the afternoon sun filtered half heartedly through the hotel window.
the phone rang.
joe took it out of his pocket and answered it.
"joe, it's mike."
"hi mike. what have you got for me?"
"joe, i don't know how to say this -"
"just say it."
"i haven't got anything for you. i'm sorry."
"why don't you have anything for me, mike?"
"nobody wants you, joe - it's just that simple."
"i see. or maybe i don't see."
"they want younger guys, joe. i try to talk up your experience, but they won't listen."
"and you can't make them listen?"
"no, i can't. these things go in cycles, you know that. youth is in this year, what can i say?"
"all right. keep trying."
"that's all i can do."
"that's all you can do." joe clicked off. he lay on the hotel bed for a few minutes. then he got up and put his jacket on. it felt like it might rain, so he closed the room's one window. then he left.
his room was on the second floor, the same as the desk. he started to walk past the desk at the same pace he walked everywhere, cool calm and collected, not picking up the pace or slowing it down one millisecond.
the body-building desk clerk - what was his name, adam? aaron? - was on duty. a real tough guy.
"you got that rent?"
"i got till eleven o'clock tomorrow morning, " joe answered evenly.
"i know that. are you going to have it?"
"don't worry about it. i will either have it or i won't. i will either stay or go," joe went on in the same even voice. "what's the problem?"
adam or aaron hesitated. "the problem is i don't want you trying to intimidate terry on the night shift."
"what are you talking about? i never said shit to him."
"he seems to find you intimidating."
joe shook his head. "that's his problem." he turned away and went down the stairs to the lobby.
there were five or six persons in the lobby, watching the television or staring into space. joe walked by them. people! hadn't he killed enough of the sorry cocksuckers in his thirty years on the job? but they just kept on coming.
he pulled open the front door and stepped put into the street and started walking.
outwardly joe was calm as always, but inside he was a seething red volcano of blind boiling rage. so this, he thought, is what it comes to after thirty years on the job! this is the fucking gratitude i get. the gratitude i get for all the scum i removed from the hairy pimply face of the earth. the scum, the losers, the wife-beaters and child molesters and mumbling panhandling burnouts, the parasites and troublemakers and busybodies and tiresome assholes - what would the world be like without me and guys like me?
he wondered, just how many people had he offed? he could never keep track. he took his phone out of his pocket and clicked on the calculator.
lets call it 2.5 people a week - times 52 weeks equals 130 - times 30 years = 3900. that sounded about right. he had taken a week off in 1986 and again in 1999 but how much difference did that make? had he maybe killed an even 4000? who cared?
not the assholes walking past him on the street, that was for damn sure.
nobody cared. nobody fucking cared. about him or about the other guys who put their time in keeping the world safe and clean. where were all the guys he had known - frank and eddie and old mose and jerry the jumper and the rest? dead, probably. one or two of them might have even been dumb enough to get caught.
so it had come to this. back to having to try to scrounge up business on the street. he hoped he had not lost his eye for a likely customer. maybe working with agents and middlemen like mike had made him soft.
joe had started out thirty years ago specializing in fags and satanists and revolutionaries and black panthers and child molesters. but
he had moved with the times and now he worked mostly sexists and racists and homophobes and child molesters.
but right now he would take anything he could get.
he went down to powell street. not right at the cable car stop on market where the tourists swarmed in packs but a little further up where he might spot a likely customer and talk to him without being overheard.
he spotted a guy right away. not the family jewels, but promising enough.
"hey buddy, can i talk to you a minute?"
"i'm not panhandling, i got something you might want to buy."
"i don't think so."
joe ignored this and moved a step closer. "you got the look of a guy who might have marital problems."
the guy laughed. "what are you selling, fucking viagra? news flash - i can buy it online."
"no, no, something much better. serenity. peace of mind. the end - emphasis the end - of all your problems."
"you're selling insurance?" what a knucklehead.
joe pressed on. "do they sell insurance for alimony? you got an old lady wrapping your balls in barbed wire? maybe your old lady is a guy - hey i'm 21st century, i'm on board with it."
the great light dawned in the guy's eyes. he looked around. "uh - yeah, yeah, maybe we can work something out." he hesitated. "this isn't some kind of scam, is it?"
joe ignored this. "a thousand dollars. how cheap is that? you'd pay someone a thousand dollars to mow the lawn and clean the leaves out of your gutters."
the guy started to take his wallet out of his pocket, then stopped. "a thousand sounds about right."
"five hundred now. five hundred when i'm done. that's standard."
"what! no way! what do i look like, i just fell off a roller coaster and landed on my head?'"
"three up front, then seven."
"no." the guy laughed, started to walk away. "hey, you almost had me there."
joe forced himself to breathe evenly. he wanted to strangle the man and beat him into a-1 steak sauce. he didn't want to lose the thousand. he would have it in reserve, get the rent some other way. maybe even - he saw red - maybe even panhandle to get it.
"wait, wait," joe heard himself say. "all right, the whole thing on delivery."
"oh? all right, then."
"i'll need some details."
the guy looked around. "here?"
"there's a burger king down the street. we can talk there."
later, joe felt a little better. as they discussed the details, the guy had been man enough to treat joe to a double chipotle whopper with onion rings and a large coke (he would have preferred pepsi). but he was still pissed.
he still had to get the rent. it was almost dark. could he find another customer? or ----?
he started walking up powell street, sort of lost in thought. when he got to the really steep part, he stopped. he remembered when he first came to san francisco he had thought the cable cars must be free, because nobody could be expected to actually walk up the steep streets.
he was in front of a little alley. the street was empty, and quiet.
he turned. a punk kid came up behind him. white, with big baggy pants and a black oakland raiders cap.
"do i know you?" joe asked.
"you do now." suddenly the kid had a gun in his hand and he shot joe in the guts. the single shot echoed off the steep hill.
"what the fuck!" joe fell on his back. he looked up at the kid. "what the fuck! how could you do this to me? you don't even know me."
"do i need to?"
"there's got to be some mistake."
the kid looked uncertain. "it doesn't matter now."
"what's - what's your name?" joe gasped.
"larry. what's yours?"
"goodbye, joe." larry hated to make more noise, but he shot joe again, between the eyes.
he put the gun in his belt and hurried toward mason street. had he fucked up? was it the right guy?
this wasn't really for him. maybe he had chosen the wrong career path. maybe he should have been a pimp instead. but he wasn't really comfortable around women.
aggripina rapped the blackboard with her pointer. the students stopped talking and faced forward.
"today, class, we are going to do a very simple exercise but one of my favorites."
jughead raised his hand. "what about our novels?"
"the ones you just passed in? i haven't had time to read them yet. i will comment on them at the next class."
"meanwhile for today's class we have this very short exercise. so listen up."
helen raised her hand. "are we going to write something right here in class?"
"indeed you are."
"will we get a grade for it?"'
"yes, but everybody will get an 'a'. i assume you all have notebooks with you. i have a couple of extra notebooks if anybody needs one. also some paper and pencils if anyone is inclined to such things. now have i got everybody's attention?"
nobody spoke or raised their hand.
"good. now, as i indicated, the premise could not be simpler. just write a story so simple, so unoriginal, so banal that it could not be copyrighted. that's all. any questions?"
several students raised their hands. madame ching pointed to morgan le fay in the front row.
"how long does it have to be?"
"i would like to see at least five hundred words." a couple of hands went down, but not all.
"yes - if you don't mind my asking, what is the point?"
"i don't mind your asking, it is a good question. the point, first off, is to show that it's not that easy. keep in mind, you are not just to have an unoriginal idea - the most unoriginal ideas can and do produce copyrighted material every day. you are to produce something that word for word, makes you think - surely somebody somewhere must have written this before. once you get past the first sentences, you will, i think, find it is not that easy. which brings me to another point - the story is to be banal, but not necessarily about people leading banal lives. feel free to use the cliches of popular culture - vampires, zombies, homicide detectives - "
"always female, of course, " veronica interjected.
"- exactly. and prosecutors and trained deadly c i a assassins, likewise."
"how about professional hit men?" asked petronius.
"they may be the best of all. you get the idea. to finish answering the original question, the purpose of all this is just to demonstrate the effectively infinite possibility of word combinations. a subject we will pursue in future classes. now, does anybody need a notebook? oh, and one last thing - you will of course forget any notions of 'writing well' or 'literary quality'. that is not what this is about."
nathaniel hawthorne, or maybe he was ned buntline or theodore dostoevsky or a j liebling, was waiting patiently in the reception area of all-american studios. he had been waiting patiently for days to see the studio head, mr zanuck or maybe it was the emperor alexander iii or william howard taft or the emperor napoleon iii.
ned looked up and saw alexander iii glowering at him. "he's still here?" he asked the receptionist, louise brooks or maybe she was irene adler or mata hari or eve arden.
"he won't go away," irene shrugged. "but he's not making any commotion. i didn't think you wanted me to call the authorities."
mr taft considered this. "no. mata, you did right. perhaps it's time we hired our own police - what an expense! but as you know, the movie business is growing by leaps and bounds."
he stared at theodore. "how about it , young man, how would you like to be the first in house policeman at all-american studios? you are looking for a job, are you not?"
a j shook his head. "i am sorry sir, i appreciate your offer but i am determined to use the movie business, which as you rightly state is growing by leaps and bounds, to bring my message of hope and love to tens of millions of my fellow humans, and nothing will dissuade me from my path."
the emperor napoleon iii stroked his moustache and looked down at nat. "messages of hope and love aren't exactly our program, young man. "
"let me guess," said ned. "making money is your program."
"exactly." mr zanuck nodded. "you are a quick study, young man."
'you two are boring me," said eve. "you can only listen to a conversation so many times. do you mind if i make a suggestion?"
"no," alexander answered. "go right ahead."
"why don't you and this young man enroll in the new writing class over in building 17? that way he would stop bothering me, and you might develop a little imagination and not be so boring."
mr taft smiled at louise tolerantly. "that might not be a bad idea. my wife is always telling me to get out and exercise more. come along, young man, " he said to theodore. "this is your chance, your chance to break into the booming new movie business."
a j hesitated.
nat and the emperor napoleon iii entered the rear door of the classroom. class was already in session. nobody looked at them as they took seats in the back of the room. miss susan b anthony, or maybe she was agrippina or madame ching or ethel rosenberg, was standing at a lectern in front of an audience of about thirty students.
agripina pointed to tom sawyer, or maybe he was paul verlaine or nero or babe ruth. "paul, why don't you summarize for the class what we have learned today?"
nero stood up. "um, um, that all stories are completely bogus."
"excellent. accurate and pithy. class is dismissed until tomorrow. all students report tomorrow with two new completed novels. that is all."
madame ching looked up and saw ned and mr zanuck still sitting in their seats in the back.
"ah," she intoned gravely, "a couple of new students. are you clear on your assignments for the new class?"
"i'm a little shaky on it, " ted smiled at ethel.
"me too," added the emperor alexander.
"it couldn't be simpler. you just take a book, copy it, but change every word. do you need a couple of books?"
"please," a j and william answered together.
"very well." miss anthony told them. "take these."
nat and the emperor napoleon moved up to the desk and agrippina handed nat a copy of "manon lescaut" by the abbe prevost and nap a copy of "the glass key" by dashiell hammett.
"these should be good enough to get you going," madame ching told ned and mr zanuck. "unless you want to add something more challenging to begin with." she picked up copies of "sir charles grandison" by samuel richardson and "the wanderer" by fanny burney.
"i'll take that," ned pointed to the copy of "sir charles grandison".
"and you sir?" ethel looked at alexander.
"i think i'm good." william clutched his copy of "the glass key."
"very well. just remember, words, words, words. it's all just words."