P.J. Underwood

Waterfront

 
Gorillahead hates his name, calls it an aber­ra­tion, but says the sit­u­a­tion is too far gone, a nick­name that sticks, given by idiots. He walks, knuck­les to ground, the way I’ve seen goril­las walk in old pic­tures, holoflim­sy, and long, stut­ter­ing reels of Twentieth cen­tu­ry film. I tell him I think his name is fit­ting, min­i­mal­ist, that it’s a fine descrip­tor.

What do you know?” he says.  He wears a white but­ton-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up, a black tie, sus­penders, and dress pants rolled up to the tops of his gnarled gray feet.

I tilt my head and met­al creaks. “Sir,” I say. “You cer­tain­ly dress the part sat­is­fac­to­ri­ly.”

We walk along the board­walk in Low Quarter.  Oil-rain­bowed waves push detri­tus again­st the city. Translucent, grease-spot­ted chip wrap­pers and upside down bot­tles, red algae, and slick, picked fish bones gath­er again­st salt-pit­ted moor­ings.

You’ve yet to give me a name, sir.” I say.

Not my place,” he says.  “Besides, I don’t care.”  The wind blows, rip­ples the fur on his peaked head.

I tell him I require a prop­er des­ig­na­tion, that a builder names his cre­ation.  A con­ven­tion­al but­ler name, some­thing respectable like Bates.  Guillaume, even.  “A name, sir.”

A valve in my neck hiss­es.  Vapor twirls on the salt air, curls and dis­si­pates.

Whatever.” He looks at me, chuffs.  “Steamdude.”

Very well,” I say.  “If I may inquire, where are we going?”

Handsome Wayne’s,” he says.

He stops, looks up at me, and I stop, too.  Next to us, a man pulls a net from the water and picks all the wig­gling, mutat­ed fau­na from its mesh, drops a mot­tled squid and two cloud-eyed eels, a hand­ful of fish no longer than his thumb into a scarred plas­tic buck­et.

You’re mer­chan­dise,” Gorillahead says.  He snuffs, rubs a knuck­le under one nos­tril and looks out past the one-mile buoys.   Fish fren­zy the water.  Something larg­er, slick black, breach­es in a slow hump and swal­lows the school whole.  “Does that both­er you?”

Nothing both­ers me, sir, I am a robot.  And a but­ler.”  I tap the tip of my cane on the ground with each step

We walk the rest of the way in silence, pass vacant store­fronts with cracked win­dows and makeshift cur­tains, hand-scrawled signs on doors warn­ing away tres­passers and squat­ters.  Faded, graf­fi­ti-marred play­bills plas­ter the facades.  At the end of the board­walk, just before Low Quarter ends at the ship­yard wall, we stop.

He rais­es one fin­ger, points up.  “End of the line.”

A pub sign over­head shows three con­cen­tric cir­cles – green, white, and red – like a bullseye, with the name of the estab­lish­ment sten­ciled under­neath. Card-oper­at­ed maglocks, key­pads, and tar­nished brass dead­bolts line the jamb all around the met­al door.

Let me do the talk­ing.”

Very well.”  I bow.  Servos in my hips whir, whine as I straight­en.

He puffs, quick, through his lips.

*

            The pub is clean, nar­row like a train car, with can­dles on every table and a line of ceil­ing fans that creak lazy cir­cles over a cop­per plat­ed bar and sparse, wood­en tables and chairs.  Behind the bar, four ter­races of brown, clear, green, pur­ple, orange, and blue bot­tles line the wall.  I see two cof­feepots on hot­plates, and a red tea ket­tle chipped around its base on anoth­er.  A record spins on a gramo­phone with one, creased dent on its flut­ed bell.  I am unfa­mil­iar with the music.

Fishermen in slick boots and hats, sailors in cal­i­co rags, and two pale gen­tle­men – taller and thin­ner than I’ve ever seen, with bald heads and hair­less faces – scat­ter the bar.  They look at us, and I remove my hat, hang my cane in the crook of an elbow.  They resume their cups and qui­et con­ver­sa­tions.  The bar­keep, a man with a wild nest of curly salt and pep­per hair and match­ing beard, looks up from a book.  He wears a white linen suit over an untucked pur­ple dress shirt, sans tie.

‘Head!” He pats a spot on the bar across from him. “Brought a friend?”

Gorillahead pulls him­self onto a high stool.  “Something like that.”  He points a thumb at me, “This is Steamdude,” shifts the thumb to the bar­tender.  “Steamdude, Wayne.”

I hold out a hand.  “A plea­sure, sir.”

Sure.” He shakes my hand.  “The usu­al, ‘Head?”

Gorillahead pinch­es the wide bridge of his wrin­kled nose, scratch­es at the cor­ner of one eye, and nods.  Wayne marks his place and puts the book under the bar.  He comes back with a short, fat glass, and drops in two rough chunks of ice.  He grabs a clear bot­tle stuffed with lime peels and filled with pale green flu­id, swish­es it in a few tight cir­cles before pour­ing two fin­gers of liqueur, a top of seltzer.  He gar­nish­es it with a pink paper umbrel­la.

For the gen­tle­man ape,” he says.  “On your tab.”  Wayne puts both hands on the bar, leans.  “You brought me some­thing?”  He nods his head to one side, quick. “This one’s like read­ing a text­book.  I need some­thing with tits. Or action.  Both. Got any more Hemingway?”

Gorillahead umbrel­la out of his drink, sips. “I’m tapped.”

Wayne stands.  “I’d set­tle for some Donne.  Anything.”

Too late in the sea­son.”  Gorillahead stirs his drink with a fin­ger.  “No more runs ‘til win­ter.”  He puts the fin­ger in his mouth, and shrugs.  “Sorry.”

Don’t wor­ry about it,” Wayne says.  He waves a hand.

Come by tomor­row.  I might have some books you can bor­row.”

Tits?”

Yes,” Gorillahead says. He chuffs, laugh­ing, and his shoul­ders jerk up and down.  “Some even have pic­tures.”

Wayne claps his hands, rubs them togeth­er.  “That’s what I’m talk­ing about.”  He grins. One of his front teeth, just a bit crooked, over­laps anoth­er.  His eyes get big and his eye­brows rise.  “That reminds me,” he says, holds up a fin­ger.  “Stay right there.”  He scam­pers off through a door to one side of the bar and goes upstairs.

Footsteps stamp through the ceil­ing, one way then the oth­er, back again, and he returns, breath­less, with a pack­age in one hand.  He puts a tape-cocooned card­board box on the bar in front of Gorillahead.  “Happy birth­day!”

It’s your birth­day?”  I say.

Gorillahead looks at the box.  “I don’t have a birth­day.”

Everyone has a birth­day,” Wayne says.  He holds up both hands, twirls them as he nods. “Or a hatch­day, or spawn­day.  Whatever.”  He nudges the box with a fin­ger.  “Open it.”

I nod.  “He has a point, sir.”

Even your but­ler agrees with me.”  Wayne push­es the box a lit­tle closer to Gorillahead.  “I wrapped it myself.”

Sir, it would be rude not to accept.”

Wayne holds up both hands, shrugs.  “What’s a gift between friends?”

I don’t have friends.”  Gorillahead slaps the bar and the box bounces.

Wayne’s face falls, and his shoul­ders slump.  “Okay,” he says.  “Sorry.”  He puts two fin­gers on the box, drags it across the bar.

I’m sor­ry.”  Gorillahead puts a hand on the gift. “Wayne,” he says, soft.  “I’m sor­ry.  I’ll open it.”  He looks at me, pro­duces a penknife from his shirt pock­et points at me.  “You, shut up.”  He slices at one cor­ner of the pack­age.

Wayne shifts from one foot to the next like an excit­ed child while Gorillahead cuts the tape, peels a lay­er, cuts again, peels.

Come on.”  Wayne snatch­es the pack­age and rips it open, then pass­es it back across the bar.  “I couldn’t wait.”  He shrugs.

Gorillahead reach­es into the box and takes out a blue greet­ing card cov­ered in mangy patch­es of glit­ter, an engraved brass cig­a­ret­te lighter, and a scuffed, cel­lo­phane-wrapped pack of cig­a­rettes with a pic­ture of a red apple on the front.  He lines the gifts on the bar and stares at them.  He clears his throat and his chest rat­tles like bil­liard balls bounc­ing down a cob­bled road. “Where’d you get this?”

Different places,” Wayne says.  “It took me a while. I won the smokes from a sailor when I bet him he couldn’t lick his own elbow, but I could.”

You can?” I say.

Wayne rolls his eyes.  “I bought the lighter off of a chick that came in a few days ago.  You should’ve seen the rack on her.  Said she need­ed some unex­pect­ed repairs on her Jumper.”  He looks at me.  “Spaceship,” he says, and turns back to Gorillahead.  “Glorious rack.  I thought she was going to kill me when I told her I’d pay her for a peek.”  He stares off into space for a min­ute, shakes his head and comes back to us.  “Read the card.”

Gorillahead flicks glit­ter off of a fin­ger.  “To one great ape,” he reads.  “Hope your birth­day is the tits.” He smiles puts the card on the bar. “Thanks, Wayne.”  The cor­ners of his mouth twitch, curl up into a shal­low smile.

Tits?” I say.  “I’m con­fused.”

Handsome Wayne puts a hand on Gorillahead’s arm.  “May I?”

Gorillahead puffs through lips like black leather.  “I don’t care,” he says.  He flips the lighter open, strikes the wheel with a thumb.  The flame flick­ers, dances, dous­es and clicks with a snap of the wrist.

Wayne leans, fore­arms crossed on the bar.  “Tits,” he says.

I stare at him and the proces­sor in my head spins and heats until a cool­ing vent opens near the brim of my hat, where an ear might be.  “You mean stu­pid peo­ple?” I say.  “Mice?  I’m unfa­mil­iar with the col­lo­qui­al­ism. Rack?”

Gorillahead props an elbow on the bar, rests his chin in a hand.  He shakes his head.

You’ve got to be kid­ding me.”  Wayne stands and holds his hands in front of his chest, fin­gers spread.  “Tits,” he says.  “Breasts.  Human female mam­ma­ry glands.  Nipples and all.” He squints.  “Where did you find this one, ‘Head?”

Long sto­ry.” Gorillahead drains his drink, crunch­es ice.

I’m not going any­where.”

Nor I.”  I put my hands on the bar, one on top of the oth­er.

Gorillahead holds up his emp­ty glass.  “I’ll tell you for anoth­er round.”

Wayne takes the glass and mix­es anoth­er drink while Gorillahead unwraps the cig­a­rettes.  He lights one, flicks the lighter shut, and takes a draw on the cig­a­ret­te.  He holds the smoke for a moment, exhales as he holds the lighter up to read the engrav­ing.  “Fuck Charlie,” he says.

He shows me.  The cig­a­ret­te hangs loose between his lips, bounces when he talks.

Who is Charlie?”

He takes anoth­er drag, blows smoke out of one cor­ner of his mouth.  “Hell if I know.”  He rubs a thumb across the carved block let­ters and leaves a streaked smudge.  “Sounds like an ass­hole.”

Wayne puts the drink in front of Gorillahead.  “That’s what I said, but the girl said it was some kind of heir­loom.  Some ances­tor.  A sol­dier, she said.”  He pulls a rag from his back pock­et and swirls it on the bar.  “She hat­ed to sell it, but not enough to give me a peep.  I was offer­ing good mon­ey, too, but she pulled a gun and poked it up my nose.”  He throws the rag over his shoul­der and points at a nos­tril.

Imagine that,” Gorillahead says. He takes the cig­a­ret­te from his mouth, licks his fin­ger, and traces the ember.  Leaning away from the bar, he pinch­es ash onto the floor and puts the half-smoked cig­a­ret­te back into its pack.

Gorillahead swirls his drink.  Ice clinks on glass and he takes a deep breath.  “I just made a run Inland.  Got back today, like twen­ty min­utes ago.”

Wayne cross­es his arms.  “Pretty late sea­son for a run.”

Low impact trip.  I met Santiago and Dunbar on the District waste­water and we went down in this old bathy­sphere they have.  We fig­ured the muse­ums were picked pret­ty clean, and they were.  Just when we were ready to call it a wash, we found this one.”  He jerks a thumb at me.  “Near rust­ed to noth­ing.   Santiago almost didn’t let me suit up and Dunbar just grunt­ed like he does.”  Under the stool, his feet clasp, lace togeth­er like hands.  “I was bored on the way home, so I restored him.  That’s the sto­ry.”  Gorillahead swal­lows his drink in one gulp, ice and all.

Wayne takes glass, mix­es anoth­er drink, two fin­gers stronger.  “For sale?”

What isn’t, at this point?  I’m strapped.”  Gorillahead takes the glass.

Let’s take a look,” Wayne says.  He leans for­ward, and his fore­head bangs the bar.

I hear a sound like crack­ing wal­nuts, meat peel­ing from meat.  Wayne’s hair parts down the mid­dle and a sin­gle black-irised eye, rimmed in red, ris­es from the crown of his head on a mot­tled green stalk.  The eye writhes slow to one side of my face, the oth­er, and looks me up and down.  “Aware?” Wayne says, face still inch­es from the bar.

Enough to do its job,” Gorillahead says.  He clinks the glass again­st my head.  “Here’s to no reg­is­tra­tion fees.”  He takes a deep swal­low.  Light catch­es the drink, mosaics green and yel­low across his face.  “I pro­grammed him with eti­quet­te pro­to­cols and the Complete Mixologist’s Guide to the Galaxy.” One fin­ger lifts from the glass, points at me.  “There’s drinks in there even you haven’t heard of.”

We’ll see.” A cloud­ed, pink mem­brane nic­tates over Wayne’s eye.  The pupil dilates and shrinks.  “Steamdude,” Wayne says.  “What is ‘Head drink­ing?”

Gorillahead inter­rupts.  “A solid cop­per says he gets it right.”

Done,” Wayne says.  “Well?”

I don’t know,” I say.

Ha!” Wayne says, slaps the top of the bar and laughs.  The eye­stalk sways like a charmed cobra.

Behind us, a chair screech­es and a sailor stands.  “I’m out of here,” he tells his friends.  “This shit is too weird for me.”

One of them shrugs.  The oth­er cuts his eyes at us, hunch­es low­er over his beer.

Wayne holds a hand out, fin­gers spread.  “Pay up.”

Gorillahead slaps me on a shoul­der, and gyros whine in all my joints.  “What the hell is wrong with you?”

Mister Wayne did not allow me to fin­ish,” I say.  “I was going to say that I do not know what you are drink­ing, but that I can only assume, due to sim­i­lar con­sti­tu­tion, that it is sup­posed to be a lime rick­ey. A true lime rick­ey, how­ev­er, is non-alco­holic and con­sists of three pri­ma­ry ingre­di­ents. Six to eight ounces of fresh lime juice.”  I hold up a hand, straight­en a fin­ger.  “Three ounces of seltzer water.” I raise a sec­ond fin­ger. “And sim­ple syrup to taste,” I say, and raise a third fin­ger.  “Three ingre­di­ents.”  I pause.  “Unless you count ice, which makes four.”

Wayne slaps the bar.

Gorillahead claps me on the back.  “Good job.”

Wayne toss­es a cop­per wafer as big around as a water crack­er onto the bar.  Aquamarine tar­nish blos­soms mar its smooth sur­face.  He sighs.

Keep it,” Gorillahead says.  He push­es the coin back across the bar. “I’d like anoth­er drink, though.”  He licks his lips and smacks few times, rubs the back of a hand across his mouth.  “A beer.”  He burps, deep in his throat, and his cheeks puff.

Wayne stands and his eye­stalk rolls in a slow cir­cle, stretch­es. His half-lid­ded human eyes show white, dart back and forth like he’s dream­ing.  He opens a cool­er at his knees, grabs a beer, and puts the unla­belled brown bot­tle on the bar.  “Lager home­brew.”

Gorillahead pops the cap off with his teeth, and spits it in his hand.  He waves the open bot­tle in front of his nose, breath­ing deep, takes a sip, and swish­es it around his mouth.  He turns and spits the beer on the floor. “Are you try­ing to kill me?”

The oth­er two sailors look at the foam-laced pud­dle. One mut­ters to the oth­er and drops a cop­per on the table, a steel cres­cent, and four rough iron but­tons.  They leave, drinks unfin­ished.

It’s free.”  Wayne breathes out, heavy, through his nose.

Gorillahead drains half of the beer in two deep gulps, sucks air through his teeth and coughs.  “Can we talk price?”  He jerks his head in my direc­tion.

Might I be part of nego­ti­a­tions?” I say.

Gorillahead grunts.  “Don’t push your luck, buck­et.”

You know the deal,” Wayne says.  “Booze and books.  It’s not like I need help.”  He holds up his hands, and his eye sweeps the room.

A fish­er­man sit­ting by him­self with an emp­ty stein watch­es the thin-limbed men in the booth at the back play a game with wrin­kled play­ing cards.  He leans to one side and grabs the sailors’ unfin­ished drinks from the next table, pours them into his emp­ty glass, and notices me.  He pinch­es the brim of his hat, nods, and shifts, set­tling in his seat.  I raise one hand to my tem­ple, palm out, and he smiles.

Just make an offer,” Gorillahead says.

On some­thing I don’t want?”

Don’t be a dick­head.”

Wayne straight­ens and his eye­stalk curves like a ques­tion mark.  He points at the thing jut­ting from his head like an anten­na.  “Is that a crack?” His voice ris­es.

Gorillahead stands on the stool and props his knuck­les on the bar, leans as close as he can to Handsome Wayne.  “You look like an eel dri­ving a mar­i­onet­te,” he says.  He grabs the front Wayne’s jack­et by one lapel, leans fur­ther, and the stool creaks onto two legs.  “That’s a crack.”

I rap my cane on the floor.  “Stop!” They both look at me.  I hold one fist to my voxscreen, grind gears in my neck, a pro­grammed affec­ta­tion.  “Stop,” I say.  “Stop me if you’ve heard the one about the pros­ti­tute that took up trick shoot­ing.”

One half of Gorillahead’s face scrunch­es into a squint.  He holds Wayne’s jack­et bunched in his hand.

Wayne gig­gles, calms, gig­gles some more, and stops “Wait,” he says. “What?”  The eye­stalk slurps into his skull, pops wet. “Son of a bitch.” His human eyes snap open. He flur­ries wind­mills slaps on Gorillahead’s arm, strug­gles again­st the unbro­ken grip.  “Bastard! Bringing an unli­censed AI into my bar!”

Everyone in the bar stares.  The gramo­phone comes to the end of its record, scratch­es inter­vals like a metronome.

No, I didn’t!”

Wayne twists his jack­et free.  “You sure as fuck did!”

There’s no way.”  Gorillahead’s eye­brows arch.  “I did all the work on it myself.”

He told a joke!”  Wayne jabs a fin­ger at me.  “A joke!”

I hear a steady sound, high-pitched like a train whistle.  “Do you hear that?”  I say.

The sound grows loud­er.  I cock my head to one side.

See? What robot does that?”

Shush.”  I hold one fin­ger to my face.  “You don’t hear that?”

Hear what?” Gorillahead says.

Get down,” I say.  “Now.”  I tack­le Gorillahead to the floor and cov­er him the best I can.  The stool clangs off my back.  I watch my hat roll to the door, turn a lazy cir­cle, and come to rest cocked on one side, brim to crown.

The world shat­ters white-loud, blos­soms orange and hot, goes sta­t­ic, and winks dark.

~

P.J.Underwood, a grad­u­ate of the Center for Writers, lives in Tupelo, Mississippi with his wife, two sons, and an ornery Himalayan cat. Waterfront is a nov­el from which this first chap­ter is tak­en. The work is avail­able in its entire­ty here.