Greg Sanders

Port Authority

PART I

I was wait­ing for the sub­way around mid­night when I noticed this kid stand­ing right next to me on the plat­form. He was in his late teens or ear­ly twen­ties, prob­a­bly Hispanic, with acne scars and pen­cil-thin side­burns. He fid­get­ed, turned to look at me when I wasn’t look­ing at him, and then looked away when I caught him doing it. Finally he turned to me and said, “What stop for the Port Authority bus ter­mi­nal?”

34th Street,” I said. It came out reflex­ive­ly. This was at the 8th Street stop in Manhattan and I was on my way to my job as a legal proof­read­er to work the grave­yard shift. The prob­lem was, at this moment I still hadn’t recov­ered from an evening out I just had with a cou­ple of friends, and my head was swim­ming.

They don’t just have Greyhound there, right?” he said. “They got all the oth­er bus­es?”

All the bus­es, that’s right,” I said.

I stepped back from the tracks when the R train pulled in, and we got on togeth­er. At the 28th Street stop I told the Hispanic kid that the next stop was his. “You’ll have to walk a few blocks west under­ground, so you don’t even have to go out­side.” He didn’t say any­thing to me, but he still seemed a lit­tle ner­vous when he got off.

 

About a sec­ond after the train doors closed, I real­ized I’d prob­a­bly told him to get off at the wrong stop. Wasn’t it clear as day that the Port Authority bus ter­mi­nal was at 42nd Street, not 34th? In fact, yes, in fact I’d giv­en him the wrong direc­tions. When I got off at 57th Street I checked a map on the sta­tion wall and there was Port Authority, where it has always been, on West 42nd Street.

 

I walked four blocks to the office build­ing where I work, took the ele­va­tor, boot­ed up the com­put­er, logged in, and, down­ing one cup of cof­fee after anoth­er, proof­read legal con­tracts until the sun rose over Seventh Avenue.

 

A few nights lat­er I was walk­ing to my spot on the sub­way plat­form when I noticed that same kid stand­ing there. I didn’t want to deal with it and turned away, but he let loose one of those sta­di­um whis­tles that stopped me in my tracks.

I was going up to Detroit,” he said. “My great-grand­moth­er died. She was a hun­dred. One-hun­dred years old. Because of you I missed the ser­vice and almost missed the bur­ial.”

He was twen­ty feet away and shout­ing.

Do I know you?” I said, feign­ing befud­dle­ment.

He start­ed walk­ing toward me. I decid­ed I should walk toward him as well so as not to seem cowed and to ini­ti­ate some kind of mir­ror sym­me­try, which can be amus­ing with the right part­ner. The few mid­night com­muters between us part­ed.

Ah yes, now I remem­ber. I sent you to the wrong stop. Well, I was drunk,” I said, smil­ing, as if this were the ulti­mate, invi­o­late excuse. “I should’ve sent you to 42nd, no?”

Yes,” he said, “and it didn’t take me long to find out. I missed the bus and then I missed most of the funer­al.”

Yes, I got it,” I said. “That’s too bad.”

It doesn’t mat­ter. Not to my great-grand­moth­er. She’s dead, right?”

The hope of a brawl seemed to be get­ting some of our fel­low trav­el­ers excit­ed and they were watch­ing to see what hap­pened next. Among them was a good-look­ing woman doc­tor, or doc­tor imper­son­ator, wear­ing two stetho­scopes around her pearly neck. Her blond hair was done up in a loose bun like an eight­ies porn star. Beyond her, a big guy done up in mud­dy con­struc­tion work­er garb looked shak­en to the core, lit­er­al­ly, as if he’d been using a jack­ham­mer for the last 24 hours. He was shoot­ing what I’d call an invi­ta­tion in my direc­tion. His eyes were devoid of much in the way of affec­tion, but I got his mean­ing. I had a feel­ing that if a fight broke out, he’d back me.

Then the mis­di­rect­ed kid got clos­er and looked at my face, like he could see some­thing crawl­ing on it. Okay, I thought, don’t flinch—let him throw the first punch.

Do you have dry skin?” he said.

What?” I said.

Your skin is flak­ing off your face. You need some mois­tur­iz­er.”

I don’t know,” I said.

I can get you some high grade mois­tur­iz­er from a top U.S. firm,” he said.

Like I said, I’m sor­ry about the direc­tions, but let’s leave it at that.”

How much do you pay for tooth­paste?” the kid said.

Christ, I thought, he’s sort of a genius for turn­ing this around so quick­ly. Here I was wor­ried that I’d have to fight for the first time in twen­ty-five years, and here he was com­mer­cial­ly cap­i­tal­iz­ing on that fear. A real American. I knew where this was head­ing.

I’m not inter­est­ed in Amway,” I said.

This is not Amway. I’m talk­ing about a local busi­ness ven­ture. A minor­i­ty ven­ture.”

No thanks,” I said. With that I walked away and got on the first car when the train came.

The last thing I heard him say was, “Pets?”

 

I didn’t see him for anoth­er week or so, but then there he was again at the plat­form, at the same spot, wear­ing tri-col­ored alli­ga­tor skin shoes, design­er jeans, and a hound’s-tooth sports jack­et, under which a tight-fit­ting mock turtle­neck showed he had some pecs. His skin looked good. The few pur­ple scars, rem­nants, I guessed, of ado­les­cent acne, seemed to have fad­ed to almost noth­ing at all. His hair, black and lus­trous, was thick and start­ed low on his fore­head, came down to a lit­tle widower’s peak.

At his side was a petite Japanese woman who, in turn, had a sort of extra-dimen­sion­al, bright­ly-hued cart-on-wheels by her side. He saw me from a dis­tance, said some­thing to her, and she locked the wheels on the cart with her foot. She opened some of the draw­ers and inspect­ed their con­tents with faked inter­est as I head­ed past them to my usu­al spot. The sub­way pulled in almost imme­di­ate­ly and I, hop­ing to escape, was about to step on when the kid placed a hand on each of my shoul­ders and eased me back.

I’ve got some­thing to show you,” he said.

The train door closed an inch from my face.

Your skin may not be so bad after all,” he shout­ed over the dimin­ish­ing din of the train, “but what Michiko and I are sens­ing is that your atti­tude is all wrong. We don’t have any­thing for that, per se. Nothing top­i­cal, that is. But we do have-”

I’m not inter­est­ed,” I inter­rupt­ed.

What we do have are intel­li­gent nan­otubes.”

He motioned to Michiko, who adroit­ly drew forth from one of the more bright­ly lumi­nesc­ing draw­ers of her cart a cylin­der with a cork in one end. She removed the cork with her teeth and hand­ed the cylin­der to her part­ner.

We’re admin­is­ter­ing them on a test basis, gratis,” he said.

I have to get to work,” I said, “And now I’ve got to wait for anoth­er god­damned train.”

These,” he said, hold­ing up the vial, “are straight from Murray Hill, New Joisey. Fell off the back of an elec­tron micro­scope. Know what’s in Murray Hill, New Joisey?”

I turned and began walk­ing to the oth­er end of the plat­form, which seemed to be con­tin­u­al­ly extend­ing out into the sub­way tun­nel at the same pace at which I pro­gressed.

Bell Laboratories,” I heard the kid shout in answer to his own ques­tion.

Michiko was soon walk­ing behind me in her flats. She asked me to please stop for just one moment so she could say some­thing. Her voice, half stum­bling English and half car­toon girl­ish­ness, per­sist­ed. The exit sign was a few yards ahead. I should have just kept going.

Just turn please to show that you are a gen­tle man,” she said.

I turned.

She held forth an atom­iz­er and mist­ed me with a few pumps of her point­er fin­ger.

***

I was on my back on a sta­tion bench and a young woman leaned over me, her t-shirt brush­ing against my face. She smelled like cig­a­rettes, alco­hol, and some­thing earthy. Her pants were speck­led with what looked like beet and car­rot juice stains. I looked at her groin and her thick mil­i­tary belt that missed every oth­er loop, at her low-rid­ers that she wore too low even for their name, at her lit­tle roll of a bel­ly and flat­tened navel, at the head of a snake tat­too peek­ing up from her pubis.

Oh, you’re up,” she said.

She was look­ing in the direc­tion of my feet with her hand deep in my inside jack­et pock­et.

Take it easy, mis­ter. You’re ill. I was look­ing for your I.D.”

My mouth was filled with bile and grit. My bow­els felt like maybe they’d been vio­lat­ed. I held her arm.

You’re begin­ning to hurt me.” She spoke with a British accent.

Nanotubes,” I said. “They put them in me. In my mouth or nose. Or in my ass­hole.”

Please let go of me,” she said.

I let go.

She unhooked her cell phone from a thin wire that ran down the front of her pants. She was still for a moment, look­ing at me with either sus­pi­cion or pity. Her iris­es were var­ie­gat­ed blue and green. The blue was gray­ish; the green was bluish.

I can call 911. You need to go to hos­pi­tal.”

The,’” I said, “and non­sense. Help me up.”

She had short dark hair with a magen­ta streak, and she wore iron­ic, gar­ish eye­lin­er. That navel of hers was open­ing and clos­ing as she moved around, frown­ing and smil­ing, mak­ing O’s as if aston­ished with the world. Oh shit, did I ever feel like crap. I looked down. My belt was hitched, but on a loos­er set­ting than usu­al. I now felt cer­tain that things were crawl­ing around inside of me, from the mouth down, from my rec­tum up.

What would hap­pen when they met?

 

The girl’s name was Desi or Daisy. She wouldn’t set foot inside the foy­er of my build­ing. I don’t real­ly blame her. Brits, how well behaved they are. Lovely of her to walk me home; bril­liant of her to keep a nice hold on my elbow the whole way. She struck me as organ­ic, ful­ly edi­ble.

I fig­ured the Hispanic kid with the alli­ga­tor shoes had it in for me once he saw me the sec­ond time. Didn’t like being so blithe­ly mis­di­rect­ed by a van-dyked Jew with John Lennon glass­es. So he decid­ed to pun­ish me, and maybe I deserved it. Only I didn’t feel so bad any­more.

When I got back up to my apart­ment I called in sick to Joel, who runs my shift at the law firm. He’s an opera singer by day and gets a decent num­ber of off-Broadway gigs that don’t pay the bills. Then I went to the bath­room and took a very large crap, a cathar­tic crap. The toi­let jammed and I had to take the plunger to it. I had to laugh. My god­damn bow­els are such good har­bin­gers of my emo­tion­al state of affairs that I can tell when a fit of depres­sion is com­ing on because I shit like a lit­tle primate—a mar­moset or something—when things are at their dark­est. But tonight I was obvi­ous­ly feel­ing mag­nan­i­mous, open to pos­si­bil­i­ties, a real go-get­ter. Well, I thought, intel­li­gent nan­otubes or not, let me see what the night shall bring forth.

 

How can I explain the spell that came over me, that drove my actions? Minute by minute, I was in control—true. Yet, behind it all, an end-game had been imprint­ed upon some gauzi­ly obscured lev­el of my con­scious­ness, an end-game to which I could not gain access. It was as if some glue-sniff­ing bloke had hotwired my soul and was behind the con­trols of my mind.

I ironed an Egyptian cot­ton shirt, show­ered, and decid­ed I should feed the cats, who seemed agi­tat­ed and were nip­ping at my ankles for atten­tion. “What?” I asked the cats after they ignored the fresh­ly pre­sent­ed wet food. “What?” But the cats’ fol­low­ing me around had appar­ent­ly not indi­cat­ed what it nor­mal­ly had—that they were hun­gry. The two of them looked at me with wide eyes and filled the air with high-pitched mews for some oth­er rea­son. But what was it? That feline per­cep­tions clear­ly trump human ones was a wor­ry; that spo­rad­i­cal­ly through­out the ages these lit­tle fur­ry beasts had been thought to be in league with the dev­il or oth­er pagan and dark forces only added to my con­cern. I love them, nat­u­ral­ly, but could they sense in me some­thing death­ly or evil, half-mon­ster, bit­ter-smelling, despair­ing?

I looked at myself in the per­son-sized mir­ror. I looked okay. Nothing spe­cial. Standard skin­ny but sol­id built guy, aver­age height, curly hair sprout­ing from his shoul­ders, beard begin­ning to get gray in it. Maybe 10% gray. My pupils, on close inspec­tion, were ful­ly dilat­ed, which was unusu­al.

On the oth­er side of the apart­ment I could hear one of the cats dig­ging lit­ter in its shit­box.

I felt clean inside and out, sharp, no clouds of doubt obscur­ing my thoughts. Look into your own eyes, I com­mand­ed myself, and leaned for­ward. A plan­et in each one. But deep­er, inside my mind, there were not many thoughts at all. I want­ed. I want­ed. I want­ed some­thing. Nothing but an odd empti­ness resided with­in me, I had to admit. A desirous sort of some­thing. In par­ti­cle physics it might have been the man­i­fes­ta­tion of an undis­cov­ered par­ti­cle whose near speed-of-light col­li­sion gives rise to para­dox­es thus far unimag­ined. Anti-space fold­ed with­in lust, wrapped in lay­ers of long­ing.

Then some­thing more dis­turb­ing hap­pened, a brief dash of an event that I’m embar­rassed to pass along. I’d recent­ly switched the cats over to a fan­cy sort of food because I’d got­ten a two-thou­sand dol­lar per year raise and thought, why not share the wealth? So for the last week I’d been feed­ing them things like Organic Lamb Stew and Hearty Halibut and the like. The prob­lem was that in my dis­turbed state the fresh turds my cat had just released into the lit­ter smelled good. I mean they smelled edi­ble in a pun­gent way, like corned beef hash fry­ing in a cast iron skil­let. I imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nized that some­thing was awry, that a short cir­cuit had occurred, some tripped up crossover from my olfac­to­ry cen­ter into my food imag­ing cen­ter. I cut off the urge to actu­al­ly take a fork and stick it in the shit, but it was too late to stop the desire to eat some­thing as odor­if­er­ous as high-class cat turds. I looked in the fridge and cup­boards, and the only thing that struck my fan­cy was a lit­tle can of expen­sive tape­nade, which I opened and began eat­ing with the two-fin­ger scoop.

 

I opened my win­dow and stuck my head out­side. It had been driz­zling for days and the streets, though essen­tial­ly qui­et so late at night, gave echo to foot­steps and the occa­sion­al taxi spin­ning out on the wet asphalt. I was going out there, into the night, revved up, feel­ing some large and grow­ing-larg­er empti­ness inside of me that need­ed fill­ing. An empti­ness with mass, a para­dox­i­cal space, a rav­en­ous desire that was both arm­less and leg­less. I was being dri­ven by the bloke, and where he’d take me I wasn’t sure.

Smile. Head on out.

 

 

Part II

I stood out­side the brown­stone on East 12th Street close to Fifth Avenue and gazed in through the large win­dows, through the diaphanous cur­tains, and saw the sil­hou­ettes of peo­ple hold­ing drinks—the dying embers of a par­ty: cou­ples and triples ensconced in booze and com­fort, bid­ing their time before they moved on to the next unto­ward phase of the night. I saw them through six­teen-over-six­teen dou­ble-sash bay win­dows framed by ornate exte­ri­or wood­work, wood­work I’d watched get restored over the last sev­er­al months by a sin­gle crafts­man from anoth­er era—an old­er black man in over­alls whose scaf­fold­ing and lock­box were final­ly gone. I must have walked past this brown­stone hun­dreds of times over the course of the last decade, but had won­dered about its occu­pants only vague­ly. Until now.

The front sit­ting room looked like a real beau­ty form the street—the chandelier’s shim­mer­ing crys­tal, the dark wain­scot­ing, the antique bird­cage with a stuffed parrot—a child’s toy—on its perch placed front and cen­ter for all those on the side­walk to see. How humor­ous! These peo­ple were grand. I stood motion­less, watched, and tried to find some­thing to play with in my pock­et until sud­den­ly, in a flash, I real­ized I was to enter the build­ing.

Whence did this inspi­ra­tion spring? At the seman­tic lev­el, it seemed, since the thought came to me ful­ly formed, as if it were the last chain in a log­i­cal pro­gres­sion of small­er thoughts, but these thoughts were nowhere to be found.

A woman leav­ing the par­ty through the front door allowed me into the foy­er. A young man, well-dressed and exhal­ing pot smoke, let me pass from the foy­er into the apart­ment prop­er. From there I made a quick right and was in the very sit­ting room I had just been admir­ing.

Empty tum­blers and stemware were grouped on a few tables, on a pair of big stereo speak­ers, on a side­board. Ice, melt­ed and round­ed, float­ed in some. A cig­ar with an inch of ash­es smol­dered in a brass ash­tray. Hello every­one! Nobody was in the room. They were gath­er­ing jack­ets and hats and capes in a side room as they left. They were out of view but I could hear the soft tones of their com­fort­able voic­es. The foy­er door and, with more muf­fle, the door to the street, kept open­ing and clos­ing as guests left. And just look at these sofas! Stuffed to the hilt; brown, worn leather with dis­crete fis­sures on the sur­face like veins in mar­ble.

Then I heard a female voice say, “And you would be?”

I turned and there stood a woman in her mid-40s, a hand taller than me, dressed in embroi­dered jeans and a silk t-shirt, nice face, real­ly relaxed and pleas­ant look­ing. Waspy, but not aggres­sive­ly so. Not just blond hair, but blond features—angular jaw, pert nose, eyes that should have been blue, and may have been. She held a sprig of cel­ery between her fin­gers like a cig­a­rette. “Are you Robert’s friend?”

Yes,” I said, “that’s right.”

From the Woodward?”

The Woodward.”

Why not.

Robert always retreats to his books after a nice par­ty. Tries to give our guests the hint. ‘Time to go,’ you know.”

When it’s time, it’s time,” I said.

Did you bring the pack­age?”

The package…from the Woodward?”

Well, pre­sum­ably from you, Mr. —? Was Robert sup­posed to have giv­en me your name? I’m sure he did but I’ve for­got­ten. I’m a shit like that. Please do intro­duce your­self.”

Thompson, Gene.”

Well then we share a name, Mr. Thompson. Jean Alcross, drunk­en.” She extend­ed her hand—dry, sup­ple, warm—and I took it. “Please, catch up with some drinks and then we’ll see what hap­pens.”

She steered me into the kitchen, where the help had sort­ed out the emp­ty bot­tles and were wip­ing down those that still had some liquor in them. A short Hispanic woman was doing the wip­ing. The white rag she used looked clean­er than most of my under­shirts.

Go on,” Jean Alcross said, “pick your poi­son.”

I helped myself to some­thing from a stoneware bot­tle.

That’s apple brandy from Normandy.” Jean said.

Calvados,” I said.

You know your liquor, Gene,” she said.

She walked me back into the liv­ing room. A few guests were still leav­ing and she went to attend to them. I sat on one of those over­stuffed couch­es and got a clos­er look at the toy bird in its antique bird­cage. In a few min­utes Jean Alcross stuck her head in.

I’m going to let Robert know you’re here. Maybe he’ll see you, or maybe he won’t.”

She said it in the nicest pos­si­ble way.

What he was expecting—what I was expecting—was a mys­tery. Maybe some­where deep inside I was scared. But noth­ing like that was com­ing up to the sur­face except that the smell of the old leather, the apple brandy, the fad­ing odor of canapés and ripe cheeses were all act­ing to get me a lit­tle over-stim­u­lat­ed.

And I found myself med­i­tat­ing on Jean Alcross, that fine frame of hers. She looked like a run­ner, but one who used to do sprints or hur­tles as opposed to the stick fig­ure marathon­ers I’d met—all sinew and arter­ies. Alcross had nice arms and small breasts. Her legs were shape­ly and mus­cu­lar in those blue­jeans. Great col­or in her face. Some gray hairs, and she had calm eyes. The col­or of…well I still don’t know what. I can’t remem­ber the col­or of her eyes, only their effect. Everything was under her con­trol and always would be, those eyes said.

By the time she insert­ed her­self into my line of vision again my tum­bler was emp­ty and I’d nice­ly lain myself out on the sofa.

My hus­band would very much like to see you. Where’s the pack­age?”

Right here,” I said, pat­ting one of my emp­ty pock­ets.

Oh, I didn’t real­ize it was so small.”

She led me up the steps, her but­tocks spelling out all kinds of words as they undu­lat­ed before me. Two flights up, then three, then four. It was very hot and I’d bro­ken into a sweat. She stopped before we got to the last land­ing.

He’s tak­en over the whole top floor with his stud­ies. Let your­self through those doors. And if you’d be kind enough to tell him I’m going to bed, I’d be grate­ful.”

A pair of French doors with brass knobs await­ed me at the top of the steps. I opened them.

Robert Alcross was illu­mi­nat­ed by a half-dozen antique-y incan­des­cent bulbs, the kind where you can see the fil­a­ment and they look some­thing like a uvu­la. It pro­vid­ed the retro effect he wanted—I’m sure of that. He was an odd one, I could tell straight off the bat. Books were all over the place: atlases, obscure ency­clo­pe­dias and codex­es, thin pam­phlets filled with geo­met­ri­cal dia­grams. I didn’t take more than a few steps into the space.

Well well, the mes­sen­ger has arrived. In the guise of, is it Mr. Thompson?” Robert Alcross said, slid­ing across the room on his desk chair. “I expect­ed some­one less…petite. More robust.” He eyed me up and down.

Gene’s the name.”

Sure. Not a very good name. I’m cor­rect in call­ing you Mr. Schmidt?”

No. It’s Gene Thompson.”

Just keep insist­ing, Mr. Schmidt.”

Gene Thompson.”

Laramie Mist sounds bet­ter. I’m in favor of more cre­ative faux names,”

He rose and moved toward me with two or three elas­tic strides.

Gene Thompson’s the name.”

Loretto DiGiovano?”

Gene Thompson.”

Farty Tabernacle?”

I believe I might have made a mis­take,” I final­ly said. “I thought that I had busi­ness here.”

What kind of busi­ness?”

That’s just it. I’m not sure.”

You came into my home with­out know­ing why?”

Afraid so.”

What drove you here?”

Well, I had this…” It was no use, I thought. “I had this feel­ing that I should come here. I don’t know quite how to explain.” I was begin­ning to get angry as I homed in on the truth of the attack. “I was guid­ed here some­how. After a dose of…oh nev­er mind.”

Dosed by whom?”

By what, you mean. What do you do, exact­ly, Robert?”

I’m a researcher of sorts. You could call me an explor­er of a kind.”

Of what kind?”

Of realms.”

Realms? Well then maybe it’s you that got me to come here. Do you hap­pen to know an Hispanic kid, about 18, and a girl named Michiko?”

I can’t recall.”

Something that kid and the girl did, a vio­la­tion of dignity—something they put inside of me…”

My mem­o­ry was full of holes along the edges. But why not push things, get this guy to talk? I was hav­ing a good time. My blood was rac­ing, I could hear noth­ing else in my ears.

Something they did to me also made me not care what I do to you. Or your wife. She’s a look­er. A lit­tle giraffy, but a look­er. By the way, she want­ed me to tell you that she’s gone to bed. I could use my nose to fig­ure out where the bed­room is.”

And then, well I didn’t plan on this, I grabbed his tra­chea. High school self-defense class­es, one after the oth­er. A non­vi­o­lent kid, I was bored stiff and some­times-bul­lied back in the day. And now it came into my fin­gers that they might as well do their stuff, since in a way I had been bul­lied into com­ing to this fan­cy gar­ret. So my right hand gripped Robert Alcross’s tra­chea like a plumber’s wrench grips a cor­rod­ed fit­ting.

Tell me what’s up,” I said.

He began to change col­or, though he remained pret­ty calm, as if he knew that deep down I wouldn’t actu­al­ly kill him. His glass­es began to slip for­ward on his nose and for some rea­son this did it to me, made him look too vul­ner­a­ble for my lik­ing. I let him go.

Side effects,” he said, regain­ing his breath. “Aggression,” pause, “increased sex­u­al ten­sion,” pause, “height­ened olfac­to­ry sen­si­tiv­i­ty. That’s a new one. You say you can smell my wife?” He rubbed his neck. Then he low­ered the lights as if to calm a pan­icked ani­mal. “You’ve been infused. Most like­ly you have a sense that this has occurred. The small­est of sup­pos­i­to­ries is all our good friends admin­is­tered on the sub­way plat­form. If you think it was easy to con­vince them to do it, you’re wrong. Your vir­gin­i­ty is intact, I assure you. The nan­otubes are work­ing in con­cert now, I can see. They have coa­lesced to send you the most fun­da­men­tal of commands—to arrive at our mod­est home. In a few hours you’ll be your old self again, banal as ever.”

I con­sid­ered grab­bing his tra­chea again just for old times’ sake, in fact could see the imprints my fin­gers had already made; and I was feel­ing obses­sive enough to match them exact­ly. But he stepped back and reached into his breast pock­et and with­drew a fob, a small ellip­soid with one but­ton.

I don’t work with­out patient dis­in­cen­tives. You car­ry not only my nan­otubes, but the ingre­di­ents of a grave poi­son. If I press this but­ton,” he said, “a pow­er­ful neu­ro­tox­in nor­mal­ly pro­duced by Clostridium bot­u­linum will be released into your blood­stream. In effect, you will instan­ta­neous­ly come down with a very respectable case of bot­u­lism. Cause of death: suf­fo­ca­tion due to paral­y­sis of the diaphragm. So, don’t fuck with me.”

I reached for the fob but he hov­ered his thumb over the but­ton.

Why me?” I said.

Ah yes, the age-old ques­tion. It’s not as if you’ve won the lot­tery. But I am glad you asked, since this too is in my field of exper­tise. You see your work rou­tine is one of mun­dan­i­ty and duplication—an excru­ci­at­ing rep­e­ti­tion of actions and thoughts to no real end. This has etched wide unen­cum­bered high­ways into your neur­al net­work, vast and beau­ti­ful spaces that lack com­plex­i­ty and inter­fer­ence of any kind. Our process uses these path­ways to accrete nan­otubes into what might be called notions or impuls­es. And while nobody is expendable—and please don’t think we have any intent of harm­ing you—those who work the night shift per­form­ing the task of legal proof­read­ing gen­er­al­ly have far less util­i­ty than day work­ers who draft the doc­u­ments in the first place, if you get my drift. Meaning if things were to go awry, soci­etal dam­age is min­i­mized. And yes, don’t wor­ry, we’d take care of your cats, find them a home that pro­vid­ed affec­tion. If there’s one thing I abhor, it’s ani­mal cru­el­ty.” He took his glass­es off and placed the fob on a coun­ter­top, and then he stepped toward me.

I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have you stand­ing here. It’s an odd thing to say, but…may I shake your hand? You’re the first suc­cess I’ve had—my first real suc­cess! Just look at you.”

I must admit that I was get­ting pret­ty excit­ed myself, and I’m still under the notion that these were my own thoughts, not pur­pose­ful, pre-pack­aged junk thoughts inject­ed into my vast unen­cum­bered neur­al path­ways. Truth is, I’ll nev­er know.

I took the man’s hand firm­ly and shook it with sin­cer­i­ty and love.

Why, you might ask, would I be hap­py to be there? For one—and this is not to be minimized—I was trip­ping. Whatever these accret­ing nan­otubes were doing, they were sud­den­ly mak­ing me feel as if the world were a puls­ing breast from which I had suck­led for all these years, ungrate­ful for the life it had giv­en me—until now. This fel­low woke me up after a life­time of unen­light­ened drift. Also, I felt enwrapped by the warmth of the air in the uvu­la-lit gar­ret, and here I admit it was most­ly because these peo­ple were rich and I was not, and the wealthy always make me feel obse­quious and oh-so hum­ble to be in their pres­ence (and they also don’t skimp on heat). Simultaneously, I felt prone to vio­lence, able to tear a human being limb from limb or make love with beau­ti­ful, ille­gal destruc­tion. At that moment it didn’t seem that my keep­er ful­ly under­stood these inklings of super­hu­man­ness. If he did, he seemed awful­ly relaxed about the whole thing.

I couldn’t imag­ine going back to my nor­mal rou­tine, to that tired pull of grav­i­ty, my achy sinus­es, the inces­sant need to be loved by my ridicu­lous felines and even more ridicu­lous fam­i­ly and friends—to the end­less want of affec­tion in all its nasty vari­a­tions. I’d rather stay here and admire the ropey veins now ris­ing on the back of my hands, do a hand-stand to the tri­umphal music that was play­ing in my head. You see my psy­che was col­laps­ing upon itself with expo­nen­tial haste. Soon I would be but an emo­tion­al sin­gu­lar­i­ty puls­ing in the rar­efied night.

He took me by the hand, actu­al­ly by the bit­ty tips of my fin­gers, and as if by a spell steered me into a room lit by a hun­dred can­dles where Barry Manilow was play­ing qui­et­ly out of some ceil­ing speak­ers. Jean Alcross was in bed already, naked above the waist, the blan­kets pulled down to her hips. The shad­ows her lit­tle round breasts cast over the rest of her danced with each can­dle flick­er.

What’s this all about?” I said, pre­tend­ing to be sur­prised.

You want to see more?” she said, smil­ing with an open mouth. Then she threw the blan­ket off entire­ly. All the while, as I stood there tak­ing in her lanky body that shone bright­ly with healthy skin and 100% depila­tion, her hus­band was giv­ing me a back rub. Then he was slid­ing his soft, unworked fin­gers beneath my shirt col­or, tick­ling the wool-like hair on the back of my neck. Then he was whis­per­ing con­fi­dence-boost­ing mantras into my ear from behind while simul­ta­ne­ous­ly unbut­ton­ing my shirt.

You’re a man’s man; you know what makes the world spin; when you bat, you always hit a homer; the world fol­lows your lead; your body is to die for…” All the while he was gen­tly push­ing me down and toward his wife. “Go to her,” he final­ly said. Her arms were open to me, her regal smile promis­ing the world.

 

What I remem­ber most as the morn­ing sun came in through the win­dows was Robert Alcross mak­ing cap­puc­ci­no on the oth­er side of the room, his rhyth­mic foam­ing of the milk, the pitch get­ting low­er as the froth built. This had always been a pure­ly retail-chain sound to me, the rack­et of Starbucks or oth­er tat­tooed “barista” hous­es in which I had no busi­ness spend­ing any­thing over two dol­lars, for I was strict­ly a drip man.

Yet he was mak­ing the cof­fee for me and his wife, who was now lean­ing on one elbow and sniff­ing my balls with a smile. The per­fumed soles of her feet were brush­ing against my chin. That’s when I real­ized that, real­ly, that’s what this had all been about in the end—bringing home a pair of ros­es for the mis­sus.

Robert Alcross, grin­ning at the scene from across the room, was wear­ing bespoke tweeds and shoes that cost as much as a Ford Fiesta; he was a man whose day-old scruff looked as if it were ter­ri­fied at hav­ing emerged from his fatu­ous, well-oiled fol­li­cles into unadul­ter­at­ed morn­ing light. From the angle of the sun, I guessed it must have been close to 8 a.m., and he was dressed for “work,” what­ev­er that entailed.

~

Greg Sanders is the author of Motel Girl: Stories. His fic­tion has appeared in Mississippi Review, Essays & Fictions, HOW, The Los Angeles Review, The Warwick Review and, most recent­ly, in the form of two ebook sin­gles put out by Galley Beggar Press. He earned his MFA at The New School and lives in Maplewood, NJ.