Current Issue

email this link

Random Haiku Generator
Poem of the Day
Flash Fiction


Nuisance Call
by Tom Bradley


"Take away the prostitutes from human affairs,
and you'll throw everything into a chaos of lusts."
--Saint Augustine, De Ordine ii, 4


Chica wondered why she'd never gotten around to painting her vast elbow man--aside from the prohibitive cost of the several gallons of cirrhosis-yellow pigment it would take. But it was never too late, as long as Biffy's face hadn't relaxed to the point of sliding off his skull altogether.

Maybe she could arrange for him to sit for a formal portrait. What a nice idea!

* * * *

Biff was too irritated to be astonished when he found himself making gestures in the direction of the phone several seconds before it began to ring. The only thing that persuaded him to get vertical at all, it being three a.m., was that his sleeping wife must never, under any circumstances, be exposed to the person who was, without a doubt, on the other end of the line.

* * * *

Only three rings. Yes, the old Bifferoonie was still cultivating that fetch-it boy style--if "cultivate" was the word. It had probably started out as an act, or sheepish overcompensation for taking up so much of other people's space. But what a wimp it finally turned him into. Biffy was a moved and a shook. Shook right out of the marriage bed.

Chica remembered when she used to get screwed, and the more or less precise moment when she'd decided to start doing the same unto others instead of letting it be done unto her. She'd been inspired by watching the old sperm whale in those days, Mr. Premature Personality Disintegration himself, in the flower of his young manhood. Biffy was already so charbroiled that he could barely lift his feet, one after the other. You could hear him coming down the beach at Galveston during a hurricane alert, for God's sake.

* * * *

Even after twelve years, he had only to hear the voice. The caller didn't need to identify herself to achieve the desired effect.

This soul-chewer was always going to turn up, for as long as they both should live, during those times when his moral immune system was in a weakened condition. Chica would crop up simultaneously with thoughts of mortality, regardless of the remoteness of the backwater he'd hidden himself in. Whenever he was in a lightless mood, her voice would sound in an electronic hiss only millimeters away from the skin of his brain, summoning him, at three a.m., to join her in yet another bout of antisocial behavior.

She never had the courtesy to inform him of what that behavior might be until it was two-thirds accomplished. So it wasn't surprising to hear her hang up in his ear after supplying a stripped-down skeleton of details, only what he absolutely needed to know.

* * * *

Chatting up sleepy Biffy, listening to him whisper so as not to roust the old ball and chain--this was like a slap in the face with chilled astringent. It was clear to Chica now that she was in the full fervor of a reaction against his sort of laxity. By her own garter straps, as it were, she'd lifted herself up, and turned herself into a--what? Surely something more than just a dope-peddling rim-job queen.

What was she now? If she were male, "a man" would carry many of the connotations she was striving for. "A woman," even at this late date in the movement, was not quite adequate, unfortunately. Just put it this way: Chica had turned herself into an adult, a grownup, an individuated somebody-or-other. And a painter of some skill: the Paintrix.

* * * *

The earth had bumbled a dozen times around the sun since Biff's last bout of swinishness, before he'd met his wife and settled down--precipitated was a better term, like 350 pounds of coarse sediment. Roughly four-thirteenths of his life had drained off since he'd taken leave of the dominatrix who just jangled him out of bed.

Back when he ran with her, the gay community gazettes in major population centers had just been starting to mutter about a strange, seemingly communicable form of cancer appearing on the soles of the feet of the readership. But nobody had thought to warn the heteros who just liked snickering over the personal ads. And right about now, a mini-lifetime later, a certain unpleasant physical disorder--a whole potential syndrome of them, in fact--should be coming into a certain faithful husband's life, if it were coming at all. The purple splotches were about due.

Like a good middle-ager, he should be getting his gout pills and eating them three a day. But he was afraid that the family doctor, perhaps leery of all convicted felons (even one so manifestly unpopular), might sneak an HIV test into the routine blood workup; and Biff was the kind of guy who would rather not know. So he stayed away from the clinic and failed to get his Xyloprim replenished.

* * * *

Was he still worried about his dick falling off, or whatever?

Chica and Biffy had a mutual acquaintance from the old days, a magnificent cock queen, who'd gotten an ambiguous lab result and had to wait six months for the follow-up that would uphold or commute the death sentence. This guy's face had grown wrinkles in that half year, and he was a brave man. The old Bifferoonie would've fretted himself deep into the grave by that time, even without the virus' help, and he'd have gotten religion in the meanwhile and been a big pain in the butt about the whole deal.

Blame would be assigned, guilt apportioned-a blood test was not a good idea in Biffy's sick enough case.

* * * *

Rather than getting examined and putting this implausible fear behind him, Biff had called in sick a week ago, and sat all day in an excessively hot bathtub, trying to purge his person of former misdeeds through hypothermia. Excavating deep into the moldiest closets of his memory, he'd worked out a to-the-hour timetable of when he might last have been exposed. He'd systematically placed square in his consciousness the prospect of death--his own deserved and his wife's undeserved; his every previous notion and bit of behavior rendered retroactively meaningless; all his coldest suspicions about the grim nature of things grounded firmly, once and for all.

He was, he feared, something beyond a borderline solipsist. And that meant his croaking would be the equivalent of the end of the universe, including all the seemingly death-resistant things--such as his love for his wife--that had come into existence before a certain very late, and extremely atypical, morning in Oklahoma City, when he'd been so flabbergasted by his own luck that he neglected to dress Thumbelina in her slicker.

Meanwhile his gouty kidneys languished for want of medication, and plumped with deposits of razor-edged golden gravel that conglomerated into serrated boulders that avalanched, in turn, through his innards and cannoned out the end of his member, until not only peeing, but something so psychologically significant as orgasms felt different now, as they squirted past the scar tissue ever heaping in his urinary meatus. Soon Thumbelina's craw would be obstructed as badly as if she had contracted one of the more venerable forms of social disease for the eighth time and needed scooping out.

Part of Biff couldn't imagine his own non-being. The trouble was that part of him could, and did, several times an hour lately, in each dark, disordered detail. However, there was yet a third part of Biff (the part named Thumbelina), which considered death and universal dissolution a fair price to pay for that one unprotected Oklahoma morning.

* * * *

Yes, Biffy all scrubbed and barbered, his ping-pong table-sized face wearing the pensive expression of a goon no longer young. Biffy, posing to be painted by the Pintrix. It was definitely a nice idea.

Until this moment, she'd never known just how much of an artist she was. She was a maker of images to the very core of her imagination. She had to picture her former elbow man on canvas, pack him between the four edges of a Sears Roebuck frame, before the sheer enormousness of his anomaly hit her. For the first time, and more than a decade too late, Chica understood what should have been obvious all along, plain as a tertiary syphilis chancre exploding on the tip of your nose: Biffy had not been the ideal choice for the coveted position of elbow man.

* * * *

She was a bad memory from the late stages of his brief criminal career, the sinsemilla-hazy years, when the fourth decade of his ever-dwindling existence had started stalking him through the underbrush like a saggy and bloodshot puma. Possessing little else then but the uncanny ability to drive several days on end non-stop with neither a Dexamil nor a wink of the eye, he'd chauffeured her through the desert in an old death trap which a jelly-bellied client of hers had invited them to steal and send over a cliff for insurance purposes: naked interstate sprints with the top cranked down, Chica getting browner and blonder by the mile like a degenerating photo negative. This was before the ozone got officially depleted, but redheaded Biff had still blistered. Carcinomas were about due.

Biff had always been inclined to subscribe to the Leninist view of the happy hooker as a fantasy of the declining bourgeoisie. Prostitutes were just a class of oppressed workers like any other, needing reeducation. But Chica gave the lie to that wholesome conceit each time she told him to stop outside any old high-rise condo in a strange town, and she disappeared into the elevator and came back out forty-five minutes later with a couple hundred dollars cash and a beaming grin of professional pride in herself. She never was disheveled on exit, though sometimes her curls did appear damp, and were redolent of the gentlemanly brands of hair conditioner that Biff could never afford.

* * * *

After jettisoning her pimp, as so many of her sisters in the profession did during that heady era, Chica decided to hit the highway. Just to keep the mega-oaf around as a (barely) breathing reminder of the dire pitfalls of emotional, physical and financial slughood, she cleaned him up and pressed him into service as her elbow man.

Bachelor Biffy needed neither weapons nor phony martial artistry to chaperon her in the Ramada Inns of the sedate, low-competition towns they trolled--Boise, Ogden, Phoenix, El Paso, Oklahoma City, and so on. His surreal bulk was more than adequate, especially accompanied by his everyday facial expression, which murmured, "Would you give me a break? I would seriously advise you to do so."

His job was to loom and brood and burp outside the room where she had a "date." Staring down hotel security with that unsocialized mug of his, he was supposed to knock more frequently than the agreed-upon thirty or sixty minutes, in an effort to bleed timorous johns.

In the elevator on the way up she was always forced to just about splinter his yard-long shinbone with kicks, regular field goal attempts, and other subtle sorts of signals, to let him know which johns could be intimidated by the thump of his gorilla knuckle on the door, and which were absolutely not to be fucked with, except in the literal sense, by her, unassisted, in straightforward business transactions terminated efficiently and calmly as possible. There were more of those scary types each year that American history dragged on; and to Chica, whose ass was literally on the line, the difference was always immediately apparent. But Biffy saw them all the same: just the tops of the heads of guys uniformly lucky to get into the boss' dainty drawers.

Then, unable to leave well enough alone, like a couple of dick-faced morons, they widened their professional horizons. Chica had no idea what kind of hell they were eventually going to get themselves into.

* * * *

Even in tranquil recollection he couldn't nail down the precise epoch when the two of them had branched out businesswise, and they'd begun stopping at times other than when they were absolutely broke, and the tall condos no longer seemed randomly selected, and the stacks of cash she extracted began to get unreasonably tall themselves, and her look of pride de-intensified and became a matter of sheer business rather than performance art. It was only after they'd gone all the way from Dumbass to Wacko, so to speak, that she troubled to inform him of the illicit nature of what, besides her ass, he was suddenly helping to transport across state lines.

* * * *

The other business was fairly homespun in those innocent days, just before the market boomed and heads of state took over, and the regional distributors were able to equip themselves with Lear jets and G-3's. Unarmed small-timers with bad cars and marginal attitudes could make themselves useful back then, especially in the remote Rockies and the deserts of the Southwest, where the towns of any significance whose citizenry knew how to have a good time were few and far between, where even the pimps had names like "Road Runner." This was before a certain form of contraband got all concentrated, compact, cheap, easy to administer, and vicious, and seeped down into the hands of the Great Unwashed. It was still being passed off as an idle pursuit, a mere affectation of the leisured- or at least middle class, who had access to support groups and aversion therapy and other weaning methods when it came time to dry out and rejoin society. On the entrepreneurial end of things, guilt was minimal and death remained the exceptional occurrence.

Things were literally down-to-earth. She only had to put Biffy on one airplane, and was forced to fuss and linger with him at the security checkpoint, holding his hand and listening to his last will and testament--fortunately short, for he owned nothing. She'd dressed him in a raincoat that balmy Arizona day, weighed down with (he was surprised six months later to be told, having asked no questions at the time, as usual) several hundred thousand dog-eared and sweat-soggy dollars sewn into the lining.

At first, when she still assumed that a normal adult amount of gumption must be hidden somewhere underneath his vaporous stupor, she made the near-fatal mistake of allowing Biffy a little franchise of his own. Predictably enough, he sat on his butt and let the supply degenerate, as organic substances are prone to do (she kept trying to drive that wisdom through his degenerating skull), until it had to be reconstituted, at a loss of thirty to forty percent of its retail value, and she almost got killed at a monthly meet--was compelled to hit her knees and make like a Hoover as she'd never done before or since.

He couldn't be bothered to drop by the junior highs and peddle an occasional oh-zee, so there was always a serious shake problem with his share of the weed as well. Chica could remember excavating among the knee-deep Quarter-Pounder-with-Cheese wrappers in his hovel, and finding Hefty can liners, the kind Jonathan Winters hawked so humorously on television, chock-full of what had been, at one time, ultra-primo hydroponic hothouse red-haired sinsemilla buds. When you touched these bags with the tip of your toe they exploded like overripe seed pods, releasing ten-thousand-dollar clouds of flour-fine powder, with nothing left behind but undergrowths of no-longer supple twigs.

Biffy was virginal of the entrepreneurial spirit, to put it politely. He was a congenital three-toed, matty-haired tree sloth when it came to just about everything in earthly life. He stuck with Chica not for mutual fun and profit, but because, as he moaned into her scoffing face whenever they got drunk on Thunder Chicken, he "saw something worth saving" in her. (She should have known he'd wind up in the Land of Zen, with air-head notions like that.)

Needless to say, the two of them didn't hit their stride, businesswise, until Chica wised up, took over altogether, and quit letting the dumb ox know anything besides what to lift and the general direction to lug it in. Not much of a business partner, to say the least. But he always proved extremely dependable behind the wheel, where his moony mind had only to concentrate on the next hundred yards or so, and was free to wander beyond that in whatever morose direction it chose.

* * * *

Biff flinched as he recalled once getting automotively disoriented in a Tucson barrio, a certain fearless and resourceful woman alighting from the death seat and telling him, as usual, to stay put with the engine running. Chica had gone among a dark knot of youths who were eager to exchange directions for a few "toots" of something which, in those days, in that town, they'd only heard about.

What might, he supposed, be considered the sad thing about all this was that, like so many American women of her generation and socioeconomic class, she claimed to feel the presence of another more legitimate type of artist inside her, itching and bitching to undergo parturition.

"In another life," she said, one time only, when he'd closed his eyes for a moment, "I might have been a painter of people."

Once or twice while she slept and he didn't (the usual case), he sneaked a glimpse at her ultra-secret sketchbooks--miniature and cramped--and saw endless arrays of self-portraits ranged in rows like the walls of a labyrinth she was trying to scratch her way out of. She'd more or less accurately rendered her own tight platinum curls, aquiline nose and steely grey eyes, but had added what he assumed to be unconsciously angry embellishments: grinding incisors and throats knotted with too many blood vessels and flexed sinews.

He'd used what had oozed into his diseased orbits as evidence to convince himself of an obvious falsehood: that a good man's influence, steadfast, normal and true, would eventually soften all the wrenched tendons and yanked-back eyelids and lips, to induce a clearer vision, free of expressionistic distortions. Only now, a huge chunk of life too late, did Biff understand that he'd examined her sketchbooks through eyes sick with love.

Long-term death and disintegration, one way or another: that's what Chica brought. He'd been hoping all this time that her species of soul cannibal only fed on bachelors in their late twenties. But now, a husband in his very late thirties, he knew he hadn't shaken her yet, and probably never would. They were doomed to bump up against each other whenever any birthday approached that ended in that most vain and vexatious digit: zero.

Of course he succumbed. It was like relaxing everything, including the autonomic functions of his body. He deliberately took a deep breath, stepped into his shoes, and delivered himself up to the chaos that hung, anyway, over this imitation of a home and job, this fleeting hiatus of ersatz normalcy, the abyss on either side. Opening the front door was like abandoning his wife on a ridge between jagged sandstone cliffs in a red desert.

In no time a certain boxy family station wagon was lurching into the first of an interminable series of expressway tunnels. It vanished into blackness thick as the fur on a Labrador retriever that fetches anything thrown out in front of its face, heedless of peril to the teeth and tongue. He'd been given the address of a barber who opened early.

There were several painful pit-stops along the way, as daffodil-colored gravel accumulated in a special cup, which his wife had magnetized to the dash for that purpose. The little stones needed analyzing.




About the Author

When Tom Bradley was a little boy he was given a gazetteer for Christmas. As little boys will, he looked up all the places in the world that start with the F-word. There were two, Fukien in China and Fukuoka in Japan. Little did he suspect that he would one day be exiled to both.

Tom is a former lounge harpist. During his pre-exilic period, he played his own transcriptions of Bach and Debussy in a Salt Lake City synagogue that had been transformed into a pricey watering hole by a nephew of the Shah of Iran.

He taught British and American literature to Chinese graduate students in the years leading up to the Tiananmen Square massacre. He was politely invited to leave China after burning a batch of student essays about the democracy movement rather than surrendering them to "the leaders."

He wound up teaching conversational skills to freshman dentistry majors in the Japanese "imperial university" where they used to vivisect our bomber pilots and serve their livers raw at festive banquets. But his writing somehow sustains him. His website can be found here.