Anne and Andy ordered another shot, another pint... swaying to the pipers and fiddlers on the jukebox until, after a dozen noisy, belching Conk delegates stormed in, they bolted; hailing a cab that reluctantly followed his directions to the shabby corner fronting his shabby hotel. Suddenly both were on the street... cab retreating hastily... taillights two red dots, like laser gunsights… shrinking, disappearing. Drones swooped like vampire bats; a U.N. helicopter spotlight swept over them, before zooming further into the East End. "Well, here us is!" Andy declared as they sidled towards the fire door. "Hindus have mirrors they position all up and down the front stairs to see who's bringing who up..." he apologized.











          "I don't understand how they're allowed to prohibit American citizens from having visitors. It's probably unconstitutional!" Anne protested.  “Isn’t it?”

          "People who live in places like this... you got no rights. It's about stopping the prostitution, see?  Especially now, since the sensitives renamed it human trafficking.  And drugs.  Ditto with kat and opiods… and weed is still a felony here, unless you’ve got a letter from a doctor = costs two, two fifty sometimes,  Rich people hate thinking that poor people, somewhere, might be forgetting their miseries by having sex, fun or even friends. But all these managers have arrangements with the street, so the only people who get in are the hookers and dealers – while the Meals on Wheels people kept getting locked out until the program just went away! Just another example of American free enterprise in action."

          "This political Gnosticism of yours is way, way out of hand," Anne warned. "I really think... there has to be a good reason for all these rules..."

          "Nine-eleven?  Boston Marathon?  Coronavirus?  St. Louis?  Abused children?  Well, if you find one," Andy suggested, "go tell your Catfish."  A drone skittered past the topmost floor of the hotel, hovering by the iron fire stairs a moment before swooping off into the dark.

          "I said there must be a good reason. I didn't say I knew what it was, or whether it really was a good reason..."

          "Fine!" Andy pulled a bar napkin he'd pilfered from Houlihan's and began drawing a cryptic geometry of lines and times and arrows. He had no credit card, of course, but his public library card was plastic and easily slipped the fire door lock - he left it hanging there, lifted Anne's wrist, fingering her pricey watch before releasing her hand.

          "Give me exactly two minutes from the time I leave, you go in... don't forget the card, ignore the buzzers. The fire door monitor's in the office... unless our luck's really rotten, Babu will be sitting there, mesmerized by "You Bet Your Car" with the wife and little Babus. Move quick, hang a left at the top of the stairs, then right, there's no other way. Third door from the corner, that’s the ladies' shower...” his moving finger stopped and stabbed a star… “it's the one that doesn't have a number. Lock the door, run the water, wait for me to knock. Three times, once, once more. If I'm more than five minutes, go to the back stairs at the end of the corridor, up two flights to the fourth floor, I'm in 435. There's usually junkies on the stairs, but if you move fast enough they won't react in time to hurt you."

          "Now this really doesn't sound like America. I'd rather we went to the shelter!"

          "No, you wouldn't. Over there, when I work the night shift, I carry a flashlight and a baseball bat. Technically, we could get rid of the sex rules because we don't get any funding anymore, but it's like letting roaches into the place... you let one get by, then two, pretty soon everybody's doing it. And then it stops being consensual..."

          "Andy, are there roaches upstairs?"

          "Nah! Henry takes care of them?"

          "The janitor?  Exterminator?"

          "See ya!" He planted a farewell kiss on her lips, still open from forming the last three syllables of "exterminator", held up two fingers, turned the corner and approached the door to the hotel between two boarded up storefronts, pressed the buzzer and, in a few seconds, vanished. Anne, checking her watch, waited exactly two minutes before forcing the fire door, scampering up a long flight of stairs as a screeching buzzer bounced from wall to wall. Turning left, as instructed, she heard Andy and a number of high-pitched foreign voices engaged in a dispute. She shut the door of the filthy shower stall, turned the water on, removed her Jimmy Choos; then, after looking down at what was smeared over the tiles, put them on again. Two minutes later the knocks came... three, one, one.

          Andy led her to the back stairs and they went up. A ragged man lay sprawled in the stairwell between the third and fourth floor.

          Anne hesitated. "Shouldn't we stop? He looks dead!"

          "If he is, he'll start to smell, and Babu will have somebody haul him out. There's guys here that'll do anything for a break on the rent; cash back for a bottle, a rock or some kat. Come on!" he beckoned.

          On the fourth floor, faint radio and television sounds seeped forth under the doors to rooms. At 435 Andy motioned for quiet, unlocked the dark room and entered, fist closing around a broomstick by the door. Suddenly, he flipped the light and Anne had only a startled instant to see the two rats on a table before they leaped towards a hole in the wall. Andy hurled the broomstick like a spear, striking the lattermost on its hind flank but, with an angry squeal, the pest pulled itself through its hole.


          The room had been ransacked, torn to pieces... in fact... as if by spies looking for secret documents. Papers, clothes, remains of what might’ve been taco chips and broken appliances littered the small table, bureau, sink and bed; more were piled on the floor.

          "Least they won't be back for a while!" He shrugged his jacket off, tossed it on the bed. "Well... welcome to the home of unassimilated elements. Tain't the Ivona, is it? Tell me - it's what you've yearned for all your life!"

          "All... my... life... it's what I've been trying to get away from, all my life... ohh, watch out..."

          Andy looked down. A turd... canine or human... crouched just beyond the toe of his second hand shoe. "The perp's calling card," he said, "thought the place looked like someone broke in. Asshole!" he added, scooping the feces up with a MicroTimeTM postcard promising twelve e-book downloads for a penny, pointing it menacingly at Anne. "Your people?"

          "Why?" she asked.  “And get that out of my face!”

          The room was about ten feet by twelve, just slightly larger than the dark, solitary cell Andy had inhabited at the Hall of Justice. Besides the narrow bed and table... a real estate sign propped up on plastic milk cartons... there was a dresser, one chair. A box of papers had been overturned by the bed... a frightened cockroach tried to scurry between documents containing telephone numbers of civil rights, peace and anti-UN groups who might or might not be coming to town, but Andy reached past the plastic bottle of generic tequila under the bed, pinched the insect, held it up and... to Anne's bewilderment... tossed the squirming bug up into the air, towards the ceiling.

          Gravity to the contrary, it did not come down and, when Anne looked more closely, she saw a supermodel-legged spider emerge from the cracked, spotted mirror over the dresser, climbing its web towards the ceiling.


          "I thought you said Henry, the janitor, made sure you didn't have any bugs!"

          "Henry!" Andy pointed upwards. "They check in, but Henry gets 'em before they check out, if the rats don't find them first. He's probably my best friend... you know? Spiders are loyal. More than you can say about Hillary Clinton!"

          "Bitter, bitter Andy!"

          "I can work with individuals, I just can't stand processes. Process made what's left of the left about as viable as the Costa Rican loyalist argument."

          "That's racist!"

          "So cancel me!" Andy put his keys and wallet on the table, picked up the tequila and took a long, sour gulp... swishing it between his teeth as a form of dental hygiene, except that he swallowed it when he was done - plaque, liquor and all.

          Then he extended the bottle... hesitantly...

          "I have a better idea." Anne sat down on the bed and opened her purse, revealing an amazing array of perfumes, lipsticks, eyeliners, pills and contact lenses. "Can I help it if the world gets a little misty in our old age?" she said of the last, fingers rising to her eyes. "This place is worse than that, that... pad... we shared at the U. Sordid! Makes me want to commit sordid acts!" She opened a lipstick container and shook out a little plastic baggie. "Brought some pot in case I found the right sort of place to smoke it but rooms in the Ivona all have cameras... this neighborhood seems the kind of place where it's safe for people to smoke pot in.  It’s medicinal, from Maryland… I have one of those little cards supposed to let you possess it in the red states!  It’s for what polite people call female troubles.  Do you still smoke?"

          "When weed's five times as expensive as crack, ten times more expensive than kat? Only pot I ever see is when some slumming scion of the great, shrunken bourgeoisie gets busted and leaves his shit behind at the Sanctuary.  Rich man’s drug, now and it’ll get even more so if they legalize it here.  Besides, it's politically incorrect. Supports terrorism, right?... as if bananas, diamonds and gasoline don't... and it’s so close to legal, now, where’s the fun?"

          "But you haven't forgotten how to roll..."

          Andy took the weed and his papers from the tobacco pouch, cleared a small space on the improvised table. "Til' your Catfish makes tobacco illegal... like riding bicycles. Or driving a car. Haven't had a car since the first round of defundings, did I say? Three fuckin' years. But this fellow wanted me to drive him to the hospital in his Volvo last month... fucked up... and I realized I could still do it.  Drive, I mean. Scared the shit out of me..."

          "Why did he have to go to the hospital."

          "This other dude stabbed him in the gut on my shift. We try to keep the weapons out but it still happens all the time. Social worker, asking the wrong guy wrong questions. He lived. Guy who did it just faded out by the time I got back, back into the woodwork.  Or rode the dog to Capital City." He twisted the ends of the joint, lit it and took a sample toke. "Pinhead's fault, if you ask me... sleepin' in a car's safer than at the Sanctuary, only he got this law passed that confiscates cars and sells them when somebody sleeps in one. It's for local vagrancy now but watch... give it a year or two and they'll have city cops out patrolling rest stops on the Interstate making busts, confiscating all those nice new out-of-state Caddies and BMWs from the drunk drivers who pulled over to sleep it off, so the politicians can keep voting themselves money to bribe the suckers with without raising taxes.  Rounding up stockbrokers on soliciting charges for the private jails that rent out prisoners to pick tomatoes, replacing all those Mexicans we rounded up and kicked out.  In our dreams, right? This tastes OK. Some of the deep conspiracy people on the street say cops are dealing weed cut with rat poison, but I guess this didn't come off any street, right? There's a station at the U. that's pretty good, but my radio got ripped off and, with the convention and all, I haven't had time to hustle up another one. Guess, if I had, it woulda been stolen or smashed. So we'll have to amuse ourselves without sounds..."

          He took another toke, handed over the joint, which Anne sucked at, way too anxiously.

          "Do people break in often?"

          "Now and again. Think the rumor I had cash money might’ve had something to do with it... if it wasn't Conks. Or Pinhead's cops. Even the UN... they do black bag stuff, turquoise bag, maybe… but usually don't make a mess, so I'm told.  On the other hand, your ordinary street creep would’ve made off with Mexico or… uh...” he added, rotating the plastic bottle, “Oklahoma’s finest, here.  Salud!"  He extended the liquor.  Anne took it, but simply held it and looked back at him.

          "Unless they were trying to throw you off their trail..." she suggested.  “This,” she frowned, sipping at the lip of the bottle, “…this comes from Oklahoma City.”

          "Might be.  Or it was Mormons… they used to be behind everything, right?  Like in that western remake… uyou know… ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’?  The one that Hollywood liberals slapped together in case Romney got into the primaries to be nominated again, only Donald scared him and the others off and they had to offload it to video?  Take another hit," Andy recommended. "Unless the Catfish makes you piss in a bottle whenever the fancy takes him."

          "I work for Rayna, she doesn't care," Anne said. "Tillerman's alt-libertarian legions have to agree to random, so called voluntary marijuana testing… speaking of oxymorm… morons, even in the legal states… but they're all on methamphetamine and steroids anyway. Still don't feel right. I know... do you have any candles?"

          "Candles? Sure... power's always going off. What do you want candles for?" He opened the bottom drawer of the dresser, rooted around for a moment; finally removed a couple of old candles and a matchbox.

          "They're not politically correct anymore either, you know?" he warned. "Bad as meat and soap... tallow exploits dead animals and the wicks are toxic. Something in there... lead, mercury, pollutes the ecosystem... these are so fuckin’ old, I don’t even think they’re Chinese!"

          "It would be wrong to keep them," Anne agreed, "but wrong to throw them out... wasting resources... like with the ivory poachers… so let’s just burn them up now."

          "OK." Andy cleared a place on the top of the dresser, lit the two candles and turned off the light, causing the room to lose most of its sharp edges. "Better? Does this remind you of the way we were?" He repeated the last phrase, whistling this time.



          "Your spider? When it's sort of dark like this... do you think he'd come down and sit beside me?"

          "I have a better idea." Andy sat down beside her, putting his finger to her lips as the old bedsprings began creaking. "Shhh! Don't be frightened away." 












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