The Interview  |  Terry Nova



We pay our authors, but we can’t do it alone.
How does it work?  Each author earns royalties from the donations you give.
If you like an author or story, tell us in a donation, and you will have supported that author directly.
Praise is nice, but nothing helps an author more than putting your money where your praise is.


So, what is this story and author worth to you?



             “So, how you holding up?”
             I am having lunch with Jamie in a taquería overlooking the 10 freeway near Santa Monica. The place is situated between a car repair shop and a gas station. Everything faintly smells of gasoline.
             I think of my empty bank account. I think of all my belongings in a neat little pile, just waiting until I sublet my place to strangers off AirBnB.
             “Still broke as fuck,” I say.
             “Shouldn’t someone like you have no problem getting a job?”
             “Well, I got an interview with Omnicon.”
             Jamie laughs and takes a bite from her taco. “I interviewed with Omnicon once.”
             “What was it like?”
             “They are a weird bunch.”
             “How you figure?” I ask.
             “Well, it’s just a weird place. They only interview on certain days, so you immediately feel like cattle. Then, they ask you lots of technical questions. It doesn’t matter if you have no technical background. They never asked me about any of the predator models I made, they just …”
             “Asked trivia questions?”
             “Well, more like basic technical questions. You know, you tech people really don’t know how to handle people. No other industry uses riddles to choose who it hires. Social skills matter.”
             “Anything weirder?”
             “They really don’t like answering questions. You’ll see what I mean.”
             I kinda got the feel for what Jamie meant. During my phone interview, after an hour of talk about a block of code.
             “So we are out of time, is there anything you want to ask me?” the interviewer had said.
             “Yeah,” I replied, “so, what exactly do you want me for?”
             “Yeah, uh, that’s a totally normal question to ask. I’ll, uh, get back to—”
             Click.


♥♥♥


             I had assumed that I failed the phone screen, until I got an email three weeks later, asking which airports I wanted to fly out of. I opted to fly out of Burbank and to have a car drive me to a friend’s place in a beachside town. Frank was an old school hacker and usually knew the deal.
             We drag lawn chairs to the sand and smoke cigarettes, while staring at the ocean.
             “They’re a Fed shop,” Frank says.
             “A what?”
             “Feds. Federal agents. They do dirty work for the government.”
             “So?”
             “That means they’ll want you to get a TS clearance.”
             “A TS?” I ask.
             “Top Secret. Maybe even TS/SCI, as in Sensitive Compartmented Information. Government contractors usually need to get the highest level possible. It’s not surprising that they couldn’t tell you anything. I doubt anyone but the actual team could tell you what you’d be working on. Same shit happened to Todd at Teletier.”
             “I’m sure it’s not all that way.”
             “They only have one customer, and it’s three letters,” Frank said. “You will need to get a clearance. Probably a polygraph, too.”
             “You mean, a lie detector test? Do those even work?”
             “It doesn’t matter. But it does matter that if you take one, you pass it. This isn’t like one of your college exams. Failing a polygraph is almost a crime, and there are no do-overs. They will ask a lot of uncomfortable questions. Whatever you do, don’t lie. Not during, and never afterward.”
             “What kind of questions?” I stared back at Frank.
             “Have you smoked any marijuana? Do you watch porn? Do you watch gay porn? Have you ever lied on your taxes? Have you ever lied on a legal document? Have you ever stolen from a close friend? Have you ever cheated on your wife? Have you ever hit your wife?”
             “They can’t ask me the right questions,” I reply, deadpan.
             “You think they don’t know your record? You think they don’t know about your time in Nicaragua? You think they won’t talk to every person you ever worked with or for? The last guy I knew, after failing on the wife-cheating question, was put in front of a phone, and told, ‘Call her.’ These people want to make sure you can’t be blackmailed.”
             “I can’t be blackmailed.”
             “I can blackmail you on just the stunts you pulled this year. Be honest, or even better, get another job.”
             I slump down in the chair and then into my arms. “I’m fucked. I need this job. What the fuck am I going to do if I don’t get this?”
             “You know things don’t have to be so desperate?” Frank replies.
             “How you figure?”
             “Just sell your shit and live by the beach. You don’t have to do this.”
             “I like my shit.”
             “So, stop torturing yourself and just do something else. You aren’t fit for government work. You’re too easy to read. Do something else, and maybe you won’t end up in a body bag.”
             We walked back and watched standup comedy, until I fell asleep on the couch.


♥♥♥


             I woke up at 7 a.m. Ready to take the train into the city. I walk out the door, only to see a man standing next to a black Lincoln Town Car. He looks like he was about to call me.
             “You Greg?” asks the driver.
             “Yes,” I reply. “Who are you?”
             “I’m here to bring you to Omnicon.”
             “I thought I was only getting a lift from the airport?”
             “They insisted someone bring you. Wouldn’t want to be late to your interview.”
             I look at the driver again. Omnicon headquarters is an hour away. They paid to have this guy drive down here. I looked back at Frank’s house, grabbed my laptop bag, and got into the car.
             We drove in mostly silence. At some point, the driver made small talk.
             “So, what are you interviewing for?” he asks.
             “No idea. They wouldn’t tell me.”
             “Huh, that doesn’t happen often.”
             “Do you know anything about Omnicon?”
             The driver chuckles and doesn’t answer. We don’t exchange any more words until we reach headquarters. It’s a regular brick building right next to Stanford. It’s common for Valley companies to be next to the University. Omnicon hugs the border where the University meets Palo Alto. They must really like recruiting those Stanford kids.
             I thank the driver, and walk in.


♥♥♥


             Two women are sitting at the reception table. I walk up.
             “Hi,” I say, “I’m Greg Volkner. I have an interview today.”
             One of the women looks down and nods. “Great! We just need to ask some questions first.”
             “All right.”
             “Are you a U.S. citizen?”
             I blink. I don’t remember ever being asked this by a person. “Yes.”
             “Do you have a state-issued ID?”
             I hand over my driver’s license.
             She looks down and asks, “Do you have a passport?”
             “Not on me.”
             She seems disappointed. She turns and looks at the woman next to her, then down at my license again. And scans it. “We need to photograph you.”
             “Why?”
             “We need to photograph everybody on the premises. You consent by being on the premises.”
             Before I can respond, they are pointing a camera at me. I don’t get to see how my picture came out.
             “We need you to sign this,” the woman says.
             I am handed a four-page NDA form. It outlines everything I am allowed and not allowed to say about what is about to happen. I am not allowed to say anything nor to encourage others there to say anything to me.
             “Can we strike some of these clauses?” I ask.
             “If you wish to discuss this document, we will need to reschedule the interview and talk with our lawyers.”
             I grab the papers and sit down. The woman watches as I sit and jots a note on a piece of paper. I sign the document and hand it back.
             She smiles. “Just relax for now, and someone will come by to pick you up.”
             I sit and look at the other interviewees. There is what looks like a glossy magazine on the table. It has the Omnicon logo on it. We open it, only to find each page filled with zip codes. It has no pictures. None of us knows what to make of it, and we talk about cycling instead. I feel a hand on my shoulder.
             “Hi, I’m Mike,” the voice that matches the hand says. “You must be Greg?”
             “Yep.”
             “How’d you get here?”
             “Oh, just fine.”
             We make our way into a white room. As we enter the room, another man enters the room, as well.
             The second man smiles and turns to me. “Hi, I’m Sean. I’ll just be watching you guys. Consider me a ghost.”
             “O … kay …”
             At this point, Sean sits quietly in a chair in the corner. Michael looks at me and jots some notes. He begins.
             “So, I am going to ask a question, based on a problem I solved here not long ago,” Mike says. “Here at Omnicon, our clients frequently need access tokens. These access tokens are encrypted on our servers before being served to the clients. Write me an algorithm to deliver these tokens.”
             “What are access tokens?” I ask.
             “They are a method to—”
             “No, I mean, are they, like, passwords?”
             “They are numbers. Sequentially generated.”
             I pause and slowly write the solution.
             Mike stares at what I wrote. “Perfect. How long will that take to run?”
             “It’s linear in the code size.”
             “No, I mean, exactly how long?”
             “You mean, like, in seconds?” I ask.
             “Well, microseconds, really.”
             I turn and look at Sean. He has no expression on his face.
             “So,” I begin, “we can assume encryption per token is 100 nanoseconds.”
             “It’ll be a microsecond,” Mike corrects me.
             “No, 100 ns sounds right,” Sean remarks.
             “So, about 4,300 microseconds,” I reply.
             “Actually,” Mike says, “it’s 4,350 microseconds.”
             I pause and look back at the board. Am I being tested on arithmetic?
             We move on to another problem. It goes in a similar way. The hour ends. Another pair of people comes into the room, while Mike and Sean leave. Again, one sits off in the corner and says nothing.
             I am quizzed on currency conversions and which world events are likely to affect which commodities markets and which currencies. This interview ends early. The interviewer asks me if I have any questions.
             I ask, “Does this job require a security clearance?”
             The interviewer laughs, and both men leave.


♥♥♥


             Another pair of men enters.
             “Hi, I’m Peter,” the first says. “Do you need water?”
             “No, I’m fine,” I say.
             “Hey, I’m Mitchell,” the second man says. “I’ll just be here to watch the interview. Don’t mind me.”
             “All right,” Peter begins, “so, I am going to show you a system, and you tell me all the ways it leaks classified information.”
             I am brought in front of a monitor. This was a program that pulls news stories from a wire feed, checks if a user has access, and only displays the stories for which he does.
             “We have to make sure the user doesn’t know that content was censored,” explains Peter.
             We go back and forth, as I make sure all the cases are handled. I miss a case.
             “Now, what were to happen if the user counted every time we made a server request? He would see something was wrong. You need to obfuscate this!”
             I nod.
             “So, do you have any questions for me?”
             “Nope.”
             “Great! It’s lunchtime for you now.”


♥♥♥


             I walk out of the room to find Vishal and a coworker of his. Vishal and I used to work together at an online dating company. His job had been to estimate the intelligence of a user based on what she wrote in her profile. He seemed very cheerful.
             “We’re here to take you to lunch,” he says. “So, where do you want to eat?”
             “Somewhere quiet. Somewhere without too many people.”
             We walk a few blocks, until we are in what looks like a residential area. We enter a Vietnamese restaurant and order.
             “So, why are you here? I thought you left Pasadena for better things,” I ask.
             Vishal had quit the company to go off and join a graduate program at Stanford. He was to be doing cutting-edge robotics research.
             “Eh, it didn’t really work out,” he says. “Stanford isn’t like Caltech.”
             “How so?”
             “Like, no one just does science here. Everyone is, like, trying to start a company. I get pitched products everywhere I walk.”
             “What about your advisor and the robots?”
             “No robots. David is largely just doing his company and making us do bitchwork for it.”
             “So, no robots.”
             “No robots.” Vishal looked around and then continued. “So, I did an internship during the summer for Omnicon. David didn’t have anything for me, so I figured, why not?
             “What actually are you doing at Omnicon?”
             “Well, we are really this new group. There are only three of us, so far. Me, Henry over here, and Rex. You won’t meet Rex today, but you’d like him.”
             “Okay.”
             “So, historically, Omnicon has avoided Artificial Intelligence technologies. This mostly has to do with error and being able to blame somebody when things go wrong. In normal places where AI is deployed, if the algorithm makes a mistake, it’s just a weird movie recommendation. Mistakes for Omnicon involve kicking down the wrong door or bombing the wrong place.” Vishal makes a motion with his foot and laughs. “So, they have been hesitant to use this technology, until recently. Now, they still aren’t sure how and where to apply this, so they have created this small strikeforce inside the company. The idea being, we get dispatched onto different projects that need AI, help them, and then, leave.”
             “Who do you report to?”
             “We report to whichever group we are embedded within, but they don’t have final authority over us.”
             “Who does?”
             “That’s not how Omnicon works,” Vishal says. “Omnicon doesn’t really believe in structure. You ask for resources, and you do whatever you want.”
             No wonder nobody could tell me what my job would be; there was no official job responsibility.
             “What kind of projects are we talking here?” I ask.
             “Henry, do you think we can show him the Transactions?”
             “Probably,” Henry shrugs.
             Vishal says, “Well, besides Transactions, we usually analyze news articles for mentions of political actors, and one group wants us to detect customer fraud automatically.”
             “Seems pretty standard,” I say.
             We get our food and eat. Henry keeps looking at his watch.
             “We should hurry,” he finally says. “They want Greg in the demo by 3. If we want to show him Transactions, we should go in a few minutes.”
             We pay and make our way back into the Omnicon building. Vishal grabs his laptop from his desk and walks into a conference room. Henry plugs a cable into the laptop, and a projector blinks on, showing a map. I recognize it as Philadelphia.
             Vishal begins, “So, we have transactions.”
             “What do you mean by ‘transactions’?”
             “Financial transactions. A record of when money moves from A to B.”
             “What are these transactions of?”
             “No. No. This is all of them.”
             “All of them?”
             “Yes,” Vishal nods, “this is all financial transactions.”
             “So, this is from World Bank?”
             “Not an NGO.”
             “Is this banks?”
             “Could be a bank.”
             Vishal taps some keys. The map fills with red dots. He clicks next to the map, and the map is cut into many tiny squares. “The red dots are some of our retail clients. These little boxes are each a household. When we click on one, it shows everywhere the household spends its money.”
             As he clicks, thin tendrils grow out of the square to connect to many of the red dots. Some of the tendrils grow and loop back onto other squares. They are tracking money between people, as well.
             “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Vishal grins.
             “Real Modern Marvel. So, where do I come in?” I reply.
             “We need you for prediction.” Vishal gestures to a yellow area without any red dots nearby. “We need you to predict if a store opens up here, who will buy here and how much they can expect to make.”
             “Could this be used for other purposes?” I ask.
             “The more uses for this data and these algorithms we find, the better.” Vishal smiles.
             Henry interrupts the presentation to point out that I am running late to the main company demo. We walk out and make our way to the conference room where the demo is happening.
             “Hopefully, they show you System 39. That thing is kinda cool, I guess,” Vishal remarks. We round the corner, and Vishal looks through the glass at the presentation. “Aww, looks like System 35. Well, have fun anyway.”


♥♥♥


             I walk through the door to find a room full of people staring at me.
             “Hey … sorry I’m late. I’m, uh, Greg.”
             The presenter looks at me and smiles. “Hey, I’m John. Just grab a seat in the back.”
             I sit and look around. The room is nearly full. It’s all the other potential hires. I look to the front, and seated across from John is another guy ... just watching John.
             John continues where he left off, “This is Omnicon’s patented system for detecting fraud. As we can see, large amounts of money are moving away from these people. This is suspicious, so we check where it is going.”
             A network appears with silhouetted heads in a glowing green swirl that are linked up to a group of red silhouetted heads. With a click, the red silhouettes swirl and appear over West Africa.
             “Now, there is nothing wrong with money going to Africa, but in these coordinated quantities, it is suspicious. Let’s start freezing these accounts. Any questions, so far?”
             I raise my hand. “How feasible is this visualization, when most fraud involves hundreds of actors spread throughout the world?” I ask.
             John stares at me. I don’t think I was supposed to talk.
             “Yeah, uh, it’s something that we struggle with. But it’s definitely an issue,” he replies.
             He finishes this example and goes to the next example. A map appears. It’s Iraq.
             He continues, “One of the big requests from our clients is making geographic data easier to manage. The following is civilian causality data for a classified region outside of Baghdad. Now, we can see this large spike in deaths around the autumn of 2006. Can anybody tell me why he thinks that is?”
             No one in the room responds. Is there any situation where we can sensibly respond? I follow everyone’s lead and say nothing.
             “Nobody?” he asks. “Well, this surge in violence coincides with a massive weapons import from the Mehanani insurgent fighters in Fallujah. Now, let’s see if you guys get this next question. Why did the violence fall off eight months later?”
             The room is still silent. The guy watching John is smiling, but the man never looks at us.
             John pauses for another moment before continuing, “That’s right. Within eight months, we completed building a security perimeter for this region. You can tell the wall boundaries by how the deaths map out a square.”
             He points with his mouse, and I can faintly make out a square. He asks if we have questions, and again, no one answers.
             He moves on to a document annotation demo. John is showing how analysts must label diplomatic cables from the various embassies for further study. He asks us if we have any questions.
             I raise my hand. “Are those cables like the WikiLeaks stuff?”
             There is silence.
             “What do you mean?” John asks. The man watching John is frowning.
             “Yeah, there was this massive leak of diplomatic cables. You know what I mean. I was just asking, are these like those?” I respond.
             John doesn’t answer and continues the presentation. Two minutes later, a woman enters the room.
             “Which of you is Greg?”


♥♥♥


             I exit the room. And face the woman.
             “Hi,” she says, “I’m Amy from HR. We just wanted to thank you for taking time to chat with us at Omnicon.”
             “Am I done, then?”
             “Yes. Here, let’s walk out.”
             Amy leads me to the elevator. As we walk in, another man walks in with us. Amy asks how I enjoyed my day, as we descend.
             As we leave to the lobby, we all exit the elevator. Amy and I sit in two leather chairs in the lobby. The man sits in a nearby one, facing us, as well.
             “So, do you have any remaining questions of Omnicon?” Amy asks.
             “No. None. Not at all.”
             “Okay, well, we have a shirt. We think it’s your size.”
             It’s a size too big. It has Omnicon’s mascot—an owl. I never realized Omnicon had a mascot. The shirt has a stoic owl, with a caption of, Omnicon: Wisely Watching.
             “I really am a size lower.”
             Amy disappears. The man across the lobby keeps looking at me. Amy reappears with a new shirt and escorts me from the building.


♥♥♥


             I immediately start texting Frank: This place is fucked up. Everyone is watching everyone. Ask me later about the transactions.
             Frank calls me. “So, how was your polygraph?”
             “I didn’t have … uh … hold on,” I stammer.
             As I have been walking away, I realize I’m being followed. Two people are following me out of the Omnicon building. I turn and look at them. They wave at me and keep walking. I am now a few blocks away. I shut my phone and put it in my pocket.
             “Hey, Greg. Do you have a minute?” a stranger approaches and reaches out to shake my hand.
             “Sure. What’s up?” I ask.
             “Oh, nothing. Let’s just chat for a bit. Would you like some coffee?”
             We walk to a nearby coffeeshop. We walk up to a table, and I notice someone is already sitting there. It’s Vishal.
             “Hey. Not long, no see.” Vishal smiles.
             “Yeah ...” I mutter.
             The stranger walks away and says he’ll catch up with Vishal later. There is no one else in the coffeeshop.
             “So, what’s up, man? This is all really weird,” I start.
             “Eh, Omnicon is an odd group. We still don’t know how to work them,” Vishal says. “You know, when they first offered me a job, I told them I would only take it if I could use Artificial Intelligence. As I kept at it, they eventually made a new team for me and a new job. This job we have didn’t exist … doesn’t exist. We don’t know how to interview for it or what to look for. But process gets in the way. They asked me to find more people that could do this. So, I thought of you. It’s all still new, and no one knows what’s going on, but I hope we didn’t scare you off.”
             “You guys have an interesting company culture,” I reply, dryly.
             “Yeah, well, maybe we can change that. Whatever happens, let’s hang out soon. This place gets boring.”
             I get up, give Vishal a hug, and walk out of the coffeeshop. Look around for anybody looking at me. The streets are empty.
             I notice a text from Frank: Have you been kidnapped?
             I then walked to the train station and left town.


** Author note: Parts of this story are true and parts are false. I am not legally allowed to tell you which is which.


♥ End ♥



Terry Nova is a freelance consultant for various large and eccentric companies. He has proudly never owned a killer robot.

Do you Kindle?

We feature a Kindle-friendly PDF (That means actually formatted for reading!) of each story for free download each day, available for a limited time. Don’t delay; download today! Just want a plain ol’ regular PDF? Sure, we’ve got that, too. Need help? Check the sidebar.

The sponsor for today’s fabulous story is Hardly Square, a strategy-, branding-, and design-based boutique located in Baltimore, Maryland, that specializes in graphic design, web design, and eLearning courses. Please support our sponsors. We couldn’t do what we do without them. Sponsors do not necessarily endorse the message of the story, only provide funding for the Go Read Your Lunch series. Want to become a sponsor? Here’s how.


Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

The Abbey  |  Alan Catlin



We pay our authors, but we can’t do it alone.
How does it work?  Each author earns royalties from the donations you give.
If you like an author or story, tell us in a donation, and you will have supported that author directly.
Praise is nice, but nothing helps an author more than putting your money where your praise is.


So, what is this story and author worth to you?



                    “The dust of years wandering lies on their boots
                    and their faces; their clothes are torn, their sticks 
                    rough and worn. They must have wandered by the 
                    year before reaching this place.”
                                      —Joseph Roth, Hotel Savoy


             You don’t get to see an outfit every day like the one she had on. Especially not for last call in a neighborhood bar. Not that you’d see it anywhere or any time else, either—unless you worked with monks and Discalced Carmelite nuns for a living. You can bet the farm, no Carmelite nun would be ordering firewater served in shot glasses at quarter to four on a Sunday morning, unless she had been held a captive in one of the strictest Catholic orders known to man. Unless, that is, she was making up for lost time in a hurry, spending the rectory’s petty cash collection all at once, in a mad dash to hell and damnation that no bible verses or papal blessings could undo.
             It was amusing, however, to think of her and the cohorts as way-fallen-from-grace—little sinners on parade. I watched as they gathered to form a kind of clique or coven of like-dressed monks and monkettes, as if on some surreal ungodly mission that I could only suspect the purpose of. I guessed, though, there was a more rational explanation for their distinctive duds than my purely imaginative explanations.
             “What’s with the robes?” I asked the sweet, young forerunner of the group.
             “Haven’t you heard?” she replied.
             “This is the Rapture, and I’m not invited?”
             “Good answer, but no. We work at the Abbey. It’s, like, the ‘in’ place to go.”
             “In place to go do what?”
             “Where have you been, dude?”
             “Under a heavy-duty rock, working hard, and getting nowhere fast.”
             “I believe that,” she said. “Really, like, you’ve got to check it out. It’s a cool place. You wouldn’t believe the crowd we’ve been getting for happy hour.”
             “Yes, I would.”
             “There isn’t a happy hour anywhere like ours, though. It’s from eleven at night until one in the morning.”
             “That’s interesting,” I said. “Which one of the twin cities is it in?”
             “Twin cities? You mean, like, Minneapolis and St. Paul?”
             “Sort of like that, yeah, but not really. I mean is it in Sodom or Gomorrah?”
             “You’re a riot. Gomorrah, definitely. Ain’t no sodom going on under these robes.”
             “I believe that. Eleven to one, huh? That’s inspired thinking. Who came up with that strange happy hour idea?”
             “I guess Mr. Walker. He’s the guy who runs the place.”
             “Mr. Walker. What’s he look like?”
             The guy she described sounded suspiciously like someone I’d known from a ways back, an evil genius of the bar-wars trade. He was the kind of guy who would try anything as long as it was outrageous and unconventional, the kind of guy who would come up with a morning happy hour for the third shift. And the kind of guy who would have a happy hour with midnight in the middle of it. That would be a kind of drinker’s paradise for the soak-head crowd that would give Midnight Madness new meaning. It was so clever that it was diabolical and doomed not to last. The kind of carnage something like that could create boggles the mind.
             “So, seriously,” I asked, “where is this place?”
             “About six or seven miles up the road. Just the other side of Guilderland Center.”
             Jesus, that was one warped idea. Guilderland was known as the community with the strictest, most unfeeling, hard-edged, drunk-driver-crucifying police force on earth.
             “What’s the deal with this happy hour?”
             “Rack drinks are a buck. Heineken and Bud bottle a buck, and name cocktails, like Manhattans and martinis, are two for five bucks, your call on the brand. You’ve got to check it out. You wouldn’t believe the money we’re making there.”
             “I think I will. What’s your name? I’ll be sure to look for you.”
             “Amanda. Everyone calls me Mandy, though. If you’re good, I’ll let you call me Mandy.”
             I wondered how much being good cost. Probably five bucks as a tip for a round of drinks, for starters.
             “I guess I’ll have to check it out. One thing I’d really like to know,” I asked.
             “What’s that?”
             “It’s kind of personal.”
             “How personal?”
             “What do you wear under those robes?”
             “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
             “Actually, I would.”
             “Come see us, and maybe you’ll find out.”
             “See you around, Amanda-who-might-be-Mandy.”
             “See you, too.”
             It would have to be soon. That was one happy hour that wasn’t going to last more than a few weeks, no matter who “Mr. Walker” was paying off.


♥♥♥


             I hated to take a Friday night off when the locusts were in session over at the State University. A decent bartender could make as much as the GNP of one or two good-sized Central American banana republics. I was better than half-decent at my job, despite my near-legendary bad attitude. Still, sacrifices had to be made in the name of knowing thine enemy. I had to admit, I was much more interested in knowing Amanda, in all senses of the word, than I was in finding out the skinny on the so-called enemy, this competitor in the trade.
             Besides, I was fairly certain I knew all about Mr. Walker, as he was calling himself these days. We’d done some serious time together in a jamming bar, fighting off the barbarians with sticks and oversized shot glasses. He thought he was in a league all by himself as Primo Supremo Bartender Numero Uno, until he met me. I had some moves he hadn’t even imagined, and I could answer most of the questions he threw at me from the GRE specialized test in Eng Lit he was threatening to take, “One of these days, when it was time to move on, into bigger and better things far removed from bars.”
             Like that would actually happen. Guys like us get stuck in the quicksand of hard cash, fast women, and lightning from the bottom of a bottle of booze. Any intimation to the contrary was just a line of bullshit that smelled so bad, none of us actually believed it, even as we spoke the line. That line was spoken more than a few years ago, now, and neither one of us had moved that much further down the path of getting out than changing addresses and, in his case, a name or two. It would be kind of cool to catch up and trade a few lies and scam a few drinks for old time’s sake.


♥♥♥


             I started out with a quick pint at the joint, knowing one was the limit, lest I got sucked into the black hole of being in the place where you worked on your own time. The one hard and fast rule of business is: Never go to the place where you work on your time because, without fail, some crisis will develop that you will be called upon to rectify. Usually, without recompense.
             Closely following that law is a corollary: If a crisis does not develop, everyone you know, have known, or ever thought of knowing will turn up and insist upon buying you more drinks than any human being has a right to expect to consume in this lifetime or any other lifetime and you, being the complete fool that you are, would feel honor-bound to accept and to drink every last one of these “sociables.” After which, you will be lucky to have been checked out of the hospital in time to make your next shift, a mere seventy-two hours away.
             Still, it was a risk worth taking. There is only one fluid on earth for the all-important first-beer-of-the-day greasing of the wheels, and that would be a pint of God’s own Guinness.
             That, and I needed some all-important jack. You can never have enough jack when embarking on a fact-finding mission like the one I was about to undertake. Facts like young Amanda were bound to have expensive tastes, and who knew exactly what you might run into during the course of your mission?
             Albany and its suburban were a small, self-contained world, and being a high-profile bartender working the circuit meant you were bound to run into more than a few people you knew. Your profile might list to port, but maintaining the buzz and super cool meant lots of hard work and concentration. And jack.
             Lots of jack.


♥♥♥


             My first big mistake was making “one more wee stop, for one more wee pint” along the way. The first pint had been delicious but only suggested that the age-old adage, “you can’t fly with one wing,” was apt yet again. Faced with the daunting knowledge that the Abbey’s bill of fare no doubt extended from the mundane (Budweiser) to the prosaic, albeit skunky, Green Monsters (Heineken, to the uninitiated) and little or nothing in between. As long as the decision had been made to go all out on this fact-finding mission, gargantuan amounts of alcohol, and whatever else came down the pike, would have to be consumed. There was no reason why what was consumed shouldn’t actually be something you liked.
             So, I pulled over at the last-chance-for-Guinness-before-you-leave-Albany-County sign. There was a good crowd inside the saloon, as there always was. It was a long desert without real imported beer and single malts out there, and the serious drinkers knew it. It might be fifty, a hundred miles in land area barely beyond terra incognito on the state maps, and who knew where that next watering hole was?
             Rotten Richie knew, no doubt. He knew every watering hole in a six-county radius, and, in more than one spot, his picture had a prominent place behind the bar with the admonition: “If you speak with this man, if you serve this man alcoholic beverages, what happens after is disavowed by the management and assumed to have been done so at your own risk—.”
             But that was in the sticks. In the city, they had police forces to take care of folks like Richie, and they knew what to do with a problem child when they had one. The police van they used for such purposes was feared by miscreants of all stripes and color; no misdeed went unpunished once you were inside, and no one could prove that you weren’t bruised and beaten when you entered, because you sure as hell would be when you came out. Where you came out didn’t necessarily have anything to do with where the precinct lockups were located, either. It was always a sound idea to avoid finding out what went into the decision-making process that determined where you ended up or how long it took for you to get there.
             Even Richie had a healthy respect for John Law’s good-humor machine.
             “Good-humor machine?” I asked the first time I had heard the expression applied to the infamous Black Maria of Albany.
             “It puts the cops in a very good humor to get to use it to its fullest capacities.”
             He spoke of the van with a kind of reverence that made me wonder if he had firsthand experience inside. Richie was not known for reverence.
             What he was known for was his Bright Green Pleasure Machine, as he called his bug-eyes Triumph convertible he drove around town like he was the pace car in a personal Le Mans race. Small obstacles, like red lights and stop signs, were mere annoyances to be ignored, except under extreme circumstances that made stopping absolutely unavoidable.
             He had a sixth sense about where patrol cars hid and at what times and seemed to be able to moderate his intemperance according to what this sixth sense told him. Countless nights in a row, you could leave the bar where you were employed, riding shot gun in the machine, with half a vat of scotch on the rocks between your legs as you headed downtown for last call somewhere else, a freshly lit fat rollie between your teeth made from some kind of hydroponic death weed. But one of these times, he would kind of sniff the air and say, “Not tonight.”
             And sure as hell, we’d get pulled over, clean and almost sober. There was no other way to explain how anyone who drove as twisted as he was routinely every single day could still hold a valid New York State driver’s license. I’d seen him pull it out often enough and watched it be examined dozens of times, to be fairly certain it was as kosher as anyone else’s. More kosher than mine, that’s for sure.
             Needless to say, seeing R. R. bellied up at the bar, well into a jug of Jameson and pints of mother’s milk, sighting him thus counted as a mixed blessing. Sure, I could have attempted a quick exit before I was seen myself, but I knew that was futile. Richie and I had tended too long together not to have made it an unconscious habit, a reflex, to check out who was walking in the door at our backs in the barroom mirror. You never knew. Especially in this business. Drinking counted as serious business as much as dispensing the stuff did.
             Still, I viewed potentially hooking up with Richie, not so much as a potential liability, but as finding a partner in crime. One thing Richie was good at was low-life crimes against humanity. Especially when that low life involved wine, women, and DWI. There was one drawback: Richie always insisted he would be the driver, no matter how far gone he was or would be getting.
             I decided to avoid mentioning Amanda altogether and focused on the Midnight Madness. The name was a surefire winner, and the prospect of reduced drink prices to go with the chimes of the hour was too appealing for Richie to resist. Men had died for less. And we’d probably been responsible for those deaths on more than one occasion.


♥♥♥


             Richie ordered, “Dos, mas, dos, por favor,” which the bartender translated into two pints of stout and two shots of Jameson; one of each for the both of us. “What brings you out and about on a Friday night? Not like you to take a night off or for your boss to grant one. Some have dreamed of Friday nights out but never in your boss’ employ.”
             “Don’t I know it.”
             “That’s not really an answer to my question,” Richie said.
             “I’m on a mission.”
             “Any place in particular?”
             “The Abbey. Heard of it?”
             “As a matter of fact, I have. I was thinking of heading that way myself.”
             “Since when?”
             “Since about two minutes ago.”
             “When I brought it up.”
             “When you brought it up. What’s the attraction of the Abbey?”
             “Well, for beginners,” I said, “they seem to have a happy hour from eleven to one.”
             “Really!”
             Rich didn’t have to feign interest in discount drink specials, especially at that hour of the quest—the quest being the search for the perfect high. He’d been pursuing the same for as long as I’d known him, some ten years now, and he’d probably been at it a long time prior to that.
             “And you decided that it was incumbent upon yourself to find out if it was true,” Richie said. “In the guise of keeping a close eye on the competition?”
             “Something like that.”
             “Something like that, my ass. No sacrifice too great for the cause. Whatever. Here’s sod in your eye,” Rich said and fired down his Jameson. I was thinking about how long a night could be drinking this way—or how short—when he said, “Feeling unsociable?”
             “How so?”
             “You didn’t join me in the Irish toast. Come on, now; don’t be shy. It’s unlike you. When it comes to good mother’s milk. We’ll just finish the pint, have one more sweetener, light a little spliffy, and life will be good. We’ll ease on down the road so lightly, you’ll think the tires of the car weren’t touching the highway.”
             “That’s what I was afraid of.” But I drank the shot down anyway, ordered two more for the ditch, and wondered how wide it would be when we finally hit it.


♥♥♥


             Richie’s idea of a little spliffy was roughly the size of a hand-rolled Havana Tampa—something that wouldn’t look out of place in Fidel Castro’s mouth when he was denouncing Running Dog Western Imperialist scumbags. What we were smoking was an appropriate tribute to Richie’s favorite two philosophers of the modern age: Cheech and Chong.
             “Those guys, man, know,” Richie said. “I mean, they have captured the essence of Dasein, what it means to be alive in a modern age of technocracy global dehumanization.”
             If my head would slow down from its current orbit around one of the lesser moons of Saturn, I would have observed that Richie was the prime example of how a little learning about a lot of subjects was a dangerous thing. He gave new meaning to the words, General Studies, that no one could ever have expected, when it was conceived.
             It wasn’t likely that my brain was going to enter Earth’s orbit in the foreseeable future. I decided to go with the sucking of the life force right out of my body and the creation of a new, suborbital being that used to be me. The major problem was the body was still functioning and would be legally responsible for whatever happened in the hours I walked about as a living zombie after the last toke. It wouldn’t be the first time.
             Nor, I suspected, the last time.
             “What was that?” I managed.
             “Good shit.”
             There was no arguing that. I could imagine what was about to happen next: The Blues Brothers Take the Abbey, two retro-hippie types stoned out of their gills, wearing definitely uncool wraparound sunglasses to protect their eyes from the glare of cocktail candles on the café tables. It wasn’t all that difficult to imagine how we would look to some straight boozers well on their way to the daily intake of a vat of Canadian Club. They’d cock their heads in our direction, along with their honey-of-the-moment, then visibly recoil from these obvious slimeball deviants, ringers from another planet, seeking Earthling flesh for an unscheduled flight on a UFO.
             Some hip folks might even relate to how we looked, until we opened our mouths and something like alien speech spewed forth. Alien speech was potentially cool, but it was damned hard to follow and made true conversation nigh on to impossible. Sometimes, folks did clue in to the fact that ten minutes of idle chitchat had been conducted in incompatible languages, and nothing of substance had been said. The ones who took the longest to give up trying to relate were usually narcs who thought they had stumbled upon a major connection to the source for all things illegal in the area. Despite their admirable perseverance under adverse circumstances, they would be disappointed in the end. It was part of the price they paid for being narcs, which was the rough equivalent of being an Irish informer during the Troubles.
             One thing for sure, it was going to be difficult to maintain in this hostile environment. But, like the true soldiers of fortune we were, I had an innate, if misguided, faith in our ability to persevere, no matter how fucked up our situation would get. Besides, I was quite certain that our Mr. Walker would find us soon enough and rescue us from a feeding frenzy by the terminally weird. In our current state, we were not likely to be low profile. Besides, subtlety was never one of Richie’s strong points, even when he wasn’t wired to the gills.
             Or, at least, that was how I imagined us making the scene as we sat in back of Polito’s, breathing in the last redolent toxic fumes of the spliff. And then, the top was down on the Bright Green Pleasure Machine, and we were airborne. Yes, we were airborne rangers on patrol, and then, we were inside the Abbey, and it was just as I had imagined it would be. As I imagined, yes, but much, much worse.


♥♥♥


             We could have used a guide dog to help us to a café table in the dark, but there were none available. A small, overhead stage light was the only discernible illumination in the darkness, besides the flickering votive candles in glass casings. There was something moving out there—dark, hideous shadows like evil spirits; spirits that turned out to be the help in their robes.
             One of them approached us and spoke, “Can I help you?”
             “Table for two,” Richie said, then asked, “Don’t you have trouble getting around in those robes?”
             “You get used to it. Here you go. I’ll send someone around for your order.”
             “I’ll bet you will.”
             A female shadow appeared shortly after, holding a waitress pad and a pencil. It was impossible to see her face with the hood up on her robe. The flickering candle flames cast her in an unnatural light. I was beginning to think coming here wasn’t such a good idea. Coming here with Rich, that is. Coming here with Rich, stoned out of my tree. I felt the fear particular to smoking high-test grass taking over.
             “This place is giving me the creeps,” I said.
             “I kind of like it,” Richie replied. “Reminds me of some kind of black magic rite. Devil worshippers and satanic cults. Cool stuff like that. Do you guys serve steak tartare?”
             “No, we don’t,” the waitress said. “All we have is sandwiches and burgers and some basic appetizers. I could get you a menu, if you’d like.”
             “No, that won’t be necessary. We’ll have two Green Monsters and a wine list, if you have one of those.”
             “Green Monsters?”
             “Heinekens, my child. Forget about the wine list. We’ll just have a flagon of your finest Good Mother’s Milk with two glasses. Bring the Monsters first, though.”
             “We sell bottles of wine, although I’m not sure we have anything called Good Mother’s Milk.”
             “Sure you do; just look under your robe.”
             “Excuse me?”
             “Just kidding. A bottle of Liebfraumilch, please.”
             I watched as the waitress disappeared into the darkness. I thought I heard the Chambers Brothers singing “Time Has Come Today” somewhere in the distance. Ah, the Chambers Brothers, the Hallelujah Chorus for the stoned and the damned, sadly forgotten by all but the most dedicated stoners with whom they had an almost reverent place in the heart next to the Beatles’ White Album.
             “I think there is a good chance she is going to report us to the management,” I said.
             “Good. It will save us the trouble of looking for him.”
             “Well, that’s one way of going about it, I guess.”
             “Trust me. Have I ever steered you wrong?”
             “More times than I can count. Who do you think designed this place? Count Dracula?”
             “Could be. It sort of reminds me of The Fearless Vampire Killers. Maybe we’ll see Sharon Tate before we have to leave.”
             “Sharon Tate is dead; you know that.”
             “I meant the Pre-Manson Sharon Tate. I’d settle for a lookalike.”
             “A lookalike is going to have to do,” I said, as the waitress materialized from wherever it was she got the drinks. I wondered if they carried little flashlights like movie ushers used to have, back in the days before Christ was born, when there were such things as movie ushers.
             “Here’s your Heinekens,” she said. “I’ll get the wine now, if you’d like.”
             “Save your beer glasses, honey,” Rich replied. “We’ll slug the Monster right from the bottle. If you wait a second, you can have my empty, and you can bring us a couple of new ones.”
             I had to hand it to Rich; he sure knew how to get a waitress’ attention. Before she scurried to the relative safety of the service bar area, I decided to ask after my little friend. This could very well be the last opportunity before the summoning of the manager. Rich had that kind of effect on people. I wondered what we’d do if Mr. Walker wasn’t who we thought he was, though I could guess.
             “Plan B,” Rich would say. “There’s always a Plan B.”
             It was better not to know what Plan B was in advance. You’d probably chicken out, and the plan, whatever it was, would lose its spontaneity. Besides, I suspected Rich probably didn’t know what Plan B was, himself, until it was well underway. We’d never been arrested during a Plan B, which led me to the mistaken notion that we must be doing something right. There was always a first time. Especially in this uptight community well known to be hostile toward drunken miscreants under the influence of illegal chemicals. ‘Terminate with extreme prejudice,’ might not have been their motto in this town, but it was damn close.
             So, I asked our server, “Is Amanda working tonight?”
             “Yes, she is. Amanda is working downstairs in the lounge area.”
             “Lounge area?”
             “By the stage. You’ll see.”
             “I’ll take your word for the seeing part. I haven’t seen anything since I got here, including you.”
             There was no good reply for that observation. Taking Rich’s empty bottle, the waitress once more melted into the darkness.
             Rich smirked. “Amanda, huh? You’ve been holding out on me. I thought you said you’d never been here before.”
             “I haven’t. Unless it was in another life or a separate consciousness. You know how your mind sort of astrally projects out of your body, and stuff happens you can’t really swear to after?”
             “Happens all the time. Look, who’s this Amanda chick, anyway?”
             “A waitress, like she said. I met her at the bar. I thought the outfit she was wearing for her work was eye-catching. And so was she. What I could see of her, which, granted, wasn’t very much.”
             “This bears looking into. You’re lagging behind with the Monsters. The Monsters must not be kept waiting.”
             Just then, the stage lights went up, and we saw the pit. Or, more precisely, the U-shaped sunken area that served as the lounge area: small round tables and captain’s chairs crammed together. A server would have to be lithe and agile to make her way around down there. For a brief moment, I thought I saw monks with pointed metal crosses converging for a kill on an unsuspecting patron flinching, sliding unsuccessfully away from the attack against the curve of the wall. Then, a silent scream and the gushing of blood.
             “Finished with that?” our waitress was asking me, meaning my beer.
             “Oh, sorry, just about. Hold on, and you can have the empty,” I said, polishing off my beer.
             “Where did you go?” Rich asked. “I thought, for a minute, that we’d lost you.”
             “Oh, nowhere. Just a brief cinematic flashback. Amazing the kinds of images that stay with you, isn’t it?”
             “Like a naked woman. That’s what this place needs. More naked women. It’s the perfect setting for something Roman. Something like the Satyricon to an acid rock band soundtrack.”
             “Not likely. Those two singers don’t look as if they’d be able to belt out anything like what you had in mind.”
             We listened as they harmonized, singing “Loving You.”
             “I guess you’re right, there,” Rich agreed.
             “Once upon a time, I struggled to name what my least favorite song was. Now, I could recall what that song was. It was “Loving You.” I thought if I heard one more ‘La La La La—,’ I think I might become violent.”
             “Shitfire, yeah. That would get Mr. Walker’s attention. At least drink the beer before you chuck it at the stage. I would suggest something a little subtler. Like some good, old-fashioned heckling.”
             “You’re good at heckling, so be my guest.”
             “Don’t mind if I do,” Rich said.
             I expected the usual bullshit hecklers specialize in. Something like, “I’ve got something you can love.” But not Richie. No, he was going to do something totally unexpected. Like placing a transistor radio on our table and fiddling with the dial to better tune in an Oldies station.
             “You always carry that with you?” I asked.
             “Just about. You never know when you might need one. Like now.”
             “How come I never saw that with you before?”
             “We’ve never been here before. Besides, I guarantee Mr. Walker will notice.”
             “Oh, I’m sure he will.”
             We got to hear the dying strains of “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” the comforting refrain of ‘a wing a wup, a wing a wup’ trying to cut through the static. Nothing like those real Golden Oldies.
             “Reception in here really sucks.”
             “Maybe it’s the weather?”
             I heard the opening chords of the Stones singing, “19th Nervous Breakdown”—“You better stop, look around, here it comes—.” I didn’t expect to hear the guitar riff at the end of the tune, and I was right.
             Instead of our waitress, a slender, curly haired man stood stiffly by our table, a bottle of Blue Nun in one hand and a wine opened in the other, saying, “Perhaps, you fellows would care to join me for a drink. Some place a little more private.”
             “Of course, Mr. Walker,” Rich replied. “Whatever you say. Oh, we haven’t paid our check.”
             “Don’t worry about your check. It’s on me.”
             “Don’t forget the tip.”
             “Don’t push it, Rich. I had a feeling the power-drinking madmen the waitress described might be you and someone else. I didn’t expect Mr. Cool, here, to be your date. I thought he had better taste than that.”
             “Just when you thought you knew someone, he surprises the shit out of you. Keeps life interesting.”
             We stood up, and Richie dropped a five-dollar bill on the table.
             “What’s that for?” Walker asked. “I said the drinks were on me. Provided you come quietly to my inner sanctum.”
             “You were going to stiff our waitress. She deserves better. Usually, the waitress skips informing the manager about people like us and just calls the cops.”
             “And normally, she’d be right on. But I have enough problems with cops already without inviting them to the place.”
             “It wouldn’t have something to do with your Midnight Madness, would it?”
             “Might. What’s it to you?”
             Mr. Walker closed the door of the back room he had taken us into and set a couple of glasses on some liquor cases. “Make yourself at home.”
             “Aren’t you going to join us?” Rich asked.
             “I wouldn’t drink that shit with someone else’s mouth. What made you order that stuff?”
             “It was a joke, actually. But as long as its opened, it would be a shame to waste it.”
             “What wouldn’t you drink, Rich?”
             “When I find out, I’ll let you know.”
             “One thing puzzles me,” I said.
             “What’s that?” Walker asked.
             “What made you choose Mr. Walker as your cover name? I thought you’d choose something more esoteric, more poetic. Something from Shakespeare, something like Gloucester or Northumberland or Kent. Edgar Gloucester. Now, there’s a name for you. Very tragic. Like Lear. And suggestive.”
             “How so?”
             “Because it’s so provincial and allusive. Because it suggests your real name, but not really. Instead, you go for a rock-opera name. Tommy Walker. Jesus.”
             “How did you know I chose Tom as a first name?”
             “Well, didn’t you?”
             “So?”
             “I hold these truths to be self evident. Really, now, why the phony name? Are you running from a process server or what?”
             “Not yet.”
             “Not yet, meaning?”
             “I’m still collecting unemployment under my real name. This gig isn’t going to last.”
             “No shit, Sherlock. I’m surprised you lasted this long without a warrant and a fleet of dudes with drawn guns like escapees from an episode of The Untouchables. How long have you been open? Three weeks? A month?”
             “Six weeks, smartass. The cops aren’t happy, though; I’ll admit that. They’ve been pulling over guys leaving here at an astonishing rate. They might even have to take on new guys to write summonses and to take extra day shifts to cover guys in court. They should be grateful instead of pissed off. Look at all the business I’m sending them.”
             “Yeah, but, and here’s a clue for you all, cops don’t think that way. They get tired of cleaning up after all those Woodchucks playing Lumberjacks with their vehicles on the way home from your establishment.”
             “Geez, if they can’t take a joke—”
             “What exactly is the joke about drunk driving?”
             “You guys tell me; you’re the professionals.”
             I had to admit he had me there. Richie must have spent a small fortune on an invisibility cloak for his vehicle. There was no other explanation for how he managed to get around the way he did, one eye closed, focusing on the middle of the three sets of double lines he liked to follow wherever they took him. Sometimes, he even ended up home, though there were rumors that he had a permanent parking spot behind a local Price Chopper, where he slept off the previous night’s debauchery.
             That is, until the produce trucks arrived, and all holy hell broke out as they unloaded their trucks. I was surprised that there never had been a shooting of deliverymen, cut down in the prime of delivery by a mad gunman in an alcoholic rage.
             More disturbing than the image of Rich semi-conscious and armed for bear, was the tune I was hearing as Tommy waited for my snappy reply to his statement of fact. The song was “Hippy Hippy Shake” by the Swinging Blue Jeans, a song that seemed so unlikely to have a place on a loop tape, that I wondered if it hadn’t been dredged from my consciousness as a particularly surreal auditory hallucination. It wouldn’t be the first time I had an auditory hallucination. Maybe not even the first time today. All I knew was they were not cool.
             Visual hallucinations, well, that was a different story altogether. The night was relatively young, so having a few of those wasn’t totally out of the question. If I were patient, who knew what might happen. The music might even improve.
             “So, what brings you guys out here to the wilderness?” Tommy asked. “A bit beyond your normal bailiwick, isn’t it?”
             “I’m here for the pleasant atmosphere and the decor. He’s here to sniff out some waitron named Amanda,” Richie said.
             Good old Richie, the soul of discretion.
             “Why don’t you just announce it over the house intercom, so there’s no doubt in anyone’s mind?” I said.
             “You have an intercom outlet somewhere around here?”
             “If I did,” Tommy said, “I wouldn’t admit it to you. I’m not that crazy.”
             “Oh, yes you are,” Richie replied, “especially if there were a threat of violence involved.”
             “And to think, I was just about to float a money-making proposal in front of you guys. But seeing as you’re not interested—”
             “Who says we’re not interested?” Rich asked.
             “Well, if you’re going to trash the place, you certainly wouldn’t want to have the jobs I was about to offer.”
             “What jobs?”
             “Weekend shifts, ten to close, under the table, and all the tips you can glom. And Amanda’s home phone. What you do with it and how far it goes is up to you. I hear the numbnuts I have working the bar for me right now are making a couple of bucks easy on the happy hour alone, and neither one of them could handle anything more complicated than scotch and water, though you might have to point out that not all liquor that comes in a bottle is scotch.”
             “When do I start?” Rich asked.
             “I was going to fire them both and have you on, starting, like, in ten minutes, but under the present circumstances, I think next week might be a better idea.”
             “I’m on. What about you, Cowboy?”
             “I have a job, as you well know,” I said. “Not about to leave for love or money.”
             “Too bad. That Amanda is a pretty hot piece of work,” Tommy said. “I guess I’ll just have to give this number to Rich.”
             “You do that, and I’ll bite your wrist. I don’t know about you, but my distemper shots are way out of date.”
             “All right, I’ll give you some time to think it over. Another bottle of wine’s worth. But this time, we’ll have something drinkable.”
             “Amen,” Rich added. “Whose idea was it to drink this swill, anyway?”
             “Yours, I think,” Tommy said. “Don’t go anywhere. I’ll be right back. And don’t even think about opening something else while I’m gone.”
             “Would we do that?”
             “You sure as hell would. So, sit tight and relax. I’ll only be gone a minute. And do me a favor: don’t burn the place down, either.”
             “Jesus, don’t you trust us?”
             “Not for a minute. Not like you are right now, anyway.”
             The door hadn’t been closed more than fifteen seconds before Rich asked, “You think he’s got anything interesting in here worth drinking?”
             “I’m sure he does. I’m also sure that, as your new boss, he might not take kindly to your fucking up completely before you even started working.”
             In my brain-depleted time warp, the Swinging Blue Jeans were replaced by an off-key version of Elton John singing, “Rocket Man.” I’d never quite related to that song previously. It was taking on a new meaning to me, as I drifted in and out of the here and now.
             Not being firmly rooted in time was reflexive for Rich, something that happened all the time for him, but for me, it required some concentration to deal with. Rich’s coping mechanism was to launch into a hypermanic monologue about anything that came to mind. Usually, what that turned out to be defied any kind of sense or logic, but that was of no consequence to him. What mattered to him was the speaking. Having an audience was nice, but it wasn’t essential. I know I routinely tuned him out after the first complex sentence. I mean, if he couldn’t follow what he was saying, who else could?
             I used to try to make some sense of what he was saying, if only to be polite, then, out of some kind of perverse curiosity, then, out of morbid fascination. Eventually, I simply gave up listening. Richie didn’t mind. Everyone gave up listening to him. It was expected.
             As the door closed and our prospective employer—Mr. Walker, looking more and more like Mephistopheles in a white shirt and tie—returned, the loop tape in my head changed from Elton to David Bowie singing about Major Tom and, I thought, Man, am I ever fucked. And then, I was in the lounge, and this voice was speaking to me from beneath this dark-hooded robe. What she was saying had something to do with pentacles and cups and a Hanged Man, and in the woods near a burning vehicle in dark woods, scattered severed heads of goats and slaughtered lambs amid the inverted crosses, and I said, “Sure, but make it a double.”
             A robed monk from some bad dream, some bad place of demons and devils, black magic women and Black Death Plague artists, was reaching out for me with a pale leprous hand, a hand that had touched death in an intimate way and had loved the touching so much, it had joined the cause like a Typhoid Mary with a scotch bottle, everything touched, withered, wasted away, sucked dry all the way to the bones.
             And then, the body from inside the robe was sitting across the table from where I was, a double amber something neat in front of me, empty glasses pushed to one side, a flamed-out candle surrounded by all my empties, and I thought, Not my emptiness. My emptiness is filled. And I saw that it was Amanda. The hood of her robe was pulled down about her shoulders, and she was talking, though I couldn’t figure out about what, as her voice was drowned out by the Rolling Stones singing, “I see a red door, and I want it painted black——I want to see the sun blotted out from the sky. I want to see it painted, painted, painted, painted black—”
             “No more doubles,” I managed. “What about you? When are you off?”
             And she was saying, “I’m off now. I have a van. In the lot. My ex converted it, customized it: rugs and pillows and wall-to-wall speakers. I could sleep in it, if I wanted to. Have more than once, when the occasion demanded.”
             And I was saying, “Like now?”
             “Maybe. Sure. Like now. Mr. Walker says you’re, like, the major stud bartender for miles around.”
             “Not much competition, especially this time of night or day. Or whatever. Which is it?”
             And she said, “You’re a funny guy; that’s for sure.”
             And I said, “That’s me all over.”
             And then, we were in her van, and the sun was coming up from just beyond the trees, and her lips were on mine, and she was groping in the dark, and so was I. Groping toward what, I wasn’t sure, but we were trying like hell to get somewhere, anywhere at all.
             And I thought I heard Hank Williams singing, “I’m So Lonesome, I Could Cry,” which I thought was more likely than what I had been hearing earlier. I thought, hoped, maybe it was a tape Amanda had put on her deck or maybe, Rich in the parking lot with the Bright Green Pleasure Machine with his tape deck and a not-so-subtle comment about what he thought we were doing inside the van. All I knew was, that what we were doing wasn’t what he thought.
             I hoped someday it would all come back to me. This night. Amanda. Everything. But I also knew that, more than likely, if and when the memory returned, it would be as a haunting more than as a memory, and it would have all kinds of unexpected repercussions I might never be able to undo.


♥ End ♥



Alan Catlin worked at his unchosen profession as a barman for thirty-four years in college bars, banquet houses, hotels, restaurants, a nightclub, and a neighborhood Irish bar, the latter for the last twenty-five years of his so-called career. He has published thousands of poems and stories since the mid-70’s and has over sixty-five chapbooks and full-length books of prose and poetry to his credit. His most recent full-length collection is Alien Nation, a compilation of four thematically interconnected chapbooks. Among his many awards and citations are twenty Pushcart Prize nominations. He is currently the poetry editor of the online journal, Misfit Magazine. [Author photo by and © Valerie Catlin; used with permission, all rights reserved.]


Do you Kindle?

We feature a Kindle-friendly PDF (That means actually formatted for reading!) of each story for free download each day, available for a limited time. Don’t delay; download today! Just want a plain ol’ regular PDF? Sure, we’ve got that, too. Need help? Check the sidebar.

The sponsor for today’s fabulous story is Hardly Square, a strategy-, branding-, and design-based boutique located in Baltimore, Maryland, that specializes in graphic design, web design, and eLearning courses. Please support our sponsors. We couldn’t do what we do without them. Sponsors do not necessarily endorse the message of the story, only provide funding for the Go Read Your Lunch series. Want to become a sponsor? Here’s how.


Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.