“Mr. Malmquist, I’m Inspector Melynchuk. I believe you’ve already met Sergeant Fink and Algernon.”
“Yes, I have.”
“Nice to meet you again,” smiled Algernon.
“I can see you’ve been battered up a bit,” Melynchuk continued. “Sorry about all this. Apparently there have been misunderstandings.”
“You seem different, not like everyone else.”
“I’m everyone else?” said Fink.
“Don’t tell me you’re an android as well.”
“No,” said Melynchuk. “I’m here to try to put a more human face on things. Can you try to recall again where you were just before your first appearance in New Gary?”
“I was teaching my class on semiotics at the University of Illinois at Chicago—”
“The study of signs and sign systems?”
“Correct. After class, I went to the Loop to buy a T-shirt. No, not the Loop. It was on Broadway, near where I live.” Anyway, the next thing I know I was inside a used clothing shop, in what turned out to be Gary, Indiana.
“Why were you buying a T-shirt?” Melynchuk asked.
“I was teaching the students about the semiotics of T-shirt slogans and I wanted to pick out one to wear as an example.”
“T-shirts? That’s what they learn in college these days?” said Fink.
“So, is this the one you came up with?” Melynchuk gestured.
“What, this? Oh, god, not this tunic again. How could—” He looked down at his chest and saw the words:
FOUR MONKEYS GET HOLD ON TIGHT
TO EDGE OF BOAT NOT TO FALL DOWN
“I have to say it’s quite an unusual shirt,” said Melynchuk. “Or whatever it is. Such quizzical English.”
“But I wasn’t wearing this when I was last here. I really wasn’t. It’s a tunic. I got it in China.”
“Yes, in a gift shop in a fake ancient Rome in China.”
“When were you in China?”
“I was just there. After I got arrested in Chicago.”
“This guy’s a gas,” said Fink.
“You know, none of what you’re saying makes any sense.”
“Does it look like I’m telling you this for fun?”
“So between the time you were arrested and the time you arrived back in New Gary, you went to China?”
“To tell the truth, I’m not exactly sure of the exact sequence of events. Maybe everything is happening at the same time.”
“We’ve examined the contents of your wallet and your identification. Forensics has run them through the archives. They seem to be authentic.”
“That’s because they are. I’m telling you I am from 2015.”
“And I believe you. I’m operating on the assumption that you’re here because of some kind of time slip.”
“Do they believe me too?”
“I don’t,” said Fink.
“It doesn’t matter what they or what I believe because there are two big problems, Mr. Malmquist. First, you seem to be stuck here. Even though I’d like to help you, I have no idea how to get you back to 2015. Second, as long as you’re here, you’re a convicted pedophile.”
“If you can believe I’m from 2015, then you should be able to believe I’m actually not a pedophile. Show me the record of conviction, with my specific crime stated and the date and place where it was committed.”
“There is indeed a gap in your records, and we’re working on it.”
“Why are you wearing a dress with kiddies’ talk on it?” asked Fink.
“Yeah, what’s going on again with your tunic?”
The words had changed and now read:
WE ARE THE FLESH FOODS EATER
BEARS HONEY RABBITS CARROT
“Oh, fuck. It’s a gimmick with the tunics sold in that gift shop. Your body heat generates random nonsense English.”
“It’s not completely nonsense. It’s some kind of children’s language.”
“It’s supposed to suggest the thoughts or desires in your mind but it’s just a gimmick.”
“He’s quite frank, self-incriminatingly so,” said Fink.
“Can we have the tunic? I’d like to examine it.”
“Now? I have nothing on underneath.”
“You don’t wear underwear?”
“Of course, I do. But I’m a slave in Chinese Rome and my master forbids me from wearing it.”
“I don’t know. I guess it’s for easy access.”
“That’s a good one,” laughed Fink. “Easy access. You’ll sure be at home here. I can’t get over this guy, Melynchuk.”
“You’ll be provided with a set of proper clothes.”
“Can I get it back?”
“I assume so.”
“After it’s been tested for semen stains, of course,” winked Fink. “Whoa! What do we have here now on the baby shirt?”
Malmquist’s tunic read:
WE WANT TO SPEND TIME
WITH OUR FAVORITE PAJAMAS
AN ENOUGH SILHOUETTE IS
LET US SETTLE DOWN OUR MIND
“Interesting,” said Melynchuk. “It’s like a foreigner’s English. As if some kind of coherent language is struggling to get out. Makes sense if it was in fact designed in China. I’m going to inquire with our contacts there. In the meantime, we’ll assign you an apartment and get you settled in a gun factory.”
“In one of those tenements called the Coliseum?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“I don’t know anything about guns.”
“You don’t need to,” said Fink. “It’s unskilled labor. Assembling parts. You won’t be needing any of your T-shirt academics. Oh, and let’s have the kiddie shirt now. You won’t be needing that either. Fuck, are there any civilian clothes lying around?”
“I can inquire.”
“For now, just do as you’re told,” said Melynchuk.. “If anything turns up, I’ll let you know. In the meantime, Leroy can get Mr. Malmquist set up in an apartment. Give him a couple days. He can start work on Monday. Oh, there he is now.”
“That’s it? You’re not throwing me in a jail cell?”
“You forgot, man, all of New Gary one big jail,” said Leroy, who stepped in the room. He led Malmquist, naked, out of the room. “You were bullshittin’ us, man. Damn near fooled us, too. All them lies about coming from Chicago in 2015.”
“I was telling the truth and am still telling the truth. Inspector Melynchuk believes me.”
“He just playing you, man. Don’t you know that’s what all cops do? You were bullshittin’ us big time.”
“No, I wasn’t.”
“You sure was. They said you once a had a chip in you but you somehow got it removed, so they put a new one in you in Chicago. You ain’t getting out of New Gary again no more, that’s for sure.”
A black female secretary came up to them in the hall. “I got one of the inmates to lend him his shirt and pants,” she said, holding them at arm’s length and looking Malmquist over. “But he want them back tomorrow.”
“So now he’s naked?” said Malmquist, as he pulled on the clothes.
“In his underwear. He ain’t giving that up.”
“Nor do I want him to. Anyway, leaving Gary is the last thing on my mind. You know what happened to me, don’t you?”
“No,” said Leroy.
“I got shot in the head as I tried to cross over, all because of you. In Chicago, they thought my wound was a botched attempt to remove my chip. That’s why they put the new one in me.” Malmquist stared hard at Leroy. “I swear you’re bullshitting me, too. You’re also serving as the American Ambassador in Chinese Rome but you denied it when I met you there.”
“They done a worse job on your brain than you done did yourself. The American Ambassador?”
“Do you have a twin brother working in China?”
“No. I ain’t never been to China and wouldn’t be allowed even if I wanted to. Don’t you realize yet nobody allowed out of New Gary? Even people in Chicago can’t go to China.”
“We working for them, man. They closed to us. Nobody have that kinda money to travel no more. But they come to the US a lot. Live in they own communities. That’s another thing get you thrown in New Gary—consorting with the Chinese. Especially the females. You can’t even be seen approaching one of them hoes, let alone talking to one. Now, let’s go. I gotta take you to the Coliseum.”
They got in Leroy’s aircar and took the same route as before, but without the AK-47.
“Listen. I don’t know how I wound up in this place. Thanks to your confusing instructions, I got shot in the head,. I was given no time to recover after they took the bullet out of me. Then I was operated on a second time to put the chip in. I still don’t feel right. I keep slipping back into China, where I was almost executed and then became a slave. Now I’m back here and you’re about to get me shot again. If one of these two realities is an illusion, I sure the hell hope it’s this one. I’d rather be a slave in Rome, even real ancient Rome, than a prisoner in Gary, Indiana. I beg you as a decent fellow citizen to put me in a safer place. If I learn how to get back to China, I’ll try to find a way to get you there too. Then at least I can resolve the ambassador problem.”
“What’s in it for me?”
“You can massage naked women. That’s what they’re training me to do.”
“Really?” Leroy giggled. “Well, that part of your brain still working. Okay, listen up. I gotta put you in a pad in one of them front-line buildings in the Zone. You ain’t got no choice because all first-comers go there. Then you on a waiting list to get transfered. Some of them crackerboxes, they all shot up and unlivable. We gonna register you in one of them. But you don’t have to live there. See, there’s this ho Delilah live in one of the back buildings, nice and safe in the basement, and she know a lot of people. I’ll show you where to go. When you get to Delilah apartment, tell her Leroy sent you. She’ll fix you up. But there’s a catch.”
“What’s the catch?”
“You’ll find out. You can handle a bullet in the brain, you can handle her.”
The aircar landed in the same spot Malmquist had previously been dropped off. “Remember this place?” said Leroy.
“You see that entrance behind the sandbags? Go down the stairs to the basement. Apartment 102. I’ll pick you up right here at 8:30 on Monday morning. Don’t keep me waiting. Oh, almost forgot. I’m supposed to give you some cash to tie you over until then.” Leroy handed him ten $100 bills.
“That won’t get you very far. And it’s all you’ve got till your first paycheck.”
“Where can I get something to eat around here?”
Leroy flew off. Malmquist entered the building and rung the buzzer.
After a few minutes a young boy opened the door. “Who is it?”
“I’m here to see Delilah.”
“Wait a sec.”
A few minutes later, he came back with a teenage girl. “Who sent you?” she said.
“All right, come in.” He followed her and the boy down a long hallway to her studio apartment. It was darkly lit inside, with candles, and Malmquist had to adjust his eyes. The room was done up in ’70s hippie-kitsch style. A macrame lantern muted a light bulb hanging from the ceiling. Fish netting also hung from the ceiling, with Christmas tree ornaments were scattered inside the netting. There was no furniture except two large mattresses placed side by side on the floor and covered with Indian batiks. Blacklight posters lined the walls. A haze of patchouli incense and marijuana smoke hung in the air.
The girl put Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on the stereo, as if nothing could proceed without the proper ritual music. She was wearing a white halter top and wraparound paisley skirt and beads braided in her long brown hair; her midriff was tattooed with the runic symbols from the Led Zeppelin IV album. She had dark eyes set close together but not so close as to make her look mean; her gaze was at once piercing and expressionless. The boy had sandy hair, blue eyes and a natural smile.
“Hi. I’m Delilah and this is Gunther.”
“I’m Jeff. You’ve got your pad fixed up pretty retro.”
“Yeah, twentieth-century classic rock-era.”
“Just like when I was your age. But for us it was the real thing. I remember when this album first came out and I first heard it a classmate’s apartment. She had after-school parties there every day while her parents were still at work.”
“What? You’re that old?”
“No, not quite. I traveled in time here from forty-five years ago.”
“From the looks of you you can’t be more than sixteen or seventeen.”
“I’ll be eighteen on the Equinox next month.”
“And you look like you’re about nine.”
“I’m twelve,” said Gunther.
“He supplies my ganja.”
“Aren’t you a bit young to be peddling drugs? Hey, wait a minute. What are you guys doing here? You can’t be pedophiles.”
“I’m not,” said Gunther. “I live on the other side.”
“You can’t find any ganja here. He’s our connection.”
“You cross over that shooting range?”
“You think I’m an idiot? There are other ways to get across. Safe ways.”
“I can’t tell you that. It’s a secret. Why? You’re trying to escape?”
“No. I just came from there. It’s pretty violent.”
“How did you get across?”
“Long story. I’ll tell you when I have more energy. Can I get something to eat?”
“Have some of these.” Delilah handed him a bag of tortilla chips and a bowl of salsa.
“Just what I need right now.”
“Gunther gets me this too. You can’t find it here. I’ll cook something later.”
“And what about you?”
“I am a pedophile,” said Delilah.
“How could you be a pedophile?”
“I was caught showing my pussy to a boy when I was eight. His parents turned me in.”
“How old was he?”
“And you got sent here for that? Children can get convicted too now? What about your parents?”
“They were disgusted with me. They disowned me.”
“No way. I can’t believe that.”
“Fuck ’em. I haven’t seen them since. I’m doing fine here.”
“If Gunther can sneak across, why can’t he get you out?”
“I have the chip. I would be immediately caught.” She lit a joint and handed it to Malmquist. After taking a toke, he handed it to Gunther. “Why aren’t you in school?” he asked him.
“I’m playing hooky. Everyone plays hooky.”
“Don’t you want to learn anything?”
“Nothing to learn. The stuff they teach—it’s so easy. I can skip most of my classes and pass the tests.”
“What do they teach you?”
“Industrial arts. Stuff like that.”
“A vocational school?”
“Yeah. All schools are vocational schools.”
“Don’t you want to go to college?”
“Nah. Hardly anyone goes to college anymore. That’s for the super rich kids.”
“What about you?”
“What? Here? They don’t have any schools in New Gary,” said Delilah.
“They say we’re irredeemable. So what’s the use of education anyway on the assemblyline?”
“What do they do with you until you start work?”
“Nothing. We organize our own reading groups. We read much more interesting stuff than they teach in the schools over there. Old books that were left over from the past, from your time. When they closed the libraries down all the books got thrown out and people grabbed them and hoarded them and kept them in secret. Now they circulate in our reading groups. Books and ganja. That’s all we need.”
“So why aren’t you working in the gun factories now?”
“I started when I was sixteen. I liked the people I was working with but hated the job. I slept with my boss and he got me a permanent medical leave in return.”
“I’m told I start working there on Monday. This is some high-quality bud.”
“Hey, do you want some acid? I can get you some of that too,” said Gunther.
“No, thanks. I’m not ready to fry yet in these new surroundings.”
“Shhh! The synthesizer part is starting. Turn it up, Delilah.” They listened to “On the Run” from the Pink Floyd album in rapt silence, followed by the ticking clocks and the bells and gongs at the beginning of “Time.” When the singing started, she turned the volume back down. “I want to put the black light on now.”
“I’m outta here! You know what’s going to happen next, don’t you,” said Gunther.
He whispered something in Malmquist’s ear.
Delilah flipped on the fluorescent black light. As the purple tube came to life, the posters exploded into bright neon, as if plugged into an electrical outlet. Her halter top shown brilliant white as well, as did her teeth. Hers and Malmquist’s skin took on a dark dusty sheen.
“I’m going. See you next week.”
“I had one of these black lights when I was a teenager too,” said Malmquist. “Wow, those ornaments up there shine just like planets in a night sky.”
“You want to see something really cool?”
Delilah pulled up her skirt and opened her legs. “Look, it glows white too. The liquid. It needs to come out now. Can I give you a massage?”
“No, Delilah. I can’t do that. You’re underage.”
“The age of consent? I’ve only got four years to go.”
“Four years? It’s not eighteen anymore?”
“No, it’s twenty-one.”
“Why did they raise it?”
“To make it easier to convict more people. But you’re in New Gary, now. We’re all convicted pedophiles. So there’s no age of consent.”
“Delilah, I’m sorry but I just can’t do anything with you.”
“It really really doesn’t matter. It’s impossible for anything to happen to you. Trust me, please. Now, take off your clothes. You don’t have to do anything. Just lie there, and I’ll do everything.”
“It’s all right, really it is. You cannot possibly take advantage of me. I need it.”
“Leroy sent me here because you’re supposed to help me find an apartment that’s not in the line of fire.”
“I know. This is your apartment. You’re living with me now. Take off your clothes!”
* * *
Forthcoming (summer 2017): The Kitchens of Canton