Your Ascendancy

By Alexander Yates

You wake up this morning like you do every morning — six sharp, never mind that it’s your birthday.  Never mind that you haven’t had a day off in forever.  Duty is duty, and a shopping and lifestyle experience like Summertown doesn’t exactly run itself.  It says that on your wall, actually.  It says: A shopping and lifestyle experience like Summertown does not run itself.  Below that it says: We could not do this without you.  Thanks a bunch.

You dismount the cot slowly so as to not wake your old lady.  You shower and you shave and you change into the same old blue-and-gold uniform you’ve been wearing for years.  The badge pinned above your left titty-pocket says Deputy, but that’s just on account of Dolores in the mailroom misplaced your new badge.  You’re no longer a deputy.  You’re in charge — have been since the last wave of layoffs-cum-walkouts.  Management called it a battlefield promotion.  And you loved the sound of that, didn’t you?  Battlefield.

You affix your walkie to your belt and holster your sidearm.  It’s toasty warm in the condo, and when you open the front door it’s toasty warm outside as well.  The lighting is picture-perfect and the morning air smells of new bread.  The French Quarter, possibly the best neighborhood in Summertown, stretches all around you.  It’s called the French Quarter because it was designed to look like places that were designed to look like France — cobbled streets lined with fiberglass almond trees, orderly rows of baroque and classical townhouses grinning at one another through narrow balconies, and a jazzy little corner café boasting open-air seating.

You stay on the condo steps for a moment, surveying the Quarter and gulping down the morning-flavor air.  Then you look up, beyond the chimney’d skyline, and say: “Rats.”  The low-slung sky has the opacity of bathroom tile.  There’s easily a meter of fresh accumulation on the glass dome above.  The irony of this does not escape you — Summertown resembling, as it does, an inverted snow globe: warm cozy living room on the inside and ice-drenched Christmas scenery on the outside.  The dome, huge, stretches from the eastern shore of Onondaga Lake, all the way to Erie Boulevard.  It’s plenty thick, but even so, there’s only so much that tempered glass can bear.  That means hose duty… not the best way to start the day.  Especially your birthday.  But you’ve already decided you won’t make a big deal about that.

You unhook your walkie and radio Charles, who works security for the other side of Summertown and who answers, via a streamlined chain of command, to you.  He should be starting his rounds in the Food Court about now.  But it takes him a long while to respond to your “Good morning.”  And when he does he sounds groggy… or guarded?  One of those.

“Boss.  Hello.  Morning.”

“Hey!”  You keep your voice light, despite the crap news you’re about to impart.   “It looks like we’re on for hose duty today.” 

There is a long pause on Charles’ end.  And then, impossible to mistake it, the sound of a window being opened.

“You sure?  I’m gonna call that cloud cover.”

“No.  No, it’s snow.”  You glance up again and see that the fresh fall is already solidifying into bluish pack ice.  “It’s not how I want to spend my morning, either.  Tell you what… let’s give the sun a chance to come out before we get to hosing.  How does elevenish work for you?  We’ll be back inside by lunchtime.”

Another pause, then: “Elevenish is dandy.”

“All good on your end, otherwise?”

“All good,” Charles says.  “Venice Beach is all a-sparkle.  Flowers are blossoming in Big Meadow.  The Food Court is clean and lines are minimal.  Nothing could be better than it is.”

You hesitate, trying to decide how to take this poorly disguised lie.  He knows you know he’s still in bed.  But your management philosophy, which you’ve been devising from scratch in the months since your professional ascendancy, is that bad attitudes rarely improve when the boss points them out.  Especially when the boss was until recently just one of the guys.  In fact, in a case like this, you’ve found that scolding pretty much always makes the bad attitude worse.  So you just grin and say: “That’s great, Charles.  I’ll see you at elevenish.”

And he says: “Yes, you certainly will.”

Charles hasn’t always been so surly.  It’s not just that he was passed over for the battlefield promotion — morale is on an ebb across the whole staff.  From Dolores in Catering to Pacheco at the Aviary.  It’s a distressing surprise.  You’d have thought that anyone who stuck it out this far, who didn’t let layoffs or ration-cuts or weather chase them south, would be made of stronger stuff.  It’s hard not to take this personally.  Because they’re not just your co-workers, they’re your friends.  And in each of these respects they are failing you.  Not just showing up late and leaving early — with shoddy performance in the shortening interval between — but also surrendering to pettiness and solitude.  They are folding in on themselves like failed development projects.  Some have stopped attending the recommended after-hours social engagements.  Still others have taken to tittering, huddled conspiracy. 

It’s a safe bet that not a one of them has bought you a present this year.

Part Two

But for now you put those birthday-forgetting grumps out of your head and trot down the condo steps, hitting the cobbled street at a fast walk.  You pass the café where the tables are all empty, some of the chairs spilling out into the street like patrons ejected for their drunkenness or poverty.  The doors are shuttered, and there hasn’t been a delivery of coffee all season.   But still, don’t count this café out.  It says that on the awning, actually: Do not count us out! Pierre’s is not beat until it is beat!

Passing the café, you turn your eyes up to the townhouse windows, on the lookout for malfunctioning accent lights or cracks in the scenery paint — anything Dolores in Maintenance should know about.  Finishing up in the Quarter, you move on to the Lakefront.  You scoop seagull feathers from the inner harbor with your great net.  You unlock the fire exits and turnstiles at the Old Mall.  Then you go inside to check on the door to Central Office, which you couldn’t unlock even if you wanted to.  It’s sealed shut this morning like it always is and always should be.  You stop here, for just a minute, to admire the door.  It’s what people in the past thought the future would look like — totally round, like a bank vault, with no hinges as far as you can see.  In the middle is a round, double-paned window, like a porthole.  You know you shouldn’t, but you peek inside.  You tell yourself it’s to verify that there are no intruders.  It’s dark in there. Utterly black.

Everything is going to be fine.

You’ve almost reached the mall exit when you stop and turn back, the expression on your face more one of curiosity than concern.  You return to Central Office and stare again at the door, at the metal around the door.  Are those dents?  Scratches?  You run your fingers over them, feeling the curdled pivot of chipped paint.  There is no doubt about it — someone has been at this door with a crowbar.  More than likely it was an employee, because a customer would have no way of knowing that anything of import lies beyond.  And besides, don’t kid yourself — what customers?

So that’s it then.  That’s your birthday present from an anonymous member of your dwindling cohort.  Rules broken, trust betrayed.  Not to mention the downtime you’ll spend tracking the culprit.  Nor the heartache you’ll feel upon discovering them — and there is no doubt of this, you will discover them — and having to let them go.  Having to stand in the doorway of his/her quarters as he/she tearfully packs belongings into a wheelbarrow, pleading benign intent, harmless boredom, nothing more than a minor lapse, they promise!  Having to help the culprit into his/her snowsuit and having to put them out onto the ice.  Having to deal with the reproach, the threat of soft vengeance from the friends he/she will leave behind.  You’ll be, if possible, even less popular now.  You’re not a bad person.  You don’t enjoy this duty.  But you will fulfill it.

*   *   *

After the Old Mall you head immediately toward your friend Pacheco — mostly because you know he can’t have done it, and the sick tingle of betrayal has left you longing for a confidant.  He’s over at the World Birds Aviary, and your walk takes you along the inside of the dome wall.  You can hear the wind and snow howling out there.  God, hose duty is terrible enough—just imagine if someone opened the cargo doors and let in the awful outside.  They wouldn’t even have to be malicious.  They could just be poking about Central Office, pulling levers and pressing buttons, having a grand old time until — pow !— everybody is frozen and dead.  There’s a reason why Central Office is always closed.  There’s a reason for everything.

Thankfully Pacheco is awake by the time you get there.  He’s in the Explanatory, a foam and driftwood antechamber set before the grand entrance to the Aviary, walls and ceiling decked with dead warblers in glass cases.  The original idea, one assumes, was to squeeze in some hard science before the shock and awe of the wonderful bright Aviary.  But the effect is a gauzy entombment, along with the unsettling impression that these dead birds are jailors to the live ones.  Pacheco’s been sleeping in the Explanatory, on one of the very comfortable couches, since his first week on payroll.  He’s still in his pajamas when you arrive, one side of his face white with shaving foam.  He scrutinizes his reflection in the display glass and runs an old-fashioned straight razor along his jaw.  He does just one stroke before crossing to the drinking fountain to clean the razor.  He returns to the display case and repeats.

“Buenos dias,” Pacheco says, the throaty charm of his voice overriding a flat dull intonation.  He’s Bolivian, and used to teach ornithology at Cornell — back before the university closed, back when poofy, feathered things could still survive the open, back when people came from places like Bolivia.

“Good morning, Pacheco.”  You take a seat on the couch where he sleeps.  You hold off bringing up the Central Office thing.  Might as well give him a chance to mention your birthday.

Pacheco finishes shaving.  He flosses.  He changes out of his pajamas and into his khaki ranger clothes.  While the quarters here are not close, Summertown employees invariably become intimates, and he acts as a man enjoying complete privacy.

“So…” you pause.  He’s had his chance, and missed it.  “I have some troubling news.”

“Oh?”  He turns to face you, possessed of all the nervous stoicism of a junior professor.  “Troubling how?”

“I came across something during Morning Rounds.  Signs of… tampering.”  It is a dirty word to you, and tastes of one.  “Someone has been trying to get inside Central Office.  You don’t have any idea…”

In this instant something happens in his eyes.  They moisten and shake, as though trying to glance away, forcing themselves not to.  You do not let on that you’ve seen this.  You continue, breezily, but you do not feel breezy.  You feel like you’re walking backwards down a staircase.

“…who could have done it?  I mean, you haven’t heard talk of anyone trying to get inside?  Haven’t seen anyone loitering around the Old Mall after closing?”

“Dios mio!”  Pacheco grins a too-eager grin and laughs a too-eager laugh.  “You had me worried for a moment.  I thought it was something serious.”

“But, it is serious.”  You stammer, thrown for a tilt by the very thought that Pacheco could be hiding something from you.  “Central Office is off-limits.”

“Por supuesto.  You’re right.”  He turns back to the display case, gazing through his reflection at the stuffed birds beyond.  He taps on the glass with his hard, short, brown finger, making the birds shudder and juke.  “But, all the same, I would not worry.  Whoever did it, I am sure they mean no harm.  It is probably just boredom.”

So, that’s how it’s going to be, is it?  Boredom — phooey!  If he was going to lie to you he might at least have the courtesy to make it convincing.  He knows who the culprit is, no question.  You stand up from the couch and brush your uniform clean.  There is a high, airy cackling from inside the aviary, and Pacheco glances at the entrance. 

“So, any tours scheduled for today?”  The question makes him wince — you know that tours are a touchy subject, and only asked it to be nasty.  It’s the sad truth that Pacheco, a great lover of birds, can no longer bring himself to enter the Aviary.  The birds inside used to be from everywhere: Canada, New Guinea, the Dutch Antilles, Rajastan.  But after so many generations they’ve stopped looking like they should.  They’ve hybridized for years now — mating every which way.  To be fair it was already a big problem before he signed on, and despite his best efforts it has persisted and worsened.  The last batch of chicks couldn’t even fly.  The parents don’t have enough sense to care for their own eggs, so Pacheco has his two sloppy-faced interns from Homer and Cicero collect them in fanny-pack incubators.  He can’t stand them — the birds, not the interns—but you think they’re beautiful.  The birds, still.  They’re all tall and awkward and bright.  All day they sprint back and forth across the Aviary grounds, raising a racket and looking fabulous.  You’re frustrated that Pacheco can’t see them this way.  Frustrated that he longs for what they used to be, unable to appreciate what they are.

“You need customers for tours,” he says.

“Well you never know,” you say, already making for the exit.  “There could be a rush at lunchtime.”

Pacheco laughs, but you weren’t joking.  Because who knows?  There really could be.

Part Three

It’s coming up on elevenish — time to make your way to the revolving restaurant.  It sits atop a giant red metal stem that used to be a piece of the Golden Gate Bridge and was trucked over, at great expense, from wherever the Golden Gate Bridge used to be.  The restaurant doesn’t serve food anymore but it still revolves, and you like to come up here and gaze down at Summertown.  It’s not just for the view — the spinning roof almost skims the underside of the dome, making this the perfect place from which to go topside and hose off that damn snow.

You switch on the heat vents to melt the ice along the exit hatch and then stand by the enormous bank of windows, mulling the morning’s developments.  Signs of an attempted break-in and lies from the mouth of a trusted friend — not good, all in all.  And what makes it worse is that you’re still sure Pacheco didn’t actually do it, but he clearly knows who did.  One person you could forgive — and fire — but two are a conspiracy.  No, you’re not being paranoid.  You’ve had this fear for a long time, now.  This fear that the people of Summertown long to do you harm.  It says that on the restaurant window, actually.  It says: The people of Summertown long to do you harm.

Nothing funny about that.

Your binoculars are on the grand piano, almost exactly where you left them yesterday.  Down below you see Pacheco glowering at the entrance to the Aviary like an old man on a porch.  You see Dolores from Accounts Receivable jogging madly across Big Meadow.  You see Charles hitting balls over at the driving range.

“Hey there, I can see you,” you say into your walkie.

Charles turns and waives his tiny arm at you.  “See you back.”

“How did your morning rounds go?”

“Dandy.  Just working up the energy to get to hose duty.”

“A-ha.”  His faux-cheery ‘dandy’ irks you, and you consider pushing him on it.  Like: Are the tides working again at Venice Beach?  Did you get those graffiti tags on the Dairy Bar taken care of?  Have you heard talk of an attempted break-in at Central Office?  Are you, perhaps, behind it?

But no point grilling him when his face is too far to read.  And besides, before you can say anything he pipes up again.  “Who’s that with you?”

“There is no one with me.”

“Really?  I could have sworn I saw another person in the window up there.”

You pause to look about the restaurant.  “No, I am completely alone.”

“If you say so.”  Charles replaces his driver with the rest of his clubs and then contemplates them for a time, a hand in his pocket.  “Well now.  I suppose that snow won’t melt itself, will it?”

“Nope,” you say, pleased by the small turn in his attitude.  “It won’t.”

 *   *   *

You observe a while longer as Charles makes his way over, looking for notable irregularities and finding none.  The restaurant gives a perfect 360 view.  You come up on the French Quarter and see that it’s brightened up since the early morning.  Through your binoculars you see your old lady on the front stoop, sweeping the condo stairs.  Now, your old lady, doesn’t mean your wife or mother or anything like that.  She’s just an old lady.  And she’s yours.  You found her two years ago wandering around the Tuscan Hill Village, sipping a fountain cup that had turned brown from all the refills.  She had a purse on her and a wallet in her purse, but the wallet was empty.  No cash.  No plastic.  No ID.  Just a parking receipt for lot F-92.  The F lots used to be way over in the annex — between the Theatre District and Safari Experience — and that wing had been closed on account of the heat pipes were accidentally shut off.  Whole herds of zebra frozen solid in the papier-mâché thicket.  Just goes to show you what even a modest screwup at Central Office can do.

You did everything you could for your old lady; wrangled her into a photo booth and dropped the snaps off with Dolores at Lost-and-Found.  You even wrote your condo number and walkie call sign on the back.  So far you haven’t heard anything.  You’re keeping her until you do.

Setting the binoculars down, you strip naked and change into one of the snowsuits in the restaurant kitchen.  Charles is already in the dining room when you return.  He’s got an ice cream in one hand, his leveled pistol in another.

“Bang!”

You grab your heart and stagger backwards, groping for your own pistol.

“Bang!” he yells again.  “Bang!”

You pitch face first at the foot of the piano.  Your sidearm clatters across the parquet.  You twitch there for a moment before getting up.  You recover your gun quickly, trying not to look over-eager.  “Got me that time,” you say, grinning.

“I’m three for one this week.  You’re getting slow.”

“No, you’re getting quicker.  You’re quicker than you’ve ever been, Charles.”  You stand there, smiling, feeling him out.  He smiles back, holsters his pistol.  Like yours, it’s almost surely not loaded.  Still, you hesitate to bring up the Central Office thing.  Because what if he is behind it?  What if he’s a secret sociopath?  What if he feels cornered, and panics?

In the face of these unknowns, you err on the side of boldness.  “Did you try to break into Central Office?”

“Yup!”  His holiday smile neither slackens nor cheapens.

“I’m not kidding, Charles.  Somebody tried to break into Central Office.”

“I know.  It was me.  You’ve no idea, do you?  I’ve been scheming like crazy for the longest time now.”

You are both silent for a moment.  He begins laughing only a second before you do, each of you slapping your haunches and hugging you knees.  “Got me again,” you say.  “You’re four for one, now.”

“That I am,” Charles says.  “Lookout.”

Part Four

Still chuckling, still wary, you head up to the roof.  Now, the thing about the revolving restaurant is that there’s actually no way to stop it from revolving.  That makes getting topside tricky.  You and Charles approach the spinning edge, heavy and slow in your snowsuits.  There’s a little hand ladder hanging down from the exit hatch in the dome glass, and the trick is to stand in just the right spot so you can grab it when it goes by.  Or rather, when you go by.  Charles is better at it so you let him go first.  He climbs up and kicks the hatch open.  Big gusts of glacial air shoot down onto the spinning roof, turning all the beaded condensation into ice marbles.  You follow, quick as you can, and shut the hatch behind.

Needless to say, it’s horrible up here.  Charles breaks open a utility vent beside the hatch and you both extract retractable hoses.  Chitchat will only prolong the ordeal, so you just point out which end Charles should cover and both get to work.  Upon loosening your valves a stream of hot, blue suds erupts from the hose.  The suds slice through the snow, vaporizing it quicker than it can refreeze.  Charles heads to the far end of the dome, cutting swaths of ice like grain, sending modest avalanches down the steep sides of Summertown.

About ten minutes into it Charles hails you on your walkie.  You snatch at it with your free hand and jam it up under your hood.  He still has to yell to make himself heard over the wind.  “Hey!  I didn’t mean to make light of the Central Office thing.  Pacheco told me you were sweating it, is all.”

“It’s alright, Charles.  Lets talk about it another time.”

“He thinks you think he did it.”

“Oh?”  You turn to look at Charles, who is a pale shape among pale shapes.  “Well, I don’t.”

“That’s good.  You don’t think I did it, do you?”

“I don’t know.  Did you do it?”

“I already said.”  This time neither of you laugh.  Charles continues his work at the far end of the dome.  He turns his back on you to begin thawing out the western slope.  “Hey, like, totally random question for you… if you could have anything you wanted, I mean anything at all, what would it be?”

As eager as you are to be done with this conversation, you like where this last bit seems to be headed.  But you won’t make it easy on him.  “Are you kidding me?  My old lady and I just moved into a condo in the French Quarter.  I’ve accrued sixteen hundred hours of paid leave.  I have everything I want.”

“No one has everything they want,” Charles says.  “That doesn’t even make sense.  If you have it, you don’t want it.  Unless you don’t have enough of it.”

You think for a time.  You could say: A quiet evening with my close friends.  It would be true, but it’s a little transparent.  So you say: “Rain.  I would love a summer shower.  Some of those doofuses down there…” — gesturing with your foot through the dome glass – “still miss snow.  But what I would like is some good, wet rain.”

“Noted,” says Charles, and you reaffix the walkie to your belt, worried you may have played this one too close to the chest. 

 *   *   *

Where does the day go?  It’s mid-afternoon by the time you and Charles finish with hose duty.  Late for lunch with your old lady, you rush back to the Quarter.  Despite the morning’s commotion — not to mention that you’re running on exactly zero Happy Birthdays — you’re still excited, as usual, about lunch.  Your old lady makes these outstanding tuna sandwiches.  She substitutes red onions for the celery, yogurt for the mayonnaise, and zests it up with cilantro and limejuice when she can get it.  You’ve tried asking what else she puts in there — cumin? — but it never goes far.  She only speaks this language that is definitely not Spanish.  Pacheco confirmed that it wasn’t Spanish when you had him over for supper.  He also said it also wasn’t Portuguese or Italian.  Probably not any kind of romantic language.  Dolores from Housekeeping ruled out Tagalog.  You’ve also eliminated Ukrainian, Polish and Mandarin.  Recently there have been suggestions that it isn’t any kind of language at all.

You hit the condo steps at a jog.  From the landing you can hear your old lady talking, which is odd.  She shuts up when you open the front door.  You cross the foyer and find her seated at the dining room table.  She’s still wearing the pointed party hat you fastened to her grey braids the night before.  Two sandwiches sit on little plates; one in front of her and another in front of your empty chair.

“I’m so sorry I kept you waiting,” you say, lamely pantomiming hose duty and pointing up at the ceiling.  You set your walkie and pistol down by the door and take you usual seat across from her.  You say grace and she mumbles along.

You’re just about to go to town on that really outstanding tuna sandwich when you see that it has a big, drippy bite mark in it.  You set it down.  You look at your old lady and she glances at the rug, nervously.

The rug isn’t in the usual rug place.

You stand, grab a corner of the rug and pull it aside.  There are scuffmarks on your hardwood floor.  Scuffmarks left by rubber work boots.  You only wear loafers.  You follow the scuffmarks into the kitchen, where you find the back window wide open, flower-print curtains blowing in a gentle breeze.  You stick your head out and see that the tomatoes you’d planted in the soggy French earth below have been trampled all to hell.  There’s no sense at all in chasing after whoever it was.  They’ve had plenty of time to disappear in the labyrinthine Quarter.

You return to the dining room to reason with your old lady.  “Did somebody visit?” you ask.  “Did you see Pacheco?”

She glares at you.

“Was it Charles?  Dolores from Landscaping?  Was it the intern from Homer or the other one from Cicero?”  You take her hands between yours.  “Was it anybody else?”

Your old lady answers you.  At length.

Part Five

Your usual after-lunch nap does not go well.  You drift off once but keep having this dream about tiny people riding tiny zeppelins through your window.  The zeppelins hover over your sleeping face and the tiny people climb down on tiny rope ladders and begin to dig at your eyes with tiny pickaxes and shovels.  Not fun.  You cancel naptime and start afternoon rounds early.  In fact — screw afternoon rounds.  Screw your inspections of Venice Beach and Big Meadow and the Food Court.  You’re going back to Central Office.  You’ll find a quiet place to hide out and wait for the culprit to return.  And when he/she does… well, God help him/her.

You return to the Old Mall and all but kick the doors open, striding in angrily.  It’s only when you hear the noise — a big, tumbling rattle — that you find sense enough to duck for cover.  Yes, the ruckus is coming from Central Office.  You ride up the escalators, squatting beneath the rubber handrail, and upon reaching the mezzanine you see him, clear as day.  Pacheco.  Pacheco, whom you personally vouched for to the offsite management.  Pacheco, whom you trusted most, is at the door to Central Office, jimmying a crowbar into the seal.  He may as well be working you over with the crowbar, for how much it hurts.  You unholster your pistol, but it’s too late — the door opens with a not-very-futuristic squeak and Pacheco slips inside, closing it behind.  He does this like it’s no big thing, like those scratches you found were evidence of his casual comings and goings, rather than a failed first attempt.

You rush to the double-paned window and look inside.  There is nothing but darkness at first, then the rumpled hunch of shoulders silhouetted against a blue computer monitor.  You’re so frustrated you almost can’t see right.  But you’ve got to keep cool.  You’re a smarter guy than anyone realizes, yourself included.

You unhook your walkie, steady your voice and radio Pacheco.  “Hey.  Pacheco.  Hey.  Do you have a minute?”

Pacheco stops typing away at the computer.  “So sorry, amigo mio.”  He radios back in his throaty, charming way.  “But I’m pretty busy.”

“Yeah.  Busy doing what?”

He perks up.  “Where are you?”

Rats.  There is no cornering him.  “I’m home.  Just having a lie-down with my old lady.  What’s got you busy?”

He turns to look back at the vault-style door, but as he does his elbow hits the printer and sends it tumbling to the floor with a plastic-y crash.

“What was that?” You push him.

“I’m in the Explanatory.”  He’s totally cool.  “A humming owl’s got loose, and it’s knocking into the display cases.  My boys and I are trying to catch hold of it.”

“That sounds serious.  I’ll be right there.”

“No, don’t worry about it.”

“Mm-hmm.”  You very convincingly mimic the sound of tying your shoelaces.  “All set.  Be there in a minute.”

“Don’t worry about it, everything’s fine.”

You huff and puff, like you’re running down the condo steps.

“Hey,” he says.  “Hey.  No.  All right, I’m not in the Explanatory.”

You stop huffing and puffing.  “I don’t understand.”

“Listen,” he says.  “I’ll be honest with you.  I’m in women’s fashion.”  This is a low blow.  Pacheco knows how you hate women’s fashion.  It’s all those mannequins.  None of them have eyes.  “I’m just feeling down lately.  I needed a moment.”

“Oh.  Are you all right?”

“I am.  Oh, I am.  I’ll be fine, my friend.  I just need some time to myself.”

“Oh, you’ll get time to yourself,” you say.  “But you won’t be fine.”  Then, pressing the talk button on the walkie, you say: “Alright buddy.  Take care of yourself.”

“Gracias, jefe.”  And without another word your onetime amigo reaffixes his walkie to his belt and finishes whatever the hell it is he’s doing on the computer.  He exits through the same round door — has the audacity, even, to leave it ajar behind him.  He’s stolen something, that’s plain enough to see.  Some big device bedecked with levers and bulbs.  It must be heavy because he struggles with it down the escalator and out the mall.  You follow all the while at a distance, wondering what it is about you that makes him think he can pull this stunt off?  Central Office is on your route, after all.  And you’re not a stupid person.  You’re not bad at your job.  Just take what’s happening now, for instance.  Pacheco is an intelligent, charming, cosmopolitan man. And you’re following him.  And he has no idea.

 *   *   *

Pacheco goes from the Old Mall over to Big Meadow, where he unloads the device into a wheelbarrow by the groundskeeper’s shed.  He wheels that wheelbarrow all the way through the Food Court, in the direction of the World Birds Aviary.  When he races up the ramp to the Explanatory you get a sick feeling.  Is he going to open the doors?  Is he going to kill all those mixed-up birds, and maybe himself while he’s at it?  You sprint after him, right through the Explanatory, and jump clean over the turnstiles at the Aviary grand entrance.  Pacheco is inside, by a grove of a real live acacia trees, monkeying around with the levers and knobs.  You take out your pistol and tell him that if he keeps doing what he’s doing, you’ll shoot him dead.

Pacheco turns to look at you with a blank face.  Hybrid birds bump into your legs as they run about.  They cackle at you and at each other.

“Bang!” Someone yells from behind.  You wheel around and see Charles; looking fine in a tuxedo off the rack.  With that pistol he’s a regular James Bond.  “Bang!”  He yells again.  “Bang!  Hey.  Bang.  What’s the matter, you’ve got a bullet-proof vest?”

You lower your pistol, confused.

“Well,” Pacheco says in his throaty, charming way.  “Um… surprise.”  He reaches for a button on the device.

“Don’t do that,” you say.

“It’s all right,” Charles says, pistol still leveled playfully.  “It’s fine.”

Pacheco presses the button with his short, hard, brown finger.  He points up at the dome glass.  A buzzing, hissing sound starts up.  The sprinklers begin to spin.  It’s a while before the water hits you, but when it does it comes down heavy.

“Rain.”  Charles explains.  “Happy Birthday.”

Laughing, they rush into the grove and beckon you to follow.  There, in between the acacias, you see… everybody.  Your old lady.  The two sloppy-faced interns from Homer and Cicero.  Dolores from the Credit Union.  Silly you.  Silly you to have thought anything else.  But still, as you enter the grove, you imagine a carving knife flashing in your old lady’s hands.  You imagine Pacheco’s straight razor against your neck.  Charles’ loaded pistol nestled in the small of your back.  All of them ready to take you to pieces.

But that’s not how it is at all.  You make it into the grove safe and sound.  Everybody eats cake under the cover of trees.  You feed some to your favorite birds.  The buff-necked burrowing egret.  The actual turkey-vulture.  Your friends sing the birthday song and your old lady sings it again in whatever language it is she speaks.  And you kiss her face; wrap her up in your arms.  You hold everybody tightly in the thundering wet.  You will love them all for the rest of their lives.