Roach in the Walls

By Chris Kassel
Monday was a miserable day, the kind that made New Yorkers cringe. Typhoon thunder, horizontal rain sheets, cats, dogs, wind shear, the works. The manager of Bongo's Jamaican Pub, on Second and East 84th, decided to take the afternoon off. He knew the score on days like that: they'd get a trickle of executive suits around noon, a preppie college kid or two, maybe a knot of street poets, and that was it. He'd leave dizzy Tonya and the Rastafarian cook in charge for the duration of the shift, smoke a joint, watch some soap operas.

Tonya was the lunch time barmaid, eleven in the morning through Happy Hour, five days per week. Tonya was an Upper East Side institution, and Bongo's mostly sucked in decent trade. Most days, Tonya could haul down upwards of two hundred dollars in tips and pilfered bar receipts. Monday was not like most days. The hooky-playing manager called in between "One Life To Live" and "All My Children" and had his suspicions confirmed. Since noon, Tonya had served but a single customer, a silent misanthropic lug who'd basically done nothing more than nurse a white wine while staring at himself in the mirrored backdrop. Actually, she was glad for the manager's phone call: the customer was giving her the creeps. There were bad vibes around him, an inexplicable repulsiveness that went deeper than his red-rimmed eyes, his flat reptilian expression, his torpid, muscle-free physique. It was chilly in the vast old warehouse, but his forehead glittered with perspiration, as if he'd come equipped with his own microcosmic atmosphere, like that house on the Addams Family. A perceptible tremor animated his limbs, and he clutched at the massively-carved bar to steady himself. Over the years, Tonya had learned to tolerate strange, but this guy looked lethal. Something potent appeared to be writhing beneath his surface. He manifested an innate ugliness that was somewhat tempered by his au courant wardrobe: a CK 3-button raincoat, a Prada wool suit, leather Hilfiger lace-ups... Tonya was on the prowl for that sort of sugar-daddy income level. She had the brain of a bumble bee, but the eye of a hawk, especially for expensive couture; she better had, or she risked spending the rest of her life sizing up horny geeks inside Bongo's Jamaican Pub.

Behind the swinging kitchen door, Montego, the cook, was doing a sensuous dip 'n' kotch to a local reggae station. Thin as a runway tomboy, with spare-tire lips, gold teeth, and an immense, lion-sized crop of dreadlocks, Montego was quite an image. He spoke about fifteen words of English and seven of them were girl body parts. Normally, Tonya would have been a little put off to be left alone in the spooky old tin-ceilinged speakeasy with him, but with this shiny-headed dingaling settling in for the long haul, she was grateful for the dull, distant thump of Junior Byles' ska drums and the sure knowledge that Montego carried a bone-handled six-inch switchblade in his chinos in case things got hairy.

Still, the profitless weight of silence began to bug her. She was a lithe, artificially tan, shapely-breasted young morsel used to the tips and come-ons of semi-tanked professionals, and inaction drove her up a wall. She'd scrubbed out the inside of her Hobart cooler, triple-counted the till, cut enough drink garnishes to last until Labor Day. And it was still only two o'clock. "You want me to put on some radio?" she asked the stranger at last.

His voice was thick with phlegm. "No thanks. It's nothing but Jewel songs these days."

"Seems like," she nodded. "What about the TV?"

He shook his head no. "There was a major plane crash today. Big jumbo jet went down. It'll be on every station. I don't want to watch it."

"Wow. I didn't hear. When did that happen?"

The stranger drew back his sleeve and consulted his watch. A platinum Piaget, she noted; it had to go for four thousand dollars. "Some time between ten and eleven this morning," he replied. "Between here and Los Angeles. Everybody's dead. Horrible..."

"Very uncool," she agreed.

"Yeah. My sister was on board."

Tonya permitted herself a cringe of abhorrence in order to buy herself some pondering time. It didn't help; she was impotent in the face of emotions more complicated than lust or thirst. "Oh, gee! Dude. That's awful. Really awful. Sorry about that. Your sister? Oh, wow..." Well, what were you supposed to do? Feed the bereaved? That's what her mother did. "Want some lunch or something, hon? Montego, he's kinda wild-looking, but he makes a righteous Rasta-burger..."

"No, I can't eat anything." said the stranger, attempting a smile. The expression didn't suit him; it looked almost painful. His teeth were coated with a slick, gray film. "I've just been diagnosed with stomach cancer."

"Man, you are having a shitty day."

He made a fatalistic shrug. "In my family, we have a saying. If things are going too good, that's bad."

She returned to her garnish tray, withdrew a little paring knife and cut another shift's worth of pineapple wedges. The stranger squeezed the bar rail, put his head back, and stared hard at the ceiling, focusing on a little gray fault in the pressed-tin panels. He appeared to be a million miles away. "What are you thinking about, hon?" she asked after a moment.

"That little gray spot on the ceiling."

Another half hour passed; the stranger didn't move. She felt awkward, oddly conspicuous at being ignored. She wandered through the kitchen. Montego was hunched over the music box, ticking like a metronome. She asked him about the downed airliner.

"What be dat, gyal?"

"Isn't a big plane crash on the news?"

"Nope, queenie, nothing on de news 'bout no crash. Only 'bout some crazy doctor eat hisself op." Conversation with Montego was less than hopeless. He proceeded to make an obscene proposition and Tonya returned to the bar.

Another half an hour slid by. Anything was worse than the silence. She moved to a safe, but functional distance in front of the stranger, and said, "You wanna see a cool trick, hon? I can tie a bar cherry stem together with my tongue."

The prospect of watching the young perky-titted feline playing oral gymnastics usually got their attention. This time was no exception. He nodded and she slid a maraschino cherry between her lips and made a concentration chewing motion, finally spitting out a perfectly tied stem-knot. She beamed with a look of accomplishment.

"Okay." That grisly smile again. He squinted at her brass name tag. "Pretty good, Tonya. Tell ya what, then. I'll show you one." He pushed his untouched glass to the little well on the bow of the bar. "Uh, what kind of wine did you give me? Wait a minute, don't tell... I'm kind of an expert at this sort of thing." He closed his eyes, swirled the wine glass with the forbearance of a connoisseur. He stuck his nose into the bowl, whiffed it. "Ah, perfect proportions. Two parts hydrogen with just a splash, a mere hint of oxygen."

"It's Gallo Chenin Blanc," Tonya scowled, confused.

"I don't think so. In fact, Tonya, I think you are ripping me off. Tainting product. Replacing the wine with tap water. Serving it to customers."

Tonya reddened and pushed out her lip in a pout. "That's a lie. You do that with vodka, not wine."

"Pour yourself one, then. I'll prove it." She did so. "Smell it. Taste it." She did so, noting that the jug was about two weeks old and beginning to turn gross. "Now, place the glass in front of me..." He glared at it, mumbled something, then said, "Now try it..."

She sipped it. Clearly, it had turned into water. "Whoa. That's outrageous, mister. Really outrageous." She turned back to the jug, sniffed at it again, just to make sure. "Hey," Tonya piped up brightly. "I'll tell you how I did mine if you tell me how you did yours...!"

Tonya went on: "See, like, to do mine, you have to get stuff ready beforehand, okay? That's the thing. You have to get a real stem and tie it together with your hands, stick it in your mouth, hold it back behind your teeth..." She mimed the motions in case the description was not sufficient. "Then, in front of your customer, you, like, put a not-tied-in-a-knot one in your mouth, and pretend to be messing around with it with your tongue and shit, then presto, you spit out the already-tied-up one." She grinned expectantly. "Get it? There's two stems! Pretty outrageous, huh? That's how I do it. How do you do yours?"

"I'm the Antichrist."

"No way. For real how do you do it?"

"I'm perfectly serious, Tonya. I'm the Antichrist. Ever heard of me?"

"Duh. Like I'm what? Stupid? That guy from Omen I?"

"Exactly," he said. "Only that was just a movie. Me, I'm the genuine article, the one they made the movie about..."

"Yeah, right."

"By my deeds you shall know me, Tonya. I know how it sounds. It's all pretty bizarre to me, too. My status is a fairly recent revelation. But I've discovered that I have certain... skills. The ability to perform miracles. Anti-miracles, if you will. It's hereditary as far as I can figure out. It pops up once or twice in the history of a family. Last guy that could make stuff appear out of thin air was two thousand years ago. My cousin. That show-off jewboy hippie, Jesus H. Christ."

"Come on," Tonya said gently. "How do you really do the trick?"

The stranger heaved deeply, a massive Staten Island-sized sigh that engaged the entire upper half of his body. "Look," he said, making distracted gestures with his pudgy, mottled hands. "I'll prove it to you. According to tradition, what was Jesus' first miracle?" He prompted her: "At Canaan? The wedding feast... What did he do? He turned what into what?"

Tonya brightened. "Bread into fish?"

"No, Tonya. But you're close. Real close. Water into wine. It was one of his talents. A core competency, if you will. Me, I can do the opposite. I can turn wine into water. Strange, but fairly straightforward stuff. Effect and cause. I will it, it comes true. Quite simple. Whatever Jesus could do, I can do, only with me, it kind of always seems to come out backwards."

Tonya folded her arms, considering him, chewing the inside of her cheeks. "When's your birthday, hon?"

"I turned thirty last month."

"Yeah? What day?"

"The eighteenth."

"Libra, huh?" She blinked and nodded as if that explained everything. "August eighteenth. What's that, like, Antichristmas?"

Tonya was not used to making witticisms, but this one was fairly good. At least, it tickled the stranger. He shook his head, running thick fingers through greasy forelocks, a near-grin spreading across his chops like rictis. "You're not a bad kid, Tonya; I know exactly where you're coming from. And you're right, I am having a shitty day. A shitty week, if you wanna know the truth. And oy gevalt, it's only Monday. I can see you've got nothing much going down here; if you want, I'll tell you the whole sordid story..."

"Sure", said Tonya, yawning. Beat the living hell out of silence, didn't it?

***

Howie and Risa Sussage lived on the top floor of a five-story townhouse next to the old Andrew Carnegie mansion on East 90th; Saturday morning, they were sitting in the breakfast nook, eating bialys and salt sticks, discussing Howie's younger sister, who was set to arrive the upcoming Monday from Los Angeles. Risa's voice was high-pitched and irritating. "So, Mr. Junior Partner, I supposed you'll get somebody to do something about our cockroach problem already, like before she gets here?"

Howie was not being particularly attentive. He was considering the visit. He hadn't had much contact with his sister over the years. Fact is, he couldn't stand her, and the feeling was mutual. They were cut from the same silk, too much so; they shared personality patterns which could generously be described as hideous. Not only that, but he knew that his sister despised flying with the passion of a full-blown neuroses. She was one of those people who had a tub of valium in her medicine cabinet solely for the purpose of steeling herself through once-per-decade family reunion flights. "Wouldn't it be weird if that particular plane went down?" Howie grinned wickedly. "Wouldn't that just..." He paused for a second, imagining. "Jeez, I wonder how many paranoid passengers on plane crashes die with a little smug 'told ya so' on their lips?"

"That's sick, Howie," said Risa. "The roaches?"

She was masticating jowlfuls of lox, and the triple-image of whiny Risa spewing slivers of cured salmon while chatting about cockroaches made him feel suddenly, violently sick to his stomach. As a matter of fact, he'd been feeling a little under the weather for weeks; he wondered if it was the distant thunder of major malfunctions occurring within his system. What with the stress of his job, the dread of his sister's visit, he didn't like to consider that his prestige address might also have a bug problem. "You've seen what, Risa? One goddamn roach since we moved in?"

"More like three," snapped Risa through her fish fog. "And anyway, Howie, you know what they say. For every cockroach you actually see, there's a thousand more running around behind the walls."

Howie made an overly-dramatic groan. Out of all the girls he'd dated, how he'd ended up with this puffy-cheeked fish-eating yentl was truly one of God's mysteries. "Christ, babe; you got so little to do, you gotta worry about what's going on behind the walls, now? Man, that's leisure class defined, you know what I'm saying? That's even a little bit spooky." She obviously didn't see it that way, and he tried to make it into a metaphor for her benefit. "Listen, Risa; worrying about what's going on behind the walls is like looking at an unplugged radio and worrying..." He tried to conjure up a singer he despised enough to complete the image: "...that ... Jewel might be playing."

"I like Jewel," she said defensively.

"You would," he replied; the cause was clearly lost.

Fifteen minutes later, blissfully Risa-free, musing randomly in the mahogany and stained-glass sanctity of his private library, he glanced at the radio on his 4-channel. For no real definable reason, a passing thought occurred to him: Wouldn't it be weird if Jewel was playing right this very second...? Gingerly, he nudged the receiver knob. And sure as shit, that cosmic eskimo was on the air, strumming her guitar and singing about her goddamned pancakes and sausage. How astronomical were the odds of that? Quickly, he rolled the dial to the left, where Jewel was being interviewed by Yazmeen Macumba,WWIN radio's Morning Maven. He tried some megahertz territory to the left of WWIN. It was Jewel live, squeaking through a maudlin account of doomed lovers. Now, he began to grow disturbed. Profoundly so. His stomach ache returned. He went for an AM band. The song they were playing sounded like some lovesick teenager putting her boring diary to music. Which it was . But that wasn't the point, obviously. Every single position was playing Jewel music. He spun back into hard rock FM land, to a station which he knew exclusively ran New York Dolls-style sleazy glam hits from the Seventies. This afternoon, however, the format was different, the DJ claimed; it would be an all-day Jewel marathon. They'd even changed their call letters. WJWL. He was about to holler for Risa when he had another thought. Roaches in the walls... On the bedstand was his precious burlwood humidor. Wonder if Risa's cockroaches liked Macanudos; he'd just purchased forty Cuban torpedoes from an amateur smuggler in the law firm. Wouldn't it be weird if... He lifted the lid. There were no torpedoes left. A haughty, fat, brown, vile-looking cockroach glared up from the burlwood, twitching its antennae. He slammed the box shut with disgust. Something was clearly off base here.

He tried a simple experiment, dreading the results. He dropped to still lower talent-rungs on the Billboard ladder, imagining pop stars more loathsome than Jewel. What if... He flipped on the radio again. Every station, every band, every podunk hundred-watt outhouse, up and down and all around the dial.... Spice Girls!

He spent that afternoon in neural auto pilot, browsing shelves at an uptown library. His appearance was so mechanical and that he drew the scrutiny of a scrotum-faced octogenarian librarian who appeared to be itching for some final combat. She glared at him as he wandered the aisles, looking up words like thaumetology, prophesy; divine interventions and the history of miracle-workers, from the minor prophets of the Old Testament, up to the big kahuna Himself in Part II, whose wondrous healings and returning-to-lifes were so common they were treated as routine. Was it possible, even remotely, that... Weird theories began to seed his imagination. He looked up genetics, and that was what got him. A single salient phrase leaped out at him: 'Many monstrosities incompatible with life are due to lethal genes... They lead to the death of organisms as soon as they cease to be hidden under dominant genes, because they produce some distortion incompatible with the over-all development plan.' Could it be...? He let out a sharp yip. Then an explosive, Yiddish invective. The librarian upbraided him like he was an adolescent. She got in his face, wouldn't let up. He was hardly in the mood. "Lady, you should croak of an embolism already," he whispered to her, and was out front hailing a cab just as the ambulance pulled up.

The theory-seed fully germinated at three AM. Took root, and matured. He paced the townhouse, unable to sleep, assembling the various shards of asinine conjecture, unlikely deduction, and formed a single, cohesive, encompassing, utterly ludicrous hypothesis. Had he somehow, bizarrely, developed the ability to perform miracles? He'd give it a shot. He tried to replicate one of the classics, a Christ cover tune: making loaves and fishes. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the surface of the walnut desk in his study. When nothing happened, he breathed a sigh of incipient relief, and nearly nodded off. Risa's shrill screech roused him: "What have you been doing, you fat putz? Snacking all night?"

"What the hell are you talking about?"

Her voice was a fingernail on the chalkboard of life: "Wasn't there a dozen bagels and half a pound of Nova in the refrigerator from yesterday? Well, now there's only two bagels and a few little slices left of lox. If you didn't eat it, who did?"

My God. Come to think of it, Christ had multiplied loaves and fishes. He'd somehow , inadvertently, made them divide. Did that make him... Antichrist? He felt giddy, brain-numb, profoundly nauseated. He concentrated on his sore gut to occupy his mind. And as a result, had a final, single, dreadful notion: "Wouldn't it be weird if my indigestion turned out to be... stomach cancer?"

He regretted having thought the thought immediately.

By eight on Monday morning he was taking a crap into a specimen jar, sitting in a lead-lined X-ray room with a bellyful of barium sulfate, spending an intolerable hour twiddling his thumbs in the private office of Dr. Ezekial Armstrong while the oncologist pointed out various cryptic segments on an X-ray light-board. Howie took an instant dislike to Armstrong. For starters, he was a fashion My Lai. A schlump. He probably pulled down a quarter mil per year, and here he was, conducting business in seedy-looking Hush Puppies, tortoiseshell glasses that made his eyeballs look like Rambler hubcaps, a blue-collar necktie littered with antique trains, and to complete the atrocious ensemble, a WalMart wristwatch. Not only that, but the doctor oozed a supercilious attitude that couldn't have been worse if he'd been the Dalai Lama browbeating botfly larva. "Mr. Sussage, my nature is to be straightforward. You may not appreciate it now, but in the long run, it's better this way. Your urinary uropepsin levels are extremely low, there's occult blood present in your stool sample. Multiple tumors appear in the X-ray of your serosa; the final indication of adenocarcinoma..."

No surprise, of course. A distressing, but entirely predictable state of affairs. He'd willed his indigestion into stomach cancer! What was the chance, he wondered, that having whipped up a terminal carcinoma like a cup of latte, he could now cure it? He closed his eyes and repeated the mantra several times "Wouldn't it be weird if it just cured itself, wouldn't it be..." while the doctor prattled on.

"...No chance of self-cure, I'm afraid, Mr. Sussage... I don't subscribe to that holistic mumbo-jumbo. Prognosis depends chiefly on lymph node involvement. Even a radical gastrectomy at this stage would not be curative, only palliative. The disease has already invaded the deepest layers of the stomach. Take this tumor here, for example. It's really quite... majestic..."

Majestic? My cancer...? Why, you sniveling goggle-eyed nerd. "How long have I got, doc?" said Howie, pouting.

"Well. Survival curves indicate that if the creek don't rise, most patients in your conditions are dead within two months..."

If the creek don't rise? He wanted to reach down Dr. Armstrong's throat and manually rearrange his larynx, see if that affected his patsy, argot-spewing, Iowa-accented pontifications. But he had more pressing concerns. In frustration, he shouted, "Wouldn't it be weird if I won the lottery? Wouldn't it be weird if Heather Locklear showed up in a Victoria Secret whipstitch bikini and demanded that I accept oral sex?" He squeezed his eyes close and muttered. He even wiggled his nose like Samantha, just in case. "See, doc," he howled in frustration. "That stuff never works! The good stuff won't come true! But, I can make a turd appear in my cornflakes, oh yeah! I can make cockroaches put on a show in my stogies! And, goddamn it, every goddamn time I turn on the radio, it's a goddamned Jewel retrospective..."

He blew his lungs clear and sucked a big gulp of office air as quiet descended. Dr. Armstrong wore a flat, vaguely impatient expression. Newly doomed patients often expressed a bit of angst. One gave them their space. Howie hacked up a phlegm ball, adjusted his Emporio Armani silk tie-knot. "I wonder if you might be interested in hearing a little theory I've come up with to explain my cancer?" he said.

Dr. Armstrong made a steeple out of his hands. He wedged his chin between his fingers. His expression indicated that he was thinking, 'Not really; but since I've just informed you that you've got six weeks to live, perhaps I could find it in my professional solace to humor you for five more minutes...

Howie cleared his throat. "Doc, I know this is gonna sound nuts, but, what if I'm related to Jesus Christ? It's not impossible, my great-great zayde was Hassidic rabbi, a very well-connected guy, directly from Jerusalem. Now me, none of his holiness trickled down to my level, I'm afraid. But his genes did... See, I've always been a very self-centered person; often wondered if I was a bit of a sociopath... You know? I'm kinda tough to get along with. I believe the clinical term is an A-hole. Okay, so be it. After thirty years, I'm fine with it; it's just who I am. So, my theory goes like this: what if I'm distantly related to Jesus Christ, and like him, I have some weird chemical ability to make miracles happen. Only unlike him, who was a pretty straight'n'narrow type of individual if I'm reading the story right, I can only make negative things happen..." He tried to make it plainer. "In other words, what if I have a gene that permits me to will 'ideas' into being. Only with me, being how I am, it's a sort of self-destructive ability, in fitting with my personality. I mean, for example, I've only been at it forty-eight hours and already I've got full blown gastric cancer..."

"Let me understand you, Mr. Sussage," said Armstrong slowly. "You are telling me that you believe that you willed an adenocarcinoma into being?"

"Absolutely." Howie snapped his fingers. "Just like that. Remember how Jesus used to make sick people well? Some kinda hocus-pocus, huh? I can make well people sick. Even myself. It's all in the family, see? Maybe Jesus simply misinterpreted his particular set of symptoms; all this Son a God stuff was just a crock of baloney. Jews are pretty smart, and we've been saying that for years. Right?. But, what if Christ's ability to perform miracles had another cause, a genetic one... " He was beginning to ramble, sound nuts even to himself. "Only, being a ethical, upright sort of chap, all his miracles came out for the good of mankind. Feeding the hungry, curing Jerry's Kids, yadda, yadda. Me, being an ambulance-chasing sonofabitch, all I can seem to do is bring down the house with my miracles. I'm reading how chromosomes can change, depending on the person. Tall-boy genes don't guarantee a tall boy, it's about nutrition, how the kid gets raised...." Howie knew how stupid he was sounding, but he went on; at this point, he really was a little desperate to be understood. "It's just an idea. Dr. Armstrong. What if I've got... the ultimate disease. How else can you explain my otherwise inexplicable ability to perform these... anti-miracles?"

"My opinion? We're talking about a messianic complex here, Mr. Sussage. It's not uncommon. The classic symptoms include..."

"You're patronizing me, doctor. I know what a messianic complex is. It's in the head. My point is, what if this is in the DNA? What if this is genetic? Somehow, I really can make stuff... certain stuff... appear out of thin friggin' air! Not everything. Not every time. But some stuff. It's like I have.... a specific repertoire. Like a magician doing bar tricks..."

The muscles in Armstrong's face were constricted and his head was wagging in almost imperceptible tremors. "And you've been able to perform these... bar tricks, as you call them... for how long now?"

"Two days. Maybe a little longer, I don't know, I never really tried it until this Saturday. But that's part of my point. I'm figuring, this is, like a latent gene or something. Something that doesn't show up until adulthood. Remember, Jesus didn't start raising corpses until he was in his thirties..." Look, I know it sounds crazy, but isn't it true that certain recessive genes remain undetected unless they're present in two copies? Like sickle cell anemia? Maybe my parents were somehow related... distantly... What I mean is, Dr. Armstrong, back then, family lines were more pure. I was reading up on it all day yesterday. Jesus was an Essene, and the Essenes married in a tight playing field. The gene pool would have been smaller, right? Isn't it possible that this gene got diluted over the years? Isn't it possible for one of these mutated genes to remain dormant for an almost unlimited number of generations...?"

"Statistically? I suppose..." replied Armstrong dryly. "Now, Mr. Sussage, I understand that you are of the Jewish faith. I apologize for my Christian bias; but I refuse to accept the theory that our Lord Jesus Christ was simply a diseased penny-huckster performing bar tricks... If that was the case, two thousand years of faith has just been rendered worthless, and ultimately... Who will save your soul?"

"That's not even funny, doc."

A smug, schoolboy grin suddenly spread across Armstrong's lips. "In any event, I'll play devil's advocate, all right? If your theory is true, shouldn't the gene have shown up more often back then? Shouldn't there have been a few more Messiahs? A veritable phalanx of miracle workers?" Armstrong looked increasingly pleased with his little joke. "Loaves and fishes, anyone? Just a Perrier, thank you, waitress; I'll make my own wine! And with all that water-walking, the Sea of Galilee must have looked like the Jersey Turnpike at rush hour!"

I already thought of that, you sarcastic bastard, thought Howie. He said: "Nowhere in the Bible does it suggest that Jesus was the only jew that could pull rabbits out of hats. In fact, the Bible is rife with it. Plagues, boils, frogs... Peter and Paul could do it; they both revived stiffs. Check the Epistles. I did. And Moses, he parted the..."

Armstrong interrupted. "Well, there's a simple enough test of all this, Mr. Sussage. If you can perform the selfsame 'hocus-pocus' as Jesus Christ, you and I should take a little stroll down to the morgue. You should be able to re-animate one of the bodies... right?"

"Wrong!"" It was Howie turn patronize. "Listen to me, doctor. Raising from the dead was a part of the Jesus schtick. He had it down to such an art-form that, as I recall, people around him couldn't seem to stay dead. Hell, he only made it a couple of days himself, didn't he? If I remember the story right... Crucified on Friday afternoon, and boom, by Sunday he's got a photo op with the apostles. I've got a knack for the opposite. I can will people dead with my mind. Like, I could look at you right now, and say, 'Wouldn't it be weird if Dr. Armstrong fell over dead," and sure as shit, you'd fall over dead..."

A mist of perspiration appeared on Armstrong's liver lips. Howie detected a little tremolo behind the grunt. Fear... He might have gone, what? A little overboard with his examples?

"Well, Mr. Sussage," said Armstrong, trying to regain control, waving his left arm with an air of dismissal. " If you're saying that you have it within your power to murder me right now, I might be inclined to agree. That's got nothing to do with latent genes and family trees. After all, you're considerably larger than I, we are in a room alone with a number of potentially lethal instruments... I've just delivered some distressing news... in your condition, it's natural to be angry. To desire to... strike out. Really, you have nothing much to lose, do you?" He was gradually yapping himself into a state of advanced paranoia. He buzzed for his nurse. "Nancy, could you step in here for a moment? Immediately? Mr. Sussage will be leaving now; he insists on seeking the counsel of another doctor. Please bring in my pad of referral slips. Mr. Sussage, I am very sorry to tell you that, in my opinion, your cancer has mestatizied to a point where it is inoperable, and I am really not licensed to practice emotional therapy. I recommend my colleague, Dr. Saul Schlater. As a... fellow Jew, he may be of some benefit. The chief of psychiatry here at the clinic; he specializes in the treatment of terminal..."

But Howie'd had it. Despite the downside, bugs and tumors and missing lox, there was an unalienable advantage associated with being the Antichrist. Why not make the most of it? For one thing, vermin like Armstrong could be exterminated as easily as... squirting Raid behind the living-room wall.

He turned to the nurse, who was glaring at him with a certain distaste. "Hey, Nancy," said Howie. "Wouldn't it be weird if Dr. Armstrong ate his left arm right now?" Howie paused, considering. "Strike that. The right one, I mean. Cause if he ate the left one, he might choke to death on his cheap-ass Swatch before he was finished..."

Nancy took a step back, repulsed. She handed off the referral pad to Dr. Armstrong, who, with casual insistence, cranked his head to the left and bit off his thumb. A cascade of gore spurted back into his face. He chewed for an instant, then proceeded to gnaw away at his hand as if it were a choice deli item. Nurse Nancy began to scream. Howie rose. "Understand, doctor, that I've done a little bit of research on the subject. Apparently, there's no branch of science engaged in the routine study of miracle working. What if it is inherited?"

Nancy had thrown herself on top of Armstrong and was attempting to wrest his arm from his mouth. He'd eaten his hand, reached the wrist, and was still going strong.

"...Genetic causation? Predisposition...? Who knows? I'm gonna tell you where you go off-center, doc." said Sussage. "Your problem is that you're lost in an intellectual labyrinth. You don't want to accept the limitations of science, medical or otherwise. But, in fact, science is not 'truth', per say; it's simply the best approximation of truth as conceived by the current status quo. Such as yourself. Who, by the way, dresses like a retarded polack. Now, if you'll excuse me, it's about time for that plane to crash..."

The screaming had alerted Security, and a great, beetle-browed, uniformed lunk joined Nancy, wallowing in the blood, trying to wedge Armstrong's mouth open, force out great gagging mouthfuls of tissue.

"Truth is a goal, doctor. Not a condition."

***

"That's it," said Howie to Tonya, toying with his wine glass. "Weird stuff, huh? I stopped here on the way back from Armstrong's office. And goddamn it, I can't even get drunk! Problem is, once I will something, I can't change it. No matter what. Jesus made wine, I make water. Jesus healed the cripples, I create 'em. Jesus stilled the storms, I can brew 'em up like a pot of ginseng tea. Ka-boom! What do you think this all this rain is all about, Tonya? Why do you think that plane went down?"

"Uh, mister? The cook told me there's nothing on the radio about any plane crash. And he's been listening all day."

"Really?" said Howie, raising his eyebrows. "Hmm..." For the first time, his expression grew less cynical. Even optimistic. "I wonder..." He flipped over the black plastic ashtray in front of him, and muttered to it. He peeked under one corner, out of Tonya's range. A nasty brown cockroach with Risa's head sat cross-legged on the counter underneath, chattering in a faint, acute squeak. "...and what about that doorbell, Mr. Hotshot Attorney, every time I press the buzzer it goes..."

"Didn't think so," mused Howie softly, sadly, to himself.

But Tonya wasn't listening. She had turned toward Montego, who stood wide-eyed at the swinging kitchen door, holding out the portable radio. The announcer was saying, "...flight 1821, which had been delayed four hours on the tarmac, evidently crashed seconds after takeoff from LAX International Airport. It's not yet clear if..."

"Ah," said Howie with resignation. "Delayed on the tarmac. That'd make sense..." He rose, fastening his Calvin Klein buttons around his aching belly. "Well, that's all she wrote. See ya around, Tonya. Keep the change." He'd left several hundred-dollar bills beneath his wine glass. Mouth open, Tonya watched him go.

At the door, however, hand on the handle, he paused. His expression changed again, went loose. Unconstipated. It was if he'd just had a great philosophical revelation. He slapped himself on the sweaty forehead. The easiest thing in the world! "I just thought of something," he said.

"What's that, hon?" replied Tonya hoarsely.

"Wouldn't it be weird if I got struck by lightning as soon as I walked out of the building?"

If there was more, Tonya missed it, wisely diving for cover.

 

DON'T FORGET TO CHECK OUT ANOTHER GREAT CHRIS KASSEL STORY: SIDE EFFECTS.




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