Copyright is held by the author. This is the second part of a five part story. Check back tomorrow for Part Three. Read Part One.
Part Two: Beauty
DESPITE A solid Thursday night crowd, fewer than a dozen patrons ventured outside to watch the races. Half of the outside area was roped off for construction and repairs. That spring, severe thunderstorms, complete with straight-line winds, had reduced the outside cafe to rubble. Repairs and reconstruction had begun two weeks before.
Amy sat in the third row of the bleachers; Slander sat in the first. Two Korean boys, no older than five and seven, chased each other in the designated area while their parents sat quietly in the back row of the bleachers studying their race programs. To Amy’s right, a young couple spent their time kissing and snuggling.
Amy wrapped her arms around herself. A cold front had swept across southern Wisconsin, dropping the temperature into the lower 50s. She tugged at the frayed ends of her sweater’s sleeves. “Look at this, Slander. Here is what happens when you get fat. Your clothes go to shit.”
“You’re not fat. I am fat. You’re beautiful.”
“You’re being kind. I’m not bad looking, but I’m not beautiful. Not anymore.” She ran her hands along her stomach. “Look at me. I have a belly, a jelly belly. I’ve outgrown my sweater and most of my clothes.”
The Hobbit looked up from his program. “Buy new ones.”
“Buy new ones? Not, watch what you eat? Take up Pilates? Start jogging? Your solution is just to go out and buy new clothes? Yeah, I’ll run out to Nordstrom tomorrow. If you haven’t noticed, we’ve been getting our asses handed to us with disturbing regularity. The proverbial well has gone dry.”
“Dry? How’s that possible? You’re loaded. You bought your father’s house. You drive a new 2004 Nissan. You couldn’t have gone through your settlement money in one year, could you?”
Amy held up a stack of worthless tote tickets and flipped them into the wind.
“Seriously?” asked Slander. “All of it?”
“A good chunk,” she replied. “Still my buddy? My sweetie?”
“Why, yes, of course. Why didn’t you say something? We don’t always have to go to the track. We could go out for dinner or a movie together, like a normal couple.”
“What do you suggest? Hang out at the IHOP? Go to Pottery Barn? No. This is our place. No worries,” Amy said. “Don’t you remember? I am whom Time magazine called, “The Fortunate One.” Things will work out.”
The Hobbit responded with a look of a man whose life consisted of many moments where things not only did not “work out,” but also got worse. “I’m not helping matters here. My five ran as badly as Suzy’s Best Boy.”
“She wasn’t terrible. She did come in fourth,” Amy said. “Don’t worry. We’ll take a few races off and regroup. I’ve still got the faith. We will get it all back and then some.”
“Great. Now we’re chasing,” The Hobbit mused and turned the pages of his program ahead to the sixth race—a Grade A affair featuring eight of the track’s fastest racers.
“Hey, who the fuck died? Not Princess Di again!”
Both The Hobbit and Amy spun around.
“Great. Well, the night has gone from a disaster to an extinction level event,” said The Hobbit. “What do you want?”
Ignacy, a.k.a. Iggy, Paderewski, sauntered toward them and folded his achingly slender frame next to Amy’s. Despite being six feet-two, he barely weighed 140 pounds. “I want you guys to cheer up,” said Iggy. “Seriously, you two are depressing the hell out of everyone, moping around all sad and lonely. If the royal couple is on suicide watch, what are the rest of us plebes supposed to do?”
“You want to cheer us up?” The Hobbit asked. “I have an idea: How about you pay Amy the money you owe her?”
“I could use the cash,” Amy said, although she doubted Iggy would ever pay. The controversy occurred five months before, just before she and Iggy had split up. Amy and Iggy had split a trifecta bet, which didn’t come in. A few days after the race, however, Amy discovered, through a friend at the Pari-mutuel windows, that Iggy, being somewhat high on a homegrown batch of crystal meth, had incorrectly punched in the wager, and that ticket was a winner for $866, which he failed to mention until Amy had challenged him.
“Cute, Bilbo, cute,” Iggy said, shoving a stick of gum in his mouth, exposing decaying teeth. “I have a better idea: Give Jenny Craig a call and then go fuck yourself.”
“That’s two ideas,” said The Hobbitt. “Counting integers can be difficult.”
Amy held out her hands, pretending as if she expected to collect. “Well, handsome? I’m waiting.” She did her best not to linger too long on Iggy. Despite his gaunt, ant-like build, and now faulty smile, he was still an extremely attractive man—deep green eyes, high cheekbones, soft feminine features, and thick blond hair. There were rumors he had once modeled in Chicago.
Iggy waved the notion away. “I can’t believe this is still an issue, Amy. I thought we settled this when I gave you back your half of the cost of the wager.”
“Eighteen dollars is a tad short of $433,” Amy said. “I’m not asking for anything more than my share. Besides, I know you cashed out quite nicely. Pay up.”
“Never make a meth head do math,” The Hobbit advised. “The mathematical concepts of ‘greater than’ and ‘less than’ and equations of inequality tend to elude them.”
Iggy ignored The Hobbit. Facing Amy, he said, “Yes, yes, I made a few bucks on the race, but I did not win with our incorrectly punched ticket. I won a couple of back-up plays, a $3 exacta and a $5 quinella. For Christ’s sake, Amy, I wouldn’t screw you or anyone out of a winning ticket.”
“So, you’re an honourable degenerate,” The Hobbit said.
“If there’s honour among fools, then yes,” Iggy said. “More importantly, it’s bad racing karma.”
“If you’re not here to pay me back,” Amy said, “what do you want? We’re busy.”
“Yeah, I can see how busy you both are,” Iggy said. “Amy, I come as a concerned friend. Your current losing streak is worrisome. Even the worst handicappers don’t lose 70-odd races in a row. It just doesn’t happen, and you’re not a bad handicapper, Amy, far from it. Something is amiss. What is it?”
“Bad luck,” Amy said. “Nothing more.”
“I don’t think so,” Iggy said with a self-knowing smirk. “I suspect it’s more. You’re on some sort of self-destructive run, throwing races for reasons unknown. You’re too smart, too good, and too, shall I say, fortunate for this kind of streak.”
“That’s absurd,” Amy said. “Why would I purposely lose?”
“I don’t know, perhaps you’ve come to regret your choice of companions,” Iggy said, glancing at The Hobbitt. “Let’s face it: You two are ‘The Odd Couple’ personified. That’s the tall and the short of it. Sorry, but that’s how I see it. You two don’t look the part.”
“But, we did?” Amy asked. “We looked the part?”
“Yes,” Iggy said. “We did. We still do.”
“Absurd, simply absurd,” Amy said, but she knew the truth. Despite his escalating drug use and rapid weight loss, Iggy was gorgeous, a looker, and she was hugely attracted to him. His narcissism didn’t matter. Physical beauty always trumps education, wit, humour, loyalty, character and all the traits one is supposed to admire and honour.
Amy looked down at The Hobbit. His complexion had turned dark. When anxious, Slander produced a carnival level variety of facial ticks, including chewing on his tongue. Slander’s horrid stories of his lifelong battle with Tourette’s had both endeared him to Amy and disgusted her. The little man shook and twitched as he huddled over his program.
“We’re on a losing streak,” Amy said. “Nothing more.”
“What do you think, Pippin?” Iggy cheerfully chirped at The Hobbit. “Other than a few pithy comments, Edwardo’s No. 1 pizza delivery boy has been awfully reticent on the subject.”
“I’m a writer,” The Hobbit said, “a published writer. I only work at Edwardo’s, part time to support my craft. Most of the drivers are teachers or other low-paid professionals with day jobs. It’s the price of being an artist.”
“Slander is a fine writer,” Amy said. “Six months ago, the North American Review published one of his stories.”
“Never heard of it,” Iggy said.
“That’s not totally unexpected,” The Hobbit replied.
“So, how much money have you earned as a published writer?” Iggy wondered.
“It isn’t always about the money,” The Hobbit said and stood. “It’s about creating works of beauty. It’s about…” He paused and addressed Amy. “I’m a fool. Why am I wasting my time with this illiterate collection of skin and marrow? I’m going for a walk. Maybe I’ll grab a bite. Do you want anything?”
Iggy inched closer to Amy: “Yeah, a coke and a pretzel,” he said and snatched Amy’s program, turning it to the previous race. His face brightened. “Wait, Slander, this is precious. This looks like your work.”
Iggy held up the program and pointed at the circled entry. “Are you two telling me that you bet on the five dog last race? Golden Girl? That bitch has been running hurt since her fall last year during the Puppy Stakes. You should have known this, Amy. We were here watching it together. Don’t you remember how the poor dog had to be carried off the track?” Iggy shook his head in mock disgust. “The only reason Golden Girl is still racing is because her owner is screwing the track vet. It’s sad, really. Not about the dog. I mean, who cares? One dog gets hurt or dies or loses interest, and there are a hundred more in the pen in waiting. What is sad, Amy, is you listening to The Hobbit for handicapping advice.” Iggy snorted. “Hey, Frodo, stick to what you know: delivering pizzas and writing stories no one wants to read.”
The Hobbit glared hard at Iggy, rolling his thick hands into a fist. “Go fuck yourself.”
Iggy tossed the program back into Amy’s lap. “So, Haflings do have backbones.”
“Slander,” Amy said, “please let it go.”
“Yes, listen to your queen,” Iggy said. “Go back to your hole and let the big people alone.”
Amy felt her gut tightening. One of the reasons Slander delivered pizza was that he lost his teaching position at Concordia College. During a spirited disagreement over a grade, Slander impaled his teaching assistant with three pencils, one in his thigh and two in his back. Fortunately, Slander only received probation for his assault and not jail time.
“Jesus, Iggy,” Amy said as Slander backed away, his eyes filled with anger and hurt. “Do you have to be a douche bag 24/seven?”
Exposing a cruel smirk to Amy, he said, “Hey, Slander, I assume you are aware that Ms. Amy Jo Mallach and I dated. Well, “dated” is a loose definition of the term. We mostly just fucked. A lot. Tell me, have you pricked your little ol’ sting through Amy’s wonder wall yet? How does a Hobbit screw by the way? What’s the first step? You lay your money down and then apologize beforehand for your physical deficiencies?
“That’s two steps,” The Hobbit said. “Two steps. Please, learn to count.”
“Seriously, Iggy, my ‘wonder wall’?” Amy said. “Is all this about you winning back my affection? This is your plan? Your best option?”
Iggy kept his hard gaze at Amy, his eyes narrowing as if he were peering through a slit in a trench. Bitterness soaked his voice. “I was your best option. Not him. I still don’t understand how you could have tossed me aside for that…thing?” Without a trace of irony, he added, “How far have you fallen?”
The true question, Amy thought, is not how far have I fallen for you or anyone, but how far will I allow myself to fall? That is the question I have chosen to explore. She slouched back and looked toward the night. Dusk had settled in and through the lights of the track she could see Venus and Sirius, two of the brightest objects in the night sky. She knew most of the constellations of the northern sky, where the planets traveled along the ecliptic, and she could identify many of the man-made satellites—lessons her father had taught her after her mother left.
“Boys, I really don’t need this drama,” Amy said. “I come to the track to avoid complications. I come here to simplify, to reduce my world to the endorphin-driven rhythm of wager, race, wager, race; to enjoy the camaraderie of a few friends and then go home, sleep and come back the next day and do it all again, win or lose. Is it a healthy choice?” She chuckled and stared forward. “Doubtful, but it is my choice.”
“It must be nice to have unlimited resources and time,” Iggy said. “We all should be so lucky. We all should be so fortunate, so …”
The unmistakable sound of a hard, blunt object crunching bone halted Iggy’s complaint. Iggy pitched forward. He yelped out a high pitch squeal, his arms flailing outward. A small geyser of blood sprayed out of the back of Iggy’s head.
Amy coiled back in horror. Her intestines slithered and constricted. A familiar dread coursed through her limbs as she turned to the source of the attack. It was Slander. Perched on the bleacher seat directly behind Iggy, Slander held a ridiculously large rock in his hands. Amy’s first thought was one of puzzlement: Where did he find a 10- to 15-pound block of what appeared to be chipped cement? She then remembered the repair work.
Amy inwardly wilted as she studied The Hobbit. Slander’s eyes were devoid of life. She had seen the look before, the narrow-eyed focus, the disregard of reason. He had made a decision, the only choice he considered available.
Iggy teetered and wobbled. He reached out to Amy for support, but Amy slapped him away. Iggy tried to stand; probably knowing he had no fight in him. His best bet was to run.
The Hobbit wouldn’t let Iggy escape. He dropped the rock and grabbed the confused and badly wounded Iggy by the back of his shoulders and dragged him from his bleacher seat and onto the ground. Iggy landed on the flat of his back, his arms reaching outward as if he were searching for a rescue rope.
Amy watched with an intoxicating mixture of shock and amazement. It looked like a bowling ball had gone mad and decided to murder its least favourite pin. Then, with a motion defying all expectations, The Hobbit grabbed Iggy by the collar and belt, lifted Iggy above his head and pummeled Iggy onto his stomach. Iggy bounced once and came to a trembling still.
The Hobbit scampered around the fallen meth addict/ex-model and pulled back Iggy’s face up by his lovely blond locks. The Hobbit grinned. Without further preamble, he drove Iggy’s face into the cement. Amy heard teeth shatter. Blood pooled out beneath Iggy’s mouth as if oil had been struck.
The two Korean boys now sat in the front row of bleachers and watched the fracas, their faces bleached white with fascination. The make-out couple had ceased their public display of affection and stood behind Amy, the girl poking her companion in the side, urging him to either intervene or get help. The boyfriend nodded in agreement. He leaped off the bleachers and dashed toward the door, squeezing past curious spectators who had gathered near the windows.
Beyond the boys, on the working side of the fence, eight teenagers, smartly dressed in their purple Dairyland Greyhound Park blazers, had stopped walking their respective greyhounds to the lure box to watch the disturbance.
The Hobbit drove his elbow into Iggy’s back. Iggy jerked and released his bowels; the stench rose quickly. The Hobbit backed away and stood at Iggy’s feet and appraised his surroundings. The little man raised his arms in victory.
Amy finally pulled herself together and left the bench. She knelt beside Iggy, wondering if Slander had gone so far as to kill him. She leaned over and pressed her hand to his back. She felt Iggy’s chest rise.
“No more. Please!” Iggy cried.
If anyone deserved a beating, Amy thought, Iggy qualified. But hearing his small cries, more child than a man’s, a well of pity flooded her. She stared up at The Hobbit, wondering if he felt the same.
A pleased smile graced The Hobbit’s lips.
“Mercy,” she whispered and closed her eyes. Perhaps, if I wish hard enough, she thought, they would all disappear and leave me alone. Yes, just click your heals, Dorothy. She heard whispers and murmurs from the gathering crowd. Within her head, she heard screams and prayers from voices known and unknown.
A whistle blew. Amy opened her eyes. An overweight black man wearing a security guard uniform had rushed up beside them; his eyes danced back and forth between Iggy and The Hobbit. Behind the guard, lover boy stood.
“Oh man,” the guard said and pulled the walkie-talkie from his belt. He called for medical help and officer assistance.
“Who’s the better choice now, Amy?” The Hobbit asked, but his bravado had begun to weaken. The consequences of his actions had seized him. He looked as if he wanted to disappear, but, of course, he couldn’t.
“This isn’t good,” said The Hobbit. “I’m not going to fare well in prison.”
“No, this isn’t good at all,” Amy said. “Because of your little tantrum, you’re going to make me miss the next few races, and I think I found us a winner.”
The Tower: Part Two
Amy’s coworker and friend, Julia, exhaled a sigh of derision. She leaned over, tapped Amy on the shoulder and whispered, “Well, look who has finally arrived: our prince, in all his glory. Must be awfully convenient to be able to just stroll in to work whenever you feel like it.”
Amy raised her head from her computer screen and watched their boss exit the elevator. She knew the bitterness in Julia’s voice was a mask for the desire she held for him. She understood Julia’s longings. The Prince presented an impressive and well-tailored figure. He wore a tan suit coat, tan pants and dark tie, his Monday ensemble. He was lean and tall, easily six-foot-three. Long, shaggy hair, sprinkled with grey, framed strong, sensuous features.
Nobility, an aristocrat, Amy thought. He knows he looks good. He expects to be admired. Amy peeked at her coworker. Julia had stepped outside their cube and now lounged in the hallway, pretending to study her notebook, holding her long, elegant frame straight and decidedly pensive.
Heads emerged from the rows of cubes. Men and women alike cast their silent veneration toward The Prince. The Prince stopped and absorbed the attention. He waited a respectable few moments before nodding. Then, he straightened his tie, tugged at his sleeves and left toward his office.
“He gets more beautiful every day,” Amy said. “And I heard he has finally left his wife. Twenty-three years of marriage gone. Bye, bye. This is your opportunity, Julia. Seize it.”
“Do I look like that sort of woman?” Julia asked as she turned and watched The Prince walk away.
“Yes, you do. You are pure vulture,” Amy said with a laugh and settled back in her chair and executed her morning ritual, her appreciation of her good fortune.
I work in the glass tower—in The Nest, she thought to herself.
Amy could not imagine a more beautiful and interesting place to work. Every morning, as she rode up the glass elevator, she thought of the fear and apprehension that stalked her when she left home for good, to begin anew in the great city. Now, she only feared there wouldn’t be enough time to experience the city’s treasures—its arts, its restaurants, and its people. She couldn’t prove it, but here the women were more beautiful and the men more handsome than in any other city in America.
“You’re not kidding, Hillbilly. He’s more than beautiful. He is exquisite,” Julia said. “Do you think I even have a chance?”
“A chance? Are you serious? He’d be a fool not to be interested. Besides, you’ve seen his wife. Even on her best day, she wasn’t anything special, a marriage of convenience and opportunity, nothing more. And now, she’s turned into a block of cheese. Look at you. You’re stunning and young. Men always go younger in round two.”
“True, but how would it look, so soon after the break-up?”
“Who cares? You think you’re the only one who is interested? The Nest if filled with women who’d jump at the chance. Make your move or get in line.”
“You’re probably right.”
“Probably? You underestimate me. Of course, I am right,” Amy said. “Make your move today.”
“You’re sure he’s interested?”
“Yeah. Look how he totally ignored you when he walked past. No one ignores a woman of your caliber without being in love or at least infatuated. Oh yeah, he wants you. He craves you.”
“Hayseed,” Julia said and retreated into their workspace” you are such a bitch.”
They both giggled. Amy covered her mouth with embarrassment.
A middle-aged coworker passing by frowned. “Please, ladies,” he said. “Conduct yourselves appropriately.”
Amy apologized and gathered her folders and spiral notebook. “I have a 9:00 meeting with your future husband, lord and master,” she told Julia. “I’ll try to mention your name, if I remember it.”
“Have another donut, Country,” Julia countered and shifted her attention to the stock data scrawling across her computer screen. “You’re leaving 15 minutes early. Afraid you’re going to get lost again? Honestly, girl. You’ve worked here three years. Sometimes, I worry you won’t ever return.”
“I want to get a good seat. You know—get up close and real personal,” Amy teased and strode down the hall. Before she turned down the main hallway leading to the executive offices, she whirled back toward her best friend and waved. Amy adored their friendship. With Julia in her life, she never felt lonely or overwhelmed. The two had started at the firm the same week. Their friendship had formed the first day, bonding through apprehension and anxiety. They quickly became roommates. Now, they were as close as sisters.
Julia responded by sticking out her tongue.
The Prince was a fool if he hadn’t considered Julia, thought Amy. With her long, silver hair and cool blue, almost gray, eyes, Julia possessed a sophisticated and otherworldly beauty. I’m not beautiful, though Amy thought. Pretty, perhaps. Good enough for the boys back home; a tad overweight by the standards of the city, especially those in the tower. Out here, among all the…
She stopped. She felt a rush of heat expand upward from the floor. For a moment, Amy thought someone had mistakenly turned up the heat or she had somehow stepped onto a street vent. Her skin felt as if it had been lit afire.
As she turned back toward her desk, toward Julia, the blast wave struck, carrying a straight line storm of glass, metal and stone. The wave tossed Amy across the hallway. She landed against what remained of the hallway wall.
Smoke followed, thick and black, filled with the toxin of death. Amy gasped for breath and comprehension. A roar of a thousand jets swirled in her head. Dust and dirt covered her, impairing her vision. She wiped her eyes with her blouse sleeve. Amid the choking smoke, she saw the black figures of her coworkers and friends stagger and fall, their bodies burned and broken.
Unsure of what had caused her world to suddenly descend into chaos, she only knew she had to escape. She had to flee. If not, she would die. She would burn. Amy drew herself to her knees. She wanted to scream, but each breath drew in more smoke. “No, please, no,” she cried. “I don’t want to die. Not now.”
Amy reached for a fractured beam that once supported the ceiling. The steel was hot and sharp and tore into her palms. She winced and dropped back to one knee. The blood flowed freely down her arm. She paused to gather her breath. She needed more air. Her lungs felt as if knives had impaled them. Terror slithered through her limbs. She felt as if she might throw up.
She did her best to set aside the pain and fear and grabbed the beam again, pulling harder. This time she succeeded. She took a step, then another, but then fell again. She examined her legs. The blast had stripped away her skirt, and thrown off one of her high-heeled shoes. Jesus, she thought, I’m trying to stand on one shoe. Despite the glass and metal strewn across the ground, she kicked off her remaining shoe and grappled to her feet.
Another explosion. The floor pitched and heaved. She fell onto her stomach and faced a gap in the floor. Below her, she saw more smoke and more fire. The air felt like it would explode. She frantically began to crawl, anywhere away from the terrible heat.
She had crawled no more than 10 feet when a set of hands grabbed her beneath her shoulders and lifted her. A tall, blackened and familiar figure held her. It was The Prince. His eyes were wide with fear—a terrifying end-of-the-world fear. He shouted at her, but Amy couldn’t understand what he said; she had fallen into a primitive, inward struggle for survival.
The Prince clasped her wrist and pulled her. She did not resist. She stumbled the first few steps, but The Prince towed her along. They ran and climbed over the rubble—broken stone, burning furniture and shattered glass. They climbed over bodies.
They raced toward a narrow trace of white light at the end of the hallway, where the lunchroom once stood, where she and Julia had shared stories and gossip, and where she once gaped at a cityscape more than 400 years old and counted her blessings.
They ran because they had no other option. Around them stalked a wave of fire, 3,500 degrees and rising. They ran toward sky, and where more than 1,000 feet below lay hard unforgiving ground.