God, it’s so damned hot today, Max thinks irritably.
He had removed his Ermenegildo Zegna suit jacket already, even though he hates for Caroline to see him ‘dressed down.’ For the first two years of their marriage, she would have smiled, and called him a ‘Hollywood Hipster who can get into her pants whenever he wants,’ whenever she had seen him wearing his suit jacket and jeans ensemble. For the last six years, she would frown; maybe make a caustic remark about how the cute interns back at the firm could trace the outline of his butt through his tight jeans. Max had slipped twice during his marriage, so he could not shrug off her suspicions as totally unwarranted; but if he had been half the playboy she thought he was he would have become one of the waxed, pickled, middle aged ‘hipsters’ in open silk shirts and Dockers, who hang out at the Playboy Mansion at all hours like they are well tanned, bloated groundskeepers. He could have joined ‘Uncle Hugh’s’ entourage. Although he’d never represented Hugh Hefner or Playboy, he’d saved several of his associates millions in potential tax liability. Not that Max Gunn is a tax attorney. He has a hard enough time figuring out how to use Quicken for Mac, let alone attempt to make sense of the tax code; but he has ‘close friends’ in the F.B.I., who in turn have lunch now and then with I.R.S. enforcement pricks. It is amazing what big problems can just go away over three or four dry martinis at The Capital Grille.
Boy, how the old brain wanders when it’s so goddamned hot, Max thinks.
The point is that he had never strayed enough times to be regarded as a bone fide playboy. Maybe, a tad inconsiderate, sure, he can admit that, but an out and out cad? Anyway, if indeed they are going to compare their dirty socks, then what about Caroline’s tryst with the Salvadoran pool boy? She had got it in her head to sponsor a poor, naked, diseased, Mayan boy. Probably got that idea from watching one of those Sally Struthers infomercials about the starving kids in Ethiopia. Regardless, Max had gone along with her silly ‘cause of the month,’ but had never figured that a strapping, caramel, sex god in low hanging soccer shorts would disembark from the airplane. Max admired Caroline’s restraint. At least thirty-six hours went by before she bedded the ‘barely legal,’ Latino stud.
Max had never been bothered by the extramarital sex. If anything, then he’d determined in his own mind that Caroline’s affair had given him license to browse the interns. No, what had bothered him was the cheapness of the whole idea. A well-kept, bored, forty-something, Beverly Hills blonde trying out every one of the Kama sutra poses with a hunky monkey, who could not speak a word of English, well, let’s face it, their sultry affair smacked of a seventies era, soft porn rip off of Lady Chatterley’s Lover. This scenario had been played out, and frankly played out a whole lot better, too many times before, like some sort of low grade Reality T.V. drama not even original enough to be picked up by A&E. Max had never felt betrayed. He had felt mortified that his peers might realize in time how uninspired his wife could be in bed even by Beverly Hills standards.
Because, of course, everybody knew about Caroline and the pool boy. No one said anything. No one ever says anything. Nevertheless, Max had seen those concerned looks. He had seen several neighbors cast their guilty verdicts simply by turning up their noses and scurrying into their Bikram Yoga studios. For all of the supposed openness and tolerance of Beverly Hills, the plastic yentas around here surely can be judgmental, though in fact their moral opprobrium is simply a false veneer for their green envy. No doubt, they too were trying to convince their overworked and undersexed husbands into sponsoring a needy Salvadoran.
But to get back to the suit jacket and jeans ensemble. Max realized that the more Caroline became a Southern California caricature (now, while still fit and perky in her forties, a ‘Beverly Hills blonde,’ but when fat and saggy in her seventies, a ‘little, old lady from Pasadena’), the more she resented seeing her husband as a Southern California caricature. She knew he worked hard, but she wanted him to look like he worked hard. All her plastic girlfriends had husbands with paunches, receding hairlines, and sagging, soulless eyes. In comparison to their husbands, they looked like forty-something trophy wives. Sure, they were deceiving themselves; and deep down they realized it. By Hollywood standards, they had gone over the hill about the time they turned twenty-five. Regardless, around here self-deception is a virtue; and it is very important to keep it going as long as possible, lest reality creep its aging face into the dresser mirror. Why then did Max Gunn have to be so damned different from all the other husbands? Why did he keep his weight down (not a six pack anymore, but a slim stomach); zip around the town in his vintage, blue, Jaguar XJ, like he is a movie producer instead of a criminal defense attorney; and smile all the time like the cocksure frat boy he had been so many years ago? Why can’t he look beaten, or at least wounded a bit, by his adult life, so that Caroline can look better in comparison?
So Max knows he is asking for trouble simply in having removed his fitted suit jacket. Still, the temperature is so damned hot, and it feels like it is rising, even though it is after five o’clock.
And Caroline is taking her sweet time in getting their son, Adam, out the door. God knows what the hell is going on in there. Max feels like laying on the horn, but he knows from past experience that that simply will irk Caroline. Like a spoiled child, she most likely would get back at him by taking even more time to do whatever the hell she is doing.
So he does not lie on the horn, but he does loosen his necktie and collar buttons. He also rolls up his window. There is not even a scent of a cold breeze out there, so he may as well turn on the air conditioner instead.
Max loves almost everything about his 1973 Jaguar XJ. Since his Uncle Al taught him to drive in his Ferrari, he has been hooked on horsepower. Max does not drive. Rather, he qualifies; and he has got the speeding tickets in his glove compartment to prove it. His Jag sports a killer V12 engine. It also has the kind of elegant, smooth as butter maneuverability that is almost as good as good sex with a ‘barely legal’ girl. Max has a friend back in D.C. who is approaching sixty and swears that this is the best time of his pickled life precisely because he has lost most of his libido. Now that he does not feel a need to grab every miniskirt on Capital Hill, he can really enjoy the various toys he has accumulated as a result of his lucrative lobbying business. He can go out on his yachts, or golf at an exclusive men’s club, or just drink himself shitfaced, and all the time not so much as give a tinker’s damn about coaxing some babe into his sheets. As far as Max’s friend is concerned, losing the libido is a man’s version of liberation. Max is not so sure he agrees, except those moments he is in his ‘zone’ while roaring his Jag down the curves of Mulholland Drive. When that happens he almost can forget women. The raw power and grace then is all the sex he could ever want.
The only thing he does not love about his vintage Jag is the troublesome air conditioner. Sometimes, it blows out enough frigid air to turn the cabin into a meat locker; but most of the time, it errs in the opposite manner. It seems to take forever to get going. Then, when it should be working at its full capacity, it just coughs out a bit of smelly, lukewarm air, before dying altogether. It is a silly tease, like a man on his deathbed revising just enough to give his family an irrational hope, and then slumping into whatever eternity lies before his blank gaze. Max always tells himself that he is going to get the damned thing fixed at one of those vintage car repair shops in Santa Monica. He never bothers to do it because he much prefers the coastal winds snapping through his open windows. He can only hope that this warm evening the air conditioner chooses to behave.
As it turns out, the air conditioner this time starts off with a punch of icy cold air. Normally, when it acts this way he turns it down low at once; but now he welcomes what feels like an iced cube breaking through his skin and into his chest. He had been hotter than he had realized apparently. His back slides side to side against the sweat draping his leather seat, and so he sits upright to give the cold breeze a chance to dry the moisture that had accumulated back there.
He switches on the radio. He had installed Sirius XM a few years ago. He alternates from Howard 100 to 80s on 8. He cannot remember the last time he listened to a local newscast on a traditional radio station, but for whatever odd reason he now senses that he should do so. Maybe, there is something brewing; or maybe, he just wants to hear that this weather is going to cool off sometime before the Second Coming. It really is much too hot for this late hour, that is so true; but even more so, it feels like the temperature is actually rising just now.
Triple digits for the rest of the night, the newscaster says in that smooth and detached manner that suggests that he is not revealing the whole truth. So the L.A. Climate Control Authority urges people to stay indoors. Drink plenty of water. Keep curtains drawn until sunset. They have not yet issued a mandatory curfew, but we can expect that to happen very soon, if there is no indication of a drop in the temperature. If and when they issue a mandatory curfew, then be certain to get indoors within an hour of the siren call. The police have said that they will conduct ‘search and destroy sweeps’ of curfew violators, as required…
Max switches off the radio. He tries to tell himself that the radio station news pimps are just sensationalizing the report. Rattle the pimp cane upon the sidewalk. Lift up one of the prostitute’s skirts. Get the poor bastards excited in their pants and dry in their mouths, so that they have no real choice but to give him what few coins they have left. After all, this cannot be anything more than a hot L.A. night. Sure, it will stay triple digits all night, probably tomorrow and the day after as well; and a handful of old folks will die. But catastrophe? Total Armageddon? Max remembers a funny scene in Ghostbusters. Bill Murray wants to convince the mayor that ghosts have been released into the city and that all will be lost, until he gives them the green light to recapture them. Without the green light there will be then ‘human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together…’
Usually, Max chuckles when he recounts that line; but this time he stays as grim as before. There is something wrong here. He just cannot put his finger upon it, like an insight that dematerializes the moment he tries to grab it; but, regardless, he knows deep down that something is brewing. He imagines an old witch hunched over a heated pot. She had stirred the poisonous herbs together a long time ago, but only now is the temperature hot enough that the slimy and foul smelling concoction starts to bubble over the rim of the pot. The witch has waited for this very hour. She steps back, grins, and welcomes the horror show.
Maybe, Adam should stay with his mother tonight, Max mutters.
If there is a mandatory curfew alarm, then at least his son will be home already, rather than stuck out on the road with him. Caroline may be a selfish and superficial bitch at times, but she always has been a good mother to Adam. Indeed, truth be told, she probably has been a better mother than he has been a father what with his long hours in the law firm and repeated cancellations of get-togethers with his eight year old son. Adam very much loves and adores his father; and deep down, Max simply cannot understand what his son sees in him.
Why am I so worried? Max continues. This is just another hot L.A. night…
Caroline steps out of the front door. She is still so beautiful in her fitted blazer, T-shirt, and leggings. Her outfit is oxymoronically formal casual; strong, savvy businesswoman in a board meeting on top; little sex kitten on a yoga mat on bottom; a reminder that in Beverly Hills, even a ‘serious occasion’ remains a wink and a nod from juvenile abandon. The grownups have left the adolescents at home to play, and the result is Beverly Hills and West Hollywood after sunset cools the heat of the day into a balmy, listless evening. The only problem with her outfit just now is that there is no indication that the day is about to cool. If Caroline hopes for a comfortable and vacuous evening with her newest boy toy, a Gold’s Gym fitness instructor named Carlo, who must use a fake I.D. to go bar hopping with his cougar girlfriend, then she is in for a surprise. It will get much hotter, before it gets cooler, and soon she will be dropping that damned blazer onto the living room floor like an unwanted sack of potatoes.
Caroline sees Max looking back at her. She folds her arms before her big chest (those puppies cost a pretty penny back when the practice had been slow and Max had had to dip into his family fortune to make his petulant wife happy) and snarls. Once, that disagreeable expression of hers had been strangely sexy, like a man can be turned on by a pouty sex kitten with rosy red cheeks; but the passage of time is always cruel. Now, the very same expression is just a malign snarl, which makes her seem easily ten to fifteen years older than she really is.
There is no sign of Adam. Apparently, Caroline wants to talk, before she complies with the custody order and releases Adam for his weekend getaway. It is actually not talking insofar as talking suggests a back and forth. Instead, it is a vicious, one-way onslaught with the hapless ex-husband just doing his utmost to keep his cool in silence. Max remembers something his former father-in-law had told him back when Caroline’s parents considered him the greatest thing in the world since sliced bread. The old man had taken Max aside; and with a soft twinkle in his right eye, he had said in confidence, ‘Want to get to your fiftieth anniversary? Just answer everything your wife ever says with these three little sentences: You’re right. I’m wrong. I’m sorry.’ At the time Max had been taken aback. After all, that old man was not referring to a hypothetical wife. He was referring to his own daughter. Since then, Max has learned that there is no real point in fighting against the loud tsunami. It is best just to let it wash over him.
Caroline walks over to the idling Jag with her head down. Max knows all too well what this means. Caroline is ‘disappointed.’ Caroline has given Max ‘so many chances to do the right thing.’ Caroline wonders if and when Max is going to ‘grow up’ and to ‘put on his big boy pants.’ The specifics change every time, and indeed they can be reduced to ‘blah, blah, blah,’ since what really matters is just how much of a ‘heartless, selfish, egotistical, dumb fuck’ Max is. What is most egregious is that Max is pushing fifty and still living like a fifteen year old.
Max rolls down the driver side window. Caroline bends down, so that her face is level with his. She is a fire-breathing dragon. Frankly, she is pretty sexy in a bitch dominatrix sort of way; but Max has known her too many years to be able to find even a momentary refuge in that fantasy. No, for Max she is simply angry; and the wrinkles under the skin hint that she is getting old, regardless of the ‘lifestyle lifts’ she gets every six months or so from that obnoxious, married plastic surgeon she fucks when there is no pretty boy toy holding her purse. She is so beautiful; yet that beauty is so fleeting, and one day will be gone forever. She must know this about herself; and that, more than anything, is why she is a Mad Hatter pretty much every time Max idles his Jag out front to pick up Adam.
This time Caroline does not start off with a verbal assault. She just slaps his left cheek and his mouth, while he stares straight out the tinted windshield.
Good evening to you, Max says with a broad smile, though without taking his eyes away from the windshield.
Don’t you talk back to me; Caroline seethes.
Max wants so much to respond, but he holds his tongue. She is egging for a fight right out here on the scorched pavement in front of her California Ranch Style home. Max thinks of this as her home, even though he had bought it prior to their marriage for the two of them out of his own trust fund. She had picked it, decorated it, and ruled over it with an iron fist. When the marriage got bad, he had spent so many of his nights in the spacious apartment downtown that he had forgotten almost that his name was also on the deed. Regardless, when the divorce settlement finally happened, she got the house; he got the apartment; and the court trustee sold the rest of the community property in order to split the proceeds down the middle. He kept his Jag, as he had inherited it from his mother before he had met Caroline and so set it aside as his separate property.
Caroline reaches into her blazer. She removes a folded piece of paper. It is a printout of a web page about firearms. The featured photograph is a Glock 42 .380. The small print consists of road directions to a Santa Monica gun store.
Max does not need to read the small print. The owner is a friend, and he uses the firing range there once or twice a week. He had taken Adam out there on the QT, because in Max’s mind Adam is old enough to be firearms proficient.
Tell me why Adam printed this out, Caroline says.
I have no idea, Max responds unconvincingly.
You know what I think about guns, Caroline snaps.
Max does not respond. He just continues to stare straight ahead.
I had to take Adam out to see Rod this week, Caroline continues.
Whenever Adam so much as hints at even a passing interest in firearms, Caroline takes him out of school early, and then drives him to the convalescent center in Riverside, where her younger brother, Rod, will remain the remainder of his years in a vegetative state. Rod is a pale shadow of his former handsome, athletic, fast-talking self. While once he had stolen ladies’ hearts, he now just withers in his hospital bed and drools spit down his chin. It is impossible to tell for sure if he recognizes Caroline and Adam standing beside his bed, since that blank stare in his wide open eyes never fluctuates a moment. He moans once in a while, and Caroline insists she can make out words in the guttural cries. Still, even if he manages to slip in a word here or there, two-way conversation is not a real possibility. The best Caroline and Adam can do is to stare back at him for a while and to try not to cry too much.
A gangbanger had taken down Rod, most likely because Rod had tried to wiggle out from his cocaine debt; and the single bullet had lodged firmly into a portion of the brain that wiped out his ambulatory and cognitive abilities. He is able to breathe on his own; to take in nutrients intravenously; and to piss out a little bit of pee every day; but otherwise, he is dead to the world and probably not incorporating actual words into his sporadic moans.
Caroline’s point is that a single bullet had taken him down. Max believes he had been taken down by life, which Max views as essentially a coliseum with a handful of winners stomping on the carcasses of many losers. If a single bullet had not taken him down, then his drug addiction would have done so, or maybe a jealous, cuckolded husband of one of the many whores he bedded, or maybe a city bus slamming on its brakes a few feet too late. For that matter, who is to say that Rod could not have deterred that gangbanger, if he had been known to be proficient with firearms? Max has represented his share of these fleabags. In his experience, most of them are pussies hiding their ‘smallness’ behind gaudy, gold chains, glittering, gold teeth, and swagger. They will pop a hundred folks that they know are defenseless, before they get into a firefight with a trained, deadly opponent. Even a brute beast knows enough to take down the weak and stupid rabbit, before trying to go after a fast and cunning man. It is the way of the jungle; and a gangbanger understands the jungle, if he senses nothing else.
Caroline can hide from this awful coliseum life behind the plastic façade she maintains in Beverly Hills. She got enough money from the settlement, and is getting enough alimony every month even now, that she can pretend that the world out there is no scarier than a gaudy pink pair of yoga leggings. When was the last time the Blacks in Watts or the Latinos in MacArthur Park rioted within smelling distance of ‘the beautiful people,’ as Caroline and her yenta friends in fact will refer to themselves? When was the last time anyone saw a real Beverly Hills cop, who was not pedaling a bicycle, and wearing police blue short shorts, while on patrol? So, sure, Caroline can hide all she wants, castigate all the guns out there as just plain ‘icky,’ and donate every month to the Sierra Club, even though she cannot tell the difference between a red oak and the Spruce Goose. She can afford to hide out in La-La Land, so long as that alimony keeps coming.
But Adam cannot be willfully ignorant. He is a young boy, and he is going to be a man in a hard and combative world. Max may play like an adolescent all too often, but he has seen too much of the underbelly to think that life is just a ‘key party’ in the fortress of a fabulously rich, glib, movie producer. Choices have real consequences. Oh, sure, for a brief while we can turn up the 80s on 8 channel, speed around the curves on Mulholland Drive, maybe convince a much younger intern along for the ride; but in the end the car keys the host hands us are like the playing cards we have been dealt. We have to play them out within a world where one SOB is trying to get the upper hand over another. This is the real world, and Max will be damned if he lets his Adam walk unarmed and naïve down whatever path is chosen for him by those bastards in the penthouse suite.
Of course, Max is not going to state any of this now. Talking is a one-way diatribe, remember? And anyway, Caroline would just love to create a scene on this scorched pavement, to get a police report filed, and then to go back to the court to try to reduce Max’s custody of Adam on account of his ‘belligerent and loud behavior.’ She had tried that the last time they had yelled like a couple of banshees in heat on this very same spot. Max had had to call a couple of favors just to push back the fat lesbo dyke family law judge, who had been chomping at the bit to strip away what little custody he has now.
Do you have anything to say about that? Caroline asks.
Max looks at Caroline. He sways his head no. He looks utterly defeated in his eyes, and indeed he feels pathetic and small at that moment. Nevertheless, he would rather feel emasculated than to erupt into the rage she is attempting to coax out from him no doubt.
And, frankly, it is so goddamned hot he is not in the mood for a fight. He wonders how on earth she can feel so animated, given the oppressive heat that is bearing down on both their shoulders. He still feels the frigid air blowing into his fine chest, and yet he could not be half as animated now even if he wanted.
No gun for the little one, Max finally mutters.
Caroline studies his eyes intently. For all the La-La Land make believe in which she indulges regularly, she has not lost her hard edged ability to detect a load of bullshit right under her fine nose. She is practically a living lie detector.
There had better not be, Caroline whispers.
The front door opens, and Caroline looks up to behold their son. Adam is dressed in an old L.A. Rams T-shirt and blue shorts. He is wearing his backpack.
Caroline waves him over, and Adam runs toward his father’s Jag with all the glee of a five-year-old boy given a chance to splash through a puddle. Right now, anyway, he seems unfazed by the triple digit temperature. Children have a remarkable capacity to downplay or to ignore altogether the perils of a given situation, in order to enjoy to the max the opportunity presented. Some people call this childish naiveté. Max likes to think of it as raw and unabashed hope. If Adam matures into a man who is just as hopeful, but also able to safeguard his life and his possessions from all the miscreants out there, then Max will be able to look at himself in the mirror and to state that he did a good job with his son.
Max reaches over and unlatches the passenger door. Adam slides into the seat and drops his backpack onto the floor between his dangling Oshkosh shoes. He looks over at his face and smiles broadly. He still has his baby freckles upon his cheeks. His hair is parted, like Alfalfa from The Little Rascals. The freckles and the hair make him look half his age. Still, there is a growing intelligence in his eyes; more inquisitive than wise; dreamy, but also open to the sensations to be experienced in the real world; and the more Max stares into those eyes, the more he can envision what his son will be in the future.
Don’t forget to finish your book this weekend, Caroline says to Adam in a kind and maternal voice very different from her tone with Max. You have to do a book report next week.
I know ma, Adam responds. I won’t forget.
Caroline looks adoringly into Adam’s eyes. She tears up a little; and Max remembers that he had considered leaving Adam here, in case the L.A. Climate Control bigwigs actually impose a curfew.
Max is about to speak up, when suddenly Adam places his left hand upon Max’s right thigh. Maybe, Max is just reading his own thought into Adam’s smile just then. Nevertheless, he reads Adam’s expression as saying, ‘I trust you dad. I just want to be with you. The weekend now belongs to us and to no one else.’
We’ll do some reading together, Max remarks with a grin. Okay, big guy?
Sure dad, Adam responds with an honest and affectionate smile.
Max rolls up his window. He pulls away without glancing at Caroline, but Adam smiles and waves in her direction. Caroline waves back, like Adam alone is inside the departing Jag. This is always a very sad moment for her. Sure, she will have fun on her date tonight; but all along in the back of her mind, she will sense that this world is off-kilter, until Adam returns to her on Sunday evening.
Max catches Caroline in his rearview mirror. He almost feels sorry for her just then; but then he looks over at his son, and the ‘almost feeling’ passes out of his mind like it had never been there.
So you’ve been studying the old Glock 42? Max asks Adam with a sly grin.
Adam catches his father’s eye, and blushes. Caroline had slapped him at the moment she discovered the printout. She had not really hurt him physically (surely nothing like putting soap in his mouth or removing his iPhone, whenever he uses a ‘colorful metaphor’ he had picked up from his mom’s friends), but he had been frightened that his mom might tell his dad that indeed she had had to slap him. Oh, how embarrassed he would be if his dad heard that one, because of course ‘big guys’ are never slapped by women, let alone by their own moms.
Well, you can do a lot more than just look at pictures, Max says.
Adam glances down at his lap. He kicks his shoes up and down nervously.
Go on, Max urges him. Open the glove compartment.
Adam eyes his father expectantly. He looks like a boy told to open a gift under the Christmas tree. He is excited, of course; but even more so, he wants to see if he can figure out what is inside that package by glancing at his father.
Adam reaches forward, and opens the glove compartment. Inside, and in his plain view, there is a polished Glock 42 .380 upon a bed of speeding tickets.
Adam restrains himself from just reaching in and grabbing it. Max is very proud, because this bit of self-restraint means that Adam has incorporated the most important gun safety lesson: Never do anything rash when handling a gun.
Max nods, and Adam handles the weapon. Of course, Max had made sure ahead of time that the gun is not loaded. Adam presumes as such, too; but still he is careful never to look into the muzzle, nor to pull upon the snappy trigger.
Wow, this is so cool, dad, Adam says with his ‘Christmas morning’ smile.
Yes, it is, Max agrees. What have we learned about handling a firearm?
Kill or be killed, Adam responds with a sly smile.
Only use defensively, Max counters, while reaching over, taking a hold of Adam’s hand, and gently pushing the firearm onto his lap. I’m going to take you out to the range tomorrow. You’re a little young still, but the owner knows just when to look and when not to look, do you understand?
I get it, dad, Adam responds.
Just don’t show off, Max says.
Max sees his son in his peripheral vision. With the air conditioner blowing as it is, his son’s Alfalfa haircut has been totally undone. His hair now flies back like he is staring into a wind tunnel. When he holds up the firearm in this pose, he looks like a little squirt superhero from a movie poster.
Max smiles. He had had the same superhero complex when he was eight. Most boys grow out of this phase by the time they are teenagers, but he kept it in his heart long enough to convince himself to don the uniform when nearly all his classmates were dressing down. He enrolled in R.O.T.C., even though he did not need the money, and the Ivy League university he had chosen was trying at that time to kick out the Evil Pentagon. He became a Special Forces officer and bagged a half a dozen ‘Mad Hajis’ in Desert Storm. Returned stateside with the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star, and a VD that gives him the sweats a few nights a year. Still, it had been a good homecoming what with the yellow ribbons, the Norman Schwarzkopf groupies chasing officers (and those warrant officers, who could pass themselves off as officers to the civilians who did not know jack shit about military uniforms), and the countless ‘Thousand Points of Light’ welcome home dinners and dances. He signed on again, and probably would have retired a colonel (though never a flag officer, not because he lacked the smarts or the ambition, but because he had too much pride to master the arts of the cocktail party brown nose), if the black ops penetrations did not get especially nasty in the 1990s. Nobody knew about Al Qaeda then, and we had a Bubba in the White House more interested in chasing interns than in getting his hands bloodied in a particularly dark and hellish part of Haji Land. As always, all that CYA stateside hurt the men in the field. Max fell into a ‘situation’ that killed all his men, and nearly killed him, because a Pentagon asshole did not want to inform the brass that he had approved an incursion requiring divisional level logistical support to have any chance of success. There was no hero’s welcome, when Max got home this time, since of course his incursion never happened. The asshole got his big promotion. Max got a second Purple Heart, a second Bronze Star, and a medical discharge for P.T.S.D. On the flight back to California, and after drinking more than a few martinis in first class, he buried that eight-year-old superhero inside his head. He decided to go to law school. If every man is some other man’s butt pirate, then he may as well get his fine fingers shit stained like everyone else’s while reaching for the loot at the bottom of the dark well. Sure, he has millions packed in his family trust already; but by what other means can he measure his life than to add a few more million to the pot?
Well, that is not totally true. He also can measure his life by how well he does in preparing his son for the treacherous world ahead. Max buried his eight-year-old superhero. Maybe, if he trains Adam well enough, then he can make it so that Adam never needs to bury the boy he is right now. Men need to be hard in this world of winners and losers; but if they know how to defend themselves, then perhaps they can remain hopeful as well.
Also, do not leave around something that somebody else will notice, Max says. People observe, especially mothers with eyes in the backs of their heads…
Father and son glance at one another. Adam almost blushes, but then he breaks instead into an embarrassed laugh. Max smiles, and the moment passes. It is good for Adam to see that the ‘great calamity’ he had envisioned inside of his own imagination when Caroline had found the printout turned out to be just another case of much ado about nothing. The boy needs confidence. That truly is the heart and the soul of the superhero complex, and Max is happy to see his son take what had occurred in his stride, and build some confidence as a result.
Max turns off of the residential street and onto Wilshire. As anticipated, the traffic is not moving at all. They have been doing roadwork at Wilshire and La Brea since Jesus crossed the Galilee. The W.P.A. pace of the road crew does not surprise nor even particularly anger Max. He probably would be extending a lunch break or two, if he had to work with a jackhammer for hours on end. No, what bothers Max is that Cal Trans orders the roadwork to be done during rush hour. All the traffic reduced onto one lane at one of the busiest intersections in one of the biggest cities in the world. Max is convinced the bigwigs do this so as to drum up support for more taxes for public transportation. Get the peons out of their cars and into buses and trains. The utopian socialist vision in a nutshell as far as Max is concerned. Would it not be nice if somebody stood up to them?
A few irate drivers honk their horns, as if that will do any good. Max has spent considerable time in Mexico over the years, so he figures the bozos laying on their horns must be Mexicans. In Mexico, horns serve in lieu of brakes, likely because horns are loud, and Mexicans love anything that is loud (fireworks just before dawn, barking dogs at all hours, pop dance music that actually begins at midnight). Is that a racist thought? Surely, it is not politically correct; but Max, true to form, does not give a rat’s anus. He has seen hajis marching down roads with the decapitated heads of American Marines propped onto the pointed ends of spears. He has seen a disemboweled woman still clutching a baby that she’d been nursing when the hajis had slit her throat. He has returned hardcore drug dealers and rapists back to the streets on legal technicalities. He shells out God knows how many thousands of dollars to his ex-wife every month, while she bar hops with boy toys half her age. And he should care about political correctness?
Max looks at his son. He loves Adam. He is a bit surprised at the emotion warming his heart just then because he had closed himself off from love during his last tour in Haji Land and has opened the spigots only seldom since then. He is comfortable with love insofar as it is a single minded commitment to do what is right for the person being loved, like a man may be assiduous about checking off every item on his to-do list before going to bed, but he regards the emotion of love as destabilizing, irrational, ultimately a detour into foolishness that will cause the protector to fall from his duties and the person being protected to be hurt or killed. Max loves to play; and an outside observer may think that he is a middle aged adolescent prone to reckless drives down Mulholland Drive or loose frolics with girls half his age. But if this outside observer could see what is truly behind this veneer of adolescent abandon, then he would observe a man who is so tightly wound as to be only a slight twist away from snapping altogether. No doubt, Max is an unhappy man; but happiness is overrated, especially when the man with the big, dumb smile in his heart all too often turns out to be the loser who stumbles onto the I.E.D. and leaves his son defenseless in this cruel world.
Regardless of all that hardened shit in his soul, Max feels that love in his heart for his son, which melts away his irritation at the ill timed roadwork, the Mexicans laying on their horns (actually, most of the honkers are as white as he is, but Max does not bother to look around to discern that fact for himself), and most of all the oppressive heat.
And, indeed, the heat is oppressive, because the ice cold air flowing out from the air conditioner is starting already to warm. It provides still some relief from the triple digit hellfire temperature outside, but in a minute or so the air conditioner will be blowing out air that is so warm as to be no relief at all. This will not be a problem, if only the traffic starts to move. He then can roll down the windows to let in a breeze. Even a tepid, warm breeze will suffice.
But when will the traffic move? Max cannot see the roadwork ahead. It is a considerable distance away, and that sizzling glare reverberating up from the pavement makes everything hazy beyond the third car in front of him. What he does see does not inspire much in the way of hope. The sedan in front seems to have been turned off. The driver of the beat up pickup in front of that sedan is getting out right now. He is a grizzled, thin, old man in a sweaty work shirt. He takes off his L.A. Dodgers ball cap, and uses it to wipe the sweat off his greasy forehead. He then leans into the bed of his truck and rummages through a huge garbage bag in search of something or other. He is not finding whatever it is he had stored in that bag, and so he is getting about as hot under the collar as the oppressive heat bearing down on the back of his neck and shoulders. Likely not a good idea, Max thinks, unless the geezer truly wants to die from a sunstroke.
Max turns away from the old man. He still feels that love in his heart for his son, and as a result he detaches himself from what is going on out there. He imagines that he and Adam are the two last people left in the world. This is not a foreboding thought at all, because in this daydream he and Adam are setting out together on a great father-son adventure with the certainty that no person out there can ever get in their way. That is freedom, Max thinks. A man and his son in a world robbed of the last vestiges of wretched humanity; a man and his son wandering together through the ruins of a dead civilization; nothing ahead, but the setting sun casting shadows over a desolate landscape. No legal motion to be filed before Friday afternoon; no taxes to be filed before midnight on the fifteenth of April; no alimony check to be dropped into the mailbox; nothing to shackle a man and his son from walking the unpaved trail of men and gods. Max knows that this is a fantasy; probably the kind of fairy tale bullshit the bearded and overweight losers in the ‘men’s movement’ indulge, when they are beating on drums and hallucinating in sweat lodges; but no matter, since right now this silly fantasy fulfills Max in a way that no other dream or sensation possibly can.
Adam frowns. The pistol in his lap no longer appears to interest him as it did a moment ago. He must be feeling the heat. Even an eight-year-old boy can be oblivious only so long, especially as the air conditioner offers no more relief.
Can I listen to the radio, dad? Adam asks.
Sure, Max answers with a kind smile.
Adam switches on the radio. It is set to that newscast that Max had been listening to before speaking with Caroline. The old school newsman is informing the Greater Los Angeles populace about a ‘brush fire’ that had ignited at Watts Towers about five minutes ago. There is no cause for alarm outside of the area, because the police are working in close conjunction with the L.A. Public Safety Authority to contain it. Watts’ residents are urged not to participate in the new ‘brush fire.’ They should remain indoors, since the L.A.P.D. and the L.A. P.S.A. have been given full authority to exercise whichever ‘public safety procedures’ may be necessary to put down the flames.
Max switches over to 80s on 8. Madonna is singing Papa Don’t Preach.
Danny’s dad is in the P.S.A., Adam says with a wide smile.
How quick a child’s emotions can change, Max thinks. Cannot recall who this Danny is. Probably a friend from school. Caroline would know, since for all of her faults she at least keeps track of their son’s current friends and enemies at school. Hopefully, the friends outnumber the enemies; but, really, no parent can know for sure. In the end, the life of any child is a mystery, hinted at here or there in how much the child acts up, or withdraws, or concentrates upon his homework, or finishes what is on his supper plate.
Or how much pleasure he gets in holding up a firearm and pretending to fire it at the license plate of the sedan parked in front…
What did I tell you about aiming your firearm? Max asks.
Only aim when you intend to fire, Adam responds with a grin.
Max glares at Adam a moment, and Adam lowers the pistol back into his lap. Adam continues to grin, though, on account of the conversation he recalls having with his friend Danny Trejo last Thursday afternoon at the Roxbury Park.
Danny says his dad gets to fire headshots when there’s a ‘brush fire.’ No heads to clean up afterwards. Good for the climate. Isn’t that cool? Adam asks.
That’s not true, Max answers. P.S.A. headshots decapitate, but there is still plenty of brains and blood on the ground afterwards.
What is decapitate? Adam asks.
Max is about to answer. Then, he remembers a particularly vicious scene from his last tour in Haji Land. It involves the corpse laying next to that mother who had been killed while still nursing her baby. The disemboweled mother has a dead baby in her left arm. The baby’s blue lips are at her left nipple, though of course the milk had been replaced with blood and pus sometime after mama had given up her ghost. As bad as that is, what is even worse is the decapitated man laying beside the mother. His left hand is clutching her right hand, like the two are love birds staring up at the ceiling and imagining the life they will have together. Except that they will never see anything again, and the man’s bloody head probably will turn up as a trophy in a back room of a mosque somewhere…
Max snaps out from this memory. Something ahead catches his attention.
The old man leaning into the bed of the beat up pickup apparently found what he wanted. He is holding a rusted, iron pipe with a jagged edge. He paces nervously back and forth from the driver side door to the back of the truck. He mumbles something or other under his breath, as if he is trying to steel himself for a vicious slam to his face or stomach.
His behavior is strange enough. Then, as he watches his movements with the careful eye of a trained killer, Max asks himself: Since when does a grizzled and uncouth geezer in a beat up pickup share the road with the very expensive sedans and sports cars that predominate in Beverly Hills? Of course, there is no law broken, whenever a jalopy man in a jalopy vehicle drives on the same road as ‘the beautiful people.’ Nevertheless, even the gardeners and the contractors who service the nicest homes on the meandering roads behind the Beverly Hills Hotel operate upscale work trucks from Mercedes Benz or Volvo.
Pretend for a moment that the old man had been working this afternoon up in the hills. Where is his equipment? He has a large garbage bag full of crap, so that presumably means he works for a cleaning service. If so, where are the cleaning supplies? None of these suspicions are conclusive, of course. He could be a friend hauling trash off to the dumps. Heck, he simply could be a guy who made a wrong turn somewhere.
Still, none of this feels right. Max survived several close calls in his black ops incursions, because he learned to trust his instinct even over his reason. He practically can smell danger around the corner. Back when his warrior instincts had been more finely tuned, he would have smelled the incoming predator long before. Now, he feels rusty; almost as if his joints would creak if he moved too suddenly; and he wonders if he has been so damn slow in sensing the imminent danger that it is already too late.
The vehicles on the other side of Wilshire are also stalled. There must be roadwork further back in Beverly Hills that is obstructing the traffic flow there. But while Max is very well aware of the roadwork at Wilshire and La Brea ahead he does not recall any road closures behind him. Of course, Cal Trans can start ripping up pavement whenever they want to do so; but, still, this does not feel right to him. It is as if the traffic flow both ways has been stopped for a reason that has nothing to do with road maintenance.
But why? So Cal Trans can manipulate the voters into approving yet more taxes? Perhaps; but isn’t this overkill, even by the standards of Cal Trans? They must have known that today would be the hottest day in years and that putting hundreds of irate drivers into a long standstill in this heat would be like adding a match to a powder keg. Yes, they are selfish, Machiavellian assholes; but will Cal Trans actually benefit at the ballot box from setting the stage for sunstroke deaths upon Wilshire?
Before Max can answer his own question, he notices the early seventies Camaro stalled in the opposite direction. It is a red muscle car with thick black stripes painted down the middle of the hood. The car is old; but then again, so is his Jag, so Max does not think that it is out of place on this road.
What is out of place is the man who steps out of the driver side door of the parked Camaro. He is an oversized Pacific Islander with long, gnarly, black hair, greasy, black mustache, and tattoos on his bulging biceps that Max readily identifies as signs of a violent prison gang. Max has represented brutes like this in the past. He knows that they are walking time bombs waiting around for the slightest pretext to explode.
The Pacific Islander dude is squeezed inside a prison blue, short-sleeved shirt and Levi’s. There is a sweat pond spreading from his chest to his oversized belly. His clothes look like they either could burst at any moment from his deep and haggard breaths, or could be washed away by that sweat that is rolling off his chubby face and onto his torso.
He waddles back to his trunk. He opens it, and removes an iron pipe just like what the old man has in his right hand. The Pacific Islander does not seem nearly so apprehensive about what may happen next. Indeed, once he has that pipe in his enormous, dark hand, he relaxes. He leans upon his driver side door.
There is the roar of several Harleys coming up from behind. They are so loud as to drown out 80s on 8. Max checks out the approaching motorcycle gang in his rearview mirror. Of course, they are driving up the thin line between the two directions of traffic. What interests Max is that they are wearing the same prison blue, short-sleeved shirts as the Pacific Islander. He thinks he also makes out tattoos on their oversized biceps, except that in this case the swastikas and the thunderbolts inked into their flesh suggest that they are white racists.
The Jag shakes like a rowboat caught by a nasty wave, when the Harleys roar passed on the left hand side. They are all burly, white men with bright red Mohawks, scruffy, red beards, and open leather shirts that reveal enough chest hairs to qualify them as simians. Indeed, their stooped shoulders and long arms make them look like surly red apes that have taken some Harleys out for a ride.
The Harleys roar passed the old man, who cowers the whole time behind his truck. He clutches his old iron pipe hard, and taps it repeatedly into his left palm, like he is steadying himself to fight back. For all his cowering he is really hard to miss what with his bright blue L.A. Dodgers ball cap; but he also seems to be laughably inconsequential, like one extra pawn placed onto a chessboard.
The Harleys escape into the hot glare beyond the pickup. Max hears the motorcycles for sometime thereafter, though, notwithstanding the high volume of his car radio. From a distance, they sound like a swarm of bees veiled by hot wavy sunlight and just waiting for the best time to return en masse for the kill.
Max looks at his son. Adam is staring back at him with huge, questioning eyes. Adam has the look of a scared four-year-old first sensing that boogeyman that lives in his closet. All the while he clutches nervously at the Glock 42 .380.
Is there something wrong? Adam asks in a frightened whisper.
Max turns down the radio. Irrationally, he thinks that it would be best to be quiet, though of course no one can hear the music through the shut windows and over the roar of the air conditioner.
As for the air conditioner, by now it is blowing only hot air. He turns the damn machine off and curses himself for not getting it fixed.
Dad, is there something wrong? Adam asks again adamantly.
Max studies Adam carefully. The boy is still so very young; and yet, if he is going to trust him with a firearm, then he must also trust him with the truth.
Yes, I believe there is, Max responds after a brief hesitation.
So what we are going to do about it? Adam asks.
Max looks out the windshield. Is that smoke he sees ahead, or is that just the same hot and reverberating haze that he has been observing all along more than two car lengths ahead? Hard to tell, though his instinct practically screams out that the air is thicker than it had been earlier and that there is a faint soot smell out there. No, ‘soot’ is not right. It smells much more like burning flesh…
And does he just hear a sad and desperate cry somewhere in the haze? It could be just a figment of his dark imagination, especially since Adam does not seem to react to the sound. On the other hand, Adam is so frightened he really does not seem capable of reacting to much of anything just then.
I’m going to go outside and to take a look, Max responds finally.
But daddy? Adam asks…
We need to know what is happening first, before we can figure out what to do, Max interrupts his son. You need to stay here. Keep the doors locked and the windows shut, no matter how hot it is. And don’t let anyone inside, even if they are begging for help, because in a situation like this it is impossible to tell who is or is not telling the truth. Do you understand me?
Yes, dad, Adam answers with a strong voice meant to hide his great fear.
Max reaches over, and hugs his son. He checks Adam’s feverish forehead and sweaty face. The oppressive heat is starting to creep into Adam much more so than Adam is acknowledging. Max needs to remember that he can handle the heat better. He had spent a number of years in the hottest desert cauldron and so remains more immune to sunstroke than the average man, or so he believes. Nevertheless, the same cannot be said of his son; so whatever he decides to do after getting the lay of the land before him must be done very fast.
Did you bring any water in your backpack? Max asks.
No, Adam answers. I didn’t think of it.
Neither did your mother, Max wants to blurt out just then, but does not.
Okay, Max says. I’ll be back in three minutes max, and I’ll see if there is some water out there. Just stay still, and try not to think of the heat.
Yes, dad, Adam says.
Max turns off the ignition. There is no point in burning gas if that cursed air conditioner is not going to work right now. Furthermore, an idling car with a child sitting frightened and alone in the passenger seat can turn quickly enough into a stolen car, especially if law and order deteriorates as fast and as totally as Max fears may happen. Max does not think that the pistol will deter anyone. When people are crazy enough, they do not notice much of anything at all until it is literally smacking them in the face. Firearms do not really deter criminals; bullets in foreheads deter criminals; and Adam is carrying an unloaded weapon.
Max pockets the ignition key, and steps out of the vehicle. He stumbles a step backward from the intensity of the heat. The temperature really is rising, as the radio newsman had indicated. It feels like invisible hands from inside the haze ahead have tossed a heavy, scratchy, electric blanket over him. He winces from the suffocating fabric and wants to flail his arms in every direction just to get the damn thing off of him. Then, his rational mind kicks in, and he decides that of course he has not been wrapped in a blanket and that there is plenty of air to breathe. He just needs to catch his mind, after the initial assault of heat.
Max catches one more glimpse of his son. Adam is a child with a pistol in his lap; a wholly inappropriate development that would warrant Max the ‘worst dad of the year’ award; but also, incongruently, what Max needs to cultivate, if Adam is going to have any chance in this world. The next time he hands his son a pistol he will make sure it is loaded. The reason is simple: Only killers survive the suffocating heat; and just now his scared, little boy is anything but a killer.
Max shuts the door, and turns away from the Jag. He moves towards the sidewalk to his right. His feet take one step after another, and yet he feels like he is swimming through a heat wave. Everything shimmers, as if observed while underwater; and though the air is breathable, it feels more like a dried, prickly brush scratching up and down his nose and his windpipe. His eyes discharge so many tears he sees whatever is in front of him as if it is a faint image reflected off of a murky globule of water. He has to wipe away his tears repeatedly so as to see that his world is truly a third dimensional reality with solidity and depth.
Just where the hell do you think you’re going? The geezer behind the old pickup calls out in a hoarse and liquored up voice. Get back inside your vehicle.
Max does not pay any attention to him. He focuses instead on what he is thinking may be a light pole about a half a block down the road. He is not sure, since everything down there seems to float in and out of a wave; but his battle-scarred instinct tells him that that is the direction to go.
In his right peripheral vision, he sees a few dark men in expensive, glossy suits step out from a storefront. Greasy mustaches on slick faces, so they must be a bunch of haji suit merchants, Max thinks with some disdain. This stretch of Wilshire is full of them. They can stand the heat. They jack up their prices, and grin, when everyone else around them sinks into the hell fire. When the bombs finally burst their mushroom clouds over every horizon, and the world is laid so desolate as to be uncivilized for a thousand years, the only survivors will be the cockroaches and the hajis…
Max snaps out of his daydream. He looks at the men. Yes, they are hajis; and yes, they are haberdashers. But they are not grinning like the Cheshire cats he had envisioned in his crude and racist imagination. Instead, they are holding handkerchiefs over their noses to protect themselves from the hot and dirty air and pointing anxiously towards La Brea. This confirms to Max that indeed a fire has erupted down there. It likely has something to do with the damn roadwork.
Max reaches the sidewalk, and picks up his pace. He sees two or three of ‘the beautiful people’ poke their plastic, blond heads out from their shiny cars, so as to try to get a better grasp of their situation; but for the most part, these people stay in their tinted, idling vehicles. They have air conditioning that truly works; music on the radio; maybe Auntie Gertie on the cellular phone; so there is no reason for them to be curious about whatever may be happening just now outside of their climate controlled cocoons. To the extent that they think at all about what is going on outside, they have a vague sense that someone else will be taking care of it in short order. Some officious men in uniforms will sweep in and clean up the mess. Their only concern is that the clean up will take so long that they lose their table at Spago’s. Where else on earth then is there to dine?
A storefront window shatters to his immediate right. Max ducks at once, as he had been trained to do in similar situations so many years ago. Just a few minutes ago, he had felt that his warrior instincts were rusty, that his joints, if pressed, would creak like an automaton that is wound up after sitting in a dark room for years; but now, he feels able to take on the world. He experiences an elation that is similar in sensation and in intensity to a sexual rush. Then, a pall descends over his feelings, as he remembers why he is out here, and who is not going to be able to withstand that heat inside the Jag much longer. He is about to stand again, when he senses an incoming something or other from up ahead. It is a brick just like the one that had broken the storefront window; but, since the window is shattered already, this one just lands harmlessly beside the foot of a mannequin with GQ model good looks clothed by a $20,000 Italian silk suit.
Is someone throwing bricks at him? Or is there a riot up ahead? He thinks the former scenario makes more sense. He is a well-known defense attorney in a media crazed town. Lots of people have seen his face, even if only for one or two seconds here or there, as when for example the local news shows a clip of a scumbag and his defense attorney leaving the courthouse. Now as for the riot scenario, well, since when have any ‘brush fires’ made their way from Watts or Compton to Beverly Hills? It is so unheard of as to be unthinkable.
Max knows that his life is in real danger. Whoever wants to kill him now is quite adamant, since yet another brick slams into a storefront to his right. In this instance, the brick cuts a huge crack in the window, but does not shatter it into small pieces. An old, gaunt man with measuring tape hanging from his belt rushes up to the window from further inside the store, and begins frantically to remove the mannequins and the folded red sweaters there. Through the tinted, cracked window, the man looks like a fast moving ghost veiled only partially by the late afternoon shadows in the space he haunts.
This time Max does not pause. He cannot let his attacker slow him down, no matter that he is putting himself in danger. As a precaution, he runs forward with his head and his torso bent down, so that his attacker will have half of the target he had had before.
He only can run like a bull so long, though, because the rising heat bears down on his neck and his back so heavily he feels like he is literally running into the sidewalk rather than over it. This is an illusion, of course, and at least part of his rational mind knows as such; but the disorientation nonetheless inspires a sickening fear in his bowels that he cannot just ignore. Pain can be ignored, for a while at least; but fear is the kind of internal scream that can awaken a dead man from his grave. It cannot be ignored. It is harnessed, or it harnesses. Life’s survivors learn to harness fear into the fuel of their extraordinary exploits. For everybody else, fear harnesses them, yanks them away from the untried paths, and drops them into forgotten graves.
Now is not the time to debate the difference. Max must rely upon a fight or flight instinct that, fortunately in this situation, had been honed by the best Special Forces training and in the most volatile spots on earth. He harnesses his fear into a quickened step and a more controlled heart rate. He is a machine at this moment; a well-trained killer running for the high ground to get the lay of the land; and as a result he slips in and out of consciousness of where he is and who is waiting for him back at the vehicle. His probability of survival increases, but the cost is his hard heart unmoved by the perils of the weak and the young.
Indeed, as he proceeds toward the high ground, Max forgets he has a son cowering in a sauna hot Jag and counting off the seconds to his promised return from the heat wave. For all Max knows, he could be orchestrating right now his latest one-man incursion into a sweltering hot corner of Haji Land. Beverly Hills could be an overcrowded bazaar in Baghdad. The stalled cars could be a line of ornamented camels waiting for the green light to march back out into the sand.
And the outlaws with the rusted, iron pipes; the simian motorcycle gang with the red Mohawks; and the still unseen bastard throwing bricks toward Max right now all could be Jihadists terrorizing the innocent and the damned alike…
Goddamn Johnny Jihad, Max mutters under his breath.
Max reaches the light pole. It looms impossibly tall in his imagination. It also seems to be swaying side to side like the mast of a ship on a turbulent sea.
This too is an illusion. Max knows somewhere inside his rattled brain that the light pole is not moving from side to side. He knows that it is as sturdy as a stone cemented into the earth and that, as such, he can climb it as safely as he had climbed those obstacle courses back in the day. Whether he is now in good enough shape to do so may be another matter; but, surely, the light pole is not going to fling him into the stalled cars below or the roadwork fire ahead.
Still, notwithstanding his reason, he senses that the light pole is in fact a living, breathing mast; no, not a mast, but rather a serpent, a serpent that has sprung up from within the earth to fling him to his death. Something is hissing. It must be the light pole, because of course serpents hiss when getting ready to kill. Feel the pole. Is it not hot and wet, like a cold-blooded serpent rising from a marsh will be as hot as the sun and as wet as the earth? Taste the pole. Does it not taste like scaly snakeskin that has been leathered by the unrelenting sun?
Max leans against the pole. He can feel the heat gnawing into his brains, first like nibbling rat’s teeth, then like sharpened daggers tearing out bloodied, baked chunks of flesh, then back to the nibbling rat’s teeth. The heat is a wave of radiant energy waxing and waning, tickling, then gouging, whispering dreams into a subdued and dumbed down mind, then screaming nightmares that freeze the heart mid beat. As a result, he is constantly on edge; worn down bit by bit; beaten back into the sand by psychological anxiety as much as by sunstroke, so that like any dehydrated and fatigued beast roaming the dunes for the smallest hints of food or water to devour, he is taken by the strangest and most alluring of desert mirages. The swaying light pole is one such mirage. The grinning haji suit merchants had been another. Perhaps even the smashed storefront window had been a trick of his mind, a motivation to quicken his step, just enough fear to push his feet all the way out to this light pole. Regardless, Max realizes that he needs to keep his illusions in check, lest the heat claim his last bit of sanity.
Max steps back from the pole. He practically orders himself to have one, sane, comprehended thought. This is not a time for a kaleidoscope of memories and fantasies. If he tries to make sense of what is so quirky about this situation then he and his son will be dead soon enough. Instead, he needs to focus in his mind on what is actually happening now and what rational choices he has at his disposal. Let the losers in a padded room focus on whatever is surreal out here.
With that determination front and center, a sane thought occurs to him: What if there really is a man trying to kill you? If you climb up to the top of the light pole, then are you not giving him an easy target? Who will look after Adam when you are a blood and brains stew dripping down the side of someone’s car?
All that is true enough, but how can he act without first knowing what is wrong? On the other hand, did he not survive his last tour precisely because he had been willing to pummel ahead with nothing more on which to rely than the intuition God and Special Forces training gave him?
Another brick smashes into a storefront window. This time the vandalism is on the other side of the street. Presumably, the brick thrower is not focusing on the minor celebrity criminal defense attorney. Max is deflated a moment, as indeed the world does not revolve around him. Then, growing concern replaces ego deflation; since of course this means that a real riot has come to the pretty and pleasant streets of Beverly Hills. The unthinkable is actually occurring now.
There is another bloodcurdling scream, then, a guttural moan closely on the heels of that scream. Are they two different people? Impossible to know for sure, since the screamer definitely had been a woman, but the guttural moaner could be either sex. What matters is that the human anguish seems to be a lot closer than that first wail he had heard a few minutes ago. Max still cannot see that far ahead. The heat wave blurs things into a radiated, rippling stew, really no more than ghost images beginning on Wilshire and ending in the imagination of the observer. It is impossible therefore to tell fact from fantasy more than a couple of car lengths ahead. The only grace is an intuition that remains focused on survival, and Max’s intuition tells him that indeed the sheer horror up ahead is getting closer with every passing second.
No time for reconnaissance, Max mutters as he turns from the light pole.
There is a powerful gas explosion several blocks up Wilshire. Max swings back to observe a black fire cloud rising slowly into the hazy sky. While the rest of the world that far ahead is a vague kaleidoscope of ghost images, some real, others no doubt imagined, the explosion stands apart as a stark and ugly geyser of earth, packing materials, and hell fire heat.
The blast sets off automobile and building alarms, as it ripples out from the epicenter. It reaches Max within seconds. It knocks him to the sidewalk and smashes several storefront windows.
The blast unleashes a deafening cacophony of alarms within this block of Wilshire. Still, for all the mayhem, ‘the beautiful people’ mostly remain secure inside their sedans and sports cars. They must be a little more curious now that a black fire cloud can be seen through their windshield, but if they are they are surely not showing it. Max cannot imagine a more complacent class of people in the world and briefly fancies that they are plastic mannequin automatons given driver’s licenses, yoga mats, and hairspray in order to make believe that in fact they are living and breathing creatures.
Max drops the fantasy. He needs to get back to his son as soon as he can. Adam must be near comatose with fright what with the explosion and the many automobile and building alarms.
Max tries to run back, but the best he can do is to hobble like an injured football player coming off the field. He must have hurt his left ankle when that blast pushed him to the sidewalk.
He also must have been near one of the storefront windows destroyed by the blast. Though he does not recall being struck at the time, he looks down to see glass shards poking through his white shirt from his right arm and ribs. Pain spasms up from his ribcage with every haggard breath, and he cannot at all flex his right arm without doubling over in agony. All he can do is to hobble forward on his one good foot and to return to his scared son before he bleeds too much.
He has to rest every now and then. The intense heat seems to chew into his open wounds. Every protruding glass shard wound feels like a crackling fire, burning hot teeth into his flesh, while also spitting up warm and sweaty blood. He knows that every moment he rests is a moment he is not protecting his son; but if he does not catch his breath, then the excruciating pain and delirium will get the best of him long before he reaches his Jag.
And so he pushes forward with the same survival instinct that had helped him to get through his last tour. He is a mad, tense lipped, blank eyed machine with no more calculation in his mind than is necessary to return. He can see all those ornamented camels lined up on the road. As always, they are waiting for the green light, so that they can return to the hot sands from which they came. He glimpses some of the hajis too. They are the ones strolling in between these camels with rusted, iron pipes in their hands. Like guerilla warriors everywhere these hajis just wait for the time to strike. Only Allah knows what the sign will be; but when it comes, these hajis will start beating down on the camels with a mindless ferocity more indicative of desert beasts than of cultured men. Really it cannot be otherwise, because when the temperature is hot enough, as it is at this time, the last vestiges of civilization burn away to reveal the bloody, sharp teeth beneath. The truth is what remains when the soft lies have been purged…
Max interrupts his own daydream midsentence. He needs to continue the long and tortured journey back to his son. He pushes off of the camel on which he had been leaning.
In fact, it had not been a camel, but a vintage Mercedes Benz. The little old lady sitting behind the wheel glares coldly at him. What gall he has to lean upon her clean and polished hood; and to add insult to injury, he seems to have dropped some blood on her finish. Forget the gas explosion up ahead; the many shattered storefront windows; even the creepy, tattooed guys strolling casually in between the stalled automobiles with their iron pipes. None of that matters, when a strange bastard with a bad left foot cavalierly leans upon ones hood for God knows how long. That is the real problem nowadays. People think they are free truly to do what they want, when they want, and on someone else’s dime.
Max snatches her ‘if looks could kill’ glare. He blows her a kiss in return. God knows from where that kiss came. Max is surprised to discover that he has a sense of humor somewhere deep down, notwithstanding his mad focus on this situation at hand. He supposes if he can put some of the minor pitfalls along his way into proper perspective then he is sane enough to save himself and his son.
He finally sees his Jag parked several vehicles back. He also sees his son.
He is about to call out to his son, when he hears what sounds like a large buffalo stampede roaring down Wilshire from the gas explosion. He pauses; and as he turns towards that direction, he lifts his left arm to his forehead like he is simultaneously blocking out the sun and protecting himself from a blow. Surely, whatever is roaring down Wilshire just now will pummel into him and everyone else with the intensity of a pair of brass knuckles on a tightened fist. He senses clearly enough that when the stampede passes through him, the only sensation will be raw and senseless pain.
He cannot observe anything yet on account of the blurry and disorienting haze up ahead. Nevertheless, the sounds from that direction punch through the sizzling road heat with such ferocity as to freeze his feet where they stand and to smash the air in his throat back down to his lungs. He just parts his lips ever so slightly, and listens to the screaming devils approaching from afar.
Actually, the ‘screaming devils’ are Harleys; dozens of them, at least; an ear-popping growl ascending as a wave into an indescribably loud wail. The sick and oppressive heat seems somehow to augment the sound. Max imagines those burning rubber tires crackling flames out from the baked pavement. Hot soot is streaming into the air like sparks flying off of an anvil. The soot is swirling into the heat wave just inches above the road; and together they are forming a kind of greased lightning amplifier for the roar of the motorcycle engines. Of course this does not make sense scientifically; but it makes perfect sense in that dark, superstitious, hyperventilating corner of the mind trying to grasp this oncoming predator. And, indeed, it is a singular predator in Max’s imagination; a creature born of metal and grease; a beating heart in its pistons; a fire breathing nose in its tailpipe; the interconnected tubes and parts governed by a brutal, evil mind that has the empathy of a charging boar.
Max is about to turn back toward his Jag, when he feels a sudden, sharp, biting pain in the back of his head and neck. It feels like a flaming rat from hell has leaped out from the haze and taken a bite out from his skull. The crackling heat ripples out from that point to the very ends of his nerves; bulging his eyes nearly out of their sockets; opening his mouth into an unvoiced scream. He has no choice but to slam onto his knees. The pavement is so hot his knees feel like they are pancakes slammed onto a greasy griddle, but the pain throbbing out of the back of his head and neck momentarily masks the smell and the feel of hot asphalt burning into his kneecaps.
Max bends forward. His naked palms dig into the asphalt. Only then does the griddle heat penetrate his confused mind, and he pushes himself back up to his feet just in time to be pummeled again by the flaming, rusted rat from hell.
A rusted rat? That does not make any sense, Max thinks, while stumbling back down to the road.
In order to avoid digging his hands again into the asphalt, Max rolls onto his back. He opens his eyes and observes what looks like a blue-headed serpent with arms arising from the asphalt. He imagines a red-scaled and horned snake charmer playing his pungi, except on this occasion the pungi does not generate a pleasant, hypnotic, flutelike tune. Rather, the sound suggests a squealing pig that has got itself caught in a sizzling, electrified fence. It is a death scream to awaken the blue-headed serpent from its black pit beneath Wilshire Boulevard; and as that death scream gets louder and closer, the blue-headed serpent with arms sits upright and snaps vitriol from its forked tongue.
Max shakes the gruesome image from his mind; and all at once, the blue-headed serpent with arms is an elderly man in a L.A. Dodgers ball cap, grasping a bloodied pipe, and snarling pungent smelling invectives down to his face. The old man has dark and soulless eyes; but even in his pain and confusion, Max has just enough sense to see that fear, more than anger, has robbed the old man of the light that once had been in his eyes.
So the old man struck him twice with his pipe. Now, he stands over Max, trembling nervously, splattering spittle out with his insults, and calling to mind a trapped rabbit forced to attack from behind more so than a serpent called up from hell. This does not make him any less dangerous, though. The only reason he did not manage to knock out Max with his two blows to the back of the head and neck had been his advanced age and weakness. The trapped rabbit perhaps had been uncertain as well. Regardless, a third blow directly into the face with that jagged pipe could be fatal, especially if the geezer manages to get a bit of confidence. Max suspects that the old man is spitting out his invective just now so as to build up his cocksure anger (not really the same as confidence, but the best a man can do sometimes in the midst of a fight); and if so, then Max really has little time to turn the tables on him.
I told you to get back inside your vehicle; the old man snarls after he has run out of swear words. You’ve got no rights to be out here…
Max slides his legs across the asphalt. He trips the deranged, old man to his knees; but before Max can kick him in the face, the old man springs up and forward with a speed and an agility that Max had not anticipated. No doubt the old man had been propelled forward by the sting of the asphalt sizzling into his knees; but Max suspects that, even more so, the old man is motivated by a mad conviction that only one of them will remain alive at the end of this fight.
The old man lands upon Max’s chest. He repeatedly stabs the jagged end of his pipe into Max’s face, while staring into Max’s eyes with the intensity of a caged animal. The old man is on top at this moment, and yet the strange blend of madness and despair on his face suggests that in fact he is the one tied over the grill and ready to be cooked.
The old man does not want to be here. He does not want to be doing this to the younger man beneath him.
Max senses this struggle inside the old man’s heart. This struggle will be to Max’s advantage, because he knows all too well that the reticent killer is not the survivor when the dust clears from the battlefield. Victory goes to the cold and the merciless, even if indeed a padded cell in hell is their ultimate reward; while the men who struggle with their consciences end up as bone heaps within a blood smeared marsh somewhere. Or in this case as a corpse left on the road.
Max reaches up with his left hand. He grabs the pipe, and pushes it away from his blood-smeared face. The old man tries to push it back down, but he is not nearly strong enough to withstand Max’s vicious kill or be killed resolve just then. The old man rolls off to the side and drops the pipe onto the hot asphalt.
Max winces from excruciating pain as he sits up on his elbows. His right arm continues to burn from all the glass shards, and so when he flexes that arm he feels as if his whole body has been skewered over crackling, hot coals. Still, it is now or never, because he suspects that the old man will not remain for too long in his current vulnerable position.
Max grabs the pipe with his left hand. It feels like a burning coal, but he holds it tightly regardless. He rolls onto the old man’s chest, and stares into his defeated eyes.
Then, suddenly, he does not see the old man anymore. Instead, he is on all fours crawling over the dead mother inside that cave. Some cursed Haji had killed her, while she was nursing her baby. He had sliced her naked torso down the middle from breasts to vagina. He had reached in and pulled out her living, throbbing organs, her snakelike intestines, even her still beating heart, perhaps to avenge a mother who would presume to lie beside a man other than her own husband, perhaps to punish a mother who had been raped (a rape victim, after all, by definition is unchaste after the incident), or perhaps just for a few shits and giggles. It is not as if there is much else in the way of entertainment so far away from civilization. The desert stretches in every direction endlessly, and a desert snake can only hiss over his own cock so many times before he is bored, if not altogether sickened, by even the thought of masturbation.
Max cannot know for sure why the Haji disemboweled this mother, but in the past few months he has seen enough madness inside the cramped and dried desert caves to suspect that ‘shits and giggles’ is closer to the truth than any of the commandments to be found in the Koran or in a loony imam’s sermon. Men out in the rising desert heat long enough will burn, maybe physically, but surely mentally and spiritually; and what is left when the smoke clears is a raving, old beast with watery eyes and blood stained teeth. He may scream still the charge of his war banner, but his heart beats for what few moments of pleasure he can get from sinking his teeth into another man’s flesh or from seeing the dead fear in another man’s eyes. Those few moments pass for humor and entertainment, when women, food, and song pass by as just the airiest of hazy desert mirages.
The infant in her arm is still alive, though it has shed its last tears. It is a senseless creature now, impervious even to pain, just a machine suckling at her dead nipple. Max really should let it out of its misery, but he will allow God the Father and Jesus His Only Begotten Son to slide down from their thrones behind the desert sun and to be the divine Baby Killers in this one act play. Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord, and all that; so let them come down and snuff out what little life is left in this naked, brown baby. Let them, goddamn them, let them do the dirtiest work for a change, rather than sit on their golden thrones above and condemn as merciless killers the very men that they had molded in the fire before time. Let them get their hands bloodied, and the Holy Spirit too for that matter, lest they forget that behind all those beautiful hymns the saints sing at their plump and ringed toes there is the unvoiced cry of a baby trying to suckle a bit of mother’s milk out from a dead breast.
So, no, Max is not a baby killer; but he has mutilated a few corpses here or there. Perhaps he had been commanded to do so when he had taken his oath to defend the United States Constitution; perhaps ‘mutilating corpses’ is a part of the fine print, like ‘honor killing a rape victim’ just happens to slip into that loony imam’s sermon; or perhaps this is just his version of ‘shits and giggles’ in a desert world devoid of Cinemax and FOX News. It does not matter why. What matters is that this is what he does, when he burrows into a cave, and observes a dead Haji still clutching at his Kalashnikov, or choked on the torn pages of his Koran. Except that this time the corpse is not a Johnny Jihad, fondling the first of those seventy-two virgins in the sky, and smiling in the presence of his Allah with that devious Ali Baba grin of his, no, this time the corpse is an anonymous, disemboweled mother, a mother still clutching at her infant even into eternity.
Max pauses. He can feel how the knife trembles in his grip. It is as if that knife wants to slice his own throat instead, so that he can die beside this naked woman and her hungry baby and finally bring an end to this black ops incursion, this classified tour through the bowels of Haji Land, this classified life through the bowels of Hell.
Max glances at the dead man beside the mother. He is decapitated, dead and alone in his headless flesh, even though he is holding hands still with mama over here. How sad that a man can be so close to the woman he loves, and yet so alone in his unidentified corpse. He almost inspires a tear, but Max shed the last of his salty tears in this desert wasteland long ago, and so offers none now.
Regardless, the man’s corpse had been mutilated already. Decapitation, after all, is overkill. There are far easier ways to stop a beating heart. If a man cuts off the head of his victim, then the real reason is to defile him and to scar the memory of the man who later discovers him. Decapitation is graffiti; and if the sun is hot enough, then it is graffiti baked into the sand dunes for all times.
So Max turns back to the disemboweled mother. She still has a head. He still has a knife, although not for long if he does not get a grip on his trembling fear. He recalls the last time he had sliced through dead carotid arteries. That time, the corpse had been a Haji scumbag; and he must not have been dead for very long, because the carotid arteries crackled and snapped beneath his blade like a head of lettuce on a cutting board. He wonders if this mother’s neck will sound the same. Perhaps a desecration always sounds the same in a nightmare. Perhaps it always sounds like cutting through a head of lettuce in a small room.
But Max tosses his knife aside. He crawls off of the mother’s corpse, and cries as if a mad banshee in a dark corner. It turns out he has many more tears to shed, even in this sad desert wasteland; and if that is true, then his life as a killer has come to an end…
But it has not come to an end, because Max has the pipe in his left hand, and he intends to use it. He crawls up to the old man’s defeated eyes. He does not feel the excruciating pain in his right arm and ribcage. He does not feel the throbbing pain in the back of his head and neck. He does not feel any sensation at all, except for the heavy pressure of an unrelenting heat that clings to every inch of his flesh like a scratchy blanket. But even the heat does not bother him, so much as scratch and burn away whatever quaint moral restraint he may have embraced in his more recent years as a civilian, a husband, and a father. Deep down, he feels as if the heat is freeing him from that moral bullshit, so that he can be once more a man who survives in a world of Goths marching over rotted corpses. He is exhausted, like a body must feel when torn from its soul; but, at the same time, he is elated. This is the sexual release at the moment of death, Max thinks with the barest hints of a grin on his otherwise tense and tired face.
The old man does not plead for his life. He resigns himself. He had been designated for death, though he was supposed to bring some innocents down to the pit with him. No matter, the old man thinks, let Old Beelzebub decide if he is worthy to take up space in one of the hell pits.
Max raises the pipe over his head. He is about to smash it into the dumb, wrinkled face, and then to smear the old man’s spent brains and blood all over the L.A. Dodgers ball cap, when he glimpses his son in his left peripheral vision.
Adam is just a ghostly form behind the windshield; but Max can tell it is him, since that ghostly form is waving a Glock 42 .380 at whatever real or make believe demons it perceives through its passenger window. Adam appears to be delirious, perhaps succumbing to the heat already, but surely terrified by all of the commotion. Adam needs his papa now. He does not need a merciless killer, even though deep down Max knows that only a merciless killer can defend both himself and his son when civilization literally burns back into the molten earth.
Max glances down at the old man. He knows that he is going to regret his decision, but he proceeds anyway to throw his pipe aside and to roll off of him. He figures that someone else will put this geezer out of his misery soon enough.
Max grabs the hood ornament of the sedan next to him. He hoists himself up and looks straight into the face of the driver. Like the little, old lady seated in the Mercedes Benz, the blond twenty-something in the Izod Polo shirt, jeans, and sunglasses glares back at him with condescending disdain. He slowly lowers his sunglasses to the tip of his nose, so that Max can see the absolute contempt in his eyes. Max wants to blow him a kiss, too, but then he is overwhelmed by a wave of nausea that nearly sends him back down to the asphalt.
Max leans on the hood to catch his breath. The blond honks his horn, but Max barely hears it. The stampede coming up from behind him is so loud that it virtually drowns out his conscious mind. Max feels like he is floating in a dream chamber of mad screams and galloping hooves. He once more toys with the odd image of oncoming buffaloes; then, with the even crazier image of a giant boar slobbering flames and dipping its head down, so as to drive a blood tipped horn into Max’s back; and finally, with the more probable image of oncoming Harley Davidson motorcycles. He tries to grasp onto any one of these images, so as to ground himself once more in reality; but the heat beats down so much upon his back that he feels incapable of standing upright, let alone thinking reasonably. It is as if the heat is robbing him of his last grip on humanity; reducing him to a drooling, dizzy, mad beast; rendering him dumb before the onslaught, because the heat is a sentient and dark force in its own right conspiring with everything else about this moment to devour him.
Max would have surrendered to the rising heat just then, but for the fact that he once more sees his son waving his pistol erratically at real or imagined demons. Max may be willing to give up on himself. Indeed, in a manner, he had given up on himself long ago; but he is not going to give up on his son. He does not feel the emotion called ‘love’ just then. The heat apparently has burned it away, at least for now; but he continues to have an absolute focus on the hard obligations of love. Right now the first such obligation is to save his scared boy.
Max curls his burnt and bloodied hands into fists. He winces in pain when he flexes his right hand in particular. This turns out to be salutary, because the excruciating pain from the glass shards, and the sensation of thick blood sliding down his arm and dripping out from his sleeve, slips him back into his conscious mind. He pushes off of the hood, takes in a deep breath (once more the painful sensation of a prickly brush scratching the inner lining of his nose and windpipe and tearing away his sinuses), and staggers along the driver’s side of the sedan towards his Jag. His torso smears blood along the driver’s side window, and the blond responds with an effeminate middle finger. Max does not see his obscene gesture; and even if he had he would not have been deterred from his path.
Max feels the ground trembling beneath his feet, as he grabs at the door handle. He hears windows smashing, more car alarms, nightmarish screams just behind him. Mostly though, he hears dozens of Harley Hogs burning rubber and tearing up asphalt down the final stretch. He senses correctly that if he takes a moment to look back he will be swallowed whole, before he slips back into the Jag. Therefore, he just tenses his lips, narrows his teary eyes into a mad glare, and pulls his door open.
He slides back onto his seat, and slams his door, as those Harleys emerge from the haze. They are roaring in single file down the middle of Wilshire from La Brea. Each motorcyclist wields an identical rusted, iron pipe. As they pass a stalled vehicle they take turns smashing their thick pipe against the windshield, side view mirror, or door. The vehicles are busted heaps within seconds, if they are American made. The German vehicles are built like tanks and so take much longer to succumb to the repeated blows.
The hoodlums with pipes who had been milling around the vehicles then spring into action. They jump onto hoods or trunks and slam their jagged pipes into the windows until finally the windows smash inward. They then proceed to yank the terrified drivers and passengers out from their climate controlled and Alpine scented cocoons.
‘The beautiful people’ have no fight in them. Most of them fall like thin, damp slabs of cardboard. The ruffians beat them senseless with their pipes; or if they are too lazy to bend down with their pipes, then they stand upright, and just kick them repeatedly with the heels of their boots.
Max sees everything that he needs to see in a few glances. He then turns his attention to his son.
Indeed, as he had feared, the heat has taken its toll already on him. His son is slipping in and out of consciousness, swaying his pistol erratically at hazy ghosts flashing passed his window, and muttering gibberish with a thick tongue. No doubt, senseless fear also has taken root in a dark corner of his young mind; but even if Adam had nothing to fear, he still would be as feverish now because of the sunstroke beginning to spread out from his overheated brain.
Max removes the pistol from his hands. He tosses it onto the floor beside the backpack. He takes a hold of his son’s face and stares deeply into his eyes. He is losing his son with every passing second. He can see the light dimming in his son’s eyes, the color fading in his son’s cheeks, the contorted snarl forming on his son’s lips; and all because he had taken too long to return. The inside of the Jag indeed is a stifling oven. He barely can breathe in here, and he at least has ample experience in desert conditions. His son has had no such experience; and unless he gets some cooler air in here quickly, his son will pass out entirely and then roast into a well-done corpse.
Of course, the problem is readily apparent. Max cannot roll down any of the windows without practically inviting the hoodlums to yank them outside for a beating. He can restart the engine, and turn on the air conditioner, but stale, hot air will only make matters worse.
Moreover, what his son really needs is water. Adam is slipping and sliding in a pool of sweat. Many of his symptoms now can be attributed to the sped up dehydration that had kicked in when the temperature inside the Jag reached a certain degree. Even if Max cools down his son somehow, Adam will continue to fail until he is hydrated.
But Max cannot venture back outside to search for water. The hoodlums are on a rampage now, and the thick smoke from that gas explosion has drifted down to this block. As a result of the smoke, there is even less visibility outside than there had been earlier. Every now and then, a rusted pipe emerges out of nowhere to smash on his Jag; but otherwise, he does not see much of anything.
He has no alternative but to try to drive away from here. There are dead vehicles to his left, in front of him, and behind him; but to his right there is an oversized sidewalk. There may be hoodlums and victims on the sidewalk. There even may be other vehicles there. For all his knows, he may not get more than a hundred yards down the sidewalk before an obstruction stops his progress. On the other hand, he certainly will go nowhere, if he stays put, and waits for one of the pipe-wielding maniacs to smash in his windshield.
Max searches frantically through his pocket. He cannot find the goddamn ignition key. He prays it did not fall out when he had been fighting that geezer.
He finally finds the key, but then notices that his wallet is gone. It must have fallen out during the fight. He shrugs it off, since under the circumstances he cannot imagine one of L.A.’s finest booking him for driving a car without his license. He just hopes no one goes to town on his credit cards; but given all the mayhem outside, he doubts that that will cross anyone’s mind.
He starts up the car. No doubt, his exterior shell is a shambles what with the repeated blows; and one of the bastards tore off his Jaguar hood ornament.
Nevertheless, the engine still purrs like a cat. So there are blessings now and then, even in the worst predicaments. Max is not yet ready to count any of his blessings; but with a slightly lighter heart than before, he shifts into ‘drive’ and pushes down on the accelerator.
He smashes into the parked sedan in front of him. He manages to nudge it forward. He shifts into reverse, looks behind his right shoulder, and smashes into the sedan behind him. He manages to nudge it backward.
Still, he has not created enough space for himself to steer his Jag out of his lane, so he prepares once more to smash into the sedan in front of him. He is about to step onto the accelerator, when he sees that blond in the Izod Polo leap out from his sedan, slam his door shut, and turn toward his Jag. The blond is a royally pissed off ‘beautiful person;’ his cheeks flaming red; his manicured fingers curled into tight fists; his dainty chest heaving deep breaths that quiver the rest of his body.
Max hesitates a moment. He has contempt for the blond, but he has not fallen so far yet from his humanity as to smash the front of his Jag into him. He has precious little time to waste, but nonetheless he holds back until the blond has made his next move.
The blond walks up to the driver’s side of the windshield, and punches it with his left fist. He looks like a milquetoast white guy attempting laughably to punch out his enemy ‘gangsta’ style. His punches are short, quick jabs; his lips tense; his eyes so bleary as perhaps to be stoned.
In Max’s mind, the blond is a self-important asshole, who has briefly lost his marbles. He thinks it is interesting that the blond did not react as the many motorcyclists smashed up his sedan, but then goes berserk when Max rear ends him. The blond seems to have blocked out the rest of the mayhem, thus seeing Max and Max alone as the problem. In a way Max can admire that tunnel vision, because the self-deceptive simplification of a complex series of events often is the only means of survival in a crisis.
Perhaps, if the blond had been able to marry his tunnel vision with some experience in actual street fighting, then he could have survived. Instead, he is oblivious to the Pacific Islander with the rusted, iron pipe stepping out casually from the smokescreen, and smashing his weapon into the back of his head. The blond head breaks open like an overripe pumpkin. His brains ooze out after the third or fourth strike. His face bleeds into the windshield, so that it looks more like a startled ghoul melting into glass than a recognizable, young man with an axe to grind. If the heat and the violence are savage enough, then it takes just seconds for a soft and privileged man to be beaten into a ghoulish blood scream imprinted into a windshield. Those few seconds are as long as it takes to travel from civilization to hedonistic abandon, when the world is a stew over a flame.
A blood geyser spits out from the blond man’s head. It splatters blood all over the windshield, so that Max then needs to turn on his windshield wipers to see anything at all. The wiper on the driver’s side slices the blond man’s blood draped face; and with an audible ripping sound, the dead face slides down the windshield and onto the hood. Max cannot tell if that face remains attached to its head, or not. The visibility through the blood-smeared windshield is too low.
While Max cannot see much, he can hear the Pacific Islander swinging his pipe into his windshield. A crack spreads out from the impact point. In seconds, it will smash into small pieces; and the hoodlum will be able to grab at the two of them. Max needs to get the heck out of here, no matter if he has carved out enough space for his Jag to be able to steer off the road and onto the sidewalk.
Max presses on his accelerator, and steers tightly to the right. The Jag is not yet able to clear the blond man’s sedan, so Max backs into a stalled vehicle in the other lane. All the while the Pacific Islander keeps up with him, swinging his pipe at the same point on the windshield like a homerun hitter, and smiling maniacally. Like all the hoodlums, the Pacific Islander likely will die, when the L.A. P.S.A. finally arrives; but until then he intends to enjoy every mad second.
Just before the ugly crack reaches the far corners of the windshield, Max manages to clear the sedan in front of him and to drive onto the sidewalk. The Pacific Islander loses his grin, since of course this means the Jag will get away. Like a spoiled bully angry that his victim can escape, he tosses his pipe towards the trunk of the departing Jag. He only manages to inflict a superficial dent on an already battered trunk, before the Jag is lost altogether in the black smoke.
Max glances at his son. Adam is leaning forward with his head practically in his lap and his arms stretched down to his backpack. He breathes slowly and deeply. Sweat pours down his face, and dribbles onto the floor. It smells awful, like the body odor of a diseased man, who has been unwashed and lost in a hot jungle for untold days.
It’s too hot, Adam mutters through his slow and thick tongue.
Max is happy to hear him say anything. He holds back his emotion, since he knows all too well that Adam will relapse, if he does not actually cool down and hydrate soon. Max had seen sunstroke victims in Haji Land revive; even get up and try to put on their gear; only to observe them slip into unconsciousness. The Bible tells us that the flesh is weak, and that is true; but it is also resilient before the very end.
Max so much wants to roll down his window, but the thick smoke outside will make matters worse. There is also the danger of a maniac with a pipe just reaching out from inside the smog and grabbing a hold of himself or his son. He decides reluctantly to keep his window shut, even though the heat inside of the Jag feels like high pressure fire air pressing into his flesh and scratching out his eyes. He imagines it feels just as oppressive for his son, especially when his son slips back into consciousness.
Max turns on his headlights. That does not help much. Due to the smoke and the blood smear on his windshield, he cannot observe anything more than a few feet ahead. He wants so much to floor the gas, but his instinct tells him to take it slow until he can turn off of Wilshire.
He is so focused on his driving, and worried for his son, that he does not pay any attention to his own condition. In fact, he is losing a lot of blood down his back. It is a warm, thick goo that feels and smells like the sickly sweat that has drenched already the back of his shirt. It seeps under his butt and down the side of his seat to the floor.
The blood loss slows his senses and dulls his pain elsewhere, so he nearly forgets the glass shards poking out of his right arm and ribcage. He feels like he is floating over his seat, then, like he is floating beyond his windshield. All that mayhem swirling about his head moves in slow motion and sounds a million odd miles away. There is a faint queasiness, like someone else is nauseous and he is experiencing a vague psychic sensation of that other person’s sickness. Then all at once, he experiences a strange, unsettling calmness, like a thick curtain has been pulled over a window to snuff out the light. He would relax, except deep down he senses still that he is losing something the darker and thinner it gets in his mind. What is he losing? He is not sure. Maybe, it is the Haji head he cut off and buried in a hole near the encampment. Maybe, it is his virginity, just as he is panting beside Mary Jo’s right ear, and staring through the space in between the bleachers. Maybe, it is his own life; but that cannot be, because he lost his own life many moons ago; not his physical life, but that emotional and spiritual life that allowed him once upon a time to feel joy, or hope, or just momentary relief. No, what he is losing is his son; the little boy he has a solemn obligation to protect; no, more so, the little boy he loves with a heart that he thought did not have the capacity to feel love any more. He is losing him, no doubt about it this time, bit by bit, every breath a little fainter than the previous one, until in his mind there is nothing at all, but a thin and seamless darkness spread passed the farthest horizons. Goddamn it, he is going to lose him to the hell fire heat…
Max stirs momentarily from his deep and inchoate fear. He looks up from his lap in time to see a brick fly into a storefront window. He tries to step upon the brake, but he just pumps his foot senselessly onto the mat beside the brake pedal. He looks to his right and sees a jagged hole where once a window and an ornate jewelry display had seduced ‘the beautiful wives’ to spend their middle aged, overweight, balding husbands’ money. He thinks he glimpses a pudgy guy in black spectacles staring down at the mess in exasperation with his right hand touching his forehead. Quite a lot of detail in less than a second of observation, except for Max seconds seem to pass like lazy and sluggish minutes.
Max feels like he is stoned, no, even more so, like he is totally drunk on morphine; and he wonders briefly if he is back in that hospital in Germany just before the psychiatric team stamped P.T.S.D. on his papers. All this could be a drug induced hallucination; not just this crazy ‘brush fire’ here on Wilshire, but his son, his marriage, his second career as an attorney, his trysts with the blond interns, his fast drives down Mulholland, even the cool breezes flowing through his hair when he rolls his window down and blasts 80s on 8.
Notwithstanding his trip into La-La Land, he still keeps his fingers on the steering wheel, and pushes down on the gas pedal just enough to keep him at a safe speed. He also has enough self-control to turn his head to the left. He sees something through a small clearing in the smoke. Something that should not be there; something that indeed may be a figment of his slow slide into madness…
He views the backend of a garbage truck. It has pulled out from a narrow alley, so that the backend faces Wilshire. There is no garbage inside the truck. Instead, it is full of burly, tattooed men in identical prison blue shirts and blue jeans. They are all carrying rusted, iron pipes with jagged ends. They each take their turn climbing down the ladder along the backend of the truck. As soon as they reach the sidewalk, they let out a maniacal war cry, and run into the dark and grimy smoke. An officious asshole in knee-high leather boots and all black, leather uniform watches them through impenetrably dark sunglasses. The smug prick looks like a L.A. P.S.A. officer; but of course, that cannot be. Max is not a fan of the L.A. P.S.A., especially in his capacity as a criminal defense attorney; but he knows as well as anyone else that they put out ‘brush fires,’ not fan the flames. Maybe, one of the hoodlums is dressed like a L.A. P.S.A. officer. Surely any criminality is possible in this mess, including impersonating a sworn ‘peace officer.’ Poor bastard is going to get an extra ten years for that little dress up…
Still, whoever heard of a mob commandeering a garbage truck, showing up en masse in the same outfits, carrying the same weapons, even running into the conflagration with the very same war cry? The fundamental fact of a ‘brush fire’ is that it is disorganized, spontaneous, aggression built up over many years and then bursting on the scene over the flimsiest pretext. Sure, this awful heat can add fuel to the fire by exciting emotions, dulling self-restraint, burning out of the soul her last bit traces of civilized humanity, like a bonfire devouring the last bit of kindling in the pit. But heat will not organize an attack. It will not be clothing the burly men in the same attire; handing out to them the same pipes; teaching them the same war cry. Yes, at this temperature, the heat very much is a sentient creature in its own right; but it is not the mastermind of an assault against the innocent and the damned alike…
Then again, maybe it is. After all, the heat excites the passions just as it dulls the moral senses. It dehydrates. It deadens the pain. It shuts the eyes into a kind of waking sleep. Who is to say that, while the heat does all this, it is not also whispering sweet nothings, or maybe past memories, or maybe murderous, intricate plans? Who is to say that the heat has no role whatsoever in driving an individual, or a ragtag band of brothers, or a well organized army to slam a big, rusted, iron pipe into some other person’s, or tribe’s, or nation’s head? Man is responsible, but maybe also he is driven, seduced, even kicked in the ass by all that heat bearing down upon his skin and scratching dried kindling into his soul?
Max considers all this in that confused and random way a dying man may remember suddenly a mathematical theorem or a philosophical query from his college years. He sees the arguments in his head clearly enough; but given that he is about to die, or at least to sink into La-La Land, he simply does not give a flying fuck what the correct answer may be.
And, of course, there is the distinct possibility that he has imagined that garbage truck, those well-organized hoodlums, indeed everything about today…
After all, he is slipping out of his mind.
Even as he steers his Jag into a narrow alleyway, and slumps his hot and throbbing forehead into his steering wheel, and drools warm spit onto his blood stained lap, he is slipping out of his mind. There is just the darkness and peace.
It’s too hot, Adam mutters from far away.
Just go to sleep, son, Max hears himself say. Just embrace the darkness.
Max cannot tell if Adam says anything else. He cannot tell anything at all just then. There is just darkness, and peace, and living, breathing heat; and, in the end, is this not as it should be for a man and his son tempting the hell fires?
* * *
There is another explosion on Wilshire. This blast is a lot closer than the previous one, as evidenced by the fact that the force of the explosion rocks the Jag, even though the Jag is cocooned between two brick buildings in a dark and narrow alleyway. Loose bricks fall down from the buildings on either side of the Jag. A window shatters overhead, and the glass shards collapsing onto the hood and windshield look like brilliant jeweled snowflakes sifting down from the sky.
Max awakens from a deep and dreamless sleep. He senses that this is the feeling a newborn must have when exiting the womb. The eyelids slide up, the lips part, the nostrils flare; but everything moves at a snail’s pace. It is like the body parts are not yet sure how they are supposed to move, and certainly have no idea that they can and should coordinate their specific movements with one another. He also senses that he is not awakening into a new life, so much as he is awakening out from a previous life. He is at the end of a windy road, not the beginning; and so notwithstanding his vague sense that he is ‘newborn,’ he sees an obstruction directly ahead of him, not a long, curvy, yet clear way still to be travelled. The fact that he first sees an obstruction, before an opportunity, is a blessing, even if well disguised at the moment, because it hardens his head and his heart from the start. If he is going to survive this ‘new life,’ then indeed he must put on his big boy pants and his brass knuckles, figuratively speaking, now rather than later. There is just no time to smell the roses, when death is falling as filthy bricks and jeweled snowflakes in every direction.
Max is nauseous. He feels like he is in the clutches of a nasty flu bug, but of course the bowel sickness has nothing to do with a bug, and everything to do with the heat pressing through his skin and squeezing hard upon his flesh. He is being smothered still by that imaginary blanket, except now that rough blanket has claws that can dig in, squeeze hard, and snap off. Max imagines chicken so well done that the old meat bristles off of the bone like bark from a dead tree.
He turns his whole body toward the passenger seat. His mind is so totally attached from his flesh just then that rightward movement of his body feels as if an out of body experience.
There is a young boy slumped forward. His hands dangle on either side of his backpack. His hands must be dead weight, because his arms look as if they are pulling themselves ever so slowly out from his shoulders.
Max reaches out with his right arm. There is a dull pain somewhere in his arm and ribcage, but Max hardly feels it. He just wants to see the boy’s face up close, like a deviant might want to pull back the door to a coffin in order to get a clear view of the decedent.
Except in this instance the boy is not dead. The boy appears as stiff as a board, until suddenly he takes in a slow and deep breath. The boy breathes like a respirator mechanically pushing in and pulling out dried air from unresponsive flesh. He then returns to his former wooden self; dead to his own dehydration; dead to his own baked flesh and bones; and now dead to the world around him.
Max yanks the boy back, so that now the boy is leaning against the back of his leather chair. Although the boy’s flesh feels warm enough to be a roasted pig over a crackling fire, his face is snow white, and his lips are chapped rocks. The boy could be a ventriloquist doll with a painted white face tossed inside an oven for God knows what reason. He could be Howdy Doody just before a spark catches hold upon his face and burns his high freckled cheekbones back to Hell.
Adam? Max mutters, as the repressed memory of what he had been doing and why he is here floods back into his well-done brains. Can you hear me, son?
Maybe Adam can hear him. After all, there are persons who have spent a matter of months or years in a coma only to awaken one day and to admit that, indeed, they had heard every little sound within earshot. Still, even if Adam is somehow aware of his surroundings, he is in no position to respond.
Forget the goddamn ‘brush fire,’ Max says to himself with some urgency, as he bolts up from his heat-induced stupor. I’ve got to get my son out of here.
Yes, he does. Except there is a greater problem ahead than heavy bricks and glittering shards of glass, and though at first he only intuits in the blackest corner of his mind what that greater problem is, he soon sees it emerging from a shadow about a hundred yards further down the alleyway.
The ‘greater problem’ is a tall, thin, dark black man. He has the scraggly beard and dreadlocks of a Rastafarian; a solid gold peace symbol hanging from a loose necklace; and a T-shirt that reaches halfway down his ripped jeans. The T-shirt features an outstretched middle finger, except a large, smoky joint has replaced the middle finger. The word ‘freedom’ is printed in a big, psychedelic script beneath the middle finger, and it has been smeared within the past hour or so by buckets of sweat and blood. Because of all this sweat and blood sliding down his T-shirt and jeans, the Rastafarian dude looks like he had crawled out from a sticky sweet tar pit in order to roam glassy eyed among the damned not yet fallen into their graves.
Indeed, what is most menacing about this man in his eyes. He maintains a thousand-yard stare that is indicative of a sniper or a dead man. A casual and lazy observer may pass this off as just the look of a stoned man; and, no doubt, the Rastafarian dude is always a little buzzed on pot; but Max knows better. He has seen other men carry that look into the mental and spiritual darkness of an unwinnable battle. He has had that same look on his own face. It is focus, to be sure; but it is also resignation, as if deep down the would be killer knows there is not going to be any triumph at the end of this bloodbath even if he turns out to be the last man standing. He may survive, while everyone around him is just stinky, decomposing flesh beneath an unforgiving sun. He may live to observe a new sunrise; maybe a century of new sunrises; but the stench of rotting corpses will linger in that hot air pressing sweat from his brow and pulling his head low.
The Rastafarian dude walks forward in a slow and even pace. His eyes do not blink, so far as Max can see; and his lips just hint at a devilish grin. There is a psychotic joy in those lips; perhaps the kind of expression that one would see on Jeffrey Dahmer’s face whenever he opened his refrigerator to glance at one of the severed heads stored beside his beer and popsicles; a joy usually hidden, like a boy might hide his stash of porn magazines, but also allowed to crawl out from the squealing, rat infested corner of his mind when the victim just cannot escape anymore.
He has the same rusted, iron pipe in his right hand as the other ruffians. The pipe seems to be the standard issue for this ‘brush fire,’ except that Max is still unable to accept that this upheaval has been orchestrated by the invisible powers that be. Notwithstanding the hot and mushy brain in his skull that feels like it is sinking down his throat, he remembers the garbage truck, the officious man in the L.A. P.S.A. uniform, even the war cry, as one dirt bag after another lifted his pipe above his head and ran into the smoke. The conclusion seems to be inescapable; and yet Max, who has developed a second career in mistrusting and in curtailing the often dark and secretive machinations of the government, escapes that conclusion by no other mechanism than his own will. Max certainly knows that raw and vicious murder lies just beneath the surface of civilization. Toss a match to the paper-thin veneer of law and order, and the beasts emerge from the shadows. Still, in the end, Max has invested his tenuous grip on life in the cases he wins, the money he makes, the interns he beds, the various traffic laws he flouts; and all these require that the taxes be collected every April and that the buses run on time. If the system is actually cannibalizing itself, then it really is all over as far as he is concerned; and he flat out refuses to go there in his mind. Better to pretend that this is a spontaneous ‘brush fire’ and that the ruffians each just happen to be carrying the same weapon.
Best of all is to get the hell away from the Rastafarian dude; and so with that end in mind, Max grabs at his ignition key. He intends to start the engine, but the key already is in the ‘on’ position. The engine must have stalled, while he had been unconscious; or perhaps he had been out so long, his Jag had burnt up all its gasoline, while parked in this alleyway.
He tries to open his door, but it is lodged against the brick wall of an old building. He sees that the passenger door is lodged against the brick wall of the opposite building.
Apparently, after he had lost consciousness, his Jag continued to cruise down the alleyway, until it reached a point where the space between the brick buildings is too narrow. No doubt, the Jag burned rubber there, until finally the engine cut out.
There will be no quick getaway. Max feels his heart sink into his bowels, as he struggles to get some control over his growing fear by focusing his rattled mind on what to do next. He has no clear idea yet, except to grab a hold of his son’s left hand, and to stare anxiously at that dark man walking up to his hood.
The Rastafarian dude leaps onto his hood, and squats low, so that he can stare at Max eye to eye through the cracked windshield. Because of his gangly, bent legs, hunched shoulders, and tight braids, the dark man looks like a large, menacing tarantula. His tight braids flutter in the hot, gaseous breezes flowing from Wilshire down the alleyway; and this in turn causes his bony face to seem even more skull like. His lips do not smile any more so than before, but his eyes seem even more intense, if that is possible.
Now, the Rastafarian dude could smash in the windshield with just a tap of his pipe. There is already a thickening crack from the bottom right corner to the upper left corner. Numerous tributary cracks jut out from this large one, so that taken together the cracks resemble a spaghetti bowl of rivers and streams on a brittle earth. The windshield shakes whenever an especially powerful gust of hot air blows up from behind and over the Jag. Eventually one of those gusts will be strong enough to smash the windshield inside, and the Rastafarian dude will be able to snatch the prey caught within his web without swinging his pipe.
And so he just squats there, staring at his prey, stroking his pipe, waiting for the moment to strike. He is toying with that white man. He will not speak. He will not move, except as necessary to stroke the greasy blood upon his pipe. He will just savor the fear in that white man’s eyes, until finally he unleashes a mad scream of violence upon his prey and devours in chunks what he has killed.
Max senses the seething anger in those eyes. He does not dare to remove his eyes from that madman’s thousand-yard stare; and yet he recognizes he has to do something soon, lest he and his son be burnt alive.
Adam moans, and his head falls forward and into his lap. He continues to be unconscious. He breathes deeply; almost like he is a machine sucking a hot, dried gust into a clogged tube; then, eerily, he is as quiet and as still as before.
Max grabs a hold of his son’s collar, and yanks him upward, so that again the back of his head rests upon the leather seat. Adam moans, maybe this time in an agitated manner that would suggest he is aware of being moved in a quick and jerky way, and his head wobbles briefly before sinking into the hot leather.
Max remembers when his head had moved in the same uncontrolled way.
He is a boy around the same age as his son is now. Uncle Al drives him in his Ferrari out to the range. The target is an iconic bull’s eye image of Franklin Roosevelt, who smiles cheekily, while clenching down on a lit cigarette holder. He has bullet holes instead of pupils, and Uncle Al reminisces with pride about how he had punched those ‘bugger eyes’ with his pistol shot back in 1939. ‘Old FDR’ had been a traitor to his class, Uncle Al had explained. It is no wonder we are being overrun by Reds and Queers everywhere we God fearing people turn…
Young Max does not know anything about ‘Old FDR,’ and at that point he really does not care. He and his Uncle Al are standing on a grassy knoll above a private beach that stretches in both directions as far as the eye can see. Waves crash noisily upon the rocks about a hundred yards or so offshore, because it is high tide this late in the afternoon. A laughing breeze pulls the sea mist up and over the grassy knoll. Young Max feels the mist dancing upon his cheeks, before the same mist then swirls up to the cloudless sky.
He had been more than a little nervous when Uncle Al had handed him a pistol a few minutes ago. Now, with the cold mist on his face, and the crashing waves reverberating off the heavens as if captured inside an echo chamber, he is no longer afraid. The cold mist is a dancing blanket wrapped about his flesh; the crashing waves a sound bounced back from an unseen, concave shell higher than the sky; and so, notwithstanding the endless stretch of beach beneath him just then, he senses that he is cocooned within a universe that is paradoxically everlasting and finite, mysterious and definable, free and preordained. He can make no sense of this paradox; and although he is a normally precocious child, he is wise enough even at this tender age to know that certain questions are in fact better left unasked. Therefore, he cannot make sense of how he is at once both contained in a certain time and place and yet also uncontainable. He only senses that this is what it means to be ‘free.’ The body is held back, either by an exterior pressure of some sort or by its own infirmity, but the mind can soar even beyond where the imagination takes hold.
And so ‘freedom’ really has nothing to do with what he can or cannot do or say. It has everything to do with the extent to which he lets his mind soar. In that moment, the superhero self-image that would propel him into the military is seeded in his fertile, raw, and young ego. After all, superheroes usually defy the limitations of nature, the prohibitions in the law, even the restraints of the moral codes that govern every one else. He will be ‘free’ to the extent that he can live out his self-image and stay one step beyond those bastards who would ground him. Young Max does not really know what a ‘bastard’ is; but given how often and derisively his Uncle Al refers to them (ranked down there with ‘class traitors’ and ‘countercultural cunts’), he knows they must be bad news. He has confidence furthermore that he will recognize them as ‘bastards’ when he sees them, much like how Justice Potter Stewart can recognize what is obscene. He will recognize the ‘bastard’ standing in his way, and he will pop his brains out, just like Uncle Al punched out those ‘bugger eyes’ back in 1939…
Because the freest man in the world is a predator killer with his pistol at his side, so long as he remains one step ahead of the ‘bastards,’ that is.
Now, with this raw and blood soaked thought in his young mind, Max just cannot wait to fire the pistol in his hands. He glares at ‘Old FDR.’ That smiling, silly geezer is one of the ‘bastards,’ and Max is going to strike him down just as Uncle Al had done years before. Max imagines that ‘Old FDR’ will be the first of many ‘bastards’ brought down by his pistol, because the one thing every single superhero does, whether he is a Marvel or a D.C. superhero, is to bring down all the ‘bastards,’ who would dare to get in his way. This is what it means to be an actual ‘free man,’ a winner, when most everyone else is a loser.
Uncle Al finishes his instruction. He steps aside.
Young Max glances at his uncle. There is a deviant glint in the old man’s eyes, like he is finding pleasure in defiling an innocent. Young Max reads Uncle Al’s strange expression as indicating that the two of them are engaged in a fun, and perhaps dangerous, conspiracy. He feels naughty, not in the sense of a boy stealing a cookie out from a jar, but in the sense of a man doing ‘what a man’s gotta do;’ and so, for the first time in his life, he feels like a man himself. This pistol he holds is his key into a fraternity of superheroes, cowboys, and soldiers spread about the world. He is at once captured into this world, and freed from any and all of the restraints that might prevent him from living out his deepest, and sometimes creepiest, dreams. He has never been happier than at this time.
Young Max faces ‘Old FDR.’ He is wearing ear protection, so the breezes sweeping up from the waves are just frightened moans. It is the kind of sound a four-eyes makes when he senses the big guy is going to punch his abdomen into his back. In this context, it is the sound ‘Old FDR’ makes, because even though he is just a black and white cutout pasted over a bull’s eye he is aware that the superhero with the pistol is going to shoot his ‘class traitor’ grin off of his face.
Young Max lifts his hands, relaxes his breaths, and fires…
And the recoil is greater than he had anticipated. He stumbles backward only a step, but he imagines falling over a cliff. His head wobbles, like it wants to jerk itself off of his spine. The blast hardly registers on account of the strong ear protection, but he sees the gun smoke sifting out of his muzzle as a flaming serpent escaped from hell. He wants to hide his face from that serpent, lest all that heat and poison now ascending into the cold sea mist suddenly slither back towards him; but he cannot control his wobbly head enough now to do much of anything with it. He just has to wait until his soft head stops dancing erratically on the tip of a needle. Until then, if the serpent should happen to snap back at his face, or to take a bite out of his eyes, then he can do nothing, but to suffer from what he has unleashed.
And so ‘freedom’ has a cost. It is the serpent unleashed into pure, damp air. It is the serpent that can fall back upon the ‘free man’ whenever it chooses to do so. It is the serpent that hides in dark shadows, until suddenly it pounces.
Sometimes the serpent is not a serpent at all, but a tall, thin, dark black spider; a Rastafarian dude with gangly legs and hunched shoulders bending low on the hood of a dead Jag; a man with a creepy thousand-yard-stare and just a hint of a grin. When the hellish gun smoke clears in the mind, and the memory of the first taste of ‘freedom’ gives way to the present time imprisonment of a man and his son in an overheated vehicle, there is just a spider man, crouching on the hood, and stroking his pipe.
Still, while the memory is gone, Max can taste the burning gun smoke on his lips. He remembers the Glock 42 .380 he had removed from his son’s hand a while ago and tossed to the floor. He searches the floor beneath his son’s shoes and, at first, sees nothing at all down there, but the backpack.
Even that much examination is difficult. Everything moves in a sickly and sluggish slow motion; and as Max tries to focus his eyes on anything, he feels an unctuous stew of nausea creeping up his dried throat and turning off the lights.
Nevertheless, he has to try. Adam is not leaning forward anymore, but it is not going to be very long before he stops breathing altogether. The high oven heat is burning up the boy’s brains; and in a moment of excruciating fright, Max imagines the boy’s brains dripping through his forehead and down his face, like melted fat down the side of a roasted turkey.
Max bends down to take a closer look. Now, the nausea really does come roaring up from his bowels. He vomits warm and salty goo all over the backpack in one prolonged purge that nearly slips down his windpipe and chokes him. He thinks he sees blood in his vomit, but he cannot be sure. The line between fact and fantasy is all but gone, when any brain sizzles inside of a cramped hell pit; and if this continues much longer, the line will never be redrawn. Thus, even if Max were to survive, he would be mad; trapped forever in a hellish dreamscape that burns hot in his mind, no matter any more the temperature of his physical body; and stamped P.T.S.D. to the derision of all those who have wanted to kill or to defeat him. Max rather would die in here than be roasted into a madman.
Max leans his left arm across the dashboard over the glove compartment while regaining his breaths. He practically can feel the Rastafarian dude eyeing him through the cracked windshield. The menace crouched on the hood may be keeping his poker face, but his eyes move ever so slightly to keep tabs on what the white man in the driver’s seat may try to do.
Max glimpses that Glock 42 .380. It had slid beneath the passenger seat, probably when the Jag had come to a sudden stop in between the two buildings a while ago; and now, it has been splattered with some of Max’s vomit. It looks like a toy gun with red and yellow polka dots. Worse, it is an unloaded firearm; and given the difficulty of focusing on much of anything inside this oven, Max is not sure if there is any ammunition in here. Moreover, even if he discovers that there is ammunition in here (would not surprise him at all, given his willingness to flout the vehicle safety codes), he is not sure he has the wherewithal to load his son’s firearm. Heck, it will be a feat, if he can grasp it from under the seat, and hold it the way it is supposed to be held.
It takes a few erratic lunges with his left arm, before finally he grabs the firearm. He falls back into his seat; and he holds the firearm in both his hands, like it is a bouquet about to be given to a beautiful girl.
Max almost hyperventilates; and he finds that he needs to close his eyes, and to lean his light and dizzy head against his sweat and blood stained leather seat, before attempting to do anything else with the dirty weapon in his hands.
He does not want to keep his eyes shut for too long. He is afraid that he will slip back into unconsciousness. This time his dreamless sleep may float into eternity, or it may last just long enough for Adam to die before Max awakens a second time. For that matter, the Rastafarian dude may take advantage of this development to smash open the windshield and to kidnap his son.
So, no, he will not allow himself to fall asleep. He will just close his eyes a few seconds, maybe a minute tops, so that he can get some energy back into his flesh. Stay still a short while, and maybe he will be able to do something in this oven that makes sense for his and his son’s survival. Just a very brief rest…
Max slips back into unconsciousness. His head nods downward gradually, almost imperceptibly, until his chin touches his collarbone. He lowers the Glock 42 .380 to his lap, though eerily his sweaty hands continue to grip the handle as they had before he fell back into the darkness. Perhaps, deep down his survival instinct operates beneath the melting flesh. Perhaps, for that reason, it is able to remain more or less impervious to this rising heat, thus giving him a fighting chance even after he loses what little remains of his reason.
In the meantime, Adam snores heavily and intermittently. Except for his labored breaths, he does not move. Eventually, the labored breaths will stop as well; and then he will be a white painted mannequin that is too warm to touch.
As the time passes, the Rastafarian dude continues to stare into the Jag. He sees that the white man has a pistol, but he doubts the white man ever will be strong enough again to fire it. Indeed, he will be surprised if the white man even regains consciousness.
The Rastafarian dude will just wait here until the end. He will know that the two are dead, when he smells their baked flesh through the cracks inside of this windshield. He may not survive much longer himself. The temperature out here is almost as hot as it must be inside there, and it is rising still. He can feel the heat pressing deeper into his flesh; clawing sweat out from his heavy head, then splattering it onto his dreadlocks; even whispering death into his soul. Oh, sure, he knows he is supposed to smash in this windshield and to take out these white cretins; but regardless of what they implanted in his head, he has enough sense to know that the heat will do them all in before long. So why shed blood, when the heat will tear the air out of their lungs? Why fight, when the heat will bake them into their graves? Why not just watch, and smoke a final joint inside the imagination, until all this madness just flakes off the flesh like old kindling?
* * *
There is a shotgun blast in the distance. Max awakens, though this time his eyelids rise slowly and painfully. It is as if a couple of unseen hands now are trying to hold them down, and the urge to awaken is only a little stronger than the countervailing power of those hands.
Max’s lips open ever so slightly, but they are so chapped even that much movement causes them to bleed. The warm and stinky goo slides down his chin and drips onto his chest.
Max’s ears hurt. They feel like they are miles under the surface of a fire hot ocean. The heat inside this oven feels like unbearable pressure pushing into his ears and down to his eardrums. Once the shotgun blast fades, the one sound is his heartbeat in his ears. It is a slow and heavy drum heard deep underwater.
The sensation passes, and once more he is a man in a hot oven vehicle in a dark alleyway. He does not have enough strength to turn his head to check on his boy, but he hears Adam take in another labored breath.
Instead, Max looks through the windshield at what is in front of him. The sun had fallen, while he had been out the second time, because now it is night out there. Surprisingly, while the engine had conked out sometime ago, the old Jag battery is still feeding his headlights. He does not remember having turned them on. Regardless, they are on; and the beams slice through the blackness of the night quite a distance down the narrow alleyway.
There is not much to see down there; just some empty beer bottles and yellowed newspapers tumbling down the alleyway whenever a hot gust of wind happens to flow down from Wilshire, over the Jag, and further into the narrow, ugly passage between the two buildings. The Jag headlights do not reach as far as the end of the alleyway, so the impression is that it stretches into a sad and dark eternity.
This is the last road travelled by life’s losers, Max thinks. The derelicts, the weaklings, the soldiers who could not cut it in the desert heat; they all end up on this road, their torn shoes bumping aside the beer bottles, their sad eyes searching the classifieds on the newspapers beneath them by the thin light of a distant moon, their breaths quiet and defeated. They keep stumbling down this road, until the space between the two buildings is too small even for their sick, emaciated bodies. They break their shoulders just trying to inch down the road a few more feet. They turn sideways, and slither down this narrow space, until the bricks rub off their skin and scratch into their organs. When they die finally they are so stuck in between the two brick walls that they cannot even exhale a final despairing wail. Over the next few weeks, the bricks bake off their dead flesh, and the fire winds flowing in from Wilshire rattle their loose bones off of their compressed skulls and spines. The bones tumble further down the passage to the hell awaiting them. Only the skulls remain compressed in between those walls over the long haul. They dangle their spines over the road, like those thin spines are ghoulish chimes ringing the devil’s chant when all else then is silent.
Max hears the spines chiming in his head. He clenches his eyes tight and wills that hellish ringing away. It takes every bit of effort for the image and the sound to slip back into the darkness from which they had emerged.
He opens his eyes. This time his burning eyelids do not feel like invisible hands are holding them down. Perhaps this is only a miniscule improvement for his condition, but it is enough for him to focus on something other than his own weakness. He forces his slow and heavy head to the right, so that he can glance at his son. He cannot see Adam in the darkness, but again he hears his haggard, deep breath and knows that his hope has not been entirely beaten by the heat.
Max turns back towards the windshield. The cracks in the glass disorient his vision; and as a result, he feels another wave of nausea shoot up from deep within his bowels. He bends forward in time to vomit gooey bile onto his shoes.
While he is recapturing his breath, he hears several more shotgun blasts. Normally, he has a good ear for distance; but now, he is conscious enough only to identify the ear splitting booms for what they are. He winces each time, and reaches out with his right arm instinctively to protect his son. Every time he so much as moves his right arm, he cries out in pain, because of those glass shards poking out from his skin.
The pain passes, and he drops his right arm back into his lap. He can feel his son’s Glock 42 .380 in between his thighs. It feels sticky, and it takes him a while to remember that he had vomited his bowels all over it sometime earlier.
He grips the handle of the pistol with both his hands. Normally, he could operate it easily enough with one hand; but it takes every bit of concentration just to know which side is the muzzle and which side is the handle. He really is that virginal boy once more on the firing range with his Uncle Al. He is gripping his key into manhood, and staring down the range toward the ‘bastard,’ though this time he does not see ‘Old FDR’ smiling back at him, but rather an endless, narrow alleyway trashed by beer bottles and newspapers.
So where’s the bastard? Max mutters.
He studies the large crack diagonally crossing the windshield. It spits out some glass every time a soot gust flows over the hood. It will smash inward any moment; and when it does so, he and his son will be exposed to the bastard out there; the bastard crouching like a tarantula; the bastard stroking an iron pipe.
Max hears a slow, tired, dragging sound ahead. It sounds too methodical, labored, but driven by a sentient will, to be a beer bottle rolling down the road or a newspaper sliding into a crack in the asphalt. No, whatever it is, it is alive, and it is coming for the two of them.
Max remembers the Rastafarian dude. Maybe, he is crawling out from his shit hole to finish them off. Maybe, he is tired of watching them, and so desires to smash in what is left of the windshield and to pummel their overdone brains, before the heat beats him down as well. With the temperature continuing even now to rise, there is nothing really out there, but a jungle of shotgun blasts and twitching shadows; a dreamscape of killers and victims; and no doubt that dark and menacing Rastafarian dude wants two more kills upon his loose belt before facing the pagan god of his ancestors.
There is a pause. Then, again, there is that exhausted dragging sound. If indeed that is the Rastafarian dude coming back to kill them, he must be on his last legs. Max wonders if he will hear him stumble to the dirty road, and exhale his last breath, before he comes into view. Max hopes so, because otherwise he will not know for certain when the coast is clear to kick out the windshield and to drag his son out of this oven.
Max hears his son breathe again. He can tell that Adam is slipping away, because of the shallowness of his breath. There is precious little time for Adam and, perhaps, just as little time for himself. He is not so sure he is doing better than his son. For all he knows, he may be dreaming what he sees and hears just now, while he is slipping imperceptibly into the dark hell reserved for overdone corpses. The headlights stretching into eternity, the dragging foot ahead, even the heart beating erratically in his ear may be his own ‘near death experience’ before everything goes black for the last time.
Max feels his heart break. He is not sad for himself. In a way, he has had a death wish for some time; but the idea that his son is going to die spreads an unctuous, trembling misery through his veins that he had neither expected nor wanted to feel since returning home from his last mission. He hates that he has to feel this way at the very end. He hates that misery is dragging its slobbering, sticky cock into his soul, pushing him down, and thrusting its dark life into what little remains of his. He hates that when he dies alongside his dead son, he will be a weeping baby, clutching at an unloaded pistol, while staring into his night.
Before he can indulge this dreadful thought any further, he sees a pair of red eyes glaring back at him from further up the road. They are monstrous eyes zeroing in on his soul, like a spider focusing in on the fly entangled in its spider web. They seem to be floating in the hot air about six and a half feet above the asphalt. Then, as the creature drags its foot once more, and so emerges out of the shadows beyond the headlights, they are two of the eight eyes on the head of a tall, thin, dark black tarantula.
The tarantula is standing upright on two of its eight legs. The other legs poke out from its hairy torso and head, like thin arms rhythmically reaching out to and back from an invisible surface perpendicular to the road. Silk pulses out from a spigot at the end of each of their appendages; so that the two standing legs leave behind a spider web trail wherever it walks, and the six moving arms cough out clouds that then fall to the ground as silken confetti.
The torso is actually a hairy prosoma slinking up and down in a rhythmic flow with the moving arms. Instead of a mouth opened at the top of this torso, as would be found on a real spider, there is an actual head with two eyes in the front, two eyes on either side, and two eyes in the back. The other six eyes are not observed, though, as they are covered over by long and sweaty dreadlocks. There is no nose on the hairy spider face, but there is the barest hint of a grin…
Oh, shit, Max mutters, while he blinks his eyes to drive the illusion away.
But the illusion does not disappear. It just keeps getting closer. Its hairy, left foot seems to be the weak sister among the eight appendages, as the beast has to drag it through the spilled beer and grime on the asphalt; but it is not so weak as to inhibit significantly its dedicated forward motion. The tarantula will reach the Jag. It will climb onto the hood. Its red eyes will glare menacing heat into Max’s soul, as it secretes its silken web around the vehicle and crushes the windshield inward. Max will be able to see those red eyes through the web, but he will not have enough breath in him to scream out when the tarantula breaks through its own web to gnaw at his writhing, hot flesh. He will endure the pain of repeated spider bites, a pain enhanced into a kind of electrified frenzy by an unctuous poison secreted into his bloodstream, and then he will black out just as he is becoming intimately acquainted with the digestive track of a tarantula.
Max holds up the Glock 42 .380. He remembers it is unloaded; but if that tarantula man is smart enough to walk upright, then maybe he is smart enough to be tricked into thinking that he has a loaded pistol pointed at his hairy head. It is worth a shot, because the alternative is to sit back and to wait for his long and poisonous spider teeth to puncture into his veins.
The tarantula man halts briefly. Max adds a bit more drama to the scene by beginning to pull back on the trigger ever so slightly.
Then, the tarantula man continues to walk forward. He has seen through the trick apparently. His grin widens into a hungry smile vaguely suggestive of a man on the verge of his greatest orgasm.
Max holds out the pistol a moment longer, but the tarantula man will not entertain any doubts. Max tosses the pistol aside, and reaches out for his son. If they are going to die, then he wants to make sure they die holding one another inside of this dark and cramped oven.
The tarantula man reaches the front of the car. Instead of climbing onto the hood, as Max had anticipated, he leans his six arms on top of the hood, like he is a tired and beaten man. He continues to grin triumphantly, but there is a queer glint in his red eyes that suggests suicidal madness more than murder. As Max looks deeply into those eyes, he remembers the look on Uncle Al’s face the moment his uncle stepped back to let him fire a pistol for the first time. There had been a sad madness in his eyes as well, a kind of despair seeking release in the defilement of an innocent boy, a pitiful, unvoiced cry momentarily masked as naughtiness, but sensed accurately for what it is in the dark and quiet hours.
Then, the tarantula man is gone. In his place is the Rastafarian dude. He had removed his T-shirt and necklace, while Max had been asleep. His dark and thin torso is a glistening waterfall of sweat and blood. By the looks of it, he has been striking himself in his forehead with his own iron pipe. His upper face is a gushing wound. The redness in his eyes is squirting blood. The pipe he grips still in his right hand is drenched in thick blood and sweaty hair strands. He is a sick beast made mad by his self-hatred and now leaning at the very end of his road.
No more joint in my head, man, the Rastafarian dude explains.
The Rastafarian dude then tosses the iron pipe aside. He stares down for a moment, and then he smashes his face into the hood repeatedly. After about the fifth or sixth smash, his bloodied head literally explodes. Brains, blood, and skull bone shards splatter all over the windshield. Sweaty dreadlocks float over the bloodbath a moment, but later swirl in the hot air back down the alleyway.
* * *
The windshield wobbles from the explosion; but, surprisingly, it does not shatter. The brains, blood, and skull bone shards dripping down the glass block out the headlights, though, so for some time Max and Adam are huddled beside one another in a hopelessly dark and cramped oven.
Max can hear the intermittent gusts of furnace wind blowing over his Jag and further down the alleyway. He also can hear the faint glunk-glunk-glunk of thick, soupy body parts sliding over the edge of his hood and onto the road. He mostly listens for his son’s shallow breaths. He can hear them still, but they are irregular and strained, like a respiratory machine shutting down.
He knows that he needs to act right now, but he is so tired and sick. It is a major feat just to entertain a clear thought for a moment. Otherwise, his sad and sluggish mind feels like it is sinking into an ocean of blood goo and literally breaking into pieces under the intense pressure. Perhaps, it is best to stay near to his son and to let the intense heat just claw away at their flesh, until finally they are a pair of burnt, charcoal black skeletons holding hands. Perhaps, there is no more fight left in either one of them…
Another three shotgun blasts from somewhere on Wilshire, and Max stirs. Strangely, the head explosion had lulled him into a twilight grey no more than a slow and heavy wink away from his last sleep; but the shotgun blasts have the opposite effect.
Max slides forward and almost crashes into his steering wheel. He nearly vomits yet again, as he sees what looks like a ghoulish blood face sinking down the center of the windshield. It is impossible to tell for sure. It is totally dark in the Jag, and the glow from the headlights outside barely illuminates the bloody stew on the windshield and hood. The imagination takes over when the physical eyes fail, and Max wonders if he is not imagining that ghoul face with the surly, elongated frown. Indeed, Max wonders if he had not imagined the explosion. If so, then that Rastafarian dude may be out there still, stroking his iron pipe and just waiting for the right time to pummel the white cretins inside the car oven. Even worse, the tarantula man may be out there. Max suspects that the spider man and the Rastafarian dude are one and the same; but who can tell for sure, when the mind sinks so slowly into the blood goo, and every sound outside calls to mind a trickster devil pulling cards of chance out from his sweaty hot sleeve?
He hears his son moan. It sounds more like a last cry of dereliction than an indication of raw and fleshy pain. Adam no doubt feels his flesh burning to a crisp. He no doubt senses his mind rotating on a spit above a bonfire. But what really pains him now is the certainty of a dark and horrid death much too soon. He is not conscious, so far as Max can tell anyway; but his subconscious mind is aware, just as a rabbit can sense an approaching fox even before it sees, hears, or smells it in the forest. We are all psychics at the last moment. We may have ignored our sixth sense throughout our lifetimes; but as the final blackness falls over our faces, and slides down our throats, we know.
Adam knows, and he is sad to be leaving this life so soon…
Max recalls his Ermenegildo Zegna jacket. Notwithstanding his weakness, he reaches back with his right hand to find it. The excruciating pain from those glass shards in his arm and ribcage actually awakens him even more. The spasm in his nerve endings is the big kick in the ass he needs to break the tight chains of his doldrums. He is lightheaded from severe pain, but he feels more capable now than he has ever since the whole world started to collapse out on Wilshire.
Max grabs the jacket. He does not want to push his luck with his injured, right hand; and so he wraps the expensive fabric around his left fist. He glances up at that sinking ghoul face. Its grotesque clown frown is now the ideal target.
He punches the clown frown with his wrapped, left fist. He barely has to tap the glass, and the windshield shatters on the hood. The blood soaked brains and bone fragments that had not yet slid off the windshield fly out every which way. Most of the gooey body parts end up on the hood, but some fall back onto the dashboard. The foul blood and sweat stink slaps Max’s face, and that smell shakes him up even more than the momentary burn from the sizzling body parts sliding off the dashboard and onto his knees.
Max shakes that ugly smell out of his system. He has no time to waste, if he is going to save Adam; so he crawls over the slippery dashboard and through the open space where the windshield used to be. He slips on the steamy blood, and nearly slides over the edge of his hood. He has to reach back with his right hand to grab the dashboard. Again, the pain is excruciating; but again, it is just the kick in the ass he needs to focus his mind.
He pulls himself up to a kneeling position. He faces into the Jag. What a mess it is in there. More importantly, his son looks like a ghost white dummy on a leather seat that has been drenched by a bucket of flesh and blood. He looks altogether gory; and for a moment, Max recalls a white-faced monster in a silly Roger Corman flick that had been partially hidden beneath a shroud of red goo. Except, of course, there is nothing silly about viewing his son so near to death; and all at once Max hates himself for having made the irreverent comparison of his son to a creature in a B movie. Everything about this situation is too surreal to be real life, and yet this is real life, or at least ‘real life’ after the world has crashed and burned.
Max reaches in to retrieve his son. He finds that it is especially difficult to balance on his knees, while he is bending back into the Jag. Twice, he starts to slide down the hood; and he has to brace himself on the dashboard to stay in his position. He finally manages to wrap his arms around his son’s sweaty torso. He pulls back, but then realizes his son is still buckled into his seatbelt. He has to bend forward even more so to unlatch the seatbelt, and the extra time that that takes only imperils his dying son that much more.
Nevertheless, Max manages again to wrap his arms around his son’s torso and to pull back with all his might. Adam seems a lot heavier, though of course Max is considerably weaker than normal. It is only by sheer will that Max is able to pull Adam out of the Jag.
Max falls back, while holding Adam against his chest. He slides back, and falls over the front of the hood.
He hears a squishy sound, like maybe the back of his head had smashed a tomato when falling onto the hot asphalt. Except deep down he knows that this is not a tomato. This warm goo pillow at the back of his head is a meaty chunk of human brain tissue. It is sizzling hot. It seems to be wired to something, like a rat still connected to an electrical line may twitch even after it has given up its little rat ghost. Then, again, maybe this meaty chunk of human brain tissue is not dead. Maybe, it is alive, and slithering into his brains, and whispering the kind of sick and demented lullabies that can drive the strongest man to suicide.
* * *
Max awakens ever so slowly from the dark grave. He opens his eyes only midway, when he remembers one of those demonic lullabies that had lulled his weak and defeated flesh into the black arms waiting for him beneath the road. That particular lullaby had been a high-pitched squeal, a tortured scream from a simple, straightforward, predator mind. The words had been meaningless, at least to what had been left of his conscious mind just then, but underneath the surface texture of those words he had felt a mad, ravenous, demented spirit on the hunt for his flesh, his mind, maybe even his soul as well.
Why is he remembering that lullaby now? For that matter, why does that high-pitched squeal sound like it is coming from a source just inches outside of his right ear, rather than inside his imagination? The devil songs are sung inside the mind. They are secret whispers most often; temptations or insinuations the outside world will not discover, until it is much too late; urges, passions, warm and savage hungers in the bowels that cannot be satiated, except by some sort of perverted deed done in the cloak of night. Max last heard those songs under the desert moon, way back in Haji Land somewhere, far removed from civilized life, and legal briefs, and blond interns. The songs had tempted him to cut off the heads of dead Hajis; sometimes also their fingers and toes, but always their bearded, olive skinned, Haji heads; and then the songs had tempted him to dig holes in the sand and to bury those Haji heads, fingers, and toes far from those who might have a reason to look, or to write up reports, or to talk to the senior command. The songs had told him what to do, and how to do it right; and they had never failed him. The Pentagon had failed him, but the devil songs did not.
Therefore, Max knows all about devil songs. The high-pitched squeals by his right ear are not subtle temptations. They are not insinuations that play on his prejudices or fears. There is an intelligence behind all that noise, but it is a lot simpler than the devil mind that had whispered into his.
Max continues to open his eyes. He sees Adam’s face buried in his chest. He feels Adam take in another shallow breath.
But Adam is not his concern right now. What matters is the high-pitched squeal beside his right ear…
And the vague feeling that something is nibbling on his right earlobe…
Max turns his head to the right. He feels a stab of pain from that sudden movement, but he does not care about that. He has been in so much pain these past few hours (or days, or weeks, God only knows how much time has passed, since he picked up his son for their weekend together) that he is almost totally impervious to the sharp electrical bolts coming out from his rattled nerves. He will succumb to the pain in due time, no doubt; but at this moment, it is really no more than a mild inconvenience in comparison to all the insanity about him.
Max comes face to face with an oversized, snarling rat. Notwithstanding all the fat on its face and body, the rat is as ravenous as if it had not eaten in a fortnight. Its red eyes glare so intently at him just now they seem on the verge of bursting. Its dagger teeth drool blood. Its ratty mouth widens into a grimace.
It has tasted his right earlobe. It intends to jump in for the main course…
Max does not have time to think. He pushes Adam off to his left side. He then rolls over the ravenous rat, and grabs at the rat’s throbbing neck. He gets up on his knees, so that he has enough leverage to squeeze down hard upon the furry, twitching, squirming neck. He stares straight into the rat’s glaring, blood red eyes. There is absolute hatred in those eyes; but as Max presses all his body weight into that squealing larynx, there is soon enough the grey look of defeat.
Still, even then, Max does not stop pressing down on that neck, until the crazy rat has stopped breathing altogether, and he feels his thumbs and fingers clawing into the diseased rat blood.
Max blinks, and suddenly he sees that he has been squeezing a dead Haji head. It is a head he had cut off from a dead body several days before. He had hidden it in his gear; perhaps thinking that this time he would keep it as a kind of souvenir of his extended stay in Haji Land; but now that some of the trained killers in his unit have returned to the encampment, he knows that he needs to get rid of it. For all he knows, they may be doing the same thing; but he cannot take his chances. He has got to play his cards just right to make this shit work…
And so here he is, kneeling beside the deep hole he just dug in the sand, and staring once more at his souvenir. He squeezes it just beneath the chin, for most of the neck had been cut away; but no matter, he still gets the sensation of pressing the life out of its diseased, corrupted, sand nigger flesh. That is the sensation that will remain in his memory, after he has buried the head beneath the sand, and has returned to his tent. He will not get to keep his souvenir, but he will go to sleep that night knowing that he is a free man.
Max blinks again. This is not a Haji head. This is a rat’s head. It is glaring at him still. Its dagger teeth continue to drool blood. Its ratty mouth continues to grimace. But it is not going to be nibbling at his right earlobe any more; and, once this horrendous heat breaks down its furry skin, and eats away at its grey, coarse innards, it will not even be able to instill fear in the casual passerby. No doubt, when all is done, its bones will swirl down this alleyway and mix in with the bones of those lame human beings, who eventually stumble down this road.
We are not heading down that way, Max mutters. Not tonight. Not ever…
Max allows those last two words to linger a moment. Then, without more hesitation, he sits upright. He expects to be nauseous, but in fact the dizziness does not linger very long. It is truly a bit cooler out here than inside the Jag, so in comparison to his prior situation he feels stronger and freer. He realizes that in fact the temperature is rising even now and that in due time it will creep up on him and his son. Thus, notwithstanding his new lease on life, he understands that he must move fast, before this devil’s heat catches up to the two of them.
He holds Adam in his left arm. Adam seems dead to the world, but he is still breathing. His bleeding chin nestles into Max’s neck. His heavy arms dangle over Max’s shoulders. His sneakers tap listlessly against Max’s waist.
Max intends to walk over the Jag with his son in his left arm. That is the way to Wilshire Boulevard; and though he cannot be certain that it is safe back there, he has no desire to see what is further down the alleyway. He is going to step onto the hood, when he views in the headlights that portion of the human brain tissue into which his own head had fallen.
Indeed, it looks like a smashed tomato; but what catches his attention is a device inside the tomato flesh that looks eerily like a transistor. A few of the wires poking out of the transistor are twitching, almost grabbing, like they are trying to find again those brain synapses with which they had been connected a short while ago. Every time the wires move the tomato flesh quivers, like it is a dead slime attempting to crawl in kicks and in spurts out of a premature grave.
Max smashes this transistor with the heel of his left shoe. He feels those wires grabbing angrily at his shoelaces, before they finally go dead. He kicks all the slime off his left shoe, and then proceeds to walk over the Jag with his son.
As soon as Max steps down from the trunk, and stares down the alleyway toward Wilshire, a screaming gust of furnace hot wind slaps his face. He winces in pain, and almost falls back onto his trunk; but by sheer determination to get away from this death trap, he presses forward.
Adams moans. Perhaps he had felt the sizzling hot air against his back. If that is so, then he may be awakening ever so slowly from his own heated grave.
Max drops the idea, not because there is no rational foundation for such hope, but because he fears that any lessening of the tension will slow down his steps. Yes, the night heat is a little better outside than inside; but it remains a heavy and scratchy blanket, pressing into his flesh, and smothering the life out of his mind and spirit. If he does not watch himself, then he will stumble down to the road all of a sudden from a heat stroke; and his son will be left to die an ugly and painful death clutched in his left arm.
Just before Max reaches Wilshire, there is another explosion. Max squats low and covers Adam with his right arm. Once more, he experiences a horrible, debilitating spasm of pain in his right arm, which almost drops him to the road. He probably would have fallen, if only to rest a moment, if he had not been so frightened of the prospect of falling bricks.
He steps out of the alleyway, as several bricks fall onto the asphalt just where he had been standing seconds ago. He can smell the hot bricks smashing into dust no more than a foot or two behind his heels.
Nevertheless, the smashed bricks do not hold his attention for very long. There is a cloud of smoke and soot floating down Wilshire from La Brea. It is an ugly, thick, breathing beast; and as it floats beneath the flashing light poles, it is revealed to be a fat faced demon with glowing, red coals for eyes, quivering jowls, and grinning smoke lips. It could be a cheeky drunk with bristling, blood red eyes slouching his fat folds down Wilshire.
Max squats low, as the cloud passes over his head. He can feel the testy, poisonous flames still cracking inside that cloud. He knows that if he had been standing just then, he and his son would have been singed alive. As it turns out, he suffers nothing, but a brief coughing fit, followed by a moment of dizziness.
The cloud dissipates eventually, and Max beholds a litter of abandoned, smashed vehicles. There is the inescapable stench of decomposing flesh heavily hanging in the air; and Max eyes a few head smashed corpses slumped midway out of their broken driver side windows. There is also a dead baby on the road. The baby looks like he or she had been doused with gasoline and set aflame, so that now the baby is little more than a charred form clothed by a white diaper.
Max walks down the sidewalk. Adam moans, and kicks briefly against his waist, but Max pays little attention to his son. He needs to focus like a laser on the task of maneuvering a sidewalk full of burnt body parts and shattered glass.
The intermittent, flashing light poles obscure more than they illuminate. The light casts a surreal shroud over the debris, so that the open wounds upon the dead limbs look like bloodied mouths opening and shutting hungrily, or the shattered glass looks like glowing, yellow maggots crawling across the sidewalk in search of more corpses to chew.
The furnace hot winds blowing down Wilshire call to mind terror victims screaming out from beneath the wreckage. So far as Max can tell, this is simply a trick in his mind, as he and his son seem to be the only living souls in Beverly Hills this evening. Indeed, ‘the beautiful people’ seem to have fallen like sheep before the high priest’s knife.
Max thinks of Caroline. She too is one of ‘the beautiful people,’ at least in her own estimation; and yet, notwithstanding her vacuous and self-centered behavior over the past few years, Max knows all too well how tough she can be. She may have survived. She may have pulled her drapes so as to cool down the interior of her house. She may be lying naked on her soft bed, fingering herself in lieu of chasing the hours away with a boy toy, and listening to Barry White or the Bee Gees on her iPod. It figures that she would be cool, relaxed, and in bed just now, while he is a bloodied mess of a man wandering down a war torn road and clutching their sick son near to his heart. Max realizes deep down that he is not being fair. If roles had been reversed, then no doubt Caroline would do the same thing for their son that he is endeavoring to do now. She would be a sick, confused, bloodied mess of a woman in that scenario; and, like Max right now, she would have no other objective than to get their son to a safe and cool spot.
Nevertheless, he cannot help but to feel resentment. The only reason he and his son are out here now is because she divorced him. If she had not ripped their family apart, then Max and Adam would be in the house with Caroline this very moment. They would be playing a board game, while taking turns in an ice filled bathtub; and the screams and explosions would be minor disturbances off in the distance somewhere.
Deeper down in his overheated resentment, Max suspects none of this in fact would have happened, if they had been a family still. The world truly does spin on the pointed end of a needle. From the world’s perspective, their failed marriage is a small misalignment; but a small misalignment can shove the globe off its point and send it spiraling into the black flames of hell. That appears to be the case tonight, as Max eyes the macabre wounds and glittering maggots on the sidewalk. Everything about this ruin calls to mind the viciousness of his ex-wife in tearing their family apart. Sure, he acknowledges her love for their son; but he is not so sure he would not murder her, if he happened to stumble upon her on this sidewalk. He is not so sure he would not choke her to death, cut her head off with one of those glass shards, and take her head home as a souvenir…
Adam moans. Maybe he can sense where Max is heading with his fantasy.
We are the winners, Max whispers into his son’s left ear. Notice how the desert sun scorches the world dark? That’s what they call ‘nighty night time’ in Haji Land. It’s not really night. It’s high noon. It just looks like night ‘cause the desert sun scorches the world dark, so the Shit Hajis can knife their women and set their bombs under cover of darkness. But the desert sun’s not going to burn us down. Oh, sure, it may make us sweat a bit; maybe put a blister on our lips; but it’s not going to burn us down. We shall kill the desert sun before it kills us.
Adam moans again. Max pats his back, like he is burping a fine baby boy.
The path becomes more difficult to traverse, as Max approaches the line between Beverly Hills and Los Angeles. There are several upturned automobiles on the sidewalk, which Max has to go around with no more aid than the flashing lights from the poles above his head. The light poles swing erratically in the hot furnace gusts; and somewhere further ahead, he hears a light pole crash to the ground. It sounds like a great tree falling in a storm.
Besides the upturned automobiles, there is a lot more broken glass. The storefront windows must have fallen apart like flimsy cardboard props as those gas explosions rippled down the road. There are burnt mannequins everywhere; and every now and then, Max eyes a corpse amongst the plastic models. He can tell the real corpses from the mannequins, because the former have started to turn blue already. The corpses and mannequins alike have the same glassy eyed stares, though, as they peer blankly forevermore into the same plastic eternity.
For the most part, Max only hears the furnace wind. It is a scream full of equal parts anger and lust. Occasionally, a shotgun blast breaks through the cry of the furnace wind; and once Max is sure he hears a rapid-fire assault weapon mow down a number of screaming sad sacks. Of course, he cannot be sure any of these gunshots are happening outside of his own imagination. Normally, he is an excellent judge of gunshot distance; but in this surreal night, nothing is as it seems. A gunshot heard from far away could be just around the corner, or vice versa; and the most he can acknowledge is that he and his son are wandering in an urban nightmare full of death and danger.
The furnace wind shakes the doors and windows of the dead automobiles on the road. It lifts and drops the mannequins at their waists, thus creating the illusion of mannequins coming to life, sitting up, and taking a look at the tired, beaten man and his boy passing them. Most often, the actual corpses are much too heavy to be pushed around by the wind; but now and then, Max sees a dead arm twitching, or slamming up and down erratically. One dead arm remains up in a perfect ‘Heil Hitler’ salute, as Max and Adam continue toward Los Angeles.
For the most part, though, there is little movement on the road, until at once a great mass of squealing rats stampede out from an alleyway up ahead to dine on the corpses. Max eyes them nervously, but he decides not to slow down his pace. The rats run over his shoes, or bump into his legs, but otherwise they ignore him altogether. Why attack the living, when there is a feast to be had of the dead? Do not rats also first go for the low hanging fruit?
As Max passes the iconic ‘Beverly Hills’ road sign on Wilshire that divides officially Beverly Hills from Los Angeles, he hears what sounds like the guttural drone of a long didgeridoo. The sound seems to come from everywhere at once over an untold number of unseen loudspeakers.
The didgeridoo drone fades. It is replaced with the prerecorded voice of an officious, male asshole. There is a threatening undertone to that male voice that literally makes the skin crawl.
This is your five-minute warning, the asshole says to the City of Angels at large. Be a faithful citizen. Obey the rules. Respect the curfew. And be happy…
Faithful citizen, Max mutters. Faith in what precisely?
Max does not try to answer his own question. Now is frankly not the time to get sidetracked on a philosophical matter. Apparently, the powers that be in the L.A. Climate Control Authority had sounded the curfew alarm when he was stuck in his Jag and out like a light. If he had known that they had sounded the curfew alarm, then he probably would not have ventured out onto Wilshire. He and his son are going to be very easy targets for any L.A. P.S.A. goons sent out to enforce the curfew in this area. They will not bother to hear his pitiful plea. Indeed, he and his son will be dead from rapid-fire gunshot wounds before they even know what has hit them. This is how they keep law and order in their city.
Max speeds up as much as he can. ‘Museum Row on the Miracle Mile’ is a block ahead; and the modern, labyrinthine, landscaped buildings housing many fine art and natural science exhibits could provide a shelter. In five minutes, he and his son will be officially fugitives from justice; and like all fugitives around the world, they will be looking for a place to hide until the law enforcers move on to some other neighborhood.
Max eyes an anthropology museum with a water fountain out front. It is totally unlit. Max would have passed it had he not heard a tranquil waterfall in the front courtyard of the museum. He habitually looks both ways, even though there is nothing on Wilshire but a long line of dead automobiles and a random, bloodied corpse, and crosses the street.
As he steps into the darkness of the courtyard, he hears that didgeridoo drone that indicates that the curfew is in effect. There is no asshole voice that accompanies this siren. Instead, Max hears a cacophony of gunshots from every direction. None of them seem to be particularly close by, but of course it is not really possible to tell. Some are individual shotgun blasts fired several seconds apart from each other, but most are rapid-fire assault weapons discharges from the sides of helicopters or the tops of roofs. There are bloodcurdling cries here and there, but most of the ‘fugitives from justice’ (street people who of course had nowhere else to go, but also people just too damned irresponsible to make sure that they are indoors when the last siren rings) are mowed down much too fast to have any chance at screaming, let alone pleading for their lives with an unseen L.A. P.S.A. officer. Most likely, the officer is far away, when he fires his weapon into their heads; but even if he is up close and personal, he is going to be all but completely veiled inside his black uniform, boots, helmet, gloves and sunglasses (maybe ‘moon glasses’ is a better phrase, since they usually do their dirty work against the weak and the irresponsible after sunset). If the target on the street just happens to be facing in the direction of his killer, then perhaps he will see the officer’s masked face in the light spit out by the assault weapon blast; but that will be the last thing he sees.
Max squats low, and hurries across the marble courtyard to the fountain. He cannot see anything, but a tall, black, breathing shadow. Nevertheless, the tranquil sound of the waterfall indicates that the ‘breathing’ in fact is fountain water spurting ever so gently out from a statue and into a round pool. He could care less about the statue. He just wants to put his son in the cooling water for a while and to stay low, in case a L.A. P.S.A. officer happens to come this way.
He lays Adam on the edge of the pool, strips him down to his underwear, and gently slides him into the pool water. He is very careful to hold the back of his head, so that his face is always above the surface. The water is lukewarm in fact, but even that is an improvement from the stifling heat in the air. Max just hopes that Adam’s temperature cools enough that he starts to awaken from his deep sleep. He realizes that the deep sleep is the defense mechanism the body employs to try to save itself from being burnt completely by the furnace winds; but he realizes as well that, if it persists for too long, then the deep sleep can and will descend into a coma. He fears that Adam may be in a coma now. Adam seems to be aware when he moans in an agitated manner, but how can Max be sure that he has not already lost his son? How can Max be sure that he is not in fact holding up a head of a living corpse? More than anything else, it is the grey uncertainty of his son’s condition that instills in Max a feeling of intense dread. He would prefer to be killed by a L.A. P.S.A. officer than to remain in the dark about his son’s fate. Indeed, a bullet to his head would be a blessing right now.
Max looks at his son’s face. It is much too dark to see the features of his face; the baby freckles on his cheeks, the part in his hair that makes him look a bit like Alfalfa from The Little Rascals. He tries to focus instead on his memory of his son’s physical appearance; but his memory seems strangely ephemeral at this moment, like a brief vision of a beast partially veiled by the foliage within a jungle. It is imagined as much as it is seen; and Max fears that if he tries then to reach out to that vision, and to test its realness in his mind, it will disappear altogether. Memories haunt us, because we fear that they will pass; and that is most true when the rising temperature of an endless night threatens to inflame every last certainty we hold so dear in our minds. When that happens, those of us who manage still to labor in the black furnaces have no bearings of our own. We are just the devil’s playthings, the sparks Old Beelzebub flings out from his teeth when he laughs maniacally at the world over which he rules, the embers that never manage to cool even when floating forevermore into the void. Much better to be a raving murderer, a madman still capable of squeezing the throat of one of life’s losers into his or her spine, a free man still capable of executing his own willful intentions, than to be tumbleweed in the hot winds.
We shall kill the desert sun before it kills us, Max whispers into the dark and unseen face of his son. No Haji can stop us. He can blow up everyone else, even take down the Twin Towers, but he cannot lay a greasy finger on us. Just you and me, boy, you and me against the whole damned world…
Max hears the faint roar of an engine coming down Wilshire from La Brea just then. He lifts his head away from his son’s in order to focus his ears on the sound. It must be a motorcycle, because no automobile would be able to make its way down Wilshire what with all those busted vehicles stranded on the road.
He can hear the motorcycle kicking in and out, as the driver swerves his wheels around the obstructions. It does not sound like a Harley, and he figures the Neo-Nazi simians with the red Mohawks most likely are a bunch of headless corpses by now. They did what they were ordained to do. Then, they were just as expendable as a decorated killer with P.T.S.D. stamped on his discharge. No doubt, whoever is approaching on that motorcycle is not a hoodlum, but a man with a classified government serial number, a public employee union card, and a pension fund invested on behalf of himself, his wife, and his 1.8 children by a number cruncher in the Department of Creative Accounting. That man is a true killer, and even decorated war veterans like Max Gunn will keep their distance.
Time to go, son, Max whispers. The commanding officer is conducting an all gear inspection.
The motorcycle gets closer, as Max removes Adam from the warm water, lays him on the edge of the pool, and debates whether or not to dress him up. The clothes will only make him hotter, but a near naked boy will be a lot easier to notice. Max figures it is more important for his son to be less conspicuous, so he painstakingly holds his son upright with his right arm (more pain spasms, and new blood gurgling out from his reopened glass shard wounds) and dresses him as best as possible with his left arm. Adam remains limp, but his breathing does seem less shallow than before; and at one point, he moans like a sleeping child telling his father he wants to stay in bed for five more minutes.
Just as Max lifts Adam up to his chest, he hears the motorcycle kick out not more than a block away. He hears the clicking heels of leather boots on the sidewalk, the squeaking leather of tight pants rubbing against firm thighs, even the tune that the man is whistling giddily under his breath. Max strains to recall the name of the tune. It is an oldie but a goodie that he had played upon Uncle Al’s piano when he was about as old as Adam is now. No, it is not that favorite of old piano teachers everywhere ‘Hot Cross Buns.’ It is not the ABC (‘next time won’t you play with me?’) tune that gets old about the time one has graduated from Kindergarten. But it is in the same genre. Certainly, it is the kind of music he played on the piano before Uncle Al brought him out to the firing range and introduced him to manhood.
‘Camp Town Races,’ Max mutters as he first eyes the faint aura from the approaching man’s flashlight.
The man is walking up the sidewalk on the same side of the street as the anthropology museum. Indeed, though he is taking his sweet time, he seems to be coming straight to this spot.
Must be a motion detector camera somewhere, Max grumbles.
So Max and Adam had been discovered, and dispatch had radioed one of L.A. P.S.A.’s finest ‘to apprehend’ (Max always chuckles at those euphemisms, when he is reading over the police reports before meeting with his clients) two ‘fugitives from justice.’ Because they are ‘fugitives,’ they are presumed legally to be ‘armed and dangerous.’ The dispatch reads from a script that includes an order to undertake ‘any measures necessary’ to defend ‘public safety’ from the ‘fugitives.’ Of course, ‘any measures necessary’ always turns out to be a single, decapitating gunshot, or a few hundred rapid-fire rounds to a torso that makes the ‘fugitive’ afterwards look more like a squished tomato than a dark menace. No wise ass can say that the job of a L.A. P.S.A. officer does not have its perks.
Max cannot step out of the marble courtyard and back onto the sidewalk without literally stepping into the man’s crosshairs. He cannot try to break into the museum without setting off an alarm that will bring more law enforcement officers to this spot. He cannot hide behind the water fountain either, since of course that will be the first place where the man looks.
Instead, Max staggers over to the far corner of the courtyard. There is a trashcan there (‘Be Cute, Don’t Pollute,’ the sign on that can says, though Max cannot see it on account of the darkness). Max hides Adam’s limp and wet body behind the trashcan and just hopes that his son does not moan when the man is inside the courtyard. There is not enough room back there for Max to hide, and that is just as well. Max learned in Haji Land that the only surefire defense is a risky offense. He will need to go to the max and to turn the tables, if indeed he and his son are going to have even the slightest chance of fleeing this predator.
Max crouches in the darkness beside the entrance to the courtyard, just as the L.A. P.S.A. officer strolls into the space. He passes within a foot of Max, but he does not seem aware of his prey. Strange that he should know enough to step into the courtyard, but then be oblivious to the ‘fugitive’ hiding so near to him. Unless, of course, he knows exactly where Max is, but is now simply toying with the ‘fugitive’ criminal defense attorney.
Regardless, the tall, thin, and cocky asshole clicks his boots to the edge of the water fountain. He shines his flashlight on the statue. Max sees that it is a near replica of Michelangelo’s David. The only significant departure from the masterpiece is that this David’s cock is erect. The lukewarm waterfall dribbles out from his cock; and in this light, the waterfall looks as white as creamy cum.
Then, suddenly, the world is a waterfall as white as creamy cum; and as Max crouches deeper into his space beside the entrance to the courtyard, he is aware of an oppressive heat that now seems to be spreading out from inside his mind. He holds his head, like he is suffering from a terrible headache. He opens and shuts his eyes slowly; but the creamy white waterfall does not go away, so much as harden into an endless expanse of sand dunes.
Max is no longer crouching beside an entrance to a courtyard. He is on a lookout point several hundred yards beyond the perimeter of his camp. Legally, the camp does not exist, because the United States military has not been given permission to kill Hajis this far inside Pakistan. For all he knows, maybe he now does not legally exist, either. Black Ops personnel float in and out of existence; outfitted with Social Security Numbers, passports, drivers’ licenses, even small, pleasant homes with white picket fences in above average school districts, then just as suddenly erased from every database and file cabinet; but the one, sure constant is that there is always someone even ‘blacker,’ hidden behind screens of bureaucratic red tape and military brass, who is actually calling the shots. If the Black Ops killer is legally alive, then that is all fine and good, perhaps, but he is never free. He may as well have been sent out to a cotton field with thick chains around his ankles just to see how long he can survive toiling underneath that Alabama sun.
That is why Max breaks the rules, now and then. He skips out in the dead of night, finds a Haji corpse half buried in the sand, bends over the Haji throat with his knife in hand, and saws as relentlessly as a henpecked man sneaking an enormous turkey leg off of a Thanksgiving corpse left inside the refrigerator for the next day’s meal. He knows he is being naughty, and this gives him a kind of sexual release similar to adultery. Like the adulterer, he does not desire to be caught, even though logically he must know that the wifey is going to notice an enormous turkey leg has been cut off; and so he saws fast and dirty at the joint that connects the leg to the torso…
Or in this case what connects the brainstem to the skull…
Right now, Max is in no position to be a ‘free man.’ First, it is the middle of the day. The white sun is high. The sand dunes sweep out in every direction. The old-fashioned binoculars in his hands feel hot enough to fry eggs. The tents behind his lookout point flap noisily in the desert wind. One of his fellow killers back there is disassembling his firearm, scratching desert gunk out of his warm, stiff muzzle, and whistling something or other to pass the long hours.
Max thinks a moment. He then remembers the name of the song that the killer behind him is whistling. It is ‘Camp Town Races.’ Why does he remember a simple, childish song like that one? Why would he retain that bit of trivia just as he is searching the horizon for Hajis to kill or to maim? It is the kind of music he played on the piano before Uncle Al brought him out to the firing range and introduced him to manhood; that is why. No other reason that makes any sense to him. ‘Camp Town Races’ frankly was something that would have mattered to him before he learned how to snap the neck of a hairy Haji with his bare hands.
Max lowers his binoculars. He wants to tell that killer disassembling that firearm back there to knock it off. That cursed song is so out of place out here, so ridiculous in a world of killers and victims, so innocent in a world that really never had been all that innocent with which to begin, that it is giving Max a sad case of the chills up his spine.
He turns on his boot heels, but instead of seeing that killer disassembling that firearm he observes an L.A. P.S.A. officer standing before a near replica of Michelangelo’s David. How strange! Some idiot hauled a statue into the middle of their tent camp; a camp that does not legally exist, a camp of killers who do not legally exist either most likely, and transformed one of his ‘battle buddies’ into a fascist goon.
The L.A. P.S.A. officer stops whistling ‘Camp Town Races’ in the middle of the refrain. He stares intently at the erect cock. He is either admiring it, or he has noticed a blemish that demands his full attention.
Max crouches down. He is vaguely aware that he is supposed to be hiding from this guy, though God knows why. Maybe this guy is on to him. Maybe he is aware of the lengths to which Max will go now and then to remain a ‘free man’ out here in this inhospitable desert.
Max senses that the officer is fully aware of his position. If so, then that eliminates the element of surprise. Therefore, Max will wait for that officer to act first, because when surprise has been taken off the table the man who acts first (like the negotiator who speaks first) will lose more often than not. This is the first rule of combat, and Max internalized it when facing down his personal and professional enemies way out there in Haji Land.
The L.A. P.S.A. officer no doubt is aware of ‘the first rule of combat,’ so it is a surprise when he takes the bait. Perhaps, he does not mind giving his foe the advantage up front, if by so doing he can toy with the ‘fugitive’ before the inevitable confrontation.
Wait a minute, Max thinks. I am a ‘fugitive’ already? Sure, I am. I go out in the dead of night to mutilate corpses. I bury heads in the sand. I daydream a lot more than I want to admit of what it would feel like to bury my own head in the sand. I imagine the sand plugging up my nostrils, sliding down my throat, as the compressed desert earth about my head roasts my brain back into my skull.
If that does not make me a ‘fugitive,’ then I do not know what does, Max concludes.
Too damn hot when the whole world blows, the officer remarks as if still lost in his contemplation of the firm manhood just inches in front of his mouth.
The officer laughs. He seems mighty proud of his own double entendre.
Max remains silent and still. He just watches carefully, as the asshole in black lazily moves his flashlight up and down David’s torso. He can see how the asshole observes every curve of David’s torso muscles so meticulously, but also dispassionately, as if the asshole cannot contemplate anything at all without at once being detached from it. Detached observation is the hell reserved for L.A. P.S.A. officers, and this particular one has stepped into that hellish pit already.
Stranger, though, is how he needs to use a flashlight. Is it not bright and clear right now? Max glances back up at the sky. The white sun is still there, as usual, beating down at his head, pulsing in the slow and meticulous rhythm of a predator just waiting patiently for its prey to fall over from sunstroke. Yes, this sun feels like it is inside his mind; but that is just an illusion, is it not? It is truly up there in the clear, blue sky. It has to be. Where else then can it possibly be?
Nothing to say? The officer asks. Or did the sun bake your tongue back in that alleyway?
What does he mean by alleyway? Max considers. Oh, yes, that is right. It is many years after they stamped my discharge papers P.T.S.D. I am struggling to get home with my son, before he succumbs to his sunstroke, and before one of those ‘bastards’ (Uncle Al really hated them, along with hippies, and beaver eaters) gets a hold of us. This dark night in Los Angeles is real, and that hot day in Haji Land is the illusion. Or is it the other way around? Hard to tell, is it not? No matter. Right now, I am crouching inside of a courtyard just off of Wilshire…
So they have been watching us from the beginning, Max thinks. Perhaps, only this one officer has been watching us. The world came crashing down, and he saw his opportunity to confront the two of us. No, not the two of us, but me and me alone. Impossible to tell for sure, except that there must be somethingpersonal about this visit. Otherwise, he would have decapitated me with a lone shotgun blast to the forehead by now. Then, he would have walked over to the trashcan, and done the same to my son. After all, as a rule, L.A. P.S.A. officers pump, dump, and move on. They are not known for their foreplay.
All the while the L.A. P.S.A. officer keeps his back to his prey. He drops to his knees on the edge of the pool, tilts his face forward, and gives that erect cock a mouth-watering blowjob. The creamy waterfall dribbles off his lower lip and chin, as his tongue massages the shaft.
That display lasts longer than expected. Then, the officer pulls back and returns to his feet. He continues to keep his back to his prey.
Tastes like chicken, the officer says with a chuckle.
Still, Max does not take the bait. He just squats in silence near the entry to the courtyard.
Always biding your time, aren’t you? The officer offers with just a hint of annoyance. Do you really think the desert snake will mistaken you for a corpse? Just slither by without taking a bite, because you are so damned quiet and still whenever everything else is burning down? Well, let me tell you something: You are no more immune to the heat out here than the rest of us.
The L.A. P.S.A. officer turns abruptly on his heels. While he does so, he removes from his holster a laser-guided pistol with an abnormally long muzzle. He points the little, red, laser dot upon Max’s forehead, steps forward to get a better view of his prey in his flashlight, and widens his gaunt face into a cheeky smile. There is a madness in his eyes, but there is also a diabolical intelligence.
Max squints, but he simply cannot make out the face of his mad predator through the blinding glare from that flashlight. Nevertheless, he recognizes the voice. He has deposed scores of law enforcement officers, some sincere, public servants, most on the take in some manner; but he does not recognize this soft and sinister voice from his second career as a criminal defense attorney. It is a voice from his earlier life. It is a ghost from the life he shed out on that desert; not a literal ghost, to be sure; but rather a memory that he had presumed dead and buried on the other side of the globe. Max feels a hot surge of revulsion for this man. It is an irrational, raw, brutal sensation that has little to do with the fact that this man is pointing a firearm at his forehead. Rather, he hates him as a man trying to live on the straight and narrow path would hate stumbling upon an illicit photograph that he had hidden away and assumed erased from his life.
Nonsense, Max thinks. You know better than anyone that the past cannot be erased. The past is the sepia tone bleeding out from beneath the picture. It is the yellowing at the edges of the newspaper print. It is the look on Caroline’s mad face when she can no longer hide her true feelings behind her Beverly Hills bullshit. It is even in Adam’s eyes, when he beholds me with all the love in the world and yet cannot shake his sense there is something wrong in dear old dad.
There is an explosion not too far away. The blast vibrates the dark walls of the courtyard. Some water splashes out of the fountain pool and spreads out like a black ink pool across the marble floor. Nevertheless, the predator and his prey do not move at all.
You don’t remember me, do you? The officer says with a hint of genuine disappointment in his voice. ‘Sand Nigger Dunes,’ a half a dozen tents guarded by enough artillery to burn a thousand Hajis back to hell, a shithole fort with a portable Starbuck’s coffeemaker that only managed to piss out lukewarm brew, and a ‘Microshaft’ laptop that had been restricted to G-rated websites. Surely, no one back home ever heard of ‘Sand Nigger Dunes.’ A wordsmith toiling away in a Pentagon cubicle probably called it ‘Camp Brave Hearts,’ or ‘Camp Golden Boys,’ or God knows what. Something the ‘Gold Star’ mothers could print upon their pamphlets and pass around at church on Sundays; or better yet something a washed-up country singer could insert into the patriotic ballad he sings at Tea Party rallies and on FOX News. But for us it was ‘Sand Nigger Dunes,’ the latest casino on the strip, where everything is a game of chance, and we play only the cards we have been dealt.
Max remembers the voice as belonging to a quartermaster grunt that had stayed at ‘Sand Nigger Dunes’ no longer than a few weeks before passing on to a mess hall a lot closer to the green zone.
He remembers the grunt had been a kind of ‘twink’ for the sex starved. He would hum ‘Camp Town Races,’ while he cleaned out their firearms. No one wanted to see him go, not because he was an especially fine cook, but because he could pass for a tight, minor girl in just the right angles of desert moonlight. Needless to say, there were no homosexuals among the killers who played their cards in the ‘Sand Nigger Dunes.’ There were just men who had needs, men too far gone to know the difference, men who mutilated corpses, and men who had learned the fine art of looking away.
Well, you played your cards, the officer remarks. Now, while the whole, damn world is crashing down all around us, I am going to play mine.
The officer indicates with his laser-guided firearm that it is time for Max to take a walk down Wilshire. Max complies, since while he is confused about a lot of things, he knows when there is an actual weapon pointed at his forehead.
Max holds his hands above his head and leaves the courtyard. He turns to the left and walks down the sidewalk. The officer remains close enough to prod the back of his head with his long muzzle.
There are sporadic gunshots off in the distance, another big explosion, a police siren that wails like a deranged cat; but none of these noises penetrates.
For Max, there is just the muzzle at the back of his head and a sidewalk that feels increasingly like hard, baked sand. He slumps his head down; and yet again he is back in that grey, desert wasteland, further inside Pakistan than the United States military is supposed to be, residing now in a tent camp that does not legally exist, living out the remains of a life that may not legally exist. This is where the dead roam, the killers and the victims alike staring into the desert through blank eyes, the winners and the losers indistinguishable in their warm, scratchy, greying skin and gaunt faces.
Max glances up at the sky. It is dark now, and yet the white sun feels as hot as before. He seems to have bottled up that sun and stored it inside his sick mind. He uncorks it, whenever he senses he may not be suffering sufficiently in his mind and body from the adverse effects of sunstroke. The heat keeps him a confused, exhausted, morally taxed boy. The heat lets him go AWOL during the long night, like he is a boy playing hooky from school. The heat whispers to him just how and where to insert the knife, how to slice the neck, how to direct all that blood flow away from the head, how to sneak the decapitated head inside his gear, if he intends to hold onto it for a while, or where to bury it, if he does not intend to hold onto it. He does not uncork too much of that sun, lest he go berserk, and get P.T.S.D. stamped on his discharge papers, and be sent back to his home to pursue a second career, and marry a blond cunt, and bed too many interns to count, and father a son whom he learns to love, notwithstanding the clear rule that says that love is weak, love leads to foolish behavior, love kills…
This is far enough, the officer says, while prodding Max with his muzzle a final time. No one will see us this far out from the camp.
Max looks around. He is in the middle of the desert. The dark sand dunes ripple in the furnace hot winds. There is a beacon flashing way out there in the distance. It could be ‘Sand Nigger Dunes,’ or it could be a star ready to explode back into the stardust from which it had been born.
At the same time, he is standing in the middle of a burnt out clearing on the side of Wilshire. Earlier this same afternoon, this had been the pretty foyer of a fine art museum. A perky intern had been handing out tickets to the elders taking advantage of ‘Senior Citizens Discount Day.’ They had been mumbling to one another about the Marc Chagall exhibit they had seen the previous week. It is so much nicer to be seeing the French Impressionists today. They painted the kind of pretty, floral scenes that go down well with milk of magnesia and toast.
Now, there are burnt skeletons and busted walkers where the elders had waited in line for their discount tickets. The wind picks up a picture frame, and tosses it from the rubble to the line of dead vehicles on Wilshire. The wind also flutters a loosened painting of Edwardian, aristocratic women strolling through a park under umbrellas. The women want to protect their delicate, white skins from the toxic rays of a midday sun. When the wind is finished with that canvas the good and kind women will be shredded into unrecognizable confetti shreds, and that will be all that is left of the Impressionist canvases exhibited closer to the front door. The modern day Goths will ransack the canvases further back in the museum after this heat wave has passed from the scene.
Max keeps his back to the officer. He shuts his eyes, and waits in silence.
But the officer is not going to put a bullet in the back of his head. Deep down, Max had suspected as such. After all, if he had wanted to kill him so fast and easily, then he could have done so back at the courtyard. Moreover, Max is certain that, somehow, this officer is poking his firearm in the back of his head just now, so that there will be a reckoning for the sins of the past. This is about balancing the scales; and in the end, a quick bullet into a mushy brain does not balance anything at all. It is too fast, too painless, even too sterile among all of the ways a man can kill another to exact that vengeance that is at the heart of balancing the scales. There is more vengeance in hanging, even more so in slow dismemberment of appendages from torsos, but virtually none at all in a single, fatal gunshot wound.
Then, there is the matter of the stifling, gnawing heat. It dulls the mind, perverts the senses, thus slowing down the thought process and making it very difficult, if not impossible, to have much faith in anything that is sensed or felt at the time. The result is fast, sporadic, intense behavior, followed by a dumb, painful lethargy. The predator hurries to get to his prey. Then, when finally he has him, he would rather take him out in a slow and tired manner. A bullet to a head will not do in this scenario. Instead, whatever the officer dreams up, it is going to take time to implement and pass from idea to execution as if a vague, hazy act that takes place only in a drug-induced nightmare.
There is a small garden shovel swinging from the officer’s black belt. He squeezes his flashlight within his right armpit, so as to free up his right hand to unclip the shovel. He tosses it onto the charred earth in front of Max. He points his flashlight at the shovel, so there is no way Max can miss it when he reopens his eyes. He laughs absently, and then again prods Max’s head with his firearm.
You see, bitch boy, you were not unique out there, the officer says with just a hint of anger in his voice. You think you were so much sicker in the head than the rest of us. You glory in your madness, like yours truly had mattered in a way that ours did not. But we all buried our share of heads in the sand dunes, first some other bastard’s, then our own. We all choked on the same, dried up, hot sand, when finally we laid our cards on the table and called it a long night. Some of us held out longer than others. Admittedly, you held out the longest. I suppose that means I should congratulate you, but I won’t. I would much rather laugh out loud from watching you finally bury your own head in this dead earth.
Max reopens his heavy eyes. He stares at the garden shovel beneath him.
So get on your knees, bitch boy, and start your digging, the officer snarls in a voice that no longer even tries to conceal his bitterness at real or imagined transgressions. And no stopping ‘till you’ve got a hole big enough for your head.
Max drops to his knees. He feels totally drained. The oppressive heat is a huge sandbag on his upper back. There is a cut in that imagined sandbag, and a lot of sand is now pouring into the wound that the old man inflicted in the back of his head. As a result, he feels like everything back there is a raw wound only a cough of hot air away from going up in flames.
Still, for all his pain and delirium, Max manages to bend forward, to pick up the garden shovel, and to start digging. The earth does not give way as easy as desert sand. There is actually a burnt layer of wood over the charred ground that he first needs to break apart with the tip of his shovel.
Frankly, he is surprised not to be digging into concrete foundation; but it seems the builders did not bother to dig a hole and to fill it with concrete when adding the foyer a few years ago. No wonder if fell like a house of cards in that blast, while the rest of the museum remained more or less intact. It seems that foyer had been no more substantial than a tent pitched into the ground by men who did not think that they would be staying around for very long.
Just another tent in the ‘Sand Nigger Dunes,’ Max mumbles. Just a game of chance, so pick your cards, take your seat, and see the hand you have been dealt. By all means, keep a poker face. Never let those bastards see you sweat.
Speak louder, the officer commands. I always have wanted to hear with my own ears what a condemned man says when approaching his grave.
Fuck you, Max snaps back.
Not original, but it will do, I suppose, the officer remarks with a laugh. I just wish that you could appreciate what this means for me. Someone said that revenge is a dish best served raw, but I think it is best served overdone, crispy, charred even, from the skin to the core. Revenge really should be a dead, hard thing; and in this furnace heat, I have no doubt your head in that hole will be a dead, hard thing soon enough…
The officer does not finish his last sentence, so much as he lets it linger in the hot and sooty air a while. ‘The dead, hard thing in a hole’ hangs over the entire universe like a scratchy, wool blanket. It is the curse that no one will be able to crawl out from in this lifetime and, perhaps, not in any other lifetimes, either. It is Adam groveling for a bit of food out of a dead earth, while the sun shines hard and heavy upon his red neck. It is also Max’s Adam unceremoniously being tossed in a hole, when they find his corpse hidden behind the trashcan in the light of day. He too will be a dead, hard thing in a hole, something later to be dug up and eaten, while the sun shines so brightly the red skin of the living starts to crack and to peel off like the skin of the dead.
Max chips away at the burnt wood. He scrapes it aside, and then he digs a hole in the burnt ground just beneath the floor. Oh, how near death reigns to the veil of civilization. Only a few thrusts of a hand held shovel separate them. Boys can imagine themselves superheroes, write odes, cut off heads, bed blond interns, write alimony checks; but in the end, the gravedigger breaks the earth with only a few thrusts of his hand held shovel.
It does not take very long to dig the hole. It only takes a lifetime; and as the heat pours down Max’s back as a waterfall of blood and sweat, the lifetime turns out to be no longer than several grueling minutes.
Max stares into the hole. He can see his end, because of the flashlight of course, but also because of what his Uncle Al had instructed him about winners and losers. The winners bury; the losers are buried. The winners roam the dark ends of the earth on their own terms. They are as free as outlaws. They are all Cains in one way or another, but they know that Cain actually got a better deal than his brother Abel. Cain lives to view another sunrise, while Abel is pushing up his mother’s tulips. On the other hand, the losers grovel for food in the sand and then end up in a grave somewhere. They all taste the same sand upon their dead tongues, feel the same dirt plugging up their dead noses, sense the same, dried up, hellish earth filling their insides and then breaking through their dead skin. There is nothing to distinguish one loser from another. They are all buried dirt bags. Open up any grave after a hundred years, and they all look the same.
Max thinks of his son, as he lowers his face into the hole. He cannot view his son’s face in his mind, but he can imagine his labored breathing in his dark, foul, hot place behind the trashcan.
We shall kill the desert sun before it kills us, Max whispers, as he closes his heavy eyes, and begins to gnaw madly at that charred earth inside the hole.
Are you a damn cunt nibbler? Uncle Al berates him from inside his mind…
Max opens his eyes. His face is no longer inside that hole; and as the old and timeless scales of madness fall from his eyes, he senses that in fact he had not been inside that hole, except perhaps in a darker corner of his imagination.
Max is near the entrance to the courtyard. He has a heavy, marble shard in his right hand. Apparently, some of the marble flooring had broken off in the blasts earlier. He does not recall picking it up, nor does he recall the great pain that must have shot up his hot arm when he did so. Regardless, he is flexing his hand about that shard and getting ready to pounce on the officer, when his son calls out to him from the direction of the trashcan.
Daddy, where are you? Adam cries out.
The officer moves his flashlight away from Michelangelo’s David. Instead he points it toward the trashcan and reaches with his free hand for his firearm. That is all the motivation that Max needs then to leap out from his hiding place beside the courtyard entrance.
Max raises the marble shard above his head. Excruciating pain shoots out from his right arm and shoulder, but he barely notices. He is balancing his body and his mind on a rising wave of adrenaline, and so it is enough for him to feel his feet running across the marble floor and his heart beating through his chest.
He is also running across an endless stretch of desert sand. The beacon is ahead. It is inviting him to get back before he turns into one of the sand beasts that crawls through the dunes after dark.
He can leave that Haji head buried back there. No one will know, if only he gets back in time. It all hinges on his ability to move one step after another, pushing through the unyielding sand, tempting the dark night sun to melt down his flesh before he makes it back to his home away from home.
One moment, he sees that beacon pulsing as a living heart in front of his steady gaze. The next moment it is gone, or rather it has been covered over by a black helmet. He is running through total darkness now, pushing through sand that he cannot see and that increasingly feels like a flat, marble surface under his exhausted feet, tempting the dark night sun, no, screaming at it in absolute indignation. It can melt down his flesh, burn his bones like kindling, and yet he will run through the total darkness still like a desert wind unleashed from hell…
Max slams the shard into the back of the officer’s head. Of course, since the officer is wearing his standard issue helmet, he does not fall unconscious at once, but instead falls face forward into the pool from the force of the impact. He holds his flashlight on the edge of the pool, and with his other hand he tries to push himself up from the pool floor. His knees kick erratically into the white marble side of the fountain; and as a result, he begins to bleed down both legs.
Max has no time to think about what he has done, though he is no longer hallucinating about the sand dunes beyond his tent camp. He is now very much in the here and now, and for that reason alone he feels an exhilaration that he did not know to be possible in this oppressive heat. It is better than an orgasm. It is the feeling a prey has in its bowels when it knows it has escaped its would be predator. It is raw, senseless, satisfaction in knowing he is the ‘winner’ still.
He steps on the officer, who is slumped over the edge of the pool. Since the flashlight is pointing off to the side, Max cannot see the statue any longer; but he knows it is right in front of him. He grabs a hold of its pectorals, so as to steady himself on top of the officer’s writhing flesh.
Max plants his left shoe heel on the back of the officer’s neck. He pushes down hard enough that the officer’s face at once slams back in the floor of the pool. Max then plants his right shoe heel on the officer’s butt, which had begun to hump the side of the pool but which now remains still beneath Max’s weight.
The officer twitches erratically, like a bucking bull trying in desperation to throw its rider. The officer slides his face over the floor in a vain attempt to lift his nose up from the bottom. As a result, his sunglasses break, and the glass shards tear through his bulging eyes. His nose and lips burst open. Blood gushes out; and though no one can observe the change in this total darkness, the pool water takes on a dirty, reddish hue that will turn into crimson blood red before the night is done.
The officer loses his grip on that flashlight. It rolls off the pool edge and into the water. The light flickers a moment under the water surface; and for a split second, Max can look down and see the horror show beneath his feet. The officer is a bruised, bloodied, waterlogged beast writhing into its death spasm. The officer could be a slimy, black eel caught in a huge blender, or he could be a shark smothered back into the hell pit from which it had been born. The kind of beast is immaterial. What matters is that the officer is not a human being in Max’s eyes. He had ceased to be a human being the moment Max sprang out of his safe spot beside the courtyard entrance. He had become a victim, just one more Haji appearing in his crosshairs, and Max had become once more the cold and heartless killer he had been trained to be from the beginning. Yes, Max had had to act to save his son; but deep down, as the officer continues to writhe in agony beneath Max’s feet, Max concedes that he desires to do what he is doing and, in fact, probably would have killed the S.O.B. even if he and his son could have escaped without confronting him.
Max remembers letting the old man in the L.A. Dodgers ball cap live. He regrets that decision, and grins now that he can undo that moment of weakness by taking out this officious asshole right now.
Finally, the officer stops resisting. Still, Max presses down on the back of the neck, until he hears or imagines he hears the brain stem break beneath his weight. It is a crisp snapping sound. It is what he hears just before he starts the long and arduous process of slicing the rest of the dead head from the neck and letting the blood flow away from his prized souvenir.
Except this time Max is not going to decapitate the dead man’s big head.
He wants to do so. Indeed, his flesh trembles in excited anticipation of a repeat of his former sin. It is a great allure, like returning to the arms of a lost, but never forgotten, lover. Nevertheless, he will not do so, because he hears a small child’s voice calling out to him from somewhere beyond his own sick and self-absorbed passions. He cannot identify the voice at first, since this moment he is so very lost and confused, but he responds to it in the visceral, unthinking manner of a mama bear hearing the call of her cub.
And so, notwithstanding his sick passion, he steps off of the corpse. He is again a tired and confused criminal defense attorney on the verge of sunstroke, even though the sun had set sometime earlier. He is standing in total darkness, listening again for the one voice he loves, and feeling a dark and invisible night sun beat down on his head and shoulders with all the weight of his fallen world.
Daddy, where are you? Adam cries out again.
Max follows the voice back to the trashcan. He remembers his son; and, once more, a kind of sleepy sanity settles back into his head. The desert beast has passed, and he is now what is left when it has gone out from his life. Losing all that power and passion is a let down, to be sure; but Max also senses that in his current, sane state he is much better able to help his son.
Max cannot see his son behind the trashcan. Instead he observes a small, black form sitting upright and reaching out for its phantom daddy. This shadow boy is all that the night will reveal. The darkness swallows up the remainder of the details. Regardless, Max feels that he is standing before his son. Moreover, his son is no longer lying near comatose upon his back. No doubt, his son is not yet out of danger; but, certainly, this is an improvement in his son’s condition…
Or so Max tells himself at that moment. Then, he lets that optimism fall by the wayside. He needs to move like there is no time to waste. Furthermore, even if his son is doing better now, he can slip back into the black at any time, just like the other sunstroke victims Max had seen way back when. He sees the underlying and irrefutable logic of his fear, when he picks up his son, and feels just how hot and sweaty his son’s forehead is. His son feels like a hot and slimy eel that had been cooked in a cauldron and could slip out of his hands anytime.
Adam, do you know where you are? Max asks as he is carrying Adam away from the trashcan and towards the center of the courtyard.
With my daddy, Adam replies in a slow and tired voice that sounds like it is being blocked by a mouthful of peanut butter.
Still, Max had been able to understand his son. Frankly, anything greater than a sick moan sounds as eloquent to his ears as one of Shakespeare’s sonnet; and so Max is happy enough with the peanut butter mouth conversing with him.
I can’t see, Adam says with a hint of trembling fear in his voice.
It is very dark, Max explains.
No, daddy, I can’t see, Adam reiterates with some real urgency.
Max stops dead in his tracks. Sunstroke can cause temporary blindness. It is an indication that the disease has progressed to a life threatening level. Most of the time that blindness reverses himself, but that happens only if the victim gets proper medical attention in a very short amount of time. The fact that his son can sit upright in his right arm, and speak to him in complete sentences, is not really the improvement he had presumed just a moment ago.
They no longer have time to go on foot, even though sneaking in and out of the dark shadows on foot is the best way to avoid detection during a curfew.
Max puts his son on the floor. Adam sits upright with his back against the side of the fountain pool. Adam is just inches from the officer’s corpse.
Daddy, don’t leave me, Adam pleads.
We need to pick up speed, son, Max explains. I’ll be back in a moment.
Adam starts to cry. Max recalls the happy and cocky manner his son had handled his pistol just hours earlier. Now, Adam is acting like a four-year-old in desperate fear of the boogeyman. Max does not blame him, but he hates to see just how far and fast his son has fallen from his first grasp of manhood.
Max wants to say something, though he is not sure what. He decides not to speak. No comforting words can help his son now. Nothing can save him, but a quick trip back to that civilization that he hopes is still out there somewhere.
And so Max turns his back to his son, and steps out of the dark courtyard.
Adam hears his father walking away from him. He unleashes all his tears.
Max glances down Wilshire. He views flashing light poles on both sides of the boulevard as far as his eyes can see. With nothing else moving in his line of sight, the flashing light poles seem alive; perhaps like Cyclops eyes opening and shutting repeatedly. He imagines the big, dumb monsters remaining still in the shadows for now. But they are staring at him; and if he tries to wander further towards civilization, they will lumber out from their spots along the side of the road, and grab for his head. He may duck this way or that, but one of them will manage to dig their fingernails into his throat and to snap his head off his neck.
Max shudders at the macabre image, but then continues down the road. He bypasses a number of beaten automobiles. In the flashing lights, they are so smashed up as to seem like junk heaps that have been sitting in place for many years. It really does not take long for dead things to take on the filthy, greyish coloring and beaten down appearance of an old skeleton languishing still under a coat of rusted chains.
There are corpses lying face up on the sizzling asphalt. Their flesh seems to be cooking literally into the road. Their exposed faces and limbs appear a lot more charcoal black than greyish, blue, like they are the crispy residue of a big inferno that had swept down this path not too long before, rather than the run of the mill corpses that Max has seen hundreds of times. In a strange way, their horrible cooked smell, and charcoal black coloring, make them as alive as those light poles illuminating them. They are not dead, so much as transformed by all that has happened into crispy black asphalt beasts. They move whenever one of the furnace hot gusts blows through their hair, or even lifts one of their limbs. Otherwise, they do not move, so much as melt, first into themselves, and then into the hard earth beneath the hot road.
Max finds the officer’s motorcycle. He had parked it upon the sidewalk a half a block or so from the museum. It is a 2010 red and grey MV Agusta F4. No doubt, it has been in its share of speed races, since the L.A. P.S.A. boys are all notorious for breaking outright the safety laws that apply to everyone else; but it is spotless beneath the flashing light. Moreover, the hard lines and downward slope of the front fairing suggest a virile hooved beast that has never been hurt and so cannot even conceive of being spooked. It appears impervious to the hot temperatures; and Max imagines that it could ride just as easily off road, while heading like a flaming arrow toward the innermost blackness of the setting sun.
Max is going to mount it, when he remembers something. This F4 is not a typical motorcycle. It has been decked out with the best security equipment so as to make sure that no ‘civilian’ ever so much as drops a grubby finger onto its hand clutch, let alone warms its saddle.
Max steps back, like he almost had walked into an electric fence. He has to catch his breath a moment. Under normal circumstances, he probably would not have reacted in such a skittish manner; but the rising heat deadens the one moment and then excites the next. Right now, he feels jittery and hurried; and in the back of his mind, he feels guilty, not for wanting to steal the F4, but for surviving at all. He hates feeling this way. Guilt is a loser emotion, a restraint, an acceptance of somebody else’s moral code. Nevertheless, he is feeling guilt; and for Max, guilt is best imagined as a squeamish boy doing something wrong…
He snaps himself out of this thought. It is taking him nowhere. Worse, it is wasting precious time. Really, what does it matter if he feels guilty when his anguished son is sitting inches from that dead officer and speaking of blindness?
Think about somebody else, and your own jitters will subside. Max prides himself on being able to control his own emotions through sheer will; but now, as the temperature still rises, he needs to think about Adam. He needs to hold up Adam’s head, to cool down Adam’s body, to keep Adam from fading back to blackness, and finally to get Adam home, because he loves his son, emotionally more so than dutifully it turns out, and because focusing on his son gives him at least an occasional grasp of sanity.
I was a mad dog long before now, Max mutters, while he wipes his brow.
True enough. Bedding interns and roaring down Mulholland Drive are not indications of prudent sanity; but before today, he had been able to back away from his flirtations with career ruin and with physical death by himself and in a nick of time. Now, with the oven turned up high, and his flesh starting to burn, he is a mad dog who needs his son to hold him back from running into the fires.
Max turns back toward the museum. There is a puddle of broken glass on the asphalt beside a beaten down Audi. The glass glitters in the flashing light of the pole directly over it, and for a second Max imagines that he sees diamonds.
He bends over the puddle a moment, and finds a glass shard as long and as sharp as a murderer’s dagger. He pockets it, and continues, while the winds swirl the shattered glass about his fine, leather shoes.
Adam is not crying anymore, when Max returns. Nevertheless, Adam has inched his knees up to his chin. He seems to be staring listlessly into blackness, though Max cannot tell for sure on account of the lack of any light in this place.
Max remembers that Biblical verse about the blind leading the blind. He shoves that thought away, because like most everything else that swings in and out of his mind it is not going to help him save his son.
Max bends beside the corpse. He is careful not to touch the corpse more than necessary, lest he leave behind a fingerprint or a DNA sample. Of course, Max’s shoeprint is on the back of the dead man’s neck and butt; but many smug and pampered lawyers in town wear the same. Moreover, Max had been careful not to touch the man when smashing the marble piece into the back of his dark helmet. The marble has his fingerprints, but the marble will be long gone when Max and Adam surrender this place to the hungry rats squealing in the shadows.
Of course, a single strand of Max’s hair, or a drop of his blood or sweat, could have fallen on the officer, when Max had been pressing him into the pool minutes earlier. There is no way to tell, and so all Max can do is to hope that in the days to come the crime scene investigators are much too busy to perform a thorough forensic analysis of this scene.
Wishful thinking, Max mutters. The blood boys may not give a rat’s cock about the remains of a street junkie from Inglewood, but they are going to give top priority to the death of one of L.A.’s finest.
And so Max’s precautions may be futile, but he is careful anyway. He has a vague sense that his precautions really have more to do with giving his mind a step by step task on which to focus. He is no longer jittery, as he ponders what he needs to do to steal the motorcycle key without leaving too much of himself behind for the crime scene investigators. The solution is actually pretty simple, but his mind works so slowly in this heat now that he almost hears the click of a moving gear as each step in his survival plan comes into view within his mind.
Max grasps the fingers on the dead man’s right hand. The right hand had fallen into the pool just before the officer gave up his ghost, so now Max raises that hand from the lukewarm pool, and drops it as a slab of wet meat upon the pool edge. He crouches beside the dead hand, and begins to chisel at the wrist.
Daddy, I’m scared, Adam manages to say with his thick and slow tongue.
We can’t be scared of the dark, Max remarks, while still slicing into that wrist. Not even the heat, either. If we allow ourselves to be scared, then it is a matter of time only before something out there gets the better of us. We can’t let that happen, son. We can and we must survive this war, do you understand?
Adam does not answer. He just stares into the blackness veiling his eyes.
Blood dribbles out of the wrist. Max had expected a blood squirt to slap into his face, but of course there is no heartbeat in a corpse to push the blood out. Instead, there is a putrid, gooey mess spreading lazily out from the wound and across the pool edge.
The dead flesh falls away easily enough, but Max really has to put some elbow grease into his chiseling hand to force the dagger through the bones. His greatest fear is that he will break into a sweat and leave a DNA sample behind, and on account of his fear he repeatedly stops to wipe his brow with his sleeve.
With an audible snap, the bones break in half. The detached right hand collapses like a deflated balloon into the pool edge. Max cannot view it, but he can feel how it is cold, slimy, and strangely thin on the smooth marble surface.
Max finds the marble piece in the water. He stuffs it into his pocket. He imagines that he would look mighty suspicious with a bulge in his pocket, but in this circumstance he really does not have any choice. Moreover, he doubts that there is anyone wandering up or down Wilshire who may notice.
He gathers up his son. Adam wraps his arms around Max’s upper back, as if he is a little boy grabbing onto a buoy in a rough sea. Adam also rests his chin in the curve of Max’s neck. Max had been wrong to think of him as a four-year-old. In fact, Adam has regressed to a tired and frightened two-year-old; and if this oven heats up too high, Adam will crawl back into the old womb somehow.
Max grabs the detached right hand with his other hand. He holds out the gloved hand as if it is a disgusting slab of meat about to be thrown to the dogs.
He returns to the motorcycle, places his son on the sidewalk, and slowly removes the glove from the hand. He imagines the hand dematerializing before his eyes, because he had yanked off the glove too quickly.
The hand remains intact, though. He cups it with his own right hand, so that the dead hand can substitute for his own. He braces himself for what may happen next, especially as he knows that if the alarm is set off the motorcycle will be inoperable and the L.A. P.S.A. will be apprised of his exact location. He could escape, or he could be killed in minutes, depending on how well he tricks the security system.
He grips the right handle. Nothing happens for several seconds, and Max starts to imagine an L.A. P.S.A. helicopter changing its course to fly out to him.
He looks at his son, who is sitting beneath a flashing light pole. Max sees the blankness in Adam’s eyes. They seem to be transfixed inside their own, sad limbo; a domain of shadows, but also increasingly a comfortable, new home for his lifeless pupils. Max fears that the more his son is comfortable with his limbo the less his mind and his spirit will be inclined to see again.
He is about to say something to his son, when the F4 suddenly roars back to life. It is a lucky break, and Max allows himself a half smile. Adam scoots all the way back to the pole. He acts as if he has never heard any machine before.
Come on, son, Max urges. We can go home now.
But Adam does not move. The terrified look on his face appears to etch into his skull, and Max wonders briefly if his son is suffering then from a stroke.
Daddy, help me, Adam cries out, when he finally manages to exhale.
Max waits a moment. He wants to see if Adam can get himself off of the sidewalk. He knows rationally that it is way too soon for Adam to improve that much; but he nevertheless allows himself just a few seconds of irrational hope.
Adam does not stand up, and so Max carries him over to the motorcycle.
Son, you are going to lie against my back, and wrap your arms around my chest, do you understand? Max states in a voice that feels eerily separated from his own mind.
Adam does not respond. Max looks into his son’s face. Adam seems once more to be slipping back into the blackness.
Max shakes him back into consciousness. Also, by sheer will, he compels his mind and his voice to come from the same place, so that he can speak with a kind of urgency otherwise lost in the slow and steady drumbeat of heavy heat pressing through his skull and into his brain. He feels slightly refreshed, even if only for a moment; but more importantly he appears to have reached his son in time. Every moment is so tenuous inside the flame, touch and go, death or life; but right now, with his son nodding feebly, Max knows that now is a time to go.
Max puts Adam on the sidewalk. Max squats with his back to his son, and Adam in turn falls onto his back. Adam’s arms dangle limply over Max’s sweaty, roasted shoulders; but when Max pulls Adam’s hands together before his heart, Adam exerts just enough willful strength of his own to fold his fingers together.
Max stands upright. Adam feels like a sack of stones upon his back. Max almost stumbles forward. He is nauseous, but even more so he is angry that the heat has weakened him so much; and it is the anger that prevails. Max virtually squeezes that vomit back into his own bowels, steadies his vision, and then sits low on the humming motorcycle.
The F4 feels like a restless horse between his legs, but Max maintains his control over the saddle and the reins. He has not driven one of these since God knows when, but the subtle touch returns within seconds. He really could enjoy this freedom on the road, if he did not feel the heavy weight of his son pressing into his shoulders and upper back. Love robs a man of his freedom by enslaving him to the concerns of his heart. Right now, his heart, his mind, indeed his old, decrepit, war ravaged soul have no joy in them, but when they contemplate his son out of harm’s way. Therefore, he zigzags about the debris on his path with a heavy heart beating in his chest and a beaten mind writhing in heated chains.
Max looks up in time to behold a mirage. It lifts his mood a moment.
There are tall, thin, dancing girls in the middle of the road. Presumably, they are Hawaiian, because their hula skirts rustle seductively within the soft, otherworldly glow from the flashing light poles. The girls appear planted within the earth, but their indigenous, brown faces manage to kiss the night that soars high above them all. They are evenly spaced down the middle of the boulevard and seem indistinguishable from one another. This sameness is perhaps the real enticement for the ravenous beast male riding low on his motorcycle, because of course it means that he can indulge every girl without having to change what he says or what he does to account for the peculiarities of any one of them. He can have his pleasure without having to distinguish personalities, just like after a while all those decapitated Haji heads seemed to look alike, startled, stupid, ugly faces with bushy mustaches and bulging eyes, the dead weight of ‘Johnny Jihad’ flowing passed his steady gaze like identical packages on a conveyor belt in a factory somewhere. Sex and war are equally promiscuous; and if war is hell indeed, then so is dipping ones wick into a thousand cunts and feeling the same prickly pubic hairs and pussy sweat each and every time…
Wait a minute. The tall, thin, dancing girls are now singing out to Max. It is not the kind of simple and pleasant island melody that they would have sung on the SS Lurline back in the day, but the ascending note captures his attention and forces him to see them for what they really are in this dark corner of hell…
They are not dancing girls. They are palm trees.
And the ascending note is an air raid siren that warbles to its high point, and then back down to silence, in the span of thirty seconds, before repeating the same tired refrain without end. So this is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a monotonous siren that continues well after the world slides back into the void from which it first came. Not a pleasant thought, but quite fitting for Max at this time, since the charred remains captured in his headlights, and the palm trees swinging above his head, and even the heart thumping the same old beat in his chest are as endlessly repeated as the air raid siren. He wonders if he is not caught in a loop somehow. Just one more trashed, foreign car after another; just one more corpse still clinging to her Gucci purse, or his Attavanti briefcase, after another; just one more goddamn palm tree after another. Max tires of those palm trees in particular. Indeed, deep down, he hates them, like a promiscuous man learns to hate the scores of identical women he beds. There is raw madness at the root of that hatred, a dumb insanity given voice through the warble of an air raid siren; and Max senses that he is not caught in a loop in the real world, so much as spinning down the drain in his imagination. His thick blood spinning down the drain toward the last flames at the core of the earth…
Max stirs from this nightmare. He is swerving around dead cars and burnt out bodies in Korea Town. The tall, dark, modern buildings loom over him, like monoliths planted into pavement long ago to appease the vengeful gods. Since the temperature continues to rise, and the sight and the stench of death seem to be everywhere, Max can only deduce that those vengeful gods have not been so easily swayed. Sure enough, as if in acknowledgement of their own peculiar obsolescence, the glass buildings lining both sides of Wilshire (for the most part one Korean bank or law office after another, broken up now and then by a tiny, grubby shack housing a Korean fish market or beauty salon) look a lot more like hollowed out husks of cracked windows and charred steel beams, than powerful reminders of just how far the Orient extends across the Pacific. Max senses the glass buildings vibrating in the air raid siren, though rationally he sees that that is impossible. Still, his imagination sparks a vague, childhood fear of tall beasts crashing down when shown all along to have been standing upon toothpicks. He keeps to the middle of the road, in case those windows and beams start to fall.
Up ahead is a billboard. It is a picture of the North Korean dictator, Kim Jong Un. His chubby, snarling face stares through whimsical sunglasses that had been superimposed over his eyes. His piggy nose flares, and simulated dragon’s fire shoots out from his nostrils. A strange blend of Korean and Chinese images, but no matter, since the point of the advertisement is to convey a vague sense of ‘Oriental foreignness,’ not to promote cultural knowledge and sensitivity. By Kim’s face is a graphic that alternates every five seconds or so between an old, Soviet hammer and sickle and a fizzy bottle of OB Golden Lager. This billboard seems to be the only thing working in Korea Town. Everything else is just dead.
Max roars passed the billboard. He has not seen a living soul since he left the L.A. P.S.A. officer dead in the water fountain, and so he is almost surprised off his F4 when he observes a group of long-haired, greasy men in prison blue in his headlights up ahead. There must be six or eight of them. He cannot tell for sure, because they are huddled so closely together; and they are walking away from him like their ankles had been chained to one another. He imagines six or eight old prison queers staying close together while walking down the last mile.
Max slows down to a crawl. He does not want to pass them, until he has a better sense of what it up ahead. They must have heard the roar of his motor approaching from behind them; and yet so far as he can tell not one stumbled, or looked back, or even glanced at one of his companions. Moreover, the more he stares at them, the more he sees the mechanical way they walk. In fact, the old prison queers do not have chains on their ankles. Rather, they seem to have the collective mind of worker ants; a loss in individuality that means that every left foot rises and falls forward at the same time and pace, and every right foot drags across the hot asphalt exactly the same number of inches. They all carry identical rusted, iron pipes in their right hands. Each pipe is smeared with thick blood, and the blood continues to drip onto the boulevard behind them, which of course means that the mayhem had continued unabated until quite recently.
Why would they stop busting open heads? Why do they look like they are heading back to the old time clock to check out of their shifts and to collect all at once their rewards? The air raid siren once more begins to ascend to its high pitch. Max recalls the transistor inside the brain of the Rastafarian dude. Those wires had been alive, goddamn it, literally trying to wrap themselves about his shoes when he had stepped on them. Max makes an obvious conclusion, in spite of the slowness of his thought process then: The goons had been outfitted with some sort of mind controlling device, and the air raid siren is calling them back to collect their rewards. Max senses that the reward will be one shotgun bullet to the head, followed no doubt by a bill for the cost of the ammunition sent to the next of kin. The L.A. P.S.A. knows how to clean up a crime scene, after all.
Max wonders if his son can see any of this. Adam feels like a dead weight upon his shoulders and upper back. Adam continues to grip his fingers together in front of Max’s heart, and Adam’s cold sweat continues to drip off of his chin and onto the handlebars. Otherwise, there is no indication that he is even alive back there, let alone conscious of the old prison queers limping to their graves.
Other groups of prisoners emerge from side streets. They are all in packs of six or eight; close enough together to be a chain gang; each of the packs just stepping and dragging forward at the same time and pace towards what will be for them anyway the end of the road.
Within minutes, as the packs converge into one another on Wilshire, and proceed with the same rhythmic steps toward MacArthur Park, Max senses that there are hundreds, if not thousands, limping down the boulevard. Each man is carrying the same rusted, iron pipe. Each man appears completely oblivious to the soft purr of his slow moving motorcycle.
What must be going through their minds? Deep down in their souls there must be a survival instinct somewhere that knows that they are being driven by the air raid siren into a death trap. They walk like worker ants, but somewhere they must remain men, capable at least of a vague discernment, wondering if a miracle somehow is going to release them from this fate, and yet realizing that indeed there is no hope for them. Perhaps in the darkest corners of their minds they see the cross at Golgotha up ahead. They see that there is no one dead on the beams, no Christ Jesus hanging limply from his spikes, no hot water puddle from the punctured wound, no women weeping, and no tomb awaiting the cold and waxen corpse of the Son of Man. There is nothing but a clean cross that has yet to be used; an old executioner with a mallet in one hand and a spike in the other standing beside the cross; a bailiff with a paper roll ready to read off one by one the various crimes that had led the condemned man to this moment; an ugly, bone thin, mastiff dog chained to the base of the cross and waiting to lick up the blood that will drip from the puncture wounds; and up in the sky a dark, moonless, starless expanse of sky, because there is no Father God up there just waiting for the moment to revive His Son from the tomb. There is nothing at all but cold indifference. It would be more merciful in a way if the relatives of the victims were on hand to scream vitriol at the condemned, as they were hoisted onto the cross one by one. At least, the condemned would realize at the bitter, painful end that they would be remembered, since those who hate never forget the people who have wounded them. But the loving relatives are as dead as the victims; and the executioner, bailiff, and mastiff dog are indifferent; and so, at the end, there truly is nothing at all, but a warm, suffocating pain in the chest.
And, indeed, there is not even that much, because the condemned men may imagine the cross at Golgotha, but in fact they are going to get one, dumb shotgun bullet to the back of the head. They will feel no pain. There will be an earth shattering blast, then lights out, then warm and gooey brain bits that the schmucks with the shovels need to remove with the rest of the trash before the sun returns. The condemned will not even be able to glory in their pain, before they are swallowed up by the void that creeps out from the corner of their eyes when the earth shatters and the lights are switched off. Swallowed up, and just forgotten, like the charred debris from a battle swept up by hot furnace winds.
Max follows the mass of murderers. He starts to hear the shotgun blasts, one earth shattering boom after another, each separated by the span of three to five seconds; and by the time he leaves Korea Town behind, the blasts are so intense as to create a horrible ringing in his own ears. He is back in Haji Land, an exhausted, confused killer at the end of his sanity, loading shells one by one and then plugging his ears just in time to block out at least some of the intense blast. It is no use. His ears ring anyway, and his brain wobbles on his spine as if blood red Jell-O on a stick. He dies a little more every time one of those shells escapes from the cannon. He has no idea if the shells are killing any Hajis miles away. Maybe they are just creating charred potholes in the desert sand. So who is killing who anyway in this scenario? Assuming the shells strike a Haji now and then, the Haji turns into brown skinned body parts, a mustached head veiled by sand, or maybe a bloodied hand still gripping an unused grenade in a gesture that is vaguely masturbatory. But the killer is not so lucky. He has to walk on to see another sunset darken his desert world. He has to roam the landscape dead in himself, dead to his wife, dead even to his son. He has to be Cain, and while Cain is free, he is also the kind of listless wanderer who will grow a grubby grey beard later in his years, and mutter sweet nothings to himself beneath the sun, until one day his tongue is so baked he cannot even taste the hot sand on which he chokes. Yes, indeed, this really begs the question: Who is killing whom here?
Max remains in Haji Land, but he has a vague sense nevertheless that the mass of murderers in front of him is slowing down. Presumably, they are being stopped up ahead, or corralled into a narrower path, and so the drones this far back slow down accordingly. When they cross Westmoreland, they all slow to a snail’s pace. The step and drag turns into a shuffle; moving forward only inches at a time; staring blankly ahead as the furnace hot winds blow their greasy hair every which way. Max cannot drive his motorcycle slow enough to stay behind; and, indeed, he wants to pick up his pace anyway, even though he fears what is undoubtedly up ahead.
Therefore, Max drives onto the sidewalk, and roars passed the crowd. So far as he can tell, not one of the murderers even darts an eye in his direction in the minute or so it takes him to get to the front.
Max sees MacArthur Park. It is a vast extension of grass hills and trails all leading to a pond. Normally, there is a waterfall at the center of this pond; but tonight, the fountain has been turned off, apparently, so that the electricity at hand may be used for more important purposes.
Max parks behind the back of an army transport truck. Although he is not totally hidden there, he is not conspicuous at least. Given what appears to be happening inside the park, he figures the powers that be are not going to be all that interested in him anyway, so long as he does not make his violation of the curfew too obvious.
For a moment, as he scans the park, he is once more standing beside the cannon. He is looking through his binoculars to see if any Hajis had been blown back to Mohammed by the shells he and his fellow killer had launched. He does not see anyone just yet, but he gives it time. There is always a corpse veiled by the sand down there. Just wait until the wind blows the sand a certain way, or actually collapses an entire dune into a ravine, and then he will observe a dead arm or leg poking out from the earth. Just wait a little longer; and he will view a Haji face, snarling Jihad at him, and stabbing his sanity with its eternal stare. Max will indicate to his fellow killer that it is time to walk out to that corpse in order to pick up the smoldering body parts before the vultures do. Max will be calm and collected, maybe even whisper an obscene joke to his fellow killer on the way; but inside he will be beaten, feverish, one step closer to his dark hell.
Max looks up at the desert sun. It is always so damned large and hot, as he and his fellow killers venture out to pick up the broken toys. It is the pulsing heartbeat of the heavens, the heat throbbing in his forehead, the coals burning out from his own flesh in the form of sour sweat streaking down the back of his desert camouflage. It is up there, somewhere, but even more so it is inside him so deep he cannot hope to exorcise it. That inner sun, that nuclear heat within his bowels, all that radiant pain and pressure will continue to tear him up until he is a blithering idiot, or a P.T.S.D. discharge, or another body flown home to the sound of TAPS at sunset. Truth be told, he is not at all certain which is the better fate; and with all that heat bearing down on his soul, he does not care…
Max snaps out of Haji Land, when he is blinded temporarily by the white glare of the concert lights hanging over MacArthur Park. The lights look like the eyes of hungry beetles. They do not flicker like the light poles further back. An untold number of generators spread about the tranquil grass hills keep the high concert lights buzzing with electricity. Technicians hurry in and out of the dark shadows cast by the blinding lights. They look like grubby rock band techies an hour or so before the first set; but they run about the park with new clipboards in hand and with the efficiency of driven worker bees, who have never so much as imagined what it would be like to smoke a joint. They want to look groovy in their facial hair and grungy jeans apparently; but beneath the surface, they are the products of many years of hard, disciplined, totalitarian indoctrination. Far from ‘dropping out,’ these young techies have places to go in the great maze of bureaucracies awaiting them; government jobs to swindle out from some other contenders; secret kickbacks to pad their retirement accounts; bleached blond wives to divorce and bleached blond interns to fuck; and, finally, little sons of their own that can hang from their backs, while they die slowly from sunstroke.
Max cannot go any further without being seen. L.A. P.S.A. officers seem to be everywhere. They have formed a perimeter around the park; one officer standing at guard every six feet; but they are also roaming with pistols in hand among the garbage trucks and cargo transports idling outside the park. Like the dead L.A. P.S.A. officer back at the courtyard, they are all dressed in identical black helmets, uniforms, and knee high Gestapo boots. They all carry the same laser guided firearms with the abnormally long muzzles. The muzzles glisten in the concert lights like shiny black dildos about to be rammed into a raw asshole for shits and giggles. The orgasm must be intense, when the officer rams his big gun into the asshole as deep as possible, and then pulls the shit stained trigger.
The old prison queers move out from their packs two hundred yards or so before reaching the tall, coppery, bird shit stained statue of General MacArthur at the corner of Wilshire and Park View. They form into a single file, though so far as Max can tell no one is instructing them to do so. Presumably, the devices in their brains are calling the shots; but Max suspects that, much further inside their souls, these drones actually want to march single file to their deaths. The end is something to be feared; but when it is near, it is best to get it over with as efficiently as possible. Perhaps, sheep feel the same way, when approaching the slaughter. Perhaps, the priest with the big knife in hand is a blessing then, a sign that the corrosive terror is nearly over, a vague harbinger of the cold and indifferent void awaiting them one step beyond the Holy of Holies. If this is so, then it does not matter if a man lives a virtuous or a sinful life, because he too will be stepping out from the pack, taking his place in a single file, and walking forward, slowly, stupidly, toward the man waiting for him just round the bend. He too will be mindless nerves, quivering excitedly in his clammy flesh, beating the last drips of sweat out from his forehead. He too will be raw feet, shuffling over pavement that is as hot as a frying pan, kicking aside small rocks along the path. He too will be that hot numbness in his head that slides into his bowels in time to turn off the lights, just as the shotgun bullet blows his brains out of his skull. Yes, that is where we all end up, whether we are Noahs or Cains, fathers of the faithful or fathers of the outlaw; and if this is so, then Max really cannot blame these bastards for getting a few licks in before the final curtain.
As the murderers pass by the General MacArthur statue, one of the smug and nondescript L.A. P.S.A. officers snatches back the rusted, iron pipes out of their right hands. The murderers do not resist. Indeed, they do not even flinch.
The officer hands off the pipe to the officer beside him. He in turn does the same, and several dozen officers later the pipe is tossed into the back of a garbage truck. The officer standing tall and proud by the garbage truck keeps a meticulous count of the pipes returned. He has a very important task, since no doubt the taxpayers would have a valid reason to cry holy hell if just one of the taxpayer funded weapons of urban war should happen to fall by the wayside at the very end. He knows how very important his task is; and so he keeps his nose tilted smugly in the hot air, while marking a line on his clipboard for each pipe.
The murderers do not see any of this. They just shuffle down the side of the park. The block between Park View and Alvarado is particularly long. If any one of them should happen to look to his right, then he would observe how the concert lights have turned the pond into a creamy white soup. If he looked just a bit more closely, then he would see hundreds of heads bobbing on the surface of the pond; thick blood swirling out from these wounded heads, and darkening the creamy white soup into a Mamie Eisenhower pink; and wires encased within brain mush still trying to grab a hold of something, until finally those wires are killed off by the pond water. He would recognize that his head is about to join the others. He might tremble in fear, or he might welcome this brief peek into the void yet to come. Nevertheless, not one of the murderers looks to his right; not one even slows his step; as if acknowledging that the details of ones death, the how and the when in particular, do not much matter when it is finally over.
The murderers turn right on Alvarado. They then enter into the park. As they do so, an L.A. P.S.A. officer with a hot shotgun in his gloved hands fires an explosive round into each of them. Some of the heads burst outward, like when a man takes a mallet to a rotten pumpkin. Others fly off the neck, leaving the headless spine to quiver at the top of the torso, and glittering ever so briefly in the concert lights, before returning to the earth with an unctuous thump. Such heads are known as ‘jumpers;’ and ‘jumpers’ always elicit a reaction from the officers at the perimeter, even though they are supposed to be stoic guardians of law and order just then. An even greater spectacle is when a murderer walks forward several steps without his head. His exposed brainstem looks like a head that might belong to an alien from outer space. His walk is always jittery, like a corpse in a George Romero film. These quirky corpses are known as ‘walkers.’
The rock band techies not overseeing the generators are picking up dead heads and carrying them over to the pond. They hold the heads out, so that the wires poking out from the brain mush cannot get a hold of them. Of course, the very idea of rock band techies carrying dead heads at arms’ length is ridiculous enough to suggest a Monty Python sketch. After all, they are carrying the heads like they are offering the bread and the wine to the priest at mass. They could easily substitute ‘head’ for ‘sperm’ in the silly Monty Python song ‘Every Sperm is Sacred.’ But Max doubts that the techies are thinking along those lines. They are much too serious and self-important to sense the creepy black humor here; and for that reason, they appear even less human that those helmeted officers.
Max could watch this macabre scene all night; but he feels Adam squirm on his back; and he senses the heat digging back into his own brain as well. The temperature is still rising, and that means that the severe nausea and dizziness can kick in faster and deeper than before. If he or his son should happen again to lose consciousness, then this time their dreamless sleep likely will not cease.
Max pulls out of his hiding place. He is taking a terrible risk, since there are so many L.A. P.S.A. officers on hand to observe a civilian breaking the legal curfew and driving a stolen L.A. P.S.A. motorcycle. But in the back of his mind, he decides that they are too caught up in this ‘turkey shoot’ to care about him.
Sure enough, he drives on without being pursued. The rest of Wilshire is a quiet, abandoned boulevard. There are no dead cars, no burnt corpses, only a few shattered windows. Nothing at all, but huge shotgun blasts ringing his ears.
The next thing he knows he and his son collapse in the apartment lobby.