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Fiction Contest Winner - Counting Zeros 

by short fiction contest winner Michael Hendryx


As a kid, you know you're already in big trouble when your name is Zero and you're one of only two ethnic guys growing up in a cast-off white neighborhood in the footprint of a proposed freeway. Duffy knew this because that had been his childhood environs too, alongside his tormented, elephantine friend. Zero took such grief for his name and his mashed-potatoes endomorphism that he compensated by eating every processed carbohydrate within reach and killing every insentient creature he could find. Ironically, it was only through his uncanny ability to locate and destroy insects that he finally gained a measure of grudging respect from the coal-eyed, mullet-haired, ATV-wheelin' playground crowd. He'd track the insects down and then, in the presence of his tormentors, eat them, burn them, drown them, squash them, poison them and feed them to each other. So it seemed only natural that, as a young adult, he would become an apprentice exterminator.


And from there it was only natural that Duffy would throw him a piece of business, one newbie professional pal to another.


"The inspector's report says there's termites, Zero. Gotta have 'em cleaned out before the sale is final. Do your thing."


It wasn't Zero's fault that the termites survived. It was just a bad batch of sulfluramid, procured at wholesale rates from another pal down the block, the guy with the chemistry degree but no W-2 job who mixed his own brews in the garage, a struggling entrepreneur like the rest of them. Zero did the deed, the balding humorless inspector came back and said, "Hell, not only are the bugs not dead but they seem to like the poison, they're positively thriving and someone qualified better bomb this place quick or no bank will come near it," the sale fell through and Duffy was out on his ass.





No job, no prospects, empty pockets, and Duffy's hair just kept growing, curling over his collar, which was no place for it to be for an interview in this corset-tight town, supposing he had one lined up which he didn't. Meanwhile, his girlfriend Motsy's mental state was beginning its familiar upward bounce toward a swan-dive for the deep-end.


Duffy and Motsy shared a place together, and thank God for it, too, because her dad's generous support kept him from lining up with the other derelicts out at the "Beans, Rice and Jesus Christ" center on East Sprague. Her dock-diving routine didn't place her at any imminent risk of a state hospitalization -- not in the foreseeable future, not so far as he could figure -- it just made for a bittersweet torture to be confined within the same four scoured, waxed and sealed walls with her. Motsy worked as a dental hygienist. OK, a student hygienist. The only thing she loved more than wiping out millions of oral bacteria was wiping out millions of unseen, by now most definitely imaginary, household bacteria. She attacked her loves with equal intensity.


"Duffy," she called, her words muffled through the facemask as he came through the door, "don't forget to disinfect your shoes when you take them off. Oh, and seal the laundry bag after you strip." There was the laundry bag, by the front door as always, no outside germs allowed to penetrate more than two feet into the sanctuary. She ran in from the kitchenette, her beautiful brown eyes distorted by the goggles, her twice shampooed hair tucked beneath the plastic cap, her body, oh God what a body, concealed behind the industrial apron, her slender fingers protected by latex and clutching a can of germ-killing aerosol. "Here's the spray can, babe," she said, tossing it to Duffy. He sprayed. He stripped. He sealed. Reminding himself that he could be listening to the gospel and eating off a Styrofoam plate amid the alcohol and tobacco fumes of his unwashed brethren, he sealed twice, just to make sure.


Despite his affection for Motsy, he knew if he could get a job he could think about moving out; he couldn't take her antics forever. So, next morning he lined up interviews at several of the remaining real estate firms. Not interviews, really, more like dignified begging sessions. But before he could commence with the begging, he had to do something about the hair. For that Duffy came through the doors of the Rose of Sharon Beauty School and Clinic. The girls there didn't have much experience cutting guys, especially ones with kinky hair, but it cost only five bucks for a hack job that, with luck and poor lighting, would make him, he convinced himself, presentable to the beggees.


"You want what?" stylist trainee No. 1 asked him.


Then later, trainee No. 2 to trainee No. 1 as she worked, "What you doing that for?"


"That's how he said he wanted it."


And later still, the supervisor, holding the clipboard, said, "Nice work, Tawny." And he checked the "3" on the 5-point scale, next to the word, "Adequate."


Well, all right, the haircut resembled a bowl thrown by a psychotic student potter. Next step, how to beg while wearing a tie, Lesson One.


First interviewer: "I see you have your real estate license. But please describe your prior experience."


Duffy, straight as a rod, collar too tight, jacket too small. "I worked for Paradise Realty. I almost sold the Farkins house."


"Oh, the termite house? We heard about that one all over the office."


Second interviewer: "Do you have any prior experience?"


"Yes, I worked for Paradise Realty." Wrinkles emerging on the shirt, a spot of mustard on the tie.


"Right, Duffy Kincaid. Weren't you responsible for the Farkins fiasco? And where did you get that haircut?"


Third interviewer: "Do you have any prior experience?"


"No." Dishevelment personified.


Long pause. "We'll try you out on commission. But first you'll need to complete our training program. At your expense. In Seattle."


"I'll take it."





The loan to cover travel costs came from Motsy's dad. "You ought to get yourself a decent haircut," was all he said as he forked over the dough. By the time Duffy returned from training, Motsy had installed an automatic filtration system, which sucked every microscopic organism hell-bent on harm and infection right out a special vent in the side of the apartment building. She got permission to put it in from the complex manager on account of her childhood allergies. The only problem was the fan, which whirred at the pitch of an angry swarm of mosquitoes. The fan ran 24 hours a day, but Motsy felt so much better knowing it never rested.


Neither did Duffy. It was with some amazement, then, that, bleary-eyed and hack-haired, he managed to secure a listing of a prime Tudor on Cliff Drive and sold the thing the next day for six percent. Only one minor obstacle remained. It had to pass inspection, after the little termite problem was resolved -- a formality, nothing more.





I'm sorry Zero, I've got to go with somebody else."


Zero, his humongous face in a perpetual half-melt, perplexed and ashamed. "But it wasn't me, Duffy. It was the stuff that Clyde mixed. It was bad. I won't use him. I'll buy the real stuff, I promise."


"I can't this time, Zero. I'm really sorry. Next time for sure. I got to get on my feet."


"Well, in case you didn't notice, you ain't the only one on the floor."


No, they had both spent plenty of time there. Helped each other rise from the mat on several occasions. Duffy's dad had found more meaning in methamphetamine than diaper duty and had become part of the reverse urban diaspora from street corner to prison yard: a concentration of fathers lost to sons. After his release, he had evaporated like steam from a heated spoon. The oldest child, high school diploma freshly in hand, Duffy had taken to creative ventures to make his contributions to the family coffers. Some of the pawnbrokers refused his business, but he learned which ones he could trust to accept the fourth or fifth set of silverware or the portable TV he claimed as his own. It was enough for his mother's bus fare to work or his sister's school clothes. Zero had warned him, "Don't keep doin' that, Duffy, you'll be sorry."


Duffy had listened, but he hadn't stopped. Coming out of a south-side split-level by the golf course with a backpack full of things he didn't have 10 minutes earlier, he found himself face to face with a man in blue, and figured he'd learn his father's experience first hand. Duffy did his time at the county lock-up -- thick walls, thin mattresses, plastic food on plastic trays -- and went through his parole period with Zero riding him like a jockey on a fourth-place horse, and with this prodding had been guided to alternative minimum wage pursuits.


But now, despite all this, Duffy was going to play it on his own. He couldn't take another chance on Zero, his friend of the ages. Duffy called the A-1 Exterminator Team and told them to send over the whole damn crew. He paid the additional cost himself by using the rest of the money from Motsy's dad, which he'd saved by sleeping at the shelter a couple of nights during training. The killers arrived in three vans, identical dead logo bugs with legs heavenward and eyes painted x's. Out jumped 12 guys, four to a van, banana-yellow uniforms, all under 25 and sporting really bad haircuts.


"Don't you worry, Mr. Kincaid. We'll take care of this no problem," said the most mature of the lot, fumbling with his canister. Was Duffy worried? You bet your ass he was.


Turns out, Duffy's fears were well founded. When the second team came in to finish the job that the first team bungled, they discovered that the house infestation was a rare, sulfluramid-resistant strain of Brazilian termite. One-in-10,000 shot. By that time, the Tudor deal was as dead as the streptococci littering the fibers of Motsy's wall to wall.


Next day, walking from the bus station toward the last real estate agency in town, Duffy passed the crowd at the Beans, Rice and Jesus Christ center and there was Zero, in line behind the guy who talked to dead generals and produced intermittent outbursts of bean and rice effluence. Head bent low and eyes averted, Duffy crossed to the other side, telling himself he couldn't afford to be late, but he'd be sure to call Zero later.


As he walked by, Duffy remembered back a couple of years to something one of the center's patrons had said once to Zero. "Hey, lard butt, you don't need to eat. Save some for the rest of us." Zero had continued to stare straight ahead, past Duffy to the serving counter. Duffy had looked back to see who it was -- a man with tattoo webs over his elbows and crosses on his forearms, unshaven and grimy like the rest of them, with the cold eyes of a dog whipped to kill.


Duffy had turned to the server, a middle-aged woman with frozen hair and frozen smile doing her bit for the community. "What's on the menu today?"


She smiled and plopped it on. "Here you go." Refried beans, fried rice, bug juice to drink.


They had found space for two in the middle of a far bench. Plastic utensils, cardboard table, the smell of piss and yesterday's alcohol hanging in the claustrophobic air. The entertainment came from a bald, whitewashed guy wearing a clean checked shirt stuffed over his gut into his belted slacks, who said in a cotton-mouth voice, "Today's reading is from Matthew..."


The trays smacked and clattered, the frozen woman plopped and smiled, the odors diffused, the tattoo man stared while the whitewashed man saved souls.


"Jeez," Duffy said, "I hate this place. I'd do anything not to have to come here again."


"Me, too."


"Anything."


After passing Zero in line outside, the rest of the day turned fortunate for Duffy. The last agency, Pine View Realty, had bought up a parcel of 200 acres past the south highway exchange and put up home after home, family starters available in three basic styles, landscaping extra. They employed killers of all sorts to prepare the lots and the houses for human habitation. People to strip off the scrub brush, dig up the pine trees, excavate tunnels for the phone lines, gas lines, water lines, electric lines and cable lines for the stuff going in and the sewer lines for the stuff coming out, lay down the asphalt and cement, nail up the treated lumber, staple down the toxin-laden wall to wall, and unroll the culturally approved sod and kill all the weeds and insects that might find refuge there. They called it Pine View Estates. The view was what you'd call an imaginary one. They needed people to sell those houses. Duffy took the job.


Motsy was thrilled. It was hard to tell because he couldn't really hear her on account of her gas mask, but she gave him a big-gloved thumbs up and a nod of her encased head. Underneath the gear, he imagined he saw her smiling.


The weeks passed for Duffy in a semi-conscious state. He made two quick sales, six percent split with the buyers' agents, no termite killers needed. He paid Motsy's dad back with interest, and got himself a real haircut. Duffy, to his credit, tried to check on Zero, whose parents told him they hadn't seen him at home for a few days, but he seemed to be coming in late and leaving early, when he was there at all. Duffy knew where he should look, but in the commotion he simply couldn't find the right time to head over there.





Over there" meant a long ride on the interstate into the Valley and then a dash through congested intersections designed to kill pedestrians, over a fence through a scrub field to the walking path along the river. Then along the path to where it traversed the edge of the old aluminum mill, and down an empty hillside to the fire scars and the scattering of shopping carts and dusty sleeping bags. Zero would be there somewhere, Duffy knew, where he always went when he disappeared -- to find his dispossessed comrades, his own reverse diaspora, and deaden the impact of reality's hammer with days of fermented nourishment. He would come back when the cold or the hunger or the hopelessness became too much. The one time he almost didn't make it back, Duffy had been there with him when the comrade who had long passed the stage of worrying about a bad haircut approached Zero with a blade and demanded the buck forty-seven in his pocket. Duffy had stood beside Zero holding the neck of a bottle upturned and said no, and the man had seen Duffy's eyes and slunk away muttering profanities.


Duffy knew Zero was there now, far out by the fire scars hidden beneath the upscale river walk, and concluded conveniently that he'd come back when he was ready. Except for that one isolated incident, it wasn't such a dangerous place. He knew that Zero would ask for help if he needed it, like he always had.


Duffy also observed, but failed to act, on Motsy's curious progression, which had evolved far beyond normal parameters to a new and frightening level of pathology.


"Motsy, you home?" called Duffy as he came through the door, elevating his voice over the mosquito swarm fan. Otherwise, all was silence. No spray cans, no vacuums, no industrial washing machine hum, no loving calls to strip. Motsy's dad walked into the living room from the bedroom, holding a suitcase. "She's gone."


"Gone?"


"Don't you pay attention? Don't you wonder if something might be wrong when she starts wearing a gas mask to school? Who's the one with the obsession, anyway, you or her?"


"Where is she?"


"We had to take her to Pine View."


"Estates?" he asked dumbly.


"Sanitarium."


At least it wasn't the state hospital. Duffy had gone to visit Zero there before, maybe four years back, about the time Duffy's parole was coming to an end. His parents had found him in their basement in a catatonic state, huddled and drooling. After he'd stabilized, after Duffy's visits to the bowels of the echoing building with its thick-walled rooms and thin mattresses, Duffy would take walks with Zero around the grounds, among the naked trees and 10-foot wire fences beside the main building's back brick walls, past the clot of smokers huddled by the entrance to the public cafeteria building, where they'd sit at plastic tables and eat from plastic trays, using plastic forks to eat plastic food. Through the naked trees they would catch glimpses of the trout-stocked lake and the town beyond from where the staff, in their smocks and uniforms, trundled back and forth in rusted cars.


"You taking your meds?"


"Yeah, I'm taking my meds. Mom."


They called it an episode of major depression and sent him home after three weeks with a supply of pills and an appointment for the mental health center the next month, which he didn't keep, and once the pills ran out he made do on his own, as before. Motsy's label, on the other hand, was OCD -- obsessive compulsive disorder. She was miserable, she told him in the visitor's lounge. Had been for some time, despite the chirpy demeanor and bleached smile. She told him it was only their love for each other that kept her on this side of the living.


Oh, right, our love. "You hang in there, Motsy girl."


"I think the medicine is helping," she said through a clenched grin. Duffy watched her as she eyed his unsanitized shoes and fidget with the lint on the unsanitized sofa. But when they kissed goodbye, she didn't even wipe off the germs. He promised to come again soon, and as he was leaving she said, "Be sure to check on Zero."


But there was so much to do. Open houses, new listings, buyers to show around from Model A to Model B to Model C. Two weeks after Duffy's visit to Motsy, her dad came to him to ask for money. Pine View was expensive, he said. Deductibles, benefit limits, you know how it is. Hadn't Duffy sold a couple of houses? Maybe he could help out. Duffy gave him most of what was left from his commissions. He was still living in Motsy's place, after all, and paying the bills. So when the impacted molar started giving Duffy trouble, he was broke again and his employee bennies hadn't kicked in, so he had to make an appointment with the low-income dental clinic.


The student dentist was a killer named Ala, hair in a psychotic froth. Ala was from Pakistan, and was trying very hard to be a good dentist. He shot Duffy's mouth many times with sharp piercing needles of Novocain so Duffy wouldn't feel pain, gouged and gouged at the molar and then said, "Oops." Ala called in his supervisor, who came in with a clipboard and checked the "2" on the five-point scale. The supervisor had to instruct Ala in extracting the second half of the molar from Duffy's mouth after the first half broke off. But they gave Duffy some pills when he left the office so that he felt good, after awhile, even though he got Model A and Model B mixed up on the afternoon tour and wanted desperately to take a nap somewhere on the bare, toxin-laden wall to wall.


Once back home, Duffy spent the weekend sleeping, head nestled deep in the hypoallergenic pillows, too medicated to investigate how to disconnect the buzzing filtration system that Motsy's dad kept coming in to turn on when he wasn't home. That was two more days when he didn't check on Zero. When next he staggered into the sunshine to head over to Pine View -- Estates or Sanitarium? -- he ran into Motsy's dad, who said, "Motsy's coming home tomorrow. Thanks, buddy, you were there for her and we won't forget it."


Clyde told Duffy the news the next day. Came shuffling to him as Duffy finished showing the Fergusons the plush Model B wall to wall. Duffy, it seemed, was the last to know. The authorities called Zero's death a suicide, from an overdose of his own poisons. A potent batch this time, the luckless bastard. He'd come home only long enough to go down to his supplies in the basement. Zero had turned out to be an effective killer after all, A+, but Duffy knew, looking into the mirror, tying the tie for the funeral, that the sorry sack of shit looking out was the champion, better than all the others. A graduating senior valedictorian killer.


How to beg while wearing a tie, Lesson Two. Zero's funeral. Mom and Dad and sister, crying and weeping over the coffin, Motsy holding a hankie to her nose, Duffy still in shock to the side, near the pile of dirt, begging silent forgiveness, trying to fathom how it was that his climb to mainstream life had resulted in this deep rectangular hole.


The first stage is denial. Duffy passed that one when the first shovelful of dirt slapped against the casket. Second is anger. Duffy worked on that one for a long time. Sunk into it, quietly, like a digestive enzyme. Was fear one of the stages? Duffy didn't know. But he knew when he looked to Motsy, back home steam cleaning the wall to wall, his anger welling up, hearing her shattered sanitarium voice ring in his head, "Only our love for each other keeps me on this side of the living," that fear and anger together made for a wicked cocktail.





Without even trying, Duffy closed more sales. Model B -- or was it Model C? -- seemed especially popular. He had money, plenty to get his own place. Afraid to move out, but too mad to keep playing along, Duffy came home and refused to strip, refused to spray. "Enough of the cleaning," he told her. But then he looked into her own fear and relented. Temporarily. When he refused again, she stared right back, lifted her chin and said, "You're right. This is crazy. I have to stop. You have to help me. What would I do without you?"


So he stayed, and she beat it. Not right away, and never completely, but with backslides and advances she got to where she let the dishes go unwashed for half a day. Showered only once each morning. Moved the laundry bin away from the front door. Turned off the fan at night. Duffy started to look forward to coming home, to the intervals of relief from his nagging conscience, to the hot dinners, the clean bathroom, the smiles, the bed. Motsy came to him at last and said with shimmering eyes, "Who am I now, Duffy? I don't know anymore, but I have to find out. Thanks for being my friend." And she left her perfumed hypoallergenics and dropped out of school and moved out, leaving Duffy totally, utterly alone.


And it wasn't long after that when Duffy paid a visit to Zero's parents, where they shook his hand and said with shimmering eyes, "Thanks for being his friend," and he went into the basement where Zero kept his exterminator supplies, and found the batch of poison. Bargaining is a stage, and one that Duffy knew: the seller's agent, the buyer's agent, we'll do this if you do that. He told himself that he wouldn't drink the poison, for now, if he could do what Motsy had done in defeating her demons. They all had their demons. Duffy's was the feeling that struck him sick in his gut whenever he remembered the day he passed Zero on the street. When he had told himself he didn't have time to make that trip to the Valley. When he had doubted Zero's insect expertise.


They had sometimes taken walks together in the state park that bordered the river, over the footbridge beside the water-kissed basalt columns, into the ponderosa needle litter, looking for insects. Duffy had carried his math book in his backpack, as he would later carry the real estate texts and sales manuals.


Zero would say something like, "This one here is a devastator grasshopper," or, "there's a Western pine beetle." He would walk stooped for a mile, never losing his concentration, or scurry on hands and knees for hours through the debris. With the things they captured, Zero had practiced his craft, devising new and entertaining methods of arthropodic destruction.


While they practiced, they talked. "Did you do your math homework?" Duffy once asked him.


"Exponents. I'm not sure I get it. Now look here. If you stick the needle from its belly through its mouth, it spits brown juice all over."


"Cool. Not as good as the spider fight, though."


"Yeah, that was the best. And if you crunch it fast," Zero continued, demonstrating, "you don't even taste the guts."


"You just count up the zeros. Otherwise the whole system just plain falls apart."


"What?"


"On the homework."


"Oh. Look up here, a whole mess of spittle bug nymphs."


"Why do you do this, Zero, just for those jerks at school?"


"I don't know. Why do you worry about exponents?"





Motsy had won her struggle, and Zero had lost, but it was Zero he drew on, Zero who taught him Lesson One in how to stop begging. In time, after his probationary period at Pine View Realty had ended and they told him his services were no longer required, Duffy found himself hanging around the Beans, Rice and Jesus Christ center, and after awhile he began to work behind the counter, where he'd slip an extra helping to the guy who talked to dead generals, or stand outside and hand out Styrofoam cups of hot chocolate during the cold mornings before they opened. He met a regular, a gangly kid who said his name was Nikolai but everybody called him Mn & oacute;go, and began to look for him at the center and to talk to him about anything, about Russia or basketball tournaments, as they walked to the bus stop in the failing light at each day's end to go their separate ways. For Duffy, this became a part of practicing life, lesson 10,043.





Publication date: 12/25/03

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