Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Umbilical Berries

     “Okay, Han, punch out already. I wanna get the hell out of here,” said Mr. Capet.
     “Yes, sir. Sorry...”
     Hanscomb Fields slid a stack of reports into the top drawer of his desk and then stretched, popping his wracked spine three times. His manager, Mr. Capet, waited three cubicles north, tapping his heavy ring on the partition in Morse code: Hurry...up...hurry up...you...little...twerp... 
     Once Hanscomb’s time card had been chomped in the clock and returned to its slot, Mr. Capet said, “Have a good weekend, Fields. Don’t go too crazy.”
     With a murmur aimed at the clock-face rather than Mr. Capet’s red, bloated mug, Hanscomb said, “No, sir, I won’t”
     It took Hanscomb twenty minutes to get home.
     Home was a desolate pile of bricks in a neighborhood most people were careful not to wander into. The air in the hallway was a stifling mix of mysterious meals, urine, Lysol, and sweat; the choking ghosts of people not yet dead.
     Hanscomb paused by his neighbor’s door. He could hear the old man pacing again, a cane-thumping shuffle as he crossed and re-crossed the room.
     Hanscomb unlocked the next door and slipped into his apartment. Safe. Whew.
     He grabbed a can of cranberry seltzer from the fridge, drank half, and then went to the window to check on his plants.
     The Swedish ivy was flourishing in the humid weather. He needed to pinch off some of its trails already. He removed several dead leaves from the prayer plant and stuffed them into his pocket. The geranium would need repotting soon. That would make a good Saturday chore, he decided. He took another slurp of seltzer and slowly turned the hanging basket that held his petunias, admiring the soft pink blossoms.
     The telephone rang. It was his mother, a telemarketer or a wrong number.  Those were the only calls he got.
     The phone rang and rang. Not a telemarketer.
     “Damn it.” Hanscomb stepped into the hall, closing the door on the crying phone.
     He managed two steps before the old man’s door opened and Harvey Getis limped into the hall.
     The old man wore his age like weight, like a burden. His parched, weather-beaten face was creased with deep wrinkles, stippled with liver spots. There were dramatic, raised scars on his neck. His thin white hair was long, snarled, turning yellow. His nose was a twisted crimson knob of broken blood vessels. So this was Old Age. Pre-death decay.
     “Ain’t you gonna answer your phone, kid?” he said, in a torn, tobacco voice. 
     Hanscomb was too startled to answer.
     “What’s the matter? Cantcha talk?” he said, sizing Hanscomb up with a squinting red eye.
     “Yes, sorry, I can—“
     “Damn phone’s been ringing all day. Sounds like it’s right in my room,” As if on cue, the ringing stopped.
     “I’m sorry. I’m really sorry,” he said, edging away. The old man looked and smelled as if he hadn’t changed his faded Hawaiian shirt since Hawaii achieved statehood.
     Getis smiled, showing gray, ill-fitting dentures. “Okay, kid. Good enough.” The old man stepped toward Hanscomb, still grinning. “Say, why don’t you come in for a snort. Lemme show you there’s no hard feelings.”
     Hanscomb took another step back and gripped his doorknob. “Thanks, I’d like to, but I was just about to—“
     “Oh, come on. I know you ain’t about to do shit. Just one drink.” He clamped a damp, gnarled hand on Hanscomb’s elbow and tugged him toward his doorway. “Just a nip.”
     “No, really, thanks, but...”
     Mr. Getis looked at him.    
     “Oh, okay. I guess...”
     “Well, come on in then.”    
     The old man’s apartment was a cramped, disordered puzzle of clutter and smelled of old smoke, spilled booze, mildew and medicine. Stacks of old books and newspapers littered the filthy floor. The crumbling, peeling-paint walls were decorated with yellowed pictures and articles clipped from old tabloids and pulp magazines. Hanscomb studied a grainy, captioned photo of a nearly-naked woman with the unlikely name, Candy Barr. It was pinned above an article about spinal meningitis.
     “Come on over here, by the window.” Mr. Getis shoved tattered, coverless paperbacks from two canvas chairs. “There you go.” He slapped one of the seats, sending up a puff of dust.
     Hanscomb sat down, his nervous gaze moving to the window. Through the murk of dust and grease, he saw three kids leaning against the bricks of the liquor store across the street.
     “Not much of a view,” Getis said, pulling a corked bottle from the cupboard above the stove. “But I guess you know that already.” He found two glasses in the dish-filled sink and rinsed them out.
     “Hope you don’t take it on the rocks. I’m all out of ice.” He poured Hanscomb a shot of thick purple liquid. The bottle had no label.
     Hanscomb took the drink, sniffed it, and then kissed out a tiny sip. It tasted like a mix of cough syrup and rubbing alcohol.
     “Not like that,” said Getis. “Like this.” He flipped his glass to his mouth and emptied it with an audible gulp.
     He smacked his chapped lips and released a sour, rattling breath. “Would you believe my Mama distilled this hooch nearly sixty years ago? My last bottle. I take a nip once a year.” He winked and gave Hanscomb a lopsided grin. “But this is a special occasion. Drink up, youngster. You can’t buy this stuff in no package store.”
     Hanscomb drained the shot, shuddered, his vision thickening with tears, and then placed the glass on the lobster trap Getis used as a table. “Thank you,” he said, standing up. “I guess I’d better get going...”
     Getis poured him another shot. “Just you take it easy. The world’ll turn without you.” He filled his own glass, then stood up and patted his pockets. “Now where the hell did I hide those damn smokes of mine?” He walked, hunch-backed through the maze of mess. “Ah-hah! There you are,” he said, reaching for a battered pack of Camels he’d dropped by the radiator. He offered one to Hanscomb.
     “No thanks. I don’t smoke.”
     “Smart. Sit back down, kid.”
     Getis lit his cigarette with a quick flick of his thumb on a wooden, blue-tipped match. He absently tossed the match and Hanscomb watched the spiraling arc of smoke plummet like a small comet to the floor. It was a wonder the old man hadn’t burned down the building yet. He looked like the type who smoked in bed.
     Getis exhaled a weary cloud of smoke over Hanscomb’s head.
     “Nice to have company for a change. I’ve seen you around. You’re not like the other thieves and rats in this place. You mind your own business. I like that. Me and you are probably the only decent fellas in this whole crummy building. Hell, in this whole crummy neighborhood.”
     “Thank you.”
     “You bet.” He threw back his second shot, poured another. “Hey, kid, wanna see something?” Before he even finished the question, he was up and opening the top drawer of a bureau.
     Hanscomb stood up. He’d had enough. He wanted out. He considered running back to his apartment without another word. Just abandon the man.
     “Now where the hell did I hide that damn thing?” Getis said, rummaging through the junk-filled drawer. Hanscomb noticed prescription bottles, a jackknife and two handguns among the junk.
     “Ah-hah! There you are.”
     Getis held up a clear plastic bag. Inside was what looked like a brittle twist of rawhide. “You know what this is?”
     Hanscomb shook his head. He wanted out. Out. OUT! But when Getis sat down, Hanscomb did the same.
     Getis carefully opened the bag. “This,” he said softly, gripping the little brown twist with two gentle fingers. “Is my umbilical cord from when I was born. Gen-u-wine.”
     He held it up for Hanscomb to admire.
     It was about an inch long and looked as fragile as mummified shit. Flakes of it clung to the bag like dirt. “It’s eighty-three years old. My Mama saved it. She was a strange woman. Big too. After her welcome demise, I stole it back.” He turned it over like a precious gem. “What do you think?” he said, shining with pride.
     Hanscomb’s stomach churned. He wanted to vomit. “Nice.”
     “You better believe it, buster.” He placed it back in the bag.
     Hanscomb forced down the last of the awful liquor, looking at the faded, lime-green pineapples on Getis’s shirt, then stood up again. “Thanks for the drink, but I really do have to go,” he said, moving quickly toward the door.
     Getis smiled. “Okay, then. Have it your way. Thanks for coming by. And you drop on by anytime, kid. Anytime at all.”
     “Thanks.” Hanscomb stepped into the hall, shut the old man’s door and then opened his own. He ran to bathroom to throw up. As soon as he flushed the toilet, the phone rang.
     It was his mother.

     Saturday morning, Hanscomb stood in front of the window. He had slept little last night. His weird experience with Mr. Getis kept playing over and over in his head.
     He found a flowerpot and began filling it with soil.
     As he was hanging the transplanted geranium back in the window, he heard the gathering wail of several sirens. The songs of emergency supplied the soundtrack for the neighborhood, especially on weekends. He looked out the window.
     An ambulance, police car, and fire-truck rolled into the parking lot. Two paramedics hoisting a collapsible gurney rushed into the building.
     A few seconds later, Hanscomb heard footsteps and shouts outside his door. Thumps, more footsteps, voices. They were in Mr. Getis’s room.
     He unlatched the door and cracked it open. His landlady, Mrs. Bayazid – a worn woman in her mid-fifties - stood leaning against the chipped plaster wall, smoking, staring into the next room. She wore a happy-face tank-top that revealed the full bloom of her beer belly.
     Hanscomb joined her in the hall.
     “What happened?” he said.
     “Old Getis,” she said in her thick French accent. “I like to check on the old tenants from time to time, to make sure, yah know, that they didn’t die.”
     “So what happened?”
     “He died.”
     The paramedics wheeled out the gurney. Mr. Getis lay hidden under a sheet.
     Hanscomb stepped back as if his death were contagious. They wheeled him away. The familiar, sickening odor of stale smoke, alcohol, musty newsprint and liniment drifted through the open door.
     He returned to his apartment.
     Hanscomb spent a second sleepless night. After untwisting his sheets for the tenth time, he finally gave up and got dressed.
     At around noon someone knocked on his door. He ignored it at first. He wanted to be alone. It was probably bad news anyway.
     Another series of knocks, more forceful this time. He crossed the room. “Who is it?”
     “A bee.”
     “A bee.”
     “I don’t understand...”
     “Mrs. Bayazid.”
     Oh, Abby. Abby Bayazid. He unlatched the door, cracked it open. “Yes?”
     “Got something for you,” she said, pushing past him and into the room. She wore a fuzzy (filthy) blue bathrobe and backless slippers that flapped when she walked.
     “What is it?” Hanscomb asked.
     “Found this in the old man’s room. Your name is on it.”             
     She pulled a large tan envelope from the folds of her robe. Hanscomb caught a glimpse of her right breast behind the briefly parted material. It was pale and droopy.
     She turned the envelope over in her hands, looking around his apartment like a detective. “I didn’t know you knew old Getis,” she said. “I didn’t think anyone knew him, the way he kept to himself. Funny old man.”
     “I only met him once.”
     “Yah? Well...” She looked at the envelope, as if reluctant to part with it. “I guess this belongs to you now.” She held it out to him.
     Hanscomb took it. “Thank you.”
     They stood facing each other for several awkward seconds before Mrs. Bayazid said, “Ain’t yah gonna open it?”
     Hanscomb tossed the envelope on the coffee table. “Not right now,” he said, stepping away from the door, giving her room to get by.
     Mrs. Bayazid’s sleep-swollen eyes moved from the envelope to Hanscomb and back again. Finally, she emitted a quick snort and flapped out the door.
     He lifted the envelope. It was sealed with both the glue on the flap and the little metal clasp. Written across the front, in green magic marker, it said, For Handscum Feild.
     He sat down and opened the envelope. A faint whiff of Getis’s apartment wafted up. He removed a soft, worn page that had been torn from a magazine. The paper was crossed with creases, as if it had been folded into a hundred origami objects over the years. On one side was an ad for Tareyton cigarettes - a smiling blond woman with a black shiner under her right eye.      
     On the other side was an article about organized crime with a third of the words crossed out with slashes of black marker. Hanscomb tried to read the article, but the many redactions obliterated its thesis.
     He reached into the envelope again and pulled out a small plastic bag. “Oh, God,” he gasped in disgust, reflexively tossing it away. It was Getis’s repulsive umbilical cord. It landed in the pot of dirt that had been home to his geranium.
     He dumped the rest of the envelope’s contents on the table.
     Five pistachio shells, a spark plug, a small ivory pipe, a yellowed picture of Bing Crosby, three cigarette butts, and two folded pieces of yellow legal paper.
     It was now perfectly clear. Getis had been insane.
     He unfolded one of the notes. Written in faded, nearly illegible pencil: Ida, ran out of mud, went to see Clove. The other note was blank. Hanscomb couldn’t tell if a message had faded into invisibility or had never been written at all.
     He leaned back, looking at the random objects on the table. Was there a point or was it all just evidence of dementia?
     He returned the objects to the envelope, plucked the umbilical-cord bag out of the pot, and then dropped the whole mess in the trash and washed his hands.
     Hanscomb shut off his alarm ten minutes before it was set to strike. After another night of shallow, fitful sleep, his muscles felt filled with molten lead.
     He rolled out of bed and shuffled into the bathroom.
     After a shower and a cup of coffee, he started to think he might actually get through the day.
     That was when he noticed that something had changed.
     A little plant had sprouted in the pot of spent soil he’d taken the geranium from. It was tiny - two smooth oval leaves (pale green) and a fragile, translucent stem. He leaned in for a closer look. It wasn’t a geranium seedling, he knew that. Strange, it had sprouted overnight. He carried it to the kitchen and ran water into the parched soil and then placed it on the windowsill.
     Then he found his keys and left for work.
     He punched out at 5:04.
     The first thing he did when he got home was grab a can of raspberry seltzer and take a long cold sip.
     He almost choked when he noticed the large, thriving plant in the window.
     It was the seedling he’d discovered. It had grown ten  inches in less than a day. Its stalk was brown and peeling, like the bark of a rotted log. Its leaves were a dull silver, non-striated and curled at the tips.
     He’s never seen anything like it.
     He swallowed a nervous slurp of soda and then moved toward it, warily, as if it might suddenly strike with sharp, venomous thorns.
     The undersides of the leaves were coated with a fine orange powder that came off on his fingers. It was as smooth as talcum and odorless. He wiped his fingers on his pants, and then poked the dirt. It was dry as dust. He went to the sink, filled a cup with water and poured it into the thirsty soil.
     Then he ran to the bedroom to look through his plant guides.
     After nearly an hour of fruitless research he came up with zilch. There was nothing like it in any of the reference books.
     When he returned to the living room he froze. The plant had bloomed. In under an hour it had developed fat lavender flowers. Five of them.
     He circled the plant. Each flower had five petals, three peach-colored stigmas on fine lime filaments and a black pulpous center.
     He leaned forward and sniffed one of the blossoms.
     A bitter interweave of familiar smells assailed him – stale smoke, moldy newsprint, liniment, Getis sweat – and he staggered back as if hit with mustard gas.
     The flowers smelled like old man Getis.
     Hanscomb paced around the plant for a while, wondering if he were losing his mind.
     Wait a minute.
     He ran to the trash, grabbed the envelope Getis had bequeathed to him and dumped the contents on the floor.
     Everything was there; shells, notes, butts, pipe...
     The plastic bag was empty.
     The cord. The umbilical cord.
     He’d tossed the bag in the pot of dirt. When he cleaned up, he must have lifted the bag, inadvertently dumping the cord into the soil.
     And what? Getis’s eighty-three year old umbilical cord took root and sprouted? And then produced flowers that reeked of the old man and his fetid apartment?    
     Have a good weekend, Fields. Don’t go too crazy...
     No, he wasn’t crazy. He just needed rest. Lack of sleep had allowed droplets of dream to seep into his waking life. Everything would be clear and actual after a few hours of sleep. It was not quite sunset yet but he decided to go to bed anyway, ignoring the nagging impulse to further study the plant. He was tired. He dropped onto his bed. Sleep first. Need sleep. And then later, he’d get up and walk into the living room, and he’d pluck one of the soft purple berries from the plant’s branches and pop it into his mouth...
     Wait. What berries?
     Hanscomb opened his eyes. A plague of flavor, like an alkaloid explosion poisoned his palate and he spit out what hadn’t dissolved into his throat, then raced to the kitchen and lowered his burning mouth under the running tap.
     Dreaming, sleepwalking, oh God, he’d actually eaten a berry from the weird plant and...
     And it had tasted like Mr. Getis. Hanscomb felt as if he’d given the old man a tongue bath, Jesus.
     He spit bitter water into the sink. Threads of purple juice swirled down the drain.
     The whisper of rippling fabric behind him.
     He turned and there was a woman. Her black hair was greasy and tousled, her dark lipstick smeared. She wore only a white slip, so threadbare it was nearly transparent. Her pale, blue-veined hand was wrapped around a bottle of I.W. Harper.
     “C’mon, Harve, let’s go,” she said. “I got appointments.”
     “Keep your pants on,” said Hanscomb, grinding a marijuana bud between his fingers. He was sitting at a round wooden table littered with empty glasses, beer bottles, mashed cigarette butts and fragments of old food.
     “Too late for that,” said Ida with a dry chuckle. She took a pull from the bottle.
     Hanscomb rolled a cigarette, licked the paper and sealed it tight. He lit it with a practiced flick of his thumb on a blue-tipped match, filled his lungs and then held the reefer out to Ida.
     “Ah, yes,” she said, “Come to Mama,” trading him for the whiskey.
     Hanscomb held the bottle up to the light. Only a third of the whiskey was left. “Damn lush,” he muttered, then took a quick swig from the bottle.
     While Ida smoked, he gazed out the window. A crowded streetcar clanged up the hill. A bank of dark clouds advanced on the afternoon sun. “Looks like rain,” he said.
     “Mn,” said Ida, trying not to lose smoke with her response.
     She finally exhaled, sucked another deep drag, and then placed the muggle on the edge of an ashtray. She stretched languorously, exhaling a vast cloud. “Mmmmmm... dreamy...”  
     Hanscomb grinned, eyeing her. “My little dreamgirl.”
     She gazed at him through her lashes and offered a wicked smile. “Or your worst nightmare.”
    She eased the straps of the slip off her shoulders and let it slide to the floor. She stepped free of the material.
     “C’mere.” Hanscomb pulled her roughly into him, hands seizing her buttocks. He smelled her pot and whiskey breath, felt it warm on his neck.
     You c’mere,” she said. She undid his belt and his pants loosened around his hips.
     And then Hanscomb was alone again. Back in his own apartment. His heart crashed as if trying to blast its way out of its confinement. His hands were shaking.
     He could still smell the smoke and whiskey and half-expected to see afternoon light in the window. He looked at the clock: 10.00 p.m.
     He noticed he had an erection, realized he still felt high.
     The woman, Ida, had called him Harve. Harvey Getis? Had he experienced a moment from the old man’s past?
     The answer came back - a resounding No. That was impossible. Insane. It was a dream, that’s all. The most vivid, photorealistic motherfucking dream he’d ever had. And a dream that carried a strange hangover, sure...
     But a dream nonetheless.
     He looked at the plant. Berries had replaced blossoms. They were round, so purple they were almost black, and hanging in a bunch.
     He plucked one and held it up to his eyes, rolling it between his thumb and forefinger. It was soft and it split and a tiny spurt of juice arced out, hitting his lip.
     Then, without thinking about it, he popped it into his mouth.
     “I’m tellin’ you, I got the money. It’s in my wife’s purse. She was supposed to meet me in front of the bar and she never showed! It ain’t my fault, I swear!”
     Hanscomb stepped away from the kneeling, red-faced man and pulled a pistol from his belt.
     He said, “Hey, if your wife was here, I’d kick the living shit out of her too. But I don’t see no wife. I don’t see no dough. All I see is a chiseling little rat.” Hanscomb smashed the butt of the gun against the man’s nose; a soft crunch, a choked moan, and then a torrent of blood.
     “Please...” the man sobbed, blubbering through the blood.
     Intoxicating adrenaline rushed through Hanscomb. He slammed the gun into the man’s jaw, heard the muffled clack of dislocation. “Rat!” He thumped the gun against the man’s left temple and the guy groaned once and then fell back, unconscious.
     “Wake up, you,” Hanscomb said and fired into the man’s left knee.
     The man jolted awake screaming, cradling his shattered kneecap. Dark blood pulsed between his trembling fingers.
     “And one more for luck...” Hanscomb leveled the gun at the man’s other knee. “Now, hold still,” he said.
     “No! Please! Don’t!”
     Hanscomb pulled the trigger. The man’s right knee exploded in a crimson mist.
     “That ends the lesson,” he said, tucking the gun back under his belt. “Make sure you teach it to those other deadbeats you hang around with. So long, Sully.” He walked out of the guy’s flop and into the foggy San Francisco night.
     “Jesus...” Hanscomb’s legs buckled and he collapsed on the couch, heart pounding, gunshots still ringing in his ears. He closed his eyes and waited for his heart to decelerate.
     He looked at the clock. It was just after seven in the morning. He was late for work. The night had vanished.
     To hell with work. There were two berries left. He jumped up and plucked the larger one, slipped it between his lips, and mashed it against the roof of his mouth with his tongue. Sharp-flavored juice exploded in his mouth. He realized he’d acquired a taste for the stuff and savored it like sweet syrup. He felt like a junkie relieved by a fix.
     Then he was lying in bed, head throbbing, stomach turning. A hangover. He’d blindfolded himself with the crook of his elbow.    
     “What time is it?” he asked with a dry, thick tongue.
     “Which one?”
     “Sun don’t shine in the a.m., Harve.”
     He slid his arm from his eyes and blinked blindly in the light.
     When his vision returned he saw Ida, wearing only a bra and panties, sitting at a card table drinking red wine, eating pistachio nuts. The radio was on - Bing Crosby crooning Blue Shadows on the Trail into the stifling, summer air.
     He leaned up. “God, I feel like a disease. Any mud left?”
     “Just yen pox. On the stove,” Ida said, crunching up a nut. She grimaced. “Oh, yuck. A bad one.” She took three sips of wine, swishing the last around her mouth. She swallowed and said, “Uhg! I hate that.”
     Hanscomb rolled out of bed and crossed the room, bare feet landing on discarded pistachio shells. “Christ, baby. You gotta throw those damn things all over the floor?”
     She cracked open another nut, paying no attention to him.       
     He pulled a pan of congealed grease off the stove, lit a flame under the kettle, and then picked up a small ivory pipe. He tapped ashes into a coffee cup and waited for the water to boil.
     He carried his cup of weak, opium tea to the table and groaned into a chair. He started putting on his socks with slow effort. Ida poured herself another glass of warm wine. “Want one?” she asked.
     Hanscomb’s stomach slithered like greasy tentacles. “Hell no,” he said, making a face. “It’s all I can do to hold down this tea.”
     She laughed. “That’ll teach you to mix whiskey and brandy.”
    “Yeah, but what’s gonna teach you?” he said, standing up and pulling on his pants. He snapped suspenders over his shoulders.
     “I can hold my liquor,” she said
     “Ain’t that the sad truth.”
     They shared a tired laugh. Hanscomb took a sip of tea, and then started searching the floor for the rest of his clothes.
     “Going somewhere?” Ida said.
     “See Clove,” he told her, reaching under the bed for his shoes.
     “Ooh, goody goody! More magic smoke,” she said, tossing an empty pistachio shell over her shoulder.
     “You’re getting to be a real hophead, y’know that?”
     “It gives me good dreams. Warm dreams, full of color.”
     He crossed the room, kissed her. “Just like you. Where’s my wallet?”
     “On the dresser, dear.”
     “Thank you, honey.” He kissed her again, tasting wine. He turned toward the bureau.
     “Ain’t you gonna tie your shoes?” she said.
     He looked down. “Oh, yeah...”           
     One second Hanscomb was tying worn, patent-leather shoes, the next he was staring at his white Nike sneakers.
     More. He needed more. He had to see more. Only one berry left. Damn. He kneeled beside the plant, staring at it as if hypnotized. The plant still had a couple of flowers. More berries would surely grow. It might produce berries for years. No need to hoard the damn things.
     The last berry was small, underripe. He swallowed it and braced himself.
     Hanscomb climbed behind the wheel of his 1942 Roadster, slipped the key into the ignition. The engine didn’t start. He tried to turn it over again. Nothing. “Jesus Christ!” He pounded his fist against the wheel, opened the door and moved to the front of the car.
     He raised the hood and heard a voice behind him. “You lookin’ for these?”
     It was Clove.
     Clovis Scholes was heavy, oily, dressed in a maroon suit. His hair was slicked straight back. A black cigar was mashed into a scowling mouth surrounded by jowls. He opened his beefy hand and spark plugs clattered to the sidewalk.
     Hanscomb heard a gritty scuff on the pavement behind him just before a blackjack came down hard on the back of his head. The pavement rushed up at him and then warm dark nothing.
     When he opened his eyes, he saw his distorted reflection in the blank TV screen.
     Was that it? Two minutes in a stalled car and a blow to the head? Hanscomb felt cheated. He crawled back to the plant, his head still throbbing. He tore leaves apart, looking for one last berry he might have missed. His hands became coated with orange dust. There had to be another berry. Had to be...
     “Oh, YES!” He finally thank God found a fat black berry hiding under a dead leaf at the base of the stalk. It had fallen, overripe, into the dirt.
     He gingerly picked it up. It was very soft – turning to mush – and dissolved as soon as it touched his tongue.
     He closed his eyes, swallowed...
     And awoke to an unbearable rush of pain. At first he thought he was paralyzed, then realized he’d been strapped to a metal chair. He looked down. His lap and the front of his shirt were soaked with blood. His swollen tongue probed slick, bloody gums where his front teeth had been. His jaw and neck had been slashed several times, and then hastily bandaged.
     He turned his head as far as the pain would allow. He was in a large dark room.
     A door banged open behind him, followed by heavy footsteps.
     “Rise and shine, Mr. Getis,” said a male voice.
     “Who...?” he said, blood and saliva drooling from his mouth.
     A fat man with round glasses appeared in front of him, grinning with gold teeth. “I,” he began, and then slammed a heavy cane across Hanscomb’s legs. “Am in charge now.”
     “Massaccio’s not gonna like this,” Hanscomb mumbled.
     “Massaccio’s dead,” said the fat man. “Come on over, gents.”
     Two sets of footsteps clacked toward them. Clove and Sully - the man Hanscomb had intimidated for Massachio - materialized from the shadows. Sully limped on crutches, nose bandaged, broken jaw wired shut, both eyes underlined with shiners. Hanscomb had really done a job on the guy.
     The three men stood looking at him for a few moments. Then the fat man clapped his hands three times.
     Two goons appeared, one dragging a chair, the other dragging Ida.
     Hanscomb wanted to tear them apart. He wanted to scream.
     Ida had been badly beaten. Her eyes were swollen nearly shut. Caked blood had dried to crumbling scab-tissue under her smashed nose. The two goons pushed her into the chair and tied her hands behind her.
     Ida and Hanscomb faced each other, both shocked by the battered appearance of the other. An electric flare of telepathy passed between them: We’re fucked.
     The goons left the room. The fat man removed his jacket and pulled a revolver from his snap-holster. Ida started to scream, covering the gag with strings of snot and blood.
     The fat man moved behind her and nudged the gun against the back of her head.
     Hanscomb said through his bloody toothless mouth, “Wait, please! She has nothing to do with this. Let her go! Kill me if you want but let her GO!”
     The fat man rolled his eyes toward the ceiling and stroked his chin, as if considering it.
     Then he said, “Nah.”
     Ida’s face exploded out in a red storm of blood and brain and bone, spattering Hanscomb’s face with warm gore. He could taste it on his lips, smell it, feel sharp bits of bone and soft tissue clinging to his cheeks.
     He screamed. Screamed and screamed.
     When his voice was gone and his mind started to darken, he opened his eyes.
     Ida was slumped in front of him. Clove and the other man were gone.
     Only the fat man remained.
     Why am I still here?      
     “Now. Here’s what’s gonna happen,” the fat man said, twirling his cane, pacing behind Ida’s body. “You’re gonna disappear. Forever. Hear me? You’re as good as dead. A ghost. If me or my associates recognize your face, or any face that even resembles you, we put a bullet in it. Savvy?”
     Hanscomb nodded.
     Why am I still here?
     “Good.” The fat man raised his gun and put a bullet in Hanscomb’s left thigh.
     “Little souvenir.”
     “All right, hold your water,” said Mrs. Bayazid, sorting through her giant key-ring, cigarette hanging from the corner of her frowning mouth.
     “Please, I know something’s wrong. Hanscomb never showed up at work and I’ve been trying to call him for days,” said Mrs. Fields, wringing her hands, trying to convey a sense of urgency to the aggravated landlady.
     Mrs. Bayazid flicked an ash to the floor, finally found the correct key and slid it into the lock.
     The door opened. The first thing they noticed was the smell - a dense blend of rotted vegetables, old newsprint, stale smoke and some kind of liniment.
     They entered the apartment.
     “Hanscomb?” said Mrs. Fields.
     “Hallo?” said Mrs. Bayazid.
     Mrs. Fields went to the bedroom. “Hanscomb?” It was empty.
     “What’s that?” said Mrs. Bayazid. Mrs. Fields moved toward whatever it was Mrs. Bayazid was indicating.
     It took Mrs. Fields several seconds to finally make sense of what she was seeing.
     Remains. The word sat like a mass in her mind.
     The body on the floor was curled into itself, posed like a fetus. A crumbling carapace of thin, brittle membrane covered the bones as if the skeleton had been dipped in molasses and left to dry in the sun.
     Mrs. Fields turned away.
     Mrs. Bayazid tapped a fresh cigarette from her pack. “I always knew he was up to no good.”
     Hanscomb finished packing. Everything he owned fit into one small suitcase. He placed his umbilical cord in a cigar box, next to his pipe and pot and meager Ida mementos.
     He limped downstairs, to the street.
     He’d replaced the spark plugs in the Roadster. He lit a cigarette and headed south, toward Mexico. The year was 1948.
     He had a lot of hard living to do before his appointment with the quiet kid in the next apartment.

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