WHEN THE RICH wage war, it's the poor that die.
* * *
Chapters One & Nine > > >
* * *
WHY SCONTO WALAA HAD decided that today was the day he would murder Walter Whitman, the former Philadelphia Eagles football player who owned the used car lot at the far end of his block, he could not say. It was 10 o’clock and Sconto had awoken for the second time this morning. Outside his window the activities of the town were well underway. After a week of excessively hot and oppressive weather, today had begun strangely refreshing and tart. A warm sun filled the quiet streets of New Simole, bringing a smile to the faces of the few passersby. It was certainly not the kind of day that might fill anyone with the intention of killing someone.
Sconto had been planning this event for the past thirteen years now, which was long before the dealership had even been there. More accurately, the used car lot was not on the end of his block, but in the no-man’s-land between the now closed road to the old Wilbender Bridge and the road that led to the new Wilbender Bridge.
The old bridge, a beautiful iron-girder span, built in 1920 and rechristened The War Veterans Memorial Bridge in 1946, was scheduled to be torn down—more accurately it was to be blown up. A Hollywood film company had discovered that the unwanted bridge looked very much like a bridge over the Rhine River that the U. S. Air Force had bombed in World War Two during a major battle, and so they had purchased the span and were planning to dynamite it for a scene in a movie they were making called Battle of the Bridge II. The film was being made by FantasyWorks Studios and would be starring the popular action picture star Hi Octane.
Sconto Walaa lived on East Main Street, a half block away from the approach road to the old bridge in a ground floor apartment, with his wife of thirteen years, and his thirteen year old daughter. Mr. Walaa ran a small business, Sconto’s Discount Dry Goods Store, which he had inherited from his father, a half mile west on Main Street in that three block section of store fronts and four story buildings that passed for New Simole’s downtown.
As today was Sunday, Sconto Walaa’s wife had gone off to church and, ostensibly, to do committee work afterwards. She had deposited their daughter and her friend at the mall on the way. They would be gone most of the day.
With his family out of the house, Walaa had lain down and taken a short nap, even though he had only woken up a few hours earlier. He was sleeping a great deal lately. It was a good nap. Sconto had not experienced any nightmares, as he usually did when he slept at night; a recurrent dream of his body being pulled out of a dark hole by his big toe. A glimpse Sconto believed of his birth, as he had been told by his father that he was breech born, a story which his mother denied. But he knew that his father was always right.
As far back as he could remember, Sconto had always had strange and vivid nightmares, but they seemed to have become even more frequent ever since he and his National Guard unit had returned from a tour of duty in the Middle East. While most of his unit had been deployed to Iraq Sconto Walaa, because of his knowledge of Simok, the language of the Simoleons, had been separated from the battalion and stationed in the nation of Simole, where he had been assigned as a translator for the CIA agents who were interrogating prisoners being held at an apparently secret location in that country—one of the infamous black sites.
Corporal Walaa’s job had been to sit there and watch as the prisoner was tortured by the local secret police. If the victim happened to utter something in Arabic, the Simoleons would relate to Sconto what had been said to them in Simok, which Sconto would then translate into English for the CIA agent sitting next to him. Most of the time the poor soul being interrogated didn’t have much to say—only scream—so Sconto had very little to do. While most of the Simoleons could speak perfect English, the CIA did not trust their translations, so Corporal Walaa had to be present at all interrogations. Thus Sconto had become quite an expert on all types of torture: sleep deprivation, electric shock, the use of dogs, waterboarding, stress positions and the good old-fashioned kick in the groin with a steel-toe boot.
Wide-awake now, Sconto Walaa went into the bathroom and furtively peered out the window from between the curtains. He could clearly see into his neighbor’s bedroom, a scant six feet away. A woman was singing, at least her lips were moving. Her window was shut as was Sconto’s; however, if it had been open he probably would not have heard her anyway because of the roar of the cars, trucks, and motorcycles passing over the nearby Wilbender Bridge. The rather attractive thirty-something, singing woman was not wearing any clothes.
The woman being observed was Margery Sandowski. She had once dreamed of becoming an opera singer. Margery was in Sconto’s class in high school, although his classmates didn’t call him Sconto then, but “Dis,” which was short for “discount,” which was what the Italian kids said his name meant in Italian. Everyone thought that this was very funny because his father ran a discount store. In Simok “sconto” was the word used for something that was of the highest quality, which was why his father had given him the name.
Margery had been the pretty girl, with the wonderful voice, who sang the solos for the school choir. In the Christmas pageant she played the Virgin Mary. All the kids knew that Dis had a crush on her, but he was rather short and homely, with pimples, so she wouldn’t even talk to him. Her boyfriend, Mickey Morehouse, was the captain of the high school football team. Because he couldn’t sing very well, Mickey didn’t get to be Joseph, as everyone expected, but only got to be one of the shepherds. Dis, and another boy, made up the donkey—Dis holding up the back end.
Margery’s football hero gave her a graduation present of a budding baby girl, before dodging off to the Marine Corps. For reasons unknown to anyone, he never returned to New Simole. So she raised the child herself, which put an end to Margery’s hope of going to New York and becoming an opera singer.
On Sundays, her day off from her job as a check out clerk at the local K-mart, Margery Sandowski liked to sing to herself in her bedroom. Her daughter gone off to a movie with Sconto Walaa’s daughter, and the apartment empty, she sang for her neighbor naked, knowing full well that he was hiding behind the curtain of his own bedroom, watching her through the window while he stroked his penis. Yet while she danced and he watched, Walaa would never think of going next door and ringing her buzzer. Would this woman, still a beauty in her thirties, answer the door naked? Would she know his situation, as most of the town did, and invite him in to satisfy his needs? But that would have made this a very different story.
These Sunday morning moments of fantasy were for Sconto the high point of his week. In truth, Walaa’s life held no passion and no romance. His wife, Mary Elizabeth, and he had been wed over thirteen years, but had yet to consummate their marriage. Sconto Walaa had known from the beginning that his wife did not love him, and that he was not the biological father of their thirteen year old daughter Elizabeth Mary. Washing himself at the bathroom sink, Walaa looked up and studied his features in the clouded mirror on the medicine cabinet door. At a distance, owing to a certain combination of wrinkles, his face seemed to wear a smile. Up close, however, that smile unmasked itself as a grimace of bitterness and prosaic matter-of-factness. This morning Sconto appeared more tired than usual. He blinked his eyes. Gray streaks distorted his image. He hadn’t cleaned the mirror in some time. He wondered how and why that task had become his anyway. Walaa rubbed the glass surface with the palm of his hand, only making the streaks streakier.
Studying himself in the dirty mirror, Sconto Walaa would be the first person to acknowledge that he could not be considered handsome by any of the culture’s popular standards. His nose was too long, and hooked at the end—too big even for a Simoleon, a people who generally sported heroic profiles. His sister Sarah once had had a proboscis of similar appearance, but their parents, after much pleading by their daughter, had given her a “nose job” as her high school graduation present.
When Sconto demanded a rhinoplasty for himself, his father, also named Sconto, had refused his son’s request proclaiming sagely: “Boys who have plastic surgery done to shrink their noses grow up to be queers . . . I see them coming into the store all the time mincing about and flexing their wrists, and even buying ladies underwear . . . the sexy lace bikini kind.”
“But Dad,” young Sconto argued, “if I can have some skin cut off the end of my penis, why can’t I have a little cut off the end of my nose?”
“Off the end of your schlong makes you a Simoleon, off the end of your nose makes you a faggot. . . .”
The son’s argument, that he knew several boys from his school who had had their schnozzles tweaked to make them seem more appealing, and who had not suddenly become homosexuals, fell on deaf ears.
Sconto Walaa had always felt that his father was unfair to him; oftentimes for no reason. He would have loved to have had the power to inflict some kind of pain on the old man. Sconto believed that this would console him some small bit for his own chronic failures, but he was never able to take any action. Once he even concocted an elaborate plan to slowly poison his father, which he had not carried out. Likewise, over the years, Sconto had planned for the death of several other individuals who he felt had wronged him, which he had also never accomplished. But today would be different, he reassured himself—the used car dealer at the end of the block had only a few more hours to live.
Sconto leaned close to the mirror to squeeze a pimple that he had discovered on his chin. Pimples were supposed to go away when you grew up Walaa, recalled believing when he was young. Yet his own pale skin, almost transparent and with a permanent pallor, was now thirty-three years old and still badly mottled with zits and blackheads. Looking sadly at the visage Sconto saw reflected back at him only reaffirmed his apprehension that while he unfortunately had been born ugly, he was getting even uglier with each passing year.
His washing up completed, Sconto Walaa dressed slowly and with great care. Finally, in front of the mirror, he composed his face into and expression he believed expressed calm and relentless determination. Then he carefully loaded his automatic pistol before slipping it back into his aluminum briefcase. He glanced in the mirror once more, and patted the pen and paper that he had put in his shirt pocket. Now he was ready to face his intended victim.
But first he needed to eat something. Sconto went into the kitchen and set about preparing a brunch of bacon and eggs; two foods that were taboo to him. The pig meat was denied by his religion, for although Mary Elizabeth considered him to be a Catholic, and told everyone else so, Sconto considered himself to be a Simoleon. The eggs were not supposed to be part of his diet because of his high cholesterol.
He fried a few strips of bacon and then cracked two eggs into a frying pan next to them. The yokes winked at him, their pupils all runny and dreamy, their eyelids solidifying around them slowly revealing a peacock’s feather, or a nest of smiling maggots. His head had begun pounding loudly again, with a sharp ringing in his ears, as it seemed to do more frequently in the days since returning from active duty. He knew no cure.
In a display of angry impatience, Sconto scooped the not quite cooked breakfast onto his plate. Adding a bit of salt, he wolfed down his forbidden treat with enthusiasm, confident that neither his wife nor his God was watching him. Sconto had even eaten his not-allowed fare off a plate from the good China; the yellow flowered set with the gold trim that Mary Elizabeth had bought for what he thought was way too much of his hard-earned money. They had argued violently about the purchase. His wife claimed that she “wanted something nice for dinner parties,” which they never gave, as the Walaa’s had no friends to invite over. As usual, Mary Elizabeth had won, and a full service for twelve was now stacked in the China cabinet in their little used dining room.
It was not just Sconto and Mary Elizabeth, however, who were friendless. Even their daughter Elizabeth Mary, who was stunningly beautiful, and looked mature for her age of thirteen, did not have anyone she could call a true friend; although she did have two girls she frequently hung around with. These girls had remarked at one time or another to Elizabeth Mary that she “didn’t look like a Simoleon,” prompting his daughter to ask Sconto on several occasions, mainly around her birthday, if he was really her father. “Of course I am, Honey . . . I take really good care of you and your mother, don’t I? . . .” was all that Sconto Walaa would ever reply.
For no apparent reason Sconto’s entire body suddenly began to twitch, and then he remembered today’s mission. He stopped shaking and sat there considering if he should punch out the used car salesman a little before he killed him—that is after he had carefully tied his adversary up. Sconto’s intended victim was much bigger and stronger than he, and had even been a professional football player some years ago. Walaa planned to torture the man first, using the devices he had put together in the little shop he had set up in the back room of his clothing store, replicas of what he saw the interrogators use when he was at the secret prison in Simole, and to extract a confession from him. But for now, Sconto would carefully wash and dry the flowered China plate, and put it back in the cabinet, so his wife wouldn’t know that he had used it.
Sconto felt that no one appreciated him. Vexed by what he perceived as the world’s obtuseness, he had despaired at his fate, nagging himself with an angry impatience. Despite his best efforts, he had remained misunderstood—and worse yet, he felt that no one did care to try to understand him, with his faint smile, whiny voice and secretive ways. His head pounding, he sat at the table in helpless despair, almost in tears. It was as if Sconto’s biological compass had gotten turned around backwards and had left him disorientated. Filled with a mixture of hate and excitement, Walaa burned with an abstract cruelty.
How dull and ordinary his life seemed, but all that would change this afternoon. Walaa became completely calm and determined. The honor of his marriage was at stake, and for this he was prepared to do anything. He decided that he would try to confide in Walt Whitman. Sconto told himself learning more about his adversary would confirm his feeling that Whitman was a prosaic fellow, unable to rise above his own triviality. He had especially grown tired of seeing Whitman’s face on television—glowing with false enthusiasm as he revealed yet another of his bargain automobiles.
MARY ELIZABETH HAD ALWAYS lied to her parents, even as a very young girl. However, it was probably from them that she had developed her early habit for lying, as they always lied to each other, and to her and her brother. She lied about her friends after her father had slapped her for bringing home “a Protestant girl.” She lied about her grades when her father beat her brother for being “dumber than your sister,” and then got beaten herself for “not doing well.” When she was supposed to be in her room studying, Mary Elizabeth was often hiding under her bed making drawings of saints, and monsters. When she got older, she brought home a book on Michelangelo. Her father caught her reading it and gave her a smack on the back of her head with his slipper for “looking at pictures of naked men.”
Early in her life Mary Elizabeth had developed a love for art, and hoped to become an artist, a fact which she concealed from her parents. They had decided their daughter was to be a nun, their way of providing for the salvation of their own souls. On Saturdays, when she was supposed to be attending religious instruction the young girl usually went to the town library and read art books. When she reflected back on it, Mary Elizabeth recalled the first seventeen years of her life as being one enormous lie.
Mary Elizabeth turned into the crowded parking lot. She could just make out Elizabeth Mary and her friend, Gail Sandowski from next door, standing at the west entrance of The Wagon Wheel Factory Outlet Mall, the door you used for Cinema Nine. Mary Elizabeth waited for a moment while a car backed out of a space and the one in front of her pulled in. She was Mary Elizabeth, so had named her daughter Elizabeth Mary. Her husband had suggested Medina or Katrina, but she had rejected these names, afraid to tell him that she thought they sounded too Simoleon.
The two girls looked so beautiful, and young, and to her innocent. Yet Mary Elizabeth wondered if her daughter and her friend had gone to the Disney double feature they were supposed to, or once inside, snuck into some of the X-rated trash that was playing in the adjacent auditoriums? To the mother’s mind, however, the Disney movies she had seen lately weren’t as sweet and virtuous as she remembered them to be either. The world was changing, and so was her daughter. When she found that first telltale spot on Elizabeth Mary’s underpants she had had “the talk” with her. Her daughter listened intently, agreeing to her mother’s admonishment to “be careful around boys,” but she couldn’t help feeling that Elizabeth Mary was already well aware of what she was telling her, and probably knew much more about the subject than she did when she was thirteen.
Mary Elizabeth pulled her tired blue Honda Civic up to the curb, blew the horn and waved to the girls. The teenagers recognizied her car by the slightly dented right front fender and the turn signal lens held on by duct tape, dings received from previous mall visits. Sconto always parked the car all by itself, at the empty end of the lot, so that no one would damage it. It wasn’t her fault that someone had banged into the fender and driven away without leaving a note. They needed to hurry; she had to be home by five to start dinner. Mary Elizabeth pushed the passenger door open and folded the seat forward.
“Hi girls! Hop in we’ve got to rush. . . .”
“Mother, like where have you been?” Elizabeth Mary asked, speaking rather gruffly after she was settled in the front seat, her friend in the back. “Like we’ve been waiting here for over half an hour already, you know.”
“The movie got out early? . . .”
“No . . . like you’re late, you know!”
Although she already knew the time, Mary Elizabeth looked at her watch. “So I am. I must have gotten tied up in traffic.” The mother realized she had just lied again. Would the lying never cease? Perhaps when she was dead.
“Like two creepy guys in a tricked-out Mustang kept driving by and saying rude things to us while we were standing here waiting for you,” her daughter complained. “So we went back inside. Like then we got worried that you might have come by and couldn’t find us, you know what I mean.”
“I would never have gone away and left you behind, Precious,” Mary Elizabeth cooed.
Elizabeth Mary made a face. She hated it when her mother called her by her pet name, Precious, in front of her friends.
“Like they tried to get us to go for a ride with them, ya know.” Elizabeth Mary’s friend Gail added from the back seat, the first words she had spoken since getting in the car. She had seemed put out and not even said her usually cheery: Hello, Mrs. Walaa.
“So, what kind of rude things were they saying?” the mother asked.
“Like I can’t say,” Gail went on, “I’m totally not allowed to use words like that, ya know what I mean. Like they were not just saying things, but shouting them out.”
“But what about the people coming out of the mall, didn’t they do anything?” Mary Elizabeth looked over at her daughter’s long, thin legs stretched out on the front seat. Her denim miniskirt was a little too short, and tight, and she had told her to keep her top pulled down so that her navel didn’t show. But Elizabeth Mary had argued, “Like that’s the way all the kids dress these days, ya know.” She was even lobbying to get her nose pierced, and a tattoo, just a small one, maybe a butterfly, on her shoulder.
“Like nobody did anything, ya know. I mean totally. They just kept walking by and giving us dirty looks . . . like we were the ones doing something wrong, you know what I mean.”
“That’s the trouble these days. Everyone has a filthy mind. All people think about anymore is sex, sex, and more sex,” Mary Elizabeth said, attempting to put an end to the conversation.
“And like where were you all afternoon, Mom? . . .”
Mary Elizabeth slammed on her brakes and screeched the car to a halt, blowing her horn at the car moving across her path. “Asshole,” she screamed, “Why don’t you look where you’re going?!”
“Like you went through a stop sign, Mom. . . .”
“Yeah. . . .”
“What a stupid place to put a stop sign.”
“Like it was an intersection, Mom, ya know. Like where do they usually put stop signs . . . in the middle of the block?”
Mary Elizabeth didn’t answer. Her daughter’s asking, rather sarcastically, where she had been “all afternoon” was the first time that the young woman had even hinted at the fact that she suspected her mother might be up to something other than the “church work” she claimed to be doing. She supposed that now that Elizabeth Mary was getting older she would be more sensitive to these things, begin to notice inconsistencies. After all they only went to mass together on holidays like Christmas and Easter, and yet almost every week she went to the rectory at Holy Trinity, ostensibly to do church work. Mary Elizabeth tried to consol herself with the notion that this was, after all, only half a lie, for she was indeed performing a “charitable service” for the pastor.
Mary Elizabeth considered that perhaps the time had come when she should have a talk with her daughter and try to explain to her what was going on. All these years she had been constructing a network of lies to protect her daughter from things she thought the girl should not know, things Mary Elizabeth believed would hurt her, perhaps even damage their relationship. Now maybe it was time to finally let go. Hadn’t her own life been ruined by secrets her parents had kept from her. Maybe she would talk to Elizabeth Mary the next time they were alone together—and then again maybe she would not.
Suddenly everything inside her began to cower and shrink, even her bones felt thin. Mary Elizabeth did not know why, but she fought to hold back her tears. Perhaps this was a mother’s guilt, bringing with it a sense of frustration and defeat. Her chest was pounding. She felt as if she might be having a heart attack. Or was it just a failure of her will and courage, a failure of faith—a failure of everything. She adjusted the rearview mirror and risked a quick glimpse at herself. Her face was cold, turgid with fear. She was glad that she was wearing sunglasses so her daughter could not see her reddening eyes.
After the sudden stop, they had driven along for a while without speaking. When they were away from the crowded mall traffic, Mary Elizabeth, sensing the heaviness in the silence, asked the first question that popped into her head: “And how was the movie, girls?”
“Lame. . . .”
“Totally bogus. . . .”
Thus the conversation ended before it began. Mary Elizabeth was about to push in the cassette sitting in her radio, but stopped. She knew the girls would only groan and give each other weird looks. The old Honda didn’t even have a CD player. She had taken the blue vinyl covered box of cassettes out of the car to sort through them, the plastic cases always seemed to break, and “The Best of John Denver” was the only tape she had left behind. She would try to start a conversation again. It would not be easy with these two teenagers. It seemed that nobody, even the few lady friends she had, knew how to make small talk anymore.
“Was there a long line for Battle of the Bridge?” Mary asked.
“No.” her daughter replied brusquely.
“I guess most people here have seen it by now. . . .”
“And we had to see it twice. Like it wasn’t even any good the first time, if you know what I mean,” Elizabeth Mary moaned, venturing her opinion.
“Have you seen it, Gail?” Mary Elizabeth asked, tossing the question over her shoulder to her daughter’s friend who seemed to be sulking in the back. Her quick rearward glance had confirmed that Gail’s skirt was even shorter than her daughter’s. Gail’s legs were drawn up on the seat, and Mary Elizabeth could see the crotch of her underpanties. Did Gail’s mother buy her thirteen-year-old daughter tiger-striped nylon underwear? She always bought Elizabeth Mary solid white or pink underpants, and then only in cotton.
“Yes, I have seen it, Mrs. Walaa,” Gail piped up. She was being overly polite to her today; Mary Elizabeth could only guess why.
“Did you know that they’re doing a remake of the movie and Elizabeth’s father is going to be in it?”
“Uh-huh. Like I guess a lot of people from New Simole will be in it ya know. . . .”
“But he’s going to have a speaking part. . . .”
“Mom,” Elizabeth Mary groaned, “like Dad is only going to get to say two words, ‘Yes, sir.’ You could hardly call that a speaking part, ya know.”
“Well it’s two words more than any of the other extras from his unit are going to have.”
“And, like it’ll be two words more than he ever says at home. . . .” her daughter added snidely.
Gail laughed, much too loudly.
“And just what do you mean by that, Elizabeth Mary?” her mother asked somewhat angrily, her heart racing again. She slowed down for a traffic light.
“Well it’s true, isn’t it? Like he never says anything at all to you or to me, ya know,” her daughter answered, defending her statement. “All my friends, all two of them, have noticed it, if you know what I mean. Like all he ever does when he comes home from work is sit in his chair and read the newspaper . . . or watch television.”
“Your father works very hard at the store all day. When he comes home he’s tired.”
“Really? Like, Mom, I’ve been to the store . . . many times. All I ever see him do is stand around waiting for customers that never come. Like, most of the time he isn’t even in the store, but in the back room working on his inventions, or whatever those weird things are he makes back there, ya know what I mean.”
“Elizabeth Mary, don’t be so hard on your father. He’s a good man, and provides nicely for you and me. I love him very much.” The light changed and she pulled away at a good clip.
“You do? Like why then have I never, ever, seen the two of you kiss, not in all the years since I knew what a kiss meant, not even a little peck. And like why do you sleep alone in the bedroom while Dad sleeps on his foldout couch out in the living room, ya know what I mean?”
Mary Elizabeth did not answer. Her daughter was more observant, and apparently knew more about sex than she thought. Mary Elizabeth was stalwart and realistic, but often had difficulty with basic concepts, such as that a lie can often cause events to head in the opposite direction than one had intended them to take.
She did realize one of the things that made humans human was their inability to predict the future, which was why they often resorted to the deceitful, and sometimes ruinous, things they did. Who could know how anything was going to turn out? There were plenty of things Mary Elizabeth had lied about and had gotten away with in the past, and not just the pairs of shoes that she took home without paying for when she had worked at Barrel’s. Now, she had a great, but illicit, love; the enduring joy of her daughter; and had survived that faith-shaking day which had changed the path of her life forever.
To Mary Elizabeth’s relief, they drove the rest of the way home in silence.
* * *