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Becker’s eyes – a Simple plan – spruce, mahogany, Iron & pine – what Nobody said – the Likes of them –

Becker’s eyes are closed, but his brows lift in surprise or delight perhaps, at something in a dream, a deep breath in through his nose and out through lips hatched about with stubble, pressed together to shape a word he doesn’t speak. The shuff of bedclothes, crisp linens striped with indigo. His eyes blink brownly open as his face arranges a consternated scowl, a grimace as he lifts his head, a wince as he props up on an elbow, looks down the length of himself softly pale in the buttery daylight, boxer briefs pink and black in the clutch of those widely grey-furred fingers crumpling, tugging, grizzled scalp a-bob, blue eyes lifted up to meet his, as from between those lips slips out his cock, stiff enough now to sway over swell of belly, and long grey mustaches trailing, weighted to either side with pewter beads that drag up his skin as Pyrocles smiles and says, “Good morning, beloved.”

“Oh,” says Becker, falling back to the pillows, but then, when Pyrocles takes him in his mouth again, “no, wait,” lifting a weak hand, thumb to a cheek, to the corner of lips that swerve to kiss, “not yet,” says Becker. Rolling away, reaching over, as Pyrocles lays him out to one side on those blue-striped sheets, the leanly naked length of him a-gleam in the suffusing light. Past him a sweeping wall of glass, and out across the river the city edged and cornered shadows hazed by steaming cloud, shreds and lines and clots of trees gone grey and yellow and blue in all the pale and chilly morning light stretched parlous thin through all that air from the one sharp far-off mountain. Becker pokes to life a glassy black phone upright in a charging stand, a snapshot appears of the two of them side by side in a red leather booth, 07:07, say the numerals over the photograph, and Fri, April 20. Sets it back by the books stacked there, the titles along the spines that say Fifty Early Childhood Strategies for Working and Communicating with Diverse Families and Parents to Partners: Building a Family-Centered Early Childhood Program and Remote-Controlled Childhood? Combating the Hazards of Media Culture. “We’ve got time,” says Becker, plucking up a purple squirt bottle from beside the phone. “Plenty and to spare. Tell me something.”

“You’d have me speak?” says Pyrocles, taking the bottle Becker hands him.

“Tell me something,” says Becker, “about, about Vergina.”

“Where the Argead rule,” says Pyrocles, beaming.

Steaming mug of coffee set before him on the counter, there by the white-framed platter of his phone. He pushes back his stark white cuff to check his watch, and the hands of every dial on the face of it tremble, twitch, spin wildly about. He lifts and levels his wrist above the counter and two dials, three, snap to a stop, hands pointed away across the U-shaped counter, past the griddle there in the midst of it, the man in a grubby white shirt and the ring and scrape of his spatulas, past the woman in a fuzzled blue cardigan, “Denver omelet,” she says, setting a plate before the man there on the other side of the counter, taking up his fork, past all that to the door swinging open in its dull red frame, the jingle of the bell, the big man stepping through, dark grey warm-up jacket over a plain black T-shirt, bush of a beard the color of mahogany, sunglasses small and round and purpled green.

Kerr lowers his wrist as Mr. Keightlinger heads down the counter, past empty stools, the windows bright with neon signs against the morning, Open, they say, Fuller’s Coffee Shop, “Sit anywhere you like,” calls the woman in the blue cardigan. Kerr tucks his phone away in the pocket of his light fleece jacket as Mr. Keightlinger rounds the corner toward him, stops at the stool beside him, one big hand leaned against the counter, and Kerr looking up opens his mouth, “Get you anything?” says the woman in the blue cardigan, bustling over.

Those green sunglasses turn away from him to her. “Ice water,” says Mr. Keightlinger, and sits himself on the stool.

“You’re late,” says Kerr. “You look like hell.”

“I failed,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“You, what, you couldn’t get it? Or does he not have it, anymore.”

“He still has the boon,” says Mr. Keightlinger. “The boon is empty.”

“He, it, so. Oh.” Kerr lifts his mug. “He’s out. Oh that is infinitely worse.”

“He’s still somewhere in that house. We would know otherwise.”

“So he’s, he’s trapped?” says Kerr. “He’s still contained? Okay,” and he downs a slug of coffee, leans forward, both elbows on the counter, “okay. The math hasn’t changed, then. He’s still out of play.”

“I’m going back tonight.”

“What? No, no, tonight, tonight is the night. That trigger has been pulled.” Kerr leans back as the woman in the blue cardigan sets a glass of water before Mr. Keightlinger. “It’s like I said from the jump,” says Kerr, quiet and close. “We take this, this thing out, first, nobody has it to play with. Not your friend, not your former employers, nobody fæside, not us, but, I mean, I didn’t have any plans for it. You know? So we take it out, tonight, and tomorrow we go to that house, we find your friend, we take care of him then. Or maybe the day after. Take some time off, in between. Maybe a nap?”

“What if your plan doesn’t work,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“Work?” Kerr snorts. “Tell me, you know anything about nuclear bombs?” A muffled buzz from from his jacket pocket, and he pulls out his phone, “Mechanically speaking, they’re terribly simple.” Glancing at the screen. “Not a lot of moving parts to not work.” Slipping the phone away again. “You just, you take your two pieces of uranium or beryllium or whatever, and you just,” pressing his hands together, a slow clap, or a prayer, “get out of the way. Let it happen. Boom.”

Those purple lenses shift their gaze from the counter to the glass of ice and water. “We must be certain,” says Mr. Keightlinger. “If it can’t be tonight, it will have to be this morning. Right now.” Greening as they turn to look at Kerr. “You owe me.”

“I owe you squat,” says Kerr. “Look, I’m sorry, I said I was sorry, but you were trying to kill me. I think my response was entirely proportionate.”

“You wouldn’t have died.”

“Yeah, well,” Kerr gets up off his stool, “maybe next time your whatever-the-fucks start stuffing photos down somebody’s throat, you take a moment to make sure everyone’s clear it’s all less-than-lethal.” Pausing there, by Mr. Keightlinger’s hunched bulk. “I’m sorry,” says Kerr, again. “Look. I got shit to do, you got shit to do, this, this was an idea, but it’s not gonna,” hands cycling uselessly, spreading in a shrug. His phone’s buzzing again, but he’s pulling out his wallet, laying a couple of bills on the counter by Mr. Keightlinger’s elbow. “Buy yourself some breakfast,” he says. “If you come to your senses, you know how to find me.”

The woman in the blue cardigan steps over as Kerr yanks open the red-framed door. “Something to eat?” she says, over the jingle of the bell.

Mr. Keightlinger looks from the bills on the counter up to her, the light sliding over those sunglasses. “Bacon,” he says.

“Desks, chairs,” the voice comes from just outside the door there, “credenzas, shelves, barrister bookcases,” just visible over all the tarp-mounded, tightly packed shapes of various heights, mostly tall, at least an arm-span in length, but only a foot or two wide at most. “Filing cabinets. A flat file, there, is a monstrous inconvenience, a useless block of wood to be removed before you renovate, repurpose, demolish,” the rasp of a key in a lock, “but a month or two on a ship to here, some spit and polish,” sharp squeak of a knob, scrape of the door, “that block of wood is just the thing an architect’s wanted for the front room of their live-slash-workspace townhouse.” The shorter man in the doorway there tucks a key away in the pocket of his marbled silk vest.

“Flat files?” says the taller man, yellow beard pale in the shadows, yellow hair tied in a knot.

“These aren’t flat files.” Bruno, the Shrieve, squeezes his way into a narrow aisle between tarps, careful of his vest. “I don’t get it,” says the Harper, Chillicoathe, turned sideways to press in after. “You clean ’em up, but you can’t possibly be making enough to cover the cost of getting ’em here. Unless there’s a lot of really stupid architects? I mean,” as Bruno looks back, “here or there, a thing’s worth what it’s worth. Right?”

“Spoken as a brigand, not a businessman.” Bruno lays a hand up on a tarp-draped corner. “The worth of a thing’s not fixed within, to be measured with scales and calipers. It’s found in relationships, between those that have the thing, and those that want it. Granted,” leaning close as his voice takes a conspiratorial turn, “there are such things that by their nature implacably alter the tenor of those relationships – think, perhaps, of a traitor: how much he’s worth to his liege, and how much to his master. Help me with this.” He’s seized the tarp, and Chilli, frowning, reaches up for the other side. Together they haul it heavy down to the floor in a whirl of dust.

The wooden cabinet shining still, panels along the front of it white enamel, filigreed with intricate wooden lacework, and a pitted brass socket there by Chilli’s shoulder, bare threads where a fitting’s been stripped away, its match by Bruno, still with a brass-shaded lamp that might’ve cast light on the long and gleaming lid that Chilli, with a look to Bruno, reverently lifts. The keys beneath, eighty-eight of them, yellowed ivory, and dull black. “Pianos,” says Chilli, looking up, at the oblongs crowding the room. “They’re all pianos.”

“Uprights, spinnets, pianos droits;” says Bruno, “I began by buying up office furniture, but in every city and many of the sizable towns, rows of old terrace houses were being demolished to make way for modern council estates. And in the front parlor of these terrace houses, gathering dust since the days before television, before the wireless, before electricity,” he reaches across the front of the piano, sliding the central panel to one side. The man within snorts himself startled awake, white-haired head laid back against the rows of hammers poised against tautly angled strings. “Spruce!” he blurts, and coughs, patting the pockets of his crisp white shirt, arms tucked close within the cabinet’s confines. “Spruce,” he says again, “from the forests about Old Tjikko, long may he reign,” and fits a monocle to his eye, “chilled in the hold of an old steamer down through the Baltic and the cold North Sea. Mahogany from Brazil, that baked in breathless heat across the Atlantic, between the Pillars of Hercules and up the Balearic to Marseille. Iron,” his smile is beatific, “scraped from Erzberg’s slopes, spun to wire in Vienna and brought by rail across Venetia and Sardinia. Sugar pine from the very wilds of Northwest America about us now,” reaching out of the cabinet to gently stroke the keys below, “stacked for a harrowing, storm-wracked voyage all the way around the Horn, only to end up a century later right back where it began. The ebony veneer from too many different pieces of wood, some of them once keys from other instruments, but not an ounce of ivory to be found: the natural keys are topped with porcelain, which has left them with the occasional chip and crack, though not a piece is missing.”

Chilli’s stepped back, pressed against the draped piano behind him. Bruno’s tugging something from another pocket of his vest, a tiny glassine envelope. “I’ve kept in tune as best I can,” says the man within the piano, with a gesture to the strings arrayed behind him. “Shall I play you something? In a rag-time, perhaps?” Bruno steps close, holds up a fingertip glimmering gold, which the man in the piano seizes and brings it to his lips for a kiss, and a slow and savoring lick. “They don’t need much,” says Bruno, as he plucks that monocle from limpening fingers, slips it back into a pocket of the man’s white shirt. “Mostly, now, they sleep.” He gently slides the panel shut, as the man within lies back against felted hammers. “So tell me, Harper: how much would you say I paid for one of these, when I first began to bring them over?”

“I don’t,” says Chilli, looking at that panel, looking about, all the other pianos crowding them. The tarp, on the floor. “All that work?” he says. “Two hundred, three hundred dollars. Three hundred.”

Bruno shakes his head. “You haven’t listened,” he says. “A house, a hundred houses, to be torn down? Dozens of blocks of wood to be removed? Ten pounds, they paid to me. To haul them each away. Thirty dollars, at the time.” Kneeling then, he takes up the tarp in his hands. “I’ve since sold a number of them,” he says, “for a great deal more than that. If you would?” Chilli stoops, takes up the other end of the tarp. “But now it’s all plastic and computer chips,” says Bruno, as they lift the tarp up and over, settle it, smoothing, patting it down. “Pianos genoux,” he says, with one last tug.

On the table between them a thick roll of bills stood upright, a truncated gnomon. “Go on,” says the man sat beneath the flag pinned to the back wall, “take it,” but the silhouette in the doorway shakes a head, once, and doesn’t unfold his arms. “You were told,” he says, voice full of gravel. “No one was to be cut. No one was to be destroyed.” Sunlight leaks through the door behind to strike gleams from the beads at the ends of his mustaches. “What you did was, unacceptable.”

“Well we ain’t accepting it!” The man at the table slaps it once, there by the roll of bills. “Go on, take it back. It’s all there.”

“The cash is not at issue.”

“The cash is a pledge. We take this very seriously. The guy responsible? Moody?” Sitting back, lifting his hands, “We cut him loose.” Those hands settling back on the dark veneer of the table, to either side of the bills. “What he did, he did in the heat of the moment, but that’s no excuse. Something goes that wrong, we do whatever it takes to make it right.” Sliding the bills away across the table. “That’s what you can expect from this relationship.”

“That relationship no longer obtains.” The silhouette turns for the door but the man at the table springs up, reaching out, “Wait!” he cries, “wait,” hand stopped short of the shoulder of that shadowy blue suit coat. “It’s a,” he says, drawing back, “to speak frankly, it’s a cash flow issue. The retainer, we, we need the retainer. For the next few months, to, it’s, it’s a,” looking down at that roll of bills, “cash flow,” he says.

“Which has no bearing on his excellency’s decision.” Pyrocles opens the door, and steps out onto a porched bit of yellowing deck, then across a gangplank onto the grey boards of the wharf, and the forest of bare masts all about.

“Felt good, didn’t it?” says the man falling into step behind him, light fleece jacket over a gold striped shirt, blue tie loose about his stark white collar. “Telling him off like that.”

Pyrocles looks back over his shoulder, leaps away, turning in a crouch, “Melanchlœnidon!” he roars, wheeling a greatsword around and down as Kerr with a yelp skips back, “Whoa! Whoa!” Peering out from behind his leather satchel held between himself and the tip of that long blade held before his eyes. “I ain’t nobody, man,” and he gingerly pushes the blade aside with the edge of a hand. “Nobody at all. And ain’t nobody gonna tell nobody nothing, okay? You don’t have to worry about nobody one bit,” and Pyrocles straightens, lowers his arms, “I mean,” says Kerr, “it was always you, y’know? Never a contest.” He’s looking from the glare in Pyrocles’ eye to his empty hands to his feet and back again. “I wasn’t into him, not like that, not for that.” A scrap of laughter. “You’re the one to make him happy, and that’s,” looking away, back toward the houseboat, a shake of his head, “I know what you’ve had to do, to make him so? Make sure he takes his medicine, every night? So it has to feel good. Shutting them down like that.” Pyrocles’ grimace is softening, under those mustaches. “So now you don’t have to tell him about it all. And I know you were fretting over that.” Kerr steps close, and a hand on the shoulder straining that blue coat. “You should treat yourselves. Take him out tonight. Remind him why you’re doing all this. Take him back, to where it all began.”

“The rabbits’ church?” says Pyrocles then, with a frown.

“No,” says Kerr, “no, that was the meet-cute. I’m talking first date. I’m talking Goodfellow’s. Take him to Goodfellow’s,” and Kerr steps back, “I mean, nobody tells you what to do. Am I right?”

Pyrocles nods, slowly.

Couple of chiming steelpans and a rubbery bumble of bass, a saxophone lilting from the clock radio on the counter, he’s looking from the shoe in his left hand, a lop-tongued work boot, toe of it scuffed and sharply creased, to the one in his right, a grubby sneaker, laces striped with old black stains from the eyelets, canvas frayed away from cracks in the rubber sole. A deep breath, and he sets them both on the counter, looks up to the old man stood across from it, who shakes his bare head darkly bald above a circle of crisp white curls. “Nope,” he says.

“Man, what the,” says Christian, slumping, a sigh, he folds his arms, draped in a bulky green pullover two sizes two large. “I don’t get it.”

“You will,” says Gordon, picking up the boot, chucking it over the counter to thump to the mound of shoes on the worktable back there. “Don’t force it. Take a minute. Look at the tenny,” and rolling his eyes, shaking his head, Christian glares at the shoe left on the counter. “Close your eyes,” says Gordon. “When I say boo, reach back, let your hand grab the first shoe it wants. Close ’em boy. Go on,” but Christian swells up at that, “Goddammit,” he snarls, “stop calling me that!”

“And I told you,” says Gordon, “take those words out your mouth. They aren’t for the likes of us.”

“I ain’t no damn boy,” says Christian, drawn back. “Sure as shit ain’t yours.”

“Who else gonna take you in hand? Show you what’s what?” Bam, the heel of his hand on the counter, the sneaker jumps, “Go on, get up, walk out of here. Get yourself to your mother’s house, wherever that is. Catch a bus to St. Johns or Gresham, go on. Walk up to her door. Ring the bell. She won’t know you from Adam, you hear me? Her boy, her boy’s in the ground, or worse, and you? You some punk, hustling loose change, sell her some cigarettes, maybe some magazine subscriptions, cut her grass, she got any. You fell out of the world, boy. You ain’t going back. So instead of bulling your way through like you know what’s what, maybe sit down, shut up, listen when you’re told. Now.” Gordon steps back, folds his arms. Nods at the sneaker. “Match that shoe.”

Christian drags a breath in through his nose, then turns abruptly, grabs something from the pile back there, spins back to slap it down by the sneaker, a garish running shoe, stripes and cheetah spots in yellow and vermillion. He eyes them both before lifting his hand away, shaking his head, “Shit,” he says.

“Now, wouldn’t be too bad,” says Gordon, “if they wasn’t both for the right foot.” Picks up the grubby sneaker, heads around the counter, drops it on that pile. “It’s not there’s only the one shoe in the world that does the trick. It’s like people that way. Most any one of ’em can make do with just about any other, with a little effort, a little,” trailing off, he looks away, looks up. “Forget that. Nothing like people at all.” Back around the counter, that old work boot in his hand. “Still. Some pairs definitely won’t never work, but some,” setting the boot down on the counter, by the running shoe, “most definitely do.”

Christian says, “I don’t get it.”

“You will,” says Gordon, sweeping the pair of them off the counter, heading back toward the shelves partitioned into cubbies, many already filled with similarly mismatched pairs. “No, I mean,” Christian’s saying, “why do you even bother? I mean, they come in, they have a shoe. You find the other shoe, now they have both. So why even bother with, that, with the matching?”

“Sometimes,” says Gordon, and a grunt as he squats to reach a slot close to the floor, “it’s as important, what’s left behind,” tucking the pair away, “as what goes on ahead.”

The music’s changed, thump of drums, hesitantly simple piano. “So that high-heeled thing,” Christian says, “with the other sandal, that’s on me, too? Something I left behind?” A shrug from Gordon, still on his knees. “You tossed it back!” says Christian, looking back at that enormous pile. “I gotta go find it again?”

“Went out the door already,” says Gordon. “Couple-few days back. Older white woman, nice coat. Left that tatty old golf shoe, which ain’t never walking out of here.”

“So I’m supposed to go find her?” says Christian, throwing up his hands. “How does this work? What the hell am I supposed to do?”

“I told you,” says Gordon, still on his knees. “Don’t talk like that.”

“Don’t swear? Or what? My tongue turns to stone? My hair catches fire?”

“Cuss all you want, boy, but hell? Damnation? Salvation? That don’t concern the likes of us. So put any notion of supposed out of your head, except how you’re supposed to learn to match up shoes. Now go on, pick another one, let’s see,” but a bell out there jingles, Christian’s looking away, toward the door at the front of the shop. “All right,” says Gordon, bracing a hand to push himself up, “see to whoever that is,” catching the worktable with his other hand, shifting his balance, but Christian’s shaking his head, and Gordon lifts himself to see Jo there, in her leather coat the color of butter.

“I don’t think she brought a shoe,” says Christian.

“Gordon,” says Jo.

“Grace,” he says. Turning toward the beaded curtain back there, “I’ll go put a kettle on,” but “Actually,” says Christian, “we could just, go out back,” and then, to Jo, “You got any smokes on you?”

Gordon folds his arms, frowning. Jo’s looking away with a sigh.

Table of Contents

Fifty Early Childhood Strategies for Working and Communicating with Diverse Families, written by Janet Gonzalez-Mena, ©2007. Parents to Partners: Building a Family-Centered Early Childhood Program, written by Janis Keyser, ©2006. Remote-Controlled Childhood? Combating the Hazards of Media Culture, written by Diane E. Levin and Carol Copple, ©1998. Prickly Pear,” played by Portico Quartet, copyright holder unknown. Pound for Pound,” written by Reid Anderson, copyright holder unknown.

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