Italics Inc. was the city’s biggest employer. After years of beta and theta and zeta testing, the algorithms company had finally completed the creation of a true game changer.
Their flagship Multi-Phase Municipal Infrastructure for the Future Elevation of All Involved was called Self-Esteem Soon! And on the eve of the rollout and amidst several cream toasts, they got served and the game done changed. Business is a dirty business, after all.
Their rival was a multinational, an algorithms dabbler that’d risen to prominence courtesy of the mainstreaming of jetpacks fueled by the synaptic action of even the least critical thinkers. More remarkably, this Nameless (in name alone) corporation had the wherewithal to file a series of key patents for their own Single-Phase Municipal Infrastructure for the Future Elevation of Whoever’s Left After the Jetpack Accidents. The already struggling Italics was knocked over and nearly folded, but was not forgotten. Lawsuits and layoffs were rampant and permanent as fire ants.
Soon after ranking Third on the Most Depressed Cities list, the much-adopted Self-Esteem Now! program was launched in the city. Italics Inc. had little to do with it. A bold federal grant would grant the formerly-algorithmically-inclined workers the title of Salaried Vagrants. The 401K was competitive thanks to foreign investors.
The non-privatized Phase One of the program proved that sticking fists of cash out car windows at perfect perpendicular angles increases endorphins while strengthening the old sockets. Soon, the city perked up. Donors were 63% less depressed.
Which brings us to Mill, formerly Millard and formerly of It Doesn’t Really Matter. Homeless Joe’s name was Mill. It said so on his wet cardboard sign. It said Joe, not Millard nor Mill. Focus groups (including some Republicans) responded to “Joe” more generously and to him, being a Vet with a dog. Every dog-man duo must be missing at least one leg. Rain begging was mandatory. A dirty face was optional.
Mill’s donors were not among the 63%. Post alms, they, in fact, felt worse. The denomination of the gift didn’t matter, nor did the perpendicularity of their arm. The smile on the dog was benign. Setting up shop on church corners or cemeteries made no earthly difference. Mill was failing to provide service. He inspired no altruistic brain burst. His boss had read the surveys.
“Some notes, Joe.”
“Don’t you know my name, boss?”
“Say the line for me.”
“It’s Mill, remember?”
“Not anymore, Joe. It’s Joe. The line.”
“You’re a good person?”
“Your eyebrow is up.”
“And you’re squinting!”
“Mean it, Joe. No question mark.”
“Did someone complain?”
“Your numbers complained.”
“Say the line, or you’ll be back off the streets.”
Mill paused. Punctuation screws up algorithms, he thought. He remembered working indoors. He remembered flirting over cubicles. He remembered losing his home.
“You’re a good person?”
The boss shook its head. It thought, This human will never get the intonation right. If the numbers didn’t improve, the rival multinational would step in with their Single Phase. No one would be depressed, but no one would be everyone left and everyone is no one at all. The smoking jetpacks were already circling like vultures.
The rain turned to snow. Seven feet made tracks. The wind coughed all over them. The dog didn’t mind.
“I’m a bit short,” said Rick Cedric. Rick was short for Cedric and he was short indeed. Short for Pulaski, his bookie, who happened to be his step-pop, a man he was taller than but had slightly less hair than. Especially these days, when he’d been pulling it out in chunks. Cedric Cedric Pulaski used no hyphens, had no dough, and owned no wheels out of town, which is what he needed now. Whichever name got used wouldn’t disappear the vig or the damage.
Usually, Sunday dinners were for skipping but an empty fridge gets you walking to Ma’s. Rick had walked right into whatever was coming with Pulaski.
“Galumpky?” Pulaski went by Cheese, as in cheesehead, a Green Bay fan since the brief majesty of Majkowski The Magic Man. Cheese shoveled galumpkies to Rick. They were cold, but you don’t settle up on an empty stomach. Not when Ma’s around. Both of them knew enough to just not. During dishes is better.
They both knew dishes don’t take long when dinner comes from the no-name behind Milk Bar. Cheese called it Cookie’s and maybe it was. Technically it’s Ukie, but they make good galumpky. There they pronounced it Gah-wuhmp-kee, which is the only way to pronounce golabki.
Ma asked, “Where the pierogi?”
Pulaski called her bluff.
“You didn’t want them, said we had mashed potatoes.”
“In a box,” she said.
Nobody moved, unless you count chewing cabbage leaves. Water didn’t heat itself and hydrate a damn thing and the butter stayed in the fridge. Rick didn’t want to Communion-wafer-tongue any potato flakes either.
Ma hadn’t cooked nothing since Jackie went downstate. Born Dominik, was Jackie, and he was twice as young as Rick. She’d been looking for excuses to just not, before, but nobody bought the sciatica. She blamed her frypans, too. Said they were full of lead like Jackie. Nobody called Jackie Jackie until he was nabbed jacking that pizza joint. And he was framed. And he took a bullet no one could take back. Well, shotgun shrapnel, too near the spine. We should call him Spiney, but Patsy’s more like it. There was a rat somewheres. Rick suspected Cheese, though Rick suspected Cheese suspected Rick, too. Truth is, Jackie once tried to call a sex hotline while his mother was still on the kitchen phone discussing burial plots with his grandmother. Rick hadn’t visited him in a year.
“How about those Bills, Rick?”
“Too big for their britches.”
“Couldna said it better.”
Two eyes flashed question marks and dollar signs, not necessarily in that order. All eyes stared without looking.
Maybe when Jackie gets out he can square this. Rick and Cheese were thinking the same thing differently. They were swallowing loudly to drown out the thinking. Ma didn’t eat. She’d told both of them to just not a hundred times. Behind her Bloody Mary she bet on their indigestion. She’d fix a plate whenever her sciatica calmed, maybe mix up some potatoes.
The sound of digging hasn’t stopped in two hours. There was a break about twenty minutes in, but only long enough to peel off a wet shirt, chuck it at the porch, miss, shrug and then pick up the shovel. Not time enough for lemonade. Certainly no time for wiping a brow with a perspiring glass.
There is no lemonade. I hadn’t made any and never had. Not once in my life. The woman who left always made real lemonade and she took our pitcher with her. She knew all the ratios. Using chemical powders is cheating, I was told. I think she used brown sugar and round ice cubes. Did she use tap water? Can you use pliers to squeeze the juice out? How about a vice?
There are no lemons anyway. The polyester neighbor has a lemon tree dropping fruit daily, and he also has a gun he cleans almost as regular. Out on his lanai, he polishes that .22 like the geckos are going to hitch a ride and gum up the works. There’s a hole in his screen for the gun or else for the geckos. The hole is on our side.
The digging is the reason I’m laid up. I slipped a disc trying to bury what’s left of the woman who left: A laptop with a crack, some winter clothes, her birth control pills. Nine shovels in, I was on the ground like my neighbor’s lemons. Now someone else gets the pleasure of digging for my emotional closure while I pay by the hour for no questions asked.
My back is glued to a buckwheat mattress from Scandinavia. It hovers inches above the floor and it cost more than my truck. The squeaking springs of the old mattress were a turnoff, I was told. When the new one arrived, she went to bed early and slept like the dead. It’s good for your back, I was also told. Like she knew I’d rupture something soon.
We tried to have a lemon tree. It wouldn’t take. No matter where we planted. We tried for three years. Then we gave up and put down mulch and ferns. Machos and warts, they’re called, according to the guy at the nursery. He sold us the dying lemon trees, too.
Through the stucco, I hear the dirt stop. It’s a long way up to the window and farther to the door. Whoever’s out there would be thirsty by now. If it’s a woman she might be in small clothes. If it’s a woman she might ask questions.
I didn’t ask a thing when my wife disappeared. It was around sunrise. Through our bedroom window, I watched her shadow on the screen of the neighbor’s lanai. She was down weeding the neighbor’s ferns, while ours got choked out by skunkvine. The neighbor was there in less polyester. She wore her flexible goatskin gloves. Her rusty claw and trowel lazed in the sparse mulch among the wild geckos.
We only listen to dead artists, mister. House rules. Don’t challenge me today. I don’t care if your father made exceptions. Besides, it’s my turn to pick. Between your brother’s stoner jams and your whitewashed blues, I can’t even hear myself think. Yes, I’m digging into the pile. And yes, something with harps is possible. Why in Hell don’t we alphabetize these? Who hid all my records? Aha! Metal Machine Music. No harps on this. Close that mouth, mister. I know I should’ve said heck.
Hell is a real place and can’t be taken lightly. Some of us go there and some go to Heaven is what I’m trying to say. Sit down, son. Listen.
The sound is quadrophonic—need four speakers. Used to have four before you were born. Your father hated the low end, those old wicker speakers. Said it sounded like farts. Deep echoes from beyond, I thought. Hard to clean, though. Spiders love wicker. Sounds okay on just two.
That one? That’s him. Your father did a record way back. Stupid band name. Yep. A boy band. Three out of four even played their instruments. Should’ve been called Yep. Can’t say no to Yep. You’d think his shower singing would’ve been better. Lessons for years. Dancing too. That’s all gone now.
Okay. Alright. Okay. You can put your father’s record on.
Why’re you crying?
Dead as an artist, honey. Not dead dead dead. Sure, he was drinking and angry before. He’s over pruning your grandmother’s lilacs. That’s his Hell.
The hungry birds waited.
The townspeople had moved their shoes up to the stepped gables. It was the first day of sun in a month.
The damp had settled in, but the water had receded enough to get trucks with good suspension across the bridge. The cemetery was on higher ground. Maybe they’d steal a few hours after loading and unloading the trucks. Muscles need time to dry too.
Inside the old gymnasium, the mayor was completing his moving tribute for the gathered survivors of the worst flood in town history. His ever-cautious wife had insisted it would be inappropriate to pour out libation for those taken too soon. Never dirty the feet of the grieving, went a new old saying.
The famous tragedies were quoted: Our town is strong. Never forget! The mayor wanted to coin his own slogan, something about stick-to-itiveness, but his speechwriter had lived down riverside. Once, I was afraid and petrified, he offered tentatively, without cadence. Everyone stood squinting and barefoot. An unsteady toddler sloshed in toxins. The mayor was desperate to raise the town’s spirits. Now we’re alive, he repeated.
There was a defiant, yet ill-advised mic drop. A splash. The generator crackled, sparked. Nothing drowns out the deafening scream of surprise electrocutions.
Ghosts have truckloads of blame. The mayor’s wife dug up her husband’s voting record: No on the levees. Twice. Everyone else harped on his sloganeering. Dead wrong, they said.
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