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Gary Anderson

Insult Inc.

My cell phone buzzes on the dash and I know I'm late for work. I check my watch: nine sharp. Trust Ottomeyer never to be late. I take a moment to rehearse the lines I worked up late last night then I snap the phone open and press it to my ear. I don't even say hello. "So how does your old lady like getting Fudd-fucked by someone who sounds like his tongue was circumcised instead of his dick?" I hear a stifled grunt on the other end of the line, so I continue: "Which begs the question, does Whea take it in the wearend?" Now the silence is fat with hatred, rage. I can almost feel it seeping into my ear like a black sludge. That's when I know I've done my job.

I get to the office and Jeff is sitting at his desk, surfing porn. "Don't you have any work to do?" I ask.

"Nope," says Jeff. "Not really."

"We could use a few more clients, no? Why don't you focus your vast resources of untapped talents on that?"

"Oh, so now I'm one of your clients? You're going to insult me, too? How much do I owe you for that one?"

"That one's on the house," I say, lightening up. I set down my briefcase and let out a long sigh. "Look, I'm sorry. I'm just a little worried about the state of our fledgling business. That's all."

"So am I. We're in this together, remember?"

I can't argue with this: we are in it together—up to our necks together, basically. We've both sunk our life savings into this joint venture. And the truth is Jeff probably wouldn't have done it if I wasn't his brother-in-law.

"I talked to Lee Ottomeyer this morning," I say. "When's his next call scheduled for?"

"Wednesday afternoon. And make it a good one. He goes before the Tobacco Institute at 3:30."

"Yeah, well, the lisp-slash-harelip thing seems to be working pretty well for now," I say. "But it's an obvious defect, so it will eventually run its course. And since he was born with it, he may be a bit more thick-skinned about it than we think. You should probably try to dig up something else in the meantime."

"On it," said Jeff, clicking the mouse and sending a buxom blond MILF drifting off into the ether.


Esther whips out some paint swatches the second I step in the door. Aside from their equally confounding and annoying names—Delhi Bazaar, Pebble Mosaic, Moroccan Velvet—they all seem fine to me. "Go with whichever one you like," I say.

"Thanks for all the help," she says. I can tell that she's only half joking.

"Come on, babe," I say. "That was the deal, remember? You take care of the decorating; I take care of the dough."

"I give up my dream to become an amateur decorator. Great."

"Not give up, just put on hold. Once Jeff and I get things up and running, you'll be saving every doggone dog in the eastern hemisphere."

"Funny. Speaking of dogs, can you take Gerhardt for a walk?"


Gerhardt pulls hard on the leash like he's magically been transported to the snow-covered tundra of the Arctic Circle and I am his Inuit master reclining on my sled. He stops to splatter some unsuspecting bush with his scent. Gerhardt is the big dumb black lab we adopted after we got married. He was meant to appease Esther in some way that now seems unfathomable to me. I guess I felt bad about asking my wife to put her dream on hold. Ever since college, she's wanted to start a non-profit organization whose mission it is to stop the slaughter and consumption of dogs in Asia. The scope of that particular dream has always struck me as a bit narrow. But then, who am I to say anything—me, with my company that specializes in insulting high-powered businessmen. Esther even has a fancy acronym picked out. FIDO: Federation of Independent Dog Owners. The acronym is also bit of a stretch for me. But I've never said anything about it to her, for fear of insulting the one person in the world who probably doesn't deserve it.


I arrive at the office early and prepare for my first call of the day. The client is Joseph Kazminsky, the CFO of a medium-size graphics corporation. He's only scheduled for once a month, just enough to get the fury coursing through him before he meets with the board of directors. Jeff has done some research on Kazminsky and has turned up some potentially useful information. It turns out Kaszminsky's wife, who at sixty-five suffers from severe cerebral palsy, once sang backup for the Mamas & the Papas. Admittedly, it's an unlikely bit of intel, but I decide to focus on it anyway. Jeff's not so sure. "Do you think that's a good idea?" he says, sucking on a low-fat latte. "I mean, the wife is pretty sick. It might be in poor taste."

"Poor taste?" I say, making no attempt to hide my incredulity. "There's no such thing as poor taste in the insult business. We're paid to do a job and we do it with whatever means are available to us. If she's sick, so much the better for us. It makes our job easier."

"Okay," says Jeff. "You're the expert. I'll leave you to it."

And he does. I've just worked out the insult when my cell phone chatters on the desk. I pick up it up and pause for dramatic effect. Then I speak. "So, just for the record, Joe, was your wife gobbling John Phillip's sourdough or licking Marmite out of Mama Cass's crack. I mean, come on, you didn't really think they needed another harmony on the top, did you?" The silence is almost stifling. There is only the sound of grinding teeth. It gets louder and louder until finally the line goes dead.

Jeff, who's been standing in the doorway, shakes his head. I grin at him. "Another satisfied customer," I say.

"I've got some good news," he says. "We just got a referral from Lee Ottomeyer. You'll never guess who it is. David Strunk. The David Strunk. He wants to meet you for lunch. Today."


I'm scheduled to meet Strunk at 1:00 in a chichi sushi bar uptown. Jeff has worked up a profile on him, so I thumb through it on the cab ride over. I already know that Strunk is insanely wealthy. But the figure on his last year's income tax form sends a shiver sizzling up and down my spine. He has a hankering for fine wine and expensive cigars, which comes as no surprise. Apparently, he also has a hankering for stunning women half his age—also not a surprise. I know this because Jeff has included a dozen or so photos of Strunk snapped with young dazzling models and thin gorgeous actresses. But David Strunk is no Adonis. Far from it. He's a middle-aged man with all the usual middle-aged complications. Like balding, which he clearly tries to conceal by subscribing to the school of comb-over hairstyles. In my line of work, it goes without saying that this alone is an insult waiting to happen. I can tell from the photos that he's also got weight issues, which he tries to camouflage under yards of billowy dress shirts. In a word, Strunk should by all rights be highly unattractive to young and beautiful members of the opposite sex. And I'm betting he knows it. How, then, does he attract the said dazzling model or gorgeous actress in the first place? Money, of course. I'm betting Strunk knows this too. After all, you don't to get to where is he is by being a dummy. By the time my cab veers into the curb and squawks to a halt, I've concluded that to insult David Strunk, I need only point out the obvious: He's fat and unattractive and he only gets the girl because he's rich. It's that simple, really.

I sit at a table and order tonic with a lime twist while I wait. Strunk arrives fifteen minutes late and orders sweet white wine before he even sits down. He introduces himself and tells me to call him Dave. I respond in kind, telling him to call me Max.

"So, Max, Lee Ottomeyer tells me you've started up a very interesting business," he says. "How did you come up with the idea?"

"Well, it wasn't really earth-shattering," I say. "There was no vision from God or anything like that. I simply saw a need and now I am attempting to fill that need."

"And what is this need you saw?"

"Put simply, a need to dominate. It's a primitive need, hard-wired into us—men—that is. It comes with the Y chromosome. Men have a need to dominate. It's no coincidence that those who are successful—men such as yourself—are men who dominate within their field or industry."

"Interesting," says Strunk. He takes a reckless gulp of wine. "And how do you help men to dominate?"

"I pump them full of rage. And they channel that rage into key business activities."

We're interrupted by the arrival of silver trays of sushi. The waiter bows deferentially before retreating into a background of plucked, nasally music.

"So you pump them full of rage," says Strunk. "And you do that by insulting them. Is that it?"

"Well, yes, basically. But it has to be a well-researched, well-placed, and well-timed insult to really work. You see, in order to work, an insult has to go deep. Sub-dermal. Sub-sub-dermal. Down to the bone. Because the rage an insult provokes works like a nitro injection. The client sucks it in then burns fast and furious for the next hour or two. To extend the metaphor, a finely-tuned insult turns a mild mannered six-banger into a high performance funny car. That's why our clients are top-of-the heap businessmen. Businessmen who are always on their game. And that's why they turn to us—Insult Inc."

"Impressive pitch," says Strunk. "But I wonder if it really works."

Against my better judgment, I decide to take a chance and demonstrate. So between mouthfuls of raw bluefin tuna and Japanese butterfish, I rattle off an insult. "That comb-over you favor is the threadbare flag of loserdom in a land ruled by poofs and perms. It's not doing you any favors, Dave."

He stops chewing. His eyes narrow. I watch his face color and his fists harden around his chopsticks. Clearly I've hit a raw nerve. In fact, I'm beginning to think I may be in line for double frontal lobotomy. Strunk's is a classic rage response and then some, which worries me slightly. I excuse myself and find the washroom, where I splash water onto my face and try to decide whether to return to the table or take the backdoor to safety. When I finally slide back onto my chair Stark says, "So that's how it works. Where do I sign up?"


We celebrate with a lavish dinner out on the weekend, just the three of us. Dinner and lots of drinks. After all, it isn't every day that you land the Moby Dick of clients. Who knew that when we started this tiny two-man operation fourteen months ago we would one day have a client list that included the likes of David Strunk? "I, for one, did not," I say, answering my own question, the same which I realize I have neglected to vocalize first.

"You did not what?" says Esther.

"Never mind," I say. "More wine?"

I slosh some wine into Esther's glass before swinging the bottle in Jeff's direction. He covers his glass. I can almost see the bad vibes shimmering off him like a blacktop in the desert heat.

"Come on, Jeff. Live a little. We can afford this now."

"I know," says Jeff. "It's not that."

"What then?"

"You missed a call from Lee Ottomeyer yesterday."

"How do you know that?"

"He called the office to say you weren't taking his call."

"Max?" says Esther. "You didn't take his call? And why weren't you in the office yesterday?"

"Oh, didn't he tell you?" says Jeff. "He's moved into Strunk Tower."

I suddenly feel sober and more than a little annoyed. "I haven't moved into Strunk Tower. David Strunk is a client with special needs. A very, very rich client with special needs."

"Special needs?" says Jeff. "What is he retarded or something?"

"Wow! Look who's hurling the insults now," I say, pausing to slurp some wine. "Strunk needs me close by—on hand. You know, a quick insult to give him an edge. It's kind of amazing, really. I'm just insulting him off the cuff, on the spot. I've never been so spontaneous and so good. I'm telling you, Jeff, I'm on fire. I'm following him around his office torqueing the spring of his psyche tighter and tighter, calling him fat-ass, dickhead, and limp-dick. Not in that exact order, of course, and not in those exact terms—but that's the gist of it."

"Yeah, well, I'm glad you're having a good time, but you're not even supposed to be there. You know that. You wrote the guidelines yourself."

Jeff is right on both counts. I did write the guidelines and I'm not supposed to be there. Insult Inc.'s client relations policy strictly prohibits face-to-face interaction with clients. I know this. It's a basic rule. The last thing we want is to humanize our clients. That makes insulting them more difficult. And there's also the touchy issue of client retaliation—that is, threats of physical violence to the insulter—me. In short, it's just best for everyone involved if we stick to phone calls.

"Okay, okay. You're right. I've strayed from the straight and narrow. I'll talk to him on Monday." I snatch the bottle of wine off the table. "Now can we drink some more?"


I drive directly to Strunk Tower and walk straight to Strunk's office. Strangely, as good as I am at insulting people, I'm pathetically deficient in real two-way conversation with them. That explains my sweaty palms.

"What's on your mind, Max?" says Strunk. "Isn't it a bit early in the day to be telling me my pecker looks like mettwurst and smells like stilton."

"It's never too early in the day for that."

Strunk laughs, a thumping whoop that starts loud and slowly loses momentum.

"The truth is I wanted to talk to you about our arrangement here."

"Don't tell me. You want me to set you up in an office. Am I right?"

"Actually, no." I do my best to sound earnest, something that doesn't come easy for me. "I don't want an office. In fact, I really shouldn't be here, at all. It's against Insult Inc. policy."

"What are you talking about?"

"Trust me. It's really for the best. We can work out a schedule when you can contact me by phone. That's really how we like to work at Insult Inc."

"Hold on," says Strunk, and I can tell that his tolerance for civil conversation is waning fast. "What's this all about? Are you worried about other clients? Is that it?"

"Well, yes and no. We do have other clients. But it's not just that."

"Jesus, Max. With me as your client, you don't need any others. Just name your price and drop them."

"It's not just the money. It's about being able to do my job well. I can't do that when we are in close quarters."

Strunk slams his fist on the desk. He walks out from behind it and kicks a chair across the room. Then he knocks over a coat rack. It's kind of like watching Bill Bixby turn into Lou Ferrigno. I'm stunned, paralyzed. I've seen Strunk's rage before but this is something entirely different. After a few minutes of impersonating the incredible Hulk, he is finally transformed back into his not-so-mild-mannered self. I bite back the insult that's trembling with anticipation on the tip of my tongue. "Perhaps you need a minute to sort this out," I say, before turning for the door.

"Wait." Strunk sits down and straightens his tie. He pulls on his sleeves and checks his Atelier Yozu cufflinks. "I like you , Max," he says. "So, I'm going to go along with this—for now. Set up a schedule with Jill before you leave."


Jeff is still surfing porn when I walk into the office. He looks surprised to see me.

"Did you do it?" he asks.



"And everything is fine," I say, deciding to leave out the part where Strunk rearranges the furniture in his office. "I set up a schedule with his assistant. She'll be contacting you this morning."

Jeff is relieved and happy that I'm back in the office. And I'm relieved and happy. Relieved to be out of harm's way—that being David Strunk as the incredible Hulk—and happy that David Strunk is putting us on the revenue map.

I decide to call Esther and tell her the good news. It turns out she is happy, too. She has finally finished decorating the kitchen in Delhi Bazaar.

"Wow," I say. "Everyone is happy today. Is Gerhardt happy, too?"

"He's always happy."

"Yeah, big-and-dumb happy."

There's a brief pause and I can feel the emotional winds shifting. "I'm proud of you," says Esther.

"For what?"

"For doing what had to be done."

"Well, you know me. No dillydallying allowed. Always doing what has to be done."

"Yeah, I know you," she says, and she hangs up without saying goodbye.

I doodle on a pad of paper for the next few hours, thinking about Strunk. So I'm ready with my insult when I get his call later that afternoon—right on schedule. "I saw you leaving the Plaza today." I say. "You're hair reminded me of two squirrels humping in a stiff breeze and the cleft of your jowl-flanked excuse for a chin looked like William Shatner's ass crack."

On the other end of the line, a chair goes tumbling across the office. Then a coatrack crashes to the floor. "You—! Oh—! One of these days I'm going to cut your fucking nuts off!"


Gerhardt squats statuesquely, doing his duty on the neighbor's lawn. I'm just about to dive-bomb the poop with a bagged hand when my cell phone vibrates in my pocket. I look at the caller ID and expect to see Jeff Baxter. But I don't. It's Strunk. I know I shouldn't answer, but I do.

"David," I say. "It's late. What's up?"

"I need an insult—now," he says.

"We talked about this. It's not a scheduled time."

"Fuck the schedule! You'll get your money. Just give it to me!"

"What do you want it for? You're not in meetings this time of night." I hear a giggle in the background, a girlish giggle. It occurs to me then that an insult could be used to give a middle-aged man like Strunk a younger man's edge in bed. "I don't think this is a good idea."

"Just do it! Do it now!"

I've already worked up his scheduled insult for tomorrow. Turns out Strunk is only half Jewish—his father's side. His mother's side is Welsh Appalachian. So I decide that a tip of the hat to his Appalachian heritage might now be in order.

"You know why hillbilly pimps never get rich, don't you?" I say. Strunk is breathing heavy into the phone. "'Cause they have to pay themselves to fuck their sisters. But then, you already knew that, didn't you, Dave."

Strunk grunts and says something that sounds like motherfucker, but I can't be sure.

I hang up the phone and promptly scoop Gerhardt's poop into a bag.


I'm asleep and dreaming about baking apple pie in our new Delhi Bazaar kitchen when Strunk calls again. I check the clock: Two-thirteen. Esther rolls over but doesn't wake up when I slip from bed and sneak into the bathroom. I flip the phone open, determined to put an end to this.

"David, this has to stop—now."

"Give it to me!" he says. I can hear a woman talking dirty in the background. "I know you want to give it to me, so just do it. Say something about me being fat or bald. No, wait—say something about me being limp-dicked. Yeah, limp-dicked."

He's primed, ready. A live wire. Trembling like a trap ready to spring. I can hear it in his voice. He needs it. And at this precise moment in time I realize how much I want to give it to him, how much I like calling him a chimp-fucking dork or the ass-face that money can't fix. I mean, insulting David Strunk, the David Strunk—what could be more of a rush than that? I know I shouldn't do it, and I know that Jeff would strongly disapprove. But I decide that Jeff doesn't need to know. No one does.

"Give it to me!" says Strunk.

So I give it to him. "I was talking to one of your bimbos the other day," I say. "She says balling you is like stuffing a dead fish in her twat, except the fish has a better chance of getting her off."

"Oh— ! You fucking—!"

The woman laughs. I hear Strunk bellow something. A loud slap and a shrill scream echo in my ear. Another scream. A thud and a grunt. Then the line goes silent.


I almost break down and tell Jeff about last night. That's how shaken up I am, strolling nervously around the office the next morning. When the appointment for Strunk's scheduled call rolls around, I've already decided I'm not going to take it. But he doesn't call. And of course, this leads to questions.

"What happened to Strunk ?" asks Jeff.

"Dunno," I say. "Maybe he's busy."

"I'll call Julia and reschedule." He turns to leave.

"No, Jeff. Don't do that," I say. I'm aware that my voice sounds tense, unnatural—sans my usual ready-to-mock-at-the-slightest-provocation tone. Jeff is aware of this, too. He walks back in to the office, looking at me with his head cocked to one side.

"What's going on?"

"Nothing, really. I was just wondering if maybe we should think about dumping Strunk."

Jeff rocks back onto his heels. "Are you crazy? He's our cash cow. Why would we even consider dumping him?"

"I think he may be dangerous." I spin my cell phone on the desk. "Look, I didn't tell you this the other day, but when I broke the news to Strunk about not doing face-to-faces anymore he had a hissy fit."

"A hissy fit?"

"Okay, a hissy fit times ten. I mean, it was scary. He's violent—and dangerous."

"Don't you think you may be overreacting? I mean, we're talking about our livelihood here. Dumping Strunk could spell the end of Insult Inc."

I know he's right about Insult Inc. And maybe he's right about me, too. Maybe I am overreacting.

"Okay," I say. "Let's wait and see."

"Yes, let's," says Jeff.


When I get home from work, I find Esther sobbing in the kitchen. Needless to say this alarms me. I rush to her, but she cringes, as if I mean to hurt her. Gerhardt, who has been silently lying at her feet, sits up and barks somewhat menacingly. I follow Esther's gaze to the kitchen table, where two Polaroid snapshots are carefully laid out. In each is a badly beaten woman, naked and tied. Split lips, black eyes, bruised cheeks, smashed noses. I can't tell if they are dead or alive. At the bottom of one is scrawled, Who's the limp-dick now? Ha-ha!


Jeff gets there shortly before the police. I don't relish the thought of telling him and Esther the whole story, but I do it anyway. When the police arrive, I recite the whole thing again. This time, my part in the story becomes much clearer and I can't help but feel responsible for what happened to the two women in the Polaroids.

"And tell me again," says the cop with an unsightly mole hanging from his brow like a weed clinging to a cliff, "why you think David Strunk is responsible for this." He points to the photographs.

"I told you. I called him a limp-dick."

"You called David Strunk a limp-dick."

"Well, not in those exact words. But yes, I basically called him a limp-dick when I insulted him."

"And you say you are a professional insulter," says mole cop's partner.

"I didn't say I was a professional insulter. I said I insult people. That's how I make my living."

"Right. So you're a professional insulter," says mole cop.

Jeff jumps in. "Officers, so what happens now?"

"First, we'll talk to David Strunk. Then we'll try to locate the women in the photographs."

"Can you please tell us as soon as you find something out?" says Esther.

"Of course, Ma'am," says mole cop.


I stay away from the office the next day. I just can't seem to muster up a business-as-usual attitude under the present circumstances, so Jeff cancels all my calls. At home, I help Esther paint the front room. Smearing a soggy layer of Pebble Mosaic onto the wall, I realize that it's been a long time since we have done anything like this together, something that might be construed as building a future.

In the afternoon, I take Gerhardt for a long leisurely walk and Esther goes out for groceries. The air outside is warm and full of smells, most of them familiar to city dwellers everywhere. I nearly jump out of my skin when my cell phone buzzes in my pocket. Thinking it might be Esther, I pull it out and look. It's not—it's mole cop. He greets me with a standard-issue air of authority.

"We've talked to David Strunk," he says. "He says he was home all night last night. And three of the domestics saw him at the times you said he called. He has three solid alibis."

"Of course he does," I say. "The man owns half of the finance district. You don't think he can rustle up an alibi or two? Come on, guys."

"Are you insulting me, Mr. Weir? Is that what this is?"

I sigh into the phone. "What about the girls?"

"Well, we found out who they are. We just don't know where they are."

"What do you mean?"

"I mean we don't know where they are. They disappeared yesterday and haven't turned up anywhere yet. That's about all I can tell you at this point. But we'll keep you informed."


I follow Gerhardt into the backyard and set him loose. Only as I get near to the backdoor do I notice shards of glass on the deck. My heart beats out a paradiddle in my chest, and I hesitate for a split second. The bottom windowpane is broken and the door is ajar. I pull out my cell phone to call the police but then wonder if Esther has returned from shopping yet. It's possible. Although I don't recall seeing her car in the garage when I passed by only moments before. Finally, I throw caution to the wind and rush into the kitchen without any real plan as to what I will do if there is an intruder in the house. But the place is empty. No intruder and no Esther. Nothing is gone and nothing seems out of place. Standing there in our newly painted Delhi Bazaar kitchen, I believe I see this break in for what it really is—a warning. Strunk's way of saying he can get to me whenever he wants. It's Strunk's version of an insult.

I realize then that the police are wasting their time. They'll never find anything. They'll never catch someone like Strunk. They never do. And they can't protect me from him. More importantly, they can't protect my wife from him. And neither can I. This is the most sobering thought of all. A frightening thought that leads me to a final course of action that I am loathe to take. But like Esther says, I'm just doing what has to be done.

As if on cue, she steps into the kitchen carrying paper bags teeming with groceries. She sees the backdoor and gasps. "What's happened?"

"Oh, that," I say. "That's nothing. I locked myself out of the house."

"Then what's wrong? You look so serious."

I pause for dramatic effect. "I think it's time for you to save the worthless life of some worm-infested mutt in Guangxi or Guangdong. Maybe you can start a shelter or a home for battered dogs. You'll be like Mother Theresa with a bestial bent. What do you say, FIDO?"

• • •

Who names a hotel The Henry? This is what I wonder as I approach from outside with essential toiletries stuffed in a plastic Walgreens bag. I presume it's named after one of the Tudor Henrys. Again, I ask myself why would anyone want to name a hotel after one of the Tudor Henrys? Stupid, I think. This is America. Why not The Zachary or The Calvin? Hell, why not The Gerald or The Jimmy?

I nod to the hotel clerk as I sweep through the lobby. Jada looks at me like she's never seen me before. Even though I've been here six weeks. I can tell she suspects I'm up to no good but has no idea exactly what that no good might be. I guess if you call trying to stay alive no good, then she's right—I am up to no good.

I ask if anyone has come by looking for me. When she says no I'm relieved. I don't want any visitors. No visitors is a good thing. A very good thing. It means Strunk hasn't picked up my scent. It means he hasn't gone completely over the edge. No visitors means he's not ready to make good on his threats yet. Specifically, the threat about cutting my fucking nuts off one day. It hasn't happened yet. But it could anytime.


I nearly slice my throat shaving when the cell phone hums and rattles off the table. The caller ID tells me it's Jeff. I haven't talked to Jeff since I locked the front door of our house, drove into the city, and took up residence here. What I really mean is I haven't talked to him but he calls. At least he did at first. Almost as often as Strunk. Eventually his calls dropped off—from three times a day to two then to one. Then once every few days. Then once a week. I actually thought he'd given up. Until now.

I don't answer because I already know what he's going to say. First he'll ask where the hell I am. Then he'll ask me what's happened. When I tell him, he'll tell me to call the police. And I'll explain to him that the police can't protect me from someone like Strunk. Then he'll ask me what happened between me and Esther. And I'll tell him he better ask Esther. He'll tell me he has and he doesn't believe it. Then he'll ask if I've heard from Esther. When I tell him no, he'll tell me he has and he'll ask me if I want to know how she's doing. And then I won't know what to say. Because I'm just not ready for that. I'm not ready to hear that she's somewhere halfway around the world living her dream without me. I don't know if I'll ever be ready for that.


I dig two twenties out of my wallet and pass them under the bars to Jada. She mumbles something and slides me a new towel. Not a new towel—a folded gray towel. I walk up to the third floor of the Henry, unlock the door of room 302, and collapse onto the bed. A stab of cold steel pierces my back. I place the newly purchased nickel-plated revolver on the nightstand beside my cell phone. Then I drift off into sleep and dream about Esther somewhere in Asia, somewhere beautiful that I've never been.

When I wake, the sun has disappeared. My phone is buzzing and it's Strunk again. I ignore it again—the same as I have been for the past six weeks. I pour some water into a tea kettle and turn on the hotplate. When the water boils, I pour it into a cup of instant Ramen noodles. I set the cup on the windowsill to cool. Then I open the nightstand drawer and pull out a brown paper bag. Tipping some bullets from the box, I load six of them into the revolver. Now I'm ready, I think. Now I am waiting. I pick up the noodles and slurp them down.

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