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Zombie children

Squirrel life is not without risk…

My phone vibrates in my jacket pocket. It’s a familiar number but I don’t remember whose it is. I don’t answer calls unless I’m certain about them and I hold the phone through three vibrations before answering. “This is Norm.”

“Hey, it’s me,” Golding says as if I’ve been eagerly awaiting his call, as if we drink beer and play poker and take vacations with our families together.

“Listen, Golding, they’re closing the doors on the plane.”

“I’ll leave voicemail…”

“You do that,” and I hang up.

New character: Golding. To be honest, I don’t know why I brought this guy in, and the part that follows, well, it may just be the first thread that once pulled, unravels everything. It begins with a flashback:

I’m ten, with my buddies Ira and Robbie. We’re in the woods behind our development, a damp place with steep paths and hidden hazards like poison ivy and hornet nests in rotting logs. We wander around and shoot at things with cap pistols and slingshots we make from fallen branches and old cut-up bicycle tire tubes. We hunt for arrowheads and hunks of quartz rock.

Darby Creek snakes through the woods and leads to an old quarry where we will soon crawl through a chain link fence to swim. It’s a shallow rocky creek that runs fast after a good day of rain. We pull crayfish from it until the day old washing machines and tires and shopping carts stick up out of the muck. We become scavengers and one day the story goes that a boy from our school gets himself trapped in a rusting old refrigerator and suffocates.

Ira says, “Normalizer, see that squirrel?” on a branch far away. It’s sitting there licking its little hands and grooming its head. “Think I can hit it?”

“No way,” Robbie says.

“Bet you a dollar I can.”

Robbie and I reach into our respective pockets right away and pull out change and count it. “I got it,” Robbie says. “You’re on.”

“I only have sixty-three cents.”

Ira licks a finger and holds it up in the air. “You have to adjust for the wind.”

He lines it up, carefully adjusting his back hand, the one holding the rock in the tire tube band. We’re standing behind him and he’s taking forever to get his aim. Finally, he turns his head back to us, his slingshot aimed toward the squirrel. “Watch this,” and he releases his shot still looking back at us and away from the target.

The rock whooshes out of his slingshot and smacks squarely into the squirrel, knocking it out of its perch. It lands with a rustle in the leaves below. We three stand with our mouths open. “Holy crap,” Robbie says.

We race to the spot where the squirrel landed. “Poke him,” Robbie orders. “See if he’s dead.”

I pick up a stick and poke it lightly. It doesn’t move. There’s a smudge of blood on its head. “I think it’s dead,” I say.

“Check again,” Ira says, his voice a shaky whisper.

I poke it again, a little bit harder, and when I do, Robbie bumps me and the stick plunges into the squirrel’s belly. “Look what you did Norm. You killed him.”

“Didn’t. It was already dead.”

Robbie punches me in the arm and says, “You killed him. You have to bury him.”

“Ow. All right.”

I kick with my sneaker heel at the soft muddy ground and soon have a large enough indent for the body. Using the leaves as a scoop, I push it into the hole and kick some mud and leaves over it.

“There,” I say. “Can we go swimming already?”

“You’re going swimming? You going to the quarry? I’m coming,” says Golding, appearing from behind a tree. His nasally voice, perpetually on the verge of a sneeze,

We trudge to the site of the old quarry, my friends and I and Golding. It is one of those hot, humid days that nowadays stretch into October. Golding is new and I don’t like him.

“What happened to that squirrel? Did you kill that squirrel?” he says.

“We found him,” Robbie says.

“How come you made Norman bury him? Why would you do that?”

Robbie shakes his head at him. “We felt like it. Shut up.”

We get to the edge of the quarry and Robbie peels off his t-shirt and All-Stars and jumps into the water. He disappears taking a trail of bubbles with him and emerges, whooping, “Come on in. The water’s great!”

Ira follows and then it is just me and Golding, standing there, looking down at my two friends splashing in the water, their voices echoing off the quarry’s gray-black walls. “C’mon Normie, jump in.”

“You afraid?” Golding says in my ear. “Afraid of the water?”

“I’m not scared,” I shout.

“No one said you were scared,” Ira says.

“Golding did.”

“He doesn’t count.” See, nobody liked Golding.

I’m not afraid of the water even though it’s cold and will shock the breath out of me. I can swim and I’ve swum here before. It’s the time and distance between launching and landing where it feels like I’m caught on an invisible hook struggling to climb my way down out of the air, a moment that passes like an hour.

“Just close your eyes and lean forward. The water’s great!”

I can’t do it. I find a zig-zag path on the rocky wall down to the surface, dip my toe and slide in. It’s freezing cold and when I come up I gasp. “Water’s great!”

Golding takes off his stupid alligator shirt and slips backward, hitting his head on rock and falls straight down into the water. Robbie and Ira swim to him while I tread water and think, let’s just tell everyone we found his body floating here.

Sideswiped (Zombies)


In the future, it’s safest for cats to roam in broad daylight.

Yeah, the zombies are coming and Norm is going on a business trip. He doesn’t travel well. He doesn’t know it yet, but everything seems ominous to him.

Love in the Time Before Zombies
Chapter 2.1

I’m impatient and intolerant and feel confined in airports and on airplanes. Travel exhausts me, which is why I take prescription amphetamines and constantly drink espresso.

A few minutes ago, Jill slept while I put on my consultant’s uniform: gray slacks, white shirt, and blue sport coat. I paused to stare at my wife’s sleeping body. She wore a tank top and boxer shorts. I kissed her on the cheek. “Mmmm,” she said. “Come here!” She grabbed my collar and pulled me onto the bed. “This will only take a minute,” she said.

“I have a minute.”

Jill makes sure we get a quickie in before I travel so she can draw upon recent raunchy memories in case my plane crashes or Peruvians kidnap me. Afterward, I kissed her on the cheek again. “See you in a few days.”

“I might not really love you,” she said, her eyes closed, already returning to sleep.

On the way to the airport, there’s little traffic, but an ominous – see what I mean about ubiquitous ominousness – van sideswipes us on the 125th street ramp to the Triboro Bridge. It’s one of those beat up windowless vans you see a lot of in the city. The words “Ken’s Contracting” are stenciled unevenly on the side in black, a corona of fine black a couple of inches from the letters, where the excess spray from the can collected.

Dave’s Lincoln had scraped against the side of the van as we merged into a single lane, hitting the van’s dangling side view mirror and ripping it from its duct taped mooring. Glass shatters, maybe the headlamp, and that, combined with the caffeine and other drugs kicking in, really gets my heart going.

“Criminy,” Dave says. He slows down and looks in his rear view mirror, considering whether to stop.

He pulls over. The van drives up behind us and instead of stopping, it accelerates into us, sending my face lurching forward into the back of the headrest.

“JFC!” Dave yells. He gets out of the car.

“What is wrong with you? Are you out of your mind?” He doesn’t curse. He speaks clearly and enunciates very well. He controls the tone of his voice the way a TV preacher does.

I click open the door, but as I move to open it, Dave slams it shut with his hip. Just as well. I’m woozy. I touch my face with my fingers and wince when I feel the area beneath my left eye. No blood yet, but it hurts and already is puffing up. There are loud voices coming from outside the window, but I can’t make out what they’re saying. Then the front door opens and Dave reaches in, and just as quickly, is outside again. Something has been smashed. I turn my head around and through the tinted rear window see that Dave is holding a big black pipe. He swings it and shatters a headlight. The three men slowly back away from Dave. One of the men runs back into the van through the sliding door, it behind him. Dave holds the pipe above his head and wiggles it. One gets in the driver’s door. The other is standing his ground, yelling at Dave in another language. Dave takes a step towards the man, who finally yields and retreats to the passenger door. The driver guns it straight at Dave who sidesteps, spins, and swings the black pipe into a taillight, shattering it. Dave gets into the car. 

He puts the pipe down. It’s actually a big, metal flashlight, dinged and scraped in a couple of places and wrapped in duct tape at the handle. He flicks the switch. “Perfectly good flashlight, ruined.” He drops it onto the seat. He looks at me through the mirror. “That’s one nasty looking bruise. You OK?”

I nod. My face hurts and so does my head. I might have a concussion. “Christ, Dave, you scared the daylights out of those guys.”

He smiles. “I could have taken all three of them if it came to it.” Despite that unscheduled interaction, we arrive early. The limo has a long scrape mark on the passenger side, and the rear end is dented. It will be a long day for Dave. I hand him a fifty.

“No need to do that,” he says.

“No,” I say. “I owe you. Get yourself a nice breakfast somewhere.” 

At the airport club, I have a drink – I know, I know, it’s not even seven in the morning. My father used to joke, “Does your face hurt?” And like the punchline, I whisper, “No, but it’s killing me.” The aspirin has helped to bring down the swelling, but everything throbs in time with the beating of my heart.

“Norman?” It’s Colleen, a business analyst on the project, in charge of infrastructure.

“Colleen?” I say. “What are you doing in New York?”

“I spent the weekend with my boyfriend – he lives in the Village. Remember, we had this same conversation Friday at the airport in North Carolina?”

I don’t remember. I rub the back of my head feeling for the bump, but it’s my forehead that’s bruised, I remember now. “There’s blood on my shirt,” I say.

“Yes,” she confirms.

“I was in an accident this morning,” I tell her. “Nosebleed. Nothing serious.”

“Let me see that,” she says, and pokes the bruise on my forehead with a finger. “Are you all right?”

I ignore the question. “What’s on your calendar this morning,” I say. She’s the infrastructure team lead. “Where are your people on the cabling on nine?”

“Finished two weeks ago. We’re on eleven now.”

“On schedule? What’s the date?”

She tells me, but I’m not listening. I open my tablet. “I have a few emails to catch up on.” I sit down at a chair looking out over the jetways and runways. One jet takes off. Another lands.

Understandably, he didn’t notice the dog as he walked into the airport.

So:

Everyday violent encounter or harbinger of doom? You decide. But don’t worry about Colleen. She doesn’t have much more to do here. She’s young and smart and will soon make partner, and shortly thereafter spin off her own tech company. She’ll get to enjoy a marvelous lifestyle before putting all of her time, brilliance, and resources into preserving the natural world, before the zombies come and claw it all to pieces. 

Love in the Time Before Zombies

Outside the bedroom window, storm clouds turn the sky a steely blue.

Norm and Jill are afraid that the world is unraveling and that soon, civilization will collapse.

Some people are waiting for the time of the zombies to come, both fearing it and desperately craving it. They want apocalypse, burning cities, every man for himself. They stock up on weapons and canned food and reading glasses. They build bunkers and become survivalists. They learn which insects and weeds to eat and how to shoot a crossbow. They watch zombie TV and wait for the time of the zombies to come.

Some people don’t want to be lumped in with the zombies, don’t want to go down in a hail of bullets, or the shrapnel of a fertilizer bomb. Norm and Jill are like that, but they’re afraid it’s coming and there’s no stopping it. They came into being about six years ago. They and two little children living in an apartment in New York, exactly like the one I lived in, growing more fearful as 25,000 words accumulated until one day they just stopped mid-paragraph. It was titled, Love in the Time Before Zombies. A lot people don’t like that title because they think it’s derivative. *

Norm is kind of like me, only better at his job. But dumber, too. Jill is loosely based on my wife. I say loosely because it’s safer for me that way, you understand.

They have two barely sketched out kids, Brian and Dot. Little is known of them other than that they both like cute, cuddly things. We don’t know their ages, what color hair they have, whether they’re plump or skinny or ordinary or exceptional. Their names will change a half dozen or more times.

The story starts with a line that violates the first of Walt the Dog’s Rules of Writing: “Unless you’re Pat Conroy, don’t use weather to start a story. Even in the prologue.”

Love in the Time Before Zombies
Chapter 1, Verse 1

Lightning flashes on the gray sky across the river over New Jersey, and then it strikes startlingly nearby. Thunder follows an instant later and she flinches in the bed beside me, but doesn’t wake. She can sleep through anything. Most nights, I can’t even fall asleep.

In a moment, Brian’s tousled head appears in the door. He rubs his eyes. “What was that?”

“Just thunder,” I say. “It’s just a storm.”

“Can I get in bed with you?”

I pull the covers aside for him and he runs to the bed, clambers up and over me and lands between Jill and me. She murmurs something, licks her lips and rolls onto her side, draping an arm over Brian as another blast of thunder shakes the room. I hear a scream, pounding footsteps and Dot bounds into our bedroom, her hands covering her mouth, tears on her little cheeks and she too dives onto the bed.

“Mommy, mommy, mommy!” she shrieks.

Jill wraps her arms around Dot, cradling her, kissing her hair. “Shhhh, my little punctuation mark. It’s OK. Mommy’s right here.”


So, the story continues and eventually the storm subsides, and frankly, some of the sentences I make up are overblown and self-important and embarrassing. The kids fall asleep and Jill is quiet and Norm starts to drift off when she says, “Norm, how are we doing? I mean, how much do we have in the bank?”

That line about money is supposed to be important to our understanding of this couple. Jill the money manager, the financial wiz is suddenly worried about money. Norm says he’ll check their account balances in the morning and she insists he do it right then and there. He does and when he comes back to bed, she’s asleep.

Love in the Time Before Zombies, is a pre-apocalyptic tale. I mean, once you have zombies, you have the apocalypse, and these events are all the things that happen leading right up to that. These may be pre-zombie times, but make no mistake about it, the zombies are coming.

* As Bob Dylan sang, “if there’s an original thought out there, I could sure use it right now.”

All Fives

A tale of customer service..

Unexplained archival image

The Morgan Fairchild, a Model Nine residential rocket, had just cleared the atmosphere and begun approaching a low earth orbit. Oates heard two quick pings, then what sounded like a can of soda opening. A gong sounded, then the voice, so calm, so matter-of-fact it could put you to sleep. “Hull breach, decks three and four. Hull breach, decks three and four.” It was ANDREA, the ship’s artificial intelligence.

“Uhhhh, check that,” Oates said.

“We have a hull breach on decks three and four. Would you like me to call support, Passenger Oates?”

“Can’t you just fix the hull breach?”

“I’m sorry, the base Model Nine can’t do that. Would you like to upgrade? I can contact customer support.”

“Yes, the upgrade sounds like a good idea,” Oates said.

“I’m sorry, Model Nines must be docked for upgrades. Would you like me to contact support, anyway?”

“Yeah, do that.”

The ship gonged again. Kath was in the basement – deck three. The Morgan Fairchild, as far as Oates knew, had only three decks. Main was deck two, the basement was three, and the attic was one. It was supposed to be a joke, naming the decks for the floors of a house, but it ended up just being confusing. 

“We’re third in the support queue,” ANDREA said.

“How long…”

“The wait is less than eight minutes.”

“What is the status of ship’s systems?” Oates said, thinking Kath would ask that if she weren’t downstairs somewhere.

“The ship is losing air. I recommend sealing the basement.”

“Kath’s down there.”

“Passenger Kath’s head has pierced through both decks three and four…,” said ANDREA.

“I didn’t know we had a deck four,” said Oates.

“Deck four is very narrow. It’s used to channel wires, tubes, and fuel, and it’s no longer pressurized.”

“I see,” said Oates.

“Passenger Kath in all probability is dead. Would you like me to seal the basement to prevent further loss of atmosphere? Air at 64%.”

“No, wait. I want to have a look,” Oates said, unstrapping himself. He slid down the rails to the basement. From her shoulders down, Kath’s body was sticking into the room through the wall, her legs and torso parallel to the floor. He pulled her legs, but the suction was too strong, and she didn’t budge. He didn’t know what a dead body felt like, but it must have been something like this. He could feel the air rushing toward the opening in which her head was lodged.

“Sir, support is picking up.” Oates liked that ANDREA called him, “sir.”

He returned to the main deck and strapped himself in.

“Good morning, passenger, how are you today?” the voice said. “My name is Amir. To whom am I speaking?”

“Yeah, this is Oates. ANDREA tells me there’s a hull breach.”

“For quality assurance purposes, this call may be recorded. After the call, would you mind staying on the line and answering a few survey questions so that we may serve you better?”

“Yeah. No. What? Look, the ship is leaking, and my girlfriend’s head is sticking out into space.” Protruding would have been a better word, he thought. Protruding into space.

“That’s unfortunate, sir. Let’s see if we can fix the problem together. Now, according to our records, you’re in a base Model Nine, the Morgan Fairchild?

“Yes.”

“Have you upgraded to the latest software?”

“I don’t know…I thought we signed up for automatic updates.”

“Let me check that for you. You’re running version 9.13. The current version is 9.22. Would you like to download that now?”

“Wait. I thought I had to be docked. What does that have to do with the leak?”

“Sir, I can’t do any remote analysis and repair unless you’re on the latest version of the software.”

“Air at 54%,” ANDREA chimed in.

“Oh, that’s not good,” Amir said. “I’ve gone ahead and started the update. You may notice a slight lag in performance during the download.”

The lights in the cabin dimmed while the screens displayed a progress bar.

“While the system updates, would you mind taking our online survey? Your opinion is important to us, and your ratings can influence other people’s purchasing decisions.”

Except for the screen, the ship went dark and silent and suddenly cold. Oates could see his breath, a puffy cloud, hovering. Then the lights flickered on and everything came to life.

“Air at 41%,” ANDREA said.

“Okay,” Amir said. “I see you have a hull breach on three and four.”

“I know.”

“And you’re quickly losing air. Why don’t we seal off deck three from the main cabin? That should kill the leak.”

“Wouldn’t that kill Kath, too.”

“It looks like Passenger Kath’s head is in the cold, dark void of space. I’m sure she’s dead.”

Oates rubbed his temples. This was supposed to be a ride into the rest of their lives, an escape from the ruined earth. Everyone who could was getting away from the once-green world that could now barely support cockroaches and moss.

People like Kath and Oates couldn’t afford a place on the massive satellites designed for the world’s richest, but they could buy a simple old Model Nine, and join it with other Nines. Plus, it was compatible with the new Model Tens and farming pods. They could start a life in space. They were already overdue to meet up with the Petrovskys on the Victoria Principal. Now Kath – the only one who knew how the ship worked – was dead. Who would fix things? Who would he cuddle with at night? Who would make everything better?

“Air at 34%,” ANDREA said.

“Sir, I’ve gone ahead and sealed off decks three and four while you think things over.”

“Atmosphere stable. Air at 37%.”

Amir continued, “Try to maneuver your ship into a stable orbit while you plan your next steps.”

Oates pressed the gas pedal, a silly option, but one Kath insisted upon. It reminded her of a vintage GTO, a muscle car she had inherited from her grandfather.

“Thrusters inoperable,” ANDREA said.

“Let me troubleshoot that for you,” Amir said.

“Thanks,” Oates said, bewildered and a little bit lightheaded.

“It looks like Passenger Kath’s head has severed the fuel line and fuel is leaking out into space,” Amir said, cheerfully.

“Can you fix that?” Oates said.

“Fuel at 14%,” ANDREA said.

“You’ll need to go down to deck three and manually repair the line.”

“I see,” Oates said.

“Put on your approved space suit.”

“My space suit…”

“Your space suit,” ANDREA said, “is in the basement.”

“What do you recommend?” Oates said.

“Eject?” Amir said, for the first time appearing as flummoxed as Oates.

“Eject?!? To what?”

“Orbit degrading,” ANDREA said, her voice calm and reassuring. “Hull failure is imminent.”

There was a knock on the basement door. Then a pounding.

“Oates, let me in. Open this door right now.”

“Kath? Is that you, Kath?”

“Of course, it’s me. Who else would it be?” Kath said.

“Opening the basement door will result in complete cabin depressurization,” ANDREA said.

“I thought it was you, but your voice is a little bit muffled. I’ve missed you so much. How are you alive?”

“I’m wearing a space suit. Like you’re supposed to.”

“Great. Yeah, I should have thought to do that. It’s great you’re not dead,” Oates said.

“Ask her to fix the leak in the fuel line,” Amir said.

“Kath, did you hear that??

“What? I have a splitting headache!”

“Can you fix the fuel line?” Oates said.

“Why can’t you do it?”

“I’m locked out of the basement. I can’t open the door until the pressure has equalized.”

“Do you think Kath can take a moment to fill out a survey?” Amir said. “Just a short one.”

“It’s really hot down here,” Kath said.

“That’s just the atmospheric friction,” Amir said. “If you’re skimming the atmosphere, that’s bad news. I’m sending you a survey.”

“Hull has been compromised,” ANDREA said. The vessel shook. There was an explosion.

“Kath?”

But Kath, now helmetless, drifted by the window toward the earth below, a look of surprise on her face. As she entered the atmosphere a moment later, her body glowed red, sprouted flames and disappeared in a flash.

“Your warranty covers catastrophic failure,” Amir said. “You’ll have the option of a pro-rated refund, or a credit toward a Model 10.”

“But Kath’s gone. What difference does it make?” Oates said, dizzy, angry, confused.

“Hull failure on decks one through four,” ANDREA said.

“Listen, you don’t have much time, I’m going to read out the questions and fill in the form for you.”

“Okay. What?”

“Question 1: On a scale of one through five, with five being the best…”

Playing ping pong with Steve Jobs

It was definitely Steve Jobs. Sure, Steve Jobs has been dead for years, but the person in the body was Jobs. Lean build with casual clothes loosely hanging on him. He sounded like that actor, not Peter Coyote, the other guy, who was in that movie with Russell Crowe and Guy…what’s his name. Pierce Patchett was the character. It will come to me.

IMG_1027
Prototype iPaddle

Jobs had twin boys with the exact same face, the face of this guy pretending not pretending to be Jobs. Round, flat, moon faces, tanned, with prominent noses. Faces of character that looked older than they were, and except for the boy bodies and boyish exuberance, you’d think they were adults.

They were playing ping pong on a long table, 2/3 the width of a regulation table with rounded ends. The net in the middle rose and fell, sometimes regularly, other times staying in place. The whole setup was on a turntable that slowly rotated, occasionally stopping and reversing.

My wife knew I’d want to play, and Jobs took note. “When the boys are finished, well have a go,” he said. “Do you play well? Are you good?” I play hard bat, an old school form of spongeless ping pong, from ping pong’s golden age. Before I could answer, another set of twins, these older, and less Jobs-like, came into the room carrying a telephoto lens about 8 feet in length and gave it to a woman, a doctor. I said something about the enormity of the lens and she said, “why shouldn’t I, it’s my vacation.”

While the boys played ping pong, Jobs showed us around. “What brings you to Atlanta,” he asked. Then, “Wait, don’t tell me, you’re here to bicycle the rivers. Of course you are.” Which was how we arrived here. His sprawling house complex crossed the river and the bike paths on either side went straight through the house. We were just pedaling past, admiring the furniture when he waved us over. “Have lunch with me,” he said. “We’re having grilled asparagus and some other things. Chips, maybe.”

Periodically, things, the furniture, tall, deep shelf drawers would automatically open, and Jobs would react, either removing an item, or putting something away. “If I miss it, I have to wait another day for an opening. Crazy system works,” he said. David Strathairn, that’s the voice Steve Jobs used. Really good choice.

A Jobs nephew, climbed on to his rotating bed as shelves were opening and removed some clothes, tossing off and throwing the old ones in a just opened chute. The doctor with the camera watched. “Why shouldn’t I watch? I like to see naked people especially when they look good. It’s my vacation.”

The boys came running up, each holding a ping pong paddle. “We’re finished,” they said. “You can play now.” Jobs looked exasperated. “No, no, NO,” he said. “It’s not the right time.” He patted his chest. “What do you think of this body? It works, but the design isn’t as user friendly as it should be. Look at these hands. Let’s play ping pong.”

We went to the table and slid it out, away from a couch. “Which side do you want?” he said, taking the side he wanted. “Grab yourself an iPaddle. They’re all the same.”

I picked up a paddle. Wood handle, rounded striking surface made from maybe cork. Slightly tacky. No rubber. Jobs hit me a ball and I returned it. The tack on the surface allowed me to get a little topspin and the ball dove nicely for me. My first shot landed deep, and high-bounced Jobs. He said,”whoa!”

He hit short balls, hard ones, angled ones and I returned them, each time eliciting a loud exclamation of praise from Jobs. A crowd gathered and I hit the ball back and forth with Steve Jobs, occasionally slamming one just to let him know I could do whatever I wanted, that I was in complete control.

Carried off by the swift waters

“All right,” I said. “Tell me all about it.” Like I said, I had time and more than anything, I like a good story.

Alder Fanspree got up from the bench and turned to face me and his wife.

“I had just dug into breakfast, egg and cheese on a toasted roll, when a man sat down to share the table. This was outside. This happened often and I didn’t bother to look up. ‘Does the name Shnabullious Traffletum mean anything to you,’ he said.

“I looked at him over the top of the Post. He sported an outlandish  thick moustache, curled at the ends, and his cheeks were ruddied as if by a raw winter wind.

“‘Of course it wouldn’t,’ he continued. ‘You’re just an average man caught up in a mundane life. You’re married. You have two children. The girl, the older one you have named Willow, is an athlete, a decent student who will no doubt get into a state school one day. Although, she dreams of an Ivy, it’s beyond her and she knows it. The other struggles. Maybe he’s on the spectrum. Maybe he isn’t.  You think he may have difficulties in social situations that will make it harder for him as he grows up.’

“This man’s information was only partly right. I am nothing if not average. You’ve met my wife, but, we’re childless. I told him, ’You have me mistaken for someone else.’

“’So, that’s how you’re going to play it,’ he said. And he smiled and twirled the end of his moustache.

“‘Look,’ I pressed on. ‘You have confused me with someone who looks a lot like me. I get it – I have one of those faces. But I don’t have children. You’re after another man. Not me.’

“He slid a 9 & 12 envelope across the table to me. ‘Open it,’ he said.

“There was a photo of a man jogging in the early morning along the river. It was an excellent capture of a tall, strikingly handsome man in the midst of an easy run. In the background, another runner out of focus, followed.

“‘That is Shnabullious Traffletum.’”

“I flipped the photo over and in the next image Mr. Traffletum was out of focus and the trailing runner was in sharp focus. That runner looked a lot like me, but it wasn’t me. For one thing, he wore a knee brace. I didn’t know who he was, but he must live nearby. We’d seen him around. I could see how we’d get mixed up. I often run past the same place.

“This man had information about a guy who looked like me, his children, and maybe every salient detail about his life. Stuff he could use to leverage the guy.

“‘Look at him,’ I said. ‘He’s wearing a knee brace. I don’t have one. My knee’s fine. And I don’t run that early. It’s not me.’

“‘That was Saturday,’ the stranger said.

“The next image showed Mr. Traffletum again, this time from the side passing a gate that separated the running path from the river.

“‘The gate is not latched,’ he said. ‘What I’d like you to do, Mr. Grass, is nudge Mr. Traffletum as he passes the gate tomorrow morning on your run. The gate is not latched – it’s there for kayakers and they never lock it. It will be low tide and the rocks at river’s edge will be exposed and Mr. Traffletum will trip as he falls through the gate and if god is with us, he will strike his head on the rocks below, hopefully doing permanent damage. Or, render him unconscious so he can drown. If he remains conscious, he will get carried off by the swift waters, and as he cannot swim, he will likely drown anyway. Eat your sandwich before it gets cold.’

“I noticed the egg and cheese perched in my hand next to my head and took a bite. It was still warm and the cheese was gooey.
‘What do you say? Can we count on you? Do this for us, and our relationship ends and Willow grows up and, who knows, maybe Princeton takes her. Maybe Clem – is that short for Clematis? – gets a little specialized attention to help him over this rough patch he’s going through. Maybe your beautiful wife doesn’t get snatched and held and…’ He paused and fiddled with his moustache again. ’She’ll live. We’re not animals. But would she ever be the same?’”

Laurel had stood up some time ago and she was pacing back and forth.

The whole damned city had changed

“Me?” I said. No one comes to see me. Not anymore.

“You are Mr. Pyrus,” she said. It wasn’t a question.

“Just Pyrus will do. My friends call me…”

“We shan’t be friends,” she said with a sweet smile. “Can we talk somewhere?”

Shan’t we? Has this woman modeled herself on an Audrey Hepburn character, I wondered. Anyway, we couldn’t go back to my office, not with Thorn strapped to a street sign. “Let’s take a walk.”

All that commotion surrounding the shooting spree was ramping up. Police cars, helicopters, ambulances, TV reporters – all the usual. The city was getting good at dealing with this nonsense. We walked in silence down 9th toward Gansevoort Street, where the Whitney Museum had relocated a couple years ago. It was a nice space if you were into art. We ducked into a cafe on Washington St., a place with $7 coffee and $10 muffins. The place had changed. The whole damned city had changed.

I bought her a cup of coffee. She declined the muffin, saying, “I don’t eat bread.”

“What’s this all about?”

“It’s my husband,” she started. She wasn’t wearing a ring, but I could see the outline as if she’d just slipped it off. “He’s a runner. He likes to run in the early morning. When he came home Friday morning after his run…”

She looked around. We were sitting outside on a bench, our backs to the Ripoff Cafe watching people walk by. “That man who was following me…”

“Don’t worry about him,” I said. At least not for now. Maybe later.

“When my husband came home, he was agitated.” That word was a little warning sign to me. People don’t use words like agitated when they’re about to describe a traumatic event. Maybe they’d say upset. Or freaked out. But agitated? No.

“And his name is?”

“Oh, yes. Of course. Alder Fanspree. I’m Laurel.”

“What happened next, Mrs. Fanspree?”

A man in running attire came around the corner of Horatio St. and stopped in front of us. Mrs. Fanspree gasped and quickly rose and touched his cheek with her hand. He was taller than she was by a few inches. They kissed.

“Mr. Pyrus, this is my husband.”

I reached out to shake his hand.

“I was about to tell you that he was missing,” she said. “But I think we may not be needing your services after all.”

I shook his hand.

“I’m afraid we do,” Alder Fanspree said. “Need your help, I mean. Does the name Shnabullious Traffletum mean anything to you?”

“No,” I said. “Not really.” I was beginning to doubt the Fansprees. “Traffletum. Come on, that’s not even a real name.”

They were wasting my time. On the other hand, I had a lot of free time and they both did appeared to be genuinely shaken up. We sat down on the bench, the three of us. Mr. Fanspree also had the shadow of a ring on his ring finger.