20080114

Little Tin Box, Filled with Sins













Getting upstairs had been easy. It had simply been a matter of walking past the “DO NOT GO UPSTAIRS” sign on the landing, scrawled in snakes of red crayon. And there were enough couches in the upstairs “game room” that we could all lie down on our own choice specimens while we waited, stretching out full-length in lazy, overstuffed splendor.

The three of us lay down on our backs near each other and stared at the ceiling as if we were patients in a luxurious hospital meant for dying rock stars. In this hospital, our IVs were filled with pink French wine and our hospital gowns were trimmed in satin. The “u” bunghole in back was covered by an emerald-encrusted flap that retarded all embarrassing winds.

Beneath us, we could hear the party taking shape. The music was slowly getting louder, and there was the pounding stomp of people bouncing up and down -- not yet dancing, but no longer standing still. The alcohol was beginning to take effect on these swells. Soon it would be time to load up Cappella’s car and go home.

“Whose place is this anyway?” asked Cappella. Cappella pretended not to care, but money like this made him sweat. If there was a lady attached to money like this, Cappella would drop the plan and disappear. Our night would end sadly and soberly at home without him, speculating on what awful thing might happen tomorrow when we had to tell our guests that our party would be dry.

“This place belongs to young Jasmine Gurthier,” said Pleasance. Pleasance had a face like a walrus, and marbled eyes that always looked punched: the rims were always swollen with yellow and black striations, and his green irises bulged behind his fleshy portholes like ripe avocados.

“We saw her coming in,” I said. “She was the little white girl with the bad skin and short hair.”

“There is something very sexy about bad skin and short hair,” said Cappella.

“There is something very sexy about having seven couches lined up around a pool table whose pockets appear to be made from lace and whose lacquered posts are hewn from elephant feet,” I said. “We know you have debts, but we are not here to seduce them away. We are here to steal alcohol so that our friends -- the guests we have invited to OUR humble party tomorrow night -- will have something to drink.”

“The Gurthier fortune is bad money, anyhow,” said Pleasance, sitting up on his sofa and pulling a hound’s-tooth quilt around his wide expanse. He ran one wrinkled hand over his mustache and smiled. “War money. The Gurthier men are defense contractors. Jasmine’s father – Martin -- is the brains of the brothers, and the most well-known.”

“What do they make?” asked Cappella dreamily.

“Instant blood coagulant is their big seller,” said Pleasance. “It comes in packets like hot chocolate. You sprinkle it over cuts and bullet wounds, and the blood sizzles away and hardens like caramelized sugar.”

“That doesn’t sound so bad,” said Cappella. “In fact, it sounds friggin’ humanitarian.”

“It’s all in how you look at it,” said Pleasance. “It also does nasty things to an enemy’s water supply. And if you are fighting in the desert, water is everything.”

“Look at this place,” said Cappella. “All these games and toys! You could have a whole lot of fun in a place like this.”

It was true. Cabinets ran to the ceiling, filled with every board game and diversion you could imagine: backgammon, go, Nintendo, pinball. There was a version of chess whose pieces were carved from jade. They had been worked over in elaborate scrimshaw to reveal individual features so fine and delicate that you could see the wry expression of a conscripted pawn, or the lines of force and torment around the forehead of a bishop conflicted about the coming battle, yet determined to fight for his side.

There was an alabaster rack filled with blackthorn pool cues, an electric football table, a locked cabinet replete with liquor too dusty and expensive to pilfer (no one coming to our party drank Admiralé Tasting Gin anyway), and a small room off to the side with a desk and telephone that appeared to be some sort of impromptu office.

The office was hidden behind a double pane of etched glass. The image carved into the glass was a puff adder hanging from a stylized tree branch, ready to strike.

The other walls of the game room were draped in purple brocade. Elephants were weaved pell-mell into the stitching and formed a hallucinatory jumble that shimmered and broke into fractals when you tried to fix your eyes.

Against one wall, a giant rectangular television screen was shut inside an equally enormous teak cabinet. Stacks and stacks of video tapes were lined up along the television’s edges in a teetering sprawl.

“We should have brought girls, is what we should have done,” said Cappella. “Maybe we should find some now, and bring ‘em up here to wait with us. Girls with taste!”

“Quiet,” I said, sitting up and cupping my ear. “Somebody is coming.”

“Should we hide?” said Pleasance.

“We’d better,” I said. “Everybody pick a couch and get behind it.”

We got up off of our dunks and headed for the back of the room. Pleasance hit the lights, and we hunkered down in the darkness, hoping whoever was coming wouldn’t linger.

It was Jasmine Gurthier herself. She was with a tall, tree-tan man who had smooth cheeks, brown eyes, a hard-line brow, and a red silk shirt that was tucked into his immaculately-creased khakis.

Jasmine was wearing a bright yellow sun dress that matched her cropped, yellow hair. She had fruit-green eyes and a ready smile. The pits on her cheeks were flushed, and her neck and sternum were also pink and glowing. As soon as the door closed behind them, they embraced, and the man ran his hand up Jasmine’s dress and rested it on her plump and well-toned thigh.

“Well, damn,” whispered Cappella. “Somebody’s got the right idea.”

“Be quiet,” said Pleasance.

“She’s just my type though,” said Cappella. “Where it counts.”

“Shush,” said Pleasance.

The two lovers uncurled and held hands, staring at each other with huge smiles.

“Jazz, I do believe you are avoiding your party guests,” said the man.

“Just for a second,” said Jasmine, sitting down on a sofa. “I just wanted to talk to you for a second.”

“I intend to stay the night,” said the man. “If such a thing would be appropriate. So we will have plenty of time for talking.”

“Or not,” giggled Jasmine.

The man began walking around the game room, running his hands along the wall, and looking at the novelties and gathered possessions like a cat trying to figure out how to get on top of a high shelf – coldly running planes together and weighing the jumps.

“Michael, there won’t be much night LEFT after the party is over,” said Jasmine.

“There will be enough for my purposes,” said the man. He stopped in front of the door with the etched glass. He traced the face of the puff adder with one long finger. He whipped his head back over his shoulder and narrowed his eyes.

“What is behind this door?” asked the man. “More games?”

“No,” said Jasmine. “It is my father’s upstairs office. He likes to be around people when they are enjoying themselves. But he must also be close to work. Always. You never know, right?”

“I see,” said the man, pushing open the door and looking back at Jasmine. She bit her lip and sat up on her hands and knees.

“I am not allowed to go in there,” said Jasmine. “It is a private office.”

“But you go in there anyway,” said Michael. “You go in there frequently, and snoop, and find things you shouldn’t.”

Jasmine walked across the room. She stopped mid-way and put her hands behind her back.

The man ignored her and closed the door to the office, shutting himself inside. He pulled a chain and a light came on. He turned around and leaned his forehead against the glass, putting his own mouth where the snake’s was. He flicked his tongue against the glass and snarled, using his hands to make fins against his neck like a cobra’s hood, and hissing.

“I’ll have to wipe the glass,” said Jasmine. “Don’t leave marks.”

“Your father’s office is a mess,” said Michael. “It is a horrible mess. It is all papers and oddments. A private office should have pills and guns. Pills, at least.”

Michael began opening drawers and looking around, every once in awhile flashing Jasmine a swart grin that kept her mollified. She had to grin back.

“Hold on a second,” said Michael, lifting up a corner of blotter paper that was wedged up by the computer keyboard. “What’s this?”

He pulled out a little tin box that was the size of a small, thick book – like a paperback edition of the Bible with the Old Testament included. I could see carvings on the box similar to the etchings on the window of Gurthier’s office. More snakes: pythons, sidewinders, and rattlers.

“Don’t touch that!” shrieked Jasmine. “Put it down immediately.”

“What is it?” said the man. “Who made these carvings? They are crude. This is tin, and somebody has carved it up in amateur fashion with a penknife.”

“Those are my Daddy’s sins,” said Jasmine plainly. “You should put it down right now.”

“Your father made these carvings? I did not know that the old man was an artist.”

“He paints,” said Jasmine. “There are pictures of all of us – Mom, me, and Sara – in his room, all painted by him. He did the one above my bed, too.”

“What do you mean about his sins?” said the man, resting the box in one hand and moving to open it with the other.

“If you open that box, I will never speak to you again, and you will no longer be welcome in my house,” said Jasmine. She was not having a good time anymore. She was serious, and she ran her fingers through her hair and tried to pull down her skirt to tuck in her knees.

“That’s serious,” said Michael. “You are serious about that.”

Michael put the little tin box in one of the desk drawers and shut the door to the office.

“See?” said Michael. “I have put it away. But I have not forgotten. Tell me what you mean about your father’s sins.”

“He is a powerful man,” said Jasmine. “He has to do things that might make another man crazy, if he had to think about them. So he puts his cares away, and he is free to live and work. You know how powerful he is. You know the kinds of decisions he has to make, and the way they must weigh on his conscience. You know the sort of people he has to call friends.”

“Maybe some day a person like me,” said Michael, raising an eyebrow.

“Maybe,” said Jasmine, smiling. “I’m not too sure that I even like you yet.”

“Well,” said Michael. “Let’s go back to the party, and I’ll show you how charming I can be. You’ll be the envy of every girl here.”

“I know I will,” said Jasmine. “And maybe we can sneak into my room later for a proper charming session.”

With one last kiss, the couple left, turning the lights off behind them and shutting the door.

“I could love a woman like that,” said Cappella into the darkness.

“What was that all about?” said Pleasance. “That palaver about the sins?”

“Yeah,” said Cappella. “Did you see how tough she got about that?”

“Pills or something,” I said. “Some kind of tranquilizer to keep the old man steady.”

“I want to know what’s in there,” said Cappella. “For sure. If they are good enough pills to make some rich war chemist forget his woes, maybe they would work for me.”

“Getting a job might work for you,” said Pleasance, lifting his chin up and stroking his mustache.

“Anyway,” I said. “We need to get that alcohol.”

“I’ll meet you guys later then,” said Cappella.

Pleasance and I looked at one another.

“The plan doesn’t work without you!” I said. “We need your car, or we can’t transport any of this stuff. You know that. Why do you do this every time?”

“So take my car!” said Cappella. “I like parties.”

This was reasonable. But Pleasance cleared his throat.

“If you are just going to steal those pills,” said Pleasance. “We will wait, and watch out for you. We will all get in trouble if you get caught, and you will get caught if you do drugs and start hitting on women that you do not know.”

Cappella at first seemed like he was going to balk, but then he shrugged, and nodded.

Pleasance and I staked out the door while Cappella slipped inside Martin Gurthier’s office and rummaged around for the little tin box. It didn’t take him long to find where Michael had put it and slip it into his pocket. We grabbed our bags, and went downstairs to take our first load out to his car.

Our system was smooth and perfect. One of us would pretend to bartend, and another of us would pretend to be delivering more alcohol to the party in an empty box. Everyone would cheer, and take no notice as we instead moved crates of beer and fifths of liquor down to Cappella’s ugly yellow sedan, our backpacks bulging behind us.

We only had one scare. A young man in a grey sweater who had thin blonde hair and a big red face leaned over the bar area to take stock, right as we were finishing up.

“We drank all that beer?” he said. “No way!”

“Fraid so,” said Pleasance.

“I saw how much brew there was when this party started. Cascades and cascades.”

The three of us remained silent.

“What a party!” said the man finally. “Toora-loorah! Party of the year, and I haven’t even met any cha-cha girls!”

He stalked off to try to remedy the situation, and we loaded Cappella’s trunk with the last of the mixing vodka. We saw Jasmine and her man on the way out, but they took no notice of us, dressed as we were in our ruffed white shirts and dress-up bowties. The bar had been self-service originally, but not even Jasmine had been alarmed by the appearance of helpful waiters, and we left without even so much as a slant gaze or whisper.

We drove away in silence, and each of us looked back at least once as we headed home to make sure no one was following us. No one was following us.

Cappella fished the tin box from his coat pocket and handed it to me in the passenger’s seat.

“Open it,” he said.

I turned the box over and over in my hands, looking for a seam. It appeared as if the box was completely solid. I rattled it. The box was full and heavy, almost like a brick. But you could hear a clink. There was definitely something in there, which meant there was a way inside.

I reached down and popped the glove compartment to make the light come on. I leaned over and held the box with only two fingers while inspecting every side, as if looking for a leak in a condom.

“Aha!” I said.

There it was! The vein ran diagonally across the tin box, which is why it couldn’t be pried open by simply lifting. It was so thin and tight that you needed to dig a key or your fingernails into the crevice to get any sort of lift.

“It’s really well-made,” I said. “But I can open it.”

“So open it,” said Cappella, annoyed, his eyes glued to the heavy traffic in front of us.

I stuck the thumb of my nail down into the fissure and pulled. The lid of the box came off by gradual, see-sawing degrees, and I nearly spilled the contents all over my lap, since the pyramid structure of the leftover half caused what was inside to flood out like cave bats. I tossed the lid back just in time to keep the goods from raining out all over the car.

The little tin box was not filled with pills. The little tin box was filled with what looked to be miniature marbles.

I stuck my index finger in and dug. Little glistening marbles, all the way to the bottom.

“No pills,” I said.

“Goddammit,” said Cappella.

“What are THOSE fellows?” said Pleasance, leaning over from the back seat.

“I don’t know,” I said. “But if you swallowed them, I think that you would not get high.”

“They look like cat’s eyes,” said Pleasance.

“Cat’s have bigger eyes than that,” said Cappella.

“Not ACTUAL cat’s eyes,” said Pleasance. “Cat’s eye marbles. But they are so tiny. Pea-sized.”

“Like I said, cat’s eyes are bigger than that,” said Cappella. “Now who feels dumb? Talking about playing marbles.”

“You couldn’t play with those,” said Pleasance. “There’s no weight and they wouldn’t roll correctly. But they sure are beautiful.”

He was right. They were more beautiful than jewels, I thought. Jewels were carved by fire and accident from the earth’s inner nut and so they were all natural -- all boring. But these miniature glass marbles had been constructed – created – and they displayed symmetry and patterns that reflected the artistic touch of a human hand. Most of them had a cobalt-blue colored base, but there were some that were bright green, and others that were as red as bordello shag. The base glass was just a window, though. Laced inside each marble were tendrils of contrasting color so intense that the patterns seemed to move, folding and swirling into one another, leaping from marble to marble, forming staircases and escalades of pigment that burned your eyes, even in the dim glow of the waning glove compartment bulb.

“I’m going to eat one, anyway,” said Cappella. “Maybe the old bastard likes to smear his drugs all over marbles. Who knows? The worst thing that will happen is that I shit a marble. I’ve shit worse things. I’ve shit car keys, once. That’s a funny story. Had to keep this crazy drug girl I was dating from stealing my car while I slept. Didn’t even work. She knew some dude with a tow truck.”

Pleasance and I looked at each other, and before I could stop him, Cappella reached over into my lap, took a marble from the box, and stuck it in his mouth. He swallowed, and we drove on in silence.

“I’ll let you know if it does anything,” said Cappella, finally.

“Do that,” I said.

Pleasance reached over from the back seat and took the box lid from my hand.

“There’s a detachable part here,” said Pleasance, showing me the under-side of the box. Sure enough, a thin cylinder with a prong at one end was clasped to the pyramid-shaped lid by two horned flanges. I tugged at the cylinder, and it came off with a snap.

“What is it?” asked Cappella.

The tube was made from bone, and it had scratches cut into it that looked like fish scales. There were holes at either end, but they were sealed off by plugs of thick glass. I held it up to my eye like a telescope, but it was dark inside, and the light from the glove compartment was too dim to dent the fog.

“It’s some kind of bone tube filled with glass, and it’s got hooks on one side,” I said.

“Maybe it’s a rectal probe, Cappella,” said Pleasance. “For when that drug-coated marble you just ate gets stuck in your lower GI tract.”

“Maybe it’s a rectal probe for when your face gets stuck in your GI track,” said Cappella, smiling into the rear-view mirror.

“Nah, I think it’s a kaleidoscope,” I said. “I think the prongs are to hold the marbles in place. They are the right size for it. I had one of these when I was a kid.”

“Bold, man, bold,” said Cappella.

I dug one of the red marbles out of the box and pinched it between my thumb and forefinger. I slid it between the prongs, and it clicked and held tight against the cylinder’s end.

“Tada,” I said.

I ran the side of my thumb along the marble and it rolled in place as if it were coated in grease. I leaned all the way forward and stuck the marble and kaleidoscope deep into the glove compartment, right up against the yellow electric bulb.

I covered one eye and looked into the eyepiece, arching my back, and slinging the seatbelt over my shoulder.

“Turn it,” said Pleasance.

I turned the kaleidoscope over and over in my fingers, and the glass inside melted and warped. It worked, but the queasy light made the shapes inside sketchy and spare. The colors were dead and grey in the flickering light, and when Cappella hit a bump, I bashed my head on the dashboard and the kaleidoscope nearly went through my eye.

“Dammit, drive careful,” I said.

“Here,” said Cappella, handing me a plastic lighter from his pocket.

“Good idea,” I said.

“Just so you know,” said Cappella. “I’m not feeling anything yet.”

“Thanks for the update,” I said.

“I feel something,” said Pleasance. “It’s hunger. Let’s go eat somewhere.”

I flicked the lighter on and held it up to the kaleidoscope like it was a fat cigar. Immediately, something was different.

The twists and turns of the marble lit up in the fragmenting plates of the little kaleidoscope like the ten looping shadows of a dervish dancing on a planet with ten suns. The fire behind the marble beckoned and flickered, and the marble seemed to pulsate like a beating heart as the flame geed and hawed.

“Wow,” I said. “These are beautiful. Maybe they are worth something.”

“Truly beautiful things are generally valued at a pittance,” said Pleasance. “A man who is poor only has his dreams, and we like to pretend that this is not fair.”

“What the hell does that even MEAN?” asked Cappella.

As I watched, something began to happen inside the marble. The layers of rippling color began to dissolve and unravel, and with one last twist of the kaleidoscope, the shapes – hexagons and triangles and spinning squares – flattened out, and became the contours and dimensions of a room. Like a diorama. It was a motel room, with two twin beds and a pay-television. The pay television was even displaying some kind of program. I squinted and moved the flame closer to the marble. Baseball.

“What’s going on?” I whispered.

A man was sitting on one of the twin beds and was rubbing his knees. He was in his boxer shorts and a t-shirt, and there was a black suit draped across the other twin bed. The man had dark eyes and dark features, and the skin on his face was mottled, pitted, and thick like the skin of a horse.

The man was sweating, and his t-shirt had big, Georgia-shaped sweat patches under the arms, even though the motel room’s air conditioner was blowing. I could see the curtains shaking around the box unit.

The man got up off of the bed and went to the motel room door. He put his hand on the doorknob and peered out through the eyehole.

Evidently, he didn’t see what he was looking for because he sat back down on the bed and started rubbing his knees again.

“Do you see something strange?” asked Pleasance.

“A room,” I said.

“What?” said Pleasance.

“A ROOM,” I said.

There was a knock on the motel room door. I could hear it through the kaleidoscope. The tin and glass magnified the tiny noise and rattled my eyesocket, and then I could hear it in my ear. The man on the bed got up and opened the door a crack. He backed up – slow, slow -- when he saw who it was and then turned and walked all the way back to the bed.

A woman in thick black sunglasses entered the motel room. A leash was wrapped tightly around the woman’s hand, and at the other end was a golden retriever. The golden retriever – a shiny, happy-looking dog – sniffed the air, barked, and then pulled her further into the room. The woman reached back behind her and ran her hand along the wall until she found the doorjamb. She pushed the door closed, and then ran her hand along the door until she found the knob. Her fingers shaking, she locked the door.

She was blind.

She carried a plastic bag.

The man rubbed his hand across his face and then went to the black suit. He fished around in the pockets of the pants, pulled out a wad of cash, and then put it on the dresser while the woman and the golden retriever stood in the hotel room without speaking, as if awaiting instruction. The woman was middle-aged and wore a shimmering mauve blouse and a pair of corduroy pants. She had brown hair that came down to her shoulders and a wooden expression that made her look like a pioneer, or a night nurse.

The man took off his shirt and moved back to the other twin bed. He ran his hand across his face again, and then he ripped all of the sheets off and threw them into a corner. He stripped the bed down to its plastic mattress cover and then he climbed onto the mattress and kneeled on it. He took his socks off and tossed them into the same pile as the sheets. He removed his shirt and then his underwear.

Finally, he lay down flat on his back and put his hands behind his head. He closed his eyes.

“Time,” he said.

The blind woman staggered forward with her hand outstretched. The dog helped guide her across the room, nudging her with his nose and barking when she came too close to the sharp end of a piece of furniture.

The blind woman reached into her plastic bag, and pulled out a jar of creamy peanut butter. She pulled out a butter knife. She kept the dog on a short leash beside her, and it whined and crooned before finally settling in and falling to its haunches.

Delicately, with probing fingers and with expert strokes, the blind woman began spreading peanut butter all over the man’s chest. She coated him in a thick layer all the way from his neck to his navel, and she didn’t stop until all of the peanut butter in the jar was gone. She put the jar of peanut butter down on the floor, and she knelt down next to the dog. She kissed the dog on the nose.

The man’s chest was rising up and down with ragged expansions and contractions. Suddenly, the woman let the dog’s leash go, and then staggered back across the room until she was pressed against the opposite wall.

The dog jumped up onto the man and began licking the peanut butter off of his chest with vigor and joy. The man’s hands darted out from underneath his head and shook by his ears, tense and quivering, each finger extended, splayed, and rigid. As the dog licked and slobbered, the man let out a high pitched whine that trilled and gargled at the end, like someone who had been tickled so hard for so long that they could no longer laugh.

The lighter burned my finger and I dropped it.

The kaleidoscope went dark and I lowered it from my eye. I fumbled around by my feet until I found the lighter, and that was when I realized that we were no longer moving.

“Where are we?” I asked.

“The Dangle Diner on Noke Street,” said Cappella. “You been staring at that marble for fifteen minutes.”

“We’ve been calling your name, gent,” said Pleasance.

“What did you see in there?” asked Cappella.

“I’m starving,” I said, opening the car door. “Let’s eat.”

I got out and started walking toward the restaurant with the box of marbles and kaleidoscope in my hands. The others had no choice but to get out and follow. They found me at a table in the back, next to the bathroom, already looking at the menu.

“What’s going on with those marbles, fellow?” asked Pleasance.

“It’s like this,” I said, my eyes never leaving the plastic-coated bill of fare. “These marbles are the recorded sins of Mr. Martin Gurthier, defense contractor and man of no small perversions. They are diorama, they are alive, and they are awakened by fire. You put the kaleidoscope to your eye, apply flame, and you see a tiny world come to life. I saw him perform an act of bestiality with a dog. I don’t know how it works.”

I chose a marble at random from the tin and popped it into the kaleidoscope. I handed the rod to Cappella, who put it to his eye – skeptically, skeptically. I flicked his lighter and held it to the marble’s edge as if it were a pan on the stove.

“Rotate it till you see something,” I said.

Cappella began turning the kaleidoscope between his fingers. Suddenly, he stopped.

“Holy smoke,” said Cappella, taking the lighter from me. “He’s not lying. I see a dude sitting in a helicopter. It’s not like a show. It’s like real life. Except small. Like they are little actors inside there, all locked up inside. It’s an army helicopter. Defense contractor, right? The dude sitting inside the helicopter has got the same…uh…complexion as Jasmine. Must be her old man. Martin, you said. There’s a pair of ‘em. Martin and some guy in black sunglasses who’s flying the helicopter. He’s got an army hat on. They are smiling at each other. There’s a bucket on the floor between them.”

A waitress came by and took our orders – a middle-aged frump with a limp in both legs. She asked about the kaleidoscope, and so we let her look -- without the fire. She held it up to one of the diner’s buzzing fluorescents. After a moment, she said it was very nice and then went away to deal with the other tables, giving us a wink that said she didn’t understand young people, but she hoped they knew how to tip.

“Okay,” continued Cappella, lighting back up. “Inside the bucket, there are a whole bunch of screws. Thick screws, all lengths. Some really big ones. Some really small ones. God knows why these two bastards are grinning at each other so big. They are flying over some kind of town. I guess more like a city. There are big buildings, and its hot outside. Big fat sun. I don’t think it’s in the states. Desert. Towers like onions. I couldn’t tell you what city it is. They are up pretty high. Okay, now Martin is reaching inside the bucket of screws. He’s got a big handful, enough for two hands. Big grins again. Whoah! Friggin’ surprise! He’s tossing the screws out of the helicopter. Damn, like it’s ticker-tape! They are raining down all over the street below ‘em. They just made a car swerve out of control on the street there. No crash, just a swerve. He’s tossing more screws. Now they are both at it. Big handfuls for the both of ‘em. Unbelievable. I can’t see what they are hitting, though. Neither can they. Maybe they aren’t hitting anything. Big grins. BIG grins. Shit, it all went black. Wait. It’s back. No. Uh, I think it’s starting to repeat.”

Cappella lowered the kaleidoscope and looked at us. The waitress brought us all a round of coffees.

“You boys all look guilty,” said the waitress. “Up to no good?”

We all smiled, and she told us she’d be right back with our side salads. What were we up to? Was it no good?

“Let me look,” said Pleasance. “This is unbelievable. Some kind of new technology that only the world’s wealthy have access to. This thing must be worth millions. Heat activated television.”

“New technology,” said Cappella. “Yeah.”

I didn’t say anything, but “new technology” was not the first thing that popped into my head. Pleasance selected a marble and inserted it into the kaleidoscope.

He took the lighter from Cappella.

“It’s him, alright,” said Pleasance. “I recognize him from the newspapers. He’s much younger but has the same sophisticated air of bravura. An arrogant young mandarin, elevated beyond his abilities by privilege and connection. Truly remarkable presentation, this viewer. It feels like a model I’m looking at. Like a mock-up done with bits of cardboard in a shoebox, although I can’t see any reason why it feels two-dimensional. It just does, doesn’t it? Anyway, Mr. Gurthier might be twenty-nine here. He’s standing in a nursery, actually, smoking a cigarette. An expensive cigarette. There is a gold band around the filter, but I don’t recognize the brand. I don’t think that’s the sin, though. Unless smoking in a nursery goes against the conscience of our man Martin. I can’t believe you swallowed one of these, by the way, Cappella. Are you feeling alright? Hold on now, there’s a baby in this nursery. Lying down inside the crib. The nursery walls are painted a pale pink, and there are fronds of seaweed, and shoals of fish playing among…yes, among…merpeople. I’m going to assume that this baby is a girl. The baby has hair already -- a long, thick slash of it. Curly yellow hair. He’s picking the baby girl up and he’s lying her down on a little table. Yes, he’s undoing her pink jumpsuit, isn’t he? And now he’s removing her diaper, checking the damage. It is a girl. There is a load of damage. I’m going to guess that the baby is his own baby. Such a guess feels safe to me. Well. He’s wiping her down with a bit of medicated paper. Something soothing, no doubt. And now. Oh my. I don’t know if I can say what he’s doing out loud. Good lord. This is very hard to watch. The bright colors. The striking, strong contrasts of movement. It is as if it is a cartoon, animated by an expert, obsessive hand. I can’t look anymore. Not with what he’s doing. I don’t care how beautiful it is.”

Pleasance put the kaleidoscope down on the table and began rubbing his temples. He looked at me with a frown across his lips, a frown that reached deep into his eyes.

“Why would anyone commit that to film?” said Pleasance. “I don’t know why a person would want to remember such a thing. Or have the proof of it lying around.”

“What did he do?” asked Cappella.

Pleasance shook up a sugar packet, tore off the top, and dumped it into his coffee.

“He took his finger up to the second knuckle, and he…well…he used it on his daughter,” said Pleasance. “It didn’t even look like anything sexual. It looked like mere curiosity. So strange. So horrible and strange.”

“Damn,” I said. “Damn, that’s dismal.”

“Dismal as it gets,” said Pleasance.

“And there’s so many more,” said Cappella, taking the marble out and putting in another one. “A whole box full.”

We asked, and the waitress brought us a candle from the back: a tea light from the Dangle Diner’s more upscale days. We continued taking turns, eating our meal and growing sadder and sadder as we watched the chronicle of a man’s sick perversions and cruel behavior to family, friends, and strangers.

The sick thing…the sad thing: was he just a normal guy? What would any of our little tin boxes contain?

Nothing this bad, surely. Nothing like this.

Here was Gurthier in a prison camp carving his name into the chest of a corpse with a ballpoint pen. He slung the corpse into a pile of other bodies, as soldiers watched and saluted.

Here was Gurthier playing with his wife while she slept – seeing how long he could close up her nose before her mouth came open, seeing how far he could bend her legs behind her until she began moaning, seeing what would happen if he pried open her eyelids and licked her blank, staring retina. On the nightstand, a bottle of pills. Spread out in a fan across the bedroom floor, the kind of pornography that only came in grainy black and white, and carried a life sentence in parts of America.

Here was Gurthier teaching a group of teenagers how to shoot heroin at a bowling alley. Showing them how to tie off, telling them how to buy it and where, drawing dosage diagrams, and answering every confused question with a hyperbolic affirmative. Yes, it was better than weed. Yes, it was better than coke. Yes, it was better than X. Plenty of people had healthy addictions you’d never even know about. Plenty of people had both Jesus and heroin in their lives. He gave them little sample baggies, and he gave a pretty young girl a brand new syringe, with a wink.

Here was Gurthier in a laboratory, mixing chemicals and running tests on rats and kittens – pulling their hair off in fuzzy sheets and watching them asphyxiate on fumes. Here he was tying their tails together to see if it could be done, winding them up against one another in single combat, feeding them into a meat grinder, putting his instant coagulating solvents on their trusting tongues and watching them die – dessicated, mewling, savage.

Here was Gurthier, his arms hooked against the wall of a skating rink. He bent down and whispered to a little boy what his daddy did to his mommy at night, and where, and why, and how that was what made him scared of the dark. The little boy started crying, and Gurthier disappeared into the crowd.

Here was Gurthier squatting over a homeless man, taking a long, red shit onto his twitching shoulder.

“I can’t look anymore,” said Pleasance, finally. “I can’t even eat anymore.”

He pushed away his dented plate of pancakes and sausage, and Cappella and I both realized we hadn’t even touched our sandwiches. Pleasance rolled a marble between his fingers, and the waitress looked at us from where she sat with her magazine, wondering, but not asking any questions.

“Guilty as sin,” she whispered to herself. She saw me looking at her, and blushed, but did not look away.

That was when the man in leather came into the Dangle Diner, along with the fat man who never stopped smiling.

They both came in together, opening the double glass doors with a synchronous movement that made everyone stop what they were doing and watch.

The man in leather was tall and slim, dressed from head to foot in bright red bull-skin, including a red leather tie, and a red leather hat. He was thin, but it looked as if he had once been enormous. His skin hung from his face in folds and flaps, and the wrinkles in his leather didn’t help. If you took an elephant and put it inside a bell jar with a vacuum pump, and you pumped and pumped and pumped until the elephant’s brain exploded and then you kept pumping, you would get the man in leather – complete with brain-dead expression and grey skin.

In my mind, I called him The Inman.

And his friend was The Exman.

His companion wasn’t fat exactly – he was round. He looked like a man who had once been gaunt – rags and bones – who had been stuffed full of pudding and set loose on the world like a human parade balloon. He bounced when he walked, and he had skin so plump and rosy that you could see the spider’s web of veins even on his forehead, and even on the skin beneath his fingernails. He wore a checkered shirt and a pair of flared yellow bellbottoms. Both men had shaggy hair, and both men had long black sideburns.

They looked right at us and strolled across the diner with eyes for no one else. Finally, they sat down at the booth across from us and tilted on their elbows. The man in leather might as well have had his eyes and mouth sewn shut for the amount of expression he had, but the fat man was so happy and excited that he was actually trembling. When the waitress came to give them menus, the rotund Exman waved his hand and just said “water.” The waitress seemed to balk at first. It was the dead of night…peak hours. But then the man in leather reached under his hat, pulled out a twenty dollar bill, and handed it to her.

“Sometimes it helps to tip in advance…hee hee hee, oh my, yes it does,” said the puffy, straining Exman with a whispery, whiskery laugh.

The Inman grunted, and the waitress walked away with raised eyebrows and her complaint dying on her lips.

The pair of newcomers sat there at their table staring at us, and we stared back at them. Cappella reached up and put his hand on the kaleidoscope. Somehow, we knew that’s why they were here.

“What’s that you’ve got there, then, eh?” asked The Exman. “Looks to be something out of the ordinary, doesn’t it? Something a bit exo-otical.”

“It’s a toy,” I said. “For my little sister’s birthday.”

“Trying it out then, are we? Hee hee hee, oh my, oh my. Sometimes it hurts to grow up. Sometimes I think it’s the adults who like the toys more than the children, eh? Ever think that yourself?”

“I think we’d like to eat our meal in peace,” said Pleasance. He leaned forward in the booth and tried to look menacing, and this made The Inman start laughing himself. He laughed like a train grinding to a halt. Hug….hug….hug. And all from the throat. All from the windpipe. You only knew he was laughing because The Exman joined in.

“Hee hee hee, oh my,” said The Exman. “Sorry to bother, just checking out the property, we’ll leave you alone, we’re actually waiting for someone ourselves. A client, in fact. We are professionals, just so you know. Professional men, with professional clients.”

The Inman leaned forward, mocking Pleasance, showing black teeth above his sparkling red leather tie.

“Professionals,” he said. “Hug…hug…hug.”

The five of us sat in silence for awhile, and Pleasance signaled for the bill.

The Exman leaned across the space between tables and put his hand on our table. We stared at it. His trembling hand pulsed like a cold trout that had flopped aboard a raft and was trying to die.

“You know,” said The Exman. “What you’ve got there…oh lord, here it comes…what you’ve got there doesn’t exactly belong to you.”

The Inman nodded his head and grimaced.

“You know it doesn’t,” said The Exman. “You know who it belongs to, and you’d probably better give it back. Ain’t that the way of it?”

“I don’t see him around,” snapped Cappella.

“Don’t talk to them,” I said.

“Too late,” said The Exman. “Gives it all away, he does. Gives it all away. Oh, our client will be here soon. Roused him right out of bed, we did. This is important stuff here. Maybe not to you! But to us, and him, and the chain of command. Important stuff!”

Pleasance groaned and put his hand over his face. He rubbed his cheeks flat and then let them spring back into place. When he looked back at me, his eyes were wide and dim.

“I knew it,” said Pleasance.

“Knew what?” I asked.

“I thought it might,” said Pleasance. “I thought it might at that.”

“Might what?” I asked.

“Have a tracking device,” said Pleasance. “Some kind of microchip.”

“Microchip!” said The Exman. “Did you hear him? He said MICROCHIP! Don’t you know where it comes from? Don’t you have any idea?”

“We’d better just go,” said Cappella. “We’d better just leave it and go.”

There was a squeal in the parking lot and then the clatter of hard footsteps. The door opened and in came Martin Gurthier. His eyes were bloodshot and ringed with purple, and he was dressed in a monogrammed dress-shirt and slacks. He wore loafers without socks, and his hair crackled out of order. His collar was wide open where a necktie should be, and there was blood on his sleeve. His hair gel had been mussed, and even though it was a cool evening, Gurthier was sweating as if he had been running laps.

He stalked into the diner and sat down at the table across from us, pushing The Exman in.

That was when we knew we were in trouble.

“Hello gentleman,” said Martin Gurthier. “I’m afraid you have taken something that doesn’t belong to you. Something that belongs to me.”

“Show them! Show them where the rod comes from!” said The Exman.

Martin unbuttoned his shirtsleeve and pulled it back to reveal a jagged scar along his forearm that ran where the bone would be.

“They replaced it with tin,” said Martin Gurthier. “They took my armbone when we made the deal, carved it up, and replaced it with tin. So you can see. It’s mine in more than just name.”

The deal? They? I looked at The Exman and tried to figure out what sort of creatures we were dealing with.

“Not us!” said The Exman. “WE didn’t do it. Don’t look at us! WE didn’t cut him. We are so low on the chain, so low you wouldn’t believe! We didn’t take anything at all.”

The Inman leaned forward, black teeth bared.

“But we will take it back,” he said.

Gurthier lowered his shirtsleeve and buttoned it. We had a hard time meeting Gurthier’s eye. Each of us had seen him commit unspeakable acts, and each of us had seen him in his most cruel and horrifying moments. We marveled at how his eyes shined. How smooth his brow was. How high he held his head, despite what he had done.

“I don’t know what’s going on here,” I said. “But if I were you, Mr. Gurthier, I’d be drunk on some bridge, about to fling myself off it.”

“I have a clean conscience,” said Gurthier. “Completely clean. You don’t know the deal, and I’m not going to tell you about it.”

“Maybe you’d better,” said Pleasance. “Three of us, three of you. Feels like an even fight, if that’s what you want.”

Martin sighed, and gritted his teeth.

“Tell them,” said The Exman. “Who cares?”

“Each time I do something BAD, it is as if the first time,” said Gurthier. “I feel the thrill. I feel the first stirrings of guilt. And then the memory disappears. Oh, I have a chit in my brain, a placeholder, a bit of text that tells me what I’ve done. I don’t go through life in some sort of amnesiac coma. But the feeling is gone, and the feeling is what matters. And then, later, I find a new ball somewhere and put it in the box. And that’s that.”

Gurthier held his left hand out, and then brought it up in front of our eyes. He pointed to it with his right hand.

“You see that? Steady. Smooth as a panther crawling across the jungle floor. I have a clean conscience, and I would like to have my clean conscience back.”

“We can’t forget what we’ve seen, dude,” said Cappella. “It’s not like we can just turn it off. There’s some pretty twisted shit in that box. Real twisted.”

“You ought to be in prison,” said Pleasance.

“You ought to be face down in a bathtub with your wrists slit and a note in blood on the mirror,” I said.

“I have a clean conscience,” said Gurthier. “Maybe I shouldn’t. But when you say things like that, when you mock me, I can only feel ANGER. Fury at your hypocrisy. Fury at the things you HAVEN’T seen. The charity work. The way my family loves me.”

“They shouldn’t love you,” said Cappella.

“You shouldn’t even have a family,” said Pleasance.

“Roaches shouldn’t even eat your trash,” I said.

“Oh my,” said The Exman, piping up and leaning forward to whisper. “I don’t know whyever you care so much, gentlemen. You know he’ll get his justice someday. You know he will. Just look at us. Do we look like the sort of fellows who let people skate free from their writs and obligations? Hee hee hee – oh my no.”

“Hug hug hug,” said the Inman. “Justice.”

Martin frowned and his lips grew thin. I could see from his expression that he thought he had a way out of this arrangement, but I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how.

The Exman and The Inman grinned at each other, and I knew Martin Gurthier didn’t have a prayer, no matter what card trick he had up his sleeve. If he ever had to deal with the full weight of what was in that box, he wouldn’t last a minute. I wondered if he knew that. I wondered if he even suspected.

Pleasance shut the box, sealing the kaleidoscope inside. He blew out the candle.

“Take it back,” I said. “Take it back and leave us alone. We may be thieves, but we aren’t like you. We know that thing is poison, and we’d rather be as far from poison as possible.”

Martin Gurthier took the box and slipped it into his coat pocket. As soon as he did, the color came back to his face, and he seemed to regain his vitality.

“We’ll be off then, gentleman,” said Gurthier. “I hope we’ll never see each other again, and I’m sure that we won’t.”

“There is one small, tiny, titsy problem,” said The Exman.

“What’s that?” said Gurthier.

“You tell him, chum,” said The Exman, nudging his companion. “It’s funnier when you say it.”

The Inman pointed to Cappella and put his other hand on his hat.

“This here clod ate one of them marbles,” said The Inman so slowly that every word was like the tick of a clock. “Put it in his mouth and swallowed it, thinking it was drugs. How we gonna get that back, eh? Hug hug hug. Root around inside him like your granny in a handbag?”

“Hee hee hee, oh my,” said The Exman.

“I’ll mail it to you,” said Cappella.

“What’s the address you’d use?” said The Exman. “Hee hee! I don’t think so. I think maybe you’d better come with us, and we’ll get it out together. We’ll even supply the massage and the mangoes.”

“Perhaps he should hold on to it,” ventured Gurthier. “I mean, I’m sure I don’t need it. And what good is it without the kaleidoscope?”

“All sins accounted for, nothing lost, stolen, occluded, or sold,” said The Exman, raising a finger.

“What’s going to happen?” said Cappella.

“You’ll know soon enough,” said The Exman. “Once your body heats start to rise, and the vapors get to your mind. You’ll be begging us to cut you open. Come on now, come with us, we know how to make the pain stop.”

“What pain? I don’t feel anything,” said Cappella.

“Not yet,” said The Exman. “Not yet you don’t. But you will! You will! Hee hee. Pain like a real saint. Jesus took the world’s sins, didn’t he? Can you handle just one?”

“Hug hug hug.”

Cappella clutched his stomach.

He ran into the bathroom and we watched him go. No one tried to stop him.

“Got to make him aware of the gravity, don’t we?” said The Exman. “Now he’ll do our work for us.”

We had been so focused on Cappella that we didn’t realize that there was somebody watching us. There was a gasp, and we all turned.

“Daddy?” said Jasmine Gurthier. She was standing in the aisle between booths with the waitress at her elbow. “Daddy, you came running downstairs from your study, and you were a mess, and I couldn’t find Michael anywhere. There was blood on you, and you just came running through my party! I had to follow you. I hope you aren’t mad.”

“No,” said Martin, standing. “Mad? No. Who is Michael? Was he that boy? Was he that boy I saw you with?”

“You saw us together?” said Jasmine. “You were spying? And how come you are hanging out in this Diner with the waiters from my party?”

“They stole something that belongs to me,” said Martin. “You go on home. This doesn’t concern you.”

Jasmine’s eyes drifted over to where the kaleidoscope still sat on our table.

“That horrible thing!” said Jasmine. “This is about that horrible box, isn’t it?”

“How do you know about my box?” said Martin. Suddenly, he was very nervous. He looked at The Exman and The Inman but they merely grinned back at him, offering no consolation or advice.

As we all sat there in silence, the box began to shake, as if responding to Jasmine’s voice. There was an abrupt flash of green light, and then a new marble appeared all of a sudden on the table. I caught it and kept it from falling to the floor.

“A new one,” shouted The Exman. “Something brand new.”

The marble was copper colored and glowed with peculiar intensity. Jasmine took the marble from me and held it up in her father’s face.

“I know all about your little box,” said Jasmine. “I found it when I was a little girl, and after looking at a few of them, I decided I’d rather NOT know about it.”

“Put that down,” said Martin. “Put it down and let’s go home.”

Jasmine snatched the kaleidoscope off the table and fitted the new marble into it. She pulled a long, silver lighter from her purse and held it up to the kaleidoscope’s end.

“You smoke?” said Martin, pained.

“It's Michael,” said Jasmine as we all stared at her. Martin put his head in his hands and started to weep. This made The Exman and The Inman share an elated glance, and put their hands on each of his shoulders.

“It’s Michael and me, and we’re in my bedroom,” continued Jasmine. “I can’t believe it. You have a secret door to my bedroom. Why would you have that? You have your back to the door, and your fist in your mouth, and you keep peeking into a hole you’ve drilled for yourself. This couldn’t have been half an hour ago. And we’re…we’re just finishing up. I’m leaving. I’m going downstairs. And now you are coming out of the door. Michael doesn’t see you! Why doesn’t he see you? And now you have your necktie off. And you are strangling him! He’s fighting, but he is surprised. And you are strangling him to death! And now he is falling to the floor. And now you are smiling. Smiling at my picture on the wall. The portrait…the portrait you painted when I was a little girl.”

Jasmine’s finger let go of the lighter’s gas valve, and she fell slumping against the table.

“He wasn’t the right one for you, Jazzy,” said Martin.

“Michael,” said Jasmine.

“I killed him for you,” said Martin. “Let’s go home, can we? Let’s go home and talk, away from all of these people.”

“Should we be calling the police?” I whispered to Pleasance.

“Oh, she’s already doing that,” said The Exman, pointing to the waitress. She was hunkered down by the cash register with the phone in her hands. The rest of the Diner’s patrons were gathered around her in a silent huddle, watching us all.

“As soon as Cappella gets out of that bathroom, we are getting the hell out of here,” I said.

“I’m not sure we should wait,” said Pleasance.

But just then, Cappella staggered out of the john, vomit drying on his shirt, a marble between his fingers.

“I’ve got it!” said Cappella. “No need to cut me. I’ve got it right here!”

The Inman took it from him, put it into the box, took the marble from Jasmine, put it in the box, and then closed it with a snap and a chuckle.

Jasmine Gurthier leaned against the table in shock, and her father put his arms around her and started cooing and clucking. She tried to push him away, but then she fell into his arms, crying and rolling her eyes, flecks of foam around her mouth. Martin brought her to her feet and hugged her tight. Struggling, he pulled her across the Diner and out the doors. The crowd parted for them, and the waitress whispered further instructions into the telephone.

As the Gurthiers staggered out into the parking lot, The Exman and The Inman collected themselves and nodded to the crowd of patrons.

Cappella leaned against the bathroom door, his face pale and blanched, his hands shaking, and his veins blue and visible in his bloodless hands.

The Exman patted him on the back.

“So I hear you need money,” said The Exman. “I don’t know. Maybe you’d be a good investment.”

“Get out of here!” shouted Pleasance.

The Exman stuck his tongue out.

“Everybody always thinks we’re the bad guys,” said The Exman. “They never think to consider the chain of command, and how low we are. Who do you think is at the top? The Devil? Wouldn’t that be comforting? Wouldn’t that be nice?”

The Exman stalked out of the Dangle Diner, his meaty thighs sashaying in wild gels underneath his checkered tunic. The Inman watched him leave, and then came up to us with a finger pressed against his lips.

“I’ll tell you who’s in charge,” said The Inman. “I’m not afraid.”

He took his hat off and put it over his heart.

“Just go!” I shouted.

‘Hug hug hug,” said The Inman. “You don’t want to know anyway.”

The Inman gave us all one long, searching look, and then followed his partner into the night.

2 comments:

The Pope said...

I approve of this story.

Anonymous said...

ahh man that was a fucking awesome read.