Are You Gonna Keep This Up?

Are You Gonna Keep This Up?

Translated by Agnel Joseph.

Unlike how he sounded on the phone,

the man came across as agreeable in person. He stated his business briefly, giving Adams the impression he was choosing his words carefully to avoid offending him. They’d been bickering for the past two days. The issue was noise. The man had called to complain five times in the morning already, so ironically Adams felt relieved when he showed up at his door. Because, honest to God, he never made a peep.

As I told you on the phone, Adams said, making every effort to be civil, the noise isn’t coming from my home. You can come in and have a look if you don’t believe me.

The man proved surprisingly shy. No, that’s okay, he said.

Adams caught the reluctant man’s hand and pulled him in, beaming at him like a newly ordained Baptist pastor. C’mon, there’s no room for misunderstanding between neighbours.

The apartment was still. Only a chicken, curled up like Baby Jesus, thawed agreeably in the microwave.

You see, Adams shrugged. No bouncing kids or basketballs here. Why, even my farts are hushed.

Ah, yes. The man broke into an awkward smile. An Asian of portly proportions, the wad of ample flesh settled at the back of his crisply shorn head could well have been used to crash test a Chrysler Dodge.

Adams even flung the doors of his rooms open to dispel the man’s suspicions. A small living room and two bedrooms … the gloomy house looked shrivelled and uninviting, like the content of the aging man’s underwear. Oh yeah, there’s this too. Adams opened the door to the corridor-style storeroom linked to the kitchen, even switched on the light. Rows of plumbing tools glistened, but they bore no relation to basketballs or children.

I see you live here alone, said the man.

Hands jammed in baggy overalls, Adams shrugged again.

This is so weird.

The man mumbled to himself and wiped the sweat off his forehead. Then he seemed to remember Adams and politely bowed his head. I’m sorry for barging in on you.

That’s okay. I’m glad we cleared up our misunderstanding, Adams said as he stuck out a hand. A chubby Asian hand met a plumber’s hardened hand. Blubber and muscle… Different builds, yet both men were good-sized behemoths. I’m Adams.

I’m Chang. Edward Chang.

Chang! Adams sounded out the man’s name loudly and nodded his head. Makes me want to sneeze every time I say it, he thought but didn’t let it show on his face.

The faint sound of an explosion reached them from outside the window. A plume of black smoke shot up from somewhere in the distant city centre.

Everybody’s on edge, said Adams.

That can’t be helped, don’t you think? Chang chipped in with a glint in his slender eyes. Even the army has thrown up its hands, so downtown must be overrun with the <Broke> by now.

Yeah, I suppose.

For a moment, the two behemoths gazed at the smoke, like wrestlers in a dark locker room watching their colleagues square off in the ring. The smoke climbed in a straight line with a determined will of its own before scattering like a pack of rats that’d suddenly lost its way.

We’re done for, said Chang. Forget Jesus, even if his grandpa were to show up, I mean.

I guess so. Adams folded his arms across his chest and frowned.

Are you a man of faith, Mr Adams?

Well… Adams started to answer, then let the question hang in the air. He shook his head.

I, I don’t know. What about you, Mr Chang?

I’m like you. Well, my parents were Buddhists.

Tell me … I’ve heard of Jesus’ father but I’ve never heard of his grandpa. Who’s he?

Well… Chang cocked his head. He gave a laugh instead of replying.

Adams laughed with him.

It’s tomorrow, isn’t it? said Chang.

That’s what they say, said Adams.

Tomorrow was humanity’s last day.

*

That’s what everybody believed. People had stopped believing in the government’s official statements a year ago. The government claimed the comet would miss Earth by a whisker, but people weren’t dumb. The <Truth> had spread a long time ago thanks to a few conscientious scientists and some civic organizations. The discovery of the Rippere had happened five years ago. One-sixth the size of the moon, before this chunk of ice found by an astronomer named Joseph Rippere approached Earth, all humanity could busy itself with was doing housework, taking the daily commute, and … at most, casting votes. Yes, in that time, the Denver Broncos had bagged two Super Bowl wins, but the comet was more swift and precise than any bullet pass Adams had ever seen. Those were good times, Adams thought, twisting his stiff neck from side to side. The fifty-year-old neck cracked.

Still, governments around the world were handling the situation. Or maybe the majority of Earth’s population had a compass that obstinately pointed to the magnetic pole of hope. At first, they believed in the grand lie that the comet would be deflected off its path by a rocket, later they nibbled on the juicy carrot that the moon would act as a shield or that the comet would miss Earth. A great number of suspicions were raised, but the majority had an internal magnetism of unclear origin directed toward hope. Maybe it would’ve been better if I’d stayed that way too, thought Chang.

The situation had quickly deteriorated. Everybody had their own trigger, but Chang had come to believe in the <Rumor> in the wake of the German Chancellor’s suicide. The Chancellor had blown his brains out on live TV, but not before leaving the following testament: People have the right to know their fate. The course of the Rippere hasn’t changed. Maybe God could change it, but man doesn’t have that power yet. A native of Kleve, the Chancellor failed to change the comet’s course, but his accent managed to change the comet’s name. The majority now called the comet Referee.

With a series of explosions, several plumes of smoke bloomed again in the city centre. Chang, arms folded across his chest, cracked his fat neck from side to side. The neck in its early thirties produced no particular sound. The collapse of society was swift. Trade was suspended and the government lost all authority. Banks shuttered and the ranks of the broke swelled. Many tried to find meaning in what was left of their lives, but many others began to deny and destroy it. Power blackouts spread like wildfire. Indiscriminate looting and rioting had become a daily occurrence a long time ago. Broadcasts were discontinued and public offices lost all their influence. The world was beyond repair. The trigger point of the riots was the multitudes of broke people. And, naturally, other sundry groups got in on the action. Resurgent racist groups, religious orders, gangs, the unemployed … depraved or degenerate cops and soldiers… An unspeakable number of people had joined the hordes of the <Broke>. Humanity’s already broke, Chang thought.

What’s the point in what they’re doing? Adams remarked in a voice tinged with scorn.

Indeed, said Chang and laughed as he wiped the sweat off the nape of his neck. The important thing though is that … umm … that…

Chang looked like he was trying to construct a profound sentence. His left hand that kept industriously swiping the sweat off his neck gave Adams the impression that he spoke only when his neck was squeezed.

What I mean is that there are a lot more people like you and me, sir. People who’re quietly enduring this tough time … people who’ve still not let go of their reason, like you and me, sir.

Chang’s words put a smile on Adams’s face. Like a well-oiled screw, the word “sir” went right into his heart. Mr Chang, he started to speak, then checked himself. He’d almost blurted out, You’re a good man. The microwave finished its cycle and began to beep, so he changed his words. Have you eaten?

Have I eaten? The eyes of the man who’d come to complain about noise widened in surprise.

*

The two men ripped up the chicken.

This is the first time I’m sharing a meal with a neighbour, Adams said as he placed most of the meat on Chang’s plate.

Me too! But won’t you have more? Chang said with a glow on his face. He’d been living on dry bread and butter for a week.

I’m sick of it! cried Adams. Chicken, chicken, chicken. That’s all I’ve been eating for two weeks running. I guess I’m lucky to have anything left to eat, but still… Mr Chang, do you know?

Know what, sir?

This infernal chicken skin. Do you have any idea how it makes a man want to puke? Dammit.

Adams muttered as he stripped the skin from the chicken breast.

Chang blinked a few times. You’re right, fat’s not good for the body. He nodded.

Excuse m—

Adams, who’d been staring blankly at the yellow strip of skin, sprang to his feet.

Chang had to chew on the chicken in silence to the sounds of retching coming from the bathroom. Then, the sound of running water, and more water.

I’m sorry.

Chang was sitting on thorns until Adams came back to the table. Everybody’s on edge. Adams’ words kept coming back to him. He’d made two calls three days ago, another three calls two days ago … five calls this morning. Sir, he said and lowered his head. I apologize once again for barging in on you unannounced. And for pestering you on the phone.

No, no, don’t worry about it, Adams said with a straight face. Didn’t we clear up the misunderstanding? The matter’s settled then.

Adams was smiling, but Chang couldn’t bring himself to join him. I … His lips trembled.

Don’t beat yourself up about it. Adams put a hand on Chang’s shoulder. Even at that moment…

…shielded by his generous shirt, a compact .38 revolver was tucked in Chang’s back pocket. Everybody was certainly on edge.

Just as I thought, one pack is no way near enough. Adams took another pack of chicken from the fridge and tore it open. Chang had a lot on his mind and didn’t respond. But it’s weird, Adams continued.

What do you mean?

I’m talking about the noise that was bothering you, because honest to God I never made a peep. The table the two behemoths were sitting across seemed to shrink to the size of a chessboard. The faint, slight hum of the microwave reached them.

I don’t know what to make of it even now, Chang began. The noise was loud enough to keep me awake. I was sure it was a group of rude teenagers playing ball. The thumping of a heavy basketball … the pounding of running feet … the scuffing of sneakers against the floor, those were the sounds I heard. I even put my ear to the floor and listened. They were definitely coming from the floor below!

So you didn’t believe me when I told you I had no kids.

No, I thought you were lying. The noise was so clear.

And so I had to take your incessant calls.

I’m sorry.

Yesterday you even said, <Dammit>.

Oh God!

It’s okay. What’s done is done.

Aargh. (Chang clutched his head with his chubby hands.)

I’m curious though. How did you get my number?

I saw the note you left on your car. As you know, only your Ford and my Toyota are left in the parking lot now.

I see… So that means only the two of us are left in this building.

I thought you lived with your kids.

Ha ha, I feel a little better you thought of me that way.

I was being neurotic, I guess. Aah.

I understand.

What do you think became of the people who left?

Hmm, it’s all going to end tomorrow anyway, isn’t it?

You’re right. Come to think of it, today is the last day we have a tomorrow.

Soon, we won’t have a yesterday either.

Jeez, where’s my head at? Adams got up from the table and returned with chilled beer.

Wow, where did you get this? Chang said, looking deeply moved.

Around three months ago, I drove to Denver and brought back whatever I could lay my hands on.

Wasn’t it dangerous?

The army was still stationed there at the time, so… Well, I did cross paths with two of those broke folks. Young boys, but puny. I may not look it, but I’m still in pretty good shape, so I swung a few punches. Adams clenched his fists as he spoke of his exploit.

Wow! Chang let out a succession of exclamations.

I got the chickens on that trip as well. I have a couple of boxes of vitamins too. Would you like to take one with you?

Vitamins! Chang exclaimed.

The two behemoths buzzed with laughter, like a tuba and sousaphone.

*

Without even bothering to clear the table of the dishes, the two men sat chatting away.

So, what sort of work did you do, Mr Chang?

I was an engineer. Have you heard of Pela Studios?

Can’t say I have.

They were in the acoustics business. I was a sound engineer there. I hung on for quite a while, too. I was still working there when the <Broke> took over 16th Street, you see. You know what the last thing I worked on was?

I wouldn’t know.

It was an ad for apple trees that used a line by Martin Luther, I think it was him: Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.

Apple trees! Adams doubled over with laughter.

Something similar happened to me, Adams said. Around four months back, I opened my mailbox and, what do you know, I found a letter with the Denver City Hall seal. Curious, I opened it only to find they were asking me to carry out maintenance on the sewage system.

Maintenance! This time Chang foamed at the mouth.

A few private radio stations were still on air then. Two days later … two days later, said Adams and wiped his tears. I heard the news about City Hall being blown up.

Chang covered his mouth with a plump hand and rapped the table like a girl. Half a dozen beer cans had long been rolling on the floor.

Still, isn’t it amazing? Adams asked as he struggled to catch his breath.

That there still are people who buy and sell apple trees, he continued. And people who think of maintenance. People who came to leave that letter in my mailbox. Am I right?

Chang nodded, looking out of breath.

No one can deny, Adams exclaimed, his voice suddenly agitated, that we humans have lived life to the full … that we have tried our darnedest to walk on the right path. Someone like me who has lived his whole life honestly by the sweat of his brows has the right to say this. Don’t you agree?

His voice was so loud, Chang almost hiccupped. Absolutely, sir! he said and carefully put down his beer. It was the last one. I’ve stayed too long, he thought as he wiped his alcohol-scented sweat. The sun was hanging low in the sky. Chang flicked his wrist and pretended to check the time. The action didn’t go unnoticed by the old plumber.

Dammit. Adams let out a deep sigh. I’m sorry, Mr Chang. I got a little carried away.

Not at all, said Chang as he tried to think of a way to make a smooth exit. He couldn’t think of a good excuse. For the moment, he left to go to the bathroom. I’ll take a piss, wash my hands, and leave, he thought. When he washed up and opened the door, he found Adams waiting outside.

Was the water running okay?

Instead of answering, Chang hiccupped and nodded.

What about upstairs? Adams put a hardened hand on Chang’s shoulder and asked. Is the water running okay? I mean your sink or toilet?

And quite naturally they found themselves back at the table and Chang had to stick his butt back in his chair. Yes, the water’s fine. Come to think of it, we haven’t had any problem with the power, either. I think we’ve been lucky in many ways.

Aha, said Adams with a satisfied smirk. So you don’t know anything about this building, Mr Chang!

What do you mean? Chang asked, emptying a glass of water.

Of course, it’s only natural that you don’t. Adams gazed at him gently. This building has its own power generator. It was set up in the basement when the building was first built.

Really, hiccup?

Why, yes! I built this place with my hands. Adams’ face filled with emotion. Do you know why the water isn’t brown with rust even though the building is so old? All the pipes in this building have a tiny current running through them. That’s because I set it all up myself when I did the plumbing here. Imagine, fifteen years ago, out here in the sticks! Only nine families lived here, but I didn’t do a shoddy job on this building. You know why? Because not just anyone but I was to come and live here. Want to know the truth? Adams moved his clasped hands unhurriedly and paused. The knuckles of the old man who was massaging an old regret looked rough like sandpaper.

I used to own this building.

Real— hiccup?

Yes, for a short time, but you have no idea how happy I was then… I thought I’d spend a lifetime here with my wife and my kids. Rent out the other apartments. But it was all a fantasy. You won’t remember, Mr Chang, but there was a mortgage crisis long ago… Oh man, I’m all out. Adams put down his beer with a wistful look on his face.

Me too! Chang shook his empty can of beer. He thought he had a good excuse now, but the shrewd plumber continued talking with practiced ease, as though he were connecting pipes.

Have you seen the trail through the elm forest?

Yes, of course, replied Chang.

My wife and I fell in love with that trail. She was the one who suggested we build our home on this hill. I had saved up a tidy sum of money by then. I had several big projects in Seattle… Of course, I ended up like this after blowing it all away, but for all practical purposes, I’ve lived here my whole life. My wife really loved that forest trail.

She really did…

Adams muttered with a glazed look in his eyes. His scant eyebrows quivered as though a tiny current were running through them. It was already dark outside.

It’s a beautiful trail, said Chang. Passing through there used to be the highlight of my daily commute to Denver. It was sublime, especially in fall.

So you know! Adams smiled contentedly and leaned forward. Are you married, Mr Chang?

I’m single.

I see. Adams nodded.

Considering <Tomorrow> that’s fortunate I guess, said Chang.

This time Adams didn’t say, I see, but he nodded, again.

Is this your family?

Chang seemed to have noticed the small picture frame sitting on the shelf only now. Adams got up, dusted the frame, and handed it to Chang as his face turned red. Oh! Chang exclaimed. In a faded setting, a young plumber stood beaming with his wife and kids. You look happy.

That was a long time ago. Adams shook his head.

Your children must be about my age now.

Probably.

I guess they live away from home?

Yes, Adams answered evasively.

What about your wife?

We divorced a long time back. She had an affair with her attending physician.

Oh!

He was one of those … psychiatrists, was it? Or an ob-gyn? … um… Or maybe an ob-gyn psychiatrist?

Good God. Chang’s cheeks convulsed as though his cheek muscles were well trained.

From his abundant facial expressions, Adams could tell he’d been expressing his awkwardness this way for a long time. It’s fine. All water under the bridge. Adams gestured exaggeratedly and placed another piece of chicken breast on Chang’s plate. By the way, how’s the chicken?

Excellent! Chang flexed his jiggling cheeks firmly and gave him a thumbs up.

All over again, Adams was reminded of the past. John and Bonnie were sitting at this very table. They were still kids. He had to explain to a young Bonnie and John, who’d just entered middle school, about their mother’s <Disappearance>.

Listen up, kids. You won’t be seeing Mom anymore.

Why not? asked Bonnie.

We … I mean your Mom and I got divorced. It happens quite often between adults. You know Uncle Owen, right? Mom has gone off somewhere far away with him.

Why? Why did Mommy leave? Bonnie asked.

John covered her mouth. Shut up, stupid!

Adams couldn’t sit there anymore. He remembered going back to his unlit room and heaving a quiet sigh. He could still hear John and Bonnie talk. Their voices were hushed, like a rat crawling through a chink in the door.

What’s divorce, John?

Shh! Don’t you know even that, stupid?

So, what is it?

It means Uncle Owen will be giving it to Mom in the ass from now.

I’m glad you liked the chicken, Adams said as he returned the picture frame to its place.

I’m telling you the truth, sir. I’ve been surviving on frozen bread and butter, you see. I feel so light-hearted now, I could practically fly. To think I got to eat chicken and, to boot, the pepper you sprinkled so generously on it… Chang ended his rambling sentence with, Hiccup.

Sure enough, bones and chicken skin were heaped on his plate. That infernal chicken skin. Adams was reminded of John’s face, covered in pimples. Dad don’t, please… He could still picture the bawling boy’s face. He gave his head a vigorous shake. Just then, an explosion louder than any before rocked the city centre.

*

They’d never seen a city go up in flames before. No longer scattered fires, the whole of Denver was ablaze. The two men stood beside the window for a long while, lost in thought.

What do you think is going on? Adams asked out of habit.

Chang responded tepidly, What’s there to know?

There was no time to make out cause and effect, or a reason to distinguish between assailant and victim, nor a need to tremble with anxiety or give in to anger. This was simply a preview for tomorrow.

What do you think is happening at other places? Adams asked.

What do you mean other places?

I mean New York or Washington … anywhere.

What you see in front of you is our whole world now. We don’t have any TV broadcasts or radio signals we could listen to.

Christ!

You know, I saw something weird yesterday.

Something weird?

I was planning to go to Denver. You know, to see if I could find something to eat… It sounds ludicrous but I had this unbearable craving for pizza. I knew I might come away empty-handed, but I had to try at any cost. I’d die happy if I got there. That feeling … you understand, Mr Adams?

I do.

I must’ve driven two miles past the elm forest path. The Centennial Airport had just appeared in the distance when I caught sight of something… Bodies strewn along the roadside. They looked like a family. I rolled up my window at once and drove carefully along the uphill road. That was when I ran into them.

You mean those broke folks?

It was a herd of cows. A herd of milch cows.

Milch cows!

Yes, hundreds of them. Hurtling like crazy somewhere. Across the road … dripping snot or spittle, I couldn’t tell. Think about it, Mr Adams. Hundreds of milch cows.

Must’ve been a grand sight.

An absurd fear gripped me. I could’ve simply driven by but I was strangely shaking all over. I swung the car around right away and drove back home.

If I were you, I’d have caught one of those cows. A young one at that.

They all had a look of terror on their faces.

I guess the comet really is coming.

I can’t think of another explanation.

Listen, Mr Chang. Can I ask you a question?

Of course.

This might sound silly… But I hope you don’t think I’m being silly.

I wouldn’t dream of it.

You see, I’m the sort to nod my head and think something’s true when the TV channels make a big deal of it. Those people with PhDs talking and making presentations on TV … an old man like me can’t make any sense of it. All I want to know is this. Is there the slightest chance that at least one person can survive … say by some crazy stroke of luck?

Impossible.

Still, you never know how things might turn out, right? You hear about the lone survivor of a plane crash … or about a man who gets up even after being shot twelve times. I saw this news story once. About a group of people who were struck by lightning … a club so exclusive, you couldn’t join if you were struck by lightning only once or twice. The club’s chairperson said in his interview he’d been struck as many as eight times. You see, I’m a lucky fellow, if I do say so myself.

Oh, Mr Adams. Chang massaged the back of his stiffened neck. You see, this thing called Referee… To put it simply, it’s too big. We find ourselves in this bind really because our leaders have lost hope. It’s not the sort of problem you deal with by using massive underground bunkers. Most scientists agree that Earth itself will be transformed. The only things that will survive will be bacteria and viruses.

That’s a little upsetting.

What is?

That we have to leave Earth to those things.

I don’t think it’s a matter of leaving anything to anyone.

Adams’s face became agitated. He became so absorbed in watching the flames that he seemed to forget Chang. Swollen veins wriggled across his brow like plump earthworms. Chang hiccupped and gulped. The plumber must’ve become conscious of Chang’s gaze, because he clearly seemed to check himself.

Low life, he muttered. Then he said, Jeez, here I go getting all worked up again.

It’s okay, said Chang.

Adams laughed but he still looked peeved. What I’m trying to say is when will those things ever get the plumbing done, build houses, dig sewers? Ho ho, see I’m always going on like this. Well, what would I know about anything apart from plumbing. Am I right? Chang had no choice but to smile wryly. Alright, let’s talk about something pleasant, Adams said and clapped his hands.

Hold on, sir.

Instead of saying, Yes? the plumber shrugged.

I think I’ve taken too much of your time. I’ll get going now.

Do you have something you need to do?

What would I possibly have to do? Chang thought to himself.

Mr Chang, whispered Adams. I have whisky.

Crossing the living room, Adams led Chang to a chest-high cabinet. You could call this my secret vault. The plumber even winked like an old friend. Clank. The door opened and Chang saw rows of whisky bottles displayed like spoils of war. Virgins, all of them. Johnnie Walker, Old Parr, oh … we have Glenfiddich too. Which cherry do you want to pop first?

Chang’s gaze swept past the bottles and landed on an oval-shaped object sitting on the topmost shelf.

That’s a ball, I see.

What? Adams stared blankly at the ball. Yes … it’s a ball. His face turned red as though he’d just taken a dump. He took the ball out without a word and began to twirl it slowly. His hands seemed familiar with the ball. You’re right. It’s a football. Do you like American football?

Chang didn’t say anything in particular. A complex, delicate time seemed to graze their ankles briefly and slide away like a rattlesnake.

I’ve been a Broncos fan all my life, said Adams. You know John Elway, don’t you?

No, I don’t.

Oh man, you should’ve seen his passes.

Chang didn’t say anything.

Ah hell, Adams sighed. Mr Chang … you don’t think I was playing ball with this, do you? Squeaking around in sneakers … at my age?

Chang seemed lost in thought.

Look here. At this mark stamped right here. This is a rare collectible. Not something cheap that can be handled carelessly. I’ve stored this so carefully, it doesn’t have a single scratch on it. Someone spikes and plays with this? I’d beat the living daylights out of them.

The truth was the ball was scratched in spots.

You don’t believe me?

Chang had a surprising response. Sir, this isn’t a basketball, is it? He cracked a smile.

The plumber slapped him on the shoulder and gave a belly laugh.

It’s all good, thought Chang. No matter who’d fouled, once Referee’s whistle sounded, everything would be over.

Let’s see, which beauty do we pick first? Adams rushed to open a bottle.

*

The night was deep.

Putting down an empty bottle, Adams used the term <Deep Regret>. I wish I’d known earlier a good drinking buddy was living right next door.

I know, right?

With faces flushed like whisky, the two behemoths conversed. This is the last one, Adams murmured as he strained to open a bottle. With explosions sounding from time to time, it was humanity’s last night.

You’re a good man, Mr Chang! Adams said as he poured a drink.

It’s all you, sir.

Cheers!

The two had been trading jokes for hours. There was nothing else to talk about, really. Laughing and chattering was the best option the two had at this moment. With the dwindling level of alcohol in the bottle, the jokes were also slowly running dry. Chang pointed to the label on the bottle and spit out the last bit of joke he could squeeze out. By tomorrow, it’ll be Johnnie Walked.

Under the faint lighting, Adams responded with only a faint smile. Let’s drink, he said. It seemed there’d be nothing to laugh about anymore.

Shall I tell you what I think? Adams’s face turned serious after he drained a glass of neat whisky. Let’s drink till we get plastered. Drink it clean to the last drop. And then sprawl out on the floor. Spread-eagled till that comet or whatever comes. There’s no happier man than the one who dies in his sleep. Don’t you agree?

That’s a good idea, said Chang and knocked back a glass of the hard liquor.

The two then remained silent during the time two explosions occurred. They’d struck on a good idea, but still Chang started to gush tears. Adams let him be.

I’m sorry, sir.

What for? It’s all because of that darned comet.

I … I…

Mr Chang, let’s think of pleasant things. We both have a lot of memories.

Adams moved across the table and hugged the Asian man like a father.

You know, memories of our loved ones … and our…

Adams stroked the back of Chang’s neck and burst into tears.

The two men cried together.

I’ve never been happy, said Chang.

That can’t be true. Not at all, Adams whispered as he stared at Denver go up in flames. Because we’re different from those darned things. Mr Chang, we’re humans who did their best till the end. We tried to understand one another and didn’t lose the human decency God wanted us to have. We were happy because we were human. Aah, Mr Chang. The plumber hugged the other man like a son who’d returned home and started to recite the Bible. He comforts us in all our troubles so that we can comfort others. When they are troubled, we will be able to give them the same comfort God has given us. Amen.

Amen, said Chang, without thinking.

Chang was busy in Adams’s bathroom. First, he took a long piss, then he vomited, rinsed his mouth, washed his face, and thought the following. What am I doing here? He shook his head furiously and returned to the table. Sir, I really should push off now. I’ve taken up too much of your time.

But we still have some alcohol left, replied the plumber as his face contorted. Do you have something you need to do?

Yes, I do.

That’s a pity.

The kind plumber even helped up a wobbling Chang. I’m really fine. This Johnnie’s still a Walker, Chang quipped. It was true the corridor looked too long and narrow for two behemoths to walk side by side. Click. The moment the front door opened, tepid night air rushed in.

Okay, be careful. The two shook hands. Maybe he was feeling wistful, but Adams watched Chang’s retreating back.

It wasn’t that Chang felt Adams’s gaze, but, Wait, he said and turned around. His voice slurred. Were you ever happy, sir?

Happy… Hands thrust deep into his pockets, Adams stared into space for a while. He looked like he was wandering in a dream as dense and sticky as a swamp. He couldn’t speak for a while.

We went to Disneyland.

Adams mumbled as he spread his arms. I’d promised them, you see. My kids, I mean. He’d relived this lie for ages but he rallied every ounce of himself to become absorbed in his own fantasy.

Oh. Chang nodded. I see, Disneyland…

Have you been, Mr Chang?

Chang laughed and shook his head.

Mr Chang, tomorrow … exactly when is it going to happen?

Around 3:10. It’s Colorado time, so there could be a bit of difference.

I see. Have a good night.

You too, sir.

Adams closed the door and was alone again. He thought of locking the door, then left it alone. He picked up the half-full whisky bottle and paced the living room in silence. He couldn’t sleep. He took a swig from the bottle and flopped down onto the sofa. Good thing I didn’t bring it up, he muttered to himself. He hadn’t mentioned the noise. He should’ve been the one jumping and going crazy. He never made a peep, but instead was harassed by the noise himself for the past week. He laughed it off when Chang had brazenly called him to complain. Maybe it was the wisdom of a man who’d lived as long as he had. He was courteous to the end and so had avoided a pointless quarrel. You did well, he muttered and flung the ball against the wall. Good pass! And so didn’t you have a good time like Mickey and Donald?

An explosion rang in his ears again. The night had deepened, yet the flames showed no sign of dying out. What a load of crap, Adams exclaimed and wet his whistle with the whisky. He was sitting absentmindedly when he opened the cabinet he called his <Secret Vault>. He put the ball that had fallen below a cloth hanger back in its place and then pulled open the bottommost iron drawer. An antiquated camcorder more likely to be found at a junk shop lay wrapped in a towel inside the drawer. He picked it up and returned to the sofa. This’ll be the last time I see Bonnie, he thought.

He plugs in the camcorder and gets ready. With a faint noise, the blurry recording starts playing. Aren’t you a good girl, Bonnie? The old plumber confirms no one else’s but his own voice with his own ears. A seven-year-old Bonnie’s innocent face appears on screen. She is seated between her father’s legs, her tiny hand wrapped around a large penis.

I’ll take you to Disneyland, Adams’s voice flows out from the speaker.

Will Mommy and Johnny go too? Bonnie’s voice can be heard as well.

Of course.

When will Mommy come? And Johnny?

They’ll come after a few days of sleep. Okay, let’s begin.

Bonnie blows him as she has been taught.

Adams remains seated on the sofa until the camcorder finishes playing. It’s already well past midnight. Pretty little thing, he mutters and empties what’s left of the whisky. Still, not to call me even once. Bitch! he mutters. This is all because she takes after you! he screams at the wall on the right side of the living room. He gets no response from the cement wall that’s made of more than just cement. He cracks his neck from side to side and gets up. With empty bottle in hand, he paces the living room again. With an empty bottle for a cane, like Johnnie Walker he walks. He begins to circle the narrow living room. He whistles. He moves to put the empty bottle back on the table…

…and as he’s putting it on the table…

…he notices the gun lying on the chair. Chang was sitting there. The whistle cuts off. He stares blankly at the gun, picks it up, opens the cylinder, and checks the six bullets loaded in it. He blinks a few times but shows no particular reaction. He simply goes to the front door, looking as though he finds it tiresome, locks it, comes back, and yawns loudly.

*

He opens his eyes. Only after swallowing his dry spit several times does he check the time. It’s 2:35. Dammit. His face fills with disappointment. He sits on the sofa with greasy hair and rubs his blurry eyes several times. He drinks water. The beautiful sunlight is annoying as it tickles the hand holding the glass of water. He goes to the window. Other than the downtown from where smoke is still billowing, it’s a blissfully tranquil scene. He gazes at the distant forest that is carpeted with elm trees and then returns to the sofa. Dammit, he mutters. What do I do now? He can’t think of anything good. The ceiling resounds with a thud that gets on his nerves. Burying his face in his hands, he mumbles, Are you gonna keep this up?

He lifts his head. Buried in the sofa, he sits vacantly, then picks up the autographed Denver Broncos ball without a word. With a practised movement, he starts to throw it. The oval leather ball strikes the wall, and he feels a little better. He whistles a few times.

He cracks his stiff neck.

That familiar feeling of holding a leather ball in your hands, only those who know can understand.

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