Nocking the List: Part 7 — Oh Shit

CarlContinued from: Nocking the List: Part 6 — Avon Fraulein

The sheets clung to his sweaty chest and back. His ankles itched beneath his bunched socks, and he wondered how he could’ve climbed into bed with them on. He hated wearing socks to bed. Or clothing other than his pajamas. But he felt the binding constriction of his clothing—denim wrapping around his legs, collared shirt around his neck. He floated in some murky state, fragmented dreams drifting away from nauseated reality. It seemed like a small fissure was edged into his brain, and sweaty fingers massaged his temples as he prepared to open his eyes. He wished he had a bottle of cold Gatorade at his bedside to wash out his dry, filmy mouth. The gentle ticking of his clock sounded uncomfortably loud, and his mind drifted to the stories of torture he’d read in his military history books—sensory disorientation: POWs and terrorists alike driven to the edge of madness. He counted off the tick-tick-tick rhythm, his semi-conscious mind painting a cartoonish dog walking on hind legs, steps keeping pace with the clock. Thin ropes of saliva fell from the dog’s jowls, a dim, almost muted sunny summer sky and the silhouette of a bloodhound from some far away memory was above him. He felt a tongue lapping across his chapped lips just as his eyes jolted open and the lurking dog dissolved back into his childhood.

The ringing phone was like a saw vibrating through his head as it split the quiet of his room. He rolled over and adjusted his eyes against the light peeking through the blinds, hoping the persistent ringing would cease. He sat upright, the world taking a sudden, rogue-wave lurch, and he felt there was a good possibility he would puke onto the floor beside his bed. He choked it down, smacking his lips to try and rid his mouth of its rancid state. He picked up the receiver just to get it to stop ringing, still smacking his lips. “Hello?” he managed in a whisper.

“Carl. Where the hell are you?” It was Ben Walter, his supervisor.

“I… I’m sick. I’m real sick. I can’t make it in today.”

“Were you ever planning to call and let us know?”

“Sorry. I… I was out dead to the world. Must be the flu or something.”

“All right. Get some rest. And you best be here tomorrow. You’re out of sick time.”

“Yeah. All right.”

Carl hung up the phone and rolled onto his back, groaning, “What the hell …” His mind trying to piece together what had put him in this state of sickness, trying to cognitively trace back to the last thing he remembered from the night prior, the last thing he…

He heard the far-off voice of a woman calling.

Carl put his head in his hands and said, “Oh shit.”

To Be Continued  

Nocking the List: Part 6 — Avon Fraulein

Prada-300x225Continued from: Nocking the List: Part 5 — Infamy

They put a good dent in the whiskey, the two of them sitting on the couch side by side with all sorts of World War II memorabilia spread out before them. Carl had Clay Aiken playing on the CD turntable, one track ending and another beginning. Sophie said, “I can’t believe you listen to Clay Aiken.” She giggled this statement, not wanting him to think she was questioning his manhood—even though she was—but she wanted to keep it all playful.

“I can’t believe you don’t,” he said.

“Believe it.”

“Didn’t you see him on Idol?”

“Um, no.”

“It was incredible. And he seems like such a nice guy. Visiting cancer patients and…”

She decided that it might be harder to seduce this guy than she originally thought. She shifted the subject in a random direction to catch him off guard, taking back control of the conversation, asking him in a playfully sarcastic tone, “So why do you have a bubblegum card of Hitler?”

“Huh?”

Sophie picked up what was, in essence, a bubblegum card of Hitler. Beneath the Hitler card was another card with what looked like a Japanese man’s face on a balloon floating over Pearl Harbor. Beneath that card was what looked like an Asian Charlie Chaplain. She read what was written on the back of the Hitler card, “‘Führer Brain Cells?’” she giggled. “What are these things?”

Carl looked stunned. He gently took the card from her. “A bubblegum card of Hitler?” he said incredulously. “These are Infamy Cards. They are very rare and worth quite a lot of money. The story behind them is very interesting. Infamy Cards were created during the Second World War, written by a man named Louis Ting and drawn by a man named Samuel Carey. I guess describing them as ‘men’ isn’t even really right here. They were just a couple of kids, really. Carey was seventeen, Ting only fifteen at the time of the war. Both of them getting into the army on false pretences. They both showed aptitude for creativity and artistic ability, so they were assigned to create propaganda for the military. It was these Infamy Cards that they created. Anyway, when the Allies were storming Normandy, one regiment was short two soldiers, so they grabbed hold of Ting and Carey, and sent them up the beach. They survived the horror that was D-Day, and they were dragged along with their foster regiment all the way to The Battle of the Bulge. This time, Carey did not survive, and Ting, who watched his friend die in a graphic manner, became so disheartened that he went AWOL and began making rogue Infamy cards, attacking everything from American politicians to popular culture. He disappeared and is still wanted by the military and the F.B.I. He continues to create Infamy cards to this day, working with different artists from around the world. No one knows where he is. He is also known to distribute short stories and essays in bottles thrown into the ocean. Some people have tried to trace the bottles’ journeys to their source. But no one has ever found him. My great uncle actually fought with him in The Battle of the Bulge.”

“Wow,” Sophie said. “Once again, that was a lot of information, Carl.”

Carl flushed and said, “Sorry.”

“No, it’s interesting,” she said. There was a brief awkward pause and Sophie said, “So where did you get all of this memorabilia?”

“Most of it is from my family,” he said, his demeanor perking considerably. “A lot of the stuff’s just been passed down and all.”

“Nice that they gave it to you.”

“Yeah. They all knew I collect the stuff,” he said, “Most of them are gone now.” He paused a moment, regarding his collection, then he said, “So, how about you? You have a large family?”

“I come from a long line of only-children,” Sophie said. “I’m an only-child. My mom, dad, grandparents, all only-children. I guess it’s what gives me my independent spirit.”

“You certainly seem independent.”

The conversation was hovering dangerously close to personal territory, which meant that it was heading to a comfortable silence, and subsequently, a potential make-out session. Sophie was hoping she could get Carl so hammered he’d pass out and she could merely walk out the front door without any physical entanglement at all, but the guy was holding his liquor surprisingly well for a supposed light-weight. Maybe she could get him rambling again about Idol or World War II, and he could literally talk himself into a stupor.

“Okay, time for a drinking game,” Sophie said.

“Drinking game?”

Sophie noted that he had this way of asking a question that was not unlike the village idiot. But this guy was far from dumb. It was more the way he processed things that were going on around him. A slow building of understanding in his mind. As if he needed to take apart and analyze every word said to him.

“I’m going to make up a game right now,” Sophie said. She looked at the memorabilia spread out on the coffee table. “Let’s see here…” She was searching for an object that would have the longest anecdotal potential. She picked up a bayonet, the thing about fourteen inches long—a perpetual polishing of the thing had apparently accentuated the battle scars upon it. Something about it brought up the hairs on her neck. She returned it to the table. The bayonet’s story would surely be a buzz-kill. Just holding the thing felt like holding dread. She searched the table again. There were medals and documents, the stupid bubblegum cards, and then, bingo. There was a doorknocker in the shape of an eagle and swastika.

She said to Carl, “Okay, now, you need to tell the story behind this object without using the word and. If you do say and, then you finish your drink. Got it? Ready? Go.”

Carl said, “I can’t say and?”

“Shit, Carl, you already lost.”

He sat there for a moment as his intoxicated, over-processing brain worked out her joke. Then it dawned on him, and he smiled a sloppy grin, saying, “Whoops. Sorry.”

“Okay, try again,” Sophie said. “And no ands, got it?”

“Got it,” he said, picking up the doorknocker and saying, “All righty-then. This lovely item my great uncle Herbert White got off of an SS captain’s house…” Carl paused a moment, obviously about to say and. He sat a moment gathering his thoughts again.

Sophie smiled. It was her first legitimate smile of the night.

Carl continued his story, saying, “They knocked on the door with this knocker. Generally, they’d have just busted down the door and raided the house, but something about a swastika doorknocker cracked them up, and they couldn’t resist cordially using it. After knocking, my uncle calls up in this high-pitched voice, calling, ‘Hallo, Avon Fräulein.’” Carl began laughing uncontrollably, but he stopped when he noticed that Sophie was not laughing.

She knew it would have been a good time to laugh with the guy, a good bonding moment, gaining his trust and all. But if they both started laughing uncontrollably, there would have been nowhere to go but to kiss. So she arched an eyebrow to get him back on track.

Carl continued, saying, “My uncle used to laugh his ass off telling that story, but you probably had to be there. He had one of those infectious laughs.”

Sophie smiled another genuine smile.

Carl said, “I once had a skinhead offer me a grand for the knocker. I would never sell it because it had such sentimental value to my uncle, and…”

“Wait,” Sophie said, “You said and. You owe a drink.”

“Really? I said and?”

“Two drinks,” Sophie said.

“Oh, man,” Carl said, “I don’t even know if I can.”

“Rule’s a rule, Carl. No reneging. It’s drinking-game etiquette. You don’t really have a say in the matter.”

“All right. All right. Give it here,” he said. Sophie was both sincerely impressed and sincerely disappointed when he downed the drink like a champ. But after a moment, she could see his body wasn’t feeling very champ-like. “I think I need that one to hit my head,” he said, and he stood, wobbly.

Sophie wasn’t quite sure what he was trying to say, but she figured he was trying to say two different things at once. Trying to say that he needed the bathroom and that the alcohol had gone straight to his head.

“Jesus, you are drunk,” Sophie laughed as he stumbled off in the direction of the bathroom.

When Sophie heard the bathroom door click shut, she grabbed her bag and stuffed the war memorabilia into it. Her precision was as flawlessly automated as an assembly line, and she cleared the table in seconds. She did leave the bayonet, however—not wanting to touch the thing. Then she turned and headed for a swift exit, grabbing his car keys hanging on the wall beside the front door.

But she stopped.

She paused and then returned to the coffee table. She had no idea why she was doing this, but she dug through her bag to find the swastika doorknocker. She returned the thing to the coffee table, placing it neatly beside the bayonet, before heading back for the door.

But she stopped again.

She noticed something she hadn’t paid attention to when first inventorying the room. She couldn’t believe she’d missed it. It was what she had earlier assumed to be a framed diploma in the bookcase. She had paid it no mind, but now she realized it was a framed certificate, reading: “For ten years of duty with the Mystic Island Police Department.”

“Uh-oh.”

He was a cop. How did she not pick up on this? Well, she guessed in retrospect, it was easy not to have picked up on it. He was not the cop-type. He was way too boring and timid to be a cop. She found that the cops she’d met were generally too stupid to be boring and too arrogant to be timid. But still, there you have it, he was a cop.

His voice came from behind her. At first, she wasn’t quite sure what he said—she only heard her heart beating—but then she realized he said, “What are you doing?”

She didn’t move, her heart still beating in her ears.

She’d only been caught in the act once before. It was in Chicago, and she was able to get down three flights of stairs and out of the building, disappearing into the crowded streets before the fat-fuck she’d robbed was even able to make it out of the apartment. But now she had no idea where she was. If she had to run, she had no idea which direction to even go. Could she make it out to his car before he grabbed her? If not, she couldn’t go running off down the street with this guy chasing her, it would attract far too much attention. And she certainly didn’t want to end up lost in those woods out back. Haunted or not. And what’s more, she had already made a cardinal mistake without even realizing it. Her first mistake was taking the time to return the doorknocker, the second, freezing when she saw the certificate, but her third mistake was the game changer. Her third mistake was not remembering if Carl had locked the door when they first arrived. She always noted those things. She figured she must have been slipping. Or she’d become over-confident.

She turned to find Carl walking into the living room.

Now she had to try and talk her way out of this, but if he was a cop, that probably wouldn’t work. She knew there was no way a cop could let this go. How did she not see this coming? In her defense, generally cops would tell her they were a cop at least twenty times a night. In fact, it seemed they couldn’t not tell her, which is why she always had the chance to bail before ending up at one’s house. But there was nothing cop about this guy, which is why the certificate froze her. And now, she knew that she might have to sleep with him. She’d never had to sleep with a mark. Never so much as a blow job. But sex was generally the only language cops understood when it came to a girl talking her way out of trouble.

She said in a light, airy, don’t-mind-me tone, “Um, well, Carl, I’m not feeling so great. I think I’ll just get going.”

He looked at the coffee table, empty now, save for the bayonet and the doorknocker. She’d even swiped the chess set. And his brain began to do that slow crawl to comprehension, as confusion slipped into his eyes and voice. “You mean, you’re robbing me?”

“It was nice meeting you, Carl, but I’ve got to get going now,” she said, stepping to the front door. But, of course, it was locked. She reached up and fumbled with a deadbolt.

Carl was now right behind her.

She said, “It’s been real, Carl.” She heard the beautiful music of the deadbolt clicking , and she opened the door.

Carl slammed it shut again.

He said, in that village idiot way of his, “You’re really robbing me?”

Sophie turned to face him. She smiled, trying to lay on the charm. But he looked different. His eyes were intense, nostrils flared, teeth bared. She never would have guessed him capable of it, but he actually looked intimidating. However, Sophie found that it was not the anger that was unsettling. It was the confusion in his eyes.

Sophie said, “Look, Carl, why don’t you just take your stuff back, and I’ll be going. No harm, no foul, right?”

He still seemed to be working it all out in his mind, the anger and the confusion seeping across his face like a stain, and he said, “But… I thought we… you’re really robbing me?”

For the briefest of moments, Sophie thought how, at any other time, this bewildered look on Carl’s face would be funny. It would be funny if she wasn’t completely screwed at the moment. “Carl, I need to get going now. Here’s your stuff.” She walked back to his coffee table and began returning the stolen items to it. She knew this was a mistake as soon as she did it. Now Carl was between her and the door. She continued pulling items from her bag, but her fingers kept falling onto individual chess pieces, and she found herself returning his stolen items one pawn at a time.

“You bitch,” Carl said. He said it almost conversationally, but there was a growl to that tone that Sophie did not like at all.

She looked at the bayonet, still on the coffee table. Was she really ready and willing to use it?

Sophie said, “Look, Carl, calm down. I can explain.” Her tone was steady, subdued. She realized she’d crossed a line she’d never crossed before. The line of being in real danger. A situation she was not necessarily going to be able to talk her way out of.

“Me calm down? You can explain?” His voice was screechy and out of control.

Sophie reached for the bayonet, but Carl grabbed her, hard, before she could get to it. She dropped her bag at his feet. He flung her back toward the kitchen. She had nowhere to go now—the front door may as well have been in Istanbul. She figured there could be a back door, but she had no idea where it would lead. The woods? Not to mention, if she ran at this point, he’d be on her, most likely with the bayonet. Like they say, never run from a predatory animal—and the anger in his eyes made him look like exactly that right now. She just needed to stay calm. She could still talk, or fuck, her way out of this. “Let’s talk about this, Carl. This could still have a happy ending.”

“A happy ending?” he said in his confused way. Again, he didn’t seem to get the sexual overtones of her words.

He picked up her bag and checked the heft of it in his hand. “How much did you take?”

Her sarcastic nature of course wanted to say, Obviously I took all of it, asshole, at least I left the doorknocker. But, instead, she mustered her sweetest smile, and said, “C’mon, Carl, let’s not ruin the night.”

“Ruin the night?” he screamed.

And there you have it, folks, Sophie was now witnessing a man that had come completely unhinged.

He swung Sophie’s bag, with a good fifteen pounds of war memorabilia in it, and it caught her right in the chops. She lost her balance and hit her head on the coffee table.

Continued in: Nocking the List: Part 7 — Oh Shit 

Nocking the List: Part 5 — Infamy

Hitler

Infamy Card #1: Führer Brain Cells

Continued from: Nocking the List: Part 4 — Too Easy 

They were in his car, an old Crown Vic (like eighties era), the thing meticulous on its upkeep. They were driving over a long bridge toward Mystic Island. Laughter filled the car, the two of them laughing at something about American Idol—which he seemed to know an amazing amount about—but Sophie had a sudden, anxious stomach-drop crossing the middle of the bridge. The bridge was endless and dark, a big metal latticework with no discernible beginning or end. She felt like a swimmer realizing she’d just swum past the point of no return. There was only forward now, and she wasn’t quite sure what the far shore looked like. When they made it off the bridge and onto the island, Sophie noticed that the place seemed a potpourri of different eras, as if they were driving along a school textbook’s timeline of the Twentieth Century. Sophie said to Carl, in her giggling, ain’t-we-so-fun voice, “So this is the famous mystic Island.”

“I don’t know about famous. Infamous is probably more like it.”

“It seems to be in the middle of nowhere.”

“Well, it is an island,” he said with a shrug.

Carl pulled his car into his driveway. Sophie’s stomach inexplicably dropped again. His house was at the end of a sparse street with a seeming wall of black behind it.

As they walked from the car to the house, Sophie said, again in her giggling, ain’t-we-so-fun voice, “Your house seems in the middle of nowhere.”

She noticed a slight weave in Carl’s gate from the two Scotches he had at the bar. This was good. “Yeah,” he said, “my property butts up against Parson’s Woods, so there’s a lot of trees around. It only appears to be in the middle of nowhere, but the woods are pretty thick. Don’t worry, though, we aren’t that far from the bridge,” he added. Sophie knew where this was going. He had already resolved himself to the fact that she wouldn’t be staying the night. Some part of him couldn’t even believe his good luck that this smoking hot chick was in his house at the moment, and he was already preparing for rejection. “So, you know, it’s not a long cab ride back to where you are staying, or I can give you a ride, although…” He teetered a little where he stood as if failing a field sobriety test, “…I’m a little drunk at the moment.”

“Well,” Sophie said, “We’ll just have to see where this night takes us.” She gave him a seductive look, but not too come-fuck-me-like, she needed him to still think he needed to work for it. Although, the poor schmuck would find that “it” never came. She preferred not to get physical if at all possible. Sometimes, like with the aggressive, good looking banker types, it was necessary. But she tried to avoid it. Especially with the dweebs, like this guy.

Carl opened his front door and led her into the living room. She quickly sized up the room. It was scarcely decorated, but very neat. There was a beige carpet on an old wooden floor. Mismatched furniture. Obviously no wife in this picture. They were laughing again at some inane thing, and Sophie tried to keep the laughter going, launching into one of those drunken giggle fits young, silly girls are known to have. She was not drunk, of course, nor was she silly. She was just loosening him up, making everything seem much more fun than it was. Which wasn’t hard to do, seeing as he didn’t seem the type that had fun too often anyway. At least he wasn’t ultra-painfully boring. Or ugly. It was more that he was charismatically challenged. He had dark hair, standard haircut. He wasn’t fat, but not in shape either. He had a jutting chin that wasn’t so much strong, but more clenched. There was a strange lost puppy way to him. Sophie thought it brought about a sense of pity for his apparent loneliness. But she felt wary of that loneliness, too.

He motioned to the couch. “Have a seat.”

Sophie sat on the couch.

There was a chess set on the coffee table, hand-carved wooden pieces, the board folding into a box. Sophie picked up the bishop and began discretely caressing the piece in her fingers. “I like this,” she said.

Her caressing of the phallic piece was supposed to turn him on a little, but instead, Carl said, “The chess set? You play?” Something told her she could have outright blown the piece and he’d still have asked her if she played chess.

“I can play,” she said.

“You any good?”

“I can hold my own in just about any game, Carl.”

“Is that a challenge?”

“Maybe,” she said coyly.

“You really want to play chess?” he asked.

She paused a moment, biting back sarcasm. The guy couldn’t catch a double entendre if it was lubricated with every sexual euphemism and rammed up his rectum. She offered an easy-going grin and said, “No, Carl, not now.”

He looked disappointed for a moment. “Too bad,” he said. “It’s hard to find anyone that’s a challenge.”

“Well, I’m certainly a challenge,” Sophie said.

“Sure you don’t want to play?”

No, she did not want to play fucking chess. Was this really his idea of foreplay? “No, I’m quite sure,” she said sweetly. “What I want, Carl, is a drink. Got anything?”

“I have whiskey.”

“Whiskey’s good.”

Carl said, “I don’t drink often. Don’t even think the bottle’s been opened.”

“Well there’s a first time for everything.”

“It was a gift. I generally don’t go out and buy booze.”

“Carl, get the drinks,” Sophie said playfully, not wanting him to feel he was being scolded, or that she was implying just how annoyingly boring he was now being.

He grinned, as if realizing how annoyingly boring he was all on his own. She liked this. It showed that her tone was working. She always tried to make everything her marks did and thought seem like it was their idea, or that it was the product of their own mind. Carl turned and walked off into the kitchen.

Sophie immediately began a cursory sweep of the living room, knowing that, most likely, there were no treasures to be found there. No sign of expensive trinkets or knick-knacks. She had a feeling that whatever was worth taking was somewhere else in the house.

There was an old stereo system with big speakers and a turntable CD changer. A book case with history books, a framed diploma, and pictures. Her attention shifted to the pictures of Carl with a boy of about eleven. In all the pictures, Carl had a big, goofball smile on his face. The boy had an absolute, deadpan expression. Sophie had seen this scenario often enough—dad trying to play comedian to the perpetual straight man of adolescence. “You have a son?” she called toward the kitchen.

“Yeah,” he called back.

“Where is he?”

“Lives with his mother.”

She flipped through a few books in the bookshelf, searching for publication dates or signatures. Nothing. She called toward the kitchen, “I can’t wait to see your…” Her voice dropped off when Carl returned with the drinks.

“My son?” he said, as if taken back a little.

“Your collection,” she said with a big smile. “The memorabilia. The Infamy Cards. I can’t wait to see them.” She didn’t know what the hell Infamy Cards were, but if they’re as valuable as the Google search said they were, she couldn’t wait to see them.

“Oh, yeah, right,” he said, as if forgetting that it was the whole reason they were there in the first place. He handed her a drink, saying, “I had ginger ale, so I made… Is whiskey and ginger ale even called anything?”

“Highball,” she said.

“I made highballs, then,” he said, sounding impressed with himself.

“Perfect,” she said, clinking her glass with his.

“Cheers,” he said with an awkward smile that made the word seem like a foreign language to him.

“Cheers,” Sophie said. She drained her glass.

He regarded her with a gaping expression.

She said, “You’re gonna need to keep up if you’re going to hang with me, Carl.”

Carl looked at his drink like it was hemlock. He drained it with some difficulty, coughing when he was finished. “Jesus,” he said. “Like I said, I don’t drink often.”

Sophie said, “Why don’t you grab the whiskey bottle and the memorabilia and we can get this party started.”

Continued in: Nocking the List: Part 6 — Avon Fraulein 

Nocking the List: Part 4 — Too Easy

GirlContinued from: Nocking the List: Part 3 — No Balls

Carl glanced out the bookstore’s window. The sidewalk outside the store was bustling. Carl rarely left the island like this, heading into the city. He stood beside an expanse of magazines on display. Here, he could keep an eye on the sidewalk outside while remaining semi-hidden. This area of the store always catered to lurking customers, some with a few minutes to kill while waiting for a companion to finish browsing for books, others just wanting to be alone. Beside Carl, a twenty-something scratched at his beard with one hand and pulled an issue of High Times with his other. An older man swiveled his head this way and that before snatching the last copy of Maxim, the guy retreating to the edge of the magazine rack—for what, Carl didn’t want to know. Two teenage girls stood a few feet away from Carl, the girls regarding a teen pop magazine, the two of them jockeying for position to view the pictures of prepubescent idols. Carl saw that the girls were looking at pictures of the Jonas Brothers. He grabbed a car magazine from the rack and started flipping through it. He scanned the pages of jacked-up muscle cars and new-age Italian sports cars as he edged toward the girls. They were gushing over the magazine, one girl saying, “…his hair…” the other saying, “…I would do anything for that to happen…” until one of the girls spotted Carl drifting toward them. The girl nudged her friend, the other girl looking up at Carl. He was now standing beside them. The girls set the magazine down and rushed away into other parts of the store.

Carl grabbed the magazine the girls were looking at. The aroma of their cheap perfume lingered around him—fruity, floral, cheap. He devoured the pictures of the pop stars, and he unfurled the pull-out poster of Clay Aiken stapled into the center of the magazine, imagining it was an action shot of himself, the microphone stand riding between his legs, one hand gripping the mic, the other hand extending out to the adoring crowd, index finger curling backward to invite them all to love him. He felt eyes upon him, and he suddenly realized it was not the eyes of an adoring crowd. He looked up to find a man staring at him, an issue of Field and Stream having gone limp in the man’s hand. Carl said, “What?”

The man shook his head and walked away.

Before Carl had a chance to return his attention to the poster, something from outside the store’s window caught his attention. Out on the sidewalk, a beautiful girl with raven black hair and flawless tan skin passed the store. Carl watched after her absentmindedly, wondering why the girl looked familiar, wondering for a moment if she was a celebrity, but then he remembered the Craigslist ad. Carl returned the magazine to the rack, noticing a line drawing of a female figure had fallen to the floor at his feet. He paid it no mind and he darted out of the bookstore.

He looked down the sidewalk. It was littered with casual daytime pedestrian traffic—an elderly woman pushing a stroller, a smartly dressed young man waiting patiently with a plastic bag opened in his hand while his dog squatted on an island of grass. Beyond them, Carl could see the young woman ducking inside a restaurant. He followed in her wake.

Inside the restaurant, Carl hesitated a moment in the darkened foyer. Red Velvety curtains shrouded a small podium where a hostess was having a conversation with one of the waitresses. Carl stood there and fingered a cup of toothpicks, taking inventory of the other items on the podium lip—matchbooks, business cards, a bowl of Starlite Mints. Finally, mid-conversation, the hostess turned to Carl and asked him, “Just one?”

“What?” Carl said, realizing that the word sounded more edgy and more confused than intended.

The waitress standing beside the hostess stared blankly at Carl, but the hostess didn’t break her smile. She said, “Just you today, sir?”

“No,” Carl said, again sounding annoyed, as if she had suggested some asinine premise. He tipped the toothpicks a little too far, and they spilled from the pedestal. He looked down at the pile of toothpicks and then moved past the hostess. He stepped into the bar area of the restaurant.

Carl scanned the room, a seed of panic germinating in his mid-section. He suddenly wondered what the hell he was doing there, meeting some beautiful girl on a blind date. He was gripped with a sudden need to run from the restaurant, but his eyes fell on the girl with the black hair, and he was frozen in place. She was sitting alone at a table. He started toward her, but then stopped, again gripped by an overwhelming urge to run away. It was similar to the feeling he had before bolting from Vincent Stone’s office, but he recognized the motivations behind the two feelings greatly differing. When he took off from the lawyer’s office, he was nudged forward by anger. Here, in the restaurant, it was something closer to fear that invoked the need for a quick exit. He wasn’t the guy who approached strange women like this. He stood, still, contemplating his next move. He regarded the people seated at the bar. They seemed to know what they were doing there, chatting in easygoing, confident manners. An older woman was drumming her fingers on the bar beside the stem of her martini glass while a portly gentleman, wearing self-importance on his sleeve, driveled on with some story. A pair of robust young women cackled and hollered comments across the shiny bar top at the bartender. Carl watched the bartender flash an obligated smile toward them, and as he did so, Carl spotted something that some might call an omen. The bartender was in the midst of pouring a glass of wine from a bottle. The bottle had the design of Klimt’s The Kiss on the label. The bartender handed the glass of wine to the waitress that had been talking to the hostess a moment before. The waitress brought the glass over to the raven-haired girl.

Carl took a deep breath and tried to make sense of this omen, still waffling on his decision to stay or flee. The raven-haired girl smiled and thanked the waitress, and then she looked over toward Carl. She cocked her head in a questioning manner.

By instinct, Carl walked toward her, but as he neared the table, he was suddenly unable to summon any words, he had become lost for a moment in the girls beautiful, light eyes.

She cocked her head again and said, “Carl?”

“Stacey?” he said to her.

“Yes,” she said.

Of course, her name was not Stacey. Her name was Sophie Monroe.

Silence hung between them for a moment. Carl wanted something witty to say, but he had nothing, just dumb silence.

The girl said, “Hey, what’s up?” She said it very nonchalantly, like they’d known each other for years. Carl liked that, and he felt a little more at ease. She stood and leaned toward him as if going to give him a hug, and there he was with his hand held out to be shaken. She stopped and adjusted to the handshake, while Carl leaned in for the hug. They both laughed as they met in an awkward embrace. She then motioned to the chair across from her and said, “Have a seat.”

Carl stood beside the table, still unable to respond as the waitress reappeared at the table, the waitress saying to Stacey/Sophie, “He want something?”

Carl, still standing beside the table, glared at the waitress and said, “He wants a scotch and water.”

The waitress, still not acknowledging Carl, walked away toward the bar.

Carl sat down across from Sophie, still unable to think of anything worthwhile to say. Thankfully, she broke the ice, saying, “Right on time, Carl. I respect a punctual man.”

He shrugged, saying, “Yeah, well.” Nothing more came to mind. His hands were clammy and he spun them in the white napkin of the table’s setting. His mind was spinning with questions: How did it come to this? How could he have wasted so many years with Mandy and let himself wind up an out of shape, socially-deprived nitwit chasing girls from internet ads? And how did he end up with a girl like this from an internet ad? And how long until he sent her running?

After another awkward silence, the girl made an attempt at small-talk, the girl saying, “So, what exactly does a guy like Carl White do?”

Carl began to say, “Well, I…” But he was cut short as the waitress placed the Scotch in front of him.

Without a word, the waitress walked off toward the bar, and the girl across from Carl focused her attention on him again. Her eyes seemed to acknowledge his struggle for communication, and she invited him to continue. The expression reminded Carl of Jane Goodall speaking to a chimp. She said, “So where were we?”

Carl tried to build the conversation again from the ground up, aching to gain some confidence. He said, “We were at the usual get to know you chit-chat, I guess.”

“Okay, so, let’s see, you’re from an island originally?”

“Yeah. Mystic Island. It isn’t far from here. Small community. Nice. Where are you from again?”

“Pittsburgh, born and raised.”

“Oh, yeah, that’s right. And what is it you do there?” Carl asked.

“Bartender.”

“How’s that working out for you?”

“All right, I guess. At least, when they can keep me from dancing on the bar top it’s all right.”

“Really? You dance on the bar?”

“No, Carl, I was just making a joke,” Sophie said.

“Oh.” There was more awkward silence. Carl finally said, “So what brings you to this area?”

“Just visiting. I wanted to check out the historical sites and all.”

Carl perked in his seat. “Really?” he said.

“Oh, yeah. I love history. Especially Revolutionary War stuff. I mean, to think, birth of a nation and all that.”

“That’s amazing,” Carl said. “I’m a huge history buff. Especially military history.”

“Yeah. I know. You mentioned something about that when we spoke on the phone the other night. You collect historical memorabilia and such, right?”

“Yeah. I have some great pieces.”

“I’d love to see them.”

“Why didn’t you mention anything about being into history when we spoke on the phone?” Carl asked.

“I did. Remember?”

Carl shook his head, feeling a flush of heat in his face, a fusion of embarrassment and Scotch.

Sophie laughed. “First you don’t remember where I’m from, now you don’t remember that I love history. Real observant, Carl.”

“For some reason I thought you were from Ohio. And I don’t know why I don’t remember the history bit. I must’ve been nervous. I don’t really respond to those Craigslist ads.”

“I guess that’s understandable. So, do you have any recommendations for what historical sites to see? I’m not even sure where to begin. I feel like I need a personal assistant just to navigate it all.”

Carl perked even more in his seat, his voice beginning to wind in speed, “Well this is certainly the place for history, especially Revolutionary War era history, and there’s…” As he spoke, he envisioned himself with this girl, making love in a pile of war memorabilia. And then a sudden dread came over him. How does he get this girl to his house? “Hey, have you ever heard of Mystic Island?”

“Um, yeah, Carl, you just said it’s where you’re from.”

Carl flushed again, but his voice kept speaking, seemingly independent of his brain, “Well there is a ton of history there, right back to when the Indians populated it, and then there’s some colonial era stuff, some Civil War era stuff. It’s also been voted by several paranormal societies and publications as one of the most haunted places in America. If you believe in that kind of stuff. But the structures on the island are very cool. A lot of Victorian type stuff from when the residents thought it was going to become some great metropolitan hub. And even though that plan failed, a lot of the structures have stayed the same to this day. A huge hospital and prison, both of which are still used today. There are old churches with more legends surrounding them than can be counted. Captain’s houses, like Captain Price and Captain Damon, and the wreck of the Dutch Horse, and then there’s a lighthouse, and even haunted woods where kids have disappeared for hundreds of years…” Carl stopped.

Sophie was staring at him before saying, “Wow, that sure was a lot of information, Carl.”

Carl looked down at the table. “Sorry. I can get a little carried away at times.”

“So what’s some of the historical memorabilia that you have?”

“Mostly World War II pieces. I have some Nazi pieces that are pretty valuable with the skin-head crowd.”

Sophie twisted her expression. “Skinheads?” The twisted face was a bit of an act on her part. Of course she knew skinheads would be the ones collecting that stuff. Who else would want it?

“Not that I like skin-heads,” Carl said. The words sounded forced and ridiculous to his ears. After all, he thought, who does like skinheads? Or, at least, who would proclaim that they do on a first date? “But they can really drive up the value of some of the pieces,” Carl said. “I also have Infamy Cards.” He said this with an air of self-importance.

“I’d love to see them.”

“Really?” Carl’s voice cracked slightly.

“Of course I would,” the girl said.

For a moment, Carl was twelve years old all over again, and the hot cheerleader was thrusting her cleavage his way, asking if she can copy his homework. And, even though he knew she’d never look at him until the next time she needed to copy his work, he obliged. But this was different. This girl seemed to have sincere interest in what he was saying.

“You sound surprised by that,” the girl said.

“Not many girls are interested in that kind of stuff.”

“Well, I’m not like many girls.”

Carl said as if to himself, “I guess not.”

“So how about it?” Sophie said, “You want to show me your goods, Carl?”

Carl probably should have listened to his inner voice, which at that moment was saying , That was way too easy.

Continued in:

Nocking the List: Part 3 — No Balls

Babe RuthContinued from: Nocking the List: Part 2 — A Menu of Anything

At least he was good looking. Which was helpful. The good looking ones tend to be the easiest. Well, the good looking ones and the really dweeby ones. The good looking ones are good because they can’t imagine that anyone would dream of scamming them. The dweebs are good because they are too caught up in the fantasy of a hot girl having somehow gone all Beauty and Beast on them—her seeing past their boring exterior to that heart of gold shit—that they never allow that fantasy to dissolve enough to believe that they’d been had. So, yeah, John Thompson was a good looking one, although good looking with muted charisma—think a Clive Owen paint-by numbers that has yet to be filled in with any color (or, think Clive Owen). And John Thompson was rich. Very rich. All he talked about was how he’d fleeced some so-and-so with a short sale, or scammed whomever with some put option. At one point, he even said about one of these deals: “The sucker never saw it coming.” Sophie liked to think that someday that would be John Thompson’s epitaph: “Sucker never saw it coming.”

Meet Sophie Monroe, a package of contradictions. Elegant in her athleticism, boyish in her femininity, and harsh in her sweetness. John Thompson had seen a very similar ad on Craigslist as Carl had seen. Young girl in town for a night, looking for someone with whom to have drinks. And, although the picture Carl saw of Sophie on her Craigslist ad was of a dark-haired girl, this night, with John Thompson, she was blond. So the now-blond Sophie and John pulled up to a big Colonial house in Greenwich. Brick façade, manicured lawn, three-car garage. They pulled up to the house in a Jag. A fucking Jag, Sophie thought. Not a Porsche. Not a Beemer or a Benz or something with actual high performance capability. A Jag. The ultimate in poser, look-at-me status symbols.

Sophie and John climbed from the Jag and stumbled up the walkway toward the house. At the bar earlier, it was John’s plan to get Sophie drunk by challenging her to shot after shot of Patron, John even suggesting body-shots for the last one. Which Sophie accepted. She was even sure to blow a puff of extra-warm air on his neck before licking the salt off of it. But the asshole didn’t realize that she could hold her liquor far better than he could. Hell, she could drink Jose Cuervo under the table, if need be.

So from the Jag, they made it to the front door of what John called his Pad. That’s what he called it. His “Pad.” John was the type of guy that liked to invent hip, insider lingo—John-speak, if you will—and this lingo broke most things down to three letter catch phrases. The Pad. The Jag. He even called the Patron, “Ron.” “Wanna do a shot of Ron?” “Another shot of Ron?” Sophie wanted to say to him, “Who the fuck is Ron?” But instead, she smiled and said, “Absolutely. Another shot of Ron it is.”

At the front door of his Pad, John dropped his keys and, with Sophie hanging in his arms, he retrieved them with limited dexterity. As they stood from the stoop, Sophie slumped a little in his grasp. This slump was by design, of course.

“Whoa,” John said to her, “You okay?”

“I’m great,” she said with a big, goofy, drunken smile. “Just drunk.”

Just drunk: the mating call to assholes. Now, some men would find this situation blurring ethical lines, and at this point, a look of moral crisis would come into some men’s eyes. Other men would have a look of disappointment, knowing that they wouldn’t actually take advantage of a drunken young lady. The really decent guys would immediately turn back for the car, saying that they’d bring the girl home right away. But not John. John closed deals. And John got a look in his eyes like he’d just hit the fucking lottery.

By the way, those decent guys that offer to drive drunken girls home, those are the ones Sophie avoids.

So John was finally able to gain his and Sophie’s balance, and he fumbled the house key into its lock, unlocking the door and kicking it open. Before they even crossed the threshold, a Shih Tzu bolted up to them, its plumed tail wagging, the thing jumping around as if being electrocuted by its excitement.

A Shih Tzu: the final confirmation that there is a Mrs. John Thompson. Sophie figured it wasn’t enough that John lived in Greenwich rather than Manhattan, or that he lived in a house twice the size than is needed for a bachelor, but he owned a Shih Tzu. There are only two types of men that own Shih Tzu: men who are gay, and men who are married. Although none of this was necessary for Sophie to deduce John’s marital status, mind you. The fact that he answered her ad on Craigslist was proof enough. The good looking ones are always married. Why else would they be answering a Craigslist ad in the first place?

Sophie bent down to greet the dog, saying, “Hey. Cute dog.”

She knew Shih Tzu tend to be little bitches. Like their owners. And she half expected the thing to bite her. The dog backed away from her for a moment, growling, and then it approached her again to be petted.

“Yeah, that’s Wee.”

“Wee?”

“Well, Stewie. But I like to call him Wee.”

“Of course you do.”

Wee? How about Stu, that’s only three letters? But, no, pretentious prick goes with Wee.

Sophie stood from petting Wee and she regarded the house. The place was meticulously decorated. Another sign of his being married.

“I like the pad,” Sophie said, staggering drunkenly into the living room.

“Yeah? You really like it?”

Sophie turned toward John, pretending to stumble, and she lunged into his arms, saying, “It goes with your car.”

“John grinned and said, “Yeah? Well, the Jag’s for fun. The house is a necessity.”

Sophie plastered another goofy smile on her face and said, “We can have fun in the house, too.”

John smirked and pulled her up to his lips for a kiss. The kiss was tender at first, but then he opened his mouth to obtain her tongue. Sophie pulled away, leaning a little off balance, and she said, “I could use a drink.”

John smiled, that lottery-winning look back in his eyes, and he said, “All right. I can provide that.” He then kissed her on the forehead and walked off for the kitchen.

Sophie watched him leave the room, wiping her forehead with the back of her hand. She turned her attention to the living room, making a slow, circling sweep of the space, inventorying the furnishings, the gizmos and the trinkets, the different knick-knacks on the shelves. She called toward the kitchen, “This really is a nice place.”

John called from the kitchen. “Thanks.” He then called, “Is wine okay?”

“Wine’s perfect,” Sophie called. She spotted a bookcase in a side nook of the room. As she headed toward the bookcase, she felt someone watching her. She looked down to find Stewie at her feet. She bent over and quickly scruffed the top of the dog’s head before returning her attention to the bookcase’s contents. She was not surprised to spot a locket-sized framed wedding picture of John with a high-strung-looking woman. Sophie figured John had removed all the pictures of the wife, or children if there were any, but he must have missed this one. Sophie looked down at Stewie and smirked. But the dog didn’t really seem to give a shit about his master’s infidelity.

John called from the kitchen, “I’ll open a ninety-four Stags Leap. Got three bottles. Hard to find. They’re about four-hundred bucks a bottle.” He paused a moment and then said, “Hey, four hundred bucks for a bottle of Stags Leap. Get it?”

“Yeah, that’s funny,” Sophie called. She looked down at the dog and raised her eyebrows, saying, “Is he for real?” The dog cocked its head, looking as if he really didn’t give a shit that his master was a doofus either. Sophie called toward the kitchen, “Four hundred bucks, you say?”

John returned from the kitchen with two glasses of red wine. He handed one of the glasses to Sophie, and he said, “Yeah, I got them at auction, along with an eighty-five Cristal worth a cool G.” He clinked her wine glass and they each took a sip. “Smooth, no?” he said.

“Quite,” Sophie said. They took another sip. Sophie said, “So what’s the story with your balls?”

“Excuse me?”

Sophie motioned to three baseballs that were on the bookcase. She said, “You’ve got these baseballs here.” She picked one of the balls up, saying, “Doesn’t really go with the rest of the pad.”

John grimaced, as if Sophie had grabbed one of his actual balls, and he took the baseball from her, saying, “Those baseballs are worth a fortune. Signed by Ruth, Maris, and McGwire, all from the years they broke the homerun record.”

Of course she knew what the balls were, and it was no accident that she had picked up the Ruth ball, knowing it would elicit the most anxious response from him.

“Oh, so sorry,” she said in her best I’m just a stupid girl voice.

John returned the Babe Ruth ball to the bookcase as if it was plutonium. He said, “I’m still trying to get a Bonds.”

“Oh yeah? Whoever that is,” Sophie said, again with her just a girl voice.

“You don’t know who Bonds is?” he said with faux shock.

Of course I know who Bonds is, dipshit. “James Bond?”

“Um, no, Barry Bonds.”

“Oh. Right.”

They sipped their wine again, and then Sophie said, “Hard to believe that such a successful guy like you would need to answer an ad on Craigslist for a date.”

John shrugged and said, “What can I say? The price of success can sometimes be loneliness.”

Sophie kind of almost threw up in her mouth, and part of her just wanted to douse him in the Stags Leap. Instead, she allowed her gaze to drift toward the wedding picture on the bookcase, eliciting another anxious response from John. He quickly took the glass of wine from Sophie’s hand and set the two glasses on the coffee table. He said, “Why don’t we sit on the couch?”

Sophie let that big, goofy smile slip onto her face again and said, “I was thinking more like, how about we hit the sack.”

It doesn’t take long before they’re rolling around on the bed in Mr. and Mrs. Thompson’s bedroom. Sophie was wearing nothing but a pair of boyshort panties and a spaghetti string top. John was wearing his silk boxers and black, knee-high dress socks. Sophie would always make them keep on their socks. Something about the goofiness of a guy stripped down to nothing but his dress socks cracked her up.

While they were making out, John stopped and said, “Hard to believe that a smoking hot girl like you needed to post an ad on Craigslist for a date.”

Sophie said, “Well, sometimes the price of adventure is taking a chance.”

“Just how much adventure are you looking for?”

“Why? Are you feeling adventurous?” Sophie asked.

“Definitely.”

She smiled and flicked the hair of her blond wig from her face. Glancing around the room, she seemed to spot something, and she darted from the bed to the room’s curtains. She’d actually spotted the ties on the curtains when she first entered the room, and she knew exactly what she was going to do with them, but still, she acted as if the notion had just popped into her head. She pulled free the ties, and turned back toward John. She held the ties in her fingers as if about to create a cat’s cradle, and she said with the most child-like smile she could muster, “Ever been tied up?”

It was Sophie’s experience that when a hot girl flashes a child-like smile and uses a baby-doll voice, she can ask a man to do anything, especially if that anything has an element of kink to it. John, lying there, half-mast, looked as if he was about to pop right out of his boxers. But this excitement that guys have is always tinged with trepidation, as if the asshole is nervous that he won’t be able to keep up or handle it. And John deflected the proposal by saying, “From what I’ve seen so far, maybe I should do the tying.”

Yeah, John would like that. If he couldn’t subdue her with the alcohol, subdue her with bondage.

Sophie darted back to the bed. “Nope. You’re first,” she said, and then added for good measure, “because you’re such a bad, bad boy.” She said this in another baby-doll voice, and of course John’s hands came up immediately to be tied. And there you have it. That’s the exact moment that John gave up complete control to a stranger he’d just met on Craigslist. Imagine that, a master of the universe that buys and sells the lives of thousands of naive investors gets undone by a baby-doll voice.

John grinned and placed his writs against the headrest of the bed. Sophie tied one wrist, all the time teasing him with blown kisses. John growled like a tiger, feigning scratches with his free hand. Sophie tied his other hand and then stepped back to inspect her work. She scrunched up her face in a displeased look and glanced around the room as if something more was missing. And, again, she knew what that something was the whole time. “Here we go,” she said, darting to the end of the bed and snatching up John’s discarded shirt. She returned to the bed and blindfolded Mr. Put-option, and she wondered how much he’d have made if he’d shorted this date.

“Don’t move, tiger,” she said.

John purred.

Sophie stepped back and took a moment to enjoy the sight. She regarded John as if he was the Grand Canyon. Couldn’t get much better. Millionaire adulterer bound to his king-size bed with curtain ties, blindfolded with his own shirt, erection trying to free itself from his silk shorts. And, of course, there were the black, knee-high socks. Perfect.

Sophie gathered up her clothes and began to dress.

John, still blindfolded, cocked his head and said, “What are you doing?”

“Getting ready,” she said. “Now, don’t you move, tiger.”

“Where are you going?” he said, sounding as if the first bloom of premature blue balls was about to hit him.

She slipped on the last of her clothing and started toward the door, saying, “I’m going to get the wine.”

She bounded down the stairs.

Stewie was waiting at the foot of the steps, the dog’s tail a blur, the thing eager for attention. Sophie darted into the living room with the dog at her feet, almost tripping over the thing. She grabbed her pocketbook, an over-sized leather bag she’d left on the couch. She took the bag into the kitchen, where she found two wine refrigerators. You know, the pretentious Sharper Image, yuppie specials. She opened the refrigerators and picked out the remaining bottles of Stags Leap and the bottle of Cristal. She also found a couple of bottles of Dom Perignon, and she was surprised the asshole hadn’t served her the beverage with three letters to its name. Want some Dom? I have plenty of Dom. We can take my Jag to the Pad for some Dom.

As she stood from the wine refrigerators, the bottles clinking in her bag, she almost stepped on Stewie. She looked down at the dog, the thing looking up at her as if wondering why she was taking his buddy’s wine, and she said to the dog, “Don’t look at me like that. You know he’s an asshole.”

John called from upstairs, the blue balls probably taking full effect, “Hey, baby, where are you?”

She called toward the ceiling, “Just getting some goodies, tiger.”

He called down, “There’s whipped cream in the fridge, how about I be your dessert tonight?”

Sophie looked down at Stewie, asking the dog, “Seriously?”

Stewie cocked his head, his tail going nuts again.

John called, “C’mon, baby, I got a sweet treat for you right here. All it needs is a little whipped cream, and you can be the cherry on top.”

Sophie scrunched up her face, saying “Ew.” She then looked down at the dog and said, “See? Asshole.” She walked over to the stairs and called up, “Be right there, tiger.”

She returned to the kitchen, walking to the refrigerator—one of those industrial, silver monstrosities that belong in a restaurant—and she rifled through the trendy condiments and cooking sherries to find the whipped cream.

She started back toward the stairs, shaking the canister and saying to the dog at her feet, “C’mon, Stewie.”

She returned to the master bedroom with the dog, finding the eager John writhing on the bed in anticipation. She said to him, “I got a surprise for you, tiger.”

“Oh, yeah, baby?” he said, offering his tiger growl again.

“Oh, yeah,” Sophie said. She sprayed the whipped cream on his dick, which was now fully erect and sticking out of the fly of his boxers. The guy groaned with delight. And she said, “Ready, tiger?”

“Oh, yeah, baby.”

Sophie bent down and picked up Stewie, putting the dog on the bed. And, of course, the dog immediately went to town on the whipped cream. John began groaning in ecstasy, saying, “Oh, yeah, baby.”

Sophie tilted her head, watching man and dog, and she covered her mouth with her hand. The scene belonged in a museum, a true masterpiece. She could have enjoyed this sight all night, but it was time to get going. She headed back down the stairs, and as she reached the bottom step, she heard John yell, “Hey, wait a minute, hey.”

Sophie ran into the kitchen, retrieving the bag with the wine. Then she went to the bookcase in the living room, all the time listening to John yelling from upstairs, “Stewie, no. Stewie, stop.”

She took John’s baseballs from the bookcase, placing them in her bag along with a few other expensive looking knick-knacks.

John was yelling, “Hey, Shauna, where did you go? This isn’t funny.”

Sophie headed to the door, laughing. For one thing, her name wasn’t Shauna. And what’s more, it was funny.

Continued in: Nocking the List: Part 4 — Too Easy

Nocking the List: Part 2 — A Menu of Anything

mystic-island-map-v2_03Continued from: Nocking the List: Part 1— The Pen is Mightier Than the Nag 

Carl sat at his computer, staring at Klimt’s The Kiss on the screen. His mind was unable to abandon it. He was prisoner to the image since he’d huffed out of Stone’s office, and now that he had his own private Google copy before him, he couldn’t stop staring. The man in the painting seemed to be smothering the woman against her will. But the look of bliss on her face betrayed this idea. It was more that she was willingly submitting to the protective cocoon he shared with her. Carl played these diametric possibilities in his mind, wishing to be invited into the painting, to know their passion atop the apron of blooming flowers. The painting had the addictive allurement of internet porn, Carl staring at the image on the screen until his eyes got crossed up in the pixels. Carl had always resisted the simplistic ease of porn—just one more way to take a stoic stand against his apparent lack of sexuality. But this picture was different. Fine art porn. His fingers drummed beside the mouse along to a Clay Aiken song on the stereo, and he began to imagine himself in bed, a beautiful girl nestled in his arms like the girl in the painting, his lips nuzzled into her cheek.

Suddenly, as if his hand was independent of himself, he opened a new window on the computer screen, creating a new search for: SINGLE WOMEN DATING.

The instant infinite results on the screen were overwhelming. He could choose anything his fantasies required, from race to fetish to religion to political orientation. Comparability to works of fine art? He supposed this was not an option. And he began to wonder if he really wanted to put forth the effort of trying to build his perfect girl with a template of interests and desires on a dating site. What he really wanted was to find a diamond in the ruff, so to speak. Stumble across that perfect woman and fall into her arms as if accidently. He wanted to find Klimt’s passion, not try to manufacture that passion. His independent hands clicked on a link for Craigslist.

A menu of anything popped up on the screen. Anything from cars to furniture, to activities, forums, jobs, computers, haiku, diets, crafts, events, personals. He stopped. WOMEN SEEKING MEN. He clicked. Several descriptive taglines stretched along a sea of white. Some of them were straightforward and filthy, such as the amateur poet who proclaimed: “On top or from behind, they’re both all right, as long as I find that you can give it morning noon and night.” Others were timid and simple. “Searching for a decent man.” Carl wondered if Mandy would ever advertise on one of these sites. That would be a hoot if he responded and it turned out to be her. If You Like Piña Coladas-style. Yeah, a real hoot, he thought. That would probably be the day he shot himself in the head or jumped off a bridge. The day fate confirmed that Mandy was his one true match.

Carl spent a few minutes reading dozens of these posts before the perfect hook caught his eye. It read: “WILL BE IN TOWN FOR A COUPLE OF DAYS. LOOKING FOR SOMEONE TO HAVE DRINKS WITH.”

Carl clicked on the link and read part of the message out loud—a new Clay Aiken song scoring the statement. “Looking for Someone.” The three words tugged at some deep-rooted part of him with breathtaking torque. Carl scrolled down to the attached photo. Another high-torque pull at that deep rooted part of him. The girl in the picture was stunning. Not the type of woman he expected searching for companionship on the salacious listings of Craigslist. Raven black hair, tanned skin, gray eyes. He stared at those eyes, almost convinced that she was looking back at him, and that they were sharing a moment in the digital universe. His mind began superimposing his and her faces onto the The Kiss. He imagined her falling limply into his embrace as he pulled her from the computer screen, rescuing her from loneliness. He absorbed her image for a while until the den became silent, the Clay Aiken CD ending.

After several minutes, Carl broke his gaze from the computer screen and he glanced around the den, his eyes shifting to the shelves of war memorabilia scattered about the room. What Mandy called his bullshit clutter. Carl then looked above his computer screen. A silver doorknocker in the shape of an eagle and swastika hung on the wall. A relic from his great uncle’s service in World War II. A hideous symbol with a funny story. Carl was suddenly filled with giddiness, and he found himself saying out loud, in a high, womanly voice, “Knock-knock. Avon Fräulein calling.” Carl clicked on the reply button to the Craigslist post, and he responded to the girl with the gray eyes, who would be in town for a few days and was looking for someone with which to have drinks.

The girl with the gray eyes would, in fact, be in town in the coming days. But at that moment, when Carl responded to her ad, she was in Connecticut. She was on a date with a man named Bob. Her name was Sophie Monroe. But Bob knew her as Shawna.

Continued in: Nocking the List: Part 3 — No Balls

Nocking the List: Part 1— The Pen is Mightier Than the Nag

Pen in The EyeSo the yipping bitch was to his right. At least, that was Carl White’s assessment of her at that moment. The yipping bitch. Now, one might think that this phrase was in reference to a dog, but it wasn’t. It was in reference to his ex-wife, Mandy. Correction: his soon-to-be ex-wife. But that was merely their future. In that moment in the lawyer’s office, she was intent on rubbing his face in the stink of their shared past. But this yipping of hers might as well have been silence. To Carl, it was all the same. Nothing of value said either way. And so Carl sat silent in the lawyer’s office as she yipped, and in reality they were pretty much saying the exact same thing. It dawned on Carl that these moments of nothing said had become old hat to him. Nothing of value ever shared. It was just the way with women. For Carl, anyway. Like a glass ceiling of affection, the women in his life were close enough to touch, even to hear and feel their breath, but distant in every other way. He remembered the first time Mandy was this close to him, and now he wished he had shut his eyes, plugged his ears, and walked the other way. It would have spared him from sitting in this dreary office enduring the disapproving frown of a slimy lawyer like Vincent Stone. Vincent Stone’s office was a world of polished dark wood. Even the walls were wood. The office a holdover from the 1900s, when the current occupant’s great-grandfather had started the law practice. In fact, Stone, with his slicked hair and tailored suits, looked like a carryover of the 1900s himself. Scattered about the office walls, blending nicely in the patterns of wood grain, were various Klimt paintings. It was actually an interior designer that chose the paintings, employing their perfectly complimentary tones to offset the wood walls and furnishings. Carl glanced around the walls, trying to focus on something other than what was behind Stone’s desk—the one part of the room’s décor that was so misplaced that it obviously was not the work of an interior designer. Peaking from a slightly ajar closet door was a human skeleton. Carl White did not want to look at that skeleton, but it was like a car wreck, or like his failed marriage, hell his failed life, he just couldn’t get away from it.

Carl White was the type of guy that sweated a lot, and even though it was a normal temperature in the lawyer’s office, he made no effort to wipe his glistening brow. He figured he’d let them see him sweat. He was done impressing anybody. To prove this, he cleared his throat and mussed a hand through his hair, unearthing a half-dollar sized bald spot like a bull’s eye on the top of his head. It didn’t matter. His inhibitions were deadened, and for the moment, he could not care less about his flaws. He was an underachieving, out of shape, balding, untactful white American man. Hear him roar.

Carl caught the glare of the skeleton again, but then he glanced away from it quickly, focusing again on the Klimt artwork scattered throughout the room. Klimt’s The Kiss hung on one wall. Carl remembered studying the painting during an art history course he took in junior college—back when he still had a chance at a decent future. As he stared at the painting now, it occurred to him that it was an odd choice to have such a vision of romance on a divorce lawyer’s wall. Not realizing that the painting was merely chosen for its hues matching the office décor, Carl began to wonder about Stone’s motivation for securing it there. He thought that maybe it was meant to instill a sense of remembered bliss in the combatants that gathered in that room. But wouldn’t that be bad for business? The painting seemed to suck Carl into it, as if he now stood over the figures, a look of passion and bliss on the lovers’ faces. And he thought about that look on Mandy’s face. Not with Carl, mind you, but instead with someone else. Carl figured probably with Joe Clarke. Before Carl met Mandy, he was starved for sex, so one can imagine his exponential disappointment when sex with her seemed like a chore and he usually hurried the task of finishing just so he could dislodge himself from that sack of boredom. The look on Mandy’s mid-coitus face was the same look she’d have when she had her nails done. He considered bringing this up in a stilted, casual tone right now, just to see her flush with embarrassment, but she was busy babbling on like a two-stroke engine. Babbling on about what she was always babbling on about. About how useless Carl was as a father and a husband. And as a human being. It became so mundane for Carl, so cyclical, that he was a master at translating her voice back into background static, like a distant, slightly out of tune radio. Carl was back inside the painting and wondered if Joe Clarke would finally get annoyed by this bitch, too.

“ . . . See what I mean? He never listens.”

Carl snapped out of some fragment of daydream, falling out of Klimt’s painting and finding Mandy glaring at him, their marriage now bookended with this look. He should have recognized that this misery would ensue after the first time she glared at him like that. They were halfway through their first date and she noticed a trail of toilet paper stuck to the shoe of their waitress—a rundown looking scrap of a woman. It was a diner, very low key, and the people around them were just working-class folks out for a cheap pile of meatloaf or a slice of pecan pie. When Mandy made a comment about the waitress’s TP trail, Carl laughed amid a bite of mashed potato. A small white globule launching from his mouth like a tiny snowball and landing on the table. Mandy’s accompanying giggle devolved into that glare, and she looked around the diner, as if suddenly horrified to be sharing a meal with this man. Carl often wondered how they even got past that first date to end up married. And now there it was again. That glare.

And now, in the lawyer’s office, there was no way around it, she was right, he didn’t have a clue what she was saying before she bagged him for not listening. He wanted to say something pithy, like that he only paid attention when there was something worth hearing. But that would be too much work. Instead, he offered a limp, “Huh?”

“I was saying, Carl, that I will decide what is best for my son. Visiting rights are non-negotiable, I’m staying firm on this.”

For some reason, Mandy had developed the false impression that she’s a good mom. Carl was willing to concede that he was not the world’s greatest dad, but his fatherhood was most certainly no worse than her motherhood. Mandy wanted to use Paul, their son, as some sort of weapon to take digs at Carl. A negotiating tool. Blue chip collateral. Paul didn’t care one way or the other where he spent his time. It could be at Carl’s place or Mandy’s place. It was all the same to him.

Carl gazed back at the Klimt painting in order to avoid her eyes, and he said, “I just want to have more say in what goes on in my son’s life, that’s all.”

Mandy said, “You’re lucky I’m not cutting you out completely.”

Against Carl’s better judgment, he took the bait. “And what makes you feel a judge would give you that right?” he asked.

And she said, “Because they don’t look kindly on fathers with anger management problems.”

“Or on wives with fidelity problems,” Carl snapped with a hint of self-righteousness. But in reality, the comment made him longingly jealous. He wished he was the one with the fidelity problem, or the means to acquire one. He wished he wasn’t the rube. It no longer mattered to him that some other guy was sticking his dick in his wife. He just cared that it happened on his watch. That he stuck to his vows, while she disregarded hers. The accusation levied on her was born in the same empty part of his psyche where, as a kid, he tried to justify not wanting the same Big Wheel or Intellivision game console that all of the other neighborhood kids had. Unfortunately, the infidelity label doesn’t fit the bag of dilemmas he now carried on his back through this life. That’s what he was thinking about as his hand crept to his belly, dry skin catching in the pull of cheap fabric as he rubbed, making a wish on a Buddha.

“I don’t have a fidelity problem,” she said, her eyes snapping to Stone as the words fell from her mouth, and Carl knew she was probably starting to wonder why they were paying this overpriced asshole to sit silent while they engaged in a spat identical to the ones that had sewn their marriage together for so many years. And Carl for once agreed with her since he, too, would be stuck with a share of the bill. This asshole lawyer better intervene soon and help them bust the seams apart once and for all.

“I don’t have an anger problem,” Carl said. Suddenly it seemed important to defend himself, but he wasn’t sure why. Sometimes even a kicked dog has an inkling of fight left in him.

Mandy said, “The cops needed to be called to the house for you going psycho and kicking the coffee table into splinters.”

With his hands now folded on his belly, fingers locking tremors from his hands, he carefully replied, “That is a matter of semantics. The police didn’t need to be called. The police were called. And I think I had a right to kick my coffee table after finding out my wife was banging someone else.”

He used the term, banging, for the harshness of it, even though he couldn’t picture Mandy banging anyone. The blunt description would give Vincent Stone fodder for dinner anecdotes in the future. And so then the husband stares straight forward and lets her have it. Carl imagined Stone saying this with glee as he dabs away the blood of rare beef from his lips. In reality, Carl assumed Mandy would have that nail-painting expression no matter who she was banging.

The word, banging, got the reaction he wanted. Mandy shut up. She rolled her eyes and looked out the room’s window, as if too hurt to speak. But it wasn’t hurt that shut her up, it was blind hatred. The word also got a reaction from Vincent Stone. Stone shifted in his seat. It was clear that he should interrupt at this point, but he looked a bit hesitant, as if he knew that doing so may limit his dinnertime story about this miserable comedy. “All right, look,” Stone says. “We’ve been over this enough. Do you think we can agree on the terms we already have spelled out about visitation?”

Mandy looked from the window to the lawyer and she said, “Look, I’m already agreeing. He’s the one that, at first, agreed, but now, as usual, he flakes out at the last minute. Questioning everything. As soon as he commits to something, he can’t follow through.” She turned toward Carl, saying, “ Make a decision for once, Carl, and stick with it. You are consistently…”

Carl knew all too well, as Mandy babbled on, that Mandy’s accusations and complaints were famous for muscling past one another neck and neck in order to garner attention. At the end of the day, though, all the accusations were rooted to one source: Carl. It was just that everything in the world was Carl’s fault. Go ahead, Mandy, pile it on. She was the master at ripping him apart on countless levels, leaving the pieces strewn about her like petals pulled from a flower. I hate him, I hate him more, I hate him, I hate him more… But Carl could never understand how this helped her cause, since she never closed the deal on one argument before opening a new one. Carl hoped that would be the case here in Stone’s office, hoping now that she was on a role, and she’d just keep going like that two-stroke engine. Carl looked at the lawyer. Then at the Klimt painting. He might as well just go out and grab a coffee at the café on the street and watch the pretty girls walk past.

Mandy went on and on and it became futile to tune her out. Like an incessant drip from a sink. The squeal of a car alarm. And all of a sudden, a realization washed over him. This woman had robbed him. Robbed him of years of passion and joy. Episode after annoying episode opening in his mind like a photo album, the pages leafing through years of documented unpleasantness. Mandy nagging him out of bed on a Saturday morning to fix some mundane thing. Mandy getting wasted and causing a stir at her office Christmas party and leaving him alone there while she wandered off with God-knew-who. Mandy using Paul to play tug of war with him at every turn.

Carl’s attention shifted onto the skeleton in the closet as it leered from behind the slightly ajar door. Only now, it didn’t seem to be staring at him. It seemed to be staring at something on Stone’s desk. Carl looked at the desk and saw a shiny, black Cross pen. Carl stared at the pen and then it was in his hand. He drove the pen into Mandy’s forehead, right between her eyes. Her eyes widened and crossed, looking at the pen sticking from her forehead before she slumped in her seat like a balloon drained of air.

The lawyer stared at Carl for a moment, silent with shock. Then Vincent Stone said, “Thank Christ, I didn’t think she was ever gonna shut up.”

“Think that was decisive enough for her?” Carl said, and the two of them laughed together. The scumbag lawyer and Carl. Even the skeleton seemed to be laughing now.

But then Carl snapped from the fantasy. Mandy still ranting beside him, saying, “…he’s weak and he’s…” Stone still sitting, pretending to be interested. The skeleton leering at Carl again.

Carl stood from the seat and he lifted his hands in the air like a conductor calling the symphony to attention. He said, “All right, look, enough, just do whatever you want. I don’t even give a shit anymore.” He delivered this message to the skeleton. He couldn’t even stand to look at Mandy or the lawyer anymore. Carl said to the skeleton, “Just send the fucking papers for me to sign.” And he stormed out of the room.

He walked from the office building and down the street, the sidewalk scattered with mid-afternoon pedestrians, each toiling with a unique agenda. He wondered if any of them felt the way he did. Klimt’s lovers lingered in his mind, and he wished that he could experience just one moment of that brand of passion. He realized that he was actually jealous of the painted figures forever entwined in that embrace. As he walked, his car key felt cold in his fingers, the florescent NKOTB keychain swinging lamely beneath the umbrella of his palm. Mandy gave the keychain to him one Christmas. One of her many subtle cuts at him. She was always good at passing off her judgmental bullying as “all in fun.” Dignity was just one more thing she took from him. So what if he enjoyed the goddamn New Kids on the Block? At least he was man enough to admit it. So what if he’d graduated to NSYNC or Clay Aiken? She couldn’t let him have his joys? Bitch calling him a “ped” for liking boys. And he’d correct her by saying: “I don’t like boys, I like boy bands.” And so he kept the keychain out of spite. To prove to her that she couldn’t break him.

His anger with her was renewed. Had it ever dissipated? And he stood there on the sidewalk and stopped to lean against a tree to shake her face from his mind. He took a few deep breaths, closing his eyes for a little self-soothing, and he cultivated his standard fantasy. There he was, standing on the Idol stage, belting out a song as the crowd and the television audience dropped their jaws in adoration. Ryan standing off to the side, his perfect white teeth chiseled into a smile. Randy bobbing his fat head, Paula’s drugged eyes gazing approvingly, and even Simon shrugging and conceding that he can’t argue with what Carl was selling. Carl calls out to the adoring crowd, “I love you. I love you all.”

And before he even realizes that he’s now shouting in reality, the fantasy dissolves and he hears his own panicked voice, as if it is speaking independent of his own vocal chords, calling “Oh, wait, wait.”

A meter maid was placing a ticket under the windshield of his Crown Victoria.

Carl trotted the rest of the way to the car, saying, “Oh, wait, I got it. I’m leaving.”

The meter maid, a squat woman with pockmarked skin, said, “Sorry. Already recorded in the book.” She seemed to smile as she pushed her pen back into its holster like a gunslinger having felled the town thug.

Carl’s voice was beginning to rise in speed and cadence. It sounded kind of whiny, and he imagined Mandy shaking a disapproving scowl at him. “But you know me,” he said to the meter maid. “What are you doing?”

The meter maid said, “Then you should already understand that it’s in the book.” The meter maid snapped shut her ticket book and turned to walk away.

Carl repeated, “But you know me.” He felt like a little kid arguing with the inevitability of bedtime.

“Yeah, I do know you. And you should know better.” The meter maid said, shrugging dismissively and walking away.

Continued in: Nocking the List: Part 2 — A Menu of Anything