Wherein I pull out a chunk of my once-upon-a-time noveling (working title: BANG), said chunk of which was published back in June 2012 in an on-line fiction supplement to the great IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) newspaper, in part because I knew the supplement was going to feature a story by Daniel Woodrell, the closest I could imagine getting to the Ozark Shakespeare, hero-writer. (Mr. Woodrell, if you’re reading this, please give your agent my name.)
For the next two weeks, Bomb nursed his wounds in the back of Mackey Rottler’s closet on a pile of dirty clothes. He mumbled, nodded off, twitched, sucked on a rubber teat attached to the ten-gallon bladder of table wine Mackey had bought him at a discount liquor store, mumbled, nodded off, twitched, sucked. Mackey supposed that Bomb had been going out on his own at night, freelancing jobs here and there. What else was he to think? They hadn’t done anything together except drink and talk since the night they blew up part of the local All Books & Lifestyles Emporium, the national chain better known as ABLE. More than once Mackey had come home to a banged-up Bomb. When he confronted Bomb about it one evening, Bomb burped, mumbled something about Katherine Hepburn’s liver, imitated a rim shot, and fell over dead asleep. Later they had a good laugh about it, what Katherine Hepburn’s liver might have looked like if she drank as much as they do, but Mackey let the question about Bomb’s extracurricular activities go.
When he was awake and coherent, Bomb talked about all the shit going on in Inwit, the growth opportunities in the explosion industry, how there was always work to be had, requests for smart disturbances a smart bomb could sift through, that sort of thing. Bomb collected information in his regular ways from his regular sources and shared much of it with Mackey. Some of the ways–television, radio, newspapers, internet sites, things Mackey and others said within his hearing–were obvious. Others were mysterious to Mackey, evidence of Bomb’s genius. Wireless communications with other bombs and assorted other explosive means of damage, for instance. Workers, Bomb said. Workers is the preferred name for explosive means of damage. As for how we communicate, Bomb winked, I’m always cooking up new ways. If it makes you feel better, call it networking or speed-dating.
The scariest thing about the two weeks that followed the Loud & Queer Bookstore bombing was that nothing big happened. A lot of littles instead. The occasional book still exploded at Ye Olde Bookmonger, and jumpy Marion Crane refused to come back to work until it stopped. The only reason she came to the back door of Bookmonger that one time was for Elvet to hand out her work bag, which he assumed contained the store’s financial records, a job she could do at home. And a job is what she did with most of the remaining money in the Bookmonger accounts. Close to $9000. She transferred all but $1000 of it to the secret account owner Aggenbite Davenport kept in a small St. Louis bank and from there to a secret account of her own in an off-shore Jesus-Force account. She stuffed one hundred $10 bills in a suitcase full of clothes and headed for a motel in Mexico, Missouri, where, once her shattered nerves settled and reassembled, she intended to hook up with a Bible salesman she’d met in a J-Force chat room. Name of Bates or Pointer. Something. Bomb wouldn’t have known any of this Marion stuff except that she had purchased a box of electronically controlled bombs a month before, each the size of a razor blade but with the power of a cherry bomb, some of which were packed in her suitcase. And according to Bomb, bombs, no matter the size or location, talk. General rule: the smaller, the chattier. That doesn’t mean Bomb shares everything he hears with Mackey.
Aggenbite and Elvet, unaware of Marion’s doings, returned to work every day. Aggenbite worked the register, which was like being the postmaster of a ghost town since the town square still resonated as a danger zone and a book seemed to explode every time a regular dropped by to browse. Despite Aggenbite’s every effort (sorry about that, how about a free latte?), it turned out that people talk as much as bombs do and every day fewer people showed up. On the coffee side of Bookmonger, Elvet was kept as busy as ever. Customers, addicts really, got their fixes to go and left without so much as a look in Aggenbite’s direction. The only person who hung around the coffee counter, or just outside the front door, was a girl who had a motorized contraption she used to transport big orders to unnamed customers. Elvet offered to pay her a small per-drink amount, but she assured him she was making her money off the customers. The most common of the big orders was a dozen large mochas with whip, six large skim lattes, and three small house coffees, black. He assumed those were going straight to the White Church of the Righteous Stompers, but he said nothing to Aggenbite, who took to closing his side of Bookmonger earlier and earlier so he could go see his mother in the hospital. At least that’s what Elvet came by to tell Mackey, who agreed it was best to leave Aggenbite alone for a while.
Thing is Aggenbite wasn’t always going to his mother’s bedside. If he had been, Mr. Little would have known. And if Mr. Little had known, so would the two chatty grenades he kept within arm’s reach. Handy little workers they were, too, and compliments of his two comrades in Third Arm of the Lord Which Is For Coffee. One evening, while Mr. Little was dozing there in his hospital bed, they showed up in separate packages, bubble-wrapped, duck-taped, wrapped again in what appeared to be the arms of an old tux jacket. The crushed brown velvet felt good. Apparently Mr. Little knew the grenades were coming and what they were for. It was also clear that since that delivery no one who had visited claimed any knowledge of the grenades or Bomb would have known. Grenades have notoriously short memories, which explained why they couldn’t remember how long they’d been wrapped up and the names of those who had sent them. Bomb was sure Mr. Little was one-third of Third Arm of the Lord Which Is for Coffee, and he assumed it wouldn’t be long before he learned the identities of the other two-thirds, but none of this stuff explained where Aggenbite was going when he left work early. Bomb’s hunch was that this new pattern was the key to something big.
The buzz around town, as far as Bomb could tell, remained the bombing of Loud & Queer. No one on either side of the abortion issue, for instance, seemed to care anymore about the poor little pregnant Mafrawgdoe girl, whose kidnapping had been number-one on the local chat charts just two weeks ago. Even those who hated Loud & Queer weren’t happy with what happened. With the loss of such a beautiful old building, the town square would never be the same. Other buildings and quite a few cars were damaged, which meant considerable costs for insurance companies and the possibility of raised rates for customers. Then there was the damage to people’s confidence. Why risk the danger? Everyone who worked on the square except for Elvet was hurting for customers. The tourist trade was all but dead. A few cars with Missouri plates prowled around, but no one was stopping to buy anything. Businesses off the square were also hurting.
Curiously, even ABLE, which had profited temporarily, C(curiosity) + S(sympathy) = STPS(short-term profit spike), from the Mackey-Bomb bombing of their Sherlock Holmes room, was suffering. It was hard to tell, though, if the sudden downturn in business was the sole result of the horrific bombing on the square: SDB(sudden downturn in business) = BTDIE(bombing that draws interest elsewhere) and/or LSW(limited sympathy window). On the day the two Stompers marched to their deaths and the deaths of twenty-two others, a man and a woman were across the road from ABLE’s main entrance mounting a small red box on a book-shaped pedestal. Folks driving by now understood, sort of, why the final touches on a drive-thru lane had been completed the day before. The proximity of the book-shaped pedestal to the national coffee chain that had gone up the month before to capitalize on interstate traffic meant something. Within a few days cars were lining up. All people had to do was hit their window button, plug in a cheap contraption called a Schmoodle, which they got free next door at the new coffee place for joining the Hundred-Cup Club, and they had all the reading or criss-cross apple-saucing they could want.
The most popular feature the Schmoodle brought to customers, the thing the Schmoodle made famous, was called the Abbreviator. All a customer had to do was push the bright green button and every third sentence was eliminated from both the screen and the audio versions. Schmoodlers agreed that nothing much was lost, and the rumor was that a Schmoodle Deluxe was in the works. Folks would have to pay for it, but the power to punch the bright green button (made to look like a go-signal) up to three times before initiating text, screen, or audio meant that the consumer had ultimate control and could, at the highest level, remove three out of four sentences. Imagine all the books people could consume. Some talked about a rumored feature called the Randomizer, which promised to reinvigorate books by randomly omitting sentences, but the backlash was so intense the feature never materialized. Although the Randomizer sounded interesting, it struck most, including Bomb, as potentially counter to the writer’s artistic process and intent. Art (capital A!) was what these caffeine addicts were all about. Television, the Schmoodlers argued, could go fuck itself in its mind-sucking ass. Bomb thought that was going too far. Across the road, ABLE’s parking lot was beginning to look the way asphalt always looks just before another big box closes down. Sad and ugly.
Around town there were the typical, sporadic bursts of Sukey Tawdry’s penis tiles, but nothing big. More than a few of the launched tiles did manage to chip the walls of the Stomper church, and a couple managed to lodge in the shingle siding. Two or three even broke windows. Apparently one of them hit a Stomper because an ambulance showed up a few minutes later. Bomb heard the next day that the wounded Stomper had been doing nothing more than drinking coffee and eating dessert at a table in the dining hall when a penis tile shattered a window and skipped off the top of his head, sending him face first into the banana cream pie. Given the previous shit in Inwit–the initial arrival of the penis tiles, the one that killed celebrity white supremacist and head Stomper Matthew Trautmann, the drive-by shooting of the Malaysian students, the kidnapping of the pregnant little Mafrawgdoe girl, the killings of abortion protestors, and the explosions at the Albers County Women’s Health Center, Mr. Little’s shop, ABLE, and Loud & Queer–no one cared much about the top of a rank-and-file Stomper’s noggin or a half-eaten piece of pie, no matter how creamy and delicious.
The best the news could muster as the days grew less violent was the occasional look back at Inwit’s shit, hashed over, retold, reorganized, but nothing new. Mr. Little and Medea healed in their separate rooms at Inwit Memorial, she with her head full of stories trying to get out and Malcolm with his pain button, a couple of grenades, and the series of poems he was writing about, and dedicating to, coffee. In the days following the Loud & Queer catastrophe, bodies were prepared, pieced back together as best the piecers could, boxed up or burned, cried over, buried or scattered. Almost as soon as the people with signs and bricks formed a circle around the White Church of the Righteous Stompers and got their anger-groove on, walking and chanting in unison, they stopped. A woman in the line had held up a hand. Listening on her cell phone, she signaled group members with four fingers. They left as casually as they had arrived. Twice the next day and then once a couple of days later, they did the same thing. They marched and chanted, bricks in hand, a cell phone rang, a woman held up her hand, flipped her phone open with the other, listened, signaled, and everyone departed. Since then, nothing from the group. Unless there’s a connection between the group and the penis tiles. If there is, Bomb isn’t aware of it.
Then things started heating up again. It was that time of year. McKillimy College Foundation time. For twenty years, McKCF had named and supported two Geniuses a year. Within the month, on Memorial Day, they would name the twenty-first pair of geniuses. The only stipulation for selection was that the recipients had to be U.S. citizens. In addition to the honor of being named a McKillimy Genius, each recipient was awarded a lump sum of $250,000, tax-free, no strings attached. There was also the matter of being celebrated with a permanent installation at the campus library, after which the Foundation introduced the new Geniuses to each other and to the old during an extravagant week-long yacht excursion somewhere. During the days and weeks leading up to the announcement, news shows called in trend experts and think-tankers to get as much play as they could for their advertisers, and all over the internet bloggers handicapped who the next geniuses would be.
Then it happened. The news was horrible, dispiriting, the kind of thing that happens to a hopeful country when a popular leader is assassinated or to a child when his or her only parental figure, a mom or a dad or a grandparent, up and leaves or dies, no warning. The country or child forfeits a large piece of its innocence, its path changed irrevocably. Cable news shows devoted hours to the story, looking and re-looking and re-re-looking at it from the same two or three angles to understand the impact of the loss, the multiple explosions (Bang! Bang! Bang!) and sudden capsizing of the huge, luxurious McKillimy Foundation yacht in the Sea of Marmara, presumably drowning everyone, the entire crew and all thirty-nine of the Geniuses aboard. News anchors assured audiences that search parties would resume searching at first light. If the reports were true and all bodies eventually recovered, a bookstore owner in Inwit, a Mr. Davenport, who did not accompany the other Geniuses this year, would be the only Genius left. Shots of people weeping with candles dominated the coverage.
Oh, grow the fuck up, Bomb yelled at the television, nearly puncturing the wine teat. Bang’s part of nature, the cycle, ebb and flow, give and take. Pick a target and blow something up yourselves. Pussy crybabies!
People were reminded of the rise of Ye Olde Bookmonger as a model book-and-book-accoutrement store made famous by a simple marketing device that bookstores all over the country, chains and independents alike, came to imitate: the book board. The gist of Mr. Davenport’s genius, according to the local expert lending legitimacy to the cable show via satellite, was that he let his staff pick their favorites books, regardless of assumed salability, and display them on a large board propped up near the cash register to demonstrate Bookmonger’s love of books. The crowning touch, the owner’s addition, was the suggestion of something that might go with the beloved book. A drink, say, or a gift. He might tack a recipe for a Harlem Cocktail next to a Harlem Renaissance reissue or display a few high-end ink pens next to a cultural history of ink pens. Soon the board was attached to the wall behind the cash register, where it did the work of loving and selling books (and book accoutrements) so well and in such a signature way, the expert said, that Ye Olde Bookmonger became famous and a mecca for all sorts of book pilgrims.
Enough to drive a bomb to drink. Bomb rolled over and slurped at the teat’s nipple.
On the day Mr. Aggenbite Davenport, McKillimy College alum, was made a Genius, the talking head winked (winked!), the board was retired and transported across town to spend its remaining days where anyone can see it on display in a tall glass case at the John R. Considine Library on the McKillimy College campus in beautiful Inwit, Illinois, twenty minutes from downtown St. Louis.
Goddamn commercial, Bomb said. This gets any worse I’m gonna fuck a pilgrim.
Speculation has it, the show’s host said in closing, that out of respect for the dead and the national grief for our sudden loss of Genius, the Foundation may shut down this year’s selection. Mr. Davenport respectfully refuses to comment.
I’ll comment, Bomb yelled. I’m a fucking genius. He grabbed at the wine teat. Ask Mackey Rottler. Ask every explosive sumbitch you can find. You want references? I got them out the blowhole.
Within the hour, another important Inwit news item broke. Local law enforcement agencies, led by the FBI after what officials there say had been a month-long surveillance aided by a couple of agents on the inside, stormed the Inwit Mall after hours to break into a major Family Values! holding cell underneath the two major department stores that anchored the north end. Now this is news, Bomb whispered. The good shit. Hard-hitting local stuff.
Taken into custody were six FV! soldiers. Officials refuse to comment on the inventory recovered, the space FV! was using, or how news of it came into their sphere of operations, the implications this raid has for other FV! holding cells, or how many pregnant prisoners were found. One official did say, under cover of anonymity, that there was no one there who fit the description of the poor little pregnant Mafrawgdoe girl. More developments and details are expected early next week, including a debriefing led by the FBI agent in charge.
And then the McKillimy Foundation story took an unexpected turn, the kind that producers of evening news programs like to put at the end of the broadcast, after the litany of Things Gone Wrong In The World Again Today, right there at the end with Dad and Mom on the couch, sandwiched behind metal TV trays, their microwaved frozen chicken dinners half-eaten and a quarter-warm, their son and daughter, mohawked, big-booted there on the floor, refusing dinner, ripe for recruitment into Stomperhood, the boy a novitiate-in-the-making, the daughter about to be the same or some Stomper’s bitch-for-a-night, their view of the world growing as dark as the paint on their bedroom walls, as hopeless as the last Genius body bloated and floating in the Sea of Marmara, the only one searchers couldn’t find, when all of a sudden the news anchor perks up and announces the discovery of one of the thirty-nine Geniuses presumed dead.
Only minutes ago, news agencies were able to substantiate reports from the Sea of Marmara that say noted author and McKillimy Genius Cormac McCarthy was found yesterday, alive, floating with the aid of a cushion, dehydrated but scribbling away in a distressed waterproof LL Bean journal, just south of Constanta, Romania, near Eforie Sud, where noted Czech author Milan Kundera just happened to be walking and taking photographs of the water. There’s no indication Mr. Kundera knew who he had rescued when he waded out into the waves and pulled Mr. McCarthy in. The McKillimy Foundation President, Lana Semple McPherson, got so excited when she heard the news that she declared Mr. Kundera a McKillimy Genius right then and there. Reminded that Mr. Kundera had to be a U.S. citizen to earn the title, she offered to get him declared an honorary American.
Mr. Kundera, the anchor reported, declined the honor.
Watching the developments on television, Bomb didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, his own genius a burden he’s carried from bang to bang, unrecognized beyond his network, so he did a little of both as he sucked on the wine teat and nodded off and on, twitching.