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Archive for August, 2020

Beast7

It had been a beautiful dawn, exactly the sort of morning on which one would want to start a long trek. The sun peaked orange over the ridge, pinking the thin clouds above, clouds that would dissipate within the hour as the flaming sphere edged ever higher, opening its arms to all of humanity and embracing it with its light.

Louis struggled with his sack. Once full of his provisions, it weighed about forty kilos. He simultaneously thanked the universe for sending him Modestine and felt the rising redness of shame in his face at burdening so a delicate lady with such a load. In the rooming house, his bulk took out several pictures from the walls lining the stairwell while the landlady swore silently behind him as she picked up his mess. He apologized profusely. Finally, he and his sack fell into the street where he was greeted by his four French friends among about a dozen more well-wishers.

Louis was touched, but as the sack slipped from his grip, and he contorted himself every which way to avoid losing it, he realized why everyone was there: to watch him struggle. Several men whooped and everyone laughed.

Annoyed, Louis firmed his hold on the sack and when Henri motioned him to follow, he did. Antoine, Lucien, and Claude fell in line behind Louis, while the rest of the party of gawkers took step behind them. No one offered to help him with his sack.

To forget that he was, in effect, on display for the amusement of the whole village—as the crowd appeared to grow—he made a mental inventory of his sack, hoping to catch any forgotten essential. He brought with him a small spirit lamp and pan, a lantern, a few half-penny candles, a jack knife, and a large leather flask. There were two whole changes of warm clothing, his green velveteen jacket, his pilot coat, and a knitted Spenser waistcoat. His railway rug contained a few books, cakes of chocolate, and tins of Bologna sausage. He added his empty knapsack, for no reason other than to avoid leaving it but also avoid carrying it. Not in the sack, but intended for stowage in a basket alongside Modestine, he had arranged for a leg of cold mutton, a bottle of Beaujolais, an empty bottle for milk, an egg-beater (a gift from Henley’s wife), and several loaves of black and white bread (the former for Modestine, the latter for himself).

On his person he carried his revolver for although Surrel and company were quite mistaken about the threat on the road, threats indeed there could be.

Louis had originally planned to hike the mountains alone, with only what he absolutely needed on his own back. However the sleeping sack itself, empty, was too heavy and too awkward to convey. But, like everything else he packed, it was indispensable, for he meant to sleep as much under the stars as possible, shunning the comforts of the hostel. Louis was roughing it.

As they arrived at the stable, Louis could see his beloved Modestine, fitted with a simple, handsome leather pad furnished with a number of rings through which to slip the straps that would attach the sack to her back.

They began to apply the sack at six, and by six-ten, the pad having slid every possible way there was to slide off a donkey—much to the amusement of the farewell party—Louis had lost his patience. He returned the pad to its manufacturer, or, it could be said, he threw it at the man’s head, who, in turn, threw it back at Louis’s. And so on, back and forth, yelling obscenities that only swelled the audience in numbers, until they tired.

At six-thirty, toward the end of the pad throwing, Claude arrived with a bât—a pack-saddle—that seemed to fit Modestine sufficiently, and they—everyone—proceeded to assist Louis in affixing his things to the little donkey. The sack, his coat, the basket of provisions, all disappeared under a labyrinth of rope and knots, and just when Louis thought the time had come to say their goodbyes, a man would step forward and explain why this system of straps would not do, and he would disassemble the mess to start again. This repeated itself until nine-o’clock, as the last knot was pulled Louis, already exhausted, grabbed Modestine’s bridle and pulled her from the stable. Waving to the crowd over his shoulder, he called back, “Au revoir! Merci! Vous avez été très utile, mais je dois partir![1]

Laughter, the loudest of whom he recognized as his four friends, rose behind him, along with good-natured wishes for a safe and happy journey. Despite his annoyance and weariness, Louis could not suppress a smile, until he heard amongst the crowd what sounded like the baying of a wolf. Both he and Modestine froze and he whipped his head back to locate immediately amongst the crowd, Surrel. He smiled at Louis and winked. Louis glared, tugged gently on Modestine’s bridle, and slowly made his way out of Monastier.

[1] “Goodbye! Thank you! You’ve been very helpful, but I have to go!”

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memoirs-comic-cartoon-new-yorker

Okay, at some point, I’ll be making an announcement, but, as it stands, the red tape is holding that up. The thing I’ll be working on is, indeed, metal related, and despite waiting for paperwork, I have actually commenced work on it, which has been keeping me busy. That said, I am also working on another project, which has been a long time coming: a memoir.

Years ago, before I’d even turned thirty, I was trying to figure out how to write about my life, because even by that point, it had been screwed up enough to maybe warrant something. Honestly, before I turned twenty, what had occurred up to that point was worth writing about. Not because I am interesting, but my background certainly is, in a wow, that’s kind of fucked up sort of way. Well, that’s an understatement. The looks on the faces of those to whom I’ve related even about a third of it, over the course of the telling, go from slightly uncomfortable, to downright appalled, to a combination of the previous two plus disbelief, and then a kind of sad resignation. And they don’t even get the full story, because that’s not possible in a single conversation!

But anyway, when I considered writing about this around 2000, I was told by someone whose opinion I trusted at the time (a massive and completely unjustifiable mistake) that no one cares about my life, so it wasn’t worth writing about — like what kind of idiot was I to even consider that anyone would care about me or my life? Obviously, my life being what it was, I absolutely believed him, because my self-esteem was supremely shitty. Thus, I did not seriously consider writing about my life until I was in college in my 30s minoring in Writing, probably around 2007 or so. Mind you, in the seven years in between, my life and events therein had only become more ridiculous and fucked up (some of which were a direct result of the guy who told me no one cared about my life).

So, it’s been a long time that I’ve been trying to figure out exactly how to write about my life (and it doesn’t stop!). If I tried to summarize it for you right here, the summarization would actually be too long, and might count, if not as a full-sized book in itself, at least a novella-length but of writing. I can’t even begin to hint at it, because each bit leads to (and supports or is supported by) another bits, on and on — it’s impossible to draw a line, and it’s not even linear, which is extremely unhelpful. (My outline is going to be unwieldy, I can tell already.) I’ve considered every possible tactic — straight-up serious memoir (that’s a wrist-slitting idea if I’d ever had one), novelization, flash-fiction collection, poetry, graphic novel (no kidding, because why not give my trauma accompanying comic artwork?). Nothing seemed right, and any time I sat down to even just make notes based on memory, my anger was palpable.

So, I recently finished Colin Jost‘s autobiography — which, I enjoyed and is by no means filled with trauma and what-have-you — and it occurred to me that the only way I couldn’t possibly write this — that which apparently must be written, because I can’t just let it go* — the best way for me to do this without being overcome with enough rage and depression to prompt a potential mass murder, is to make fun of everything and everyone, including myself (easy-peasy!). At once, it seemed doable, whereas before it felt impossible. And let me tell you, my life is absolutely rife with tragicomical possibilities. That said, it would also be a real challenge as a writer, because I’m not entirely sure how to make childhood neglect, emotional abuse, molestation, familial isolation, maternal gaslighting, abject racism, domestic violence, and repeated narcissistic/sociopathic abuse funny. But I’m sure gonna try!

Seriously though, that’s a challenge, and as a writer, I’m here for it. As readers, an audience may or may not be, but…we’ll see.

So, as for this blog–which had been a thing of chaos — Mondays (in addition to publishing fiction chapters) are for Metal or the Memoir. Metal, as related to the other project I’m waiting to come through, and Memoir, as related to the horror show that is my life. Next time, I’ll maybe tell you more about why this feels like the right way to go and what I’d like to accomplish.

*Part of the reason I can’t let it go is that, with each shovel-full of bullshit I have had to deal with, the less I can imagine not getting anything out of it (because, largely, there is no justice, no responsibility taken, no nothing like that). It’s all just too much and the only way I can reasonably justify any of it is to be able to create something from it. One simply can’t have this level of destruction without some kind of creation in its wake. Sure, it all created me, but if you, like me, are the proud owner of a subjective experience, then you know how not enough that actually is. I need to create a thing from this garbage pile that I can hold in my hand and throw it at other people. It’s just the way it must be.

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4.1

FM6 (4.1)

The flight was, as expected, coach, paid for by the Spliphsonian. Rupert sat in the middle seat on the right side for the hour and a half flight—breathing in more recycled air, though with a more repulsive, organic flavor than the museum’s—then endured a four-hour layover in Atlanta, where he was assaulted by 24-hour news. A P-47 Thunderbolt had just crashed into the Hudson River. Sure, it was a Second World War-era fighter plane, but it was a plane, and sure, it was in New York, but the pilot was from Florida—bad juju. Businesspeople loud-talked self-importantly into their cell phones, and a large group of high school students traveling to compete in some worthless, inane sport milled about in cliques, screeching. It was co-ed, so whatever the sport—presumably cheerleading—it couldn’t have been good. Once in the air again for the forty-five minutes it took to finally reach the Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport, Rupert had sardined himself into another middle seat. Fortunately, he’d refilled his Xanax prescription two days before this surprise mission, not at all because he was afraid to fly, but because his large physical presence already put him in too close a proximity to the rest of humanity. A flight, no matter how short, would have been unbearable without being drugged enough to drool a little.

The entire ordeal was a perfect panorama for his field of expertise: Everyone boards in a somewhat organized fashion, and from there, it’s a quick descent into madness. Seats are switched, or downright stolen, shoes are removed, there’s yoga in the aisles, all asses and armpits and toenails. Then, as the plane finishes taxiing to the gate, seatbelts click open in a chorus and the slow-motion stampede commences, picking up as the mass of greasy, stinking humanity closes in on baggage claim, despite the fact that each and every one of them know full well that no one’s baggage is even there yet. Still, they jockey for position, getting as close to the edge as possible without rolling onto the belt (usually).

Rupert stood as far away as possible, numb and hypnotized by the rotating luggage on the belt, still somewhat sedated by the Xanax, half-listening to the din of the people around him and their various conversations. He thought his large duffle bag had made it to the carousel, but he wasn’t about to push through the too-tan locals coming home or the gelatinous, pasty Clevelanders going on “vacay.” He was already mentally exhausted. People talked on their phones to those whom they would see in five minutes about the flight and whatnot, which was uneventful. If human beings have mastered nothing else, they have certainly outdone themselves in the art of talking about nothing.

As everyone took way too long to retrieve their plastic and zippered vinyl boxes of travel garbage, Rupert wondered if he could fit his head between the side of the carousel and the belt, and if he could, was the belt moving fast enough to slit his throat? Passive suicidal ideation was so routine, it had been years since he’d been troubled by it. As that morbid image passed into his subconscious, he heard someone say something useful.

“Well, I didn’t have time to arrange anything. I don’t need a rental. I won’t be here long enough. I can hail one out front, with the pick-ups. Great. Thanks. See ya soon.”

Rupert rifled through the things in his cross-body bag—”no, sir, my carry-on is not a purse”—and located the file. He found his flight schedule, and various other disturbing, but already-known information, but no car rental paperwork.

“Fucking Spliphsonian,” he said out loud and a pink-haired old woman that came up to his hip tsked him. He didn’t want to, but he felt ashamed. He supposed he shouldn’t swear around his elders—old women in particular for some reason—although his mother was old and she swore like a . . . well, worse; she used expletives as frequently as prepositions, and occasionally as their substitute, which, he had to admit, did require a certain skill level. And he was in Florida now. Sarasota was included amongst the nation’s top ten counties with the largest populations of Over-65s. Rupert wondered if this woman would appreciate being called an “Over-65.” Or maybe she’d be okay with it, because he was pretty sure was she also an “Over-95.”

Much of the fleshy mass had cleared, and good thing, too, as his Xanax was wearing off (and he tried not to take too many—that stuff’s addictive!), so he eased his way forward. Most folks parted for Rupert, perhaps an intuitive measure, an unconscious fear of someone, or something, so large suddenly next to them. This was one of the few perks of his size. He grabbed his duffle bag, swung it over his shoulder, and hurried out front, following the taxi-hailing lady he’d overheard on the phone.

The heat hit him like a quark-gluon plasma experiment at CERN’s Large Hadron Collider—9.9 trillion degrees Fahrenheit. Rupert squinted against the blinding, seashell-peppered asphalt, and cursed his extensive knowledge of the trivial and mundane, which apparently superseded his ability to plan ahead, particularly with such small notice. He did not own a pair of sunglasses, nor had sunscreen to pack—as reclusive as he normally was, why would he? He hailed a cab and paid a ridiculous amount of money to be carted twelve miles from the airport to—Rupert looked through his file—the Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet. Well, that sounded nice.

* * *

“Me and a guy were laid up in a Royal Courtyard Econo-Regency Chalet for about three weeks once,” Shit Pail interrupts, then puts her head back, mouth gaping. She seems to be thinking, but the pause is long. Too long.

Rupert can’t see her eyes behind the sunglasses and thinks perhaps she’s fallen asleep. Or died. Just when he thinks being trapped here—potentially for days—with her and her shit pail is the worst that could happen, he can’t face accidental self-confinement with a corpse and its intestinal contents.

“I think his name was Stevie,” she finally continues. “He kept talking about space, but I was pretty spun, so I don’t remember much. We checked in to fuck, but just couldn’t get it going—go figure, aimiright? Next thing we knew, it was three weeks later and neither of us had gotten laid.”

“That’s . . .” Rupert begins, but stops. Then: “That’s a real shame.”

“Yeah, but the rates were reasonable, and not a bad place to work.”

“Oh, you also worked there?” He doesn’t know why he’s prolonging this conversational interlude.

“Nope,” Shit Pail answers abruptly, in a way that indicated the line of questioning had come to an end, and requests he continue with a level of irritation that suggests it was he who’d interrupted in the first place.

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Beast6

. . . and in the Castle of Besques, the marquess of Apcher showed us this animal who looked like a wolf but with a very different face and different proportions. Three hundred people may certify this.

Many hunters and a lot of experts made us remark that only the tail and the posterior of this animal is of a wolf. Its head is monstrous; its eyes have a particular membrane that can conceal the eye-socket. Its neck is covered with thick reddish hairs, crossed with some black stripes; it has a white mark shaped as a heart on its breast. Its legs have four fingers with longer nails than wolves. They are thick, especially the front legs, and their color is the one of a deer. This was remarkable because all hunters said they had never seen a wolf with such colors. Some also noticed its ribs did not look like the ones of a wolf, therefore this animal could turn around more easily than a wolf that has sidelong ribs.

When Louis returned to his room, stuffed under the door, and with a cover now creased, was a pamphlet accompanied by a map of the region. The title shrieked: La Bête du Gévaudan! It looked to be a text cobbled together from various 18th-century reprints, the main body of which were the words of the royal notary Roche-Etienne Marin who described the second beast killed in June of 1767.

Louis had read about all of this before, on ferry crossing the Channel, if his memory was correct. One of a handful of sensational magazines lying about the boat recounting sordid histories of foreign lands. He’d picked it up as a brief escape from whatever torturous composition he was writing at the time, and ended up reading the thing cover to cover.

La Bête du Gévaudan was the collective name of perhaps more than one beast said to have terrorized the poor people of the département of Gévaudan—renamed Lozère after the Revolution—and areas of Haute-Loire. The first sighting was in early June 1764, when a Langogne woman was charged by what was described as a large wolf. She was saved by bulls from the farm. But by the end of the month Jeanne Boulet, fourteen years of age, was not so lucky.

The attacks continued, long and terrible enough to attract the attention of King Louis XV. It was he who hired the wolf-hunters Jean Charles and his son Jean-François, to track and kill the monster. In February of 1765, the two men brought with them eight bloodhounds and proceeded to thin the Gévaudan forests of wolves, large and small. But Surrel had his facts mixed up—it was not the father-son team d’Enneval that slayed La Bête, but François Antoine, harquebusbearer to the King, and Lieutenant of the Hunt. The old pamphleteer had his dates correct, though, as Antoine proved his mettle on September 21st of that same year, and announced, “We declare by the present report signed from our hand, we never saw a big wolf that could be compared to this one. Which is why we estimate that this could be the fearsome beast that caused so much damage.” La Bête was then stuffed—hopefully better than the poor specimen at le café du loup—and sent to Versailles, along with Antoine, who’d received a hero’s welcome, not to mention many medals and a large monetary reward.

However, by December, the attacks had resumed. Finally, a local hunter, Jean Chastel, on June 19, 1767, once again killed La Bête. And the region hoped this would be the last. La Bête de Chastel’s stomach contained human remains, and therefore confirmed that this was, indeed, one of the monsters that had been attacking villagers in the area. Chastel family tradition claimed that Jean, with his hunting party, sat down to read his Bible and pray, and as he prayed, La Bête emerged from the trees, staring at Chastel as if listening. Chastel finished his prayer and then shot La Bête dead.

Together, it was estimated that two hundred ten people were attacked over three years, one hundred thirteen dead, ninety-eight of whom seemed to have been devoured. But none of the accounts that Louis had read ever mentioned the idea of le loup-garou—a werewolf. Surely, this must be an invention of Surrel, local pamphleteer, to sell more wares. And it would make sense that the entire village believed it—those four Frenchman probably grew up reading Surrel’s imaginative leaflets.

Louis smiled and tossed the werewolfenalia toward the table by the bed with dramatic flourish, but then retrieved the map from the floor. Surrel was, at least, good for this one practical thing.

Once Louis was out of Monastier, he expected he would hear no more of the legendary Bête du Gévaudan. Perhaps he might hear of other creatures and mountain lore, perhaps he might hear the click of a rosary behind him as he passed through a village, but he found it unlikely that something so silly, from so long ago, still lived in this region, outside of this backwards enclave of drunken Frenchmen.

But enough of this! He had a donkey to pilot and a journey to begin!

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GoldTicket

It’s best, I think, to simply quote the two perpetrators:

I don’t care what the police say. The tickets are solid gold…it ain’t cut up two by fours I spray painted gold. And it was Jesus who give them to me behind the KFC and said to sell them so I could get me some money to go to outer space. I met an alien named Stevie who said if I got the cash together he’d take me and my wife on his flying saucer to his planet that’s made entirely of crack cocaine. You can smoke all the crack cocaine there you want…totally free. So, try to send an innocent man to jail and see what happens. You should arrest Jesus because he’s the one that gave me the golden ticket and said to sell them. I’m willing to wear a wire and set Jesus up…

—Tito Watts

We just wanted to leave earth and go to space and smoke rock cocaine. I didn’t do nothing. Tito sold the golden tickets to heaven. I just watched.

—Amanda Watts

Golden, right? Unfortunately, this story was debunked in Facebook’s crackdown on false news in 2018. The story was completely fabricated by the website Stuppid in 2015, which, according to Snopes also made up such stories as a Nazi couple accidentally receiving donor sperm from an African American, a 14-year-old girl birthing Jesus, and a toddler tossed from a roller coaster. Life is unfair. Fear not—the piece was revived in 2019 with new subtly racist details and a higher price point: Make way for Zimbabwe man! Same names—Tito and Amanda Watts, same quote, but Tito is now a Christian pastor from Zimbabwe whose thousands of church members—to whom he sold the tickets—are demanding his release from custody, because while they are Christian, they “still adhere to and practice local and traditional religious beliefs from old ancestors and tribes.” You know, the ancient, primitive practice of purchasing Golden Tickets to Crack Planet.

Nice job, Ms. Jackson—she cites four sources: My State News, Egypt Today, Study Country (no idea what this refers to), and News Day. A simple Google search shows two of her sources, but she could have also cited Hollywood Unlocked (this writer kept the reference to police finding $10,000 cash, crack pipes, and a baby alligator from the Florida origin story),Elite Readers, Spilled News (this one is particularly great—the story is set in Zimbabwe, but cites the original Stuppidarticle set in Florida and uses the fake mugshots from that piece—good job, nameless writer), Nairaland (alo excellent, this is a Nigeria internet community forum with posts from both the Florida story—posted in 2015—and the Zimbabwe story—posted in 2019), Legit (another Nigerian site, also kept the cash, crack pipes, and baby alligator reference), and Africa Check, a site that debunks false news from Africa (this is labeled an “old, fake story from USA”). That’s just the first page of results. Zuckerberg won’t tolerate this shit, but demonstrably false political ads are all good to go. Folks, it’s hairy out there—watch what you read.

Unknown. “Couple Arrested for Selling ‘Golden Tickets to Heaven’.Stuppid. Stuppid.com. March 31, 2015

Tobias, Manuela. “No, Florida Couple Didn’t Get Arrested for Selling Golden Tickets to Heaven.” Politicfact. Poynter Institute. September 17, 2018.

Jackson, Cherese. “Pastor Arrested for Selling $500 Golden Tickets to Heaven.” GLV. Guardian Liberty Voice. May 31, 2019.

Read Florida Man: Battle of the Five Meth Labs: A Love Story here.

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3.2

FM5 (3.2)

It should take about three minutes walking at a normal, relaxed pace to get from Pyrdewy’s office door to the front entrance of the Spliphsonian, elevator ride included. It took Rupert a half an hour of elevator riding, hall walking, and stair climbing to finally find himself confronted by the large stone crawfish that ushered visitors down the steps and back out into the streets of our nation’s capital. He hadn’t run into Leenda again, and he was both relieved and disappointed. The disappointed part felt new.

But soon he was back at his apartment, making a batch of his favorite comfort food: an entire package of angel hair pasta slathered in a half-stick of butter, swimming in three 15-ounce cans of plain tomato sauce. Like a buttery pasta soup. Even at this stage of life—forty-two—he processed garbage pretty well, maintaining a reasonable waistline, and therefore had yet to address his food issues and problems with impulse control.

The D.E.A.T.H. folder was still in his cross-body bag, now slung over the back of a chair flanking his two-person dining set. Rupert’s apartment did not look like that of a shut-in. It was neat, not too much stuff, but not sparse. Wooden floors, hemp rugs, shelves and shelves of books, low, warm lighting. He liked to consider all of his furnishings handmade, because he ordered it all online and assembled it himself, rather than have extra people in his life to interact with.

Rupert’s dream home was a fake castle he saw once driving through Berkley Springs, WV. It was, in actuality, a large mansion in the shape of a castle built by some old rich guy to woo some young chick who wanted to be a princess. Presumably, things had gone sour in the six years it took to build and when he died not long before the completion of his princess’s perfect little castle, he stipulated in his will that she would get nothing unless she finished the building (which she did and then she blew through the rest of his estate. She moved to a tiny house in 1909 and raised chickens before one of her offspring whisked her off to Idaho to spend the rest of her days wondering what life would have been like had she just been a better sort of person—turns out, the joke’s on everyone. The Universe doesn’t give a shit).

Rupert didn’t think about that much, though he figured maybe relationships in general were problematic. He thought the stone turret kicked ass. He’d never been inside, but he’d seen pictures. Cush. He’d have filled it with books and dim table lamps.

He tested a strand of pasta for readiness, deemed it so, then set himself up at the table with his pasta soup, a massive glass of water, and a half-glass of pink grapefruit juice to follow up. He liked to stay hydrated. Now, the folder was out of the cross-body bag and in front of him, getting splattered with sauce as he slurped up noodles.

The study, as laid out here, bore little resemblance to the one he’d been helping Stanley with, however, much to his surprise, and shameless glee, it involved many more entropic ideas than Stanley had been willing to consider and allow. But they were small details, theoretical, and not remotely applicable.

The pasta gone and the water glass empty, he then grabbed the folder and his grapefruit juice, relocated to the sofa, stretched out his long legs, and flipped through the pages one more time.

So, basically, Rupert’s job (if he wanted to keep his job in the form that it was) was to observe and collect data on the social interactions within the addict communities from which the “workers” that participated in the D.E.A.T.H. program came. The part that almost sounded like a proper study was: 1) to see how well the addicts took to certain types of work, and 2) which types would be most productive to society and could be optimized for addict participation, while at the same time, 3) benefiting the addict to the highest extent possible. This almost sounded reasonable, and entirely typical of the Federal Government—do good works, but not without benefiting The State first. Rupert was instructed to observe any entropic patterns that might emerge within the program’s execution so that it might be better designed to avoid chaos.

Avoid chaos, he thought. That’s rich.

Rupert would have to somehow infiltrate the society—societies?—of Meth- and Crackheads. Where?

Sarasota County, Florida.

He shuddered. He’d seen the headlines: “Florida Man Claims Wife Abducted by Holograms;” “Florida Man Arrested for Urinating on Waitress at Nightclub;” “Florida Man Attacks Mom’s Boyfriend with Samurai Sword Over Missing Can of Shrimp.” You couldn’t make this shit up, so of course it would be Florida.

Rupert tossed the file onto the floor and thought, emptying his glass of juice. He felt that the author of the file must have been tipped off on what a social idiot Rupert was, because some of the language sounded as if they’d met before it was written. It stressed that, no, Rupert could not ingratiate himself to small time cookers; he had to get into the larger super lab operations. It wasn’t explicit in the file, but meager information peppered throughout—stupidly, in Rupert’s opinion—indicated that part of the program was also a front for the DEA to identify and bust big pushers. Why, if Pyrdewy felt so charitable, would he risk the program to have it potentially exposed as a meth/crack Donnie Brasco operation? Rupert doubted Pyrdewy cared, but more rewards for the Feds meant more funds from the program. And, apparently, despite his conservatism, he liked government money when it suited his needs.

None of this felt safe, and worse, it left Rupert open to all sorts of clinical social anxiety scenarios. The file itself read as if answering every possible protestation Rupert could have (and, evidently, Pyrdewy didn’t like black folks protesting). Infiltration meant finding out how they lived, not just how they worked, so it would have to be up close and personal. It also required the actual recruitment of addicts for the program, which was a big nope for Rupert. He didn’t like to talk to the cashier at the store when stocking up on tomato sauce. So, going undercover in the workspace of the program wasn’t good enough to gather the information the study required. He must gain their complete trust, out there, “in the wild” (the file read). He was to report at regular intervals to Pyrdewy the activities of the leaders of the group or groups. It was all in order to better improve the D.E.A.T.H. program and, thus, better improve the lives of these “poor, lost sonsofbitches.” (Rupert wondered exactly who revised this study and whether or not Pyrdewy was in any way qualified to do so. He suspected the red-faced carbuncle of holding an MBA, despite presumably-failed mandatory ethics classes.)

Rupert’s mind ached, so he pushed all the papers off the sofa, pulled a pillow over his head, and slept. He was not at all equipped to do any of this.

When he woke, it was dark, so he melted down into a medium-sized anxiety attack—muscles tense, chest tight, hands shaking. The one-way ticket to Sarasota in the file put him at the airport at 4am. It was only nine o’clock in the evening, so he still had time to pack, think as well as he could, and consider if maybe mopping floors wasn’t such a bad job. It was certain to give him a first hand look at individual mental and emotional entropy, but then, he was already a veteran of personal experience.

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Beast5

There were, in fact, some establishments open in Monastier at dawn. Surprisingly, Surrel had Louis meet him in a quiet billiard room off le Place du Vallat. Still bristling from the old man’s treatment of his beloved Modestine the day before, Louis sat with his shoulder to the man and refrained from joining him after he’d ordered his glass of brandy. Surrel nipped daintily at his payment, smiling at Louis, who fidgeted with the cigarette pinched between his fingers. They spoke French.

“So, what brings a gangly-looking thing like you to my country?” Surrel asked.

Louis stared at the man.

“I said I would make payment of one glass of brandy, but there was nothing in our agreement that said I should sit here and drink it with you.” Louis made to stand. “Good day.”

“Oh, come,” the old man said, reaching a hand out to Louis’s velveteen jacket and tugging it down. “You are too sensitive. Like a woman.”

Again, Louis’s hackles stirred as he sat back down.

“I’ve things to do, you know,” he said to the old man. “Certainly better things than sit here and—”

“You are heading down into Gévaudan, I hear,” said Surrel. He sipped his brandy. His hands were covered with paper cuts in various states of mend, a hazard of his trade.

“Yes, south by way of Lozère,” Louis said, interested to know why the man had acted as if he didn’t know Louis’s business and more interested to know how he did. “It hasn’t been called Gévaudan since the Revolution. Surely, you’re not that old.”

“Some days, I feel it,” Surrel said. “And sometimes, I think, when a place has been soaked with so much blood, you can never change its name.” He looked at Louis from the corner of his eye, seeing if his words had the desired effect.

Louis stared at the old man for a moment.

“Don’t tell me,” he began. “Robbers, probably murderers. And wolves.”

“Wolves are murderers,” Surrel answered.

“They are animals.”

“Not always.” Surrel took another drink. “Just like not all men are men.”

“You would think that after centuries of dealing with wolves, your people would have mastered the art by now,” Louis said. “I’ve got a pistol and if there’s trouble, man or beast, I will let fly the bullet. Simple.”

Surrel shook his head and Louis could no longer control himself.

“Stop it. Stop shaking your head. French necks are full of ball bearings,” he said, exasperated. “They cannot keep them straight.”

“The English don’t know how to deal with beasts,” the old man shot back.

“Says the man who beats his donkey, one smaller than a dog,” Louis parried.

Surrel laughed.

“Your Modestine will break your heart, Monsieur,” he said, and then leveled Louis with a look hot enough to melt the ice between them if only enough to get the message through. “But your heart, Steams, is the least of your worries.”

Louis thought of Fanny and doubted that very much. He lit another cigarette.

“And what should I be worried about?” Louis asked, falling back into his chair and flopping one leg over the other, extending them both long out in front of him.

Surrel leaned over the café table between them, close so as to not rouse the alarm of the whole village.

“The men here will not tell you because they are as afraid as the women, and the women, let me tell you, are like the children that flew off the back of your ass in the courtyard.”

Louis leaned a little closer, but still looked away, watching a solitary man knock billiard balls around a green felt field and exclaiming “a-ya!” each time he sank one.

“Gévaudan is Gévaudan and will always be Gévaudan, so long as the blood of the children and the women push its vegetables up from the soil and the citizens eat of the terror that once roamed its hills,” Surrel continued. “This I believe. And not only that, I do believe that the terror still roams. It still hunts. It kills.”

Louis was now looking at the old man, tracing the lines on his face that ran down his throat and into the collar of his shirt. Although he was old, his eyes pinned Louis.

“What,” Louis said, “on earth are you talking about?”

Surrel leaned so far over as to almost touch noses with Louis and hissed.

“The beast!”

Louis shut his eyes to the man’s flying spittle and used the tablecloth to wipe it from his lids.

“Sit back, man,” he demanded, but Surrel was animated now.

“If you can’t stomach a little bit of saliva, you will no doubt faint away from the spit of loup-garou.”

Louis’s eyes fixed on the old man and refused to budge.

“Wait just a moment,” he said and then he slapped his hand on the table. “I am a fool.”

Surrel nodded, but Louis shook it away.

“No, not in the way you think. You are the fool in that way. You and everyone else in Monastier. I should have put it together right away. The Beast, or Beasts, of Gévaudan!”

Surrel’s face lit up and he threw his hands into the air.

“Yes!”

“No!” Louis shook his head and then it was his turn to lean to Surrel. “Look here, this journey will be difficult enough without you and your countrymen needlessly frightening the breeches off me with your silly tales of werewolves.”

Surrel crossed himself. Louis rolled his eyes.

“First, how long ago was that? If memory serves, it was the 1760s, even before your bloody Revolution, which, by the way, proved your countrymen to be as vicious as any wolf on the country side.”

“But we are not talking wolves, monsieur,” Surrel growled and glared.

You aren’t. I am. I am talking about the tragic deaths of poor villagers,” Louis argued.

“Two hundred!” Surrel yelled.

“Who were nothing more than the unlucky victims of a couple of particularly large wolves.”

“One hundred of whom were eaten!”

“When the men your king hired to hunt them down found them—”

“Jean Charles Marc Antoine Vaumesle d’Enneval and his brave son Jean-François, on September twenty-first, 1765, killed Le Loup de Chazes. Sixty kilos, two meters in length, and when they dragged its wicked carcass back to the village and stored it overnight in a citizen’s grain room, the next day it was gone.” Surrel snapped his fingers. “And in its place—”

“A man,” Louis finished. “Who?”

“They did not know his name, nor where he came from. It was what it was.”

“This is ridiculous,” Louis leaned back into his chair.

The old man emptied his glass.

“You cannot say, monsieur, that you have not been warned.”

Louis had been warned of a lot of things. He’d been warned by his father not to lose his faith in God; he’d been warned by his friends not to put faith in Fanny; and now he was being warned by these crazy Frenchmen to not embark on this journey, for fear of . . . werewolves.

“I have been warned,” he said to Surrel. “Merci.”

“Merci to you.” Surrel tipped his empty glass to Louis. “And may God have mercy on you.”

Louis thought of his father—both of his parents. He’d never seen two more broken people in his life since the day he’d admitted—after a particularly deadly episode of ill health—that he’d given up on the possibility of God. The sun, he’d thought, would never shine on the Stevenson household again, nor did he think still to this day that, if there were a God, he would smile mercifully on RLS. With his current predicament, with his heart strewn over an ocean and a continent, surely God hadn’t been merciful so far.

Louis looked at Surrel for one more moment, taking in the details of his face and hair, his garments and his smell, for his nightly notes.

“Without Modestine, how will you move your cart around?” Louis asked.

“The children!” Surrel answered and laughed.

And with that, Louis left the billiard room for his own quarters to take inventory of his pack and assemble everything for departure.

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3.1

FM4 (3.1)

So, Stanley was missing. Rupert had known Stanley for a few years, having met when he’d started his non-janitorial job at the Spliphsonian. Stanley was a social anthropologist and with Rupert’s entropic background, they’d often worked on various studies and projects together. They’d made a good team, as Stanley was far more extroverted, more outgoing. In the past, they had bonded over their screwed-up childhoods. Rupert was who he was and Stanley had managed to somehow resemble a whole human being despite coming from a family of chronic addiction. Most of their work had been projects focusing on individual self-worth within the family units of certain cultures, but Stanley’s current project—the one Rupert had been in the process of consulting on—dealt directly with drug use, thus tackling Stanley’s pet issue and not Rupert’s, so Rupert was happy to help in any way he could.

But, apparently, Stanley was gone.

Rupert found Pyrdewy’s door, the sort with the mottled glass panel in the top half. Pyrdewy had had the letters MUSEUM DIRECTOR removed—letters that had been there since at least 1900—and replaced, in a flashier modern font: MR. CLAYTON PYRDEWY, and in much smaller letters below: MUSEUM DIRECTOR.

Rupert knocked, and a loud, nasal voice pierced the glass, causing Rupert to wince.

“Just come in!”

Rupert shut the door behind him.

“Sit,” Pyrdewy said, not yet having looked up from the papers on his desk.

Rupert wedged himself into a chartreuse vinyl and chrome chair that looked less like a chair than something that should have been across town in the Spliphsonian Museum of Art, though bad art it would be. Pyrdewy was absorbed with the two sheets of paper he held, so Rupert looked around, palms sweating. The office was period to the building’s initial construction—around 1860—and although it was furnished with beautiful birch shelves that lined the walls and high-gloss maple floors, Pyrdewy had gone a great distance out of his way to modernize, hence, this non-chair chair that squeezed Rupert’s hips like a vice.

The area rug—which still contaminated the air with its factory-toxic stink—was black and grey and white, with offensive geometric shapes that smugly insisted that one’s natural preference for the organic could go fuck itself. What had once been shelves full of antiquarian books on various intellectual, scientific topics had been replaced with current mass-market paperback thrillers and military/spy/special-ops testosterone fiction, and only just a few at that—it was mostly empty space punctuated rudely with one piece of “art” or another.

There was a marked absence of family photographs. This single, pathetic aspect particular to Pyrdewy served as the sole comfort to Rupert’s threadbare sense of ease.

Pyrdewy’s face was red. He looked to be red all over, or as much as Rupert cared to see. At first glance, one might think it was from over tanning, but for lack of the telltale Trumpesque white rings around the eyes. Whole-body rosacea, perhaps.

“Did you hear about those Goddamn Nig-Nogs over in Baltimore?” Pyrdewy asked without looking up from paper number two. There wasn’t much text on either sheet, nor did he seem to be reading the words—he just stared.

“Um,” Rupert began. “I heard there were some protests.”

“Protesting against what? You act like a thug, you get treated like a—”

Pyrdewy’s small, black eyes finally met Rupert’s.

Silence.

“We’ve never met,” Pyrdewy said, getting up, as if the conversation hadn’t yet started. He did not reach for a handshake and Rupert was relieved for a number of reasons.

“No, we have not.”

“Well, as you know,” Pyrdewy said, pacing the area behind his desk slowly. “Stanley’s dead.”

“He’s not dead. He’s miss—?”

“Whatever. The point is, he’s gone. But his work must go on.”

“It must?” Rupert couldn’t imagine what possible interest this man could have in continuing to fund a study on the effects of addiction within a family of addicts and the disintegration of that family and the community concept of “family” as a whole.

“Yes,” Pyrdewy answered and looked out the window at the imposingly critical Department of Justice. It was open a tiny crack, enough to hear the faint sounds of traffic and people. “I know you worked with him, I know you consulted on this study, and I know your specialty is Endocrinology . . . ”

“The study and treatment of the endocrine system—?”

“ . . . and I know you are only qualified to mop the floors here.”

Rupert’s stomach did a slow, confused flip.

Silence.

“Are you listening now, smart ass?” Pyrdewy didn’t so much ask as state, still gazing out the window, and Rupert discovered that a self-satisfied smile had its own intonation.

That’s interesting.

“This study is going to continue, though it has been altered, about which you can educate yourself tonight.” Pyrdewy turned and pushed a thick file across his desk toward Rupert. It was labeled D.E.A.T.H.

Rupert’s eyes widened.

“You’re on a plane for Florida tomorrow morning,” Pyrdewy finished.

“Wait. But. Wait, what?” Rupert definitely did not want to go to Florida. He didn’t even want to leave his apartment to be here.

Pyrdewy heaved a deep sigh.

“Should I read the whole file to you?”

Rupert stared at him. He thought of the military/spy/special-ops novels dog-eared on the shelf behind him and found it difficult to believe that it wasn’t perfectly obvious to anyone looking at him that he was no Jason Bourne. All that was inevitable now was a series of explosions. And surely that would not happen.

“Drug Enthusiast Activity Treatment Harborage,” Pyrdewy said, clipped and matter-of-fact.

“Harborage?”

“You know, like a safe haven.”

“Activity.”

“Productive employment.”

“Enthusiast?”

“Look, we can’t have the public . . . ” Pyrdewy stopped, then inhaled through his nose and turned back toward the window.

“The Drug Enthusiast Activity Treatment Harborage is a charitable program designed and implemented by Yours Truly.”

“That’s very nice of you.”

“Shut it.”

Rupert did.

“It is a work program designed to help those who are addicted to methamphetamines and barbiturates get clean, save and administer an income, and become productive members of society.”

“I—” Rupert began, but Pyrdewy swung around and hairy-eyeballed him. “—am very impressed. Stanley would have approved. I would like to help in any way that I can.” Rupert imagined the apparent alternative: tossing sawdust over some kid’s puke outside the museum’s historical crawfish exhibit. “Where is the program located?”

“You won’t know until you’ve infilt . . . found a worker within the community who will show you. Top secret.”

Pyrdewy returned to his study of the Department of Justice across the way. More silence. Rupert looked around, breathed in, then out. Slow and cautious, he laid his hand on the folder and began to slide it toward himself.

“Who are you voting for?”

Shit.

It was mid-May and already 2016 was shaping up to be a banner year for Rupert’s theories on all forms of entropy, social and cultural. Texas had voted to allow public open carry firearms, the water situation in Flint, Michigan, was finally declared a state of emergency, Ammon Bundy had lead his band of Three Percenters in a forty-one-day standoff against the FBI in Bunkerville, Nevada, and a man had opened fire near the visitor center at the US capitol—too close to home for Rupert, but that’s what you get for living in Ground Zero of this national shit show.

Twelve hundred protestors had been arrested for demonstrating against campaign finance corruption and a rigged electoral system and the Secretary of the Treasury was trounced for announcing that a former slave—a woman to boot—would replace a white, male genocidal maniac on the twenty dollar bill—something Rupert didn’t believe for one moment would be allowed to happen. But on the bright side, Space X did a cargo run to the International Space Station, landing its “reusable main stage booster on an autonomous spaceport drone ship,” or so he’d read, and he didn’t know what the hell that even meant, but it sounded pretty bitchin’. If that wasn’t enough, NASA had announced just days ago that it had discovered more than 1,284 exoplanets. Exoplanets! Over 1,284 of them! We now knew everything about the Universe, and space, and all of the planets, right?

Across the nation, people had died in shootings, stabbings, and machete attacks, in high schools, office buildings, and at Ku Klux Klan rallies; they died from freak winter storms and record floods, Lancair IV microplane crashes, Amtrak train derailments, and rolling charter busses; they died from the Zika and the Elizabethkingia meningosepticaviruses; they died from goddamn Malayan tiger attacks, and Rupert was pretty sure his fellow DCers would likely be dying from some form of cancer within the next decade with the three-chemical 175-CSX freight car derailment near the Rhode Island Avenue Metro station at the start of this month, but Justice Anton Scalia got to die in his sleep after a day of quail hunting and a nice dinner.

The country had watched in fascinated horror as Donald Trump slowly racked up the necessary votes to win the Republican primary—O’Malley dropped out, then Rand Paul and Rick Santorum, then Christie and Fiorina, then Ben goddamn Carson, Rubio, Cruz, and Kasich, until the unthinkable had happened. The first primary—New Hampshire—considered to be a political bellwether, called it for Trump and Bernie Sanders on February 9th. The predicted Republican primary winner was confirmed just a couple of weeks ago, to the shock and befuddlement of anyone breathing. Rupert, though—a professional Entropologist—wasn’t surprised. As of this meeting with Pyrdewy, it was obvious New Hampshire was batting 2/2 and Sanders would be nominated. Obviously. The DNC smelled rotten.

But as to Pyrdewy’s question—who would Rupert vote for?—in the words of Jesse Jackson, the question was moot. The DC Republican primary had already passed, with Rubio as the victor and who suspended his campaign three days later. Presumably, Pyrdewy had concluded that Rupert was a liberal and would be voting next month, but he would be wrong. Rupert considered the twelve thousand arrested last month over the ten-day demonstration against corruption in campaign finance and dubious election laws, which currently shut out third (fourth, fifth, ad nauseum) parties in myriad ways, among other deeply undemocratic concepts. Voting, Rupert had concluded, was like holding a piece of tissue paper over your head as protection against a fatal deluge of socio-economic entropy and thinking—believing fanatically—that you could stay dry in that flood of abject chaos.

Rupert cleared his throat and looked at the Department of Justice—recently under fire over its mishandling of encryption software as it worked with Pear, Inc to access the oPhone of the 2015 San Bernadino attack suspect—and he was happy he did not own a cell phone, for reasons that should be obvious by now, both personally and culturally.

“I . . . haven’t . . . I don’t know.”

Another deep, disgusted sigh from Pyrdewy

Rupert opened his mouth, said nothing, and closed it again. As Rupert got the folder into his hand and was about to slip it into his cross-body bag, Pyrdewy said his second-to-last thing.

“Let me tell you, when we win back the office, shit’s going to change around here. You folks can kiss your upper hand good-bye.” He paused. “These Federal dollars sure are nice, though.”

You folks. Upper hand. Federal dollars? It was too much to address quickly, so Rupert decided to let it go and GTFO. Then:

“Is that a purse?”

“What? No, it’s a bag, a man’s bag. It’s a cross-body bag. It’s ergonomic and very good for your . . . .”

But Pyrdewy was back at his two papers, studying them with an intensity that Rupert was sure he was faking. Rupert felt dismissed, but it was hard to register because he often felt this way.

He zipped up his cross-body bag and closed the office door behind him as he left. Now, if he could only find his way out.

Rupert’s head swam, not just from this sudden, inconceivable assignment, but from having to think about the state of the country over the last few months, though he, of all people, shouldn’t be too taken aback. Larger, macro entropy trickling down into the micro—his life. Things were going to change, alright, and that he expected. When you put zero effort—literally energy—toward keeping entropy at bay and only work neutrally to keep up superficial appearances, things will fall apart. Merely painting a hundred-year-old bridge won’t keep it from deteriorating underneath and eventually collapsing. Society, though, refused to apply this simple, basic law—the Law of Thermodynamics—to its own culture (let alone physical infrastructure). It lets its figurative bridges rot alongside its literal ones. By all intents and purposes—or a complete lack thereof—we should all be dead by now.

Rupert’s stomach growled. Time to feed.

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Beast4

Louis was up at six the following morning. He dressed, walked out into the street, and saw no one—not Antoine, not a single street vender, not a clucking chicken. No cafés were open, it seemed, so Louis plodded back up to his room, smoked a cigarette, and returned to bed.

At ten o’clock, a boot sailed through his open window and landed on his coverlet. Outside, the world was now awake—people yammered to one another, horses snorted, and wagon wheels cracked over stones. Louis started when the boot hit the bed, one lanky leg free from his bedclothes hung over the side, his sock dangled limp over his toes. His hair stuck to his forehead.

Il est temps de se réveiller!” Antoine’s voice floated up from the street.

Sortir du lit!” shouted another.

Louis listened, rubbed his eyes and flattened his mustache, then pushed the blankets out of the way and swung his feet to the floor. Grabbing the boot, he went to the window. Below, Antoine and Henri stood waving and laughing. Henri was missing a boot. He wiggled his stocking toes toward Louis who lobbed the boot back at him. It overshot and Henri jumped, but missed and ran after it.

“I thought you said you would be up early this morning, Monsieur Steams!” Antoine shook his finger up at Louis.

“I was!”

Antoine nodded his head, but crossed his arms.

“I was!” Louis repeated.

Antoine waved both hands in front of his face to dismiss the silliness and Henri rejoined him, pulling on his boot.

“Enough. Come,” Antoine said. “We haven’t got all day.”

Louis heaved a deep sigh then turned from the window. He re-dressed, combed his hair, threw water on his face, grabbed his bag, and headed down to join the Frenchmen.

Bonjour,” he said to them brushing his moustache down with his hand. They nodded, turned, and started walking. Louis ran to catch up, then equaled their tempo. It seemed that no matter how much time he spent amongst the French, he would never quite match their pace—not just their stride, but their pace of life. He could happily be either productive or lazy, but he could, apparently, never be both at the same time as they were. But no matter—he would be free and clear of most people in just a day or so, if this transaction went as he hoped. Then he would have his donkey, he would have his provisions, he would be ready to start off, and he could be left alone to wallow in his self-pity and tobacco, surviving on his wits.

The three men made their way down the main thoroughfare, turned right, then left. From la Rue de L’Abbaye, Louis absently heard a clanking bell, and as they wound their way, they seemed to be getting closer to it. It became louder and more annoying to him. Finally, they came upon a compact courtyard, and the source of the clanking. There stood an old man next to a small cart pulled by an almost smaller donkey.

Louis recognized the son of the old woman he’d been sketching the previous day.

The cart was piled with what looked like pamphlets, but upon closer examination there were also calendars, maps, tablets of paper, and so on. The man was surrounded by children. All sorts of children, from every class—thin and fat children, clean and dirty children, all of them yowling about one thing or another.

“He is, like, how do you say?” Henri turned to Louis. “Pied Piper.”

“Except with a cow bell,” Louis said. “And he doesn’t much seem to want these children following him.”

“Oh non,” joined Antoine “He hates it. Hates children. And beats his ass.”

“That ass?” Louis asked, incredulous.

The donkey was tiny, mouse colored and sweet looking, but with a jaw as resolute as Jeanne d’Arc’s as the flames touched her nose.

“She is small, but I’ve seen her pull much more than this,” Antoine continued.

“She?” Louis’s heart broke for the animal—to be beaten while one toiled was one thing, but to be beaten by such a brute who would strike a woman; that was too much.

Oui, she could run both you and your sack up and down the mountains,” Henri added.

“I’ll take her,” said Louis. He didn’t know if she could. She didn’t look like she could. But chivalry sometimes took precedence over practicality.

Antoine jerked his head toward the spectacle in the courtyard, signaling their movement into the fray.

The sea of children parted with Antoine in the lead, Henri second, and Louis last. Dirty faces looked up, some nonplussed, some annoyed, a few scared. The one that had been ringing the donkey’s bell all this time finally stopped, having found something more interesting—these three adults who dared breach their ranks.

The old man looked upon them with relief.

Comment puis-je vous servir, messieurs?

Antoine addressed the man. They spoke quietly and Louis couldn’t hear the conversation above the din of children, one of whom kept slapping him across the rear and then looking away as if innocent.

“Is he willing to part with her?” Louis asked Henri, who was closer to the discussion.

“I believe so,” Henri replied. “He wants to demonstrate her worthiness.”

“Not necessary; I’ll take her,” said Louis, turning for the fifth time hoping to catch the slapping culprit in the act. “How much?”

“He insists,” Henri said.

“Really, I’ll take her,” Louis argued, then abruptly spun to the nearest, shortest fellow. “Arrêter maintenant ou je vais vous couper la main!

The crowd became quiet and stared at Louis, even the three men. He turned his palms up to them.

“Obviously, I wouldn’t really cut off his hands, but this one, you see—”

“That is one way to get their attention,” Henri said approvingly. The old man had started unhooking the donkey from his cart and Antoine whispered into the ears of the children closest to him, who, in turn, whispered to their neighbor until word spread throughout the crowd. Most smiled and nodded, some laughed and cheered, a few—just a few—shyly sneaked away.

What happened next Louis might have paid money to see back in his Edinburgh college days. Surrel brought the little donkey around through the mass of children, who moved accordingly and lined up.

“Now,” Antoine said to Louis. “Surrel will demonstrate her strength and endurance.”

Louis made to protest, momentarily afraid of what he was about to witness, but it was too late. The old man lifted the first child in line and sat him on the donkey’s back. She responded accordingly and kicked the child off. The boy flew over the head of the animal and rolled in the dust. The children cheered, Henri laughed out loud, and Antoine smirked. Louis looked on, stunned. For no sooner was the first child stoically dusting himself off, Surrel was loading the donkey’s back with another, who soon went the way of the first. Louis noticed the first boy had actually rejoined the end of the line.

“Won’t someone get hurt?” Louis asked Antoine.

Probablement,” he replied, his eyes trailing up, then down, to watch another child fly through the air.

Surrel loaded one after another, sitting forwards, backwards, laid over sideways, boys and girls, and even a small dog, who aborted his flight mid-launch by flinging himself off to the side. The old man turned and smiled at Louis, as if to say, See? See how many she can go through?

After about ten minutes of this demonstration, the children began to grow weary and lose courage, until they had all cleared the courtyard with the exception of those poor souls who lived there, and they just disappeared into their abodes.

Surrel clapped his hands together.

Ah oui!” he exclaimed.

“You see?” said Henri. “There is no better ass for your journey.”

“What?” Louis answered. “She threw every child in the village. What do you think she will do to my gear?”

His two French friends frowned and then sauntered over to the old man, who stood holding the donkey’s bridle and petting her. They spoke to him, and as they did his face grew firm, his mouth pulling taut into an angry line that threatened to wrap around his head. Suddenly, he flattened his hand and began hitting the poor animal across the nose, yelling obscenities.

Antoine and Henri backed away, but Louis flew forward and grabbed the old man’s arm to keep him from administering one more knock.

“Stop it!” he yelled. “Stop it now, or I’ll cut off your hands!”

The old man stopped, without understanding what Louis had said. Antoine and Henri looked to the Scot, eyebrows raised, seeing that this threat, unlike the one to the children, he may have meant.

The donkey stood, her head raised and eyes closed, expecting another blow. Louis reached over and laid his hand on her brow, drawing his slender fingers down to her snout. She flinched at first, then opened her eyes and looked at him.

Combien?” Louis asked.

Soixante-cinq,” the old man replied, bemused at Louis’s sentiment for such a lowly beast.

“Sixty-five francs?”

Surrel looked at him, and added, “et un verre du brandy.”

Louis sighed. She actually cost less than what he paid for his specially made sleeping sack: eighty francs and two glasses of beer. The monetary cost was a steal, and the glass of brandy he would undoubtedly make up later down the road.

Oui,” Louis agreed and nodded his head to Surrel. He paid the old man the money, and then agreed to pay him his brandy the following morning, before Louis started out on his excursion.

After the old man removed her bell, Henri took the donkey’s reigns and started to lead her away.

“I will take her to Jacque’s and stable her there. He will make you a pad to saddle her with,” he said. “Lots of straps.”

“Wait,” Louis said and walked over to the animal, whose eyes moved about her, knowing something was happening, but not what. Louis stood in front of her and took her bridle with a hand on each side. He straightened out her head and looked at her intently.

“What is her name?” he called out to Surrel, who was counting his payment for a fourth time. “Quel est son nom?

The old man shook his head and waved the question away.

“No name,” Henri confirmed.

Louis looked at the donkey, his donkey. Her deep-chestnut eyes glimmered from her soft grey-brown fur, her eyelashes long and dark. He took her ears in his hands and ran them through his palms, soft like rabbit’s fur. She closed her eyes and lowered her head.

Modestine,” he finally said.

Henri laughed, but Louis ignored him. It was the perfect appellation for this donkey—he was embarrassed now to call this feminine equestrian spirit an “ass”—as here she was, after such a debasing, modest and without conceit. He caressed her ears once more before letting Henri lead her away and thought he felt one small fraction of his heart free itself from Fanny’s grip and fasten to that lovely little being.

Smiling, Louis shook Antoine’s hand, thanked him ten times, and then the men retired to an early lunch at le café du loup.

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2.2

FM3 (2.2)

He noticed she was a little pear-shaped, not overly so, and as she neared, she came scented of unidentifiable berries.

“I’m sorry. Hello.” Rupert’s voice rarely needed to go above the level of funeral volume.

She leaned forward to better hear him among the chattering kids and their exhausted, penitent parents.

“Hello,” he said a little louder.

She smiled and put her hand out.

“I don’t think you know my name,” she said. “I’m Leenda.”

This was the first time he’d heard her speak and he found her voice faintly irritating. He thought he could look past that and congratulated himself on being a good, tolerant person.

Rupert forgot whether or not he knew her name, decided he had known, and he felt that not telling her so constituted some kind of lie on his part. He was screwing up already. He didn’t dare shake her hand with the deluge now issuing from his palms. He took a half-step back and nodded, not merely his head, but most of his torso.

What did I just do? he asked himself. What the shit? Now his forehead beaded with sweat. He took a deep breath that he hoped wasn’t noticeable and attempted to release it in slight and gradual increments through his nose.

“I’m sorry, what?”

“Leenda.”

“Are you . . . Latina? Is that the term?” he asked, already regretting the words, getting up that morning, and also being born.

“I don’t know,” she said, puzzled. “I mean, I don’t know if that’s the word to use or not. I’m not, um, Latina? Why do you ask?”

Some kids ran between them causing Rupert to pull in his long limbs, an instinctive reflex. Linda? Is her name Linda? Had he misheard?

He said her name in his head a few times—Leeeeeenda. Was that racist? Great. I will never really know what her name is.

“I’m sorry. I have no idea. Stanley’s mentioned you,” he said. “And your work.” He added that quick to avoid looking like he and Stanley locker-room-talked about her. “Mostly your work. I mean, all of your work. Nothing about you at all.”

“Oh?”

“Yes.”

There was an awkward pause.

Rupert was not a virgin, but he preferred not to discuss it with anyone, ever. Though, his most memorable sexual experience was the first that didn’t involve just himself and his hand, but also did not involve another person either.

His first massive growth spurt coincided with puberty, so by the time of this experience, he was in a significant amount of pain—his legs, his back, his shoulders. Despite this, like all boys, he’d become fairly adept in the masturbatory arts. When he was fourteen, his father began taking him to monthly chiropractic appointments—this lasted until he was sixteen. The doctor had been a friend of his father, so before every session, Rupert would be instructed to lie face down on the electric drop-table and relax while the adults shot the shit in the office for about ten minutes or so. The first appointment was uneventful, but the second was an epiphany.

Bored, face down on the table, his face cradled in a cushioned donut and waiting for the chiropractor to return and give him his adjustment, he’d absently let his already-long arms drop and he lightly grasped the metal legs of the table. There must have been an issue with the wiring, because when he did this, two things happened—first, a mild jolt of electricity buzzed through his body, and second, it had gifted him with the most personally impressive erection he’d achieved up until that moment, all his young life. He held on and a third thing happened, the evidence of which he’d covered up as best he could when the adjustment was over and he’d gotten up to leave.

This became a monthly ritual, and his parents thought the adjustments must be helping, and Rupert so looked forward to them. In actuality, they did little to alleviate the growth pains he’d been experiencing. But when he turned sixteen, the appointments ended, despite his protests. Money had become tight. And so, he’d begun experimenting . . . .

Leenda shot her thumb over her shoulder to the glass display case from which she’d come.

“Wanna come take a look?”

Rupert wondered if Leenda had any experience with power tools.

He moved one foot in front of the other like a robot, and he cursed the white slice of his genetics, wishing his black-half instincts could kick in at moments like these, when not being a complete spastic would be evolutionarily beneficial. He tried to be cool.

“So, what are you working on over he—?”

His gaze fell to the display case—a Native American set piece, where an older, gracious-looking native is handing a pipe to a younger, grateful-looking white man. Rupert abruptly half-turned, far enough so as to not have to look straight into the scene. Leenda appeared not to notice.

“Well, it’s a scenario of acceptance. With this particular tribe, we found that there were certain rituals in place for tribal integration from another social or racial group.”

Though his stomach growled, Rupert felt like throwing up now more than ever. His body, he was sure, would find something to throw up.

“Foreign men were assigned a native mentor and went through a long period of training in order to attain full integration with the tribe.”

“And the women?” Rupert eked out so as not to come across like a complete mental wreck.

“Oh, they just let the women in. They pretty much knew they weren’t going to do anything too stupid.”

Rupert nodded, still turned, not at all looking at what she referred to and pointed at.

“Anyway, at the end, there would be this very private ceremony where the white man would be given this pipe to smoke—it’s an interesting pipe. It’s got this long stem and a kind of bulbous end into which the tobacco would go . . . .”

Rupert was miles away, some might say mildly catatonic. He knew all about this tribe, this ritual, this pipe:

He’s ten years old, sitting on the floor in front of their massive 1978 Sylvana console television set, watching PBS. Most of the things in his family’s unit are pistachio- and cream-colored and off-putting in a vague, indescribable way. It’s 1984 and everything they own is several years outdated.

The program is about “Indian” customs. His parents prepare for some kind of social gathering. Rupert doesn’t care, he is ten, he is watching a totally awesome show about Indians, and at this point he’s learned to block out the argumentative din and tune in on what he wants to hear.

At this time, the man is ready . . .

His mother screeches something about her own idiot friends from work.

. . . and his guide passes to him a special pipe . . .

His father yells that “these people are scientists”—her own peers—but that pisses her off more, so she screeches louder.

. . . it is filled with powders and herbs . . .

There’s a knock at the door, and everything is silent for a moment before his mother yells, “Rupert, get!” But he doesn’t hear. All he can hear is:

. . . specially foraged for this distinctive occasion . . .

And as the white man takes the pipe and looks gratefully to his social-spiritual guide, Rupert’s mother opens the front door and twenty boisterous people rush in, voices raised in jubilation, because, hey, it’s a party and they’ve brought Bacardi, tequila Blanco, maraschino cherries, and yesss, there’s fondu.

Rupert is surrounded by swinging, stomping feet, coat hems fwapping him in the face. Some guests notice him and either announce how “darling” he is, or question whether or not he should be in bed. The program has gone on. What happened, he has no idea, but there’s music now, a drum, the tempo of which sounds with the feet clomping around him, the chants and native singing blending in with the, “Hazel, did you bring those little wieners?” There’s a sharp needle scratch, and then, even the soothing sound of The Commodores’ “Zoom” could not help him, lost beneath the tribal tattoo from the television as he was.

He tries to escape, struggles to get up from his cross-legged position. His knees and hips and shoulders ache as he’s already begun the growth spurt that wouldn’t stop until he outgrew everyone he’d ever known and ever would know. He can’t find leverage, more people flood in, flared trousers and patent leather, plaid, plaid, and so much plaid. Too much plaid. He feels sick. He can’t move. He’s nowhere. He screams, and his mother screams back, “I told you to go to bed!” Then, he can’t breathe.

This is the scene of Rupert’s inaugural panic attack, the first of many thousands to come.

“Rupert?” Leenda leaned toward him a little, but aware and careful of his space. He saw this and a small, but noticeable piece of him crumpled. He trembled and grasped his cross-body bag. If he were lucky, he’d make it out of this without a panic attack. Since the night of The Pistachio-Plaid Party of 1984, Rupert hadn’t been able to see any kind of pipe, in particular a native relic, without his throat constricting, his heart rate elevating, and more often than not, his lungs simply forgetting how to act. Next thing he’d know, he’d be on the floor, gasping, and waiting. Waiting the long, long wait to take that urgently needed in-breath, as his face became tight and red, as his sight went TV static and his brain clouded over, and then without warning—an eternity later—his lungs kicked into gear and there’s air, there’s oxygen, and he’s crying because thank fucking God.

“Are you okay?” Leenda’s concern appeared genuine.

“Sorry. Fine,” he said, his throat tight. “I’m fine.” He took a deep breath. “Tell me . . . then what happens?”

“Well, okay. If you feel alright. I could get you a glass of water.”

Rupert shook his head and waved his hand. No, I’m fine. I think I am dying. It’s fine.

“Well, the white man who wants to enter the tribe must smoke the entire contents of the pipe, which we understand had a hallucinogenic effect, and then­­—and this sounds odd—then he must fight his mentor. If he beats his mentor, he’s welcomed into the tribe as a full-fledged member and treated as such, and the mentor himself is honored for having produced such a good tribal citizen out of the white scum who had otherwise been such a pestilence.”

“If he doesn’t win?”

“Social outcast. He can either go back to the white devils, or he can choose to stay with the tribe, but never within the tribe. Always on the outside. Not allowed to socialize, not allowed to take part in the rituals, not allowed to marry. None of that. Either way, it’d be a pretty sad life.”

Rupert nodded. He felt a little better. He realized, not since the night of The Party had he ever heard the conclusion of that documentary. And here it was, live. And lovely. Her profile was a bit off, but Leenda was in fact pretty, if you got to look directly at her, close like this, and not from down a corridor or around a corner. And if she didn’t smile.

“So what are you here for?” she asked.

“Shit.”

“Well—”

“I’m late. I think I’m late. I’m supposed to see Pyrdewy. I can’t find his damn office.”

“Ugh. Come on.”

Leenda grabbed his hand and pulled him with her as all sorts of stress chemicals fired in his brain. They jogged down one hallway, then another, turned left, turned left, turned right, and they were at the elevators, a little out of breath.

She’s more attractive out of breath, he thought and his face went red as if he’d said it out loud. Most of the time, he was as embarrassed with himself as much as he was embarrassed in front of others.

“Thank you,” he said instead.

“No problem.” Leenda pushed the button for him. “Third floor, right off the elevator, you can’t miss his door.”

The doors dinged and slid open.

“Oh hey, I’m sorry to hear about Stanley. I liked him a lot. I know you guys were friends.”

Rupert frowned as he stepped into the elevator, nodding, trying to think of a reply.

Before the door shut, he heard Leenda say: “But he’s only missing. He’ll turn up. I’ll bet you dinner.”

And she was gone. Rupert had no idea what the hell she was talking about.

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