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Authors: William Stamp

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BOOK: The Merchants of Zion
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Honest Abe Is Our Friend

 

by Elly Felkins

 

Honest Abe is our friend because he is with us wherever we go. My daddy says he is kind of like my mommy. He watches me like my mommy to make sure I am safe. When he is not taking care of me and my mommy and my daddy he is watching everyone else to make sure no one gets away with doing bad things. If they try to he will catch them and tell on them so they can be stopped.

We live in a little house in New York and Honest Abe lives in a house as big as a whole mountain. He is not allowed to leave like I am. Not even under supervision. I want to visit him there so I can read to him before he goes to sleep. I would read him
The Confectioner's Tales
book about the hairy monster people are afraid of even though he is very nice. Anne Precious and he become friends at the end.

Honest Abe knows where I am because of my phone. It has a camera on it. I think that Honest Abe likes to watch the world from my camera. I try to take the phone out so he can see what I can see and we can be friends. But sometimes I forget.

I like reading books but video games are more fun. When I grow up I want to work with computers. I want to help Honest Abe catch the bad guys. Unless he doesn't give good benefits. Then I will work for Liberty Bell. They have better benefits than everyone else.

Honest Abe only works in America. I wish Honest Abe worked in Mexico too because then he could have stopped my brother from resting in peace. That is why I like Honest Abe and he is our friend.

3. Short Chapter

 

Life, like compost, piles up. And its turning reveals rotten memories best forgotten. James's arrival was a harbinger of a past not so deeply buried as I'd have liked.

He'd become something of a couch-surfing 
sans-cullotes
. Back in college he'd flirted with conspiracy theories, and when drunk would mutter darkly about plots against the people and controlled demolitions. With his newfound free time, courtesy of extended unemployment, he reignited the last trace of an anarchic spark.

Down with the Washington Fascists! Renew the Tree of Liberty with the Blood of Patriots and Tyrants! Revolt America, Revolt! If they wanted a revolution let them organize it, because as far as I was concerned I'd opted out. I didn't participate in any repression—I tutored a little girl and tried to write in my spare time, an activity that somehow always ended with me waking up hungover. Dimitri felt the same; we were apolitical beings content with the fact that our actions had no impact on the world at large, whether we wanted them to or not.

“How are you accessing that shit? It's not on the basic web,” I asked James one night as he read aloud excerpts from an article written by Robespierre, the pseudonymous demagogue, while I cooked dinner. Storebrand spaghetti and Storebrand canned tomato sauce. Fancy.

“I have a subscription.”

“To make it easier for Honest Abe to track you?”

“They don't care if you just read it.”

“You know you're on a list somewhere, right?”

“Definitely. But not for this.” He flashed his shit-eating grin.

I dropped the subject, and a moment later he pestered me about my “wealthy benefactors,” as he called the Felkins. When was I going to introduce him to them? Invite them over for dinner, maybe. His treat. I hadn't mentioned James to Helen beyond the night of his arrival, and my rare interactions with Robert consisted of his brusque relaying of Helen's wishes. I wasn't going to let him sell his magic beans to the Felkins, and informed him of this in no uncertain terms. He pouted and went back to reading about America's imminent dissolution.

I shouldn't exaggerate; in reality he was little more than an annoyance. Despite being too broke to pay rent, he scrounged enough money to go out almost every night. When pressed about it he made vague claims about “knowing people,” or a hitherto unseen ability to score free drinks from the ladies. Usually he returned late, very late, somewhere between my witching hour bedtime and Dimitri's ritual, aubadic calisthenics. Some days I wouldn't see him until after I returned from tutoring. He said he was spending the night in one girl or another's bed to keep his presence from becoming an undue burden.

My instinct was to treat every word out of his mouth as a lie unless I'd seen it happen with my own eyes, but I'd seen James troll enough clubs and bars to give him the benefit of the doubt. He'd start with the hottest girl in sight, then work his way down the hierarchy of attraction until he found a receptive audience. James bragged his game was unmatched, but it was unmatched in the same manner as a dumpster diver's access to free food.

Dimitri and I floated additional possibilities, some plausible, others more far-fetched. He thought James was in the closet, and spent his nights indulging in activities he'd deny to the grave. His hyper-masculine posturing and claims of relentless skirt-chasing were nothing more than aggressive overcompensation.

I formulated two scenarios, each equally likely: James had a girlfriend who didn't know the reality of his situation, or he was pursuing some cloak and dagger money-making scheme. Dimitri pointed out that if he were making money—if there was the potential of him making so much as a single dollar—he couldn't help but brag. Maybe not explicitly, but he'd allude to jobs and projects on the horizon. The moment a business opportunity presented itself, however slim, James would be screaming from the rooftops how no one hustled like him and that Dimitri and I were nothing more than losers without ambition.

Whatever the truth of the matter, the world revolved despite his mysterious double life. I continued tutoring Elly and not writing. Dimitri continued his research as he began looking for other sources of funding.

 

* * *

 

Any admonitions from the Expert about my habitual tardiness filtered to Helen and no further—from her I never received anything but effusive praise. She thought I was the greatest tutor since Aristotle. As the tutor, however, I knew better. Though Elly excelled at and enjoyed the tablet's science and math lessons, she dreaded reading and writing. About a week after James moved in she threw her first full-fledged temper tantrum, a situation with which I had no experience. She locked herself in her room and screamed and cried until I promised to cut the lesson short. When she repeated the behavior the following day, I came to understand the curriculum as more of a set of guidelines rather than the word of God. Theory—and software—after all, have to compromise with the gritty texture of reality, and what is realer than a child pounding on a hardwood floor with her tiny hands and feet?

We reached a compromise; she didn't have to do the lessons, but we would read for an hour every day. Her tablet had an enormous library, but every single book was the first in a series with an additional volume published in the past six months. If we read books from it and she wanted to continue the series, one of us would have to buy the sequel. I didn't get paid enough to supplement the already lavish expenses heaped upon Elly, and if I invoiced it our scheme would soon be uncovered. So I gave her my battered copy of 
Watership Down,
 which we took turns reading aloud. It soon replaced 
The Confectioner's Tales
 as her favorite book of all time, ever. True, the novelty of paper pages caused her endless delight, but I like to think that the life-or-death struggles of anthropomorphic rabbits captured her attention better than a series cynically written to appeal to her demographic cross-section.

Of course, the software would snitch on us if we abandoned her reading lessons entirely, so I completed them myself. The stellar scores I received answering questions designed for eight-year-olds no doubt played a role in Helen's ideas of the value I added to her daughter's education.

I saw Elly more than either of her parents, and spent many late nights watching cartoons before putting her to bed, after which I would sit in the kitchen reading and waiting for a parent to return. It was invariably Helen, who would promise that soon Le Flaneur would take care of itself and she'd be home at a more reasonable hour. Soon, always soon. The word is nothing but the palest shade of never.

I always told her I didn't mind. Which was the truth—I had nothing better to do, so what did it matter to me if I stayed until ten three or four nights a week? With the solitary pseudo-autonomy came familiar comfort. The distant, hovering adults and a refrigerator well-stocked with gourmet food made me feel like I was back in high school all over again. Except the homework was easier, and I was getting paid to do it.

Sometimes Helen would ask if I wanted to stay and chat. And sometimes I would, lending a sympathetic ear over a cup of coffee spiked with brandy. While on paper I was a tutor—a sort of professional, really, if you think about it, with all the detachment and unearned self-esteem that entails—in truth I was a nanny, which meant that while tending to the material needs of the child was important, satisfying the emotional wants of her parents was essential. In short, I knew who it was that kept my internet fast and my data plan unnecessarily large.

One Friday Helen didn't get back until after eleven. I was in the kitchen, struggling with a biography of the twentieth century physicist Richard Feynman. Dimitri had suggested the 700 page tome as an introduction to quantum physics for people who didn't know any math. It was essential reading if I wanted the ability to have the most basic conversations about his day without him losing all faith in humanity. He had described it as light and non-technical. I would have used the words gibberishtic and incomprehensible.

The front door opened, slammed shut, and a few seconds later Helen stumbled into the kitchen and over to the wine fridge. She grabbed a bottle from the bottom shelf.

“Are you all right?” I asked.

“Oh my God. Cliff, you scared me,” she said, fluttering a hand over her heart. “Robert isn't home yet?”

“No.”

Her hands were shaking as she grabbed two glasses, and her aim with the corkscrew was off. It kept deflecting off the lip and down the glass neck. On her fourth try it slipped from her hands and fell to the floor. Using the table to steady herself, she leaned down and picked it up, then gave it to me.

“Will you please open this for me?” she asked softly.

“Sure thing, Mrs. Felkins.”

“Thank you, Cliff.”

I popped the bottle open and poured half a glass, which I slid across the table to her. She thanked me and insisted I pour myself a glass as well. When I'd done so she pulled a pack of cigarettes—cloves—and a lighter from her purse.

“Would you be a dear and fetch my ash tray. It's in the cupboard above the sink.”

“I didn't know you were a smoker.”

“I don't, usually, but today... Would you like one?”

“No thank you. I don't smoke.”

She smiled softly. “Forgive me. Of course you don't. No one does anymore.” I set the ash tray on the table and sipped on the wine. It was sweet and... buttery, maybe? In college I'd taken a wine tasting course with a good friend, had tried to learn all the adjectives, their corresponding postures, and exaggerated facial expressions. Like a true New York sophisticate. I hadn't enjoyed the class at all, and found the crowd we encountered on field trips to be... bland and snotty, with a full-bodied aroma of smug.

Helen and I talked about how overworked she was, and how the money in the culture business wasn't like it used to be. She said her job felt like adding a new room to a house while the rest burnt to the ground. I tried my best to reassure her. Everyone said the economy was going to pick up soon, and there would always be a market for articles about the quixotic pursuits of minor celebrities and the quotidian pet peeves of web personalities. Once people had more money to spend subscriptions would pick up. Right now, every spare dollar went toward liquor and prescription drugs. Anything to dull the senses.

Another clove, another glass of wine. She wondered aloud why I'd hardly touched my drink, and scooted her chair closer to me. “Cliff, Do you think I'm pretty?”

“What? um... I don't really... I think you've had too much to drink, Mrs. Felkins,” I stammered.

“No need to be coy. Answer the question. Preferably honestly.”

“Well... um... Yes. Yes, I think you are.” The only satisfying answer.

“Thank God,” she said, cupping her forehead. “At least there's one person.” She moved her face closer until it was inches from mine. The smoke from her cigarette tickled my nose and the heat emanating from it played on my lips. Her eyes bored through my mind, exploring for reserves of mendacity. I felt sorry for her. She was even lonelier than her daughter. Seeing whatever validation it was she needed, her face softened and the lines around her eyes drooped beneath the burden of life.

“I'm sure there are lots of people who think you are,” I said.

“You're so sweet.”

“Really, Mrs. Felkins, I'm not. I'm just a good suck-up.”

That made her laugh, and she put out her cigarette. “All right, you can go. Thanks for the pep talk.” When I finished packing and got up to go, she slipped an MTA card into my hand. They were practically legal tender; when the city had privatized the subways unlimited rides had been the first to go.

“Thanks, Helen.”

“You're welcome. There's at least fifty on it. Maybe closer to a hundred. I know how hard things are for young people today.”

Hard indeed. The extra money meant a night of conscience-free drinking. Not enough for bottle service, but I knew a bar or three where I could kick back and black out.

“Bye Helen.”

“Bye Cliff.”

Outside, I ran into Mr. Felkins getting out of a car. He thanked the driver and turned towards me. His eyes were bleary and bloodshot, and he snorted when I said hello.

“Is Helen home?” he asked.

“Yeah, she got back a few minutes ago.”

“I'm sure. You smell like you've been smoking,” he said, and stumbled up the stairs.

“Good night,” I called as I headed off towards the subway. He didn't return the favor.

BOOK: The Merchants of Zion
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