100 Word Love Story

She had imagined he would come out from around that counter and sweep her away with that half a grin on his face, but reality was more awkward than that. She’d come in everyday to buy her cigarettes and ask him silly questions just to see that grin. Even with that red work shirt, he was handsome. So many men his age were, but it was that wrinkle against his cheek. And his piercing eyes. She touched his hand when she took her change. She said, “Tell me, are you free Friday night?” He smiled his silly smile and winked.

Dear Satanists,

I know you get all up in arms about people saying that we live in a Christian country or quoting the Bible to explain why a law exists or should exist. But I think that we can all agree that you don’t need the Bible to explain why eating other people’s babies is against the law. In fact, eating your own babies is probably against the law, too. So, let’s just be fair about all this. You can’t complain… Because it’s only natural. You can’t complain when someone stumbles across you eating a baby, and says, “Jesus Christ! Milly call the cops.”

I know you have your constitutional protection against religious persecution and all, but some things just scare the words right out of you. Now, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean it as a hate crime. If I apologize enough for hurting your feelings on this subject, will you please tell the police that you are not going to press charges. I don’t think I would do well in jail. And I didn’t really like little Billy that much anyway. You can go right on ahead and keep on eating on him. Be my guest.

You Know I Didn’t Grow up Around Here

When I was twelve years old, I went to a movie rental place. I am sure your kids have never heard of such a thing. Tell em, they had these funny rectangles bigger than your hand that held a movie. I know, it’ll seems strange to em. They were called VCR tapes. You could take them home and watch the movie. Tell em.

Say, you’re right. Just like Netflix. Only a whole lot crappier. You only got one movie in it then you had to take it back the next day. Had to leave the house and everything.  I know they won’t believe you but tell them anyway.

And at the rental place. When I was there. I saw the box for a film I had only ever heard rumors about. “Faces of Death.” You know. You’ve seen it?

No. Maybe… No, you’d know. Trust me. Now, I know, your kids all watch this kind of stuff on the internet every day. But I bet they didn’t know there was a time when the internet didn’t exist. I know, it’ll be a shock to them. Like them finding out that there is no Santa. The internet is so important to em that they could never imagine it not existing. But tell em that we’re that old, and there was that time.

Well at this store, there was a man behind the counter who knew your parents.

Tell that to your kids. See if they believe you.

The man. He had met them, my parents, and discussed which movies I was allowed to rent. He also shooed me away from the curtained off ‘Adults Only’ section if there were other people in the store.

Don’t tell your kids this part.

If no one was in the store, he would let me crane my neck and look through the open spot where the curtains didn’t quite meet.

I know, your kids get all the nudie videos they want with their little phones in their pocket. They can even get around any parental lockouts you may or may not have put on them. Don’t kid yourself.

But in our day, a glimpse of a tiny picture of a titty from six feet away was a special occasion that you would promptly tell your friends about. And if you saw more than a titty, well… You saved that thought for yourself when there was no one in the house.

But the man behind the counter knew my parents. He knew, we were supposed to be religious. And I pretended to be from time to time. And I wasn’t allowed to rent anything rated R or over. And “Faces of Death” was rumored to be so bad that it couldn’t even get a rating. It was out on the shelf where any-old-body could pick it up and look at it. There was a handful of gross out pictures on the cover, and on the back, it indeed said that it had not been rated. So, I hid it under the two movies I was allowed to rent.

I put them up on the counter and he pointed over to the handwritten sign he had taped on the inside of the window. He said, “Read the sign, son. Only two movies at a time. There are more customers than just you.”

I grabbed the Disney cartoon and said, “OK. I don’t need this one.” And he rang me up for two movies a buck and a quarter each with tax. I scooped them off the counter and turned to take them home on my bike.

He said, “Son.”

I thought, oh no. He just realized what it was that I had rented.

He reached over the counter with a black plastic shopping bag. He said, “Put em in this. I don’t want you dropping em.”

I took it and I said thank you, and I rode home to watch the movie before my parents got home. That is “Faces of Death.” I didn’t care about the other movie. I got it for my sister. She liked that silly muppet movie, “Labyrinth,” or something like that. I popped my movie in and told her to shut up, and go to her room.

Did I tell you my friends were there, too? Well, they were. Two of them. Freddy and Pete. They were good friends, too. Freddy was Mexican and Pete was Hawaiian or Samoan or something. I saw them pretty near to every day. I ate over at their houses sometimes.

Freddy’s mom would make these deep-fried tacos with ground beef and potatoes. I never did see those kinda tacos anywhere else ever again, but they were damn good. And Pete, I’d eat at his house, too. They would eat things like homemade sushi rolls. Which was still kinda rare in those days. And squid.

I was chewing and chewing on that squid, and Mr. K, Pete’s dad, said… And he was the biggest man I ever had seen, so I didn’t want to make him mad. He said, “Son” He handed me a napkin. He said, “You don’t have to eat that if you don’t like it.” But I forced down the mouthful and told him I liked it. And I did, too. And I ate another while he watched. Just chewy as hell is all.

So, I turned on the movie, and Freddy was like ewww! And Pete was like Yuck! And everything you might say. And we kept having to chase Cindy back into her room. And she was saying how she was going to snitch on us and all. But the movie wasn’t that bad. Some of it looked real, but most of it looked fake. But there was this one part filmed at a prison in Venezuela or Pakistan or one of those places. We couldn’t speak none of those languages and there wasn’t much talk anyway.

Wait what? No, no. No. Not every Mexican knows Spanish.

No, Freddy doesn’t know Spanish. His mom knew a few words because her parents moved to the U.S. before she was born and they knew.

No. I didn’t ask him if it sounded like Spanish. In fact, I know what Spanish sounds like, and I am still not sure.

I know how to say some things. I do, and I could tell you to bite my butt if I wanted to. And I still just might. And before you ask, I don’t think Pete or his dad could speak Hawaiian either. You know, this isn’t even part of the story anyway.

Yeah? You don’t think so? Well… Chupa mi culo. Tu madre es una bruja, y tu padre es un baracho. You happy?

No, I didn’t grow up around here, but you already knew that. Do you want to hear the story or not?

OK… Are you sure you don’t have any more stupid questions?

Yes, they are stupid.

OK…

We were watching the movie. The prison part. I don’t know what country. Don’t you even ask. I can see it on your face. Don’t ask.

The movie. Prison part. There was this guy. He was kinda fat. He had a hood on his head, and he was hung. Hanging right in the center of the room. Looked like he had been there a while. He was good and dead. Had I seen him kicking, I am certain I would’ve lost my lunch. My after-school snack anyway. It was after school. That is not even the bad part.

The guard or whoever, the guy that was holding the camera, pulled the hood off his head. And he started to turn on that rope. Oh, Jesus… I can still picture it now. I don’t know why I started telling you this story. Oh, boy…

That rope was so tight you’d have of thought it would’ve pulled his head right off. And if you thought his body was fat… I guess the rope had pushed all the blood into his face. All that blood had turned his face black. The skin on his arms was brown, but his face. His tongue was all black and sticking straight out. His mouth open like a goldfish. And his eyes wide open and bulging. So white against his bloated face. I don’t know how they didn’t turn black like everything else. And that camera got good and close, too. With his body turning. I got a good long look at his whole face. I’ll be damned if that was a fake, it was a goddamned good fake.

It has been a good while since the last time the picture has popped into my mind. But it does sometimes. And there you have it. Now you know. If you want someone to take a look at your ass hole, and tell you if your hemorrhoid is infected, you need to ask your wife. Because I already have one vision in my head, I can never get rid of. I don’t want another one. I don’t want another. No. I will not do it. Now you just go right ahead and buckle your pants back up. It’s not gonna happen. Sorry. I would do it. I really would. But I won’t.

Our ‘Special Time’

Well, Vern and Milly, I got you both here because I need you, Milly. I need ya ta do me a favor of kinda’ a personal nature. I think you know what I’m hintin’ at. That’s why you’re here, Vern. To make sure I ain’t outa’ line askin’ such things of your sweet Milly. I ain’t tryin’ to scandalize either of ya. But… How do I ask this?

Did ya’ll know…. I’m sure you did. I’m sure you did.

Did ya’ll know the world is so mixed up that they had to go and make a law that ya can’t have brother and sister stuff on the internet? Ain’t nobody really interested in none of that barring a few haints and boogers.

Nobody wants it. No son and mom. No dad and daughter. No sister and brother. I bet it woulda’ petered out anyway. ‘Cuase nobody liked it. But they made that there law.

And it worked, kinda. At least at reputable sites like, you know… pardon my sayin’… Vern, you know which ones I’m talking about. Is it OK if I say em? You know in front of Milly?

OK… Ahem! Sorry about this Milly.

Sites like, YouPorn, PornHub, Youjizz. You know, ‘reputable.’ You’ve been to all of em. I mean you, Vern. I wouldn’t presume anything about you Milly. And as you know… Vern, I know you know. Don’t lie to me.

They went and got rid of it all. I mean, it wasn’t real anyway, Milly. It wasn’t real so they just renamed it all. Instead of brother: stepbrother. Instead of sister: stepsister. That kind of thing.

So, they made that law and now peoples is going to try to get around it. And they go and make somethin’ bad worse. Oh, I know step-folks don’t sound that bad, Vern. But that’s what makes it worse. It don’t sound as bad.

 Now, you ain’t feelin’ guilty, until after when you erasin’ your search history. And we knew it wasn’t real before, Milly. And we woulda’ made it quit. Now, it ain’t gonna’ quit.

We knew we knew it wasn’t real before, Milly. And you know that we knew that we knew, Milly. I bet you seen it, too. I mean with Vern an you, and all. If you don’t mind my presumin’ a little.

 We woulda’ made it quit ‘cause there ain’t much worse things in the world that you can do while you are having that ‘special time’ than think of your parents. That’s right you wouldn’t like it.

The only thing worse than a parent: a brother or sister. Imagine. Or don’t. Do yourself a favor.

The only thing worse than a brother or sister: one of your kids. You’ve done it. And it ain’t good.

And for any of you liars who say that you ain’t ever think of your kids at the wrong time, we gonna pretend. Not you, Vern. Not you Milly. I wouldn’t call ya’ll liars.

Imagine them kids walkin’ in on you… only ten times worse! Because them kids, you can kick’em out of the room and lock the door, this time. I don’t know why you didn’t lock it the first time, but ya didn’t. You can do better. I know it. Again, I ain’t talkin’ about ya’ll.

And this happened to me just t’other day. Not the walkin’ in part but you know what I’m sayin.’

Me and my Melba were having our ‘special time’ and I go’d to pick her up, and I couldn’t. I thought in my head… And this is where I went wrong.

I thought she sure is heaver’n my baby boy. You know Cleet ain’t that little, but I can still pick him up. Ya’ see I done picked em up and put em in his bed the night before, and I couldn’t get it outa’ my head. And I couldn’t tell her nothin’ bein’ me and my wife’s ‘special time,’ and all. So, I tried to ignore it and I cain’t.

She see’d it on me an felt it, too. And she said, “Elmer, what in tarnation is wrong with your willy.” And I know’d I been done it. Ain’t nothing Melba like worse than a limp willy. She bein’ thinkin’ it all her fault, and all.

So, I decided I’d go and tell her a joke. Ya’ know, make her feel better. She likes my jokes. I’m known for em. I sometimes like to tell em a little blue. I hope you don’t mind.

And I shoulda’ known better! Every time, with all the ‘lady friends’ I ever had if I made a joke during our ‘special time,’ she’d be madder’n tarnation, all of em. Every one. If it’s her fault, that’s one thing, but I don’t want it to be mine. My Melba, god love her. But I wasn’t thinkin,’ and I shoulda’ been thinkin’…

I said to Melba, the sweetest, most lovin’ woman I ever know’d in my life. I said… And I apologize for talkin’ crass. I said, “Put my cock in your mouth, a hand on my balls, and a finger in my ass. And if that don’t work, nothin’ will.” I know’d it was over.

There wasn’t no coming back from that. No sir. Not with my lovin’ sweet, Melba. There is a fire in her eye. You can see it.

But she didn’t kill me. She cocked her head to the side and had this look on her face. There wasn’t no decipherin’ it. And before I know’d it she had done done it.

She stuck her finger right up my keister. And there I was yowling like a dying alley cat. But for some God-awful reason. I don’t mean to take the Lords name in vain.

But for some God-awful reason there was my willy standin’ straight an hard like I was fifteen years old with an old girly book I found rolled up in the loft.

And now Melba done got ta thinkin’ I like it that way. And every time we are havin’ our ‘special time’ together she’s got me squirming knuckle deep in my keister. And darn it all, my biscuits are burnin.’ My poor arse… Can I say arse? My poor arse is hurtin.’ Its swollen, an I cain’t eat nothin’ spicier than a dern bowl o’ puddin’ without flarin’ it all up.

So, Milly, when ya’ see her, when ya’ talk ta Melba, I’d kindly appreciate it if’n you’d tell er. Say Melba, Melba, do old Elmer a favor. Melba, please, please, just spit on your finger.

The lol Police

Look, of course, I know that ‘lol’ is an abbreviation for ‘laugh out loud.’ I only pronounce it phonetically because it has been part of the mainstream English lexicon at least the last twenty years. I just pronounce it that way because I know that you will understand it, not because I don’t. It is exactly like the abbreviation for the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Only squares pronounce the ‘F’ the ‘B’ and the ‘I.’ It’s ‘Fubee.’ That’s how you say it, ‘Fubee.’

My Name is Judy

“No, Judy… You can’t send this letter to your sister. I mean, first of all, you used my real name.”

“I know. I know Yolanda but I tried. I just couldn’t think of any other name.”

“You don’t even have to…. You know, that is not even the point. Like, none of this is anything we even talked about, you know.” She folded the letter back up and put it on the table next to her cup of coffee. It was still full. She said, “Here Judy. Take one of my cigarettes.” She pulled her pack out of her purse and flipped out two cigarettes. She pulled a book of matches from between the box and the cellophane with one long red fingernail. “I don’t know what happens to all my lighters.” She lit both cigarettes with one match and gave one to Judy. Let’s go to the couch where its more comfortable.”

The living room was small but comfortable. The couch was on one end, a coffee table with a large blue ceramic ashtray in the shape of her daughter’s hand at five. Tina was in her twenties now and they never spoke. On the other end, the TV was running with the volume down. They sat. Judy sat as far against the armrest as she could. Yolanda scooted closer to her and put her hand on Judy’s knee. She looked at Judy and took a long puff on her cigarette. Then looked at the TV and pretended to watch. “Judy, you were supposed to be making amends not telling her what she did.”

“I know. I know. I worked so hard on it.”

“I can see…” Yolanda shifted nervously in her seat.

“No. I really did, but…”

“Hey, hey, it’s OK. Relax… No. Fuck it!” She faced Judy this time really looking at her. “You’re using again, aren’t you?”

“What? No! I’m not using.” Judy stood up from the couch and banged her shins against the coffee table. “I would never.”

“We both know that’s a lie.” She stood up, too. “We’d both be using if we could. We’re both stupid enough.”

“I’m not gonna let someone accuse me.” She pulled open the door and knocked the screen opened with her shoulder. She kicked the screen door when it came swinging shut on her.

Yolanda yelled out the door at Judy as she stomped across the lawn. “You better be at the meeting tonight.”

Judy turned around and flipped her off with both fhands. “Fuck you! You stupid bitch.”

“You know I can cuss too. You dumb cunt! You better be at the meeting. I don’t want to hear about you dying on the streets dosed on fentanyl.”

Judy threw the stump of her cigarette and said, “I hope it catches your house on fire.” She stormed down the street not knowing where she was supposed to be going.

She really wasn’t using, but she wasn’t doing well either. She had been offered free meetings with a psychiatrist, and she even went a few times. But he was trying to put her on drugs, and she can’t do that. They say it’s just a pill, but for her one pill is like another, just not as good. And before you know it, she is using again. Tricking again. Stealing again. In jail again. Or worse.

She had been walking for a long time, and when she realized where she was, she was back in her old part of town where she used to score. She was right in front of the U-Pak-It liquor store the same place where she was arrested last year for shoplifting. She could feel people looking at her. She recognized one of the men who had been sitting against the building. And he recognized her and got to his feet.

“Judy! When I hadn’t seen you, I thought you was dead.”

“No, not dead.” She started to feel the old familiar twitch. “Meetings.” It was Romero. He was a sometimes dealer and an all the time user.

 “Meetings? Honey, not you. You don’t do meetings.”

“Yes. I am going to one now.” Judy was trying to think of the quickest way back home without anyone else seeing her.

“What? Before lunch? Out here huh… I know what kinda meetings you looking for. In fact, I looking for one, too.”

“No, Romero. I need to go home. I don’t want people to see me.” She was fidgeting and looking for a chance to get away quietly.

“No. Honey, no. I got my share of the money, today. We just talk to Markus…” There was banging coming from the liquor store window.

The old man that worked the counter was yelling. “You two get out of here. I calling the cops.”

Romero hit the window himself. “You’re an asshole, Mr. Ling. Nobody out here likes you.” He grabbed Judy by the arm. “Come on let’s cut through the alley. We can find a good place to hide before the cops find us.”

Judy tried to pull away. “The cops can’t do nothin. I ain’t done nothin.” But she figured Yolanda had probably called the cops from their earlier dust up. She knew because she had done the same anytime one of her friends had acted like that in her house. But all her friends were addicts weren’t they? Yolanda isn’t… anymore. But she could sure talk like one. Goddamn! Could that bitch scream out the word ‘cunt.’ The whole neighborhood knew when Yolanda was pissed.

Romero had led them through the alley and out to a housing complex. This wasn’t one that she had ever been to, but she knew why he had stopped.

“I don’t remember H as your shit. But that’s all Mopey got, and we ain’t gonna be back by Markus. Not when the cops is around. So… you got money, or you gonna suck his dick? Cause I ain’t gonna suck his dick.”

“Nothin, Romero. Nothin. I don’t want no H. I don’t want nothin.” She had said it, but she wasn’t sure it was true.

“You really are clean, ain’t you?” He gave her a funny look. Then he reached into her pockets. He said, “You got me out here. I gettin my shit.” He pulls his hand out of her pocket. He had a hand full of coins and the pen she had used to sign the letter to her sister. She grabbed it. He let her have it. He said, “Where’s the rest of your money, bitch.”

“I ain’t got none.” She held the pin in front of her with both hands.

“Are you gonna stab me with that, bitch.” He almost looked amused. “Well, stab me then.” He slapped her. He slapped her again, and he punched her. Her nose began to bleed. “Well, bitch you gonna stab me?” He pushed her to the ground hard as he could and kicked her in the ribs. She dropped the pen. He kneeled down with one of his knees on her chest and went through her pockets again. He pulled out her EBT card. “Is this all you got? Huh? How much you got on there?” She looked stunned and didn’t say anything. “OK, bitch. You probably ain’t got nothing on it anyway.”

He dropped the card and it fluttered to the ground. He didn’t know about the twenty that she kept in her shoe, and she wasn’t going to tell him. He began to walk away like he hadn’t just beat the shit out of a helpless old woman on the street in broad daylight. She was gonna use the money. She was gonna got fucked up. He wasn’t gonna get any.

She had never done H. She had never liked the downers, but today was a special day. A good day to try something new. The only problem was she didn’t know Mopey. She didn’t know which one of these doors was his. And knocking on random doors asking for a known drug dealer is a good way to get robbed or shot especially when he doesn’t know you.

She got up and started walking back toward the U-Pak-It Liquor. She knew Marcus. He had the shit she liked, and he might even give her a deal for old time’s sake.

Her head hurt from the getting hit, and she thought she may have hit her head when Romero knocked her to the ground. But she was starting to forget bits and pieces of what had just happened to her. She was swaying as she walked down the alley, and she was squinting. The light seemed so much brighter that it had been earlier. So she wasn’t too surprised when the cops pulled up behind her without her noticing. If she couldn’t concentrate before she sure couldn’t concentrate now.

The cop got out of his car. “If it isn’t Judy. Why am I not surprised? Come on get in the car.”

“Officer Clark, I didn’t do nothin.”

“Oh, come on Judy. A crack head has always done something. And look at the blood on your face. You have been fighting.” He cuffed her hands behind her and put her in the back of his patrol car. “Old Ling called on you earlier. You knew you’d be going down. Are you gonna tell me who did this to you, or are we gonna find out downtown?” When she made it to the station, she called Yolanda to come pick her up.

When she arrived at the station, Yolanda went to the officer in charge of the desk to get them to release Judy. “Look. I’m her sponsor. I just need to know, so I can know what to expect.”

The officer leaned closer to the little metal grate in the glass barrier. “Fine. All we had was a suspicious person report. She didn’t have any drugs on her, and she didn’t consent to a blood test.”

“So you don’t know. And took her in for no reason.”

“Look, she has a history, and I wasn’t the one to pick her up.”

“I don’t care about that. I wanna know about her.”

He sat back down. “I guess you are just going to have to ask her.”

“She’s just gonna lie.” He shrugged his shoulders and motioned for her to sit in the waiting room.

Judy was escorted through the double doors by another officer. He was helping her walk. Her eye had swollen and was starting to turn purple.

Yolanda said, “Oh Judy….” She turned the officer. “Did you do this to her?”

He looked at her with open disdain. “You would like that wouldn’t you?”

“And you didn’t take her to the hospital.” Now she was starting to get angry.

He said, “Take her yourself.”

Judy said, “I’m fine.”

“She refused.”

“They would just give me drugs.”

Yolanda said, “So you’re not using.” There was relief in her voice. “OK. No doctors then.” Yolanda shook her head. “Then you’re sleeping on my couch. You look like you got a concussion.”

Judy said, “And the meeting.”

“You just rest tonight.”

“No, I really need it.”

Yolanda drove them back to her house. She got Judy cleaned up as best as she could and lent her some of her clothes. They were too big, but at least, they didn’t have blood on them. At the meeting that night, Yolanda helped her to her feet. Judy looked at everybody. She said, “My name is Judy. I am a stupid cunt, and within a month, I will be dead dosed on fentanyl.” She saw the looks on their faces. She said, “I ain’t usin, but I fuckin want to.” She had never been this honest with them before.

August Poem 21: Believing in Angels

To eat or just smell genre writing or

Literary fiction writing has been

The dark poetry. Affected weight from

Literature as whatever process.

Hangover stories. My working novel.

Alex’s clockwork is like rephrasing.

The novel as representation of

Gaging workers. Asking of the readers

Again. They fear the similar people

Of Southern Mississippi, I worked a

Terror out through my heart. Were they to leave

This tome of writing as an antelope.

But they say writing fiction is easy,

And writing is believing in angels.

January Rant: What is a story?

 

A story is when you ask someone how was their day. They say that they went to the store and the line was long and some ass decided to pay with a check.

 

 

 

That was a story. There was no buildup. There was no climax. There was no conclusion. They told you their story. It was true. You liked or you didn’t, but you were entertained.

 

 

 

But if you really need it to fit the format of a story. The buildup is that there is a person in front of you. The climax is that they are in front of you. And the conclusion is that there is still a person in front of you. You wanted to hear a story. You were told a story. It was a story.

 

 

 

Fiction stories work the same way. You want to hear a story. You are told a story. Whether or not it fits your expectations of a story. It was a story.

 

 

 

You wanted a story. You got a story. Because it existed, it is true. You liked it or you didn’t. You were entertained. It was a story. Freytag’s triangle can lick my balls. It was a god damned story. Fuck you!

 

The Family Brand

politicians

These were the days that Senator Johnson really loved his job. He stood in the middle of a packed reception hall. The walls and ceiling were colored an assortment of creams. There was recessed lighting and a large chandelier right in the middle. The thin gauze of the oversized curtains were lit with a soft glow from the landscaping lights outside. Everyone was always impeccably dressed. The men were all in black, and the women’s choice of evening dresses added splashes of color throughout the room. Most were socializing out on the floor, but a handful were camping out at the tables.

“Here’s someone I would like you to meet. I think he’d be enthralled by your ideas.” Senator Monica Sharp led the way across the floor zigzagging around the others. “That’d be right up Mr. Youngblood’s alley. You might call him a small business owner. He’s in the music production business.” The man that he had been introduced to had matched his tux with dark sunglasses and a large gold chain. Johnson hadn’t been star struck by the celebrity guests at these events since his wife had attended these things with him. But she’d quickly grown disenchanted with the city life. The kids had a few fights at school and she packed them up and went back to their country home.

Senator Sharp had walked away after a short round of small talk and Johnson was scanning the room for anyone that he might want to meet. In a room full of politicians picking his favorite was a hard task. Before he realized, Johnson had zeroed in on the roughhewn man surrounded by a gaggle of adoring women. “Mr. Youngblood, have you been introduced to Senator Bing McDougal?” Johnson led the way this time.

The young women seemed confused when Johnson and Youngblood arrived. They looked pulled in different directions. Before long, Youngblood wandered off and the ladies followed. McDougal said, “Thanks for bringing the big money. Now I have to start again from scratch.”

“You can pick up ladies anytime. But nothing beats talking a little policy.”

“That is the real reason we’re here. Isn’t it?”

As they talked, Johnson found Pearlman across the room. Pearlman motioned back. Thumbs up on one hand. Two fingers on the other, which seemed to feel more like a “V” for victory.

 

Senator Johnson sat at his desk jotting down notes on a yellow legal pad. “I think we’re really going to get some work done for our soldiers this time around. We’re not just focusing on the abstract bigger picture. We’ve got ideas for particular changes in veteran’s benefits. Senator Ames has some great ideas for revamping the GI bill. We found space in the budget and we can get the ten year limit on receiving benefits extended. They paid into this stuff they should get something out of it.” He leaned back and took a deep breath. “Shelly, the Judiciary Committee seemed to start off well. What happened after I left?”

She spoke, and he marked in one column on the pad, nodded to Bill, marked another, and to Jim, marked another.

His aids sat across from him. They were shuffling through the notes they’d been taking on their assorted electronic devices. At least, Johnson couldn’t think of a better word than shuffle. He much preferred the textured feel of paper to cold lifeless glass.

“And how did this sway the argument?” He scanned their faces looking for who to hear from first. They continued on discussing the particulars.

A black and white photo of his great-grandmother shaking hands with President Truman hung on the wall behind the desk. He had several pictures of himself and the last two presidents on the opposite wall but didn’t feel like they should be the focal point for anyone walking into his office. He wanted people’s first impression of him to be one of citizenship and patriotism not self-indulgence.

The window on the side wall was in the perfect spot to let in the afternoon sun. When he had a few free minutes he’d bask in the warmth of the rays and look out over the Washington D.C. skyline. He could see the purpled haze of pollution out passed the concrete and glass. It almost reminded him of the lazy sunsets over his riverside home in South Carolina.

During the recent renovations (They were calling them technological upgrades). The standard glass windows were replaced with smart glass that worked like transition lenses only better. They had a computer interface allowing them to be adjusted to individual preferences, but the windows ran off a central control that was operated by the maintenance department. He went through several rounds of emails before they’d sent out a tech. Johnson wanted the old window back. He could control a set of blinds, but they wanted a cleaner, streamlined look. Blinds were out of the question.

The electorate seemed to be looking forward to a representation upgrade.  The polls were favoring the upstart candidate. Four years ago, Bea Tailor had won a surprise victory and rose from obscurity to become governor of South Carolina. This former housewife, in her infinite wisdom, had decided that the Senate was the next logical step in her political career. This was the kind of unorthodox political move that could capture the public’s imagination. Johnson needed a cleaner, streamlined cause if he wanted to keep his seat in congress.

There was a soft beep, and the surface of Johnson’s desk lit up. Displayed on the desk was an IM from his secretary. The projection was distorted over the top of the legal pad. He moved the pad to his lap and tapped the icon on his desk that said Mildred. The message popped up. “Lunch w/ Pearlman in 5.”

Johnson raised a finger and silenced his aids. He shouted through the opened door of the office. “Wouldn’t it be easier to just tell me? You are right there.”

A new message popped up. “What? And strain my voice?”

He swiped his hand across the desk and the display turned off. “Ok, folks. Condensed versions. We gotta wrap things up.”

Johnson’s aids were jockeying to get in the last point when Senator Pearlman walked through the door. “Hey old man, you still on for lunch? I’m buying.” Pearlman had this way of lighting up any room he entered. Something about his tone of voice, his manner, maybe his genuine smile that could charm an angry gorilla. Although they had spent a lot of time in his presence, Johnson’s aids felt it too. They made polite smiles and a snigger or two at the old tired joke that would have gotten groans were it told by anyone else. The cafeteria, of course, was free for all senators.

“Hey, Isaac.” Johnson grabbed the folded newspaper off the edge of the desk and stuffed it under his arm. He dismissed his aids and met Pearlman at the door. Pearlman was one of Johnson’s oldest and best allies on the senate floor. Johnson wasn’t sure how he did it, but Pearlman was able to turn his name into political gold even though he had the most obvious toupee anyone’d ever seen.

“Not that one. The Times.” Mildred spoke to an intern that Johnson had not yet met. Mildred swept her hand over her desk. This motion was meant to speed up the intern, but it only served to wake up her desktop display. She waved her hand a few times to dismiss the display. The display refused to respond.

The girl pulled the newspaper out of the stack and switched it for the one Johnson had.  She couldn’t have been a year out of high school, but she was already dressed like an old lady.

 

The cafeteria had gone through its technological upgrade as well. The molded plastic tables along the walls had been replaced with the top of the line equivalent to the desk top projector that Mildred had forced on Johnson last Christmas (She had called it a “gift,” but he knew it was punishment for making her work so hard). The InfoGlass tables were the shiny glass top models that showed off fingerprints like a dog’s snotty nose print on a sliding glass door. The short black centerpieces double as an interface for portable electronic devices and as a basket for the condiments and napkin dispensers.

Johnson and Pearlman had arrived after lunch rush so they didn’t have to wait in line. But the InfoGlass tables were full, so Pearlman stood next to the one that was occupied by a rowdy group of interns. The four of them were hunched over the screen. They were so involved with the dogfight simulator that they had left their lunches uneaten on the trays pushed to the side of the table. Johnson walked up beside Pearlman and cleared his throat. The intern Closest to Johnson jumped, and the others looked up sheepishly.

“I’m sorry, Senators,” One of them said. They gathered their trays and picked their way through the late lunch crowd to one of the empty plastic tables to eat their now cold lunches. One of them lagged a little behind. He cleared their bunched up napkins and wiped off the dew rings from their cups. The screen went back to sleep, and the senators sat down at the table.

As they ate, Johnson read a newspaper, and Pearlman fiddled with his smart phone.

Without looking up, Johnson said, “Anything interesting?”

“Nah. The only news is the same old thing you got right there.”

Johnson folded the paper down so he could look Isaac in the eyes. “Not that. I mean, what’s sexy? What does the public want?”

Pearlman lowered his phone to match Johnson’s gaze. “You’re worried about this election? You’re a hard working senator. There’s nothing to worry about.” He swiped at his phone again. “High-tech. High-tech is good. Like right here. This is new.” Pearlman waved his phone above the InfoGlass interface. Johnson slid his tray off the screen and waited for the phone to synch up.

“High-tech is everywhere. It’s like toilet paper. No one has ever won an election on something they could wipe their ass with.”

The table lit up to display The Daily Bulletin web page. He placed his finger on the image, dragged it to his side of the table, and then flipped it to face him. The title read, “Technology Kills.” It was a short article with the top half of a young woman’s face waiting to load. The caption underneath the incomplete image said, Janie Sans Associate Blogger. As the rest of her came into view, Johnson wondered why someone who looked like her would want to have the picture so prominently displayed.

Pearlman said, “Someone just got killed. Says that it has something to do with Artificial Intelligence, but no one’s talking.”

“People are killed all the time. Was this a celebrity or someone important?”

“I am surprised at you, Jerry. Every life is important.”

Johnson just stared at him trying to match his feigned indignation, but the way he held his head back and shoulders stiff looked more like he was feigning indigestion.

“This article was written by Janie Sans. She can sniff out a popular uproar long before it ever happens. She saw the Chinese baby food debacle six months before anyone else. And she was one of the main voices speaking out against fracking leading up to the last bout of pre-election outrage.”

“And how do you know that this is one of the ones that’s going to blow up?”

“I don’t.” Pearlman pulled a business card from his wallet. “But if there’s any reason for this story to blow up, he can find out.”

Johnson took the card. “James Peterson, Private Detective?”

“He can find anything you need to know about this company and all of its employees: company records, company emails, payroll, medical records, bank statements, criminal records, and social security numbers if you want them. If it’s connected to the internet, he’ll get it. Tell him that he’s doing a favor for the CIA and he might even do the work for free.”

“This is the kind of thing that you do?”

“Use it or not. Next time there is a vote, make a motion to start an oversight committee. There is no harm in that. All it takes is the hint of wrongdoing and your name will be all over the place.”

 

Johnson’s first apartment in the city was large and homey, decorated by his wife. This one now was purely functional, but the roasting meat smell from the crockpot made it inviting enough. Johnson was standing in front of the opened fridge listening to his wife cataloguing the events of the day from the speaker phone across the room. He was looking for something that would go along with the chuck roast that he had cooking away. What he didn’t eat tonight would feed him for about a week.

“…And tonight Suzy and the grandbabies came by for dinner.”

“I swear if you weren’t such a good cook we’d never see the kids.” Johnson pulled out a Tupperware bowl of leftover green beans and popped it into the microwave.

“If I cook so good, what are you doing all the way out there?”

“There’s no way you would still love me if we were together every day.” Johnson lifted the lid, and the crockpot let out a cloud of steam. He switched off the pot and started to cut off a chunk of the glistening roast but discarded the knife when his fork sunk effortlessly through and separated tonight’s portion into shreds of meat.

She hesitated for a second thinking. “Oh. You know. I saw them talking about you on the television last night. Can you explain to me why you are going after industry? This isn’t our brand. Restricting industry restricts job growth. This country is nothing without its working people.”

Johnson put down the fork to concentrate on the conversation. “That’s a misrepresentation. You know how attack adds work.”

“You are kidding, right? Governor Tailor’s clueless. No this is straight from your people. A committee against artificial intelligence… I taught you better than that.”

“No, we’re just investigating the industry for wrongdoing.”

“I’ve got it word for word.” The pages flipped audibly over the phone. “It was Senator Springsteen. He said: We are all in lockstep behind Senator Jerimiah Johnson. There’s been a massive information dump on the internet. An anonymous whistle blower has leaked just about every company record and internal memo from Sapient Technologies, the industry leader in the applications of artificial intelligence. We have uncovered several breaches of the public trust, and we are currently looking into the state of the industry at large. We are in desperate need of a much larger debate of the industry.”

“What the hell is Springsteen even talking about? I haven’t read about anything in the papers.”

“God damn it. How many times have I told you to stop relying on the newspapers? Get your ass on the computer. Figure out what’s going on, and get your own voice heard on this subject. You can’t let them speak for you.”

Johnson forgot to say goodbye when he got off the phone. He was going to eat his dinner cold and for breakfast.

 

Johnson called the Peterson private detective office several times without receiving any answer. He had to search out his home number before he get a hold of him. “What is going on Peterson? I told you to let me review this information, so I could decide what should be released if anything.”

“You never got back to me.”

“So you took it upon yourself to release Mr. Nobhoj’s childhood arrest record.”

“I received authorization.”

“Bullshit! You did.”

“You didn’t respond. Pearlman looked it over and gave me the go ahead. He told me that you would ok it.”

“He told you? I told you not to consult with anyone but me.”

“Damn it. I told you that this was time sensitive information. I told you that I couldn’t get anything from their system without them knowing. I had to get it out there before they were able to get a story together to discredit this information. If you didn’t want this stuff out, you should’ve told me. Don’t try to put this shit on me. If information got out that you didn’t want out, it’s your fucking fault.”

 

Johnson wasn’t sure what to do next so he dialed Mildred. She sounded groggy and had trouble following the conversation but denied that she’d been asleep. “I need you to ring up the aides. I sent you an email with links to all the information. Have them review it and start drafting my rebuttal.”

“Rebuttal? Isn’t this your baby?”

“Things have spiraled out of control. Can we even get the interns working on this? I’m not sure what they can do, but this is an emergency.”

 

The office was already busy when Johnson arrived. Everyone had a cup of coffee in front of them and another pot was on the brew. Before he had his jacket off, he called Pearlman’s office.

Pearlman’s secretary answered the phone. “Sorry, Senator Johnson. Senator Pearlman is completely booked. He is even working through lunch. You might be able to catch him in the halls between about 1:30 and 1:45 this afternoon.”

“I’m sorry, but we are going to be meeting much sooner than that.”

“No Senator that will not be possible.

Mildred brought in a cup of coffee. “Have you slept at all? You look terrible.”

“Just leave it on the desk Milly. I’ll be back in a bit.”

“I assume, all our appointments are on hold?”

Johnson was already out the door and did not answer.

 

Pearlman’s secretary looked surprised. “Senator Johnson, he’s booked solid.”

“I’m pretty busy myself.” Johnson talked over her. “He’s going to take some time to talk to me. If this door’s locked, I’m kicking it in.”

The door was not locked. Pearlman and woman that Johnson didn’t know were conferring closely over a stack of legal documents. She was wearing an expensive looking dress, and Pearlman was resting his elbow on a folded up newspaper. Johnson hesitated the slightest second. For some reason he had imagined that Pearlman would be alone in his office hiding in the corner. Johnson said, “What the hell do you think you are doing?”

“Well, you are barging into a meeting, so I can assume that you are not asking about that.” Pearlman stood with palms out. “Senator Johnson, I can see that you are very passionate about something.” He hunched his shoulders in the tiniest shrug. “Mrs. Dickson, I know that your time is very important, but it seems like there has been some kind of emergency.”

“Should I make another appointment with your secretary?”

“Do that just in case, but I think I should be available in a few minutes, if you do not mind waiting.”

Dickson stepped out of the office and Johnson closed the door behind her. “Pearlman I thought you were my friend.”

“Calm down Jerry and take a seat.”

Johnson continued to stand. “How could you go behind my back like that?”

“Listen Jerry, I got a frantic call from Peterson. He said that you had not contacted him and time was running out.”

“But the sealed childhood arrest record, his home address, and family photos?”

“Jerry you let so much time waste. I was not able to vet all of the information. There was some incriminating stuff in there. We had to move before they were able to put together a strong denial, or we would’ve lost everything.”

Johnson lost his aggressive posture. “I guess you have an explanation for Senator Springsteen’s remarks too.”

Pearlman picked up a folded up newspaper from his desk and began to fiddle with it with both hands. “Yes. All we’ve done is what you have asked us to do. Senator Springsteen was speaking out with the blessing of the committee. We got together and nominated him to deal with the press since you, the committee chairman, were unavailable for comment.”

“Won’t you all look silly when I come out with my rebuttal this afternoon?”

“I just told you, this is your committee acting on your orders. If you come out against it, you’ll look like a waffler of the worst sort. You’ll look ineffective and incompetent. And you’ll definitely not get reelected.”

Johnson sighed and finally took the seat he had been offered. “This committee agenda is totally against my politics. If I stick with it, I will definitely not get reelected.”

“That is why you came to me in the first place. Your politics are not going to get you reelected.” He handed the folded up newspaper to Johnson. “Look at the first page. It is obviously you haven’t taken the time to read todays copy of The Times.”

Johnson unfolds the paper. The teaser for the politics section said, Senator Johnson Enlivens Campaign, Takes Criminal Corporation to Task. Page P-1.

Pearlman said, “You’ve got the first page of the politics section. You wanted public attention. You got it.” Pearlman leaned back in his chair and spread his arms out wide. This is your fate Senator Johnson. Accept it.”

Senator Johnson put his head in his hands. He did not know how to explain this to his wife.