01 The Return of History
The last of the Shively series. This story is set during the the first months of COVID (March – June 2020). Shively is manipulated by a Russian spy into using COVID money to build a private prison.
“What is that?” Elena – a spokes-model for Consolidated Gulags – snatches my phone and starts to read. She is covered in shadows except for her ruby red lips, which catch the dim bedroom light as she speaks.
We continued in these Hopes for a few Days, but it was but for a few; for the Peoples were no more to be deceived thus; they searcht the Houses, and found that the Plague was really spread every way, and that many died of it every Day: So that now all our Extenuations abated, and it was no more to be concealed, nay it quickly appeared that the Infection had spread it self beyond all Hopes of Abatement.
She sits down on the edge of my bed, leans over me and says, “Washington Post, right?
“Its about another plague, in London”, I reply hesitantly. Elena plays rough so I’m careful not to make myself a target.
“Yah ,” she replies, “They’ve got the plague bad in England. Maybe I’m thinking of Italy but whatever: its just time if I’m wrong. But why did you grunt like this story means something? This is the same news we’ve been reading since March.”
“That’s my point. There’s nothing new. This article was written by Daniel Defoe 300 years ago about a plague in London. Doesn’t London then sound like New York now?”
“America is back in history again. We’ve forgotten that war, famine, pestilence and plague are real. “
“You say such stupid things John Shively!” Elena presses her hands onto my shoulders while she straddles me. Her blue eyes are cold and focused. “You’ve read War and Peace?”
“Uh sure”, I reply carefully. My words are a bit thin because the pressure on my shoulders is intense. Though she has a build somewhere between waif and wood nymph, she is surprisingly strong. “I’ve read the war bits and the party chapters. I skimmed the rest.”
“Good.” Elena is now so close to me I can smell tobacco on her breath. Her skin is Barbie-smooth. She continues, “My point is about the Battle of Borodino. Did Russia leave history when that massacre was turned into a book? Of course not.” She shoves hard on my shoulders. I think of resisting but I’m pinned. She continues, “So you think America left history when all of its politics moved to television. Was it out of history when Nixon carpet bombed Cambodia or George Bush carpet bombed Iraq?”
“Uh”, I reply tentatively. I can’t say more because I can barely breathe.
Elena continues, “America was certainly in Cambodia’s history. Just because Americans only watched the good bits on television and ignored reality counts for …” she presses so hard onto my shoulders my back cracks … “nothing.”
She releases my shoulders and takes a drag on her Juul.
“Can you even use words like when in your weird theory, John Shively?”
Elena presses her thighs tightly against mine, lowers her face toward my and intones with her breathy alto voice, “Borodino, Cambodia, Iraq, Afghanistan. Same people. Same violence. Same. Fucking. Thing.”
I recount this experience dispassionately but dispassion is the furthest thing from my mind as Elena kisses me with aggressive, passionless lips. To my surprise, she sharply pulls back and then whispers, ‘Your fingers are so beautiful. I have a special fantasy about them.” Another inhale on her Juul. “Do you want to know my fantasy?” She delicately kisses each digit of my right hand. “My special fantasy is to see your sexy fingers sign a contract for a large, new prison. Isn’t that hot?” She places her right hand on my crotch and begins to rub my manhood slowly, “It will be our prison. Tell me you share my dream, John Schuyler Hamilton Shively the Third.” She retracts her hand.
As someone who has gotten into serious trouble for thinking with my penis, my situation is problematic. You may scoff and say, “I don’t see any problem here. Have sex with her and lie. What’s the big deal? Men do it all the time. ” If I had come from a less feudalistic family, I might well have taken this proposed tack and said, “Elena, I’ll build us the biggest prison” and later renege on my promise. Our President does that all the time and its worked swell for him. But, alas, I am a Shively and though nothing else binds Shivelys to truth, our word is our bond.
Two very long seconds later I say, “Elena, I’ll get you that prison built”.
“Not you, us“, she replies. The pressure on my wrists relents. She glides over my awaiting, craving body.
I awake with a splitting headache not explained by last night’s drinking. Perhaps Elena drugged me. But just a bit. That’s definitely her style. Lazy, but in an efficient, ruthless way. I stumble out of bed. Movement makes my hangover worse.
[Even breathing is difficult. Not for the last time do I wish for a butler with the drink-concocting skill of Jeeves. ]
My phone buzzes. I remember last night’s promise and sigh, “Oh fuck” as I pick up the phone.
My eyes are dry. It takes a moment to read the text, “Hi Shive. Meet me at the K-Lounge for breakfast! I have your security badge and wallet.” Elena has punctuated her text with a viking emoticon.
A typical Elena communication. Concise, clear and yet perfectly fucked up. She has stolen my wallet, compromised national security by stealing my id badge, used my money for cab fare and now wants to meet for breakfast in a lounge? This is all wrong. She is the lobbyist and I am the lobbied. This part of the process isn’t supposed to cost me time or money. Or cause grief.
My phone buzzes again. I look at it and grimace. Someone has included me in a Republican intern email group and I keep getting pictures of lobbyists in compromising situations. I mark it as spam and sit down on my bed to gather my wits. That doesn’t work so I open the Defoe Diary for guidance, like I used to do with the I Ching in college. The first paragraph I read is inauspicious:
The usual Number of Burials in a Week, in the Parishes of St. Giles’s in the Fields, and St. Andrew’s Holborn, were from 12 to 17 or 19 each few more or less; but from the Time that the Plague first began in St. Gile’s Parish, it was observ’d, that the ordinary Burials encreased in Number considerably. … The last Bill was really frightful, being a higher Number than had ever been known to have been buried in one Week.
Thoughts of burial motivate me to shower and leave.
The walk to the K Street Lounge is pleasant. The April air is crisp and the sky is vivid cyan. Georgetown is clean, prosperous and bustling. Our politics and culture may be polarized but I think that Republicans, Democrats and independents alike will concede that America makes the most sense if you’re rich. This morning the only off-putting element is the unexpected number of people wearing masks. The masks for the most part are cheery – or sports-themed – but strike me as sinister. Although there are few COVID cases in DC, the news out of New York City is alarming.
Like me, everyone is looking at their phones. There are only 2 facial expressions, quizzical and smiling. Its like the whole world is looking for either directions or support.
The entrance to K-Lounge is guarded by a bouncer. He asks for my name. l present him with my driver’s license, which he checks against a list on his clipboard. The list checking strikes me as not so much out of context as out of time. It is 8:15 a.m. not 1 a.m. He grunts and unchains the velvet rope.
The decor of the lounge is strip-club modern, which is unsettling from the perspectives of both aesthetics and dining. My Oxfords, in normal times quiet shoes, clack sharply against the earth-toned tiled floor. The sound echoes off of the walls, which are covered in brown mottled mirrors and faux-wood paneling. I can’t name the faux-tree, probably mahogany. The stains on the velvet couches are bio-luminescent.
Elena has already arrived. She is seated at the table beside a large, dangerous looking man, with a bald head and a broadly striped shirt which turns his impressive musculature into a topographical map. It is a good environment for her: her skin is positively radiant in ultra-violet light, her eyes have deepened two shades of blue and her lips glow an alluring purple-red. Tufts of her shortly cropped copper hair have become blonde, like so many white shadows. She ignores my approach by taking a long draw on her Juul. When I reach the table she looks up, tilts her head slightly to the left and smiles coquettishly.
As usual, her smile makes me fleetingly feel like I’ve stepped through a looking-glass into Instagram.
Elena makes introductions as I take my seat beside her. “Bruno met John Shively”. Elena nods at the broad shouldered man beside her. I proffer my hand. He refuses to shake it, nodding his head and muttering “COVID”. Despite his expensive clothes he has a slightly tone deaf sense of cool: his suit and shirt have a Studio 54 sheen; the air around him is infused with the smell of cologne. I wonder if he, like Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, overcompensates for his style deficiencies with a sadistic devotion to his work?
[I consider in what ways I can mollify him, but am unsuccessful. I am certain he has a prickly sense of propriety.]
Bruno speaks first, smiling. He says, “So I’ve finally met the infamous John Schuyler Hamilton Shively Quattro. Imagine that”. There’s a bit of mischief in his smile – or perhaps Jacobin terror.
“I’m the third, not the fourth.”
Elena adds, “Yep. Only two other Shivelys before him.”
Bruno’s smile broadens. This relaxes me a bit. At least he has something resembling a sense of humor even if he is laughing at me. Elena responds to his amusement with a terse, sweet smile of her own.
Sweet is her weakest look.
Bruno speaks next, “Do the Shivelys have a coat of arms?”
His question is music to my ears. The Shively Coat of Arms is one of the few things I can discuss with unrivaled authority. “Indeed we do”, I reply heartily. “Its divided into 4 quadrants. The upper right contains a Beaver Rampant against a field of ….”
“I don’t give a shit about rampant beavers”. Bruno is not smiling.
“He’s a Communist”, Elena interjects nodding at her companion as if this somehow bridges the conversational gap which has opened between us. And it kind of does, if your concept of Communist includes beefy industrial workers who brawl with Nazis.
Bruno nods in agreement. “Da. Old-school Communist.”
I still don’t quite understand his ambivalence toward coats of arms. If he’s interested in them, why isn’t he interested in them? I say, “Why did you ask about my family’s coat of arms?”
Elena answers for him, “Bruno collects the coats of arms of his targets … I mean clients … I mean …”
“I collect coats of arms like trophies.” Bruno interrupts. “Here, look.” He hands me his phone, which displays a picture of the Schlemielpennick Coat of Arms and then begins to scroll. Its like a visual guest list of a wedding I attended in Bali at the end of my senior year in college.
Although I desperately want to know the story behind each coat-of-arms “trophy” – we’re talking about my friends, after all – I feel that my conversational time would be better spent mollifying him. I ask, “So what is a Communist doing working for Elena?” My words make me feel like Joe McCarthy playing “Whats My Line?”
Elena replies for him, “Bruno is my production assistant”. He nods grimly, in agreement and says, “Da. Production assistant. Elena says you promised to build a prison for her client. I’m here to make sure that happens.”
I can think of nothing to say in reply. I mean nothing worth saying. We Shivelys are pretty good at spouting nonsense, but now doesn’t seem like a good time for that.
Bruno leans toward me and speaks. He looms so large he casts me in shadow. “Mr. Shively, I want you to know this prison means a lot to Elena.”
“Uh, yeah”, I reply.
Elena says spritely, “I’ll let you two get to know each other better. I’ll get breakfast”. She rises and dusts herself. The lounge is not particularly dusty, but the dust is visible in the ultra-violet light as it falls off her body. She looks like a punk Tinker Bell.
It takes Bruno and me a moment to find our conversational sea-legs. I speak once I realize he will never initiate conversation.
“Where are you from Bruno?”
“Gdansk. My family moved to Moscow when Lech Walesa won. My family are real Communists.” He scoffs theatrically as he speaks the Polish laborer organizer’s name. He sounds like a Republican talking about unions.
It turns out that Bruno comes from a venerable line of Bavarian, Polish and Russian Communists. The same ones who had gun fights with Nazis in the streets of Munich and Berlin, and later killed Trotsky with an ice-pick in Mexico.
“What brings you to America, Bruno?”
“I did a contract for Defrauded Guaranteed.”
“I see.” Is that a Broadway show? I wonder.
He notices my uncertainty. “Its a firm based in Palm Beach. Near the President’s … “
He smiles. His mouth glints when he does. His upper incisors are made of gold, the lower ones of silver.
[I wonder if he owns a bowler hat with an edge sharp enough to cut steel.]
I take a deep breath and say what’s on my mind, “What do you want from me, Bruno?”
“From you, John Shively, I want nothing. This is about what she wants” he nods at Elena who is returning from the kitchen with our breakfast, “I’m here to break … how you say …”
… bodies … ? I think
“Log-jams” he continues. “I like that phrase. Log jams. It reminds me of forestry. My grandfather was a forester during his time in Siberia. He was later rehabilitated.”
Although deeply curious to find out how a Communist views the Russian gulag, I ask, “Do you have many other clients?”
“Not right now. Just Elena. She’s a big account. Keeps me very busy.”
I wonder what he means by busy, but do not ask because I more or less know and don’t want to. Which of course makes me wonder how he will kill me should I fail to deliver on this prison. I am certain that my death won’t be abstract, from some rare poison or silenced gun. It will be physical. Very physical.
Perhaps he will rip my larynx out with his bare hands.
Bruno notices my consternation. “I don’t have anything against you, Shively. Its nothing personal.”
He taps his right forefinger on the table top and says, “Bon appétit!”. Elena arrives with our food. She places a tray of breakfast sandwiches on the table, and takes her seat.
If you’re like me you may have wondered why strip clubs never make the Michelin Guide. I know the answer to this question: its the quality of the food they serve. I help myself to a roll stuffed with scrambled eggs and a slab of meat that looks like an extra in an Alien movie The toast makes me think of a hobo Sponge Bob torched on Skid Row.
Bruno devours his breakfast sandwich in three bites.
I listlessly pick at mine wondering where to begin. Or whether.
[Unlike a cat, I do not play with my food because I doubt it is dead. I just can’t believe that any part of the sandwich in front of me was ever alive. ]
Elena doesn’t even pretend to eat her fruit bowl. Its covered in a thick sugar sauce which she uses as mortar for a citrus castle.
“A toast! ” Elena leaps to her feet, knocking a water glass over as she does so. “To our prison!” Bruno stands up, as if stretching. I slowly rise, feeling much older than my 35 years.
We clink coffee cups. Yelena and Bruno drain theirs and toss them onto the floor with the kind of vigor I’d discuss with my therapist. I have a small sip and then place my cup gently down. It tastes like it was brewed with Flint water.