“The cold rain began, a slanted pelting of big drops. Beneath the streetlight’s orange dome, the gutters already ran black. Somewhere, a dog barked.”
Hey, that’s no dog!
The solid, middle-aged woman pushed the typewriter’s carriage release back and to the left, then leaned down and cocked her head out the window.
“Hey, Fran! Stop barking, wouldja? Tryin’ to work here!”
“Aw, gitover y’self already! PFFFFT!”
There were a few more hoots and catcalls up and down the fire escape before the fuzzy sound of sleet hitting brick, glass, and metal swallowed the squawking whole. The ashtray spattered on the sill: ping, ping, ping. She pulled it out, briefly scanning the desk before jamming it into a stack of papers.
She turned back to the wet opening, yanked out a wood rod. The window, taped over since an irate client blew up last summer, slammed into slush, splashed her wool overcoat.
She lay her stubby, nicotine-stained fingers back to the keys, read over the line, thinking, where was I going with this?
At least the barking stopped.
A soft rapping, almost a feline scratching, on the front door’s frosted glass pane diverted her literary aspirations. A silhouette appeared, disappeared, reappeared according to the whims of the hall light.
Damn it! She hated meeting people like this. Her office manager — her sole, part-time employee — she should be getting the door! But, the irate client again… Pel would be out for a while, recovering from wounds.
Still, why does Pel get to stay home?!
Here I am, with worse! Many times over. Working!
Rap. Rap. Rap.
She ignored the pleas from the outer office, turning to look into a slice of silt-smeared window sky. Truth is, she missed Pel in many ways, not least because Pel knew how to engage the yokels early on — set the tone of professionalism and conspiratorialism just right. The B.S. people want, what they had come to believe existed, from a P-I Agency in a “picturesque” neighborhood.
On her own, she thought she came off as a buffoon, especially if she tried to play those people-person games. In a self-defeating defense, she mostly played the role of a time-constrained hard ass. Hard to do when you’re answering your own door in a dark, empty office. Shit. The scratchy rappings were now accompanied by “yoo hoo”s, whispered periodically.
She had not yet moved from behind the desk. Maybe they’d move on. Maybe it was the window slam sound. Or another bill collector. Better stay quiet.
“Helloo! M. Nutter. We’d like to hire you. Yoo hoo. Yoo hoo.”
She waded through a greasy tide of fast-food wrappers ebbing around the back of her desk, strode the ten feet from back office to front, unlocked the door, yanked it open.
“Can you read?” She asked.
“Why, of course. ‘M. Nutter, Private Investigations, LTD,’ it says right…”
“And what about here?” She pointed to the outer doorknob, noticed it was bare.
“GODDAMN YOU!” She shouted towards the stairs at the end of the hall. “Stole it, again, those brats. Says, ‘Do Not Disturb.’ I’M A’GONNA FUCK YOU UP, DIRTBALLS, JIZZMOUTHS, WHEN I GET HOLDA YOU!”
She looked over the mark. Tall, thin, well-dressed, gender-neutral.
“Oh, come in, then. Come on.”
They wore a raspberry beret, the kind you find at a second-hand store.
“Call me Nutter.”
– – –
They explained their deal, methodically, in their-oh-so-way: a somnambulistic, metered droning, like a dead-voiced poet she’d watched one time down at the bookstore — back in normal days.
Nutter started off feeling confused, then mild contempt — a fear response for what she did not know. These kids, for one thing. First, they were all reclusive-suicidal emos, soulmate-searching stalkers. Now this, a dollop of pronoun sensitivities as cherry on top.
Still, it was far better than the other kinds of youth, or the sad-eyed man-boys, who kept cropping up in her peripheral zones; sometimes, her combat zones. Those bastards, fuckheads, the right-wing shadow opposites, the haters — she hated them, the haters, worst of all, of course.
Looking up and down the would-be client, she thought, we have this in common: those Proud Percenters and Prayer Boys, whateverthefuck they called themselves now… They hate me, with my butch-as-fuck in-your-faceism, as much as they do you twee they-thems. So, we’ll be on the same side in the Fight.
They used the initial J as their name. J offered a surprisingly convincing case for the outlandish claim. Studiously ignoring the seductive patter, Nutter felt a determination set into her head like concrete. No matter the morality, or any audacious fuckyou-edness in the cause — nor even the unlikely possibility of a rent-making payday — she was not going to get drawn into this type of madness.
She was going to talk J off that ledge. Or, since fanaticism might be in play and the ledge their preferred position, she might as well focus on getting them out and getting on with her night.
Ah, crap. She always was a sucker for political-economic debate.
She interrupted: “So, sure. More than anybody, it was Reagan that killed the middle class. I get it, I think. You’re going with a, uh, show trial — like Bertrand Russell with the American War on Vietnam tribunal in Switzerland, or whatever.”
J started to respond, but Nutter raised her fist. She lifted three fingers. “Three things.” She parked her butt on the edge of Pel’s reception desk and prepared her dialectic.
“First, why Reagan? The dull edge of the sword, I’d say.
“What about the Powell Memo in ’71, or the ‘Crisis of Democracy’ report in ’75? That’s when the ruling class realized the middle-class experiment was a bad idea, I’d say. Overeducated kids fuckin’ around with the apple cart.
“So, they end free college, squeeze the COLAs, turn up the tax revolt.
“After that, that’s when they hire the hit man, Reagan. Together they bust the unions, make deals with rednecks, fire up the neo-Nazis. The reason, the first cause, hidden behind dog whistles, fundamentalism, nationalism — that never changes. It’s simple.
“Make the rich richer.
“Trickle down, that’s bullshit! Funnel wealth upward with tax cuts and corrupt privatizations. That’s what it’s all about.
“Bada-bing, bada-boom. Several bubbles later, we get the foul fruit from the earlier seed, played as farce.” Nutter made a hand flourish as if introducing a lounge act. “Trump and the Magats.”
J smiled, shifted their feet. Nutter went on.
“But, just after… After the Gripfter… There was Clinton.
“Sure, Reagan tapped the middle class good, right in the forehead, and down it went. Then they got Clinton to finish the job.
“He’s running, and lying, like they all do. Just after the Flowers leaks, he turns all warm and fuzzy to Nafta. And, whadayaknow, POOF. All his problems go away. Perot you-peopled, Bush senior vomiting on cable. Clinton, the best positioned, gets the assignment.
“It’s him that delivers the final taps, the coup de grace. Not just Nafta, but more dismantled safety net, deregulated finance, a P.R.-manufactured air campaign to save Nato and the DoD for future forever wars, even without commies.
“Bush junior and Obama, of course, they dance on the decomposing body of the middle class. Same agenda, plus, direct cash infusions for billionaires. Patching holes in the bubbles. All this, so, finally, Trump can play Fuhrer at the gates of hell, and, now, peak Weimar, Biden can bring us back for a hot second to the normalcy of late-stage frog boiling.
“With all that, and more, why pick on the first hired hit-man: brain-damaged Reagan? How ’bout the follow-on Bushes, Clintons, and such?”
Nutter paused, a dramatic missed beat. J started to raise their hand. Nutter narrowed her eyes, nodded her head, resumed. “Especially, though, why not the billionaires?
“They took the Powell Memo to heart and built up the right-wing echo chambers, a giant murder machine that kills the middle class then, now, and forever — while mock-worshiping a mythologized version of it.
“Those fucks, the billionaires and their senior VPs for mass murder, they employ both: Republican deplorables and Democrat neoliberals. The whole narrow spectrum.
“So. That’s number one. Reagan is just a stand-in for all the other murderers and, more importantly, their employers — the donors and owners.”
J opened their mouth. Nutter threw two fingers up, towards the unlit, but still visibly water-stained, ceiling tiles.
J leaned against a large plastic umbrella they’d brought, cocked their head to listen, conveying some attitude. Nutter settled more firmly onto the front of Pel’s desk, still holding up two fingers.
“Numero duo. What are we doing? Setting up the middle class as some sort of innocent victim or idyllic goal state? The managers of empire get an ecologically damaging lifestyle, too? Erase the red lines, allow a few token changes, then it’s okay?
“No way. It won’t work.
“The social contract is gone. The only reason we ever got thrown such bones was to prevent socialist revolution, starting back in the thirties. Then, for anti-commie propaganda until the seventies.
“Unless we make that threat real again, suburbs are for landed gentry.
“You and me — well, me anyway — priced out, unless we time it right and ride a bubble inside.
“Who killed the middle class? Well, I would if I could.
“I’d kill the unreal idea of it, where working class people transform their mental identity into something they aren’t, via debt and denial. And… unto misery, mostly, I tell you what, from what I’ve seen. It’s them that drank the shitty Kool-Aid.
“And when things go rotten, this pretend middle is directed against the supposed lower, with fear and hate. Then off we go to the brownshirts. Somehow, these fools will even back a reality-tv huckster, their beloved hater-in-chief, to play out their zombie revenge fantasies.
“Fuck the middle class! Even though it’s dead, it’s still blocking the way to, well… any real reform, much less revolution.”
Behind J, a shadow flitted across the front door’s embedded, translucent glass. Nutter swept them aside, pulled open the door, barged into the hall.
The lights flickered up and down in both directions, so it was hard to make out anything.
The door to the stairwell, next to the inoperative elevator, was just starting to close.
Nutter turned to run and everything went cockeyed.
– – –
“Whoa, there. Slow, slow.” J had Nutter’s elbow. They seemed to be working hard at keeping both their balances. “A doorknob sign, unworth the scene, to my mind, anyway. Come, come. Please continue.”
J’s words seemed far away as they steered them back inside from the spasmodically tilting hallway. Nutter staggered around Pel’s desk and collapsed into a dangerously mis-wheeled wooden semicircle of an old office chair.
“What’s wrong with me?” Nutter thought, spinning two feet into a filing cabinet before remembering. The sativa elixir concentrate — to help with the writing. Pel’s recommendation. The glass jar sat there on the desk, half empty, next to the delivery box adorned with a happy-face postit note, green.
That must be it. Or…
“Or,” J continued, patiently, “I can pick up from where I was? Answer your concerns? Even though you seemed but halfway through your screed…. Are you sure you’re not a he/him? You mansplain like a motherfucker.”
Nutter felt strongly, proudly, that her gender had room for the likes of her — despite periodic pronoun shifts among her longtime friends. She grimaced, kicked her feet and sent the chair towards a floor fan by the other wall. Through a tight smile and spinning arc, she said, “I do have one more thing.” She raised a fist, unclenched it into the bird.
J tilted the umbrella sideways, threw their head back and laughed.
“Nutter, Nutter,” they uttered as she crashed into the fan. “You seem unwell. Do you mind?” They leaned over the desk, picked up the jar. “Hmmm… This sort of thing, normally, a measuring device is used. But, I suppose, you… You just swig.”
Still suffering from vertigo, Nutter nodded and leaned against the fan’s dusty grill while J began a well-considered rebuttal.
Reagan’s the man to pin the wrap on, for sure, J argued. That seventies stuff may have been necessary prelude. But the big turn, the swerve back for all of human history, away from rationalism and science and progress, to…. irrational exuberance, family values, and nasty little forever wars.
That was Reagan and Thatcher, the destructive duo of the eighties. Goodbye detente, goodbye grand bargains, goodbye middle class.
J was adopting some of Nutter’s rhetorical flourishes — good for them, she thought.
Besides, they continued, it’s got to be him. All the true believers, a significant portion of the surviving bourgeoisie, still burn hard for the ole Gipper. They see him with Rambo biceps and an M60 — the prototype for the same Drumpf delusion — instead of the chickenhawk fakers and traitors they both really are.
Reagan was a brain damaged puppet, sure, J agreed, but a powerful symbol still. So, who else to pin it on? Nobody. Ronny Raygun is The Killer, dead to rights.
Nutter watched the desk spill into itself. A stack of folders three feet high collapsed from one side to the other, setting off another pile. The event knocked the box and jar, Pel’s gift, to the floor. “Oh, dear. I hope I was not the catalyst of this destruction to your, hm, organizational system.” They started fussing around the desk, attempting to corral paper, making matters worse. Peripheral desk items, pens, paper clip holders, spilled over the edges.
Still floor fan-adjacent, Nutter observed from semi-recline, focusing on the jar as it rolled across the floor. It came to a stop beneath the desk’s Formica fronting.
Wait a minute, she thought.
I didn’t open that box. I didn’t drink any weed concentrate. I don’t remember any of that. Sure, I’ve been sipping cheap scotch since late morning, along with the antidepressants, supplements and cold meds, caffeine, nicotine. The usual.
But, then, why did I think I did?
Pretending to tidy up the desk, J turned to the question of the middle class as murder victim and started working up an argument. Right, thought Nutter, ready to direct her attention back into the stream of debate — deal with that can of worms.
She leaned her cropped, scarred head back against the fan, and tried to follow J into a complicated neo-Marxist, situationist worldview, by which groups of people reify into class identities. Their solution was to shake up the system with an unambiguous event, one that sears an image into the collective psyche for generations. The rightwing godhead consuming its own followers — mass murdering us all. Ploughing the field for the seeds of revolution to come.
“Okay,” Nutter said with a thick tongue, “I guess. You’re sold on the idea, anyway. But, why me? Bodyguard? Investigator? A witness at your, hopefully viral, show trial, or, big event? Hate to bring up money to a fellow traveler and all, but, this is an office, you know. I have bills.”
There were shadows in the hall again. J was fiddling with their phone. Nutter flashed on a disconnected memory: a black-block anarchist handing J an aerosolizer in the hall, J spraying her in the face, Nutter staggering back, away from the delinquent chase and into the fog.
“Ah, Nutter,” J looked up from the phone. “Don’t sell yourself short. You’re key to the festivities.”
Nutter’s mind’s eye rose out of her body, out the window, past Fran and a few other tenants peering outside to judge the dwindling precipitation. Balloon-like, she floated past building tops, into low clouds. From the soggy mist, rings of distant, suburban hills resolved into view, bathed in resplendent sunlight. A giant robot Reagan with laser eyes and a plasma whip wrought havoc — kicking minivans across the park, gobbling t-ball players by the handful, slashing McMansions open like rotten fruit. She thought it might be taken down like an Imperial Walker, with a leg trap.
“Nutter, stay with me.” The shadows in the hall emerged in stark outline. Three beefy men, clad in Proud Boy polo shirts, entered and surrounded J. “Don’t worry. They’re not what they seem.” They set the phone against their leg.
“But you are, or you will be.” J Leaned in, head tilted against the angle of the umbrella. “Fanatic, lone wolf, martyr… Fall, hm, gal?”
All four of them were crammed into the small front part of the office, Nutter still pressed up against the floor fan. She blinked in confusion as the jar seemed to roll away slightly from the desk, agape until she spied the black-whiskered, pink snout of Stealer, the office ferret.
“Devil’s Breath got your tongue?” J did not notice Stealer, but made as if to spray an invisible mister. “Hm… Never mind.” They pulled up the phone again and started twiddling. “We have what we need. A little deep fakery and your final manifesto will be ready to post. A psychedelic cog in my catastrophic plan.” Using skin-tight, red leather gloves, they pulled a small electronic pin out of their beret, and lay the camera back in its case.
“The denouement, on video as well, has you being pummeled out there beneath that streetlight, and the surveillance camera above. The antagonists — our fine, muscled friends here.”
They arched a carefully drawn brow towards Nutter. Nutter was thinking about Stealer, who’d disappeared again. He’d gone home with Pel, hadn’t he? And, now, it seemed she did remember drinking the marijuana concentrate, with Pel. When was that? She wasn’t thinking straight — the Devil’s Breath, or Burundanga, Scopolamine. She and Pel had used some once. The trip wasn’t too bad, but the after effects… Jesus. She knew that the drug’s uses were mostly violently criminal now — what with the suggestibility and memory loss.
“Still nothing?” J cocked their head. “A bit disappointing. Anyway, show time.” J motioned to the fake Proud Boys. It took all three to maneuver her into the hall.
J stayed behind and made their way to the back office. They pulled a phone from a plastic bag, propped it against the damp ashtray, and framed a tight video shot through the window — one of a few backups in place. They read the few lines Nutter had managed to hack onto the page from the archaic typewriter. After some musing, they typed a few more letters onto the page and looked outside.
The boys still weren’t in position. What was going on?
Pel and Nutter burst into the office.
Pel, wounds apparently healed enough, had come up like some heroine and gone through the P.B.’s, or whatever they were, like butter. A few elegant Capoeira kicks and elbows had left them hanging 20 feet over nothing in the elevator shaft. Nutter, rescued and vengeful, was still too drugged to do more than glare fiercely, swaying.
With practiced hands, J attached a wiregate carabiner to the wall radiator, opened a window and backed out, arms controlling a coiled rope fore and aft. They’d finished their descent before Pel reached the window.
Stealer jumped up to the sill, hissed, then hopped back onto the desk near J’s phone, which was still recording on full zoom. Two figures fought their way across the screen, Fran on all fours barking and chasing a theatrically greasepainted, zombie Reagan.
Nutter turned the typewriter’s roller knob and read the new line: “The black water turned red.” She looked through the dark window at Fran splashing along the sidewalk after zombie Reagan.
“We need to go after them,” she said. “They’re onto something.”
Pel turned from the window’s odd tableau to focus on Nutter. “You’re high.”
Stealer sat on his back legs and dooked.
L. Fid is a member of a pseudonymous arts collective dedicated to world domination.