On the winding hedge-lined walkway to the front door of Wexler York’s sprawling inner city mansion, I counted six separate people passed out in bilious pools of their own crystal-clear, inflammable vomit. The trails mingled and connected like oil slick on the pit floor of a garage. A single cigarette butt could have turned all six into alcohol-soaked kindling.
I turned three of them over on their sides with the tip of my loafer. Two of them were standing like scarecrows, their clothes caught up in carefully-manicured branches. I skirted by these fellows like pushing past strangers on a bus. One gentleman grabbed me by my ankle as I walked by him, and I had to skip a pace to shake him free. I got a little piece of puke-drenched spinach tangled up with a shoelace, but it wiped clean on one of the granite columns propping up Wexler York’s portico.
It was a pretty good party for such short notice. York had only found out that the Mudflaps were accepting the terms of his new contract that afternoon. All the right people were there from all over town, and nearly every guy and gal had the grey glint in their eyes that meant what it meant.
Ordinarily, a sleazy first-estate party like this one would be my playpen. I’d get as high as I possibly could, try to carry along as many people as had the funds, and leave with my pockets brimming with cash and a good word from every Tophat Harry. Tonight, however I couldn’t afford to indulge, or even try to do any deals. I had an agenda. Bigger business than usual. Maybe the biggest.
Wexler York didn’t know my name or who I was, but by the end of the night, we would be tighter than the collar and jacket on the hairless, dribbling mutant guarding his front door. Where did these guys come from, anyway? Some crooked petting zoo?
“Hiya,” I said, holding out my hand to shake. There was a hundred in it. An insult, really. He just looked at me and grimaced. It was probably for the best. He had palms like whole roast turkeys. My hand would have been crushed into giblets.
“I want to talk to Mr. York, if at all possible,” I said.
“It’s not possible,” he grunted.
“It’s real important. His whole reputation is at stake.”
He snorted. A single eyeball rolled to stare at me. Evidently, this guy could move them independently, like a gecko. It did the job. I felt my heart and guts start wrestling around to get behind one another like kids hiding behind their mother’s legs at a distant relative’s funeral. I swear the guy had mandibles. Actual, real live mandibles.
“Go away or I hit you,” he said.
“Deal,” I said. I made myself small, pocketed my hundred, and scooched by him into the party proper.
The Mudflaps were a professional basketball team, and as far as this town went, that meant I was among royalty. With the exception of those being paid to be there, I was probably the poorest guy in the room. The moneyed swells packed the place like dirty clothes in a hamper. I leaned up against the wallpaper and nearly lost a swatch of hair. There was some sort of resinous and sticky coating. I decided not to linger.
I squirmed my way through the droning crowd, nodding to acquaintances while simultaneously trying to avoid any conversational entanglements. People sniffed, but I had to pass on by. It was almost a shame. But there would be other parties. And the long, desperate time in between.
Wexler York’s mansion had been built in one of the seedier areas of town, directly in an un-zoned urban mishmash of convenience stores, slums, boutiques, and art enclaves. Subsequently, it wasn’t very large inside, but it kept stretching upwards, layer after layer piled on like pancakes. It was common sense that I would find the owner in the heights, probably surrounded by teammates, lackeys, lickspittle, family, and layabouts. I didn’t see an elevator, so I went for the central spiral staircase, clinging to the banister and fighting through the up and down traffic. It was strange. Everybody here walked single-file, like they were part of some unspoken conga line. It reminded me of grade school.
A guy named Marv (who I barely knew) accosted me on the fourth floor. He was wearing a paper party hat. I think he was a sports reporter for the Picayune-Daily.
“Hey, look who it is!” he shouted at me, grabbing my shoulder and spinning me around, spraying me with a cheesy cloud of chafing-dish breath.
“I can’t talk to you,” I said. “I’m on my way upstairs to meet with York. Maybe we can chat later.”
He guffawed great heaving brays, spraying me with the white gum that coated the rims of his thin, slippery lips. Every time he exploded, his eyes went cockeyed and his party hat seemed to leap off his head.
“York’s in the basement, like always. He hates these parties. Or so he told me in the greatest confidence. I just got finished interviewing him. I’m his confidant, really. His name will outlive us all.”
“He’s in the basement?” I asked. “There’s a basement?”
“Sure,” said Marv (who I barely knew), “Come on. I’ll take you there.”
He grabbed me by my necktie and started to stumble back down the way I had come. Before we could even make it to the landing, he stopped and pulled my face right up next to his – cheek to jowl. I could feel his stubble on my face like blood’s pins and needles flowing into a distended arm. One of his eyeballs became my entire world. It was an awful world. Lucid. Drunk. Unrepentant. Blue.
“Say…you got anything with you? Anything for me?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “What are you looking for?”
“Anything,” he said. “Anything at all. I hear you are good at getting the stuff that really burns. The stuff that makes the front page.”
“We’ll see,” I said sternly. “Take me to York, and then we’ll see.”
He twisted my tie up in his fist, leaned up against me as if he were about to pass out, and then pushed me away. He started back down the stairs and I went after him, tracking him through the crowd by his ridiculous party hat.
He led me into a back room on the first floor, and then got down on his hands and knees beside a four-poster double bed. As if he was checking for monsters. The room was otherwise empty, except for a dresser/mirror combo and some drug detritus. There was a couple lubing each other up in one corner, but they barely muttered shy hellos.
“Could you give me a hand here?” asked Marv.
“A hand doing what?”
“Picking this bed up. You’ll see.”
He started straining at it with one shoulder so I bent down and added my weight. We rolled the bed over on one end, and it swung up as if it were hinged to the floor. The sheets and pillows stayed in perfect order. They must have been secured with glue.
Underneath the bed was a perfect hole. I’ll explain: a hole, you see, only becomes ideal by the coincidence of two factors: perfect blackness and a perfectly unexpected location.
Marv (who I barely knew) flopped into it headfirst and disappeared as I sat there gawking. The hole seemed to be lined with some sort of red neoprene, and it was slick to the touch as if shellacked with turtle wax. It reminded me of nothing so much as a throat.
I looked at the couple who were evidently waiting patiently for me to finish whatever it was I was doing with the bed so they could put it back and commence their evening’s entertainment. I must have given them an inquisitive look, because they both shrugged in unison.
I wasn’t going to give up now. I got down on my haunches and then lowered myself in. With a tiny prayer, I let go of my grip and shut my eyes tight.
It was a short tunnel, and there was a sphincter of black felt at the end that blocked out all light from below. I spluffed through it and landed on something soft and billowy. I opened my eyes. I was laying on my back on some sort of air mattress at one end of an enormous basketball gymnasium. I got to my hands and knees. At the other end was a card table skirted by three overstuffed chairs. Sitting in one of them – waiting for me -- was Marv. In another was a woman in a strapless red dress with a strawberry blonde bob who was demurely reading a comic book. In the third chair was Wexler York, currently the world’s most famous basketball player. He was sitting in front of a steaming mug of coffee and big plate of sugar cookies.
Wexler York stood up and crossed his arms. Marv (who I barely knew) stumbled back toward me and then ran across the gym to fall into my arms.
“Well?” he asked, puffing his nostrils. I put a balloon full of something into his pocket and patted it. He pulled his party hat up off his head and then let it snap back down.
“It always good to know who your friends are,” he said. He let go of me with a cackle, and then scrambled up a steel ladder that led to a different hole cored out of the wall behind us. He made a steeple out of his hands and dove through it. There were holes all over the walls. You could get anywhere in the mansion from here, probably.
I sidled across the gymnasium floor fast and then slow. York and his mistress simply stood there, watching silently.
Wexler York was more of a legend than a man by this point, and it was absolutely amazing that I had managed to get this close to him with such ease. I had heard before that he didn’t have any security guards or respond with very much paranoia regarding the many threats to his life by fans from other teams, but I figured there would be at least be much more of an entourage – a bigger attaché of people on the take to keep him happy, laugh at his stupid jokes, massage his temples, make sure no erection went wasted, scrabble for drippings, and take care of assholes like me. Here was a man who had single-handedly been responsible for more victories than any other player in NBA history. It was said that the odds in Vegas plummeted every time he publicly sneezed.
The thing was, Wexler York was about as athletic as I was. Less, really. He was a pudgy, balding man in his mid-forties (with no neck) who chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes, perpetually had the saggy, despondent expression of an underappreciated packhorse, and had a full, prominent set of yellow jagged teeth that tapered to needle-like points like a barracuda. He was short. He couldn’t jump. He was about as fast as a flat-tired wheelbarrow, and about as graceful. He had a specially designed jersey with built-in pockets, so that he could rest his hands while quietly and methodically shuffling up and down the court. He was a cipher to the media (with the exception of Marv, evidently), he never answered any questions, and he refused all commercial sponsorship. There was no Wexler York brand tennis shoe. Hell, half the time he wore sandals. Why not?
And yet, he was so powerful in the industry that he could effortlessly dictate the terms of his own contract. Hence tonight’s party. It was amazing. It was unbelievable. But it was a fact.
How did he do it? Why was this lumpy sack of malformed peeled potatoes such a force of nature?
Two years ago, he had showed up at one of the Mudflap’s preseason practice sessions wearing his characteristic sandals and carrying a basketball. He sat in the empty stands and watched the team go through drills and then play a scrimmage against one another.
While the team was relaxing on the bench, listening to a lecture from Coach Adorno, he stood up in his seat. He smiled. He scratched his nuts. And then, from the most awkward angle imaginable and at a distance most people can barely toss a tennis ball, he swished a perfect shot and then sat back down.
The Mudflaps were agog. Dumb-founded. In a royal basketball tizzy.
“Do that again,” said Coach Adorno, rolling back the ball. He did. And then he did it once more.
“How’d you do that?” asked Sandy Garmalkin, power forward.
York just shrugged.
“You been practicin’ that shot there for a year, huh? Trying out a trick? It’s pretty impressive, but that ain’t basketball,” said Coach Adorno.
“Feed me balls,” said York. Garmalkin tossed him a basketball and he started walking forward. He shot it. Swish. The team kept passing him the ball, he kept shooting, he kept moving forward, he kept swishing. Finally he made a neat little lay-up and then sat back down on the bench next to the other players.
“I won’t run, and I don’t do practice. I’m not going to get in any better shape,” said York. “I don’t need to.”
“Um…” said the Coach. He looked at the team, and then he looked at the playbook. From that day forward, Wexler York was basketball history. He would be legend if everything about him weren’t true.
The Mudflaps won the championship that year and Wexler York was the reason why. Sure, he got stuffed sometimes, and it was often a logistical challenge to get him the ball, but if you have a person on your team who can literally make every single shot from anywhere on the court – in addition to a full team of already disciplined and talented players – you are going to win basketball games. By scads of points. And you are going to make scads of money. And then you are going to have to give those scads to the man who makes it possible. The man who was coldly wondering why I was skulking around inside his private underground lair right now.
“Why are you here?” he asked.
“Marv showed me about the bed,” I said.
“Marv is an idiot,” said York, “Why are you really here?”
“I’m here because I want you to teach me how to do what you do,” I said.
“You and EVERYBODY else who has ever drawn breath. Get out, or I’ll toss this cup of coffee at your head so hard that it will pop your nose into your brain like stuffing your thumb in a nipple, boy. I can do it.”
“He can,” said the woman with the strawberry-blonde hair.
“Yeah, but I’ve got this tape here, you see. Maybe you want to talk to me.” I pulled the disc out of my pocket, and held it up for inspection.
“What are you talking about?” he asked. I put the disc back in my jacket and walked closer. The woman with the strawberry-blonde hair looked up, finally, and gave me a squint. She put the comic book down on the table and crossed her legs. She seemed vaguely familiar, but I couldn’t say why. York sat back down, and I sat down next to him.
“So, what’s on the tape?” asked York. There was a crack in his voice.
“If it’s us fucking,” said the woman with the strawberry-blonde hair, “We’re not interested. We’ve got our own video.”
Wexler York slightly shook his head at her. She shrugged.
“A year-and-a-half-ago you were playing in a game against Houston,” I said, licking my lips. “I’m a big fan, you see, and so I snuck in my own video camera. It was an accident really. If I had been able to afford better seats, I would never have gotten the film. If I had never gotten the film, I would never have been able to see what happened. It happened too fast to see, really. I didn’t realize until later. When I could pause and rewind and slow the whole thing down.”
York took a small slurp from his coffee cup. “Go on,” he said.
“You fucked up, is all,” I said. “It was bound to happen eventually, and I’m just the first one to figure out your secret. There will be others. And now all I want to know is how you do it.”
“How did I fuck up?” said York with a snarl.
“It was nothing, really. Just a bounce. Except you missed. The ball bounced off of thin air. Which is pretty much physically impossible, even for some sort of physico-spatial savant, as you purport to be.”
“I don’t claim to be anything,” said York. But you could tell he was nervous. I was getting somewhere now.
“You could have only seen it from behind the backboard in the cheap seats,” I said. “I got lucky, but then again, I also knew what I had on my hands. This was dynamite. Bigger than space aliens and Bigfoot. At first, I wasn’t sure what to do. I now had absolutely compelling, eyewitness evidence that telekinesis was an actual, tangible phenomenon. Should I turn the tape over to the cops? Should I source you out to some muckraker and make headlines? Would anybody believe me?”
“Footage can be altered. Claims can be falsified,” he said. But he was looking a little green.
“That’s true. But it doesn’t matter if anybody believes me. That’s not what I want. I don’t even want you to stop doing what you’re doing. Hell, I think it’s great. I don’t want money. I don’t want protection or your firstborn child or to have sex with you. Frankly, if we never see each other again I don’t think I would stay up nights.”
“So what do you want?” he asked.
“I already told you. I want to know how you do it. I want to be able to levitate things with my mind. I want to have the same power you do.”
York sat back in his chair. His girlfriend’s jaw hung open like the torpedo bay on submarine. I half-expected something to come shooting out from in there. Maybe a spring loaded boxing glove. I finally recognized who she was, though. Her name was Frances Somethingerother, and she was in movies. Nice legs. The comic book she was reading featured bubble-headed characters that had single page adventures in some goofy, desperate high school. Evidently, Frances S. was illiterate, which made sense considering her recent career choices. I think her last movie was about a nursery school for the children of high-profile assassins. Ridiculous.
“Could you leave us alone, Frances honey?” said York. “We need to talk alone.”
“Is he telling the truth?” she asked. “Can you really move shit with your mind?’
“Of course not,” said York. “But you just let me deal with this unstable madman.”
She kept gawking, this time at York.
“Scoot,” he said. “I won’t ask again.”
Frances S. slowly got to her feet and stumbled across the room on her high heels. She only looked back once. I waved.
“What’s to stop me from just killing you right now if I’m so damn powerful? Stopping the blood in your veins and turning your lungs to butter?” said York, leaning over and pressing his fingertips together. This attempt at malicious determination was unexpected. I was a bit shocked, but I didn’t freak out or anything. He might have been powerful, but he wasn’t some sort of Mongolian warlord. Up close, I could see the incredible atrophy of his arms and legs. His liver spots. His baldness, like baked chicken skin. He even shook a little bit, like a man about to lose his lunch. He would need a walker or wheelchair before long. I suppose telekinesis was an extreme explanation for his skill, but it had to be true. It had to be. I had the proof. I saw it and I believed it.
“You won’t kill me,” I said. “You’re sick, I can tell. It’s doing something to you. The past two years haven’t been kind, Mr. York. Do you really want to die without passing on what you’ve gained? Without leaving a legacy?”
“How do you know I’m not spilling my guts to Marv?”
“Marv? He’s an idiot,” I said. “I’ve known him since grade school.”
He laughed. “Maybe he is. And maybe I do want a legacy.”
We stared at each other. I got a flutter in my stomach. I realized there was something I didn’t think about. If he was telekinetic, why couldn’t he be telepathic, too? Maybe I should have wrapped my head in tin foil. But, hell, I wasn’t bullshitting. Let him read my thoughts. I’d project them, in fact. I hadn’t seen my own ass in a while, but I have a pretty good memory. I gave him a flash. He didn’t even wince.
“Watch this,” said York, finally.
He pointed at the empty chair. It started to rise. I wanted to be surprised, but I just wasn’t.
A ball on the other side of the court started to rise as well. It traveled over to the chair and rested on top of it. And it traveled fast. The way he would shoot a shot for the cameras. Next, the coffee cup floated over on top of it and perched.
“Fantastic,” I said. “Is it hard?”
“Not at all. I barely have to move a muscle.”
“Is it training? Is it religion or science?”
“Huh. Don’t know, actually.”
“Is it some sort of powder? Some kind of thinking cream or levitating talc?”
York looked at me aslant under his eyebrow wrinkles.
“It’s a story,” he said.
“I like stories,” I said back.
“Me too,” he said. He floated the coffee cup back into his hand, telekineted the chair into a sitting position, and let the basketball bounce away. “What’s your name, anyway?” he asked.
“I’d rather not say,” I said. “Call me Bill.”
“It doesn’t matter,” he said with a toothy grin. “It looks like you’re going to hear what I have to say all the same. You’ve got me over a barrel and maybe that’s where I want to be.” He handed me a cigarette from a crumpled pack and took one for himself. Evidently, his whole quiet scary deal was a front. Deep down, he must have been waiting for someone like me to come along this whole time. I liked Mr. Wexler York more and more.
“I wasn’t always a basketball superstar,” said York, lighting both of our cigarettes. “But I was always a basketball fan. Growing up, I must have watched every Mudflaps game I could catch, and then I’d tape the finals to obsess over later. I couldn’t play, though. I couldn’t run, I couldn’t jump, I couldn’t shoot. The papers speculate that I must have spent my entire life up until now just shooting shots and learning to see the game at a whole new level, but that’s not even remotely true. I spent my childhood and young adult years doing the one thing that I was naturally good at. Reading books. And my favorite thing to read about -- when I wasn’t reading about castles, dragons, and how much Mary Ann next door liked to please the fellas – was insects.
“I was an insect fanatic. From stickbugs to stinkbugs, I wanted to know everything there was to know about the clever little bastards. It gave me something to show off about. I liked finding a fact that no one else knew and just waiting for the moment to spring it. It was like making a clutch three-pointer, and almost as satisfying.
“Eventually, I’d read so many books that I had a first-rate degree in zoology with a concentration in entomology. Right after I took my master’s degree, I managed to get a grant for a field study in China. I figured some time spent with a foreign country under my microscope would do me good.
“Specifically, I wanted to study the architecture, breeding habits, and behavior of Chinese ant species. My travels across the continent found me one afternoon in a lonely little cottage on top of an isolated mountain, huddling for warmth and watching ants patter to and fro across a fallen piece of timber. These were one of the most rare ant species on the planet: the Asiatic Revolver Ants, so named because of their ability to rotate their legs and thorax a full 360 degrees in order to quickly change directions and to stay perpetually right-side up. My government contact at the Chinese university was always drunk and never there, and so I was basically on my own.
“The more I studied the Asiatic Revolver Ants that day, the more I was certain that I was sitting on top of a discovery that would shock science to its roots. It started as a simple observation: these ants were more disciplined than the most well-drilled army unit I’d ever seen. They moved over the fallen log like a living carpet, each one moving at the exact same speed and each one keeping a perfect distance from the ant next to him. They spread into uniform rows and columns, and their march was almost poetic in its rigid, ritualistic intensity. These ants seemed more like machines than like life. Like lights blinking on a breaker board.
“I was so awed that I accidentally dropped the apple I was eating onto a cloud of soldiers. The ants were able to predict that it was coming, and then move away from the falling apple at a consistent speed, as if they were operating as a single cohesive unit. The apple core plonked down on the ground and rolled over onto its side. I watched one of the ants approach it, and that was when the miracle happened. The ant sniffed it with its feelers, and then the apple started to tremble. It vibrated, shifted, and then jerked a few centimeters towards the investigating ant. As I watched, astonished, this lone ant shouldered the apple and began to travel with it, carting it along as easy as pack dogs pulling a sleigh.
“As amazing and improbable as this all was, there was something stranger still about the whole affair. I bent my face down close to the ground to observe the occurrence from underneath. My cheeks grazed the marching ants, but I was too curious to be concerned. Besides, the Revolver Ants weren’t deadly or even really poisonous. In fact, they were universally beloved by the surrounding countryside for their industry and prudence. There was even a statue in the little village where I bought supplies, which is probably why my liaison sent me there in the first place.
“As I bent down to marvel at the strength of the little fellow carrying such a great big weight, I saw the miracle. It was so amazing that I didn’t even feel the tickle of the ants as they started to crawl over my face. I should have run away, but I just sat there in shock. The ant wasn’t carrying the apple at all. The apple was suspended a full centimeter above the ant, stuck in mid-air like a constipated balloon. The ant’s feelers were pointed at the apple like conductors batons, and as he moved, his body seemed to pulsate as if he were digesting himself with every step.
“I didn’t freak out until I felt the first ant climb inside my nose. It was already a pretty good distance in there, moving around, biting and prodding. I screamed, which was the worst thing I could have done. I inhaled a whole battalion of the little devils, sucking them up through my nose and down inside my lungs like ticklish water. The Revolver Ant is not very large, so I managed to suck a whole face-full into myself before I started choking and spluttering. But it was too late. The damage had been done. I lost consciousness and fell down in that pool of ants, down into my destiny, down into history.”
He stopped, searching my eyes. Waiting for a question.
“So what happened next?” I asked.
“When I woke up, the ants were gone. And I was a full blown telekinetic.”
“Where were they? Where did they go?” I asked.
“They went inside me, my boy. I was their new ant colony – the hyperextension of their drive toward colonizing unification. They climbed inside me, laid their eggs, started tunneling and exploring, and decided I would be perfect for their future. A living, traveling protective shell that would provide them with all the food they needed and would protect them at all costs. In return, they chewed on the cables of my mind until I developed the capacity for telekinesis that they so expertly wield. We have become symbiotes. I am Wexler York, the world’s largest Revolver ant.”
“So they are inside you right now?” I asked incredulously.
“Look closer, dear boy. I know we elderly gents can sometimes be so ugly that we become invisible. But give me a good eyeball, nonetheless.”
He leaned forward next to me so that I could see into every crevice of his well-lined face. Along the furrows, I noticed for the first time that there were tiny black dots moving slowly along like highway traffic. I watched an ant crawl out of his nose and head along one of these creased superhighways toward his ear. I shuddered uncontrollably.
“Are you still interested, my boy? What could you possibly do with telekinesis that would be worth all of this? They are eating me out from the inside, and I am deteriorating more rapidly than you could possibly imagine. There were a few good years back when I was younger, but the minute anybody figures out what has happened to me, I will be nothing more than a living test tube. Every biologist in America will want to experiment on me and I will be treated like some sort of diseased pariah. Would you want to sit next to a guy on a bus whose entire body is riddled through with the holes and lairs of an entire Asiatic ant colony? Much less suck his cock or even hold his hand?”
“What about your mistress?”
“She only likes it from behind,” said York. “One of her many charms. She’s also quite near-sighted. We’ve never kissed. I’m sure she has other lovers.”
I was silent. Now that I could see them, I couldn’t stop watching the tiny black dots travel through his wrinkles like repellent ball-bearings.
“Let an old man have his dream. Let an old couch-potato play basketball. Forget everything I told you and let me pretend I spent my years learning how to achieve a perfect mental model of the basketball court in order to attain deadly shooting accuracy.”
“So there’s no training? Nothing to learn?”
“Nope. But why in God’s name would you want my curse? You aren’t going to use it for basketball are you?”
“I hate basketball,” I said. “I just want to know. Could you live in a world where you knew for a fact it was possible to move things using only the power of your mind, and not explore the possibility?”
“I couldn’t,” said York. He put his head down on the table and seemed to ponder something. Then he removed a flask from inside his pocket. He turned it over to show that it was empty. He held it up to his nose and I watched as ants started to pour out into the flask like syrup onto a pancake. He looked into the flask and swished it around. Then he put one finger to his eyeball and squeezed. From out of the blood sac came a larger ant, about the size of a penny. It was scaly, ponderous, and had a crystalline set of diaphanous, useless wings. A Queen, perhaps? It squirmed out of his tear duct with a squelch, and then he picked it up between two fingers. He forced it into the flask, capped it, and then handed it to me.
“Will you still be able to…you know?” I asked.
“Oh, I’ll be fine. It’s like squeezing a pimple. That doesn’t mean you won’t still have a face full of cheese.”
“Thank you. I probably don’t deserve it,” I said.
“It’s a gift I wouldn’t give my best friend,” he said with his dagger smile again.
As I climbed the ladder to the exit hole I looked back at him across the court, seated in his chair, sipping his coffee. He was still smiling. In fact, he looked lighter altogether.