by Dean Grondo

A year ago I left the long sprawling green slopes of California's Sierra Madres, where the impossibly tall giant redwoods gather around their deep shadow wells, standing stoic vigil over the peaceful silence. I came to Chicago, trading soft golden sunrises and fresh cool breathable air for the endless gray edifices and the cloying, crushing atmosphere of the city. Honking horns, angry voices and even gunshots pierce my eardrums now. The redolent stinks of engine exhaust and human sweat cling inside my nostrils. My brain roils and bubbles in my skull, as self-hatred sits sour on my belly. I've abandoned all reason, all hope. I live in a haunted concrete burrow filled with civilized savages now. Surrounded by hot blood, chaos, and despair.

I have a keepsake from another life that sits on my bookshelf in the tiny apartment that I call home. A tapered brown cone of pine as big as a gnome’s head. Layers of dried curled petals stacked over one another, ending in a little twisted knot at the top. Staring at the improbable thing over my drink or past my book late at night, I wonder how it can be real.

The job I traded paradise for drags me out into the murk of the city each day. Onto the crowded train, amidst the sea of fidgety, sweaty bodies. I ignore the curt trite insults and inane pleasantries that swirl around me, as well as the unavoidable primate posturing. It makes me sick. All of it. All of them.

My office is on the sixteenth floor of the Bentley Building downtown. Encased in glass and steel and marble and stone, I pour five days a week over files and the computer screen. I scribble notes. My tired bloodshot eyes push through the office window, past the haze outside and they see a vision of tall magnificent trees towering over the Earth like Titans.

The days are broken up into mornings, lunch, and long dreary afternoons. My mind parcels out its energy in accordance with these etched-in-stone pigeonholes. I'm a byte, binomially blinking on and off, on and off.....

I have a secretary. Penny dresses in whore's clothes and make up, flicking her tongue as she uses her sultry voice with expert delivery. It's absolutely impossible not to think about what lay beneath the straplessness and the silk and taffeta and lace. I'm in a gray cage, buried underneath tons of stone. It's impossible not to notice the color and the hot ocean of skin as it surges past.

One afternoon I call Penny into my office. She slithers in, flicking her tongue. "What do you need, Donny?" Her voice carries a hint of sheer innocence.

My name has never been Donny. Not as a child, nor ever. Penny adopted it somehow, sensing my lack of authority early on. I don't even mind anymore. "Can you find out if we're meeting with Mr. Hodges this afternoon," I ask, trying not to look at her half-revealed bosom.

Leaning over my desk, Penny sets her daily trap and of course my eyes fall into it. The sight is so stirring that I nearly miss her answer. "I'm sorry." Penny goes into a pout. "I forgot to tell you." Her shoulders heave with a sigh and the round fleshy breasts jiggle their dance. "Mr. Paulson called and said they've pushed the meeting back until early next week."

I pick up a folder from my desk and hold it up, covering Penny's impropriety. "Get this to Al Stoper, will you?"

Long blue fingernails curl around the file, brushing my fingers. "Do you want me to call him." A long pink tongue licks Penny's lips. "Mr. Paulson. Do you want to talk to him?"

"No." I smile wanly. "Thank you."

"All right." Penny steps back. "I'll get this to Al right away."

"Thank you."

"Let me know if there's anything else you need, Donny." Penny gives me that anything at all look and wiggles out of the room.

I let out a deep breath. The air over my desk is heavy with perfume and despite my prudishness, I revel in its sweet taste.

The phone catches my eye. No, I won't call Paulson or Hodges or Sam Brinkman, the man that convinced me to come to Chicago. They are all expert talkers and I'm not. Any conversation I had with them would leave me drained and shaken and exhausted. I focus on the computer on my desk instead.

I'm a research analyst. That could be anything from statistical agricultural surveys in the beautiful state of California to compiling information concerning geodesic satellite usage over America. My computer is full of information about something altogether different than either of these. The endless scrolls of facts and figures involve commercial shipping tonnages across the Atlantic Ocean. I'm sure my work will be used to plan harbor maintenance and investment, although no one's told me that it will ever be used at all.

I came to Chicago to work on a project involving the decreasing animal habitats in the Arctic Circle. Bentley Worldwide hired me to comply with federal regulations concerning their oil interests in Alaska. Each month or so, I manage to scrounge a meeting with my two bosses and they explain the complicated machinations of corporate scheduling and budgets and all sorts of things that they know are going to wear me down. I stare silently and smile wanly, thanking them every time we meet, promising to be patient.

For six months Sam Brinkman courted my skills. Eventually I broke down. Not money, prestige, nor a promising career would sway me though. It was pride that sealed my fate. What damage Man had wrought to the global environment, men like myself would heal.

As I stare over the smog-filled city I sometimes wonder just why it was so important for Bentley Worldwide to have four hundred and seventy-two analysts instead of four hundred and seventy-one. It's as if a cult of pale, unimaginative lemurs had sucked me into its ranks and adorned me in a uniform comprised of starched white shirt, silk tie, dark suit. They would never let me go.

They are people in the city of Chicago worth knowing. This came as a surprise, but I've met some since I've come to this madhouse. I huddle close with them and share dreams and sweet wine, cherishing these few drops of sun that percolate through the murk.

I share the dream with my new friends that one day I'll be free again. All thoughts of polar bears and walrus migration have become ideals for men much stronger than me. Saving the world has dimmed into insignificance. I only want to save myself. I look out the window from my gilded prison and stare over the horizon, seeing tall, wondrous Titans reaching up to the sky.

BIO: Dean Grondo is a professional gambler who hangs his hat in New Orleans, Chicago, and Las Vegas. His stories and non fiction articles are published in nondescript magazines around the world. His favorite genres are serial killer thrillers, children's stories, science fiction, and human interest articles about social injustice.