Horla Fiction (March 2020)

 

NASTY, BRUTISH AND SHORT

by DON STOLL

I’M the last bloke you’d think would know any philosophy: never had a day of uni, never wanted to. But I know a bit about the one true philosopher of our time, old Tom Hobbes.       

Acquired my knowledge as a lad, good thirty years ago. “Advanced” for my age, I was. Would go into a pub, ask for a half, be laughed at and told to leave. But one night found a place that served me straight off. Bloke behind the bar even said, “Only a half?”

Bird next to me said, “Give him a pint on me.”

I smile and she says, “Bloke who owns it’s a nihilist, but we all are.”

Me with no clue what she means.

I see she probably has no clue I’m under age, she’s that pissed.       

In no time I’m pissed, too: not used to pints. She’s twenty, studying philosophy at uni. I can’t believe my luck.       

Closing time comes, we stumble back to her bedsit. What happens there I have no memory of. But I can guess.         

Next morning she’s sitting up in bed, sheet pulled up to cover herself. Me thinking what’s the point, I’ve seen it. Smile she’d had night before is gone. Brainy bird, and brain working now like it hadn’t night before.        

Trying to read her mind I say, “I’m fifteen.”       

Her smile comes back. She lowers the sheet. She hadn’t been thinking about my age, only her hangover. I say, “You sure?” and she says, “Sod your age.”       

She says, “State of nature’s coming, Davy, and in such condition, there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth; no—”      

I kiss her mouth but she pulls away, giggles and says, “Bloke you should know, Thomas Hobbes. But can see you want to get on with it.”       

Taking her in my arms I say, “Professor of yours?”       

She says, “Look him up,” and, “Abridged version for you, Davy.”       

I’m moving inside her and she says, “In the state of nature there is no society; and continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”       

I looked up Hobbes not long after, but didn’t think much of it. Seemed like bollocks.

Till the oceans started rising.

***       

Thirty years after my unusual lesson in philosophy, I pissed off for the States. If the planet was drowning, better to be somewhere with more land. It would take longer to go under. Immigration ban didn’t frighten me because by that time, amidst the general chaos, passports had become incidental and enforcement at ports of entry was slipshod. It was mostly vigilante, meaning that as long as you were white and you sounded American, you were safe. I can do a number of Yank accents. I chose Midwest.

Enforcement at the ports was a joke. I brought in an old Westley Richards droplock double rifle in my luggage. Knew I’d find use for it. Bloke can always find use for a rifle.       

Course, you could still ask why not stick to dry ground in the middle of the States instead of heading for California. But I never thought about putting down roots there, with less ground all the time where they could get a purchase. My thinking was that California had been rich, so all the posh people fleeing to high ground would have left loads of swag. Help myself, then piss off to dry, beautiful Montana—that was my plan.       

Took over a place in this sodding ghost town. Assumed I had no neighbors. Then evening came, lights went on at a place a couple of hundred meters away. I could have moved, but I decided instead to observe through the glasses for a bit. Thought I might as well stay put unless they were going to give me trouble.       

Old chap, much younger woman. First day or two I thought she was his daughter, come at no small risk to herself to talk him into moving. Wouldn’t have been the first old chap to insist on staying in a doomed house he’d lived in forever.       

Third day, though, sun hadn’t been up long, there’s the old chap out on his deck with a rifle, blasting away at a wolf that was out of range. Wolf was lucky but I wasn’t: old chap had gone full monty. I’m thinking, His poor daughter has to put up with that.       

Then my luck changes. She prances out onto the deck also not wearing a stitch, and she’s a glory to behold. She goes over to him and starts stroking the rifle barrel. Then she starts stroking his barrel, and more—use your imagination—while I’m watching with my eyes popping out of my head. But it’s no good. Finally he hangs his head—that not being the only thing left hanging—and she goes back in the house.        

Need to meet them, I thought. And once I had, him saying their names were Frank and Ludmilla Pride and she was his third wife, the way she looked at me left me no doubt she was aching for a younger bloke. And me thinking about why he would introduce her as his third wife. To tell you he’d had plenty of women, of course. But also to hint that he’s got one who looks like this now, imagine the women he had when he was younger. Good for you, I thought, but you’re young no more.        

Also thought not to bother imagining the women he’d had before. Wasn’t convinced he could have done better.

Anyway, he’s doing all the talking so I wonder what’s up. He sees that and says, “This man’s no danger to you, Ludmilla, you can talk.”        

She says, “Is pleasure to meet you,” in an accent you’d have needed a chainsaw to cut. He says he’d brought her to the States right before the ban on immigration passed. So I understood why he’d told her not to worry about me: hadn’t used my phony Yank accent. I also understood why she’d stayed with him in this ghost town instead of heading inland where the younger blokes were, but also where the hordes wouldn’t give a toss that she was legal.        

We chatted more. Frank said he’d been mayor of the city when it was a city.       

“Practically Mayor for Life,” he said.       

That made me curious. But truth is that after we parted ways, I thought more about Ludmilla than about Frank.       

Anyway, place I’d taken over happened to be near the city library. I thought one day I’d have a snoop around. Never been a reader, but you never know. I didn’t have to break in: the staff had fled without bothering to lock up.           

I poked about and came across the old newspapers. I recalled “Mayor for Life” and thought I’d see what there was to read about Frank. There was loads.       

City—when it was a city—with an interesting story, too. And Frank’s own story tied up with it.    

 ***      

Frank Pride had liked to boast about his success in the stock market. And he liked to say that a winner in business would also be a winner in politics.       

Critics said he’d been lucky to exit the market just before it crashed in 2002 and 2007, and lucky to jump back in as it was about to tick up.         

“You know what makes someone a critic of me?” he liked to say when he was campaigning for mayor. “Not being as rich as I am.”       

Ecstatic applause.       

“History teaches that markets rise and fall. You’ve heard about the first-ever market bubble, the one for tulips that burst four hundred years ago? I learned that markets rise and fall from my old Dutch uncle who got out of tulips at the right time back in 1637.”

Frank must have been proud of that joke, knowing he was the last forty-five-year-old man in the world that anyone would mistake for four hundred. Losing his hair, but fit. And his wife gave proof of his vigor. He would deliver his tulip line and then turn to where Wife Number Two, the former Olga Orlova—a beauty barely half his age—was sitting. Frank would present her with a fresh tulip.       

“History also teaches,” he’d add after kissing her, “that the oceans rise and fall.”       

He would scan his audience for the right face before delivering his next line.       

“Sir, you remember when a morning stroll could take you from Alaska to Russia?”       

A smile would spread across the face of the chosen old geezer.       

“But don’t try that now unless you’re from Galilee,” Frank would smile back.        

He would pause for laughter.          

“And Mr.”—he would pause again while the old man shouted his name—“you also remember the Ice Age. So you’ve learned that the climate changes and oceans rise and fall, just like my Dutch uncle learned that markets rise and fall. And I say now’s the time to be smart about rising and falling ocean levels, so we can profit from them just like we profit from rising and falling markets. I say we unincorporate Beach Flats now before the ocean covers it. Then we reincorporate later after the ocean has washed away the mess!” 

Frank would have to shout so that his audience could hear him over their cheers.

 ***   

The Beach Flats neighborhood was cut in half by a river that flowed from the mountains to the sea. The first people to live there after the Ohlone Indians were Italian fishing families, with some Portuguese mixed in. Some of those families built restaurants. As the waters got fished out, the restaurants remained. Every one of the restaurants lining the pier was either Italian or Portuguese.       

By the time there was no more fishing you’d have seen, if you looked back toward land from the pier, Beach Heights North on your left and Beach Heights South on your right. The ocean views made this real estate to kill for.       

A time came when the rich people on Beach Heights decided to buy enough of Beach Flats to make room for an amusement park. This would bring money into a neighborhood that would never see fishing money again. The new park straddled the river and it had a roller coaster, like every amusement park. But what made the reputation of this particular park was the river. From the bridge connecting the two halves of the park you could look down on “mermaids,” girls paid to swim back and forth under the bridge.        

Eventually, the park suffered from mismanagement. Best example: the “adult swims,” when the mermaids swam naked and admission to the park doubled and by paying double again you could swim with them. Absolutely my cup of tea, I don’t mind saying. But amusement parks do best when Mum and the kiddies feel comfortable.       

The adult swims finally went away. But they’d polluted the atmosphere, making it welcoming to every sort of sleaze. In particular, the old Beach Flats Italian and Portuguese families had been replaced by a new “demographic,” if you get my meaning. Heights people looked down on Flats people in more way than one.       

So Beach Heights fell in love with Frank’s plan to unincorporate Beach Flats. Its “demographic” would have to provide for themselves the services that Beach Heights and the rest of the city had got fed up paying for.  

“Low moral values keep the Beach Flats property values low,” Frank would say. “I’m going to let the ocean scrub the filth out of there. Then, when the time is right, I’ll go back in to build great moral values and great property values.”             

As for the pier thrusting from Beach Flats deep into the bay, Frank’s plan was not to unincorporate. The money saved by unincorporating the Flats would pay for new access roads and bridges to the pier, bypassing the Flats. Direct access from the Flats would be denied. Though some people said that new access roads and bridges wouldn’t save the pier from rising ocean levels, Frank had an answer. The savings from unincorporating the Flats would pay for construction of a sturdier, taller pier.       

There were happy memories of the glory days of the pier’s Italian and Portuguese restaurants, but good families had stopped going because they didn’t like passing through Beach Flats. However, Frank’s plan was to take apart the old restaurants plank by plank and put them back together on the new pier, far above the waves.       

Diners who didn’t want to think about Beach Flats would have their view of it blocked by a wall of steel and concrete. Nothing excited the crowds at Frank’s rallies as much as watching him get worked up about the wall.

***      

Long after the end of his third term as mayor, Frank planned to celebrate his seventy-fifth birthday with his wife. I wondered how much he had to celebrate.       

During the thirty years since he’d first become mayor, the ocean had submerged Beach Flats, driving out the old “demographic” like rats from a sinking ship. But then the ocean had submerged the pier, meaning the old one. New access roads and bridges had been affordable, but it turned out that the new pier hadn’t. The ocean had gone on to submerge also Beach Heights North and Beach Heights South and nearly all of the rest of Frank’s city. He’d moved several miles inland while the rest of the population had moved farther inland still, to places like Minneapolis and Missoula.       

Why hadn’t Frank gone, too? Concern for Ludmilla’s safety? Perhaps. But my guess is that stubbornness had to be a big part of it. Same stubbornness that had made him stick to his guns about rising and falling ocean levels even when scientists told him there was no evidence that the falling would start soon enough.       

I went looking for Frank and Ludmilla on his birthday. My lorry was loaded. I wanted company for the drive to Montana.       

But would she go with me to where her not being a proper Yank would be an issue? I’d need to show her I could protect her—be hard in more ways than one.          

Frank and Ludmilla had their guns and I had my Westley Richards.  

“Bulls and bears,” Frank said. “Never saw them in the old days.”       

He always talked about the sodding bulls and bears. Story was, a rancher who’d left for the Midwest had abandoned his cattle, bulls included. And what with depopulation, the grizzlies had come back. You never dared go walking without a gun.

“You going to shoot something for your birthday dinner?” I said.       

“I used to like turducken on my birthday,” he said. “You know turducken?”       

I shook my head.       

“A chicken stuffed inside a duck stuffed inside a turkey and cooked that way. You slice it and get the meat of all three birds at once.”       

Frank beamed.       

“How about stuffing a bull inside a bear,” he said. “Or a bear inside a bull?”       

Ludmilla shook her head. They had no staff to do the work.         

I was tired of small talk. I knew I was taking a gamble since I might have misjudged her attachment to him. But I’d made up my mind.       

Thinking of old Tom Hobbes and the state of nature, I raised my Westley Richards and emptied it into Frank’s chest.        

I looked at Ludmilla. Maybe she didn’t like having blood sprayed all over her.   

She looked down at herself. I held my breath.       

She smiled. I let out my breath.       

“Come to Montana with me,” I said. “I can protect you.”       

“I need a shower first.”       

I had an idea.       

“How about we go tomorrow? While you shower, I shoot a bull and a bear. We’ll do the stuffing together. Curious to taste it.”       

She nodded.  

 

***

California-based writer Don Stoll’s fiction is forthcoming or has appeared at a number of titles including The Broadkill Review, Xavier Review, The Main Street Rag, Wild Violet, The Airgonaut, Between These Shores, Pulp Modern, Yellow Mama, Frontier Tales, and Children, Churches and Daddies. He’s been published recently by The Galway Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Close to The Bone, Dark Dossier, The Helix, Sarasvati, Erotic Review, Down In the Dirt and several others. In 2008, he and his wife founded their nonprofit (karimufoundation.org) to bring new schools, clean water, and clinics emphasising women’s and children’s health to three contiguous Tanzanian villages. Another story by Don, ‘Suction’, can be found here at Horla by entering his name in the search engine at the top right of our pages.

 Image of pier. Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash