Max studies the billboard from his eleventh floor apartment window. It is a large advertisement on the side of a low rent, art deco apartment that seems to house most of the welfare queens and the deranged panhandlers in this dark and seedy downtown neighborhood. Like everything else about that creepy, old ‘cultural landmark,’ the monthly rent for that billboard space is cheap, though that is not the reason why Max had chosen this fine spot. The reason is that the exit ramp from the 110 Freeway flows passed the large advertisement less than a block away, and there are no obstructions between the billboard and the exit ramp. Thousands of commuters pass by that sign every day; and unless they are totally zoned out, they cannot but see the black block letters against the white background scream out to them:
When you’ve got to go to court,
don’t forget to bring your GUNN
Max Gunn, Attorney at Law
213 555 GUNN
Back when he had first compared the number of eyeballs glancing at his sign with the monthly rent, he had figured that the billboard lease is a steal. So many eyeballs means so many telephone calls to his office; so many telephone calls to his office means so many retainers; and so forth. Indeed, that billboard generated so much cash for him over the years he almost gave the lessor a nice Christmas bonus along with his normal rent payment. In the end, he spent that excess dough on a gift for his favorite intern; but he continued to have a warm feeling about that simple ad every time he looked out his apartment window at the black block letters.
He no longer feels warm and fuzzy inside when he looks at his sign. Even though the rent remains cheap, not one civilian automobile has exited from the 110 Freeway since the night the temperature soared over 130° Fahrenheit. The roads now only appear populated by L.A.P.D. vehicles, L.A. P.S.A. motorcycles, and National Guard transports. Now and then a tank rolls down Figueroa. When that happens, the lobby windows downstairs vibrate; and the tenants and staff who just happen to be in the lobby then run away from the windows, like they are avoiding the plague. They do not fear that the shattered glass will cut them open. Rather, they fear that, when the glass falls away, the hot air outside will blow into what they imagine is a hermetically sealed, climate-controlled space.
No one inside the Crest Apartment Building (known as the ‘CAB’ by those Los Angeleans who are just too hip to call anything by its full name) knows the temperature read outside. The building manager is a thirty-something, Filipino twink always seen in the same tight, leather pants and fitted jacket. He never smiles, so much as glares and smirks, either like he is trying to figure out what mischief you are up to, or he is laughing inside at how he is going to make your life a little harder in response to some real or imagined transgression. His name is Serge Santos, and he sure acts like he knows what the outside temperature is at any given time; but Max has viewed the fear veiled behind his contemptuous grin. Max has seen the uncertainty in his dark and penetrating eyes. Serge does not know anything more than the rest of us; but he is dangerous just the same, as he will go to great lengths to deny that he is as ignorant and as manipulated as every other ‘guest’ languishing inside the CAB.
In fact, the tenants and staff who made it back into the CAB before they sealed off the doors are not ‘guests,’ but rather ‘prisoners;’ but the L.A. P.S.A. insists on calling them ‘guests’ and reserves the right to educate with a firearm or a garrote anyone who fails to toe the line. No one has pushed the envelop on this score, even though the ‘guests’ have not been able to leave for the last six weeks and are starting to get stir crazy. They stay in line, since there is a dark rumor making the rounds that the L.A. P.S.A. has given the CAB management a green light to expel any troublemakers; and of course expulsion means stepping outside and confronting whatever is out there.
Max deduces the temperature may be even higher than 150° Fahrenheit. He bases his deduction on the air-conditioned, helmeted, one-piece space suits the officers wear outside. They look like astronauts exploring the remains of an ancient city on an alien planet. They walk slowly and cautiously, perhaps so as to conserve the clean air fed to them through a tube that extends out from the center of their facemask, but perhaps for a more superstitious reason. The fact that such a vibrant, cosmopolitan area could be totally quiet and dead within a few weeks cannot but call to mind the fear early men had had of a sudden turn in the climate or an unforeseen loss of the harvest. Life seems so tenuous when once proud glass buildings seem to wobble like cardboard cutouts in the creepy haze of hot, heavy, stagnant air. Perhaps even the cocky sons of bitches within the L.A. P.S.A. fear that one wrong move on their part may cause the buildings above their heads and the asphalt beneath their boots to blow away like ashes in a fan. Regardless, whenever Max catches an officer or two walking down the middle of Figueroa, he thinks of an old man with a drawn firearm trying to look proud with his straight back and tilted nose, but nevertheless looking weak and unsure with his halting steps. Max almost pities them, except that they at least are out there, while he and the other tenants can do no more than to stare out their apartment windows at a hostile and dead world.
There is another reason Max deduces that the temperature is higher than 150° Fahrenheit. His billboard has faded considerably in the past few weeks. In the past few days, moreover, it has started to peel; and as a result, a long and jagged strip of billboard paper along the right side has peeled halfway down. It flutters in the breeze, and promises to be the first of many strips to rip away in the next few days. So the heat is tearing down his sign, just as it has torn away much of the life he had lived once in the fast lane and has blinded his only son.
Max looks beyond his billboard to the Staples Center. Not too long ago an assortment of automobiles and pedestrians would be crowded by the enormous convention center by this time of the evening. The crazed mass would be there to see a Katy Perry concert, or to watch the L.A. Lakers lose, or to rubberneck a star-studded film opening. Max seldom indulged himself, but he found a kind of perverse pleasure in watching the ants scurry from one neon light display to the next in that sprawling redevelopment zone.
Now, the Staples Center is dead, except for the IMAX big screen located about midway up the front side of a Brunei Hotel. God only knows why the big guys running this locked down city have chosen to keep the big screen humming twenty-four hours a day. Actually, on second thought, the reason is not hard to guess. Everyone inside the CAB can see the big screen from their windows (the units on the other side of the building are offices leased out to various lawyers, accountants, and advertisers). Even when they pull their shades, the images on the big screen seem to seep through the veil. Max has seen the beautiful vistas, the rainbow flags flapping in the breeze, the children smiling broadly, like they know what a lottery is and have won the grand prize, and the many other video clips that they show on the big screen. He has seen them so often they feature prominently in his dreams. He suspects the other tenants have seen these video clips in their dreams as well, though the influence is so subtle very few living in the CAB seem to have made the connection between their dreams and the soft or strange video clips bombarding their subconscious minds all the time. It does not take much of a mental leap to see the propaganda value of that big screen; and so the tyrants ruling this dead city will be remiss, if they do not keep it on.
Max does not switch on his television anymore. Since the night the whole world, or at least the Greater Los Angeles area (which is much the same as the whole world in the eyes of most Los Angeleans), descended into hell, there has been only one operable station on the boob tube. This station broadcasts what is also on the IMAX big screen. Max suspects that a lot of his neighbors still turn on their boob tubes, if only from force of habit; but he is happy enough to take a quick look now and then at the big screen across the way.
Ever since that night, the powers that be have added half hour shows to the mix. Most of them are brain dead sitcoms that cater to the lowest common denominator. Several are ‘true life’ dramas. One such drama is coming on now.
The opening theme song is memorable. It accompanies video clips of the L.A.P.D. or the L.A. P.S.A. handcuffing bozos or finishing off car chases. Behind every one of these arrest scenes, there is a rainbow flag fluttering idyllically; a reminder that order always prevails, a sign that the state will protect her own, when push comes to shove. The U.N. and the rainbow flags also appear on the sides of the L.A.P.D. black and whites. The criminals in these video clips always manage to kick at the dual flag images before being lowered into the backseat.
Bad Boys, Bad Boys, whatcha gonna do?
Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?
Bad Boys, Bad Boys, whatcha gonna do?
Whatcha gonna do when they come for you?
This is the latest episode of COPS: From the Files of the L.A. P.S.A. The L.A. Climate Control Authority (‘Saving the Planet, for children, pets, and small things everywhere’) and McDonald’s (‘Serving our green energy efficient menu just the way you like it’) are the proud sponsors. Except for mentioning both of these sponsors after the fun theme song, the half-hour show is commercial free (‘COPS commercial free commitment to every family, because you deserve it’).
In this episode, we see thirty minutes worth of grainy video clips of the massacre at MacArthur Park. One greasy zombie after another enters that park from the Alvarado side only to have his head blown off by a shotgun blast. The editor is partial to the ‘jumpers’ and the ‘walkers;’ and an unknowing observer might think that every shotgun blast resulted in a severed head catapulting into the night sky, or a headless corpse staggering several more yards into the park.
The underlying message of this episode is clear enough: Your neighborly L.A. P.S.A. takes care of these bozos, so you should take care of the L.A. P.S.A.
Max turns away from the window. He had seen this episode take place in real life, and he has seen the footage on the big screen a dozen times since the whole world fell apart. He wonders if the regime is going to bother in time with new programming, or if the same greasy, nondescript heads are going to fly off of their spines every time they cut to this show. He suspects the latter. Reruns are a lot cheaper, and repetition dulls the senses from conscious resolve to sad and blithering madness. It is Chinese Water Torture on the big screen, brought to you by the regular sponsors, and intended to turn the survivors into the kind of easily managed morons that the state prefers. The only question is why. Why kill off a significant part of the population, and then consign the few survivors to glass monoliths like the CAB? The powers that be were running everything all nice and tidy anyway. Oh, sure, they had maintained the illusion of democracy; elections every two years; debates on public television (‘breaking down all the issues, because you deserve it’); even flash polls to elicit the public will at any given time (‘because you deserve it’); but only the idealistic and the stupid had taken any of these democratic rituals seriously. Most everyone else had gone on with their lives. Like Adam, they were busy groveling a little bit of sustenance, maybe even a momentary pleasure if they could afford it, out of the sand (or in this case asphalt) beneath their feet. They nodded acquiescence to the popular opinions, and plugged their ears to the unpopular opinions. They knew what to believe: ‘I’m spiritual, but not religious,’ or ‘I’m a BBW, not a fat slob,’ or ‘I’m tolerant of diverse opinions, but intolerant of those opinions that deviate from the norm.’ They knew what to buy: another iPhone every year, since naturally the previous iPhone must be totally useless by then; ‘green homes,’ even if the ‘green homes’ are pricier and pollute more than the regular ones, just because someone in the know said that they are ‘green.’ They even knew what kinds of relationships to have: marriages that ‘consciously uncouple’ after about four or five years; homosexual dalliances, even if you do not particularly like how your ass feels afterwards; platonic friendships with hairy guru potheads from the Far East, because these people have such ‘intense spiritual insight.’ Yes, most men and women had drunk the Kool-Aid and come back for seconds and thirds, so it begs the question: Why consign them to glass cages? Why turn them into docile zoo animals when they had been just as docile while roaming about the streets?
Because they have to do so, Max thinks. After all, how many can survive, when the stagnant air out there remains consistently above 150° Fahrenheit? Is it not truly better to be a zoo animal than a corpse baked black on the asphalt?
Except that, regardless of his deduction, Max is not really certain that it is 150° Fahrenheit outside. After all, does it not defy everything that we know about the climate for the temperature to rise to that abnormally high level and then to stay there, day after day, without any apparent fluctuation? Not only is the temperature constant, but the clouds do not seem to move. The sun rises, the sun sets, the moon does the same; otherwise; there is nothing at all moving up there, except for the surveillance helicopters sweeping in between the dark grey sky rises at all hours of the day or night. It is like the heat is so heavy even the sky cannot wiggle out from the scratchy blanket draped over the earth, and yet every ounce of reason tells Max that this cannot possibly be so. After all, is it not true that the only unchangeable fact about the weather is that it changes pretty much all the time? The weather changes on Venus all the time, and it is a whole lot hotter over there than it is here. So come on now, ask yourself with a clearheaded, honest mind, what in God’s name is really happening out there?
Max steps into the bedroom. Adam is sound asleep, but his fever appears to have broken. The poor boy has been fighting the flu bug off and on since the heat took away his eyesight. The retired doctor who lives three floors down has not been able to provide a diagnosis, let alone a treatment plan, except for the usual boilerplate about getting plenty of rest and hydration. The only upside of seeing the doctor is that, as a result of the doctor’s recommendation, the CAB management has increased the drinkable water ration for Max’s unit. The clear plastic water jugs are stored in the pantry. Every other Wednesday the sixteen or seventeen year old CAB water boy (another twink fag on the staff, no doubt picked up by Serge Santos at a twink fag nightclub in West Hollywood way back when there were such opportunities for mischief in our world) exchanges empty jugs for full ones. Every other Wednesday Max smiles pleasantly at the silly fag, agrees with him that the ‘new wave sound’ is making a comeback, and bids him a good day. In fact, Max barely can keep down his gorge when the silly fag is in his unit, because the silly fag apparently has an aversion to soap and water. No doubt, the reason is that soap and water would wash out the man goo inside his ass, Max thinks, when he shuts the door on the water boy.
Anyway, returning to the condition of his son, Max thinks that the actual problem here is more psychosomatic than anything. If there was a tenacious flu bug making the rounds, then Max would have succumbed by now. He is in close proximity to his son almost all the time. The exception is when he travels down to the lobby to get a bite to eat and to return with food for his son. Moreover, if there was a flu bug, then others in the building would be sick as well; but so far as Max has heard, no one else is suffering in this way. There is plenty of old fashioned depression; what the old timers used to call the blues; and in recent days, a kind of stir craziness has started to take hold. But the flu bug has yet to make its way into their hermetically sealed tomb; except in the case of Adam, and Max thinks that Adam’s flu bug is not really a bug at all, so much as a dark and recurring nightmare from which the sad boy has yet to awaken completely.
And Adam is not going to awaken from that recurring nightmare until he can see again. Max is sure of that fact. After all, even when he awakens, Adam remains trapped in his own dark world. Indeed, Adam sees considerably more in his restless sleep, his dreams, his memories, than when he is sitting up in their bed or feeling his way to the bathroom. The blind can escape into their heads a lot better than seeing people can. No doubt, this is a part of how the brain will compensate for the loss of sight; but the problem with the imagination is that a dark and sinister nightmare is never further away than around the next corner. The most pleasant of dreams or memories can be turned, like overripe fruit left too long in the sun; and the beautiful face inside the mind’s eye can turn into a mad ghoul wielding his pipe, or a charred corpse on the road, or a decapitated, snarling head flying through the air. Moreover, behind all that gore there is the deeper sense of loss, the heavy greyness of death; and nightmares tap into that as well. Adam often calls out for his mother, when he is lost in his sleep; and in those moment, Max wants to leap from his eleventh floor window. He hates to hear the sadness in his son’s cry; but even more so, he hates himself for being envious of the love shared still between his ex-wife and his son. Caroline likely is dead. God only knows for sure. But the love shared between mother and son, the tortured love of separation, all that depth of emotion is the kind of feeling Max has disavowed and yet paradoxically still craves. Is Max weak because he is allowing himself now to crave the aching heart that only a true love can foster? Or is Max weak because he had been closing himself off from that aching heart?
Max cannot answer those questions; and, deep down, he does not desire to do so. Better to leave some of the laces untied and instead to focus on what action on his part will help his son in the long run. The doctor has indicated the blindness may just go away over time. The brain has a remarkable capacity for self-healing, especially if the patient is otherwise young and healthy. In time, a living part of the brain will compensate for much of a dead part; and while that is most apparent with motor skills, it is also true of the five senses. The doctor has heard of stroke victims seeing again through a part of the brain that would not be normally associated with eyesight. Doctors cannot do anything that will make this happen. It just happens, or it does not, sort of like what men used to think of as divine intercession or as miracles.
Well, Old Testament miracles may be good enough for the retired doctor with the Coke bottle glasses and the bad hip; but Max demands something more for his own son. He suspects that if the doctor were in his shoes, he would want something more as well. The problem is that Max cannot just swing over to one of the high priced Beverly Hills boutique doctors to get a second opinion. So far as he knows, there are no other doctors left in Los Angeles but the retired Jew living three floors down. Furthermore, he is a ‘guest,’ remember? ‘Guests’ stay put, because to act otherwise is to be ‘rude’ towards ones ‘hosts.’ God forbid a ‘guest’ should be thrown out from the shade and into the heat. Something bad may happen out there. Maybe, nothing will happen. But who can know for sure?
And so Max desires to do something more, but then does nothing. He just stews in his own impotence. Apart from angling for a bit more water for his sick boy, and snatching an extra muffin or two from his food ration in the lobby, he just gets angrier with himself for not breaking out of this damned tomb, finding out for sure what is out there, and seeing if there is better medical care for his son. God knows how many Hajis he killed, but Max cannot seem to slay his own fear. He cannot cut off its head and hide it in the sand. He cannot do anything, but feel how it grips at his heart, and subdues his mind into a grey somnolence.
There is an abrasive triple knock on the apartment door. Adam does not stir. He is dead to the world right now, but Max is pissed off anyway that a man sees fit to knock when everyone on this floor knows that his son is trying to get over a nasty flu bug. What is it with these people anyway? If they desire to be a bunch of stir crazy morons, then that is fine with him, so long as they leave the two of them alone.
Max looks through the peephole. Lars Tubbs is standing much too near to the door as usual, but Max can identify him by the squinting eyes (will not wear glasses or contact lenses, because doing so is an admission that a sixty year old obese, bankrupt, twice divorced paralegal is no longer ‘hot date material’ for a twenty something beach blond), the crooked nose, and the pockmarked face. If the tubby man would just stand back a foot or so, then Max would see his tight, polyester, green suit and oversized, synthetic rings. The man is a laughingstock around the CAB; and Max suspects that, while he may be socially inept to some extent, he is accentuating his clownish character so as to get some attention. If you cannot get men to respect you, or women to have sex with you, then at the very least you should try to get them to laugh at you. That is better than total, excruciating anonymity; and really, in the end, is there anything actually more Hollywood than putting on a performance just to get some attention? After all, is Lars Tubbs really all that different from a Joaquin Phoenix or a Shia LaBeouf?
Lars is about to triple knock again, when Max opens the door.
What is it, Lars? Max asks with obvious disdain.
Lars is flustered a moment. Max can see that weak emotion in his narrow eyes. But Lars does a good job in hiding his weakness behind a broad smile and a pair of rosy cheeks. The fact that Lars is wearing blood red lipstick also draws attention away from his brief uncertainty.
Important ‘all hands’ meeting in the lobby before dinner, Lars explains. I think your boy is exempt…
Max senses that Lars is searching for news about Adam’s condition. Keep the stir crazies locked up long enough and they start to gossip like catty whores in a bordello. Spreading half-truths and innuendo is a way to pass the time; and there is considerable time to pass, when the world outside appears completely unchanged since that night.
I’ll be there; Max interrupts him. Is it true that the P.S.A. is sending one of their public relations guys to give us a pep talk?
Rumor is that it is actually a guy from Climate Control, Lars answers with the obvious pride and enthusiasm of a man in the know imparting a few crumbs of his inside knowledge.
Climate Control, huh? Max considers. Didn’t think we CAB ‘guests’ made it on their radar screens.
We lawyers make up about a quarter of the CAB ‘guests,’ Lars whispers confidentially. They are probably afraid that we are going to file a class action.
We lawyers, Max thinks with disdain. What a crock. Damn paralegals are lawyers about as much as CHP ticket writers are police officers. But best to let it pass. There are far better reasons to be angry than with something Lars says.
I’ll make it down there in time, Max says, while shutting the front door.
Oh, I almost forgot, Lars blurts out, while holding up a tin cup partially full of dimes and quarters. Collection for the ‘Good Citizen Fund.’
Once a week, the ‘guests’ assembled in the lobby vote by a secret ballot to elect one of their own the ‘Good Citizen.’ The winner gets what is inside the tin cup. It is usually just enough for the ‘Good Citizen’ to bribe the swish water boy for an additional jug. Water is the primary commodity within the CAB, and cigarettes constitute the currency of the black market. One way or another, all of economics ultimately comes down to water and tobacco. The ‘Good Citizen’ is able to make a killing in this economic system, when he has the extra jug in his pantry. For that reason, most ‘guests’ covet the ‘Good Citizen’ title, even if it is lost on them that they are anything but ‘good citizens’ when they do what needs to be done behind the scenes to win.
Max wants to beat Lars’s fat face into the back of his skull; but Max has enough diplomatic savvy in him to keep a pleasant expression on his tired face. Max reaches into his pants pocket, retrieves four quarters, and drops them into the tin cup clickety-clack. He watches as Lars’s entire face beams. One would have thought that he had stuffed that tin cup with literally hundreds of dollars.
Lars is counting the quarters in his tin cup, as Max shuts the door on him.
Max glances out the window on his way to his son. Another ‘jumper’ flies through the air. The concert lights in the background bathe the twirling head in a surreal, white light that is almost heavenly. It could be a comet, or an angel, except that the COPS producers first broadcast a headshot at normal speed and then immediately ‘recap’ it in slow motion. In the slow motion feed, it is quite clearly not a comet or an angel. The contorted lips and bulging eyes look much too ghoulish. The blood streaking out from the dangling veins imply Halloween, more so than a Midsummer Night’s Dream. As if to suggest that violence is one, big, stomach quivering joke, the COPS producers emblazon the words ‘Look,’ or ‘Watch Out,’ or ‘LOL’ in childish, bubble gum pink letters beside each headshot explosion or catapult. Massacres are silly cartoons, except with better graphics.
Max again checks in on his son. He knows he is getting compulsive on this score. Maybe, he too is becoming a little stir crazy from the cramped smallness of his new world. Maybe, watching his son sleep is the only activity keeping him from pulling out his own hair one strand at a time.
Max grabs his topcoat. It is a queer formality, since of course he will not be going outside to dine this fine evening. Nevertheless, any soldier or sailor in a warzone will tell you that maintaining the small rituals of normal life is really critical in tilting the old grey matter towards sanity. And who knows? Maybe, on this occasion, the powers that be will unseal the doors and reveal the ‘climate emergency’ to have been an elaborate practical joke after all, just like the big, bad ‘turkey shoot’ in MacArthur Park had been put on for shits and giggles. Max knows deep down that this is not true; and so try as he may, while he then puts on his Italian leather topcoat in front of a dresser mirror, he cannot fake a grin.
* * *
Every time the elevator door opens into the lobby, and Max steps out for his dinner ration, the sound system is playing The Carpenters’ We’ve Only Just Begun. He must be a creature of habit, because he always steps out at exactly the same moment in the song. Every evening is déjà vu, and he just hopes that he never forgets how utterly peculiar that should be. The moment he thinks all this repetition, this underlying sameness from day to day, is totally normal, he will have lost whatever grasp on sanity he had been able to hold onto this long. Maybe, he will be happier then; but it will not be good for his son. No one will look out for his son, when he is a happy idiot, roaming the halls of the CAB with a tin cup half full of change, and thinking about how to become ‘Good Citizen.’
Maxine is sitting at the front desk. She is neither CAB management, nor CAB security, but rather a fat slob tenant in a green pant suit two sizes too tiny for her girth. She wears an outdated bouffant, and chews gum like a cow chews her cud. Serge Santos lets her sit at that front desk for exactly twenty minutes before the dinner ration, because she has volunteered to affix name tags on all the tenants who come down for a bite to eat. She writes out the names before coming down from the fifteenth floor for her twenty minute stint. Then, as the depressed and the stir crazy exit from the elevator, sometimes two at a time, but more often a lonely, dejected bastard with his or her head hung heavily on thinning shoulders, Maxine will gesture for them to step on over for their name tag. The tenants always oblige, even though they all know each other’s names, because sticking a name tag to a lapel is something to do.
Max walks over for his name tag without even noticing that this time she had not gestured for him. He stands in front of the desk and waits for her thick and sweaty fingers to affix the name tag to his faded lapel. When she does not do anything after ten seconds, he glances down and sees that she is staring at a black and white photograph. He is trying to make sense of the hazy photograph when Maxine notices his watchful eye. She responds by clutching the black and white image over her heart and blushing crimson red.
Oh, you Peeping Tom, Maxine says with a laugh.
Just curious, Beautiful, Max shrugs.
I bet you are, Maxine offers with a playful wink.
So what’s the photograph? Max asks after a while.
Oh, this little thing, Maxine says with such a fake and overdone Southern drawl that she sounds like a caricatured Southern Lady in Gone With The Wind.
Max just smiles. Maxine also has the kind of fat face he would love there and then to smash into the back of her skull. Nevertheless, he keeps his cool on the outside no matter the emotions bubbling up from his bowels.
Something happened, Maxine whispers conspiratorially. I know, because I have been deputized. We deputies get the inside scoop on everything. That is all I can say for now…
Not even a hint for your favorite tenant? Max asks with a devilish smile.
I can’t, Maxine whispers. A lady’s got nothing but her good name.
Max stares at her without uttering another syllable. He has learned that too much talking actually gets in the way of the natural tendency of the person with a secret to divulge whatever he or she knows. We are all natural born and bred snitches. We shall even snitch on ourselves, if by so doing we can manifest just how much in the know we have been all along.
Oh, okay, honey bunny, Maxine states at last, while she melts like butter in his penetrating eyes. Just a peek…
Max snatches the black and white image from her fingers. It is a picture of one of the CAB side doors. It is half open. A man is stepping through the half open space without even bothering with his key, assuming he has one. It is too hard to tell if this man is a tenant or a street bum. Moreover, Max cannot sense when this photograph had been taken. If it had been taken within the previous six weeks, then someone other than law enforcement is coming and going as he pleases. If it had been taken before that night, then it is of no consequence to anyone inside the CAB now.
Max looks at Maxine as if to ask: How did you get to view this? What is it?
Deputies get privileges, Maxine answers his look. If you want to be in the know, then you should volunteer. Climate Control will recognize your work and dedication. Who knows? Maybe someday you’ll be able to sit where I am seated right now. I’ll keep the seat warm for you in the meantime…
Max tosses back the photograph. He grabs his own name tag, and leaves, while Maxine is still speaking. He knows he lost his cool, but he has less fucking tolerance for bullshit nowadays. Maybe, his testiness means he is stir crazy too.
Max steps into the CAB Lounge. It is a large room broken up into several conversation areas. Each conversation area consists of a couch and three chairs centered on a glass coffee table. There is a vase of long stemmed calla lilies on each coffee table. The flowers are long dead and have not been replaced; and, with the vague scent of spoiled vase water hanging in the air, the dead flowers simply add to the overall impression of stepping into a mausoleum. The Climate Control bigwigs apparently have given Serge Santos permission to run the AC in the lobby; so the CAB Lounge is not only a dead place, but a deep freeze zone, lit here or there by strategically positioned spotlights, and saturated in the rich mahogany tones of an old fashioned men’s clubhouse.
On one side are floor to ceiling windows looking out on Figueroa. Back in the day, as we are already referring to the time before that night, the tenants and the staff could see vehicles and pedestrians floating across the tinted glass as ghostly images. It was as if the tenants and the staff were underwater, and a robust underwater city could be intimated yards beyond that fourth wall. Now, with the exception of law enforcement personnel on patrol, or the occasional, loud tank rumbling down the deserted street, there is no movement out there, not even a bird soaring in between the dead buildings, or a breeze picking up a bit of debris. Because of the tint on the windows, everything is either dark grey stillness or black stillness; and instead of seeing a robust, underwater city, the tenants and staff now imagine seeing the remnants of a dead city upon an alien planet. Everything out there has been cooked dead. The air out there is likely a poisonous concoction. The pressure out there is likely enough to shrivel a man’s flesh and bones into something like crumpled, bloodied paper. Of course, even a cursory knowledge of science would show that the air and the pressure really cannot be anything like they imagine. For starters, the AC would have killed all the tenants and staff sometime ago, notwithstanding the filters; and if there is enough pressure to shrivel a man so, then there is enough pressure to kill those law enforcement personnel on patrol, notwithstanding their special space suits.
Nevertheless, in times like these, fear prevails over reason every time. It is actually good that this should be so in a way, because fear fuels that survival instinct that gives men a fighting chance in crisis situations. The problem is the relative ease with which such fearful men can be manipulated into embracing a ‘solution’ contrary to their moral conscience and their common sense. The first sign is the unquestioned acceptance of illogical assertions (the air is poisonous, the pressure is abnormally high). The second is a kind of vague stir craziness on matters for which no one would have given a second thought beforehand. Once mundane tasks now take on great importance. Once peripheral people become insiders or even group leaders. It takes very little spark then to set aflame the last remnants of the old world; and as Max walks further into that CAB Lounge, and focuses his eyes on the tenants huddled around the food on the pool table, he wonders if the spark is about to be ignited. After all, in this context, is not a side door left open a bona fide incident demanding right now corrective action? Moreover, this means that one of us is either careless or malevolent. Given how we are all so tenuously close to certain death, what must we do to this person, once we have determined who he is of course? More importantly, once that bad seed has been dispatched, how can we be sure that this is never going to occur again? Max cannot answer these questions any better than he once could have made out the intricate details of the ghostly images of cars and people floating across the tinted windows. He can sense the answers, but not quite grasp them enough to hear those answers spoken in his own conscious mind. This gives him a real unease, like he is wandering into a warehouse full of gunpowder without knowing if or when someone is going to strike a match.
Max studies the tenants huddled around the food on the pool table. They each clutch their red ration tickets like a child with a lollipop. They have been fed well enough, and yet the ravenous look on each of their faces suggests that they are a meal away from starvation. They speak very little to one another, as they wait anxiously for Serge Santos to give them the green light to devour like famished pigs what they have been allotted. Maybe they think that if they talk too much they will give away inadvertently some advantage, though with those red ration cards spelling out clearly what each person can have it is hard to see how any one could have an advantage over his neighbor.
Powder ready for the match, Max thinks, as he keeps his distance by now pretending to focus his eyes on the dead city beyond the tinted windows. They let Maxine see the photograph. They probably have shown it to others already, each person thinking that he or she alone has been given this inside knowledge. First, they will bring the peripheral people into their conspiracy; people with so little self-esteem they will grab onto any chance to be an ‘insider,’ fatties like Maxine, or pretend lawyers like Lars. Then, they will focus in on the lazy; those who no longer have any fight left in them, if they ever had any, ‘sheeple’ who would rather go along with the mass than stand alone. Those whom they finally cannot break will be deemed guilty of some transgression or another, maybe of opening that side door, maybe of something else altogether, and will be set out to fend for themselves. It is not difficult to forecast how the dominoes will fall, especially when one can observe well beforehand how they have been lined up.
I saw you speaking with Maxine over there, Lars Tubbs whispers suddenly into Max’s right ear, while also rattling his tin cup by his side.
Max is taken aback. He had been so lost in his thought that he had failed to see the ugly, fat man in the polyester, green suit approach him. He is angry at himself for not being more observant. He keeps his emotions to himself, as is his norm; and so the two tenants stand side by side staring out at a dead world.
Did she say anything? Lars asks. You can tell me, if she did.
Only that the Dodgers have cancelled all their home games this season, Max responds without removing his eyes from the window. Pity. I doubt there is any way I can sell back my season tickets.
She’s a Lesbian, Lars whispers. Did you know that? A real beaver eater…
Max remains silent. He will allow Lars to say his piece, because Lars may disclose something that gives Max a better idea of just how large and imminent the conspiracy is. Surely, if there is a conspiracy afloat, Lars is going to be with the ‘insiders,’ since there is no one more peripheral than this sweaty paralegal.
Don’t believe a word she says, Lars hisses. She claims to be a ‘deputy.’ I have been deputized, and I can assure you no one else has been. Not one other soul! When was the last time you saw her passing around the tin cup, huh? I say never; and I should know, because while others take turns eliciting donations, I alone have been entrusted with the project. The others borrow the tin cup, but I alone lock it away every night. That is the truth. If you don’t believe me, then ask Serge Santos. He will tell you that I am what I am.
Lars rattles his coins, while he steps over to Max’s left side. Lars glances back at the others repeatedly. They seem disinterested in anything else but the plates of food. Nevertheless, Lars is sure that they are trying to eavesdrop even now, as they are envious of the fact that he has been deputized, and they have not been given so much as a pat on the back. Too many of these cursed tenants are a problem, because they just do not get the big picture. Or they downright refuse to get the big picture. Regardless, they are all just using up food, water, and air better left for himself, Serge Santos, and perhaps this here Max fellow…
Did she show you anything? Lars asks.
So Lars has seen the photograph, Max thinks, while remaining careful not to drop his poker face.
It is a lie whatever she showed you, Lars continues. She must have some sort of counterfeit. Disinformation is the devil’s game, you know. Sure, there is a problem, a little something that needs to be fixed, like an old car that needs a tune up; but the devil will point out the muffler, when really it is the exhaust that needs to be replaced. Leave it to a queer to play the devil’s game. Lesbos cannot possibly know which side is up, so they’re easy pickings for that old liar. So tell me, friend, what did she show you? You can tell me. We are brothers in the bar, you and I; and we lawyers need to keep together, let me tell you. That is how we are going to survive this. Staying close, like the Jews and the queers. Brotherhood, man, this is all about our brotherhood. So what did she show you?
Max shrugs. He continues to look impassively at the dead intersection of 9th and Figueroa, as the dull evening grey whimpers into the blackness of night. He is saddened to see the day die so meekly. Whatever the problem out there, it has taken the passion out of the passage of time. Dusk gives way to night like a clammy corpse hardens. It changes, to be sure; but it stays as dead as before.
Lars looks quizzically at Max’s profile. He rattles his tin cup aggressively.
Look at the others, Lars whispers, while rolling his eyes toward the mass of tenants huddled anxiously about the pool table. They are not going to live to see the new order. Oh, sure, we’ll feed them. We have not lost moral decency, after all; but they will starve anyway; and the ones that don’t starve will wake up one morning, draw a hot bath, and cut their wrists. And do you know why? It is because moral decency cannot save a man from his own weak nature. Do not think that I am speculating about any of this. I have been deputized! I know the truth! I have seen the blueprints for the new order with my own naked eyes, so help me if I am lying to you! Friend, there is so much I can share with you; new plans; dark conspiracies; perhaps just what you need to hear to save your son…
Max turns abruptly. He stares coldly into Lars’s face. Surely, Lars has hit a nerve; and though Max hates that he has dropped his poker face, it matters a lot more to him just then to see if he can read anything definitive in Lars’s sick and demented eyes. Does Lars really know something that would affect his son? Or is Lars referencing Adam simply because he knows that that is the best way to get Max’s attention? Max senses it is the latter, but he is not altogether sure.
Let me show you something, Lars continues, once Max turns his attention back towards the window. What I have in my pocket is something that fat bitch could not have shown you. Oh, she thinks she is in the know; but she is not. See for yourself. She has not been deputized. She does not know what she is saying.
Lars puts his tin cup on a table. He then removes a photograph folded in his pants pocket. It has been wrinkled and creased. Moreover, part of the black and white image has been blotted out by Lars’s sweat stains. Nevertheless, Max sees the unidentified man entering through the open side door. The only noted difference between this photograph and Maxine’s is that this one only includes a date and time stamp on the lower right hand corner. If the stamp is accurate, then the man entered through the open door last Wednesday at 2:35PM. It is an easy enough task to counterfeit a date and time stamp, and so Max just cannot know for sure if the stamp is real. What he knows for sure is that the open side door will be the incident that justifies soon thereafter the purge.
Lars thinks he can ride this wave, Max thinks. But he forgets that, in the end, Robespierre also had to slide his neck under the guillotine blade. They will use him, then discard him, just like the brass did to me back in the day. It is as dead as a doornail outside, and yet the world in here is much the same as ever. In fact, that is the good news, because the same mindset that actually gave me a fighting chance out there will give me and my son a fighting chance in here. I just need to keep my cards close to my vest until it is the proper time to strike.
I don’t know what to say, Max whispers with feigned humility.
That is okay, friend, Lars responds with just a hint of a smile. I shall tell you what you need to know. We are in this together. Forget the pretenders, all their posturing and lies. Stay with me, and I’ll make sure you and your son have a place in the new order.
Lars folds his photograph. He stuffs it into his pants pocket, and looks to see if any of the others are watching him. They seem to be focused entirely on the plated food, but Lars is sure that that is a ruse. Of course, they are envious of him, watching him out of the corners of their eyes, trying to figure out what he has. Well, they can keep on guessing. He will be three steps ahead of them, close enough to toy with them, but far enough to remain altogether inscrutable to their pee brains. They still won’t know a damn thing when it is lights out for all of them, except that Lars Tubbs, Esquire actually made it, and they did not.
Lars takes up his tin cup. He rattles it, smiles at his friend, and wanders towards the pool table to see who else wants to toss in some nickels and dimes.
Max removes his red ration ticket from his coat. He has the same colored ticket as the others, except that his includes an allotment for his son. They are all on the same ship, anchored on the surface of a dead sea, remaining beneath the deck to protect themselves from God knows what. In many ways, life really has not changed. Max considers this point, and then he turns to join the others.
Attention, Serge Santos yells, while stepping out from his big office, and clapping his hands over his head. Come on, folks. We’re all in this together, so huddle around.
Most of the tenants are so focused on the plated food that they are slow to look up. Lars is standing by Serge Santos’s side within a few seconds. Maxine waddles into the CAB Lounge from the front desk. She has a big smile upon her lips, like she is in love with the skinny, Filipino faggot in the tight, dark leather pantsuit. The sixteen or seventeen year old CAB water boy also hovers close to Serge Santos. The water boy is wearing an identical pantsuit. At first glance, he could be Serge Santos’s younger brother.
Only one of the tenants near the plated food steps out of the group so as to be closer to Serge Santos. He is a tall, beefy Kraut named Heinrich. His crew cut suggests that he is ex-military; probably a Gestapo wannabe, who had been born too late in the twentieth century to have been a German Nazi; here in the States a retired L.A.P.D. cop still smarting from an Internal Affairs investigation into his ‘arrest procedures’ and ‘interrogation techniques,’ especially with the African American community. He moved into a CAB apartment very soon before that night, and as a general rule he keeps to himself; so the tenants know very little about him. Based on how the other tenants by the pool table step aside if in his direct path, like they are trying to avoid an oncoming tornado, the other tenants do not seem to have any interest in learning more. There will be a sigh of relief when the Kraut either is dead or somehow exited from this mad scene.
Heinrich takes a protective stance behind Serge Santos. Heinrich actually could be a Secret Service agent what with the way he sizes up every soul inside the CAB Lounge. He folds his big arms and puts a vaguely threatening look upon his middle-aged face. Max never has liked him, but now he really despises him; and it takes Max every ounce of his will to retain his nonjudgmental poker face.
The Kraut is a plant, Max thinks. Surely, this makes no sense logically. It is inconceivable that the powers that be forecast that night ahead of time, and so installed a plant before everything went down the drain. Nevertheless, some person or group organized mind-controlled criminals to start ‘brush fires’ from Watts to Beverly Hills. That person or group planned the attack, so that it just happened to coincide with the hottest afternoon on record. If that is true, then perhaps this bull necked Bavarian also had been planted. If so, then why? Is the CAB such a hotbed of conspiracy that the powers that be felt a pressing need to keep close tabs on the tenants and staff? Or perhaps this is all about keeping a tab on Max Gunn. After all, Max has had his run-ins with just about every local, state, and national bureaucracy. He could not be that much of a threat, when he had been serving his country in black ops, especially since for the most part during that time he did not legally exist. But as a criminal defense attorney he has thrown more than his share of rotten tomatoes at the bureaucracy, and the paper pushers have told him to his face that he is ‘dangerous’ and ‘intolerant.’
Heinrich knows what he is doing. He never so much as glances at Max, so that no one can claim that he has any particular interest in the defense lawyer. Nevertheless, Max can feel the Kraut studying his movements. He presumes the Kraut can read him as well. The two middle-aged killers seem destined for the kind of mano y mano that plays well in movies; and in the meantime, they just size each other up, and wonder how much the other man knows.
Snap to it, Serge Santos calls out to the tenants still hovering beside the pool table. No meeting; no dinner. I am not making any idle threat. Simply put, if you are not here in the next ten seconds, Heinrich will be ripping your ration ticket; and by the look on his face, I think he’d just love to make you go hungry tonight. So here goes: One Mississippi, Two Mississippi, Three Mississippi, Four…
Serge Santos is standing beside an enormous globe. He rotates the globe every time he counts out a new number. He does not stare down the tenants at the pool table. Heinrich instead stares at them in a cool and detached manner, which Max regards as much more intimidating than if Heinrich had snarled back at them. Heinrich really could have dropped the gas capsules into the liquid at those death camps without once implying any emotional connections to his job.
The tenants huddle around the globe as instructed. While they still hold onto their ration tickets like a man overboard will hold onto a buoy, they focus their vacant, defeated eyes upon the swishy CAB manager. The tenants remain close together. Perhaps, while distrusting one another, they are also one mind, at least with respect to whatever their leaders decide to dish out to them now.
Max stands at the back of the crowd. He listens impassively to the show.
Okay, friends, listen up, Serge Santos says in a high-pitched cocky voice, while rotating the globe compulsively. Tonight, we are privileged to receive an awesome visitor from Climate Control. He is Lieutenant Mooney from the fourth divisional command. He has assumed a great risk in travelling through our zone; and I am confident that each and every one of you will show him your CAB love and pride. So let’s give it up for Lieutenant Mooney.
Lars, Maxine, and the water boy applaud excitedly. Maxine in particular looks like she is about to wet her pants. Heinrich remains cool and detached as the ‘tough guy’ in this group.
The rest of the tenants clap politely, but there is little real enthusiasm. They are doing what they are told, but clearly their minds are back at the pool table. Serge Santos glares at the crowd; and they pick up the enthusiasm just a little more, so that it is not a complete disaster when the visitor steps out from the office and takes his place by the rotating globe.
Max almost does not clap at all. He is disgusted by the manipulation of a depressed and defeat group of ‘guests,’ who want nothing more than to collect their rations before heading back to their beds. Then, he thinks of his son, sick with an imagined flu bug, lost in his blindness because of inadequate care here. If Max does not play along, then he may be expelled; but his son will die surely.
Therefore, Max claps his hands together, first with some reticence, then with more enthusiasm than anyone else. He senses Heinrich watching him, even though so far as he can tell Heinrich’s eyes never focus in on him at that time. Indeed, Heinrich does not seem to focus in on anything in particular, which of course means that in fact he is watching everything here with utmost precision.
Lieutenant Mooney is a tall, handsome, dignified looking fellow probably in his early forties. He is wearing still his environmental suit, but for the large, mechanized helmet (probably a computer wrapped around the man’s head that reads his internal heat and manipulates the air conditioning inside his body suit to keep him at a designated temperature) and facial mask (rubber tube coming out from the nose that connects with a clean air pack on the upper back). It is the helmet and the mask that give those ‘outsiders,’ as they are called now, an appearance much like the aliens in a Roger Corman film. Without the head gear the handsome lieutenant looks like the rest of us, except that his fine looks are such that he could have been cast as the young John Glenn in The Right Stuff. His charming smile definitely suggests privilege, and there is a noticeable hint of condescension in his speaking style. Nevertheless, he is likeable, and implies at once that wherever he may be at any given time he is the man with the real smarts about the climate, first and foremost, and then about anything else that may be of concern to people. Some will be turned off; but most will see him as a ‘natural leader,’ the kind of man who is ‘going places,’ if indeed there is still a world beyond the Greater Los Angeles area where a man still can ‘go places.’
I feel your CAB love and pride, Mooney says with schmaltzy humility. It is my honor to be touched by your affection.
Serge Santos steps forward and applauds as loud as he can. Lars, Maxine, and the water boy follow suit. This time, Maxine does let loose inside her wide, green pants. The pee smell is undeniable, but people pretend not to notice her accident. Maxine certainly does not notice the warmth dripping down her legs, as she continues to clap like a smiling seal without any other care in the world.
The tenants take the cue. This time, they applaud with genuine energy. They seem uplifted by the fact that one of the ‘outsiders’ (and, apparently, an important one at that) is complimenting them. Even if deep down they sense it is not sincere, they are happy at least for a break from the norm. How easy it is to buy a crowd’s affections, when you deprive them of their freedom. They will do anything even for a brief and insincere smile from a more privileged person.
Lieutenant Mooney holds up his hand to bring the applause to an end. He smiles seductively. Maxine lets out an audible sigh. She then covers her mouth, and blushes. Lieutenant Mooney glances at her. He continues to smile, but Max catches an irritation in his eyes. Yes, Mooney wants to be loved; but even more so, he wants people to respect his authority, rather than fall head over heels in puppy love for his rock star status. The reason is simple enough: The individual who respects his or her superior will follow him to the ends of the earth, while the individual caught up in puppy love will fall soon for the next big thing. Poor Maxine has signed her own death certificate, and she does not have a clue. Max makes a mental note to discern quietly what happens to her in the near future.
Now, you should know up front that a committee of very important men, leaders in science, icons of progress, directed me to appear before you tonight. They did not need to twist my arm. I have wanted for some time to pay a visit. Nevertheless, the fact that you are on the radar screen of this esteemed, blue ribbon panel is a testament to your high reputation. There are several ‘survival centers’ scattered around the Greater Los Angeles area. Two have been lost to environmental infestation. We literally had to chisel the overcooked bodies out of their beds and bathtubs. Three more are in decline, because the ‘guests’ are not careful enough in keeping their doors and windows sealed. Frankly, we just do not know yet if they are going to make it. Then, there is the CAB located at the corner of 9th and Figueroa. No one here has been lost to the environmental catastrophe that is taking place still just beyond those windows. In recent days, you have become a kind of test case for us; a sociological experiment; and the question is: Just what kind of society can survive this heat wave to the end? We do not know yet; but we are starting to see that, if that question is going to be answered, then it will be answered right here within these hallowed walls. This is not just an academic question. Our very survival depends upon what we learn from your example. Think of it this way. You may be stranded inside these four walls, forced to stare out your windows all day, compelled to eat and to drink only what we give you; but, in fact, you are the vanguard of the new order. For us, for the men who really count, you are like the Special Forces sent deep into enemy territory. Sure, we have got your back. We shall never abandon our own men. But you are the ones taking the incoming fire…
Max thinks about his last mission in Haji Land. He remembers how he had felt when first discovering that the Pentagon had abandoned his mission, while he and his men were still in the red zone. He had wanted to storm into the nice offices of the Pentagon and to go postal on the sons of bitches that dropped his team like a bad date. Maybe, if he lived long enough, he would be able to take a decapitated flag officer’s head with him as a souvenir of his last great battle. Of course, he did nothing of the sort. He just went to a military hospital for an extended period of time, and then went home with P.T.S.D. stamped on all his discharge forms. He learned an important lesson: The superior officer who then makes a grandiose point of reminding you that he has got your back in fact will abandon you the moment the heat kicks up a few degrees. The men who really do have your back do not talk about it, at least not in flowery language like this conceited jerk uses. Rather, they are quiet and dedicated, the greatness that is found now and then among the unwashed masses, the little people who always stand tall when the circumstances demand.
This Mooney fellow is setting us up for a fall, Max thinks. Tell us all how important we are to the survival of the human race; how we have absolutely no room for failure in the CAB test case; how even the slightest infraction of ‘war time protocol’ demands a swift and draconian countermeasure. Give people on the verge of madness a false sense of self-importance, and they will proceed to cannibalize one another soon enough. Why spark this flame? So that the powers that be can laugh at our self-destruction? That may have something to do with it. Part of the decadent joy of being at the top is observing just how far down a bottom feeder can slide. But there is more going on here. They really intend to build their ‘new order.’ As a Democrat politician once said, ‘Never let a serious crisis go to waste.’ Well, God only knows what is really going on out there; but what matters is that we believe it is an environmental catastrophe. Therefore, it is a ‘crisis.’ Therefore, the powers that be can build their ‘new order’ out of the ashes of the old. They will need to weed out the weak and the stupid. They will need to discern who among the plebs can be the ‘brown shirts’ of the nice, little, fascist state they intend to build for themselves. In essence, these smart and handsome men will need to find out whom, beside themselves of course, in fact has ‘the right stuff.’ The best way to separate the men from the boys is to stir the cauldron just enough for a charming, little bout of mass hysteria; what a genteel man charging up San Juan Hill on horseback back in the day may have called ‘a splendid, little war;’ and if blood must be shed along the way, then so be it. After all, civilized man is never more than a knife slice away from a mad, raving, desert beast. That has been the case since that nasty business with the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden. No doubt, it is still the case now; and it will be the case when the last man on earth views the last of the silent sunsets.
Max does not listen to Mooney for a while. He is lost in his own thoughts, while Mooney goes on and on about how he is ‘confident’ that each and every person in here has ‘the right stuff.’ He listens again, when Mooney finally gets to the real reason that he has made the trip out here.
Now, I don’t need to tell you that even the best of the best slip up, now and then, Lieutenant Mooney continues without breaking his smile. Winners fall while turning into the final stretch; but the difference between the winner and the loser is that, even when he falls, the winner does what he absolutely has to do to be the first man crossing that finish line. After all, a foot race is not over until it is over. On the other hand, the loser wallows in his sprained ankle. Boo-hoo-hoo, he says. Get me a lawyer. Let’s sue the assholes who paved this track or who did not put up a sign to inform stupid people like myself that it may be a tad dangerous to make this turn. Let’s hobble away from the track, and get a bit of sympathy from the women in the crowd. Let’s start a television campaign against foot races in general. In other words, the loser insists on making his sad excuses, and indulges his own weaknesses, and then gets offended if the rest of us do not run over to give them whatever they want. They are spoiled children; and if they are allowed to breed, then they form a world of dysfunctional, ass-munching crybabies. We could tolerate losers in the old world, but we certainly cannot do so in the new world.
Lieutenant Mooney steps away from the globe. He walks toward the huge floor to ceiling windows along the fourth wall. He gestures with his right arm at the dead world beyond those windows. There is nothing to see, of course, since the sun has fallen completely over the horizon; but that is the point. In the not so distant past, there would have been plenty of neon and headlights out there to indicate a vibrant nightlife. Now, there is nothing, but a seamless blackness, a shroud hung over the building, a void pressing up against the lounge windows.
Take a good look at what is out there, Mooney says dramatically. Really, press your eyes against the windows, and take a look. You do not have to worry that the glass is going to break. So go on, then, and take a look…
The tenants stay back at first; but after a moment, the true believers all step forward. Lars reaches the glass first. He practically kisses the window with his face. Maxine and the water boy follow suit. Serge Santos and Heinrich stand close to the windows, but they do not look out. Instead, they watch the rest of the tenants, so as to see which ones step forward and which do not.
One by one the sheeple step forward. They cannot hide how scared they are, but they do what they are told to do regardless. Max approaches the glass somewhere in the middle of the pack. He does not want to be conspicuous then as the first or the last of the sheeple to press his eyes against the hot glass. He knows that Heinrich is watching him anyway, but he does not want to give that wannabe Nazi any more reasons to set him apart from all the others.
It is completely dark outside. There is the ghostly outline of the art deco building across the street, but there is not enough light to make out any of the details. The IMAX screen on the Brunei cannot be seen from the ground floor; so from this perspective, it is as if there is not one light left on in the universe. Moreover, there is no wind blowing debris down the middle of the street. There is nothing to indicate either current life or the possibility of new life sometime down the road; and with the heat bleeding through the glass and onto their sad faces, it is easy for the tenants to imagine that that death out there is trying to break through the thin glass and to enter into their weak and defenseless souls.
All of them are frightened. Even Max can sense an irrational fear sliding up and down his throat, even though consciously he reminds himself that this is just a part of Mooney’s show. Nevertheless, they keep their fears hidden inside themselves, until one of the tenants finally screams, and staggers back from his portion of the glass. His outburst seems to give everyone else license to scream and to push back from the wicked and superstitious dread.
Max does not need to scream, but he screams along with everybody else.
Mooney dramatically steps out from a shadow and into a warm spotlight.
Do not be ashamed of your fear, Mooney says after the screams come to an end. It is your best friend in the new world. It will keep you in line. Indeed, the ethos of the new world is best encapsulated in these three simple ideas: Be afraid; Obey; Survive. Internalize those three simple ideas, believe in them like they are your very own, and you will go far in the new world…
Mooney allows that though to linger, while he walks slowly, reflectively, back to the globe. Lars, Maxine, and the water boy remain close to him. Serge Santos and Heinrich stay in the background. They are focused entirely upon the tenants. No doubt, they are figuring which ones will make it in their new order.
The tenants follow Mooney like sheep to the slaughter. They are relieved to be further away from the window; and in their immediate relief, most of the tenants would do anything just to remain in his good graces. Max is not going to buy into this con game; and he thinks that one or two other tenants are also as skeptical as he is. Nonetheless, he remains outwardly as sheepish as the others.
‘Be afraid,’ and you will feel your inner strength magnify many times the norm, Mooney continues in the tones of a fire and brimstone preacher. No man is stronger than when his adrenaline spikes. We have seen or heard the various examples: A man lifts a car off of his child; a woman climbs a tree to escape an animal; a girl beats back her molester. Usually, we experience this in the short term ‘fight or flight’ situations, but think of the power unleashed if you set out to cultivate your fears, live in them, dream them, endure them first as weights hung about your necks, but then as shields and swords. ‘Obey,’ and you will be free. This seems counterintuitive, but think of it this way. Is not the recklessly, wanton libertine ultimately a slave to his passions? Does he not end up dead at a premature age from drug use, or venereal disease, or just disillusionment? No man is free when he is stuck in his grave. But the man who follows the cultural, political, and moral instruction of his superior is free to survive, even to thrive, where most everyone else succumbs to the heat, the poison, the high pressure. Yes, he must accept the fact that he is an Indian, not a Chief, but the Indian is a beast roaming the wilderness as free as the buffalo on the plains…
Did not the white man nearly hunt the buffalo to extinction? Max thinks, while keeping a blank look on his face. Did they not shoot down the buffalo in the thousands from the backs of trains? If we are to be as free as the buffalo in this new order, then we shall be hunted beasts. I need to bide my time now, as a precaution for Adam, but I do not intend for the two of us to be buffaloed, so to speak, into embracing this snake oil salesman’s vision of the ‘Great Society.’
Finally, ‘survive,’ because you deserve it, Mooney continues. Do not let that death out there get a hold of you. Do not let incompetence, or even worse rebelliousness, take away your chance to survive. I mentioned earlier that even the best of the best slip up. Well, we used to say, ‘to err is human, to forgive is divine;’ but that does not hold water in the new world. You have observed with your own eyes how death reigns out there. Do you want to forgive, when doing so almost certainly will allow that death out there to seep into here? Is it not a better idea to say, ‘to err is human, to stamp out the stupid and the wasteful is divine,’ and then let the chips fall where they may? I think each and every one of you knows the correct answer. So let me finish by imparting this last thought in your hearts and minds: Lately, there has been a breach of the careful health and security measures undertaken by the CAB management. I do not need to go into the messy details. What matters is that things are not as they should be in this oasis, because one man saw fit to transgress what we all hold so dear. That man needs to be rooted out, and to that end, Heinrich here will be conducting a thorough investigation of tenants and staff to find the evildoer. But once that man is gone, the question remains: What will you do, not as individuals, but as a singular group, to make sure this kind of transgression never happens again? It is critical you ask that question of yourselves, as we are all counting on you. Do not let us down. Do the right thing: Be afraid, obey, and survive, for your glory.
Mooney steps back, and smiles. Everyone erupts into rapturous applause.
No one redeems his ration ticket that night. They are too excited to eat.
* * *
Dad, I’m hungry, Adam whispers.
Max turns away from the bedroom window. He has been staring into the bleak, grey sunrise for ten or fifteen minutes already. The sun must have been able to clear the horizon by now, but it is veiled by an overcast sky; and so it is not possible to tell for sure how high it has ascended from its grave. Most likely it has not ascended far at all. Really, nothing in this ‘new world’ climbs too far from the grave, before the heat and the pressure out there ropes it back down.
While the tenants had left the lounge last night without redeeming their ration tickets, a few had snuck out some food, nevertheless. Max saw who they were. He wanted to know who had remained clearheaded after listening to the pep talk, because if push ever came to shove those few souls might turn out to be his only allies. No doubt, Serge Santos and Heinrich had been taking note as well; and if he had not had a son to feed, then Max would have been careful to be counted among those who did not take some food.
Max grabbed some warm food; and as he did so he practically could feel Heinrich’s eyes penetrating like lasers into the back of his head. He felt abused at that moment; perhaps even sexually violated; and it took every last ounce of his will not to look back at that man staring him down. Indeed, the test of wills has started; and Max will need to defeat that man to save his son from the sick madness now being unleashed.
You haven’t eaten since yesterday morning, Max says, while walking over to a plate wrapped in tin foil. I didn’t want to wake you.
It’s morning again, isn’t it? Adam says, while sitting up in the master bed and staring blankly into the absolute darkness that has become his ‘new world.’
How can you tell? Max asks, while unwrapping the tin foil.
I don’t see anything different, Adam answers. I can just tell.
Max looks at his son carefully, while holding up the plate of chicken and beans. He cannot turn on the lights to see his son’s face more clearly. The CAB management turned off the juice to the individual apartment lights weeks ago, ostensibly to save energy, though probably to beat them into submission faster. After all, if energy had been the issue, then they would have stopped providing electricity for the flat screen televisions in every bedroom; but God forbid they should be denied whatever propaganda the powers that be decide to toss onto the screens. As such, some of the tenants keep their televisions on out of habit of course, but others do so in order to have a soft night light in their bedrooms.
In the bleak, grey sunlight, Adam’s face is almost invisible. Max envisions looking into the face of a maudlin ghost in a Victorian funeral parlor. He cannot see the apparition; rather, he sees his own fears reflected back toward himself in the guise of a small and vapid greyness in place of a child’s face. At once, he is repulsed; and he has to cast his eyes downward, and to shuffle his feet, so as to hold himself back from running out the bedroom. He wonders just then if he is intent really upon saving his son, or saving himself from his own deadly fears.
What do you mean, son? Max asks softly.
Adam takes a moment to collect his thoughts. All the while, his sad eyes never move.
It is like my head is in a hole, Adam reflects. Buried in sand so tight I am not able to breathe. If I get scared, then I just breathe in the sand; and then it is worse. But if I calm down, like I am no longer breathing at all, then I start to see pictures in my head, bright lights, or maybe just a word put up on a screen.
The dead know, don’t they? Max thinks. Oh, sure, I can bury their heads in the desert sand; but still they are going to see outright what I can only see in part. The ‘new world’ is their world; the world of the dead; the world of blind, weak children. And who am I in this ‘new world,’ but a fossil that inspires fear and dread in just about everyone else? A madman with P.T.S.D. stamped on his discharge papers? Like Saint Paul on the Road to Damascus, a blind man leading his blind son, while still kicking at the pricks? I do not know; but whatever I am now, I am as weak as that grey sunrise out there, and my resistance is as futile.
You are learning to adapt, Max reasons. That is good for now, son; but it is not going to be permanent. You will see again. I promise you that.
I know, Adam whispers, but he does not seem all that convinced.
Max sits on the side of the bed. He feeds his son. He recalls when Adam had been a little one in a highchair, and Caroline had fed him in this same way.
There is a knock at the door. It is a timid and respectful sound, not at all like when Lars Tubbs triple knocks his door to hustle for another donation or to connive information about his son’s health. Max has a good idea who is there at this moment; and so he sets the plate aside, and helps Adam recline back onto his pillow. He looks back at Adam before leaving the bedroom. He observes just how quickly and seamlessly Adam settles back into his sleep. The boy seems to be more at home in his sleep world than when sitting up in bed or walking over to the bedroom, and Max wonders if indeed he ever will be able to bring his son fully back to the life his son had enjoyed prior to the heat wave. If he cannot in the end, then his son is dead already, no matter the actual survival of his flesh.
There is another knock at the door. Max leaves the bedroom. He tries to ignore the IMAX screen that he can see through his living room window. He has seen the same video loop hundreds of times since returning with a plate of food under his coat the previous evening.
‘Be afraid’ flashes as black block letters against a white background for several seconds. Then, there is a brief video clip of a decapitated head inside a microwave oven. The cheeks and lips expand; the forehead balloons; the dead, bulging eyes pop inside their steaming sockets; and brain slime oozes out from the ears, nostrils, and mouth. The tongue ignites, so that it is a flame wagging side to side across the chin. Smoke coughs out from the mouth, and it veils the rest of the face briefly. The thick smoke then clears to reveal a charcoal black, bloated, deformed face that is igniting into flames at several hot spots. It does not have time to burn up before it explodes into melting brain slime and bones.
‘Obey’ flashes as black block letters against a white background also for several seconds. Then, there is a brief video clip of a beautiful, adolescent girl. Her wrists and ankles have been chained to a bare basement floor. She wears a Catholic schoolgirl plaid skirt and white blouse. She squirms, but the thorns on the chain links just dig into her skin and release streams of blood the more that she moves. A helmeted L.A. P.S.A. officer steps into the scene. He pulls out his pistol, and gestures for an adolescent boy to step out from a shadow. The nice, clean-cut boy is wearing nothing but underwear. He removes his underwear and stares apathetically at the squirming Catholic schoolgirl. The officer then steps around the girl, so that he can nudge the muzzle of his firearm into the back of the boy’s blond head. This is all the motivation that the boy needs to obey. He drops to his knees, pulls the plaid skirt off the girl, yanks the white blouse over her face, and rapes her. Every time he pulls his penis back, the officer taps him with the muzzle of his firearm. This makes him thrust forward with more power and fury. In time, the crazed look on the boy’s face suggests he is enjoying this act of cruelty. The girl stops squirming after a while. Perhaps she stops moving since so much blood has gurgled from her wrists and ankles that she mercifully has passed out. Perhaps she is dead. It really does not matter to the happy boy.
‘Survive’ flashes as black block letters against a white background. Then there is a brief video clip of a handsome, young, well-dressed man stepping out of his idyllic, suburban, tract home. He has a briefcase in hand. He turns back to say goodbye to his equally pretty and charming wife, who is dressed in a soft pink, polka dot, hoop skirt and apron and waving back to him just then with an enormous feather duster in her right hand. A boy and a girl appear suddenly on both sides of the hoop skirt. They are so blond and rosy cheeked they look as if they could have appeared on the cover of Der Stürmer. The children also wave, though without the wife’s enthusiasm. After all, they are very well disciplined, more like programmed robots than children, ready to be loyal worker bees in a ‘new world.’ Theirs is a world freed from weak and stupid men and so devoid in all respects from the soft charities and sentimental religious feelings of the old days. They will never know love. Whatever sense of loss that may engender will be outweighed by the power of their single-minded devotion to duty. The man returns their lifeless half-smiles with a solemn nod. He then marches across the manicured front lawn to two flagpoles side by side. He drops his briefcase upon the wet grass, raises one flag, and then raises the other. The man salutes both flags, as the camera pans back to reveal the U.N. and the rainbow flags briskly snapping in the wind. There is a sentimental orchestral melody, vaguely similar to Ronald Reagan’s ‘Morning in America’ television ad. Then, the screen fades to black, before winding back to the start of the creepy video loop: ‘Be afraid.’
Max looks through the peephole. He views an elderly man in Coke bottle glasses staring back at him. It is the doctor from three floors down who had no more advice than for Adam to get plenty of rest and to remain hydrated. Wow, Max had thought at the time, thank God this kind doctor graduated from a top medical school about forty years ago. Who else could have offered such advice?
Max forces a pleasant smile on his face. He thinks the doctor is basically a good soul; but he recalls that the kind doctor had not been one of the several tenants who had snuck out some food. Indeed, the doctor had not said or done anything at all to imply that he was not drinking the Kool-Aid. Maybe, he is an old poker face; but Max fears deep down that he may have resigned himself to, if not embraced wholeheartedly, the ‘new world.’ After all, the doctor is a Jew originally from New York; and though Max does not like to regard himself as an anti-Semite, he figures that Jews have survived by getting along with whatever passes for the local power structure, not by opposing it. How sad, indeed, that Max needs to be concerned about a man who had shown he and his son genuine kindness; but such is one of the inevitable costs of surviving in the ‘new world.’
Hello, Max says, when he opens the door. Kind of you to drop by Doctor…
Sharon, the doctor says, while stepping inside. Doctor Michael Sharon. In light of all that has happened in our world since we first met, I honestly do not blame you for forgetting my name.
Max does not respond. He indicates that he would be quite happy to take the doctor’s coat. Apparently, Max is not the only man in this building who has held onto the past by maintaining certain rituals that, logically, make no sense in their hermetically sealed world.
Doctor Sharon obliges, and Max hangs his coat on a hook beside the door. They walk together into the living room. The doctor averts his eyes from all the gruesome images on the IMAX screen. This is the only time thus far that he has indicated even the slightest disapproval with the current regime. On the other hand, even the most loyal of the Kool-Aid drinkers might be turned off by all of that gore and mayhem on the big screen. Max decides he still cannot figure out this man’s loyalties, and so he remains polite, but cautious.
Max gestures toward the bedroom, but the doctor remains where he is in the living room. There is an awkward moment, while Max tries to figure out the doctor’s true intentions. The doctor releases the tension by offering Max a kind and grandfatherly smile.
Would you like to see Adam? Max asks. I just fed him his breakfast.
No, that’s all right, the doctor demurs. Actually, I wanted to see you this morning. It will only take a few minutes.
Oh, sure, Max says uncertainly. Sit down. I can get you a glass of water, if you like, since of course that is the only ‘eye opener’ we are allowed to keep in our apartments.
Yes, of course, the doctor says with a smile. And while you’re at it, pour in some of that fine gin that you definitely do not have behind your water jugs.
Max considers the doctor for a moment. He just cannot tell if the doctor is letting him know that he is cool, or if the doctor is spying on him just now at the behest of the CAB management. Max decides to play it safe.
I don’t have any gin, Max says. Just my water ration, straight up or over the rocks, however way you want it served.
Straight up will be fine, the doctor says.
Max retrieves a glass from his kitchen cupboard, opens the refrigerator, and pours out some water. He does this with all the finesse of a good bartender mixing a wild concoction. The doctor seems to enjoy his little charade, as he is all-smiles, while Max walks over to him with the glass of water.
That was something last night, wasn’t it? The doctor remarks casually.
Sure, Max agrees. Not every night we get a visit from Climate Control.
And a lieutenant at that, the doctor continues. Now, I do not profess to know their command structure all that well; but I have to think that sending an actual lieutenant into our hot zone has to mean something.
Well, it means we are on their radar screen, Max offers. It means that in some way we really matter to them…
Or it means that they’ve got to find something for their junior officers to do, the doctor counters. After all, it seems that the climate in our little corner of paradise is now beyond their ‘control,’ don’t you think? The talk is that that temperature outside has not budged a degree higher or lower in weeks. If they are controlling things, then they are keeping the temperature sky high until the rest of us have been baked into submission. If they are not, then they are really paper tigers, notwithstanding their hand-me-down SS uniforms.
Well, we’ll see, won’t we? Max remarks noncommittally.
Yes, we shall see, the doctor agrees.
It is like what you said about my son’s blindness, Max says. Give it time, and it may just repair itself, or then again it may not. In the meantime, we are lucky for our three squares and a cot.
Well, you see, that’s the crux of the matter, isn’t it? The doctor remarks carefully. I am an old man with a limp. Take away these glasses, and I am also as blind as a bat. It makes sense for me to talk about sitting back and allowing an old wound to repair itself over time. But you are so much younger than I am. Smart, excitable, deadly, when you need to be, surely not the kind of man who just sits back and watches the wave wash over him.
Max remains stone faced. He sits on a chair opposite the doctor. He sees the gruesome images on the IMAX screen in his right peripheral vision. It is the same video loop as before, except that somehow the images seem much uglier, the blood thicker, the penis thrusts faster, the wife’s feather duster bigger and bushier, every time the loop repeats itself. Moreover, the video loop feels as if it is speeding up with each new rendition; or maybe it is burrowing deeper into the subconscious mind, so that it seems to be speeding up because it is starting to have the feel of a flashflood of unearthed memories, rather than a movie on a screen. Whatever it is, it is casting its hypnotic spell, even upon the mind of a killer trained to withstand such psychological measures.
Max wants to walk over to the windows and to pull the blinds, except he does not want to appear at all disturbed by the images out there. Thus, he just keeps his blank expression and inwardly struggles to kick out those troublesome images. He must be doing a good job, because the doctor appears to be totally unfazed by Max’s coolness. Unless, of course, the doctor is also a ‘poker face’…
Don’t you want to rock the boat sometimes? The doctor inquires. Maybe cut a corner when you think no one is watching? It is natural if you do. Indeed, I would think that something was wrong with you if you did not desire to kick out one of the windows…
Or perhaps leave a side door open? Max says against his better judgment.
The doctor hesitates. He tries to veil his concern behind a big smile, but then his eyes give him away. Perhaps he is not much of a ‘poker face’ after all; but if that is true, then that makes him a sincere man, which Max thinks could be considerably more dangerous and problematic in the long run. Liars accept; indeed even demand; that others lie back to them. Sincere people can listen to the lies only so long, before digging through the bullshit and demanding a good dose of honesty in return. If the doctor is one of the latter, then he will dig and dig into Max’s psyche; and at some point, he will demand the truth from a man who would much rather try to use misdirection to save himself and his only son.
I don’t know anything about that, the doctor says haltingly.
No, I suppose you don’t, Max remarks. Then again, neither do I. Neither does anyone around here. We really don’t have a clue what is occurring right in front of our eyes…
Sometimes, we see what we want to see; the doctor interrupts.
What is that supposed to mean? Max asks more aggressively than he had intended. Forgive me. What I mean is: What luxury do we have to pretend? Is it not hard enough just to figure out what really works and does not work without dabbling in hopes and fantasies?
Well, you want to see your son survive, the doctor interrupts.
That’s not seeing what I want to see. That’s seeing reality for what it is, Max screams at him.
There is an uncomfortable pause, while the two men stare at each other across the living room. The doctor breaks the tension by shuffling back onto his feet and walking over to the water jugs stored in the pantry. He shoves several of the heavy water jugs aside and pulls out a half finished bottle of gin.
Acknowledging what is really there, the doctor says with an affable grin.
The doctor pours gin into his water glass. He offers to pour some for Max as well, but Max looks away embarrassed. He returns the bottle, pushes back in front all those water jugs, and returns to his seat. He only manages a single sip of gin while returning to his seat, but the burn in the back of his throat from all that watered down gin is enough to add some needed color to his gaunt cheeks.
You are right, the doctor comments. Finding pleasure in what is real is a whole lot better than holding onto old, dead dreams.
Max stares at the floor in between his thighs. He is notably agitated, but deep down he also knows that he needs to hear what the good doctor is telling him. Moreover, the more that the good doctor speaks; the less Max notices the video loop on the IMAX screen. It is like ‘Be afraid,’ ‘Obey,’ and ‘Survive’ make about as much sense as graffiti scrawl does to a person not involved in the gang world. The words are ugly, but because they are meaningless, the mind is able to tune them out easily enough. As a result, for a brief period anyway, Max can truly set aside ‘Be afraid’ for courage, and ‘Obey’ for willfulness, and ‘Survive’ for truth. He feels both liberated and overwhelmed.
Then, Max thinks about his son in the bedroom. Max is not going to throw his son aside so that he can feel courageous, or pursue his own will, or embrace the truth. He has spent so much of his life focused on himself. For once, he will put his love for his son over what may be good for his own physical and mental health. As such, the sense of being liberated and overwhelmed gives way to the raw agitation any man would feel when forced down a path he does not desire to travel. The sick video loop broadcast outside returns to his peripheral vision.
Why don’t you step into the bedroom and take a look at my son. Frankly, he needs your expertise a lot more than I need a pep talk, Max remarks angrily.
I have seen what I need to see in there, the doctor says, after once more sipping his watered down gin.
Max shifts in his seat. He simply cannot take any more of this bullshit. It is bad enough the only resident medical doctor is incompetent what with all of that talk about waiting around to see if things get better. Even worse, he is an old, drunk, lazy son of a bitch. Here he is drinking his gin, but refusing to check in on his blind son. What kind of an ingrate is this Jew internist from New York? Max thinks, as he flexes his hands in and out of tight fists, and feels one drop of sweat roll down from his forehead and over his left cheek.
The doctor finishes the rest of his water and gin. He sees how angry Max is. He is not surprised. Some people cry when their head doctor finally manages to break through. Others become so ill with nausea that they are forced to stay in bed for weeks. Others respond with the kind of visceral, gnawing anger that pulses out from their bowels like some sort of heat wave. He had figured an ex-military hothead like Max Gunn would turn out to be in the anger category. He is not grateful to have been proven correct, though, since he is in no condition to defend himself should Max actually take a leap for his throat. He just hopes that Max will restrain himself, not because Max has any higher moral sensibility necessarily, but because Max is convinced that the good doctor from New York is the only internist in this building and, therefore, the only person capable of giving his son medical care. He senses that if Max knew he was instead a shrink, then Max would have cast him out or smashed in his gaunt face a long time ago.
The best way for me to help your son is to help you, the doctor explains.
I don’t need any help, Max snarls.
We all need help, the doctor says. We are beasts trapped inside of a zoo on an alien world. Sort of like what happened to Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse Five, except that the management did not see fit to issue a ‘Montana Wildhack’ for each of the ‘guests.’ So you need help; and until you are willing to embrace that fact, there is nothing you can do for your son, except observe him literally whither away beside you.
Max’s anger subsides. He feels defeated more than anything.
What do you propose that I do? Max whispers.
Change of scenery, the doctor answers without any hesitation. I have it on good authority that Serge Santos will let anyone spend a night or two in the unused penthouse suite, if the resident doctor so requests.
The doctor’s intercession allowed for Max to get a bigger food and water allocation. Apparently, it will allow for him also to observe the overcooked City of Angels from the fortieth floor. So the good doctor has pull with that leather faggot who runs the front office. That in itself does not necessarily signify that the good doctor actually is in cahoots with the management. ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer’ certainly will apply in the ‘new world,’ as it had in the previous one. What bothers Max is that he suspects the good doctor does not intend for him to take his son. If so, then why does he want to separate the father from his son, and the son from his father, when clearly the two must live for one another to have any hope of mutual survival in this time? Is the doctor naïve? Is he malevolent? Is he making this recommendation at the behest of the cursed management, which for some reason wants to separate father from son?
I can’t leave my son alone, Max remarks.
I’ll stay with him, the doctor makes clear.
You don’t understand, Max blurts out.
I see reality for what it is, the doctor continues. Your son is stuck inside of a dark and brooding hell. He needs to be released. Only you can release him. You cannot do so, though, until you get out of your head for a few days. Think of it as a kind of religious retreat; Moses going to the mountaintop, before he is able to lead his people effectively to the Promised Land; something Biblical, in a way, but more importantly, also something personal.
I have no idea what you are talking about, Max interjects.
Sure, you do, the doctor says. You spent enough time out in the desert. I recall the first time we met. You told me that you dreamt your head was stuck in the sand. If you panicked, then you inhaled more sand, and suffocated, a sad and grueling death, no doubt. But if you calmed down, like you were truly dead and just happened to be buried that way, then you would start to see things in a way that you had never seen them before.
Just a fucking dream, Max laments.
Window to the soul, the doctor interjects. Just like that IMAX screen is a kind of window to the soul of our ‘new world,’ so are your own nightmares then the keys to your own passions and fears. Get out of your own head, and you are going to see clearly enough what you need to do for your son.
Max wonders if this is a trap. After all, a few nights in the penthouse will set him apart from his fellow tenants, no matter the poker face he keeps when redeeming his ration ticket downstairs. Not only will he be conspicuous, he will be regarded somehow as sick, or in need of some sort of special care; and sick or otherwise infirm people are not likely to be treated well in this ‘new world.’
Still, the offer is very tempting, especially since deep down Max realizes that there is something wrong or at least peculiar about how he is endeavoring to save his son. Max is out of sorts. The doctor sees it. Others in the CAB likely see it as well. His son cannot see it, but he can feel it; and for all Max knows it is his son’s feeling of imminent dread that keeps his son blind. After all, who in his right mind wants to see again, if in so doing he must observe his own father descending inexorably into the dark hole in his own mind?
I’ll think about it, Max says after a while.
I have no doubt you will, the doctor states, while shuffling back onto his feet, and handing Max his empty water glass. Just try to avoid channeling your ‘inner Hamlet.’ Desperate times demand action. Rocking the boat, kicking out a window, opening a side door, or just providing your son what he really needs.
So childrearing is revolutionary, Max reflects.
Acknowledging what is, and not finding refuge in propaganda or fantasy, now that can be revolutionary, indeed, the doctor comments. Not that I would ever promote revolution, of course, given the high caliber and moral acclaim of our overseers.
The doctor smiles. Max manages a polite smile in return.
Max remains seated, while the doctor retrieves his coat, and steps out of the apartment. He listens for his son. As usual, Adam is dead to the world; and Max wonders how long this can continue before Adam withers into a grey ghost.
* * *
The elevator door opens. Over the lounge speakers the CAB management is playing Debby Boone’s You Light Up My Life. Max knows the song, because it had accompanied an infomercial for ‘Lifestyle Lifts’ that he had seen at least a gazillion times on the boob tube before that night. The ‘Lifestyle Lifts’ people had promised ‘lunchtime pulls,’ or something along those lines, that would give a fifty-something cow on her third divorce the wrinkle free face of a thirty-five year old heifer. Don’t malign the mistress who stole your husband. Use some of his money to emulate her, and then go out there and find a boy toy who will go down on you in return for college money. The Beverly Hills Blonds are always in the process of ‘repackaging’ themselves. They are never quite done, so long as there is still some money left in their husband’s checking account. It got to the point that every time he saw that damned infomercial Max masturbated to the thought of ‘lighting up’ Debby Boone’s life by setting her hair on fire. That song would never mean the same thing again, now would it?
What a terrible thought, and yet everything about coming down here to redeem his damn breakfast ration ticket (blue ticket for breakfast, white ticket for lunch, red ticket for dinner, perhaps because Serge Santos is so patriotic for the nation that ceded Los Angeles to the globalists and the queers years ago, or perhaps because the paper came in the three colors) drags his mind into a dark shit gutter. Perhaps he is just anxious, because he is leaving his son alone; but, much deeper down, he thinks that that is not the case at all. After all, isn’t he seriously considering the good doctor’s offer of a few nights alone in the grand penthouse suite (rumored to be known as the ‘Hugh Hefner Suite,’ since there are so many fluffy bunny pillows and bowls of bon-bons a ‘guest’ can stay in his pajamas all day and never once feel like he should be doing something else, let alone something more productive)? The doctor insists that this is needed, so he can clear up his mind and then determine how best to help his son; and maybe that is so; but Max suspects that the real reason he may take the doctor’s sage advice is much more selfish. Max just wants to get away from this prison, if not in reality, then at least in his mind. He wants to tap into the man he used to be back in the good old days; the man who played harder than he worked; the silly boy with the fast car and the faster interns. Is it so wrong that he should want a vacation, not only from this place, but from his blind son? The short answer is yes, it is wrong, because right now his son needs him, and no shuffling internist with Coke bottle glasses can provide for his son the fatherly love that only he is able to provide him. The doctor told him to acknowledge what is real, and that mutual dependency of father and son is what is real. As such, Max deeply hates himself just now for even entertaining the prospect of an escape to the fabled ‘Hugh Hefner Suite.’ He hates himself by pasting a frown upon his face, and he hates himself by remembering how he used to pound his old beef to this ballad.
Then, Max notices that Maxine is not at the front desk affixing nametags to the lapels of depressed, vacant breakfast eaters. There is no one performing her job. Now, how can this be? How can the ‘guests’ scarf down the hardboiled eggs, greasy bacon strips, and rock hard biscuits, if they do not have nametags with exclamation points or smiley faces stuck to their lapels? Max hates himself for giving a damn, but that does not change the fact that he does. Keeping the smallest rituals in place may be pointless in the grand scheme of things, but no man can hold onto his sanity (or what little is left of it) for very long if there is truly nothing stable and predictable in his world. Max never had imagined that he would miss his nametag, until he saw that empty seat behind the front desk.
There is a muffled cry from inside the CAB Lounge. Max enters the space to discover that Maxine has been gagged and hogtied to a marble table beneath a flat screen. Poor Maxine is crying and squirming, but her flabby arms and legs are no match for the duct tape. She is naked, except for an enormous diaper at her midsection. Her breasts flap up and down like burlaps hanging over the old saddle of a bucking horse. Her stomach fat folds undulate like waves streaming across a sea of melted butter. She is a conquered beast, a force of nature held by tape, so that only the pleading look in her eyes suggests her weak humanity.
The powers that be are broadcasting an explanation upon the flat screen in the form of black block letters against a white background. The words seem to hang over that squirming woman like a guillotine blade about to be dropped:
Fat Bitch Pees in her Pants
Fat Bitch Gets No More Water
Justice Served, Because You Deserve It
Be afraid. Obey. Survive.
At first, Max has no idea what the message means. Then, he recalls how Maxine had peed in her pants the previous evening. She had been too excited in Lieutenant Mooney’s presence, and there had been an accident that even a guy with a stuffy nose could have smelled from the other side of the lounge. While Mooney never had skipped a beat, Serge Santos or Heinrich had made a definite mental note to do something in response.
Perhaps, they will humiliate her for a while, make her squirm inside that duct tape, teach her and everyone else a lesson, and then release her when no one else is watching. Except that that would be the humane thing to do, and in this ‘new world’ there is precious little humanity. More likely, Serge Santos will keep her gagged and hogtied until she dies from dehydration. Then, the rest of us will need to see and to smell her corpse, while stepping over her old thunder thighs to get to the food on the pool table.
She is making such a big fuss, and yet she is dead already. Max saw a lot of killers out in Haji Land die before they actually died. One morning, the killer would crawl out from his sleeping bag, fetch his coffee, share an obscene joke with his battle buddy, while relieving himself in a ravine. By the time he would suit up for the day’s incursion, the blank look in his eyes would tell everyone of his fellow killers that, indeed, he had died somewhere between taking a piss in a ravine and cleaning his M-16. Death just hit the poor bastard in the face, like a sheet of sand snapping against a man’s cheeks; and by the time death flew on to hit some other poor soul, there had been nothing left in that killer but a sad, intense, thousand yard stare into absolute darkness.
Max sees the pleading in Maxine’s eyes; but, even more so, he sees how her eyes are beginning to focus on the absolute darkness. Soon, she will give up pleading altogether. She will quiet down. Her eyes will stare into eternity; and they will keep on staring, even after Serge Santos orders the water boy to drag her fat corpse out of the CAB Lounge and over to the janitor’s office.
She is not like you and me, Lars Tubbs whispers into Max’s ear.
Max is startled away from Maxine’s pleading eyes. He then sees that Lars had come from out of nowhere and taken a spot by his side, while he had been focused on Maxine. For such a large and bumbling man, Lars has a keen ability, apparently, for slipping in and out of opportune situations. That ability alone is the reason why he is the ‘keeper of the tin cup’ in this developing ‘new world.’
As if presenting his calling card, Lars rattles his tin cup near Max’s right ear. There cannot be more than several dollars worth of nickels and quarters in there, and yet Lars rattles them like they are a secret hoard of gold coins. That rattling noise says that he is a man ‘in the know’ about to share a tidbit or two, not because he is generous, but because he wants the listener to know that, in fact, he can give and withhold as he sees fit. The rattling noise also insinuates that everything he is about to say is profound and worthy of utmost attention, the kind of information a man would pay dearly to have whispered into his ear.
The date stamp on her photograph is a counterfeit, Lars Tubbs snarls. It is a forgery. She wants people to think that she knows, but she does not. She is just a female, a beaver eater at that, and soon a carcass stinking up our lounge with her dead lesbian man sweat.
Max remains silent. He is standing beside one of the chief snakes in a big barrel full of poisonous vipers. He is not sure yet how to squeeze the life out of it, and so he carefully keeps his ‘poker face.’ For anyone else, Max’s blankness and silence would be vaguely disturbing; but Lars is so caught up in his madness that he barely notices how anyone else reacts to his irritating assertiveness. No doubt, this is just as well, since Lars’s fragile ego would be easily injured, if he knew just how much the other ‘guests’ ridiculed him behind his back.
They ridicule him, but they also listen to him, since he is one of the few ‘guests’ who always has something to say. Max thinks of a photograph he saw of a young Adolf Hitler standing on a soapbox in Vienna in the midst of a blizzard. A few stragglers listen to him. Most everyone else has their head down and is in the process of hurrying indoors. They would have ridiculed Hitler too, except in the end he had something to say when most everyone else remained silent. The worse things get, the less someone has to say or to do to get noticed among the simpleminded and the scared shitless.
She is not the only one, Lars whispers. There are other counterfeiters. If we are not careful, then they will open more side doors and windows with their lies. First, when no one is looking, they burn the Reichstag. Then, if there is no response, they derail the trains; maybe tear down a few bridges. Finally, when the night is long, they come for our throats. Especially our throats! We two are lawyers, after all, brothers in the bar; and we know that the scoundrels always go for the lawyers. Who else can stop them finally, but men learned in the law?
Max wants to go for Lars’s throat. For some reason, Max is incensed that this paralegal insists on treating the two of them as co-equal doctors of secular and divine jurisprudence. The devil lies; but, even more so, he mocks. Mockery tears down whatever is sacred, like graffiti defaces whatever is beautiful. Both are a kind of decomposition, a falling away from innocence, a reminder that in all worlds, the old and the new alike, the end is putrid water gurgling down the drain and into the sewer. There is no escaping this death. It is the blindness for which there is no cure. It is the oppressive heat for which there is no remission.
Except, perhaps, for a day or two in the ‘Hugh Hefner Suite.’ Now, that may be a kind of escape…
Maxine manages to spit the gag out of her mouth temporarily. She is now beside herself in fright and in exhaustion. Her face is as red as a suckling pig in the oven. Her chest heaves so excitedly her flappy breasts strike upon her chin.
Still, this is her chance to declare something to the rest of us, before the CAB management gags her again. Given how tense she is already, this likely will be her last time.
I am afraid, Maxine screams out in a manner that is both frightened and joyous. I obey. I survive. And…and…I’ll never pee in my panties again, I swear…
The water boy runs out from a shadow, and reinserts the gag. She twists and kicks like a pig first observing the butcher’s knife. She knows that this time she will not be able to spit the gag out. She has screamed out her last words to an indifferent assortment of breakfast eaters. In spite of her delirium, she now senses what a ghost must feel when looking upon its tombstone and seeing that the last words once engraved into the stone have withered away because of the years of indifference and laziness on the part of the groundskeepers. It is all so futile; poems falling like heavy rocks onto dead ears; prose ignored, forgotten, and then indecipherable; the last words of a woman’s life heard, but absorbed like sugar coated rocks are swallowed, sweet for a brief time, then passed out the back door. It is enough to make a lady cry out, if she had tears still to shed.
The other tenants return to the critical business of redeeming their blue tickets. Maxine had it coming to her. Maxine’s demise means more food for the rest of us. Better her than me. These are the shallow insights entertained then by the various ‘guests’ hovered around the pool table. Deeper considerations at this time (frankly, at any time) will only get in the way of a hearty breakfast of hardboiled eggs, greasy bacon strips, and rock hard biscuits. Better to let those mangy, old dogs lie dead by the side of the road, than to pull back their ears to see what may be lurking inside their heads. Too much curiosity, and the man is liable to catch a whiff of whatever brought down those mutts in the wee hours.
Max also turns away from the squirming woman. He approaches the pool table. Serge Santos is standing there. He is smiling vaguely; and Max imagines it is the same smile he has just after swallowing a mouthful of cum, an expression that suggests both satisfaction and nausea without committing totally to either of the two sensations. He is waiting to collect Max’s ticket; but Max suspects he is mentally elsewhere, much like any grown man with carpet burns on his knees must learn how to plant his mind on a Caribbean beach at the drop of the pants in front of him. Max hates how Serge Santos seems to be there and not there at the same moment. It reminds him of his son upstairs. It reminds him of himself.
Max redeems his ticket. He is stepping away from the pool table with his plate of food, when Lars Tubbs again comes out of nowhere and whispers softly into his right ear. Lars rattles his tin cup the whole time; and in a queer mental leap, Max recalls a Salvation Army Santa rattling for coins in front of the liquor store. Except this Salvation Army Santa has a sultry expression on his red face, a kind of drunken ‘fuck me’ face that would be sexy on just about any woman, but that is downright grotesque when insinuated by this obese man. Max thinks of how Teddy Kennedy must have looked when crawling out from the blue, cold Chappaquiddick. Max has never felt less homosexual than at that very moment.
I want you, Lars Tubbs says, while almost nibbling Max’s ear. There are a dozen of us thus far. You would be lucky number thirteen, if you agreed to join our ranks. We call ourselves ‘The Band.’ Brotherhood, blood oath, butt sex, oh, just kidding about the butt sex. Serge Santos has given us permission to meet in the CAB Lounge an hour after dinner tonight.
That’s after the curfew, Max mutters.
Serge Santos has given us permission, Lars reiterates, while he rattles his tin cup loudly for greater effect. There is the law for everybody else, and there is the law for us. Equal justice for them; privilege for us. What they call fascist tyranny, we call freedom and opportunity. Believe me, brother, semantics is all there is to philosophy and religion within the ‘new world.’ As a fellow lawyer, I should think that you would be especially fond of this evolution in our civil and ecclesiastical law. Not to mention that this evolution is a moral necessity. That side door had been breached. It may be breached again. ‘The Band’ alone must be able to bend the law to its higher mission.
And what ‘higher mission’ is that? Max asks.
Making the world safe for democracy. A chicken in every pot. Morning in America. Call it what you will, but ours is the task of eradicating nonbelievers, and giving the believers something in which to believe.
How can one be a ‘believer’ before already having something in which to believe? Max thinks. In fact, what Lars calls a ‘believer’ is just someone he has decided, for whatever arbitrary reason, is on the ‘plus’ side of the old ledger in his mind. So be it. I would rather be on the ‘plus’ side, if only so as to buy time for my son. Getting along to go along is a better strategy than asking tough and embarrassing questions. I’ll redeem my conscience for selling out now when all this lunacy is over, and I am able to bury this porker’s red face in the hot sand.
Count me in, Max says with a fake smile.
Lars Tubbs leaps forward in excitement.
Lars restrains himself. He glances back into the CAB Lounge to see if any of the others noticed his brief detour from the straight and the narrow. He very much wants everyone to regard him as the cool and collected insider, not as an overexcited fat boy thrilled by his own pipe dreams.
We truly are a brotherhood, Lars whispers conspiratorially. No, we don’t have our secret handshake yet, but give us time, and we’ll dream up something that’ll give you goose bumps. Until then, mums the last word. Okay, my friend?
Lars is more correct than he realizes, Max thinks. Indeed, the last word is always ‘mums,’ or ‘nothing,’ or ‘embarrassed silence.’ That is how the world works, when even tombstone engravings fade over time.
Mums the last word, Max agrees, as the elevator door opens before him.
Lars smiles broadly. He looks like that Stay Puft Marshmallow Man from Ghostbusters. Then, he looks suspiciously from side to side, probably to be sure that no one sees his enthusiasm; and as a result, he casts a sinister pall over his own cheeky face. He seems incapable of experiencing joy without also sending out some sort of sinister vibe. Therefore, he is at once pathetic and dangerous, a combination that Max finds detestable because it is so difficult to categorize.
Max steps into the elevator. By the time he turns around and faces once more the CAB Lobby, Lars is gone. It is as if the fat man with the tin cup in fact had never been there.
* * *
About a half hour before lunch is supposed to be served, the IMAX screen goes berserk. Max is staring out his living room window when, suddenly, the old video loop (‘Be afraid,’ ‘Obey’, and ‘Survive’) fades to black. He is taken aback at once; because the video loop had been repeated so many times it seemed in a way always to have been imparting its message to his subconscious mind. His conscious mind senses that that is ridiculous. The propagandist had started that campaign relatively recently. Max indeed had heard Lieutenant Mooney with his own ears first articulate the mantra of the ‘new world.’ But on a much deeper, visceral level, he has been losing his former grasp of time. Perhaps, the lack of any noticeable change outside accounts for some of his confusion. Perhaps, the steady routine of life within the CAB has killed off his ability, or even desire, to differentiate days from weeks and months. Regardless, he has been wondering, cautiously at first, but now with a much greater sense of urgency, if indeed the ‘new world’ mantra is as old and as permanent as day settling into night. After all, what is so new about fear (fight or flight as primordial as the first ape man looking into the night sky and beholding fire gods), or obedience (the first two cavemen had been a Chief and an Indian, no doubt), or survival (sleep, hunting, sex, warfare, all expressions of a natural drive to survive over ones opponents)?
And so the sudden and unexplained disruption of that video loop is like a trumpet blast in the heavens. ‘Like’ is the operative word here, because in fact he does not hear anything at all, so much as feel the intensity of a cataclysmic event. A wave of raw, electrical fear washes up from his bowels. It spreads out to the ends of his nerves. As that fear takes holds of his disoriented imagination within seconds, a terrible panic speeds up his heart and opens his sweat glands.
Max feels like a marionette pulled erratically by an irate puppet master. He steps away from the window, and clasps his mouth to cut off a scream; but he is vaguely aware that he is not moving at all. He is being moved, pushed and prodded, indeed like a marionette, but even more so like the weak sister about to be manhandled by a bigger and nastier queer inside of a bathroom stall. The world as he has known it goes dark; and he is left with helplessness, filthiness, the raw, throbbing, crackling ass pain after too much exposure to the madness.
What in the hell is going on here? Max mutters, as he steps back towards the living room window, and forces himself to look at the IMAX screen. Why am I acting like a fucked up discharge with P.T.S.D. stamped on my papers? I’ll tell you why. Now, listen up, because it is hard for me to admit this. But the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, your honor, is that I am a fucked up discharge with P.T.S.D. stamped on my papers. I am a bloody killer with plenty of metals of my chests, and commendation letters in my file, and blond interns in my lap, who nevertheless could not hack it out there in the heat wave. I am not even doing that swell of a job in here. Hell, I’ve got a fucking fat queer in a green suit rattling a tip cup beside my ear and telling me when and where to show up. What am I to make of this? Am I being punished? Did I go much too far with all those decapitated heads? Or did I not go far enough? Perhaps, I am that weak sister, because I did not turn into a scary enough monster out there in the desert wasteland. Perhaps, I am that weak sister even now, because even that fat fuck Lars Tubbs senses that I am no danger to him or to anyone else in here.
Max realizes that he has been rambling, while pounding his right fist into the living room window. The glass is strong. He does not appear to have made a crack. Nevertheless, he steps back again; for fear that the house of cards really is about to fall this time.
The glass does not shatter. Whatever is out there is not flowing into here just now; and so, after holding his breath for about a minute, Max gives himself permission finally to relax a little bit. He also decides to listen to his conscious mind, which all along has been telling him that the end of the video loop is just that. It is neither the trumpet blast, nor the oncoming, galloping hooves of the Four Horsemen, nor even a malfunction. It is just a change of programming; no doubt, an evolution in the propaganda; and Max should observe it for what it is.
The change of programming consists of a series of ten second vignettes, each one introduced by a flashing purple LOL or OMG, and each one apparently more disgusting that its predecessor. The overarching theme appears to be just how pathetic a person can look when he or she is on the receiving end of blood, piss, shit, vomit, or cum. A dominatrix squats over a Down’s syndrome boy and pees into his face. A breastfeeding mother vomits booze on her newborn. A BBC squirts cum on a crying whore. An old man in a beanie cap and a Charlie Brown sweater slips and slides, before falling face first into the ripped open carcass of a dog. A cheeky, fat boy wins a shit eating contest, and then vomits up all that shit before claiming his trophy. A depressed Goth chick cuts open her veins and sprays blood onto her bathroom mirror. A Doctor Mengele type yanks out a lone fingernail with a pair of tweezers, before looking into the camera and laughing.
Family friendly television, Max says, as he turns away from that window.
Max hears the television switch on in the bedroom. Is Adam awake? If he turned on the television, then does that mean he can see? Can he get better so fast that he is dead to the world one moment and watching television the next?
Max runs into the bedroom. Adam remains asleep. The television is going on and on of its own accord. It is showing the same macabre vignettes, except that by switching on and off repeatedly it is all but impossible for the television viewer to recognize the context of any one scene. For him, there is just blood, piss, shit, vomit, or cum, in no particular order and for no discernible reason. It is all just mind-numbing mayhem; a pornographic dulling of the senses; a crazy trip into hell that leaves the observer tired and deflated when it is finally over.
Well, this is not the kind of ‘family friendly television’ Max wants Adam to observe should he happen miraculously to wake up and to see anytime soon. Therefore, even though he knows that the CAB management will take notice of his little act of rebellion, he yanks the television cord out of the wall. Max half expects the flat screen in the bedroom to continue working. Everything else is wacky right now, so why not the boob tube? Nevertheless, the flat screen goes dark. Just to be on the safe side Max yanks that cord out of the flat screen too, hides the cord in a drawer under his underwear, and turns the screen to a wall.
Max puts on his Italian leather topcoat. He studies himself in his dresser mirror. He looks normal enough, but just beneath the surface he is quivering in rage and fear. He may be losing it for real this time, and he hates to think that that could happen before he manages to flee from this place with his blind son.
You’ve got to hold it together, Max whispers, while searching for a white ration ticket in his inside coat pocket. Remain under the radar until you find an opportunity to strike. There is always a weakness in the line; a weak sister who just cannot stand upright anymore in his bathroom stall; and, like with all other obstacles in life, you’ve just got to ram him hard before the others can restrain you. Ram his ass, until you’re beating against his spine. That’s how we survive…
Max stops speaking midsentence. He is rambling yet again, and if he goes down that route too far he is liable never to return. He has seen those madmen who cannot stop talking. The last thing he wants is to be one of those babblers.
Max turns back to his son. Adam seems not to have noticed this mayhem.
He returns his white ration ticket to his inside coat pocket, and steps out of the bedroom. He hopes to get downstairs and back before bumping into too many fellow ‘guests.’ Just now, he does not feel sociable, not that he had been especially kind and talkative with his fellow ‘guests’ earlier. If he could redeem his ticket without seeing another living soul, then he would be quite contented, or at least as contented as any zoo animal can be when trapped inside his cage.
As Max locks the apartment door behind him, he notices the EXIT sign in his peripheral vision. It is flickering erratically, like there is an electric surge of some sort. Max almost can hear the fly buzzing sound of a dying electrical bulb.
He turns to face the EXIT sign. Just then, the ceiling lights in the hall go off. They stay off a few seconds, and then they flicker back on. This time, Max senses that this is not an electric surge problem, so much as a man problem, or more precisely a man somewhere deliberately flickering on and off those lights.
So they are really fucking with us now, Max thinks. No, actually, they are not fucking with all of us, but only with my son and I. This is about keeping him blind, and driving me nuts. Why do they do this? Because they can, that’s why…
There is a nervous gasp down the hall. Max sees a woman waiting for the elevator there. He recognizes her as his neighbor; but beyond that he does not know anything about her, except that she looks like a sexless mouse behind her oversized glasses. Regardless, he probably would have hit upon her back in the day; and for all he remembers, maybe he did; but now, honestly, he would just as soon kill her with his bare hands.
Perhaps, she senses that anger in him, because she seems more afraid to be sharing the hall with him than of the fact that the electrical system appears out of whack. She tries to stare directly at the elevator door, but Max is able to feel the raw fear vibrating out from the corner of her right eye towards him. As a result, she keeps looking in his direction, as if she possibly could run like heck if indeed he saw fit to attack her. Of course, that is an entirely irrational idea; but ‘fight or flight’ allows a weaker person to survive precisely because it does not operate on the level of a reasoned, dispassionate assessment of a situation.
The hell with her fear, Max thinks. I have as much a right to the elevator as she does. Am I petty right now? Sure, I am an asshole par excellence; but the caged animal should be allowed his quirks now and then.
Therefore, Max walks slowly toward the elevator. His neighbor shifts off of one foot and onto the other; but she does not face him directly; not for that matter does she retreat from her position. In her own mousey way, she is going to be an asshole par excellence also, if the circumstance demands.
Max stands next to his mousey neighbor. He also stares at that elevator, while the ceiling lights again flicker off and on.
I think they use Velveeta in the Macaroni and Cheese, Max observes. It is indistinguishable from cheddar after six weeks and counting.
The number five above the elevator door starts to flash. This means that the elevator has stalled somewhere between the fifth and the sixth floors. Max again senses that this is a man-made problem.
Maybe this time they will serve something different, Max continues. It is a theoretical possibility…
His mousey neighbor abruptly faces him. She is so terribly scared her lips tremble and her skin bleaches white. Her eyes look like they are about to bulge out from behind her silly owl glasses.
How could you stand the smell all those days? She asks incredulously.
Max stumbles back a step, like he had been smacked over the face. He is now as scared as she is.
What? What do you mean? Max mutters.
Get out of my way, she snarls. I’ll go down for lunch later.
She shoves Max aside, and storms off. After she has taken several steps, her old fear resurfaces; and she begins to run towards her own apartment door.
Wait, Max calls back to her. What in the hell do you mean?
She runs even faster. Max pursues her. He cannot let her get away now without explaining herself. He must hear what she has to say, because the only alternative is his own mind filling in the blanks with facts he would just as soon discard with the rest of his misspent imagination. He can discount whatever she says, but he cannot so easily discount his own troubled conscience at this time.
Fortunately for the mousey neighbor, she had not locked her door, when she had stepped out for lunch. Thus, she is able to slip into her foyer, and then to slam the door shut behind her, before he is able to get there. Max finally has no choice but to lean against her closed door and to slam both fists against the wood frame. His intense fear and disgust cannot conceive of any other outlet at that time, even though deep down he realizes that he is accomplishing nothing more with this temper tantrum than to frighten her and to be noticed by them.
Max hears his mousey neighbor inserting the door chain. He turns around and leans his back against the door. He is about to cry when suddenly the lights go off without turning back on again. Also, even more disturbingly, the buzzing EXIT sign coughs out a bluish smoke cloud before it too turns dormant and cold.
Max now is alone in the dark with his fears. He feels naked. He has been exposed, though he cannot quite figure out what about him has been hauled to the light of reason. Whatever truth has been unearthed, he will not rest until it is safely hidden beneath his craziness and violence.
Madness is not sickness, Max thinks. It is survival.
Max feels his way back to the elevator. He observes that the number five still flashes above the door. There is no choice just then, but to take the stairs.
Therefore, he feels his way further down the hall. Notwithstanding all of that ‘attention to detail’ training he received in the military once upon a time, he had never bothered to learn the location of the staircase exit. With the EXIT sign burnt out, he has no alternative but to feel each doorknob he passes to see which one opens. He feels like a burglar skulking through the dark shadows of a house. He is unclean, clammy even, like he will need to take a shower when he is done burglarizing this black place for whatever tidbits of wealth he may find.
He opens one of the doors. He cannot see inside at first; but he can feel the stuffy, furnace air in there clutching at his face and neck, like the air itself has thick, sweaty fingers. Indeed, the air moves. He can hear how it clangs off of the metal steps, while it is swooshing up from the bowels of hell toward the roof. But it does not take long for Max to recognize that the air does not have a pair of hands, so much as a conniving mind of its own intent upon terrorizing all those who would be so bold as to venture down the windy clackety-clack stairs.
Max steps onto a metal platform, as the door swooshes shut behind him. He feels like he literally has stepped into an oven. The hot air blows up his face and burns his nostrils. He clenches his eyes shut intuitively, but the hot air still manages to seep through his eyelids and to gnaw ravenously at his pupils. Slimy sweat pours down his face; and when he tries to wipe the sweat away, he feels then how the tips of his fingers are so hot as to be throbbing blisters. He can do no more than to wipe his sweat upon the sleeves of his topcoat, like an animal wipes its filthy fur upon its owner’s topcoat when no one else then is the wiser.
Although the intensity of the furnace air does not lessen, he adapts to it quickly enough. He is then uncomfortable; indeed, no more than a few kisses of hot air away from delirium; but at least he is able to stand upright, to keep his lips shut, and to breathe through his dried nose.
He slowly opens his eyes. He is teary-eyed from all that heat eating into his tear ducts; but within seconds, he is able at least to see something tangible below him. It looks like a flashlight beam jiggling its way down the windy steps.
He listens carefully. There is an echo with every plodding step down the staircase. The echoes reverberate with one another to create a mind-numbing, beating sound. Max thinks that this would be the sound of a metal heartbeat, if indeed buildings squeezed a kind of metal blood through their inner walls. As it is, there is no supernatural explanation whatsoever. There is nothing, but first a pair of heavy feet plodding down the steps, then another, and then, finally, a slew of heavy feet coming out from many places at once to descend into a dark hell oven. He will be adding his own feet to the clamor; and he wonders if the slow and hungry men wandering down the staircase are in fact beasts stripped by the hot air of the last vestiges of humanity and condemned to redeem their precious ration tickets in the devil’s own dining room. It is a macabre thought, to be sure; but then everything about this dark chamber of heat and metal calls to mind burning flesh, and heavy hearts, and men consumed by old nightmares.
Max begins to walk down the staircase. His balance is off, but he realizes that it would be a bad idea to use the metal handrail. It is steamy hot from the furnace wind rattling the steps and beams. He would not be able to walk down the metal steps either, if he were barefoot; and so he moves with the stooped shoulders and the trembling knees of a man twice his age.
There is a bloodcurdling scream from several stories below. Max thinks it may be a woman’s voice, but he cannot be sure. The darkness, the stuffy heat, the shrill madness, everything seems to be bearing down upon his mind, like an old nightmare that has come to life in the steamy walls and pulsing steps for no other purpose than to embrace him in its death clutch. He cannot be sure of his place in this demonic fun house, let alone of who or what may be further down the windy path. It is enough for him to stand still, until the screaming stops and the plodding feet above and below him continue down towards the lobby.
There are several more screams, while he continues down the steps; but he does not stop for any of those. He is becoming acclimated to this sad corner of hell. It is amazing how a man can get used to the most hostile of places and situations, so that when freed from his nightmare he actually longs for the dark and sinister bedfellows, who had kept him company all that time. Perhaps, this more than anything accounts for why people generally do not let go of horrible circumstances, until it is much too late. It is not that they are sick gluttons for punishment; so much as they have learned to be comfortable where they have survived. One step at a time, Max is learning to be comfortable on this narrow, metal staircase, where the flashlight beams jiggle below, and the girls scream…
Except that he is not comfortable, not truly, because of the questions on his mind: What in the hell did she mean? What was the smell that I had endured and that she had found so distasteful? Of course, it is possible that she is mad, since stir craziness and outright lunacy seem to be catching around here, like a bad case of the flu; but can I pass this off as just a mental hiccup on her part? I surely would like to do so. Her assertion raised a question that I do not want to answer; and yet, try as I may, I cannot toss aside so cavalierly the condemning, knowing look in her big owl eyes, can I? No, I don’t think I can manage to do so.
Max pushes open the door at the bottom of the staircase. He steps into a lobby of flickering lights and weeping women. Presumably, these are the ladies who had been screaming holy hell earlier. They are leaning against the elevator door, holding their knees or ankles, and sobbing so uncontrollably as to suggest a gaggle of two or three-year-old girls injured on the playground. Max stares at each of them, but cannot make out their faces, because their slimy, thick tears act as a kind of glue cementing their gnarly hair strands over their bulging eyes and cheeks. Max gives up on trying to identify them, because if they are going to wail this loudly over the burnt knees or ankles that they suffered from a fall upon the steps, then they are not going to hack it in the long run. Best to focus on the boys who will be standing still after the heat wave has passed the scene.
Max steps into the CAB Lounge. A group of silent, apathetic lunch eaters has gathered around Maxine. She is gagged and hogtied still, but no longer able to squirm against the duct tape wrapped tightly about her skin. Max pushes his way to the front of the group. When there, he observes that she has passed out completely. Her haggard breaths suggest that she is not long for this side of the River Styx. It is too early for Maxine to succumb to dehydration, and so he feels that her present sad condition must have something to do with her weak heart.
In a very real way, Maxine is heartbroken, Max thinks, before moving out of the group and towards the Macaroni and Cheese. Poor woman had been able and willing to fall in love in a time where love is forbidden. She had been much too enthusiastic in a world where passion has been replaced with fear, personal dedication with unquestioning obedience, and visceral life with brutal survival. She would have had to go whether or not she peed in her pants, since a lover in one moment can be a rebel in the next.
Notwithstanding all the confusion, Max expects some of the others to be congregated about the pool table. There is always a crowd of zombies clutching their white ration tickets, and staring ravenously at the melted Velveeta. Even if a grown woman is dying several feet away, the hardcore can be expected to do what the hardcore do; and yet this time there is no one else at the Macaroni and Cheese. The others are either watching Maxine die; or they are wandering about the lounge, while wringing their narrow hands, and eyeing superstitiously the flickering lights above them. In both cases, they seem totally overwhelmed by the mayhem; punch drunk, perhaps, or so far removed from hope as to have made the decision to switch off their own conscious minds.
Serge Santos steps forward to take Max’s ticket. Just before Max is able to hand him his ticket, Lars Tubbs steps out from nowhere and takes him aside. Serge Santos does not seem to mind. He just turns abruptly on his shiny loafers and returns to that ‘little rat hole’ from which he had emerged seconds earlier.
Notice anything off kilter? Lars asks conspiratorially, while he draws Max away from the pool table and rattles his tin cup.
No shit, Max mutters.
You’re an observant fellow, Lars says with a chuckle. That’s how we two lawyers have been trained. ‘Attention to detail’ is as necessary in a courtroom as it is on a desert battlefield.
What in the hell do you know about either? Max thinks.
But let me show you something even you could not have noticed, unless of course you happen to be the culprit, Lars says.
Max feels the hairs on the back of his neck stand up, but he manages still to keep his cool. Lars in turn removes a folded photograph from his tight pants pocket. Lars looks every which way to make certain nobody else can see them, and only when he is satisfied that the other ‘guests’ are too brain dead to care about the two of them does he then unfold the picture.
It is a different side door than in the prior photo. This one seems to be a bit closer to the dog park near the back of the building. Otherwise, the picture is much the same: a door about halfway open, and an unidentified man walking in through an entrance that should be sealed totally for their own protection. It is impossible to tell the day or the hour of this infraction, since the picture has not been date stamped, and the image itself is much too grainy to indicate day or night. What matters is that this is a different incident; and that means there is going to be hell to pay, as the powers that be turn up the heat in their cages.
What does this mean? Max asks, as he pretends to be slow on the uptake.
Lars smiles. He folds up his picture, stuffs it into his pants pocket, looks suspiciously about the lounge one more time, and then pats Max upon his back. He leans close to Max’s right ear. He rattles his tin cup in front of Max’s crotch.
My friend, it means our little conspiracy will need to go into effect much faster than anticipated, Lars whispers. ‘The Band’ will need to shed blood soon to appease the gods. Otherwise, we can expect more infractions to disrupt our fragile environment. More open doors; more energy surges; more furnace winds in the staircase; until there is nothing left, but another dead building alongside a dead street. We cannot let that happen. ‘The Band’ will not let that happen…
‘The Band’ will not let that happen, Max repeats softly under his breath.
That’s right, Lars whispers. ‘The Band’ will not let that happen.
On that note, Lars steps away. He rattles his tin cup, while approaching a group of would be donors. He moves with a cockiness, which Max finds totally detestable. The cocksure attitude works, though, as Lars receives a donation of dimes and quarters out from each of those clueless, hungry ‘guests’ over there.
Max approaches the pool table. Serge Santos again steps forward to take his white ticket. Max does not say a word to the leather queer, as he steps over to the pool table to obtain a Macaroni and Cheese plate for himself and his son.
* * *
Max crawls forward on his elbows and knees. His chin scrapes the dried, hot sand. With every breath he inhales the sunbaked earth deep into his lungs; and, as a result, his torso feels like a heavy sandbag dragged across the surface of a hostile and alien world. Indeed, much of his body is an obstacle, instead of an aid, to his forward progress. It is just a heavily scarred, nonresponsive, dead weight, something to be jettisoned as soon as he can, a ball and chain he really would have discarded long ago, if he had not lost the key that would unlock his burdensome flesh from the few body parts that still matter to him, namely, his elbows, knees, and lungs.
Max had been chewing on the key since God knows when. Storing it in his mouth had served the dual purpose of keeping it close at hand and generating a bit of saliva on his tongue and lips. That spit is long gone now. In its place is an awful, dried, scratchy sensation that does not feel like a mouth at all, so much as a throbbing wound. What bothers him much more, though, is that somehow, somewhere, along the way, the key slid out from between his teeth. Now, he is stuck with his sandbag of a torso, his low-hanging head, and worst of all his big, scaly, crackling back. The desert sun has been beating down on his bare back a long time; perhaps, since he had crawled out from his mother’s womb, he does not know for sure; and now, it looks more like a rotten, peeling, red onion than anything remotely human. It crackles every time he moves, and he imagines his dried skin flakes continuously fall from his back to create a trail in the sand. He cannot know for sure, since it would be far too much struggle for him to swerve his face back to take a look at the trail he has left in the sand behind him. How much of himself he has left in the sand does not really matter anyway, because his destiny is what is in front of him. As long as his elbows and knees manage to push across the earth, and his lungs find some breathable air in the grey clouds of sand and dust, he is going to get to that cave somewhere passed the horizon.
Minutes or years could have passed. He does not have any idea what may pass for time this close to eternity. Nonetheless, at some point, he crawls what is left of his peeled back and sandbag torso up to a small opening at the base of a prehistoric catacomb. The maze of crypts and tunnels had been buried over a long time ago by countless sandstorms, so that to the untrained eye it seems to be a stretch of unremarkable sand dunes pockmarked by a few narrow openings like this one. The Hajis are natural archeologists. They practically can smell all those abandoned graveyards weighed down by centuries of hard sand, because of course they have to do so. Necessity guides evolution; and for a Haji, trying to escape from the glare of the midday sun, or crouching low to plan his attack against the newest infidels to occupy his corner of hell, the dark crypts and the narrow tunnels provide the kind of refuge even the greatest of satellites cannot notice. A Haji can stay in his hole, undetected, indefinitely. If a drone kills him in the end, then it is almost always the result of a snitch, instead of something picked up by a surveillance drone. Killers like Max Gunn know this; and so once they have been in Haji Land long enough to acquire the ratty mind of a lurking, scheming, lying Haji, they will search out these graveyards themselves to find a mustached, brown man to bayonet in his sleep…
Or a corpse to mutilate. Max thinks about the first time he used his knife to remove a head from a corpse. He and his battle buddy had fired about a half a dozen mortars from ‘Sand Nigger Dunes.’ They had confirmed a kill with their surveillance drone. They walked about a half a mile out to the corpse only then to discover that the blast from the mortar had dislodged a boulder from atop a hill. The boulder had rolled down the slope and had settled on the face of their Haji corpse. There was no way to remove the body without taking a knife to his throat. Max sliced, while his battle buddy set up a perimeter. Max imagined the sound of slicing through a watermelon as the desert sun tore into his own back.
That had been the first time. It could have been explained away as some sort of ‘occupational necessity,’ if the commanding officer had been told what Max had to do to clean up the mess. Nevertheless, Max and his battle buddy did what any man would have done in similar circumstances. They papered over all the messy details, so that the Dead Haji could be designated in a Pentagon file as a ‘clean kill.’ The very fact of papering over the decapitation, more so than the decapitation itself, turned this gruesome act of corpse mutilation over time into a kind of scintillating act of rebellion against the bastards back home, who never saw their uniforms creased by repeated assaults from the desert sun. The word spread among the killers at ‘Sand Nigger Dunes,’ and a brief wave of dead head slicing became an in-house game. Which of the redskins (and indeed they all had redskin what with their exposure to the sun) could scalp the most Hajis, before the end of the month? Which of the redskins could sneak his trophy into the camp without being detected by the commanding officer?
Shits and giggles to pass the long days; but like every fad, the Haji Head Game became old soon enough. Most of the killers occupied themselves instead with the ass of a twink cook sent into the camp from the Green Zone. Only Max and his battle buddy continued to play the game; and when an I.E.D. one night transformed Max’s battle buddy into a smashed pumpkin, Max alone continued what had become an obsession for him.
Max had to undertake great measures to hide his obsession, because the other killers, who had indulged the sport once upon a time, now despised every aspect of it. They were like former drunks, who had decided to join en masse a ‘Sand Nigger Dunes’ branch of the American Temperance Society. If indeed one of them had caught Max going A.W.O.L. in the middle of the night, or had spied Max digging a deep hole before sunrise, or had caught a glimpse of a dead head in Max’s duffel bag, then they would have meted out their own brand of desert justice, rather than pass the word up the chain of command. Max surely would have ended up in a hole himself, breathing in dried sand, searching for answers in the darkness of the earth.
But they never caught him, and so here Max is squeezing his scabbed and sunburnt flesh into a prehistoric catacomb. It is such a tight fit. Max recalls his first sexual experience. She had been underage and not quite ready. In turn, he had been underage and too enthused. He had felt like he was literally stabbing a girl. The very fact that he had found any pleasure at all (a brief, warm squirt that did not actually feel good, but which he had been conditioned to regard as ‘pleasurable’), when deep down he had sensed that this sex act had everything to do with jungle violence and nothing to do with love, pushed him along to his future occupations as a killer and an attorney. A boy learns a lot about himself, while stabbing a teary-eyed girl, and staring through the narrow space between two bleachers. He gets an education his teachers and textbooks cannot match; one that prepares him for when his civilized world is beaten back into the sand.
Max crawls into the tiny, hot space that erosion had carved out from the base of a mountain millions of years ago. The mountain is long gone; very likely leveled by sandstorms into several camel humps of billowy sand; but men, long deceased, and as foreign to our own condition as the dinosaurs, preserved that space as a sacred, natural crypt. They interned kings and peasants. The corpses remained until the last sliver of bones had been carried away by the winds that managed periodically to blow into the space. The space then remained empty, sometimes for thousands of years, until a new tribe should rediscover its prior use. Whether it had been a regal or a common burial place had depended upon the mindset of the tribe then occupying the desert plains.
Max practically can feel the haunted past of the space into which he has crawled. It is a dead place; incredibly still, stuffy, weighed down; but it is also a place where memories never manage to escape totally into the wide-open sky beyond the mouth. Tears have been shed; robberies committed; fugitives from the law hidden; prayers offered; solemn odes to past glories recited; all of that activity performed by men who had crawled in this same space, while the dark, dried up corpses in the center of the crypt had stared blankly into the towering black wall at the end of history. The men who had ventured into this tiny space to do whatever it is they had intended to do could not but feel deep down just how murky is the line between life and death. Some of these men reacted with a kind of religious awe; others with a sense of demonic dread; still others with a vague feeling of creepiness. Regardless, no one had crawled into this space to honor or to debase the corpses therein without losing something of his own life in the sand. No one got this close to death without paying a price.
Max feels life seeping out of his own soul. It is like air leaking out from a balloon. It is minute, but tangible, so that the awareness of what is occurring is actually much worse than the loss.
Max wants to crawl back out of the crypt, but he is much too weak to do so. Moreover, a small, but growing, part of his conscious mind actually wants to see what makes this place tick. His curiosity will triumph over his fear in time. He knows that much about himself; and so, even though he knows conceptually that a good dose of fear is critical to the ‘fight of flight’ instinct that permits a desert rat like himself to survive the long and torturous days, he manages then to relax just enough for his curiosity to take control in there.
He squats low, and braces himself against a wall, until the last remnants of his mad fear subside altogether. Thus far, he has not paid much attention to the corpses in the middle of the crypt, except to the extent required to realize that they are a man and a woman lying side by side and hand in hand. The man does not have a head anymore. The woman is carrying a dead baby that has his or her lips still wrapped about one of her nipples. They have been dead only for several days. Usually, corpses in here have been dead for centuries by the time someone stumbles upon them. Thus, in comparison, these corpses are not dead at all. In this place, dead is not really dead until the bones finally have escaped out from the last vestiges of flesh. That will happen here also, presumably; but since the corpses continue to sport colored flesh and bloated organs, it is easy to conceive of them as living, breathing persons still endeavoring to survive yet another long afternoon in the desert.
Just like Adam and Eve after being evicted, Max thinks. Just like all of us in one way or another. The living dead, until sometime later they are just plain dead. And it is appropriate that this should be so. After all, is not life simply an old and timeless nightmare that continues without ceasing into the dead world?
Max smells something. He had not noticed it earlier; and for the first few seconds, he cannot say exactly what it is. It should not be a surprise, and yet in that haunted place it seems to come out from nowhere. It is sour, distasteful, a vaguely organic odor that seems to bypass the nostrils and to go directly to the bowels. It is like oats rolled in loose shit, but it is also like dead fish one by one gurgling up to the surface of a hot and stagnant marsh. Mostly, though, it is the only life in this place, apart from himself; and frankly he is not so sure just now how alive he is. He may be a ghost; but that awful smell is definitely incarnate, sweaty, breathing life. Its flesh is the rock and sand. Its sweat is the desert sun managing somehow to sneak into the crypt and to slide down one of the jagged walls. Its breath is the desert breeze snaking in and out of the crypt.
And its mind, well, what precisely is the ‘mind’ behind that smell? Max is not sure, or maybe he does not want to be sure. Willful ignorance after all is as important as fear in surviving this desert wasteland.
Then, he glances once more at the corpses, the undead dead, the loving mother with child and the headless father still, somehow, trying to make a life for themselves in here, until the last of their bones have been freed from flesh.
They are the ‘mind’ behind that smell, Max concludes. The family, hand-in-hand, together to the end, somehow they are the source of that smell, truly the creative spark from which that smell acquires its life and purpose. Indeed, the undead dead are gods. They create sickening smells. They inspire reactions among those who come too near. They instill the kind of immediate dread from which nightmares evolve down the road.
And then it is patently clear. Max covers his mouth and nose, as if such a meager defense will keep out what he now recognizes to be the distinct odor of decomposing flesh.
The smell of death, Max mutters. Oh, my God, what have I done?
Nothing, he tries to tell himself. They were dead before I got here. Some other bastard killed them; perhaps one of us; but, most likely, one of the Hajis.
And yet, regardless of what his conscious mind makes clear, Max feels an awful, paralyzing guilt take hold in his bowels and ripple out to the ends of his nerves. It is a feeling similar to nausea; and, for a moment, Max senses that he is going to vomit up the dried sand in his stomach.
But why? Why the guilt? What have I done? Max asks himself pathetically.
Max slides down to his butt, drops his heavy head in between his knees, and cries. He is a bit surprised at his reaction. He had not anticipated so many tears still left in his dried up body.
But sorrow digs the deepest well. That is the truth any feeling man must accept eventually; and notwithstanding his madness, his killer bravado, his long and arduous training back in the States, he still feels, when he should not. Yes, he hates himself for feeling this way. So much sorrow in a warzone, particularly for a family of Hajis, who for all he knows may have traveled out this way so as to plant an I.E.D. or to scheme a few bucks out from one of the soft civilians in the Green Zone, well, what is he to make of it? Are not his tears vaguely queer; the reaction one would expect of a limp-wristed homosexual, the kind of lame, effeminate weakness that can only undermine a mission? Perhaps, but none of that changes the fact that he feels what he feels. He is beyond sad, really. It is more accurate to say that he is descending into the crypt of his private despair.
Max opens his eyes. There is a candle flickering on the other side of the crypt. There had not been any light inside this space beforehand. Perhaps, the undead dead lit it, so that he would be forced to see with his own eyes what he has done. If so, then they also had put the lit candle inside of a thick, red glass candle holder, because the light has the ghostly red color and texture of an old Sanctus Light above a Roman Catholic altar.
This is not a surprise, not really. After all, had he not sensed deep down that he was entering into a church of sorts when crawling into this space? It is a pagan catacomb; perhaps Christianized for a while, before the Muslims literally came out from the sand to vanquish the infidels, but always decidedly pagan in how it erases the line between life and death. The very first churches had been pagan; and when the great, civilizing religions have been discarded, as relics of a despised past, the only churches remaining will be pagan.
And so, really, the more Max considers this point, the more he realizes it is not a Sanctus Light, so much as it is the ghostly light of blood shed and blood still to be shed. Yes, it shines over a tabernacle; but the holy of holies consists of a family of dead Hajis. Here, with this red light descending over the corpses, like a shredded pall, there is only the communion of the dead, the resurrection of old nightmares, the ascension of past sins, the restoration of that desert hell that really had never been lost in the first place…
So much metaphysical bullshit, Max thinks, when he falls to the side. So much academic wordplay in my mind, so that I avoid the stark reality of what is really in here. An extended stream of consciousness mind fuck; and if that does not work, then counting the good angels on the head of a pin; anything, really, because the alternative is yanking that dead infant away from that dead nipple and seeing his or her face in the ghostly red light…
Actually, not ‘his or her,’ but ‘his,’ because the infant is a boy. There is no doubt in his mind. It is a boy; and not any boy, but the one boy close to his…
Max slithers on his elbows up to the dead mother. He removes the infant from her dead arm. He holds the infant close to his face, and sees his only son. His son is dead. His son is blind. His son smells like dead bass baked by the sun.
How could you stand the smell all those days? His dead son asks him then in the voice of his mousey neighbor.
Max screams uncontrollably. He rolls across the sand floor, like he trying to snuff out the flame on his flesh. And yet, for all his erratic movements, he is not able to release his grip on the dead infant. Wherever he goes, the bloated, bluish baby flesh goes with him. Whenever he gives up his ghost, that baby still will be in his hands, staring blankly into his eyes, sucking for a milk breast long gone. That baby is his life; but it is also his ball and chain, indeed, much more so his ball and chain than his heavy head, sunburnt back, and sandbag stomach.
How could you stand the smell all those days? His dead son asks him this time in Adam’s voice, as wind outside covers the mouth of his crypt with sand…
Max is screaming, when finally he awakens. He is lying beside his son and staring up at the ceiling. No doubt, they heard him screaming. He is certain the CAB management installed listening devices some time ago, if only because the leather twinks could do so in the immediate aftermath of that night. But if so, then who cares? It is not as if he is the only ‘guest’ screaming like a madman on occasion. Indeed, old nightmares seem to be the common denominator in here.
What matters is that he did not wake his son. Adam needs all the ‘rehab sleep’ he can get. Adam may never rehabilitate to his former self; but he most definitely will not, if he is stressed out or exhausted by the madness unleashed.
Adam seems unmoved by his outburst. Max sighs in relief, and he crawls out from his side of the bed.
He shuffles out to the living room, and he leans against the window that faces the IMAX screen. Fortunately, the sick propagandists have put a brake on the gruesome video clips that had been all the rage earlier the same afternoon.
Instead, there is a digital time clock on the IMAX screen. It is too late to redeem his dinner ration ticket; but if he hurries, he can get to ‘The Band’ just before their invocation, or pledge, or whatever the hell they do.
* * *
There is a knock at the door. Max walks over to the peephole, and views an elderly gentleman with a long, dour face. Max thinks his visitor indeed may be the retired college professor from five or six floors down. Old Doctor What’s his Name from UCLA; a nice, but reserved, man; the kind who had maintained his years in the saddle by never making any waves with the administration. The good doctor barely had lorded over his class, let alone anyone else. There truly is not a better example of ‘sheeple’ than this dour faced, older gentleman with the glassy eyes. He may not have many years left in him, but he is no doubt the wave of the future; and for that reason, he inspires the kind of unsettling fears that he never would have conjured up in anyone when leaning on a blackboard.
Max opens the door. He sees that the good doctor is wearing the kind of jacket and tie he would have worn when lecturing on sociology or anthropology or whatever ‘ology’ he had hung on his office wall with his diplomas. The only detail out of place is the green band he now wears over his right arm. There is a faded marijuana leaf insignia within the center of the green band. Maybe the ‘get along, go along’ academic had smoked some reefer in the sixties, if only to fit in with the other young, unwashed, long-haired professors at that time; but, even if so, he is hardly the image of ‘marijuana freedom’ nowadays. And yet in a way, the insignia is not out of place. Maybe, it has to do with his blank, dumb stare; his apparent inability to penetrate intellectually beyond his own private fears; or maybe, it has to do with the unseen strings attached to his prune face and limbs, the growing sense that he is a puppet pushed and pulled just now to serve some other person’s objectives. Regardless, he would inspire nothing, but loathing, except that Max can sense many more ‘guests’ looking much the same as this ‘loser;’ and for that reason, he is a frightening omen of the ‘new world.’
You did not come down for dinner, ‘What’s his Name from UCLA’ states.
Max does not respond. He just looks coldly into the old man’s dead eyes.
They served meatballs, string beans, and ‘tater tots’ this evening. Some kind of pudding, too, but I can’t be certain, the doctor mutters. We all missed you. ‘The First Citizen’ told me to tell you that he was worried the whole time, like a sick puppy dog without its best friend, he said…
Wait, Max interrupts. Who is this ‘First Citizen’ anyway?
Of course, Max can guess as to the answer; but he wants to see how this sad, old bird responds to the question. Just how mad is this retired professor? Is he is not capable of sensing at least just how ridiculous such a title must sound?
Apparently, he is incapable, because he goes on without skipping a beat.
And he set aside some pudding for you, the good doctor continues. He is not breaking the rules in setting aside food for someone who skipped out on the dinner. We would be breaking the rules, if any one of us tried to do that; but it is not the same with him. He is privileged. He is the First Citizen…
I am honored, Max mutters sarcastically.
He knew that you would be, the good doctor comments without noticing apparently the dripping sarcasm. Max knows what the Man is doing him a favor, he said. Max knows how to keep his nose above water…
I’ll come down to the meeting with you, Max says.
Oh, the First Citizen would be so honored, the good doctor says with the enthusiasm of a little boy talking about his favorite comic book superhero. Yes, he is privileged; but he is also so humble…
Somebody flipped this guy’s switch, Max thinks, as he steps into the hall, and closes the door behind him. Max notes that there is no longer an electrical surge problem. He glances wearily at the locked door to the mousey neighbor’s apartment, and then he follows the good doctor over to the elevator.
Nice how the power is on again, Max comments.
Oh, we missed a bullet, that’s for sure, the good doctor says. But we can ill afford another security violation. The First Citizen says if the Saboteur opens a third side door we shall be finished for sure.
A tragedy, Max mutters.
Worse than that, the good doctor says solemnly. It would be the greatest catastrophe. Remember what ‘Climate Control’ said. The other survivors are all relying on us. We are the ‘Great Experiment’ to determine if long-term survival is even possible inside this heat wave. We are the last, best hope for mankind…
Max says nothing. He looks down to avoid that good doctor’s blank stare.
The elevator doors opens. The two men step inside to take the short trip down to the lobby.
Tonight, we are building a new order from the ashes of the old, the good doctor whispers conspiratorially. This is no sociological experiment. This is real and historical. We have found our leader. Now, it is incumbent upon the rest of us to embrace our role as servants. There is dignity in our service. There is also life, a future, not only for yourself, but for your son…
Max faces the good doctor. He is angry that this weak sheeple of a man, a mere academic, should presume to speak to him about the survival of his son; but then he reminds himself that the good doctor is just a pawn. He is speaking the lines that they have fed to him. He likely does not have a clue what indeed he is saying, which makes him morally blameless in a way. Perhaps, the darkest aspect of the ‘new world’ is that it strips most men of their moral guilt. Most of the ‘guests’ really are just cogs in an elaborate machine; cubicle dwellers that flip a switch at a designated time without any inkling as to the destruction and death unleashed at the far end of the ‘sausage machine’ we are inclined to call ‘civilization.’ They really are like the middle management Nazis, who defended themselves after the bloodshed by telling the victors that they simply had been following orders. To be sure, there is blame; but for the civilized man, blame is directed towards the outsiders, or those who would presume to let the outside, whatever it may be, seep into our cozy, little cocoon. Blame descends upon the man with the foreign features, or the strange surname, or the odd religious and philosophical beliefs. Blame descends upon the Nigger, the Jew, the Saboteur…
The elevator door opens. Max steps into the lobby. Max also steps away from his chaperone without any parting words. He recognizes that his rudeness will not serve him well, if recognized by the others milling about the lobby; but he is afraid of what may come out of his own mouth if he speaks to that doctor one more time. He is not sure he can retain his poker face any longer with him.
Max is dimly aware of the music on the loudspeakers. It is Don Ho singing Tiny Bubbles. The music calls to mind the cheap Mai Tais he used to down, one after another, while drinking the days away in Waikiki. He had been a frequent visitor while still in the military. After he became a lawyer, he told his wife he had passed the Hawaii State Bar so that he could practice law out there as well on behalf of his rich and unsavory clients. That itsy bitsy ‘white lie’ became his excuse to spend a few nights at the Royal Hawaiian every few months with one of his interns in tow. Caroline did not seem to mind, probably because she was already fucking someone half her age. What a slutty, little cock tease Caroline had been, Max thinks, before he turns his attention back to the crowded lobby.
There are twelve other men in the lobby. They are all dressed in jackets and ties. They range in age from the mid-twenties to early eighties; but for the most part they are interchangeably white, professional, blank eyed apparatchik types with green armbands. Max imagines a cocktail party full of Congressional backbenchers, or perhaps a convention of realtors. They talk in the dimwitted, hero-worshipping jargon of their class, like a bunch of politicians might whisper about their party leader, or a gaggle of realtors might look forward to the next lecture from ‘Beulah County’s House Flipper King.’ Perhaps, the best way that an outsider would describe the expressions on their faces is vacuous, but eager. If this theoretical outsider were to focus in on their eyes in particular, then he likely would make references to The Stepford Wives, or The Night of the Living Dead, or Jack Nicholson in the final scene of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
The youngest recruit steps forward. He is carrying a wooden basket that would have been used for flowers once upon a time. Now, the basket holds one remaining green armband, which the young, blond man then hands over to Max.
Max feels like giving this ‘Aryan Youth League Recruit’ his sarcastic ‘Heil Hitler’ salute, but he restrains himself. No doubt, he has made already enough of a scene what with his late arrival and rudeness toward the retired academic.
Lars Tubbs steps forward, and embraces Max. Unlike the others, Lars has vibrant, suspicious eyes. He is compulsively thinking: Who is loyal? Who is going to serve me well? Who is going to fail me? No doubt, he has entertained similar questions in his mind before; but now more so than ever, because this evening, for the first time in his life, he is actually at the top of a pyramid. Like ‘losers’ everywhere, Lars does not really believe in himself enough to savor his victory; and so he plasters on his fake smile, but he moves around the lobby like a man about to be stabbed from behind by his own version of Brutus. He is indeed the most dangerous of leaders, because he is unsure of his status. Notwithstanding his lofty title, he feels the urge to do something to reaffirm that he is the boss.
I knew you would come, Lars whispers. I always had faith in you.
Sure, Max thinks. That’s why you sent ‘What’s His Name from UCLA’ way up to the eleventh floor to fetch me.
I am not so sure about the others, Lars continues. A good, little war will test their loyalty, will it not? Weed out the ‘Friends of the Saboteur,’ as surely as it brings down the Saboteur himself. Oh, I have no doubt at all on which side of the line you will fall; but as for the others standing here beside us just now…
Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer, Max mutters.
Yes, exactly, Lars smiles. We lawyers understand that there are serpents in every rosebush. Just because a man wears the green armband does not mean he has that same ‘green’ in his heart. He may be a flaming ‘red’ just under the surface. Indeed, the man who is most eager to fight no doubt is a ‘Friend of the Saboteur.’ After all, did not Lucifer’s light shine the very brightest before God? Was not Brutus Caesar’s closest companion? Watch to see who volunteers, who is just a little too eager; and you have got that man who will undermine us all…
If we do not get him first, Max concludes.
Yes, Lars says with a slight, effeminate chuckle. You remember the first rule of boot camp…
Actually, I went to R.O.T.C., Max interrupts…
Of course, Lars remarks, calmly enough, but seething with agitation just under the surface. The first rule is: Never volunteer. Do what you’re told to do, but never hold up your hand and volunteer for the task. Simple enough, but you will find a volunteer in every group; an eager beaver; a man practically begging to be terminated. After all, initiative is a dirty word in the new world, is it not?
Lars stares longingly into Max’s eyes. He is searching for something, just a subtle hint, perhaps, of Max’s initiative, or just a confirmation that Max truly is going to back him up tonight. Lars must have seen something that calmed his nerves, because he steps back, and smiles broadly. He blows Max a kiss with his eyes, and then he turns his back on his ‘friend’ to lead everyone into the lobby.
The sheeple follow. Max studies their slow and defeated movements. He remembers the transistors placed inside the brains of the marauding hoodlums; how the powers that be had turned these condemned men into pawns; how the death and destruction had been switched on electronically somewhere. Maybe, these guys have been outfitted with mind-controlling devices also; but he does not think so. The circumstance of being trapped inside for six weeks; of finding out that everything outside is a dead, alien world; of recognizing that their own families outside of this cage most likely have been beaten back into the ground by an unrelenting sun; and of learning that their fragile hold on life may cease at any moment because some asshole has decided more than once to break the seal; any one of these developments would break the average man, but add all of them together and it is a wonder the sheeple are not drooling idiots already.
Only one of the followers stands out. He is the young, handsome, Aryan man holding the basket. He has the natural eagerness of his age and his sex. He has too much of the ‘old world’ fight in him. Maybe, in due time, he too will be softened, fit into a cog somewhere, turned into a lazy, amoral bureaucrat; but, tonight anyway, he is a problem. Lars is afraid of him. Heck, deep down, Max is afraid of him, too, because Max wants to be the only problem inside this group.
Max then follows Lars’s pronounced steps toward the flat screen. Lars is walking too confidently. It is a veil, intended to mask his fear, but observed by those who have eyes to see for what it is. Max can see Lars for the unsure man that he is. He suspects the Aryan can also.
And then there is the man sitting by himself in the far corner. He surely sees Lars’s ridiculously pompous stance for what it is. The man in the corner is Heinrich, the would be Nazi; and Max is pretty sure he sees everything.
Max draws his eyes back to the flat screen. Beneath the television is the corpse of the last person to be too enthusiastic for ‘new world’ sensibilities. It is Maxine, of course. She is still hogtied and gagged. Her eyes look like they are trying to bulge out from her sockets, even though she is long dead. Presumably, she had suffered a massive coronary. She is staring into eternity now, and what she sees must not be all that pleasant judging by the queer look upon her face.
Lars had left his tin cup on Maxine’s forehead. He picks it up, rattles it, and turns to face his sheeple. He seems more genuinely confident now that he has that tin cup in his sweaty right hand. He gestures for the sheeple to line up in a half-circle around himself and that hogtied and gagged corpse on the floor.
Heinrich remains outside the circle. He sits dispassionately on his folding chair. He folds his right leg over his left. He glances at the clipboard on his lap.
Lars glances nervously at Heinrich, as if he is asking for a hand. Heinrich grants him nothing at all, but his cold, hard stare. Lars is truly alone at the top.
There is absolute silence. The sheeple stare at Luis like he is Moses come down from the mountain. Even the Aryan is focused completely on the fat man in the green suit in front of him, though Max senses that he is nervous also. It is as if the Aryan knows that he is about to be implicated and has to respond with just the right word or move when the moment comes.
I am humbled; Lars proclaims to the small group in the grandiose manner of a politician speaking to a union hall. You have entrusted upon me the title of ‘First Citizen…’
Was there an election? Max thinks. Yes, but the sheeple here had no role in the selection. Most likely, that SS wannabe in the dark corner over there did all the voting and the vote counting needed to designate Lars with this vaunted title. And why? Because he is setting up this fat schmuck paralegal for a fall. It is one of the oldest tricks in the book, is it not? Give the rube a title that really plays up to his ego, and the rube will storm a bayonet line for you if you desire.
It is a responsibility I undertake with the utmost seriousness, because we all know that these are serious times, Lars continues ominously. There is a sick and perverted saboteur among us. He dines with us. He exchanges pleasantries with us in the elevator. He watches the same IMAX screen from his living room window. And yet, he is not one of us…
Lars steps away from the corpse. He approaches the large floor to ceiling windows. His sheeple follow, like sheep pursuing a shepherd’s voice to the axe.
He is one of them, Lars proclaims dramatically, while rattling his tin cup in the general direction of that dark night beyond the windows. More precisely, he belongs to whatever is out there. He is a citizen of the heat wave. His blood is the climate poison that has descended upon our land. His mind is the tyranny of climate change. The deadly heat came as a thief in the night, and so he also walks among us as a thief, an interloper, an illegal alien dining off our food and water, breathing in our air, sleeping in our beds, while secretly he schemes and he recruits. Yes, he recruits, because the man of mischief can achieve nothing, if he does not convince at least one of his victims to embrace his plan. Though the recruit does not know it, he has entered into a suicide pact, when he aligns himself with the thief. But the fact that he is suicidal does not mean that he is any less dangerous to the rest of us…
Lars allows that last sentence to linger in the minds of his sheeple, while he returns to the corpse. He rattles his tin cup, when he is ready to go on with his demagogic tirade against the thief and the recruit.
We brothers of the band must root out this recruit, Lars says, while he is staring down the sheeple, who have reformed the half-circle around him. Even before we capture the thief, we must do away with his recruit. The thief poses a clear and present danger; but in the end, he is not one of us; and so we truly cannot hate him. He is simply doing what a poisonous man does. He is the rabid dog, dangerous, marked for euthanasia, but not morally culpable…
Lars pauses. He smiles with the smug confidence of a trial attorney now getting to the main point of his closing argument. He rattles his tin cup.
Ah, but the recruit is a different story altogether, Lars continues. He had not been a citizen of the world out there. He carried our blood in his veins. He had our mind in his soul. And yet, for all that, he conspires with an illegal alien to introduce climate change into our homes, our families, our way of life. He is a traitor; and because of the treasonous murder in his heart, we now inhale the poison. We now sweat from the heat. Even our happy home is not immune what with all those power surges of late. He has invaded our homes! Inflicted us with his disease! Do we have any choice, but to stamp him out without mercy? Does ‘The Band’ have any choice, but to do what the other ‘guests’ are far too timid to do for themselves? I think that the answer is clear. We have no choice; and, as your First Citizen, I have no choice, but to lead you all by my fine example…
Lars rattles his tin cup, but the smug smile is gone. He twitches his lips a few times, presumably to try to get that grin plastered back onto his face; but when it is clear that he cannot fake it anymore, he gives up. Instead, he has an expression that is equal parts seething anger and debilitating fear; and a single line of sweat drips down from his forehead and off his chin. The sweat lands on the corpse; and Max imagines a priest sprinkling baptismal waters upon a baby, no, not a baby, but his baby. It is Adam, and he is being baptized into his hell…
Max looks away from the corpse. His eyes follow Lars over to Heinrich in the far corner. Heinrich reaches for something beneath his clipboard. He hands it to Lars without breaking his cold, dead stare straight into Lars’s crazed eyes. Maybe, Heinrich had seen something, because as soon as Lars turns back to the half-circle of mesmerized sheeple Heinrich notes something upon his clipboard.
Lars returns to the half-circle carrying a long, curved knife. He seems to be totally misplaced with his weapon; and as much as he tries to control all the myriad emotions on his face, he also seems to be totally worried.
Max senses that this is all prearranged and that Lars is not sure if indeed he is up to completing properly the scene that follows. The deeper question for Max is why would the puppeteer (presumably Heinrich, though he too very well may be following the orders of an even more mysterious fellow) actually invest so much in a person so obviously ill fitted for leadership? The answer is simple: Lars is exactly the kind of ‘eager beaver’ about which he had warned Max prior to the meeting. Heinrich knew that Lars’s enthusiasm alone made him the ideal instigator of hysteria. After all, fear is not just a response to some bit of secret information imparted, but a kind of infection spreading out from the emotional intensity of the source. Look closely at the man who inspires fear, and there is almost always a small, annoying quirk in his character, or an enthusiasm for his life objective that is unsettling precisely because it is so unrestrained. The true believers inspire fear. The true believers pack the seats, and get the headlines.
Part of Max’s mind is consciously analyzing the scene; but a significantly deeper, more primitive, part of his mind is succumbing to that same fear. Even as he knows that it is all orchestrated, like a fan of professional wrestling, he is falling under the spell of the moment. He glances at the others. They seem too expressionless, too focused upon their ‘First Citizen;’ and since still water runs deep, does their stillness not indicate the intensity of fear just beneath the veil of devotion? Max is not sure consciously, but he can feel the fear trembling out from the sheeple; and, over there, does he not see one hand shaking nervously?
Moreover, all of a sudden it is uncomfortably hot in this lounge. Perhaps, the powers that be put up the thermostat. On the other hand, maybe there is a kernel of truth in Lars’s story about the thief and the recruit. Perhaps, in a way that is just now becoming all too clear, the recruit has introduced a bit of what is out there into here. Perhaps, the heat is not coming through the vent that is connected to a central heating system, but rather is seeping through an opened side door. There have been two opened side doors in the last few days. It is not much of a stretch of the imagination to envision a third one…
Or perhaps, there is no third opened side door, but the overall structural integrity of the building has been so distressed by the past acts of sabotage the heat is able to seep through the windows even now. Look at the large windows, those thin shields between their last grasps at civilization and the certain death that is out there. Do they not seem to tremble ever so slightly? Do they not feel more like a wall of paper dipped into the ocean? Can you not hear just now the small cracks inching across the surface?
And then there is the smell. Max cannot decipher it in his conscious mind from any of the other odors in the lounge, but it feels like the death smell. The logical explanation is the heavyset corpse beside Lars’s feet. Who knows really how long Maxine has been dead? Certainly not Max, perhaps not even that wily, sinister puppeteer, since most likely she had been alone or ignored when finally she had given up her ghost.
Still, the death smell does not feel like it is coming from the hogtied and gagged corpse. It feels like it is floating down the elevator shaft. It feels like it is coming for Max from his eleventh floor apartment. It feels like it is spreading about the CAB Lounge, but also zeroing in on his soul…
Did I feed my son today? Max thinks. He sleeps soundly enough, but he is still ‘touch and go,’ and really cannot go too long without sustenance. Given I have not been myself today, is it possible that I forgot to feed him? I mean is it possible that I have been so caught up in my own thoughts that my son actually slipped away? Ridiculous fear, really, since I am not comatose after all; but the death smell…
Max glances down at his hands. He is trembling. He rubs them together, so that no one else will see. The sheeple seem preoccupied with the drama just now unfolding before them. The ‘First Citizen’ seems preoccupied with his own growing dread. But Heinrich…
Did Heinrich look at me just now? Hard to tell, since he is sitting inside a shadow way over there; but it certainly feels like he observed my fear…
There is a gust of hot air flowing up from the floor. The sheeple feel the hot air as much as Max does. A frightened moan erupts from somewhere within the group. The sound cannot be attributed to any one person. It seems to be an insipid life in its own right; a beast rippling out from the sweaty glands and the quivering eyes; a madness that had been lurking just beneath the surface but is now demanding to be heard and felt by everyone there.
Someone screams out. Max thinks it is ‘What’s his Name from UCLA,’ but he cannot be sure. The retirees in the group are interchangeable, more or less; just stooped, grey men with heavy lower lips and dumb eyes.
No one acknowledges the screamer. Perhaps, they fear that, if they then point him out, their own irrational fears will be exposed. Better to remain just now as still and as silent as possible, until the nightmare passes over them.
I shall hunt down the recruit, Lars says after clearing his throat and once more glancing nervously at his handler. I shall lead by example. The question is which of you will volunteer to accompany me in this mission? Which of you now wants to be my right hand man?
In other words, which of you is Satan? Max thinks, when he manages just now to return his focus to the drama at hand. After all, Satan initially had been God’s right hand angel, His closest confidant, His likeness in every way, except for His divinity. Lars is setting his trap. He is asking his ‘Brutus’ to step forward ostensibly to hunt the enemy within, but in reality to be exposed as the enemy within. There is no worse dissension than that between the First Citizen and his right hand man. When news of that dissension spreads, the ‘guests’ will be lost completely in their fear. They will be putty in the hands of those whose highest ambition is to rule over a loony bin.
Assuming that this is the real objective behind all this drama, the deeper question is whether rule through dissension is really a perversion of the natural order? Max thinks philosophically. Everything about this surely feels wrong; but think about it. Was not the dissension between God and Satan the first political act? Is it possible to establish order without fingering and murdering an ‘enemy of the new regime?’ Is it possible to establish any new civilization without first committing the kind of gross atrocity we normally associate with lunatic killers or jungle beasts? At this very moment, the answers seem to be obvious enough; and so it is impossible for Max to hold onto any image of a good and loving God that in turn might keep that death smell at bay. So Rome’s defenses have been breached, and the Goths are spreading through the abandoned roads and alleys with fire in their eyes and blood soaked knives in their fists.
No one steps forward. Lars slices the air with his knife. He wants to look strong, but his gesture only reinforces the impression that he is unsure what to do. A few of the sheeple look down. They really desire to believe in their ‘First Citizen;’ but notwithstanding their dull minds, they are rational enough to see a loser for what he really is. They are embarrassed for him. They are scared for themselves, since Lars’s failure means that, once more, they are collectively a boat without a rudder taking on water. One or two of the sheeple look like they want to die. Max suspects others will look the same if this goes on much longer.
So who will be my right hand man? Lars screams out.
Max observes the Aryan glancing at Heinrich. That boy is nervous as hell.
Max almost feels sorry for the Aryan. Surely, Lars had been instructed to call for a volunteer. Now, it appears that the Aryan had been instructed to hold up his hand. The problem is that the Aryan is smarter than Lars. He has figured out the con. He senses that if he raises his hand to volunteer, then Lars is going to finger him as ‘the recruit,’ the traitor who would be king, the angel boy that has been consumed by his own self-importance and enthusiasm. The Aryan just wants to stand there, to blend into the crowd, maybe to slither back to his own apartment before anyone else is wiser.
But Heinrich is watching him. The Aryan knows that. Either he does as he has been instructed, or he pays the consequence of disobedience within a ‘new world’ where ‘obey’ is one of the three cardinal virtues. Presumably, he will be dead either way. The actual question is whether he dies a ‘traitor,’ or he dies a ‘disobedient man;’ not much of a difference at first glance; but in fact leagues apart. The ‘traitor’ obeys a higher principle, albeit one at odds with the formal state; the ‘disobedient man’ refuses to do what his superior has instructed him to do. The ‘disobedient man’ is the willful adolescent. He is the ‘rebel without a cause.’ He is the kind of man totally unwilling to be a cog in any machine. No doubt, there can be no room for his kind in either the ‘old world’ or the ‘new.’
The Aryan raises his hand. The sheeple turn their heads to stare at him. They are not sure what to make of this upstart. Do they admire his courage, or do they fear his intentions?
Lars too seems perplexed. Perhaps, he had not known if any one of those sheeple would raise his hand, let alone which one. He looks like an actor who is able to recite his designated lines well enough, but has no idea in what play he is actually performing. Is this a farce? Or is this the last act of a classic tragedy?
Lars hesitates only a moment. He then charges forward like the mad bull that he is. He points the sharp end of his long knife towards his right hand man. His cheeks burn fiery red. His eyes almost squint shut from tension. He appears to be a bomb about ready to explode.
Behold, the recruit, Lars bellows. How better to commit sabotage for his handler than to stand beside our ‘First Citizen.’ Did not the Rothschilds remain close to the Weimer politicians, who sold out the Fatherland? Did not Josephus, chronicler of devils and saints, remain close to the Caesars, who butchered his own people? His is the face of an Aryan, but the heart of a Jew. He is careful to maintain the pretense of loyalty, passing out the armbands, volunteering to aid in the hunt; but consider his eyes…
Lars steps close enough, so that he pokes the sharp end of his knife only an inch or so in front of the Aryan’s unblinking eyes. Max cannot tell if his eyes remain still, because he is frightened stiff, or because he is working up the will and the courage to respond in kind to the fat brute. Either way, the Aryan is as unsettling as the man who presumes to tower over him, if not actually more so.
His are the eyes of a traitor, Lars snarls ominously. An usurper; a climate change denier; a deviant who insists upon his own mind, even when our truth is otherwise. I suspect he has opened the doors; but even if he has not done so in fact, he surely has done so in his imagination. His thoughts are against us; and, I submit, that alone can open a thousand doors that we want to keep shut. This is the horrid truth of the matter: The man who presumes to think for himself is an enemy of civilization. He is the harbinger of doom. He is the omen of death.
Lars steps back. His red face is coated in sweat. His chest heaves. There is an ugly expression on his face that suggests he hears something truly scary in his ears. It could be a ringing sound, or an irregular heartbeat. Regardless, it is a portentous something or other; and so Lars nearly hyperventilates as a result.
The Aryan sees his opportunity. Whether his next move is in the script or not, he seems not to care at that moment. He is a cornered blond tiger; and his instinct is to lash out at that man, who had been stabbing the air near his eyes.
The Aryan leaps forward. He grabs Lars’s right arm, so that Lars cannot lower the knife onto his flesh. He trips Lars’s uncoordinated feet, and the ‘First Citizen’ stumbles backward several steps before falling onto Maxine’s stomach. There is an awful, hollow thud, as the ‘First Citizen’ slams into that dead flesh.
The mayhem is too much for the sheeple to bear. They start to cry out in fear and anger. They pull at their hair, and stomp their feet, like a crazed mob in an insane asylum.
The Aryan slaps the knife out of Lars’s hand. He crouches over Lars, and starts to throw punches into his fat, red face. Lars squeals like a mad pig, while he swings his head from side to side.
Help me, Lars screams out in agony toward Max. Help me. Help your son.
Max hears the reference to his son, but it is like a distant echo very soon swallowed up entirely by a more vibrant memory. In his mind’s eye, he sees his mousey neighbor. He zeroes in on the absolute contempt in her eyes. He hears her voice, except that it is not her voice really, but rather the squeal of a mad, diseased rat. His skin shrivels in fear, as he imagines that squeal getting closer and closer to a dark corner of his mind that cannot discard unwelcomed truths.
How could you stand the smell all those days? The rat squeals.
Dad, I’m hungry, Adam whispers, while sitting up in bed…
Except it is not really Adam. It is a grey form, a play of the shadows, an old, yellowed, flimsy reel of film that switches on inside his head…
The death smell returns. It had never really gone away; but he had been able to downplay it, while focusing in on other sensations. Just now, though, it is everything. It is the all consuming dead swamp odor into which he has fallen; the heat wave swamp plugging his nostrils; the desert sand swamp filling up his bowels. Indeed, whatever is out there, all that death beyond the windows, is in his body now; and it is seeping into his soul, his memories, his last gasps of life.
Oh, please, help me; and I can help your son, Lars cries out through the thick and gooey blood cake that has gathered on his swollen lips.
Lars repeats himself several times, but the rest of his words are way too garbled. It does not matter what he says anyway. It is clear enough that this is a test. Will Max keep his poker face, or will he storm the bayonet line to try to save his son? Will Max allow himself to be a puppet on a string, if in so doing he increases the chances of his son’s survival? Or will he let the death smell enter into his soul until he is nothing but a desert rat gnashing at his own madness? It is simple really: Will he condescend to be a tool, or will he let his son die, so as to protect his own fragile grasp of independence?
Max surges forward. He pulls the Aryan off of Lars.
And so he has stepped into the drama. He is vaguely aware that Heinrich is watching him closely. No doubt, the would be Nazi is nodding in approval, for every detail of his diabolical plot appears to be coming to fruition. Lars and the Aryan have fallen into their respective traps, and Max has shown himself in fact to be as weak and as needy as all the other ‘guests.’ Notwithstanding his heroic past, Max is not so special. He has a weak spot in his heart, a very fallible, soft, even squeamish desire to love someone other than himself; and this means that while he is a tougher nut to crack than all the others, he indeed can be broken.
Max senses just how broken he is, but he presses forward anyway. He has to kill that son of a bitch Kraut. He has to give his son a fighting chance to live.
Lars crawls away from Maxine, while Max bends over the Aryan and lands punches all over his young and earnest face. Lars curls up against the wall, and cries out like a spoiled baby. He is in great pain; but more so, his brief moment of triumph has been shattered. He rattles his tin cup beside his left ear, like he is listening for something; but he cannot hear anything over his pitiful screams.
In the meantime, the Aryan manages to roll away from Max. He trips Max to the floor; and the two men roll across the carpet, throwing ersatz kicks and punches into one another’s flesh. Together, they are a ball of flinging limbs, an anguished face or a bloodshot eye glimpsed here or there, a brute honesty that has been divorced from the last vestiges of civilized restraint.
Though Max is decades older, he is a trained killer, and in time gets the better of his opponent. He could have knocked him out, and ended the fight on that score. But Max grabs for the knife and thrusts it deep into the Aryan’s ass. He twists the knife up where the sun will never shine. He smells the thick blood pour out from the Aryan’s anus. There are flecks of hardened shit in the stream of blood, and together the shit and the blood smell like dead flesh left to decay beneath an unrelenting sun. It is a terrible, nauseating smell, to be sure; but in a way, it is also the good smell associated in Max’s mind anyway with giving his son a fighting chance to survive. It is the blood sacrifice, so that Adam can live.
Max releases the knife, but it had been rammed so far up the old muddy love canal that the blood soaked handle continues to poke out from the back of his trousers. Max stares blankly at the handle. It looks like the horn of unicorn, except that it is poking out from the derriere. He remembers the childish jingle for My Little Pony, a collection of pony dolls targeted for little girls, but which Adam had liked when we had been about three or four years old. Max does not think that My Little Pony included a unicorn, but who knows?
And why should he care? Well, the answer to that one is easy. Because in fact that death smell is not gurgling out from Aryan’s anus, notwithstanding the fact that the Aryan indeed is one dead puppy. That death smell is coming down from the eleventh floor, just like before the fight. There can be only one awful reason for that fact, and no amount of bloodshed down here in this hell pit can wipe out Max’s growing realization of what is real and what is unfounded hope.
Max steps away from the corpse. Apart from Lars’s incessant sniffling at the wall behind him, there is not a sound in the lounge. The sheeple are not at all sure if this is a good or a bad development; and so they just stare lamely at the man with the bloody hands, who apparently has replaced Lars as that ‘First Citizen’ in whom they should invest their trust.
If Max is the ‘First Citizen,’ then he is having none of that just then. The designation is not really their call anyway. The men behind the curtain call the shots in this drama, and he is as much a puppet on a string as the sheeple here.
Max looks over at one of the men behind the curtain, but Heinrich is not there. He had slipped out with his clipboard sometime during the fight.
* * *
Max leans against his living room window. It is still dark outside, but the first insinuation of sunrise can be felt somewhere in the back of his mind. That feeling is the first break in the fog that had descended over his mind just after the fight last night. The fog had stayed with him in the hours since. It had kept him close, like a lover who has been waiting in bed for hours for her man to get back from whatever it is men do. It had blocked out any dreams, and bit-by-bit had snuffed out distinct memories of the fight, so that when Max awakened he could not be absolutely sure that the fight had happened. Perhaps, he had had some sort of altercation; but an actual murder perpetrated by his own hands? Is that for real, or is that just one more funhouse mirror installed inside his head?
The fog had done wonders with his mind, but it could not wipe up any of the blood trail that went from the front door to the bathroom sink. Max had no illusions about blood. He had seen too much of it for one lifetime. He wiped up the mess, washed off the crusted blood residue upon his hands, and went to his living room window. Why? Who knows? Perhaps to see for himself what that big screen has to say. It is the final word on just about everything else in this cage.
That had been about twenty minutes ago. All that time the video loop on the big screen had been playing, and all that time he had not seen any of it. He had been looking through the screen, not at it, because he had been fascinated by that black wall of death that circumvents this world just beyond the horizon and had wanted to see if just maybe it would get a little closer to his own little corner. He would have kept staring at that black wall of death, if finally he had not felt the first insinuation of sunrise snap him out from his dreary mental fog.
Max sees himself on the big screen. For a moment, he thinks he is dead. After all, everything he had read ever about the transition to the Great Beyond included seeing ones life on the big screen. That idea always had given him the creeps. Did he really want to relive every sexual indiscretion, or fired M-16, or mutilated corpse, or letter of demand from the IRS? For that matter, who else would be watching the story of his life? He had doubted God would permit him a private viewing. Somebody else surely would get to point and to laugh at the more embarrassing moments…
How could you stand the smell all those days? The rat squeals.
I bet your whore actually goes down on you, doesn’t she? Caroline snarls.
Max shudders. He is certainly not dead. He cannot imagine thinking at all about those two cunts if indeed he is on his way to the pearly gates. Still, he is not quite able to get over the fact that he is watching himself on the big screen right now. It is IMAX quality footage too. Somebody spared no expense, indeed.
On the screen, Max and the Aryan are rolling across the floor. Each man throws in a good punch here or there, but for the most part they truly look like a couple of queers prolonging unnecessarily a wrestling match. Mostly, the two of them bite and spit at one another, as if each is a lover scorned by the other. And that is not too far off the mark, is it not? There is an intense lust that men share with one another when grappling for the grave that has been dug for just one of them. It is a sexual release; but even more so, it is an abiding bond now cemented by the blood and the tears shed. Long after one of them has gone to the grave, and the other has gone back to his normal life, they will be together still in this moment of brutal violence and comingled blood.
It looks like they can fight this way forever; but then, without any prior indication that he is slowing down, the Aryan just gives up. He simply rolls onto his back, and flings his arms back, so that he vaguely resembles a ragged, dumb dog playing dead. Max is on all fours. He looks at his opponent contemptuously. He can finish him off now by punching him in the face and turning off his lights; but that is not going to be good enough; is it? No, Max needs to see this through to the bitter end; and so Max crawls over to the curved knife, grabs a hold of it firmly, and crawls back to his victim. Is that a hint of a smile on Max’s lips just then? Is there a devilish glint in his eyes? Is he waiting a moment longer, so that he can prolong the agony of his victim, before tearing him a brand new asshole?
Impossible to tell for sure from the footage, but Max senses the answers in his heart. He is a murderer. Before that night, he had shown mercy; like that time he let the geezer in the L.A. Dodgers ball cap live, even though he had all but known that some other bastard would come along and pummel his brains in with an iron bar in short order. Or he had killed in self-defense; like that same night when he had killed the L.A. P.S.A. officer at the museum water fountain. Or he had killed in the act of war, which is congressionally sanctioned homicide and so not legally murder at all, or so the lawyers say. But what he sees on that big screen is the kind of boldfaced murder that sends trailer trash whites to the electric chair. It is on the same level as deranged beast sex. It is the end of law and order, as mankind reverts back to the first instance of brotherly murder in the Garden of Eden. It is hideous, nauseating, and raw; and Max cannot discard the moral implication by shrugging it off as just another nasty deed by the kind of trailer trash nobody with whom he never will have any connection. No, there is nothing on the big screen he can discard. What is up there is the big ball and chain that he will drag along his trail of tears until he is not even a sad shadow.
That is his first impression anyway. Then, like any good criminal defense attorney, Max starts to rationalize his act. The Aryan had rolled onto his back, but who is to say for sure that he had given up? If the Aryan had lived, then the young man with the bloodied face and the bruised ego undoubtedly would have come for him and his son in retaliation. Moreover, Max had to kill the boy so as to give his son a fighting chance. Max either does what his puppet master wants him to do, or Max loses his son. It is really as simple as that; and if there is one underlying truth to this ‘new world,’ then it is that the most base and brutal of answers is the correct one. There are no shades of grey here. This is just mad, poisonous heat outside, and the bare grasp of survival inside, and nothing else…
An image on the big screen draws Max away from his thoughts. He views a gristly detail that he had not seen last night or had forgotten since then. Max has thrust the knife. He has twisted the blade. The shit blood first sprays, then gurgles, out from the hole in the back of the dead man’s trousers…
Then, it turns out the dead man is not quite dead yet. Max had rolled his victim onto his stomach before inserting the knife. Now, the victim is slithering on his elbows toward Maxine. He leaves a ghastly trail behind him, as he slides up Maxine’s torso and presses his lips against Maxine’s bosom. It is like the sick bastard with the horn coming out of his ass has reverted back to his infancy. He is a toe headed, blue-eyed, baby boy enjoying one more squirt from his mother before crawling down that eternal road that leads to nowhere.
The Aryan spits out blood, while suckling on that breast. He then dies in ignominious glory. His corpse is a spectacle of blood, shit, and bruises captured by a hidden camera and now broadcast on the big screen for the caged animals in the CAB. The animals are supposed to laugh. Even Max chuckles at that gore.
Then, the film turns its focus to the ‘First Citizen’ crying beside the wall like some sort of deranged pig. Lars is beating against the wall with his fist. He seems committed to the prospect of breaking through that barrier and escaping from his own nightmare. The filmmaker adds a laugh track, before he fades out briefly to broadcast these words in bold, black text: Not Ready for Prime Time!
The film returns to the ‘First Citizen.’ The pig man looks like he is trying to wipe his tears off of his face and onto the wall. He leaves behind green snot that slides down the wall and onto the floor. Once more, there is a laugh track, before a fade out to broadcast this fine observation: Ewww! What an oink oink!
The film returns to the ‘First Citizen.’ Now, the pig man looks a bit like Curly from The Three Stoogesslapping his own face. The film alternatives then between this scene of a broken man and a flashing, bold, bubble gum pink LOL!
The video loop returns to the beginning. Max and the Aryan are rolling in heat yet again. Max turns away from his living room window and wipes a single, zigzagged tear from his cheek. He is not sure if it is a tear generated by insane laughter or sadness. He decides it is probably both given what he has seen upon the big screen and fears in his heart.
* * *
Outwardly, breakfast seems much the same as ever. The ‘guests’ huddle about the pool table in the CAB Lounge. They stare with vacant eyes at all that delicious food, while grasping their food ration tickets, like small children with lollipops. There is little conversation; perhaps none at all, come to think of it, since the hushed whisper may be nothing more than noise in the imagination to soften the blow of disconnected loneliness. If indeed the ‘guests’ still converse with one another, even about the most mundane of topics, then there remains the rudiments of a community. Mostly, though, the ‘guests’ just wait for Serge Santos to step out from his office, so that they can hand over to him their food ration tickets in return for the same breakfast they have devoured like animals every morning since that night.
Maxine and the Aryan remain where they had been the previous night. It is now a palpable stink; the kind that makes the eyes water and the bowels stir in their own stew; and yet the impact seems to have dissipated. The ‘guest’ for the most part now are immune to death in a way that, perhaps, would not have been possible when there were so many distractions from mortality. Every little detail of life in this caged environment suggest slow, greying decomposition. In a superficial sense, everything seems to be holding firm enough, except for the acts of sabotage in recent weeks. Nevertheless, just beneath the surface, all of those walls and windows that purport to separate life from death are decaying, like flimsy props left out in the sun too long, or like the cracked skin on a dead man breaking off in pieces. Though no one wants to say it, everyone senses the poison and the heat out there are making their way into their cocoon, whether or not they find the Saboteur sometime soon.
The ‘guests’ walk over the stinking corpses on their way to the food, like they are children’s toys that had been left on the floor. Max does the same. He even retains his perfected ‘poker face’ while doing so; but, inwardly, he senses the ghost of a recent murder hanging over that spot, and not just any murder, of course, but the murder he committed in a moment of unforgivable brutality. He wonders if the others can read through his blank face and decipher just how crippled he is. He cares about what he did last night, and so he is not really the amoral killer he fancies himself to be. That means he is a sitting duck. Now, for what precisely? Who knows? Maybe the same fate as befell the corpses here, or maybe something much worse than death…
But while the world inside this cage seems much the same as before, the ‘guests’ know all too well that in fact this morning is not like any of the others. First and foremost, Lars is not wandering about the lounge, rattling his tip cup, whispering his mad conspiracies. Without the sound of nickels and dimes hitting one another in an old tin cup, the silence is almost deafening, notwithstanding the music pumped through the loudspeakers (Vera Lynn’s We Shall Meet Again) and the aforementioned real or fancied whispering. Whatever indeed passes for a ‘community’ inside the CAB did not really suffer, when Maxine and the Aryan succumbed to the death that is seeping into their cocoon; but Lars’s departure from the scene is a real blow. Even the most vacant of the ‘guests’ will accept that he is not much of a leader, especially after seeing the video loop upon the big screen when awakening from their beds; but the poor bastard had held onto a kind of hope for the future, even if his vision had been perverted by his own, peculiar personality and penchant for failure. No one else could state the same for themselves. They had given up their ghosts in return for three squares a day and entertainment on the boob tube long ago, surely since that night, but most likely well before then. There is something admirable in the ‘true believer.’ His passing from the scene matters…
For a minute or two, that is, and then it does not matter at all. How fast we discard our heroes. We shed our tears one moment. The next, we wonder if someone is going to clean the pigeon shit off of the fading statue that had been put up in his honor. Hunger, exhaustion, fear; these are the mainstays; and the tyrants know that the people will fear what they are told to fear with far more passion than they will love the heroes that have come and gone. This is why all the ‘new worlds’ ever conceived may begin with a Great Man, but they sustain themselves over the long haul through the slow and debilitating grind of feared hunger, vanquished hope, and anonymous, bureaucratic red tape. ‘New worlds’ that last the plodding steps of time are simply heartless, impersonal machines; nothing more, nothing less; and the only men who survive in these ‘new worlds’ learn to replace enthusiasm with apathy, dedication with surrender, and loving commitment with somber disconnection, even from their own would be heroes.
Max wonders if he can hack it. He loves his son. That is problematic as it is. Now, it seems that he loves and wants to preserve whatever tenuous ties to ‘old world’ morality he has been able to take with him into this ‘new world.’ If he had been amoral, like he had fancied himself to be all those years he hit on the interns or cut corners in his legal practice, then he would not have cared a whit about what he did last night. But he does care. It matters to him that now he has to stand among the murderers. He can feel his guilt weighing him down, pressing in on him like hot air, and he just desires to curl into a ball and to die.
Besides Lars’s departure, there is another reason the ‘guests’ know that this morning is unlike any of the others. Max looks away from the pool table to consider the L.A. Civil Corps officers installing a glass wall parallel to and a few feet in from the front door. There is a door in the middle of this glass wall. It is identical to the front door. When finished, there will be a kind of glass narthex between the front door and the interior door, a cramped holding cell, before a protected man steps in from the hostile world, or before an unprotected man steps out to the certain death awaiting him out there. Either way, the new wall suggests a break from the past; a more porous border; a threat to the mundane and unchanged world that they have known for six weeks and counting. Change alone is something to fear. Perhaps, that is why the powers that be have called for this inner wall to be installed. Perhaps, they have sensed too much passion of late. Maxine’s enthusiasm, Lars’s brief stay at the top of the pyramid, Max’s brutal act the night before, all these activities suggest a certain restlessness. It is a restlessness that the powers that be certainly had stoked, but it is also one that needs to be hemmed in as well. Fear sparks the flame, but is also dulls the passions. Max suspects that the powers that be feel that they have sparked the flame well enough. Now, it is time to dull the sheeple back into vacant drones; and cultivating the fear of a more porous border appears to be their method of choice. It is a method that seems to be working given the subdued atmosphere, the soft voices, the defeated looks on the faces of the ticket clutching ‘guests.’
Of course, to the rational mind this change should not be a threat at all. While the ‘guests’ imagine their cage to be ‘hermetically sealed off’ from all of that poison and heat outside, they know that occasionally people come and go. There was the pep talk from that Climate Control officer. There are the several L.A. Food Relief personnel, who show up every other week like clockwork so as to restock their food and water supplies. They keep their spacesuits on, and for the most part they do not stay too long; but they have to breach the bulwark in some fashion. Thus, the idea of a holding cell before entering or leaving should be regarded as a security measure, if anything; and yet to the irrational mind it is just one more indicator that the times are a changing. For the ‘guests,’ there can be no doubt that this is an ominous development. They have had to endure too much change as it is since that night.
The L.A. Civil Corps officers finish installing the new wall. They send one of their own to Serge Santos’s office. The rest of them wander about their work space, whispering to one another, and keeping their helmeted faces down. The engineers clearly do not want to look directly upon the ‘guests’ in the adjoining room. Perhaps, they are afraid that they will be jinxed into suffering the same fate as these trapped animals; or perhaps, their standoffishness is just one way they indicate that they are of a different class than the ‘guests.’ After all, they get to leave when this project is done. The ‘guests’ do not. Does that not mean they are a higher class of people than those drones huddled about a pool table?
Serge Santos steps out from his office. He follows the helmeted engineer over to the inner wall. He takes his time inspecting the work. Everything about his pose, the upward tilt of his chin, the wiggle in his leather tight ass, suggests that he is on a power trip that he intends to prolong as long as he can. He takes his time pointing at this or that, inquiring, nodding, before the engineers make it clear enough that they are fed up with his antics and intend to leave whether he signs off on their project or not. Catching the hint finally, Serge Santos signs the clipboard that someone hands to him; and the engineers start to pack their gear. Serge Santos watches with evident approval, as the engineers one by one step into the holding cell and out the front door to that still, hot world outside.
Serge Santos then turns toward the CAB Lounge. He claps his hands over his head, until every last ‘guest’ finally turns his attention away from the food on the pool table. It takes some time for this to happen, since a number of the ‘guests’ are so far gone an explosion likely would not jar them from their fears.
Gather around me, friends, Serge Santos calls out to them.
A few of the ‘guests’ start to walk towards the lobby. The rest remain at the pool table. With their bulging eyes and open mouths, they seem altogether unsure what to do.
Snap to it, Serge Santos orders, while he snaps his fingers above his head and swings his butt back and forth like a Latina lounge singer.
A few more of the ‘guests’ start to walk towards the lobby. Most remain by the pool table, though.
We are having a meeting over here, friends, Serge Santos says irritably. I do not need to remind you all that I mean business. No meeting, no food, okay?
The rest walk into the lobby. Perhaps, some of them are motivated now by food; but most seem to have resigned themselves to the fact that they truly cannot do otherwise. It seems the opposite of restlessness is resignation; and if that is the case, then the simple act of installing an inner wall indeed has killed off whatever maddening passions had been stirred in the hearts of these drones by the drama of the past few days. Max practically can feel the puppet master; not Serge Santos (though no doubt the leather boy thinks he is a star within the ‘new world’ that the powers that be have constructed in this cage); much more likely Heinrich, and whomever pulls Heinrich’s strings from up in the old rafters somewhere. The puppet master is perfecting his touch, first by raising tensions enough for Max to commit murder, now by lowering tensions so much that Max and his fellow ‘guests’ barely shuffle from room to room. Max could admire the puppet master’s adroit work, if he too had not been caught up in all his strings.
Bullshit, Max thinks, as he takes his place near the back of the crowd. All this ‘puppet master’ talk is just a way to deflect from my moral condemnation. I inserted the knife. I twisted the knife deep inside his ass. I could have beaten him, but instead I chose to kill him. Sure, he might have come for the two of us sometime later. If so, then I could have dispatched him then and been justified for doing so. And as for Heinrich taking my son, if I did not kill the Aryan, truly how can I be so sure? No one gave me that ultimatum. No, I am the guilty man, because in the end no ‘puppet master’ manipulated my hand to insert and then to twist the knife. Moreover, no ‘puppet master’ gave me the momentary sense of satisfaction that I felt, when first feeling that ass blood spurt onto my hands.
Now, friends, we have all seen the video clip, Serge Santos declares with the happy, but slow, enunciation of a Kindergarten teacher telling her students just how nifty it is to use the toilet seat properly. So let’s give it up for the big boy of the hour, Max Gunn!
Serge Santos pumps his right fist in the air. He lets out several crazy ass ‘woo-woo-woos,’ like he is his generation’s Arsenio Hall. He wiggles his leather butt, like he is squeezing out a turd. Essentially, he lets it all hang out for that ‘big boy’ in the back of the crowd, while scanning the crowd to see who follows suit and who remains silent in this forced celebration.
Most of the ‘guests’ go along with the cheer, though they are noticeably less enthused. Some are so dull they just stare blankly at Serge Santos without uttering a sound. Max thinks of the latter as in essence lobotomized. If so, then they will last the longest inside this cage.
Max smiles and nods, but otherwise does not respond. Inside, he despises all this forced adulation, since it shows just how easily sheeple can be prodded to endorse what is patently offensive to nature. After all, he is a murderer; and in a civilized order he would be ostracized like Cain to an infernal netherworld.
But I prolonged my son’s life, Max thinks…
I don’t know that, Max counters himself. And even if I did, that would be the same as justifying the holocaust because dead Jews could be mulched into cheap soap. An incidental good (cheap soap) cannot justify the underlying evil (holocaust) no matter the capable rationalizations of a total scumbag attorney. In the end, my class and my education just does not matter a whole lot, when I am confronted with the reality of who I am and what I have done…
The applause dies down. Serge Santos folds his hands in front of his thin and soft chest, and swings his head side to side in a condemning gesture. Again he calls to mind a Kindergarten teacher, though this time he is putting down an unfortunate student, who made a mess all over his toilet seat.
We are privileged, Serge Santos says in a high minded tone. We live in a climate controlled environment. We have clean air, good food, plenty of water, free television. A Climate Control officer visited us. Others have communicated to us their good will. Let’s face it. We Rock. We have CAB Pride…
Serge Santos pumps his fist. There is another round of ‘woo-woo-woos.’ This time, there is only a smattering of scared shitless ‘guests’ who follow suit.
But with privilege comes responsibility, Serge Santos remarks ominously.
There is total silence. Because there is no sound, that death smell from the CAB Lounge seems even more pronounced. Max senses that the smell really is descending from his apartment on the eleventh floor. He vaguely recalls that he had the same sensation before going wild last night, and so he tries as much as he can to knock that insinuation out of his mind. It is not easy to do, as that damned smell is so pervasive it seems to cling to his skin and to dig into his hot and sweaty flesh. It is not going to leave him alone. And why should it? He is an actual murderer, after all; a coldhearted killer; a Cain among Abels; and, truth be told, he has murdered two persons…
We elected one of our own to be our ‘First Citizen,’ Serge Santos goes on with the pompous voice and posture of a condemning preacher man. We saw in him the very best of ourselves. We entrusted him to protect us, to speak truth to power, to be the personification of ‘CAB Pride.’ But you have seen the video clip. Some of you saw his demise with your own eyes last night. Our esteemed, privileged ‘First Citizen’ shirked his responsibility and showed himself to be no better than an oinker paralegal with sweaty shoes.
Serge Santos pauses to let this graphic image take hold in the dull minds of his listeners. If the ‘guests’ have been disgusted, then they are keeping that to themselves, since no one groans, or shuffles on his feet, or does anything at all really to indicate disapproval of Lars’s behavior. The fascist state may start with a raucous crowd screaming ‘Heil Hitler’ at the top of their lungs, when the tyrant pauses in the middle of his harangue; but the fascist state has matured a considerable degree, when the same speech elicits a few downward glances by drones. What starts as an outdoor rally (or in our case that night of murder and madness most foul) matures into a listless board meeting conducted inside of a lobby of a downtown apartment building.
The Saboteur remains at large, Serge Santos continues. He is liable to do real harm, if we do not stop him. But how can we ever hope to do so, when our ‘First Citizen’ fails us? How can there be any future, if we permit weakness and treason in those who would presume to lead us? Can the air we breathe in here really be all that clean, if we share it with the likes of the pig man paralegal? Is our food nourishing, our water drinkable, if we permit him to dine alongside us? We stay away from the windows; and rightly we should; but when that pig man walks beside us, and rattles his tin cup in our ear, is he not whispering some of that outside poison, some of that deadly heat, into our very souls? Indeed, the devil roams among us as the roaring lion, seeking whom he may devour, whom remains steadfast in the faith. In our case, he is an obese lion in a green, sweat stained suit; and he does not roar, so much as squeal like a pig underneath the butcher’s hatchet. But he is the same menace, nonetheless; and like the devils of old, his rightful place truly is where the poison corrodes and the heat scalds.
As if on cue, an office door behind the front desk opens. Two L.A. P.S.A. officers step out. They look like goose-stepping, helmeted, leather SS goons. It is impossible to observe their faces, since their visors are down; but Max senses the kind of handsome, blond, German farm boys that can rupture a spleen with a club and then give another guy the best head he has ever had without missing a beat. Max would not be surprised if they did gay Internet porn (both bottoms, but ‘versatile’), before signing with an L.A. P.S.A. recruiter they met one night at an underground fetish club.
Lars Tubbs is in between the two officers. He is stark naked. He looks as if he has been shaved. There is not a hair strand on his head or body, and there are noticeable burn marks from where they had shaved over a sensitive portion of his skin. He is an oversized piglet with pinkish, hairless skinfolds and quivery blotches of sweat dripping down his face and torso. He could be melting, for all Max can tell from his limited sight at the back of the crowd. It is as if the heavy sun outside already is bearing down on his shoulders and pushing his belly even further out than it normally is.
Lars is mumbling something. Max strains to hear his words. Most persons have a macabre interest in the ‘last words’ of a condemned man, but Max feels that his own interest borders on compulsive. He has heard a lot of ‘last words,’ mostly when he was a killer in Haji Land, but also when he attended the state executions of criminals he had represented. The ‘last words’ in Haji Land were more colorful invariably, because they were unrehearsed. The ‘last words’ of a criminal who has been sitting on death row for weeks and has had little else to do but to perfect his departing tome invariably sound like the prepackaged shit a B script writer might toss into a prison movie. There is something to be said, finally, about spending too much time on any one project, no matter the cause or the occasion.
Lars is somewhere in the middle. He is not being caught by surprise, but neither has he been languishing on death row for weeks. Max wonders if he will hear something different, or perhaps even interesting, as a result.
It takes a few seconds of concerted concentration, but Max just manages to decipher Lars’s final defense.
I was doing what I was told, Lars mumbles. Down to the nitty-gritty. Just happy to oblige; never made a fuss; a model citizen; never kept a dime of what I raised with the tin cup, well, maybe a nickel or two, but never a dime. Not so much as a goddamned dime…
Max does not hear anything else, as one of the officers opens the door to the holding cell, while the other escorts the piglet inside. The officer shuts the door behind him, and he resumes his place on the other side of the condemned man. The three of them are now standing side by side facing the front door and waiting in silence for the next cue.
Serge Santos drops the ‘preacher man’ persona and returns to the much more natural ‘Arsenio Hall’ shtick. He pumps his fist above his head, wiggles his leather butt, and lets out a few more ecstatic ‘woo-woo-woos.’ The sheeple all follow suit, including the ‘lobotomized ones.’ It appears that the prospect of a real life execution between coffee and grits breaks them out of their dullness a brief moment. Even Max feels caught up in the frenzy, which surprises him just then given the sheer number of executions he has seen over the years.
Come on, friends, let’s let it all hang out for bacon fried on a sidewalk, Serge Santos urges. Let’s hope it’s the ‘extra crispy’ kind…
Lars turns his face back. Perhaps, he had heard Serge Santos; or perhaps he just wants one more look at the world to which he had given his soul.
Max pushes his way through the crowd. No one resists him.
Max walks right up to the inner wall. He is now just inches from the dead man walking, but he is as far from him as the westernmost star from an eastern sky. He looks straight into Lars’s eyes, but he senses that Lars does not see him per se. Rather, he sees his eternity in Max’s eyes. His eternity must be a totally dark and inhospitable prospect, because Lars looks like he is about to vomit up his last meal.
Then, surprisingly, Lars actually sees Max. He smiles in that confidential, queer manner of his that suggests even then that he is on the ‘inside’ and has a lot more information than the rest of us.
Your son is next, Lars says.
Max cannot hear him speak, but he can read his lips well enough. Max is frozen immediately by that comment. He leans on the glass wall. He knows he has lost completely his poker face, but just then he does not care a whit about what others see or think. He only cares about what Lars has said and about that horrible death smell that continues to seep into his soul.
How can my son be next? Max thinks. Last night, did I not do what those bastards up in the old rafters wanted me to do? Did I not sell enough of myself to satisfy their blood lust? If so, then how on earth can my son be the next one?
Simple, Max thinks to the contrary. Because you can never sell enough to satisfy their blood lust…
Max feels the skin on his back crawl. Someone is watching him. That man in the shadows is the only man here not all that interested in the execution. He is interested in Max, for no other reason than that Max is the fresher fish to fry.
Max slowly moves his right cheek off of the window so that he can glance behind his left shoulder. Sure enough, he sees Heinrich emerging from the tiny, cramped office behind the front desk.
Heinrich stands before the front desk. He crosses his arms before his big, muscular chest, while still gripping his clipboard in his right hand. He looks like a football coach observing his boys in practice.
Poor Lars is just practice, Max thinks. I am the actual game.
Max turns his face back to the glass wall. Lars is no longer staring at him.
One of the L.A. P.S.A. officers opens the front door. He steps backward, and grabs a hold of Lars’s arm. He is wearing his climate protection suit, and so there is no chance that he is going to be poisoned or baked by the totally silent and still air out there. Nevertheless, he seems notably intimidated. He is about to reenter an alien world; and he cannot be completely certain that his helmet and suit will protect him.
The other office appears much more confident. He starts to pull Lars out the open door. The other officer reluctantly does the same.
Lars does not struggle, so far as Max can tell. He just turns his head back and forth nervously from one officer to the other. He looks like a child trying to ascertain from his parents that indeed there is no reason to fear his first day at school. In this case, the ‘parents’ do not offer any sympathy. They just drag his fat, burnt flesh out to the sidewalk alongside Figueroa Street. They let him go, and then they turn to their left and step out of view.
Max watches anxiously to see if anything is going to happen. He can feel his eyes practically bulging through the glass wall. He also feels that the others are just as fixated. No doubt, the sheeple will be slow and uncomprehending as soon as the spectacle out there is over; but for now, they are riveted.
Lars stands in place a long time. His back is facing the front door, but it is easy enough to see that his breaths are haggard and deep within seconds. He looks like a fat load suffering from a bad case of sleep apnea, even though he is awake and standing upright for now.
Lars slowly lifts his hands to his head. His hands seem to weigh tons. His head seems to be suffering from a skull splitting headache.
Then, inexplicably, Lars staggers down the sidewalk to his right. His lips open and shut slowly, like a fish out of water. He eyes look catatonic, and Max senses that Lars’s brain has been baked so rapidly he is already crazy and blind.
The sheeple step back into the CAB Lounge, so that they can watch Lars through the floor to ceiling windows in there. Serge Santos follows the sheeple. He tries to keep a wry grin on his face, but his quick steps into the lounge show that in fact he is as caught up in this drama as the sheeple. Only the cruel Nazi football coach remains impervious to the grisly spectacle of this obese pig man.
Lars stops about midway down the sidewalk to the intersection of 9th and Figueroa. He again presses his head, but this time he stares down at his swollen feet. It is as if he cannot quite figure out if indeed his bare feet are burning on the concrete, or if there is some other reason why his nerves are screaming like banshees. Given the stupid look on the side of Lars’s face, Lars seems much too dimwitted just now to make sense of this torture.
Then, Lars drops his hands, turns to face the CAB Lounge, and makes one last run to the enormous, tinted windows. He is moving a lot faster now, but on the whole he remains as sick as a dying dog. His eyes remain catatonic, and his tongue hangs loosely over the left side of his mouth. Except for his great speed and his focused resolve to get to the windows before death grasps a hold of his flesh, he could be suffering the aftereffects of a terrible stroke.
Lars slams into the window. There is a reverberating boom, and possibly there is the sound of crackling glass. It is impossible to tell for sure. So much of what happens in a crisis is imagined. The mind will augment problems, so as to excite the ‘fight or flight’ reflex most conducive to survival just then. Certainly it is not possible that a delirious, fat man staggering into one of the windows in the CAB Lounge could cause the glass to crack. The original contractors, surely, must have installed windows that could withstand more pressure, especially as we are smack in the middle of earthquake country.
Okay, that is what the rational mind says; but who listens to that steady, calm voice the moment something extraordinary happens?
The sheeple recoil to the other side of the lounge. Several scream out in pain. They sound like they have been burnt by a stove; and, indeed, they know in their hearts that if that pig man manages to break through the glass they will be roasted by the poisonous heat that comes in from outside. Most of these sad and dimwitted sheeple, though, do not scream out. They have no more mind in them than to huddle together, to close their eyes, and to lower their heads in a kind of tearful prayer, though who knows if any one of them at this point really has faith in a deliverer. They had believed so much in a man so patently unable to lead. It is as if they had been setting themselves up to be disillusioned by his failure. Disillusionment is the precursor to resignation, and no doubt the power behind the curtain thought of that possibility when ordaining Lars Tubbs to be a first among equals.
At this moment, though, no one is actually contemplating the old puppet master. There is enough fear now to consume what is left of their reason. Even a man as battle hardened as Max Gunn loses sight of that forest in all the trees. He will question again in short order, but right now he too is a blithering fool in a lounge full of them. He takes his place in the prayer huddle beside the doctor who had prescribed plenty of water and rest for his blind son.
Lars recoils from that large window. He looks like a dazed bull, who had mistaken a brick wall for a piece of red cloth. Blood drips down from his mouth where he evidently bit into his lip when crashing his body into that tinted glass.
Lars staggers backward. He bends forward at his waist, like he is going to vomit; but then, somehow, he manages to lift his torso again. He holds his head a while longer. The contorted look on his face screams that he is suffering very real pain. The catatonic eyes look like they are being pushed outward by a sick, hot brain about to burst into flames and ooze out through the pores in his face.
Lars once more rams his flesh into the window. The boom is not as loud, because the dying pig man is not able to exert nearly as much power. Still, that crash results in a real or imagined crack that pushes everyone’s nerves over the top. Lars seems oblivious to the effect he is having inside the lounge. He has no more in him than to lean against the glass and to pound his open hand against a surface that probably feels as hot as a skillet on his skin.
Max sees that Lars is mouthing something. It is difficult to make out as a result of the thick blood now gushing out from his broken nose and mouth. Max is still gripped by the same fear that is spreading like a flu bug among the silent sheeple, but he has enough inner strength to press away from the crowd and to walk towards the window.
Max almost stumbles backward. He is overtaken then by the death smell.
He had thought that it was floating down from the eleventh floor, which is a bad enough insinuation. However, is it instead seeping into the CAB Lounge through a crack in the window? Is it truly the smell of a hostile, alien world just now managing to break into their cocoon?
Max cannot answer those questions. That alone could be an excuse to go back to the huddled mass of sheeple, but he presses forward anyway. He could die, and then who would look after his son? But his greater concern is that he is not going to make out exactly what the pig man is trying to say at the very end.
Max leans against the window. He can feel the intense heat from outside digging into his own face. Still, he stays there long enough to read the bloodied and bruised lips of a condemned man.
Fire, Lars says. Fire. Fire. Fire…
And with that Lars’s head explodes. Warm blood and brain goo splatters all over the window and sidewalk. The grisly concoction drips down the glass in such a way as to create elongated, ghoulish faces. The very same gore upon the sidewalk begins to sizzle and to belch as soon as it splashes onto the pavement.
As for the rest of Lars’s flesh, it actually manages to stagger backwards, like there is a phantom brain directing its arms and legs. Its arms shoot upward in the manner of a referee calling a touchdown.
Then, just as it staggers over the curb and onto the street, its knees give out. Lars’s headless corpse falls backward onto the asphalt. The bloodied flesh starts to sizzle as soon as it lands on the street; and for a moment, it looks like it is going to shake its way back up to a sitting position.
But that does not happen. Although it is difficult to see very much in the way of detail through the blood smear, Max and the others can make out a load on the street that is not going to move anywhere.
Okay, friends, the show’s over, Serge Santos calls out. Let’s line up now to redeem your food ration tickets. You do not want your breakfast to get cold.
* * *
Max wraps up what remains of his breakfast. He places the dish inside of his refrigerator. He shuts his refrigerator door softly so as not to awaken Adam.
Max returns to the bedroom. Adam had not stirred, even when Max had sat up on the bed beside him with a hot plate. Max had presumed that his son’s nose would rise to the occasion. He would smell the food, pull himself out from a dream, and remind his father how hungry he is. Nonetheless, neither Adam’s nose, nor the rest of his face, moved away from that pillow upon which the sick boy has been sleeping continually for a longer time than Max cares to admit.
Even now, Adam is sleeping soundly in the same pose as before. There is no sweat on his son’s face, so presumably his body heat temperature is normal.
Adam needs his rehabilitative sleep, to be sure; but Max is starting to be concerned. Surely, the boy has got to eat. If Adam does not sit up and consume his lunch, then Max will need to do something.
Max exits the bedroom. His eyes at once meander beyond his living room window and toward the IMAX screen across the street. He really has become an annoyingly compulsive entertainment viewer of late. He hopes that, whether or not he and his son ever leave this place, he figures out how to switch off all of that gross government propaganda masquerading as ‘family friendly television.’ He is addicted to the video clips, the flashing images, the email shorthand lingo (LOL, OMG, among others) that tells us how we are supposed to respond. Sure, it is all shit, but so are cigarettes; and it had been harder for Max to break that addiction way back when than to evade the ‘towel heads’ in Haji Land who had put a price on his head.
The powers that be are broadcasting yet another gory video loop. There apparently had been a video camera somewhere across the street. Why? Who in the heck can say? Surely, there has not been enough foot traffic upon Figueroa since that night to warrant a camera. More likely, the powers that be set it up just before Lars’s ‘last march,’ so as to have excellent footage for the sheeple.
And, indeed, the footage is macabre, but also beautiful. That exploding head slaps the viewer every time. It is surreal, but it is also impressive visually. The blood and the brain goo dripping down the window look like oatmeal, and to an uninformed observer they may seem fake for that reason; but Max frankly has seen too much death to make that mistake.
The video cuts to a bubble gum pink LOL! The editor adds a laugh track, in case there is a silly Luddite somewhere who does not know what LOL means.
After a few seconds, we return to the footage. Now, the headless corpse is staggering backward. Its arms fly up. Its legs jerk erratically; vaguely calling to mind an African native caught up in the spirit while dancing about a bonfire; but in fact caused by the mishmash of signals that the brain indeed had sent to the legs at the last moment. From this vantage point, we also see his butterball ass. It is jiggling like a bar of butter thrown onto a frying pan. There is a liquid discharge out of the anus that slides down his left butt cheek. It calls to mind a venereal disease, and Max almost feels sorry for Lars that this footage is indeed adding insult to injury. The operative word here is ‘almost,’ because even now Max cannot say that he is at all sad to see the self-important paralegal actually exit stage left.
The video cuts again to that bubble gum pink LOL! The laugh track really sounds more uproarious this time, if that is possible. Max imagines an editor in a dark room somewhere deciding to ratchet up the teasing with each rendition. No doubt, the nerd shmuck will get a bonus within his pension account for that little stunt. Even if not, then he gets the pleasure of pulling the strings of those caged animals, who are forced to see whatever he puts up on that IMAX screen.
When we return to the bright footage, the headless corpse stumbles over the curb, and lands on his back on the right lane. The corpse sizzles at once. It also starts to turn charcoal black.
The video cuts again to that bubble gum pink LOL! Instead of that crazy ass laugh track, which sounds loud and cocky enough to be an auditorium full of fans at an old Andrew Dice Clay comedy show, we hear the comical falling horn note usually identified with a ‘zonk’ prize on old episodes of Let’s Make a Deal.
The video returns to the beginning. Max watches more closely to see if in fact a transistor had been installed into Lars’s brain. Notwithstanding the near total destruction of everything above the neck, there should remain a few old, burnt out electrical wires in the debris, or a split second of a metal piece flying through the air, or something out of the ordinary (not that any exploding head caught on film and broadcast for all to see is particularly ordinary) that as such suggests an artificial implant.
He does not see anything, but he thinks that if he keeps trying he will. It just makes sense that the powers that be would go the extra mile to make sure that Lars does what he has to do.
Moreover, an exploding head surely sends the message that the universe beyond the windows is an inhospitable place. The CAB ‘guests’ had better be as grateful as holocaust survivors for their deliverance from that cauldron of heat and poison. More importantly, they had better do what they are told, lest what tenuous grasp they have on life is taken away by an ill defined ‘saboteur’ doing his dirty work in the shadows.
Of course, an artificial implant that can blow up a head also can turn the stomach, or turn off the eyesight, or switch off the rational mind in favor of its darker and madder sister. If this is so, then how can Max be certain that Lars in fact had suffered as he did because of the climate? How can he be certain that there really is an inhospitable environment out there? Oh, sure, he felt a great heat pressing through the window, when he leaned against the window in order to read Lars’s lips; but if the powers that be can manipulate minds to their own purposes, then they can heat windows.
Max has entertained the notion that there really is no climate disaster. It is an opinion not likely to be welcomed by his fellow ‘guests,’ whose identities have been remolded over the previous six weeks into ‘survivors’ of a ‘holocaust climate.’ Take away the ‘holocaust climate,’ and they are no longer ‘survivors’ even. They are only greying, gaunt sheeple with three squares a day and a bed.
The powers that be would be even less forgiving, if he pursued too much his pet theory that, indeed, there is no climate disaster.
But if there is no climate disaster, and if the restrictions imposed upon the ‘guests’ are purely political in formation and in execution, then they are all in worse shape than before. The reason is simple: Climate can cause real harm, but it is not diabolical. Among God’s creatures, only the fallen angels and men can be said to be diabolical; and politicians and bureaucrats take the cake then on all matters diabolical.
There is a knock at the door. It is an abrupt and powerful slap across his face, and he staggers drunkenly out from his stream of consciousness. He thinks at first that someone literally had assaulted him. He blinks his eyes a few times and tries to tell himself that the attacker is just a shadow, but he is not so sure come to think of it…
There is another knock at the door. Now, Max is no longer chasing ghosts with his disoriented mind; but he is afraid that that incessant pounding is going to awaken his son. Strange that he should think that way. Moments earlier, Max had wanted his son to wake up so as to eat his breakfast; and now he wants his son to remain hidden from the rest of the world, like a doll hidden beneath the blankets that never stirs, never calls out for food, never gets the attention of a visitor. His son is his little secret; and right now, he wants him to stay as such…
There is a third knock at the door. This one is more urgent. Max walks up to his door, and he sneaks a peak through the peephole.
Max sees a pair of Coke bottle glasses on an old, ugly, narrow face. For a split second, he thinks of a skull face with oversized eye sockets. He shakes the image out of his mind, but he feels uneasy while opening the door to his visitor.
Max stares unknowingly at the visitor. He vaguely remembers standing by him downstairs. He also thinks this man has visited with him before, though the memory seems implausibly distant and uncertain.
I am Doctor Michael Sharon; remember? The elderly man in the long coat says with a forced smile.
I don’t remember needing a doctor, Max mutters.
Sure you do, the doctor says. We all do from time to time. May I come in and visit for a while?
Max is not sure what to say. He feels like a lowlife crook that had hidden his contraband in his bedroom sometime ago and now has opened his door to an officer with a search warrant. His little secret is still his, but he is sure now his little secret will be discovered within minutes. He imagines that this is similar to a man watching his dying son’s last few breaths. Right now, his son lives; but the man can see the death wall caving in on his son; and the man knows all too well that there is nothing he can do about it. He is sad from his impending loss, but even more so he feels that everything he has ever done to save his son and to save himself from this feeling of dread has been futile.
Of course, Max finally says with a sigh. May I take your coat?
Please, the doctor responds. I am not sure why I wear it. The building is so stuffy, and it is not as if I am going to be leaving anytime soon for a night on the town. Old habits are the last to crawl into the grave, I suppose.
Max removes his coat, and hangs it on the hook near the door. He walks into his living room, gestures toward a chair, and continues to his refrigerator. There is always plenty of water and ice to serve. He has to hand it to the shady bastard who runs this joint, whomever he may be in fact. He and the other sad ‘guests’ have been deprived of so much, and yet they always have just enough in the way of food and water to remain on the living side of the Old River Styx. Max imagines a silent hangman offering up just enough slack in the rope so that the condemned man struggles, but never chokes.
Straight up or over the rocks? Max inquires.
Straight up, the doctor says, while settling into his chair. And a splash of that fine gin you keep hidden behind the water jugs.
The hair on the back of Max’s neck stands up. How is it that this old man knows about his stash? Moreover, how is it that he cannot recall anything about the last time this old man came for a visit, except that indeed this old man has been here at least once before and maybe more times than that? What exactly does this old man know, not just about him, but about his little secret he hides in his bedroom?
How could you stand the smell all those days? The rat squeals.
Max winces. Where has he heard that rat before? He is pretty sure that it is a voice inside his head right now; but is it a spasm of his sick imagination, or is it a memory that he has been trying to suppress by transforming the voice of the original speaker into that of a cartoon rat? Someone once said that the past is always fiction. But what do we say about the man for whom the present is as fictitious as the past? What do we say about the man who views in the here and the now only what fits his preferred storyline? Do we not say that he is bending reality to conform to his will? If such a man is successful by our own parameters of what is or is not successful, then we may call him an innovator, or perhaps a creative soul, a great manprecisely because he is not content to view things as they are, but rather insists on creating anew and changing the paradigm. But if that man is one of life’s many failures, an animal in a cage perhaps, a pathetic loser riddled by his own guilt, then we call him crazy.
So maybe that’s what I am, Max thinks. My life stamped P.T.S.D. by one of those nameless guys in the white suits. My soul sent back to the States for no other reason than to occupy a one-bedroom apartment in an insane asylum just one or two blocks out from Hell. Guilty as charged, truth be told, because I am a mad motherfucker, a murderer, a man with his little secret. Like every other prisoner, there is nothing that I can call my own. They can give. They can take. And right now, they’ve sent this old man with the owl eyes (hoot hoot) to take from me the last bit of humanity I have left. After all, didn’t the pig man say to me that they’re coming for my son next? Didn’t he say that directly to my face?
I don’t have any gin, Max remarks. That would be against the rules.
The doctor studies Max carefully. He stands up. He gestures with his chin toward the pantry door, but he never removes his owl eyes from Max’s guilty as charged face. He knows just how dangerous a man can be when reality starts to creep into the little fantasy world he had crafted for himself.
Do you really think you can hide it from me? The doctor asks him. Or, for that matter, from anyone else? People always know. Oh, sure, for a short while a man with a particularly convincing poker face can divert their attention; but, let’s face it, there is a firm reason why criminal defense attorneys like yourself seldom place guilty defendants up on the stand. You know from experience you can coach his testimony, shape his demeanor, put a fine suit on him; but in the end, you cannot stop the jury from reading the guilt in his eyes. Forgive me for sounding a little metaphysical now, but the truth is that the soul always bleeds through the flesh. Some of us are trained to read it quicker than others. That is why they award us advanced degrees in psychiatry, and give us license to shock or to drug the losers in our care. We can amuse ourselves at your expense, and in return everyone else can sleep well at night with the knowledge that indeed something is being done with the confused, the paranoid, the deniers…
You’re an internist, not a shrink, Max mutters, while handing him water.
The doctor smiles. He swishes the water in the glass, as if he is about to sip a fine red wine. He drinks a mouthful of water, and then he places the glass on the coffee table. He does all this without once looking away from his violent and mercurial patient, especially as Max is standing only inches away from him.
No, I am not, the doctor says. I am not a Jew internist from New York. I am an atheist psychiatrist from Vienna. I learned how to drop my accent when I came out to Hollywood years ago. The Kikes out here did not feel comfortable, shall we say, in recounting their life stories to a man, who sounded like Doctor Mengele. My accent is a mask now. I can put it on or take it off as I may please.
What are you saying? Max asks in a disoriented voice.
Except that privately Max knows all too well what the good doctor now is saying. Max had been willing to commit murder in order to save his son. Is it all that hard to imagine that the powers that be will want to determine how much further then he is willing to go to keep hidden his little secret from prying eyes and whispering lips? Does it really take a leap in logic to see that they are going to push him to the edge? Maybe even force him to do the one thing that is truly worse than murder…
And what is that perchance? Max asks himself…
Well, acknowledging the truth, is it not? Max answers himself.
How could you stand the smell all those days? His mousy neighbor snarls in his head in a voice that is no longer reminiscent of a cartoon rat, but instead is as real as any woman’s voice.
A real woman’s voice, since a real woman had had to endure a real stink coming out from his real apartment. That is the truth of the matter. That is the goddamned truth. And that is why the good doctor is here. He wants me finally to acknowledge the truth. He knows that that will push me over the edge. Look at his big owl eyes. Look at that knowing grin on his face. You can tell that that is why he is here: To push me over the edge by making me acknowledge a truth that I simply cannot, no, will not permit myself to behold no matter the stakes.
Oh, I think you know what I am saying, the doctor chuckles. Since today is the day we pull down our masks, why don’t we step into your bedroom to see what your son thinks? Maybe, he can explain to you what I am saying. He seems like a smart enough lad; that is, when he is not drooling all over his pillow, and peeing on his sheets. Sunstroke can really break down the body, you know, turn it into something no sane man ever would identify as a living person. But that is not going to stop us, now is it? No. ‘Triumph of the Will,’ and all that, tells us we have no reason to be held back by the actual fact of the situation. If indeed it is our will that your son should be able to sit upright and explain to us what I have been trying to say, then that should suffice to make him sit upright and do as we please, correct? So come now, let us go into your bedroom and find out…
Max steps in front of the good doctor. His poker face is gone. It has been replaced by the face of an emotional wreck, such that his facial expression now twitches erratically between bleak sadness and seething anger. Max just wants to cry like a baby and to kill this old bastard all at once; and, therefore, due to this self-contradiction, he can do no more than to stand in front of the old man like a dumb bull obstructing the narrow exit gate from an arena.
The last time I was here you virtually begged me to check in on your son, the doctor says. Why the change of heart? Don’t you want what is best for your son? Or are you more afraid of what may happen to you, if I take a peek inside?
The doctor tries to brush passed the larger man. Max again steps in front of him; and this time he also raises his right fist to suggest he is going to punch the old man. The doctor sees the fist, and he immediately draws a revolver out from his pants pocket.
Max cannot really believe what he sees. Normally, because of his Special Forces training, his mind antenna would have picked up the fact that his visitor is packing heat; but apparently, he is a lot more rusty than he had presumed. It is embarrassing to be surprised in this way.
Max’s mind is like a horse escaped from a burning barn. It is running with no thought for where it may be going or what its condition may be when it gets there. His only conscious thought is that he wants to get away from here; and if possible, then he also wants to prevent the old man from pulling back the thin, threadbare curtain on his little secret. Other than that conscious thought, Max has no capacity to figure out how he is going to defend himself, let alone really identify the revolver in the doctor’s right hand.
The revolver does not look very powerful; but this close, it could do a lot of damage. He will need to surrender his life, in order to keep hidden his little secret. Max decides at that moment that that is too high a price to pay, even if it means that he loses his son to the madness that is all about him.
Max lowers his fist. His shoulders slump forward in a defeated posture.
I told you the last time that you needed to clear your mind to figure out what to do with your son, the doctor says, while still pointing his small revolver at Max’s stomach. Now, it is apparent that you have decided to save yourself. I cannot say that I am surprised. A man’s capacity to love cannot match his basic survival instinct; and if there is anything truly good to come out from this ‘new world’ we have built for ourselves, it is the fact that we shall have that greater truth hit home all the time. The children of the future will not love, or at least they will not love in any committed or serious fashion, but they will have honed their survival instinct to the level of ants or cockroaches. The whole world may be consumed by poison and heat, but those bastards will survive.
The doctor nudges Max with his revolver. He tilts his head back towards the living room. Max is slow just now. Indeed, every one of his thoughts feels as if it has been chained to a stone and tossed into a dark and murky lake. He sees no more than the barest outline of his thoughts beneath the water surface. It is not enough to prod him to act one way or another, and so he simply follows the lead of his visitor back into the living room.
The doctor takes another sip of water. He studies Max in silence a while.
You need to release your son, the doctor remarks in an empathetic tone, though without lowering his revolver to his side. You know that, don’t you? And you cannot do that until you have saved yourself. Sounds selfish, and perhaps it is, but it is the way of the dark jungle. ‘Be afraid,’ ‘Obey,’ ‘Survive,’ this is the mantra of the prey. It lives in constant fear of the roaring lion. It obeys its own instincts; and, in so doing, it obeys unquestioningly the puppet master who had built those instincts into its genetic code. Finally, if it is lucky, then it survives, maybe just a season or two, but enough to pass on its life to some other beast. We call this ‘civilization,’ the ‘new world,’ and we invest our flesh and our soul in this elaborate mechanism when we look out for ourselves. Selfishness then is as much the way of the dark jungle as it is the forerunner of law and order. Get that idea in your head, and you may survive this joint.
What about my son? Max whispers.
I told you before that I would watch him, while you are saving yourself in the penthouse suite, the doctor states. Of course, once you come to terms with how you must release your son, my loyal service in this regard will no longer be necessary. But, until then, you can go upstairs in the knowledge that I am here, waiting beside your son, taking care of his needs.
The Hugh Hefner Suite, Max mutters.
Yes, the doctor says with a smile. It is very good to see that you are now starting to recall some of our previous conversation. The fogginess in your mind will dissipate that much more, as you embrace the truth.
Why not just take me up there? Max asks with a hint of anger in his tone. Surely, the boys upstairs are not averse to robbing a man of his liberty without even the pretext of due process.
They rob the pawns without due process, the doctor explains. Of course, the pawns never had enough liberty in their condition to warrant a judge and a jury. They are life’s extras. Their names never appear in the ending credits. On the rare occasion that the boys upstairs stumble upon a knight or a bishop, well now, should we be all that surprised that they would prefer that piece to come up to them on its own accord?
Max does not know what to say. He remains silent.
They want you, the doctor says after a while. You really matter to them. How many others in this building can say the same thing? How many others are interchangeable parts, while you are irreplaceable?
Max wants to go to the penthouse suite. He glances back at the bedroom and decides not to step inside one more time to whisper ‘goodbye’ to his small, grey son. He knows deep down that if he looks back while endeavoring to leave he will not get any further than his front door; and if that happens, then likely he will stay in here with his son, until he too has been lost to the dark shadows.
Alright, Max says suddenly. I am ready to pay a visit to the man upstairs.
* * *
Max hesitates a moment before the penthouse suite door. It is a common apartment room door, except for the stylized, silver ‘H H’ where the peephole should be. There is a blinking camera above the door, and presumably a closed-circuit television screen on the foyer wall, so then no need for an old-fashioned peephole. Such a small detail, really, but the fact that no other door inside the CAB is similarly stylized sets this suite apart for those super rich sheiks and rock stars, who sweep into L.A. on their way to someplace else and need a den of ill repute in which to squander their layover hours with a high priced hooker or an eager to please tranny. So far as Max knows, no one ever has leased this silver-plated sky view for longer than a weekend; and for that reason, more than any other feature, the sky view exists primarily in the collective imagination of the long term tenants in the rest of the building, who never have been able to peek inside or to speak with somebody who has stayed there. The fact that Max right now stands before this very door is unreal, like something dreamt long ago that is resurfacing in his mind to relay a message that he cannot fully grasp just yet.
Go on, Doctor Michael Sharon whispers into Max’s right ear. You are the ‘rock star’ in our community, haven’t you noticed? This place belongs to you as much as to anyone else who has stayed here. Just remember to wipe your feet, okay? Keep this place tidy for the next man fortunate enough to call it his little home away from home.
Max looks down at his shoes. Indeed, he is standing on a doormat. ‘Home away from home’ had been stitched into the doormat in the kind of bubble gum pink, cursive, stylized text that suggests the bedroom of a 1950s adolescent girl in a poodle skirt. The doormat is incongruous with the reputation of the suite, until one realizes that he is wiping the bottom of his shoes upon this symbol of sweet innocence. Of course, there is no real dirt on the bottom of Max’s shoes, since he has not been outside in over six weeks; but he wipes his shoes anyway.
Max raises his fist to knock on the door. The doctor pulls him back.
No need to do that, the doctor whispers. Just open the door and step in. You are expected.
Max stares into the doctor’s owl eyes. The old man appears to be telling him the truth, which is more unsettling than anything. Has he been played then so well that they have known all along when he would come here? Has he been that obvious, notwithstanding the lengths to which he has gone to keep his true thoughts and feelings hidden from plain view?
Max turns back to the door. He hears the tiny motor inside of the camera above him. The lens is moving to get a clearer view of him. Presumably, a man is watching him right now. Probably a smirking Nazi wannabe filling in a bubble on his clipboard…
Something switches on inside the suite. Max hears music. Max is not able to make out the tune. It is nondescript, soft jazzy, elevator music, presumably intended to relax, and yet Max cannot shake the idea that its real purpose here is to dull the senses before the kill.
Max opens the door. He steps into a dark foyer.
In the corner of his left eye, he sees the closed-circuit television. There is a grainy, black and white image of the old doctor reaching for the doorknob. Max turns upon his heels just in time to observe the old doctor shut the door in his face. Max pulls at the doorknob, but the door has been locked from outside. All he can do is to watch the old doctor on the television limping down the hall.
Max walks into the suite. His shoes echo on the hardwood floor. It is very dark, save for a single ray of sunlight piercing a hole in the curtains. It will take a while for Max’s eyes to adjust to this darkness, but he does not need actually to see anything to know that there is no furniture in the vast, multi-room suite.
That is not true. There is something in the bedroom off to his right. Max feels his way inside. He imagines that there would be normally a heart shaped, King sized waterbed adorned with feather down pillows and ceiling mirror. This is supposed to be the Hugh Hefner Suite, after all. Instead, there is an unfolded card table with two stools and an overhead lamp. He imagines an interrogation room in a banana republic.
Max steps back out to what is normally the living room. He eyes the old, dingy, moth eaten curtains. Maybe the super rich regard this filthy, threadbare fabric to be ‘understated chic,’ much like how the aristocrats in Connecticut or Vermont wear grey, unassuming, Talbots’ pantsuits, since they are too damned rich to care about color and style. The bourgeoisie dress up, pay too much for a chicken plate at Ivy’s, and then wander in and out of the boutique shops on the world famous Rodeo Drive. The super rich send their shoppers, while they stay in dark and tired suites like this one here and imagine how the commoners live.
Max pulls the curtains aside. The view is impressive. The main feature is the Hollywood Sign on Mount Lee.
Max presses his forehead against the warm glass and stares down. Before that night, he would have seen tiny ant cars zipping up and down both the 110 and the 10 from his vantage point alongside the gods. Today, tomorrow, maybe forevermore, the freeways lie barren beneath the heavy sun. They are no more substantial than narrow strips of concrete cutting through a dead urban sprawl. The city is a corpse, and the narrow strips of concrete are sashes lying over the corpse’s suit. The overcast, unmoving air above is the inner lining of the coffin.
Yes, it really is dead out there; but that does not prove that the climate is hostile to human life. Perhaps, there is no life out there, because the powers that be have scared everyone indoors. Perhaps, there are other colonies of sad sack sheeple forced to stay indoors for fear of some sort of ‘climate change.’ It certainly makes security a whole lot easier, when the wild beasts have no more in them than to quiver inside their cages and be thankful for whatever slop may be thrown in their direction. It is also the ultimate expression of power. Forget pressing the heel of the jackboot upon the poor shmuck’s throat. Some of those shmucks may not wait around for the jackboot to reach them. But convince the same shmucks that for their own safety, and the future wellbeing of the planet (or at least of the Greater Los Angeles area), they need to stay indoors, and do what they are told (Be afraid, obey, survive), well, what greater manifestation of raw power is there? What is the end of fascism, but we the people hiding out from the climate boogeyman under our sheets, while the elites roam the dead, abandoned streets as the cocks of the walk? Does that not pass for good, urban planning and enlightened social consciousness somewhere in the bowels of hell?
Okay, so there is no climate catastrophe out there, Max thinks. But what does it matter if this is political instead of environmental? The doctor had been no more than one or two steps away from entering my bedroom. Moreover, the doctor had made it clear that he had intended to pull back the dark veil and to reveal a truth no man should have to confront. No amount of sand over my eyes would have saved me from seeing it, indeed, even of smelling it…
How could you stand the smell all those days? His mousy neighbor snarls.
Beautiful view, isn’t it? A gruff man’s voice speaks out from behind him.
Max is surprised. He had not sensed anyone else in the suite. He plays it cool, nevertheless; and so is careful not to turn away from the window or to be otherwise outwardly startled. Anyway, he does not need to look at his face. He knows who it is. There really cannot be any other possibility.
If you think that a corpse is beautiful, Max responds.
Heinrich walks out from the shadows. He takes his place beside Max at a window overlooking the urban sprawl. He scans the view quickly with his eager, restless eyes. He frankly does not care what he sees down there.
Death is beautiful, Heinrich says after a while. It has a Zen quality…
Max does not respond. He stares through the view below him and into his own death wall. It is the end, as high as it is low. It bleeds out from everything.
How did you know? Max asks, though without looking away from his view.
We’ll get to that, Heinrich says. Come with me. Let’s begin.
Max hesitates a moment. The death wall seems to be getting closer, but it is very hard to tell for sure. It moves so sluggishly, like a sludge wall gurgling out from a hot swamp; and yet Max senses that it is the only unstoppable force in the universe. For this reason, it seems not to be moving much at all, until all at once it bleeds out from everything and buries the screaming man in its path. Death creeps up on everyone. How we may acknowledge it is our own business. Indeed, how we may acknowledge it is the last freedom any one of us can keep in this world, after the tyrants and the bureaucrats have stolen everything else.
Max turns away from the death wall. He has chosen not to acknowledge it. Perhaps, that makes him the biggest fool he knows; but he will be damned if he lets this Nazi SS wannabe with the clipboard force him then to do otherwise.
Heinrich leads Max into the bedroom. Heinrich sits upon the stool on the other side of the unfolded card table. He switches on a buzzing overhead lamp.
Max continues to stand. He looks about the barren room. It is haunted by ghoulish shadows that drape down from the nondescript ceiling.
Rather minimalist for the Hugh Hefner Suite, don’t you think?
Heinrich chuckles, but it is a cold and unwelcoming sound. Max’s acerbic comment had caught him off guard, and there is nothing else in this world that Heinrich hates more. Surprises can kill people. They can derail the best laid out plans. They can lead to demotions, if not handled properly. Really, the world is not going to be tamed until the possibility of surprise has been eliminated. Yes, the world that exists afterward may be colorless, but Heinrich despises color. It gets in the way of the clear and straight black lines on a dull white surface that comprise all the flow charts and the demolition plans that permit the world out there to run on time.
Let us say that we are promiscuous with our tactics, Heinrich responds.
That’s for sure, Max thinks, as he sits on the other stool. You’ll try all of the tools in your bucket, from swelling the ego of a preposterous, fat paralegal to dimming the lights in just about everyone else. Exciting and calming passions in equal measure; until we are all just a bit more unhinged than you can handle on your own. Then, one by one, you call in the caged animals you can no longer handle into this interrogation room; and you break them in, mold them into the image you have retained in the back of your mind, sort of like what Uncle Hugh would do with one of his favored bunnies. Break in her cunt, get her a boob job in Beverly Hills, and touch up her face for the October issue. Nice, really nice…
Heinrich places his clipboard on the table. He nudges it several times, so that it is perfectly lined with the edge of the card table. He looks just then like an oafish, overgrown schoolboy trying to straighten the papers upon his desk so that the teacher will not snap him on his wrist yet again.
You really did a number on Officer Riordan, Heinrich says nonchalantly.
So that was his name, Max thinks, but remains outwardly silent and still.
A lot of our men died that night, Heinrich remarks without emotion. We had to increase our recruitment budget a whopping 12% to make up for the loss of manpower. But, with the exception of Officer Riordan, not one of our ‘fallen heroes’ was found the next morning faced down in a museum fountain. Bloated and bruised, to be sure; but that goes with the territory. Do you want to know what really surprised us?
Sure, Max says. You have piqued my interest.
The chemicals in the water had discolored that part of his flesh that the murderer had submerged, Heinrich says. When we first pulled him out, we very nearly classified him as OTW. Other than white. You can imagine how that type of classification would have gone over with his relatives. Lucky for us, someone in the morgue had known him. He changed the designation before we filed. We avoided a nasty lawsuit with that one. I do not need to tell you about that, Max Gunn, Attorney at Law. A shithead like you would’ve walked away with millions from our legal settlement fund.
Or ended up imprisoned in his own home, Max interrupts.
For your own safety, Heinrich says. And remember, you are not an actual prisoner. Your thick file is not retained at the Bureau of Sensitivity Training and Rehabilitation. You are a ‘guest,’ just like every other survivor here.
Ah, yes, ‘guest,’ Max says. I must have misplaced the memo.
We can help you with that, Heinrich remarks ominously. Make it so that you never forget another memo from the front office. Believe me, your life will be a whole lot easier when we fix that little problem.
Max remains silent. He stares blankly at his interrogator.
So tell me, Heinrich states. How did you do it?
Do what? Max responds with barely concealed contempt.
We found the heel prints, one on the back of the man’s neck, another on his ass, so we know that the murderer literally stood on the victim, riding him a minute or two like a bucking surfboard, until he finally stopped squirming. That we can surmise from the scene. But how did you get him faced down inside the fountain in the first place?
Max remains silent.
You didn’t ask him to bend forward? Heinrich asks. Maybe, promise him a little butt action, if he complied?
Max remains silent.
Just kidding, Heinrich chuckles. Anyway, we checked. There was no cum in his ass. Indeed, we could not find anyone else’s DNA on his flesh. Surely, the chemicals in the water would have destroyed any forensic evidence left on that portion of the body that had been submerged; but there was no DNA discovered on the lower half of that body, either. Now, our murderer had been one careful motherfucker. He had had experience killing before. He knew what to do; and, more importantly, he knew how to do it without making a goddamn mess. I am not telling you anything you don’t already know when I say that it is a rare day, when a murderer does not identify himself within an hour of forensic analysis. I cannot tell you the last time I actually had to do some detective work to find a suspect. The CSI nerds thought they had done away with ‘Sherlock Holmes;’ but in this case, I actually had to puff upon a pipe and peer into a magnifying glass, figuratively speaking. It took a while to follow the clues. Just so many burnt up corpses to tag. So much paper work to file. It was a horror show for a month or so. We had to surpass our overtime budget 68%. Oh, the bean counters howled, demanded budget compliance assessments, even threatened, now and then, to dip into our pension plans to make up the difference. So, yes, I admit the truth of it. I had been distracted, and I almost lost your scent along the way. But you know how a bitch of a wife will just keep nagging at you, saying something you don’t want to hear just before you step out of the house or leaving a curt note on your dresser mirror that you see before you go to sleep at night. Well, I just could not forget the case of Officer Riordan. At first, I could not figure out why this case more than the others should stick with me. I never knew this Riordan. We didn’t go through the same academy. We didn’t even like the same teams. I am Dodger Blue; and, according to his personnel file anyway, Riordan had been an Anaheim Angels season ticket holder. Then, one afternoon, I am tagging just hundreds of gruesome photographs from that night. You’ve seen some of them on the big board; but we’ve kept the most gruesome for ourselves, believe me. We keep the best ones on a password protected website. Late night blood porn for the L.A. P.S.A. Helps relieve tension. Anyway, it occurs to me just then that the Riordan case stood out precisely because it is not gruesome, well, except a dismembered hand; but we had determined already that the cut occurred post-mortem. So, you see, the actual act of killing the man had been bloodless; and as I said previously, as clean as a whistle. We’ve got a real killer on our hands, I said at the time; not a dumb fucker caught up in the heat of passion, nor a low level street hood just making the rounds, but a bona fide professional. So what can I say? This case sticks with me. It turns into an infatuation of sorts, and as I think you already know I am not normally prone to emotions. I call in a favor to get reassigned to ‘colonial management.’ That is the official designation of the CAB, by the way. It is a ‘safety colony,’ and that makes you and your neighbors officially ‘guests of a safety colony.’ I suppose your status is tantamount to the foreigner with a travel visa, though I shall leave those niceties to the lawyers in the government affairs division. So I get reassigned to ‘colonial management.’ I figure I am going to go out into the field, observe the ‘guests,’ take out several of the troublemakers, maybe push some buttons just to see how the ‘guests’ in fact react to a change in their perceived environment. Schoolyard bully shit, so I should have plenty of free time to pursue the case that keeps nagging at me. I have no idea at the time that, because I am a ‘colonial manager,’ I am actually going to oversee the ‘guest’ who will emerge as the suspect in my murder case. But life has a way of being serendipitous, so this does not surprise me. I do not think it surprises you, either. You are a professional, after all, and so you know it is only a matter of time before you are confronted by your misdeed. Only the coked up gangbangers out there think that they actually can get away with cold murder. I can tell right now you’re a mad motherfucker, but you’re not stupid. Indeed, even your killer instincts are well honed from years of intense training, so there is as much tactical calculation in them, as in your conscious reasoning.
Heinrich pauses. He has buttered up Max’s ego. He wants to give Max his chance to respond and, perhaps, to hang himself in the process. Nonetheless as Heinrich had anticipated, Max is far too wily a son of a bitch to give in that fast and easy. Max remains silent. Heinrich presses on with more admiration for his quiet and unassuming suspect. He really is going to enjoy breaking in this killer.
Okay, I’ll let you in on something, Heinrich continues. We actually know how he ended up faced down in the fountain. The back of his helmet indicates an attack with a blunt instrument, probably a stone or a piece of marble. There is no way to find the actual murder weapon. Just too much debris at the scene, and for all we know the killer could have taken the weapon with him and then discarded it somewhere else. Without the actual weapon, the best we can do is conjecture; but it is logical that the killer comes up from behind him, and then smashes him with his blunt instrument. If he had been hit that hard somewhere else, then he never would have made it to the fountain in the first place. So we know you hit him with something. The question is: How did you manage then to sneak up on one of our boys? The sensor in his helmet should have detected you before you got to within twenty feet of him. You would have been moving fast. Your heart rate would have been elevated. Your adrenaline would have risen to ‘fight or flight’ levels. The sensor would have seen all these indicators and told him that you are a serious attack risk. He had not been under the influence of a drug or alcohol. He had been armed. He should have turned around at once and delivered a kill shot before you could reach him. But every indication is that he never saw you coming. I know your file inside and out. You are a decorated war hero, a professional killer, one of the very best, before they stamped you unfit for service. Still, since when does any man defeat technology? Surely, you are a wicked fast and smart man, especially when you are cornered; but a computer can process in microseconds what would take you tens of seconds to assimilate. What you did is just not possible in reality. It is like something out of the Bible.
But it is possible, Max remarks.
What do you mean? Heinrich counters.
Well, it happened, didn’t it? Max explains. Somebody hit your Riordan in the back of the head. He fell forward. The killer then held him down. Assuming this is what happened, then indeed by definition it must have been possible for somebody to sneak up from behind one of your boys. Perhaps, there had been a computer failure.
Not likely, Heinrich responds.
How can you know for sure? Max continues. The whole world as we know it literally fell apart that night. My experience in battle tells me that when law and order breaks down to a certain level everythingcomes unhinged. It is like a force multiplier effect, except in the direction of increased chaos. All of those dominoes on your carefully calibrated flow charts fall down, and you are left at the end of the battle with total destruction on all sides. Maybe, the computers had been overloaded with sensory inputs. Maybe, one of the computer synapses had crashed, thus leaving your officer blind and vulnerable at just that moment he needed his sensor to work. Statisticians tell us that that is so improbable as to be impossible; but ask any battle-hardened veteran how possible it is for his weapon to jam in the middle of a firefight. Murphy’s Law is very real during the fog of war. If you’d ever been in a red zone, then you’d know this is true.
This is beside the point, Heinrich says testily.
No, it isn’t, Max responds. You do not have a murder weapon, except for a shoe print. For all you know, some shithead could have walked on top of him, after he had died. Strange things happen, when people are running scared from a mob, or from a curfew enforcer, depending upon when the incident occurred. You have a battered helmet, but you cannot say for sure that whatever caused that indentation also put him in the water. What it all boils down to is that you are working off of conjecture. That is always an iffy proposition, but it is much more difficult when you are trying to make a conjecture in the fog of war. Too many odd variables have been thrown into the mix. Definite conclusions are not really possible without hard evidence.
Spoken like a criminal defense attorney, Heinrich says.
Guilty as charged, Max responds.
And you are right, Heinrich continues. I would have no leg to stand on, if I had no hard evidence beyond a shoe print that frankly could belong to tens of thousands of men living in or passing through Museum Row.
But you have something more than that, Max says.
Well, notwithstanding how much I love the company of lawyers, I think it is fair to say that we would not be conversing today, if I did not have something more, Heinrich says with the barest hint of a grin.
There is a pause in the conversation. Heinrich studies Max carefully. This is the time that Max will flinch subtly, if indeed he is guilty. Even the very best killers cannot keep a poker face totally when confronted with a smoking gun. It may be a nervous blink, or a twitch of the nose, or a little quiver in the Adam’s apple. Now, it is true that the very best can beat a polygraph; but in Heinrich’s experience, no one can beat the careful observation of the trained professional at the moment he is confronted by that trained professional with the existence of a smoking gun. The reason is simple: Even a short polygraph exam will take a few minutes of questions and answers. The suspect has time between the first few innocuous questions and the substantive questions to calm his breaths and his heartbeat. But there is no time to control ones instantaneous reaction to an unwelcomed proposition. The split second observation will be irrefutable.
Well, it should be irrefutable; but in this instance, Heinrich does not see any change in Max’s appearance or behavior. Heinrich knows Max is the one. He can feel it in his bones, but Max is not giving him anything just now with which to work. Heinrich has never seen anybody like him; and for the first time since observing him within the CAB Lounge, he is afraid that he may not get the best of him after all. It is a flash of fear that Heinrich immediately transforms into a seething anger at the contemptuous madman sitting across the table from him. Heinrich would kill Max right now, if he thought he could get away with it with his own boss; but since he is not so certain all he can do is to let his anger pass.
When pressed, an honest gumshoe will admit that luck plays a part in all investigations, Heinrich continues. We can be logical, meticulous, checking off all the boxes on our clipboards; but often, the turn in the investigation happens because the wind blows this way instead of that way, and because of that some person smells something that otherwise would have been missed. Or perhaps as a result of a mechanical failure, some repairman ventures into a remote place, which otherwise would have remained unchecked. Who knows? It could be any small deviation from the norm, really, which gives somebody a chance to find a clue that would have remained hidden. Now, with respect to my investigation, an L.A. Civil Corps. grunt had been assigned to find out the probable cause of a downtown sewer leak. He got his orders, put on his climate-controlled suit, and went his merry way. He was new to the Los Angeles bureau, though, and should have taken someone with him. As it turned out, he misread his coordinates and so lowered himself into the wrong sewer tunnel. He recognized his mistake. He was about to climb back out, when he noticed a 2010 MV August F4, which had been tossed down there. He recognized the red and grey coloring as indicating an L.A. P.S.A. vehicle. The suspect must have presumed that over time all that sewage flow would wash away the forensic evidence. Maybe, under any normal scenario, that would have been the case; but since that night, sewage flow has been minimal. The dead don’t shit, and the dead far outnumber the living now in the City of Angels. So the CSI nerds found enough to tie that particular F4 to Riordan, you, and your son; and your son has been ruled out as a suspect.
I am relieved to hear that Adam will not need a lawyer, Max scoffs.
I think this is hard evidence, Heinrich remarks.
Yes, it is hard evidence I operated an L.A. P.S.A. vehicle without proper credentials, let alone permission, Max responds. Six months to a year when the defendant has no priors. My six weeks here should be counted toward the time served. Take away time for good behavior, and also a commendation for saving the life of our esteemed ‘First Citizen,’ and my son and I should be on our way.
So you admit operating that vehicle, Heinrich presses.
I am not going to deny what forensic evidence makes clear, Max retorts. Adam and I were out after the curfew. Adam suffered from severe sunstroke. I had to steal a vehicle to get the two of us back here as soon as possible.
A vehicle you could not have started without Riordan’s unique handprint, Heinrich observes.
Yes, that is true, Max comments without skipping a beat. Thank God the shithead who used the vehicle before me did not throw away the severed hand.
Oh, yes, the shithead who did not leave any forensic evidence behind to implicate himself, Heinrich says coldly. I suppose he is the ‘Phantom Shithead.’
How can you be sure there was no forensic evidence besides what would have come from Riordan, Adam, or myself? Max asks. Sure, there was a minimal sewage flow; but does that mean there was absolutely no contamination of the vehicle? It is easy enough to point to me. It is a lot harder to prove that you are not capable of pointing to someone else.
The old ‘rush to judgment’ defense, Heinrich grins. Were you part of the O.J. Simpson Dream Team?
I was out in the desert somewhere all that time, Max remarks. Missed all the hoopla. I’ve seen the tapes since then. Judge Ito should’ve insisted that the proceedings be ‘pay per view.’ Could have paid off all the county’s junk bonds.
Max Gunn, the Decorated Desert Killer; Heinrich scoffs.
I’ve had my moments, Max remarks.
Thirty-two known kills in hand to hand combat, Heinrich reads off of his clipboard. Two hundred and forty-two with artillery. I suppose you and your old battle buddy have to share recognition for that one. Sixteen captured and sent to the C.I.A. for ‘further interrogation.’ What the hell is that? Did you suddenly run out of ammo? Or did you think that waterboarding them would be just a bit more humane than sending them to Allah? Don’t get me wrong. I honestly don’t give a shit what you did with those cockroaches, but letting some of them live to fight another day just seems out of character for you. Then, there are these pages of intel you gathered and passed up the chain [Heinrich shuffles through the large stack of papers beneath his summary page on the clipboard]. Much of it remains heavily redacted after all these years. Doesn’t matter to me. I don’t care about the particulars of your black missions, especially since we have left the good old U.S. of A and, therefore, are no longer concerned with wiping out sand niggers. Of considerably greater interest to me is your psyche report. You went in all gung ho, but left a damaged shell of a man. You told your therapist in Landstuhl that you mutilated twelve corpses. One dead sand nigger for each of the Disciples, you said. I didn’t know you were so religious. Anyway, you said you managed to bury six heads and to smuggle two into your base camp. There is no accounting for the rest of the alleged mutilations.
Okay, I’m a sick motherfucker, Max remarks nonchalantly. Everyone else in this building will be just as sick when you are done messing with their heads.
Fair enough, Heinrich says with a grin. Except that you are not sick after all. You are just a liar, a fraud, one more dipshit with a made up sob story that you can use when you want to gross out a chick at a bar.
Now, this comment does elicit a response out of Max. It is no more than a subtle twitch of the mouth, but Heinrich immediately notes his observation in the appropriate space on his clipboard. It took him a while, but Heinrich finally has been able to chip Max’s concrete exterior. It will not take long to thrust his dagger into Max’s heart. Once the edifice is shown to be vulnerable, the end is always much nearer than anyone would have presumed earlier.
Max remains quiet. He tries to keep his calm, but his anger is noticeable.
Of course, the Army investigated your claims, Heinrich continues. It took the better part of a year to prove conclusively that you were full of shit. A few senior officers tried to have your medals and letters of commendation removed from your dark file, but their bosses decided in the end to let sleeping dogs lie.
They falsified their own investigation, Max says. In that way, if ever any of the mutilations leaked to the press, they could say that the incidents did not happen. Pass it all off as the delusions of a P.T.S.D. cripple. Keep the published record as black and white as possible. No one is going to support a war without end, if our side is shown to be morally corrupted.
Listen, I understand CYA, Heinrich smiles. It is an art form really in every bureaucracy known to man. But call it my gumshoe intuition. I just sense there is more truth to be found in the official findings than in your psyche report. Not anything I can prove in a court of law, admittedly, but there are times the true story defies judge and jury. And I have no doubt that this is one of those times.
Max glances down. He taps the card table with his right index finger. His poker face is gone, and though he manages not to blush he damn well knows it.
It is remarkable when you think about it, Heinrich says. You deny killing Officer Riordan, even though I know you did it; but you insist you mutilated all those corpses, even though I know you did not do anything of the sort. I almost am inclined to think that you are just a contrarian, but I believe that there is a lot more going on here than the antics of a spoiled child.
Oh, really, what is that? Max asks.
Heinrich pauses for effect. He leans forward, and grins ever so sinisterly.
You are afraid of the truth, Heinrich whispers. Deny everything; weave a disorienting web around your own past; maintain the allure of mystery; and, lo and behold, you are too busy playing an elaborate role ever to face the truth. I know that this sounds like a lot of psychobabble shit. Perhaps, it is; but I don’t care one way or the other because I am digging into your skin, and I can feel all your firm defenses falling away like a house of cards.
Max remains silent, but he is even more broken than before. He fidgets a moment on his stool. He manages to stop moving after a few seconds, but then he feels sweat dripping down from his forehead. He hates how weak he feels in his own clammy skin, but even more so he hates that Heinrich can see his many sordid fears coming at once to the surface. Everything is unraveling, and he has no more in him than to sit here on this stool and to be force fed an awful truth.
Heinrich stands up. He leaves his clipboard on the table, and he walks to the window. He pulls the curtain aside. Instead of a sky view, there is a grainy, black and white screen very similar to the closed-circuit television in the foyer.
Max sees video footage from a camera overlooking the lobby downstairs. The timer at the bottom right hand corner indicates that night. Right now, the lobby is empty. The front door shudders on its hinges now and then from all the unseen violence still taking place outside. Otherwise, this is the unsettling calm before an explosion of passions and fears that will never again be stuffed back into the tight space from which they are born.
We’ve been watching you for a while, Heinrich remarks casually, as he is waiting for the action to appear on the video screen. Later, you will learn why. For now just understand that we know you picked up your son less than an hour before the catastrophe. You could have kept him with his mother. Yes, she is a cunt; but he would have been safe with her. Instead, for your own reasons, you chose to take him into the heat wave just beginning to brew.
I have murdered two persons, Max thinks. First, my son; then, the Aryan. My God, what have I done? How is it that I lost control over my own madness? If this is so, and if I am allowed to live, then who will die next? Who can stop me?
In the video, Max pushes the door open. He staggers into the lobby with an unconscious boy in his arms. He falls forward. He slams onto the boy, who is still cradled in his arms. He writhes like a crazy snake, and as a result he grinds his chest even deeper into the boy’s face.
Then, Max stops moving altogether. The boy remains stuck under all his weight. Only the boy’s legs poke out; and after a few seconds, his legs tremble as if caught in a death spasm. This lasts about thirty seconds. As the tremble is coming to an end, his legs flap like the fins of a seal, shoot upright, and finally, slowly, resignedly, fall back to the floor for the last time.
Several minutes pass, before Maxine storms into the scene and pulls Max off of his dead son. Max does not see this happen, though. Instead, he drops his face into his hands, and sobs uncontrollably.
You can talk to your dead son in your apartment all you desire, Heinrich says. But that video is the truth. You came today by your own volition. You are here, because you knew deep down that you could not hide out from the truth indefinitely. Like the heat seeping through the windows, the truth of what you did has been breaking through your defenses. If the doctor had not broken into your cocoon, and challenged your delusions, then one of your neighbors would have seen, or heard, or smelled something…
How could you stand the smell all those days? His mousy neighbor snarls.
Heinrich turns away from the screen. Immediately, the screen vanishes; and once more, there is a window that looks out to a spectacular skyline. None of this impresses Max, though. He continues to cry into his hands like the small, beaten man that he is.
There is nothing you can hide from us, Heinrich continues. Nothing that is yours. No secret we cannot unveil. No weakness we cannot exploit. You have a choice in the matter, but it is not the kind of freedom you had imagined prior to that night. In the ‘new world,’ the world arising from the ashes of the past, you have this choice: Be afraid, obey, survive, on the one hand, or sure death…
Why this? Why now? Why me? Max cries out through his tears.
Heinrich places his right hand on Max’s shoulder. He looks down at him. His expression is an unsettling mixture of feigned sympathy and cold contempt.
Because we can, Heinrich answers. It really is as simple as that.
Max slumps forward. He drops his face onto the card table. He slams his left fist repeatedly, until finally he is able to get some control over his anguish.
Max sits upright. His face is swollen red from his tears. He is exhausted, withdrawn, barely able to keep his eyes on the triumphant man in front of him.
Heinrich is seated again at that card table. He straightens the clipboard.
When I determined you were the murderer, I wanted nothing more than to see you on death row, Heinrich remarks. But then I studied you so carefully. I could see your innate leadership skills; but even more so, I could see how well you lied to all the others. You did not fool me, but you fooled just about every other person in this building. I came to realize that you are a potential asset to the ‘new world.’ As you hunted down religious fanatics in the past, so now you could lead men in hunting down those who refuse to embrace the ‘new world.’ I recommended and obtained leniency from the D.A. There will be no legal trial on the murder of Officer Riordan. His case will remain officially unsolved. Your military files, furthermore, will be purged, so that asshole bureaucrats like me cannot get their grubby hands on your past. Of course, there is nothing I can do about your son. His death will be a source of guilt with which you must contend the rest of your years, I suspect. What I can offer you, though, is a new life in a world without moral ambiguity; and perhaps, over time, when your soul finally turns as callused as mine, you may learn to put your guilt in its proper place. If that ever happens, then you will find that your guilt is actually a source of real, sustained, heartless power. You will be cruel, cut off, a man to be feared; and in the ‘new world’ there really is no other way to live and also to be successful.
Heinrich removes a pencil from inside his sleeve. He bends forward so as to fill in the bubbles on the sheet in front of him.
Let us begin your new life now, shall we? Heinrich asks. I have a hundred and fifty questions to ask you. There are no right or wrong answers, though the answers you give will help us to determine exactly how to begin your training. I may assure you that your answers will be analyzed by an unbiased and expertly calibrated computer program. We work to remove the human touch altogether.
Over the next couple of hours, Max answers the psychobabble questions, though frankly he hardly hears them. He focuses instead on the fact that Adam will not be sitting up for a bite to eat when finally he returns to his apartment. He may try to coax him still, but deep down he has lost his tenuous faith in his son’s rehabilitation. There is no greater sorrow than his loss of hope in his son, and it takes every bit of his will not to burst out into tears during his interview.
Finally, Heinrich lets him go; but Max does not return to his apartment. Instead, two L.A. P.S.A. officers step into the Hugh Hefner Suite and outfit him in his own climate-controlled suit. He will be accompanying them to his future.
As he exits the lobby, though, he wonders if the doctor is going to watch Adam, as promised. Adam may be dead, but he still needs a father to love him.