Chapter 1: The Long Goodbye

November 9, 2022

(This is the first chapter of my novel. If you like it, please consider ordering a copy.)

This all started because my editor wanted me to write a story about a dead stripper. She left a message on my cell phone telling me to be at her office at nine o’clock sharp. I rolled out of bed at three-thirty in the afternoon with the mother of all hangovers and braced myself against the familiar nausea and vertigo that followed. The contents of my stomach pitched and moaned, but mercifully everything stayed where it belonged. Afterward, I found a cold slice of pepperoni in the fridge and a half-smoked joint on the coffee table, and decided perhaps I wasn’t going to die after all. 

While I sat cross-legged in my bed, eating breakfast and staring into the void of alcohol-soaked memories from the previous evening, Aubrey Hepburn began rubbing against my leg and purring accusingly, and I remembered I was supposed to pick up cat food from the store. Again. I pulled back the Marx Brothers blanket that was nailed to the wall in lieu of a curtain, and opened the window. Immediately, I regretted it. It was mid-January, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The sun’s rays were like dirty syringes being shoved through my eye sockets and into my dehydrated brain. So far it had been the warmest winter in Colorado since the drought of ’75. Temperatures had dropped below freezing on several occasions and there had been some snow flurries around Christmas, but nothing stuck. The ski season was a bust, and out on the prairie, farmers were already preparing for crop failure. Newscasters kept claiming we were due for a record-breaking blizzard, but as the weeks passed and even the mountaintops remained bone-dry, murmurs about where said newscasters could stick their predictions were growing louder and more creative. 

Squinting into the glare, I put Audrey on the windowsill and said, “See if Doc will let you steal some of his Fancy Feast.” There was a fat one-eyed Maine Coon that lived with a grad student across the street and he had a crush on Audrey. He was neutered so he couldn’t knock her up, but that didn’t stop the old eunuch from puffing out his tail and sniffing her ass whenever she happened by. Audrey wasn’t interested, but she wasn’t above letting him cop a feel if it meant a full belly. My landlord had an irrational aversion to cats, so Audrey came and went via a sick elm tree out back that had one thick, dead branch that conveniently scraped the side of the building next to my only window. She sniffed the air and looked at me indignantly. “I know, I know,” I said. “I’ll pick some up today. I promise.” Finally, she hopped onto the branch and proceeded to the rooftop of the enormous, colonial fraternity house next door, and then onto the balcony and down a staircase. She shot me one last I’m-going-to-piss-on-your-favorite-shirt-while- you’re-sleeping glare, flicked her tail, and then she was gone. I experienced the usual panicked heart-flutter of a protective father watching his only child cross the street alone for the first time, wanting to run after her and shower her with kisses, but the moment soon passed. 

Behind the frat house there were two muscular boy-men wearing nothing but athletic shorts and backward-facing baseball hats with Greek letters embroidered on them. Despite the unseasonal weather, it was still winter on the Front Range and therefore too cold to go shirtless, a fact the hairless duo were studiously trying to ignore. They were shivering over a barbeque grill, sucking on vapes and clutching giant silver cans of Pabst. One of them spotted my head poking out of the window and yelled, “Chicken titty?”

“Excuse me?” I said.

He pulled the grill open, revealing half a dozen charred hamburgers, as many sausages, and several large chicken breasts smeared with red sauce. He pointed at one of the breasts with the spatula and giggled like a sixth grader. “You want a chicken titty? We have extras.”

The smell of roasting flesh and cherry tobacco smoke filled my nostrils, causing my stomach to lurch, and I cursed the smooth-chested bastards.

“No, thanks,” I said.

“Suit yourself, bro,” he replied, somehow offended.

I belched and the tangy taste of bile burned the back of my tongue. The room began to spin once again. I banged the window closed and frantically kicked around a pile of laundry until I found my blue hoodie and a pair of moldy flip-flops. I put them on and shuffled as fast as possible across the hall to the bathroom. 

My apartment building was a former sorority house located three blocks west of Mountainview University, which would have been my alma mater if I hadn’t dropped out in the middle of my final semester six years ago. The building had no official name, but everyone who lived there called it The Trap, either because of the plethora of dead rodents and cockroaches decomposing within its sodden walls or because, like the house in Robert Wise’s 1963 psychological thriller The Haunting, the structure had a tendency to ensnare its occupants, holding them in thrall for decades while it slowly drained their life force. It was an imposing slab of whitewashed brick and brown ivy with red plastic cups perpetually littering the dead front lawn. Rent was seven hundred dollars a month including utilities, the cheapest lodging in town by at least a hundred bucks. The residents were all harmless losers who needed temporary housing. Some of them had been recently released from jail on minor offenses—petty theft, disturbing the peace, that sort of thing. Others were mentally unstable but not crazy enough to be institutionalized. There were at least two drug dealers, three occupants with bipolar disorder, one Korean exchange student, and a schizophrenic in a pear tree. Most were alcoholics. They were all men, primarily in their thirties and forties, misfit Lost Boys who’d wandered away from Neverland and accidentally grown up. There was nowhere else for them to go in this increasingly expensive tourist paradise. My room was two hundred square feet of frayed carpet and peeling lead paint. There was just enough space for a mini fridge, a futon bed, a Goodwill couch, a coffee table, two bookcases filled with three thousand four hundred thirty-eight movies (including two hundred seventeen Criterions, thank you very much), and a seventy-five-inch flat-screen LED HDTV with built-in Wi-Fi and surround sound that took up the entire east wall. The communal kitchen and bathroom were both across the hall, which made my frequent morning vomiting sessions a public performance. 

As always, when I opened the bathroom door, the Mayor was standing in front of the wall-length mirror, shirtless, eyes red and glassy with manic fervor, clutching a green dry-erase marker in his hairy-knuckled right hand, his rotund gut resting on the sink as he leaned in to draw a rectangular box around the name “L.H. OSWALD,” which had been scribbled on the mirror in child-like block letters, surrounded by the words “CIA,” “G. SOROS,” “DEEP STATE,” “9/11,” and “MKULTRA.”

“Precisely, precisely,” he mumbled as he drew an arrow connecting the green rectangle to a red triangle above it containing the name “WILLIAM CAMPBELL.” He turned to me and waved the marker like a frantic conductor keeping time for an invisible orchestra. “Why didn’t I see it before? It’s so obvious. That’s how The Beatles got the White Album. White Album…White House. ‘Revolution 9’…nine Supreme Court Justices. It’s so obvious.” 

The Mayor was the landlord of The Trap, as well as the resident conspiracy theorist, and he spent approximately six hours a day in the bathroom waiting for some poor schmuck to use the toilet so he could ambush them with his latest rant. I had been avoiding the restroom altogether for the last two weeks because I owed the man a considerable amount of money, but this was an emergency. Before he could ensnare me in a conversation, I turned my back on him and kicked open the nearest stall. Inside the porcelain bowl was an unflushable gumbo of toilet paper, feces, and cigarette butts. I backed out with my palm over my mouth. The next stall had a handmade out-of-order sign taped to the door in the same manic scrawl as the letters on the mirror. I belched again, and my lower jaw began to tingle. I started to panic. 

Thankfully, the third toilet proved serviceable, and I fell to my knees in front of it just as a stream of pizza and whiskey shot fountain-like out of my mouth. 

“Not feeling so good, huh?” said the Mayor. I tried to tell him to shut up, but all that came out was a whimper and another retching session. “You got in pretty late last night,” he continued, the words sounding distant and hollow from inside the bowl, like the voice of God in a Cecil B. DeMille movie. “Two o’clock in the morning. I was listening to Alex Jones. Did you know there are chemicals in our drinking water that are turning frogs gay? Now, don’t get me wrong, man, I got nothing against the homosexual community as such. My nephew is gay. I think. Or maybe he just likes eyeliner. You know how kids are these days. None of my affair. What one consenting adult does with another consenting adult inside the confines of his or her own domicile with various lubes and devices is none of my affair. But, you know, man, amphibians, Sam…amphibians, well, they got no choice in the matter. Uncle Sam decides to put fluoride in the water supposedly for dental hygiene reasons, but of course it doesn’t stop there. Next thing you know they’re testing out all kinds of drugs on the population. That’s why these kids are maturing so quickly these days. Have you noticed that? Junior high girls with fully developed mammaries and eleven-year-old boys with mustaches. It’s the hormones in the water, and believe you me, gay frogs are just the beginning. You don’t usually stay out that late on Thursdays, but I guess you had a big date or something. Did you have a big date or something, Sam?”

The Mayor tracked the movements of all the residents in The Trap. His room was at the front of the house with a large bay window facing the street, and when he wasn’t trying to solve the JFK assassination on the bathroom mirror or microwaving Hungry-Man dinners, that’s where he sat, hour after hour, like Norman Bates’ mother in Psycho, smoking weed and listening to alt-media podcasts on his laptop. 

His real name was Kenneth Nostmann, but everyone called him the Mayor. In fact, he had actually once been the mayor of Mountainview, back in the mid-’70s, when the city was still a quaint little hippie hamlet and Kenneth was a quaint little twenty-two-year-old hippie, fresh out of college, complete with long flowing blonde hair, paisley bell-bottoms, and patchy mutton chops. He ran for office on a lark, telling the newspaper he’d recently graduated with a philosophy degree and could not find suitable employment, but when the primary Democratic candidate dropped out of the race because of a family emergency, Kenneth found himself facing off against a far-right dinosaur whose platform included segregated swimming pools and a crucifix on the front lawn of the post office. Kenneth’s father was a prominent businessman who owned property all over the Front Range, and even though he didn’t support his son’s farcical campaign, the Nostmann name carried weight in the local community. Kenneth won by less than five hundred votes. To everyone’s surprise, he took the position seriously and ended up occupying the mayor’s office for two relatively uneventful years before he was ousted by a more traditional candidate in a three-piece suit. Unfortunately, Kenneth did not take the loss well. He claimed the election was rigged by “Nixon’s plumbers,” and despite his family’s protests, vowed to spend the rest of his life exposing the dark powers that had conspired to keep him out of public office. He staged a solo sit-in at the college that went unnoticed for almost two days, and he marched up and down in front of City Hall with a sign that said “Keep Tricky DICK Out of Mountainview!” before he was arrested for disturbing the peace. 

His parents didn’t disown him exactly, but they did choose to move out of the state shortly thereafter. The Nostmanns sold off all their assets and retired to Florida, leaving their son a single piece of property as his inheritance. Kenneth was supposed to hang on to The Trap for a few years and then sell it when the market was up, but instead he moved in and started renting out the rooms, dealing drugs to his borders when he needed extra cash. Forty years and seven Grateful Dead songs later, here he remained, trapped in The Trap, trying to suss out how it was all connected—Kennedy, Lennon, Malcolm X, the Bay of Pigs, and his failed political ideals. The property was probably worth a cool half million by now. His blond hair had turned gray and abandoned the apex of his scalp, leaving a greasy horseshoe around the edges that he pulled back into a sad ponytail; his stomach had ballooned into a hairy mass reminiscent of a pregnant orangutan; and despite the thickness of his round wire-rimmed glasses, he could barely see ten feet in front of his face. He left the apartment to do laundry and buy groceries, but aside from that, he was here. Always. 

“Last Thursday, you came home right before midnight, and you were with that girl. The one with the red hair. You didn’t introduce me to her, man, so I don’t know her name. I remember because I was watching the Zapruder film, and she looked a little like Jackie O. Not the hair so much, or the body, or the face, but there was something about her eyes. You ever notice how Jackie’s eyes are set too far apart, like a deer or a rabbit? Prey animals have eyes on the sides of their heads for greater peripheral vision, while predators have eyes in front. Anyhow, the girl you brought home last Thursday…the one with the red hair…she had prey-animal eyes like Jackie. Did you notice that, man?”

My abdominal muscles were on fire. Throwing up was really the only form of physical exercise that I got. It wasn’t a great cardiovascular workout, but I did have a flat stomach. I leaned my head against the side of the bowl for a short breather and then went back to work. Two more dry heaves to make sure I’d made a full deposit and I felt whole again. I flushed, wiped away the tears, and stood up, a full-fledged homo erectus once again. Meanwhile, the Mayor was still narrating fragments from my life like a bloated, balding Rod Serling setting up the premise for the most boring episode of The Twilight Zone ever made. 

“And then last Friday, you didn’t come home at all. I mean, you came home eventually, of course, but not that night. I asked you about that later and you said you slept over at a friend’s house and I asked you what friend and you said that was none of my business and I said, ‘You got that right.’ Remember that, man?” He put the marker under his nostrils and inhaled deeply. “By the way, you owe me sixteen-hundred forty-seven dollars and thirty-five cents.”

This was something the Mayor was particularly adept at. He would lull you into a false sense of security with blather about gay frogs and Trap gossip, and then, just when you thought he was a harmless addle-brained socialist, he’d ambush you with capitalist demands. 

I rinsed my mouth out with water and spat in the sink. “Sixteen-hundred? That can’t be right.”

“Sixteen forty-seven and thirty-five cents.” He pointed to the far corner of the mirror, which contained a row of numbers underneath the words “Sam D,” and then he began listing my expenses. “Rent for November and December, plus that ounce you bought from me on New Year’s Eve. Remember that? You came home with that blonde, knocked on my door at two in the morning, said you’d pay me in a week. That was sixteen days ago.” 

“Oh, right. I forgot about New Year’s.”

He put the cap back on the marker and set it on the sink. “I bet you did. And then October tenth you needed thirty-five cents for the laundromat. Said you had to do a load of whites. Emergency, you said. Never did get that back to me, man. Of course, these figures don’t include the late penalties.” 

“Late what? Ah, come on.”

“It’s right there in the lease, man. If you don’t pay by the third of the month, there’s a hundred dollar fee and an additional penalty every subsequent week thereafter. We went over this last month.” He inserted his index finger into the dark cavern of his bellybutton up to the second knuckle and began to rummage around in there thoughtfully. “That’s the problem with your generation. Always looking for a handout. Never planning ahead. This isn’t a charity house I’m running, man. I gotta eat too, you know.”

It didn’t look as though he had been skipping any meals recently, but I held my tongue. 

“I told you I’d get you the money. I have a couple of checks I haven’t cashed, and my editor called this morning with an assignment.”

“Another movie review?” he sneered. “I don’t think that’s going to cover it, man.” 

“A cover story.” 

I had no intention of writing the article, but he didn’t need to know that. Like most shut-ins, the Mayor loved gossip, especially if it involved city politics or law enforcement, hoping to one day uncover the poison pill he could force feed the Mountainview illuminati and reinstate himself in the seat of power. He was incredibly well informed on local affairs for someone who never read a newspaper or went outside. 

“Well, well. Look who’s playing with the big boys,” he said. “What’s it about?”

“You know I can’t tell you that. But it’s a huge piece. It’ll cover my debt and then some. You’ll see.” 

“Yeah but…”

“Great. I’ll let you know when the check comes in.”

I exited the bathroom before he could stop me, rushed across the hall to my room, and bolted the door. I wasn’t worried about the Mayor. He liked to talk big, but the man rarely followed through on any of his threats. He’d calm down if I gave him five-hundred dollars. Of course, I didn’t have five-hundred dollars and I couldn’t avoid the bathroom forever, but that was a problem for another day.

I pulled the blanket off the bed and wrapped myself in it again. I was already seven hours late for the meeting with my editor, so I figured one more wouldn’t make a difference. 

I gargled with mouthwash and spat into a Nosferatu mug sitting on the windowsill. I plucked the joint off the coffee table and finished it off in three enormous hits. I put a kettle of water on the hotplate and fired up the DVD player. It felt like a Humphrey Bogart kind of day. I selected The Maltese Falcon. I didn’t have time to watch the whole thing, so I skipped ahead to my favorite scene, the one at the end where Bogie, in a smashing pin-striped double-breasted suit, presents the bad guys with the coveted falcon statue the movie is named after, which turns out to be a fake, causing a perm-headed bow-tie-wearing Peter Lorre to shout obscenities at fat dapper Sydney Greenstreet before falling into a chair and crying like a baby. When the criminals leave, Bogie immediately turns them into the police before badgering a murder confession out of doe-eyed femme fatale Mary Astor while simultaneously declaring his undying love for her. This all happens in the span of about four minutes.

The kettle began to whistle. I poured the hot water into a mug over an Earl Grey tea bag and dumped in three heaping spoons of sugar. I blew and sipped. I opened my laptop and logged onto my website. I wrote: Watching The Maltese Falcon hungover and high, which is really the only way to watch The Maltese Falcon, methinks. I love how romantic relationships work in old movies. There’s no dating, no casual sex, no moving in together to see if you’re emotionally compatible, none of that half-assed postmodern crap they talk about in Cosmo. She walks into the room looking like a million bucks and, BAM, you both just know. So what if she turns out to be a ruthless sociopath who murdered your business partner and lied about it? Does that mean you dump her? Hell, no. You banter with her for a while, insult her, prove that you know just how dark her soul really is, and then, in the middle of an argument, you plant a kiss on her. But not one of those gross twenty-first century open-mouthed kisses. No way. It’s got to be a classic-movie kiss, a black-and-white kiss. A kiss where you grab her roughly by the head and mash your face against hers while the violin music swells in the background. No tongues allowed. And even if she’s a no-good deceitful devil woman and you’re a hard-boiled detective with a secret sentimental streak and you have to send her to jail for twenty years, she knows you’ll be right there waiting for her when she gets out. Because that’s what love is, baby doll.

I posted it on the usual social networking sites. The likes and lols immediately began rolling in. I closed the computer and started looking around for my coat and bus pass. Someone at the paper was bound to see that post and report it up the chain. Now I definitely had to get to work. 

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