The Sidewalk Smokers Club - A Novel

Thursday, February 16, 2006

By Stephen Siciliano

The novel is available here.

Here is a review.

Chapter One

Like so many of his time and place, Jordan liked meat.

But he didn’t eat much because, as an American of that time and place, he had bowed before a generalized social disapproval more cosmetic than concrete.

Still, he liked the Argentine steakhouse. The rich and thick cuts of beef, the velvety cream-based deserts were cause enough to drop on occasion more money than he could honestly afford.

But what resolved the quandary of to-dine-or-not-to-dine affirmatively for Jordan was this fact: the restaurant’s decidedly continental owners permitted their clientele to smoke tobacco on most evenings, when it turned late, and the atmosphere was cleared of snitches and self-appointed commissars.

Anyhow it didn’t matter for, on this night, Jordan knew he was going to have to light-up outdoors. He preferred smoking indoors because of a certain easy glamour he felt it projected, no matter what they said.

Bogart, Gable, Bacall, ghosts of a black-and-white America he could not truly know, but was compelled to emulate, had all smoked and looked as Gods doing so. Apart from the unquestionable patina of ’20s, ’30s sophistication it lent his otherwise suburban pedigree, there was the added pleasure of enjoying the everyman’s drug in combination with another which society had not yet turned its teeth on – coffee.

But there would be time – and that is our point here – there would be time.

The temporary lift this purportedly toxic concoction inevitably induced throughout his food-heavy corpus, the earthy accent it lent the meal’s aftertaste, were no less a part of life for him than a hot shower after a good workout.

This is what was good in Jordan and the reason why he is focused upon here. He knew how to live life, suck the giant sphere of all it permitted him, always in sage anticipation of the day when the privilege was withdrawn.

Jordan had never been comfortable with the easy way he fit the nascent century’s model of the middling man, but saw no way out. He’d wished there had been a war to survive, a childhood pockmarked with moments of gruel or a ghetto formation peppered with rough-and-tumble tales of humiliating injustice.

But it was his misfortune to have been lucky.

Jordan’s was a path strewn with justice where the basic social contract had been honored. There were glitches and unpleasant moments. Everybody has those. But mostly he labored and was paid commensurately. He surrendered the appropriate tax deductions and received mostly first world government services in return. He was almost ashamed. This was the particular burden of Jordan’s generation and class: the gnawing desire to complain without having suffered any indignity worth recounting.

There were few lifestyle alternatives; one really, offered in differing shades of gray, unlike when the world had been crazy and food was never secure. There had been a range to existence, often more bad than good, but from Jordan’s blasé standpoint, infinitely more colorful.

That was all over now, save for a few people in quaint places where the new homogeneity was late in arriving.

As the mass of people grew, so did the number of individuals hoping to distinguish themselves from it. And that’s not easy because failure leads, in turn, to an even stronger desire to differentiate, and so on and so on.

None of which was on Jordan’s mind as he sat with acquaintances at the end of a typically sumptuous repast.

For him, smoking tobacco was a great way to thumb his nose at a meddling world; an easy transgression that produced, and only on occasion, mild retribution. And Jordan liked it easy and mild.

And so it was that this important foot soldier in an as-yet undeclared war, announced that he was going “out for a smoke.” He might have said something value-neutral such as he was going out to “get some air,” or to “stretch my legs.” But he could not pass up launching this small barb at the knowledge-working, organic-eating, moneymaking, and spiritually attuned beings from whom he alternately craved approval and sought liberation.

And such are the conflicts available to those in a society where too much food is the problem, rather than too little.

And just as he had expected, the announcement was accompanied by a snicker from the controlling women who lorded over the health and eating habits of Jordan’s old friends. Men with whom he had once roamed the city in a fevered state of perversion.

Beneficiaries of the prosperity and balance good women brought to their lives, the boys were also prone to the darker side of feminine guidance that relieved them of having to ink things out for themselves. And Jordan could see it in their pathetic, evasive countenances advertising a lack of guts to demand the smoke that skirt steak pleaded for.

But that was because he was looking for these things. What he did not see was the admiring look of one young lady, bored with her man, who saw in Jordan’s gesture the signpost of a life with more texture, a signifier of some exhilarating daring-do.

She was wrong of course. Just as she had been in the choosing of her own husband, whose four-wheel-powered ride stirred up sediment from a thousand automobile commercials she’d thought ridiculous, but which implanted deep within an identification of said machines with bumpy river crossings and Moroccan adventures – expensive, exotic experiences she craved.

Having a cigarette with Jordan provided her with multiple utilities on this otherwise uneventful evening; one of vice’s supreme charms.

This time it would serve as her own silent commentary, not unlike Jordan’s, regarding the sterility of life in her adopted country.

Clarisse (that was her name) hailed from Europe; Belgium or France, nobody really knew for sure nor had the slightest curiosity either way.

Wherever it was that she came from, smoking was far from the evil it was locally.

Its communal value, its undeniable use as social monkey grease linked to relaxation and post-work activity, were making this pervasive evil harder to root out over there.

Clarisse loved America because it had, in a sense, hired her. But she grappled always with the Protestant stipulation that she meet a 17th Century Presbyterian definition of clean and healthy. She had no desire to maximize her total, lifetime number of hours worked, she wanted to abbreviate them.

“Everyting in Amureeka,” she was given to observing out loud, “ees eeleegul.” And so smoking afforded her a mild form of protest in the country where she lived and paid taxes, but might never vote.

The second utility to her vice touched on the personal.

Clarisse didn’t know Jordan particularly well, nor did she have any specific designs upon him, because as things stood, she would be the last to realize that her choice of mate was inadequate to the task of satisfying her.

This reality aside, she just then had an indescribable urge to goose her man, Corey (that was his name), and this provided her an excellent opportunity to couple his annoyance over her tobacco addiction to an oral exercise with another guy. Corey, she knew, would watch them from his seat through the restaurant’s showcase window as so much that was not-at-all-innocent could innocently transpire.

The meeting would be pregnant with opportunity: intimate and nocturnal. The druggy stimulation, the inspiration by lit fire; an exciting, mysterious rendezvous made possible by the persecution of smoke and its inhalers.

As she joined Jordan he was wrestling with the fact he liked to roll his own Drum – a woodsy, almost maple-tasting product – into thin Club paper, which he preferred because it did not have adhesive to finish the “stick.” “Stand here, will you?” and he moved her by the small of her back, to block the wind.

She parted her overcoat and revealed her demure, refreshingly natural cleavage. From where Corey was sitting, it just didn’t look right. If Corey did not like the fact his woman smoked, her habit was more than compensated for by the allure of those suggestive breasts and he didn’t see why their influence should be any less persuasive where Jordan was concerned. He loved his wife for features other then her chest, but struggled now to come up with one.

Clarisse knew precisely the effect her coat-spreading gesture was having on both men, because she had spent money on special bras and hours before mirrors working to exact the maximum benefit from that bounty which youth – that cruelest of brokers – had loaned her.

Jordan, for his part, was having enough trouble without the added and sexy distraction. His minimum requirements for doing a passable rolling job – no matter he’d been smoking in excess of ten years – was a small surgical tool-set and table.

These not being at hand he proceeded, half meaning to, half not, to drop the contents of his small project all over that part of Clarisse’s anatomy just discussed, creating spectacle enough to propel Corey from his chair and out to the sidewalk.

“I don’t know,” he lied, “I just feel like a cigarette.” Clarisse knew at once she had overplayed her hand and, that for the time being, whatever lurked inside the smooth shell that was Jordan would remain a mystery.

And Jordan thought it best to abandon the project. As such, he would have to ask Clarisse for a smoke, an act that almost always yielded assent in that fraternal sorority of which a local chapter is being born before our very eyes.

But births are painful things and Jordan knew that by asking Clarisse for a cigarette in front of her man some invisible line of propriety might be crossed. So he was putting his pull with her to the test. And when the request was finally made she said, “Ooh! Off curse, yeh, yeh.”

Of course this tiny chemistry of two was not enough to form a rebel republic newly sprung from a single, addictive practice.

At least five people are required to lend any project, from the building of a tree house, to a campaign for the American presidency, the ballast necessary for launching.

So at this point it could not happen. But destiny was in The Club’s cards because, suddenly and without notice, a blonde woman with long hair, acting very single, materialized. She held her cigarette between two loose, lyrical fingers and her hand was trembling. The thing they call a conspiratorial gleam shone not just from her eyes, but from every pronounced crevice in her body. Without touching, she embraced them completely. “I know somebody here has a light,” she said to nobody in particular.

Description begs dipping into unfamiliar usage here, for the blonde was
a ‘strapping’ gal: a tower of femininity. Jordan and Corey were simultaneously moved by a fear that she’d smite them with lightening if they said something really stupid, and by a synchronized desire to take her upstairs (had there been an upstairs handy).

“Sure,” said Clarisse fishing her pocketbook. Corey felt relieved by Joya’s (that was her name) arrival and Jordan got the feeling his plan for a quiet, meditative cigarette had taken the stage door left.

“You’re cute,” she told her benefactor, “and so are your two boyfriends.” People who say things like that, and come across as meaning them, tend to make a lot of friends.

The boys shucked their shoulders and bobbed their heads in a show of false humility that made them seem more like strutting roosters than less. Her smile was that of a puppeteer having just completed a grand and public performance. Joya relaxed and dropped her guard.

“It’s pathetic isn’t it? We’re persecuted for smoking when the world’s a mess.”

Slight variations on this un-embellishment, this broad stroke against the planet’s gross mismanagement were taken for scripture by (almost) all present. The world was a mess and people were passing laws making benign and personal behaviors illegal.

It was enough to make one smoke.

Corey – feeling an understandable need to highlight his presence before the sultry stand-in – tossed in three-dollars-worth. “What about second-hand smoke?”

Immediately he wanted to kick himself. Arguments of this kind are anathema to smokers who see it as so much thought-control and manipulated science.

“Oh shut up,” the blonde told him and Corey felt as if he had been kissed.

“Are you from New York?” he asked her and she said no, that she was from Colorado.

And he could see her profile in some Colorado, not the real one, but another made up in his mind with years of help from television: standing stout, blue-eyed and windblown, bundled tightly into boot-cut blue jeans, behind her one of those old western-style windmills with a metallic daisy fan madly spinning. It could be no other way. In chapters yet to be spun her partners in history will never ask Joya about Colorado, because she represented all the Colorado they cared to know. In later years, when they heard Colorado, they would think of Joya and not the other way around. And she will never bring it up – her place of origin – because she likes the city she has settled in and does not care to look back.

Clarisse pulled out her pack and finally handed Jordan the butt he’d requested. “I love Lucky Strikes,” said the Coloradoan (Coloradan?) looking at the pack. “My dad smoked ‘em.”

Of course, lots of peoples’ dads smoked Luckys. The pack hasn’t changed for half a century, because it simply cannot be improved upon. You have them, you’re a soldier in the Korean War – a V-day bomber pilot.

And here is a new commercial pitch worth testing: “Lucky Strikes: Your dad smoked ‘em.”

The cowgirl grabbed Clarisse’s wrist, caught her by surprise. She snatched the pack, banged another short-and-stout out, slid over and put it in Corey’s mouth. “Thought

I heard ya say ya wanted one, too.”

“He dusent smoke,” Clarisse injected.

“Uh, sure I do,” Corey responded transparently.

It was a turn of events Clarisse could not have foreseen when heading out the door toward Jordan to satisfy her craving for a butt and put a light under her husband’s butt. Call her deejay double-butt.

Jordan coughed when he hit his (cigarette). Certainly not Drum. Luckys were harsh, everybody knew, because that’s what made their dads so tough. But smoking one was a kind of test for those seeking inclusion in such a club, it was a real smoker’s smoke and you didn’t question its integrity out loud. You just said, no, that you didn’t want one – if you dared.

Still, a deformation, a flaw in The Club’s foundation might have occurred had membership been limited to those assembled thus far. But these specimens were destined to bind themselves into a book with a most saleable title.

And so a “Hello” broke the static moment and everyone turned eastward toward a layer of airborne orange lava tracing the sky to see another subject, dead cigarette clenched between thin lips, his stamped passport to their select company. “Mind if I join you?”

Claire lit the newcomer’s fire, as she had just about everyone else’s, and he nodded that nod which is so much a part of the international smoker’s language, given that their mouths are usually engaged. There was a pause during which a communal exhalation transpired. Enough smoke to fill the restaurant floated over their heads – good a case as any for the prophets of prohibition.

“God that’s good,” said the Coloradan, reaching over to the ashtray left on the windowsill in an effort to limit the Mexican busboy’s burden. “Yeah,” went up a gentle chorus as each mind drifted elsewhere, briefly, before refocusing upon the moment.

“How’s this Argentine place?”

“Great,” Corey, Clarisse, and Jordan said all at once. “Eef you like mit,” added Clarisse.

“Never been,” the new guy added, “can’t afford it.”

Somebody asked him what he did and he answered, “Philosopher,” which says many things and nothing at once. In a kindness both to he and themselves, nobody asked what kind of philosopher or how he lived from it.

Corey decided against mentioning his own plans for acquiring a fortune through information-packaging. For now it was a mere idea without enough juice to reach a great global audience. It would require the help of someone else’s money and someone else’s idea. Meeting those same someones was what had brought most of these smokers to the city.

“What do you call your ‘philosophy’?” Corey asked the guy, followed by, “I’m sorry, what was your name?”

“Randall, and bum philosophy, to answer your questions in the opposite order they were asked.” It took everyone a second to catch up.

“Bum philosophy,” the Coloradan perked up. “What a great idea!” and also in reverse order, “What is it?”

“Bum philosophy,” Randall explained, “is what you learn at the School of Every Day, the universal defeats and paper victories we are all subject to, and their subsequent fruits of wisdom. The lines across your forehead are the diploma, your own heartfelt conclusions, scripture.”

Corey saw no profit in packaging a bum philosophy, so he let it drop. The Coloradan, however, remained curious. “Well, give us an example.”

“Okay,” said Randall, drawing long first. “In the long run we’re all dead.”

This struck almost everyone as uncannily like a true bum’s kind of philosophy. On the one hand there was little that was profound about it. You did not need much more schooling than living life to say it, yet there was an undeniable verity, and just a dash of the profound, which made it philosophic.

“I thought Keynes said that,” Jordan jumped in tentatively, reticent to identify himself as a dying breed of liberally educated, non-specialist stuffed full of dinner companion conversation and no investments.

“That’s right,” said Randall, blanketing his face with red glow as he drew again upon his short and fine-looking cigarette. In the now-almost shut down commercial strip, the weak light and the caucus of coughers created an impression of industrial fireflies flitting about, up and down, on-and-off-orange, emitting exhaust in their circuitous travels.

There was a pause in expectation of elaboration, but none was forthcoming.

“So bum philosophy is a plagiarism of lesser, mostly digestible philosophic platitudes?” Jordan knew he might be blowing any chance of ever sexing it up with the two girls by insisting on demonstrating his surfeit of book knowledge, but chose to forge ahead anyway. Such are the dangers of possessing a natural hunger for knowledge.

“Compendium, not plagiarism,” Randall readily rejoined. “We give credit where credit is due, are proud to point out that bum philosophy and fancy schmanzy philosophy intersect on many planes, usually lower ones.”

“What outlet is going to sell warmed-over philosophy?” Corey finally decided to jump into the fray, revealing both a competitive side and his disappointment at the fact Randall could not help his career.

“Bum philosophy’s just big philosophy made bite-sized for bums: the grand sentiments made pithy and repeated often. We’re not saying anything the Greeks haven’t covered.

We’re just sampling man, grafting thought-sounds onto other thought-sounds.

Collaging from pages of the past. Cutting and pasting a new story, man, giving them the same thing, but making it a little cooler.”

None of which satisfied the requirement of Corey’s question, but stood as proof of the un-elected legislator in Randall.

“You got that down pretty good, huh, hon?” the Coloradan said.

“You ask what it has that’s new? (nobody had) And I ask what’s new? We are sold the same things in the same ways over and over.”

“That’s not too well reasoned, hon,” the blonde interjected in a way that made two of the men’s hearts jump with the possibility she might be also be college educated to no practical end.

“Bum philosophy,” he shrugged at the obviousness of it all, very lazy and bummy.

The answer, coupled with his complete conviction and old-school intellectual charm (he wore horn-rimmed glasses), made Randall very new school and his audience thought he might be onto something, a nicely bound thought system that opened with an apology for its many shortcomings.

Anyhow, it didn’t matter. All cigarettes had been sucked down to their spongy brown filters. Clarisse coiled her arm around Corey’s elbow and signaled retreat to the restaurant’s interior. Randall bid all a good night and waited around for a second, in hopeful anticipation the Coloradoan might be going his way. When the silence finally grew unnatural, he nodded and departed west along the avenue, which was free of traffic and pulsing with the whoosh of speedy autos under an arcade of metrically paced fluorescent lights.

“Civilized stars,” Jordan mumbled to himself. “Not wild and shooting, but static and sure.”

In spite of himself, he had the lovely Joya all to his lonesome and divined that not only had she heard what he said, but had liked it immensely. His stomach felt a bit unsettled by cigarette and big meat. It was opposite the effect he was hoping to induce by his indulgences and Jordan wasn’t up to asking Joya on the date he felt she was waiting for. She lit another stick, blew true and smiled. He thought, “This girl knows how to handle a cigarette,” as her trembling hand hypnotized him. She then tilted her head and switched on the eye-twinkling, only to notice that he was off. The girl reached into her purse and pulled out a shiny card case that reflected the bright night it had suddenly become. She pulled out a paper slice and reached out for his hand and bent it to the contour of his palm. “Ahm Joya. Give me a call,” she said without any excess sexual mystery, friend-like. He nodded and she was gone; her long straight hair swaying to-and-fro under the influence of her clunky cowboy boots marking coconut shell rhythm echoing back to him.

He looked at the card. It was beige with turquoise lettering and announced, Joyas Joya’s. Mentally dulled by wine, beef and nicotine, he reasoned that she was in the business of selling facsimile versions of her self.

“Excellent commerce.”

Chapter Two

Jordan, at the time, worked in a coffee shop. A prior job in the mass media had ended when he’d run afoul of his bosses over moral questions. Although his three-times-a-day smoking breaks in the designated area outdoors were not approved of, the roots of the rift ran deeper. To the larger world, Jordan had an attitude problem. But to his mind, Jordan the battle had been fought over the rights of man and against the lords of the kingdom.

As far as he’d known, his was a nine-to-five job, and with a few exceptions, that was how he chose to approach it. But upon arrival at the appointed hour to his first day’s work, he found his colleagues already into the hard rhythm of office labor, and knew something was amiss. This impression was compounded by the fact that he alone left at the legislated and contractually prescribed termination of his daily duties. He could stay late on occasion if they asked nicely, or come in early once or twice if needed, but absent the legally required overtime pay for such extensions of demand upon his labor, J. wasn’t about to play martyr to the benefit of another, richer man’s company.

The attitude was morally correct where Christian doctrine was concerned and not indefensible. Whether it was assailable is a separate issue, although in Jordan’s case it usually turned out to be so.

This being an employer’s world meant that Jordan was skating on proverbial thin ice. When you signed on with an organization, you were expected to be a team player and help management get done whatever it was that needed doing. And if you didn’t like the arrangement, there was probably somebody younger, dumber, and more willing to render the services you refused. The bosses meanwhile, like most authority figures, were expert where a good swift kick in the ass was concerned.

That is how Jordan ended up in a coffee shop, without the vaguest idea of what he would do next.

And so it was that he, being older and more mature than most of the workers at Java World, was pencilled in for the daily morning shift. It was the busiest time of day.

It was when the best-heeled clients, savages of the corporate corps from which he’d been expunged, dropped upwards of fistfuls of dollars for specialty, caffeine-spiked concoctions and oversized finger cakes.

Morning following the night just recounted, Jordan awoke at 6:30 a.m. and took immediate note of a dull and enduring pain from the night before in the pit of his stomach. He recalled the Argentine restaurant and began to lament both the price and volume of the rich repast. He didn’t feel much like getting out of bed and so reached over – not without difficulty – to the phone on his night table and called Carlos, the Mexican (what else?) barista who mostly ran the place.

“Java Whirl!” Carlos answered and Jordan described his discomfort. The Mexican promised to tell the boss and more graciously intimated how much Jordan would be missed when nothing could have been farther from the truth. Not that Jordan wasn’t quite simply a godsend to Java World’s proprietor; a mature white guy who could connect with the clientele and smooth over the unspoken prejudices that existed between they and the mostly Hispanic staff whom global economics had forced upon him. Otherwise, Jordan was mostly a wash; a too-slow coffee server who had trouble with the cash register, barked at the customers and stared like a dog at the young lovelies who frequented the breezy drinkery.

Presently he lay back in bed, stricken by the persistent hankering at the bottom of his gut. Pills he’d taken prior to retiring clearly had not worked and the thing seemed to be getting worse. It made no sense unless the offending meal had been rancid to the point of qualifying as poisoned food. He got up and, doubled over, lurched into the bathroom for a healthy swig of pink goo sold under the pretense of being able to resolve such abdominal complications to the sufferer’s advantage. He maintained a perpendicular posture during his return to the mattress. He forced himself flat on his back and tried to envision the pink fluid seeping toward his entrails and suffocating the burning coal that seemingly smoldered there. Jordan knew that these things take time, but something told him that this time, there would never be enough time.

The minutes rolled and his prediction regarding the failure of his medical assault on the offending army marching through his midsection was, in effect, born out.

Jordan was really hurting and he repeated the pathetic trek to his medicine cabinet for newer pills, the exact identity of which he was unawares. He was trying anything now. He dropped back into bed, doubled up in an effort to relieve the droning pain that had possessed itself of his body. The sensations were localized, but something else was amiss throughout the whole of his being, his spirit participating in a plaintive plea for relief from a God whose existence his normal outlook denied. As the seriously jeopardized are given to doing, he figured what the heck? And dropped a prayer into the hopper.

The celestial response was perfunctory and unkind. Jordan began to moan and roll in the sheets. He needed help, but like most bachelors, the very fact he was sick prevented him from obtaining the necessary relief. It was the single man’s catch-22 and he knew not what to do. His hand groped for the wallet on his nightstand. He fumbled through it trembling until he pulled out some five-dollar bills, a month’s-worth of automatic teller receipts (habitually unfiled) and a business card, beige with turquoise hieroglyphics.

It was, he reasoned, no time to be reasonable, much less proud, so he punched the appropriate digits into his phone.

“Joya’s Hoyas,” that healthy cornmeal voice he’d become vaguely familiar with the night before pierced his foggy consciousness like a shot of heavenly morphine. “YeahhitsJordan,” he belched.

“Excuse me?”

He grit his teeth and managed to enunciate the three words separate of each other. “Jordan who?” Joya asked.

“We met last night.”


Naturally, the girl was caught off-guard and Jordan had enough strength and vanity to entertain the fact that she thought he was being overly eager.

“I know we just met, but I need your help.”

She immediately judged Jordan to be but another of the countless loopy available men the local female population were condemned to pick over. But this sentiment was interrupted by a moan Joya immediately likened to rare sick cows that had afflicted the ranch where she’d grown up, before it was purchased by a giant agro-biz consortium. It scared her and she agreed to come right over and help him.

“Right over,” as she has put it, seemed to Jordan like a crossing of the Styx as he wrestled with the idea of an early death, regretted a thousand sexual indiscretions and his spotty history of drug-taking. Lots of images, too many images, went through his mind, all distorted through pain’s lens, while waiting for a knock on the door that finally came when he was sure his time had come. Jordan crawled over to the portal and opened it. This made Joya seem even taller than she was. Her lilacs and patchouli and four-leaf clover essence swept life into an apartment where death had taken a spot on the sofa and posted its feet on the ottoman.

“Well gosh!” she said, helping pull him to his feet. “Look atchew!” He wished she didn’t have to, but she did. “Do you wanta go to the hospital?” He managed to croak out a “yes” that wiped all the easy breeze off her face. “Oh my, let’s do it.”

Joya pulled his suit blazer off the chair where Jordan had left it before diving to his mattress. “Do you need any insurance papers?” He didn’t answer because negatives did not seem to be what the situation called for. He needed momentum. “Where do ya work?” she followed up. “Java World,” he told her and Joya, not being from the neighborhood, mistook the name for something out of the wild and zany world of software and computers she did not know.

Bluntly put, her plan was to dump him – with all gentle graces – at the Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in the hands of the best Jewish doctors HMO coverage would allow and then be on her way.

After all, she did not know him well enough to get any more involved than the basic (and deteriorating) rules governing human solidarity dictated.

“There’s a hundred bucks in a purple sock in my top drawer,” he told her, proof some kind of delirium was setting in. Still, he was gaining strength from the fact his battle was no longer a solitary one. Joya went to the dresser with this thought in her mind: “What’s a hundred dollars going to do?” because even those who are the very expression of health know how that and a prayer won’t get you past the front door of most American medical establishments. It was the great profit motive at work and, although she was a small businesswoman who believed in it, the idea struck her in that moment as somehow obscene.

They stepped out the door and walked about ten feet when Jordan, hunched over, turned back toward his apartment. “Where are ya goin’?” she asked, urgency slipping into her voice. He burst in, reached to the side with his right hand and pulled it back with a pouch of Drum grasped firmly within.

“Well for heaven’s sake!” she scoffed.

Next thing he knew they were in the emergency room. A tall, wispy nurse directed them to sit down. “I don’t think– ” Joya began to explain and was cut off by a finger-pointing and posture that Jordan could not help but compare with popular representations of the grim reaper. They obeyed.

There are many things in this story to recommend Jordan’s noble nature; his lack of covetousness, his personal stands on issues of social justice, and his ability to take the long view while absorbing the short hit. And it’s not a question of writing behind his back when addressing his lesser attributes, because J. would be the first to admit that he was a physical coward.

He really couldn’t bear pain, in general, and the amount he was presently enduring had crossed his tolerance threshold clearly, decisively, and early. He now began to toss and writhe in his seat, moan the way he had while at home. Joya, sitting next to him, determined that he was not up to sitting around waiting for help and that neither was she.

“He’s makin’ an awful lotta noise!” she belted in the wispy nurse’s direction. The woman ignored her as nurses are given to doing in such situations, scared sick persons being their stock in trade. So Joya rose to her full Nordic goddess height and walked over to the reception desk, repeating the phrase in a voice as big as her body. The combination of a beautiful cowgirl bellowing at her from close-range and the pathetic moaning of the patient from afar convinced the nurse to dispense with the matter; she picked up the phone and garbled a few indecipherables before hanging up.

She came out from behind the protection of her bulwark, followed Joya over to Jordan, and helped him to his feet. Each taking an arm, they escorted the patient through swinging doors and into the hospital’s entrails. The hundred dollars evaporated.

“Does he have insurance?” the nurse asked.

“He works at a software company or somethin’,” Joya answered. The intimation of something like a real job was sufficient for the moment. Jordan, who had heard and comprehended the brief exchange, decided it was best to get some treatment before getting into the nettlesome details of his coffee shop career.

Some employees in hospital green met the trio and Jordan was slung onto a rolling rack with cool crackling white paper over its surface. Already he felt better. He relaxed. For the time being this was someone else’s problem, too. Rolling toward eventual recovery he was hooked up to an intravenous machine, which fed who knows what into his system. There went the second one hundred dollars, officially plunging
him into a day’s worth of coffeehouse work debt.

The rest was something of a blur for Jordan and, in a nod to the Gods of rhythm, shall be glossed over here. A doctor came in by the name of Singh and among the many wacky and divergent things that went through Jordan’s head were a vision of this man in his native India riding an elephant while studying a clipboard.

He was diagnosed, most tentatively, as having appendicitis, but was subjected to a series of blood tests and other procedures less dignified. More intravenous bags of clear liquid were hooked up and emptied faster than ever into his wrist.

Although she was unaware of the cost, Joya asked at one point, “What is that you’re putting into him?” There was a peremptory response followed by no explanation or detail whatsoever. “Does he need that?” she persisted.

“Not necessarily, but it can’t hurt,” came the response and assessment that would later be clarified to the contrary.

At a number of points in what was becoming a very long day Jordan began to hyperventilate. And so they put a paper bag over his mouth and told him to breathe.

The purpose of this crude exercise amidst so much overpriced technology was to force-feed Jordan’s own carbon dioxide back into his blood and lungs. The actual effect, however, was to make him feel like he would suffocate. He was mortified by the downright primitive nature of the technique. “For chrissakes,” he thought, not being a frequenter of hospitals, “is this the best we can do at this late stage of medical history?” Then out loud, “Get it off! Goddamn it, get it off!”

So they got it off.

“This isn’t going well,” sighed Joya, who remained loyally by the side of a young man she had yet to exchange more than a single cigarette and a handful of words with. They plied him with a sedative while awaiting test results. The nurse figured this lull was good a time as any to get the all-important paper work done.

She approached Joya. “Are you his wife?” Joya, a little tired and more than a hair frightened at this brush with the American health care system shook her head no. “His girlfriend?” Again, a shake of the head and the realization it would not suffice. So…onto the explanation of how she and the patient had only met the prior night, in the street, over a smoke. Jordan’s heart sunk. When finances are being discussed, it’s imperative that an appearance of sobriety be projected. “I see,” said the nurse, as nurses are wont to do. “So how do you know he works for a software company?”

Joya explained that Jordan’s place of employment was called “Java World” and that it seemed to her the name had “something to do with the Internet, or whatever.” The nurse, though sworn off caffeine, was familiar with Java World because it was located near her home. It was at this point that Jordan found it very convenient to lose consciousness.

“Jordan,” Joya shook him a short while later. “Listen, they’re not going to treat you here. You don’t have insurance. They’re going to put you in an ambulance and take you down to county medical okay hon?” He nodded in the affirmative, as he had understood from the very beginning that this might happen, though ignorant as to what form the rejection would take. “Now, I’m gonna let you go because I have to run over to my store. I haven’t been there all day and I can’t afford to be away any longer. It’s late afternoon now. I’ll check in on you tomorrow. Is there anybody you want me to call for you?”

Jordan, like many young and rootless cosmopolitans the world over, was from somewhere else and proximate to no immediate family. He didn’t see the purpose of upsetting his parents when there was little they could do for him other than worry – which was not so much for him as for them, in any case. As far as could be determined, he had appendicitis, although it had been explained to him some time earlier that there was no “full-proof” way of diagnosing that particular ailment with certainty since it did not turn up on X-rays.

He watched her leave, long striding in those blue cowboy boots, and felt terribly alone. “Surely,” he thought, “no one should be forced to go through something like this on their own…without her.”

Chapter Three

Randall was home bum philosophizing. He’d decided that despite his timely answers to Jordan’s question about John Maynard Keynes’ “in the long run we’re all dead,” he’d actually gotten away with one there. A tight linguistic tautology that repulsed all inquiry was not the thing he was after. Slightly older than those other Sidewalk Smokers, he was unfortunately smitten with traces of an earlier idealism, an idealism that did not hamper the rabid upward strivings of generations X, Y, and Zzzzz.

Randall wanted to be remembered after he was gone, but he did not seek a monument built upon greenbacks. He desired, corny though it seemed at such a late date, to make a difference in peoples’ lives – for the good. The distinction is important, he bum philosophized, because Western Civilization – or the mess which passes for it – had grown so twisted, so focused upon a success associated with life in the public’s eye, that outrageous, ignorant, and even criminal behavior had all become legitimate means to notoriety. And notoriety was most cherished. With their images conveyed across the space of flows, mass murderers developed fans and/or immoral athletes gained lucrative endorsement contracts from product peddlers seeking bold or radical spokespeople whom tested well in focus groups of 14-year olds.

He chewed on this and decided to make it bum-friendly: “Bad stuff gets good life.”

Guided by his formulation, idiots seeking to bypass the time-tested, slow, hard path to success through work could use bum philosophy and chart a different course.

“Bad stuff gets good life,” was an immoral nod to the mass market, he admitted to himself, a ploy for popularity and wealth. And yes, as stated above, he wanted to make a difference for the good. But after all – he equivocated away – a thinker’s intentions are not even half the game and folks are going to get what they want from an idea anyway.

Secretly he hoped the deeper moral implications of the “bad stuff gets good life” phenomenon would affect souls properly prepared to absorb them. The brighter lights, propelled by bum philosophy in a different direction, would fight for the better world; conducting themselves according to such antiquated niceties as charity, solidarity, and uncommon sense (bum philosophy holding that sense was not at all a common occurrence).

It was a double-game imposed by the market. “Bad stuff gets good life,” as product to the cynical because a guy’s got to eat. “Bad stuff gets good life,” as a warning and desperate call for decency.

And so, this is what Randall is supposedly about (at this point), decency.
He began to boldly write. “We’ve gotten away from what the dead white men hoped for.

They knew that siccing us on each other had its risks. And they gave us laws that were supposed to teach tolerance and understanding. And they hoped the decency would make us close.

“But the civility is gone,” he scribbled on. “Anything not nailed down is fair game, and people can profit from stealing your mail, your identity, your car’s hood ornament. Every once-open and free space has been closed amen to a covetousness reinforced by the ‘bad stuff gets good life’ principal. Sole responsibility for ourselves has freed us from worrying about others.”

It was all about class clowns and daffy charmers riding the waves of a success so narrowly defined as to curse those it blessed. The humble, the generous, the honest and struggling folks got to sit on the side and watch the brash and brassy enjoy the fruits of labor not theirs.

Randall’s mind was overheating. He dropped his pen. It could not keep pace with the canter of his thoughts, which concluded that favoring ugly winners at the expense of beautiful losers would ultimately rot the very core of the apple that provided the civic body its nutrition. These last thoughts swirled around inside of he, Randall the Good, only to be locked out of his opus. For although it was true, it was decidedly academic and unbum-like.

How he longed to tell it to the world. How uninterested the world seemed (and was).

Randall stepped out to his front sidewalk for a smoke. He inhaled long and the infusion relaxed him for a few moments.

He looked up at the nimbus accumulations unfurl and roll above, unimpeded in their cyclical motion by those things perturbing his spirit.

“The happiest man,” he mused, “lives his life as a floating cloud.”

Chapter Four

Jordan, meanwhile, was floating like a cloud, pushed by a high-speed wind.

The ambulance ride was fun. It was dark and a relief from the bright clinical light under which had cooked for hour after hour at his first stop on the health-care-go-round. The vehicle’s high speed and the lovely anaesthetic each left Jordan with a sense of having escaped the affliction and accompanying nightmare. The attendants were, well, attendant and assured him the doctors at “county” were actually quite good, “because they get so much practice,” which was comforting in its way.

They rolled Jordan in on a Gurney and quickly departed with blessings of life and good luck, which took on a greater meaning and resonance than in more quotidian situations. His innate cultural sensitivity notwithstanding, Jordan noticed how county hospital was rife with people of colors different than his. The emergency room was packed with them, but no wispy nurse to badger. A perfectly nice fellow wearing what looked like a shower cap came along after about an hour and moved the patient into another room more in line with what a military hospital might look like. Six beds against one wall and another six across the opposite one. Another fellow in green scrubs and a shower cap came by a little later and administered more anaesthetic. Jordan was wide-awake, but his pain had become a part of the recent past and he decided, rather redundantly, to lay low.

There was a commotion as they rolled a great whale of a young Latino man into the bay adjacent his own. Jordan could discern from surrounding conversations that the patient had been shot and was in a fight for his life. They did not put a paper bag over his face and tell him to breathe. Rather they stuck an oxygen mask there and began working his chest in a manner that struck Jordan as frighteningly akin to rummaging. Embarrassingly healthy all his life Jordan was, quite simply, shocked at how rudimentary the practice of medicine remained. His idea of the steady handed surgeon with lithe, delicate fingers, aided by all manner of computerphernalia had been put to rest for years to come.

There were, however, elements of hospital emergencies that did correspond to the television-inspired notions cramming his head. For example: the gun-wound-guy was hooked up to the machine that beeped with the beat of his heart, which was, Jordan thought, not feeling very beepey. They took those giant prongs from TV and crammed them into the poor guy’s chest, too. The sound of electronic jolts was just like what he’d heard on the medical dramas, although there was a fleshy wetness that lent it an authenticity the spectacle-makers would be hard-pressed to duplicate.

Jordan was impressed with the sheer number of people trying to save this guy, whom by all appearances was a criminal, and the feverishness with which they worked.

After what seemed like a few hours into this noble, selfless exercise the machine stopped beeping and went monotone. The room’s energy level dropped all at once. Somebody said, “Call homicide.”

This was certainly dispiriting and the rest of the evening was hardly much better.

Ensuing cases included fuzzy drug-heads, confused hysterics, folks who thrived on the attention being sick offered them, and all manner of flotsam and jetsam which Jordan habitually voted to fund and care for, but had little occasion to meet first-hand. Having now done so, he lamented the haughty attitude he’d taken with his latest set of bosses. His access to that kind of white-collar employment was all that had stood between he and these unfortunates; perfectly good folk badgered by senseless violence and stranded in a deadening purgatory.

This is what Jordan’s parents, whose attitudes he’d mocked since the college professors had gotten their paws on his mind, had worked so hard to shield him from.

Born to them, Jordan thought cleanliness, security and access to education were givens. Now he was seeing how, with a simple change in the address of his birthplace, it might easily have been otherwise. Dead as political crowd pleasers, race and class remained big players on the game board of life.

Jordan closed his eyes in the company of no one and fell asleep after God knows how many hours of this Friday night parade, this tale from the crypt, and awoke in a different room that was carpeted, softer and infinitely more placid in atmospherics.

Again, he lay around for a few hours before anybody attended to him. Were he at a restaurant Jordan would be screaming bloody murder, but he wasn’t. These folks weren’t feeding him an expensive meal financed by his good fortune. They were battling a pain in the stomach, a service for which he would feel forever indebted – figuratively and literally – to them.

Finally, and at long last, a man in a white coat, maybe a doctor, maybe not, came by and queried Jordan regarding his readiness for surgery. Given the implicit severity in having a scalpel put to one’s body, he responded with an understandable dose of skeptical consumerism. “Well, do I have appendicitis or not?”

“Well,” the guy in the lab jacket said, “you can’t really tell one hundred percent, but we’re pretty sure.”

Jordan had watched the news magazines, was thoroughly up-to-date on the tragedies visited upon unsuspecting schlumps just like him by under-funded and harried hospital teams.

“Whaddya mean pretty sure?”

The guy looked at his watch in a gesture suggesting impatience and then confirmed it with what he said next. “Look, you saw a little bit of what we went through last night. Tonight’s Saturday and it’s going to be three times as bad. Kids are going to be coming in here shot up and crying for their mothers and you’re not, I’m sorry to say, going to be a priority. Now, you can go home and wait for the anaesthetic to wear off or for your appendix to explode and kill you, or we can go ahead and cut that thing out now, while there’s still time.”

And so, Jordan reluctantly assented to the carving of his loins.

Chapter Five

Things sure had changed since those days when Corey’s parents had paired-off in matrimonial bliss. Just as planned, he’d surpassed them according to standard measurements of achievement. His father had been a union carpenter in Eastern Massachusetts and his mother the member of a once-thriving, but now extinct guild: the stay at home wife.

If Dad had aspirations to be anything else, anything grander or worldlier, he kept them secret. Day in, day out he’d gone to work and brought home a paycheck that grew steadily, if not dramatically, for years. Childhood always seems longer so that the time his father spent with shoulder to grindstone struck Corey as having been an eternity. Despite his being an adult, it seemed so to Dad as well.

Corey knew, however, that it was not. He knew that when Dad was the age he was now, Corey was already fourteen years old. The reality was disquieting. Here he was, at 34, a college graduate (unlike his father), employed in a tony job with an irreverent name and flashy business card, yet without child or real estate.

To his father’s eyes, Corey and Clarisse had opted for a lifestyle that rendered parties an obligation because of the need to make contacts and forward themselves when really, on many nights, they preferred to stay in, rent a movie, and get some rest. He was covered by a patchy health care plan and Clarisse, who made good money as a waitress, was uninsured.

Somehow, highly educated, doubly employed and free of children, the couple was unable to duplicate the modest and steady life Corey’s parents, and for that matter, Clarisse’s parents across the ocean had enjoyed.

Somewhere along the line, Corey felt, wealthy America had wearied of dragging a permanent middle-class around and forgotten the perils of living in a country without one.

He could not help but think that things had somehow been easier and fairer under earlier regimes. It was all a freewheeling scheme that left one independent to improve their credentials, lay down some money and go in for their chances.

If they failed, people were condemned to swim naked with their clothing bundled under an arm, because society was no longer in the business of rescuing its own shipwrecks.

“Treading water,” is what Corey deemed it, in an ocean proffering a beautiful island holding all great things that might happen like a mirage in the distance.

That mirage was an only comfort and the reason-to-be for those living lives filled with more promise than posterity would ever make good on.

Corey, by most standards (save for Dad’s), had worked hard and woven an ingenuity typically touted as the key to success. Starting out but a few years before, while doing medium-well as a salesman for an engineering parts firm back home, Corey perceived the coming of the digital age. He was an acquaintance to many computer aces at work. When upper-level management was suddenly hit by one of the periodic downsizings that convulsed it, Corey saw the handwriting on the wall. He wasn’t too clear on what it said, but instinctively decided to update his skill-set so that the company didn’t shrink his life, too.

He could not afford classes because he went out every night, purchased stacks of stereo equipment, and had a weakness for designer-grown marijuana. So he offered part of the marijuana to some of the office chipheads in exchange for lectures and lessons at the central processing unit.

Note please, the enterprise and motivation Corey demonstrated: he saves money by sharing something he’s already paid for and simultaneously lessens his intake of mild narcotics. Rather than go home to watch football, baseball, hockey or Xtreme-games (there was no end to the permutations on this male-targeted fare and the beer commercials that came with them), he “stays late,” one of the corporate regime’s most treasured employee virtues.

Technologies race and he purchases a high-powered (for a fleeting moment) computer. He quits to hang out his own shingle in the computer services game. His particular skill, at this time, is not crucial to the story and would only serve to date it for future generations of book buyers. But soon enough he is hired by a new technology company, the stated mission of which is to develop (according to a press release) “the next generation packet-based technology enabling us to provide a multi-service environment in which traditional ‘telephony’ and data features are integrated in a packet environment, supporting convergence at the network core.”

Corey is never quite sure what that means, but the base salary will do.

The situation holds for a while, but technological jobs are almost always rendered obsolete by new innovations and Corey finds himself in just such a situation – again. The digital economy morphs along and 18 months later he turns to night classes at a renowned local university for yet another academic retooling; getting a masters degree in the computer science known and in universal use, again, for the fleeting moment.

Rather than consolidate his status, he is exposed to a high-pressure situation requiring groundbreaking (and profitable) ideas to hold position. He moves to his current place of residence where all of this stuff occurs in a natural way, moving along at speeds greater than elsewhere in the world. His degree opens doors for him, gets him desk jobs at self-described “dynamic” new companies, but no relief from accruing student loan debt until he generates that evolutionary innovation.

At this point in his story, employer and wife are still sitting in expectation of them – the innovations. They know he’s bright, they know he’s well prepared, and they also know that it takes a lot of faith whilst living day-to-day in expectation of the big score. The employer will have to wait. Corey has lived too long at the mercy of companies to hand over his heart. He knows that they will not take care of him before they take care of themselves. He is using his present employer, the way it is using him, rooting around for a truffle to couple with his talent and win big – on his own.

All he needs is an idea. It doesn’t even have to be a good one because, through hard work, he’ll sell it anyway.

Clarisse, as has been noted, is a waitress. Like lots of people in town, she does this while waiting for her good fortune to arrive on a very slow boat from China; the country where all the jobs went. When out at one of the endless soirees the couple attend in search of gatekeepers to economic security, fame, and world travel, she always answers “furniture designer” when asked that most American of queries: “What do you do?”

And she is a furniture designer, an avant-garde creator of marvelous pieces capable of altering an entire room – whole houses even – for the better. They are bookcases and shoe racks and storage chests that break the mold people show up to her studio with.

She enjoys, on occasion, an opening at a gallery specializing in such items. Nothing ever comes of it except an increase in the storage bill for her pieces; obligating Clarisse to give them away as gifts. It is an always embittering defeat sweetened only by the notion that at least somebody will see it.

“Somebody” is whom Corey and Clarisse attend the parties in search of: somebody that will offer him scads of money for an idea of his, (yet to be hatched); somebody, maybe a rich heiress who will walk into one of her shows, be thoroughly bowled over, purchase everything she’s made and then spread the word to other heiress friends (heiresses hanging out together as they do) who will backlog her order book for three years. Then, exhausted but exhilarated, she and Corey can purchase a place on the Mediterranean coast of Morocco and live half the year there and half the year in Western Civilization, alternating epochs of escape and creative validation.

Corey’s Dad knows that this is his son’s and his daughter-in-law’s fatal flaw. They don’t know the simple joys, the things that nature can give: a family; home; and the humble struggle to keep them afloat, moving slowly forward through honest labor before selflessly passing on hard-earned and incremental gains to the next generation. He knows that is why they spend enough money on health clubs, workouts and facials (for him!) to raise twice the number of kids he did. No, Corey’s Dad is not fully aware of what it takes to pay for a kid in today’s world, but he’s not far off the mark on his other assertions. For Corey and Clarisse know friends who have made it big in the game, who enjoy stylized houses, maids, broods of children without stress and occasional interviews in glossy magazines from which they evolve their own aesthetics and desires.

And they want all of this, too.

His Dad remembers that in his day Hollywood actors and actresses, the odd novelist or Nobel Prize-winning scientist, and the President of the United States were the only famous people. He recalls how they led their special lives while everybody else watched in fascination. Now anybody could be famous: a designer, home furnisher, car company executive, hotelier, storeowner; the proper mix of money, success, and calculation could elevate them unto the public eye and blessed attainment.

And his Dad thought it was all so much bullshit. For a time he was proud of his son’s outsized ambition and believed it was what he himself had worked for. Now he saw in Corey a big baby boy who didn’t have the guts to deal with the real things; who had trapped himself in an urban situation that was both too expensive and more provincial than his son could see.

And he wanted grandchildren and he wanted to see them in a suburban house so that he might rest assured that, God forbid, if anything happened to grandpa or grandma, there was a place for them to bail in this increasingly unkind world.

And the kid was out all the time at parties, his debt level rising to a point where the big score would be all but a wash and the years beginning with the prefix forty- weighing more heavily than he ever imagined. Young people, the old man fretted, don’t know what getting old means.

Worst of all, his Dad had a presentiment, which he would never admit out loud, that it was his favorite country in the whole entire world that had made his son like this (He certainly wasn’t to blame). It was a country that had offered him (Dad) a square deal in exchange for honest work, but had since pulled out of that handshake across the kitchen table with the common man. In exchange, it had offered his son a small steel ball at the roulette wheel, or (insert the cheap casino metaphor of your choice) a pair of dice bouncing across a green velvet table. It had turned life into a crapshoot in which the common man might get very rich or, more likely, very beaten. And the reason Dad never admitted this presentiment out loud was its similarity to the speech his son had been hiding behind for a couple of years now.

Corey didn’t get it completely. He wanted to dream big and reach for the stars; so much of what he’d been fed had encouraged this. His family, he thought, was seeking to limit his horizons. Life, he bum philosophized (the concept gaining an increasing hold over him), was a risky affair and, properly lived, one faced its peril head-on rather than lying low in a company job, which was, in any case, a thing of the past; little more than a myth with which parents might beat their offspring over the head.

Anyhow it didn’t matter because Clarisse and Corey were out, again, to some pricey eatery they could not really afford to be at, nor afford not to. They justified their presence through a logic born of their own experience that only when things got truly expensive did they find they were getting what they paid for: proof positive the economy had drifted toward servicing the more profitable predilections of the rich.

We join them now at an establishment located on a street boasting a string of similar restaurants catering to a class of ambitious go-getters that comprise city nightlife. As it turned out there did not seem to be many people worth meeting and so they were kind of glad to sit and enjoy their exquisite entrees in peace. Not a lot was being said between them, however. This was not new and had been eating away at the couple for some time. It wasn’t a question of having nothing to discuss. It was just that they had reached a pause in their marriage, a point at which their lives together, however fun, had become something of a rerun.

“So,” said Clarisse, mock innocence in her voice, “when are we going to haf a bayby?” Corey sighed aloud, frustrated. She inevitably took this as a sign that he did not want to have a baby, which was not true.

“Why you do sigh?” she asked. “You don want to haf a baby?”

“We’ve been over this. I do. I just don’t know how to go about it.” Thusly did the rerun always begin and then Clarisse would uniformly respond, “Well, why we don jus do eet? Look at de Mexeecans. They don worry about money. They haf tree or four chilren. And I want a cat and you won let me haf a cat!”

To which he invariably would answer, “Mexicans live in the worst parts of town. If you want to get a prefabricated place with cottage cheese ceilings east of Western Avenue, let’s do it.” There was more than a grain of truth to this, which shut Clarisse up, but left her totally unsatisfied. So Corey would break the unhappy silence with, “I know I don’t make a lot, but you can quit your job and we can somehow make it. We can move out to the exburbs or get a smaller place (although they’d be growing) and make it work.”

“What about my career?” she would say, plaintively.

“You’ll have to give it up…for a while.”

From this point the conversation would inevitably degenerate into a revelation of how Clarisse wanted it both ways: to strive for fame and a distinct, elevated social identity, and to enjoy the warm rigors of motherhood all at a time. Briefly, and pointlessly, she would ask, “Why you don give up you job?” which was a perfectly legitimate question save for the fact men don’t give up their jobs for babies. Women have made much headway, but not quite so much as to convince the masculine half that it should fully engage the business of child rearing (see: “diaper changing”), and Clarisse and every woman in her position knew it.

And this was their quandary, just as Corey’s father perceived it. They could have a kid and risk being run out of Bigtown – surrendering their cheap champagne lifestyle – for a slot, maybe, in a tinny suburbia or pass on the baby, roll those dice, and wait around for dimming prospects of wealth and celebrity to pay off.

It was an utterly distasteful deductive process that always left them disheartened and always led to Clarisse expressing the desire to go outside for a moment and smoke a cigarette.

And this is, in fact, what she did.

Chapter Six

The anaesthetic wore off and Jordan opened his eyes to the sight of a ceiling not his own. The misadventure had been lost in the compression and stretching of the hospital patient’s consciousness. With time, however, the overall plot slowly came back into focus: He’d (maybe) been stricken with appendicitis and shipped down to the poor folks’ hospital thanks to no-health-insurance.

Jordan sighed. Rather than move forward with his life, it would now take a number of weeks, months even, just to get back to where he was the night of his last tranquil cigarette.

“Hey,” came a smooth voice that rounded to a rasp at the very end. Jordan sat up; a sharp pain cut the movement short and slammed him back to the mattress. “Take it easy,” he heard as Joya’s head moved into frame on high. He felt life flow afresh through him.

“Why Joya’s Joyas?”

“Joya’s my name and that’s how Spanish people back home spell jewels – except it’s pronounced like an H so that it’s ‘Joya’s Hoya’s,’ except no one says it that way. Joya’s Joyas they call it. It’s my store.”

“Okay,” Jordan said satisfied with the explanation, which neatly fit the logic of trendy metropolitan retailing as he understood it. There was a pause. “So how’s business?” he asked, and she laughed in answer, which was also to his satisfaction.

“I guess we don’t really know each other very well.”

“No, but I’m grateful. I just grabbed the card you gave me from the night before because I was practically delirious. And now, you’re the first – maybe the only – person to visit me.”

With neither having much to say Joya left shortly thereafter.

Jordan thought that he’d never felt so lonely in all his life, except when she’d left him at the first hospital two nights (was that all?) ago. He’d have preferred to get away from that girl, from the way she kept leaving him feeling so alone, but she had turned out to be all he had. Jordan smiled to himself, for the fear is always worse than the thing itself and the thing itself was upon him.

He took measure of the surroundings and his confidence absorbed a glancing blow. The hospital was a product of the thirties or forties, two decades Jordan thought he would have loved to experience, so long as he could get 21st century technology when the situation called for it. Directly across from him was a young Latino with shaved head. He’d always been scornful of people who made sweeping racial and cultural generalizations, but he couldn’t help but deduce – influenced by a messy wound to the guy’s groin – that here was yet another gangbanger bent on wasting his life away through senseless violence.

The roommate’s condition obligated the elevation of his pelvis by pillows to facilitate healing and observation and this is what Jordan was observing. After a while the roommate’s family arrived, very distraught over the unfortunate condition in which they found him. There were young guys under shiny smooth pates exchanging embellished handshakes with the victim (if the noun applies). And his mother was there, in tears, and his grandmother in the very same condition. Their distress mystified Jordan who thought his roommate had gone looking for trouble and found it.

He thought (without the slightest notion of what had really happened) the guy’s misfortune was not misfortune at all, rather stupidity, before waves of guilt and counter-heretical sentiment overwhelmed and corrected him.

A young orderly came by to check on Jordan. He was kind and attentive and boy did that make a difference. He lifted the patient’s tie-it-in-the-back standard hospital-issue nightgown to check the stitches. Jordan was surprised to see that they were actually metal staples. “Finally, a medical innovation,” he hoped.

The fellow asked Jordan how he felt and received the response, “Fine.” The orderly told Jordan that he was on painkillers that would eventually wear off and that it was incumbent upon him to push the little button – and he showed him the little button – to call for more, or he’d get an idea of, “just what really happens to your body when somebody takes a knife to it.” J. could have done without the crime novel prosody but appreciated the intent behind it, sensing a male camaraderie in the gory, tough-guy way the information was imparted. The orderly asked Jordan if he’d “passed gas” yet and the patient explained how he’d just awoken to a beautiful woman hovering over him and no, he hadn’t. “Try,” said the orderly, “once that happens you’ll be on your way.”

The guy then produced a plastic item that, when blown into, propelled a Ping-Pong ball in an air chamber to float on the force of the channeled current. He told Jordan to blow into it as much as he could and went on his way. The roommate was sitting up, already provoking the papery orb’s suspension and Jordan reflected on the desire for survival, the visceral will-to-life in this guy who was much worse off than him, but seemingly less affected by his misfortune.

Jordan was waiting for someone to throw a penalty flag against the world for his rough treatment, and to award him a 15-yard advance in the territorial battle for survival and comfort. The gangmember wasn’t interested in any such assistance, which unlike Jordan, he knew has never been forthcoming and never will be.

The Latino pulled Jordan into his sphere with a look. He smiled. “I’m sayin’” he said and shrugged.

“Not much,” thought Jordan, exhausted by the operation, which (though not considered major) represented an extraordinary departure from his daily routine of morning coffee house and an afternoon-hour scowling at the mainstream media. He lingered on the vision of somebody he’d never met rooting around his insides with the plan to remove a piece. Such intimacy! Who was this guy? (let it be a guy!)

These were the things badgering Jordan in that gauzy region between waking and dreaming that drug-assisted hospital stays produce. He drifted away from the world of work and dates and bills, mind stumbling around an unfamiliar with the universe of bare necessity. He did not like what he saw. It was lonely and cold and he could not divine where any of the paths led except toward the darkness awaiting each of us. He shuddered, dreading an end in the trailer park of abandonment.

“To not be a three-legged table,” he prayed, “left to the side of a desert road. Not a tumbleweed rolling through scrap-heap, pushed by a large whispering, indecipherable, addictive.”

Soon, a dinner was served which, for all its intentional mediocrity, struck Jordan as fare fit for an inhabitant of Olympus.

“Thas’ good,” said the black nurse, “you hungry and you eatin’.” Jordan marveled still at the kindness of the employees at this medicine factory. Was it all an act, a professional requirement? Or were they still driven by the need to help people written about in eighth-grade Career Day essays?

More drifting in and out of sleep. Once he stirred and looked beyond the bloody crotch of his roommate to catch the guy looking at him with a sweet face. Go figure.

Jordan nodded slightly in that direction and he got a second smile in return. Jordan never met a second smile he didn’t return and suddenly he wasn’t so alone anymore.

He went under yet again and in the gray of very early morning awoke to a pain more indicative of a knife incision than any of his post-operational agonies thus far. He fumbled for the button and a fat white lady came. She was, needless to say, very kind. The kindness ran across cultures and classes here – a lesson for all the world. The painkiller administered, Jordan fell into a woozy bliss during which he dreamed of calling the nurse for another dose. Hospital life, he found, was very cyclical and tended to limit the variety and size of one’s aspirations.

Chapter Seven

There were about ten people outside the restaurant looking great and smoking away, shooting glances across the streetscape, tapping quick, desirous feet, tapping their tobacco butts clean. These impromptu gatherings not only evoked a warm commune of the persecuted, but also gave off a sense of where the real conversation was happening. Sidewalk smokers invariably evoke a body language of release, of suddenly being disentangled, and it made them more animated, freer, and, like all free and rebellious things, more attractive.

There were a few clusters of smokers, but as Clarisse exited the restaurant, she trained her eyes upon a beautiful, authentically full-bodied young woman, dressed with all the laws of style scrupulously obeyed, and clearly enjoying a long Virginia Slim. Clarisse could not bare such smokers’ candy, but never passed judgement based on that criteria. That a person smoked was always a first step. She approached the woman under the pretense of needing some fire.

Absorbing Clarisse’s request the woman performed a glancing radar-read from the corner of her eye. Enjoying the pleasing face with dark red lipstick, the black bob cut, sensible shirt, flat espadrilles, and continental accent, Yvonne (that is the new character’s appellation) smiled and said, “Sure.” In a practiced nanosecond her chrome lighter was out and firing off in Clarisse’s face. Lips occupied, she made that smoker’s nod of gratitude already remarked upon in the accounting of things out front of the Argentine restaurant.

They talked. Yvonne’s initial line of questioning ruled out Clarisse’s being a lesbian and this put her more at ease. Clarisse’s quiz determined that Yvonne was too beautiful and too successful for her own good; that if they could only blend personalities, they’d make a perfect mate for somebody.

Yvonne thrived as a caterer of smashing events. She had an almost coffee complexion while being a standard issue white girl with turned-up nose, her own home, and a desire to hook up with a man and mate that she was not shy in spelling out. Clarisse (though not overtly sexy) did, on the other hand, have a guy. And she, too, had the desire to make babies. Knowing what she knew about such things (a lot), Clarisse concluded that Yvonne was too choosy, on top of being too beautiful and too successful for her own good.

She was too everything.

Yvonne, in the time it took for them to smoke a cigarette revealed as much in dismissing her recent and myriad lovers as, “too straight,” “too tennis,” “too golf-ish,” “too feminine,” and, frequently, “too old.” Again, knowing what she knew about such things, Clarisse guessed that Yvonne was into her late thirties, but was so sexy as to command the attention of the many and mostly ineligible young beaux striving for fortune via their good looks. Initially engaged, then inevitably dissatisfied with what the lads had to offer the remaining twenty-three hours of each day, she’d trope towards somebody in a matching life phase with a strong wallet. But these men had paid the price of their fortunes with burgeoning bellies and receding hairlines and, while younger girls were willing to look beyond these flaws, Yvonne’s economic independence spared her the compromise. Which is why she was alone.

Clarisse thought Yvonne knew little or nothing at all about men.

The cycle was repetitious and Yvonne – invariably bored by her brief bouts with somber adult discussion – would again yield to the call of the wild, initiating yet another round of romantic frustration with youth.

In less kind moments friends would remind her of how all the good ones had been pulled off the shelf. Then she’d drive her fancy ride home embittered by lonely night and the price she had paid for all her belongings, not only in hard work, but in a life without intimacy.

Clarisse, an delightful and well-bred person, wasn’t going to say anything of the kind to her new acquaintance. She was steering the conversation toward less consequential and infinitely more delicious matters when Yvonne focused her black-eyed-pea brown eyes on something in the near distance, blew out a full lung of Virginia Slim liquid-like silk and said, “Look at this one!”

She turned her gaze in the direction staked out by Yvonne’s smoke signal and came upon a rangy silhouette that struck her as familiar. Clarisse, who wore corrective lenses, was confirmed in her first impressions as the coco shell-clamping of cowboy boots filled the street and the rangy silhouette came into full focus.

Only Jordan knows Joya’s name yet so Clarisse said, “Hey! You!” as the girl passed, focused on some point of ambition much farther along in the night. Joya turned and immediately noticed the girl from an evening or two past. “Oh hi hon,” and gave her a big kiss on the lips which made the Belgian/French girl blush and Yvonne blanch. “Fancy meetin’ you out here! Smoking a cigarette of course,” she said to brief fits of laughter from the other two. “Don’t you know that will give you cancer?” and more laughs to this most overdone of sidewalk-smoking-circle-jokes.

“Listen,” she went on, sing-songy, “it’s funny I should run into you – gimme a light will ya – because your friend, what his name? Works in a coffee shop?”

“Jordan?” asked Clarisse as she produced the same fire she’d asked Yvonne for just moments before, causing Yvonne to smile the knowing smile of the beautiful.

“Yeah, that’s him. Hon, he’s sick. Got appendicitis. He called me out of the blue moanin’ in agony and asken for help.”

“He called jou? Jou just met.”

“I know, that’s what I thought,” Joya rejoined, “but I suppose he had his reasons.”

“I wonder what those might have been,” said Yvonne and the Colorado girl took it for the compliment it was. And because she was used to such things, Joya did not preen or make a fuss, and damn it if Yvonne didn’t fall in love with her just like that, which was not how she was used to it going down.

From inside the restaurant Corey saw the assembled vaginal caucus as inviting and decided to join them. Heading out he noticed that somewhere deep inside him rumbled a low and persistent hum. Was it at the back of his mind? In his chest? His soul?

Science still does not know where the wellsprings of tobacco love are hidden, for if it did, the passion would be dead by now – a thing of olden times.

“Yvonne, this is my husband Corey.”

Doctors, especially oculists, will tell you no evidence exists supporting the existence of voluntary manipulation of eye shimmering. They will say, in no uncertain terms, that nothing in physiology (as currently constituted) even remotely suggests a process leading to eye shimmer.

And Corey would refute this, because that is what Yvonne did to him. She eye-shimmered him. It is what is known as sex and temptation. They pop up at the most uncertain and/or unexpected times and almost always come attached to a crushing dilemma. If science needs proof perhaps the numbed stupor on Corey’s face might satisfy the requirement – or the fact that he agreed to smoke one of her Virginia Slims – the girly cigarette.

Yvonne, as it turned out, was not actually enjoying her fag (as the Brits like to call it) mid-meal, but rather waiting for the valet to bring her car around in a final stanza to an early evening for all involved.

Chapter Eight

By the second or third day (Jordan wasn’t sure) he had a routine of eating, sleeping, smiling at his roommate and calling for the painkiller that comforted.

With some cheerier décor, he thought, you could get used it. At around two o’clock, Corey and Clarisse made something of a surprise visit, given that the trio had not been quite so close in the past. They presented him with a pouch of Drum tobacco.

Jordan surprised them, in turn; by pulling out the pouch he’d grabbed on the morning his excellent misadventure began. He had ushered it through the entire ordeal with a solid second nature. He hoped they didn’t mind but said he’d finish his first, that the tobacco gets worked over and softer with repeated handling and shake; that the smokes at the bottom of the pouch were grainy, easy to roll and resonated.
Corey found the lecture edifying.

Anyhow, the couple explained Clarisse’s run-in with Joya outside the restaurant and he could envision it all and transport himself from the present dreariness: The sex in the air, the mysterious impulses of the food, the sacramental smoke reaching back to ancestors. The chemical mist under streetlights and night sky. The girls. The possibility that anything might happen and the certainty that it wouldn’t. The girls.

It was agreed that Joya had really come through and that everyone really liked her.

It was further agreed that as soon as Jordan got better they’d all go out to dinner again and just the thought made him crave a cigarette.

It was also agreed that Jordan would call Clarisse and Corey when it was time for his release and that they would take him home and set-up his little convalescence.

And so he truly was not alone. He had more than a woman he hardly knew to depend on. There were other people he hardly knew he could depend on, too. This would help his recovery and J. was in no condition to decline the kindness.

And then, later that evening, Jordan committed a murder.

He hailed from the school which held that health begins in the spirit and the boost he’d received from his friends earlier in the day left Jordan feeling much improved and ready to deliver on his urge to grab a smoke. He thought the best way to carry the mission out was to move over as wide an area of the hospital as possible, never retracing steps. In this way the smoke dispersion would be decentralized and the initial source would be hard to divine. It also widened the potential list of suspects to a size that made him feel good about his chances.

He’d received a visit from a financial officer informing Jordan that he represented a 100 percent financial loss to the county’s coffers, that they’d been glad to help, and that it was time for him to get out. Jordan reasoned that the walk (if not the cigarette) would hasten his recovery and limit the public’s financial exposure.

Jordan puffed and casually hid the cigarette behind his back as he ambled. An orderly rushing past ordered him to put the butt out. He responded with a smile and nod of acquiescence, turned a corner, and took a nice hit before moving on. He ducked into linen rooms and the john when people were being rolled here and trundled there on Gurneys, intravenous tubes flowing down from clear patches of fluid. He thought that a hospital was not unlike a garage. In the best cases, you came in with something they knew how to take out and/or replace, patched things up, and pushed you back into the lifestream. In the worst cases...never mind. The rudimentary nature of modern medicine, it cannot be overemphasized, continued to shock Jordan, clashing as it did with the silicon and hygienic world of commercials for the Sunday morning political talk shows.

Anyhow, these wanderings led him into the geriatric ward. The old people lay there, quiet carcasses being pumped full of expensive drugs, hearts prodded to thumping, armies of ailments kept at bay. From one of the rooms he heard a tussle and the plaintive voice of an elderly woman, with an accent, saying, “Why don’t you just let me die? I don’t want to live anymore. Why are you doing this to me?” Jordan stuck his head into what turned out to be a fray between an old lady and three orderlies finishing the job of rigging up some sustenance-giving apparatus or other (it’s all very technical and you need a background, which Jordan did not have). One orderly, a handsome black guy with a mustache and exotic high-set cheeks of oriental Africa, saw Jordan watching and turned on him. He could not tell what the face was trying to convey. Agony over what he was doing? Over Jordan having seen what he did to pay his bills or some combination of the two? J. was shaken.

Later he lay in bed under a light that conjured up bad heavens. There was illumination, but nothing like sunshine. Not while Jordan lay stunned at the sight of old people being force-fed an existence. He was unable to wrap his mind around it; a gray area of gray people beyond his experience (although his time would come).

This is what some called ‘culture of life,’ as defined by mechanical circumstances: the beating of a heart or the presence of electrical impulses.

Jordan decided to forego his dose of painkiller because he wanted to be clear-minded in dealing with the new information. He felt the difference in the dead of morning, twisting to his right and crumbling his body structure into many shattered pieces.

As dawn crept, machines glumly hummed and he lowered himself, once more, to the floor. Reaching into the nightstand he took out a pre-rolled. He stalked gingerly (if such a thing is possible) down the hallway and perhaps dodged an errant nurse or two; it doesn’t matter, because Jordan made it back to the geriatric ward. Observing more thoroughly, the horror of the carcass farm gripped him anew. He had not been wrong. Something must be done. Like Yvonne, he possessed too much for the situation to hold. He was too young, too healthy and he had no tools for absorbing the logic of medicine nor the cruelties of time.

Puffing blithely away, Jordan ducked into the room of the lady who had asked to be left alone so that she could die. He watched her with infinite mercy, a little dimming ball of energy, indistinguishable from others of her kind on-tap, dwarfed by machine-juice pulsing throughout. Mercy is what he felt. Not pity. Pity is powerlessness to alter a painful situation. But this was mercy. Hieroglyphs of pain were scribbled in a frightening symmetry across her face. Jordan read in those hieroglyphs how the suffering had been complete, had been quite enough, thank you.

He fiddled with the cables and wires leading here and there and found ways to disconnect them at different points. He pulled patches from her arm that was sinewy and wooden at the same time, a piece of pale jerky. The reaction came quickly and he watched as the old lady rattled and settled into her eternity without looking back.

He made a feeble attempt to reconnect things, which was a move more cool than efficient given that it did nothing to silence the fit of soft noise-making that had begun to fill the room.

It was good a time as any to bail and he told himself this. His flight was hampered by a renewed and excruciating pain in the place where his appendix used to be. He was, of course, himself a walking wound and that is how people like their heroes – even smokers.

He was taking all of two stairs at a time, leaving a trail of airborne particulate matter behind, returning to bed in a blistering seven minutes: long enough to be caught on a number of occasions, but with his fortune and (he truly believed) the old lady’s holding firm.

The next day, while readying for departure, Jordan’s eyes met with those of the orderly who’d seen J. see him force-feed the victim. He smiled, but Jordan could not tell what the smile intimated. He returned it, not intimating much himself.

Packing the two pouches of tobacco for leaving, he said goodbye to the gang guy who was doing remarkably well under the circumstances. “I’m sayin’,” they both shrugged.

Corey and Clarisse arrived and they helped Jordan down to the discard area. A heavyset black lady who was very nice asked if Jordan had any money. He said he did not and wondered if the left-hospital-arm knew what the right-hospital-arm was doing, given that the same conversation had already taken place upstairs. She asked him if he had any stocks, bonds, mutual funds, “or anythin’ like that.” He said that he didn’t, which he didn’t. She looped a series of four or five zeroes through the form in front of her and then handed it over for Jordan to sign. He did and gave it back to her.

He sat around while she went through a drawer. After some time she looked up, surprised to see him. “You can go now sir.”

Somewhere inside burned the expectation that she might ask if he had any information relative to an old woman’s death or if he at least knew that some such thing had happened at the hospital. But she did not. Jordan, though still in pain, grabbed Corey and Clarisse by their respective elbows and rammed them out the hospital door lest the black lady recall any questions that might have gone unasked.

Jordan had heard a lot of things about health care and people not being able to get it, and he didn’t doubt for a second that it was all true. In any case, his experience had turned out to be something quite different.

“She called me ‘sir’,” he said to quizzical Clarisse and Corey as they got into the black truck Corey terrorized the town with.

Chapter Nine

Things happened for Joya in the moment she needed them to and so, for those observing, it seemed they happened easily, which they didn’t.

Excising rotting relationships, jobs that didn’t work out, and ill-fated romances from the tale, Joya’s road winds from a starting point of making some jewelry in her off-hours to opening a store for purposes of selling it at what the vernacular dubs a “handsome” profit.

It had started without plan and in innocence as the most desirable projects often do. First some friends purchased one-time samples of her wares and later she brought treats to nightclubs simultaneously festooning her own often-admired person with them. Sales were done on the spot. It was tax-free pocket money and she relished the exercise in the way Randall did the burnishing of common knowledge(s). Her southwestern essence pervaded the jewelry. It was heavy in turquoise, a stone which survived all the storms of fashion, at moments terribly chic, most of the time not, but always holding fond favor with a solid constituency. Within certain design guidelines – she was decidedly more refined than bulky – Joya had enough talent and accumulated culture to succeed in a variety of markets. For the ghoul after-hours crowd – a staple of the local fun tribes – there were little skeletons with turquoise eyes, Druid crosses with embellishments of the special Indian blue, and Mexican virgins with crowns of smooth and pleasing pebbles. For the hippie crowd there were American Indian and cowboy themes, cowboy hats (pink ones), horses, Hopi-inspired earrings, all of which sold very well. For the picky palates of upper-crusters she had designed a very specific series. These were bits of borderline fine jewelry with the turquoise burnished and chemically treated so as to decode its surreptitious spectrum and crease its surface with burned-orange-pinks and spidery black streaks. These she played with. These she dreamed with and convinced clients were worth considerably more than the cost of making them.

But to merely riff-off the qualities of her business is to fall into that trap which made her life’s progress – which indeed it was – seem effortless.

The truth was quite a different matter, for Joya believed success was more than a question of targeting many markets. She had to know about those markets, see them and live them. And so in dressing the Gothic set, she applied experience gained in running with the vampires over a number of years. If she understood the hippie sensibility, it was because a part of her Colorado schooling had exposed her to final traces of the original hippies. If Joya knew what the rich liked, it was because she’d catered to many a temperamental diva since arriving in that city she now called home. In addition to those entertaining the deception that hers was a life touched by the Gods, were those assuming it was a natural aristocracy that informed her stylistic guesswork.

Not so. American girl, she learned and burned and earned it all before crows ever tread the corners of her eyes. It was a success bred from a cornpone ambition, devoid of maliciousness, rooted in an honesty and enthusiasm about work still particular to the nation.

Joya’s Joyas – the store – fell just outside the boundary line of a wealthier local municipality and that provided her with a nameplate location at just a fraction of the cost of being within it. She secured a bank account at an institution inside the border so that her checks boasted the glitzy locale’s name. She was active in a group of area merchants and, it could be said, was probably its most dynamic member – although she was not conscious of the fact others held her in such high professional esteem.

These are some of the particulars and some of the virtues of Joya. Others have been demonstrated in the way she took care of a young man who was a complete stranger, and still others have been left for later weaving into the longer account. And that is because we will need Joya for the entirety of the piece to keep things lively and sympathetic (along with a host of other qualities most useful to moving a post-modern novel along its merry way).

But here is one more thing about her, before we attend to the development of other important characters: she did not have a boyfriend.

Chapter Ten

And whether Joya had a boyfired was on Yvonne’s mind as she headed to a gathering of Jordan and friends for the purpose of celebrating his medical discharge in almost one piece.

Physically, he was almost fine, but finance, as usual, was another matter.Having been set free by the black lady with the forms, Jordan was able to put his mind at ease where monies were concerned. He had not reckoned, however, on the kind of damage his brief dalliance with the first hospital had wrought.

Before returning to Yvonne and her thoughts about Joya let it be recorded that Jordan had been hit to the tune of thousands of dollars from a hospital that had refused to treat him. The bottles of liquid poured into his arm were exorbitantly priced; x-rays they took – but which were not appropriate to detecting the suspected ailment – cost a princely sum and his first glance at the total price caused him to search for a chair to sit in and gather his wits. The expense associated with temperature readings by stand-up machines featuring three-inch red digital indicators added up to a Virgin Islands vacation stay.

Not that Jordan had any such adventure on tap before his body betrayed him. He was working in a coffee shop and even that wasn’t so solid any more. No, underachievement in a college-educated, white American male was something so foreign to the culture (so much had been given) as to raise suspicion about Jordan’s true motives for working at Java World. Nobody believed he was there because he needed to be and the local capacity for perception provided only two possible interpretations: 1) drug dealer using the place as cover and/or point of distribution, 2) writing a screenplay about Mexicans and/or Central Americans in the restaurant industry.

Subtly, his boss asked to see Jordan’s stitches for he very much doubted Jordan’s accounting of the surgery.

Yvonne, meanwhile, was busy wrestling with Joya-feelings, which she had never experienced (except once or twice) with regard to any woman, and was not fully conscious of them at the moment. She lied to herself in this way often. It made life easier in as much as she got to her problems when she was good and ready, which is a fine strategy if you can get to your problems before they get to you.

Yvonne was a midwestern girl done good and niceness was the most common quality ascribed to her (followed closely by her persistence). She had a cool car. Her house was cozy-canyon and offered mysterious mossy views into a weepy garden of flowers and sculpture found or invented. She was talented with her mind, with her hands, and with her smile, which seemed to have more teeth than normal smiles. Her dog was long and floppy with a sweet face and tectonic slabs of muscle, and she took him on sweaty walks through winding country-like roads with sharp corners bordered by white-painted wooden fences.

There were no cesspools in Yvonne’s world. She simply assumed that shit disappeared when flushed. There were no fetuses in dumpsters out back of abortion clinics. The sea was not laced with strings of semen. Garbage dumps occupied a parallel universe and were administered by ambitious people who knew about rewards at the end of the rainbow.

She thought if blacks and Latinos and Armenians were going to make little clubs for themselves, then people of European descent should do the same; rejected the notion that those of European descent essentially ran the big factory as their private club.

It was a measure of democratic capitalism’s triumph that, even while believing such things, her own specialized talents were sufficient to gain a healthy material success.

And – it must be re-stated – that she was nice, which inclined people to shrug off the occasional and odd stupidity that Yvonne belched when the conversation went beyond her depth. Not that she was a purely material being. Like many of her time and place, Yvonne had cooked up an elaborate spiritual life to match the other storyline she’d moved out of Kansas to write for herself. It was the stock positive cosmology so very popular with her contemporaries. It went something like this: if you think positive thoughts (usually related to money and career) and you tell them to yourself often enough, couple them with incessant hard work and a cheery outlook, then good things will happen. For example, being fired was not unemployment. It was an opportunity to run around looking for intriguing spaces to rent, from where she would launch her future empire. People would just be warming up to the idea of feeling sorry for her when they’d get a call from her “new life” in practice. It was an important trick. Yvonne did not sweat things; she had fun with them.

And she was a convert to this religion because of the wonders it had worked for her.
And then Joya had caused the ground to shift beneath her; the way it did under the city every four or five years, creating a new opportunity to rebuild and reinvent itself in a burst of unified civic industriousness.

All of which sets the table for this evening’s dinner as Yvonne pulls up to the Mexican valet out front of the Argentine restaurant, wherein things play themselves out in ways that render reading through the next chapter, to get to next one after, a worthwhile exertion.

Chapter Eleven

Oscar Diaz was something closer to what Corey’s Dad might have hoped from his son. The young men were of proximate age, but Diaz’s life was more in line with traditions the elder thought he’d bequeathed his son – whom instead fled, putting a continent between them.

Oscar was harnessed to a cart and pulling with all his might. He had two children to whom his every effort in life was dedicated. He was married to a woman with whom he got along, more or less, for nigh on a decade. He had not gone to college and so carried around quite a chip on his shoulder about it. The irony would not have escaped Corey’s Dad because having not attended himself, sending his son became the driving motor behind all his and the wife’s actions throughout the spoiled youngster’s life. And yet it was there, in academe, that his son developed a disdain for everything great in this great country. He took a summer in France. He came back funny. He liked it more than his own nation. Go figure. And once it happened, there was nothing a summer at home, under Dad’s tutelage, could do to turn him around. The boy was lost to the father and his way of thinking. And the father knowing, still, that this is the best damn country there is.

Oscar, meanwhile, had taken a job working in the oil fields out of high school. The hourly rate, for a kid, sounded like a king’s ransom and although it wasn’t, the young man became hooked on the consumer heroine that a steady, sustaining paycheck offers. It got him a car that was cooler than anything his contemporaries scraping their way through university could afford. And darned if it didn’t draw some of the more attractive honeys from that very same early epoch in which no one knew what the hell they were doing. From there things developed as they have for generations with Oscar knocking his girlfriend up. Duty-bound and unfamiliar with a wider world of wacky liberating ideas the college boys were twisting on, he agreed to marry and father the little guy. Home and job security necessarily followed. Oscar went through the rather rigorous motions of those seeking entry to the profession of firefighters and the lucrative unions safeguarding their financial stability. It was no sure thing, but now he was set. He could pay the bills on the new house and the newer truck (practicality playing a role here) by lowering his head, his eyes and expectations (if he’d really had any) and report to the same place year in and year out.

Our sarcastic tone masquerades a general respect for people who accept responsibility the way they accept free tickets to a baseball game, a respect for the simple timepiece quality of such lives; laid out as evenly as a set of keys on a piano, each step the same distance as the one before.

And there was satisfaction in Oscar’s work. It was a labor of undeniable utility to the community and his service, at times, had Oscar touch the ceiling of glory. He had saved lives and been recognized for it; had become a source of pride and joy to his parents, his wife and other family members both nuclear and extended.

But it was, in the end, a job that leaned heavily upon the physical prowess of the man who held it and the years had begun to take a toll. In recognition of this the fire department had, some two years prior, promoted him right out of his thrilling perch at the back of a fire truck and into an inspector’s stuffy office. Not that
Oscar was ungrateful. He knew firefighting was not child’s play. And he knew his trick knee – source of a significant workers compensation settlement he used to buy motorbikes – could betray him in a crucial moment. There was, too, a tendonitis affecting the left shoulder making his job an increasingly miserable affair and he barely brushing the mid-thirties.

But what they’d gone and done was appointed him to a very important job, one that involved a new law – The Smoke-Free Workplace Act – and its enforcement – all of it.

For our own purposes we must identify him parochially for what he was – a natural enemy to smokers everywhere. That’s right, it was Oscar’s job, along with his partner Joseph Thorpe, a white guy with an identical pedigree, to run around town responding to calls or cooking up their own cases of Smoke-Free Workplace Act violations. He was a tobacco narc, a cigarette cop, a smoker snitch and roving petty bureaucrat. It was enough to make one smoke, and Oscar and his partner Joe knew it as they revved up and drove off each evening in search of fat quarry to skewer on behalf of the city’s empty coffers.

But back to the dinner, the table for which was set a chapter ago.

Chapter Twelve

The Dinner.

Jordan was looking pale, gaunt, and just a little scared.

Clarisse was there, Corey, and a new addition to the first loose nucleus, Randall, who’d run into Clarisse when outside a coffee shop where he’d stationed himself for a smoke. Fighting off thoughts of Joya through active conversation, Yvonne was laying out her happy religion to a skeptical Jordan. He claimed to have been as positive a believer in himself as the next guy, only to come up a month and many thousands of dollars short. “Well, that means it’s your fault,” Yvonne echoed the distinctly national tradition which views the victim as root cause of his/her own discomfort.

The company assembled was urbane and high-minded enough to moan at this – even if they knew it to be true in Jordan’s case given his inability to tolerate orders, bosses, or what his spoiled contemporaries knew as “structure,” and what his parents called “a job.”

Yvonne clumsily withdrew when confronted with the disapprobation of her latest acquaintances; acquaintances she must meet and know so as to run into Joya once again. The retreat promptly executed, she paused to reflect upon her disappointment that Joya was not as yet a full-fledged member of what she did not know to be the future political bureau of an important social front. “You’ll see,” she regressed into a ditsy girl voice that matched her outfit, “you’ll get your stitches out (he’d shown them to her, too) and gain some weight, and get strong and things will begin to go right for you if only you want them to.”

“I want them to,” Jordan [emphasis his] assured Yvonne.

“If that’s true you’ll see how fast everything goes your way,” she repeated in case he hadn’t gotten it the first time. She all but promised it with a sweet and earnest face lit up by black-lit eye-lanterns seemingly nailed at the center with bright pinheads of joy juice – if such a substance existed.

“The only thing that goes fast,” the prophet of bum philosophy jumped in, “is money.”

A novelty addition, Randall arrived with nothing less than a plan to transform this group from the assault on the stomach it was, to something more high-minded, purposeful.

“Isn’t your friend Joya going to join us?” Yvonne tried.

Joya was not yet a friend, except to Jordan, and a responding shrug on the part of all, except Jordan, was followed by Randall’s observation that, “something fishy happened at County Hospital while you were there Jordan.”

Jordan’s heart verily dropped into the hole his appendix had occupied a week earlier. “Yeah man. Seems,” Randall went on, “somebody pulled the plug on an old lady and she got a trip to heavenly land. Police are investigating.” Jordan’s gut began to feel not unlike the way it had at the last steakhouse gathering. But this time it wasn’t his appendix that was on the grill – it was his life.

“Dey shud save de money,” said Clarisse. “Maybe some one in heer family deed it.”

“Says here the family is devastated and plans to sue the hospital.”

“It’s more likely that they’ll sue than that they’re devastated,” Corey chimed in.

“That’s cynical,” Yvonne said, sparking a speech.

“If they were so dedicated she’d have been in a room upstairs at home instead of clamped to a bunch of machines at county,” Corey countered. “They’ve probably been hoping she’d kick-off for a long time and now that the hospital has screwed up, they can cash in at the same time.”

“I can’t believe you can think things like that,” Yvonne voiced her discomfort at such plain talk regarding the darker notions that often inform peoples’ actions.

Randall, for his part, was enjoying the seedling of debate unfolding, privately nurturing expectations for the mental development of his stylish new friends. “Having just been there,” he turned to Jordan, “what do you think?”

Jordan, meanwhile, had been suffering the antagonisms of someone forced to be other than whom they truly are. He would have liked to observe out loud how keeping people artificially alive by pumping them full of things alien to their organism was an immoral practice for generating expensive fees based upon unneeded services; how life, without quality, was not life at all. But that, he felt, would have made him suspicious of murder in their eyes (which, of course it would not have) and such are the workings of the guilty, homicidal mind.

“Who cares about some old sacka bones that’s already dead?” he weakly dissimulated his intimate relation to the affair.

“I can’t believe you would say something like that,” Yvonne cried once again, the ugliness of the discussion chasing celestial visions of Joya’s ass from her mind.

Tension was clearly rising as they all considered their plates smeared with greasy swirls and the odd piece of unworthy viand; a cigarette popped into each mind simultaneously.

As one they arose in perfect concert, heads high, cardboard packs gently tapped against fingertips, lest the reason for this decamping be lost in the clean cut of their clothes. And why not? The Smokers were lively, chatty, otherwise (almost) respectable people who should naturally draw attention.

Outside, Clarisse pulled out your father’s cigarettes, while Yvonne pulled out yo’ momma’s maybe. Jordan retrieved his Drum pouch while Randall turned out to be a partisan of the Export-A, a fancy little Canadian offering that came in a flat box at something like thrice the normal pack’s price. They were short-cut, filterless, and the paper was of a silken quality. The taste hinted at a world of the privileged gentleman gone by, something far superior to the mass productions of our own lowbrow systemic configuration.

Corey had once again followed them all out, but not over any insecurity he felt about Clarisse. “I think I’ll have a smoke, too,” he said, just as he had a week earlier in the same place, only this time with meaning. It happens that fast. Such are the realities of drugs, and dependence develops quickly. He was beginning to appreciate the relief a good cigarette brought to a body stuffed with the specialty foods one went to restaurants for. He began to sense the rhythm affecting smokers’ lives, the nervous cadence, the syncopated beat that involved heading outside for a quick butt and some fragmented conversation. It became one with a dinner ritual that included showering, getting dressed, valet parking, cocktail, appetizer (if it didn’t kill one’s meal), and entrée. The outdoor feature broke this sequence of thicknesses, extended both the evening and one’s ability to endure some more time at the table over coffee, dessert, perhaps an apéritif and more importantly, more conversation, more possibilities. Using your life minutes and stealing some fun.

Randall, who aspired to the life of a young 19th century English dandy, knew, or had read about, some of grace’s finer points. With a polished gesture, contrasting only slightly with his worn attire, he opened the box of Export-A’s to Corey, who accepted them with an equally polished and gracious nod of the head.

“Ideas man, huh?”

Randall nodded in the affirmative.

“Bum philosophy, huh?”

“Interrogator, huh?”

“What if I helped you get it out to bum subscribers?”

“Find the bums?” Randall was aroused.

“Sure. There are ways of doing that from home on a decent computer.”

Randall was taken aback. Arrogant of posture, he suffered from the insecurity particular to thinkers who are not being thought over by anybody but themselves.

“God that’s good!” Corey held the Export-A at arm’s length and glowingly admired it. “Makes those American things taste like piss.”

“Many American cigarettes are infused with a small quantity of urea, the reason for which I remain ignorant of,” Randall informed.


“Yeah and anyway I’m flattered, but no-can do,” the philosopher feigned disinterest.
Corey slumped just a bit at the shoulders and Randall’s powers of bum perception picked up on it. This guy actually believed in him. “The bum philosophy has no brand-name recognition and it would cost more to develop than you can probably afford. No, let it be stated in a less equivocal fashion. It would cost more to develop than you can afford. To put it in bum philosophy terms – and everywhere they know it and say it: ‘You need money to make money’.”

Corey drew deep on the airy substance that was the Export-A’s special offering. He knew, even before Randall, that he was in for a sampling of his co-smoker’s work in progress. Having already decided bum philosophy was the meal ticket, his interest was heated to a burning-bright white intensity. We have no reason to doubt, either, that the cigarette hastened the comity developing between them.

“The situation might be otherwise if the ‘Randall’ brand-name enjoyed an element of familiarity,” he continued, “but it does not. Nobody cares who I am.”

“Brand-name,” that was the expression that excited Corey, and Randall had used it twice. Standing before him, he surmised, was a polished artist, exhausted from the polishing and ready to compromise with commerce.

“I’ve played my cards wrong up to now,” Randall confirmed his thoughts, “but had no choice. Development of a philosophical system is a mean task and goes beyond the full-time, into the overtime of demands upon one’s energies. You’ve got to learn many other systems to really understand what makes them what they are. You’ve got to out-adventure the adventurers; you’ve got to be more interesting than the interesting. You’ve got to live more than the living.”

Out of this Corey deciphered a discipline and firm belief in doing the time instead of the crime. “That’s good,” Corey said out loud.

“What’s good?” asked Randall whose rhythm was easily thrown off.

“You’re good,” Corey answered.

Randall loved it. “So that is where all my time has gone, into the thing itself, whereas the ‘who’ of who I am has languished from lack of love and attention. It was un-philosophically bumly of me to expect that excellence and thoroughness of thought would sell themselves. You have to have done something or your thoughts mean nothing. Experience in the spectacle is the only spectacle anymore.”

“And the only experience,” Corey added.

Randall, no more free of stylish calculations than any of the show horses around him, yanked his shiny silver box of sticks and offered Corey another. He declined, as might be expected of someone in their apprenticeship to the ancient guild of pedestrian puffers.

“Something, anything. Even bad, especially if it’s bad, but please elevate yourself to the level of wide attentions,” Randall prodded things forward. “Only then will they care.”

“Who are ‘they’?” Corey tried.

“I don’t know,” Randall confessed, “but they love a good comeback story for example.

Singers and actors are great at them. There is nothing quite like sinking into obscurity and then rising anew with tales from the black hole of sensual excesses to spark sympathy and imagination in the general television-viewing populace. They never tire of hearing the gruesome details of one’s self-initiated sloth as long as it’s wrapped in the born again baby’s blanket of redemption. A nation of Christian origins, our payoff is the defeat of Satan’s evil pull into the liminal utopias beyond discipline.”

He would get better at it, but for now at the dawn of things, Corey could absorb no more. That this guy could fill so much air time and sound so good doing it only reconfirmed a belief that Randall – with a sanding of his rough edges – represented passage to financing a baby and restoring his life to a balance not known since bachelorhood.

“Comeback, huh?” said Corey.

“Celebrities provoke less envy when they’ve been through the ringer. They behave worse than us, mostly because they can afford to. What falls to us is developing a way of misbehaving that is a lot cheaper, but just as loud.”

“Who’s us?” asked Corey.

Randall shrugged, “Ah, I don’t know,” but permitted himself the luxury of a quick glance at those smoking and chatting amiably all around him.

“What about an addiction for Randall?” Corey proposed.


“Yeah, you get hooked on heroin or something.”

Randall tapped the frame of his glasses at the temple. He twirled the finger around and around.

“Okay, then fake it,” Corey insisted in the correctness of his notion, “but do something. The high road is closed. Sometimes it’s the low road or nothing at all.”

Randall took out a small notebook that had been bulging his blazer down in the lower left-hand pocket, “Sometimes it’s the low road or nothing at all.” He looked up, eyes awash with shine, “that’s good. That’s very good.” Randall was frozen by the idea’s brilliance – however twisted – and was, for once, at a loss for words.

Clarisse had clustered up to Yvonne and Jordan. Watching Corey light up she was subject to a pair of emotions flowing in different directions – at counter-purposes deep inside her. There was, first, a relief that what she was doing ceased to be a matter of disapproval. Smoking was no small matter where the question of harmony between them (and all couples) was concerned. Still, she could not deny that something personal was being usurped, something that had been exclusively hers in a life otherwise shared almost completely. Her cigarette break was exactly that, in the truest sense of the word – a break – and Clarisse would miss it should Corey make a habit of his own sidewalk smokings.

The others began to coalesce around them. Yvonne mentioned, “your friend Joya,” one more time and once too often. Her companions-in-smoking said that, yes, everybody was in agreement that Joya was wonderful and, that like her, they hoped she would deign to make them a part of her own wide city circle. Until that time, Yvonne would have to make do with the mere mortals presently assembled.

Yvonne blushed and smiled in a way that was simply too charming and authentic in its pure embarrassment to not evince a wave of unanimous simpatico. All was forgotten, sort of.

Clarisse held forth on the virtues of an occasional clove cigarette. Most of the gathered had been through that phase and her discourse failed to excite until she finished by saying “dey turn my tongue into a flowerbed,” and nostalgia overwhelmed each.

As the conversation wound down in rhythm to the depletion in tobacco supply, into discussions of money and pets and career breaks (for they all thought they were moving inexorably upward), Jordan was traipsing a more prosaic world wherein he waited, terrorized, for someone to bring up the old lady at the hospital again.

For that was not yesterday’s papers at all.

Chapter Thirteen

Fire inspectors Diaz and Thorpe were exiting a local French restaurant where the owner had been issued yet another citation in a long history of them. Never mind that her mostly continental clientele wanted to smoke and that most of her waiters and bartenders (okay, all of them) partook on the job. She was in violation of the Smoke-Free Workplace Act and her obstinate flouting made the eatery a regular stop on the officers’ nightly tour of duty.

Not only did the French place permit its clientele and workforce to smoke; it sold separate cigarettes sitting in an oversized cognac sifter on the bar to any and all takers. And it did so at a handsome profit because drugs, as anyone who went to college and did a basic econ class knows, have what is called a very ‘elastic’ demand. A bum philosopher might say that wild horses couldn’t keep their users away.

Actually, the phenomena revealed more than this already known tidbit about vice. It said something about the economics of freedoms, liberties, rights and other high-flying concepts our Swiss-cheese democracy is purportedly based upon. Every time a law such as the Smoke-Free Workplace measure is passed and codified, a cadre of individualists will come out of their satellite-dished bunkers to complain about how our freedoms are being taken away.

The fact is that freedoms come at a price, and we’re not talking death on a foreign battlefield. We’re talking cash. The Constitution is silent on the specific question whilst the culture is louder than a set of stacked Marshall amplifiers. To emphasize, freedoms aren’t eliminated with parking ordinances, dog-curbing laws, and other niggling legalities with which city councilpeople, county commissioners, congresspersons, and presidents occupy their time.

They simply get a little (or a lot) more expensive, for such are the realities in a country that is run like a business with a preference for the bottom line. And if pricing freedoms upward left some folks out in the cold, the issue was a non-starter because, not only do we not give a twig for the poor, the poor themselves would rather not be identified as such.

And so this is what you had: A French restaurant that catered to the Epicurean tastes of its clientele, passing on the cost of smoking fines to them. The price of escargot and martinis would rise incrementally without truly affecting business because, for the amoral among us, escargot and martinis fall in the same classification of earthly delights that cigarettes do. Free-market-magic.

Fines accumulated by the proprietress under the Smoke-Free Workplace Act were merely a cost of doing business; no different than the license fees, property assessments, zoning changes and other levies, hidden and otherwise, she was required to pony-up for annually, quarterly, weekly.

Anyway, Diaz and Thorpe had cited the woman, a former fashion designer, who smiled cordially and then invited them to a drink. Believing that a restaurateur’s duty was to be on good terms with everyone who entered her calculated little eaters/drinkers/smokers/cocaine-sniffers-in-the-bathroom paradise, she stuck to the role of good hostess. The inspectors, of course, were denied by conditions of their employment to drink alcohol while on the job. They might have stayed all night and stared at the ephemeral beauties present, but they expected no common ground with those gathered, only a sense of being slighted in a subtle, better-than-thou way. In short, due to a series of factors both shallow and deep, and not timely enough to discuss here, Diaz and Thorpe felt inferior and out of place.

By dint of good fortune, hard work, and the inevitable deterioration of the aging process, their appointment as inspectors had run them smack into the same snooty kids from high school that’d gone on to college – or reasonable facsimiles of them.

So they passed on the drinks and walked around issuing seven citations to the most attractive or obviously rich diners, for in their hands was held the ace of absolute state power. And although the clientele’s dress was designed to intimate achievement and polish, the confrontations revealed more brusque natures beneath the Italian-cut outfits. In the early days of enforcement, the savage responses of the wealthy would leave them taken aback; now it heightened the pleasure. The inspectors willingly sought out the insults as proof that, in the end, these folks squatted daily and squeezed out the same offal the peasants they fancied themselves so superior to did.

Citations issued, smiling adieu exchanged, they drove by the Argentine restaurant where an irregular situation had been developing. To wit: sometimes a veritable delegation of sidewalk smokers caucused before the wooden and gold glow of its picture windows and other times, later usually, there were none at all. When you’re a smoking inspector, there are certain things to look for and read into. It’s a specialized field of enforcement. To the extent that more egregious offenders on their beat had been fined into submission, Diaz and Thorpe were now closer to locking-in on the subtler patterns of behavior unfolding at the popular nightspot.

The inspectors concluded that those outdoors smokers had to go somewhere, and that was probably inside where they obviously closed down the joint, smoking, because that is what they do – smokers.

They found our friends meeting in the full-fledged flurry we just left behind. The very size of the gathering (there were other people lighting up, too) shocked and discouraged the inspectors who’d given the better part of themselves to the French restaurant raid. Since they drove around in a marked car and wore uniforms, there was a problem of secret approach difficult to resolve. They opted for the only strategy available, which involved parking their red-and-white ride on a side street and walking past the Argentine restaurant via the sidewalk opposite. They felt a curious desire to observe the chatty group of attractive semi-young people assembled and could think of no other way to camouflage their presence than to light up a pair of cigarettes, a box of which they kept in the glove compartment as rather effective props.

They were Marlboro Lights, a very popular brand and, their mass distribution aside, rather enjoyable smokes: light as advertised, quick burning. It was all in the service of a larger cause and so they smoked – with little pleasure.

It is a mystery to nonsmokers how someone would willfully, at times frantically, do such a thing to themselves, but smoking is the ultimate acquired taste since it doesn’t taste good in the way, say, that French fries do. But when there is a craving pleasant to quell, all things related to the act are gilded with the same glow the quieted addiction is.

Diaz and Thorpe watched for a while and could conclude little more than the fact that Yvonne was “one hot looking bitch” and that one of them would love, “to stuff her.” Not pretty or correct, sure, but these are working-class stiffs speaking on the sly; assuming they cannot be heard by those who might be offended.

Let it be noted that the detectives marked The Club members’ faces in their memories and promised to keep an eye on that sidewalk, to pounce on its indoor smokers the day it was found to be empty.

Chapter Fourteen

Some time later, Jordan stood at the supermarket check-out line for what seemed an eternity. J. was feeling sorry for himself. Before entering the store, a shadowy intimidating drifter of a man had hit him up for money. He gave over four bits. In gratitude the beneficiary of his openness dashed the coins against the showcase window to the store and slinked away snarling.

The encounter had stoked in him a sense of foreboding that was, oddly enough, buttressed by the magazines Jordan was forced to peruse while people purchased shave cream with credit cards. These magazines covered the vanity fair of party life and sexy activities every American who did not shop in specialty stores had to consider while waiting to pony up for their basics. It was a world in which every cover girl – and they were mostly girls – looked great and promised to hold forth inside on their last devastating love, on vacation spots, and on God. These accounts usually involved the identical experience of climbers up the narrow tree to stage and broadcast glory – which is to say not much experience at all. Some went deep into the lives of these girls and the boys whom they invited to abuse and exploit them in exchange for riches. Very old story. There were society parties in New York featuring statuette females photographed with their name and the designer of their dress printed below. There were exotic ocean islands and many figured contract agreements for lush period pieces shot on location in ancient and unscathed environs. How they lived is how everyone wanted to live.

Jordan certainly did not live it. To be sure, his life was not at all bad when compared, say, with the habitual starving-man-in-the-third-world measuring stick. He partied, yes, and he traveled, if not to hotspots, then to lukewarm ones and sort of made money along the way. His was, he thought just then, a pale edition of what supermarket stars in full bloom enjoyed. The inescapable truth was that nothing in the tangible future suggested, despite J.’s hopes and energetic efforts, such an existence wasn’t slipping away forever as he sloppily flopped around from one pesky crisis to another.

An attractive girl behind him smiled as Jordan, in full debate with his self, waved away a thought with a chop of his open right hand.

Finally paid up, he exited the store and looked both ways for the panhandler and saw him slithering along the parking lot’s perimeter. But Jordan did not quicken his pace to the car, rather pulled up and yanked a ready-made from his shirt pocket.

Such jackals could smell fear from across a city space and when they did, one was done for. There are few better ways to confront a potential crisis of confidence, or to at least disguise the approach of one, than through performance of the nonchalant cigarette lighting ritual. For, in addition to the cosmetic adjustment, the chemical payoff served to buck one up (however artificially).

In short, Jordan lit a cigarette to convey coolness and feel coolness. We can assume that it worked since that particular and potential peril petered. He wondered how the great and tremendous men, the Caesars and Ghengises, dealt with things before the birth of cool, which, after all was not even a century young.

As he was getting to his car a swarthy man of indeterminate ethnicity pulled out his large one and began to piss just a yard beyond the hood. He shot – among other things – a sidelong glance that sent a shiver up Jordan’s spine. Like many of his time and place, J. was thoroughly secular and nonbelieving. And although he did not pray at the right hand of the father, he avoided making any definitive stance on the existence of spirits since such things are not truly verifiable – in any scientific way – with the tools of perception currently at our disposal.

Put differently Jordan wasn’t so smart that he couldn’t believe in devils.

He cranked the ignition and guided his hunk of steel, glass, grease and synthetics out of the lot, leaving behind a small oil stain destined to become part of the region’s drinking-water table.

None of which was on Jordan’s mind. He had hit the brakes at the exit when a cranky homeless man walked unconsciously into his path and shook a fist at the driver over this one of many indignities his economic situation exposed him to.

“Devils,” Jordan whispered to himself, fighting off a growing desire to wrap himself in a woolen blanket.

He waited at the freeway turn-on, marveling at the messy air and car cavalcade. How anyone of note might conclude such a configuration represented human progress was beyond his ability to comprehend, and he shrugged, since ultimately, nobody ever asked his opinion when it came to such weighty matters.

He was given the green arrow to turn left, but upon lowering his foot lightly onto the accelerator, he saw a black balloon of a Mercedes Benz float from the right into what was, by law, his intersection. The driver stared directly into his face with black eyes and a scowl. “Devils,” Jordan thought again. The Benz seemed to accelerate through the crossway for a brief moment and Jordan hit the gas only to note a sudden and complete halt in the Mercedes’ progress. J-man’s mind ordered his foot to step on the brake, but in one of those inexplicable occurrences that are as much a part of life as lurking inexplicable devils, the foot, for reasons only it knows, chose the gas pedal instead. The car bucked into the black beast. The damage was to the left rear quarter-panel and of tiny dimension.

All of this was accompanied by the attendant burning rubber screech and k-thunk of fender-benders the world over. “Dammit,’ Jordan yelled out as he looked down at his right foot in disbelief at the cruel betrayal. Initial sentiments were concerned with his lack of auto insurance coverage because if they ticket you for that, you can’t get traffic school. They don’t offer it. It was a consideration calibrated to the goings-on of everyday life, but alas, this moment was not to be run-of-the-mill in any sense for this chapter’s ill-starred subject.

Jordan looked up in time to see three sinister sprites bound toward him in a way particular to the truly young. Their raiment corresponded to current kidswear and was calculated to frighten the bejeezus out of nice and orderly people. Not that Jordan was either, but he was still scared. His window was open and gave the driver a clear line to his head, which he (the driver) took, hitting it with considerable force at the temple. It was the kind of blow that might kill a person; just not this time.

J. was, of course, stunned. The usual slow-motion sense of unreality or hyper-reality, which are part and parcel of such moments, kicked-in so that the empty plastic soft-drink bottle with which another of the thugs was blasting him, seemed like a flee.

Back at the driver’s window, the first tormentor launched a blow toward his chin, but a slight evasion resulted in its landing at the throat, which turned out to be an improvement on the aggressor’s original intent.

Out the corner of his eye Jordan could see a third player in this drama jumping up and down on the hood of his ride, wreaking considerable damage as he did so. People all around were honking horns, although no one dared step out and set some remedy to the matter.

It was the white American’s worst nightmare: being caught on the nation’s byways in some disabled fashion that evened-out (somewhat anyway) the economic advantages held over envious minorities. Thugs of superior physicality and violent tendencies had Jordan where they wanted him and that was not good. This was one of many thoughts racing through his mind as his head, back, neck and car hood were made depositories of an unfathomable rage. Jordan contorted himself enough to stick a foot into the driver’s chest – which qualified as something of a miscue – permitting as it did his nemesis to grab hold and twist him so that his head was vulnerable to the onslaught of what turned out to be a Gatorade bludgeon.

Still, and through a process he could never fully explain to the satisfaction of anyone, Jordan was able to get out of the car and lurch and hop around the crash site a few moments until the immediate peril was seemingly neutralized.

Upon closer inspection, and with a little time to breathe, Jordan was able to affix his attackers to the local Armenian community thanks to the t-shirt of one, which boasted the name of a familiar, ethnically based street gang. He was not heartened.

They were, it seemed, very upset that he would deign to engage them in a car accident, as if choice had anything to do with it. J. inspected his body for bruises, of which there were many, while they barked on about the car being a “motherfuckin’ Mercedes man,” invoking some apparent waiver from roadway accidents not extended to lesser models and makes.

Jordan’s stream of “what the fucks?” and “are you guys crazys?” had slowed to a trickle when the Armenian Power gang (that was their name) realized they’d created a scene, a traffic jam, and ensured a visit by the police sure to do them in.

The driver looked at Jordan with an expression unmistakable for anything but what it was: antagonism by ethnicity. When whites discriminate and brutalize minorities, it is done with arrogance, an unconsciousness even, rooted in a sense of superiority, inherited legal advantage, stupidity, and more than a dash of fear. When a member of a minority returns the favor, it is the expression of a deep-rooted sense of being wronged. It is, in short, more vengeful than fearful and Jordan got a taste of this fucking privileged white guy sentiment when the driver suddenly busted his nose into a bloody fountain that speckled the snowy t-shirts of his attackers.

J. had never been punched in the nose before and was ill-prepared to ward off the blow since, even with everything that had happened up up to then, he didn’t suspect humanity capable of such antagonism (towards him personally).

The sight of blood everywhere – though mostly on Jordan’s face and soaked t-shirt – seemed to have a calming affect upon the assailants. Perhaps their lust had been sated. Perhaps it snapped them out of a manic state. Perhaps the reality was different from the violent records and films that had help shape and inform their reaction to the fender-bender.

As the traffic simmered and the horns moaned with impatience and a businessman flashed his cell phone at Jordan from a Cadillac, the kids would have had to be even stupider than they appeared to not realize how big the hole they’d been digging had grown. It was hot. The tar baked. A crowd of onlookers gathered. There was not a tree, a forgiving green lawn, a drop of softness in the whole scenario to soothe Jordan’s sense of just how harsh the world was at that moment. Despite being the obvious victim, he thought the situation all his doing. He deduced that through careless, imperceptible, yet incremental steps, he’d lowered himself out of the financial position his parents had worked so hard to put him in. His cash shortage was the root to which the entire lousy circumstance could be traced. Disdainful of authority and fiduciary matters all his adult life, Jordan now felt for himself the value of money his parents were always talking about it and which he dismissed so arrogantly, because they’d provided him with so much easy access to it. In short, and in that moment, he wanted his mommy and daddy.

“Shit,” one of the gang kids said examining his own bloody t-shirt. “muthafucka givin’ me AIDS and shit.”

A pair of security guards from a nearby hamburger stand arrived and from that moment the worst was over. A Latina woman in a white nurse’s uniform stepped down out of her minivan like an archangel from a B movie, bearing a white cloth which she handed to Jordan with the sentiment that she felt, “so sorry for jou.”

And that helped. A moment later a police cruiser rolled onto the scene. Jordan usually considered the police department as more an occupying army of mustachioed suburbanites than anything else, but was still glad to see them.

What the police saw was a bloody-faced and inoffensive looking white guy with a sheet to his nose and a bunch of rough-looking toughs from the neighborhood sitting coolly on a black Mercedes. It was discrimination time and with good reason. The cops tarried not a moment with Jordan as they bore in on the Armenian Power group – some of whom they probably recognized and probably needed an offense such as this to jail them. The kids were hardly afraid of the officers and rebuffed their initial queries with wise-guy shrugs and smart-aleck answers.

But there are far too many ways of getting arrested in America for such cool detachment to be of much use except in a movie about coolly detached wise-guys and smart-alecks. And that made it simple for the men in blue.

“License,” one of the sun-glassed policemen demanded. When nobody could produce what had been asked for he barked out, “Driving without a license. Cuff ‘em. Call the
towing service and tell ‘em to come get daddy’s car.”

These boys had been cruising their own ethnic turf, keeping it pure from others of different background and as such found themselves with a lot of friends surrounding the cordoned-off accident site. A helicopter had stationed itself overhead so that everything said was said at a high volume. – yelled out if you will – which only infused the situation with greater tension. An angry middle-aged man stepped into the fray, informing the police that these handcuffed boys had acted in self-defense.

The cops looked at a forlorn Jordan for only the second time since stumbling into this mess and, although they weren’t buying it, were compelled by prior humiliations at the hands of good defense lawyers to record the man’s testimony.

A female officer handled the duty of interrogating Jordan who presented her with an account most faithful to everything written above. The dreaded question about auto insurance popped up.


Under normal circumstances, a heavy-handed citation would have been issued, followed by years of increased fees from his actuarial. But, mercifully, the lady officer moved onto the question of whether he needed an ambulance or not. With everything going on, Jordan still remembered the expensive ride he’d taken to county medical not too many days before and – although he had a desire to be obliging – answered “No” for the second time in as many questions.

A third cop asked the man who’d defended the boys for identification and soon determined that he was the Mercedes driver’s father. “Get the hell outta here before I arrest you, too.”

The crowd was growing surlier at the increasingly one-sided nature of this curbside justice and the cops decided to wrap things up downtown, as it were. “Get lost,” the lady officer told Jordan, who could have sworn it almost came out tenderly. J. went back to his car and settled behind the wheel. “Devils.” The plastic bottle lay there on the floor. He grabbed it and stepped out. Approaching the rather chastened trio leaning handcuffed against their beloved Mercedes Benz, he waved the bottle in its owner’s face. In response he got a question. “What are you gonna do about the Mercedes man?” Jordan, with the full complicity of law enforcement, slammed it bottom-down onto the hood, leaving further memento of their unfortunate rendezvous. “You don’t do this to people over a stupid car,” he screamed above the helicopter din. “It’s steel and glass, not bones and blood. Think about that while you’re sitting in jail,” he finished, fairly certain the porous epidermal layer of the local criminal justice system would perspire these rats back onto the streets in a matter of hours.


Chapter Fifteen

Randall would one day declare “no business is an easy business,” and Joya would agree for the business of selling jewelry to the city’s rich or aspiring-to-be-so was not an easy one.Her tools were a series of ready-made chitchats and asides, which she adjusted to the ever-evolving story of American language in a hyper-historical city where yesterday’s papers seemed a lot older than just yesterday. To the casual observer, the use of ghetto slang and hippisms by a blonde cowgirl on the well-heeled ladies she hoped to seduce money out of might seem strange, but that’s what happens in a world where almost everybody is reduced to selling useless things. “Oh, those look absolutely franzy upon you,” she’d invent an expression in that second. Sometimes it took; usually it didn’t – like most of her creations; like those of most creators.

“Hon, those earrings look festive,” was a favorite for her; festivities being an important local preoccupation.

Crazy ring? “It’s not outlandish at all! It’s just reflectin’ a more lavish, sensual Mediterranean intelligence. It’s not Protestant or anything like that, hon.”
Or, “Ah don’t know who he is, but he’s gonna like it and you more than he already does when he gets a gander.”

“Gander.” Customers were left with a sense that their old Aunt Minnie from back east was advising them, except that Aunt Minnie was wearing a mini-skirt that left you curious about the rest of the package.

And that was the game; to make friends with these people who knew she wanted their money. Joya’s point of departure was that each entered in search of seduction; personal, financial, what have you. There were obstacles of a very personal kind to consumer spending and it was her job to help customers overcome them (or undo them herself). She was a micro-economist, a true (if untitled) scholar of the marketplace; expert both in theory and praxis.

Anyway, she was selling a rose-gold ring set in two pieces, that kissed each other when worn on adjoining fingers. It was the kind of design she specialized in. So simple that other, lesser designers wanted to slap themselves on the forehead for not having come up with it. One that grabbed the ever-precious attention of shell-shocked shoppers bombarded by imagery and novelty all along the commercial strip where she rented.

Joya was working a time-tested, “Every one of those skinny little fingers needs a jewel…” when Jordan burst into the store looking like something out of a horror movie entitled, let’s say, Mutant Dawn.

The delicate customer Joya was pummeling gave a gentle “eeek” when she saw him. The ring kiss was broken and fell from her shaking hands. A handful of other girls present, including Joya’s Indian (as in Bombay) shop girl, gasped. Joya lost her cool for a moment because she had lost the sale also. But she quickly regained composure. “Hon! I’m not going to even ask what happened.”

“I appreciate that.”

“Well what on Earth?”

“Could you take me to the doctor? My car’s covered in blood and I’m a little shook up.”

“Well of course you are!” Joya said while imagining how Jordan, in another moment of desperation, had reached into his wallet and come up with her card (which she was beginning to regret having given him), again.

“But hon, I’m kinda runnin’ a store right now, but I guess…alright, gimme a minute.”

And she announced to the three or four disgusted women in her establishment that they should come back with the cards she was handing out to them for a 15 percent discount on all merchandise as an apology for the ghastly interlude to which Jordan had subjected them.

The ladies left with a decent story to tell at lunch. Joya dismissed her shop girl upon whom later discussion will be showered. She flitted here and there, closing the cash register, setting the alarm system and other tasks particular to the running of a small retail outlet. All the while, Jordan bled on her floor, on her counter, and on her patience. Joya was forthright as she fretted. “Ya know hon, I don’t mind helping folks out, but you’re becoming a bit of a pain in my ass.”

This had the opposite effect than she intended as Jordan laughed rather heartily.

Maybe it was the absurdity of the situation, or of his life, or perhaps the deleterious affects of too much adrenaline, but he laughed and laughed as she grabbed a bloody limb and guided him outside before locking the door behind her.

They walked toward her car and he laughed some more until, rather imperceptibly, and without announcement, the gasps of laughter became tears and she stopped to stroke his hair, touched by the emotion of it all. “Motherfuckers,” he blurted. “Goddamn Armenian, gang-banging motherfuckers. I kill ‘em.” He tried pulling himself together. “You’re a brave person so you won’t be needin’ ta kill anybody,” she said then, and noticing the slightest hitch in her voice, he looked up to see her barely weeping. She smiled at him with watery eyes that took on the aspect of wavy indigo banners of many messages. “Well what do you expect?” she said and kissed him on the bloody nose.

Joya walked up to a red convertible Cortina built in a time before their own memories. Precious moments were spent as they pulled the manual top down. Things were taking so long that Jordan thought he was going to die from blood loss, which of course he wasn’t.

They got in and the car showed its age with an exceptionally laborious ignition while Joya smiled bashfully. Soon they were into the slow, but ultimately progressing, stream of traffic. When stopped at a red light, Joya turned to her ward for a more detailed inspection of the mess. “Wow, it looks like that’s broken.”


“Well do me a favor,” and she rubbed his leg, “when ya get it fixed, have ‘em put it back just how it was ‘cause it was very handsome.”

“Jesus Christ,” echoed across the chambers of his mind, “was ever a more perfect woman put on the planet?”

At this point (and you hopefully knew this was coming) Jordan decided that he desperately needed a smoke. It was clearly a medical situation and medicine of the personal kind was definitely in order. “Got a ciggy-boo?” he asked his savior.

“Dja think ya should?”

With his face he said, “C’mon man.”

“Well alright,” and she banged the glove compartment, which contained no gloves, but many other items important to feminine survival, and a box of cigarettes that Joya handed to Jordan. “What the hell are these?” he said more delighted than anything else.

“You got hit in the nose, not the eye. Read.”

It was a tiny yellow box with a sunset behind a dome of religious and oriental aspect. “Dãrshãn,” the box read, “Classic Bidis Filter Cigarettes, Vanilla Flavored, Bombay-Los Angeles.”


He asked the creamy girl, “Where did you hear about these?”

“Sadina, my gal at the shop turned me onto ‘em. They’re from India, like her.” And since he was naturally curious about tobacco product and not in the mood to be choosy, Jordan helped himself to a sampling.

What he came upon was a rough, almost cardboard stick, the color of shipping box carton. It was rolled thinner at one end than at the other and tied closed at the filter with tiny white thread.

It did indeed smell of vanilla, spiked with clove. Jordan thought that vanilla from India should be spiked.

It hit very mildly and affected the lungs not at all. The vanilla was strong on the lips, which he felt compelled to lick after each drag. It calmed him just like his own stuff did, or anyone else’s for that matter, save for Capri, which he was convinced, contained no tobacco at all.

He liked it.

Resting in the Coloradoan’s comforting aura Jordan’s presence of mind was mostly restored. “Listen,” he interrupted the calming silence she imposed. “I’d rather not go to the poor peoples’ hospital. I’ve got a new credit card I can ruin.”

“Oh and ahm not takin’ you there. After I saw that place I did a little research for the day when something happens to my appendix.” Jordan asked her if she didn’t have medical insurance. “Hon, nobody in America has medical insurance. It’s the ultimate expression of our rugged individualism. We don’t pay taxes and we try not to get hurt.”

We don’t pay taxes and we try not to get hurt. J. thought Randall could use Joya’s help in formulating his own overwrought thought.

“Ah found a medical center that takes outpatients with a little up-front money and I signed promise to pay the rest, and there’s two hundred dollars I can lend you.”

They rolled on for a moment before Joya broke in again.

“Heck, we don’t want you going to county, they kill old ladies there.”

Jordan felt like vomiting and though he was loath to let her see him doing something quite so unappealing, he had Joya pull over so he could do just that. “You must be in a little shock,” she posited once he was done and he nodded that, yes, he was.

Stabilized anew, Jordan considered her loan and decided the advantages of indebtedness to Joya would far outstrip those to be got with some pernicious and impersonal multinational bank. He thought her generosity to be of an uncommon kind and, as was often the case when in Joya’s presence, found himself at a loss for words during the remainder of the ride.

Chapter Sixteen

Clarisse and Corey were at it again about the baby. She had just come home from another grueling shift of “waitressing” as she called it, and was lying on her back with feet pressed to the wall, legs bent at 90-degree angles, in an effort to get the blood circulating. It was a trick of the trade, the ultimate effect of which remained inscrutable. The lady was in a particularly foul mood because of an invitation she had received. It was to an exposition of her primary rival in the wacky-looking furniture game – Trixie Marie.

The enterprising Trixie was climbing the ladder with astonishing efficacy. Clarisse was stuck somewhere between the second and third rung of the very same ladder. The invitation – sent in all good grace – just about put Clarisse through the roof. She wanted a show, she wanted to stop waitressing yet she couldn’t seem to do a thing about it.

The cause of the present argument between Corey and Clarisse, was not the usual one: the male’s reticence to enthusiastically embrace fatherhood. No. Corey, without malice or manipulation, had suddenly concluded that now was good a time as any. Life was happening. Clarisse’s familiar argument that poor Mexicans had lots of babies without concern for the financial ramifications had made inroads.

This turned out to be a revelation more profound and disturbing than she cared to admit. To wit: their childlessness had little to do with his reticence.

For once Corey had relented in this two-year fertility battle, the possibility of having a baby improved not a lick. To be sure, they were healthy amorous creatures with all their parts screwed on correctly. They liked sex with each other and practiced it with near religiosity.

He wanted the kid! He wanted to make her happy and begin the family as soon as circumstances permitted, which circumstances did not since they still couldn’t pay for the kid.

The lovely apartment in a great neighborhood filled with restaurants they labored day and night to maintain, two cars, clothes to match them, all conspired against the idea. Which was nothing new. What was new, was the fact these considerations had now become Clarisse’s. She wanted the baby, but not the outlying suburb peopled in polyester salesmen that might come with it.

Still, Corey knew a grinding disappointment in his abilities as white-knight-in-shining-armor was beginning to take very deep root in her and this frustrated him.

He was just a guy and nothing like a knight at all.

There are many essay-form books dealing with the emasculation of American men and Corey, if he read more, would have been a fan. Gone were the days, he would agree, when life presented heavy lifting, hunting, and warfare in distant lands against which a man’s mettle might be measured. The challenge of making enough money to give their women a celebrity’s life without celebrity was the source of much anxiety.

Standards were high and pretty tough to meet without being to the manner born. The generation at the controls was talented, prodigious, and so numerous that mere preparation and hard work played less a hand in the affairs of young couples than ever before. Those who had not been simply lucky were, well, shit out of luck.

These thoughts were running through Corey’s mind as Clarisse carped, when they were interrupted by a phone call. So great was the tension that the couple jumped at the shrill mechanized twittering. “Shit,” Corey said, “remember when they rang like sweet bells?”

She could not for she was just that much younger than him.

Corey answered. “It’s me Randall,” slithered across the fiberoptica.

“Randall…oh, hey! The bum philosopher.”

“Yes, and the world must know it.”

“What’s up?”

“I’ve got a comeback idea to try out on you.”

Corey looked back at his dour-faced wife and turned away. “I’m all ears. I’d love to hear about the addiction you’ve chosen to be felled by, only to rise Phoenix-Arizona-like from the ashes.”

“It’s smoking.”


There was a pause and it is a measure of just how much hardware there is in the world these days, and of how little intelligence there is to drive it, that Corey didn’t hang up. “Care to elaborate?”

“Meet me at the Argentine place. Let’s celebrate with a dinner.”

Corey glanced back at his wife and returned to the phone. “See you in an hour.”

Chapter Seventeen

At the medical clinic, Jordan signed the promise paper maybe to be used against him in court at some future date. Joya handed over ten crisp Andrew Jacksons. The bloody mess he was merited prompt attention. They took him down a hall to one of those rooms where you’re told to sit on an elevated, cot-style furnishing and quickly abandoned. This he did and not too much later a nurse came in with an intravenous bag that she hung on a steel pole above his head before grabbing an arm, which he promptly pulled back. “Don’t want it,” he said.

“Sir, it’s just a special solution to stabil-”

“Never felt more stable. I just want my nose checked.”

This threw the nurse for a mild loop, although Jordan was left with the impression that such medical shopping was not unheard of in these days of technologically driven, overpriced treatment. The nurse proceeded to a bank of drawers and pulled out a syringe. “What’s that for?” he asked.

“I’m going to give you a tetanus shot,” she responded.

“Don’t want it.”

She explained, somewhat testily, that he was bleeding from an open wound and that to be safe-

“How much is it?” he cut to the chase yet again.

“Well…I’m not sure,” she said, “I give care, I don’t set the prices,” and then she gave him a ballpark figure.

“Forget it. I’ll take my chances.” She shrugged an “it’s-your-life” shrug, returned the syringe to the place from whence it came and left without further attempts to pad Jordan’s bill.

He’d always accepted as rote that whatever was done to him in such situations was necessary and for his own good, yet here was this woman responding to his negatives with the obedience of a drug store clerk. He had rights. He had power!

Minutes passed, another nurse came in. The wait had not been long at all. Jordan mused that they’d deemed him a low-profit endeavor and were moving him through to make room for the richer injured. The second nurse directed him to follow her – and he did – down yet another hallway to what was unmistakably the x-ray facility.

She left him sitting on another elevated cot with crackle-y white paper and shortly thereafter a man in green scrubs and the, by now, all too familiar shower-cap-like hat entered. “We’re going to take a few x-rays,” he stated the obvious to Jordan who, up until that moment, had not considered what capturing irradiated images of his nose would entail. The technical assistant – as he remembered such people being called – moved him over into a dark, adjacent cubby and told him to lie down on his stomach. He covered the patient with a very heavy, body-length blanket which J. knew only too well was designed to protect him from the perils of certifiably dangerous levels of radioactivity. Near his head was what struck him to be the camera lens and he was directed to stick his chin out so that the contraption could get a good shot at his proboscis. This he did. “Raise your head just a little more so the nose protrudes,” ordered the orderly and this he also did, not without thinking how ridiculous he looked and (again) how undignified medical treatment was in general.

There was a loud noise akin to a freight elevator arriving and halting at a loading dock, and then a click. The technical assistant approached, moved some kind of plate around in the machine’s entrails and, with both hands, tilted Jordan’s head a bit and went back to take another shot. When this was done Jordan, somewhat laboriously under the weight of the anti-radiation blanket, rose to his feet. “Where are you going?” said the guy in the shower cap. “I’m not done.”

“Sure you are,” said Jordan, thinking back to his stay at the hospital that ultimately would not treat him and what it charged for the x-rays, which were known to be inconclusive where appendicitis was concerned. “I’ve got eight more to take,” Jordan was told by a voice that shrunk as he departed. “Not at these prices you don’t. I just want to be sure the nose is broken. It looks broken. It feels broken and you’ve got two shots to confirm it. If you can’t, call me in for one or two more.”

There was no response. Jordan came out to the waiting room because he was tired of waiting and informed the nurse of his decision. She said if he could wait a bit longer Doctor Singh would have a look at the x-rays and the nose itself. “Another Dr. Singh?” he wondered to himself and looked at Joya who waved her box of Dãrshãn and smiled contentedly. “You doin’ okay hon?”

“Just peaches.”

So Jordan, feeling rather in command of things despite his continuous run of bad luck, returned to the first room and sat back atop the crackle-y white paper. After a while, an affable doctor of subcontinental origins entered, put some rubber gloves on and pressed the nose in question for a bit.

The upshot was this: Jordan had been lucky. No deviated septum and no broken blood vessels. He was able to breathe and that was always good. Cosmetically he would be left with a little bump as trophy and testament to his survival. It would not dramatically alter, as Joya had worried, the landscape of his face. Jordan asked about nose jobs, a topic for which he possessed no information, and was informed that they were expensive and involved a “clean” re-breaking of the nose followed by a resetting of the same. This business of intentionally breaking bones deepened his concern about the wisdom of certain accepted medical practices.

Under the circumstances, the doctor said, “I rec-o-mmend yu just go awn with yaw life and fowgit abowd it.”

Jordan shrugged and reflected on how neither would be easy. Still, he liked the idea of having come out of the whole disaster with the minimum physical damage.

Psychically, J. knew he’d be screwed up in some way. But that was a concern for the future. Presently, he looked forward to a pleasant ride home with his lovely new guardian angel. “Do you smoke Dãrshãn?” he then asked the doctor.

“I dunt smooke it oil,” the man answered via the sing-songy accent into which his tongue stretched and twisted the English tongue. “It’s nut good faw yu.”

What a difference a few hours can make. Not too long before, Jordan verily feared for his life at the hands of savage gargoyles straight from the underworlds. Now he was heading home in the cool twilight, wrapped in a big woolen blanket long enough to link him with the lovely Joya, whose curves and strong jaw and soft accent were all for his private (visual) delectation. She emptied the last Dãrshãns, one for him and one for her (he thought warmly inside). The hills to their right twinkled with low-lying galaxies of home lights. “What a shame,” he thought to himself, “that houses cannot be fired by starlight.” He lit up and did the same for Joya – always an intimate gesture between boys and girls of a certain age. He decided to take advantage of the strategic position into which the beating had thrust him. “Indian cigarettes, Indian doctor, Indian shop girl…looks like Indian is the day’s theme.”

Joya knew she liked Jordan and things had worked out okay, but hanging around him had given her a true sense of just how dangerous the city – life even – could be and it upset her. These sentiments she synthesized into the following response: “I should think beatin’ was the day’s theme.”

Her copilot thought this remark rather out of character. He decided that you’ve got to take a little bad with the mostly good and let it pass. “So how’d you end up hiring the Indian girl, what’s her name? – Sadina?” Jordan excavated, remembering how sexy he’d found her, and thereby did a little prep work, just in case, for the future. Joya knew where this was going and, as was just said, knew she liked Jordan, but had pretty much had her fill for the day. “I hired her because she works cheap.”

“Really,” he dug himself in a little deeper, “and why’s that?”

“Because I let her lick my pussy when she asks.”

Jordan, to cover up the awkwardness that had fallen upon them like the plush velvety night itself, took a long draw on the cigarette only to conclude that Dãrshãns didn’t have nearly enough kick to them.

They hardly talked after that. Joya dropped Jordan off at his car, which sat in front of her store with a parking ticket stuck to the windshield.

Chapter Eighteen

Inspectors Diaz and Thorpe had worked themselves into a nasty mood by striking up a conversation about how dreary it could be making monogamous love to the first woman they had ever bedded down.

Not that they were two-timers. Nope, even if they had wanted to, neither could afford the high cost of maintaining a mistress, nor find a crack of time in the solid wall of responsibility their dutifully adopted lifestyles presented them with.

They were simply wrestling with the overstimulation of sexual desire that both genders are subjected to, through an infinite number of techniques both surreptitious and obvious, every single damn day of their lives. Stringy sandy-haired models with honeyflows pitched intimate clothing, stunning actresses shed their clothes on giant screens, pop pornography, underdressed and well-nourished thirteen-year olds and God-knows-what-else had them in a perpetual state of agitation.

Anyhow, it didn’t matter. The inspectors were married and that was all that could be said as far as the foul mood was concerned.

Meantime they had been making their way to a Korean restaurant where the folks mostly adhered to a self-imposed code of behavior rooted in home country mores.

These Koreans resented local authorities disrupting their timeless proclivities and were not civil when confronted.

Diaz drove carefully because, “certain people that are Koreans in Koreatown don’t drive very well,” which was expressed in this roundabout fashion thanks to his run through diversity classes. The business in the crosshairs of their enforcement efforts had behaved similarly to the French restaurant crosstown. It too had regularly flouted the Smoke-Free Workplace Act and chosen to pay the incrementally growing citations promptly and without grumbling. Unfortunately for Diaz and Thorpe, the proprietress was out on the sidewalk doing nothing in particular when she saw their familiar (and unmistakable) red-and-white cruiser turn onto her street. They saw that she saw them and saw that she ran inside her place to warn all smokers of the coming raid. The big catch to this Smoke-Free Workplace Act, the bête noir of the inspectors’ existence, was that a citation could only be issued if and when a smoker was caught in the act. As such, Diaz and Thorpe more often than not walked into a room with a healthy weave of tobacco byproduct pushing at the ceiling and no one beneath it bearing the slightest evidence of guilt. The most popular techniques of subterfuge were the flat ashtray under the dinner plate, the extinguished butt in the palm-sized tin mint (curiously effective) box, and the vomit-inducing cigarette-and-wet-napkin combo.

So they blew off the Korean establishment and decided to hit another regular scofflaw up the block a bit. What they could not know was that the proprietress who had successfully sussed out their approach was going to call and alert her competitors – six restaurants and/or bars in all – but Diaz and Thorpe soon found out and threw up their hands.

You can pass all the laws in the world, but if you don’t pay someone to ensure they are obeyed, you’ve done nothing at all.

The fact is that these two gentlemen represented the entirety of local efforts for bringing profligate enterprises to heel. The absurdity of this pair chasing smokers throughout a city with thousands of bars and restaurants was lost on them, its obviousness aside.

Much was made of the law when passed by its sponsor on the City Council and those whose support he’d horse-traded for. There was a big to-do with media and fact-sheets and speeches about the health of the commonweal.

Months later, however, during grueling negotiations in the budget committee, nobody remembered any of it and the act’s enforcement was funded with crumbs. But it takes man-hours, equipment, training, uniforms, administrative support – an entire little company – to get such a job done.

And so Thorpe and Diaz where the extent of the law’s expression. And they had just been mocked by a group of businesspeople normally at odds with one another. And to this date they had been successfully thwarted in their efforts to see the letter of the law satisfied to its fullest extent.

They continued driving through the seemingly endless streets; Thorpe, at one point, requesting that Diaz lighten up on the particulars of what went on in bed between he and the little woman, who was barely either thing anymore.

Chapter Nineteen

Corey found Randall brimming with energy and excitement although, as a counterpart in this dubious venture, he himself was more circumspect. “Let me get this straight.

You’re going to make a comeback from smoking. It’s going to be a brave story that will get all kinds of public attention and lend celebrity to you and, hence, the bum philosophy concept.”

“And then you’ll find ways to distribute it through the great information revolution and your knowledge of its tools.”

Corey sighed, “I need a cigarette.”

It was late, the crowd was thin with a few Spanish-speaking patrons, and so this subcommittee of the larger incorporation of co-smokers was permitted to sort out its affairs indoors. Although his wife was a smoker, Corey had hidden from her the extent of his Marlboros crush. There is an instinctive impulse in a wife to keep a husband healthy as possible so as to promote the achievement of their mutual success (as she envisions it). And so Corey was terrified Clarisse should learn of his new addiction/pleasure despite the unadorned truth she herself was a militant puffer.

His choice of tobacco product could be attributed wholly to marketing. The famed cowboys upon which Marlboro had staked its sales for what seemed like centuries hit Corey right where he hurt; in that place which told him there was something thoroughly inauthentic about his life.

It was part and parcel of a profound respect he and others from his generation had for an earlier edition of men who worked with their hands branding cows, beating sheet metal, and similar activities emblematic of a rough-and-tumble American life gone by.

Corey wished he were a cowboy and, well, what with all those giant billboards of Western folk in ten-gallon hats grimly gripping the stick between taught lips, Marlboro seemed like the next best thing.

It was a beginner’s smoke to be sure. In time, he’d move on to making something of a more personal statement with his choice of poison, just like his wife who, as we know, enjoyed daddy’s cigarettes – fucky stripes.

“It’s a beaut of an idea…how the hell did you come up with it?”

“Such are the rigors of bum philosophy. Sitting around, man, smoking and thinking, taking part in these dying arts. Realizing that the American leviathan, with tacit approval of the sacred majority has turned its fury upon smokers despite its earlier commiseration with the nicotine peddlers.”

“That’s true,” Corey concurred. “Used to be that big tobacco had a free hand in a hoodwinking and, I guess, murdering its customers.”

“Correct man, correct. Not to mention the invaluable aid of an addictive product and a lot of sexy salespeople. But that’s all over now you see. It’s gone the way of the epic national struggle, the forced departure for foreign borders, the escape by train to a renegade state’s protection.”

Randall clearly suffered from the same nostalgia for more adventurous, hands-on times Corey and Jordan did. “Now, the prior generation – a generation that largely enjoyed its fit of bacchic living – has decided its children will not. Theirs is the parsimony of reformed rakes and government at all levels is rife with the type; folks freaked out by the fact their lives have turned out just like everyone else’s before them.”

While Randall spoke, Corey stared at the cigarette, his hot new God, and marveled at the way it burned so quickly and evenly down the ivory shaft. “Yeah,” he jumped in, focused on the smoke lilting lightly, lifting. “They’re bummed that all the easy sex and rock music and banner-waving politics hasn’t saved them from the eternal stuff – marriage and mortgages. They’re just like everyone else has ever been.”

“Same as it ever was,” Randall chimed in for pop poetic effect. “The world has changed them more so than the other way around, which they had promised themselves would not happen. Now, man, you’ve got doctors of medicine, opinion-brokers, loquacious senators, attention-starved state attorneys general, commanders-in-chief fond of easy victories – and God knows who else man – joined in a rare display of public comity. That it isolates a minority for extinction never crosses their minds nor the minds of those suffering its consequences.

Much to his surprise, Corey was thoroughly enjoying the evening. The second cigarette – the one following the meal – was the first he had truly savored, ever; a sign his addiction was kicking-in nicely. The very fact of his smoking twisted him into a harmonic convergence with the hyper-thoughtful Randall and this exercise of chewing over (what seemed to him) certain larger questions afoot in the land was so rare as to be a form a flattery. He’d always been a safe citizen and never dreamed that trading off bits of his health would gain him access to the coolness of bohemia.

But wait. Thinking back on junior high school it all crystallized. Sure he could have. On any day Corey might have endured a few awkward moments of initiation by approaching the scruffy, long-haired, denim-wearing kids at the schoolyard baseball backstop and become a part of this time-honored western tradition. Then again, considering the strict nature of his parents, maybe not.

Anyhow it didn’t matter. The smoke was soothing, the conversation engaging, and his budding relationship with Randall evolving into an almost sensible proposition.

“So smokers,” the philosopher pressed on, “are subject to a strange ostracizing, especially when you consider that what they do is legal.”

“For now,” said Corey, which pleased Randall because they were in agreement on a fundamental point – that things were getting worse.

“That’s right man,” answered Randall, never one to let the conversation run too far out of his control. “And all of this that we’re saying would give my comeback a socially useful, progressive subtext where individual liberties are concerned.”

Corey was having so much fun that he pulled the conversation right back into his own mouth. “Sure, smoking’s unhealthy, but talk to me about how dangerous merely driving a car us. They won’t make that illegal.”

Establishing the protocol for what was to be a healthy partitioning of tasks between them, Randall tugged things back to his end of the table. “The anti-smoking campaign is marked by something less than reason and more like repression, man. A witch hunt!

Corey deeply admired Randall’s ability to tie up an argument with such aphorisms and it was at the root of his faith in the dandy’s ability to create an idea people would pay for.

Randall’s conclusion lent the meeting an air of historic importance. There they were, two insignificant thinkers at the outset of a crusade which, commercial pretensions aside, might set right a wrong visited upon American society by itself.

It was a nifty turn, this marriage of market device to things warm-and-soulful, and it probably wouldn’t work. Like most concepts put forth by braying young turks, it was an old one that had proven more elegant on paper than in practice.

Still, Corey reasoned mightily that, even if they were to fail financially, their career trajectories might actually gain a kind of historic arc.

He was beginning to think like an artist in his craving for the attention of unknown persons, which is what usually happens. In fact, one of two things can occur in such couplings of head and heart (from different bodies). Either the logical man is thoroughly undermined by the texture of an artistic life, or the logical man crushes the delicate disorder of the artist’s existence. It cannot be otherwise, the power of one being spiritual and intangible, that of the other, material, tactile, and rooted in real-time.

Perhaps such thoughts occupied each man as the restaurant was slowly enveloped in the ghosts of the Tango King, Gardel. It was dark and golden brown and wooden. The dinner was accented with almonds and capers, seared beef and beads of reflected candlelight shivering to burst from the mirrors constraining them.

There was a melancholy violin being played by a fellow with a beard, drawing his bow across diners’ flaccid heartstrings, his face accenting the feelings he presented.

He was accompanied by a man on a keyboard that made more sounds than it was fair for a legitimate musical instrument to do, but who, in any case, ably performed the task of providing brooding backdrops to the violinist’s circles of sadness. The other customers were also absorbed in the amber energy. Some watched the players, some the drifting strains of their cigarettes’ death. Others reflected into the deep purple pleadings of their glasses of medium-priced Cabernet. A woman burned the tips on a lock of her hair in a candle. And all of it was the good alchemy that almost always affects love and food and war and poesy.

“It’s all in the mix,” Randall bum-philosophized, “and the mix is very much luck. A little bit of this and a bittle lit of that.”

Clearly not the cigarette talking. Corey thought it best to pull Randall in if he could and get to the point. “But what the hell is it that you plan to do? I mean, how are you going to make it all work?”

“I’m still sorting it out, but basically I’m going to almost ruin myself with smoking. I’m going to smoke and smoke and smoke until I hit a tailspin. You, meanwhile, will be drawing peoples’ attention to it. You’re the plumber kiddo, the salesman; exaggerating the drama as much as possible. We’ll create a storyline of personal tragedy that people can witness, watch me wallow, pilloried by the same forces that will eventually trumpet my comeback.”

You need a plan in life. The wine, the smoke, the heavy meat, the need to find a way of succeeding all served to mute Corey’s skepticism regarding how Randall would achieve such dramatic results with something quite so subtle as a cigarette. But he asked, “It’s not heroine you know, cigarette smoke. You’re talking a lot of smoking and you still might be fine for a long time.”

“I’m still working that out, too,” Randall admitted. “You must remember, Corey, the great ideas only look solid and unimpeachable in hindsight. There was no map for them and the zany trips of painful discovery their creators took through the carnival of the world.”

Corey noticed how the place had emptied out and he extinguished a Marlboro that should have been put to death at least two minutes earlier. Randall took the signal and wound down his discourse. “We need people we don’t even know. How’s that for cruelty?”

Corey was no philosopher, but the evening had kick-started sleeping parts of his brain to strenuous exertion. “Maybe it’s not cruelty at all. Maybe that’s what brings people together.”

And in saying so he demonstrated the positive outlook of the business-inclined person with a beat on where the money is, and for whom the question of death is to be dealt with at a much later date.

Chapter Twenty

Jordan was driving and ruminating on the news Joya had shocked him with regarding her (as they say) sexual proclivities. He was thinking about how all the guys in the little group (and God knows who else) were falling head over for this gal who, odds had it, would never be interested in any them.

All of which was kind of common around town, for Joya was what they called a Lipstick Lesbian. Without wandering too far through the minefield that gay culture can be for the moderately indoctrinated, let stand the observation that this thriving local fauna (The Lipsticks, that is) struck some observers as representing a step up (or forward) in the social evolution of female homosexuality. The ladies’ predecessors, thrust into the role of trailblazing rebels, projected a necessary surfeit of anger as response to those who disapproved of the way they satisfied themselves between the sheets, or wherever. Which is to say they had a lot of attitude. They wore their sexuality on their sleeves, made it speak in political strophes, and this yielded some very catchy slogans.

But that was all over (for the most part). Blessed with the space carved out for them by these more graceless antecedents, Joya’s class of girl-girl lovers was of a completely different public profile. Cosmetically, the toughness had been excised and style lines settled along the standard pretty girl requirements. They came awfully close to a lesbianism injected into the male psyche by certain magazines that cooked up exciting visual scenarios of delicate young women pleasuring each other.

Jordan was thinking all of this stuff when he noticed a low-set car with four heads bobbing in it. Fearfully, he slowed down, lamenting the proliferation of Armenian gang members throughout the city.

In the abject, terror-filled aftermath of his beating, the immediate effect on Jordan’s world view resulted in a blanket condemnation, hatred even, for Armenians and everything they touched. This was heightened by the fact that his story, despite the helicopter overhead and the traffic jam that had inconvenienced thousands, had never been picked up by local news outlets. His sense of injustice, already inflamed at the hammering itself, had been piqued to a fine-tuning. Jordan believed he had been the product of a reverse discrimination; that had it been an Armenian pounded into hamburger meat by three suburban college grads, the news would have burned across the prairie in minutes.

He returned to more pleasant thoughts on The Lipsticks and of how they had confidently stepped out of the sexual ghettoes to move assuredly through the alcoholic watering holes and gastronomic grazing places frequented by the larger population of crossfuckers.

And, to get to the point, you couldn’t tell they were lesbians. They didn’t make a big show of kissing or holding hands. They were very relaxed.

Uninterested in men, The Lipsticks were not threatened by them, either. Instead, they interacted openly and frankly. The duller sex, in the dark, was drawn to their sexiness and too surprised at their engaging, fun-loving ways to be suspicious.

Other women, such as Yvonne, not picking up lesbian signals, were left vulnerable to the marvelous flavor that laced the air around these exotics.

The low-riding car with four heads was moving so slow as to cause Jordan’s car to cough for lack of gas as he insisted upon a healthy distance between them.

None of the above (and certainly not the Armenian material) is meant to suggest that Joya – delightful and unaffected as she was – was so innocent as to be unaware of the affect her novelty sexuality was having upon those around her.

She was quite aware, and what’s more, thought nothing of finding advantage in it.

Savvy, she skirted the line between flirtation and outright provocation so perfectly that she was rarely accused of romantic betrayal (although Jordan could not help but feel just a bit stung). More common was the sense of slight to the fact that Joya had refused to fuck them, physically. For we must never forget the extent to which perfectly normal-appearing people are damaged and twisted in ways strange enough to invite their own misery as satisfaction. The lanky blonde knew this, too. One time, upon being informed an admirer was crying over her untimely exit, she matter-of-factly responded: “That’s what girls do.” Lipsticks could say things like this about women (publicly and for the record) that men were no longer permitted, and this honesty restored a lost balance to the running commentary on the sexes, their relations with opposites, and between themselves.

With his car practically stalling from fuel deprivation and the driver behind prodding him with less-than-polite taps of the horn, Jordan decided to make a break for it and blast by the four heads in that low-riding death machine. That his vehicle was ill-suited to such feats of speed and braggadocio became all too clear and J., not given to material covetousness, again considered the myth of a well-paying corporate job as his wreck labored past the haunting automotive specter.

Among the things he did not know yet was that her barley-and-oats-beauty notwithstanding, Joya was as afraid as the next girl. There was fear of her situation as a gay woman in a world unfriendly enough as it was to females who were not gay.

Generous, her fear was for all beings, four-legged, black-skinned or even – and in this she was radical – the white guy. Yes, the world could be, no, was a cold and unforgiving place and she, a spawning salmon of ideas, must needs swim upstream to where an edge could be taken.

Joya was a survivor. Yet she survived in the most natural of ways, without any unseemly scratching and clawing.

She never confessed her age and possessed a certain bouquet of womanliness signifying a vintage ranging anywhere from 20 to 40 and which was no help in unlocking any of the many secrets that floated around this woman like a full-bodied halo, burned off by vanilla bean and jungle spice.

The racing sentiments caused Jordan to ramp-up to a respectable 65-miles-per-hour clip and he drew even with the low-riding car. He could not resist stealing a glance at the cancerous samplings of Armenian ganghood and prepared the appropriate scowl before turning. What he saw were four smiling elderly people cruising an old Dodge Dart in dire need of new suspension at a speed folks in their age group are known to torment the rest of the populace with.

Chapter Twenty-one

It was a tech mixer. Yvonne casually ran her catering crew through its well-trained and disciplined paces.

As it is for so many of us, the thing Yvonne made her money doing was insufficient to engaging the full level of her intelligence. On this day she was bored and more in search of a man than anything else. The question of why was one she would not have been able to answer.

And anyhow it didn’t matter, for she was at the mixer and the mixer is the matter under observation.

When it comes to questions of class, men find themselves willing to transcend all barriers (downward) where women are concerned. By her own self-critical standards Yvonne considered herself something of a server of people, underemployed, no matter how many times her acumen as a broker of tastes and small business person was lauded. She felt a server because she was made to by her clients. Compounding this annoyance was the fact she was a pretty server, which triggered all manner of dark impulses in others. And so powerful men might lower themselves to talk with her, but she was not a prep school girl and was ever-mindful of the reasons why.

The attendees were coifed, current men of industry, such as it was, and able to talk movies and certain popular books. They were largely of a common generation, save for a few patrician septuagenarians doddering about, still airing-out their avarice. A typical conversation between herself and men of this gauge was limited to three or four forms, at least two of them being about money. They were way too much like one another and Yvonne shivered. The grown-up world was just like high school with everyone fearful of the terrible swelling sea of ideas, hiding in each other’s shadow.

She decided to step outside the hotel at which this compendium was being held for a smoke.

Corey, also on hand, although proactively in search of contacts and information, was running his own critical commentary on the mixer through his own mind.

For him the gathering was made up of a generation that had been a spoiled and, paradoxically, ambitious one. The big trucks they drove, the cut-cool suits, the perfect blend of tempered maturity coupled with a waggish, insistent youthful presence were all hallmarks. It was an envied and criticized generation, selfishness being the primary accusation. But in their defense it should be noted that the prerogatives they were jealous of were prerogatives granted by the same elders now so outspoken in their desire to revoke them.

Corey, who was working his way through unconscious meets and greets at the side of the room opposite Yvonne, decided he, too, wanted a cigarette. And so, through the shared burdens of pleasure and addiction, a unique alliance was formed within the intense political workings that were the primary substance of this club of smokers.

Her immediate response was a wide and bright smile so spontaneous and genuine that it served to remind the worst curmudgeon of how beguiling humanity can be and – despite everything – worthy of our love.

“Hey,” Corey smiled under her irresistible warmth. He snapped his fingers for effect and said, “Yvonne, right?” She was used to being remembered and dismissed the finger-snap as evidence that he found her cute and was hiding the fact (which he was).

It was mentioned earlier that, in addition to this empowering self-belief, Yvonne possessed a trait crucial to success in the velvet jungle our cast of players moved about in – persistence.

When her fortune depended upon the graces of another, as they do for all of us, that person became the object of an onslaught so relentless as to reduce their reticence to empty essence. She called and visited and sent flowers in such a shameful way that her actions became transparent, which made them seem honest and (almost) alright. She eliminated the element of judgment from the gatekeeper’s decision-making process. She eliminated, in fact, the whole process. She was 100 percent confident of her eventual, total success. In such a hurry was she that obstacles were embraced and anticipated, because they clearly represented the next step.

Yvonne lived like a violent and speedy video game in which you must quickly process a few options before deciding which of the fast-approaching ghouls to blow away.

And since this drive towards all things she wanted career-wise was usually successful, Yvonne had never gotten it into her head that the same approach does not always work when it comes to love. That, in fact, such an approach is actually antipathetic to the intertwining of two erotic forces.

But back to the couple. “How are yous” were exchanged and niceties before the conversation moved into deeper realms of interest.

“So,” she asked pretty-as-you-please, “how’s your little club?”


“Yeah, all those people you hang out with on the sidewalk outside restaurants smoking cigarettes. Your sidewalk smoking club.”

Let it be recorded how the name – the finished idea – was born with Yvonne (following a tiny adjustment) and also that Corey’s passion for her began, in earnest, with the sharing of a cigarette.

Chapter Twenty-two

Jordan had a parking ticket and a loan he wanted to pay quickly so that Joya didn’t think he was turned-off by the fact she was lesbian (which she was not at all worried about). He asked for extra hours at Java World and was surprised to learn how such graces were not so easily granted. His boss had some doubts about J.’s appearance, which was presently marred by a shiner under each eye from the Armenian fist his face had run into. Again, the victim is getting the blame. In Jordan’s case it was a subtle thing. Obviously he’d been the object of some very rough treatment and this somehow stained him with the darkness of his tormentors. He begged and cajoled without going into the financial difficulties, correctly reckoning that it could only further diminish his stature in the employer’s eyes.

The boss finally gave in so that Jordan, making just below what we call a “living wage,” was now working some 12 hours a day – minus time for cigarette breaks – foaming up cappuccinos, tossing Caesar salads, and running to the refrigerator for soy milk in cases where the regular stuff ran afoul of the dairy repellent whom, in turn, ran afoul of everyone else.

The long hours tested his patience, for retail is a very, as they say “people-oriented” business, and people – even when your heart bursts with warmth for humanity as does J.’s – can be a real pain in the ass.

“Choice,” Jordan learned again and again, is a highly valued consumer commodity and no amount of choice can satiate the desire for more choice. Filling the vast hole that exists in modern life is an endless variety of the same products.

At Java World, there were 43 different kinds of “drinks” (as such concoctions were dubbed in the little coffeehouse universe). In addition to the standard latte, cappuccino, and house-blend – all of which could be had with the aforementioned soy milk, no-fat, or low-fat, or fatty milk – were a variety of pure espresso servings in accelerating doses up to four shots, the effect of which was just this side a line of cocaine.

There was a “Raspberry Chocolate Truffle,” combining sugar from chocolate and sugar from raspberry syrup and sugar from the whipped crème over a base of black tar squeezed out from the imported Italian coffeemaker. There was, too, the “Supreme Orange Dream,” bane of the American Diabetes Association; a complicated labor requiring an orange invariably ordered up by three daughters of a local business luminary in the middle of the Sunday morning crush – and nobody else.

Did the boss need to cater in such a way to one small family? If they came 52 Sundays a year he did.

“Fifty-two weeks a year times three Supreme Orange Dreams, Jordan,” the boss barked. “Do the math.” Ah the math. Learn the math kiddies.

The rare person who came into the coffee shop and asked for a “coffee” always caused the staff to turn toward the counter in surprise. There was never a shortage of people asking for something not offered on the multi-colored chalkboard behind the baristas; people who exasperated Jordan to no end so that things did not always go smoothly on his shift. One workout queen asked for a no-fat, de-caff latte without foam and he presented her with an empty cup. The sly humor escaped her. Two other young ladies drove him crazy with nearly ten minutes of personal requests until he let the term “Barbies” slip from his lips at the cash register.

For these infractions of the-customer-is-always-right golden rule he was mildly upbraided by his employer who – despite a vested interest in the clientele’s temporary happiness – was not too far-removed from Jordan’s opinions after years of serving folks food and libations.

Jordan’s job was made much easier by the presence of Carlos. This transplant of Zacatecas state had the place wired. He was the first to arrive in the morning. In his possession would be a giant bag of fresh bagels picked up on the way in and a single small bag with a garlic bagel, for a particular customer who requested the same thing every day.

Which brings up another matter. Until he had been reduced to working at the coffee shop, Jordan had never fully understood the extent to which certain people are creatures of grinding, never-changing habit.

But back to Carlos. He was trusted with opening the cash register, while Jordan was relegated to setting up the plastic tables and chairs outdoors and whipping the heavy crème with sugar. Whereas Jordan often grew flustered and walked away when the rush of people needing a fix became overwhelming, Carlos was an island of calm.

Alternately coaxing patience from the clientele and cranking out quality drinks at breakneck pace, he simultaneously directed other staffers in the toasting of bagels and slicing of tomatoes until the consumer-produced panic had finally subsided.

Indispensable to the business he was paid a minimum wage, which did not permit him to feed a family and pay his bills, as reward. He did not, however, complain about such things.

Rather inversely, something in the Zacatecan sowed a seed of pity for the misplaced, almost middle-aged white guy with no wife and no kids, and made sure little harm or stress ever flowed Jordan’s way. He did it for Jordan and he did it for himself, mindful of the fact his boss was truly glad to have someone who wasn’t Mexican serving his overwhelmingly white clientele. There are enclaves; places made up of particular kinds of people, sometimes called communities, other times cultures, more times cliques. And every time a customer asked that he or one of the other Mexicans employed at Java World not prepare their food, Carlos knew he was in an enclave, a community, a clique not his own.

Anyhow, when Carlos saw the condition of Jordan’s face he knew the score exactly.

There are almost too many ways to damage one’s visage, but he recognized a good beating by fist when he saw one. If Jordan had been in a car accident and smashed his face into the windshield he might not have projected the pungent residue of sheer fear which washed over Carlos like bandwaves from a radio tower. “Jou got beet up, eh?”

“How could you tell?”

“Fuck up jou nose pretty good anh?”

“Do ya have to restate the obvious?”

Carlos loved the erudition Jordan offered up in his simple, machine-gun-fast rejoinders. It was an English he was not accustomed to hearing and the Zacatecan listened closely to each and every droll muttering. For unlike those mostly spoiled members of The Sidewalk Smokers Club, Carlos possessed the newly arrived immigrant’s gut understanding that America was, with a little self-improvement, essentially out there for whomever wanted it. That there were things for the taking. That thrift, hard work, and other of the old church-girl virtues were held in a higher estimation than any kind of altruistic, communal sense of belonging, or caring, or what have you. That you dreamed for yourself and so he wanted to learn.


“Armenian Power.”

Carlos laughed. Pitched in a daily struggle to survive, subject of an entirely anti-intellectual dominion, he was not held to the standards of universal harmony and political oversight the college-educated were. As such, his reaction was a pure and unfettered racial one. “Chinga los Armenios,” he said with a recoiled smirk for spitting. In fact, he had to step outside and relieve his mouth of the sour saliva summonsed from his glands by mere thoughts of Armenian gang members. Stepping back in, Carlos inquired as to the particulars of the assault, which clearly fascinated him, all the while nodding familiarly. Jordan got the sense his coworker was something of an expert in the varieties and techniques utilized by different criminal cells across the region: a kind of military scientist to the gang world.

Something in him felt comforted by this sharing with a colleague – such as he was.

His own crew did not want to be darkened by his misfortune. He made them think about their problems and Randall believed that when you think about your problems, they become problems. Carlos, by contrast, took Jordan’s recounting in stride, mindful of what such violence means, but aware that Jordan had been spared any tangible tragedy. This is what comforted Jordan, the expert opinion which, without saying a thing, made clear that all was well and that such threats hang over those less fortunate than himself – woman, child, the flowering and fading alike – all the time in the places where people like Carlos lived. He was grateful to know Carlos in that moment and he returned his mind to the hospital bed for a moment, filled with a deeper comprehension for his roommate there and the obvious agony felt by those family members who came to see him motivated by love and concern.

Carlos’ fellow-feeling got the best of him and he transcended a barrier common to whites and their minority servants by confiding in Jordan. “I have un cuerno de chivo in my car.” J. did not possess the linguistic tools to grasp what this meant, and so he shrugged in the same confidential and knowing way Carlos had done to that point. “Jou wann see?”

It was early, the shop had been promptly and efficiently appointed for the morning’s rush. Their boss had not yet arrived to gum up the works with his requisite hour of personal engagement with the customers. Jordan didn’t know what he was agreeing to, but was also caught up in the deeper level of camaraderie that suddenly existed between the men. Now they had two things in common.

So they went out to Carlos’ car, an extremely well cared-for El Camino (there are grains of truth to stereotypes) with attendant embellishments particular to Mexican-American culture, which will not be described here in deference to the etiquette which frowns upon the highlighting of such idiosyncracies by someone of distinct origin.

The flatbed contained a lockbox chained up to the rear of the cab. Carlos opened it and there, unadorned before Jordan’s eyes lie an AK-47 rapid fire rifle – in all its gleaming muscularity.

“That’s a machine gun,” Jordan said with a tone normally saved for utterance before great works of art or slain persons. Carlos nodded. “Jou know I’m a very well known cholo in Inglewood.” Jordan nodded in the affirmative although he had not known anything of the kind. Carlos read his thoughts. “Jeh, I teld you it once already.”

“So,” Jordan moved on, “why do you call it that?”

“Cuerno de chivo?”

“Right, cuerno de chivo,” Jordan was able to roll his “rrrrr’ in cuerno thanks to a trick once taught him by a short-lived relationship with a Latina girlfriend. Carlos was not impressed. He wiped his hand across the curved magazine of the firearm. “Goat’s Horn,” he smiled, a happy pirate.

“Ah,” was the best J. could do.

There was a pause as they admired the instrument of death. It was, Jordan thought, an advertisement for good killing. It lay upon a delicate piece of chamois, which Carlos pulled free and used it to erase smudges with a tenderness usually reserved by a mother for her child. He shook it fluffy and placed it underneath the gun anew.

He turned the lid down and secured the lockbox. “So, I’m telleen jou now, eef jou eber wantto get dose guys, jou tell me and cuerno de chivo is for dem.” Jordan wasn’t sure if Carlos was offering to lend him the gun. This would have been of little use since he hadn’t the first idea of how such a thing worked, although if pressed in a pinch he’d start with the trigger. His comrade in street fighting once again read his mind. “I am fast with these. Jou wanto get dem, I go with jou.”

So fresh in his mind was the adrenaline-pumped fear and anger which Jordan had felt just two days before that he almost set a date and time by which he and Carlos would cruise neighborhoods surrounding the scene of the crime (as it were) and lay bloody waste to the three assholes who had made his sleep a difficult a place to be. But his desire for a return to the normal and grinding life he’d once known got the best of him and he responded with a simple, but heartfelt, “Thanks Carlos. I’ll let you know if it comes to that.”

Chapter Twenty-three

Randall was working on a new installation to his signature work seeking that elusive and common link between all humans.

“Our problems makes us one,” was the root idea. He was presently working out the related premise that money was a social dissolvent because (according to bum philosophy): “When you have money, you don’t need people.”

He was talking about eliminating the trading-off of one’s emotional self in exchange for help (with whatever). When you had money you just paid for help and dispensed with professions of camaraderie or promises to return the favor. Money pushed people away from one another.

It was a bitter bum philosophy, for Randall, it must be pointed out (again), was broke and stagnated in his dream by the lack of money his philosophical investigations had produced. And he was harsh against the rich for not sharing more with the literary community in particular.

Meanwhile, he had just purchased a series of different tobacco products with which he planned to plunge his person into perdition. And he was doing it alone, not unlike a crackhead or heroine junky too far-gone to be joined in the trip by someone close.

The radio was running and an ambitious city attorney with his eye on the mayoralty was conducting a press conference regarding an investigation into the cruel death of the old lady at county hospital. It was now widely suspected that her demise had been at the hands of a monster the papers had begun to call the “Angel Without Mercy” supposedly lurking in the hospital’s halls for some time now. The hospital denied this was the case, but the city attorney claimed to have in his possession information to the contrary and, given the hospital’s size and wealth, the public seemed inclined to believe him, even as he concealed this proof under the guise of an “ongoing investigation.”

“And war is peace,” Randall muttered, taking issue with the appellation “Angel Without Mercy.” In his view, plug-pullers were fountains of mercy and that their prosecution would, ultimately, be rendered anachronistic. Someday, helping those who wanted to die do so would evolve from an illegal exercise into a very normal procedure. He did not think that so crude a modus operandi as that employed by the Angel possessed dignity, but what choice was there?

The Angel’s sin lay in the fact the act was illegal and nothing more. Randall began to think about laws and quickly concluded them to be very dangerous things. He mused over all the people throughout history who had been pilloried, jailed, or killed for breaking laws later wiped off the books as being awful or irrelevant. There were some good laws, to be sure, but they were hardly ever put to use in creating the justice they promised.

“There are,” he scribbled, “good laws, but nobody uses them.”

He thought about smoking laws. And he reasoned that twisting justice to please the person at the other end of a room from a cigarette was a dishonest representation and well, an injustice to the idea of justice.

Then he went and got the mail, put all the bills aside for a much later date when he was famous, and was left with a “Private Policy” statement from his automobile insurance company which the legislature had forced him into a business relationship with.

A law had required the actuary to issue the privacy statement and a considerable number of trees were made to suffer as a result. It was the same law that allowed the company to operate in the financial arena, something that had been prohibited some 70 years or so ago when the arrangement had gotten a lot of people, innocent and otherwise, into a lot of trouble. Few remembered and those that did were not permitted much say in this arcane matter affecting the lives of countless, blissful millions.

“Dear Randall,” it said, “We take your personal privacy seriously,” and went on to explain, briefly, the law which obligated the company to take his privacy seriously, hinted at future fiduciary pitches and closed with a reminder that, “privacy has always been important to us.” Some authoritative-sounding words like “organizational,” “digital,” and “safeguards” had been sprinkled throughout.

These were to ease the minds of those who feared the insurer would share information about their drunk driving record with the person who was deciding whether to dole out a 30-year mortgage to them. There was another sentence and one after that with the word “computer” in it to drive home the point that Randall’s information was safe, never mind the fact it was precisely the computer that threatened to compromise it.

He realized that if he kept on in this vein, the world would dissolve itself on his tongue like wisps of cotton candy. It could do that, big as it was. And so he stopped himself because he wanted bum philosophy to reach and activate the many bums living lives presently isolated from a creed that would make them the most happy. He wanted the thing to be practical and accessible; primary criteria at the retail level.

And this was bum philosophy’s greatest virtue; that it aspired to so little.

He was a long way from any organized essay on the tenet regarding money and the manner in which it does away with the necessity for dealing with people, but that was okay too, because beyond the initial utterance, there wasn’t much to say. It spoke to itself and invited the most lazy of minds to chew on something very much in the mix. He lit up again. There was a sandpaper feel to the back of his throat, a mere scratch on the skin of his robust constitution. He would, tomorrow, consider upping the dosage or lowering the quality of his smoke so as to hasten disaster along.

Chapter Twenty-four

Clarisse was still sitting around brooding over the Trixie Marie show.

She had not gone, of course, to the opening night party. And, of course, nobody had noticed, least of all Trixie Marie, but Clarisse was hardly free from the antiquated prejudices of her homeland and rested assured that her rival had taken offense at her absence.

Within the 19th Century rules Clarisse adhered to, when you absented yourself from a social gathering, you were saying something to the hostess, mostly that you were withholding enthusiastic approval. In the 21st Century city in which she was presently residing, where the gallery event was characterized by wine in plastic cups and a clientele interested as much in the potential for some dirty sex as the art, the gesture amounted to less than an Indian head nickel. If Trixie Marie had noticed the snub at all, it would have been in a new world way, not an old world one.

Anyhow it didn’t matter. Clarisse's house of clouds was no less wispy than those constructed by any of us so that we might get through the day.

She’d gone to the gallery at midday, in between lunch and dinner shifts. Like a furniture world Garbo, Clarisse wore sunglasses and dressed down so as not to draw attention, but then scotched her anonymity by lighting up a Lucky Strike inside the gallery. The owner cast a half-hearted glance of disapproval over in Clarisse’s direction, but was unwilling to fulfill her duty as an auxiliary police person in the war on smoke. Clarisse after all, might be a potential customer and there was no reason to cut things short before they even got started.

She was crestfallen. Trixie Marie’s show was astounding. Clarisse’s trained eye saw the leaps in growth made since the prior exhibit, which she had not liked at all. She admitted with stunned horror that it was a breakout collection bound to garner its creator both critical acclaim and financial reward. Clarisse knew it because this was the kind of ensemble she had dreamed of putting together for what had become, unfortunately, years now.

These are life’s realities, the ones that have nothing to do with movies and television shows where adversity is battled in a series of rapid-fire montage shots and triumph is just a romantic relationship away from becoming a crowning reality.

Yvonne’s happy rules don’t apply here. This is where the person with more talent or more connections or more luck or more of all three takes the lead. The person who does not have these advantages at their disposal gets hit with the reality like a two-by-four to the cranium. She stared admiringly at the pieces before her and took a lesson in construction from a woman she’d long considered her lesser, a woman who, through a quiet and steadfast industriousness, had imposed her vision upon the community. Clarisse, by contrast, barely got to her studio for a cleanup job and some idea-sketches let alone morph into the human wood-and-glue-assembling machine her rival had.

Her shoulders slumped. Clarisse knew that somewhere, between tending to her failing marriage, serving tables, and waiting around for the sun to shine upon her for no particular reason other than that she wanted it to, a lot of time had been wasted.

Time her rival had demonstrated could, in fact, be put to good use.

The gallery owner, with little else to do, had interpreted the visitor’s body language and come to certain conclusions about the purpose of the visit. Each vocation being a world of limited players, she felt the sad and mysterious girl in her establishment seemed familiar. Clarisse reached mechanically for another Lucky Strike and struck a match only to be shaken out of her self-pity by the lofty mid-Atlantic accent of the gallerykeeper who said, “Miss, I’m going to have to ask you to smoke that outside.”

Clarisse really wasn’t in the mood for anybody’s shit and said it this way: “Escuse me?” with an arch to her eyebrows that expressed much more than the utterance itself. Recognizing the intemperate nature of an unconsecrated artist, the gallery keeper recovered her superior form. “You’ll have to smoke that outside. This is, after all, a furniture gallery and there is much in it that is flammable.”

“You sound like de author of thees book,” Clarisse responded and, when this failed to alter the narrative’s course, lit the cigarette, puffed fully, released completely, and strode past. “Fock you,” she said, egged-on by the requirements of drama to establish a new layer of personality with this rather uncharacteristic utterance.

She stepped out to the corner of the street. Her angularity, her svelte package, the clean cut of her clothes, the high-nose of her lowlands pedigree and, yes, her cigarette, made her the object of much desire in the few men who passed in the next moments. They dreamed of her as some kind of ideal – someone who might shake their lives of lethargy and infuse them with adventure – and as we know could not have been farther off the mark.

One of those men was a short Mexican with a white, straw cowboy hat and boots like Joya’s on his way to work as a leaf-blower for a landscaper. The other was an old guy, bald on top, alone in life, who’d purposely lost the capacity to appreciate something quite so divine as Clarisse so as not to suffer the kind of longings she was provoking. It didn’t work. If Clarisse’s potent sexuality has not been dwelled upon to this point, it is because it was never quite so apparent as in this moment when the best of her nature caused a defiant back-arching as response to the raw adversity confronting her, a courageous nonchalance in her savoring that thing sticking out of her mouth.

All of which was running through Randall’s mind as he sat at an outdoor café, just across the street from the gallery (these two types of establishments tending to cluster near one another as they do), savoring Clarisse in a manner not much different than she was applying to her smoke.

It was only lunchtime, but it had been a big day for Randall. He’d worked his way through half a pack of his special Canadian-cut butts – more than double his daily intake – and was discovering that not only did he feel great, but that he looked it.

Adding historical weight to these more personal concerns, it should be noted that he had purchased a magazine but an hour before and… on second thought, let’s get to that a little further on. He left his seat at the café marked by his belongings from alien incursion. He approached Clarisse who, in her distraction, never saw him coming. “Great show, huh?” The remark was made, not in innocence, but in complete calculation. He knew something of her ambitions, had seen the show, and comprehended the undertow dragging her through a private hell. His intention was to clarify her own thoughts about the challenge ahead because that, in the end, is what friends are for.

“Yes,” she smiled in a tepid way.

“Experience in the spectacle is the only spectacle anymore.”

Well, it’s a sexy thing when a guy can read right through your feelings and then help you justify them.

“Boom philosophy,” she tried to sneer.

“Too good for that,” he countered.

And it’s another sexy thing when a guy can make a little joke of himself and disarm a woman of the most potent tool at her disposal. Which is to say Randall had shut her up.

“Okay look,” he ventured, “I don’t want to shortcut your self-absorption man, but I’ve got something that will definitely mark this day as an interesting one. C’mon, lemme buy you a latte.”

She had no reason to resist, had been teased by the dramatist’s simple presentation of the as-yet-undisclosed matter, and followed him back to his table with a simple shrug. He took off his sunglasses and arched his eyebrows for fun and suspense and sat. He reached down and threw a glossy magazine on the table. Its texture and composition immediately tipped Clarisse off to the fact it was filled with pictures of naked women and she wondered if a mistake had not been made in following Randall who, for all she knew, might be some kind of murderous pervert. Not having the best eyes, and having attended Trixie Marie’s show without her contact lenses, Clarisse looked at the magazine without processing. She shrugged.

“Look closer,” he said and stabbed the cover with his forefinger. “Who does that remind you of?”

The girl on the cover wore a polka dot bikini and was pulling at its elastic. When Clarisse got to the face, which took some time given the monumental body her eyes had to climb, she thought that it reminded her of Yvonne – a little younger – but Yvonne.

“Eet remind me of Eevonne.”

“Look closer.”

“Eet still remind me of Eevonne.”

“It is Yvonne.”

She stared at him long and hard before saying, “non.” He slapped it open to the centerfold. She saw the girl that looked like Eevonne in a very prone posture. He turned two pages back to someone that looked like Eevonne surrendering herself and her intimacy with a smile as wide as the quarter moon. He flipped to the other side of the centerfold. There were pictures of certain parts of someone that looked liked Eevonne’s body, but not the whole Eevonne.

“It is Eevonne,” Clarisse echoed him, reached for the Lucky Strikes, offered one to Randall (which he took) and shook her head in disbelief.

Just like that, life’s sometimes unpredictable and engaging forces swept her out of a powerful funk and back into the maelstrom of events that rarely afford curious people the time necessary to destroy themselves with their own exalted expectations.

Chapter Twenty-five

Even in cities where social convention, discretion, and restraint are common and deep-rooted (this not being one of them), Yvonne’s exposé was something that couldn’t help but set the satellites humming.

At this point, The Sidewalk Smokers Club is just emerging from the incubation stage and they’ve gathered formally but once in the more structured gathering around Randall’s table at the Argentine restaurant – where you could smoke inside on occasion – so that to the casual observer, nothing more than a playful meeting of friends was transpiring. And this is what casual observers have always concluded upon witnessing a gathering of raffish undesirables: that something less than a revolution was occurring over there with that crowd, when precisely the opposite was true.

Or as one of Randall’s favorite bum philosophy tenets held: Great movements don’t look like great movements in the beginning.

Corey and Randall had debated this for a while. Corey had liked, “Great movements are always born of unsuspecting bum philosophers,” but Randall resisted it as being self-referential. Furthermore, he was dead-set against the use of the word “always” in the text of his growing manifesto, even if it enjoyed frequent usage in the parlance of bums and hoboes.

Anyhow, like most things in the long run, it didn’t matter a lick. The point is that Yvonne’s having dropped her pants publicly provided the impetus for a series of phone calls betwixt these people, the affect of which was to weave them together through the inescapable electronic spiderwebery that today connects from Antarctica to Hudson Bay, from Guayaquil to distant St. Petersburg, from Bakersfield to nearby Tehachapi.

Yvonne’s action represented a crucible for Randall’s table, which became the forum in which it was taken up. She could not have timed things better if, in fact, she had any hand at all in their timing, for Joya was there like a shot. And that was good. She found Randall sitting alone, nursing a scotch and counting his cigarettes.

The sight of her was, as usual, one of immense pleasure. Her obvious physical attraction aside, Randall thought Joya lent a prestige that flowed from the strange mix of aloofness and openness she projected. Once you accessed her, she was great, but, as Yvonne knew, you had to access her. And, well, to the extent Randall held court at the Argentine restaurant, Joya’s presence there meant he had accessed something of her, if not all.

“She’s gorgeous,” was the first thing Joya hit Randall with and so revealed her having viewed the goods. He noted a lack of the biscuits-and-gravy ease he had liked so much in her voice. She was all business.

“In bits and pieces, and as a totality.”

Joya frowned and scolded him for this frat boy patter of which she would hear more. “Can you believe?” she followed up.

“No,” he said as earnestly as possible, “but at certain moments life can be kind.”
Corey and Clarisse were next to arrive. Like Joya and Randall, they were on time for the late-evening confab. It was a Friday night and the place was more crowded than usual, less conducive to the shifty-eyed, whispery conversation Yvonne’s layout invited. All the tables were filled and the volume of conversation not so readily absorbed by the restaurant’s velvety interior. Some business folks unwound at the bar. The violinist and keyboard man were on duty, but reduced to background ambiance, biding their time until the later hours when the smokers, lushes, lonely lifers, and violin fans clustered to absorb the things they meant to convey (or unreasonable facsimiles of them). Corey and Clarisse saw Joya and Randall sort of hunched forward across the table verbally sparring with each other. Clarisse did not move toward them with the same relish her husband did. The day had been a tough one spiritually and the naked vision of a woman whom she knew personally, to which the rest of humanity had been treated, had left her out of sorts (as it had much the rest of humanity). Adding to her reticence was the fact Corey hadn’t seen the pictures yet and his highly calculated facade of coolness could not hide from his wife the general enthusiasm with which he’d infused their evening preparations.

Clarisse kissed Randall and Joya. Joya kissed Corey and Clarisse etc. They sat down purposefully, although the first moments were rather uncomfortable with silence. In the end, even with all our desensitized and secular detachment, what was being discussed here, in bum philosophy phraseology, was a dirty magazine. To see the pictures somebody had to buy the thing and what a holier-than-thou guy like Randall was doing with the magazine never came up, although it was on everyone’s mind.

In order that Yvonne’s wares could be viewed, an expression of interest was required. And so all involved would have to surrender a little bit of their sexually guarded selves and (just as Randall had) admit to a touch of perversity or curiosity where naked, posing bodies were concerned. And such an admission always serves to deepen friendship and fellow-feeling between, well, fellows.

“Okay, who’s got the rag?” Corey sought to break things down to a lowest common denominator. A cool draft passed over the table. The quartet looked up and out toward the door to see Jordan come bounding in, cigarette tucked behind his ear for just the right touch of rake. Some girls in the restaurant turned to consider him briefly. What they concluded was of no interest to J. They’d looked and that was good enough. Nobody rose to greet him with any formality. Randall had already taken the magazine, rolled up in hand, out of the leather bag he’d brought for the expressed purpose of safeguarding it from born-agains, militia types, and other fauna noxious to the Bill of Writes. Jordan, who had not seen the pictures yet, nodded to Joya who had contacted him, being more familiar with the coffeehouse barista than she was with the rest of the gang.

Randall looked around the restaurant and back over his shoulder. Something kept him from opening the thing up straight away and it was probably the fact four people would immediately lurch forth to sample the interior, thereby rendering modest attempts at concealment pointless. But there was no way out of it, and he didn’t mind another look himself, and so he opened the layout’s first page wherein Yvonne still had her clothes on. Things unfolded pretty much to form with Jordan and Corey leaning over like dogs at their just-filled bowl of kibble. Joya and Clarisse were permitted the lady’s grace of remaining seated because they had already seen the pictures.

“Oh,” said Corey, which seemed to be all the situation permitted, although to Clarisse’s ears it wasn’t quite as understated as it seemed. Internally, each was wrestling with the desire to make love with Yvonne at the first opportunity that presented itself. That is, should it present itself, the odds of which had dimmed since the upshot was that she had made herself a sex symbol and sex symbols, as we all know, are very difficult to have sex with.

The waiter appeared and Randall shut the magazine not quite in time. The entire table was drenched in an air of up-to-no-good, in the act of concealment, in a feverishness for which a simple eatery could provide no outlet. And in that way, The Club struggled through dinner without insight, reduced to blabbering about the fact that Yvonne did look good, and questioning again and again the “why?” of her having done this revealing thing.

The crowed thinned, the smokers stayed, and soon enough they were lighting up whilst giving into the violinist’s sway. Randall, freed somewhat by the scotch, found the chutzpah necessary to present the magazine – the 300-pound gorilla in the room – anew. Correctness, maintaining yet a shadow of presence, required that the publication sit there unattended for a few moments while everyone pretended immersion in deep existential ruminations and sad, rheumy-eyed reminiscence. But as luck would have it, Joya and Clarisse both reached for the magazine at the same time, annihilating all the courtly feigning, returning the mood to a more appropriate, edgy discomfort. Clarisse, being French or Belgian (and heterosexual) conceded possession to Joya who masked her visual hunger by opening the layout to its first frame where the girl still has her clothes on. But the door opened and blew that cobweb of pretense away by flipping the pages quickly to the centerfold, again. They all looked up to see whom it was that had shot a cool blast of air on the whole suffocating and steamy scene. And, as the requirements of drama would have things, they saw Sister Steam herself, Yvonne, standing before them, a thin Virginia Slim dangling from her mouth, one hand to hip like the cowgirl one of them was fantasizing her to be at that moment.

There was yet another pause, but to call it uncomfortable would be overstating the thing. It’s just that there were so many uncommon thoughts and feelings flowing about that it took more than the normal split seconds to process, collate and work out responses to them.

The magazine was out on the table and, upon seeing it, Yvonne decided to break the ice, which is a thoroughly inappropriate metaphor given the rising room temperature.

“I guess you’ve all seen that!” she said in a not very humiliated way. They stumbled over a murky unburdening of compliments about “the beauty,” the “hot” nature of what she’d done (or undone, as it were). “Well, like, I was just…you know, like you know and you are all like saying that whatever, so I guess that’s all I can say.” And then she stopped and smiled.

That they all understood perfectly what she meant to convey was testimony both to the linkage occurring between The Sidewalk Smokers – for there was really no need of explanation – and to the deterioration of linguistic usage in our culture which began, perhaps, many years ago with the advent of television.

Anyhow it didn’t matter because protestations that the photos had been taken when she was young and needed money or some such drub were unnecessary where her fast-coalescing allies were concerned.

And that’s because they liked what she had done.

It’s tough to break away anymore in this world. There are no wild countries to settle in for a time and cleanse one’s soul of modernity and automatic dishwashers.

Everyone everywhere eats from the same meal ticket now, works for the same things the planet over; an apartment in a thriving capital and some other place where that capital can be forgotten during lengthy vacations primed with domestic help, for example.

But that has all been said. The point is that such a glaring affront to the rules of a game in which life had placed her, and so brazen a move for survival as publicly exploiting her sexuality (and the gusto with which she’d done so), meant that Yvonne had gone someplace in life foreign to most of our members. She enjoyed the status of a politician who has gone to war, fought, survived and come home to rebuild their lives: however perverse the drawn parallel may appear.

She’d risen, or perhaps sunk, out of the anonymity to which the giant numbers and prodigious talents of her generation had originally relegated her. At least that’s what the raw minds of The Sidewalk Smokers Club were unanimously churning out along with the conclusion that they were more than willing to be participants in any organization counting Yvonne as a member.

Randall confirmed, under his breath, that “the only spectacle anymore is being in the spectacle,” which was not exactly what had been said the first time, but he was drunk, and it served his immediate purposes.

The men were forced to take the gentlemanly road and avoid staring at Yvonne with a clearer perception of what was going on under the little bare-shouldered Chiffon camisole and those soft brown leather pants. The ladies, on the other hand, took every advantage an outdated code of behavior permitted them and stared fiercely at the lower registers of Yvonne’s cachet. Joya shuffled her seat over to the left and pointed the star into an adjacent chair. “C’mon hon, sit down and have a drink.”

We know how Yvonne had been knocked out of joint by her first meeting with Joya and since then had been doing her best to hook up. And now that the moment was nigh her strengthened hand in things sexual provided perspective. So she accepted Joya’s overture with the awareness of a yellow-furred spring chick doddering side-to-side through a fox den.

The group kept working toward earnest discussion, but there just wasn’t much to be said that hadn’t been in the first few exchanges. She’d provided an excuse; they’d rejected the roles of judges and jury because their respective senses of adventure had been pricked. It had already been commented that she looked great, that she was gutsy or insane depending, and the thing was done.

So Clarisse suggested a cigarette, and despite the fact they sat in liberated territory, the group were driven somehow to the sidewalk. The conversational continuum broken, the change of venue from indoor to outdoor, and the natural curiosity of those who like to simultaneously smoke and chat, invited a new topic much to Jordan’s dismay. Something which had happened that morning.

Chapter Twenty-six

That whatever it was they discussed was to Jordan’s dismay is an obvious tip-off to the fact the old lady’s passing at county health hotel had refused to take its rightful place in the parade of insignificant news stories.

The city attorney who’d posted the calculated gamble of converting her into a cause célèbre was, in fact winning both the wager and the electoral race as tracked by the polls. They were showing dramatic improvement in his standing and a marked separation from the larger pack of similarly ambitious folk bent upon acquiring the massive headaches of running a large and unruly city. What the bump in numbers meant was anybody’s guess and anybody could guess it was related to the easy victory associated with taking on the cause of a murdered old woman at the hands of a careless, big, heartless hospital – “public” hospital. He – the city attorney – had yet to present any governing proposal different from the vagaries of good schools for our kids (whether you had them or not) and a further unraveling of the city’s communal fabric by way of tax cuts to his most potent and well-heeled campaign contributors. Turning to the formidable machinery of information and opinion-making at his disposal, the city attorney had no trouble quashing anything that might have invited opponents to say that what had happened to the old lady wasn’t wrong – a de facto approval of murder – and let it be known he’d take it from there. This is known as good politics and is the process by which those who rule us rise. Opponents wisely passed on the challenge and returned to more familiar territory marked out by high-priced consultants, trying to outdo each other’s zeal for better schools for our kids and tax reform. And so the polls had to be a result of “the old lady thing,” as his harried aides called the canard in closed-door conferences.

The police chief was a well-meaning man trying to direct the well-equipped army in his charge against well-run Mafias of global crime settled in the wealthy burg under his purview. There were pernicious gangs comprised of heartless, soulless teenagers with no hope for anything but an early death and a possible championship by the excessively paid local basketball team. There were multiple, stupid deaths every day; each of which had to be catalogued, investigated and prosecuted. There were children who’d gone out for an ice cream that never returned home and their desperate, agonizing parents accusing the chief of not caring for the little people – the nobodies.

So he really could have cared less about the old lady who had died quite in her time, give or take a half-year of overpriced medical ministration. And although nobody else in the busy machine of urban living cared, the city attorney was the city attorney. He was leading in polls measuring the race to become the police chief’s new boss and could not be ignored. The storyline itself was one that reporters could follow and develop while avoiding the dangerous job of exposing corporate crooks and angering their own publishers’ stockholders.

Oh, hope. Everyone was playing it safe, taking the path of least resistance embodied in the exploitation of an old lady’s death.

Which brings us to what The Smokers were talking about that had Jordan so upset: The latest development in the investigation of his murder had been a police sketch of the suspect drawn with the help of a certain hospital orderly. And Jordan had a pretty good idea of which hospital orderly.

The drawing suggested a Latino man, which is not at all surprising given the good/bad biases afoot in the land. Jordan was of a definite European/Anglo/American stock, but skin pigment aside, the sketch nonetheless echoed his true appearance.

The Sidewalk Smokers had seen the artist’s rendering, but none made any link between the murderer and the guy smoking a hand-rolled Drum tobacco cigarette in the street with them. And that was a good thing, for him.

Randall ruminated at the margins of the jabbering bunch, alone, about how Yvonne had merely shed her clothes in order to become a minor somebody whom somebody who wanted to be a big somebody could launch from.

It wasn’t all bad for women. If he shed his clothes for a magazine, not too many would really be interested in buying that magazine. Actually, he admitted, nobody would. And here he was, racing along like a nervous swallow hepped-up on increasing quantities of caffeine and other things mixed into tobacco product, out of sorts with the nature around him, but far from any kind of suffering that might draw attention to his efforts as a thinker. And after all, was that fair?

Jordan, too, was thinking about how nobody would want to see him naked in a magazine, and about how he’d done something very bold and courageous. He’d acted upon an ideal, a simple humanist principle picked up God knows where, that there should be a little leeway regarding how much suffering one had to endure in dying and that, furthermore, states and/or financial institutions should be denied any power in setting the threshold. And that act was now keeping him up nights. That act was seasoning his innards and toughening his skin, yet he could not for the life of him talk about it.

“Oh God, let the old lady go,” Joya trilled at Yvonne, their faces very close and embellished with big smiles. “Especially if she’s already let go herself. Why should she suffer? And her family, too!” the sex star said of the victim. Jordan was listening and heartened that they were in rough accord with his own platform for action – what with the press giving his side no play at all.

But the heartening went only so far. After years of laboring in obscurity and trying to set his ship’s course straight, Jordan was already wincing at the creeping Klieg lights. For the moment he remained an unknown quantity, but his fear was palpable.

The idea that he might suddenly become a media star in his own hanging was blowing him adrift of his moorings.

What to do? Enjoy life for the moment. The meal was covered. There was wine and smokes, and the day had been an eventful one. Speaking of which, Jordan decided to look over his shoulder and give Yvonne the visual shakedown she had been demanding since he first got wind of her naked sensation.

Randall was doing cell work, organizing, as Corey stood looking over his shoulder like a supportive personal trainer, mostly at Yvonne, but some at Joya, too (and a little less at his own wife). “Let us pretend for a moment that the tyranny we smokers suffer is a just one, that our behavior merits it. The question begging to be asked then is who chooses to take issue with it? Who knows what forces are behind this assault, what certain powers in certain places want us all to be or do?”

“Sure, but there’s nothin’ new to say on it, hon. It’s all been said, even what you’re saying.”

“And that is bum philosophy man: The things that are known by all, but must be said simply because the mundane truths beg repeating to each new generation. And I’m the guy who is codifying it. A new Aristotle.”

Corey chimed in: “While there may be nothing new to say on this, we can find new ways of saying it. What we need to do as smokers is avoid pouting. Focus instead on that nervous ease to smoking and the way it fits the energy required by our times.

We don’t want to push too hard in our demand to spew cancer-causing smoke into others’ faces. There’s a larger trend of being attacked for doing just about anything that most other people don’t do. It’s a tyranny of the majority; a concept requiring revival.”

Randall declaimed the tenet: “We’re not giving it to people newer. We’re giving it to them cooler.”

Clarisse was stunned by this little discourse. She did not know Corey to be capable of such clarity and (!) attitude. Up to now she’d likened all this business with Randall to a buddy poker game and now the two of them had one another sold on the idea.

And two nuts can do a lot more damage than one.

Worse, her husband was actually growing. And personal growth is one of the more dangerous things matrimony must confront. Especially when one-half of that matrimony is stagnating.

And Clarisse was stagnating.

Yvonne, for her part, simply liked what she was hearing and seemed pleased to be relieved of the sensation of standing naked in front of some people she still hardly knew, but was fond of.

Naturally, her relief was without foundation, for Corey was seeing her naked. He took the tiniest step back, yielding an invisible podium to Randall, and looked away as if deep in thought, lest his wife be monitoring his attentions to Yvonne, which she was. These are slick city people, The Sidewalk Smokers. They are in the land of smart vying to be the smartest. Nothing is taken at face value and involuntary gestures count for more than anything a player is consciously staging. And speaking of staging, Randall closed, “It’s about battling the culture of prohibition. It says a person has a right to drink a beer in the park at the company softball game. It says that if we’d wanted Aunt Millie to run things, we would have elected her.”

Chapter Twenty-seven

To recap. We have one person trying to smoke himself into illness and notoriety whilst developing an updated and applicable charter for personal choice and communal rights. It was (the philosophy), in spite of his intentions, turning out to be more a policy or series of apolitical pronouncements, propositions, defensive parries.

But that was the practical aspect of the thing. Practical, Corey and Randall felt, meant profit and so they seized it with an old-time religious zeal (Randall).

Anyhow, it didn’t matter for, as Randall will eventually note, an author’s intentions mean next to nothing.

We have another person trying to avoid notoriety because it could pave the way to a lifetime jail sentence – or worse – but which seems to be bearing down on him with the speed of a steam-spewing locomotive. And let it be recorded that in the gap of time which unfolded between chapters Twenty-six and Twenty-seven, he went out and got his hair changed to an older, if equally unPresidential, looking thing. He even had gold highlights brushed in. It was very not Latino (guess who).

We have a third person with a sudden and smashing notoriety who could therefore take it or leave it. She had followed a familiar recipe of isolating what her talent was, willfully overcoming social convention and the opinions of others, and finally breaking out of the iron circle her life had become – that all our lives become (Yvonne).

There’s yet another guy in search of someone noteworthy from whose efforts he can skim profit and provide his wife with the life of notoriety and quiet family activity she paradoxically craves.

We have a Tabasco Western Girl who doesn’t need notoriety because she is notoriety incarnate. She behaves like a star because she is one and audience size passes not even for a trifle with her. Nothing she possesses is certified or defined by the self-appointed opinion-makers. Erudite in style, but vulgar in thought, she is prone to religion and the secret, unexpressed belief that the Gods are out there and that if you favor them, they favor you right back. Her seemingly effortless success stands as a terrible defeat for the little atheist in all of us (guess again).

All of the above is just in case anything occurring to this point had been lost on you.

Yes, you!

Chapter Twenty-eight

Yvonne called Randall on the phone, which otherwise never or almost (remember how Randall hates absolutes) never rang. Now, what with the small bumps of money and designer weed Corey was floating him, and beautiful naked magazine women calling, things had certainly taken a turn for the better.

What he did not know was that the naked magazine women aspect of his recent good fortune was an artifact of Corey’s manipulations. For it was Corey who’d advised Yvonne to check-in with Randall.

There were uncomfortable aspects to her contacting him, but she realized such would be the situation for many years until all the magazines disappeared or her body sagged, whichever came first. He suggested they get together. They did.

“I need your help,” she spoke to him after the initial trading of pleasantries, all of which were genuine on his side. It was a phrase Randall was unaccustomed to hearing given the fact help was something he was rarely in a position to give.

He’d chosen the bohemian path as an offering before the altar of revolution. But residency in bohemia left him at the mercy of the least appetizing people. And the pursuit of creative glory had turned out to be not very revolutionary at all.

Selling made-and-impractical things (however evocative) left him spending too much time on the balls of his heels to be any kind of pro-activist. “Art makes you a beggar,” would become classic bum philosophy as the refined, “Being an artist means being a beggar.” And it became one of Randall’s favorites because it reiterated, for those considering a life of fame and glory as creators, the mundane logic of a gas station attendant who could at least afford life’s essentials.

He was wrong, of course, for money was never the point. A better tenet, if not very bummy, might have been: You don’t live from your passion. You live for it (or her, or him and them). For artists not-to-the-manner-born have always been poor and that is what has set them apart from the rest of the worker bees and been the source of much antagonism between them.

The opposing lifestyles, he’d observed, meted out exactly what they promised: peril and pleasures for one, luxuries and tedium for the other.

Randall, like many of his time and place, thought he was owed two simple blessings: to work at his passion, and the grace of paying his modest bills. But it turned out to be asking quite a lot, a pass on the fray as it were, when the fray’s the thing.

He acted smarter than everybody else and then expected everybody else to pay for his progress, which, of course, wasn’t going to happen.

As such, Randall’s creed was that of a long, if not very hallowed tradition. None of which he was about to let Yvonne in on; all of which she knew anyway because, despite what men think, women are not stupider than they.

Yvonne, now infamous in her way, knew some things about Randall that his childhood friends, parents, and the idiots who had surrounded and stifled his progress for years did not. And this was that he would be fine. His discipline and hewing to a determined path, his desire to make sacrifices based upon his ideals had molded him into a certifiable type, congealed his character and varnished the personality. That is an achievement, even at low wages, and always has been.

He was not the hot and sexy model-type Yvonne had ruined her prospects of marriage and family waiting for, but he was certainly useful in ways that no man she knew could be.

What Yvonne wanted was to ask him about squeezing some money out of her naked picture situation. She had taken some pay, very little, at the time of the shoot and when the pictures never appeared, thought as little (as possible) about them. Now, given her embarrassment, she felt entitled to more and wanted to know if there wasn’t something – not legal, because she knew there wasn’t – ideal-like, something justice-driven she could beat her exploiters over the head with until she was offered further recompense.

“What about residuals?” Randall offered blandly after she’d presented her situation to him. Yvonne shrugged and said she’d already thought of that, but felt it was too simple. Of course, with bum philosophy increasingly marking his mind’s boundaries, Randall was becoming a big fan of simple. That was why his first offering was so lacking in originality. Why strain the brain for something with less of a success rate than the tried and true? Why swim against the current? He’d done that for years and mostly gotten tired. It was the first thing that came to mind. It could come from the mouth of some pizza man who was leagues ahead of Randall in the moneymaking department, a common man’s winner with an insight to the obvious.

“Don’t be so quick to dismiss,” he said more assertively. Yvonne inhaled a Virginia Slim and her eyes filled with either smoke or intense interest. Sometimes it’s hard to tell.

“That’s how the reproduction of image has been handled around here,” he continued. “You make a commercial, a film, a whatever and you get paid every time it turns up someplace. Why not demand a specified sum for each reproduction in print?”

“Every issue?”

“Blow the works!”

“They’d say she doesn’t have a contract that says anything like that. And they would say publishing doesn’t work that way.” Her voice was low and each word was uttered with the same intonation as that before it. He thought she was a tough broad, but avoided uttering either the thought or phraseology.

“With a little help, here please smoke one of these” – he tossed her an Export-A –
“with a little help, people might be convinced the current system exploits rather innocent girls who don’t always know what they’re getting into.”

Yvonne said that young or not, you do know what you’re getting into. That there is flattery involved and other lures surrounding. That if you take your clothes off in front of a camera under lights, lenses, filters and so forth, you know what you’re getting into.

“You know what you know,” he answered, “but you don’t know what you don’t know,” and he pulled out a notebook and recorded the gem to see if it sounded quite so good later on. “No offense man, but for many girls, this kind of exposure, um (he caught himself too late), is a one-time shot. A moment to be exploited, um (again), taken advantage of considering the short-lived flowering of one’s sexuality. The future must be considered.”

“No offense taken,” she answered, not very convincingly. He thought how there are many pitfalls to working with women who appear naked in magazines.

“What say you? We write up a press release, send it out to some ambitious lawyers and see who’s sleazy enough to jump on this thing because of the screen time it could mean for them.”

“Sounds like a bit of a circus,” Yvonne said. She then turned her wrist to view the cigarette she’d been smoking, made a distasteful face and put it out. “I like Vagina Slims more,” she said, brand loyal, proving how smokers are hardly the monolithic bunch they are portrayed to be. “It’s a circus man,” he agreed, “but if you want your satisfaction, center ring awaits. The only way to mount pressure is to produce a show and you’d better decide whether you’re going to ride that train into the station or not.”

It was when she then pointed out that he’d mixed metaphors that Yvonne won him over to her cause, although he was not quite aware of this.

“So what do you say man?” He sounded either impatient or testy.

There was a pause while she lit her pleasure, a pause that grew as she inhaled, and became almost permanent once she blew out and focused her eyes on him. “Don’t be intimidated by the fact I can dissect your language.”

He took a deep breath. She wasn’t at all stupid. (As we said) She was smarter than he was.

“What we do,” he said rolling perfectly with reality, “is call up and find out what the distribution is, in terms of numbers right now, maybe call some bigger newsstands to determine what the pick-up rate is-”

“Pick-up rate?”

“When they come to refill what’s been sold, or pick up what hasn’t. Then we call a press conference, file suit, feed the media who” – he was going to say “whore themselves” and thought better of it – “run with the story about how many magazines have been reordered from the same place afterward. We’ll demonstrate just how rich you are making them.”

“You’re assuming they’re going to sell a lot,” she correctly pointed out.

“I am.”

“I need a little time to think things over,” she said, “but I’m mostly on board.” Puff. “All the damage has been done anyway.” Puff. She smiled and kissed him. It was a peck on the cheek and it was hers for the taking. Puff. It affected him in a way that could hardly be altered by the fact she’d been in a girly magazine. She told Randall that she liked him and dropped a check on the table between them before exiting. Puff.

Without a doubt, The Sidewalk Smokers Club ladies section have demonstrated a nobility of character the guys are taking their sweet time in matching. And that is because boys are permitted to develop slowly into men while women are seemingly made in a moment.


Chapter Twenty-nine

Yvonne didn’t need too much time to think about it. She was riding high in her black sports utility truck vehicle across the urban terrain in complete security unless she hit a train track or something and the thing tumbled over on its side. It had become a truck-driving society and for those not up to affording the trend, road visibility had become a luxury out of reach. She slaked her nicotine thirst with another Slim – Virginia that is – and the jolt lubricated her thought processes and animated her in a way that left little room for doubt. She was going in. Head first.

As far as Yvonne could see, girls like her had a “right” to some of the spoils baring their produce produced. The cost of everyone you know being familiar with what was beneath was certainly high enough. And “rights” were always privy to a certain popular sympathy. “Rights” just sound right. In fact, rights-making was an industry. There were so many movements for the right to do this, that and the other thing that really, what you had was a veritable traffic jam of rights – a downright bottleneck where the rights one person was pushing could not help but run smack into the rights of another, in turn spawning the need for further rights. It was a Pandora’s Box really and probably nothing like the great guys who’d gotten the whole rights thing rolling had envisioned.

Not that anyone was thinking such things at this point in the story, but they are no less important to the proceedings.

Randall, for example, was running into this problem as he sought to weave a Smokers’ Rights Manifesto seamlessly, and without being obvious, into the larger bum philosophy. He’d found that the nonsmokers had beaten him to the punch by many years and that in asserting the rights of smokers he was infringing upon the well-entrenched protections of those who did not. He discovered further that raising hackles against nonsmokers was not quite the same as it was against the landed gentry or whatever you had when the rights game was in its infancy.

But enough. What people want to know about is the pretty, naked girl Yvonne.

Her nascent movement would necessarily run up against the rights (treasured ones) of publishers, who got into the rights business very early on. And they enjoyed the support of people whose opinions and labors were of much account largely because they drew a living from publishing itself. It was a particularly well-armed machine that could turn to the use of, well, the reproduction of images and words to make its case. So it was going to be something of a cockfight, but if any group was up to the challenge, naked pretty women were. And if they could not win it, they might shoot for the stars – represented in a core claim to the increased control of their own images – and at least land on the moon to scoop up scads of money, publicity and even credit that would accrue to them for a fight well-fought.

Oh hope. That lowest common denominator was kicking-in again. And a powerful kick it was because once Yvonne decided she had nothing to lose – and she didn’t – there was no doubt as to the course she would take.

Chapter Thirty

The city attorney had announced that the ongoing investigation of the old lady’s brutal murder would be deepened and widened. He’d begun slipping in the “brutal murder” bit around the time a lesbian city councilwoman began cutting into his poll margin with appealing and impolitic positions.

He dedicated a press conference to explaining how hospital records would be combed for the names and addresses of folks interned at county medical on that night of infamy and unconscionable horror.

Jordan, who read about this event, got to thinking about how the fact he wasn’t Latino wouldn’t help him a lick when interrogators saw the similarity between himself and the guy in the police composite. “What am I talking about, ‘the guy’? It’s me!” he said to himself, grimly, and decided that from here on he would decline the offers of high quality dope floating from Corey to Randall to himself. “I don’t care if it’s free, it’s driving me nuts,” and upon realizing that he was talking to himself, Jordan decided not to forego his medicine after all. It was too perilous a time for going it alone. There would be better times, times of repose, when the adjustment might be achieved.

So he took a drive over to Joya’s Joyas. Jordan did not think he would be entirely unwelcome. Unannounced though he was, no blood or urgent surgical procedures were involved with this visit. And besides, since Joya had revealed her sexuality to him, there would be less, check that, no sexual tension because she knew that he knew and what the heck was the point of getting all worked up over nothing?

(fat chance)

Jordan had underestimated himself. That people tended to like and give him the benefit of the doubt never became an article of his personal faith. He would not let it become so. But Joya did like him and coupled with the fact that there was no blood or urgent surgical procedure in the offing, she was pleased as pink pussy to see him. It was also through-and-through true that since she’d blown all the hot air out of his male ego the atmosphere around them was cooler, more relaxed.

Taking into account what had been endured together they were practically old friends. So when Jordan asked, “What are you doing?” it was not some lame entree to conversation, but a genuine query for which she could provide answers spiced with recent and interesting goings-on.

What she was doing, in fact, was planning a benefit at Joya’s Joyas on behalf of Yvonne and “that suit,” as she referred to the pending civil complaint Randall had already concocted.

He had provided Jordan with a sketching of what was planned, but J. did not realize how far along things were. An attorney laboring on behalf of the lesbian city councilmember running for mayor was willing to take the case on a pro bono basis.

“What’s that?” Yvonne had rasped between agile puffs of Virginia Slim (elsewhere).

“Free,” Randall bum-broke it down for her (elsewhere).

Anyway, Joya broke out her bidis and began to explain how the media gathering would be held jointly with the benefit; that they were to be one and the same thing. Not aware of the press pack’s freeloading habits and low pay, Joya imagined she might fleece some as they worked.

“It’s a class-action suit,” she explained to Jordan, “it could become huge.”

“Class-action?” Jordan punctuated her body driven discourse.

“Class-action,” she echoed him. “All the girls in all the magazines for the past five years are named, and that makes for an enormous group.” Enormous wasn’t the word that came immediately to Jordan’s mind, but he kept it to himself in exchange for the more intimate, “Plus some of them might lick your pussy!”

“That too!” she laughed and the whole damn thing with the magazine and Yvonne and Joya having a benefit and the class of magazine girls was just too exciting for J. to bear, but bore it he did. Joya was gushing patchouli or China Rain from her mouth and he wondered how in the hell she did that and did this girl have to be lesbian?

It was bad enough the way she soared physically, lithe of body and bony faced. Did she have to be an in-the-flesh-girl-on-girl-fantasy, too?

He wondered what in the heck had happened to his life. He did not have the benefit of this mapped-out narrative to isolate for him the way in which a harmless decision to go out and have a smoke back during the first pages had changed its direction.

So don’t say smoking is bad for you; at least not always.

Jordan’s mental euphoria was short-lived because Joya, not just out of courtesy either, asked him, “What’s goin’ on?” He came dropping to earth like a skydiver whose first and emergency chutes have failed to open. Literature has covered, often, exactly how heavy the burden of murder can press upon a lucid and less-than-criminal soul/mind. So that territory will not be broached here. Suffice it to say Jordan thought about the old lady, and related investigation, much more than the few aforementioned instances recorded thus far. Really, it was driving him nuts and there was that four-leaf clover essence to Joya, which just seemed to suggest it would be okay if he told her. She was a solid, paid-up lesbian member of society who acquitted her debts and kept close confidences. But she was also something of an outlaw and sexual iconoclast who, no matter how well-adjusted, surely had suffered during the course of her own development. She was bad and she was good, light and dark, sun and moon, bad girl–good girl, cigarettes and beautiful breath. In his next life he wanted to come back as her and so he said, “You know that thing about the old lady who was killed in the hospital that the city attorney is getting all hot and bothered about?”


“Well, I, uh, did it.”

She knew what he meant, but the gravity of the admission begged confirmation.

“Ya did what hon?”

“Do you have to make me say it?”

“No, maybe ya shouldn’t.” She blew out a gust of scented smoke and leaned back against the showcase window. “Jeeezus, hon. What in the – I mean for the luv of – wow!”

Again, it was a measure of just how well and quickly The Sidewalk Smokers Club had clicked that Jordan was able to decipher her verbal Morse code. It has been written (Emerson) that where the understanding is perfect between two parties, no discussion is required on either side. But that would wreak hell on the lives of novelists concerned with the inner life and so, for the purposes of good reading, the clubbers’ synchronicity will never completely their exclude discourse.

She looked up into his eyes and said, “You sure know how to keep a gal entertained dontcha!”

In this instance J. simply shrugged and Joya agreed, as she had before she knew it was he who had done it, that there was much in the act that made sense. “And that city attorney really is trying to make a big deal about the old bag ain’t he?”
Jordan responded that he would not put it exactly that way, but, “Yes, he is. And I’m in big trouble.”

“Not yet,” she reminded and then stood up, stared at him, swivelled her hips three times and said, “Is ‘at why ya cut your hair that way and put the little blond streaks in?”

Jordan nodded that it was.

“It’s really cute,” she verily erupted. Jordan was amazed to what length a woman’s interest in cosmetics will lead her afield.

“I mean, ya look the same, but it’s really cute.”

Chapter Thirty-one

“You know what you know, but you don’t know what you don’t know,” Randall read to Corey who was making love with one of his partner’s Export-As.

“Great!” Corey said.

Randall smiled. “I know. It’s the essence of bum philosophy, isn’t it?”

“I was talking about the cigarette. My God, it reminds me of when I sold my Nissan and bought a used BMW.”

“The effect of the cigarettes on your health will be as ruinous as the Beamer was to your finances,” Randall assured him.

“Don’t get surly,” Corey cut back. “I was just kidding. It is the essence of bum philosophy. It’s simple, which makes it bummy, but you have to go back and read it a few times, which makes it philosophy.”

After a few cigarettes and a review of what had been recorded to date, the boys decided that while “simple” could be perceived as bummy, there had to be a stronger element of bumness in their invention. The point was Corey’s and Randall was inclined to agree. He reached for his notebook that was open on the table and scrawled away, reciting in simultaneity, “Never question the dollars-and-cents judgments of business people,” before looking up and asking, “But what do we put?”

“I don’t know,” answered Corey, “a Ten Commandments of laziness, of bum-like behavior. Something to guide those who maybe have bum tendencies, but need the philosophy to guide their actions.”

“Or inactions.”

“Yeah, ten commandments of inaction.”

“Nine commandments, less biblical,” said Randall, a rabid secular.

“And,” Corey said, “less work.”

“Right. Good.” Randall’s one functioning lung (he was unaware the other had gone on strike) pulled deep on an Export-A. “Okay, we can still keep it simple. How about, ‘Love your bed as you would love yourself’.”

“Oh, that’s great!” said Corey and Randall invited him to try it.


Randall answered, yes, him. Corey asked for another Export-A and fired up. The inspiration came almost immediately. “If you see someone resting, stop to help them.” Randall nodded in mild approval. “It’s not a practical measure, but it says something important and, I think, is pretty funny.” He hit his cigarette again, mashed it to death and thought for a moment. “Actually, I like what you’ve done more than at first. Let’s keep it going in that vein. ‘If work is sacred, don’t touch it’.”

Corey yipped like a cowboy. “I’ve always been terrified of creativity. I never knew it could be so much fun!”

Randall replied, “Why do you think it pays so poorly man?”

That wiped the smile off Corey’s face.

“Let me try again,” his partner said as he enthused his own cigarette practically out of existence. “We are born tired and live to rest.” Randall wasn’t crazy about that one, but let it slide. They did, after all, need nine and he was, furthermore, a big fan of letting things lie for a while and returning later to see how they played. “How’s about, ‘When you feel the urge to work, sit for a moment and wait for it to pass’.”

To say Corey’s response was hysterical is to discredit the man’s temperament, so we won’t. Randall thought he was going overboard, but appreciated his friend’s introduction to the old-time creativity in a way dating a 20-year-old reawakened distant carnal joys for a man of 54. “‘If work is good for you, let the sick do it’.”

“Give me another smoke!” cheered Corey. They lit up anew and he said, “Okay, okay I’m ready with one. ‘Rest all day so that you can sleep well at night’.” Randall noticed a diminishing quality to Corey’s contribution, but it would do as a weaker link in the exquisite corpse they were cooking. “That’s not too bad,” he said, “but it will do as a weaker link in the exquisite corpse we’re concocting.”

The touch of sweetener failed to drown the bitter and, of course, Corey got a little hurt.

Randall’s correction of Corey represented a virtue-as-flaw, for there was little of the bullshitter in him. He had chosen, for reasons he could not recall, to remain honest to his feelings and express them nakedly. It’s a rotten strategy for living modern life, which requires upward mobility aided by unsavory schemes and unspoken plans, and that may be why he was sitting in a dreary, smoke-infested apartment grafting silly-isms onto his ONE GREAT IDEA.

“Lemme do another one,” Corey said, and Randall took immediate heart, because his partner was demonstrating tenacity, aggression, persistence and a host of other qualities he himself had neglected to groom in the pursuit of a meditative life. “‘Work as little as possible, and what you must get done, let someone else do’.”

Randall thought the string was certainly run out, for both of them. So rather than lie that it was good or slash his happy partner twice in a row, he did some simple math and said, “Number nine, drum-roll please! ‘Calm yourself, nobody ever died from resting’.”

They smiled and blew smoke in each other’s face.

There was no doubt about it, the guys were on the same page and working together in a way that often spells success for those engaged in joint ventures.

Chapter Thirty-two

Across town, however, that delectable convergence of business and the philosophy of futility was producing something quite different where Clarisse and Corey were concerned.

She was miserable. The stunning originality of Trixie Marie’s furniture show had paralyzed what remained of her creativity. Her husband, on the other hand, was excited and engaged with a project, to which her sole contribution was the occasional sharing of sidewalk smoking conversation. It was a place of secondary importance and Clarisse was not interested in a life of secondary importance. So she was hostile toward him, angry at his independence and frustrated he could (would?) not help her assume a greater role in things.

She acted as if The Sidewalk Smokers Club were a company with offices and well-defined career ladders for the proper recruits. Already disjointed as a couple, things had twisted them into opposite directions, resulting in greater tension around the house.

He’d become a smoker and lost weight. She’d surprised herself in pointing out to him the brief and passing nature of this early benefit to the habit.

From this heresy it was just a short walk over to the other side. She stopped smoking and, as is often the case, substituted nicotine with protein and carbohydrates. Corey had noticed how his baby wasn’t fittin’ into her jeans of late and his baby had noticed that hers had taken – like everyone else in town – to looking at Yvonne whenever she was around.

When Clarisse went out Corey always had Yvonne’s layout as recourse to loneliness.

It was, in its way, a powerful little advertisement, and for Corey, Yvonne’s lack of shame was the most exciting thing about her.

Clarisse absorbed, learned. She concluded dignity was not worth the indignity it produced; that dignity should no longer stand in the way of her designs. You get things done anyway you can. Shamelessly. As penance, she promised to be philanthropic in her own coming halcyon days.

But one other thing about the magazine: Clarisse, naturally, grew frustrated at always seeing it strewn about the house, not as a girly magazine, but as a piece of intellectual fascination for those who came and went. She was being assaulted, yes assaulted, by successful women and needed to get her bearings. So she threw it out, only to find that he’d replaced it shortly thereafter, without saying a word. And so go the silent wars that couples out of love can wage.

So, while Corey and Randall stimulated each other’s intellects, she decided to go and visit someone else who hated his job and seemed a little out of sorts lately – Jordan. That she found him cute was established in the genesis and now his underemployment could be added to the plus column as a condition common to each.

At Java World, Jordan was scowling his way through another brutal 6 a.m. to 1 p.m. shift. He had volunteered for this particular time frame because the tips were better and it permitted him to eat a breakfast upon entering and a lunch just before punching out; and two paid meals are two paid meals. He thought about passing this pearl onto Randall and Corey, but decided that any person who could not produce such a conclusion independently was unlikely to reach for a book on philosophy, bummy though it may be.

Clarisse was only trying to escape her life for a moment, but the coffee shop’s disarray dismayed and oppressed her. The usually stalwart Carlos had sunk into a funk resulting in something of slowdown; a strike being out of the question given the number of dependents he’d burdened himself with. The cash register had not been balancing out correctly the past few mornings and Carlos, being the only Mexican in the place to have transcended busboy status, made the most convenient suspect. He knew it, the boss knew it, Jordan knew it and, being the shop’s top employee, it really bugged Carlos for reasons requiring no explanation.

Jordan snapped out of his morning morass at the sight of Clarisse. That she was a little heavier had escaped no one, but to J.’s peepers, the rounding out (to this point) worked to her advantage. He turned to Carlos and asked if it were alright to take a little breather. Carlos could have cared less.

Clarisse suggested they have a smoke out on the sidewalk and Jordan reached into the back closet and pulled his Drum from a coat pocket.

“Don’ you ever smoke anytheeng else?” she asked as each settled into a plastic chair.


He lit her up. “So what’s going on?” which it was his to ask given the novelty of the French/Belgian girl’s visit.

“You know perfectly well what’s going on,” she fired back. He didn’t. He had an inkling that she had been unhappy and that now it had grown to a rushing torrent of rage, but was ignorant of the details or what it had to do with him. He groped.

“You’re unhappy, huh?”

“Wouldn’t you be?”

Again, he did not know, since her specific ailment remained a mystery. He narrowed down the possibilities, or lack thereof, that her life might present and fired away. “Bummed about your furniture career, huh?”

“Do you haf to says ‘huh?’?”

Jordan wondered if Clarisse hadn’t dropped by just to make his life as miserable as hers, but kept in mind how she and Corey were among the single-digit few who had come to visit him at county hospital. “Sorry,” he sheepishly replied.

“Of course eet’s not my designing. Well eet is, but eet’s more dan dat, too.”

“Corey?” And he stifled a rising “huh?”

“He ees wid dat Randall all de time cooking up dat stoopid bum philosophie.”

“I should think that would make you happy. After all, they may be on to something there. It’s an idea, they’re developing it, and if they find a market you’ll be able to design all the furniture you want after you leave your baby off with the nanny he’s paid for.”

And there it was.

Clarisse was both flattered and furious that a casual acquaintance could quantify her condition so succinctly, but she needed to get her issue out. “He will be paying for Yvonne’s baby, not mine.”

“C’mon, that’s crazy!” he asserted without a single argument to back it up.

“No, you c’mon. What do you mean ‘c’mon’? He likeded her de first time he saw her.”

“So did I. It doesn’t mean a thing. You’re married for chrissakes.”

“Dat doesn’t mean a thing,” she hissed.

Jordan was convinced that counseling an embittered Clarisse was the worst way to spend a precious coffee break at the coffee house. His Drum beat sour. He felt gray in the face. But he was fascinated by her admission, which he found particularly damning, and pretended not to be as impressed as he actually was. “Why would you say that?”

“He has dat magazine with the peectures of her.”

“So do I..”

“You are no married!” she bleated at something near the top of her lungs.

“You just said that doesn’t matter!” he whispered rather loudly.

Folks both inside and outside the restaurant directed glances their way. Clarisse lived up to her new pledge of shamelessness and shook off their attentions – the attentions of others. Jordan was mildly thankful for the advertisement of being in a heated exchange involving a curvaceous continental.

“You’ve got to get a hold of yourself,” he changed tracks. “You’re making way too much of all this,” but it was too late and she was crying softly and he found the soft femininity hard to resist because it had become so rare. He shimmied his chair across the concrete, put his arm around her and said, “Listen, I get off at one. Go shop around town for an hour and meet me back here and we’ll go somewhere and talk about things.”

He pulled out a handkerchief and Clarisse blew her nose into it and smiled. She nodded and promised that she would return, but when Jordan punched out, he had to roll and smoke two of his special Drumsticks at the same table outside before giving up and heading home for a much-deserved nap.

Chapter Thirty-three

Corey and Randall were working at a feverish pace. Their collaboration was reaching a mystical level, driven mostly by the fact Randall had truly warmed up to the project and Corey was able to stay out of his way as the torrent of ideas rushed on.

Their creation was growing by leaps and bounds.

“Value is what you don’t find lying loose out on the sidewalk,” Randall launched.

Corey liked it, although we would be hard-pressed to agree given our title and choice of subject matter. “I like it, but listen, what about your health?”

However burnished the gems he was producing, both remained convinced that without a marked decline in Randall’s health, there was no good news.

“I went to the doctor the other day. The good news is I most definitely have a rasp to my voice.”

“I noticed. But I thought it was from talking so much.”

Randall ignored this, and such was his comfort in the role of martyred, sanctified seer. Achieving this status meant rising above the petty feelings of lesser lights.

He let the place grow pregnant with pause. “What did he say?” Corey was forced to follow up.

“He said I should stop smoking.”

“Or?” Corey egged him on.

“That’s what I said, ‘or?’ and he said, ‘or your cough will get worse.’ ‘You mean I won’t die?’ I asked him then, and he said, ‘not for decades’.”

Corey threw his pen across the table in a gesture of mild fatigue mixed with frustration. “Dammit! You’ll never get sick enough to make this work.”

Randall then informed Corey of his pending date with Yvonne to talk about the progress of her campaign on behalf of the rights of naked girls and that it was time to trash the tryst.

“Can I come along?”

Randall realized then that, although married, Corey was hot for Yvonne and that he really couldn’t find any reason to blame him other than that Corey was married. That he had his own copy of her layout, and was pleased as punch about Yvonne’s company, alerted him to certain sentiments roiling his own insides. Eyes on the prize he shrugged them off. “For lesser lights,” he scolded himself.

“Of course you can,” Randall smiled nobly, without calculation, because it felt good to be kind and generous with his friend.

Before going they pulled out the magazine and discussed their favorite shots of Yvonne – and parts of Yvonne therein. Then they closed it up and left for a meeting with her.

“Where’s the meeting?” Corey asked as they stepped into Randall’s devastated German sport/compact, proximity being no reason to walk in the city they called home.

“At the Argentine place, but we’re not going in. We’re just going to smoke and chat out on the sidewalk.”


The Sidewalk Smokers Club was/were divorcing their homonymous practice from any prior exercise whatsoever; shrinking the ritual, stripping it buck-naked and to the bare essentials, making it Yvonne.

Smoking on the sidewalk was, in this instance, not to be an extension of some stuffy meal, but a light and airy thing unto itself – an acquired taste.

They arrived a few moments later. Yvonne was already there, in all her scrumptiousness, sharing a cigarette with Joya. Jordan, ever discreet, had not yet informed his fellow gorillas that the Coloradoan was cut from a different cloth than they thought (or hoped), but something in the fact she was present irked Corey.

The ladies were puffing furiously as the boys approached. Yvonne was enjoying one of Joya’s treats so that a vanilla dusty Milky Way encompassed the sidewalk leading up to them.

“Well, hey!” said Joya, “look at you two Foxy Browns.” Of course her little verbal invention worked at a number of levels, and pulled smiles from both men. Like two gunslingers of the Old West, Randall and Corey drew their cig-paks and tapped them with free hands in perfect synchronicity. Placing pleasure to their mouths, both leaned into Yvonne’s awaiting chrome lighter and achieved complete satisfaction.

Fshwwwwwwwwwww, they blew out, breathing the urban atmosphere back in, invisible, hardly cleaner than the cig itself.

“What brings you here?” Randall nodded in the cowgirl’s direction.

“I’m helpin’ put on the press conference at my place, as you know.”

Randall nodded that he knew.

“And, well, me and little Miss Muffin are gettin’ to know each other some.”

The boys needed to recover from the less than oblique allusion to Yvonne’s anatomy. “Sumthin’ happened today, which changes things a little, and Yvonne called to tell me about it, and I said I’d help, but maybe she should tell you, too.”

“You’re involved and so is your store,” Randall anticipated her.

“Hon, you’re so smart you actually save time.” Joya’s voice jumped a few rungs in the pitch scale.

Randall knew Joya’s engagement with The Club was an important development for now there was infrastructure, a place from which to launch quality presentations.

“So what happened?” Corey jumped in, not only to make himself an indispensable part of the proceedings, but also to expedite the revelation.

“My clients are dumping me,” Yvonne said with a grimace. Randall tilted his head in a way that urged a further detailing of the fact. “You know, the pictures,” she surrendered, “the pictures and, you know, most of them are corporations and they have to lie low, too, because, you know, they know they’re not perfect. They can find another caterer.”

“Man that is…great!” Randall said, forgetting how he naturally thought a few steps ahead of those around him, drawing faces of confused anger from his partners. “That ups the ante,” he heightened his own voice into Joya’s tone field, seeking to recover their good graces. “The suit is going to be worth more to our attorney. Our case is going to be stronger if we can prove that not only should you be entitled to money for posing, but that you continue to pay the price for posing long after they stopped paying you.”

He did not know what legal story might be concocted to give his little notion wings, but unto the lawyer what belongs to the lawyer. His message was directed at a different court. The one where public opinion sits on puffy sofas, eating bad food, an ever-attentive jury.

“Ya think hon?”

His shrug was less than convincing. There were no guarantees. “It could drum up enough bad publicity to force a pre-trial settlement.”

A pre-trial settlement was not the same as launching some powerful current of transforming thought, but it was something. And the plan was so much pleasure to the girls who went on to explain the preparations being made for the press conference, which sounded increasingly more like a party than an informational gathering for professional media. Joya announced that a lesbian city councilperson in the race for mayor was going to be joining and that should, she said, add some official heft and a progressive patina to the affair. “Ya need mucky-mucks,” she explained.

“Yes you do,” Randall stamped her before pulling out his notebook and pen.

Joya’s hands trembled as she smoked and spoke, softening her body just enough to mix something of the opposite natures in her. The enhancement a little weakness had on her appeal was obvious and besides (she thought), in the end, you want to be as many things as you can for as many people as possible. And that’s retail, from purses to politics.

The word she’d said before “city councilperson” (lesbian) struck an unused key in Corey and some vague idea began to travel upward from his crotch to the brain – always a discouraging progression where the matters of women and desire intersect.

Yvonne reported from her end (of the project). She was using contacts with photographers and party publicists and other caterers to track down more girls who had posed over the years. Her go-getterism and persistence-mania had netted the assistance of one bona fide star and one up-and-coming starlet; both willing to admit they’d posed nude in the past and been exploited accordingly. Their promise to attend, she told Randall, had to be included in his press release and he was loathe to disagree, and so did not.

Just at that moment, a red-and-white fire department car cruised slowly past the quartet as they emitted, jointly, enough smoke to compensate for the decades-long decline of heavy industry locally. A powerful light was focused on them briefly and Randall flicked a finger in return, disdainful of that particular agency’s power to mute his First Amendment privileges.

(The First Amendment, ratified effective December 15, 1791 reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof: or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.”)

The quartet fought off an urge for some wine in the restaurant, their smoke together having been pleasure enough and their plans discussed sufficiently.

They parted ways, Randall asking Joya for a few vanilla smokes to abet his quest for sickness. Corey looked over his shoulder for one last gander at Yvonne’s ass and saw Joya’s hand on it.

“The day,” he muttered, “started out with such promise.” Randall didn’t know why he said that, but he nodded, a little glum, before turning away, enlisting in the commercial drift that pulls each of us along to wherever it has been decided we are going.

Chapter Thirty-four

Jordan was upset about Clarisse’s having stiffed him, but soothed by his cigarette and the understanding that the lady was in something of a confusion.That he understood women to be confused most of the time did not deprive her of his empathy.

She was having trouble, walking about like a coyote that has chewed its leg free of a steel-clamp trap. And J. decided that so long as she wasn’t rabid he wasn’t averse to absorbing a little abuse on her behalf.

He sat at the table in his apartment and admired the neighbor’s garden for a second.

He plugged in some piano-driven jazz that for him was classical music just like any symphony produced by some 19th century German master. And besides, jazz was growing old.

Anyway with the music and some nicotine his spirits rose, just a tick or two above the depression into which recent events had driven him.

He followed the piano notes up and down the keyboard, absorbing the 18-wheel highway rumble of the bass notes and licking his lips with treble, shivering a bit at the suspension, at the open question mark of the endings. It was enough to make one smoke and he decided to fire up another, this time touched with a pinch of marijuana. It was a mixture he’d picked up on one of his many two-week jaunts to Europe (there had never been time for more). Tokin’ buddies of his past would have deemed it sacrilege and Jordan wouldn’t have given a hoot. He wouldn’t have wasted his time explaining the memories of gray cobblestones and late-night streets echoing with the joy of people sharing life’s easy pickings together. He refused to sound like an idiot, like some poor man’s Kipling. He knew from youthful attempts to convey the sense of his adventures that people (for the most part) don’t give a shit about where you’ve been and care even less about what you learned while you were there.

The phone rang. The cardboard filter he’d fashioned and the leafy mixture of green and rust brown slid from the joint he was patiently and peacefully fashioning. We know by when the phone rings for us why it does so and, because of these first two clues, also who’s calling. Without these clues, odd hybrids of fear and expectation will seize all but the hardiest, or stupidest among us. Jordan hadn’t entered any contests of late nor was he waiting for good news from anyone at all. He shuddered and slowly lifted the receiver.


“You Jordan?”

“Yes,” he admitted fatalistically.

“My name’s Dumburton. I’m a detective.”

During the ensuing series of questions and revelations Dumburton sounded just the way his name did. J. wondered what it was about cops that they seemed to naturally fit into the few, narrow stereotypes of overly serious, sunglass-wearing, donut-chomping, mustachioed fascists they were made out to be in films both friendly or unflattering in their portrayal. “It’s the uniform,” he mumbled to himself as Dumburton tried to squeeze a date for a meeting and a few questions.

“What’s that?” the detective verily growled.

“Um, nothing Dumb-burden.”

“BurTON. Officer. What about Thursday?”

Thursday was the day after the day upon which this was all transpiring and Jordan had affixed it in his mind with the loyalty befitting a founding member of The Sidewalk Smokers Club. It was the day of the press conference/benefit at Joya’s on behalf of Yvonne’s sexy naked girls and he had no intention of missing it.

He knew the average policeman’s aversion to reporters had much to do with the fact they were often up to no good and didn’t want to find their illicit deeds in print.

And so he mentioned it.

“Um, looks like I’m busy,” Jordan said and went on to explain how he had a press conference to attend.

“Press conference!” Dumburton hissed predictably and cut himself off from asking what kind of press conference, for there was no such thing as a good one. Free speech rights were a pain in the ass and public relations worse. Police work – the collaring of monsters like the Angel Without Mercy – more often than not required a skirting of the law and such transgressions were (or had been at one time) to a journalist what blood is to a Balkans mercenary. So the detective passed and cornered Jordan into meeting him a day after the press conference because what a cop wants, a cop gets, at least until the lawyers arrive.

“Can I ask what this is about?” Jordan asked politely enough.

“You heard a tha Angel Without Mercy case?”

“No,” Jordan lied, seeking to grab every advantage for himself in throwing this bloodhound off his scent. It was the first of many such ruses to come.

“You been livin’ on the moon?” Dumburton curtly queried.

“Yeah,” said Jordan, thereby eliminating whatever edge had been gained by his denial, effectively placing himself in the category of “uncooperative suspect,” (read: punk) according to the detective’s standards.

“You stayed at county hospital on such and such dates?” Dumburton persisted.

“Maybe, maybe not,” Jordan fenced.

“Friday, 2 p.m. at the station house, mister. You jes’ be there.”

Jordan just about shit his pants. He decided to pass on his tobacco/weed confection.

He was not given to long bouts of paranoia immediately following his indulgences, just short ones that his strength of character and sense of security beat back in avoidance of the darker considerations. But he was not ready for even a short spell following the unannounced grilling he’d just undergone. His adrenal glands were, once again, pumping at a furious pace and Jordan didn’t need to be any faster or higher or anything other than what he was in that moment.

The phone rang again. Jordan was calm. Even with the luck he’d been having, two treacherous phone calls seemed unlikely. After all, he’d only murdered once.

It was Corey who, after a few tepid attempts at casual conversation, clumsily, but mercifully arrived at a reason for the inconvenience. “How much do you know about that girl Joya?”

“Why do you ask?” Jordan responded wearily, up to his eyeballs with interrogatories for the evening.

“You seem to hang out with her more than the rest of us.” By “us” he meant the ever-tightening class of sidewalk smokers.

“Yeah, so?”

“She a dyke?”

“Yeah, why?”

“I thought so. They just looked odd together, the two of ‘em and then Joya said something about a lesbian city councilwoman showing up and…”

“Cleared up for ya, huh?”

“About Joya, yeah. I was pretty sure, but what about Yvonne?”

Having his mind occupied with a lot of weighty matters, Jordan was slow to notice how both halves of the same troubled couple had been in contact with him the same day and when he did, it was enough for some conclusions of his own.

“You got the hots for Yvonne?”

“I didn’t say that. Why does everybody say that?”

“Who’s everybody?”

“Never mind. Gotta go,” and with that, Corey hung up.

On second thought, Jordan returned to the construction of his half-tobacco, half-marijuana joint, which he coupled with a repeat of the musky backstreets jazz he’d begun what had started out as such a pleasant evening with, and got lilted like the open question mark in a compositional ending.

Chapter Thirty-five

It was the day of the benefit/press cattle call. Randall’s press release had been sent by mail, faxed, and transmitted through mysterious channels across a vast infrastructure of invisibility to various media outlets. He was helped by Jordan who had been fired from or walked out of a goodly portion of them. Some twenty reporters had confirmed attendance; no mean trick when that industry’s consolidation is factored into the equation. Of course, the element of titillation is what led their editors to forswear the habitual aversion to topics upsetting to the established order.

Joya had pressed her shop girl Sadina into service for the store’s proper preparation. Clarisse who, in between the time she stood Jordan up and called Joya to help, had added to her friends’ effort a smashingly odd looking table behind which the press conference was to be held. Joya loved it. “Hon, that has to be the biggest and coolest thing since the great glaciers!” And she wasn’t just piling it on. The table was truly franzy and, as is the case with all good artistry, seemed to whisper its purveyor’s very name as one stared at it. “Clarisse,” said Sadina in a tone that made the object of her address shift from one foot to the other and back again, “it really is something.” What with Corey and Clarisse mostly on the outs and their relationship decaying daily, they were not given to confidences of late, and yet without his input she had a good idea that Sadina was a girl who liked girls. She looked over at Joya who was smiling at her, too, and made the connection. It didn’t change her attitude toward either of them a wit and she shrugged under the rain of compliments they were wetting her with. “You can haf it,” she told Joya in a state happier than the normal resignation with which she made such concessions. “At least someone weell gets to see it.”

“Sugar plum,” said Joya, “people are gonna see it and we’re gonna find you some clients who make big bangs.” Clarisse already felt better about enlisting in what she deemed an elaborate charade. The recent buffeting she’d undergone had inclined her toward postures of retreat and anger, but that was not how the great heroines in the books she admired acted. And now her mimicking the nobility of made-up people living in a very different world might well pay in spades. She was not going down or giving up or anything. She was going to persevere and this minor first step demonstrated to Clarisse just how important it is to keep fighting the good fight.

She had a little epiphany as she watched her friends prepare to make battle in a clash not winnable. “To keep fighting the good fight is the sole purpose of the fight,” (with accent) was the lesson and she promised herself to pass it onto Corey and his partner.

Yvonne came sashaying in shortly thereafter. Her outfit was a lean fitting blue business suit without a hint of exposed skin, for she had learned that the consecrated sex symbol no longer needs to flaunt her wares. As a caterer without any work, she took it upon herself to deal with the “benefit” aspect of the affair.

Seconds after her entry, two attractive college girls in French maid-style outfits walked in with some trays of food. Joya frowned. “Oh my, there go my sales,” and she permitted the girls, for the good of the cause, to begin piling finger sandwiches and pink/orange melon balls wrapped in prosciutto – among other culinary niceties – onto one of her glass display cases. That is, of course, once Sadina had put some appropriate looking material down over the top to prevent scratches.

But, back to Yvonne.

She looked fantastic, which is something that should never be taken for granted with anyone, for beauty is feckless toward its possessor. She was glittery with the attention about to be received and there was a moment of silence as the three ladies-in-waiting drooled up and down her before moving in for a rapacious session of hugging. Joya got something that looked like a kiss on the lips and Clarisse turned to see Sadina watching her response to it. Clarisse’s response was a smile and that was replicated by one from the Indian girl who then turned and shot a smile at one of the French maids.

“Oh, look at that table!” Yvonne declared and another round of attendant ego stroking on Clarisse’s behalf was quickly commenced and concluded. Then the girls kind of stood around wondering what to do, as it was the boys who controlled the actual agenda. “What’s next?” Joya said as she pulled out a broom and handed it to Sadina. “Well,” Yvonne answered, “Randall and Corey are going to bring all the cables for the press lighting. My girls have the food under control. The actresses should be here later than anyone else and, of course, the lawyer’s gonna tell us what we can and can’t say.”

“What’s the lawyer’s name, hon?” Joya asked as she flitted, devising the most ingenious modes of display for her jewelry, which (she felt) was as much on show as Yvonne, the actresses, bum philosophy or Clarisse’s table.

“I think his name is DeConcini,” said Yvonne.

“Oh hon, you didn’t get a Jew?”

Then Jordan walked in. He had been preoccupied. Nobody was quite sure with what, so that The Sidewalk Smokers Club (except for Randall) had almost forgotten about him in the excitement. He was dressed sensibly, but semi-formally, lest those bursting into their little world take The Sidewalk Smokers Club for some kind of shabby, two-bit outfit. It had not escaped him either, even with an interrogation planned in the Angel Without Mercy case, that this was something of a coming out for each particular member of the spontaneous formation, that never had any of them been quite so close to garnering this kind of attention before.

Oh hope (attention, attention, attention!).

“Jordan!” Joya effused with her normal high-octane enthusiasm, “come in shoogy,” and just like that he felt right at home. Yvonne winked at him, all subtlety now. He caught a glimpse of Sadina and worked his way up and down the little body to make her feel uncomfortable, for sport. He gobbled at a prosciutto-melon ball as Clarisse approached and gave him the biggest hug she ever had.

“Your new hair is cute.”

Jordan turned around surprised to discover the remark was Yvonne’s, but it was a pleasant imbalance that affected him and, rather than work to set things right, he reached for a cucumber and pesto-paste sandwich w/ garlic alioli and decided to walk around and savor the tipsy hormonal state into which the ladies had stirred him.

The reason for this blow-by-blow of pitter-patter is to demonstrate just how hard it was becoming to tell whether someone liked boys, girls, or both; just how much things had broken down and increased the sense of options, and confusion confronted by all.

Randall came in next, an important looking folio in his hands, horn-rimmed glasses and oversized tweed blazer lending the event a much-needed dose of dressed-down seriousness. It was entertainment (as all spectacle is), but it wasn’t. Corey was dressed similarly and carrying a wooden crate with thick cables and extensions and multi-socketed terminals to mount the media bordello required to make this thing work. It was a sartorial adjustment, a conscious decision the partners had made on their own, right down to the fake lens horn-rimmed glasses he also sported. Clarisse hardly recognized him and was knocked further off rail by the fact she found him more attractive than she had in a while.

“Okay, okay listen up man!” Yvonne’s media chief bellowed, “This is how it’s going to unfold.” And then Corey began going through the press conference script whilst simultaneously assisting Randall in the electrical complications that come with the medium-scale electronic happening.

The lawyer, DeConcini, arrived shortly thereafter. He was a handsome, blonde-haired and blue-eyed Italian with thick luscious hair and, why not, horn-rimmed glasses. DeConcini looked like a fresh baseball boy on a summer field. His eyes burned with innocent ambition and held no reasons for complaint or unhappiness. His presence helped complete that balance of sexy frivolity (Joya, Sadina, Clarisse, Yvonne) with somber thought-laden post-academia (Randall, DeConcini, Corey) and just a dash of the everyman from Jordan’s updated, yet classical/contemporary dudewear.

He chatted with Randall and Corey, stiff, professional, without any fraternal sense of the task. Randall pointed outside at a thickening crowd drawn by what passed for hoopla, and DeConcini turned and grabbed Joya by the arm and pulled her aside.

Although they had never met, their mutual grasp of the plan secreted an air of things being well prepared. This pumped them up as it did each member of the club so that a supreme confidence began to pervade the store and environs.

Joya was trying to discretely cram some rings and things from the food-covered showcase to another display still available when Jordan approached and whispered in her ear: “The cops are on to me.”

She straightened up, shaking her silky strands in one sweeping motion over a single shoulder. “No!” she said conspiratorially.

“Yeah!” he matched her excited tone (without the excitement), “some detective named Dumburden is going to question me tomorrow.” She thought on it, perused the room and said, “Let’s get through this and we’ll come up with something.” He couldn’t imagine what she might come up with, but grew encouraged until she added, “if we can,” before bouncing off, cowboy boots clip-clopping over the sound of everything else going on in the busy hive her store had become.

Joya saw Clarisse standing by herself watching Jordan as he spoke with her. She turned around, retraced her steps, and told J. to try and make himself useful and he went out to the sidewalk in an effort to stay clear of the rising commotion. The Angel Without Mercy properly dispatched, Joya approached Clarisse and said, “Hon, why don’t you help your husband with all that wiring he’s tied up in?”

He looked so good that Clarisse’s response to the effect that, “he can manage by himself,” didn’t come out quite so aggressively as she had intended. Espying Jordan out on the sidewalk, she decided to join him. Leaving, she noticed how Corey failed to notice; his eyes focused all-too-obviously upon Yvonne and her ever-increasing mystique unattainable. Outside, Clarisse tapped Jordan on the shoulder and he reacted a little more violently than normal. “Yes she’s lesbian!”

“Who?” Clarisse asked, although she was pretty sure he was talking about Joya given her own reconnaissance. He offered her a ready-rolled Drumstick, but she declined. “Luckys or nuthin’ huh?” he said and she informed him that cigarettes were no longer a part of her repertoire. “You quit that easily?” Jordan followed up and Clarisse responded that, yes, she had. Then she asked him what was up after the press conference – if he had any plans. Jordan had already interpreted Corey’s interest in Joya and/or Yvonne as proof positive something irremediable had occurred between the couple and saw no harm in providing her with a little company. Besides, he needed some himself and told her this before adding, “Just don’t stand me up this time.”

She skirted the issue of her rudeness and informality by pointing out that, “de table in dare ees mine.”

“It’s beautiful,” he said, and meant it, the positive nature of Joya’s verbal generosities having infected him (and all of them) completely.

Inside, the Coloradan’s attempt to keep Corey occupied went belly-up and now he’d joined Yvonne for some chitty-chat focusing mostly upon her solid appearance and the sudden rush of optimism they were experiencing. The first television crew stormed in with an attractive, pushy blonde reporter in a faux Chanel skirt-suit leading the way. She scanned the room knowing what she wanted and honed-in on Yvonne. “That’s the girl,” she said without any attempt to mute her voice or intentions.

“The girl,” you see.

This was followed by an equally insufferable focusing of blinding camera light on a rather surprised Yvonne, followed by the intrusion of a microphone into her face space. She could come to grips with the fact her father had seen the magazine layout, that guys she was working with knew the contours of her physiognomy to the inch, that lesbians she was carrying a mild torch for had pored over the gems in her jewelbox. But she could not bare, um, bear the idea that perfect strangers whom rubbed her the wrong way at first sight had done the same.

Corey to the rescue. He stepped in front of his charge, blocking the camera’s view (its lifeline) entirely. “You can ask your questions during the press conference.

That’s what it’s for.” He pushed the camera lens down with a protective hand and then shoved the reporter out of the way with a brusqueness only a television journalist could not be offended by. “Randall will help you set up,” and just like that, his partner stepped into the breach and began positioning reporter and crew in a place marked by masking tape with their station affiliation scribbled in ink marker. Joya watched it all unfold and traipsed up to Randall. “Hey, you got this all wired don’t ya?” Randall pointed at the cables snaking across her shop floor and she got the little joke. “I’m impressed,” she said (and so was he).

It was clear that Randall and Corey were two bright lads who’d been waiting too long for their break, blokes put on the shelf to acquire the right seasoning. Their moment had come when they least expected, over the most unlikely of causes, and they were out ahead of the pack because they’d left the starting gate years ago.

Things began to move quickly. Another crew and yet another showed brandishing the same bombastic fanfare associated with the electronic media. Each reporter, the next more handsome than the last, made the attempt at mugging Yvonne and Corey repelled every unseemly advance, deflecting their energy toward Randall who enmeshed them in a vernacular so superior that it consistently brought the jackals to heel.

Three more crews showed and then individual reporter celebrities from the serious papers looking for a quirky tale speckled with local color. There was an attractive looking feminist Latina-styled gal from the Spanish-speaking daily and a tall, artsy gal with wire-rimmed glasses and attitude from the local edgy liberal/left bulletin.

Also a team from a Korean television channel wandered in, presumably drawn from another assignment by the assembly of rakes inside and out.

With those who spoke his language Randall employed years of wide reading and travel in dispensing tidbits that entertained with wit and aplomb, or humiliated with subtle yet vicious turns of phrase, depending on whether the reporter came armed or in peace. Corey looked over his shoulder during an attempt to shield Yvonne from one of the raptors The Club had so earnestly sought out, and smiled at his partner.

Randall hoped he wasn’t doing things too well. Shepherd to the mass media was not a job he’d meant to groom himself for. He was a genius and did not want the fact to be lost on anyone present.

One of the major actresses that had signed onto the effort arrived. She was an A-list performer, currently appearing in a racy, top-rated show, although she’d also had success on the big screen. With fame secure and her own offending pictures effectively buried by well-paid minions, joining this crusade was a perfect chance to embrace something mildly scandalous. Something that could layer her reputation with street credibility and proof there was a mind in there, a mind supple enough to grapple with matters of ethics and economics. As the star of her own show she was seen perpetually smoking, although in real life she was never much given to the behavior. Out in the public now, exercising the grand sweeping entrances so important to her craft, the cameras firing away at AK-47 pace, she pulled out a cigarette (brand name undetermined) and began to puff for the benefit of her legions. Joya might have preferred that nobody smoke inside so as to avoid the smell permeating the furnishings, area rugs and garments that made up the store’s “story” as Clarisse referred to decor. But she was way too smart a businesswoman and underground socialite to ever reproach so international a luminary as the one standing in Joya’s Joyas dispersing illicit driftings into the air. Instead she addressed the actress, introduced herself, and asked for a smoke.

Corey, Jordan and Randall saw, but did not hear, and thought to themselves, “Oh no!”

But it was not what they thought. They had underestimated Joya’s natural ken for racing up and down rungs of the social ladder. As luck would have it the actress was nice. Smiles crackled between them. The star was, in fact, truly encouraged by Yvonne’s pluckiness in defending the rights of pretty young girls so long abused.

The less-than-starlets, let’s call them comets – those girls who’d posed in the magazines and made up the larger class of plaintiffs – were filling up the place fast. And with the Gypsies comes the dance. Some were classy and elegant and clearly engaged in pursuits that no longer required so obvious an exploitation of their bodies. Others were not quite so classy, and a little bit roughed-up, as if they were exploiting their sexuality as a last gasp and to little positive effect. And although they did not, all of them, add to the cutting edge sense of fashion and thought The Sidewalk Smokers were hoping to evince, these troubled women were exactly the ones the lawsuit, in its earnestness, had been drafted to protect. And it was they whom the attorney DeConcini seemed to spend the most time addressing, questioning and prodding to confession.

Jordan, still observing (still smoking), thought the lawyer a wonderful addiction, um addition, to the effort and had, what with all the fine people milling about, forgotten his personal nightmare.

Still other girls were stars from the adult film industry and the overall effect of their presence was to round out the selection so that it provided a very nice profile of urban American womanhood which, in turn, had reporters reaching for their cellular phones in search of back-up.

The second actress of note entered, the starlet, hoping to play the old, late-arrival card, but things were so electric, the crowd gathered so hepped-up on itself, that she almost went unnoticed. Jordan pointed her out to Clarisse who, characteristic of her mind state at this point, observed, “She doesn’t looks so hot,” and then, “she’s very skinny.”

Jordan would have begged to differ with the first part of this commentary, but the second was hard to contest. “You know,” he said in return, “sometimes it’s just a matter of them looking very good on camera, but not in real life.”

“Hmmph,” Clarisse answered, “and sumtimes eet’s just a matter of one pretty girl being luckier dan all de rest.” The positive strength of things was pulling Jordan out of Clarisse’s rather depressing orbit. He asked her to excuse him for a second and rushed back inside toward a cool, but very occupied Randall to whisper in his ear: “Sometimes it’s just a matter of one pretty girl being luckier than all the other pretty girls,” and Randall turned to him in mid-conversation.

“Would you repeat that?”

J. obliged. Randall nodded and returned to sparring with a reporter trying to bully his way into a front row spot that wasn’t really there. This left him ill-positioned to handle the lesbian city councilwoman’s sudden arrival. And sauntering in she came with an entourage of women young, old and betwixt. The lead vixen had a remote mini-microphone curved sexily around her neck, ending at the mouth, into which she whispered terribly important stratagems for moving her liege.

The councilwoman (councilperson) – was heavy-set, sporting a felt boater-style hat with a (fake) duck feather in its band, not attractive in any prescribed or popular sense. She fit the bill for a lesbian as Jordan and Corey and Randall understood it before Joya cloppity-clopped into their lives in those cowboy boots. Her level of achievement placed the woman in an age group somewhat older than that of Joya and Sadina, so nobody could be sure of what she’d looked like in the past. All of which was very important to those involved in and following the story.

Joya saw Jordan staring oddly at the overweight politician as all the attention in the room turned from the flowering girlhood present to this rather masculine specimen of the feminine and whispered things in his ear to set the record straight. “She’s a legend, hon. If you’re one of life’s throwaways, not pretty, middle-aged and fat, one-eyed, one-legged, a stray cat, battered broad, or queer, she’s a friend and that’s why she is where she is.”

Fair enough, Jordan thought.

In that special way the outrageous among us like to upend the demure, the savvy lesbian pol ditched the girl with remote wire and stratagems and waded toward the A-list actress and a wonderful photo-op. Randall was still trapped behind a bulky cameraman and groping after her. He stopped and held his breath before discerning exactly where the arch of her trajectory would land the influential one and came up with yet another spontaneous bum maxim: “Even at your own party you can’t control everything.”

The actress was melting someone with a smile and didn’t have much time to react as this coarse woman, whom she thankfully recognized as some minor star in the media constellation, bore down upon her with the force of a cannonball unleashed by friendly fire. She gathered herself up and absorbed a two-second-long kiss on the lips that was captured by all those who’d been enlisted to transmit whatever it was that took place. Randall exhaled with relief. The actress had played her part. “Sometimes it’s better not to control everything at your own party,” he amended his work-in-progress.

Soon the store was packed. The lady reporters, regardless of political ilk or status on the journalistic ladder, were unanimously interested in Joya’s jewelry and in Joya, too. The Sidewalk Smokers, a rare collective effort in a country obsessed with the individual mystique, was humming along as a well-oiled machine during what amounted to a maiden launch.

And it was just this moment when officers Thorpe and Diaz were strolling by, one of whom was in that part of town to break the old wallet over some bauble his wife had pointed out to him. As firemen it was only natural the sardine can Joya’s Joyas had become would catch their trained eyes so that as they passed the store, the sight of what they had just seen took a moment to sink in, and they went back for a second gander. Of course, it was not fire safety that had initially pricked their curiosity so much as something that had made their pricks curious. This was the overabundance of attractive women on hand and the vaguely familiar silhouette of someone smoking a cigarette whom they seemed to recognize from somewhere.

There were a number faces that struck chords of familiarity, but the actress of the hot television series with her oft-photographed, oft-disseminated image could not escape their keen inspectors’ instincts. Diaz (he was the one shopping for his wife) immediately thought how nice it would be to surprise her (his wife) with an autograph of the star along with the gift. In that way he would not be reduced to filling out an espousal purchase order and could enjoy the spoils of having proven himself to be thoughtful in the truest sense.

Then Thorpe said, “She’s smoking. We need to stop it.”

“But she’s a famous actress,’ Diaz sagely observed, “what do you want to do, get your picture all over television and the newspapers as the guy who told her to put it out?”

For men like Thorpe and Diaz, men of and for the corps, lessons are learned slowly but completely, and Diaz had learned to stay away from large groups of smoking, disobedient people sprinkled with stardust. “You have to pick your battles,” he added.

“Yes,” said Thorpe, sounding wiser still.

Diaz got the drift, though not sure he agreed entirely with his partner’s assuredness. Celebrities were touchy. It would not be their first run-in with a silver deity and things had gone both ways in the past. Sometimes their superiors lauded the inspectors for an even-handed application of the law. Other times their common sense had been questioned given that they’d put the department in a ridiculous light with an overzealous to-the-letter enforcement approach. The duo would usually point out the ambiguities in the law they were hired to apply; criticizing its drafting as unworkable, if not exactly in those words. It went like this (Diaz): “Lots of people are against public smoking. Not all of them think writing expensive tickets is the best way to stop it.” And he should have known, because he had to write those tickets.

Anyhow, it didn’t matter at present. Other were smoking, too, and trained to think on their feet, and given to favoring the law and their charge to enforce it in tricky situations with franzy people, the officers looked into one another’s eyes and saw the mutual hunger to enter the store and set things right. “Besides,” Thorpe read his partner’s mind, “they could all die tragically.”

Done. For nothing trumps public safety and/or national security. They sauntered in and the absence of stylisms, their standard-issue haircuts and unease at the tuggings and teasings of so many attractive women marked the two men as members of a distinct and probably unfriendly clan. People turned toward them in anticipation of some unpleasant business or other and that’s what they witnessed as the officers pulled out their badges, shoved them in the actress’s face and advised her she needed to put out her cigarette.

The star, of course, seemed pretty sure they couldn’t pull it off without making her just a little more famous and besides, there was a city councilwoman standing next to her. But the big woman remained mum on the matter, retreated into the background even; for while cavorting with sexy and rebellious artists might sharpen the public image (in some quarters) openly flouting laws she had supported was an altogether different matter. Joya abetted her escape by paving a wide way toward Yvonne’s catered finger foods.

The actress, meanwhile, despite the aforementioned fact that she did not smoke of her own free will, but rather in pro of her image, informed them of a disinclination to heed their order. Diaz and Thorpe may not have been up to speed on the mores and folkways of this particular flirt factory, but they were certainly no strangers to the obstinacy of celebrities. The investigators knew they enjoyed the state’s absolute monopoly on force somewhere (way) behind them and were glad of it. The press of personalities in the store stymied them and the men were convinced a stern application of the law that left no room for discourse, no give for some take, was in order.

“Who’s the proprietor?” Thorpe asked in an authoritative voice he practiced each morning on his unruly children. Reporters began to thrust microphones in the officers’ faces. Lights were trained upon the actress coolly puffing away, blowing second-hand smoke at her oppressors.

“That would be me, hon!” Joya worked her way through the parting crowd. The officers smiled immediately upon meeting eyes with hers. She was a number of good things, but damned if she didn’t come across as nice, too. “What is it I can do for you guys?”

Diaz waived his badge yet again.

“You’re cops?” she asked.

“No ma’am. FD. Fire Department. You can’t have people smoking in here. It’s a violation of the Smoke-Free Workplace Act.”

“Oh, I see. I’m so sorry. I thought that since it was kind of a party and I don’t have anybody, you know, to pay and well…” she lost her train of thought as the necessary prose grew thicker.

“It’s a press conference,” Diaz countered. “Press are working, for example. It’s a workplace. Just not the one you normally run.”

In the background, Randall and Corey writhed at this departure from the script and at their inability to do anything about it.

“Well then,” Joya said turning full circle in a sweeping move to address the entire pack. “Do you all object to putting out your cigarettes so that we can go ahead and have this press conference?” There was mild applause as folks dropped their butts to the floor and stamped them out, drawing a grimace from the proprietress who’d only just dispatched with Jordan’s bloodstains. She turned back to the investigators with that smile. “Is ‘at okay hons?”

“No ma’am,” Diaz pointed with his chin in the A-lister’s direction. “The young lady’s going to have to follow suit.” Both men smiled. They couldn’t help themselves, but it was clear that they were firm on the point and the actress smiled back and said, “Not a chance. Write me a ticket.”

Thorpe knew when someone was upping the ante on him and so he saw the actress and raised her one. “I’ll have to shut down the venue and have the proprietor arrested,” which wasn’t at all true or even possible. Joya suspected this, but when she scanned the proceedings looking for DeConcini, she located him outside talking up one of the comets. Citycouncilwoman, for her part, shrunk behind some cameras wanting no part of the mushrooming mess. Joya was in a bind. It was now hers to insist that the celebrity do something she did not want to, a task not unlike standing before a medieval queen of absolute dominion and calling her a whore.

And besides, it would have been ungrateful.

Randall came to the rescue. “Okay, let’s do it outside!”

Joya grabbed the line he was throwing her. “Great! Let’s do it outside. One big Sidewalk Smokers Club!” A tiny cheer rose up from the actual membership and through the force of their will and energy, Joya and Randall, with some authoritative prodding from the councilmember, managed to move the mass slowly out the door. “C’mon! A free cigarette for everybody,” Joya trilled as she gestured Sadina towards the backroom of her shop where, presumably, a carton of Dãrshãns was kept in case of an emergency not exactly like this, but an emergency just the same.

There was some grumbling from the press corps about the logistics of powering lighting and the like, but a general momentum toward the sidewalk had won the moment. Clarisse grimaced at the loss of protagonism her table was to suffer with the move, but folks who dream of being great learn to swallow such setbacks both with equanimity and frequency.

Outside people began to light up because when you talk a lot about something, you help bring it into existence. Some of the local media’s most attractive, up-and-coming hood ornaments allowed themselves to be photographed in the compromising activity.


A rare turn of ability these Sidewalk Smokers possessed; making or generating fun.

Cameramen and still-photographers reacted like water molecules over fire as things moseyed along to exactly where, nobody knew. The ending, unlike the endless parade of staged and stale events they were condemned to document, was completely in doubt and boy was this exciting!

Clarisse quickly overcame her initial disappointment and was now pushing Jordan – who as an off-duty barista had no real inclination to move furniture – for help in getting her table onto the sidewalk. “C’mon, c’mon,” she urged, “you do dees at de coffee chop don’t you?” These were not the best words for prodding him to action, but it seemed that the press conference’s soaring moment might suddenly falter without some focal point of attention for reporters and their helpers to train upon.

The thing (the table) weighed a ton and because it had a Plaster of Paris-kind of lumpy finish on top (practicality not being Clarisse’s strong suit) it was exceedingly difficult to grab at the edges. Struggling in fits and starts Clarisse and Jordan asked Randall to help as he alternated between outdoors and in, trying to get the whole thing going in the necessary direction. He huffed and twisted the features behind his glasses, but was of little help until he turned to Diaz and Thorpe and enlisted them in the effort. They assented. It was part of the job – written into the Smoke-Free Workplace Act in fact – to facilitate the configuration of safe surroundings and, what with the whole thing having been moved at their instigation, the two officers intended it as a tendered olive branch. The cameras whirred. The investigators sweated. As the quintet shimmied through the door, led by the bulky former firemen, the crowd cheered them.

“Bill,” the first reporteress squealed into her microphone while facing her hairy cameraman’s lens, “We’re here in front of Joya’s Joyas on a familiar and trendy stretch of commercial real estate where a most curious event is taking shape…”
And taking shape it was as Randall pushed both actresses, Yvonne, DeConcini, councilwoman, and one of the cuter magazine victims behind the most curious table.

The picture window filled with Joya’s jewels served as a nice backdrop – at least from the proprietress’s point of view.

“Listen up!” Randall managed to ratchet his voice above the crowd’s shambling volume, “Listen up man!” The din dulled a bit as everyone turned toward the table and the event suddenly took on the form of a traditional press conference. “We’re here,” and he had to say it again a little louder so as to beat the vocal stragglers into the herd of listeners and recorders he was aiming for. “We’re here today to announce the filing of a lawsuit by Yvonne,” and he raised an outstretched arm in his subject’s direction. She curtsied demurely and some of the rougher media backbenchers – mostly technicians and Teamsters – unleashed a series of catcalls that produced an abashed smile from Yvonne, which set off a chorus of delighted laughter in which everyone participated. Everyone, that is, save for DeConcini, whose job it was to project the severity of a juris doctor, and Thorpe and Diaz, for whom sobriety was also a job requirement.

Randall forged ahead, forgetting to laugh with the rest, intent upon making a point. “It’s a lawsuit which establishes her as the lead in a class of plaintiffs covering many of the young women you see here.” He then ill advisedly gestured to the actresses, comets, and gaggle of magazine girls he’d placed off to the side of the table so as to separate them from the media and growing collection of onlookers.

Once again, a cheer went up. The gaggle giggled, excited at being celebrated and the crowed guffawed in return. It was at this moment when Randall realized exactly what dynamics he had unleashed and therefore decided that humor, informality, delay and other nontraditional techniques would be the most effective in guiding this happening to a proper climax and denouement.

“All of whom at different and difficult moments in their lives have posed naked for any number of the magazines contained in the list you have before you.” A fluttering of papers ensued and those who’d joined the street spectacle looked over the shoulders of reporters to see exactly what it was he was talking about. The air was, by now, thick with vanilla smoke from Joya’s freely dispensed carton, and the situation – the girls, the list of dirty magazines, the Dãrshãns – were all adding up to a heady aphrodisia that nearly scared the fire department investigators out of their pants. Given that such an event would be highly inappropriate for two members of a venerable and highly respected institution to be attending, Diaz and Thorpe decided to leave, glancing nervously over their shoulders at the growing amoeba of people they were largely responsible for having created.

And their timing couldn’t have been better for as they slunk away, a black limousine rolled up, forcing the crowd spilling off the curb either further into the street or onto the already congested sidewalk. A brash, fresh-faced white boy with a remote wire close to his lips leapt out saying very important things into it. A tall handsome black guy in a suit followed him and then a white guy in another suit who was obviously the Prince corresponding to the courtiers.

Jordan froze. The city councilwoman narrowed her eyes in distrust. “The city attorney,” Randall muttered to himself, and figured that news of another mayoral candidate’s presence at the event – the city councilwoman – had reached the earphone of a young aide and forced an imperative to crash the proceedings. “Ignore him,” the councilwoman hissed in his ear. Randall figured a deal was a deal and undertook to comply with her directive.

Jordan took off in the same direction as Thorpe and Diaz, unwilling to abet his own capture and prosecution for a mercy killing the gods had deigned just.

“Before I turn over the press conference to those with a story to tell,” Randall soldiered, suddenly overcome with fatigue, “let me conclude by saying this case is about the exploitation of young women who oftentimes did not know any better or could not help themselves. The profits gained by those who traffic in photography of the flesh far outstrip those who provide the raw materials needed to do their business.” It was an unfortunate choice of words and Randall had carefully chosen them for just that reason. A silly, adolescent, “woowoo” went up from the gathered.

DeConcini leaned over and garbled into Randall’s ear, “Look, I’ll file the suit, but I don’t really need this kind of screen time. It’s too much. Too dangerous.”

Dangerous! Randall, a rock thrower and traffic stopper if ever there were one, sensed a hot burst of triumph race from his solar plexus, through his heart to pierce the brain, and smiled.

“What do you say to the fact many former employers wouldn’t recommend you for a job?” came a rude outburst from the herd.

“I have no former employers,” Randall sought to set the record straight.

“How do you live then?” came the follow up.

“I’m still trying to answer that question,” Randall confessed and then switched. “Esquire Dennis DeConcini, who is generously lending his expertise on a free-of-charge basis, says it would be best not to bore you with legal mumbo-jumbo when Yvonne is the best person to articulate what it is these girls go through, blah-blah-BLAH-blah-blah,” he threw in for a touch of lackadaisical irreverence.

“Could you repeat the last part?” the girl from the liberal/left rag asked.

“Esquire Dennis DeConcini says it would –”

“No the part after that,” she said cutely and coyly.

“Oh. Blah-blah-BLAH-blah-blah.”

The print reporters earnestly recorded his every “blah.”

“Thank you,” she said, to sustained background chuckling and general gaiety. DeConcini rolled his eyes. Randall summoned Yvonne to center spot looking over the smoke-addled crowd that had begun disrupting traffic. Horns were blowing now and Yvonne, along with her interrogators, had to yell over them so as to be heard. “I just wanna say that, um, you know, it’s wrong for somebody to make these kinds of profits – profits that sometimes run thousands of times more than what was paid to the model who-”

“Did you sleep with the photographer?” one of the local entertainment reporters asked what was on everyone else’s mind.

“Um- ”

“I don’t see,” Randall interrupted, “what that has to do with the fact that an important economic lawsuit with potential ramifications in the area of intellectual property -” It was, again, a terrible choice of words, this time not planned and which led to a further lightening of what he’d envisioned as an epic affair.

“Quite frankly it is a -” and a car horn interrupted him for a moment, “STUPID,” he yelled out of necessity, “question.”

“Blah-blah-BLAH-blah-blah,” one of the media joshed him to more, greater, sustained laughter now rolling in waves between the yellow dividing lines out in the middle of the street and Clarisse’s curious table.

Randall moved from center stage aware that his last volley had gone out of bounds, but content that he was stoking the spectacle to maximum effect, sometimes knowingly, other times not. He pulled out a bandana and wiped his brow in a move that was interpreted by those who’d come for a show as theatrics, but which was simple relief to him.

Yvonne, for her part, was doing as well as might be expected for someone who ran a catering service and hadn’t spoken in public since her 11th grade English class required an oral presentation.

“Every time a single magazine issue sells,” she read from a prepared statement penned by Randall, “a hundred advertisements are launched and the positive results of those advertisements bring in more sales and revenues to the magazine. But the model sometimes only gets the shoot fee a freelance photographer pays her before signing a release that makes the pictures his property.” Despite the calculation behind the whole crazy thing, there was something plaintive in Yvonne’s voice that seemed to win her a better part of the crowd’s sympathy. And who with a heart could deny that there is merit in both her arguments and the equitable goal of the lawsuit itself?

“How did it feel to you when the pictures first came out?” asked a rival to the first entertainment reporter’s celebrity news magazine. Yvonne turned to Randall who again moved center. “Don’t any of the serious outlets have questions?”

He might as well have been looking for Ice-Aged fossils. “I mean, we have this brave woman up here bringing to light the kind of abuse young innocents are often subjected to when they arrive in the big city.” Like the best White House spin-doctor, Randall was taking advantage of every chance to define the suit’s raison d’être. As the cameras recorded and the scribes scribbled, he was confident the weightier points would eventually be expressed in spite of the circus atmosphere he’d cooked up. “Man, the only things you people seem interested in are the more lurid-” Security being what it was – nonexistent – some clown sneaked in behind Yvonne with her magazine layout open to a provocative page and smilingly waved it over her head to the howls of tribal excitement and groans of moral disapproval. The liberal feminist reporter huffed, rolled her eyes at Randall (who smiled bashfully), and departed.

“How much did you get paid?” asked a reporter.

“Does it turn you on to see the pictures of yourself on the newsstands?” screeched another. A tear rolled down Yvonne’s cheek and she stepped off to the side and hugged Corey – a gesture that did not escape Clarisse’s or anyone else’s eye.

“Is that your boyfriend?” another reporter asked with an exquisitely bad taste and timing it had taken him years to cultivate and for which his bosses prized (and paid) him exceedingly well. The A-list actress was dripping with feeling and understanding for Yvonne who had clearly bitten off more than she could chew. With all the self-possession and power to dominate a gathering the acting craft had imbued her with, she assumed Yvonne’s place behind the crazy table. The motion, in and of itself, served to calm the raucous crowd somewhat. It was Bernhardt, it was Dunaway, Leigh. It was the ghost of a dozen icy silver-screen love goddesses rising up before the reverent – until she opened her mouth. “What’s wrong with you people?” she screamed, although it should be noted that it did come in a controlled fashion, rooted in her diaphragm as it was. “Are you all fucking idiots or what?”

Despite the obvious insult, the media pool gravitated closer to the table like cosmic debris to a black hole in space, for nothing trumps celebrity (except national security), however undeserved. In ten minutes they could all take the rest of the week off with the bounty this once seemingly harmless event was hurling at them. The A-lister, for her part, was buffeted with lurid queries in a free-for-all fashion.

“Have you ever filmed yourself making love?” “Would you perform oral sex before the camera for the right sum of money?” “What’s the right sum of money?” and so on so that the overall affect of her interjection was to discredit those whose fortunes she sought to enhance.

Sensing her moment, the lesbian citycouncilperson stepped to the fore and Randall returned to announce her, as the actress, fuming, stepped back and, yes, lit a cigarette – a vanilla one – to restore her calm. Two factors, the councilperson’s weight and her lack of beauty, lent the press conference an immediate gravitas none of the pretty girls whom preceded her could summons. She took up a goodly portion of the dais and seemed to reduce the media pool’s size just by standing there. “I think we need to focus on some of the important issues introduced into public debate by the filing of this important suit.” Her primary strategy was to use the word “important” a lot and see what happened.

The city attorney, there to steal his opponent’s moment in the limelight and simultaneously align himself with decency and family values, was instead being ignored, and that was not good. So he used his influence to pry a handful of reporters from the otherwise enthralled press pack. These were city beat hacks he knew and traded capital with in a symbiotic relationship between covered and coverers that assured neither did their job properly. When he suggested they listen to what he had to say, implicit was the promise that on some slow news day, or very eventful one for that matter, he could be counted on for news; but only if they might bail him out presently. Just as the city councilperson paused, he could be heard in the back sound-biting her moment saying, “I think the suit is incoherent and ill-conceived.”

Which, of course it was. The point of the thing was the girls, the publicity they were generating, and the use of it to ransom some concession out of the publishers in exchange for a little peace in their business of exploiting the young and vulnerable.

The lesbian legislator could hardly be expected to be outdone. As Joya had already informed Jordan, she was an advocate for the city’s throwaways, miscreants, and social maladroits, which was a job that required a lot of energy and a bullhorn the size of...the size of something very big. Her strategy in such an instances (it was not the first time bigger fish had made a bigger splash in a pond she considered her own) was to forge straight ahead with what she was saying at twice the volume she had been saying it prior. Of course, what with the presence of the city attorney, her political position needed to slide just a little bit over to the conservative side, but the councilwoman was swimming in a pond she knew well. “Now!” she bellowed, “I’m not here to say that what the ladies have done in the past is to serve as some kind of illuminated path for youth – far from it. What is important is to point out the importance of corporate greed here.”

The day had long passed when such an appeal to the lesser-class instinct drew a blood curdling response against the rich above, largely because everybody in attendance had a shabby scheme for moving up into those ranks themselves. But hers was a safe council seat and so she kept it up.

“We know who the magazine’s parent company is (a biennial contributor to her own campaigns) so we don’t have to name names.” Which of course she didn’t want to do.

“Immoral,” slipped in between the cracks of her discourse from over in the city attorney’s corner.

“It’s important that we understand that they have enough money to, to- ” and then she looked around for some kind of prop and Joya produced a pack of vanilla cigarettes. The citycouncilwoman was not particularly keen on the idea of using exotic and imported smokes as a public speaking aid, but was sage enough to consider her audience for a moment.

She took the pack, opened it, dumped the contents out onto Clarisse’s table and proceeded – quickly for obvious reasons – to use them in the construction of a ragged metaphor for just how much money the parent company had and how easy it would be to actually pay the girls a gainful wage (two Dãrshãns) and a small pension benefit (one Dãrshãn), too.

“So don’t tell me this is the only way to treat workers who are important to our society!” she thundered and waved her way through the thickening cloud of smoke over the sidewalk. This was her stock stump speech and she had twisted herself like a baseball stadium pretzel to weave the naked girls and The Smokers into it.

Anyway, that was the bulk of what Randall had scripted. There came, in that moment, a realization that he’d never developed an exit plan because he’d never thought the thing was going to reach such a (relatively) gosh darn successful conclusion.

If Jordan had stuck around for this not-quite-ending he would have noted accents of the beating he took at the hand of the Armenian Power gang in the air. Traffic was jammed, people were milling about as the star, starlets and comets began to break up and/or get picked off by the audience that had swelled the press pack’s size to five times the original list of invitees. The city attorney, for his part, wasn’t finished. He seemed to lose sensitivity in his political antennae; possessed by the drive to, in some way, mark the fact he was present. Perhaps his plan was to conjure as nefarious an image possible under the rather light-hearted circumstances and somehow connect them to the lesbiancitycouncilpersonwoman. She, by this time, had beaten a quiet retreat after mulling over sentiments best described as mixed where the wisdom of attending a press conference held by a Sidewalk Smokers Club she’d never heard of was concerned.

No matter. The shabby Randall would serve the city attorney’s purposes in a pinch. “So,” he bellowed prompting everyone present to turn in concert and see what had gotten up his nose, “the fine specimens here gathered are your class of plaintiffs and their loyal constituency?”

Randall appreciated the help in defining The Club’s mission. “Do you think sarcasm is becoming of so exalted a city official?”

“Don’t answer a question with a question,” the candidate parried, cameras engraving every glib utterance in some digital container or recorder.
Like all stagemasters, Randall thought his job done at this point and resented the insertion of new material.

“We’re a nation of mutts,” he said finally, coughing, “although we dress ourselves very well to hide the fact.”

The city attorney should have known better. For Bohemians reason, if they do at all, at different levels of consciousness and understanding than “serious” people. And yet they are just as smart: a fact that makes them deadly dangerous if and when they decide to engage the larger world around.

Maybe at a clearer place, after nursing a tumbler of scotch before a chimney fire, his eminence might have been able to respond in some long and circuitous way.

Instead, he let pass a long silence which left in evidence his search for words to all observers. The aide with the mouthpiece cringed. Finally, desperately, he blurted, “If mutts are what you consider yourselves, fine, but don’t paint the entire nation with the same brush.” Which wasn’t too bad a rejoinder, especially if you erase the time he took to come up with it and the fact he was a famous and semi-powerful man, while Randall was the mutt.

The aide with the headset decided to douse this brush fire before it spread, pushing his boss toward the limousine, which was parked illegally, but not subject to the surveillance cars belonging to mere mortals were. The candidate seemed more than willing to oblige, retreating with sentiments best described as mixed where the wisdom of attending a press conference held by a Sidewalk Smokers Club he’d never heard of was concerned.

“Good riddance,” Randall murmured as one city-attorney-leg stuck itself in the limo.

But Joya suddenly materialized out of what seemed thin air and immediately drew a smile from the candidate, who pulled the leg back onto the sidewalk. Randall could not imagine what it was Joya was up to, but he knew she was up to something as her long muscular arm snaked itself through the city attorney’s elbow and guided him inside.

Randall was snapped out of his observations by the A-list actress who announced her departure, but left him with her publicist’s number and an invitation to a party at her place coming up very soon. He had enough presence of mind to say he’d check and see if the date was open when what he wanted was to drop to his knees and lick her wherever she asked.

Guys off the street grazed what was left of the catered food and the gutsy ones tried to wrangle dates out of the comets. Some left with them walking down the street sharing vanilla cigarettes. The roughest looking girls went away with the least appealing men and Randall wondered if they were rough because of the men they’d picked over the years, or if these were the men they were sentenced to entertain by the cruel court of declining charms. He saw Clarisse also exchange particulars with the secondary starlet who turned and left her after they kissed each other on both cheeks. He watched Clarisse watch Corey work with Yvonne for a second and then watched her watch Randall. Clarisse strode toward Randall who decided to stand tall and take whatever it was the sour face she was wearing had in store.

“So,” she said grudgingly, “you ware gret today.”

“You know what they say,” he said. “If you can’t actually be great, fake it.”

An utterly dishonest response in as much as Randall believed he was destined to greatness and felt he’d just taken a tremendous stride towards constructing such a perception, in his own eyes, and in those of the world as well.

Chapter Thirty-six

Jordan met with Detective Dumburton outside Java World following his 6.a.m. to 1 p.m. shift. He was averse to the officer’s suggestion when first proposed, but now, sitting out on the plastic café tables and chairs devouring his free lunch, J. took satisfaction at the general impression the rendezvous made when the boss cruised in for a little personal involvement with the clientele. Dumburton fit the bill completely. He was square-jawed, solidly built, and well dressed with shoes subjected to a military-style spit-shine. Jordan was rarely seen – scratch that – was never seen with such characters and he knew that in the twisted minds of certain community pillars his appearance with the cop would accrue to his credit. Of course, that was because none suspected him of being the Angel Without Mercy.

Dumburton was pulling no punches. “You see this?” he shoved the aforementioned police sketch in Jordan’s face. “You see this?’

Jordan nodded that, yes, he did see it.

“Well, waddaya think of it?”

“I think its purveyor should try his hand at a more conceptual kind of art. His skill at drawing renders little that is eye-pleasing or thought-provoking.”

“It’s not pleasing to the eye because it’s the sketch of a murderer, of the Angel Without Mercy,” Dumburton told him.

“Good for him,” said Jordan of the artist.

Dumburton was used to smart alecks. “Who does it remind you of?”

Jordan shrugged in an intimation of the fudged fact it reminded him of no one.

“It reminds you of you, ya son-of-a-bitch,” the detective could hardly contain his rage at Jordan’s coy routine. “I think it’s you and I’m going to nail your ass and good.”

Jordan informed the detective that his cooperation was merely a courtesy of sorts and that he would never have agreed to this questioning without a subpoena had he known Dumburton was going to be so rude. He quite understood, he continued, that the police sketch looked like something of a Latin take on himself, but was not confessing to any murders without mercy – a caveat his tormentor failed to pick up on.

“Alright,” Dumburton pulled the picture across the table toward himself, “I’m gonna do it by the book, but this is you and I’m going to prove it.”

“It’s not me,” said Jordan, “it’s a Latino guy.”

“It was dark and the orderly who described you is prejudiced against Mexicans,” the detective countered. “He thinks they’re takin’ all the jobs from the-” he stopped himself.

Jordan was sure Dumburton had intended to say “the blacks,” (or worse) because he knew precisely which orderly was spilling the beans and because it’s something blacks say. “The only crime worth committing,” he bum philosophized inside, “is the perfect crime,” which, of course, he would pass onto Randall when the opportunity presented itself. And that was because, he reasoned with the seasoning of a serial killer, “If you make one mistake, it will hang you.”

But wait! He had bigger fish to fry. “Takin’ all the jobs from who, officer?”

“I think you have an idea of which orderly identified you.”

This guy was good focusing on “which” like that. “Which didn’t turn shit on me,” Jordan snapped back, “because I didn’t commit any murder.” J. was surprised at the zest with which he found himself lying.

“Is ‘at right?” Dumburton flipped Jordan on his grill. “Well I got a little something on ya. You wanna know what it is?”

Jordan wagged his head in the negative. Dumburton could not have cared less.

“It’s smoke. Ya like to smoke dontcha?”

“On occasion.”

“Occasion my ass!” and then Dumburton pulled out a press clipping from the big city daily – the newspaper of record. “Looks to me like you fancy yourself one of this groupa nuts that calls ‘imselves The Sidewalk Smokers Club.” And there, in fact, was a rather lengthy article about the benefit/press conference under a significant looking headline that read: “Sidewalk Smokers Club Meets,” followed by the subhead, “Defense of Nude Models Tops Agenda.”

Someone had either a mordant wit or a keen understanding of how to sell papers. And there they all were: Joya, Yvonne, Clarisse, Jordan, the two ringleaders, and a jaunty supporting cast of associate-members-for-a-day on the sidewalk out in front of Joya’s Joyas, puffing away and making good use of a free and public space.

“It’s a social movement. It’s harmless.”

“I find it dangerous and I can prove it.”

“You like proving things don’t you?” said Jordan, vexed at the confirmation of his fear that the notoriety would bite him right in the ass. Retreating in spirit, if not tone, Jordan decided against throwing down unnecessary gauntlets even though the detective seemed decided as to the question of his quarry’s guilt.

“So what?” he followed-up, his discretion proving the better part of his valor.

“So there was the scent of smoke in the halls, a certain kind of smoke that a certain patient is willing to identify once I find out what it is you like to kill your lungs with.”

He played on. “Who, the gang guy across from me?”

“No. He won’t talk. The bangas never do.”

The banga’s generosity caused Jordan to shudder. He knew there was something noble in the gang mentality, the thing that bound them to one another through life and death and (still more) death, and he was now eternally grateful a criminal had been his roommate in adversity, rather than a trembling supplicant to the laws of stupid people. “I’m going to be honest with ya Dumburden-”

“It’s burTON. Don’t think I don’t know what you’re trying to do. I heard that stuff all the way through high school. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now.”

“High school, huh?”

If Jordan had missed pushing any buttons in the antagonism of this antagonist, they are likely to be unworthy of selection and comment. His wiseacre college boy routine – which was not so much a routine as a genuine essence – was something Dumburton was no less familiar with than inspectors Diaz and Thorpe. “The detective told Jordan as much. “Ya think I’m not familiar with your wiseayker routine?”

“I don’t care,” J. told him right back. “I didn’t kill anyone. I’m not Latino like this guy, and you’re not going to use the fact I’m a smoker to hang me. That’s a double hanging. It smelled like smoke in there because I needed a smoke and the only way was to have a little walk when the hospital was quiet.”

Here was a confession of sorts: that he’d been smoking and breaking the law at the same time. From there to murder was a hopscotch of faith in Dumburton’s mind, which fed on gristle only.

“A little walk,” the detective said and then was finished with him – for the moment.

He got up from his seat and told Jordan to “stick around town, don’t go anywhere.”

J. sort of frowned at the thought of his indebtedness to Joya, his crappy job and now this, the arrival of Dumburton into his life. Taken together they seemed an awesome kind of awful.

Chapter Thirty-seven

To say the inevitable end to Corey and Clarisse’s marriage was going smoother than a unanimous congressional resolution asserting that America is a great country, is to draw an almost perfect analogy (allowing for Randall’s prejudice against absolutes).

Never had two people so simultaneously lost fascination with one another. Even jealousy seemed out of the question. Much in jealousy involves passion and this little item was conspicuously absent where the pair was concerned.

Each was bewildered by the way the other had pretty much become, outside the relationship, what their mate had expected of them inside it. Corey was now possessed of an idea, driven to working late hours and, although the economics of the whole thing were far from being resolved, the stench of success began sticking to him like mildew to a wet wool gabardine.

We know Trixie Marie had affected the social climber in Clarisse, but failed to note how this had overwhelmed the wannabe mother completely. And Corey saw this happening, and saw that it was what made their separation so effortless. Each was on a completely distinctive set of rails traveling in directions away from the other.

When Corey was at Randall’s working the day through, Claire had overcome some inconsequential bickering to raise a makeshift-drafting studio in the living room.

And unlike lots of others who take this initial step with such gusto, she sat down and began to draft – a lot. When Corey headed home, Clarisse did waitressing at the restaurant where the boss was pleased as so much party punch with her new attitude. She was chatty, light-footed, service-oriented, and hell-bent on making as much tip money as possible.

Which means it might have worked between them. He could have been the successful go-getter had Clarisse been Yvonne and infused him with some special purpose, if she had only imperiled herself and cried out for him to rescue her. Clarisse would have been able to stay home and have the kid. In her latest incarnation, Corey would have been relieved of the pressure to breed that had cost her so much energy in pressing, and he that much more in resisting.

And that is how things go. Clarisse could have been bothered by the fact Corey seemed to have at least a connection with Yvonne, but she was, actually, an artiste and too involved with what she was doing, now that she was doing it, to fuss over so minor a distraction as some feminine rival for a man she’d lost interest in.

And things were working out. The up-and-coming starlet whom Clarisse had been seen exchanging numbers with at the benefit/press conference turned out to be a real benefit as the art-patron-saint Clarisse had seen in her own enraptured dreams. Her name was Vindaloo Baxley which, like many theatrical names, suggests a lot and reveals naught. She was a very determined girl. A real Vinda lu-lu. One glance at Clarisse’s table (we’re back at the benefit/press conference) and her mind was made up. Of course, that piece had been Clarisse’s gift to Joya, but when Vindaloo was informed that it was not to be hers she made such outrageous offers of money that even Joya – with her keen eye for style – was willing to let Clarisse take it back. “I mean if it’s for Vindaloo Baxley...”

The deal, of course, could not be consummated without a promise from Clarisse to restore Joya’s loss with an equally sumptuous (and free) creation on a date soon thereafter. A conscientious businesswoman, Joya could see that by surrendering one piece of no actual value other than the cost of materials – givens in art – to the actress, the next piece would carry a price worth waiting for.

Just as Clarisse had fantasized, Vindaloo contracted her to fill sweeping swathes of her not inconsiderable tract of urban floorspace with original one-of-a-kind furniture at a premium rate. She then went from party to party and shoot to shoot talking Clarisse up so as to increase the value of her own investment.

Just a few weeks after her devastating epiphany at Trixie Marie’s exhibition, the French/Belgian girl had a name of her own. Now she need only prepare herself for the challenge of so much fine art being examined under so bright a critical light by folks of very fickle constitutions.

And this left her very little time for Corey who, as we have seen, had very little time for her.

Chapter Thirty-eight

Corey, Randall, and Yvonne were holding a club subcommittee meeting at the Argentine restaurant. Jordan was not present, but hiding out in terror, ignoring his phone.

Clarisse, following some rather hard-knuckled negotiating, was taking a piece she’d given another friend over to Vindaloo Baxley’s. Joya, unbeknownst to all, was on a date with the city attorney.

Nothing quite so wicked as betrayal was going on, but natural rifts were beginning to develop in the group before the clay had even settled in the mold that had formed it. That is how such things work in a dynamic and ever-changing universe. No sooner does a movement find self-definition then it falls from the tree like an overripe fruit, initiating the process of becoming something even newer. Which is not to say The Sidewalk Smokers Club was finished. No. Such a process is long and drawn out (yet worthy of dramatization!), the inner tensions pushing and pulling at individual or allied members, providing kinetic energy manifesting itself in explosive action and creative…creative…creative something or other.

Anyway, they were gloating – at least two of them – over the headlines their clever (or inadvertent) labors had produced. Yvonne was slated for a whole series of radio interviews as well as some final and last-minute segments on some local crack-of-dawn TV magazine shows whose job it was to titillate viewers into waking consciousness. She had considerable offers from magazines competing with the true source of her renown, but she wanted to break out of that naked girl type-cast. Some other actresses, seeing how smoothly the A-list television star had turned her risky appearance into the rebellious, street capital she’d angled for, were now owning up to their own naked chapters. The numbers involved were really a little shocking.

The lesbian city councilperson had enjoyed not only a bump (up) in the mayoral sweepstakes polls, but her public appearances were baths of minor multitudes. It was the heroin of cool press at work on her doughty image.

Anyway, the point is that the whole Yvonne phenomenon was becoming downright respectable. Still, Yvonne herself could not help but be a little uncomfortable at the whole idea of having sculpted an identity for herself in this way.

They toasted with a bottle of wine, but her heart did not seem in it. Then Corey informed her that the magazine had republished copies of the infamous layout.

“Guess that’s their response, huh?” she responded, blankly sipping on a Cabernet normally too refined for their palates and wallets.

“Sure it is, man!” Randall trilled with characteristic insensitivity to the slower reasoning processes of those around him. “And it’s what we wanted. Proof you’re the object, I mean the person who actually drives their profits, and proof of your sustained appeal. You are a magazine girl, but not of the magazine girls.”

“I’m thrilled,” she said, lemon juice on her lips and tongue. “But I thought we already knew that.”

“Yes, but we wanted, needed really, to dramatize it,” he rightly responded.

“We did?”

“Of course we did,” Corey said softly, throwing a warm arm around her back for emphasis. She liked it; needed comforting, attention, and assurances. That these favors were not so hard to gain for her, did not make them any less satisfying.

“Why?” she asked.

“Listen,” Randall leaned into her, crowding, “you’re conscience is growing with your renown man. When the magazine was out on the newsstands, just another in the middle of a lot of magazines, you were less upset.”

“That was before men introduced themselves by staring at my pussy.”

“They always did that. You just didn’t mind at the time because you were not a universally recognized symbol of hip fertility. You’re suffering from a surfeit of attention.”

“Thank you doctor.”

“You wanted it. We all do. Now you got it. You don’t need more conscience now. You need less. The battle has been struck. We must add this simple byte to bum philosophy: that once blood is drawn, you must play to win. If you do and succeed, nobody will care about how you got where you did.”

“Man,” she finished his diatribe for him herself. Yvonne hadn’t seen any blood anywhere and she thought he sounded like a person who spent a lot of time on what other people might be thinking. “I’m glad you’re involved,” she told him.

And Randall was getting quickly acclimated to hearing great things said about him to his face, but she made him shiver with the appreciation. “You know, if we lose, you’ll feel even more vulnerable than you do now.”

Yvonne was not brave of heart in her reactions. Instead she complained a little more about how personal it was getting, and how ugly people you didn’t even know were capable of being…

He let her run the string out and put a period to her long sentence. “What can I tell you?”

It was easy for Randall to say these things for they were sharing the same fame, but not the same treatment. She was being cast as public art, as public tart, and her business, which she’d built in small steps with sharp decisions and love had gone under. He was, suddenly, “a thinker.”

Randall was gaining a certain distinction while Yvonne was being cast out of society, proper and otherwise.

Yvonne had a growing sense that the more she suffered, the stronger The Smokers got.

Randall and Corey were exploiting her situation, but their cool under pressure, their cutting intelligence, and the fact she’d initiated the collaboration prevented her from going over to the dark side where her opinion of them was concerned. They might be sipping from a heady brew only she had made possible, but they were good guys and, one of them, perhaps a lot more than that.

“So what do we do next?” she queried her handlers.

“I’m going to make sure DeConcini hasn’t really jumped ship since the press conference.”

“He did seem a little put off,” Corey observed.

“Not happy,” Yvonne made it a consensus.

“Then (Randall had not really stopped) we press ahead with the public relations campaign and exploit it for maximum gain.”

Despite his chosen vocation, when Randall was around Yvonne his ear became tinny and his selection of words grated against the sentiments holding her in their sway at that given moment.

“What do you mean ‘exploit’?” she jumped him.

“But Lady Jane,” Randall mocked her delicacy, “that’s what we’re doing – exploiting things.”

“Randall and I have been talking,” Corey jumped in, the desire for a cigarette stoking a relentless shaking of his leg beneath the table. “Now that we’ve got you booked onto the merry-go-round we want to raise the price of your appearances.”

“Even though we already agreed on them?”

“Yeah,” Randall said, “we miscalculated. You’re in much more demand than we thought and we’ve got to strike while the iron is hot.” She watched him closely; his eyes remained focused on hers, too.

“But I want people to think I’m a nice person, even if you have to peddle me like a whore.”

“People like whores. They don’t love them, but they like them and that’s why you find them everywhere.”

Yvonne was not sure if they meant to flatter her, but further discussion promised more insult than resolution and so she cut the yarn. In any case, the current state of delirium could not detach the boys from their own middle-class values and, though unexpressed, each felt twinges of guilt where their strategy was concerned.

Suckers. They had to remain firm. They were going to need all the money they could get.

There was a lull. Things in the restaurant had died down somewhat. They ordered another bottle of wine. A noisy table of elegant, Spanish-speaking people was whooping it up over in the corner by the picture window. The owner approached The Smokers’ table, arms akimbo, smiling face. “Ayyyyyyyy. Mya faboride Sidewalk eSmokers. I saw you in de newzpapare. You are faymus?” he asked in that way only foreigners can invert affirmative statements.

Randall and Corey tried not to beam. Yvonne looked away, not out of shame, but in conformity with role they’d written for her.

The restaurateur’s heightened sensibility to the mood of his clients warned him off mining the vein any deeper. These newly famous were just like others of a more conventional notoriety in the worlds of stage and screen in that they didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to confront it while they were out to dinner trying to forget themselves for a while.

“So, do jou mind if dese costomers of mines smokes?” An educated man and cultured man, his English barely improved upon the dialect Carlos brewed down at Java Whirl.

Anyway, it was a rhetorical question and a joke, and it was taken as such by The Smokers, who seemed to genuinely enjoy it.

“Not if they don’t mind sharing with us,” Randall said, seeking to push things a bit, try yet another cigarette brand, and impress Yvonne with the extra chutzpah he’d been developing lately.

“I will take care off eeet.” And he scurried away full of nervous energy and glee.

He returned before the trio’s conversation could begin again with three Marlboro Lights, which always go down fairly easy with smokers of different brands. A lady in jewels nodded at them and winked. They smiled back with real smiles.

This is one of the great mysteries to (nonscientific) members of the nonsmoking community; the way something designed, in such a sinister way, to be a stimulant has such a soothing affect upon those who indulge it.

The trio felt a little more relaxed about their venture and about themselves. They continued to drink from the recipes of a variety of vintners, rolling hints of black cherry, leather, and melon around on their tongues until the conversation melded into something much more carefree and incidental.

Chapter Thirty-nine

Outside and down the street a bit, officers Thorpe and Diaz trawled the urban landscape of billboard signs, bus stop advertisements, and traffic lights, two white knights of city administration. Their charge? To protect the peoples’ right to not have smoke in the public air around them; to uphold the sanctity of the Smoke-Free Workplace Act.

They had left the department’s headquarters somewhat off balance following a surprise meeting called by higher-ups who’d noticed all the hubbub about those smokers.

Thorpe and Diaz did not deny procedures and regulations had been broken, ignored, forgotten the day of the press conference/benefit. But they’d busted up a crowd concentration problem and avoided a massive violation of the Smoke-Free Workplace Act.

“We could not let the act be mocked,” Thorpe defended.

They’d also unleashed a hellish traffic jam that was felt some 20 miles away – society being the complicated piece of machinery it is these days. And that couldn’t be good because people in-close and from afar were irate.

The officers’ conduct stunk, but the cause was just from an enforcement perspective, because The Smokers had started it all.

Thorpe and Diaz had not, to be sure, been reprimanded in any official way. They had not been scolded in any less-than-official way, either. Something strange had happened. They got a sense the brass was pleased as punch with what they’d done and that, for purposes relating purely to the institution (and in the name of vertical command structures everywhere), the bosses made a show of putting the duo through the ringer.

Mindful of how close the call had been, Diaz and Thorpe decided (without exchanging a word) to avoid such quagmires in the future and stick to the small and painstaking tasks that were their peculiar domain.

And so they were heading toward the Argentine restaurant in the secret hope of finding Yvonne outside to ogle her some. Such, as she was learning, were the unexpected perils of celebrity. People had pictures of her on the walls of their homes, on the walls of their minds. They could focus on her all day; make her into something she wasn’t.

The men drove past the restaurant quickly and noticed that there were, in fact, no Sidewalk Smokers and it could only mean one thing: there was smoking going on inside that place with the amber burn that had beckoned on so many cool nights out in the street nursing coffee in cardboard cups. They turned to each other and nodded knowingly, in the manner of so many tough-guy television portrayals from years past.

They were going in.

What they could not know was that the owner of a stylish Thai eatery – with an A for healthy standing purchased at top dollar hanging in the front door – had seen them slowly crawl by and given the Argentine restaurateur a courteous heads-up.

The Argentine received the warning with commensurate gratitude and extended an invitation to the Thai proprietor he was sure would never be accepted (and which made it all the more profitable from the small business owner’s perspective).

The Argentine hurried onto the floor and informed all clientele vulnerable to having a chunk of their ass bitten off by the gremlins of over-regulation that the smoke-out was over. All of which was regular rebellion of the old-time variety. The only thing that was missing was marijuana and teams of ragged music fans.

In any case, Yvonne, Randall and Corey didn’t blink at the news. The Argentine smiled as they rose from their seats and made their way toward the door. “Of course, jou are de Sidewalk Smokers!” and then laughed merrily now that the rats were sprung from the trap.

Out on the sidewalk, the smokers puffed long and hardy, smiling finally, at the oh-so-deserved fun part of being (in)famous. Seconds later Thorpe and Diaz came barreling around the corner from a side street where they’d hidden their car in an attempt at surprise. The SW Smokers were a little surprised, pleased even, to see the two officers who had so contributed to their well-known-ness.

The detectives, upon seeing the fashion-puffers, knew they had been stooplefeathered yet again by an ungrateful business community that couldn’t understand how they were simply doing their job making workplaces safe for workers.

The Smokers smiled at the dumbfounded duo, who managed to recuperate admirably; for it must be remembered they were working stiffs with a certain common dignity and resilience.

Thorpe smiled as suavely as his rank permitted and sauntered past them, nodding in pleasant greeting. “Evnin’,” he said in a quiet westerner kind of way.

Diaz, a little more intimidated, followed his partner’s footsteps as, together, they proceeded to put their noses to the picture window like puppies.

What they saw made blood rush to their brains. Swirling in and out of the violin player’s notes and the synthetic orchestrations of his keyboardist were ribbons of illicit smoke seeking a home at the ceiling. They looked at each other and did that shrug. They looked at the smiling Sidewalk Smokers. “Didn’t I see you in that magazine?” Thorpe groped, coarsely, verbally ripping at Yvonne. And she was deeply affected, but damned if anybody would find out: “It’s refreshing to know our public servants read the press of the day.”

It was a cut at many levels and the fireman had it coming. He looked at her long and hard. They were not done, his expression said, it was a big town that was very small, and just as they had run into each other twice in as many days, he’d be watching and (he knew) she’d be smoking.

Chapter Forty

Joya was downtown where penniless painters, homeless people, and municipal employees with overstated titles spent their days.

It was a part of the city not without charm if you liked grime or cigarette butts smashed black and rust into dead concrete. Connoisseurs of the past could find a brass spittoon and trolley track residue there with a lustrous patina of soot to boot.

During the day it had the ol’ hustle-n-bustle. Short, brown and hook-nosed garment workers filled the buildings of its historic core and packed its streets and buses at dusk. At night, skulking shadows of discarded and lonely spirits hung like cutouts on the Devil’s Christmas tree.

Not that folks hadn’t tried to improve the described state of affairs. Quite the contrary. Downtown was a veritable test-tube of urban experimentation. Billions had been poured into it over the years in an effort to combat the passion of the populace for a front lawn and/or backyard. It had not worked and probably never would, but there were pockets of improvement and these were utilized by the banking class, a smattering of industrialists, and the indefatigable lions of City Hall who never tired of trying to make the city center something other than what it was, something like it had once been.

Naturally, not a single plan for renovation ever proposed even mentioned the unfortunate who lived there. Instead their focus was on where to put a superior breed pulled in from outlying areas by the promise of boutiques and coffee shops.

Joya was riding around in a fancy car that a city attorney had no business owning, loving the whole strange visit. It was like parachuting into another country or a movie set where people lived in cities they no longer live in. She made icky faces at the sight of canker sores on the bare feet of those not as fortunate to enjoy a pair of coconut-clunking big boots. She wondered at the reaching buildings and at what it might be like to live boxed-off, up in the sky. The city attorney was pointing out triumphs of architecture and style that she would have never noticed because the oppressive misery matrix overwhelmed whatever pockets of beauty enduring.

She found him to be enthusiastic about efforts to change things and the role he played, or claimed to play, in them. Driving with one hand, city attorney used the alternate appendage to enumerate with manicured fingertips the monies to be sprung for the renewal of opera houses, art museums and other such stuff attended, however lamentably, by a handful of people with time for specialized tastes and refinement.

She looked around her and had mostly sad sightings. She thought how there probably wasn’t a thing that could be done to revive a place that everyone had run from.

Joya said, “Well hell! Before the opera house they ought to put up a few portable toilets so they don’t do their business in the street.”

“Already have,” he said assuredly, “but the prostitutes use them for places to entertain their johns.”

“They use the john for the johns!”

She found this funny, but he was permitted, under no circumstances whatsoever, to laugh at something like that. He played it serious and it was quite beyond Joya how this man, dedicated to public service, found the strength to carry on with so much evidence as to the utter hopelessness of it all. Still, she couldn’t help but admire his ability to carry on the good fight.

Of course, the good fight was, in the end, all about career and the upward helium drift of the ambitious politician. He stood as yet another example of undeniable wisdom in the modern master-plan for harnessing a person’s selfishness to the (hopefully) commonweal’s benefit.

“See these buildings?” And he waved his free arm all around them. “During the day they’re filled with sweatshops; long, sweeping, street-long loft spaces packed with hundreds of Mexican girls and boys sewing the clothes you and your fashion-frenzied friends pay so much money for.”

Joya thought that was something of an odd thing to come from the mouth of the city’s chief enforcer of laws and she said so. “Aren’t sweatshops illegal?”

“Of course,” he said in apparent mirth.

“Well why don’t you do something about it then?”

“What can I do? That’s an imposed reality, from on-high.”

“What about the lesbian city councilwoman?”

“Ha!” and he chuckled. “She has even less power than I do.” Joya wasn’t rock-solid informed on the hierarchy of city officeholders so it was all good information.

“What if she became mayor?” She was curious.

“Then she’d be a weak mayor.”

“We couldn’t have that,” she tried to sound cynical.

He shrugged. “Depends on just how much bidding you’d like the mayor to do on your behalf. On what you’d actually like to get done.”

“What if I wanted to get a lot done?”

“I wouldn’t expect much from a lesbian.”


Joya was enjoying a little game people with alternative sexual tendencies like to play which is not available to, let’s say, Black people who can never dissimulate their skin tone. It was not fair either, and was beneath Joya, but the gambit did not go too far because the city attorney suddenly began a winded endorsement of the lesbiancitycouncilperson: “Nothing’s been handed to her. This game is hard enough without having to be scorned by a good many of your fellow citizens. She’s alright, I like her.”

He pulled up to a valet station in front of a well-lit and beautifully designed restaurant located at the bottom of a tall building on an otherwise abandoned street. Slumping, disjointed collections of dirty laundry rumbled close in only to be chased away by the security guard. “That’s alright, that’s alright,” said City Attorney (as Joya liked to call him), “let ‘em come here.” And he ripped some bills from a roll and handed them to three different beggars.

“Hey City Attorney, those are twenty-dollar bills!” Joya jumped at his showboating.

“Ah, if you’re going to give them something, give them a meal.”

Where Joya came from, City Attorney was what they called a liberal, but he didn’t seem half-bad.

The restaurant itself was all exquisiteness and fine service. Joya was no novice, no innocent country girl (though she could play the part) and this was no introduction to a better world. She knew how to behave and knew how to enjoy and once they stopped talking about politics some equilibrium was restored to the power balance between them. She matched his city bigwig aura with her own qualities of certified glossy girl and fancy piece of sex; a creature that commands vast privileges when her gifts are properly marshaled.

Cautious as he was about public image, and leery as she was about losing control in the company of a powerful man, they both got a little tipsy on martini juice. He called it ‘mind syrup’ and she laughed at the way he was able to stimulate her. He never made the clumsy move and his brilliance bathed in halo light things that would have seemed uncouth in others. “He is,” she kept saying to herself, “not a prick.”

And oh, how she had wanted him to be one for there was business at hand and skinning a skunk is easier than skinning an otter.

The place was winding down, the dinner was inflating with pauses both pregnant and sterile, and Joya asked the waiter if it were alright to have a smoke.

This made City Attorney uncomfortable for two reasons; the first being more obvious than the second. He didn’t want to be involved in breaking a law given it was his job to enforce it. But when he protested on this count, Joya slyly brought up the matter of sweatshops.

He’d always thought he desired a girl interested in the issues, but wasn’t so sure now, for he had a politically correct answer that would prove unsatisfactory to this rather unique specimen.

Second, and more unsettling, was the fact he felt she was wielding his power. After all, why would the waiter or restaurateur deign to piss-off the city attorney by telling his date she couldn’t smoke a silly cigarette?

And like all powerful people, he decided not to let it happen. City Attorney took a deep breath and resorted to his first reason with a sweetener thrown in to avoid the comebacker he was anticipating. He said it was against the law, that it wasn’t right for him to be seen breaking it, and that he’d be glad to stand with her, even share the cigarette if she would only “please” agree to do so outside. She thought it over. The evening’s success hung in the balance when he suddenly threw in the clincher, thrilled as he was to be hanging with a woman at once so attractive, cool, yet up to his speed: “I’ll be an associate member of The Sidewalk Smokers Club...for a minute.”

A big wide smile cracked across her face at the reminder of her new friends and the notoriety they had achieved.

Oh hope. The motives of everyone’s favorite person/character in this screed were not so pure, even if they were devoted to the benefit of another.

“Alright,” Joya shimmied to her feet with just enough booty action to catch his eye.

Outside she warmed to her purpose; began to work on him about the city ordinance against smoking indoors. City Attorney briefly yearned for one of the many bubbleheads who’d dated him without an inkling of what it was he actually did. “I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole,” he said. “There’s nothing to be gained from it, politically speaking.”

“City Attorney, you have a ten-foot pole?”


“You could get us our freedom back,” she countered.


“The Sidewalk Smokers Club, hon!” and with that she gave him a peck on the cheek.

His jaw dropped. She stuck the cigarette in his mouth. He instinctively scanned the area, without moving his head, to register whom was watching the scandalous act and all he saw was a Latino valet who was probably unregistered to vote, if not illegal altogether. The Latino vote was going, in any case, to another candidate. So he relaxed and drew upon it – the cigarette. There was that slight hitch in the chest endemic to nonsmokers who choose to break their golden rule on some special occasion and he made the proper adjustment before pulling twice.

It hit just right. His taste buds came alive with the memory of his meal (extending its pleasure-time) and the brown-leaf alchemy combined. It returned him to another time, long ago, underneath the bleachers in a wintery place where the cold beer adjusted his body temperature to the surroundings and rosy-cheeked girls promised unfathomable ecstasies in the dark.

“I’m really having fun being in your club,” he told her and Joya realized that something had gone terribly wrong. First, she found herself liking this a lot, and that was not supposed to happen. She’d gone undercover and let the role overtake her. Second, the night had grown so pleasant and glowing that her further plan for talking some soft sense into City Attorney about his pursuit of the Angel Without Mercy now seemed inappropriate.

Instead, he drove her home. They sat quietly. This cultured man and his well-stacked stereo system delivered a layered piece of orchestral musings that framed perfectly Joya’s interrupted night. She wanted sex. Any kind of sex. They sealed things off with a kiss and a promise to meet again.

She clip-clopped to her house, swaying this way and that; a tall building in a growing swirl of wind and energy.

Chapter Forty-one

Jordan had no idea of Joya’s plot to save him (by sleeping with City Attorney, and more) so that he could be neither warmed by the gesture nor disappointed by the failure of the first attempt. Of course, like all of us, J. had more than one problem and the morning after the night of Joya’s date, he was in court for the arraignment of his Armenian nemeses.

And things were not going well. If American justice seemed to be functioning fine in its pursuit of him, it was not performing nearly half as well in nailing these obvious thugs to the criminal cross.

To say he had mixed feelings about seeing the man who’d beaten his face would be to understate the thing. Jordan tossed and turned over his decision to press charges.

Anyone who knew him was adamant on the point. “Don’t let them get away with it,” friends crowed, but they were not the ones who would have to see the thing through to the end, which was nowhere in sight really. Every horror story the American criminal justice system had ever produced seemed to run through his head the night before he was to tell the prosecutor whether he was predisposed to pursue a just outcome (or not). This wheel of recurring scenarios included the gang members going to jail, only to manipulate a violent taking of his life from the comforts of that very same prison. He envisioned himself walking up to his doorway a few years hence, someone stepping out from the shadows or bushes or whatever might conceal them in this future home in his mind, and stab Jordan deep in the stomach many times. Then, as he lay there, blood fast leaving his bluing body, the Armenian Power gang would taunt him for a while, laughing with knowledge that were any retribution to be visited upon them, Jordan would never have the pleasure of savoring it.

And he wasn’t being ridiculous. Such things happened a lot. For if the law’s arm was quite as long as legend had it, Jordan would never have been beaten up in the first place. In fact, there are gaps between the time something terrible begins to happen to someone at the hands of someone else and when (if) the police get there. Often, the gap is sufficient for the irreparable to occur.

The thing is that justice – naught but revenge with pretensions of civility – won’t let you sleep. Jordan was afraid of what might happen if he saw the idiots prosecuted to the fullest extent, but he thought he would never be able to look himself in the mirror if he did not. Because, although he was a fellow of happy disposition, J. had a hard time forgetting what had been done to him and when he remembered it, got mad. But at four a.m., when even the insomniac finds little left in the mind mill to churn, the morning paper was dropped on the stairway snapping him from the vicious cycle of frightful ruminations. “Fuck ‘em,” Jordan decided. “Off to jail.” And he closed his eyes to fall asleep for a mere two hours after which Carlos and the plastic chairs awaited.

Now, as he stood in the courtroom, J.'s anticipation level was set high. Two of the guys who had participated in his thrashing had been dropped from the case. The lady prosecutor explained, from a legal viewpoint, the technicalities that prevented their having to face music they had help compose and these were not satisfactory to Jordan. And anyhow it didn’t matter. They could do things her way or drop the case altogether. Justice, he thought, works in the same makeshift manner county hospital does. Everyone knew how busy and overworked the prosecutors were, which didn’t keep them from bringing it up all the time, and so Jordan acquiesced.

This being the situation, the only guy he had a real chance to get was the one who punched him in the face. That seemed, at least, to make some, if not complete, sense. When the lad in question entered, his eyes were demonic in the same way they had been that godawful day. The hair had grown in so as to avoid any associations between defendant and the anti-social organization through which he lived his life.

He wore a suit and a tie, was accompanied by a lawyer, his dad, his sweet and suffering mom, and little sister.

But devil-eyes do not lie.

The lady prosecutor, a second-rate litigator purchased by the city’s low salary scale, opened the proceedings and did a serviceable job of enumerating and explaining the charges. The defendant’s attorney, polished and sharp as a platinum razor, rose slowly for effect, addressed the judge in collegial, almost intimate terms, and explained how his client had acted in self-defense and that it was Jordan who should be on trial. J. made a hiccupping kind of noise in response to the tactic’s pure audacity which, in fact, was standard criminal law fare. The lady prosecutor instinctively looked over her shoulder to hush him for the reaction, which was so common to those who did not spend their lives in court and could not understand the strange rules of the game played there. This is what defense attorneys do: point the finger back, try to blow some holes in the claimant’s recounting of the affair, as well as his character, make the judge weary, and successfully eke out a one-month sentence of community service cleaning graffiti.

But none of this was normal for Jordan and it infuriated him that he must needs be forced to sit and participate in the charade. Still, it was the best system anybody to date had been able to cook up and once the “not guilty” plea had been set and the contending parties escorted out through separate doors, the lady prosecutor explained that it was just as well. “This takes a long time and he’s scared to hell of returning to jail. It will be like being grilled slowly over a barbecue.”

Jordan thought a barbecue, a real one, not a metaphorical one, was just what the situation called for, but he went along with the metaphorical one. A second court date was set for some time much later in the future and he would try to be patient.

Meantime, the hearing had produced two negative responses in Jordan. The first was that it stirred up a lot of sediment lying loose at the bottom of his soul, sediment that made him fearful of things again. Second, it had renewed his utter detestation of all Armenians, young, old, or crippled. He saw them as savages from an ancient land who didn’t know how to behave and, instead, conformed to petrified traditions of family bonding regardless of whether one among them had done wrong or not.

Indulging in a time-honored American reaction, he purged from memory the fact of his own immigrant beginnings and wished that these Armenians would just all go straight back to where they came from.

Chapter Forty-two

Now for a bit of housekeeping.

The event at Joya’s Joyas has been repeatedly referred to as the press benefit/press conference. It must be recorded that there were brisk sales to reporter girls of rings and things, from which Joya contributed a percentage of the proceeds to Jordan; no questions asked. Of course, the real benefit was to be reaped from the collected business cards, promises of help, and planned parties with newfound friends the event had yielded. In days following that seminal event, Yvonne, Corey, Randall, and Joya all helped in tracking down leads and asking for help with the lawsuit and related legal expenses. The response had been overwhelming; further testimony to the fact Yvonne’s situation had tapped into some heretofore hidden vein of public sentiment.

She herself felt trapped by the situation confected, walking in a direction that no longer held draw, pulled at both arms by likeable people whom were giving the help she’d asked of them.

But this chapter is not about Yvonne. It’s about Randall and the aforementioned housekeeping was necessary to the explanation of how he became financially self-sufficient without doing a short and clumsy installation covering his monetary wherewithal(s) first.

Generous as Joya, Yvonne had offered, without prompting, to pay he and Corey from the benefit proceeds something out of her own legal fund. Randall accepted. Corey courteously declined, happy to wait and harvest untold riches following the propagation of bum philosophy across the system of flows.

Randall was solvent for the first time in how many years he could not even say and, although the cushion was marginal, it was thrilling for him. He noticed how much easier it was to do well by people, be a cool guy even, when his wallet was stuffed with salad and credit cards were sources of money – juice – rather than persecution.

He could leave that little extra tip which would accumulate interest with the recipient in record time. He could pay off old debts to good friends and do so over a nice meal at his favorite Argentine restaurant. He could toss somebody a joint and make his or her day. And all this accrued to his benefit, rolled over, even. The paid debt came back as a hedge on future financial complications, the meal became an invitation out, the joint came back grown into a full bag of happy grass.

The same way being broke meant bounced checks and bank-initiated punishment, which then marked Randall’s file for the next round of trouble, so it was that when things began rolling his way there was only more good to be gotten.

There was, by way of concrete example, that invitation to the A-list actress’s party. It hovered over him like a bright Moroccan sun of fortune. When stuck in traffic or waiting on an endless line at the supermarket, he thought about this wide-open door to a new world and all was well again. It colored his entire perception of life, which is beautiful under such circumstances if we only let it be so. Randall did.

And this complicated his goal of self-destruction by tobacco. In the same way a rabble-rousing union organizer gets a desk job or a revolutionary quietly recedes from the scene upon finding love and making a baby, Randall grew content so that almost (no absolutes!) every fiber in his body went against the proposed smoke-out of his health.

He expressed this thought to Corey who was the plumber in their partnership.
“You’re invited to that party because of your own master plan,” Corey pointed out. “Every element of it is important and if you don’t see each to the end, we’ll – you’ll – be right back where you started.”

He was 100 percent correct in this. Both statement and example are here injected to demonstrate just how much more effective two people working enthusiastically toward a goal can be than one.

The party itself began for Randall well before his arrival at the star’s house. He had dropped by one of the city’s few surviving humidors to squander his newfound wealth on some overpriced cigars he knew nothing about. And then he pulled off at a discount drug emporium to buy some mouthwash. He drove up into the rich, Spanish-accented hills and marveled at how such different atmospheres as this and the rough surface streets he normally roamed came under the rubric of the same city. Randall did not particularly enjoy the cigar he lit for the journey, but he got a warm sense of satisfaction he’d once believed only possible in the final version of a well-articulated thought, knowing that another constructive step toward the destruction of his health had been taken.

He accidentally passed the A-list actress’s house once in the expectation of something bigger. Next, R. backtracked and located the residence and then had to turn around again to park his vehicle along the woodsy incline. In what is second nature to all urban dwellers, he looked up in search of a sign proscribing his right to leave a car unattended and saw nothing.

He felt a little nervous and was forced to take a deep breath before sauntering up the walkway with the tin of expensive (for him) cigars under his arm.

Randall rang the bell and was half-surprised to see the A-list actress open the door all on her lonesome. Stripped of so much stage setting she could have been any other of the ravishing muses in the world. Out a corner of his eye – the rest of it being occupied with her – he caught a glimpse of at least three A-list actors and actresses whom were daily fare on the covers of magazines in supermarkets across the land. He opted for a cool play and stumbled a little on the intricate Persian rug that covered the floor of A-girl’s anteroom. The stars didn’t mind; they were used to that kind of thing. They’d read the accounts and viewed the telereports of the benefit/press conference for Yvonne. They were totally behind her in the battle against an exploitative media megamonster because, rich as they were, it was to a large degree their fight, too.

He dumped the cigars on his hostess who then escorted him up to a pair of well-known buddy actors and introduced him thusly: “Here’s the leader of The Sidewalk Smokers Club!” The two handsome, thin, utterly charismatic young blades smiled kindly and gave manly pats on the shoulders. She smoothed over her departure with a primer on where the booze and food might be found and then shimmied away leaving a bit of heaven lingering behind.

Randall struck the egalitarian note by pointing out that he was not, in fact, the leader of The Sidewalk Smokers Club, a non-hierarchical organization in which the creative impulses of its ever-changing ranks were never oppressed by someone’s weightier status. Randall had forgotten that those in whose company he now found himself were very dependent upon repeated recognition of their weightier status, but unwittingly recovered when he said, “As bum philosophy holds, he who leads sometimes dies first.”

Bum philosophy did not, up until that moment, hold any such thing, but it would thereafter, for the system was an elastic one that shrank and grew with the necessities of its creators.

And besides, he was playing a role. He was invited as a bum philosopher and by gosh he’d better bum philosophize if he wanted a return trip to this little Eden.

It took him a few minutes to get his bearings. After all, it could have been a dream. Everybody present was young and famous and it rather rattled him to think such people actually hung out together, unbeknownst to him. The guys, with a few colorful exceptions, were good-looking and practiced in the small gestures of the feigned or real boredom that say C.O.O.L. None were quite as original as Randall, just excellent in meeting a pre-established and (almost) universal standard of manhood. The girls were of course beautiful, some less so than on screen and others beyond compare in person. They were not guarded, for they were among their own guild of the gilded and Randall almost fooled himself into thinking their openness had to do with his good looks or beastly magnetism.

He felt a bit the dancing bear. But in the end there was empathy and admiration, for what were any of them but dancing bears of one sort or another?

His hostess, the A-list actress – had invited him in that moment when her social antennae informed that the event at Joya’s was a dirty, nasty, funky hit and the people who had pulled it off were comers. Everyone there wanted to know about Randall’s friends, about the sexy girl who had showed up in the magazine and was stealing all their air time with her gutsy story of taking on the same concentrated media companies in whose hands their bank accounts resided.

In short, The Sidewalk Smokers Club was doing the dirty work everyone present fantasized over, but were too compromised by personal pleasures and possession to act on. Having been summonsed to the head of the class like good little students, each fearfully awaited the day of summary dismissal.

Anyhow it didn’t matter. Not at the moment. The party was raucous. Fabulous stringy, sandy-haired, honey-voiced, loosey-goosey girls grabbed him by the hand and took him from magic room to magic room where it is best to let mystery sprinkle its own insinuations rather than deflate the imagination with demystifying, clinical detail.

One or two of them suggested he stop smoking, but Randall was a delegate from the other world, carrying a banner, and these were the people whom he wanted under that banner. They didn’t know this. They did. They cared. They didn’t. They were taken aback and admiring of the fact he would deign to tell sirens such as they “no” (much as it killed him).

He maxim-ized in his mind: “Saying no to a beautiful woman will get you either nowhere or everywhere,” and promised to do his best to remember it “morning next” as the British refer to the morrow.

R. was having a blast, flirting with drunken effusiveness, but in the end too keen of purpose to blow it with giddiness. And besides, things turned out to be rather natural. One star turned out to be a delicate guitarist, accompanied by the surprisingly heartfelt vocal stylings of what Randall had thought was a rather meretricious comedian. A sit-com silly-girl danced like a crystal nymph with another feature-length actress of higher status, and he was stunned to learn that they were not fakes.

No, these people were special, finely honed instruments. Their having been reduced to commodities for sale was but the ransom for a life of riches. They were worth more, it seemed to him, than the sum total of things they were known for. They were deeper than their tabloid dimensions. So, mindful of their reduction and massification, and given his long past of disdainful rebellion against such things, why did Randall want to be involved?

Because he did.

Rebellion, he’d decided, was stupid if nobody knew who you were or why you were doing it. The only revolution worth its salt was that acted out upon the stage of conformity. Doomed to failure, it at least provided those with free-spirited temperaments a distinctive role in the battle for success.

The actor Hat Midone, who’d been subjected to this particular discourse, agreed wholeheartedly. Randall gave Hat his card. Hat gave Randall his publicist’s.

R. chose a moment just after the party had peaked – when the A-list actress had opened a pantry revealing case after case of a quality tequila – to depart and, with his head held high lest everyone who was anyone be watching, rejected all pleas and temptations that he stay.

Heading out, the hostess caught up and intimated that this was not the last of it, that there would be more. He kissed her goodbye and coughed roughly enough for those in proximity to notice. Nonchalantly sweeping the room before exiting (stage left as it were) Randall saw that all the cigars he’d brought had been put to use.

Sometimes the world comes around to us.

Chapter Forty-three

Corey lay around the carpenter’s den Clarisse had made of what was once his living room, feeling out of sorts.

That the women in his life were confused about whether they wanted careers or family, girls or boys, gods or girls, should not serve to raise his plight above everyone else’s. Save for the touched-by-the-hand-of-God two percent who enjoy the pleasures and tortures of beautiful women falling at their feet, most men are driven to vertigo-inducing heights by the most uncomplicated maidens.

This is because men and women, despite legislation to make equal their pursuit of happiness as it is currently understood ($), are very, very different.

He opened up Yvonne’s now nearly world-famous spread in the magazine to drive the point home. It was a maxim not worth passing onto Randall for inclusion in their mutual (at times) brainchild, because anybody who didn’t know of this difference between genders was far beyond a mere bum. They were retarded.

Anyhow, it didn’t matter. He was flopping about, weighing Yvonne’s numerous and subtle advances against the odd little intimacies, pecks, whisperings, and caresses he’d witnessed between she and Joya. Somebody in another time, place, or culture might be repulsed by what he’d seen, but Corey just got hot. He understood completely the desire to do such things with the wonderful Joya, particularly because he was not a woman. He started to return the way from whence he came (Yvonne’s advances upon him), but realized this would only land him in the same place. So he decided to go outside and have a cigarette, since his wife forbade it inside the apartment each was tied to until a cataclysm could be forced by something, somewhere, somehow.

He had stashed a vanilla cigarette from the benefit/press conference that was sure to remind him of the woman he could not love – Joya – because he didn’t and, anyway, she wouldn’t, and was looking forward to sucking on it in lieu of her.

As he placed his hand upon the doorknob the phone rang. Corey, for a self-styled businessman, had rather uncommon, if very healthy attitudes about telephony. He felt in no way compelled to answer every time the technology beckoned. Telemarketing, a failing marriage, an extremely hot client, and a dissolute partner had all helped to deepen his conviction that, just because the phone rang, one was not necessarily obligated to pick it up.

At first blush this doesn’t sound exactly world reordering, but upon deeper consideration we are forced to recognize how it represents an intelligent urge to place a price on one’s access if not a damper upon their immediate prospects. And that was where Corey had changed in the past year or two; he no longer believed in fast opportunities, striking lightning, overnight success, faeries or hobbits. Luck was, indeed, something you made or placed yourself in a position to harvest and by the time something good happened to you, there was usually no shock, no jumping around for joy and drinks-all-around. Only the dull sense that a newer, farther-reaching challenge had come to occupy one’s horizon of desire.

That said, he had the poor judgment to turn around and answer. This in spite of the fact there was nothing he either wanted or needed from anybody else in the world at the moment. Just the opposite. To Corey, each ring of the phone meant he’d accumulated another task to crowd his already hectic days.

“How da hell ah ya?

It was his father and the utterance translates thusly (just this one time): “How the hell are you?”

“Hey Dad!” Corey responded as he always did to this towering, middling figure of withheld approval who affected his sense of self so much.

“I gaht your staff” (okay, once more) he referred to the fact he was in receipt of some stuff about the benefit/press conference which Corey’d mailed like some anxious cheerleader with an “A” affixed to her report card.

“Yeah?” he queried expectantly, boyish.

“What the fahk ah you up ta?” And in that moment Corey’s heart sunk in a way Clarisse, Yvonne nor Joya could never make it do. He said nothing because there was nothing to say. The judgment was in.

Typically, Corey would have said he was doing the best he could, but the question of course, was not one of effort, rather if the effort was focused upon the right things.

“Yah call this a jahb?”

Something snapped. It was not a big snap, for Corey would never break the ties that bound, but a snap nonetheless.

“I’m not interested in a fucking job. When are you going to learn that?” Corey scolded the dumbstruck patriarch. Dumbstruck not because there was any revelation in what his son had said. He had always suspected as much. Dumbstruck rather that his son knew it himself and had the pure and unadulterated balls to admit before God-the-Father with the spicy addition of an expletive he’d never uttered in his presence.

“Didjew just say fahk”?”

“Are ya deaf dad?”

But then Corey reverted to an (much) earlier edition of himself and regained composure, pulled in the horns. Enough damage to wreck the next ten years had just come out of his mouth, which had been driven not by reason, but passion. Reason feels good in soft and fleeting ways, as do most things we know to be correct and good for us. But passion is a heavy meal that satisfies and clogs the arteries in one same act.

Dad knew the forces of planetary energy had swung his way, as did his “boy,” so that the former took a sip of water while the latter sat down to take the tongue lashing the whistle whetting signified.

“Ah spent my life making things. Ah worked with my hands and at the end a each day we hahd sumtin to show four it. We were brahthers, the men ah did these things with and we ahl did it fuh something besides ahselves. Look at these people yah hanging owt wid, this cunt, who showd huh cunt in a magazine and wants money like doin’ sum such thing was wort anything. And it’s my boy who’s makin’ the case four huh. What? Shud ah show this to ya mahtha?”

Well, clearly Yvonne was not the kind of girl you brought home to mother (or father) – at least not as a possible candidate for continuing the family name. It would be tantamount to being sprung from thieves and whores in his dad’s mind.

Worse, viewed from the old man’s distant and distinctive perspective, Corey had to admit the point. What the hell was he doing? “Surviving,” he muttered to himself, unhappy with the lack of grace it echoed.

“Wha was zaht?” his father pierced his rumination.

“Nothin’ Dad, Nothin’.

“Damn right nahthin. Bum philosophy. Sum case! You proud-a that?”

Just as he’d done from the time he was old enough to talk, Corey refused to.

There was an uneasy silence, as there had been in so many countless conversations between them. Corey’s dad knew he’d made his point, too well in fact, and tried to backtrack.

And backtrack he did, right into an even bigger pile of quicksand-mixed-with-shit.
“Now howz that lahveley French girl yah mahrried?”

Chapter Forty-four

Jordan awoke at 6 a.m. with the residue of a dream about Joya flavoring his morning the unmistakable lightness of vanilla.

In this dream she was but a teenager and my God how beautiful to contemplate the downy colt with wispy thighs and soft face minus the stamp of big city life that now marked it. The exact circumstances were naturally foggy, but they involved other young people of Joya’s suddenly reduced age doing things people that age do. It was all happening around J., who seemed, if not the very same age he was at present, perhaps even older. He could not keep up with these sprites of silken hair and hippie wear. He could not bear the exclusivity of their world, which was so beautiful, but they did not know because they had been born into it and never left yet. He could not hide the agony of desire before the little-girl-Joya who could not understand and could only be fearful of all the love J. had in his heart and could not hide, either. They were in a retail mall, an outdoor retail mall, that had an upstairs and downstairs and yet somehow there was a moment with sweet baby-build-Joya upon a bed which she sat, knees up to her chin terrified, doe-eyed, before Jordan, denying him and negating. He awoke with a broken heart.

Jordan immediately rolled a Drumstick with a pepper sprinkling of weed to calm things inside. It was, he told himself (like billions before him), only a dream, but there was no denying that his heart was broken; his feet anchored to the beer-sticky kitchen floor. How could a dream break a man’s heart? It was impossible, but then again, so was a broken heart. It had all happened in the same domain of spirit and shadow and murky movements deep beneath the human mess, the human mass for which there is no obvious explanation or indicator. He was scared to death about what to do. In love with a lesbian, in love with a young lesbian who existed only in traces of the lesbian that occupied the same real-time as he.

Jordan tried to clear his mind with some music, but as is the case with all broken hearts, each song – each note even – was an arrow launched successfully into the afflicted region of his self. To top it off, he had to go to work.

He crossed the street and saw the ocean in the distance and yearned to be the same: overwhelming in the force of its physics, in the awesome fact that it could not be tamed; impassive and deadly active, beckoning like a blue marble hell to be loved, like genies in a dream, from a distance only.

It was throwing off great gusts of coolness and J. wrapped his army-issue jacket close to the form all his misery held. Carlos was already inside the coffee shop and Jordan could see one warm light burning through the receding cobalt, inviting enough that he might burn his fingers upon contact with it. At the beginning – in the morning – all seems fraught with danger.

He walked in. The musky rainforest smell of espresso grinds and mocha mix did not comfort him as it had in the first few days after hiring-on at Java World. Now it only sickened him with the reminder of low-wage labor, the hectoring of too-choosy clients, and the mechanical thunk of the punch clock.

Carlos was a good guy and he liked Jordan, but at such an ungodly hour his own demons had yet to recede and he issued the subtlest of nods in greeting. Crack, he opened a roll of nickels that rushed into their slot in the cash register. “Four-thousand years of civilization,” Jordan thought, assured in some odd way, “and still coins.”

The coffee machine belched and coughed as Carlos coaxed it into action with the help of electrical charges driven by the silky fluid mixed remains of giant lizards from another time. A time before adolescent Joya had knocked Jordan’s insignificant world right off its axis.

J. mechanically set to grabbing the plastic tables and chairs stacked in the now gray light, which served as beacon for addicted locals, and took them outside. Back and forth he went each of four laps incrementally accelerating the flow of his blood. There was a heavy wooden bench that stood just inside the door, in front of the cash register that confronted those entering. Without a single utterance, Carlos mashed a collection of pennies into their designated space in the register before grabbing one end as Jordan gripped the other.

It was too heavy, but together they could move it outside. There was something soothing in this mediocre ballet of cooperation the two struggling men performed between them on coffee shop mornings, but not today.

Today, the world was coming to an end.

Carlos continued with the more strategically important chores as Jordan took some Windex and sprayed the display counter that would soon hold all the muffins, cakes, turnovers and sticky-buns upon which the establishment’s fame rested. He felt gypped, like a child, when the aquamarine blue fluid atomized into an evanescent ammonia-smelling mist suitable only for war with smudges of oil.

He poured heavy cream into a metal bowl, poured sugar-like microscopic diamonds atop the velvety accepting surface before plunging the electric mixer into deep and inviting peace. It slowly thickened and J. remembered how thrilled he’d been to learn such a thing an how enthralling it was to possess the knowledge of whipped cream.

As was routine, the calm he and his colleague knew for ten odd minutes after everything was almost in place – before the baker showed up with his warm puffy treasures – broke with the arrival of a bubbly young blonde woman heading off to work at a fitness club. It was always a treat to see her in the black leotard, which spoke clearly of her own warm and sinewy treasures. Her voice was raspy and a splash of cold water to their spider-webbed awareness. Her order was born of a routine that early risers all possessed: double latte, toasted bagel with a little plastic container of Neûfchatel cheese. They could have had it waiting for her and once she even asked why they didn’t, but there was no answer forthcoming. The boys were shy in their way and if they had told her what a pleasure it was to have her stay just that little bit longer, she might have told them what a pleasure it was to oblige them.

The next arrival was a quiet and pleasant man appropriately named Sam who always ordered the always changing special flavored coffee of the day. He was a model of adventurous taste in a straightjacket of rhythm that made passing final judgment on his true nature impossible. One day, when the especially accented coffee was accidentally repeated from the day before, Sam left without breakfast.

This morning’s flavor was Belgian chocolate, which made J. smile and Sam too as he asked for a toasted bagel already prepared for him and then retreated into a quiet corner by the window where he read the paper with a nuclear physicist’s intensity.

Jordan was almost calm when the screen door screamed with the agony of some spring being twisted in a pain beyond its ability to quietly endure.

Looking up to serve, J.’s eyes met those of Detective Dumburton.

Carlos headed for the back door where a newfound concern with upkeep and maintenance drove him to performing the busboy’s duties.

Jordan played it cool. It kept surprising him, this capacity for icy behavior that he had never demonstrated during less serious, but somehow equally nerve-wracking experiences in his life.

“How ya doin’ punk?” Dumburton didn’t really ask.

“Broken heart,” J. retorted.

“You’re a real smart-guy aren’t ya?” Dumburton didn’t really ask (again).

“Yeah,” Jordan answered in a real smart-guy way and shook his head at how two people could physically occupy the same space and time, yet utterly different continuum of understanding.

The detective looked up at the pastel covered chalkboard for a moment. “Gimme a Shotgun,” he demanded.

The Shotgun was a drink offered up for delectation to only the sickest and unstable of souls in the community. There were surfers come in from hours of night riding who asked for a Shotgun, there was a strung-out Russian girl who asked for hers on credit and didn’t come back again until they’d forgotten how she’d never paid for it, and order another. There were many Shotgun victims, almost forgettable as they moved toward their quiet, speedy, and self-inflicted immolation.

“Why dontcha just buy yourself a line or two of cocaine?” Jordan didn’t really ask.

“Because I don’t do drugs,” his nemesis snarled, “they’re against the law.”

An uncomfortable moment passed (was another kind possible?) between them and Jordan looked back to catch Carlos craning his neck whilst planted on the last rung of the wooden stairway to the broom and mop storage area. The Mexican was terrified. He could smell cop through a hundred cups of espresso and Chai tea and the manifold sins committed over years of desperate, junkyard dog survival could not help but lead him to believe that, when the scent wafted through, atonement time had come.

Somebody else walked into Java World and Jordan made an expression with two bug-eyes in a plea to his colleague for some assistance. Carlos did not budge. Jordan did it again, the second time being the charm. Carlos returned and Jordan told him, “This whey wants a Shotgun.”

Carlos nodded submissively, retreating into the roll of dumb and pleased-to-satisfy-you Mexican that served him so well when the white man’s world turned threatening.
Jordan tried to hide somewhere in the four-by-four area allotted the three (the bus boy’s coming) coffee workers – without success.

“So,” the hunter spit, “I understand you hate Armenians.” Squeezing a trickle of black muck out of the cast-iron machine in front of him Carlos turned an attentive ear while keeping his eyes clear of Dumburton’s.

“Spare me the crossword puzzle Dumburden. It’s too early in the morning.”

“Burton. Alright asshole, I’ve been doing a little checking and learned about how you got your clock cleaned by the Armenian Power gang a little while back.”

“You gonna prosecute me for that?” Jordan didn’t really ask.

“No, but the crone you offed at county was Armenian.”


It is moments such as these that do the amateur murderer in and it was only by the grace of the God he did not believe in that Jordan realized something. “I never offed anybody and I do believe I got beaten up after the poor woman croaked and by the way, where the fuck were you when those guys were pounding on me? Having a coffee?”

Carlos stepped away from the machine and plunked Dumburton’s Shotgun on the glass case. Jordan looked back and saw the machine was still pumping black tar into the grill beneath the spigot; a clear sign his colleague had short-circuited the concocting of a full Shotgun for a sawed-off version before Jordan responded himself right into jail. For Carlos knew (from experience) that legal language was different than regular language and rigged by legislators and bureaucrats so that the normal and correct answers were what got you into trouble.

You had a beer and got pulled over for making a bad turn. The cop asks if you’ve been drinking. You say “yes, one beer,” because it is true and because one beer does not get you drunk. But the cop’s directions are to pull you out of the car because once you’ve admitted to drinking, you’ve given him probable cause to believe you are drunk. This is because in the skewed eyes of the law one cannot drink without getting drunk since drinkers don’t make the laws about drinking when, really, they’re the experts.

But back to the sword fight.

“Anyway,” Jordan added despite Carlos’ savvy efforts, “that’s too bad for Armenia.”

“What’s too bad for Armenia?” Dumburton wanted to know.

“That the old lady died.”

“So you don’t deny it?”

“Deny what?” Jordan asked, for real, intent upon making Dumburton work every step down his path to condemnation.

“That you hate Armenians.”

“Wouldn’t you?”

“I wouldn’t do anything you would.”

“That’s why you’re having a Shotgun.” Carlos laughed and Dumburton scowled the smirk right off the Mexican’s face and then Jordan told him the price and requested he pay up and move on, that there was work to do.

“I don’t pay,” Dumburton explained.

“I think you do,” Jordan explained.

“Call the cops,” Dumburton suggested and turned to leave. But then he came back and put a roll of bills (to be sorted out and quantified later) in the tip jar that was the lifeblood of both baristas.

There is somewhat the thug in many a copper. Their passion for the mean streets and the steel-hard erection of a gun barrel speak of just how close they are to the men and women with whom they routinely do battle.

It wasn’t that Dumburton wanted to tip Jordan (or even Carlos whom he vaguely recognized). No, he only wanted to get away with what he was supposed to, which is how many honorable crooks approach things.

The detective left Java World after having sat around a while for the simple purpose of torturing Jordan and the Mexican guy who was clearly up to no good. Carlos was beginning to break a sweat and when Dumburton finally departed he heaved a shot-putter’s sigh of relief.

“Relax,” Jordan said, “he’s not here for you.”

“Relaz? Wadju mean relaz?”

“I know you think the cop is here for you. He’s not.”

“Hees here for ebrybody.”

Jordan had never looked at it in that way before.

“I know dees cop. Detectif Dumboorting.”

“I thought you seemed a little fearful.”

“No feefor! Careful. Jou know, I am a famish cholo around Eenglewood.”

“Yeah,” Jordan said, “you’ve told me a couple of hundred times already.”

“Wash out for dat fucker. Hees good!”

Jordan was beginning to get just that idea and the thought terrified him. Surely it was only a matter of time before he was caught. What would Dumburton have to do? Get a warrant for his arrest, take him in for some fingerprinting, match his with those on the machines Jordan had unplugged, put him in a police line-up for the orderly to identify? It didn’t have to be hard, but he’d make it so, go kicking and screaming all the way to the big house.

These and other thoughts on the unstable nature of all existence were interrupted by the baker’s arrival. His name was Martin – another Mexican. That meant that Jordan had to call him “Marteen,” which was the proper pronunciation. He was a marvelous artist in his way, each day bringing the obligatory blueberry muffins, cinnamon rolls and other treats in an arsenal that was varied and a threat to all wasteline watchers. He rolled in, blustery, his eyes weighed down by the sleeplessness with which his life of 4 a.m. wake-up calls burdened him. “Ay whey,” he applied the Latino vernacular to Jordan.

“Whey hey,” Jordan mangled their language the way they mangled his. His eyes grew wide at the sticky buns and the white chocolate-chip muffins Marteen had cooked up for the morning.

As noted earlier, part of the employee deal at Java World was free food and most mornings presented such dilemmas for Jordan. “I maked eet hart for jou to choose, eh?” Marteen smiled as Jordan cooed over the gooey dough bombs and crumbly cakes and tried to decide which it would be, sticky bun or white chocolate-chip muffin, white chocolate-chip muffin, or sticky bun?

Carlos and Marteen exchanged familiarities in Spanish, none of which their American counterpart was intended to, nor could, understand. Jordan did hear the name “Dumbooorting,” rear its ugly head through their spirited jabber followed by Carlos jutting his lightly bearded chin over in his direction. Marteen smiled. “El choto wants jou, eh?”

Jordan smiled back. There was fun in seeming dangerous in the company of dangerous people. “Wha you did?”

“I killed an old lady.”

Once again, the stressful yet stimulating circumstances of being a suspected and actual criminal got the best (or the worst) of Jordan as he made a confession that might easily have earned him an injection of heart-stilling chemicals.

Both Mexicans stared at him dumbfounded.

Jordan smiled sheepishly. “No I didn’t. I’m having a little problem with some stocks
I sold a year or so ago.”

The Mexicans seemed to buy it, which was a pretty good sign that they had not bought it. These were not greenhorns to the criminal justice system. They knew that matters of financial and/or white-collar crimes – white people crimes – were handled by pansy agencies like the Securities Exchange Commission – not hard-asses like Dumboorting. And they knew a confession born of the need to let loose some incredible tension when they heard one.

Chapter Forty-five

“Hon, I’m a lesbian,” Joya told the city attorney on their second date.

“What do you mean you’re a lesbian?”

Joya did not know how she might respond to a query so idiotic and, alas, so demonstrative of the fact that, no matter how eminent or well-prepared one can be, streaks of stupidity run through (practically) all of us.

Though no great practitioner of bum philosophy, Joya made a mental note that she should make this contribution (No matter how well-prepared, streaks of stupidity run through practically all of us) to Randall’s creed.

But we must arrest the forward progress of things for a second and recap precisely how we got to a crazy point of confidence whereby Jordan is confessing murder and Joya is confessing her sexual preference before a mid- to high-ranking elected official.

That she was conflicted about City Attorney has been explained. Like her cohorts, Joya, in spite of her down-to-earth, no-nonsense personality, was somewhat taken with the fact so elevated a personage was taken with her. That she was lesbian did not mean Joya had never been with a man or was completely immune to a particularly debonair specimen of the gender. It merely meant she was more prone to feminine charms and things feminine; a weakness she shared with a little bit more or less than the entire human race.

The Smokers were completely au courant with what passed for café society in the city. That Vindaloo Baxley was buying Clarisse’s suddenly prodigious output was already news along the art gallery circuit. That Randall’s intellectual demeanor was being lionized by the performance-and-bright-lights crowd was almost as important as the rapacious attacks his tiny effort had garnered from the keepers of tradition and everyone else’s property. That considerable klatches of men and women city-wide were having recurrent sexual fantasies about Yvonne became tangible through the support she enjoyed in her bid to scalp the magazine industry of the money it had scalped from her.

The upshot was that The Sidewalk Smokers Club phenomena had taken hold among the all-important and trend-abiding class that cut across large swathes of different demographic sets. As such, sidewalk smoking became something of the thing to be seen doing – a cheap and ready-made glamour of which everybody could partake.

One such clustering was occurring on the commercial strip out in front of Joya’s Joyas and, unfortunately for her, stores adjacent to it. And, as is common with a lot of anti-social behavior for which young people are responsible, there was no immediate profit to be had by proprietors other than Joya, who was a famed member of the club proper.

Envy, being both the easy emotion and recourse it is, soon popped up amongst Joya’s neighbors-in-commerce and during a monthly meeting of the area business improvement district, known locally and colloquially as the BID – of which she was a second vice president or something – the matter came up. Actually, it did more than come up. The members, in spite of Joya’s charm and sweetness (perhaps because of them), passed a motion directing the bicycle-bound security guards in the BID’s employ to use their considerable bulk and move the little smoking darlings on their way.

The reasons for this action were clear as day, even if the air on the sidewalk was not: they were creating a health hazard for passers by. In addition, so great was the concentration of smoke that it often drifted into the stores, leaving them smelling like a Greyhound bus station circa 1966. While these retailers were in the business of drawing the coolest of the cool kids – the researchers and spontaneous creators of evolutionary looks, all this smoking was turning out to be much better for bum philosophy than for selling expensive, recycled clothing from 40 years ago.
At least that’s what the merchants said.

Joya had been one of those pooh-poohing the neighborhood’s civil libertarians who took exception to a police force not remunerated at the public trough and accountable only to a bunch of (mostly) ladies with prissy sensibilities. To be sure, the security team had been effective in moving the once-prominent underclass of transients, bead-threaders, rejected musicians, and persistent dancers along to less organized districts of the city and Joya had naught but thanks and hallelujahs for its efforts.

But the arguments of gadflies and cranks had taken on new meaning for her and so, partly because she found City Attorney attractive, and partly because she might need his help, Joya had called him and proposed they meet again over drinks.
Ill-advisedly, she opted for the Argentine restaurant as point of rendezvous.

Joya contacted the proprietor to provide advance notice that she would be showing up with the city attorney. The Argentine was still on the phone when ideas for exploiting such a notable presence to the establishment’s benefit started churning through his mind-factory. Joya – being a small businessperson herself – sensed this and explained that all smoking would best be done out on the sidewalk, for his own good.

“Ob course!” the owner exclaimed and she imagined him slapping his own forehead at the realization. No sooner had she hung up then he began anew to ruminate on The Sidewalk Smokers Club, the special juice their presence had brought to his establishment, and on possible ways to continue this unique and useful relationship.

So, following a rich and sumptuous meal, City Attorney, loose with two bottles of red wine, began to tease Joya in a stupid, roundabout way he would ultimately come to regret.

“So how is the sidewalk smoking game?”

Joya, always well-meaning, but possessing of a lynx’s shrewdness lunged at the throat of the thing. “Well the BID is upset with all the people smoking out on the sidewalk since the day of the benefit/press conference and they want security to clear them out.”

“So?” City Attorney responded in the inimitable fashion of public officials everywhere, trying to enjoy their power without having to use it for some positive or generous end.

“So?” Joya snapped, “those sidewalk smokers don’t want to go.”

“Take them into your club then.”

“Hey City Attorney, I’m being serious,” Joya huffed and City Attorney huffed at his own miscalculation that she, because of her beauty and vocational choice, was the type of woman who would not bother with serious things.

So he got serious.

“Did the BID make a final decision on this?” She nodded that it had. “So, if the smokers don’t want to go you know what will happen don’t you?”

“Of course I know what’ll happen. They’ll remove ‘em by force.”

“And you wanted to use the occasion of your second date with the city attorney to press the case for your scruffy allies.”

“You brought it up hon.”

That was true and City Attorney regretted having done so, but like most people of pull and influence, had not disabused himself of the notion that Joya was in some way seeking to use him. And thus do we arrive at the question that produced the answer that opened this chapter – Chapter Forty-five.

He was a hard-boiled man, used to dealing with other hard-boiled types, calling their bluffs, drawing them out, muscling them for an advantage in the mostly extreme sport that is politics.

It is the nature of modern American democracy that those who run it are largely removed from those who must live-out the effects of the high-flown and arcane legalese they employ. And so City Attorney had failed to grasp, after some six or seven hours total in Joya’s company, that she was a small businessperson, sensitive if driven, and honest in her conversation with folks when he made the following pronouncement (obviously off-the-record and far-from-the-press): “So if you let me finger the family jewels, there might be some mild pressure out of the city attorney’s office to sway the BID from its misguided ways?”

Joya was hurt, as any scheming lady of high self-esteem might be, but the remark amounted to a knife jab and naturally spattered its author with blood he had himself drawn.

“Hon, “I’m a lesbian,” she said.

“What do you mean you’re a lesbian?” the city attorney responded.

As noted above, Joya did not know how she might respond to a query so idiotic and, alas, so demonstrative of the fact that, no matter how eminent or well-prepared one can be, streaks of stupidity run through (almost) all of us.

So she said nothing at all; the point made in any case. Joya was, she realized in that moment, not trading pussy for influence. Wasn’t trading at all, in fact. She wanted his influence all on its lonesome, because it was right and correct. “City Attorney, if you think what the BID plans to do is in line with whatever the city and its laws stand for, that’s fine, hon. You should be able ta deal with whatever pressure results from the whole thing.”

“So now, instead of offering sex, you’re threatening me,” City Attorney smiled wearily.

“My actions are legal and I, for one, don’t appreciate the word threat.” Joya breezily responded. “Especially if you think you’re carrying out the duties of your office in a correct way...hon.”

He wanted to tell her that something could be legal and political and still be certifiably threatening, but felt if he needed to explain that, he’d need to explain a lot more basic stuff first. So he passed.

Let the pretty girl ride, you see.

City Attorney was about to ask for the check and sweep Joya and the whole damn affair under the table when things took a turn most uncomfortable for him, but delightful for the purposes of our story.

“No, no, noooo!” the proprietor of the restaurant half yelled and half whispered as Randall swooped gallantly into the restaurant blowing a rather erect Prince Edward cigar at all who were breathing.

Which raises the question of what on earth the proprietor had been thinking when he personally invited The Sidewalk Smokers Club, en toto, to his restaurant only moments after slapping his forehead at the realization that indoor puffing would definitely be out of the question, what with Joya bringing the city attorney along.

Possessed by a celebrity mania many small businesspeople are prone to where the issues of promotion and marketing are concerned, the Argentine had decided to summon his most glamorous group of regulars and notify certain friends of friends of paparazzi regarding the veritable starburst providence had directed his way. His metier was meat. Promotion – handled by special departments in larger and richer organizations – was not. And so he’d failed to make the not-too-subtle connection between Joya’s warning and the outcome that inviting a class of social rebels on the rise ultimately pointed to.

Randall’s sucksex, his hanging out with stars, and the promising possibility of further media coverage at Yvonne’s upcoming court hearing, all led him to wave the Argentine’s protests away with a flippant hand. Unwilling to offend an important regular, the restaurateur fretted and frothed, looked back and forth between City Attorney and the human chimney and opted for the courageous path into the kitchen and out of the way.

Randall saw Joya and casually approached, kissing her on both cheeks in the continental way before pulling up a nearby chair to join City Attorney – with whom he’d already had one public exchange.

“Funny,” said CA, “we were just talking about you.”


“Well, your club actually.”

“The Sidewalk Smokers is,” he repeated what he’d said at the A-list actress’s party, “a loosely affiliated group of tobacco connoisseurs that has no actual leaders and functions without a vertical command structure.”

“That’s quaint,” is what City Attorney thought to himself. “Well enough,” is what he said, kicking himself under the table for the original sin of permitting the pretty Coloradoan to buttonhole him at an event he should have never attended in the first place.

With City Attorney having said nothing to him about Randall’s smoking, the Argentine grew emboldened and proposed the party move to a large table set right smack in the center of the floor arrangement.

Swept along by a fatalistic current inexplicably stronger than his usually formidable will to resist, City Attorney consented, along with his tablemates, to the suggestion, which was designed by the proprietor to accommodate the full compliment of photographers he’d arranged for.

Randall, though still far from death, was making headway in the plan for ruining his health. He had a persistent hacking cough and a voice quite raspy. “So, hugcffck, what are you guys talking about?”

“We’re talking about the BID’s plan to move smokers off my block by force.”

“If they have to,” CA interjected.

Randall coughed again as he would do throughout what remains to be recounted of the evening. Further mention will be limited to a tag toward this chapter’s end. “And what are you going to do about that Mr. City Attorney?”

Mr. City Attorney frowned. There was nothing to be gained from any of this. With news the beautiful Joya was a lesbian, even getting laid was out of the question and getting laid is one of the few things politicians in the post-ideological world will go out on a limb for. “Listen,” he said, adopting a tone more in line with his public persona than with the intimate one he’d been treating Joya to. “I know we’ve already had a rather caustic exchange, but if you could stretch your capacity for deference just a bit more, I’ll extend the same courtesy.”

“You need that? Deference?”

Randall had gone most of his life without receiving anything like respect and a sudden novelty dosage of it wasn’t about to keep him from this chance at rubbing significant power the wrong way.

City Attorney ducked. “That cigar is rancid. And listen to the way you’re coughing.”

“I know, finally.”

“And your voice is raspy,” City Attorney barreled ahead, not at all registering the response just lobbed at him like some absurdist grenade. “What are you trying to do, wreck your health?”

Randall sheepishly admitted to the madness of his designs. “Yeah.”

City Attorney’s impassive facade was about to crack when another cool breeze blew over the place and the Argentine burst into an “Oooug” that, in turn, caused everybody in the restaurant to look up and utter a collective gasp at the standard-setting frame of Yvonne sashaying through the door in a bumptious way that suggested a return to the groove.

It took but a second for City Attorney to recognize what was, at the moment, the municipality’s most recognizable body politic. “Great,” he grimaced.

“Hey!” she smiled to each and each followed Joya’s lead in getting up to kiss her.

Of course, the balance of sexual energy had shifted between the two ladies with Yvonne now holding the Royal Straight Flush and Joya the red lust blush.

City Attorney could not help but be attracted to Yvonne and the chemistry grew even stronger when she planted something beyond the customary cheek peck and mashed Joya’s lips. But that would be getting ahead of himself; something he’d never been guilty of (up to now). “Take courage,” his personal narrator bucked him up in honeyed tones, “succeed and you will know greatness.”

They knew (City Attorney and his narrator) that being seen in the company of lesbians and violators of the Smoke-Free Workplace Act would run him afoul of the city’s civic fathers and mothers whose support was absolutely indispensable to his bid for the mayoralty. But meekly bailing out on the moment’s coolest crowd would surely set a painful rumor about his own clamminess running through the marginal hipster class he needed for votes and that certain something: a variety that lent his candidacy the true coalition’s sense of grandeur and inevitability.

These were the thoughts, which had nearly pulled him out of their orbit when Yvonne snapped at him. “Stop staring at my pussy.”

A man with a track record, he could not imagine ever having been confronted in such a manner by so sexy a girl-thing before and made a face to match the sentiment. His thoughts might have been on politics, but his eyes were indeed focused, as Yvonne accused, on her pussy and there were no two ways about it.

City Attorney stopped staring and with as much aplomb as could be mustered in this fast-decaying political situation, suggested they all sit down.

“What are you guys talking about?” Yvonne wanted to know. Randall and Joya replayed what had been discussed to that point.

“Well, what do you have to say?” Yvonne turned to City Attorney.

“I say people elect representatives to speak for them and interpret their wishes in law. What do you think?” he asked Yvonne, careful to look straight at her eyes, and only her eyes.

Randall interrupted, sensing the moment was a collective one and that it was his to speak for the group: “That the smoking law is a totalitarian slice of American reality and that those effected either don’t know or don’t care.”

“I was talking to Yvonne,” City Attorney said, comfortable the exchange was deteriorating into rhetoric; a form of discussion he excelled at.

“We’re The Sidewalk Smokers Club, in case you hadn’t heard,” Randall practically declaimed. “I’m our spokesman and chief theorist, purveyor of The Bum Philosophy.”

“The Bum Philo-”

“You’re talking about the old stewardship theory of representation,” Yvonne elbowed her way in. Of course, we know by now how she is no dope. Still, Yvonne resides in the very pretty girl’s prison so that for every demonstration of having listened to her high school tutors, surprise results.

“And,” she persisted in having a role in policy, “it’s a poor remedy compared to the more direct actions of our Club.”

Yvonne’s recent incursion into the world of serious had seasoned her language to sound something like a lawyer’s, and City Attorney liked it. “We’re the only true outlaws left,” she rolled on, “except for bankers and drug lords, but we think smokers have more appeal and are less dangerous.”

They had thought about these things, he could see, and was further intrigued by the inexorable pull of their true ingenuity and energy.

“You know who hon,” Joya picked up the thread. “All those people in the corner whisperin’ to one another, showin’ solidarity to one another. Protecting the tradition of doin’ whatever the hell it is ya want.”

She was talking about the whole free country thing and The Smokers were suggesting it was a bust, that it had been abandoned in atrocities like the Smoke-Free Workplace Act. CA found a younger version of himself quietly agreeing and slammed that person back behind the door to the past; for thoughts like that are luxuries of youth. They do not consider the grey men with plumed pedigrees and hands on the levers; the men City Attorney had to go to when he needed things.

“I think you’re pumping yourselves up,” he tried.

“No,” Randall rejoined, “we’re being pumped up by people.”

“And you like it don’t you?”

“Same way you’re asking for votes to be everyone’s mayor. Like it’d be a really big favor,” Randall sought to link their methods.

City Attorney was giving up on the glib and difficult approach. He was being pulled back to distant days of all-night student council meetings and congresses of protest. He was rediscovering his curiosity about society lying beneath layer upon layer of political necessity accumulated over the years.
Randall coughed.

Folks at surrounding tables had taken notice of the gathered luminaries. In one corner the patrons had reserved their table for the evening in hopes The Sidewalk Smokers Club would actually show up. To meet them might be of tremendous utility.
The Smokers, meanwhile, had moved onto the question of alternatives (to tobacco).

“Cocaine,” Yvonne trilled enthusiastically enough. City Attorney thought that somehow, some way, everything she said and did could lead him down a happy path to destruction.

“Legally, you’re better off being a murderer than getting caught with it,” Randall chimed. “Leads you straight into the merciless maw of the American criminal justice system.”

“A death silent, poisonous and slow,” Yvonne said.

The American legal system they all so clearly disdained just happened to be City Attorney’s bread and butter. And that was bad because what they were saying made perfect sense to him. He’d stopped hanging out, long ago, with anyone who thought anything like them – like people out on the sidewalk with cigarettes in their mouths.

“And marijuana?” Joya joined, “not like what it was back in the day. You know, that kind a free-floatin’ bluegrassy thing. That’s all over now. It’s just weed and it’s harmless except for the laws against it. They can get you killed. The little hippy farmers are all gone and now the worst kind of violent people are in charge of meeting the demand.”

“Which happens to be incredible,” Yvonne added for emphasis.

“Incredible,” City Attorney sighed, thinking of how many perfectly good lives the law had obligated him to ruin in the discharge of his duties.

At this point another “Ooooog” punctuated the atmosphere and those present no longer bothered to look at the restaurateur, turning immediately to the door instead. There they saw Corey and Clarisse making their way in. It was a bittersweet sight, for everyone knew what was going on (or not) between them. And yet there was a residue of behavior natural to a couple as they waltzed up to the table and were introduced to City Attorney. Clarisse shoved herself in between Joya and Yvonne. Corey went over to his mentor who had the city attorney immediately next to him.

“Anyhow it doesn’t matter man,” Randall picked up what passed for a thread in this game of verbal dodge-ball. “Connecting the dots on three or four related thoughts such as these is something now beyond the reach of our people, not because they are stupid, but because it is no longer required of them.”

“I don’t see your point,” CA prodded, failing (in a second malfunction of his political antennae) to notice the two scruffy-headed photographers peering through the front window every now and again, “maybe I got lost with the arrival of your two friends.”

“The point is that we are to avoid imperiling our health at all costs. And the point hurts if that’s not where your interests lie.”

Corey caught Randall’s beat. “Obedient for one reason; to help make a machine that works fairly well continue to do so.”

City Attorney had a feeling he was part of a tag-team-wrestling match without the benefit of an equalizing partner. Outgunned, he was forced to listen.

“And then we’re free – for minimal stretches of time – to choose the electronic diversion of our choice,” Corey closed the movement.

“You guys have practiced this haven’t you?” the candidate said slyly.

“It’s the smoking part of the Bum Philosophy,” Yvonne pitched-in.
City Attorney wanted to remark on how this seemed the most developed part of the Bum Philosophy, but things were crackling. “You’re in on this, too?” he asked her in return.

“Well, I pick it up when we get together to talk about my lawsuit,’ she told his two eyes firmly trained upon hers.

“And then she passed it onto me and I passed it onto another smoker,” Joya added, which was more or less true if a tad overstated, as was much of what they said.

For The Smokers were in the business of cultivating their own legend now, their own cottage industry, and excess was part and parcel to the task at hand. And to avoid breaking down their every rapid-fire interjection, again in the name of expeditious narration, we beg your admission that they were all on the same page where smoking and the rights necessary to indulge the vice are concerned. In this way we may lay out what was left of their lecture to City Attorney in the author’s shimmering and forthright prosody.

“You know,” Yvonne asserted, “in all those papers, the Constitution, and Declaration there must be a plan for protecting people who don’t act like everyone else.”

Yvonne’s point is fundamental to what The Club was all about. Majorities get their rights; the out-manned get trouble. The Smokers were adopted the philosophy they could afford.

By now each had fired up (a smoke) in the presence of his eminence. The violinist’s golden melancholia made the situation more serious, but less fierce than it sounds.

“I think Hamilton and Jefferson and Madison, and alla them would be for the smokers,” Joya stated, her cigaretted hand waving a small circle with each embalmed leader. “(Swoop) Hamilton, (swoop) Jefferson, (swoop) Madison, and (swoop-swoop) alla them…”

“And probably Ethan Allen and Paine,” Randall worked to control the image and its content.

“Yeah, and dats what cool ees,” Clarisse added on. “And that’s why people likes cool.”

“So that all those men of radically different political stripes were concerned about was cool?” City Attorney tried to ground things in what passed for reality, but their definition of radical and his own were not the same.

“They’re blessed in that way,” Corey said.

“Who?” City Attorney was lost because he’d been ignored and that was new for him.

“The anti-social, the cynical, the health unconscious, the baby-haters, and frantic fornicators,” Randall enumerated for him. “Man, we flatter them all with our attention.”

“And they admire The Smokers,” Yvonne said in husky, prepared voice, “because smoking is a middle-finger to the world.”

“And?” City Attorney sat rather flabbergasted.

“And the rest have the same middle-finger tucked away. They’re scared.”

“And The Sidewalk Smokers are not scared?” City Attorney was hoping for a certain answer.

“Sure we are hon. We just don’t let on s’all.”

And that was it.

Randall stepped in to finish the job. “For no matter how much the new century’s overlords try to reduce all freedoms to mere obedience, there will persist a genuine human urge to vice and release.”

“People will always pollute themselves for pleasure,” Corey bum-philosophized.
Randall beamed.

In the end, it was all really quite invigorating to City Attorney. He was won over completely. To live in truth! These Smokers were speaking to the higher (if still middling) calling of politicians, philosophers, and artists through the prism of a filthy, smelly, perilous habit.

“I’ve got to pee,” he blurted rather out of character for a fellow of his stature, but presently The Smokers recognized something of a kindred spirit in him, someone who could follow the train of their thoughts and empathize without smoking.

With that he got up and went back to the bathroom. A slice, a twinkle of light filled the restaurant for an instant causing everybody to look out at the sidewalk save for City Attorney who, in a third failure of his political radar, had not seen it.

“Photographers! Oh, nooo,” cried Yvonne who’d seen enough of the breed to last a lifetime.

“Okay,” Clarisse turned to Joya, “what you are doing wid dat ceetty atterny?”

Everyone else turned toward the Coloradoan with an identical hunger for the same information.

“You’re asking me to lie,” she said, “and I won’t do that,” which came from nowhere and made them all feel a little queer.

Meanwhile, City Attorney was evolving. Having relieved what was, by then, considerable pressure on his bladder, the candidate splashed some water around, stared into the mirror and meditated over his natural born politician’s face. Then he thought about how folks in the restaurant had been staring at The Sidewalk Smokers, smiling, wanting to be with them or like them, understanding them. He marveled at how he’d sat there as they openly flouted the law. And he thought they were right about what was behind their success and he went beyond their own justifications to observe more (he flattered himself) deeply still.

“What’s cool?” City Attorney played it cool upon returning. “Elvis? The days of lost innocence? Working-class boys in leather jackets? Hot rods? A pack of Luckys rolled up in a white shirt sleeve?”

“That’s a start,” said Yvonne.

“But there’s so much more, hon.”

“You guys,” he told them, “are right in the mainstream with your retroactivity. You mirror perfectly a people too afraid of future challenges.”

The Smokers were correct in feeling stung by the criticism about fear and the future. Weren’t they being brave?

“You gotta have balls to go it alone,” was the best Corey could add to the progression of things.

“There is the matter of our celebrity,” Yvonne pointed out.

City Attorney smiled. You would have, too. “What you mean to say is that you’re selling well.”

She nodded and blew smoke at him.

“Market performance as ultimate arbiter?” he was in hot pursuit, he thought.

“Not for me, but others are impressed.”

“You guys are the desire of those working too hard to play. They chose their slavery and they delight in you, unlikely examples of our rugged individualism– city style, I suppose. I congratulate you for being natural outlaws who have made smoking a good kind of bad again.”

His lower lip had drooped ever so slightly. He’d grown effusive, shown his heart damn it. And he had to pee again. His system was reacting to the modest abuse The Smokers subjected themselves to on a daily basis. He was afraid he could not run with the big dogs anymore, or at least the hot dogs.

Anyhow it didn’t matter. Good kind of bad or not, smoking was still smoking – indoors at that – and no sooner had City Attorney returned to the restroom than Thorpe and Diaz verily stormed their way through the door and up to The Sidewalk Smokers Club’s table.

The Argentine had received warning, but chose not to act because he thought City Attorney’s presence would immunize his establishment from any danger. He thought, because exceptional people were dining in his establishment, he would be the beneficiary of exceptional treatment. And he was right, but failed to consider the possibility of his legal shield absenting himself in the moment of truth.

The inspectors made a B-line for Yvonne and told her she was in violation of The Smoke-Free Workplace Act, and that they were going to fine her. She pointed out those around her, all of them smoking, and asked, “Well, um, how come me?”

Because she was the pretty girl in the naked magazine was how come. Everyone knew this, but nobody was going to say it. Yvonne, not unlike CA and the rest, had been marking a brisk pace where the consumption of wine was concerned and the usual deleterious effects had taken hold. Which is how things get interesting and why you can’t knock booze too hard. Thorpe handed her a citation off his clipboard and she told him to place it in a not-very-public part of his anatomy.

In the kitchen the Argentine had his chef pour him a glass of the cooking sherry kept over the searing stove for just such instances.

“Ma’am, we can talk about it outside,” Thorpe deadpanned Yvonne.

“Ma’am!” Talk about an affront. Remember that Yvonne had been through quite a bit of late, what with the layout and the lawsuit and Joya’s scrambling of her radar and it is understandable, or at least explainable, how she reached back and gave Thorpe a slap he would remember with exquisite pleasure for years thereafter.

The inspector grabbed Yvonne and wrenched her by the wrist into a bear hug with him.

Another slicing of the dark with a sliver of silver. The camera lights imposed their staccato sequencing. “Get some police back-up,” Thorpe told Diaz who was not enthusiastic about having to run out while his partner got to wrestle with Yvonne. “I’m having you arrested for striking a public official,” Thorpe said, hopeful there was a law of that kind on the books.

That no one had intervened or even sought to comment on a young woman’s being apprehended by firemen for smoking a cigarette, or something like that, stuck in Randall’s craw. He stood up, coughed and, in yet another attempt at climbing into the elusive public eye, said, “Hey, take me. I was smoking, too.” Thorpe could not have cared less if Randall smoked a firecracker in the restaurant. But for the sake of appearances, he explained to Randall that it was the slap which had gotten Yvonne in the real trouble, not the smoking.

“So that if smoking were okay, none of this would be happening?” Randall scored.

This, Thorpe wisely concluded, was a conversation for legislators, which he was not.

So he tried to end it. “Like I said. You didn’t hit nobody. You can’t be arrested.”

So Randall hit him. Sliver-Slice.

When the pretty girl hits you, she must be apprehended in a public and officious manner, because you want her in your clutches as long as possible. When some goofy guy in glasses hits you, it’s more between guys and so Diaz lent his partner a hand by using a common wrestling move which brought Randall harmlessly, if clumsily to the ground. Silver strobe. Silver strobe. Stop. Go. Stop.

Puppies chained to their chairs, the diners groaned in disapproval for there was all this unseemly injustice unfolding in the middle of their repast.

Thorpe’s instincts told him to get out before he had another sidewalk rebellion on his hands and this he did. But not without securing Yvonne as close to his person as legal propriety permitted (which is pretty close).

She, of course, was ravishing with an over-the-shoulder look, a soft-peril masking.

He wrenched her wrist into a pieta of distress. Silver-sliver-silver-sliver. No sooner had Thorpe removed her to the sidewalk than a black-and-white pulled up and with nary a howdy-do she was whisked away into the dark entrails of the city criminal justice system. Sliver.

City Attorney came out at this point as Corey helped a rumpled Randall to his feet. “I missed something didn’t I?”


Chapter Forty-six

Jordan, of course, was missing from this tectonic occurrence in the goings-on of his cohorts, for when one has profound personal problems the ability for public interaction becomes limited.

And this was precisely Jordan’s predicament. Due to a redundant sense of worry, he’d been staying in, avoiding the white glare that seemingly followed The Smokers everywhere now, making preparations to meet the dark clouds gathering just off his horizon.

But to no avail really, for the morning after Chapter Forty-five had taken place, while Jordan enjoyed his first coffee and cigarette, Dumburton dropped by with a piece of paper requiring that Jordan follow him down to the police station for questioning.

J. was in pajamas, bathrobe and slippers and so he asked Dumburton for a minute to dress. The detective said sure and proceeded to step into Jordan’s space when the door was slammed in his face.

“What are ya doing?” the detective snarled through the cheap slab of wood separating them.

“Getting dressed man,” Jordan snarled back, “Your paper doesn’t say ya get to come into my bedroom, too.”

This was not spontaneous, but by design. J. had engaged in some research and preparation for what he now felt to be an inevitable confrontation with the gargoyles of public order. This prep consisted exclusively of delving through his local entertainment outlet’s collection of film noir classics and a similar raiding of the local bookstore for the works of Mickey Spillane, Dashiel Hammett, and Jordan’s favorite, Ray Chandler.

In this search for an edge he’d decided upon a technique, whereby he battled, parried, dodged, and slipped his tormentors; creating every step of the way, brick by brick, a case for whatever lawyer would be stuck with the job of defending Jordan from charges that were, in fact, true.

What he harvested were thirty or forty hours of delightful entertainment (and suspense) capped-off by a collection of wiseacre lines, some borrowed and some original, the latter coming to Jordan as he slowly became imbued with the spirit of the mid-century gumshoe.

And so, he met Dumburton outside his place in a tuxedo.

Those who are pulling for Jordan, and wondering how it was he chose what would appear to be a not-very-helpful strategy for breaking clear of the law’s claws, must admit that he’s taking things like a man and having a good time during what may be his last hours of freedom.

It was an attitude pumped from the bum philosophy’s bowels, a rebel-may-care stance that otherwise cooperative people are forced to affect when the fact they smoke pushes them out and away (which is somewhat the point of this story).

Dumburton, cold and worldly as he was, did a well-pronounced double-take to the pure satisfaction of the murderer.

It was in this moment the idea truly impressed itself upon Jordan. He was a murderer. Laws and lore held it to be so. The realization transformed him further than his black-and-white mug repertoire. He was no longer, and could never again be, a regular guy. He was something distinct, had done something of note.

“Asshole,” Dumburton responded in a way that was becoming customary to Jordan and therefore less intimidating than at first. “You don’t have any respect for the law or the system.”

“I’m dressed formally,” Jordan pointed out. “How much more respect you want?”

Dumburton drove a muscular car that was ostensibly unmarked save for the fact only non-uniform cops drove gas-guzzling behemoths built prior to the first energy crisis.

The detective got in on the driver’s side while Jordan stationed himself, hands on hips, at the opposite rear door. “What are you doing?” Dumburton sounded frustrated.

“Ain’t you gonna ‘cuff me?”

“No, I’m not gonna ‘cuff you. What are you gonna do to me?”

“You’re accusing me of murder, ain’t ya?”

“An old lady.”

“If I were you I’d put the ‘cuffs on.”

“You’re not me, but if it makes you happy…” Dumburton spit, slammed the door and stomped around the rear end of the car and gruffly ‘cuffed J.

He then stuck his hand on the top of Jordan’s head in the way people of his ilk do and pushed the suspect down into the back seat.

“Christ!” He shook his paw and made the facial expression of some frivolous girl who’s just seen a spider. “What the hell’s in your hair?”

“I don’t share beauty secrets,” Jordan told the buzz-cut detective.

“You have enough in there to last an eternity,” Dumburton barked while making his way back around to the driver’s side so that Jordan might hear him.

“Ya never know when a little grease might come in handy down at the big house,” Jordan nonchalanted him.

Dumburton looked in the rearview mirror. His eyes locked onto J.’s whose own locked onto the detective’s, just like he’d seen in the movies. “You’re drivin’ me fucking nuts!” the lawman acceded before getting back out of the car, walking back around the trunk end, opening Jordan’s door, grabbing his hair, losing grip from the grease as he tried to pull him back out of the vehicle. “Aggh.” And he looked for a place to rub his hand dry. “Get outta the car!”

Jordan casually obeyed, fully understanding the ebb and flow of his relationship with this man who’d crashed into his life some weeks before with neither invitation nor departure date.

Dumburton took the handcuffs off. “Get in the front, the games are over.”
Jordan got in understanding full well that the games were over when he decided they were.

Early in their little road trip, Dumburton’s car was passed on the right by an eye-catching woman in the passenger seat of a racy convertible handled by a gentleman neither he or Jordan bothered to look at.

“In this world,” Dumburton turned to a surprised Jordan, “there are a lot of whores.”

It was a crude observation and certainly not novel, but underneath it Jordan detected a strain of humanity, something which he had suspected of Dumburton from the first.

They rolled through neighborhoods of decreasing realty value for a few minutes more when Dumburton turned again to Jordan and said, “I just want you to know that I don’t think what you did was morally wrong. I am, you know, enforcing the laws, not makin’ ‘em.”

“Nice try. Mind if I smoke?”


“Tough shit.”

We are placed on this earth to deal with one another. Argue to the contrary all you want, we are forging ahead. Those who accept this fact have a much better time of it and are able to penetrate situations otherwise impermeable. Jordan accepted it and therefore understood that Dumburton’s job – in its basest incarnation – was to round up murderers. But he also knew it to be a means toward many ends: earn money; make a wife happy; climb the career ladder, and garner positive press for a perpetually beleaguered police department. So, to a reasonable degree, Dumburton actually needed Jordan. “Doctor needs sick people, cop needs criminals,” he thought and promised to pass this along to Randall when the opportunity presented itself.

And to the extent the democracy rattles along with a few rights and guarantees still hanging to its twisted chassis, the situation required a modicum of cooperation on the suspect’s part or the whole thing would get nasty and defeat the purpose of neatly bringing to justice the murderer of an old woman.

The cigarette was sprinkled lightly with marijuana. Almost all of Jordan’s cigarettes had been pre-rolled in this way of late. He had a lot on his mind and it helped him relax. Pure and simple. That Dumburton was coming to take him away had not crossed Jordan’s mind two nights earlier when he had rolled ten or twelve to help navigate the next few days.

The detective, whose job provided ample exposure to all the worldly vices, only needed a whiff to determine something wasn’t right. “You smokin’ weed?”

“What’re you gonna do? Arrest me?”

Dumburton looked at his captive for the first time with something that approximated grudging admiration. He asked Jordan if he had a smoke without the weed and, in a moment of softness towards the hard bastard, J. provided him a pre-rolled. Dumburton smoked a little, coughed, and put it out.

“Real tough guy,” Jordan mumbled.

They arrived at the station and Dumburton told his prize to sit for a second while he went to do something or other, which he then proceeded to do.

Jordan looked like, and was, a fish out of water. For the enterprise that is American criminal justice runs on the fuel of minorities and hard-luck losers bitter at buying into a dream not their own. His status as killer notwithstanding, Jordan looked too white, too polished, too coherent, and too harmless to have much of anything to do with the miserable souls present and waiting for their legal skewering.

It was, really, very much like his night in the emergency room in county hospital, which when he thought it twice over, was how he became associated with this whole other class of countrymen in the first place. For if Jordan had not gotten sick without health insurance he would never have been forced to take treatment with people other than his own. And he certainly would not have been wandering around a hellhole of the misbegotten at three a.m. or whatever time it was he got it into his head to do a mercy killing.

Anyhow it didn’t matter because there he was sitting in a tuxedo. Once again J. monitored the poor speaking skills of the suspects, the faux bravado that only served to dig their holes a little deeper, the inability to connect at any level with their keepers, and the complete lack of development that stood at the root of their present trouble.

Dumburton came back seemingly glad to see Jordan who was a class act where criminals were concerned; a less bumpy ride yet more challenging. And the public nature of the case in which J. was about to be named suspect meant grand things for the detective.

Suffice it to say Jordan’s sentiments were not made of the same stuff.

“Alright, I’m gonna put you in a room for questioning, just like on television.

We’re waiting for somebody from the city attorney’s office to get here and then we’ll do the interrogation.”

“You tryin’ to get me excited?”

“No, I’m trying to scare you.”

Jordan contemplated spitting to mark his disdain, but his sense of cleanliness got the better of him, which is why he was a cop like Dumburton’s favorite kind of suspect.

The detective locked him in a new room, which was, as promised, just like the kind seen on television cop dramas. In front of him there was a long glass panel that Jordan pegged for one of those one-way viewing things whereby enforcers of the law could see him, but through which he could not return the favor. Then he waited and waited, which is a part of the game. He’d have smoked another cigarette/joint, but a cute lady in uniform with a giant gun and her hair in a bun had divested Jordan of his particulars.

He waited and waited some more. An hour went by. Another half an hour went by; at least so it seemed. Jordan had to avoid his favorite pastime, sexual fantasy, for lack of a place to let off steam should his imagination prove particularly fertile.

Finally Dumburton returned, crestfallen. Jordan could see it and this was because he was becoming familiar with the professional part of the officer’s personality; beyond which he did not suspect there to be much else.

“Okay, you’re free,” he practically whimpered and threw a folded newspaper at him.

Jordan unfolded it. He saw pictures of his friends in a scuffle with what looked like the guys who’d shown up to make such a mess of the benefit/press conference.

And then another with City Attorney in very proximate environs to where all of this happened, which, if he wasn’t mistaken, was the Argentine restaurant.

“The city attorney’s been photographed at a restaurant with The Sidewalk Smokers Club. The whole office is in a war room mentality. Can’t get a deputy city attorney down here to help me with you.”

“And so who, I ask, is there to defend the sanctity of our system?”

“Alright, get outta here,” Dumburton recuperated form and growled, “but don’t think this is the last of it because it’s not.”

And that was probably true. Jordan thought about a come-backer, but survival instincts took hold and he chose to depart the station house lest somebody change their mind. As things were going, he did not find it at all odd that the lady with gun and bun would return his pre-rolleds with his wallet and keys and a comely wink.

It was not every day the station played host to a tuxedo guest.

Bereft of mobile communications capacity on principle, Jordan now found himself paying the price for that principle as he stood stuck in a neighborhood that left a little to be desired. He reflected upon how it is the nature of police stations to be in lousy neighborhoods, “more customers, in a manner of speaking.”

He pulled out a plastic calling card that had been in his wallet since the New Deal.

J. never used it and, given the transforming bias of telecommunications, was not even sure the company that had issued it existed anymore. He had wisely attached a little clipping of paper explaining just how the device was to be employed. He went to punch the numbers in on the payphone and it was then Jordan noticed that it had been torched and smashed into uselessness. So he moved on, approaching broken payphones in his tuxedo until on a fourth try, next to a liquor store fortified with more bars than the jailhouse itself, he found an operable one.

Slowly the odd ritual performed between himself, the recorded voice of a woman who seemed to be in the employ of telephony companies the world over, and an interminable number of digits, yielded a dial-tone.

He thought it better not to importune poor Joya yet again. So he dialed Corey’s number, which landed him Clarisse’s voice.

It wasn’t the clearest connection in the world. “Who eet is?” she chirped and he answered that eet was Jordan and then explained how he was actually trying to reach Corey. “Oh. Well he doesn’t stay so much at dee apartment anymore and I have all de mess-ahge come to my phone.” There was a pause since J. could not really understand what it was she had said. “So what jou are doing?”

“I’m down at the police station. I’ve had a little trouble, but they let me out. I need somebody to come and get me.” There was another pause followed by some gurgling voices. Clarisse, he was sure, had covered the phone with her hand in order to explain his situation to whom he was not quite sure. Surprisingly, a squeal of delight wove its way through her knuckles and bounced off a satellite into his ear.

“Okay,” she said, “ we are coming down to get you.” And with that she hung up not having permitted Jordan to tell her exactly which station he was at.

No matter, a few panhandlers and violent threats later, a red convertible GTO roared down the street to the delight of street punks, drunks, and law enforcement types alike. As the car pulled up, it became clear the driver was that starlet from the benefit/press conference. He did not recognize her from the show for which she was known, but her glasses and floppy hat and other accessories that Clarisse had taken to mimicking gave the thing away.

It made quite the picture and the ladies’ incongruity to the surrounding neighborhood affected them not at all. And why should it have? All available gods were obviously keeping an eye out for the do-ette. And why shouldn’t they? Everybody else within eyeshot was, too.

Jordan, whose recent circumstances had sharpened his capacity for reflection, began reflecting anew as he sat his tuxedo-self in the back seat behind the two beauties, lit a tobacco/marijuana smoke, and settled in. He thought that, when the strings of control that keep a normal life normal are cut, for whatever reason, a person’s range of experience, ie; the depths to which they can sink and the heights to which they might soar, is given to greater oscillations. At least that was how his day, which had started with captivity and had morphed straight into any blade’s definition of fun, had run.

The actress looked back at him and smiled widely and whitely. Clarisse introduced her formally as Vindaloo Baxley whom he’d heard of. Clarisse introduced him as Jordan and he gave thanks Baxley had not yet heard of him given Dumburton’s efforts to make his name a household brand.

Although he could not quite connect Baxley’s face to her work, the name was one of those attached of late to must-know things and people. She was cute, no check that, she was really hotly scrumptious and the fact Jordan had too much on his mind to really concentrate very well on her lit Baxley’s fire of attraction for him: proof positive there is nothing more enticing to a woman than a man with large enough a life to inoculate himself from the universal effects of beauty. He carelessly asked her if Vindaloo Baxley was truly her name and she said, “Of course not!” while mistaking his distraction for the lack of respect she inwardly felt deserving of, but could not have thanks to her rank, station, and upturned nose.

J. had learned of late not to ask where things were leading. There was no longer any scheme or order to his life and, by egocentric extension, the universe in general.

The exercise of worrying about immediate details had dropped from his repertoire. He was suspected of murder no matter where he was and as long as that had not been confirmed in a court of law, every day was Christmas Day, every night New Year’s Eve.

When the GTO stopped at a light Vindaloo got a whiff of what Jordan was working in the back. “Are you getting high?” she trilled with a joy-element in her voice that was contagious as malaria in the Spanish-American War.

“Yeah,” Jordan answered in a way he might have were she Officer Dumburton. His demeanor had changed. The tough-guy, gumshoe rehearsals had only served to varnish a nature already deformed by the rock of Sisyphus he’d been pushing these many pages.

His gruffness caused Vindaloo to cast a sidelong glance at Clarisse who read it as, “God he’s cute.”

It would be helpful, at this point, to remember that when Clarisse hit her now dissipated crisis, it was Jordan, rather than her fading husband, whom she had turned to for solace. With the approval of her patron stamped all over his dour countenance, Clarisse’s tepid interest in Jordan was rekindled.

“So,” the actress looked over her shoulder with complete disregard for the unfolding traffic situation ahead, “do you mind if I ask what you got picked up for?”

“Yes,” Jordan yelled into the wind, “I do.”

“Great,” said Vindaloo, “so what were you picked up for?”

This made Jordan smile and he was tempted, as he had not been for quite some time, to regale her with the truth. “Smoking,” he uttered, keeping on message and demonstrating a discipline that would increasingly serve him in trials to come.

“Oh, you Sidewalk Smokers are the most!” she cheered. “It’s a veritable revolution.

Like you were everywhere pressing the advantage. I have to ask: Was it all planned?”

Jordan would have liked to answer that, yes, it was, but he wanted to know what had happened the prior night at the Argentine restaurant. And so, with the heightened ability to shift perspectives, compose alibis, avoid answers, and respond to questions with questions he’d developed in his dealings with Dumburton, J. directed things in a direction more pleasing.

“No, it’s more a spontaneous uprising of oppressed habitues citywide.”

She squealed with the childlike delight of those lucky enough to spend their life bathing beneath the golden sun of good fortune. It was all so much fun for her, so much spectacle.

“So Clarisse,” he probed, “what happened last night at the Argentine place?”

“Well, de things got out of hand from all de smoke.”

“Yeah, the newspaper told me as much. Got anything else? Like, say, how the city attorney ended up embroiled in the affair?”

“Shee’s hafing an affair with that city man.”


“Joya. Who else?”

“I thought Joya was a lesbian,” he labored through the interrogation.

“Yeah,” said Clarisse in so useless a manner for the purposes of information gathering that Jordan threw his hands up, resigned to waiting for a more specific accounting from Randall himself.

Whatever had happened, it was clearly to his benefit and Jordan leaned back in the hope this was a sign his fortunes had finally taken a turn for the better.

Stopped at another light, Vindaloo Baxley turned to Clarisse and said in a barely audible voice, “Should we share him?”

And Jordan smiled as a feeling of warmth that began somewhere in his solar plexus, moved convincingly through his chest, up his neck, and into his head where it exploded in a starburst the likes of which he had never known before.
He shivered, but not from the cold.

Chapter Forty-seven

Randall and Corey drove the latter’s SUV toward a different police station where Yvonne was waiting to be bailed out after an evening in the cooler.

“You’ve been coughing a lot,” Corey said as Randall sucked and chewed on a treacle-gooey Sir Edward cigarillo without much gusto at all.

“I know... I hung out smoking with Hat Midone after the ruckus last night,” Randall

“Hat Midone the actor?”

“No, Hat Midone the bus driver.”

Corey wondered aloud why it was that everyone but him was getting an actor out of all the hubbub. “Who else got an actor?” Randall wanted to know.

“Clarisse has hooked up, profitably I might add, with Vindaloo Baxley, the actress.”

Randall was secretly disappointed he didn’t get the actress and Clarisse the actor, but instead said, “We’ve got a better actress. An actress on the largest stage of all – reality.”

Corey nodded. “For my money she’s the true ‘it’ girl right now.”

This line of discussion resulted in a rare moment of quiet between them. Corey felt close to Yvonne and was worried about the drama she was presently enduring. Randall had a vested interest in her well being, too, and was mindful of the fact the poor girl had handled plenty, and with aplomb.

“You think we’re putting her through too much?” Corey broke the silence.

“Doesn’t matter now,” Randall replied. “If she thinks forging ahead is costly, she should see the price of falling back.”

They discussed the media at the restaurant and glumly realized that there would be more of the same as Yvonne left the station house. They discussed how much it would cost them to free her and also DeConcini’s dropping the case, leaving them up a creek.

“He told me his practice can’t stand the publicity,” Corey smirked, a true believer that all publicity was good. “He said Yvonne is not someone who can be looked up to.”

“Although looking down is always a pleasure,” Randall permitted himself, because fun is important, even when it comes at a friend’s expense.

“Can it,” Corey exercised his veto power over Randall, who enjoyed the same option, “and tell me about Hat Midone.” His partner said in no uncertain terms that the late hours spent with Hat Midone were so extraordinary – meaning not very ordinary – that he feared the effect of the pleasures on his long-term health and the guilt upon his fragile conscience.

“How’d you end up going out after everything that happened? I was spent.”

“That’s when he called. Those people don’t live like…never mind.”

“That crazy huh? Would you repeat?”

“Most definitely.”

They pulled up to the police station and sure enough, a flock of photographers and other parasites had gathered in the hunt for Yvonne’s hide, both figuratively and literally.

Randall went inside to take care of business. Corey stayed outdoors with the media. “How does this hurt your case?” (big city daily) “Is it true your legal representation backed out?” (celebrity justice show) “Aren’t you married?” (liberal tabloid girl with horn-rimmed glasses) “Did Yvonne have sex in jail?” (national daily). One-by-one he fielded the double-edged barbs, tried to sense which side of the question had been sharpened to do hurt. He had to fight a rancor in the chest stemming mostly from his own interest in the ingénu of this, what shall we call it? Trauma? Tragedy? Light opera? Dramedy?

Inside, Randall was tending to the more satisfying task of insulting the police from behind the facade being an officially interesting person afforded him. Not that the police respected him in any way, rather they feared things might blow up in their faces while a better part of the city’s image and sound-recording machinery was on the premises.

“Tied any butterflies to your wheel lately captain?” he said to a fellow named Devonshire who did not at all appreciate either the tone or content of Randall’s query.

“Your pretty little friend broke the law,” he said with a breezy ease attributable to his own status as an officially interesting person. He stood between criminals and their unfortunate loved ones and this power over human emotion was something quite exquisite in his life. “Now she’ll have to answer for it; just like all of us.”

Devonshire was making a point about the limits of celebrity, Randall’s type in particular.

Randall resorted to his favorite tactic, the track switch. “Do you guys have any confiscated cocaine I might be able to purchase?” He was making his own point about certain rumors surrounding the force. “Oh sheeeeit!” said a black cat in cornbraids awaiting processing. A roll of laughter swept the station house. Devonshire banged his fist on the counter to little disciplinary affect. The laugh would have to unspool itself. Gone was the easy breeze. “Who the hell do you think you are coming in here and talking to me like that?”

“You know very well who I am in relation to the defendant whose bail had more to do with the fact she is known than that she hit a fireman,” he countered.

“You think the whole world’s going to be smelling her ass and yours forever? They’ll move on and I’ll nail you if I see fit.”

It was a perfectly believable scenario for Randall who saw the entire world as a mosaic of such sordid and untold occurrences. “Shall I impart this information to the reporters on my way out?” he countered with the confidence of a man determined to sweep the world clean of such occurrences.

“Sure. And tell them that if they got Al Capone for tax evasion, we’ll get you and yours for worse things.”

Any points to be collected here had either been scooped up or lost and there was no reason for Randall or Devonshire to carry on in this vein.

“Who do I give the money to?” Randall asked and was passed by Devonshire onto a more calm female presence just doing what she was told.

Corey came in. “Wow, that was ugly.”

“Were you able to handle it?”

“Handle’s not the word I would use because it’s not possible, but some of them will at least be gone when she comes down.”

Which she did just then, hair flat against her head, terse lips, ringed eyes, shrunken inside an oversized police windbreaker. She hugged Corey listlessly and said, “Let’s get out of here.”

Chapter Forty-eight

Across town in Vindaloo Baxley’s GTO, Clarisse had said she hated something or other.

“Don’t say hate,” Vindaloo scolded her. “Just the word makes negative energy. Isn’t that right Jordan?”

Jordan had to fight a tremendous urge to flatter the bona fide and certified example of ultra womanhood into whose clutches he had fallen.

“No,” he lamented saying.

“Oh really,” and she hid well the fact she was shocked by this.

“Yeah, I hate Armenians.”

He waited on the dismissive face that is privilege to ladies of Vindaloo’s range, but she just kind of looked sorry for him. “I would ask you why, but it doesn’t sound worth hearing,” she said with a sly grin.

Jordan thought Vindaloo was exactly right mostly because he did not like the role of victim to which the bloody tale invariably reduced him. There were many things he might want from the actress, her pity was not one of them.

Anyway it didn’t matter for as they bounced from bar to restaurant to poetry reading (Vindaloo’s India Balloo verse) J.’s weary shrugging off of any fantasy involving the actress had the predictable effect of increasing her desire to know him better.

At the restaurant Tuxedo Jordan went over budget because he knew Vindaloo Baxley was in an approving mood and not going to be seen not paying for a dinner with beings of lesser notoriety.

A grilled Pacific fish lightened by lime and dusty red paprika was adroitly helped into his midsection by the burgundy Vindaloo had ordered with a promise and guaranty of delight. “You were right,” Jordan said to her as he absconded with Clarisse’s second glass for the purpose of making it his third.

Vindaloo said she wanted to talk to Jordan alone in a voice that carried a distance far beyond what was necessary – to fill the restaurant, in fact. “I want to go out to the sidewalk for a smoke.”

That the girl had charms should not have been discounted by him, but it had been and this left J. vulnerable to them. Her pull was that much greater now that she had taken something of his life and turned it into a kitsch all her own.

“I can always use one,” he relented, slowly getting up, but resisting the temptation to pull Vindaloo’s chair out for her. She, however, joined him at the elbow and turned toward the door, careful to let Jordan lead the way and not the other way around.

That left Clarisse out, silent, regretting having quit puffing for the first time and having introduced Vindaloo to Jordan. Either you’re in the club or you’re out.

Either you smoke or you don’t smoke.

Outside, they were in, firing up. “Is this marijuana?” asked Vindaloo.

“Yeah, let me get you a regular,” said Jordan, who was running out of those.

“Never mind. This is great… I’m going to be frank,” Vindaloo said in the manner of people whose time is important. “And I don’t mean to hit you with all this beautiful actress and the best-things-in-life stuff, but that’s just how it is for me, so fuck it. You like me?”

“Can’t say that I don’t,” Jordan confused Vindaloo with Dumburton (yet again).

Vindaloo loved it. “Be a gentleman,” she demanded and no man cannot be chastened by this simple urging from a woman with champagne breath. “And don’t worry about being too easy. I’m in a hurry. You know what I mean?”

She had no idea just how well Jordan knew what she meant.

Vindaloo smiled and tilted her head toward the restaurant door. “I’m going to have another,” Jordan told her, not so much to savor the moment that had passed so pleasantly between them as to satisfy his addiction.

“Here’s your joint back,” she handed it over and he opened his palm to take it. “May it give you the magic I think you need.”

Jordan wondered whether everything seemed to be leaving sweeter impressions because he felt marked as a dead man. And still, there seemed to be a magic to Vindaloo Baxley (unless, of course, it was the joint she had returned and which he was now smoking).

Jordan did not get much further than this for as soon as one interesting woman went in another came out. Jordan looked at the sign above the door for the purpose of fixing future social commitments. He had seen this girl in the mirror on the wall in front of him, dining behind him, and thought he’d caught her watching his reflection, too. He was struck by her eyebrows, which where thick, but well attended so as to create a generous arch suggesting, for Jordan anyway, a vague innocence – an open query.

In the town where Jordan lives, a vague innocence is about all one can hope for with a face like that. She was an utter doll and somewhere beyond his marijuana-laced consciousness came a flash informing that he would now fight to the death before succumbing to jail time.

She pulled out a cigarette and raised those eyebrows in a pair of question marks that did not know the word “no.” He moved easily and lit her with a match.

“I feel guilty. Smoking killed my grandmother, but after a good meal...mmmmm.”

“A smoke out on the sidewalk says something about you, that is if you’ve been reading the papers lately,” Jordan suggested.

“I can’t read them,” she said sadly enough, “there’s something going on in my life right now.”

“Well you’re not going to die from a sidewalk smoke because there is too much out there for you.”

“Where?” and she tilted in a way that nearly brought him to his knees. He was puddy.

There are no explanations for such reactions, but they happen. He was hers.

“I don’t know; out in the air?”

“The air is a very big place to look for love... Hey, are you smoking pot?”

Jordan confirmed her suspicion with more guilt than normal, rebounding quickly by asking if she wanted some.

“No thanks, not that I don’t, but I can’t. I’m here with my family,” and she blew out a thin formation that dipped low before chasing off gravity and climbing away.

“We’re very close,” she filled the blank space between them.

Some things can be overlooked, he reasoned convincingly to himself, and he nodded in understanding, despite the fact it was a lifestyle foreign to him.

“Armenian,” she said.

“How’s that?”

“We’re Armenian.”


“You act like you have a problem with that.”

“Of course not,”

And he wasn’t even lying.

Chapter Forty-nine

“I’ve had enough,” Yvonne said blankly as they drove through the hazy chemical evening. “I want out of this now.”

Corey turned to Randall who didn’t really know how to say that he couldn’t deliver on that request. That it was out of his hands. That there was no escape from the thing that had become their lives and that he was suffocating, too.

Nor did he have the heart to tell her about DeConcini but she knew what was going on. “I feel reverberations for everything I do; backlashes and reflections and echoes. There’s too much resonance for the person who has done what I’ve done. I don’t deserve it.”

Nor did she want it, but Yvonne was woman enough to complain about something while still seeing it through to the bitter, or sweet, end depending. And so she dropped the matter.

“Randall’s hanging out with Hat Midone.”

“How come everybody else gets an actor out of this except me?” Yvonne whined.

“What’s wrong with us?” Corey drew a circle in the air around he and his partner.

She felt so sorry for herself and so many girls wanted to be her. Randall wanted to remind Yvonne of how she was the central player in a production that was using celebrities as minor stand-ins, but then fell prey to a suspicion she already knew this, and that it wasn’t enough to elevate her impression of the situation.

Randall thought it good a time as any to lift spirits and not having a whole hell of a lot to work with, the best he could come up with was a rallying cry to friendship.

“Tomorrow,” he commanded, “at the Argentine restaurant, a general meeting of all The Sidewalk Smokers Club, and that includes Jordan.”

Yvonne suggested they find a place that would not draw attention to them, but he rejected it decisively – decisiveness being a valued political virtue in the specific epoch in which all this unfolds. “No. We show them we are not cowed, not scared or anything else we really are. We show them that to keep fighting the good fight is the sole purpose of the fight...this is our purpose.”

His fellow bums nodded in agreement.

Chapter Fifty

Thorpe and Diaz were in over their heads once again. As firefighters, their fearlessness had served them well in a business that was more physical than chatty.

Their elevated profiles had now placed them in a world where chatty and evasive were important talents, where their prior rush-through-the-door enthusiasm served them poorly. They were scrutinized now. The Smokers were scrutinized now. Scrutiny was happening.

The fire chief was both upset and obliged to the officers. Conflicted, he decided upon sending them deeper into the very same forest they had yet to see through the trees.

The police had found out about Joya’s role in the Business Improvement District and informed the fire department. In doing so the PD had deftly volleyed the whole sticky matter away from themselves and back to the FD; pointing out that it fell under the Smoke-Free Workplace Act’s purview. The FD had, in turn, directed its two lone inspectors to organize the plan for the evacuation of smokers from the stores around Joya’s Joyas. They were familiar with the territory and its players, it was rationalized, and so were thrown to the (she) wolves.

Their specific charge was getting the BID to do their bidding, as it were, and get the job done with the security team it already had assembled. This was largely because the FD budget to did not provide the inspectors with the resources necessary to do it on their lonesome.

They said they were “privatizing” the action, and it played very well.

Like their boss, Thorpe and Diaz were ambivalent about the assignment. On the one hand, each had seen enough of The Sidewalk Smokers Club to last a good while. On the other hand, things in their lives had sure heated up since meeting that crew.

The two men convened the BID in a hushed meeting hall of some municipal building serving the area. The entity was comprised exclusively of women retailers ranging between the ages of 25 and 55; birds of a feather, well-dressed, of-the-moment, worked-out, and self-confident.

The hearing was structured procedurally, and beforehand, so that moving the sidewalk smokers out was a done deal and not subject to debate.

Thorpe, opening with a stale joke that only served to thicken the tension in the room, continued by thanking the bulky BID security team, sitting stage right, for all its efforts in the area. Not that they had ever done anything in the way of helping the inspectors enforce their pet law, but this is how such rituals are initiated.

Ms. Ashragi, a sultry middle-eastern woman with a deep and weary voice said, “Wod aboud fon turee?”

Thorpe said Inspector Diaz was in charge of that, nodded to his partner in an officious way, and sat back in his chair. It was news to Diaz. He didn’t even know what a phone tree was. And so, he was grateful to hear Joya’s plaintive voice pierce the plushness before being completely muffled by the floor-to-ceiling carpeting. “Why are we talkin’ about a phone tree when we haven’t decided if we’re really going to do this or not?”

City Attorney was right. Sometimes these Smokers were quite refreshing. The answer, of course, was that they had worked it out over the phone in a series of calls she was not privy to. And somebody would have to explain this, if not in those words exactly.

The appropriately named Mrs. Stern was chairwoman of the BID Board of Executives.

She sat at the middle of the long dais on stage (as it were). There she enjoyed the advantage of a microphone hooked up to the public address system, which she used to great effect. So she leaned into the apparatus. “Let the record show that Joya’s Joyas was not represented in the preliminary discussions surrounding the no-sidewalk smoking campaign.”

“Preliminary discussions!” Joya verily cried out only to have the rich upholstery erase her yet again. “Preliminary discus-”

“Joya,” the chairwoman blew into the microphone, “most of us here are business people – full-time merchants.”

“Well what the hell’s ’at supposed ta mean?”

“Vot she mean dahlink,” said Magda Nagy, Hungarian-born proprietress of Madga Nagy Spa and Salon, “is daht you are too beezy making in de newspapers yourd peekchure and don vork enuf.”

Joya could now see that she’d had the rug pulled out from under her. The BID, an important ally, was done with her. She was the source of the problem at hand, and she had become something else in the weeks since that first fateful smoke out front of the Argentine restaurant. The ladies were mostly envious, she felt, admitting she’d not played them properly of late. She was, after all, an artist by trade and experience – not a ward heeler.

Joya looked up at Thorpe. He looked down at her; euphoric at the coup he did not even believe himself sly enough to pull off. And it was true that, by way of direction, his superior (hedging his bet) suggested the Coloradoan be neutralized.

It was not the strategy of a genius, but it was gold considering the mediocrity at the chief’s disposal. A good soldier, Thorpe followed through with the few steps his simplicity seemed well suited to. He knew the ladies, the ladies knew him, and together they had formed a coalition of numbers and resources that Joya was without means to combat – directly.

She sat down.

Mrs. Stern leaned in. “Inspector Diaz, what say you relative to the phone tree?”

“It’s a good idea. Go ahead with it.”

Mrs. Stern smiled, as did the mesdames around her. Their devolution from heroic safety workers to self-serving bureaucrats was almost complete. Leadership was easy. Thorpe smiled.

“Well,” said Mrs. Stern, “I’d be more than glad to make out the lists and the call-flow.”

“Oh puhleeze,” said Rita Cooley, an African-American woman with a Mondrian-inspired scarf around her head, and long finger nails that curled inward. “Do you hafta control EVerything?”

“Reeetah,” Ms. Ashragi purred into the fabric void, “don start wid all dat about rights and ev-erything.”

Joya got up and walked out, her body language revealing nothing but the usual loosey-goosey promise.

“No, sheee eees rright,” garbled Magda Nagy into the stifling textile, “why you haf to contorol evereetheeeng? Eh, Stern?”

“Ladies,” Thorpe tried interjecting.

“Listen Magda,” Stern gripped the microphone, “I do a lot of things for you ladies without the slightest compensation. I do it because we’re neighbors.”

Hiccup laughs, sighs, shaking heads.

“What are you insinuating?” Stern got a little defensive.

“That you mek munney, Meezus Stern,” said Ms. Nagy.

“Oh Magda, what are you all doing?” Stern stuttered.

Thorpe and Diaz looked at each other like two foxes who’d come to the wrong hen house. The din began to rise. The absorptive purpose of all the carpet, curtains, and upholstery became clear to the inspectors. There was, they still felt, wisdom in government.

Chapter Fifty-one

Jordan had pulled out of the telephony system to get below the radar, skip out of the matrix, ditch the man, as it were. So Joya came by to roust him up. “Hon, Yvonne’s gettin’ cold feet and there’s gonna be a meeting about the next step for us!” She seemed quite exercised about the whole thing. Joya’s treatment at the hands of the BID was very unkind and she was not used to it, because she had never truly been pushed outside of things before.

Jordan had the problems of a suspected murderer to deal with and would rather have stayed in and avoided any more trouble. But this was Joya and she had been there for him and so he committed. “The Argentine place – 10 p.m.”

Rolling out at the appointed hour, Jordan noticed an obvious-looking man in suit and tie reading a paper behind the steering wheel of a car, which was parked across the street from his place. He tailed J. for a while before disappearing almost imperceptibly.

At the restaurant there was not a seat to be had. It was hard to breath with all the smoking. The waiters ran about emptying ashtrays and there was a grainy film to the air.

The Argentine, of course, was in deep. He’d been fined by now; the price of his own notoriety. Letting people smoke had been part of a different business model, the kind that was slowly cultivated and easily managed. But with his place becoming an unofficial sanctuary for the persecuted tobacco inhalant, he too was into something he could not get out of. Things had gone beyond his control. Strange and new customers stepped in and fired up without so much as a nod to the house rules. They sneered at his accent.

But business was booming. What would come would come, for the small entrepreneur cannot permit the luxury of long-term planning. The seats were full and that was his particular mission in life.

The all-stars occupied their assumed and official table. The people around them were proper enough not to stare, but noted how only the core group had been convened. No city attorney or Vindaloo Baxley or Hat Midone. No Trixie Marie, whom we know only through her work (and would never have been there).

It is hoped the fever-pitch at which each of The Smokers’ lives was being experienced at this point is clear. If not, please take our expository word for it:
They’re a light-hearted bunch, but things were sure getting heavy.

“Things are sure getting heavy,” Yvonne kvetched. As the focal point of the campaign, she lived in a kind of perpetual embarrassment over her naked layout, which sold and sold, engendering further debate and more sales after that. She was on the front line and had already made her discontent known.

“They sure are, hon,” said Joya, who was profiting in measures equal to the

Argentine restaurant owner, so that her plaintive utterance was more surprising, less expected than Yvonne’s.

“Yeah,” said Jordan, “I mean, I think somebody is following me.”

They stared at him (save for Joya), rightly mystified because Jordan was mixing up problems of his own making with those of The Smokers who were, as yet, unworthy of surveillance (or at least they thought).

“I kinda wish I’d never met alla you,” Joya said to crushing effect on her smoke-mates. Of course she didn’t really mean it that way. Yes, her business relationships were disintegrating like an acid tab on a hippy’s tongue, but the business itself was hale and hardy and they thought she didn’t have grounds to say something so deflating. Randall, always two or more steps ahead of everyone else, knew that she felt personally responsible for The Club’s plight merely because she’d served as a kind of sexual glue in the early formative period, which wasn’t very long ago, but certainly seemed so. “Why dare are peeple following you?” Clarisse returned to Jordan.

“I think we should try to answer Yvonne’s concerns,” was the best he could do to switch the focus of things.

“Yeah,” Corey unwittingly assisted, “Yvonne’s the one who’s taking the brunt of this thing.” And he was genuine in this observation because he was having, perhaps, the best run of anyone and knew it. And because he had the hots for Yvonne he was rather attuned to her diminishing capacity for absorbing whatever vitamins Klieg lights emit.

“Why Yvonne?” asked Clarisse. “Who ees followeeng hare?” which was a good question to which Yvonne, had she less seasoning, could have answered “Everyone.”

Randall saw where all of this was going and decided to redirect. “It doesn’t matter,” he told Clarisse, before puffing long and blowing byproduct around the table as he stopped to look each of his compatriots in the eye.

“An you don’ looks so good,” Clarisse responded, echoing the sentiments of everyone present.

Randall sighed because he knew it was true, and because democracy is both slow and messy. “Well yeah, you know we’re using sickness as a strategy here. Once I’m down, they’re going to lift me up.”

That people were willing to listen and be lead around by a guy who cooked up such schemes should not come as surprise to anyone actually seeking direction and purpose in life. Inspiration is harder and harder to find in a world where purchase is the final fruit of any labor.

“Though you did not know it,” Randall continued, “you all wanted this, except maybe Yvonne. Clarisse is making money like she never dreamed. Corey and I are creating an audience and platform for bum philosophy. Yvonne – whatever her difficulties – is giving as good as she got. Joya is Joya to a whole city of people once unaware of her existence and Jordan…”

Well Jordan, occupied with serious matters only one of them could fathom, had been identified with, but was not of, the group for some time. He was not a part of these ongoing campaigns and media blasts, that was certain, but he was most definitely a militant (S)idewalk (S)moker. Whatever he lacked in organization discipline he gave back in street-(smoking) -cred.

Randall didn’t get into all of that. Rather he interrupted himself in order to get to the point because, in reality, he felt as bad as he looked. “Anyway, you’re surprised there are difficulties and complications that come along with the perks of notoriety. So am I man. And although I’m not sure we aren’t already too far along the path we’ve taken to turn back, far be it from me to tell you we can’t fold up the tent and go back to the quiet lives we were once living.”

“Extremely quiet,” they thought in concert, alternating between nostalgia and nausea at their prior, anonymous existences. A verbose group, nobody said a word and Randall took their silence as a decision to forge ahead…for a while.

“If not,” he went on, “there’s work to be done on a number of fronts. Yvonne has additional legal concerns to be addressed. Her infamy isn’t going to help her one wit, just the opposite. The powers-that-be want to skewer her.”

“Well we haf dat lawyer,” Clarisse pointed out.

“Not any more,” Randall clarified to a silence that said The Smokers understood just how unsavory association with them had become. “You know, we’re winning the public relations battle and we’re losing it at the same time.”

“How’s ’at possible hon?”

“There are a lot of people watching man.”

This made them glad and Randall observed small, self-satisfied smiles break across everyone’s face except Yvonne’s.

“So we need more money,” Corey tried to invite some conciseness into the roundtable, but really, everyone already knew that. “We need a better legal team and we need some other kind of strategy that’s proactive and keeps our enemies on the defensive.”

This reintroduced some glumness to the table because, again, everyone was kind of exhausted by the length of the saga. Randall moved to pep folks up, but Joya beat him to the punch.

“Well, maybe who we’re becoming will bring someone else to us that ken help?” she asked/asserted in that inimitable Smokers’ style. Of course, we know what she’s up to, but the rest of them don’t, so they all just shrugged and hoped she was right.

Chapter Fifty-two

So, with little more than the last part of Chapter Fifty-one for guidance, each of The Sidewalk Smokers went back to their respective corners to see what it was they could do for themselves and for one another; living proof the universal finds itself in the particular and the other way around, too.

Driving home from the meeting, Jordan saw a man in a suit and tie tailing him. There could be no doubt that he was, in a subtle way, very much in jail. When he parked and headed down the walkway to his place, the fellow drove off, smiling. It gave him the chills. (“Fold up the tent and go back to the quiet lives we were once leading.”)

Acting upon the bum philosophy strategy for proactive, offensive action, J. walked into his place and picked up the phone to call Eilin. He made up his own tenet: “The worse she can do is say ‘no’.”

She picked up and spoke. It surprised Jordan who’d expected a voice mail. What she said does not matter. Only that her voice grew out of a safe and sweeter world than his and that he wanted that world. So, on second thought, what she said did matter, or at least how it was said.

He found her willing and open. His plan for a date was revenue neutral and still she signed on. A walk along the beach. That’s all he had for her and the response suggested it was more than she might have hoped for. So there it was. Things had been dark, but he’d let a little light back in and now they were only gray.

Soon thereafter, he got a call from the prosecutor handling his criminal charges against Armenian Power. She said there had been a postponement in the case, at the defendant’s request.

“Being the defendant sounds great,” he said wryly.

“For now,” she assured him.

There had been earlier postponements and the delay was killing Jordan. She’d advised him he should not file a civil suit for damages ($) until he had a guilty verdict in the criminal proceeding. And that was too bad, because litigation seemed the only path still available to fiduciary salvation.

Across town (and a few days later) Randall was ruminating on this very thing. It seemed to him that The Sidewalk Smokers Club’s rigorous use of the legal system offered proof the courts were the only way left for redistributing wealth, progressive taxation being discredited as it was.

For his part, Randall felt distracted from the development of bum philosophy. “It keeps going on and on,” Corey had complained, but the truth was that Randall could not get into a good groove of late. There were phone calls to be returned cluttering his schedule. Hat Midone showed up one night with a pair of easy marks and Randall had been too weak to resist. This, he felt, was a sure sign of his success; he knew that one’s productivity usually went up when fortune receded, because there was nothing else to do but work. Those who attain this understanding are artists. Those who don’t, aren’t.

The news he would soon get from Joya’s corner would not cheer the heart. A friendlier member of the BID informed her that the executive board had taken things a step further in addressing the problem of sidewalk smokers along their retail strip. Convinced by Thorpe and Diaz that using private security would be more expensive and legally treacherous they decided to let local law enforcement handle the matter so that the general public picked up the tab.

The Chief was thrilled with the inspectors’ performance. He had been worried they might birth a disaster and not believed them quite so capable of dumping the problem back into the police department’s lap.

Elephantine, the force found a malleable suburban city councilman, cornered by his own claims of being a “law and order” candidate, to carry their ordinance for a blanket prohibition on sidewalk smoking. Without it they could do nothing, with it, the sky was the limit.

And so the stakes had been raised.

The Smokers had been deemed (gulp!) subversive. The only answer to this, in a free society, is to eliminate the cancer at its source by suffocating all freedom. The move was tantamount to making illegal The Sidewalk Smokers themselves.


For the moment, the enemy was way ahead of The Club.

Chapter Fifty-three

Jordan saw a slice of blue in the blinds to the window over his bed. It was a sure sign that he was late for work. He slid some music in. The little machine on the floor began to put out a song he normally used to motivate himself for the onslaught of life at Java World, but failed to budge him. He could no longer tell if he was scared. The time of fluctuations was over. He permanently did not feel good and this made him reticent to move around. Jordan didn’t want to work at Java World. His recurring visions of the Armenian girl made him loathe to announce that he labored in the coffee service industry, for he suspected she would probably drop him like nobody’s business. The philosophy of romance holds that chemistry can indeed prevail; that when there is love, it doesn’t matter what you do for a living. But Jordan wasn’t buying. He was selling. Out. “Every man has his price, but the moral man keeps his affordable,” Randall had told him once. Jordan’s price was a calm, nice, anonymous life with a woman who had question marks over her eyes. That was good enough.So he turned over and went to sleep for another five minutes, which of course did not suffice, so he took a few more. The phone rang. He answered to the soothing sounds of his boss yelling a small employer’s mantra of threats, woes, and pleas. He knew the drill. He apologized, hung up, and pulled himself out of Terra Jordania and back into the world.

He chose not to look at the ocean. In it he would see Eilin and he didn’t want her around yet. The golden light of the little coffee bar burned warm. A sporty car was parked out front idling. As Jordan approached the door, the pretty blonde from the fitness club came out, both hands occupied with white clumps of packaging.

“Hey,” she said, “I missed you this morning!”

He found her lightheartedness enviable enough to kill him. “Sorry,” was all J. could muster. She smiled a little and waved goodbye. He reached for the door. “Hey,” her voice carried from a little farther away now. He turned. She got back out of her car and took a few steps closer. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Question?” Jordan widged. “Question? I’m great at answering questions. Go ahead.”

She sensed his edge, but with an angel’s mission pushed gently on. “What the hell are you doing working in this place?”

He sat there for a long time.

“I thought you were good at answering questions,” she prodded.

“I am.”

“Well what do you say?”

“Thank you.”

She nodded as if to signal he’d gotten it right, mounted her horsepower, and rode off into the blue morning gloom. The door to the barn screamed in its joints as he pulled it open. “Jesus!” he winced.

“Jesus,” the Boss mocked him. “Maybe if you oiled it once in a while…”

The place was empty and something of a tense standoff was going on between Carlos and The Big Man.

“I will ask you again: Did you close the register last Sunday?”

“I weel tell you agang, yes I close it.”

“What were the total receipts?” the Boss continued his persecution.

“I don know. Jou tink I remember tha? Maybe seben hundre, like every Sunday.”

“It was three-fifty Carlos, that is what you reported. There’s no way this place only made three hundred and fifty dollars on a Sunday.”

Jordan could see Carlos was not really in the mood, so he decided to further sabotage his own existence. “C’mon Chris,” he said, “this guy practically runs the fucking place.”

Carlos nodded in adamant agreement. Chris was speechless at the audacity.

“I’m serious,” Jordan said to fill in the silence which he guessed to be working against him. “This guy’s the coffee captain, the colonel of cappuccino. He picks up bagels on his way in, covers for incompetent college kids. You’re busting him for being Mexican. Anyone of these people working here, the ones that come and go, are more likely to clip you than Carlos.”

Implicit was the threat of some kind of nightmarish lawsuit based on race discrimination. Jordan’s affiliation to The Smokers and their apparent affinity for litigation left no doubt in The Boss’s mind that such a thing could be done. He reworked his attitude. “That’s a beautiful speech Jordan, but you’re fired anyway.”

Jordan heaved a great sigh of relief. Carlos beamed with appreciation. Chris said, “He’s the one that checks the cash register. There’s really no way around it.

If there was an imbalance between receipts and cash he should have reported it or found the source of the problem before signing off.”

“I guess that’s true,” Jordan said before extending his hand, “Thanks for the job,” he smiled graciously, “it was a pleasure and helped me out a lot, too. I wish you well.” They shook and he bounded out jaunty, free for a day.

“Well what are you waiting for?” Chris asked Carlos.

“What jou mean?”

“What are you standing there for? Get out of here.”

“Am I fire or no?”

“What do you think?"

“Say it.”

“You’re fired.”

Carlos, who might have been a lawyer had he been born under a different star, knew those two words were worth some hundreds of dollars a week in unemployment insurance for the next six months. He appreciated Jordan’s strengthening his hand in a crucial moment and he wasn’t going to forget it.

Chapter Fifty-four

Jordan drove over to Randall’s part of town so that they might get together for a smoke. The latter answered the door looking a little worse for wear. “Jeezus,” Jordan exclaimed, “you look like hell.”

In fact, Randall had been holed up for long enough with his smoke so that he actually looked a bit gray. The plan was beginning to work. He had a wheeze to his breathing and a rasp to his voice, not to mention other symptoms of chronic tobacco addiction. “Do you know how bad your breath smells man?” Jordan asked him.

“Nah!” Randall said, mashing a butt into an ashtray that spewed its own special brand of gray confetti. He moved in gray, his actions and gestures fragile, less dynamic this day than they were during The Smokers’ last meeting.

“I know what you’re thinking,” he said, “but when I’m on my own I feel the weight of this whole thing more. Who would think a few insolent people could end up in such a trial by fire?”

Jordan was bursting to tell Randall all about what real pressure was, about when the cops are following you around as a suspect for murder you were actually guilty of. “Got any pot?” he asked instead.

“Sure,” Randall said, pulling a preciously carved box out from a book slot in one of the many shelves that lined his otherwise featureless lodging. It was another gesture weighted with fatigue. Jordan noticed it.

“Hey Randall, listen, if this isn’t going to be irreverent fun why are you doing it?”

“There’s nothing fun about having the fate of people depending upon the correctness of your decisions,” he explained.

“Aw c’mon,” Jordan chortled, “who’s relying upon your wisdom for survival? Heck we’ll let your wisdom ruin us, but don’t blow yourself up. Whose life depends on you anyway?”

“Yvonne. She came to me for an idea and I got her into this lawsuit. Now her business is tanked and every day she’s subjected to some insult or other.”

Jordan pointed out that Yvonne had displayed the family jewels in a mass circulated publication and that her business and reputation were probably due for a thrashing, Randall’s “decisions” notwithstanding.

“Still, it sucks to watch her wearing down.”

Jordan was familiar with the impulse to encircle the woman in question around the shoulders, take her in, change her life, protect her.

“You gambled. You had to. You might even win the suit,” Jordan added a simple kernel to the philosophical archive. Randall shook his head ruefully.


“We were never going to win something like that,” he pointed out. “The enemy is too big.”

This came as something of a surprise to Jordan who thought the courts weighed issues on their merit, and saw no difference in the subjects who came before them for redress and adjustment.

“So why’d we get into it?”

“To make them sweat with a little bad publicity and get her a settlement. The woman wanted some satisfaction. She thought the pictures had faded into the past; even thought that she’d been lucky to get paid, but never published, as it were. And she sauntered in here with her famous ass and big Chiclets teeth and convinced me I was the one who could help her. Lemme tell you man, a woman like that comes into your lonely smelly place, reeking of lavenders and jasmines and scents you’ve only read about in old books and you’re going to believe just about anything she tells you about yourself.”

Of course, that is nothing at all like a correct account of the deal made between Randall and Yvonne, during which he was quite coy and cautious, mindful only of the tactical possibilities to pulling the thing off. But he needed this seduction in the difficult moment, and only he knows why.

“Sucker for a pretty face, huh?” said Jordan.

“Anybody ever mention how you have an uncanny knack for distilling things to light water?”

“Not exactly in those words.”

The two of them sat glumly for a few moments, the problems of one considerably more severe than those of the other.

“So,” Jordan broke the silence, “what you’re saying is that we’re not going to be able to get a settlement.”

“Pretty much.”

“Well, I’m sure Yvonne will be alright. She’s hot and she’s hip and the desire of half the men in this city.”

“Maybe, maybe not. Then there’s Joya to worry about.” Randall explained Joya’s recent run-ins with the BID and the city’s prospective plan for outlawing sidewalk smoking altogether.

“Can they do that?”

“Sure, I guess.”

“I guess? I guess is a pretty chicken-shit answer.”

“Which am I, the chicken or the shit?”

“Take your pick. You need to suck it up and help these girls get through this stuff.”

“Could you say just one original thing?” he broke into a rupturing cough (or it broke into him) that startled J. “I’m beginning to feel sick.”

Jordan tried to hide his concern. “Corey said the doctor told you it would take years before this stuff caught up with you.”

“The doctor was wrong.”

“I guess that’s possible,” Jordan mentally backtracked through his own recent experiences with the medical profession.

Hoping to direct the conversation away from his frailties, Randall said that the lawyer he’d been flirting with – Geffner – wouldn’t budge off his asking price.

“Even with all the positive vibe and good press and hip activity around The Sidewalk Smokers Club?” asked J.

“Tried that on him. He said hip is its own death sentence. No sooner is it declared than it begins the downslide. That, he told me, is why he wears the suits he wears and these suits you would not believe,” said Randall, who was a natural dandy with little use for fashion and frivolities.

“What about another lawyer?” Jordan struggled to be the positive force. “One that’s a little cheaper and more idealistic?”

Randall explained how DeConcini hailed from that formula. “Their idealism aside, these people need to eat, too. Nope. Geffner’s price is the price you pay for guys who have lunch with judges at the Downtown Athletic Club and meet opposing attorneys on the golden links. Geffner’s the guy, but everyone except Clarisse is busted flat and we can’t afford him.”

“Clarisse won’t help with some of what Vindaloo Baxley’s been showering her with?”

When you make money, people know it and offer no shortage of good uses to which it might be put.

“Not yet,” Randall noted, “but I do have an option, it’s just not a very appealing one.”

“And?” Jordan pried.

“I’d rather not say,” Randall clammed up.

“Aren’t we doing things open and democratically?” J. insisted.

“Sometimes, but enough about this crap,” Randall said. “How are you doing?”

“Working on a new gal.”

Randall’s eyes lit up. Jordan figured him for a man who actually took joy at the good fortune of his friends, because it was his, too. He tied their disparate destinies together. “Really,” he said. “Tell me about her.”

Jordan did and for the remainder of this stay it seemed that Randall’s health improved a bit. Departing, he gave the guy a guy’s punch in the arm. “C’mon,” he prodded, “give me a little a that ol’ time bum philosophy for the road.”

Randall shrugged, “You know what you know, but you don’t know what you don’t know.”

Chapter Fifty-five

“So lemme get dis right,” Clarisse stared at her husband in disbelief. “You want me to help pay for de case of de girl who maked you lose interest in me?”

Although Corey didn’t agree with every shading of Clarisse’s in that statement, he was forced to admit the larger point. “Yeah, that’s right.”

She wasn’t as angry as her interpretation of things made her sound. Clarisse was a good person and she had many conflicting feelings about the split. She wouldn’t have minded helping, but it wasn’t that simple with her. “Dat ees a lot of monee,” she stated the obvious.

Corey was a little desperate and so he said things that a more balanced and sensitive being might not have, such as: “C’mon! Vindaloo Baxley and that film crowd have been buffing you out for weeks now.”

“Well, dat ees why you are here, no?”

He nodded his sullen way right back to square one. She collected the victory without further plunder. There was a long pause for them to think. “Eet’s a lot. I am sure dis won’t go on forever. Maybe a year, two eef I get reelly lucky. So de monee I am getteeng I want to put away or buy a house; something for de footure.”

It was, he realized then, a future he no longer figured into, and that hurt. Worse, her reasoning mirrored his where the slim chances of a triumphant bum philosophy were concerned. Her plan was his plan: to get out of town with a stake at some point and never return save for dinner and basketball games. So there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot he could say. They still had much in common, or so it seemed.

“Look,” he lowered his voice in confidence. “We need the money and if you have to beg, a friend’s a good place to start.” (And he stopped a second to scribble this down.)

“So, maybe you sink,” Clarisse responded, awash in clashing hormonal responses, heart full of feeling for her ex.

“See that’s the thing. I haven’t known him too long, but a guy like Randall won’t sink. He smokes himself to death and he doesn’t even die. They make the bohemians that way for survival of the race. There’s less of them, but they’re like bad grass you can’t clear the yard of.”

Clarisse was not encouraged to invest by this characterization of the group’s de facto leader as a weed. She told Corey to get to the point.

“He’s been approached by a force more than willing to pay our bills…the tobacco lobby.”

Saying “tobacco lobby” was like saying cosa nostra; an influence to be vilified and resisted at every turn. Ad campaigns cooked up evil mascots to represent them and paid actors good at sinister sneer to portray their CEOs. Nobody liked the tobacco lobby. Not even smokers who sued to the tune of billions a year for selling them the things they liked to smoke. They had been tricked, they claimed.

The pair looked at each other, years of mutually held beliefs swirling around them. “Ees he going to take it?” she broke the silence.

“Like I said, this guy won’t sink.”

“But de tobacco lobby kills people,” she pointed out lest this had been overlooked.

“The dish soap people glued the top to their bottles so you can’t pour some water in and make a little more. We’re not crucifying them.”

“Dey cleans dishes, not kills peepul. What is da matter, boom philosophy dosen’t have a cute leetle saying for dis problem?”

“If you have to beg, a friend’s a good place to start.”

Corey then suggested how Clarisse might explain the situation to Vindaloo and some other luminaries she’d been permitted to party with of late. Clarisse explained that her success was based largely upon an association with The Sidewalk Smokers Club of multimedia fame. She felt that if The Smokers’ problems were laid bare for Baxley and Co., the whole game might be off, called on account of rain. Acid rain. “You mean they won’t think we’re worth it if they know we’re sinking and if they know we’re sinking they won’t be interested in your designs?”

“Das very good Corey. You know in this country dey only likes winners.”

She smiled and he returned it. This was the gift they had always longed to find in a mate and had discovered in one another. Once obtained, it had been a daily boon that lifted each’s spirit, but they had failed to nurture it and the same familiarity and connection almost imperceptibly became annoyance. Suddenly the smile was back and closer to what it was when they had first met and dreamed of playing with each other’s body parts in situations both private and semi-private.

“I understand,” he finally said. “Thanks for listening.”

Now that she had prevailed, Clarisse felt guilty. Things didn’t happen that way while they were married.

The conversation was unlike anything from their past. It was not a rewinding and unspooling of the baby dialectic that had nearly smothered their existence together.

It was about a tangible matter in the wider public sphere, for which each had an idea of what the solution might be. They were already successful in that they were known – a small world was watching – and there seemed something terribly large just within their grasp if they could only figure out what it was.

That she sensed the growth in Corey had nothing and everything to do with her suddenly missing him. When he smiled, the little boy all wives come to both cherish and despise came out. It was the little boy hurt by his father’s disapproval.

Clarisse was hurt that it was no longer her place to soothe him, because she was dying too, because doing things for him had, in the beginning anyway, been so satisfying.

On the table between them lay a magazine – a design digest, actually – with Vindaloo Baxley’s “salon” on the cover, replete with many of Clarisse’s Pieces (she’d taken inspiration from Joya’s Joyas). Trixie Marie had never come so far, but of course, this did not make Clarisse at all happy. Now she missed the couples’ life, the confidence in social settings, the coordinated efforts – sometime unspoken and harmonic – the web of understandings that grows out of two people playing together against or along with everyone else. There was a variety in all that and now that she was beloved for her work, she had the time and luxury to look back and take measure of all they had possessed together, and how they had created it together.

She began to realize that big things happen when you live small, while everything appears small when you live big.

Aside from Clarisse still being his legal wife, Corey now saw something he did not before. Yes, he was successful and she liked him for it, but she had liked him, with a few bumps in the road, when he wasn’t famous, too. This kept her affections authentic and pure in a milieu that was offering him love of a more counterfeit variety.

Chapter Fifty-six

No two ways about it. Joya dropped by Yvonne’s for sex. She came announced, for it was a personal belief that emotional ambushes, seductions and such were nothing but rape in the end. Joya, like many girls, had been through enough of such things in her life. She felt that lovemaking which left one of the participants confused, hurt, confounded or remorseful was not worthy of the name.

Joya also felt lovemaking itself should not be defined by a specific act or threshold of sexual activity. She said that for lovemaking to work, “ya gotta have as much love as you do makin’.”

And that love might only be a parting smile, a teardrop, the brush of a hand upon the beloved’s cheek, but it would be love. Joya now believed there is time and there will be time if the love is real. She was learning to romance not voraciously or lasciviously, rather patiently and honestly. Damn her.

And so, she called first and expressed (some) of her intentions clearly to Yvonne.

They were, in short, to discuss affections and intimacies and “Hon, you don’t have to do anything. You don’t even have to say ‘no’. Ya just have to deal with what’s been in the air. Or more, of course, if ya like.”

It is natural when confronted with such novelty and command to feel the lesser of two dancers; easy to feel that one is being led, however gently and considerately.

But Yvonne was growing by leaps and bounds, too; bedding down nightly with large doses of fear and insecurity that, when engaged and withstood, became bracing and invigorating. Like all The Smokers she understood that the fear is where the action is. Behind the fear shimmered life’s treasures and she was getting very good at finding its scent and following where it may.

Joya knocked and Yvonne opened the door – buck-naked.

Composure is one thing. Being a cadaver is another and we all know by now that Joya was no cadaver. And so, as most would have, she gasped.

“Huuuuuuuun,” she said, slipping inside the door, her Bic instantly flicked. “What on earth is it you’re trying to say?” The question was telling because it meant Joya was not biting this body language at the surface. It did not mean sex, or seduction or willingness. It was Yvonne talk, a thrust inviting parry.

“You’ve seen it all,” the hostess pointed out, “in print anyway.”

“Yeah,” Joya responded as she entered the space, “but I haven’t smelled it.”

Yvonne blushed and Joya breathed more easily at this breach in the newly minted goddess’s bulwarks.

Yvonne saw it. “I guess I’m not quite as indomitable as all that.” Joya, who was given to cornpone and subtle lapses of simplification found her friend’s big word very exciting and credible.

Yvonne led her in. The house was long and wide and empty, its floor hard-wooded.

There were no sofas, easy chairs or coffee tables. Instead the place was sparingly ornamented with five sculptures of differing size and expression; each enigmatic and requiring a moment’s brooding before finding the simple universal form beneath the crafted trickery.

“Are these Clarisse’s Pieces?” Joya asked and Yvonne nodded in the affirmative.

“Now I’m in love with her, too,” said Joya.

“You’re in love with everybody,” she said in her low way.

Joya was embarrassed.

“You should never fall in love with an artist over their art,” Yvonne cautioned. “These pieces,” and then she leaned her nakedness upon one that matched her length, but contradicted her curves with indentations and exclamations of its own, “these pieces are not Clarisse, they are her black magic, which I know you know.”

In that moment Joya became conscious of the danger she herself might be in. Yvonne, her self-righteousness and vulnerability aside, had chosen to model naked for a photographer years ago and the act itself said more than her simple claim to innocence and poverty. Innocents and the poor collect aluminum cans or work in sweatshops to survive, but stripping down to stay alive was a kind of black magic, too.

It suddenly felt as if she were in a prison with bent and twisted bars that distorted perspective and dizzied her up. Each sculpture began working its power over her and because the forms were novel and unfamiliar, Joya was slowly overcome with a kind of vertigo.

The place was devoid of compartments. It was one big room save for the kitchen which was tucked off to the side of the entryway. Joya had an interest in architecture and saw that something in the distribution of space was not quite right. “There were rooms here once weren’t there?”

Yvonne nodded the confirmation. “I had all the walls knocked out.”

“Hmm. How come?”

“So that my house reflected how I feel inside of my body, too.”

“And how’s that?” Joya wanted to know.

“Naked and open,” said Yvonne.

“Naked and open,” Joya repeated more to herself than for the benefit of both parties.

Something was happening. The absence of clothing, the disappearance of boundaries, had altered the rules of the game, and very subtly at that. Yvonne had created a world of openness in which there was no place to hide. The sculptures, whatever their intended functions might be, indicated an unusual home where common behavior had no place.

Joya was in enemy territory, a stranger. The dizziness persisted. She turned to the naked woman, inside and out, for body balance.

On Yvonne’s thigh there was something like cellulite, a minor imperfection, a protruding vein perhaps – she could not tell – and it spoke to her. As Joya moved her finger towards it, Yvonne looked down and, surmising the object of her curiosity, turned it toward the inquiring appendage. “Ya can’t see that in the layout,” Joya revealed something of herself.

Yvonne smiled knowingly. Joya had looked hard at those pictures. She imagined the Coloradan playing with herself in bed and she trembled a little. “They put make-up on things like that for the magazines and they brush your pussy over and over and over again.”

There was a mark underneath Yvonne’s left breast, a scar. Joya pointed at it. “Did they brush that?”

Yvonne sighed. “My master gave that to me.”


“I’m a slave. A man in the hills calls me when he wants and orders me up there to service him.”

“Oh, hon! Lincoln freed the slaves.”

The response hit Yvonne like a thunderbolt. Lincoln had freed the slaves. Joya pressed her advantage. “So what gives with the babysuit?”

“Even walking around town in a full-length faux fur, this is how I have felt since the whole thing started.”

Joya needed no further explanation. She understood; once everybody has seen you naked, the purpose of your clothes is cut by half – relieved of the concealing function, and reduced to simple sartorial talk.

“How does it feel?” she asked Yvonne.

“Why don’t you try it?”

“Here? Now?”

Yvonne nodded, Joya declined. “You seein’ me naked next to you is not the same as the whole world seeing me naked in a magazine.”

“How different is it?” Yvonne asked and, again, Joya began to feel dizzy, hunted.

She fought it. Successfully. She calmed down, breathed. They were making love in the way she liked it made. And it was what she had come for.

“It’s different in the way strangers feel for you and the way I do.”

Words are powerful tools and when armed with the essences of those who utter them, they can carry the caliber of cannon shot. Yvonne stepped back, but not consciously.

“Would you like some tea?” she asked.

Joya looked around. There was something impossible in the offer, incongruous and hard to imagine as relevant in any way. And so she accepted.

Yvonne walked over to one of Clarisse’s creations. It was long, head high, and triangular. It was a long triangle, really; the only geometric piece in the space, and for that, the least beguiling to both women. Yvonne reached around the back and the front popped open, and out, in two panels heretofore invisible: a silver teakettle of Arab insinuation surrounded by little glasses of opium-inspired filigree waiting expectantly beside it.

“Been steeping for a few minutes now,” she whispered. “It’s ready.” She began to pour as Joya looked around her and saw no better place to sit than at Yvonne’s feet. So there she surrendered to the trembling between her thighs.

“How’d ya know I’d want tea?”

Yvonne tilted her head in the matter-of-factly way. “New maxim. Anything Randall doesn’t know, I do.”

“And that’s not bum philosophy?”

“No,” Yvonne said, “it isn’t.”

The glasses were filled and there was steam rising from them. It reminded each of the same thing. Joya reached into her bag and pulled out a pack of Virginia Slims. “Here’s a little gift,” and she tossed them to Yvonne who abandoned her calculated body appeal with a little squeal of delight; for that is the push and/or pull of vice. Yvonne sat down and crossed her legs and Joya agreed that, the demure posture aside, there was little left to hide.

“Did you,” Yvonne asked, “really mean what you said about wishing you hadn’t ever met us?” She sipped and a softness on her skin followed the liquid down her throat and into her midsection.

“I did hon. I really did. I jus’ feel like the whole thing wouldn’ta happened.”

“What whole thing?” Yvonne asked, knowing full well what her love maker meant, but desirous of a better definition than the one she was working with. Information and truth.

Joya sipped. “You know, the whole thing!” and she waved her hand carelessly in the air. Yvonne felt sorry for herself and for her friend because Joya did not possess the gift of insight. That was Randall’s blessing. And she could see that even in the working of so busy and well-exercised a mind as Joya’s, it took a lot of hours of cigarettes before such insight surfaced from the watery depths into which Randall dove and darted about almost naturally. “I just thought it was kinda fun, irreverent ya know? I played along. I lent my person to you guys, um to us, and I mean that, to us. But that helped make us the us and now they’re trying to make us illegal and your business is closed and Randall’s tryin’ ta kill himself with cigarettes and Jordan’s maybe goin’ ta jail –”

Yvonne coughed a little and some tea dripped out between her lips and onto one of her breasts. The girls both watched its stuttered descent, like good sport. “Why would Jordan be going to jail?”

That cat was out of the bag and there wasn’t a thing in the world Joya felt like keeping from Yvonne anyway. To belabor the point: this was their great lovemaking in surroundings markedly altered by new rules where the truth was both golden rule and golden ring. So she gave her whole story and followed up with the requisite necessity that it remain between them and only them.

“Wow, is that why he cut his hair and dyed it?” Yvonne said when she was done.

While more intuitive than insightful, Yvonne could finally see now that Joya’s having been the glue that had brought the group together left her feeling responsible for all their present woes.

She felt it was simply not so and spent a long time in failing to win Joya to a contrary position.

Chapter Fifty-seven

Corey, who had either lost or given up his woman – depending on when he was considering the matter – and had made no real progress towards securing Yvonne’s deeper sentiments, found himself in a position most men bereft of female companionship do – arguing with a male friend.

In this case it was Randall.

There is something lilting about the effect of a woman on a man’s little world. When she is in his presence and the lovejuice is flowing both ways, he is a boy, needing satisfaction, coaxing and playing with his mate. When the emotional riverbed runs dry and the parties go their separate ways, he becomes, well, old and the two of them together – Randall and Corey – without the benefit of affection from the brighter lights in their coalition, were behaving like two septuagenarians holed up in the same apartment.

They had been reviewing an alarmingly thick pile of papers which held the thoughts of Randall and of his fellow Club members that were to be codified as a bum philosophy for all ages, cultures, and times. It has been observed that bum philosophy’s charm and virtue was that it aspired to so little, and so the prior statement may seem contradictory. But it was not, for it aspired to so little across all ages, cultures, and times.

They’d discussed the size of it. They’d admitted there was no form to speak of. The thing was growing out of control and was characterized by a single word uttered by Corey to Randall’s annoyance – “amorphous.”

Randall said, “Man, either these bums need to know a lot, or they have a lot to learn, but I guess we can trim a little here and there.”

Meanwhile, Corey found those nine commandments of laziness the pair had worked on earlier in The Sidewalk Smokers Club’s formation. “This stuff is great,” Corey smiled over their most ingratiating collaboration. Suddenly, the smile became something else. “Wait a minute,” he held a finger up and leapt a page or two forward, a page or two back (Randall wrote big). “There are only eight.” He read it a little more deeply. “There are only eight. One of mine is missing. The one that says ‘We are born tired and live to rest’.” He looked up at Randall.

“Well, man, like you said, it’s amorphous. We gotta cut. So I got rid of one to make it leaner,” and he grabbed a stack of misplaced papers next to his hand for illustration.

“Bullshit. Why would you cut before we talked about it needing to be cut? You were against it. We debated and you gave in…or so I thought.”

“Yeah I did,” Randall admitted, “but then I un-gave in,” which was not a way of putting it that was going to stay Corey’s rising ire. Randall, he thought, despite his up-close and personal look at mortality, was letting all this Sidewalk Smokers stuff get to the old head. And it was getting swollen.

And the truth was Randall did, like many people, believe destiny had marked him for something special. And there’s nothing like a little bright light and black ink on cheap pulp to feed one’s delusions. So that while throwing the last lazy bone at his partner he reminded himself that making the world a better place means treading over someone’s Elysian Fields of mediocrity now and again.

“But there’s only eight of them now. Eight. What a crappy number!”

“Numbers do not matter. Quantity is queer. You know a single sentence can make a career.”

“Wacky poets,” Corey grumbled, but could not repress a smile. “Give me an example.”

He knew Randall would have one ready and in asking for proof hoped to learn rather than pin his friend in mid-argument.

“Well, like, ‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical naked'."

Corey was mighty pleased with the fact he recognized that line and knew it to be hardly a sentence at all, rather a mere fraction of the longest angry question ever posed.

And besides, it left unexplained why his commandment had been deleted. But he softened some more, recognizing Randall’s special genius for putting distance between unsavory circumstances and the fact he was responsible for them. He was also forced to admit his aversion to bearing the burden of final decisions while Randall was conveniently, and repeatedly, stepping into the breach for his good and that of everyone else involved.

But the best defense is a good offense so he backtracked and attacked the bum philsophy. “All you have here is a big messy un-systemic system.”
Randall did not know whether he should be flattered or insulted, so he waited for more.

“There are things of interest yes, and promise of better things to come, but there’s nothing here that makes you great…”

This was very true and had the affect of a cold water splash to Randall’s face. But what are friends for?

“…yet,” Corey added just a little too late.

Randall, who hadn’t been looking very well to begin with, took on a frightening pallor and it was a good thing that he himself couldn’t see it. “Yet…” Corey repeated to no visible affect on his partner’s diminishing confidence.

Randall waited a few moments, reached into a draw behind him, pulled out an unmarked cylinder of some tobacco brand or other.

“You’re right,” he said, eyes meeting Corey’s with a very flattering plea for an answer or two to the problem he’d just highlighted.

His friend and partner looked away. Randall thought that unless he were truly interested in taking the hits, he should have shut up.

If Corey had any answer, he probably wouldn’t have had the courage to express it.

Only some characters are groomed for going all the way. Others are meant to help and following this little moment of discord between them, the men fell back into their familiar roles, clearer on things.

Randall: “What did Clarisse say about the money?”

“She said ‘maybe’. I don’t think she was too crazy about the tobacco lobby stuff.”

“You told her?”

“I felt I had to give something up. And anyway, she’s right, it’s whoring.” Corey pointed out rather, well, pointedly.

“I know that already, man. That’s not what I need you for.” As usual Randall was looking for a little insight, not a statement of the depressingly obvious.

They gave the matter a spin or two between them and deduced that The Smokers had become a Catch-22, if such a thing is possible. The Good Guys in this multi-front war with the world they had launched, only clean money interested them, and that was in short supply. Only honest people would do for alliances and they were, for all practical intents and purposes, a federally listed endangered species.

Randall felt that in helping Yvonne, that in spinning the campaign that had become

The Sidewalk Smokers Club’s reason for being, his motives were of the purest and loftiest kind, and it left him without air when press accounts and talk on the street presented them as otherwise.

He looked at what he was smoking, soured his face in distaste, and put it out on the table surface, seemingly unable to concentrate on the ashtray just a half-dozen inches away. “He’s literally green around the gills,” Corey told himself suddenly gripped by an inspiration.

“Lemme get a cigarette,” he said.

“Glrborue man,” Randall tried to stop him.

Corey got up, walked around the table separating them, pulled on the drawer, and chose from a wide variety of loose sticks in differing lengths and scents. He pulled out the fattest he could find. Randall turned away. His look was growing ghastly.

His partner lit that hot dog and blew the first suck back out at Randall’s turned head.

“What kind is this?” Corey reached around and waved it under his nose.

Randall dropped to his knees and soaked the dry, lacquer-free hardwood floor with whatever unfortunate brew his gut had been manufacturing to that point.

Corey reached for the telephone and mentally drafted the statement on Randall’s collapsed condition for a press corps he knew was ready to report it. The moment was at hand. The comeback was within reach. And it hadn’t taken that long after all.

It was all proof of the necessity to talk stuff out for, just like that, things were looking up.

Chapter Fifty-eight

Jordan was smoking his favorite concoction of tobacco and marijuana mixed, closed-off at the end by a little cardboard filter, when there was a knock on the door at a most importune hour. It scared him. He’d come home after having sat in a diner and seen the brazen posting of the suited man right out front of the establishment. Up to this point J. had bucked himself up pretty well with wise-guy remarks and private-eye bravado, but the combination of Randall’s allusion to the quiet life before celebrity and the unrelenting legal pressure had undermined his strategy, his confidence, his will to carry on. He did not have to open the door to know who was behind it; merely complete a reflex he’d practiced his entire life. Knocked doors were to be answered and this he did.

The man in the suit-and-tie, as Jordan had feared, was there. Up close, his eyes were friendly, his smile kind and this confused J. until, suddenly, Carlos’ head entered the doorframe, too. Whose smile was larger Jordan could not tell, but he felt compelled to use obscenity because he was surprised and because he was addressing Carlos. “What the fuck!”

“Ja, wa da fuck!” Carlos laughed.

“What are you doing here with this cop?”

Carlos first asked if they might come in and Jordan, sensing the danger recede, agreed. The Mexican then went on to explain how the guy in the suit was an employee of his and that he’d been tailing Jordan at his behest.

“What do ya mean he works for you?”

“He’s in my gang. He works for me,” Carlos shrugged.

Jordan stepped back to consider the subject anew. “But this guy’s wearing a suit.

He’s not even Mexican.”

“Chure ee is,” Carlos replied, “just not what jou think a Mexicano look likes.”
Jordan told him that he was exactly right.

“Well, I toll jou I was an important cholo from Eenglewood and you dint belif me. I haf a professional outfit. You think we all wears plaid shirts and baseball hats backward?”


Carlos went on to say that it was just as well. That the respectability was a cover he wanted in the running of his operation (but with different words). He’d had the suited man keep an eye on Jordan to be sure he was safe and didn’t get picked up by Dumburton in an unexpected moment.

Jordan wanted to know exactly what the suited man would do should that happen.

“Shoot him,” Carlos answered.




“Jou wanna go to jail?”


Carlos shrugged and said, “What jou are fucking priest? You kielt an ol laydy.”

Jordan was past the point where he found a lesson from his co-worker to be humiliating. Carlos pulled out a thick white envelope and tossed it on the table where they were sitting. “Oping,” he directed Jordan to open it.

This J. did and saw a thick stack of cash consisting exclusively of $100 bills in a quantity approximating that necessary to hire the good lawyer for The Smokers and a few personal baubles to boot.

“Where’d you get this?”

“Some is from my business, some is from Armenia Power gang and de rest is from Java Whirl.”

Jordan asked for a clarification on the latter two, wisely feigning disinterest in the first.

Carlos filled him in: “De Armenia part come from a leetle talk wit jou fren.”

“What fren?”

“De one jou heet jou in de face. We haf a talk wid heem and he gonna geef you dis money. You gonna drop de charges.”

“What do you mean ‘we’ had a talk with him?”

Carlos responded with that wide smuggler’s grin. “Me and cuerno de chivo.”

Jordan nodded. The concession made sense. Then he asked how much his tormenter coughed up in exchange for his continued life and liberty. Carlos told him. J. raised his eyebrows. “Das what I tought,” said Carlos matter-of-factly.

“What about the Java Whirl money?” asked J.

Carlos smiled. Jordan could get away with pushing this (now obviously) cold and efficient criminal.

Carlos felt as a father to Jordan. Such are the dynamics in a country which obligates it immigrants to hard work while treating the native-born to an adolescence that can stretch well into middle age. Carlos envied Jordan that adolescence and it was what he hoped to give his grandchildren, if not his own brood. He observed Jordan’s existence in developing a blueprint for future generations of Zacatecan-Americans.

When J. went to bat for him against management at Java Whirl Carlos was touched and took helping Jordan, for real, under consideration.

“Ee’s from Java Whirl.”

“What do you mean it’s from Java Whirl?”

“It’s the money I stole. I giv to jou.”

“What? How?”

“I felt bad.”

“You let me go on like that and get fired when you knew you had stolen it?”

“I tol jou I felt bad,” Carlos said without any emotion whatsoever.

Jordan had a funny feeling he was but the first stop in an evening-long tour that would take Carlos through similar situations during which he dispensed either joy or fear depending on where his unique brand of wisdom led.

“Jeezus Carlos. I can’t believe you’d do that!”

“Wha? Jou wan me to get arrested? Stop crying. Da wassa a fabor and jou know eet.

Jou are more hip dan de people who comes in dat place. Why jou wanna work dare?”
Jordan marveled at the knowledge a life on the streets waving a cuerno de chivo around could produce.

And who is to say where it would stop? Was Ghengis Khan a groomed and broad-gauge man, practiced in policy administration, lettered, trained in the killing arts? Many a supposedly respectable empire had been founded on blood money and this was not a time for moral posturing. Sometimes you need these guys.

As the Angel Without Mercy, Jordan could claim no mantle to purity, which Carlos had already pointed out. In the meantime, he and The Sidewalk Smokers Club were in a fix. And here, another observation should be appended: Carlos loved The Sidewalk Smokers Club. It was a topic he never broached with Jordan, had never even let on he knew anything about, but followed through the press clippings and television reports with passion.

Carlos had been stunned by the swift, hard and unforgiving justice with which his new nation supported a rather suffocating regime of rules, fees, tickets, and prohibitions.

Jordan and his pals were engaged in a kind of tricky dirty work on behalf of his and all peoples’ freedoms and Carlos could not help but admire them. Important a cholo in Inglewood as he was, there were a lot of things he had to bow his head and beg for whilst smothering his sense of injustice and, quite frankly, The Smokers were giving outlet to those frustrations. Sure they were white kids. Sure they were college-educated and inhabiting a world of (relative) privilege unknown to Carlos. But, he thought, they were on the right side of the fence, and they were courageous, because they could not, in the end, win, but in the meantime were giving a few pimps the dry fuck they were so accustomed to giving everybody else.

He loved this and would help to the limited extent he could.

“I wan jou to take dis money and tell me if you need anymore,” said Carlos, making a fist with his hand, touching Jordan’s heart with it and then his own.

J. assented with a nod. It sure was a funny world where a guy like Jordan, who possessed neither a fetish for violence, death, nor devious ways where the acquisition of money was concerned, should be the benefactor of such a gift.

Very funny indeed.

Chapter Fifty-nine

Her name was Demejian, Eilin Demejian. The Armenian girl. Approaching her at the entryway to the pier, Jordan felt his legs were providing him with all the support of water faucet flow. His heart was a tom-tom drum thundering out of some unvisited and tangled jungle. He thought she was the most beautiful girl in the world, which of course she wasn’t, but where tastes are concerned, what is written has been done so on toilet paper, not engraved in stone.

It was not merely his present circumstances which led Jordan to conclude she might be a little above his kin. He’d felt the same whenever confronted with a girl who matched his own personal goddess archetype. And, in his defense, it must be said that save for the born-smooth operator, so do most men.

So he kind of got off to a rough start as they began their stroll down the boardwalk. The usual miscues; the “how are yous” and “so what do you dos” were falling flatter than an eleven-year old’s chest and then Jordan descended into public relations which, we know, was the natural dominion of Corey and Randall, not his. He mentioned, by way of a boast, that he was a member of The Sidewalk Smokers Club. She was not moved, was unfamiliar with, not of the moment.

Then Eilin grabbed his hand and smiled up at him. There are a handful of times when even the guy is looking for so much more than sex and light petting. And this was just such a time. Wanting to avoid his secret life as a barista, Jordan clumsily pushed The Sidewalk Smokers Club envelope again.

“We’ve been in the newspapers recently,” he pointed out.

Eilin said that she didn’t read the newspapers.

This was something of a sacrilege to a man of Jordan’s cut, but there are times also when the usual weight and measures we’d hold a potential mate to are waived in the face of overwhelming affections, and so J. gave her a pass on the newspapers, too.

No need. Eilin, taking control of the flow, added that she could not do so (read the papers) presently, “because of something that’s going on with my family.” Jordan remembered how she had said they were a close-knit bunch.

Without even knowing her, he was sad that something might be making Eilin sad and he swore to himself that, if and when he found out what it was, he’d do his best to remedy it.

Sensing that Jordan was lost in his thoughts, Eilin grabbed at his shoulders and turned him square to her, his back to the setting sun and thrashing surf. “You look,” she said to him from deep within some preternatural dream, “like something out of a drawing.”

He was, of course, something out of a police sketch, but wasn’t about to quibble.

She kissed him and his will to live lurched again and again and again.

Chapter Sixty

Joya was coming back from her meeting with the lesbian city councilmember and on her way to dinner with City Attorney, taking the full measure of her entanglements and compromises. Never afraid of engagement, she shrugged where others might have shuddered. Joya could not tell you what The Sidewalk Smokers really was/were, or in what direction it/they were heading, but she knew she was with them 100 percent. It was not in her to leave behind unfinished business or messes. Jordan must be saved, Yvonne made whole, the bum philosophy universal, the White House interior redone by Clarisse, simply because her path had intersected theirs (out there on the sidewalk, smoking). And finally, the sidewalk smokers outside here store must be preserved in a liberty everlasting. These were the bones fate had placed on her plate and she felt obliged to pick them clean.

The lesbian citycouncilady had been frank with Joya about the prospects of stopping the BID’s plan for cleaning out the scum. The purifying baptismal had taken on the aspect of a steamroller and she, as their (the BID’s) district representative at City Hall, had no plans to stand in its way.

“It would be suicide,” she drove the point home. “I can’t be associated with you people.” Joya swallowed hard. These were words hard to take coming from a political figure given to radical postures. That she wasn’t interested gave Joya a sick sense of where The Smokers really stood on the acceptable-O-meter of civic behavior.

The councilperson’s own interests were in the Angel Without Mercy case, she explained. “That’s a winner honey. People think the old lady was probably miserable and they are right. The city attorney rode the wave of outrage rolling in, but it’s already crested. I’ll ride the rip-tide back out. And anyway, I believe in it; assisted suicide and all that.”

Joya pressed the lesbian city councilwoman to do everything in her power to prevent the coming clash of forces.

“What about DeConcini?” the legislator threw in, somewhat desperate at the onslaught.

“He bailed on us.”

“The esquire is a man completely out for himself,” the lesbian city councilmember explained. “That was why he was available for hire. The telegenic nature of your little campaign enticed him. He wanted some screen time, my dear.”

“We knew that.”

“So he got it and it worked.”


For all her charm – and the lesbian citycouncilperson was certainly affected by it – Joya did not possess an incisive understanding of everything she heard and her counterpart was working hard to be patient.

“Don’t you see? He cashed-in that event; moved on, found bigger fish to fry. You will have to find another whore.”

For those who cling to the quaint notion a feminine presence in politics would soften the game, let it be noted here how politician women talk a lot like politician men and are equally ambitious. Joya had been ignorant of the reality. The last expression had its intended effect and Joya retreated into her head. She knew that in their desperation she and probably other Club members were resorting to sex in moving things along a bit, pressing an ages-old advantage. And there is a temptation to test attraction’s utility just one more time; like a retired champion returning to the ring to see if he still has what it takes.

He usually doesn’t, but The Smokers were capable. Sexy was at least part of what had been played with from the very beginning and maybe sexy was at stake, too. Yvonne’s devilish past saw to that. Mediocre in professional matters, they were without equal in those speaking to passion.

It did not seem to Joya that the city councilwoman was going to take on the lady retailers along her street and she was looking for another whore real bad. So she asked the lesbian city councilwoman if she weren’t interested in meeting for a drink some evening in the near future, hon.

The object of her false affections was not fooled, but throughly amenable to the proposition.

This bit of information is included, not to scandalize or defame, but to demonstrate the fluidity with which otherwise complicated matters move when sex is thrown in as lubricant. The woman was overweight and not very attractive and she’d found, without making an abusive habit out of the thing, that being in a position of power afforded her greater sexual options. And Joya was one of these options she just might avail herself of.

Joya made a vow to limit her dalliances with public officials to these two. Not out of morality, mind you, but as a way to protect her cachet by keeping its dispersion finite.

She was wary of getting tired in this fast-paced, adrenaline-tapping scenario, for there were other pressures. Sadina had called in tears quitting over a cut in pay and in the number of hours they had been spending together. Joya had not attended to her little keepsake. She was sad to lose her, but happy involved in the problems of others.

And she still enjoyed a good cigarette out in the open air.

At any rate, if an overweight lesbian sounds rough, it must be remembered that we are talking about Joya. What she was facing with City Attorney was infinitely more damning and permanent than a perfunctory roll around with lady what’s-her-name.

They’d been headed toward each other like old iron locomotives screeching along the same track, despite the unorthodoxy and seeming impossibility of the pairing and their mutual and complete mortification. There wasn’t too much to talk about, merely a way of blending their mutual interests and needs into a package palatable to each.

Under the circumstances, this would not be easy, but people who think they’re in love think they will find a way.

Besides, he was a man of influence, stand-up fellow really, who was ready with the ring when she arrived at their table, late. She’d known it was coming, the proposal, and really had hoped for something more original.

She took one look at him and flashed a face that made him feel special. She took the time and reflection necessary to deliver her rejoinder and said, “Hon, don’t give a jewel, be a jewel.”

Joya closed the little velvet box, placed it in his hands and clasped them with hers.

He had to have her then. There was something so creamy and disarming about the way she fleeced people that he viewed it as nothing less than an invitation to a pure kind of love, when that wasn’t what it was at all.

City Attorney was handsome in a way without edge, inoffensively so. He too found it tough not to avail himself of the traffic in private parts customary in the power guild.

He made much of his virtue in public life, but he had a weakness for this one woman taking him places self-control and career considerations had sworn him off many times over many years. She was rocking his world and he was ready to piss-off the whole damn mayor’s campaign. It had always been an act of cynicism papered over with a vague promise that, once in power, he might somehow rule with innocence again.

After that night at the Argentine restaurant with The Smokers he’d found himself still enjoying minor rushes from their ebullience and fighting a blind belief in their fight.

This is City Attorney’s vision of them and speaks the effective nature of the groups intentions and manipulations alike.

He sighed. A waiter in black-and-white welcomed them and asked if they wanted to start off with some cocktails. He said no. She said yes. The waiter vowed to return with her request and a pair of menus.

Joya never imagined things happened in so obvious a way, but here she was, ready to make a demand, in exchange for promising to spend her life with this man in front of a lot of friends, all represented by a piece of jewelry she wouldn’t dare sell in her own store. It was a man in a suit; the thing she’d avoided her whole life and the wonder of it all had her feeling like a child. She did not know if she loved him for him or for what he might do for her.

He did not care. He did not get where he was by behaving as a Boy Scout, although it is what he led people to believe.

As such, he maintained operatives. Not very different than the way Carlos maintained them. Anyhow, City Attorney’s operatives had informed, much to his dismay, that the Angel Without Mercy could almost assuredly be traced to The Sidewalk Smokers Club.

Shaken, he’d gotten in touch with the lead detective in the case – Dumburton. They had met and Dumburton had been adamant about City Attorney’s need to prosecute.

There was but a fat chance of that happening now that a link to the monsters the woman of his dreams openly cavorted with had been made. He would have to cancel a meeting he’d agreed to in principle with Dumburton. The matters was dead, if he had any say, and he did.

“I want you to help me with the business improvement district’s plan to clear out the sidewalk smokers.”

There was but another fat chance of City Attorney, normally, choosing a political dogfight like that, but under the circumstances he wanted to do it for her – ruin himself that is.

“And,” she rode her own momentum, “you gotta see what you ken do about gettin’ those charges against Yvonne dropped.”

He said he might do that, but in the right and proper time, which was completely up to him because he didn’t want her pushing him around. She was a little surprised at the business-like tone his part of the discourse had assumed, but Joya, after all, started it. She did not like his counter-twisting, but was aware of how this was that most feared of liberal monsters – the attorney. And so he let it all slide.

He handed her the ring by way of agreement. She took it with the same sentiment in mind. Something very nice passed between them even if it was not the most romantic of moments in the annals of matrimonial proposals. The waiter came back with a martini and the sight of it warmed her into a little shudder of pleasure. They each took refuge behind their menus, opting to deal with other intimacies and complications needing address at later meetings, over time, and yes, together.

Chapter Sixty-one

Vindaloo Baxley was the gift that kept on giving. Clarisse was now more than just an artisan-for-hire. She’d become something of a confidant to Vindaloo who was, of course, a lonely famous rich girl.

The moment of their coalescing came just after Eilin had captivated Jordan’s attention for good. Clarisse had seen the boisterous and self-confident personality go pale upon looking back out to the sidewalk where the smallest advantage she’d ceded as a courtesy to Jordan had led her to lose him. Now Vindaloo, because another woman had bested her, decided that she really liked Jordan whom, despite his somewhat sloppy and clumsy life, has wracked up a pretty good record where admiration amongst the womanry is concerned.

Vindaloo was too busy creating an image of pure and hip happiness to spend any kind of time on her true emotional well-being, so that in the days immediately after she never put any particular plan into action for winning Jordan over. Clarisse could see that Vindaloo could see that Eilin had the game sewed up and that she was candy-striping her defeat in their little conversations about seduction and such. And Vindaloo could see everything Clarisse was seeing, which is how she came to be the luminary she was in the constellation of actresses. Which is to say that Vindaloo wasn’t stupid, even if they paid her to act that way. And the two girls were able to keep these truths to themselves and deal with each other affectionately. An important adjustment if you’re talking sorority.

Anyway, the point is that with Vindaloo busting her coffers with sick money Clarisse decided to chip-in and help solve some of The Smokers’ outstanding financial problems. Despite her spot-on assessment that these were the times in which she was to make hay and set up a better, more comfortable future, something in Clarisse’s Catholic upbringing left her with the nagging feeling that this had all been too much fun, that her gains were ill-gotten, that she was an egocentric and frivolous person and was being rewarded for it, against all laws of nature.

It did not help money matters much that those wanting to assist The Club could almost never locate its members. Each was operating on the fly, improvising in a game they made up as things went along; dodging capture by exactly whom they could never be sure (except Jordan).

With all the telecommunications advances in the world at her fingertips it took

Clarisse the better part of a day to finally catch up with Corey, at night, in a hospital where Randall was under observation.

Her common law husband was wrestling with two matters: the first was how to square away Randall’s collapse with the fight for sidewalk smoking rights. What would he say when they pointed out the yawn between what The Sidewalk Smokers Club represented and what Randall’s health said about it? Corey thought it was pretty stupid that they had not seen this coming. They’d hitched bum philosophy’s cart to The Sidewalk Smokers’ celebrity and now the two things were at odds.

Second was the matter of paying for Randall’s spin through the luxurious world of rolling gurneys, underpaid medical attendees, and whining patients.

The money from the tobacco lobby would pay for the costs of floating Yvonne’s case for as long as possible, but the enterprise was not up to providing health care.

Still they were The Sidewalk Smokers Club and couldn’t very well abandon Randall to his own devices without being noticed.

At least not while he was sitting there like a phantom, still weighing The Smokers’ prospects, worried the media would soon find out about that tobacco money, which they were going to need along the low road, or even the high road.

“What they shouldn’t find out, they do,” Randall had said earlier, before surrendering to the high-tech chemistry coursing its way through his veins, heart, brain and secondary body organs. He gestured feebly for his notebook and pen on the night stand. Corey handed them over. Randall wrote. Corey marveled and envied his friend the energy and dedication. Randall knew this and kept to himself the fact that there wasn’t anything noble going on; there was simply nothing else to do.

Then Clarisse came in with the money necessary to hire Geffner, which is what they’d asked of her. A quick sketching of the circumstances however, transformed her contribution from its intended purpose to that of health care. As has been said, The Smokers were adjusting on the fly.


By this she meant that paying Randall’s bills was not exactly what she’d had in mind. She’d wanted to help the whole group. Corey, reading his wife’s face as only a husband can, explained that Randall’s health was for the good of the group and

Clarisse wanted to say that remained to be seen, but she didn’t. It was something of a breakthrough and Corey was present to witness it. Resorting to her usual grace Clarisse handed Corey a blank check and washed her hands of the matter.

Meanwhile The Smokers, despite their problems and complicated agendas, were still hot because Corey’s fax blast of the major and minor outlets reaped a number of calls beyond what he could disguise at work. They were just about done with Corey at that place, but afraid to fire him outright for the simple fact he seemed up to something – hatching – and if he was, they did not want to waste their investment in him. They owned what went on inside his head, and thought they wanted it; unaware of the bum philosophy or The Sidewalk Smokers Club, inhabiting a parallel universe as they did, with different games and different prizes and diversions.

He decided to force the issue and take what time he needed for his outside enterprise while providing the lamest of pretenses for springing himself from doing nothing around the office. He wanted to get fired and take advantage of the unemployment benefit – a matter of efficiency to him, recuperating money that had been paid out. There is something of the shark in Corey and reason has served him well up to now.

So, informing no one, he departed midday with a list of phone numbers to call and set up a press conference on questions regarding Randall’s health as well as the State of The Smokers, generally.

Chapter Sixty-two

Dumburton contacted Jordan and suggested a meeting between them. J. considered resorting to one of his many avoidance mantras, but something in the detective’s voice told him liberty might well be at hand.

They set a meeting at Java World so Jordan felt like he was on home ground, even if he no longer worked there. As Dumburton approached he tossed a nice tight-packed pouch of Drum Jordan’s way. J. read the cop’s language and understood that he’d gotten it all wrong. His time was up.

“How’d you-”

Dumburton couldn’t wait for him to finish the question before answering. “That day I took you in. I asked you for a smoke without marijuana and you gave it to me. It was the sample I needed.

“Here,” and he threw a manila folder on the table between them. “Have a look.”
Jordan was too busy marveling at how the tobacco had gotten his goat and not the marijuana he’d cavalierly smoked in Dumburton’s face.

“Open it!”

Jordan did. He could see it was an affidavit signed by a man named Henry Jones saying he’d seen the Angel Without Mercy and that the smoke from Drum was what he smelled the night of the old lady’s untimely and tragic death.

“I think they call that circumstantial evidence or hearsay or some such notion that translates into you having nothing,” Jordan returned the folder to the table.

“Not coupled with an ID. This guy remembers you. He’ll pick you out of a lineup.”

“What if he doesn’t want to?”

“You suggesting you’d tamper with the witness you little pussy?”

“We wouldn’t tamper. We’d just get out the cuerno de chivo.”

Dumburton’s face clouded. “Did you say what I think you just said?”


There were a million ways to get you. Your average grandmother was probably guilty of breaking three or four important laws. In having to deal with it daily, Jordan’s internal humility before authority had grown. For it struck him that the detective could put some cuffs on the suspect, drive him out to a place of cliffs and cathedral-like launches of upward rock, shoot him in the head and toss him over on some particularly inky night without fearing any call, at all, to accountability.

“It could happen,” he told himself, fighting back some comment sure to upset Dumburton’s flimsy control of his darker selves. It was a decision rooted in J.’s firm intent to stay out of jail at all costs and thereby consort with his passion friend.

Simultaneously, the detective thought he saw something like fear finally wash over Jordan’s face. It may have been more like fatigue, but that was okay. Dumburton would have to settle for it given his quarry’s admirable talent for dissimulation.

“Anyway,” he said violently swiping the folder off the table, causing a flinch from Jordan’s quarter, “you’re off the hook. I could nail you, but you’re off the hook.”
Jordan hadn’t gotten it wrong after all. He was free. He could feel it.

“The orders from upstairs are to turn down the heat on this, bury it until things blow over,” he said dejectedly, disgustedly. “Politics are involved now, your smoking friends, a real mess. Nobody wants to touch it in an election season. So you walk.”

“Aren’t you giving up a little too easily?” Jordan said rather counter-intuitively.

“Look,” Dumburton said before wetting his nose in the double cappuccino, “No one knows better than you how I put plenty inta this thing.”

“Yeah. You did a bang-up job.”

“It was a good issue,” Dumburton went on. “It had promise and national implications.”

Jordan was unaware the detective harbored presidential ambitions.

“So you’re saying, it sounds like to me, c’est la vie. That even though you’re certain I killed the old lady. It’s time to move on.”

Dumburton nodded “That’s right and that’s the difference between you and me. I feel obligated to do as I’m told, you feel obligated to do the opposite.”

“My world’s freer,” said Jordan.

“Mine’s safer and cleaner,” responded Dumburton, “which is a kind of freedom, too.”

“Except if you’re unsafe and dirty.”

Unsafe and dirty were the objects of Dumburton’s personal crusade and he could not understand how a nice boy with almost every advantage like Jordan would throw his lot in with the insecure and filth-ridden, the whiners, moochers, and marchers.

“Jeezus, Dumburton,” Jordan decided to make use of his face-time, “you hounded me like an obsession.”

Dumburton nodded benignly. It was merely part of a larger day’s work.

“No, what I’m saying,” Jordan put a forefinger in his former tormentor’s face, “is that you fuckin’ hounded me. You disrupted my existence. Tried to end my life.”

Jordan was trembling at first, but the steam was blown and next there was a relaxed air rising between these two representatives of distinctive demography.

“You forget a lot of the fear came from the guy tailing you and that had nothing to do with me. I was only half your troubles pal. And by the way, you need to settle down.”

Jordan was taken aback at the level of intimacy Dumburton employed, but even more amazed that he was wise to Carlos’s bodyguard.

“Anyway, I get a little edgier where old lady killers are concerned,” Dumburton appealed to Jordan’s reasonable side.

“That’s not police work. It’s thuggery.”

“Fill in the blanks of my response for me,” said Dumburton with an easy snarl.

“That’s what you’re paid to do?”

“Thaaaaat’s what I am, a thug,” and his tone jumped an octave in a burst of confessional rage. “I’m a third-degree black belt in karate. I can bust a man’s heart from fifty-feet away with a good pistol. I corner desperate men and subdue them.”

It was one hell of a job description thought Jordan who, despite his guilt, resented being grouped together with the kind of men Dumburton was going on about.

The case dispatched of, the rosy tinge of fading youth restored to Jordan’s cheeks for the first time in months, and now there was a dearth of things the two men might talk about. They had ceased to share something, anything, in common. Or had they?

“I guess it was time for the old coot to drop, huh?” Dumburton raised his eyebrows at J. who was sticking with the plan and refused to comment. The cop stuck out his hand. He wanted bygones to be bygones. Jordan wanted to punch him in the face for abandoning him to the mediocrity of life as a non-suspect.

Dumburton took the hand back, smiling naturally. “Ah, you’ll get over it with time,” which Jordan thought was very true and therefore very aggravating. Dumburton continued to sweeten up the dish. “This is life, things happen. Give me a call sometime.”

Give me a call? The detective dropped his card on the table in front of Jordan. “You’ve been a worthy opponent and you’ve got balls.” Jordan thought he could have done without the wrestling match and learned such things about himself some other way.

“Reason I say so is because my brother...he has a little marina up the coast. He’s tired of running it and he’s lookin’ for somebody to step in. If I weren’t committed to the force I’d take him up on it myself. It’s a creampuff job. Comes with a life on the water, great big boats, girls out the ass and a house big enough to fit you and a kid if you wanted. You just tie up the yachts, you just let out their rope.

Tie ‘em up, let out their rope. It’s a sweet life.”

The rhythm sounded simple enough and here was this dreadful man offering entree. He wanted to say yes – Jordan – but sagely opted for a little meditation first. This was, after all, Dumburton and the association would take some getting used to.

Noting Jordan’s numbness the detective gestured and went on his way, excited at the idea of his visit being of momentous event to the younger man.

Chapter Sixty-three

Corey’s ongoing campaign for keeping the local press interested was a relative success. Indeed, certain outlets responsible for The Smokers’ story becoming what it was had assigned regular beat reporters to the ongoing affair. And still, the fanfare of the first event was entirely absent now. The Smokers were not gathered to celebrate, which is how people had come to know them. They had met to dispense with some business; the baggage of having become The Sidewalk Smokers Club. It was naught but a gray, emotionless affair during which they imparted the information required of public, semi-official figures, such as themselves.

Joya’s Joyas again served as the venue. It looked different than the time before. Colors had been emboldened, design elements had thickened. We cannot say that nobody cared. Quite the opposite. Sales were made, business relationships initiated, notes and pictures taken in all seriousness.

The press event opened promptly. Corey coolly explained Randall’s illness and a doctor’s order that he quit smoking as soon as possible.

“They say he tried to smoke himself sick,” said a misplaced member of the local business journal’s staff who’d convinced his editors The Smokers represented an evolution in marketing.

Corey responded that “they” probably owed The Smokers money and then invited the reporters to impugn the statement’s veracity with a little investigation, which he knew they would not. Yes. He would be flip and he would help make Randall a small monster.

“He’s pretty much the leader, right?” asked someone from a smaller chain of papers serving bedroom communities.

“You make those distinctions,” said Corey. “We consider ourselves friends.” This was both his partner’s cadence and brand of guerrilla reasoning. He held the floor, pressed his advantage, switched. “If it’s a free country we’re just looking for a free space, someplace, anywhere.”

It was a claim not completely true since The Smokers had very narrow tastes where desirable neighborhoods were concerned and wouldn’t be caught dead in most. But it was good, broad-stroke rhetoric that kept the message simple.

“And you don’t see any contradiction between your advocating sidewalk smoking while ‘your friend,’ as you refer to him, lays nears death as a result of the very same habit?” a blogger tried to burn him.

Of course Randall was nothing like “near death,” but the reporter needed that element so that his story had a little depth, sweep. Corey needed that too and remained mum on the point. Instead he said, “That is exactly the fact, but Randall is the guy you want to talk to about it,” which was both a very cynical and very professional dodge.

“I thought you said he wasn’t the leader?” said the bespectacled girl from the left tabloid, disjointing her attack with a little librarian’s smile.

“He’s the guy that got sick. I can only provide hearsay and I know none of you uses hearsay in your pieces.”

Randall read about it and thought Corey had acquitted himself admirably, setting the stage, leaving them wanting more, and handing off just at the proper moment.

Now, at least, they could focus on wrapping up Yvonne’s case and Joya’s battle against the BID to make them all extinct. Regarding each matter they had managed to furnish themselves with enough juice to put up a fight, to not just sit there, to not just be tumbleweed pulled through that junkyard by some invisible siren, unknowable, irresistible.

Chapter Sixty-four

Jordan called the hospital where Randall was preparing for his imminent departure.

He was being discharged a little earlier than necessary because the hospital had a lot of people to treat and was less than subtle in letting him know it. He was able to pay the bill and when Jordan heard this he felt good and saw his debt owed the system somehow settled through his association with The Club.

The two men exchanged impressions, Randall agreeing fully with Jordan’s observation that choice of treatment was woefully lacking and that one largely accepts into one’s body (and out of one’s bank account) whatever the health experts ordain.

“They never really ask if they can do it do they?” Randall looked for a match.

“Nah,” and J. hung up.

Randall, of course, had been playing with fire by using sickness as a strategy. He did not count upon the black cloud that had gathered over him and begun to follow he and his image everywhere. The illness made Randall into something dark and sequestered.

Meanwhile, the beginnings of bum philosophy were being posted across the electronic republics, followed closely in small pockets of people in strange countries contacted by Corey who did not at all mind the extra work posed by Randall’s incapacitation.

The bum philosophy was an utterly irresponsible attack upon the work ethic – the measure by which we determine bad from good – and nobody with even a whiff of influence was interested in changing this. Call it what you want, Randall’s and, to a lesser extent, Corey’s invention was anything but status quo in that it gave the lazy new hope. Coupled with their arrogance on public smoking they might as well have launched an airborne plague in a major American city. Some asserted that they already had.

For the moment at least, Randall had become something he despised. His bad behavior was getting good life. It was a nasty switch because he’d imagined himself bouncing along the high road, apple pie progressivism filling his sails. It had however, been decided differently. And there wasn’t a thing he could do about it except answer the questions with the same answers he’d carried around during all those years when nobody was listening.

The phone next to Randall’s hospital bed went off and he picked up. It was City Attorney.

“Welcome back to the inferno buddy boy.”


“I’m ready to throw my weight behind your battle with the BID.”

“Wow,” Randall said, “this is almost big-time.”

City Attorney, who never had much of an appreciation for Randall’s humor, decided to forge ahead. “Whatever we can get out of this office we will,” he found himself selling. “First thing I do is advise the police department to stay out. They’ll be only too thrilled to dump a hot potato back on the fire guys. Next I go after the ordinance through legal means. We fight to keep the streets open for smokers. We present ourselves as defenders of free air and space against the hobgoblins of an over-regulated society.”

“How about we actually believe in it too?”

City Attorney understood he had to entertain such quaint notions with an apprentice outfit like The Sidewalk Smokers Club. “We put our bodies where we have to,” he promised.

This excited Randall who should have known it is easier for a city attorney to say such things than it is for a city attorney to deliver on them.

“I appreciate your poetic conception of politics,” he told him, “but are you looking to get your ass kicked?”

“What do you want from me?” City Attorney snapped, a little frustrated at not having gotten the gratitude he expected. But gratitude is a dog’s disease (Stalin) and only the fact this turn of words was concocted by a terrible man prevented its absorption by the bum philosophy. Randall heard in CA’s intemperance the voice of a kid, down the block from a big family of brothers and sisters, who wants to be friends.

“What do you expect? This is a little out of the blue you know,” he noted.

“I’m going to marry Joya,” City Attorney explained, tired of withholding.

“Does she know?” asked Randall.

“Yeah,” said CA, “it’s what she wanted.”

“What did she want?” Randall prodded.


“This what?”

“This discussion, damn it. She wants me to make this commitment politically.”

“And then she’ll marry you?”

“Jeezus,” City Attorney said to camouflage his inner questioning of the decision’s virtue.

“Wow, okay,” Randall promptly composed himself. He had read about such machinations in the courts of old European aristocracies and the meeting halls of Democratic New York State circa 1910. Now here he was witnessing, and part of, a similar turn. He was confused, needed time, couldn’t sort out the good from bad. And this, by City Attorney’s design.

“Wouldn’t a diamond ring have been easier?”

“Hon, don’t give a jewel, be a jewel,” City Attorney recited his muse’s mantra.

Randall scrambled for a scrap of paper to scribble on.

The boys, of course, are at it in the backroom. Even an outsider like Randall gets invited once, maybe twice, to the backroom, if only because he’s a boy.

And what about the girls? Joya certainly played a decisive role behind the scenes, and the cost to her was higher than for (almost) anybody else because she had given herself up. Incredible stuff, and still she was not an actor on the actual stage.

Clarisse tried to buy some influence and had her contribution reduced to a lady-who-does-lunch-style trust fund for the cause.

Yvonne was fairly convinced – despite her fondness for all involved – that she’d set herself up for a using and she was not at all happy about it. Oddly enough, and contrary to her own public image, she was a good girl who wanted to go along with things and be liked.

And so we can see that The Sidewalk Smokers’ revolution is a limited thing; backward almost in the way Randall had come to view creative life (“Being and artist means being a beggar”). Yes, they were doing the best they could, reacting to the reactions of something they’d never mapped out and which they were not experienced enough to anticipate, but it was still a kind of scrambling.

“You’re going to take a pretty big hit here,” Randall pointed out, probing the depths of love.

“Maybe one that finishes me off. But we need a plan in any case, and ours is to cede the field to the lesbian city councilwoman for a while,” City Attorney sketched. “She’ll be the frontrunner in the race for a job she doesn’t want and never thought she would be so close to getting. We get her in over her head. She’ll fumble it, subconsciously.”

Randall was impressed at the many simultaneous levels of thought CA could handle and he struggled to get a handle on his mental loco-motion. “And you?”

“I ride this horse for all she’s worth. I fight for the maintenance of a personal freedom, the openness of public space, the meeting places of democracy’s citizen legislators.”

It was all music to Randall’s ears. “You think you can do it? You could actually pull it off?”

“Like I said, it’s a plan,” was the best City Attorney, who was not in the habit of making guarantees, could do. He knew that a jump is a jump, a voluntary surrender of control in exchange for a lottery ticket. A victory of the weakling vertigo over ubiquitous gravity. A seduction by velocity.

“Alright let’s do it,” Randall said, agreeing to commit the resources of whatever-it-
was he was the almost-leader of.

The Smokers, while being pulled apart were never more together, barreling toward another chapter, grown by the power of one influential politician, going in for their chances, upstream…muscular.

Chapter Sixty-five

Yvonne’s learning about Joya’s remarkable transition to City Attorney’s fiancee did not shock her and there would be no jealousy for you cannot lose what you never had.

Each Smoker was bitter that something irretrievable had been lost to them. But that bitterness was tempered by the sweet fact it had been sacrificed at the altar of their own well-being. Joya loved them. They knew it now.

Corey, meanwhile, was still emboldened. His name and face were in print, his strategies commented on and the result, if not always desired, still resonated with him. It filled in some of the emptiness that haunts all of us. He called Yvonne, explained there was going to be a press conference at Joya’s two days hence. “Two days hence!” she laughed, delighting in the message’s packaging, while taking him down a notch.

Undeterred, Corey explained that, “folks want to hear from Randall.”

“Oh sweeeteey,” she condescended, “the people that live here aren’t folks.”

Corey grit his teeth in determination (and admiration). “Specifically, the question everyone wants answered is how he justifies his public posturing with his rotten health.”

“What’s he going to say?”

“He’s going to say that we’re coming out against the BID’s plan to move The Smokers to the bad part of town and that we can count on the support of the city attorney’s office.”

“That is an answer to a different question.”

“He will announce our plan to hire a high-powered attorney to take up your case,” Corey ploughed on in the same way he would direct Randall to do. “We’re going to hire someone who does breakfast-and-golf with the publishers. Are you with us?” he plied the menu once again.

She found the table sufficiently, if not elegantly, appointed and it was so agreed.

They would appear together in yet another inspiring rally for Sidewalksmokerism.

Clarisse had been contacted by Corey, too. It was her job to bring in some star power, if she could, from her list of lucky ones. Atop the pyramid of all this sat the A-list actress, but Randall said she was too big, that The Smokers did not want to end up in her own personal movie of herself.

After that came Vindaloo Baxley, still humiliated that Jordan had gone very solid with an insignificant Armenian-American bank clerk. What killed her was that she somehow understood the charm of it all and knew she could never offer any man the same thing.

Having a cool smoke-out with girls from the girly magazines is one thing; getting a show of support at an actual, politically inspired event was something else entirely. No, Vindaloo told Clarisse, she did not think so. City Attorney was definitely not where things were at and the occasional bit of street theater represented the extent of her commitment to such things, but she’d see if she could find the time to come down to Clarisse’s studio and check out what she had going on.

And for this last concession, the Belgian/French girl was eternally grateful, as were all The Smokers.

On the night before the press conference – Randall’s first since being home from the hospital – Hat Midone showed up with two companions for another destructive, seductive romp. Randall, despite his condition, could not pass it up. They were real beer commercial girls; girls who wouldn’t have given him a second look a few months ago. So he leapt.

“The best parties,” he scribbled in wobbly script the next morning, “are the ones you can’t remember.”

At one point in that long night Randall was turning over the bad news of Vindaloo Baxley’s bailing and considering anew the prospects of getting the A-lister back on board.

“It doesn’t look good,” Midone read his mind. The actor had then offered to make a showing on behalf of the coalition. Randall politely declined. “It’s okay,” Hat joshed, pouring something very dangerous down his throat, “I know I don’t project the wholesome profile you need to go for, but you have permission to use my name.”

Randall thought that Hat was right, that it was sad The Smokers were becoming what they were not, and what did it mean? Besotted, impressionable, subject to the actor’s formidable charms, Randall told Hat, never mind, he could come to the press conference, even speak if he so desired and Hat said he would. Randall did not remember this, but Hat did and called morning next to say he’d be making his entrance at 11 a.m.

After another round of calls, consultations, and calculations, the initial plan was finalized. Randall would announce tentative news that City Attorney planned to back The Sidewalk Smokers Club in its battle with the Fashion Business Improvement District and its paramilitary detail. City Attorney would then capitalize on the brief bit of momentum to (hopefully) be garnered from his appearance by confirming – from a different location – that he was staking the success of his campaign for mayor on the slogan of “Open City, Free Street.”

Hat showed up at Randall’s half an hour late (11:30 a.m.). Still, he looked great and dressed the part in his old-school jeans, black work boots, white and tight t-shirt, and a pack of Luckys (which he didn’t smoke) twisted into the short sleeve.
His ample head of hair was slathered in grease and slicked back, but the front bangs insisted. He was a very dashing young man.

“You’re half an hour late,” Randall scolded him.

“Fuck you,” said Hat Midone.

Randall thought how the day might be a difficult one. Together they left his disorderly apartment and split in the direction of their respective parked cars. “Where you goin’?” Hat asked.

“To my car,” Randall retorted, “we should take my car.”

Without the slightest degree of sensitivity toward Randall’s feelings Hat explained that his car was convertible and new and powerful and cool while the other entry in the which-car-should-we-ride-in sweepstakes possessed none of these features.

“I know, but I don’t want to create any resentment,” Randall responded rather correctly.

“It’s a little late for that,” Hat stated, also correctly, proving how two people can win the same argument.

As Hat’s ride rolled down the street past Joya’s Joyas in search of a parking spot, Randall could see the store had undergone a face-lift. This could be attributed to Clarisse’s sublime intervention. She had turned the fact she owed Joya a table into a tsunami of self-promotion in support of herself and The Smokers. The table had become a new set of area rugs, which had morphed into a graphic separation of walls by starkly different primary colors and then transmuted into a series of new display cases particularly suited to the new decor.

Joya wasn’t sure about this usurpation of identity, but kept quiet because Clarisse was Vindaloo’s designer du jour and that couldn’t be a bad thing if enough people could see it and they were, after all, just about to have a press conference.

After driving up and down the commercial strip a few times in search of a parking space, Hat said, “Fuck this. No way to make an entrance, man. Can you get somebody to park my car when we roll up?”


“Perfect,” spat Hat as he veered the convertible at the line of waiting paparazzi mixed in with beat reporters burgeoning out from the curve in anticipation of their arrival. Hat came so close, so fast at the curb, that some felt compelled to dive to the cement and out of the way. The duo leaped from the car. Randall’s heel got caught in the hood mechanism and he stumbled a bit. People laughed. Hat puffed.

Nobody was there to park it and traffic began slowing thanks to the slight bottleneck beginning to take shape.

“Hat!” they cried, “Randall!” even. A table was set up outside the window display for the press conference. The store was kept empty by a large security guard with a yellow jacket that had the words “Event Staff” blazoned across his wide back. Inside Joya, with the shadowy Sadina behind her, was beckoning to The Actor and The Smoker.

With a confidence born of experience, Midone led the way with his elbow stuck out, horizontally, toward the door. Joya unlocked and opened just enough for both men to slip in and closed it on a woman reporter’s foot. “Oh hon!” she said reopening enough for the limb to slither away.

“Shit,” Randall turned to the actor, “how did they know you were going to be here?”

“I had my publicist call them.”

“Why?” Joya and Randall queried in symphony.

“It’s in my contract. Any time I make a public appearance I have to at least let them know so they can be prepared for anything that might happen.”


“I’m Hat Midone!”

There was no response from Joya or Randall who were, after all, the worker bees in this situation. He turned to her and said, “Why are you locking everybody out?”

“It’s a smokin’ crowd and we’ve already been through that hon. And the fine…well.”

“Okay,” Randall nodded, “but don’t worry about money.”

Money had ceased to be a problem for The Sidewalk Smokers Club as they had ceased, increasingly, to be The Sidewalk Smokers Club.

“And,” she went on, “Clarisse has redecorated the place for me and I’d like to keep it fresh and new for as long as possible.”

“Nothing can stay new for a long time,” Randall pointed out to no particular end. He looked around as did Hat who said, “This looks a lot like Vindaloo’s place.” Joya felt it best not to comment. Randall took a look into one of Clarisse’s sensual display cases and saw new things in there, too. “Your work is changing Joya,” he commented.

“Those aren’t mine,” she said, “they’re Sadina’s.”

“You’re back!” he turned happily to the Indian girl whose chocolate complexion cracked with cream for a smile.

“Yeah,” Joya said, “now that I don’t have any use for her as a girlfriend I have to exploit her artistic side.” Sadina, in her own unique style, said nothing in response.

“She never rises to the bait,” Joya smiled, “she keeps ya wonderin’.”

There was an increase in the ruckus going on outside. “Yvonne! Yvonne!”

“Jeezus,” Hat muttered, “that’s the end of my star turn,” correct as usual. The lovely, distressed Yvonne was being shielded as she came out of a car parked behind Hat’s, which was being ticketed by the city government’s most efficient outfit. Corey had his arms around Yvonne and was unable to apply Hat’s strategy in getting to the door and things went pretty slow to the delight of everyone. Joya stationed herself at the portal, but stepped back when the wave-mass behind the pair hurled them into the store’s facade, causing a slight giving in the entirety of the glass frontispiece.

“Well, God!” Joya said, rather frightened before she opened up. Hat had joined her and punched at the hands and arms of the media elite grabbing at whatever part of Yvonne within reach. In they slipped. “Christ!” said Corey with no less vehemence than Randall. “What the hell, hey, your Hat Midone!” and he extended a hand of welcome to the actor. “Guess that explains the crowd.”

“My publicist. But I’m not sure Hat’s who everybody came to see,” said Hat pushing his chin up in Yvonne’s direction.

She looked as beautiful as ever. Ephemeral and light from the weakening that had occurred in her and which Randall and Corey had not foreseen, assuming, as they did, that the difficulties would increase her strength (which also happened, sort of).

Those black beans eyes had taken on a Perils of Pauline pallor first evidenced when the business of the magazine layout had become her life’s defining feature.

“Fortunately,” she said, “this isn’t about me anymore,” and she turned to Randall. “I think you’re the hot ticket.”

So everyone was hot and it was a great moment, which, if not for this novel, would never have been recorded. Without the novel, this subtle crest of triumph for The Smokers would be obscured in the ham-handed reporting of beginning, end, and official milestones in between, readily provided by your mainstream media types.

Swimming together in a sea of consecration as semi-important noteworthy players it was easy for Randall to invoke his own deep humility. “You they want to fuck. Me they want to kill.”

“There’s a lot of unserious media outlets here,” Corey complained. Hat did not take it personally. He owed his bread and butter to the fact a majority of the vultures assembled made-do with crumbs from his table. They could not be less interested in fulfilling the function of informing the public on matters of policy, economy, and process. The line between real news and fluff had been long erased, with the real world movers ceding larger parcels of territory to the likes of actors, bombers and, in this case, Sidewalk Smokers.

“You wanted people to know what you’re up to and we took care of it,” said Hat, matter-of-factly. As was quickly becoming his habit, Mr. Midone, which is how the newspapers on the East Coast referred to him, was correct.

“At least we’re offering a dose of politics with our sex,” said Randall winking at Yvonne who was, by now, impervious to this kind of remark and ready with an automatic smile that gave nothing whatsoever of herself.

“And they are waiting for that dose,” Joya pointed out.

“But we’re not all here,” Randall tried to put off the inevitable even if it was true that Clarisse and Jordan had yet to arrive.

“Yeah,” Corey took command, “but the moment is clearly now,” which it clearly was.

So he took a deep breath and, followed by Hat, went out the door and waded into the fray, arms akimbo after the actor’s fine example. The mass surged backwards and Corey was able to announce the press conference’s imminent launching, “If and when you step the hell back behind the table and give us a little room to breathe.”

The site of Clarisse standing in the opening he had parted with the power of his own voice brought a smile to Corey and she smiled to see him in that state of agitation, forehead creased, chest extended, legs set wide and firm upon the sidewalk. He was a man with an idea and the fact that idea was Yvonne was not enough to dampen her renewed interest.

She made her way in a tiny ballerina gait on flat shoes, head switching this way and that, cigarette brought once to lips, kindling monumental feelings Corey thought he’d buried for good.

Yvonne saw all of this and accepted it with the regret she felt entitled to. She really liked Corey even if their interest in one another had been somewhat staggered by the pace of events.

Historical actors make their love in closets, quickly.

Of course, he was but a married man with problems and she was a type of woman, a beautiful woman cursed with the prospect of never being able to settle for happiness, her future an endless offering. Upon the shelf or pedestal or wherever it was timid, fearful, but worthwhile men had placed her in their minds, Yvonne had long been out of reach to anyone with enough space in their lives and hearts for two people. She was an object and archetype to be admired from a distance, which is how she ended up in that silly magazine all that time ago. Her sexuality commanded the space, but her loneliness had left her in need of attention and boy did she ever get it.

Corey followed his wife into the store.

“Wow, eet looks greyt!” Clarisse said to Joya with a wave of her hand around the space. She’d left the details to a new and young assistant. Like Joya, she had decided that greater achievement was based upon an ability to delegate – leaving the details to others – while painting their ideas in broader strokes and moving on and into new territories. Randall thought this was his influence and all we can say is that he may have been right. “Thanks hon,” Joya said in her way, “and I do mean thanks for all you’ve done with it.”And, as usual, she sounded like she meant it so much, and that meant so much to the rest of them.

“Deed it improfe bizness?”

“Sadina’s watching the store now. The ladies around here hate my guts and I have other things going on,” and she waved her diamond ring in Clarisse’s face which lit up as if passed over by a magic joywand.

“I heerd! I’m happy for you!”

There was a knock on the window. Corey was calling Randall out. He’d been introduced.

“Randall-Hat-Hat-Randal-Hat-Corey,” issued forth from the many-headed hydra as he left the warmth of Joya’s Joyas behind. Corey stepped forward, arms raised outward in the universal gesture signifying a request for calm and quiet, which he got.

“We’re gettin’ better at all this,” said Joya from inside.

“Where’s Yvonne?” a reporter from a celebrity entertainment show yelled out.

“You can see her very clearly behind me, Jim,” answered Corey who now knew many – even those summoned through Hat Midone’s network – by their first names.

“Not as clearly as I can see her in the privacy of my own home,” chirped a British correspondent who pronounced “privacy” like “privy.” Everyone laughed at this while Randall whispered in Corey’s ear and the latter ceded center stage to the man everybody had assembled to hear.

“For those of you who take the business of your craft seriously, I’ve got a few announcements to make, but if there are any intelligent questions – and I stress the word intelligent – I’m open.”

It was a bold stroke straight from convalescence, self-assured and unguarded. He was open. They’d come for a piece of him and he would give it.

“How are you feeling?” asked one reporter kindly enough.

“It was something of a scare, but I’m much better now,” Randall confessed.

What passed for nicety done with, another reporter began the questioning in earnest: “Has this little brush with mortality changed your posture on the behavior of yourself and your friends?”

“You mean,” asked Randall in return, “my posture toward sidewalk smoking?” lest viewers think he was ashamed to call it what it was.

“Yeah,’ said another, trying to look busy for his managing editor watching on television from a paper-stuffed room somewhere else in the city.

“Hasn’t changed a bit. One should be able to put into and take out of their body what they please without the untoward interference from the forces of law, order, or capital.”

“What about those who have to breathe it to the detriment of their health?”

“We’re certain something could be worked out. It was done for a few centuries before this persecution began.”

“Would you be so lax toward corporate polluters?”

“Of course not,’ Randall snapped unpleasantly, “human bodies are not factories and ounces of dissipating smoke are not properly compared with tons of toxic emissions.”

“What about millions of smokers creating tons of toxic emissions?” asked the thin girl in the horn-rimmed glasses who never missed a Sidewalk Puffers Production.

“That’s a hypothetical.”

“Wow!” Joya emoted, “what did they give him in that hospital?”

“Health care,” said Clarisse.

Back out at the press conference a familiar anchorman blew hard on his windpipes in a fashion particular to those who have reached the apex in the television-reporting field. “How do you respond to rumors that you’re receiving funds from the tobacco industry to finance…whatever it is you are doing?”

Randall took the time to light up an Export-A, because in tense moments he preferred to go with an old friend. “You people are showing up,” he said after having taken a strong pull of smoke. “We’re just smoking on the sidewalks because we’re not allowed to do it inside. It’s where we were directed to go. But we’re here to say we will move no more. On the sidewalks we will, if necessary, make our stand.”

“What about the tobacco money?” the reporter/star blew hard.

“If you have to beg, a friend’s a good place to start,” said Randall; reaching into the unwieldy body of work he had been gleaning from his own mind, and those of his cohorts, all these strange and exciting months.

“So you don’t deny it?” said a very, very pretty blonde girl cut by the same machine most lady reporters are.

“We’ve never hid or denied anything,” said Randall, and it was true. With Yvonne, The Smokers brandished the very banner of transparency and it was largely responsible for what little moral respect they could muster from more serious sectors.

“But,” the girl in the horn-rimmed glassed chimed in, “don’t you feel taking that money taints both the objectivity of your message and your integrity?”

“Absolutely,” said Randall, “but we’re just smoking, not running for office.”

“So what you’re saying is that, despite the fact you were forced to stare death in the face, you plan to go on advocating this behavior?”

“The face,” Randall rejoined, “was not so ugly as I thought. In any case, if you think moving forward his hard, you should try going backward.”

“Yes,” the anchorman’s voice soared over the mice around him, “but to what purpose?”

“To keep fighting the good fight,” Randall explained, “is the sole purpose of fighting.” He was not completely comfortable speaking in bum-philosophic platitudes, but what else was he supposed to do? The Smokers wanted to make a point, sure, but they wanted to do a little business, too.

“So you’re fighting as an empty exercise?”

This brought a pause that depressed all present. “To keep fighting the good fight is the sole purpose of fighting,” was the perfect expression for a people desperate of not influencing things. It was deeply pessimistic. It was the fight of bums and nobody would admit to being that. Nobody but The Smokers was secure enough to admit it and that bothered the fuck out of all the spectators. The Smokers seemed fearless which, of course, could not have been farther from the truth. They were fearful, that is, full of fear, almost drunk on it and on the protection they found in one another.

The crowd had grown denser, tenser. “I can’t tell,” said a voice (Randall could no longer spot where every question was coming from), “if you’re attacking the right or the left.”

“Let me help you then,” R. was on a significant roll and the journalists (for lack of a more representative term) found themselves seduced by his rare preparedness to speak honestly five, six, seven times consecutively. “I’m attacking both.”

“How much money are you taking from the tobacco industry?” asked somebody from a fluff program who had no business doing so, since such was not the content of its nightly neon-splashed reports.

“Lots. More than we need,” which was true.

“How can there be more than you need?”

“We hold that every man has his price, but the moral one keeps his affordable.”


“So our price was low and the gift high.”

“Where does that leave the women in your ranks?” asked the skinny girl with the horn-rimmed glasses (not unlike Randall’s) from the free alternative tabloid.

“All our members are men. The world requires it.”

She did not respond nor did anyone else pursue the line of questioning. Perhaps (and this we do not know) this masculine answer soothed some mysterious feminine longing in her, recalled a firm and gentle father, lit her desire.

The pause in questioning from the shuffling mass continued and so Randall, finally, filled it with his own news. “We had motives other than satisfying your curiosity about my near brush with death…”

Corey breathed easy now as Randall conducted the event as he would a symphony.

Having stymied the pack, the bum philosopher launched their campaign to prevent the Fashion Business Improvement District from, “moving out those sidewalk smokers whom have gathered since our last press conference at this location and made it a destination.”

“How do you plan to do that?” the anchorman’s foghorn spewed.

“By spending the money,” Randall said to the apparent satisfaction of everyone there and suddenly burst into a fit of coughing that set The Smokers’ case back a bit both with those on hand and with the growing numbers now watching or listening.

“It’s obvious that ruining your health didn’t affect your attitude toward this disgusting habit-”

“Foul!” yelled Randall like an annoyed schoolyard Johnny bouncing his basketball against the asphalt. His adversary would not be detained. “What if anything did you learn from the civil disorder that occurred the last time we were here?”

“We learned that, even at your own party, it’s hard to control everything.”

Inside Yvonne said, “We certainly did!”

“Is it all bum philosophy?” asked Joya.

“Yes,” said Yvonne, very relieved the focus had shifted to the boys for once and thinking that sometimes it wasn’t so bad being the woman behind the scenes.

“That’s all you got?” the reporter who’d asked the last question pushed for more copy to fill his column. And it really was all Randall had, but he knew the clock was still running and he had better make something up.

“No,” Randall was ready, “we also learned it is sometimes better not to control everything at your own party.”

Corey nodded, pleased. Randall had taken questions directed at him personally and turned the answers into answers from The Sidewalk Smokers, and that was something they finally decided not to fight; a fusion of the two sagas in peoples’ minds.

In his office, surrounded by loyal advisors, City Attorney was watching with an increased sense of concern. It was not that Randall’s performance, as it were, was not good. The press would turn out to be favorable and that was a start. However, if he was in-tuned to the media’s own smartypants sensibilities then he must also be talking over the head of your average household member.

“If there’s one thing worse than a prickly press,” CA said to the nodding heads surrounding him, “it’s a press that likes you for all the wrong reasons.”

It so happens that at the very moment City Attorney was sharing these thoughts with his inner circle Randall implicated him in the matter. “We have it from reliable sources asking to remain anonymous that the city attorney, whom you all know may very well be our next mayor, plans to join our campaign to push back the forces of repression unleashed by the BID.”

Corey smiled, the bit about “repression unleashed” being his lick.

City Attorney, meanwhile, took it in stride. His passion for the lanky Colorado lesbian was stronger than all the other forces at this moment in his life even if early press returns on their engagement hinted at his having sacrificed a life’s work to gain her.

The press, for its collective part, seemed duly impressed by Randall’s claim and unwilling to push given that time would soon attest to its veracity. They could have picked up CA’s scent and inquired as to whether the quiet dropping of charges against Yvonne had anything to do with this most recent, novel alliance, but that would have required background work and research.

Randall coughed violently again. Corey made a clenched fist of approval, like a player in a game. His partner pushed on, “Attacking on several social fronts, The Sidewalk Smokers Club will continue to press its lawsuit against the publishing industry coalition on Yvonne’s behalf and on behalf of the significant number of women who have accepted inclusion in her class for the purpose of litigation. With the help of fresh funding, we’ve assembled a legal team equal to the task of taking on your bosses.”

“Who?” came out from the pack in unison. Randall told them. They were impressed.

Inside, Yvonne’s smile had vanished as she again became again the topic of discussion.

“You don’t really expect to prevail?” sneered the anchorman, taking a little off his blowhard delivery for effect. “Millions of girls have appeared in those magazines over the years without expecting more than their fee and cab fare home.”

“You put things so delicately,” Randall said before coughing lightly yet again. “And you’re right. There have been millions, but you know sometimes it’s just a matter of the one pretty girl being luckier than all the rest.”

Inside, Joya couldn’t resist rubbing Yvonne’s bubbling ass and teasing her: “Ya see hon? You’re luckier than all the resta the pretty girls!” Yvonne found it in herself to laugh, with some release actually. She felt suddenly comfortable with her role now that Randall had stepped forward and fleshed out so much of what The Smokers had been trying to do, which mostly amounted to throwing lots of stuff at the wall in the hope that something stuck.

Back outside the girl in horn-rimmed glassed was at it again. “Does Yvonne really feel herself to be lucky to be caught up in all this?” Randall was getting tired.

The effort to keep the focus off Yvonne was beginning to sputter and so was he.

Looking back over his shoulder into the store he saw her looking better than the night they first met. He looked back down at the reporter and asked himself what was so hard about having to address a comely girl from Vassar or Trinity or one of those places? That ain’t workin’.

“No, but even inside The Sidewalk Smokers Club, we find ourselves at cross purposes.

Admittedly, your obsession with her has been good for us,” he said hoping this was distasteful enough to force a change in their tack.

Inside, Clarisse could not contain herself. “Bravo Ran-dell, bravo Co-ree, bravo bum philosophes!

A tow truck positioned itself in front of Hat’s car, forcing the press to surge forward and knock over a few of its pushier members up front. Hat, glad to have been of help, took the cue, calmly pulled the pack of cigarettes from his short sleeve, fired one up, pointed at the driver with it and said, “Fuck that! Party at my house!” before jumping over the table, through the thickened crowd, and into the open convertible, which then blasted off in a fashion most becoming a fellow of such special formation. The tow truck driver followed suit. The pack scrambled after him.

Chapter Sixty-six

City Attorney had already provided an inkling of how well (or not) all of this might be going over with the general population, but Jordan occupied an even better vantage point from his place in bed next to a naked and (he imagined) satisfied Eilin.

They had watched the press conference live on a local news station.

As the creature that squeezed sweetness out from every pore of Jordan’s body watched Randall’s iconoclastic defense of all things free, a small smirk of dissatisfaction slowly spread across her face. Jordan, who’d waited the better part of his adult life to hear/see points of view like Randall’s on something quite so grand as television, was torn between his own ecstasy and Eilin’s evident disapproval. They did not get to go much deeper into things after his love turned to him and said, “These are the special friends you’re always telling me about?” because the station switched over to City Attorney’s office where the second part of the planned one-two media punch was about to be delivered.

As CA’s face filled the screen and began to discuss the virtues of The Sidewalk Smokers Club and liberty unimpeded by the nettlesome intrusions of the nanny state, Eilin hit the mute button and reduced him to a head with a mouth moving in a futility that rather shocked Jordan. The mute button, he thought, was a mighty tool indeed. And that’s bum philosophy, too.

“How come you cut it off? I wanted to hear,” he told his inspiration.

“I can’t stand him,’ she fired back, point-blank actually.

Of course, politicians are no strangers to provoking the ire of the governed, but such disdain is normally reserved for those of a higher rank than city attorney, which is a position largely invisible to those not mesmerized by the inner workings of your typical, large metropolitan municipal operation. And there was nothing in Eilin’s discussion up to that moment, when she silenced CA from a sitting and naked position in her own bed, to suggest she was even up on the broad stroke political themes of the day, let alone the minor calculations of a secondary functionary.

“Might I ask why you harbor this animosity toward our noble holder of civil servant?”

“He’s a coward. He’s fickle,” she answered. “He went after the Angel Without Mercy so he could do better in the polls and then he dropped it later, very quietly.”

Jordan again dodged getting into the particulars of the Angel Without Mercy saga, but was perturbed to hear how much the matter upset Eilin. To be sure, his action proved to have a demonstrable resonance. Clearly, the death of an old lady in a hospital, where she lay unconscious and vulnerable to the acts of inscrutable nighttime hall wanderers, could wreak havoc with public confidence in the medical system.

“He gave an explanation, I thought…” was the best Jordan could come up with and the forceful and willful girl waved him off without the use of her vocal chords.

So he squeezed out a minimal defense of City Attorney’s courage in siding with the group going up against majority opinion in a time-honored tradition of dissent where beating back badges was concerned. Eilin, again, cut him off with a shake of the head.

Jordan understood that it was a bad idea to be right on an issue that rubs the woman you’re hoping to spend eternity with the wrong way. And still there were those eyebrows that, no matter how much information she had been given, no matter what level of confession, framed her face in a thin-lined fragility of eternally expressed expectation. Innocence is mostly in the eyebrows.

The discussion was dead. Love was alive. Jordan backtracked over his own recent wanderings, recanting – inside of course – all the irreverence, disrespect, and demands for personal satisfaction; responding to the lecture of that highest calling uttered by the woman beloved.

Chapter Sixty-seven

But that was one man’s point of view, strongly influenced by one woman’s. The mute button does not silence a voice across all humanity, only a single household - and one room at that. And some of City Attorney’s pronouncements were of paramount importance to a certain class of smokers both citywide and nationwide, to local retailers, to a nettlesome yet effective club of crazies, and especially to lesbiancitycouncilwomanperson who was watching, along with chosen staffers, in stunned trepidation as the frontrunner for mayor torpedoed his career and left her in the position of achieving the impossible.

With the command of someone used to having his viewpoint heard and respected, City Attorney had dispatched with the answering of questions and gone right into the reading of a statement.

He said, and in no uncertain terms, that he was throwing the power of his office behind The Sidewalk Smokers Club and “their lively defense of kindred spirits facing efforts to remove them from the streets they help make exciting for us all, and which” – and he emphasized with intonations of voice and hand-gesture coordination – “belong to everyone.

“And while I respect and recognize the importance of business, small and large, to our well-being I must hold to the position of a man who would govern through the balanced consideration of all the citizens – especially those without a voice.”

The essence of City Attorney’s preamble had once been the Republic’s guiding principal – the nice little gift to the plain folks that had made risking their asses worth it – but was now deemed outside the mainstream; a place some people choose to avoid, but others simply can’t find.

Anyhow, City Attorney went on to say that, “allowing merchants to use force in removing the very people who symbolize the freedom of our sidewalks is a betrayal of the public’s trust in our ability to protect them.”

Somewhere, City Attorney’s mother was crying over this courageous act of self-immolation. Somewhere else – actually in the back room of Joya’s Joyas – the object of his passions cried, too, over love’s power evident. And somewhere grim and cynical men with money riding on every second of their existence wrote the young man off for his sacrilege – and worse – for his impertinent beauty.

CA had anticipated questions as to the unpopularity of The Smokers’ cause given its unhealthful side effects and slovenly example for the children – “our future,” in paid-political-spot-parlance.

“The majority,” he pointed out, “does not have the difficulty defending its prerogatives the minority has. The majority, as a matter of fact, is often the primary agent in suffocating the pleasures of lesser-loved groups.”

A politics of pleasure even! In another century, future or past, he might be emperor of a happy land.

In this monologue City Attorney had consciously taken a page from Randall’s book.

And we emphasize that it was a page and not the whole thing. He flattered the gathered media’s intelligence and left a coherent legacy in the instance this was his swan song as an elected public official. He was taking his chance to say something by saying something. The clarion call to tolerance would most likely go unheard by a people inured to prepared statements, while only those who feared what he said, understood what he said.

And what he said was that, at a practical level, enforcement of The Smoke-Free Workplace Act had launched an uneven affair that singled out a small group, while a much broader public went unmolested, in clear violation of what specific privilege he did not know, nor care, because he simply felt it was wrong.

To illustrate the act’s sloppy drafting and how quickly things might get out of hand, he alluded to the night he himself was caught on camera while fire officials Thorpe and Diaz were arresting Yvonne. And although it was one part of his discourse that managed to connect with the broadest cross section of viewers, it left Yvonne wondering, yet again, why things always came back to her.

Standing behind her, Randall silently rejoiced at CA’s effective invocation of The Smokers’ most recognizable and appealing icon, proving that sometimes people with the same goals can be at cross purposes.

Chapter Sixty-eight

They met again at the Argentine restaurant to discuss combating the BID’s plan for clearing the air, as it were. The Smokers were forever having to think two steps ahead of the talky-smart people and they found the task more daunting as the marathon wore on. What had for an instant been wild, novel, and a clear break from the mundane quotidian, now became an obligation, and, therefore quotidian. And they were still a little shocked at how many people wanted to sit around and actually watch. They were not themselves.The Sidewalk Smokers Club was no longer a freewheeling bunch of amoral thinkers pinching harmlessly at the belly of the beast; they were an object of scorn for right-thinking people and each was constantly being confronted at moments when (they thought) the game wasn’t supposed to be on. But that was the point. The show ran until the programmers pulled it. If you wanted to hide, they showed you hiding.

For those who had taken up their banner, there was an example that must be lived up to and sometimes they just didn’t feel irreverent or, for that matter, care much for a smoke – on the sidewalk or anywhere else. Clearly, there were consequences to their actions and the more magnified those actions became, so did the consequences.

The Argentine restaurant owner was glad as ever to see them. The paparazzi were on hand and disappointed at Yvonne’s having dressed down to the point where it would be a stretch to sell the pictures they might steal of her. Joya showed up on CA’s arm, and that would be a novelty for the photographers if failing politicians were any kind of item at all, which they weren’t, or if they’d known she was (once?) lesbian, which they failed to uncover in spite of their obsession. Corey and a slimmed-down Clarisse showed up together, but avoided outward displays of affection that might confirm the signal they seemed to be sending. It was not time. Jordan did not come with Eilin, who shunned the spotlight and left him with an earful for the road about what she characterized as a charade.

Once The Club was seated the eatery’s owner explained that puffing inside had become an impossibility since the last Smoker-inspired event. He said that, under the special circumstances they had brought upon themselves, the Sidewalkers should indulge themselves on the sidewalk where the paparazzi waited without being sure for what. This was disheartening because, although they were The Sidewalk Smokers, they came to the restaurant to smoke inside. They’d killed the thing they loved and they knew it.

Seeing Joya locked at the elbow with City Attorney took more than a little getting used to. In fact, most of them failed to make the adjustment completely. She was their Joya, however single or lesbian or impossibly unobtainable, and therefore available for each to press a personal and private crush upon. Frequent adoring glimpses from this well-groomed Serious-man at her side stripped the girl of a racy peril once evinced and there was not a heart among them, which didn’t crack just a little bit more.

And the damage went beyond that excessively considered organ into sketchier regions of the person – domains where jealousy lay curled like a snake curdling a deadly poison for injecting. Only Randall knew for sure (Yvonne having surmised) that Joya had forsaken singledom and taken up with a big shot on behalf of their bid to stave off the extinction of a peculiar and threatened subculture. None, not even Randall, knew of what she had done to spare Jordan a date with the hangman – Jordan least of all. So there was a good dosage of misconception mixing in with the wine as City Attorney opened the discussion in place of Randall, who already had a sense that his best work was behind him.

“First off, the double-event went over like a lead balloon,” said City Attorney. “Our polls show a vast majority of the public that is tuned in find Randall to be arrogant, condescending, and a bad influence, not only upon children, but upon adults as well.” Randall received a mild round of applause, smiles and encouraging nods of the head. “Of course, the 20 percent of those who think what he said needed to be said support him strongly as they have the whole Sidewalk Smokers phenomenon over the past months.”

Yvonne rose from her chair and announced that she was retreating to the ladies room and then she did. City Attorney continued, “I guess this is as good a time as any to reveal that except with college-aged men, Yvonne is highly unpopular. Folks think she is immoral, was looking for trouble when she got her pictures taken, and found it in the measure she rightly deserved.”

Jordan was annoyed. “What’re we in the Bible Belt?”

“No, the Bible Balloon,” said CA continuing, “Her…our lawsuit against the magazine industry is considered by a vast majority of those polled as frivolous, without merit, and a cheap lunge for some easy money by an easy girl.”

Yvonne returned.

“Who’s an easy girl?”

“You are hon!” said Joya with a smile that lit Yvonne up as City Attorney took his cue, glossed right over her question in his polished gravy way and said, “And it won’t help that the suit might actually achieve what she wants. I think the magazine industry is going to cave and agree to a decent settlement.”

“Whooo!” Corey leapt from his seat and nearly hit the ceiling with the top of his head. “Good,” Jordan echoed his smokemate’s physical sentiment with habitual understatement. Yvonne remained passive, playing up her emotional exhaustion.

“Why dey would do dat?” Clarisse appropriately inquired.

“Because college-aged men are a primary target group for most of their advertisers and college-age men like Yvonne. A lot.”

“So they don’t think she’s immoral and got what she had coming to her?” asked Joya.

“Sure they do, but those are virtues,” explained Jordan who was college-aged in his way.

The restaurant owner appeared with two magnums of pricey champagne obviously arranged for by City Attorney since the bubbly had never figured in prior congresses. Not that everybody wasn’t very excited by this new wrinkle the new member had introduced.

The champagne service performed by the Argentine himself provided a lull in City Attorney’s report. Each thought they were past the point where being watched tickled them, but it wasn’t true and they were pleased to hear the rising and lowering of the restaurant’s din parallel the volume of their own discussion. People were attuned. The Sidewalk Smokers had not lost all of their cachet.

Jordan thought that perhaps City Attorney’s polls meant squat. Polls were for the cobblers of majorities, not for a tiny marching band interpreting the Bronx cheer.

As long as they had their fans, they’d be fine. They’d be where they had always been, even if he wasn’t sure where, exactly, that was.

Clarisse had downed her flute in a single gasp and spirited herself off to the ladies room without announcement. “She’s looking pretty hot,” said Jordan who, because he was in love, no longer felt his own public utterances about young women to be offensive.

“Yeah, she was kinda heavy after you guys broke,” said Joya, ever mindful of such details. City Attorney smiled. He might purchase a bit of her, but the whole woman would always escape him.


Yvonne looked away, distracted. Just because she never got around to really handling Corey’s entreaties didn’t mean she wasn’t going to be upset at the loss of an increasingly valuable prospect. Yvonne learned something new. And she took out a pen and scribbled on a cocktail napkin, “You want it more when it’s not yours.”
Randall saw her tuck it away and knew from established custom the contents would soon become his property.

“Well,” Corey covered for his wife, “she was going through a lot and the food in this country is pretty different than it is where she comes from,” which was sweet and pleased everybody to hear him say it. Clarisse came back and City Attorney courteously filled her flute anew.

“Everybody take another sip because the next pill is going to be more bitter than the first,” he warned.

They all took a sip and then focused. “This is how it is,” he started. “We’ll never be able to stop the BID.”

“You’re bailing?” Randall blurted, memories of DeConcini haunting.

“No, I committed to helping with this and I’m still with you. I’m just warning that it could get very uncomfortable, things could get scattered, people could get scattered.”

The group’s mood sunk precipitously as did the restaurant’s din, the other diners waxing and waning with the tides of feeling washing over The Smokers. Doubt crept in. Would their act go stale? Not playing the game excellently had gotten them invited to Hat Midone’s parties, but being good at not playing the game did not foreshadow a good playing of the game. “Hat may be where it’s at in some circles, but not in enough of them,” CA chided. “And not in the ones that really count.” The Smokers bristled. They were appreciative of the actor for taking up their cause and lightening a heavy load. They liked being in his world as much as they enjoyed him in theirs.

The Smokers were a law of diminishing returns unto themselves. Despite passionate support from their constituency, their problems and misadventures did not evoke much sympathy beyond it.

“Well, I can’t say that ahm surprised,” Joya said. “We don’t deserve any sympathy. We like something that most people hate.”

“Wither the nation?” Randall threw up his hands.

“Yeah,” Yvonne threw in, “since when does it matter that everyone should like us? We’ve been in and out of jail.”

“‘Everyone’ is what I bring to the table, supposedly,” City Attorney said in a wistful kind of way. “It has been my job to rally support for you and I haven’t delivered.”

Jordan thought it was nice that City Attorney was capable of a softer, human side, but wished he’d find less importune times to demonstrate it. To fight off his nervousness he decided to have a smoke. J. excused himself, saw the paparazzi on the sidewalk, and opted for a trip to the men’s room instead. “If we don’t succeed we won’t be allowed to smoke outside and if we do succeed we still won’t be allowed,” he muttered to his image while passing the mirror en route to the urinal.

Behind him a conversation about his own person was undertaken.

“What’s with Jordan?” carped Yvonne. “It’s like he’s a zombie. He shows up sometimes, but he never really adds anything. He has no ideas and no practical skills.”

Not that any of them possessed practical skills, but there had never really been much between the pin-up queen and the mercy murderer. Joya, who knew more than most rose to J.’s defense, but in a general kind of way. “C’mon let’s don’t fight amongst ourselves. We’ve come this far by workin’ together hons,” and they took the cue even though Yvonne was accurate in her observation. Randall, who had decided upon his own visit to the men’s room, now held himself in check after noting that whoever left the table was immediately the object of revision by their co-smokers.

“Let me ask you all something,” City Attorney took up the reins again, “has he been in the hospital lately?” And in a few seconds he’d found out all he needed to know about Jordan.

J. returned to a silent table and this left him feeling uncomfortable as well he might have given his criminal doings and the presence of a top law enforcement official sitting familiarly in what passed for a kind of inner sanctum. Randall picked up on the tension, if not all the reasons for it, and moved the moment along. “So what are our options? We have made something of a commitment to those people out there and to Joya who makes her living on that street.”

Condemned to a life of compromise, City Attorney said what he said next in a kind of automatic way. “Well, you’ve done well with scandal, but you’re not going to get much farther. I’d recommend you all take a pass on it. Live to fight another day for something bigger.”

The sound of “another day and something bigger” only served to increase The Smokers sense of exhaustion. Lack of imagination can do this to people, but to their credit, The Club recognized the cop-out for what it was. In their silence they were a unanimous “no!”

“That’s the best you can come up with?” Jordan attacked, unaware that his friends had unwittingly provided City Attorney with a precise profile of his criminality.

The object of his ire looked at J. for a second, shook his head, and smiled a smile too weary for a man of his age and energy. “I forgot to tell you that Andy Dumburton says hello and that the offer is still on the table.”

Nobody knew what the hell he was talking about and Jordan was too flummoxed over the fact Dumburton’s name was Andy for City Attorney’s play to force a moment of truth.

City Attorney, of course, did not know who knew what about whom. Randall crossed his legs one way and then the other. Corey got up, announced he was going to have a smoke, saw the paparazzi scramble for their gear, and turned back toward what the Brits called “the loo.”

They followed him with their eyes and when Corey disappeared, Yvonne opened her mouth to speak and waved a hand in the direction he’d just headed only to be interrupted by Randall who sought to limit any frustrated finger-pointing. “He’s done remarkably well. Corey deserves a better shake when he returns to the serious world.”

Jordan shifted in his seat, for this was clearly not the banter of victory foretold.

City Attorney did not wait for Corey to return. He went on to explain how he could file for a temporary injunction enjoining the BID from carrying out its plans for a policy sweep of the area. He could not, he said, guarantee it would work. He’d lost pull, people at city hall were taking him less seriously and The Smokers’ unpopularity called into question the manner in which he was using his office.

“You’re defending a basic freedom!” Corey said upon returning to catch the end of this talk.

“People don’t care,” he answered Corey flatly. City Attorney was very discouraged.

He’d signed on in a fit of romanticism and now it seemed they didn’t even like him and his terribly informed vision of the garbage pale world. They had a charm he never would, because they were always wrong and he was always right.

Chapter Sixty-nine

“Does City Attorney know what the fuck he’s doing?” Corey asked Randall from across the table at Randall’s place.

They were discussing this latest bombshell: the Argentine restaurant owner also belonged to a BID and it had decided to put an end to the party its members had enjoyed, on The Smokers’ dime, and catch the gathering counterwave of sentiment.

Like The Smokers themselves, the store owners were desirous of a return to normal life now that they knew what the exciting, eventful kind was like. They found the association unflattering of late. The next time, it was forcefully pledged, The Sidewalk Smokers Club met outside their establishments, security would be called in, just the same as it would outside Joya’s Joyas.

The primary purpose of the BID, of course, was to make the area where the members’ businesses were located a destination point for people from other neighborhoods, other cities, and other countries. The Smokers’ success in making that goal a reality did not, however, factor into this latest decision.

The implications for The Smokers themselves were breathtaking. For when it was a matter of some allies out front of the Coloradoan’s, their commitment was largely symbolic. But with their own smoking grounds targeted for specific action, the threatened extinction was now literal.

City Attorney responded by amending his complaint against the Fashion BID to include the West Side Retailers BID and resubmitted it to the court. In a tactical mistake, CA had used his evaporating juice to expedite a preliminary hearing given the urgency of free speech questions involved. But the judge didn’t know from the First Amendment and was smugly confident the people watching this sideshow didn’t either. He denied the motion and took the opportunity to dismiss a number of other charges filed by the sidewalk gang out of hand, reducing the size and scope of the case. Now The Club was up against it without the kind of time to prepare that a drawn-out proceeding might have provided.

In lay terms, City Attorney had tried to rush things when what they needed was a slower pace.

So that when Corey asked whether City Attorney knew what the fuck he was doing Randall responded, a little frustrated: “If I knew that, we wouldn’t need him now would we?”

Corey noticed that despite Randall’s success, nothing had changed inside the dreary apartment, and a sick feeling overtook his stomach as the true meaning of what greatness in the world of ideas really required – and he felt sorry for his friend and embarrassed to hassle him with mundane considerations.

“The first bills from Yvonne’s new legal team have come in,” and he threw a sheaf of papers down on the table. Corey could see how Randall’s public statements following his illness were not P.R. at all. There were new and exciting boxes of tobacco product stacked there and most bore the markings of having been sampled.

“You know, your comeback is happening now, you don’t have to kill yourself anymore.”
Randall did not get into how he had to live what he was preaching. “I like my smokes,” he said, leafing through the bills, which in pure numbers of pages surpassed the mammoth compendium that bum philosophy was morphing into. “Pretty expensive,” he said.

“Lawyers, and they just started.”

“Don’t worry, the treasury is strong. Numbers, if you want to see them, are in that file cabinet under ‘Legal/Yvonne’.”

“Legal Yvonne,” Corey said, a wicked smile winning the battle over his sense of propriety. Randall grinned too at the mutually exclusive nature of both name and term, and the way it had crystallized exactly what the collective had put themselves on the line for.

Corey was thinking the exact same thing. “What did we expect?”

All that money (that they’d never had before) going mostly to the defense of a naked girl. Of course that was the clinical view, which did not account for the considerable force of the naked girl herself and all the excitement she had generated.

“It’s the price of playing,” Randall concluded, tossing the papers back across the table.

“Still, have you ever seen such a bill?” Corey insisted and Randall took comfort in the fact that, at a certain point, the thoughts of his partner dovetailed from his own and toward the unpleasant and very necessary details of running things.

“I have,” he answered, “read about bills of this type,” forever unfazed. There was no disaster too great that could not be tempered by the fact Randall had read about something similar in the past. He seemed beyond shock or surprise; for in his voracious reading he had consumed accounts of just about anything that had ever happened.

Seeing that he would not find the partnership in the panic he so wanted, Corey asked flatly, “What are we going to do?”

And just like that Randall said, “Just what City Attorney advised. We are bailing, pulling out.”

Surprised and relieved in equal amounts, Corey felt compelled to point out that, “There are people out there believing in us, and besides that, it is simply not right. The outside belongs to everybody; the sidewalks are property of the public. We pay for them.”

A few hours before, Randall had held the same opinion. But a perusal of recent literature on the health of policy favoring public spaces, public spheres, public funding and the like had left him feeling there wasn’t much of a future for the public. When he thought about it, life in the public eye, as it is known, is really a life in the private eye of those owning the hardware and networks for distributing images and sound. The sidewalks belonged more to the businesses set back from them than to any citizen walking past those businesses. Over time and little by little the prerogative of the property owner had slowly seeped into territories both concrete and legal that they did not possess – space that had once belonged to everyone. Either nobody noticed or nobody cared.

Randall explained some of this to Corey. “Legally, we have but the shakiest of legs to stand on.”

“I thought there were all kinds of laws protecting our freedoms.”

“I don’t know about that,” Randall shook his head, “but if you don’t have the guns, you can be moved out by someone who does.”

Oh well, perhaps the realization hit home a little harder because they were little boys for so long and the natural cruelty of things had set in so late for them. By way of contrast, a kid from the ghetto doesn’t have time for talk about rights and laws; they are luxuries, and expensive ones at that.

Even in this, their dark hour of denouement, The Sidewalk Smokers Club counted upon financial resources from those who thought like them but earned money in superior quantities. They had backers who showed up to events with them (people they didn’t even know) and a few odd members of the press who wrote offbeat, backhanded defenses of them. But Randall no longer found solace or excitement in newspaper notices for it was all words and pictures and words and pictures had taken The Sidewalk Smokers Club as far as it would go.

“So we just pull out then?”

“I’m trying to look at it more like cashing in,” Randall aimed his remarks at Corey’s commercial side. “We’ve done what we set out to do. The girl’s suit is getting settled, her reputation, such as it is, will generate income and brief celebrity for her. And we owe City Attorney for that. We didn’t get it completely right, but we helped her and we helped her help herself. And that makes me very happy.”

“But sidewalk smoking is about to be outlawed.”

“But sidewalk smoking is ‘sidewalk smoking.’ A branded activity the evocation of which will conjure up images and words and actions of six or seven people who gave a lot of themselves to everything it represented. By smoking on a sidewalk, a person recreates us.”

Of the players in this story, only Randall might have commented, at this juncture upon the extent to which the marketplace had colonized the modern thinking-man’s mind, but it his mind to which it happened, so we’ll make the point for him.

“We have a philosophy and we have a place to sell it,” he continued almost triumphantly. “We’ve gotten a public affair onto the private distribution networks of Pictures-plus-Noise, Inc.”

This pleased Corey’s ear (as it always had), but unsettled his soul (wherever that is). “You’re still telling me sidewalk smoking would be illegal, brand name or not.”

Yeah and damn it. There are times when the can-it-bake-bread crowd and their logic are unassailable and this was one.

News that the game was up would be received by many with sadness. Randall, of course, would take it hardest of all. He would continue to take it hard to the extent the (mis)adventure had confirmed his belief that it is better to live for something or someone, than to live from them, and that’s dangerous for a person.

Further, he was not afraid of the calumny, just the false calumny. At least with The Smokers he’d gotten some licks in and got his bad reputation the good old-fashioned way – by earning it.

But the philosopher knew that he must act with the good of his colleagues, and those farther afield that had swelled The Smokers’ numbers (and sealed their fate), in mind. He didn’t want anybody getting hurt over something that had started out fun and which was finished for him now because it had ceased to be so. He was trying to disprove his own philosophical tenet that, “He who leads sometimes dies first.”

But what was finished for him, was not finished for everyone else involved, which is but another way of understanding the same idea.

Chapter Seventy

That they shared a well-developed past together made Corey’s and Clarisse’s (nobody had ever actually moved out) return to the fold a smooth event. There were problems, loose and dangling ends, but the comfortable familiarity they restored to each other’s lives served as antidote to so much of the disorder that had been going on all around them since Corey started smoking. And that’s what relationships are for.

The radicals and revolutionaries amongst us might criticize their tropism towards comfort as a sign of creeping burgher softness – a departure from their disciplined approach to the cause. And they would be right, but folks and circumstances change and consistency of commitment is a difficult thing to maintain. Those who can might, or might not, be worthy of our admiration. For although constancy is a desirable thing, so is mutability where universal phases of life begin and end for each of us.

Or as bum philosophy holds, “Most stupid acts come from people who think they’re smart.”

They had spent a few nights dining out at certain places money and their social adventurism had opened doors to. The couple had ended the latter portions of those evenings in bed together. The recent months of stress and dedication to their mutual and respective causes had altered each’s body map and confronted them with new configurations to adore and feel.

There was an element of rediscovery in the renewed nuptials. And they were both smarter, too, so that there was a sense each might relearn the other in a different light. A chance that this time they might get it right. There was, as well, gratitude at having recovered something lost, a sweetness that helped them through the awkward moments of unresolved debits rooted in the fact that each had hurt the other. All of which is well known to couples who thrive on a break-up and make-up cycle, a guild to which neither Clarisse or Corey had it in themselves to join.

They had agreed to meet Jordan and Eilin for a coffee at the former’s former place of work. The quartet sat outside on the plastic chairs, taking in the sun and the assorted clientele. J. liked returning to Java World and interacting on a personal level with those he’d once served. It was a kind of psychic account balancing he felt necessary given that he’d been mature when he worked there and did not quite fit the mold of your typical food server. Jordan was aching to dispel misconceptions about the true arc of his ambition and diminish his life as barista to the mere cul-de-sac (he hoped) it represented. Sitting there with a woman he knew to be the prettiest in the world, along with community notables such as Corey and Clarisse, allowed him to erase the old looks of the young girls with question-mark-faces passing by.

Anyhow, where we normally say, “it didn’t matter,” we cannot now. There they sat, the slight interest that had once passed between J. and Clarisse an evaporated mist, an episode not uncommon to groups of friends passing time in couples not yet invulnerable to the temptations of another’s love-friend.

Even in the most liberal of social structures, it is not easy to find yourself alone with an eligible specimen from the other sex. There are too many strings and obstacles and interests attached to the certifiably suitable mate. But in collectives like The Smokers’, the requirement of working together in common cause, puts boy and girl together regardless of their sex-juices.

The conversation had worked its way around to Corey’s relationship with his father.

He’d sent Dad a recliner chair as his way of saying thanks for everything he had
done to help him get to this plateau. His Dad, they all agreed, was not entirely wrong in viewing the gesture as economic boisterousness on the part of a ne’er-do-well son who’d found himself flush thanks to a dubious venture.

“It’s anti-social behavior – smoking,” his father had chided, after calling to say thanks for the recliner.

“So is,” Corey had thought, “yelling,” but didn’t go into it because his father, as usual, had all the momentum in the conversation.

“A gift’s a gift,” Corey told his sidewalk friends. “It’s not blood money. Nobody died.”

Which was, of course, not at all an open-and-shut question, Jordan felt compelled to point out in a tone Eilin had never heard him use before.

Down-to-earth and understated, Eilin pointed out that, “Sometimes parents are not willing to be satisfied. They forget that once you grow up that you don’t need the judgement or the pushing from them, because now you’re out in the world where you get it all the time.”

It was her first time out with the tribe. Corey and Clarisse reflected, individually, that the girl had something of Joya’s positive sweetness to her yet did not command the kind of attention the Coloradoan did. She had a little personality that fit perfectly inside her diminutive body whereas Joya’s capacious corpus seemed unable to hold all of the Joya that there was inside it.

Clarisse turned to the great universal by asking J.’s gal about Armenian family life.

“Oh, we’re very close,” said Eilin. “We see each other all the time.”

Corey had a question for her about this, which Jordan never heard because he saw Andy Dumburton coming toward Java World. J. could not imagine what the hell it was the relentless detective wanted now, but had a few choice words saved up for him in any case.

Dumburton saw Jordan sitting there, averted his glance, and slipped into the coffee shop. J. rose from his seat and followed the detective inside.

“What the hell are you doing here?” he asked in a very aggressive manner.

“I learned to like the coffee and the charm of the place,” Dumburton responded. “C’mon, I’m off duty. Get out of my face.”

Later, Jordan would marvel at how the most benign of narcotics could alter one’s daily behavior patterns, but in that moment, he took a different tack. “I thought you were done with me. You were going to help me get some work at a marina or some bullshit like that.”

“Mind your manners,” said the detective. Dumburton, off-duty, stripped of his authority seemed inoffensive, scared even; a square in crazyman territory hoping no one noticed. With the veil of fear lifted Jordan saw for the first time how his fair face was speckled with age spots. “That’s right,” Dumburton moved to the heart of J.’s question, “I spoke with my brother. It’s yours if you want it. Whaddaya coming up to me like the Night Stalker for if what you want is a favor?”

“You know damn well I’m not here for a job.”

Dumburton looked into Jordan’s eyes and saw what this was about. The two men, different worlds that they inhabited were now linked by unspoken understandings. “Alright,” he admitted before having been verbally accused. “So I gave it one more shot.”

“You said it was over and that you were going to leave me alone.”

“So I lied. But I lied retroactively. I meant my promise when I said it. In any case, we’re even now.” He turned to the luscious coed who’d replaced Jordan behind the counter at Java World and said, “Give me a latte will ya sweetheart.” He looked over his shoulder to Jordan with an expression that asked, “So what are you going to say to that?”

J. wasn’t going to say anything because he didn’t know what Dumburton meant by lying retroactively and had gotten caught up in trying to resolve it in his mind.

They both knew it was the first time in a dozen such exchanges that he had not issued forth his mantra-like denial. Maybe he was sick of it all, maybe he wasn’t.

Neither cared.

“Ya gotta cute girl there…if she’s yours,” the detective teased. “Call me up, I’ll give you the contact number and little prep talk. You should do it.”

The girl handed Dumburton his latte and when he wafted a bill in front of her face, she waved it away. He turned to Jordan. “See? Cops don’t pay,” and stuck it in the tip jar before launching a saunter out. J. thought he noted some relief in the detective’s breathing and posture and realized that he’d gotten to him. The Smokers had grown tough, although that was hardly their purpose or reason for being.

He stepped back outside and saw that his girl was gone.

“Where’s Eilin?” he asked understandably enough.

“We started to talk about dat Ceety Atturny and she got mad.”

“Oh,” Jordan said, “I know, she doesn’t like him for some reason.”

“I take it you’ve had that discussion?” Corey prodded.
Jordan nodded that they had.

“And she told you about the ‘Angel Without Mercy’?”

“Yeah, she thinks City Attorney bailed on the case out of political convenience.”

“But did she tell you about the old lady who died?” Corey forged ahead.

“I don’t know much of anything about the case,” Jordan kicked into gumshoe mode.

“It was her grandmother,” Corey told him.

Chapter Seventy-one

Thorpe and Diaz didn’t know what to think or do.

The city attorney had advised the cops to dump the whole mess back in their laps.

The firemen had no choice but to accept because, in the end, the police force has the guns.

A day was coming when the smokers were going to have to be moved out and it was clear they would not do so without a fight. And the fire chief had once again put Thorpe and Diaz to the task of handling the matter with private security forces.

Clearly, with the addition of a second BID thrown into their semi-public meetings for concocting a plan to rid retail strips of sidewalk smokers, their importance (if not their actual talents) had grown.

Thorpe was suspicious, concerned. “What if the chief’s just sacrificing us, you know, killing our careers with a suicide mission?” he asked his partner.

“It’s only sacrificing or suicide if we don’t get it right,” Diaz responded.

And that was true, Thorpe reasoned internally. After all, at some point in his career the chief must have been saddled with an equally imponderable quandary (his mind did not employ this exact vocabulary) and come out of it with flying colors.

Opportunities like this are how you become chief, he decided. All of which was well and good, but now they were meeting with the lesbian city councilperson – the same lady who’d been part of that first imbroglio which had almost cost them so dearly.
Their prejudices made the whole thing more distasteful still.

“She’s a dyke and if we help her pull this off she’ll be the mayor,” said Thorpe, laying a silver lining into the case for intentional failure.

“It’s crazy, I know. How the hell did that happen?” asked Diaz.

“What, that we got stuck with this job or that she might become mayor?” Thorpe answered with a question.

“I know how we got stuck with the job,” Diaz frowned.

“Oh,” said Thorpe as they made their way, inconspicuously as possible, into an elevator and up the tower of City Hall, standing tall as a signature of justice and clean administration for all to take comfort in.

Diaz answered his own question. “It’s that fucked up city attorney joining these crazy smokers people. Why the hell would he do that?”

“Because he’s smarter than the rest of the people working in this building.”

Diaz had an innate understanding of what Thorpe was telling him, but required further explanation. Thanks to years of working in tandem, Thorpe picked up on his partner’s silence. “Don’t you see? He went with them because they’re fun. They’ve got the girls. We get promotions, more serious problems, and a meeting with a fat dyke.”

Diaz was quickly learning the true meaning of success American style. “So he follows his happiness, goes after pleasure, and enjoys the order and safety we provide?”

Oscar had conveniently forgotten the pair’s handiwork at the benefit/press conference.

“And we,” Thorpe confirmed, “get stuck doing the dirty work with the other ‘serious people’.”

Just about the time the virtues of frivolity and self-indulgence were coming into focus for them, the inspectors arrived at the citycouncilperson’s door, which had her name painted in gold over a frosted-glass window in the art moderne style.

“You first,” said Thorpe and Diaz obliged.

Lesbian citycouncilperson took one look at the beefy, thick-necked samples of everything she had fought during her career and, in thought processes fast enough to cover all the ground Thorpe and Diaz had just plodded through verbally, realized what a swindle she’d been subjected to, what a pig-in-a-poke she’d been sold. “Damn those Sidewalk Smokers,” she hissed under her breath.

“Djou say sumthin’?” Thorpe interjected, dropping the quality of his dialect as he always did when faced with a superior in the hierarchy of order to which he’d so dedicated himself.

“I said,” she lied in preparation for her unlikely turn at the mayoralty, “let’s find an intelligent way of doing away with these jokers.”

Although not police, Thorpe and Diaz were in the business of enforcement and they knew there was probably no such thing as “an intelligent way” of undertaking the brute task of removing unwilling persons from a location forbidden to them. When you pushed someone a little bit, they took just as much offense as when you pushed them a lot. When you wanted to push a group of primarily young people trying to make a living off attitude and looks from a location, you had to do it with full force and that was a public relations battle impossible to win.

Which, of course, begged the question of what exactly the fire chief expected of them.

Of course, the duo had already engaged The Sidewalk Smokers Club down in the trenches. They thought there was a script to be followed and that the councilwoman was obligated by that script to say these things. Sure, she was earnest when she proclaimed that, “I don’t want a scene, I don’t want violence, I don’t want to see cute kids dragged by their collars or their hair in the streets of my district on television.” And they nodded as if they understood while quite convinced what she had described was exactly what would happen. Although they’d at least be “looking into some possible alternatives” – a phrase public policymakers diaper their naked asses with in situations such as this.

She thought the message, for what it was worth, was getting through loud and clear given the way they absentmindedly, with good nature even, nodded in rhythm to the rising and dipping cadence of her nasal voice. After a few minutes of assurances on the part of Thorpe and Diaz, and veiled threats from her about their mutual future with the department, there were handshakes all around and the fire inspectors left.

The councilwoman sat back for a moment and then directed staff to allow her a meditative moment.

It was a prickly business to be sure (she meditated). Having taken refuge in the radical and impossible-to-deliver over the course of her career she suddenly found herself having to deliver on some rather practical dry-goods of governance. Having avoided (and insulted) the likes of men such as Thorpe and Diaz for years, she found herself in the unenviable position of having to rely upon them. She took solace and comfort in the fact that it was the BID’s security people who would actually be carrying out the fire inspectors’ plan. She reasoned that these men, accustomed to riding bicycles all day and making eyes at the girls along the street, would be ill-equipped to undertake the hardcore business of real policing with its bodily force and billyclub menace. Why she thought this would prevent a disaster rather than provoke one is a secret of her own keeping.

The councilwoman fretted at how, now, every move made was crucial. This was in stark contrast to those (recent) days when she said whatever popped into her head because only a handful of people were listening and the vast majority discounting her seriousness, preparation, and motives (which were invariably linked to the fact she liked girls). She resented the pressure. She’d never asked for it. Her run for mayor, she mused, had been a chance to get on television, make some celebrity friends, and help frame the issues important to her rare constituency.

Now she already had to act like she was the mayor and crash a party which, just weeks ago, she’d been a party to.

Down the hall, CA sat with his feet up on the desk knowing exactly what the lesbiancitycouncilperson was thinking at the moment. Despite the fact he still had a few months on the job and a backlog of cases to handle on behalf of the municipality, his recent abdication of the mayoralty meant City Attorney was no longer where the action was. Staffers had abandoned him or were out roaming the halls in search of new locomotives they might hitch their cars to.

He smiled. By shooting himself in the foot, he’d crippled her instead and he wondered why more politicians over the centuries had not availed themselves of the exquisitries associated with relinquishing power and simultaneously sticking it up their enemies’ asses.

The answer, he knew, was that the principal drive of all politicians is to have power and to know that once it was lost, something up their own ass could not be far off. He shrugged. To play the game one must know the game before the opening whistle and CA’s meticulous preparation assured his solvency.

Anyhow, it didn’t matter. Lesbian city councilperson was screwed, he was certain, based upon his prior experience involving the removal, displacement and/or uprooting of people who don’t want to go. Like Thorpe and Diaz, he knew there were no two ways about it. Things invariably got ugly because it is in the wiring of those who enlist in police forces and security detachments to satisfy their adrenal passions for meting out pain under the guise of authority when the opportunity presents itself. They read Soldier of Fortune magazine. Cut from the same cloth as Green Beret commandos, they are in the minor leagues of it all – a fact that renders them infinitely more dangerous.

As such, he was concentrating on keeping Randall, Corey, and his beloved (the rest of the time he was thinking of her rail of a body, so thin, yet tall enough to offer a mass of flesh enticing to his own sexual proclivities) apprised of the risk.

He could go down the hall and explain this to lesbiancitycouncilperson, but to what end? The machine had been set in motion. It was a predicament begging for violent resolution. It was public, economic, ideological, and woven together in a web of nicotine. There was no way the BIDs were going back on the idea that they’d once inhabited a smoke-free urban Arcadia which they now wanted restored. Similarly, there was no way a bunch of kids (and kids at heart) in the earliest stages of social development – fresh from elementary primers on democracy and freedom – were going to accept anything other than that which logic told them was both correct and just. They were persuaded beyond all doubt that the air surrounding was the possession of no government and no flower shop, that it did not belong to any police force – let alone a fake security detail and two dullard fire inspectors – and nothing was going to convince them of the contrary.

Only The Sidewalk Smokers Club stood a chance of convincing the sidewalk smokers that there was a better way or that it wasn’t worth getting your head bashed in over.

At that moment his secretary buzzed and announced the arrival of Corey and a young woman who, apparently, had a bone to pick with City Attorney. He gave the green light.

The alternately beautiful, yet plain, Eilin walked in followed by Corey. As did Jordan, City Attorney liked her right away and he had to hand it to The Smokers.

They kept it sexy and they kept it interesting.

By way of background (which City Attorney didn’t know): Eilin and Jordan had just suffered the first argument of their young and ill-starred relationship. She’d asked him to use his influence with City Attorney and arrange a meeting. His gal, in obvious pain over the untimely (?) death of her grandmother, wanted to rake the man, who’d once made the case a lynchpin to his run for mayor, over coals of her own heating. And Jordan had refrained. Surprised, for one, that he was the possessor of “influence,” he had very good reasons to let sleeping old ladies lie. Eilin, tender and delicious in her rage had excited him at many levels, but failed to convince Jordan that such an arrangement was somehow in his best interest. His inability to tell her exactly why opened the rift between them.

So here they were. The details of the debate have been covered before. Eilin’s assault was moral and made of the same stuff The Sidewalk Smokers Club and sidewalk smokers used to defend their own peculiarities; a youthful demand that decency and fairness be realized to their fullest extent. Corey, not knowing that Jordan’s future lie in the balance, lent The Club’s imprimatur to the affair by accompanying Eilin’s impassioned plea that the case be reopened with a gentle, persistent nodding of the head.

Listening to the young girl, City Attorney gave thanks to the heavens that everyone wasn’t idealistic and expecting of justice from life, because it would overwhelm his office.

But just then something overwhelming happened anyway. Joya walked in a little early for their date together. She liked to see offices, she explained, since she had never worked in one. She kissed Corey familiarly and was just “pleased as punch” to meet the girl Jordan had told her all about. And then she gave her a once up-and-down that made Eilin uncomfortable. Joya sat on a sofa about four feet behind the two chairs in front of the desk occupied by Corey and Eilin.

Clever and quick of mind, she gasped when the few pieces necessary to understanding what was at hand fell into place. Behind Eilin she shook her head emphatically enough to catch City Attorney’s eye, which caught Eilin’s eye, which caused her to look over her shoulder at Joya who smiled wanly.

Love was in the mix and City Attorney, without requiring any explanation from Joya, informed Eilin that his days in office were winding down, and that sorry as he was about what had happened to her grandmother, he saw no merit in reopening a case which, for all practical intents and purposes, had turned out to be something of a mystery to the detective handling it. His boldface lie complete, he got up to signal that the meeting was over.

Eilin was not pleased and she told City Attorney this. She added that something was fishy and shot Joya a look that nearly melted her. “I don’t know what kind of friend you’re supposed to be to The Sidewalk Smokers Club, but if this is any indication then they’d better watch out for themselves.”

“From the mouths of babes,” thought City Attorney. Corey, not having a single gripe against the politician, shrugged and followed the tempestuous Armenian girl out the door.

City Attorney turned to Joya who had risen to her feet and was literally sweating. “What the hell was that about?”

“Hon, you can’t open that case back up again.”

“I know that,” he rejoined, “I was just doing my job, letting her vent.”

A moment of truth began working its way into an otherwise humdrum day that was to have ended in a new restaurant City Attorney had used his waning influence to secure a reservation at.

A little something has been said about the fatigue afflicting The Smokers at this point in their story. Joya, with her store in trouble, her true sexuality (if it existed) repressed under a self-imposed martial law, her neighbors at work declaring war on her etc., was not at the top of her game and he could see it.

“What’s up with you?” City Attorney prodded.

“Listen City Attorney, I just don’t want Jordan ta get inta trouble is all.”

“Hey,” he was getting annoyed, “why are you so bent out of shape? Your friend’s not an angel you know. He had no right to do what he did. I dropped the thing because you asked and I saw a mess ahead for all of us. But you sound like you love this guy Jordan.”

Make that two moments of truth; this one specifically for Joya.

“Wull, unh, yeah I guess I do,” she informed herself as much as him. “He tried to help that old lady from suffering. He was sick himself – without money or anything – and he went down and took care of her when the law was against him. And then these guys pulled him out of his car and beat the shit outta him and, and,” she broke down at exactly the place of least meaning that always mystifies the male half of the heterosexual pairing.

“How is that different from the way you love me?” asked City Attorney, without much mercy himself, understandably wondering about the wisdom of having given his heart over to a woman whom, by nature, was drawn to woman.

“I don’t know,” she said.

“What do you know?” he said rather more like a city attorney than a lover.

“To be kind and help other people,” she answered. “To see someone in trouble and help them. To let them have the last glass of wine at dinner,” which he now recalled that she’d done for him a few times already, “even though ah wouldn’t mind it for myself. To sacrifice the welfare of my business, mah life’s work, when I see that someone who’s not botherin’ anybody, just livin’ their life, is getting’ a beatin’ they don’t deserve. I’m scared of the circumstances people get caught up in and I fight that fear by helpin’ them, if ah can, to overcome such things.”

City Attorney sensed her accent deepening in concert with her convictions, but made a snap decision not to be charmed at this very moment. “Did you engage me,” he asked, “to help save him?”

Joya was silent.

“Was there, or was there not, an unspoken quid pro quo?”

“Whaddya mean by that?” she asked, knowing full well what he meant by that.

“Would you be here now if I hadn’t agreed to drop the investigation?”

She thought that had been understood and, in truth, it had, but City Attorney’s vanity was hurt. “No I wouldn’t,” and she dropped her head like a little girl caught dressed in her mother’s best clothes.

And it’s a good thing she dropped her head, for it was a human act, a spontaneity that completely disarmed him. Most people would have stomped out, angry with Joya for having given profile in words to an ugly secret between them. But City Attorney was a politician used to doing what it takes to obtain things, to obtain power, and to obtain people. His life was one long act in horse-trading by which he gained prizes beyond the reach of those less cunning or less willing to bend.

“Do you love me?” he asked, not out of any desire to conclude the matter one way or the other, but rather to know where he stood in this game he’d committed to with the unsettling Coloradan.

Joya threw her hands up and fled the office crying which, as she herself has noted, is the fashion of passionate women the world over, and across cultures, in such instances of confusion and pressure.

Chapter Seventy-two
Randall had gone back and forth with City Attorney a number of times as the latter did his best to convince Randall of the need to head-off a heartbreaking defeat for his nicotine-addled allies. The politician’s flirtation with The Smokers had delivered on all the peril it promised and the time to end it had come. He was adamant. It was over. Although officially willing to accept CA’s advice, Randall was loath to give up that which had accrued to his credit. He had the support of people in the streets and now City Attorney wanted him to relinquish that loyalty without leading the fight – to waste their belief and disappoint them.

Despite City Attorney’s miserable track record with The Smokers (could anyone have done better?), his brass-knuckled insider’s view of things left Randall feeling naive about the workings of government, his present persona as iconic iconoclast not withstanding.

In short, he did not realize just how black the heart of the beast is nor how deep in he was.

And for all that, he procrastinated in his mission to convince the true sidewalk smokers, of The Club’s invention, that the party was over and that it would be safer to move along.

This had been a high point (excepting the hospital stay) for him; fun, exciting, edifying, educational, and ego-gratifying and now he had no idea what was next. He’d improved his station, his anti-status, his bank account and sense of self-worth, but his ideas could not yet take him beyond what had been achieved in concert with his strange bedfellows. He’d never seen quite this far before and was afraid the gift of vision would be lost along with the fight at hand.

Then City Attorney, who seemed more preoccupied than normal, called and told him about the new poll that had come out in the daily newspaper of record. Randall riffed through the pages to the article in question and began the absorption.

What he read came as something of a surprise (as City Attorney had hoped), because Randall had committed the sin of believing his own hype and because he’d been duped into thinking people wanted freedom and fought every incursion, not only for their own well-being, but as a duty to the larger collective of which they were a part.

Operating from the margins, he was unaware of how such a position was a kind of political pornography to be enjoyed in private, or with extremely close friends, and never to be mentioned in proper society.

But he knew there was a silent majority of people watching in the wings, supporting The Smokers in their effort to fend off yet another, small, but insignificant bit of everyone’s liberty.

Until he read about the poll.

Seventy-percent of bar owners and employees citywide had expressed a preference for working in an environment free of smoke. It was a 60 percent increase from two years ago among the same class of people who’d fought the law’s enactment because of its expected negative impact on their disposable income.

Randall realized that what he had really been sensing from the body politic was a silent minority of 30 percent instead of a silent majority poised to fill the public squares and buildings with raw voices of protest.

And there was more. Patrons had also been interviewed; among them those who swore never to frequent a restaurant where they weren’t allowed to light up. A disappointing 79 percent of them found it “important” to have a smoke-free bar, restaurant or lounge, and that, too, was up 20 percent from back when debating the proposed Smoke-Free Workplace Act was all the rage.

Randall tried to equivocate the figures away. “They’re patrons,” he told himself, “not smokers, not people who go out to the sidewalk to smoke when obligated.” He did so weakly, continued down the page with a deep sense of apprehension and rightly so because there was a clincher to come. Support among smokers for the law had increased from 24 percent to 45 percent, an (almost) doubling in the approval rate.

Of course, most smokers were still opposed. That gave hope, but not so much when Randall considered the final factoid, which revealed that, at the time of the Smoke-Free Workplace Act’s passage, 17.9 percent of people interviewed identified themselves as smokers and two years later the number was down to 5.9 percent, along with the incidence of lung cancer citywide.

There was a comment from the city fire department’s Oscar Diaz who had, along with his partner, gained a small fame or infamy depending on where a person stood on the question of indoor smoking. He said, “This is proof that over time people have come to learn what’s good for them, and what’s good for them is a clean workplace free from the hazards of smoking,” which was as safe as saying nothing at all.

While the optimist in him could torture a positive message or two out of the miserable document, Randall decided to interpret it in the same black-and-white with which it was expressed on the page. In the past, evidence of truth from the enemy camp was never reason for Randall to give up the ghost. No. But now there were one or two hundred people, young and old, who’d identified he and his cohorts as something to be admired and emulated. And because of this their heads were on the chopping block.

City Attorney would be glad to hear the message had finally gotten through loud and clear to Randall given that he’d already called up the paper’s managing editor and thanked him for the planted piece on the fake poll. He owed him one, he said, and the managing editor agreed, noting how other outlets had been calling for an explanation of the poll results only to be rebuffed with a flimsy claim that they were exclusive to his paper.

Freedom, Randall concluded, is something a certain kind of person or part of the populace can get very excited about. The modern consumerist lifestyle makes it almost an anachronism, because there is no place to be free from anything. It’s an acquired taste, freedom, and its usage may require more sophistication than our political and philosophical forebears surmised.

“The most important freedom is that which you permit your opposite number,” he wrote, but placed in a new file, for it was definitely unbum-like.
Maybe (and he sighed) the goal of describing the great things simply was simply not possible.

Sacred cows were falling like cut grass in the pastures of Randall’s mind. Things were adding up to a state of affairs that spelled unemployment for the rake and he permitted himself a real bout of fear over the future.

He reached for an El Presidente short cigar plucked from the jungles of Nicaragua and visited there through the history of scent and the representation of taste that carried the Central American rainforest in it.

Chapter Seventy-three

Corey and Clarisse sat in low-slung chairs of her own design. They looked very graceful but were, in truth, a little uncomfortable. And such are the travails of occupying a corner at Vindaloo Baxley’s latest fête.

The reason for their invitation this time around could be attributed to the fact Vindaloo’s heartstrings had now been struck by Corey and she had not the slightest respect for the sanctity of a marriage, no matter how tattered. She thought he was cute. A friend of Vindaloo’s backed her up on it. Another came by Clarisse’s studio and purchased some pieces. She invited them to the party as per Vindaloo’s instruction – the party being reported here. They were once again reaping the benefits of life as an integrated couple, united behind their days ahead together.

People stopped to chat, asked with familiarity about their work, which they all seemed most interested in and concerned with. It was a nice night. Hat was there. He came over with Vindaloo. They crouched down to achieve eye contact with Clarisse and Corey. They spoke of lawsuits, of the pending removal of the smokers at Joya’s place. They were polished and sophisticated beyond their age and wealthy beyond the quality of their work and Corey just had to love them for their support.

“I’m going down there Corey,” Vindaloo could barely control her rage at the injustice. The latest development had tipped the scale and deepened her commitment.

“You know you can count on me,” Hat echoed her sentiment.

Clarisse was going to clarify how the strategy was to discourage the sidewalk smokers and get them to move on, but Corey sensed this and squeezed her hand for silence. He was intrigued. They were lending The Smokers their powerful and unique claim on the valuable and limited stores of attention out there. And he knew it was his to capitalize on it. Sure there were plans, but there must also be great moments of pluck and inspiration (he told himself), too.

People of devalued stock, but more of them, would be drawn by Vindaloo and Hat – he knew. Perhaps a star might be born.

All of which passed through his now-sharpened mind and instincts in a flash. “Let me say for all The Club’s members, that your help is much appreciated.”

Everybody glowed. All the elements necessary for a wonderful evening that required purchase had been purchased. Those treasures too sublime to be bought outright were instead rented at considerable cost. The time was now.

Chapter Seventy-four

Jordan received a call from a deputy at the city attorney’s office asking him to come in for a few questions relative to his stay in county hospital and he thought it best to comply with the request.

He would have liked to ask City Attorney what to do in a situation like this, but something told him to keep that cartridge in the ammunition belt.

It was a good thing too, because the path at City Hall promptly slid him along and into City Attorney’s office, and it was not like running into an old friend.

“You pulled the plug on the old lady didn’t you.”

Jordan knew since the dinner at the Argentine restaurant when CA had mentioned “Andy Dumburton,” that his goose was got, but shocked all the same that this so-called member of The Sidewalk Smokers Club, this bandwaggoner, had used the cheapest machinations of his power to move J. around and to frighten him.

But CA still wasn’t aware of whom he was dealing with at this point. Jordan was already in battle with the criminal justice system of which City Attorney was part boss; already preconditioned to its clumsy and overheated responses to just about everything but real violent crime perpetrated on good people.

“Who told you?” he coolly decided to satisfy his personal curiosities before hearing whatever plan for closing off his future City Attorney had put together.

City Attorney’s response was but one word, but a word, which attached to the way he said it, took on scroll-like profundity.


“Oh,” J. said to the second surprise in as many interactions with this guy. Jordan heard contempt mixed with love in City Attorney’s mention of his paramour. He knew this had nothing to do with Eilin’s grandmother (who was dead). He would, in any case, play along.

“Why did you do it?”

“She had the right to die, that’s all.”

“I know you and your friends are big on rights, aren’t you?”

“Real pain in the ass ain’t it.” As the words leapt from his tongue, J. realized how much he already missed the antagonisms of Dumburton, and what a pleasure it was to keep his inner wise-acre sharp.

“You know she loves you?”



“No,” Jordan responded, feeling accused.

“You don’t know she’s with me partly because I agreed not to pursue the case against

Jordan said that given this news, yes, he could see how her actions might be attributed to a deeper affection. “I just never thought I could get a girl like that.”

“You couldn’t,” City Attorney reminded him.

“So what’s the problem?” said Jordan, impatient and still searching for his lost life of coffee serving and late nights with jazz radio. “She’s all yours Mr. City Attorney.”

“The daily Joya, not the eternal one.”

“This sounds like a conversation you should be having with Randall.”

“Joya’s not in love with Randall,” City Attorney pointed out.

“You sure?”

He wasn’t, so he changed the subject to avoid emotional vertigo. “So the old lady was your girlfriend’s grandmother?”

“Can you believe it?”

“You’ve got yourself in a bit of a vice there, dontcha?”

Jordan pointed out that City Attorney’s situation was no less conflicting.
City Attorney agreed.

“Why’d you bring me down here like this?” Jordan began the pursuit of an entirely different thread.

City Attorney shrugged. “When you have power you exercise it. Just like The Sidewalk Smokers.”

Jordan failed to make a connection between the passion play that is the tale of these puffers, and a dirty trick played on him by City Attorney. But he let it slide because, again, it had been kind of sprung on him. He thought hanging around City Attorney was like being best friends with a machine gun that leans on you for target practice.

Jordan was, in truth, somewhat flustered by the idea of having once had an actual shot at Joya – Eilin’s warm and magnetic affect upon him put off to the side. Paralyzed really. Learned in craft, City Attorney had set about to stun him and then circle a while before the telling blow.

It was time. “What I’d like you to do is admit to the crime.”

Jordan got up to leave. This was City Attorney’s back-up plan. Randall had committed to ending the fight, but things could, probably would, go wrong.

“We’ll bungle it and you’ll walk.”

Jordan sat backed down.

City Attorney pressed his case. “The new mayor will downplay the case, leak memos, bury it. Prosecution is something the lesbian city councilwoman has always been against anyway. She liked the Angel Without Mercy.”

“Good for her,” Jordan interjected, nonplused.

“It’s a free shot. A chance to come out on something that’s important to her and a ready-made smokescreen for all the problems her ill-fated incumbency will present.”

“She should hear that.”

“She has,” City Attorney marveled again at The Smokers’ collective innocence.“She already has. She agreed.”

Jordan knew it was time for City Attorney to get to the part about what was in it for him.

Sensing the rhythm of the thing, City Attorney obliged. “You yourself could become a spokesperson for assisted suicide.”

“Spokesman. Assisted Suicide Spokesman,” Jordan tried to imagine a business card with that very title. “No thanks. I’m moving myself and my girl outta here as soon as possible. I’m too young for the death business.”

City Attorney went into a brief explanation of why he thought Jordan and most of The Sidewalk Smokers Club would never have the opportunity to be real people again. Of how they’d made a name in the pushing-a-cause business and that is where their value to future employers resided – if they were truly interested in work.

“You’re going to be needing a cause buddy,” City Attorney told him. “This smokers thing has run the skein.”

Not a big sports fan, Jordan was not sure what “run the skein” meant, but the tone of CA’s voice left little room for doubt. The game was over.

Eilin slipped into his thoughts, Dumburton came banging on the door at the back of his mind. He reflected on his favorite part of bum philosophy, its nine commandments of being lazy or whatever it was: “We are born to live and rest; If work is good for you, let the sick do it;” and, the top of his pops, “If you see someone resting, stop to help him.”

A different set of ideas; a different arrangement.

“Aren’t you the nice man,” Jordan said. “You’re asking me to give up my love and salvation, my woman.”

Jordan did not see the selfless risk in this for CA, for if J. were cut free of his entanglement with Eilin, he’d be free to begin a new one with Joya.

So Jordan rejected this call to duty outright. He simply didn’t care half that much about assisted suicide as he did about his soft and sweet girl.

He’d arrived at the same place as Randall regarding the usefulness of causes without quite so many turns of the mind. J. told City Attorney that he didn’t understand what the ultimate goal of the scheme was.

“I release the news tonight,” CA explained. “We merely admit to your being one of

The Sidewalk Smokers Club and by doing so brand the whole movement negatively, cutting off its support and media coverage.”

Jordan thought that City Attorney thought he must have been plotting the bombing of an Andean country or something. And that was before the idea itself was considered. “You’re trying to associate The Smokers with old lady killing?”

“Merely pointing out that the association is there.”

Which, Jordan had to concede, it was.

Jordan was surprised at the way he’d taken the affront, at how loyal he felt to his friends. His tribe was his family. “You’re betraying The Sidewalk Smokers Club,” he pointed out.

“Keeping people from getting hurt, pure and simple. There are more important things, after all, than smoking.”

So, City Attorney was the enemy. His little speech was scripture to those who had driven all smokers to the curb and now not even that would be permissible. Where else could they smoke? That was the crucial and overriding question to which there was no satisfactory answer.

So Jordan affirmed his “no.” He wasn’t interested and left wrapped in a warm “and-that’s-that” feeling about things; never once entertaining the thought that City Attorney might put his plan in motion anyway, because he didn’t think the politician would ever risk Joya’s affection completely. He confused his own feelings for her with City Attorney’s, both a grave and common mistake.

He walked home in the working crowd twilight all car horns and steel movement swinging with danger. Like dragons they overwhelmed the lower human rumble, weapons of sound. And Jordan felt assaulted, closed in. He was sullen and angry at having been stuck with (another) moral duty, with having to stand up for what he’d done. So he acted boldly over a matter of conscience, since when was that such a big deal?

He wanted everything to fall away and be left with Eilin.

He thought this request to just be left alone to love his girl modest. The truth is there is little affordable in a life apart with another, away from the world, living a perpetual garden party at which all the guests hobble about on muscles dry like jerky.

Chapter Seventy-five

When Randall rounded up some of the anonymous sidewalk smokers along Joya’s retail strip and told them what a good idea he thought it would be to avoid a clash with the BID security detail and smoke somewhere else, he got something of surprise.

He’d been expecting (hoping perhaps) for a crestfallen look from his distant disciples. But there is no such thing as a distant disciple and one of them responded to his pleading with, “It’s not about you, asshole. It’s about smoking where we want to.”

“It’s basic,” said the woman next to the guy who’d just spoken.

All of which was true from Randall’s perspective, too, but his mission was rooted in that old bugaboo, responsibility. He told them that choosing one’s battles carefully is the surest strategy for survival and eventual victory. He told them that living to fight another day was the goal, that simply smoking, anywhere at all, was an act of considerable defiance and affirmation. He was giving them the “if you knew what I knew” old man’s speech that had repulsed him for years and thought it ignoble to reveal why (because they’d get their heads beaten in).

“The issue is whether we get to smoke here and now,” responded an attractive girl in a freshly cut maroon leather jacket and slightly yellowed fingers. Randall was heartened to hear these things from them and was torn.

But he forged ahead, infected with Corey’s passion for getting things done. “Look, if you insist on being here the day of the deadline, they’re going to come and beat your heads in.”

As he suspected, this caused something of an impression in the ranks of defiance.

They were good-looking kids, café kids concocting and re-concocting the configuration of cool on the fly and Randall would be damned if he had the key to what moved them. Perhaps it wasn’t him, or The Smokers, or rights at work here. His own respect for the invisible and addictive hand of caffeine provided the possible answer. “They’re wired,” he told himself.

And so, Randall departed with a full promise from the kids to absent themselves when the courts were done giving clearance to the sweep of smokers out front of the stores. His newfound skepticism regarding freedom was confirmed for he’d found the neophytes willing to abandon their cause at the mere mention of physical harm. And good for them.

His own talk had been borrowed from the practical crowd and its bread-and-butter sensibility made him want to throw up. The retreat begun, he now begged for the day when the whole thing was finally wrapped. He was no longer in control, merely executing motions predetermined by forces beyond the reach of his word, his mind, his people.

At home he kicked back with a Prince Edward, dirty in the mouth and sour.

He thought to himself, “How beautiful it is to do nothing and, after that, rest.”

Then he remembered, rising wearily from his reading seat, that he had to call City Attorney.

“Mission accomplished,” he promised the public official, hanging up before anything more might be said.

Chapter Seventy-six

The acceleration of information moving across the system of flows meant that everyone knew what was expected of them. Even the future mayor, who preferred avoiding inclusion in any network formation that counted on The Sidewalk Smokers Club, was in on the talks.

Again, they were each left to mull over the exquisitely difficult positions in which circumstance and their own machinations had placed them, with a hapless Jordan confronting the hardest kind of choice – that between bad and lousy.

It had come out over the 7 p.m. entertainment magazine shows that Vindaloo Baxley and Hat Midone had conducted a joint press conference announcing their intent to be present and sidewalk smoking when the BID began its street clean up. A firm deadline had been set. They made a great show of things, which was to be expected given their stock and trade. Irreverent they were, too irreverent. It looked like so much fun as such battles can be for those with little or nothing invested them.

Randall, who caught the tail end of a segment in which they hurled bum philosophies at reporters, knew a different reality and it was much less a rollick. Not a good thing – the press conference – for it had undone what he’d just finished doing. It was Vindaloo and Hat pumping themselves up and he knew who to call about it. Clarisse picked up, her voice hollow with fear.

She gave the phone over to her husband after the little civilities. “I didn’t think they were going to do this?” Corey asked his assertion, fairly sure it wouldn’t cut mustard.

Corey did not hear much of what Randall had to say because he was too busy explaining that it was, after all, his job to “magnify and dramatize” everything related to The Smokers.

But he heard the last part: “Now they are The Sidewalk Smoker,” which would have been true even if Corey had remembered to copyright the name.

Elsewhere, though nearby, bent on heading off a catastrophe of civil disobedience and para-police overkill, City Attorney made Jordan’s decision for him, closing off his paths to both freedom and love simultaneously; proving nobody is ever “almost” out of power. He directed his staff to blast a press release announcing the identification of a suspect in the Angel Without Mercy case. Next he left a message with Dumburton. Hanging up the phone he covered his mouth aghast at the turn of events.

Down in Beachtown, Eilin lay asleep naked beneath Jordan’s adoring gaze. She seemed floating in a parallel reality, not nourished by everything he had yet to tell her.

The smooth, arched, earnest brows and easy breathing of his sex girl and future mama hailed from a place Jordan knew he would never possess. She was not his, and not meant to be once he’d done what he’d done before having even met her. Oh hope.

There was a knock at the door. “It’s Dumburton,” came the response to his question of who had come to break this final moment of love and peace between them.

Those questioning City Attorney’s reasoning are not without cause given what is known about his ineptitude as a political strategist, the prime example of which was his association with The Sidewalk Smokers Club.

In this latest scheme for temporarily ensnaring Jordan in the criminal justice system and dashing The Smokers’ ship of fortunes on the rocks of the assisted suicide issue, City Attorney again underestimated the object of his manipulations.

The Club, and sidewalk smokers, and the assisted suicide crowd, and magazine girls, and the spoiled actor and actress with their ready-to-wear retinue of media could hardly be expected to wilt because City Attorney had smitten one of them.

Instead, Jordan became their primary indulgence. He’d been apprehended. It could not stand. Continuing the politics, City Attorney had called all Club members in the hours ensuing his betrayal: Joya, Yvonne, Clarisse and Corey, and tried to explain why he’d done what he had done. Naturally they were shocked (except Joya) that Jordan was linked to the high-profile case, even if it explained certain aspects of his peculiar in-and-out relationship to them.

The consensus response was that they understood completely and would never be able to forgive City Attorney.

“City Attorney, that’s silly,” Joya told him following the unveiling of his project to keep the streets from running with blood.

“Beside,” Clarisse explained, “dose smoker out dere won leesin to us anyway.”

And she was right. Fired-up by the opportunity to march with Vindaloo and Hat, and even the practical purposes of their cause, the smokers and their friends converged from far afield on deadline day and began to smoke in defiance of countless warnings to do the opposite. This was not a case where the dissidents were caught unawares by what befell them. They were cruising for a bruising.

Thorpe and Diaz had sought to apply a new enforcement technique that involved sealing off the area around the stores early that morning and shaking people down one at a time before letting them go through. This was designed to prevent the smokers from congregating into a less manageable mass and diminish their impact.

Some time ago the good people had waved their right not to be shaken down and electronically searched in exchange for the promise of security from the teeming and fundamentalist hordes, and so this was actually workable from a policing perspective.

But the merchants nixed the idea because it would hurt business. They were all expecting clean-up day to be a kind of payday, too, and in this their greed outpaced their common sense, the existence of which we know bum philosophy questions.

The sacred cow invoked, Thorpe and Diaz were helpless and gave up the only idea that might have saved the situation.

And so the true sidewalk smokers - not the club - gathered. Dressed for the event even. Gilded, delicious, a giant swarm of gadflies. People for order and opposed to jaywalking grimaced and hated. Those who spend their lives beneath another’s boot heel could only smile ruefully, pleased with the effort, saddened by what they knew to be its ultimate, inevitable fate.

Meanwhile, Jordan was having a rather unpleasant time of things in jail, CA’s promises to spring him aside. The actors’ coup and highjacking of the smokers’ salvation had City Attorney occupied completely. Worse, the lawyer had not imagined such a tepid response from the media. All eyes were on the smokers. Plans to have an activist bail Jordan out and hold a little something for reporters about an hour or so after his internment failed to take form. Still, around two in the afternoon, as the sidewalk smokers gathered to fulfill a tragic destiny, a guard came and sprung Jordan.

He was pleased to see that his only phone call had been put to good use and that Carlos had come through with the bail money and everything else (read: pouch of Drum and rolling papers) he needed at that moment.

Jordan was quickly filled-in on the fast-moving developments to which most of the city had been attuned all morning. He decided upon heading straight over to the brewing mess and Carlos agreed to take him. When they got within eyeshot of the El Camino and saw two police officers examining cuerno de chivo, Carlos made a break for it down the street and Jordan followed. The police yelled after them. A siren began to color the atmos-fear. Tires ripped themselves on the asphalt. Carlos ducked into a backyard and glided easily over to a shed for which he inexplicably possessed a key. He waved Jordan in and closed the door behind them.

The place was wired within – a refrigerator, television, and computer – a regular conversion job. They decided on having a beer and lying low for a while. Carlos cursed his lost car, machine gun, and lucrative career as an anonymous criminal.

“In Zacatecas jou can smoke in de streets, piss there eef you wan, take you beer from dis bar to dat one-”

“And....carry a combat devise without a license.” Jordan interrupted, trying to make a point about the freedoms Carlos enjoyed locally as opposed to those of his birthplace.

“No, I haf licence for el cuerno de chivo. Das de prolem man. Now day know me.”

“Yes, but have you done anything wrong?”

“Plenty man. In dis cuntry dat is easee,” which is something we know Clarisse is given to declaring.

J. turned on the tube. Carlos put a finger to his lips and his counterpart lowered the volume. Hat Midone was being interviewed. Young girls smiled and squealed all around him. He said: “We’re just here protecting our right as a free people to eat, drink, smoke, and kiss in the streets that belong to everyone.”

The program then cut back to the studio where one of the host journalists explained how what Hat said was no longer true in a world where everything was so dangerous and no one could be trusted.

At Jordan’s bidding Carlos called for a cab on his cell phone and soon the pair were on their way to Joya’s.

There the purple-shirted BID security, with the help of green-shirted security from the BID on the Argentine restaurant’s block (which really wasn’t fair), had formed two lines at opposite ends of the street, shutting off traffic and isolating the many smokers who’d come to participate in their own demise.

Through a bullhorn that shrunk his voice to a thin, electronic emission the security captain gave the smokers thirty seconds to wrap the party up and take it on the road, or absorb the unpleasant consequences.

Vindaloo rose up onto the shoulders of a smoker. She yelled dramatic things out while flashing her Indian inspired skirt/stop ensemble and elaborate headdress that hid none of her marvelous hair. She had a small pearl in her pierced nose, sandals on her little ivory feet. The actress looked great and everybody cheered as she used up all of the allotted thirty seconds.

Beyond the eastern security cordon, two blocks back, Randall observed, hands in his pockets. He saw Jordan – the old lady murderer – and some Mexican guy bully their way past the guards and join the smokers who were fast running out of space as the detail moved in a staccato lock-step, familiar throughout the highly successful annals of oppression, toward them.

It was, other than that, an unfamiliar group to him. To be sure, the crowd’s make-up of girls from magazines, smoke clouds, and media swarm mirrored The Sidewalk Smokers Club and everything it had been and encouraged. But The Club itself was not present en masse, replaced rather by what it had wrought.

He’d quarreled with Clarisse and Corey and they had stayed away on that pretext, although they knew perfectly well what was coming and opted for self-preservation.

And good for them, too.

Joya was in her store, in the crowd, but not truly of the crowd for, were she so inclined she might have stepped out onto the hallowed concrete in question and joined the proceedings. But she did not.

Yvonne’s rope had run out some time back and she’d played along for the good of everyone else. On this day, however, she was just not going to be able to fake it and stayed away, too; opting instead for a facial, massage and steam.

Standing outside the thing he’d help create, Randall thought how different it all might have turned out had they shown up. Their status - yes their status - and collective personality might have turned the moment. He was certain of it now that he saw and sensed the mood of things.

But they, The Smokers, no longer had any business speaking for a group of people they’d instructed on how to speak for themselves. The Sidewalk Smokers Club had returned the borrowed name, in an improved condition to its rightful owners, the sidewalk smokers of all times and cities.

Security closed in from both directions. The sidewalk smokers were now doing so nervously. Vindaloo Baxley was on a cell phone asking somebody important to come to their aid. Hat Midone made his way up the front line.

Jordan and Carlos slipped into Joya’s Joyas and the former cut right to the chase. “Why,” he asked her, “are you going with him if you supposedly love me?”

She answered just as succinctly. “I love a lot of people hon, (which was true) and because that’s how it is. The powerful ones get the girls and the money.”

Throughout his recent trials much of what Jordan had learned was novel, but some was just a reinforcement of previously internalized lessons.

“And not necessarily in that order,” he spit bitterly.

“Oh hush.”

Which he felt obliged to do for this person who had done something quite strange and selfless for him. You could love her and not possess and he guessed he would learn to accept this.

Carlos had struck up a chat with Sadina.

“Where are Corey and Clarisse?” asked J.

“Oh, I don’t think she was too keen on him bein’ around that Vindaloo Baxley girl.”

Jordan shrugged, “I’m going out to get arrested again.” He turned to Carlos who indicated his desire to stay with Sadina. He shrugged yet again, not comprehending the link between third world children, and ran toward the fray. Inside, Joya directed Carlos and her shop girl to exit the back door and run for ten minutes, “Without lookin’ back.”

Then she was alone to watch, with folded arms, the security folks lay billy clubs sideways across the bodies of the smokers whom, for all their rage, weren’t in the best of health. A girl fell, she got stepped on. A cop rushed directly for Hat Midone, cracking him one across the jaw with a relish that reeked of an envious premeditation the actor should have anticipated. There are reasons why celebrities have bodyguards. And despite an order to the contrary from Thorpe and Diaz, a BID guard also took particular relish in smashing Vindaloo’s cute little face with the butt of his billy.

Randall cringed. Here was a another bummy lesson learned: The truth won’t protect you any more than being right will.

When Hat gamely struggled to his feet, bleeding in gushes, the BID guards surrounded him like jackals, poked mechanically, and drove him to the ground again. Hat Midone, so larger than life, he who had lent much-needed bravado to the lonely band, appeared, like most artists, diminutive when placed upon the stage of actuality.

And so there were injuries and beatings and very unjust things that happened before cameras, which station managers would refuse to run for many reasons without merit.

Some smokers were arrested and charged with things carrying penalties in excess of what they could afford. Among them was Jordan whom Carlos, Sadina by his side, immediately bailed out – again.

It was a traumatic and ugly assault that shook Randall. He’d always been sensitive to police violence, but what surprised him was the fury of the street people and he was more than a little doubtful about his link to them. “There is, after all, more to life than smoking,” he jotted down in the notebook carrying the alphabet concerto he’d long been composing.

For those who were victims it was not over in a day. The affair had resonance, had ruffled feathers, had been portrayed as a bunch of filthy arrogant law breakers getting what they had coming to them – old lady killers and what have you. Smaller, less public persecutions ensued.

Although not present (within the lens frame), Randall’s image and name were stretched, twisted, and battered beyond any relation to the real person: He was a leftist, he was a liberal, he did not love his country. Was against everything. He mocked apple pie and for this deserved (a few thought) to die.

Despite this rendering as a sinister-handed so-and-so, Randall suspected it was but a matter of time before some perverse commercial interest would willingly pay him to attach themselves to all that.

“Bad stuff gets good life!” He again as a beneficiary. He who had never thought himself capable of bad stuff, this purveyor of bum philosophy. In the end, Randall thought, the world’s problems were not rooted so much in there being too much evil, but in there being too many good guys getting in each other’s way. It was enough to make the bad guys smoke.


Weeks passed and Randall reflected anew at developments. City Attorney’s numbers shot up in hypothetical match-ups with other pretenders to the mayor’s throne. His handling of the matter was universally acclaimed a brilliant textbook for the new progressivism. Lesbian city councilwoman’s prior remarks on assisted dying caught her on the wrong side of the issue and it was promptly exploited by her resurgent rival.

City Attorney had broken with Joya and The Sidewalk Smokers Club; not only for reasons just explained, but also because they (if not her) had ceased to exist.The original and true sidewalk smokers had been eliminated from the life of the city and nobody but the victims themselves had fought the decision to do it. There were no libertarians come to their defense. No self-professed adherents of the free republic. The unions did not think the gathering worthy of their time, and political parties steered clear of having to deal with real emotions about a real issue. They were all for doing away with somebody else’s freedom (and moving right along, thank you). The smokers were completely on their own because it had been decided that they were disgusting and unworthy of the nobles’ efforts. Only City Attorney, for reasons not purely political, had gotten wet with them. As a result, he’d walked away with the prize – this time.

Almost every night of his life, thanks to the discipline of his days, Randall could retire content that he knew more and was a little smarter than the day before.

But the night of the riot changed this.

Nothing had turned out as planned and nobody had behaved in any way he might have expected. You never truly know until you lead the troops into battle, which of course, he hadn’t, rather making a mess of things, screwing up the real lives of real people.

Sure, when stretched you have breakthroughs in awareness, but Randall wasn’t certain if years’ worth of collected notions and hard-learned judgments, now useless to him, could be replaced with whatever treasures the disaster yielded. His compass had been crushed. The building blocks of his behavior had collapsed. He hardly trusted a green light when driving through an intersection. He smoked.

So that was that and it was a good thing hardly anybody reads the newspapers anymore.

The fate of The Sidewalk Smokers Club had certainly been determined, but there was a little housecleaning and some very small chapters to be played out. He looked forward to them because being The Club a few more times would be fun.

They had made money; good money and it would be split, not equally, but to each based upon need.

After that, there was the small matter of reinvention. Randall could accept The Club’s passing, but not so easily his own destiny. In years to come he would buck at being hired by some interest or other acting on behalf of the offended few. It would be his fate to attempt over and again what had occurred in a happenstance fashion with The Smokers; accepting the paycheck and failing to deliver, prisoner of his own triumph, but covered where three squares and a fluffy bed were concerned.

But that was much later.

Sooner after the debacle the phone rang. It was Jordan. “Carlos and Sadina bailed me out and we’re up the coast working in a marina.” Randall didn’t know who Carlos was or what had happened to Eilin and thought it best not to ask. “What about your case?”

J. sounded great, relieved, decided. “I get a job as poster boy for assisted suicide while City Attorney gets elected and torpedoes the whole thing once he’s settled in as mayor.”

It was true. City Attorney’s rehabilitation was complete following a spontaneous draft movement by powerful and undemocratic interests promoting his candidacy. A friend of CA’s at the metro desk wrote an insider’s article revealing how he’d handled the whole Sidewalk Smokers affair, from behind the scenes, just as recounted here.

When the piece ran, City Attorney feigned anger and cried slander. His opposites rose in support of a free and unhindered press. The politician, after much public agonizing, relented and accepted that, yes the whole damn brilliant scenario had been configured by him and that they had the right to print it.

Lesbian citycouncilmember, sensing what was in the wind, saw her chance and took it.

She was only too glad to say a few things in the name of a just, moral and efficiently administrated city, blessed with clean air and limpid watersheds, only too glad to withdraw her candidacy and return to the comfortable confines of these outdated notions and her safe council seat.

City Attorney had shed the whole thing like summer skin, snaked his way right out of the drying husk. It was the only way, he placated his guilt, for The Smokers were hell-bent on shipwrecking to make a point and that was not a viable strategy for him.

Joya, he realized, would have never truly been his as she had never actually and truly been anybody’s save for Sadina, an affair about which we know little other than its apparent constancy up until Carlos walked through the store door.

Not a word, a serious one anyway, was ever printed or broadcast regarding City Attorney’s prior relation to The Sidewalk Smokers Club. When the skinny girl from the liberal tabloid insisted on making a fuss about it, her editors told her to sit down little sister and gave her an unpleasant runaround until she quit her job and reentered the labor market without the benefit of unemployment insurance.

Randall knew this because she had called him and asked for a date to which he’d agreed.

Randall was not angry, but admiring. City Attorney was out their flailing, not hiding behind knowledge or the search for it. He was not creating a myth the way Randall and Corey had conspired to do. He was living a legend and that’s a tough trick these days.

These thoughts passed during what was obviously a long pause in the phone conversation. Each had been entertaining some or all of these questions and conclusions and it had tired them. Jordan broke the silence. “We were clumps man; surprised by what was happening to us. We were the objects of some great and powerful humor that shook up the neighborhood. That’s all. We never ‘directed’ anything.”

“One must admit to having been borne along by events,” Randall philosophized.

“Write it down,” Jordan said, “see you around,” and he was gone for good. Really.

Randall did write it down, but without Corey he was unsure of where to insert it in the compendium they’d curated, the logic of which seemed to be coming undone under the pure weight and breadth of the thing.

“We’re all bums and all philosophies are bum philosophies,” he said in between lighting an El Presidente and drawing the first chest-full of smoke. He coughed and it didn’t sound good. “What else could anybody who finds the time to philosophize be?”

The Smokers had, he thought, been peddling bum philosophy and gotten just desserts. Bum was the brand, like a dirty diaper for a standard, and what a surprise that almost nobody got the joke! It was easy to be stupid and have fun. It was a smaller battle to fight over the rules than to win with the ones already in place. He was no longer interested in the former.

“We didn’t direct anything!” he laughed out loud, proud that at least they’d done something, whatever it was. And they had done it with and, to a certain degree, for women. A fact of which he was prouder still.

The truth was that he felt more comfortable with women. Randall had never been one to gather in the corner with the old boys and as a consequence, the old boys never came bearing gifts. He hated their blacks and blues, their petty merchant epistemology. He could never fully believe in a bottom line because of the way it dispatched with all mysteries when these, he knew for sure, existed. And they did so without eventual answers. That was a kind of truth nobody had time for or interest in.

The Yvonnes and Joyas and Clarisses and Vindaloos of the world seemed to understand this. The bad sex, unsatisfying men, the back of the line, the big pass-over, the glass ceiling, menstruation, whatever it was that deepened their understanding he did not know, but he sensed how being a woman was more difficult, more like a castaway floating a raft over rough waters. It required creativity and humility. He saw how the girl Smokers, despite his own high-minded regard for their feelings, had assumed the ancient role of woman, operating in support while the boys led the familiar and ill-conceived charge into the valley of death.

Corey rang. He’d needed time to think as well. Immediate apologies were issued on both sides and that was easy enough given the new circumstances and the fact their partnership was over.

Corey said he was sorry for the whole business with the celebrities etc. Randall made a joke of it. “Your poor execution was the perfect accompaniment to my incompetent strategies.”

Corey and Clarisse had copyrighted “Clarisse’s Pieces” and were going into business together. It turned out, perhaps thankfully, that love and its requirements possessed more vitality than the church of rebellion, although it hurt Randall to swallow this, too.

He was pleased to learn the plan included Vindaloo Baxley, who’d lost some of her verve for public life, along with a lot of work, in the wake of her street antics.

The police had hit both she and Hat where it hurt most, in their faces. Things being what they are for women in this world, her own visage disappeared from the magazines she needed to maintain her fame, while Hat’s new “look” replete with twisted nose-bridge was hailed as the next big thing.

Randall asked after Joya of whom he knew from news reports that her store had been shut down by fire inspectors later promoted to assistant fire chiefs. Corey knew the same and nothing more. They’d run into her on the sidewalk a few nights before and shared a smoke, because some places would take time in bowing before the inevitable, blanket prohibition. Joya kept a distance between the couple and herself by what she said and how. After that, she walked off down the street clip-clopping and free as the night they had met her. Both men admitted that they missed the hell out of her, and each suspected that this was by some divine design, that she was a sprite, a messenger, an illusion sent to inflame them before finally evaporating herself, unloved, but loving and loveable.

They talked briefly about ways of divvying up the money from the tobacco companies, from the lawsuit, from benefits and other things. It was embarrassing to talk about it, so the former cohorts kept it simple, never noting how the payouts were pretty substantial.

“Have you heard from Yvonne during any of this?” Even happily remarried Corey wondered.

Randall smiled at the genuine draw. So much of this had been about Yvonne, about the whore and how she was to be treated. When those who wanted to ravage her had finished, she sat stripped before them – bereft of armor and bikini – not overtly brave, only dutifully so, and that’s the same thing when ends, and not means, are the final measuring stick. She’d trembled in her flesh and caused the flesh of others to tremble in return. And she’d suffered; mirror that she was for all that is not quite right in any of us.

Even as the clouds of smoke hovered after the final defeat, they were lined silver with the news of whom the larger public ultimately favored. The charm of the distressed beauty was a drug it could not foreswear and she became a needle in their arms. History and time, thanks to Yvonne, would be kinder to The Smokers than the myopic present because nobody could resist falling for her.

“No,” answered Randall, “I haven’t been in touch with her.”

“Clarisse heard she got a deal as a spokeswoman for a new fragrance. Big-time stuff. Commercials, magazine advertisements, the works.”

“What’s the fragrance called?” Randall wanted to know.


Website Counter