Free Flow
PAUL HANDLEY

Driving in a parking lot after leaving One-Two Anonymous, a.k.a. 1-2A, i.e. Drug rehabilitation, drug education; an older gentleman in a cowboy hat was taking a while crossing in front of our car. Luka yelled out the window, “Hey this isn’t the old west. We got modern vehicles here. Move it.” I was staying with him since my wife tossed me out.  

“That looked like a real cowboy hat.” I said.

“Yeah, well, he needs to get his yee haw ass back to the corral and stop moseying about on pavement.”

I thought about the hat for a while. I wanted to get a style and had been contemplating a pseudo western/urban look. Emphasis on the urban. Maybe a bolo with a wife beater. Perhaps, a tattoo bolo. Since my wife of two years had thrown me out I was on the lookout for something new.  

I tried rollerblading. I was walking a neighbor’s wheaten terrier around the block and a car passed by with a group of guys and one of them called out “gay dog.”  

Forty-five minutes later I went rollerblading in the park that was two blocks away. A trio of two guys and a girl cruised by at slow park speed and one of the guys made a slurping sound. “Thhppt” I could hear the girl giggle.  

The lusty saliva intake must have been meant to simulate the sound of me sucking dick when I wasn’t gliding through the park on polyurethane inline wheels. Minutes later I was practicing stops that involved bending one knee and shooting the other one forward, toes up to engage the heel stop against the pavement. The park’s roadways were limited and I think the same car came by going the opposite way. I don’t know much about cars and don’t pay attention to makes and models. I would notice a Lamborghini, but that’s about it. A male passenger said in a low voice that I could hear, but not be accused of shouting at me said “Oooh, cool stop!” This was in less than one day. The span of a couple hours.  

I grew up in a bitchy suburb where ridicule was a primary weapon of toeing the line. City dwellers were supposed to be more open, but there were a couple of colleges nearby. They descended on the parks on weekends and evenings. The guys shirtless as they played league kickball beer. 3.2 percent max alcohol content per park rules. The women with tight shorts, tops, or both depending on their assets.  

I told Marc, one of my contractors at work about the fag bashing and he told me a joke. 

“Q-What’s the hardest thing about rollerblading? A-Telling your parents you’re gay.”  

“In this day and age,” I replied. I had to figure myself out all over again. I was, had been, a husband, father, contract worker for immigration. Still was a father. A forced absentee Dad.  

It had been Luka’s idea at the bar. It was actually fairly ingenious with a dose of serendipity. The best kind. I snapped up my corduroys before opening the car door in the parking lot. When younger I was so skinny that I was glad to have a bit of a belly to provide substance, now it had become a permanent honeydew melon and wasn’t welcome. I looked a bit like an anaconda after swallowing a turtle, shell intact.

After the emotional upheaval of 1-2A, where the members littered the basement of Morning Star Methodist gushing tragic chum, we went for our post-meet drink. The speakers cut arteries to superficial slices depending on the extent of their revelations, spraying the floor which was churning with fear and regret until everyone was awash in numb self-loathing, then reclined in the pews to contemplate the extent of their fucktitude.

Luka’s tonic with a twist arrived on the bar in a large soda glass with a straw. We had quit drinking and maintained our coke habit since attending 1-2A. Bartenders didn’t like it because virgin drinks were cheaper and 20 percent of less is less, plus it set a bad precedent.

“Nice glass,” he told the bartender.

“What?”

“Why don’t you just give me a can of Pepsi? Give me a real fucking glass and keep the straw.” To me he said, “We need better cola with the shit we have to put up with.”  

The bartender came back with a glass and unceremoniously dumped the contents into the drink glass after discarding the straw. 

“Thank you, sir,” Luka uttered with one-hundred percent sincerity. I understood. We felt enough like outcasts all the time and that self-image was often reinforced by barely perceptible gestures. The tolerant resignation of Cynthia, imbued with the honorific of landlord as she comes to the door with a smile that is not in sync with the rest of her facial muscles as if she had smile implant surgery. She arrives after our failure to respond to her placement of past due notices in our mailbox, which I happen to know is illegal use of a federal implement or something.  

In social situations outside of 1-2A, handshakes are reluctantly proffered and pulled back quickly then often rubbing the opposing thumb over the surface of the other hand like a converted tongue scraper in place of hand sanitizer, as if money problems and addiction were contagious.  

Initially, we had quit cocaine and upped our drinking for a time. To make up for the lack of coke paraphernalia and accompanying rituals, Luka made elaborate drinks of which he was justifiably proud. Back at the apartment he sniffed and poured off a couple fingers more or less of each. He stirred each drink for an extensive length of time. He rubbed the rim with citrus peels pared from egg shaped fruit, leaving them partially denuded, stripes of white skin between moldering shells to be forgotten in the crisper.  

I complimented the drinks effusively. They were probably excellent, but a cook serving a starving man has no fear of diminished reputation. Since being introduced to coke it had tapped a desire that alcohol couldn’t quite scratch and on this point we agreed. The other option was maintain our coke intake. We both believed we did not truly need alcohol and had acquired the habit as an accessory to the coke, to steady us. So we switched up.

At the bar where Luka’s drink was slam dunked into a drink glass is when I told him.

I told him about influx of checks for immigrant benefits that came rolling in that I had to record. “Who are these checks from again,” he asked?  

“Immigrants. Sponsors of immigrants. Their family members.”  

“Oh.”  

I was over the contractors, their manager due to temperate use of cocaine, which is possible despite all the bullshit we heard at 1-2A and some kind of law embedded everywhere else. No one wants to deal with the consequences of out of control addiction, so society uses a catchall ‘Cocaine bad’ as a universal profile because it’s just intellectually easier than having to break the world into the unique categories that are everything.  

I would get fried, but I had accomplished so much during the buzzing hours it didn’t matter that I was useless piece of flesh the rest of the day. My delegating skills would kick in and I would settle down with the incoming mail, associating the case number, benefit requested and note the amounts in an Excel spread sheet. That’s how primitive the system was.  

Immigration was all paper files at this time. Stuff got disappeared all the time. These people didn’t officially exist anyway. Not really. There were shelves of files back in a dark storage room. In the center of the storage room was a phalanx of cloudy green metal shelves holding the outstanding deport files.  

The expanding jacket file holders were overflowing with mismatched sized yellowing paper, often interspersed with a couple of waxy carbons the color of fading charcoal left in the rain. There were orange sheets of construction paper stapled to the front of the individual files that meant the subject was wanted for pick-up.  

If the enforcement guys made a successful scoop, the subjects were held indefinitely in immigration prison until facing the deportation judge. Immigration detention was akin to inhabiting a refugee camp that many of these people had escaped from and the storage room was very like a Grandma’s attic, no one went up there unless she died.  

“What’s your middle name?”

“Ingmar.”

“You’re kidding. Was one of your parents an Ingmar Bergman fan?”

“Exactly. My parents were Swedish cinephiles.”

“You’re fucking with me.”  

“Yes.”  

“What’s the name of your work? Your place of employment? Where you hang your shingle?”

“There’s no shingle hanging. We have a contract with Citizenship and Immigration Services.”

“CIS.”

“Yes.”

“And your name is Carl Ingmar Sales?”

“Yes. Identical initials. We are one and the same in the sense that umm…gimmee a minute. The checks are usually made out to CIS. I could cash them if I wanted to.”  

“You should.”

That’s a goddamn felony. No thank you. It’s a federal agency.  

I thought at first 1-2A was wantoanon because anonymity was a priority with my job and all. But, as it was explained to us, 1-2 was a binary representation. That, we the people are only composed of chemicals which can be represented by equations, numbers, computer script. It made sense to me. Our inner drives whether soft or hard or in combination have been all stuck-up. The neighborhood juveniles poured sugar in our gas tank while we held the funnel.  

At the same time, I knew that a soft enterprise like 1-2A craves hard numbers. A few figures create legitimacy. Jesus, Mary and Joseph, two thieves on each side of Jesus, three days til the stone seal shakes loose, trinity, and fucking the Magdalene sisters three times each.  

Let me provide an example concrete enough to bite. Once I did cold calling; door-to-door selling frozen meat. They were flash frozen individual packs of protein in one and a half ounces of marinade. The marinade captured in various shapes of Rorschach ooze. My colleagues and I sold by the case. The price per pound was never mentioned by us, mainly because we didn’t know it. Most of the day was rejection at the speed of the return of a ball stroked against a handball wall.  

One day a veteran colleague brought in chart and the boss goes out and laminates a bunch of copies. The sheet contained fake comparisons to the flesh expenditures at local markets. Sales went up immediately. Instantly legit.  

Governor Tommy Fields had successfully come off drugs through 1-2A. He entered the program after a featured role in crack cocaine clips had been viewed by 74 percent of the voting public he represented. The ‘my’ was reapplied to the Tom for a populous image, twenty years after being dropped to form an adolescent image.  

1-2A funding had been a legislative priority in his second term after campaigning on a hybrid platform, one of which was the Christ-like attribute of forgiveness that the voting populace may possess, but would have to wait until the final tally to confirm such virtue. The entwined plank was retribution as populist reform, engendered by the people as evidence of their forgiveness in order to deputize the Guv’nor to slay the bureaucratic monster that had arisen under the heavy lidded eyes of a doped up administrator.  

His political career in crisis, he went back to the election handbook and managed to deflect his poor decisions onto Washington D.C. D.C. intransigence or interference was the source of any failures became the reflexive mantra for an entire campaign. To his credit, Tommy remained grateful to 1-2A and it became a legislative priority after his win. He was more than willing to maintain the budget by slashing funds for others that didn’t have the fortitude he possessed. If he could become Tommy and Pablo, Patrice, and Packer couldn’t become Paul, shit on them and their reduced entitlements.

*   *   *

Carl Ingmar Sales. At first I recorded every incoming check on my spread sheet and after considering the best prospects to rip off, smudged them out with a delete and deposited them in my account. The teller’s never questioned the ethnic diversity of the payers or their reluctance to spell out my name. I was counting on applicant inertia and even lack of knowledge of how to retrieve a copy of the processed check. It was easiest just to pay again and my biggest ally was the intransigence of my alter ego, CIS.  

CIS did not believe in telephone communication and did not honor the concept of a personal touch. They did honor the concept of maintaining numbers at a manageable level until Congress raised taxes to allocate more resources in honor of immigrants or fees were significantly raised, neither of which were politically feasible for the foreseeable era.  

Confronting the agency, meant a minimum wait of seventy-five minutes minimum in a sterile room with clashing odors of the world, a fusion that would never be a perfumer’s choice. Most would be able to convey only with great difficulty to the clerks what they were talking about.  

A basic recreation of a conversation:  

“I sent a check.”

“I’m sorry. We don’t have a record of it.”  

“The check has cleared. Here is a record.” A bank statement is produced.

“I’m sorry, but we don’t have a record of it.”

“But it has cleared.”  

“We don’t have it,” accompanied by an ‘it’s time to be fucking off look,’ followed by a shift in gaze over the complainant’s shoulder. “I have other customers.” I want to laugh when I hear the term ‘customer’ applied to an adversarial process environs financed by the target.  

Sometimes the term is followed by an equally incongruous word to form the couplet ‘customer service’. Usually this term was only heard as a supervisor’s final recourse in a struggle for verbal parlance of officialdom to maintain the upper ground and establish a firewall against a union grievance when serving up a negative performance review. As in, “I also took into consideration your declining customer service to deny a raise.” 

Most applicants blinked uncomprehendingly even if they understood what was being said, since the clerk’s assertions stood in such contrast to reality. They needed a mental adjustment period to absorb the glaring affront to reason. Their footing in front of the clerk who was safely ensconced behind a glass window with natural acrylic talk-though holes was a slippery groove forged from the countless other applicants facing an entire history, rules, and culture of a bureaucracy while the clerk was deliberately tossing verbal spitballs at their faces. Crushed up in the core of each spitball was a pest repellant pellet.  

The target winced and forged on, but time was of the essence for the clerks that always had others waiting. It didn’t matter how excellent or offensive a job they did, immigrants would still come. Most of them were natives of countries where the government would have laughed at the poor models of inefficiency and graft U.S. agencies were presenting.  

Many of the applicants had a minimal expectation of a lost check. What else is new? Government agencies demanding duplicate payments were not endangered species. Bribes were an accepted part of life in all countries no matter what their first, second and third world ranking. No one would believe them anyway. They eventually ended up taking the clerk’s advice communicated via verbal and universal pantomime to fuck off.  

At first, I only stole the minimal fees. Say sixty dollars for biometrics (fingerprinting), or two-hundred dollars for an application of waiver of grounds for inadmissibility. The latter was perfect since the subjects are already feeling vulnerable to the system.  

But, even in that ass backwards system of hostile indifference and remedial record keeping our scheme wasn’t very smart, but my cocaine habit had escalated. I had to take the next step at 1-2A. I told myself that I would quit stealing once I had a handle on the addiction. My private theory was that most crimes wouldn’t be detected if the culprit placed a reasonable end date on a series of offenses.  

Later I found out 1-2A was an arm of a cultish religion, which is hard to define since I believe all religions are one step away from worshipping Thor and Zeus. I decided later that cultish is the appropriate moniker when pious cohorts make leaving difficult and badmouthing is slapped down despite any appeals of sentiment to our shared experiences in zealotry.  

Prior to disillusionment I was nominated to take the next step at 1-2A. Courtesy of Tommy Fields and diverted immigration application fees I could now afford. Luka would not follow me yet along the path. I assured him that I would fund a portion when he was anointed.  

He had become discouraged by my overlapping stories of degradation. I sincerely believed they were mine or a pastiche of our abasement. They were all basically the same thing anyway. The goal was to move on to the curative. Luka was frustrated.  

At the meetings while I was confessing my/our joint failings, he would exhale heavily, say ‘asshole’ more or less under his breath, jam his fists into his pockets and look off at the side window-wells for trapped toads bouncing against the panes or yellow under legs paddling in collected rainfall. His inhale sucking in the musty air overlaid with Lemon Pledge.  

*   *   *

My path guide’s name was Jim. He explained the process as we hiked to our destination. There was a dirt road that we could have driven on, but I suspect that would have detracted from the desired effect.  

“Your body is composed of chemicals. That’s a given. You’ve just given it a few extra compounds to deal with.” He paused for my forced laughter. “The problem is that you have indigenous chemicals that have made accommodations with a paste of meth, cocaine and cleaning products. The home team has to adapt for survival sake, to minimize the damage from your scorched earth, carpet bombing them back to the Stone Age, drug introduction.  

“I get pretty good shit,” I protested, not really having an accurate idea regarding the purity of the product.

“Not the point. Bad chemistry leaves even the prior good chemicals in an altered state. That’s what people don’t understand. It’s not only the drugs that are the problem. Even if we could take a drug to flush only the evil visitors, there is residual damage they do to the natives.  

As the drugs are leeched out make to the journey to the surface…by the way we don’t like to say leech because of the negative connotations of witch doctors, repulsive visual, and so on, but we do use leeches and other traditional tools of the trade. It’s a form of rebranding.”

Jim left me soaking in a sauna constructed of cedar which he told me not to leave. Exiting before the process was completed was a “form of self-medication and we have been doing enough of that. Don’t you think?” After a couple of hours I began my own aberrant vision quest. I saw dripping sweat sluicing between the grains of wood dyed with bright metallic colors. There was also a miniature rhythm section clad in formal wear atop a towel rack.

He arrived back a couple hours later to apply the leeches. He said that as a precautionary measure there was an interval before the bloodletting, but he had some errands to run for 1-2A. Anyway, Jim was not happy with my progress. He held a divining rod over my prostrate body. “See how it dips to your chest? You’re congested. We have to break up whatever’s causing the stopgap. How long have you been using?”

In response, I shivered in the heat. He applied cuts with a box-cutter razor sheathed in red plastic in discreet places such as behind the knees, inside the elbows, under the shoulders. Anywhere that folded over. I started to feel primal. I felt myself going not only back to me, but two or three generations.  

I woke up handcuffed to a hospital bed. Luka was sitting in my room.  

“Luka, what’s up,” I asked.

“You are never going to believe it, man.” He glanced over his shoulder at the doorway. “The cop will be back in a minute. You’re infamous, dude.”  

“Stop talking like a twelve year old. What I do to become famous?”

“Infamous. It’s different.”

“I know that.”

“Okay. By the way I saved your ass.” Luka said he had followed me because he wanted to ascend to the next level of 1-2A without paying for it. He found me unconscious in the sauna and called 911. I was also fired from immigration and ended up only spending 4 months in prison in exchange for not suing 1-2A and the state.  

I was also not to embarrass Governor Fields in public. I refused all interviews. Enough stiffed applicants had complained so that the electronic trail bytes were followed to my checking account. I had finally been able to get the monthly fee waived due to the inflated balance.  












PAUL HANDLEY's fiction has appeared in EclecticaGargoyle Magazine, the Monarch Review and runner-up in the William Richey 2015 Short Fiction Contest judged by Aimee Bender.

The Adirondack Review
FALL 2016