#38


by Vernon Walter

 

I notice my right hand is anxious with the weight of my tattered notebook. Raising my left arm, I rest my hand against the cold door handle and push it downward. The door latch clacks as it glides open.

I shuffle into the room, my slippers swooshing over the carpet as the occupants of the conference room turn to observe the newest entrant. As the door closes behind me, I stop in my tracks. The murmuring voices and sideways glances of the assembled group put me a little on edge. About ten people are seated around the conference table, while a couple others lean against the mirrors acting as walls. Amid the whispers and grunts, I hastily approach my seat at the head of the table.

The gold gargoyle throne shimmers under the fluorescent light pouring from the ceiling. I arrive at the dignified chair, lift my right arm, and deposit the notebook on the table, next to a cream colored rotary telephone with no cord. It’s an oft-repeated ritual, but it always puts me in a state of awkwardness because of the eyes gazing at me. Before sitting down, I pull a pack of cigarettes and six bottles of Guinness from my cargo-pants pockets. I line the beers in a precise row, one by one, and open the fresh pack of smokes.

Plopping down in the chair, I start to slouch and the whispering stops. The assembly is delightfully fresh with new faces. I open a Guinness, take a swig, and light a cigarette. Exhaling, I clear my throat and begin to address this riff-raff.

“Ladies, gentlemen, saints and fiends, I welcome you all. I have called you to this meeting for a very important reason.”  I take a drag from my cigarette and speak with smoke rising from my mouth. “I’m in control here,” I say, pointing my right index finger around the room, “You are going to do the work for me. Slavery may be dead out there,” I point to the door that leads to reality, “but in here, you’re my property.”

Mixed reactions begin to fill the room. I resume drinking and let the statement sink in. My eyes scan the collective’s dispositions—some approve, some are uneasy. A cowboy wearing all black and leaning against the mirror wall glances at me. I nod at him and he tips his hat in subservience.

Aww…Screw You!”

“Who said that?” I shout, whipping attention back to the table.

“I did, and I’m not afraida yoo.”

The defiance is coming from a well-dressed sweaty Italian man wearing many gold rings. His face gets red, second chin starting to move like Jell-o,

“I don’t take no orders froma nobody like you! Yeah?! Do you know who I am? 

His assertiveness is empowering others to ponder my authority, but not the Cowboy. As the Mafioso stands up to keep yelling, I look over and see hand inching toward pistol, already formed into a gripping posture like a rattlesnake poised to strike. Although his face is pointing toward the ground, I see his pupils look over at me. I finish my first Guinness and open another.

“You think you a wiseguy or something, a somebody who can push me around?  Screw You!  And anotha thing, I’m not gonna—”

I shift my eyes from the Italian to the Cowboy then discretely nod. Moving but inches. The left hand of the cowboy snaps to his side and jerks the nickel-plated six-shooter from its holster. Slamming the hammer back with his thumb, he pulls the trigger and unleashes a roaring gunshot.

In an explosion of white skull fragments, red blood and gray brain matter, the back of the Italian’s head paints a crimson spackle on the mirror wall behind him as he drops down into his chair. It takes a moment before the others in the room can process the scene through their nerves and jump back or duck down. My ears ring as I catch a whiff of gun smoke.

“Any more dissenters?”  I say in a low growl. Nobody moves. The alcohol from the second beer starts to course though my veins and my nose starts to turn red. One down, many more to sort through…remains to be seen just who might have what I need.

“I’m going to ask a few of you some questions—there are no ‘right’ answers, so just be yourself. I’m interested in who you really are…”

I motion to the cowboy to approach my throne as I take a sip. He strolls over and tips his hat onto the back of his head.

“What’s your name?”

He pulls out a yellowed notebook and a crude pencil from his breast pocket and begins to scribble. He finishes and turns the paper toward my eyes.

“Walter McMurphy?”

Walter nods.

“You a mute or something?”

He shrugs.

“Open your mouth.”

Walter complies, revealing that his tongue had been cut out long ago.

“You associate with some dangerous people eh?”

He smirks and nods.

“Stick around.”

As McMurphy walks back to his resting place, I scan the table and find a few more ideas. A gnashing of teeth and the tearing of flesh bombard my left ear. Slowly, I shift my head towards the noise. Three seats from my throne, there’s a Kodiak bear savoring her meal of fresh a salmon. I lift my left hand and snap my fingers at her.

“Hey! Hey!”

She stops chewing and tilts her head to look at me.

“Do you eat people too?”

She bellows a guttural roar.

“That’s too bad…what about just a mauling?  Can you do that?”

She grunts.

“Excellent. That’s all.”

As she resumes her feast, my peripheral vision to the right discovers an albino man attempting to load a camera with a roll of film. His unsteady hands fumble with the copper colored strip then snap the casing closed. Unaware I am watching him, he lifts the camera to his face and begins to take pictures of the dead Italian with the repeating chi-clack of the shutter.

“What do you think you’re doing?”

Startled, he deftly pulls the camera from his eye and hides it under the table.

“Who, me?”

I let him sit on the hot seat for a bit as I put out my cigarette on the table and light another.

“Yeah you. Did I tell you to start taking pictures?”

“Well,” he hesitates, “n, n, no, but, but I am only doing it for you…muh - maybe they’ll come in handy luh - luh - later?”

An ambitious, stuttering albino photographer?  Interesting.

“What’s your name?”

“Yew, luh – luh – like the sheep.”

I look to the ceiling and think about his possibilities; he might actually come in handy.

“That’s enough. You’re welcome to stay.”

Sitting next to Yew is a fortyish woman in a bridal gown. I quizzically ask her.

“You a virgin?”

She blushes.

“Didn’t think so. Do I know you from somewhere?  Were you ever in some made for T.V. movie?”

Nervously she turns to look back at McMurphy. She has an all too familiar air…

“No no, he’s not going to do anything. You can leave now.”

She stands up and walks to the door. Just before exiting, she blows me a kiss. I pretend not to see it and turn my attention to a dwarf wearing a clown outfit, no face paint, and snorting from a small pile of cocaine on the conference table.

“You!”

The dwarf twitches and rubs his nostrils while looking upward. Eyes bloodshot.

“What?  Huh?”

“You cliché!” I said, angry again, “No, scratch that, you’re so far beyond cliché all I know is that I want you out of here. The sooner the better. Hear me?”

Sniffing loudly, he hops down from his chair and quickly parades himself to the door. He flips me the bird as he walks out. I down the last of my second pint and notice a big Russian with a battered and bruised face lean forward from being hidden by a quiet police officer. My stomach churns.

 “Ivan?” I question, standing up to get a better look.

He nods. The lab coat he wears has bloodstains and Chinese symbols printed on it. I can’t believe my eyes.

“Ivan,” my voice cracks as my domineering demeanor melts into one of concern. “I’m sorry about what happened…”

My voice trails off and he grimaces.

“I hate you,” he mumbles.

The rest get silent.

“I deserve that. I can’t believe you’re still alive…last time I saw you– ”

“–they were taking me away…”

Both of his arms hang limp, broken; his face is rotting way with infected cuts, his body merely skin over a skeleton…how he just reappears, not to mention that he was last seen on the fast track to an early ending. Presumed dead. My life went on; not as a guilt-free thing, but still.  The fact that I know him is making the room nervous in unison. They are beginning to fear for their own fate—even the Cowboy seems to shift his weight uncomfortably.

Ivan begins to lose color: he slowly becomes pale, then transparent and then completely disappears. There are some whispers of disbelief and some sideways glances at me. I feel compelled to say something—anything—to try and maintain some sort of control. The magic has spooked them.

“Ivan chose his own fate…” I mumble while sitting down, “Just like you’ll choose yours – I don’t make you do anything you don’t want to do…” I let out a sigh and reach for yet another beer, “but I also don’t stop you from making your own decisions…”

This seems to set them at ease, at least distance me from some sadist manipulator.

“Now…I’d like to find out which one of you should be the focus of my efforts…”

After the words have drifted out of my mouth, I decide to give them a few minutes to think it over, so I lean back into the throne and resume the inhale-exhale tango with my cigarette, mind elsewhere having a look at different places…In the midst of their contemplations, the phone smashes through glassy silence with a muscular BRRRING……BRRRING!

“Hello?”

“Hi Son.”

The female voice greets my ear. “Hi Mom…” Words slide from my mouth as all the attendees stop concentrating on themselves and shift their focus to the life I live outside of the conference room. I stand up and turn my back to them before continuing, “What’s new?”

“Well, after your Dad went through his re-training, he basically had his pick of vacation time…So, at the start of next month, we’re heading to New Orleans for a two weeks, then coming back home. Great deals on hotels after all the rebuilding. Looking forward to lots of good food and—”

“That sounds nice.” Patience is good, so I let her carry on. Long enough.

“…can you take care of Widget while we’re away?”

Ahhh,  family dog. Never fails to draw out an “Aww cute” from a sorority girl.

“Of course,” I say. It’s hard for me to hide my impatience. “But I’ve got some important work to finish…so I’ll be in touch, ok?”

“Kay—love you lots!”

“Love ya.”

I pull the cigarette to my mouth as I turn back and slam the handle back onto the base with a clang. My head tilts upward. Looking from right to left I scan the room as all the faces stare with a dash of contempt. I pretend not to notice as I open my next beer with a bit of a swagger. I wonder if it’s me or the alcohol in control of this fiasco.  

What are you looking at?” I shout at them, the smoky breath cascading out. “I’m not the center of attention here!”

Startled, they twitch and gasp at the abrupt shift in my demeanor.

“You—what’s your story?”

The police officer stands up, woozy, now with an oozing gunshot wound in his neck he didn’t have earlier, and begins to speak in blood soaked burbles.

“I…a crusade, against, drugs, crime…by any, means necessary…”

His eyes glaze over into a surreal stare as he falls backwards into his chair. Another corpse. “Well, he’s a dead end,” I muse, no chuckles in response, “but he can still be a catalyst for one of you…any criminals here?”

Silence. I let out a sigh, sit down and calm myself with more Guinness.

“How about you?”

Repeatedly opening and closing a switchblade is an overweight young Cambodian woman with an elaborate and colorful tattoo covering her neck.

“You got a story?  Somethin’ to say?” I demand, “Anything?”

“Nuthin,” she says, quickly looking away from me.

I smack my beer bottle against the table and lean forward.

“Don’t you lie to me! I know why you’re here. Speak UP!”

“Fine!” she shouts, whipping her head around to stare at me. “I’ve run with the most dangerous gangs in Los Angeles California—slinging dope, stealing cars—everything I wanted I could just take!” 

She pauses. Eyebrows shift. Voice lowers.

“Then I got pregnant, gave birth to my son, and, and I can’t do it no more—I want to, but,” she starts to choke up, “but I keep thinkin’ about my son, you know?”  She quickly wipes under her eyes with a shaking finger.

Ahhhh oh no, a sob story; even if she is a dangerous creature, this will be bad.

“So, you hate cops?” I ask with a grudge.

“Used to.”

I press her,

“Think you could ever kill one?”

“You mean like him?” she says, pointing the open knife at the corpse, her voice bitter and forceful, “Yeah. I think my friend Tran is the one who shot him in the first place.”

Where can I go from here?  One dead cop and a gangster with a young child?  Is this worth my time?  Nah,  I should lose her before I get in too deep. Lay on heavy sarcasm.

“I’ll be straight up wit’ ya—I don’t give a shit about you, or your son…so, if you would kindly get the hell out of here at top speed, I’d really appreciate it.”

Her mouth snaps into an offended sneer and she swings her arm toward me, her hand releasing the switchblade and jetting it through the air seven or eight inches above the table. It narrowly misses my ear and embeds itself in the gold with a schwap! My jaw drops as I can actually hear the handle vibrate. She propels herself onto the table with a feral scream and lunges toward me.

The Kodiak bear leaps up with a snarl and lands a devastating blow on the Cambodian’s silky black hair, crushing her skull as claws send blood spurting in every direction. She sails through the air, hits the wall and shatters the mirror, falling to the floor in a shower of shards. The bear snorts and bellows a growl, then turns around and crawls back onto her chair.

She starts to lick her paw. My heart is pounding and it takes me a moment to recover my composure, mouth moving but no words.

“It’s been a struggle,” asserts a woman’s voice completely un-phased by the recent chaos, “to get where I am today.”

“Huh?” I query, still trying to pull myself together.

The voice at the far end of the table is wearing a very expensive business suit; her hair is cut short and light reflects off her glasses. I shift my weight and finally speak coherently.

“What’s your profession?”

“I’m a trial lawyer, a defense attorney.”

I rub my chin and open a beer with my unsteady hand. She might have some interesting skeletons in her closet—perhaps some of them can be exploited. That’s the vibe. I want to know what she’s willing to do, where she draws the line.

“So,” I declare, “if my modern day outlaw over there,” I say pointing at McMurphy, “goes on a bank robbing spree in Billings Montana, then goes on trial in a Federal court for thirty one counts of first-degree murder, you’ll defend him?”

She removes her glasses. Just like on the courtroom shows that old folks like to watch. “Yes.”

“Good,” I muse, “but, we’ll need somebody to be the opposition, ehhh, the good guy—and seeing as our police officer has checked out, that position is open.” No movement. Only silence. I point at the forty-something gray haired man in a Yankees ball cap and about to start drinking a cup of coffee.

“How about you?  You look the role.”

He looks over at me, “Comment? Parles-tu à moi? Uhhhh…” then apparently gets bored and turns his face back to the coffee.

“English?”

He turns his eyes this time, still in the motion of raising his coffee to his mouth. Mid-air, the cup stops, the steam wafting around like a drunken cigarette fume. And he shakes his head sideways in a silent “No”, only moving a centimeter in either direction. Back to the coffee.

I don’t know French, other than what I’ve seen in foreign car-chase movies. Great. Nobody is volunteering, this is getting difficult. The three dozen or so other times in this strange room weren’t like this. I can’t write about the same team; balance is needed. This whole thing hinges on having some sort of conflict.

I stand up from my chair and flail my hands into the air. “Is there anybody here that can fill in the last square?! I just need one last element and everything will be taken care of! Anybody?!

No movement. No sound. I was so close, but this won’t do. Cut and run?

“Enough!” I yell-shout, “You’re all fired! Go home!

The group looks confused. My face is turning bright red.

“You’re worthless to me! There’s no fucking story here!”

The Lawyer and McMurphy seem disappointed while the rest look offended.

I lower my voice, trying to alleviate the impact of my outburst…

“Maybe I’ll see some of you again,” I say, calming myself and reaching for my notebook, lifting it off the table, “but for now, there’s just not enough…” 

I let out a sigh, “Look—I’m not going to put my ass on the line for this…” I mutter while regaining composure, “it just happens, nothing personal. I’m sure you’ll make someone else very happy one day.”

I turn to my right and swiftly make my way toward the door. My hand pushes down the latch and I pull it open so I can exit. I move quickly, embarrassed by the promising characters being thrown away…

“Hold on!” a voice says.

“Wait!” calls out another.

I reach for the handle behind while continuing forward. The door closes. Whud.

In the living room I look over to the couch where my visiting friend is watching the evening national news. He turns his head, noticing my boozy wobble and frustration.

“What’s new?” he asks.

“Nothin’…” I mumble, “…just wasted my damn time, that’s all…”

 


BIO: Vernon Walter is a compulsive writer, heavy thinker and drinker based in Texas. His natural habitat is a patio or bar where smoking is still permitted, and Bartleby Snopes is the first publication to accept his work. He is known to say uncouth observations at an inappropriate volume and enjoys the different tones people use when asking "Whatcha writing?" when he's scribbling in a pocket notebook somewhere in public. Primarily interested in "borrowing" from reality, sloshing his subjects around for a while until they ferment into fiction, Vernon also enjoys old fashioned ranting about politics, sports and other sorts of things a good Patriotic American finds engrossing. He is a bachelor and to his knowledge, has no children.