Jesse Fizzles Get Free Blog by liaoqinmei


									           Jesse Fizzles

          by Ralph Levy

           Houdé Press

Kansas City • Rangoon • Tegucigalpa

       When Jesse Arbothnot was younger, he dreaded the sight of the mailman. For

every racy magazine, there were a couple of bills or tax forms or invitations to join

AARP, even though he was still in his thirties. Was that the way the world told him that

he was a priority ager? That he would look like a grandfather before he turned forty?

       And if there was one thing he wouldn’t have expected it was that he would be

alone again when he turned forty. Jocelyn was gone, and so were the kids. She had made

sure that Fifi and James would hate him and never want to see him again. She had told

them things about him, mostly untrue.

       Fifi was thirteen the last time he saw her, and James was eleven. Those were

times when it was easy to believe terrible things about their father. Affairs? Maybe.

Inattentive? Sure. Distant? You bet. Gambler? Alcoholic? Abusive? Thief? Player? User?

Philanderer? Cheater? Lazy? Stupid? Unappreciative? All of them. And on top of it he

wanted Jocelyn to live on a third of what she was entitled to.

       She was as responsible as he was for that BSEE diploma that he was so very

proud of. Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering. University of Missouri,

Columbia. In the late 1960s that was a good piece of paper to own. Without her, he would

have stayed with the rest of his family in Hicklesville, another Ozark hillbilly whose

career path took him from the Texaco station to Sinclair to Cousin Jed’s. She was the one

whose cousin, Eli, was an engineer. It was at a family dinner that Eli had mentioned to

Jesse that he could become an engineer. The math wasn’t anywhere near as bad as

everyone said.

       Eli had even called the admissions office to get the paperwork for Jesse. And then

he had helped him fill it out. They had a five-year program that would be perfect. He’d

have to take a couple of admissions tests. And he might have to take a couple of summer

catch–up courses, since Hicklesville High wasn’t much in the solid geometry and basic

calculus departments, since the woman who taught math was a poet by nature, an

educator by training, and a slut by habit.

       But, with Eli’s help, Jesse had made it into the engineering program, because he

agreed to go into electrical engineering, rather than civil or mechanical, which was where

most students wanted to specialize. He wasn’t at the top of his class, maybe a little closer

to the bottom, but he wasn’t the school dunce. That would have been Charles the Idiot.

His name was Charles and he was an idiot. He was a basketball scholarship, but his

parents had persuaded him not to major in Sports Theory, Sports Administration, Theory

of Athletics (which was different from Sports Theory in that it did not concentrate as

much on team sports as on the entire universe of muscle activity), Team Dynamics, Body

Mechanics, or Competitive Sports Theory. Instead, Charles the Idiot’s parents wanted

him to have a career that would matter after his body no longer worked the way it was

supposed to. He might not really have been an idiot, but he didn’t have much of a knack

for talking to his classmates. All he could really talk about was Bengay in a jock strap or

how the cheerleaders were never as much fun as their girlfriends who didn’t make the

squad. Just a fact. He could have a cheerleader whenever he wanted, and he had had most

of them, but they didn’t do whatever he wanted them to, not like their friends who hadn’t

made the squad.

        Charles the Idiot wasn’t really an idiot. Just something people called him because

he was a jock and had a vocal intonation that made him sound like a country boy even to

the country boys. He was all right with being Charles the Idiot. He’d call classmates on

the phone and say, “This is Charles…Charles the Idiot.” They took the time to give him a

nickname, so he couldn’t help but be flattered.

        Charles the Idiot, had he been in any of those classes that athletes were expected

to take, he would have been the star student. In engineering, though, he was competing

with students who…who knew a lot more than he did. But he would get it. He would

figure it out.

        Especially after the accident. Broke his back and damaged his spinal cord. Bad

tackle in a scrimmage. He was out of football forever. The rumor was that he was

paralyzed, but it was starting to look like the cord wasn’t severed, so there was hope. His

parents flew in from Montana. The coaches all visited him in the hospital, and the whole

team showed up once with a banner that said “Keep it low” and a photographer from The

Maneater, the student newspaper. The whole team had their picture taken huddling

around their comrade. The “Keep it low” referred to the improper stance that had

contributed to his injury. And there were plenty of girls around, some who had spent

some real good time with him before he got hurt. And there was a trio of cheerleaders in

the nursing program who were getting practicum credits for spending time with him.

        Besides those artful visits, the only people that came around to see Charles the

Idiot were his classmates from the engineering school. They brought him lecture notes,

talked him through assignments. Those who had named him Charles the Idiot were, it

turned out, the only ones who really seemed to care about him. He would never forget


        Jesse sweated through his classes, especially the math. He was all right until he

got to Analytical Geometry, or, as the course catalog called it, Anal Geom. He

understood what the center of mass meant, so he was able to figure out how to calculate

the center of mass. But when they spoke of “moment” he just couldn’t grasp it. Others in

his class had the same problem, so they sat down and decided that they would memorize

enough to get them past the next exam. If their future careers demanded that they

understand what a moment was, well, that would be the time to really learn. That was the

way knowledge was. One thing that Jesse did understand was that there wouldn’t be

much call for calculating moments in electrical engineering.

        He really wanted to keep things going with Jocelyn. They had planned on getting

married soon after high school, but, now that he was a college boy, they were going to

wait until he got his degree.

        She asked for a lot of reassurance. Were all the college girls prettier and smarter

than she was? College girls? In engineering? Was she kidding?

        But there were plenty of girls around who weren’t in engineering. Did he like any

of them? He was too busy studying to even look at them.

        It was sixty miles from Columbia to Hicklesville. That wasn’t the real name of the

town, just what it was. The real name was Cobbler and it was smack in the middle of the

Ozarks, the part of the hill country that didn’t get rich with Branson, with the Lake of the

Ozarks, the School of the Ozarks, the outlet malls, and Tan-Tar-a resort. Jocelyn was

working at a restaurant, but she wasn’t a waitress. They had her in the back room, doing

bookkeeping and her boss was talking about promoting her to accountant, although her

responsibilities would still be the same, but it was something that would serve her well if

she hoped to have a future career.

       Jesse drove back home on weekends. Jocelyn had a car too, but, she didn’t drive

to see him. She had to work a lot of weekends. Besides, he didn’t want her to be around

his school. There were just too many things that could go wrong. His classmates could

make rude comments, since they were awkward and Jocelyn had gigantic boobs. Huge.

Enormous. They could not be ignored. The pope himself would have commented. A

sophisticated Ivy League professor of Asian Poetry would have lost his cool. So, to

expect a bunch of engineering students to maintain their composure would have been

optimistic. Later, between the two kids, she had surgery to make them a little less

prominent. But for now, they were right there.

       And, if he allowed her to visit him at school, she would see that, although there

weren’t a lot of beautiful girls in the engineering program, there were plenty on the rest

of the campus. She would ask him about each of them. He had enough to think about

without pre–figuring the responses to her jealous coyness.

       So in the end she took credit for his being an engineer. If she had slept with a few

of the professors so that he would give him decent grades, maybe. But she hadn’t done

that. He got through with Cs the whole way. Maybe a B in Materials, but that was a gut

course. Most of his classmates got As in it.

        Jocelyn’s contribution to his career? She had a cousin. That must have really

knocked the wind out of her.

        She was awfully proud of him when he graduated. A college man was her

husband. They had wed between his last final and the graduation ceremony. That was

when he knew for sure that he had passed and would be entitled to call himself an

engineer. And not a choo-choo engineer, but one who would, if he chose, be eligible to

take the Professional Engineer’s exam, which would increase his salary by twenty

percent and give him a lot of options, including the right to bid on government contracts.

He would be a real Professional Engineer, who could work in any area of engineering,

sign off on major projects, have his work insured by real insurance companies, fight off

the legendary engineering groupies. All of it.

        That was what Jocelyn wanted him to do, He had to explain it to her. Burns &

McDonnell hadn’t recruited him. Nor had Black and Veatch. Nor had any other big

engineering firm. He was in the lower middle part of his class. He might be able to find

some kind of a job with a construction company that needed some help with laying out

the wiring in their new high-rise. Or maybe a circuit-breaker-panel manufacturer would

be looking for a designer. He could do that. But until he had some kind of an income so

he could support them, he was not going to be spending his time studying for the P.E.


        Why did he marry her? Why? Her chest? Was that really it? She had said a few

things that made him laugh, yeah. But he was married to this woman. What was wrong

with him?

        And they had two kids. They were all right, but they were hers a lot more than his.

He did the best he could as far as playing with them. He even learned how to change

them, which he did plenty of times. But she was the one who was the most attached, the

one who showed them off to friends and family, who bragged about how early they

reached each of those little milestones. The best he could do was nod in mock

appreciation of Phyliss’s—oops, Fifi’s having turned her head towards a sound at only

five weeks of age. Very advanced.

        Man, oh man. He was starting to lose his hair at twenty–three.

        G.E. was offering him a job in sales. It would mean moving up to Kansas City,

which he wouldn’t mind. He would send for Jocelyn as…. No way. If he was taking a job

in Kansas City, she was going along. Did he think she was completely crazy? Did he

think it was fair to leave her behind? There was only one child then, but Jocelyn was still

learning about all of this, and she couldn’t do it all by herself. Wasn’t it a little bit crazy

to be paying two rents until he decided if he was good enough for this particular job?

        No, that wasn’t it. But what if it didn’t work out? What if he didn’t make it past

the probationary period, and they had moved the whole family up there, signed a lease,

and he was without a job.

        He had a friend up there he could stay with for a couple of months to make sure it

was going to be a match. Didn’t that make sense? Hell, he didn’t like the idea of sharing a

tiny apartment with one of his classmates, but they would both have to make some

sacrifices if they ever expected to support themselves.

        Okay, but he had better not blame her if…

        1. Fifi got sick

       2. She and Fifi ended up in a shelter

       3. She had an affair

       4. He had an affair

       5. She had more than one affair.

       6. He ended up defaulting on his student loans

       7. She fell and broke a bone and nobody was there to help her

       8. Her family stopped being supportive of him

       9. And…and…well, there was plenty more, and he better not blame him for any

           of it.

       Okay, that was all right with him. He was doing the best he could. Paul, who had

been in his class, had offered to let him stay on the couch of his little place, a one–

bedroom apartment on the Kansas side of the state line.

       He took the job with G.E. They would be calling him a Sales Engineer. He spent

his first week looking through sixty-eight shelf–feet of catalogs. Three of those feet were

light bulbs. Not lighting fixtures, not chandeliers, not light switches, not ballasts. Light

bulbs. Well, technically, some were fluorescent tubes or other variations of light

appliances, but they were all lights. No, of course nobody would expect him to memorize

those catalogs. All they asked was that he would know where to look for customers’


       The customers could be manufacturers, builders, electricians, city planners, just

about anyone. If they had a question about which product would be best for their

application, it was his job to answer it. What size of a breaker panel would be necessary

to service a factory? What were the ventilation requirements for a 300–watt floodlight?

How much backup generator capacity should a hog operation have?

       And, when he got back to the apartment, there were more questions. First from

Paul. How’s it going at G.E.? Does it look like it’s going to work out for him there? Has

he thought about finding a place of his own yet? Does he know what happened to the

Count Chocula? It was almost full just a couple of days ago. Would he mind maybe being

a little bit scarce this Friday? Lisa’s going to be in town and…

       And then the phone would ring and Paul would hand it to him, since Jesse wasn’t

supposed to pick up if Paul was around. And it was Jocelyn, who called almost every

night. And she would tell him how much she missed him, how much Fifi missed him.

Yes, really. And then she would ask when he was coming back to Hicklesville. Yes, she

got the money he sent. But it would help if he could send a little bit more. What was his

place like? It wasn’t a pig sty, was it? Did he want her to bring Fifi up to see her daddy?

Was he doing all right on his job? Did he miss her? Really? What did he miss about her?

Was that all? Wasn’t he at all curious about what she was doing? Well then, why wasn’t

he asking her any questions? That wasn’t a question; that was an accusation. Questions

about her. Why wasn’t he asking questions about her? Wasn’t he even a little bit jealous?



       Funny how all of that, Jocelyn, Fifi, and especially James, who was born while he

was working for G,E, were so vague. It was as though they were playground memories

from his childhood. Yes, he knew they existed. For a long time he sent money to Jocelyn

to take care of them. That was when he had money to send.

       The G.E. thing didn’t work out. He lasted there for a year and a half. The money

wasn’t bad. But… He wasn’t a salesman, never would be, even if they did call it sales

engineering. If that was what he was cut out to do, he would have majored in business.

He was starting to lose his hair and was self–conscious about that. Nobody mentioned it,

but it bothered him. He tried to be cheerful, tried to be helpful. His supervisor, who had

himself started as a sales engineer, told him he was doing good.

       He told him not to worry about the sales. His main job was to build the trust and

the good will of his customers. If he could answer their questions professionally, then

they would come to him when they needed something. The customers were saying nice

things about him. He really had a future with G.E.

          Then the company’s finances started to get a little bit shaky. They had bought out

a couple of small companies, one that made consumer–level switches and one that did

research and development in nuclear power. Neither was meeting expectations.

          But, they assured him, he was doing what he was supposed to be doing. And then

the rumors started about cutbacks. Some might be able to relocate to offices in Ohio or

Western Colorado. Some might have jobs at the home office in Schenectady. Right now

they weren’t talking about layoffs.

          Then they started talking about layoffs. Oh yes, Jesse, you’re doing a fantastic

job. A lot of people have mentioned how dedicated, how thorough, and how professional

you are. You don’t have to worry about anything.

          And then they started dropping hints that maybe he should start worrying. And

then Paul, who was sharing his apartment with Jesse, started saying that he really wished

he had his privacy. And he hadn’t cleared having a roommate with the landlord.

          And even though it didn’t make sense, the head office was talking about reducing

the sales force. And Paul was starting to have a short fuse, complaining about things like

the cereal level in the box being lower than he left it. It said right on the box to expect

some settling of the contents, but Paul would rather blame Jesse for having stolen the


          He tried his best at work. He tried his best at home. He tried his best over the

phone when Jocelyn made her calls, now every Saturday evening instead of every night.

And then she moved the calls to Sunday because, all too often, she had things to do on

Saturday. And then she missed a few Sundays, because she was recovering from her

surgery. It was major surgery, after all, and he had not even been there for her. Her

mother shouldn’t have to still be taking care of her after she was married.

       And they told him that it looked like maybe, just maybe, nothing definite, they

would find a new spot for him in manufacturing. Maybe in process engineering. He might

have to apply for that position. Maybe interview. But he was very valuable to G.E. and

they really wanted to keep him. Would he be willing to relocate to Schenectady? If it

came to that? It probably wouldn’t, but…he was very valuable.

       But there was just one thing he might want to work on. It had to do with his

familiarity with the capacitor line. And later…he didn’t seem to be making progress in

that one little area, and it was, unfortunately, becoming a performance issue. And it was

starting to affect not only other areas of his own position, but others in the group as well.

And he was starting to let his appearance slip a little bit. And the telephone was strictly

for business use. And were all of those bathroom breaks really necessary? And

maybe…maybe sales just wasn’t what he was cut out for. It would be great if there were

another position available at G.E., but, unfortunately, it just wasn’t going to work out that

way. No, not even in Schenectady.

       Jesse didn’t argue.

       He had never been very outgoing.

       It turned out that they got rid of a lot of sales engineers and replaced them with

sales associates. Most of the sales associates had majored in English or Psychology or

Sociology or some other field that could be had for lower salaries than those who

majored in engineering. And after three months they promoted those sales associates to

sales engineers.

       Jocelyn had insisted that Jesse sign the papers to finance her surgery. The doctor

wouldn’t do it while she was pregnant or while she was nursing, so it had to wait until

James was weaned.

       He didn’t tell her that he had lost his job. He had a reference from G.E., which

helped him get a job with the city of Kansas City. There was a lot of building going on

then. Kemper Arena, which had hosted the 1976 Republican convention was starting to

show some age. It was now getting routine post–construction inspections. And the hotels

that housed the people who visited Kemper Arena were due for reinspection too. And so

were the apartment buildings and bungalows and ranch styles where the workers in those

hotels and Kemper arena lived.

       All of those structures had to abide by the vast array of city codes, and the city

needed extra inspectors to assure compliance. That would be Jesse’s job, to inspect the

buildings. His part of the process was the electrical components. In school, they had

briefly touched on building codes, but he would have to do some studying. Even in the

short time since he had graduated things had changed. Thermostats that once had been

low–voltage mechanical affairs were now even lower voltage electronic devices.

       Lighting designs had changed from incandescent to fluorescent, back to

incandescent, and now they were starting to use diodes to create light. Each style had its

own requirements, since both the electricity used and the heat emitted varied with the

type of device.

       And did they tell him that he would have to establish residence within the city

limits? That was all right. His time with Paul was running out. Jesse really didn’t know

what he had done to offend Paul, but it must have been something. He was throwing

temper tantrums just about every day, and it didn’t take a genius to know that he really

wanted his place to himself.

       So he had to let Jocelyn know that he had taken a new job. She accused him of

having messed up his chances with G.E. What had he done to get himself fired? He

wasn’t fired. He just got this better job with the city. Jocelyn acted like she didn’t believe

him. This wasn’t going the way he had hoped his marriage would go.

       During this conversation she moaned a few times, since the sutures from her

surgery were pulling. And she accused him of not caring. He hadn’t even seen her since

she had this important procedure. Did she want him to come down and see her? She sure

didn’t want to inconvenience him. Okay, he would come down the following weekend.

He was in the middle of moving, but it was all right. He’d manage.

       And he was renting, even though he could have bought a place. But if he owned

his own home, that would be just one more piece of property for a judge to decide on.

She would end up with that too, because, even though she didn’t have the bosoms she

once did, she carried herself like someone who did. The judge would like that about her.

And if the judge was a woman, it would be even worse. A woman judge would jabber on

about how he owed her a whole lot more than just a house. He owed her his career, his

family. Family? He didn’t even have a say in naming the boy. She informed him that she

was naming the boy James after her Uncle James. And after a guy she had dated in high

school whose name she had mentioned in passing a couple of times.

       He rented a small house that sat on a bare terrace in the northeast part of town. It

sat in a residential area between Independence Avenue and the Missouri River. A bad

part of town. Independence Avenue was where the prostitutes strutted, the thieves sold

their stuff, the dealers did their deals, the merchants sold their cheap goods, the restaurant

menus consisted of grease, cheap meat, frozen potatoes, and ptomaine, and regular people

stayed nervous most of the time.

       The neighborhood where Jesse rented his house was these days about three-

quarters Vietnamese or Laotian. He didn’t have a problem with that, since most of them

stayed pretty quiet and, except for some of the cooking smells, didn’t bother him too

much. And there was a lady next door who seemed to want to take care of him.

       He couldn’t wait for Jocelyn to see his new home. She would tell him that he was

sick for living in a place like this. Sick. And there was no way she was going to allow her

children to visit him here. What the hell was he thinking? And he could have at least

made some effort to make it a little bit nicer. Like maybe reseeding the lawn or getting

rid of some of the stains on the carpet or even just painting the walls, for crying out loud.

       Just a minute. Her children? Weren’t they maybe his children too?

       She would be perfectly happy to let a judge decide that. And, yes, they were his

children, so he had better be prepared to support them the way an engineer should be

supporting his children. She was not going to allow them to live on peanut butter and

jelly and to dress in hand–me–downs. They deserved better than that.

       He maybe got the point. She could drop it. A divorce was fine with him.

       Oh, she was sure he was perfectly happy being a single man again. Did he have a

new girlfriend already? Well, she could have any guy she wanted. Yes, even with the

children. There were plenty of guys who weren’t quite as uncouth as he was.

       It had built up for a while. So he said it. Yes, he know how irresistible her charms

are. Who could say no? True, her chest wasn’t what it once was. After her surgery she

looked like she had a couple of junior dodge balls strapped to her chest. Except that

dodge balls bounced. Probably the look she had hoped for. Maybe they had some more

healing to do. And there were probably guys who would like the way she looked. To him,

though, they looked…rubbery. He didn’t know how they felt, since she hadn’t let him

touch them.

       And she would tell him that he would be surprised at the offers she’d had. She

just couldn’t do this any more. She had prepared a list of items for him to consider. He

would be responsible for the support of his two children. He would have to make sure

that she survived. He would have to name the children as beneficiaries on his life


       Could she prove that they were really his? In a few more years there would be

conclusive tests. Now though, the most the laboratories could do was to determine if a

child’s blood type was consistent with a supposed father. As for him, he couldn’t tell who

they looked like.

       There was something he would have to admit, though, and that was that Jocelyn

had her charms. He was kidding himself if he said that the only thing about her that

counted was her chest. He knew that wasn’t true. She had a lot more going for her than

that. She wasn’t stupid. Uneducated maybe, but not stupid. And she had a certain grace

about her, a smoothness in her gait, something maybe just short of poise. If it weren’t for

the grating harshness of her voice, she might have been a whole lot more than a mommy

in Hicklesville.

       But, to tell the truth, it made him feel better to think that she was a lowlife slut in

a printed housedress, drinking cheap beer, dangling a cigarette from her lip, getting her

latest guy’s name tattooed onto her backside, limiting her education to navigating the

food stamp system. That picture of her wasn’t hard to imagine.

       Marsha Coleman lived in the next house. She owned it. Her daughter lived there

too, but not for long, since she wasn’t quite right and was starting to become violent.

Before Marsha’s husband passed away from kidney failure he was able to control the girl,

but Marsha didn’t have the physical strength to control Heidi’s behavior.

       On one of her neighborly visits to Jesse’s place, Marsha told him to just forget

about his wife. That was the best thing he could do. Give her the divorce; don’t fight over

the conditions; get it all over with. Marsha had been through this with enough of her

friends to know what worked and what ended up making life even more miserable. He

had his work and he had his neighbors. Those things would help him get through it.

       She pointed her head over to her place. Yeah, the children too, although her own

experience with children was more of a challenge than a comfort.

       He nodded. She gave him a little hug.

       Well, he’d better get some rest. He had a long day coming up. And Marsha had to

get back to Heidi. She couldn’t leave her alone for too long. It was just a month ago that

she had to call the police, who took her daughter to the psychiatric ward for observation

and medication. Marsha couldn’t imagine her life without Heidi at home. Ever since

Gene passed away, Heidi had been her whole life. The desolation of her not living with

her was matched by the desperate failure of not being able to take care of her own


       Even Jocelyn, who Jesse constantly complained about, was able to take care of

her own children. And Jocelyn was, at least according to Jesse, a slut with dangling

cigarettes and prison tattoos on her rump. Marsha wept a lot when nobody was around.

There was some comfort in having Jesse live next door. It wasn’t anything remotely

romantic, since she was twenty years older than him, but, just, comforting. Maybe

because he was an engineer and would be able to fix the little things that went wrong in

her house. Maybe it was that he was an engineer, so he had been to college and could

carry on an intelligent, if awkward, conversation. Maybe it was that he was an engineer,

and once he established his career he would be able to take care of his friends. Maybe it

was that he was a man who was willing to speak to her.

       She noticed when his lights went out at night.


       There were a bunch of Arbothnots in Hicklesville. They were all related to the

McClures, going back to the wedding of Diana Arbothnot to Jesse McClure five

generations ago. There had been dozens of Dianas and Jesses since then. A few had

escaped southern Missouri. Those who stayed became auctioneers or mechanics,

cattlemen or dishwashers, secretaries or waitresses. A few tried to start their own

businesses. They married those in the area whose bloodlines were separate from their

own. At least for a few generations, after which there weren’t a lot of choices. So every

once in a while a McClure would marry an Arbothnot or, if they had changed the spelling

of their name to McCluer, another of their own line.

       That was one thing Jesse could be proud of. Jocelyn had not been an Arbothnot;

she had not been a McClure. Not by any spelling. She had been a Covey and her lines did

not come from anywhere near Missouri. Her father had come to Hicklesville from West

Virginia, where his mining experience got him a job in the dwindling lead mines.

       Just thinking about the seediness of his hometown made Jesse want to take a

shower. He had to settle for baths, since the showerhead was clogged and its threads were

too corroded to remove. Maybe some of that Liquid Wrench—they called it Panther Piss

back home—would free it up. In the meantime, though, he could just relax in the tub.

       He was doing all right on the job. Most of the building code was just common

sense, and he was all right in that department. He actually enjoyed reading through the

regulations, since they confirmed his sense of how things should be. There should be a

separation between electrical supplies and water supplies. A break in a pipe should not

cause a mass electrocution. Any outlet near a sink should include a ground fault circuit

interrupter. Logical.

       He actually enjoyed his job.

       Even the on–site inspections. He didn’t pretend to be an enforcer, a code cop. He

was just there to help, to make the new construction or the remodel or the existing

structure safer and to make it work better for everyone. And he would accept a cup of

coffee as he walked around, sometimes even a donut. He would have the contractors sign

the sheet, just a formality, nothing to worry about. He’d check back over the phone, no

need to take any more time. He trusted them.

       Being a nice guy counted for something.

       Jocelyn had faded away. For a few months he sent her a check for the kids, but

then he just had them take it out of his pay and send it directly. That way he didn’t have

to address that envelope, put a stamp on it, and carry it to a mail pickup point. The kids

were complete strangers. He doubted he would even recognize them any more. He didn’t

ask Jocelyn to let them visit him. He didn’t ask her to send photos. His desk didn’t have

any pictures on it, just a calendar and a writing pad.

       His car was acting up. He needed money. The public service commission just

approved another rate increase for natural gas. And for electricity. Wasn’t the nuclear

plant they approved for Callaway County a few years ago supposed to be providing cheap

electricity? What happened to that? He had applied for a job there, but they were much

more interested in engineers with nuclear backgrounds than electrical.

       They kept telling him he was doing a good job. He had a future with the city of

Kansas City. They had told him the same thing at G.E., and things hadn’t turned out that


       He was a good inspector. He was getting to know the code, and not just the

electrical code. He learned as much as he could about the plumbing regulations, the fire

safety requirements, all of it. As far as he was concerned, it was all part of the same thing.

They were all mixed together. And they were all mixed with the structural elements of a

building. He had studied all of it in school.

       A lot of the inspectors weren’t even engineers. They had come from the

construction trades, or they had been contractors. Most of them were every bit as

competent as he was, but they didn’t have the theoretical background that he did, and

they didn’t have the academic credentials. The academic part came into play when there

was any kind of a hearing where expert testimony was necessary. He was the one they

called. He could speak convincingly when a builder complained about some sort of

citation he had received.

       On the other hand, the fact that he was an engineer made him vulnerable to cost

cutters on the city council. Why were they paying an engineer to be a building inspector?

They had an entire engineering staff. Why would they hire someone who was so clearly

overqualified to walk through construction sites?

       This man, Jesse Arbothnot, had been with the city for almost a year now. He had

proved invaluable to the city in assuring the safety of the public. Yes, he was an engineer

by training and he had made enormous contributions to the department…

       If he was making such enormous contributions, why weren’t they paying him

what a graduate engineer should be making? He had bought a study guide for Missouri’s

Professional Engineering exam. A lot of math. A lot of material science. A lot of physics.

A little chemistry. Some of it was familiar. He had slept through some of the classes, so

he didn’t quite remember some things. He could take the test in spring, but he wouldn’t

be ready then. He’d wait until fall. That would give him time. It cost a couple hundred

dollars to take it, money that he couldn’t really afford, since there was no telling when

Jocelyn would be coming back for more. But he would do it.

       He had to do something. He felt something was happening with his job. He didn’t

know what it was, but…well…something. His boss told him in private that he was going

to be getting the Prime Mover award, the department’s highest honor.

       Most recipients of the award had recently been diagnosed with terminal cancer.

       He was pretty sure he didn’t have cancer, and, if he did, he would know about it

before the supervisors in the codes department did. The only reason his supervisor shared

what was supposed to be a surprise was that Jesse sometimes missed important events,

but he had better be there for this one or everyone would be disappointed, including Jesse

himself. Was that a hint that there was something lacking in his performance? That he

was somehow too unreliable to be expected to show up to be acknowledged as a Prime

Mover. And, besides, he remembered something about Prime Mover being another word

for God. If that was true, then the induction ceremony should certainly be something

more than a deli luncheon.

       It was getting harder for him to look in the mirror. It would be a stretch nowadays

to say he was balding. He was bald, except for a thin fringe around the periphery. And his

skin was pasty. Jocelyn probably still looked pretty good, which was fine with him. That

was what she had, her looks, so she was entitled to devote herself to preserving that asset.

Well, maybe that wasn’t all she had, she had the personality that went with it, but they

were a set. If she lost her looks, the personality quirks would seem odd, maybe even a

little creepy. And if a conk on the head changed her personality, she would no longer be

able to carry herself in a manner commensurate with her beauty.

       Looks were not what carried Jesse. Jocelyn let him know that all the time they

were dating, all the time they were married, and doubly since they separated. He was

Quasimodo with radiation poisoning. He was the Elephant Man, but without the charm.

No, what she liked about him was that he might be able to take care of her. She was blunt

about that. He had a brain, and that could mean security for her. Simple as that.

       So he was a bald man, almost forty years old. But he was also an engineer who

might be a Professional Engineer within a year. And Marsha next door appreciated him.

He sometimes got the feeling that she would have liked to have some kind of a

relationship with him, but, well, it couldn’t happen because she was so much older and

lived a life that he could never have endured. He admired her dedication to her daughter,

but he could never have done that, not that he could imagine at least. Maybe if it had

really happened to him, having a child like that with nobody around to help, he would

have figured it out.

       Jesse’s boss, Stuart, asked to meet with him. This was about a week after the

Prime Mover luncheon. He wanted to congratulate Jesse personally and formally. He held

out his hand for a firm shake.

       As he knew, of course, the mayor was asking everyone to look at their budgets,

and he was doing his part. This was just an idea and Stuart wanted Jesse’s opinion. What

if, instead of salaries, the department were to offer certain personnel the option of

working as independent contractors? That way, the people affected could actually see a

rise in their hourly pay and the department could save money at the same time. It would

be a win–win situation.

       As a Prime Mover he should have seen this coming, and, as a Prime Mover he felt

entitled to respond. His marriage had been a win–win situation, hadn’t it?

       Wait, there was more. He would no longer have taxes taken out of his checks,

making those checks larger. He would have every right to do things as he saw fit. He

would be an independent contractor, with the emphasis on the “independent.” As long as

he abided by the city codes, he was free to conduct his inspections when and how he

wished. No dress code, no staff meetings, no personnel manual.

       He would have until the middle of September to decide. The fiscal year began on

October 1 and they wanted to have the new system in place by then.

       What if he wasn’t interested? What if he wanted to stay on the way that he was


       Why would anybody want to do that? This was a win–win. Nobody had thought

of the possibility that he would just walk away from an opportunity. And, by the way, he

would not have to limit the contracting he did to just the city. He was welcome to take on

other jobs at the same time, as long as they didn’t conflict with his duties to the city.

Why, who knew, he eventually could hire a staff of engineers and become a man of

leisure. No pressure here, but it was an opportunity to help the city, help his friends in the

department, and help himself all at the same time. A win–win–win.

       So, he did it. He looked over the fee for service contract. He asked a friend of his

from school, who was living up north of the river, to look it over. That would have been

Charles the Idiot, who was now designing cooling towers for a company on the Kansas

Side. He had passed his P.E. exam the first time he tried. That didn’t make him a lawyer,

but it did mean that he was decently intelligent.

       Charles was a little bit concerned about a clause that specifically said that there

was no guarantee of how many hours per week he would be working. True, his

consulting fee would be sixty-dollars an hour, good money, but if he only worked two

hours a week, how would he be able to survive on that?

       Jesse told him that right now the time he was spending just on inspections was

more than twenty hours. That would mean $1,200 a week. If he didn’t do it, who would?

       Who would? How about the people who were willing to for $12 an hour? And,

just because they weren’t taking taxes out of his paycheck didn’t mean he didn’t owe

them. He would have to pay for his own health insurance. He would have to file taxes

every three months and pay them to the federal government, the state, and the city. And

nobody was going to pay him to do that.

         Yes, but nobody else knew the code like he did, and they weren’t engineers. He

was the only engineer they had on their staff. They needed someone who could do it all.

         So Charles had shrugged and told him it was his life. He could do what he wanted

to do.

         Nevertheless, Charles the Professional Engineer asked a few follow–up questions.

What if they didn’t call him? Then he wouldn’t have any income at all.

         Why would they do that? Was there anyone else who could do what he did? That

was the whole point of this, to assure that the city was still receiving his services while at

the same time giving him the freedom to live his life as he chose.

         The blink was coming back. He thought he had conquered that mannerism back in

high school, but here it was again. He would close his eyes, clenching the lids tightly,

sometimes for a full second. His lips would retreat from his teeth in a grimace. One time

somebody had suggested that he was having a seizure, but it wasn’t a seizure. It was just

a habit, something that he wasn’t all that aware of. He had controlled it for a quarter

century, but now it was back. The black comfort of oblivion for a tiny moment.

         Charles shrugged his shoulders. All he could say was that he sure wouldn’t take a

deal like that, but it wasn’t his life.

         Jesse lowered his chin until it nearly touched his chest. He didn’t have much of a

choice. They could always find a way to get rid of him if they wanted to. This way he

might at least have some kind of an income.

         Maybe he should be looking for another job. Black and Veach just got a fat new

contract. They might be hiring.

       Well…maybe…but, well he was starting to get stiff in his legs. He was limping.

Might be arthritis. It kind of ran in the family. And his back too. He didn’t know how

much longer he could do any of this.

       Charles accused him of just giving up. Jesse said he was going to go ahead and

take the deal. There was always work to do. And he would have the freedom to work his

own hours. And he could always renegotiate the contract. And if it turned out that they

were trying to screw him, then he could always get a job somewhere else. It wasn’t like

he was a European History major or something. He had real skills.

       So…he took the deal. Hands got shaken. Papers were signed. Shoulders were


       He told Marsha next door that he was now a free man. No more job. He was an

independent contractor. Marsha told him that he could apply for unemployment. No, he

wasn’t really unemployed. He was just contracting now.

       Didn’t matter. If he didn’t have an income and it wasn’t his doing, then he was

eligible. She knew about benefits. She had to. Her daughter was, well, she was eligible.

       This was all starting to sound just a little too much like Hicklesville. He hadn’t

seen Marsha that way. He thought she was a responsible grown–up, not one of those

whose job skills consisted of foraging through the system for every benefit that they

might possible be eligible for.

       No thank you. Why would they call him in on contract if he was milking them for

unemployment benefits.

       Was that a joke? They would much rather get something for their money than just

spend it. And they wouldn’t even try to defend his leaving as voluntary. Could they really

claim that they were giving him a completely free choice between staying on staff or

working on contract?

       Who needed lawyers when there were plenty of welfare cheats around who knew

the system just as well. And they did the work for the sheer pride of having helped a

fellow human being screw the government.

       So, Marsha Coleman became something of a guide for him. At Mizzou, the kids

in liberal arts seemed to have mystic guides to lead them through inner pathways, to show

them the imagined, to understand their understandingness. The kids were usually pretty

girls and the gurus were horny older guys. But they sure did get to understand their


       Marsha had him dress in cheap clothing. That was always the first step. Wear

printed shirts, faded plaids and not quite professional soft greens and blues. Then, she

showed him where the churches were giving out free meals.

       He questioned her. He wasn’t ready for the soup lines yet. He would soon be

getting calls to come in and do some inspections. They might call him to do some design

work. He called in to talk to the engineering department. Yes, they had him listed as a

qualified contractor, but they didn’t have any work for him right now. He might want to

check in every couple of weeks. Or, if he preferred, he could wait for them to call him.

They had his contact information.

       Now was he ready to listen to her? She wasn’t smug. She was trying to be

realistic. The city wasn’t going to call him, and he would be wise to be prepared for some

real poverty.

       The library was there for him. He would need to stake out a spot at the computers,

where he could establish his online presence. Get an email address and learn about the

opportunities in engineering. Prepare a resume and a cover letter. Best to go early in the

morning, before the school kids started to monopolize all the workstations.

       She set up an appointment for him at the city hospital. He might want to bring

some writing paper, because he would have to wait for several hours for an exam. That

was the first step in getting him further along in the process. If he wanted services from

the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation, or if he wanted to get Medicaid, or if he

wanted to establish eligibility for food stamps—if he wanted anything at all from the

state, he would have to show that he was disabled.

       But he wasn’t…

       And she assured him that:

       1. He limped

       2. He was clinically depressed

       3. He had several twitches, especially in his eyes

       4. He was overweight

       Just because he didn’t use a wheelchair didn’t mean he wasn’t disabled. Face it,

he would never get any benefits as a head–of–household, as a displaced homemaker, as a

veteran, or as a victim of domestic abuse. There was no program for an engineer who got

bamboozled out of a job by the city of Kansas City.

       They were sitting in Marsha’s kitchen. Her daughter wanted some attention. Heidi

wanted some cereal. She wanted some cereal now. Right now. Marsha sighed and told

her okay, honey. She patted Jesse on the knee as she arose. Heidi screamed and slapped

her mother’s hand. Marsha clicked her tongue.

       Heidi had come home for the day. It was a special treat that the home gave as a

reward for her good behavior. Before allowing the visit, the worker wanted assurance that

Marsha was up to the challenge. Just because her behavior had improved in the controlled

environment of the group home did not mean that she was cured.

       Marsha had attended all of the staffings, all of the planning meetings. She had

visited her daughter almost every weekend. Somehow these people had done what she

herself had been unable to do; they had calmed Heidi down. They had done so without

drugs or cruelty.

       Heidi hugged her mom a lot. She soon came to hug Jesse too. Then she would

look at her books. She pretended that she could read them, even when she sometimes

held them upside down. She looked at the pictures in them.

       She had her own special chair that sat in the corner of the kitchen. She sat there

and, occasionally would laugh at something she was supposedly reading.

       Jesse had some trouble reconciling the child he saw with her graying hair, hair

that was cut into the same short curls as her mother’s. She was a frail looking creature,

but he had seen for himself the strength she had when she was determined. He had helped

Marsha once, when Heidi had grasped the stair railing to avoid returning to the home.

And it took all of his strength to loosen her grip. The group home staff had to work

together to get her to go to her mother’s.

       This time Heidi was behaving. Jesse really tried to understand what Marsha was

telling him.


       He didn’t qualify.

       He had gone to all the offices Marsha had recommended. They sent him to a

doctor for an examination and an interview. Yes, he had a disability, but times were

tough, money was scarce, and the state wasn’t accepting just any old disability as

qualification for services. They had a rating system from mildly disabled to somewhat

disabled to disabled to severely disabled to most severely disabled.

       He rang the somewhat disabled bell. If he was a movie, he would be rated PG.

These days it took an NC-17 to qualify.

       He broke the news to Marsha, who apologized. She thought for sure that his

depression alone should qualify him. Perhaps if he had been receiving treatment for a

long time he would have done better on the exam. It was her way of taking pride in her

daughter’s condition.

       Well, this wasn’t the end. There were other programs out there. Certainly he

would qualify for food stamps. Or Medicaid. Or…well, no, he wasn’t the head of a

household. Unless…did he declare the children on his income tax? What about—this

might be really strange—but what about going back to school. If he got his teaching

certificate and agreed to teach for five years in the Black Hole of Calcutta…

        She was not about to give up on him, so he had better not give up on himself. He

owed her that much.

        Could she give him a lift to the library? He needed to use the computer there. He

could find his own way back. The Independence bus was running pretty regularly these


        Of course. Okay if Heidi came along for the ride? She might want to go shopping

at the thrift shop. Picking out her new belongings seemed to calm her down.

        Jesse sat in the carrel at the library. It had been ages since he had access to a

computer without having to wait. The clerk had him sign in, just as he always did, but by

now they knew each other.

        It would have been nice if they had removed some of the restrictions from the

computers. It wasn’t that he was interested in looking at pornography or gambling, but he

really wanted access to the entire universe that was hiding in that box. Just the fact that he

couldn’t get to every site that his explorations led to seemed to be just one more

constriction on his already limited life.

        He had to stand every fifteen minutes or so. His leg bothered him if he didn’t.

How did that not qualify him for disability? Maybe he should have done what so many of

the guys in his class had done, join the service. When they got together later, they argued

about which branch was the best. All fun, all drunk. And they were eligible for veterans’

benefits. Why hadn’t he done that? There weren’t any wars going on at the time, no huge

military scandals. If he had—even if had just been the Coast Guard—he wouldn’t have

accumulated all that college debt; he wouldn’t have to fight for medical care; he might

even have a pension.

        But, like Marsha told him, there was no profit in regret.

        There wasn’t much in his email. Except something a little bit interesting from a

distant cousin who had married out of Hicklesville and was now living in upstate New

York with, of all things, a retired army major. They would be spending a few more

months in New York and then would come back to Hicklesville, since she was still close

to her family there. She was inviting him to a family reunion that would be in Wichita. It

was mostly her husband’s side of the family, but she would love it if he could come. She

hadn’t seen him since they were both children. And it hadn’t been easy tracking him

down. Thank God for the Internet. Love, Joanne, the email ended.

        Love? He barely remembered her. She was a couple of years younger than he

was. There were a thousand Arbothnots in that part of the world, and it seemed that each

of them had at least one Joanne, along with a James, a Leroy, a Mary, a Betty, and any

other name that would make their kids sound normal.

        A reunion of non–Arbothnots in Wichita. People he didn’t know. People to whom

he could boast that he was an electrical engineer who had been talked into a contract that

left him without income, without unemployment insurance, without dignity, and without

any legal way to pay the cost of living. He could tell them that he lived in a part of town

that offered handy access to title loan storefronts, liquor stores, door-to-door prostitutes,

used appliances, and a selection of home furnishings sold from the backs of windowless


       After the third request for an RSVP, he wrote back to Joanne. Unfortunately, he

wouldn’t be able to attend. He would love to hear about it, though. He hoped she would

keep him informed about what was going on with the family. She promised that she

would keep him on the mailing list.

       He called in to the city’s engineering department. It looked like there might be

something coming up real soon. Actually, there were a couple of things. First—he

probably wouldn’t be interested in this—there were a few traffic studies. That would

have to be apart from his regular contract. Yeah, they’d give him the electronic counting

box and he would sit near the corner of Chouteau Trafficway and 69 Highway, clicking

the buttons corresponding to each of the actions the vehicles might take: Eastbound,

eastbound to left turn, eastbound to right turn, northbound, each action. And he would

record any other activity on a piece of paper, things like stalled cars or emergencies that

might throw the study off. They had to get an electronic count before they could make

any changes in the intersection controls. Neighbors wanted the stoplights reconfigured.

       Well, that was just one thing. There were also some inspections coming up. And,

oh yes, they would want him to testify at a hearing. He would be paid a bonus. Yes, it had

to do with some work he had done before he left. There was some litigation and they

would need him to testify on what he had reported concerning a project on the east side.

Yeah, it was one of those porn places east of 435. The owners were claiming that they

had been in compliance and were unfairly denied an occupancy license. They didn’t want

to have to go the subpoena route, because then they wouldn’t be able to pay him his

proper rate.

        Well, okay. Yes, he would testify. How soon would they be able to pay him? His

bills were starting to pile up. He had to give up his car, because he didn’t have the money

to fix it, much less register it. So he didn’t know if he would be able to do the traffic

count. Would that make a difference? Did he have to sit in his car? Or would it be all

right just to sit on a chair for the count? He might be able to get a ride to the intersection.

Could someone pick him up for the hearing? About how much money would it come to?

        And how much did the traffic count pay? And when would it be? Yeah, he’d do

whatever they had. Something was always better than nothing.

        Marsha would give him a ride up there. He’d take a folding chair and sit there.

The contraption they gave him for the count was a square box with buttons corresponding

to each of the possible actions. They paid him for the training, which took a couple of

hours. Marsha took him to the intersection, where he unfolded his lawn chair, placed a

board on his lap, and placed the counter on it, along with a legal pad. He counted the

traffic from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m., and then from 3:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m.

        It was the most boring day he had spent in his entire life. And that was even

considering that over the past two months he had passed days doing absolutely nothing.

This was more boring than that.

        He would have just walked away and pushed random buttons on the box if he

could have. But he knew how the city operated, especially the departments that had

engineers in them, which included traffic. Most of the engineers were foreign, from Iran

or Pakistan or Israel or India or Palestine. They probably were willing to work for less

than Americans. Besides, they had come from war zones, where it paid to be suspicious.

They were a sneaky lot, who would probably hide in the bushes to make sure he was

really at that intersection, doing what they were paying him to do.

        He would have been more than happy to trade jobs with them. Watching

somebody push buttons on a square traffic box was probably more interesting than

actually pushing the buttons. Especially when it was part of a spy operation.

        He stuck his thumb out and started to walk home. He made it in three rides,

including one from a good old boy short order cook who had actually dated a girl from

Hicklesville. He learned all about her in the mile and a half he contributed to Jesse’s trip


        Marsha told him that, no matter how boring it was, he would have to return the

next day. Not only did he need the money, but he had to show that he was a responsible

adult. That would count if he ever wanted to get a real job, and it would count if he ever

expected to get benefits from the government. That was how politics worked. That was

how they decided who to cut off. Those most secure in the continuation of their benefits


        1   Welfare cheats

        2   Food stamp cheats

        3   Foreigners

        4   Old timers

        5   War veterans

        6   Ex–felons

        7   People with mental illness, which was what they called crazy people

        8   People with diseases that nobody could see

       9   People with wheelchairs, canes, or walkers

       10 People who had no luck finding work but were trying

       11 Veterans who had missed out on war

       12 Drug addicts

       13 Alcoholics

       14 People who quit their jobs because they just weren’t having fun.

       He was at the bottom of the list. Yes, but he had depression and his legs were

going bad on him…

       Yes, but he had a job, or at least an income, and he just decided not to do it.

Didn’t even give two weeks notice. How was he supposed to give two weeks notice on a

one–week job? She asked him to just go back. He could last a week, and he’d have

enough money to keep him going a little longer. But if he did, he wouldn’t have time to

check his email at the library and might miss a real job. He could always check his email

between the morning and afternoon count. There was a library just a few blocks away

from the intersection. But they didn’t know him there. Well, they would meet him. Yes,

but it was aggravating his knee to sit there all day. Yes but…yes but…yes but…yes but.

       Yes, but he returned the next day and the day after that. He finished out his week

of counting cars at the intersection. He was surprised that, as the study continued, it

actually became less tedious. He started to notice patterns of left and right turns at

different times of the day, which was interesting.

       And one morning there was a doozy of a crash between a minivan and a beer

truck. The beer truck got t–boned. That driver wasn’t hurt, but the woman in the minivan

had to be cut out and they took her away in an ambulance. She looked like she was

talking, so she wasn’t as bad off as she could have been. There was a child in there too,

maybe six or seven years old. He was crying but seemed to be all right. The last Jesse

knew, he was sitting in a police car.

       The truck driver was all right, but he was in the street waving his hands wildly.

Nobody had to told him what to do when something like this happened. The broken glass

was threatening the tires of those who were trying to get at the many unbroken bottles.

The street smelled of beer, even from where Jesse sat, which was thirty or forty yards

away. He drew a picture of the scene. Then he drew another picture, this one showing the

sequence that led to the collision. Then he drew another picture, exactly like the second

one, since the police would probably want his storyboard.

       Indeed, an officer approached him and asked if he had seen anything. Jesse

motioned for him to move aside so that he could continue his count. His eyes moved back

and forth between the intersection and the cop. He did the best he could with the count,

since the lanes were all jacked up because of the accident. He told the policeman what he

had seen and gave him his contact information.

       The following Monday morning he brought his box in and gave it to a Pakistani

engineer who was in charge of the traffic department. Hard not to wonder why somebody

like that would be in charge when there was a perfectly good American available to do

the job. Probably because back home an engineer had to figure out how to keep a real

mix of traffic flowing—automobiles, camels, mopeds, bicycles, pedestrians—through

one lane streets with no traffic officers, no stop signs, and no control lights. Hats off.

       His name was Hussein, but everyone called him Hussy, the English meaning of

which he didn’t seem to understand. He didn’t smile a lot and was much more fluent in

the technical language of traffic engineering than he was in regular talking–to–people

English. Hussy took the box from Jesse and plugged it into a computer. While it was

downloading, he looked at the drawings and other notes he had made. He nodded and

offered Jesse another intersection. Just from what he was seeing here, Jesse was the best

traffic counter he had, and he could have as much work as he wanted.

       Was Hussy aware that Jesse was just as much an engineer as he was? Maybe

more so, since he had actually been trained in this country and was eligible to take the

P.E. exam. And, in fact, until three months ago he had been an engineer on the staff of

the city of Kansas City. And that even now he was under contract to provide engineering

services that could earn him more than Hussy. But Jesse didn’t say anything. It wasn’t

Hussy’s fault that his life wasn’t going the way he would have liked.

       He agreed to count another intersection. This one was in the middle of downtown.

There would be a lot more traffic than the one he had done, but it would be easier, since

both of the intersecting streets were one–way. It was made even easier on Tuesday

afternoon, when a bus managed to high–center on a concrete trash receptacle that it had

knocked over, completely blocking the intersection in both directions. A lot of zeros.

       He would have to wait another week for his paycheck, since there was a

processing lag. Along with the check was a note from Human Resources that there was a

court–ordered deduction for delinquent child support. Great. How did Jocelyn find out

what he was doing? Wasn’t he even entitled to that much privacy?

       As soon as he got home Marsha knocked on his door. Did he want her to fix him

something to eat? She talked about how lonely she was since her husband passed. Didn’t

Jesse ever feel even a little bit lonely? She was glad that she at least had his friendship.

        Before he moved in she thought she would go crazy. She didn’t have anything in

common with the people who had lived there before. They were young, barely out of

their teens, a girl and her two brothers, except she wondered if it was really something

completely different, maybe some kind of a special arrangement. There were never any

parents around, just the three of them and a bunch of their friends. A lot of noise. A lot of

drugs. None of them worked. The girl tried to be nice to Heidi, but it was mostly just an

act so that she would seem neighborly.

        Anyhow, she was awfully relieved when he moved in, a mature gentleman. She

just knew as soon as she saw him that they would end up being friends.

        He was really tired. A rough day.

        Did he want to talk about it? She’d fix him something to eat and then he could go

right to bed.

        A rough day was all. They took child support out of his paycheck. He didn’t know

from week to week if they’d have something for him to do. They kept promising

something closer to what he was trained to do, but it never happened. He was ending up

making less than minimum wage and he didn’t know how he could keep on living like

this. And his knees were hurting more every day. And he didn’t know how much longer

he would be able to keep up with the rent. It was supposed to be a rent–to–own deal, so

after three months of living there three–quarters of his rent payment was supposed to be

going to his owning the house where he was living.

        It was in writing somewhere.

        But the way things were going, he wouldn’t be able to keep up with the rent. That

would mean no car, no house, no income, no food. He may as well just give up. Yeah, he

was feeling real sorry for himself. He couldn’t help it.

        Well, maybe a burger and some fried potatoes and a little wine would help. Her

eyes were twinkling. She found some ground beef in the fridge, sniffed it. It was still

good. She lit the stove with a match, since the pilot light didn’t want to stay lit. While the

skillet was heating, she chopped some potatoes. She was making herself at home.

        The meal wasn’t much. The bread was dry, the patty flavorless, and the potatoes

raw in the middle. And the wine was, well, he couldn’t tell. It was sweet and he didn’t go

blind from drinking it. She had to run next door to her place to get it. It had a little bit of a

stale odor. She asked if he was sure he was all right. Anything else he wanted? Sure?

        He looked through the papers in his pay envelope. He had started with three–

hundred dollars worth of his labor for that first week of traffic counting. After taxes, after

what Jocelyn was taking, he was down to a hundred and twenty. They weren’t supposed

to be taking taxes out at all. He was an independent contractor. He would have to talk to

Human Resources about that.

        And Vicky from Human Resources said that, even though he was technically an

independent contractor, he was also technically a regular staff member since as of the

most recent January 1 he had been a staff member. If they were to try to enter his Social

Security number into the accounts payable system as a vendor, the computer would kick

him out, because the program doesn’t allow a person to be both a vendor and a staff

member. Make sense? If he wanted, he could change his W-4 form, increase the number

of dependents so that there wouldn’t be any taxes taken out. Then he could straighten it

all out when he did his taxes next year. That wasn’t official, since it wasn’t really legal to

overstate dependents to reduce the amount of tax deducted. But people did it all the time.

       Vicky had another suggestion, which was that he assume the identity of

somebody who died in childhood and then apply for a new Social Security number in that

person’s name. She was just full of helpful advice.

       Later that day he called in to engineering. Before long the weather would be

getting too hot for him to sit out there at those intersections. And he wasn’t going to be

able to make it on just the few dollars he was making there anyhow.

       There was that one project coming up. It was on hold right now, because there

was an issue with the permits. Issue with the permits? He could help with that, get things

moving. That was his specialty. Unfortunately, it wasn’t an engineering issue. It had to do

with the financing. And, as Jesse had pretty much admitted, financing wasn’t something

he was very good at. But there was still that litigation. That was in the hands of the

lawyers right now, but they would definitely be calling him to testify. That had been his

project and there was no one else who could represent the city.

       Had he checked back with Kivett? Burns and Mac? Some of the others? They

might have something for him to do, some design work. Marley Cooling Tower was

always looking for good electrical men. Yes, they were looking for good electrical

engineers, but they preferred the ones just out of school or new to the country who would

work for next to nothing.

       As he got home, Marsha waved from her porch. There was something in his

mailbox from Joanne. She had been trying to reach him, but he was never there. Had he

thought of investing in an answering machine?


       Joanne wasn’t going to try to twist his arm into coming to the reunion. She

understood that family gatherings could be pretty stressful. The reason she was writing

was to let him know that he actually had a relative in Kansas City. It was a long story, so

he could skip over it if he wanted to.

       The relative’s name was Kim Kye, and, yes, he was Korean. He wasn’t a close

relative. Did Jesse remember his cousin Roy? Well, Roy, when he was in the Army, was

stationed in Korea and met this girl. Everyone called her Sunny, because her real name

was too hard to pronounce. Anyhow, Roy and Sunny got married and, when she was

pregnant with their second child, she had some trouble. There were heart problems,

diabetes, bleeding, just about everything that can go wrong with a pregnancy. They

honestly didn’t know if she was going to make it.

       Her father wasn’t in any condition to come over, since he was in a wheelchair

from a Korean War injury. So, her brother came instead. For one thing, he had some

business interests in this country. And he spoke English pretty well. That’s Kim. He had

been pretty successful in Korea and was an executive at a company that made feed

additives. He liked it in this country and one of the big companies he worked for

managed to get him a work visa to stay.

       Joanne had met Kim when he came around to see his sister. In fact, he had stayed

with Joanne and her family when he was there, which caused a little bit of a stir in

Hicklesville. He was, after all, of the yellow persuasion and he was not a servant. There

were still people who didn’t approve of a non–white man mixing with the rest of

humanity. Sunny was different. She was soft and giggly and everybody loved her. It was

different when it was a man.

       The letter ended with Kim’s contact information. He was working for ADM, the

company famous for processing grain and fixing prices. He lived in an apartment on the

Country Club Plaza. What was it about foreigners that they all did so much better than he

did? No grudge. He was just curious.

       It took him a couple of weeks, but he called Kim. His English was much better

than he had expected, almost as good as Hussy’s. Yes, Joanne had told him he had a

relative in Kansas City and he would really like to get together. Any time would be fine.

Jesse told his new relative that he wasn’t working too steadily these days, so he was

pretty much free. Kim said they couldn’t meet at his office since his employer was very

careful about security.

       Jesse was quiet for a few moments. ADM brought in a guy from a foreign

country, gave him an office, probably gave him a key and the combination to the safe, but

a fellow like himself, born, raised, and educated here, was too much of a security risk to

be allowed in their building.

       But he understood. He understood because ADM was in the world and that was

the way the world seemed to be operating these days.

       What if they just got together for lunch? Kim mentioned a place called NoYes

that usually had a lot of open tables and let people sit and talk as long as they wanted. It

probably wouldn’t be open long even though the food was pretty good. When a restaurant

had a pun for a name, it usually didn’t last. Just an observation. NoYes, which a lot of

people called Noise, was really just named after the owner, Isabel Noyes. Good food,

clean, reasonable prices, but it just wasn’t catching on.

       Kim insisted that it was his treat. Jesse wanted to say no, that he was paying, but

he didn’t really have the money to pay, so he agreed. Kim seemed nice enough, but he

sure didn’t seem like family.

       That was how their conversation started. Exactly how were they related? Yes,

Joanne was a very nice lady. They should get together more. Jesse hadn’t been able to

make that family reunion. He hadn’t been to any of them. In fact, it had been ages since

he had set foot in Hicklesville. It must have been strange for Kim to see a place like that,

coming from where he came from.

       Did he have a family back in Korea? Where did he learn to speak English so well?

Was he learning his way around the city? Had he had a chance to travel through the

United States yet? What did he do in his spare time? How did he like his job? What

exactly was he doing there?

       All the questions out of the way. All the answers off in the ether now.

       Jesse told him that he had been an engineer for the city, worked there for years.

But he made the biggest mistake of his life when they offered him the chance to become

an independent contractor. See, it turned out they were just trying to get rid of him. Yes,

it was the biggest mistake he had made. It had been five months now and he didn’t have

an income. They had turned off his electricity, his gas, his water. They weren’t supposed

to do that, turn off the gas when it was cold, but there wasn’t anything he could do. He

just didn’t have any money.

       In fact, this was the first real meal he had eaten in a month. Kim was right about

this place too. Jesse ordered liver and onions, which came with slaw and some of

NoYes’s special pepper fries. It was delicious, except he was getting spoiled. He had

been standing in line at a church for most of his meals, and he hadn’t really felt full in

ages. He had a couple of half–gallon milk jugs at home, and he had a kind neighbor who

let him have some water out of the spigot at the side of her house.

       He was doing a few little jobs here and there. He was counting cars at

intersections, but that wasn’t even covering his child support. If Kim ever made it back to

Hicklesville, he might get a chance to meet Jocelyn. She was his ex–wife. They had a

couple of kids that he was paying for. He was keeping up the best he could. He hadn’t

seen the kids in ages. Jocelyn kept saying it was the children’s choice, but he was sure

that she had a lot to do with what choices they made. She was probably saying terrible

things about him, and there wasn’t a thing he could do to stop her.

       If he could only get his hands on a couple of thousand dollars, he could start to get

things straightened out. He wouldn’t be hungry all the time. He would be able to get a

lawyer to take care of things with Jocelyn. And he might even be able to get his job back

with the city, since they weren’t really being honest with him about that independent

contractor arrangement.

       There was something about working for governments that took something away

from people. There was always someone who wanted to control everyone else, and that

was the person who got the power to do that.

       Kim said he understood, since it was the same way at ADM. In fact, even back in

Korea before he came to this country he had to deal with the same thing. Kim was

curious. Neither in Korea or the U.S. had he encountered somebody with an engineering

degree who was so poor.

       When he was in school, Jesse explained, the big demand was for electrical

engineers. If he had gone into mechanical, he probably wouldn’t have made it. Kim

smiled lightly, since, even in the more specialized area of electronics engineering, the

supply was much greater than the demand. The only engineers nowadays that really had

their pick were chemical or process engineers.

       Kim wished he could help, but ADM wasn’t hiring right now. They were just now

starting to reorganize again. His job was safe, but there would soon be quite a few people

in the same situation as Jesse. They were offering some the same kind of independent

contracts. The competition was just so stiff in lysine and MSG. And the tryptophan never

really took off the way everyone thought it would. The poultry producers were just—

well, it was complicated.

       Jesse repeated that if he only had a little money to carry him over, he’d probably

be able to make it. He had a lot of things going. He was making a few dollars here and

there from the traffic counts. It wasn’t really engineering, but it was enough for some

bread every now and then. And he was supposed to be testifying about one of the projects

he had inspected. They would pay him as an expert witness for that, which would be real

good money. It was just that, until then…

       Kim took out his checkbook. Jesse told him that it was just a loan. He would pay

it back. He just needed a little bit to carry him over. So, he got a check for $1,500 and a

very tasty meal at NoYes. And a ride home without having to call Marsha to come pick

him up.

       When he got there, Marsha was on her porch. As soon as Kim left, Jesse asked

her if she could give him a ride to the bank. He gave her three bucks for gas. It was the

most he could do. She didn’t want to accept it, since she just was doing what friends did

for one another. On the way back from the bank, at a stoplight, she put her hand on his

knee. He pretended not to notice.

       He could think a lot of things that he couldn’t say. She was old. She wasn’t pretty.

Even Jocelyn would appeal to him more than Marsha ever would. She was being unfair to

him, because she knew how desperate he was. She was making him very uncomfortable.

He didn’t want to be in this situation, but he didn’t have a choice. Even with the cash in

his pocket he wasn’t in a position to move. He hadn’t told her how much money he had

in his pocket, since it wasn’t really any of her business. He didn’t want to share his life

with her.

       There was a guy from school named Cecil, who ran an auto auction. He had quit

before he graduated and was now working in his family’s business. He told Jesse he

might be able to give him a few hours work here and there, mostly on Tuesday evenings,

when the sales took place. He could drive the cars in and out of the ring while the

auctioneer described them. They called the job porting. It only paid minimum wage, but

it could be fun and even exciting when the bidding got hot.

       There were times when the cars wouldn’t start or, once started, wouldn’t move.

Then, he and another guy would push them into the sales ring. Even though it hurt his

leg, he would push with everything he had, because this was all exciting. It was really

more exciting than anything in engineering. The only exciting thing in engineering, in

fact, was disaster, which was another reason he hadn’t gone into the civil or structural

fields. What he had done for the city was pretty close, but at least he wasn’t creating

designs that would end up killing people. All he had to do was compare existing

structures to codes. It was barely a step away from being completely mindless.

       During the actual sale he stood towards the front of the ring, calling the bids to the

auctioneer. He kept things moving. “Yes!!!” he would yell when a bid was met. “Hey!!”

“Over here!!!” When a bidder was out, he would point a questioning hand at him until he

either met the bid or shook his head no. As soon as he heard the word “Sold,” he hopped

in the driver’s seat and moved it past the auctioneer’s stand to the sales desk, where the

clerk, who happened to be the auctioneer’s niece, wedged the sales information—the

buyer and the sales price—under the wiper blade. She had to be agile enough to make her

move while the car was still moving, since the auctioneer was already introducing the

next vehicle.

       Jesse dropped off the sold car in a large lot that was adjacent to the line of unsold

offerings. He jumped into the next driver’s seat, turned the key, and rolled into the sales

ring as the auctioneer was finishing up the details of the car. The scene was well

orchestrated so that the least desirable features of the vehicle being described came from

the loudspeakers as the audience was seeing the product roll into the ring. “A 200K

vehicle.” “Salvage title.” “Frame damage.”

         There were half a dozen porters in all. Cecil bounced between the stand, the sales

desk, the floor, and the ring. After a ten–minute orientation, Jesse had very little to do

with his old classmate. There was no wasted energy in this operation.

         Before they went into the auto auction business, the family had sold livestock out

of a barn near Chillicothe. When the packing houses left the area in the seventies, they

switched to cars, which were much easier to run, didn’t smell as bad, and were usually

more profitable. Originally, it had been an open–to–the–public operation, but that was

more trouble than it was worth, because, it seemed, the general public didn’t understand

that “as–is” meant no guarantee and that “No title” meant there was no title. A dealers

only sale brought in a little less money per car, but at least everybody understood the


         It was Cecil’s father who was the auctioneer. Cecil, after dropping out of school,

had worked as a porter, just as he had done during school breaks since he was fifteen

years old. He actually took over the microphone when his dad took a break. His cadence

was markedly different from his father’s. The old man, who called himself The Colonel,

had a southern gentleman’s intonation as he spoke quickly, adding “it–a” between words,

which was his own phrase to distinguish him from those who said “and–a” between

words. “Fifty it–a sixty now a sixty it-a seventy.”

         Cecil was more straightforward. It was slightly jarring to hear him speak in a

radio announcer’s voice with very little of the rhythm that his father had perfected. Still,

he kept things moving. For some reason, he wasn’t bringing in the prices his father did.

Maybe there was something about the auction that made buyers want to keep the rhythm

going. They would bid just so that things wouldn’t stop short.

       There were no recesses at the auction.

       For the six hours of each sale, Jesse was moving. About an hour in, his bad leg

started to limber up, but towards the end of the evening, his legs, his feet, and both of his

arms were sore. But they were sore in a good way, from exhaustion rather than from

weariness. He wouldn’t have minded doing this kind of work all the time, but there

wasn’t that much work. It was after midnight when he got his check. They had given him

twenty–five bucks extra, a bonus they told him, because the sale had gone well. They

would love to have him back for the next auction.

       It wasn’t enough to live on, but, along with the money he got from Kim, he would

be able to keep going for a while. He could relax for a couple of months. He didn’t want

to think about what would happen after that, because thinking about the future hadn’t

worked out very well so far in his life. It was, he figured, best to just wait to see what

happened, maybe just do some thinking.

       He had ideas, plenty of them. And a new one came to him when he was checking

his email at the library. He was just wandering around on the Internet when he happened

across what seemed like a great opportunity.

       He had to tell someone, so he mentioned it to Marsha. He would be able to be

independent, to do something that didn’t require his answering to a bureaucratic system.

       Here was the deal: Coupons.

       What if Marsha could buy all of the things that she ordinarily bought—groceries,

cleaning supplies, even her medicine—but all at a discount? It could be anywhere from

10% off to 80% off. It was all Internet based. She would just have to go to the library

with her shopping list and print off the coupons. And it worked with any product, any

brand, even house brands. She could use the coupons at any store.

       Marsha seemed interested, but not quite convinced yet. He explained that it would

be like having an extra $500 every month, maybe more.

       She hadn’t seen him this enthusiastic in ages. He told her to think about it. He

would write up a little proposal so that she could see for herself how it worked. Right

now, thanks to his new–found relative, he had a few hundred dollars that he would invest,

but he would need a little more.

       The system consisted of his buying a partnership in CSU—Coupon Services

Unlimited. There were several levels of access to the website. As a partner, he would be

able to see everything, but those who chose to become regular members would be able to

search for any product they wished and print off the coupons.

       He wasn’t a salesman by nature, but he was so excited by this opportunity that he

was sure she would be as excited as he was. He wasn’t going to put any pressure on her.

It was completely up to her. She had been so good to him that he just wanted to make

sure she knew about this.

       Then, he went home and wrote out his thoughts on the coupon opportunity. This

would be going to Kim, who apparently had enough money to lend him some. That was

the kind of person this program would most appeal to. For a simple investment of $7,500

he would be able to realize a profit of more than $70,000 a year.

       He called him at work to tell him about his discovery. But first he wanted to thank

him again for the money he had lent him. He wouldn’t have been able to survive without

it. In fact, it was in gratitude for Kim’s generosity that he was bringing this to him. Did

he have an email? It probably sounded too good to be true, but when he saw it in writing,

he would understand.


       Subject: Proposal

       I, Jesse Arbothnot, am proposing a partnership with Mr. Kim Kye as a co–owner

of a subsidiary business of Coupon Services Unlimited. This business, which I suggest be

called K & A Coupon Services would provide coupons for all goods and services to

customers. Businesses whose coupons are used would pay K & A Coupon Services for

each coupon redeemed a fee of 20% (twenty percent) of the face value of each coupon. In

addition, customers would pay a small membership fee in order to use this service. How

much this fee would be is something we could discuss, but CSU suggests a $75.00 annual

membership fee.

       Mr. Arbothnot would be responsible for all operations of K & A Coupon

Services, including bookkeeping, sales, advertising, banking, and publicity. Mr. Kim

would contribute startup costs of approximately $15,800, which would be used for CSU

licensing fees, rent, occupancy fees, and other startup costs. Profits, which would be

between $140,000 and $250,000 the first year, would be split in equal portions between

the partners.

       Because of your generosity towards me, I thought of you first when I learned

about this opportunity. I would love to sit down with you and discuss this proposal.

Personally, I was skeptical until I got answers to all of my questions, and I’m sure you

feel the same way.

       Thank you, and I look forward to hearing from you.

       He didn’t hear from him.

       Jesse made the trip to the library every morning except Wednesday, when he was

still tired from the previous night’s auction. Usually he just walked over there unless

Marsha was going out anyhow. Then he got a ride.

       There were no emails from Kim. It could have been that he was out of town. In

that kind of business there must have been a lot of travel. Or maybe ADM’s spam filter

was blocking his email from getting to him. That would have been insulting but


       Or maybe the spare proposal hadn’t answered enough of the obvious questions to

captivate his cousin. Or nephew. Or cousin–twice–removed. By marriage.

       Understandable. What did anyone really know about this Coupon Services

Unlimited? Had he done a background check? Were there references? Was there a street

address or was this all just an Internet thing? And was the address a real business address

or was it a vacant lot or maybe a private residence? And why in the world would any

company pay a fee to someone that did nothing but allow people to print off coupons

from their computers? Especially when they never gave their permission to offer coupons

in the first place? And wasn’t this just another one of those schemes that the Action News

Team always warned about? When they were Working For You? And weren’t there

plenty of coupons in the newspaper already?

       These were all fair questions. Maybe he should send Kim another email,

explaining that he understood how confusing this all must be. It was one of those too–

good–to–be–true offers that could not possibly be as it appeared.

         Every question had an answer. That was the beauty. Yes, it was true that people

could spend hours on their computers looking for special offers at dozens of different

web sites, but their time was worth something. With just a few clicks of their mice they

could cut their cost of living each month by up to 80%. Besides, there were some

products that didn’t even have coupons on their sites. With the Coupon Services system

there were no limits.

         The companies whose products were being discounted were, in some ways, the

biggest winners of all. They were getting the vast marketing network that was Coupon

Services Unlimited without paying their staffs, without the services of an advertising

agency, without even paying a membership fee. For an almost negligible 20% of the face

value of each coupon, they were avoiding all the costs of creating, marketing, and

printing their advertisements.

         Each question had a very reasonable answer.

         He might call Kim a little bit later. Give him a little time to read and absorb the



       A couple of weeks went by. No call from Kim. Maybe it was time to contact him,

make sure he got the proposal and understood it.

       Instead, Joanne’s daughter Tamara called. Her grandmother, Joanne’s mother, had

passed away. She had been sick, but nobody was really expecting this so soon.

       What a pistol she had been. Married four times. Buried two, divorced one, and left

one behind. He was fifteen years younger than she was. No, Jesse had never met her, but

she was family.

       There would be a visitation at Waters Funeral Home in the center of Hicklesville.

Jesse remembered Madelyn Waters from high school. Her dad was Leonard D. Waters,

the owner of the family business. In addition to running the funeral home, Mr. Waters

was an accomplished magician, who put on shows every year for school assemblies.

Once, Jesse sat a few seats away from Madelyn, and he noticed how embarrassed she was

by her father’s performance.

       When he ran for mayor, no one bothered to run against him. He was still mayor

when Jesse went off to school, and he didn’t know what happened with the town’s

politics after that. The last he knew, Madelyn had left Hicklesville and was living in

Sioux Falls, South Dakota with her husband and a couple of kids who were probably

grown by now. The old man must have been in his eighties. It would have been one of

Madelyn’s brothers who was running the funeral home these days.

         He really should go down for the service. He owed his family that much, since he

had missed that thing in Wichita. He called Tamara back and told her he didn’t know

how he could get down there, since his car was in the shop. Well, he did know that he had

a relative right there in Kansas City, didn’t he? Kim was going to be making the trip;

maybe they could ride together.

         Jesse thought about that. Kim was driving to Hicklesville? They called Lutherans

dirty names down there. He wasn’t even a white man. Kim’s sister was different, since

she was a war bride, which was all right. White men were allowed to bring back Asian

women that they met during their service in the East. They were cute as buttons and

nobody could fault a guy for wanting one of them.

         But it was different when a man came over and took a perfectly good American

job. That was what Kim had done. Jesse didn’t know if it was very safe to be riding in a

car with that kind of a fellow in that part of the state.

         He called Kim. He heard he was going down for Joanne’s mother’s funeral.

Would he have any extra room for a passenger? Well…he supposed so.

         Jesse promised that he wouldn’t be any trouble. He really appreciated everything

his new cousin had done for him and he really appreciated the ride. Kim would be

leaving early the next morning and would be returning after the service. Would that be all


       Kim picked Jesse up at his home early on the morning of the service. Marsha

waved from her porch. Jesse waited until they were on the highway to tell Kim that,

before he forgot, he had something for him. He had gone ahead and printed off some

coupons for some of the things that everyone needed. So, the next time he bought sugar,

he would get it for 25% less than everyone else in the store. It didn’t matter what brand,

how many pounds, or where he bought it. He wasn’t trying to pressure him. It was just

his way of thanking him for the loan and for the lift.

       The trip to the reunion was 155 miles. Jesse offered to pay for gas, but Kim put it

on his card. Did he have a coupon for gas? Well, not on him. He should have thought of

that, but he could have coupons for anything at all.

       Kim said he was just kidding. It was hard to joke in a language that wasn’t native.

He apologized. There wasn’t much to talk about for those three hours.

       Jesse told Kim that he hadn’t seen anyone in his family for years. He hoped his

ex–wife didn’t show up. He wouldn’t mind seeing his kids, but they probably wouldn’t

be there either. Even if they were, they might not know who he was. Or even worse, they

would know who he was but would avoid him because of all the things Jocelyn had told

them about him. Most of them weren’t true. He had done his best by them, and, if the

coupon thing went the way he expected it to, he would do even better. He wouldn’t need

a judge to tell him; he would go ahead and send some extra money.

       Right now he was a little bit behind on child support. It wasn’t his fault. They had

done everything they could to get him off of that city job and he fell for it. He had to

hand it to them; they were sure creative when it came to getting rid of an employee. Or

maybe it was his own fault for being so naïve.

         Kim appreciated Jesse’s monologue. As long as he complained about his troubles

he wasn’t talking about the coupons. He was relatively new to the country, but even with

his limited knowledge about the ways of the United States, he couldn’t believe that

somebody could get rich with the scheme. He was logical. That was what ADM paid him

for, for being logical, for thinking, for being reasonable.

         He asked Jesse questions about his family to keep the conversation away from the

coupons. How old were the kids? How long had he been married? Had he had the chance

to meet his sister?

         No, he didn’t even know she existed. It was so strange. The people in Hicklesville

weren’t used to people from other countries. No offense. They were just a lot more

comfortable with the people they grew up with. It maybe wasn’t fair to generalize. After

all, Kim’s brother–in–law obviously hadn’t felt that way. Heck, he might find himself a

girl there at the family reunion.

         Kim smiled shyly. Jesse asked if he could pull over. He had to go to the

bathroom. It was urgent. He had forgotten when they stopped for gas a few miles back.


         Anyhow, there might be some girls there who would be interested in a fellow like

him. He had a good career. Had he thought about getting married?

         He was going to wait until he was thirty–five. It was just how he was raised. Until

he was secure in his career and had enough saved up to support a family for a few years,

he didn’t want to make that kind of a change in his life.

       Well…there was one way to get that kind of security. Not only could he have a

share in a very profitable business, but he could also use the coupons himself, which

would cut his cost of living.

       ADM might be transferring him back to Korea as soon as he learned enough

about the company’s products. That was even better. Korea was a perfect place to

introduce the CSU system. It was an emerging consumer economy. Oh, had Jesse been to

Korea? No, not really, but he had read. He had seen the pictures. As soon as he found out

that he had relatives from there he had looked up everything he could about Korea. And

he found out that Korea’s was an emerging consumer economy.

       Hm–m–m. Kim himself hadn’t been aware of that. But it was still emerging. It

was more of a haggling economy than a coupon society. Yes, even in the big cities.

       It didn’t really matter. Kim didn’t have any money to invest. He was sending most

of his salary back home, where his parents, grandparents, and little sister were. To tell the

truth, the money he had loaned him had caused him some problems.

       Jesse nodded. Did he want him to drive for awhile? It could get a little bit tricky

once they got on 63 South. Even on the main roads the pavement was pretty bad. Once

they got further into the Ozarks it could take an experienced driver to avoid damaging a

vehicle’s undercarriage.

       Kim smiled at him. Was this guy trying to tell a Korean about bad roads? But,

okay, if Jesse promised that he was a safe driver, he wouldn’t mind letting him take over

the rest of the way.

       Jesse asked Kim if he had met Joanne’s mother. No, he had only been down there

a couple of times, and he never had a lot of time when he visited, but he had heard some

stories. He thought they were about the same woman. Was she the one who they thought

had poisoned a husband? There was some woman like that.

         Jesse hadn’t heard that about her. He had only seen her a few times, and that was

when he was just a teenager. She offered to put some whisky in his cocoa. That was what

he remembered. He didn’t remember if he had accepted the offer, but he remembered the


         By the way, it was even possible to use the coupons for alcohol, which wasn’t

possible any other way. See, there were generally legal restrictions on giving discounts

on liquor, but with CSU’s system it was possible, because the coupons were not

considered retail discounts but rather wholesale pricing adjustments. CSU was set up as a

warehouse, except without having the actual physical structure. That meant that those

who used the coupons were not retail purchasers but were all representatives of a

corporation. That corporation had a federal tax ID number and those who used the

coupons were actually employees of that corporation. That was the one idea that made

this system so brilliant. It basically was foolproof. Probably people had told him that,

especially in America, if something seemed too good to be true it probably was. He had

heard the same thing himself, and that was why he had spent so much time researching

CSU to make sure it was on the up–and–up. He had even spoken to a lawyer. There

wasn’t anything in writing, because he had just spoken to him casually, since he didn’t

have any money to pay him. He was the brother of a guy he used to work with. But, yes,

it was completely legal. In fact the lawyer he was talking about, he was thinking of going

in on it, but he had some cases that he couldn’t just drop in the middle. Maybe when he

was caught up with everything he would join in.

       The sign for Hicklesville. Just two more exits. It wasn’t what Kim had pictured.

He had imagined dusty streets, saloons with swinging slatted doors, and horses. Instead,

it reminded him of the drag through North Kansas City, where a few local businesses

competed with a thousand fast food franchises, a Walmart, and automated car washes.

Past the Sonic Drive–in, separated by a small city park, was the Waters Funeral home.

       Jesse stopped at the park so he could go into the restroom to change from his

driving clothes to something a little more appropriate, a pair of khaki slacks, a dark blue

blazer, a light blue shirt, and a deep red tie. Kim didn’t change clothes, since he was

already presentable.

       The service had already started when they tiptoed in. The saintly woman in the

crate at the front of the room had evidently raised not only her own four children, but also

those of two of her husbands. She had found time to bake her delicious raspberry–jam

cakes for her card club and to get to church almost every week. And she had taught

herself to do automobile bodywork. She had made a name for herself as one of a very few

women in that field, long before the word “feminist” was popular.

       The preacher was trying to get people to cry, but he was young and didn’t know

all the tricks yet. The simplest of these was to recreate funny moments in the departed’s

life, to evoke the laugh–cries that family members would barely be able to stifle. Like the

time she got tired of bringing three bags of groceries from the car with only two hands, so

she tried to rig a harness and wagon on the family’s blue heeler. The pooch didn’t

understand the principle and ended up delivering a bag full of detergent and toilet paper

to a very surprised city hall clerk. That would have brought on a few sniffles. Especially

the part about grandma running after the dog, having left the rest of the groceries sitting

on the fender of her Plymouth Belvedere.

       But the preacher stuck to the prayers, the songs, and a few words about the good

works she had done. Most of what she had done was just living, just normal things that

were what everyone did when they wanted to get from one day to the next. She worked.

She raised kids. She cooked. She cleaned. She spoke to people, kidded around with them,

had fun when she could.

       After the service, as people milled around waiting for the signal to adjourn to the

cemetery for the burial, Jesse tried to figure out what to do with his hands. He wasn’t sure

if the woman over there was Joanne. He was having trouble recognizing anyone. Well,

Kim’s sister, he could tell who she was since she was kind of Korean. It seemed that Kim

knew more people there than he did.

       It must have been Joanne, since she came over to him and gave him a hug. She

introduced him around, always beginning with “You remember…” He nodded, even

though he didn’t really remember Jim or Carol or Tamara or another Jim—unless it was

the same Jim again—or Burt or Lily or Simon or Roy or Ray or Raymond or Susan or

Judy or Shannon.

       Some of the friendlier of his family and friends asked what he was doing these

days. He had hoped that somebody would ask, since he was actually working on a very

exciting project that could really make a difference in people’s lives. He himself was

living on less than $270 a month and that included food, clothing, utilities, everything.

       Kim was standing a distance that seemed mathematically impossible from Jesse,

talking to his sister and brother–in–law. Was there some way he could pretend that they

hadn’t come to Hicklesville together? He said a few words to his sister in Korean and

then apologized to her husband.

       Jesse had thought to bring along some of the business cards he had designed and

printed at one of the library’s computers. They were made to look like miniature index

cards with blue lines, except for the top line, which was red and bordered a slightly larger

title space. “Jesse Arbothnot, Chief Executive” all of the words were

written as though by a typewriter. “Coupon Services Unlimited, Missouri

Federation.” He had added a suite number to his address. After his email address, he

included the notation “Personal email address” so that recipients would know

that they were special enough to contact him during his off hours.

       It wasn’t easy to introduce himself to people who were actually blood relatives.

Only a few of them, including Joanne, remembered there being a Jesse Arbothnot in the

family. She hugged him with a big smile and told him how much she appreciated him

showing up, even if it wasn’t the best of circumstances. He told her that he was glad he

had come. She told him he looked good. Was he going to be seeing his children while he

was in town? It hadn’t occurred to him, but he didn’t tell her that. Instead, he told her that

he was riding with Kim and he had to get back to town. In fact, he himself just wanted to

make sure he had the opportunity to tell Joanne’s mother goodbye properly.

       He gave out, he figured, forty cards. Kim was spending most of his time with his

sister and her husband. He looked at his watch and then over to catch Jesse’s eye. It

might be time to start back. In the parking lot he could have sworn that he saw Jocelyn

pulling up. He moved his glance away from her and towards Kim’s car. Jesse offered to

drive until they got back on to the interstate.

        On the way back to Kansas City, Jesse told Kim that he was glad that he had

gone. It looked like Kim was feeling comfortable there. Well, yes, it had been good to see

his sister again. It had been months. Everyone had been very hospitable towards him.

        Yes, they were a friendly group. Especially at funerals. He had told several of

them about his new venture and many were very interested. It was at times like this, when

people were under stress that it was important to maintain as much financial viability as


        But in his head things weren’t quite so optimistic. He wasn’t a salesman, never

had been. He felt awkward and knew that he was clumsy. But what else could he do?

What could he talk to those people about? He barely knew the woman who had died and

barely knew the people there. It had been at least a quarter century since h had really

known them, and he was a different person then. They were different people too.

        Now, they all had families and had small–town jobs. They belonged to service

clubs, lived for their families, spoke to one another about sports and lawns and the local

gossip and how successful their children were; successful in sports or, when they got

older, successful in their schooling or in their jobs.

        The best he could do was to say, oh yes, he remembered them. He had finished

engineering school and had worked for the city for a long time, but now he had

something better. Actually, the city had not been the best place to work. In the end they

had kind of tricked him into…well, it didn’t really matter now, since it really worked out

for the best.

        He only hoped Jocelyn didn’t find out about Coupon Services, since she would

certainly go to court demanding even more of his money. Right now, as of the last notice

he received, he was close to $70,000 in arrears on his child support. There was a new

drive to get men to pay what they owed. Now, they were going to start putting people in

jail if they didn’t pay up.

        It was a good thing that Kim’s English wasn’t perfect. He didn’t understand half

of what his relative was saying, but he nodded. It was more comfortable for him to listen

for the rise in voice that indicated a question and then answer either yes or no. If it wasn’t

a yes or no question, he answered after Jesse repeated it. He wished he were driving, so

that, if he heard the word “coupon” again he could drive into a solid object at seventy

miles per hour.

        It was eight in the evening when they got home. It would have been sooner, but

Jesse had to stop half a dozen times to go to the bathroom. He told Kim that happened

when he had too much excitement. Not his prostate, a word that Kim hadn’t learned yet.

        Since it was late spring, it was still light, which was good, because Kim preferred

to stay away from neighborhoods like Jesse’s after dark. The area that he had to traverse

in order to get out to his own home was even worse. The only time he had been in this

neighborhood voluntarily was soon after he started at ADM. He was looking for a

prostitute that looked like the ones he had seen in the movies, and everyone had told him

that Independence Avenue was the place to find them. There were plenty of hookers on

the street, sometimes alone, sometimes talking to one another in groups, but none that

were young, beautiful, or in any way appealing. Back home they would have been called

packing house merchandise, because they offered no more than the lifeless organ of a

slaughtered animal.

       Marsha was sitting on her porch to greet Jesse as he arrived. She told him that

somebody had tried to break into his place while he was gone, but she had called the

police and the burglar ran away. And she also apologized for not having properly

expressed her sympathy at his loss. And Heidi would be coming home for the weekend.

Her daughter was awfully attached to Jesse.

       Jesse wanted to go to sleep.


       Jesse had to do something fast. Somehow the money that Kim had given him was

going faster than he would have thought. He still had $1,200 of it, but he was hoping it

would last him longer than a few months. He could hold off paying rent until September

if he had to, maybe longer. Even if he never paid, it would be better for the landlord to

have him stay there than having a vacant building, waiting for scavengers to steal the

copper, the furnace, and the hardwood from the floor and trim.

       The Coupon Services thing wasn’t going as well as it should have. He hadn’t

heard anything from his family in Hicklesville about it. He got the alumni list from

Mizzou, and made personal calls to those in the Kansas City area. He thought that at least

Charles the Idiot would be interested, but…he had a lot of excuses. It must be that he

already had too much money.

       He just didn’t get it. How could people just throw money away? It wasn’t as

though CSU system required a huge effort. He actually timed himself once. It took him

exactly two minutes and forty seconds to print out $79 worth of savings. If he rounded

that up to three minutes, it meant that he was making almost $240 an hour in savings.

Even the top lawyers, surgeons, or architects didn’t make that kind of money. Okay,

granted, there were some singing sensations and movie stars who could afford to pass on

something like this, but for everyone else, it would be terribly short–sighted to decline an

opportunity like this.

        The $79 in savings was more theoretical than real, since some of the coupons

were for things that he didn’t actually use like diapers, denture adhesive, and olives,

which he didn’t care for. But he did print off and actually used a coupon for one dollar

off a box of cereal. The clerk at the Thriftway had looked askance at the black–and–white

printout, since it didn’t look like the colorful chits he usually redeemed, but it scanned as

it should have and gave Jesse his discount.

        One time, when Jesse was coming out of the library, he heard a street person

trying to hustle people. He offered to sell the coupons to passers–by for a quarter of their

face value. He was saying “a quarter on the dollar” to a woman who just tossed a coin at

him so she could get away. The man had held out the coupon to the woman, but she

scurried away.

        The world was crazy. It was just crazy.

        And Marsha was making things even more difficult. He did appreciate everything

she did for him. She was a pretty good cook. And she sometimes came over to straighten

out his place. He offered to pay her, but she said that it kept her busy. Still, he insisted

that she take some coupons, because it was the least he could do. She appreciated it. He

was really a kind man. She enjoyed his company, and did he know how important he had

become in Heidi’s life? Even the workers at the home had commented on the difference

in her behavior after she had spent some time at home. It was as though they had a little

bit of a family going.

       This was all getting uncomfortable. He moved into this house because it was

cheap, not because he was ready to join another family.

       Heidi might be spending more time at home. They were going to try her a couple

of weekends a month. Yes, every other weekend for a couple of months to see how it

worked. If it did, then maybe another day during the week. Did Jesse realize how difficult

it had been on her to let them take Heidi to that home? After Marsha’s husband had died,

Heidi began to act out more than usual. Before that she had been very gentle, very willing

to do what people asked of her. But more and more she had become headstrong. She

started having tantrums, where she would sometimes become violent. She threw things,

destroyed some of her own belongings, and sometimes even hit Marsha. For such a tiny

girl, she had a lot of strength. Humiliating as it was to do so, Marsha had actually had to

call the police on her own daughter.

       Jesse could do something wonderful for Heidi if he spent some time with her.

Now that her father was gone, she was looking at him as the strong presence in her life.

He wasn’t much of a father, he told her. He doubted that he would recognize his own

children if he saw them. For all he knew, he did see them when he was down in

Hicklesville. Jocelyn, back when they were talking to the lawyers, had promised to send

him pictures every six months, but that had lasted about two years. It might have been

because of the child support thing. Maybe Jocelyn would accept coupons.

       It was all right, Marsha told him. This would be his chance to make things right.

Heidi was crazy about him. He was the only reason that she behaved as well as she did at

home. As soon as he was gone, Heidi became almost impossible to handle. He smiled,

since he appreciated someone seeing that he actually had that tiny positive quality.

       The next time Heidi was home, Marsha cooked a super dinner. She spent all day

on it, roasting a couple of capons, baking a pie, preparing some kind of corn and bean

casserole. Everything was fresh, made from scratch, and delicious. Marsha smiled at

Jesse’s appreciation. Heidi told her mother that the food was good. It should be, since it

was made especially for her visit.

       When it started to get late, Jesse said he’d better get going. Marsha told him he

could surely stay a little longer. They were having such a good time.

       Good time? Heidi had talked a lot about what they were doing at home, which

meant the home where she was living. She cleaned her room, and they were showing her

how to use the washing machine so she could do laundry. And she got to go with her

worker when she went to get supplies. That was a special privilege. And everyone in the

home had gone out on Saturday. They went to Walmart and were each allowed to buy a

shirt. She had bought the one she was wearing that day. It depicted the leader of one of

those psycho–bands, a gentleman with the right half of his head shaved bald, every other

fingernail pointed long, a shirt that consisted of nothing more than a neck–hole and two

short sleeves, and a tattoo of a gyno–view across his chest. The band went by the name

The Daffodils and the leader pictured on the shirt was called Intellect. Charming.

       Heidi’s voice broke occasionally, giving the impression of frailty. Marsha said

that was because of the medications she took. And she snapped her fingers, because she

had almost forgotten to give them to her. She left the room and returned with the three

pills. She asked Heidi to take them, but she tightened her lips and shook her head. Then

she covered her mouth with both of her hands and hummed a shrieking sound.

       She had to take her medicine. Please, don’t make a scene in front of Jesse. She

didn’t want Jesse to think she was making trouble, did she? Okay, then. If that was what

she wanted, she could go ahead and give Jesse a nice hug and he would be on his way.

She moved her hands and loosened her mouth. Marsha pushed the pills one at a time

through her lips and handed her a glass of water.

       Then, as though her daughter were not there, Marsha mentioned again how much

Heidi liked Jesse. See? Yes, but he really had to get home. So he endured not only

Heidi’s hug, but one from Marsha too. Except Marsha rubbed her hand up and down his

back as she thanked him.

       The next day, as soon as Heidi was back at the home, Marsha came over. Jesse

told her that he had to get going. He was heading to the library to check his email. When

he had been down in Hicklesville, a few people had said they would get back to him,

and… Did he want a lift over there? Well, if she didn’t have anything else to do.

       On the short trip, Marsha told him that, if he wanted to be a businessman, he

probably should dress like one. Old khakis with frayed hemlines and short–sleeved shirts

with long pointed collars had never been stylish. Even she knew that. If he expected to

make it with this coupon thing, he couldn’t come off like a loser. It would have been bad

enough if people thought he was a hustler, but a loser? Even worse.

       Jesse wasn’t used to this. She was almost snippy. What had he done to her? He

was glad to get to the library. There weren’t any emails, at least none from anyone

interested in taking advantage of CSU. One of the posted rules was that the library’s

computers were not to be used for any commercial purpose. There were a lot of rules.

That was just one of them. He obeyed all the rest. He didn’t try to access inappropriate

web sites. He didn’t try to access other computers by cracking their passwords. He was

respectful of those waiting in line to use the computers. He didn’t have food or beverages

near the computers. He didn’t use the computers to violate copyright laws. He didn’t

make copies of any software. He didn’t access streaming media.

       The only rule he might have stretched a little bit was the one about commercial

purposes. But, if they were going to be strict about it, a commercial purpose could

include creating a resume or cover letter, since doing so was part of a transaction with a

business to get a money–paying job.

       There was a guy waiting for the next computer. Sometimes there was a line, but

right now it was just one person. Maybe somebody else would be done soon. He wanted

to send out a few more emails about Coupon Services. He had saved the content of his

message, including a link to a free coupon, on a disk, so all he had to do was type in the

email addresses. All of the addresses went as blind copies, so the recipients would not be

exposed to each others’ addresses. The only listed recipient was a state senator, whose

email address was incorrect. It would bounce back, but that was all right. The rest of the

recipients would feel that they were in prominent company.

       He didn’t understand why nobody had called him about this. It didn’t make sense.

       The other thing that didn’t make sense was the social worker that was waiting for

him when he got home one day. She introduced herself with a business card, State of

Missouri, Division of Family Services, Deborah Wexler, LSW. Why was it that

everybody in his life was either a foreigner, a Jew, or a hillbilly? He wasn’t like that. He

didn’t have a biased bone in his body, but it sure seemed that way, and, the way his life

was these days, all of a sudden it seemed to matter. This one wasn’t one of those naïve

young social workers who really wanted to trust everyone. She was hard, seasoned with

dark dyed hair, tortoise glasses, a business suit, and some poorly concealed lines on her


        Yes, he knew that he was behind in his child support. He just didn’t have a job.

They were going to turn his water off any day now. And his electricity was…

        Oh? Then what?

        Somebody had called in a report about his behavior with a girl with a disability.

The Jewish social worker mentioned some date and asked if he could tell her where he

was on that date.

        God, he hated somebody. Somebody made him paranoid. Somebody complained.

Somebody made up stories about him. Somebody called in social workers to tell him he

was a pervert.

        No, he had no idea where he was on some date. She asked if he knew Heidi. Yes,

her mother lived next door. What was this about?

        Somebody had…

        No, it wasn’t somebody. It was Marsha, and she was upset because he wasn’t

interested in her.

        Deborah Wexler, LSW nodded, because that was what they all said. They all

blamed the mother of the child. It might be true that the mother was using her child to get

back at some guy, but probably not. Still, she assured him that this was just a preliminary

interview. Nobody was accusing him of anything. Social workers were still recovering

from the terrible incidents at the McMartin Pre–school and later in cities around the

country. They had, in some people’s opinion, overreached in advocating for children.

Some said that these social workers had harangued and browbeaten children into

accusing the adults in their lives of having molested them. If that was true, it was terrible.

At the same time, though, it was unfair to accuse all social workers of being sexually

repressed neurotics, intent on conducting witch-hunts for child molesters. Often those

without proper training were unaware of the special techniques that were necessary in

dealing with youngsters. Those techniques could to outsiders seem to be leading children

to say things that were not true. Those techniques could, however, bring out truths that

children might otherwise repress. It was a fine line.

       She was fortunate, since she had very rarely had to testify about her findings other

than to verify her signature on reports that were introduced at hearings. If there truly was

some kind of actionable abuse, there was almost always medical evidence. Emotional

abuse, which should have been actionable, was not, since apparently the legislature

deemed such abuse too subjective to address.

       Right now she wasn’t accusing Mr. Arbothnot of anything. She was just following

up on a phone call. That was all.

       All she wanted him to do was to describe his relationship with Heidi.

       There was no relationship. He was never alone with her. Her mother was his next

door neighbor. Sometimes they all had dinner together, and sometimes before he went

home after dinner he gave both Marsha and Heidi a hug. That was the only touching he

ever did. And that was because Marsha insisted. And if there was any creepy touching

going on, it was Marsha touching him.

       What exactly was the nature of the relationship between him and Marsha?

       They were neighbors. She wanted more, so she gave him rides here and there and

invited him for dinner. Sometimes she helped him clean his house. She wanted him to

move in with her and he didn’t want to, even though he might have to if his current

business didn’t go well. But, even though it was starting a little bit slow, he was sure that

eventually it would take off. And he started to explain the CSU system to her, but she

looked at her watch and told him she just had a few more questions to ask him. Did he

mind if they spoke inside? Well, it was kind of a mess… if she didn’t mind…

       She sat on the couch, where she could move around a little bit to avoid the stains.

He sat on the overstuffed wingback chair, right on top of some of the stains that he

probably felt comfortable with.

       Okay, he had described the relationship with the girl’s mother. Now what about

the girl? Oops, just a minute; her pen quit on her. After trying to scribble it back to life

for a few seconds, she rummaged through her handbag for another one.

       The girl? What about her. As far as he knew she lived in a group home

somewhere. He saw her when she came home for visits. That was about it.

       Had he ever bought her any gifts?

       Gifts? Like what? It didn’t matter. He didn’t remember having even bought her an

ice cream cone. But how would it look to say that? He mentioned that he had printed off

several coupons for Marsha that she could use to get nice things for Heidi.

       What kind of nice things?

       He didn’t remember what the coupons were for. Probably some nice clothes. He

didn’t know what she would like. She always talked about liking music, so he

remembered giving Marsha a coupon for a radio.

       And did she get that radio?

       No idea. But, if he didn’t mind saying so, this was the most ridiculous thing he

had ever heard of. He hardly ever saw the girl, and when he did her mother was always

right there. And he never even thought of touching her. Even when his ex–wife was in

her most vicious during the divorce, she never accused him of anything strange with the

kids. That was something women always did, wasn’t it? Accuse the husband of abusing

the children. She might have said that he wasn’t there for them. That was probably true,

since he was busy trying to make a life for them, but she never said he abused them.

       Now, all of a sudden, this woman next door, who…

       She repeated that the call had come in anonymously. She herself didn’t know who

had called it in. There was no need to be upset. By the way, he wasn’t a schoolteacher

was he? Good, because if he had been it would have been complicated, since the state

could revoke his teaching license based on just an accusation. She herself thought that

was unfair, and she was as strong an advocate for the children as anyone.

       Okay. Back to work. Had he ever done anything that somebody could have

interpreted as inappropriate? It could have been anything: an accidental wink, a pat on the

knee, a misspoken word. Sometimes people who are a little oversensitive might jump to

conclusions, when there’s really nothing there.

       Yes, and sometimes people who are a little over–possessive accuse guys of doing

things they didn’t do just to show who is really in charge.

       Deborah Wexler, LSW nodded. She couldn’t deny it. If anyone asked her, she

would say that there was much more child abuse than got reported. But she also had to

admit that there were some women who turned in guys just because they could. They

turned them in because they wanted to get them in trouble or because they wanted the

opportunity to bail them out of jail. There were probably dozens of neurotic reasons why

a woman would want to turn in a guy. Maybe doing so would give them the chance to

rehabilitate him. Intervening between a man she had designs on and the authorities might

be her only chance to own a man. Pretty girls lost their looks, so they had to develop new

means to get what they wanted.

       Was there anything he wanted to tell her? Yes there was. He had no idea where

any of this came from, but he did not do anything to that girl. And, no, he wasn’t going to

say that he only did what was best for her. He wasn’t going to say that all he cared about

was her welfare. He wasn’t going to say that whatever he did was because he cared so

much about her. The truth was he barely knew her. He had seen her maybe half a dozen

times in his entire life. He wasn’t attached to her. He didn’t hate her and he didn’t love

her. That was all there was to it.

       Very good. She would write up the report. He had her card and could call her if he

had any questions.

       What would the report say?

       Just a recap of what they had talked about along with her recommendations.

       What would they be?

       Well, it might be too early. She would probably have to talk to a few more people,

but from what she saw so far there really wasn’t anything to indicate that there would be

anything more to it.

       What about whoever complained? You know, Marsha.

       All those reports were confidential. It was a balance between protecting the

children and protecting the rights of the people who are named. He certainly could

understand how delicate these matters were. The first priority had to be the children,

since they weren’t in any position to defend themselves. And, of course, those people

who may be adults in age but who are unable to advocate for…

       Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

       The way the system was balanced now it was hard to take sanctions unless there

was a strong pattern of people filing false allegations. And it was absolutely essential to

maintain the confidentiality of those who report what they believe is abusive…

       Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah

blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

       …and there was more information to review. She had not spoken to anybody at

the group home. There were probably three or four more interviews before she…

       Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah.

       She offered her hand, which he shook weakly.


        He was standing at Marsha’s front door. It was early on an unusually chilly

morning. She pretended that there was nothing wrong. He asked her if she knew why a

social worker would come and ask him whether or not he had done something with her

daughter that he shouldn’t have.

        She had no idea. But she smiled, because he was asking her something. He never

asked her anything. He asked her for things, like rides to the library, but he never asked

her questions. No, she didn’t know why anybody would accuse him of something like

that. She knew he wouldn’t harm Heidi. He wouldn’t even touch her. In fact, there were

plenty of people who thought he preferred something other than women.

        Jesse’s face reddened. It did that sometimes when he was embarrassed, but more

often when he was angry. Was she aware that he had been married and had two children?

        Yes, she knew that very well. And that was another question. No, she didn’t

believe that he had done anything wrong as far as Heidi went. She would be willing to

testify to that if he wanted her to.

        No, he didn’t want her to. Besides, what or when she testified would depend on

whether DFS considered this whole thing as anything more than a nuisance, which, as far

as he could tell, they didn’t.

        Why was he angry? She hadn’t done anything. She swore it wasn’t her who had

called. It really wasn’t. She thought the whole thing was as ridiculous as he did.

        Whoever did do it, though, probably was trying to ruin their friendship. Would he

like to come in? Maybe have some breakfast? He stepped inside, since he was hungry. As

they were eating, he mentioned that her porch was out of code compliance. Just in case.

He didn’t believe that she had nothing to do with the social worker’s visit. And he could

have somebody visit her home just as easily.

        They would give her sixty days to fix the porch, which was separating from the

house because it was set on an improper footing. And the paint was starting to peel

around the corner posts. Did she get it? And if she didn’t make the repairs within the

sixty days, she would have to go to court and pay a fine. And after that, if she still didn’t

make decent progress, they could condemn her house and force her to move.

        She asked if he could help her get her house in order. He was an engineer, wasn’t


        Not that kind. Orange juice. Scrambled eggs and toast. A cup of coffee. His leg

was acting up. Would she mind giving him a lift to the library? He had a lot to do.

        There was a line for the computers, not a long one, but a line. The homeless guy

at the first machine would probably be there most of the day, since he didn’t have

anywhere else to go or anything else to do. His best bet would be the guy with the

briefcase who was probably emailing a mistress, which he couldn’t do from home or

from work. The guy might wait for a couple of minutes to see if she would respond right

then, but then he would take off.

       When Jesse’s instinct proved right, he smiled. Having predicted that one sample

of human behavior was, if not a victory, at least an accomplishment. How could Marsha

have done that to him? She could claim all she wanted that she hadn’t called social

services on him, but she had. Who else could it possibly have been? Who else even knew

that he had been in the same quarter–mile perimeter as Heidi? And who else would have

any reason to accuse him of such a thing? The thought was revolting. He would never tell

Marsha, but her daughter was not sexy enough to ignite uncontrollable passions. Maybe

he would tell her, since she had turned him in for something he didn’t do.

       All he was trying to do was get by until things in his life straightened out. He was

trying to get together. He was calling in to the engineering department every week like he

was supposed to. He was doing a couple of traffic counts a week. They kept promising

that they would need his testimony any time now, but there were continuances upon

continuances. But they would definitely be needing him, and they would pay him for his


       He had sent resumes out, dozens of them, and he would have to send a bunch

more out before the postage went up again the following month. He had contacted all the

big consulting companies. He would even take a position as a drafter. He was good with

AutoCad. He had learned the software on his own.

       He also sent resumes to some of the construction companies that he had worked

with. The residential contractors didn’t need engineers, especially electrical engineers,

but the commercial guys, they all needed someone like him. He knew some of them from

his inspecting days. He thought he had good relationships with them. He tried to work

with people. Some of the inspectors used their positions to finally get to push people

around the way they had been pushed around their whole lives.

       Being a policeman had never been his aim. If there was a problem with an

installation, he gave contractors a few weeks to correct it. Unlike some of the others he

never even accepted anything more than a cup of coffee from a contractor. If he couldn’t

work with them to make their projects comply with the city codes, then he wasn’t doing

his job. So, maybe, some of those foremen would put in a word for him. It was their turn

to do right by him.

       Or, if things went right, he wouldn’t need a job. CSU had a system that should not

fail. Yes, there was such a thing as getting something for nothing. He had done it. There

was no way he could have survived as long as he had since he lost his job if he hadn’t

been able to use coupons. Somehow he just had to persuade people. That would have to

be his mission.

       After he logged on, he pulled up his address book. He had updated it after the

funeral; this would be his first chance to contact everyone in it. He couldn’t threaten; no

“THIS IS YOUR LAST CHANCE.” He had to entice people. How about a coupon for

sugar? Everybody used sugar, but the big sugar companies, Domino and C&H, rarely

offered discounts on plain granulated sugar. Sometimes they would give a few pennies

off on brown sugar or powdered sugar, but not on the stuff most people used most of the

time. Retailers sometimes used sugar as a loss–leader, but that was different. He pointed

these facts out and attached a coupon, good for a full dollar off of either brand of four

pounds or larger bags. How was that? And, if they wanted to continue to receive such

discounts, they could contact him. This was a ground–floor opportunity that wouldn’t last


       He had never touched Heidi. He hadn’t even thought of it. The closest he had ever

come in his life to doing anything perverse was that dream that stuck with him, the one

that he remembered among all of those he wished he could remember but never could.

This one was at the hospital’s neo–natal unit. He excused himself as he stepped past

nurses to pick babies from their cribs and their incubators by their feet to drop them into a

large meat grinder that he hand–cranked. The handle would sometimes stiffen as he hit

bone. The nurses didn’t seem to notice or, if they did, they smiled and pretended not to.

Some of the grindings from the discharge were worms.

       The only neonatal units he had ever seen were on television. They probably didn’t

really look the way they did in his dream. He didn’t remember how he got there or how it

all ended. If he had to dream it again, it would probably end with a social worker

knocking on his door.

       There were too many things to think about. He had to support himself. There was

still hope for the city. An ad on a scrap of paper on the floor of his booth caught his eye.

“Disability denied?” Yes, his disability was denied. This lawyer with over twenty years

experience could help. Free consultation. E. Lawrence Barth, Esq., J.D., Attorney–at–

Law was the name. Whether the disability benefits were denied by Social Security,

private insurance, state agencies, or employers, there was help. His pain was real. His

disability was real. He was entitled to compensation.

       Yes, he was entitled. But he had to ask that one silly question: what would Zorro

do? Zorro would limp in his other life. He would be pathetically unemployed, living on

the edge of poverty in a terrible part of town, infested with drug addicts, alcoholics,

prostitutes, and thieves. He would have a neighbor woman whose only goal in life was to

find a man to replace her husband. She would be much older than he was, but she would

take care of him in hopes that he would want to be with her.

        He would lose his job because of a really stupid decision to work as an

independent contractor rather than holding on to a secure civil service job. He would try

to make a living, or even become wealthy because he had some ideas. He wouldn’t dress

very well because he couldn’t afford to. People would accuse him of things, because he

was too inept not to be caught, so they figured he did it, whatever it was. He vandalized

the neighbor’s car; he stole the newspaper; he let the weeds grow in his yard; he touched

a feeble–minded girl inappropriately.

        He would probably mumble when he spoke, so his idea of getting rich by selling

things might seem silly, but he was confident enough in his product that people would

have to buy. Besides, he had logic on his side. Determination was the key. Once

everybody saw how he had prospered because of his own product they would beg him to

share his secrets.

        That was the other life. But Zorro, when he was Zorro, would swashbuckle

through the northeast part of Kansas City. Yes, he would have a horse named Midnight, a

black steed who reared before he galloped off as Zorro waved at onlookers. Zorro would

scratch his Z onto the chest of the social worker who accused him of things he didn’t do;

he would joyfully disfigure the bureaucrats at City Hall who had tricked him out of his

job. He would laugh to the cheers of all of those who appreciated him doing what they all

wished they could do.

       Some would slip him notes, asking him to avenge the indignities they had

suffered. A boss? A cheating husband or wife? A telemarketer? A rude store clerk? A

server–stiffing restaurant patron? Yes, he would make all of them regret their misdeeds.

They were the ones who had no excuses for what they did. The best they could do would

be to lie, to say they didn’t do it, to say that the law required them to do what they did, to

blame somebody else.

       But Zorro could be cruel. He could ignore tears; he could dismiss pleas for mercy.

His only reward was justice. The girls would swoon for him. The men would raise fists in

solidarity. His black silk cape would billow, even in calm air, as he rode off after righting

yet another wrong.

       His Korean sidekick, Kim, would bring him news of injustices. Zorro would make

things right. A moving company had held a poor family’s belongings, demanding

thousands of dollars in ransom. Yes, they would pay the ransom, but Zorro would arrange

a different move with the same company. Except all of the furniture, all of the clothing,

all of the items to be moved would be junk, picked from the trash. When the movers

made their demands, they would get their justice, because they would learn that, among

the items they were holding hostage was a powerful explosive that could be detonated

remotely. Where was the stuff? On their truck? In a warehouse? And were there people

nearby who might be blown up? They would have forty–five minutes to return all of the

money to the people they had cheated, all of the people, plus five thousand for their

trouble. Oh, and they had better not look for the bomb, because Zorro would know.

       And the villains would do what they were supposed to, because, with Zorro,

things could always get worse. If explosions didn’t do the trick, then seducing the wives,

sisters, and daughters might. If that didn’t work, there were a thousand different injuries

he could inflict, injuries that could be both painful and humiliating.

       There was a man waiting for a computer. Jesse had things to do, so it was just as

well he leave. He could have spent all day at the terminal, sending emails to explain the

CSU system.

       He walked the three miles home. His leg bothered him some, but it didn’t seem to

get worse as he walked. If anything, the pain became slightly less as he used it.

       On the way home he stopped in at an attorney’s storefront. The ad in the window

reminded him that he might have a legal case against everyone who denied him his

rightful disability compensation. It might have been the same lawyer who he saw on the

scrap of newspaper; he couldn’t remember.

       The office was busier than it appeared to be from the outside. The tiny waiting

area was occupied by two overweight women, one of whom was toting a sleeping two–

year–old, and two men, who didn’t seem to know either of the women or each other. A

woman at a metal desk asked Jesse to sign in.

       The waiting area, separated from the street by neat venetian blinds and separated

from the lawyer by a hollow wood door, seemed cleaner than it should have in this part of

town. It was surely cleaner than Jesse’s place.

       As he waited his turn, he realized that perhaps this was what he should do. Even

though this place was on Independence Avenue and didn’t look like a real law office, this

guy was getting plenty of business. Why? Because it was a place. It was a business. It

was somewhere that people could go to. The rent was cheap. For this guy, it might even

have been free. He could have taken ownership of the building in exchange for fees. The

receptionist, she could have been his wife or his girlfriend. Chances were that every

penny he made went in his pocket. Well, maybe there were a few expenses, like heat,

phones, and electricity, but he might have been making more money than some of the law

firms in One Kansas City Place. The ones with mahogany wainscoting and cherry desks.

He didn’t even know the lawyer’s name until he read it, written backwards on the street


         The name was Barth. Yes, that was the one whose ad he had seen. The

consultation was free, but, as the receptionist informed him, he might actually be

speaking to one of Mr. Barth’s associates.

         There were only two doors out of the front lobby; one of those was labeled

“Restroom.” That one wasn’t much use, since a woman had been in there with her child

since right after he got there, and she didn’t make any noises that said she was coming

out. The other door went into the lawyer–lair. That one was opening a lot more

frequently. That first free consultation evidently was not very thorough, since it seemed

to be taking no more than five minutes. And if there were associates, they must have been

piled on top of the lawyer behind that door.

         His turn came half an hour into his wait. The already–small office behind the door

was subdivided into three cubicles by discordantly fancy partitions. They looked to be

made of some kind of fine wood, but he could tell they were composition. The associate

he drew, the one who occupied the middle cube, was not an attorney. He was a young kid

who introduced himself as Mr. Vaughan, but the card he handed Jesse had Barth’s name

on it.

        Mr. Vaughan, who carried himself like a lawyer, was probably just a temp worker

of some kind. Yesterday he had probably unloaded potatoes and tomorrow he would

detail Toyotas at a pre–owned car lot. Those places wouldn’t call him “Mr. Vaughan.”

They would call him “Bub” or “Pal” or “You.” Today, though, he was Mr. Vaughan and

that was fine. Maybe this experience would inspire him to continue his education, maybe

even go to law school himself some day.

        For now, though, he was there to get some basic information from Jesse—Mr.

Arbothnot: name, address, phone, cell, email address. Military history? And what was the

nature of his disability? Did he have any medical records with him? Could he get those?

Was he employed? Last employer? Had he applied for benefits? Okay, now Mr. Vaughan

was ready to hear the whole story. He took notes.

        Then he told Jesse that it sounded like he had a very strong case. Jesse smiled,

despite the preposterousness of the situation. This kid who knew nothing about the law,

who was probably barely literate, was informing him that he had a good case for getting

disability benefits.

        What Mr. Vaughan didn’t do: He didn’t feel his leg to see if there were any

abnormalities. He didn’t ask how long he had had his disability. He didn’t ask how the

problems with his leg, his back, and his mind affected his ability to work. He didn’t take

a picture of Jesse for the file. He didn’t ask if he had appealed his denials from the

agencies he had already contacted.

        What Mr. Vaughan did do: He gave Mr. Arbothnot a photocopied contract,

offering Mr. Barth’s services in exchange for forty percent of any recovery. All Mr.

Arbothnot had to do was to sign the contract and he would be officially represented by

Mr. Barth. Mr. Arbothnot asked Mr. Vaughan if he could take the contract home so he

could read it all the way through. Mr. Vaughan nodded enthusiastically, since Mr. Barth

preferred that his clients be fully informed before they sign anything. Mr. Arbothnot

should take as much time as he needed to review the contract. There was no pressure.

       Okay, maybe Mr. Vaughan had not been a temp. He knew what he was doing. But

he wasn’t a lawyer. He was maybe a salesman. Mr. Arbothnot mentioned to Mr. Vaughan

that, although he was technically not working, he was in the process of developing a

business along with CSU. Mr. Vaughan had heard of CSU, hadn’t he? Mr. Vaughan had

nodded that he certainly had, although he couldn’t quite recall all of the details. If Mr.

Arbothnot had any literature, he would be happy to look at it.

       Perhaps when Mr. Arbothnot returned with his signed agreement, he could also

drop off some information about CSU. He might want to bring along several copies of

whatever materials he had, since the rest of the office would surely like to know about it.

       Jesse could overhear pieces of the conversations in the other two cubicles. On the

left there was some crying and on the right was some anger. And there were a lot of “I

understand”s and “I know how you feel”s.

       Jesse understood. In real life the fellow across the desk was not Mr. Vaughan. He

was Timmy or Dylan or Ricky. He knew, because in real life he himself was not Mr.

Arbothnot. It was possible, though, that Mr. Barth was really Mr. Barth.


       It was cool outside. He didn’t mind walking the couple or three miles home.

       He was past Troost, past the Paseo, past Woodland and had turned on Hardesty.

He sat on the curb, his feet in the gutter, his knees dropped sideways.

       He just sat there.

       His eyes were focused, but not on anything special. Maybe a tree. Maybe the


       In an alleyway across the street a black woman dropped her pants and stooped to

do her business right there. She was maybe forty years old, but probably half that, since

she was living a life that accelerated aging. She yelled at him, something about him not

having to stare at her. Her tone accused him of somehow being a pervert for not getting

up and moving when she had to relieve herself. She repeated her accusation, this time

adding that she hoped he was enjoying the show, as though this were something he

should be paying to see. When she finished, she didn’t bother wiping herself. There

wasn’t any paper around. This probably was the only spot and the only time in this part of

town that didn’t have dozens of advertising flyers from the newspaper floating freely. She

yanked her pants up and walked right up to where he was sitting. Then she made a sharp

right turn. She was one of the ones that made the Northeast famous.

       A police car cruised past him. Either they didn’t notice him or didn’t feel like

stopping. A few people walked by him on the sidewalk behind where he sat. A couple of

teenagers thumped him in the back of the head as they walked by and said something

about him probably not having anything anyhow.

       There were lines of tar on the street where the asphalt had been patched.

       There was supposed to be a car auction on Tuesday. Didn’t pay anything, but it

was something to do.

       Kim hadn’t offered him any more help. They hadn’t spoken since they got back

from Hicklesville. He didn’t seem interested in the coupons. He should have been. He

was exactly the kind of person that should have gravitated to CSU. Even though he had a

good job, he should have been watching his expenses. People didn’t go broke because

they didn’t have money; they went broke because they didn’t use the money they had

wisely. Kim was sending money to his family in Korea. Just the money he would be

saving would probably be enough to support all of them. Then he could have been living

a very comfortable life, maybe find a wife and settle in with her and start having a family

of his own.

       He thought he saw one of the cars that he had barked at the auction. It was an

early–eighties Riviera with some fancy custom chrome around the wheel wells. Except

now it also had gold–tone rims that clashed with the chrome. It also had some sequential

lights along the rocker panel. They weren’t on. They probably came on with the

headlights. Must have put huge bass speakers in the trunk. That was the worst thing about

living in this part of the city, the noise. He could live with the trash, the drugs, the

prostitutes, the lack of security, but the noise could drive anyone crazy. Especially the

seismological thumping of those woofers that so many people thought was their right.

          He lay down on the curb for a minute. Then he sat back up again.

          Jocelyn had a big mole right next to her navel. She thought it made her look like

she had two belly buttons. When he first got together with her she had been shy about the

mole, thought it was disfiguring and hadn’t thought that he would want to be with her if

he saw it.

          He hadn’t been the stupidest person in school. Charles the Idiot, everyone had

called him an idiot, but he wasn’t really that stupid, but Jesse had done better in class.

There were people who had done worse than both Charles the Idiot and himself. As far as

he knew, they were all doing well. He was the only one who was a failure.

          The coupons should have made him rich. They would make him rich. One of

these days. The money from Kim wouldn’t last forever.

          Rent was coming due. It wasn’t much, but it would cut a hunk from the money he

had. Jocelyn still wanted money for the kids. The water bill was overdue. If they shut him

off, he could get by. Marsha would let him use her shower and bottle some water to

drink, to hand wash some clothes, and to flush the toilet. He didn’t need water to wash

dishes, since, if he ate at home at all, it was out of the containers the food came in.

          He glanced for a minute at the papers in his hand. He might be able to understand

the contract, but he would have to look at it for a while. It was getting a little bit grubby

from the hand–sweat. He folded it and put it in his back pocket, right in front of his


         The auction, if he could do it every week, would almost cover his rent. He

enjoyed it too. The auction was noisy, but it wasn’t this kind of noise. At the auction, he

didn’t feel like the same person. People he knew wouldn’t have recognized him. They

wouldn’t have known the gregarious, enthusiastic man who was slapping his hands

together, who was saying “Yep!” at every bid, who was wiggling fingers at buyers,

urging them to increase their offers.

         That was the auction Jesse. The auction Jesse didn’t live in Northeast. The auction

Jesse hadn’t gone to the University of Missouri, hadn’t been an engineer. Even Cecil,

who had been at Mizzou with him, had noticed that this was a side of his old classmate he

wouldn’t have expected.

         He was four blocks from home. All he had to do was stand up and start walking,

but he couldn’t. Something was hypnotizing him. His muscles were working all right, so

it wasn’t that. He just couldn’t make himself stand. He put a hand on the curb and started

to push down, but no.

         A group of teenagers walked past him, splitting their number between those who

stayed on the sidewalk and those who crossed his field of vision by walking in the street.

They didn’t seem to notice him any more than any other minor obstacle that they had to


         He wet himself.

         He looked down at what he had done. He hadn’t even noticed that he had to go. It

just happened. The first time since he was a child, maybe five years old. He had always

been too afraid of the shame to lose that control.

         He still didn’t get up. His eyes started to lose their focus.

        A police cruiser drove by. Two officers, a man and a woman. The man was

driving. The woman looked in his direction. Was this the same car that had passed

earlier? Hard to tell. Hard to know. Hard to believe that in this neighborhood the police

only patrolled every few hours.

        It had been hours, hadn’t it? Otherwise he wouldn’t have wet himself.

        The police car came back the other way. They stopped in front of him and asked

if he was all right. He nodded. They noticed the wet area on is trousers and told him that

maybe he should stand up. He tried. It was the woman doing most of the talking. She was

pretty. He told her she was pretty, but she didn’t thank him for the compliment. The other

cop was still sitting in the car. She went over and spoke to him through the passenger


        She told Jesse not to worry. Everything would be all right. She stood over him

and kept telling him that help was on the way. There were still people walking past on the

sidewalk, including the girl who had relieved herself earlier. None of them stopped, since

it wasn’t much of a curiosity around here, having the police talk to somebody on the

street. It happened all the time.

        An ambulance showed up. The attendant stood next to the police officer. He

asked Jesse some questions. Did anything hurt? Did he know his name? Did he know

what month it was? What city he was in?

        He wrapped a blood pressure cuff around his arm and pumped it just enough.

Experience at work. He didn’t have to over-inflate the balloon, because he had the touch.

He told Jesse his blood pressure was good: 115 over 70. It was just a habit to tell people

their blood pressure, since just seconds earlier he had questioned whether this man knew

his own name.

       The other EMT had pulled the collapsible gurney from the ambulance and parked

it next to Jesse. He had an oxygen contraption strapped to his shoulder, just in case. They

asked if he could stand. He nodded, adjusted his knees, twisted at the shoulders, put his

hand on the ground and started to stand. The EMTs were at his elbows, just in case. He

wobbled, so they held his arms, right above the elbows, and helped him to the gurney.

       The police, noticing that there was no crowd to keep away, asked if they could

leave. Sure. Around here neither ambulances nor police cruisers were cause for curiosity.

       Jesse felt some pangs behind his knees. He wasn’t used to being that motionless

for so long. How long had it been? He glanced at his watch. Four hours. He flexed his

legs. After they maneuvered him into the ambulance one of the EMTs kicked the brakes

on the gurney, strapped it to the floor and began to lash Jesse down. For his own


       Some more questions. Did he have a primary physician? Insurance? A preferred

hospital? Was there somebody he would like for them to contact?

       It didn’t matter. They were going to Truman and from there to Western Missouri.

Truman Medical Center was the public hospital. That was where everyone who lived east

of Troost went unless there was some overriding evidence to indicate that the patient had

the means to pay for treatment. And Western Missouri was Western Missouri Mental

Health Center, the state hospital. The insurance checkup at Truman confirmed that Jesse

would not be able to pay.

       It was all politics. Some Republican governor would come in and say he was

cutting funds for Medicaid, public schools, conservation, libraries, people with

disabilities, road and bridge repair, state police, and services for seniors. The groups that

screamed the loudest would get their money back. The public hospitals never really lost

out, since nobody wanted to see those people at their hospitals. They didn’t want to have

their emergency rooms filled with gunshot wounds, stabbings, and drug overdoses. They

didn’t want to be surrounded by people with nicknames. So Truman kept getting funded,

as did Western Missouri.

       When Jesse left the city job, he could have agreed to pay for his insurance for up

to a year and a half. It was called COBRA, which stood for Consolidated Omnibus

Budget Reconciliation Act, which didn’t really mean anything, but it was the law that

required employers to continue to offer insurance at employees’ expense after the

workers were no longer employed. Jesse had chosen not to take advantage of this option

since, without a job, how was he supposed to pay for the insurance? And besides, he

hadn’t chosen to come to the hospital. This was certainly not his idea, and he didn’t have

any idea what he was doing here.

       This was the place where nurses who weren’t nice learned how to be mean. There

was always a shortage of registered nurses, so now they were letting people who weren’t

really trained as nurses do a lot of the work. Way back when, Certified Nurse Assistants

weren’t allowed to touch patients. In fact, before that, they weren’t even called Certified

Nurse Assistants. They were called cleaning ladies or, if someone was feeling charitable,

aides. Now they were letting them take temperatures, measure blood pressure, even draw

blood. The registered nurses, they sat at the station, mostly directing traffic.

       Through the automatic doors of the waiting room, Jesse could see that it was

starting to get dark outside. The patients with the blood leaking out and those with chest

pains already had their turns, even the ones who got there after he did. The paramedics

had moved him to one of the hospital’s gurneys and left with their own. He was strapped

onto the paper–covered plastic–upholstered stretcher, and nobody seemed to notice him

lying there. He wet himself again. He was getting thirsty and hungry.

       It was completely dark when they finally moved him into an examining room.

There wasn’t much to look at, except the wetness on his trousers. The most they could

offer was a hospital gown. They took the wallet, keys, pieces of paper, and change out of

his pants and dropped the soiled clothing into a hamper. How would they know it was

his? Did they have some kind of a magic system?

       This was what the process engineers did. They figured out sequences that would

somehow keep everything orderly. It was all charts and symbols—arrows, Greek letters,

flows, numbers, intersecting circles, horseshoes going this way and that. Now there was

software to do a lot of what the process engineers did. A lot of companies were buying

project management software for twenty, thirty thousand dollars that would replace two

process engineers. Kim, his newest relative, was probably safe at ADM, since there

wasn’t any commercial software available for such a specialized kind of operation. But

anyone who had been a process engineer in construction or consumer products

manufacturing probably would have to either find another specialty or end up in another

job. There was supposed to always be work for electrical engineers, which was one

reason he had chosen that field. But, somehow, whoever had made that calculation had

not considered that Jesse would become an electrical engineer. They hadn’t figured

that…well, Jesse.

       Jesse? Mr. Arbothnot? A finger pushed on his shoulder. Just a few questions.

Light green uniform, like the waitresses at Winstead’s. Did he have a relative that he

would like them to contact?

       A pretty complicated question, wasn’t it? His only relative here in town was Kim,

who was Korean and just related by marriage through a few tunnels. Marsha wasn’t a

relative. She was a neighbor who wanted to be more, because she was too old to get

someone but he was right next door so she figured that he was convenient and all she had

to do was feed him and maybe call the authorities on him to tell them that he had

molested her daughter, which would make him realize that he needed the stability that

she could provide, except if somehow the authorities believed that he had done something

wrong with Heidi, they’d never let him near Marsha, so either way she wouldn’t count as

a relative, even though, in a pinch he could put her down as an emergency contact under

the title of friend, even though it gagged him a little bit to think of her as a friend. And he

had a couple of kids and an ex–wife, but they didn’t live around here, so maybe Charles

the Idiot might want to be notified, and he had a lot of work to do—car counts, the

auction, and, of course, he was running his own business. CSU? Heard of it? Well, maybe

they’d want to see some literature. Unless they were independently wealthy…

       Some more insurance questions. The short answer was no, which was the same as

the long answer. Once they determined that he had no insurance, they would have to

make sure that he had no lawyer. A business card in his possession pointed to one of

those store–front assembly lines. They signed up clients, sent out letters, and took a third

to a half of everything that the recipients of the letters agreed to settle on. It was cheaper

for them to pay this extortion than to fight. Specialties? Sure. Workers’ Compensation.

Slip and fall accidents. Social Security claims. Automobile accidents. Unlawful

repossessions. Bankruptcies. Each had a niche, but none did what an attorney was

supposed to be doing. No matter how big the words “We’ll fight for you!!!” appeared in

their ads, the didn’t fight for anyone. Most had probably not met a real live judge since

law school.

       So, no, Jesse Arbothnot did not have a lawyer. So they would not perform the

CAT scan, the MRI, or even the EKG. His vitals were normal. He was a little dehydrated,

which could explain some of the disorientation, but not all of it. They had him drink

water, watching as he downed two eight–ounce cups. Then they handed him a third,

which he held in his hand, because he didn’t have room in his stomach.

       Finally a doctor showed up. Another foreigner. African, this time, not the Indian

or Pakistani he had expected. He was probably getting government benefits. And he

wasn’t too easy to understand. A little bit jarring to hear a calypso medic asking him to

open his mouth while he flattened his tongue with wood. He listened to his heart and

lungs, felt around his jaw and then his abdomen. He shined a light into his eyes and ears.

Dizzy? No. Reflexes were all right.

       Okay, good enough. That was the last of the doctor. A nurse’s aide handed him

his clothes, now wrapped in a couple of four–ply plastic bags. She told him that

everything would be all right, but he thought that everything was already all right, at least

considering the course his life had taken. Did he want some more water?

        He could just relax for a little bit. His ride would be coming along in just a few

minutes. Was he comfortable? Hungry? She could have someone bring a bite to eat. He

nodded, and a few minutes later somebody came in with a dried donut from the afternoon

staff meeting. She tried to make conversation with him. She had two kids just like he did.

One of hers was in college. The other would be graduating high school in a year. Didn’t

know what she was going to do, but she was thinking of majoring in theater. She

shrugged. Not very practical, was it, but they didn’t discount the tuition just because

someone was majoring in something that would never get them a job.

        He tried to persuade her that she could live a much more prosperous life than she

was. She smiled and patted his shoulder. Just a few more minutes and they would be

here. Really, he was living proof. He hadn’t had a job in months, but he was able to eat,

to live like a human being, because his expenses were the same as they would have been

fifty years ago.

        He told her that he wasn’t sure why he was there. He had just been sitting there,

lost in his thoughts, when the police and most of the militia descended on him. He was


        Was he aware that he had had an accident?


        She pointed down to where his wet pants had been just a little while ago. Oh,

accident. Like a dog had an accident on the rug or a child had an accident while standing

on the stage during an assembly. An accident. So, an accident causes someone to go to

the hospital.

       Well, there were many things that could cause something like that to happen.

There were kidney issues that sometimes caused incontinence, diabetes, even brain

tumors. It was a good citizen who called in to make sure he was all right.

       As far as he knew, the people wandering the street where they had found him

weren’t master diagnosticians. Besides, he thought it was just the police who decided he

would be an easy report.

       Before she had a chance to write something on her clipboard pad, he told her that

he wasn’t paranoid. And if he said it, it meant it was true. Unlike heart attacks, cancer,

slipped discs, and, yes, diabetes, kidney failure, and brain tumors, if somebody said they

weren’t paranoid, it was usually true.

       She nodded. Okay. They could just relax until his ride came.


       Man, were these people nice. They were trained to be nice. That’s what they did

for a living. They were also afraid of who might get past the Admissions process. And

they were anxious, because the state was talking cutbacks again. They were competent,

because their competence determined their future careers.

       They asked him if it was all right to call him by his first name. If he had said he

preferred to be called Doctor or Professor or Reverend or His Holiness, they would have

gone along with that too. It was important that he know that he was in charge of his

program. They were working for him.

       And before he got any funny ideas, they kidded, that meant within reason. They

handed him a stack of papers called “Job Descriptions.” Each sheet had blanks for Name,

Department, Job Title, and Date. The job responsibilities, no matter whether the job title

was Professional Aide, Nurse, Physical Doctor, or Support Doctor—which was their

name for psychiatrist—included making him comfortable, seeing to his basic needs,

protecting his human rights, helping him determine what path was most appropriate, and

responding to his mental, emotional, and physical needs with respect and dignity.

       Sounded easier than engineering.

       His Job Title was listed as “Person.” His duties were explained on the same form.

He was supposed to be open and honest about his feelings. He was supposed to respect

both other persons and staff. He was supposed to obey the rules of the hospital. He was

supposed to participate in the development of his program. He was supposed to…

       And he was supposed to sign his job description, which he did.

       Jesse couldn’t tell one of them from the other. They all seemed the same. They

were all nice, cheery. First of all, they would need his Social Security number, so they

could see if there were any records in the state’s database. Aha, it seemed he had applied

for benefits from several agencies, so they had some of his background information. That

was good. He still didn’t have insurance; was that correct?

       They wanted to know what his current occupation was. Well, as of a few hours

ago he was the principle of K & A Coupon Services. It looked like right now he had a

second job as a person.

       Did he ever think about hurting himself or others? Was that some kind of a trick?

Was there anyone who had never thought of hurting somebody? Like, for example, an

ex–wife who, although aware of his financial situation, was still sending legal notices to

him about his child support obligations. So, if he said that, yes, he had thought of hurting

others, then he was acknowledging violent tendencies, but if he said no, then he wasn’t

being completely honest with them. Or maybe they were hoping for equivocation. If he

said something like “not seriously” that might satisfy them. He would have to smile along

with his response, not diabolically, just innocently, indicating that he was no more violent

than any of them.

       He had worked for government. He had worked for private enterprise. These

people were being judged by their production every bit as much as he had been at G.E. or

at the city. What was it they needed from him? Did they want him to be happy? Was that

how they would be judged? Did they want him to become a productive member of

society? Did they want him to improve his score on some psychological test? None of

that was listed on any of the job descriptions.

       He knew what he wanted. He wanted to relax for a few days. If they wanted to

administer tests, that was all right. He did pretty good on tests. Or he would sit in groups

with some of the others. Mostly what he wanted, though, was to just be taken care of for

a few days.

       Hey, when did he get his clothes back? They were clean. He couldn’t remember if

he was still in the hospital gown when he was in the ambulance. Somebody along the line

must have had a laundry. He was more comfortable than he had been in that open–backed

thing. His wallet was even back in his pocket. His keys were there too.

       They told him that he was free to leave whenever he wanted after the first twenty–

four hours. They needed him to stay for that first day just so that they could finish all the

paper work. But after that, it was all up to him.

       Okay. But, if he wasn’t free to leave during the first day, he wasn’t free at all. If

they thought they could mete out his freedom depending on their own schedules, then

they were saying that they were the ones who were in control.

       They led him to a room, introducing people along the way, nurses, aides, and

other persons, which was what he was. The room was small, made smaller by the

presence of a roommate named Robert, who was quiet and sad. There were safe versions

of bedroom furniture. The lamp, which sat on an end table that was bolted to the floor,

was wired through the leg of the table so that there wouldn’t be a cord. And the bulb was

behind a thick plastic enclosure that prevented access to the glass. The heat registers

above had tiny vent holes so that nobody could tie a noose to them. And the sheets were

pressed fiber that would disintegrate if somebody tried to use them to hurt themselves.

The walls were painted in yellow and red epoxy, bright and cheerful. That might have

helped Robert feel a little better.

        They explained that this would be where he slept and he was welcome to use the

recreation room down the hall. Meal times were from 7:00 to 9:00, 11:00 to 1:00, and

5:00 to 7:00 for him. Some people didn’t have that much flexibility because they were on

special diets, but he could grab a bite any time in those windows. And if he wanted a

snack at other times, there were vending machines in the rec room. They would show him

the way there in just a minute.

        It seemed that they were taking up most of his twenty–four hours on orientation.

Even after all of this, they were cagey enough to not give him a map of the layout of the

place. It was a maze.

        But not for him. After all, he had been a building inspector, probably walked

through close to a thousand structures, which gave him a sense of direction while inside

of buildings. It wasn’t that hard to figure out where in the building he was. The key was

in the structural members. Those were the only major components that went from the

foundation up to the roofline. If he could locate those elements, he could know where he

was. If he had one talent, that was it. Well, to give himself his due, he wasn’t bad at

hawking the cars at the auction either, but that was different.

       Before he got the hang of picturing the layout of a building, he had done what

most people did: look at the walls and try to figure out how they corresponded to walls on

other floors. They rarely coincided though. It was a skill that seemed to come naturally to

the structural engineers, but it took him a couple of years before he was completely

comfortable with what was on the floors above and below him.

       He was pretty sure that he had inspected this very building during a major

remodel in the eighties. There had actually been a couple of inspectors. He did the

electrical and the other guy did the structural work.

       The electrical system was complicated, because, unlike residential construction, a

hospital—especially a mental hospital—had dozens of independent electrical systems.

There were the usual lighting and wall outlets. There were fire suppression systems and

security alarms. There were hazardous materials and controlled substance systems. There

were data and telephone lines. There were high voltage lines for some of the equipment.

There was an auto–switching backup power supply.

       And each of these had at least one redundancy; most had two. In addition, the air

had to allow free passage of radio and ultra–sonic communications. If Jesse remembered

right, it had taken him a day and a half to do each electrical inspection, and he had to do

three of them for this one project.

       He didn’t remember seeing the safety systems in the rooms. The lamps could have

been a problem, since the cords were not accessible. They could have had some kind of a

hospital variance or, maybe, it was just one of those details that nobody worried about

until there was a fire or an electrocution.

       But that was so long ago. Robert tried to act interested in the coupons. He even

offered to print some of them off when he could get to the computer in the rec room. But

Robert wouldn’t get much of a chance to use them. He wasn’t a voluntary, since he had

tried to shoot himself in the head. He had hit bone with a .22 caliber bullet from a target

pistol. Most of the lead had glanced off and the rest was just a splinter stuck in his skull.

       If Jesse had been twenty–eight again, he wouldn’t have done something like that.

Robert had become insane when he and his girlfriend split up. She took their daughter

with her.

       They could keep an involuntary for up to thirty days. They didn’t start counting

the days until he was medically stabilized, which they could stretch out for a few more

days. There wasn’t much to stabilize, but they would drag it out as long as possible in

order to prevent further suicide attempts.

       Jesse learned a lot about his roommate, probably more than the professionals

knew. He now knew that most people called him Bobby. He knew that he hadn’t had a

haircut in eight months, when he had shaved his own head with a Belgian safety razor.

That was right after his girlfriend left him, and he didn’t yet believe that she was gone for

good. His hair was now inching down his neck, closing in on his shoulders. Anybody

looking at him would have thought him a handsome fellow, but he was so insecure that in

his twenty–eight years he had only had two girlfriends, including the one who was gone

now. The other one had died in a diving accident when she was twenty, shortly after he

stopped seeing her, because he was bored.

       Robert—Bobby—had gone to UMKC, where he tried to major in mathematics,

but he had dropped out. One of the professors had told him that they didn’t do his kind of

math there, not at the level he wanted to be. It was a great place for applied

mathematicians, but not much for those like him who were interested in the theoretical


         Instead of going to some other school or changing his majors or just getting what

he could out of what the university offered, he had quit and taken a job at Circle K. When

things weren’t too busy there, he did word search puzzles. When he got bored with that,

he messed around with the Reimann Hypothesis. He thought best with his eyes closed,

but, for some reason, the next best ideas came to him in the harsh fluorescent of the

convenience store. He had to somehow twist that zeta function in his head until it popped

into place.

         Bobby had a secret cat that he kept from his landlady. When he just couldn’t

tolerate his life any more, he took the cat to the pound, because he knew that, one way or

another, he would no longer be able to take care of it. After the cat was gone, it was much

easier to pull that trigger.

         He had gone to the UMKC campus when it was time to end it. The shrinks had

tried to find some significance in that, but Bobby claimed there was nothing very

complicated about his decision. It was just that he knew his way around there. He knew

the quiet places and the heat tunnels. He knew the spots where he could be alone and not

be disturbed by security cops. Nothing more than that.

         Robert didn’t have any real friends, except—and he listed of a dozen and a half

people who had visited him at the hospital. He feared that people would see him as the

loner that everyone thought was a serial killer. He wasn’t ashamed to admit that he cared

what people thought of him. If that was self–centered, well, it was how he felt.

       And he was a good piano player. He made those complex Scott Joplin rags sound

almost gentle, even on the out–of–tune spinet in the rec room.

       He would be in the hospital for at least thirty days, since it would take them that

long to stabilize his meds. It took at least three weeks for them to kick in at all. Then they

would have to brainwash him into taking the pills every day the way he was supposed to.

       Jesse somehow admired his new roommate. He was a complicated guy who

seemed to understand the value of coupons. He wished he himself was that complicated,

although he did get the thing about CSU.

       He admitted, though, that he wasn’t thinking too clearly. He couldn’t. He just

couldn’t get over Beatrice. It even hurt to say her name. She had told him so often how

much she loved him, and then she just decided to leave. She swore there wasn’t another

guy, but somebody told him that she was out with Victor, who she had always claimed

was just a friend.

       Getting together with Robert had been her idea in the first place. She was the one

who had pursued him, and he hadn’t been that interested. But she made him interested.

For about six months they were happy, even though sometimes he felt a little bit bored

with her. She liked to crochet.

       But then, they would be out somewhere and some guy would tell her how good

looking she was, so he would be both proud and a little bit jealous. That excitement kept

them going for a few more months. Then, one day, she just got cold to him. She told him

she was leaving, because she wasn’t happy any more. And then she told him that she

hoped he wouldn’t become violent, which was insulting, since he had never done

anything at all to make her think he was capable of violence. But she had probably told

her friends that she was leaving him because she was afraid. That sounded much better

than saying that she was leaving because she was too selfish to spend a little time trying

to make things work between them.

       At first he was almost relieved. Then he got angry, sad, and desperate. Part of it

was the humiliation of it all. How could she leave him, when she was the one who had

started it? It wasn’t fair. And then he couldn’t accept the fact of never seeing her naked

body again. He saw hundreds of people every day, and yet he probably had seen fewer

than one tenth of one percent of them naked. And of those he did see without their

clothes, most of them were people he didn’t know, since they were in movies or on the

web. Maybe, after everything else had been suggested, the thing that really separated

humans from other species was that we were the only ones who didn’t ordinarily see each

other naked. Beatrice was the only one in his life to whose nudity he had free access, and

now she had taken that away from him.

       Jesse nodded. He understood, but it wasn’t any reason to get that down on

himself. Personally, it didn’t bother him at all that he wasn’t seeing Jocelyn’s naked body

every day. It never had bothered him. He hadn’t even thought of it.

       But it had bothered Robert. It had bothered him enough that he had tried to hang

himself; then he took a bottle of over–the–counter sleeping pills that didn’t even make

him sleepy. He had stood on the Oak Street overpass over I–670 and leaned on the

aluminum rails. The police had found him, spoken to him in platitudes, and eventually

got him into their car, where they talked to him. He had explained that he was just trying

to catch a five–dollar bill that had flown out of his hand. He swore he wasn’t trying to

jump. They warned him about taking stupid chances over money. It wasn’t worth it. They

wished him well and told him to be careful. He returned the wish and the advice.

        Less than a week later, he was on the campus of UMKC with a gun.

        He was on his fifth day of the thirty–day hold. He probably wouldn’t have a job

when he got out. The convenience store wasn’t there for his benefit. It was supposed to

be the other way around. That was why they paid him money, so he would be there for


        Jesse told him that was the beauty of being his own boss, which was what could

happen with the system he had been working with. He could work when he wanted, as

much as he wanted. Wouldn’t Beatrice be sorry when she realized what she had lost? He

might want to think about it. CSU might do for him what all the doctors and therapists at

Western Missouri couldn’t do.

        Well…maybe…later. Maybe some time later would be a little bit better time for

coupons. When people saw that things would be getting bad and worried how they were

going to make it.

        That was more than most people had given Jesse. At least Robert was thinking

about CSU, figuring, analyzing, calculating.

        Jesse was only there for twenty–four hours. They couldn’t hold him longer than

that without his permission. Fourteen of those hours were already gone.

        Robert told him that they would let him go at the end of his twenty–four. Jesse

said they didn’t have a choice. Technically, yes, but they could take all of that time to

persuade him to check in. If they wanted to, they could even go to court and claim that

their professional opinion was that he was dangerous. They had that right. But the simple

truth was that Jesse wasn’t quite sexy enough to make them salivate.

        So, Jesse’s time at Western Missouri just trickled away, another fizzle. He sat. He

wandered into the rec room. He ate. The food was pretty bland, and there weren’t any salt

shakers around. Somebody said that the bread was called Cornell White, and the recipe

was invented by food scientists at that Ivy League school to provide almost all of the

nutrients a human being needed to survive—vitamins, minerals, proteins, carbohydrates,

and even fiber. It was a recipe that almost all mental hospitals in the country had adopted.

        Some of the other people seemed completely normal; some seemed a little

eccentric. He didn’t see any that he would have called crazy.

        Robert suspected that he wouldn’t be seeing anyone until it was time for

discharge. Then it might be one of the medical students from across the street, doing their

psychiatric rotations.

        Jesse wasn’t very good at pool, but he enjoyed pushing the balls around the table

with the warped cues. The one he was using was missing part of its tip, so the ball never

even tried to go straight.

        Three more hours.

        Two more hours.

        One more hour.


       They came, the nurse and her guard, who was a big guy in his thirties. He had a

kinder face than she did. Not that she was mean, just efficient. She had a clipboard with a

checklist. She had practiced modulating her voice.

       Jesse didn’t recognize her, but that didn’t mean much. He hadn’t really seen any

of the staff, not unless the guy who filled the vending machine in the rec room was staff.

He was probably an outsider, because he acted like somebody who wasn’t there all day

every day. He kidded around with some of the people who he had seen around.

       The nurse asked him to sit across a table from her so they could go over some of

the discharge procedures. She pushed a plastic bag toward him. It contained his clothes

and other belongings.

       Maybe she wasn’t a nurse after all. She might have been some kind of a clerk or

one of those professional names they give clerks so they can be proud: case manager,

counselor, support coordinator. She didn’t wear a uniform, but that didn’t mean much

nowadays. There were plenty of nuns who didn’t even wear habits any more, so to have a

nurse in civilian clothes wouldn’t have been too shocking.

       Was he treated with respect during his stay? Did he receive an orientation,

explaining what his program would consist of? Did he receive answers to any questions

he might have had? Was the temperature of his room comfortable? Was the noise level

acceptable? Did he feel that his dignity was respected? Did he have any unmet medical

needs during his stay? Would he have any suggestions for improving the services he


       There were close to a hundred questions. At least it seemed like that many.

Halfway through the interview he asked if he could get some water. The psychiatric aide

went and got him a Styrofoam cup that he had filled from the fountain in the hallway.

       After a gulp and a smaller sip, he nodded. She continued with the questions.

       He had been there for twenty–four hours. He hadn’t asked to be there. During that

twenty–four hours he had spent, including this time, three hours getting oriented in and

oriented out. That was one–eighth of the time. He had spent about eight hours sleeping.

That was eleven of the twenty–four. Another hour went to personal care, including going

to the restroom, brushing his teeth, showering, shaving (in front of a guard, of course),

and dressing. The rest of his time he was talking to Robert, moseying about the rec room,

or just lying down, thinking about stuff.

       What was the point? Did they just pick random people up, bring them here, feed

them, do their laundry, and fill out a few questionnaires? Was that what the taxpayers

wanted them to do? Not that he minded. It actually had been quite restful. Robert was an

interesting fellow. He probably had more brains than most of the staff, but he carried his

mind well, except for maybe the thing about being so close to suicide. But Robert was the

only person he had met who seemed to kind of get how the coupon thing worked.

        But Jesse could tell. CSU was going to fizzle out, just like everything else had: his

marriage, his engineering career, his job with the city, and now this trip to Western

Missouri. They just fizzled out. No explosions, no tantrums, no shift in the world order.

        This building, it seemed sturdy. He didn’t remember all of the codes, but he

would guess that it would pass. There might be a few new things that had been added

since the last inspection, but he didn’t see any bare wires, any unprotected outlets near

water or near oxygen cabinets.

        He remembered some of what happened before he got there. He was sitting on the

curb. It was right after he left that lawyer’s office. Benefits. That was what it was about.

He was supposed to be getting benefits for his disability. That would sure make things

easier. No telling how long the car auction would be there. And even if that turned into

something steady, some day he would have to pay taxes on that money.

        There had been a crack in the street. That girl who urinated, her urine had soaked

into the fissure. Tiny crevices appeared from the weight of trucks, cars, and even

pedestrians. Water soaked into the cracks and then, when the water froze and expanded,

they got wider. That was how potholes formed. What if he could…wait…it was coming

to him…

        It was time for the good-byes. He was pretty sure the woman was a social worker.

There were others who were leaving too. He was the third in line to go. But the woman,

actually, just a girl, told each of them to be sure to call if they needed to talk or if they

believed they needed further treatment. She handed him a card. He was supposed to

remember that he was his own best advocate, that she couldn’t do her job without him.

She handed him a card, white and embossed with the seal of the State of Missouri. Her

name was Andrea with a long last name that began with a W, Psychiatric Social Worker.

And she would probably retire from that job in another thirty years. The state had an

eighty–and–out system, which meant that she was eligible for retirement when her age

and her years of service added up to eighty.

       If he had stuck with the city, he would have been able to retire at sixty. The

problem was that nobody who worked for the city lasted that long. The politics were just

too brutal. Somebody could be the most exalted employee in the bureaucracy for a few

years, and then some new administration would take over and decide to clean house. The

average tenure of a city manager was about three years. The other jobs in the city were

supposedly independent of politics, but there was no such thing. Not for water

department technicians, for help–line attendants, for legal researchers, for data entry

clerks, and not for codes inspectors.

       There was some comfort in knowing that even those who had tricked him into

leaving his job would one day be in the same position. A candidate for mayor would

promise reform, which was just the word they used to describe getting rid of people.

Sometimes it would be the rude ones at the records office. Other times it would be the

lazy ones in the street repair department. And some day it would be the meanies in codes


       Andrea repeated that she would be there to answer any questions he had. Well, he

had one. How about a lift home? Was there somebody he could call for a ride? Not that

he could think of. Nobody? They couldn’t give him a ride because of insurance issues,

but they could let him use a telephone and help him find somebody’s number.

       Forty–five minutes later, Marsha was there. Five of those minutes were spent

trying to reach somebody else. And half an hour went into explaining to Marsha what

was going on. For ten minutes he stood at the entryway, waiting, looking at the

evergreens on the parkway in front of the hospital.

       It had been a dozen years or so since the pine tar incident. The Kansas City

Royals’ star third baseman, George Brett, had flown from his team’s dugout in a rage.

Billy Martin, the Yankees’ manager, had protested to an umpire that Brett’s bat was

coated with too much pine tar. He claimed that the pine tar had extended beyond the area

that would have given him a good grip on the bat, up into the part of the bat that

connected with the ball. Therefore, the umpire ruled, Brett’s home run would not count.

       The incident dominated the sports pages not just in Kansas City, but across the

country. Sports talk shows spent hours discussing the issue. Comedians made hundreds of

jokes. It had all started because of the sappy substance that came from trees just like

those he was looking at.

       Marsha was grinning widely as she reached across the passenger seat of her Civic

to open the door for Jesse. This was her moment. She was doing something extraordinary

for him, and she was proud. Feeding him? Nothing special, since she had to eat anyway,

so it wasn’t much trouble to put a little more food in the pan and another plate on the

table. She enjoyed the company. But this was special. Not only was she taking time out

of her day to get dressed, back the car out of the driveway, and make the trip, but the

circumstance was almost intimate.

       She knew from her dealings with Heidi’s staff that medical concerns were

confidential. This wasn’t just a medical concern; it was a psychiatric hospital, after all.

And she was the one he had called to bring him home. No, nobody there asked about the

complaint about his behavior with Heidi. That was all sealed. He wouldn’t have been out

so quickly if there had been suspicions.

       He dreaded the ride, but he tried to remain stoic. She was talking a lot. Did they

treat him well? Was there anything she could do? She had an idea, just the perfect thing.

There was a comedian at the comedy club near City Market that she would just love to

see. She would pay, but she didn’t want to go alone. Would he mind? It would be fun.

       What could he say? That he wasn’t in the mood, after everything she had done?

Or he could just say that the meds they gave him would knock him out. And she would

ask to see his prescription so she could look it up and he would have to explain that it was

a shot they gave him. So she, knowing how hospitals operated, would ask to see the

aftercare sheet they gave him, which didn’t exist, because he didn’t get any meds.

       “So the white guy goes…and then the black guy, he’s all…”

       “You know the difference between men and women? I’ll tell you, a woman, she

goes into a store and…Meanwhile, the guy’s…”

       “So, anybody have kids? I have a little girl. I was there when she was born. You

know, some people take pictures of the birth. I think they ought to have the guy from the

Sears Portrait Studio come in and…”

       “Can you believe how much they charge for shoes nowadays? Sneakers? Better

not call them that. Michael Jordan might come and…”

       “Look, the guy over there’s thinking, Please don’t let him pick on me…Right?

That what you thinking?”

       Marsha asked if he wanted another drink. He was drinking Coke, and she was

having something called a Fried Raspberry, which was bourbon and Raspberry

concentrate on cracked ice with a twist of lime. This was the first he knew that she drank.

But then, he should have been able to guess as much, since she lived in Northeast and

wasn’t a foreigner. He had always attributed her poverty to Heidi. Having a daughter like

that must have been expensive. And after her husband died, it was probably even more of

a struggle, since he probably didn’t have very much life insurance, at least not enough to

move her out of the Northeast. Or maybe she just liked having enough money to keep her

well cushioned against the constant emergencies of life.

       But then again, if she was just a regular white widow who lived in Northeast, she

would have drunk. They all did, except he didn’t realize it.

       “Oo-o-h-h. So you’re offended. I’ll tell you what offends me… You know when

they run all the advertisements together and there’s one for Cheerios and then right after

that they have one for crotch spray. And the next thing you know, they want you to buy

tires. What, are you supposed to…”

       Marsha was laughing to tears. She put her hand on his forearm to steady herself.

She must have absorbed that alcohol, because there wasn’t really any reason to be

laughing that hard. Looking around the room, he realized that he was the only one who

didn’t find this guy hilarious.

       She noticed that he wasn’t laughing as hard as the rest of them. Did he want to

leave? Just let her know when he was ready. But he didn’t want to decide, because doing

so would make him responsible for her not enjoying the complete comedy experience.

       Finally. Finally. “God bless you all. That’s all I’ve got. I love you all so, please,

whatever you do, don’t explode on the way home. Thank you. Thank you.”

       It was close to one in the morning before they got home. He offered to drive,

since she was pretty drunk, but she didn’t let him. She did all right, even as they passed a

two–person police cruiser sitting at Prospect and Independence Avenue. They were

mostly just looking at the prostitutes who hadn’t made their quotas and were still trying

to find customers.

       Just as they were turning onto Hardesty, she hit a pothole. He had seen it coming,

but she hadn’t, or she saw it and just didn’t react fast enough. The jolt wasn’t quite bad

enough to damage the car’s undercarriage, but that was just lucky. He remembered when

he was working for the city, there was a whole department that dealt with damage claims

from potholes, everything from lost hubcaps to bent frames to broken axles.

       Maybe it was the proximity to somebody who was drunk. Maybe it was the flow

of the past forty–eight hours. Maybe it was the boredom of the comedy performance. He

didn’t know why, but, for the first time in ages he was starting to get an idea that might

really make a difference in his life. This one couldn’t fail.

       Of course, the coupons couldn’t fail either, and, somehow, nobody seemed to

understand. He wasn’t going to give up on that, but this one was even better. It was big,

maybe too big for him to do by himself.

       His idea grew out of seeing that girl tinkle on the side of the street. That, and the

pothole they just now hit. And George Brett. And the evergreens in front of the hospital.

       Things were coming together. He called in to the city. There was a traffic count

for him. This time it was at 27th and Troost. Not the best part of town, mostly because of

the liquor store at the corner. People were always in the lot there, either looking for drugs

or selling them, or selling stolen merchandise, or pimping alcohol for underage drinkers,

or selling their bodies so they could afford drugs or stolen merchandise or even liquor.

       No, it wasn’t the best part of town, but at least it was on the bus line, so he could

get there without becoming even more indebted to Marsha. As far as he was concerned,

she still owed him for having arranged for that pleasant visit from Deborah Wexler,

LSW. Marsha had never said anything about that when it happened, not even asking him

who that woman had been who had visited him. It wasn’t until he had asked her why she

had called social services that she reacted at all. But he knew that she knew who that

woman was and what she was doing there. Otherwise, she would have asked. And later,

he could tell when she found out that there was no evidence that Jesse had done anything

improper with Heidi.

       It infuriated him that they probably listed the resolution as showing there was no

evidence. No evidence. If somebody turned on the news to hear somebody claim there

was no evidence connecting him to a bank robbery, he would be just as angry. There had

to be something there or his name wouldn’t have come up. The same with this. People

would think, True, there’s no evidence, but somebody must have thought there was some

reason to investigate him.

       27th and Troost was an interesting count. The traffic lights were working the way

they were supposed to, but the drivers didn’t seem to recognize their authority. Those on

Troost ignored them completely. Those on 27th Street stopped until traffic cleared on

Troost and took off. If, heaven forbid, a driver were to actually stop at a red light, he

would hear angry horn blasts intimidating him into moving. Supposedly, this count was

to help determine if traffic would move more safely if the city added left–turn arrows to

the signals. Well, in his opinion, which he wrote in his notes, the traffic would move

more safely if they closed the intersection entirely and replaced it with armed sentry


        Cecil called him between the morning and afternoon counts. Was he interested in

working an auction that evening? They were thinking of going to two nights a week.

Well, he was doing counts this week, but, well, he sure could use the money. Sure. Could

he pick him up?

        It had been a long time since he had worked this much. Six hours on the counts

and then another five at the auction. Eleven hours. And that didn’t count the travel time.

The next morning he’d have to get up for the Tuesday count. He worried about when he

would have time to sleep. He had a few hours between the morning and afternoon counts.

He could sleep then, and at night. Even if he was doing the auctions twice a week, there

should somehow be enough time for him to sleep.

        But when was he going to do CSU? That was his real profession right now.

Maybe if he worked hard for a few weeks he could buy a computer of his own. He could

get cheap Internet access. He had heard that the free providers were almost impossible to

use, because for every minute you were online you had to watch two or three minutes of

commercials. But for twenty dollars a month he could get a dial–up connection. He didn’t

need a high–speed service, since mostly he would just be answering and sending emails.

That was another nice thing about the CSU system. The company maintained the web

site, did all the technical stuff, basically did everything. All he had to do was handle the

questions that local people had.

        Now, so far there hadn’t been any questions, but that was because, basically, he

was still in the roll–out stage. It would just take a few people to reach the critical mass

that would make it take off. They had even told him what questions to expect. I went to a

store and they wouldn’t accept the coupon. What should I do? Are there coupons

available for ninety–nine cents stores? How does the company make money? Is this on

the up–and–up? Is there a person I can talk to if I have a problem? He had printed off a

list of the hundred most common questions, along with the answers.

        He could do a lot of the CSU stuff on weekends. And when it came time to testify

about his building inspections, he would be making a lot more money. He could, if he

was up to it, bargain with the city on that one. Yes, he would testify, but he might be

leaving town, moving to the Philippines for a job. If they could give him his old job back,

then maybe he would be more likely to be available for trial.

        They wouldn’t do it. If he had learned anything at all about himself it was that he

wasn’t cool enough to bluff. For all he knew, they were the ones who were bluffing, just

teasing him with the prospect of getting paid to testify to keep him off their backs. They

were teasing him with contract work that never seemed to materialize, so why not the

prospect of starring in a trial?

        Cracks in the pavement. Pine trees. Potholes.


       He could make payments if they’d let him take that Celica. To drive? Did he

realize that it was a salvage title? It couldn’t be licensed to drive. It wasn’t safe. They

were an ethical auction. They sold to dealers only, and they disclosed everything. If the

engine would start and the transmission would move the Celica, Jesse wanted it.

       License plates? Were they kidding? Had they been in Northeast? There were four

main kinds of licensing protocols in Northeast. There were cars with no tags at all. There

were cars with expired tags. There were cars with one tag, either split from a legal set or

stolen. And there were cars that didn’t belong in Northeast. Those were driven by

businessmen looking for hookers, tourists who were lost, or people new to town. There

were a few people like Marsha, who had legitimate, honest to God, bought-from-the-

DMV license plates on their cars, but those people were exceptional.

       Simple, the police did not stop cars for not having license plates. They didn’t give

tickets. They had neither the time nor the inclination.

       So, if the Toyota ran, he wanted it. He knew how to drive; he could correct for

wandering caused by a bent frame. He wasn’t intending on driving to Iowa. He just

wanted something that would carry him to the library or, at most, up to Armour, where

Kim worked. Some day he’d like to take his relative to lunch, have a talk with him.

       It all made so much sense. He didn’t quite know the details, but his idea could

save cities, counties, and states billions of dollars. And Kim was the only person he knew

who had the connections to make it happen.

       Here was the idea: self–healing roadways.

       Pine trees produced resins. Those resins could become pine tar when the tree

stumps were burned for charcoal. True, that tar was not the same as road tar, but that

wasn’t the point. The resins, the tar, could, when aggregated with stone, sand, or other

binders seal small cracks in asphalt pavement.

       This would take some genetic engineering, which would be where Kim would

come in. He worked for one of the biggest private companies in the world, which

specialized in treating, altering, and creating genetic solutions to the world’s challenges,

Archer Daniels Midland. And 250 miles away in St. Louis was Monsanto, the other huge

contributor to the field of genetic engineering. These companies had developed soybean

seeds that could survive pesticides that left fields otherwise barren. They had created

huge plants that transformed seeds into liquid or powdered amino acids. The basic

biology would be relatively simple for them.

       What he was suggesting was a seed that would, when exposed to air, germinate

and immediately begin producing resins. It wouldn’t even have to be pine seeds. Pines,

all evergreens, were gymnosperms, which came from the same root as “gymnasium”.

They were naked seeds and had no protective seed coat.

        There would have to be some kind of an outer coat that would serve as a binder.

When the asphalt above was cracked enough to allow air in and even a few drops of

water—the morning dew would be enough—the seed would germinate, carrying some of

the binding material with it, and fill in the crack. Once that happened, the supply of air

and water would be cut off, so the germination would stop.

        The road builders would incorporate the seeds and the binder in a layer just

beneath the asphalt. Actually, there would have to be an extra layer of binder to insulate

the seeds from the heat of the asphalt. He didn’t know all the details. That was what the

civil engineers specialized in, except they didn’t deal with biological systems, so they

never would have come up with something like this.

        He called Kim, who told him that he wished he could help but he wasn’t in a

position to—

        No, he wasn’t asking him for money. In fact, he would like to start paying back

the money Kim had already given him. He really did appreciate the loan. It saved him. It

really did.

        What if they had lunch again? He had really enjoyed that NoYes place. This time

he would pay. And he would drive himself too. He just wanted to tell Kim about an idea

he had. He needed his professional opinion.

        There was a long pause as Kim tried to develop a credible excuse. Finally, he

agreed to lunch at NoYes. May as well go that day. Get it over with.

        Jesse told him his idea. It was so new that he hadn’t even thought of what to call

it. But just think what it could mean. How much of cities’ budgets went to road repair?

Now this system wouldn’t fill in potholes, but it would patch the crevices before they

became potholes. And it would do it all invisibly. There wouldn’t be any sawhorses

impeding traffic, no tar trucks, no citizens complaining about lazy road crews.

       Kim nodded. Yes, it sounded like an interesting idea, but he really didn’t have any

money to invest in anything like… No no no. He wasn’t looking for an investment. What

he wanted was a pathway to get this done. Could he speak to somebody at ADM about

this? It would be the kind of thing they could do.

       Oh. Well, you see, that would be a research project. That was a completely

different department. It would have to go through the main office in Decatur, Illinois. He

was just a worker. He didn’t even have a suggestion box to put something like this in.

       Well, he had a boss, didn’t he? Couldn’t he just mention it to someone and let

them suggest it up the chain somehow? Jesse knew about ADM. It had been all over the

papers. There were still people in jail or on probation over the price fixing scheme. At

least one group that had colluded with ADM on fixing the prices of lysine was Korean,

just like Kim. Forget about the sister marrying into the family; that was probably how he

had really ended up in the U.S. in the first place. Companies didn’t routinely go to Korea

to scout for employees. Even when they had relatives who had married U.S. citizens. It

was all probably part of the deal.

       Kim insisted that he couldn’t really do anything, even though he thought Jesse’s

idea was really good. By the way, had he spoken to an attorney? It might be a good idea

to patent his system. It was just a matter of protection.

       Actually, he had spoken to his attorney less than a week ago, but it was about a

different matter. He would certainly talk to him about this too. In the meantime, maybe

Kim could just mention his idea to a few people.

       Kim nodded. Absolutely. But what was Jesse expecting to get from this?

       Oh, maybe…he didn’t really know…maybe ADM would have some kind of

consultancy for him. If that didn’t work out, well, as long as people knew that it had been

his idea he could build on it.

       Their meals arrived. Jesse had ordered one of NoYes’s stranger concoctions, a

bison burger with jam mixed in. They called it the triple–B, because it was blackberry

jam, a Blackberry Bison Burger. There was also some jam on the bottom half of the bun.

The top half had lettuce, pickles, mayonnaise, and their home–made ketchup that was

more salty than sugary, so the sandwich wouldn’t be too sweet. He had some salty fries

on the side. Kim, he had just a regular hamburger. No bison; no pickles; no ketchup. Just

a patty on a bun with some house fries on the side. Jesse had said that it was his turn to

pay, but, somehow, he suspected that, in the end, he would end up with the check. Either

way, he wanted to eat as cheaply as he could.

       Kim said he would do what he could, but, realistically, just having an idea like

this probably wouldn’t get him very far. If he could create some kind of a mock–up, he

might be able to market his idea a lot easier.

       Jesse couldn’t help but feel a little bit of resentment. Did Kim realize that he was

the one who had been born in this country? Did he know that Jesse didn’t need advice

from a third–world refugee? He was talking to Kim about this as a mutual favor. Kim had

been there for him, and now it was his turn to reciprocate. It was as simple as that. Jesse

considered himself an honorable person. Even when he had no money to pay back his

debt, he had done what he could. He had sent Kim coupons for items that most people

needed—soap, milk, sugar.

       But he didn’t say that. He just thanked Kim for talking to him. He hoped that

ADM would appreciate the value of this system. All they had to do was picture what the

streets would…

       Yes. That was something he would do, build a model of his system. He might

even use real asphalt. He probably should start with a drawing, though. He still had his

drafting kit from his freshman year. He hadn’t used it in ages, but he could create a

rendering on real paper, using a real graphite pencil. And…well, he would be thinking

about that.

       Before they left, Jesse would like to give Kim some of his money back. He had

been doing some work here lately and… He hooked his ancient leather wallet from his

back pocket and opened it. He handed Kim a twenty and a ten, keeping the last twenty to

pay the restaurant tab. Jesse made sure that Kim noticed his wallet was empty.

       Jesse froze for a second. He snapped his fingers in frustration. He had forgotten to

print off a coupon for the meal. Never mind. He’d go ahead and pay full price. It would

have saved him four dollars if… It was all right. This just made him appreciate the CSU

system all the more. Had Kim thought any more about…

       It was almost time to go back and get ready for the afternoon car count. This one

could really do it. Not the car count, but the self–repairing pavement. Just on the ride

between NoYes and home he had seen two city crews, dropping shovelsful of hot tar on

crevices in the streets. Each crew consisted of three men, and each of them was probably

worth twenty or so an hour by the time they added benefits in. Kansas City had about

fifteen of those crews. And that was just Kansas City. It didn’t count the county crews

and the state crews. And it didn’t count the other expenses, like buying and maintaining

the equipment, like the cost of the materials. And it didn’t take into consideration the

inconvenience caused by potholes.

       Billions? Nationwide, his system could save many many billions. Maybe he

shouldn’t have said anything to Kim. It was a valuable idea. He trusted Kim, because he

was, after all, family. But what about the rest of them? ADM had paid fines for its shady

dealings in the past. It looked like some more of its executives might go to jail. They

spent huge amounts of money—millions—in campaign donations, which, in that world

amounted to protection money.

       Off to the left a guy was running down the street with a purse. He ducked into a

walkway that separated a used clothing store from a laundromat. If there had been a cop

around, he might have pointed the scene out. If he had a phone with him, he might have

called anonymously. Or, if he was Zorro…

       But people around here didn’t call the police. Everyone knew that. Even when

they were themselves the victims. They didn’t call because they felt it was futile. When

was the last time the police had actually caught a criminal? They didn’t call because, if

the police did come in less than four hours and by some miracle did catch somebody,

who would end up really being in trouble? It would be the poor sap who called, who was

now the target of some criminal’s vengeance.

       And they didn’t call because doing so would limit their options. Once somebody

called the police, they were no longer free to seek their own justice. Now, the police

would have their names. Not that too many people had the time or the resources to

actually avenge the crimes committed against them, but people wanted to retain that

option, just in case. They wanted the option of capturing the thieves themselves, of doing

whatever they wanted to them. Most people had neither the energy nor the time to

execute their fantasies, but they fancied that one day they might. Some day they would

take care of the crime problem, whether it was the street criminal or the dishonest

merchant or the lazy bureaucrat.

       It was like what Deborah Wexler, LSW had done to him. He could never molest

someone now. It wasn’t that he ever had the desire to, but, what if one morning he were

to wake up and decide that it would be fun to molest someone? He couldn’t do it. Before

somebody—Marsha—had filed that complaint with Family Services, he could have

plotted and planned and pulled off a molestation with some tiny reason to believe that he

could get away with it. He was on a level playing field with everyone else. Now, that

freedom had been taken from him. If anybody within a thousand miles of where he was

had a complaint, his name would show up on the list, even though he had been

completely vindicated. It just didn’t seem right. He had lost that tiny bit of his freedom,

even though it was a freedom he never would use. And what did he get for that loss of

freedom? Nothing.

       So, if people were to report the crimes they witnessed, they would be losing that

little bit if freedom. Even if they never intended to exercise it. There was a purse snatcher

who had a couple of singles and some change to go toward his next helping of liquor or

crack cocaine or maybe food.

       He would get away with it.

       Marsha waved to him when he parked in front of his place. Then she went back

into her house. She usually did more than wave. She usually came over and offered him a

meal or asked if he needed anything. Not this time. The last time this had happened was

when he first met that Wexler woman.

       This time… Nothing. Maybe she just had to use the bathroom.


       Jesse had had a girlfriend before Jocelyn. Her name was Cecile. It was in high

school. She had lived in Hicklesville her whole life, but she had been going to the

Christian school until eleventh grade. That was when her dad lost one of his jobs, so they

couldn’t afford to pay the tuition there any more, and there weren’t any scholarships for


       She was so pretty that he didn’t think he had a chance. At the same time, she was

so pretty that he had trouble of thinking of anything else when she was around. So he

asked her out. He had half expected her to question him about his commitment to Christ,

since that was how people at the public school saw those who went to parochial school.

She didn’t, but she did say that she was only allowed to go out on afternoon dates in

public places. He wanted to ask if that was forever or only until she was twenty–one, but,

instead, he just accepted the condition. He had to borrow is parents’ car, which was

actually a station wagon. A station wagon, for Christ’s sake, speaking of Christ.

       He took her to lunch at the only restaurant within thirty miles of Hicklesville that

used tablecloths. It didn’t make sense, this meal. He told her how nervous he was. And he

told her that he hoped she wasn’t too nervous to be seen with him. He asked her what she

enjoyed doing.

       Then he told her about a terrible experience he had had when he was six years

old. He had gone grocery shopping with his mother and got lost. He ended up running all

the way home, crying the whole time. It was almost a mile. His mother got frantic, left all

the groceries in her cart and drove the streets, looking for him. When she got home and

saw him there, she was so excited that she forgot to put the car in park, so it rolled

backwards into a tree across the street, leaving a dent in the bumper that the family never

fixed. He smiled while he told the story, and then got a little choked up.

       Then he asked about her. Was she real religious? What was it like going to

parochial school? Did she have to pray five times a day like everyone said? Was she

allowed to have hobbies?

       She had two brothers and a sister. No, she wasn’t crazy. School was about the

same as public school as far as she could tell. They had prayers at the beginning of the

day and they said grace at lunch. There was a bible class they had to take. But besides

that, they still had to take English, History, Math, Art, all the same courses that everyone

else took. It was just something her parents believed in. Her father had to take an extra

job just to help pay for the tuition. She also had a partial scholarship for the first couple

of years.

       They talked and talked, mostly about her, until they had to go, since the restaurant

staff had cleared all the other tables and were waiting anxiously to clean theirs. It would

be just another hour before the first of the evening diners showed up.

        On the way home she told him how easy he was to talk to. She had really had a

good time. To tell the truth, she had kind of dreaded this, but it turned out wonderful.

And, just before they pulled onto her street, she leaned and gave him a little peck on his

cheek. He hyperventilated and swerved right, bumping the curb and barely missing a

light pole.

        He asked her if she would mind seeing him again. She would love that. So, they

set it all up. After a couple of dates, she agreed to go out with him in the evening. She

had spoken to her parents about him, and they thought it would be all right. Oh, this was

going so good.

        Until she found it. It was a book that was designed to emulate the style and

graphics of an owner’s manual for a refrigerator or a lawn mower. It was called “The

Seduction Manual.” Close enough to “Instruction Manual” to get the point across. The

book was in the glove compartment. He had stepped out to pump gas and she was just

being nosy.

                                                         Table of Contents

        Diagram of Parts .............................................................................................. ii

        Before You Begin ............................................................................................ 1

        Getting to Know Your Target .......................................................................... 4

        Getting a Little Bit Sad .................................................................................. 10

        Making Her Think She Is Important .............................................................. 16

        Smiling Together ........................................................................................... 22

        Ignition ........................................................................................................... 25

        Powering Down ............................................................................................. 34

       Moving Away ................................................................................................ 40

       Safety Precautions.......................................................................................... 49

       The illustrations were line drawings, precise in their lines but crude in their

implications. Cecile didn’t have to read a lot of the book to understand that this had been

his guide. By the time he returned from paying for the gas, she was crying softly. She

threw the book at him.

       He asked her what was wrong, but she just told him to take her home. He kept

asking, not realizing what it was she had tossed at him. Then he saw it. He looked at it

and told her he had no idea where it had come from. That response had been listed under

Safety Precautions. In fact, every excuse he tried had been listed under Safety

Precautions. He wished he could think of something that wasn’t in the book, but the

author had pretty much covered it all. Her response to anything he said was an order to

take her home. She began to open her door. She wasn’t kidding. She really wanted to go

home. So that was where she went.

       And that was the end of his dating career until he met Jocelyn. Even though she

was pretty enough, he wasn’t interested at first. He had become accustomed to handling

his needs by himself. It wasn’t pretty, cool, or romantic, but it did the trick without the

humiliation he had experienced with Cecile.

       Jocelyn had come on to him for some reason that he neither understood nor

trusted. She just told him that something about him appealed to her. She was willing, so

he enjoyed himself with her. One of them should have known that this was never going to

work out for long. Actually, the fifteen years of their marriage was longer than either the

statistics or the condition of their relationship should have indicated.

        She was the one who had done most of the screaming. He had done most of the

taking it.

        Long ago. It would happen. He knew it would happen. One day either Fifi or

James, probably Fifi or maybe both of them together, would contact him. It might be by

email. They might even show up at his door. And, unless something changed, they would

find that their father was a failure. Yes, he was an engineer by training, but he hadn’t

worked at that for a long time.

        He would ask them a lot of questions about what they were doing with their lives.

Married? He was going to be a grandfather? When? Oh, so James had gone into

engineering too? Well, most people had better luck than him. It was just… Well, it didn’t

matter. Just the way the economy was at the time. James would do fine. Both of them

would. He was really proud of how they had turned out…

        The afternoon count had gone well. It was on the east side, at 23rd Street and

Manchester, which he could get to now that he had a car. It was a T intersection just west

of the I-435 ramps. There was plenty of traffic on 23rd Street but not much on

Manchester. The trouble was that Manchester was lined on both sides with auto salvage

yards. A lot of the traffic turning in was tow trucks or flatbeds, and parts of wrecks often

fell onto the pavement during the turn. The debris impeded traffic, especially on 23rd.

        He wouldn’t be the one to make the decision about traffic controls at the

intersection. That would be the Pakistanis or the Indians. If it were up to him, the solution

would be much simpler and much less expensive: get the police to start handing out

tickets to the drivers who left the junk in the road. Make the fine hefty enough to get the

message across, maybe $500 for a first offense and $1,000 for the second. Someone else

would have to make those decisions, though. All he could do was hand in his counting

box and his notes.

       When he got home a little after six, Marsha wasn’t standing on her porch to greet

him. It looked like he would have to fix his own dinner. That was all right. But later she

knocked on his door. She might have rung the bell while he was in the bathroom, but he

didn’t hear it, because it was one of those two–tone chimes. She was bringing him a pile

of casserole, which he didn’t care for, since it had both fish and ground beef, a

combination that he thought was…well…not too tasty, even when it was combined with

carrots and mostaccioli. And with browned cheese on top. It was still hot when he ate it,

which helped some.

       As usual, Marsha told him that he really should do something about his house. It

was a mess. A grown man shouldn’t be living like this. If he wanted, she would

straighten it up for him. She would clean up while he was away, so it wouldn’t have to

bother him at all. She actually enjoyed cleaning. It gave her a sense of accomplishment,

and this place would especially give her something to be proud of, once it was all neat.

       Had she mentioned to him about the coupons?

       What about the coupons?

       Well, she had tried to use them at the Price Chopper and they wouldn’t accept

them. They said they wouldn’t scan.

       Wouldn’t scan? Oh, that was sometimes a problem with some of the printers. He

had printed those coupons off for her. It was the least he could do so that he would be less

indebted to her. He printed off tons of coupons for her at the library. Sometimes, if the

laser printers had some dirt in them, the bar codes would not be recognizable by the

grocery scanners. Nothing to worry about.

       She seemed a little skeptical. It had been her impression that the problem wasn’t

with the bar codes, since the clerk had entered the numbers by hand, and their system still

didn’t accept them. She wondered if, maybe, this whole thing had been too good to be

true. She still didn’t understand how they expected to make money by giving discounts to

people. It wasn’t as though they were an advertising agency. All they did was give stuff

away, and that didn’t seem like it could possibly…

       He thanked her for the food. He had eaten it as she watched. He wished there

were a way to uneat it without throwing up. It was horrible. Marsha was a good cook but

a terrible chemist. She would have to stay away from experimenting.

       Her report about the coupons didn’t sound good. He had always suspected that

Marsha didn’t quite understand how the system worked. It was simple. CSU brought

business to companies and received money for doing so. The business model was direct

and almost beyond failure.

       He had a direct line to CSU headquarters. They had offices in New York, Los

Angeles, London, Copenhagen, and Sydney, Australia. He dialed the 212 number, which

was disconnected. As were the numbers in Los Angeles, London, Copenhagen, and

Sydney, Australia.

       The good thing was that he hadn’t invested his money in the business. Except for

a few hundred dollars that he sent to CSU to become an associate. He got his business

cards and stationery cheap, since he printed them himself, using the library’s computer.

       The bad thing was that he had lost one more chance to succeed. It was little

comfort that, as a last resort, he could probably succeed at killing himself. Now, he was

having trouble facing the people at the auction, because some of them had probably also

had trouble redeeming the coupons he had printed off for them. He could barely think of

anybody he had met in the past six months who had not received coupons from him.

Chances were pretty good that a lot of them never tried to redeem them, or they tried after

the expiration dates. Maybe all of them.

       And there was another good thing. The Engineering Department at City Hall

called to ask him to testify. Yes, this thing was finally coming to trial. Two weeks from

the following Thursday, but they would want to talk to him before that. Yes, they would

certainly pay him for his time. He would check his schedule, since his only income, now

that the coupon thing seemed to have fallen through, was the auctions and the car counts.

       In the intervening two weeks, he spent a lot of time looking up CSU on the

Internet. Attorneys General in at least six states had filed charges. Anybody who felt they

had been taken advantage of should contact the local Attorney General’s office.

       The whole operation, this huge business that was going to change the retail

landscape, was the work of a couple of kids barely into their twenties, Jews no less, who

lived in Tenafly, New Jersey. With their parents. When retailers sent them the redeemed

coupons, they made copies and sent those copies along with invoices to the companies

whose products they represented. If the companies paid, well, that was free money for

them. If they didn’t, all they had lost was a little toner and some postage.

       Their web site was little more than a graphics program that printed off whatever

coupon the user wanted. For access to the site, they were charging their distributors, all of

the Jesses around the world, several hundred dollars. Those guys had made millions

without leaving home. They were about to hire their first employee, a woman who could

help them with sorting and mailing the coupons, when the ceiling caved in.

       One state official said in a news conference that he would not be pursuing

individual distributors. That was little comfort to Jesse. It was as though he had turned on

the television to hear someone say that Jesse Arbothnot was not a suspect in the robbery

of the local credit union. Maybe not, but the fact that his name was associated with the

crime at all would make people doubt him.

       Of course, Marsha had to come around and tell him that she had seen something

about his company on the news. Did he know that they were…?

       That didn’t have anything to do with him. He was just a distributor, who… It was

pretty complicated. By the way, could she by any chance lend him a few dollars, just

until he got his check from the auction? He would pay it back.

       He told her that things were really starting to look pretty positive. He would be

giving some expert testimony in a couple of weeks. The city was paying good money for

that. If he did all right, he might make a career of that. There were plenty of structural

engineers who had not worked on a project in years. They built not buildings, not bridges,

not roads, but careers as expert witnesses. There were much fewer electrical engineers,

but he could do that. There was plenty of litigation surrounding electrical engineering.

There was also probably work to be had in testifying about building inspections.

       He had done that long enough that, even though he wasn’t a certified building

inspector, he had credibility in that field. In fact, if he took the time, he probably could

get that certification, especially since he was already an engineer.

       For now, though, at least until something happened with his paving idea, he

would be happy providing expert testimony on behalf of the city. This particular case

wasn’t exactly expert testimony, since it was about an inspection that he had done, but

they had assured him that, if he did well, they would be calling him as an expert when the

need arose. The city’s attorney went over what he would be asking. Basically, it would

just be confirmation of his inspection report on a warehouse rehab in the West Bottoms.

There might be a few follow–up questions, and the plaintiff’s attorney might ask him for

some clarification too.

       Jesse remembered the place well. It had been plenty spooky. It was reported to be

a gangster’s burial ground. And not just for whole bodies, but for the parts that were

removed to teach lessons. One story was that there was a bucket of pinky fingers

somewhere in the basement.

       Even without those rumors, though, Jesse had been a little bit apprehensive about

the inspection. The wiring was a fire waiting to ignite. It still used the peg and post

system that had been obsolete for at least forty years in residential structures, much

longer than that in commercial buildings like this. There were only two possible

explanations of why the electrical system hadn’t been upgraded: either the building had

not changed hands in sixty years, or somebody was paid off.

       Yes, he would say all of it under oath. It was the truth, wasn’t it?

       If somebody wanted him to, he could do some research about the building. He

wouldn’t charge his full fee for that….


        Jesse’s check for counting cars had a few extra dollars on it. He tried to figure out

the stub, but it didn’t make sense, so he called Beth, the personnel clerk that he usually

dealt with. He began by saying that he wasn’t complaining or anything. She asked him to

read a few lines from the stub of his check and then excused herself while she consulted

her computer. Nope, that was what she was showing.

        Yes, there were sixty hours for counting cars and then something that was listed

as a testimony bonus. Testimony bonus? He would have to speak to the legal department

about that. All she knew was they asked her to just add four hours. She didn’t really

know what it was about. He didn’t have the number for the legal department, so she gave

it to him.

        He ricocheted like a pinball through the phone system, trying to get to the person

who had spoken to Beth. Finally, a smoke–voiced woman admitted that she had sent the

voucher to Personnel, telling them to add four hours to Jesse’s check.

        Yes, but he was supposed to be getting his professional hourly rate for those

hours, not his car counting rate.

       Professional hourly rate? She didn’t know anything about such a thing. Since

when did a city employee get two different rates? This was the first she heard of it. All

she knew was that engineering had asked her to call him in to testify. If there was

something more to it than that, he would have to take it up with the engineering


       He wasn’t a city employee. He was an independent contractor. That was the

whole thing. He had been a city employee and…well, it was complicated, but he was an

independent contractor and that was how he was being paid.

       An independent contractor? Had he submitted an invoice? As an attorney she

could tell him that without one he wasn’t an independent contractor. He would have to

submit an invoice to the engineering department.

       He hung up the phone and called Mohamed, who was the head of the engineering

department. So, Hussy now had a supervisor named Mohamed. Apparently the whole

operation was now officially in the hands of foreigners. He didn’t ask what had happened

in the department. He didn’t care when the shake–up had taken place. All he wanted to

know was what had happened to his rightful pay for his testimony. Mohamed said he

would look into it. Meanwhile, he could go ahead and cash the check, and, if he had more

money coming, they would send another check.

       Two weeks later, when he called back, when he again ricocheted through the

pinball machine that was City Hall, they told him that the check had cleared. By cashing

it, he was acknowledging full and complete payment for the services he had rendered up

through the cutoff date.

       No, he wasn’t acknowledging anything. Mohamed had told him that he was going

to check and pay him the rest of… He hung up.

       He should have known.

       Kim had had time to do some checking. It had been almost a month. He suspected

what Kim would say.

       It would probably take years to develop his idea. They would have to come up

with a seed that could produce resin quickly; they would have to control its growth; they

would have to find a way to trigger germination by air; they would have to encapsulate

the seeds so they wouldn’t sprout prematurely, and so they would carry the binding

agents into the fissures of the paving material; they would have to figure out a layered

system of substrate, seed capsules, and pavement; they would have to make sure that,

once the cracks were filled, the plants would stop growing.

       And then they would have to sell the system to cities, counties, and states. The

cost would be at least quadruple what it cost to apply regular asphalt. For repairs, it

would be even worse. Instead of just pouring patching compound into cracks, workers

would have to remove large squares and neatly put down layers of materials. And the

purpose would be to put those same workers in the unemployment line, so there was

bound to be at least some sabotage, so supervisors would have to spend more time

watching to make sure the work was being done right.

       But even with all of those problems, Jesse was sure that the idea would work. The

biggest obstacle might be the unions, but that was what bureaucrats were for. Besides,

ADM had become one of the biggest companies in the world by knowing how to pay off

the right people.

       Ironic, he thought, the very first footpaths, before people even used animals for

transportation, were created by clearing vegetation. Now, the ultimate paving system

might require the most modern incarnation of those same plants.

       Kim wasn’t in. He had gone out to lunch. He should be back by 1:30, but then he

had a meeting that would probably last the rest of the day. Did he care to leave a

message? That was all right. He’d call again the next day.

       It was 11:00 the next morning, after trying a couple of times earlier in the day,

before he connected with Kim. Listen, he said, he was in a hurry. He had to get to a

meeting and then to a plant in the bottoms so that he could get out of town for a

conference in Decatur the next day. What if he just left a check for him at the front desk.

Would that be all right?

       Oh, that wasn’t why he was calling. He just wanted to know if he had a chance to

talk to anyone about his idea. Well, it was all right. He knew how busy Kim was. He

would just go ahead and pick up that check and they could talk when he got back from

out of town.

       That would be great. They could talk about it then.

       This check was smaller than the first, only five–hundred. He did appreciate it.

Maybe Joanne could send him a little bit. She had been awfully grateful for his

appearance at her mother’s funeral. She had sent him a hand–written thank-you note

afterwards. He wasn’t in that bad shape really. He did have the checks from the city and

the money from the auction. He wasn’t spending a lot to live. Every now and then he still

ate at the church. The food wasn’t too bad and it gave him a chance to get out and be with

people. Marsha was feeding him for the most part, although, whenever he got a check of

any kind, he treated himself to a fast food meal.

       Jesse finally got Kim to talk to him. Okay, one more lunch at NoYes, and this

time Jesse promised he would pay. How about next Monday? Fine.

       Kim was sitting at the window table, smiling at the menu, when Jesse arrived. His

face sombered a little when he saw Jesse. He said he would be completely honest with


       Kim said he had mentioned Jesse’s idea to a few people around the office.

Nobody was really able to see a flaw in it. Now that didn’t constitute any kind of a

promise, but…

       Jesse assured him that he wasn’t looking for a promise. He just was hoping that

there might be some merit in his idea. The big problem was that ADM was going through

a lot of turmoil. There was a good chance that Mark Whitacre, the company’s chief

scientist would be going to jail. At least one of the Andreases might actually end up being


       The whole science division was a lot more concerned about what that would mean

for their jobs than they were about coming up with radical new ideas. Besides, this might

be more up Monsanto’s alley. They were the ones who came up with new ways to create

crops and use seeds. ADM’s expertise was more in the production area. They could make

a lot of lysine, a lot of MSG, a lot of tryptophan, a lot of high fructose corn syrup. But

they weren’t the ones who created those markets. All they did was increase production

enough to make their use routine.

       So was he saying that ADM wasn’t interested?

       Kim laughed a little bit. He wasn’t exactly in a position to decide what ADM was

or wasn’t interested in. He had done everything he could as far as letting people know. If

Jesse wanted some good advice, it would be to get himself a lawyer.

       Jesse nodded. He had a lawyer. His name was Lawrence Barth.

       For patents?

       Barth was actually a generalist. He handled all of Jesse’s legal work. If he didn’t

feel comfortable in a particular area, he had consulting attorneys that he worked with.

       What about Kim? Did he like the idea?

       It was very interesting. He wasn’t a biologist. He couldn’t tell if it would really

work, but it sure made sense in a large–thinking kind of way.

       What was a large–thinking kind of way?

       Oh, that was a corporate thing. When all the companies in Japan and Korea were

making small batches of lysine, ADM built a plant in Decatur that could produce the

whole world supply every few hours. They developed new strains of microbes that

created much more efficient enzyme reactions. They…well…there were rumors that they

actually stole some of the technology.

       As far as Kim knew, the company was completely honest. Mark Whitacre himself

had visited the office a few times just in the time that he had been there, and he was a

very nice man, very humble. Personally, it was hard to believe that any of the things the

government was trying to say about him were true. Oh? Had Kim mentioned the idea to

Mark Whitacre? What about the Andreases? Did any of them know about the idea?

        Well, it was like he had said, they all had other things on their minds. Right now,

though, he really wanted to enjoy one of NoYes’s desserts. They actually made the key

lime rhubarb pie themselves.

        Jesse offered to pay for lunch but Kim wouldn’t let him. And Kim left the tip too,

because Jesse didn’t have change.

        It was that same afternoon that Jesse stopped in to see his attorney. Except he

wasn’t his attorney until he signed an agreement, which would give Lawrence Barth

between a third and a half of any settlement. The contract that he had received during his

first visit had said forty percent. Why was it going up to fifty percent today?

        Oh, well, they had had to revisit their rate structure, since some cases were very

complicated. He wouldn’t stay in business very long if his services were free or, as had

been the case, if he was losing money. What was Jesse’s deal again? The city? Well,

those negotiations could get pretty complicated, especially with a disability that was hard

to prove. That was why the fee would probably be closer to half. They might be able to

keep it to forty percent. It was hard to tell.

        Actually, Mr. Vaughan, the temp who Jesse had seen during the initial visit, had

seemed more like a lawyer than this guy. Barth was nervous and awkward, which was all

right for an engineer, but strange for an attorney.

        Or, of course, they could always sign a retainer agreement. Most of the work he

did was contingency, but if Jesse preferred, they could both sign a contract. He would pay

a retainer and Barth would draw against that as long as it lasted, and then there would be

a straight hourly rate, which was $130.

       And how much would he pay up front? Well, they would start with $1,500, which

would give him twelve hours of service, counting a small discount. Hadn’t his girl

explained all of this? It was supposed to be part of the welcome packet.

       Jesse told him that he had an issue besides the disability. He had developed a new

system for repairing pavement that…

       Barth held up both hands, as though to tell him to get away from him with that

stuff. No, he didn’t do patent work. It was instinct. He should have known better than to

freak in front of clients. But his business model had served him well so far.

       For each person who signed a contract he would send a letter to a business office

or to an insurance company demanding the payment of disability benefits. He would

receive, in return, some kind of offer, which he would accept on behalf of his client. He

would get a check, keep forty percent for himself, and make a decent living. The client

provided the address of his old employer or his insurance company. The letters were

boilerplate that were stored on his computer with just a few blanks to fill in based on an

interview. His total time investment was maybe forty–five minutes, of which half an hour

was the free initial consultation.

       Except now he was hiring workers to conduct many of those interviews. And that

investment in time could reap thousands, tens of thousands, or, in two cases, hundreds of

thousands of dollars. He had six kids, so it wasn’t like he was living extravagantly. But

he and his family were comfortable. His wife had earned a little bit of comfort, especially

after that last pregnancy.

       More important was that he was providing a service. That was why the office was

always full. People got the disability checks they were entitled to. In some cases they

even had the choice of getting a lump sum. It was really good for everyone. The client

got the money; the defendant was able to save legal costs by settling early; the insurers

and taxpayers avoided penalties.

       He was able to serve the literally hundreds of people he did each year because he

specialized. He didn’t handle car accidents, product liability, divorces, criminal cases,

and certainly not patents. Was Jesse aware that there were companies that would handle

patent applications? He himself had seen an ad.

       Yes, Jesse was aware that there were companies, but he didn’t need those

companies. He needed a patent attorney. He wasn’t talking about some gadget to help

gardeners. He was working on a much more complex system… It didn’t matter. What

about his disability payments? When would he be able to get those for him? And did he

know anyone who did do patents?

       Barth Googled “Patent Attorneys in Kansas City” and printed off the results. Jesse

folded the sheet and put it in his back pocket. He could use the blank side for notes. He

signed the contract.

       He was surprised that less than two months later he received a letter from Barth.

The lawyer was confident that Jesse would start getting his disability checks in about a

month. They would be coming from Barth’s office since Barth was the payee and would

be cashing the checks. Still, Jesse would be getting more than $800 a month.

       During those two months Jesse also tried to find a patent attorney. He asked Kim

who ADM used. Kim laughed. No, ADM didn’t go to lawyers. ADM hired them. They

had a staff of almost 200 in the legal department. The only attorneys they used from

outside were the criminal lawyers and, the way things were going, there was a good

chance they would be needing a few of those on staff too.

        Kim didn’t like to say no to his only relative in Kansas City, but he couldn’t very

well offer the services of ADM lawyers to Jesse. Not only would doing so violate

company policy, but it would be a conflict of interest. After all, the invention that Jesse

was trying to protect was one that could conceivably be useful to ADM. Just in theory, of

course, but still.

        By the way, Jesse hadn’t forgotten about the money Kim had loaned him. He

really intended to pay it back. It turned out that the CSU thing hadn’t worked out the way

he had hoped.

        The way he had hoped? Did Jesse think that, just because Kim had an accent he

didn’t get the news? The people who had started this company might go to jail. They

were facing as much time as anyone at ADM. For Jesse, it was just embarrassment. As

far as Kim knew, nobody had actually given him money, so Jesse didn’t have to give any

money back. There were probably some merchants here and there who lost money when

they redeemed those worthless scraps of paper, but none of them would prosecute. A

grocery store would call the police on a kid who stole a candy bar, because the grocer

wanted the world to know that shoplifters were going to jail. But a coupon scheme? How

many people would go through the trouble of prosecuting something like that?

        The most embarrassing part of the whole thing for Jesse was that those who had

duped him were not sophisticated con artists. They were a couple of kids. Not even


       At least he wasn’t out a lot of money. On the other hand, he had lost a lot of his

credibility. As far as he knew, the only one he knew who had ever used one of the CSU

coupons was Marsha. She knew very well that he had acted in good faith. He himself had

used the coupons without any notion that they were worthless.

       In the end, nobody really lost. Some of the companies whose products were

featured on the coupons actually paid the merchants who had accepted them. They did so

not just out of good will, but because their products received the same promotion as if

they themselves had issued the coupons.

       In fact, the only real problem with the system was that the companies whose

products were being discounted had lost control of their own promotional efforts. That,

and the fact that the discounts were so huge that each coupon redeemed represented a

huge loss. And that they were now associated with a pyramid scheme that benefited a

couple of punk con artists. And that not redeeming the coupons would reflect badly on

the companies, even though they were counterfeit.

       Okay, he would have to think about all of this. That was just one opportunity, that

CSU thing. He wasn’t out a lot of money, just a few business cards, pennies. He had

never actually paid anything beyond the initial buy–in to CSU’s headquarters, since he

didn’t have any money. His partnership share was supposed to come out of the

memberships of what CSU called “deeper partners.” A deeper partner would have been

somebody, like, say, Marsha, who would have invested in Jesse’s CSU franchise.

       At that point Jesse’s company would be completely independent of CSU. If he

wanted, he could even give it an entirely different name. He could register with his

Secretary of State as a private corporation. He could establish his company as a public

corporation or retain it as a sole proprietorship. If he chose to franchise his operation, that

was his decision.

       The only thing he would owe CSU would be the original consulting fee. It was all

there in the contract. Jesse had read it. He had even understood it, at least in a superficial

kind of way.

       The problem was that he had been blinded by his desire for independence. He so

wanted to no longer have to beg the City for a few dollars, to wait for the next betrayal,

that he wanted to believe the literature. He had to.

       He got a registered letter. CSU had declared bankruptcy and Jesse Arbothnot was

listed as a debtor, since he still owed a fee to the company. $18,006.67.

       Naw, he wasn’t going to be sending them money.


       Jesse found a woman who claimed she was a patent attorney, but mostly she was

an accident and a DUI attorney. The big law firms didn’t want to see him. They said it

would be a conflict of interest for them to represent him. What Jesse figured that meant

was that they would rather pass on his business in the hopes that some day they would

represent ADM or Monsanto or Cargill, companies who had a few quarters in their


       And the Spencer-Fains, Shugart-Thompson-Kilroys, Stinson-Morrison-Heckers,

and Blackwell–Sanders charged real money for their initial consultations. The thought of

seeing a real licensed attorney without paying for the privilege was, apparently,

disgusting to the aristocracy.

       So, Jesse ended up visiting with a woman named Barbara Carla Jacoby, whose

office was on the stretch of Main between Crown Center and Westport Road. It was an

area that had for years tried to come back. Those twenty or so blocks had never been as

bad as the Northeast, but, compared to the two either of the areas at its ends, it could be a

lot better. There had been at least three organizations dedicated to bringing back the

corridor. So, they got a few gay nightclubs and bars to move or update their facades. A

few ancient apartment buildings were torn down, even though they had been structurally

sound and architecturally interesting. But they were old and needed more fixing than

anybody cared to put into them. In fact, Jesse himself had inspected two of them,

declaring them uninhabitable.

       The building where Barbara Carla Jacoby maintained her small practice had once

been a dry cleaner. It had once been a sandwich shop. It had once been a pool hall. It had

once been a craft shop. And it had long been vacant. She got the place cheap—rented not

bought—since she agreed to upgrade the electrical, heating, and cooling systems. She

didn’t have a staff. All she had was a sign on her door that said when she would be back.

She got by without a wired phone, using a cell phone so she could carry her office with


       Jesse met with her between morning and afternoon traffic counts. She was in her

mid–thirties, a little bit overweight, and as unkempt as he was. She was wearing

dungarees and a cowboy shirt but still seemed almost but not quite feminine. Her voice

was comically girlish, as though she was pulling some kind of stunt with helium. That

sound took him aback, but he recovered.

       He explained his idea to her. She nodded, but he wasn’t sure if she was really

getting it. What he suspected was that she was thinking back to law school, trying to

remember the stuff about patents, trademarks, and copyrights.

       She told him that this wasn’t the kind of case she could take on contingency. She

would have to charge her hourly fee. Most of her cases…He understood. Most of her

cases were like most of Barth’s, meaning she fished for settlements with letters and

waited for the money to roll in. But at least she had the decency to talk to him.

       His idea was much more complicated than the usual gadgets that people tried to

patent. Those could be described with simple drawings and a few words of explanation.

His system involved many components, and each of them could be very intricate.

       He could save himself a lot of money by doing as much of his own research as

possible. That was her advice. When he was done, when he found out for sure nobody

else had patented his system, she could take care of the filings. That was her specialty,

filling out forms. She couldn’t say exactly, but the cost would probably be in $2,000 to

$3,000 range. The more of the work he could do, the less it would end up costing him. He

was lucky, because most patent information was on the Internet. Years ago he would

have had to…

       He spent many hours at the library. Despite what Barbara Jacoby had said, what

he found on the Internet wasn’t too useful. He still had to look through many rolls of

microfilm. It would have been easier if the microfilm listings were by subject instead of

by patent number. What he found in the Internet search for “pavement” was a few

hundred listings for everything from matrix systems to make paving materials last longer

to embedded sensors to transmit mechanical information about vehicles to drivers. As far

as he could tell, nobody had yet come up with his idea.

       That was a good sign. He could draw up his idea. He got the specs—paper size,

drawing medium from the Patent Office’s web site. He could download the applications

too. At that point, he wasn’t exactly sure why he would need an attorney. The worst that

could happen would be that they would ask him to resubmit his proposal. Or tell him that

what he suggested wasn’t eligible for patent. Or inform him that his idea was already

patented. Or that somebody else had submitted the same idea.

       Which was what happened.

       And who had come up with this system? A team of scientists from Archer-

Daniels-Midland, Monsanto AgriChem, and the Pavement Research Center at the

University of California, Berkeley. They had submitted a preliminary application for a

system that would require inserting certain genes into encapsulated staphylococci which

would then…

       Jesse had never angered easily. Frustration and melancholy were more his style,

despite what Jocelyn told the kids, the lawyers, and her friends. But he was angry.

       He waited until he could control himself before calling Kim. How could he have

done something like this? They were family.

       What? Something like what?

       This was a betrayal. Had he learned that word in English yet? Oh, how could he

have worked for ADM without knowing about betrayal in all its forms?

       The paving system? He might have mentioned it in passing to a couple of people

in the office, but that was as far as it went. He swore that he hadn’t taken it to anybody

who could have stolen his idea.

       Well, they did steal it. Somebody stole it.

       It happened all the time that people came up with similar ideas at the same time.

There was no need to be accusing people of things. It was just one of those things that

happened. Besides, there were very critical differences between what Jesse had suggested

and this system. Jesse had mentioned a system based on seeds; this one used bacterial

variants. That was a very important distinction.

       Oh? For somebody who was claiming ignorance, Kim sure seemed to have

studied the intricacies of how the pavement would be repairing itself.+

       No, not really. It was in the newspaper. And he didn’t want to bring it up, but had

Jesse forgotten that he had actually given him money when he was about to starve to

death? He had every bit as much respect for family as Jesse, and, to be perfectly honest,

he resented the accusations.

       But…but… Well…maybe. But it sure seemed strange that… Well, what if they

had him do some work as a consultant.

       Kim laughed until he realized that Jesse was serious. He didn’t bother explaining

that ADM, much less the consortium that Jesse was talking about, did not need him. They

did not need somebody who already thought of them as thieves to come and tell them

how to do things. And that didn’t even count the fact that Jesse had been living for almost

a year by cadging money from relatives and a few little jobs. Nor did it take into account

that he was involved in that CSU thing that, if it had not been so clumsy, could have cost

people millions. And then there was the fact that Jesse had not ever even really worked as

an engineer, much less as a scientist.

       Wasn’t it an odd coincidence that in two hundred years of patents nobody had

come up with this idea and then, as soon as Jesse mentioned it to Kim, the company he

worked for applied for a patent? Kim was silent for a moment. What was he supposed to

say? Yes, it was a coincidence.

       He had mentioned Jesse’s idea to a couple of people at his office. That was it.

And even though it wasn’t in Kim’s nature to be brutally honest, he had to say that

nobody thought it was particularly brilliant. That was why he hadn’t spent more time on

it. He really wanted Jesse to be successful at something. He really did, but he didn’t think

much of using plants to build roads; nobody did.

       Besides, to get to the point that they were at, the consortium would have had to

begin work on this project long before Jesse had ever mentioned it. Did Jesse have any

idea how much work was involved in just putting that kind of partnership together? It had

to have been years. And it was in a completely different department. It didn’t have

anything at all to do with the work he did for ADM.

       That was the way it was with foreigners. As soon as they got comfortable in this

country they thought they knew everything. Now Kim was telling him how things

worked in the United States.

       Then Kim suggested that, if Jesse really believed that he had been cheated, he

might want to consult an attorney. Did Kim realize that Jesse could make a couple of

phone calls and have his smug little body deported to Korea? He didn’t say it, but he

thought it, because it made him feel better. Kim ended the call by promising to put a

check in the mail to help out.

       Jesse thanked him. At least the call could end civilly.

       He drove over to Main street, through a bottleneck where a morning drunk driver

had knocked over a morning drunk pedestrian at 31st Terrace. There was a note on

Barbara Carla Jacoby’s door saying she would be back in an hour, which could have been

written five minutes ago or two weeks ago. He got a cup of coffee from a Chinese place

at the corner. He dumped plenty of sugar and creamer in, since it was free. As he walked

back toward the law office, he saw her put the key in the door, having long ago figured

out how to manipulate the key while wrangling her briefcase, her sunglasses, and a purse.

She jumped when he told her hello. That wasn’t something people came out of hiding to

say. And when she jumped, his hand jerked, spilling some of the coffee on his wrist.

       He would have offered to help her with her belongings, but he was afraid that he

would destroy her equilibrium. The best he could do was hold the door to keep it from

slamming into her back as she walked in.

       She was still putting things away, opening and closing drawers, arranging scraps

of paper on her desk, when he told her what had happened. She shrugged. That was the

way things went with patents.

       Finally, she settled into her desk chair and asked him to sit down. She looked at a

desk clock and made a note of the time. He did realize that this consultation would not be

free, even if he didn’t like what she was going to tell him. Just because he had an idea

didn’t mean that he was the only one who had had it.

       Yes, but he had specifically asked his relative at ADM to check into it, and now

ADM was one of the key players. Wasn’t that a pretty big coincidence?

       She got up to get herself a cup of coffee from a drip maker that had been heating

since before she went to her morning meeting. It smelled burnt, but she didn’t seem to

notice. After a slurp she told him that coincidences happened all the time. Besides, was

he sure that what the consortium was doing was exactly the same as what Jesse had

proposed? It didn’t matter, though, because, when it came down to it, he would have to

accept that the world was a real place.

       A real place? What was that supposed to mean?

       It meant that he would never win this one. Assume that the relative told the

absolute truth. He knew about the idea. Even assume that he mentioned it to a few

people. How was anybody going to jump from there to conclude that ADM took that

information, found not one but two partners, conducted this massive research, and

applied for a patent, all based on what amounted to an office rumor. Did that sound

reasonable? Or was it more logical to assume that they developed this relationship over a

number of years and came up with this idea independently. If he were the judge, what

would he think?

       But it was his idea… Wasn’t she supposed to be fighting for the little guy? That

was what they all said—fighting for the little guy.

       She did fight for the little guy, but the little guy had to have a case. And the big

guy had to be an insurance company or a trucking company or a hospital. It didn’t work

too well when the big guy owned a big chunk of the universe. She would advise him to

just forget about it. Even if he won the patent case, he wouldn’t get much, since they had

done so much of the actual research. Any judge would look at the equity of the situation.

Assume that everything Jesse claimed was completely true—just assume. Even with that

assumption his contribution had been minuscule compared to all of the laboratory

research that had contributed to the patent.

       Yes, but…

       She understood how frustrating it might be, but he would have to accept the fact

that the courts were not in the business of awarding windfalls to people just because they

had a good idea. There was already a perception that the courts were lotteries, and judges

didn’t appreciate that.

       But…look at it the other way. If those huge companies were willing to invest in

his idea, it must mean that they thought there was a lot of money in it. If she were willing

to take his case and win—even if it was just a compromise—it would mean millions for

both of them.

        Maybe she could type a letter…

        So, she wrote a letter.

        And she got a response.

        And the response said that ADM had no idea who Jesse Arbothnot was. It said

that ADM and its partners had been working on this project for at least six years. It said

that both the name “BactiCrete” and the stylized “living highway” logo were registered

trademarks. It said that ADM had a strong policy of not negotiating with extortionists. It

said that unless there was evidence of wrongdoing on ADM’s part, it would behoove Mr.

Arbothnot to refrain from making unfounded allegations. The letter was machine–signed

by a staff attorney.

        Wow. She was impressed with the efficiency of that legal department. They didn’t

offer negotiations. In fact, they were threatening to put her client in prison for extortion.

This was a company that was in the middle of one of the biggest criminal trials in the

history of American business.

        She wished she had that kind of gall. She would be rich. Now, if she was lucky,

she would stretch her call to Jesse to eighteen minutes, which would mean $36 towards

feeding her cat, Bunsy.

        Wasn’t there something she could do? They had stolen his idea. It wasn’t fair.

        No, the world was too real. She had no idea if ADM had really been working on

the idea for years, and neither of them had the money to find out. And they didn’t have

the money to take ADM to court, especially if they had really done what he claimed. If

they had, they would delay and stall and make sure that he went broke from the legal fees

before his case went to trial. And both Jesse and she would be broke. ADM would

publicize their victory so that anyone else would be careful about getting funny ideas

about messing with the big guys.

       And she wasn’t even talking about the merits of his case. His relative had denied

that ADM had even paid any attention to Jesse’s idea. As far as he knew, the furthest it

got was a little bit of office chatter. There was no way to prove anything different,

especially since Kim had been so generous to Jesse. It would be pretty ungrateful of Jesse

to try to ruin him now.

       But this was his last chance. What could he do?

       She couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. She wasn’t a therapist. It bothered her

that clients would spill out to a female attorney in a way they never would with a man. A

woman was supposed to be able to understand feelings. She didn’t go to school to

understand feelings; she went to study the law.

       There there, little boy. It’ll be all right. You have a lot to offer the world, and you

are far from being a failure. You’re an engineer. Do you have any idea how many people

would like to be engineers? You probably could go out tomorrow and get a job. There’s

always a demand for good technical people. Lawyers? A dime a dozen, but engineers…

       Whee–e–e! She had been hoping for eighteen minutes and, instead, she managed

a good sixty-six. That was $132 dollars billed.

       And another trip to see his other lawyer, Barth, left him with even less. Yes, Jesse

should be getting disability payments. Anyone could see that he had a bad leg. And the

way he flinched when he moved his upper body, sure sign of a bad back. But they would

need documentation. Could Jesse do a favor and get a medical report?

        Where would he go to get one of those? Did he have a doctor? No, not since he

lost his job, which was when he lost his insurance, and which was also when he became a

poor man who couldn’t afford to pay for a doctor’s visit. Had he applied for Medicaid?

Vocational Rehabilitation?

        So Barth gave him the card of a doctor he worked with. Actually, he was a doctor

of chiropractic who had an office just four blocks west of there. They worked together

quite often. Dr. Kirkov could do an examination and write up a report for about a hundred

dollars. After that, they should be able to come to some kind of an agreement with the

Social Security Administration about his disability payments.

        By the way, if he hadn’t mentioned it before, he might also be eligible for

Worker’s Compensation. Climbing through building sites, inspecting old warehouses,

any of that could have contributed to his problems. And Barth, he was going to pursue

every avenue available.

        No, this consultation was not free. It was only the initial meeting. If Jesse

preferred, they could put the charge on his credit card. Or cash or a check would work

too. He could settle up at the front desk as he left.

        Living costs money. Jesse knew that. But he didn’t know that it cost a couple

hundred dollars an hour, and that was what his life was costing him these days. There

weren’t too many places for him to go any more.

        There were still free meals over at that church. Nowadays, though, they were

getting a little bit particular. They said it was because they didn’t have the money they

needed to feed everyone. They even went on television to appeal to the news watchers to

send donations. They wouldn’t want to give him a meal if they saw him pull up in a car,

so he parked a couple of blocks away and limped on over to get some decent food: a

Salisbury Steak with gravy, mashed potatoes with more gravy, peas, and fruit cocktail.

Not bad for what it was.

        At least the auction work was picking up. A lot of repos these days. It was a good

thing he wasn’t an economist. He would have thought that when times were good people

would be able to keep up their car payments, but sometimes it worked just the opposite.

In good times people were so optimistic that they would buy things they really couldn’t

afford because they figured the money would come any time now. So people who should

have been buying ten–year–old Honda Civics were buying brand new 4 x 4 pickup

trucks, and then having them customized with mud flaps, super stereos, pin striping, roll

bars, tool boxes, just about anything a custom shop could add. And they were surprised

when they couldn’t pay for all of that?

        So, anyhow, he was up to three evenings a week at the auctions. And they even

gave him a little bit of a raise, because they told him he was doing a good job. He figured

he was doing an okay job, but the auction was making more money than it had in the

past. He didn’t mind taking the credit, since, Lord knew, he got plenty of unjustified

blame in his life.


          Marsha asked him what was wrong, and he said nothing, and she said yes there

was, because she could tell. He really had to get inside…

          It wasn’t the coupon thing was it? Because she didn’t blame him for that. In fact,

she had thought it was really a good idea. Was that it? No sense getting depressed over a

little embarrassment. That was all it was, a little embarrassment. In a few months the only

ones who would remember it at all would be the people who started this swindle, because

they’ll be in jail.

          No, it wasn’t the coupon thing. It really wasn’t. And he really did have to get


          It had been a couple of weeks and he hadn’t heard anything from Barth. He hoped

there was some kind of settlement offer in his mailbox, but there wasn’t. There was a

letter from Jocelyn. She had email, which was what she usually used when she decided

she was out of money.

          But this was a letter, and it seemed to be handwritten. He took a whiff. Maybe the

tiniest hint of a scent, but that could have rubbed off of someone else’s mail at the post

office. When he ripped the flap open with his forefinger, he smelled the inside. Nope.

       Jocelyn was getting married. To a wonderful guy, of course. It was going to be in

fall, but they didn’t have a date yet. The wonderful guy, he was so wonderful that he

wasn’t even divorced. He had cared for his wife as she fought cancer for nine years. And

he had four kids. And they would all be moving into his house, his new one, where they

had moved after his wife got sick, because they needed extra space for the medical

equipment, and later for the full–time hospice staff, which he could afford, since he had

started from nothing and created a chain of three ShortKake Shoppes throughout the


       And then Marsha came in carrying a meal. She told him that Heidi was going to

be coming to visit this weekend. Would he be around? Because Heidi considered him

almost like a father. Shepherd’s pie. Delicious.

       Well? Would he be home over the weekend? It would mean so much to Heidi. He

didn’t know for sure.

       Did he know what would really solve a lot of both of their problems? And she

laughed. If they went ahead and got married. She was laughing, but she meant it.

       And he laughed a little bit too, so that she wouldn’t think he was taking her

seriously. Because he didn’t want to marry her.

       He didn’t want to marry anybody, but he especially didn’t want to marry her. He

already felt like he had lived longer than he really had, and marrying her would make him

feel even older. Besides, that daughter of hers, well, it would take somebody tougher than

him to be able to deal with her.

       It seemed like every year the state was cutting back on more and more funding. It

was just a matter of time before they would be forcing Heidi out of her group home and

back into her mother’s place. It always happened. That was how the non–profit racket

worked. Those who got funding from the state threatened to release crazy people into the

wild if they didn’t get their money. Then somebody in Jefferson City got with someone

else from Jefferson City and they decided that they would have to make some cuts to

make the Republicans happy, but they wouldn’t cut too much or the Democrats would

scream. The ones who lost out would be those who were most easily handled, like Heidi.

       Heidi was stronger than she looked, but nothing a cop couldn’t handle. She wasn’t

going to be on the streets stealing things or beating people up. The worst that would

happen would be a few tantrums at home, and that didn’t threaten the public. So, sooner

or later, Heidi would be back living with Marsha.

       On the other hand, though, Marsha was a good cook who, thanks to her husband’s

foresight, had enough money to live on. It would be nice to have that cushion. It would be

nice not to have to beg Kim for a few more dollars every couple of months. He still didn’t

trust him. Really, in thousands of years nobody had come up with the idea of self–healing

roads, and now, as soon as he mentions it to Kim, Kim’s company decides to patent the

same idea? The probabilities just didn’t add up.

       And the CSU thing. That could have worked. It should have worked. If more

people had believed in it, it might have. When it came down to it, if millions of people

had used the coupons, if the companies whose products were discounted saw huge

increases in sales, then nobody would have considered the program fraudulent. It was the

fact that people didn’t use the coupons more than the intentions of the founders that

caused the trouble at CSU.

       Maybe Jesse’s problem was that he was just too trusting. That was what had

caused him so much grief with the city too. He could have stayed on his job forever if he

hadn’t taken that stupid offer. But he really believed that as an independent contractor he

would be able to create a base of clients who knew him through his work with the city.

And he really believed that the city would be giving him work, maybe not full time, but

enough to keep him going.

       It all should have worked, but none of it did. Here he was, middle aged, still

expected to support his kids even though his ex–wife was marrying a rich man. Every

decent prospect and every good idea fizzled. Just fizzled.

       So now, the neighbor lady wanted him to marry her. Why? He wasn’t attractive;

he knew that. But then again, her looks weren’t what they must have been a few decades

back. Maybe cruel, but still true. He wouldn’t have said that to her face.

       There was a natural order in the world. He had been learning that the hard way

ever since he and Jocelyn split up. The natural order was for men to seek out the most

fecund females so that they could propagate the species. That was what happened with

Jocelyn. She was fecund to the tune of one Fifi and one James. Marsha’s husband had

done the same to her, and out of that came Heidi who was probably not herself fecund

and therefore would probably not end up reproducing.

       Those who could not reproduce still got married. It happened every day. But

maybe there should be a different word for that kind of relationship. When people got

together for some other reason than for perpetuation of the species, maybe they should

have a different legal status. Call it “unition.” And the symbols would be different too.

Instead of wearing wedding bands, how about neck rings? Or there could be different

symbols depending on the purpose of the relationship. One symbol if they were together

just for pleasure; another for companionship; another for financial security.

       That last one he would go for. He would marry Marsha if there was a clear

understanding that he needed her so he could stop living like he had been. He was tired of

everything just falling apart on him, of begging for a few more hours of traffic counting

or another evening wrangling repossessed automobiles. The way he was living these days

just didn’t seem right. Whenever he went to a public restroom, he used the stall instead of

the urinal, so that he could put a few sheets of toilet paper into his pocket. It had been

months since he had to actually buy any. That wasn’t how he should be living, stealing

squares of toilet paper a few times every day. And he was tired of perfectly sane ideas

slipping away from him.

       On the outside he was still calm. People would never know what was going on

inside of him. But his life was eating him up. He wanted to be comfortable again, as he

had been during those months when he first worked for the city, or during that time at

G.E. Those were the last times he could remember being comfortable.

       The way he felt right now, he didn’t even care if he was excited about life. He no

longer felt the need to be enthusiastic, to find the path to wealth, or even to find justice.

All he wanted was a little bit of quiet. Some peace. And a little comfort. If Marsha could

promise him that, well, all right. He would agree.

       Before he got that comfort, though, he would have to do something that was

decidedly uncomfortable. He would have to let her know that he was not interested in her

for anything other than to simplify his life. If she intended for him to be there for

affection, for sex, for intimacy, for protection, or for having loads of fun, he wasn’t

interested. If she was interested in having somebody to cook for, to help with bills, and to

claim on her tax returns, maybe they could talk.

       Courage had never been his strong point, at least not in his real life. In his mind,

he could swashbuckle with the best of them. In real life he avoided hassles. He had even

turned away when that sleazy girl dropped her pants and peed right in front of him. He

wished…maybe some day he would get his chance.

       And then he glanced down the terrace. There were a couple of young kids, maybe

fourteen, fifteen years old. They might have been Hispanic. He couldn’t tell for sure, but

they were walking along the street trying the door handles of each car. One was working

the driver side and the other the passenger side of each vehicle.

       He told Marsha to call the police. As she did, he looked around. Under the porch

was a wormy hunk of two–by–four. The two kids were a couple of cars down from his

own. He hefted the board in his right hand, dropping it onto the palm of his left as he

neared them. He glanced up to make sure that Marsha had at least made it into her house.

The police usually took a couple of hours to get anywhere, but, maybe, if Marsha

sounded sufficiently scared, and if there was the chance that they would be able to catch

these young men in the act, they might speed things up a little bit.

       Usually, he wasn’t a very confident walker. Between the pain in his back and the

various clicks in his knees, he seemed much older than he was. But this time he was

moving deliberately. He yelled at the two, asked them what they thought they were

doing. They told him to get lost. Who did he think he was messing with? Did he really

think they would have any problem messing him up bad? He continued to approach them,

this time with his eyes narrowed. One of the boys reached behind his back and swung out

a knife, a big one with a five–inch blade. Hurry up, police people.

        It was hard for Jesse to tell where it came from. Maybe it was just despair or

adrenaline. It might have been the numbness of his life. He was pretty sure that it wasn’t

courage. In a fluid movement that he probably would never be able to duplicate, he slid

his left hand to just below his right, swung the board backwards, and, after it reached its

limit, he arced it into the boy with the knife.

        He didn’t knock the knife out of his hand. Instead, his blow landed across the

cheek, cracking a bone there, before slamming into his ear and the back of his skull,

where it stopped with a mild thumping sound. All three of them, the two thieves and

Jesse, were completely still for half a second. Then blood started trickling from the ear,

and the kid started staggering. After a couple of steps backwards and sideways, his knees

buckled and he dropped, still holding the knife. Each of his breaths came out with a little


        Jesse looked at the other youth. No anger on Jesse’s face, which really scared the

other miscreant. Nothing to fight against, except cool vengeance. So he turned and ran,

not like a cool athlete, but like a scared child.

        When the police arrived, they called for an ambulance. It wasn’t the EMT’s job to

diagnose and make predictions. All they could do was stabilize. But Jesse overheard them

talking to each other. The guy would probably need a shunt to keep the pressure from

building up in his brain. Otherwise, he’d never be right in the head. Before they took him

away, one of the police officers searched the boy’s pockets for identification. They took

the knife out of his hand and put it in a plastic bag, not so much to preserve evidence as

to keep their car clean.

       The other officer spoke to Jesse. Nothing all that unusual about any of this. No,

Jesse didn’t have anything to worry about here. Happened all the time, especially around

here. Usually it was someone a little younger than Jesse who got tired of seeing all this,

but not always.

       Marsha was now standing next to Jesse. He didn’t know where she had come

from. She half hid herself from the officer by standing behind Jesse, as though he was

protecting her. She volunteered to the policeman that she was very proud of Jesse. There

was no telling what those kids would have ended up doing if he hadn’t intervened.

       And Jesse swallowed a lump. He didn’t want Marsha to be proud of him. She had

no right to be proud of him, since he wasn’t hers.

       The police definitely did not encourage citizens doing this kind of thing. It was

much more likely to end up in tragedy than in justice. That was just the sad statistic.

       They would need both of their names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses,

dates of birth, employers—oh, well then that wouldn’t be necessary, emergency contact

names and phone numbers. No, they could not use each other as emergency contacts,

since doing so would defeat the purpose.

       What about the other kid? The one who ran away? Was there a chance that he

would try to come back and hurt them? Marsha wanted safety. She loved safety. She

came just short of demanding safety from the police. The officer couldn’t help wonder

what she was doing living in Northeast if safety was so important to her.

       But it was Jesse’s turn for a warning. There was a good chance that the boy in the

hospital or his family would…

       Would what, retaliate? Burn down his house with him in it? Shoot him?

       No, there was a good chance that they would sue him. There were lawyers up and

down Independence Avenue who would love a case like this. A couple of kids, just

walking down the street when some big white guy comes and busts one of their heads in.

What self–respecting attorney could say no to something like that?

       But they had knives. And they were trying to steal cars. And they were

threatening him.

       The cop shrugged. All true, but it didn’t matter. The lawyer would threaten Jesse

with, say, a hundred thousand dollar lawsuit. It wouldn’t be a hundred million. If the

demand was too much, then Jesse or his attorney would just laugh at the absurdity. But

three, four hundred thousand, that would be scary, because it could mean a lifetime of


       All those law offices that were looking for accident victims, this was what they

really wanted. They could get the newspapers to do most of the work for them. A news

photographer at the hospital bed, an interview with a hard–working mother who just

didn’t understand how somebody could do this to her angel—Jesse would settle.

       The police officer shrugged. Just one civil servant’s opinion.

       Marsha had her hand on Jesse’s upper arm. This was a moment for togetherness.

       The cop had a few more questions, just to finish his report. He looked around.

There might have been witnesses who could confirm that the incident had happened the

way Jesse and Marsha were claiming. Did they know the names of any neighbors who

might have been home? Anything else that might help figure out exactly what had

happened? Oh, and the two–by–four, he would have to take that with him.


       Marsha kept asking him why they didn’t just go ahead and get married. And when

she wasn’t asking, she was hinting, by telling him it would be much easier on her if she

didn’t have to carry his meals over to him. She said that as though somebody had asked

her to feed him. That was her habit, not his.

       He could eat for free if he had to. It wasn’t that hard. Besides the free meals at

churches, there was plenty free to eat at restaurants. He could get packets of mustard,

ketchup, mayonnaise, soy sauce, sugar, salt, cheese, pickle relish, coffee creamer, black

pepper, red pepper, and tartar sauce for free just by stepping into restaurants during the

lunch hour. He could get napkins and plastic ware the same way. Some places had bread

or tortilla chips for the taking. And that didn’t count the picked–at leftovers that people

were too full or too upset to eat.

       The concoctions he was able to cobble from the free servings weren’t as tasty as

what Marsha prepared, but he could survive on them if he had to. And every now and

then he could afford to buy a burger and fries. So, no, she didn’t have to feed him. She

wanted to. He told her so too, but not as an argument. More as a joke, letting her know

that…well…it was her choice to feed him.

        And she would tell him that he had to admit that he liked the food that she

brought. Yes, he liked it. She would tell him that one day he would appreciate it even

more. That would be when it wasn’t just one meal a day, but breakfast and maybe lunch

too. He would smile. Yeah, he appreciated her cooking.

        There was a letter from a lawyer in the mail. It wasn’t from Lawrence Barth and it

wasn’t from Barbara Jacoby. It was from a guy on Independence Avenue whose

television ads began, “Have you been hurt by the negligence of others?” The letter

opened by accusing Jesse of having, through his negligent acts, caused serious and

possibly permanent injury to his client, Mr. Andrew Suarez. The letter asked him to

respond with the names of his insurance company and the name of his attorney. If he did

not respond, then the injured party would assume that Mr. Arbothnot intended to pay the

$600,000 in damages personally.

        Right. Would the injured party accept payments in the form of some more two–

by–fours? Mr. Suarez would get sixty percent and the lawyer could have the rest.

        No sense being angry. Not even angry enough to consult with one of the two

lawyers he had accumulated. Especially since they would be charging him, because it

was no longer a first consultation. There were plenty of others that would still give him a

few minutes of their time for free, but, once again, he would be frustrated by their


        He took the route of creating for himself a little bit of satisfaction. He tore the

letter in half, tore the halves in half, tore the quarters in half, and tore the eighths in half.

He dropped the sixteenths into the wastebasket. He would have torn them in half again,

but they were too thick.

       The mail was getting harder and harder to open each day. If it wasn’t bills, it was

something else from a lawyer. Man, there were a lot of them.

       And Marsha, now she was saying that she was in a fix. The state was cutting

back. There wasn’t going to be any funding for her daughter to stay in the group home.

They were expecting her either to pay out of her own pocket or she would have to come

home to live with her. She couldn’t handle her by herself. Okay, if Jesse didn’t want to

marry her, that was up to him, but didn’t he feel that he at least owed it to her to stay with

her? He knew that there was no way that she could handle Heidi by herself. He was so

good with her. She was asking him as a friend to please help her.

       He didn’t mean to be cruel, but Heidi was an adult. Marsha didn’t have to take her

in if she didn’t want to. Instead of responding with outrage, Marsha just smiled. He was

so funny. His attitude made her problems much easier to take. Actually, Heidi was not

considered an adult. Marsha was her legal guardian, and if something were to happen to

Marsha, then the Public Administrator would become her guardian. And, did Jesse realize

that the county could take over Marsha’s estate to pay for the services the P.A. provided?

       Well, one thing he could say for Marsha was that she was sure on top of things

when it came to knowing how the bureaucracy worked. So, why was she still living

where she did? Why was he living where he did? Well, that part he understood. She lived

there because he did, and, according to her, if they were to pool their lives, then maybe

the two of them could be a little bit more comfortable.

       Man. He wasn’t really doing much of a survival thing, was he. He would keep

calling the Engineering Department until they either gave him some real work or got a

restraining order. He was calling Burns and McDonnell and Black and Veach, the big

consulting engineering companies, regularly. He had sent resumes to Kivett and Meyers,

to Marley Cooling Tower, to half a dozen smaller suburban engineering departments, to

GM and Ford, to all the companies that were famous for hiring foreigners, because they

could pay them almost nothing. He had even applied at ADM, where he might have an

advantage, since Kim worked there.

       There were plenty of Russian engineers in town, and they would work for half of

what it would cost for an American. Same was true of the Indians, the Pakistanis, the

Iranis, the Nigerians, the Chinese, all of them.

       Jesse was willing to work for the same amount. He didn’t care if they called him

an engineer or a drafter. He would do it. And, yes, he knew AutoCad. But, no, they didn’t

have any openings for a Professional Engineer. What they meant was that they didn’t

have any openings for an American engineer, because an American couldn’t be deported

for causing trouble. A foreigner couldn’t be deported for causing trouble either, not

unless it was some kind of criminal trouble, but he could be made nervous. There was

always that little possibility. There was always a chance that, after he got settled in a new

job, Jesse would demand that his employer pay him what he was entitled to as an

American–born engineer.

       One thing he could be sure of, though, was that none of the foreigners could ever

take his auction work away from him. Maybe they could even pull the traffic counts

away. But the auction? That was too American. Even if they came to understand the

patter of the auctioneer, no foreigner would ever be able to convey the excitement, the

motion, the passion that the auction demanded.

        And he got another letter from the same lawyer who was asking him to write a

check for $600,000. He had consulted with his client and, after discussing the cost of

litigation and the delays such litigation would entail, they had decided to accept a check

for $475,000 as final compensation for the injuries he had caused the poor youth. The

unfortunate alternative would be a difficult court proceeding, difficult for everyone. The

lawyer was quite certain that neither Jesse nor Mr. Suarez cared to relive this very

unfortunate incident.

        Although the attorney did not wish to take the next step in the process, he would

certainly do so if he did not receive a positive response from Mr. Arbothnot or his legal

representative. Unfortunately, if he had to take that step, Mr. Arbothnot might become

responsible not just for the settlement to which his client was entitled, but to all the court

expenses which, as he could imagine, might amount to a considerable sum.

        Jesse composed a response in his head. At least he composed the points he would

make in the response. First of all, he was too poor to even get into the system, so lotsa

luck trying to get money from him. But that was beside the point. This man’s client, the

upstanding Mr. Suarez, had a history that included car theft, assault, strong–armed

robbery, and aggravated vandalism. That was just in the year and a half since he turned

eighteen. Before that, the record was sealed. And if some judge decided not to allow his

record into evidence, there was always the fact that the police had considered what Jesse

did self–defense. And, of course, there was the threat of a counter–suit, a class actioner

against his client, Mr. Suarez, for a billion trillion dollars for all the problems he and his

friends had caused. Okay?

        And beyond all of that, there was the issue of this being just one more lawyer who

made his money by scaring people into paying up. Just another E. Lawrence Barth, Esq.,

J.D. It was probably true that the last refuge of incompetents was credentials. This guy

even used “Esq.” after his signature, along with the initials of his degree. His letterhead,

probably the most expensive equipment in his office, also proclaimed his academic


        The correspondences he had received from this individual was no worse than the

hundred or so letters he had received from Jocelyn’s various lawyers. She knew, and she

must have told her attorneys, that there was no way he was ever going to pay the

$70,000—oops, now it was closer to $80,000 that he owed in back child support

payments. Yes, elections were coming up, so they might start throwing deadbeat dads in

jail again.

        He wasn’t a deadbeat dad. Deadbeat dads—and he knew a few of them—made

decent money and spent it on beer, cars, clothes, nice apartments, women, extra heat in

winter, and extra cool in summer. That wasn’t him. He was barely surviving himself.

Meanwhile, Jocelyn had found herself a man who owned a chain of dessert places and

could afford to take care of her.

        So let Mr. Suarez come after him. Let Jocelyn come after him. Let them all come

after him. He could take it.

        Oh, and there was the other thing too, which was that he was abandoning his

house. Yep, keep those bills coming. The same with the subpoenas and threatening

letters. The post office would keep putting mail in a mailbox for a week. Then they would

bring the accumulation back to the distribution center, where it would sit until someone

claimed it, or until the bigshots decided it was abandoned. After that, his name would go

into the computer that all mail addressed to him should be returned to the sender. The

whole process could take a couple of months, but that was quick, considering that doing

so made him disappear from the postal universe.

       He moved a few things into Marsha’s house, just some kitchen gadgets, pots,

pans, silverware, and dishes, since he would be eating there mostly. If they were going to

do this thing, he wanted his own room. She said that she didn’t think that was a way a

couple should start off after they got married. He would have told her that this wasn’t

really a marriage. It was more like a unition. He didn’t tell her, because it was a theory he

hadn’t quite worked out yet.

       But he did tell her what he expected out of this thing. He wanted to be left alone.

He wanted to not have to answer a lot of questions. He wanted to live in peace and quiet.

He wanted to be free of nagging about not making enough money. He really didn’t intend

to be unkind towards Marsha, but he knew her well enough to realize that she would want

to touch him, that she would want to walk with him arm in arm. He didn’t want that, and

if it was what she was expecting, well, they may as well forget about the whole thing.

       She told him that the last thing in the world that she wanted was to make his life

more difficult. It was just as she had told him, all she wanted was to have him not worry

all the time. She was concerned about his health. He wasn’t taking care of himself, and

that was all she wanted. And all she wanted was to make sure that he didn’t do things that

were self–destructive. And all she wanted was that he have the support that all human

beings need in their lives. And all she wanted was that he not lead such a lonely life. And

all she wanted was to be there for him when he needed someone to listen to him. And all

she wanted was to give the comfort that everybody needed. That was all she wanted.

       He nodded. At the same time, all she wanted was all he was really afraid of. His

hair was mostly gone. His waist was a little bit hyper–circumferential. He limped. He

didn’t have a steady job. He was real short of real friends. He owed the equivalent of the

total of some countries’ economies in child support. Some street criminal’s lawyer was

threatening to indenture him for the rest of his life. He lived in the most desperate part of

Kansas City. He had failed as an engineer and even as a building inspector. His one shot

at business success had ended with the company’s owners under indictment. And still, he

somehow felt that, if he should ever want to get married, he could do better than Marsha.

Or maybe he wanted to retain that fantasy.

       What choice did he have? He made it clear that he intended to be the master of the

household, and she told him that was what she wanted too. But he knew that no such

thing would ever happen. They would be living mostly on her money. They would be in a

structure that she owned. And, if what they were hearing was true, their lives would

revolve around the care of her daughter.

       Okay, but he insisted that their wedding be completely unceremonious. No special

clothing, no clergy, no guests, just the basics: blood test, license, judge. And if they

needed a witness, it would be the judge’s secretary.

       That was all right with Marsha. She didn’t want him to do anything that he wasn’t

comfortable with. He was already doing something he wasn’t comfortable with. And no

invitations. And no reception and no honeymoon. And before they got married, he was

going to make sure there weren’t any loopholes that she could exploit.

       He wore slacks and a polo shirt to the ceremony. She wore the same dress that she

had worn when she married Heidi’s father forty years earlier. He thought she looked silly

walking into the county courthouse that way, ridiculous even. He hoped that nobody he

knew saw him there. People from engineering often had to file papers, attend hearings, or

look up documents there. Just to make sure, he pretended that he wasn’t with Marsha.

       The judge, a man younger than himself, pasted on a sincere smile as he performed

four ceremonies before they got to them. A woman who looked to be in her forties stood

nearby, apparently to serve as a witness, just in case she was needed. The other couples

seemed happy, although he doubted that any of the marriages would work. Two were

between young couples, barely above the age of consent, who seemed to be doing this as

a ritual among a group of friends. They were laughing giddily. The third couple consisted

of a woman in her twenties and a man at least ten years older than she was. A little girl,

one of their kids, stood alongside them as the judge read the words the law required of

him. The fourth pair had been married to each other at least once before, divorced at least

once before, and was trying again.

       Then it was Marsha and Jesse’s turn. What was he doing? At the end of each of

the previous rituals there was a passionate kiss, and he couldn’t imagine doing that with

Marsha. They had never shared the faintest intimacy, at least not as far as he was

concerned. The slightest hint of nausea bubbled his innards.

       Before he started the ceremony, the judge asked Jesse if he had a ring for his

bride. Marsha handed him the one that she had worn for years after he husband’s death.

Then, she handed him the marriage license. And she gave him a few notes of things that

she would like for him to mention during the ceremony. He looked at the paper and

turned it over to make sure there wasn’t too much information for him to include.

       Marsha’s middle name was Aileen, a fact that Jesse had not known until the

moment that the judge began the ceremony. He also hadn’t known that her maiden name

had been plain old Smith.

       The judge looked over the paper work, just to make sure. Then he began. “We are

gathered here today to join in matrimony…” Jesse had expected that he would read the

words in a quick monotone, a chant that he intoned so often during his career that it was

more of a recitation than a solemn ritual. But, after observing those who went before him,

he knew that this was going to be serious. The judge would be looking each of them

directly in the eye as he spoke deliberately. He wondered if judges compared notes with

each other, seeing which of the weddings they performed lasted the longest. He thought

about that and just about anything else he could think of to take his mind off of what was

happening to him. In the background he heard the judge mention Heidi’s name. She

would have wanted to be there, but she could not. He heard that Jesse and Marsha would

soon be more than just best friends, they would be husband and wife.

       Time for the ring. Would he please place the ring on the third finger of his bride’s

left hand. The nausea was getting worse, but he wouldn’t let it get him. After all, he was

Zorro. He supported her left hand with his own, and, with his right, he slid the gold band

over his new wife’s wrinkled knuckle.

       If there was any reason that this man and this woman should not… Well?

Anyone? Besides himself, of course. The judge paused for several seconds, just to make

sure. Then Jesse and Marsha were husband and the wife. And he could kiss the bride. A

quick brush of the lips across the cheek. There were others waiting, so they better get

going. Marsha had handed Jesse a fifty-dollar bill to give to the judge, but the judge

wasn’t allowed to accept it, although, if they insisted, he was authorized to put the money

in a special emergency fund for the children of… Sure, just take it. The judge smiled like

a funeral director and put the bill in the upper left drawer of a desk at the side of the


       There were two more couples waiting, both of which had arrived in the middle of

Jesse and Marsha’s ceremony.

       It was close to one o’clock. Marsha asked if they could go out to lunch. She was

hungry and really didn’t feel like cooking, not on this day. Jesse hoped this wasn’t how

things were going to be from now on. Maybe, she figured, now she could do what she

wanted. He suggested they go to NoYes, which he did not consider his special place,

since Kim, who, he still felt, was responsible for the theft of his idea, had originally

suggested it. Sure, she would love to go there.

       But when they arrived she was less enthusiastic. Was this the place he chose to

take her for their first meal as husband and wife? It was her attitude talking, cold and

uncomfortable, as though it was a strain for her to keep from shivering in revulsion.

       She wasn’t being fair. He was now officially entitled to be direct with her. It

wasn’t as though he had lied to her, or had even slipped one past her.

       She nodded bravely. Yes. It was unfair of her to think that maybe…well, never

mind. She ordered liver and onions, and he had a burger. That was as special as this was

ever going to get.


       That kid, the one with the lawyer, the one he had hit on the side of the head, he

was walking up the street. Jesse was on his way out to a morning traffic count. Jesse was

carrying a Styrofoam cup of coffee, because he had been up late the night before,

working an auction, a big one, with a lot of money. Marsha had fixed him a nice

breakfast. She was keeping up her part. He had to admit it. And the coffee wasn’t bad at

all, not compared to some that he had endured. She told him that she cleaned the pot

every morning with vinegar and then with bicarbonate, and she ran a pot of vinegar water

through the siphon too, and then a pot of bicarbonate in water.

       Suarez, that was the name. Edward…no…Andrew, that might have been it. He

had his hands in his pockets and was looking around as he walked. No scars that Jesse

could see, no lopsided face. He looked the same as he had the first time they met. He was

up to no good again. Jesse hollered a “Hey” out to him.

       The kid, Andrew Suarez, he hadn’t noticed Jesse. He might not even have

remembered that this was the place where he had his brains half bashed. But he

recognized Jesse, knew his name. He said he was still waiting for his money.

       Later, as he was counting cars, Jesse thought of the things he should have said to

him. Things like he was still waiting for the chance to make his head symmetrical. Things

like it was always nice to have a dream, even if it would never come true. But he didn’t

say anything. Instead, he looked at the kid and said nothing, which was probably the best

thing to do, since he managed to frighten the kid with his blank stare. The kid turned

around and walked away.

       Jesse hoped he hadn’t noticed which house he had come from. Whatever

threatening letters the lawyer had sent to him had been returned, since Jesse was no

longer at his former address. The same had happened to a bunch of bills, a letter from

Jocelyn, and a notice from the Division of Family Services.

       The people who sent the bills didn’t hire detectives, who, in half an hour of billed

time, would figure out that he lived next door to the address they had. Jocelyn, depending

on how rich her ShortKake hero was, just might try to find him. She might figure that, if

he was no longer at his mailing address, he might have found someplace nicer, which

meant that he might have some money now, so maybe he could start to make good on the

money he owed her.

       After all, they were his kids too.

       That was kind of a yes–and–no thing. They were his kids in that they carried some

of his genes. Other than that, though, they were all hers. She decided what they ate, what

they wore, where they studied, what they learned, what rules bound them, what the

consequences would be for breaking the rules, when they could drive, who they could

see, when they could go out, and, in the end, who they would call “Dad.”

       As for DFS, it wasn’t a problem. They didn’t have to hire anyone to find him.

They were social workers, after all, and one thing that social workers knew how to do

was to track down people. They weren’t good at solving crimes, at assuring justice, but

when it came to finding people who were lost in the social system, they were tops.

       They went out, either by themselves, or, if they were female, with some random

guy who would protect them. They would look for clues at the old residence, like mail in

the mailbox. Then, they would knock on neighbors’ doors.

       Know Jesse Arbothnot? Hey, that wasn’t so hard, now was it? Mrs. Arbothnot?

Deborah Wexler handed Marsha her card. Hadn’t they spoken before? Something about

her seemed familiar. And Jesse Arbothnot lived here? How long had that been? Oh, she

must have sounded terribly nosy. No, this was nothing official, just a follow–up. She was

hoping to be able to speak to Mr. Arbothnot. Oh? So he found a job? The woman wasn’t

taking notes, just asking a few neighborly questions.

       When Jesse got home from his morning count, Marsha told him about the visit.

He clenched his teeth. Was there something he would like to tell her?

       Well, there was plenty he would have liked to tell her. But, no, not especially.

Maybe later.

       And a week after that there came the news about Heidi. She would be moving

back home. The feds weren’t going to be supporting the state of Missouri any more. The

state wouldn’t be spending its Medicaid money on group homes for people who were not

the most severely disabled. Heidi had a worker who cared for her at the group home. She

also had a worker who worked for a county agency and another worker who worked for a

state agency. There was a Medicaid worker too and one from the Developmental

Disability Resource Center, which coordinated services among the various programs for

which Heidi was eligible.

       What was interesting to Jesse was that, although Heidi would no longer have her

spot at the group home, all those workers would still have their homes. They would still

have their jobs.

       That’s what interested Jesse. What really upset him was that Heidi would now be

living in the same house with him. Where was that in the bargain? Nothing against Heidi,

but she wasn’t his blood, and she was awfully difficult to be around. He was a little angry

at himself that he hadn’t thought of this possibility before he married Marsha. True, there

was no reason he couldn’t go ahead and get a divorce. The first divorce had been

Jocelyn’s idea, so maybe it was his turn to instigate one.

       If only he had the energy. And it would be a couple of months before Heidi

actually moved back home. By then, if there was enough of a stink, the legislature might

change its mind. They could find the money to pay for services for people like Heidi. It

had happened before, dozens of times.

       Budget cuts? Sure. We all know that we have to cut the budget. And we

understand that the people of Missouri deserve to keep more of their own money. Simple

enough. We’ll just let the psychotic mass murderers run loose, since, as every expert

agrees, there is no cure for them, so we ought to reserve those beds for people who can

benefit from the hospitals. Oh? No, no, it’s perfectly all right. What? Why would you

insist on maintaining the funding? We are trying to cooperate. We really are.

       People like Heidi didn’t scare the public, but she made them uncomfortable. The

public didn’t want their WalMarts and Dollar Generals running wild with people who

drooled, who screamed, who pulled things off of shelves, who were dirty. Not unless they

were their own children. So, there was some hope that someone, in the guise of sympathy

for the unfortunates who would suffer, would demand that the funding be restored. If they

needed to balance the budget, why do so on the backs of the most vulnerable citizens?

       And just as Deborah Wexler had found out where Jesse was, so did Jocelyn. It

hadn’t been that hard. A six–minute Internet search showed that a Jesse Arbothnot had

married a Marsha Coleman, a much older woman, whose home happened to be directly

next door to Jesse Arbothnot’s.

       How like Jesse this all was. Jocelyn was sure that he had married the woman not

out of passion but out of convenience. He wouldn’t bother to go to church to find

someone, or, for that matter, a singles bar. He probably wasn’t even interested in this

woman. She probably chased him, and it was easier to go ahead and marry her than it was

to continue resisting. Jocelyn should have seen the signs back before she married him, but

she didn’t. At least she had an excuse; they were living in Hicklesville, where there

weren’t very many prospects, so she settled. But this woman, she was in Kansas City.

What could be her excuse?

       Well, none of that was her problem now. Her problem was quite different. She

told him in a long, computer–printed letter. Her problem was that Fifi and James did not

get along with the stepchildren. This was something they would surely work out. Fifi

especially was at that age where she was likely to do some rather dangerous acting out.

The professionals all said that it was natural when blending families that there be friction.

       Her husband—why didn’t she ever mention his name?—suggested that, since Fifi

and James were older than his four, maybe it would make sense to have them live with

their father for a few months. Jocelyn had told nameless that Jesse was not in any

position, either financially or emotionally, to care for two teenagers. In fact, he barely

knew them. He hadn’t even seen them in years. But the husband (still no name) thought it

would be good for everyone. The last thing the new guy wanted was to come between

Jocelyn’s children and their dad. In fact, at least according to one counselor they spoke

to, one of the reasons that Jesse’s kids, especially Fifi, were acting out was that this new

marriage had confirmed their feeling that their father had abandoned them. It would have

been much easier if he had died, because then his being out of the picture would not

constitute a rejection.

        So, everybody seemed to agree that Fifi and James should come up to Kansas

City and stay with Jesse, at least until school started again in the fall. That would give his

four children the chance to adjust to their new family; it would give Jesse’s kids some

important time with their dad. In fact, in the end, this might be a wonderful chance for all

of them, the parents, the step–parents, and the six kids, to resolve a lot of the issues that

had caused so much conflict.

        By the way, congratulations on the marriage. She hoped he would be happy.

        She ended the letter without so much as “Sincerely.” Just Jocelyn, and no last

name. He looked at the envelope. There wasn’t a name above the return address, but he

remembered where the home must have been. It was the Eastern part of Hicklesville. If

there was a good part of town, that was it. It was where the town grocer lived. It was

where the Waters family, who ran the funeral home, lived. And it was now apparently

where Jocelyn lived. Nobody was asking, but he would have advised the grocer and the

Waters family to think about moving.

        As far as the kids went, it wasn’t everybody who agreed. He himself had

experienced enough unpleasant change, and the thought of trying to entertain two

teenagers wasn’t his idea of agreeable.

        And, on top of that, the letter from Jocelyn had inspired the post office to put his

new address in their computer. Wasn’t he responsible for filing that change of address

form? It wasn’t as though he had forgotten to register his move with the post office. He

didn’t want his mail forwarded. So, now he was getting bills again: water bills, gas bills,

electric bills, and that thing for $475,000, which originally had been $600,000 but had

been reduced to avoid litigation, but which now had crept up to $525,000 because of the

late fees and interest.

        Jesse was tempted to return the statement with a note to Andrew Suarez’s lawyer.

Great news! His client had recovered completely from his injuries and was back looking

for cars to steal. Jesse had seen him with his own eyes. He was sure that the entire law

office would be thrilled at this news. Instead, he dropped the bill in a wastebasket after

tearing it into small pieces. He didn’t know for sure, but he suspected that Marsha might

be inspecting his trash.

        Jocelyn had tried to tell him how wonderful it would be for everyone if he had the

kids with him for a while. Maybe, after a year or so, they would want to come back with

her. In the meantime, he would finally have the opportunity to bond, something that had

been missing from his life, not to mention that terrible hole in the children’s lives. Of

course, his child support obligations would stop accumulating while the children were

with him. This would really make him happy. She would bet on it.

        He would have liked to scream. He really would like that. What the hell was it

about women? What gave them the right to tell anyone else what would make them

happy? That was what Marsha was doing, telling him what would make him happy. And

that was what Jocelyn was still doing, all these years after she had lost the right to name

him as an emergency contact, much less tell him how to live his life. At least when a

fellow tried to push him around, he didn’t insult him by telling him it was for his own


        So where were they now?

        Heidi was going to be living with them, and that was for his good.

        Fifi and James were going to move in too, because they didn’t get along with the

step–siblings, and that was for his good.

        He was married to a woman that, well, not only had he fallen out of love with her,

but he never was even vaguely attracted to her. But she had told him that it was for his

own good.

        He was seeing ads in magazines for BactiCrete, the paving system of the future.

An asterisk pointed to a long paragraph of tiny print that included patent information. Or

rather that there were patents pending on the system. The BactiCrete system would

revolutionize roadway maintenance for public thoroughfares, private drives, and aircraft

runways. “BactiCrete—a new way of thinking about the future.” Within three years

BactiCrete would be available for public use. In the meantime, those interested could

learn more at It was his idea, but that lawyer, Barbara Jacoby, had

told him that he would be much happier if he just dropped the whole thing.

        That should have made him rich. So should have the Coupon Systems Unlimited

program. And so should have the engineering degree. And so should have working for

General Electric. And even if he wasn’t rich, he should have been comfortable.

        The time was getting close when Heidi would be moving in. He hated the thought

of writing to Jocelyn, but this time he didn’t have much of a choice. No, unfortunately he

and Marsha could not have Fifi and James stay with them. See, Marsha’s daughter would

be moving back in with them soon. She was a special needs adult, or, rather a special

needs child who had had many more birthdays than most adults had had. She could

become violent and it would be unwise to have Fifi and James staying there. It was a very

difficult situation, but the cuts in state funding had made it necessary for her group home

to release her.

        Jocelyn wrote back, asking if she could have his email address and phone number,

since it would make all of this much simpler. She understood that having a person with

special needs could make things very difficult for a household, but she thought it would

actually be wonderful for Fifi and James to have the experience of working with a person

who really needed them. And, if that didn’t work, then perhaps her husband (still no

name) might be able to subsidize her slot at the group home. The group home was still

open, wasn’t it? Her husband was not extremely wealthy, but he was comfortable and he

would be willing to help out. Not forever, but maybe for a few weeks. But, if the worst

happened and the girl had to stay with Jesse and his bride, then it would be wonderful for

Fifi and James.

        The correspondence continued by email. Jesse replied that the neighborhood

where he was living was not the best. Prostitutes and drug dealers conducted business

within fifty yards of the home. He didn’t think it would be appropriate for Fifi and James

to be spending their days in this environment.

       Jocelyn wrote back. Why in the world was he living in a place like that? Didn’t he

feel some kind of an obligation to his children to better himself? But that aside, she

trusted him to protect the children. After all, he was their father.

       And there was the issue of space. They just had two bedrooms. That meant that

Fifi would have to share a room with Heidi, who could become violent for no apparent

reason. James would have to sleep on the sofa, which had a broken spring.

       Was this his way of asking her to get her husband to pay for his step–daughter’s

housing in the group home? If so, then would he be so kind as to tell him how much

money they were talking about?

       He did some checking. They said it cost $6,000 a month per person in a group

home, at least one that would offer the kind of dignity Heidi was entitled to.

       That was pretty steep, wasn’t it?


       There was a delay of a couple of weeks. Then Jocelyn responded. Her husband

thought they could swing it, at least for a month, but they wouldn’t be able to give him

any child support for Fifi and James.

       Jocelyn. Marsha. All of it was driving him crazy.

       And then he got a visit from Deborah Wexler, LSW.


       Deborah Wexler, LSW tried to make it light. The good news was that the

concerns that she had visited him about earlier were not substantiated. The bad news was

that there had been another report.

       Very clever. Good news, bad news.

       She handed him one of her business cards. How generous of her, since he still had

one somewhere.

       And Marsha was back in the kitchen asking who was at the door. Jesse yelled

over his shoulder that it was nothing.

       Deborah told him that she hoped it was nothing. Sometimes people did this, filed

multiple complaints to try to reinforce their allegations.

       Who had complained?

       She couldn’t tell him. Even if she knew, she couldn’t tell him, but she didn’t

know. It was all anonymous. They didn’t tell her so that there would be absolutely no

chance that she could somehow divulge the reporter.

       Who was “they?”

        “They” were the people who took the phone calls. And even they didn’t know

who it was that called in. They didn’t even have caller ID. And the servers that handled

email complaints were completely secure. In fact, every seven days all emails on the

servers were completely erased just to make sure. DFS wanted the public to know that, if

they had any concerns at all about the welfare of children or others who were unable to

care for themselves, they could report those issues with complete confidence that they

would remain anonymous.

        Great, but wasn’t that just a little bit unfair to him? What if he was a teacher? Was

it okay for anybody who decided they wanted to complicate his life to just do so with a

quick phone call?

        She nodded. Yes, the system wasn’t perfect, but their philosophy was that if they

had to err, it would always be in favor of the children.

        Ah, the children. What about him? Didn’t he have a right to face his accusers?

        She had heard the same claim many times. It was even in the handbook that she

received when she started working in the child protection division. That right applied to a

trial, not to an investigation.

        Marsha came from the kitchen and stood behind Jesse. She asked him who this

was. Could he at least introduce her?

        Jesse handed Deborah’s card back to her over his shoulder. Yes, this was Deborah

Wexler, LSW, representative of the people of Missouri.

        The social worker asked if they could speak someplace privately. If he had been

cool, young, and quick, he would have suggested her place, but he was none of those

things, so he asked Marsha if she could leave them be. She hesitated for a minute but then

returned to the kitchen, wishing she could ask that they speak up so that she could hear

what was going on. She had a right…

       Would it be all right if she came in? She was tired of standing, and her attaché

case was getting heavy. She was welcome to set it down, but he really didn’t want her to

come in. He didn’t want his wife to hear… She surely understood.

       Deborah asked why he hadn’t let her know about the changes in his life. The

marriage. The move. Why did she have to find those things out by herself?

       Mainly because it wasn’t any of her business, but he didn’t tell her that, because

she was a social worker. He didn’t answer at all so that he wouldn’t end up in trouble.

But she was waiting for an answer, at least for a few seconds until she realized that he

didn’t have one. Instead, he asked her what they were accusing him of this time.

       She opened a folder against her forearm, except first she had to put her case on

the porch floor, open it, and riffle through several accordion compartments. It was as

though she had forgotten what she was doing there, as though she didn’t know what the

accusations were against him.

       Deborah read through the papers for a few minutes, just to be sure. Then she told

him that it wasn’t unusual for a man to marry an older woman just to be close to her

daughter. Was he aware of that?

       Aware of what? That it wasn’t unusual? Well, to tell the truth, he hadn’t thought

about it that much. He wasn’t a statistician, so he had no idea about the frequency of

marriages like that. Was that her question?

       Deborah had done her background work. She was aware that Marsha’s daughter,

Heidi, was scheduled to be coming to live with them. Was he happy about that?

        The way he grasped the question, if he answered no, then he was a cad who hated

people with disabilities; if he answered yes, then he was out to molest Heidi. Oh, and if

he didn’t answer at all, then she would assume that the answer was yes, since she was a

social worker. So he told her that he didn’t think that either his wife or himself was

equipped to handle Heidi as well as the group home that had years of training behind

them. He really hoped that there would be some way that she could stay with her friends

in the home.

        Deborah nodded.

        Was he right? Was that the answer she was looking for?

        Yes–s–s! Nailed it! Finally, he did something right. He would have hugged

Deborah if he were, maybe, a different person.

        She smiled. Then her face straightened. Unfortunately, this was the second report

about Jesse.


        Had he ever heard the expression that where there’s smoke there’s fire? The state

wasn’t in a position to just keep ignoring the reports. Even though they had no evidence

that he had done anything inappropriate, her office would require her to issue some paper


        Paper work? Her office? Did her office realize that these things that some

anonymous person was saying about him were completely false? Did that matter to


       Yes, she understood how unfair it seemed. Frankly, it was unfair. But they just

couldn’t afford to take chances, not when the welfare of a vulnerable person might be

compromised. She was very sorry.

       His children were supposed to be spending some time with him. Their mother

remarried and… He hadn’t seen them in more than a year.

       She nodded. Yes, she knew all about his children, but she was afraid that he

would have to change his plans about their visit. If he preferred, she would notify his ex–

wife, or, of course, he could tell her himself. If he wanted Deborah to call, she would

certainly emphasize that as of now this was all unfounded allegation, but their protocols

required her to prohibit him from seeing his children. No, she wouldn’t tell her the nature

of the allegation. Is that what he wanted? Or did he want to explain it himself?

       Why was this happening to him?

       In a few months, they might allow supervised visits. Of course, he could always

go to court if he thought that this could be legally handled in a better way. Right now,

though, her hands were tied.

       No, he thought, her hands weren’t tied. Because if her hands were tied, he could

have done whatever he wanted to do to her, and he could have used that vulnerability to

force her to forget about all of this and pay him a million dollars for what she had put him

through. So, no, her hands weren’t tied. She was doing her job, following orders. There

was a difference.

       Deborah told him that, because of the circumstances, she might be able to get

some emergency funding to keep Heidi in the group home. She realized that wasn’t an

ideal solution, but it was the most she could do. That was another thing she was willing to

explain to a woman for him. This time it was Marsha. He needn’t worry. As far as

Marsha knew, the state had just found some money to maintain her daughter. But before

they went any further, she had to tell him that she really thought he should be spending

his time looking for a steady job. He had a professional degree and should be using it.

       He called his wife to the door, where Deborah explained everything to her. Well,

not everything. She didn’t tell her that her husband was being accused of being a pervert,

just that there was some very good news: her daughter would be able to stay in the group

home. There was one minor inconvenience, and that was that she wouldn’t be able to

come home for visits. Instead, Marsha, and only Marsha, would have to visit her at her

place. From there, if she wanted to take her out, that could be arranged, but Heidi would

no longer be permitted to stay at their home.


       Deborah shrugged. She was sorry, but that was how things worked with the state.

She had done this before. She handed Marsha one of her business cards and handed Jesse

another. He was amassing quite a collection of Deborah Wexler, LSWs. Maybe some day

he would score a rookie card, but for now he’d have to settle for the veteran years. Maybe

he could trade them for…well…didn’t matter now.

       After she left, Marsha didn’t say anything for a few minutes. Then she asked him

what that was about. She wanted to know what was going on, and he told her that they

had agreed that she wouldn’t be asking him a lot of questions. Could he at least tell her if

he was a criminal? It wasn’t too late for an annulment if that was what he wanted.

       Was that what he wanted?

       No, that wasn’t what he wanted. He wanted to live the life they had agreed on. He

wanted to be left alone, to figure things out by himself, to make his own decisions, to

have some peace in his life.

       He was doing his part. He was staying away from Marsha as much as he could.

He was up to three evenings of auctions in some weeks and most days he had traffic

counts. He was bringing in some money. If he wanted to, he could have paid Kim a little

back, but he still couldn’t get over the belief that Kim was responsible for the loss of his

idea for self–repairing pavement.

       Although, nowadays, it probably was just as well that he was no longer a part of

that project. After the first press conference by the consortium announcing the BactiCrete

project, and then, after the ads came out, there started to be a few questions. Bacteria in

the concrete? Genetically modified bacteria, no less?

       A group called Scientists Together for Responsible Pavement—STREP—began

to question the whole idea. Although the name of the group implied it was composed of

scientists, mostly it was just students, undergraduate and graduate, in the various life


       They marched in front of one of ADM’s grain elevators on the north bank of the

Missouri river. Of the three entities that were parties to the consortium, ADM was the

only one that had a sizable local presence. Monsanto had a tiny sales office. Berkeley had

maybe a handful of graduates who had settled in the Kansas suburbs, but no official

presence in the area.

          The marchers demanded that they be given samples of the BactiCrete organisms.

They demanded the right to culture and examine them before anybody exposed the public

to this system.

          They handed out leaflets at campuses, bookstores, and coffee shops. Some of the


          1. No government agency had tested the safety of these organisms.

          2. There was no way to prevent some of these bacteria from escaping into the


          3. Bacteria were particular susceptible to pernicious mutations; deliberately

             placing them in public streets could cause not only human disease but

             ecological disruptions.

          4. Where was the evidence that this system would even do what it claimed?

             Considering that most road repairs required tons of equipment, hours of labor,

             and truckloads of supplies, it sounded awfully suspicious that micro–

             organisms would be able to accomplish the same tasks invisibly.

          ADM’s response was…nothing. No press release. No comment to the one

reporter who seemed to care. No announcement. No referral to somebody who could talk.

No phone number to call. No person to contact. Nothing. Such had been ADM’s response

to price fixing allegations in its recent past. And to bribery and influence peddling

allegations in its present.

          Without a response, there wasn’t much to write about. STREP might get a short

article or a quick spot on the news, but for a story to last, there had to be conflict. Without

comment from ADM, that conflict just wasn’t there. With ADM, public silence was

almost a corporate instinct. “Supermarket to the World” on Sunday morning talk shows

was the company’s image, and nobody, friend or foe, was in a position to soil that image.

        Jesse took some comfort in STREP’s actions. He had been around long enough to

see how these things worked. For now STREP was just a bunch of crackpots. Crackpots

like those who first advocated for the abolition of slavery, for women’s suffrage, for

unions, for an end to the Vietnam war. They were all crackpots at first, loners with picket

signs that bullies took from them and burned. Or the ridiculous subjects of comedians’

one–liners. Jesse wasn’t a historian. Actually, these days he wasn’t much of an electrical

engineer either, but he was closer to being an engineer than a historian. Still, he had lived

long enough and read enough to know how these things worked.

        He was nervous about it, but he suspected and hoped that BactiCrete would never

happen. And the more money that ADM, Monsanto, and Berkeley had put into the

project, the happier he would be. This was the first time he could remember having the

desire for vengeance. Even with Jocelyn, with everything she had done to him, he

couldn’t bring himself to be angry. The most he could feel was numb. But, then, with all

that she had done to him, she had never stolen his billion dollar ideas, not like these

people had. He hoped they failed. He wasn’t proud of that, but he couldn’t help how he


        He had spent enough time at the library, looked through enough literature, to

know that most of the things STREP was saying were not quite accurate. The truth was

that there was no danger of the bacteria causing any kind of illness. Except for their

ability to produce sticky substances, they were basically inert, as harmless as the

hundreds or thousands of strains of microorganisms that already inhabited the streets of

Kansas City. If anything, this line was less likely than most to mutate.

       Restricting its ability to change had been one of the big challenges of creating

BactiCrete. That was why the system would not be available for another three years.


       Andrew Suarez was no longer living in the Kansas City area. He had moved

away, along with a group of gentlemen who had taken up residence in a prison near

Jefferson City. This time it was an armed robbery which was interrupted by a parade of

police cruisers responding to a 9–1–1 call. At his arraignment Mr. Suarez was

represented by a public defender.

       The attorney who had promised in his ads to make those like Mr. Arbothnot pay

for their negligence did not consult in the defense. He had, in fact, retired with his latest

wife to an A–frame home deep in the Ozarks near the Current River. Once every couple

of weeks he drove back up to Kansas City to see if there were any new settlements in his

post office box. The Bar Association’s ethics board had been asking him questions, since

he hadn’t actually done much for the people he was claiming to represent.

       Anyhow, he was no longer sending those legal letters to Jesse or to anybody else.

Any money that did come in, well, forty percent of that was his and he sent the rest on to

his clients. Once word got out that he was no longer in business, there wasn’t too much

coming in any more, but that was all right. He had some decent investment income. And,

after he notified the Bar Association that he was retired, they dropped the ethics thing.

The greatest sanction they could impose was the loss of his license to practice law, which

didn’t mean a whole lot to a fellow who wasn’t practicing anyway.

        That was a load off of Jesse’s mind. He didn’t know where in the world he would

ever come up with $300,000. Maybe they would settle for $250,000, which he would pay

off at a dollar a month. Fair enough?

        He hated to admit it, but the marriage to Marsha wasn’t really that bad. She was

much less overbearing than she had been when she was pursuing him. Kind of stayed in

the background. And now that the thing with Heidi was resolved, he could have his


        Heidi was back in the same group home. The social workers had seen to that.

They had a special emergency fund. It sounded like a bunch of social workers had

dropped dollar bills into a glass jar, but it wasn’t like that. It was an actual line item in the

state budget for contingencies like this one, cases where there were not any alternatives.

The money to pay for group homes wasn’t there, and yet they couldn’t send Heidi back to

live with her mother, since her mother was now married to a man who had twice been

hot–lined for possible sexual abuse.

        The state could not demand that he leave the home. Nor was there any evidence

that would require or even permit any legal action. Still, there were accusations. Probably

not fair to Jesse, but society had decided that all mistakes would have to fall to the benefit

of the children.

        Marsha was all right with Heidi staying in the group home. There had been a

time, when she first went there, that she had been almost grief–stricken with the guilt of

her daughter being in the care of others. But now her life had become fairly comfortable.

She was, especially now that Jesse was with her forever, relaxed in the life she was


          She encouraged him to go back into engineering. It wasn’t too late to take the

Professional Engineering exam. She would help him pay the fee. Then there was no

telling what they could do. They might even be able to move out of this neighborhood.

          But only if he wanted to. She just wanted him to know that she was there for him.

          Didn’t it bother her at all that he had been a failure at everything? Did she realize

that, after spending five years in school to be an engineer, he wasn’t even able to find

work in his field? And it wasn’t as though engineering was like poetry or art history;

there was always a demand for engineers, at least for engineers who weren’t Jesse


          Didn’t that bother her?

          Didn’t it bother her that he had actually failed at giving away things for free? It

didn’t seem possible, but CSU, a system for making every dollar a person had work as

though it were at least a dollar and a quarter, and he had failed at that.

          Everything. Everything he had ever done. Well, most things. He had managed to

graduate from college. And…

          Marsha told him that he didn’t have anything to be ashamed of. She was proud of

him. He had lived his life as he wanted to, and that was important.

          Another letter came from Jocelyn. She hadn’t heard back from Jesse after her last

letter. She didn’t want to have to start sending registered letters just to get his attention. It

was very important that he respond. Fifi and James were his children, after all, and the

least he could do was to spend some time with them over the summer vacation.

       Yes, she understood that he must have become accustomed to the easy life since

he moved to the big city, but that didn’t excuse him from his obligations as a father. And

that meant all the obligations, not just the money—which, incidentally she would be

pursuing now that she was in a position to hire an attorney—but the emotional


       The word must not have arrived in Hicklesville yet. It would get there soon

enough. The kids would not be able to spend time with their father, at least not until they

reached the age of eighteen. If Jocelyn wanted their children to be with him in Kansas

City, then she probably should talk to the Department of Social Services. They were the

ones who had made the decision that he wasn’t allowed to be around young people. And

there was no appeal. There wasn’t anything he could do. And what was worse, the social

worker herself had said that there wasn’t any real evidence, but they still had to protect

the children. If they didn’t and, God forbid, something happened, well…

       Maybe it was his fault a little bit. Deborah Wexler, LSW had told him that she

couldn’t tell him who had called in their concerns about his behavior with Heidi. The law

required that all calls to the abuse hotline remain anonymous. No, it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t

fair. It wasn’t fair. But the legislature had decided that, in order to assure that abuse could

be reported without retaliation, it was vital to maintain the anonymity of those who

reported it. It was a trade–off, and she was sure he understood.

       He understood very well. Which was why he called the abuse hotline, added a

little bit of nose to his voice, and expressed concerned about some of the things he had

seen Jesse Arbothnot do. He didn’t want to accuse anyone, but…well, he was just a little

bit concerned.

       So Heidi got the chance to stay with her friends instead of coming to live with her

mother and her new stepfather. And, after word trickled down to Hicklesville, Jocelyn

found other arrangements for Fifi and James. Maybe they even learned to get along with

their step–siblings.

       He did get a call. It was from Fifi, and it was coldly dramatic, as only a teenager

could be. “This is Fifi. I’m your daughter, and I only want to know one thing. How could

you do this? How could you? Who are you?”

       “Me? I’m Zorro.”

                                         The End


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