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Friday, June 05, 2020

Snapshots from ISTE Island

Hey, all,

Looking forward to the upcoming ISTE VEN Reunion in Second Life, I dug into my bloated SL inventory and struck paydirt in the form of snapshots auto-named for the location and coordinates where they were taken. It was a quick search for "iste island" and it yielded enough snapshots for what you'll see here, if you have the patience to view a 5+ minute video comprised of them. The video and music is courtesy of my Screencast-o-matic Pro account, filmed from my desktop whilst standing in front of the images displaying in an image viewer object (Multi-photo Display, Sold by Iain Maltz Visit The Store) at the new Virtual Environments Network homeplace, now viewable there. Many of the pics were taken for my long-running blog, "Oh, Virtual Learning," which ended years ago but is still available at Blogspot.  I suggest you go all full screen with it! I hope you enjoy:

Thursday, June 04, 2020

The Tail

The Tail

by Scott Gardner Merrick

Ben FranklinMy tail had been wagging me for 'way too long. I didn't know it, but I was about to decide to do a little wagging myself. A lost-and-found envelope -- lost by someone and found by me, late one night in corporate restaurant hell -- turned the tables (so to speak) for me.

You know that old saw about "the tail wagging the dog." It has to do with priorities, things getting out of whack, the wrong things becoming the important things until the really important things don't have any claim to attention. That is the shape I was in. How did I get that way?

Maybe it all had more to do than I had been willing to admit with my need to gain approval in the eyes of my two fathers-in-law. Yes. Certainly. After all, I had been pretty happy and pretty darned successful as a bartender. Lord knows that the money had been better: and it had been cash, mostly.

I remember one of the years I bartended for the local liquor distributor's annual Christmas party, held solely for the city's restaurant employees. The food and beverage were free, and of course that meant beaucoup free liquor. People were piled up like sardines in a can in front of the four portable bars, waving the bills they intended to stuff in the tip-bucket, screaming out drink orders and brandishing empty plastic cups. Five bartenders' hands were flying from bottle to bottle and the accomplished free-pourers among us were flashing style like Teflon-coated lightning.

I walked into my little duplex apartment that night with three bottles of premium liquor--grateful courtesy of the party's organizers--and somewhere around seven hundred and fifty dollars cash money. I remember groaning as I declared the full amount on my weekly paycheck at my regular job. I was unimpeachably honest as a bartender, one reason I was able to find and keep good jobs. My high principles were a source of pride to me, and they served me well.

I have to confess that I emptied my pockets (and the crumpled brown paper grocery bag I had ferreted away tips in as the night progressed) onto my shag carpet in the living room, took off my clothes, and rolled in money that night.

No, not every night was that lucrative. But the fact remains that my average income as a bartender was high enough, especially considering the relative levels of stress, that you might call me stupid to ever have left it. It was love got in the way.

Like I mentioned, I had a couple of prospective fathers-in-law to deal with. My wife's parents had divorced when she was little, and both had remarried, so that she grew up with two sets of parents. The resulting complications, both positive and negative, are obvious, and not unusual in today's schema. It was a new thing for me, though, and now that I had announced my intention to marry her, I was faced with the justifiably intense scrutiny of not two, but four sets of protective parental eyes.

My future step-father-in-law had threatened (and we had no reason to suspect it was an idle threat) to disown his stepdaughter.

My prospective father-in-law was a little more sympathetic, but clearly had his own doubts about his daughter marrying a bartender. Both prospective mothers-in-law, perhaps shocked out of their normally strong personalities by the prospect of losing their little girl, expressed mild support for both camps. We agreed to wait a year and try this marriage thing again. Meanwhile, in a ceremony witnessed only by our Himalayan, Earl Scruggs (who served his duty mainly by tongue-cleaning his sable-tipped left front paw), we exchanged the simple gold wedding bands we had already bought, and declared ourselves married. My wife was my wife. I was her husband. I went back to my job as head barman at a private North Miami Beach Tennis Club and told everyone I had gotten married over the weekend, and Deanne did the same at her job at a wholesale flower import company.

Somehow, scant weeks later, I accepted the job of Assistant Manager at the Tennis Club restaurant. I frankly don't remember how. Retrospection can't be trusted: It makes everything look immeasurably more logical than it was. In any event, that acceptance was the first step along the path of several years that led to my job as First Assistant Manager at a Crazy Magnolia's location in Nashville, not a mile away from the half million dollar home in which we now reside.

To return to the night in question.

I had just finished my sixth straight close. That is a shift, for those who are unacquainted with the dialect of the restaurant manager/slave, which lasts from one o'clock in the afternoon until between three and five o'clock in the morning. Exactly when you may leave depends on how busy you are, how good you are, how good your people are, how tired you are, and most of all, how lucky you are. We had been very busy, I considered myself pretty good, most of my staff were spot-on servers, bartenders, barbacks, cooks, and such; but I was kind of tired, not tracking to be out much before the mockingbirds started going wild in the parking lot trees. Lucky? Read on.

Part of my exhaustion was purely emotional: one of my first duties that shift had been to terminate an employee. She had been caught in a serious infraction of checkout procedure, her second of the same sort. We, as a management team, had no other option but to fire her. Even the appearance of dishonest intentions could plant ugly seeds in the minds of the other employees, and tolerance of repeated violations certainly could not be allowed.

"But Bobby-baby, I just forgot," she had pleaded. She was a pretty young red-haired girl with a vivacious personality and a smile that always made me think impure thoughts. I knew I would miss her, both personally and as an asset to the restaurant.

"I'm sorry, Chrissie," I said, with uncharacteristic formality. I did not smile. "There is no further need for discussion. As I said once, and do not intend to say again, your services are no longer required at Crazy Magnolia's. You are no longer an employee of this company. You may pick up your final paycheck a week from Friday after three p.m. Please return your aprons then. Please leave the building now." She left crying.

I hated firing people, but I had a reputation for doing it well. Surgically. There may be some tears shed on the way out, but my "terms" never led to nasty shouting matches.

To compound matters further, the shift had been frantic. I felt, as I often did, that I had spent the whole night running around putting out raging forest fires with a toy squirt gun. Finally, this true bitch of an evening was drawing to a close. I led the last kitchen dawg through the silent restaurant to the front foyer. "'Night, Junior," I croaked. My voice was a little raw. I had been training a class of new servers all week, talking almost non-stop for two hours a day, and it was showing.

"G'night, boss," Junior replied. His dark eyes smiled, something behind them. I thought nothing of it at the time: Junior always had something behind his eyes. I knew he was at least as tired as I was because I knew from painful personal experience how exhausted eight hours at the grill station could make a man. And I knew he had seven children at home and a wife who sometimes came at him with a kitchen knife. As always, his kitchen whites were selectively smeared with grill grease (grill cooks as experienced as Junior could be spotted by a neat consistency of their hand-wipe tracks. Whenever I cooked grill my clothes would end up just looking sloppy) and one of his stiff black high-topped boots flapped at the sole.

He clutched his requisite dark burgundy Crazy Magnolia's ball-cap loosely in one hand and reached for his car keys with the other. As I fumbled with the ancient door lock mechanisms, he limped away through the darkened parking lot toward its far end, passing my car on the way. (I was permitted to park as close as I could. All the other employees had to hike from out past the yellow line that was emblazoned on the asphalt.) I thought I saw him barely, slowly, shaking his sweat-soaked head from side to side.

I double-checked the doors to make sure the world was locked out. Only two weeks before we had been robbed at closing, by a gang of kids with guns. One kitchen worker, a prep cook, had been shot in the leg and an escaping server had been shot at and missed. The manager and two cooks had been locked in the walk-in cooler until the police arrived. Thanks to the server, and the Metro Police, the bad kids were captured and the freezing folks in the walk-in were released before frostbite set in. At least they wouldn't have starved to death.

On the way back to the office, I veered up into the raised smoking section to check the floors. It's amazing, the number of people a restaurant manager is paid to distrust, and the pity of it is how often that distrust proves warranted. The long-time server who had closed the smoking section had skated on his floor sweeping. I made a mental note to check him out more thoroughly tomorrow night before letting him clock out.

Back by the bar, I ran my hand down the ancient circuit breaker boxes (there were three of them) to kill the lights in the restaurant, leaving only the office and kitchen lights. I still had to do a final walk-through of the kitchen, which I had let go tonight because Junior was closing, and I knew that Junior wouldn't leave anything that I would have to spend any amount of time cleaning. I trusted Junior. Junior was good.

On the way back to the kitchen, I swung over to the dimly lit main register terminal and turned its key to manager mode, keying in the sequence which would set its computer off and running toward closing out. It would take about eleven minutes for this sequence to run, so I headed through the kitchen to the john.

I had to take a leak.

The kitchen was sparkling. Junior was so good. I glanced at the fryers. We would have to be sure to test the number 2 grease in the morning. I would leave a note in the manager's log. And that damned door on the line cooler was hanging askew again. A call to the stainless man, another note for the red book.

God, did I have to take a leak. The dozen cups of coffee I had consumed during the shift were doing at least that part of their work well.

I pushed through the swinging kitchen door into the darkened public hallway, opening it slowly from a habit cultivated so as not to cold-cock some surrying server entering from the other side. There was a gray film over the door's glass window to keep  bathroom-bound guests from seeing the absolutely devastated condition the kitchen reached with each busy shift. It is a condition common to most commercial kitchens--things happen so fast--but that doesn't mean we wanted anyone to see it just before they received their Chicken Chimichimi's or Double-stuffed Potato Skins.

Of course, no one was there. And there was not a sound, except for the quietly cacophonous humming and whirring of the various coolers and freezers, and the little "whack, whack, whack" of the ceiling fan over table forty-three.

There is something positively scary about a commercial restaurant after the lights go out. It's like a big old beast that wants so bad to sigh but cannot because it doesn't know how.

I crossed the tiny hallway into the men's room, propping the door open with one of the two spare chairs we stored here. There was no light in the bathroom, so I had to make do with the low wash from the bar lights at the edge of the hallway.

I unzipped my fly and groaned a little. God, did I have to go. I approached the urinal and let loose. Heavy sigh.

My eyes became accustomed to the low level of light. That's when I saw the envelope.

It was on the floor underneath the Formica countertop.

One might expect to see a wadded-up paper towel there. Or a cigarette butt. But not a neat, crisp-looking, fat, brown manila envelope.

It took another minute before I could get to it. More important matters were at hand.

I picked it up, only to find that it was sealed.

I carried it to the office, first cruising by the register terminal to key in the code sequence which would begin the next stage of its closing process.

In the office, I turned the sealed envelope over and over. I don't know who I was fooling: Of course, I would open it.

I opened it.

It was full of brand new hundred-dollar bills. As it turned out, four hundred and fifty of them.

Of course, I agonized. For the next three minutes, worlds of tortured postulation whirled through my mind: what if it were drug money and the Mob would never give me a moment's rest as long as I lived? What if it were a gambling pay-off and Vinnie the Shark (surely there's a Vinnie the Shark somewhere in Music City) would feed my fingers to me one by one as a lesson about opening other people's mail? What if it were the cash bribe to a Central American dictatorship from Feed the Children? What if it were a donation to Feed the Children? The face of Benjamin looked disappointedly  judgmental. I returned the cash to the envelope and set it carefully upon the top of the neat pile of paperwork that still stood between me and home, and my bed.

I looked up. In the doorway of the office stood a large black man with a gigantic black-barreled pistol. He wore a navy surplus ski mask, but that didn't fool me at all. How the hell had he gotten in? Ah, the back door. I had been so intent on the john that I had failed to double-check that one.

"Junior," I expelled the word like a sigh, "goddamn it, Junior, please, for chrissake, don't scare me like that."

The individual in the doorway jerked the gun in a way I did not perceive as friendly. "I am not Junior, motherfucker," he growled, pulling off the knit mask. "I am Francis Lamont Miller. The Third. And I am so damned tired of sweating for you assholes that I am here to rob this hell hole and get the fuck out from under your  tyrannical motherfucking rule."

He wiped his brow with the back of the hand not holding the pistol, "And I might just kill your bogus ass while I'm doing it."

I did not look at the envelope on the desk. I only looked into his eyes. But I knew that though the envelope was not sealed, its flap was tucked neatly into the rest of it: it just looked like another stack of paperwork, piled on the top of the desk with all the other check-out stuff.

"Hey," I began...

"Shut the fuck up, Robert. Just shut up." He literally growled it.

I could see him looking past me to the open door of the safe. I shifted gears almost without thinking about it. I looked away from his eyes, at my hands, raised up in the air. There was no decision to be made. I sighed. My eyes again met his.

"I'll help you," I said, quietly, “I hate the bastards, too. May I?” He nodded slightly. I slowly lowered my hands, reaching toward the couple thousand dollars in the safe. I was feeling lucky.

copyright 1997 by Scott Merrick, rev. May, 2020, all rights reserved


Friday, May 29, 2020


Hello, y'all. Been doing some fishing. Literally, of course, at Marrowbone Lake just north of Chez Merrique in The Nations. But also figuratively, casting out onto the Internetz, the Cloud, all around, and into a couple of liquor boxes where I stash my decades of prose, poetry, and foolishness. I found:


               by Scott Gardner Merrick

It was Wednesday night, June 25th. Alan Hargrove and Bruce 
Davney were taking a leisurely dinner by the water at Sunday's, up in North Miami Beach. It was a rare occasion for Alan: he very seldom dined with potential business associates. It was not his style.

But he and Bruce were old friends, of the sort who can go for years without thinking of one another and then bump into each other and find themselves as familiar as ever. Besides, Bruce didn't know that he was a potential business associate.

Alan's wife, Bernice, was off chasing the final chapters of her latest harlequin novel somewhere in California. The Key Biscayne mansion was empty, except for Maria, the ethereal maid, whose presence Alan was prone to acknowledge in much the way that he might acknowledge a telephone or a clock. She performed a valuable role: she made his life easier and more orderly; but her presence contributed nothing toward making his huge home feel less lonely.

Not that it didn't feel lonely when Bernice was home: Some time within the past year, Alan and Bernice had settled into a terse relationship which could best be described as "peaceful co-existence." The worst part of it all? Alan didn't seem to care.

But this night, Alan didn't want to be alone. Not tonight. The whole day had been just a little off-balance, "a quarter-bubble off plumb," his old man would have said. His father was part of it, Alan knew. His dad had passed away five years ago on June 25th, and in the intervening years Alan had turned the date into something of an "unholiday." Every year, he worked very, very hard at pretending that June 25th didn't mean much.

To compound the day's confusion, the air-conditioning at the office had been acting weird all day. For an hour the room temperature would be chafingly cold; then the climate control would take a break for an hour or two, allowing the temperature and humidity in the otherwise elegant high-rise offices to climb to unbearable levels. Then the air conditioning would shift into high gear again, and all the perspiration that his body had manufactured during the "sweltering phase" would mercilessly chill the richly tailored cotton clothes which clung to his skin, making him feel encased in them, trapped.

His cat had responded to the temperature changes by bouncing off walls during the cold spells and then reclining exhausted, his little pink tongue hanging out of his mouth, panting in the heat, sprawled atop Alan's ebony desk.

Finally, Alan had texted the vet to have Earl Scruggs picked up and carted away to be boarded overnight. Earl's presence in Alan's office played an important role maintaining his slightly offbeat image in a world in which every advantage is a crucial one. It wouldn't do to find him dead in the office tomorrow.

Midmorning, Sam McMillan in New York tendered his resignation as head of the corporation's holding company for a group of New England television stations. He had given no prior indications of his intention to bolt; and fully half of the rest of Alan's day was spent in conference calls, choosing an interim successor.

The other half of the day had flown by in the usual frenzied, scatter-bomb flurry of decision-making activity. By the end of it, an uncharacteristically harried Alan Hargrove knew that he would spend the first two hours of tomorrow frantically trying to absorb and turn to his advantage the ramifications of not a few of the decisions he had made today.

He was tired. But when his thrice-postponed get-together with Bruce came up for a fourth rescheduling, he decided that he could mix this particular business with a little recreation. He personally called to invite Bruce to dinner, offering him his choice of restaurants.

"Sunday's" it was, and here they sat.

The Reggae band was moseying off the bandstand.

The patio bar at Sunday's takes up half the long narrow floor-space from the wall of the building to the edge of the seawall. The two men occupied a high table by the water's edge. Alan was the older: he had bright gray, immaculately-styled hair and a full, gray mustache. He was dressed elegantly but casually in fresh white cotton pleated baggies and a white linen jacket. The collar of his pale blue silk shirt was open to the light breeze.

The younger man, Bruce, was a stocky, jovial, clean-shaven, frizzy-haired brunette. He wore a tailored navy blue suit, and he still wore his conservative tie, pulled loose at his open collar.

Their table was too small for their dinners, but that minor inconvenience seemed to bother neither man. (The tables opposite the bar were really meant for the placement of tropical drinks, not the service of full meals.) They just jammed their crab legs all into one basket and nestled the empty one under the other.

As Bruce tossed the final empty claw into the basket, the last pink traces of a spectacular sunset were fading into twilight out across the Intracoastal Waterway. A tiny speck of yellow flame (the remnants of a cooking fire over in Oleta State Park?) teased its skinny reflection over the calm waters.

The quiet was undermined, slowly, then completely shattered by the approach and passing of a massive speedboat. When its ragged fury had subsided, Bruce remarked, "Those frigging Cigarettes shouldn't be allowed out on the inner passage."

"Really," agreed Alan, absentmindedly.

"I'd sure like to have one though."

"I guess."

"I'd probably drive the thing right through your living room."


Bruce leaned in toward his companion and spoke as if to a child, "Alan, Alan,'re time-traveling again; come back, come back. Oh no," his voice got smaller and farther away, "Auntie Em, Auntie Em, is that you? I can't hear you, you're so far away, away, away." His normally gruff voice waxed tinier and tinier.

There was still no response from Alan, and Bruce gave up. The corporate mogul was staring off into the crowd. The younger man peered off in that general direction, trying to see what it was that had captured his host's attention. A few seconds after a lovely cocktail waitress--who was working a station of tables near the bandstand--disappeared into the interior of the restaurant, Alan looked at Bruce as if only an instant had passed since he had last spoken.


The blue-suited man smiled, "She is a pretty one, I'd have to agree." He tipped up the last red swallow of his Rum Runner and set the plastic cup inside its empty predecessor. He pulled off his company blue tie and took a moment to roll it neatly before placing it in his jacket pocket.

"Who," said Alan.

"Ah, a man of few words. Is that how you got where you are?"

Alan smiled, "And where is it that I am? Stuck out on a fishy-smelling remodeled wharf with a cocky young off-duty technology executive, drinking underpowered fru-fru drinks and belching the last of an, okay, admittedly decent dinner. That's some accomplishment."

"Oh no, oh no. Good try but no banana, Top Banana. No changee subjecto: tell me what it is that you see in that shapely blonde with the three buns."

"I know not whereof you speak." Alan finished his own drink and motioned to their waitress, a slightly undernourished redhead with an endearing smile. After the formalities of paying the check, the two were standing up and stretching their legs and preparing to walk out the door when the rustle of a brush across a snare drum declared that the Reggae band had not been taking a break: they were done for the night, and the stage now held a tidy little jazz quartet. Lights dimmed, and the mood of the place shifted from raucous to mellow.

"Do you have anywhere to be?" asked Alan.

"Not really, unless you count crawling into bed with my delicious bride of six weeks and continuing my research into the probable basis for the Kama Sutra. Of course I have somewhere to be, you dope. Rita will have me Bonny Johnny on a shingle if I don't walk through the kitchen door in a relatively sober condition in," he consulted his wristwatch, "just under twenty-five minutes." "How about just one more drink with a potential employer." It was not a question.

"Huh? Damnit, Alan, you do have a flair for timing, don't you? What the hell are you babbling about now?"

"Come sit with me for ten minutes and one drink and I'll tell you," smiled Alan. "It won't cost you anything, except maybe a little sleep, and then I promise that I won't even suggest the possibility of another drink or another minute. You'll be home with your lovely wife in time for "The Cosby Show."

He led the way to a table near the bandstand.

Within seconds, the blonde waitress was asking them what they would care to drink. Bruce sat there and watched something change in Alan's demeanor, in the way he sat, or was it the way he spoke? The older man seemed to be sitting a little straighter, which was a feat, since Bruce knew no other man who stood or walked, or sat, with such unselfconsciously upright and balanced posture. And Alan's speech seemed laced with some kind of unnatural tonality. Pleasant, it was, but almost too controlled. Almost too pure.

What was happening, Bruce wondered. The very air surrounding the table seemed to have become charged with electricity. As quickly as the moment was noticed, it passed. Alan and Bruce were just two businessmen, seated too near the band--even if it was a quiet sax, a stand-up bass, a piano and drums--for the conversation that ensued.

Alan came right to his point, declaring over the music, "I want you to head my Southern Corp Data Manipulation Operation, Bruce." His bright green eyes fixed upon the younger man, and then wandered back toward the band, as if nothing important had been said.

Stunned, Bruce studied him. How can this man hold such power over people, he mused. Alan's right hand moved up to his thick gray moustache, and he straightened the right side of it away from the edge of his mouth. He glanced back at Bruce and smiled, "I'll pay you twice what you're making at IBM and I'll move you into a Corporate condo, South Beach, Biscayne, the Grove: you name it. Hell, Bruce, Rita'd be bored in Boca inside of a year, anyway." It was his turn to lean toward his companion. "You'd be a fool not to take the job." His right forefinger tapped the tabletop, once, twice.

The drinks came: two "Miami Vice." The slushy red swirl of the Rum Runner was layered into the creamy white Pia Colada.

Neither man's attention faltered, despite the fact that the beautiful girl knelt down after she delivered the cocktails, to ask if she could get them anything else. The question never left her lips, perhaps because she was an unnaturally sensitive young lady.

What she saw was this: an intensely agitated, though admittedly handsome, middle-aged man in white with an extravagant gray moustache drilling with his own eyes two little holes into the eyes of a brown-haired executive type in a blue suit. She stood up and backed slightly off, feeling uneasy, but sensing that she was doing the right thing. Her gaze lingered upon the older man as she did so. What would it feel like to fall under the beam of those steel-gray eyes?

"Just say `Yes,'" stage-whispered Alan.

"My God, Alan," said Bruce, nearly shouting, after an awkward moment in which he could not organize his thoughts. "You can't expect me to answer you right now, you son of a bitch! I have a life, for God's sake. I have seven years in the company, I have a new wife, I have a condo mortgage and a pension plan, and a dog, for Christ's sake, a fucking dog! You offer me twice the pay, old pal, but there's a lot more to consider than that." He sat back into his chair and glared at his drink. Suddenly the band was much too loud and he felt the beginnings of a nasty headache.

"Listen, Alan," he said, "I don't want this drink and I can't give you an answer. I hope you understand that I don't mean to demean the flattering implications of your proposal, but..." he sat back up, "can we just get out of here?"

Alan threw back his head and laughed. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a small ring of only two keys with a tiny horseshoe attached to it. He tossed them toward Bruce. They landed with a muffled clatter on the table.

"Here," he said flatly, "take the Jaguar." When Bruce made no move toward them, he reached for the keys with one hand and his companion's hand with the other, and placed the keys in the younger man's hand. "I don't want to make your decision difficult, Bruce. I respect completely you or I never would have made you an offer like this one," he added, "will end up being." It was his turn to settle back into his wicker chair. A slight but genuine smile stole over his face, cutting neat little dimples into his smoothly shaven cheeks. "But, hey. If you call me before noon tomorrow with an affirmative response, like, keep the Jag."

Bruce stared at the keys in his hand, then set them quietly on the table top. "I'll take a cab, pal," Bruce said. "But if I do decide by noon I'll hold you to the amendment." He stood up and slapped Alan on the back, a little too hard, as he was leaving. Alan sat there, basking in the smooth, round music from the quartet, smiling, sipping his Miami Vice.

By the time he finished the first one, the band had completed its first set. The world at Sunday's hovered momentarily in a pleasant limbo between live music and the house tape player. He smelled cocoa butter.

He heard a soft feminine voice say, "Excuse me, sir."

Turning, he felt his world change again.

He heard her speak magic words, "Mr. Hargrove?"

Her pale fair skin glowed soft pink in the subdued light, so that she seemed to be blushing all over; he would discover later that the effect was mostly due to a mild sunburn. Still, the rosy tip of her nose was unbearably cute. Her full, expressive lips formed a small smile.

He was at a complete loss for words.

"Um," she continued, "you have a phone call, sir. Would you like for me to bring over the remote phone?"

"Yes. Please," he managed to reply.

He must have been staring goofily, because the girl allowed a hint of an upturned curl to qualify her polite smile, as if she might be saying to herself, oh, brother. She turned and walked back toward the bar.

Her walk was the most sensual thing Alan had ever witnessed.

It was not lewd, or calculatedly sexual: the waitress simply moved like a cat wanting to rub up against a leg. Her dark blue satin shorts flattered her soft curves, and her long shapely legs seemed to caress each other lightly as they carried her away from the table. He could see now that her golden hair was really quite long; piled up on the back of her head, not in a "bun," as Alan had judged, but loosely, recklessly, so that renegade wisps of it betrayed its length.

She stood on tiptoes at the bar to retrieve the receiver from the charge-cradle on the shelf beside the service bar. Her shorts rode up slightly and he glimpsed an edge of the pale skin where her bikini bottom must live when she sunbathed. He felt a tingling down between his legs. He smiled to himself and looked away. Easy, boy, he thought to himself.

"Here you are, sir." There. The scent of cocoa-butter again. Her voice was like the ringing of soft bells. He never did this. He was never like this. This was not him. He felt himself losing control, and he told himself to regain it.

"Thank you. You're incredibly beautiful. Will you have a drink with me after you finish work?"

Alan had no idea that he was going to say that, and the only one taken more by surprise by it was the waitress. She did blush now; and--there it was again--that tiny trace of amusement stole into her expression again. This time it was accompanied by a crinkling of the eyebrows.

She decided. She smiled broadly, "Maybe. Here's your phone call," and she was gone.

He hit the "talk" button on the telephone, not believing himself.

"Hello, this is Alan."

"Alan," he heard, "this is Bruce. I want to apologize for my abrupt departure. And to tell you how flattered I really am by your offer."

"I didn't make it to flatter you, old friend. Listen. I'm well aware that many people might assume that a close business relationship like the one I suggested could ruin a friendship. But if you want, I can write a self-destruct clause into your contract: the first breath of weirdness and a juicy severance check floats from the ceiling of your office down into your 'in' basket. Bruce. I know the personal risk, here. I just need someone I can trust. Do I have to beg? I'm begging...pleeease, Massa Bruce, suh, pleeeease take my money..."

"Stop groveling, Mr. Hargrove, sir, I'll take your money. But I'd rather have a nice little Lexus than that ostentatious Jaguar you offered me. Navy blue, for old time's sake. Loaded. Now, go home to your castle. I'll call you at the office around two tomorrow. Jesus, do I have some talking to do. Do me another favor, please, Alan. Keep this under wraps until I can cleanly release from my IBM commitment?"

"Okay, but don't keep me hanging long, all right?"

"I'll have a priority schedule for you by the afternoon tomorrow when I call. Promise."

"Good. Night, pal. And, hey, thanks."

"Thank you, Alan. And I mean it. Hey. Go home. You don't get enough practice drinking in public to be out this late. You're okay, aren't you?"

"Yeah. I haven't even started this slushy pink and white mess you left on the table when you stalked off," he lied. "Probably won't, even."

"Good. Night." Click. Dial tone.

Alan switched off the telephone and set it down on the table beside him. What was he going to do? He couldn't stay around here for four hours waiting for a cocktail waitress. He had to think.

"Would you like a fresh drink, Mr. Hargrove? That one looks like it's seen better days."

He looked up at her. His former resolve was nowhere to be found. "Alan," he said. "My name's Alan. What's yours?"

She smiled and the blood flowed out of his legs through his toes.

"Candace. Candace Collins."

Candace smiled and reached past him to retrieve the telephone. The heat from her body stole through her white t-shirt, warming the skin of his right forearm, a gentle burn. She lingered, it seemed to him, a fraction of a second longer than the task required. They had not yet touched, but when she straightened back up, her left hand settled to rest weightlessly upon his right shoulder, like a small bird settling from flight. She spoke.

"Listen, Mr., um, Alan, I mean. I'm first off tonight, but even at that, it could be a couple of hours before I'm free. Would you rather make it another night?"

What was this electricity all about? Why was the air once again charged with dazzling, dancing fields of energy?

"No," he spoke his decision before he was aware of making it. "No, I'll wait. There's nowhere I have to be for a while. I'll just have a beer and listen to the band. They're really quite good, aren't they," he added.

She removed her hand from his shoulder and smiled brightly, as if pleased with his decision. "Yes," she said. "What kind of beer do you want?"

For the next few hours, Alan nursed two draft  Guinness and listened to the saxophone telling him that he was making a big mistake, but one that he wouldn't regret, because (the sax sang to him) there is no mistaking powerful attraction, and attraction may be the first tentative clue that something else more important exists, beyond the distances, between two strangers. It's late but the night is young, whispered the music.

At some point--it seemed as though he had been waiting for ten hours--she sat down beside him. Her knee unselfconsciously touched his, and it seemed to him that at the point of contact something drastically important was going on. He was amazed. He hadn't felt like this since...since when? Since Bernice in Palo Alto? Had it been that long, over fifteen years since he had let himself experience the mystery of wanting someone else? Really, mindlessly, wanting? It seemed hardly possible, yet there it was.

Now he found himself overwhelmed by such a heightened sensitivity that the touching of hands was elevated to an act of lovemaking. His was the rarified state of being that is natural only to adolescents or to people impossibly, deeply, freshly in love.

"I have to tell you something," Candace was saying. He snapped out of his reverie. It seemed that long minutes had passed, but she had only just sat down.

"I have to tell you that I just noticed your ring and that I don't go out with married men."

His ring. A simple, thin gold band.

He lied again. (How could he have done otherwise?) "I have to tell you that I only wear this out of habit. My wife and I have been separated for six months." It was only a half-lie, albeit an intentional, calculated one, "She's out in California." There. Truth, that much of it, carefully placed to substantiate the lie.

The girl positively glowed with the raw brilliance of unspoiled youth. Most important, she was guileless enough to accept his story. "Whew," she beamed, "that was a close one. Do me a favor? Break the habit. Will you take it off?"

Is this how easy it is, he thought, slipping the ring off his finger and dropping it into his inside jacket pocket, to shed a decade and a half of attachment? He rubbed his ring finger with his thumb. It felt naked, but in some subtle way he liked the feeling.

"Will you take me somewhere else for that drink?" Candace leaned toward him, and he inhaled her clean fresh breath. She did not smoke, he noted. He almost fainted from her nearness.

They made it out of the restaurant, passing into it from the pier side and then out through the double front stain-glass doors. They reached the Jag. He unlocked her door. There was a warm breeze whipping around them, and she turned to him, lifting her face up to his, touching, slowly, her full lips to his. Their arms wrapped around one another until they were embraced tightly all up and down the length of their bodies, kissing deeply, drinking one another.

Once they had separated, only by fraction of an inch, “I knew we would fit,” she sighed.

There is absolutely no explanation for why two such complete strangers should so quickly become lovers.

copyright 1997 by Scott Merrick: the novel’s working title is The Web. Inquire within.


Sunday, May 17, 2020



by Scott Gardner Merrick 

I wear these navy slacks I found behind O'Shaugnessy's, in the dumpster there. And they're still clean--that's the amazing thing, I think, that that goldarned polyester just seems to wake up fresh every morning whether I do or not, and I can at least look down on that, for God's sakes, look down on something, and that one something is clean, or at least it bears some semblance of cleanliness, so that I can face up to the morning with some kind of pride, even if the pride itself is second-hand. 

Name's Gus. 

Once it was Augustus, or that was my middle name, anyway. My bastard father passed on the full, three-piece name of his own bastard father to me. There's a broken spoke though, in this great wheel of fortunes: I was my own father's lawful son, born in wedlock, no romance there, except that my father did love my mother for a short while, whining to her and dining her, leaning on her and bearing down upon her with the full weight of his dreadful insecurities until she did exactly what he could not have predicted she would do--she bore each and every one of them. And then she asked for more, and he scurried around and came up with a few more, and she absorbed each and every one of them like a three dollar sponge from Zayre's until he was left standing there with hat in hand wondering where all the pain went. And missing it. 

Gus. Call me Gus. 

Okay, so the pants are from Sears and Dumpster, but the shoes are from my brother in the bowling industry. He lives in At-lawn-ta. Gets a deal on anything Converse carries, so when I ran into him down here about a year ago he sprung for these sneakers. You can't tell it now, but they used to be sparkling white and fire engine red and now they're old beard gray and stogie ash black. How did I get off on clothes, anyway? I don't care anything about what a man wears on his back. Or on his feet. Clearly. 

Seems like I was going to say something. 

I don't know now. 

I'll remember. 

How do you like the cart? 

You might think that I rolled her off a Winn-Dixie parking lot, especially if you'd seen her before I broke off the signs and labels which sported the name, but that's far from the truth. Truth is, I found her abandoned over near Hollywood Beach, outside a long, low, putty-yeller apartment house with a lot of shiny clean BMW's parked out front. Funny thing: there isn't a Winn-Dixie anywhere near Hollywood Beach, Florida. The nearest one is way out west, near I-95. I figured somebody with a van scarfed her right up into it and just ditched her when they were done. 

I merely adopted her. 

Was my public responsibility. 

I used to be real proud of her, before the trouble with the wheels. They weren't made for sidewalks and sand, you see, and the front ones kept clogging up on me, tar or cigarette butts or string caught in the stainless steel housings, so that one or the other of them would pull to the side, bad. For a good while I debated whether to push her off one of the fishing piers for a decent burial at sea. She would've made a pretty interesting underwater sculpture for the snorkelers, I guess, but just in time's nick I found an old abandoned little red wagon that had three of its four wheels still in mint condition, so I took the good axle and the three wheels off it and rigged two wheels up to my cart's front end. I still carry the third wheel, down in the bottom of the cart, for a spare. Maybe I'll throw it away soon, though; I'm beginning to suspect I won't never need it, I did such a darned good job on the conversion. 

Really should toss that wheel. 

The two I got on will probably outlast me, especially if the chest pains I've been having off and on this past month are anything more than heartburn. Or heartache. 

I've been thinking a lot lately. 

I guess that's not unusual, come to think of it. I got into this line of work so I could have time to think. And for the freedom, of course; but mainly so I could think. Problem is, lately my thoughts have been turning back over the past more than I want them to. 

Thinking about stuff I know durned well I shouldn't stick the old mental shovel back into. Digging into it deep and turning it, rich and steaming, ripe and pungent, over. And over. 

Physically, of course, it is one foot in front of the other for me. Checking out dumpsters as far north as Lauderdale and as far south as Miami Beach, though I prefer the northerly territory. In Miami Beach you have competition from citizens on top of your legitimate bums. I would be embarrassed, personally, myself, to be scoping out refuse depositories on the way home from the store to my condominium, but there you have it. Dabblers in the art. Interlopers in a specialized field. Dilettantes. I just stay away from them. 

I have a lot more in my cart than refundable bottles and aluminum cans, of course. 

Probably the most valuable thing I have in there is my passport. It's still valid, so that if I really wanted to I could take a gambling junket over to Nassau or something. Come back a quadrillionaire or something. Who knows? All I know is that if I wanted to I could leave the country, since my passport doesn't expire until May 25th, 2017. 

I can't imagine what the world might be like five years from now. Not sure I want to try. Things're moving so fast. 

Where was I? 

Oh well. 

I do like this patch of Stirling Road. Sometimes I push on down Park Road to the park, Yuppietuppiesomething-or-other Park, and watch the world. And think. 

Oh! Hell! Yeah, that's what I was going to do: tell you what I've got in here. 

Well, I already mentioned my passport, and there's the bottles and cans you see, but that big cardboard box is full of money. 

Yep. That box that takes up most of the cart? It is is full of cash. 

It's a big box, originally designed to hold six 1.75-liter bottles of Absolut vodka. Swedish stuff. It's gotten pretty worn in the weather, but when I first packed it I lined it with several layers of plastic bags, so the bucks are fine, I'm sure of it. Even though I have not really looked at them in a good while. Problem is, all you can really read any more of the label on the box is the word, "so." The "Ab" and the "lut" have long been washed away, so here I am, pushing this modified, souped-up shopping cart down Stirling Road, Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, with a sign on the side of the cart that says, in lower-case red letters (the box held the 100 proof stuff: the 80 proof letters are blue) simply and, yes, even boldly: "so." 


Once I decided to get out of the selling game, I didn't really know what to do with my accumulated wealth. I definitely wanted out. I had gotten into it, sales, for the challenge, first selling data processing software, then graduating to complete systems and on up into mainframes and networks. I danced the daily dance. I cold-called on small businesses for a year, then I started closing my own deals, which is where I learned how badly a screwing I had been taking for the past year, so I went on the take, skimming and paying kickbacks, baiting and switching, giving away the first piece of hardware for the sake of the monkey on its back, the service contract, or its cousin, the equipment upgrade. In the long view, it was not a pretty picture. 

But I painted it pretty damned well anyway. 

Before long, we had a sales force of a dozen reps, all "Independent Contractors," all on straight commission with various degrees of subsistence support--draw, salary, advances on earned commissions--to see them through the day-to-day fiscal hazards of our society. Like a bad game of golf, sort of. Oops, I took a nasty slice there, and hit the tree of American Express, charging a few more lunches than my draw will cover this month. Oops! Water hazard: Neiman-Marcus! 
(Had a lady friend once who called that place "Needless Markup," kind of a joke.) 

Oops! Back to the apropos golf metaphor. Whoops, there! I went and landed in the sand-trap of my oil company card. They charge me 21% interest on the commodity that I need to fuel the vehicle which gets me around to the places I have to reach in order to attempt to make a living so's I can afford to have their credit card. 

But wait! Not all the places I visit will contribute to my earnings. It's a numbers game. 

One of my fellow sales reps put it like this: "It's the twenty percent rule, as I figure it." Craig was about my age, with a wife and two kids and a pickup truck and a boat of some kind--I never got to know him well enough to find out exactly what he fished from. "You get out there and you call on the prospects. It's geometrical." He probably had a lot of math in college; now that I think of it, I did hear that he was doing some programming on the side, more Independent Contracting. "Maybe twenty percent of the businesses you hit will be in any way interested. Twenty percent of those will give you an appointment for the boss to make an I.P." I looked dumb, though I knew what that was. "Initial Presentation," he smirked. "Then twenty percent of them will come in for an in-house demo, and twenty percent of them will sign." This conversation took place the first morning I went out cold calling with Craig, and he didn't look me in the eye much while he ran through this theoretical formula for success. I later figured out that he was driving me around to some very worked-over areas, not willing to share any potentially productive territory with me, since he'd not yet sized me up as friend or foe in the Great Sales War. 

"If you really want to get sick about it," he finished up, "figure that twenty percent of the people who sign a deal which you set up will eventually earn you an uncontested commission on your efforts, and you will actually receive somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty percent of the payment from those earnings. So," he smiled uncomfortably up from behind the wheel, running his free hand through the sandy testimony of his frugal attitude toward haircuts, "there you have it: you have to hit the numbers. The more you hit on, the more money you will make. Maybe make." 

Craig disappeared, out of the office and out of all our lives, two weeks later. He'd been with the company for four years. 

Where was I. 


The funniest thing happened one morning coming back to the office from the ritual coffee run to the 7-11 across the street. It was four of us, Uncle Bill (alias Willy, alias Will, Alias Billy, but on every other Friday William, because it was payday and that was how his check would read), Robert, Gloria, and me. You have to know something about North Miami, or Ft. Lauderdale, to really appreciate this. It is kind of a would-be fashion playground. 

At the time, I was too poor to afford more than the three pairs of cotton slacks and four or five dress shirts and three or four ties that I traded around constantly for the first six months of my employ. But the ladies--especially Gloria, who had already worked at the job for three years when I arrived on the scene--enthusiastically displayed their upper-middle-class fashion sense at all cost. Wide belts were in at the time, two or three hundred-dollar jobs with studs and stars and mirrors and bold colors and massive buckles. The girls would wear them low on their hips, which would sometimes greatly affect their gait. 

I was walking behind the three of them, all of us heading back across our parking lot back to work with coffee cups and Danishes in hand. Gloria was in the middle, both hands full, and flanked by the two guys; and I could not help noticing her massive belt and marveling at just how low it was slung. She was swinging her shapely hips quite actively, and I thought that the dramatic motion was a function of the fashion, so to speak. 

A few steps later the belt came crashing down around her ankles. And there she stood. 

All decked out, both hands full, with this huge belt down around her feet. 

I suggested that none of us should help her, since with both hands full of coffee and donuts she was likely to spend some amusing moments correcting the situation. So the three of us stood aside and watched. We laughed so loudly that people came out of the building to see what the commotion was all about. Uncle Will was in tears, he was laughing so hard. 

Ahhhh. Well. It was really funny at the time. 

A few years ago, was the time. Ahem. 

Well, I got to go, I really do. I do like to stop and talk with the citizens in the course of a day, especially when the day is as hot and as humid as this one is and there's a little shade to be had doing it. But I am on my way to the sea, you see. To the see, you see, he said. To me. To the sea you see he said. 

I park my cart under a particular palm there, most days. I swim in the ocean and then I take my shower soapless, under the cold running tap. I spend a few hours there, studying the sound of the sea, a sound that is always new. Even newer than polyester, don't you know. 

I see you looking at my box, it does look funny, the "so" on the side in red letters. Aw, hell, you know there is not any money in there. You think I'd be dressed like this, pushing a hot rod shopping cart toward the ocean, in this heat, if that box was full of hundred-dollar bills? 

Rags and junk. That's what's in that box, boy. 

Heat must be getting to you, son. 

Or your job is. 


Take it easy. 

I am rolling. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

The 21

Good day. In my continuing work to get writings out into the world, I submit this piece imagined and written after a dream in 1986, which would have made me 35 or 36 years old at the time of its completion. I've been working on minor rewrites of rediscovered  pieces and will continue to post as I finish them. I hope you enjoy...

The 21
Scott Gardner Merrick

Re-imaged from
Karl Ivanovich pressed on.

He trudged through this frigid midnight’s sooty snow toward his tiny room on the city's dingy fringe with his fur-capped head lowered into the freezing gusts, heavy boot over heavy boot, as he was all too used to doing.

The thick wolf ruff of his overcoat collar was turned up to protect against the intrusion of that icy wind. He was thinking about nothing.
The mind of Ivanovich was empty.
There was a reason for this. The mind of Ivanovich focused with enervating regularity twelve to fifteen hours per workday, six or seven days per week-depending on the season, with ninety to ninety-four per cent of its Practically Functional Capacity spent on keeping books for the State.
These percentages had been verified by the Party.
As a result of this tremendously focused effort, maintained as it was for incredibly long periods of time, a time of mental emptiness was needed. Some other comrades simply sat at their work-desks for an hour or two after the figurative whistle had sounded; Karl Ivanovich preferred to make his way home by foot, by foot, by foot—letting his footfalls lull his mind to rest, breathing the cold night air regularly and deeply until no thought could penetrate the imaginary tank traps and fortress walls his mind had constructed during the day and into the night. In this way he regularly made his way toward home, reaching it sooner than he otherwise would, and arriving more rested. Tonight, his neatly trimmed full brown moustache was encrusted with ice and particles of snow. The air was so cold that the hairs inside his nostrils had become brittle with it. 
His feet knew which way to steer his large frame. The entire trek was over five kilometers, and it normally took him two and a half hours, give or take a half an hour. 
When he arrived, he would no longer be mentally exhausted, but he would have added on a layer of physical stimulation and be very, very tired. A cup of thick black tea, with perhaps a small lump of crude sugar, along with a bowl of thin soup, would be enough to send him to sleep, until the first hints of the next day would invariably awaken him, and he would rise, wash sparingly, eat a modest breakfast; and then he would catch public transit back to his small office. He enjoyed listening to the way the train wheels percussed upon steel rails.
Sometimes, as was the case tonight, a flickering mental image of a steaming teacup would intrude upon the emptiness of his mind as he strode along and it would cause him to interrupt his reverie with an instant of near-normal consciousness. 
He looked up. 
He was approaching the corner of Malenkov and Kochetov streets, an intersection his boots knew well. At this time of night there never any traffic, pedestrian or mechanical, and so he once again lowered his head into the wind and pressed on. 
WUUMPH!!! He was knocked off balance by a person who rounded the corner at precisely the same instant as he. 
In trying to regain his balance, Ivanovich lost it completely. It was the fault of the compressed snow at the corner of the sidewalk, which was slick underfoot, and he cursed  loudly as he went down, flailing out for support and catching only a handful of ruff from the collar of the other fellow's overcoat. The fall took the wind out of him. When he could sit up, he did, and he craned painfully around to witness the tall figure of a man, dressed much the same as he, receding hurriedly off into the heavy darkness in the direction of his own home. The other man had not even uttered so much as an apology. 
Karl Ivanovich picked himself up, muttering under his breath about rudeness and incorrect manners, and he swiped wet brown snow from his coat. He sighed deeply and crossed the street, attempting to regain the regularity of his breathing.  Before he could accomplish that, he heard a commotion behind him and started to turn around. Before he had completed the turn, the heavy impact of a bullet slammed into his right shoulder and he heard the loud report of a large pistol, oddly in that order. He fell again, this time for a long, long time. 

Karl Ivanovich awakened in pain. 
He made no sound as his disjointed senses attempted to piece together this puzzle. A numb stiffness in his shoulder. Cold, a not unusual sensation. A pungent antiseptic odor. Gray walls, unfamiliar, clean ones. Blaring fluorescent ceiling light. 
They took him from the hospital barracks soon after he exhibited signs of consciousness. Sometime during the move, he passed out. He awoke in a bed in a dank cell. Bars in the window of a single small steel door. 
For several days no one spoke to him. A jailer came in twice daily with coarse bread and thick gruel, each time taking away the wooden plate and bowl left the previous visit. 
Once a doctor came in and changed the dressings on his shoulder. When the flesh had been laid bare, Ivanovich saw the ugly scab which had formed over the gunshot wound. It appeared to be healing. The doctor's work was carried out in silence, except for the prisoner's single attempt at communication. “Please, Comrade Doctor, please, tell me. Why was I shot? Why am I here?" 
He implored the doctor, the skin surrounding his large brown eyes wrinkled in perplexity, "Why, Comrade?" 
The only answer was silence. 
The wound was treated with a gelatinous substance and bound with clean bandages, then the doctor packed up his beaten black satchel and departed.
Never once had the Comrade Doctor’s eyes met those of Karl Ivanovich.
Karl kept track of passing time by scraping a notch in the mortar between two granite blocks in the wall of his tiny cell at the end of each day. At the end of the 15th day they came for him.
Two large guards in the drab uniforms of the State came and fitted his hands into heavy manacles and his feet into wide iron collars connected by a single heavy iron chain. Karl could tell immediately that words with these men were useless. 
What could they communicate that could be of any use to him? 
Out through what seemed like miles of gray corridors he was led. He found it difficult to walk with the heavy chain, but not impossible. The guards seemed to have had a great deal of experience leading men in chains: Once when they reached a short flight of three steps, they simply picked him up under each armpit (the right shoulder cried out, but Ivanovich did not) and hoisted him up. Into a small waiting room he was taken, and the two guards left him alone there. The door shut without a sound. 
All Ivanovich was sure of was that he was in trouble. Think as he might, he could not produce in his mind any reason for the Party to treat him so despicably. He was a hard worker, he was in no way decadent, and he was not publicly critical of the State. He was, though, impossibly confused. 
A single guard entered the room. 
"Karl Ivanovich," he stated, "please rise and follow me.”
Karl struggled to his feet and shuffled through the little door and into a dank smelling empty courtroom.
He was led to an ancient heavy wooden stool, upon which he sat. He slowly raised his head to survey the other occupants of the room. There were only three. A stern looking magistrate glared down from an elevated podium. An angry looking guard stood behind the judge, not glaring at Ivanovich, but certainly glaring at the world. An emaciated clerk sat directly across from the defendant, looking bored.
"Guilty as charged," he heard the judge say, "of the theft of a loaf of bread. You are sentenced to hard labor in the Wilderness Labor Camps for a period not to exceed thirty years.” 
Karl Ivanovich wanted to scream, but he could not. Something inside him denied that what appeared to be happening was really happening. Later, he would put a name that "something." He would call it: "Foolishness." 


He opened his eyes, which fought against the opening. They felt as if they were glued shut, but the truth was that they were frozen shut. 
As his eyes adjusted to the dim, scattered light, a loud and constant rumbling bombarded his ears, and the distinct piercing aroma of stale urine and feces dug into his nostrils. 
Yes, he thought, the train. 
He lay there for what might have been a long time. The exact duration was difficult to ascertain since nothing changed: It might have been an hour; it may have been two days. The straw upon which he lay did not change. The uncertain light which filtered through cracks in the rail car did not change. The ice which encrusted the flat iron grid which enclosed Ivanovich 's tiny cell did not melt or grow perceivably thicker. 
The heavy roaring of steel wheels upon steel track did change. It was changing all the time. There was a murmur, then a roar, then a stage whisper—a very loud one; then a maddening, deafening whining followed by a gentle tattoo, then a little rat-a-tat-tat. Underneath it all droned heavy bass ostinato, forever and always it seemed to say. Then the roar would steal back into the song, followed by another long murmur. Sometimes Karl Ivanovich would come to believe that he had heard all the permutations; and just when he was sure of that, a new sound would manifest itself.
He sat up. The effort drove his breath from the warmth of his body out into the harsh cold of the freight car. Thick clouds of it hung heavily in the air, and then, like hope, were gone. "You afraid?" he heard a hoarse male voice inquire.
Am I afraid, he wondered, "No," Karl answered, although he did not turn his head toward the sound of the other 's voice, ”no, I have traveled beyond fear into a place that is colder than any other.”
Then, laughter. It began as a low chuckle, a gurgling, really, and rolled up into a quiet, shaking hysteria. After a few moments Karl arose and took notice of the one who mocked him.
The creature seemed to occupy most of the adjacent cell. It was, or appeared to be, male, from the deep timbre of its noises, but whether it was human was another question altogether.
The cells were a uniform size, and Karl recalled counting them upon entry. There were twenty-two of them, each occupied by a prisoner, each loosely carpeted with straw, each furnished with a single bowl for defecation and urination. By noon, somewhere between three days and a week into the journey to the outlands, the bowls all overflowed onto the cell floors. The corner of each cell had become an excretion zone, with the bowl occupying a space at the corner and serving as a target.
Now, the giant next door was aiming his shriveled member at his own target/bowl. He was not really hitting it because he was laughing too hard. He finished his business and buttoned the fly on his heavy wool trousers, and then lumbered over to the iron bars which separated his cell from Karl's.
His huge hands grasped the bars and his filthy face pressed up against them. It was a grotesque visage, framed by wild long greasy hair and a thick red and brown beard, the forehead protruding massively under bushy red eyebrows, and a malformed bulbous node at the end of the large crooked nose.
"Let me look at ya. Ah, yes," the giant hissed, and hissed again, "Ah, yessss, a Comrade from the City.” His head turned this way and that, like that of an inquisitive lower primate checking out the new arrival at his zoo cage.
"Not afraid, are ye." It sounded more a statement than a question.
"I have done nothing wrong."
"Not afraid, because nothing wrong have ye done,” he growled, and then his tone of voice changed altogether, became civilized, almost delicate. “How curious, how infinitely baffling." The huge man appeared disappointed and turned away from the bars, muttering under his breath.
"Wait!" Karl stood up, painfully, for he had been without exercise for days, at least. He shuffled to the bars, "My name is Karl Ivanovich, and I think we need each other.”
The giant uttered, “Need? Need? What we ‘need,’ my friend, is a weapon. We do not ‘need’ each other." He had to bend slightly to stand upright, but now he did, and he re-approached the cell divider. My name is Aleksandr Denentyev, Comrade Karl Ivanovich, and I am a thespian, not a criminal.”
Karl saw something like a great sadness in the eyes of this gigantic man. He asked quietly, "What was your supposed crime, Comrade Denentyev? "
The giant chortled, then spoke in a decidedly British accent, "It so happens that I did kill a man. But he was attacking me with a loaded weapon. I protected myself with these." He outstretched his mammoth hands, palms outward.
"I have talked with many fellow prisoners since my capture, " he continued, "and some of them are guilty. Quite so. Many are innocent. In the end, it makes no difference once the corrupt courts get ahold of them. Of us. Slave laborers are all the judges want, though they have no shortage of them. Of us." He lowered his wide-set eyes and mused, "It is the System. We are no more or no less products of it now than we were at our ‘honest’ professions.”
Denentyev’s bulk sidled away from the bars, off to another corner of his ridiculously inadequate cell. “I must rest. Soon I will have a new kind of Quota to meet, and I suspect that the punishment for not meeting it will be somewhat more stringent than loss of a bonus. I must gather my strength and be prepared to work."
Karl heard him murmuring something about "outrageous fortune,” but he could not understand anything else the giant muttered. After a while, both men lay on their cell floors, having fallen asleep again.
Sometime later, Karl made the acquaintance of his only other neighbor, in the cell across the narrow aisle, one Vsevolod Vardovsky, a student who also professed innocence. His crime:  the theft of a book. The boy appeared not well to begin with, and by the time the Keeper came to empty the slop bowls and to dole out a skin of water and a chunk of stale bread to each starving prisoner, there was that ore less body to feed.
The Keeper, a silent, grizzly old man with a weighty wooden staff slung over his shoulder, moved from cell to cell repeating the same routine—handcuffing each prisoner through the front bars of his cell, tossing down the food and water in one corner, and dumping waste from the bowl into a large barrel he dragged along the rail car’s floor behind him. Finally, he would relock the cell and retrieve his single pair of handcuffs and then move on to the next prisoner.
Karl learned all of this only by pressing his face to the bars and watching as the Keeper made his way down the center aisle. His own cell was located at the forward end of the car, beside a door which presumably led to a connecting platform and then to another car. Were there other prisoners? Other cars?
So the old troll made his way first down the side of the car which contained a dozen cells, and then back up the other side, where the space which could have held a twenty-third prisoner was occupied by a heavy sliding door. In the last cell lay the corpse of the student. The Keeper was angry when received no response  to his order, “Get up, you little girl,” he growled, “If you don 't get up and come to me, you will have no food nor drink until I come again, and who knows when that may be. There is an important card game in the guard car, and I am ahead. GET UP, come on, you son of a hog. No? You will live in your own stench a few days more, then.”
"He won’t live at all. He's dead.”
The voice was that of Karl Ivanovich, and the Keeper's fury now turned upon him. SMACK went the Keeper 's staff on the bars. “Don’t you ever speak to me unless I order you to, swine! Do not you ever stick your thieving nose in where it does not belong!”
"He was a Christian, and he wanted me to plead for you to see that he has a Christian burial,” Karl spoke with a level voice.
"I’ll show you a Christian burial, you smart bastard! "
The key clanked into the iron door and the door was yanked loudly open. Vsevolod Vardovsky was dragged out by his worn leather boot heels and left laying twisted upon the floor while the Keeper strode to the sliding door of the car. Biting wind rushed in, and a minor uproar issued from the cells. He returned, smiling grimly, and lifted the student up over his shoulder.
"Oh, "snarled the Keeper, "I haven’t prepared the body yet.  Here, let me anoint it with oils. He grasped the student 's lifeless hair in his fist and dunked the dead face into the barrel of waste. It came up dripping brown green.
"There, there young man, that should freeze nicely and keep you your baby-like expression for all eternity.” The animal smiled broadly at Karl Ivanovich before carrying the student down the aisle and standing him at the open door. “I commit you to your god, you pig-sucking son of a whore,” declared the Keeper as he shoved the reeking corpse roughly out the door.
"Come here.” He was back at the front of Karl’s cell. “Give me your hands again. Karl did as he was told and was once again handcuffed to the front of his cell. His food and water were taken, and the cell door relocked. The jailer released him, and his watery eyes met the cold stare of Ivanovich. 
"Maybe you will join your friend next feeding day, Samaritan. “I will try to come up with a new and even more entertaining ceremony.” 
Days passed. 
The straw. The bars. The ice and the clouds of breath. The omnipresent stench. These things remained. 
The rattling booming of steel on steel and the rushing whistle of wind and snow stayed with the prisoners. 
Despair did not leave them, not for an instant. 
Karl Ivanovich lay on his left side, his left arm asleep and perhaps dead forever. His breath was regular and shallow, and he stared at the bowl in the corner of the giant’s cell. What we need is a weapon. 
With an effort whose presence surprised him, he rolled over and pulled himself over to the bars which separated his cage from that of Aleksandr Derentyev. 
The giant slept. 
"Derentyev, " Karl choked out, "Derentyev. Wake up.” One large eye opened in that hairy jumble of a face. 
"I want to thank you for breaking bread with me. But it was not enough. There is one thing more thing you must do.” 
The other eye opened, and one thick brow curled slightly. 
"Break your bowl for me, Thespian.” 

The door at the front of the prisoner car creaked and the Keeper heavily stepped in. The noise of the train's passage was shockingly loud beyond the open door. The jailer stood for a moment, staring into Karl 's cell before reaching outside the car and dragging in his barrel and bag. 
"Pig-turds, oh darlings, he called tauntingly, "rise and shiiine. I’ve come with your eggs and potatoes, your steak and your wiiine.” He peered into Karl’s cell for an exceedingly long time, as if to assure himself that the still lump at the back of the cell was indeed as lifeless as it appeared to be. 
The key jangled into the lock, and the grizzly old man entered the cell, his staff pointed at the lifeless corpse. He took two steps into the cage and brought his staff heavily down upon its leg. 
There was a heavy thud and that was all. 
He took hold of the dead man's heavy boots and dragged him out of the cell, leaving him bent and crooked on the floor as he moved heavily down the aisle to the side door. It slid open, and once again the icy wind rushed in. This time, though, there was no sound from the prisoners. That struck the Keeper as strange, and he turned slowly to survey the cells. What he saw was a dozen faces, tired and in various stages of dishevelment and exhaustion, uniformly pressed up against cold iron.
"So. The swine want their feed, " crooned the Keeper. “It looks as though the twenty-two has dwindled to twenty. But never you mind, you see, I get paid whether I arrive with twenty-two or with two. The Party, the Party knows it is a long and difficult journey. Long and difficult, yes, it is. I am paid by the rail mile, not by the prisoner! Ha,” he laughed,  “and,” he looked back up the aisle to where the dead man lay, “we’ll be stopping tonight, you see, we'll be stopping tonight at the rail station outside of Kirtutsk for food and water and fuel to take you deeper, yes, deeper into the deep deep taiga, where you will work to build this world, yes” he spoke to them all as if they were a seated assemblage of Union Workers, and he shuffled down the aisle, shouldering his staff. “Yes, many hands, light work, hee, hee.” 
The lifeless body of Karl Ivanovich was much heavier than that of the student, so the Keeper dragged it to the door instead of throwing it over his shoulder. It was in the dragging that both arms fell out behind the corpse, and the Keeper noticed that there was something in one of the hands. 
“Wha…” the man began to ask, but it was too late for questions. 
Ivanovich was up and knocking over the jailer with a stout hammering of his fist to the man 's forehead. The old man grappled for the staff on his shoulder, but again, too late. Into his throat something was deeply driven, and Karl felt the burning heat of the man's blood flood over his hand. He ripped the sharp fragment of bowl sideways and the Keeper collapsed in a heap, his head all ajar on his blood-spewing neck. 
Karl Ivanovich stared down at the man he had killed. 
Into his pocket went the sharp shard of wood from Derentyev’s broken bowl. He rifled the jailer's pockets and came up with the precious key. From the dead man's shoulder, he slipped the staff. He held it up so that it gleamed brightly in the soft light. It was a beautiful thing, and he pointed it at the corpse and squeezed the handle just so. 
A pinpoint beam of blue light issued from the business end of the staff, and it lit upon the mangled face of the Keeper. The shaft of light vanished and so did the ugly head. 
Karl strode to the open door and took a deep breath of fresh cold air. 
Luminescent snow globes blew past almost horizontally, their speed enhanced by that of the train car. The dazzling blue sheen of them was almost blinding. Each crystalline bulb was different in shape from all others, and Karl looked out over the plains, witnessed their bursting by the millions upon impact with the glistening yellow ground. Beyond, out beyond the taiga, the bright turquoise forest spread out forever. There was shelter there, and there was forage, and whole new worlds to be fashioned out of those vast wells of raw material. 
We will disappear into those forests, enter those hills and find us a valley, he thought. And when we have built something, we will make our way back into the city and we will steal us some fine women and disappear again. We will make a world. We will make our own Party. Our Comrades will be our true brothers, victims of the Old Way, harbingers of the New.
The New World 's New World.  
We will call ourselves The 21. 
In but a few moments he had freed the other men. They were bunched up behind him at the door.
He leaned his face out into the cold rushing wind. Off in the distance he could just make out the tiny image of Kirtutsk, a large city really, the connection not only between the cities and the Wilderness but also between Earth and the New World, replete with shiny steel towers and, there, the little bubble, the gigantic bulb, which enclosed the living quarters of a million and a half people, with its Elevator Lines stretching out into the white sky on up, on up to the orbiting station. 
Through the swirling blue ice snow he could only just make out the shape of one giant shining sun, glowing blue, but indistinct. Perhaps if it cleared later in the day the little red sun would be visible, too. Perhaps it would warm. A little.
Oh, but he felt alive, for the first time in years. 
It was time to get to work.

He jumped and rolled. 

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