My life has been wasted. Squandered. Thrown away like a bag of shit. And I’m the one who did it. Second by second, breath by breath, I spent it. I spent it a penny at a time, penny after penny after penny.
It’s a funny thing about pennies. They don’t seem worth much. So they’re easy to throw around. At first, they don’t appear to be the atoms, molecules, cells of a life. So you throw them away without really thinking about it. Sometimes one at a time, sometimes by the fistful. The other thing about pennies is that they disappear quickly. They don’t hang around under your feet reminding you that they’ve just been thrown away. So you forget. Then one day after several decades of watching them fly from your hand in a steady stream, your reach into the theretofore bottomless bag for yet another handful, and you feel it. You feel the sides of the canvas bag rubbing ever so lightly against the knuckles at the back of your hand. It happened to me for the first time this morning.
I guess the notion to stop and take stock wasn’t new. It had insinuated itself into my mind countless times over the years. Always uninvited, always quickly dispatched. But this morning was different. This morning, I felt the sides of the canvas bag against my knuckles. This morning, I wanted to see exactly what my pennies had purchased.
I made a list. I actually got a pen and ink and some paper, and I wrote it down. I wrote ‘MY LIFE’ in capital letters across the top of the first sheet of a stack about a quarter inch thick of clean, white, acid-free, 25% cotton fibre, 24 pound bond. Each sheet had the manufacturer’s watermark emblazoned in the middle, a round circle with a winged dragon clutching a ribbon banner with the manufacturer’s name in calligraphic script. I wrote clear, blue Arabic numerals along the lefthand margin careful to ensure that the period after each one was spaced a consistent distance from the numeral itself. This was going to be a document that I could frame and hang on the wall and point to and say with some degree of justifiable pride, “This is my life.”
I pondered the first entry. The words, ‘I was born’ leapt to mind quickly followed by a date: a month, a day, a year. Then I thought about it. There was nothing especial about that month, that day, that year. Hundreds, indeed thousands, of people could make the exact same claim. Everybody ever born could at least make a similar claim. No, that wasn’t the kind of first entry I wanted. I wanted something bold, something that would stand out, make someone take notice.
This time, the words ‘I graduated’ came to me quickly followed by the names of schools I had attended. Admiral David Glasgow Farragut High School and Wilson Junior College. But again, so what? Hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands could make the same claim, or even better ones.
The thought that I had been in the military made me chuckle.
I stared at the numeral one and the little period that followed it. Then it struck me. I hadn’t done anything worthy of note. I was nothing. I was no one. I had made no mark. Shit!
I had just recently arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport from a job in Texas. I had just killed a man. That’s what I am. That’s what I do. His name was Avel. His name is always Avel. I killed him to stop him from killing America. I killed him for the good of democracy.
What his real name was isn’t important. It’s what he did that counts. What he did was head up Post, Tanne and Leef, the construction company that made billions of dollars over the years supporting U.S. military aggression around the world. He didn’t just support military aggression, he contributed to the campaigns of politicians who advocated for war, who sought war. In fact, he ran for president himself. He and people like him start wars just so their corporations can make money. He thinks the president should be above the law. He thinks that all rich people should be above the law. He thinks its okay for poor people’s blood to run in the streets. His favorite line during his campaign was that he had no quarrel with the people of whatever country he wanted to invade, only their leaders. Never mind that it is the people with whom he has no quarrel that end up dying by the hundreds of thousands. Almost every war this country has been in since World War II was started with those words.
Well, today he got his comeuppance. Today, I was above the law.
It was easy. From a distance, I reconnoitered his every move. As a candidate, he had had the Secret Service watching over him. But the election was over, and he lost, so they were gone. I’m partial to poisons, so I was looking for a way to get him with nicotine. It took about a month, but I noticed that he liked toothpicks. He always had one close by. From what I could see, he had a hole of some kind– a cavity, a gap– around his upper right molars. After every meal, he would get his toothpick, and pry out stuck food.
I knew how I wanted to kill him, but I wasn’t sure I’d be able to pull it off. I began to conduct a reconnaissance of his house. He lived in a mansion. It didn’t have guards, but it had a camera system with motion detectors connected to lights to record everything that happened on the grounds and around the house. It did not, however, have people monitoring the system 24/seven. I knew that a black ninja suit with FBI markings would do the trick, but I still wasn’t sure about how to deliver the hit. That’s when I got lucky. I found a dead blowfish on the beach. It wasn’t as big as they come, only about eight inches long, but I felt like I had struck gold. I kept heavy gloves in the car, and I used them to carry this baby back to the car and back to the hotel where I was staying. I bottled as much of its fluids as I could salvage, and disposed of the rest.
I didn’t know what kind of toothpicks Avel used, so I got an assortment. I soaked three of each in the blowfish fluid, dried them, and stashed them in a plastic bag.
The motion sensors were placed at the sides of the house, and in the back. So, dressed in my FBI black ninja suit, I ran straight up to the front door at 3:00 o’clock in the morning. I used a bump key to open the front door, and headed for the kitchen. I wore soft kung-fu boots, and hugged the walls as I moved to lessen the chance of the floors squeaking. I used a weightless technique I had learned years earlier from my teacher. I found his toothpick box. He liked the flat ones. I took the flat ones from my plastic bag, and put them in his box right on top. Then I left the way I came in.
Back at the hotel, I pondered how long I should wait around town to make sure the job was done. But the lead story on the noon news the next day made the decision easy.
“This just in,” the broadcaster said, “the CEO of Post, Tanne and Leef was found dead this morning on his kitchen floor. The cause of death is unknown. Police are investigating.”
That was all I needed. I packed up, and headed for the airport.
The flight was late arriving, and I was tired. The taxi dispatcher waved me to a dented, red and white Ford. One of the bulbs in the taxi’s beacon was out. I threw my bag onto the rear seat and crawled in behind it. My butt slid into the depression that had been created by countless other passengers’ butts. The car was cold, smelled of gasoline, and had standing water on the floor behind the driver. I didn’t care. I just wanted to get home.
“Welcome to La Guardia!” the driver shouted in a thick New York accent. He slapped the top of the dashboard to get the instrument panel to work.
La Guardia?! Did I take the wrong plane? Have I been somnambulating for the last twenty minutes? I sat up straight and looked around for clues. This looked like O’Hare.
The driver was a big man, about 30 years old with pock marks on his cheeks from teenage acne. His head was covered with dark curly locks, and he steered over a sizeable beer belly.
I told him this was Chicago.
“New York is a great town,” he bellowed. “I’m shore you’ll enjoy your visit.” He stomped on the gas so that the corner of his cab could establish a place in traffic, then stomped on the brake because there was no place to go.
I told him again this was Chicago.
“New York! Chicago! They’re all the same,” he said.
A ten foot interval opened up in traffic. He lurched into it, then jammed the brake.
“Where you goin’?” he asked.
I gave him the address.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, “Sheridan Road. That’s way on the west side of town.”
I was beginning to catch on. Sheridan Road was east by the lake.
“Just so you know,” he said, “the trip will be between 18 and 22 dollars.”
He was right. I usually spent 20 dollars for this ride, and that included a generous tip. I looked over at the meter and saw that a thick cable dangled loose out of one side of it.
A small clearing opened up in traffic. He leaned on the horn, then leaned on the gas. He peeled around an airport bus, then stopped short behind a string of other cabs. He tapped the horn again, this time to get the attention of a black porter beside whom we happened to have stopped. They exchanged waves and greetings that I couldn’t hear above the roar of traffic. Another clearing opened up, and we zoomed through a small space between a black Cadillac limousine and a short, silver limousine bus. There was about a foot of clearance on each side. Then, like magic, we were on the open road, the I190 home.
I sat back and watched the signs and lights and passing traffic. “Welcome to Chicago, Richard M. Daley, Mayor.” Cities are beautiful places at night. Everything is lights. Red taillights. Yellow signal lights. Blue, green and white lights framing and topping the buildings of the downtown. There is something comforting about seeing familiar surroundings. I began to relax in a way that I hadn’t been able to for days, especially since this morning. I began to anticipate being in my own apartment, my own bathroom, my own shower, my own bed.
Oddly, the gasoline smell pulled me back to the musings of earlier in the day. As is my wont, I contemplated death immediately prior to my flight. Is that what people in airports think about? Everybody knows that few have survived airplane crashes. Do we all do it? Calculate the odds? The chances? Recall the statistic comparing airplane deaths to automobile deaths? How many people do die in car accidents per miles traveled anyway? How many miles are traveled by car? Does anybody know? How many people die because of gasoline fumes in cabs?
If I were to die today, now, what would I regret not having done? What is the fulfilled life anyway? What does it mean? Who has it, and who missed out?
The road between O’Hare and Chicago is right under one of the approach lanes to the airport. I watched the planes high in the distance bank into the lane, and follow one behind the other to the runway every thirty seconds or so. The pitch of the roar increased until they were directly overhead, then decreased as they each disappeared into the lights of traffic out the back window.
On balance, my life was good. Maybe more than on balance. Maybe by any measure, my life was good. I had not made the money I always thought I would, but now I knew that was a plus. In this country, men are measured by many yardsticks. How much can you drink and smoke? How many women have you laid? How big is your dick? Greatest among them is, how much money have you made?
There was no question about it, money was power. Look rich, and people will treat you altogether differently. I remembered going to the Boat and Camping Show at McCormick Place some years ago. I and my woman du jour were in line to tour a yacht. I had on my long hair beaver coat. I had just recently declared bankruptcy, but never mind that. We looked the part.
The people showing the boat looked bored until we stepped on. My woman was wearing a full-length tanuki. The ship came to life. People began to minister to us. I told them straight away that I could not afford a boat. No matter. They told me that I might one day. They showed us every inch of the place.
But it wasn’t real. They weren’t reacting to me. They were reacting to whom they thought I was. Worse, they were reacting to whom they thought I might become.
The cab pulled into the semicircle driveway in front of my building. The light from the vestibule provided enough light for me to count my money out.
“Twenty bucks,” he said, “and don’t forget to catch a show on Broadway.”
“That’s low for New York,” I said. “Here’s twenty-five.”
I was still tired, but I felt strangely refreshed. I opened the door, and wiggled out of the dented seat pulling my bag behind me. The driver flipped me a smile and a wink. “My man,” he said, then stomped on the gas, and lurched out into the traffic. I placed my back against the glass vestibule door, and pushed my way inside.
I checked my mail, then let myself in the inside security door. As I pushed the elevator button, I looked at myself in the mirrored hallway. I was different now. What happened to that young boy whose school pictures I used to be so ashamed of? How did his skin get so weathered looking, his hair so grey? Black might not crack, but it sure as hell will sag. I studied my image. The curve of my pointed chin and shallow cheek bones, the full lips and bony, angular nose were the same as they were when I was young, but the lips had parentheses around them now. The close set, light brown eyes were more heavily pigmented, and had bags under them. The widow’s peak was gone, pushed away by the swath of shiny skin on the top of my head that defined the horseshoe shape of the hair around the outside of my head. Not only had my life been squandered, now I was ugly.
When the elevator door opened, I stepped in eagerly hoping against hope that the image I had been studying would remain behind.
It’s the choices we make that determine who we are. So what was wrong with my choices?
I remembered the day I got shot. I was at Rainbow Beach, lying under a cottonwood tree. I saw this Chinese woman wearing a purple silk Manchurian jacket duck to the ground. She had heard shots before, and knew what to do. She was about twenty-eight, and the ends of her waist-length silky black hair waved in the breeze as she moved. Her dark almond eyes darted from side to side. Her delicate round and flat face was calm. She saw the assassin leave, then, crouching low, ran to help me. She made no sound as she moved.
I was surprised that I opened my eyes. It felt like Sunday. It felt like Easter Sunday. I had expected to be dead. In fact, I was dead. Al Pearsons no longer lived. That single shot set him free. Now, all I had to do was live. Who was I going to be? A corollary to the ontological question of all times: Who am I? I was no longer Noel Bodie, and Al Pearsons was dead. I knew I would never die. Who would I be?
The young Chinese woman had her mouth on my mouth, blowing her life into my lungs. Feeling the pain in my side, I flinched. The woman raised up and looked at me. She seemed pleasantly surprised to see me.
“Don’t die,” she said. “Don’t die. I’ll call a doctor.”
“No doctor,” I said. “No doctor.”
“You need a doctor!”
“It’s okay if I die. I don’t want a doctor.”
I reached over and felt the clump of rags she had wedged at my side to stanch the flow of blood. She had used the jacket she had been wearing. “How bad is it?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. “There are two holes, one in front and one in the back. You’re bleeding from both of them.”
“Good. It went through. Is the blood oozing out, or is it pumping out?”
“It’s oozing. What does that mean?”
“What’s your name?”
“I need you to help me home, Jiqin.”
“I’m taking you to a doctor.”
“I’m taking you to my uncle’s place.”
“No, Jiqin, please. No one must know.”
“What is your name?”
I had to think fast. Jesus, what was I going to say? The Lord’s name teased my lips, “Je . . . Jes . . ..”
“Jay?” she asked.
“Yeah,” I answered, “Jay.”
“My uncle will take care of you, Jay. He’s a doctor.”
I couldn’t let her take me to a doctor. Doctors are required to report gunshot wounds to the police. If this wound got reported, the wrong people might find out about it.
“You got a last name, Jay?”
Still holding the wad of rags, I swung a back fist at her head with my right hand. She blocked it easily. I scarcely felt her touch on my wrist.
“What your last name?”
“I’m just a guy,” I answered, “you don’t know me.” I swung at her with my left hand. Using the same hand, she blocked that, too.
“Stop fighting me, Jay Guy. I try to help you,” she said. “What your middle name?”
By then, I had thought of a good first name. “Samuel,” I said. I didn’t know why I picked Samuel. I couldn’t remember having ever known anyone who called himself Samuel.
“Jay Sam Guy,” she said.
“Yeah,” I answered. “Just some guy.” Then I fainted.
I didn’t remember the trip to her uncle’s house. I just remembered opening my eyes and seeing Jiqin and an old Chinese man that looked like he could have stepped out of a Fu Manchu Mystery. He was tiny. He was old. He smelled of herbs that I didn’t recognize. There was a naked light bulb. I was hot and I was freezing. I shivered under the blankets they had on me. My breathing was shallow because it hurt to take deep breaths. I felt the room begin to spin. I heard the roar of mosquitoes buzzing in both ears. My eyes closed by themselves.
My eyes opened by themselves, like a doll’s eyes when you sit her upright. I was staring at the ceiling. The room was light even though the naked bulb is off. Almost as an exercise, I moved my eyes from one side to the other, from one object to the other, from the lightbulb to the single strand of spider web hanging from the ceiling in the corner, to the cream painted wood molding going around the wall at the ceiling, to the small round window at the top of the wall to my right, to the crack in the wall that had been repaired with plaster that was itself cracking again in the exact same place. I turned my head slowly and followed the crack down to the walnut table resting beside the wall. There was a glass pitcher filled with water on the table. There was an empty glass.
This didn’t look like a hospital. I tightened my stomach muscles in order to sit up, and felt the pain. I let out a short moan. Within less than a minute, the door to my left opened up, and Jiqin Dong looked in. She wore a tattered grey University of Wisconsin t-shirt and a long denim skirt.
“Jay,” she said. “You didn’t die.”
I was about to look around to see who Jay was, then I remembered that was my new name. “Where am I?”
“You woke up just in time,” she said pouring water into the glass.
“Help me up.”
“We have to leave town.” She helped me sit up.
“Why? What’s up?” I sipped some water.
Before she could answer, there was a loud pounding at a door that sounded like it was downstairs.
Jiqin panicked. “They here!”
“Who’s here?” I asked.
“The INS is after my uncle. He sneaked into the country three months ago in a cargo container with some other people. They want to deport him.”
The INS pounded on the door again. “Open up in there,” someone said.
“Pretend this is your house.” She begged, “please.”
I could hear a small glass pane being broken, then the door being unlocked, and being flung open and hitting hard against the wall. I could hear heavy footfalls on the floor below me. It sounded like a football team running through the house. Finally, there were heavy feet thumping up the stairs outside my room. The door crashed open and three men lunged in, falling over themselves. They were dressed in cheap, ill-fitting suits, one grey, one blue, one brown. The one in grey was tall; his suit was too short. The one in blue was fat; his suit was too snug. The one in brown was small; his suit was baggy. They looked at me, and stopped in their tracks.
“Who’s going to fix that glass?” I asked.
“Who the fuck are you?” the tall one asked back.
“I own this place.”
“We thought she owned it,” he said, gesturing to Jiqin.
“Would it be all right to break into the house without a warrant if she owned it?” I asked.
“We have a warrant.”
“Let’s see it.”
“Okay, we don’t have a warrant.”
“Then get the fuck out.”
“We’ll be back later.”
“Bring some money for that window,” I said.
As they left, they broke the rest of the windows in the door. Why do cops always do shit like that?
I lived in an abandoned apartment building on Seventy-seventh and Lakeshore Drive by Rainbow Park. I found it years ago when I got back from a trip to Europe. It was from there that I had created the character of Al Pearsons. It was there that Ida and I returned after striking a blow for freedom. There is where she went crazy.
It was a three-flat in which a fire had gutted the first floor. The back porch was still in tact, though, and the third floor was surprisingly clean. All of it, that is, except the kitchen. The kitchens on all three floors were destroyed. I slept in the master bedroom on the third floor huddled against the closed door so that no one would walk in on me undetected.
I left and reentered the house only after dark through a basement window. I didn’t want anyone to know that the house was being used. I even rearranged the rubble at both entrances to discourage anyone from exploring. It was perfect! I felt like Ellison’s invisible man. No one knew I was there, and yet I had all the comforts of a paid-for apartment. The water was still on, and one outlet in the building still worked. It was located in the basement behind the furnace, but it didn’t appear to draw juice from the building’s circuits. I never did figure out why. I used a series of extension cords to provide power to my room on the top floor. A space heater and hot plate provided me with heat and warm beverages throughout the winter. I didn’t know why the building remained empty all this time.
I told Jiqin that she and her uncle could stay with me. I gave them the ground rules. Come and go only after dark. Stay away from the windows. No loud noises.
After about a week there, Jiqin suggested that we didn’t have to hide.
“I checked it out,” she said. “The owner of this building lives somewhere in Mississippi.”
“What’s your point?” I asked.
“The neighbors won’t know that we’re not the new owners. We can simply open the place up, make a few repairs, have the light and gas turned on, and live here.”
“No,” I said.
“Because I said no.”
“That’s not good enough.” She turned to walk out.
“What about the INS?” I asked.
“They have no clue where we are,” she said on her way down the stairs.
The girl was stupid. Of course the INS had no clue where they were. But if she wanted to keep it that way, they would have to keep a low profile. I tried to raise up to argue my point before she got out of earshot, but a wave of pain in my side stopped me. I flopped back down on my mat, and clenched my teeth.
Then I thought about it. I wasn’t the one in danger here. Nobody was looking for me. They all thought I was dead. That thought was my only comfort in the days and weeks that followed. I decided not to oppose the project.
I don’t know where she found them, but she managed to get a crew of half a dozen guys together to work on the place. One of them was her uncle. But the others, I had never seen before. They were all Chinese; they were all illegal. They spoke no English, but they worked. They cleaned the debris from in front of the doors. They fixed and cleaned all the windows. They fixed the kitchens on all three floors. It wasn’t like new, but it was sound, and it was weather tight. Jiqin shouted orders like a drill sergeant, all in Chinese. Even her uncle obeyed her every command.
The men rarely came up to the third floor, but when they did, they would bow to me. It wasn’t a deep bow, just a slight bending at the waist and a lowering of the head and eyes. Especially her uncle. I figured it was because he felt he owed me, but he seemed to go out of his way to bow to me. I asked Jiqin what that was all about.
“I told them this your house,” she said. “I told them I represent you, and if they don’t do as I say, you will have them deported, or worse, killed.”
“You told them what?!”
“Don’t worry,” she said, “I take care of everything.”
“Who’s paying for all of this?”
“They work for free,” she answered.
“And the supplies?”
“Don’t worry,” she said, “police won’t come after you.”
I got the real answer after the work was done. The guys who did the work moved in the following day. They moved in on the second floor, all of them except the uncle. They all found someplace to go during the day, but by evening, they were all there studying English or reading Chinese newspapers. They did nothing to draw attention to themselves.
By then, my wound was healed enough that I could move around with some degree of ease. I felt as if I were on vacation. I didn’t have to hide anymore. What would I do with myself? Who might I become? Better yet, who was I now? Shakespeare asked it first. What’s in a name? Mine, this time, was Jay. But so what? Wherefore art thou Jay? Thou art Jay because thou christened thyself Jay. But again, so what? I answered to Jay, but I was who I was. Would Jay by any other name be as devoid of direction? Would Jay as Oliver still be Jay? Would Oliver as Jay? Oliver Nelson? Eddie Oliver?
Living in the streets, out of mainstream society, below the radar for years can warp a man if he isn’t warped already. I had lived– hidden is a better word– in this house for longer than I cared to remember. I was a young man when I began hiding out. By then, I was nearly middle-aged, and all I had to show for it was the fact that I was still breathing. Well, no. I had more. I had my freedom. I had my freedom, and I had my writings. But having the house remodeled even a little gave me an eerie feeling. It marked the end of an epoch.
Part of the change in no small measure was the fact that I lived with someone now. My life in the street was a solitary existence. It had to be, because I couldn’t trust anyone. But then I lived with this woman and her uncle. We weren’t exactly cohabiting– they had their part of the apartment; I had mine– but they were there. More to the point, she was there.
I hadn’t been with a woman since Ida left, haunted by and running from the images of death she had helped create. I should never have let Ida come with me that night. She was no killer, but there was no way to know that. There was no way to know that night that I was a killer. Ida’s ghost was that she had killed someone. My ghost, the one that I had been carrying around concealed in my breast all those years like one might carry the corpse of a mouse whose stench one would have to struggle to conceal, was that I wanted to do it again. I was ashamed to look at it. Its smell sickened me. But when Jiqin mentioned that she had told her workers that I might kill them, my reaction was: what? But my gut reaction was: yes! Let’s do it again!
I asked Jiqin if she and her uncle wouldn’t be more comfortable on the first floor by themselves. She smiled a little smile, and looked at the floor. She looked like one of the guys downstairs looking at the floor as they bowed.
“You protected us,” she said, “and my uncle feels that we owe you. Part of the reason we fix your house is because we owe you.”
“It’s not my house,” I said.
“To him, it is your house.”
“You owe me nothing.”
“If you had not saved him from the INS,” she said, “he would have been deported back to China, and maybe killed. He owes you everything.”
“Well, we’re even,” I said. “He saved my life before I saved his.”
“There is one other small thing,” she said, looking at the floor again. “Here we are your guests, and we might need your protection again.”
“You would be my guests on the first floor as well.”
“We were hoping to bring other guests there.” Now she was almost bowing like the guys downstairs.
“Who?” I asked.
“Mexican guests,” she said.
“They have money,” she said. “Their money paid for food and these repairs.”
“Fuckin’ Mexicans?! Are you smugglers?!” The mere thought was exciting.
“Liberators,” she said.
“These people are getting robbed and killed by smugglers.”
“Yes,” she said. “In the wrong hands, they are in danger. In our hands, they get treated fairly.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“We need a house.”
“How do you know I can be trusted?”
“A man who gets shot and who does not want a doctor can be trusted. Besides,” she said, “I know you.”
Maybe this was it, the new me. “What’s in it for me?” I asked.
“What do you want?” she asked back.
I couldn’t help myself. It’s almost as if my eyes moved of their own volition. Against my will, I began staring at her chest. She really didn’t have any tits to speak of. They were more like over-sized nipples. And in the baggy t-shirt she wore, they were barely visible. But I couldn’t look away.
“You want sex?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said, “no!” Then I said yes again, then I said no again. Then I tried to act as if I really meant it. I turned my back on her. “No,” I said, “not like this.”
“I don’t want your pity.”
“I’m not cute enough?” she asked.
“You’re cute enough.”
“My chest not big enough?”
“It’s big enough.”
“Then why you not want sex?”
“I do want sex.”
“Okay, let’s do it.”
“I want love,” I said. I sounded like a fool even to myself.
“Love?” She said, “This is business. I have something you want; you have something I want. Just business.”
“Let’s talk about it tomorrow,” I said.
“The Mexicans will be here tomorrow,” she said. “We need a deal tonight.”
“I need to think a few minutes,” I said.
“Okay,” she said. “I go wash myself.”
I could hear her turn to leave, and I turned to watch her. From behind, she looked like a boy, skinny with no ass. At the last minute before reaching the door, she turned her head and caught me looking at her butt. Her tiny mouth hinted at a smile.
Choices. Maybe I shouldn’t have let Jiqin and her uncle stay. I stepped off the elevator when it arrived at my floor. The image in the panel of mirrors across from the elevator was the same, so I looked away. God, I hated my appearance.
I unlocked my door and went inside. The room smelled of sandalwood and linseed oil. I flipped the light switch. I was finally home. No mirrors, no funky images. Just my stuff. My books. My swords on the walls. My drapes. My black leather couch. My aquarium. I plugged the aquarium light back into the timer, and the little guys darted back and forth. I kept African cichlids, about a dozen of them in a 55 gallon tank. Blue, golden yellow, orange. They looked African, big lips and eyes. They looked like me, and they were glad to see me. They knew they were about to be fed. I kept smelts in the freezer for them. I took a few out and ran water on them to thaw them. When I opened the lid, the little guys went wild, leaping to get the first bite. Water splashed all over me. I dropped the smelts in, and the guys attacked, snatching pieces off. I loved watching them eat. There was something about the colors and the light and the plants and frankly the carnage that calmed me. The blue one, the only blue one in the tank, was bigger than the others. I called him Chuck. Chuck ran the tank. Or at least he tried to. He snatched a mouthful of a smelt that was as big as he was, then tried to shoo the others away. Like he could eat the whole damn thing! He acted like an idiot. The other cichlids gave him his props. He was, after all, bigger than any of them. But they just circled around his posturing, and snatched more food. Chuck was the blue number one, but in the end, the little guys always won.