A Smelly Surprise

How many times in my life have I done something like interrogate someone in an abandoned building? And this one and only time, it’s got to be interrupted by some kids…at least, I hope that it’s kids…and not Captain Richie…

As it turned it out, it was neither. Two disheveled men, one fair-haired and tall and another shorter with a darker complexion, stumbled into the room with makeshift weapons of old pipes and sticks. Even though they wore clothes that didn’t fit well and though they were somewhat tattered and stained, they didn’t appear to be homeless. Indeed, despite the obvious age due to wear and tear, their clothes appeared to be maintained well, and the battle-ready brothers sported well-groomed profiles. The fair-haired one took a step forward, and when the window’s light struck his pale face, I recognized him as a local townie who lived in the streets and was likely a remnant of the European population who had abandoned these homes long ago. The various scars on his hands and neck indicated a harsh life that likely would have inspired another depressing tale from Hans Christian Andersen.

“Hey, what the fuck are you guys doing here?” bellowed the Tall Matchstick Boy, waving his pipe. “This is our place! And you can take whatever gay shit you’re doing in here and do it elsewhere!”

“Gay shit?” shot back Octavio. “You come over here, and I’ll show you some gay shit!”

The smaller, darker companion still stood in the shadows, and I couldn’t make out his visage…but for some reason, he seemed oddly familiar from just his general outline. However, when the overpowering odor of Five Hour Energy reached my nostrils, I was finally able to conclude the identity of our fubsy fellow.

I shouted past the menacing gringo. “Hey, Billy…is that you?!?”

In response, the hostile stance of the darker fellow gave way, and he lowered his stick to his side as he took a few steps into the light. When the sun’s rays illuminated his features, it confirmed what I had already known in an olfactory sense.

The friendly, dimpled mouth hidden in a thin dark beard became a welcoming beacon of upturned radiance under dark hair and eyes. “Peter?!? Hey! What are you doing here?”

And it’s here that I should probably explain a few things. Rhonda, being a more charitable person than me, had dragged my curmudgeonly vessel to one of her kind-hearted activities a few months ago, one of working in a nearby soup kitchen for the homeless. Even though I had been reluctant at first, it was due solely to the slovenly desire to sit on the couch, not due to the clientele. During the late 1980s, the issue of homelessness (along with hunger in Africa) had been part of the zeitgeist of that time, and being an ardent fan of exposing myself to the unmitigated truth, I wanted to find out the true story for myself. So, as opposed to the majority of my inbred peers who wanted nothing more than to drink and burn cars in the pits around Marshall University, I convinced my friends to embark on a fact-finding mission in Pittsburgh. In this social experiment of the summer, we lived for three days among the homeless denizens of the Steel City, and in that short time, I learned a great deal. The young homeless were usually disenfranchised, drug-addicted, or runaways; they either died or eventually learned a life lesson (that became a secret when they finally matured and got a job). The older homeless, on the other hand, were usually mentally or physically ill with no illusions of hope, and they resigned themselves to an early death, drinking themselves into a cavalier bliss or a bitter stupor. Of course, there were many other variations, but those are too many to simply list here. However, it’s safe to say that I had developed a certain comfort level when present in their company, especially when engaged in mischief that required all of us to run quickly in one direction.

However, after my initial foray of working at the kitchen, I found myself less and less resistant upon subsequent trips. It seems, much like the Grinch, that a benevolent spark had caused some sort of catalytic reaction among my chemical ones, and it had expanded and stretched the meager heart inside my frame. Accompanying the travails of serving this food (which was of surprisingly decent quality), I had met and conversed with our clientele, many of whom turned out to be the hillside nomads who lived in the tented cities of the crevice under the Palisades. It would be an understatement to claim that these Hillsiders were among the most congenial and independent homeless to be found anywhere; in truth, they thought of themselves as a proud, noble tribe. I had even witnessed them shouting out to young overweight female joggers, not with cat calls but with benevolent shouts of genuine encouragement. And it was at the soup kitchen where I had met and befriended the Hillsider known as Billy, a lover of aromatic therapy who had developed an affinity for Five Hour Energy (since Aqua Di Gio was a little out of his price range). Necessity or desperation is the mother of invention, and stranger adaptations have been known to occur. It’s said that isolated Siberian towns, bereft of vodka in harsh winters, had resorted to drinking their cheap perfumes, and to this very day, they still prefer them as evening apéritifs. So, I suppose that wearing an energy drink as a cologne is only slightly bizarre in comparison.

“What are you doing here, Billy?” I questioned.

“Oh, nothing, man,” said Billy suspiciously, having much less confidence than when talking about his dubious tastes. He looked over at his fair-haired friend. “Matt, put down the pipe. I know this guy. He’s cool.”

Matt, on the other hand, was not allayed by the prospect of Billy’s familiarity. “Hey, they’re your friends, not mine! So, tell me…what the fuck are you assholes doing in here?!?”

At this point, I could have attempted to devise some sort of elaborate lie, hoping that my compatriots would assist me. I could have hoped to scare them off somehow…or maybe I could have told them that we were, in fact, in the middle of a gay porn shoot. However, since the surreal absurdity of the given situation was almost insurmountable, I yielded to the buckling weight of the present, and I went with the more insane but easy option: I decided to tell the truth.

“Well,” I began, taking a deep breath and pointing towards Joe, “this guy here is Joe, and it’s quite possible that he’s part of a black market ring which chops up the illegal immigrants who live here in Little Peru, and we’re trying to get more info out of him.” I grimaced as I said the words, knowing how ridiculous it sounded…but I kept going anyway. “Supposedly he and Captain Richie have a bunch of guys in little red suits that go around, promising to help the sick ones and then actually killing them…taking their organs in the process.”

With the precision of a gear in a tourbillon watch, Matt calmly turned to Joe but threw his trill voice towards me. “What did you say?!?”

“I know,” I said, shrugging in defeat. “It sounds ridiculous…”

Matt raised his pipe, brandishing his weapon like a MLB slugger at the plate. His crimson eyes had that certain look of one who yearns for vanquishing vengeance. “You helped Captain Richie take my sweet Maria? No lyin’? For real?!? ‘Cause if that’s true, I’m about to bash your fucking brains out…”

Peter Bolton is the author of Blowing the Bridge: A Software Story and has also been known to be a grumpy bastard on occasion.

Condo Chronicles: Time to Roll the Dice

And what exactly do I know? That’s a damn good question…More importantly, how the hell did I fall into this mess?

Turning away from the disheveled figure in the chair, I glanced through the skeleton of a nearby window bereft of frame, at the city’s skyline. The November dusk was approaching, coming faster every day now that autumn had started packing its bag for departure. The alpenglow radiated from the peaks of those man-made mountains of towering glass and steel, and the lofty cranes atop their crowns could be seen slowly furling, as flowers might do in preparation for a cold night. When the light hits them just right, those living landscapes create a surreal set of sharp contours that almost become three-dimensional temporarily, and their vividness can take your breath away, especially under the influence of a powerful drug (including adrenaline). As with times of great pleasure or distress, when you’ve gained or lost something of immense value (or when you’re interrogating a bleeding collaborator in trafficking human organs), time seems to slow down, and for just a moment, this different perspective can make you more acutely aware of the rapid traversal that is your speeding life. The comforting fabric of your everyday life is pulled away to expose that ensconced feeling of vulnerability, and you can feel the threaded broom of the Fates as they are slowly pushing the dust of all us living mortals under the rug, so that we may be reunited with the pile that is the rest of the past. It’s easy then to forget everything else with such overstimulation and pensive meandering…

And, yes, “meandering” is the right word, since it gets you nowhere. Wake up, dummy! Stop this intellectual masturbation that you call “writing poetry” and deal with the present situation! Jesus Christ…it’s not like your life is at risk or anything…

Even though I was reluctant to admit it, the admonishing voice and fierce buzzkill had a point. I wasn’t exactly a salesman by trade, but in this case, I had to deliver a convincing pitch in order to pull this one off. My theory could be nothing more than conjecture, but if I was going to turn this situation around, I had to believe it….otherwise, Joe wouldn’t. I might not be a general practitioner of deception, but I had lived under the same roof as one of its most fierce advocates: my father. His true medium had been forgery (and had possessed enough skill to gain a slight nod from Frank Abagnale), but he did regularly attempt to scam and hustle the general populace with the old-fashioned way of charming lies and tall tales. I wasn’t exactly proud of being the spawn of such a delinquent (especially when he would con a child out of their favorite baseball cards), but I had learned quite a bit about human nature by being present during the execution of his nefarious hobbies. If my father had taught me anything regarding the basics of fraud, you had to weave your web of lies with room to spare, so that you had enough space to wiggle around upon confrontation or any other vicissitude. So, I had a rudimentary game plan…I just hoped that it was enough.

“It’s over, Joe. I know about you and Captain Richie, how you’re good friends that go way back, how you’re working together to get some dirt on Mayor Dwek. I know all of it…”

Even though Joe was still a bit groggy from the sucker punch delivered by Octavio, he began to stir and become more aware with each accusation. He stiffened his back, regaining his usual good posture. Ever the actor, he always delivered his lines with poise. “Well, okay…that’s all true. I won’t deny it.” He shot a striking glance at Octavio before hitting a more acerbic tone. “You didn’t have to hit me to learn that, dummies!”

Octavio stared back without blinking. “Esso! Look at the balls on this guy!”

“…and I know about your operation,” I continued, regaining Joe’s attention. “How you and Captain Richie are looking to frame Mayor Dwek, so she can take the fall. Because the real people on top of this black market are you and Captain Richie.”

“Whoa, wait a minute,” shouted Joe tersely, shifting nervously in the chair. “Are you serious? You’re accusing us? Me…and Richie?!? Who is a police captain? Are you out of your flippin’ mind?”

Well, he told us that he didn’t believe in cursing, that it was the mark of someone who wasn’t professional…and even in a situation like now, he holds to it. Who would have thought, a kid from northern New Jersey who’s actually forsaken swearing?

“No, I’m not crazy. For a minute, though, I thought that I might be…but then I played the footage from my building’s DVR again…and again. Captain Richie and some of his boys in red suits, pulling dead bodies out of our locked boiler room. I made a few copies of it. Want me to share the one on Google Drive with you?”

Only accuse Captain Richie and claim that you got evidence on him, since he’s not here to say shit to the contrary. Leave Joe out of it, and now you’ve got plenty of wiggle room. Thanks, Dad.

On cue and proving that he had recollected his wits, Octavio contributed to my ruse by corroborating my claim. “Yep. Pete ain’t lyin’. I was there to see it for myself. You got some shitty friends, Joe…and then you try to get me to help you, knowing what you and your boy did to my aunt! You sick fuck…you’re lucky that I just punched you…that I don’t kill you right now!”

“Hold on a second!” roared Joe, pointing his finger at me (or one of me in his vision, judging by his eyes’ inability to focus just yet). “I would never do anything like that. And never would Ritchie…I think…But it definitely wasn’t me! And I want to see this proof for myself! For all I know, you’re working with Mayor Dwek to cut up these people!” He pointed at Octavio. “And you better not lay another hand on me, kid, or you’ll be in deep shit!”

Gotta stick with the lie. No going back now… I nodded. “Sure thing…we’ll go back together to the building so that you can see it for yourself…”

Our collective attention turned suddenly towards the open door of the musty room, from which broadcasted the low volume of two voices that were down the hall, angrily goading each other to move more quickly.

Shit…looks like we’re no longer alone…

Peter Bolton is the author of Blowing the Bridge: A Software Story and has also been known to be a grumpy bastard on occasion.

Condo Chronicles: Desperate Times, Desperate Measures

Pulling on Octavio’s shoulder, I spun him around to face me. “What the hell are you doing? We were supposed to scare him. Not knock him out!”

With the sophomoric defiance that springs eternal from teenage souls, emotion won over reason , and the street side of my young Cuban companion emerged as he stood over Joe’s unconscious body, with the obvious intention of making me balk. He spoke to me in the same menacing tone as a coffee cart proprietor would address a ‘dirty Bengali’ cabbie trying to pass off fake $100 bills. “Hey…fuck him! He lied to us, and he got what he deserved, especially for what they did to my aunt. So, what? You gonna be a little bitch about it now?”

These Little Peru kids might have seen a few things on these dilapidated streets, and when they see white skin, they confuse the lack of pigment for a lack of spine, which is common in this part of the country…but they forget that there’s a whole other world of crazy that walks upon American ground, where dirtnecks hide razor blades in their cheeks and run through the woods without shoes. And just like this microcosm of Hispanic culture, they also love fried food, banal music, Jesus with a side of xenophobia, and the occasional fist fight spurred by the cerveza known as Bud. It’s called West Virginia.

“You lissun here, boy,” I said through gritted teeth, as a seeping rage began to slide my voice into the dialect of my youth. It had taken quite a bit of effort to get rid of that accent before arriving in my new homeland, knowing that Yankees deem condescension of rednecks as the one acceptable form of bigotry…but it has a way of unfurling its tongue under the influence of booze, fatigue, or (in this case) anger. “Doan run ye mouth on me, and gitcha head outta ye ass.” I collected myself and snapped back to the present, along with the remembrance that this boy could snap me like a pretzel. “Listen…you don’t know if Joe is even really guilty. Instead, you decided to become El Comandante and declare him guilty without any proof. Which you don’t know for sure…And, if, if this guy knows something, then you get information, reliable information, only by carefully drawing it out…by not tipping him off that we might know something about him! What about that whole plan that we talked about? What the fuck just happened to that? I’ll tell you what happened to that…you totally shit all over it! So now what the fuck are we supposed to do?!? Other than face the fact that you’re now going to jail?”

For a few moments, we stood eye to eye, with neither speaking a word. Slowly, though, I saw how my words were digging through the layers of hormones and emotional insecurities, and at last, they found their way into his heart to deliver an icy grip of something new: fear. His recalcitrance abated as he came to understand me, and a look of panic gripped him as he turned his gaze down to look upon the unmoving, groaning figure of Joe.

“Fuck…” he breathed out quietly. “Shit…I fucked up…what are we…”

I put my hand on his shoulder. “Listen, kid…maybe you should just get out of here. Maybe I can talk to him after he wakes up…you know, somehow get him to forgive you and forget this whole thing. Maybe we should forget this whole thing, since we’re obviously not off to a good start…”

“No!” he said, focusing his attention on me once more. “Please! We can’t quit now…we need to do something! Come on, man…you’re smart! You’ve got an idea, right?”

I narrowed my eyes much like an annoyed cat. “You want an idea? How about we strap him into a chair and dance around him like Vic Vega? Maybe cut off both ears instead of one?” In response, Octavio only looked back at me, dumbfounded.

I keep forgetting…I gotta lay off the Tarantino references when talking to these kids and focus more on allusions to something else asinine like iCarly or Shake It Up… But that was something to worry about later. Now, though, I needed to think quick and come up with something for the both of us. Even though Octavio stood to face the worst of any possible repercussions, my simple association with him meant that I was also in the path of danger. If Joe was a friend of Captain Richie, then I was bound to be on the receiving end of something not entirely benevolent. Maybe something akin to what befell Abner Louima, if I was lucky? I didn’t want to find out.

“Okay, okay…maybe I got something,” I muttered, only somewhat coherently. “Okay…help me get him up so that I can put him on the chair. Come on! Get his other arm!”

With each person grabbing an arm, we lifted and then dragged Joe’s limp form into the metal chair, in which he had been in a much better mood only moments before. Where’d that smug grin run off to, buddy? Did you lose it? We pressed him against the back of the chair in order to keep him on the seat, and his head rolled forward to lie on his chest. His eyes fluttered as more gibberish and a slight drool escaped his lips.

Octavio leaned close in order to whisper in my ear. “So…what are you doing to do? You’re not going to cut off his ears, right?”

I shook my head. “Uhhh…no. I’ve got a theory about this whole thing, and trust me, it’s kind of crazy…to the point where I don’t even really believe it. But…it’s all that I got to work with. So, when I start talking, just nod and go with whatever I say. Because if I don’t pull this off, we’re both in trouble. Okay?”

Octavio nodded apprehensively. “Okay…okay.”

Taking one last deep breath, much as a stage actor might do before taking the stage on opening night, I then knelt down besides our slumbering prince, and I placed my hand under his chin, lifting his head with care.

“Hey, Joe! Buddy…buddy! Come back to us! You awake?”

Joe lifted his head of his own volition, and opening his eyes, I noticed the pupillary response of someone who was awake but still uncertain about whether the present situation was a lucid dream. His lips slowly started to move, themselves uncertain of the language in this dimension.

“Wha…huh?” questioned Joe. “What happened?”

I placed a comforting hand on Joe’s shoulder, motioning with my other hand towards Octavio. “I’m sorry…but that was Octavio who knocked you out. You know, though, I can’t blame him…after all, who wouldn’t be mad after all of the bad things that you’ve done?”

“What things? What are you talking about?” blurted out Joe, looking both confused and scared.

“You want to play dumb? Okay, then…let me tell you what I know.”

Peter Bolton is the author of Blowing the Bridge: A Software Story and has also been known to be a grumpy bastard on occasion.

Condo Chronicles: X Marks the Spot

“So, this the place?”

I looked at Octavio with astonishment. “You’re gonna ask me? I’m the new guy on the block. You’re the kid who grew up here…if anybody should know, it’d be you.”

Octavio shrugged his shoulders, raising them defensively like the hackles of a cornered cat. “Come on…all these monsters along the cliff look the same to me…”

Starting from my place and walking along the rim of the Palisades’ edge, we had passed by a number of the large sentinels that were abandoned factories and warehouses of decades past, and after each one, Octavio had asked his version of “Are we there yet?” at the doorstep of each. As opposed to his Millennial lack of awareness, I had been taught urban exploring by my mentor Rhonda, and with her help, I had developed an amateur’s attention to detail for these haunted vessels. Aside from simply being eerie and deserted as Cape May in November, they were each unique in the scars that time had carved into them. When you looked, there were stories in the facades, and in the hallways, the lurid details bled from the walls. Sometimes, as with a place like Letchworth Village, the tales are literally told in the journal pages abandoned in its offices among decaying desks, much like the disabled children who were dumped in its midst during the dead of night. 12:00 is time to bath Little Johnny. Be sure to not dunk his head like last time… My eyes converted into tactile sensors, running their metaphorical fingers around the structure in front of us.

“Yep,” I said, nodding, “This is the place.”

“How can you tell?” questioned Octavio doubtfully.

I pointed at the top of the door entrance with a slightly condescending smile. “Because that’s the address. That, and he said look for a red-tagged place, where the sign has a black frame. And there it is.”

A few feet to the right of the front door’s top, there rested the ubiquitous membership badge of the cliff’s sentinels: the white X on a red background. (In this case, it had a black frame, which was definitely unusual.) It was the indication that the building could be hazardous to any who entered…which, to people like Rhonda and me, had the opposite effect that was intended. It was telling that there were more of these abandoned structures on this side of the river; it was yet more testimony that these cliffs were situated in some sort of temporal rift when compared to the metropolis next door. Every day, Manhattan awakes and takes breath of people, with a matutinal inhale of its racing millions and then blowing out its temporary commuters as the sun falls. Time seems to move faster in that community of bipedal cogs, and in defiance of thermal dynamics, even snow seems to melt more quickly. Those who walk within it learn to become ambidextrously multithreaded, so that they may traverse the streets and perform tasks (like switching the contents of bags) simultaneously…all in the hope of catching up with Chronos’ robes and gaining a few more precious lost seconds. How many thoughts and experiences are lost and never truly recorded in detail on this mad island (for an Instagram shot has as much emotional depth as a pixel), nobody will ever truly know. It’s a tumultuous whirlwind swimming with imps of inspiration and muses for misery, and it can be more ridiculous than even a Sharknado. Here, though, in this narrow stretch between the ultimate urban setting of greased rails and the nearby soporific suburbs to the west, life fluctuated between these two temporal planes. This structure (which, from its adjoining brick smokestack, appeared to be a dilapidated factory) and its brethren, however, were evidence of those moments of deceleration. Progress had not yet caught up for whatever reason, and these buildings were monuments to lost potential. Well, it’s not a total loss…these things are fun to explore. That, and they make good places to clandestinely meet someone.

“Okay…so what know?” Octavio asked.

I motioned towards the alley to the building’s side. “Through there, on that side. There’s a door open over there.”

We moved quickly through the barren alley, and finding the door, we walked inside into its musty interior. As always in these cases, there were the impressive displays of cobwebs, and the various instances of graffiti left on the walls. On occasion, Rhonda and I had run into more eccentric artifacts left behind by mischievous pranksters, like miniature clowns just around a corner and dangling at eye level. That’ll stop your heart for a moment…or, in Rhonda’s case, make her pee her pants. In this case, though, there were no stylistic signatures to behold. However, a puzzling enigma had been sprayed onto the wall. Tern bak or die. Swadagah.

I squinted my eyes in perplexion. “Swadagah…?”

Swear to God”, translated Octavio. “I’ve seen the same thing in the stalls at my school.”

“Really?!? Wow…and knowing humanity’s luck, they’re probably going to reproduce. Well, never mind that. We’re late.”

Aside from the barely literate text emblazoned in hot pink, there were footprints in the dust that led the way to further inside, inviting us to follow them. In turn, we accepted, and we soon found ourselves in an old office that still possessed a wooden desk slowly turning into dust. As with places like Letchworth, it always amazed me how much was left behind when a business closed up shop. In front of the desk, sitting backward in a metal chair, Joe Vasgersian sat with his elbows on the chair’s back and his head propped in hands that cradled his handsomely clefted chin. Man, does that guy appear to be the very epitome of smug or what?

“Finally! I thought that you guys were at the wrong building,” smirked Joe, rising to his feet and pushing the chair away. “So, you guys finally did some digging, huh? And you used that relationship with the mayor to get some real stuff?”

Octavio nodded as he approached the chair, shifting his body in order to show a long duffel bag at his side. “Yep…I got it right here. Wanna see it?”

Joe clapped his hands. “Absolutely! Let me take a look…”

What the hell is that little punk doing?

Standing in front of Joe, Octavio opened the bag and pulled to widen its maw. Not satisfied with simply peeking, Joe eagerly beckoned the lad, so that Octavio simply handed over the bag. Not paying any attention to the youth before him, he began to scrutinize the contents of the dark green nylon satchel.

“So, yeah,” Octavio spoke, adjusting one shoulder in an all too familiar way…well, at least, to me. “Tell me if you’ve seen one of these…”

With the same speed of a coiled snake, Octavio twisted his body and threw a left hook that connected to the chin of the late actor. For a split second, the image of that punch and the strength visibly planted into Joe’s jaw inspired my mind to project the onomatopoeia across the scene, much like a comic book. Kerpow! I would have laughed if not for the immediate sense of panic. What the fuck just happened?!?

As Joe’s face slackened and his body fell due to his buckling legs, Octavio stood triumphantly before his surprised victim and answered his own question. “Guess not.”

Peter Bolton is the author of Blowing the Bridge: A Software Story and has also been known to be a grumpy bastard on occasion.