Condo Chronicles: Secrets beneath Our Feet

During the previous summer, in the first awful months of living in our new home, I had awoken early on a Sunday morning to the sound of heavy drops bursting on a window in our living room. Fearing yet again that rainfall was transforming our poor constructed windows into makeshift aqueducts, I investigated the living room and was relieved to see that the drops were on the outside of the frame, forming and then crashing from an air conditioner installed just above. Unfortunately, when one is stirred from their slumber with an induced shot of adrenaline and angsty despair, sleep becomes as distant as the closest galaxy, even as you lie still and impatiently wait for it to overtake you. If it’s late enough in the morning and the actual sun approaches the horizon, your circadian rhythm beats on your internal drum, and then a return to nocturnal visions becomes nearly impossible. Knowing that to be the case here, I decided to make the most out of the beautiful morning unfolding beyond the glass encasing, and without making too much of a stir, I left Rhonda and Flukeman to savor their fantasies of sneaking and pouncing. I went on a quiet stroll in order to explore my peaceful neighborhood, when it is even more quiet than usual and before the temperature climbs to the level of sweaty underwear. After grabbing a cup of coffee and having a few moments of walking by myself, my thoughts turned contemplative, as I’ve found they often do when you’re approaching the fall season of your life. (Even though one could debate the age ranges that constitute such an autumn, I would say that it’s fair to designate 55 as its end and the beginning of one’s winter, when death declares you fair game. That will probably change in the centuries to come, and you, reader of the distant future, might scoff at such an age or even at death. But I’d say that it fits for now.)

Simple yet honest considerations dug their way out of my subconsciousness as I walked under the buzzing Frigidaires hovering from windows above and passed the occasional dog-walker, one of the rare breeds of people who greet the sunrise. I wondered about the number of promises that the current Me had fulfilled at the request of my younger self, and I wondered if either would even recognize the other. My immigrant friends who had become naturalized citizens told me how they had changed as people in their new home country, how they could even mark such a transition when their dreams were no longer spoken in their native tongue. I had no clearly indicated marker, but in my bones, I knew it to be true. The past was now stirred in my immediate atmosphere, to the point where its smell coated the inside of my nose. As I passed by the dog park that clung to the cliff’s edge, I recalled faint memories of the family hound, long since dead like the rest. Much like the movie A Field of Dreams, I yearned to play with her one last time…and then, serendipitously, two playful faces had appeared in the fence next to me at that moment, barking their welcome to come inside and frolic alongside them. I accepted their canine invitation, and in the process, I met their two owners: sisters Ulva and Adela. Even though they were almost octogenarians, you would not expect such vitality from two women who had seen the passing of so many moons. Having lived through World War II in Austria and then migrating to New York City in the turbulent 1960s and 1970s, they had seen and experienced much over their lifetimes before eventually settling into Little Peru a couple decades ago. Ulva, the owner of the adorably feisty and small Herbert, had turned a bit bitter through suffering unrewarded risks and numerous failed marriages; her sister Adela was much like her Fünf, in that very little actually bothered them. For better and worse, against the opinions of their children who suggested a move to Florida, they had retired and then remained as steadfast citizens of Little Peru, through its various demographic transitions. And so, for a few hours every Sunday, I had the honor of being a temporary member of their family; I was bestowed with the gift of their company and regaled with epic tales from bygone eras. (For some reason, all history tends to sound so dramatically profound when compared to the present.) Through them, I had slowly accumulated a knowledge base about the history of my new neighborhood, learning about its politics and about its officials’ suspicious salaries that were double the incomes of their peers in New York City. And, though I would never have my original pup back, I also had the chance to play with my new ones, if only for a short while.

I examined the scribbled writings on the lids of the coffee before me. “Okay, so I think that this is the sweeter one, Ulva. And then that would mean the other has only cream and belongs to you, Adela.”

The elderly sisters graciously accepted their beverages and thanked me. As I opened mine and blew the bubble of steam away from its top, Adela looked at me with a sincerely affectionate concern. “So, Peter…how are you doing? Is that lawsuit in your building still happening?”

“Yes, how is that going?” interjected Ulva. “Is that German bitch still causing trouble?”

Contrary to all assumptions about the nature of central Europe, the two sisters had instructed me on the strained relationship between Germans and Austrians, how the latter considered the former to be pompously rigid and arrogant. So, when I had told them about the lawsuit and the German valkyrie Helga who helped to lead it, I found immediate sympathy from my audience. “Well, Hegla’s been pretty quiet lately, along with Bertha. Well…that’s not entirely true: they still complain about everything. But they do seem to be working on some sort of solution with their lawyer. It’ll probably involve some sort of compromise, like my public execution. If so, I’m inclined to oblige the request since I’d do anything not to suffer them. Plus, as Mark Twain said: ‘Never argue with a fool. Onlookers may not be able to tell the difference.’ And since I look foolish enough with my poor excuse of a beard, one that resembles more of my body’s attempt to grow a scarf around my neck…I think that I’ll do anything to look less stupid.”

As the two sisters chuckled, I took a sip of coffee. “Actually,” I began, “I’ve been spending more time lately on that pet project of mine.” Even though I hadn’t elaborated on the details of my amateur sleuthing about black market organs in Little Peru, I had confessed about dabbling with investigating some corrupt affairs of Captain O’Bannon. I wasn’t sure whether they believed me or not…but, in the case of such two charming commères, did it even matter to them? With no further need of details, I again found a receptive audience, and they were more than willing to listen and help when possible. “The plot definitely thickens…and much like a roux, you have to keep stirring in order to make sure that it turns out right. I’ve almost got the goods on O’Bannon…almost.”

“I can’t vait until you’re done with the story,” Adela pronounced, supportive as always. “I vant so to read your story in the Jersey Journal!”

I held up my coffee as a toast to her enthusiasm. “And I’ll make sure that you get the first copy when it gets in there! I’ve gotten some good leads…but I still have one big problem: no actual proof. Miguel and I were able to get into our boiler room of the building…but we didn’t find anything. I’ve looked around elsewhere, but for some reason, it’s nowhere to be found. He seems to conduct this clandestine business of his in some sort of secret lair…and I don’t have the faintest clue where it would be.”

Just as Ulva began to speak, a wrestling jumble of Fünf and Herbert tumbled into her lower leg, causing a string of guttural curses in German. “Herbert! Fünf! Get avay…I’ll throw you off the cliff if you do that again! Little shits…as I was about to say, you’ve said in the past that this funny business of O’Bannon involves something about medicine, right?” As I nodded, she continued. “Well…then if I vere him, I’d choose to go down to the retirement home. And, then, from there, I’d do this funny business in the abandoned subway tunnels under Little Peru.”

Slurping another injection of caffeine which hadn’t yet quite made its way into my bloodstream, it took me another few moments before the point of her words actually pierced my consciousness. “Which retirement home are you…wait a second…tunnels? No subway tunnels have ever run along the Hudson waterfront in Jersey. They’ve only existed across the river in NYC…!” I paused as I stared at them. “Right?”

Peter Bolton is the author of Blowing the Bridge: A Software Story and has also been known to be a grumpy bastard on occasion. For those who wish to read previous chapters of The Condo Chronicles, the Table of Contents is available.

Condo Chronicles: Une Affaire de Dimanche

After a night of restless sleep with the nefarious demon Anxiety and wiping away somaticized sweat, I awoke groggily and bleary-eyed on an early Saturday morning, to a familiar sensation and subsequent conundrum. Arrrgggg…is that just some gas…or is that something more? On most occasions, as an amateur methane meteorologist, I’m fairly adept at predicting the strength of such storms, and my natural barometer (among other sensors) can give me an accurate picture in most situations. Unfortunately, on a dawn like this one, the waters were a bit murky so to speak, if such a phrase isn’t too gauche despite its relevance. Comfortable in my current position and trapped between the two sleeping bodies of Rhonda and my furry friend Flukeman, I now had to weigh the potential risks and rewards of my options. Hmmm…it definitely feels like gas…but there seems to be a bit of something else going on there. I could have momentarily played with the dials and tweaked a release valve, just to study the reaction and obtain a little more data…but as I had learned from past occurrences, such a simple measure could lead to disastrous results. Yeah, I’ve lost that bet before. And it’s not pretty. So, erring on the side of caution, I conducted a set of agile gymnastics in order to both leave the bed and not disturb its present occupants, and I made my way to the bathroom. After my successful sojourn, I was on my way back to peaceful slumber when I noticed the clock on the wall (which has ironically become a bit of an anachronism with each generation that follows). It took a second or two for my crusty brain to fully decipher the message being relayed by those two hands, which at that moment seemed to be as complex as a semaphore tower. The time was now 8:15 A.M., it appeared to say…

I finally opened my eyes at the realization of being tardy, experiencing a moment of panic not unlike when a college student suddenly becomes aware of a forgotten exam. “Awww, shit! I’m going to be late! She’s probably already there and waiting!”

Skipping the morning shower, I rushed back into the bedroom and surreptitiously dressed myself, not wanting to awaken Rhonda. With a quick pat on the slumbering Flukeman and with keys in hand, I quietly made my way out of our home, and with a need for haste, I ran down the stairs of the northwest stairwell in order to promptly exit the building. Per the weekly ritual that had been established, I grabbed three coffees on the way from Dunkin Donuts, stacking them into a large paper bag. Even though Little Peru doesn’t have a taste for most fast fare of the American diet, it still resides in the northeast corner of New Jersey, where a law dictates the installment of a DD every 1000 feet. One can claim that Puerto Rico is the home of Burger King and rum, and upon a similar observation, it can also be said that New Jersey is the home of the tomato and Dunkin Donuts (or White Castle, depending on who you ask). Their coffee and stations’ gasoline are the two types of fuel that drive all traffic on the turnpike. Rejecting the chain’s experimental failures labelled as pastries and with my hot beverages in hand, I briskly walked down the empty streets of quiet Little Peru, heading towards my rendezvous near the cliff’s edge. For the most part, I didn’t encounter a soul except for the odd Hispanic hipster on a skateboard (who wears a Goya shirt instead of the standard Wonderbread one) and the ubiquitous Hispanic mothers who bear the Sisyphean task of pushing their family’s laundry cart to the local laundromat. After a few quick turns, I finally came within sight of the small dog park that was my destination. Snugly inserted between the driveways of two adjacent homes, it was a small rectangular plot that hugged the edge of the cliff, only a few dozen feet in length and less than that in width. Trees served as bookends on either side, with one half of the park being dirt for its canine visitors; the other half had benches and concrete for those who walked on two feet, with the seating turned towards the view of the Manhattan skyline and the Jersey riverfront one hundred feet below. When I got close enough, I recognized two fuzzy faces staring at me through the gate, letting out barks that beckoned and welcomed me to their version of a clubhouse. Ah, they’re both here this time. Spotting the second dog, I realized that I was wise in bringing the third coffee.

“Okay, guys,” I shouted at a moderate volume, so that I wouldn’t awaken those in nearby homes. “I hear you, Herbert and Fünf. I’m almost there.”

With rampant pawing and crowding of the entrance, I managed to push my way past wagging tails and closed the gate behind me. They were an interesting pair of pets, to be sure. The smaller one Herbert was an odd-looking dog; he was a mix of a weiner dog and some sort of hound, whose body and inherent kinematics seemed to be the result of some mad scientist’s assembly. Having an exuberant personality, he somehow remained lithe and springy, despite a compact body and toothpicks for legs. His companion Fünf, on the other hand, was a towering figure of a dog and a bit more subdued. Unlike his hopping playmate and being more like a drunken friend at the end of a long night, Fünf preferred to lean against the legs of his companions and communicate his brotherly love with a sloppy smile and kind eyes. With the bag containing coffees in one hand, I leaned down to pat their familiar heads.

“For a second zere, I didn’t think that you ver going to show up! We were just about to leave. Fünf, get over here and leave Peter alone. You too, Herbert! Get over here!”

Without looking up and still in the midst of showering affection on man’s best friends, I responded to the calling voice. “Nah, no need. It’s okay. They’re just trying to say hello! And good morning to both of you, ladies. I apologize for running a tad late.”

A second voice, softer than the first, offered a response. “Oh, don’t vorry, Peter. We veren’t going anywhere. She just likes to be dramatic.”

Standing up straight once again, I turned my attention to the two ladies sitting on the bench in front of me. They were bundled in large coats as defense against a rather cool December morning and the arctic winds that slithered like vines up the face of the cliff. (Unlike his European cousin Eurus, the east wind of the Hudson never brings warmth but does remain unlucky for everyone, since it seems to have a nasty habit of only pursuing its duty in the tormenting thrall of winter. When needed most in the sublimating heat of summer, it seems to follow the crowds and head out on vacation.) Almost engulfed by their wardrobe, only the top portion of their faces were framed and visible from the puffy hoods of their down jackets, through which I could spot the glimmer of their kind eyes. Placing my own coffee on the seat next to me, I pulled the two remaining ones from the bag and held them before me.

“Ladies, you should never worry about my potential absence. Trust me: I wouldn’t even dare to miss one of our meetings.”

Peter Bolton is the author of Blowing the Bridge: A Software Story and has also been known to be a grumpy bastard on occasion. For those who wish to read previous chapters of The Condo Chronicles, the Table of Contents is available.

Condo Chronicles: Catharsis

I unsheathed a smiling grimace that would surely put fear into the heart of all children, including the overgrown one in front of me. “Does it matter why I want to know?”

“I don’t know,” answered Lance, employing a coyness by rote that had probably worked on his older relatives and nannies. “Does it?”

“Is this a game of 20 questions? Or did you just learn about the Socratic method the other day in model school?” Though I do wish that you were fond of the other Socratic method: drinking hemlock. “How about this: why don’t you stop fucking around with me and go get the artist of this masterpiece?”

“You don’t have to be a dick about it,” muttered Lance, before returning to his apartment and audibly redirecting his frustration and ennui towards all nearby revelers. Amy, meanwhile, remained on the ground, enjoying some other dimension unavailable to the rest of us.

Rhonda chuckled in the man-child’s absence. “Man, you really do hate spoiled brats…”

“You will never really know just how much,” I responded, wondering if Lance would have the perseverance to complete his quest or, surrounded again by flashing lights and shiny things, if he would just return to the party. “So, Miguel…how’s it going in the building nowadays? Did all of those leaks disappear by an act of God, like I was praying for?”

Miguel shook his head, amused at the thought. “No, amigo…it’s getting worse. Two other units now have a problem where the water gets into the concrete, into the building’s…” He paused as he sought for the right word. “…structure…and then dries out under the wooden floors, making all of the boards…” He then gesticulated with his hands and formed the graphical form of a sine formula. “…wavy.”

“Yeah, that’s called warping the wood. Sometimes, you can let that dry out, and it’ll mostly go back to its original shape. But sometimes…sometimes it never goes back to normal. So good to know the building is still in good shape! It’s also good that this lawsuit still hasn’t been resolved, since we wouldn’t want to fix anything right away anyway. And Brian and Babbu still resent me for not including them when Mayor Dwek visited us?” To which Miguel nodded begrudgingly. “Well, that’s about to be expected…hey, it could be worse, right?”

“Well, you’re in an especially rotten mood,” commented Rhonda. “How did your meeting with Joe and Donna go?”

I lowered my index finger and aimed it at the floor beneath us, noting this metaphysical moment in time and space. “Something like this. It’s been one hell of a day…”

The music had turned off in unit A6, and in place of the electronic symphony, the chattering voices and various salutations served as the precursors of the eventual departing cavalcade. On top of the usual cries of whining disappointment and a lone shout of no quiero, I heard the last remnants of conversations that had just previously been enshrouded by the pumping speakers. There were a few voices that seemed to be incessantly repeating the word society as part of some pseudo-intellectual discourse, while an inebriated girl punctuated her assessment of a friend’s beauty with “She’s a sexy bitch! Go ahead and smack that ass!” Some part of me actually wanted to bear witness to this spectacle of an exodus, and in my snarky disposition, I envisioned a procession of hipsters walking in formation out the door, attempting irony yet again by marching with only shakos and nipple tassels as clothing and beating large marching drums in unison. I was lost in such visions of independent cinema when I saw Lance’s head pop back into the hallway and look in my general direction.

“I’m sorry, man,” shouted Lance, attempting to be heard from the roaring din pressing against his back. “I couldn’t find Neve.”

“Who?” I asked, caught off guard while still in the midst of my daytime reverie.

“The girl who drew that pair on the wall over there. We can’t find her. She’s…” Lance said, before being interrupted by a loud crash behind him. “What the hell was that? I gotta go, man.” And with that, Lance closed the door behind him, and he began to berate someone over something. I assumed that whatever had broken retained only sentimental value, since I couldn’t envision him in possession of something truly valuable or in taste.

Rhonda turned to me. “Well…what now? Now, if you don’t mind telling me, why did you and Miguel get all hot and bothered over those two figures on the wall? Did you want an autograph?”

“You don’t remember, do you? I told you about it before. Remember when Miguel and I were in the basement, when that little punk stole something from…” I abruptly halted my explanation, as my other senses screamed for their attention. “Wait…do you hear that? It sounds like…crying?”

We stood in silence, as our small band transformed into a listening outpost. Recognizing the realization upon each others’ faces in unison, we distinctly heard the faint sobbing of someone nearby. In the past, having been annoyed by fire alarms of absent neighbors that chirped yearningly for a battery like a hungry young chick, it had been difficult to pinpoint the offending home with the acoustics of the hallway, until I had developed a method of pressing my ear against each door and plugging my other ear with a finger. Out of habit, I started to do the same right then, and understanding the logic of my insanity, my comrades adopted my practice as their own as we now investigated the source of this muffled sadness. As we stepped over the roiling Amy and made our way further down the hall and towards the northwest stairwell, it suddenly became clear to all that the sobbing seemed to be coming from the hall’s end, in the stairwell itself. Not wanting to get too excited at my suspicions but unable to contain my excitement, I bolted towards the door with abandon, and I swung its door nearly out of its frame. There, in the stairwell, was the same young blonde woman from so many months back, sitting in almost the same way as when I had first saw her. Unlike our introductory session, though, she at least now wore bra and panties, and her squinting eyes now shed slow tears that curved in rivulets down her cheeks, dropping down onto her breasts. The lips, though, formed the same snarl of dissatisfaction at being disturbed in an obviously vulnerable moment that covets solace.

What the fuck do you want?” she hissed.

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: Red Rum

“That’s right, Lance,” I chided at the bipedal greyhound donning his official SantaCon hat (with little else), who had served as the bane for our building on more than one occasion. “Uh-oh seems to be a perfect fit for the situation. Do we need to call the police yet again?”

“Come on, dude,” whined the mid-twenties Zoolander, whose dilated pupils reminded me of how fun MDMA could be. “Don’t be such a buzzkill and ruin our Friendmas. We just crushed some beers and cocktails, and we’re playing a little strip poker….”

Rhonda let out a note of exasperation. “Friendmas?!? We just finished Thanksgiving. It’s not even December!”

Lance frumpled his body in an attempted simile of a shrug, taking the hallmark gesture of the lazy to a new benchmark in apathy. “Okay…so we’re just starting a little early this year…”

“Did you think that you might be annoying the living shit out of everyone else on the floor, especially the parents of the sleeping newborns next to you?” I inquired challengingly. “On top of fucking up the hallway?”

Lance rolled his eyes in obvious annoyance at being reminded of common courtesy, pouting his lips and blowing air through them in order to mimic a chatty horse. “I don’t know…it’s just some washable magic marker that’ll come off…”

I never could relate to such people, especially in my troubled youth. In some bizarre way, I had envied them…and still did, to a miniscule extent. While they had been able to experience carpe diem with a cavalier attitude, I couldn’t help tormenting my young self with the thought of my own mortality, involuntarily conjuring symbols of my limited time as an electronic clock counting backwards or an hourglass of sand that ran through my desperately grasping hands. (Contrary to being entirely the product of my imagination, I must confess that the latter was probably an amalgamation inspired by the movies Krull and The Neverending Story. I can’t take full credit.) Recognizing that aspect and other insecurities as my own foibles to overcome, though, I eventually accepted the idea of having a date with death and also learned to swim in a sea of me, no longer yearning for the shore. But other differences were not mine to correct. Then and now, I had taken note of how the notion of entitlement seemed to be spreading much like a wildfire across an intellectually arid landscape, doing just as much damage as those insidious notions known as duty and sacrifice. It increasingly permeated all spheres of society. You could find it in the belligerent shouts of the working class, who raved for an orange-haired Machiavellian and who demanded isolationism as protection for jobs which they apparently now owned. (Though, one could make the argument that by shopping at stores like Walmart for decades, they might have nourished the globalization engine and had reaped what they had sown…but that’s neither here nor there.) And that’s simply one genus of brat to chronicle, for there are many more. In the case of Lance, we had a specimen of the type proles indulgentia. Pampered from birth, they knew only narcissism by being raised in an environment void of criticism and consequences, and they would only grab for flowers that sprouted from sidewalks since they had no patience for thorns, much to the delight of me and Jean-Baptiste Karr.

I made the same sound as Lance, though with more mocking gusto. “Well, maybe you should have, dude. So, either we call the cops and your parents…or you go inside to kill the party and then get some of your crew to clean all of this shit.” I pointed at the writhing nude girl on the ground. “And get Amy inside, before the ecstasy jumpstarts her libido and makes her start humping doorknobs.”

Lance tilted his head back as he pondered my ultimatum, so far back that his Adam’s apple began to protrude through his skin like a gestating alien onboard the Nostromo. Eventually, though, he made his decision and signaled his capitulation with throwing his head forwards, letting it hang there in acquiescing defeat. It had been a mighty struggle of wills within…but with great effort, he had finally come to a decision.

“Okay, dude…you win. I’ll go in and deliver the bad news to my bros. Man, this sucks…” Lance paused as he noticed our stationary stance. “So…you guys are just gonna stand there…?”

I nodded. “Yep. Go ahead. We’ll just be out here. Waiting.”

He shook his head and turned for his door. “Whatever…”

I stood there fuming, hating his parents for leaving me with the responsibility that should have fallen on their shoulders, when Miguel tapped me lightly. Snapping my head in his direction, I spoke a bit too abruptly, not realizing it before it was too late. “Yeah? What?”

A physically rattled Miguel patiently and slowly pointed his finger to a specific spot on the wall, and I followed its given direction to one of the doodles near us. Upon recognition, it was then my turn to raise my eyebrows and feel a subsequent chill run down my spine. There on the wall was a rudimentary sketch of a man in a red suit with a bag over one shoulder. At a momentary glimpse, it could have just been easily mistaken for another sloppy image of Santa Claus, the disappointed patron of Friendmas and Santa Con who probably would have preferred being a martyr instead of bearing witness to later inspirations…but, in this case, his bag of toys appeared to have sprung a leak, dripping large crimson drops beside him. More importantly, the tall elf at his side wore an uniform of blue rather than green, with a toy gun missing the required orange tip.

“Like in the alley,” Miguel whispered, seemingly clairvoyant since he was now reading my thoughts. Yes, my friend, just like what we saw in the security cam.

“Wait!” Lance stopped before entering his unit and turned back to me. I pointed in the direction of the striking images of the diablito and his armed escort. “Tell me. Who drew that?”

“Don’t worry, dude. We’ll get rid of it…”

“Did you draw that?” I don’t know why I even bothered asking that. It’s not possible that such a dolt could be the key to unlocking some dark mystery. I apologize, Lance. That was my bad.

“Me? I don’t think so…”

“Is that person still here?” I inquired, not hesitating to interrupt him. Even though my temper had eventually dissipated, my falling temperature began to rise yet again with my accelerating pulse.

“Maybe…why do you want to 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: False Alarm

Rhonda’s words didn’t register immediately. “You saw who?” I stammered. “Wait…you mean…”

YES. That one,” she said in predetermination, gesturing with one hand to depart posthaste. “And we better go before she disappears like last time…”

“Somebody texted me about a loud party on the second floor, so I went to check it out,” interjected Miguel. “Turns out someone’s made a mess in the hallway, along with the chamaca. We might need to call the cops…”

“Okay, okay, I’m coming,” I replied, applying restraint to stop myself from running down the stairwell. I knew that I wasn’t crazy! I turned to Donna. “Sorry, Miss Wei. This meeting seems to have come to an end, for more than one reason. You, me, and Pete will continue this conversation another day soon.” And with a slow nod of consent from our saturnine femme fatale, I fled the scene of seemingly lost potential with my new posse. We descended the stairwell in a flurry of stomping shoes: Kenneth Cole, Timberlands, and Cole Haan. In the lead of my investigatory excursion, I flung open the doorway for the second floor’s hallway, and wondering if Mickey Spillane had ever experienced seminal moments like this one, I started to run down the corridor when I noticed my prospect: a nude figure lying on its back in the distance, with its legs pointed in our direction and with its torso trembling slightly. I stopped for a moment, partly in shock and somewhat in disbelief.

I could feel Rhonda’s warm breath on the back of my ear. “There! That’s her!”

It was all the catalyst necessary in order to propel me along, in tandem with my sudden concern for the discordant movements of this supine form. As I jogged down the hallway with my entourage in tow and as we got closer to my coalesced apparition, I started to scrutinize its apparent female figure. Hmmm…she’s much younger than I remember…and though it seems more natural, that blonde hair looks to be more of the dirty kind. Having gotten close enough to note the hot pink color of her toenails, I experienced a sudden sense of relief when I observed that her gyrations were due to an uncontrollable fit of susurrous laughter, likely due to being out of breath. I couldn’t help, though, from suffering pangs of ambivalence: this wasn’t the naked girl who had preoccupied my mind for the past few months, to my disappointment.

“Hmmm…it’s not her. It’s not the girl from the stairwell,” I concluded out loud upon final inspection. In her early twenties, this wheezing girl had a slight emaciation about her. Unlike the contemporary preference for a hardbody from CrossFit training (which, aside from the presence of breasts, always made me question the gender), she appeared to possess no muscular framework at all. Damn, she’s all skin and bone…Well, look at that! After a long hiatus, it seems that the bush is finally making a comeback. Good thing, too…Porn hasn’t been the same since then. Truly, you never know that you miss something until it’s gone. In the midst of laughter and with her eyes closed, she was completely oblivious to the presence of three mystified people who were now standing over her. Her profound exhalations provided us with a clue, though: there’s always a particular bouquet of breath spawning from lungs that are makeshift casks of wine.

“Well, she’s definitely higher than a kite,” Rhonda commented, concurring with my internal assessment of the situation. “What should we do about her?”

“We should call an ambulance for her,” nominated Miguel. “And then we should call the cops on her friends who left her here. And who made this mess.”

At Miguel’s behest and having solved the mystery of the inebriated girl in the hallway, I snapped out of my trance and became aware of my physical surroundings once again, taking note of the new interior design for our second floor. Now, despite appearing to be a cantankerous curmudgeon who must surely be surly from being covered in carbuncles, I have a softer side that appreciates beauty in all its aesthetic variations. For example, I’ve been driven to awe by an outside mural along a bricked wall in Montreal, and on a corner in Manhattan, I’ve experienced a renascent sensation when stumbling upon another thoughtful work by Banksy. Graffiti, in fact, can be a wonderful rendition of art. With a French kind of patronage, I would even endorse the possibility of distributing municipal licenses to graffiti’s avant garde, so that they could attack our mundane streets and sidewalks with their creativity and surround us with their two-dimensional souvenirs of hope. However, after viewing the scrawled mess of spray and paint that now covered the walls and ceiling of our residential tunnel, I could safely say that its creators should never be entrusted with such artistic liberties or be thrown a well-deserved vernissage. Not in a million fuckin’ years. In fact, it might be better to deprive them of eyes and hands, along with other basic human privileges. Cave renderings by Neanderthals had more depth to the inane doodles that now besieged us. Though certain its creator was innocent of plagiarizing ancient bisj poles, only a stick figure with an enormous penis (in the shape of another stick figure) provided me with a momentary chuckle. It was then that I paid attention to the loud howls and ambient music coming from the door marked A6 just a few feet away.

“Which dickfaces live in there?” growled Rhonda.

After being on the board for a few months (and with the assumption that I would remain, depending on the lawsuit’s outcome), I had become more than familiar with this building’s occupants. I had become familiar with the idiosyncrasies of each tenant: their current state of finances, their incessant complaints, their unusual requests, their relations to other units, etc. After a short time of sporting such a mantle, you’re inclined to repeat Dante and develop your own levels of sin for your fellow neighbors, and I was no exception. The owners who feel entitled to more than other owners are terrible people, but worse are the hypocritical owners who feel entitled and don’t pay maintenance fees, the lifeblood of every building’s finances. Below these entitled aristocrats, there are those who bought property on an ARM loan (in the hopes of living their “flip-and-profit” dreams found on the shows of HGTV) and who eventually fall into foreclosure, letting their homes sell cheaply at an auction and lowering the collective value of others’ homes. However, these financially irresponsible dunces do not compare with the absolute worst: the spoiled brat whose home was purchased on their behalf by parents. These parasites and beneficiaries of nepotism treat their home much like their other abused toys. They have obnoxious parties and encourage neighbors to flee, selling at lower prices; they lease out their units through AirBnB without discretion, inviting immature acquaintances to lease while absent and elsewhere around the globe; and everyone in their social circle is given a complete set of keys to the building. Lance, who was a male model by trade and occupied the domicile of A6, fit perfectly on this last level in Pete’s Rings of Hell. As far as I knew, he spent his maintenance fees on obnoxious parties like this one.

“His name is Lance. I know this spoiled little shit all too well,” I grumbled to the other two. “Let me talk to him…”

As luck would have it, he came to me instead, opening the door with an idiotic smile on his face and stepping out into the hallway. Much like his emaciated friend on the floor without clothes, he was a gaunt fellow that towered well over six feet but with a darker tone to his skin. “Aaaammmmmyyyyyyy, where are you?” said Lance, somewhat in the style of sprechgesang. “Where are…”

It was then that he noticed the three angry people in the hallway who were now glaring at him.

Far from sober, his lips comically pursed as if tasting a ripe lemon. “Uhhhhh…uh-oh…”

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: Foregone Conclusion

A primal sound consequently erupted from Joe, a repeated series of whoops that was more than likely being repeated “word-for-word” by a silverback somewhere in the far reaches of the Congo. Also, much like his genetic cousin on the other continent, my hairy Armenian friend with coiffed hair began pumping his arms in the air, and if he had traded his suit for a loincloth and a club, he could have easily been mistaken for the second incarnation of Tarzan. Not counting his bitter tirade in that derelict building amongst our new rupestrine friends, I had never seen him so vividly emotive. His wide eyes and open mouth said it all: Me right! Donna two-timing slut! Donna bad! Donna, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more of an antipode to Joe’s reaction. Ignoring him for the time being, she calmly smiled at me while leaning forward to cradle her head on a supporting arm.

“It is true that I work for the Dun Group…and it is true that we are trying to clear out a few blocks in West New York for reconstruction. And even though I do not participate in all those deals being made, I am not ashamed of that. And I am not ashamed of trying to send dirty cops to jail, especially if they get in the way of making money. How’s it called? One stone, two birds?” She shrugged, taking another slug from her bottle. “And I am dating a top guy at the Dun Group.” She smirked again, with that same mischievous appearance that bordered on being diabolical. “But I date a few men. I am dating a retired Princeton professor who is from a rich family and almost double my age, plus we have a fun time with toys in the bedroom…all while his wife is dying from cancer. I am not ashamed of that, either…because life is about having options. I make my choices without shame, and I choose to help get rid of Captain O’Bannon, to both get rid of bad cops and to make money. To be honest, that actually makes me proud.”

Damn…that is one woman it’d be a mistake to mess with. For the second time in so many days, I watched the balloon that was Joe’s elation suddenly deflate, popped by the indignant stab of Donna’s stern conviction. Though his posture hadn’t lost any of its righteousness, his slumped shoulders and countenance showed an inability to reconcile the unabashed candidness and the actual words from our pragmatic ally. His lips flapped silently as they formed various shapes in confusion, emitting sounds that fell flat due to having no volume. As for me, I experienced a doomed sense of certainty. I had a sinking feeling, knowing that we were farther than ever from our initial goal and steadily plunging into a Mariana’s Trench that sepulchers all hope. Taking Joe’s sensibilities into account, I was well aware that such a revelation could be the very undoing of this shaky alliance.

“Well,” I stated flatly, failing to resist the temptations of witzelsucht, “Nobody here cares about your sex life, Donna. Unless, of course, there are pictures that you’re willing to share.” When no laughter came my way, I took the hint and plodded onward. “Anyway…I think that I speak for both Joe and myself, when I say that we don’t ultimately care about your personal conquests. What we do care about is whether or not you’re actually being up front and telling the truth about Richie. You are…right? And you have the proof to back it up?”

Donna’s face reverted back to her previous stoicism. “Yes.”

“Okay…well…I can work with that. And I’m sure that Joe might not agree with all of your life choices, but he’ll get past them.” At the very least, I sure hope so… “Out of curiosity, though…do you think that any of your more powerful boyfriends might help us out? You know, a favorite among them who’d be more inclined to lend a hand?”

She stared into the space behind my head in a pensive trance. “Hmmm…maybe one of them could help.” She paused again, not wearing hesitation well since it didn’t really suit her. “And I don’t have a favorite among them…since I do not love any of them. All of them are useful to me in some way, but it is hard to measure it…maybe the professor? He’s older, and he might leave his estate to me in his will.”

Observing her dark eyes as having a resemblance to a starless vacuum, I realized that this situation bore striking similarities to the awkward moment with her cousin: sometimes there’s really nothing to say, since it just is what it is. Who knows where it all started for Donna. It could have had something to do with that grandfather who yearned for a son and had incessantly reminded her of it. Perhaps it had been a father who never paid any attention to a young girl looking for some kind of approval. Maybe it was a seminal uncle who had betrayed her trust when she had discovered him looking through a drilled peephole in the bathroom or when he had a case of wandering hands. Whatever and whenever didn’t matter anymore. Somewhere along the line, she had made a critical choice about the rest of her life and about the men who would be in it. In that denouement, the decision had been made: she would never be a victim again. She would use them like they had used her before and like they intended to do again. Similar to the décor of her minimalist apartment, her very soul would be functional yet uninviting. She would bear a thousand pounds on her shoulders but would never hang a few grains on sand from her fragile heart. Like so many other young girls who experience disappointment or horror, some aspect of her had departed permanently, for which there would never be a return of that native. No dialogue of any length could stretch across the vast distances to bring it back, and her very essence would be forever sealed by an encircled wall of steel and crowning razor wire. It is what it is.

An exasperated Joe leaned back, reeling as if struck by a metaphysical lightning bolt. “Jesus Christ, Donna! Messed up doesn’t even come close to describing you…I’ve had enough for one day! Ridiculous! Sorry, Pete…I gotta leave and take a break in order to process all of this.”

“Come on,” I said, attempting in vain to recover this disastrous situation, “We can’t call it a night on this note…”

To which, in response, the universe disputed my assessment by triggering a knock on Donna’s front door. When Donna invited into her home those who beckoned, our building super Miguel and Rhonda entered and were greeted by all.

Joe waved, picking up his coat from the sofa. “Good to see you, Rhonda and Miguel. You came at just the right time. I was just leaving this madhouse.”

I focused on Rhonda. “What’s going on? Everything okay?”

Miguel, still in the car repairman uniform of his other job, began to explain. “On the second floor. There’s a situation…”

“You should come right away,” Rhonda interrupted urgently. “It’s your naked girl. She’s back.”

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: Nobody Is Innocent

“Well, I thought that we were eventually going to start talking about your buddy Richie again…but I guess that can wait, so you guys can go at each other’s throat some more. Honestly, yeah, Joe,” I commented, laden with irritated sarcasm, “I can’t wait to hear it.”

Joe held a finger pointed at me, defiant in his moment of being un soldat de la vérité. “Oh, you should be, my friend! Because this woman, the one who said that she’s a big fan of helping people, Miss Goody Two Shoes…turns out that she’s got some other reasons for wanting to go after Richie. Why don’t you tell him, Wei? About the Dun Group?”

I tilted my head to one side, trying to let gravity slide my brain onto one side and pool any resources available in my mind. “Wait a minute…the Dun Group…they sound familiar…yeah, wait, I got it! That’s the construction group who pays for the fireworks on the Hudson during the Lunar New Year, right?”

Joe shook the phone affirmatively at my guess. “Exactly! And our lovely Donna here works for them on the side!”

I looked at Wei, who had walked back into the kitchen and was now standing again behind the counter that bifurcated the room. Facing us, her poker face revealed nothing, though she was paying close attention to Joe’s continuing accusations.

“Okay…so she works for some construction group on the side. And?”

Joe held an open palm midair, in that universal gesture of both an apology and a request for patience. “Okay, I got ahead of myself…I need to explain. I forget that you’re not in the real estate game, Pete.” He put away his phone in his back pocket, so that his hands were now freed in order to form something akin to a Buddhist prayer. Seemingly done by rote and appearing to begin a round of transcendental meditation, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath.

Namaste?” I inquired with a smile, not being able to stop myself from being a smartass whenever possible. For some reason, Joe always brought out the best in me. At this point, though, Joe had experienced enough to develop a thick skin, being now able to ignore any ridicule with ease.

“So,” began the contemplative purveyor of abodes, “the gentrification of neighborhoods east of Manhattan are starting to wind down…there’s only so far east that people are still willing to pay a premium price on a condo. So, they’re all starting to look this way, across the river to the west. The big firms been looking at various alternatives: the Heights in Jersey City, some spots in Bayonne…and a good stretch in West New York.” On referring to that that last location, he turned his head slightly in Donna’s direction. Am I imagining things…or did she just slightly twitch just then? “Any of that sound familiar, Wei?”

I scrutinized Donna for some indication of acknowledgement or denial of Joe’s accusations. In response, she simply turned her back and opened her fridge, looking inside its vault for something.

“You don’t have to say anything, sweetheart. I’ll handle it!” taunted Joe.

“Stop being such a dick. At this point, I’d ignore you, too. You still haven’t made any sense…so what? I get it: they want to start putting hipster coffee shops and vintage bicycle stores in West New York. And then they’re gonna create a new show called WestNewYorkia….so what? Who gives a shit?”

“You don’t get it, Pete,” said Joe, shaking his head. “It’s dog-eat-dog in real estate. What’s going on here in Little Peru, with a building like yours? Me, Richie, and the gang were trying to spruce up this neighborhood. It took a little while, but after years, we finally started the ball rolling. We had big plans for this town decades back, when we watched Hoboken get the makeover…and when we started to finally make some progress, it seems that the Dun Group saw their chance to do something similar a few blocks away. There’s only one problem: you can’t have two ‘hoods next to each other competing simultaneously….”

Donna returned to the counter, opening a Tsingdao for herself and facing us once again. She said nothing, though she watched Joe with what appeared to be a distant disdain.

“…and in that case, you gotta try to bury the competition, in whatever way possible. You try to interfere in the politics of the area, by putting money in the right pockets. You try to slow down any progress by planting stories in local media. You might even go to some pretty crazy lengths, like dragging a cop’s name in the mud. Maybe even by making up some twisted shit about gutting some poor illegals! Oh…and if that weren’t bad enough, she’s sleeping with two of the VPs in the Dun Group.”

First, I looked beside me at the slack-jawed Huiwen, who had probably never seen any real-life drama before. For him, I imagine that this performance was vastly better than anything watched in the comfort of his own living room. Also caught in the moment of suspense, I sharply snapped my head in Donna’s direction, looking again for some body language that betrayed her innermost thoughts. Again, though, I could find nothing that was even slightly suggestive. Shes’ a character, that Donna Wei. In the novel Dead Souls, Gogol’s Chichikov remarks how many young women begin their lives as curious, intelligent prodigies…only to become erased as their mothers and superiors fill their heads with ‘female stuff’ and wipe out the essence of their individual vitality. Almost two hundred years later, I could say that such an unfortunate pattern has not yet abated. As I kept a close watch on Donna, though, I got the impression that no parental figure had even come close to dismantling the framework that permeated the frame of Miss Wei. In fact, based on her posture, I would say that it’d take an atomic explosion to even make her move an inch.

“Got anything to say, Donna?” questioned Joe. “How close am I to the truth?”

As she imbibed from her cool beverage, she swept the room with a glance and sported a slight smirk. When she was done, she put the bottle down gently in front of her. “Close…you’re pretty close.”

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: Tell Me If You’ve Heard This One

“So, you like to party, right?”

Why do I suddenly have the sense of déjà vu?

Though battling exasperation, I suddenly found myself in need of a change in conversation, considering that the last hour had been spent bearing witness to a sisyphean effort at diplomacy. “How so? Haven’t we already talked about this subject?”

“No,” Huiwen responding, waving me off. “Not like last time. This time, it different. Drugs? You like to do them? Errr…how is that?”

I felt an immediate pang of guilt over any mental transgressions made in the past towards him. Have I misjudged this poor lad? Am I such a bigot that I couldn’t imagine a Chinese mainlander would have the same thirst of most youth, to desire a taste of all the experiences that the wide world can offer? Be ashamed, Peter, for having a jaded heart that would automatically dismiss this traveler from lands of jaded statues.

In a respectful tone, I offered some advice to my pupil, though I was but a novice myself. “Well, that depends…Which ones are we talking about? Much like food, it depends on the occasion. There are ones for just hanging out on a Wednesday night, and there are ones that mark an occasion. Some are meant for relaxation, while others can give you the wildest night of your life. Sometimes they can even help you to learn something about yourself…”

“What about…errr…mef…errr…meth?” He said the ‘th’ part with a heavy emphasis. “Done that before?”

I frowned at the mention. “No…I can’t say that I have. It didn’t look like fun, and I wasn’t a big fan of the smell or the people who did it. I wasn’t around it that much, since it didn’t become big until well past my teenage years. I wouldn’t recommend that one, if you’re looking to try anything for the first time…”

“You know how to make it?” interrupted Huiwen, stopping my train of thought.

I shook my head. “Nope…can’t say that I do. But like I said, you should probably start somewhere else. Ever smoked pot before?”

Again, Huiwen waved me off with one of his chubby paws. “But if I make it, it would be easy for me to sell it, right?”

“Wait…I thought that you wanted to try drugs. You want to make them?”

“Yes,” he affirmed, smiling at the prospects of his future fame and glory. “Do you watch TV? Ever watch show called Breaking Bad?”

During my teenage years, when I had made the mistake of thinking myself in the house alone, both my mother and I were surprised when she caught me playing with my joystick one evening. As all mothers do, she implored my father to say something to me, to impart some form of paternal wisdom regarding the art of ‘jerking it’. It would be much to expect any father to expound on such a subject with his son, and considering that mine wasn’t suited to the role in general, he was even less inclined. However, he decided to appease his nagging wife, and awkwardly, he joined me in the kitchen several days later, taking a seat beside me. He then looked into my eyes and opened his soul when he spoke: Boy, you’re gonna want to keep that door closed when you’re getting down to business. And in that moment, I realized that there are moments when no words befit the occasion. Sometimes there’s really nothing to say, since the subject doesn’t require discussion : it just is what it is. And sometimes, that subject is a person. Similarly to that awkward moment at the kitchen table decades ago, I realized that there was nothing to be said here. If a naive opportunist wanted to model his life after a fictional character and become a tragically flawed drug lord, so be it. My cynical side, which had been grumbling in defeat only a few minutes ago, now rejoiced in victory as it danced about with a witch’s cackle.

“Yep,” I said with pursed lips and a furrowed brow. I always wondered if certain facial expressions crossed cultural divides, but I had my doubts in this context. “Yep…one of the best shows out there. And that Walter White…he did make a lot of money, didn’t he?”

Huiwen nodded eagerly. “Yes! You and me, we think the same!”

“Yes, we do, my friend. Yes, we do…”

The toilet in Donna’s bathroom shattered the relative quiet as its flush roared with hydraulic implosion, and Joe emerged from the bathroom with his phone in his hand. “Wait until I show you this one about her. My buddy just texted some dirt that you’re not gonna believe!”

When I had planned on making introductions between Donna and Joe, I had known that seeds of distrust had already been planted in the ground between them, and I had no doubts that blooms of accusation would surely follow in their initial conversations. In fact, it had taken a great deal of convincing on my part to get both of them to agree on a rendezvous. However, I had no idea of the clash of personalities that would erupt upon their meeting. Almost immediately upon his arrival to her apartment, the fighting had begun and had only increased in veracity with every subsequent minute. When Donna had decided to go downstairs and outside in order to smoke a cigarette, it had given all three of us a chance at respite after nearly an hour of heated debate (though Huiwen had gotten in the way of my chance of peace and quiet, despite being entertaining). Even now, I was still confused why Huiwen was present for our meeting. (At times, I wondered if Huiwen needed to be present on our very planet and how we’d all be better if his amino acids were best used elsewhere, perhaps in a steak sandwich.) Maybe she had felt safer with him around? Or perhaps she thought of him as decorative, like a borrowed piece from MoMa that represents the absurdity and pointlessness of life? Or maybe she had forgotten that he was there, since he had the personality and presence of a chair? Any were possible.

“Joe,” I said, using the same voice of frustrated parents who try to counsel heart-broken teenagers, “Can’t you just let this animosity go? The both of you are acting like children. I don’t know what the hell is wrong with the both of you, but it’s amazing how you two can get under each other’s skins. Let’s just focus on the task at hand. Okay?”

“No way! Seriously, you’ve got to read this one…”

The front door opened, and Donna walked into the room, wearing the same cross expression with which she had left only minutes ago. Upon entry, Joe pounced upon his prey.

“Hold it there, Wei! Wait until I tell Peter what you’ve been hiding from us all along!”

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: When Fiction Becomes Truth

“Over my dead body!” challenged Octavio, pulling out a chain from the duffel bag and moving between Joe and his executioner. “Nobody touches him!”

Joe’s horrified face almost became a combination of surprise and relief…before Octavio completed his train of thought. “If anybody is gonna kill this cabron, it’s gonna be me!”

I’m sure that Joe wanted to hear that…Man, is he having a bad day.

“Wait, wait, wait,” I shouted, attempting to bring these bloodthirsty animals back in line. I pointed at the more unhealthy version of Midnight Oil with fair hair. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

“Maria. Maria was his girl,” Billy explained on Matt’s behalf, with a calming cadence that washed over us like the lapping waves of a busy Hudson with aquatic traffic. “She lived in our tent city with him. When she got sick, and we didn’t know what to do, we took her to the clinic. They said that they were going to help her…but then a van pulled up with some dudes in red suits, and they took her away. And that was the last we saw of her.”

Though I was possibly throwing a handful of salt into an open wound, I couldn’t help myself but dig into it more. My heart started to beat faster at the dreaded prospect of actually being right. “And O’Bannon…was O’Bannon there?”

Billy nodded. “Yeah. He’s hassled us from time to time on the streets, so we recognized him right away. He was in one of those…you know…unmarked cars that drove just behind the van.”

“You didn’t say anything to anybody?” I questioned.

“I mean, we thought about it,” Billy lamented. “But, in the end, we thought: who’d believe us?”

“I didn’t know what happened to her,” seethed Matt, his knuckles turning white as his grip tightened around the pipe and his lips curled to reveal his broken, stained teeth. “But now I think that I do.” His unblinking gaze never left its lock on Joe’s widened eyes. “And someone is gonna finally pay for it!”

Amid the insanity of the situation, I couldn’t help but be amazed that my mere conjecture had actually turned out to be spot on. Much like Patton, now I couldn’t help but think that I must be the reincarnation of greatness. I’m a goddamn modern-day Eugene Vidocq! Once this whole mess is behind us, I’m going to open my own private investigation firm and become the motherfuckin’ caesar of sleuths.

“Hold on a fucking minute!” roared a voice behind me that sounded oddly similar to Joe, if it weren’t for its challenging assertiveness and the use of more colorful language. When I turned to address its owner, Joe was standing pugnaciously, despite his dizzying head and the lack of being sure-footed. His wrinkled brow was now a horizontally pleated faceguard, shaped into the helmet of a vociferous dragon. So unlike his usually pleasant candor and his amiable features that resembled those of ancient Hellenic statues, I almost jumped back in frightful surprise.

Octavio was also obviously caught off guard before finally finding the courage to speak. “Hey, yo, I thought that you didn’t curse?”

“Not today, asshole! Not today…not on a day that people talk about me as if I’m the most evil of all assholes! Of me! Of me, the goddamn Buddhist who doesn’t even kill bugs in his apartment, who puts them in tissues and then throws them out the window! Listen, you can call me all sorts of things, you can say that I’m a slimeball real estate guy…or that I used to be in porn with little people…” He threw an acerbic glance in my direction. Okay…guilty as charged. “But don’t ever dare say that I ever hurt anybody as long as I’ve lived. That’s fucking ridiculous! And if Richie has anything to do with this, and if what all of you’re saying to me right here and now is true…” He paused pensively, obviously measuring the weight of his next words to be said out loud. “Then I want to help put a stop to it. Even if he is one of my oldest friends…it doesn’t matter. My real friends don’t do things like that, and if he’s guilty, he’s no brother of mine. Especially if he was stringing me along and using me to frame Dwek! That’s a whole new kind of low…”

The room stayed quiet as his audience took the time to evaluate his speech. Personally, I wasn’t quite sure whether to trust him or not…he had been a thespian in another lifetime. Let’s be honest, though…if he had been capable of performing an act as he had just now, he wouldn’t have needed to abandon his career. He would have won a goddamn Oscar by now. Taking a quick visual survey across the room at the others, we silently concurred with one another in that type of quick, wordless exchange which almost defies explanation.

“Okay,” I said, volunteering as the spokesman for this spontaneous assembly. “So maybe you’re not involved in this mess. And you actually want to help?”

Joe wiped the corners of spittle and blood from the corners of his mouth, staring at me with an unwavering gaze. “Abso-fucking-lutely.”

I nodded, looking around the room. “Okay…Welcome aboard, I guess.” I bellowed a great sigh of relief. “I still don’t exactly understand what happened just now, but I’m glad that it ended like it did.”

Having the benefit of MMA training to keep a cool head in the face of rushing adrenaline (though emotions obviously were another matter), Octavio was able to focus on the present and address the near future. “So, we got a whole lot to talk about it, right? Maybe we should talk a little now and then make a plan to meet up later? At the very least, I gotta get home soon, or it’s Bad News Bears for me.”

“The kid’s right,” said Joe smoothly, his volcanic pulse obviously beginning to lose some of its indignant steam. “We should probably talk a bit now, mainly planning for the future.”

“Sounds good…how about you two?” I turned toward our two new compatriots that would have been perfectly cast in a show about post-apocalyptic wastelands. “Are you in?”

They both nodded solemnly.

“Well, then, that settles it,” I concluded, turning back to Joe. “There’s only one last thing, then.”

“What’s that?” inquired Joe suspiciously.

“When we’re done here, you gotta come with me and Octavio. There’s one last person that you got to meet.”

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

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.