After Marla returned upstairs, and his exercises were finished, Harmon showered, dressed in a plain black T and blue jeans and went for a walk. He headed for the convenience store to the north of Andy’s abode where he hoped he might obtain cigarettes, coffee, jerky and a newspaper. He felt light, relaxed and more than a little confused at the utter absence of guilt and nervousness upon a thorough re-consideration of his recent actions.
He’d put Sprawls back behind bars and brought heat on the local cartel. It was a dangerous gambit, yet Harmon felt no tinge of unease. He stretched his arms against the flooding warmth of the bright, morning sun, smiling slightly as a mild gale swirled his short, black locks. He fished out the pack containing his few remaining cigarettes, lit one and studied the building stormwall in the distance. As the man approached the shoebox-like houses, set just before the intersection that girded his destination, a unfamiliar voice rang out from the sidewalk to his immediate left.
“Well… well. Look who it is.”
Harmon shifted his head to behold the same gang of mestizo and negro toughs he’d spied many days earlier approaching him from the stoop of one of the battered tenements. They hung in a loose throng behind a mulatto with large ears, heavy brows and a shaved head and small stubbly chin. Numerous tattoos ran down the left side of his dark, porous skin, from brow to neck.
The tattooed man stopped directly before Harmon who likewise paused so as to avoid colliding with the interloper.
“Seen you before. Driving. Flicked a cigarette. Out your car.”
“Forgot an ashtray.”
“Uh huh. Well, we don’t take kindly to littering. Right?”
The three men behind the tattooed man looked one to the other and smiled wickedly.
“That’s right,” one of them ejaculated with a strange and sudden fervor, bloodshot eyes bulging dry and brittle in thin, cloud-palled light.
Harmon exhaled to his left so as to keep the smoke from the interloper’s face and then sought a rightward path round him but found his way blocked. He paused and grimaced.
“You got some kinda problem?”
“No,” the tattooed man replied, “But you do.”
“You mind moving?”
“What if I do?”
The men behind the bald man yammered like hyenas. Harmon remained impassive. His fierce emerald eyes narrowing, fixed upon the fleshy, impudent bulwark. He’d a mind to say several inflammatory things to his waylayers and would have had he not been suddenly interrupted by a security guard who wandered out from the shade of the tenement to Harmon’s immediate right. The guard was an old and weathered man, with a stooped posture, hawkish features and a beard, thick, graying and neatly trimmed.
“Whats going on here?”
The half-blooded leader turned to the guard, annoyance clear writ upon his crinkled brow.
“Then get the hell out the street.”
“It look like there’s a car comin?”
“Don’t care if there’s no car.”
The mulatto frowned. The guard’s feet remained firmly planted.
“I ain’t keen on repeating myself, young man.”
The mulatto shook his head and turned hesitantly, casting one last look at Harmon, who returned the gaze. Dual visages charged with ferine animosity. Neither said a word and shortly the toughs left out and vanished within the concrete sepulchre.
“Shambling ghouls,” Harmon muttered reflexively as he made way to the right side of the street, opposite the way the mulatto had departed. There the old security guard greeted him and pointed to the black portal where once a door had been in the tough’s two story flat.
“Those punks bothering you?”
“Much as a mosquito might.”
The man extended his veiny and surprisingly muscular left hand.
“Names Harold La’Far.”
The man’s brows shot up.
“Harmon K… say… you ain’t a writer, are you?”
“Why, yes, yes I am.”
“I recently read this story online, called ‘The Factory At The Edge Of The World.'”
“That’s one of my stories.”
“Don’t that just beat all.”
“You liked it?”
“Liked it? No. I loved it. Say, I was headed up to the corner store for lunch, you wanna join me?”
“Be happy to. I was headed that way.”
The old man smiled broadly, crinkling up his azure-blue eyes, delighted. Harmon knew that, in such a neighborhood, a literary man would be hard-pressed for likeminded company. The degenerate hoards who slipped and slithered between the dark and crumbling facades of the barton were inimical to artistry, in appearance and behavior alike, more akin to premodern savages than civilized Man.
As Harmon strode beside the old man, to his right, in between the passing, trash-stuffed alleys of the dingy, peeling projects, he wondered when a new civilization would arise from the ruins of the old, convinced that such a eventuality was not a question of ‘if’ but only of ‘when’ and ‘how.’ His futurism subsided when they reached the graffittied corner store, which sat to the right side of the street. The duo passed within and ordered two cups of coffee to which Harmon added a new pack of cigarettes, beef jerky, and a paperback novel whose narrative remained opaque despite a thorough reading of its back-jacket synopsis.
The two men sat in the back of the stucco and linoleum box and drank their coffee in silence as a plain-faced woman mopped the floor beside them. She looked familiar. Harmon couldn’t see her face. La’Far cast his gaze over the paperback which peeked out from the confines of the plastic bag, which lay upon the right of the scratched and arm-worn table.
“Whatcha pick up?”
“Not sure. Synopsis was pretty vague. Had just been a while since I’d read anything new. Especially fiction.”
“Sometimes its good to just spin the wheel and see where it lands.”
Harmon nodded and sipped the aromatic brew as the cleaning lady moved past them with a forced smile and set down the sandwich that La’Far had ordered. He thanked her and fished out the pickle.
“I hope its a naturalist work.”
“Why is that?”
“All the journalists have become novelists, so its only fitting that the novelists should become journalists.”
The old guard straightened and sipped his coffee, “Maybe we never needed journalists to begin with.”
“Someone needs to swiftly disseminate pertinent information to the public.”
“Reckon so. Just get to thinking we’ve got too many people in the yappin trade. Too many people talking, not enough thinkin.”
“A consequence of aesthetic diffidence. Or rather, a diffidence towards a shared cultural aesthetic.”
“You mean like the national anthem, flag and so forth?”
“Rather more than that. But it doesn’t matter. Not in the present climate. To take art seriously, outside of the academy, is looked down upon. Art today is not thought of as a endeavour which should be great, it should only be fun. Everyone should be a hobbyist, a dilletante and if one is not, then one is being too self serious or pretentious or whatever other highhanded dismissal is fashionable with the critical establishment. Its rather like telling an engineer he’s being too self serious about his trade.”
Harold chuckled and nodded.
“You’ve got a way of putting things.”
Harmon flashed the man the faint-trace of a smile and stubbed his coffin nail in a beige ashtray upon the table.
“Art has become disconnected from its subject, which is always, in someway, the society in which it is done. Art only for the individual is not art at all, for there is no audience and failing one, no message to communicate and eventually no message at all but only vague intuitions and suggestions of emotion. Abstractions of abstractions. You can see this in the modern novels, more so in shorter works, the great bulk of which consist largely of impressions alone. The disconnected, as opposed to the distanced, the dispersive rather than the syncretic, works solely from the mold of other books which, often, have been written based on nothing but other, older, works. And so it is that the modern author produces a copy of a copy of a copy, without even realizing it. The public, unaware of what has come before, bedazzled by the occassional transgressive mediocrity, is want to treat the facsimile as something profoundly original and meaningful and yet, more often than not, would never think of reading those old works upon which they are based because they don’t speak to or of the spirit of the times and yet no one askes whether or not the spirit of our time should be spoken of at all.”
“The way you lay things out, I’d assume you were a professional artist.”
“No. I’m a roofer. Writing is a passion of mine but I’ve yet to figure out how to make anything off of it.”
“You work construction?”
Harmon nodded and withdrew one of his freshly purchased cigarettes, placed it in his mouth and lit it as a gaggle of middle aged wastrels spilled into the store.
“Been working construction for five years now.”
“That’s rough work. You like it?”
He nodded again, “Its rough but rewarding. I don’t mind the sore back or the stiffness or the long hours, its good exercise, I just mind the thanklessness.”
Harmon held up his cigarette pack and turned it in the pale, bluish shop-light.
“Someone made this design and most will never know who it was.”