May 13, 2010

“Spin” was originally written and published on the MyT blogsite as an entry in the online novel competition that took place during the publication of Alexander McCall Smith’s first online novel, Corduroy Mansions.

Although the author would like to believe that people like the characters in “Spin” exist, they are in fact imaginary and any resemblance to the living or the dead in this galaxy or anywhere in the multiverse is purely coincidence and likely a cruel joke by il miglior fabbro.

1. The New Job

May 13, 2010

There were fewer tattoos than you might expect. Fewer piercings as well. And the people who bore them appeared mostly in clusters, lounging around the front door of Plutonium Music—LPs and CDs, echoing the fashion of the street’s panhandlers and passersby. Tattoos were regimental dress for the guys at the music store’s front counter, like black leather, shaved or dyed heads, torn T-shirts, and an impassive face. Passing by them was like diving into a cold pool: the diver balanced on the edge of the pool, imagining the thrill of splashing water yet hesitating while the body, in cahoots with the part of the brain that wants comfort and ease, debated with the diver’s misguided impulses.

Rose, who was never one to dive into a cold pool, always found it difficult to come to work. Inside the store, there were small islands of calm, especially upstairs in Classical. It was just a matter of navigating past the hordes of tattooed young people, punching in at the time clock in the back storage room, and then making her way through the aisles and up the stairs.

Even though she had been working at Plutonium for four weeks, Rose had yet to find a route to Classical that was fast enough, and that wasn’t haunted by the specter of obstacles: absorbed shoppers, stacks of records in musty smelling covers, boxes of newly arrived CDs. She could not adjust to the light gray paint of the floor, the walls and the CD shelves, or the rock music blasting over the loudspeakers. But gray somehow was the right color for Plutonium: a post-apocalyptic drab—the perfect camouflage on an eerie foggy night, with smoke twisting up from burnt buildings.

Rose could not imagine why they had hired her in the first place, except perhaps that she had heard of Messiaen and knew that Leonard Bernstein was a composer as well as a conductor. Luckily, they hadn’t asked her any of the questions that shoppers seemed to ask her daily.

It might have been her age though. Everyone in Classical was forty or above, including the customers. On her first day working at Plutonium, her supervisor, Bob Winston—a tall, jittery, blond man with pale eyes behind spectacles—had told her, “Bruckner. No one under fifty … listening … only people over fifty … want to …” He paused as if about to jump into that icy pool mentioned above.

“Listen to Bruckner?” she finished.

“Right! … Yes!” his arms stretched out toward her as if he were presenting her on stage, even as his feet danced away from her. “Yes! Yes!”

Possibly, thought Rose turning away from the alarming Bob Winston to look at the racks of CDs that stretched away from her. If you were the methodical type, it might take you fifty years to get from the composers whose last names began with A all the way to Bruckner. Even forgetting the As, you might need that long to get through the prolific Bach and Beethoven and all their many interpreters. The logic was dodgy, but she couldn’t help feeling there was something to it.

Bob Winston and the managers might have been grateful to hire someone who wasn’t twenty, but Rose was simply shocked. Shocked that at the age of sixty she was sitting behind a counter in a gray-walled room, selling used CDs, and being paid just over minimum wage, when most of her working life she had earned many times that amount.

Is this what happens, she thought, that you become suddenly expendable? All the talents and skills that you develop over decades become irrelevant? Even though your energy and ability to think and reason (or even sympathize with the tattooed panhandlers who posted themselves around the Avenue) were at their most acute?

It wasn’t just the economy, which had been staggering toward some Parkinson-ridden demise for some years; Rose had to admit, depressingly, it was also her.

She had never been able to achieve that focus on the self that the ambitious and successful were so comfortable with, and which would have helped her secure her career as an artist. That uncanny ability to exalt one’s desires and talents over others. Nor was she able to project the air of authority that would have impressed her students when she was teaching, inspiring them to give her the highest evaluations, evaluations that might have ensured her teaching jobs.

Instead, she had led discussions with a series of non-sequitors, not quite as bad as the jittery Bob Winston, violinist and classical buyer for Plutonium “It’s a Blast” Music, but just as distracting, just as worrying to the listener.

Eventually her adjunct teaching jobs dried up, and the one teaching job that had remained hers for almost two decades, due to the sympathy of the department heads who were awed by her artistic skills despite her lack of classroom charisma, had collapsed, victim to the financial conniving of the school’s upper administration.

The college, born during the 70s, catered to those who could not function in a normal college, whether because of their rebellious attitude toward the establishment, an outspoken distrust of authority, or a lack of basic educational skills like the ability to read and understand or write and be understood.

The young people that the school welcomed made for a fractious student body and the upper administration, cut from the same cloth, made for fractious record keepers. Getting grades posted was a task and getting an actual physical diploma was beyond possibility. Finally, the college had collapsed like a black hole. Rose felt no loss, either for her students or teaching. But the school’s collapse had come at a bad time in her life. She bid farewell to retirement, or even the possibility of finding decent work.

It had been time to find a job. Happenstance, fate, kismet, whatever, had led Rose to Plutonium Music, hippest music store on the Avenue, and, she mused, she would continue here until happenstance led her elsewhere.

“Is that your lunch?” Rose asked.

The thin man with white hair tufted around his face like a ragged halo was pouring dry cat food into a dish with the concentration befitting life-and-death surgery. The dish and two others—one with water and the other with an especially pungent tuna fish—stood in a tray of water. Neither he nor the man watching him—David, was his name, she remembered (wrongly)—said anything.

David (whose real name was Nate) looked up at last and said, “This is Arnold.”

“Glad to meet you,” Rose murmured, wondering, as she had on other occasions, why Asian families so often gave their children names they couldn’t pronounce.

“The food’s for Arnold’s cat.”

Rose nodded. In the downstairs bathroom, plastered like a fragment of graffiti on the wall next to the bathroom supplies, was a postcard-sized black-and-white photo of a cat dressed in a frilly jacket and bonnet with the inked-in caption, “Never forget Arnold.” She hadn’t been able to decipher the caption, like most of the graffiti on the wall, hastily jotted in a crabbed calligraphy, it was punctuation- and pronoun-challenged. Was it supposed to be, “Never forget [me,] Arnold”? Or “[I’ll] never forget Arnold”? Not both, though, she was pretty sure of that.

The three of them moved to the open back door, David (Nate) and Rose lingering in the doorway to watch Arnold as he balanced the tray filled with water and dishes of food while he navigated the back stairs.

At the soft clatter of the food tray, a large orange cat with white bib and paws sauntered out from the trash bins to weave itself around Arnold’s legs.

Upstairs, Rose wondered about Arnold, wondering at the same time why she was wondering. He was definitely not her type, with his nervous glances and breathless speech, but she tried to imagine what his life was like—where he lived, did he have a lover, did he love anything besides classical music and the big orange tabby cat? But she had wondered that about Dave (Nate) as well, when she was first there. Especially because he had blinked when he mentioned his wife—he hadn’t called her name, simply said “his wife”—blink.

Men often blinked when they mentioned their significant other, girlfriend or wife. She wondered why, puzzled over it, perhaps more than was worthwhile. She had thought about asking—she was, most of the time, a very straightforward person—but she knew there would be no meaningful response.

“Why did you blink just then, when you mentioned your wife?” Rose might ask.

“Excuse me?” the man would reply.

“When you mentioned your wife, why did you blink?” Was that any clearer?

“I don’t know what you mean.”

“I don’t know what you mean either—when you blink, that is, but I believe in body language.”

“Unh-hnnh”

“You know, that the way we move and gesture when we talk, or even when we don’t talk, means something. They say women can read body language better than men. What you call “women’s intuition” is really just reading body language.”

“Everyone blinks.”

“Yeah. But this is different. And the blink is a very specific kind of blink. Like this.” Demonstration of blink. “And you do it when you mention your wife. See? You do it when I mention your wife, and I don’t even know your wife. What does it mean?”

“I did not blink.”

“Yeah, you did,” Rose would insist.

“It doesn’t mean anything,” the man would reply.

Conversations like that were definitely not good for friendly relations, so she never tried to solve the enigmas that plagued her. She just continued to wonder. Rose was not very good at understanding men, even though she had grown up with four brothers. Perhaps that was why: she expected most men to be like her brothers, even to be her brothers perhaps, but most men were not. And inside their strange and unapproachable minds, there was something unknowable bubbling around about women.

It had to do with sex. She was pretty sure of that, and her women friends confirmed the idea. Her generation had been obsessed with sex and had made little effort to suppress that; they were known for “sexual freedom.” It was part of the free speech movement. Her best friend in high school, Annie, had been nicknamed Annie Jane Freelove by the boys. And in college, dating, accompanied by uninhibited sex, seemed more like a game of musical chairs than a search for a longtime, monogamous partner.

The orange tabby continued to weave through Arnold’s legs. A large metal comb with a plastic handle had mysteriously appeared in Arnold’s hand, and he was making futile gestures to pass it through the cat’s matted fur. The cat lived outside dodging the daily challenges that oozed from between the smelly dumpsters where it hung out, sleeping in the sun. Cat clearly wasn’t a big groomer. It was a pretty cat though, with large golden eyes in its broad orange and white face. Rose could see why Arnold was smitten.

The cat started wheezing, its head outstretched and wobbling back and forth. Part of kitty’s dinner lay, newly risen, on the cement. “Nate,” Arnold’s fluty voice floated up from below. “Can you throw me some paper towels?” David (Nate) stirred next to her. Oh! thought Rose.

Nate moved past her carrying a roll of paper towels and one of the store’s plastic bags meant for CDs.

What Rose really wanted, as she watched the men scoop up the cat’s reworked dinner, was to be home. In her cottage that stood in the middle of a large garden, with her own cats—the brave Fergus and Baby.

“Yo! Roger!”

XR137!, who in another mental state and time was named Roger, kept shuffling through the park, ignoring the call that was clearly directed toward him by some scruffy guy, who was unshaven and red-eyed. Humans. They always called him by the wrong name, and some days—like today—it was unbearable. Humans: their lack of understanding, their inability to imagine that there were other life forms in the universe. You’d think with that self-absorbed arrogance the least they could do was care for their little planet. And their disrespect for him as another—superior—race was appalling.

“Hey, Roger! Man!”

XR137! tried to shuffle faster; if only he could inhabit his real body, free himself from this vile and transient body, vile vile, but no, it was a weight around his soul.

XJ0*3 suddenly appeared to his left. All light and glowing, her tentacles floating around her, XJ0*3 was sitting on one of the park’s wooden benches and eating a bowl of noodles, with no apparent bowl. In the sunlight, she looked magnificent. She had no need to shout at XR137!, her thoughts just appeared among his—vivid and shimmering like a fine curtain of iridescent particles, not unlike the Northern Lights that Roger remembered from his childhood, a lonely child visiting his aunt and uncle’s farm. Life had been easier then, his body moved effortlessly in the Earth’s atmosphere. Not like now when everything about his body hurt. He shuffled to a stop.

Our mission, XR137!, is to study the human race. They are a sad and lonely race, forever separate from each other, trapped in their bodies and thoughts. Speak to them, XR137!. Make contact. Interact! Soy sauce ran down her long digit-like tentacles that held the noodles. There was a tiny flake of red onion near her orifice.

“Yes, yes, of course,” returned XR137!. He was humbled. Once again he had forgotten his mission. This lovely creature who was his superior officer had to remind him over and over.

As he gazed at her, XJ0*3 faded, first the tips of her tentacles and then slowly from her edges inward, until nothing was left except a glowing half-eaten noodle, which suddenly, abruptly disappeared.

Slowed to a stop, thinking about the planet and his mission, he’d forgotten about the shabby grizzled man who had been pursuing him.

“Yo, Roger! Where you been, man? Nice scarf, dude.” The man grabbed the red-and-black-check shawl that Roger had found in the free box and wound tightly around his neck. The man clapped Roger on the shoulder. Pain shot through his back. XR137! hissed.

“Sorry, man, did I hurt you?” The man stepped back and hesitated.

What was this human’s name? XR137! couldn’t remember, but he did remember that the human had a name—

“Hey, man, I scored a chicken salad. Some girl on the Ave. gave it to me. Said she wouldn’t give me money but she bought me a salad. I hate salad.” That’s what the man was carrying in his hand, the other one, the one that hadn’t grabbed Roger’s shoulder. Roger’s eyes narrowed in on the plastic container half-full of ragged green leaves covered with an icky white fluid. He began to salivate.

“You want some, man? You can have the rest of it. I hate salad.”

The container seemed to float in the air before him. XR137! gathered it into him, one arm resting on its top, the other below. He backed away from the man, then stumbled over to the bench where he had last seen the beautiful XJ0*3. He sat down where she had sat and, with shaking hands, pulled open the container.

The grubby man had followed and sat down next to him. XR137! hissed again, but this time into the soggy green leaves. Milky looking fluid—poppy seed dressing, he remembered, whatever that was—sprayed onto his sad clothes.

“Hey, man, did Mike tell you?” the man leaned into him, his breath was rank. All of him was rank. “Mike scored some pot. We’re going to smoke it tonight, in the alley behind the record store. That new woman at the record store? She always closes the backdoor early.”

XR137! closed his eyes. Tempter! Vile tempter, vile vile, XR137! sputtered inside. Little do you know I could blast your wanton and smelly carcass to the far reaches of the solar system, to the ends of the universe—to the garbage dumps of Tsfosng of the Five Suns where tar bubbles sticky and sulfurous over the surface of the planet. How would you escape the pain, tempter? As the black sludge burns away at your skin? Or better yet I could sell your stinkpot of a body, vile excuse for a life form, to the Evil Empress of Bogogj, who would slowly and endlessly torture not simply your wreck of flesh hung on porous bones but also that meager force you call a soul. Vile vile tempter.

From the corner of his eye, he caught the luminous glimmer of XJ0*3. She was moving down the sidewalk, barely visible, more like a displacement of atoms, as if she were shifting them from another dimension.

XR137! choked on his lettuce.

“Hey, Rog, you OK?” The tempter smacked Roger on the back.

Tears began to run down XR137!’s face. If he could only stop the pain. The tempter’s foul weed helped, and he knew he would be behind the record store that evening if only so he could sleep through the night without the aches that made the ground beneath his bruised body an unending torture.

No doubt about it: the human body was an imperfect domicile.

4. Taking Count

May 13, 2010

“So did you do the survey?” Liz asked.

Rose looked up into Liz’s startlingly fresh and beautiful face.

“Not yet. I got distracted,” answered Rose, apologetically.

She wasn’t surprised to see her young friend in the music store. She had run into her in the library several weeks ago, and Liz had promised to visit. Liz had been one of secretaries at her college, and with the school’s collapse had taken a job editing and proofreading for a marketing company, which she despised. Rose thought of Liz as a free spirit and was puzzled when Liz had taken a job she hated, and again when Liz got involved with a man less ambitious and certainly less intelligent.

“Did we bet money on this?” continued Liz. “We should make a bet. I know I’ll win.”

“Yeah,” answered Rose, there was no way she would bet on such a sure thing. “But I thought we were doing this survey just to see what the percentages were. For sure you’re right.”

The bet was that more men came into Classical than women.

“Holy moly,” Liz had said when Rose told her about her new job. “I hate that place. I never go in there. It’s nothing but men. Men banging their way through the stacks. Men buying CDs from men selling CDs. Men hanging out, staring at nothing in particular.”

Rose had nodded in response. “It’s mostly men.”

“Mostly?”

“Sometimes women come in,” she hesitated under the skeptical look on Liz’s face, “but I’m working there; and yes, I’m the only woman on staff in Classical. But there are other women downstairs.”

Liz sniggered.

“I bet if you took a poll there would be only one woman in every twenty customers. If that.” Rose felt slightly alarmed at the look in Liz’s eye. There was some point the younger woman wanted to make and Rose didn’t know what it was. But she also knew Liz wouldn’t give up until it was made.

Finally Rose agreed to keep track of the number of men versus the number of women who cruised the classical section, looking for buys. Two weeks only, she insisted.

“God, I’m glad you’re working there,” Liz had smiled, victory transfiguring her already beautiful face. “Now I can go in there. I’ll come visit.”

And here she was, come not only to visit but also to check on their survey.

“Well, what if I keep track the first half hour?” Liz asked, her blue eyes wide in her untarnished face.

“If you like.”

Rose continued pricing the stacks of used CDs left by Bob Winston while Liz pulled out a stenographer’s notebook, drew a line down the page, and wrote “M” on the left-hand side and “W” on the right. She smiled at Rose, then wandered away down the aisle, pen poised. Rose sunk back into the task at hand.

“What?” said Rose, shocked by the loud whisper in her ear.

Liz was back at her side. “Is he always here?” she whispered. She gestured over her shoulder to an elderly man asleep in the plastic cushioned chair in the corner, next to the boxed sets of opera albums. “Him. Is he always here?”

Rose nodded.

“He’s my neighbor,” Liz continued in her stage whisper. Rose’s eyes widened in mock disbelief. “Well, not really my neighbor. He lives up the hill; he’s Meg’s and I see him when I go visit her. Is this what he does, come here and sleep?” Rose nodded.

“Does he come here everyday?”

“Almost,” murmured Rose, looking down at the CD in her hand—Immortal Romantic Moments. Who in their right mind would buy Immortal Romantic Moments, wondered Rose. And why? She had the sudden vision of a balding man, his hair combed over the top of his head, in a room full of plush red velvet, standing over a leggy blonde sprawled on a sofa. He’d be wearing black shiny loafers. God, thought Rose in sudden horror: sitting among all those tasteless album covers from the fifties was affecting her sense of … something.

“I’ve always wondered,” whispered Liz.

“Wondered what?” said Rose.

Before Rose could stop her, Liz was off again, this time in the direction of the old man. It was true the man was one of the regulars, that motley group of ten or eleven who frequented Classical. They were older men (only one woman among them), most in their sixties, and they showed up regular as clockwork on Wednesdays, when the new old vinyl was brought over from the warehouse. But the elderly man, whose name was Sid, showed up at any time. And his taste seemed more catholic than most of the regulars. Twice she had found him asleep in different parts of the store, once in World Music, once in Grunge Rock, the music blasting away over his faint snores.

“You’ve got to do something about him,” insisted Liz. The two women were on Rose’s break, sitting in the coffee shop down the street. Liz had hung around, dutifully recording the sexes of customers as they entered Classical. “He smells!”

Rose sighed, and looked out the windows at the verdant park that lay at the back of the record store. “Some days he’s not so bad,” Rose said. She was watching the homeless men who seemed to be in a discussion near the picnic tables, one of them waving his arms around his head while two others watched transfixed. And there was that homeless man she often saw shuffling down the sidewalk as if he were being pursued. His face covered in scabs, and his feet swollen and cut. He was wearing a red-and-black-check shawl wrapped tightly around his neck. A new find, she thought. “At least Sid has a home,” she gestured toward the man in the street.

The two women watched silently as the homeless man shuffled past them on the other side of the café window. Liz sighed, then pulled out her stenographer’s pad, “You see, I was right. Twenty men came in and only three women. And one of them was with a man. Well, it’s more women than I thought, but I’m sure that’s a sampling error. If you do this for two weeks the numbers will change.”

“OK,” said Rose, uncertain about what the point was.

Brad was having trouble with his cat.

No matter who was visiting—male or female, old or young, friend or enemy—Romeo got upset. And it wasn’t a matter of sulking or hissing or even an occasional focused swipe of the unsheathed paw at the offending intruder. No, it was full-out cat fury. Something akin to the fighting frenzy of Cuchulain.

First, his eyes would dilate, then contract, leaving slivers of black in a vibrating circle of bluish green. Then, the hackles would start to rise around his neck and shoulders, and from the very depths of his feline soul would come a low rumble that grew in force and loudness as it rose up through his body toward that pink-hued mouth that was lined with pointed teeth and carpeted with a bristling tongue. The final sound was an unearthly screech, likely to raise the dead as well as the living.

If the intruder didn’t leave immediately, Romeo attacked: a flying mass of electrified black and white, spittle dashing, and screaming, every barb in his body targeted to the unhappy limbs of his beleaguered victim. Brad had deflected several attacks by leaping in between his hurriedly leaving friends and his in-flight attack cat.

Brad was unable to soothe his easily distressed cat. No matter how he orchestrated visits, they always ended in panic and flight. He loved his cat though. He had raised Romeo from the age of six weeks, and Romeo, up until the age of nine had always been a docile and amiable companion. Guys came over to watch football, women came over to watch opera; through it all Romeo ruled as cat pal of the apartment: a large purring tuxedo cat who spent his days sunbathing in the window and promenading for the passersby on the street and his evenings hanging out with Brad’s pals, lounging on laps and licking the potato chip salt off fingers.

Something had happened. Brad wasn’t sure what but it had to do with a girlfriend, Elizabeth, Romeo’s favorite, but who had gone the way of many of Brad’s girlfriends—off to greener and more romantic pastures. The next girl who showed up on Brad’s door set off the madness of Romeo. She had escaped, barely, halfway through Cosi Fan Tutte, and after the experience had refused to return Brad’s phone calls. From there on it was all downhill.

Finally, Brad had faced facts: Romeo was refusing to share.

The first year, as the attacks grew and visits dwindled, Brad had puzzled over the situation, and tried to solve the problem by shutting Romeo in the bathroom until he calmed down. But Romeo’s erratic behavior only increased. Brad had no idea how to approach the problem. Should he take Romeo to the doctor? How could he manage that? The idea of stuffing his fifteen-pound maniac feline into a cat carrier was daunting. The damage he would sustain might be worse than leaping in front of the attacking cat. On the other hand, he couldn’t take Romeo to the pound: Romeo was old and Brad didn’t feel he could survive the guilt. He wanted a normal life though. He wanted to invite his friends over. And he wanted a girlfriend. Badly.

While it was true he worked in the office at Plutonium, rather than on the floor, his vision was barraged by young babes. Most of them ignored him, he had to admit; he wasn’t much younger than his cat, in cat years, that is to say he was over forty. Really he was quite a bit younger; Romeo, after all, was twelve, which made him, what? Eighty-four? No, Brad was a young man, by comparison. And Romeo was, despite his name, neutered, which really, given the state of things, was an advantage.

There had been that young woman who had come to see Rose the other day, for instance. Now, she was hot! Brad had been on the floor, in Jazz, when she flounced up the stairs to Classical. It was her skin, startlingly fresh, and the set of her shoulders. Brad had thought about them for a second and decided it was time to bring some returned CDs back to Classical. Rose was a good egg. He could talk to her about opera while surveying the front, as it were. If that’s what the expression was.

Upstairs the two women had been engaged in a quiet and cryptic conversation; neither of them paid Brad any attention. Rose had just taken the CDs, barely glancing at him, and returned her attention to the young woman, leaving Brad with the option of going back downstairs or pretending as if he were looking for something among the bins.

He chose the latter.

While he was dawdling over Beethoven, Rose’s young friend walked up behind him. He turned and smiled but she was looking elsewhere, and he was left vulnerable, struck suddenly speechless by the closeness of her youth and beauty. When she turned her violet-blue look in his direction, her blonde hair swung across her cheek and his heart stopped. In the background, over the strains of Puccini, he could hear the snap of Eros’ bow. She moved past him, her gaze directed toward the other side of the aisle, scanning the labels from Walton to Stravinsky. The notebook page she had been marking was just visible and covered with strange marks: M—1111, long line W—

The marks seemed utterly in keeping with her essence: exotic, inscrutable, profound. He was in love. But she stood as if across some shimmering desert of heat and vipers, a life-saving oasis, solitary and visionary but unreachable. Likely to evaporate as quickly as a mirage.

And walking sedately and with great dignity across those vast sands, in a line that drew an invisible wall between Brad and this blonde vision, was a large, implacable, green-eyed tuxedo cat.

6. Marx Meets Mozart

May 13, 2010

As they changed over shifts, Rose and Nate always chatted for a few minutes. Nate passing on the tasks of the day, and Rose playing the indifferent, slightly rebellious employee. Occasionally, Nate would take on that role, in his own quirky way, like when he had drawn a stick figure armed with a drill next to the tooth she had drawn on the calendar to indicate that she had a dentist appointment coming up.

Rose had come in that afternoon, bubbling with anxiety and obstreperousness. As she stood in line at the supermarket that morning, flipping through her voter pamphlet, she had seen a magazine nestled between The National Enquirer and Veggie News. Across the cover was a waving banner that stated, “Reforming Capitalism.”

“Honestly, do we really want to reform capitalism?” she pleaded to Nate. “Don’t we just want to get rid of it? Try a different paradigm?” She was pleased with the word; it sounded knowledgeable.

“What else is there?” Nate countered.

Rose was aghast. What wasn’t there? How many forms of social contract were there? Among tribal groups alone, there must be thousands. She was considering the dimensions of Nate’s lack of imagination, when the alarming Bob Winston appeared as if from out of the bin of Mozart CDs.

“Oh, you’re both here!” He ducked between them to stand behind the counter. “What? …What!”

“We’re discussing whether or not capitalism should be reformed,” said Rose. She had twisted her voter pamphlet into a tight roll.

“Oh … Oh!”

“What else is there?” Nate repeated staunchly. “Communism failed.”

“Well, communism …the first few pages of Marx … communism,” spluttered Bob Winston. “We’ve never had communism …The Soviets weren’t communism. Not Marx … Or the Chinese.”

“How about socialism?” asked Rose.

“There hasn’t ever been communism,” repeated Bob Winston with a shriek of laughter. “Not like … if you read …”

“European Socialism … that’s not so bad,” continued Rose. She was ready to go into detail if either showed the least interest in what she was saying.

Bob Winston was becoming more and more animated. “This country … this country … one week you are making a couple of hundred a week,” Bob stepped back into the doorway to the employee’s room and began to wave his arms. “Here … here.” He placed his hand on the wall. It was at just about the same height as Rose: he could have been placing his hand on her head. “One week … and the next,” his hands leaped up expressively and he began patting the doorframe above him. “Two hundred million.” He danced toward them again. “Nowhere in the world like it. One week, two hundred,” his hand floated down to Rose’s height again, “the next, two hundred million,” his hand drifted up over the sign that said We Do Not Play Requests.

“Have you cracked the secret to doing that yet?” Rose asked. “You know, the two hundred to two hundred million thing.”

“Oh, he’s cracked the secret,” answered Nate. “He’s just too lazy to implement it.”

Rose laughed, but not too loudly. Tall, thin Bob Winston, after all, was her supervisor. To hide her insensitivity, she put the voter pamphlet on the counter, where it slowly unrolled itself. Nate slapped his hand down on top of it.

“I say vote no on every proposition,” asserted Nate. From capitalist to anarchist in one sentence. Rose was impressed

“I can’t even keep track of these propositions.”

“Berkeley has Proposition KKK,” Nate said.

“San Francisco,” stumbled Bob Winston, “has two different propositions on the ballot … I mean …that create the exact same thing. I love it. It’s just sort of … Incredible …so … anyway … As one of my closest friends says … he says the thing about America is that … you come to America, you give up your identity. He says that basically. It’s secular. You can work on Sunday. We don’t care, we don’t care,” Bob Winston began backing into the employees’ room, his hands extended in front of him as in prayer. “We don’t care.” He began to inch forward again, hunching slightly, his voice dropping to a level of intimacy. “You make money. We don’t care what god you worship; we don’t care what you look like. All we care about is your paycheck. This is a very radical idea,” he concluded humbly, his eyes lowered.

“Radical good or radical bad?” Rose wanted to know. She was baffled. If she could figure out Bob’s viewpoint, she thought she might be able to understand what he was trying to say. Nate gave her an appraising look and hummed significantly, as if what she was asking was shot with profundity.

“Well, it goes against the grain of most of human history…”

“We belong to the X Clan,” inserted Nate.

“It goes against the real thing,” continued Bob, “of being … of being …”

“Human?” inserted Rose.

“Collective,” continued Bob. “You become collective. Most societies, they become homogeneous and people act like themselves and you trust your neighbors and you know who are. And you and you …” He was sotto voce now, his fluttering hands at rest. “There’s a real collectivity … Here you take all this stuff, you mix it together,” his hands were twirling around each other, “you know, and you preach that everybody is supposed to be equal under the law … I mean it’s just madness.” He burst into laughter. Rose felt her alarm meter rising. “OK?” sotto voce again. “It’s a great idea but you can’t be equal under the law because you have all these … factions.”

“We’re back to groups again,” Nate pointed out. He was clearly pleased. This was a meaningful moment.

“We have more KKK people,” Bob Winston remarked almost simultaneously. It was, Rose thought, a parallel play moment. “And … Minutemen. We have more extreme crazy groups. I mean it’s all … it … you can’t have equal under the law if you have all these extreme crazy groups.”

The intercom beeped into action. One of the door guys downstairs began humming over its tinny, static-filled speaker. Intercom and voice clicked off abruptly.

“Good,” said Bob. “Yes, well anyway …”

Really, thought Rose, he’s a very sympathetic man. He doesn’t want to say it’s bad. Or good. He’s just trying to get by, make the best of it without offending anyone. Although she still didn’t understand Bob Winston, she suddenly had more respect for him. Nate was right when he had called the alarming Bob Winston a saint. 

As he sat on the dilapidated picnic table in the middle of the park, under the pale November sun, XR137! felt the exquisitely tender tentacles of Commanding Officer XJ0*3 wrap slowly around him. First his arms and torso, then his legs, and finally his neck, face and head. This was the pleasantest part of his assignment, when he reported in. Releasing all the information—traumas and observations—that he, in his unwieldy and miserable body, had gathered and sustained during the week.

The report was nonverbal. XJ0*3 absorbed his information, connecting in that magically gentle way that earmarked the superiority of their race. As XJ0*3 transformed each cell in his body, entering, reading, and reconfiguring its information, he felt cleansed, as if an intolerable burden, a burden unto pain, was lifted slowly from this primal self. And his thoughts drifted, drifted like pollen in the weak sunlight.

He was back on his uncle’s farm in Montana, riding around on his tractor, the June sunlight warm on his head and chest. All summer, his uncle and he rode the tractor around the farm. His uncle high on the metal tractor seat, his skin growing darker and drier under the increasing heat of summer, and Roger, wearing a large, floppy hat, seated on the bicycle seat that his Uncle Dan had welded to the tractor’s chassis. His uncle told him he was “riding shotgun” but what he was really in charge of was the transistor radio, which it was his job to hold and that blasted out folk and country-western songs while the two of them wove back and forth across the fields, the smell of dust and broken grass rising into their lungs.

When a Woody Guthrie song came thinly out of the radio, Roger’s uncle would sing along, giving the boy glances as if he were singing to Roger, one eyebrow lifted: This land is your land, this land is my land, from California to the New York Island. Every once in a while, he would wink, but for the most part, Uncle Dan was silent, attentive to the work at hand, and listening to the radio. It was a monotonous but easy life, free of the tensions that living in the city brought.

It seemed his uncle always needed the radio on, in the car, on the tractor, in the house. Though most evenings in the house his Uncle Dan made his own music, walking around the sedately outfitted rooms, playing his fiddle, his expression absorbed as hundreds, no, thousands of notes, tumbled out from under his fingers and bow.

Sometimes Roger helped his Aunt Meghan with small chores, and he liked that. She was a tall, rounded woman with milky skin and brilliantly red hair. She was soft, pillowy and talkative, unlike his mother and his uncle, who were tall but dark, large-boned and thin, silent people. Uncle Dan said it was because she came from a family of ten brothers and sisters. “You have to express yourself when there’s that many of you,” he said, “otherwise you might never get fed.” Meg wore lipstick and penciled in her eyebrows. Often they drove the ten miles or so into town, and Meg would take Roger out for a treat, she was especially fond of cherry cokes and Roger would get a root beer float with vanilla ice cream. Other days, Roger rode a tricycle around the parking area. When he got older, he had a bike that he rode down the asphalt road into the town, often to buy cooking supplies for his aunt. He would pack everything into a large red backpack and pedal home, after having spent an hour or so in the local comic book store. He could even bring comics home, something his mother would never allow.

In September, just before he returned to the city, to school and his anxious, overworked mother, Roger and Aunt Meghan would make “pudding.” It was something none of his friends at school in the city had heard of much less tasted, but plum pudding was one of the many things that showed his aunt was Canadian and different. Like the funny way she said “about”—as if it were “a boot.”

Making pudding began by dragging out all the containers, the enormous turkey pans, and big hand grinder that his aunt screwed onto the kitchen tabletop. And then they were off to the butcher to buy suet: “beef kidney suet,” his aunt admonished every year—only that would do. And pounds of apples and carrots, raisins and currants, a potato, but no plums or even figs. It was, thought Roger, strange, wonderfully strange. Why was it called plum pudding, if it wasn’t a pudding and it didn’t have any plums? That was part of its grand mystery, like the suet that came out of the grinder in long pale wormy looking strands and then disappeared into a mixture that when steamed and warm was sweet and dark, heavy with moisture, and nothing at all like chunks of suet.

Roger felt cold. He opened his eyes and saw that dusk had fallen in the park. He was alone on the park bench and he was hungry. The chill that the night brought had slowly submerged into his body. The sky above had turned orange and dusky. Walking across the park was a little man with tufted white hair. Roger recognized him as the man who fed the Cat. It was clear the little white-haired man recognized the Cat’s intelligence and paid him homage, as well he should—Cat, like XR137!, being from a superior alien race.

Hail, mortal! Bringer of food, worshipper of the Cat!

XR137! rose slowly from the bench, and shuffled in the man’s direction. Sometimes the little man with tufted white hair gave him money.

Rose had spread out the pieces of paper in front of her, turning them in Liz’s direction so that the young woman could more easily count the hatch marks. Not a lot of people came into Classical, especially the hours Rose worked, but Liz was right: the ratio of men to women browsing in Classical was easily ten to one. Maybe, as she had insisted, as much as twenty to one.

“What happened here?” Liz asked, tapping a piece of paper on which the ratio was almost two to one.

“That was Black Friday,” Rose replied. Black Friday: the media name for the day after Thanksgiving, the biggest shopping day of the year, a name that seemed to be on everyone’s lips this year.

“Oh well, that doesn’t count.” Liz pushed the paper aside.

“Why not?” Rose found herself outraged, and she reached over to push the paper back in line with its fellows.

“Special circumstances—holidays.” Liz pushed the paper to the side again.

“But the holidays are about buying and selling things. Stores wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the holidays. Especially Christmas! Think about all the gifts you have to buy. Isn’t that what’s in the business page? How the sales went on the day after Thanksgiving? It’s some kind of indicator. Like Groundhog Day. Bad sales and the recession deepens for another six months. Good sales and it’s springtime.”

“Only women buy Christmas gifts. Think about it,” Liz pushed the paper farther to the side. “Mothers having to buy gifts not only for the husband and kids but also for all the relatives. I can just see the house husband wandering the aisles of the local department store, trying to figure out what to buy Auntie Maxine and her five brats. Not likely. And then there’s all the secretaries having to buy gifts for the boss’ wife and kids. And mistress…es.”

“I don’t think secretaries do that anymore. Or bosses.”

Liz cocked an eyebrow.

“All right,” said Rose. “We’ll do it your way.” Liz began adding up the marks.

Rose looked up at the sound of someone coming up the stairs. It was Brad. Great. Rose knew exactly why Brad was heading for the counter where she and Liz were standing. She had known it the other day when Brad had appeared, CD returns in hand. She had ignored him then, but the look in his eye now made it clear she couldn’t ignore him again. She looked down at the numbers Liz was writing in her notebook.

“See how good I was?” said Rose. “I kept records for three weeks.”

“276 divided by 13 is what?”

“Hi Rose.” Brad had stopped within striking distance of Liz. He looked at Rose with an expression of fixed sincerity.

“Brad.”

“What’s 276 divided by 13?” Liz repeated.

Brad reached over and took the pencil out of Liz’s hand, and continued her arithmetic. Ooops, thought Rose. Strike one. “21.23. And some more.” He turned a glowing smile on Liz.

Rose had never seen Brad glow before.

“Thanks,” said Liz, looking at Rose. “That’s 21.23 to 1. Didn’t I tell you?”

“21.23 of what to what?” asked Brad, innocently.

Rose smiled. This was good. She was going to enjoy this.

“21.23 men to one woman,” Liz turned to him, her eyes wide with information. “21.23 men come into Classical every day compared to one woman. On an average day.”

“Oh,” said Brad. Silence.

Strike two, thought Rose.

“Why do you think that is?” Liz asked Brad.

And why, thought Rose, was she was getting a charge out of watching her co-worker Brad flounder? He wasn’t a bad fellow, but like Liz’s current boyfriend, John, he just wasn’t very interesting. A clueless dork, really. Rose wondered, though, if she was jealous. No one came tripping up the stairs to ingratiate himself to her. Not that she wanted Brad to pay attention to her—well, actually, yes, she did want that. She wanted everyone to pay attention to her. She was starved for attention. Being neglected was part of being a sixty-year-old woman. But having Brad as a boyfriend would be like working in Classical. A poorly paying dead-end stopgap measure. Rose considered: If she was working in Classical and had someone like Brad as a boyfriend, she might have to kill herself.

“Well,” Brad was choosing his words as if behind each word stood a lady or a tiger. Which was insightful, thought Rose, after all, he had two strikes against him and no balls. “Men like to collect.”

OK, thought Rose, maybe one ball.

Liz was nodding. “I think I read something about that,” she said, “in yesterday’s paper. In the Sunday supplement.”

“I’ve got that,” answered Rose, flipping through the cast-off papers under the counter. “In this section?” Rose smacked “Bay Area Living” on the counter.

“That’s it!” Liz pounced. “Here listen to this: ‘Large shopping carts stimulate the brain to create dopamine, one of the body’s most addictive chemicals. Having a cart full of items, whether we need them or not, excites the natural human instinct to hoard, which is located in the prefrontal cortex of the brain. This small region is associated with collecting.’”

“But what’s that got to do with gender?” puzzled Rose. “If it were just about shopping carts and dopamine, everyone—male or female—would be up here buying and collecting like crazy.”

“Hmmm,” said Liz, a frown on her lovely brow. Brad stood as if frozen.

It was then that Arnold appeared at the top of the stairs. His thin shoulders looked more burdened than usual, his mouth was puckered and his hair stuck out in a hundred different directions.

“What’s wrong?” asked Rose.

Arnold was the image of a defeated and abused man. “The managers told me I have to get rid of Kitty.”

“What?!”

“You’re kidding.”

“No. I have to find a home for Kitty.”

9. Rats

May 13, 2010

Kitty had killed a rat.

Not only had the big orange tabby caught a rat, but she—or he—had left it on the backstairs of the music store.

“She’s just brought you a gift,” said the matter-of-fact Liz.

“I think it’s a he. Orange tabbies are usually male. He was probably worried that you weren’t getting enough to eat,” added Rose, eyeing Arnold’s slight figure.

“I know,” said Arnold, “but that doesn’t make any difference. They still flipped. I’ve seen orange tabbies that were female.”

“You have?”

“Who flipped?” On track, Liz didn’t waver.

“Gavin and Anne.”

“Which ones are they?” Rose had been introduced to several Plutonium workers but their names had slid through her memory like a skateboarder on a greased track.

“Gavin’s the big guy in black leather. He looks like an ex-wrestler who hasn’t had a haircut in fifteen years. Anne has black hair.”

They all have black hair, thought Rose, dyed black hair. And didn’t wrestlers have long hair? No, that couldn’t be: it was too easy a handhold for an opponent. Wrestlers were bald. “Well, you’d think they wouldn’t mind a rat or two, stylistically speaking. They could tie them by their tails to their spike studded belts.”

“It was half eaten,” emphasized Arnold. He wasn’t finding Rose funny. “The rat.”

“Disgusting,” said Liz.

“Even better,” said Rose. “Unless it was the lower half that was eaten. Then he—or she —would have to tie the rat on his—or her—belt with rubber bands.”

Arnold pursed his lips again. This was serious: Kitty’s future was at stake. For several seconds everyone was silent.

“Stall,” asserted Liz.

“Yeah,” added Rose, “you wait long enough and they’ll leave. Like everyone else. Or they’ll forget.”

“No,” countered Arnold. “They’ve been here a really long time. They’ll never leave.” He launched into a long recitation on his life at Plutonium Music—LPs and CDs, during which he described in detail his many battles with Gavin and Anne. Three things were clear to Rose. One, Gavin and Anne were not about to leave, and, two, compromise on the issue of Kitty was impossible—clearly Kitty was only a skirmish in an ongoing war. And three, working with Arnold must have been tedious beyond belief.

“I can’t take Kitty home. My cat would never allow it.” Arnold concluded in despair.

“Hmmm, maybe,” countered Rose. It was time for her break, and when Nate appeared, she and Liz left Nate and Brad to comfort the heartbroken Arnold.

It was a sunny day for November, and sitting in coffee house, next to the large glass windows looking out on the Avenue, Rose felt warm and at ease. The late afternoon suffused the buildings with a honeyed light creating an ambience of simplicity and effortlessness. Steam rose from her tea, bringing the aroma of herbs and comfort.

“I talked to Meg,” said Liz, “about Sid. His last name is Levrant.”

Rose nodded.

“He lives by himself but he used to live with his father, until his father died about ten years ago. There’s something wrong with him. Meg didn’t know what, and neither did her neighbor, who she got all this information from. Except when Sid was young, his mother wanted to put him in some kind of facility. But his dad said no. Isn’t that great!”

“Maybe,” said Rose. Clearly there was something wrong with Sid, but if Sid was the product of dad’s nurturing, Rose was unimpressed. Maybe Sid would have been more functional if he had been nurtured somewhere else by people who knew what they were doing. But, then again, Sid was quite a bit older than Rose. He’d grown up in the snake pit era. Some bozo would probably have sliced out his frontal lobes and left him to drool.

“It’s a happy story,” insisted Liz. “When his dad died, he left Sid a fortune.”

Rose nodded.

“He’d make a great catch,” said Liz, eyeing Rose.

“Right,” said Rose, “if you wanted to be a caregiver for the rest of your life.” Frankly, Rose would rather tie a half-eaten rat to her belt.

“Well, something has to be done about him.”

“You’re right.” Rose marveled over how agreeable she became after fifteen minutes of sitting in weak sunlight. “But I can’t do anything. I think he’s afraid of women.”

“Well, how ’bout the guys at Plutonium?” Liz asked, “Can’t you organize them?”

Rose contemplated the men she knew well enough to ask to intervene with Sid’s lifestyle—Nate, Arnold and the alarming Bob Winston.

“Mmm. I don’t think so.”

And then there was Brad.

Rose leaned back in her chair, sipped her tea, and looked at Liz. With the diminishing sunlight falling softly over her young friend’s features, Rose was beginning to have visions. She could see Brad and Liz, flashlights in hand, entering Sid’s house, a twilight structure with stacks and stacks of old records and CDs piled everywhere. Feral creatures skittered into dark corners as the two intrepid pioneers made their way slowly through the rooms to arrive at Sid’s den—a cluttered smelly room with a mattress on the floor, where the old man lay, curled in a fetal position, wrapped in old clothes and rags. Half-open pizza cartons with stale crusts littered the floor. And then … ta da! It was as if a light had been turned on: Sid was living in sanitary splendor, and Brad and Liz were waltzing around the smiling Sid, folding his clean laundry and ironing his shirts.

“Well, maybe one of the guys,” Rose said at last, “but you’d have to ask him. He wouldn’t listen to me.”

Whatever, thought Rose, was she doing?

Baby was lying on his back on the carpet, looking like a melted baked Alaska. As Rose stepped over him, she looked down into his golden eyes, which looked to her as if they were asking some eternal question. Rose had yet to figure out the question, so any answers she may have come up with were unlikely, besides she really didn’t think much was going on in Baby’s head, in spite of the questioning depths of his eyes. She reached down and scratched his belly. His feet went up and he started kicking her hands. Except for his bicycling back legs, Baby didn’t move, but his eyes grew wider and wilder. Near his head, was the new green fabric mouse Rose had bought the day before.

Both the cats loved the mouse. Fergus had immediately pounced on it when Rose brought it home and had batted it around the kitchen as if it were a real mouse. Fergus had spent his young cat-hood bringing in small pinecones and other vegetarian approximations of mice. Fergus was a mouser, and even at the venerable age of sixteen, his predatory impulses were formidable though short lived. It wasn’t long before he lost interest in the mouse and turned his attention back to Rose, climbing into her lap to turn around in a circle and settle into sleep.

Baby, however, didn’t lose interest in the toy. He didn’t bat the mouse, strangely; he sat next to it and talked to it. In the middle of the night, Rose woke to hear Baby talking to the mouse. There was something distressed about the sound, as if he were chastising the little cloth mouse for some unconscionable behavior.

Rose lived in a cottage set in the midst of a large lot full of trees, wild flowers and silent places. It had been a home to an endless stream of feral cats, which Rose periodically trapped and had neutered. Some years ago one pregnant cat had slipped by, and Rose had watched and waited, as the skittish mother cat grew big, then thin. One morning when she saw the mother cat lounging in the sun at the front of the house, she ran to the back of the yard where, tucked beneath the overflowing ferns beside the back fence, four kittens coiled around each other—two black and two gray-and-black tabbies, their eyes still closed. She scooped them up and carried them into the house.

She wasn’t able to coax the female cat inside the house, but she was too wild, too frightened. So the kittens had stayed with Rose. Fergus was the last of that litter, his brothers dying the year before from diseases of old age. Weeping, she had buried them next to each other, curled as if asleep in beds of lavender, rose petals and ferns.

Baby, the odd cat out, had also come to her as a kitten, abandoned in a large cardboard box left in the front garden. He had been tiny, an orange tabby so pale in color he looked pink. Some five years younger than Rose’s cats, he was timid and had spent his days hiding from the other cats. But in the past year, Baby had become bolder.

Rose fed the cats, rolled Baby over, gave his belly another scratch, and ran out the door. She regretted that she wouldn’t see them for another nine hours.

Later, when Rose got back to Plutonium from lunch, there was a large cat’s head drawn in Magic Markers on the white board in Classical. The head was huge, almost filling the twenty-four-by-thirty-inch white board that was one of Bob Winston’s many attempts to organize his diffident workers by allowing him to write tasks on the board, which was positioned so that everyone could see it. The board was a public statement of responsibility.

Rose looked at Nate.

“It wasn’t me,” he defended himself. “I came back from break and there it was.”

“Un-hunh.”

“Honestly,” he insisted. “I did a little decoration here.” He pointed out the caption under the cat head: Ceci n’est pas un chat. “That’s for Bob.” He folded his arms over his chest. “And I did the eyebrows.” The cat’s head, which was drawn in red marker, had big beetle-y black eyebrows like Groucho Marx. “Anyway, I’m due downstairs,” he said and slithered off.

For some minutes Rose looked at the cat’s head. Something was missing. The head was a big oval with pointed ears and large round eyes that looked like spinning pinwheels, as if the cat had snorted some strange psychedelic drug. It also had orange stripes, but its nose, like the shape of its head, was more Dr. Zeuss-like than feline. Still, it had the parted lips and muzzle of a cat.

No teeth, no fangs.

It must have fangs, thought Rose It was a rat killer after all.

She sorted through the markers till she found a black one and then boldly drew in the down-turning triangles that were to be its fangs. Perfect.

Even more, a statement had to be made. C’est l’assassin de (What was the word for rats? She couldn’t remember.) petits animaux dêgoutants. Little disgusting animals. Close enough. (Her French was way past its prime, but did it matter?) She drew three small rat-like figures with round ears and long stringy bent tails following on the sentence. And then she stood back to admire her handiwork.

Now that was satisfying.

Returning home in the fall was always a mixed bag for Roger. There was school with the promise of seeing his friends and the threat of homework. Roger had three buddies, and all of them except Marty were indifferent students. Roger didn’t want to be a bad student. He tried to do his homework, but somehow it never seemed to turn out very well. Marty had offered to help him but that meant coming over to his house after school and Roger’s mother wouldn’t allow it. She didn’t get home from work until almost 7. During the long hours from the time he got home until she arrived, he sat looking at his books, trying to fathom their occult meaning. Sometimes he read the comic books his friends had lent him and that he kept secretly under the mattress of his bed. When he was really little, he read Superman and Batman, but he really preferred Superman. He was drawn in by the mystery of an orphan from a distant planet and skeptical of the banal myth of a rich man and bon vivant who could buy his superpowers through man-made technology.

Once in junior high Marty had come over and stood outside the door of the apartment. When he knocked, Roger answered through the door, “My mother said not to let anyone in.”

“But it’s only me,” Marty protested.

“I can’t open the door. She told me not to open the door,” Roger answered.

“But why not?” asked Marty. “It’s only me.” It was strange to talk to a door, strange to hear his friend’s voice muffled by the thin closed door and the cool, implacable wall. Roger had listened to the pause on the other side of the door, and then heard his friend padding softly down the carpeted hall, which Roger knew was dark and stale smelling.

In high school, things were different. Roger could go where he wanted, but by then Marty and Brian had gone to the new high school that was closer to where they lived, and Joey had taken to girls. When he got home, Roger would fix dinner for him and his mom. His mother always seemed to be sick, and her pain seemed to darken the rooms, hanging in the air like a dense, suffocating heat, exuding a profound silence. Roger felt burdened but he wasn’t sure why. He knew his mother felt alone, and he didn’t want her to. He seldom went out.

After graduation, Roger got a day job behind the counter at a café where he used to hang out during high school. It was odd seeing the high school kids coming in after school, some of whom he knew but now felt separate from. Then the worst happened. He got a letter from the recruitment center. He’d left school, and there was nothing to stop him from being drafted and sent to Vietnam.

Soon after he told his mom he was leaving, going to visit his buddy Marty, who was now a freshman at a university in California. She had only nodded and pulled her sweater tighter around her thin body. She watched him pack and kissed him before he walked out the door. She also gave him an envelope with three hundred dollars inside. It was more than enough to pay his way to California, and back.

For several months Roger slept on Marty’s couch, earning himself the name of Roger the Lodger, a nickname that Marty and his friends seemed to adore, with their barely-out-of-high-school inclination for teasing rhyme. Roger liked it as well: it gave him a sense of belonging, as if a nickname were a badge or a handshake among the initiated. He worked part time at the Taco Bell in the little student community of Isla Vista just north of the university in Santa Barbara, and during his hours off he walked the beach, taking with him the band of dogs that belonged to Marty and his friends. There was Bear and Lucy—or Lucille, as her owner insisted was her real name—and Harley Davidson and a little terrier mix named Pancake. Some nights all of them slept on the couch with Roger, groaning and turning over restlessly, one or two of the dogs dropping to floor to curl up in relative comfort.

One afternoon a breathless Marty found Roger sitting on the beach with the dogs. His roommate Jim, who was Roger’s manager at the Taco Bell, had called to say two guys in suits from the FBI had come by looking for Roger. “Don’t come back to my place,” Marty had cautioned. “Go to John’s. And don’t go back to Taco Bell.”

Roger began moving between apartments, sleeping on couches and floors. The students were eager help, to protect the friends they could from the draft. He found food by going through the dumpsters behind Safeway, searching for fruit and vegetables that had been thrown out. He brought back what he found to whomever he was staying with. His male friends were always pleased, but the young women would frown and look suspiciously at the tattered lettuces and bruised apples. Most of the days he spent on the beach, avoiding strangers. At night he’d go to the occasional party, smoking dope and reading the Marvel comics that were the current fad among college kids. These were different, exciting—here were heroes who didn’t want to be heroes, who would have sacrificed their super powers readily if it meant they could be simply humans. One night, during a party at Marty’s apartment, Roger had gotten so high he thought the wall had turned into a woman, and he danced with her, rubbing his body against hers, reaching up to hold her breasts. John had commented, “Dance to the wall,” and one of the girls had giggled.

Easter break he caught a ride with Marty’s girlfriend, Linda, going north to San Francisco. One of John’s friends ran an underground railway out of Oakland, and Linda would drop him off at their house on East 14th. By June he should be in Vancouver. It would be summer, and if nothing else, he could live on the streets and in the parks. He just had to find a job before winter.

12. Rats again

May 13, 2010

Rose’s task was to put the clearance vinyl into the regular bins, but she was having trouble figuring out the filing, which for clearance was reduced to a simple alphabetic order but needed to be filed by genre. Where for example should she put French and American Military Marches? French? American? Military? Or Marches? It was certainly an insight into retail: Never make anything that can’t be easily categorized.

When Nate showed up she tried to enlist him in her dilemma.

“All of these have got weird titles,” she complained. “Like The Living Organ Symphony.” Now where had that come from? It was a good thing she didn’t talk much, thought Rose, because when she did, her subconscious was a guerrilla warrior.

Rather than file, they decided to decorate, which meant going through the $1.00 vinyl and selecting the most bizarre covers to display. Almost all of the shelves at the top of the walls were already full of covers from the ’50s and ’60s, many with women in some state of undress—like the woman naked from the waist up standing behind a white table with two sculptures of Beethoven’s head positioned to cover her breasts. When there were no customers in Classical, Rose found herself contemplating the meaning of having two stern-faced Beethovens for breasts. Naturally, the heads were facing each other, one nose pointing toward the other nose. Rose couldn’t imagine her breasts staring at each other, but maybe they did, in the dead of night when she was dreaming of Beethoven.

And then there were the tastefully sexual covers with the blonde woman in an evening dress lounging across a velvet sofa while a long-haired man in a tux with a frilly evening shirt leaned in toward her, reaching for her outstretched hand. Brunettes were only used for the Polovtsian Dances or Scheherazade, and then they were dressed in coin cluttered veils and bras.

Nate’s favorite was the album with the chubby, bearded man dressed in a devil’s outfit, holding a trident in one hand and a hot dog in another. Rose thought maybe her favorite was the Scottish Symphony—the cover showed two shaggy creatures, a cow (or was it a bull?) and a calf. Once she had searched for them online under “Types of Scottish Cow” and found they were called Scottish Highland cows or shaggy coos: “An excellent grazer, it will eat almost any kind of grass or brush.” The cows also had “an exceptional mothering instinct.” That pleased Rose.

“Look at that,” said Rose when Nate pulled out a record of Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte.

In the center of the cover were the two sisters who were to suffer Don Alfonso’s test of fidelity. On their knees, with their backs to the observer, were the fiancés, the sisters’ tormentors and disbelieving lovers, fez-topped and scimitar bearing.

The really odd thing, though, was that the sisters were joined at the waist; each head and torso was facing one of the kneeling men but from the waist down they were one woman in one skirt, underneath which they would share two feet, two knees, two thighs, one …

“A Siamese twins opera singer,” observed Nate.

“Why is it the two sisters are fused into one and the fiancés are separate and on their knees?” Rose asked. Was she starting to sound like Liz? Was that a good or a bad thing?

“That’s the way she likes her men,” answered Nate. “Separate and on their knees.”

“Yes, please,” said Rose. Nate was appreciative.

After Rose and Nate had found an appropriate spot for the record cover, she went for her break, or her “fifteen” as it was known by the Plutonium staff in an attempt to remind each other that it wasn’t “twenty-five” or “thirty.” Flipping through the community paper at the neighboring coffee house, Rose came across an article on the third page: the headline ran, “Rats Overrun Park.” Sure enough, the park behind Plutonium “Million Year Half-Life” Music was crawling with rats. The problem had become so serious that the city was considering bringing in owls to lower the rodent population. It was either that or poisoning them.

Of course, thought Rose, why hadn’t anyone thought of that? If Kitty was killing rats that was a good thing, a superlative thing. One dead rat meant one less live rat. More than one less live rats, really: the things bred like—well, not to put too fine a point on it—rats. Just one degree less prolific than rabbits.

Rose returned to Classical, newspaper in hand, to find the alarming Bob Winston standing at the back door, looking down at the cat’s food bowl. “I for one,” stated Rose, “am glad the cat’s killing rats because if she wasn’t, those rats would be alive. And breeding.”

Bob stared at her in amazement. She had never seen him so transfixed and still.

“There’s a reason why the Egyptians worshipped cats,” she added, and then, as if providing the final conclusive proof, she unfurled the newspaper. “The park is crawling with rats, it’s like the Pied Piper of Hamlin! Or rather Hamlin, without the Pied Piper.”

“What … what?” stammered Bob Winston, Rose could see him searching for words that would fit the question he wanted to ask.

“They don’t know why there is this huge rat population.” Bob Winston started bobbing his head in agreement. Suddenly Rose was worried. How had he managed to communicate that question? After all, he had only said “What … what?” but still she had known exactly what he was trying to ask. She was one hundred percent sure it wasn’t telepathy, but then what was it? She hardly knew the man.

“They don’t know why,” she repeated. “But this year is a year with lots of rats.”

“Ah,” he said. And smiled.

“So Kitty is doing a service.”

Bob Winston frowned. Dang, thought Rose, she had moved too fast and lost the slim advantage she’d had of gaining Bob’s sympathy and support. No, Bob Winston, who was management himself, would never go against management.

“Yours … is that yours?” he pointed to a red-and-black-check shawl lying at the base of the stairs.

Rose shook her head. She had seen the shawl before. She just could not remember where.

Walking past the park on the way to Plutonium Music always made Liz uneasy, even though the park was beautiful with large expanses of grass and raised beds near the neighboring stores. Exotic succulents tumbled over the wooden planks and cacti stood like spiky barbarian hordes above them. Weeds flourished everywhere. At the farthest edge of the park, away from the Ave. was a redwood grove; underneath the towering trees, the homeless staked out places to unroll their bedding and sleep. Only recently, the make-do homes had spread to the sidewalks adjacent to the park and across the street. Mounds of blankets and old clothing were heaped on patches of ground meant for trees to shade the pavement. Occasionally, there was the odd hand thrust out from the raggy bedding: swollen, with grit under the nails and streaks of dirt across the skin. Now, in December, intermittent rain had forced the homeless to cover their beds and themselves in plastic.

The numbers of beds was increasing, thought Liz, a lot. That was worrisome. For the most part, the homeless in the park were like the panhandlers on the Ave. Kind of jerky and bizarre. It was hard to have sympathy for them. But once in awhile, she would be overwhelmed by the misery and suffering conveyed by someone’s face. She felt an instantaneous flash of pain in the soles of her feet: it was as if the bodily suffering had flown to one area of her body and settled.

Like now, when she saw the man standing at the edge of the basketball court near the picnic table. He was so thin, and he seemed barely to be able to hold himself upright. Liz stopped, and pulled her coat tighter. She had seen him before. He was the man who wore a red-and-black-check shawl. Only he wasn’t wearing it now, and his clothes looked pitifully thin in the cold afternoon air. But there was something else about him that was odd. It was if the air around him were shivering. Was that a trick of the light, or was it his body that was shivering and giving a flickering quality to the surrounding air?

Liz walked slowly toward the man until she was standing in front of him. She held out a dollar but the man didn’t move. For a moment she was uncertain what to do then she reached over and tucked the dollar into his shirt. She pulled her hand back and walked quickly away.

Inside the music store, Brad was telling Rose and Nate about the movie he had gone to the evening before. There had been a flurry of customers before Christmas, especially in the last few hours before closing on Christmas Eve, but now, on the day after Christmas, the store was almost uncanny in its stillness. The managers had been grim about the holiday sales, and rumors abounded that there would be lay-offs in the New Year. As if in defiance to the possibility of losing their jobs, everyone seemed to grow more and more listless, hanging out when possible and talking about anything except work.

“Tell Rose about your cat,” said Nate. “Brad’s cat doesn’t want to share.” Nate wagged his head knowingly at Rose.

Share? thought Rose.

Brad unwound the long story of his woes. “It’s not just friends and girlfriends though,” he wailed. “Last night there was something wrong with bathroom sink.” He added grimly, “It’s the woman upstairs, I’ve tried to talk to her about it a number of times. I go upstairs and knock on her door and say my shower or sink or whatever is running over but she just plays innocent. ‘Oh really?’” Brad’s voice took on a high naïve tone. “‘Gee, that’s too bad.’ And she’s always semi-naked when she comes to the door, as if she just stepped out of the bath. One of these days I’m going to tell her ‘Clean out your drains, lady.’”

“Does she have something to do with your cat?” asked Rose.

Nate snorted.

Brad looked hurt. “Well, yes. The plumber called me to say he couldn’t fix the bathroom sink. He went out to his truck to get something, and Romeo wouldn’t let him back in the bathroom.”

“Hunh,” said Rose. Now there was a puzzle, on many levels.

“Hi, guys.” It was Arnold carrying a bag of cat food and several cans of tuna. As if in explanation, he added, “Bob said that I could take as long as I wanted to find a home for Sandy.”

“Who’s Sandy?”

“The cat,” said Nate. “Arnold’s named the cat Sandy.”

“Hunh,” said Brad.

“That’s great! That means kitty has a reprieve, for ever,” said Rose.

“No. I have to find Sandy a home,” Arnold retorted, clearly in a waspish mood. He disappeared into the employee’s back room, and Brad and Nate turned to leave—one back to Jazz, and the other off for lunch—both sensed trouble from the little white-haired man.

They froze in mid-turn, Brad turning a splotchy bright pink, which didn’t suit his red hair and blue eyes at all. Rose looked past them and saw Liz walking down the aisle, vinyl flanking her on the left and New Age on the right. She wore a brown wool coat over her jeans; a gold and silver scarf tumbled out from the collar, and her hair spilled over the collar and scarf like warm honey. Her skin looked translucent and delicate. She wore a frown that settled like a tiara on her radiant brow. No one said anything; the men turned slowly back toward the counter where Rose was standing. Brad looked stunned.

“Hi!”

“Hi, Liz,” said Nate emphatically. Brad mumbled something indistinct.

“What is that?” shrieked Arnold, as he came out of the back room. He was staring at the huge cat’s head drawn in multi-colored markers on Bob Winston’s white board.

14. Liz Tells a Story

May 13, 2010

The drawing of the cat’s head had grown more elaborate in the past two days: its now orange, blue, and green eyes spun with intricate patterns beneath elaborately decorative eyebrows, a mustachio curled out in a lacy handlebar, and the cat’s fangs twisted like drill bits. Little rats paraded around the edge of the board and in between words and lines.

Arnold stopped completely still, reading aloud the messages through which rodents gamboled. Then he grabbed a black marker from the counter and wrote: Les humaines sont les assassins de toute choses. He stood back and smiled triumphantly. Really funky French, thought Rose, uncharitably. Even though she might agree with the sentiment, she found Arnold too annoying to agree with him in particular. Or in fractured French.

“I had a cat who killed a rat,” said Liz.

Everyone turned toward her.

“He was a young cat, not even a year old, a gray-and-black tabby cat. One day I looked out the window and there he was walking down the drive with this big something hanging out of his mouth. It was almost as big as he was. And he was swaggering. Even under the weight of the rat, he was swaggering. Honestly. All the cats in the apartment next door were following him, and when he got to the middle of the driveway, he dropped the rat, and all the cats sat down in a big circle around him. There must have been five or six of them. They all faced into the center of the circle where my cat stood with this rat, and sat with their bellies against the concrete and their paws tucked under their chest, like cats do when they’re meditating. And they were all looking down as if they weren’t really watching every move he made, as if they were indifferent spectators.

“Then he started to play with the rat, which was dead as a door nail. I mean really dead. Throwing it up in the air and batting it around, playing with it. All the other cats were completely quiet. After about fifteen minutes, he stopped. He sat down and ate the rat, starting with its tail and back feet. He ate the rat—every bit of it, guts and everything—all the way up to its brain cage. Then he swaggered away down the driveway again. And the other cats just, poof, disappeared.

“I went outside and sure enough there was just half a rat’s head, with its ears and yellow teeth and whiskers. I threw it out.”

There was a silence while everyone contemplated picking up and throwing out the remnants of a rat’s head. “Wow!” said Nate, “Good story.”

“Excuse me,” said a young woman in a pea coat and beret, breaking into their midst, “does anybody work here? I really don’t know much about classical music.”

After several minutes of interrogating the young woman and cruising the CDs to settle on Chopin’s nocturnes, Rose returned to the front counter to find only Liz, reading the booklet for the CD currently playing over the speakers. The alarming Bob Winston had appeared at the top of the stairs at the back door, and everyone had scattered like leaves. As he made his way to the counter, Rose put on a serious and business-like look. She was pleased: at least he had seen her dealing with a customer. How often did that happen?

Liz gasped. “You have it!” she exclaimed.

“Wha … wha?”

“The shawl,” she beamed, “you found it!”

“I was … I was … lost and found,” he stammered, holding out the red-and-black-check shawl.

“It’s the shawl that belongs to the homeless man! Remember, Rose? I just saw him. He was in the park, and I gave him a dollar,” Liz was flushed with delight. “He’s out there right now!”

Rose nodded. Yes, she remembered, it belonged to that homeless man who seemed to haunt the streets around Plutonium.

“You have to give it back to him,” asserted Liz.

There was a pause, and then Bob Winston thrust the shawl into Rose’s hands, and fled.

Oh well, thought Rose.

“Yeah, I can do that on my break,” she mumbled.

Liz frowned and, eyes downcast, started fiddling with the pricing gun on the counter.

“What’s up?”

“I broke up with John.”

There was a pause.

“Gee, I’m sorry to hear that,” said Rose, congratulating herself on her sympathetic tone. John was a depressive and a slacker as far as Rose had been able to tell, one best shed as quickly as possible.

“On Christmas Day. It was awful,” Liz said quietly, and then she added more defiantly, “And I’m looking for a new job. I’m not leaving mine yet, not until I find something, but I’m starting out the New Year early with new resolutions: get rid of the slacker, and get a new job, a meaningful job.”

“Sounds good.”

“But until then I want to do something for Sid. I saw him downstairs, asleep in Jazz, and he reeks, Rose, worse than usual. The smell was so bad I could smell him from the stairway.” Liz looked pleadingly at Rose, her eyes seemed to spin like the cat head’s on Bob Winston’s white board. “Can you help?”

Rose was taken aback. “Uh, the problem with that is he won’t talk to me. He’ll only ever talks to Nate. And, uh, Brad.”

“Well, then how about Brad?”

“Uh, you could ask.” Liz was a terror, but a kind-hearted terror, thought Rose. “He’s downstairs in Jazz right now.”

“Maybe I could ask him out on his break. Would he be offended?

“I don’t think so,” said Rose. “Brad’s a helpful sort of guy. And he’s really nice to his cat.”

15. Homecoming

May 13, 2010

XR137! was standing at the edge of the park, watching the light drain from the sky. It reminded him of the farthest reaches of the universe. Hail Glglth, Queen of Darkness, last resting place of abandoned life! Planet Glglth, slowly spinning in eternal dusk, silent and chill. Both good and evil avoid her grasp. No evil ever coveted Glglth’s bleak wastes. Shunning even sunrise with its thin purple washing over the pitted surface of the frosty globe. Hail Glglth! Mistress of Infinite Night! Prudent, chaste, and free!

XR137! didn’t mind the winter here on planet Earth either, though it lacked the deep cold of space. Winter made it harder for him to move, that was true, but if he stayed perfectly still, the pain in his body would slowly lift. Even the pain that had settled in his lungs in the last few weeks was not as sharp, or as incapacitating.

And so XR137! stood at the edge of the park, perfectly still, his mind drawing in the image of a distant, exquisite coldness.

He opened his eyes and XJ0*3 was standing before him in a gray coat, her tentacles glowing but oddly silver in the descending night. Commander, again! he spoke with gratitude and awe. She had visited him earlier in the afternoon, that time she had been dressed in a brown coat and a gold and silver scarf. She had touched him on the chest next to his heart where an intolerable pain had been gathering, and her tentacles had been gold—like the tentacles that flowed around her head and glittered as if exuding sunlight—and her touch was unimaginably gentle. His pain had instantly disappeared.

And here she was again, only in silver, a starlit version of herself. This is yours, I believe, she said, and hanging in front of her on a ray of light was a red-and-black-check shawl. He took it, delicately, from her and began to wind it slowly around his neck and shoulders. XJ0*3 gleamed, smiled, and drifted off. He tried to follow her but couldn’t. His human legs would not move; he felt frozen to the spot. He sat down abruptly on sidewalk.

He fell back onto the pavement and looked up into the heavens, beyond the orange glow of the street lights. XR137! lifted the ends of the shawl up into the light. He felt blessed. Awash with love and grace.

When he was ten, he had gotten a new jacket for Christmas: it was bright red and black plaid and his mother had bought it for him. Every winter break, he and his mom would drive up to the farm for Christmas. Outside the city, at night, the sky was dark and velvety and there were millions of stars above, and the air was so cold it hurt to breathe it. The earth was white, crisp with snow and radiant with light.

Most of Meghan’s nine brothers and sisters would arrive with their families, and the farmhouse was packed. Those adults who hadn’t come in Winnebagos and trailers would share the bedrooms upstairs. All of the kids—Roger and his cousins—would sleep in sleeping bags in the front room where the Christmas tree stood. It was lively and it was loud. At night the tree was glorious, eight feet tall and densely covered in ornaments and lights. The lights were small and white, and blinked like stars and the ornaments shone with the many pinpoints of their light. Everyone would bring a new ornament to place on the tree, and this year Roger and his mom had brought two reindeers formed out of glass. Roger had fallen in love with them the moment saw them in the store. They had tiny tags on their hooves that said Made in Czechoslovakia.

The day after Christmas, everyone would pack up and head out except for Roger and his mom, who stayed until New Year’s Day. During the days after Christmas and before New Year’s, Roger spent most of his time indoors playing cards with his uncle. When he got bored, which was often, he tried to talk his mother and aunt into joining them in a game of Monopoly; those games went on for three or four days, but Roger usually won. At night though, after dinner, if it wasn’t snowing, they all went out for a walk. Roger would be bundled up in long johns and sweaters, and over it all he would wear his new jacket, which was big and wooly, and bright and clean. His uncle called it “a true hunter’s jacket,” and that made Roger feel proud and adult. The red and black plaid jacket was warmer than anything he had ever worn, and it had a matching hat with earflaps.

That winter, in the still cold air with the massive sky above, the Northern Lights shifted like a green haze above the earth, then cascaded in a smoky rainbow-colored curtain that wound miraculously throughout the starry night.

It was like that now, he thought. Above the ghastly streetlights of the Avenue, a misty veil of green was forming, congealing in the darkness, bright and mysterious with unearthly light. XR137! hugged his shawl close to his aching chest. No, it wasn’t the Northern Lights: it was a fountain of light, a galaxy of bodies rendered into a blaze, spirits that had melted into airy expressions of prismatic color. All the thickened light seemed to pour toward him, funneling itself into his chest, relieving him of pain and worry and sorrow. And then he understood. This was the true form of XJ0*3, and she was coming for him, freeing him of this human carcass that had become so battered and torn. He too was splendor, a swirling presence that was the essence of the universe, the essence of matter, and that was beyond emotions and thought. He reached up toward the brilliant foggy light and the light reached down to him.

Rose was closing up when she heard the ambulance. She hadn’t heard one in years. When her grandmother died, she had been the one to call 911, and then she had waited for what seemed like years until she’d heard the siren’s wail. For months after she had heard sirens everywhere. But that was almost twenty years ago, and she couldn’t remember having heard a siren so clearly since. Whoever it was, she thought as she locked the back door, she wished him—or her—well, and safe journey.