“There we go.”
“He’s still spacing.”
“Where am I?”
“You had a little knock on the head, buddy.”
“Jesus, a hospital?”
“It’s a whole lot better than a morgue. How many fingers?”
“Now how many?”
“Abby, would you kindly enter Einstein?”
“I was really hoping — “
“I know what time it is. We’re spread thin tonight.”
“What’s your name?”
“Jeff Malmquist. Would you please tell me where I am and what I’m doing here?”
“You banged your head.”
“I got shot?”
“You’re very lucky.”
“Because you’re talking to me. But we’re worried the bullet took some of your memory with it. And you have to explain your clothes and your identification. You’re not in the system. How did you get across?”
“I snuck across.”
“Right. Your gun isn’t registered. That’s an astonishing anomaly.”
“The Gary cops gave it to me.”
“So I could protect myself getting back to Chicago.”
“You lost your gun?”
“What’s your address?”
“What year is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t know what?”
“What do you mean you don’t know your address? It’s on your driver’s license.”
“That’s from forty-five years ago.”
“What are you doing with a forty-five year old license?”
“I lost my new one. Just get me out of here, please.”
“I agree. I don’t want to deal with this. I’m discharging you.”
A nurse put Malmquist back into his clothes and rolled him to the hospital reception area in a wheelchair. They told him he really needed to be confined to bed for another week before what would probably entail a months-long physical therapy regime. As he had no insurance, however, he was on his own. A public charity had covered the cost of both his rescue and the operation — quite generously so considering he didn’t even have an identity — but that was all. He was turned over to an obese teenage boy armed with a FN P90 submachine gun on one shoulder and an AA-12 shotgun on the other. He helped Malmquist out of the wheelchair and slung his AK-47 over him. He was dazed and shaky but able to walk to the parking lot with the boy’s help.
“Who are you?”
“Yeah, I can see that. A nickname?”
“I’m to take you to the halfway house.”
“You work for the hospital?”
“Nah, it’s an after-school thing. I’m saving up for a Browning. Everybody at school is laughing at me because I don’t have one.”
“What’s a Browning?”
The boy looked at him squint-eyed. “You know, an M2 .50 caliber. The most famous gun in the world. Still in service since 1933. Only problem is it’s so big and heavy and expensive. Nowhere to use it. Unless I mount it on the back of a pickup. But I don’t have a pickup.”
“Aren’t these enough?”
“These? They’re shit. Don’t rub it in. I inherited them from my grandfather and can’t afford to get new ones.”
“Why do you need two?”
“Man, you sure are dumb. Don’t you know you need this to blast the door open and this to clear the room of pedos?”
“I thought all the pedos are in New Gary.”
“What planet are you from? There’s pedos all around us. Can’t take any chances.”
“Sorry for my ignorance. That gunshot really wiped some of my mind away. I need to learn about guns all over again.”
“Hey, do you want to go to Danny’s place? He’s got a rad collection. He might be willing to sell you some guns so you can get properly armed again.”
“Aren’t you supposed to take me to get some rest?”
“His house is sort of on the way. You can go to the halfway house later. C’mon, let’s go.”
Slim’s car was a cross between a jeep and a golf cart, with one big seat in the front, fully occupied by Slim’s rump, and one in the back. They drove south down Halsted Street to the Bridgeport neighborhood and stopped at a house on West 26th and knocked on the door.
“666. What an odd number for a street address,” said Malmquist.
“Hey, Danny, this is Jeff. He just got out of the hospital and wants to see your guns,” said Slim.
“You’re Danny? You can’t be more than ten years old,” said Malmquist.
“I’m twelve, you stupid fucking zombie moron. Why is his head all bandaged up?”
“I had a head injury.”
Danny whipped a black box out of his back pocket, flicked it open and pointed it at Malmquist. “This is a fully loaded Magpul FMG9 folding machine gun and now you’re going to have a face injury.”
Malmquist raised his hands.
“Just kiddin’ ya,” Danny laughed.
“Show him your Matador.”
Danny went down to his basement and came back up with a large tube-shaped object balanced over his shoulder, while carrying a rifle in his other hand.
“You see that house across the street?” said Danny. “This can punch a hole through the front wall and out through the back wall too. The pedo who lives there, he knows I’m watching him, so he never appears in his front window. But I just punch a few more holes through it and there’s nothing left, see? I can destroy his house in a couple seconds. Now, you know what this is for, don’t you?”
“No, what’s it for?”
“What do you mean, you don’t know what it’s for? Any idiot knows what this is for.”
“Why should I know?’
“I’m asking you.”
“He’s injured, Danny, and has brain damage. Don’t hassle him. I wasn’t even supposed to take him here, but thought you might have an extra gun for him.”
“That piece of shit is all he has? Anyway, when he’s running out his backyard, I pick him off with this, a KAC M110 sniper rifle. I can get him at night, too, with the night-vision scope.”
“A pedo lives there?”
“I’m certain he is. I know that cross-eyed look on their face. And then there’s this — wait.”
He ran back down to the basement and came back with another weapon.
“Wow, what’s that.”
“This is for shooting around corners. And the barrel swings around 180 degrees for shooting backwards. Here I’ll show you. Stand behind me.”
“No, you can just tell me. How can you shoot backwards accurately?”
“It has tracking bullets.”
“What are those?”
“Are you from this country? You don’t know what tracking bullets are? They have computers in them. You program them and they change course in mid-air.”
“I’m afraid I could never afford any of these guns. I lost all my money and can’t even afford to eat now.”
“Hey, have you ever been to a restaurant?” said Slim. “There’s one that opened up down on 63rd Street called Munchees. The only one on the South Side. It’s really great. We go there a lot now.”
“Have I ever been to a restaurant?” asked Malmquist, dumbfounded. “Of course. Everybody has — where I grew up. Don’t you have restaurants? Where do you go to eat?”
They looked at him like he was still standing after they had blown him away with the Matador. “Everything is delivered,” said Slim. “Let’s go.”
They rode down to Munchees in Slim’s car, Danny and Malmquist in the back seat. Slim passed the cars in front by driving into the oncoming traffic lane so they could get there faster.
The restaurant was like a mid-twentieth-century diner. On the wall inside was a notice, “No pedophiles allowed.” They ordered burgers and milkshakes. Some friends of theirs were there and they joined them.
“What do you call a confessional with a trap door?” said Jason the boy comedian. “Catholic daycare. What do they feed the children in Catholic daycare? Cream-filled wafer sandwiches.”
“Jason, we’re trying to eat.”
“How many pedos does it take to screw in a lightbulb?”
“It depends on the size of the boy.”
Somebody farted. Danny blew the wrapper of his straw at Jason.
“What’s a pedophile’s vehicle of choice? Soft-back pervertible. What do you call a pedo that plays the violin?”
“Kiddie fiddler. Heard that one before,” said Slim.
Danny cocked his hand like a gun and aimed it at Malmquist, mouthing the word “Pow!”
“A pedo walks into a toy store and disappears,” Jason continued.
“Yeah, that’s it. Isn’t it funny?”
“Oh, I get it! Ha ha ha!” Danny burst out laughing, stood up and released some bullets from his FMG9 into the ceiling. The debris fell onto their table and their food as well. The customers stopped eating and turned around, hands gripping their guns.
“Fuck you, Danny! Look what you’ve done now.”
The owner pointed an AR-15 at them. “Now this is the last time I’m going to tell you brats to shape up. You shot your gun on my property before and you still haven’t compensated me for the damage last time. I’m calling the cops.”
“Call the cops on me. I don’t care,” said Danny. “We’re all outta here now and we won’t even pay for the lousy food, except meathead here. You’ll pay for us, won’t you meathead? You don’t have much choice, seeing as you can’t move very fast.”
“What’s the matter with you?” the owner asked Malmquist. “Danny shot you in the head?”
“He got shot in New Gary,” said Slim.
“What was he doing in New Gary?”
“They said he got shot just inside the Zone.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” said the owner. “What kinda operation did you have on your head?”
“They removed a bullet from my brain.”
“How could we have shot you if you was one of us?” said Danny as he ripped off Malmquist’s head bandage. “I heard about this before. This wasn’t no bullet. You had one of them secret operations in New Gary to have your nanochip removed.”
“No! I really was shot.”
“Bullshit!” said Danny, as he and the owner trained their guns on him. “I knew he was a pedo at first sight, Slim. Back off, pedo, we’re turning you in.“ He spoke into his gun. “911? I’d like to report a pedophile. Citizen’s arrest . . . Yeah, I’m holding him here at Munchees . . . And the bounty? . . . But I have evidence . . . Okay, got it.”
The police arrived minutes later and escorted the suspect away.
The pedophile unit, or PU, occupied a warehouse. Malmquist, now in a red jumpsuit, was sitting in a chair surrounded by several officers in jeans and blue T-shirts with the PU logo. Neatly spread out on a table in front of him were the contents of his wallet: US greenbacks, an Illinois driver’s license, a Visa card, and loyalty cards for various supermarkets and cafés.
“How long have I been here?”
“You arrived yesterday. Well, Jeff, why don’t you tell us about these items?”
“They’re from my wallet. What else am I suppose to say?”
“They didn’t do a very good job at concocting a convincing identity for you. Your namesake dates from forty-five years ago.”
“I am my namesake and I am from forty-five years ago.”
“We located his records in the archives — “
“Please, please, don’t tell me when I died.”
“You haven’t died. You’re still alive.”
“Then where am I?”
“We don’t know. We can’t find you anywhere. Put it this way. There are no records of your death. If that’s any relief. But what we can’t figure out is how they were able to remove just enough of your medial temporal lobe to induce the precise amount of amnesia to make you forget your past prior to the operation and no more and find and remove your nanochip, which is usually implanted in the frontal lobe.”
“We were pretty heavy-handed at first, we have to admit,” said another. “Convicting so many surgeons on pedophilia charges and losing that talent to New Gary.”
“So, Malmquist, maybe you can help us get to the bottom of this.”
“Get to the bottom of what?”
“We’re going to give you an opportunity to make things right and prove you’re not a pedophile.”
“But I am not a pedophile. I never was.”
“We agree. But the burden of proof lies with you. You’re in the system now. And once you’re in the system, you don’t get out. Unless you happen to be of value to us.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Lead us to the people who helped you.”
“I remember nothing except finding myself in New Gary, winding up in the police station shortly thereafter, and then being lead to the firefight. I can’t help you with anything more than that, and if I tried you wouldn’t believe me.”
“Start at the beginning.”
“I’m a semiotics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It’s 2015. I was teaching a class and then — poof! I’m in Gary, Indiana. No, wait. I remember something else. After my class that day I went downtown to buy some clothing. Yes. I think I was in a changing room. And then — poof!”
“Now that your memory’s improving, what’s your real name?”
“Jeff Malmquist. All this identification is mine. I can tell you my birth date on the driver’s license and the expiry date on my credit card. I can describe to you everything about the establishments of these loyalty cards.”
“What were you doing alone in the presence of minors?”
“The boy who turned you in. He said you were in his house and you were making suggestive motions with your hands and eyes. You wanted to go down into the basement with him.”
“He said that? I can’t believe this. I was brought there by a boy — the other boy named Slim — who was supposed to escort me from the hospital to a halfway house. He was hired by the hospital to take me there to rest. Go to the hospital and ask them. I never made it there. You can see how exhausted I am. I have no idea what day it is or where I am.”
“As soon as you get back to New Gary, you’ll have lots of time to rest.”
“Yeah? Where? I have no home. No apartment except right here in Chicago.”
“We’ve checked out your address and there’s nobody there now with your name. Not that we’re trying to comfort you, but it should come as a relief.”
“Where will I stay in New Gary?”
“Everything’s all settled for new arrivals. You’ll be given a residence and a job. There’s always openings in the gun factories. But in the meantime — “
“You can help us, Jeff,” said the other cop. “If you lead us to the surgeons. All you have to do is go there. We’ll be tracking you.”
“How will track me?”
“With a special tracking nanochip. It’s a pretty high-tech little thingamajig. Consider yourself lucky to have one.”
“I thought it was removed.”
“We put it back. The informant version.”
“The operation didn’t take long. You never knew what hit you, right?” they laughed.
“How’s it different from the usual nanochip?”
“Those are passive. This is active.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll soon find out.”
Malmquist was put in a cell for the rest of the day to recover. The next day they returned his clothes and wallet with identification intact. They put him in a police van and drove him south down I-90, across the Chicago Skyway and another twenty miles to New Gary. As they approached, army vehicles were evident along the eastward stretch of the Indiana Toll Road. Snipers were planted at intervals along the expressway barrier facing the city. They pulled off the exit ramp to Highway 53 and Broadway and stopped at a military checkpoint. The police turned Malmquist turned over to an officer of the Indiana National Guard.
“Welcome back,” the officer smiled.
* * *
Forthcoming (summer 2017): The Kitchens of Canton