Saturday, November 13, 2010

Party Favors

Constantin sat hunched on the edge of the bed, his drowsy head propped between his fists. The clock on the nightstand said it was 3:14 in the morning. He had taken the call sometime before three.

"Constantin Yanovich?" the voice said.


"The hour has come. The Party has need of you."

The voice sounded young, its words slurred. Since the tumble of the Communist Party, the telephone lines had surged with crank calls from surly teenagers. After a bottle of vodka and some scratchy Rolling Stones records, they could be most abusive.

"Who is this?" Constantin demanded.

"No questions, Yanovich. You will be given instructions at the proper time. Don't leave your apartment."

So Constantin had waited. His wife Nadya was staying in Odessa for the week with a delegation of journalists. She had asked him to join her, but he had declined. A nasty flu was working its way through the Ministry of Parks, he said. Eight people were out the previous week, reports were piling up. Nadya had simply nodded.

A knock at the door roused him from a dream about a canoe trip down the Volga. He was leading a group of Red Pioneers. They were lazy, pimpled youths. Constantin paddled ahead, then waited for the boys to catch up. They rounded a bend in the river, their boats filled with tears. A boy was missing. Constantin went back upriver, spading his paddle into frothy green water. He found pieces of clothing — a blue-striped shirt caught on a rock, a cap bobbing in the shallows — but the boy's body was gone.

The knock at the door became more insistent. Constantin squinted through the peep-hole and saw part of an overcoat.

"Who's there?" he asked.

"No questions, Yanovich, remember? Open the door."

"How do I know you're here a comrade?"

"Because you've been expecting this — to be chosen."

It was true. Constantin had always seen himself as being set apart for some higher labor. The few times he had mentioned it to Nadya, she had mussed up his thinning hair and laughed, dismissing the idea as an infantile fantasy.

The door fell open to reveal a blond man about thirty years old. His overcoat was buttoned to the neck.

Constantin looked up and down the hallway, then shut the door, satisfied that none of the neighbors were skulking about.

The blond man pulled a measuring tape from his pocket and began to calculate the dimensions of the door frame.

"Three-and-a-half by...let's see...eight. Excellent, Yanovich. It will serve our purposes."

"What pur — " Constantin bit off his question.

The blond man reeled in the tape with quick little motions, then stepped into the next room.

"Kitchen's in here?


"And the bathroom?"

"Through the curtain there."

The blond man stopped at the refrigerator, took more measurements, opened the door. "Not much here," he said.

"If I'd known, I — "

"Just as well. You'll have to get rid of it all anyway." The blond man held up a jar of pickled radishes. "I didn't know people still ate these," he said, sniffing the jar before setting it on the cutting board.

Constantin looked at the remaining contents of the refrigerator: the fatty hunk of roast pork, the rust-colored head of cabbage, the tin of Ukrainian apricots. He most regretted being told to throw out the apricots, having spent three hours on line to buy them.

The blond man yanked aside the curtain that Nadya had made, then stepped into the bathroom. "Is the bathroom scrubbed on a regular basis?"


"We will not tolerate falsehoods."

"It was done a month ago."

"Thank you. You will have to do it again."


"Of course."

Constantin had a sudden urge to sleep. What was it now — 4:27? "Can't it wait?"

The blond man poked his head through the curtain. "You're not doing it for me — you're doing it for the Party, Yanovich. For those who still believe in it. You think Putin sleeps? I'll bet he is brewing up some new reform this very minute."

"Very well."

Constantin fetched a steel bucket, a brush, and a bottle of cleaning powder from the back of the kitchen closet. He poured out two capfuls of the eye-watering stuff into the bucket, then filled it with water, as hot as he could stand it. He could hear the blond man moving through the apartment.

Constantin set the bucket on the tiled floor and tiptoed to the bedroom.

The blond man had their wedding picture in his gloved hand. "An attractive woman, your wife," he said without turning. "How long will she be away?" He caught Constantin's eye. "In Odessa?"

"You must know that already?"

"Perhaps, but that doesn't mean we can't make pleasant small talk." The blond man replaced the picture on the dresser, angling it just as he had found it. He followed Constantin back to the bedroom, leaning in the doorway, hands in his pockets.

Constantin scrubbed the tub a gleaming bone-white, then rinsed the stinging powder from his knuckles. He dried them on his pants. The blond man bent closer, peering at the grit that swirled down the drain.

Someone was at the door. Constantin stood up, his hands at his sides.

"Relax," said the blond man.

"I'm not used to this."

"Who is? Now open the door."

Constantin walked carefully. His feet felt small, distant. His hand quivered on the doorknob.

Two men were waiting in the hallway with an immense duffel bag between them. The men wore identical red warm-up suits and white athletic shoes. The duffel was stenciled with the words Official Property — CCCP Hockey.

The men carried the duffel through the doorway, barely clearing the jamb. They moved slowly, as though carrying a tray of china plates.

The blond man directed them to the kitchen. "Just set it on the floor. We haven't all been introduced." He turned to Constantin. "Do you follow hockey, Yanovich?"

"I know only that it's played on ice."

"That's very good."

The men in the warm-up suits shared a look.

"Well, you now have the pleasure of meeting two of Moscow's best. This is Yuri." The heavier of the two men put out his hand. "And Nik." The second man, darker and wiry, simply nodded.

"I hope you're impressed, Yanovich," the blond man went on. "You'll be the envy of every schoolboy on the street."

"The ones I knew left long ago. I don't know any of them now."

"Another point in your favor. One of many which made you so...ideal." The blond man steered Constantin into the bedroom. "You will excuse us now," he said, shutting the door.

Constantin sat on the bed and balanced his head on his fists. He recalled being in the same position just two hours earlier, before he became a host to hockey players, an ideal citizen, a janitor for the Party.

He slowed his breathing as he listened to the sounds beyond the bedroom door. A mumbled toast was made, metal clanged, someone cursed. He imagined it coming from the big one. Yuri. The man had soft hands for a hockey player. Constantin heard the floorboards creak as the doorknob turned.

"You are rested now, Yanovich?" said the blond man.

"And if I say no?"

"You won't."

This, too, was true. Even as a boy, he had been eager to please, content to follow. He trailed the blond man into the living room. The hockey players were gone.

The blond man turned. "I thank you," he said.

"For cleaning a bathtub?

"No. I thank you for what you will do."

Constantin felt himself swallow. His tongue was like clay.

The blond man pulled a wad of fifty-ruble notes from his coat.

"For meals," he said. "It's not much, but it's enough. Don't eat in the same place twice." He moved toward the door. "And don't open the refrigerator. Believe me, it's for the best."

"How long am I to live like this?"

"You will be told."



The telephone rang less than twenty minutes later.

"It's eight-fifteen, Yanovich, are you leaving for work?"

"Yes," said Constantin, fighting a yawn. "I'm leaving now." He had considered calling in sick, but it was suddenly out of the question.

Constantin spent the morning at his desk, compiling a list of reports to be filed by the end of the week. It went on for four pages — then five — as another co-worker left the office early, complaining of throbbing joints.

The next call came before noon.

"Lunch time, Yanovich. Don't spend all your money."

Constantin ate by himself in the Ministry of Parks canteen. Turnip soup, underdone lamb. The cashier had given him quite a look when he pulled out the fifty-ruble note.

That afternoon he hid behind a wall of documents: drinking fountain use studies, monument deterioration reports, restroom graffiti analyses. On his few trips down the corridor, he refrained from engaging in the usual office talk about the leaky ceiling in the supply room or the worsening quality of ink in the mimeograph machine. He wanted to keep his distance. Having been singled out for service, he might be just as easily singled out for elimination.

Instead of riding the usual express bus home, he took a local to a neighborhood on the other side of the city. He walked the streets for an hour, found an inexpensive Mongolian restaurant, then circled the block three times before going in. You couldn't be too careful.

It was eleven o'clock by the time he got home. He put on frayed pajamas, made himself a glass of weak tea, reread an old copy of Pravda before tossing it aside.

Don't open the refrigerator, the blond man had said. The words sifted through him like sand, collecting in the hollow of his gut. It was his refrigerator — his to open or close as he pleased. He and Nadya had each saved up three month's wages to buy it. Delivery from the factory took another six months. At the time, he had thought of the wait as a minor inconvenience. A token sacrifice for the good of the system.

Constantin faced the baked enamel door of the refrigerator for a full twenty minutes before grasping the handle. Another seven minutes passed before he tugged on it; the door's rubber gasket opened with a kiss.

He fanned at the vapor that boiled from the interior. The hockey players had turned the thermostat to the meat setting and removed the steel shelves to make room for the duffel bag, which sat angled with the high end jammed next to the ice-box and the lower end touching the vegetable bin.

Constantin poked the bag gently. There was something solid inside. Something firm, yet slippery. The chilled metal zipper tab stung his fingertips as he pulled it down a centimeter or so, revealing a swatch of dark cloth. The zipper jammed. Constantin peered through his fogged breath. He bent closer, then backed away, letting the door swing shut. There was a small tuft of hair caught in the metal teeth of the zipper.

The telephone rang a moment later.

"What are you doing, Yanovich?" said the blond man.

"Nothing much. Reading. Looking through the mail."

"Anything interesting? A postcard from your wife?"

"Those conferences are busy affairs. She doesn't often find time to write."

"Not a bad thing, Yanovich — staying out of trouble."

"A very good thing."

"It's odd, you know," said the blond man. "We have met only once, yet I miss your hospitality."

"Yes, well — good night."

"Just remember, Yanovich, temptation is great, but the Party is greater."

That night Constantin dreamed he was at a campfire with a troop of school

children. They were roasting meat on sticks and eating it with their hands. The meat ran out. The children circled around him. They pressed in close, rubbing against him with hair like steel wool, abrading, grinding, making meat of him. He awoke surprised to find all his limbs intact.

The telephone rang at 7:15 in the morning, sounding twelve times before it fell silent. When it rang again at 7:17, Constantin picked up the receiver.

"I'm up already," he said. "See, I'm wiggling my toes. Do you like the color of my pajamas?"

"Constantin?" It was Nadya; there were voices and a train whistle in the background. "What's going on?"

"Everything — nothing. Everything is fine. It's the telephone — punks have been calling up, using the most shameful language. Hooligans."

"I'll have the number changed when I get home. I'll be there tomorrow."

"So soon? What's wrong?"

"The speaker canceled. Influenza."

"What did I tell you. It's going around. Please take care of yourself. Have soup on the train."

"I'd better let you go. You'll be late at the Ministry."

"My Nadyana, my little worry wife. I'll be fine. I love you."

"I must go," she said. A train whistle shrieked in the background.

Constantin called the Ministry of Parks to say he was sick, then spent the morning padding around the apartment in his robe and slippers. He moved a chair into the kitchen and sat in front of the refrigerator, holding the door open for minutes at a time, while he stared at the frozen zipper, the wisp of hair.

A knock at the apartment door sent his heart drumming.

"Who's there?"

"Come now, Yanovich, we're old friends by now."

Constantin opened the door dutifully.

"So, you took a holiday?" said the blond man, picking at something on his glove.

"I wasn't feeling well."

"A lie? Please. Your lovely wife — she is returning early?"


"I will forgive your little untruth, comrade, for it truly is a holiday." The blond man went into the kitchen and shoved the chair aside with his boot. "Tell me, Yanovich, how long did you wait before you opened the refrigerator?"

"My refrigerator. I worked for months to buy that machine. My wife, too. We waited for our turn. Almost a year before it came."

"Think how long it would take now...under Medvedev.” The blond man threw open the refrigerator door. "Grab the end here," he said, tipping his head toward the duffel bag. "That's it, gently now."

Constantin gripped the bag and lifted, eyeing the curl of hair in the zipper. The blond man carried the other end, leading them through the curtain and into the narrow bathroom. The load was oddly light. They maneuvered the duffel over the lip of the tub, then slowly lowered it.

"Pay attention now, Yanovich." The blond man watched Constantin's face while he teased the zipper along past the bit of hair and down to the end of the duffel. A bundle wrapped with strips of red muslin emerged as the duffel fell away like a chrysalis. "Bring me something to cut this with," said the blond man, fingering a crimson strip of cloth.

Constantin returned with a kitchen knife. The blond man took it and began to cut the muslin solemnly, as though slicing a wedding cake.

"You have a radio?" he asked.

"It's old."

"Bring it. We must have music."

Constantin put the heavy wooden set on the toilet tank and turned it on. The dial glowed like a scrap of paper catching fire as a news report crackled from the grille. Constantin changed stations, pulling in a children's program, a comedy show, a reading of Belorussian verse. The blond man waited, his gloved fingers tapping lightly on the bundle while Constantin settled on a Prokofiev symphony.

The blond man shut his eyes for a moment, then began to cut and pull at the muslin. "Good," he said, carefully stripping the material away; it fell at his feet like peelings from an apple. A sweet aroma began to fill the room.

Constantin thought of the wildflowers that Nadya had once pressed into a copy of Das Kapital, wild roses gathered early in their courtship.

A yellowed sheet now showed beneath the red muslin.

The blond man glanced up. "Come closer, Yanovich. Give me your hand."

Constantin offered his palm.

"Closer," said the blond man, seizing his wrist. He pressed Constantin's hand to the cloth. "There. Tell me, Yanovich, what do you feel?"

Constantin's fingers roamed over the cloth.

"It's something dense...and old."

"Too vague."

"A statue."

"Not quite."

Constantin shook his head. "I'm not good at games. I don't know."

"I think you do. You've always known. Just as an infant knows its father."

The blond man pulled the cloth aside, and Constantin's hand fell upon a cool, pale surface.

A face.

Contantin pulled his hand away; it was like a lump of ice in his lap.

"No," he said, unable to look at the bared head in front of him.

"Oh, yes."

"This cannot be."

"The Father of the Party."

"But there are laws."

"The Worker's Friend. There are those who would sell pieces of him for souvenirs. They would dress him up in blue jeans and drag him behind a big American car while they play decadent music — all in the name of their beloved democracy." The blond man spoke through tight lips, as though chewing on spoiled caviar.

"But is this legal?" asked Constantin.

"Was the assassination of the Party legal? Or the prostitution of the Mother Union?"

"Surely someone is searching for the body?"

"Everyone is looking. But they haven't made it public. It will send the wrong message."

At last, Constantin allowed himself to gaze upon Lenin's serene features; the ears of the Great Bolshevik were deeply crenellated, twin fortresses guarding East and West. The strange, sweet fragrance seemed to permeate the room.

"What am I to do now — with him?" said Constantin.

"You will be his eyes, his arms, his strength. And you will follow instructions." The blond man handed Constantin an envelope, then backed out through the curtain and was gone.

The envelope contained typed instructions on a sheet of cheap paper. From what Contantin could make out, there were eight steps to be performed, the first of which was: Strip the body.

He was about to complete number six — Bathe and dry the body — when he heard a key turn in the front door lock. He threw a towel over the body and yanked the curtain shut. By the time he realized he had left the radio on, it was too late to turn it off.

Nadya came through the door, slightly out of breath, dropping her luggage in the middle of the living room.

"Nadyana — I — you're early."

"Well, you don't seem at all happy about it." She fussed with her coat, then cocked her head, listening.

"What's that?" she asked.

"What do you mean?"

"I hear something. Who's in the bathroom?"

"Oh, that. The radio. I was cleaning. You know, trying to keep things tidy."

"I don't believe it," said Nadya, taking a step toward the bathroom.

"I'll show you — when I finish," he said. "But first you must tell me about your conference." He lead her toward the bedroom. "Was the food good? Come, tell me everything."

Nadya sat on the bed, while Constantin pulled her shoes off. "Blisters," he said. "You must have walked all over Odessa."

"I'm going to soak them."

"No, no, you mustn't do any such thing. Stay here, I'll bring hot water."

"I'd love a bath."

"Nadya, I've missed you. You must let me spoil you a bit. Now just lie there and rest."

Constantin returned to the bathroom, turned the radio off, and finished drying the body. The Architect of the State had skin like alabaster. Gazing down at the placid cast of the face, at the kindly beard that had been trimmed by the zipper, Constantin imagined working to the accompaniment of a children's chorus.

He carefully swaddled the body with the sheet, taking particular care around the massive head before rewrapping the body as best he could. He heard the bed squeak as Nadya shifted her weight. Was she getting up?

"I don't hear the water running," she said.

"I'm folding towels, my plum. I haven't forgotten you."

"Don't keep me waiting, Constantin."

"Patience, Nadyana." Constantin hauled the body to the lip of the tub, then tried to tug the duffel bag over the feet. The toes caught on an inside seam. Constantin pulled on the duffel with both hands. The body slipped off the tub, thumping on the floor.


"Yes, sweet one?"

"My feet ache."

"I'll only be a moment, my dove."

He struggled to get the body turned around on the tiled floor, this time coaxing it into the duffel head-first. He zipped the bag shut, humming a strain of Prokofiev to cover the sound.

He called to Nadya. "When I get there, I'll massage each little dumpling toe."

"You've gone mad while I was away."

Constantin did his best to drag the duffel quietly out of the bathroom and across the kitchen floor.

"Yes, little bird, I'll dust your toes with powered sugar and a dash of cinnamon. I'll butter them like tea cakes, dab each one with currant jam..."

He gently shut the door behind him and scooted the duffel ahead of him to the top of the stairs. The bag teetered there for a moment, poised, a log at the brink of a waterfall. He caught the end of it, then began the descent, taking the steps one at a time like a toddler, wincing each time the duffel bumped the wall. He felt himself being pulled along like a toy boat. His shirt was wringing wet by the time he reached the front door. He wondered what Nadya was doing now — what she was saying. She would never believe a word of this.

Constantin nudged open the door to the building with his foot, hauling the duffel after him. A fine snow blew straight at his face. He gripped the iron railing, scrabbling down the iced stone stairs to the street.

He had decided to hide the Champion of the People in the alley at the side of the building, well within view of his bedroom window. He was almost there now. But where were the potato crates and rubble that had lain there for years? The alley was as barren as the steppes, heaped only with snow. It would have to do as a covering.

He knelt painfully in the bluish snow, cupping out a space the size of the duffel. He eased the bag into place, mounded it with snow, then stood back. The little hill he had made resembled a snow-covered pile of dirt or bricks, something long forgotten. Constantin added another handful of snow, blew on his fingertips and walked away, stopping several times to admire his handiwork. It seemed a humble resting place.

Nadya was soaking in the tub when he returned. Soaking and sulking. "There's hair in the drain," she whined from behind the curtain. "Strange hair."

"I'll get rid of it."

"Don't come in here now. I'll catch cold."

Constantin wandered into the bedroom.

"You know," she called after him, "it's time we had a talk."

Constantin barely heard her. Standing on the bed in his stocking feet, he could see the mound of snow far below, a faint blue shadow surrounded by darker shapes. The shapes moved. Children.

Constantin went up on tiptoe, watching the children as they chased each other around the mound. One of them scooped up a handful of snow and threw it at another, while a third child climbed the little hump and tumbled down its side. Then all the children climbed the slope, jostling one another, each of them struggling to stay on top.

Nadya's wet hand snapped him out of the scene. "There's someone on the phone," she said. "Wouldn't give his name, but he says he knows you."

Constantin waited to see if Nadya would close the bedroom door before he spoke into the receiver. She didn't.

"You're wife's trip was pleasant?" said the blond man.

"Pleasant enough."

"And you followed instructions?"

The instructions. Constantin pulled the wadded sheet from his pocket. His eyes strained to focus, trying to break the sentences down into understandable chunks. Body fluids. Core temperature. Decomposition.


Constantin listened to the tiny voice threaten him from the dangling phone receiver.

Nadya was lying on the far side of the bed when he entered the room. Her body was curled away from him; she spoke to the wall. She was tired, she said. The strain was too much. She had looked up to him once. Respected his ideals. But she had needs. Desires. She didn't want much: Prada shoes, exercise equipment, a Sony Walkman. Didn't he have something to say for himself?

Constantin offered a vague apology, his eyes watching the children far below. They were model workers, burrowing under the duffel, tearing the body from its cocoon. While the children danced and shrieked around the swaddled form in the snow, Constantin went into the bathroom. He looked at the bottom of the tub, checked the sink, searched the trash bin. There, coiled beside a wadded tissue and a bent hair pin, was the damp ring of hair.

Who knew what riches such an artifact might bring?

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Shades of Green


Dawn nudged up from the edge of a turnip field. The Focke-Wulfe reconnaissance plane circled once, then alighted with barely a sound. A hatch below the wing opened; a ladder dropped to the loam. Two men in gray descended, then the pilot, a swollen figure in white. The Reichsmarschall himself.
Küsters was summoned, introduced. The Reichsmarschall was handed white gloves, a tasseled scarf. There was a ring on the little finger of each hand, ornaments befitting a knight of the air. The Reichsmarschall's cheeks were doll-pink.
He nudged Küsters with an ivory baton. "Tell me, friend, how are the stags this year?"
"Full of pride and trickery, Herr Reichsmarschall."
"Like Berlin. I'm well prepared, then."


The army that had thrust a red spear through Germany on a map in General Eisenhower’s trailer was now a blue circle—another chip bet on a new world order. In truth, the blue circle was a swarm of olive drab vehicles, mostly M3 and M4 tanks—Lees and Shermans—with their attendant Jeeps and deuce-and-a-half trucks. Gadwall had churned his way up from Sicily with Patton’s Third Army in a Sherman decorated with a lovingly rendered pin-up girl and the words Hell's Belle.
Since V-E Day, he had the feeling they were waiting for a football game to start, if only the opposing team would show up. At the morning staff meetings they were read vaporous orders: their unit was to carry out its mandate as an occupying force; they were to remain alert to the movements and activities of former Nazi officials and sympathizers; their vigilance in their sworn duties was to be absolute and upheld at all costs.

On their days off, the tankers visited the yellow house on Hochstrasse, where they drank cherry brandy and doppelbock chasers with hungry, blue-eyed girls with names like kinds of ice: Ilse, Freda, Heike.

Only Gadwall—a Maine lobsterman's son—went hunting. For the first month he had gone out alone, driving through dark corridors of pines in a Willys he'd managed to wangle from the motor pool. Hehad only managed to bag a doe with a skin like red suede and a woodchuck of some kind—both of them taken with Uncle Sam's M-1.


Küsters stood in the hall, listening to the toasts echoing in the timbered dining room. He watched the crumbling nest of flame in the bowl of his meerschaum, and enters his quarters, a chamber next to the toilet, not much bigger than his bed.
The roar of someone vomiting roused him from a pheasant-filled dream. He stepped into his boots and waited in the corridor with a towel over his arm.
The toilet was flushed, then something rattled in the porcelain sink. A sigh was uttered.
Küsters moved closer to the door to speak. “Would you like a towel, sir?”
“Who's asking?” said the voice behind the door. It was the Reichsmarschall.
"Küsters, Herr Reichsmarschall."
"Leutnant Küsters?"
"Küsters the caretaker."
The door opened without warning. The Reichsmarschall was dressed in a blue silk robe patterned with runic symbols. His eyes focused through a dull glaze.

"Jagermeister Küsters." The Reichmarschall's glistening smile. "The hunter of hunters. Tell me, what do you think of my shooting?"

"Herr Reichsmarschall is a wolf in the forest."
Another smile. “I have an instinct for it.” There was lipstick on his teeth.
Küsters looked away, then held out his arm. “A towel, Herr Reichsmarschall?”
“Very well. It will now be my turn to return the favor.”
“Guten nacht, Herr Reichsmarschall.”

“Like a wolf,” said the Reichsmarschall, moving down the corridor.

When Küsters moved to shut the door to the toilet, a sliver of light winked from the porcelain. Bending closer, he saw a glass ampoule stamped with a single word: morphium. Morphine. It was a hint of surrender.


Night in the back room of the kneipe with the chipped wooden figure of a tinker over the door. Gadwall lingers over a kirsch, watching the man in the corner nook, a shrunken figure in woolen garments with his few pleasures laid out before him: a pipe and a pouch of tobacco. Gadwall has the girl bring the man a drink. Then another.
The man stops at his table on the way out. Gadwall had first seen him walking along the road that led out of town on an evening in late October. He remembers the cocked hat and short wool jacket of loden green, the pair of fat grouse that swung from his shoulder—one wing fanned open like a broken umbrella. A hunter in a land of ruined shopkeepers and pale widows.
"Danke,” the man says.
"Sure thing." Gadwall stands up. "Say, where does a man go to shoot birds around here?"
"This I do not understand."
Gadwall mimes a hunter taking aim. "Where'd you bag those two I saw you with last week?"
"Entschuldigen sie. Excuse me, it is late. He tromps toward the door.
Gadwall follows, chiming the keys in his pocket. "I'll give you a lift."
The night air is acrid with burning fuels: coal, wood, siphoned petrol. The man fastens the horn toggle of his collar and moves on.
"Wrong way," Gadwall says. "Jeep's over there if the boys haven't hotwired it."
A curfew warning from the MPs flaps on a door, spinning from a tack. The man bends forward to read it, then turns slowly.
"It is not far," he says.
"Nothing's far when you've got friends in the motor pool."

Gadwall drops the old man in front of a building that is connected to its neighbors by skeletal walls pierced by vacant doorframes.

“You like hunt?” the old man says.

“Hell, yeah.”


They were stalking through misted trees just before dawn. Küsters kept a goat's pace, locking his knees on each uphill step. Gadwall huffed behind, blaming the Dunhills he had won from a mechanic who had won them from an RAF airman in town.
Küsters waited for him as if in ambush, his loden coat hung over one shoulder. His gray shirt was worn to gauze at the elbows. Gadwall was allowed to rest long enough to ease the burning in his throat with sips from his canteen.


Küsters' gray eye tells him to get ready. A scent drifts over them: musky, cruel. The smell of an ogre. The old man's face is turned, but Gadwall sees the lid rise, then settle, unblinking.
The stag bounds past in a squall of muscle. Gadwall swings around and puts the sight just ahead of the shoulder. He's not even sure he's pulled the trigger. The oaken flanks are gone. He lays the rifle across his collarbone and scrambles downhill.
"Nein." Küsters tamps a pinch of tobacco into his pipe with his thumb. "We wait."
"Not sure I hit him. He didn't slow any."
"Smoking time." A match flares in Küsters' callused fingertips. "Smoke them if you got them, ja? Later we go."


They found the stag sprawled beneath a hemlock, its head resting as if in sleep on a silver pillow of moss. Gadwall measured the spread of the antlers with outstretched arms. He knelt in pine needles as they prepared to dress out the carcass. His K-bar looked dull, the forged steel blade freckled with rust.
Küsters motioned to him to hold off. He was already at work with a knife of his own, the blade flashing white before it sank into the arch of the ribcage. Küsters pulled it down to the hollow of the loins as though drawing a line with a brush dipped in red paint. The entrails sluiced onto the loam in a pile of wet cable. Dressing out the stag was a process of refinement. The offal was removed, cast aside, leaving only a crowned head atop a buff-and-gray robe.
Küsters wrapped the meat in spruce bark, then stowed it in a leather bag.
Gadwall wiped down the barrel of his M-1 with a scrap of parachute silk and shouldered the weapon, preparing to move on.
A faint weight settled on his arm, just enough to hold him.
Küsters. He was holding the knife by the blade, the silver hilt and ebony handle extended above his fist. He lowered his head. “For honor.”
“What’s that?”
Küsters swiped a thumb along the flat of the blade, marking Gadwall’s cheek with a bloody jot before dabbing his own.
“You crazy son of a bitch.” Gadwall backed away, trying to wipe off the maroon smear with his sleeve. “Anybody else did that I’d sock ‘em good.”
“Bruder.” Küsters put the flat of his hand on Gadwall’s shoulder. Brother.


Dawn. A cold canvas seat and canteen of ersatz coffee. Gadwall gooses the Willys through flat bands of daylight laid over the city, past the wafer-like façade of a church.
Küsters is waiting for him, as is his habit, though the spot is always changing. A cellar hole. Atop the burnt shell of an armored car. Beside a cracked fountain. This morning he is squatting in front of wrecked shop. Bits of glass remain in the window frame like canine teeth. A clockwork chimpanzee claps its paws at the old man's feet, performs a somersault in the rubble, claps slowly, stops. Küsters notices Gadwall in the Jeep and stands up, smiling.
"Morgen," he says.
Küsters picks up the bundle on the seat.
"Yeah, that's for you," Gadwall says.
The old man loosens the webbing that holds the bundle together. There are two olive drab field shirts and a pair of pants inside, all of them slightly faded.
"They're got some wear, but I figured you could use 'em. Back home, we pay hunting guides a decent wage. This is the best I can do."
Küsters fingers the buttons of one of the shirts, then folds it carefully. "Danke."
"Okey-dokey. Let's bag some stags."


A tableau like something carved in the stock of a custom hunting rifle: a chesty buck recumbent beside the silver ribbon of a stream, filigreed mountains framing all of it.
Küsters had dressed out the carcass and saved a choice bit of loin, which he spitted and roasted over beechwood.
Gadwall chewed slowly. "You ever thought about going to the States, workin' as a guide somewhere?"
"Fella like you could make good money guidin' some famous people. No kidding. Guys like Ernest Hemingway, movie stars, Gary Cooper—people like that."
"Those people not—how you say?—komrades."
"Not friends."
"Maybe not, but they sure pay well."
Küsters sat up, his gray eyes sighted in on Gadwall's face. "Kapitan…"
"Mein friend?”
"Friends, huntin' buddies, whatever you want to call it."
Küsters reached down toward his belt and pulled at something; his hand came up with his hunting knife. It was both tool and tale—a medieval legend told in precious metal and wood. A silver eagle's head flowed into an ebony grip with a castle inlaid on one side and a lion on the other; talon-shaped silver fingerguards were poised on either side of the blade itself, a lightning bolt of polished steel inscribed with runic German handwriting. Two of the words needed no translation: Hermann Goëring.

Gadwall said. "He gave you this?"

Küsters shrugged. "Reichsmarschall Goëring. Ja, so? Fair trade." Küsters pulled at the Army olive drab shirt he'd been wearing. "For this."


A letter from his sister in East Boothbay. Mumma has taken ill, she had written in a script like razor wire. Rev. Nobb says he'll send a letter to your commanding officer to get you back home.

A matter of family hardship and necessity.

Now he has packaged a war's worth of possessions in a stenciled duffel bag. Gadwall requests a stop on the way to the train station. 24 Marktstrasse.
"Take your time, Cap," the driver says. "After running around for the Major all morning, I wouldn’t mind burning some smokes."

The building is a husk of stone and mortar. An MP had mentioned it at lunch in the mess. A pack of Luckies had gotten more details: Yessir, a possible sympathizer had been winged by a corporal named Dingbaugh. Nossir, the sympathizer hadn’t been caught—the sumbitch went to ground.

Gadwall enters the cellar through the twisted remains of a coal chute. There is enough light to see that the walls are water-stained, bullet-chipped. An exploded boiler gapes in a corner. Gadwall kicks at a hint of cloth beneath blackened bricks. It’s a pair of trousers with a folded square of paper in one pocket. He opens a cartoon drawing of a tailor hemming a suit of human skin, then sets it aflame with his Zippo and drops it to the floor.

Gadwall climbs what’s left of the stairs to the wreckage of the ground floor. Fire has eaten through the flat planes of walls and ceilings. He watches a shred of cloud pass by a gap in the roof like milk poured from a glass. There is nothing for him here.

Another ravaged stairwell. Gadwall’s boots raise puffs in the silted plaster. He smells the joyless odor of rancid fat. A Wermacht mess tin is upended in a nest of scorched wood. He nudges the tin aside. Sifts through the ashes. Finds the scalloped edge of a burnt photograph. The scrap shows a man’s booted foot resting between the scrolled horns of an ibex. It might be anyone; Germany is a land of hunters whose religion is the forest.
Gadwall looks for spoor in the rubble. Something to follow. The only blood sign is his thrumming pulse. On a hunch, he leans out a window facing the street. The wood frame is chewed away; bits of glass wink on the sill. It is a hunter's vista: elevated, with sight lines to three streets and opportunities for what the tactical manuals called enfilading fire. He can see the driver dip his head to light a cigarette, then snap alert as a figure slides down a heap of rubble and limps across the street.


Gadwall twists around in his seat to check the road as he talks to the driver. "What'd he look like?"
"About wore out, sir, like most of them."
The Jeep bucks as the driver shifts gears.
"All in order, sir."
"You catch his name?"

"Wisht I could remember, sir."
"And you're sure he went this way?"
"Sure as you're settin' there, sir. If I'd a known you wanted him detained he'd be here right now."
"How was he dressed?"
"Nothing special. You really got it in for this guy, sir?"
“Take the next right,” Gadwall says.

“Eyes on the road, bud.”


They search a grid of cobblestones and twisted iron. Up ahead, a sergeant and two privates are checking the identity papers of a line of civilians at a footbridge; it is a pantomime with cocked .45s.
"Pull over," Gadwall says.
"Sir," the driver salutes.
The sergeant hands papers back to a man, waving him on.
Gadwall hops out of the Jeep and walks—then trots double-time—toward the bridge. The man has made it across, continuing up the hill on the other side at a goat's steady pace.

One of the privates checking identification turns—straightens up—at Gadwall's approach.

"Watchin' who goes out the back door, sir," the Private says, "Nothin' but broken-down old folks."

Gadwall points at the man across the river. "You get a look at him?"

"Yessir. Wiry little bastard."

"Carry on, Private."

Gadwall squints into raking sunlight, picks out the figure in the trees across the river. The man isn't moving.


A breeze tugs at the hemlocks. Viewed from the bluffs above the river, the town appears flattened and porous, a honeycomb mauled by a bear. Küsters rubs his thumb over the smooth skin where his mustache had been and looks down at the lace-frail bridge, at the small figure in uniform standing beside the black muscle of the river.

The air has the clean scent and taste of distance, honor. During a radio broadcast two nights before, the announcer had said that Reichsmarschall Göering had poisoned himself before he could be executed. The man was not a hunter; never had been.

Küsters eases his weight to his good hip and opens his knapsack. He would like to have a drink of something, make a toast. There is a chunk of hard GI chocolate in his pocket, but he will need it for the journey. He looks back again at the miniature soldier by the bridge, waves once.


Gadwall smokes a Lucky Strike down to his knuckles, watching the figure across the river. There is a twitch of movement, what looks like a raised arm, then nothing. Gadwall slides the silver dagger from the pocket of his tank crewman's jacket, waggles the blade in the sun. There is no response, no need for one.

"See something up there, sir?"

Gadwall lowers the dagger to his side and turns to face the private.

"That pig-sticker's a beaut, sir,” the private says. “You plug a kraut to get it, sir? I've dropped six of them myself."

"You're a credit to your unit."

A vague salute. "I try, sir."

Gadwall looks back at the bluffs.

"You're dismissed, private."


Küsters hangs his wool jacket from a hemlock bough. He will put on Gadwall’s olive drab fatigues and then walk over this mountain and then the one after that and so on, until he gets to the place where movie stars pay good money to shoot moose with antlers as big as plows. The Pine Tree State. He will build himself a cabin on a lake with an Indian name and smoke his pipe in the evenings. And at dawn, he will hunt with Errol Flynn and James Cagney in forests of loden green.

Copyright E.A. Mayer

The Sum of My Existence


I was 23, but you would never have known it. That's a little joke, see, because I was 34 years old at the time and looked every blessed day of it. Why, if I had asked you to guess my age, I would have wagered serious green you would have spit out a figure higher than 34. Like 36, or maybe 38. But that's neither here nor there.

The fact is, I was 23—as in Inspected by 23. If you had ever bought a pair of Walkerized Knock-A-Round casual slacks or Walkerized Deb-N-Air dress slacks, you would know exactly what I'm walking about. Every pair of pants with the T.O. Walker Company label inside the patented Give-N-Take waistband had been thoroughly checked for quality and craftsmanship. And there was a little slip of paper in the right front pocket of each and every pair to prove it. It wasn't much bigger that what you'd find inside a fortune cookie, but let me tell you, if it had my number on it, you could do the rumba all night in those trousers without blowing an inseam. I guaranteed it, and so did my boss, Mr. T.O. Walker. He still does, as far as I know.

Quite a man, Mr. W. His patented Walkerization process—nothing less than a miracle, and I'm not one to use the term loosely. My hat is off to him for coming up with a fabric that only needed a little touch-up with a damp sponge to keep it looking fresh as a baby's dimples. Amazing stuff. And to think he worked it all out on the back of a menu in the spring of '46.

I still believe that folks today have a genuine need for products that save time and labor. For better or worse, cutting corners is the name of the game. And that's where my troubles began.

It started when Number 9 decided to stretch his morning coffee break a good eight minutes longer than the authorized fifteen. Did it three days in a row, until someone fingered him.

Somehow he got it into his head that I was the one who had ratted him out. Just because I wouldn't pitch pennies with him in the smokers' lounge or swap off-color jokes with the rest of his cronies on the day shift. 9 was always after me to take in a lunchtime show with him at the Kupkake Klub up there on Lomax Street. And, of course, I always said no. Thanks anyway. It wasn't that I was as dull as a butter knife. I've always considered myself a stand-up guy and a gentleman to boot. I enjoy a good laugh as much as the next fellow. Once, I even offered 9 half of my peanut butter-and-pickle sandwich and invited him to join me at the midget car races at Hinchcliff Stadium. But he would have nothing to do with me after the coffee break business.

He would just repeat everything I said in a sing-song puppet voice, loud enough for the whole shift to hear. Then he would shake his head and laugh through his nose. Sometimes he would pinch me on the cheek like an old aunt or rub his knuckles real hard on top of my head or flick one of those big fingernails of his against my earlobe.

I had a feeling—a bad feeling—that one day old Number 9 was going to take his shenanigans a little too far. I didn't know what I was going to do when that happened. Who could tell? You never knew who might do something—something serious—some day.


Things changed when a new gal was hired in Quality Control. Got a little more interesting. There was something in the air, and I don't mean Walkerene fibers either. Now I'm not saying that inspecting belt loop stitching on 439 pairs of spearmint green Knock-A-Round slacks is everybody's idea of a pig roast, but having a member of the fairer sex around sure didn't hurt things any. The shift chief assigned her the number 16, but after watching those rosy fingers dance around an inseam, she was sweet 16 in my book.


It was a couple of days later that Number 5 called in sick. At least that was the story she gave the chief. If it wasn't one thing it was another with that gal. Plantar's warts, bone spurs, hammer toes. You know the kind: guzzling Pepto-Bismol for every little burp, all sneezes at the sight of a cat.

For a while, the only sound on the production line was the snap and rustle of Napoleon blue Deb-N-Air slacks being inspected. Then the Chief sat 16 down, right there next to me in 5's slot. That's when things got real quiet. I brushed up against her arms in the act of folding my 38th pair of D-B-N's (I was running ahead of my quota) and begged her pardon without looking her in the baby blues. That would have been too much, too soon. Another man might have been all over her like a fruit fly, but not me. No, sir.

16—sweet 16—worked like a bird in springtime, her pretty hands all aflutter, her elbows as flushed as a robin's breast. I heard her hum part of the theme from Green Acres and decided to chime in, taking up the harmony. Well, that ended that. As I recall, she moved her stool a foot or two away from me.
When the noon whistle screeched, I’d gone through 64 pairs of Deb-N-Airs and rejected seven of them: four because of ill-matched coloration, two for sloppy stitching in the pocket area, and one on account of a fused zipper. Just chew on the consequences of a defect like that, and you won’t be so quick to drop those paper inspection slips all over like they were movie ticket stubs.

At lunch, I took my usual seat in the canteen: back to the wall, third table down. For some reason, that table always got more than its share of condiments, mustard in particular. You’ll see how that figures shortly. I opened my paper sack, rolled the top down for easier access and dug inside for my lunch: Libby’s Vienna sausages, one can; pork rinds, one bag; and Scooter Pies, two.

Number 9 was cutting up at the back table with some of his buddies. There was 12, his tongue lolling around the corner of his mouth while he unscrewed the tops of all the salt and pepper shakers. There was 37, scratching his armpit and trying to talk 22 out of his turkey croquettes. There was 40, tooling a skull design on his motorcycle boots with a fork. 9 was sitting backwards on his chair while he flicked peas at the chief’s bald pate, four tables away.

I noticed that 9 stopped his nonsense and pulled out of his slouch when 16 came through the line. She was wearing a green-and-yellow dress that didn’t leave much room to spare.

The outfit wasn’t lost on 9. He whistled shamelessly, singing: “Li’l Queen Bee, makin’ honey for the hive, Li’l Queen Bee, won’t you be mine?”

16 just nudged her tray past the steam tables, ignoring him.

I should have said something right then, but I didn’t. I just kept eating those Vienna sausages straight from the can, taking care to paint each one first with a dollop of mustard.

It so happened that the only vacant seats in the canteen were at my table. Now, I usually prefer to eat alone, believing it to have a beneficial effect on the digestion, but I was willing to make an exception for the T.O. Walker Company’s prettiest employee. In fact, I was delighted to have her join me and told her so when she tottered up to the table.

“Why aren’t you nice,” she said. Then she gave me a smile, a real 100-watt job, all dimples and lipstick.

“It’s not often that a fellow can dine with such a vision of feminine grace,” I said. Those were my words exactly: vision of feminine grace.

I helped her with her chair, then sat down myself. Having gone through the Vienna sausages and pork rinds, I held off on dessert, giving 16 a chance to catch up.

She held her corn dog with her pinkie extended and ate with quick bites that bared her teeth. By the time she got to her creamed spinach, I was smitten.

I offered her my extra Scooter Pie. “Please,” I said.

“I couldn’t,” she said.

“I’d be honored.”

“No, really.”

“I wouldn’t be asking, if I saw a chocolate eclair or a tub of rice pudding on your tray.”

“I won’t have you taking advantage of my trusting nature!” she shrilled suddenly. “I’m not the kind to stand for it!”

You may well be asking why I was so all-fired bent on having the little lady wolf down a Scooter Pie, and a banana one at that. Well, I’ll tell you: I figured that if I could just get the girl to accept a little treat, getting on her social calendar would be a cinch.

It just goes to show how wrong you can be in matters of the heart. 16 wouldn’t bite—wouldn’t so much as push the thing away—and before I even had a chance to apologize, she was gone, her sensible work shoes smacking the linoleum.

“You’ve got a sickness, trying to make a girl eat more than she should!” she said on her way to the door. “There’s a word for people like you!” She never said what it was.

Not that it mattered. I walked back to the production line a little taller after that. Shoot, we’d just had our first spat.

That Friday night, I was on the State Street express bus, headed straight for Kransky Auditorium. They had quite a program lined up as I recall: Flatcar Terry Gallagher was paired with The Can Opener against Kaiser Kretchmer and Awful Olaf for the main event. A tag-team deal, guaranteed to pack them in.
There I was, sliding around in my hard plastic seat as we took the corners, when I saw her. Her with him. Them. They were standing outside Schimmel’s, and 9 was sizing up 16 while she was reading the menu in the window, her pretty head probably thinking about the Pigs-in-a-blanket platter or a peanut butter sundae with extra jimmies. I knew what he was probably thinking. I could imagine, anyway. Me? I was thinking 16 + 9 = T. T for trouble. And I’m a guy who failed algebra.
I got off at Petunia Street and tucked my shirt in, working it clockwise around the Give-N-Take waistband of my trousers. I had an experimental pair on that night. It was in a yellow fabric that never quite took off with the public. Mr. Walker had picked out the colors himself for a new line of men’s travel wear. Called it the Trav-L Collection. No, it was the Trav-L Kollection. He had it trademarked and everything. Each color was named for a different city, as in Moscow Red and Peking Yellow. Why that line didn’t take off like a Mercury Rocket, I’ll never understand. Of course, it might have been all those zippered map pockets and passport pouches that Mr. W. insisted on putting all over them.
I stood outside Schimmel’s window for a moment, checking both the specials du jour and the part in my hair before going inside. I may have whistled a tune or two: a snatch of To Sir With Love or a bit of the theme from Gunsmoke. There was an empty stool at the counter across from the refrigerated pie case, but I moved on and took a seat with plenty of mirror in front of me. I had to keep my eye on things, and I didn’t want to have my back exposed. There was no telling what 9 might do when cornered.
The waitress was fast enough with the menu, but she didn’t engage in the usual banter about the sorry state of the railroad depot or the bumper car fatality they’d had out at McClosky Park that summer. She had to have been new, just slapping the menu down on the counter like that. She didn’t even mention the specials du jour, which I already knew to be olive loaf on white in the sandwich category and Yankee pot roast in the dinners. There was also a soup: tomato-lima bean with complimentary Saltines. I don’t recall the pies.
I flagged down the waitress, calling her Miss, instead of Danielle, like it said on her name-tag. I wanted her to know that we would never have anything more than a business relationship, if she didn’t change her tune. I don’t think I was being unreasonable.
Danielle brought my fruit cup (one shrivelled grape was lurking under a clump of beige banana slices) and my glass of buttermilk (there were two straws with a wooden coffee stirrer as big as a tongue depressor). But I couldn’t enjoy any of it with all that was going on at the corner table.
9 had just finished stuffing 16 with shrimp and was now plying her with a blue drink in a tall glass. Or was it a tall drink in a blue glass? I tried to get a better view of the thing, swiveling around on my stool for a clear view of it in the mirror. Blue or not, it wasn’t any Shirley Temple. What’s more, the drink had a toy parasol jutting out of it. I didn’t like that. It meant 9 was hiding something.
I pushed the uneaten grape around on the bottom of the fruit cup dish and gave myself a little jolt when I looked at myself in the mirror. I was smiling, but it wasn’t me. It was my face, all right, but it looked like the face of some distant third cousin. Someone I had only met once or twice.
That’s when I began the long, slow walk toward the cozy corner table. I was in no hurry, having both time and the element of surprise on my side. I could picture the look on 9’s moon face when he finally realized what was up. His eyeballs would bulge like walnuts. At that point, I was going to shake my head in disgust or wind my watch or some such thing. I’d fiddle with the old Bulova and yawn, showing plenty of teeth. Like a lion. King of the Jungle. Whatever I did, I was going to let 9 know that I meant business. That’s right—beeswax.
The walk to the corner table wasn’t nearly as long as I’d figured. I’d been fooled by the mirrors. Probably wasn’t the first, either.
Of course, 9 didn’t see me even when I was right on top of him. He was too busy showing off, all caught up in trying to balance a salt shaker on its edge to realize that I wasn’t some busboy who’d come running with breadsticks or a pitcher of ice water.
16 recognized me right off, though. She blinked and said, “Look who’s here.” That’s all. Not Howdy! or Won’t you join us? or What a nice surprise. Not even a smile from those jujube lips of hers. But I don’t blame her for sounding like a 45 played at 33 RPM—I blame 9 and the blue brew he’d been foisting on her. The girl looked as doped as a racehorse.
I jingled the change in my pockets and gave 9 my best ear-to-ear, holding it until he got a good look at me. I believe I could have smiled all night like that, knowing I’d caught him with his paw in the pie basket.
9’s eyes weren’t exactly like walnuts—more like those little round jobs you sometimes run across. Filberts.
“What do you want?” he said.
“Just ante up and take your leave,” I said. “And make sure to shell out enough for the tip.” It all sounded pretty good, and I hadn’t even rehearsed.
He turned to 16 and said, “Get a load of Tex here.”
I don’t know if he said that because of my zippered ankle boots or because I had my hands at my side, ready to go for my nail clippers if he pulled any funny stuff. Either way, I took it as a compliment, having always had an abiding respect for anyone from the Lone Star State and their two-fisted ways.
9 shook out more salt and went back to his balancing trick. 16 just looked at both of us and blinked, cute as a kewpie doll.
9 looked up from the pile of salt and said, “Better run along, sport. There must be some taffy-pull or a model railroad club meeting you can get lost at.”
He pulled a quarter from his pocket and flipped it at my feet. “There, get yourself a bubble gum seegar down the street and don’t stub your toe on the way out.”
“I’m taking the lady home,” I said. No, I said, “I’m escorting the lady home.”
9 laughed at that. He was all huck, huck, huck and har, har, har. Like a cartoon dog.
“I don’t see anything funny,” I said.
9 went hyuh, hyuh, hyuh.
“I’m a fair man,” I said. “So I’ll give you ten seconds to make good on the tip and clear out.” By then he was down to nine seconds.
9 wiped his eyes and shook his head. The cigarette behind his ear never moved. 16 looked about the same as she had a moment before, except that her mouth was open now.
“Can’t hardly stand it,” 9 said. Then he was cracking up again, slapping his knee. Going sneck, sneck, sneck through his nose.
“Time’s up,” I said. “We’ve all had enough of your coarse jokes and flimflam. And you can clean up that mess before you trot off.”
“Say, what do you know about salt?” 9 asked, his tone of voice changing suddenly.
“I believe it comes from the ground.”
“Anybody knows that, champ. Tell me something I don’t know. Something original.”
“Well, an antelope will dig out a salt lick with its hooves if it has to.” I had seen this in a library book once, and told him so.
“That right?”
“Let me tell you something, Mr. Dewey Decimal System. They’re all different.”
“Salt crystals. Every one’s different. Just like snowflakes that way.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“Take a look then.”
So I did. 9 waited until I’d gone in real close before blowing that salt in my face like he was going at a birthday cake after making a million dollar wish. If you’ve ever been caught in a full-blown Okie twister, you’ll get the idea. Smarted like a son-of-a-gun. But the worst of it was watching through weepy eyes while 9 paid the tab, one of his hands on 16 and the other in the mint bowl.


I had always tried to be a patient man. Even what they call a long-suffering man. But a fellow can only put up with having his nose tweaked for so long before he starts thinking about things. I’m talking about ideas of an unnatural sort. Irregular notions. Like how someone—no one in particular, mind you—how this someone might go about melting automotive sheet metal using only household materials. Or how someone—just any old person—might fill someone else’s locker with hot road tar. Or whether someone else entirely—some guy off the street, say—whether this party would be able to transfer something—a water moccasin, for example—from a cardboard box in his possession to a trailer home owned by another party, without that party knowing.

When I wasn’t thinking, I was pondering That Night At Schimmel’s. I began to see it as a movie of the week, with Mr. Lee Majors as me and Ernest Borgnine as 9. 16 had to play herself, of course; no one else could capture the way she could look at you out of the corner of her eye. That little dewdrop still rang my bell.


Somewhere along in there, the chief put me on the freak shift. You know, the old midnight-to-dawn stretch. He said it might be just the thing to blow the stink off me. I never did catch his meaning, but I didn’t press him on it. The chief had always been fair with me, and I knew there was plenty on his mind at the time. There was some talk of his wife running off with a radio personality by the name of X.Y. Zipp. Now, how could I refuse a man with a suitcase full of worry like that?
Truth be told, I didn’t mind the monster shift. I’d take the 11:41 bus—that’s P.M.—to the factory and spend those seesawing 27 minutes thinking of all the other folks who labored in darkness: coal miners, night watchmen, mushroom growers. All honorable, specialized trades.
After my shift, I’d hop the 8:09—make that A.M.—back to my studio efficiency at the Monte Cristo Towers and watch talk shows back to back, while I ate frozen waffles spread with cream cheese. At other times, I’d eat pickled onions and cocktail franks, spearing them with toothpicks while I read the small-space ads in Field & Stream.
I must confess to having had some trouble getting enough shut-eye during those first few weeks, but a sleep mask and a set of rubber ear plugs soon fixed that.
It was these small successes that helped me to form the belief that there was an answer—a simple solution—to any and every problem; it was all just a matter of trusting your heart.
Which brings me to one particular night on the freak shift. I had been checking the pocket stitching on the new Eur-O-Pean line, as I recall. It was all slippery-looking stuff, tailored with what Mr. Walker called that Continental flair. I didn’t care for it myself.
As usual, I was way ahead of my co-workers. So I got to thinking. You know—thinking. One quick peek down the line at 9 running his paws all over those pants like a circus poodle was all it took to set things straight in my mind. Some might say it was a chance occurrence—9 being on the Frankenstein stretch that night—but I’m not one of them. The workings of a Higher Power, that’s what it was.
I was feeling mighty chipper by the time the whistle blew for the 3 A.M. break. I had a plan and fifteen minutes—all the time in the world, as far as I was concerned. I also had a hunter’s moon.
Most of the other boys—47, 8, 22, 10—were horsing around in the lounge, playing gin rummy for bottle caps or buying combs and orange peanut butter crackers from the machines with slug coins, so I was out the door and into the parking lot before anyone could catch on. Not that there was anything to catch on to. I was just taking a little night air, right? Why, sure. You know me.
According to my Bulova, I had twelve whole minutes before the night chief yanked the frayed cord by the clock outside the office. A man could do plenty in twelve minutes—get married, cross state lines, pull a trigger, say the Lord’s Prayer about 26 times.
I had something else in mind. Something better, to my way of thinking. Thinking—there I go again.
The parking lot was as bright as a showroom floor with that big hubcap moon rolling up. Perfect for a little tire kicking. 9’s Buick wasn’t in his usual spot at the far end of the lot. No, he had parked that barge of his right in Mr. Walker’s specially reserved space. It was just like him. Some said that boy had nerves like Houdini, but I wasn’t one of them. I had a few tricks of my own.
My plan sort of shook itself into place while I stood there examining the lines of that General Motors beast by the light of the silvery moon. A light rain was falling, whispering almost.
Windshield wipers, it said. I looked the parking lot up and down, but I was alone.
Remove them, said the rain. What could I do but oblige?
I had only eight minutes left and the rain still had plenty to say. Plug tailpipe with three rocks and a Zagnut Bar wrapper. Prune sideview mirror. Engrave “Official Pace Car of the Daytona 500” across the trunk with a beer can pull-tab. Trim radio antenna. I’d always been a good listener.
By the time I marched past the sign that said T.O. Walker Company—Fashion’s Future Since 1938, I had three minutes left, one Buick hood ornament in my pocket, and a song on my lips. My Favorite Things, I think it was.


You can imagine the look of surprise on 16’s face when she opened the little box I’d wrapped so nicely and put on her stool so quietly while she was in the ladies’ room during the break the following night. She held the hood ornament close to the buzzing fluorescent work lamp, dangling it from the loop of shipping twine I’d so thoughtfully added.


You can also imagine me opening the following letter:

TO: Quality Control Inspector #23
FROM: The Chairman and Chief Executive Officer
RE: Termination of Employment

I’ve been around, young man. I’ve traveled the oceans in steam-powered vessels, eaten unnamed foods, felled beasts weighing several hundred pounds with a single four-ounce bullet. Yet, one thing remains a mystery to me: why a man of sound limb and some intelligence, however limited—why such a man would destroy the personal property of his beneficent employer? And in such an underhanded manner? Like a yellow-eyed jackal in the night. Son—and I do think of you as a son—I can only shake my head and pray that the skills you learned here at the plant will serve you in good stead in the state facility. Perhaps you can earn the odd cigarette now and again with whatever portion of your faculties has remained intact.

With regret,
T.O. Walker

P.S. The automobile was a gift from my third wife in commemoration of the Company’s 50th Anniversary. Had you committed your deed in daylight, you would have observed that the interior was upholstered in our Cleveland Brown fabric, all Walkerized, of course.


They led me out of the factory in ice cold handcuffs. A deputy with a walkie-talkie and a high school ring asked me if I wanted to put my windbreaker—a size 40 Walker Weath-R-Bust-R—over my head. I declined his offer.

9 must have heard the ruckus, because he was off the line before the break, loitering around the soda machine with a cigarette jouncing between his lips.
“Watch this one, officer,” he said. “I’ve known him to steal communion wafers just so he could make little sandwiches for a week.”
A stone-faced lie, if ever there was one. At every communion service I’ve attended, the Body of Christ was always diced Wonderbread.
16—plain old 16 at that point—sashayed over to 9 and gave him a kiss like an Electrolux on the carpet setting. Noisy.
“We’re what you’d call an item,” she said. “Been going steady for five weeks, three-and-a-half days.” She was fooling with the Buick symbol at her throat when she said it. Smiling, too.
“That should work out nicely for everyone, then,” I said. “He can change the channels for you, and you can tie his shoes.”
9 came at me with a root beer bottle when he heard that, but the deputy and some of the Walker security boys held him back. They said things like It ain’t worth it and You’re bigger than that and Mr. Walker wouldn’t want a scene now, would he? 9 wasn’t having any of it, though.
“What do you have to say for yourself now?” he said. “I got the girl, I got my job—what do you got, peewee?”


I’ve got a few more digits now. These days, I’m 70481. If you don’t believe me, come on out during visiting hours. I’ll run a few card tricks by you, show you how to shine a watch crystal with toothpaste. You can read the back of my denim shirt.

Copyright E.A. Mayer