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C.T. Ballentine

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6 | PART 7

In part 1 of this serialized novella, mini e-mail salvos in an ongoing war between Nietzsche and professor crabtree, and the revelation that the philosopher-cum-ad agency number cruncher knew not that love of his life's name. Ballentine is the man behind the Aftercrossword Special zine and a frequent contributor to THE2NDHAND. For more of his work, see the THE2NDHAND archive.

A new game was afoot. Along a picturesque side street, decked out in an even assortment of middle-age oak trees -- the senior thesis for an aspiring civil engineer brought to full-color life -- in the heart of Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood, young Eddie Soapback, along with his even younger brother Luger, set both eyes sternly on an orange traffic cone, its peeling black base propped half on the curb, half on a storm grating. "The trick," he said, spitting, without a twitch from his head, hat cocked, as it were, preciously over his left ear, clipping it like a sloppy old barber, "is to hit the grating, not the curb, see. You bounce it off the curb, sure, it's not falling down into the sewer, but it's got all these little bumps, pebbles, like, cemented onto its surface. The metal's smooth, you can predict how it's gonna bounce. Little bit of math, you can do it every time. All about angles, trajectory, all that nonsense. You'll learn it when you're older like me. But it only works with the grating, that's for the thinking man. Not the curb, that's kid's stuff. No skill, completely random."

The rock sailed from Eddie's hand. Plop, and right into the bad business of an entire block's worth of wastewater. Still air startled by Luger's cackle, his exaggerated dry heaves and teary eyes aimed at his older brother, who had yet to even hit the traffic cone, let alone land one in the tiny hole in its top, as promised.

"Like to see you try," Eddie muttered.

Silently looking on, one Friedrich Nietzsche saw Luger Soapback kick the cone over, which produced a loud huff from Eddie, who then slapped Luger in the back of the head, who in turn stole Eddie's White Sox hat and began chewing on its brim.

Doesn't one move to a place like this to avoid children?

Along the roadside: a line of SUVs and octagonal mini mini-vans, the sweeping flow of inevitability. Change.

What happened here?

An October morning, years before, his insides, pleasantly warm from a hazelnut coffee, its embrace lingering playfully in his upper bowels, mixed with the newly cool air in a feeling only describable to Fried as "Early Chicago Autumn." Not a scent, or sight, but a full-on feeling. An Idea. A Concept. Something akin to a tender manliness, rugged but with the loving mother hug of an unpacked sweater. Fall is my favorite, he thought, as the realtor showed him his loft.

"Spacious," the realtor had said, and more after that he had said as well, but all was lost on Fried's ear canals but for the one word echoing over and over again. Spacious, spacious, spacious. It really is very spacious, he thought, while somewhere the realtor, all grins and potential handshakes, droned on about variable interest rates and steadily decreasing crime rates, lots of other rates. But the spaciousness rate, that was fine and for Fried, a man of simple physical needs, that was that.

No longer was that that, or anything at all like that for that matter.

From his coffee table a Scandinavian witch woman stared out at him with piercing eyes from beneath a flowing silk bonnet. "New Looks For Fall," it said.

New looks indeed.

Fried hummed a mellow tune.

Once I was a bachelor
A sweet fun-loving bachelor
I came and went through that door
They were magical times
Oh, once I was a bachelor
A drunken weary bachelor
Plowed ladies like a tractor
They were magical times

"What was that, Friedrich sweetie?"

Bidding the Soapback boys good-bye, Fried left his post at the window. "Nothing," he tugged at a brambly patch of three-day stubble. "Nothing at all."

Hadn't the back of my mind called out for just this through all those wild, forgotten affairs, in the peak of my joyful glee, like an old Jewish mother with her knobby knuckles saying settle down, rest a while. But I don't like this. Simply that I do not enjoy it, nothing more. I would run, I should. Funny, though, how we can still be jealous through it all. What poor creatures humans can be, what flawed design.

The blow dryer's highway blast cut the wheels from his train of thought, underpinned by the current of a faucet running full bore, a cloud of perfume cooking like toast.

Fried missed the times when, at the day's end, the five o'clock whistle, he would tromp through suburban weeds and accidental swamps, through lands of no use, industrial afterthoughts, to train stations three stops down the line. Hours. Just thinking, completely free.

Ah, but now painted talons choke at my heart, bleeding it dry and silent, the fingers hers, the pink of her nails, one hand alone, the other wrapped around another waist. His waist, Angus's. Strung along Friedrich Nietzsche. See me now Crabtree, see me now and laugh.

Over three weeks had passed since his last e-mail to Ol' Crabby. The lonely professor sat behind a cold mahogany desk, the entire world a keystroke away and yet, at the same time, miles and miles and miles. Fried could relate. They missed each other, the cranky old men.

We are dinosaurs, waiting to rot, become fuel for a van to drive around Baby.

Party line read: nothing between the two of them, Madeline and Angus, strictly platonic, But when have I ever felt something purely platonic for a woman? Oedipal complexes, even! Can this Angus fellow be any different? Will he not cave under the awesome pressure of biology, a thousand years of instinct bursting from between his teenage thighs? weak allusions to some secret business deal -- real top secret shenanigans -- though the prospect seemed ludicrous.

I mean, goddamn already, it's one thing that she's said, "Well, old Fried's just not my cup of tea these days, I'm gonna go sew my loving oats outside the high school parking lot," but must she invent these goddamn ludicrous tales to cover her tracks? Oh, the cruel futility of cheating hearts!

Chugging like the sound track to an aerobics video, Madeline's phone grew steadily louder. Without even a glance, without a smile, she whisked the dancing, beeping unit to the foyer, hidden behind the now-closed door, only the slightest harmonics of their hushed tones escaping to Fried's ear.

Once, Fried, in making bold generalities regarding his personality, might have triumphantly claimed, "I am never one to yell. I keep my wits about me, finding any travesty can be either averted or solved with the solid use of a level head." A week prior, he began yelling, and at times, it seemed, he never stopped.

"I know where you're going, I know you're out with him!"

"Friedrich, darling, don't you care about me? Don't you want me to be safe, to be well?"

He puffed his sunken chest. An arm floating toward his sternum like an advancing general of the 18th century. "I can keep you safe and well just fine by myself you know, without the help of some long-haired teenager!"

"I promise you it's more complicated than it seems. I need you to trust me. Like we said, the moon and the stars, all of that. It's still true. Could I ever lie to something, someone, like that?"

"God, you're nothing but an actor, playing dumb old Fried for his advertising salary. It's a perpetual adolescence you're stuck in. I will not, I repeat, I absolutely will not play the father role for you -- paying your bills, housing you -- the rock you rebel against, out all night with imbecile teenage boys."

Framed in Plaster of Paris, its curving, etched lines weaving all together like a crown of figs, Madeline looked positively made for the stage -- her performance: heart warming as usual, and every time before Fried had fallen like a fool into the paradise of trust. Faith. Houses built on the sand. For an hour, maybe two, he could believe it all, until the wind crept into his bed like fingers of doubt, tickling him awake. But here she was, he realized, inviting him to play the patsy, while she served as T & A to a wannabe James Bond, complete with pimples, not old enough, probably, even to sit behind the wheel of any Aston Martin. This he would do no longer; no more would Friedrich Nietzsche play the chump.

Gallant knight, altogether a more suitable role for one such as Fried. Defender from evil. Or sleuth. He'd found her name in her wallet, quite tactful solution to an awkward problem, he thought. He didn't know her name, and you can't very well ask the woman you're living with, whom you're protecting from the unnamed forces of quote-unquote evil, whom, while candles burn low to their tarnished steel dishes, you make mad-dog love to, screaming tender feelings into each others flushed ears -- you can't very well say to that person, "By the way, what's you're name?" And so he figured it out. Madeline Blewart. The rest he already knew, 5'6", 118 pounds, an address, as he'd assumed, from the artistic discovery corner of town. Point being, Fried solved problems, whether through force or through guile. Someone wanted his lady dead, shouldn't he take care of it?

Emerging from the door, her mouse eyes saying, I don't want to say this but I need to, please understand.

I believe you no longer bad actress! Phony! Ham fisted tramp!

"Friedrich, I have to. I love you."

"Leave this time, Madeline, and it's for good."

"Don't say that. Not now."

"Oh, no. Definitely now. Absolutely now." Calm was his face. No longer would he find release in booming volume, now the icy cold fire of silence, all the stronger. "Should have been long ago, but no longer. Now, indeed."

"Friedrich, the world depends on me, try to put yourself aside."

"The world? The whole wide world? Does sweet, darling Angus hold it in his widdle-biddy hands."

A look of finality, her nose wrinkled hard above a resolute mouth, Madeline said, tinny and soft, "Without me its doomed. We're all doomed."

Turning on his heels toward all his lost space, his laugh loud and fake like the younger Soapback boy's, Fried dismissed the woman with a flicker of his wrist and a choked up, snotty snort. Encased in the doorframe, for a moment, she waited, the face he had in recent memory told, directly in a candle lit post-coital embrace, that he had found a fresh purpose within. Leaving a memory to linger, to fester and grow in the regret of a vacuum's lonely liberation. She blew a kiss, intercepted by a solitary tear, dancing one last dance in the nuclear winter set low on the air, knowing the song was soon to end. The door snipped quietly shut behind her.

Several belts of whisky later, and Fried sent purses, matched pink luggage, and other assorted memories flying out the window to the sidewalk below, curling irons and high heels scattering to all directions of the wind, one white stiletto heel wrapping itself snuggly into the top of the Soapback boy's traffic cone. Little Luger howled, "See man, that's a thinking man's toss right there! Trajectory and shit I'm gonna learn when I get older! You dumb motherfucker!"

PART 1 | PART 2 | PART 3 | PART 4 | PART 5 | PART 6 | PART 7

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