by Paul Handley


Itchi read Narcissus and Goldmund while riding the train. A blue pant leg with black piping strode into his downward view.

‘Can you keep that close?’ Itchi looked up to see a transit officer indicating Itchi’s messenger bag on the seat across from him.

‘Of course,’ but Itchi reached for it with a gesture of disgust at the interruption.

‘Don’t shoot the messenger,’ said the man in uniform with bluff good humor. After he moved on, Itchi aimed a handgun composed of his forefinger and thumb at the receding figure of authority. He laid down the hammer of his thumb while making a clicking sound in the right cheek that could have served as either a shot or urging his mount to move. Both were cowboy moves. A fraction later he raised his forefinger to indicate the recoil. Itchi thought briefly about blowing smoke off the end of the barrel but concluded a bit of restraint would be cooler.

‘I love Hesse ( HE s uh),’ said a feminine voice from the seat to his right. Itchi had noticed a person sleeping there earlier with a top hat pulled over eyes that he had assumed were male. Now the topper was raised, revealing feminine features composed of thinly shaped eyebrows and long lashes with snake bit piercing; one below each corner of her lower lip.

‘Is that how you say it? I thought it was Hess. You don’t hear his name much in conversation.’

‘It’s German.’

‘Have we just Americanized it?’

‘This is America, we drive on the right side and speak English. Don’t you just want to punch someone in the face who orders a kra-sawn instead of a croissant?’

‘I could do it. I over-pronounce Mexican food. En-chee-LAAH-dahz.’ They both laughed.

Itchi had never seen her before but it was hard for him to imagine her without the hat. Whereas at one time he had excellent recall of faces, now they all tended to blur. Trains arrived every 14 minutes so Itchi rarely saw passengers twice. Additionally, he commuted back and forth to work by a pastiche of buses, carpool, bike and train; whatever was most convenient depending upon weather or his schedule.

‘They’ve already won,’ said the young woman, who Itchi had privately named Topper.


‘They have already won,’ said Topper indicating the door through which Itchi’s security guard had vanished.

‘It’s not a contest. He has a job to do.’ Itchi shrugged.

‘We all have a job to do, don’t we?’ said Topper.

‘You’re right. He’s just doing what he has to do, but I still hate people telling me what to do. It’s like being back in high school,’ said Itchi.

‘Oh, so do I,’ said Topper.

‘If you’re security everyone resents you,’ said Itchi.

‘But isn’t there a point where everyone should hate you? It’s not like there aren’t any limits.’

‘I didn’t say hate,’ said Itchi.

‘What if I said I’m in Al-Qaeda?’ said Topper.

‘I’d be concerned.’

‘But you shouldn’t be. It should mean nothing to you. It’s just a name. I’m probably joking. I don’t think Al-Q even exists anymore. What are the odds that you have a bomb in that bag? There are millions of us traveling all over the country. Every time a bag is found it’s in the news. Do you remember the last piece of luggage that had an incendiary device?’

‘It’s been a while,’ said Itchi.

‘If I had odds like that…’ Topper stopped and looked up to her right to ruminate, ‘Think of all the things that have much higher odds that nobody acts on. Why is that? Do you ever think about that? Prison overcrowding, global warming, we know they are happening, but we don’t do anything about it. Not really.’

‘Follow the money?’ Itchi guessed.

‘Probably, but I can’t stop people with that kind of power. All I want is to be left alone. And if you tell me you have to give up some freedom to get it I’ll have to punch you,’ said Topper.

‘You’re very punchy,’ Itchi replied. Topper jerked her head back twice as if taking jabs, elevating her hat to mid-forehead. She was pulling the brim back down as Itchi laughed and she joined in.

‘So, this is an issue for you, huh?’ asked Itchi.

‘Why isn’t it for you? Why isn’t it for everyone?’

Itchi affected a hippie voice, ‘Because we’re all stuck in our zombie-like existence that involves watching TV four hours a day while stuffing ourselves with bacon-wrapped maple doughnuts, man.’

‘You’re mocking me, but that’s part of the truth. You’re afraid to say it,’ said Topper.

‘What?’ asked Itchi.

‘You know.’

‘Al-Q,’ said Itchi.

‘Told you, but that’s a start,’ said Topper.

‘Why Al-Q?’ asked Itchi.

‘Sounds less threatening.’

‘Are you taking ownership of terrorism, like queer for gay people?’ asked Itchi.

‘No, we are the fake Al-Q. We want to sow the seeds of a blasé attitude. Blaséism. That’s our creed. We want people to believe Al-Qaeda is everywhere and then we’d become so accustomed to the bullshit of nothing happening that we’d get back to normal.’

‘That is the stupidest idea I have ever heard in my life,’ said Itchi.

‘I think so too, but it’s a plan. Nobody else is doing anything. We all just accept the security state as the new normal,’ said Topper.

‘I’m already inured and desensitized from this conversation. It must be working. I can’t believe you are going to prison for pretending to be Al-Qaeda,’ said Itchi. Just then two female transit officers accompanying the original officer, who Itchi had dry-fired his finger at, shoved aside the sliding door separating the cabs and roughly arrested Topper. Her topper had been knocked off and she looked defiant and scared.

‘She told me she’s Al-Qaeda,’ Itchi informed them.


Paul Handley’s work has appeared in Hobart, Metazen, Gone Lawn, Monkeybicycle, Pulp Diction III, Apt, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and is forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine.

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