Monday, April 4, 2016

# 99 Easy Street, Part Six. Louis Shalako.





Louis Shalako



Ten dollars sounded like a lot of money, but it didn’t go far when a person needed virtually everything. Potatoes were cheap, but they needed a pot to be cooked in, a plate to be eaten off of, a potato masher, butter or margarine, a fork. Salt and pepper were cheap, (up to a point), and yet they still needed shakers. His plan was simple enough, but hard to recall in its exact details when confronted by long aisles bustling with people. The shelves were groaning under the weight of a million products, some of which were familiar enough and some of which he’d never even heard of.

Pop-Tarts for example.

Somehow he’d missed that one completely. Without a toaster, he had no plans of trying them anytime soon…

Rather than buy everything new in the way of utensils, usually four or eight at a time, he decided to just pick up a couple of actual food items and then head back. There was a second-hand store right on his block, and if he was quick about it, he might just make it before closing time. People like that, half of them volunteers, weren’t likely to stay open late.

When he got to the apartment, he kicked the door and called out but nobody came.

Shit.

The dead-bolt was snapped. Mark was locked out again.

This was going to get tiresome after a while, and yet he really ought to be grateful. His list of demands was already increasing. It was a kind of personal revelation, or maybe it was just about life.

Inside, you were afraid to hope, outside, afraid to despair. Inside, you wanted everything, outside, you were afraid to ask…also afraid to admit that you were afraid to want anything at all, what with self-fulfilling prophecies and everything.

One of the problems with jazz was the song-writing sometimes.

There was always going to be that little voice in your head.

Maybe even more than one. He really ought to be grateful. Those voices had saved him in so many ways.

Sighing, he put the bags down and went upstairs, all too conscious of the smells of someone behind door number three, someone who was doing a darned good job of cooking a chicken. 

Again, Mark went out the window, down and across the fire escape. He opened the door to get the groceries and Duke was right there, startling him.

“Shit!”

Duke.
He’d been so intent on his own business. 

Crawling in that damned window took all of your attention. Otherwise you’d lose a bit of skin every time on the bottom sills until you were downright skinless.

“Hey. Mark. You know you shouldn’t leave groceries in the hall like that. Someone’s sure to steal them.” Duke was laughing at him.

Again.

It was becoming a bad habit.

“Yeah, yeah, yeah.”

Mark grabbed the bags and took them into the kitchen.

He busied himself with putting things away, wishing he’d thought to pick up some stronger light-bulbs. Hell, even just more light-bulbs. Half the sockets in the place were empty.

“So. No bed yet.”

“Don’t worry. They’ll show.”

“Yeah. Look, ah, Duke.”

“Hmn?”

The man snapped the cap on the second quart bottle of beer. His eyes were like two piss-holes in the snow at this point.

“First of all, is there still stuff in the bedroom?”

“Nope. I took that up just now.”

“Ah. Okay. Look, I want to nip down to the Sally Ann and buy some shit cookware. I guess Olivetti’s probably not going to show up today, but I got to eat, right?”

As a kid, he might have tried to cook a can of beans in a campfire. That was a long time ago, in a place far, far away. Missouri in fact. Mark didn’t even have pot-holders yet, and the gas stove had its own inexorable logic. He wasn’t going to get away with that for too long. Not without pot-holders. No without a spoon, and a can-opener, and a cloth for washing-up.

“Yeah. I don’t mind hanging out. But people are always looking for me, and I got to pop my head out once in a while.”

Mark slapped the big guy on the elbow, and without even having unzipped a coat that was becoming a bit big and bulky for the season, he turned and bolted for the door again. That coat, always damp and always ugly, was becoming something of a mill-stone.

Lunch was hours ago and his stomach was beginning to ask questions again.

***

Low grey clouds came over, the tops of the farther buildings disappearing into the mist. 

Traffic snarled and hissed on a thin black slick of moisture that must have fallen while he was in the store. His shoulders ached from carrying things, and he hadn’t walked this far in one day in years. That would play out in sore ankles, or feet, or something. He’d never realized walking could cause pain in the neck and shoulders. Tomorrow morning might be tough. All the time, he was thinking, thinking. It was just something that had to be borne, and he had a long list of things he could and must do.

Too much to think about, all of it happening too fast.

By the time he got back, there were lights on in his apartment, deep in the shadows of New York’s modern canyon-lands as he had often thought of it. He’d often wondered what it would become, if the lights ever went out for good. It could be bad enough at the best of times. They were already a species of cliff-dwellers. Imagine heating all of this with wood, lighting it all with torches.

Image by Paul Goyette.
It was an apocalyptic vision, but appealing nevertheless. Shit, some neighbourhoods were half-way there, littered with vacant lots, burned-out cars, ruled by gangs day and night. It got dark and the nicer ones hid in their holes behind closed curtains and blaring TVs.

There were people moving around up there. He could hear their voices as he went up the steps two at a time. There was no one sitting there for a change. They had nothing to do by day, and probably prowled by night, looking for whatever they could find. It was ever the curse of youth, to be unskilled and unwanted.

The apartment door was open. It was almost exciting. Duke grinned to see him. There were people in his bedroom.

“I told them they were supposed to assemble it.”

Mark snorted, taking the bag into the kitchen. Leaving it there, he went for a look. Sure enough, a couple of guys, one black and one white, were assembling his new bed. Their coveralls said Water-Beds Galore on the back, like a bloody football team. They had the four sides screwed together, up on its pedestal already. The smell of fresh vinyl flooded the air as the black guy opened up a package and began unfolding and laying out the mattress. The white guy went looking for the taps, fifty or so feet of plastic hose coiled in his hand.

The black guy screwed the loose end onto the filler-cap on the mattress as Mark watched. He tugged and pulled and laid it out as best he could.

“Hey, sir.”

Mark's new waterbed.
“Call me Mark.”

“Okay, sir, this is going to take while to fill, and, ah, quite a while to heat up. The manual is right here—I’ll leave it on the shelf here.” Everything came in its own little plastic bag. 

“We’ll soon drain the hot-water tank, even in a building like this.”

Where there would normally be a headboard, there were three tiers of shelves, which was cool.

“Okay.”

“What I’m sayin’, is that we is done. Pretty much. Sir.”

There were packages still unopened, and the white guy came in from the other room. Mark heard running water. There were trickles spilling out in all directions inside, as the vinyl bag, still stiff and creased from storage, struggled against it.

“Okay, sir, here’s the thermostat.” They only had two electrical outlets to choose from and they had done their best with the power supply.

Mark had a look.

The white guy spoke.

“If you need to move that, now’s the time to speak up.”

Mark shook his head. The room was just too small.

“I think that will have to do.”

“Sign here.”

Duke caught his eye from the front room.

“It’s better than doing the nasty-bump on the floor, buddy.”

The service guys laughed and gave Duke and Mark admiring looks. Mark signed zee papers, they grabbed their few scattered tools. Then they were gone, even taking the garbage, cardboard and reinforced strapping tape, bits of paper and plastic along with them.

“Thanks, guys.” Mark closed the door behind them.

“There’s another beer in there.”

Mark laughed when Duke pulled another gagger out and gave it his trademark lick.

Mark was having a pretty good day so far. For Duke, every day had been a good one so far, and hopefully that would continue on indefinitely.

***

Mark was just coming out with a very cold and very large lager beer when there was a knock at the door.

Duke just raised his eyebrows and it was Mark’s place anyway.

Answering it, a lady stuck her head in the door, spying Duke.

“Oh. There you are.”

Mark stepped back and she came in bearing a plate covered with a napkin. She was wearing oven mitts. Mark could only dream of cooking things in ovens.

“Oh. Thank you. Ah. Maude, meet Mark. Mark, this is Maude.”

“Hi, Mark.”

“Uh, pleased to meet you.”

Maude brings blueberry pie.
All her attention was on Duke. For whatever reason, not too interested apparently, Duke practically ignored her. Mark politely took the plate, which smelled heavenly, and it was still warm too.

“I’ll just put that in the kitchen.”

They ignored him. She had something to talk about, but Duke wasn’t cooperating. She seemed intent on Duke, but also aware of Mark, an unknown quantity.

“So. Will I see you later?”

“Sure. Hey, Mark, we gonna smoke this or what?”

Apparently the lady wasn’t a smoker herself.

“Ah, yeah.”

Shit.

And why not? Lifting the napkin, he took a quick peek. The lady had made Duke—or somebody, a blueberry pie.

Not that that put any real perspective on Amy, but clearly there was much he didn’t know about women these days.

Smoking the dope was the only way to get rid of them, and besides, the bed was only about two inches deep so far. The thermostat was turned up about as far as seemed safe. More than anything, he couldn’t walk away from it.

And he still didn’t have a key.

He wouldn’t starve to death in a day or two. In a world of counterculture, perhaps even counter-economics, it was a bit like conducting an anti-study.

Or something like that.

Four years was a lot of time to read all the wrong books and get all sorts of weird ideas in your head. How much relation it had to the outside world remained to be seen.

Fuck, he’d read the encyclopedia from front to back.

Image by Paul Vlaar.
She was standing there, love in her eyes, just inside the door.

For crying out loud, man.

Give me a fucking break.

“Okay, we’ll see you later.”

Maude was gone, down the hall and far away.

“So, what’s with her?”

Duke shrugged expressively. He gave Mark an odd look.

“Beats me, man.”


(End of Part Six.)



The science fiction novel The Mysterious Case of Betty Blue is free to read here in serial form.

The reader may also enjoy these other Louis Shalako titles on Indigo. (Lots of freebies there too.)


Thanks for reading.


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