Buzzards in the Projection Booth

Fiction
H.H. Morris


Tornado, population 937, the largest town in Walnut County, Missouri, was abuzz this Monday with theories about Gil Corbin’s weekend disappearance. Corbin taught math at Walnut County Consolidated High School, located on the eastern edge of Tornado. The most prevalent rumor said he’d run from or been caught by a father, husband, brother, uncle, or male cousin of one of the many girls who’d passed algebra or geometry only because she scheduled unclad tutoring from her teacher. Other gossip suggested that one of Corbin’s failed business adventures had him leaving town with only a short lead over bankruptcy judges and creditors.

Jon Staggers avoided adding his own theories to the mix, choosing instead to listen over lunch at Janet’s Highway Café—one of several businesses in which his grandfather had left him a silent interest. If no one was around, Janet didn’t collect his check. Today he’d pay and consider a greasy cheeseburger and fries an investment in more than cholesterol. He’d inherited the weekly Tornado Independent, Walnut County’s only surviving newspaper, from his father almost five years ago, and as publisher and editor-in-chief he had to figure out what to write about Corbin’s unexcused absence from work and family life. He couldn’t say what he thought—that based on what he’d experienced and observed while a student in high school, Corbin’s disappearance improved the educational environment.

Trout season went well. The county’s court was in session and had just finished a trial of six local burglars who specialized in making tourists’ vacations memorable in the wrong way. Jon’s correspondents generated detailed accounts of the comings, goings, and doings of their friends and extended families. Alexander’s Funeral Home celebrated a banner week, having supervised seven buryings, four of which starred prominent citizens, thus making the obituary page overflow into the classified ads. Count on Gil Corbin to disappear at an inconvenient time. Corbin had disliked Jon even more than he did most male students ever since he learned that the tall athlete was Frank Staggers’ son.

Corbin had taught Jon algebra. Jon was good at math, but you wouldn’t know that from his grade that year. Frank Staggers was one of several local businessmen who laughed publicly at Corbin’s pathetic efforts at becoming an entrepreneur. Furthermore, Frank gleefully recounted the teacher’s various financial woes in the pages of the Independent. Corbin didn’t have the nerve to fail Jon, and he didn’t have the sense to realize the young man would become a nasty enemy when he inherited the newspaper. Corbin’s disappearance looked like an opportunity for the editor to demonstrate that Euripedes had been correct about the mills of the gods grinding slowly but exceedingly fine.

Jon visited Madison, the county seat, and found Deputy Martin Goff, the sheriff’s top investigator, in his office. Martin was almost 50 years old and not yet a coronary statistic. That might qualify as a miracle. He was six feet tall and before breakfast weighed in at approximately 320 pounds. He thrived on jelly doughnuts, strong coffee, Budweiser, and two packs of Winstons a day. He’d have been kicked off most city or suburban forces for being a slob. He did well in Walnut County because the sheriff wanted brains, not the ability to outrun juvenile offenders who got caught spray painting a water tower.

Martin provided basic information: Gil Corbin, 41, had been reported missing Sunday night by Laura Corbin, 39, his wife of 19 years. She’d last seen him Saturday morning at breakfast. She’d expected him home for dinner.

“Laura expected Gil for Saturday dinner,” Jon said, “but she didn’t report him missing until Sunday evening. Why the delay, Martin?”

“She told me she assumed he’d wrecked the car and was in a hospital and that we’d notify her. I asked her why she didn’t call nearby hospitals to see if her husband was a patient. She said she hadn’t thought of it.”

“She believed he was in a motel in the next county helping a local teen angel pass geometry by learning angles not covered in the textbook.”

“That would fit what I hear about him—and I’m waiting for the first female to give me courtroom evidence, Jon. Whatever Corbin was doing Saturday, it apparently didn’t interfere with his driving abilities. Houston found his car.”

“Houston? A deputy I don’t know? If that’s the last name, I’ve never even heard of the family.”

Martin said, “Houston, Texas. Named after Sam Houston, who was a general and a politician and didn’t like Mexicans.”

Martin Goff suffered from a prickly personality probably caused by the rash typical of fat men who sweat a great deal.

“Meaning Corbin ran away,” Jon said. “What from?”

“If you find out, let me know, Jon. His wife claims everything was heavenly at home. Max White says Corbin had become the model teacher. I checked court records. There are no civil suits against him. I did hear rumors of a business scheme so stupid that even Corbin had to stop and think it over, but men don’t run from dumb dreams. In a way, that’s too bad. Most premeditated crimes are dumb. If people ran from stupidity, those crimes would never happen.”

“Then you’d be out of a job.”

“Nope,” he said. “There are plenty of unplanned crimes. Passion and opportunity drive them. They’re hard to solve, Jon, because you can’t find a logical basis for them to have occurred in the first place.”

“What about Corbin’s disappearance?”

“Until I find evidence of foul play, I have to assume it’s voluntary—and more logical than you might suspect. A man can’t stand his job. He’s been married almost twenty years and suddenly feels aged. His daughters are teens and don’t think they need him, even if they still do. His wife has a good job and can make the mortgage payments on her own. Maybe something went wrong between them and she threw him out of the house. Nothing illegal, Jon. Lying about such situations isn’t moral, but it’s understandable. Look back at why the first man and woman in your family to migrate west left back east or Europe. The reason probably ain’t polite. I don’t care how tight Homeland Security gets. In America, the right to walk out of a lousy job or marriage is too fundamental to take away from citizens.”

The obese deputy seemed a peculiar source for the sentiment. Martin’s wife had walked out on him 50 pounds and 15 years ago—or run out, since she and her skinny boyfriend had to get clear of Walnut County before one of Martin’s colleagues arrested them on a phony charge. While Martin was no one’s favorite drinking buddy, he was popular with other deputies because his brains had helped most of them out of a jam at one time or another.

Jon said, “Corbin was last seen Saturday morning by the woman who reported him gone Sunday night. He could have driven to Houston easily in that time frame. Are any high school girls missing?”

“Not that we’ve heard about.”

“I’ll check with White at the high school.”

“Let me know what he tells you,” Martin said. “He gave me what the law demands and nothing more when I talked to him earlier today. My guess is that he hopes Corbin is all the way to Mexico City and still moving south. White isn’t the first administrator to cover for Corbin’s sex games, but if Walnut County is lucky, he’ll be the last.”

*

Max White was approximately 30 years old and in his third year as high school principal. Like most of the students for whom he was responsible, he saw little future in Walnut County. The small school was to become the first entry in the administrative section of his resume, a starter job that should eventually lead to a six-figure salary and a comfortable portfolio for early retirement to Florida or Arizona. White was marginally competent and had apparently never heard about being nice to those you meet on the way up because you’ll meet the same people on your way down. Downward trips didn’t exist in his shoddily-constructed dream world.

Etta Jenkins had been the secretary at Walnut County Consolidated for as long as the school had existed—40 years. She hadn’t been young when hired. When Jon was in high school, students had joked that her first job had been inventorying animals for Noah. The lady remembered every student who’d gone through the school and immediately reminded the editor that Jon Staggers was no stranger to the principal’s office. When he told her why he was there, she broke out her meticulous records to answer his first question.

According to Friday’s time sheet, Corbin had left the building at 4:13 p.m., later than most of the faculty, normal for him.

“He sits in his room and grades papers Friday afternoons. He doesn’t want them hanging over his head on weekends,” she explained. “There are those who’ll tell you it’s a sign that he’s finally matured as a teacher and a family man.”

A barely perceptible toss of her head and a disgusted expression showed that one of “those who’ll tell you” an obvious whopper was Max White. Jon wasn’t surprised to learn that Etta Jenkins was among the detractors who thought White’s pose as the Messiah who’d save Walnut County from a lack of management jargon was a bad joke for which the taxpayers got cheated.

“You can probably answer the next question better than the person I need to ask, Mrs. Jenkins,” he said, “but I don’t want to cause trouble by attributing the answer to you. See if his majesty is receiving.”

“You remind me of your grandfather, Jon. He was an honorable rascal, too.”

God bless small towns. No one mourned Frank Staggers—and that included Frank’s only child. Jon had been named for his grandfather because Jonathan was a traditional name among Staggers males since the first Jonathan had migrated west from the dying Confederacy with a wagon, two aged mules, and his commanding officer’s young, pretty, and reckless wife. If Jon was like his grandfather, who reputedly had been a worthy heir to the first Jonathan’s name, honorable rascal was a fair description.

Mrs. Jenkins left the door between inner and outer offices open while she informed White that Jon Staggers wished to see him about Gil Corbin’s absence. The principal said he didn’t have time. She suggested it was unwise to treat the local newspaper editor rudely, to which he replied that he’d treat a goddamn hillbilly journalist however he damn well pleased and reminded her that she was a mere secretary. If students had repeated that conversation to Jon, the editor would have doubted them. Etta Jenkins abhored profanity and objected to its use. Furthermore, there was nothing mere about the lady, secretary or otherwise.

She came out, quietly closed the door, and smiled at Jon grimly. He nodded to indicate that he’d heard. No matter how much contempt White had for the area or for Jon’s profession, his refusal to see a journalist, make hypocritical noises about a wonderful teacher having gone missing, and give the illusion of cooperation was stupid. Perhaps White had a reason to cover up what Martin Goff had yet to find.

Jon had entered the school in pursuit of one story. He exited with a different story. Its dimensions were amorphous, but its aroma made a skunk’s artillery smell sweet.

*

White ordered Mrs. Jenkins not to inform Jon on Tuesday or Wednesday that Corbin was absent. She technically obeyed, informing Jon only about the order. Martin learned no more than Jon had. Martin and Jon were good old mountain boys united against an outsider who thought them contemptible. Tuesday afternoon the large lawman gave the Independent a scathing quote about the school system’s failure to aid the deputies in their search for a man who might be dead or in dire need of assistance.

The Independent was printed late Wednesday afternoon for distribution Thursday morning. Jon obeyed what his father had called the prime rule of journalism and kept the story on page one objective. That made it the Gospel According to Martin Goff. Only the deputy’s quote and Jon’s statement that White had refused to meet with a representative of the Independent or make any comment on Corbin’s disappearance suggested that the school system might be covering for a teacher who preyed on girls in need of a passing grade. Jon saved that charge for his editorial. Since he wrote editorials for less than half the weekly issues, he alerted readers that one existed by announcing it in a sidebar to the main story.

“Unfortunately,” he concluded, “the failure of the high school administration to be forthcoming lends credibility to rumors that have long circulated about the extracurricular activities of the missing man. Instead of putting the gossip permanently to rest, White has added the new suspicion that Corbin misbehaved with the knowledge, if not the approval, of the school system.”

On Thursday afternoon Martin showed up at Jon’s office and said, “Get your jacket and a camera. I have one of those leads that may amount to nothing or may be the break we’re looking for. If it pans out, I’ll tell you what I want the public to know.”

The Independent would provide crime scene photos, thus saving the sheriff’s department’s a few dollars. It was the small-town version of checkbook journalism, a barter from which both parties profited.

King of the Hill, located beside the main north-south route through the county, had been the area’s only drive-in theater. It closed permanently before Jon was born, a victim of TV and newly installed air conditioning in the four indoor theaters, which soon after lost their battle with TV. Now there was no place but cable, satellite TV, or a home entertainment system to see an uncut, uninterrupted movie in Walnut County. Corbin had spent the past four months trying to raise venture capital to re-erect the outdoor screen, repair the crumbling projection booth and snack bar, and install a modern sound system so he could reopen King of the Hill. Most area businessmen considered the scheme the genesis of another Corbin joke, more proof that he should stick to teaching and invest in nothing riskier than a money market account or certificate of deposit.

Eight buzzards took off as Martin’s car bounced through the ruts of former aisles to the projection booth. The birds came from inside the building. The men got out of the county cruiser. The concrete-block building smelled even worse than Martin did.

“My God!” Jon said.

“A farm wife reported the buzzards and said they’d been in the area since the weekend. She initially assumed a deer had died. When she read your story, she remembered seeing Corbin hanging around the property. All we need to do now is find out if that’s him. It isn’t a deer. Deer don’t wear clothes.”

The corpse lay on its back. The buzzards, probably aided by rats, had destroyed the man’s exposed face, tearing away the soft tissue and rendering him unrecognizable. They’d also dragged the flannel shirt up, ripping it in several places, so that they could gnaw on the torso. The jeans had proved tougher, so the lower body remained intact. Almost gagging, Jon snapped several pictures. Martin didn’t seem bothered by the stench. He reached under the corpse, fumbled in a jeans pocket, and found a wallet. The two men went outside.

“Corbin,” he said, showing Jon the driver’s license. “Let’s take a look at your pictures while we wait for backup. You couldn’t have shot from any angle without picking up brass. It looked twenty-two.”

“Any notion about the shooter’s identity?”

“I’ve got notions, but I may never have enough evidence to speak a name. Here’s a detail I didn’t share earlier. Corbin’s car was on blocks, the tires missing, the chassis stripped. That’s how you expect to find vehicles abandoned in the neighborhood the driver chose, Houston says. The interior had been wiped clean. No corpse nearby. The boys who commit homicides in the area generally leave their handiwork where the citizens can see it until the law takes the body away.”

“Who called you about the buzzards?” Jon asked.

“One of my nameless suspects. When I wanted to know how firm her identification of Corbin was, she said she’d have to see the man with his pants down to be sure, but she remembered his face from class.”

“She’s angry at him after however many years?”

“Angry at herself, I suspect,” Martin said. “Is a grade worth hooking?”

“The morality preached in churches says no. A more pragmatic morality says it depends on what a girl uses the grade for. High school graduation might be worth it if she plans to find better paying work than a custodial job.”

“How about college?”

Jon said, “Tests help determine acceptance or rejection and measure what the student knows or can do, especially in subjects like math.”

“So Corbin’s grade means nothing to students?” he persisted.

“I’m sure it still means something if you’re going to college or are a marginal student whose parents believe in the high school diploma. I think a lot of girls who are neither would have nothing to do with him. His run of luck over the years proves he possessed canniness in picking his pigeons.”

Martin said, “A run of luck can end, Jon. It only took one wrong pick, if that’s why he’s lying here.”

*

Laura Corbin taught third grade in Fillmore Elementary, a school ten miles south of Tornado. A tired-looking brunette, she politely received Jon the following Sunday. Her daughters, Grace, a lush young woman of 17, and Mina, already buxom at 13, said hello and left the room. Mrs. Corbin added little to what she’d told Martin. Gil went broke frequently. They’d nearly lost the house a couple of times. His heart had been in the right place, however. He wanted his girls to have a better start in life than he and Laura had received. Neither she nor Jon brought up the gossip to which he’d alluded in the editorial. A wife whose husband had been notoriously unfaithful observed Cicero’s dictum to speak only good about the dead. In this case, eliminating the negative made for a brief interview.

Walnut County had an elected school board of seven members, one each from the small high school districts that had been rolled into the consolidated school. By Sunday evening Jon heard from five. Three assured him that they’d attempted to investigate the rumors. The other two tried indignation. He explained to the upset pair that he intended to start by interviewing girls who’d been in school with him. Then he’d branch out to talk with those who’d gone before and after his high school years, but when Corbin was there. Now that the math teacher posed no threat to little brothers or sisters, younger cousins, or sons and daughters, anonymity should elicit steamy details.

Jon told all five who contacted him, “I’m not letting it go because the known offender died. If one teacher did it, and I have better evidence that he did than the board wants to believe, there might be other teachers who also consider the high school their private harem.”

The board members who contacted Jon were unanimous about one point: Max White was so eager to set the record straight that he’d make time to see Jon whenever the editor went to the school. The smile that Etta Jenkins gave him Monday morning suggested Jon was the greatest student who’d ever gone through Walnut County Consolidated. She ushered him into the office.

White tried indignation: “There was no need for you—”

“Try this for need,” Jon told him, tossing one of the more graphic photos of Corbin’s remains on his desk.

White turned pale and swayed. Fearing the principal might be one of those lower animal forms who use projectile vomiting as a defense mechanism, Jon moved out of range.

“Since I came here, I’ve received three complaints from former students,” White said, aggression gone. “Former students. Girls beyond any danger of retribution for filing a false report. Corbin denied their charges. His word against theirs. After looking at the girls’ records and talking with a couple of men on the board of education…” His shrug was better than a comment, but a shrug would be difficult to print.

Jon said, “The girls are also beyond retribution for filing a true report. I can finish your sentence. They come from two radically different backgrounds. Either they were running wild and Corbin didn’t have an exclusive franchise on their bodies, or they came from homes where the greatest sin a child could commit was bringing home a bad report card. What about current students?”

“None. Corbin had reformed.”

“What did he catch?”

“Fatherhood,” White said. “Mr. Staggers, there may have been a coverup before my watch. When I came here, Corbin had gone straight—if he ever really misbehaved, that is. You can check with any faculty member. Grace, his oldest daughter, is a mature young woman. She drives them to school most mornings. King of the Hill, an investment several members of the board have warned me against, was meant to secure her future. Personally, I think helping her get a scholarship at a good university would do more for the girl, but that’s none of my business. If Gil Corbin ever saw girls as prey, he eventually began seeing them as daughters. You really have no proof he saw them as prey in the first place.”

If he took the same attitude with Martin and the other deputies, White would find his career derailed within a year. He assumed that if he had no proof, the yokels lacked it.

Jon said, “You feel confident no one from his present shot him. How about from his past?”

“More than likely he fell over a drug deal and got himself killed, if you want my opinion. Students tell me that King of the Hill is a rendezvous for some rather nasty specimens.”

Teens occasionally parked in the deserted area. So did slightly older men and women. Their drug of choice was a six pack. The meth labs and users concentrated themselves in less visible sections of the county. Part of the stench in the projection booth came from males using it as a latrine. Jon let White think he’d fooled him. He knew a number of women to call, including five whose morals definitely deserved reproach, since they’d had affairs with their friendly newspaper editor. A couple of them were so dumb that he was sure Corbin had worked a deal with them so they could graduate.

*

White’s story hung together too well to be true. The faculty would lie to protect a dead colleague and themselves. Martin had trusted Jon with a detail he didn’t want made public. Corbin, who carried a wad of cash to impress people with his imagined standing as a wealthy entrepreneur, carried nothing but change in his pockets when found. His credit cards had been in his wallet, however. The law gave the contents of his pockets to the survivors. White had asked Grace about the amount of money Corbin had been found with. Grace had told the principal the truth. White had then concocted his theory about the passing, murderous robber.

When Jon came back from lunch that Monday, he cut through the copy center. A different perspective on the story collated a job. He told Betty Hillen to come to his office when she finished the task. Because another employee could overhear them, he didn’t tell her why.

Betty, a blonde who went to school mornings and earned work-study credit as well as wages for five afternoons a week in the copy center, was a senior. She and Grace Corbin, also a senior, had been fellow members of the drama club. Betty was still active in drama, although Grace no longer showed up in cast lists. The Independent carried school news because parents not only subscribed, but also bought extra papers for distant friends and relatives whenever a child’s name appeared.

Jon hadn’t meant to frighten Betty, but the young woman walked into his office looking the way students generally look when sent to see the principal.

“What’s wrong, Mr. Staggers?” she asked nervously.

“Betty, don’t assume that my wanting to see you means you’ve done something wrong. I need some information for a story. That’s all.”

She gingerly perched on a chair and stared at her faded jeans. Betty knew which story Jon meant.

He said, “You and Grace Corbin are friends and in drama together.”

“Is this gonna go in the paper?”

“Betty, I’ll keep your name out of whatever I print, just like Martin Goff and I did for the woman who phoned him about the buzzards at King of the Hill. A man was murdered. Maybe he deserved death, or maybe he didn’t. I want to learn more about him than I knew years ago when I took algebra from him.”

She studied Jon’s face for a minute, as if sizing him up. “Grace and I are friends. She dropped out of drama a couple years ago, not long before it got so I didn’t want to visit her house unless Mrs. Corbin was home.”

“Yeah, you’re the right age for Gil Corbin and prettier than most,” Jon said. “The smart chicken doesn’t visit Mr. Fox in his den.”

“Not me, Mr. Staggers. Grace.”

Her remark made sickening sense, a twist Martin hadn’t suggested and Jon had never suspected. “What did you see, Betty?”

She said, “His hands on her. He’d pat her bottom or fix it so an arm brushed her boobs. One time I went to the bathroom and couldn’t make the toilet flush. When I came out Mr. Corbin had his hand down her blouse and was squeezing.”

“Did Grace say anything to you afterwards?”

“No. The scene embarrassed her, though. People say that he took her to restaurants and treated her like a date. None of the guys in school went with her. It was like she had an ownership tag that said this girl belongs to Daddy.”

“Think she liked the attention?” Jon asked.

“For awhile. I went through a phase when I dreamed about replacing Mom as my daddy’s favorite. Now that I’m eighteen, I’m grateful that he teased his little girl, kept on loving me, and never touched me. Grace didn’t get that chance to appreciate her father. I think her mother understood, though. Mrs. Corbin acted nice to Grace and her friends.”

“Are you sure the arrangement was consummated?”

“That they actually did it?”

“Yes.”

She said, “I can’t prove it one way or the other, Mr. Staggers. But he looked at her like a guy looking at his steady and thinking about the next time. She had birth control pills in her purse.”

“When you came in here, Betty, you acted as guilty as if you’d been cheating on your time or stealing supplies or petty cash. I know you’re an honest young woman. I’m also sure you’re supposed to tell me a lie. Lots of people lie to newspaper editors, and I won’t fire you if you insist on joining the parade. But if you’re planning to give Grace or her mother an alibi for this weekend, think carefully before you lie to Martin Goff.”

Her hand went to her mouth as she stifled a scream.

Jon wondered if Martin was going to feel like an idiot when informed about this interview or if the deputy already suspected incest. He said, “That car didn’t get to Houston on its own.”

“No. Grace drove there and flew home. She was supposed to have spent the weekend at another girl’s place with two other guests. She wasn’t there. The girls in it with me are Ruth Simpson and Adelaide Markham.”

“If she flew, her name is on file. You have to show identification when you buy a ticket. The lie never had a chance. Don’t get yourself caught in it. If you want to call the other girls and warn them, feel free to do so. You can cover your friends’ normal transgressions, but murder and armed robbery generally make those who cover them accessories eligible for the same sentence. This sounds like first-degree homicide. It doesn’t get more serious unless you commit treason in wartime.”

“Didn’t she have a right to kill him?” Betty asked.

“No. She had a damn good reason. There’s a difference. Make your calls fast. When you leave here, I’m phoning Martin Goff. My word is good. I said your name doesn’t go in the paper. A deputy sheriff isn’t the newspaper.”
pencil

“I’ve been a publishing writer since 1963. Your magazine once helped me enjoy this guilty habit.” E-mail: hhmorris[at]iximd.com

Loki and Erda

Fiction
H.H. Morris


I pulled the unrented rental car into a parking area beside the convenience store, backing into a space across the lot from the building. Erda and I moved several paces to get a better angle on the gas pumps and to escape the air-conditioned vehicle. Any form of temperature control disqualifies our tricks, which was why all this morning’s action had to occur on the apron instead of inside the cool store.

“Loki,” Erda said, “if we weren’t temporarily not mortal, your driving would terrify me.”

I ignored her griping. Those sentenced to terms as earth goddesses hate being cooped up. When we fly, Erda’s air rage begins the moment she receives her boarding pass.

“Four cars with seven adults and two children pumping gas or doing something else outside the vehicles,” I said. “Let’s start simply and build up to the finale. If you see anyone smoking, warn me at once.”

Erda’s answer was a barrel of empty oil cans lurching sideways to strike a woman on the hip before overturning on the apron. I yanked down the absurdly long, low-riding shorts on a teen boy, who scraped his knees and the palms of his outstretched hands when he tripped. Erda hurled four oil cans through a maze of pumps and hoses to dent a Lexus’s hood. The man filling its tank screamed and jumped, yanking the hose out to spray gas on the car and his shoes.

A woman stepped out of the convenience store with a cardboard tray containing two large drinks and a wrapped ham and Swiss sandwich. I levitated the drinks and poured them on her head. She tossed tray and sandwich in the air. Buttons popped as Erda ripped open her blouse to expose her torso. I took control of the sandwich before it came down and redirected it to smack a man’s nose hard enough to make him bleed. The bread must have been stale. Erda scooped up a bucket of dirty, greasy water and drenched the woman she’d hit with the barrel.

Reaching his boiling point, the Lexus owner grabbed his trusty cell phone to call 911. I quickly programmed it to play Charles Ives’s entire Fourth Symphony at high volume.

“Time to become a victim,” I told Erda.

“I’m ready. It’s too hot for clothes.”

Her internal thermostat had two settings—too hot for clothes and too cold for nudity. She wore only a loose sundress. As I slid it up her body, she screamed, twisted, danced, and raised her arms so that it came off easily. Exposing her ample charms gave us no points, but it made people less likely to suspect us as sources of the telekinetic confusion we sowed.

“Let’s serve the main course,” I said when her dress hit the concrete.

There were eight double pumps—two rows, each containing two sets of two. We yanked the hoses out and started the gasoline flowing. About 50 gallons hit the apron, cars, and people before someone inside had the bright idea of killing the power. Erda picked up her dress and got in the car. I briefly surveyed the damage before getting behind the wheel.

“Approximately an hour to Rehoboth Beach,” I told her.

“I’ll dress when we get in heavy traffic. Wow! Those tricks left me high, Loki.”

She got higher when we received our initial point total followed by two adjustments upward as the judges discovered how much hell a gasoline spill causes. The immortals have mental blocks when it comes to technology.

“Let’s steal big steaks,” Erda said. “I’ll cook.”

“While you cook, I’ll mix potent martinis for so long as one of us can stand up.”

Most people think a faux earth goddess should be lusty and cheerful. Erda measures up in the lust department, but her mood swings are radical, frequent, and unpredictable. She was altogether too high for me to bother her with my worries about why our tricks at the convenience store might still go astray. Instead, I helped with the grocery and liquor shopping. We didn’t pay for anything, no more than we’d paid for the car or than Erda had paid when she conned a man in Philadelphia into giving us his beachfront condo for a week. Such self-serving tricks earned us no points.

That was one of the few absolute rules: If Erda or I in any way profited from a trick, we got zero points. That was why we hadn’t slaked our thirst by swiping a couple of sodas at the convenience store. One sip would have made all our labors futile. So would have filling our car with gas, unless, of course, we’d paid for it.

Now we let the supermarket and liquor store ring up our purchases and pay us for them, a trick that took all our limited ability to control human minds. We’re much better at manipulating objects. We also transferred cash from fourteen wallets and purses to our pockets. That gave us a bankroll that should let us pretend to be real people spending real money at the beach.

As I pulled out of the shopping center, Erda said, “I can’t believe we didn’t flatten a single tire. There must be 200 cars sitting there.”

“We wouldn’t have earned points,” I reminded her. “With our luck, we’d have probably selected the one guy ready to have a heart attack the next time he touches a jack or a lug wrench.”

“Both those rules are too tight, Loki.”

I wished she wouldn’t risk upsetting the immortal judges. They have delicate egos and dislike criticism. Our sentence was to wander Earth until we amassed sufficient points to escape the planet. Only the judges knew the total required and our current standing. We might well be in the hole.

We paid points as rent each day. Again, we had no idea how many. Erda’s distrust of the immortals’ fair play was irrelevant. They set and interpreted the rules. We’d been told when sentenced that the judges would notify, admonish, and even punish us if we went too far in the hole.

The immortals were especially solicitous of human well-being. Kill, maim, or make seriously ill any man or woman, boy or girl, and the penalty wiped out months of work. Minor injuries, such as the bloody nose from the flying sandwich or rashes caused by gasoline on tender skin, added to the point value. The boy whose shorts I’d yanked down was an example. His skinned knees were in our favor. A cracked patella that left him limping for the remainder of his life would draw a penalty.

Once we reached the condominium, we drank, drank some more, ate, and settled our digestive systems with a couple of fresh drinks. The judges’ final report arrived. Any future risk factors stemming from our caper at the convenience store weren’t our responsibility. The immortals congratulated us for a daring trick.

“What risk factors?” Erda asked me.

“Gasoline is flammable. That’s why you helped look for anyone smoking. And the guy with the Lexus and cell phone is an incipient cardiac meltdown.”

“You planned ahead, Loki. I never do. Want to hit the boardwalk and pick up some more points?”

“Sure. Dress properly, Erda. The town fathers consider this a family resort.”

A woman sentenced to a term as earth goddess must shelve modesty. Or perhaps the immortals choose faux earth goddesses from the ranks of the immodest. However cause leads to effect, Erda’s notion of proper dress made us conspicuous. She had no lingerie with her. A skirt any shorter would have been a technicality. Her top, held up by two skinny straps, was styled to stop well short of the skirt’s waistband. If she raised her arms, more than Erda’s convex belly would show.

Earth goddesses revel in dirt. She walked barefoot. That meant we couldn’t legally go into shops, bars, arcades, or restaurants. It was no loss. Since America currently is on a pace to air condition the entire galaxy by 2055, most buildings are useless venues.

“Remember,” I said as we left the condo, “if you get hungry or thirsty or develop a sudden desire for a souvenir, I’m carrying cash.”

“Poor Loki. My impulses drive you crazy.”

“Most of the time, Erda, your impulses make you the most fascinating creature I’ve ever known.”

“My fire melts your ice?” she asked, chuckling softly. “I promise to be a good bad goddess.”

Our building had boardwalk in front of it, and we needed only walk a short distance north to reach the busiest, tackiest strip of tourist traps. As we moved, we overturned barrels of trash from a sufficient distance not to be suspected and tipped over the tall lifeguard chairs on the beach. We also yanked down a dozen boys’ shorts or slacks, causing most to trip and curse loudly. When we saw a woman or girl in a skirt or dress, we lifted it. Erda wasn’t the only female who eschewed lingerie in hot weather.

We popped balloons held by adults or teens, but were careful not to spoil the fun of any children. The immortals would have penalized us for that. When we reached the spot where two girls’ sundresses had got lifted, I raised Erda’s skirt without warning. She shrieked as loudly as they had, swatted at it to get it down, and danced her bosom to below her top. Eventually, she got herself back in place.

“What the hell was that?” she asked loudly, causing some teens to giggle.

“An interesting show.”

“Get out of here, you rat.”

She punched my shoulder playfully, almost knocking me onto the beach.

These were minor tricks worth only a few points. If the embarrassment they caused was totally faked to fit mores, they’d bring us no score. We hadn’t planned this expedition, and it seemed unlikely that we’d serendipitously discover any big point makers. Then we reached a street and saw two police cars. The officers were investigating what was upsetting tourists on the boardwalk. Stamping out horseplay was more important than stopping speeders. I took one car, Erda the other.

Both of us got the lights flashing and sirens wailing. The cops ran back to the vehicles and tried to stop the noise, all the while looking for the criminal who’d tampered with them. When one started to use the radio, I set it to play the overture for Carmen. Erda cranked up her police radio to blare out hot Dixieland.

We drifted on north to a miniature golf course. As the sirens and music blared in the background, probably waking up every bird within blocks as well as any tourists who’d gone to bed early, we sat on a boardwalk bench that let us observe the players. They consisted primarily of dating teens, teens in groups trying to create a dating situation, and family parties.

“It’s cute when little kids win,” Erda said.

“While adults get frustrated? Let’s do it.”

We stayed on the bench at first, working on those holes we could see. When a crowd gathered and blocked our view, we got up and joined them, as if curious to learn what the fuss was about. That brought more holes within visual range. One limitation was that we must see the object being manipulated in order to violate natural laws or create unexpected effects. It’s a less restrictive condition than it sounds. For example, we’d needed see only the police cars, not the switches activating lights, sirens, and radios. Once the Lexus driver had pulled out his cell phone, I could program it without reading the buttons clearly.

Erda concentrated on the children, especially the tykes barely old enough to hold a putter and swat at a ball. They made some amazing holes in one. That left me free to help teens’ and adults’ balls hop over the boards, get caught in traps, and circle holes like a dog that can’t decide where and when to lie down and finally walks away. Then we discovered that loosely held putters could jump up and goose nearby players. We left as two fights broke out.

A pair of cops running toward trouble passed us. I looked back and jerked one’s trousers down, sending him sprawling. That was a good camouflage move. In her impulsiveness, Erda rarely looks back. One of the quickest ways to draw suspicion is to keep everything in front of us.

Two more cruisers were parked besides the ones we’d fixed as officers tried to kill lights, sirens, and radios. Erda and I exchanged smiles. Once we’d activated more lights and sirens, she programmed a radio to play steel band numbers. I countered with Gustav Mahler’s Eighth Symphony.

“Lots of bare women?” Erda asked.

“Including you.”

“That’s nice. Let’s shred their clothes so they can’t use them for cover.”

I said, “That could help the point value.”

We exert sufficient psychic force to move automobiles, although not at high speed. That makes shredding clothes as we strip a man or woman easy. Of course, it isn’t easy on the victims. It tends to leave them sore and occasionally bruised, conditions for which the judges award additional points.

Between us, we bared around 15 women standing on the street near the cop cars before people started running in panic. Some ran our way. I quickly turned and shredded Erda’s two garments. Even as she screamed and danced, she stripped two teens who wore as little as she did. I looked back to the way we’d come and saw the cops charging toward us.

This time I tore off their shirts before yanking their pants down.

Two other officers tried herding nudes. Those men not with a bare lady, as well as a few escorts as ungentlemanly as I was, stared, analyzed female attributes, and cheered. Acting solicitous toward Erda, I got an angle to strip three teens. Their giggly response suggested a low point total, if any. Erda faced the ocean and undressed four women who’d run to the beach. I looked south and got two matrons. They stood there boldly as I undressed them and the shreds of their clothing blew away. We’d hit a barrier. Most of the women who hadn’t fled were hanging around in hopes of exhibiting their goodies without guilt.

“Are you all right, ma’am?”

A woman and a cop. Erda and I combined to strip her down to her gun belt within seconds.

The judges’ dislike of law officers doubles the value of whatever we do to a cop.

“I’d say I’m as all right as you are, officer,” Erda told her. “Kind of bounces you around, doesn’t it?”

“What the hell is causing it?” the cop asked.

“Finding out is your department. Loki, walk me home before men start grabbing. This has been a great start to a vacation. I wish I had a souvenir picture of a nude cop and a nude me talking.”

The cop ran back to the cars, no doubt looking for a blanket. Erda and I walked briskly south. We got to an area with only a few naked women and finally to a spot where Erda was the only one. She slowed down and put her arm around me. A night like this left her thirsty and passionate.

*

We spent about four hours on the beach the next morning and early afternoon, but except for spilling drinks, getting sand in hot dogs, and occasionally yanking off all or part of a swimsuit, we laid off tricks. We were conspicuous. There aren’t too many blonde, faux earth goddesses who overload a bikini the way Erda does. Part of our condition is that we neither burn nor tan, making our pale flesh stand out in the bronze crowd of sun worshipers.

There was another reason for minimizing the tricks. The place to get the most points was in the surf. That area was filled with children darting in and out of the ocean.

Once we’d showered away the sand and sweat and eaten a late lunch, I drove to Lewes. I turned on a road that led by a fancy inn and paralleled the canal. The head boats had begun coming in. All sizes and styles of private vessels were tied up on both sides. Erda looked at me and smiled.

“Now?” she asked.

“Tonight. We’ll try the other side. That’s where I see most of the fancy boats. We undo the lines and move them. It’s easier to get a boat drifting than to push a car.”

“I’m glad they paired me with you, Loki. You plan ahead. Sometimes I think I could do this forever.”

I bit back my agreement. I liked being paired with Erda, and the nomadic existence and trick playing suited my personality. I doubted that the judges wanted us happy. The personalities of Erda and Loki were, after all, a sentence for misbehavior elsewhere.

We stopped in an outdoor bar for drinks. Service was nonexistent, so we undressed three waitresses and headed for our condo. There we made plans. Or, to be accurate, I made plans and Erda agreed.

“Dark clothing,” I told her. “We’ll find a convenient place to park the car for a fast getaway, then walk toward the mouth of the canal. When we reach the last boat, we start untying while we work our way back. First we eat a leisurely dinner at a nice restaurant. I’ll pay. No tricks there, no matter how tempting.”

Erda chose a slip-dress. The dress, what there was of it, was black.

After a seafood dinner, we drove to Lewes. I found a parking space used during the day by those who went out on head boats. It was in a dark area and well back from the docks. Erda removed her shoes and walked barefoot as we headed toward the ocean end of the canal. A lot of boats were tucked closely together. I chuckled softly. Erda giggled and hugged me so tightly I gasped for breath.

“Most have two lines over,” I pointed out. “The really big ones have more hooked around bollards.”

We undid lines and gave boats shoves toward the middle of the canal.

Gangways began dropping into the water. Once we got the rhythm going, Erda and I worked rapidly. Maybe we could make it back to where we’d parked and drive around to the other side of the canal to untie more boats. When boats bang together, paint jobs get damaged and hulls dented. The greater the monetary damage, the higher our point total.

Making it to the other side of the canal seemed unlikely, though. We heard a chorus of yells and curses behind us. Just as we started on our first head boat, a woman screamed. The timbre was different. Recognizing terror, Erda and I reversed course and ran toward the noise’s source.

“My baby! We’re drifting out to sea! My baby!”

It was neither the smallest nor largest boat we’d untied. The young woman on the deck held an infant. She screamed again and jumped into the canal, the child clutched to her chest. Erda swore and dived into the dirty water.

Faux earth goddesses swim like buxom otters. A few powerful strokes took her to the floundering woman. Treading water, Erda talked to the mother. I joined my mind to hers in convincing the woman to surrender her baby. Once Erda had the little one, she held it aloft in one hand, rolled onto her left side, and shot toward the dock.

I knelt to meet her. She handed me the tiny boy.

“Don’t drop him, Loki,” she said.

Erda swam back out and helped our adult victim to the dock. She lifted the almost hysterical woman halfway onto it before two men reached down to haul our victim the rest of the way up. Erda gracefully pulled herself out of the water, knelt for a minute, then stood. The woman finished coughing, fought off the men holding her up, and wildly looked around.

“Here,” I said, thrusting the infant into her arms. “Any kid who yells this lustily isn’t hurt.”

The woman said, “Where’s that angel who saved us? What a night for my husband to go get drunk with his buddies.”

A hot domestic spat should give us a whopping bonus.

Erda patted her shoulder and said, “Honey, we’re no angels.”

Two cop cars skidded to a halt. Both officers jumped out and ran toward us. Apparently one entry criterion for all forces in Delaware is running 100 meters in less than fifteen seconds at every opportunity. Erda and I didn’t need to consult. As they started to slow, we yanked down their trousers. One did a painful dive on the dock. The other had too much momentum to stop and went into the canal, knocking a woman overboard with him. In the confusion we walked briskly to our car.

“Is there any pleasure that matches depantsing a cop?” Erda asked as I drove out of Lewes.

“There’s no pleasure that matches you,” I said. “Let’s get you in a hot shower, Erda.”

“We don’t catch colds, Loki. If we hit the boardwalk…”

“You smell like a decaying refinery. Besides, we’re in trouble.”

She showered while I mixed a shaker of martinis over ice. Wet and nude, her golden hair tangled, her aroma considerably sweeter, Erda came into the kitchen and poured herself one.

“My fault,” she said. “We aren’t on this planet to do good deeds.”

“Shut up. The rescue has my full approval. I’m glad you’re impulsive. By the time I reasoned it out, they’d have drowned. Any error is entirely mine.”

“I don’t see it that way.”

I said, “I didn’t want to sink boats or hurt anyone. I figured dents and scratches, gangways in the water, lost sleep, lots of recriminations and law suits. I never dreamed someone could panic the way that woman did. I honestly thought this trick carried less risk than yesterday’s gasoline spill.”

“IT DID,” they said.

Three immortals, shimmering irises overcrowding the kitchen, joined us and split the rest of the shaker of martinis among themselves. When one spoke, all spoke, yet all spoke as one.

“HURT NO BABIES. KILL NO HUMANS.”

The reminder of the rules made Erda and me shiver.

“YOUR POINT TOTAL IS ZERO. YOUR QUOTA IS ZERO. YOU’RE HAPPY HERE AS TRICKSTERS.”

They stated an obvious truth.

“YOUR NEW SENTENCE IS TO BECOME LOKI AND ERDA INDEFINITELY. ATTACK POMPOSITY WHEREVER YOU FIND IT. AFFLICT THE WEALTHY AND POWERFUL. WHEN YOU SEE THE HELPLESS IN NEED OF AID, REMEMBER TONIGHT AND DO LIKEWISE.”

They shimmered and shimmied out of the condo. Erda picked up the empty shaker and stared at it.

“Do I mix more?” she asked. “Or do we hit the boardwalk?”

I looked at the wall clock and said, “There’ll still be a few stragglers around.”

“And employees. Don’t forget the employees, Loki. Bad things can happen to them when they come out of their air-conditioned sanctuaries.”

She ran to the bedroom to dress.

pencil

E-mail: hhmorris[at]iximd.com.

Asis

Bellman’s Pick
H.H. Morris


Peter Winston studied three cartons of books. Each was marked four dollars for the contents, no individual sales made. The books at the top of one looked more tempting than those crowning the others.

“Before you select the middle box,” a female said, “I’ll tell you that the one on the left contains over a dozen Civil War books.”

He turned to look at the woman behind him. Around 35, she showed mileage on her face. Her aquiline nose and jet black, long hair made him think her Mediterranean, even though her complexion was like ivory. She was short, barely over five feet tall, and he thought she might be slightly dumpy. He couldn’t tell from the way she was dressed. Most of the women at the flea market wore jeans. She had on a shapeless sweater atop a dress that hung to the ground. She reminded him of a bag lady without her bag.

“How do you know?” he asked her.

“It’s my job.”

“Your job is to know that I’m a Civil War nut?”

“That, too. I meant that it was my job to know what’s being sold in my name.”

“Your name?”

“Asis,” she said.

Her Giaconda smile made her seem even more mysterious. Was da Vinci’s model an Italian bag lady?

“As is,” he said, splitting it into two words.

“None other. The goddess Asis, who presides over yard sales, flea markets, auction galleries, and used car lots has decided that today you, Peter Winston, receive an opportunity to bless my name.” She jammed the two words back together.

The woman joked. She was a former student or a friend of his ex-wife, one who’d heard the lady complain about being married to a bibliophile who was a Civil War nut. Peter had never realized how much his ex hated battlefields until he discovered that the only item of clothing she’d left behind was a souvenir T-shirt that identified her as a Civil War nut’s wife.

“Marriage is a flea market,” Asis said. “If the ancients had been wise, they’d have assigned me the nuptial couch.”

He picked up the box she recommended, put down four singles, and took it to his car. He drove eight miles to his home, a handyman’s delight he’d purchased as is with his half of the sale of the conjugal abode, and lugged his purchase into the kitchen. He turned the coffeemaker on, waited impatiently while it slowly warmed to slightly above room temperature, and sat at the table, his chair turned to one side, the box at his feet.

The books on the top were historical novels from the middle of the twentieth century, a few with tawdry dust jackets showing bosoms about to spill out of gowns. Then, as he dug into the contents, he discovered an apparently unread, boxed set of Shelby Foote’s three-volume history of the Civil War. There were also four books from the Time-Life series, three of which he didn’t own. In addition, there was a copy of Mary Boykin Chestnut’s Diary from Dixie. He also found an old fantasy paperback entitled The Incompleat Enchanter and a pair of early Asimov novels. He wondered if he should go back and buy the other two boxes.

“No,” said Asis.

He hadn’t felt a breeze caused by either door opening. In his handyman’s delight, an open door brought a Force 2 gale. She stood on the other side of the box.

“Should I pour you a libation?” he asked.

“This floor won’t register another libation.”

His ex had nagged about his slovenly housekeeping. Housework had become his specialty because he had the low-paying teaching job while she was an executive on the fast track.

“Too fast for kids,” Asis said. “I don’t nag. I point out the obvious. If you feel like a host, pour me a cup of that under-heated coffee. There’s a yard sale two blocks from here where you can get a coffeemaker—same model, but not about to expire—for seven dollars. Don’t go there now. You’ll pay three times as much. Wait until around four. Evening will be near enough that panic will set in. Offer seven, neither more nor less.”

“Yes, goddess.”

“Call me Asis. I’ve never stood much on ceremony. That’s why so many people defile my name with shoddy deals. I wanted you to stick it to that seller today. He’s cheated people for years. If you go to the Read and Gulp Used Books and Coffee Emporium with those novels, the owner will give you a quarter apiece, the same price he pays the public library when it cleans its shelves. Since there are 23 you don’t want to read, your profit from two transactions will be $1.75 and the value of the books you keep. Next, go to the left shop wall and to the last set of shelves before you reach the back. On the fourth shelf up, you’ll find four historical novels from the same era as those you’re selling. Don’t worry about titles or authors. You’ll recognize them because they have flood damage. There are no dust jackets. The covers and pages are warped and show mud stains. They cost 50 cents apiece. Buy them. Then wait in your car for me. I’ll go to a thrift shop down the street from the Read and Gulp to buy clothing for our dinner date tonight.”

“Our dinner date?”

“Make a good meal my libation, Peter. If I look like an Italian bag lady, we’ll get thrown out of the fancy restaurant you’ll be ready to take me to by sunset.”

She again gave him her Giaconda smile.

*

Asis carried two bulging shopping bags.

“I bought everything as is,” she said, laughing softly. “Did you examine your books?”

“No.”

“Why not?”

Peter said, “I don’t know what to look for. With you around, though, I’m on a roll.”

“Not much faith, but then I’m not much of a goddess. You can fix us a couple of sandwiches while I change into jeans so I’ll look properly suburban at the yard sale.”

There was an explanation for what occurred. Peter had no idea what it was, but he believed that all phenomena could, with sufficient knowledge, be thoroughly analyzed.

“Try random occurrence,” Asis said. “Am I a free agent, or are the gods and goddesses themselves subject to Fortune’s whims? Take your pick.”

She went into the bathroom while he made sandwiches. When she came out, she wore jeans and a tight sweater. She hadn’t wasted time hunting for a bra.

“Take me as is or don’t take me at all,” she reminded him. “There are modern garments and customs I find ridiculous. I refuse to conform.”

“Sorry,” he said. “It’s your business.”

“Do you have a razor knife?”

“Yes.”

“Get it when we’ve finished the sandwiches.”

He’d never figure her out. If he did, she’d change in order to outfox him. As a goddess, she saw into his mind. She’d told him what they’d buy at the yard sale, but he’d been required to take her on faith—or, if he were honest, on a gamble.

“You’ll know what as is means when I get through with you,” the goddess said.

Peter got the knife. She picked up the first book and opened the front cover. When she pointed it out, he saw where the inner paper had been cut and then glued back down. He carefully traced the faint line with the sharp blade. He peeled the stained paper back and saw green paper. There were two bills—$100 and $50. Four front covers, four back. Eight times $150 is $1200. The bills were old and slightly worn, but legal tender. He didn’t need to declare these on his next 1040.

“Of course not,” Asis said. “Who sold you this handyman’s delight?”

“A realtor named Edgar Frankel. He’s the only person in the area who handles homes in the price range I could afford.”

“You also take divorce as is. Now that you’re temporarily under my protection, I’ll make Mr. Frankel regret selling this slum in my name. Do you ever play the lottery?”

“No,” he said. “I did for a while. It’s blind luck.”

“Don’t call my colleague blind. She has a vision problem, but can see dimly.”

“Sorry.”

“Luck dislikes all lotteries except the really big ones. Then she tells one of her favorites which numbers to pick and fixes the drawing. The instant games drive Luck crazy. You buy the tickets as is.”

Peter caught it. Asis again smiled.

She said, “We have some time to kill before four. I noticed a convenience store and a liquor store near here. Do you patronize either?”

“The convenience store occasionally. Once at the liquor store. I know a place where I can get beer and bourbon cheaper.”

“Good. No need for you to get reported to the tax snoops.” The convenience store featured eight different instant games. Asis scowled at the rolls of tickets, then told him to buy five of the third from the right. He did as she commanded and used a dime to scratch off the film that covered the numbers. The second one was a two dollar winner, the fourth a $50 winner. He collected his money and they went to his car.

“If you know which ticket…” he began.

“Always buy at least one more than you need to. That makes the suckers think it was Luck instead of Asis beside you.”

The liquor store had nine different games. Asis again squinted and scowled and finally told him to buy one from the roll in the middle of the group. It was worth $500, also paid in cash.

“I hope you hang around,” he told her. “There’s an expensive restaurant about 20 miles north. You don’t need reservations of an evening. In fact, you can’t make them.”

“Remember, I can’t drive. A drunken crash won’t hurt me, but it can kill you.”

“I’ll celebrate within the limits of sobriety as defined by the state,” he assured her.

“Good. I’ll get silly drunk. A new man always makes me overindulge in praise of Bacchus. Now let’s go get that coffeemaker as is—seven dollars, neither more nor less.”

*

The maitre d’ frowned to show that the establishment’s dignity had been seriously wounded. A giggling, wobbly Asis clung to Peter’s arm on the way out. Their bar bill had almost matched the food tab. Peter had drunk three glasses of wine. The waitress had told them to be sure and come back, Peter’s hefty cash tip more than compensating for his raucous date. The dress Asis had selected at the thrift shop was the woman’s equivalent of a dark suit—a black number designed to fall almost to the wearer’s knees and fit tightly across the torso. She’d chosen one at least two sizes too small, however. Couple that with her dislike of lingerie of any kind, hose included, and her unwillingness to let a razor touch her legs and a scandalous sight ensued. Actually, only the female patrons were scandalized. The men enjoyed Asis’s two trips to the ladies’ room.

Peter suspected the only way the maitre d’ liked pretty females was embalmed.

He got Asis into the car and didn’t tell her to buckle up. She was a goddess. Accept her as is. After all, she appeared to accept him. She wasn’t as dumpy as he’d thought. She was short and heavier than fashion gurus thought a woman of her height should be. But she was feminine and appealing.

“I like your thoughts, Peter,” she said. “As is for Asis.”

About halfway to his house they passed a sign for a discount liquor store.

“Do you shop here, Peter?” she asked.

“No.”

“Pull in. Lottery time again.”

Drunk, she wasn’t careful. Besides, they were in a strange county. They won some and lost little as she worked her way back and forth in the ten rolls of tickets on display. When they finally quit, Peter had invested $400 and come out $1700 ahead. Asis immediately spent almost $300 on booze.

As he drove home, she said, “I’m a cheap date, Peter.”

“No, Asis, you’re a profitable one.”

“You may adore me. Don’t fall in love with me.”

“I’ll do my best to avoid it,” he promised. “It wasn’t long ago that I swore I’ll never fall in love again.”

“The best way to avoid Love’s arrows is to stay away from the District of Columbia and its suburbs. Eros is working a joint gig with Eris there this month. Love and Discord—they wreck two senators a week and people think it’s Washington business as usual.”

He lugged the liquor inside. Asis watched him store it, grabbing the bourbon to mix him a hefty highball.

“You earned this, Peter,” she said. “I’ll get drunker and show you how Aphrodite’s priestesses danced in praise of the goddess while arousing male worshipers. I’m not much of a dancer, though.” “I’ll take your dancing as is, Asis.”

*

Peter taught his classes at the community college—five mornings per week, two early afternoons, Wednesday nights. The rest of his energies went into forays into liquor stores and convenience stores with Asis and weekend trips to yard sales, flea markets, and auctions. The weather warmed. Asis switched to shorts, her hairy legs drawing stares that Peter could literally feel in the air. Her powers were such that if those disapproving offended her they’d wind up making bad deals.

Don’t fall in love with me, she’d warned. He barely obeyed. Each time they embraced, every morning he awakened with her warmth beside him, he was grateful for one more day with Asis. He had encountered the relevant myths as a graduate student—Eos and her lover Tithonus, the eternal grasshopper; Petronius’s Sybil of Cumae, who begged to die because Apollo had given her eternal life without youth. Aphrodite looked out for Anchises only because of Aeneas. Nothing good except pleasure came of a goddess loving a man.

She said, “Take your pleasure as is—and take me to the beach.” The vacation weekend provided a new spectrum of lottery outlets. He booked a room in a luxury hotel. Their bar tab and restaurant costs were enormous. When Asis requested, he took her to the trendiest boutique in the area and bought her a bikini. Then he proudly put her on his arm as they paraded up and down the beach. Her appearance generated frowns and giggles. He didn’t care. Each day Asis grew more beautiful. The female body is far less important than the female who inhabits the body.

Two days after they returned, he came home to an empty house and a note on the table. “I didn’t take my own advice, Peter. I started feeling Eros’s arrows in my big rear. You’re right—a goddess and a mortal never come to a happy ending. We’ll write our own finis. Remember, a woman who won’t take you as is isn’t worth having, but you also have to take her as is.” For the rest of the week he moped around the house. It contained almost $100,000 in tax-free lottery winnings. Asis’s parting advice had been good. Whether he could act on it was another matter.

On Saturday morning, he returned to the flea market where he’d met Asis. The same seller was there. Today there were four boxes of books—take an entire carton as is, five bucks, no browsing. One featured historical novels atop the books stacked inside. Remembering his experience with the Civil War books, he started to reach for it. Then he stopped. His eyes moved left. Atop this carton was a book on how to make $10,000 a year as a freelance writer. It dated back to when $10,000 a year was a fabulous sum. Another book explained DOS. There was absolutely no reason to buy that box, save that he felt that somewhere within it was a treasure.

“You take it as is,” the man said.

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” Peter told him. On his way out of the market area he encountered a short, golden-haired woman in extremely thick glasses. She peered intently at three boxes of junk jewelry. As she did so, she almost backed into him. They excused themselves simultaneously.

“Can you tell me which of these boxes has the most yellow in it?” she asked.

“Not with ease,” he told her. “They appear equal in that respect. Let me try some counting and some elementary math, if you have the time.”

“I have eons.”

Ten minutes later he suggested she buy the box on the right. She did so.

“Thank you, Peter. Asis told me you’d come here. Those who know me call me Luck. Did you know the lottery drawing tonight is worth seven million dollars?”

“No,” he said.

“I’m a very expensive date.”

“I’m sure,” he said. “But I’ll take you as is.”

pencil

“I’m a bum. I used to teach college speech and English, but then I retired. If I were selling more fiction, I’d be a writer, but this year I’ve been mostly a bum. I currently have one up at alienskin.” E-mail: hhmorris[at]iximd.com.