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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

A Feast of Peonies
by Obi

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"Mmmm," she says, "what's the meaning of this?" Her voice is throaty and low. You remember how low Phyllis' voice was.

"The meaning of what?" you ask back sliding your hand from one breast to the other. Rubbing her cleanses you, makes you feel right again.

"The meaning of all this rubbing?"

"This is the precursor to an earthquake."

"An earthquake?"

"Yeah, you know," you say, "one of those things that rattles buns and makes the bed bounce."

"The folks in California could sure use a person like you."

"I wrote ‘em a letter," you say. You roll onto her body, and she takes your tongue deep into her mouth. Now this is the way it is supposed to be.

Jean Dobson and you have been seeing each other for some years. You've always liked that expression, "seeing each other." It always elicits images of rubbing eyeballs or something, when as a point of fact, eyeballs are probably the only things you had not rubbed. Well, so far, at least.

You met her in an Old Town folk guitar class one Friday. You had been tired of moping around the house wishing you could meet someone, tired of watching reruns on television. What is it that finally sparks action in a person? The pitying glance of a stranger? The rapture on the countenance of the successful? The disappointment in one's own eyes? Whatever it was, it worked. You had always wanted to play blues guitar, so you signed up for a class. She wanted to play Joan Baez, and eventually she went on to become pretty good. You went on to dabble in jazz piano.

That night, she wore a pair of pink jeans and a blue denim jacket. She had her guitar strapped to one shoulder in an army green canvas carrying case. That was ten years ago, and she looked like she had just stepped out of the heyday of the hippie era.

She saved your life that night. She slung her guitar off her shoulder and propped it against the wall like a soldier might prop a rifle. She plopped her jacket on the floor beside an empty chair, sat cross-legged on the jacket and poured herself into the fingering of a G chord. She used to refer to the way her fingers looked while fingering her instrument as chicken claws. The image was a good one because her hands were bony and white with tendons protruding at the back. The skin looked cold and pale like that of a newborn. She never liked her hands, but they always struck you as being agile and utilitarian. It was her hands that night that drew her to you. To you, a person with hands like that had substance, real flesh and blood. These were the hands of someone who liked to fuck and groaned when they did it, not the manicured, polished hands of someone who did it out of duty and sighed through it all. You could speak your mind to a person like this and not be afraid of bruising her sensibilities. These were the hands of a real woman.

Your conversation with her pumped new essence into your lungs and blood and brain. You could feel the cells waking up to new possibilities. Life didn't have to be lived longing for elusive and ethereal love. Chords led to coffee after class which led to a set at Blues Chicago. Was it luck or predestination? Did it matter? She was there. Her breath on your face dried the water in your lungs. You could breathe and breathe and breathe.

She was five feet, six inches tall, which you'd been told was average for a woman. But she was a full head shorter than you, so you always thought of her as short, especially for a lifesaver. Her body had and still has lots of soft curves. It isn't angular like some of the athletic types who seem to glory in having bodies like men, nor bulging like others you've seen who glory in having bodies like bags stuffed with cotton. Voluptuous is the word. And she carries herself with an air of carefree abandon that enhances the hippie image. No girdles and no bras! Those sure were the days!

Unlike her body, her face is angular. She has a square jaw and a pointed chin, and she wears her flaming orange hair pulled back away from her face revealing a hairline that veritably zig-zags across her forehead. Her eyes are close-set and green flecked with tan like cat-eye marbles. Was it her keen eyesight that enabled her to see you drowning out there on the horizon? Her lips are thin ridges like chisel cuts in soapstone. The overall effect is softened by the downy hair that covers her cheeks, the wispy, fine blondish hairs that curl in front of her ears and over her widow's peak, and the mass of freckles that color her nose and cheeks, especially in the summer. She saved you then, and riding her has always been a renewal for you. Her soft body under you has been a balm for your mind, your body, your spirit for years.

"You are really hungry this morning," she says. "Are you trying to prove something? I mean, we both already know that you are a man. In fact, you are the man. So what's up?"

You roll off of her. This time, there is only so much the balm can do. You look at her, at the pink nipples on the milky breasts, at the skin on her neck beginning to look like chick skin.

"What's the matter?" she asks.

"Nothing," you say.

"You're not still upset about the other night, are you? Because I'm not. At least not much. I mean..."

"I'm not still upset."

"So where did you go?"

"I went to the Latin Club and got drunk."

"And you were gone all day yesterday."

"Getting over the hangover."

"Did you meet someone new?" She tries to keep the anxiety out of her voice.

"No." You try to keep the anxiety out of yours.

"So what's the problem?"

"Nothing," you snap, and roll out of bed under the guise of going to the bathroom. The ache is too deep. The last thing she needs to know is that you spent the night with some man, even if you didn't get fucked.

The problem is that she lies. She lies to you; she lies to herself. She says she isn't upset about the other night, but that's a lie. Sure, you lie, everybody lies, but she lies more than everybody you know. But maybe she isn't lying. Maybe she's just trying to be positive. Maybe the root of her lying isn't dishonesty, but an attempt to alter the facts, alter the truth. If you tell a story long enough, it becomes the truth. Maybe she was merely telling a story. Maybe your distrust of her isn't justified. Maybe it's you who need work, not her. Maybe you need to work on trusting people who love you.

The phone rings. You rush to beat her to it, just in case it's Phyllis. It's not. It's Ken Fritz, one of the directors of the condominium association you belong to. You are also a director, and Ken's calling at this hour can only mean building politics.

"Ashanti," he says. He always calls you Ashanti, even though most people call you ‘Shanti for short, or ‘Shanteh as your buddies call you. "We have to talk," Ken continues. "We must discuss how we should vote at the board meeting tonight."

You know from experience that "how we should vote" really means "how he should vote."

"I'm so confused about the new budget Earl has proposed. I don't know whether to vote for it or not."

Ken has a reputation around the building of being very smart and very witty, a reputation that, in your opinion, he deserves. So it always surprises you that he wants your opinion on matters of condominium policies and protocol. Your recollections of Phyllis begins to fade.

"What don't you understand?" you ask.

Ken is short, probably no taller than Jean, and thin. You always thought his name should be O'Reilly or Molloy or anything Irish, because the man looks so much like a leprechaun. He is in his late fifties with a head of long, grey, Einstein-looking hair, and has grey tufts of wiry hair pushing out of his ears like the heads of grey mice.

"Well," he says, "as you know, my training is in Philosophy. I write about and teach abstract thought. I know nothing about accounting and money and business." He emphasizes the words accounting, money and business, his already high-pitched voice growing higher on each word. "And I want to know whether or not, in your opinion, this is a good budget," he says.

He has a long thin face with heavy lines flanking his small, always- pursed mouth. It's his mouth that makes him look like a pixie. His mouth looks like a woman's mouth, as if he never opens it too wide or stuffs big wads of bread or meat into it. He always wears a faint smile as well, and his large grey eyes always seem to sparkle when he laughs. You can almost see him smiling into the phone now.

"I don't know," you answer. "I'm no accountant, either, but..."

He smiles and looks sparkly-eyed even when there is nothing funny, so he often gives the impression of being amused at the people around him.

"You know, Ashanti, I wish Sean were still the president of the board."

His body language adds to his ethereal air. He walks with short, effeminate steps with his hands held away from his body like stiff lace. Jean figures he is merely gay. And in fact, you have never seen him with a woman. But you would probably be disappointed if you did, because he seems so sexless and ageless and devoid of sin.

"Sean was a good president," you say. You feel a sense of relief that the subject is off accounting.

"He was a good president," Ken repeats, "and I trusted his judgment. Sean is trained in accounting, and he knows the association's books. That Earl doesn't know what he is doing."

"A lot of people in this building would agree with you."

"I wish Sean would consider running again."

"Well," you say, "we both know how he feels about Earl and being with Earl on the board."

"Earl is such an asshole, if you'll excuse my language," he says. "He's arrogant and crass and I think the man suffers from short-man syndrome."

"I know what you mean."

There is a pause. You begin to fidget for something to say, but he beats you to it. "What can we do to get him off the board?" he asks.

"Nothing," you answer. "The homeowners put him in. Only the homeowners can take him out."

"You certainly are filled with good news," he says. He giggles like a young girl into the phone, and you imagine little flashes of light dancing in his moth grey eyes.

You tell him which way you intend to vote on the budget, namely, against it. He thanks you and hangs up.

"So who was that?" Jean asks.

"That was Ken."

"Princess Ken?"

"One and the same," you say.

You turn back towards the bathroom, then stop.

"Don't you have to work?" you ask.

"Today is a research day," she says. "I get to breathe the dust of antiquated statutes and poorly reasoned cases ‘til the library closes. So I'm in no hurry to get up. Besides, I'm hoping you'll fuck me before I have to go."

The phone rings.

"Who is it now?" she asks.

It's Earl Gilbert, president of the board.

"'Shanteh," he says, "'s up?"

"What do you want, Earl?"

Ken was right in that Earl is the quintessential pushy short man. Earl is shorter even than Ken, and has nothing of Ken's grace in movements. Earl walks like a weight lifter or football player - though he is neither - shifting his weight at the shoulders with each step, and making each step hard as if to make as much noise as possible. He seems to delight in making would-be long, loping strides. But instead of evoking the image he intends, that of a rough-and-tumble cowboy, he evokes the image of a little boy imitating his father.

"I talked with Ken this morning," he says.

"You can't have talked very long," you say. "I was on the phone with him less than five minutes ago."

Earl has the kind of face at fifty that you hope you will have at fifty. He looks as if he is thirty-eight or -nine. He has one of those faces that you imagine he hated as a teenager but loves now. It grows no hair except over his eyes, on his upper lip at the corners of his mouth, and at the very tip of his chin. The rest of his face is a smooth, even expanse of clear, clean manila folder-colored skin. No blotches, no splotches, no blackheads, no pimples. Moreover, it is completely devoid of sags and wrinkles. The corners of his eyes crinkle a little when he smiles, and the space between his eyebrows pinches a little when he frowns. But there is no evidence of these folds when he relaxes his face. The middle-aged women in the building envy him to no end. Only his hair truly reveals his age. It is a short, kinky mat that covers his head like a grey and black knit cap.

"Ken called me right after he talked to you," Earl says. "He tells me you intend to vote against my budget."

"That's right," you say. "Ken never could keep his mouth shut."

"Why must you always vote against me, ‘Shanteh?"

"I'm voting against the budget, not against you."

"If you vote against my budget, you vote against me."

"That's not..."

"Help me, brother-man," he says. "Help me take over this board and this building."

"Earl," you say, "the..."

"Black folks got to stick together," he cuts you off. "Stick by me, ‘Shanteh. I need your support."

He hangs up.

You are slow resting the phone back on the night stand.

"What's the matter?" Jean asks. She begins stroking your dick.

"Nothing," you answer, sitting back down on the bed. You are unsure of how to react to Earl's plea. Does he really think he could somehow take over this building? And if so, why would he even want to? Or is he merely using race to manipulate you? He has a majority of the board members in his camp without your support.

He could - and usually does - get anything by the board he wants. Why this plea for your vote?

Jean cuddles up to your body.

"Nothing's the matter?" she asks rhetorically. She flips your limp dick from side to side with two fingers. "Nothing's the matter?!" she says again in mock consternation.

"I'm sorry, honey," you say, "I..."

The phone rings yet again.

"That's it!" she says, "no fucky fucky this morning." She gets up and heads for the bathroom.

It's Sean Michaels.

"Hi, ‘Shanti," he says. "Ken tells me that Little Caesar is at it again."

Ken is spreading pixie dust everywhere this morning.

"There are a couple of questionable line items in his proposed budget," you say.

Sean is tall though not quite as tall as you, and he is skinny, though not in the same way that Ken is skinny. Fragile is the word that best describes the way Sean looks. His face is egg-shaped, big at the top with a bulging forehead exaggerated by a receding hairline, and small at the bottom with a weak chin exaggerated by an underbite. His cheeks are flat, his eyes brown and rheumy, his teeth crooked and stained brown from smoking.

"The little bastard!" he says, "he wants to bankrupt this building."

You don't respond. You wonder if bankruptcy is part of Earl's takeover tactic.

Sean's skin is the color of sour milk, yellowish tending to green. He is in his middle thirties, but looks like the personification of sickness and impending death. He is so pale, it looks as if his skull shows through and provides the color to his skin.

"He's a little black Jew," Sean says. "He's a cheap, penny-pinching Jew. He even wears the Star of David around his neck."

The rest of his body reflects the same apparent infirmness. Some men look thin and wiry and robust. Sean looks thin and weak and sickly with blue veins visible at his temples and snaking along the backs of his hands. He even walks with a stoop.

"That's a Seal of Solomon," you correct.

"Well, it looks like a Star of David to me, and the creep lives the Jewish edict: cheap is better. Doesn't he know that you get what you pay for? When I was president of the board, I tried to upgrade the building, make it a nice place to live, increase property values. Earl has spent his entire term of office undoing the work I did. I'm surprised he hasn't torn the wallpaper off the walls in the common areas." He pauses a moment. Then he says, "I hate that little creep!"

At that moment, Jean appears in the bedroom door fully dressed.

"Listen, Sean," you say, "I've got to go."

"See you at the meeting tonight?"

"I'll be there."

You place the phone on the nightstand. "You're not leaving?" you say.

"There's certainly no reason for me to stay here."

"Aw, come on, honey," you say, "they were only a few little phone calls."

"You would rather talk condo politics with Princess Ken, King Earl and Count Dracu-Sean than stick your dick in me."

"That isn't true."

"What do you mean, ‘that isn't true?'" she mimics. "Those are exactly the choices you made."

"I was being polite."

"Same thing!" she says, "I wanted your body, and you wanted to be polite."

"Honey," you say getting off the bed and approaching her for a hug. "It isn't the way it sounds."

"It is the way it is," she says, the edge leaving her voice. "You're probably seeing someone else when you're not with me."

"Stay for breakfast," you say hugging her body, exploring the softness beneath her clothes. You could use some balm this morning after all.

"No," she says, "I'm out of the mood. We'll try again tonight after your board meeting."

She kisses you perfunctorily on the mouth, then leaves. Shit!

The room in which board meetings are conducted is located at the rear of the building on the ground floor tucked on the south side of the building between the laundry room and the rear exit. It was once two supply closets, but the first board decided it needed a permanent place in which to meet rather than relying on individual members to make their apartments available. It voted to knock out the adjoining wall, seal one of the doors, lay down a carpet, put in a dropped ceiling with recessed lights, install ventilation ducts and slap a window in the west wall. The result was an oddly shaped little office with the six concave and two convex corners that are formed when two rectangles overlap at one corner. You always thought the office was practical, but hideous. It is big enough for a small desk, two file cabinets, and one chrome and glass table with four matching chairs. Meetings were held at the table, but visitors to the meetings usually had to sit or stand along the walls or in the hallway if, as seldom was the case, a lot of homeowners attended.

Tonight, all the board members are present, Earl Gilbert, Pat Simpson, Ken Fritz, Jesus Del Lago and you. The visitors are Sean Micheals, Alice Horowitz and Maria Santos. Maybe tonight's meeting will be less boring than usual, and quickly over. After all, there is only one point of business, the budget.

"The president of the board has the power to recognize or not recognize anyone he chooses," Earl says.

"Is that power absolute?" Pat Simpson asks.

Pat Simpson is the vice president of the board, and by most accounts, a member of Earl Gilbert's camp. She is a stout, buxom woman who is always meticulously groomed, and, though not dumb, she does not grasp new concepts quickly. She always reminds you of what you thought Big Ma would be like had she married a man with money.

"Yes," Earl says, "the power is absolute."

"That isn't true," you say. "The president's power..."

"Jesus has the floor," Earl says.

"The president may not use his power to thwart the expression of an elected board member," you say.

"Jesus has the floor."

You resolve at that very instant to resist any further overtures by Earl for your support. You don't like his attitude. The man obviously has nothing more than power and control on his mind, and he would use anything from friendship to fear to get it. Since he could not intimidate you - in fact, you intimidate him with your size - he decided to resort to the friendship approach. He must have seen the strength of your new resolve expressed in your face, because he quickly alters his position in an effort to mollify you.

"Jesus raised his hand first," Earl says. "You get the floor next."

You nod an acknowledgment.

Jesus Del Lago, treasurer, has the build of the wrestler that Earl Gilbert apparently wants to be. He is almost as tall as you are, but heavier by at least fifty pounds. The man is huge. His body looks as if it has no definition owing to the fact that it is covered with a layer of fat. The man looks like a big brown bear. Under the fat, though, there is muscle, a lot of it, because Jesus works out three - sometimes four - times a week with weights. Even his hands look muscular like Polish sausages tied to a ham hock.

The animal image Jesus projects is enhanced by the black, shiny, shoulder-length hair he wears parted in the middle, the fleshy brown face covered with a beard and acne, thin brown eyes that shift from person to person in the room as if he is suspicious of some wrong-doing, and the hare-lip under his shaggy mustache.

Jesus is not dumb, but he doesn't speak well. And as if he knows it and doesn't want to broadcast the fact by saying stupid things, he is laconic to a fault, and very sensitive. He would nod rather than say yes, and forced to speak, he would say as little as possible. His voice is deep, and his monosyllabic utterances sound like barks. You think he is a lot smarter than he leads people to believe. He contributes to the board meetings by asking short, concise questions that get to the crux of the issue, although he usually votes with Earl Gilbert. He rarely makes comments, and he never makes motions. He chooses tonight to make his first.

"I make a motion," Jesus says, his voice sounding like a dog growling, "that we open the floor for discussion of the new budget."

Earl shoots a look at Jesus. "You were supposed to open the discussion for board members only!"

"I second the motion," Ken says before the motion can be retracted.

"Goddamnit!" Earl says, "I don't want a whole lot of talk on this budget, I just want it passed."

"Sorry," Jesus says.

"Sorry!" Earl mimics, "sorry."

"Get off the man's case," you say.

"The man's a dummy," Earl snaps.

Jesus says nothing.

"You're a dummy, Jesus," Earl says. Earl always uses the English pronunciation of Jesus' name, so that calling him a dummy sounds like a sacrilege. Everyone in the room fidgets or groans.

"That wasn't nice," Ken says.

"I'll second that motion," Pat adds.

"It didn't mean what it sounded like it meant," Alice Horowitz says.

"I don't care how it sounded," Earl says, "I meant it, and it's true."

"You're an asshole," Jesus says.

"I'll second that motion," Alice says.

Alice Horowitz is the building's sex symbol. She is the one about whom lascivious jokes and anecdotes are whispered among the old men on the sundeck or in the laundry room. She is tall and willowy and dark-haired, and she moves with a grace that reminds you of a ballet dancer. Her legs are long and slim, and when she walks, her toes touch the ground before her heel, again like a dancer. You've seen other women walk that way, but they look phony, as if they're trying to be sophisticated when in fact they were not. Alice, by contrast, gives the impression of being sophisticated despite the phony walk.

Her face is long and thin with high, sharp cheek bones and sunken cheeks. Her lips and nose are fleshy enough to be those of a black woman, and her skin has that dark, olive, Mediterranean cast.

Jean doesn't know it, but you and Alice have a history. When you first moved into the building, the condominium board had scheduled its annual summer solstice party. It took place in one of the rooms the board rented in one of the park district mansions across the street. You went just to meet some of your neighbors. Alice was there; Jean was not. You mingled and met a few people. Finally, you introduced yourself to Alice. She had been sitting on one of the leather sofas talking with one of the building's elderly couples for about an hour before they decided it was time for them to get back in. When they got up to leave, Alice looked at you and pretended not to see you. You forced the issue.

"Hi," you had said sticking your hand out, "my name is Ashanti. What's yours?"

She told you her name. "Alice," she whispered. She blinked her eyes slowly. And for the first time, you realized she was drunk. Not sloppy, but drunk none the less. You told her you were new in the building; she said she had been there for five years. You talked for another fifteen minutes. Then she said, "Ashanti, I hardly know you, but I need your help."

Wanting to give the impression of being a gentleman, you answered, "anything, anything at all."

"I'm drunk," she said, "and I need someone to walk me back to the building. I'm afraid to cross Sheridan Road alone."

"Sure," you said, "let's go."

You stood up, and she struggled to get her equilibrium. With your help, she stood up and held your arm tightly. You walked her home. In the lobby, you were going to put her in the elevator, and head back across the street, but she insisted that you see her to the door. You went up with her. She fumbled for her keys, unlocked the door, then stumbled inside and fell flat on the floor.

"Damn," you said. "Damn."

She lifted her arm for you to help her, so you pulled her to her feet, and she collapsed in your arms. You closed the door with one foot and dragged her into her bedroom. You plopped her on the bed. She rolled into a wobbly sitting position. "Help me with my shoes," she said. "I am so drunk!"

You were reluctant to get too close to her. You never know how she might react, but you untied the laces and took her shoes off.

"Rub my feet," she said.

So much for not getting too close. Still you decided to use a clinical approach, like a professional masseuse. You began to massage her feet, and she began to moan. You stopped.

"Don't stop," she said, "I like it."

Was this woman trying to set you up? You rubbed her feet, then her calves. You could smell that her pussy was getting wet. You stopped rubbing. She wiggled her foot as a signal for you to keep going. If this was a setup, you were hooked. You rubbed her calves again, but not to massage them. This time you rubbed them to arouse her. Her stockings were in the way. You watched for her reaction as you reached under her dress to remove her pantyhose. She lay still, her breathing bordered on snoring. Now you were aroused. You grabbed the waistband of her pantyhose at her sides, and dragged it down. Her panties came down, too. The scent of her pussy was strong. You breathed in deeply, and felt your pulse increase. You stood back and pulled them all the way down to her feet. In her sleep, she began to work them off with her toes. You saved her the trouble by pulling them the rest of the way off for her. Your dick began to swell. She cradled a pillow under her neck as she turned over onto her side, and opened her legs as far as she could get them. She had surprisingly little pubic hair, and you could see the pink, turkey neck-like skin that formed the lips of her pussy. By now, your dick was all the way hard. You settled yourself on your knees between her gapped legs, and began rubbing her calves again, one with each hand. She sighed. You moved up to her thighs and rubbed them slowly but firmly, her creamy white skin soft and smooth under your hands. With every breath, she sighed slowly. You moved your hands up to her butt and rubbed with the same slow firm motion. Her butt was more firm than you would have expected. She took a breath, and held it. With one hand, you scratched the thin clump of dark hair around her pussy. Her body began to quiver gently. You separated her lips, and her breath began to quiver as well. You stroked her clitoris. She let out a long, even sigh. She was so wet, it was easy to slide your middle, ring and pinkie fingers into her pussy as far as they would go. She buried her face in that pillow and groaned deep in her throat as she came. With your other hand, you unbuttoned and unzipped your pants, and pushed them down around your ankles. Feeling you nestling up behind her, she pulled herself to her knees, arched her back, and, using both hands, spread her lips apart. You pushed your dick into her. She murmured, "Oh, my God," under her breath. It was as if she didn't believe it. It struck you as a strange response. What didn't she believe? The bigness? The smallness? Its existence? Its existence in her? She was tight as if she hadn't done this in a long time. You had to push three times in order for it to go in as far as it would go. You pushed against the bottom of her pussy a few times, and she came again. This time, she mewed like a kitten. Finally, she said, "Don't come inside me there."

"Where do you want it?"

"Where ever you want it."

"In the back."

You pulled it out, and moved it up an inch careful to drag as much fluid from her pussy as you could. There was more resistance this time, but she stiffened her body to allow you to push it all the way in. This time it took closer to ten pushes to get comfortable.

Suddenly, you felt a kinship with this woman, this Alice. She was just like you imagined yourself to be. She was honest. This was a woman who loved to fuck. Well, so did Jean, with those little worker hands of hers. But Alice was different. Alice was an artist. You imagined that she was the kind of woman who would call herself a whore and be proud of it. She knew the power she held in her pussy, the strength, the wisdom, the courage, and she drew on it. She drew from her pussy the way grass and trees and lilies drew from the sun, or the way you drew from your name. Women like her were rare. She was like a comet that whirls around the earth every hundred and fifty years. Those who are living when it passes feel special. Those who know that it will never pass during their lifetime feel deprived. Alice made you feel special.

As you pushed in and out of her rectum, she rubbed her hand in and out of her pussy. She began to come before you did, and the sensation must have been intense, because her body quaked for what seemed like five full minutes before the itch began to rise in you. You held it back for as long as you could. By the time you came, she was chanting "oh" like a mantra. "Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh." You had never seen a woman come so deeply. Only special women can come like that. When she was done, her hand was covered with fluid from her pussy. She slumped to her side, pulling your dick out of her ass. You rolled beside her on your back. She put her hand on your chest. You could smell the pussy on her fingers. You put her index finger in your mouth and sucked it, then her middle finger, then her ring finger, then her pinkie. Her come had a delicate, salty taste.

You got up and dressed yourself, and went to the bathroom to pee. When you got back, she was curled under the covers. You sat on the side of the bed.

"Can you see yourself out?" she asked.

Her back was to you as she spoke. You reached your hand under the cover and rubbed her ass one more time. The crack was still wet. You pushed your finger into her rectum and rotated it around the rim a few times.

"I can see myself out," you said. "Will I see you again?" You chuckled at the banality of the question.

She snored loudly. This time she was asleep for real.

The next morning, she was on the elevator as you were going down to work. She was wearing dark sunglasses and a wide straw hat. There were only the two of you there.

"Hi, Alice," you said.

She didn't answer. The elevator stopped at the ground floor, and she bolted off on her way to the bus stop. She didn't even look back. That was three years ago.

Since then, you have seen her only in passing. She didn't attend any more of the building's summer solstice parties, and though she did attend monthly board meetings, she always managed to avoid looking at you. By contrast, you always struggled to keep your eyes off of her.

Tonight is no different. Her hair looks a little rumpled on the sides because she has a habit of fingering her hair during conversations. She fingers it now as she turns her attention to Earl Gilbert.

"You have no right to address people in such a vile tone."

"Shut up," Earl says. "Just shut up." He pauses a moment, then says, "This meeting is over."

He looks at you as if for support. You look him straight in the eye, and give him nothing.

"I said this meeting is over!"

No one moves. Earl stands up abruptly, the blood in his face rising. "The board is going to pay for this," he hisses through clinched teeth. "I am going to sue your asses off."

"You've got no grounds for anything even resembling a lawsuit," you snap.

"You're undermining the power of the presidency."

"You are acting beyond the scope of your power."

"What is the scope of his power?" Maria Santos asks.

"The president controls the board," Earl blurts.

"Wrong!" you say, "the president carries out the mandate of the board."

"The president is the chief executive officer, and presides over the board," Earl says.

"He presides over board meetings," you counter.

"Damn you, ‘Shanti," Earl says, "I am going to get you for this."

"Don't fuck with me, little man," you snarl. "You don't weigh enough."

You look straight into his eyes as you speak. After a short moment, he turns and pushes his way by Sean Micheals who is standing in the doorway.

"Uppity little thing, ain't he?" Pat says.

"He's an arrogant little prick," Sean says.

Ken smiles ethereally, and Jesus sits grinding his teeth. You turn your head, and look directly at Alice. She looks you in the eye with a faint smile on her face. Then she abruptly looks away. "So what do we do now?" she asks.

"Actually," you say, "Earl is right. This meeting is over."

"You don't have to leave just because his shortness leaked out," Sean snaps.

"We are here to vote on a budget," you say.

"But Earl didn't present a budget," Pat whines.

"'Shanti's point exactly," Maria counters.

Ken glances around the room at each of us, then says, "I motion that we adjourn the meeting." His voice sounds light and airy.

"Second," Jesus says.

You have the distinct feeling that Jesus, more than anyone else present, relishes the idea of not having to sit through a meeting where Earl prances around spitting insults for sport.

You vote, and the meeting ends. Under the guise of straightening the place up, you linger in the office as the other people leave. You want to be able to watch Alice to see if she looks at you again. She doesn't. You watch as she follows the others to the elevator. A long moment passes, and the elevator doors open. Just before she steps in, she turns her gaze directly on you. With no particular expression on her face, she holds the glance eye to eye for a split second longer than she has to, then looks down as she steps on. You finish up in the office and head upstairs to your apartment.

You consider calling Alice. But then you remember that you have never had her phone number. Ships passing in the night have no need to signal one another. You call Jean, but there is no answer. Then you remember that she is going to be at the library until late. "Breathing the dust of antiquated statutes and poorly reasoned cases" were her words. Phyllis comes to mind, the smell of his skin next to your face. No way! You feel deceived like an insect that has been lured by the call of mate only to discover the call was being imitated by a predator, a praying mantis in a short black dress. All of a sudden, you can smell the oil he used to lubricate his butt, and the fact that you find the remembrance pleasant pisses you off. You vow never to see him again.

What about the Latin Club again? You decide to go to a movie. After calling the Village and "400" theaters, you decide to go to the "400." You just aren't up for the cheaply produced martial arts movies at the Village. It's the dubbing. You aren't up for watching some silk-clad grand master of Kung Fu in a Hong Kong death temple mouthing the Gettysburg address while you are hearing the words "kill him." You opt for the latest science fiction thriller about a computer programmer saving mankind through the use of mathematical and artistic genius. Being a programmer, you like movies that portray programmers and programming in a thaumaturgical light. Lawyers and doctors and cops probably get the same charge you do watching actors glorifying their lives. After the movie, you decide to get some grapes and pears and brie. Your plan is to have incense burning and soft music playing when Jean stops by from the library. From the store, you go into the back of the building and by the little misshapen building office. The light is on, and Earl is looking through some files.

You poke your head in. "Need any help?"

"Not from you, I don't," Earl snarls.


"Brother-man?!" He cuts you off, "Now it's brother-man! Where were you at the meeting when I needed your support?"

"You were wrong," you say.

"Fuck wrong!" he says, "I'm black, and that's what counts."

You look at him. His young-looking face appears hard with tension, his lips pinched, his jaw muscles and eyebrows tight under his smooth, creamy skin. You pity him. They say that the first step to wisdom is to know that you don't know. Earl spent large portions of his life trying to compensate with his actions for what he lacked in stature. But he didn't have to. Nobody cared that he was short. He had other qualities. He was intelligent, articulate, even witty when he wasn't being caustic. Then there was that smooth skin that we all envied. The trouble is, he didn't know. Worst, he didn't know that he didn't know. "Being black," you say measuring your voice, "does not excuse acting a fool."

"Fuck you, you big tub of Oreo shit! And get the fuck out of here."

You close the door as you leave. You can hear him screaming through the door. "You are a disgrace to the race," he says. You take the elevator to the fifteenth floor.

There is a message from Jean on your answering machine saying that she is home and wants to see your body. You put the fruit and cheese on a plate to warm, light the incense, then call her.

"You're in luck," you say. "My body has just informed me that it wants to be seen by only you."

"Ha! Any pussy would do. Mine just happens to be handy."

"Not so," you protest.

"And just how did it inform you?"

"It raised a flagpole as a signal."

She laughs, and says she will be right up.

Jean has a one-bedroom apartment on seven on the west side of the building. You know she will be at your house in a minute or two at the most, so you head for the kitchen to cut the cheese.

Maybe she was more honest than you gave her credit for. At least she had the courage to make her distrust of you known. She knew you could not be faithful despite the fact that not just any pussy would do, and she was willing to face it.

Certainly, there were other pussies that would do nicely, and at least once, there was a not-pussy that did for the short term. You could smell Phyllis' oil again. Just then, the phone rings. You expect it to be Jean.

"I know," you say without saying hello. "You're wondering what kind of flag to run up my pole."

There is a pause. Then a voice whispers, "Come down to the office."

"Earl?" you say. "Is that you?"

The connection breaks. After a couple of moments, you hear a dial tone.

You stand there for what seems like a full minute. What is with this cloak and dagger shit? Jean knocks on the door.

"Listen," you say letting her in, "cut the cheese that's in the kitchen, and open some wine. I've got to run down to the office."

"What's the matter?" she asks

"I don't know."

As you approach the door to the office, you see that it is ajar and that the light is out. You wonder what kind of trick Earl is planning. You are in no mood for games, so you shove the door hard. It hits the wall and bounces back towards you. You stop it with your foot. Even with the lights off, you can see Earl sitting at the desk resting face down as if he were taking a nap.

"Earl," you call, "what's the problem?"

You turn the light on, and see the small pool of blood under his head. Blood covers his hands and lap like spilled soup. Blood runs in a thin stream down the front of the desk and forms a pool at one leg of the chair.

You hear yourself gasp, "Oh, my God!"

Just then, Maria Santos walks up. She looks at you and smiles a greeting. She is about to speak when she sees Earl. She screams. Then she looks at you and screams even louder.

Maria Santos is fat, and most of her fat is on the upper half of her body. She looks like a pear resting on its stem. She has huge breasts, wide, rounded shoulders and thick, fleshy biceps. Her midriff protrudes over her belt, but his hips and behind are flat, almost masculine. Her legs are skinny; her feet are flat, and her toes splay out as if she were forcing them apart. You wonder how she manages to put shoes on.

Her face is fleshy like the rest of her upper body. She has a double chin, thick ruddy cheeks, and narrow eyes that look as if they are difficult to open because of the heavy lids over them. Her hair is black and silky and grows down past her butt.

Her voice as she screams is high and shrill like a jungle cat. You reach out to touch her, to calm her, but she cringes and backs away from you. She turns and bolts two at a time up the stairs across from the rear elevator. Her screams in the stairwell resonate and echo. You can hear her until she reaches the floor she lives on and closes the stairwell door behind her.

"Damn," you say aloud. You know she thinks you are responsible for Earl's death, and you begin to wonder about an alibi. You check your watch. It is midnight. You have only been here about two minutes, and Jean can corroborate your story.

Just then, you feel a hand on your shoulder. You turn half expecting Earl to be standing there wiping actors' make-up off his face. Instead, it is Ken Fritz smiling up at you with wide-eyed wonder like a yogi in a state of bliss.

"Ken," you say, "I thought you were Earl."

He laughs like a teenage girl in some guy's back seat. "Heaven forbid," he says, hunching up his shoulders.

"What I meant was..." You begin to realize how difficult it will be to explain that you thought he was Earl because Earl looks dead and you want Earl to be alive because Maria Santos thinks you are the killer and because you don't want a murder to happen in your building and because you think it was Earl's voice on the phone a few minutes ago and that you were alone in this corridor except for Earl face down at the desk. You look over at the office. The door is tightly closed, although you don't remember closing it. You decide not to explain. Instead, you say, "We must call the police."

Ken's smile fades, and he looks away.

"Earl has been killed," you continue, "and I'm afraid Maria thinks I did it."

You wait at the front of the building as the police and ambulance arrive. The paramedics rush in, and within minutes, they load Earl's body into the back of the ambulance. Strangely, his face isn't covered.

People in America are no longer accustomed to death, natural death. These days, death is ritualized with the accoutrements of medical paraphernalia. Bottles of fluids, masks, gauges, shiny steel instruments. That's what hospitals are for. That's what doctors do. They minister in death. When we see the white frocks, those damned white frocks, it's like the mafia kiss of death. Somebody always dies. And since we know that death can happen, we prepare ourselves. Otherwise, we don't see death in our natural surroundings except by accident. And we have come to think of death as an accident, something that is not supposed to happen. Something that is foreign, alien, out of the ordinary. So when it comes, we are unprepared. We are shocked. We gossip about it in small groups. We watch its custodians clean up after it. We listen as its chroniclers and pundits try to figure it out, to assess and assign blame. One of its minions, a uniformed police officer, beckons you back inside to answer some questions.

Detective Arnold Middleman looks like the caricature of an aging Hollywood actor. Having set eyes on the man for the very first time, you know that you don't like him. He is a little taller than Jean, and he has a round stomach and thick limbs like W. C. Fields. Maybe that's why you don't like him. You never liked W. C. Fields. His face looks like an infant's face, round and fat with blue eyes and dimples and red patches that look like the marks left by someone who has just pinched his cheeks. He looks a lot more like Mickey Rooney than W.C. Fields. But you never liked Mickey Rooney, either. He wears an ill-fitting toupee that is two shades darker than the hair over his ears, and when he smiles, all of his teeth shine. His smile looks mechanical like the forced smiles of beauty pageant contestants, and his gestures are overly broad like those of a poorly portrayed Shakespearean character. Everything about the man strikes you as phoney.

"His throat," he pauses as if waiting for the dramatic tension to peak before delivering the rest of his line, "has been cut." He places extra emphasis on the word "cut" so that it snaps out of his mouth like a seed from a ruptured pod.

"Who found him?" he asks.

The hallway outside the building office is crowded with on-lookers waiting for details of the incident. They also serve as an audience for Middleman's histrionics.

"I did," you answer.

"Mack," he says to the officer, "get the names and numbers of these good people, and send them home. You, sir," he says to you, "shall speak to me now."

He bids you to follow him through the on-lookers and into the laundry room where there are a card table and two chairs set up as if for a game of poker. He sits on one side of the table with his back to the wall so that he can keep his eye on the entrance. You sit facing him. "What's your name?"

You tell him. He jots it down on a yellow notepad.

"You live in this building?"

"I own a condo here, and I'm a board member."

"You're on the board of directors?" He looks surprised. You know it is because you are black, and the asshole can't believe a black man could be elected to the board of directors of a North Sheridan Road condominium.

"Yes, and a past president."

"Ok," he says, "Tell me what you know."

Even his voice grates on you. You tell him about the phone call and what you saw upon entering the office. You also tell him about Maria Santos and Ken Fritz. He writes their names down, too.

"I won't know for sure," he says, "until he has been examined, but it appears that this incident happened at least an hour ago."

"An hour ago," you say looking at your watch, "would be eleven-thirty. At that time, I was just getting in from a movie. Earl was healthy at that time, because I saw him looking through the office files."

"You saw him at eleven-thirty, and found him bleeding at midnight, is that correct?"

"That's right," you say. You want this interview to be over so you can get out of the man's space.

"And you came down at midnight because of a phone call?"

"Right, again," you say.

"And between eleven-thirty and twelve, you were..." He pauses waiting for you to fill in the rest.

"...in my apartment chilling wine and warming cheese."


"Yes, until just before I came downstairs and found him."

"Until eleven-fifty-five," he says.


He pauses a moment, then says, "I'd like for you to come down to the station to make a statement about finding the body and all."

"A statement?"

"Yeah, it's routine, just some paperwork we have to complete."

"Why can't we do it here?"

"I don't have my secretary here, and all the forms we need are there. It'll only take a few minutes."

You could certainly tell he is an actor. All of a sudden, he has this beatific smile as if everything was going to be just fine. As if there were no murder and all was right with the world. "I'll get my shoes," you say.

Jean is asleep on the sofa. The television is tuned to CNN. She wakes up as you walk in. "What took you so long?" she asks, rubbing her eyes with the knuckles of the index fingers.

"Earl's been murdered."

"What?" She is fully awake now and animated. Her eyes are blinking in disbelief.

"They want me to go to the station to make a statement."

"Don't do it," she says. Now she is more than fully awake. She is on high alert.

"Why not?"

"Have they arrested you?"


"I'm going with you."

"You don't have to do that."

"This isn't a courtesy offer," she says. Her voice is hard, harder than you have ever heard it before. "You are in deep shit."

"Why? I didn't do anything."

She stands up and moves directly in front of you. It looks like she's about to start a fight. "Listen, ‘Shanti," she says, "I'm a lawyer. I deal with these asshole cops every day." She pokes the air to accentuate ‘every day,' one poke per word. ‘Day' gets an especially hard poke. "This is not about a statement about finding a body. They want to interrogate you. They want to make you confess."

"I won't confess to something I didn't do, and I didn't do anything."

"Trust me," she said, "These people are not to be toyed with. Don't say anything to them without me being there with you." She heads for the front door. "Wait here while I go get dressed."

Shit! The last thing you need is to be coming to the police station with a woman. Fuck that. You slip on your shoes, and head downstairs.

Middleman smiles as you leave the elevator. "I really appreciate you helping us like this. My name is Arnold, by the way."

He leads you to a waiting unmarked car in the driveway. He opens the door for you, and you scoot into the back seat. He gets in next to the driver, a ruddy-faced man with close-cut blond hair. He looks like a poster boy for the Marines. The driver eases the car away. Just then, Jean dashes from the front elevator and bolts out of the lobby door obviously trying to catch you.

"Who is that?" Middleman asks.

"She's my lawyer."

Middleman's expression changes. His eyes look alert like those of a fox that has just caught scent of a wolf. The driver punches the gas, and the car squeals out of the driveway. Middleman puts on his beatific smile again. "So what do you do, Ashanti?"

"Well, Detective..."

"Call me Arnie."

"Ok, Arnie, I program computers."

"Oh? Where at?"

"One of the big banks downtown."

"You must make a lot of money."

"I do all right."

"More than cops."

"I don't know what cops make."

"Not enough for a gold-capped tooth."

You arrive at the station, and they lead you in through a side door and through a short corridor that leads into an open office with lots of desks. They lead you to a small conference room off to the side. Middleman opens the door and bids you to enter. "Can I get you some coffee?"

"None for me, thanks. I plan to be going to bed as soon as I get back."

"I'll be back in a minute," he says, and closes the door.

The room is pale green and well lit. The table and chairs look like U.S. government issue, grey steel with dark green vinyl. You pick a chair on the far side of the table facing the door and sit. You look around for a clock. There isn't one. You fold your arms across your chest and try to guess how late it might be. It must be at least one in the morning.

The sound of the door latch wakes you up. You have that waking-up-on- a-bus feeling, and look around to see where you are. Middleman walks in with the poster boy who drove the car. Middleman pulls out a chair and slides it next to you. The poster boy stands across the table with his hands on his hips. In this light, he looks surprisingly like a male version of Jean. Pale skin, thin, chiseled lips. They could almost be from the same tribe. Middleman leans forward, rests his elbows on his knees like he's about to confide a secret. He sighs. "Jack here thinks you did it."

Disbelief comes in many forms. There is mild disbelief like the time Big Ma found all those empty candy wrappers in the garbage, and you and Janet stood there and said you didn't eat them. She suspected you were lying, but maybe somebody else did it. Her disbelief was mild. There is medium disbelief like the first time you made love to Jean. You couldn't believe your dry spell was finally over. You must have popped in her four times that night just to prove it was true. There is high disbelief like the look in Jean's eyes when you told her Earl had been murdered. That's the no-it-can't-be level. Then there is the pigs-can-fly level of disbelief. This is the nothing-on-the-face-of-the-earth-can-make-you- believe-it level of disbelief. You stand bolt upright, "What?!" Your chair goes flying over.

"Take it easy," Middleman says retrieving the chair for you. "We can work this out."

"There is nothing to work out! I didn't do it!" You look over at Jack.

Jack says, "You're going down on this one, big boy."

"Excuse me!"

"You heard me. I'm taking you down."

"But I didn't do it!"

"And your point?"

"Fuck you!"

"No, fuck you. I'm taking your black nigger ass down."

You step around ready to go to jail for breaking a cop's nose when Middleman jumps between you. He has a hand on your chest and a hand on Jack's chest. "Get out of here, Jack! You are way out of line."

"Remember what I said." Jack spits the words over his shoulder as he leaves.

You can hear your pulse beating in your ears. "I'm gon' kick that bastard's ass."

Middleman sits down, and gestures for you to do the same. "C'mon, Ashanti, sit down."

You sit down, but you are not relaxed. "What the fuck is going on here?" you ask. "I thought I was here to make some kind of statement about finding the body."

Middleman leans forward again, just like before. He sighs, just like before. "We need you to make a confession."

"Hell no! And fuck you, too."

"I'm trying to help you here."

"You never told me I was under arrest."

"Yeah, we did."

"You never read me my Miranda rights."

"Yeah, we did. You just don't remember."

Then you do remember. Jean said don't answer any questions without her being there. "I want my lawyer," you say.

"Aw, c'mon, Ashanti," Middleman says. "We've got you dead to rights. You're just going to make it harder on yourself."

"I want my fucking lawyer."

"We know you did it."

Jean was right. You are in deep shit.

"Am I going to have to bring Jack back in here? He doesn't like you, and he might get rough."

He looks at you looking back at him. "Ok," he says. "You leave me no choice."

He sighs deeply, stands up histrionically, and leaves.

You expect Jack to come bounding in, but he doesn't. In fact, nothing at all happens. You sit, and you wait. You wonder how close it is to daylight.

You're awakened again by the sound of the door latch. This time, though, you stand up ready to fight, but it's still not Jack. It's a young kid in an ill-fitting grey suit. He looks like he barely shaves. "Hi," he says extending his hand. "My name is McCorkle. Tim McCorkle. I represent the people, and I'm here to help you."

"Where's Ms. Dobson."

"Who is that?"

"Jean Dobson. She's my attorney."

"She's not here. I'm going to be helping you."

"Then get me the fuck out of here."

"Well, first I need to ask you some questions."

"Like what?"

"Like did you and the victim have an argument or something?"

"We passed some words at a board meeting, but it didn't rise to the level of an argument. What has that got to do with this?"

"Had you ever threatened him?"

"No, but so what? Get me out of here!"

"Mr. Ra, I'm trying to help you. Do you own a pocket knife or a straight razor?"

"No! Now, are you going to get me out of here or not?"

The door opens. Jack walks in. He's followed by another cop, a black cop with large hands and feet like a teenager. "That's ok, Tim, we'll take it from here."

"Sorry, guys," Tim says, "he just didn't fall for it." Tim gives you a cat-who-ate-the-canary look as he leaves closing the door behind him.

"Ok, big man," Jack says, "now we're going to do it my way. I want a confession. I want it now."

"I didn't do it."

"Maybe I didn't make myself clear. I want a confession, and I want it now."

"Fuck you."

Jack steps forward and throws a right cross. You duck and try to throw a right hook, but the other cop grabs your arm. The two of them wrestle you to the floor. Jack rears back to punch you in the face while you're down, and the door opens again. A Sargent walks in. "Have you got an Ashanti Ra in here," he says.

"Yeah, we got him," Jack says.

"Let him up," the Sargent says. "His lawyer is here with an I-bond."

"You haven't seen the last of me," Jack says as he backs off you. "This is only the beginning."

On the drive home, Jean is nobly restrained. She doesn't utter a single I-told-you-so. It's already late afternoon. They kept you there for over twelve hours.

"Ok, counselor," you say. "What's next?"

"You get some sleep. I've got some leg work to do."

"What do people without lawyers do?" you ask.

"They go to jail."

"Even if they didn't do it?"

"Even if they didn't do it."

You get home and plop straight into bed. The dream you have seems to be an extension of the day. It begins with loud, hysterical screams from someplace outside your field of vision. You know they are Maria's screams, but it is not Maria's voice. The voice is more shrill, yet more gravelly. There is a mechanical quality to it as well like the voice from a supermarket cash register. The timbre of the voice grates on your nerves, and you can feel yourself turning uneasily in your sleep. The next morning, despite the fact that you force yourself to stay in bed longer than normal, you feel tired.

You shower and eat eggs and toast. As you sip the last of your orange juice, you turn the other day's events over in your mind. Home at eleven- thirty. Offer to help Earl. Mystery call at eleven-fifty-five. You try to remember the voice. Muffled. Whispery. Instructions to come down to the office. What made you think the voice was Earl's? Could you be sure the voice was a man's? You conclude that you could, but to conclude that it was Earl's requires a leap of existential proportions. Obviously, someone is trying to pin this murder on you. But who? And aside from saving their own neck, why? Why pick you as the scapegoat? You try to think of whom your enemies in the building might be. You could think of no one with whom you get along more poorly than Earl. Shit! Why couldn't it have been someone outside the building?! This could have been a routine burglary.

The phone rings. It's Jean. "You've got to leave!"

"Why?" you ask.

"They're coming to arrest you."


"I'm at the station now. That asshole McCorkle went before Judge Snow and told him about the fight you had with the police yesterday. He got him to revoke your bond and to issue a warrant for your arrest."

"They were kicking my ass!"

"The warrant is for the incident in the building."

"But I didn't do it."

"They don't care who did it," she says, "they care about arresting somebody. They care about arresting you."

"But I..."

"Goddamnit, ‘Shanti, leave before it is too late." She hangs up the phone.

Shit! Jean was right. You had to leave. You throw on some jeans and a T-shirt. You grab your wallet, your bank book and your keys. Leave the radio on and the door unlocked. Make it look like you'll be back in a minute or two. From the front window, you see a police car pulling into the driveway. You avoid the elevator and take the stairs. Just as you get to the third floor, the door to the stairwell flings open. It's Jesus. He's deep in thought, and nearly runs into you. He stops short. "Sorry," he says, stepping to his left just as you step to the right. Your reflexes are synchronized. He steps to the right just as you step to the left. Finally, you both stop, almost nose to nose. He is embarrassed, and barks a single syllable laugh, "Ha!"

You are anxious to jump by, but you want to appear calm. "Jesus," you say, "how you doing?"

"‘Shanti," he says. "I'm so glad I ran into you." He picks now to string more than three words together. "I need to talk to you, man."

"Oh, about what?" You resist the urge to bolt.

"I know you can help me ‘cause everybody know you the man with the ladies, man."

"What do you need?"

"I need advice. There's this girl, and I don't know what to do."

You listen as doors up and down the stairwell open and close. "Do I know her?"

"It's Maria, man. I love her, and I think she love me."

You hear in your head the scream she let out last night, and the urge to escape grows. You reach into your pocket and begin turning your car keys between your fingers. "Have you said anything to her?"

"No, man, I'm scared."

He's scared! "Scared of what?"

"She might not like me." You never noticed it before, but Jesus has eyes like a cow, big and brown. He looks at you, then at the floor, then at you again. "What if she don't like me."

"What if she does?"

"She a nurse, man, over at County Hospital. I'm just a laborer."

Your anxiety mounts. "Talk to her."

"What should I say?"

"The worst that can happen is that she says no." You can feel yourself inching along the railing to move on.

He sees you sliding away, but ignores it. "You right, man. I talk to her. I talk to her today." He turns abruptly and exits the stairwell.

Your anxiety is near panic. You take the rest of the stairs down two at a time. You get in the car, and turn the key. The starter whirs, but the engine only coughs. "Shit!" You turn it again, and the car starts. You back out of the stall, and hit the button to open the garage door. The police car is still parked in the driveway. Jack is in it, but he is busy writing on something in his lap. Middleman must be inside. Your stomach is churning. You pull quickly up the ramp, hoping the tint on your rear windows will shield you from his view. You head south on Sheridan Road to the Outer Drive.

What now? Where do you go? What do you do? Who do you call? You can't go home. You can't go to any friends' houses, because the police will contact all of them. You can't contact relatives for the same reason. It's unfortunate how we have come to rely so heavily on the social infrastructure. People aren't people anymore. Free. Autonomous. We're cells in a body. We go where the body wants us to go. And which cells form the brains of this body? The government? The President? Suppose the muscles and blood and bones don't want to go where the brain wants to go. Should they revolt? Can they revolt? What does revolt even mean?

You pull off the Drive and head west. The driver in a dull grey Ford with shiny new chrome wheels cuts you off. You jam the brakes to avoid hitting him. Asshole! You can hear the loud, rhythmic bass line of the hip-hop music playing inside. Boom, boom-boom, boom, boom-boom. The music is so loud, the speakers rattle. Four young brothers bounce in their seats to the sounds. You're pissed off, and you want to get around them. They're doing the speed limit. You can't afford to draw the attention of police, so you pull back, and cruise behind them. Boom, boom-boom, boom, boom-boom. Their music is annoying, and you wonder how they can stand the volume.

They cruise through the intersection at Clark street. Boom, boom- boom, boom, boom-boom. The light is green. You follow them. A police car pulls behind you from off of Clark. Oh, shit! You check your speed. Thirty miles per hour. They don't know your car, so they can't know to stop you. You can feel the heat rising from your collar. Boom, boom-boom, boom, boom-boom. They turn the blue lights on. Damn! What are you going to say? Should you make a break? No. Just chill. See what they want. Boom, boom-boom, boom, boom-boom. They beep the siren. You pull over. Your stomach is churning. They pull around. One of them gets on the bullhorn, "Pull over grey Ford." Your sense of relief is palpable. The music is stopped.

With relief comes safety. With safety comes complacency. Why were the cops stopping the Ford? They weren't speeding. There were no malfunctioning lights on the car. With complacency comes carelessness. You pull into a parking space two car lengths behind the cops, and you watch. The first cop, the driver, gets out and walks to the Ford. The second cop positions himself behind the Ford as cover for the first cop. He can see everything that is going on, but the folks in the Ford don't even know he's there. This is a military operation. The first cop orders everybody out of the car. The brothers grouse and grumble, but they get out. All four of them are wearing baggy pants that hang half off their asses, and unlaced gym shoes. The cop in the back takes charge of the brothers exiting on the passenger side. Both cops order the brothers to get spread eagle on the Ford. More grousing. More grumbling. They comply. The cops pat them down. Then the cops begin digging in the brothers' pockets, taking out their wallets, going through their wallets and papers. One cop, the first one, takes some papers out, balls them up, and throws them on the ground. He stuffs the wallet back into somebody's pocket.

After the pat-down, the brothers are ordered to wait on the sidewalk. The second cop stands guard over them while the first cop searches the car. He empties the glove compartment and the trunk. He searches under the seats. He strews candy and potato chip bags into the street along with straws and half-finished cups of pop. All the doors are open. Then he looks over at you and does a double take. Do all cops have that poster boy look? They must affect that. He orders the brothers back into the Ford. Then to you, he asks, "What the fuck are you looking at?"

"Nothing, officer," you answer, "I just had to stop to fasten my seatbelt." You put the car in gear and pull away.

You cruise over to Western Avenue, and turn south. The longest street in Chicago. It'll take you a little while to get to the other end. You know there's only one place you can go. Just not yet.

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