CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
|The Beard of Human Weakness
Whenever we get a new client looking for a big cheap parcel, we show him 26 Seagoville Highway. It helps if the client doesn’t know the Metroplex too well, because 26 Seagoville isn’t exactly high-traffic. It’s an unfinished subdivision with mini-castle-shaped pink brick houses. There’s zero landscaping so it looks pretty weird.
Today I’m showing it to some guys from Pakistan who want to do a Horror World franchise. The Pakistani guys tell me location doesn’t matter for Horror Worlds because their target customer, the American teen, loves long drives where he can guzzle beer in secret with his pals and busty American girlfriend. I’m not too sure about all that, having been an American teen myself not too long ago, but I laugh and say don’t I know it.
We walk the perimeter so the Pakistani guys can get a feel for just how big the parcel is. That’s part of the routine. Each parcel has its own choreographed routine, developed by Mr. Hamilton and whichever junior realtor is in charge of that particular parcel, in this case me. According to the routine for 26 Seagoville, I’m supposed to cut over to the best preserved house before we get to the scummy creek that runs behind the parcel, though I’m not, under any circumstances, supposed to show the client inside the house, since one time a vagrant squatter popped out of an en suite bathroom brandishing a rusty chef’s knife. So I try to cut over to the houses but one of the Pakistani guys is already pointing at the creek and the other guys start following him like bushwhackers through the tall grass. I’m bringing up the rear. We’re way off script, but I have to go with it. Mr. Hamilton has coached me to be flexible.
Down by the creek, bugs whizz from weed to weed beneath a low canopy of crooked Live Oak branches. One guy rolls up his pants and starts wading into the murky water. I’d tell him he shouldn’t go in there except I don’t want him to ask why not. Plus he looks like he’s having fun. The other guys are laughing. I guess they don’t have much nature back in Pakistan.
After I show them the rest of the parcel, the Pakistani guys are pumped, so I call Mr. Hamilton to ask if he wants to join us for lunch. I suggest Taco Brothers, which is code for “we can close this deal today.” Mr. Hamilton likes to close deals at Taco Brothers over peach-a-ritas, and he gets a deal on the peach-a-ritas because he hooked up the franchisee of this Taco Brothers with the empty lot next door for extra parking. When I call him, he’s pumped as hell.
Then, at the Taco Brothers, we discover that the Pakistani guys don’t drink alcohol. So Mr. Hamilton and I are drinking peach-a-ritas the size of goldfish bowls while the Pakistani guys are nibbling on chips. The guy with the gray handlebar mustache keeps trying salsa and frowning. All is lost, I think, until Mr. Hamilton asks if they’ve checked out the new Bollywood movie theater in Carrolton. The guys say sure, of course, and suddenly Mr. Hamilton is talking to them about Bollywood movies, about somebody named Krishnamurthy, who’s like the Bollywood Chuck Norris, I guess, because Mr. Hamilton is doing his hands in karate chops and the Pakistani guys are doing snatches of dialogue in Pakistani or Indian or whatever and Mr. Hamilton is laughing like hell, like he understands them. And maybe he does understand them. He’s like a genius almost. Sometimes I try to imagine taking over the business from him, since he doesn’t have any kids, but in moments like this I can’t quite picture it. All that joking and talking. Mr. Hamilton just really likes other people, I guess, even ones he’s about to screw over. Me, I’d rather be alone—or with Uncle Mitch.
Mr. Hamilton is still laughing when the guy with the gray handlebar mustache asks about the water table. He hasn’t spoken the whole day except in Pakistani. Turns out his English is perfect. He says that Horror Worlds require basements, but that those pink brick houses don’t have basements, clearly.
Mr. Hamilton glances at me like maybe I showed the handlebar mustache guy inside a house, but I didn’t. What does Mr. Hamilton take me for? A greenhorn? No, the handlebar mustache guy either did recon in secret or just knows his stuff: in Dallas, cheap subdivision houses tend not to have basements, because of the clay layer.
Mr. Hamilton launches into a speech about the clay layer and how the trees are shrimpy because of it and how, no matter what property they decide to go with for their Horror World, they better come up with an alternative to digging a basement.
The handlebar mustache guy nods. He says that they need to reach out to their investors, that they’ll be in touch. The meeting is over.
Out in the car, Mr. Hamilton seems pretty bummed so I start talking about how we’ll get ’em next time and whatnot, but Mr. Hamilton tells me to cut the crap. I’m surprised. Usually he lays on crap thicker than anybody. He’s positive to an almost manic degree. A self-made man. A Christian. The problem, he explains, is that 26 Seagoville is up for inspection. If it’s on the roster, we clean it. Normally cleaning a property isn’t a big deal, but in the case of 26 Seagoville there’s runoff from a chicken parts factory, plus ancient tannery juice runoff from way back, and also something kind of sludgy that nobody knows what it is. The sludgy stuff has collected on the clay layer like blue dish soap on a countertop. If the inspector digs deep enough, Mr. Hamilton tells me, his eyebrows might fall off his face.
At home that night, Uncle Mitch is in the kitchen with a hairnet over his bushy white beard. He’s making breakfast for dinner: pancakes, fried eggs, and sweet potato hash browns. Mitch is a wizard in the kitchen and seems to know exactly what I want, and when I’ll be home each night. I don’t even have to call.
Over dinner, Uncle Mitch asks about Claudia, a girl at work. He’s kind of obsessed with Claudia. He’s always telling me to ask her out and hanging on my every word whenever I mention her, like “Claudia said what? Oh no she didn’t!” For a while I thought Mitch was pervy but now I think he wants what’s best for me. He says Claudia reminds him of someone he used to know. The one that got away, I guess.
I tell Uncle Mitch that Claudia is fine.
“That Claudia,” he says, “what a special lady.”
“Whatever,” I say.
“What a grumpy gus you are tonight. Something on your mind?”
I don’t want to talk about what’s on my mind but I find it impossible to keep anything from Mitch, who knows me inside out, so I tell him about the Pakistani guys. How close I was. How I called Mr. Hamilton to do the deal over peach-a-ritas but ended up wasting his time.
“Don’t worry about Hamilton,” Mitch says. “He’ll die soon.”
“I don’t wanna hear it,” I say.
“Of a heart attack.”
I don’t ask Mitch why he predicts Mr. Hamilton will die of a heart attack. Mitch makes lots of predictions. He has a website, unclemitchsez.com, where he blogs them. Prophecies too. Like how, in the year 2027, fourteen will die on a roller coaster called the Texecutioner, or how in 2041 the microwave will be revealed to cause 19% of cancers in America and its manufacture prohibited, or how by the year 2050 there will be so many little plastic balls in the ocean, from emulsifying face cream, that predator fish such as tuna will accumulate enough to become poisonous to humans. Plastic emulsifying face cream balls are the new mercury, according to Mitch.
Mitch says he knows all that stuff because he’s from the future. For proof he told me I should switch my 401k to a different mutual fund because it was about to go up, and it did go up. Then he told me a big oil spill would happen in the Gulf of Mexico, and it did. Not all his predictions come true, though. When one doesn’t, he says it’s because his presence in the past is fucking with the future. He says that’s good, though. He says his mission is to fuck with the future in a good way.
Now, do I believe Uncle Mitch is from the future? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. It depends on my mood. He says he’s related to me, though, and that much I do believe. The family resemblance is undeniable. We have the same big hands and feet, the same sort of oversized tadpole head that hangs forward while we walk. Plus we have lots in common. We like to smoke pot and watch movies, for instance, and eat ice cream. Sometimes we have an ice cream challenge where we race through pints but you lose if you barf.
At work the next day, Mr. Hamilton is on the phone with an EPA guy named Dirk Johnston, who was Mr. Hamilton’s frat brother at A&M and owes him a couple hundred favors, according to Mr. Hamilton. Mr. Hamilton is smiling and going down memory lane, conversationwise, but meanwhile pacing around the office grabbing random papers, looking at them, then crumpling them into balls and pitching them in wastebaskets. He’s fixated on the cleanliness of desktops. He considers the desktop a metaphor for the mind. At Claudia’s desk he starts to grab some papers but she gently and insistently pulls them out of his hand until he moves on, absently, catching up Dirk Johnston on a woman they used to know who married a Mormon and has five kids with names like Orem. He says “I know, right!?” then paces, guffawing, into the conference room.
Claudia used to be the receptionist but now she has the same job as I do. Our desks face each other awkwardly. Hers has all kinds of calendars and photos of her and her cousins and nieces and nephews and a signed photo of Tony Romo with a sleazy grin on his face. Mine has a photo of me and Uncle Mitch at Six Flags.
Claudia asks what I’m working on and I tell her 26 Seagoville, what else? She tells me she might have a tip for me. “I know a guy who wants something big like that,” she says, “bigger than anything I got on my roster.”
This is unprecedented. Junior realtors never exchange tips, so either Claudia is greener than I thought or Uncle Mitch is right: she really does like me. Claudia is Mexican and I never imagined myself with a Mexican girl, but I guess it doesn’t matter. Except what if her dad and brothers are real macho and will want to test my mettle somehow, by wrestling me, say, or shooting off guns in a ravine? It’ll never work. Besides, she’s pretty. Too pretty for me. And wholesome! On Take Your Daughter to Work Day she brought her niece and put the girl’s juice in a coffee mug, to be like Mr. Hamilton, and made an overturned cardboard box into a little desk where the girl could do drawings.
For now I thank Claudia and she says no problem, she’ll e-mail me the contact. I don’t have high hopes. Why should this guy be any different than the Pakistani Horror World guys, or the Yeshiva guys before them, or the Super China Buffet guys before that? Those Super China guys would have done the deal for sure if it weren’t for the lacquered drainage hole they had to dig for kitchen grease. One of them did a probe and his probe melted. Mr. Hamilton had to pay him off to keep quiet.
I open the e-mail from Claudia and study the contact attached: Jorge Bergman, President of Book Lovers, Inc., LLC, out of Euless. I Google “Book Lovers Inc” but find nothing. “Jorge Bergman” gives me court proceedings from 1994. I can’t tell what the case is about, the language is so arcane, but the word “indecency” is prominent. I take a few breaths, put a smile on my face, and dial.
“Jorge Bergman speaking.” He pronounces Jorge Yorge, like George. “What can I do you for?”
“Well, sir,” I say, then introduce myself and enter stage one of my routine about 26 Seagoville Highway, which is the verbal stage.
“I like it, I like it,” he says, not even disguising his enthusiasm. “Seagoville, though, it’s a bit far. A bit family oriented. In my business, I need to attract a certain city element, if you know what I mean.”
I don’t, but I explain how, even though the parcel is on the Seagoville Highway, it’s closer to Dallas than to Seagoville. “Do you have a computer in front of you?” I ask, hoping he can map it.
“Sure, well, we can meet out there if you want to see it for yourself.”
“Can I meet Claudia instead?”
“She isn’t returning my calls.”
“Huh. Well, I’ll ask if she’ll come out there with me, but she’s pretty busy with her own roster so I don’t know if—”
“Busy? She doesn’t know the meaning. You and me, we can keep her busy, know what I’m saying?”
I laugh uncomfortably.
“You probably heard of me, kid, but whatever you know, that’s the old me. Forget that me. Jorge Bergman is looking to take it up a notch. We’re talking big time, kid. The big top. Getting paper like Walt fucking Disney.”
We set a time to meet tomorrow and I hang up, confused.
Across the desk, Claudia is watching me expectantly. I thank her again for the tip and ask her if maybe, just maybe, she can come with me to meet Jorge Bergman tomorrow.
“Absolutely not,” she says, which I understand completely.
“What line of work is he in?” I ask.
At home Uncle Mitch is at the kitchen table blogging prophecies. Veggie patties and burger fixings are laid out on the counter, so I slide open the back door and step onto the little cement patio where the Weber is. I fill the canister with crumpled newspaper to light some charcoals, then I go back inside.
“Seven will die in Chicago,” Mitch says, typing.
“A week from today.”
“Shouldn’t you do something? Call the police or something?”
“I already did. They thought I was a quack.”
“You are a quack.”
Mitch laughs. “You’re in a good mood. Finally work up the nerve to ask out Claudia?”
“No, but she did me a favor.” I tell him about my conversation with the weird potential client, how I’m going out to 26 Seagoville the next day. I start to tell him about my misgivings but he interrupts: “So you’ve contacted Jorge Bergman?” He looks up from the computer. His big beard climbs up to his cheekbones and mostly covers his mouth, but I can tell from his eyes that he’s smiling. “And so it begins,” he says.
“And so what begins?”
“Nothing. You’ll show him the parcel tomorrow, I presume?”
“I don’t know if I want to. He’s kind of a sleazebag. He keeps calling Claudia and—”
“After you and Claudia are married, do you think she’ll care about a couple dirty phone calls?”
“The phone calls are dirty?”
Uncle Mitch nods, eyes closed. “Disgusting,” he whispers. “Shawn, if you don’t sell this parcel to Jorge Bergman, it won’t ever get sold. The EPA inspection will happen, the parcel will become an albatross, mucked up in lawsuits, and Hamilton Commercial Realty will be bankrupt within two years.”
“Okay, okay,” I say, to get Mitch off my back. I don’t want to tell him that my misgivings go beyond Jorge Bergman; that sometimes I worry Hamilton Commercial Realty and everybody involved in it, me especially, is making the Metroplex kind of shitty. Do we really need another strip mall? Another replicable pod drugstore or chain restaurant? Another shuttered big box store converted into a quasi postapocalyptic war zone for paintball? Sometimes I think it would be better if we let the weeds and critters do their work. The toxins will go away eventually, right? Even the blue sludge, it has to go somewhere, or get metabolized by some yet-to-evolve bacteria.
“What’s on your mind, grumpy gus?” Mitch asks.
I tell him about the blue sludge.
“Metroplex aesthetics are the least of our worries,” he says, then launches into his usual rigmarole about the machine wars and how the extreme heat of modern warfare will liquefy carbon-based life-forms, which is why the drones and simulacra will have a distinct advantage against us. He goes into confusing detail on the nature and use of simulacra before concluding, “If Hamilton Realty goes bankrupt, you’ll never take over for Mr. Hamilton. You’ll—” He hesitates.
“I’ll what? What’ll happen to me?”
“Nothing. Never mind.”
I remind myself that Mitch only claims to be from the future. I don’t have to believe him. When I first met him, shuffling around Grandma’s funeral in his dark coveralls, he told me he was one of Grandpa’s brothers from West Texas. That’s what he told everybody, and nobody could challenge him since there had been six or seven brothers, too many to keep track of. It wasn’t until Mitch showed up at Grandma and Grandpa’s house, the house they left me, the house he and I now share, that he told me the so-called truth. At the time, I laughed, but deep down I think I believed him. I trusted him. He seemed to know me. For peace of mind I tried not to think about him being from the future and whatnot; I just thought of him as a really smart guy who thought seriously about the trajectory of human affairs, and it made me feel good to be friends with a person so smart and doing important blogs.
Looking at Mitch, him looking back at me, I get the feeling he knows I’m thinking all this. It’s kind of creepy.
Mitch closes my laptop and proposes we “relax a bit,” so we eat our veggie burgers then get high and watch Heavenly Milkman, where an alien disguised as a milkman rekindles the romance between an estranged husband and wife via carefully forged love notes tucked under the caps of milk bottles. The milk itself contains an aphrodisiac from Betelgeuse.
On the way to 26 Seagoville Highway I prepare myself for the worst, which, to me, is a big fat white guy who blows cigar smoke in my face. No matter how repellent I find Jorge “Yorge” Bergman to be, I have to be able to put myself in his shoes. That’s something Mr. Hamilton taught me. When Jorge Bergman said he wanted to “take it up a notch,” maybe he meant something like an adult book superstore, like the Barnes & Noble of adult bookstores, with a big parking lot and an outdoor café. Why not? I try to keep an open mind. Pornography isn’t illegal, after all.
By the time I get to the parcel, fifteen minutes early, a Lexus SUV is parked on the crumbling road meant to serve the imagined residents of the pink brick houses. There’s no sign of Bergman, but a man can be heard yelling in the distance. Is somebody with him? Is he on the phone? I hesitate to call out, to interrupt the conversation, so it takes me a while to locate the voice. When I do, I see a man (Bergman?) with a phone at his ear while he peers through the front window of the most dilapidated house in the entire parcel. The second floor of this house is totally missing except for studs, so it looks like a dinosaur walked by and took a big bite out of the top. Not a great start.
When the man sees me he says into the phone “Sorry, gotta go, I got a guy here” then hangs up and comes at me with his hand out. He’s wearing a three-piece suit without the jacket, with a fat red necktie bursting from the vest like a cravat. His hair is so black it’s almost purple. He seems friendly, though. We shake. His hand has three jeweled rings on it.
“Jorge Bergman,” he says. “You probably heard of me but in case you haven’t, I’ll tell you what I’m about: adult bookstores. But forget all that.”
“Exactly. I gotta take it up a notch. This place is dynamite. Now, is it raggedy? Sure. Way far out here? Sure. But for what I got in mind, it can be far as hell. Raggedy too. This place has theme park written all over it.”
I’m confused. “Like, an adult theme park?”
“Adult bookstore theme park.”
“You bet it is. The working man needs to blow off steam. He needs hobbies. And this, my friend, is the oldest hobby in the book. Everybody has it. Everything serves it: TV, movies, stage plays, you name it. A man goes to a strip club, okay, but what does he do afterwards?”
“Maybe he goes home to do it, maybe he does it in his car, maybe he does it in a gas station parking lot then buys a soda. Either way, and no matter what, he does it. Well, my friend, what if I told you I could give you the tip-top jerk-off experience, and at a place where people come to jerk off from miles around? The Disneyland of jerk-offs?”
“Sounds great. And I can tell you think so. The real die-hards always have a look like you do, a sort of decent-but-lonely look. No offense. You got a girlfriend?”
“You live alone?”
I’m getting uncomfortable. I’d tell him no, I live with my uncle, but I never tell people about Mitch. Our relationship is too personal, like a secret part of me, even though Mitch is a person, not a part of me—it’s confusing. I can’t quite explain it. I mutter something about “my uncle” and Jorge Bergman says family is important. He speaks passionately on the subject of his grandfather, somebody named Jack Rubinstein who I guess I’m supposed to know.
“My dream is my grandfather’s dream,” he says. “My grandfather was just a Jewish kid from Chicago. He had nothing when he came down here. When he started his first joint, it wasn’t much, but it was his. The girls called him pops. They loved him, everybody did. Animals especially. The man had a way with dogs, a way of touching them around the ears and flanks, a sort of secret communication known only to great dog lovers and the dogs themselves. Now he’s famous for other reasons, but first and foremost he was a great club man, and a great lover of this city. The people who love Dallas most are the people who come from somewhere else. In Dallas, you can be anything you wanna be.” He goes on and on about Dallas while I walk him to the pink brick house I’m supposed to show him, the good one. I’m trying to get back on routine. But Jorge Bergman opens the door without asking and strides into the house.
“Hey,” I say feebly.
Now he’s standing in the large front room, the so-called “great room.” I had to tear out the rotten carpet so the subfloor is exposed, but it’s still a pretty nice room. High ceilings, lots of light.
“This will be the prejack room,” he says. “We’ll have live girls downstairs to get the guests fired up, sort of like a strip joint, and upstairs we’ll have the animatronics.”
I struggle not to frown. I try to stay positive, to channel my inner Mr. Hamilton. At least he isn’t dealing in live hookers, right?
“Of course,” he says, “for the man with a little extra cash, there’ll be an extra-special room.” He winks at me then wipes his lips with the hairy back of his hand.
I can’t stand it anymore. “Mr. Bergman—”
“Call me Jorge.”
“Jorge, I should tell you something about this place. If you buy it, when you have it inspected, the inspector might—”
“I don’t give a shit about the inspector. I’ll buy it right now.”
“But your customers—”
“I don’t give a shit about them either. I mean I love the fuckers, don’t get me wrong, but a man who patronizes an adult bookstore theme park feels too guilty to press charges. A shark could pop out of that creek and bite his balls off—worst case, I peel off a couple k and lose a customer.”
“But—” I hesitate. I don’t know if I have it in me to talk a client out of buying a parcel. It isn’t right. Think of Mr. Hamilton, I tell myself, and I’m still thinking of him when Jorge Bergman picks up a rock and pitches at a high window. The window shatters.
“Hey!” I say.
“What?” Bergman says. “I’m buying this shithole. I can do what I want.”
There, I think. He said it. He’s going to buy the parcel. I could call Mr. Hamilton and tell him to meet us for lunch at Taco Brothers. But I don’t. Jorge Bergman is just too sleazy. His vision, for lack of a better word, is too soulless even for Hamilton Commercial Realty. It stops here, I decide, and I tell Jorge Bergman that I need to reach out to Mr. Hamilton, that I’ll be in touch.
Bergman seems confused. “Call him. I’ll wait.”
“I’ll be in touch,” I repeat. The meeting is over.
Bergman turns away in a huff and heads for his Lexus SUV. While I wait, to give Bergman a head start, I look around at the great room. Then I wander through the other empty rooms. The walls have water damage but most of the windows are intact. Except for the second floor, the place is still inhabitable. Uncle Mitch says that when the dollar collapses, empty houses such as this will become prime real estate for squatters, but why wait? Maybe we could throw a blue tarp over the top and lease it on the cheap to a homeless shelter or something. I could pitch the idea to Mr. Hamilton as a way to save money on the low-rent security guard we pay to check the place twice a night.
When I call, Mr. Hamilton picks up the phone so quickly that I know he’s been waiting to hear from me. I tell him the bad news. Whatever brief thrill I got from rejecting Jorge Bergman deserts me when I hear Mr. Hamilton sigh deeply, crestfallen. I can almost hear him pinching the bridge of his nose, squinting as though in pain.
“What about Dirk Johnston,” I say, “your friend at the EPA?”
Mr. Hamilton explains that Johnston is the backup inspector for the Metroplex region so the only chance of getting Johnston is if the main inspector, a man named Rogelio Gomez, calls in sick that day. Mr. Hamilton pauses, like he wonders if I’m thinking what he’s thinking, but I have absolutely no idea what he’s thinking, and that makes me nervous.
Uncle Mitch is even more distraught than Mr. Hamilton was. He stops blogging prophecies and starts pacing around the kitchen with his head slung forward, muttering. I stir the chili he’s been cooking. I say, “Maybe Dirk Johnston will come through for us.”
“Dirk Johnston isn’t the inspector,” Mitch says. “Rogelio Gomez is the inspector.”
I stop stirring the chili. “How did you know that?”
“You know how I know that.”
“Seriously, though, even if you’re from the future, how do you know a little detail like that?”
“We don’t have time for this. We have to stop Claudia from moving to San Antonio.”
“Why is Claudia moving to San Antonio?”
“When Hamilton Commercial Realty closes, she takes a job in San Antonio.”
“What about me? Do I take another job?”
“Is the pay good?”
“It’s the same. It’s the exact same fucking job, pretty much.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“Claudia! Haven’t you been listening? And Mr. Hamilton …” His voice trails off, like he’s thinking about what happens to Mr. Hamilton.
“Mitch,” I say, “Mr. Hamilton isn’t going to do something rash, is he? Is that what happens to him?”
Mitch stops pacing. He looks at me, like he’s thinking. His face is familiar but strange. I’ve seen him every day for two years, but I never look very hard at his face. His wrinkly eyes and big white beard, his wild white eyebrows, make me think about my own future decrepitude. He seems so lively, so young, but his body is so obviously deteriorating. It’s kind of gross. I feel bad for thinking that, but maybe it’s normal to think that. Maybe it’s why people avoid the elderly, why people ghetto them off into old folks’ homes.
Later that night, after we eat Mitch’s chili, after we’re good and high and watching an erotic thriller called Taxi Dancers, Mitch starts muttering about his beard. He says how it was “weakness” that made him “don the beard.”
“Okay, okay,” I say. I’m trying to watch the movie.
“Weakness,” he repeats, “human weakness.”
“You’re way high right now.”
Later, when the credits roll, Uncle Mitch stands up and turns off the TV. He comes back to me and puts a hand on my shoulder, leaning on it, still wobbly from the pot. I feel wobbly too. His hand tingles on my shoulder. I imagine energy shooting from the hand into my blood—the blood we share—and warming it.
“Don’t quit your job,” Uncle Mitch says.
“Yeah,” I say. “Yeah. You’re right.”
“Don’t quit your job,” he repeats, “until you’ve got something else lined up. I’ll think of something. I have to think.” His eyes close. His head tips forward.
I take his hand from my shoulder and stand. I mean to walk him to the guest bedroom, where he sleeps, but we’re so similar in height that I don’t know whether to wrap my arm around his shoulders or his waist. I opt for the latter. As we walk, I can feel Uncle Mitch’s ribs under thin layers of shirt and skin, and I wonder when my own body will begin to make that change.
In the days leading up to the inspection, I keep a close eye on Mr. Hamilton. I find out from his assistant, Nancy, when exactly the inspection is happening, and I ask Mr. Hamilton if I can handle it alone. He says no way. He has to be there “to get the details straight,” he says, which sounds like bullshit to me. He tells me I could skip it but I insist on being there too. “It’s on my roster,” I say, which may sound like bullshit to him. It’s like a game between us.
On the day of the inspection we drive out to 26 Seagoville in Mr. Hamilton’s truck. He puts on talk radio and whenever there’s a break in the talking, he flips the stations until he hears somebody else talking. It’s like he has to hear voices to take his mind off his own voice, in his head.
We get to 26 Seagoville half an hour early so we putter around pulling weeds away from doors, sweeping broken glass into a heavy-duty trash bags, etc. None of that stuff matters, though. It’s just to have something to do, to have the illusion of control.
A little pickup truck rolls onto the driveway, parks, and out steps Rogelio Gomez. He’s small, wearing khakis and a short-sleeved dress shirt. Before he greets us, he opens his briefcase on the hood of the truck and removes a clipboard.
Mr. Hamilton goes towards him, me following, and greets him with his usual bluster. He starts telling Rogelio Gomez what a mess the parcel is, how he’s sorry ever to have taken it on and will probably die with it. He laughs, like this is a joke, so I laugh too, to amplify the joke, but Rogelio Gomez doesn’t get the joke or doesn’t care. He says, “Let’s start with the creek.”
Mr. Hamilton leads Rogelio Gomez through the tall grass towards the creek, and I watch from a distance as Mr. Hamilton stands there arms akimbo while Rogelio Gomez takes water samples in a prissy little test tubes, and it occurs to me, watching them, how far away we are from civilization. If someone screamed, would anybody hear?
Gomez takes some soil samples and puts them in baggies, then we march back through the grass towards the pink brick houses. Mr. Hamilton tries to lead him into the usual house but Gomez strides defiantly towards a different house, and Mr. Hamilton seems so flustered by this that I wonder if he rigged up a beam to collapse. It’s possible. He’s handy, and the parcel is indemnified against accidents. But maybe he’s just nervous. He hates to be off script.
Next to me, Mr. Hamilton digs his foot in the dirt while Gomez uses a pen to chisel a tiny strip of white paint off the door. Then Gomez collects some dust from a windowsill and puts it in a dime bag. Then he collects a soil sample from an overgrown flower bed. Then he takes a big green leaf. He never looks at us.
Mr. Hamilton watches all this, his smile bending out of shape.
I shouldn’t be worried, I tell myself. Uncle Mitch never said anything about Mr. Hamilton doing anything crazy. But Uncle Mitch has gotten things wrong. Things are changing. He’s fucking with the future. Plus, Mr. Hamilton keeps glancing at me, and I can’t tell if the glances are conspiratorial or just plain weird. His smile has exhausted itself into something wretched, almost menacing, like the death grimace of a craven animal ready to lash out with one last desperate strike.
Eventually Rogelio Gomez goes back to his truck to get a probe and we lead him to a spot where the infill makes the soil softer, so it will be easier to dig. For once, Gomez thanks us. But this is the same spot where the Super China guy found blue sludge, so I know Mr. Hamilton is shitting bricks. I check his hands—they’re balled into fists. He’s so much bigger than Gomez that he could grab the probe and use it to skewer the guy, leave him piked there as a warning to all other inspectors. Then what would I do? Call the police? I wouldn’t be able to stomach it, and that would make me an accessory to murder, or attempted murder, or aggravated assault at the very least. Does a person do time for accessory to aggravated assault?
Rogelio Gomez sets up a machine that’ll drill the long metal probe into the soil, and he wipes the tip of the metal tube with some kind of oil. Beside me, Mr. Hamilton is breathing heavy. When Gomez starts threading the tube into the machine, I glance at Hamilton. His face is red. Is he having a heart attack? Is that what Uncle Mitch predicted? I scoot closer so I can ask discreetly if he’s okay, but there’s a bong! and a scream and Mr. Hamilton’s eyes get big and I turn just in time to see Rogelio Gomez fall forward like a bag of potatoes. There’s blood. An old man disappears behind the nearest pink brick house. A vagrant? A thug? Did Mr. Hamilton pay a thug to do his dirty work?
“Shawn?” Mr. Hamilton says.
“Yeah,” I say, but I’m sort of behind Mr. Hamilton so maybe he can’t hear me. He staggers forward hollering, “Shawn! Shawn!”
I follow him, trying not to look back at Rogelio Gomez, who’s groaning on the ground and clutching his bloody head.
We’re running now. The old man is far ahead of us. He’s wearing coveralls. Mr. Hamilton keeps yelling “Shawn!” and I keep yelling I’m right behind him but he ignores me; it’s more like he’s yelling “Shawn!” at the old man, which makes no sense. I struggle to keep up. Mr. Hamilton is fast for such a big guy, way faster than the old man, whose coveralls start to look familiar, like Uncle Mitch’s coveralls, the ones he wore to Grandma’s funeral: top-of-the-line coveralls from the future, he said, with stain-resistant nano-silver. All old men must buy their coveralls at the same store, I think, and even as Mr. Hamilton catches the old man by the collar of the coveralls and spins him around, it takes me a moment to understand what’s happening. That’s because the beard is gone. It’s Uncle Mitch, but it isn’t.
“Shawn,” Mr. Hamilton says to Mitch, “what have you done? What is this ridiculous makeup?”
“Never mind that now,” Mitch says. “Call nine-one-one. Tell them a vagrant squatter popped out of the house and attacked him.”
“But what about you?” Hamilton asks.
“I’m here,” I say behind him.
Mr. Hamilton turns, and the expression on his face is so surprised it’s almost placid, like his brain just short-circuited.
“We’re twins,” Mitch lies. “I have a pituitary gland disease. I’m too embarrassed to leave the house, which is why you’ve never met me. No one has. If pressed, Shawn says I’m his uncle. There’s a photo of us on his desk.”
Mr. Hamilton releases Mitch, as though revolted. Maybe he’s revolted by the pituitary disease, or maybe—and this is what Mitch would say—by the uncanny doubling, what Mitch calls “the doppelgänger effect,” common in Teutonic culture, in which a sinister double presages death.
“I’m sorry,” Mr. Hamilton says, looking first at Mitch, then at me. “I don’t know what to say.”
What Mr. Hamilton says, to the police and to everybody else who asks, is that a vagrant came out of nowhere and attacked Inspector Gomez. Rogelio Gomez confirms it. His skull isn’t even fractured. That’s because Mitch knows just how hard to bonk people on the head to draw blood and scare them without seriously hurting them. In the future people learn to use violence as a tool, he explains, what with the marauders and whatnot.
The police records confirm aggressive vagrant activity on the parcel, so everything is pretty tidy. The inspection is postponed two weeks, and Mr. Hamilton tells me that Dirk Johnston will probably step in, to spare Rogelio Gomez the trauma of returning to the scene of the attack. But I don’t want to risk pinning the company’s future to Dirk Johnston.
I tell Claudia she needs to call Jorge Bergman. If he hears from her, I explain, he might still do the deal, and if she’s going to move up, she has to get used to dealing with sleazebags. “Better a few sleazebags than a machine war,” I say. “Better a few soulless chain restaurants than a postnuclear wasteland.”
“That seems like a false dichotomy,” Claudia says.
“All I’m saying is we have better things to worry about than an adult bookstore theme park.” I’m lying, of course. I worry all the time about sleazy crap like adult bookstore theme parks, crap whose spread I’ve facilitated. But I don’t think Claudia worries. Claudia seems like a goal-oriented person. A self-made person. If only Mr. Hamilton had detected, years ago, that Claudia was more like him than I was.
“When you meet him, try to think of it as a game,” I say, “or a test of your mettle.” These are things Mr. Hamilton used to tell me, with mixed results.
As I predict, Claudia closes the deal with Jorge Bergman. Mr. Hamilton throws a party to celebrate. After the party, I tell him I’m quitting. He isn’t surprised but he’s sad. I tell him he’s sad because he likes me, not because I’m a good commercial realtor, and I tell him we can still have peach-a-ritas whenever he wants. “As long as you’re paying,” I add, which, as a joke, is pure Hamilton, so he laughs like hell and slaps my back.
Uncle Mitch is way more upset I quit than Mr. Hamilton was.
“What the fuck?” he says. He’s madder than I’ve ever seen him, which would be scary, considering I recently watched him beat a man with a pipe, if I didn’t know that Mitch, like me, tends towards sullen anger. He shakes his head and mutters about how this isn’t supposed to be what happened. “If you don’t become boss, how will you get Claudia?”
I try to tell him one doesn’t “get” another person, like a prize, but he stops talking to me. He writes on a notepad that he won’t speak again until I ask her out.
I shrug and resume cleaning kale. It’s the first of the season, from a bed Mitch planted after he tore out Grandma’s ornamentals. Mitch says kale and other crucifers are key to a long and healthy life.
I don’t know if I’ll ever “get” Claudia, as Mitch puts it, but I do get her to go out with me. She sees me putting my desk stuff into boxes and says, “I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it. What will you do?”
“Who knows what the future holds,” I say, “but maybe we can hang out sometime, you know, outside of work?”
She says she’d like that.
For our first date we have lunch at a chain restaurant called Topsy’s with one of her nieces, who got into trouble at school for putting gum in another girl’s hair. The niece just sits there disconsolately twirling her milkshake straw while Claudia tells me that Mr. Hamilton told her that Jorge Bergman, who’s breaking ground as we speak, almost certainly bribed Dirk Johnston.
The presence of the niece is kind of weird to me, but the date goes well. Later, Mitch tells me that the niece was a good sign, that Claudia must consider me “a potential role model for young people.”
“Why?” I ask.
“Deckle knows,” Mitch says.
“Roger Deckle is a guru who rises to prominence during the first machine war. In the future, diminution will be regarded as a sign of wisdom, and Roger Deckle is the size of a juvenile chimpanzee.”
Uncle Mitch has gotten looser lipped about the future. He says he misses it, but that he isn’t going back, though he does plan to move out of the house after Claudia moves in, to give us some privacy. I try to tell him we haven’t even been on our second date yet but he won’t hear it. He says he’s going down to Austin for a prophecy conference. He fixed up his website. Now there’s a photo of us two together with our hair done exactly the same. It’s eerie. Under the photo it says, “The two me’s,” then: “As we journey into the future together, Shawn and Shawn, one (left) for the first time and the other (right/me) for the second, we take solace in the knowledge that the future is correctable and the world, perhaps, not completely degenerate.”
But Uncle Mitch never comes back from Austin. The most likely explanation is that he got in a car crash, since he hadn’t driven for two years, but maybe—and this is what I hope—he fucked with the future to such a degree that he, we, no longer felt the need to go back in time, either because we saved the future or, more likely, because we saved our own life. I like to imagine Mitch on a porch somewhere with Claudia or whoever I end up with, maybe a few kids or grandkids, braving the noxious vapors for the sake of the cool night air and a few noxious-vapor-proof lightning bugs.
As I continue on my journey towards becoming Uncle Mitch, it occurs to me I’ll be a different Mitch. Less restless, maybe, but less dynamic too. Not the type of person to go back in time and perpetuate a ridiculous scheme to change the future. Sometimes it makes me sad to think I won’t become that person. I admired him. Which gives me hope that, one day, I’ll admire myself.
Bradley Bazzle grew up in Dallas, Texas, and has an MFA from Indiana University. His stories appear in New England Review, New Ohio Review, Epoch, Bad Penny Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, and elsewhere, and have won awards from Third Coast and The Iowa Review. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his wife and daughter.