You’re one microscopic cog
In his catastrophic plan
Designed and directed by
His red right hand.
– Red Right Hand, by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
There is a Denny’s restaurant a short walk north from the bus terminal in South Burlington, Vermont. An old, weather-pounded structure of dubious manufacture, the restaurant’s primary selling point is that it is open 24/7, and indeed it is open on this nasty January night, although (and perhaps unsurprisingly) it is not by any means crowded. The rent-a-cop at the door – there was a robbery a few months earlier – is (stereo)typically asleep by the door, his tilted chair directly in front of the space heater by the entrance; the glock 22 at his hip trembles slightly with his light snores. The night manager is apparently unconcerned though: He is crouched at his stool, curled over his crotch like an ape, watching reruns of “Sex and the City” on his iPad, poised salaciously on his lap, and so is quite blissfully passing the night with Carrie Bradshaw (and possibly some quantity of liquid MDMA).
Two waitresses are on duty: The short, squat and dyed-in-the-sugar-bush-native-born-Vermonter Helen, a stern, stout and matronly fifty-four years, her hair steel-grey and compressed into a punitively tight bun; and the much younger and softer, lavender coiffed and extensively tattooed JennieL, and these two spend the small hours of the night absently taking turns refilling the cup of the man seated alone at the counter. There is a large almost yellow bag – tan and tired, perhaps an old doctor’s bag, but perhaps not – dropped on the stool to his right, its scuffs and scars proving its veteran travel status.
The counter is otherwise bereft of companionship. Wind beats on the thin, frightened glass.
The man always nods politely when Helen or JennieL arch their eyebrows questioningly and motion with the coffee pot at this cup, but he does not actually speak to them, and has not spoken, since he came in a little after midnight, accompanied by a gelid and disturbingly solid gust of lakewind.
Just a little guy, JennieL thinks, looking him over as she pours. He is maybe in his sixties, with salt and pepper hair and bushy Ed Asner eyebrows above dark, downcast eyes that are at once both sad and wry. A little old man out alone on a very cold night who came in to drink coffee, probably until the 5:30am bus to Portland, Maine left.
The night grinds on like this, as if pressed ahead unwillingly by the wild winter wind, until – as if he was waiting for this specific moment – the man deftly removes his coat and drops it onto the stool to his left. Then, in one calm, fluid motion, he reaches out with his right hand, his bony little fingers encircling the strap in a manner that is somehow insectile and predatorial, and sharply snaps his bag close to his chest, like a miser clutching his purse. The little old man then leers at JennieL, filling his mug for the umpteenth time, and who has gone deer-still at the man’s sudden movements and decidedly unnerving grin and is now staring at him wide eyed and unblinking – and then he speaks to her, his voice a low grandfatherish growl, all the while backed by the banshee chorus outside.
“Well, then,” he pronounces, his tone soft but perfectly clear. “Are you ready to hear my story?”
Gunpowder was invented in 9th-century China and spread throughout most parts of Eurasia by the end of the 13th century. Originally developed by alchemists for medicinal purposes, gunpowder was first used for warfare about 1000 CE.
– Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gunpowder
Call me Harvey.
I’m not from here, from this place. I’m just passing through, as you may have guessed. I am a Traveling Man now, but for a long time I was a regular homebody, doing it the way you’re supposed to: Get the right degree. Marry the right woman. Land the good job. The mortgage and the kids and the rest of it. I was happy enough with that life, but I look back at it now as this incredibly fragile thing that I didn’t protect. A frozen soap bubble in the snow that crumbles at the lightest touch. For a decade I lived inside that perfect little bubble, the entire time – I now see – we were all perched on the very brink of a phase transition.
My wife was a good woman, very strong and clear-headed, and she was entirely devoted to our daughter Ellen. Ellen was her whole world. Afterward, after Ellen was gone, my wife seemed to drift away to nothing. Her body was still walking around, but her spirit died with her daughter. It just took her some time to figure that out. When she did, she opened her wrists and finished the job.
-My daughter died? Yes. Yes, she did, I’m very sorry to say. Yes: A tragedy. The tragedy of my life, of anyone’s life really…but thank you. Yes, please. The coffee is very good.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. So let’s go back to the house and the wife and the job…ah yes! The job! The career really, it seems to me now, now that it is over. It was always just a job when I was doing it; seems that it only is a career in retrospect. I worked in a burgeoning field, and I was very good at it. Better than most, I guess. We’ll see. You see, I was paid to find and to monetize new technology, and so I worked in a lab. In time, my list of patents grew, my work became well-known and my research flourished. Life was indeed very good.
But like all good things, that too had to end.
Many will say that the end of thing began with my daughter’s murder, but they will be wrong to say that, for it began much earlier. Much, much earlier.
The fire lance…was a very early gunpowder weapon that appeared in 10th century China during the Jin-Song Wars. It began as a small pyrotechnic device attached to a spear-like weapon, used to gain a critical shock advantage right at the start of a melee. As gunpowder improved, the explosive discharge was increased, and debris or pellets added, giving it some of the effects of a combination modern flamethrower and shotgun, but with a very short range, and only one shot…These are considered to be a proto-gun, the predecessor of the hand cannon, and the ancestor of all firearms.
– Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_lance