A Short Fiction by Kent Mueller

"Nick stood up. He had never had a towel in his mouth before."

( Ernest Hemingway, The Killers )


George put on a clean shirt. Above his head, in the attic of the large old house, he could hear rats playing some kind of field sport. Something (chunk of plaster, chunk of brick from the chimney) would skitter across the floorboards, followed immediately by the scuffle of rat feet approaching from two sides, followed by the skitter of inanimate object, followed by scuffle... He had heard it before. Nights he would recline, eyes open, not able to sleep for the sound of it, half plotting play-by-plays of the overhead game on the streetlit ceiling of his room, half wondering when the rats would wander downstairs. Once, coming home from the bars, he entered the kitchen and turned on the light, surprising six or seven of the things. They leapt from the cupboards and the sink, disappearing in as many directions.

What game were they playing? Spring was on its way, perhaps when the weather turned warmer they would leave the house, find better supplies of food in the industrial areas nearby. Now it seemed that no matter how many of them were caught in the traps that George and his room-mates set out, there were always more to take the place of the dead. They had drawn straws to determine who would empty the traps and George had won. "Would you like a rat, my dear? I'll fetch one for you." (attributed to the lost Charles Dickens short story, The Rat-fetcher).

Most nights he would go out to the bars and spend the money he had stolen during the day. George worked at a downtown parking lot. "My lot in life," he would say to the infrequent friends visiting his glassed-in booth, gesturing outside. It was not a business noted for the breadth of its humor. He had gotten the job through a friend whose place George took, that friend had had the job passed on from a different friend of his, someone George had never known, and so on probably back to the beginnings of the lot. Thief begatting thief back to the genesis of RC ReadyPark, Inc.

From his left pants pocket he took out the days take, a wad of one dollar bills, sweaty with guilt. He uncrumpled them and counted. Twelve dollars. Above average.

In Finnegan's Tavern there was but one empty bar stool. He took it and ordered a bottle of beer. Alone and not yet drunk, able to concentrate on the crowd, he took stock of his surroundings. The same anonymous faces he always saw there leapt to his attention and receded, oblivious to his presence.

Of some interest was a threesome seated immediately to his right. He had never seen them there before. Inches from his thigh was an attractive redhead. Next to her, broad back under her caressing hand (her other cupped a cigarette) was a wild-haired craggy-faced man in his early thirties. He was lost in animated conversation with a portly man of approximately the same age, sporting a crew-cut and a camouflage tee-shirt.

Unable to avoid the conversation, he gathered that the wild-haired man was Fred. Fred was talking, yelling really, with Joe about The Right Stuff -- the book or movie? It wasn't clear at first, but the story was of Chuck Yaeger and his fellow test pilots who ended up in the space program. He guessed it was the movie, and in fact they had just come from seeing it. Punctuating this conversation were frequent toasts of bourbon shots "To the Right Stuff!" At one point, when the redhead again tried to say something, she was dismissed by Fred. "Aw, what the fuck do you know about it? You're just a woman."

The two men had adopted for the moment their mythology of the test pilot. Neither of them seemed to have the right stuff, which as far as George understood it, consisted of equal parts straight living, personal stability and unusual daring. During one of the toasts, at the clinking point, Fred's glass shattered, scattering glass and spattering drink as far as the far side of George.

"Sorry." Said the redhead, who had returned George's glance more than once before the glass broke, "My friends are a little drunk." She waved a bartender over and asked for a rag. With one hand she grabbed George's knee in an almost clinical manner and, with the other, dabbed half-attentively with the rag at what may or may not have been a wet spot high up on his thigh. She put the rag on the bar and turned back to her friends, heartily laughing at something Joe had just said, exhaling smoke from a just lit cigarette.

Through his second and third beers George watched them. At one point Joe took out a small handgun from someplace on his person and passed it to Fred. Fred turned it in his hand, openly admiring it as it caught and passed off what little of light there was in the tavern. A bartender -- the same one who had brought the rag and now retrieved it -- told Joe to put the gun away, somehow knowing it was Joe's. It was making the other customers nervous. Joe hesitated, shrugged, then obeyed.

The redhead turned to George. "Christ, I hate those things. Every night they fire them off."

George and the redhead began to talk. Names, occupations, situations, consternations; the conversation proceeded rapidly. Her name was Margaret. She was a commercial photographer. She was living with Fred. Fred was becoming impossible, largely through the influence of Joe, who also lived with them and whom she considered her best friend. She had been orphaned at an early age and did not know who her real parents were. George's brain reeled with half-welcomed, unsolicited data, how had the conversation gotten this far? Still, he was fascinated, more by her than the conversation, and it felt like they were old friends, not chance strangers in a bar. Before he could gauge what was happening the object had switched from her to him.

"You could be a male model." She told him.

He shook his head, "I've got bad teeth." Flattered nonetheless.

"So? Keep your mouth shut."

George lost track of time and beers. At a point when Fred had fallen off his bar stool for the second time, Margaret and Joe decided it was time to leave. She offered George a ride home.

Her car, a white Volkswagen Beetle, was parked less than a block away but before they could reach it, Fred -- who did not want to leave Finnegan's in the first place -- strayed in the opposite direction toward another bar. Joe went to stop him and, halfway up the block, the two men stood arguing. Over the din of traffic, parts of the argument floated back to Margaret and George, waiting impatiently next to the car.

"...we're going to another bar, God damn it!"

"No, damn it, I'm not going..."

"Can you read lips? She said, smiling up at George. George shook his head. Suddenly she closed in and was kissing him deeply. Joe responded as well as he could in his wild surprise. They released and looked up the block just in time to see the backs of Fred and Joe, disappearing through the door of the bar Fred had cast his erratic aim upon.

"Fuck them." There was a violent undertone to her near-whisper, "Fuck them both." Then, emphatically, "Get in the car and let's go."

From inside the car she reached over and unlatched the door for him. Riding shotgun. "Get in." It was an order. Halfway lowered into the bucket seat, the car lurched forward and George almost lost his balance. She played with the clutch. The car started with a blast of faulty muffler. He got the other leg inside, slammed the door and fumbled frantically for the seat belt as she pulled the car out into traffic. The seat belt could not be found, the door did not shut when he slammed it and the car stopped with a lurch after only yards of forward motion. His forehead brushed lightly against the windshield, a touch as light as walking into an unseen leaf on a wooded path. He began to have doubts.

Margaret cursed, running through the gears with her right hand. He managed to secure the door and put one hand on the dashboard. Behind them cars honked with impatience. Again the Volks started, forward again with a lurch and mid-block she took a sharp U-turn. Just as abruptly she stopped the car with a squeel of brakes.

"Christ" She said irritably. He followed the line of vision from her desperate face to the object of her curse or hidden adoration. They had stopped in front of the other bar, where Fred and George had just emerged, laughing. Joe had a full six-pack of beer and both of them held an open bottle. George got out of the front seat and with a sigh of relief poured himself into the back. Joe joined him, offering a bottle from the six-pack. With a fatal vision George took up the bottle, opened it with a twist and took a long drink. Fred was now riding shotgun, keeper of the door.

Finally they were off, into the west, hours behind the sunset but apparently intent on catching up.

They drove over a familiar bridge at high speed. Joe rolled down his window and threw his empty bottle into the void with a rebel yell. George quickly emptied his own and dropped it, quietly as he could, to the carpeted floor of the car. Fred put a tape in the tape deck -- Bob Dylan, The Basement Tapes-- and began to sing along, "Please Missus Henry, Missus Henry please..."

Margaret, agile, snaked an arm back between the bucket seats, found George's leg and rubbed it soothingly, placid contrast to the violence of her driving. She paused in her massage often, to change gears.

"How old are you, George?" She yelled back through the music, the wind whistling through the leaky windows, having already been told.

Joe had handed him another bottle, already open. Beer was dribbling down his chin, he wiped at it with the sleeve of his suitcoat. "Nineteen."

"Hah!" Said Fred, "Just your meat! Maybe he's still a virgin!" This drew a belly laugh from Joe. Margaret smirked, took her hand from George's leg and gave Fred a slight push, a love tap, on the shoulder. Aw cut it out -- com'n, don't tease the kid. Somehow still she seemed pleased with the comment and eyed George through the rearview mirror.

At that point Joe took out a small pipe and loaded it from a plastic bag. He lit the pipe and passed it to George. George took a deep draw, trying not to cough, then passed it forward, holding it there between the seats, not certain of the etiquette. Fred took it up, inhaled deeply and then held the pipe out to Margaret. She knocked it to the floor in a sudden pique, scattering lit ashes that twinkled briefly. Fred retrieved the pipe and passed it back to Joe, who returned it to his pocket with a shrug.

Fred once more began to sing along to the tape, but then suddenly he opened the door at his side. The sound of rushing wind filled the car as he swung around sideways, his legs briefly tangling with Margaret's arms struggling then to hold the wheel and downshift. Just that suddenly he was leaning out and back, beer bottle mysteriously gone, one hand on the door itself, holding him up and it out, the other gripping the door frame, holding him in. He slowly -- it had all been for a purpose -- lowered the back of his head to mere inches above the pavement, now passing beneath his medulla in minor, microscopic imperfections telescoped: dribbles of tar on cracks passing, otherwise constant dappled patterns of crushed-stone-in-asphalt zooming under in light years. Bits of litter fluttered up and away from the vacuum of the car in sudden whooshes of artificial wind.

Margaret grabbed at his shirt front with her right hand, popping a button that flew out into the night. She tried to pull him up, letting the speed drop to a hardly more sane 40 miles an hour. He was still singing when, with the help of Joe, she reeled him in.

Joe secured the door and pushed down the lock. At the sound of that click Fred stopped singing and crumpled into his seat. George had sat bolt upright the whole time, ready to serve as witness to sudden death or at least critical injury. Half repulsed half fascinated, half wanting half fearing. He was still in awe of the night, the turn of events, them, her, when she turned and calmly asked for directions to his place. She had to ask twice before he responded.

His directions took them down unfamiliar ghetto streets. "You live near here?"

"It's not that bad actually," He responded as they drove past the burnt husk of a duplex, vacant lots, piles of litter, hulking abandoned factory, every window broken.

"Don't worry Maggie, I've got a loaded gun!"

He directed her to stop at a corner, the large old house stood on a low rise of worn lawn, some of the windows still boarded up.

"You live here?"

"Look Margaret," George said, squeezing out over Joe's legs as he folded Fred up half conscious in the collapsed bucket seat, as he felt with his feet for the curb. Out of the two door Bug, bruised but still living. "If it gets to be too much and you need a place to stay tonight...Well, you know where I live."

"I might take you up on that," She said, "But don't wait up for me."

He watched them drive off, stood there until they were out of sight, then went in. He climbed the stairs to the second floor. He checked the rat traps under the sink, in the back hall, in the pantry. He found them all empty.


* * * * *

George woke up the next morning fully clothed, still sitting (a bit lower) in the living room chair where he had finally fallen asleep, waiting. His room-mates already gone for the day, he wandered around the sparsely furnished flat, changed his clothes, repaired himself as best he could and, already late, left for work. From where he lived he could walk downtown in ten minutes.

For two hours every morning he worked with a middle-aged black man named Filmore; yellow-eyed, eternally tired. Filmore worked third-shift as welder and then, at 6:30 AM, opened up the parking lot. Filmore was usually in a foul mood. He had a heavy Mylanta habit, drinking about an entire bottle of the antacid every morning. As soon as George showed up at ten, Filmore would give him all the cash (the money was handled out of the attendant's pocket, kept in neat folds) and then crawl off to sleep the last two hours of his shift in his beat-up brown pickup truck, putting his ever-present cowboy hat over his face.

"Wake me up at noon," He would mumble to George. At first this mumbling was a problem because George had to ask him to repeat everything he said. He'd repeat it, yelling as if there was something wrong with George's hearing, but also angry. They tried to keep out of each other's way as much as possible. At noon George would rap on the window of the pickup and go back to the booth. Presently Filmore would come in, pick up his things and depart, always with the same mysterious words of parting, clearly audible.

"Be puttin' you down now."

It's just a phrase, George would reassure himself, it isn't anything personal.

Late that afternoon, when the parking lot was busy with a rush of cars arriving and leaving, George was out on the lot, yelling directions to confused motorists.

"No, not there, here, damn it!"

"No, not here, there, damn it!"

The rush continued for close to an hour. Finally things calmed down and George returned to the booth, to the book he had been reading in the lull of midafternoon. A sense tingled. He looked up, then around, and there standing on the sidewalk next to the booth, smiling at him mere inches through glass, was Margaret, radiant in daylight. He rushed out and greeted her. "How long have you been out here?"

"Since you went back in your box."

"It's a booth," He corrected her. He waved his arm, indicating the parking lot, "My lot in life."

Evidently she didn't hear him. "You looked funny yelling at people."

She was shopping for records at the store across the street and remembered where he worked. What time did he get off? In about a half hour. She'd be back then.

She returned with the Volkswagen at the same moment the evening worker came in. George told him to let her park free and, arm in arm, they strolled off. At his suggestion they decided to go to a revolving restaurant on top of a nearby hotel. As soon as they walked into the lobby he felt out of place in his jeans and sweatshirt. She was oblivious.

A disdainful waitress seated them at a table between the kitchen entrance and the restrooms, but at least every table faced a window. In the 80 minutes it took for the restaurant to make a complete revolution they had had two gin and tonics apiece. Outside the sun was setting, and from that height over the cityscape it looked beautiful.

During the previous night the fire department had gone on strike when contract negotiations broke down. The National Guard had been called up to man the trucks. There was talk that the police, whose contract was also up for renewal, might also go on strike within a day or two. They toasted to anarchy or martial law, whichever might occur, while off to the east they could see a small house in flames and the lights of the fire engines approaching the fire. Finally they left.

They returned to her car, waving to the evening man as they, slowly for once, drove off, bound for his house and a tour of the premises. As they drove the short distance he told her about the rats, about his room-mates, one of whom rarely said anything to anyone and lived entirely on jars of peanut butter and heads of lettuce, both eaten in whole and entirely at a sitting. Then he asked her about the previous night.

"Shit, we got back to the loft and had to help Fred up the stairs. I went into the room Fred and I share and the next thing I hear are the guns going off. I think they fired them out the window, usually that's all they do..."

They were outside his house, she had found the way without any help from him. She parked haphazardly. "So anyway, I woke up at four and Fred still hadn't come to bed. I go out to the main room and there they are, both passed out on the couch like a couple of kids, except Joe was still holding his gun."

He showed her his room. They embraced briefly. He had hoped that they'd make love there but obviously she felt uneasy. She drew away from the embrace as he tried to steer her toward the bed. She asked to see the rest of the house and, unimpressed by it, suggested that they go to her loft instead.

Back in the car, she resumed the driving patterns of the night before. He hung on through turns taken sharp without reductions of speed, stoplights turning from amber to red before they were halfway through the intersection, pulling up close behind other cars, then pulling out, passing on the right just before a street narrowed from four lanes to two. Before he knew it they were in a neighborhood as unfamiliar to him as his was to her. Blocky industrial buildings rising to four and five stories, anonymous businesses within.

They parked. She unlocked the front entrance of one such building and a rush of stale air blew over them. It was sweat shop smell that had never left the building. They ascended eight flights of stairs, up four floors, and she opened another door into a kind of entryway. Just beyond the entryway a huge, high-ceilinged room greeted his eyes, ringed on three sides by arched windows taller than himself. The lights of the city skyline, the downtown they'd left not long before, twinkled in the distance.

He drew in breath and held it for that first moment against the glory, the elegance and airiness of the setting. She watched his face change. They entered the room and saw three men sitting on the wood floor near a large couch.

Fred was fiddling with a camera, making minute adjustments. Joe was there too, sitting cross-legged with a large jug of red wine in front of him. A third man, bearded and distanced, leaned back on his elbows. Glasses of wine were scattered around, an ashtray overflowing, packs of cigarettes, a lighter. Joe watched them approach. "Well, well, Maggie, you brought Junior along." Full of ebullience, he rose to get two more glasses for the wine.

George wondered what this age thing was all about. Maggie -- he corrected himself, Margaret (She hated being called Maggie, she'd said) -- was only four years his senior. This Fred and Joe, they were only thirty or thereabouts. The differences were not extreme. Fred had barely looked up the entire time. He had said nothing.

"Sit down, man, you're making me nervous standing around," it was the man with the beard, speaking in the imperative. George obeyed, sitting somewhat back from the intimate sphere of the group. Margaret, who'd been standing next to George, had disappeared.

Fred rose from a crouch and swung around with the camera aimed at a large screen or backdrop, at least ten by ten feet in size. It barely made a dent in the large space. Joe came back from what later proved to be a small kitchen, bearing two empty glasses and a plastic bag. At another end of the loft Margaret emerged from what George guessed was the room that she and Fred shared. She had changed into a shiny top and her nipples showed through the thin fabric. She sat down next to Joe. George tried to keep his eyes off her breasts. The bearded man made a growling noise, gave Margaret an exaggerated leer and made a false lunge at her. Fred turned around in that instant and caught all this on film in two quick shots. They all laughed, except for George.

Joe took out his pipe and filled it from the contents of the plastic bag. George poured himself a glass of wine and, once he'd gotten it to his lips, hardly spilling any, he drank it down in a hurry. They passed the pipe around and after three turns George felt very stoned. He was gaining back all the inhibitions he was trying to lose with the wine. He began to feel out of his league, a little paranoid as well. Then he disgusted the other three men by coughing out the entire second pipeload.

Margaret got him off the spot by asking, with a wink for the others, if he would help her in the darkroom, she "had something to develop." It was their cue to laugh again. He rose, wobbly on his legs, and in the process knocked over his empty wine glass. At least it was empty.

He followed her into the darkroom. It was next to the kitchen and large enough to be ringed by cabinets, with a big table in the middle. She closed the door, turned off the regular light and turned on a red bulb. It reminded George of a vampire bat exhibit he'd seen once at a zoo, or that again was paranoia from the dope.

She went through the motions of preparing to develop a roll of film but, working close as she gave him rubber gloves and simple tasks, she began to touch him and they fell to kissing and caressing. He had her against the edge of the stainless steel table and his hands went to her breasts. Laughing, she slipped out from beneath his arms and told him to hold a length of film down in a pan of mysterious liquid. She turned and knelt to open a cabinet, revealing a row of liquor bottles, or liquor bottles with the labels still on and full of what, or empty, he could not tell in that light.

She had a hypodermic syringe, of the kind that diabetics use, and filled it from the contents of one of the bottles. She came up with it held before her, revealing it in the better light as she came steadily toward him. Oh no. No no no.

"Uhm," He swallowed, "What are you doing with that?" He hoped his voice did not reveal his alarm. Maybe it's just something to do with the developing, measuring some chemical...

"Relax. It's nothing." She eyed him evenly, still approaching.

"But what...Oh no!" He bolted past her for the door. Pushing the door out, then pulling it in, he threw it open, probably exposing some film in the process.

He ran out into the main room. He could hear her laughing behind him. The three men out there were looking at him and laughing. He supposed he looked pretty wild at the moment and had made plenty of noise getting out of the darkroom. His eyes flew wildly about the loft. He tried to remember the way they had come in. He passed the men in a half trot, trying to look calm, act calm.

"The door's the other way!" Yelled Joe, laughing.

"Oh," He said, "Thanks." and took off, finding the door. He jumped down the stairs two and three at a time.

Out on the sidewalk, after the run down the stairs and another struggle with the door to the street, he leaned against the next building and caught his breath.

Finally he walked off toward the lights of downtown. He found a bus stop for a route he knew would get him that far.

A cold drizzle began to fall.

He saw the lights of a bus in the distance. It turned at an intersection and vanished, but he knew another would be along in a few minutes.

Maybe he'd stop at Finnigan's before heading home. After all, it was early.