You don’t know me, but I know you. I’m the one who notices when you ignore a bum begging for quarters. I’m the one who sees you when you cut someone off in traffic. Don’t think these matters are petty because you are not on my list. The only reason I have not come for you is that you are not worth my time.
So what is my name? Better you should ask me, What is my name to you? Now if I haven’t come for you, my name could be Tolerance. But if you turn into some kind of big shot, you might know me as Nathan Skudder. Tycoons and honchos tremble at the mention of Nathan Skudder. So choose your transgressions carefully—you don’t want to know me by my true name. Stick to sins better handled by churches or traffic courts.
Just who do I bother with? you ask. Who is worth my time? Nobody—the sword I carry is only fit for the Devil himself. But I stoop to noticing lying moguls who steal other people’s ideas. I notice hacks who praise only what’s common and let geniuses die in the dust. And I’m very aware of starlets who pretend to be what they aren’t—those playing the role of heroines while acting like Hollywood whores.
Do I dispense justice swiftly? No, that would be an indulgence. Justice is better served slowly with discipline and restraint. Unless the noose tightens gradually, unless the blade is delayed, the transgressor will escape the full measure of the punishment he deserves.
Do you wonder where you will find me? You will find me where ideas are stolen. You will find me where prodigies weep. You will find me where truth is brokered by bandits then trampled underfoot. I am persistent but honorable, so please remember this: if I should ever come for you, I will look into your eyes. I will not give my sword to a surrogate nor hide behind a desk. That would deprive me of stature and you of your fullest dissert.
Can you outsmart me? you wonder. No—I am far too intelligent. I have the mind of a seer, and I read two books a week. Not the sort of drivel that poisons the public mind, but masterpieces accessible only to those with expanding souls. Thank god, my mother passed at my birth and I was raised in an orphanage: the place was so cruel and alien that it fostered my kinship with books. I may hide behind the persona of an unkempt derelict, but I am intimate with all the classics. I can recite The Faerie Queene. Spenser, Shakespeare, and Milton are like bosom friends to me. It is their collective spirit that I pour into my art. It is their unsullied wisdom upon which I have honed my wit. So do not try to outsmart me or pierce my searing light. That would be like a pygmy shooting arrows at the sun.
Now since I am the hunter, it falls that I also am hunted. But the moguls that hunt me are cowardly; their faces are always well-hidden. The women that hunt me are only brave when their captor is celluloid—when they star in such abominable productions as Queen of the Amazons. No, moguls and whores will not hunt me themselves—they will only send surrogates. They cannot wield a thirsty blade, and guns make them pee their pants.
So who is the one that hunts me? He is called the Tallyman—he told me that in a dream. I have only seen him a couple of times, but I know he is after me. The Tallyman is honorable; he is also very brave. His reputation precedes him because he almost always catches his prey. I would not hunt the Tallyman although he is hunting me. I only hunt those that lack honor. Moguls and Hollywood whores.
My pursuit of the Tallyman’s patrons was decided long ago. After all, it is scripts that rule us—scripts that determine our lives. My scripts are those of an oracle and an author ahead of his time. The moguls are scripted to feed upon scraps like pilot fish trailing a shark. I have sent the moguls a dozen fine screenplays—not a word do I ever hear back. They are shallow swimmers—these moguls. My drifts and currents elude them. They are no more capable of fathoming my depths that a sink might contain an ocean. And yet they peck at my art in the manner that seagulls might strike a beached dolphin. Lines and passages I have composed turn up in the trashiest of films: regrettable chestnuts like Spiderman 3 and Maleficent Mistress of Evil. Ah, rivers that start in heaven end up in the vilest of swamps.
Does the Tallyman seek to kill me? Of course, but how happy that would make me. Am I not a quixotic tramp? Do I not have a martyred soul? If my quests remain true then the day when I die will be better than the day I was born. We are born to innocence and sorrow, but we may pass on to omnipotence. But although I admire the Tallyman, I choose not to be grateful to him. I do not wish to be indebted to one who would cut my throat. And so I concede to the pettiest of scripts: the instinct to flee like a squirrel. What a mockery our instincts make of us—we are no more developed than insects.
But back to the subject of comeuppance—the message I wish to deliver. Do I ever make exceptions to those I have vowed to destroy? Yes, but I only did it once. Remember that starlets are spellbinders—they are skillful in their deceits. I once emailed a starlet whose name I won’t mention, but suffice it to say that she touched my heart while performing from one of my scripts. I was also impressed that she emailed me back and called me her sweetest fan. Was she worthy of me—no, she was not—but with her I was charitable. I decided the pleasure of bedding her was worth the theft of my work.
Oh, chicanery, your name is woman. Oh, deceit your name is Eve. Not a month went by before she appeared in a flick with a bedroom scene. Not even the lustiest of centaurs, not even a mongrel in heat, not even the commonest of sluts went at it harder than she. It was bad enough that she had betrayed me by fucking a far lesser man, but she did not show the slightest embarrassment in putting her lust on display. I vowed that my revenge would be total, I swore my rout would be sweet, and yet I knew that the cruelest of vengeance would hardly level the books. In every way conceivable, that bitch had stolen from me.
And yet, she bewitches me still, she still has a hold on my heart. When I showed up in the Mission District where she was seeking unmerited glory, I was holding a bouquet of roses instead of the knife she deserved. As usual, my knife was strapped to my shin, but it was not intended for her. From her, I only wanted a smile or maybe her hand on my cheek. I wanted only the merest acknowledgment of what she owed to me. So deep was my degradation, so paralyzed my heart, that I wished only to join her worshippers and cast myself at her feet.
A film crew was stationed on the street, and its members were waiting for her. No patron of manners—she. No fan of decorum—she. She was content to keep them waiting, but this was clearly her right. Her debt was only to me, and I wanted just a crumb. A friendly glance would do me. Or the merest nod of her head.
Two security guards were looking at me as I wandered onto the set. A couple of paunchy thugs who were not worthy of being her protectors. “Hey runt, where ya think yer goin’,” one asked me. He was looking at me as though I, and not he, was a boil on the face of humanity.
I showed the greatest of patience as I uttered my reply. “I don’t think I’m going anywhere,” I said. “I am sure of my destination.”
“Get outta here, you little bum,” he yelled, “or you’ll end up in the gray bar hotel.”
It was not enough that he had interrupted me, he had insulted me as well. And yet my patience endured as I drew the knife from the sheath on my shin. A bullet between the eyes is what that lout deserved, but I am a merciful paladin and do not take vengeance upon pigs. I presented only the tip of my knife, which I held at a discreet distance.
The pair drew their service revolvers so quickly, you would have thought I was Osama bin Laden. “Drop it,” said one, but I clutched the knife and said, “Gentleman, please let me pass.” We stood there for several seconds—the most improbable of champions. They, a couple of wannabe cops who hoped I might make them heroes. I, who wished only to place a bouquet at the feet of my beloved. But had the brutes filled me with bullets, the glory would have been mine. Remember, there is no better passage than one spawned by romantic ends. Heaven will ring with cheers of the righteous while seraphim carry you home. Oh, let me like a soldier fall upon some open plain. My chest expanding to the ball to wipe out every stain. This Joycean ballad filled my mind as I waited for them to shoot.
But I was struck down not by a bullet but a bag from a beanbag gun. And my chest did not expand to it—I was hammered in the groin. In my quest for epic glory, in my zeal to dwell among angels, I had somehow misjudged the weapon one of those assholes was holding. Cheated, I lay upon the ground as angels passed me by. Not even a cherub will stoop for a warrior felled by a beanbag gun.
I was not alone in the paddy wagon as I rode to the city jail. Sitting on the bench across from me was a tall, cadaverous man. His eyes were the eyes of a hunter, calculating and alert, and his nostrils swelled like those of a tiger picking up a scent. At first, I did not recognize him because he had grown a full beard. A master of disguise is the Tallyman, and for this, I respected him more.
“Don’t let it be here,” I said, an appeal to his better angels.
The Tallyman shrugged and raised his hands—his wrists were chained like mine. But his hands were thick and sinewy, so that did not console me. At any given moment, he could have torn off his restraints, so I borrowed a line from Sir Walter Scott, which I hoped might keep him at bay. I said, “Do you know that beasts of game the privilege of the chase may claim?”
His brow knotted into a furrow, he licked his lips like a wolf, and his breath boomed through his nostrils like a black, approaching storm. Thankfully, he did not bare his teeth—they would surely have dripped like stalactites, but his thoughts bore the shock of electricity when they buzzed inside my head. It will not be here, he answered. That would cheat us both.
Thank god, he was unlike his mistress—that vampish, unprincipled slut. She would have cut my throat in a second had she the sand to do her own work. No, the Tallyman has standards, he will not slaughter me like a hog. He surely knew the depth of my grief and how totally I have been robbed.
I have been booked many times in the San Francisco County Jail, so I felt no discomfort when the cop who arrested me returned me to its bowels. No, I stood like John the Baptist, whose martyrdom rivaled my own, and I did not blink as the booking camera captured my likeness once more. “Nathan Scudder,” muttered the booking sergeant. “Whoja threaten this time? Seems every time I turn around, they’re hauling you in here again.”
He showed not a flicker of interest as he filmed my fingerprints, he did not even bother to glance my way as the arresting cop patted me down. No, only the Tallyman pities me enough to cut me some slack. Only he knows the torment I suffer from those who have stolen my art. And where had the Tallyman gone to? I did not spot him inside the jail. He must have vanished into the city to hunt me another day.
The following week, I hung my head as I stood before a judge. It is best to show some humility when you stand before the bench. If you lie and pretend to be humble, the courts will turn you loose; if you shout out the truth like a prophet, you will meet a prophet’s demise.
The judge, some fool with a face like a monkey, was reading my psych report. The report had been prepared by a jail shrink—a clod with bottle-thick glasses and breath that stank of garlic. The jerk had interviewed me for only five minutes before putting a brand on my soul. No doubt, he had described me as a paranoid schiz—psychiatrists love those words. There is not a seer under the sun whom a shrink will not scar with that term. Were Jesus to return for the second coming and preach salvation to the masses, I have no doubt the psychiatrists would call him a paranoid schiz.
The judge put down the report and squinted at me. “So you’re hounding celebrities again,” he said. “Nathan, are you taking your meds?”
I nodded like a bobblehead. “Four times a day,” I said.
In fact, I was palming my meds and flushing them down the toilet. No brain- dead existence for me. No life without vision for me. It is better to soar like an eagle and be ostracized from the flock then to hop about with shattered wings and feed in garbage dumps.
I plead to a charge of aggravated assault, and the judge gave me three years of probation. He also ordered me to stay away from she who had stolen my art. She who had raped my very soul while wallowing in lust, she who teased me like a siren then abandoned me without a thought. I bowed my head like a beggar and agreed to the stay-away order. But why did the court not order her to free her talons from my heart?
And there you have it. By bowing my head, I was allowed to return to the streets. I was permitted to wear the mark of Cain and live in the Land of Nod.
I am wholly convinced that the only place for an honest man is jail. But I am not an honest man—I am deceitful and slippery and sly. “Be cunning like the serpent.” Were these not Jesus’ words? And so with our savior’s blessing, I hide my true face from the world.
But the probation officer they gave me this time, a stringy fellow from Kenya, was skeptical of me when I reported to his office after taking my leave of the jail. “Meester Skudder,” he said in clipped English, “how come you accepted probation? According to your presentence report, you’re a vicious, little bum. You live on public assistance, you have never held a job, and you’ve had twenty arrests for terrorist threats and brandishing deadly weapons. It will just be a matter of days, my friend, unteel you are back in jail.”
“Have you been in jail, sister,” I asked him because he was already pissing me off.
“I ask the questions,” he answered. “And it’s Meester Oneybuchi to you.”
“Well, ask yourself if you’re leading a life of quiet desperation? As a minion to the Philistines, I suspect that is the case.”
“Quoting dead authors won’t help you,” he snapped. “Do you think I have not been to college? Do you think I have not read Thoreau?”
“I don’t think you read him well enough to know that he was a fraud. He stayed only two years in that cabin of his, he was dumb enough to burn down a forest, and if he had spent more than one night in jail, he’d have accepted probation too.”
Ooglybuchi, or whatever his name was, pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose. All the time we were talking, he kept adjusting his specs on his nose.
“You seem well-read,” he said, “so how come you can’t stay out of jail? You are thirty years old, sir—isn’t it time you showed a bit of sense?”
“Jail is a good place to contemplate,” I said. “I learned that from Thoreau.”
Ooglybuchi pinched his nostrils and said, “We are off to a bad start, Meester Skudder. Please come back in one week for a pee test. I must make sure you are taking your meds.”
“Simplify, simplify, simplify,” said that wordsmith of the woods. I’m not sure why he said it three times, but it’s still advice I follow. And so I live in a subsidized room in the Dalt Hotel on Turk Street—a room with nothing in it but a bed, a chair, and a cot. Except for the noise tenants make in the hallway, I have no distractions at all—that’s why I have written a dozen scripts of exceptional quality. Scripts that I mailed to Warner Brothers and Universal Studios.
Upon returning to my simple abode, I took a refreshing nap. Afterward, I picked up my iPad and googled my beloved. I check on her once or twice a day to see if she has repented—it would be callous of me to punish her if she is in the throes of regret. But she gave me no hint of contrition—no nunnery did she seek. She was sitting in a restaurant on Mission Street, batting her eyes like a hooker, and telling a fawning reporter the plot of her latest flick. Word for word, it was the exact same script I had mailed her studio three months ago.
“Bitch!” I shouted. “Pickpocket! Have you no shame at all?” I cursed her for more than a minute—even after my throat was raw, even after some jerk in the room next to mine started banging on the wall. Let him bang—this was no time for etiquette, this was no time for restraint. This was the hour to give her some part of the grief she had given me. Tit for tat, I always say—is that not the way of the world? And since her tit was off-limits to me, I was determined to make do with tat.
She must be stopped, I reasoned, but how? An idea popped into my head. I grasped the restraining order the court had served on me, and I dabbed it with a bit of Wite-Out then interchanged our names. She would not know the order was a forgery when I pressed it into her palm. She would only think that she no longer had license to shatter my peace of mind.
Oh, genius, your name is Skudder, I thought as I hurried out to the street. No wonder I had written so many fine scripts. No wonder she was stealing from me. Yes, she deserved to be pimp-slapped, but a restraining order would do. After all, she could no more withstand my genius than a moth might resist a flame.
I dashed to the movie set on Mission Street where they were reshooting a couple of scenes, and I caught a fleeting glimpse of her as I elbowed my way through the crowd. Oh, to feel the touch of her hand as I gave her the restraining order. Oh, to hear her apology as I unburdened my grief to her. An apology over dinner would do. We could share a bottle of wine.
The two piggish, security guards stood in my path while she disappeared into a trailer. A will-o’-the-wisp on gossamer wings could not have vanished so quickly.
“How about a filet mignon?” I shouted before she shut the door.
“How ’bout some black-eyed peas,” said one of the guards as he pointed the beanbag gun at me.
In my haste, I had forgotten to bring my knife, so I offered no resistance. No, I stood as still as the statue of David while this cop I know cuffed me up. “Skudder,” he said as he set the strands, “when are ya gonna learn?” He was overweight and out of shape, and he wheezed as he patted me down. Was he the best the police had to offer? I sighed and shook my head.
“My cross is not to learn,” I informed him. “My cross is to shine and be scorned.”
“Far as I can tell,” he drawled, “you got no cross at all. Not unless being a public nuisance can be counted as a cross.”
The guard with the beanbag gun snorted and said, “Whadaya gonna do with him, Abe? This is the second time we hadda deal with him this month.”
The cop shrugged. “Chew him out then let him go. I ran his name—he’s clean. All I can book him for is trespass, and the DA won’t prosecute that. Hell, the DA won’t prosecute anything that ain’t a felony.”
The guard slung his bean thrower onto his shoulder and spoke as though he’d been cheated at cards. “That’s San Francisco for you,” he said. “If he comes back again, we’ll call you.”
“If he comes back again, kick his ass,” said the cop.
The cop pushed me into the cage of his patrol car then drove me to Pier 39. After he let me out of the car and took the bracelets off me, he said, “You’d be in San Quentin, Nathan, if the DA had any balls. It’s a pain in the ass to keep busting you just so the Sheriff can let you go.”
“It seems payback eludes us both,” I said as I stood there rubbing my wrists. “But if it’s any consolation, you put on those shackles too tight.”
“Whadaya want?” snapped the oaf. “A goddam apology.”
“I’ll let it go this time,” I warned him. “I have other things to do. But the next time you bruise my wrists, I’ll file a complaint on you.”
How nice it was to have the brute by the balls—to grin while he glared at me. When one is a suiter of light, good fortune will be his bride.
“Do me a favor,” the cop said. “Stay here and feed the seagulls. I don’t have the patience to bust you a second time today.”
Like a dog with his tail between his legs, he got back into his squad car, and I felt like I had slain Goliath as I watched him drive away.
Since doing God’s work made me hungry, I took the asshole’s advice. I bought a bread bowl full of chowder, found a bench on Pier 39, and tossed some crust to the seagulls while I sat there eating my lunch.
I hate to admit it, but sometimes I feel a bit sorry for that cop. I secretly call him Sisyphus because their tasks are much the same. I am the boulder that dude has to roll up a steep hill every day—the boulder that bounces back down the hill the moment it gets to the top. So I decided to give him a break and stay out of his hair for awhile. I decided to return to my Spartan abode and work on a couple of scripts.
I walked no further than the Embarcadero subway because it’s a pretty long hike back to Turk Street. As usual, the fare booth was empty, so I hopped right over the turnstile. There are indignities I do not stoop to, and one of them is paying train fare. Since the world owes me a million dollars, I should ride in limousines.
As I sat on a bench on the southbound platform, waiting for the train to arrive, I got the sudden feeling that someone was shadowing me. Turning my head, I spotted the Tallyman standing beneath the exit sign. He was taller than a grenadier, his skin was fishbelly white, and he was looking at me like a bill collector about to knock on my door. He turned his eyes away from me when I stared in his direction, but he followed me onto the subway and sat down on a seat opposite mine.
As we sat face-to-face, the doors hissed shut and the train pulled out of the station. Would it be now? I wondered, and my heart began to thud.
He stroked his beard and smiled at me, a smile that did not reach his eyes. I could spot the bulge of a dagger behind his seedy coat.
“Will you give me time?” I asked him. “I’m the pigeon, not the hawk.”
His measured stare suggested that my time was running out, but he held his hand up politely and showed me the face of his watch. A generous huntsman was he, an enduring sportsman was he. Yes, space and time the stag would get ere hound was slipped or bow was bent. I sat through several station stops, plotting my escape. When the train pulled into Civic Center, I bolted through the doors.
“I went to the woods,” said that braggart, Thoreau, “because I wished to live.” Well, I had no woods to go to, but I certainly lusted to live. So I adopted another strategy to elude the Tallyman. Whenever I heard loud footsteps in the hallway outside my room, I quickly opened my window and escaped to the street below. Whenever I went to the post office to mail out new scripts, I varied my route and kept checking behind me to make sure I was not being followed. Even when I returned to the probation department to keep my appointment with Ooglybuchi, I entered the building through the back entrance and rode the jail elevator up to his floor.
“Meester Skudder,” said Ooglybuchi as I sat in the chair by his desk. “I have a police report on you. It seems you violated your stay away order before eet was even entered into the system.”
“Ya gonna arrest me?” I asked him.
He shrugged. “There would be no point in that, sir. I could charge you with violating your stay away order, but nothing will come of eet. Your victim won’t show up to testify, and the court won’t enforce the subpoena. Movie stars get stalked all the time—they never show up in court.”
“That’s because they hire assassins,” I said, and I mentioned my nemesis. I said only Melville’s leviathan, a creature purer than snow, had suffered a hunter as relentless as the one pursuing me. I said I would deem it a favor if I was locked away for awhile.
“On what charge, Meester Skudder?” he asked. “Have you committed a more serious crime? Unless you assassinate someone yourself, the courts will not keep you in jail.”
“Piss test me,” I said desperately. “I haven’t been taking my meds.”
“That I cannot do either,” he said.
“You promised to piss test me,” I insisted.
He shrugged. “That was last week, Meester Skudder. Due to a recent budget cut, we lost our contract with the lab.”
“You’re supposed to represent justice,” I bawled, “and you’re sitting their making excuses.”
“May I be blunt, Meester Skudder,” he said. “I am buried in cases, the courts here are useless, and there is no excuse for you.”
“So you’re abandoning me to a garrotter. An eater of broken meats.”
“Meester Skudder,” he said, “I’m not interested if someone is on your trail.”
“Lock me up, fool,” I shouted. “Is there no justice under the sun?”
Ooglybuchi adjusted his specs on his nose then patted me on the wrist. “Do not worry, Meester Skudder,” he said. “I think justice is coming for you.”
Am I a hypocrite? you ask. Well, since the law is toothless, I choose to break it at will. So why, you ask, should I expect the law to shelter me? To this, I reply that there are greater laws than the pablum dispensed by the courts. There is the law of retribution, the Code of Hammurabi, the apocalyptic justice pronounced in the Book of Revelation. “Behold a pale horse!” its author screamed to the robbers, the swindlers, the whores. And who sits upon that horse but I whom the angels have decreed. And yet, I am more dupe than destroyer. And yet, I am more patsy than prince. And yet, I seek only a particle of the pound of flesh I am due. So if the law ever musters an ounce of gumption, a scrap of fortitude, it is not unreasonable to demand that this scrap be given to me.
But since the law is a pussy, I must slink through the streets like a hound. Since the law is a joke, I must hide away like a leper. Even when I am sleeping, I don’t have a second of peace. I have the same dream night after night, and I wake up in the coldest of sweats. In my dream, I wander city streets beneath a crescent moon. There is not a person anywhere—I am utterly alone. Finally, I come upon a massive whore who is standing under a streetlamp. She is drunk with the blood of poets, she is black with leprosy, and at her feet lie the severed heads of Chaucer, Milton, and Proust. “Who are you?” I cry. She grins like a pumpkin. “You know who I am,” she purrs. She then lifts her dress and spreads her labia, and her hole is a bottomless pit. “Come, come,” she says in a voice warm as piss. “I have plenty of room for you.”
Oh, wretched dream, you have turned me into a craven malcontent—you have forced me to endure law’s delay and the scorn of despised love. Like Hamlet, I must suffer the slings and spears of fortune run amuck—a buffer to only the darker afflictions that lurk beyond the grave. So I continued to endure the theft of my lifeblood, I continued to hide behind dumpsters, I even refrained from proclaiming my love to she who had shredded my heart. But, finally, I suffered such a blow to my pride that I could keep silent no more.
Am I a narcissist? you wonder now. Of course, but where is the rub? The moguls, directors, and Hollywood harlots are boasters far greater than me. Consider the tedious galas we are forced to endure each year: the Oscars, the Grammys, the Golden Globes, the Hollywood Film Awards. These are but a few of the accolades they heap upon themselves. And where am I in these celebrations of ostentation and pomp? I am the pitiful ghost at the feast, I am the hobo at the door, I am the footman left out in the cold while the fires of foppery blaze. So do not hold me in contempt when I confess my self-love to you. Were it not for the laurels I grant myself, I would gather no glory at all.
You now wonder, Am I a masochist? I assure you the answer is no. But at times I indulge in self-flagellation that sinners alone should endure. Why else did I recently watch the Oscars on the television in my hovel? Why else did I sit through three fucking hours of speeches and phony applause? Had I been staked to an anthill with a desert sun searing my eyes, I would not have suffered a greater ordeal than enduring those endless awards. But, at least, that monotonous marathon afforded me her true measure. At least, I could fathom her cheapness when she accepted the Best Actress Award. Batting her eyes while freezing her smile, she tossed out kudos as though they were dimes. She thanked her director, she thanked her producer, she thanked her grandfather. She thanked her mother, her hairdresser, and half the men she had fucked. Had the master of ceremonies not intervened and ended the charade, I have no doubt she’d have thanked her chihuahua and Siamese cat as well. But not a word did she spare for me, her rock, her stalwart Pygmalion—the muse that had made her prize possible by supplying the script to her flick. This was the final outrage, this was the proverbial straw, that was the withering climax of my winter of discontent.
“Whore!” I shouted. “Charlatan !” I spared her no insult. But when the dimwit next door started pounding the wall, I banked my consuming rage. To plan my reprisal, to serve vengeance cold, I decided to take a walk through the streets and let the night air clear my head.
It was a measure of my desperation, a gauge to my discontent, that I strode the streets for an hour and cursed with every step. Wouldn’t the Tallyman nab me if I abandoned the rules of the chase—if I failed to duck into alleys or hide behind dumpsters and parked cars? No, I think not—he would allow me a moment of vulnerability. He would know that compassion was due to one so cheated as me.
I managed to talk myself out of my fear, but I froze when I spotted him. He was sitting on a bench in Jefferson Square Park, watching me like an owl. He seemed to be embarrassed, as though he were late for a date, but the pallid cast of a street lamp made him look as pale as a ghoul. Did he know I did not want his pity? Did he know I did not want his shame? Did he know his maudlin sympathy had only diminished me more?
“Earn your thirty pieces of silver!” I shouted. “Don’t sit like a crow on a fence!”
It seemed like an act of charity when he slowly rose from the bench, when he reached into his jacket where his dagger surely lay. Were courage not so fickle, I would have offered him my throat, but my bravado fled me as quickly as water down a drain. How tall he was, I marveled. How glowering his eyes.
I ran like a hunted rabbit. I ran like a greyhound on crack. I ran because my only choice was to run away or fight. Oh, Father in glorious heaven, have we no greater options than these? Are we disallowed thought or reflection? Are we disallowed nuance or calm? Oh, great and mighty progenitor, your script has made fools of us all.
Fight or flight. Such despicable choices should not have a season at all, so when I returned to my room, I vowed to mitigate my ire. Yes, the wrath of Ezekiel guided my hand as I wrote her another email, but because I still loved her dearly, I tempered the prophet’s resolve. I made no mention of ravishing her or slashing her ivory throat. I promised her I would do no more than cut off the tip of her tongue. After all, was she not a victim as well? Were others not pulling her strings? Had the moguls who had pilfered my gift not plundered her beauty as well?
I pressed the send button, releasing the email as though I were freeing a dove. And then I buried my face in my hands and wept for both of us.
After several more days of hiding in alleys and ducking behind parked cars, I received a text on my cellphone—a message from Ooglybuchi. Rejoice, I must put you in jail, it read. Please report to me at once. Relieved that my keeper had developed a spine, I hurried down to the Hall of Justice, and the wings of destiny lifted me as I mounted the stairs to his office.
“Meester Skudder,” Ooglybuchi said as I sat on the chair by his desk. “I have no choice—the probation chief insists that I lock you up.”
He seemed almost apologetic as he removed a pair of handcuffs from his desk, and I felt a seer’s obligation to set his mind at ease.
“Consider it prophecy,” I replied, and I offered him my wrists.
Ignoring my gesture, he adjusted his glasses and showed me the police report. “So why deed you threaten to cut out her tongue?”
“Ezekiel would want nothing less.”
“And what do you want, Nathan Skudder?” he asked.
“If it’s all the same with Ezekiel,” I admitted. “I would rather not cut out her tongue.”
Was it my abiding love for her that had forced this concession from me, or did I simply wish to keep her intact so she could keep on performing my scripts?
“Bravo, Meester Skudder,” Ooglibuchi replied. “That is very smart thinking, my friend. She may win another Oscar and give you some credit this time.”
The chuckle in his voice annoyed me, and I’m not a man easily mocked, but I strained to control my temper as I held out my wrists once again.
“Lock me up,” I insisted. “She can win all the Oscars she wants.”
“Put those hands behind your back,” he said, as he clicked the strands into place.
After he had secured my wrists and set the safety locks, he said, “I weel make a prophecy too. You’ll be out in a couple of weeks.”
Two weeks later, I puffed out my chest as I stood before a judge. I even curled my lip so I would look like a public menace. The judge, an old woman too small for her robe, reminded me of a vulture. Her eyes combed the spectator’s section as though she were searching for carrion.
“Is the complainant here?” she cawed.
“No, your honor,” the court clerk replied.
“Was the complainant served the subpoena?”
The clerk rose from her desk and handed the judge the receipt of service.
“Celebrities,” the judge muttered as though uttering a dirty word. “Why do they bother to file charges if they choose not to show up in court?”
She tossed the probation report aside then glanced in my direction. “You are free to go, Mister Skudder,” she snapped. “I don’t want to see you here again.”
“Keep me in jail,” I pleaded. “I’m not free to go anywhere.”
“What are you trying to say?” she snapped.
“Captain Ahab is after me.”
“I’m sorry about that,” she chided. “Go file a police report.”
I lingered at the podium and checked out the gallery. Although the courtroom was packed, I spotted him right away. He was sitting on a pew near the doorway and he appeared to be asleep, but his eyes popped open the moment the bailiff led me toward the holding tank.
“Is it assured?” I called to him.
It’s in the bank, he replied, and he winked like a conspirator before the bailiff locked me back up.
As I sat by myself in the holding tank, I trembled like a hare. Should I have called the judge a cunt? I wondered. Would that have delayed my release? At that moment, it seemed that my whole life was nothing but missed opportunities. So tight was the grief that gripped my chest, so barren the drought in my soul, that when Ooglybuchi entered the tank, I was glad for his company.
“It seems you’re an oracle also,” I said as he sat down on the bench beside me.
He sighed as though chastised and said to come see him as soon as I was out of jail.
“How hospitable of you,” I snapped. “Are you going to serve cookies and tea?”
“Meester Skudder,” he said. “I have accommodated you as much as the law will allow.”
“The law is a pussy.”
“Even so,” he replied, “you are living on borrowed time. My friend, do you really believe there is no justice under the sun?”
“Is that another prophecy?”
“It is merely an observation. In Kenya, a parasite like you would have disappeared a long time ago.”
“The lot of all prophets,” I grumbled.
“It is the lot of all stalkers as well.”
“Lock me up or I’ll kick your ass.”
He smiled and lowered his eyes. “My friend,” he said, “you hide among shadows. Your threat is an empty boast. How can I save you from phantoms when you are already a ghost?”
I was let out of jail that same morning and met my destiny right away. He was standing outside the maingate, writing into a notebook. The moment I stepped from the sallyport, he put the notebook away. He then gazed at me, and his eyes were as injured as those of Banquo’s ghost.
“Is it assured?” I asked him again.
It’s in the bank, he replied.
I sprinted to Valencia Street then hopped aboard a bus. I was determined not to perish without my dagger in my hand. Far better a Viking’s haven, the island of Valhalla, than to have no oasis awaiting me when I entered the void to come.
Arriving at my tenement building, I dashed into my room. I then snatched my knife from under my pillow and named it Providence. If Beowulf can name his blade, why not I? Was I facing a beast less unearthly? Had my date with darkness not come? When fighting the reaper, it is best to look him fearlessly in the eyes—to let him know that the dusk he inhabits cannot match the darkness in you.
Was I hoping a warrior’s resolve would frighten him away? Was I gambling that he had no stomach for the ringing of steel striking steel? If so, my hopes dissolved the moment I hopped through my window. He was waiting for me on the sidewalk, a taco in his hand. So unaffected was he by my bluster that he was having a casual lunch. But the hunger in his eyes remained as he munched upon beans and rice. Clearly, his appetite would not be sated by such pedestrian fare. I did not doubt that when he finished the taco, he would feast on my heart as well.
I ran to Golden Gate Park, but I spotted him under a tree, so I caught a bus to Chinatown where I hoped to buy some time. Spotting a Buddhist Temple, my heart leapt like a fawn. Why not ascend to Nirvana instead? That would not be a difficult task. Surely, I was a worthy candidate for selflessness and light? Had I not led a life of self-denial? Had I not suffered for my faith? Had I not loved a sinful woman in a manner both generous and chaste? Yes, Nirvana would do me just fine, so I hurried into the temple. As I knelt upon a prayer mat before the holy perch, the statue of Buddha looked down upon me and smiled like a happy drunk.
After an hour, I strode from the temple, suffused with a heavenly glow. He was waiting for me on the sidewalk, but his gaze was inhibited. His eyes seemed to say, I will not take your life when your soul is filled with light. No, not when an angel might claim you. Not when you’re primed for great flight.
“So how will I find my deliverance?” I shouted.
It’s in the bank, he said.
Was that a riddle? Was that a challenge? Was he still making sport of me? Or was he simply waiting for me to devolve before he cut out my heart? Whatever his thoughts, I knew that I would not get another chance.
“How much longer?” I hollered.
It will be soon, he replied.
As I dashed down the street, I struggled with the mystery of his words. It’s in the bank? Was this something more than a cruel and mocking jibe? The world owes me a million dollars, and I have never collected a cent.
It was not until I spotted a Wells Fargo branch that I finally unlocked the riddle. Whipping my blade from the sheath on my shin, I dashed into the building. “Give me your assets!” I hollered. “Give me your liberty bonds!” The young lady I grabbed as a hostage reminded me of her. Her tits were as shapely, her ass was as taut, her shriek seemed frozen in time. She even batted her heavy eyelashes as though they were butterfly wings. But this time, I would not be dissuaded. This time, I would not be fooled. I kept the knife against her throat until I heard a police siren wail.
How fitting it was that Officer Sisyphus burst into the bank. His pistol was out of his holster, and he pointed it at my chest. When I let my blade clatter upon the floor, he grinned like a lottery winner.
“This time we gotcha, Skudder,” he said. “Put cher hands behind yer back.”
So where am I now? you ask. I’m at the Federal Medical Center in Ayr, Massachusetts. It’s a therapeutic correctional facility twenty miles from Walden Pond. I am here for ten years, a stretch that puts Thoreau’s petty sojourn to shame. The feds could have given me more time, but they thought I was out of my head. Oh, irony, thy name is Nathan. Oh, stealth thy name is Skudder. My mind was never clearer than when I pretended to rob that bank.
“Simplify, simplify, simplify,” were that hermit’s most famous words. And there is nothing more basic than a cell on a lockdown range. A bunk, a cot, an impenetrable door—what more do I need than these? I now work in such a fever that I produce thirty pages each day. I do not even stop my production to go to the exercise yard.Ah, nemesis, you now worry me less than the fleas that nip at my art—the insects my fiery pages will turn into cinder and dust. Their cowardliness cannot contain me. Their plots cannot stop my pen. Because I am no violable genius. I have thwarted the Tallyman.
James Hanna is a retired probation officer and a former fiction editor. Due to his background, the criminal element figures strongly in much of his writing. James’ stories have appeared in over thirty journals, including Sixfold, Crack the Spine, and The Literary Review. His books, four of which have won awards, are available on Amazon. https://www.amazon.com/-/es/James-Hanna/e/B00WNH356Y?ref_=dbs_p_ebk_r00_abau_000000