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Table of Contents

Chapter Six

And because there’s no click of the keyboard, no rebound of fingers, just this stale silence surrounding my sitting, when the Boy of Fleece knocks on my door the sound is amplified, as though my anxiety has fled my body and shaped itself into a fist, rasping knuckles on the door.

I don’t respond quickly enough for him.

“Datcher?” The voice cracks mutinously, adolescently, on the first syllable of my name. “If you’re not in there and I’m using up my vocal resources unnecessarily, I’ll feel like the wastrel my family says I am, and I think that too, at the bottom of my heart. I’m really trying to not judge myself, here. It’s just been such a weird day today, Datcher.”

The Boy of Fleece is in one of his vulnerable emptied-out moods.

In the year that he’s been coming here to pick up or deliver chapters, I’ve seen him in this friable condition many times. Buoyed almost constantly by chemicals salvaged from a shipwreck deep in the biogenic marine, his sense of well being is entirely laced up tight in what I can only assume, given his affiliation with Kodiac, is an inexhaustible supply of Ecstasy. Even so, with certain drugs one cannot stay high 24 hours each and every day, and from time to time the body must rise to the surface through the fathoms in which it has been held submerged. Then the struggle to find and open compensatory floodgates begins, the body dreaming its nightmare of depletion.

He continues, “I know, Datcher. Now you’ve got problems and you see me as part of your problem. That whole not-part-of-the solution then part-of-the-problem dichotomy.”

I’m about to say come in, it’s unlocked, when he leans on the door and it parachutes hallway vista in a melodrama of slow supernatural swing. Startled and thin in green surgical attendant scrubs, the collapsed umbrella of floppy pants and V-neck I’ve never seen him fail to appear like rain beneath, he asks like a muted cloudburst, “Did you just say come in or did you think it?”

“I was about to say come in, Fleece.”

“Please tell me you said it,” he says, looking wildly about the room, closing the door cautiously as though defusing a bomb.

“Okay. I said it.”

“Then that’s like the fifth time today,” he says, ignoring my remark. “Five times today I’ve said what somebody’s thinking about saying, a second before they say it. This is going way, way beyond synchronicity.

He looks at me through hollow-seeming blue-keyhole eyes, finally registers and takes in his whereabouts and my presence as I sit on the futon, a pale green snail suctioned flat against the floor. When I stand he sits, my inverse mirror, and his legs become an effortless pretzel of full lotus. Then he shakes the salt of nervous energy off the pretzel, legs bouncing. His head hanging on a gallows of near-skeletal neck, I see nothing now but a precariously perched lamb of blonde hair, its legs dangling over his brow like an animal hanged rather than slaughtered in a misbegotten Old West calamity of justice so blind that creatures with cloven hooves have been mistaken for Billy The Kid. It’s an uncanny representation of how a lamb would look executed atop a human head.

I lead him to the business at hand. “Where is Sage, Fleece? What’s going on? What do you know about this?”

Without lifting his head, he grinds a coarse-grained pepper of fatigue deeper into his eyes with large spoony knuckles. “All I know is Kodiac told me on the phone that Sage is well. I’m told she seems to be taking the whole thing in some kind of weird stride. Not as seriously, maybe, as I would, given the circumstances.”

I begin to pace around my open manhole cover of agitation. White empty cartons of Thai takeout scatter as I circle, greasy castles tumbling in a fallen kingdom of insalubrious consumption, and Cliffs Notes pamphlets, the ones given to me by undergraduates as primary research references when I was still writing essays to supplement my income pre Kodiac, sting my feet with their bumblebee covers of black and yellow, colors of hazard suggesting to intellectually accident-prone students the threat of injury coiled in the attempt to read and comprehend on one’s own Another Country or King Lear.

“You have to know something. She’s not been hurt, or made to do anything that would result in her being hurt, or, just tell me what she’s doing all day? Do they let her read? She was in the middle of “Invisible Man” when they took her, and the book’s still over at our place, so they didn’t let her take it. She had just bought a drill set with 32 different sized bits and a tool belt from Home Depot. She was teaching me how to make kebobs with lamb or chicken. We were in the middle of living a life.”

For all the reasons in the world that almost make sense and the rest that come close to not making any sense at all, I remember the single ineradicable time that often without provocation stabs its tracks beneath my feet and thunders toward me like a black locomotive of regret, the time I made Sage cry. Not to have done that, made her cry, I would gladly take all the cherished notions it has taken me 26 years to accumulate and cast them off like garments one by one, standing naked before the harshest eyes: stripping off and tossing aside the sense of honor like a pair of radared gloves carefully guiding my hands, unbuttoning and slinging to the ground the sense of beauty that is a shirt warming my chest so that my heart would be forced to labor in the coldest concentration camp of climate, kicking off the sense of identity that is the pair of thick-soled shoes anchoring me to the earth – everything that’s mine, everything I wear, all that covers and protects me. None of these are worth one of her tears, for just one of her tears holds all the love that I would ever be capable of giving, even if I were to stack my years into a pyramid of centuries.

It was this simple: she asked me to taste dough – pronounced more like dugh – a Middle Eastern beverage made of plain yogurt and water whipped with fresh dill and dashed with salt, a concoction strange to homogenous-inclined Western palates, but one that she had grown up with, one that her father Mortaza had drunk, and before him the line of mothers and fathers stretching back to Iran, perhaps even further back, when that country was a part of the vibrating empire known as Persia and held half the world in its swoon of veils. Perhaps kings and queens had drunk dough to cool their throats when the faraway Sahara filled its lungs and exhaled grainy heat across the ruffling longitudes and latitudes. Sage handed me the glass and I flicked a finicky lizard’s tongue to sip, then jerked my head back as though slapped, looking around frantically in the expectation, which must have seemed reasonable to me, that a toilet would appear.

Her face, the expression that drifted across it like a wrong note played on a flute, slurred from hope to something like despair in an instant. She took my rejection and what it must have implied to her so personally that tears tilted from her eyes like an off-balance wish that can never come true, and she suddenly sat on the living room floor and cried. More than anything I remember that when she looked up, clinging to the tip of her nose was something clear, shiny and heartbreaking like a diamond the body had mined, and she made no attempt to wipe it away. She simply left it there in that startling openness to abandonment you see on the faces of sensitive children when they‘re besieged by emotion, by grief – an image that still haunts me.

“Were you just thinking about water, dripping?” the Boy of Fleece asks.

I look at him. I walk over to him. I sit down in front of him.

“Or maybe you would like to kill me?” he asks. “Is that what you were thinking?”

“I’m thinking of the time I made her cry, Fleece. Do you know how many times I apologized to her after that? I’d like to apologize again, but she’s not here. Why are you doing this?” I place my hands on his shoulders, good cop bad cop style. I‘m reasonable and murderous, both. My fingers squeeze, massage, compassionate, lethal. “Why are you a part of this?”

The lamb on his lowered head swings even lower in its noose. “I’m just … I’m nothing but a delivery boy. I pick up the paper you put your words on and take it back. None of this was my idea. I’m weak, Datcher. If I knew where she was, I’d tell you. I wouldn’t want to, but I probably would. All I’m good for, I guess, is dropping stuff off and picking stuff up.”

“I know Kodiac had to tell you something about all this.”

His sniffs forlornly. “Just that Peace Datcher is a writer who took $20,000 he was supposed to pay back in 12 months. That he was being provided with a motivational incentive to finish it. You hardly ever see Kodiac at Flowology. Nobody knows when he’ll show up. Nobody knows where he goes or where he lives. Maybe he doesn’t live anywhere.”

The yellow and black colors on the Cliff Notes pamphlets lift off the covers, taking wing and sieving my brain with bad-conscience stings. Because he’s right, Datcher did do that, took $20,000 from one of the city’s biggest Ecstasy dealers, not knowing this initially, of course, and then after reading a newspaper article on Ecstasy in the greater Milwaukee area and how a number of nightclubs were suspected of playing an instrumental role in the drug’s distribution (the nightclubs were listed under a column with the heading Alleged Involvement, Kodiac’s Club Flowology principal among them), allowing the knowledge to fade into the background.

At that point I ignored the article and willingly decided that Kodiac was what he had presented himself to be, an iconoclastic, new-millennial patron of the arts and would-be publisher, a big bear of a man with a heart of gold and money to freely spend in on would-be writers of promise.

My bad conscience can’t help me now, and showing it to the Boy of Fleece won’t help me convince him that I deserve to have Sage back. Burrowing my garden-variety delinquency, my bad-debtor’s bummishness, my collection-notice eyes behind the paranoia in the Boy of Fleece’s own, now lifted tentatively to view this thing called Datcher so stiflingly close to him, I press on.

“A book. That’s right, but I never said that Sage was collateral.”

“He would never in eternity hurt anyone. He would never hurt Sage.”

“Yesterday Kodiac comes into my house, or somebody working for him, takes my wife away against her will, and you’re saying someone who would do that wouldn’t hurt Sage? Who came my house, Fleece?”

“I’m sorry, I am, but I just don’t know. Why would anyone tell me anything? But …you met Kodiac. He’s like a … some kind of father you never had. A father that never criticizes you, never tells you how fucked up you are, never asks you why you don’t want to take over the shitty little family dry cleaning business, never compares you to your brother. But Datcher, I swear, even if I wanted to tell you, I don’t know where she is, or where Kodiac is. I drop your stuff off at Club Flowology, and I don’t know who picks it up, if it’s Kodiac or someone else. I give it to the bartender, I think the bartender leaves it in the office, and I guess it finally somehow gets to Kodiac.”

The good cop makes a time-out signal with his hand and leans in to give me some sound advice.

From the expression of devastated sympathy on his face, I know that the Boy of Fleece is probably telling the truth. But maybe if I get to know him better, set strands of sympathy vibrating lyre-like between us, he’ll reveal something he doesn’t realize is useful, turn loose some slippery eel of fact I can scoop up in my waterlogged hands.

I tell bad cop to wait in the hallway, where a ruckus is being created by some disreputable looking characters. He just stares at me until I inform him that their complexions are much darker than mine, then he leaves in a hurry, as though pursuing criminals on the Most Wanted list.

“This guy has really been like a father to you? ” I ask.

Showing signs of life now, eyes like ships pulling up anchor, he drifts into elaboration. Leaning back, digging into his pocket, he pulls out a white pill crudely embossed with a dove. “More of a father to me than my own. My father can really be difficult. I used to just say he’s an asshole but that doesn’t solve anything. But it’s more like, now I’ve reached the point where I see that I have to learn how to reconcile all our differences, because he’s just not capable of taking that step.”

“Sons, fathers, that whole archetypal thing,” I say, shrugging. “I used to say my father was an asshole. But there’s been progress. Now I’ve come to understand that he’s a simply a rectum.”

The Boy of Fleece chuckles appreciatively, a blond sort of laughter. He considers the pill. “I really shouldn’t, not the way I’ve been going at it lately. But I’m so burnt, and the whole hearing-what-people-say before they say it thing … ”

“Water?” I offer, though I have none in the room.

“I’m cool,” he says, and swallows. “You want one?”

Before I can refuse, a car alarm like mechanical amphetamines screams into the night that it needs a Valium, something to wrestle it down.

The Boy of Fleece says, “That’s mine.”

He just sits there. I let some time pass to see what he’ll do. The time that passes stops, looks at me with lengthening disgust, then shrugs and keeps going. “Is that your car alarm?” I finally ask.

“Yeah, I would think … it’s probably mine. Or one that sounds just like mine. Possibly.” He waves thin wrists like a twig with fingers reaching for a handful of refraction in water. “It’s pretty loud,” he says decisively.

“What kind of car is it?”

He thinks for a moment. “Jag. S-type.”

The bad cop re-enters the room and looks at me threateningly. “S-type’s a new line. Working for Kodiac has its rewards.” He hangs his head. “Maybe we should go see what’s up,” I suggest.

“Ummm, I guess. Yeah. I keep thinking, Lojack. If it’s stolen, you more or less don’t have to worry about it turning up.”

“Unless they immediately chop-shop it to pure and pointless hell.”

“True. Truly. I did not think of that.”

We stand and start to go and then his face lights up as though Duracells of remembrance have given one last surge of illumination to the blue flashlight behind his eyes before dying out completely. “Oh yeah, do you have any pages for the Code?”

I grab the two pages, based on suggestion box notes, I’d barely been able to judo chop into submission day before yesterday, barely been able to twist into something resembling a cohesive chapter.

“Here, I’ll leave these for you,” he says. He’d been sitting on the installment of pages I had given him at the beginning of the week. They’re creased with the sad frail line of the Boy of Fleece’s potato-chip-thin buttocks. “Kodiac wants me to come by more than once a week to see if you’ve got anything. If you’re not here, you can just leave it in the envelope outside your door, like before.”

Kodiac sends them back, every batch I’ve been able to write, choked left-ventricle red with editorial comments like a well-meaning, conscientious heart attack.

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