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Category: Fiction (page 1 of 6)

1000 Words – Empty Basement

A day will come when you can give of yourself freely. You will give of yourself generously and selflessly for no other reason than that it is the right thing to do. For no other reason than that you want to. You will have a chance to pay forward all the kindnesses given to you when you were having a rough time, when you were bottoming out, when you really needed a helping hand. But today is not that day. Today is a day to take.

And take we shall.

Today is a day we shall take and we shall take dearly. The world will feel. What will the world feel, you ask? I don’t know. I am just the instrument. These decisions, they’re not mine. I am told to act and I obey. And today, they told me, today the world will feel what it is like to lose. The world will feel what it is like to suffer and anguish and lose.

Do not judge me. I do not make these decisions. I am told what to do and I act. Is that so difficult to reconcile with your notions of free will, of life, of morality? Is it such a difficult thing to believe that I act without considering the ramifications of the orders I am given? To kill a child? To bomb a church? To poison a well? Figuratively speaking on that last one of course. These days, you’d want to go for a large municipal water source. A reservoir, for example. That is the most efficient way to take out an entire population, beyond something like a thermonuclear strike. But those are so crude. So noisy. They lack subtlety.

We like subtlety. I think.

A few days ago an associate of mine—let us call him Bertrand, not his real name but it will suffice—thought that he would have a change of heart. He was given orders in the manner we are given orders, that is, hidden in the newspapers so that no one can trace their source, just like a hundred times before. Just like a hundred jobs before. But this time, Bertrand decided to think about the orders issued to him. He had a change of heart. He took issue with the task at hand.

Poor Bertrand. He was always so conflicted. There had been many times over the years I could see minuscule flickers of doubt dance across his eyes, but he never let them affect his performance. His commitment to our duty had been admirable even by the gold standard set by yours truly. He was a loyal, dedicated soldier who carried out his orders to the fullest extent every time. Except this time.

This is no hiding from the ones making our decisions for us. If an impure thought creeps into your head, they know. Every doubt, every hesitation, every slight misgiving and they know. To survive and thrive, one must become a pawn. Willfulness is your enemy. Let go. Be free. Act without thinking about why.

Bertrand asked why. Why killed Bertrand. Or more accurately, you might say I killed Bertrand, but the truth is that why is the reason he is dead. I was just the instrument. An appropriate word choice too. I made sweet music with Bertrand. I will never forget the great sweeping crescendo we achieved before crashing into silence. I loved Bertrand, but in the end he did not love me. It is the nature of my work, not to be loved, and this time was no different.

They know that we exist to serve and that to serve means not to be loved. It is essential to the human experience to seek love. We are social creatures, by nature, and love is the greatest natural expression of that. We give of ourselves when we love freely and unconditionally. To deny that instinct is to make yourself something more and less than human. A superdemihuman, if you will. That’s kind of funny, right? I just made that up. Feel free to use it later when people ask what happened.

Just a little while now.

Sometimes I remember my family. I remember my family and people I called friends. Do you remember your family? One of the first things they take from you is your memories. They are convinced that remembering will dull your effectiveness. In a lot of ways, they are right. I only assume this. No one has ever told me. I only guess based on what I have lost. My memories. My feelings. My loves. I understand what it is to give and why people do it, but I don’t know what it feels like. I don’t know what anything feels like. Do you remember your mother?

I am excited about what’s coming up. You’re curious, aren’t you? I know you are. I can tell. That is ok. You’ll find out what we have in store for you soon enough, but for now think about when you were a child. Think about the first time you rode a bike. About the first time you fell off that bike. Think about how scared you were. About how badly your knee hurt. About the way your fear intensified when you saw the slick shiny patch of blood seeping down your shin. How was that for you? Did you call out for your mother? Did she come to you?

You would never guess by looking at it, but this earthen floor holds a secret. A very big secret. I received my orders to give this gift to the world in the Sunday Times. Sunday papers always contained the biggest jobs and this was an Easter Sunday paper. Very big indeed.

We’re almost there. Soon you will find out what secret I have kept from you. I think you’ll like it. But first, think about your mother. Think about being a child and wanting your mother near you. Do you feel that right now? If you don’t, you’re about to. I do. I am very excited to give you this gift. Very excited. Because I love you.

01 – Of Friends and Lovers

In front of me on the altar lies my best friend Arturo, cold, grey, and dead in a box.  Arturo’s mother cries throughout the service, silently soaking her dainty handkerchief with tears and snot.  Beside her, his father holds the sans-handkerchief hand, looking stoic and strong, but the heavy lines of his face reveal the war this tragedy has caused inside his head.  Oh, poor babies.  Is it wrong to feel so little when so many people are mourning?

His sister Eva—god, she looks tight today in that black dress—speaks after the priest gives his eulogy, generic but comforting to those who would have it.  She is so sincere.  I am impressed.  She says they all miss Arturo, his bright smile, his laugh, his winning attitude.  That it is such a tragedy to have one so young taken from them before he had the chance to affect the world.  Cut down in the spring time of his life.  Strong and handsome, Arturo was a man who loved his family, his friends, his country, his God.  

I zone out.  

I imagine the taste of her lip gloss on my lips, something fruity, sparkles smeared on my face.  I try and imagine the color of her panties.  I stare at her tits gently jiggling in her dress as she gesticulates meaningfully during her speech, adding appropriate emphasis to the most poignant, heart-felt moments, when his auntie who is sitting next to me grabs my hand and looks deeply into my eyes.  Hers are filled with tears, red, swollen.  I do my best to play it like I have been captivated by Eva’s words rather than staring at her amazing rack, but the woman is so lost in her sadness that I could have been screaming and cursing and throwing things across the church pews and she still would have thought I was displaying a sensible expression of grief over Arturo, my sweet lost best friend.

Eva finishes and sits and some cousin who I have never met comes up and plays some sad sounding song on the piano I don’t know but which really opens the water works in the crowd.  I hide my face in my hands to avoid any more sincere exchanges of misery.  I close my eyes, enjoying the darkness, and press my palms hard into my eye sockets.  Hopefully the redness the pressure causes will be enough to convince people I have been suffering silently, tears barely held back in this moment of extreme loss.  

Oh, poor Arturo.  If only you were here to see how hot your sister looks today.

With my head swimming, full of Eva, I notice myself coming to half-mast—probably best not to stand up from the pew with a boner—I fill my head with all the unsexy thoughts I can muster: my sixth grade homeroom teacher, the homeless man who used to pee on my window and then shit himself while napping on my block, taxes, the rotten fish smell of the wharf on a hot summer day.  I focus so hard on not getting hard that I barely notice when the funeral procession begins.  Arturo’s dad passes me, misinterprets my attempts to thwart my erection as grief-induced detachment, and places his hand on my shoulder in a show of support.  

“Come, David,” he says, “let’s pay our final respects.”

I look up at him, my eyes still glazed and red from the pressure of my palms, and nod silently.  As one of the pallbearers—it’s me, his father, three of his male cousins, and some ridiculous curly haired guy he went to college with—I take my place at the head of casket opposite his father, good old Gus, and cast my eyes across the solemn, expectant crowd.  They are all miserable.  I hope that none of them can tell that I feel nothing for Arturo right now.  It is the living sibling I am more concerned with at this point.

I catch Eva’s eyes and think I read the briefest glimmer of a message there.  Hope for later?  A promise?  Is she thinking about me as much as I am thinking about her?  I shudder and close my eyes, my lips pursed, and swallow hard.  I conjure unsexy thoughts at a heretofore unreached pinnacle of torturousness.  I grimace at the choice scenes playing across my mind’s eye.

Gus catches my revealing facial expression and says to me, “It’s ok.  You can let it out, son.  It’s ok to let go.”  Gus, if I let go of the careful mental balancing act happening inside my head right now, I would bear your son’s coffin down this aisle with my cock like diamond, laughing at how stupid you all look.

I decide against letting go.

The casket lifts slightly and I take the cue and we start leading it down the aisle of the Roman Catholic church holding the service, with its idols and stations of the cross and blood sacrifice.  Roman Catholics are a strange bunch.  I do not and will never fully understand their mysteries.  Gus is a believer though, and Arturo’s mom, Adoracion, well, just look at her name.  I feign it for them, if only so they don’t suspect.

We make it halfway down the aisle when a woman wails and throws herself on the coffin.  Her weight makes my arm hurt.  I turn and place my other hand on her and realize that it is Adoracion in the flesh.  She grabs my lapels, tears streaming down her cheeks, and collapses into me.  Eva grabs her mother and I hand her off, but not before Eva lightly brushes my hand with her own.  I nod to them both with as much gravitas as I can muster and continue down the aisle, my hand still tingling from the electricity in Eva’s touch.

A hearse waits for us at the bottom of the stairs leading down from the entrance of the church.  Much of the audience, if you want to call them that, lines the stairs on either side of the path to the hearse.  The rest of the onlookers file out behind us.  Solemnly, with tremendous weight and importance, we lead the wood and metal box containing the sad, empty flesh of poor, sweet Arturo into the back of the hearse and shut the rear door.  Tears erupt in the crowd when the latch connects, signaling the very last car ride Arturo will ever take.  I am tempted to call shotgun.

38 – Mr. Spider’s Gift

The very next day, my friend and I were sitting on the deck.  It was a very sunny day, very fine, and we were enjoying the weather.  I was sipping on a cold Coca-Cola Classic, one of my most favorite things in the whole world.  Nothing seemed like it could go wrong.  

I thought a little bit about Mr. Spider from the night before.  I wondered where he had gone and if he were ok.  I sincerely hoped he was doing just fine out there.  It could be a scary world sometimes.  I felt where he had bitten me.  It didn’t even hurt, just a tiny bump to remind me of the gift he had given me.

I stared out over the placid, rippling waters of the lake.  Suddenly my ribs started feeling very itchy.  I pulled my shirt up to scratch and make sure there no ticks trying to get a free meal off me when I felt a patch of short, very coarse hairs, almost like sandpaper.  Now, I have to tell you, I am not a very hairy person.  I have just a few hairs on my chest, and they are all very soft.  So these new bristly hairs were something of a surprise to me!  I was concerned, but wanted to take a closer look.

“I need to go to the bathroom.  I’ll be right back,” I told my friend.

In the bathroom, I looked and saw a patch, maybe the size of my hand, where there a number of these tiny, black hairs poking through my skin where there had been none the day before.  Strange!  I thought that, perhaps, all the good clean country air was making me develop in a more manly way.  Nature has many secrets.  

All the Coca-Cola in me had worked its way through, so I made use of the bathroom for its intended purpose.  Killing two birds with one stone, right?  But when I peed, what came out was not the usual stuff, but a silky white substance that was very stretchy.  I wiped as much of it off my fingers as I could and flushed it down the toilet, hoping it wouldn’t clog.  That would be too embarrassing.

Back on the porch I couldn’t get the thought of the white sticky stuff out of my mind.  I thought about telling my friend, but I was afraid he would get the wrong idea about it and I think I had done something immoral.  I decided to keep quiet.  Just to keep an eye on things to make sure nothing bad happened.

Another soda pop helped me feel better.

“What are we going to have for dinner?” my friend asked.

“I don’t know,” I replied to him.  “Pork chops?”

“Yeah.  That sounds good,” he said.

“I, uh….” I started but then stopped.

“What’s up?” he said.

“Oh.  Nothing.  Pork chops sound pretty good, huh?” I said.

“Yeah,” he said.

Next door the neighbor’s dogs barked.  I found them to be pretty annoying while we were trying to relax, but what could you do about it?  Dogs had as much right to be dogs as I had a right to be me and as Mr. Spider had a right to be himself.

My jaw ached a little bit.  Maybe later I would go over and say hello to the dogs so they didn’t have to be scared anymore.  Yeah, that seemed like a pretty good idea.  It’s not fun to be scared.  

37 – Curtis Can’t Find His Phone

With the wind blowing snow into his eyes and freezing his ears, Curtis ducked quickly into the subway station.  Once down the stairs and in the lee of the wind, he sighed, releasing the tension brought on by severe cold.  Stepping through the turnstile, he reached into his inner coat pocket to feel for the chocolate bar he had hidden in there earlier, hoping that the cold had kept it nice and solid.  Unfortunately it was a big, melty mess, and instead of wrestling with it not to soil his fingers, he threw it into a trash can on the train platform.  Sometimes you had to sacrifice pleasures for the greater pursuit of virtue.  In this case, not to have filthy, sticky, chocolate-covered hands.  He hated dirty hands.

Absentmindedly he patted down his pockets to make sure he had not left anything at the diner while eating dinner.  Wallet: check.  Keys: check.  Chocolate bar shaped emptiness: check.  Cell phone.  Cell phone.  Cell phone?

Shit.

He doubled checked all his pockets, and then to be sure, checked a third time.  He definitely did not have his phone with him.

He could see where he had left it on the counter.  With his second bowl of soup in his stomach, he went to the bathroom to relieve himself before his long train ride home.  He left his coat and phone on the counter next to the check.  He didn’t want those guys to think he was skipping out on the meal, especially on Christmas Eve.  Curtis was many things, but a thief and a cheapskate he was not.  When he came back from the toilet, he put his coat on, dropped some cash with his customary 8.5% tip, and walked out the door.  He completely forgot to grab his phone.  

Shit.

He could go back now.  It’s only a few blocks between the subway and the diner, but the cold was nightmarish.  And, besides, he had paid his 2.25 fare.  Since losing his job, he no longer got the unlimited passes and each ride cost him.  He did not like to pay twice.  

The phone could wait.  No one was going to call him.  He had no family to speak of.  His only friends were the guys at the diner and he had already seen them tonight.  He knew he would be back there the next day for lunch.  He was sure they would just put it behind the counter for him.

But that did not stop him worrying about it.  A man in the station played the guitar.  Down the platform, another man was bent over looking through the gaps in the wall.  A pretty brunette read as obviously as she could, telling everyone to leave her alone.  And there was Curtis, a pathetic, sad sack, who had managed to worry so intensely about losing a 15 dollar pay as you go phone that he had broken a sweat on the coldest, bitterest day of the whole year.  And there was no one in the whole world to just give him a hug and tell him everything would be ok.

The train rolled up and he got on, feeling no closer to home.

Elsewhere, a lone cell phone, buried three feet deep in trash in a dumpster behind the only diner still open on Christmas Eve, rang.  When no one picked up, it went to voice mail.  She left a message, heartfelt, warm, caring, that Curtis would never hear.

36 – My Country for a Cookie

Samantha fought a losing war against her god damn, cheap ass, piece of shit stove that burnt everything she put on or in it no matter how vigilant she was with it.  Its temperature markings were wildly inaccurate, its range jumped from super high directly to medium-low with zero gradation between, its heat would be different at the same marking depending if she was raising or lowering it, its pilot light went out on a whim, and no matter how methodical she was with the nightmare it misbehaved.  These cookies weren’t just going to make themselves and this motherfucking stove was standing in her way.  Must it be so difficult to satisfy her craving for fucking chocolate chip cookies?  She worked hard.  Did she not deserve a chocolate chip cookie or fourteen once in a while?  Why must this stove stand in her way?  And it was new.  Her mind boggled at how bad the stoves in the apartments of the people who had lived in the building for 30 years must be.  Her landlord refused to do repairs on apartments people were only paying 150 dollars a month for, and she could understand that, but she paid market value and she thought it fucking sucked to be stuck with a bum stove.  Fuckers.  Can’t just buy a stove that isn’t a piece of trash.

Tonight, desperately needing cookies, the dough made, the first sheet dotted with mostly round balls of potential cookie, she wanted to kick the stove when it refused to heat.  The pilot was on, but it decided that, tonight, it was already too warm and did not really feel like getting hot.  

She opened a beer and contemplated just eating the whole bowl of dough.  She decided against it, though, not because of the raw egg, whatever, but because she would probably eat the whole thing and it would make her feel sick, completely defeating the purpose of cookies in the first place.  She considered putting the bowl in the fridge and trying again the next day, but she felt the urge too hard.  The need was too strong.  If she could not have cookies tonight, she would probably die.  Her life depended on eating at least 4 cookies with the milk she had picked up on the way home from work for expressly that purpose.  She hated when plans got derailed.  

Then she thought of that weirdo across the hall, what was his name, Jacob or something?  He would probably let her use his oven in exchange for a few cookies.  Giving away some of the cookies would be smart too since Yu Lee was God knows where tonight and if she had the whole batch, she would start tomorrow with no cookies.  Better to remove the temptation to gorge on delicious, buttery chocolate chip cookies up front where it can’t hurt her as much.  

Samantha knocked on the door across the hall, but got no answer.  Determined, she knocked again, more vigorously, after a moment.  

She heard heavy footsteps and grumbling approach from within the apartment and then the little spy window open.  Through it she saw a bloodshot eyeball that suddenly went wide.  The window shut again and she heard a chain being fiddled with and the deadbolt being thrown.  The door opened a sliver and Jacob poked his head into it.  

“Yeah?” he said.

“Uh, hi, I’m Samantha, from across the hall?”

“Yeah yeah, I remember you,” he said and opened the door all the way.  He was wearing paint spattered pants and a wife beater t-shirt that needed to be thrown out.  “What can old Jacob do for you, young lady?”

She hated being called young lady.  “My stove isn’t working and…”

“You want me to take a look at it for you?”

“No, it’s done this before.  It usually fixes itself after a while.  I’m over here to ask if I can use yours for a little while.”

“Oh sure, sure.  No problem.  Mine works just fine, I guess.  I ain’t used it in who knows, but it worked fine once right?”  He laughed at what she could not tell was a joke.  “What’re you making?”

“Cookies.  I’ll be glad to give you some.  For helping me out.”

“Cookies.  Wow.  We got a regular Mrs. Fields over there.  What kind of cookies?”

“Chocolate chip.”

“You got any milk?”

“Yup.”

“Well well, I’ll leave my door open then, and you can just come in and out as you want, ok?  I’m not doing a whole lot in there, just watchin’ a movie on the TV,” he said while adjusting his pants.  He needed a belt.

“Ah, yeah, ok.  I’ll be right back,” Samantha said and went back into her apartment.  She closed the door behind her and tried to shake off the skeeved out feeling she had.  God, his teeth were bad.  Then she looked at the cookie sheet waiting to be put into a 375 degree oven for 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown at the edges.  She grit her teeth and sheet in hand, crossed the hall.

35 – Curtis Wonders

Curtis sat alone at the counter a diner hunched over a bowl of soup that was too salty.  Steam from his soup warmed his face, still half numb from the walk over.  He was not hungry, but he did not want to stand in the cold, so he had ordered the soup.  He had no intention of eating it.  His spoon had not left the counter.  Instead of staring at the chocolate cakes sweating under their glass domes and empty porcelain mugs waiting to be filled with coffee, his head was turned all the way to the right so he could gaze out the front window at the people passing in the street.  They all seemed so happy, laughing, holding hands, having animated discussions he could not make out.  Children scampered, playfully tossing hunks of newly fallen snow at each other, screaming joyfully upon impact, their parents taking all the mischief in good stride.  A man rushed by talking into his cell phone holding a brightly papered box under his arm.  A young couple passed with a Christmas tree.  Curtis wondered if it was their first.

Curtis stirred the onions from the bottom of his soup and made careful, slow whirlpools in the bowl.  He thought about the last Christmas tree he’d bought and about decorating it.  It felt like so long ago.  It was so long ago.  He loved the smell of a tree when it was first brought home.  Something about the contrast between his dismal inner city life and the rich green freshness of the tree made him feel as if everything was ok for the time being.  The smell of the tree was the smell of the holidays.  It was, for him, to the holidays what the smell of coffee was to the morning.  Just as his day could not begin until he had a cup of coffee, the holidays could not begin without the pleasantly overwhelming scent of tree in his house.  When he realized that his tree metric would mean that the holidays had not begun for him in nearly 15 years, he turned his face away from the crowds on the other side of the glass, living a life he had long since lost.

He pulled his old, barely functional phone from the one pocket in his jacket it wouldn’t fall out of and placed it beside his glass of water on the counter.  He flipped it open to see if he has missed any calls.  He had not.  No one ever called.  He thought about just getting rid of the phone all together, but while she was still out there, there was potential for her to call.  She wouldn’t, he knew, but something had to keep him alive from day to day.  Something had to make all the emptiness worth it.

After stirring his soup for two hours, he finally worked up enough hunger to actually eat it.  It was cold, but he felt like he deserved nothing better.  At least this diner was open, as he sat alone on yet another Christmas Eve.  There was a lot of night left.  He ordered another bowl of soup.

34 – Benny Rides The Train

Benny stood on the subway platform picking corn kernels from his teeth with his fingernail.  Unsuccessfully.  He sucked and he prodded, but the little bastards would not come out.  He regretted even more stopping at the street fair to get the corn on the cob, the delay of which had caused him to narrowly miss the previous train, leaving him to wait what felt like an eternity with something obnoxious stuck between his teeth.  He half thought about knocking one of his molars out on one of the steel girders sticking out of the platform.

The station housed only one train, but there was another side, lit, seemingly abandoned, unused, separated from the functional platform by a wall which had small openings he could see through if he ducked his head a little.  The tracks had been pulled up and there was no obvious way to enter, yet the city kept the lights on for some reason.  Stairs led to the other platform, but they were gated and locked off.  He tried to imagine where they led, but could not figure it out.  He had often wondered about the other side of the station.  It called to him.  He thought about exploring it every time he was down there, waiting for the train, typically on his way to do something bad to someone.  Its mysteries were attractive, wrought with potential magic, danger, and glory, but Benny had never summoned the dogged buttheadedness to jump the tracks and explore.

To his right, he heard the growing roar of the train hurtling up the tunnel toward him followed by the reflections of its lights on the tracks.  He looked back through the openings in the wall and only just caught a hint of movement on the other side.  Being a New Yorker he had seen his fair share of subway rats, and whatever just moved behind the wall was no rat.  His interest was piqued.  He looked back up the tunnel again to judge whether or not he had time to cross the tracks before the train pulled in.  When his eyes were blown shut by the rush of oncoming displaced tunnel air, he decided that it was best to wait.

The train he had been waiting for pulled into the station and everyone got on.  Everyone except Benny.  The Chink can wait, he thought.  A woman who had just boarded the train looked at him, surprise on her face, as if to say, “There’s only one train.  Why aren’t you getting on?” but she said nothing.  Benny, acknowledging the passing connection they had made tipped his hat to her.  The train doors closed and took her from Benny’s life forever.  

When the train was safely gone, he scanned both side of the platform for subway staff.  Satisfied that no one would see him cross, he hopped down onto the tracks and crossed through the not-quite-man-height gap, careful to avoid the third rail, into the abandoned half of the station.  

Disappointingly, it looked basically the same as the other half—central platform lined by tracks, stairs every so often, garbage cans, rats, trash, syringes.  Normal subway features and detritus.  The only real differences were the profusion of tags on the walls and the heavy layer of dust over everything.  Not the black grit from the train’s brakes that typically covers a subway station, but the more common greyish-brown dust that covers a dead, unused place.  He climbed up onto the platform to see if there was anything interesting on the opposite tracks.  He found only more of the same old nothing.  A train bed with the tracks ripped up.  He wondered what train used to run here.  

A sound on the edge of hearing echoed through the dead cathedral of transportation.  Benny stopped cold in his tracks, standing still, not even breathing, trying to get a better idea of what the sound was.  He could not make it out.  Ever cautious when dealing with other bad men, Benny ran and hid behind a dumpster on the far end of the platform.  He squatted there, listening.  The sound was becoming louder.  Footsteps.  Footsteps from down the tunnel, growing louder, more clear.  And not just one man.  Two, maybe three all walking together down the tunnel.  From his hiding spot, he could see clearly down the tunnel was coming from.  And suddenly, like the birth of a star in a distant galaxy poking a hole in the night sky, lights appeared in the tunnel, bobbing, weaving.  Flashlights.

Behind him he heard a new set of footsteps approach from another tunnel.  He shifted around the dumpster to be out of sight of whoever was coming through the tunnel.  Benny had spent enough of his life involved with nefarious sorts of characters to know that anyone meeting in an abandoned subway station was probably up to no good and that it would benefit Benny’s longevity to stay the hell out of their sight.  He thought about making a run for the passage way back to the other platform, but it was too far away now and he did not want to risk being seen by whoever these guys were.  He was in enough trouble already.  He didn’t want any more.

33 – Benny Makes Friends

Benny was not excited about what he knew he needed to do the Chink this afternoon.  He was a stand-up sort of fellow, most of the time, and Benny had no problem with him.  It really got his goat that Spiegelman had told him to do the Chink, but who was he to argue with the Jew?  Benny knew his place.  He was muscle, brawn.  He was the intimidation factor that would make certain business deals more amenable for the party he stood next to.  He knew that.  Mostly, he was happy with the situation.  It gave him a real rush to see how some people got the fear in their eyes when he stepped into a room.  Not weaklings either.  Real, hard men.  Benny would step into a room where a moment before those fellows had been the kings of the world, then they would see him and start quivering in their boots.  It made Benny feel powerful.  More powerful than just his physical stature.  Powerful in that abstract way people used when talking about mafia bosses.  The kind of power that made another man feel dread.  Not too bad for a kid from the South Bronx who could barely read and never finished the sixth grade.  And Benny took pride in his work.

But he liked the Chink.  Except that he liked to cheat at cards, he never bothered Benny.  He figured he’d only stab him in the throat three times.  Either it would kill him quickly, or he would survive.  A man who had been stabbed three times in the throat and lived deserved it.  Benny liked the idea of giving his friend a fighting chance.  But first he would have to find the greasy, yellow son of a bitch and that was not going to be a simple matter.  

He spent all afternoon wandering the sea of Chinamen downtown but never found the Chink.  They all looked more or less the same to him anyway, and all the spitting made him sick.  Their dried squid and starfish and octopus was the stuff of nightmares.  He didn’t know what they did with it.  They certainly didn’t eat that filth.  He towered over everyone in the whole neighborhood by a good two feet, but it didn’t stop the old ladies from bumping into him with their shopping bags and umbrellas.  The first time he got an umbrella spoke in the face he looked up to check for potential rain, saw only blue, and gave up searching for the day.  He knew he had a few days at least to take care of this business for Spiegelman, so he felt confident that this was a good time to call it quits for the day.  Besides, the Chink had a way of showing up in the damnedest of times and places and Benny’s nerves were a little frayed.  He needed a beer.  

Dodging a flock of brightly dressed Asian women, Benny ducked into a tavern.  Smokey fog enveloped him and pulled him into the dimly lit, lightly populated room.  He removed his hat and coat, hung them by the door, and took a seat at the bar, leaving a stool or two on either side between him and the other men at the bar at 2 o’clock on a Tuesday.  

The barman walked over to him, cigar in mouth, and nodded.

“Beer,” Benny said.

“Light or dark?”

“Light,” and the barman walked to the tap.  

A familiar voice popped up behind him and said, “I hear you’re looking for me?”

Benny spun around on his barstool to see his quarry standing there.  The barman set the beer in front of Benny on the bar.  He took it and drank.  “You’re right.  I am.”