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Category Archives: Our Modern Pantheon

Private

What did Gordon Richards have to do to get some privacy?

“Well, what can I say, Gord?” his landlord offered instead of apology. “Should’ve worked more when you had the chance. Made more money.”

“How about you should just keep the damn rent what we agreed on!” Gordon countered. “A contract’s a contract!”

“Your lease is up, Gordon; you wanna blame someone, blame the government for jacking the property tax!”

“What’s it gonna take for you to sell me this place?” Now at last, Old Man Richards was sincere.

“Trust me,” said Phil Mulberry, “even if I wanted to sell, you couldn’t afford it.”

But Mulberry didn’t want to sell, of course—on the contrary, he wanted to buy up the whole building, if he could. And for what? Turn it into a parking lot? It wasn’t close enough to downtown for that to make any sense. No, no, for guys like Mulberry it was all about control, all about conquest. He wanted everything, but he knew what his limitations were, so he’d settle for the whole damn building.

“Why couldn’t I get an apartment from McDowell?” Gordon muttered. But it was too late now. McDowell was the other owner of multiple units in the Leverett building, but he kept to himself—hard not to, really, seen as how he lived in Canada or someplace, thousands of miles away, but he still owned property here and from what Gordon could gather (and he could gather an awful lot) McDowell was a heck of a lot better than Mulberry at managing his property, even though Mulberry lived in the same damn building. Gordon wished he could have that. Actually, no. What Gordon really wished was that he could leave here and go buy some cabin out in the woods or something, out where people weren’t so nosy, out where neighbors didn’t try to strike up a conversation just ‘cause they felt like they knew you after nine years living in the same building. He just wanted his privacy.

But he couldn’t even have that.

“What you need a two-bedroom apartment for, anyways?” Mulberry finally asked.

“That’s none of your business!” Gordon insisted, though to be perfectly honest, he didn’t have a better answer. He just liked his space.

But Mulberry was right—not about doing what he was doing, but about the solution to it, given that it was done. If Gordon was going to continue to live in the Leverett Building (unless he wanted to move to unit 32, which was obviously haunted, so no) he was going to need a roommate. A roommate, god dammit! He hadn’t had a roommate in damn near forty years, unless you counted his ex-wife, and you shouldn’t, even though you might as well. And since he didn’t really know anybody seen as how he didn’t like people, that meant inviting a stranger into his home. That provided some opportunities, of course. There were certain types of peopel Mulberry really didn’t like… Unfortunately, these were the same types of people Gordon was none too fond of, and besides, Mulberry would get final say anyway, so what the hell?

Once the applications started coming in, it was pretty easy to weed out most of the undesirables, mostly the folks with really odd-sounding names like “Kawabanta” and “Laminetsky” and goddamn “Ng”—what the hell kinda name was that? What was harder to spot was the black people—excuse me, “African Americans” (like any of them ever been to Africa)—but he got those at the interviews. Which only left two things to worry about: queers and muslims. He wasn’t quite sure which one would be worse, but he was goddamned if he’d have either one of ‘em in his house. Or apartment.

Finally, though, he didn find one guy looked like he could be trusted. “What kinda name is ‘Laird’?” he asked the guy. “That Scottish?”

“I think so,” said the man, name of Raymond. “Never really gave it much thought.”

“All right, fine,” said Gordon. “If you want it, this is what it looks like, your room’s over there, make yourself at home. Deal? “They’d already hashed out the details by then, so they shook on it.

At first, it was great. Raymond Laird didn’t really have much stuff, so the living room didn’t really change too much except for one painting he really seemed to want over the TV, which was fine, it was this pretty standard landscape with some ducks and a little girl in a dress, utterly inoffensive.

As for what went into Raymond Laird’s room, that was none of Gordon’s business. He kept his own private things to himself, too. That was a part of the bargain neither had even had to bring up while talking.

Yet once the other man had stowed away all his secret boxes, Gordon found himself growing curious. Oh, shut up, you old fool, he kept telling himself. You wouldn’t want him snooping around in your room, either, would you? And what would he think if he caught you? You with your hands on his pretty things?

But how do I know that what he has there isn’t…

What? What was it that he was afraid of?

Well, there were a lot of things to be afraid of, weren’t there? This Laird guy was living in his house now. Gordon’s name was on the lease. Anything this lodger did, Gordon could be held responsible for. He pictured the aftermath of the inevitable postal killing spree—not that Laird was a postal worker, he was an accountant, but that was almost worse. Who knew the sorts of depraved thoughts those degenerates kept hidden under their numbers.

It wasn’t that Gordon objected to guns—his own, for protection of his private property, was stored under the coffee table in case of emergency, and Laird knew that. So if Laird had a gun, too, Gordon expected him to disclose that. But he hadn’t. Which made Gordon suspicious.

There could be other things, too, though. He imagined the police raid and all the things they might find. Drugs, for Christ sakes, kiddie porn! Can you imagine! The Headlines: “Old Man Richards Arrested with New Roommate on Suspicion of Involvement!” “I didn’t know!” curmudgeon insists, but we know better, don’t we, folks?” I always knew that crazy old man was up to something!” says landlord Philip Mulberry, decorated upstanding citizen and whatnot.

No. No, it was too risky. This was his house, dammit, he had a right to know what was going on. This Raymond guy bursting in here like he owned the place—who did he think he was? Who was he? Expecting charity and whatnot—well, Gordon Richards did not believe in charity! Charity was for schmucks who trusted people. And trust was for idiot children.

So he waited until Laird was gone for the day and snuck into his room. Serves him right, he tried telling himself, for not having a lock on his door.

It’s not like he was stealing anything. He just wanted a look around. In particular, he wanted a look in those boxes…

No…

They were dresses. Dresses and skirts. And blouses, and—ugh!

Girls’ clothes!

This was so much worse than Gordon had expected. He almost wished there had been kiddie-porn, or instructions on building bombs, at least then he could’ve called the cops and started over with a new roommate. One who wasn’t some damn freak of nature. But no, nowadays you had to be “tolerant” and “understanding” of grown men playing dress-up even down to their goddamn underwear. It made him sick to his stomach even thinking about it.

After he put everything away back where he found it, he went back and sat in the living-room. He thought about Raymond Laird wearing women’s clothes. He told himself he didn’t want to think about it, but every time he did he got a thrill like you wouldn’t believe. It made him angry, but the anger made him happy; it felt justified.

Then when Raymond got home, he couldn’t even look at him. He didn’t want to. He had a secret, now: that he knew Raymond’s secret, and Raymond didn’t know. And he didn’t want him to.

Raymond acted like he knew there was something wrong, or off, or different, but he didn’t say anything.

Having a secret turned out not to be all it was cracked up to be, though. So the next day, as Raymond was starting to head off to work, Old Man Richards found himself hollering at him from his chair “You gonna go out dressed like that?”

Raymond stopped, confused, turned around, looked himself up and down, trying to see what was wrong with his outfit, making sure his shoes and socks both matched. Finally, he gave a helpless shrug in Gordon’s direction.

Gordon just stared at him, and finally Raymond understood.

He was running late to work, though, so he didn’t say anything. But as he turned and walked out, Gordon could tell there was a look of shame and fear on his face.

Well, fine, he thought to himself, let him do some stewing for a change! These freaks and perverts, it’s about time! If he feels enough shame, hell, maybe he’ll, I don’t know, stop doing it? Christ sakes. 

Sure enough, Raymond didn’t even come home until pretty late. When he did, it looked like he’d been drinking. Couldn’t handle it, could you? thought Gordon. Just couldn’t handle somebody knowing the truth about you. 

Raymond sat on the edge of his seat, leaned forward, legs spread just a bit, and ran his hand across his open mouth, almost like he was making his leaps, you know?

“You went in my room,” he stated.

Gordon said nothing.

“You went in my room without my permission.” He flexed the fingers of his right hand and his joints popped. “That’s not what we agreed to.”

“What you gonna do about it?” Gordon sneered, then added another word, a word he shouldn’t have said, a word that gave the game away and made things unnecessarily uncomfortable in their living situation.

But after a short, tense moment of silence in the wake of that word, Raymond snorted and started to laugh, only a little bit at first, a few rocks before the avalanche, like he was uncovering several different layers of irony over the course of laughing.

“Well, what’s so funny!” a frustrated Gordon finally demanded.

So when Raymond had calmed himself down enough, he finally replied: “You just don’t get it, do you? Oh, it’s not what you think. It’s not the obvious thing.” Then he paused and continued, “But once I tell you what it really is, you’re gonna think it’s so much worse!” And he burst into giggles again.

This was doing nothing to help Raymond’s case in Gordon’s eyes.

“Oh, let me have my fun,” he finally said. “Probably the last time I’ll get to laugh like that for a while. “And then, more thoughtful, “It’s been a while since I’ve laughed like that.” Finally, he composed himself. “I’m not a transvestite.” He was calm by now. “Well, at least… Those women’s clothes. I don’t wear them in secret or anything. I’m assuming that’s what you meant when you used that word. Although I guess technically… But I’m not… exactly… a gay man, Gordon. Because I’m not… exactly… a man. Yet.”

Gordon had no idea what Raymond was talking about.

“That is to say, I am a man,” Raymond continued. “I always have been. In my own way, I guess. It just never occurred to me that I could be, I mean, I kept hearing about it, but me?” He chuckled, then stopped. “I was born… a woman, or… with women’s… I was assigned female at birth. I just never felt comfortable in my skin, you know?”

Gordon still looked at her blankly.

“No, I guess you really wouldn’t know, would you?” she sighed. “I’m still attracted to men,” she continued. “For a while, I thought maybe that was why I… So I guess that word you used earlier does technically apply to me, or to what I want to be—I’m still new at this, see? I’m still… I’m trying it out. Trying to what I want to be—I’m still new at this, see? I’m still… I’m trying it out. Trying to see if it… fits me better, and I gotta say, I’m liking the results. So far. For the most part.” After another moment of silence, “Those clothes in there are mine, or were mine—I don’t know why I kept them, I just didn’t think—I didn’t know… They’re just in case, I guess. Listen to me, I’m fifty-three years old and I’m still experimenting. Going through ‘phases’—“ But he caught himself. “No. No, this isn’t a phase. But they’re still… I don’t know. It’s a safety thing, I guess.”

Finally, Gordon managed to clear his throat. “So are you…” he began, then adjusted, “that is, do you… He wiggled a bit in his seat. “What are you? Now, I mean?”

“I’m a person,” Raymond said coldly.

“But what… what parts do you have?”

Raymond drew himself (herself?) up in the seat and said confidently: “I don’t have to answer that question. It’s private.”

That just seemed patenlty ridiculous to Gordon. They’d been talking about this for ten minutes already, he (she?) just hadn’t made… Oh, hell, hadn’t made it clear in all the rambling monologue.

But that was it. Raymond said no more, just got up and went back to h—to Raymond’s room, leaving Gordon alone to stew.

He’d actually make a pretty nice-looking woman, he found himself thinking. Prettier than my ex-wife, anyway… And he snickered.

But at night, he found it drove him crazy. He tossed and turned as he’d never tossed and turned before. He just couldn’t stand not knowing such a basic fact when Raymond knew so much about him.

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Different

Ronan Carroll did not understand the concept of race. He watched these old movies—or movies about olden times—and he thought Wow, people really were so stupid back then, treating black characters as less than human or segregation as normal. It was an atrocity.

Ronan Carroll was, of course, white.

It was a while before Ronan actually encountered what he could undeniably classify as racist behavior in his own time and place. He was growing up in a part of the United States with less than two percent African American population. Growing up he didn’t really have any close friends who were black and frankly, he was embarrassed about that. When he did meet black people, he would try to be friends with them—he would even go out of his way to. But to no avail. Personality clash, presumably. He just hadn’t met the right black person.

Come to think of it, it eventually occurred to him, I have kind of similar problems when it comes to women. Not that he didn’t have friends who were women—actually most of the people he considered friends were women—but none of those women wanted to be any more than friends. Which is fine, he tried to tell himself, but secretly he resented their absence from that part of his life.

“I’ve actually been thinking of going gay,” he once said to the one gay friend that he managed to have, a guy named Brodie. “Doing you think I could pull that off? I mean, I know that it’s not a choice and all that, can’t choose who you love, right? But I mean, I don’t know, sometimes I wonder…” Sometimes, actually, he wondered if his gay friend Brodie might not actually have a crush on him, which would be flattering, he thought. But he didn’t want to ask in case it got awkward.

The problem was, he didn’t really have any friends who were straight white men, either. Straight white men scared him, to be perfectly honest. Actually, black men scared him, too, but for the same reason: they were men. And men like to play games. Hungry, angry little power games using testosterone playing cards where the loser ends up looking like a loser and he always ended up losing because he never even knew he was playing until it was too late. This was why most of his friends were women. Women probably play games, too, he thought in moments of honesty, but with them, I can’t even tell if I do lose. Aside, of course, from maintaining his chastity.

This was actually why he was relieved when he found out about Brodie. He had been nervous around Brodie, he realized, because of the way he looked, like a big, burly, hairy bouncer who eats raw chicken whole and chicken-liver’d wusses’ livers by the pound before heading off to the steel-mill in the morning. But then at a cast party, Brodie brought along his boyfriend (who was black, as it turned out, but not quite as friendly with Ronan) and suddenly, Ronan’s entire image of him changed. This wasn’t the kind of guy who would crack his knuckles, beat his brow and shame you—well, that part maybe, but only if he deserved it. This was the kind of guy Ronan could go out and have a drink with and have a good, not-antagonizing time.

But that was all over now. They hadn’t talked in months. Brodie told his friends Ronan had just gotten too clingy, too needy. “Straight guys,” he said, shaking his head. “They just don’t know when to stop!”

Which was why Ronan was sitting here in the food court at the mall. He needed more friends—a more diverse set of friends—so he had put an ad out on craigslist and a few other places asking people who were off the Straight, White, American, Able-Bodied Male-beaten path to hang out for some speed-friending. It was so stupid. He even knew it was stupid, but he liked doing stupid things. And, being a Straight White American Able-Bodied Male himself, he had the luxury of doing so with impunity whenever his Straight White American Able-Bodied Male heart desired.

He didn’t actually expect anyone to show up. Actually, he was actively hoping no one would show up, if only to prove to him just how stupid he actually was for doing this. More Straight, White, American, Able-Bodied Males needed to be proven stupid like that—for him it was a matter of pride.

But someone did show up.

Tabby Williams was pretty much exactly what he was hoping for. She was so different from him, it was crazy. She was a fifty-year-old black lesbian who worked at a dry-cleaning service—not doing the dry-cleaning, just the customer service part—and then it turns out her son who she had when she was sixteen is in jail, which is a cliché, if you think about it, but statistically maybe isn’t it also pretty much on the nose?

Secretly, Ronan had to admit he was a little disappointed this black woman wasn’t also secretly trans, but then before he could even stop and count his chickens, another new friend stopped by with a smile. This was a young woman who looked Asian and also looked like she was possibly new to being a woman. “Hi,” she said (Careful you don’t misgender her, Ronan thought.) “Sorry I’m late, I just came straight from Temple.”

Temple? As in Synagogue? This was a Jewish Asian Trans-woman?

Jackpot.

She introduced herself with a name that sounded hard to pronounce and impossible to remember, or vice versa, “But you can just call me Kimmy, everybody else does.”

Kim? So she was Korean? Nice. “Well, welcome,” said Ronan, and introduced Tabby and himself, whereupon he gave a brief run-down of Tabby’s background.

“Now hold on,” Tabby interrupted him before he got to the part about the son in prison, “I just gotta ask, what’s your gimmick, boy?”

Ronan remembered something about black people and the word “boy”… Oh, that’s right, you’re not allowed to call them that, That’s okay, then. “Well,” he answered, “like I said in the ad, I’m just trying to get to know more people who are different from me.”

“Why?”

Ronan took a deep breath. How far into this should he go? How quickly? He decided to dive in: “I don’t like straight white American men. Cis-men,” he caught himself, for Kimmy’s benefit. “I’m trying to diversify.”

“So that’s all I am to you?” said Tabby. “Just a token black lesbian?”

“You’re not a token,” he assured her, “I’m just trying to figure out how other people think.”

“Other people?”

Ronan sensed a trap. He had said something wrong—although he wasn’t sure of any other way to phrase it.

“Listen up, white boy,” said Tabby, “if the only reason you want to be friends with me is ‘cause I’m black, then, what’s the difference ‘tween that and hating me for being who I am? It’s still reducing my black ass to a buncha damn lables.”

Ronan felt confident there was a flaw in this logic somewhere, but was too flabbergasted just now to figure out just exactly what it was. He began, “I’m just trying to—“ Open a door, is what he’d wanted to say, but his target audience was already getting up out of her rickety-cheap mall-food chair.

“You know what,” she said, “I don’t need this shit. Read some damn Crenshaw and get back to me, you know what? White boy!”

Ronan wasn’t sure why the woman was upset. What had he done wrong? As she walked away, he turned to Kimmy, who seemed equally dumbfounded.

This, at least, proved to be a fairly promising budding friendship. They talked until the food-court runners kicked them out, covering topics from K-pop (about which Ronan knew nothing) to classical mythology (about which Kimmy knew very little) before settling on the old standard of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

“We should do this again sometime,” Ronan said on their way out to the parking lot.

“Well, why do we have to stop?” asked Kimmy. “I live just five minutes down the road.” She pointed off towards the general direction of the university.

Ronan started to get the distinct impression she was hitting on him, and this brought on an avalanche of questions on propriety. It honestly hadn’t occurred to him before that a trans-woman interested in men might some day take a liking to him, and he wasn’t sure how he felt about the prospect. He knew—or thought he knew—how he should feel, that it didn’t matter, that she was still a woman regardless of what she’d been assigned at birth, and yet he couldn’t stop his thoughts from drifting to the perhaps-suddenly-relevant question of anatomy, which he knew was not an appropriate question, but if the person was making advances, did the rules change? Until finally, he realized Kimmy had never actually introduced herself as trans, so now he was wondering if he was, in the end, misgendering, or something.

“It’s okay to say no,” said Kimmy, as thought she’d been half-expecting it.

“Oh, of course,” said Ronan. “Um… But, like, no, we should definitely, um, we should definitely do this again. Soon, I’ll, uh, do I have your…”

They exchanged numbers and he did eventually text her, he just realized he had some soul-searching and some research to do first, if he really wanted to make his life different.


Family

There was nothing more important to Dorothy Rogers than her family.

She married Hal right out of college. He had talked about going into politics, but business would do. It was just as respectable. He had come from a good family (so important) and became quite successful. She, too, was successful—by the end of her twenties, she had given her husband three beautiful children, two boys and a girl.

Timothy was rambunctuous as a child. Always getting into trouble. He was precocious and not afraid to speak up, but he was a good kid.

Stephanie, though—she was a handful. She was abrasive and obstinate as a young child and in primary school, she was quite the tomboy. Getting her into a dress was like pulling teeth—and yet pulling teeth was not something she would shy away from.

William, though… William was different from either of his siblings. He was quiet and shy, he disliked fighting so much that he didn’t even seem to have a problem with his sister fighting his battles for him—and she was willing enough to do so.

“We need to toughen him up,” Dorothy would complain to her husband before bed.

“Leave the poor kid alone,” Hal Rogers would groan at his wife. Hal didn’t care about family like she did. “He’ll grow out of it.”

In a way, he did. But not in the way that his mother would have preferred.

Stephanie, at the tender age of eighteen, just months from graduating high school, became pregnant. Her mother was distraught. “How could you do this to me?” she kept screaming. “How could you do this to your family!”

“‘My family’ is not the one this is happening to. I am!”

“You are the one who did this!”

“You think I asked for this? You think I wanted to get pregnant?”

That, of course, launched a tirade about knowing to keep your legs together.

In the end, there wasn’t really any “choice” involved for Stephanie. Dorothy insisted that her daughter go out of state “to visit relatives” so that she could have the procedure done in secret. She wasn’t, strictly speaking, pro-choice, but if it was that or be a grandmother before her time to an illegitimate mistake, then so be it. As for Stephanie, she’d been debating herself and was relieved to have her mind made up for her. If I’d wanted to have it, she told herself, I would have told Michael first, and forced her hand. But she also knew she would regret her decision.

“At least you’ve never gotten a girl knocked up,” Dorothy said to both of her sons together.

William looked away shyly, as was his way, but it was Timothy who said “Yes, mother,” even though it was Timothy who had by that time funded two abortions of his own to keep girlfriends quiet—and one of those times, he had had to force the poor girl into it.

William was the next one to be disgraced. It took a long time for him to acknowledge his sexuality, even to himself. For his parents’ sake, he did his best with girls and even slept with them, but only to keep his secret. It was one of those girls, though, who finally confronted him about it. “It’s okay if you are,” she said, more heartbroken than she let on, “I don’t judge. I could even hook you up if you want.”

And she did. She had a cousin who was William’s first love—the first that counted for him, anyway. But he let his mother continue to think that “Natalie” had been the one who had gotten away, since it pleased her to think that and since he wasn’t one to make waves, much as his later boyfriend Serge wanted him to. “It is a new world,” he told William in the world’s thickest, saltiest French accent, “She will know now from you or she will find out later. Like this, you can control the narratif, no?”

But William had no control over narrative. He just moved to a part of the country where his mother didn’t hold sway—or so he imagined—and lived as private a life as he could manage.

“Won’t you come home, though?” his mother would beg, and there was only so long he could put that off until she sent him a ticket and told him to make it work.

She found him with his boyfriend in flagrante.

He assumed after it happened that she would tell people—his father, at least—but when he brought it up, Hal Rogers was speechless. He had no context for having a gay son. It was unthinkable to him.

It was as unthinkable for Hal Rogers as it was unspeakable for Dorothy.

“I always knew,” Stephanie told him. He didn’t bring it up, but it was all their parents wouldn’t talk about. “I mean, I figured. Guess I’m just smarter than Mom and Dad.” She put her hand on his. “And more supportive.” And then she hugged him and kissed him on the forehead.

Stephanie, meanwhile, had ended her series of shallow affairs by falling in love with a successful black man. If Linus Hinkle had been any lighter-skinned, he would have been exactly what her parents required in a son-in-law. He was a respected doctor, about four years from going into private practice, he had no tattoos or piercings, he was handsome, strong and healthy and just not anywhere near good enough for their daughter.

“I’m not racist,” Dorothy assured anyone who didn’t just cut her off right there, “I’d just prefer not to have grandchildren who come out looking like they’ve just spent nine months up a chimney!”

It was a phrase that had Stephanie and William both cracking their knuckles and gritting their teeth, but Linus, whose mother had “raised him right”, as they say, just smiled, nodded and never spoke to his mother-in-law unless she addressed him.

After she had had two children of her own, Stephanie volunteered to act as a surrogate for William and his husband, Adam. There was some strangeness, perhaps, in a woman bearing a child for her brother, but since the egg wasn’t hers and the sperm wasn’t his, they didn’t think much of it—and nor did they think of their poor, distraught mother and what she might think of it.

“Of all the things!” she bellowed when she found out, and soon she called her favorite son. “Your brother and sister are determined to ruin me!” she cried to Timothy. “It was all supposed to be perfect! They were my little angels! But now I see you were the only angel I bore, weren’t you, Timothy? You’re my little angel!”

“Yes, Mother,” said Timothy Rogers.

He had married well: the boss’s daughter at a Fortune 500 company he was now about two years from running. She was nearly as vapid and shallow and conceited as he was, but she was just starting to realize there was more to him than met the eye. When she actually caught him with their youngest daughter, when she saw what he’d been doing to her, all the pieces fell together and something changed inside her as she made a decision about him in the last few moments of her life.

Stephanie wasn’t surprised when she heard he’d been arrested. She was shocked, shaken, but some part of her had always known what he was capable of, could almost remember…

William was there with their mother when they heard the verdict. He knew Timothy had tried to cover it up, had tried to make it look like a burglary gone wrong, but his brother had never been as smart as their mother had always made him think he was.

She insisted on seeing him before the sentence was carried out. She begged him to tell her the truth, to tell her that he was innocent, but he couldn’t do both of those things, so instead he told her “I had to do it, Mother. Don’t you see? Don’t you understand? Think of what that whore could’ve done to our family name!”

Dorothy never did accept any responsibility for spoiling her favorite child, for teaching him that appearances and perceptions were more important than real people’s lives.

“Why do you think she doesn’t get it?” William asked his sister.

Stephanie shrugged and sighed. “She has a very different idea of what Family means. Family is blood to her. It’s a name. It’s a history and a future. But that’s not what family is, is it? We know that. You and me? We know that family is the people that we choose to share it with. Family is a present.”


Truth

What do they call it when you put your glasses together for a toast and they make that tinkling sound? Is it “clink”? Whatever the word for it, that’s what Jake and Curtis were doing right now.

“Congratulations, man,” said Jake LeCarré. “It’s a hell of a publication.”

It actually wasn’t all that great a publication that had just hired his friend Antoine Lamarr Curtis–if anything, it was a rag, a fluff vanity called Zealot Magazine run by a tycoon who’d come out of nowhere determined, it seemed, to make himself heard and make money in the process. But it was money, an actual job in journalism, or something like it, which was more than Jake could boast.

“Thanks, man,” said Curtis, “That means a lot coming from you.”

“Hey, hey, settle down now.” The fact that he still hadn’t managed to land a steady job was somewhat of a sore spot for Jake. Not that he wasn’t good—he never questioned that. He’d even had offers—plenty of them—but he turned them all down on principle. Jake’s research skills were exceptional and he loved putting them to work at finding connections between the bigwigs in charge of the newspapers and the bigger whigs in charge of everything else. And it turned out, pretty much everyone was in somebody’s pocket. Everybody but Jake’s white whale: the Sunday Monitor.

“No, I know it’s a gig,” Curtis added, perhaps by way of apology for the subtle dig. “I know it’s not gonna do much other than line my pockets and clutter my portfolio with fluff.”

“Hey, man, if you’re comfortable with that…”

Comfort didn’t have anything to do with it, and Jake damn well knew it. They’d had this conversation before, about how privileged it was to act solely out of “principle”, to be able to afford to.

“That’s why I do it, though,” Jake always insisted when it came up. “I’m not telling you it’s what you should do, but considering I’m in a position to, I figure that’s what’s right. You know?”

Still, it was a point of contention between them.

“Hey, babe,” said Nancy when Jake got home. “How was it?”

“Great,” he said, in a tone that said “We didn’t fight or anything!”

“Good,” she said. “You two should hang out more often. You have so much in common.” She wasn’t saying this (just) to be patronizing. They actually did have quite a bit in common, even beyond journalism. Similar levels of intelligence, similar tastes in music and art. And women.

“Sure,” Jake agreed. “When we have time.”

A lot happened between then and the next time both of them “had time.” Jake had been freelancing and he continued to do so, selling his investigative think-pieces to anyone who would give money for them. He refused to start a blog. He claimed it was because he didn’t trust them and no one should, because there wasn’t any vetting process going into it, but Nancy secretly understood it was because he hated the ass-kissing that goes into marketing almost as much as he hated the idea of being a corporate shill.

Curtis, meanwhile, got some positive attention at Zealot, hooked up and broke up with a number of girls who never quite seemed to make the right noises, until he found one who did. He moved out of estate, traveled out of country, came home.

The biggest shifts, though, were for Nancy.

Nancy Pribess was an artist. Photographer, mostly. She’d had some shows, sold some pieces, balked at more modern technologies. She didn’t have the same relationship with words that Jake did, or Curtis. Maybe it was because words are too easy to lie with.

But then her sister died. Wendy Pribess, known to her colleagues as the “Spyder”, was a special agent in the FBI. She’d tracked a serial killer who called himself Kaman Set on a rampage across seven non-contiguous states to his hometown of Trinity’s Field, NC, and there, in accordance with horror-movie logic, she got caught up in the action and killed in the crossfire.

Nancy started to show the signs of grief pretty immediately, but she must have gotten caught up somewhere in the middle. “Something doesn’t add up,” she insisted every time she went over the police reports, the witness accounts.

“It does,” Jake assured her, and he tried to explain, but—

“No,” she would say. “No, no, it just doesn’t feel right!”

She started looking into it, the whole case. She had, at last, become somewhat a journalist in her own way. Just maybe not the right way. “I’m telling you,” she’d say, “there’s something more going on here!”

“And I’m telling you,” he’d retort, “even if there is, you can’t go anywhere without evidence!”

Still, she persisted. They broke up, but not until after she’d gone down to Trinity’s Field herself, moved there to be closer to the investigation. What she found there frightened her, but that only made her more desperate to discover (and reveal) the truth.

Jake, meanwhile, stopped thinking her obsession was cute even long before she started her blog on how supernatural events had shaped the small town’s history. But he couldn’t help but visit her when he found himself out on a story he thought for sure was unrelated.

“Does he work for Alchemyne?” she asked him, concerning the man he was coming to interview.

“I guess most of the people here in town do,” he said, not wanting to give anything away if he could help it.

“All the sketchy people do,” she said. “And a few who aren’t, but they eventually figure out what’s going on and then a lot of them disappear.”

Well, that sounded like bullshit.

Until he actually talked to the guy who’d called him, heard what he had to say (still thinking it was bullshit) and then what happened happened and the guy and his family were never heard from again.

“Sure lends credence, doesn’t it?” said Nancy.

“It doesn’t prove anything!”

“But it should still be reported!”

“People go missing every day!”

“Whole families? And all in the same situation?”

Then she called Curtis. Zealot, as it turned out, had it in for Alchemyne, had been looking for something like this for months, and now Nancy had brought it to them. Curtis launched an investigative report on Alchemyne Industries, their chemical manufacturing practices, their Human Resources Controversies and opposition to Affirmative Action or even color-blind hiring practices, strange unexplained disappearances and deaths in their offices all over the world, as it turned out.

The public ate it up. Everyone loves to attack Big Business, and Jake LeCarré rolled his eyes. There just wasn’t enough evidence. All these people screaming to prosecute, didn’t they understand the proceedings would be subject to due process? There just wasn’t enough evidence to bring it to trial, let alone convict. “You’d only be hurting your own case.”

But Curtis still got rich writing article after article for Zealot. “Hey, man, it sells. People want to hear it. And it’s not like we’re lying.”

“You’re just drawing conclusions from incomplete information.”

“And we’re admitting to that: look—“

“They are still reading it as fact, Curtis.”

“But what if it is true?” Nancy pointed out. “Look, if it’s not true, we will have taken down one horrible, horrible company that acted within the law to do horrible things—“

“And you will have lost thousands of people their jobs—“

“But if it is true… can you imagine? Jake, we could be saving the world.”

Jake shook his head. “I’m not buying it.”

“Is that because the evidence isn’t overwhelming enough, or because you support the free market?”

“I’m not saying that they’re not evil, I’m not saying they wouldn’t deserve it, but dammit, Nancy, there is a process!”

That’s when Nancy stopped talking to him.

“Can you blame her?” said Curtis.

“She’s not a journalist,” Jake insisted.

“Neither am I, by your standards,” Curtis pointed out. “And you? You’re freelance!”

“There’s something wrong with this country.”

“I won’t disagree,” said Curtis, “but that doesn’t mean there’s not something wrong with you, too.”

“I just want to tell the truth.”

“So does she.”

“But I want it to matter!”

Curtis took a deep breath. “What matters, Jake, might not be for you to decide.”


Well

Brett Lewis was doing well. He had a good, steady job at the construction company, a nice pile of savings from the work he’d done since he was sixteen. He got along okay with women when the fancy struck him, but he felt no great need to settle down. And he was in peak physical condition.

He first met Dr. Shukti Prajapati when his boss at the firm made him go in for a routine check-up. He never bothered with those things, figured he knew his body best. Not like he smoked, and he ate healthy enough.

“How are you feeling today, sir?” asked the doc, and he was surprised not to hear an accent, because she was definitely not from around here.

“I’m feeling just fine,” he said, “other than the big fat check I’m gonna have to write for this check-up.”

“Most insurance policies cover this,” she assured him.

“Most insurance policies,” he countered, “are scams, which is why I don’t have one.”

“I see,” said Dr. Prajapati, and continued with the examination.

She wanted to say something pithy, like “Well, then I guess you have only yourself to blame,” but that would be unbecoming, not to mention unprofessional, and she could tell from the man’s body-language he was already uncomfortable with her—whether it was her race or sex didn’t really matter—and she was already on thin ice when it came to the hospital administration. they didn’t like her meddling with her patients by recommending insurance policies. They said it was none of her business; “Doctors should be doctors,” they said, “and leave the insurance stuff to the folks who know about it.” But wasn’t her job to care for the sick? Hadn’t she taken an oath to do no harm? If a family was financially ruined paying for a treatment that she recommended, with the result they wouldn’t properly feed themselves, wasn’t that her business as a doctor?

“Hmm…” she said, in her conversation with Mr. Lewis.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“No reason to be alarmed,” she said. “I just might have to run some tests.”

“Nuh-uh, I ain’t paying for no tests.”

“But this could be important.” She explained what she’d found at the possible implications. She tries to be as simple as possible without being condescending or imprecise.

“No, no, no, no, no,” said Brett. “Nice try, Shama-lama, but you’re not getting me with all your mumbo-jumbo, I ain’t paying for no tests.”

And that was the end of it, she thought. There was a chance he had a condition. There was a chance that condition could be life-threatening, but without insurance, the test would be pricey. Not as pricey as the treatment, of course, but for this man (especially without insurance) the burden might weigh more than the risk.

So Brett Lewis got his clean bill of health (with a caveat) and returned to work, while Dr. Prajapati returned to feeling uneasy about healthcare. Maybe her medical school teachers were right. Maybe her heart was too good for America, her commitment too wide.

There were problems with Britain’s NHS, but it couldn’t be as bad as this—could it? Pharmaceutical companies creating new drugs they don’t actually need to feed money into testing them to justify driving up prices on everything else? The best equipment in the world that no one could afford to use? Food that makes people sick? Common-sense cures barred from even research to keep profits high on expensive invasive treatments that shouldn’t even be necessary? And all the while, the only way ordinary working-class citizens can afford to take care of themselves when the worst happens is to pay thousands a year to private insurance companies that take every conceivable excuse to line their own pockets by raising prices and denying claims.

“You should buy insurance now,” she said to Brett Lewis just before he walked.

“They won’t cover you with a preexisting condition and this could become a problem.”

“Yeah, you’d like that, wouldn’t you?” he shot back.

But then it became a problem. Six months after this check-up, after assuming that it was all bullshit, Brett Lewis started showing symptoms. They were exactly the kinds of symptoms Dr. Prajapati had described. Uncanny, even. He put off going in—“Doctors are quacks anyway”—and didn’t even tell anyone—“I ain’t no snowflake,” he would say in the mirror, “I can take care of myself”—until one day he collapsed while at work.

“You will die,” was the verdict from these new quacks, “without proper treatment. “And it was burning a hole in his pocket.

“Don’t worry,” said his boss, “we take care of our own.” But was that fair to them? Asking that kind of charity? A man takes care of himself, takes care of his family, if he has one. What kind of man lets other men pay off his debts for him?

“The kind of man who’s fallen ill,” said Dr. Prajapati. She found him when he was admitted at the hospital and remembered him. “We can’t solve every problem ourselves,” she added, “the modern world is too complicated for every single person to know every single thing well enough to surive in it unaided. And the human body? Not even doctors can be expected to know everything by now, and never make a mistake. So where does that leave you?”

“It’s a scam,” he insisted, and she didn’t disagree. “They take and they take and they take, and what do we get for it? Debts that can never be repaid. And what choice have we got?”

“You can die,” she reminded him.

“We’d be better off without all this shit.”

“No, you would be dead,” she reminded him. “And there would be no choice.”

“I could pay for all this myself.”

“Can you, though?”

Of course he couldn’t.

“The system isn’t perfect. Of course it’s not. But is the answer to get rid of it altogether? Let every man fend for himself? Where would that leave you? No, if something isn’t perfect, the last thing you do is throw it away. What we need is to fix it.”

In the end, though, the entire point was rendered moot. Brett Lewis made a miraculous recovery just before his money ran out. He gave the credit to supernatural forces and earned a fortune from the book deal and endless subsequent touring.

And Dr. Shukti Prajapati went deeper into politics, ultimately abandoning the hospital for the bigger picture because she couldn’t bear to see people like Mr. Lewis spiraling into endless debt—and taking their families and sometimes even friends with them—just on the slim chance of one day being well. 


Free

When Brandon Kostley started at BertHold, he thought he had it made. Investment supervisors may lose a lot of money sometimes, but they never starve, least not the way he figured it. And on top of his great fortune getting that gig, practically his first day in the city, he happened to be seated at a restaurant next to Hank Hunt.

BertHold was a great company, don’t misunderstand, but Hank Hunt ran the city and had for like twenty years. that was what Brandon thought. Never mind Hunt’s twelve bankruptcies—after all, he always managed to get back on top. So with this man as his mentor, as he was after only a brief conversation, Brandon was confident he would soon be rich beyond his wildest dreams.

But then old man Bentley, the owner, died, leaving controlling interest and more to his grandson: Damian Bentley-Hoag.

If Hank Hunt was the most powerful man in the most powerful city in the world, Damian Bentley-Hoag was the most dangerous. Oh, most people wouldn’t think so, of course. Most people later on would insist he was a champion of the people, a real stand-up guy with a lot to offer, who offered it freely.

Here’s what made Damian Bentley-Hoag dangerous: he actually believed trickle-down economics, but not the way his peers wanted people believing in it. When he got an influx of money for the company, he turned right around and invested it—but not in the stock market, not in the banking system. He used it to actually buy new and better equipment, to hire more people, to give raises to the people on the bottom—and one time, he even used the extra cash to lower product prices. “We got a good product,” he said, “Not just somehting people want, but something they’ll use, something that’ll actualy work. i want people to buy it, real people. And I don’t want them going broke to do so.”

“But Damian,” one of the board members condescended, “What about us? What do we get out of this?”

“What exactly have you put into this?” asked Damian.

What followed was an enumeration of every one of that board member’s personal contributions to the company. It was very detailed, but for every monetary scheme, Damian had a moral riposte, until finally the board man insisted “I have put my soul into this company!”

“No,” said Damian, “you have put money into this company, and have gotten money in return. Your soul, as far as I can tell, is on a golf course in Hilton Head, and you are free to retrieve it at any time. The people who have put their souls into this company are the ones who found themselves too desperate to keep looking for something better and settled for working for my grandfather, and for you, who didn’t pay them enough.”

“You’re not going to get away with this,” the man on the board said.

Damian only looked at him, his elbows on the table, his left hand covering his right fist covering his mouth.

That board member was not invited to any more meetings.

“He can’t do that,” Hank Hunt insisted when Brandon brought the news to him.

“Actually, I’m afraid he can. He still owns the company, so he’s free to do whatever he wants with it.”

“Well, he’s not gonna get away with it.” Hunt’s face darkened. “I can tell you that much for sure.”

Then he dipped his fork into a mountain of kaviar.

The problem was, Damian did get away with it. He had been barely 21 and still in college somewhere overseas when he took over, but the boy had a knowledge of business and of politics that woudl drive most men mad. Maybe it had driven him mad, at that—but every decision he made was successful.

Meanwhile, the boy himself lived modestly, in a converted tenement in the Bronx, and commuted to Manhattan. The security in his apartment was supplemented by the fact that most of his bodyguards lived there, too, with their families, and even some of his low-level employees. He said it kept him honest, kept him in touch with the people who actually ran the company.

Most of his personal wealth, meanwhile, went directly to building the company.

“Who the hell does he think he is?” Hank Hunt asked, staring out the window of his Manhattan Penthouse past the gold-plated columns. “He’s a loser, that’s what he is. And he knows it, that’s why he lives like he does—he knows he can’t keep this up. He knows it!

“Somebody oughtta teach that asshole a lesson.”

Three days later, there was an explosion at the tenement, just over Damian’s own apartment. He wasn’t home—fortunately, neither were the folks above him. They were a nice Puerto Rican family he’d been sponsoring for citizenship, and he had taken them out for Chinese. No one else was hurt.

At first, it looked like a gas leak, they said. That was the police. But the fire department had a different story. Brandon Kostley didn’t come forward, though. He told himself he didn’t really know anything. It was all just speculation, after all. Second hand. Subjunctive.

There was an investigation, but the trail went cold.

But that was when something happened that was really unexpected.

Hank Hunt disappeared.

It was actually the perfect, classic locked-room mystery. He was shup up in his office, “Do Not Disturb” and all that, secretary outside the door, and suddenly no answer. He was just gone.

That was when Brandon Kostley came forward. It got him in a bit of trouble, not having revealed that Hunt had made his threat against Damian’s life, but the judge decided he was a good kid, who just didn’t want to tarnish the old man’s reputation. He was certain, though, he said, that Damian had something to do with the disappearance.

Well, based on that, there was an investigation, but the trial never made it past a hearing. There just wasn’t any evidence. After the trial, Damian was heard remarking a few times on the fact that Hank Hunt hadn’t even been put through that much, although there was some evidence there. But of course, it didn’t really matter.

Brandon had already left the company by then. He did it voluntarily; Damian insisted he wouldn’t fire a man for following his conscience.

One night, though, Brandon came home to find Damian in his kitchen with a very expensive bottle of wine Brandon couldn’t pronounce the name of.

“How did you get in here?” Brandon demanded.

“I thought it was high time we talked,” Damian told him, and poured the wine. Then he proceeded to make dinner.

“You see,” he told Brandon, “the business world, as it seems to me, is at odds with democracy. We stand on high here making decisions, and the people? What do they matter to us? They are trees our money grows on, and trees are not meant to make decisions. Our employees depend on us for their livelihoods, and our customers for the actual things that they need. But I’m here at the top. I’m the monarch. The way my grandfather put this company together, I get to make all the decisions. No one can stop me. My power is absolute.

“Does that mean I can get away with murder? No. It shouldn’t. But it does mean that I have every right to treat my employees fairly.

“You know what the best form of government is, Mr. Kostley?”

“Benevolent dictatorship?”

“I prefer the term ‘Enlightened Despotism’. That’s how I like to think of myself—which is a dangerous line of thinking, of course. But I figure it’s better than only thnking of myself, and not about the consequences of my actions.”

Whirlwinds of responses soon overwhelmed Brandon’s brain. Was he thinking of the consequences for his board members? For the business community at large? But then he remembered the kaviar and the gold-plated bathroom and his own childhood in the bad parts of Detroit.

It’s been quite some time since anyone’s heard from Hank Hunt. Now and then, it’s said he’ll be spotted by an associate or a member of the press in Thailand or Mogadishu or the Sarajevo slums. But the witnesses are never able to reach him, never even get close.

And in New York, Damian’s strategy is catching.