The way that Susan sees it, she must have the absolute worst luck in the
world. Here she is, ready for her first real vacation in ages and ages,
everything packed three days ahead of time, her sister waiting for
her in some Jacksonville shithole, and every single airport in the country
is closed. She's been grounded! Her fucking flight is cancelled, and no, we
don't know when it can be rebooked. Definitely not today. Well, we are very
sorry Ma’am, but rest assured you are not all alone in this situation. Check
back with us regularly.
means that there will be a cruise ship leaving harbor tonight on it’s way to
Mexico with an empty cabin, a cabin which should be decorated with fresh
flowers and complimentary champagne, and God Knows if she'll even be able to
get her deposit back. Just what are the rules that apply in this sort of
situation? If the government is shutting down all the airports because of a
bunch of religious fanatics, doesn’t that qualify as an act of God? That
would be too logical. Her travel brochure doesn’t even address the issue of
Acts of God.
Susan makes several attempts at dialing the travel agent’s
number to see if the cruise has been canceled, but all she gets is a chirpy
little voice on the answering machine telling her that the office will be
closed for the remainder of the day, and if so inclined, she might want to
leave a message.
So she calls up Melinda to commiserate with for a spell. Susan has a
need for somebody to feel sorry for her, but it looks like it might be a
rough day for scoring sympathy.
The muffled soundtrack of CNN is drifting in from
Melinda's bedroom. It is the purest of white noise, the perfect background
music for her day. The television has been unraveling non-stop since she got
home yesterday. On the screen, a plane is flying into the second World Trade
Center building. It scores a spectacular bull's-eye. The commentators are
blithering. Melinda is not watching.
Melinda is at home on liberal leave. Today is an official
workday, but her agency is benevolent enough to realize that there are
certain delicate individuals who may be too frightened or just too darn
upset to show up for work the day after an attack on America. Melinda would
fit into both categories. All of her shades are tightly shut and the only
sources of light in her entire apartment are emanating from her television
and her computer terminal.
Melinda is looking with dread at the new deck of cards. In
the back of her mind she had always known that this was the next deck to be
played - the Palm Tree follows the Moonlit Castle as surely as night follows
Melinda shudders involuntarily at the intrusive sound of the
telephone. It seems to be ringing with a special intensity. She better pick
"Susan? Hey, oh God. Oh, it's good to hear from you. I tried
to call you yesterday but I got your machine. Where are you calling from?
God, everything that's been going on… Are you okay?"
"Oh yeah, I'm okay,
but guess what? I’m at home.”
“Well sure, I figure…”
“I’ve been grounded,
Melinda. Shit! No cruise for me. I haven’t even been able to reach my sister
but I am guessing that it’s all been canceled anyway, you think? But
now, look, I get to start my vacation on this morbid note. Eight days at
home? I might as well just go back to work.”
“Mmm, I guess. I was
listen. You wanna hear something?" Susan holds the phone up in the air and
waves it around the room like a can of lemon scented air freshener. “That’s
the sound of Stan snoring like a wildebeest. And Iggy Pop. And CNN. Aren’t
There is a long
silence on the other end of the phone. Melinda has become distracted by the
new hand she has dealt herself. It really looks like quite a nice one. The
top card of the new deck is the nine of clubs. Red Jack to Black Queen,
Black Queen to Red King, Black Eight from the first row to Red Nine, opening
up a blank slot for Red King to occupy, which opens up a Red Seven to move
to the Black Eight, which opens up a Black King. Now there's still a Red Two
to be played on the Black Three, and this opens up a Black Ten which can be
played on the Red Jack and then the Red Nine can be played on the Black Ten,
and there you are.
"Oh. Sorry. I was just listening to the television. I am so nervous
right now about everything that's going on. It’s pretty awful isn't it? You
feel like anything can happen to you just like that…” Melinda snaps her
fingers, a gesture that Susan can neither see nor hear.
“CNN was showing pictures of some people that they pulled out alive
from one of those buildings. What do you think, Susan? I bet there are a lot
more live people left inside. You know, they say there are several
convenience stores and restaurants and shops down on the bottom floors, and
maybe a lot of people could have gone down there. You could probably be
buried alive and still last for a long time." Melinda hesitates. “But I
don’t think I could stand being buried alive, could you?”
"No," says Susan, quickly dispensing with the subject. "Hey, Melinda,
I just figured that you'd probably be staying home today, so I thought I'd
call and see if you wanted to do something. So, what’s up? You want to get
outside in a little while? I haven't seen you since last week at
Permissions. That was wild, girlfriend! Hilarious! I loved it. What a
Melinda minimized the solitaire window so that she could concentrate
on her conversation with Susan. She shook her head, purely for the sensation
of feeling her hair move. The clock said half past two, and she wasn't even
dressed. She felt as though she was just waking up from a long deep sleep.
Where has the day gone?
"Sure, Susan, that would be great. Where do you want to go?" This does
sound great, a rescue, someone to come by and take her out of this ghastly
apartment. But really, she has to wonder, could there really be anything
open out there in the world?
"Why don’t you and I go to the DownUnder for happy hour? I know what
you’re thinking, Melinda. They will be open. They're always open. Have you
been there before?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Well, Stan and I meet down there sometimes after I get off work, but
I rarely make it there in time for happy hour. It’s kind of a funky little
place. Stan’s in there all the time. What say we head down and slam a few.
They open in about an hour. I can wake Stan and we’ll swing by and get you.
He’s slept long enough. As a matter of fact, I better wake him up. He's
slept far too long. He went to bed with me and I wake up to find him
sleeping at his desk. If he wasn’t snoring, I’d swear to God he was dead.”
"Oh, that would be good” says Melinda, hand on mouse, but resisting the
temptation to restore her game. She catches herself. “I mean it would be
good to see you all, not that it would be good thing if Stan was dead.” Now
that was a stupid thing to say, she thinks. “Just a little joke. I haven't
seen Stan for ages. Two weeks at least. At the Black Cat. Downtown."
Susan is rolling her eyes. Melinda is nuts. “Hey Melinda. Know what?
Stan told me he’s been talking to a friend of yours at the DownUnder. Guy
named Tex. Ring a bell?”
“Tex? Not me. I don’t do cowboys.”
"No? Just school boys? I can’t keep up with your secret lives
“No” says Melinda, “you can’t.”
“All right then. Are we set? Pick you up in a hour. We'll beep the
horn. And make faces"
"Okay. Good good good. I'll be ready. See you shortly."
Melinda restored the solitaire window. The game didn't play out the
way she had envisioned when she had first started playing. The aces were
slow in coming, and in the end she only scored seven cards.
win", she said, shutting off the computer.
As this was his
fourth visit to the DownUnder in the past few days, Lex is starting to feel
a bit more comfortable about calling the bartender by her name. Her name is
"Cindy, I would like to buy a drink for the gentleman over there in
the hat, and a cold Bud draft for me."
What gentleman, Cindy thinks. Red?
Oh no, this guy has been coming in here all week. Now, what is his
name? Cindy does like to have a name down by the second visit, and
absolutely by the third, so in a rather conspicuous whisper she has no
choice but to ask Red to help her out. He looks at Lex for a moment, frowns,
then shakes his head and shrugs his shoulders.
"Well think, Red. He's going to buy you a drink. And it's going to be
a weak one if you can't help me out. Come on." Cindy taps her foot
impatiently. She is not
going to ask this guy his name again.
Red furrows his brow and makes an effort to conjure up the name. "He
was in here Tuesday, right? When all this shit was first goin down. I think
Patrick was callin him... It was an Ex name, somethin like Rex or Lex or Dex.
Somethin like that. Maybe it was Specks. Check out those eyeglasses."
"Okay, I'll just call him Ex, and then he'll imagine that he hears the
first letter." Cindy shifts from a whisper to her normal cheerful voice.
"Hey Red, Ex is buying you a drink. Whatcha having?" She fetches an
excellently drawn draft for Lex, with just a quarter inch of head.
"Gimme a Beam." Red looks at Lex and touches his fingertips to his hat
in the most minimal gesture of respect that he can muster.
"Thanks" he mumbles. Why is this guy buying me a drink? I've never
spoken to him before. Look at that friggin suit. Wonder if Cindy caught a
load of that. Ex better not be a homo, I'll kick his ass.
"No, thank you,"
Lex graciously responds. He is wearing a gray wool suit which is three or
four sizes too large for him. Lex has lost a significant amount of weight
during the summer, working out on occasion, but more importantly, making a
commitment to a surprisingly successful liquid diet. He could use some new
clothes, though. This suit does make him look like a clown.
Lex justifiably hates spending money on work clothes. It's almost as
bad as paying for car insurance. Mostly he would buy interchangeable items -
the black suit with extra trousers, the gray suit with extra trousers, the
always dependable white shirts. On a few occasions during his remarkable
career he had attempted to buy such exotic items as The Lucky Tie or The
Socks of Destiny, but never did they wear that way.
Lex is swimming in the suit. Apt word, swimming, since the day is just
cooling down a bit from a high of 88 and Lex is drenched in sweat. Fool is
wearing a wool suit in mid-September. Not in this town. His shirt is soaked
through - you can see his nipples if you're interested - and his pants are
still sticking to him, wrinkled and damp in the seat. He motions to Cindy
that she should stay, and proceeds to finish his beer without the glass ever
touching the bar. Cindy makes a wild guess that he would like another.
What a week. Endless. Lex gets on the road after a long day at work,
and as though he were damned from Hell, his air conditioning immediately
goes out in a puff of blue steam, forcing him to drive the ten or so miles
to the DownUnder with his windows rolled all the way down, which would
not be all that bad except
that it's a windless day and the sun is beating down and his car is black
and the traffic is moving forward at a crawl when it bothers to move at all.
Lex turns on the news and traffic station and learns that he is the victim
of an overturned tractor-trailer - far, far down the road - which has
littered I-95 with crunchy heads of iceberg lettuce. This next beer is going
to be a charm.
Lex raises his fresh new beer in a toast to Red. "You bought me a
drink on Tuesday when I really needed one. Thanks again."
Huh? Is this guy talking to me? Where's everybody at tonight? They
won't bring down the Happy Hour food till there's more people in the bar.
Red doesn't remember buying this guy any drink.
"Sure thing". Don't mind taking the credit, Red thinks, and turns back
around to watch the news.
When Stan walks in the bar a while later,
right towards the tail end of happy hour, he is presented with something of
a dilemma. There are two empty stools, one on each side of the bar's left
front corner. One stool will put him right beside Lex, who had started
waving and pointing at the spare stool the moment Stan arrived, and the
other puts him one seat away from Red, separated only by a red-headed
stranger who looks just about ready to cash out. What to do, what to do...
Stan decides to go for the one beside Lex, and oh brother, wouldn't
you know it, Red gets up and moves straight to the stool catty-cornered from
him. Trapped between two morons. Red looks as if he might want to vent for a
while. And Red likes Stan because Stan listens.
Stan, however, doesn't feel like listening to anyone right now, not
unless they are reporting fast-breaking news or political commentary. After
sitting in front of the tube the entire day watching the carnage, Susan had
finally nagged him into getting out of the house for a while, so he headed
straight to the pub, in search of another tube...
Stan had logged plenty of listening time last night while Susan, Lex
and Melinda traded jokes and stories about the workaday world. Lex had seen
the three enter, and had made a bee-line straight to their table. Melinda
kept asking Stan if he was feeling okay, and he kept telling her that he was
feeling fine. Sometimes, out of politeness, Stan had turned his attention
completely away from the television set.
Susan was charmed and amused by Lex. "Hey, isn't that something that
you and Melinda work together" she had remarked to him. No, thought Stan,
that's not something. Look at the television. That's something.
Melinda would make cowboy references and the girls would howl.
Longhorns? What was that supposed to mean?
Stan found himself forced to endure a detailed monologue from Lex, who
was telling them all the details about his horrible week. The stories were
the same ones Stan had heard the day before, but this time they were rather
clever, punctuated by one-liners and sound effects. They hadn't sounded very
amusing the first time Stan had heard them.
Tonight, Happy Hour is followed by quiet hour. In a manner of speaking.
Cindy kills the sound on the TVs, and gives Bobby Esquivel a fiver to play
the jukebox. He has excellent taste. No one complains, they just watch the
scroll line on the screen and nod along to the music.
Both Lex and Red stay remarkably subdued until the video sound is
turned back on, just in time for the beginning of CNN's eight o' clock hour.
The show starts out with a splash banner reading 'America Under Attack',
followed by a quick clip of a plane flying into the second World Trade
Center building. It scores a spectacular bull's-eye. The commentators give a
quick synopsis of the hour's top stories. Wolf Blitzer appears on the
screen, but is swiftly replaced by a series of black and white photos of the
"I hate those bastards" says Red, glaring at the screen.
"Slimy sons of bitches" says Stan, ordering another beer.
"Yeah" says Lex, feeling cool and relaxed.
"I'd like to kill all those bastards" says Red.
"Cut their friggin hands off and boil them in oil" says Stan, really
getting into the spirit of the moment.
"Why would you want to boil their hands in oil?" asks Lex. "Isn't
there something more persuasive you could do to those terrorists, something
more effective than boiling their hands?"
"What he's tryin to say," Red explains, showing great patience with
Lex, "is that first you should cut their friggin hands off, and then you
should boil the bastards in the oil. The entire bastard - Not just the
hands." Red takes a thoughtful moment before continuing.
"Hell, you'd probably want to hold on to their hands as a souvenir or
The three sit quietly for a while as Bush administration officials are
televised saying and doing gravely important things. Their mouths seem
electronically altered. There is startling new footage of Ground Zero, as
the former location of the twin towers has now been dubbed, flames still
burning hot, sucking the oxygen out of the air. There is the look of a heavy
metal extravaganza as the evening sky is pierced by thousands of smoke
diffused lights. More dead are carried out of the morass by grim faced
firefighters. Husbands and wives, sons and daughters, friends and strangers
parade by the camera with sooty, tear soaked faces. People breaking down...
A short piece of film runs next, showing raggedly dressed Palestinian
children dancing in celebration.
"Jesus" Red says in disgust. "We should just kill em all."
"Kill all the bastards" Stan chimes in.
"Kill all whom?" Lex asks. "Are you talking about those kids? You
can't kill a bunch of kids."
Red has limited patience for this sort of loose talk. He's got a clear
head. Nobody should be questioning him when he is so correct. "What I'm
sayin to you is that every single towelhead has got to be put in the ground.
It's us or them, partner. Those kids, as you call em, are just little
terrorist bastards in training. They're taught from birth on to hate
everybody that ain't a Moslem. Trained to kill you. You need to wise up.
That's what a Jihad is. Holy War. Only way you're gonna take care of the
situation is to kill each and
"Well, that's an awful lot of bastards" says Lex. "Islam is the second
biggest religion in the world. There's at least a billion Moslems, probably
more. I think you'd be biting off more than you can chew."
Red is turning red. He shoots daggers at Lex, who apparently has all
the smart-ass attitude required of a potential traitor.
"What do you think Stan," Red demands. "You think we should kill em
Stan probably hasn't been paying quite enough attention to this
friendly exchange to make a fully informed answer, but he's suddenly got an
angry Red in his face. "Uh, I don't know man, I guess I haven't really
thought it all the way through yet. I mean, yeah, maybe, I guess we should
kill some of the bastards, but all of them? I don't think they can all be
bad." Pause. "I'm sorry. Which bastards were you talking about?"
"Forget it. Forget it man. You're dead wrong. You are dead wrong. I'll
think about askin for your sorry-ass opinion again after they've blown up a
few thousand more Americans."
Stan has been abruptly dismissed as a dumb motherfucker for the second
time in three days.
Betrayed by Stan's display of pure ignorance, Red turns his anger
towards Lex. "What the fuck sort of name is Ex" he spits at Lex. "That
sounds like a Moslem name to me. Like Malcolm X."
Maybe it's time to hit the road, thinks Stan.
"No no" explains Lex. "It's Malcolm X, not Malcolm Lex."
Stan is waving his hand, signaling for his check, but Cindy is glued
to the screen. Please girl please.
"Malcolm Lex!" Red's eyes grow wide with rage. "You named after that
traitorous nigger?" Red is out of his seat and very red indeed. "You gonna
take a walk outside with me, motherfucker. I'm gonna kick your ass."
"Aw, come on Red," says Stan the mediator. "Don't kick his ass, okay."
Red stands directly in front of a perplexed Lex, breathing heavily
through flared nostrils. "If I wasn't in the middle of watchin the news...."
"You," says Red, making several pokes with a stiff index finger into
Stan's chest, "need to watch out what type of assholes you're hangin with."
Red picks up his drink and his Winstons and moves around to the other side
of the bar. He settles into his new position, turning around to glare at Lex
about every fifteen seconds.
"I don't know what he was getting so upset about" says Lex. "I guess
it's been a hard week on all of us. Let me tell you what happened to me
first thing this morning"
"Check please" shouts Stan.