back to work?
―I don’t know, he said.
He rearranged his headphones. People were applauding in front of white walls, bad paintings, dusty bookshelves. Coffee mugs and weeping teabags. Scuffed window panes. Fire escapes. Pets arching their backs and remaining that way, mid-stretch.
His phone vibrated.
He didn’t recognize the number that had texted, What are you even doing here?
He didn’t respond.
It continued, Mica would not want you at their funeral
Mica didn’t want, he typed, then deleted.
His phone vibrated.
Did you even read their note?
He felt hot and ashamed. He hadn’t heard from Mica since he’d moved out in June. Stuff hadn’t been working. They’d told him to leave. They said they could afford the rent on their own.
He couldn’t afford half anyway. According to the funeral, after he’d gone, Mica had gotten a cat. He didn’t want to know about it. He hadn’t known there’d been a note. He could only imagine its contents, and he could imagine them only so-so.
The number of viewers showed 53 for an instant, and flickered to 47. He clicked through each, trying to figure who was behind the texter’s 929 area code.
You’re an abuser and a creep. I would’ve alerted the police myself if I weren’t such an abolitionist. Maybe nobody else has the nerve to call you out. Everyone’s just being nice but ppl in the chat felt a lot safer when you signed off earlier. Mica wouldn’t have wanted you here. You didn’t care what happened to them. You let it happen. Please just go away forever. I can’t take it
He scanned their faces, searching for one glaring into her lap, raw with scorn, malice, sanctimonious, overflowing bewilderment.
The texter had to be a woman, he thought. Or at least have been born with a vagina.
Everyone is a hypocrite, he typed and deleted.
The funeral was wrapping up. He didn’t even know how Mica had done it. He could think of no one to ask.
Leave, the number messaged, so he did.
Even before the plague, he’d fallen out with everyone. When men aged beyond thirty, it became harder to keep and make friends. Especially perpetually single men, slowly ostracized from the reprobate scene they’d come up in, until they stopped accumulating plays, followers, unique hits, being booked for shows, nodded to, thought of, or recognized. Until they were socially, economically, and functionally obsolete. Ones who moved back to the suburbs to live with their mothers, especially.
Besides, anyone he might’ve stayed close with had fled the city, too, as soon as it became clear the only activities deemed safe for the foreseeable future would be online shopping and working from home.
How many diehard creative-type lifers had suddenly grown disillusioned with the metropolis they’d theretofore worshipped?
He scrolled through his contacts.
He texted Andrew, Do you know how they did it?
huh?, his acquaintance responded.
Then texted a picture of the dog his girlfriend had purchased in crisis, slumped craven in a sprawling yard with orange mountains and a bevy of swollen, pre-foliage verdure.
Followed by, dude, i mean, i don’t even know. anna is pretty incredible. she combed thru every real estate listing, left messages with local brokers, filtered thru craigslist bots until we found the perfect place
Maybe it was just getting older. People paired off, sought greener pastures, got rich or forgot you or both.
He refreshed the Department of Labor mobile app.
He had No New Messages. His benefits status was Pending.
He refreshed his email. A new subject line appeared.
Important, it read.
His mother coughed.
His phone vibrated.
Another picture of the dog. A slow, ovine lump, jaw hanging in the deceptive shape of a smile, which dogs performed by rote.
you’ve got to come visit, Andrew had texted. all this is ours starting next week
His mother’s cough was wet.
He navigated to Sascha’s Bandcamp and double-clicked an ambient track. He exited the tab and navigated to a messageboard about 3D-printed accessories, legal workarounds, hand loads, and magazines.
He skimmed the Important email.
Obviously many folx are in unertain housing situations right now, but as long as you lived in New York before April 1, even if you’re not currently here, you qualify as a New Yorker, and we’re ready to get you on payroll.
He padded for the remote, adjusted the volume.
―Carceltonil, the television laughed. ―Carceltonil good times, come on!
AND then, after months of strict mandates to do nothing, they expected him to go back to normal, as though the life he’d been living had ever felt that way, and nothing about the nature of living forever changed.
The subject line of the email read, Yesternights Is This Weekend!
He spent the afternoon trying to get through to a representative at the Department of Labor.
The phone lines had been jammed for months. On Twitter, he’d scoured angry, desperate replies, tirades, and appeals to the municipal office.
Finally he’d discovered a list, posted by a former civil servant, of four-digit extensions, which were supposed to allow a caller to bypass the automated system, which after five minutes of prompts never failed to inform him all the operators were busy, to try again later, and click dead, but instead led to a series of protracted ringing and unpromising voicemail greetings.
Once in the rhythm, he could dial up to two hundred times a day without making a connection. A couple times a week, he was placed on hold, the call dropped, or otherwise notified that his status remained pending, and, if he could only be patient, whoever was at the other end of the earpiece would vow all decisions on unemployment claims would be made in the order the agency had received them.
That day, however, on his third or fourth cycle through the extensions, a benefits specialist named Sierra, or Ciara, or Cheyenne picked up. She asked for his social security number and forthwith explained that his case had been closed by the state, as they’d received notice that he was scheduled to return to work later that week.
―What, he said.
―This is Mark, she inquired from the speakerphone on the armrest.
She said his last name.
―Yeah, he said. ―But I haven’t worked since March. It’s been almost seven months, and I’ve been trying to get some kind of something. Anything. This is the most I’ve even gotten someone to talk to me.
―It says here, she trailed off.
―What, he said.
―Sorry, the benefits specialist gasped.
Her voice transmitted quiet and static, as though she’d travelled some distance from the phone. As if she was walking away.
―Sorry, she said again, clearer. ―I dropped my sandwich.
―I’ve done everything you instructed. I made an account. I downloaded the app. I’ve been certifying every week.
―Seven months, he interrupted. ―I haven’t worked in seven months.
―I heard you, sir.
―For seven months my status has been pending, and I’ve been patient and patient and now you’re telling me…
―There’s nothing I can do on my end, sir. The Department of Labor made a decision on your request.
―But you’re the Department of Labor, he said.
―I’m a benefits specialist.
―I haven’t worked.
―It says here, she trailed off again.
He thought she’d hung up.
―You’re starting this Friday with an establishment in Woodhaven called Yesternights.
―No, he said.
―You don’t understand. That’s my former employer. I used to work there. They reached out to ask if I was ready to come back, but I haven’t made a decision. I live with an at-risk individual. A senior. With cancer. And I’m not sure I’m ready to go back to work at a nightclub.
―So you’ve refused work?
―No, he said.
―It says here a payment has been submitted from an open W-9 based on your intention to return this week.
―What about my seven months of back pay?
―It says here the Department of Labor reviewed your claim.
―They closed your case.
―This is insane, he said.
―What else can I do? I want to refute their decision. I want compensation for seven months of unemployment. Everyone I know has been getting five hundred dollars a week, plus all those extra six hundreds from the federal government. I want to reopen my claim.
―If you’re dissatisfied with the Department of Labor’s evaluation of your case, I can transfer you to someone who can assist you in disputing that…
―No, no, no, no, he yelled, trying not to raise his voice. ―It took me months of calls to talk to you. You have no idea how long I’ve been trying to deal with this. I’ve been counting on that money. They told me if I kept certifying I’d be okay, that it would show up eventually. I’ve been counting on that, and now I’m broke, and if you transfer my call I know it’s going to be dropped.
―Sir, I can promise you we take all of this very seriously. This has been an unprecedented situation for all of us, and if you would only be patient…
He heard a banshee sound emanate from the base of his brain stem until it erupted, subdued, from his contracting throat.
―I’m sorry, he said. ―I’m confused. I haven’t worked since March and I didn’t approve that job offer. It’s a conflict of interest. I can’t be working at a dance club and then going home to my immunocompromised mother every night during the middle of a pandemic.
―I don’t know what to tell you, sir. If you’d like, I can transfer you to someone who can assist you in disputing the Department of Labor’s decision.
―But you’re the Department of Labor.
―I’m a benefits specialist, and according to your information, you have not been approved to receive unemployment.
The phone was slippery. He attempted to sigh.
―Okay, he suppressed a cough. ―Can you promise me, though, that you’ll stay on the line, and if the number doesn’t connect, you won’t just let the call drop? I really need to get this sorted out. I never said I was going back to work. I’m…
―You cannot claim unemployment and refuse a job offer. You’re supposed to be actively seeking work. It’s good thing. Do you know how many people would be grateful to be in your position? We consider your status a success.
―Okay, I just… Don’t even want to go there. Can you transfer me to someone to dispute this decision now? Will you promise not to drop my call?
―I’ll do my best, sir. Hold on…
The line went silent. He waited a few minutes, then hung up.
HE forgot to bring a mask to orientation training.
A short time before, he’d known everything one could want to about working at a music venue. For more than a decade he’d tended bars, installed PA systems, mixed sound, repaired lighting fixtures, managed tours, and refilled fog machines with toxic fluid.
The way things were, he no longer felt certain. He’d gotten so wrapped up in never leaving his mother’s house, in learning how to change IV bags, ordering groceries online, and relying on complimentary Axis Paper brand toilet paper deliveries, remembering a mask was just one of the things in which he’d require retraining.
The preceding days’ franticness hadn’t helped. He’d had to search for a replacement health aide, because the previous one was still sick. He’d stockpiled groceries and prepared meals to leave in the fridge. He’d updated his mother’s car’s registration and inspection sticker and maxed out his credit card getting its catalytic converter fixed.
He drove in circles, looking for an opening. Traffic on the expressway had been gridlock, and it appeared as though there were twice as many cars as usual parked along the wasteland of industrial Queens. He settled for a dubious spot adjacent a fire hydrant and counted the steps from his fender to the rusting iron appliance, measuring heel-to-toe with his shoes.
Eleven, he counted, and tried again, hoping to cram his paces in a less liberal fashion. A laminated tag zip-tied to the hydrant read, Out of Service. He considered getting back in the Kia, passing another loop around the neighborhood, but he was already late.
That’s when he realized he’d forgotten his mask.
He took out his phone. He didn’t know what to do.
He jogged to the warehouse with the unlit neon sign affixed to a heavy steel door with no windows. Yesternights spelled out in bent cursive.
There were a few other people, all younger-looking, dressed in low-rise cargo pants, Matrix-style sunglasses, fake sports jerseys, tube tops, navel rings, colorfully dyed pigtails, eyebrow piercings, checkered slip-on sneakers, high platformed patent leather boots, fishnet tights, tearaway hiking pants, mesh skorts, and the gamut of stick-n-poke insect tattoos.
They all wore black fabric masks and stared into their phones.
He scanned for Sascha, but his heart was beating fast, and he felt like bashing his face against the door until his nose and cheekbones shattered, then going home to his mother.
Sascha had purchased the warehouse five summers earlier.
That same summer, they’d seen him play in a mutual friend’s basement. His set had culminated in a theatrical faux-assault of his ex-girlfriend, who’d claimed to be a masochist, then retroactively accused him of falsely projecting that onto her, and insisted she was scared of him, would be scared and traumatized for the rest of her life, and moved to New Mexico or the Pacific Northwest.
Sascha had called the performance, ―Epic.
A year later, they’d hired him to work the door for the club’s opening night.
It was a good job when a good act was booked. He sometimes made an appearance when he wasn’t scheduled to. Eventually he even got to hang as a DJ assistant behind the booth.
But Sascha was fickle. After the Instagram Story thread Mica had posted, they stopped hitting him up. When nonessential businesses were shut down by the governor, he couldn’t get Sascha to answer his email, text messages, or calls.
He knew the venue had been open at half-capacity for outdoor gatherings since June, but that had coincided with getting all his stuff out of the apartment, and in any case, he wasn’t invited to join the limited staff. He just continued receiving emails from the listserv, skimming and deleting them, until four days before, when Sascha had announced the club’s indoor reopening under some assumption he’d show up for training and work full shifts that coming Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
The other recruits scrutinized his bare face. They looked back to their phones. He pulled his t-shirt over his nose.
―Does anyone know where Sascha is?
His voice sounded small and damp.
A hand fell on his shoulder. He stiffened. Shrunk away from the grip and turned quickly. He hadn’t interacted with anyone face-to-face but his mother, and sometimes the health aide, in months.
It was October. Time was proving harder to understand. Dreams kept revealing themselves as the present.
His shirt fell off his face.
―Bro, Sascha said. ―Where’s your mask?
―I’m sorry, he said.
He was shaking.
―I forgot it. It’s been a rough couple days.
―Days, Sascha asked and laughed.
Then quieted. He tried to read his employer’s expression. Their eyes were white and black.
―I’m sorry, he muttered. ―I’m not used to being touched.
―Don’t be, Sascha said.
They unfolded a blue paper mask from their back pocket and extended it to him.
―I should be the one who’s sorry, they said. ―With all you’ve been going through. So weird about Mica, man.
He took the mask. His fingertips brushed against those of the outstretched hand, and dropped it on the sidewalk. He picked it up and put it on. He felt a dizzy rush of saltwater across his palate and thought maybe he would pass out.
He breathed. The inside of the mask filled with particles. Where had Sascha’s pocket been?
―You look good, they said.
―But don’t let it happen again. Those masks are for paying customers, not staff. I recommend getting a reusable one. I can’t afford to be comping you every time you come in.
They slapped him on the back.
―I’m just teasing.
―Yeah, he said. ―I know. Thanks. I’m sorry. I’m a little uncomfortable. It’s been a while since I’ve… And my mom, you know, she’s been sick, so I’m feeling, like, I don’t know. A little on-edge.
―Dang bro. Your mom caught the ’vid?
―No. No. She’s had…
Sascha took out their phone.
―She got diagnosed with cancer last year.
―Oh! Is that all? You know that’s totally cool. My dad had cancer a few years back. Now he’s healthier than ever. His friend is a leading oncologist. Hooked him up with some new immunotherapy program. He lost all his flab and gained muscle. It was awesome. The breakthroughs in medicine are incredible. When we were kids remember how scary life seemed? Now everything’s treatable. For the right price, I mean, we’re bound to get it at some point too.
―Shit, bro. We’re not kids anymore. I get screened twice a year. I’m, like, ready. How’s your mom doing?
―Not so good, he said.
―I’m sorry to hear that. I’m sure she’ll be fine. She has good insurance?
―Her job forced her to retire.
―Oh hell yeah. Medicare is best anyway. Where’d she work? Does she have a pension?
He shook his head.
―There was a union, but they decertified. She worked the line at a factory.
―Paper and pulp.
―Hey, very cool, Sascha said. ―Now we just gotta get Medicare for all. This election is so important. Have I told you about the get out the vote gala slash fundraiser we’re hosting?
He forced a smile behind his mask. Seconds later, he wondered if his boss had been able to tell. They were moving, though, beckoning, herding him along with the rest of the crew.
―I’ve got a lot to show you folx. Some of you already know the drill, but there’s plenty adjustments we’ve had to adopt to keep the city off our case. If we’re gonna have a successful indoor party tomorrow, I need everyone to stay vigilant. Both sides. I’m on pretty good terms with the local precinct, but I can’t abide us getting busted by some higher-ups for corner cutting. You’re here to work, right? A lot of folx don’t have that luxury at the moment. Like, I know it’s a tough economy. Personally, I’ve been surviving off fumes.
They pulled a small plastic bottle with the word RUSH on it out of their pocket and passed it around.
―You should be so lucky.
They swayed and snorted.
―Now let’s get down to business.
HE took apart the rifle and put it back together.
His fingers twitched across the new twin triggers. He applied pressure, and they gave, accidentally dry firing. He did it again.
The bolt stuck. He released the magazine. Reseated it. Pulled the bolt. It seemed like it was going to stick. Instead, it emitted a click and slid smoothly in place. A satisfying weight. He bounced it in his arms, testing gravity, like an infant.
He made sure the safety was on and wrapped the piece in two sweatshirts in a duffel bag and drove half an hour northeast to the bay.
The sun had almost set. He loaded twenty-five rounds, screwed on the .308 Kwhyit Suppressor, which had arrived in the mail the previous morning. He put on his headphones and navigated to a mix he’d been meaning to listen to on the Resident Advisor app.
He was still getting used to the AR-10’s recoil.
He rolled his shoulder. The water was greasy. It reflected red light. He wondered if the bullets sizzled upon submersion. He reminded himself to check for ticks before bed.
He dug through the duffel bag, searching for the Glock he’d bought off a kid in Florida three summers prior. The most natural thing to do. Everyone had said they were going to strap up after the president was elected, but he was the only person who actually had who he knew.
Firearms weren’t even that expensive. He could sell them whenever. Customize anything or do nothing with them. More or less the same experience as the record collection he’d obsessively maintained, then sold most of on eBay to pay for groceries those first three months of shelter in place.
Mica hadn’t liked him to keep guns in the apartment. He didn’t see how it was significantly worse than their trashcan full of spent needles. In fact, when a rifle was in pieces, it was a lot less dangerous than a plugged-in tattoo kit.
He blindly fumbled over a loose piece of paper, remembered the ticket for parking too close to the hydrant, and became inconsolable, ready to rend himself and the world into nothing, until his grasp closed on cold metal.
He dropped the magazine, loaded fifteen rounds, and racked a slide. He fired once. It was too loud. The only legal discharging this time of year would be from crossbows.
He released the magazine, dumped the casings in the duffel, and made an effort to enjoy a room-temperature beer.
ON the way to his mother’s, a number he didn’t recognize called twice. It had a 929 area code.
He turned the volume on the Kia’s stereo up and parked in the driveway and drank most of another beer until the mix got old.
The voicemail said, ―Hello? Hello?
It made a noise like the person at the other end of the line was typing, then continued.
―You are Mark? Yes? You have paid no rent the past two months or this one, and it is past the twentieth. Your name is still on the lease. Additionally, we have your cat and no desire to care for it. When are you planning? It is very late and so according to the lease we will have to charge forty dollars additionally for each month late. Additionally, you need to evacuate your things and empty the premises immediately. I understand what has happened. I was very sorry to hear it, and we don’t want any trouble. I talked to police. Call me back as soon as you get this.
He called the storage facility where he’d sometimes dropped stuff off for work, surplus Yesternights t-shirts, posters, press releases, and where he’d rented a five-by-five-foot unit after moving to deposit what was left of his record collection, audio equipment, and various accessories for weapons he’d already sold and no longer needed.
It took the person who answered a while to pay attention to him. He kept repeating the identification number saved in his phone’s Notes app.
Finally, they told him the unit had been locked out and his possessions were being held due to lack of payment.
―Can I pay now, he asked.
―Big fines, the voice whined.
―You need to come in. We found possessions that violate our policy in your unit.
―It was just records and clothes and old blankets.
―That was not it.
The Kia shuddered.
―I need to come by and put more stuff in storage, he said.
―You’re under policy violation. We’ll get rid of your things, but you owe four months payment, and there are items in your unit that are in violation of what we accommodate.
―I’ll give my credit card info right now.
―You need to come in, the voice said.
He hung up and googled the 929 number.
There were no results.
His phone vibrated.
He thumbed at an icon shaped like a moon.
DO NOT DISTURB, the screen read.
Before he went inside, he put on his mask.
―Hi, he yelled, moving intentionally, doing his best to stifle the sound of the duffel bag’s contents.
―Can you get me some water?
―Just a minute.
He lunged through the kitchen, past the living room, kicked the hardcover book with the broken spine across wall-to-wall carpet, and slid the bag off his shoulder and under the futton. He washed his hands and held a glass under the tap. His skin chapped.
―Did you check the mail, his mother panted.
―Why didn’t the aide?
―She didn’t show up, Mark. Where were you?
―I was at work.
―You weren’t supposed to today, she said.
He adjusted his mask. The smell of his breath was confusing. Salt, chocolate, blood, burned hair.
―I got confused, he said.
―What day is it?
He looked at his phone.
―Wednesday. Sorry. It’s been weird going out. I’m getting confused. Stuff made more sense when we stayed in together.
―I’m hungry, she moaned.
―I’m going to check the mail.
Dim speech ricocheted against the synthetic fibers of his mask.
―Synthetic fibers lower testosterone and may be carcinogenic, the television said.
He pulled the mask off and looked into the sink, hoping any ejected particles would escape down the drain.
―The mail, he said. ―One second.
There was a bundle of coupon newspapers tied with a broken rubber band. A Geico bill marked Past Due, a letter from Nassau University Medical Center, and a padded envelope from Axis Paper LLC.
We have reviewed your claim, it read, and forwarded it to our partners at Finkelstein, Goldblatt, and Sons. Unfortunately, given your official retirement date was November 23, as of this correspondence, nearly four quarters past, we cannot compensate you for any outstanding healthcare expenditures.
Likewise, we cannot apply them to your company insurance plan, because your enrollment was, after six months, appended by an auxiliary three months of Pandemic Affliction Promotion, accordingly dropped.
As you may be aware, Axis Paper LLC currently employs more than 30,000 Americans at more than 181 locations across the United States. We review myriad claims and requests each day with aims to provide our valued staff with the finest empathy, care, and attentiveness.
Axis Paper is a family. Safety is our number one priority. Given recent developments, we find ourselves more pressed than ever to provide support, caution, and compassion to our brothers and sisters and gender-nonconforming folx on the front lines.
For more than thirty years, your tireless service was appreciated. Nevertheless, we and our partners at FG&S have been unable to bear legal responsibility regarding your untimely diagnosis. We carefully monitor all chemicals and procedures associated with the manufacture of our Superior Quality Pulp and Paper. We have determined no correlation between those and the data you unsolicitedly provided.
In these trying and uncertain times, everyone at Axis Paper would like to extend our warmest pity for your hardship. We wish you the briefest recovery, and from what we’ve been hearing, cancer isn’t even all that big a deal at the moment.
You can expect to continue to receive the Commissary Grade Sanitary Tissue you’ve come to depend on, as our courtesy to all employees past, future, and furloughed free of charge. Furthermore, we have taken the liberty to include a lifetime discount of 6% on all purchases of ancillary Axis Paper products, from our Heavy Duty Cardstock Printer Stationary to our Feather Soft Facial Filigrees. From the heart.
And don’t hesitate to take advantage of the insert and apply now online for your instant cash rebate when you buy a new printer from our partner SisterWare Inkjets in the weeks leading up to All Hallows’ Eve.
With holiday cheer and condolences.
The Axis Paper Family
Owner, Chairman, CEO
Axis Paper LLC
A Subsidiary of Pearle Industries
A flyer in the shape of pumpkin wafted onto the driveway. He kicked it until it fell off the curb and restored the letter to its envelope, which he folded four times and shoved to the bottom of the across-the-street neighbor’s recycling bin.
He jogged back to the house, sneezed, flipped his mask inside out, put it on, opened the freezer, and proceeded to microwave a packet of food.
When he returned to the living room, he found his mother sleeping impatiently in the recliner in the corner, washed in blue light.
A commercial was showing a topless woman’s back, covered in thick, uneven radiation burn scars.
―Never forget where you came from, it murmured. ―Never forget where you’re going. Never forget where you’ve been.
MUSIC had been a dream.
How good it had felt to pin feeling good on something that would go on existing, knowing exactly where it was at any given moment, with or without him.
But he got used to it.
Fade To Night, posters lining the warehouse read.
He glided past the queue of pods. Groups of two-to-six kids fidgeted, readjusting their masks and the rise of their jeans, posing for selfies, flicking half-inch plastic baggies, all hemmed within hand-spraypainted ovals spaced six feet apart and wrapping around the intersection.
His breath tickled his lip. His face itched.
He walked around to the back, clipped a pulse oximeter to his index finger. Waited for the LCD display to climb from 89 to 95 to 98. He couldn’t feel the laser point sighted on his forehead.
―Ninety-seven-point-seven, a person he thought he should’ve recognized, and might have if not for the gas mask and ski goggles, said. ―Nice. Have a good shift.
He slid a glowing blue phosphorescent bracelet over his wrist, applied hand sanitizer, which smelled like tequila, up his forearms, and pushed open the heavy steel door with his hip.
Bass thrummed. It pulsed through him.
―Are you familiar with our safer space policy, another person, clad in neon latex bondagewear, buttocks dimly twinkling with perspiration, asked a group of Australian tourists.
―Is that, like, a drink limit?
The latex person rolled their eyes and tapped elbows with him.
―In an effort to affect an inclusive environment where people feel even safer than they do in their everyday lives, Yesternights maintains a zero tolerance protocol when it comes to non-consensual touching, intimidating gestures, racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, or other discriminating language, jokes or threats about plague transmission, gratuitous come-ons, catcalling, leering, use of phones, cameras, or other mobile devices on the dance floors, and no violence.
He never failed to catch the double-negative.
―If someone says or does anything to make you feel uncomfortable while you’re fading to night, please let the staff know, and they’ll address it as soon as they can. Staff members should be easily recognizable from the blue wristbands they’re wearing. Like Mark here.
He tightened his face into perfunctory acknowledgement, raised his hand, and moved into the fog machine mist.
―But we’re all wearing glowsticks, he heard a tourist lament.
Another sign showed a drawing of a hypodermic needle in a red halo with a red bolt cutting through it. It warned, Anyone seen in possession, using, or aiding in the distribution of DIY vaccines will be swiftly escorted out, and henceforth barred for life from all future events.
Something elbowed him in the ribs.
―You have great vibes, a voice ejaculated.
The DJ was playing fast breakbeats. Too early, he thought. A plexiglass panel partitioned her from the meager crowd.
―Sup, Sascha came up behind him.
Flecks of saliva twisted into his ear canal.
―Hey, he said.
―I need you to work the floors for a bit. Just, like, hang around. Make sure people are staying separated. You know. Whatever, right?
Sascha fondled his closed fist. He nudged the fingers away, but they kept prying until he relented.
In his palm lay a tangled deposit of mushroom twigs. He looked over his shoulder. His boss winked.
Sascha stuck their ring finger in a baggie. They licked it, sighed, pivoted on a heel, and disappeared behind an unmarked door. He heard a lock click.
The air surrounding the DJ booth was purple.
She’d transitioned to drum and bass. Extremely dumb drum and bass, then extremely harsh trance, then into a four-by-four beat. Nodding under the thud until his back ached and legs grew weak and he thought he might faint.
He sat on an overturned bucket.
―I don’t have any chakras to spare, someone spat.
Ravers were filing in. Some kids already had their breasts out, dragging each other’s necks by leashes, holding their companions’ masks against areolae and navels.
He sweated. Heads lolled. People were too close together. He didn’t want to get near them. So how was he supposed to tell them to distance?
An oily glow emanated from clerestory windows. Across protective shields, motorcycle helmets. Throbbing digits.
After a while his eyes regained focus, and he watched the person who’d spat about chakras coast into a wicked stupor. Her eyelids fluttered. At least she looked like a her to him. Hands held out to keep from falling in the abyss.
Teeth flashed. Jaws constricted.
Bartenders spilled drinks, sneezed into their armpits.
Someone took out a phone and tried to film the DJ.
It should’ve been easy to intervene. He couldn’t figure out how to interact fairly for anyone’s sake.
―Yo, Sascha admonished. ―Someone’s made some kind of crazy, like, mess in the bathroom. I need you to take care of it.
He lifted his knees, plodding through half-inch pools on the tiles. He kicked a discarded harness, slipped, and heaved a mop over his shoulder.
In the untenably vicious time preceding the plague, which mocked piety, and where collective identity had been employed to condemn rather than unite, he’d felt certain how badly humans, made stupid by the provisionalities of civilization, needed rituals like this.
He was getting less convinced.
People converged, starved for affection.
Blinking in the steamy hollows.
Spreading themselves, thin and super, alive and selfish.
They could not be enlightened.
Because people still wanted to assemble. Lay hands on one another by love and force. Stalk each other like prey. Why did everyone think they enjoyed being touched?
He knew the sensation of sex was cut from the same cloth as the cancer industry standard. The taboo lobby. The contraceptive economy. The fallacy of psychoanalysis.
Yesternights had the best sound system in the city, but the kids didn’t show up for music. It wasn’t about letting go. They wanted to dig their heels in and transgress. Though they weren’t sure against what. Data or their better instincts or the older generations, who’d underpaid and employed them and gotten everyone into whichever predicament people decided was the one to immediately align themselves with?
Only one thing was definite: they were victims. Victims of the victimizers, and constantly persecuted.
Most people, he thought, wanted their parents to die. They couldn’t hold on too much longer. So why should he?
In the future, everyone might beg forgiveness.
Some impulses remain intact. The carnal obsession. The need to differentiate. To scatter like spores. To simulate heed.
He cleared the blockage and flushed.
Two feet away, a body nodded out, slumped pelvis-first in a urinal.
He wasn’t even an incel, he thought. He’d spent most of his youth remotely, steering clear of intimacy out of dissatisfaction as much as lack of appetite as much malaise as much as dismay. The stuff he’d wanted acutely dismissed, deemed unacceptable by mainstream society and circles of supposed radical permissiveness alike. His peers had been open to vice, kink, perversion, yet limited in the scope of brute trial and error. Now his youth was spent.
Or was he dreaming?
He heard chants of respiration. Tuned in to directions from the DJ booth. Opened to something past darkness. The wild asymptote just beyond this corporeal nightmare.
He scanned the ceiling.
If he expected an answer, all he got was 5G and surveillance.
He couldn’t fathom cells. Meiosis. Mitosis. Abnormal growth. Hosts. Infections. Virality.
Someone moved on someone. Their bodies in creases, furrowed together. How could he explain?
It disgusted him.
―Don’t forget you need to rapid test negative tomorrow before you come in.
―But I got one last week.
―That’s right, Sascha gurgled. ―That’s our policy.
Or maybe he was making too much of it. At its best the club had offered something immaterial. The spirit of nighttime, which seemed obvious. In the nighttime it was harder to make stuff out.
Dancing, community, presence had been things to pass into and absorb. Like treading water. Except lately he was sinking and filled with holes.
Like he was not half-human. That’s what Mica had accused him of. Long before his mother’s diagnosis, he’d been sick. There could be no doubt she’d already rubbed more disease off on him.
Between four and six a.m., a lot of people went home. The dance floor opened up. Tracks got longer and more focused.
Around seven a.m., the person who’d spat about chakras approached and pretended to ask him questions.
―See you tomorrow, Sascha simpered. ―I mean today.
And around nine a.m., the girl was pleading. Gore spraying quaint fountains from her face. Begging for her life, if he dared believe that’s what she embodied.
―Please just go, she whimpered. ―Please. I won’t tell anyone. Please just leave and everything will be okay…
Though he’d barely begun.
―Please, she wailed.
―I have nowhere to go, he said.
HE reeled on the sidewalk, six feet behind a crumpled pile of bones and diffuse skin in a wheelchair, three feet in front of an obese wheezing blur and two shivering children.
When he unclenched his jaw, a trickle of chipped bone dislodged, and he swallowed the bits of teeth like sand.
―I heard you get it from the test, one of the children said.
―Who told you that, the wheezing blur asked.
―You get it from the test because they give it to you. They put it on the stick and stick it up your nose until it touches your brain and then they swirl it around so it gets in your brain really good and then they can use it to control you and track all your thoughts and wherever you go.
―I heard that too, the other child said.
The wheelchair wobbled a foot or so forward. It got stuck on a crack in the concrete and teetered to its side. One of the wheels looked like it would fall off.
He considered holding the door open for the pile of bones, but he didn’t want to touch the handle.
His phone vibrated.
He ignored the call.
Minutes later, a 929 number texted a photo of an orange cat without ears.
Followed by, Mark...I have been calling leaving messages but you fail to respond...This is your number on file...We cannot continue caring and expecting to know what to do with your things...This is your cat...My wife is allergic causing her to cough and sneeze and have respatory troubles...Additionally you never returned keys so we cannot get into your apartment unit...For 2 months no rent has been paid...Today marks the last day of month 3 and we do not want to get involved with more police matters...Please call back so you can pay rent and get your things, please return keys...We need them to get inside your apartment unit we could have been renting for 3 months...If you do not call back we will be compelled to begin legal tactics...Much thanks...
Somehow the wheelchair must have gotten inside, because he was next.
He stepped on the designated circles and squares. The rooms churned with air filtration.
His blood oxygen level was ninety-nine percent. His temperature was ninety-seven-point-one degrees Fahrenheit.
―Little low, the medical employee said.
―Is that bad?
―Better than high.
She broke open a white cylindrical wrapper. The swab she removed somehow extended to double the length of the vessel it came in.
―Have you been experiencing any symptoms?
―I don’t think so.
―Have you been exposed to any high-risk situations or individuals?
―I’ve been going to work.
―Where do you work?
―A dance club.
―Oh, we had one of your coworkers in just a bit ago. She told me not to bother checking it out.
The medical employee nodded. She glanced at her phone.
―Well, for one thing I’m more into disco. But also she said it’s owned by some problematic billionaire’s kid.
―Really, he shifted across the exam table paper, which ripped. ―What kind of billionaire?
―Are there more than one?
―Drop your mask below your nose, please.
He did, and let out a little cry when the tip of the swab propelled against his optic nerve. Tears curled into his mask.
―All finished, she said, and dropped the swab in a ziplock bag. ―You can pull up your mask, and you’ll have your results via email by the end of the day.
In the lobby, one of the shivering children was shivering on the floor. Its eyes rolled back so all he could see were whites. A medical employee was trying to put something in its mouth.
A television mounted to the top of the wall, where a corner collided with the ceiling, displayed an advertisement for Dunbitshatall, an injectable supplement used to mitigate mood swings associated with a new line of antidepressants designed specifically for people with terminal illnesses.
―Don’t take if you are allergic to Dunbitshatall, the television recommended.
―What’s that stain, the other child asked.
He zipped up his jacket.
―Chocolate raspberry salad, he said.
On the sidewalk, he refreshed his email.
His phone started to vibrate.
THEY stumbled through the apartment.
Split-open Amazon boxes. Rags on curtain rods. Sleeves of pre-sanitized needles, strung together like ammo strips along perforated edges. Cheap gesso paints and unstretched canvases. Flash sheets. Flash sheets of moths and crickets. Flash sheets falling out of binders. On the counter. In the dish washer.
―None of this stuff is mine, he said.
―This is where they found her, his former landlord monotoned. ―Do you know how she did it?
―Mica was nonbinary.
―I think she was kind of crazy.
The man pointed an index finger at his temple and twirled. The cat was in the sink, lapping at the faucet’s periodic drip.
He tried to turn it off, but it persisted. Where ears should’ve been vague nodes sulked from the cat’s head. Its tongue was black and pink.
―I moved out in June. I cleared it with you in advance. Don’t you remember?
The landlord gagged, hawked, took off his mask, spit near the cat’s paws.
―But I did not make any agreements to this. August, September, she does not pay. Now another month passes. How do you expect me to get rent?
―I don’t know, he said. ―I asked to be taken off the lease.
―You signed a contract.
―That was almost two years ago.
―Yes, a two-year contract. To this you agreed.
―The lease expires in a month. Can’t you just, like… Given the circumstances. And all the stuff going on… You must be able to understand the bind I was in to up and move like that.
―Everyone is in difficult places now. For example, I am a small business. How am I supposed to turn profit if no one pays for my apartment?
―Have you tried talking to Mica’s parents?
―They are not on the lease.
―Well, you were supposed to take me off.
―When the lease concludes, I will have taken you off. For now, you owe three months.
―I don’t even live here.
―How should I know? You did not return keys. Perhaps you’ve lived here the whole time and not paid.
―But you live downstairs. Don’t you think you would’ve heard me come in and out?
―How am I supposed to know what you do? If you returned keys, then I’d know you can’t enter. I don’t even have a way to get in without police.
―You’re telling me you don’t have keys to an apartment you own? In your own building? I don’t believe that.
―And so I disbelieve you. It’s a poor situation.
―None of this stuff is mine, he yelled, trying not to sound enraged. ―You can’t evict me because evictions are on moratorium, plus I haven’t lived here in months, so what are you going to do?
―Let me show you.
The landlord motioned. The man still hadn’t resecured his mask over the bottom part of his face.
He followed the property owner to the bedroom that had previously belonged to him. In the closet there was a step stool. On the top shelf, a few feet above eye level, lay an old towel, folded tight. The man got on the stool and lifted the towel from over his head and bore it down delicately, cradling it at his chest like precious life.
The landlord unfolded it partway, so he could see. Then covered it up and restored it to the shelf.
―So, the man said.
―That’s not mine, he stammered.
―Whether or not that’s the case makes no difference to me. Your name is on the lease.
―Okay. I promise I’ll have everything out of here by this time next week. And I’ll personally make sure you get the keys when I’m done. How’s that?
―And the rent?
―I don’t know what to tell you. I’m in a pretty shitty place financially. Like, I’m basically broke. Why do you think I moved out?
―You’ll take the cat today, at least. It makes my wife allergic. I have to leave it up here.
―Can’t I grab it later? I have to work tonight.
―So you’re working. You should have money for rent.
―Okay, he said. ―I’ll take the cat.
The apartment smelled like gas.
―Do we have a deal, then? No legal proceedings?
―You get everything out…
The landlord opened his arms, spreading them palms up in a gesture between righteous bounty and shrugging.
―We will see a week from now.
―In a week, it’ll be like no one was ever here.
IF Mica had had a cat carrier, he didn’t know where they’d stowed it. The little beast scaled the car seats while he speeded, weaving through lanes on the eastbound expressway.
Its eyes were puffy and bloodshot and its nose varnished with discharge. It mewled and made hooting sounds, dug its claws in the Kia’s faux leather interior. He braked. It tumbled into a footwell.
The sun had set by the time he got to his mother’s house. He’d managed to pick up some litter and a sack of dry food. He poured the litter in a big plastic cube.
―Mom, he called.
No one seemed to be home.
She crawled out from under the futon in his room.
He ran to her, though the length of the house was so trivial it scarcely abided haste.
―Are you okay?
―Hi Mark, she said.
―Where’s the aide?
―She went home. Are you already back from work?
―My shift hasn’t started yet. It’s been kind of a… Wait, what were you doing under the bed?
―Sorry, she sniffled. ―I thought I dropped my sandwich.
Track marks adorned the inside of her elbows from IV applications. Her face had a new liver spot. The tops of her hands yellowed and bruised.
―Did you take your medication?
―Do you want some more, Mom? Do you need something to help you sleep? You’re supposed to stay upright. In the living room.
―You know, she said. ―It never struck me how peculiar a name for a room that is.
He took her arm and guided her to the recliner in the corner. He turned on the television. He turned away an the advertisement for a balloon you swallowed to push out errant fecal matter due to constipation associated with chemotherapy. The volume was set to mute.
―Which of these is best for sleep?
―I’m not asleep?
His mother seemed suddenly alarmed.
―I thought I was dreaming.
―You are, he said, finding a generic bottle of morphine with acetaminophen tablets.
He shook out three pills.
―I brought you a friend. A nice orange kitten. You can name it whatever you want.
―Oh you’re so sweet. My Marky. You’ve always been so sweet. It’s so sweet of you to come and take care of me, you know. You know I always used to say I hit the mark with you.
―Yeah, he said.
He helped her swallow. Foam oozed down her neck into her robe. He tightened it and picked the hardcover book off the floor. It opened to the same page as always and he draped it over one of the recliner’s arms.
He covered his mother with more blankets than usual so she couldn’t move. He put the cat on the blankets, and it turned in a circle, kneading, and nuzzled its face in the assortment of fleece, flannel, and wool.
―Boy or girl?
She leaked, slurred. Her jowl tensed like she wanted to change positions. Her mouth made a sticky sound that reminded him of peanut butter and velcro.
―I don’t know. It doesn’t matter. It can’t tell us its pronouns anyway, so why not just name it whatever you want.
―I want to name it Mark, his mother said.
―Don’t do that.
―But it’s cute.
She hiccuped again. The cat stirred. It opened its mouth like it was going to sneeze.
―Mark is the name for the cutest things.
―You can name it anything besides Mark.
―It hurts so much, his mother said.
He kneeled by her side.
He stood up.
He patted her head and moved away.
―Before you go, his mother yawned. ―Can you turn up the volume on the TV?
THE music was better that night.
By the time he made it back within city limits, he’d received his results from the rapid test: negative, and was awash in an aura of plain friendliness.
He waved at coworkers, smiled with his eyes. Calm and glad to have someplace to be. Impelled by a simple itinerary of uncomplicated, frivolous tasks.
He couldn’t reconcile the vast disparities that flared up between his attitudes and selves.
Maybe he’d just needed to cut loose a bit, like he had that morning. He always felt better when he allowed himself to cut loose.
Even the glowing blue bracelet looked less menacing. He inspected the bathroom stalls. Inconclusive young people practicing respectful social distancing, following rules. If no one was climbing in the communal wash basin, he considered it a victory.
He slunk down to the basement and lugged cases of liquor, craft beer, sparkling malt beverage, kombucha, Yerba Mate, and Red Bull up the stairs and into the troughs behind the bar. He hoisted four ten-pound bags of ice at a time, stacked on his forearms and biceps, and deposited them over the room-temperature bottles and cans.
The DJ played acid house, which he might’ve found trite ten years prior, but felt appropriate at that hour, and quite pleasant. He couldn’t find Sascha, so he barbacked a while, making small talk with colleagues. Most of them were people he’d used to be on casual terms with, almost acquaintances, and it didn’t take long before he remembered their basic distinctions.
He said stuff like, ―How have you been?
And they answered, ―Oh, you know, holding up. Jake and I have been thinking about getting out of the city for the winter. Our friend Anna just moved to an old colonial cottage in the Berkshires and it looks beautiful. Hold on can you cover me a minute? I just want to run out for a smoke.
The air surrounding the DJ booth was green. Someone had turned on lasers. People dressed closer to what he understood. Saturdays typically catered to older, more forgivable crowds.
He let the lights swarm his face. He stepped back and forth. Volume lowered a tad.
―I want to give a massive shout out, the DJ beamed. ―To all our essential workers holding it down so we can rock this essential party! Y’all. Are. Heroes!
The last word drawn out until it drowned under the increasing volume of a transition into a chopped sample of a song by a once-popular Detroit techno collective.
People cheered. And everyone applauded, including him and the rest of the staff.
Someone tapped him on the back of the neck. By then he could recognize Sascha’s touch. Tonight, however, his boss wore latex gloves.
―Can I have a word, they cooed.
He was nodding in the vibes, doing his job.
Sascha laced their fingers through his, not quite cordially, and dragged him behind an unmarked door, turning the lock behind them.
They stood in silence. Accompanied by the suppressed hammer beyond, of reverie, resonance, portent.
―Great party, he said.
―It’s been brought to my attention…
They looked at their phone.
―Sorry, they said. ―I’m not very good at this part of the job.
―Are you familiar with our safer space policy?
―Okay, well, I don’t really want to get into it, but, like, okay. You know what that band on your wrist represents?
He realized Sascha was awaiting a response. He nodded.
―Yeah, he said.
―Tell me, then, Mark. What does it represent?
―Bro, he started.
―I’m sorry. I just mean… Come on… Sascha. You know I’ve been working here from the beginning. You know I know the rules and everything.
―Then you should have no trouble relaying the significance of that phosphorescent symbol circumscribing your radiocarpal ligaments.
―I’m, like, a resource to people. Like if someone feels uncomfortable or sick or in danger, they can come to me, and I’ll help them.
―Help them how?
―Like we’ll talk, and I’ll figure out the problem. Like maybe they took too much of something and need to get to the chill-out room or a hospital. Or if there’s something or someone else causing their discomfort, we can address that, and decide what to do from there.
―Okay, Sascha said. ―Very good. That’s generally correct. But what if I offer you this scenario? What if the person wearing the wristband is the one responsible for causing discomfort to our valued patron? Where are they to turn then?
―I know. Not a common problem at Yesternights. We’ve worked to create an environment of inclusivity, freedom, and affirmation. In fact, it sort of presents a conundrum. The last thing we want is for anyone to lose faith in the business model. The way we handle a situation like this must be with the utmost respect for the victim, as well as prioritizing the establishment’s integrity. Now do you know why I’ve pulled you aside?
―Uh, he echoed.
―There’s a person here, and they approached me directly. Your presence at the club has caused them distress tonight. Especially given you’re in a position of authority. As things are, they don’t feel like they can safely enjoy themselves here if you’re a fixture of our staff. Now, I want to give you full benefit of the doubt, and allow you to voice your side of things. We’ve been friends a long time, Mark. This came as much as a surprise to me as it may be to you now. I want us to have ample opportunity to hash this out. If its some torn-up old flame, then whatever, we’ll let it go. That shit’s between you. Or maybe it’s some drunk-ass bitch bitching for attention. She might not even have recognized who she’s accusing. The lighting is dank as fuck tonight, isn’t it?
―Sure, he said.
―So, okay. Do you have any idea, for any reason, why anyone might have approached me about this?
He shook his head.
―I don’t know what to say, bro, Sascha said.
He looked at the floor.
―But there’s no way she could even be here tonight. By all means. She should be in an ICU.
―What was that?
―Just tell me who said it.
―I think you know I’m not at liberty to reveal the victim’s identity.
―You said she.
―That information is privileged.
―Privileged, he repeated.
―Do you have anything further to say in your defense?
―I just don’t know what’s going on. I haven’t, like, slept since before last night’s shift. I was rushing around all day. I’ve only been here a few hours. The music is good. I’ve been having a nice time. I’ve been trying to make the most of it.
Sascha snapped their gloves.
―Tell you what. I don’t have time to sort this out. Why don’t you take the rest of the night off, I’ll comp you full pay for the shift, and we’ll talk at the outdoor event tomorrow afternoon. I’m sure this whole thing’s just a misunderstanding. In the meantime, go home, recharge, catch some Z’s.
―You mean I can’t stay for the rest of the party?
His boss typed on their phone.
―I was, like, just getting into the groove of being back at work. I was enjoying myself.
―There’ll be plenty more parties where this one came from, Sascha said. ―I think it would probs be in everyone’s best interest if for now you, like, split.
They ruffled his hair. It stuck to the latex. A few strands pulled away. Then Sascha had pushed through the door and onto the dance floor, the sprung bolt lock still trembling in its hinge.
HE didn’t sleep.
The woods were brown and dry and wet and orange and green.
The previous morning Sascha had texted, Yooooooooooooooo sorry aboot last nite mate. Great party tho. Lookin over the shift schedule seems like I might’ve overbooked ppl for today so just take the rest of the weekend and you can expect checks for Friday and sat and unless you hear otherwise come in for prep thurs if that all sounds chill
Twenty-four hours later his phone remained buried under the couch cushion.
Rays of gray dappled the underbrush. It had been dark when he’d taken the Kia, driven to the pull-off where a state forest gave way to unofficially maintained bushwhack trails, mounted the Vultur 360/365-Optix Utility Cantilever Rifle Scope, and started marching, sweeping, surveying the perimeter, testing the functionality of the accessory’s night-vision feature.
As morning revolved, he flicked off the lens filter. He heard birdsong and movement. The purr of leaves crumbling, the contortion of thickets.
He swung, breath loud near the eyepiece, the cool air of daybreak fogging up against the heat of his face.
A sound he didn’t recognize sprung behind him, and he turned in time to nearly strike the young buck with his barrel. It didn’t stop when it saw him. It charged through the dense growth. Its eyes shiny and mad. It galloped, and he followed it with the sight, mark shaking over its neck and flank in the crosshairs.
When the buck was out of view, he sprayed bullets carelessly. He tapped the triggers with fury as fast as he could at the trees.
He could hear little more than the dampening muzzle of his noise-canceling headphones. The forever tempered accumulation of technology’s influence. The human power to transcend half-human limits, pick and choose, deprive one sense, while heightening vision, taste, smell, touch, and focus in turn.
The magazine emptied. He crouched sweating and heaving. He tasted fire. He smelled gold.
He broke down the weapon, packed it into his duffel bag, and drove to his mother’s house.
The aide’s car was in the driveway. He put on his mask.
From the driver’s seat, the engine sounded like wind. He cut it, but the sound continued. He discerned a coil of exhaust emanating from the aide’s Volkswagen Beetle.
He approached from the passenger side. The aide cowered. Her face in her hands and her head on the wheel. He knocked on the glass. She sat up and rolled down the window.
―Is everything all right?
―I’m just upset, she choked.
She wasn’t wearing a mask and pulled her beanie down so it covered her face. As soon as she could no longer see him, her sobbing increased. He watched her convulse, jerk up and down in the seat. The vehicle rocking as he backed away.
He went inside and crossed the small house trying to not notice it. He stowed his duffel bag under the futon. He lay down.
He got up and stood in the living room. His mother was sleeping on the recliner in the corner. Her IV bags had been changed. The blankets were clean, and she smelled of chemicals designed to mimic freshness.
The television was off. The cat was trying to hide under the recliner, but there wasn’t enough space. Its hind legs stuck out, bony, seeking.
He took ahold of one in each hand and extracted the creature. Its fur was matted.
―Mark seems sick.
A dribble of regurgitated bile, partly dried to a crust, bubbled in the corner of his mother’s lip. Her eyes were closed.
―Look, she said. ―I think what’s the matter with it.
Immediately he felt agitated. He’d thought he was alone. But she was right. Something about the cat did seem off.
A puddle of bristly vomit stewed in an old plant pot, filled with dirt, but no plant. The cat moved its head on its neck like a pendulum and wouldn’t close its mouth. It was missing whiskers. It breathed wrong.
―What’s wrong with…
He couldn’t remember the aide’s name.
―Is anything going on?
―Herr Heimsuchung, his mother groaned, rolling over and dreaming. ―It’s good to be with you again.
HE sat on the curb with his phone on his knee while the receptionist at Finkelstein, Goldblatt, and Sons pretended to assume a tone of compassion.
She informed him that, though everyone at the firm sympathized with his mother’s condition, they had completed their liability assessment on behalf of Axis Paper LLC and would prefer to remain disassociated from any further appeals regarding the matter.
Besides, they exclusively conducted business in the confidence of paying clients, and his entreaty, notwithstanding context or honest intentions, would present a conflict of interest. She could not put him through to anyone.
―Are you aware, he paused, glancing down, index finger hovering over the page of the outspread hardcover book on his lap. ―Of the controversial use of the benzene in Axis’s paper and pulp manufacturing plants?
―Sir, the receptionist said.
―Benzene is a colorless liquid chemical compound refined from crude oil, he quoted. ―In nineteen twenty-eight doctors first detected a link between it and cancer. Do you know how many years ago nineteen twenty-eight was?
Nothing, maybe a sigh, from the other end of the line.
―Afterward, numerous scientific studies linked chronic benzene exposure to greatly increased risks of leukemia. The National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Centers for Disease Control have all declared benzene a human carcinogen.
He flipped the book closed, though its broken spine held it slightly ajar, and pivoted to his laptop. Fingertips shimmying over the trackpad.
―Inside the human body, he read. ―It can oxidize to form the highly toxic benzene oxide. This chemical is very difficult to excrete from the body, and can cause many harmful mutations in the DNA of important cells. These mutations can kill bone marrow cells or make red blood cells less able to carry oxygen. The mutations can also cause cells to grow rapidly and uncontrollably, resulting in cancers such as leukemia.
―There are a number of different occupations that can have a high risk of benzene exposure. Paper and pulp factory workers who are involved in the transportation and use of chemicals in the production process are at risk of exposing themselves to benzene.
His chest hurt. His heart was palpitating.
―My mother, who was diagnosed with stage four leukemia last year, was employed by your client, Charles Pearle of Pearle Industries, as a line worker for more than thirty years. If you don’t think that entitles her to some level of liability and compensation, you’re out of your fucking mind.
―Sir, I am not responsible for the research, appraisals, or decision-making process of the partners at Finkelstein, Goldblatt, and Sons. I am certainly not involved in any final resolutions.
―What the fuck resolutions are you even talking about? What’s been resolved? My mother is dying and we’re broke and I haven’t seen a dollar from the government despite working only seven days in the past eight months.
―I will not tolerate being talked to like this. I advise you seek your own counsel. You’re clearly hysterical and I’m not going to connect you to any of our paralegals or attorneys.
―You think if I could I wouldn’t have sued the shit out of you and your diabolical client, he screamed. ―You think I have the time or money to pursue a law suit? You think I even know where to begin? My mother tried like nine months ago. We just heard back from you assholes last week.
―There’s been a great deal of pressure on our firm. We’ve been significantly short-staffed since the interruption of the Paycheck Protection Program, and we’re in the midst of fielding a tremendous number of ongoing cases, as well as delays in our day-to-day litigating and arbitration operations.
―You think I give a fuck about your law office? My mother is dying. Her employer murdered her and won’t even acknowledge an iota of accountability.
―I assure you, I’m sorry. But I can only report on my employers’ opinion. I have nothing to do with it.
The line went silent.
IN the morning the cat was dead.
He lifted it by its rigid tail and deposited it in a black contractor bag. He pushed the air out with his shoe, tied the contractor bag, then transferred it into another, which he shoved to the bottom of the across-the-street neighbor’s trash bin, all before his mother had a chance to wake.
He refreshed his email. A new subject line appeared.
He skimmed the message.
For old time sake and because I consider you something of a friend I’m willing to cut you slack. I don’t want shit getting out of hand. Officially I’ll be reporting your status as laid off for lack of work. If you apply with the dept of labor you should be able to get unemployment ASAP
―Where’s Mark, his mother stirred.
He threw his phone across the room.
―I’m here, he said.
―You know who I mean.
He didn’t respond.
―Where’s our pretty kitty?
―I don’t know what you’re talking about.
―The little friend you brought me. Tiger-striped and sweet. He curled up like a cinnamon roll on my lap every day this week. He’s named Mark.
―You’re confused, Mom. I’m Mark.
―I know that, she said, her voice promptly exasperated, short of breath. ―I’m talking about the kitten. You know what I’m talking about.
―It’s okay. You haven’t been feeling well. Are you in pain? Do you want me to give you some pills?
―You remember the kitten.
―It’s just been us and the aide, he said. ―For weeks. Months. Except she called up last night and said she couldn’t come in. There’s been a family emergency, or something. We need to talk to the home health service about getting a new one. I forgot to tell you. Do you know where your Medicare card is?
―It should be under the sink.
―It. Should. Be. Under. The. Sink, his mother snapped. ―Stop making fun of me. You think I don’t know where it is?
She dropped into a short, dry coughing fit.
He turned on the television.
It showed flags. Rows of flags. Flags embroidered with names, proudly flapping. The names of all the happy campers who’d successfully stopped needing their colons after asking their doctors about Polypyete.
―Can I get you a glass of water, Mom?
She didn’t answer.
Her eyes closed and the tips of her toes peeked out from the blankets. They glowed, rose-tinted. Balls of flesh swollen and meant to maintain balance, propel motion, dance. Push on aimlessly into oblivion.
HIS key fit, but it wouldn’t turn in the lock.
He stamped downstairs, pushed outside, swung the wrought iron gate, slipped down three further steps, and knocked on the door of his former landlord’s apartment.
Activity issued from inside. Annoyed voices and coughing. He stood under an eave getting rained on.
He knocked again.
―Just wait for him to go away.
The door creaked. Held fast by a security chain. It parted a crevice.
―Can I help you, the man rasped.
―I’m here to clear out the apartment. Did you change the locks?
―You said by this time next week.
―I know, he said. ―I know. But stuff has been kind of crazy. I’m not even living in the city you know.
―How do I know this?
―Listen, I’m sorry. If you just give me the key I promise I’m going to get everything out today, by the end of the day, I’ll be gone. Out of your way and you can list the apartment or do whatever you want with it.
―Perhaps you want me to give you the key so you will copy it and continue living here without paying rent.
―That’s ridiculous. You’re going to be here. You’d know whether or not I did something like that.
―You keep saying I know this or that. What makes you think what I know and what I don’t?
―I’m just trying to make you understand. How can you expect me to go along like everything’s normal? I’m stressed out. I’m doing what I can. Nothing has ever happened like this.
―And do you know what this has been like from my side? Is this something you ask? Do you know why my wife will not stop being allergic? We are not in a good financial predicament ourselves. We have depended on the tenant to keep up with his bargain. For three months we wait. I call you and text you and nothing. I try to explain to police and they ignore it. Your girlfriend, you leave, and she undergoes the most grave and terrible sin. How do you think I feel knowing this has happened under my roof? You say you decided to leave. Did you not sign the lease? And you’re trying to make me understand. No. You are the one who fails understanding. How do I seek justice? How do I get relief? Everyone going on about cancel rent, but what about the homeowners’ adversities? I’m an immigrant. Additionally, do you have any idea what it cost to get the lock changed? I will not give you key and you can have none of your things in the apartment unit I own until you cover the cost of that payment.
He stood in the rain.
―Mica wasn’t my girlfriend.
The landlord’s chest rose and fell, cheeks purple, bloated, pocked with broken blood vessels, unmasked.
―How much did it cost to change?
HE shoveled clothes into black contractor bags. Pillows and blankets. A stained duvet cover he thought he could get the stain out of. The few items he might be able to sell on eBay, though he couldn’t find the duvet itself.
The rest he piled around a fire hydrant outside. Lugging bundles of sketchpads, homemade stuffed animals, dead plants, cheap lamps, half-ruined teak end tables, begrimed dishes, silverware, and peers’ pathetic excuses for paintings they’d traded for Mica’s dilettantish tattoos.
All the needles were technically biowaste, not legal to toss on the street, but he crammed them in too. Along with yarn, loose fabric, frayed concert posters, ashtrays, a college diploma that didn’t belong to him or his former roommate, CDs and cassettes, which he figured wouldn’t bring in enough to cover shipping fees, and an uncanny dearth of books.
Up and down the stairs. In and out of the rain. His arms and back spasmed. He tilted, redistributed weight, propped doors open with his shoes.
Had his phone been in his pocket, he could at least have registered some semblance of progress. He wondered if he’d taken more than ten thousand steps. Sometimes after a good night at the club, he’d check his Health app to find he’d danced for twelve miles. Had this effort resulted in more or less consequence? He’d no means to compare or contrast.
He flung the mattresses downstairs, dragged them across the sidewalk in slick, torn plastic sleeves. He wrestled the bed frames apart.
Under one, in the bedroom that had previously belonged to Mica, he detected a familiar pungent aroma. A garment of some type twisted up in a ball. Bonded by the gummy fusing of fibers, putrefaction, soused in brown and black mucus, spattered with wads of stuck-on hair and skin, plasma, split bits of fingernails, still marred with dull polish. It couldn’t be, but he thought it was damp, and he smiled. Strings of memories fluttering, trapped in the remains of his soul.
It was well into night when he finished.
The hydrant entirely hidden, he parked in front of it to cut down on the distance between his mother’s car and the mostly-emptied apartment. Taking stairs two at a time. Clambering down to make sure no meddlesome parking cops milled about. Plastic bags bulged from the Kia. He struggled to get its trunk closed.
He was about to return the landlord’s keys when he remembered the old, folded towel on the shelf in his closet. The step stool was there, but when he ascended it, he discovered nothing. The secreted object had been removed.
HE crumpled the ticket snared under the Kia’s windshield wiper, ink blots running from the drenched orange envelope, and kicked it into a storm drain.
He drove to the storage facility.
It was getting late, but the place was open twenty-four hours, and an attendant perched behind a plexiglass partition, wearing a ski mask and streaming live footage of strangers playing video games on a phone so big it might have been a tablet. Every handful of seconds the ersatz marimba of incoming calls interjected. The attendant swatted the device until they were suppressed.
―Excuse me, he said.
The attendant held up an index finger, eyes fixed to the screen. Then an advertisement started playing about employment opportunities for people interested in donating organs to biomedical research think tanks, and the attendant squinted as though trying to decide if that was appealing.
Finally the oblong eyes rose, divided by the mask’s central knit, and stared through the partition.
―What’s up, the attendant stated.
He explained what he’d been through over the phone with whomever he’d talked to about accessing his five-by-five-foot unit.
―What’s your name?
―Mark, he said.
He said his last name.
―Lewis, the attendant asked.
He pronounced it in one syllable.
The attendant opened an app on the enormous device and scrolled.
―Says here your unit’s been flagged. Sorry, man. You’ll have to come back during daytime hours.
―Can’t you just let me put my stuff in and go? I have a car full of shit. I just unpacked a house and I’ve still got to get back to Long Island.
―Yeah, the attendant said. ―I mean no. Like, I would, but I can’t. It says your unit’s been locked out due to lack of payment.
―I know, I know, but what if I pay now?
The attendant itched at the ski mask.
―Man, it’s not just lack of payment. Like, yeah, I can take your money and you can cover all the fines and shit, but it also says… Like, okay. Apparently, according to the information I have personally, when they were locking out your unit, they went through your shit and found some shit that violated company policy.
―I don’t know what you’re talking about.
―Listen, man. If I was you, I’d just leave.
―But can’t you give me anymore information?
―I’m trying to do you a favor.
―But I’m fucking exhausted. I’m confused.
―Like, you’ve been flagged for not paying. So they went through your unit so you couldn’t just come back and get in. And from what I have here, it says you were using your unit for contraband. I’m supposed to, like… Like, you’re just lucky you came at night, man. If management was here, your shit’d be fucked. It says I’m supposed to call the cops if you come…
He was giddy. The saltwater swarming his mouth. He concentrated, concentrating on the pellets of pupils amid the ski mask, concentrating not to pass out.
―But I don’t want to do that.
―I don’t want you to either.
―Then if I was you, the attendant sighed. ―I’d just go. And maybe get rid of your phone. I don’t know what they got you for, but it’s not worth whatever you’ve got stored up in here.
―But I don’t know what you’re talking about.
―Yeah, man. I don’t know. Same.
He backed away. An elevator cab clicked into the freight shaft across the expanse of warehouse. The doors gave, the cage ruptured, and Sascha emerged whistling. A jingle of keys spun around their ring ringer. They beelined to the attendant, disregarding his presence, and leaned on the partition.
―I think there’s a leak in my unit. Number seventeen-thirty-eight. My name is Hiram Pearle.
The attendant held up an index finger.
He arched to the side, attempting to get a better look at the person.
―Oh, they considered. ―Hey bro. How’ve you been?
―Eh, he said. ―Quite the coincidence.
―Well, you know… Like they say. Best rates in town.
His former boss tapped on the plexiglass.
―I didn’t know your name was Hiram.
―Well, you know…
Sascha put up their hands, like, don’t shoot, and laughed.
―When you’re in a position like mine, you figure out ways to protect yourself.
―What do you need protection from?
―What the fuck is this joker up to? Hey, hello, they barked at the partition. ―My unit’s got a fucking leak and it’s filled with extremely important promotional materials for my business and I’m beginning to lose confidence that you’re not going to destroy all my property and fuck me over.
The attendant glared into the enormous device.
―This is fucking ridiculous, Sascha muttered.
―I had a rough go with it too.
―Yeah, well, if this fucking goof-off scumbag doesn’t get his shit together, he might find himself sleeping in one of these leaky ass units. That means you!
They struck the plexiglass with their elbow.
―Good luck, he said
He jogged through driving rain back to his mother’s car. He writhed inside, hands shaking so he couldn’t fit the key in the ignition, beat fists on the wheel and set off the Kia’s alarm.
When he’d collected himself, it might have been the next day. No memory of starting the engine, adjusting the stereo, or conducting the vehicle forty miles along the eastbound expressway.
He was stuck on a thought. He kept looping, repeating it, turning it over like sharp dice, or spent casings, anything of similar size, weight, brute origin, rolling over themselves, two cold edges of sound: Hiram Pearle.
IN the hospital waiting room, the televisions all showed the same thing.
Coverage of something. He waited, but there weren’t any commercials and there was nowhere to sit.
Eventually, the nurse at the reception desk left. Her replacement asked if she could help him.
―I’m still waiting to hear how my mom’s doing. She was admitted for an emergency screening three hours ago.
―As you can see, we’re very busy. If you’re not waiting to be seen by a doctor, I’m going to have to ask you to leave.
―But I am waiting. This is important. My mother’s been sick since before all this shit. She has leukemia and is immunocompromised and the longer I go without hearing back on what’s wrong with her, the more I’m getting freaked. Can you please check on her status?
Multiple phones rang. The nurse answered them, asking each caller if they wouldn’t mind holding and immediately putting them on hold.
―Have you been experiencing any symptoms?
―Have you been exposed to any high-risk situations or individuals?
―I don’t know, he said. ―I guess. Maybe.
―Have you received a test in the past fourteen days?
―What day is it?
He looked at his phone.
―Yeah, he said. ―I tested negative eleven days ago.
―And since then your mother’s developed symptoms?
―It’s hard to say. She’s been, like… In the process of dying for so long… This morning she was confused and unresponsive in an alarming way. She’s been coughing. I’m just freaked.
―What’s your mother’s name?
He told her and she mashed the keyboard and lightly kicked the computer with a rubber clog cursing under her breath.
―Sorry, she said. ―It’ll just be a second. Please feel free to take a seat.
But there was nowhere to sit.
He sidled into a corner. Above him a daddy longlegs hung from a thread, almost invisible in its thin, neutral translucence.
―Paging, the nurse said into the phone.
She beckoned him to the desk.
―Your mother has tested positive for the virus and has been moved to the ICU until further notice. We’re going to have to insist you comply with tests for exposure as well as the presence of antibodies, and quarantine in your home for fourteen days. You’ll be assigned a contact tracing consultant, who will contact you over the phone sometime this week. Have you and your mother been cohabitating?
―Yeah, he said.
―And has anyone else had regular interactions with either of you?
―There’ve been some home health aides over the months, but something came up with our most recent one. Other than that… No. No one I can think of.
―If you’ll just sign this here…
She flipped a tablet mounted to the desk in his direction. He signed with a finger and helped himself to a squirt from a magnum-sized bottle of hand sanitizer, which smelled like tequila.
After he’d been swabbed and exsanguinated, he signed the tablet again. The televisions showed people amassed around a new statue, descending by crane, in the shape of a giant tombstone.
―Is there any chance I can see or talk to my mom before I go?
―I’m sorry. No one is permitted to enter the intensive care unit except for doctors and patients.
―Do you think, he started. ―In your professional opinion, given everything you’ve seen so far, do you have any idea if someone with a preexisting condition as serious as hers has any chance of recovery?
The nurse looked at his eyes. She looked away. Phones rang, and she reacted to them. She kicked the computer. He thought she might have slipped into a meditative state, clearing her consciousness of subjectivities and emotions, attempting to bring forth the most appropriate language, the optimal schema whereby to phrase her answer.
Instead, she said nothing. Minutes passed, and her focus diverged to other matters. Until she’d forgotten about him and his mother, and she exhaled, incrementally feeling unwittingly better, centered, more calm, and with only ten hours of her shift to go.
He left without asking again.
HE walked in the woods.
He kneeled in moss. Kept checking that the Glock in his ComforTec Sport Combat Waist Holster fit snug. He saw arrowheads, quartz, granite, sinister-looking fungal bodies, a half-emptied bag of fertilizer, which he nudged with his foot.
His phone vibrated.
A 929 number had texted, Haha
He called Andrew.
It went to voicemail.
He copy and pasted the number and texted, Do you know who this is?
sorry, Andrew texted. we have terrible service up here and also i lost all my contacts. who dis?
Mark, he responded.
Followed by, Do you have that number tho?
Ellipses appeared as Andrew supposedly typed. They disappeared. A crack rang through the trees. He dropped to forest floor with his face in his hands on his knees.
The world didn’t end. Nothing did. White noise collapsed. He kept thinking the word huge in the voice of the president.
His phone vibrated.
no, Andrew had texted. how u been buddy?
He sent the gender-neutral person shrugging emoji.
Sascha fired me
i’m sorry dude that sucks
Did you know their real name is Hiram?
No seriously. Hiram Pearle. They do a good job of keeping it quiet but they’re the heir to this huge corporation that owns like oil and prescription drugs, chemical manufacturing, plastics, artillery, defense contracts. And all the revenue is siphoned thru fake nonprofits to lobby in Washington for far right political shit. It’s all in this book my mom bought when she got sick
classic, Andrew texted.
It’s fucking disgusting, he sent. It’s insane. Did you know before Sascha started doing music they managed a hedge fund?
Andrew didn’t reply for ten minutes.
dang, read the message when he did.
What the fuck, right?
yeah i mean, Andrew replied.
Ellipses appeared, disappeared.
It started to rain.
On the drive to his mother’s house, his phone vibrated.
idk. i guess i’m not that surprised. no one’s perfect. everyone needs money somehow. we all gotta work. life is unfair. get used to it. in the scheme of things it just seems more funny than anything. hiram pearle lol
Andrew texted a picture of his cat sitting on top of his girlfriend’s dog on the edge of a mountain partly shrouded in fog.
HE refreshed his email.
One Last Night, the subject line read.
In accordance with the governor’s mandate, tomorrow Yesternights will begin phasing out indoor events for the meanwhile, as we tirelessly toil and slave to combat viral spread. To this point we’ve upheld the strictest safety guidelines, and we’re proud to announce only 7 of our staff members have tested positive since indoor reopening, and are currently undergoing quarantine procedure preliminaries.
It’s been an honor to serve our loyal clientele these past 3 weeks. They’ll go down in history as forever épico. Keep on the lookout for future outdoor festivities. We just placed an order for 120 Infernessense 1500-Watt Stainless Steel Electric Patio Heaters from our friends at Pearle Electronics.
For now, I’m excited to offer you an épico back-to-back lineup of six Euro and six Houston-based DJs. Let’s make tonight the bane of tomorrow night’s envy. One final blow out. A fuck you to contagion. We’ll keep this party going together. From the heart.
He lay on the couch.
When his phone vibrated, he didn’t answer it.
He listened to the voicemail the nurse left three times.
His mother had been put on a ventilator. Or she was being put on one as he listened. Or she had been the previous day. Or they were waiting for access to one she could be put on imminently. She was in critical condition. He could check in tomorrow for an update.
He turned up the volume on the television.
―Kilaluvem, it said. ―When you know where you’re needed, you know what to do.
The doorbell rang.
He watched the FedEx delivery person sprint back to the Penske truck with a FedEx sticker affixed to its bumper.
The package’s return address read, Academy Ammo.
He broke open the cardboard and let its contents spill over the wall-to-wall carpet.
He pulled the duffel bag from under the futon.
The sun set.
It was a matter of time. Time would happen. For some, it would cease. For most, the next day would be revealed.
He would dream.
He drove to the gas station. The Kia’s tank only a quarter full, but he didn’t refill it. He made like he was going to put air in the tires, loitered by the compressor and into the battered payphone booth.
It still worked. He was surprised he hadn’t thought of it before. He googled the number, inserted three dollars of quarters, and punched it into the dial pad. It suck. The earpiece whined, then made a clicking noise.
The phone rang once.
What picked up sounded like another dimension.
―Hello, the voice brayed. ―Hello?
He couldn’t remember what he was supposed to be doing.
Stuff swam in place.
―Is this Axis Paper LLC?
―Hello, the voice repeated. ―Your connection’s no good.
―Is this Axis Paper LLC?
―Hello? Yes? Axis?
―Can you put me through to Charles Pearle?
―Charles Pearle, he said.
―Do you know your desired party’s extension?
―He’s the owner and CEO.
The line crackled.
He jammed in more quarters.
―Hello, the voice floated and surged.
―I need to talk to Charles Pearle.
―If you’d like I can transfer your call to our international customer service subdivision.
―Listen carefully, he said. ―I need you to take a message. I want Charles Pearle to know I’m going to kill his kid. I’m going to kill Sascha. I’m going there now, and I’m going to kill him and everyone in his establishment. Do you understand? His kid, Sascha. Maybe he still calls them Hiram. Whatever the case, I’m killing them. I’m doing this because he killed my mother. She worked where you work. At the factory in West Northport, New York. He’ll be able to put the pieces together better if you get all that down.
―Would you like to leave your name and a number where you can be reached?
―No thank you. Have a good night.
―Good night, sir.
He hung up.
Gliding across the westbound expressway.
Clipped by echoes, fantasies, sparks of melody, which escaped the car stereo no matter how much he turned it off.
Everything felt new.
The Kia’s interior smelled like frosting.
Raindrops on the windows gleamed iridescent.
But no one tells you how much you’ll regret it.
The moment the first round escapes into a body, spinning and collapsing like elastic.
He felt pins and needles through his selves. Stung with alienness. Probably that’s why so few shooters don’t take their own lives, he thought.
It was too late. He continued to blaze. Flame, heat, kindling, ignition. The key was in the ignition, and he was driving west. Away from the gas station.
Because it wasn’t, he thought. Too late?
He was thinking.
He could still talk to Sascha. He could get something out of them. Blackmail and move out to an island. He could drive to the hospital and get his mother. Merciful deliverance. Sweet release.
They could go home and watch television.
As he dreamed, the passages of entry revealed themselves all by rote. Expressway to expressway to potholes, the shattered glass scattered junctions of industrial Queens.
Hydrants and red lights. Black cars and used tire shops. Faded pennants. Tracking devices. Homemade bombs.
The bowels of the city exposed. It had no structural foundation, no skeleton, no fraternal affinity, identity, nothing to claim. Only bowels wrapped tight, miles of them, unfurling. Slowly at first, then less so. A wild asymptote like the blankness of night.
In a matter of time, he had so much more context. He knew sympathy. He knew love. He understood grand gestures and sacrifice. He’d always known violence had a place. Now he knew where it was.
He got used to it.
He got used to it.
Every day we accommodate more. Life changes. All you can do is adapt and evolve. In another thousand years it won’t seem so outrageous. There’ll be context for what he had done.
It was always too late.
But he felt a little happy, pulling up to the curb without a care for the NO PARKING ANY TIME signs or anyone else. Racking and releasing. Breathing. Deep breaths. He put on his mask, and he smiled.
For such a long time he’d been eager to yield. He’d followed directions, expressed himself in fits. But fits passed, and justice laid down its scales. If he wanted justice, he would have to create it.
As he crept out of the Kia, rifle strapped over shoulder, pistols holstered at ankle and belt, safety off, round chambered, bolt forward, trigger taut, though, he second-guessed himself.
Maybe he was wrong.
Maybe giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, one last night, or infinite nights over, would result in the same thing.
Maybe if he just went home…
He never registered, let alone felt, the shower of bullets that penetrated his chest, throat, and skull.
TRAFFIC on the expressway could be rough, but at that hour of morning it was empty, and the Captain, beginning to register the familiar surroundings of a night well spent and a commute nearly finished, the promise of cold beer and the couch and television, allowed himself to relax, even tap on the steering wheel along to a song on the radio he often heard, but never remembered the title or lyrics to.
It had been a quite a scene. He’d been waiting for years, but when the call finally came, it wasn’t possible to feel prepared.
Still, he’d endured. He’d abided the order. And his men had performed expertly. Tears welled in his eyes at the thought of their courageous resolve.
It was more than he could’ve expected. The whole thing so fresh in his mind it didn’t cohere as a memory.
Instead, it rippled, reverberated, flashed and played over itself, kept rotating, looping, revealing new angles of the experience, in an imitation of real-time reprise and reprisal.
They had mobilized, armored up, taken cues, stuck to the program. No one had flinched or questioned his authority or approach. The paperwork had been brutal, not to mention dealing with the mess of that scumbag. The extreme discretion of the spectacle. The PR slog yet required. All things considered, it was a miracle he was headed home before sunrise.
It gave him little pleasure to resort to violence. But when the governor calls the Special Ops Chief directly to report that the life of a child of one of the most generous and prominent advocates of the city’s police force is in danger, you don’t think about moral relativism. It’s instinctual. You go into beast mode.
If he was being really honest with himself, and why shouldn’t he, for God’s sake, he was a man, a lone warrior, who’d entered battle with solely his wits and his Colt M4A1 SOCOM Carbine with M26-MASS Under-Barrel Attachment Configuration to preserve him, it had been good to cut loose.
Forget the fact that the kid they’d rescued from certain demise had a history of anti-police and military posting on social media. Forget that the dump he operated was notorious for its overt encouragement of the distribution and use of controlled substances, and had organized a number of fundraising events for the Antifa thugs touting to prioritize lives of people too lazy to get a job or secure a little land for themselves, who had mocked and harassed his men all that past summer, and who thought refusing to pay rent was radical protest.
He couldn’t be bothered to sweat the impression he’d made on the squealing sluts and fairies, dolled up in ridiculous costumes to go headbang and sodomize themselves. Prancing on line like they couldn’t hold their piss in, some so infantile pacifiers literally clung to their duck-faced lips. They’d immortalize their pathetic witness accounts on TikTok until the next story broke and they forgot all about what had gone down.
Their lives hadn’t been jeopardized a millisecond. It was his on the line. And that dirtbag hadn’t been goofing off. He’d come with three weapons, hundreds of cartridges. Enough to take out his whole gang had the Captain not been primed, anticipating, coordinated, equipped, concentrated, superlative in body and mind, ready for anything that anyone had to throw at him.
Had they not discovered bags of ammonium nitrate packed in the perp’s trunk? Those faggot urchins were just lucky his men knew where to aim. The degenerate slob hadn’t managed to discharge a round. He’d never had a chance. It had been like falling off a log.
And it had been good to cut loose. Because he knew tomorrow could bring an entirely new slew of ends. Every day was a gamble. Protect and serve. Ignore pressure. Apply judgment. Exact justice. Defend.
Almost half a hundred of his brothers and sisters on the force had lost their lives already that year. To the plague. To thugs and savages. To liberal elites, who tore down monuments, looted small businesses, set squad cars ablaze, broke open ATMs, ransacked government buildings, corporate property, and reveled in the chaos and terror they spread, across the city, the nation, the minds of children, and then to top it all off they wanted to defund his department.
To what holy end? He invoked God. Why were they trying to destroy the country he and his patriots had labored so hard to build back better again?
Well, those bleeding hearts might not stand so opposed to law and order now that he’d saved their doomed souls.
But you had to be careful. There’d be others to replace them. He was scheduled to walk the beat at the basketball stadium the very next afternoon, and he knew they’d be waiting. They were always assembling, waiting for him and his men.
The last thing he wanted was to let down his men. What was more, he wondered sometimes. Was this Armageddon?
The day before they’d been briefed on the status of two officers who’d been diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma linked to contaminants found in the 43rd Precinct’s water main.
The day before that he’d heard about an old lady who they’d contact-traced until the point of exposure was determined to be her own newly adopted cat.
Incidentally, some whackjob had shoved a dead cat to the bottom of the Captain’s trash bin last week.
It wore on you.
The way things were, anyone might crack. Except he couldn’t afford to. Things were just getting started. When they finished retallying the votes, chances were shit would ramp up anew. He had to stay vigilant. He had to have faith.
He tapped on the steering wheel.
He sang along, ―La, la, la…
He turned at the cul-de-sac, rolled into the driveway, cut the engine. The stench of the city, the body, the blood, bullets, and disease were behind him. He opened the door, allowed the salty marsh aroma of the island to seep through.
He could almost taste the Sweet’N Spicy Salmon with Green Beans, Sweet Peppers, and Basmati Rice nestled in its cooler pack on his doorstep, courtesy of the combined efforts of Chefz Hat Inc. and Slæver@ LLC, valued outgrowths of the Pearle Industries Clan.
His phone vibrated.
The Chief, the screen read.
Yeah, the Captain thought, it had been good to cut loose. But this was life. Material reality. Life wasn’t all music and dreaming and shooting. It was business. And it was time to get back to work.
In the thirteenth section of this story, the character Mark Lues refers to and quotes directly from the following documents:
Jane Mayer, Dark Money (New York: Doubleday, 2016), 121.
“Occupations with a High Risk for Benzyne Exposure,” LegalInfo.com, accessed February 12, 2021, https://www.legalinfo.com/content/benzene-exposure/occupations-with-a-high-risk-for-benzyne-exposure.html.