by Thomas Carl Sweterlitsch

Issue 18 (Feb 2012)


Ashen drizzle. Black sky. Christ, thought McKinley – nothing like the fucking rain. It collected in muddy drifts. It pooled at the curbs. Already the streets were slicked with wet soot. McKinley lifted his boot from the accelerator and hit the emergency flashers. The bald tires of his Ford Focus fishtailed. It was bad enough on clear days when the ash was like fucking snow, but when it rained everything just turned greasy. It collected like plaque on the hoods of parked cars. It filmed over windows and all but blotted out the neon lights of the Baum Boulevard corridor. The lit names flashed past: Cricket Gentlemen’s Club, Li-Yang’s Electronics, Hot-Hot Tandoori, Mr. Bulge’s Slut Capital, Lizzie’s Knickers—but three a.m. was a dead hour and the sidewalks were barren except for clusters of immigrants ducking out of the rain in bus kiosks, deep-set doorways and under awnings – Indians mostly, but Arabs, Chinese, and Mexicans shared the corners, fondling stacks of glossy handbills advertising white women ready for sex, or stripping, handjobs, blowjobs, golden showers, glass-bottomed boats, bdsm, Russian Girls, Israeli Girls, Japanese school girls, even corn-fed Americans. But who would come out in this shit? McKinley slid to a stop at a red light at Aiken. A skeletal Sikh, dark-skinned with sunken yellowish eyes, jogged from the corner and pressed a handbill against the windshield. whatever U want it—XXX—st. lucy gets it. discreet businesses. hotels. The gibberish was printed over a public domain image that McKinley had seen several times before: a pig-tailed blonde wearing a Union Jack tank top and cut-off jeans. Thirteen years old? Fourteen? She smiled like she was at a family picnic, her dimples cute, leaning over a wooden fence in some sun-drenched field. It was the sun-drenched field that caught McKinley’s eye—now where the hell might that be? Video screens looped mute advertisements: sunshine blondes drinking Lemon Zesty, smiling, spilling Zesty over ice like it didn’t cost twelve quid per can. The drizzle stained the adverts, making the girls look like they suffered from skin disease. While McKinley watched, the Sikh touched his door handle and McKinley didn’t wait for the light to change. He pushed through the intersection, spraying sludge.

Two minutes later and Ritter’s Diner was an oasis of light just off to McKinley’s left. He pulled into the chain-link fenced lot. Fried Green Tomatoes EVERY D4Y. Blueberry Hotcake special. Fresh pies. Ritter’s was concrete and glass, a squat box decades older than the surrounding buildings. A few cars cluttered the lot, but not the gunmetal blue Lexus he’d been told to expect. From where he was parked, McKinley could see the entire diner—straight through into the kitchen through the open pass doors, the cooks in white, the waitresses in pastel scrubs. A couple of lone diners or drunks sobering up with coffee sat at the bar. Otherwise, the place was empty. McKinley watched the ghostly faces illuminated by the harsh interior lights, wondering who he’d kill, whose photograph was in the envelope on the passenger seat beside him. He felt nauseous. They all looked so dull and lonely, he couldn’t plausibly imagine any one of them representing a threat to anyone, let alone the UPMC, but who was he to judge? He was just a fucking McKinley. For the first time all night, the murder seemed real—seeing those faces, imagining the shot. McKinley’s gut lurched and his mouth went cottony. He was afraid he’d piss himself. His palms were sweating. Fielding knew McKinley’s palms would sweat.

“Now let me get this fucking clear,” Fielding had told him two nights ago in the back of the ambulance. “One rule about the gun: don’t touch it without gloves—”

“Right, right—”

“Are we fucking clear?”

“Don’t touch the gun without gloves,” McKinley had said. “I got it—”

“If you’re not wearing gloves it might misfire and blow your fucking hand off. You ever see that? It’s a fucking stump. Your fingers are fucked—”

“I got it—”

“Dry,” Fielding had told him. “Keep it dry—”

The envelope was manila—document sized. It was puffed out like a pillow and McKinley knew that Fielding had wrapped the gun in cotton. McK, r-17, 7th floor was scrawled in Sharpie across the front. Fucking rain, he thought. He stuffed the envelope down the front of his coat and zipped back up to his neck. The rain came down in torrents. He thought of his crew without him—Willy, Mick, William and Mix—probably wondering where the hell he was, navigating the garbage lorry down the narrow, twisting avenues of Polish Hill, huddled in the cab with thermoses of Irish coffee, mackintoshes slicked with the sticky rain. It wasn’t too late, he reminded himself. He could leave right now, find them already on shift and punch back in later that morning as if nothing had happened. No, he realized. It was much too late.

McKinley slid from the car, hunched over in the rain. The rain battered him. Oily and frigid. He jogged across the gravel lot and up the front steps into Ritter’s lobby. A Bear Claw machine stood just inside the front door, a pound for a play, the gleaming metal hook tantalizingly poised over a jumble of stuffed toys. Pornographic handbills littered the floor, crisscrossed with muddy boot tracks. The British teen climbing her wooden fence stared out from nearly half a dozen of them.

The diner stank—cigarettes, air freshener, grease. An Empire’s Forge clock with a glowing hologram of the Eliza Furnace hung above the register: 3:25 am. One of the waitresses sat alone at the near booth eating a bowl of chili sprinkled with goldfish crackers. She wore scrubs patterned with pastel lambs, a ratty gray cardigan and searing white Adidas sneakers. She was young, maybe early twenties, McKinley thought, her dishwater blonde hair pulled back in a tight ponytail. She looked up at McKinley, gaping at him, her buggy eyes taking him in, her mouth half open, ready to receive the spoonful of steaming chili poised inches from her lips.

“McKinley,” she said.

“Can I sit anywhere? How about one of those booths? You serve McKinleys, don’t you?”

“You know this is cash only,” said the waitress, after eating her spoonful of chili. “We don’t do those eye scans or thumb scans or whatever the hell else you scan—”

“I’ve got cash,” said McKinley. “I’m an adult, right? Twenty-nine, if you can believe that. Tonight’s my thirtieth birthday—”

“Jesus Christ,” said the waitress.

“I have cash,” said McKinley. “Anyway, I’m just getting pie and a coffee. Cheap stuff—”

“Sit where you want,” said the waitress. “Anywhere’s free—”

McKinley took a booth. He caught his reflection in the glass—the rain had smudged him, like mascara streaking down his forehead and cheeks. Twenty-nine years old and he looked fifty, or sixty. His reflection depressed him. He’d declined so swiftly, so suddenly. He unrolled his napkin and wiped the smudges from his prominent forehead, inspecting his receded hairline. His eyes were cloaked in shadows from the overhead lights and the acne craters covering his cheeks cast shadows as well. Unlike the rest of his face, however, his nose was still elegant, like a raptor’s beak. McKinley turned three-quarters profile and admired his nose in the window reflection. The rest might look like shit, he thought, but I’ll always have my nose. McKinley slid the envelope to the table. He pulled a pack of Kools from his pocket and hung his coat on the back booth hook.

A few moments later, the waitress poured him a glass of water and a cup of coffee.

“Cream and sugar’s over there,” she said. “You wanted pie?”

“Yeah,” said McKinley. “Yeah, I do—”

“Chocolate, chocolate cream, strawberry, key lime, rhubarb, pecan, pecan walnut, pecan supreme—”

“Apple?” asked McKinley. “How about Dutch Apple?”

“Dutch apple,” she said. “A la mode?”

“What does that mean?”

“It means with ice cream—”

“Why not?” said McKinley. “A la mode—”

“I’m Jaime,” said the waitress. “Give a holler if you need anything—”

“Will do—”

At the far end of the bar a middle-aged man sat with a newspaper. A traveling salesman, McKinley thought. His shirt collar was unbuttoned, his tie loosened. He sat without moving, almost without blinking. He stared at the newspaper to distant thoughts. Smoke curled up from the cigarette in the tray and disappeared into the lights. His hair was sandy blonde, cut short. His lips were plump and pouting. After a moment, he languidly picked up the cigarette and took a drag. He replaced it in the tray. Nearer to McKinley was the drunk he’d seen from outside, slumped over, probably asleep, a plate of hotcakes half eaten and probably cold on the counter near his elbow.

McKinley unsealed the manila envelope—two pairs of latex gloves, a tri-fold brochure, several pills, a wad of cotton, and an 8 x 10 glossy of his mark: an older man, white hair shaved close to his skull, vivid blue eyes. Fielding had written Councilman Rutherford Ockley in Sharpie beneath the man’s face, but McKinley already recognized the man. Local news broadcasts, the immigration debate, the Public Trust. What have I gotten myself into? Even seeing Ockley’s photograph, knowing he would kill the man, triggered nausea and McKinley chewed and dry-swallowed two of the white pills. The nausea abated.

McKinley slid the photograph back into the envelope and pocketed the rest of the pills, in case he needed them during the kill. He hadn’t seen Rutherford Ockley in the diner. McKinley took the envelope with him but left the brochure on the table. He took a quick walk around Ritter’s, scrutinizing the two men’s faces as he passed them. The drunk was an older man with white hair, but nothing like the man in the photograph. The traveling salesman was decades too young. McKinley checked all the booths, but found them empty.

“Fuck,” he said, making his way back to his booth. “Fuck me—”

He glanced again at the Empire’s Forge clock: 3:32.

“Happy Birthday, McKinley,” said Jaime, plopping down a steaming slice of Dutch apple heaped with vanilla ice cream. The ice cream had already started to melt, running like cream in rivulets between the apple chunks. She’d put a candle in the ice cream, pink and blue stripes.

“Make a wish,” she said.

McKinley wished. He blew. The candlelight disappeared in a puff of fragrant smoke, but sparked and flickered back into light.

“Got ya,” said Jaime.

McKinley snorted a laugh. He plucked out the candle and dropped it in his water glass.

“Very funny,” he said.

“You know, I dated a McKinley once,” said Jaime. “The Protocol Board made me break it off—”

“Everyone slums with McKinleys—”

“It wasn’t slumming,” said Jaime. “I really liked him—”

“How old are you?” asked McKinley.


“Don’t take it so hard. Your boyfriend’s probably already starting to look like me—”

“He already was looking like you,” she said. “Just a younger you—”

“Thanks for the pie—”

“It’s on the house,” said Jaime. “Thirty’s a big year—”

“That’s mighty swell,” said McKinley. “Thanks a lot—”

“So, how long do you have? To live, I mean—”

“Depends,” said McKinley. “I’m healthy, I work out. I might get a week, a week and a half at the outside—unless something miraculous happens. Unless I get the right kind of medication—”

“They don’t have anything to help you,” said Jaime. “It would be banned, anyway—”

“They have it,” said McKinley. “And it is banned. That’s why I need a miracle—”

“Yeah, well, like I said. Happy Birthday—”

“You never know,” said McKinley as she walked away. “Maybe my birthday wish will come true—”

McKinley scooped a bite of pie and a bit of ice cream. The Dutch apple was good—cinnamon and brown sugar, a crisp crust. The apple filling wasn’t fresh, but what could you hope for? Fresh apples would bankrupt a place like this. He ran his hand through his hair and saw black, curly strands flutter down onto the white ice cream. Fuck, he thought, picking out the hair. The hair’s the first thing to go.

Headlights pierced the window and McKinley looked outside. The gunmetal Lexus had turned from Baum and pulled into Ritter’s lot. McKinley went tingly. His heart fluttered. Keep it together, McKinley, just calm the fuck down. His hands shook, but he slid on a pair of the gloves, snapping the latex over his wrists. His forehead broke out in a cold sweat, as did his armpits and back, but he was careful not to wipe his forehead with his gloves. Keep the gun dry.

The Lexus doors opened and two figures hurried across the gravel lot, sharing an umbrella. McKinley only saw their legs—a man’s in dark trousers, the other’s a woman’s, in heels. He watched them hurry up the walk then lost them around the front corner of the building. A moment later, he heard the front bells ring.

“The two of you?” asked Jaime. “Sit anywhere you want—”

“Thank you,” said the man, his voice graced with a lilting Welsh accent.

McKinley swiveled in his seat and saw the man from the photograph: Rutherford Ockley. He was taller than McKinley would have guessed, and much thicker, more muscular. His eyes were even more piercing than the blues in the photograph. When he and McKinley’s eyes met, McKinley felt pinned to his seat, exposed.

“Good morning,” said Ockley as he passed. “How’s the pie?”

McKinley grunted, clutching his gloved hands beneath the table. Ockley wore a charcoal-colored suit and an overcoat, a brimmed hat clutched in his hand. He exuded charismatic plasticity. Snuggled beside him was a lean blonde, a quarter of his age if not younger. Her hair was curled, parted over the left eye in a tight zigzag. She wore a crimson dress that clung to her, a modest neckline in front but cut low enough behind to expose her pale back all the way to the shapely curve at the base of her spine. Rutherford Ockley’s hand was inside the dress, around her bare waist. She wore crimson pumps at the end of her milky, long legs, her calf muscles shapely and defined. The drunk lifted his head as if he could sense her presence and stared at the woman as she passed. Even the traveling salesman broke his pose, ogling the woman’s legs until she’d tucked herself out of sight into the far corner of her booth.

McKinley slid a cigarette from his pack. He lit up with a stray match left over in the porcelain ashtray. Ockley and his girlfriend laughed over some joke Jaime made. They ordered pie. Jaime went to the kitchen and Ockley’s girl slid from the table. McKinley sucked his cigarette and watched her. She made her way to the jukebox, slipping between the empty tables. She leaned over its glass to see the selections. She’s posing, thought McKinley. Bending over like that on purpose. The salesman couldn’t keep his eyes off her. McKinley wondered if she was a hooker, or a dancer from one of the clubs. He wondered if he could find her picture on a handbill if he asked on enough street corners, or peeked into enough dives. She heightened the tension in the room, but McKinley’s lust was dull—had he not been impotent from a lifetime’s worth of Sterilites in his mashed potatoes, she might have done something for him. As it was, he watched her like a butcher, wondering if he’d have to kill her.

“You don’t mind if I play a song, do you?” she asked the salesman.

“Lady, you can do whatever you want—”

McKinley’s stomach spewed acid up his throat and into his mouth. Eckstein’s Mr. Saturday Night sounded from the jukebox and the woman started dancing, just enough motion of her hips to suggest something, just enough movement to let the men know. Her eyes were almond-shaped, emerald green. She locked eyes with the salesman and laughed.

“Come on over here and sit down,” said Ockley. “Come on, baby—”

“Why don’t you dance with me?” she asked the councilman.

“Let’s have some pie instead—”

The show was over. The woman pouted, but returned to the booth. McKinley lowered his eyes, inspecting the brochure from the envelope. It was a travel brochure for the Kingfisher resort in Haiti—the cover photograph showing a beach at sunset with two silhouettes jogging together, hand in hand beneath palm trees. Haiti by morning, Flights and Hotels starting at £499. Inside the brochure, the pictures showed the Kingfisher’s interior—a deluxe bedroom with an ocean vista, two women sharing drinks at a bar near the fireside, one a brunette, the other a Haitian, her skin a rich mahogany. The opposite page showed the same women wearing bikinis in an outdoor Jacuzzi, palm trees ringing the outer dark. We’re waiting for you, it read. The idea of Haiti calmed McKinley. He’d always wanted to go to Haiti. In Pittsburgh, he’d never been able to truly see the sun. Whenever he looked at the sky, even on the brightest afternoons, he could stare at the sun and it was only a pale white disc because of the soot and ash. In Haiti, he’d be able to see the sun, to squint at it, to feel its light burning his skin.

McKinley pulled the cotton wad from the envelope, glancing at the others in the diner, wondering if they’d turn towards him, if they’d somehow sense what he was doing, but no one looked his way. He unwrapped the gun. It came in two shrink-wrapped pieces, the gun itself and a magazine pre-filled with bullets. The gun was compact, blunt, and both it and the magazine looked like beige plastic, Braddock Firearms embossed on the grip. McKinley cut into the shrink-wrap with his car key and opened the package, carefully removing each piece. The world was receding from him. His ears were ringing, they couldn’t hear quite right—like they were stuffed up with wax. He checked the clock: 3:45. The magazine slid into the grip with startling ease and clicked into place. He held the gun beneath the table, wondering if anyone had heard the click of the magazine, but no one had noticed, no one had heard. McKinley chambered a round. There was no safety on the Braddock.

He lowered his head and stared dumbly at his melting ice cream, wanting to pray for strength, but there was nothing and no one he could pray to. He pulled the white pills from his pocket and ate a few more with another bite of pie.

McKinley slid from his booth, the Braddock semi-automatic at his side. Eckstein switched to Como’s Some Enchanted Evening on the jukebox. McKinley stopped at Ockley’s booth. McKinley’s tongue felt too swollen to speak. He breathed heavily, inhaling, exhaling, feeling flush, and nearly hyperventilating. Spittle frothed at the corners of his lips and mucous dripped from the tip of his elegant nose.

“Well, what is it?” said Ockley, his Welch accent curling around the words.

“Are you Rutherford Ockley?” McKinley managed to say.

“Councilman,” said the woman.

McKinley raised the gun, a thin stream of blood trickling from his nostril.

“Calm down,” said the salesman. “Hey, we’re ok. It’s all right, calm down—”

“Waitress?” shouted Ockley. “Waitress? Get this McKinley away from me. He’s malfunctioning—”

McKinley fired. The sound was a sharp clack and Ockley’s forehead exploded into blood, his vivid blue eyes rising confusedly to the ceiling. The woman squealed. McKinley took a step forward and grabbed the councilman’s throat, steadying him. He put the barrel of the gun against Ockley’s temple and fired again. Ockley’s brains sprayed the window and the woman. She screamed and McKinley panicked. He raised the gun to her.

“No, no,” she said, “You don’t understand who I am—”

He shot her in the chest to quiet her. The woman slumped forward and slid from the leather booth to beneath the table, her dress hiked up past her thighs. Empty the clip, Fielding had told him. Be sure to empty the fucking clip. The air smelled sharp.

The traveling salesman was on his knees, hands raised. The drunk was passed out cold. Jaime cried from behind the bar, “Don’t shoot me, oh please God, don’t shoot me, don’t kill me, oh God—”

“I’m sorry,” said McKinley. “Fucking Christ—”

Time was like syrup. McKinley’s ears rang. His head pounded. He felt like he was choking. McKinley turned back to Ockley’s corpse and raised the gun with both hands, targeting the councilman’s face. McKinley emptied the clip—clack, clack, clack—until Rutherford Ockley was an unrecognizable slur of cartilage, bone, brains and blood. Even over the waitress’s screams, McKinley heard the corpses bubble and suck, the blood plashing beneath the table in a pool, running into the aisle. McKinley dropped the gun and nearly fainted, his vision dimming. He breathed. His head cleared and his senses returned to him. He picked up the gun.

Ritter’s men’s room was down a narrow hall that ran alongside the kitchen. It smelled of vomit and urinal cake, the floors linoleum tile, the walls covered in graffiti. McKinley filled his palm with lilac-scented foam soap from the sink dispenser then knelt in the stall in front of the stainless-steel toilet. The walls were covered with phone numbers and names, a few detailed sketches of genitals. McKinley lathered the gun with soap then plunged his hands into the toilet water, scrubbing vigorously. Spit pooled beneath his tongue and he felt like he was going to cry or puke, or both, but he scrubbed until finally the gun started to come apart in his hands, dissolving, turning into a blackish lump, then to paper pulp floating on the surface of the water. He broke down the larger clumps with his fingers and flushed. The foamy pulp swirled to the center but went down. The water came up clean. McKinley rinsed off his gloves in the sink. He hurried back through the dining room.

Jaime and the salesman stood near the corpses, gawking at the blood.

“I called the cops,” said Jaime, almost distractedly.

McKinley shoved the Haitian Kingfisher brochure and the shrink-wrap trash back into the manila envelope before putting on his coat.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

McKinley rushed past the front register. He slipped on the handbills littering the lobby. Half his boot track was blood, the other half dirt. He looked back through the diner and saw his boot tracks stamped out in blood. McKinley ran into the night. The rain had weakened into a sooty mist. The cold spray felt fresh against his face. “Christ Jesus,” McKinley muttered. Sirens blared in the distance. McKinley sprinted to the parking lot. He knew full well the police could be responding to any number of crimes along the Baum corridor. Once in his car, he turned the ignition and for a brief, heart-sickening moment, worried that the cold engine wouldn’t turn over, but it started smoothly. McKinley backed out from the lot, speeding past the dead man’s Lexus.

“Answer, damn it. Answer—”

He was at an AT&T pay phone bolted to the wall of the Lawrenceville Quick Stop. McKinley stood under the awning, out of the rain, lit by shop lights and cigarette adverts, his boots in a muck of slush. The line rang. Twenty times. Twenty-one. He slammed the phone to its cradle and his £2 coin belched from the slot—a profile of Queen Elizabeth II. Headlights raked him when cars pulled into the lot. McKinley fed the coin, dialed the number a third time. Ringing. He was panicky. Beads of sweat rolled over his belly and greased his back. A minute’s worth of ringing before he gave up and picked out his coin.

“Where are you, Fielding?” McKinley muttered, pulling up his sweatshirt hood to avoid stares. When he ducked inside the Quick Stop, he cringed at the fluorescent glare of the convenience store aisles.

“Welllllllllcome to Quick Stop, pardner!!!” Okie twang from cartoon cowpokes in red, white and blue leather chaps, holo-fluttering in and out of McKinley’s sightlines as he scanned products on the aisle. Animated labels blinked 3D eye-kicks and blared tinny jingles as he passed. A bored Mex-American clerk slouched in a bulletproof cubicle, the glass pocked white with shatter patterns. The clerk watched news on the flat screen bolted above the Slushie machine. A Reagan on KDKA:

“…from earlier tonight. Police believe the suspect to be a twenty-nine year old William McKinley, serial coded R-17, delinquent from garbage 343 in Polish Hill. Others in his class have already been apprehended and questioned. Breaking news from overnight: Councilman Rutherford Ockley, pursuing antitrust legislation against the United Pittsburgh Medical Conglomerate, has been assassinated by a lone gunman in Pittsburgh’s Bloomfield neighborhood. Footage from the assassination has already become the number one download on LibertyTube, reaching three million hits faster than even Uncle Charley’s sausage-wrapped dancing cats. His legacy…”

McKinley nuked an Ugly Dog and grabbed a Big Slurp Pepsi as footage of the killing filled the screens: The woman slumping; McKinley emptying the clip; Ockley bucking from bullets like a spasmodic. McKinley dug into his pocket and pulled out more white pills. He swallowed them with the Big Slurp and the sudden nausea at the violence on TV abated.

“Are you one of those fucking Dollar Bills?” asked the clerk. “You must be fucking giddy—”

“Come on, man, I have nothing to do with this,” said McKinley, dropping coins on the counter, head lowered to skew the recognition software. “I just haul trash. I’m not happy when a man dies. I can’t be—”

The clerk slid the coins to his side of the bulletproof glass. Black hair in cornrows, forearm tattoos wrapped in dress-code appropriate ace bandages. Stitched on his Quick Stop shirt: Ernesto.

“My cousin hauled trash,” he said. “Until the city passed the spic laws and the Dollar Bills took his job. Scabs. The City deported him under the Gainful Employment Act—”

Breaking News on TV—an impromptu funeral procession for Ockley. Hundreds of people—immigrants and illegals, mostly, but families of illegals joined with white leftists, teenage anarchists and hippy sympathizers—gathered near Ritter’s. City of Pittsburgh Police in riot gear were already on hand, but keeping a distance. An armored truck emitting sound blasts to disperse the crowd was ineffective. Some of the activists threw rocks, which pinged off the officers’ helmets or were easily parried with their clear shields. The funeral rally disturbed the crime scene. Ritter’s was flooded with immigrants. A group of Indian Muslims took Ockley’s body and wrapped it in linen. They carried him above the crowd, shouting and near tears.

“I didn’t ask to haul trash,” said McKinley. “One day I just woke up in a tube, the next I’m emptying dumpsters—”

“My cousin had valid documentation, man, but they kicked him out because he couldn’t find a qualifying job. You know what happened to him? He was a mule in Tijuana and a cartel cut his fucking head off. UPMC created you Dollar Bill mother fuckers to take his job, and then he dies crossed up with the narc they pumped into Mexico—”

“That’s conspiracy bullshit—”

“Bullshit? Then why’s Ockley dead? You dumb fuck. Ockley was going to fix this. He was going to break those fuckers apart—”

McKinley didn’t stick around for his change. Back in his car, the dash clock told him he was turning thirty years old. He watched the digits flip from 4:59 to 5:00am.

“Happy fucking birthday,” he said.

McKinley drove. Aiken was closed by police barricade—officers in gasmasks and helmets, black riot armor and submachine guns directing traffic away from the funeral procession. McKinley could see firelight from the rally and heard gunshots fired into the air. He followed detours through Friendship and East Liberty, behind snowplows scraping paths through the sludge rain. What have I done?

East Liberty and Highland. McKinley spotted another pay phone at a defunct Sunoco—boarded windows, tattered plastic bags shrouding the pumps. McKinley pulled around back and hunched in the rain to make his call—another £2 coin, another twenty unanswered rings.

He’d met Dr. Fielding at Big Jim’s in the Run—a Dollar Bill bar, down in Greenfield near the train trestle. Big Jim’s décor was grease: grease-saturated faux wood panels, grease-stained carpets, grease-shined tabletops. This was three months ago, McKinley celebrating the thirtieth of a Milhous Nixon he knew from finishing school. The place was crawling with Nixons and friends of Nixons, rowdy drunks every one of them, a few McKinleys, a W. or two. The Steelers were on the 27-inch above the bar. McKinley sipped Drambuie. The place was overcrowded, thick with tobacco smoke. A line of men sat at the bar downing beers and groaning at the quarterback play, but most of the room was teeming with Presidents. The few Citizens at the party had picked out their Palins and snuck away to dim corners, slow dancing and groping the girls. Fielding collapsed into McKinley’s booth, making like he needed a break from the party.

“Fucking Logan’s Run in here,” he said. “This is depressing. I’m Fielding, by the way—”

“Oh, shit, I know who you are,” said McKinley, recognizing the man from the monthly newsletters. “You’re the director of the program—I think I have your signature tattooed on my ass—”

Fielding laughed, “You probably do—”

“You knew Nix?”

“I helped him out from time to time,” said Fielding. “I’m a chemist, remember. Nix liked certain cocktails. Are you interested? You’re about twenty-nine, aren’t you? Maybe a bit younger? We could party—”

Fielding was close to sixty, McKinley guessed—a mythical age, as far as he was concerned. The doctor’s hair was curly but ashen gray, his face pocked and somewhat ruddy—almost elfin in its features, with long smile lines creasing the corners of his bright eyes.

“Twenty-nine,” said McKinley.

“Twenty-nine? Come outside with me,” said Fielding. “This place is too crowded for old men like us. I can give you an early birthday present—”

The Steelers closed into halftime and McKinley needed to piss anyway.

“Fine,” he said. He downed the last watery sips of his Drambuie and chewed the ice. The two men threaded through the crowd and left the bar. Outside was quiet, with snow drifting from the black sky in fat, grayed flakes. Snow piled in blackish drifts, ice caked in mud with a sheen of oil. McKinley pissed against Big Jim’s wall and followed Fielding around back, between houses lit by the Steelers on television, into a gravel field, the security lights busted out.

“Here,” said Fielding, and McKinley smoked.

They passed the joint without speaking, watching the blur of lights on the 376 overpass as if they were stars. Fielding rubbed his hands for warmth and shivered.

“Are you afraid of dying?” Fielding asked. “I know how it’s supposed to work, but I’ve never really asked a President before. We’re terrified of dying—normal citizens, I mean. We’ve spent years trying to break the Biblical Barrier, and even now that a person with good healthcare can break 140 or 50 easily, nothing’s changed. Life blinks by just as fast. We’re just as fucking scared of dying as we used to be and still regretful about all the years we’ve wasted. But look at you—calm, even though you’re almost 30—”

“I don’t think I’m afraid of dying, but there’s a dream I get from time to time,” said McKinley. “I’m riding a horse—this black horse, shiny with sweat and muscles. I realize I’m in a war—wearing a blue wool jacket. I have a musket and something happens—it differs depending on the dream—either a musket shot flies past, or an explosion. The horse stumbles and I’m falling. I wake up. I’m sweaty and nauseous. I guess that might be a fear of death, but it dissipates. After that, I don’t feel a thing, brother. I can’t—”

“Well, what if you could?” said Fielding. “What if I could fix you? What if I had the drugs to block out your Sterilites and dampen your genetic restrictors? What if you could discover the ecstasies of religion? What if I could help you have sex? What if I could let you live a little bit longer? I can’t let you live forever…but maybe another five years?”

“That’s a big what if—”

“Not fucking what if,” said Fielding, laughing. “I work for the UPMC.”

“What are you trying to sell me?” said McKinley.

“I’m not selling you a damn thing, Mr. McKinley,” said Fielding. “Come with me. There’s something I’d like to show you—”

The Run was unplowed and McKinley trudged through snow, following Fielding in silence. Small houses in a valley of shadow, the lights from the overpass unable to reach this far into the Run, the sounds of a thousand cars nothing more than a distant whisper. Fielding led McKinley up the block toward the Orthodox Church that had once prayed over the corpse of Andy Warhol, its onion domes catching streetlamp light and glinting gold. An ambulance was parked on the street, Three Rivers EMS.

“In here,” said Fielding.

“You want me to get in there?” asked McKinley.

“Come on,” said Fielding. “What are you scared of?”

McKinley took a last pull of the joint before flicking it away—a burning arc of light falling into snow. “I guess nothing—”

The back of the ambulance was cramped, but with enough room for McKinley on the bench and Fielding in a swivel chair. They squinted in the sudden florescent glare of the truck, their faces pallid and drawn with shadows. Fielding pulled shades over the rear windows.

“Cozy,” he said, removing a leather satchel from beneath the driver’s seat. He unzipped the bag and lifted a syringe and vial. He filled the syringe with liquid.

“You have a girlfriend?” asked Fielding.

“Sure,” said McKinley. “An occasional Palin—”

“Presidential romances are sweet,” said Fielding. “Chaste like perfect teenagers—holding hands and going out to dinner on your meager allowances. You and your Palin feel companionship, but you can’t feel love. You can’t fuck. I don’t know if you’ve ever felt her up or would even want to, but I know your sex drive is abysmally low. And that’s not all, Mr. McKinley. You have some emotional sensitivity, but you’ve been programmed to feel extreme nausea at the thought, let alone the intention, of violence. The idea of God has been stripped from you, even though platitudes have been programmed into your genes. You go to church every Sunday by genetic compulsion, but I know damn well you’ve never had a religious experience. The reason you don’t fear death is partly biological…it’s partly the way we’ve programmed you…but it’s partly because your lives are already a living death. You are deadened slaves. I want to give you life, Mr. McKinley. I want to give you freedom. Roll up your sleeve—”

“What is that?” said McKinley. “We do drug testing, man. Listen, they take urine samples from us. I can’t—”

Fielding tapped a vein, pressed the fluid into McKinley’s forearm.

“Holy shit,” said McKinley, his eyes widening, his mouth gasping for breath. “Oh my God, oh my God—”

“That’s life,” said Fielding. “That’s what citizens feel every moment of every day. That feeling is nothing more than having the veil lifted, my friend. I can give you life. I can give you freedom. I can give you pleasure. We have gene therapy that can extend your life a solid five years, if not a bit more: imagine, a William McKinley celebrating his thirty-fifth birthday. I can give you the therapy, and I can get you out of the country to enjoy it. UPMC has resources—”

“Haiti,” said McKinley. “I want to go to Haiti. I want to see the sun—”

Fielding’s plan had seemed simple: Kill the councilman. Make a payphone to payphone call to Fielding after the kill. If everything went smoothly, Fielding was to tell him a location, a place where McKinley could ditch his car. Fielding was to meet him there with the ambulance. The gene therapy was to be immediate, conducted en route to the airport. At parting, McKinley was to receive: a flight ticket, a passport, a room key to the Kingfisher resort in Haiti, a wad of cash.

“How do you know your councilman will come to Ritter’s?” McKinley had asked.

“I have someone working for me. She’ll get him there, it’s no problem—”

But it was a real fucking problem—a double –homicide, sparking citywide riots. McKinley already pegged as the killer, his face and serial code flashed on every TV and Mobile. Fielding nowhere. McKinley let the payphone ring, huddled against the oozing rain. Thirty times, thirty-five. No one answered.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” he said, slamming the phone against the cradle until the hooks broke. “Shit—”

A heavier rain left oily slicks with a variegated sheen on sidewalks and the Sunoco parking lot. In the car, the Demagogue spoke: And the savages—all the inferiors of the world that come to our great nation like parasites to suck our blood and infect the fat of the land. They riot, murder, loot and burn the very neighborhoods where we’ve let them live—

McKinley coughed—a deep, wet rattling in his chest—and he knew his thirty years on this earth were almost up, that his innards, as he’d seen in countless instructional videos, were beginning to jellify and break apart. His eyes locked onto ambulances as he drove, sirens whirring past despite the rain-spattered streets.

A body on the street. Anarcho-kids, faces covered with handkerchiefs, beat it with baseball bats. McKinley sped past the scene, catching that the victim was a W. Bush, his body torn apart like tissue paper from the violence and the lubricating rain. McKinley fished out the last two white pills, chewed and swallowed—the nausea softening. These riots sparked from time to time, he knew, and Presidents were attacked—unable to defend themselves because of their anti-violence reflexes. Millions in city property lost, millions in personal property lost if the riots reached into Shadyside, where families owned Hoovers for butlers.

McKinley threaded through a police line set up to contain the riots. He drove into Shadyside, through the United Pittsburgh Medical Conglomerate main campus; the sprawling structure of interconnected glass lit hospital-white, gleaming despite the drizzling sludge. Every inch of surface was covered with light projection adverts—women’s eyes with Versace diamond-lashes, Vuitton by Murakami cartoons gorging on handbags, Ralph Lauren blondes playing croquet in shimmering sundresses. Forty-foot Burberry close-ups of women’s feet in plaid high heels. Armani, Cartier, Miu Miu.

McKinley parked where he could, blocking a hydrant near Ellsworth and St. James. He hunkered in his jacket, coming out of the rain into the Galleria and the Emergency Room entrance, hiding his face from the commercial scanners that plied him with coupons and sales, trying to pin his identity—What’s your name? Anything you want, the UPMC has it. What are you looking for?—runway models carved from light walking with him, directing him to boutiques. Nurses in tailored white suits wheeled patients through the ER receiving doors and down the Galleria halls. The mall teemed with Presidents bloodied in riot violence. McKinley scrolled through a hospital roster until he found him, the man’s photograph a smiling, airbrushed publicity still from ten years ago, maybe twenty: Fielding, Richard Felix. Bioinorganic Procedures, Director.

Near the Cancer Ward, a commercial scanner caught McKinley’s retina: an alarm sounded even as the commercials adjusted themselves to suit his profile. McKinley ran, but American Eagle Outfitters’ personalized window display caught his attention: a blonde with vanilla skin, impossibly gorgeous, with dimples and radiant blue eyes. She climbed on a wooden fence wearing cut-off jeans and a Union Jack t-shirt. McKinley coughed, gagging on fluids he kicked up from his lungs. He coughed again, sprayed slurries of bloodied vomit on the display window. Tears streamed like molten iron from his eyes, blurring his vision. One of the nurses approached him and asked if he needed to be admitted to the ER.

“Yes,” he said. “I’m dying—”

He followed the nurse, Galleria stores layering displays to appeal to him. All around, nurses hustled battered and vandalized Presidents onto gurneys or in wheelchairs. McKinley wondered what the other Presidents saw when they looked at the Galleria stores—what sorts of advertisements vied for their attention and plied their vestigial dreams.

Once into triage, McKinley left the nurse and wandered white hospital halls. He swallowed down a mouthful of mucous-thickened blood, scanning room numbers as he made his way from department to department. Patients convalescing, televisions tuned to broadcasts of the funeral procession. The riots surrounding the funeral were gaining momentum. In the processional’s wake, cars burned or were overturned, windows broken. Presidents lay dead in the streets.

McKinley found the doctor in his office.

“Fielding?” he said.

Doctor Fielding sat at his desk, flipping through paperwork, his bifocals perched on the bridge of his nose. At McKinley’s voice, the man looked up and smiled.

“William,” he said. “I was wondering if you’d show up. Come in, have a seat—”

“I came for my tickets,” said McKinley. “Why didn’t you pick up the phone? I killed that guy—”

“You did a lot more than fucking kill that guy,” said Fielding. “You also killed a woman. She was a colleague, a damn promising colleague. You weren’t supposed to kill anyone but Ockley, you dumb fuck. You’re not getting anything from me—”

“We had a deal,” said McKinley, coughing. He searched his pockets for any more of the white pills, but he’d used them all.

“I’ve already given you more than any President deserves,” said Fielding.

Fielding turned back to his paperwork. McKinley lunged at him, to kill him if he could, but waves of nausea flooded him and he crumpled to the carpet. Doctor Fielding never looked up from his paperwork, even as McKinley struggled to rise. He stumbled and crawled from the room, the world spinning, running the white halls away from the doctor. McKinley gagged, and a stream of cold fluids poured from his mouth and nostrils.

“Christ,” he said. “Fucking Christ.” But further down the hallway he vomited again—more blood and the soggy remains of organs. He made his way back through the Galleria, the flashing adverts hazy through his bloody tears. McKinley swayed and staggered, the storefronts again layering adverts for his attention. He passed Gap, the models in bikinis, healthy and clean, all climbing into a hot tub together at the Kingfisher resort and spas, looking out into the starry vista of the Haitian night.

McKinley stumbled outside, gasped for air—but the rain damped in his lungs and he choked, spitting watery blood. His skin flaked before fissuring, covering him with snowy dandruff. Blood ran into his eyes from fissures opening over his scalp and stung him. He wandered vaguely towards his car, but forgot where he had parked.

Sirens, but what did it matter. The rainwater leaking through his boots eroded his feet to clumps and McKinley fell to his knees. Instinct. He crawled, whimpering. He found a hedgerow and slid between the branches, burying his head in his arms. He squirmed from his clothes, naked like a pale worm in the mud. His skin melted in the rain and rinsed to the gutters. He was a smooth white lump, featureless except for the more resistant bones—elbows, knees—jagged and poking through the membrane.

The torchlight funeral for Ockley crashed through the night like a rolling scream of prayer and gunfire. McKinley’s eyes floated wide in his bald face, unable to blink and staring at the procession as it passed. It flowed like a poisoned river, threatening property violence to the manicured lawns of Shadyside. Scared citizens watched from dim upstairs windows, hiding their Presidents in basements or garages until the unpleasantness might pass.

Traffic patrol discovered McKinley’s Ford Focus when they ran the plates for the hydrant violation. Police searched for him, hoping to find him intact for the papers, but they were far too late. When they found what little remained of McKinley, he looked like a bloated white worm, dried and sun blanched. The police let a Reagan take photographs for the morning broadcasts and copied the images for their internal paperwork. Officially, Doctors at the UPMC recommended further studies into what might have blocked the nausea response to violence in this particular McKinley. Assaults, sex crimes, and murder charges committed by Presidents were spiking slightly this year, but were still very low against general statistics for a population of this size.

Once Homicide gathered the evidence they needed from the hedgerow, they called in a group of apprentice McKinleys for cleanup. As the McKinleys, a half dozen young men in Municipality of Pittsburgh coveralls, shoveled away the body and sprayed down his deathbed with chemicant, McKinley’s brain ticked through its final programmed stages—constitutionally mandated thoughts and reveries meant to appease the consciences of the legislators who had dreamed up or supported the President Program. McKinley remembered his mother, sweet Nancy, serving him Apple Pie on the Fourth of July. He remembered growing old with the ravishing Ida Saxton, and remembered the jewel-colored feathers of the parrot he’d named Washington Post, his favorite. As McKinley’s brain jellified, he thanked the Lord Jesus Christ for the salvation of his eternal soul, and terminated with an image of the American Flag rippling in the sunlit wind, unfurled over waves of autumn grain and the purple mountains, which were painted in majesty.

Copyright © 2012 by Thomas Carl Sweterlitsch

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Thomas Carl Sweterlitsch

Thomas Carl Sweterlitsch lives in the Greenfield neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with his wife, Sonja, and daughter, Genevieve. He studied creative writing, English and history at Carnegie Mellon University, earning an MA in literary and cultural theory. For the past ten years, he’s worked at the Carnegie Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped.

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