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by Andrew McCoy
A sample chapter you get nowhere else.


New York was not quite what he expected, though it was difficult to pin down what in fact he expected. His mind, it seemed to him, was not his to command, sliding away tangentially from the stress of even innocent queries. He had long since learned not to ask it what happened to him or why. There were no answers. These things just happened. As it happened that he knew this city was called New York and it should appear a certain way to him. That it did not caused a gnawing sense of loss, not much assuaged by flashes of insight he failed to connect to anything else: Joe Namath, gunslinger, quarterback, bar owner. Then he saw ‘Broadway rib’ on the menu of a restaurant and felt an inexplicable shame flooding him helter-skelter. Had he ever in the first flush of riches gauchely thrown around money and flaunted leggy show-girls? If it would embarrass him, he did not want to know, because any pain was too much to add to what he already carried.

I must make amends, he thought, though he knew not what for. Chic guilt, his mind mocked. White liberal do-gooder.

Bullshit, he retorted, I know where I’m at. Deeds and results count. Food in people’s mouths, roofs over their heads, clothing on their children’s backs, jobs to go to and earn the money for all that. Stuff your rhetoric and half-digested ideology and destructive revolutionary fervor. The richer the environment, the more it can afford to give.

A little, a very little thought will suffice. John Maynard Keynes.

He unpeeled the paper which flapped in the breeze against the bottom the door. The front and the back pages of the Times. He read every word on the four pages as he walked away, keeping his eyes down so as not to be embarrassed again by more Broadways ribs. His mouth watered. Food. He was very hungry. The city came to life around him but he did not notice. The paper told him what he already knew: aftermath of a disaster at Dureville, relegated to the inside front cover. How expediently we forget our dead. A tale of a Boston electronics firm being investigated by the SEC. Dick Kores will pick up a fat fee for pulling these schmucks out of the pit they have dug for themselves. Without conscious thought he wandered down towards Wall Street. In the canyons of my mind, he sang to himself as the buildings rose above him, smiling a little at an irony he knew to be amusing but could not quite fathom.

He walked past a street number. 95. He remembered. Cruising with a girl. They laughed a lot. That was always good. She unfolded the map and he swore to follow only her directions. Tickets for a show in his wallet. They missed the show because they ended up in New Jersey, though they made a late supper — Broadway rib? — in New York. She lost them, as he said incredulously, ‘Even on Interstate 95. My God, you really are a dumb blonde!’ That memory was a stab in the heart, but he did not mind crying, even if real men do not drink latte.

‘Hey, what’s in the cage, hobo?’ The newspaper was rudely ripped from his hand.

He stopped. He was in a service lane, a place of eternal dusk. They wore those grey suits that constitute a near-uniform. Four of them, crowding him against the wall, hands reaching for his mole.

Pack instinct. They have jobs. How sad they should behave like thugs. Messengers in finance houses.

He pushed them away firmly.

One pulled a bicycle spoke from an inside pocket. It was wickedly sharpened, the pointed end finding light even in that poor environment. ‘Get your dirty hands off me!’

‘He’s crying!’

They pushed him again. He felt a loading ramp behind him and put the cage on it. He took hold of the sharpened spoke aimed at him and pulled it towards him, catching its wielder off-guard by the unexpected direction of motion. He kicked out for the hooligan’s testicles, but just then one of the others, rushing in to land a blow, tripped his comrade. The boot landed in the young thug’s stomach, driving up towards his heart; he fell without screaming and lay still.

Two others were close and striking him. He felt no fear. He did not try to fend off the blows. He merely brought up his hands and crashed their heads together hard.

A flash of all his yesterdays illuminated his mind like fireworks. I can’t go on doing this forever. It is not dignified.

He glanced at the three men at his feet. All lay still. The fourth held the cage but he was petrified by fear, not even looking at the desired object.

‘You killed them,’ he whimpered at last. He threw the cage hard on the loading ramp. ‘You stupid fuckhead, we only wanted a little fun on our coffee break.’ He jerked a bicycle spoke from his sleeve. ‘I’ll teach you, you fucking bastard.’ He held his spoke underhand, thumb along the blade, weaving it from side to side in the classic stance as promoted by the classic movies. He was too frightened and too angry to notice that the other man had time to right the cage before turning to his attack. All he saw was a derelict in a dirty blue overall and broken shoes, with sores on his skin and broken fingers on one hand, unarmed, crying from fear and pain. He had never killed anyone in his life, merely beaten a few. But victims were not supposed to hit back. Killing his friends was not in the rules.

Tsch! This is so unnecessary, he wanted to tell the younger man, but as usual his tongue and lips would not obey his brain and his whimpering merely spurred the other’s bloodlust. He waited for the rush and when it came stepped forward smartly to meet it, grabbing hold of the other’s wrist and flinging it high between their bodies, his knee rising like a piston. This one screamed before he fell.

‘What the hell is going on here?’ a voice demanded behind him.

He turned. The voice belonged to a silver haired man in a three-piece suit, very obviously not a messenger.

He opened his mouth to explain but all that issued was a whimper. The cat got my tongue, he wanted to say. The man on the loading dock, impatient rather than frightened, picked up a phone from its stand on the wall just inside the sliding doors and spoke urgently into it.

He picked up his mole and ran away down the lane. A siren fired up just as he reached the mouth of the lane. It struck him for the first time that here he would stand out even if he did not run.

Damned if I do, damned if I don’t.

He ran.

Much later, jogging along with the sun on his right and behind him, he realized there was no need to run: no one was chasing him. The river was also on his right; he had crossed it without noticing. Moving north induced a vague state of well-being despite his hunger and thirst and pain. Somehow he knew that running south would be different, would probably cause him extra pain. He fell into a walk. He now had direction, even if he did not know why a particular direction was important; he would follow his hunch until it changed. When late in the afternoon the sun started setting on his left, thirst drove him to stop at a gas station for a drink. He looked at the cashier in her glass cage for permission, but the fat woman ignored him. He raised the bucket and ran water from the spout over his face, licking his lips to ease the pain, drinking some of the flowing water, then pouring a little into the mole’s cage. He replaced the bucket under the tap and ran the tap to refill it.

A rusty pickup stood nearby, a black man paying for his gas.

He climbed onto the back of the pickup and sat down with his back to the cab, the cage on his lap.

The owner of the pickup stopped with the cab door open. He was grizzled, his face lined with care or pain more than age, dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt open at the neck. His arms below the tightly rolled sleeves were well-muscled. ‘Hey, if you want a ride, you should ask.’

His uninvited passenger nodded eagerly.

‘Where you going?’ Receiving no reply, he added, ‘I’m stopping off in Boston to visit with my sister for supper, then driving on to Portland.’

The apparition on the back of the truck nodded, though much less positively.

The black man shook his head, climbed into the cab and drove off. An hour later he stopped and wound the window down to put his head out. ‘Hey, you can come sit up front, as long as you aren’t a talker.’

In Boston his passenger, who had said not a single word, raised his cage with its mole in thanks and greeting. As he ambled away, seeming to sniff the air questingly, the black man called after him, ‘You should be in hospital.’

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