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Listen to Max Talley’s podcast in Two Cities Review of “The Devil is in the Details” story here.  http://twocitiesreview.com/podcast/episode-18-max-talley-the-devil-is-in-the-details/

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A scene from Yesterday We Forget Tomorrow novel

 

Kane wondered if he could get to his 9mm handgun and fire it in time. “I never knew that you were so—”

“Cold blooded?” Trammel said. “Think back to your Phil Kane memories. I served with Kane in Iraq. Not Army, but Blackriver Security. Fucking supermen with no rules. We could kill anyone with impunity.”

“I’m not Phil Kane, I’m Richard Phillips.”

“You don’t sound very sure.” Trammel spat on the ground. “Let’s say Richard Phillips’s identity was implanted on someone else back in 2020. That was the first test of Paralyne’s abilities, but they failed. The Phillips persona couldn’t be controlled, so they tried putting Kane’s memories into this mystery man—who we’ll call you.” Trammel scratched his nose. “Have you noticed any other memories, like from Desert Storm, or Operation Syria? See, you’re a whole bunch of people. Anyway, the real Phillip Kane was in a coma in Bethesda for years after the Iraq incident, burned to a crisp.”

“How do you know all this?”

“I was a test subject before you, but I volunteered. I’m number two; you’re number three. Not only was I on the mission with the real Kane, but I have his memories too. That’s how I knew you’d be here now. Anyway, the Alpha got caught, but they won’t hold him. Your replacement, the Omega is still back baking in the oven.” Trammel cracked his knuckles. “You’re the first successful host for Kane’s memories, so don’t tell me you can’t remember me from Iraq.”

Kane closed his eyes and shuddered. “That was you raping the Iraqi girl, and I, or Kane, was in the next room guarding you. I thought you were interrogating her.”

“Exactly,” Trammel said. “You were my wingman while your squad was outside doing door-to-door recon.”

“Her brothers came home and surprised us.” Kane’s head felt like it was boiling. “I tried to delay them, and then you yanked me back through the curtain onto the bed, onto the girl’s bloody body.” He took a deep breath. “You’re like a praying mantis, Trammel. You mate then you kill.”

“No, I saved your life then, just like I did four years ago in Syria, and like I did today.” Trammel’s sweaty face beamed. “I tossed a grenade out into the girl’s living room and hid under the mattress. Shit, how did I know it would set off some IED they had stashed? That device blew the front of the house down and took out your squad entering that hovel.” Trammel paused. “Damn insurgents. They were to blame. We were just doing our job.”

“That’s how they found me, under the dead girl, alone,” Kane said.

“You took the brunt of the blast. I forgot to thank you. I had to disappear. Army and Blackriver men weren’t supposed to mingle. Didn’t want you getting into trouble.”

“I can’t remember any more.” Conflicting memories of both Iraq and Syria confused him.

“Kane went into shock after that and the Army had a mess on their hands, so they came up with the ‘firefight with terrorists manufacturing IEDs’ angle and Phillip Kane as the heroic survivor of his squad. You got to be a war hero—without doing a damn thing.”

“The Kane memory dump didn’t work out for me, Paralyne, or you. I’m Phillips, the MSNBCNN news anchor.”

“No proof,” Trammel said. “Phillips personality is just dominant now. With the work they did on your face and your fingerprints, who knows who you are? Is a person’s identity defined by their DNA, their mind, or their oldest memories?” Trammel let out a wheezing laugh. “You could be Phil Rickard, the Blackriver op I worked with in Syria.”

Kane thought of his bass-playing, long-haired flashbacks, and tried to imagine Syria. “I couldn’t have been in Syria. I was Richard Phillips. I fled the US when Borkman got elected…”

“Are you sure that’s not implanted? You’re either Kane or nobody, and at the end of the day, no identity is worse than a bad one in the new now.” Trammel looked him over. “So you came here to kill me, but we’re one. I’m like your brother. Cain comes to kill Abel at last. Or is it the opposite?”

“Enough allegory. Am I next on your ‘to do’ list?”

“No, our life-paths have crossed for a reason.” Trammel reverted to new age speak. “Now we can both reach a place of healing—”

Kane pulled the 9mm from his boot and lowered his head. The lights went off. Trammel threw a monkey-wrench that struck Kane’s right shoulder in a flash of pain as he pulled the trigger. The gun’s discharge sounded puny, like a cap pistol. The bullet hit Trammel’s leg instead of his chest. Both men groaned and gripped their limbs. The pistol went clattering off into the darkness. Trammel collapsed into a pile of storage boxes and Kane crab-walked along the wall back to the stairwell.

“That was a teachable moment,” Trammel said in a feral growl. “You’re my passport out of this cluster-fuck. If I turn you in as the cross-country killer, that’s my get-out-of-jail-free card.”

“Too late,” Kane said. “Art Glembock got arrested for that.”

“Okay, then I can pin Sal’s murder on you,” Trammel said. “But first, a lesson in pain management. Only I’m management, and you’ll be in pain.”

Kane made it up the stairway, clanging loudly, no longer caring who heard. He fumbled through boxes of tools and junk on the worktable. A couple of minutes, maybe, before Trammel stanched the bleeding, then gimped his way up to confront him. At the far end of the table, Kane found a metal strongbox with no lock, sealed tight by rust. He took a hammer to it, and then heaved it to the ground, cracking it. Using the claw of the hammer, he wedged the top open. Inside, a flare pistol and three shells sat in compartments. How old were they?

“Drop your cock and get ready to rock! Your life-coach is coming.” Trammel’s voice echoed in the stairwell, along with a heavy scraping sound, as he pulled a dead leg along behind him. “Your physical therapist needs to make an adjustment.”

 

Scenes from The Long Fadeout novel

Intro: October, 2010

Bender hated the desert. He’d always despised it: a hot and dry wasteland where people withered away to brittle husks–before reaching perdition. Despite this conviction, Keith Bender sat crouched with his hands bound on the caked Nevada soil, only miles from the massive fencing surrounding Yucca Mountain Nuclear Test Site. The crag of land he occupied wasn’t far from the California border, though from the bleak topography it could have been on the moon. The treeless, rucked face of Skull Mountain loomed to the east; the hollow sockets of its eyes impacted by meteors or dug out from long-abandoned silver mines. In the harsh sun-blasted light, the Amargosa Valley stretched toward the horizon like a bombed-out battlefield–inhabited only by invisible predators, by carrion birds.

“Thank God it’s still early,” Bender said to the other man. “How do you stand the heat?” It already felt uncomfortable at 10 a.m. October temperatures often rose to the century mark at this elevation.

“Just dry heat,” his captor replied. “I get used to the headaches.”

Bender’s wrists and ankles had been tied together while he slept by the hired killer in the tan Stetson squatting atop a rock outcropping nearby. Luke Skitters. A six-foot, reed-thin man with hooded eyes and pale skin. Maybe even an albino.

“Think the radioactivity level is dangerous this close?” Bender acted calm while squinting into the middle distance.

The armed man exhaled through his nostrils. “It don’t matter. Just relax now. You’ll be dead within the hour, Bender.” No emotion showed in Skitters’ pink-eyed stare. Craning his neck, the waxen assassin concentrated on gazing through a pair of binoculars toward the test site. Skitters’ face, further whitened by the heavy-duty sunscreen he’d slathered over himself, resembled a greasy plaster mask. Somehow, this fragile-skinned alien had, beyond all logic, learned to actually thrive in the unforgiving terrain.

“What about my friends down inside there?” Bender asked, thinking mainly of her.

“When the mine tunnel collapses, they’ll eventually suffocate. There’s worse ways to die, and I seen most.” Skitters kept chain-smoking his Camels, then snorted. “You’re worried about the girl.”

Bender hid his surprise behind a poker face.

“I’ve been following you since it began.” He spit at a small lizard. “I know everything. Even your real name: Skye Bender.”  Skitters laughed.

Bender had always dreamed of being a detective, a shamus, a private eye. And when a blonde with a startled face pressed five hundred-dollar bills into his front pocket to hire him at a party in San Francisco, and then let her hand linger where it counted, all his dreams had come true in one swollen instant. But the seduction and the intrigue that his first meeting with Allegra Pierpont seemed to promise had dried up with the moisture in the desert. A desert that now looked to be his graveyard. He’d given up a bookstore clerk job for this–to be shot dead in a radioactive wasteland?

With little experience and a stubborn courage born of ignorance, Bender had navigated a series of deadly obstacles that led to the secrets buried deep in the abandoned mines outside Privee, Nevada. Behind him lay a trail of bodies in San Francisco and destroyed property in Mendocino, while his future could be counted in minutes, maybe to a single hour. But why did Judy have to go down with his ship too? In his mind he saw hips, breasts, lips–lust intertwining with death.

“Wake up, Mister Private Investigator. You don’t want to miss it.”

Bender opened his eyes to the blinding light and felt sweat oozing from his scalp, trickling from his armpits, pooling in his crotch. “What if I hired you to kill your boss?” Bender asked.

“If you had that kind of money, I would,” Skitters replied. “But you’d never know if I got her, because you go first. One job at a time, in the order they’re received. That’s my business model.”

“Great,” Bender said, his head lolling about. “So what are we waiting for?”

“A big sound is coming. The kind you’ll feel in your bones.”

“And why should I care?”

“Because it’s the last sound you’re ever going to know.” Skitters turned to Bender and laughed, his yellow teeth shining like corn between his thin blanched lips. “Hear that? It’s starting!”

Bender felt a rumbling underground that grew until it rose up into a painful vibration in his chest, exerting tremendous pressure on his rib-cage. The earth around them rippled and churned, the landscape heaving then blurring as if in a mirage. He heard a sound like a huge elm tree straining in the wind. “What happens now?” Bender shouted.

“The long fadeout…”

 

Complete Short Story: “On The Bridge”

 

What the hell am I doing sitting on the Golden Gate Bridge after midnight? Freddie Dorn wondered. Worse, he sat perched on the lip of iron just over the railing. A ledge that existed inches from the public walkway in measurement, but miles away in sanity. He’d crossed the dividing line between a pedestrian taking in the view and a suicidal loner staring into the void at the edge of the continent, the edge of his lifeline. Someday the City would patrol the bridge, put up barricades, make it tough for the jumpers. But not here and now in the summer of 1969. Free love, free jazz and free death.

“Thanks for coming out here,” Wolf-Man said to Dorn, as if he’d driven up from the East Bay to a Marin party. “I needed a witness. Someone who was here when it happened.” The words sliced through the damp fog, through Dorn’s reverie.

On the far side of Wolf-Man, AKA Jay Wolfowitz, purveyor of mass quantities of bad drugs, lay a six-foot duffel bag in the shape of a supine man.

“You really need to do this?” Dorn gripped his faded army jacket tighter against his shivering form.

“If I don’t kill myself tonight, they’ll find me tomorrow and do it slowly.” Wolf-Man paused. “It’s a control thing. I want to be the master of my own destiny.” He said something else but it got drowned out by a thundering foghorn rising from the gray soup and vapors beneath their dangling feet. Occasionally the mists would part, revealing the choppy swells, the glowing whitecaps riding on the bay below.

Dorn forced himself not to look down. It made his stomach queasy, his head dizzy with electric fear and the whispery seduction to leap. Instead he focused on the lights from Alcatraz Island to the east. Deserted save for a few watchmen now.

Ridiculous that I came to help this dealer scumbag out in the middle of the fucking night. Everyone knew Wolf-Man, but no one did him favors. The West Coast Mafia had moved into the Haight last year. They only noticed Wolf-Man after they fronted him ten thousand Dexedrine capsules to sell and he didn’t pay them back. The idiot lost the stash in a stolen car that he had to ditch when the cops were in pursuit. The West Coast Mob didn’t rough people up like in the movies; they just got rid of you. Hell, there were plenty of bottom-feeders who’d gladly take the job.

***

It had started this afternoon. “You know Wolf-Man, Jay Wolfowitz?” Vince asked. When he visited Dorn’s shop, the United Hallucinations Gallery, wearing a brown suit with a green shirt and a fat purple tie, even with his long greasy hair, Dorn knew Vince was a gangster.

“Do I know him?”

“I’m not asking, Dorn, I know you know him.”

“Yeah, but he’s no friend of mine.” Dorn looked out the window, wishing that a cop would walk in and end this exchange. “He sells stepped-on pills to desperate kids. Comes out whenever there’s a dry spell.”

“He told us you were a friend. Used you as a reference.” Vince’s expression relaxed into a smirk. “In the olden days among the Romans, there was sort of a tradition that a guy who had done wrong, would take care of the problem, the problem being himself, by himself. You know what I’m saying? I mean it’s just a pain when other people have to mete out justice. And messy.”

“I tell you, I’m not his friend.”

“Call it whatever, but you know how to reach him, where a rat hides.” Vince glanced at two stoned hippie girls studying a framed poster of the first human be-in. “It would be good for him, and for you, if he got that message. It’s time for Wolf-Man to retire—permanently.”

“I’ll try to get the word to him—”

“By tonight,” Vince finished. “Tomorrow, we send out janitors to clean up his mess. You don’t rip us off for five large and walk.” Vince left the gallery.

***

Dorn felt paranoid, the implied threat–if he didn’t help the mob–sinking in. He needed to see Van Monk, who had history with Wolf-Man. Dorn made his way over to 245 Hyde Street and entered Wally Heider’s Studio. Downstairs, in Studio A, Van Monk sat playing keyboards on a recording session with the Mind Magnets. Dorn took a chair next to engineer Bill Halverston, and busied himself by rolling a joint in the control room until Van Monk had nailed his part.

“Hey, Freddie!” Van Monk said, then lowered his voice. “I just saw you, man.”

“What? Where?”

Van Monk led Dorn outside and they perched on the stoop of the Black Hawk jazz club across the street. “I saw you when I flashed-forward to the 1990’s, man.”

Dorn didn’t question it. Van Monk had been dosed with Wolf-Man’s experimental drugs and was damaged–bad. “Well, at least I’m still alive in the Nineties. What was I doing, Van Monk?”

“Whenever I try to say, I blank, like when you forget a dream. I’m sure you’re still involved in art.” Throaty blasts of a saxophone emanated from an afternoon soundcheck downstairs in the club’s basement.

“That’s cool,” Dorn said. “Listen, have you heard where Wolf-Man is hiding?”

Van Monk tensed-up. “No, have you?” He pushed his cascading Dylan curls out of his eyes. “You know I’m all about peace and love, Dorn, but that scumbag fucked me up for good. If I ever find Wolf-Man, I-I might kill him.” Van Monk’s eyes widened. “Not just for revenge, but to stop him from poisoning anyone else.” Van Monk saw Bill Halverston signaling from across the street. “I got to go finish recording, but seriously, if you find that piece of shit…” His voice took on a pleading tone. “You have to tell me.”

“Sure,” Dorn said.

***

Back at United Hallucinations Gallery, Wolf-Man called Dorn, his voice nervous and thin from a pay-phone, street noise erupting in the background. “Freddie, I need you to meet me on the Golden Gate Bridge at midnight.”

“For real? Why me?” Dorn asked.

“A hundred-pound shit-hammer is coming down on me. My house got ransacked, torn apart, my car stolen. Some heavy people are after me. I have to check-out tonight.” Wolf-Man’s breath sounded labored. “It’s the only way. Anyhow, you’re in my will, and the last reading is on the bridge.”

Dorn hesitated, searching for an excuse.

“Dude, you’re my best friend,” Wolf-Man blurted out.

“You have no friends.”

“Of all the people who aren’t my friend, you’re the best of them.” Wolf-Man cleared his throat. “It’s essential that you show, or the cats looking for me might get a notion that you were involved with their loss of funds. Hate to see any blow-back on you.”

***

Against his better judgment, Dorn had clambered over the closed security gate

at the south end of the bridge and scuttled along the empty walkway for a hundred yards, then another, until he saw the hunched form of Wolf-Man, legs dangling over the ledge. Dorn carefully stepped across the low railing, keeping one arm crooked around it like an anchor, then studied the splayed bag next to Wolfowitz.

“Jesus, you asked me up here to witness this theatrical absurdity?”

“Welcome to the death of the most reprehensible dealer in San Francisco.” Wolf-Man outstretched his arms.

“Van Monk should be here, not me. You guys have some serious unfinished business.”

Wolf-Man’s face twitched. “You’re more reliable, Freddie. Nobody would believe what that freak said. He claims to be flashing forward and backward in time.” Wolf-Man formed an evil grin sandwiched between charcoal stubble.

“Wolf-Man, you’re the fucker who sold him the Orange Marmalade doses. That OM stuff has kept him tripping since last year.” Dorn glanced toward the Marin Headlands, wishing he was in one of the warm, lit-up houses jutting out into the Bay on the Tiburon Peninsula.

“Hang on, man,” he replied in an officious tone. “First off, I gave him the OM; I didn’t charge him a cent. Also, Van Monk tried every pill that hit the street. It’s just a bullshit innuendo of a rumor of a myth that the Orange Marmalade did that to him.”

“How do you know for sure? Have you ever taken any OM yourself?”

“Are you crazy? I’d never take that shit!” After some deep breathing, Wolf-Man relaxed into a pensive state. “Everyone’s free, man, to take whatever they want.” He stared into Dorn’s eyes. “It’s not very hip for you to be against freedom. And it’s not my job to judge people, I just provide.”

“Yeah, yeah. Let’s get this over with.” It wasn’t raining, but the air hung wet and cold against Dorn’s face. “I don’t believe an egotistical prick like you would ever jump.”

Wolf-Man laughed. “This is the last time you’ll ever see me, so I had to make a confession.”

“What’s in the duffel bag? Or should I say, who?” Dorn sat uncomfortably, both his hands stretched out to grip the railing just behind his back.

“He’s my ticket to Mexico.” Wolf-Man tapped the bag gently. “A friend at Saint Francis Memorial owed me a favor, got me a stiff. OD’d yesterday. No positive ID.” Wolf-Man put a finger to one side of his nose and blew snot into the void. “Getting the picture? Distraught dealer takes a mega-dose of drugs, spirals into depression, and attempts suicide.”

“Sounds outlandish, unbelievable.”

“Man, this is San Francisco in 1969. Anything is possible.”

Dorn had to agree with him. A runner went jogging by on the walkway, seagulls shrieked in the blackness above, and the rotting smell of barnacles and kelp wafted up from hundreds of feet below, amongst the wet echoes of waves slapping against steel bridge supports.

“You saw me up here, ready to jump, right? And you’re going to see a body dressed in my clothes fall.” Wolfowitz sneered. “Then that’s all you need to say. When the authorities find the body, it will back up your story.”

“But what if they identify him with fingerprints and—”

“Do you think my real name is Wolfowitz? Hell, no. Changed it when I ran away from Ohio in 1966. Whoever this guy turns out to be, that can be me. It’s perfect. I hide in Mexico like Owsley did, then I eventually creep back up to LA, man. Start over.”

“You really think the mob will forget?”

“With your eyewitness story and this corpse, I will live to age ninety, man. Done deal.” Wolf-Man unzipped the duffel bag. “That’s not the main reason I told you come up here.”

“Your last will and testament?” Dorn nodded his head. “What do I get, all the poisoned drugs you couldn’t sell or give away?”

“I figured I’d come clean about Mona…”

“Mona?” Dorn felt confused. He’d fallen in love with Mona after he arrived at the Haight two years ago. She’d been living with Van Monk, but in the spirit of free love, she soon moved in with Dorn. Mona finally left Dorn six months ago because she said she was free, didn’t belong to any man. Dorn had been devastated, but hid it. It was not cool to be hung-up on one girl, when you could be out digging women everywhere. But what if you loved a single person more than the rest? Were you a square, bound in shackles like the Midwestern parents you escaped from? Would that eventually lead to marriage, cocktail parties, country clubs, and voting for Nixon?

“Yeah, Mona,” Wolf-Man said while staring at the bearded corpse’s face. “Remember when she split from your pad? She hadn’t made enough bread from her waitress job to rent a room yet. So I told Mona she could crash at my basement pad if she’d help me—“

“Help you? Help you with what?” The weather on the bridge was a damp, bone-aching cold, but Dorn felt flushed and feverish.

“A batch of angel dust pills I couldn’t get rid of. Word had spread about that guy who drowned in four inches of water in his bathtub. I mean, shit, I’m pretty sure I didn’t sell it to him, but it was probably from the same batch. So I figured if Mona sold them down by Fisherman’s Wharf, you know, away from my turf, with her innocent face, I could make my money back. The damn PCP was ruining my business rep.”

“That’s pretty hard to do.”

“Funny, man.” Wolf-Man finished opening the duffel bag. “Like I figured, Mona unloaded them all. I mean, she felt bad when her friend ended up in intensive care, but there’s no proof, that would hold up in court, that it was from my batch. Anyway, she did me a solid, so I let her stay in my guest room.”

“That dirty mattress in the corner of your basement?”

“Hey man, there’s a tapestry hanging down for privacy.”

“So she dealt for you, then moved out and got an apartment on Clayton.” Dorn chewed at his teeth. “That’s your confession?”

“Well, I got this rare drug only tested by the military. I wasn’t going to look a thrift horse in the ass, so I tried it. They called it MDMA, the love drug, a mixture of amphetamine and mescaline. Anyway, I keep all dangerous pills away from my friends, unless they pay me for them. But Mona kept asking.” Wolf-Man looked at Dorn, then looked away. “Of course I refused at first, but I realized it would be uncool not to share. Anyway, she turned into an animal, was all over me. I wasn’t really into it, but I had to screw her, just to calm her down. I mean, she could have been roaming the streets, balling anyone. Bikers, Hare Krishnas, mimes!”

Dorn tried to meditate, tried not to think, but failed.

“Listen, we only did that night, and it never happened again. Plus, you two had already split up, so I know it doesn’t matter. Just wanted to clear the air.” Wolf-Man turned to peel the duffel bag from the corpse. The bridge shook and a jolt surged through the iron girders beneath them, causing him to grasp onto the railing.

“Earthquake.” Dorn’s heart constricted in a shrinking rib-cage. “Small ones happen almost every day. You don’t feel them on the street, but up here, suspended and swaying, they’re really noticeable.” Dorn squeezed his fist until it throbbed. He hadn’t hit anyone since grade school, and that had been in defense. He’d walked in every peace march, and never even considered killing anyone, but as Wolf-Man said, anything was possible in San Francisco in 1969.

“Man, you seem tense,” Wolf-Man said. “Don’t tell me you’re jealous? That’s unhip. It was just sex.” He pressed his face close. “Free yourself, man. We both shared something beautiful.” He punched Dorn’s shoulder. “I congratulate you; now you congratulate me, Freddie.”

Dorn slapped him hard on the back. The bridge shuddered again—aftershock–and Wolf-Man pitched forward, unbalanced, his hand flailing in sheets of misty air.

“Hey, grab me!” His voice rose an octave in fear, and he reached back for Dorn, but his fingers gripped onto the corpse instead,

Dorn hesitated, holding the railing with both hands. When he did extend one arm, it was too late.

Wolf-Man teetered, then folded forward, screaming, “Freddie!” out into black space, pulling the corpse off the lip of the bridge to trail after his plunge. Dorn imagined he heard a splash, but what he really noticed was Wolf-Man’s extended shriek replaced by the distant seagulls’ calls as they circled above the roiling bay.

***

For days, for months, for years after that night, Dorn would convince himself that it had been an accident, the earthquake and aftershock, not his slap on the back that had sent Wolf-Man to his doom.

Whether it was conviction or rationalization, neither was helped by Vinnie’s appearance the next day at the gallery. “Your reward.” He handed Dorn five hundred in cash.

“For what?”

“We trailed you to the bridge gate. Couldn’t see shit in that pea soup fog, but we saw you come back around 1 a.m.” He scratched at his mouth. “You looked pale. The first time is always tough, then it gets easier.” Vinnie unfolded the afternoon edition of the San Francisco Examiner. “Two bodies found on the rocks by the south bridge abutment. One identified as a local drug dealer. Death caused by ‘impact trauma’ according to coroner’s report.” Vinnie whispered, “I don’t care if you pushed them or not, just that you got it done. We’ll never speak of this again, and we never had this conversation.” Vinnie shook Dorn’s hand then ducked into an idling Cadillac outside.

Van Monk showed up later. “I wished that low-life dead yesterday, and then it happened. Like I have a psychic power. I feel kind of guilty.” He pressed a hand to his forehead. “Suicide? No fucking way.”

“I feel guilty too. We all hated the bastard,” Dorn said. “Hey, do you remember Mona living at Wolf-Man’s pad after she split-up with me?”

“Nope,” Van Monk said. “She stayed with me until she made enough bread to rent a room. Haven’t seen Mona since then.” He frowned. “I’ve been time-tripping, totally messed-up ever since Wolf-Man dosed me. I was planning revenge. Now it doesn’t matter anymore.” Van Monk rubbed his eyes with his knuckles. “You know, a couple years in the future, you tell me something important about last night, Freddie. I just can’t remember what it is now… Bummer.”

“Yeah, bummer.”

 

 

Chapter from Dear Mr. Fantasy novel: “Concert in the Park, 1980” (first published in Iconoclast #111).

 

Perceptions became acute on certain days. Miles noticed everything as they walked east from Central Park West down into Central Park itself. A crowded place on weekends in good weather, but rarely when burrowed deep in the armpit of a bitter cold December. The time in the season when one wished for snow to limn the dead trees white, to frost the brown grass and the sweep of bleak terrain stretching out until it blurred then fused into the horizon. A dirty ashtray of a sky  looked ready to snow cinders and soot. Despite the sickly appearance of nature, despite the mass of people bundled into groups, shuffling slowly—as if in pain—eastward like Miles, the park held a spectral beauty.

“I’m going to find a joint,” his friend Ian said. “I really need it today.”

Like he didn’t need it every day. They were sixteen and getting baked was part of the daily program.

“Later, Ian.” Miles waved. He wanted to be sober, wanted to feel, not be numbed at all.

Miles was a lousy student. Except when some subject or a chapter in a book piqued his interest. He flashed to studying Frederick Olmsted’s gargantuan task of designing Central Park. Olmsted had brought in trees from South America, Africa and Europe, had hauled giant slabs of rock from upstate New York to plop down in specific places. Each pathway, hill, lake, field and forested area manufactured according to his master plan. All deliberate.

Today, Miles observed the artificial rises and declines of the landscape, recognized even in their naked death, the pin oak trees, the dogwoods, maples and Dutch elms.

Some friends of his friends stood huddled in a circle smoking.

“Yo, Miles,” a guy named Tony said. “What a bummer this is.” Tony coughed. “Hey, you want a hit?”

Miles grinned. “No, thanks.” Heat vapors escaped from his chapped lips. He kept trudging along, clutching his second-hand suede jacket that was too thin, too unlined for the windy, overcast weather. But it looked cool. Essential at sixteen. Miles shivered along the walkway, seeing bearded men with unkempt hair in scruffy coats. The women wore long flowered skirts, leather boots and blue jean jackets, wrapped in scarves and hats–wool gloves pressed to their faces as they complained about the cold.

They appeared to Miles like a hangover from the Woodstock Generation, but this was 1980, not 1969.

“Miles, come join us. We have hash-oil.”

It was Jack, one in Miles’ small group of friends that he hated. Maybe not hated, but they annoyed him now. After he’d been thrown out of boarding school last spring, Miles was no longer welcome in the rich homes of his pals anymore. Their pill-popping, country-clubbing, spouse-swapping parents thought he was a deviant.

“Hey, Jack.” Miles gave him a soul shake. He nodded at Steve, Peggy and Billy, and some dude named Preston–whose arm crested Katie’s shoulders.

Miles had dated Katie for a week when they were fourteen. She said he could go past second base, put his hand down there, but no one had told him what to do next. Science class hadn’t dealt with petting, just procreation. Should he touch? Rub? Poke? Joe Phillips told him, “Get your hand in the clam.” His whole hand? And generally Joe was full of shit. Miles got his fingers in the vicinity, but hesitated, waiting for guidance. Katie took his hand away with a tight smile and hadn’t spoken to him since. When he tried calling, her mother said she was away, out of the country, on some Peace Corps mission.

Katie only dated way older guys like Preston now. Christ, he must have been eighteen; sandpaper stubble etched across his prominent jaw line, a speckle of zits peppering his forehead like all the sweaty jocks in varsity wrestling seemed to have.

“It sucks to be meeting like this,” Jack said. “But it’s good to see you, Miles. Heard you’re going to that hippie school in Vermont next term, for people who’ve been, you know…”

“Something like that.” Miles gazed over toward the distant stage.

“Let’s go back to my house,” Peggy said to Steve, who looked elated. Miles made eye contact with Billy. They both knew she was just a cock-tease. Her Dad was always home and this was just part of a dumb game.

“When do you think the music starts?” Jack said. They could hear the booming but muffled voice of a WNEW radio DJ echo through the park.

Katie kept her eyes fixed on the asphalt pathway. Preston pushed his floppy hair back off his forehead and sighed—as if the whole matter of spending time with his girlfriends’ younger friends was an ordeal.

“I’m going to keep walking,” Miles said. “I feel cold standing still.”

Katie’s face rose. It held a stiff, constipated expression, like she was trying to look sad because it was the right thing to do today. It made Miles feel sicker, the whole scene more awkward.

“Oh, do you have to go meet your Mom now?” Jack said, sparking his Bic.

“No plans to, but I’m sure she’s here.” Miles was already in motion.

“Well, at least she’s cool.” Jack choked on a pipe hit. “You should get a winter coat, man.” His raspy voice barely reached Miles.

“Sure, yeah.” It didn’t mean a thing, and no one heard Miles anyway.

The slope and sway of land descended before giving way to the vast, paved promenade that stretched towards rows of dark blue-green benches facing a giant limestone bandshell. The Naumberg Bandshell. A sea of people milled about, and more streamed in from the East side, from north across Seventy-Second Street, and also south from the zoo, Wolman Skating Rink, and Columbus Circle.

Miles had been to concerts in the park, but he’d never seen mobs like this. When Miles first smoked pot at fifteen, Seventy-Second Street was the dope nexus. The Wisteria Pergola in the space up and behind the bandshell, a kind of atrium connected to Mother Goose playground, served as a shadowy market for dealers. High school seniors and college-aged dropouts with pony-tails dressed in long military coats lingered. Their deep pockets held dime bags, half-ounces, even four-finger ounces of gold, brown or green. During dry times, or after cops raided the bandshell, Miles would go score at nearby Bethesda Fountain.

“Six for five. Hyeck it out! Six for five. Check it out!”

What would Frederick Olmsted think of his architectural wonder looking out onto Boat Lake and the forested Rambles, now transmuted into a haven for manic Puerto Rican dealers hawking their wares?

“Six for five. Check it out!”

Killing time before whatever it was started, Miles drifted north across the roadway that bisected the park, down the grand stone stairway to the fountain. But today he heard no insistent voices. The dealers were laying low, bony frames tucked into nooks and corners while the crowds stampeded their turf, while the police showed up in force–in case of a riot.

But as Miles stared at the statues, a skinny Puerto Rican man sidled up to poke him in the ribs with a finger. “Hey mang, I recognize you. Your friend grabbed my bag last week and ran away. That’s not cool. You got to come through for him. Know what I’m saying?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

People kept walking by them and Miles tried to retreat, but the dealer opened a pocket knife and held it low against his stomach.

“Just give me twenty, man, and we be cool.”

Miles was broke. The worst day of the year, and for some, it looked to be the worst of the decade.

“Leave the kid alone,” said a bearded man in a long overcoat. “Two cops are right over there. Don’t make me call them over.”

The scrawny dealer folded his knife and retreated into the crowd.  Miles ran off.

People were crying, singing songs on out-of-tune guitars, or frozen in extended embraces. Miles felt alienated from everything. He’d outgrown his friends, and his relationship with his Mom had grown complicated. She shifted back and forth from being his friend to acting like a mother—constantly doing the unexpected. Because Ali was a bigwig in the record business and Miles loved music, it was inevitable they’d meet at concerts. On the surface they acted cool about it, but clearly it was tense.

He moved over Navy Hill, then back across the road to find the sloping path leading toward the bandshell.

“Miles?” a voice asked. “Remember me now?”

Beyond the last berm of earth, the path meandered down to a line of green metal-frame benches. The familiar bearded man sat pitched forward on the wooden slats that made up the seat.

“Van Monk?” Miles pushed his bangs out of his eyes and squinted. “Didn’t recognize you before with the face fur. Thanks. “

“Is your Mom coming, Miles? She’s supposed to be here.”

“Don’t know. I haven’t seen you since June, Van Monk. You kind of vanished.”

“I thought you’d heard…”

“About your, uh, time-traveling?” Miles smirked. “A lot of people think you’re—”

“Crazy? Full of shit?” Van Monk rubbed his hands together. “Yeah, I know. Probably better that way.” He uncoiled his Cat-in-the-Hat scarf and offered it to Miles.

“It’s cool. I’m not cold.” Miles teeth chattered.

Van Monk’s arm remained extended until Miles took it.

“Thanks.” Miles wrapped the scarf around his lower face then squeezed his bony hips down on the bench between Van Monk and a large sobbing woman. “What a crappy day.”

He felt much warmer sandwiched by their body heat. The December air twisted into little whirlwinds blowing dirt, soot, dried pigeon shit, and whatever else made up New York City’s atmosphere into their faces.

“My Mom used to tell me you were my Godfather.” Miles dug his hands into the unlined pockets of his jackets and squeezed them into numb fists. “I thought maybe you were my real Dad…”

Van Monk looked over then turned his head back to stare forward. “I met Allie back in 1966. We were, you know, close friends for a while in ’67. So you’re sixteen, right? Do the math. Doesn’t add up.”

“I just thought with that freaky time travel deal, you might have—“

“It doesn’t work that way, young squire.”

“Right,” Miles said.

He watched the line of people shuffling by them. Some appeared to be sleepwalking, others looked stricken, miserable. There were Vietnam veterans in wheelchairs, women on crutches. People who would’ve rather been anywhere else, except that they’d been drawn by some collective consciousness, some imperative to be here in the nipple-hardening, gonad-shrinking weather.

Miles’ throat tightened, his stomach roiled. “If you can really jump around in time, Van Monk, then why didn’t you stop this whole day from happening?”

A tremor went through Van Monk’s body lodged against Miles. “Don’t you think I’ve tried?

If only you knew how hard it is to change anything!” Van Monk got up and stamped off.

“Hey, you forgot your scarf.” Miles made no effort to unwrap it. Van Monk hadn’t split; he was just pissed off, pacing in wide circles around the bench.

“Van Monk,” Miles said when he came closer. “You’re my Mom’s age, right? So you’re almost—“

“Almost forty?” Van Monk added. “Yeah, in two years I will be.”

Miles went quiet. Forty meant death, brain-ossification, loss of cool. Or worse, it signified the living death of parents and teachers–staggering through existence propelled by booze, pills and regrets. No reason to talk about it. Miles would be there soon enough.

A tall, wiry man who wore a black watch cap approached them.

“Dustin.” Van Monk smiled. “Knew you’d be here.”

Dustin Blazer, the crazy rock journalist. Miles had seen him two years ago at one of his Mom’s parties, healthy and strong. He sang off-key at the piano, then drew a knife when someone told him to shut-up. Today he looked gaunt, with the stunned expression of someone awoken suddenly from a deep sleep into a tragedy.

“Van Monk,” Blazer said. “I always run into you at these big events. Is this part of your stupid time-travel deal?”

Van Monk formed a wistful smile. “Yes, Dustin, and this is the third time we’ll have had this conversation.”

“Okay, how does it start?”

“I say, this is it, the final end of the Sixties.”

Blazer burst into laughter. “You told me that at Altamont, right?”

“That was the end of the fantasy that young people could live together peacefully.”

Blazer attempted to light a cigarette. “You also told me when the helicopters left the embassy in Vietnam, the Sixties were over.”

“That’s because the decade really began around 1964, so logically it ended ten years later, Dustin.”

“Is this what we said the last time you were here—now?”

“Slight variations, but pretty much.” Van Monk looked bored. “Anyway, today is the death of the Sixties daydream. The feeling that lingers years after the historical reality ends.” Van Monk scraped something gummy off his shoe onto the pavement.

“I wish you were my history teacher,” Miles said. “I’d stay awake, take notes and everything.”

A shadow fell across the bench and both men tensed up.

“There you are.” Miles’ mother hovered above him. “I’ve been looking all over for you.” She studied Blazer and Van Monk with scientific detachment. Miles knew they’d shared something special way back in Haight-Ashbury. But now, in another city, another decade, these men were more a nuisance to her than anything else.

“I have such a headache today.” She scrunched her brow.

“Nice to see you too, Ali.” Van Monk continued pacing.

“Good to see you, Ali,” Blazer said. “It’s been a year or two.”

Allie made no attempt to hug him when he outstretched his arms.

“Hey, Ali,” Miles said.

“Jesus, I’m your mother. Show some respect.” She took off her crocheted, floppy wool hat and pressed it onto Miles head. “Middle of winter and you’re wearing that piece of shit jacket from Unique Warehouse.” Allie took Miles’ hand to lift him up from the bench. “We’re going for a walk. We’ll meet you guys back here later.”

The DJ’s voice kept droning in the distance. Was it Vin Scelsa? Pete Fornatale? So many people had arrived that they could barely view the stage anymore.

“Let’s go climb those rocks you used to play on.” Ali pointed to some craggy gray shapes to the south. “Maybe we can see what’s happening?”

Happening? Nothing was happening. It had all ended days ago.

They pushed their way through clots of people, waiting for some reprieve that would never come.

“Where were you last night, Miles?”

“I was over at Serge’s. We watched old horror movies, and then I fell asleep on his couch.”

“You could have called me. The city is dangerous.” Her face fell, wavy brown hair gusted by the wind. “I worry about you.”

“I don’t want you to,” Miles said. “Then I start to worry about you worrying about me. It turns into a vicious cycle, like a fucking Moebius Strip.”

“I told you before: don’t swear around me.” She squeezed his shoulder until he nodded. Ali scratched her forehead. “I was really depressed last night, wanted to listen to music with you. Anyway, I went into your room to borrow some pot.”

Miles stared at her. “I thought you gave it up like ten years ago?”

“I did. I only smoke when I’m stressed.” Her eyes narrowed into slits. “I found this huge bag of weed in your drawer. Biggest I’ve ever seen. Miles, are you a dealer?”

“No, no, that’s just a week’s head-stash for me and my friends.”

Ali seemed relieved for a moment then stiffened. “Smoking that much of anything is bad for you. Promise me you’ll cut back, or I’ll make you get a haircut and work in the Xerox room at EF Hutton.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’ll definitely cut back.”

Miles knew that raising a teenager alone was tough. All his so-called father ever said was: “Are you fixed for cash?” or “Be careful with the girls. You knock one up and you’re pretty much trapped for life.” Miles opened his eyes.

“Don’t tell your Dad about me getting high, okay?”

“Frederick? You know I don’t call him Dad. No resemblance to me at all.”

Ali grabbed him by the collar. “Maybe he’s your step-father, but he raised you like a father. Better than some kids get.”

A man wearing a sandwich board emblazoned with a huge peace sign passed them.

“He’s my ex-stepfather, Mom. You guys split up like two years ago.”

“But I encouraged you to keep in contact. Just because I can’t stand the lying bastard, doesn’t mean he can’t have a positive influence on your life.” Ali’s hand slid off Miles’ collar and gripped at his sleeve.

“I saw him at his new gallery. Really bad art for a lot of money. What a concept.” Miles turned his head. “What about Van Monk? Do you believe his time travel stories?”

“Of course not.” Ali frowned. “Van Monk took some untested psychedelic drug in the Sixties. He’s been messed up ever since. He thinks he’s living back in Haight-Ashbury and is flashing forward in time. It’s sad. They’re really just flashbacks.” Her face looked pinched.

“I don’t want you hanging out with old hippies.” Ali walked over the curb across the dead grass and toward three giant rocks that several other people had already mounted.

“Wait up!” Miles trailed after her. Ali could be so strong, so tough in business, but certain things would set her off and she’d act like a high-strung little girl. He touched her shoulder. “I’m sorry about last night, Mom.” Her muscles relaxed but she didn’t answer. “All my friends think you’re the coolest mom ever because you’re in the record business. You get me concert tickets, any albums I want—“

“Who cares what they say? A cool mom is bullshit. Do you think I want you to end up a crazy burnout like Dustin or Van Monk?”

“I’m just going through a weird phase now,” Miles said. “Just give me like ten years and I’ll snap out of it. I’ll be fine.”

Suddenly bells pealed and the massive PA speakers mounted on towering scaffolds began to rumble and crackle with anticipation of sound, of music.

Miles and Ali stopped climbing the rock to slide back and stand on the ground. Then the opening piano chords of “Imagine” boomed through Central Park, louder than he’d ever heard them. And everyone, over two-hundred thousand present there on Sunday, December 14th of 1980, knew this was not a rumor, not a bad joke, nor some nightmare to awaken from with a juddering heart.

Miles leaned forward to hug his Mom, whose frame gave—as if someone had yanked her spine from her body in one deft motion. She crumpled and they both collapsed into a heap amongst the dead leaves and hard soil.

But it didn’t matter anymore, because nothing mattered anymore, for everything that mattered was gone. For those who’d been born with the music, those who lived through the music, and even those more cynical, who denied the music until it broke their resistance and overwhelmed them, who found that love was all you need and who gave peace a chance and hoped and dreamed that someday they’d get back together again, because their parents divorce wasn’t final and their uncle would recover from Vietnam and their sister wasn’t really crazy and their dog would never have to be put down, to finally those in the outer boroughs and moldering tenements, vagrant souls who never slept, who lived drained of hope or imagination, where even for them, for one and for all, the dream was over.

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