by Louis Gallo
Louis Gallo was born and raised in New Orleans, and now teaches at Radford University in Virginia. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, American Literary Review, storySouth, Texas Review, Portland Review, The Ledge, The Journal, Berkeley Fiction Review, Amazon Shorts, Xavier Review, Rattle, Missouri Review, Hurricane Review, and many others.
Every Thursday my friend Winston and I hang out for a late night coffee at the Event Horizon Cafe, a new place with spiffy brass bar railings and tables lacquered into glass. I can't tell you how much I admire lacquer. I savor the very thought of it. And there are lots of other sights in the Event Horizon. Women, I mean, though all we do is look. I'm guilty, I gaze, so kill me and get it over with. I also love my wife, and Winston is about to marry a woman he met in South Carolina. We're old guys relatively speaking, but as I always say, I've got the hormones of a teenager at puberty. I'll let Winston's hormones speak for themselves. We both have gray hair, some anyway; there's no stopping it. You can get away with plucking at thirty or thirty-five, beyond that, forget it. I hope it never comes to midnight scrapings of the skull itself.
What's wrong with smiling at pretty young girls? When they smile back we feel regenerated, like those geriatrics in Cocoon who start leaping at basketball hoops. Didn't nature design the whole business? What's wrong with nature? Winston and I do agonize over the question since, it seems, the current climate disfavors all good things in life--with respect to love, passion, sex, lust, and flirtation, anyway. Our Department has just issued what it calls a "sexual harassment policy," and it turns out smiling is definitely taboo; the policy-makers feel smiles can be too easily misconstrued as excessive fun. Well, obviously . . . isn't that the point?
"Assholes!" Winston bellows. He's a giant of a man and when he bellows you cringe. Sometimes I think Winston could blow down a solid plaster wall. Plaster, now you're talking. Sheetrock is a piker next to plaster. Ever run your fingers down a smooth plaster wall? It's always cool and so solid you feel like praying.
"Why is what I want to know," I always say, shaking my head in sadness and incredulity at the stupidity of trying to legislate smiles and eye contact and hormones and all the rest of it.
"Eunuchs make the policy," Winston says. "They haven't had sex in thirty years and don't want you to have any either. Eunuchs are like that. They're not even real eunuchs like the ones in Turkish harems. These new people are fake eunuchs. They're so pissed about orgasms they want to crucify. I see a vast horizon of crosses with genitals tacked onto them."
"They hate us."
"Tom, man, they'd love to get rid of us. There's something wrong with everything now. You can't say 'cereal' without checking the regulations. I said 'orgasm' before. Better report me. No room for thoughts or words of any kind. It's all graphs and schematics."
Thus we commiserate over the wrongness of everything, mostly the absence of compassion. Our Department, rife with personal politics (my theory--all politics is personal) and underpaid women; we lament the recent firings, the nepotism, the fact that Susan Glover, who has the smallest human brain on record, makes more money than anybody. Why? We lament the poor office lackeys who labor the hardest and make the least pay since they don't have the right credentials. And then there's Rich Stirkey.
How can I explain Rich Stirkey? He's in upper management, not our Creative sector. Would it help to say that if Winston and I were on the train to Dachau, Rich Stirkey would be there waiting to lead us into the camp, would without the slightest pang press the button? Worse, he'd convince himself he did the right thing. What can you say about a guy like that? You can only hope they confine him in a plastic bag somewhere, like some aberrant microbe needing further study.
"Would you press the button on him?" I ask Winston.
"No, man, I wouldn't press it on anybody."
"How about a child molester who decapitates his victims?"
"I'd press the button."
"But not on Stirkey?"
"No, but not because he doesn't deserve it."
"Yeah, I wouldn't either. Even after he tried to ax me. What's wrong with him? I can see despising somebody and making it clear you're going to swing that ax first chance you get, but this back-stabbing business . . . why be sneaky with your pitchfork? Why pretend you're Mother Teresa as he does?"
"He's not human."
"What is he?"
"You know that idea in math called renormalization? When they take out infinities to make the equations work? He's a renormalized human. They had to renormalize him."
"Yeah. He'll ax you, then smile at you in the hallway and wonder why you don't smile back."
It bothers us to spend so much time denigrating Rich Stirkey, mainly because it violates our principles--we've worked out these principles over the past few years--of helping and healing. We believe that we all need healing, that not one of us has gone unscathed. But Stirkey is beyond hope. We cornered him in his office once and blasted away, telling him exactly what we thought of him, exposed his intricate little schemes to deliver some blow to everyone in the Department. It seems he has no motives beyond the ax itself. Can an ax be a motive?
"We want you to understand what you're doing," Winston roared as Stirkey leaned back in his swivel chair, calm and exceedingly well groomed. "If you understood, maybe you could change."
"I like myself the way I am," he assured us smugly.
It's that wretched smugness that makes you want to rip off his starched bow tie and fling him into a den of cannibals. But as I've said, we wouldn't fling even if we had the chance. We've actually had the chance but let it go. The secret of evil is that it's not too bright. You can always track it down by its blunders.
"Why'd you nail Mike Rathers the other day? What did Mike ever do to you?" I asked Stirkey.
"It's business, fellows. The output wasn't there. We function by quotas in case you've forgotten. Mike was close but no cigar."
Winston became extremely agitated, and an agitated Winston is something like a gasoline truck lumbering up the runaway ramp. I felt his breath shake the room.
"You just don't see, do you?" I added.
"Mike has three kids, a mortgage, jobs are scarce. He's a good guy. You threw him out on the street, man. You like to throw people out on the street. We're reporting you to the Ethics Division."
"Is that a threat?"
"It's a declarative statement. We're reporting you. Your quotas have run amuck."
Big deal--Ethics was run by Warren Bland, Stirkey's buddy and fellow hatcheteer. You could say that Bland was pure theory and technology next to Stirkey, who was still taking notes.
Winston and I could never grasp a Bland in Ethics or Stirkey in Quotas. Why? Or why the guy Winston bought his land from ripped him off by two acres? Why did the realtor skim money off the top of my long-distance rental? Why is somebody's hand always in your pocket? Maybe hands were in pockets throughout history, but it sure seems epidemic these days.
"The danger," one of us always reminds the other, "is thinking we're better."
"We are better," Winston cries. "We're human at least. We make mistakes, sure, we steal a postage stamp here and there. But we're not Bland or Stirkey. We're just stupid maybe. And look at that poor Mike guy. So maybe he wasn't up to par, so what? He was ok. Did his work. Played the game. So they sack him."
"And that Margie Phillips."
"Secretary over in Policy."
"That cute sweet girl? They fired her?"
"Yeah, and I hear because she was sexy. Didn't fit in with policy. No more sex. It was nice seeing her . . . she looked so innocent and pure. Always did good work for me."
"They fired her?"
"Stirkey won't stop trying to get us too. He'll find something new next month."
"He can't touch us. We've moved beyond him. But it pisses me off that he can do to other people what he tried to do to us. And he will do it."
We go to extremes, sure, we're dismissed as troublemakers, malcontents, arrogant crazies who point out every fissure in the structure. And we like to look at women too, which makes us perverts and abominations. Truth is, the policy people like to look too, the men anyway, maybe even some of the women, but wouldn't admit it if you threatened to singe their eyeballs over a smoldering barbecue pit. We call this hypocrisy. Hypocrisy, greed and power--there you have it. Everywhere you look. But it's dangerous to point fingers. You've got to be clean as a bar of Ivory. The finger might just swing around and touch your own nose. You've got to monitor yourself every day, exorcise the demons, get humble.
"Sure we're bad," Winston says, "but not unredeemable."
"I don't know." I click my lips. "Who have we screwed that we've forgotten about?"
"Well, let's see," Winston says, "once I screwed myself . . . or tried to at least. It didn't work. Too many obstacles."
"I'm sure we've screwed people. Always remember we're human. That girl whose car you backed into last week. You didn't have to give her a present. The insurance took care of it."
"I felt bad for her, all that trouble, filing claims, getting estimates."
"That's what I mean," Winston gloats. "You felt bad. We feel bad. Feeling bad is the origin of morality. And the older we get the more moral we should be since we've felt bad longer. I'm a better person than I was at twenty. Octogenarians must be verging on sainthood. Blessed are the geezers."
"Yeah," I said, smiling as the caffeine began to launch me into jittery orbit. It's best for me to avoid coffee, but I need it. The room began to sway slightly, I tuned out of Winston's frequency, bodies came and went in a sort of sulfurous haze, the table surfaces became pools of golden syrup. I watched the young patrons cavort and dance and gesture as they talked in high spirits, trying to be heard above the music. We have so little time, I thought; all these people, everybody in the Event Horizon, everybody crowded on this little rock whirling through space is wounded. So many problems in just living. We should help each other, not make more problems. We should love one another, hug strangers in the street, we should sing, the whole frigging doomed chorus rising off the ground in rapt, eerie harmony, when we can. I should go easy on the caffeine.
One particular Thursday night, we weren't in the Cafe fifteen minutes when a clerk from Development, who happened to frequent the same place, came racing over to our table waving his hands. He gushed out some words to Winston, but Winston could not understand him.
"They're towing your truck is what he said," I cried.
Winston seemed stupefied, as if not comprehending what we tried to convey.
"Your truck!" I roared. "It's being towed. Let's go, man!"
It was a bad night for trouble because Winston had to drive to Columbia the next morning for his wedding. We rushed out of the Cafe and ran over to the lot where we always parked. My car was gone too. We could see the tow truck rumbling down the street to a service station on the corner. There was a no parking sign all right, but it was the Federal Charter Bank lot, and business hours had long expired. Winston was in no mood for dealing with hired Tobies who got a percentage of every vehicle they brought in.
His truck still hung from the tow bar. Two guys, one a sort of angelic kid with floating poetry hair, the other a wizened, wiry, older man with greased-back jet strands had begun to manipulate some levers to lower it. The angel seemed quite out of place despite his filthy uniform. He belonged in a monastery somewhere, maybe a harem.
"Hey, buddy," Winston called, "that's my truck. What's the deal?"
In short order they informed us they had a contract with the bank to remove cars from the lot.
"It's after hours," I said, "and there's no police action here. I think this is illegal."
I spotted my Rodeo parked in a row of other towed cars with an old wrecked Chevy blocking any attempt I might make to simply back out. Since I had four-wheel drive I figured I could take the curb in front though, and promptly walked to my car and got in. It wouldn't start. It made that awful empty grinding sound you hate to hear.
"Hey," I said, returning to where Winston was arguing with the two guys, "you tampered with my car. That's vandalism!"
"We ain't stupid," said the wiry on, spitting out a wad of chewing tobacco. "You could jump that embankment."
"Vandalism," Winston roared. "Fix that car immediately or we'll file suit tomorrow. How much does it cost for my truck?"
"Fifty dollar," said the wiry one.
"I'm not paying you a dime," I said. "You vandalized my car. How do I know what else you did? And what about that expensive German camera I had on the back seat--"
"Me too," Winston said. "I had a camera too."
"I think you fellows are in trouble. Now why don't you just repair my car and let us go right now. Then there won't be any trouble tomorrow."
The two attendants looked at one another and formed an immediate alliance of refusal.
"Cain't," said the angel. "We just doing our job."
"So was Adolph Eichmann!" Winston cried. He was losing his cool rapidly. So was I.
"We want a police report, we want the police," I said. "I'm not paying one cent. Where's your boss?"
"He's at home," said the angel tremulously.
"Well, get him on the phone. And get the police too," I demanded.
"We can't call him at night," the wiry one coughed. "That's our orders."
"Then call the police."
"Aw right," they said, and went into the office of the station. Winston and I followed. We were furious.
"Fifty dollars is a total rip off," I said. "You towed us half a block!"
The wiry one placed a call--I think it was bogus because the police never showed up--and we all argued some more. I repeated that they should release our cars or else face big legal trouble. The attendants seemed worried and uneasy.
"I been in court before," the angel said.
"Not against me," I said.
"This is how you guys spend your time?" Winston asked. "Sneaking around looking for cars to tow away? What a racket! Who makes the money, you or the bank? What do you get, a nickel?"
"Just doing our job," said the wiry one, breathing heavily.
They were clearly no match verbally for either Winston or me, and together we assailed them grandly. Suddenly the wiry one drove his fist into the counter and shook his head.
"I want you boys out of here," he screamed. "We don't have to listen to your shit all night. Get out right now."
"We're waiting for the police," I said. "We're not moving."
The wiry one came huffing from behind the counter, brushed past us and held the glass door open. "Now get out," he demanded.
"Go ahead, try throwing us out," Winston laughed. "Touch me and we'll add assault and battery to the list. Do you want to go to jail, man?"
The wiry one blew off a great steam of frustration and returned to his stool behind the counter. I noticed the angel looked a little pale. He had not said a word for some time. He hovered near the telephone and clawed at the coiled wire with nervous fingers.
"This is outrageous," I said. "You tamper with my car, tow it from a lot illegally, threaten to throw us out . . . you're going to be sued."
What shames me now, weeks later as I remember the event, is that Winston and I were really going to town. We were enjoying ourselves. This was justice in action. Catch them red-handed and roar with frantic indignation. J'accuse!
I asked the attendants for their names, but at first they refused to give us any information. I took out my pen and a slip of paper. "Winston," I said calmly, "you're a witness. These people who admitted to vandalizing my car, which is a serious crime, won't even give us their names. What do think a judge will say about that?"
The wiry one left the room abruptly. "I got to piss," he said.
"It won't look good," Winston chuckled. "It's amazing. I'm driving to South Carolina tomorrow morning to get married. I don't have time for this garbage. GIVE ME MY CAR!"
It might have been the fury in Winston's voice or possibly everything combined or that he was suddenly alone with the two of us, who had obviously become frenzied, ruthless maniacs, but the angel abruptly crashed to the floor and began to twitch in total body spasms. It looked bad.
"Jesus!" Winston cried.
I rushed to where he lay and looked down into his face. The eyeballs had slipped beneath the upper lid, some froth bubbled on his lips and his face had turned light blue. The macabre twitching terrified me.
"Hey," I asked rather stupidly, "are you all right?"
"Epilepsy," Winston guessed.
"Who knows what it is?" I groaned.
Which is how I came, on an ordinary Thursday night, to administer what little I knew of mouth-to-mouth to a total stranger. I wiped the foam from his lips with my cuff, crouched down beside his body, and placed my lips squarely onto to those of an angelic, albeit greasy, service station attendant who had just towed my car from the Federal Charter parking lot.
Winston hovered over me. "Breathe in, breathe," he shouted, "keep it steady." Exactly what I was doing. The adrenalin levels had soared. Everyone was terrified, out of control, crazed.
"Where's that other guy?" I gasped between breaths.
The body beneath me stirred. The angel blinked his eyes and bobbed his head violently as if to clear his mind. His color returned and he began to moan a little.
"You ok?" I asked.
He sat up and rotated his head on its axis. At that moment the wiry one reappeared in the doorway. "Hey, Jerry," he said.
The angel lifted himself to a stooped standing position and brushed off his clothes, which were sodden with oil stains. "It's acting up again," he yelped, throwing down to the floor an oily towel bundled on the counter. Then he brushed past the wiry one into the service area.
"Hey, you all right?" I called after him.
The angel refused to speak. He walked over to a counter full of tools and switched on a radio full blast. The whole building vibrated.
"Is he ok?" I asked the wiry one.
He looked at me venomously and spat another wad of tobacco into a battered Coke can. I was glad I did not have to do mouth-to-mouth on him. He moseyed back to where the angel stood staring at a blank wall as the music intensified with drumbeats. The wiry one turned down the volume. "Can't have too much of that" I heard him say.
Winston and I looked at each other with widened eyes.
"Did we do that to him?" I asked.
"I hope not," he sort of cringed.
Then I laughed. They were not easy laughs though, more like the kind you hear at wakes when people just can't stand it any more and congregate in a back room to avoid one more glance at the pristine yet always grisly corpse.
"We went too far," I shuddered.
"They shouldn't have touched our cars," Winston said, heavy defensiveness in his voice.
"We gave him a seizure, man."
Winston sighed and shrugged and threw up his hands. "The bank president is no doubt sleeping snugly in his bed."
"As usual," I mumbled.
"We have to get our cars."
"True. Next they'll be taking our shoes, our underwear, even our gold fillings. The greed, where does it stop? Fifty bucks is ridiculous. I won't pay."
"I've got to pay if I plan to get married tomorrow. But I'll fight it. My mortgage is with that bank--"
"So is mine."
"--and my checking account. They've made a mint off my money. But they still want more."
"What did that sign say?"
"So we're guilty."
"Yeah," Winston hissed, "but they own everything. They could put up no parking signs in my driveway. They hold the mortgage."
"And it was after hours," I said. "There was this big space across from the Event Horizon and they didn't want anybody else to have it, not even for a second."
"Damn straight," Winston said. "Who are the victims here anyway?"
Well, I didn't pay the money and walked home that night. The day after the towing I called the bank and chewed out a branch manager, another Toby. You can never touch the ones really in charge. They set up miles of human sacrifices in front of them so you can't even see their faces. And you can bet it's not the face of an angel who every now and then can't cope and falls to the earth foaming at the mouth and twitching.
The gist is I threatened to sue the bank for vandalism of my Rodeo if they didn't authorize immediate release with no penalty involved. It was easy as prefab pie. No, it wasn't easy as prefab or any other kind of pie; it was a damned nuisance and should never have happened in the first place. Winston paid and is still fighting for his money.
After it was all over I drove by one day and happened to see the angel, Jerry, on his back on one of those dollies they slide under cars. I parked and walked over just as he scooted himself out from under a Mercedes. When he saw my face he glared but quickly turned away.
"Hey," I said, "how you doing?"
I had to follow him because he had no intention of speaking to me. I had witnessed him twitching on the ground after all. Who can recover from such humiliation?
"Listen," I said, "I want to apologize. You know how it goes when you catch somebody messing with your car. You get crazy."
"Yeah, yeah," he said, brushing me off.
I placed my hand on his shoulder to stop him, and he spun around madly and shook a wrench in my face. "Get away from me," he howled.
I backed off. "I understand, really, I'm sorry. Look, I want to give you the fifty dollars. All for you, ok? Don't tell anybody or else they'll demand their share."
He looked at me hard for a few moments.
"I don't want your money," he said finally. "Just go."
"I can't just go. I want you to have the money. You could use some money, right? We all could. I feel bad."
"Then stay feeling bad, motherfucker," he growled. He turned and walked briskly into the service area.
I watched him fiddle with some tools on the counter, noticing at the same time that I was standing atop a sewer lid. Who was the victim here indeed? I looked at my reflection in the Mercedes window and saw the faces of Rich Stirkey and Warren Bland superimposed onto each other to form one monstrous image, an image that nodded in approval. The angel wouldn't take my money, and he was right--I was trying to buy a clean conscience. I assumed I'd wanted to give him the money because I felt sorry for him, which I did. But I see his point. No way would my conscience ever wash clean, not for fifty dollars anyway, not for a million. Maybe there's a difference in kind between big and little injustices, maybe the little ones don't count and we should forget about them rather than hurt another person to save a dime. I don't know. They do add up, don't they? I wouldn't have towed my car, or Winston's, or anybody's. I would have pretended they weren't there.
At that moment a locust came careening out of nowhere and smacked squarely into the side of my forehead. It bounced off my head and buzzed in circles on the ground. My temple ached.
I saw Jerry head toward me with a sack of tools. The sun reflecting off his face practically blinded me.
"But I kissed your lips!" I wailed to the approaching man of light as the locust clicked in death throes at my feet.
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