Thursday, October 8, 2009

Prologue to the Writer's Tale

I ordered the kosher meal when I booked the ticket. Not because I am an observant Jew—the only time I show my face in shul is on the High Holy Days—but because it is, mark my words, the best meal on the plane. This one was better than most: well-prepared gefilte fish, a blintz, and a cup of kosher wine on the side. If I had to guess, I’d say that it was because it was the Days of Awe.
“This is shit,” said The Drunkard. He unwrapped his fork and knife from the plastic, took the fork in his hands, and duly snapped it in half without trying. “For God’s sake.”
“Should have ordered the kosher meal,” I suggested. My meal came with solid steel cutlery; it felt a little like being in first class.
“You think this is shit,” said the Traveler, cutting his chicken into bite-sized pieces and spreading what was supposed to be gravy on it, “you should have seen one of the flights I was on in India. I shit you not, the chicken had the consistency of a wet sponge.” He popped some chicken in his mouth. “This? Not so bad at all.”
The Stalker murmured something. Not knowing what to do, and frankly scared to ask him to repeat himself, we all chuckled.
The Writer cleared his throat. “I must agree with The Traveler. Once, in order to properly understand what it would be like to be a starving man on the streets, I fasted for a week straight. After, I ate only beans and drank only water. It was preparation for a story, you see.”
In front of us, The Drunkard cursed. He turned around and poked his head over the chair. “You just don’t know when to stop, do you?”
“Stop your fucking lying for once.”
The Writer didn’t respond for a moment, and we all ate in awkward silence. “You’re right,” he said. “I apologize. But still,” he nibbled at the desert portion that came with the meal, “the cake’s good.”
We all agreed, and ate on.
After we laid down our meals, and threw them away when the cabin steward came by—I, of course, placed mine in a specially-marked cutlery dispenser that was to be washed on its own, after everything else had been disposed of—the Student put the book he was reading in the pocket in front of him and said, “So, who’s next?”
“How bout you?” asked The Drunkard.
The Student blushed. “I, uh, I don’t believe that—well, you know the thing is that when—er, I—”
“Not you,” concluded The Drunkard. He cast his eye to The Stalker, who was leaning out from the side of his seat and staring at a woman in the back of the plane. “Not you, either,” remarked The Drunkard.
“Huh?” asked The Stalker.
“Exactly.” He looked at me.
“Not yet, for I have a plan of my own.”
“Fair enough.” He looked at The Writer. “Well, I think it’s about time for The Dandy to show his skills.”
The Writer arched an eyebrow. “The Dandy? You know, I feel like I’ve had about enough of your aggressive attitude. It’s been completely unprovoked, and yet at every turn, you man—”
“Want me to stop? Best way to get me to stop talking is to have me enraptured in what you have to tell. After all, you are the only Published Author here, right?”
“Yeah,” said The Traveler, nudging The Writer in the ribs with his elbow. “After trying to shoot down my story with such a vengeance, I think the least you could do would be to try and top it.”
“Ha!” laughed The Writer. “Try to top it? My friend, I could top that rancid heap of dog dung in my sleep, blind folded, and with the flu to boot. Very well,” he said, clearing his throat and straightening himself in his chair, “I shall tell you all a tale. It shall have moral merit, and it shall be what The Traveler’s Tale oh so dearly lacked: A firm grounding in reality, brought on by what I perceive to be the central problems in the world, or at least something which we all face at one point or another.”
He took a deep breath, prepared to go on more. The Drunkard looked at The Traveler, “What hath we wrought?”
“Quiet, you,” said The Writer. The Student snickered, and The Stalker held up a paper doll with ‘The Writer’ written on it. He flicked the head a few times with his index finger, and The Writer, whether playing along or not I do not know, rubbed the top of his skull. “Right. This is a story that has been brewing up in my head for a while now, and you are all lucky enough to be the first listeners. Do try and allow yourselves the option of being amazed by it, touched by the honesty and truth—for to do otherwise would cheapen the value of fiction. When we shut our—”
“You might want to start, else everyone might shut their eyes and go to sleep,” said The Traveler.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Epilogue to The Traveler's Tale

“Oh please!” shouted The Writer. “You simply must be kidding me!”
We had just taken our seats on the plane as The Traveler finished his tale and, though I feel that he had some more to add, The Writer stopped him after the one-liner. The Traveler tossed his pack into the overhead compartment, took his seat in the middle section of the plane, and looked at The Writer, who was seated to his right. “What?”
The Drunkard, who, upon boarding the plane, snatched the drinks menu from the seat pocket in front of him, added his own take to the conversation, “Yeah, Writer, what?”
“You don’t see it?” asked the Writer, rubbing his temples and stammering nonsense words.
The rest of us looked at each other and gave a collective shrug. “No,” said The Student. “Enlighten us as to what we’re supposed to be seeing.” The Student, The Drunkard, and The Stalker were seated in the row in front of The Traveler, The Writer, and I. All of us being in the middle section, we found it quite easy to turn around and address each other when the need arose.
“It’s contrived.” said The Writer, holding up his fingers and ticking off his points as he made them. “It’s sensational tripe. It’s completely unrealistic. It makes no grand comment about anything in any matter that could be called artistic, it—”
“Now hold the fuck on a minute,” said The Drunkard. “You’re kidding, right? It’s a story about a guy who is about to get shanked on the street and you’re talking about artistic merit?” The Drunkard waved The Writer’s objections away. “Go shit in the ocean.”
“Now, hold on,” said The Student.
“What, you’re taking his side?”
“Wait,” said The Student.
“Yeah, give him a chance,” said The Traveler, who was shockingly calm about being slammed by a critic.
“Thank you,” continued The Student. “I’ll admit, what The Traveler has told us is not particularly literary, but I doubt that you could, Writer, in any good conscience, make the remark that any story in its time that revolves around bloodshed, was seen as anything other than pulp fiction by the academic establishment, or the critical establishment, etc.”
“Pah,” said The Writer, “Poe, for example, was al—”
“When we arrive in the U.K., I ask you to find me a source from Poe’s time saying that he was a literary genius. Even if it is the case that such things were said, I point you to Kurt Vonnegut, who was initially branded as science-fiction, and thus unworthy of serious consideration. It took quite a bit for him to be seen as worthwhile. My point, oh stubborn one, is that simply because there is sensationalism, or anything beyond an existential crisis, in a story, does not mean that the story has no merit. Even being entertaining in its own rite is indicative of merit.”
“You are in the wrong. All fiction must have artistic merit, otherwise it is as worthless as reality television.”
“So I guess this means that you’re not a Stephen King fan,” said The Drunkard.
“Ha!” exclaimed the Writer. “Stephen King is not worth a second glance on the bookshelves. Tell me, Stalker, where do you fall in this debate?”
The Stalker, who had been sitting silently in his seat, slowly rose and faced The Writer. His eyes became slits and he said, in a low, steady voice, “I shall make a voodoo doll in your likeness.” Then, he returned to his previous position.
“Ah,” said The Writer. “Well. Okay then.”
An uncomfortable silence passed.
“Well,” said The Drunkard, “I say that it was a pretty decent story, and a good enough kick-off to our contest. Probably could have used a little more in terms of tension-building, but hey, nice going for off the top of your head.”
The Traveler bowed his head a little, “I tried.”
“What say,” I said, “we break from our contest until after our meal, that way the next storyteller has the advantage of beginning with a well-fed and energetic mind?”
There was a general consensus that this was a good idea and we each retired to our own ways to fritter away the time until the dinner hour fell upon us.

The Traveler's Tale

On an unusually crisp summer morning, a man sat at a circular black-finished steel table in the middle of a plaza in front of a skyscraper, drinking coffee from a paper cup. This was in the center of the business district, and in about a half hour, the streets and sidewalks would be bustling with men and women in business attire. They would walk up and down the streets, murmuring, speaking, or shouting into their Blackberries, Bluetooths (or is it Blueteeth?), concentrating on generally everything not right in front of them. However, at the stroke of seven o’clock in the morning, the streets were, for the most part, silent.
Our man, who may or may not have looked exactly like the Traveler in most respects, was inconspicuously dressed. Apart from the presence of a gigantic backpack right next to his chair, no one would have given him a second look. In his jeans, t-shirt, and Houston Astros baseball cap, he looked simply like a college student up at an unreasonable (to him) hour. In fact, he looked like that because he was a college student up at an unreasonable (to him) hour. That is, he was a college student, but not at this particular moment. Right now, he was on vacation in Houston, Texas, enjoying his summer vacation. The reason he was up at such an odd hour (for a student), was because there happened to be a tremendous mistake with his youth hostel. When our man, let’s call him Sean, booked his bed in the hostel, he did so in the understanding that he was talking with a thoroughly reasonable person on the other end of the phone. It transpired, however, that the person on the other end of the phone was in the midst of a nervous breakdown brought about by studying too much Nietzsche, and thus neglected to write anything down, or make any note of a conversation having taken place. It further transpired, to Sean’s great misfortune, that the hostel had filled up all of its rooms. So, having arrived in Houston earlier that morning after a long plane ride from Boston, Sean found himself stuck in the middle of a vast metropolis, his accommodation lost at the hands of a sadly neurotic individual.
With no other option in front of him, Sean did the sensible thing and bought some coffee. After this, he spied a vacant table in the plaza, sat down, and thought about what hotel he could afford. Now, his current position was quite precarious. For, though he did not know it, the plaza was around four blocks away from the homeless shelter. When Sean noticed that there were a large group of men and women wrapped up in sleeping bags, he reasoned: “Houston is a large city, thus, there must be a large homeless population.” Honestly, even if Sean had known that the homeless shelter was a few blocks away, he probably would have thought nothing of it; Sean, you see, did not have the thoroughly negative impression of the homeless that the majority of the American population seems to have.
So, he sat at the table, his cell phone in front of him, next to the steaming paper cup of coffee. A slight breeze passed, carried the scent of exhaust across his nose. Sean heard approaching footsteps and turned to his left.
Coming towards him, in a slow, limping step, was a man about six feet tall. He was buried underneath a heavy woolen sweater, sweatpants. On top of his head, there was a faded, ripped baseball cap. He had a long, dirty beard. His gray, dirt-specked bangs hung down over his brow. He stepped up to the table and said, “You have a phone?”
Indeed, the question should not have been asked, for the cell phone was sitting in plain view. However, there it was. “Yeah,” said Sean.
The man coughed. Specks of phlegm flew out onto the table, staining the black matte with green biomass. “You’d better call the police, son.”
A pause.  “Why?”
“Cause you’re gonna die.” The man jerked his hand towards the cell phone, grabbed it, and hurled it at in the street in the path of a streetsweeper. The machine crushed it, and Sean heard the phone’s last sounds.
After this, though, Sean failed to move. He’d never met with someone who intended to kill him, and did not know the proper decorum.
The man leaned down and spoke, scents of whiskey and vodka creating a disgusting sensory cocktail on his breath. “Run.”
This time, Sean obliged. He bolted from his chair, left his backpack behind. In high school, he was on the track team. He held the record for the 100 meter dash for five years—until a Kenyan exchange student wandered onto the track and beat it by five seconds in a brisk saunter. (Sean did not attend a school renown for its athletics.) At any rate, Sean bolted down the broad avenue in a way that was as close to a gazelle as he could manage. He made it five blocks away before he looked back and couldn’t see the man anywhere near him. He leaned up against a building and panted. Then, he cursed. As it turned out, all of his credit cards, notebooks, maps, calling cards—everything he needed to travel, really—were in that backpack. And he sure as hell couldn’t go back to retrieve them all.
“You all right?” asked a man’s voice to his right.
Sean turned and saw a policeman. This one was reasonably fit, and, more importantly, he had a pistol strapped to his waist. Sean finished panting and said, “There’s a guy who wants to kill me.”
“Oh?” asked the policeman. He stepped back, gave Sean a look over. “Where you from?”
“Seattle, sir.”
“Seattle. Never been to Seattle. It nice up there?”
“I’m not sure if you understood me, there’s a guy who said he was going to kill me right before he chucked my phone at a street sweeper.”
“Nah,” said the officer, digging his fingers into his belt. “I heard ya. Is it nice in Seattle?”
“Fan-fucking-tastic. Are you going to do something about the man who wants to murder me, or are we going to make small talk until someone capable comes along?”
“Now that’s not nice at all. You know,” said the policeman, glancing down the avenue and squinting into the sun, “that’s what I never liked about people from the Coasts. They don’t know how to talk to other people. Damn shame, if you ask me. Turns folk into something disposable.” He looked at Sean again, this time a much more aggressive look crossed his eyes. “How’d you vote in the election, boy?”
Sean, dumbfounded, dropped his jaw. “What the fuck is this, Easy Rider? There is a man looking to kill me!”
The officer nodded. “’s what I thought.” He sighed and took some sunglasses out of his front pocket, put them on. “I think there’s a man who wants to see you, boy.”
Sean turned around and saw the homeless man limping up the avenue. Steady, calm, slow, he was only about twenty feet behind the backpacker.
“You two have fun,” said the officer. “See you in Hell, hippie.” He nodded to the homeless man and walked off in the other direction.
Sean, still panting and still exhausted from his earlier dash, turned and was about to break into another sprint when an explosion of pain centering in his right calf muscle turned his vision white, took all of his breath away in the form of a hideous scream, and sent him to the ground. Sean managed to pick his head up and saw a knife blade sticking out from his calf, and on the other side, the point of a blade. Had Sean had the capability to think about his situation, he would have noted that the homeless man had the strength and skill to throw a nine-inch blade clean through his leg. As it stood, however, Sean could only notice that there was a puddle of blood slowly collecting on the pavement next to his calf.
The homeless man laughed a little and said, “Well, well, well, looks like spider caught himself a fly.”
Sean, had he been capable of clearly assessing his situation, probably would not have been able to do what he was about to do: He pulled the knife out of his leg and hurled it at the approaching man. While Sean had aimed the knife at the man’s chest, it stuck in the man’s abdomen, and, judging from the man’s gut-wrenching scream, it was enough to make the point that Sean did not want to be followed. He scrambled up, and limped off down the street.

About an hour later, Sean stumbled out of a free clinic, bandaged, stitched, but still limping. He checked both sides of the street, saw no roving maniac, and sat down, buried his head in his hands. He tried to think of why a mad homeless man would be trying to kill him, but couldn’t think of any solid reason—unless the man hated the Astros, but this was Houston.
He felt a tap on his shoulder. “Shit,” he said. He looked up and saw the cop from before. “Oh, Christ,” he remarked.
“Now, there’s no reason to be going around breaking any commandments, is there, boy?” The cop sat down. He poked Sean’s calf.
Sean winced.
“Big cut you got there. Fall in the shower?” The cop laughed.
“What do you people want from me, officer?”
“You know, I saw what you did to Willie. Not a bad toss, but if you had wanted to kill the bastard instead of wounding him, you really should have aimed for the neck. Bleeds more.” The cop took off his sunglasses, put them in his pocket. “Learned that from slaughtering cows for a summer—humans don’t kick nearly as much as cows when you cut their throats, so there’s not nearly as much danger.”
“Willie? Cows? What the hell is going on?”
The cop cocked an eyebrow. “You gotta know Willie. Willie don’t go after anyone for no reason.”
“I’ve never met that asshole in my life, I’ve never met you before, and I don’t want to know about your summer spent slaughtering cows. What in green hell is going on and why is this Willie trying to kill me?”
“I could really try to see if you’re telling the truth her, dig around in your little wound, but we don’t need to do that, do we?”
“Please, God, no.”
“All right, let’s say I believe you and this is all some sort of mistaken identity. That would mean that you don’t know anything about Willie. Well,” the officer took a cigarette from his front pocket, “putting it simple,” he lit the cigarette with a lighter, “Willie is Rambo. Nam veteran, bad case of PTSD.”
“Oh, of course. Why wouldn’t he have PTSD and be Rambo. Fits right in with this fucked-up city.”
“Hey now, Houston’s not bad, you just showed up at the wrong place at the wrong time. Now you got a batshit insane ex-Special Ops guy trailing you. And, might I add, you made it pretty easy with that trail of dried blood leading right here.”
Sean glanced around the sidewalk and saw that the cop was right. “Shit.”
“You need to find some more obscenities, son. Wearing that one thin. Anyway, Willie, from time to time…” The cop paused, took a drag on his cigarette. “Well, putting it diplomatically, he thinks he hears the Voice of God.”
“Oh. Ex-Special Ops with a religious mania. Excellent.”
“Well,” the cop continued, ignoring Sean’s interjection, “he’ll kind of take matters into his own hands and go around brutally murdering criminals.”
“What? And you people let this happen?”
“Son, in a city this size, HPD will, unofficially, mind you, welcome any sort of help we can get. Sure, we officially decry his actions and say that this sort of vigilante justice will not stand, but, damn it, the guy is a first-class detective. Thing I don’t get about you is you definitely don’t come across as being from around here, so Willie should have known that he had the wrong man.”
“Well, it’s like the Voice of God—or whatever—has a direct line into HPD’s database. So far, every criminal Willie’s neutralized has only been in Houston, and I don’t see why that would change. I’ll tell ya what, boy.”
“My name’s Sean. Please stop calling me ‘boy,’ it makes you seem like a stereotype.”
The cop grinned. “I like that.” He stuck out his hand, Sean took it. “My name’s Art.” They shook. “Anyway, I’ll tell ya what, Sean. I’ll go intercede with Willie, get him to see reason and off your case.”
“What makes you think he’ll listen to you?”
The cop shrugged and stood up. “Hunch. Might as well stay put so I know where to find you after we’re done talking.”
Sean watched Art walk down the street and spent about ten minutes watching the sparse foot traffic on the street. After about that time, something rolled into his leg. Sean looked down, turned a pale color he never would have thought possible, and kicked the item back the way it came.
“You know,” said Willie, approaching at his usual, slow speed, “part of arguing with someone entails not losing your head.” Willie bent down, picked up Art’s head, and held it as if it were Yorick’s skull. “Art was never much good at that.” He let out a hoarse laugh, followed by a hacking cough, and chucked the head back at Sean.
Sean dodge the flying head, which landed in the trashcan behind him, and shouted, “I’m not the guy you’re looking for! You just killed a cop! Do you know what you’re doing?”
“I do what I do because I have no other choice.” Willie was now standing nearly against Sean. His breath smelled of liquor. “When you’re called, you’re called.” Without much more in the way of conversation, Willie grabbed the knife that had previously been in Sean’s calf and swiped.
Instinct took over and Sean caught Willie’s wrist, and turned it. The homeless man was surprisingly strong, and, though Sean was no weakling, he found it hard to overcome the man’s iron grip. “Judgment day is here, answer for your sins,” whispered the man. The knife inched closer to Sean.
Sean, had he had the proper training to combat such a man in such a situation, would have found it proper to make a witty comment. However, he concentrated on edging the knife closer to Willie’s throat. “Sinner, know when your end draweth nigh, and repent, so that—” Willie’s sermon was cut short by the knife piercing his throat’s skin. A look of surprise crossed his face as blood began to seep out of the incision. Still, though, he fought on. In fact, his grasp on the knife tightened and he managed to bring it closer to the backpacker. Willie spoke in a gurgle, English mixed with seeping blood, liquor stench meshed with spurting fresh blood, “you will find your Lord in good graces.”
Sean bowed to his first impulse, which was to vomit at the stench, lose hold of the knife for a moment, and suffered a slash to his left bicep. The pain was not nearly as immense as the gash in his calf, but was enough to make him stagger. Luckily enough, the puke worked its way through the air and managed to seep into Willie’s own throat wound, forcing the man to drop his knife and claw at the throat wound.
In the few moments’ reprieve, Sean grabbed the knife from the ground, and, just before he took another action, noticed that there was no one around him on the street. In a flash of thought, he realized that this was truly indicative of human nature. Everyone had fled the street at the sight of two men clashing violently. It went a long way to explaining the disturbing occurrence of violent crime—murder, rape, robbery—in a large city. After this brief rumination—Sean, upon reflecting on the day, was very surprised that there was a corner of his mind that had the ability to think in such a way in this situation—Sean dove at Willie, still clawing at his throat. He swiped at the man, and a spray of blood shot out from the man’s throat, something like what one would expect from a particularly violent cartoon.
The homeless ex-Special Ops veteran convulsed to the sidewalk and gurgled for a few moments until laying still.
“What in almighty hell is going on here?” asked a man coming up from behind Sean.
Sean spun around and saw another cop.
“This guy,” Sean said, dropping the knife and clutching his bicep, “was trying to kill me.”
The cop walked over to the corpse. “Willie.”
“So I heard. He killed another officer named Art.”
The new cop looked at Sean. “Art Brown? Why’d Willie kill him?”
“Art tried to explain to Willie that he had me wrong and Willie decapitated him.” Sean nodded to the trashcan. “His head’s in the can.”
The cop walked over to the trashcan. “Christ.” He turned back to Sean. “Okay, what’s up with your bicep?”
Sean took his hand off the wound and showed him.
“Ouch, lucky you’re right next to the free clinic. Let’s get you inside, then we need to go down to the station and sort everything out.” He looked back at the trashcan. “Fuckin hell, Art. You know,” the cop said, “this is exactly why no one on the force aside from Art would go near that psycho.” He led Sean up the stairs and back into the clinic.

A couple weeks afterwards, following a few police interrogations, a brief court episode that found him cleared of charges of manslaughter on the basis of self-defense, and various jumping-through-hurdles to ensure that he would not have problems travelling through the country, Sean found himself back at Houston Intercontinental Airport, about to board a plane for Seattle. He placed his large backpack (which had been nearly run over by a street cleaner, but rescued at the last moment with his wallet and most of his goods intact) onto the scale next to the gate agent’s terminal and sighed.
The gate agent, an attractive woman who typed entirely too fast to be a normal human being, gave him a nice smile and said, “Long trip?”
Sean laughed and said, “It was almost the death of me.”