A four-digit code, entered on a keypad, “Hey, Becker?” says the woman leaning in the doorway. “You clocked in?”
“Just about,” he says, pressing enter. Arnold Becker, says the screen, the computer a rounded blob all smoked plastic and bondi blue. 11:03 AM 03/21.
“Help Dorena get the lunch out,” says the woman in the doorway, “but then you and Tish are on Trans this afternoon.” Orange cats-eye glasses hang from a strand of beads about her neck.
“I thought,” he says. It’s a small room, not much more than a closet, and the wall behind him looming metal shelves, stuffed with jugs of soap and bundles of paper napkins and tubs of powdered milk. “I was on Wobblies this week. With Rose.”
“Sam’s out early today,” says the woman with the glasses, “and no way can Tish handle them by herself.”
“Okay,” says Becker, pulling on a dark blue apron, the front of it printed with a stylized Y in purple and white. Child Development Center, it says.
“Okay,” Becker’s saying, “okay,” as children swarm about, red and white stripes and blue and green stripes, blue and purple, wild bright blue shirts and solid reds and purples from royal to lavender, flower prints and appliqués and comic book prints and calicos and robots in orange and red, all of them hastening to sit in low little plastic chairs at low wide round tables that come up to about Becker’s knee. He’s holding up a plastic tray loaded with plates, each with an identical scoop of spaghetti in tomato sauce and a precise wedge of apple, white-fleshed, red-peeled. “Who’s ready for worms?” he says, and a lusty chorus of “No!” and “Eww!” erupts. “Who ordered the toad? Anybody?” Beaming as he leans over, setting a plate before each child.
Leaning back against a credenza, paper towels ready in either hand, “Spaghetti,” he mutters. “Why’d it have to be spaghetti.”
“You know the menu,” says the older woman beside him, in a similar dark blue apron, her short black hair caught up in hundreds of tiny braids. “Wednesday is spaghetti day.”
“Cobb,” says Becker, starting forward, towel up, “not in Brooklyn’s hair, not in Brooklyn’s hair – “
He’s wiping a boy’s hands, “If you need help with your juice,” he’s saying, “use your words,” when somewhere up behind him someone’s saying, “our Transitional group, between Toddler and Pre-K,” and someone else says, “Oh, it’s very impressive, a very impressive facility,” and Becker stiffens. “And the staff, too,” says that voice, deep, about to laugh at itself. “Impressive. Little Kayden’s going to love it here.”
Becker’s standing, turning, as there on the other side of the credenza the woman with the orange cats-eye glasses is saying, “I’m sorry, I thought it was, Hayden?” to the tall man, his back to Becker, a beige fleece pullover, a dress shirt under it, slate and gold stripes on white, and white cuffs. “Hayden, yes, of course,” he’s saying. An irritated shake of his head, dark hair carefully swept back. Looking down at the watch about his wrist, heavy and gold.
“Well,” says the woman with the glasses. “Why don’t we head back to the office and take a look at the schedule.”
Becker watches them go, down the corridor between credenzas and cabinets, bedecked with crayoned and finger-painted drawings and construction paper gee-gaws. Someone’s tugging on his apron, a girl in a blue tunic dress, a yellow lightning bolt zigging the front of it. “Becker,” she’s saying. “Becker. Teacher Tisha says. It’s time a do the cots.”
“Okay,” says Becker.
It’s dim now, mostly quiet, the muttered fluting of lullabies here and there from discreet speakers. Low plastic cots laid out on the floor and on each tiny forms under blankets, quietly restless, deathly still, there’s Becker, sitting between two of the cots there by the window, and outside pedestrians hastening past on the sidewalks, and traffic taking its turns through the intersection. He looks to his right, his hand cupping the the pale-haired head of a girl, eyes closed, jaw slack, a tiger clamped under one arm, and he pulls away, gently. She doesn’t stir. To his left, his hand clutched by a small boy, large dark eyes looking up through floppy bangs. Becker turns his hand in the boy’s hands, tugging it lightly, cocking an eyebrow, and after a moment the boy nods, gravely, lets go, burying his face in his light blue blanket. Becker slowly pushes himself to his feet.
“Hey,” he says, quietly, to Tish, sitting at one of those low round tables, papers spread out before her. “I need to take a minute.” Distracted, she nods.
Past sleeping toddlers, the corner chock-a-block with cribs, the cramped office, where the woman with the orange cats-eye glasses about her neck peers through a black-rimmed, thick-lensed pair at a computer screen, out through the cramped foyer lined with photos of children, children with their parents, with each other, portraits, holding basketballs or baseball bats, toys, with dogs, with a horse, with a clown. Out the high wood-paneled door into a high wood-paneled lobby, lunch counter to the left, and a great glass wall looking out on the sidewalk, and there, at a table on the other side of the revolving door, that beige fleece pullover, the heavy gold watch, reading a plastic-wrapped hardbound book. Adventures in Unhistory, says the cover. He closes it, sets it on the table as Becker pulls out a chair across from him. “Took you long enough,” says David Kerr.
“Why are you here,” says Becker.
“Wanna offer you a job,” says Kerr, and “I have a job,” says Becker, as Kerr’s saying “It’s a perfect match. In fact, you’ve done it before. In fact, you walked out on this very job last year with five minutes’ notice, but don’t worry. I know the boss. I’ll put in a good word.”
“I have a job,” says Becker.
“You change diapers,” says Kerr.
“Most meaningful work I’ve ever done.”
“Oh, I get it, I do.” Kerr leans back, arms folded. “Hubby earns the daily bread, so you can afford to go back to school, find yourself, make a difference. How wonderful.” Leaning forward, as Becker blinks, “Doesn’t it even begin to bother you? That you don’t know why? You don’t know how?”
“How, how what,” says Becker.
“Tell me, does he stir a pinch in your juice every morning? Your coffee? No, wait – he’s a mechanical type, our Pyrocles. A tinker. I bet he’s measured out precise doses in proper little pills for you, hasn’t he. All lined up in the medicine cabinet, one a day. Am I right? Tell me I’m right.” Sitting back, a finger to his lips, all hatched about with stubble. “And you have no goddamn idea what it’s doing to you. Or what it is inside you, that it’s doing it to. Or what else it might be fucking up, along the way. Your liver? Kidneys? Your blood, your brain,” and “Shut up,” says Becker, as Kerr says, “your heart? Tell me. True love. What’s that worth – cirrhosis? Stroke?”
“What the fuck do you want,” says Becker, leaning over the table.
“What’s in you,” says Kerr. “What forgets. What doesn’t want to know. It’s still in there, just, held at bay, by those little,” he taps the table, “yellow,” tap, “pills.” Tap. “And I’m gonna need it, sooner than I’d thought. Which means, I need you.” A sigh. “I don’t like needing people. I have this weakness, where I want to make sure the people I need are safe? Comfortable, even. So I do stupid things,” and he picks up his book, tucking it away in a sleek leather bag, “like call in favors to set up cushy jobs with grotesquely swollen paychecks.”
“I’m not interested, David,” says Becker, as Kerr gets to his feet. “I know,” says Kerr. “I’m not an idiot. But. When you need me, and you will,” he smiles, “don’t worry about a phone call, or an email. Just,” and he’s turning, he’s walking away, “say my name,” he says, over his shoulder. “I’ll be there,” and Becker watches him push through the revolving door, out onto the sidewalk.
He sits up on that white-pillowed bed in the soft blue room, his beard, his hair now dry, spread out ruddy brown about his head, his shoulders, his chest, his back hatched with darker hair the curves of sagging muscle, thick round waist. Rubbing an eye with the heel of his hand. “Time’s it,” he says, a gravelly rumble.
“After two,” she says. Sitting tailor-fashion on the soft blue floor. “Go back to sleep.” Wearing loose black yoga pants, reading a tablet computer resting on the floor. “You need it.” Tattoos in black ink swarm over shoulders, her upper arms, down her back and over around her breasts, calligraphic vines and branches, leaves and flowers, birds and animals, magpie and owl, a fox, a crane, rabbit, maple and oak, pear blossoms, pine cones, katsura, elm.
“I’m not asleep,” he says.
She looks up, sets the tablet aside. Standing stepping up to kneeling on the bed, straddling him to kiss and kiss him again, taking his head in her hands as she sits on his white-pillowed lap and kisses him once more. “I didn’t,” he says, between them, “I’m not, I don’t,” and he kisses her, his hands on her waist, her sinewy ink-shadowed shoulder, and “I don’t,” she says, “either, I just,” and one more kiss. “I missed this.”
“You,” he says, arms about her.
“You,” she says, forehead against his.
On his belly arms spread wide and she’s laid herself over him, wrapped around him, fingering the hair on the back of his shoulder. “I left him on the bridge,” he says, and she doesn’t say anything in return, she waits, as he licks his lips, ducks his head, shoulders rising tense beneath her arm a breath, taken in, and then, “It turned out not to matter but I didn’t – know that, when I did. And he wasn’t supposed to be a friend, but he was, but at that moment. I turned around. I walked away. I left him. On the bridge.”
“Who, him,” she says.
“Charles,” he says, “Charley, Doctor Charley. Charlock.” Lifting his great shaggy head from the pillow. “All one. He played me. He played everybody, but still. I didn’t know that, when I walked away. He wasn’t even real, but,” and “Phil,” she’s saying, “Phil,” stroking his shoulder, he’s looking up, all the blue above, “I left him,” he says. “I walked away.”
“From what,” she says, and “Listen,” he snarls, turning to her, and “I am,” she says, arm still about his shoulder, “I just don’t get it.”
“That’s not listening,” he says, fist clenching white sheets. “That’s hearing.” His head hung low.
“Magic,” she says, after a moment. “I hate magic.” Lying down on the pillow, looking up at him. He turns away, eyes clamped shut, “It is,” he says, “what it is. I can’t change it around just so you can follow.”
“All right,” she says. “Okay.” Stroking his beard, the curl of his cheek. “Just,” she says. “Answer one question? Try?”
He falls over, on his side, head on his folded arm, catches her hand, presses it to his lips. “This room,” he says. “Ellen, this room. I wish I could never leave this room.”
“Phil,” she says, taking back her hand. “You said he died. Did you, did, what you did, was that what, got him killed?”
He falls away onto his back, looking up at the blue. She watches him, closely, until under his mustache his lips purse and part and he says, “No.”
“So,” she says, stretching her arm across his chest, “there’s that,” but he’s sitting up, sweeping back his hair, “I should,” he says. “I should go.”
“Phil,” she says, falling back to the pillow, as he climbs off the bed. “Phil,” she says again, but he rounds on her, the hairy bulk of him naked in all that blue, “I can’t!” he roars. “Stay!”
She sits up, not looking at him. “You can’t,” she says, “you can’t go, Phil,” and she swings her feet to the floor. “Not like that. You need some clothes.”
“I’ll think of something,” he says. “Ellen. Nothing you have will fit.”
“I have housemates,” she says, padding away across the soft blue floor. When she opens that angled door, he winces.
Grey clouds now a chilly ceiling, high above. He looks away from it, tugging the broad brim of that black leather hat down over his eyes. Striding across the mostly empty parking lot toward a simple arch at the far corner, a green sign that says Springwater Corridor hung over a narrow paved path. Railroad tracks to the left, and the fenced-in yard of a gravel plant to the right, towering tanks and pipes, virgules of conveyor belts, all of it silent and still. Him, in his ragged jacket, army surplus green, duffel swaying, passing under the arch. Another sign, low, white, says Stop! Please Use Caution – Heavy Truck Traffic.
Past the plant the fence to the right is swallowed in brown vines dotted over with swollen buds, purpled, tipped with impossibly potential green. Over beyond it the river, dull steel scraped by wavelets rippled, dark. To the left now a slope rising steeply above the railroad tracks, grey and brown with mud, brushed with green. Shadows ahead, beneath a high bridge, and traffic hissing and booming over it, the concrete pillars of it tattooed with grubby rainbows of graffiti, signatures, sigils, cartoons. He lifts his hat, a salute, and pushes on.
Calved from the bridge an offramp on spindly pillars curls through the air above to merge with a freeway along the top of that steep slope. He’s eyeing it, as he comes out from under the bridge, every now and then looking down to the railroad track, and the fence along it. The river, ignored, runs sluggish, high. Down a ways something’s fastened to the fence, about the brightening grass, and he fixes on it: a green plastic cat bowl, set in a gap cut in the cyclone fencing, so it might be reached from either side, a clear plastic reservoir filled with kibble wired to the post above it. He stops there, nudging it with a worn black boot, looking up and down the paved trail. Back that way under the bridge a cluster of cyclists, headed his way. He tosses the duffel up and over the fence, then grabbing the fencepost wire ringing under his boots up it and over it after the bag. Looking up and down the railroad track he darts across it, into the brush, and up and up the muddy slope.
Halfway along there’s a path, running along a brow of earth, treacherous under his boots, high above the railroad and the bicycles passing below. Scrubby trees, bare branches touched with green, lean out over the drop. He braces himself against one, a balustrade to clamber the last steep hillock of path, onto the narrow top of the slope, there between the trees and the dark galleries under the freeway – regular bays between concrete walls that uphold the deck, floored with clayey dirt that’s studded with gravel, rising abruptly at the back to meet the thrumming, rumbling road above. The first gallery’s empty, and a great eye painted on one concrete wall, the iris of it elaborately paned, red paint squiggled over the pupil. A low flat rock’s been set at the edge of the overgrown path, and on it pebbles mark out a shape, a crude face, two eyes, the curve of a smile. He laughs, a quiet snort, and picks up one of the pebble-eyes, rough and black in his fingers. He whips it away, zip and slither, lost in the grass. Looks about. The river, so far below.
The next gallery, an old green tent, splashed with mud since dried. Stuffed black garbage bags arrayed before it. He passes by without a second look. Three figures in the next, a-sprawl on blue plastic tarps laid over the hard-packed earth, and here he pauses, tips back his hat. One of them sits up, a man in a long blue-black down coat, scratching his nose above a ragged beard.
“Winks,” says the man in the black hat. “Looking for Winks.”
The man in the down coat looks over at the figure beside him, a featureless bundle of old blankets, then waves a hand, go on, down that way, away, as he lays himself back down.
Murmurs still themselves in the next gallery, three, four kids in black denim and leathers tinged brown and red, hair shaved and shaped in drooping spikes, tufted braids, grimy hanks, bottles in hands. Past them the raw earth under the highway’s been tumbled, piled, a yawning mouth scratched at the base of the concrete piling. The man in the black hat steps off the path, heads up toward it. The kids watch. He looks back, a hand braced on the lip of the tunnel, “Winks?” he says.
No one speaks. Smoke unspools from the joint one of them’s holding. He settles the black hat more firmly on his head and ducks into the darkness.
Low, cramped, the floor uneven. He bumps the wall and loose dirt patters his shoulders, plops the brim of his hat. Down a ways a lick of light. “Winks?” he calls.
“Who’s that,” a gruff voice, muffled.
“It’s me,” he says, pushing on down the tunnel. “I’m back.”
“Who’s you,” that voice, light leaps, shadows jerk and lurch, “that’s back.” Light flares, a battery lantern held up, a beardless face, filthy, a squint over rounded cheeks. The lantern dips, the face draws back, up, “Paladin,” says Winks.
“They said you was up here,” says Moody, doffing his hat. His smile quite sharp.
“I kept her safe,” says Winks, backing away.
“Lucinda?” says Moody. “Well. Time I took her back.”
The lantern ducks, is lost in sudden darkness. A glimmer, there, off to the right. Moody stoops off toward it, a turning that opens into a low room, one wall of it pitted concrete, the lantern set on a tummock. Winks sprawls in the light of it over the uneven floor, a bundle of sweatshirt over sweater over coveralls, sodden with mud, rummaging through bags and sacks, plastic crates, one sagging cardboard box, all full of clothing, coats and blankets, empty cans, bottles, bundles of newspaper, “I thought,” says Winks, tossing a fluttering magazine, “you got the chair?”
“They don’t do that anymore,” says Moody. “It was only ten years.”
“Ten years?” says Winks, astonished, rolling over, sitting up. “Has it been so long?”
After a moment, Moody says, “Yeah.” And then, “You haven’t changed a bit.”
“Told you I kept her safe,” says Winks, handing over a slender package wrapped in grubby cloth. Moody takes it, unwinds it, tugs from it glinting a silver handle, wrapped in wire, snug in a black leather sheath. “Lucinda,” he says, slipping free an inch or so of the blade. Leaning down to sniff it.
“I am so glad you’re back, Paladin,” says Winks.
“The Sikes-Fairbourne,” says Moody, drawing the rest of the knife free, a tapered poignard. “Only fourteen ever made. MI6 gave ’em out to top operatives. I got one when I was over there, with Echo Force? That’s like, Delta, only even more top secret. Need to know.”
“Yeah,” says Winks. “Kids, these days.”
Squatting, leaning back against the muddy wall, blade in one hand, sheath in the other, “Thank you, Winks. For looking after my Lucinda.” His eyes quite serious now, and his mouth, under the beak of his nose. “But I’m afraid I’ve got another favor to ask.”
“What’s that,” says Winks.
The first cry’s thready, muffled, and the kids look up, out there under the highway. One of them hands the joint to the next in the circle but then a loud, a frantic scream claws up out of the hole in the mud, cut off in a gurgle, and almost as one they stand, they back away, they turn, flitting off along the top of the slope, some this way, some that. A minute passes, or three, and a scrabble, a hand, Moody pulling his muddy, dusty self out of that hole, straightening in the shadows, looking up at the concrete above. His mouth, his chin, his throat slicked dark with blood. The knife in his hand stained red with it. He wipes the blade on his thigh and slips it back into its sheath, drops it into his duffle. Sets off, picking his careful way downhill.
Adventures in Unhistory, written by Avram Davidson, ©1993 Owlswick Press.