Illustrations by CF
A nightclub comedian is having a bad night. Through the hazy glare of the spotlight he notices a fat older guy staring up at him with particularly doltish indifference. He goes over to the edge of the stage and makes a wisecrack at this dimwit’s expense, something
about his girth, like, “Couldn’t at least one of you two in that chair laugh?” There’s a minor smattering of titters at this. The fat man blinks. He colors. He starts to get ponderously to his feet. The comedian keeps going and tells him not to worry, they’re finding a forklift to help him. This brings forth a few more weak laughs. The fat man sinks back down, staring stone-faced.
“Christ, what a load of corpses, I shoulda done a funeral service,” the comedian mutters, coming offstage at last. The club owner grabs him by the arm. He looks ashen. “Do you know who you just made a monkey of?” he rasps in a strained voice. To his shock, the comedian discovers he was taunting an organized-crime bigshot.
A meeting takes place in the club owner’s office, where the fat mobster is waiting. The sweating comedian apologizes cravenly, after his groveling introduction by the club owner. He tells a couple of brutal jokes on himself. (He’s good at that.) To the owner’s alarm he even starts to undress, in another wayward comic inspiration—to bare himself for the flogging, as it were, he deserves. The fat man nterrupts this performance humorlessly. “Knock it off,” he says. “You can make up for it. I’m having a party tomorrow night. We need more entertainment. But good stuff this time, not crap,” he adds. “Sure, sure,” the comedian assents, hastily getting back into his shirt.
The party is a loud, tedious affair at the mobster’s grimly ostentatious estate. The comedian gets up on the bandstand and tells jokes for 20 minutes while the middle-aged band takes a break. Most of the guests ignore him. Afterward he’s brought over to the host to accept his thanks. “Now we’re all square,” says the fat man, and he gives the comedian a thump on the arm that’s half playful, half not. The comedian cackles manically. “Now go enjoy yourself,” the fat man mutters, turning away.
The comedian wanders through the dowdy crowd, nodding at a few thumbs-ups he receives. Then he just stands to the side, grinning morosely, gulping his drink. He trains a furtive eye about for any kind of attractive presence, but sees none. The booze and the state of his nerves conspire in him to ignite another flame of deviant inspiration. All at once he starts to babble doubletalk, loudly, and when enough heads turn, he goes hopping about, peeling off his clothes, yelling, “Last one in the pool is a rotten stoolie!!” (There is a pool, of course, a big one, but his challenge is rhetorical.) Inside him, a smaller, clearer-headed version of his uproarious self looks on, thinking, “What am I doing, am I out of my mind?” A pair of two burly figures hurry through the gaping guests and bring a quick end to the performance.
The comedian is back in front of the mobster, in a private room. “I’m just craaaaazy, baby!” the comedian yelps with a sickened waggish grin, trying desperately for comedy’s jiujitsu reversal of mood and expectation. He has to hold up his trousers, having thrown away his belt during his fit of insanity. “This is my home, these are my guests,” the fat man declares, breathing heavily, one eyelid twitching. “You insulted them—you insulted me.”
This is not a word anyone wants to hear from a very heavyset gangster in late middle age wearing an expensive, outdated version of fancy dress: “insulted.” And certainly not in the plural. “Please—I’ll make it up to you—” sputters the comedian. “You gotta be joking,” the mobster replies, without irony. He flaps his hand in contempt. “Take care of him,” he says to the others in the room, turning away.
The comedian gapes left and right as hands seize his arms. He flails chaotically, somehow breaks loose, wriggles somehow to the door as the others stumble over the upended furniture. He rushes out into the corridor.
Clutching his trousers, he runs along, glancing wildly over his shoulder, like a frantic adulterer in a cheesy farce. He skids around a corner and crashes over a caterer’s cart and goes sprawling. He struggles up and flounders off as the waiter he knocked over curses him from the shambles.
Footsteps pound closer behind. He gapes back in despair. His pursuers heave into view around the corner. And then ahead—another bunch are massed now. He stops, turns this way and that. The two groups close on him and then halt. The comedian cowers in openmouthed terror. Very slowly, the tough guys all begin to laugh. Their laughter grows wild. They start whooping and pulling off their clothes, flinging garments into the air as they prance about. The fat man is among them suddenly, his tuxedo piled on his head like a turban. The comedian sinks to the floor, gibbering, his echoing laughter a thin cracked cackle.
He jerks awake. He thrashes up wildly. He’s in his own bed, in his own shabby apartment. He drops back onto the pillow, gasping, moaning in shock. “What a dream… what a dream…” he keeps mumbling, about to cry, throwing an arm over his face.
A sharp pain at the wrist hobbles his movement. He yelps. His eyes spring open.
And his brief invention of deliverance is over.
He’s not in his bed. He’s on a dingy cot. Naked. His wrists are tied to the legs of a table behind his head and his ankles are strapped down. His skull aches.
You really like to take off your clothes,” says the fat man, standing over him in his tacky tuxedo. “You think it’s funny.”
“What—happened?” the comedian gulps, disoriented. “In the hall—didn’t they—and you—” His voice trails off.
“Huh?” sneers the fat man. “Oh,” he says. “Feeling that punch in the head.”
An hour later they load him, bound and naked on his cot, into a van and drive out to the desert, and carry him into a fetid, still scorching remote cave. He shrieks when they start to leave. One of the men thinks he’s fine like that. But the other one raises the slight possibility of the noise attracting attention. So they go back in and tape his screwy mouth shut.
A young pickpocket makes an easy snatch. On a crowded bus, his ghostly fingers lift a girlish pink wallet from a girlish pink patent-leather purse that protrudes like a wad of discarded bubblegum from a faceless cram of bodies. On a park bench he inspects his catch. Besides a few dollars there’s a folded temporary driver’s license, just text, no photo, and a snapshot taken in one of those quickie photo booths. The snapshot shows a girl laughing. She is thin and dusky, Asian of some kind. The pickpocket stares at her. A twinge trembles through his tough, thieving young heart. Love at first sight, this twinge is called. The pickpocket curses to himself. He looks up suddenly, left and right. He’s alone. He stares back at the photo. He reads the name on the license, but it’s entirely foreign to him. He pronounces it softly, clumsily. He flushes and curses again. Then he jumps to his feet. His impetuous young heart churns.
An hour or so later he stands across the street from the address on the driver’s license: a drab little house on a drab street in an immigrant neighborhood. He watches. An hour goes by. No one leaves or enters. Then a slender figure passes quickly behind a curtained window: a girl’s figure?
The pickpocket grins. He spits out the bubblegum he’s been chewing. It lands pink on the grimy sidewalk. He runs a comb through his crudely greased hair. What he’s about to do is reckless: First, it violates the cardinal rule of his trade, never to allow any public association between yourself and the purloined article. Second, who knows the circumstances of this girl, supposing she’s in fact inside? Perhaps she has an aggressive and jealous boyfriend. Or a violent older husband. Hostile brothers. A father whose concealed lust finds outlet in hair-trigger “virtue”-obsessed rages. But the pickpocket is young and in the grip of love at first sight, meaning the gross grip of fantasy; and though he’s sly, he’s pretty stupid also. With his ghostly fingers he slips out the photo from the wallet (which he’ll be returning as a goodhearted citizen) for a valedictory gaze. Then, heart pulsing, he grins. He saunters into the street. Halfway across he jerks about; with a squawking curse he flounders back sprawling.
A car roars up out of nowhere; squeals to a halt. Two objects arc lazily from its houseward side and smash voluptuously against the house’s front. The car screeches away. The front of the house explodes. The shockwave knocks the pickpocket from where he is on all fours back to the ground. The pink wallet lies shiny where it already flew from his grip.
Struggling again to his knees, the pickpocket gapes at the flames leaping from the blasted front door, from the smashed window. He hears screams. Figures suddenly come pouring out of the house—a horde of people in flames. Dusky men, women, and children swarm shrieking into the street, ablaze, as if visited by the fiery judgment of hell. The pickpocket lurches among them, scanning in frantic shock for the girl in the photo. He sees her; she veers away from him toward the side of the house, her arms chaotic in the pyre of herself. The pickpocket gapes in horror, then runs shouting after her. He throws himself onto her, knocking her down, rolling with her on the ground to smother her flames as she writhes, blackening, under him. He screams, his precious hands searing in her oozing flames.
Fire engines come shrieking to this scene of devastation. Hard rubberized hands wrench the pickpocket away from the charred remnant he tried to rescue, and smother him in a blanket and batter him as the smoke rises. (The wallet lies crushed under a fire-engine tire.)
He survives. Of the 40 or so desperate people crammed illegally in the little house, a few survive too. Most, including the girl, don’t. The instigators of this appalling horror, a rival gang of people smugglers, are never brought to justice.
The pickpocket recovers, more or less; but not really. His scorched hands are too damaged for his erstwhile trade, and his burned face and head, too easily remembered. He falls to doing errands for some nickeland-dime small-time operations—the crime world’s form of charity, administered with a glance of lowly contempt. He suffers it with the blank demeanor of the hopeless. He rides the bus, aimlessly, endlessly. When it’s crowded, he just stares ahead, lost in the grip of an old dream, swaying in the press of jammed bodies
around him, his damaged jaw slowly working a piece of pink, lifeless bubblegum.
Acrime reporter goes undercover and recklessly infiltrates a drug gang deep in a violent country of volcanoes. His dyed hair and augmented tan pass well enough at first. But then suspicions flare because of his limited capacity with the local language. He is able to keep things at bay, at least temporarily, by confessing to a shameful cultural disloyalty during years living up north. A disloyalty he now bitterly yearns to make amends for, he assures his new companions.
His confession is greeted with cautious grunts and then silence. He is assigned a task, to prove his desire for atonement. There is someone who has started making trouble for the drug gang’s gun-barrel jurisdiction in a certain town. This mischief must end. “It’s customary to bring back the head as proof,” the dissembler is told. “But the eyes, or ears, will do.”
With this bloodthirsty charge, the undercover crime reporter heads off to the town on its muggy, woebegone riverbank, point of entry for much of the gang’s shipments—and the venue where this troublemaker has been operating.
The reporter is now in far over his head, but he dare not bolt at this point. He’s surely being monitored. But he fears a trap is being set. Even so, he will have to bide his time until the right exit way slides briefly open. He prays it will not be a blood-soaked, harrowing path to that opening.
Once in the river town he has little problem finessing a meeting with the troublemaker, in the double undercover deception of being a third party interested, he’ll explain, in joining forces against the gang. The target-interloper meets him in the lobby of a drab hotel away from the main square, or zocalo, as they call it. He turns out to be a graduate student from the north (so he claims), naive and earnest (it appears), here on an ethnographic research project. His pokings around with limited, purely academic skill in the language have been misinterpreted by the gang—so it appears. Taking a chance, the reporter tells him of the danger he’s in. Seeing the alarm growing monstrous in the grad student’s wide, bespectacled eyes, he confides the whole situation.
“Oh my God,” gulps the grad student. He handles the information badly, that is, he insists they go straightaway to the police or the embassy. The reporter grabs hold of his arm and forces him back in his seat. In a low, heated voice, he wises up the academic apprentice to the realities of corruption and violent evil they’ve blundered into the middle of.
The only solution, announces the crime reporter, calculating starkly, is this: to send along the set of bloody ears, as minimally required, and in the brief lull while the gang’s concentration shifts toward verification (how exactly this verification will be accomplished or undertaken is unclear) they will seize their chance to flee upriver to the coast on a stolen motorboat. (Hiring or bribing someone for this is too risky.)
“My ears?” sputters the grad student. “Why mine? Why not somebody else’s—why not yours?”
The two inadequate lingo speakers fall into hushed, intense, grisly dispute. Finally the crime reporter, snarling, pulls out a coin. The grad student bleats his call: “Heads.” He stares. The reporter catches the coin and slaps it on his wrist and, murmuring a prayer, uncovers it. He grunts. “Gee, sorry,” says the grad student. He doesn’t even bother to conceal his happy grin of relief.
The grim business is set for later that night, in the grad student’s room in a rooming house, or posada, as it’s called, around the corner. The reporter goes off to buy a suitable knife and supplies. This errand will keep up the false front of his mission to any watchful eyes. The stunned reporter feels like he’s caught in a terrible perverse dream, a living distortion of fear and paranoia and primal egregious acts.
The hour of the rendezvous approaches. The crime reporter’s resentment at his coin-flip fate burns sharper and sharper. Why shouldn’t the grad student suffer the injury, as initially proposed, since his neck is only being saved thanks to the reporter? Who cares if the grad student is blameless in his predicament?—although his naïveté and linguistic insufficiency certainly bear responsibility of some sort.
The reporter announces this to his frightened host, who is waiting in his room with a pile of towels and a bottle of local firewater. The grad student frantically protests, insisting that a deal is a deal. Eventually it’s negotiated that they’ll each give up an ear. The sacrificed flesh will be too bloodied to be distinguished as different. They guzzle from the bottle. The grad student, who is quivering in distress, insists he be allowed to cut first. The knife blade (for boning fish) wobbles so much in his hand the reporter suddenly grabs at it, to keep it away from his eyes.
Just like that the two would-be escapees are locked in mortal struggle. A steam whistle shrills somewhere out on the muddy river. The grad student loses possession of the knife and flails up clumsily with his bony knee. The reporter barks and slashes at him. The other squeals and stumbles back and sprawls over onto the floor, losing his glasses. Blood pours through his fingers clutching his face. The reporter gasps and then leaps forward savagely and slashes down, left and right, on the grad student’s head, blood and shrieks gushing. He grabs up the gory tokens where they fall and lurches backward. The grad student howls and thrashes like a tortured animal. The reporter flings down the knife and lunges to the door, heaves it open, and rushes out.
They catch him by the waterfront, in a chaotic daze, trying to rewrap the ears more compactly in a sodden page of newspaper. They leave the package beside his body, scoffing with idioms he’d never have grasped, when they head back toward the muggy lights of the town.