"What's wrong with starting a story 'It was a dark and stormy night?'" he
"I don't know," she replied, "But then, I like accordion and bagpipe music."
When I stepped out onto the enormous balcony for a breath of the wintry night, he was there already. He stood in one corner, and had apparently been there a while; he was shivering in his white dinner jacket, but appearing not to notice. He had stolen a whole bottle of Canadian whisky from the bar but had not drunk much of it and what he was drinking, he was drinking in very slowly, in sips that seemed more like moistenings of his mouth. He was smoking too, or rather, he had a cigarette lit. It was some exotic brand that smelled a little like incense and must have smelled a whole lot better than it tasted, because he would take the briefest of pulls on it, then let it burn down until he could feel the heat on his frozen knuckles before he would knock off the long ash and take another pull. I had the opportunity to observe this behavior for a while, because he did not seem to notice me. He was watching the passersby in the street far below and the park beyond, mostly keeping his gaze on one spot, not paying much attention to what went through it, but occasionally taking interest in some figure, following it, tracking his head to the side with a swing. It was on one of these swings that I finally came into view, leaning in the opposite corner of the long balcony. He seemed a little startled but not very. He gave a sloppy salute and reached for the bottle. "Welcome aboard, sir," he said, ringingly, mockingly so. "Drink?"
I smiled and wordlessly raised the drink I already had, pointing at it to decline his offer. "Oh, too bad," he said. "Smoke, then?" I was interested in these funny smelling cigarettes of his, so I came over to his end of the balcony to accept one. He offered the pack, not a case, and he lit me with a match, not a lighter.
I tasted the cigarette. I was impressed with its uniqueness but not with its flavor. He went back to his observations, taking as little notice of me as he had before. I hesitated to interrupt him, until I had finished the cigarette and had nothing else to do.
"Don't like the party much?" I asked.
He did not look at me. "The party's all right, " he said, "It's just the people."
I shook my head, even though he couldn't see me. "You can drink at home, alone. There must be another reason to come here."
He turned to me, finally, looking slightly annoyed. "All right. I come here because, one, I like this balcony and this view. And two, I basically have to, don't I?"
"I suppose you do. Or know you ought to, at any rate. Which is it?"
"Know I ought to? You give me too much credit for moral sense." He turned away again. He had lit another cigarette and it had burned enough for him to actually place it at his lips. He suddenly turned back to me, and said much more quickly than up till now. "But you're right. It's not just a matter of keeping the people who pay me happy and keeping them paying me. People seem to want me here, don't they?"
"They'd like it if you talked to them, too. If you didn't just show up, then hide."
"Well, I can't do that. I'd just disappoint them. I can't talk to people like that too well."
"So you disappoint them by not talking to them. You don't even try talking to them."
"It would achieve the same result and it's simpler this way. Occam's razor." I shrugged and left him expecting more argument. When he did not get it, he noticed his cigarette was way down again. But instead of smoking it, he angrily threw the glowing butt out into the night, to fall ten flights. He looked at me squarely before speaking.
"Terrible. Awful. I'm a terrible, awful person. I know it. I get people to believe in me. I raise their hopes. And then, paf," he made a flicking gesture in the air, "I disappoint. I disappear. Terrible. Awful." He felt along the wall behind him for his glass, found it, looked in it and saw it was low. He groped for the bottle, still looking at me, and nearly knocked it off the wall, which would have mattered somewhat more than the cigarette butt. He found it, spilled some into his glass, looked around for something else. His eyes finally lit on one of the icicles hanging from the balcony of the next story, and with a grin towards me, he reached up, snapped it off, then broke off the thin pieces of the tip and tossed them into the glass, then stirred the whole thing with the rest of the spike, finally taking it out and licking the drink off it as the contents of the glass continued to whirl and clink. He waggled the icicle between his fingers like a huge cigar, and took a deep sip of the drink. For a terrible, awful person, he looked terribly, awfully pleased with himself.
There was nothing but slate-flat desert in every direction, extending out to horizons on either side, where the shadows of mountains were visible miles away. And then there was a car, a small one, a not-so rugged one, one that seemed especially out-of-place in this scene where any intrusion of mechanical human civilization would have seemed way out-of-place, but the ground was so hard and even that the car had no more trouble than on a newly asphalted city street. The car stopped, and after a moment, a man got out. He stood by the car for another moment, then stepped away about ten feet. He walked in a complete circle with the car as its center and its radius the ten feet, never looking toward the car, always toward the horizon. Finally, he picked a direction, a headed off briskly that way. After about a hundred yards, he looked back towards the car and saw it was becoming difficult to see, and stopped. And began to yell. "Hello! Hellloooo! Hello! Is anyone here? Hello!! Can anyone hear me?" his voice rang across the flatness and may have reached the mountains, but no answer came back. He tried again, after a minute or two. "Help! Someone help me! Help me, please! Heeeellllllppp! Please!! For god's sake, if anyone can hear me, please help me!" But there was no more answer than there had been the previous time. He tried once more. "Help!! Murder!!! Please...stop it ....hellpppp! Murder!! Help me, somebody!" And again, there was no reaction from the desert or the mountains or anyone who may have been in either. The man looked around once more. "This'll do," he said, and walked back to the car, looking straight at it the whole time, and got in, and drove away.
The man was dressed completely in black, but his clothes were all of current style: boots, jeans, a T-shirt and a secondhand jacket, with no hooded cloak in sight. He was tall and quite thin and unusually pale, but had none of those characteristics to a degree causing wonder, and he was certainly no skeleton. Of a scythe or sickle, there was no sign. He would walk into people's places of work, and stand quietly until he was noticed, or follow people on the street, until they turned around in suspicion. And then he would look them fixedly and firmly in the eye, until they would realize who he was. They might begin to protest, and then he would look sad but a little impatient until they stopped. "I'm sorry", he would say, and then the thing would happen. Then he'd walk with the new arrival as far as he was charged with taking him or her, still with the same sad expression, but looking a bit distracted. The new arrival was always too shocked to speak, and the man in black was glad of this.
So I knocked on his door and called his name. When he answered, I turned the knob and went in. I said hello and he said hello back and then I said, "I thought you'd want to know immediately." Then I handed him the report and told him what I had heard. He barely looked at the paper. He looked mainly at me, right in the face. Like he thought if he stared at it long enough I wouldn't be able to keep a straight face. Like I would start cracking a smile and then laugh out loud and then admit it was all a joke. But I didn't because it wasn't. The only laugh was the bitter, resigned one that came from him after a minute. "Hell," he said, and laughed again. "Well, better get ready." I slumped into the chair in front of his desk and hooked one boot heel under the overhanging edge. On the other side of the desk he was yanking out stubborn, squeaking drawers. It made the desk shake. I could feel it through my boot sole. He finally gave an "ahhhh" of triumph, and produced a half-drunk bottle of scotch and his old revolver. "I think we'll be needing both of these," he said. He slammed them down on his blotter next to one another. Next came two glasses, one large, one small, and they landed next to the bottle with a thunk each. He poured a couple of fingers into the large glass, and pulled it towards him. Then he tilted the bottle towards the small glass and looked up at me. I waved him off. He looked a bit surprised but shrugged and capped the bottle. He took a sip of his whiskey and then picked up the pistol. He swung out the cylinder and looked through each chamber, then through the barrel. Then he brought out a box of cartridges and began loading. It was quiet in the room. I could hear each shell click into place and the ratchet of the cylinder. When he was done he slapped the revolver down on its side on the blotter under his palm, and I winced. He put his elbows on the desk on either side of the supine weapon and took his chin in his hand. He shrugged again, with his face. This means he kind of wrinkled his lips and chin and raised his eyebrows. You know what I mean.
"Well," he said finally, "It's going to be a bad day in Black Rock."
"Yeah," I answered, "And a rough night in Jericho."
Billy Be Damned
A man with long hair and prominent cheekbones sat at a portable typewriter that was still in the box. On the desk, almost exactly parallel with the edge of the box, lay a very large chrome plated revolver. The man was not a very good typist. (Although, it must be noted, he was an excellent shot.) With one finger -- his left, since his right index was reserved for the trigger -- he painfully slowly pecked out each letter. Painfully not so much to him as to the other man who had entered the room, and who stood a pace from the door watching and listening. This man was extremely tall, or perhaps just very tall -- six foot six, but very thin, with narrow shoulders, and slightly stooped -- a leaning tower, as it were. He had a dense, curly black beard like a lumberjack or Zeus, and hair and brows of the same material. These brows were now furrowed in puzzlement. Unless he was performing a literal test of whether the pen was mightier than the sword by comparing their respective mechanized descendants, that the long-haired man should be using a typewriter was quite strange -- he was far more closely associated with the implement to the typewriter's immediate right. So the tall man watched, and listened, studying as best he could the expression of the long-haired man, whose face, set in concentration, was turned mostly away from him. The tall man listened to the clicks of the keys and the hammers, which came about once every five or six seconds, though occasionally in closer proximity when a double letter was being typed and occasionally with greater delay when the shift key was involved. The tall man expected that eventually the long-haired man would reach a convenient pausing point in his writing, and then look up and acknowledge the tall man's presence, which he could not have failed to notice in his peripheral vision, intently concentrating though he was. This seemed especially appropriate as the long-haired man was in the employ of the tall one, and was in his house, so that there could be little doubt as to whom his time belonged at that moment, and though the tall man was known for the respect and deference with which he treated his closest subordinates, it was always clear that he expected at least slightly greater respect and deference in return. And so, though out of this latter fact, he was becoming bored and annoyed, for the former reason, he spoke not with annoyance but with genuine puzzlement:
"What are you doing?"
"Writing." The long-haired man did not stop typing, or even look up. The tall man did not change his position, but did change his tone, albeit only slightly in the direction of annoyance at his lieutenant's curt uncommunicativeness.
"What are you writing?"
"An obituary." The tall man lost his stoop suddenly, thought a moment, and came out as puzzled as before -- more puzzled in fact, and disturbed as well:
"An obituary? Whose obituary?"
In the same moment that he stopped typing, or perhaps a little before, in about the same moment that he had taken his hands from the typewriter and with one of them clasped the more familiar instrument that lay next to it, in almost the same moment that he finally turned in his chair to face the tall man, though at this point the tall man had been distracted from the long-haired man's face by the mass of shining metal he held approximately in front of it, and in trying to read the expression of his apparently insubordinate subordinate's face he was paying more attention to the angle of the cocking hammer than to the angle of his slanting eyebrows, more attention to slowly turning cylinder than to the fairly stationary (though, as it has been noted, prominent) cheekbones, more attention to the tensed finger on the trigger than to the tensed jaw and mouth, and finally more attention to the dark hole of the muzzle through which deadly lead would issue than to the dark holes of the eyes, which emitted only hate -- in this instant, in which all these things may as well have happened at the same exact time, like a pack of cyclists crossing the finish line, two events stand out. The long-haired man fired three bullets into the tall one's chest, and he spoke to him one word:
The Theory and Practice of Optimistic Desperation
Chapter 1 -- Reading: "Don't Worry About the Government" by Talking Heads
D. E. is tall and not handsome. He comes riding up to his apartment building on a silver bicycle. He jumps the bike into a "bunny hop", clears the curb, swings his right leg over the seat, glides up to the steps, and jumps to the ground, bringing the bicycle to a halt. He hefts it onto his right shoulder, with his hand holding the down tube to the front wheel to keep it from moving. He has moved the large dirty red canvas bag that hangs around his neck on his right shoulder over to his left side, where he can reach into it with his left hand and get out his keys. He checks his mailbox. There are new issues of the movie and bicycling magazines to which he subscribes. There are bills, also. The bicycling magazine is the same as ever -- this year's great cyclist and his tips so that you can be as good as he and be the next year's great cyclist and be on the cover of the magazine with your tips for how readers can be the next year's great cyclist and so on....most of the tips involve buying the products with which this year's great cyclist has endorsement contracts. However, this year's great cyclist is still a god. He can do the equivalent of running a marathon every day for three weeks. Gods have a right to be mercenary.
There is an actor on the cover of the film magazine who is a few years older than D. D. identifies with him. He likes to think he looks like him. The actress is exactly D.'s age. She is not as beautiful as some of her fellow actresses, but she has the reputation of being much more intelligent. She went to college. She has written screenplays. She and the actor will soon be in a movie together. They have also frequently been seen together at Hollywood parties, in restaurants, at night spots. D. looks at the cover a long time, studying the poses, the clothes, the expressions. The actress is carrying the actor over her shoulder, fireman-style, only the actor's head is forward so that they are both facing the camera. D. wonders how they set up the shot -- could she really be holding him? It seems unlikely, but he should not underestimate women's strength. They are wearing safari clothing and the background is an African savannah with zebras in the distance. The actress holds a machete in her free hand. They are both smiling, in a way D. likes to describe as a "shit-eating grin." He thinks, though, for the first time in the long years that he has used that expression, why would anyone smile while eating shit? He resolves to research the origin of the expression. The actor and the actress are very happy. Especially, it seems to D., the actor. "He's a lucky guy," he thinks. Actually, he says it aloud. He is about to put down the bicycle and start reading the magazine then and there in the lobby but he has to relieve his bladder. He unlocks the inner door, holds it wide open as he gets the bicycle's back wheel through, and runs up the four flights of stairs to his apartment. There is an elevator, but D. tries not to use it -- the stairs are good exercise. The elevator is one of the old fashioned cage type. It reminds D. of a movie in which a character rides a similar elevator all the way down to Hell. If the door of the elevator is not totally closed, the elevator will not move. D. likes to scare his visitors by opening the door between floors so that it stops. Even when he closes the door again, the elevator will not restart. His visitors begin to panic. He knows that he needs to press the floor button again to get the elevator moving, and he eventually does so, but not until he has playacted powerlessness for long enough to scare his visitors. D. does not have a lot of visitors, however.
Rule Number One
There was really only one rule, and that was Rule Number One. The reason why it was called "Rule Number One" and not simply "The Rule" was that there had been and still were many other rules, but they had all been determined so clearly and obviously to be derivatives of, or corollary or subsidiary to, Rule Number One, that they had quickly fallen into desuetude and consequently oblivion. Rule Number One had actually not always been Rule Number One, but within living memory had been Rule Number Two. But then the Rule that had been Number One since time immemorial was promoted to the special honor of The Name of the Game, and Number Two had moved up into Number One's spot, still remaining subordinate to it. After all, The Name of the Game was: "Don't get yourself killed." Where as Rule Number One was more enigmatic. But you knew what Rule Number One was. Everyone knew what Rule Number One was. Rule Number One was: "Don't be stupid." Of course, these three words had been the subject of great debate since before anyone had bothered to write down the debates. One scholar explained them as meaning, "Do not deceive yourself." Another preferred, "Never confuse what really is with what you wish were." And it was this ambiguity that gave Rule Number One its particular appeal, its cult following. For while The Name of the Game was specific, knife-edged, clear, Rule Number One was a cloud forever blowing on a soft breeze, forever just within reach and always just out of it. Which is why it is with Rule Number One that this story concerns itself.
They Had Secured the Area -- Version 1
They had secured the area, and guys with uniforms and guns were standing around trying to restrain their curiosity. I had some cuts, but the medic just handed me some salve and bandages as if I should put them on myself. I sat against the remains of a wall.
I saw her yards away, as a woman in street clothes doubly inexplicably ignored by the uniforms, picking her way through the debris in high heels. Despite the concentration and attention involved, she was looking straight at me. I put down the bandages and watched back, letting myself bleed. I stood up when she came close. She stared. Her hands bulged in her coat pockets.
I looked down at them. "Are you going to shoot me or just slap me?"
Her lips barely moved. "Neither. It wouldn't hurt now, you're expecting it."
"Well, maybe I won't be in a minute. You could lull me into a sense of security, then ..."
"Go to hell."
I looked around at the scene. "Looks like I have."
Her eyes burned, her jaw jutted forward, her hands clenched but stayed hidden. "It didn't have to end this way."
"You have no way of knowing that." My face tensed and that widened a cut by my temple. There was blood in my eye but I didn't wipe it away. "And I had no way of knowing it, then, when it was decided." I felt my lips tighten and I fought the anger. "It had to be done. I had to do it." I lost the fight. "People got hurt. I know. But in the end, I did the right thing. And I think you know that."
She let this go by. She could see I was bleeding but she would be damned if she was going to care. "You lied to me."
"Yes." I managed to get some gauze on the wound without losing the staring contest. "I had to."
"They say the same thing. You're no better than they are." She looked around. "Were."
There was a silence. I wanted to sit down again.
She turned sarcastic. "Are you ready for me to shoot you yet?"
"I was prepared to die when I got into this thing."
"Oh, yes, in the line of duty, the line of fire. But after winning? Wouldn't that just be too, too, too, ironic?" I guess it would be appropriate, I thought. I knew what I had signed up for. I guess I would accept it -- mighty nice of me, what choice did I have? I was looking at her hidden hands. I was trying to prepare myself. She would do it, too, if she wanted, right there in the middle of everyone. "Or did you figure that into your risks and your costs when you used me?"
"No one wants to die unless he has to."
"Oh yes, everyone wants to live happily ever after. And find their true love." Her mouth was pursed but there was moisture in the insides of her eyes. With a sudden movement her arm was straight out in front of her and there was a revolver at the end of it. I could look into the cylinder and see that all the chambers were full. Her sleeve slid down her arm and I could see the veins and sinews of her wrists in high relief and the ridges and troughs of the bones in the back of her thin hand dance as she squeezed the grip hard, the trigger just a little. It was a double action .38, would take some pull, but she could do it, and it wouldn't matter to her aim at this range. No one was even looking our way, though maybe if they were, they thought I deserved it.
"Dying would be easy, wouldn't it?" Her words came in a rush but quietly. "It would be all over and you wouldn't have to think about it. I could shoot you somewhere else, make you die slowly or.." She lowered the gun quickly to below my waist level and then brought it back up again. "...live in torture. I could do that." I knew she could, too. "Would you like to see me?"
She sniffed. "We could have met someplace else, you know? Some other way? Maybe? Maybe not. I guess not. I'll never know, will I? What might have happened?"
"Wouldn't that have been great, if you really did love me? It it wasn't just for your...mission? Don't say it wasn't. Oh, say it was, if you want, it sounds nice, doesn't it? See, if you really loved me, I could say, great, let's go, let's live happily ever after. I'd do that. Or I could say, ha! well, that's too bad, because you're not going to have me, ever, that's your punishment, that's better -- I mean, that's worse -- than shooting you, isn't it? Isn't it? You can't do any of these missions any more since everyone knows who you are now, and you'll live a safe, long life, long, long life, and every day you'll notice that I'm not there. Did you plan on that? Were you prepared for that? Did you accept that risk?"
"After long enough of that, heck, I'd want to shoot myself -- MYSELF! Wouldn't you? Wouldn't you?"
She was not quite crying but emotion had weakened her arm and the gun now pointed at my belly. If she had all but told me she wasn't going to shoot, she still might, and the spiels I had used to talk my way out of a hundred similar situations would be no help. I really did not think I wanted to die. I knew I wanted to sit down and stop bleeding. If I could have done that, I could have thought straight, I could have figured out what I wanted out of her, and what to say.
"Is everything all right here?" A man all in blue-black, straps every which way across his body, pockets bulging, his gun held straight across at belt level, not pointed at me or her but ready to be, two others from the same batch at the factory right behind him, stood three-quarters behind her, looking mainly at the revolver and me. I only could see her face, and it said nothing. "Fine," I said. "She's just giving me back something that belongs to me." I reached out for the pistol and took it from her loosened grip. I looked at her, still nothing. "Thanks," I said, so the others could hear. "I hope I'll put it to good use." Her hand dropped to her side.
"They want to talk to you, over there," said the man in blue-black.
"Yeah," I said, and moved to follow them. I kept my eyes in hers as I went by, holding her gun by the barrel in my left hand. Once I had passed her, I looked straight ahead, so I'll never know, but if I ever risk my life again, it would be betting that she didn't turn around to watch me go.