Fiction

Tracers

By Bennie Rosa

Frank Stanley sat comfortably in his high-back wicker chair on the patio of his condo overlooking the Hackensack River. He could hear the Steins next door arguing with their teenage son. The wind was picking up and agitating the trees along the river. All he wanted was some peace and quiet because he’d just finished watching his Devils lose in OT, again.

He heard the slamming door of their son leaving as Sol and Annie yelled for him to return and to study so he could get a good job some day. He left. Frank saw Billie Stein join his friends in the parking lot. Two gunshots. Two kids down. Sol and Annie yelling. Billie was one of the kids down. The cops came and told the Steins they were sorry for their loss and asked Frank what he saw. He said he didn’t see anything but heard some stuff. It was too late anyway.

Getting a good job some day sounded about right. And for Frank he got out of Brownsville because he got a good job one day. He learned coding better than most and left behind the poverty of his parents. They didn’t last long anyway. After Billie he wondered how long he would last.

He figured he could have taught Billie to learn if he’d been his teacher. Of course he never told that to Sol and Annie because they were assholes. Too bad for Billie.

#

Even Senior Programmers search for nothing in particular.  The morning after Billie wasn’t much so Frank toasted his last stale bagel and scraped off the last bits of mold that didn’t die in the toaster. Finding himself on Google had nothing to do with finding himself because he knew where he was anyway. The first loud crunch of Bagel brought him to himself, ‘Frank Stanley’, the 23rd Frank Stanley on a list of 5427 other Frank Stanleys. Nothing there about wanting to be a teacher or despising his job and his jerk boss. OK, it did pay him a lot of money, but, he spent most of it as fast as he got it on stuff he didn’t want.

The company he worked for, Tracers, Inc., told all its subscribers that they would get paid significantly if they allowed the company to sell their data. Transparency Through Sharing. You could opt out of that part if you wanted. Supposedly you were able to see where your data went, hence the name ‘Tracers’, like those bullets. Frank never bought it because he wrote the programs. It kind of never mattered, until now. He couldn’t prove it anyway, until the day after Billie.

In his Google profile, he found data that he’d secretly embedded a few years earlier, just in case. It was data that he made up once, maybe just for this. And there it was. “Frank Stanley, born 1978, grew up in Brooklyn, NY, Parents, Heidi and Frank Moskowitz…” whoever they were.

Knowing full well that it would be his last day at Tracers, he took the opportunity to make it a good one. He’d been ready to pivot for a while so he entered Peter Browning’s office carrying the printout of his profile and slapped it on his boss’ desk.

“What’s this?”

“It’s me, Pete.”

“So?”

“So, Transparency Through Sharing. I opted out. Remember?”

Browning was pissed. “Look asshole. This business isn’t for pussies like you so don’t come in here telling me how to run my business. The key word there is ‘my’, ‘my’ business, not ‘yours’.”

“It couldn’t possibly be mine because I could never own a piece of shit like this.”

“The stockholders know it’s mine,” said Browning leaning over his desk at Frank as far as he could. “We make them money, we bury the competition and it doesn’t matter what you or anyone else thinks. So fuck you Frank. Get the fuck out. You’re through.”

Security met Frank at his desk and watched every move he made. He knew them before as Charlie and Mike. They made believe they didn’t know him now. All of the other programmers and marketers watched as he was escorted out. “Watch your backs people. There’s a man in there with a big knife,” said Frank as he pointed with his thumb at Browning’s office. The two security guys nudged him through the glass doors and walked him to his car.

So, this was what freedom felt like. It felt good enough to clear his mind.

#

The subway ad read, “Don’t let your retirement stop you from enjoying your life.” It showed an old guy and maybe his granddaughter walking on a beach. Frank was alone and rocking back and forth as the train picked up more speed than he thought it should. He closed his eyes and held on tight to his backpack.

When you have them, most dreams feel good. Frank’s dream didn’t. The old man in the ad was now walking towards him but he kept looking over his shoulder at the young girl. Nothing was coming out of her mouth but Frank could tell she was screaming. She careened at them in time to the rocking train. Then her screams came alive.

The screeching train stopped so hard it almost knocked Frank over in his seat. He had arrived at the Saratoga Avenue Station. The pneumatic doors of the train flew apart as the ex-programmer realized that the bad dream he just had was nothing more than that. But, just in case, he gave one last look into the train from the elevated station platform. Empty. He watched the train recede down the tracks. It reminded him of Billie.

The old neighborhood was still there. He knew it would be. He could see it all from the top of the subway station stairs. Neighborhoods don’t change that fast. Flying horses don’t fly away, especially when they’re stuck on signs above abandoned gas stations. He could swear it was the same Reggaeton song still booming out of Camacho’s Latin Music Store that he heard the day he left. But, as loud as it was, it was no match for the sirens that no one heard any more.

It was time. Frank Stanley walked slowly down the stairs of the station. His backpack was now where it should have been in the first place, on his back. He was where he was supposed to be, home, wherever the hell that is. The smell of frying plantain chips from the Super 3 Bodega filled the air but lost the battle to the stench of rotting garbage and backed up sewers. Yeah, he was home alright.

945 Dumont Ave., almost there. The large crack in the bullet-proof entry door window ran up and down but not exactly. A busybody woman in curlers was yelling out of a 4th Floor window at maybe her son to stop talking to the hoodlums and go to school already. Frank nodded in agreement and pushed the cracked door open with his shoulder. 

This had always been the place where you found yourself when you ran out of money, future, hope, options or any other bullshit like that. It didn’t take much to live there. He picked up his key from the landlord and walked up to the dump he would now call home. The sound of his footsteps kept bouncing off the filthy stone walls. It was way out of tune if it was supposed to be music to his ears. It wasn’t, and in case he wanted to know, he now knew that Micro Boy loved Christina, at least that’s what the wall words said. The rest were unimportant. Maybe all of it was unimportant.

Frank remembered Apartment 202 because his friend Alex used to live there with his mother. He heard that Alex moved back to Poland when his mother killed herself, maybe in there, maybe not. Well, no matter. It was his now. The door was hard to open because of the fresh coat of white enamel paint. He used his shoulder again. The paint stuck to him. Everything in there was covered with the stuff anyway, why not him.

Who’d they hire to paint this place, Jackson Pollack? Who else would have left those free form tracers of white enamel? He told himself that they looked good, maybe even artistic, those flecks, swirls, and loops.  Then Frank told himself to stop it, stop the bullshit right now because it would take him over, if he let it. He knew Pollack had died a long time ago and that this was his new life because it was what he wanted. So, stop it Frank, just stop it. He got himself back.

#

Frank’s big idea was that it’s not important how we learn. What was important was what we learn.  Marcia Kaplan didn’t believe that and told him so on his first day of teaching. She was the Principal of P.S. 242 which gave her the right to believe or not believe anything more than anyone else in the old school. She remembered Frank as a mediocre student and told him so in so many words. He was the bottom of the barrel because everyone knew that no one really wanted to teach these little criminals and she was probably getting what she deserved which was him. She told him she hoped he’d be a better teacher than he was a student. He looked at her like she’d fallen off an alien spaceship and he didn’t understand her language. Then he smiled at her. She fast-walked him up to his classroom where the students had already seated themselves.

She cracked the classroom door open enough to poke her head in to introduce Frank, their new Home Room teacher.

“Class, I want to introduce you to Mr. Stanley. He is your new Home Room teacher. Please make him feel welcome.”

She shoved him into the classroom before he had a chance to rethink. A loud fart came from the back of the classroom and many of the students laughed, a few didn’t.

“Yep, smells like Stanley,” said a female voice from the back.

Kaplan slammed the door shut behind him. 

All of the students had smart phones which didn’t necessarily make them smart. They held their phones like crucifixes because they thought their crosses had answers but they didn’t. What Frank knew was that they had their own answers so before he took his first group selfie by turning around he told them to wait.

“If you’re going to throw stuff at me when I turn around, wait a second so I can take my selfie first. Then…, well…”

He had no assignments for them and didn’t say a word. All he did was text and surf on his own phone. He alternated between sitting cross-legged on the old wooden desk and creaking the teachers chair with his legs up.  No reason to do anything else, yet. They texted each other, played video games and ignored Frank. Frank’s first day.

On Frank’s second day he easily found his way into their social media. Of course, they didn’t know it at the time. For a while, his meme was anonymous. Then they got it and they were OK with it. In fact, a few of them thought it was pretty funny and then a few more wanted to know how he did it. And then the learning began.

The first ones were the curious ones. Maria Casaus was one of them. She was bright, inquisitive, positive, and everyone’s friend. Gaining the trust of the students started with Maria who quietly spread the word that they needed to give Mr. Stanley a chance to prove himself. It worked. Even the die hards gave in but it took a full two months which put them behind on the school curriculum. He told them often that he would never betray their trust no matter what. He told them it was important. They sort of believed him.

Then he became their student. They taught him the Family Rules. Rule #1 – Every member of the family had to be available to all the others 24/7, not the fake 24/7, the real 24/7. He was there for each and every one whenever they needed him.

When he told them he was incorporating the school curriculum into their social media, they accepted, reluctantly. To everyone’s surprise, their test scores and subject matter knowledge soared. School Administration and colleagues took notice, albeit from the corners of their eyes, the universal home of the jealous.

#

As a general rule, most people try to find themselves, unless they happen to be snitches. Snitches don’t have to find themselves because that’s who they are. Dejuan Howard earned his living as a PE teacher but earned his favor by snitching. He was the self-appointed hall monitor that spent all his free time, including lunch breaks, roaming hallways and looking for opportunities. Marcia Kaplan didn’t need a security system for the school. She had Dejuan Howard.

If it wasn’t, the weather report for May 13 should have been ‘stifling with a fifty percent chance of death by asphyxiation’. The House Rule of no open windows for the safety of our students could not under any circumstance be broken. The classroom temperature was 98 degrees and rising. The students couldn’t breathe let alone think. So, Frank Stanley opened the windows and made a joke.

“In case any of you are planning on jumping out of these windows, please don’t. Just saying.”

The two-cough warning from Ersie Jefferson made it clear that the snitch was looking. The students ignored the snitch but knew what was coming. Frank saw him but didn’t care enough to stop the Social Studies lesson on the Declaration of Independence. In less than two minutes the solemn face of Principal Kaplan appeared at the door, curling her finger at Frank Stanley.

“And don’t forget students. At the same time that George Washington, the Father of our country, was declaring that all men were created equal, he was wearing dentures made from the teeth of his own slaves,” said the teacher.

“Can I see you for a second Mr. Stanley?”

“Oh, certainly, Ms. Kaplan. Excuse me for one second class.”

“Mr. Howard, please take over while I speak to Mr. Stanley in my office.”

The smirking snitch glowed with joy at taking out the colleague that made every teacher look bad by the way he taught his students. The students knew it would be the last they’d see of their family member known as Mr. Stanley.

At that point in the school year, the six-day suspension for breaking school policy meant the end of the school year for Frank. He walked home as the texts from his students poured into his phone. The one that made him feel the best was the one from Maria. It was uplifting and kind and thanked him for standing up for all of the Family members and that they were all behind him. He texted her back, thanking her for her kindness.

Frank felt funny. The heat wave smothered him. He opened the only window in his apartment that wasn’t permanently stuck shut. There was no air to be let in so he sat out on the fire escape waiting for more texts from his students. None came.

After two hours had passed without a message, one came in from Ersie. It said that Maria had been killed by a speeding taxi as she crossed Saratoga Ave. ‘She was texting you, Mr. Stanley, and not paying attention to the traffic. She was killed just before sending you the text.

He texted to The Family that he was running to Maria’s home and that everyone needed to meet him there. What could he possibly tell her parents? Nothing kills parents faster than the death of their child. It was his fault. The tears of her friends couldn’t console Sixto and Soledad, Maria’s parents. Frank’s guilt couldn’t console them either. Everyone told him it wasn’t his fault. That look in Sixto’s eyes said it was.

It was the same day not the next day because he couldn’t sleep. Frank was called to Kaplan’s office to be officially fired. None of her words made it to his brain until ‘you caused this’ and ‘irresponsible’. Those words he knew. It was his fault. As he passed his devastated students he turned off his phone. He couldn’t look at them anymore.

#

Old wooden benches under big trees in parks have a tendency to catch things before they hit the ground, like Frank. He couldn’t think about how he got there but there he was in Betsy Head Park, Frank Stanley. Is it possible that everything could end like this? Idiot. Of course they could. Frank told a chattering bird to shut up and leave him alone. The bird continued on. He found a small stone and threw it in the general direction but not at the bird that laughed at Frank and kept on talking.

“You should listen to him. He’s got something important to tell you,” said an old man who had stopped.

“No he doesn’t,” said Frank.

He’d seen the old man before, maybe in his building, maybe not. Before he sat down on Frank’s bench he introduced his Chihuahua to Frank. “His name is Cupcake, in case you’re interested.”

“I’m not and I’m also not interested in talking to you.”

Frank already thought he knew how the old man would be, crusty, like most old men. By looking up at the sky and not talking, he thought the old man would take the hint and leave and take his damn dog with him. He didn’t. The dog gave a low growl at Frank which was amusing since he didn’t have any teeth to back up his supposed anger. Frank closed his eyes and leaned back with his head once again pointing at the sky.

“I bought the ashes of Somerset Maugham at a Flea Market on Pitkin Avenue, tripped out in India and found myself selling digital Christmas lights to Tibetan Monks in the Himalayas. And to this day, mind you, to this day I have no idea how I got back home.” He shrugged off his own words. The dog growled at Frank, again.

 “What’s his problem?” asked Frank.

He answered with “Nothing. It’s just that you remind him of someone. He’s seen the photograph of that person for his whole life so he thinks he knows him.” He paused for a second and cupped his hand over his mouth and whispered to Frank. “But he doesn’t really know him. But, I have to agree there is a resemblance.” He very gently patted the dog’s head and said “He’s OK baby, he’s OK.” Then he whispered something in Yiddish to Cupcake that Frank couldn’t quite make out but whatever it was it seemed to calm the dog down.

He continued on. “I actually scattered Maugham’s ashes on the heating rocks of a Brighton Beach shvitz and inhaled as much of it as I could.  But just in case that wouldn’t be enough, I kept some in a shot glass in a cabinet as my backup. I thought that if I put it in a smoothie one day and drank it I could channel Maugham when I finally got around to writing my novel, which I never did, by the way.”

He had a lot to say. “Think you’ll ever write that novel?” asked Frank.

“Nope.”

“Why not?”

“Why, because after I drank it, I debated with myself for twenty-three years about whether or not drinking his ashes was the same thing as cannibalism.  Couldn’t ever figure it out, so, well, here I am, still debating…” He nodded slightly as if he agreed with his own indecision.

Frank put his side of the one-sided conversation on hold. It was a lot to think about, sitting on a bench on an overcast day in Brooklyn under a tree in a fog. He knew the old man would keep talking anyway.

“My story can’t stop. It’s like this rain.  It feeds my flow which is an out-of-control river. It goes on forever, whatever forever is.” He caught his breath and continued. “You would think that by now I would have figured it all out, being the broken down piece of shit that I am right now. It’s unfortunate. Too many things to figure out when you get old. Getting old ain’t shit. It’s just your final payment, if you know what I mean. That’s all it is.”

Frank got up from the bench because he thought he’d had enough. The old man gently pulled him back and handed him what looked like a plain white business card. ‘Murray The Bitch, F.B.A’.

“What’s an F.B.A.?”

“Freelance Bullshit Artist. I’m a salesman. I create it and I sell it. For instance, for you, here’s what I would tell you.  You can’t feast on life if your dessert is regret. And I’m sure you’re thinking to yourself, that’s bullshit, which it is, but maybe not. And that’s my point. The truth is I can’t stop lying. So no matter what I tell you, even when I tell you it’s a lie, you’ll still want more.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Actually, you do”, insisted Murray. “You’ll see. Oh and in case you want to know, I’m on the web. Actually, I used to be on You Tube until they deleted my Channel which is too bad really. No matter, because I live inside the Dark Web now under the alias Jack Webb in Drag, not dragnet.  All Jack wanted was facts. Not me. All I want are lies that sell, the hell with facts. So, if you’d like me to regularly lie to you it’ll cost you a flat $15/Month, which is my entry level Plan called UB, Unlimited Bullshit. Want another free sample?”

“Sure.”

“O.k., remember, that everything I’m going to tell you is bullshit.  So, here you are, sitting on this bench and I decide to sit down next to you, right?”

“Right.”

“I told you about my journey through Hindu Hell and my cannibalistic tendencies as a neophyte writer, right?”

“Right.”

“O.k., so listen carefully because this will completely destroy your mind. Are you sure you’re listening?”

“Yes.”

“O.k., Cancer is nothing more than a manifestation of Schopenhauer’s Will. That’s right. It’s the force that is everywhere all the time.  Everyone gets some of it, but some people, for whatever reason, get an excess amount because that Will has a mind of its own, dig?  Example, no one is immune from insanity which arrives like thunder from within and when it arrives it can’t be stopped. So, what happens when insanity fights cancer?  Simple, you have Communism in a no-revolution takeover. Everything works for the good of the people, man. So, if you die, so be it. Dig?”

Frank raised his arms in surrender. “Slow down.”

Then Murray answered.  “No can do. Communistic entrepreneurs cannot slow down.  The sample I just gave you was a teaser. There’s more, in fact there’s always more. And, if you doubt me, remember this. If you become a subscriber it will be, I promise you, all about you! So, just keep that in mind.”

#

It’s not the best idea to watch clocks on walls for more than a few seconds. They become a pain in the ass as Frank found out that summer. The best he could do was walk to the park to get away from the damn thing. He even thought about the old bullshit artist and his cranky Chihuahua. He sat on that old wooden bench and laughed about them. When he saw them after a couple of weeks he actually was glad to have someone to talk to. But Murray walked right past him.

“I’m ready to become a member,” yelled Frank. Murray stopped.

“If you really are ready remember that everything I’m going to tell you is bullshit.” He held up one finger and added, “But, included with your UB are nuggets of what is known as The Truth. However, here’s the kicker. The amount of Truth can change from time to time.”

Frank couldn’t tell if Cupcake was nodding in approval or just breathing hard. Murray wanted to talk about Add-Ons.

“The percent of Truth you get depends on the level you’re buying. The basic UB comes with a standard plus or minus ten percent Truth. But you can buy up to one hundred percent Truth if you choose, but, even I have to admit that it’s a little pricey. And the truth about the Truth is that it’s never revealed. And, if you recall, even the one hundred percent plan is bullshit.”

“I do recall.”

“OK, are you ready?”

“I am.”

Frank took out his last ten and five and handed them to Murray. He wouldn’t take it and smiled with a quiet “Don’t worry about that now. I’ll bill you later.” It took him a while to sit down on the bench and put Cupcake on his lap.

“O.K., there was a time when I was my own Rorschach Test. I lived in a world of robot memes. No matter where I went they surrounded me.  When I left the Himalayas, I found myself in Plato’s Cave, which, by the way, is actually in Turkey not Greece.  Did you know that Turkey exists in separate but parallel dimensions?  One exists in the pre-dawn apocalypse and the other in an agnostic religious totalitarian state of semi-democracy.  Is it Troy or Gobekli Tepe? Who knows, but my point is that I saw tracers from my inner bitch that were directing me away from the real me which was dead or didn’t exist. And did you know that these things die as soon as you think about them? That fast.” He snapped his fingers close to Frank’s face.

“Who are you Murray?”

“Who am I? Good question. I’m the Fourth Stooge. It was Moe who called me Bitchy.  I met Moe at a Think Tank in Santa Barbara where we were both submerged in a viscous liquid of Hollywood Show biz urine and raw sewage from San Quentin.  Believe it or not you can actually think in that shit but don’t ask me how. Anyway, we were finally flushed out of there and found ourselves in the State known as Popularity as defined by the Wikipedia Encyclopedia of Illiterate Excuses. And what I learned from that experience was that I should have taken Moe’s slaps as Love from a corpse, not as Hate from an asshole.  And so I left that cemetery as a mist in the twilight and started my own career as a Freelance Bullshit Artist. Does that answer your question?”

Frank shook his hand. “Yes” and walked home shaking his head like an old Chihuahua.

#

The wall clock wouldn’t stop playing with Frank. The Family wouldn’t stop texting him, in case he needed them. He did but he wouldn’t tell them. Upgrading to the Thirty Percent Plan became a necessity, as opposed to, you know. His first question for Murray was pretty simple.

“What’s worse, knowing the Truth of dealing with it?”

Murray was in fine form. “The Cult of The Ignorant is populated by the goat people of Stupidia. I learned this in the Sudan when a local tribal chieftain bought my ass on the black market. He really thought I was a white shaman living in a reverse dream sequence of never ending fantasies fueled by drugs, intellectual pomposity and linguistic slights-of-hand. The Truth, which for you is now Thirty Percent, is that as a slave to him, I learned the true value of freedom – which, by the way, ain’t much, despite what you may have been told.”

“So, what is it then, since you know?” I asked.

“Freedom is Fear. The only Freedom you will ever know is and can only be, Experience,” Texted Murray.

Frank thought his balls were getting bigger so he texted him again. “I’m pretty sure I know Fear.”

“No you don’t.”

“Oh yes I do.”

“I was in denial once myself when I lived with a cult that believed in Vegetarianism as a way of life. They sacrificed their children to their Great God, Algo Rithma, who predicted with great accuracy where and when each child would die by the hands of their parents.  So, their mantra, which at that time was ‘Eat a Carrot, Kill a Kid’ took hold of me for ten years until I actually realized that they had it all wrong, backwards in fact. It actually was, and this ended my denial, which is where I am right now, ‘Eat a kid, Kill a Tree’, as exemplified by my Maugham Smoothie.”

“And you denied that it was the right thing to do?”

“No, I was in denial that it was part of Schope’s Will and that I had absolutely no say, per se, in denying it. See?”

“Not really.”

“Well, take my latest self-hack as an example. I’m going to build a giant phallic symbol out of Legos and start a new Fund Me campaign for Phallic Freedom of Thought. And what, you might ask, is Phallic Freedom of Thought?  It is the promotion of an intellectual environment wherein you will be able to think and live phallically without religious, governmental or social recrimination of any kind.”

“Sounds pretty useless,” texted Frank as he temporarily grew tired of his own curiosity.

‘Well, we all do it in anyway.  Why not do it without fear or worry?”

“I thought you said Freedom is Fear.”

“Being free isn’t always desirable. We’re all hooked on Will as our permanent addiction anyway, so, methodoning our addiction with a little fake freedom is o.k. My Fund Me campaign is just a minor intervention, just a minor diversion really. And, of course, a few extra bucks never hurt.”

#

Laughter can make you sick or maybe it was the garbage in the alley.  Frank sat on the rusty fire escape outside his kitchen. No, it was coming from the fire escape above. Somebody above him was laughing.

It was Murray and Cupcake.  The old man was laughing and his dog was lip-syncing his laughter.  They were like an old married couple finishing each other’s thoughts and mouthing each other’s words. No wonder they were laughing.

“That you Murray?” He kept laughing. “Who’s the ventriloquist, you or Cupcake?”

“A man has to earn a living you know. No getting around it. Look at me.  I sold my TV, bought a laptop, got a smart phone, changed my look, got subscribers and now look at me. I’m living off the land.”

“What land? There’s no land in Brownsville.”

“What land?” He raised his left eyebrow. “It’s the land of where you really live, that is of course if you choose to live there. You can GPS your ass or live in the big Strip Joint in the Sky getting lap dances from the Grim Reaper, that’s where. Ever see a ninety-three year old Brooklyn Jew in skinny jeans?”

“Nope.”

“Well, take a good look.” He stood up and showed me his trendy jeans, electric orange sneakers and a tight-fitting Tee Shirt that had something written on the front in large black letters. See?”

“I can’t read it.  What’s it say?”

He pointed to the words.  “It says, ‘Nothing But Net Bitch’.” He very slowly crawled through his window and back into his apartment.  The ex-teacher had no idea that Murray lived right above him. Murray poked his head out the window and said, “It was a gift from my so-called friends.”

#

They were just there. The 369. Most of them hung out in front of Murray’s place, a few in front of the building, in case. In case it matters, no one was afraid of them even though they were supposed to be. You’re supposed to worry about shit like that.

They were mostly young men and a few girls and if reputations matter, they were supposed to be ruthless. They had a lot of money from whatever they did which was everything. Was killing included in everything? Probably, if it made them money.

Frank couldn’t figure why they liked him. Their friendly nods felt good. Maybe it was Murray. Maybe it was the Family. One thing he did know was that it wasn’t dumb luck.

By July 4th, Frank ran out of money and food. He hadn’t paid his rent. The landlord didn’t ask. How it got it front of his door whenever he really needed it caused Frank to blush. Food in cardboard boxes. A loose twenty was usually tucked in there somewhere, sometimes between the cereal and the eggs or sometimes folded into a paper airplane in case he needed some entertainment.  His phone was out of memory and when it died he’d walk up to Murray’s place. His door was always wide open, day or night. All kinds of people were always visiting him. And like always, The 369.

#

No Money = No Food. Murray’s Equation. Frank had his own equation. Eating = Survival. The two together became shoplifting some lunch meat and a roll at The Super 3. The result was the owner saw him right off and pushed him into a corner while he called the cops. The result of the result was a moonlighting cop working as a security guard at the Super 3 pulled the owner aside. He let Frank leave with his food but stared at him with malice in his heart. He was pissed.

Frank dodged another tracer, or had he? He didn’t know. Neither did he know how good stolen food could taste until he ate it in a hurry, just in case. He went to Murray’s Place for dessert.

“I had a friend once,” said Murray as his eyes teared up. “His name was Carl. We drank schnapps together. We organized Unions and even joined the Merchant Marines together. But, he decided to die first and I’ve been waiting for his phone call ever since.” He paused for a minute. “You may be Carl and I can’t take the chance that you aren’t so allow me to put a little schnapps in your tea and give you a welcome home hug.”

He poured some whiskey in Frank’s tea and they spent the rest of the afternoon talking about the difference between law and justice and about the last man to actually think one completely clear thought, Socrates, who by the way, according to Murray, wasn’t as smart as people thought he was. But, his one clear thought, ‘nothing to be preferred before justice’ was pure genius, but the rest of his so-called philosophy wasn’t much.

“I live in the Dark Web,” said Murray, “and I’m homeless there. This is a fact that can’t be denied and everyone who lives there, well, they’re also homeless. That is also a fact and actually a requirement for living there. It only asks for one thing, your Social Security Number. Then you get the Code of Life.”

#

Corinthians 15.51-57 “Behold, I show you a Mystery.  We shall not sleep, but we shall all be changed.”

                           #

Whenever he couldn’t sleep or when he felt the most sorry for himself Frank found himself in Murray’s apartment. As usual his door was wide open and there were a few of the 369’s hanging out.  One of them was sitting next to Murray on his old worn-out brown corduroy sofa. They were having a conversation in Rap, tapping out the beat on the sofa. It went like this:

Murray – “Tell me why you die.

         Tell me why you die.”

Young Man – “The Truth Bitch

             The Truth Bitch

             The Truth Bitch”

Murray – “All I do is lie about the Truth

         The Truth ain’t shit.

         This shit’s gotta go.

         This shit has got to go.”

Young Man – “Tell me bitch, I ain’t shit.

             I ain’t shit but I’m crazy.

             I ain’t shit but I’m crazy.

             Cause crazy kills babies.

             And crazy lives till you die.”

That conversation went on for another thirty minutes even though they knew Frank had been standing there listening to their music. It didn’t matter.  The young man got up, kissed Murray on the top of his bald head and said.  “I feel you Bitch, I feel you.”

Murray answered. “O.K., but don’t fuck with me.  You feel me now?”

The young man didn’t answer right away but after some thought smiled broadly and said, “Yeah, I feel you.” As the young man started to leave, Murray pulled him back, gave him a hug, slapped him on his ass and sent him on his way.

Everyone left because they could see the old man was tired. Frank hung out for a while. Murray sat back down and closed his eyes. He slept deep and free. Frank kept an eye on him for a while and thought about how much he loved teaching children, like Murray did.

When Murray finally woke up he said, “I’m going to call you Carl from now on and all of my so-called friends will also call you Carl. Carl would have liked that.” He fell asleep again. Frank left the front door open, as always.

#

August is technically not a month.  Murray knew exactly what it was and his locked apartment door proved it. The 369 proved it by disappearing. Frank didn’t know it yet, but he would get it, soon.

He knocked on Murray’s door loud enough to wake the dead which turned out to be Bertha Sexton, Murray’s next door neighbor.

“If you’re looking for Murray, he’s in jail. The old fool.”

“Thank you Bertha. I’ll go see him. I found Cupcake barking in front of my door.”

“That dog’s as stupid as that old fool, maybe stupider.”

The Legion Street jail was in the back of the Police Station. Frank talked his way in to see Murray, who looked happy to see him, for a change. He grinned out a big smile and flashed gold braces that covered his dentures. Some kind of a code was printed on them. Frank’s coding skills were useless on that one.

He pointed to Murray’s mouth. “What is that?”

“I discovered the Code of Life, which is now my message to the world. As soon as you see it you immediately know it. But if you don’t, well then you aren’t one of my so-called Friends.”

He whispered the Cliff Notes version in Frank’s ear. “Now you know, Carl.”

The cops released him to Frank pending further investigation. There had been a sting operation on The 369 and Murray got caught in the net. None of The 369 said they knew him and that he just happened to be walking by.

As they left the station there were reporters waiting.  Murray flashed them the Code of Life smile and pointed to his mouth with a peace sign. They got on the bus that took them home and when they got off the bus he paused for a moment. Murray put his finger on Frank’s chest and said, “Don’t ever believe that FDR was a Fellow Traveler. He force-fed America gold-plated gag-proof geese that were cooked in the heat of battle, not the one from WWII, but the real one called Economic Instability, false work for fake money to cure a sickness caused by greedy capitalists who jumped out of windows and landed on pillows filled with counterfeit fortunes.”

They walked home slowly from the bus stop. Frank thought Murray was walking slower than he usually did. “Come have lunch with me and bring You-Know-Who. I miss him.”

Frank retrieved You-Know-Who and gave him back to the old man and when he did, Murray’s eyes smiled. They ate soft-boiled eggs, Gruyere cheese triangles, the kind that came covered in foil, pumpernickel bread and butter and, of course, hot tea.  It was good. Frank was hungry. He left Murray’s door open when he left.

#

Tweets poured in from the Family wanting Frank to teach again. Stray twenties from someone kept finding their way under his door. He needed answers but had no questions. So, he decided to pay a visit.

Murray was sitting on his brown corduroy sofa in his underwear and Mets cap. He was rereading, again, another faded copy of The Daily Worker.

He laughed out loud as he read it and looked up at his new Carl over his reading glasses. He said, “The silence of the deaf is the symphony of the blind. Slowmo Livin said that. He lived right here on Strauss Street and he was a very smart man. He was a Yiddish philosopher, smarter than Socrates really. He told me this once: ‘Give me a good piece of Gefilte Fish and I’ll tell you the correct time.” He’s gone now, but he was a very smart man.”

He stopped his monologue and returned to his reading. Carl read the back page while Murray read his memories.  It was a full page ad for a Trade Union Meeting of Furriers in the Garment District.  Whoever went to that meeting was probably dead by now.

Murray looked up at the ceiling and smiled. “It’s easy to Stalinize a Rockefeller bum. All you have to do is throw him a dime and promise him happiness and security.” His smile disappeared. “In 1938, Stalin and Gandhi had a bromance, a little known fact. It developed rapidly from there and they had an illegitimate son named Murray.  Want some tea?”

 “Yes”.

“I learned how to brew tea in Cambodia when I was part of a Kibbutz in Phnom Penh. I was hired as a Cultural Envoy for the Cambodian Government by Slowmo, believe it or not, who had been contracted by the Cambodian Government to unconfuse Confucianism for the people, the Cambodian people that is. The Chinese weren’t confused, because they invented it, which I’m still not totally convinced of. Anyway, I was supposed to start the first Cambodian Kibbutz. And I’ll tell you this, Kibbutz’s not located in Israel are hard enough to establish, but in Cambodia, well, you can just imagine. Then, for whatever reason, we thought we could homestead it in Angkor Wat which had been designated as a Dead Zone. Well, we succeeded for a while and besides learning how to brew tea we also learned how to cry in Tongues. I eventually left Cambodia when a comic who shall remain nameless did USO Shows for all Jews left behind in Concentration Camps that had been converted into Kibbutz’s by the Russians. But then, as fate would have it, his middle finger became paralyzed and his mind froze when he lost his shtik, more commonly known as the ability to make people laugh. And when he started his own Cable Show, Demolition Derby for washed-up Catskillians, the same thing happened to me.  I didn’t have any shtik to lose but I used to have what is known as sanity. I lost my sanity to a girl named Sheila who twisted my arm to become a Catholic. She lived somewhere in Indiana. When I finally told her no because I was a Hindi of the lowest caste sweeping up cow shit and calling it my pleasure she cried like a baby and kicked my ass out into the street, a full twenty feet to the curb mind you. I call it Demolition Derby, Murray style. “

He took a breath but kept staring at Frank, like he all of a sudden recognized him. Frank went along with his new identity and slept well that night. In the morning when he woke up he found another twenty under his door with a note attached to it. It read:

“Carl,

Thought you could use this.

My so-called friends are working

on your situation. I anticipate

good results.

Murray

P.S. Great to have you back”

     Frank didn’t see much of Murray after that. Occasionally he would pass by his door to see how he was doing and would usually see him Rapping with different kids, texting on his phone or reading his old Daily Workers. He looked frailer and maybe a little sadder. Cupcake wasn’t around anymore.

The summer went by hot and slow.  Frank got by somehow with help from friends and ‘so-called’ friends.  Two weeks before the school year was supposed to start, a grass roots campaign started to have him reinstated in his old teaching position. There were student protests in front of the school and in front of Kaplan’s home.

Maybe Kaplan and the Board had had enough. They offered to reinstate Frank if he would relent in his use of social media to teach. He said ‘no’ and walked out of her office. The students somehow knew he declined her offer and he was cheered as he left. Over the next few days the protests grew.

He kept to himself as much as possible as the new school year approached. Two days before the school year was supposed to start the heat forced him out on his fire escape again. There were low murmurs coming from Murray’s place so he went upstairs and saw a small group of his so-called friends gathered around him. When he entered, the crowd put their arms around Frank. He looked at Murray and knew he was dead. It was up to him now.

#

If you’re really free, you should be afraid, according to Murray. Carl was free and afraid. That’s why Frank legally changed his name to Carl and continued to bitch at everyone who tried to kick him off social media.

Maybe, just maybe, he became a consultant to the New York City Board of Education on their New Ventures in Education Through Social Media. Maybe he became a liaison to the Dark Web. Maybe we’re all Thirty Percent Subscribers. As long as we can make our own decisions we can decide for ourselves who we are and who we really want to be. And that, by the way, is just the way Murray would have wanted it to be. {END}

Categories: Fiction

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