1c – The Squatters Box

The box went pitch black.  A helicopter roared overhead, rattling cups, utensils and the shrines Aloysius had piled up, shaking down his shanty household with all his junk to his sawdust floor.  Rupert faced him, knee-to-knee, following the after-image of Aloysius’ head swimming off then dissolving against the black cardboard, both clasping their ears, deafened by the gunships’ wing-beat:

“Whew! That was close!”

A needle scratched across an old record, an anthem from a defunct Japanese corporation. Aloysius silenced it with a tap of his leather boot.  They crawled on their knees, peeking from the shabby doorway rug past the searchlights, espying the copter’s withdrawal against the purple smog of New York.

“Who’s sending them out here?”  Rupert breathed.

“Couldn’t say.”  Aloysius whispered.

Frustrated, Rupert dusted off his pants: “Why are we whispering?  They can’t hear us!”

“Neither can we.”  Aloysius admitted, peeking again through the rug doorway to his hut.

Rupert tried to stand: uncombed black hair, tall, lanky back and legs casting a flickering shadow against the hut’s low ceiling, but stumbled over a mask fallen from one of Aloysius’ makeshift shrines.  It mocked the standard revolutionary hero of the past — paint brush mustache trailing sawdust — an Everyman of dead revolutionary chic. Aloysius stuffed the mask under a pile of costumes,  tidying up his plywood table.

“What should I do?”  Rupert sighed, searching his pockets for a cigarette.

“Nothing.  It always works for me.”  Aloysius salvaged a cigarette butt from his vest.

“Is killing  just — as self-defense?”

“Everyone who takes revenge … “  Aloysius lit up, to Rupert’s irritation, ” … calls it just.  Back to square one — you killed Grabmaler so who’s sending those copters … ”

“You mean it was revenge?”

“No.  Didn’t mean a thing.   Never do.”

“But if it wasn’t revenge?  What?”  Rupert laughed, pulling out the mask again by its beard, “A revolutionary act of justice?”

Aloysius admired his mask, dressed up his monk’s robe, watching curlicues of smoke spiral before its nose only to bounce back from the low ceiling, and mused:  “There will never be a Revolution again.”

“No just crouching in cardboard squats!”  Rupert spat back.

“What’s wrong with that?”  Aloysius retorted.  “Here, try this on … “  Aloysius selected a dry pullover from a paper bag to replace Rupert’s blood stained shirt.

Rupert slipped it on, drawing it out from his waist.  A patchwork of nationalist insignia –  Bosnian, Slovakian, Tamil miniature flags stitched together, two Tibetan lions shaking paws against a flaming torch … a French tricolor with its stripes covered by  a Corsican bandanna’d face, and a Japanese rising sun with a black “A” for anarchy sown over it like a mock solar eclipse.

“What’s left to make a Revolution out of now?” Aloysius smiled, admiring his handiwork.  Again they heard the gunship slap back heavily across the Hudson from Manhattan forcing Aloysius to shout over the racket: “Anyway, how do you raise Cain after Revelations?”

Rupert yelled, “That’s exactly what we’re going to find out!”

*                                   *                                   *

The helicopter stormed over the hut choking out vicious blasts of machine gun fire.  Aloysius poked his head out watching it skim the pavement, pursuing an old man dressed in a cook’s apron, stumbling frantically toward his hut.  The cook fell flat with another burst, raising a tiny plume of cinder.  The gunship reversed itself East, taxied over the oily river wreckage, buzzed low and hard over the Hoboken parkinglot where they couched, and dropped carefully behind the electrified fence of Tombstone Internationale.

“That’s one way to reply.”  Aloysius sniffed, lifting a ragged coat from his mattress.  “I’m sure they don’t feel guilty.”

“Keep your ass down!  They got binoculars.”

Aloysius ducked out.  Rupert lit a cigarette, straightened out the phonograph’s arm, re-attaching its battery.  He remembered Grabmaler years ago wearing the red silk robe in which he shot him, just before the  Economic Collapse.  A blue iris unfolded on the penthouse patio.  Grabmaler mused, smoking a cigar, reading the Times, paper wilting in the brownish haze under a smog aureole’d New York sun.  Rupert, just thirteen, read cautiously across the table, his first novel, when Grabmaler insisted he tackle something more “manly”, like, The Wealth of Nations.  The title meant nothing to him.  Rupert inspected his hands suspecting he manufactured his guilt to repress a sensation of triumph, and caught himself shivering …

Aloysius scooted back in, drew the rug and dropped a red napkin reeking garlic on Rupert’s lap, written with black lipstick:  “No go back — stinks in room!   Fear he dead!”

“He wore a chef’s … costume.” Aloysius reported.

“Your coat?”

“Shrouding this face … ” Aloysius handed over an ID card.  Rupert recognized Grabmaler’s chef, an aging Italian graying at the temples, sporting a miserable grin.

“Do you think word is leaking out?”  Rupert mused, fingering the ID’s frayed edge.

“Don’t know.  May be boiling over.”

Rupert brushed the card against his knee: “Would he run from the complex, if he knew?”

“Don’t know.  Could be on the lam.”

“What do you know?”

“He’s dead.  And I’m hungry.”

Rupert threw up his hands, “Do you ever answer straight?  We have to attend the party,”  Rupert flung aside the ID:  “They know we’re sitting here.  I must explain I shot Grabmaler — in self-defense before they assume murder.  If not, they’ll find him dead and conclude I killed him for greed.  Or sexual jealousy.  I was supposed to be his heir, your know.  He was rich, he ran Tombstone.   Perhaps we can plead our case and co-opt the opposition.”

Aloysius hesitated,  “Who’s our opposition?

“Or hide here!”  Rupert jumped up, shouting, “Cowering inside a two or three taped-together refrigerator boxes!  Dressed up in costumes!”

“It’s always worked for me!”  Aloysius protested.

Rupert salvaged a cigarette butt from the sawdust, lit it, and took a nervous drag.  Aloysius fiddled with his phonograph.  They both sensed the killing could not long remain a secret within Tombstone.  Grabmaler’s absence would draw suspicion from his drug, art or counterfeiting cronies. As would Rupert’s.  If the truth remained submerged, as the inverted skyscraper itself, a concrete needle concealing its wound pressed and festering in the ground, it could, even after his death, be under Grabmaler’s thumb.  Rupert sat sifting alternatives, tracing the door rug’s patterns, when he spotted a furtive shadow closing  in behind it.  They both braced.

Aloysius slipped to the side blowing out the candle, “Who goes?”   The rug swayed.   A hand groped for the interior of the hut.  A form appeared and cautiously froze, staring at Rupert’s silhouetted sketch of a head in the scant light.  Aloysius lifting his  bottle.

“Can I step in?”   The stranger asked.

“You already have.”  Aloysius relit the candle, vaguely recalling the voice.

The intruder’s high forehead, mercurial lips and Mephistophelean grin were offset by a pince nez which he wore like a college student or accountant.  He rubbed his newly shaven head, squinting; “‘You remember me.  We met two months ago at sea.  Sailing to France.”

“Go on!”  Rupert barked back.

“Aloysius — my friend.”  Aloysius eased the bottle to the floor.  “We met … you stowed away on our floating Black Market barge to Newport News.”

“The Kronstadt?”  Aloysius listened.

“Yes.  Still dressing up in costumes?”  The man edged in, eyes darting behind candlelit glasses.  He crouched, squinting at Rupert:  ”You … stowed away with a young woman, Undine.  On our Black Market barge.  And an old, brilliant man, Diogenes.  But … you’ve changed.  I can’t put my finger on it.”

“My name?”

“Rupert.”

Rupert, declining to shake his hand, remembered him.

“Trotsky.”  The sailor reminded him.

“Fine.  Sit down.  Please explain why you came.”  Rupert shifted stiffly in the small floor space available.

“Your coming-home party tonight from Paris.  Why else?”  Trotsky blinked, irked by the chill reception.

Rupert massaged his eyes his palms, reasoning with his past.  He stowed away on it with Undine and Diogenes. Trotsky the only articulate sailor, a Black Marketeer on a free agent barge.  Yet that trip changed everything.  And he knew the guests for the party were already chatting among arranged flowers, sipping champagne, nibbling catered hors-d’oeuvres, waiting to celebrate his surrender to Grabmaler, who wouldhold court. Rupert trembled, recalling where the bullet struck Grabmaler’s neck, his cigar still smoldering.

“What’s this?”  Trotsky asked, noting a cloud of guilt shadow Rupert’s brow.

“Dark night of the soul.”  Aloysius whispered.

“Perhaps I should send up some flares?  Celebrate?”  Trotsky suggested, unwrapping a leather flask exposing a liter of Black Market whiskey, studying Rupert’s shirt, “If it pleases you to indulge.”  Trotsky handed it first to Aloysius, knowing how he spoke, and how rarely he drank.

“Quite, we most graciously accept.”  Aloysius joked with a mock-British accent.  Aloysius tilted his head for a full swig then cleared propaganda leaflets from the lone available stool.  Trotsky squatted.   Rupert reflected, cautiously.

“Why do you keep all this stuff?”  Trotsky huffed, easing himself on the stool, accepting the whiskey back:  “Wow!  I just docked.  Arrived from Paris this morning.  All the way … you know the crew!   Angry waves, green skies!  No one to talk to!  I would stare up from my bunk, shout at the gray waves and still see the millions of homeless sleeping in the streets.  On the Seine.  In the Louvre!   Does Paris still spook you? The public sex acts?   Group suicides?  Self-flagellaters?  Man!  I felt, I stepped into a nightmare I from which I’ll never wake up.  I need a party.  Especially after two weeks lousy weather!”  He peered over his glasses slowly at Rupert, “But something is up.   An invasion by an army who call themselves Atavists.  Paris is waking up. or some of it is, preparing to defend itself or be enslaved.  And, “Trotsky leaned forward, confidentially, “they’re talking Revolution.”

“What did they say?”  Aloysius asked, sliding the whiskey from Trotsky’s hands.

Rupert recalled that Paris had fallen into a kind of somnambulistic trance following the Collapse, but now rumors of invasion, and even of Revolution seemed to fit.  Yet he had to concentrate on the upcoming party, and really did not have time to speculate about politics.  He re-met Grabmaler in Paris:  “The weather felt fine two days ago, when we landed!”  He said, flatly.

“Not at sea!  Why shouldn’t it be, you went by jet.” Trotsky scoffed, studying Rupert’s poker face, then changed the subject, passing him the whiskey, “How’s your girlfriend?”.

“Undine.”  Aloysius added respectfully.

“Undine caught me with a whore in Paris.”  Rupert growled, refusing the drink.

“And?”

“We’re working things out.”

“And the prostitute?”  Trotsky asked, raising his eyebrows, trying a joke which might work with his crew.

“Dead.” Rupert scowled vacantly, pondering Grabmaler’s welcome home party, and the girl who lured him back.

“Now, you return to Grabmaler … “  Trotsky repeated, alarmed, “Dark Night, indeed.”

“Yes, indeed. ” Aloysius echoed, fiddling with cut-up rubber whales in a glass jar.  An icy silence passed between the three young men crouching in his cardboard hut.

“Something’s wrong.”  Trotsky gulped, taking a quick but hefty swig.  “Your attitude doesn’t make sense.”

Rupert squinted at the flame, Trotsky’s questions revealed that he would have to begin lying, pretending and had already blown his cover.  Grabmaler’s absence from the party would soon make itself known to everyone as well.  It was pointless, denying it.

“Is your crew still on board your barge?”  Rupert asked.

“Waiting for the next shipment.  Pissed, stupified, abunk.  But something has happened.  I can  feel it.”  Trotsky pressed his case, “If it’s big you can count on me.  I’m no … blabberpuss!  Aloysius?”

“Frumpledforeskin!” Aloysius mumbled, in non sequitur.

“What? Right.” Trotsky horrumphed, changing tacts,  “Rupert, recall the night we discovered you stowed away, wedged in, cold, hiding — escaping from Grabmaler.  Escaping from Tombstone Internationale.  From here! We gave you shelter, safe directions away from Hoboken.  To Calais.   We might have dumped you overboard.  Now you’re back.  You had good reason to go … you explained it all to us.  If the shit has hit .. the wall … here.. you’d not throw me to the sharks, would you?  We did have a laugh, finding you  squeezed under those crates holding your piss pail that blowy night, no?  You said you wanted to escape.”  Trotsky concluded, keen on finding out just what kind of party he would attend.

“You helped us.  I didn’t know it was contract.”  Rupert retorted.

Aloysius, remembering his own barge ride, and their generosity, broke the silence:  “Well there has been kind of a coupa private one.”  He hinted, shrugging his shoulders.

“What subtlety!”  Rupert snorted.

“Not sure what you mean, go on … “  Trotsky urged.

“I can’t, not a, a, a …  favourable wind in the sky.”  Aloysius stammered.

“Let me guess.  Everyone knows Grabmaler sacked the Louvre …   Now that disheartened the French!”  Trotsky glanced shyly at Aloysius. “Just think if that art was returned now?  No, that’s not it.  Nod if I’m warm.  Scratch your ear!”  Trotsky joked, irony sharpening his tone,  “Rupert got in a fight with Grab.  They got plastered and called the whole tiff off1″  Trotsky snatched up the napkin and beside it the cook’s ID which he had noticed on a rag-covered magazine stack.  It dawned on him, as he re-read the little message, scanning, head bowed. “You killed him!” Trotsky whispered incredulously, craning his neck, checking their faces, then peered though the rug then lurched  back: “My god!  That’s  it!”

Aloysius deferred to Rupert for permission to speak.  Rupert shrugged his shoulders.

Trotsky grabbed him by the shoulders, eyes bugged: “Is that the truth?”

Aloysius nodded his head. Trotsky slid into a nervous laugh and unconsciously lifted his whiskey in a toast.  Rupert edged back further into his seat, “You’re going to celebrate someone’s death?”

“Shit! “  He gleamed at Rupert.  “He did it you know, he helped engineer the Collapse! You killed the biggest bastard on earth!  ”

“I’m sure he had some competition.”  Rupert frowned.

“But you didn’t, you don’t now!”  Trotsky jumped up trying to express his delight and keep from shouting, folding, unfolding his fingers in hyperactivity, then slowly, spontaneously, he began to dance, hardpressed to perform his shuffle without tripping within the dusty floor space:  “He’s dead! La, La!” He kept repeating.

Aloysius decided to cheer Rupert up, and rummaged through his records, quickly selecting one: “This, I call: ‘The History of the Secret Police.’”  Then he also began to shuffle, performing a kind of regressive jig.  Rupert smiled wanly — he had seen the foot play before.  While the cracked record dragged on through a Bavarian march, Aloysius put shoulder pads and a wig  over Trotsky’s head.  Aloysius entered a final stage, bending over backwards to the floor, “limboing” to sum-up every over-the-top public display of emotion ever seen when the record ended in a crescendo of tubas and a Valkerielike unison.

Trotsky stood akimbo, still astonished, feeling inspired, half-drunk and when it ended, declared:  “I’ve been outdone by a lunatic!”

Rupert  smiled, scolding, “Why Aloysius, where have you learnt such a thing!”

“But what happens now?” Trotsky huffed, still grinning.

“We go to the party and tell the truth!” Rupert laughed, staring into Trotsky’s eyes.

“Is it more dangerous to be with or against you?”  Trotsky stepped back, panting.

“Is it more dangerous to be right or wrong?”  Rupert asked.

Aloysius slapped Trotsky on the back, “Right!  Let’s go!”