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Table of Contents

Chapter Five

Sugar Boy positioned himself in the front passenger seat for the kind of maximum comfort that would allow the telling of a story that was either exceptionally interesting or incredibly long.

“He had been a cook in the Army and after World War II he came back to the States, telling stories no one wanted to hear. There was the story he liked to tell of how he was riding in a Jeep and fell out of it, but the guys he was riding with were drunk and didn’t realize it and just kept going on up the hill. He fell and hit his head on a rock by the side of the road. He said he laid there a long time looking up at the sky and thinking of how it was strange because it was a French sky, before another Jeep came along and stopped. The guys in the second Jeep stopped when they saw Carl, laughing in a friendly way. ‘Say, Palacheck,’ the one driving said to the other one. ‘The sight of that PFC laying there puts me in mind of a joke.’ They were both enlisted officers I guess, and the one in the passenger seat had an expression on his face, like when people expect to hear something funny. ‘What’s that, fighting man Kermonde?’ They were smiling and Carl says even he started smiling, laying there and rubbing the back of his head.”

“Was his head cut?” Turk asked.

“I don’t know and it really doesn’t matter, as far as the story goes,” Sugar Boy answered.

“Didn’t soldiers carry first aid kits? He should have gotten his kit and swabbed some iodine on that cut,” Turk said.

“A concern for iodine, out of proportion to the story I’m telling, is what I’m hearing at this point,” Sugar Boy said. “So the driver says, ‘Are you prepared for the rare moment of R&R that humor can bring to a war as ugly as this one?’ ‘Sure,’ says Palacheck, ‘it’s now or never.’”

Turk said, rubbing the back of his head, “Damn, now the back of my head hurts.”

Sugar Boy turned to look at Turk in the back seat. “Will you let me tell this story? Will you? Will you let me open my mouth and let the words come out without putting up a wall they bounce off? Will you, Turk?” He was working himself up and now the sound of his own voice was candy in his mouth and he was savoring it, sucking a green jawbreaker of annoyance. “Will you listen for all our sakes and even for the sake of anyone who hasn’t been born yet, who’ll one day grow up and discover that the ears on the sides of his head were put there in the hopes that he’d be able to use them to hear stories with? Turk? Are you good to go with that, as a concept and in practice?”

Turk said nothing but continued to rub the back of his head vigorously as though sandpapering black ants of hair into smooth boards that could be used to build a stylish ant farm.

“So fighting man Kermonde says, ‘How does a black man in one of the biggest wars the world has ever seen, a war that requires of its participants action in the form of valor, go about fighting for his country?’ Palacheck rubs his jaw, sort of like Turk there rubbing the back of his exceptionally large head, and answers, ‘I don’t know but I want to, I want to hear the answer to that one, fighting man Kermonde.’ And Kermonde goes, ‘Why, just like that fellow down there. On his cowardly goldbricking black back, looking up in the sky and thinking, Where the fuck am I? Am I in Africa somewhere?’’”

“No he didn’t,” Turk said with incendiary denial.

Sugar Boy didn’t mind this interruption because it added a shade of red to the dramatic color of the story. “Am I in African somewhere? So then Palacheck says, ‘There’s something wrong with that story. It ain’t as funny as I would have hoped. I’m let down, to tell the truth.’ Carl says he felt the anger rising but then it stopped when he heard Palacheck. Maybe Palacheck was one of the good ones. Maybe Palacheck knew they were all in it together. Palacheck, if he was a good one, might have even understood some things about how Carl felt. That he wanted to do the right thing and defend his country, but that his country didn’t give a shit about him, and even worse than not giving a shit, tried in every way form and fashion to deny him the freedom he was supposed to be fighting for. He said maybe Palacheck could imagine how he couldn’t get a job unless it was as a Pullman porter or sweeping streets or digging ditches. He said maybe Palacheck could understand how it felt, to know you’re as good as the next man or maybe better but to be held back, so you couldn’t look your wife or children in the face when you walked through the door with your shovel hanging over your shoulder. So Carl was willing to hold off with his anger and maybe even forgive fighting man Kermonde and chalk it up to ignorance.”

Tentative to avoid repercussions, Turk quickly said, “He was a better man than I’d have been.”

“And so there’s Carl, still on his back, waiting for this voice of commiseration or understanding and Palacheck says, ‘Now, Kermonde, if you’d have said how does a nigger fight a war, that would have been funny. That would have provoked my deep hilarity. You fucked that one up.’ Kermonde picks it up and says, ‘Sure, I see what you mean. How does a nigger fight a war … flat on his nigger back, that would have been the thing.’ And so they drive off.”

“What would our white brothers and sisters do without the word nigger?” Turk asked. I said, “Faulkner wouldn’t have been able to write half his books.”

Sage and I had selected at random a William Faulkner book one night from the cardboard boxes neither of us had ever unpacked and put on the bookshelves we did not own, not even proletariat Ikea ones – this was before I figured out how to “build” a bookcase using planks and bricks – and performed a tally of the word nigger and came up with a number that embarrassed us on behalf of Faulkner. There was a time when I might have thought that Sage would actually have been more embarrassed for me than for Faulkner, because she was Middle Eastern and perhaps incapable of seeing such matters the way I did, from my cultural vantage point, but I would have been wrong. In fact her perception regarding such matters had a global dimension that mine lacked and dropped before my eyes a window affording me broader angles, wider perspectives.

“HBO would lose about a third of its movies,” Turk calculated. The window next to him was already down and he leaned over carefully like a melting glacier attempting to reconstitute itself and yelled into the street’s long alert fox-like ears that heard everything but did not perk up because we were on the north side of town, “Nigger nigger nigger nigger nigger!” Drawing himself in with an effort, he asked, “How’s that?”

“One more for symmetry,” Sugar Boy suggested.

Turk complied.

“That might have been more effective,” I proposed, “in another part of town. As a political statement.”

“Start small and build up,” Turk replied.

Sugar Boy grabbed the handle of Turk’s response, rolled it forward like a shopping car with a limping defective wheel. “… Yeah, build up … and then lose momentum, like the Civil Rights Movement.”

Everyone laughed a liberating but sour sort of laughter. The laughter was like a moist paper bag our voices fell into like discarded lemon slices.

“What about his legs?” I asked. Given the circumstances I was almost too interested for my own good in Mr. Remmington’s singing legs.

“I’m getting to that. I’m just giving you a little emotional texture. The way that story ended was, Palacheck and Kermonde drive off. Another Jeep comes by 15 minutes later. This one’s got two in the front and two in the back. Carl’s still laying there at the side of the road with his head in his hands.”

Turk wanted to start in again about the cut but thought better of it.

“Now all these fellows in this next Jeep, they were white guys too. The one driving stopped the Jeep and saw Carl sitting there are said, ‘Hey soldier, you all right?’ Carl didn’t say shit. ‘You look like you could use a hand.’ The guy’s apparently one of the good ones but Carl can’t see through the anger.”

Anger like an audience of people who become mob-like at a movie theater when the reel breaks, I thought.

“The driver extends his hand to help Carl up. Carl says, ‘How does a nigger fighting in the greatest war of all time fight?’ The driver just looks at him. ‘On his goldbricking cowardly nigger back.’ The driver’s no fool. He gets back in the Jeep without a word and drives away.”

Nobody said anything for a while. Silence puckered its lips and swallowed us like thick medicinal tonic. Finally, silence having distastefully smacked its lips, Sugar Boy offered, “Emotional texture.”

At some point when it became apparent that trying to find Sage this way was hopeless, I pulled up to Sugar Boy’s house and we all went in. From the living room where the sofa sat waiting for amnesty in the war of soiled spots it waged, we could see through the bedroom door into that room, where the unmade bed seemed to drift on a sea of rumpled clothing, encyclopedias, computer components. Both rooms looked like thoughts inside two regions of an active disordered brain, the living room corresponding to a damaged frontal lobe, the bedroom to the limbic region. The sofa groaned when we sat, knowing our jeans were not spotless. Sugar Boy did not offer us anything to eat or drink but did produce a parsimonious Q-tip of a joint and fired it up and passed it along politely, almost daintily. His inventor’s hands were more accustomed to grasping the asymmetrical wedges of odd ideas.

“Now, Carl is out of the war. He gets a string of bad jobs. His big break comes and he finds himself working for the Metropolitan Life Company. He’s the only black guy they’d hired, up to that point. He does his job with soldierly enthusiasm.”

“Fighting man Carl Remmington,” I said affectionately, kissing the smoke in.

Sugar Boy never became angry when I interrupted him because I was a writer who had graduated from the University of Milwaukee and had won a short story contest sponsored by the university called The Mae E. Gales Literary Award but after graduation, my bright promise of accomplishment shining over me, could not write, not even now to save Sage, and he must have felt sorry for me as he watched me stare straight into my failure’s dismal eclipse.

“Fighting man Carl sells the policies, walking from door to door, and once a month collects the premiums. Well now, people from time to time want to collect on those policies, someone dies, great aunt Sady dies, they want to collect the $2,000 they’ve been paying into for ten years, a nickel at a time. They want to give Sady a decent burial.”

“That’s what they been paying for,” Turk confirmed, and moved a little when he leaned forward to take the joint Sugar Boy offered. When Turk moved the sofa tapped everyone left like crooked typewriter keys slanting on the crowded page of our sitting.

“That’s what they paid for and that’s what they wanted, especially Tobias Sanfroid Grimm.”

Turk said thoughtfully, “I bet he had a face like a bad website.”

I resolved to remember that and use it in a sentence to draw everything on the page to the center of that beautifully transgressive metaphor like stars pulled by the alluring song of black holes, so that I could get Sage back, bring her home again.

“Tobias’ mama died, an old woman who’d ruled with an iron hand. The man was a grown man and she ruled him without remorse or pity.”

“No surcease,” I ventured.

“That’s right. Ruled his ass surceaselessly. Picked his women for him and picked his clothes, and as a consequence of the clothes being picked he didn’t have too many women. But one thing she was even more inflexible and iron-handish about had been her desire to have a burial befitting an old woman of her imagined station in life. Tobias made her a promise and never imagined that he wouldn’t be able to keep it because The Metropolitan Life Company probably on purpose reneged on some kind of technicality and didn’t pay off on the policy.”

“Oh oh,” Turk said.

Sugar Boy, slender as a reed, was now on his feet and moved then as he always moved, like something that had grown and thrived all its life in deep water, with submerged grace, a fluid lightness that suggested consummation in air enclosed by clouds. He had stood up to leverage himself into the gestures he needed to tell it right. His oddly shaped face – a jaw that reminded you vaguely of the state of Florida – was one that women found attractive for reasons I should have been able to discern with less tentativeness but could not because maybe somewhere along the line I had unwittingly filled out the subscription card to receive Maximum Masculine Magazine and read on page 1 million and five that one man must never see the grace or beauty in another man. Stroking the debonair pre-pubescent puff of goatee clinging like an angelic wisp to his chin, running the nervous sprinters of fingers over the smooth chestnut track of his face, he began to glide to and fro in front of us, as though the story were a dance floor with Sugar boy attempting to entice a pretty girl to leave the huddle of her friends, enter his rhythm’s embrace.

“Tobias Sanfroid Grimm. His last name said it all. He found little pleasure in life and none in his mama’s death, especially since he couldn’t make good on that probably death-bed promise and it floated over him at night like an anvil waiting to fall.”

Turk, detecting permutations he would have otherwise missed through the magnifying glass of the marijuana, said in a voice of wonder, “A floating anvil.”

“Carl had sold him that policy. Carl had, not Metropolitan Life. So he went to Carl and laid it all out and said, basically, pay me what you owe me. I paid, now you pay. Tobias S. Grimm was a kind of a little man, he didn’t really fit his name. Like little men everywhere he’d learned that you had to think big and get others to see you as big to survive in this world.”

Sugar Boy wanted to be able to speak freely. He looked around to make sure there were no little men in the room. He decided there were no little men in the room and went on:

“Carl went back to the company and sat down and rolled up his sleeves, but they slapped those sleeves right down to his wrist again. Nothing doing, my little token African-American friend. There was a technicality that stood in the way and that was that. Carl went back and tried to explain, but there was nothing to explain, because T.S. Grimm had been cheated. What could he say? Sorry, you been cheated, take it like a man? Well, he invented something to say to little-man Grimm but Grimm was understandably all in a rage and said that he would not take this lying down. This was ironic, because Carl said he had like a flashback to when he’d been down on his back on the road that day with his rage rising in him. But there was nothing Carl could personally do even though he felt shitty about it. He went back and tried a few more times with the company but they kept slapping the sleeves back down. Some months passed and while Carl never really forgot about it, he let it go as best he could. One night Carl was in bed sleeping and something woke him up. At first he thought it was the storm door flapping on a bad hinge in back of the house, but then he remembered he hadn’t put up the storms yet. As he’s sitting up the light in the room pops on and he sees a shadow cast on the side wall crawling up to the ceiling like a monster, all distorted and hideous.”

“Shit,” Turk said.

“Well and so then his eyes adjust and he sees it’s T. Sangroid G. standing there with a gun in one hand and a length of pipe in the other. He’s also wearing a gown of some sort and so Carl, thinking some serious what the fucks, with his eyes still adjusting but adjusting fast now like he could feel the lenses clicking into place, Carl sees it’s this old-timey white gown that Tobias is wearing and realizes it has to be the dead mother’s gown. Tobby G. throws a nickel – with both his hands full, I don’t know how – over to Carl and tells him to pick it up and flip it. ‘Flip it for what?’ Carl says and the Tobster says, ‘Heads, dead,’ and holds the gun up, then holds the pipe up and says, ‘Tails, wail.’”

The telephone rang like the sudden monstrous appearance of Tobias’ shadow climbing the wall. The answering machine snapped on and a profoundly baritone voice pleaded, “Yo Sugar Boy, this is Monty. Mon-TEE. Listen, can you put me together a motherboard? I need a motherboard. I guess you could say I need one in the worst way. I was thinking build now, pay later. Get back to me. Three, four in the morning, I don’t care. I never sleep.”

The machine clicked off and everyone looked at it as if it were wearing Tobias’ mother’s gown.

“Carl doesn’t do anything at first,” Sugar Boy went on, “and so mama Grimm, trapped in Tobias’ body probably, says ‘You don’t pick, it’s automatically heads, dead.’ Fifty-fifty odds is starting to look pretty good to Carl at this point. The coin is flipped. The coin lands. The coin is tails. The gun is aimed at Carl so he can’t really make a move. This isn’t Jet Li. He’s not about to do a back flip out of the bed and kick the gun away. Tobias walks slow over to the bed with the pipe raised. Somehow, again the hand dilemma, he manages first to take off the gown. ‘She wouldn’t like me to get blood on it,’ guy says. Now: underneath the gown he’s butt naked.”

“I should have known,” Turk boomed.

I was truly surprised by this. “This guy … the gown is, he’s …” And this was exactly my problem: words like minnows flashing a slender promise of silver through my frustrated fingers.

Sugar Boy was my merciful net. “That’s right. What I’m saying is, he’s under the gown, the gown’s off, the gown’s on the floor like a white puddle left by a ghost, he’s naked under it, as previously described.”

“I’m seeing the picture and I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit. I’m seeing a bad website with legs,” Turk said, harvesting the marijuana with farmers of overworked inhalations.

“He brings the pipe down, hard and fast, on the legs. The pipe’s got wings on it. The legs are kicking all over the place under the sheets. He’s got some mystical equilibrium mojo going, because all the time he’s beating down, he’s still holding the gun steady, aiming, making sure Carl gets it all. Carl, what can he do but scream and yell while he feels the bones in his legs breaking up into little animal crackers?”

“There’s the tails wail part,” Turk said.

“After a while, the kicking of the legs stops. It doesn’t stop suddenly, more like a clock winding down, the kicks coming slower and slower. Finally, Tobias figures mama’s satisfied and the legs are pretty much what he set out to make them. He puts the gown back on.”

“Freak,” Turk said.

“So now the thing’s done, see. He starts to walk away. Carl, mostly passed out, but there’s a little juice left in him, says ‘Wait a minute.’ Tobias turns. ‘Finish me. Why don’t you finish it? It’s over for me, I’ve got no legs now, I’m useless.’ Tobias just says, ‘Tails, wail,’ and leaves.”

I stood up to stretch, joining Sugar Boy on the dance floor. I was now like Turk had been with the cut on the head, suffering illusory pains in my legs. I tested my legs, moved them up and down. I thought I heard animal crackers bellowing in pain.

“The rest is anticlimactic. Carl lays there in the bed for two days, three days. The telephone’s only a few feet away but it might as well be in France. He slips in and out of dreams, deliriums. He smells strange odors, mint, roast beef, wet steel, Lysol, all coming from his head.”

“Roast beef sounds good to me right about now,” Turk said.

I did not want to admit it, but it sounded good to me too.

“Eventually he’s able to drag himself to the telephone. Help arrives. Even though both legs are smashed in a million places and doctors tell him he probably won’t ever walk again, he heals. Months of physical therapy. A year of it, two years. No help from Metropolitan, severance pay or disability, they just cut him loose. Carl’s sister, a nurse, helps him out financially. In the end, the best he could do was how you used to see him gimping around selling trinkets and crap when we were kids. I’ve heard that sometimes the stepfather situation can be bad. But Carl was all right. He worshipped my mom. Liked me a lot, too, I guess, you guys know that,” Sugar Boy admitted, not wanting to swallow the pill of nostalgia melting in his mouth, softening his words. “Hell, if nothing else, I guess I got a set of encyclopedias out of the deal.”

“Datcher, remember how he’d always give us stuff for free?” Turk asked. “He gave me this funky leather wrist band. Damn thing was wide as a dollar bill, with studs on it. Still got that thing today.”

I thought about fighting man Carl Remmington, who had been cast adrift by the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.

His animal cracker bones must have spoken to him in another language, filling the bell tower of his head with the echoed monosyllables of beasts like four-legged bells yelping, bellowing, baying, keening, growling. It would be necessary for him to translate this into some kind of action in order to give meaning to so much pain, otherwise he would risk insanity, which would loom before him like the deceptive door of a many-roomed mansion that could only be entered, never left.

He would take the fragments of animal crackers and replace them with other bits and pieces. The belts, whistles, watches and radios would become the troop of clowns and acrobats in the Cirque de Soleil of paraphernalia he salvaged to sell. He would replace the fragments with other odds and ends that did not exactly represent wholeness, but a lesser kind of fragmentation.

When Turk’s cell phone rang Sugar Boy and I had watched in amazement as he moved with the speed of a slender gazelle to answer it, loping away for a few moments of privacy in the bedroom, that walled-in savanna of disorder. For five minutes he spoke in a submissive murmur as though contentedly grazing and then, stepping into the living room with an air of authority he hoped would feed the impression of a man in consummate control, he announced almost contemptuously that Shayna had called, apologized tearfully, and was coming to pick him up. When she pulled up outside, she tapped the horn three times. The sound of the horn was firm and even, steady and steely, and could not have sounded less as though it had been produced by a woman shaken by the palsy of tears.

The image of the man in control summarily unraveled when he tore through the front door and was in the car before the third beep could fade. After Turk left I’d asked Sugar Boy for a favor and he’d refused.

“Don’t make me beg,” I begged Sugar Boy.

“You’re in pain, is what I hear you saying. But you need to find a qualified dentist who can perform qualified dentistry.”

“I can’t afford a dentist. My Cobra ran out. I don’t know where Sage is, I can’t think because of this tooth … ”

“Listen. I’m not pulling your tooth.”

“I trust you. I would pull yours.”

“Sure, I bet you probably would, Datcher. But I’m not doing it. What if you’re a bleeder? You could bleed to death on my sofa right here in my living room. What if your have a CVA, a cardio-vascular accident? What about the danger of infection?”

“I’ll sign a waiver. I’ve got antibiotics at home from when Sage had this bad throat infection. Amoxicylin. I can take that.”

“You don’t have a full course of it. Ten days’ worth I’m betting you don’t have.”

“I can use it with the left over penicillin I was prescribed when I had a bladder infection.”

“Then that’s probably not an antibiotic. More likely some kind of anti-bacterial you took, if it was a bladder infection.”

“I’m telling you, I have enough to take for ten days.”

Sugar Boy paces.

“I can’t take it anymore,” I said, venting sincere frustration. “My nerves are bad because of this tooth. I can’t think. I need to write and I can’t write because of this tooth.”

This was Sugar Boy’s day off from work. Technically, of course, every day was Sugar Boy’s day off from work, because he worked the night shift as a researcher at Latham and Latham’s, a legal firm downtown on Wisconsin Avenue. Sugar Boy’s days were precious and he used them to cut off a meager slice of rest like white bread without nutrition and then he was up after three hours, scaling a mountain range of paperwork to register a patent for his latest invention.

It was noon, the time when Sugar Boy typically took his nap, rose to do his work, then prepared for the midnight graveyard shift. I was intruding on his time like a No-Doz slipped into his sandwich of sleep but I was desperate, the tooth in my mouth uttering a sonorous prayer for extraction, my tongue a constant probing pink eraser over the M of the molar’s scribble of pain in my mouth.

“I think you haven’t been able to write a lot all these months because you know too much. You’ve got the whole history of writing in your head and maybe you think there’s nothing left to be said, that it’s all used up. You know something? You might have gone another ten years or twenty thinking that, but now Sage is gone and it’s immediate. Maybe you can look at this like something that came along and pushed you out of this occluded state you’re in.”

I tried another tactic, shifting the focus away from my preposterous request and onto his even more preposterous inventions, hoping that my plea for extraction would appear less bizarre as a result of the juxtaposition. “What are you working on now, anyway?”

Sugar Boy’s living room window was open and the mild June weather sat girlishly on the sill in a revealing pastel dress next to a shriveled potted plant that had thrown its brittle arms down in hopelessness and given up on the idea of being watered. The pastel dress blew open in a breeze his backyard directed like a white-gloved traffic cop through the window and when her legs opened immodestly wide to trap it, a saucy calculated act like Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, I was treated to the sight of the great outdoors. I saw bushes running rampant in venereal disinhibition, reckless in a violated maidenhead of growth, a lawn celebrating Sugar Boy’s pagan disregard for less promiscuous approaches to cultivation, and an ancient one-eyed dog given to Sugar Boy by Mr. Remmington many years ago named Strategy. The dog might have been given that name by Sugar Boy due to the animal’s insistence on strategic inertia, the spot he refused to relinquish regardless of conditions conspiring to incite motion. A casserole of rusted tools sat in the middle of this shaggy Chef’s salad of a lawn, and there was a small rubber swimming pool, spleen-like when deflated, large enough for a child of six that Sugar Boy filled with water and curled into when he felt the need for bouts of “fetal restoration and creative liquescence.”

“I’m working on something but I think the mistake I’ve been making is to jinx it by talking about it. So I won’t go into it except to say I’m excited as hell. I think this may be it.”

By “it” he meant the financial success that followed in the wake of products like the Slinky, the Clapper, mood rings, battery-operated home blood pressure cuffs, Post-It Notes, the products that degenerated into unapologetic useless gimmickry like the pet rock, soap-on-a-rope.

He shuffled through envelopes on a little wooden table to the side of the door. From the way he allowed the letters to slide yolk-like off the Teflon of distaste coating his fingertips, I knew they were bills. “Let’s just say,” Sugar Boy said mysteriously, “this one has a practical dimension some of the other works have lacked.”

The other works:

A lamp with a warning device that alerted you when the bulb was about to blow out, a key chain with a digital sound chip that blared out the warning “put me down someplace where you won’t lose me,” something like a thimble with tiny metal support beams that could be attached to the hand to inhibit thumb sucking, an airbag for motorcycles, a motorized cup-shaped chassis for ice cream cones that dispensed with the need to lick and rotated against the tongue’s tip, and the list extended like the Great Wall of China across even more exotic topographies of mandarinic brainstorming.

This was apparently what happened when you had a Stanford Binet-certified IQ several deviations above the standard norm. This was apparently the transformation you could expect to undergo when you walked away from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, with a Master’s degree in mathematics awarded for a thesis entitled “Fractals: Affine Transformations Associated With Iteration Algorithms, New Perspectives On Brownian Motion.” After you graduated with honors, you ran right home and the first thing that came to mind after you’d framed and hung your diploma was to invent a device called The Sound Strangler, which allowed you to scream into a foam-coated muffler in order to release pent-up frustration and anger without disturbing those in the immediate vicinity. Actually, the Sound Strangler seemed to have some social value: take one to work, between ever-increasing stretches of downsized joblessness, instead of an Uzi and earn the heartfelt appreciation of your boss’s husband or wife.

Why a young man with a mind that consumed facts at the speed of light believed that the world would benefit from a reservation system for scheduling airplane restrooms was a topic for another thesis entitled “Why A High IQ Does Not Necessarily Correlate With Success In The Real World, Or Even In Unreal Worlds.” Strictly speaking this was not an invention, but Sugar Boy had explained that concepts could also bring “big bucks.”

The number assigned to passengers with the need to empty bladder or bowel on any given flight would be prioritized to rank restroom requests in relation to important determining factors, such as the price the passenger paid for a ticket, frequent flyer miles accumulated, what class the passenger was flying. The loudspeaker would blare, “You are number 112 for the right rear bathroom. Estimated time until usage, 122 minutes.”

You would think twice before deciding to fly coach.

Sugar Boy dropped down on the couch beside me and then, sitting on thumbtacks of restlessness, immediately sprang up. “Peace, I’ve been thinking about this whole thing since you called me at work last night.”

“I keep thinking I should just contact the police.”

His fingers were a cleaver sawing idly through a fillet-thin goatee laid out on a chopping block of grooming. “I guess your boy Kodiac somehow found out about that little run in you had with the police, that it wouldn’t look too good, telling the cops you borrowed $20,000 from a guy who owns a dozen nightclubs who’s under suspicion for being the biggest dealer of Ecstasy in the Midwest.”

“Yeah. Right. My heinous drug trafficking past.”

I was alluding to my arrest last summer, to the branding iron of misdemeanor charges pressed into the quivering flank of my newborn criminal record, to the feeble little calf of condemnation lowing ominously as it followed me as though I were its mother through the rest of my life, to the probation that took the form of 50 hours of community service at the North Side YMCA as the coordinator of a creative writing workshop for “inner city” youths – all that for possession of two marijuana joints. At any rate I had thought, until I appeared in court, it was for two marijuana joints.

The marijuana had been left in my glove compartment by an acquaintance of Sage’s, without Sage’s knowledge – some friend of a friend who had in desperation called Sage one evening when a flat tire had left her stranded somewhere by the lakefront. When the officer who pulled me over for a broken taillight requested my registration, I was eager to demonstrate my willingness to cooperate with authority by opening the glove compartment with a flourish that was an exaggerated mocking voila, an invitation to observe the crammed compartment of my innocence.

The two joints rolled out like the dead bodies of celebrity twins being spectacularly wheeled away to the autopsy table as news reporters with flashing cameras swarmed alongside the gurney.

At the time, I shuddered to think what might have happened if yet another joint had been discovered and confiscated, raising the cop’s seizure of evidence that day to a damning grand total of 3 “pot sticks.” Face a sizzle of menaced scarlet like a raw Porter House steak thrown red on a grill’s smoking spokes, the young arresting officer had repeatedly used the phrase “pot sticks” while refining the angle of aviator-lens overhang relative to the degree of oily nose-bridge slippage. I wanted in the worst way to ask him if the phrase was official police academy argot taught to new recruits as a means of facilitating an easy intimacy with the world of illicit drugs that the more concrete term “marijuana” apparently disallowed.

The judge saw that I had no prior criminal record, took into account that I had recently graduated with an MA in creative writing, decided to believe my heartfelt insistence that I had no idea that the glove compartment contained the joints, and decided to go easy. “Consider yourself lucky, Mr. Datcher. The lab report indicated that the marijuana was dusted with PCP.”

Upon hearing the phrase PCP, I’d felt a stab of intense confusion, since at the time I worked for an HMO, where the letters stood for primary care physician. For a hellish moment I tried, and failed, to image doctors tightly rolled in a Zigzag. Then I understood and the judge finished by saying, “Don’t make me sorry I gave you a break. If I ever see you in this court again, or in another court, if you are ever in any way connected with narcotics, or people involved with narcotics, I will make certain that you are prosecuted to the fullest extent the law allows, and then some.”

When I thought about contacting the police to tell them about Kodiac, I saw myself garbed in an old fashioned zebra-stripped prison uniform, ankles shackled with ball and chain, standing next to a similarly garbed Kodiac on a dirt road, sledge hammer in one hand, harmonica in the other.

“From what you told me, it sounds like this Kodiac guy is a certified case. And he told you it wasn’t a kidnapping, that he’s just sort of … prodding you along?”

From my back pocket I pulled out the old-style micros cassette tape that recorded incoming telephone messages on the antiquated analog answering machine I refused to replace with one of its more modern digital counterparts. I handed this tape to Sugar Boy. “I’ve only had 3 conversations with Kodiac. The first was when I was introduced to him at a year ago at Flowology, one of his clubs, when I’d gone there because I was writing a scene set inside a club. I hadn’t been to one in a long time and I more or less just randomly picked it and went. Second was when he gave me the money a few weeks later, same place. The third is on this tape, which was yesterday. I turned it on a few seconds into the conversation.”

“But after he gave you the money, no more direct contact with him. He just had this other guy, this Boy of Fleece character, coming by your studio once a week.”

“For the past year he came by once a week, picked up what I wrote, took it to Kodiac, and returned it with his notes.”

Crossing the floor in his flowing style, a reed modeling itself on a drifting catwalk of water, Sugar Boy slotted the tape into the stereo system’s cassette deck, the plastic chamber dropping down as though it were a red carpet welcoming audio royalty. The stereo, sitting on the pedestal of a cigar box in the corner of the room, was one of those diminutive systems that looked like it belonged in a demur dollhouse. But because nothing was ever precisely what it appeared to be, was always less or more than it appeared to be, when he turned it on the watts were demur’s opposite, blowing the walls back like a screaming Barbie of nitroglycerin. After he frantically jerked down the volume, our ears slid through a staticy tunnel of 4-second leader and then the recorded conversation began:

“Datcher? I know that it’s only been 10 minutes or so since you’ve been home, enough time for you to have seen the note, there on the kitchen table. So by now you’ve read it, and I can imagine you’re going through a spectrum of emo …”

“Is this … who is this? Is this Mr… is this Kodiac?”

” … of course, I have nothing to hide Datcher, I know that you burst, are bursting with questions, you’re greatly confused, and please permit me to explain, so that you can know what’s expected of … ”

“This is either a … a joke of some kind or, this is a joke or misunderstanding, either way this thing is not … ”

” … would really prefer, Datcher, that you just, just listen for a few moments, yes, allow me to suggest that you just have a seat and close your eyes right now, and breathe deeply, taking in the good air, while you listen. Good. There are two kinds of people. Two. And I’m speaking of my world, in my world. As we all speak from within our worlds. So then, two kinds of people … I appreciate that you did what you did, I really, Mr. Kodiac, I really thought that I would … I fully intended to produce this book or repay it all back at the end of the areed upon time … which was a month ago. A while ago I submitted this ah, thirty-page chapter to the National Endowment for the Arts and now looking back I see it was absurd to count on being awarded the endowment, but I thought, seriously thought my chances were … that with the award I would be able to pay back … Two kinds. And you must really permit me to take control of our little exchange now and, what, insist that the role you play, temporarily, be that of the listener, otherwise we could, this could go onall night, can we agree? I am a creature of the night, but not for the telephone. The two kinds of people to which I alluded are those who trust me sufficiently to do as I say and those who do not. Eh? Surely you see this much? This perspective is one I have nurtured since I was a child, I’ve never failed to see the world that way, this has never failed to be my guiding principle. Where I’ve lived, in the country I was born in, it was almost as if the howling Siberian spoke to you in a secret tongue, and by this I’m trying to explain … Goddamnit, Datcher, I ramblenow that I’ve turned sixty. That a few years of aging should make such a difference in the cognitive processes is appalling …”

” … And kidnapping is a crime. Kidnapping. You can’t just take Sage and say … ”

” … kidnapping? No. You misunderstand, completely. I was saying 2 kinds of people. Because there are those who for various reasons elect to play a part in my world but refuse to accept the principles by which that world is governed – unalterable laws I compare to gravity. These are people who, what, are sadly confused. They too are my children – all of you are so appallingly young, Datcher – but sometimes bewildered and lost. If we listen there is always guidance, there are angels all around us. Now think back. Isn’t that what you thought? I mention this not from any need for ego gratification, but because I’ve been told that some see me as … I remember your look as you were offered this money. I have been privileged, based on that look, to know how the Lord God of Hosts on high feels! It’s been my privilege to know that! You understand my laughter now is not to mock, but at how easily we forget. But as to the inappropriate word you used, kidnapping … ”

“No, let me, I’m trying to under … yes, I took $20,000 to be paid back in 12 months. I thought if I had 12 months where I could just write, full time, and not have to worry about money – I’ve worked since the age of 14 – that I could write the book that was in my head. And I’d applied for the grant and thought that by the time the year was up, I would be able to pay you back with the NEA money I was sure I’d get if I didn’t complete my novel. I agreed to all of it, but if you give me time, I can promise … ”

” … by would anyone want such a thing from you, a book? You, who have no reputation as yet and write in obscurity? Because I believe in you, I suspect you have the seed of greatness in you. Datcher, I tell you this – that today, months later, I clearly recall a passage from that first thing you showed me, while the music was blaring, the music of youth, everyone having such a wonderful time dancing, and I recall reading where you have a character comment on the beauty of a woman, I forget names, and this character states, “Her body is amazing … she’s so beautiful.” Fine, big deal, so what? And then the narrator goes on to describe how he sounded when he said it: A genie of praise rises through the bewitchment his voice barely bottles. What? This almost makes no sense, it’s like a chord with a tone in it that doesn’t belong. I found it exceedingly beautiful because, what, something in it fails to connect strongly to logic … and now I am asking, where are all the rest of the sentences like this …?”

With his index finger Sugar Boy slaps the pause button as though it were an offending face. “Let me get this straight. “So. Let me get this straight. You happen to be at this club, Flowology. You meet this guy, the owner, Kodiac. You share some of your work with him at the bar, a few pages. He loves the work. Two guys shooting the breeze over Bud Lites, but instead of talking about how the Lakers are struggling without Shack and Phil Jackson, the topic of conversation is something like, hell, paradigm shifts into hypertextuality for the 21st century novel or something, I wouldn’t know. Alcohol, even Bud Lite, is a social lubricant: So you tell him things. If only you had some way to pay your bills for 12 months, if you could kick the day gig thing to the curb and take a shot at penning some serious page. Now Kodiac comes on to you like he’s been looking for an investment. He’s always been a dabbler in the arts, literature, but he’s been thinking more seriously lately. He’s got a million in chump change – he’s always wanted to start a publishing company.”

I nod like a heroin addict. “Something like that.” With the facts so nakedly exposed like a Playboy model, the details of my arrangement with Kodiac and Flowology Publishing now stripped of the voluptuous plausibility I had invested them with through the sheer strength of my lust for ideal answers to all my problems, I wondered how I could ever have swallowed the sweet cloying ambrosia of such fairy tales, and I nod more slowly, in deepening dejection.

“He or the publishing company gives you $20,000 and they get the book. Okay.” Sugar Boy took a moment to silently add it all up. His eyes were like cash registers, breaking my explanations down into smaller hazel denominations, rapidly making change for some dull-witted customer holding up the line. “So exactly what was the agreement if you didn’t deliver the book?”

My version of his version of the story was spare and lean. “Then I pay back the $20,000.”

“All at once?”

“We didn’t discuss that. I never thought I wouldn’t be able to finish it.”

“Say you were able to pay it back. What has Kodiac and Flowology Publishing gotten out of this? Just the satisfaction of feeding a starving artist?”

“Flowology Publishing gets to read the novel first, either way, whether it’s on time or not. I don’t know, that seemed fair since he wasn’t charging any interest on the loan. They read it first, and they have the option of accepting it, or not.”

“I don’t get it. Then there’s really no incentive to you finishing the book on time, is there? Unless he secretly planned to take Sage as collateral right from the start.”

He was right and I had no answer. All my responses were now thin, anemic, dietetic, response-lite, and Sugar Boy was forced to flesh them out, put speculative meat on the bones, make them substantial.

“All right. They have something like first right of refusal. None of this is written down. No contract?”

“No contract.”

“But he knows you’re married, and so when you don’t have the money to repay because you haven’t finished the book, he takes Sage as collateral.”

“I come home and she’s gone and there’s nothing but a note telling me that since I don’t have the money, or the book, arrangements have been made … ”

Sugar Boy, hoping for something more concrete and specific, had his finger on the pause button and was waiting, looking at me. He wanted to hear something that would make sense and when it was apparent that I had nothing more to offer, he prompted, “Arrangements …?”

“The note says, ‘Arrangements have been made to provide you with motivational incentives to assist you in your creative endeavors.’”

A sharp gash of barking like a cut requiring 9 stitches bled through the window and spilled into the room. We both went to the window and looked out. Strategy was standing next to the canine-shaped bald spot in the lawn, looking mournfully at the dirt as if to say, “Wait a minute, don’t they make Sealys for this?” He sniffed it, then circled and fell into the bald spot again, reconciling himself to the limitations imposed by circumstances beyond any reasonable dog’s control. I stood watching as though I had never seen a dog in the dirt while Sugar Boy finally released the pause button:

” … This is insane, I can’t believe this is happening. Look, I am trying to write this fucking thing but it’s just not there, it’s not there … and even if I could write it, so what? It’s not worth this, it’s … my wife … ”

”. .. let me express to you what this is so there is no further misunderstanding. She is in safe keeping, yeah? She is having a time that she will look back on one day and laugh about with her and your children. She will describe this as having had an adventure. You’ll paint a picture of this to your children, they to their children, and so on, and you and Sage will thus ascend sweetly into myth. I believe Sage understands everything, she knows you’re working, you need time to work, work Datcher, give me those sentences, it’s that simple, and then whish, boom, bam, she is back where she belongs. Writers and their absurd complications! Every week one of my children collects your pages and will continueto do so until we have the finished endeavor and what could be simpler? You can do it and you must do it, Datcher.

“Now wait … ”

” … and in perfect health, robust, she has been told that we are removing distractions. Was this not the reason she suggested renting the room, so that you could have your own studio, no distractions? I am believing that she wants what you want – for you to do what your talent demands of you. Sage is a remarkable person, wise, full of unquenchable spirit, a veritable force to be reckoned with … she understands you better than you know, Datcher, maybe even better than you know yourself. You’ll speak to her soon but for or now, the solution to everything is for you to complete your end of this. I really must go, Datcher, I’m told now there’s a matter requiring my atte … ”

“This wasn’t the deal, I’ll call the police, YOU MUST BE A FUCKING LUNATIC, I WILL … ”

“No, after you think about it, no. You will decide against authorities. Needless complications in the skein of which you would become very regrettably tangled. I am what I am and I certainly am at peace with that but you, you are for lack of a better word just a civilian, a writer, with much to lose. Our affiliation would not be looked upon favorably, would it, Datcher? So much, what, explaining you would be forced to do. And anyway it’s simply not necessary, everything is fine. So for now, goodbye Datcher … ”

“If you … ”

The loud little click.

Sugar Boy shook his head. “I don’t get it. It sounds like she’s not in any real danger, but why’s he doing this? If you were already famous and every word you wrote was a guaranteed ton of money, yeah, I could see it. But why’s he want this novel so bad?”

“That’s the thing,” I said.

“Is it possible … now, I’m just saying … but is it possible Sage would just, maybe just go along with this? I mean, maybe thinking this would help you to write?”

The voice-of-reason Sage would never go along with this – the Sage who always advocated patience in the pursuit of our goals, the Sage whose saying “drop by drop the bucket is filled” I wrote on a piece of paper and taped to the side of my computer and gazed at wistfully as I pecked fowl-like after words as though they were single elusive seeds, the Sage who contacted our creditors to persuade them to accept lower monthly payments on our bills, the Sage who taught me that sitting still and tethering my attention to incoming and outgoing breaths would minimize my unprovoked attacks of free-floating anxiety, halt the heartbeats that sometimes slipped down the hill in my chest, avalanching into arrhythmia. But Sugar Boy, my mother and father, Sage’s family, all our friends didn’t often see that Sage. They all knew the unconventional Sage, the unorthodox Sage, Sage the nonconformist, the heretic, the renegade, Sage the merciless maverick.

This was the Sage who had thought it would be a lark if we held our wedding ceremony in an elevator. To symbolize, of course, “the rising of our love from the ground floor of a fledgling commitment to the acme of conjugal solidarity.” (She proposed several such wedding scenarios, rife with eccentric symbolism.) On the telephone Sage’s mother, Shahin, talked to her daughter long into the night to dissuade her, raging in heated Farsi and weeping wounded tears, until Sage uncharacteristically relented.

This was the Sage who, when George Bush (Junior) was elected, organized and orchestrated a “Sky In” with a half dozen friends, leaping from an airplane and deploying parachutes emblazoned with the words DISMANTLE THE ELECTORAL COLLEGE over downtown Milwaukee while, on the ground, reporters taped the event, which appeared on the local nightly news with the caption “Freefall For Voting Reform.” Sage’s mother talked to her daughter long into the night on the day preceding the jump, raging in heated Farsi and weeping aggrieved tears, to no avail.

This was the Sage who chained herself to the front door of The Milwaukee Humane Society after she discovered that the treatment of the unfortunate animals kenneled there was less than humane.

Again, the heated Farsi and the aggrieved tears.

And again, and again, and again.

“Even Sage wouldn’t go that far,” I said.

Sage the voice of reason wouldn’t go that far.

“You’re right,” Sugar Boy agreed. Then he added, “That would be … ”

Considering Sugar Boy’s fantastic theory, I vanished into uncertainty for a moment as though leaving to pay an urgent visit to the rest room only to find that the door was locked. I returned, congested with frustration, occluded with primitive needs. When I said that I knew Sage, what did I mean? Did you measure your knowledge of another by the extent to which you could accurately predict that person’s behavior? If that were the case, then I did not know Sage, had never known her and never would. I picked up the ellipses that had fallen to the floor from the sentence Sugar Boy hadn’t finished, handing them back. “Suppose I thought that. Then what? What if I think that and she didn’t?”

Sugar Boy asked the question I was afraid he would ask. “So what can be done? You’re right. The thing to do is figure out what to do, proceed as if it’s real. You said nobody at the club claims to know where Kodiac is, where he lives. Let me see if I can find out some things on the Internet. If he’s the owner maybe there’s information on him somewhere. What about the pick-up guy?”

“James Fleece, Kodiac calls him the Boy of Fleece. The guy’s so E’ed up he half the time he doesn’t know what’s going on. If Kodiac’s still sending him to pick up pages, then what he told me in the note is right, he probably doesn’t know anything. It doesn’t make sense that he’d trust a guy like Fleece that much.”

If I had finished the novel, the book of linked stories, the pastiche, whatever shape the pages might have assumed had not the promise of Kodiac’s notion of “destiny fulfilled” been aborted by my paralysis, none of this would have happened. Kodiac and Flowology Publishing – the publishing company did not actually exist yet, but according to him was in its “formative stages” – would have their book now in lieu of the $20,000 I couldn’t repay and Sage would be no one’s collateral but my own, the tangible proof that my ability to connect with another human being was not bankrupt, was worth something.

Kodiac, the man behind the curtain pulling levers and spinning wheels, an image made flesh rising in emerald mist as though from the Oz of my subconscious, seemed now to confirm my deepest suspicions and unvoiced misgivings – that in this life the things you feared and hoped to avoid flocked to you like lemmings while you awaited them as though you were the cliff’s own precipitous edge: creativity as payment on demand, as proof of worth, as a means to validation, as product whose value was established by a jury of eyes outside you, creativity as performance tied to external expectations and demands, creativity as the For Sale sign on display in the real estate of the soul, creativity as competition.

My fear was that they called it “creativity” and once something was given a name it existed as a thing apart, took on an false identity, became separate and discrete and squared off so that it fit nicely into boxes, into the secret baroque compartments of elaborate boxes, for to name was to make known. Accept the name it was given and you came to believe it could be manipulated as though it were a commodified object – as though the competition, the performance, the validation held no danger. But what if creativity were nothing more than a koan, an insistent question repeatedly asked without an answer, the essence that informs a way of walking and sitting, the angle at which the head was held, the energy that mysteriously crystallized in right or left handedness, the mood that raked through you like water turned on low in a lawn sprinkler when the sun set, striating the spray into a peacock’s tail of lavender, golden citrus, April green? What if it was nothing more than your original face, the one you possessed long before your parents were born? If you knew this and you continued to act as though creativity were commodification, maybe you forgot your name, your place in history as it unfolded moment by moment, your age, everything that fed the thing that had been named, everything you were and would come to be.

Paralysis.

This paralysis wasn’t Kodiac’s fault. I had unknowingly begun to walk down this path of stultification when I had submitted to the National Endowment for the Arts as the 30-page story that had won the university’s Mae E. Gales Literary Award when I was a graduate student there. Wouldn’t a $20,000 dollar endowment have allowed me to follow my muse wherever it meandered, allowed me to cast off the cement overcoat of hours I spent “writing” proposals for an HMO that jabbed its pitchfork of carefully worded exclusions and limitations through the pages of its contracts, leaving diabolical loopholes, a devilish Swiss cheese of uncovered services and unpaid claims? It only occurred to me later that the National Endowment for the Arts was the mother of all validating competitions. Actually I had unknowingly begun to walk down this path when, as a graduate student in the creative writing program, I won the university’s contest for fiction writing. I believed that I had “won.”

Sugar Boy was always in motion, never still. Where he had just been was always a visible but fading afterimage, and where he would be a moment later was always already gone. People had their own ways of arriving and departing. Now he was standing next to me by the window. “When’s the next time you see this Fleece?”

“Tonight.”

“I could take the night off. You’re probably right about him, but maybe we could follow him anyway. What do we have to lose?”

“Let me talk to him first. SB?”

“Yeah?” he answers cautiously, as though he knows what’s coming.”

“Pull the tooth.”

I didn’t know why I wanted the tooth out so badly, but I did. It did ache, but maybe it had something to do with the things in your life that brought you pain, getting rid of obstacles, those impediments that seemed insignificant and trivial until you realized that like a broken bead of mercury the fragments flowed back in magnetic reconstitution to a common source, seemed to unite with all the other tiny impediments and pains until you were crowded out, pushed to the rear of your own life like an unwanted shirt on a hanger to the back of the closet.

The tiny anvil of the tooth with its mallet of petty pain striking down from time to time was something I’ve learned to accept and live with, as I had learned to accept and live with everything else I would have relinquished if I knew how. True to my sex, I had always grasped relinquishment with both hands, a crowbar of relinquishment, wedging the unwanted away with my will, forcing, digging, often striking with dull blows at the thing that resisted, until it broke apart. And often the thing broken left shards and shambles in a minefield on the ground where I stood, my feet filled with frozen motion as I wondered how to navigate through detritus that still held the power to harm. Then I would curse myself for not waving relinquishment’s wand, the one Sage tried to corridor through the clench in my hand.

“Just let it go,” she would say when she saw me forcing my way through something. She would hold my face to gentle me into listening, looking into my eyes. “I know you can hear me. I know you’re in there.”

Just let it go.

I was a writer who had forgotten how to write, inhaling a chloroform of silence wadded and stuffed in my forgetful mouth. Let go of what?

“Pull it,” I said.

Sugar Boy sighed like a nylon sliding up a long leg. “Let me see it.”

I opened my mouth, my tongue a hitchhiker’s thumb, pointing him toward the destination. He tilted my head back, into a bright dental assistant of sunlight. He left the room, returning with rubber gloves, a bottle of brandy, cotton balls, a needle-nose pliers. When the gloves were on he looked again. “That one back there?” With his two fingers in my mouth, my answer dissipated in a latex mumble. The dental assistant reached for me and faded as we left the window and I sat on the sofa. He looked sternly resigned like a doctor writing a prescription for a hypochondriacal patient. “Open,” he commanded curtly, like a real dentist. Soaking the cotton ball in brandy and dabbed around in the back of my mouth, he then said, “Peace, didn’t you know this tooth is really loose?” His hand was in my mouth, massaging the alcohol around the spot, a jellyfish of brandy that stung my gums, then he removed his hand so I can answer.

“I don’t know, it felt like it might be a little loose, I tried not to poke at it to much. It hurt so much I couldn’t tell what was going on … ”

The hand was in again. I felt a tiny tearing tug, like a thread being cut, or the first fledgling fissure in a heart soon to be broken. When he removed his hand he was holding the tooth. It was a pitiful specimen, barely tooth-like and pulpy with blood, and it looked surprised to be so suddenly free of its dank cave of pain-flavored saliva and murky membrane.

“Keep this boozed up cotton ball on the hole. You’ll be receiving my bill shortly,” Sugar Boy said, just like a real dentist.

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