The second chapter of my WIP titled IMAGINARY follows. That’s how the words came down the first time–it’s unrevised and unedited. Be cruel to be kind. While you’re visiting, please follow the link to the right and nominate my novel SON OF LOT for a publishing deal with Kindle Press. It takes just 30 seconds and it’ll make you feel amazing!
IMAGINARY. Chapter 2.
Johns Hopkins was glad to be rid of him; he had become just another piece of tenured deadwood. His ex-wife was ecstatic he would be moving a thousand miles away, now that she’d become officially engaged to his former boss. His German shepherd Brutus, when he tried to pack the beast in a crate for transport, snapped and snarled at him, then went back to licking his balls with professional intent. Dick left the dog for Nancy – even the fucking mutt seemed to be happy to see him go.
In contrast to everyone else in his life, Dick was not happy — in his experience it’d always been a zero-sum emotion. In fact, he cried sometimes and hid it by claiming eye irritation. Still, even in the middle of the heartbreak, he looked forward to setting up his own private-sector lab and shaking the Baltimore dust off his feet. It could only be good for him in the long run. Right. Fuck them, all of them.
When he arrived in Chicago, it was cold and windy, but not terrible. He had heard of Chicago weather and expected worse.
The doorman helped him to his condo with his two suitcases — the moving truck was due a couple of days later. He would have forgotten to tip the man if he — Antek? Roman? something vaguely Eastern European — hadn’t moved his large body between Dick and his magnificent new digs, holding his outstretched hand palm up. Dick put a bill in it without looking, and the sweaty Slav left him alone.
The place had an open floor plan, and the first level was easily as spacious as his suburban Baltimore house. The rooms seemed to just go on. Lake Michigan outside his windows was mostly covered with ice, and, for all intents and purposes, could have been any large body of water. A sea, hell, an ocean, he imagined with the kind of glee he had forgotten he could feel. Even from his twentieth floor, the water and the horizon met before he could glimpse any hint of land on the other side.
A marble spiral staircase led to the floor above, and Dick headed up. He would normally take two stairs at a time to get to his destination faster — he detested wasting time. Now, he savored each step, caressed each hardwood plank with his feet, until he reached the landing.
Where the first floor featured steel and glass, the second was swaddled in warm woods and fabrics. One full side opened to a deep terrace, now covered in snow, but likely a lovely refuge in warmer months; Dick now knew where the grill would go. The other side presented him with the same view of his personal ocean the windows downstairs did. The only enclosed room on this floor, taking the full width of the space, had to be a bedroom. Dick walked over and found he was right. The four-post bed in the middle of it took the place of honor, and was surrounded by tasteful pieces of furniture and art that had to have cost a fortune. The manor house theme extended to the master bath.
If he ever had any doubts about how serious the folks from F.A.C. were, which he did — he excelled at doubts, those thoughts were gone now.
Dick walked downstairs to retrieve his briefcase, found one of the several desks — of course there was paper and a variety of writing utensils inside, and threw himself into work.
Jim Norris was broke. He knew because he was staring at the square screen with the state of his checking account prominently displayed in clean and crisp fonts. $0.40. He was a graduate student so, of course, he had no savings.
The ATM buzzed, and the display asked him politely if he needed more time. He pressed the green ‘yes’ button again and continued to face the machine. He figured thirty minutes would be just about enough to burn through sufficient processing time and electricity to put the bank behind on his account. When his watch finally told him he had accomplished the task, he managed a wispy smile.
He would have preferred a coffee house, but couldn’t afford coffee and settled for a bench, and began to study the ‘wanted’ ads in the Tribune. The cold never seemed to bother him; he shunned the heavy winter coats sported by everyone else around him. He did realize he looked like a bum about to freeze to death, but he rarely gave two fucks for what other people thought so that bothered him no more than the cold.
In contrast, the idea of working in some menial job in addition to laboring on his dissertation did, greatly. He saw little choice if he wanted to eat, and food was one of the few passionate loves in his life. When asked about his three favorite things, he always said “science, movies and music,” but only because saying “food” would have made him feel like fatso. Throwing some stupid job into the mix, not much better than indentured servitude, was going to suck.
There was no section titled Genius Scientists. Soon enough, though, a posting under the Professional heading caught his eye:
Letters were slow. Too slow. He needed to get paid soon. So Jim paid doctor Johanson a visit.
F.A.C. set the lab up in a warehouse on Elston, between Webster and Fullerton, where it was close enough to everything, but still managed to look rather inconspicuous next to other warehouses, most of them under construction and in the process of being promoted to condo status in this rapidly gentrifying part of town.
By the time the project was six months old, the team had settled into a routine. Dick always arrived first, shortly before eight, and parked his Porsche 928 in his spot. Red, with a leather interior, a booming stereo, and enough buttons and switches to make it appear part of his lab rather than a mere mode of conveyance, the car would have made the Baltimore Dick Johanson squirm. Kim talked him into it, though, and her arguments seemed to make sense at the time, even if Dick could no longer remember what it was exactly that she said.
His three people arrived between eight and nine. Jim always came in last. He was uncannily talented at it. Even if someone else was running late, and without the benefit of foreknowledge, the young mister Norris found a way to be proportionately delayed.
When Jena, the bioinformatics assistant, had forgotten to feed her cat and ended up being an hour late, Jim slept in and slunk in a few minutes after her. When Akilesh, the molecular biologist, caught a flat tire that cost him two hours, Jim managed to get shot and came in a little after noon, still bleeding from the graze in his arm and insisting through pale lips it was nothing to worry about.
Dick might have been annoyed and concerned if not for Jim’s work when he did finally get to it. The kid constituted much of the reason why even doctor Johanson was surprised at the speed of their progress. Jim literally did not know how smart he was, and Dick resolved not to clue him in for as long as possible. The part-time gig morphed into a full-time obsession for Jim within just a few weeks. If he was always last to come in, he also never left until Dick told him he had to go. As the captain of the operation, Dick reserved the right to be the man who turned out the lights each evening. In truth, he also did not want anyone in the building if he couldn’t be present and suspected he suffered from a bit of paranoia. Doctor Johanson considered his paranoia honestly earned.
“Doc,” Jim addressed Dick just like everyone else in the lab did. “Do you mind if I come in over the weekend?”
It was closing time on a Friday in late September. The dark had already fallen over Elston Avenue, and Jena and Akilesh were likely drinking something somewhere with their respective groups of friends, probably somewhere cool like Sheffield or Diversey. Dick didn’t care and never asked them what they did after work.
“You’ve had a full week. Don’t you want to catch up on your dissertation?” the older man asked, realizing he was stalling.
“Dissertation,” Jim cursed in the same way a long-haul driver might say Duluth. “Well…I’ve got another four years to finish the damn thing. We’re onto something here, doc. I feel like…we’re just a few months away. It literally keeps me up at night.”
This passion won Jim the job in the first place.
Short of admitting to his inability to trust anyone with anything of any import, as much as he cast around for something, anything, Dick found he could come up with no good reason to refuse the request.
“Wait here,” he said, ducked back in and retrieved a key fob with full access from a drawer in his office he always kept locked. Once back, Dick saw Jim had waited obediently and handed over the precious token.
“Take good care of it. And do me a favor — just keep this whole thing to yourself, alright?”
A curious mix of feelings arose in Dick — on the one hand, what he would call his rational mind screamed at him for being a fool and warning him of an impending doom. Treason! Disaster! On the other, he just got an extra full day a week of free overtime from the one person in the lab, aside from himself, who seemed to know what the hell he was doing. Dick stopped staring at Jim’s fist still clutching the key, turned around and left without another word. He didn’t see the beatific smile that slowly came to a bloom on the younger man’s face.
Saturdays in the lab became Jim’s refuge. He enjoyed the autumn of 1991 — he even went out on a few dates and got laid once. Soon, he began to come in on Sundays. His routine was disturbed on December 22st. Out of the blue, Dick decided to throw a company Christmas party complete with a tree and secret Santa. Jim drew Jena.
Hannukah started early that year, he had already been through a bout of festivities and beyond ready to be done for another year when the dreaded Sunday arrived. Having walked in last, as tradition dictated, Jim stopped and studied the small breakout area which served as a lunch and conference room.
Silence reigned. Jena stood next to a chair with a queen’s straight back. Her posture may have had something to do with the long, green, shimmering dress which teased the majestic contents clinging to her strong if slender frame. A sparkly pentagram adorned the bodice.
Akilesh sat in his chair and, judging by his outfit, had recently gone shopping at Devon Avenue’s Indian boutiques. His long coat sparkled red with golden accents, or golden with red accents, it was a bit hard to tell. Jim found himself distracted by something on Akilesh’s forehead — three horizontal lines seemingly drawn with a light-gray marker.
Dick sat in his chair, partly obstructed by a two-foot plastic Christmas tree resting uncomfortably in a stand in the middle of the table.
“I got you a dreidel,” Jim said, fumbled around in his bag, and extended the unwrapped toy in an open hand toward Jena.
A giggle came from behind the Christmas tree.
“Wait, so you’re Jewish?” Dick asked, having drawn a breath.
“Since birth,” Jim answered. “Comes down the female line.”
“Prove it,” Jena said with a wink at his midsection while turning the wooden dreidel around in her hands, and seemed to unfreeze.
Jim furled his brow and made a threatening gesture toward his zipper.
“Stop right there,” Akilesh ordered, but seemed to relax as well.
“It appears I made a mistake,” doctor Johanson said from behind the tree.
“Yeah. Kind of a dick move to make this mandatory. And on a Sunday. You could have asked if we even cared.” Jena’s anger seemed to be gaining momentum again.
“I am sorry,” Dick said, and it was the first time the group heard him apologize for anything. “I am.” He rose and lifted his arms. “How about we take the train to the Green Mill, and I buy everyone some martinis?”
Jim was a Green Mill Lounge regular, and always on Sunday nights. He was a poetry slam addict. Jim had never written a poem himself, but enjoyed watching the girls in the competition perform theirs more than he enjoyed French porn. Their passion, their authenticity, the bulging veins in their necks, as they chanted and screamed about their boyfriends, cats and periods, really turned Jim on. He came for the slammers and the bartender Dave’s martinis. And the old Chicago atmosphere.
The scientists made themselves comfortable at a table within an easy distance from the stage and placed the orders for their chosen libations. Jim, Dick, and Akilesh got vodka martinis. Jena opted for a shot of Malört, neat…and a vodka martini.
“Here, I got you this bracelet,” Jena said, leaning closer to Jim. “It has protective powers.”
Jim smiled what he knew was a poor attempt at gratitude.
A bit of fire sparked in Jena’s eyes. “You don’t have to believe what I believe. Just take it. It’s pretty!…I took your stupid dreidel, didn’t I?”
His rabbi wouldn’t have approved of young Jim Norris walking around with pagan amulets on his wrist. Fuck him, Jim thought, and, click, fastened the bracelet.
Jena was right, it was an attractive piece of jewelry in an understated, natural way: a sap-dripping, green campground to the Drake hotel — there were many ways to be pretty. Symbols he did not understand had been engraved into the steel-link band. Two thin leather cords, intertwined with the openings in the band, held a flat, round ring of metal containing the same symbol Jena displayed on the front of her dress.
“It is beautiful, and I do appreciate it,” Jim said. Jena sniffed but seemed mollified.
Not wanting the conversation to end, but not sure what to say next, he took a sip of his drink and changed the topic.
“Have I told you about my hobby?”
“No, you have a hobby? Don’t you spend your whole life at work anyway?” Jena asked with a wry but not unkind smirk.
“I don’t. I mean, I do, I have a hobby,” Jim said, alarmed, and looked over to where Akilesh and Doc Johanson were engaged in a lively conversation of their own. He hadn’t told anyone about working on weekends, but, somehow, Jena knew. Johanson would be certain Jim had blabbed.
“I’m really into all things music,” Jim continued, “and a bit of a hardware geek, too.”
“No way, really? I would never have guessed,” Jena teased with a smile which made the corners of her eyes pop off her face.
“Right,” Jim sighed, “I guess I have a bit of a reputation.” He returned the smile. “Anyway, so there is this thing you can do with lasers to rewrite regular CDs. I’ve been working on it for a bit. Just got the first one to actually work last week.”
“No way, really?” Jena repeated, now impressed, despite her best efforts. Her eyes narrowed.
Jim nodded, dripping with excitement. “It’s so cool. In my regular CD player, the disc still plays the original Nick Cave album. When I put it in the one I built, I can listen to the Dead Kennedys.”
“I like your taste in music,” Jena said, “but don’t they already make recordable CDs?”
“Right, but the players are the size of washing machines and go for twenty thousand bucks. I think I can make one of mine for about a hundred dollars. Just need to figure out a few more details.”
“That’s incredible, Jim! I might just be sitting next to a future millionaire.” Jena clinked Jim’s glass with hers. “I hope you make it happen. Here’s to Jim’s magic CD player!” She lifted her martini and drained the last of it.
Jim didn’t have to be asked twice. Dick and Akilesh joined in, even if they had no idea what all the toasting was about.
“Another round, please,” Dick raised his hand, and the bartender nodded, after which Akilesh and Dick went back to their discussion of what sounded like the relative merits of monotheism and polytheism.
“Do you want to come over sometime, and see my CD collection,” Jim asked, turning back to Jena, his ears reddening immediately as they were wont to do in these kinds of circumstances.
“Ah, Jim, that would be great. But, just so you understand…I am a lesbian. You are a really nice guy. I’m just on the wrong team.” She smiled to soften the blow.
“You’re not lying, right,” Jim asked, “just to make me feel better about getting rejected?”
“No,” she suddenly seemed angry for some reason. “I just came out. Hell, to someone from work I don’t even know well. And all you can think of is your fucking fragile ego? Asshole. Fuck you.”
She turned away and began to stare at the stage, where just at that moment the master of ceremonies, Slam Papi, appeared. He wore a leather vest over a once-white cotton shirt. His long, dark hair hung curtailed in a ponytail, and his forehead rose high, as if the hair had yet to make up its mind whether it was happy where it currently resided or would resume receding.
He snarled, and the Sunday night poetry slam began. No off-topic talk allowed.
Two hours later, Jim caught Jena’s sleeve as they filed out with some of the other patrons, even if many of the regulars would stay until four a.m. “Please, wait,” he pleaded.
She paused and did her best to look him in the eye, seeing as she was at least a couple inches taller, but still said nothing.
“I’m sorry,” Jim continued. “I really am. That was selfish and insensitive.”
She stood silently.
“I am glad that you confided in me. I appreciate that very much. And I appreciate the bracelet. It’s way better than my dreidel.”
“Alright,” Jena said, as she pursed her lips and exhaled audibly. “Maybe you’re not a total ass.”
After that hopeful statement, the Wicca witch walked off toward the L.
Jim considered his options, turned around and took a seat at the bar. He brought a headache to work the following morning.
At lunch, Jena passed him a note and explained, “This is the number to my friend Jane. Give her a ring. She knows you might be calling. She loves music, too.”
“Thank you,” Jim said, with a note of a question.
“Good luck,” Jena said and gave him a toothy smile.
Copyright © 2016 Karol Lagodzki