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(Grayscale) Chapter 3

It was an unseasonably warm evening for a Philly Autumn. Quinton abandoned his jacket earlier and strolled along a crowded South Street in a blue tee with the words Velvet Underground across it. The tattoos on his forearms exposed, his right hand wrapped in a bandage and kept close to his front pocket to protect it from the pedestrian traffic. His eyes were partially hidden by a tattered, leather, wide brimmed hat that he found on a stool at the North Star Bar after hours back in college.

Sounds flooded the senses from everywhere. Music faded in and out, different songs expelling from the open doors, as he passed the stores and bars. The songs were as varying as the faces that made up the crowds. Conversations bled in from along the sidewalk. Quinton caught a few sentences of the teenage girls in front of him, shifted attention to the couple walking by, and shifted attention again to the homeless man asking a group of women for change.

South Street was bustling with activity. The bars were packed, while teenagers gathered against nearly every brick wall or storefront. Costumed bodies accented the evening’s population. Quinton took note of the many costumes inspired by Mexico’s Day of the Dead. Faces decorated in ornate and colorful skulls. They stood out from the other Halloween goers: the zombie, the vampire, the slutty nurse. Spiders, fake webs and gaudy orange lights hung in the store windows. A man in his early twenties walked by with a fake Mohawk on top of a rubber skull cap and Quinton smirked. He thought about the South Street that once was, a center point for the creative and the outcasts, where Repo Records, Zipperhead and J.C. Dobbs were places of congregation. Now it was filled with tourists and hipsters.

He felt the phone in his jeans pocket vibrate. Undoubtedly, it was Troy getting antsy. Ten minutes was late enough to start the texts and phone calls rolling in. Quinton ignored the vibrations as he got closer to his destination. He tried to ignore the throbbing in his hand. The gash was deep, but it shouldn’t ache after four days. The healing process was virtually stunted.

As Quinton approached Lorenzo and Sons, he saw Troy standing in front of the red awning and pizza maker mural. Troy was holding a pizza box and a six pack of beer. He could hear his agent friend over the crowd before he made it to the other side of the street.

“What the fuck, man. Pizza’s getting cold. My beer is getting warm.”

Quinton took the box. The two turned the corner onto Third Street and sat on the curb. Troy pulled a bottled of iced tea from his jacket, handed it to Quinton, and popped the cap on one of the beer bottles using the edge of the curb.

“Can’t we ever have a normal meeting? Like in my office, or lunch at a table in a restaurant? It’s almost midnight and my ass is on a filthy sidewalk.”

“Best pizza in Philly,” Quinton replied, sipping the iced tea.

Troy put the beer bottle to his lips and guzzled while Quinton opened the box and handed out slices. The two sat in silence for the amount of time it took to inhale a slice, both taking in the activity around them. A police officer looked over from the other side of the street, at Troy’s six pack, then at Troy who was finishing off the first beer. He smiled at the officer and held up the bottle.

“It’s O.K. I have a prescription.”

The officer shook his head and walked toward the crowd. He obviously had more important things to monitor in the midst of a South Street Halloween night than a few beers consumed on the street.

“Jonathon’s publisher sent me over the contract,” Troy told him pulling a folder from his backpack. “It’s generous.”

“Not ready to sign a contract. Not sure I want to do this.”

“Fuck, Quint. This is a great opportunity for you.” Troy took another swallow of beer. “You are going to need to take on something new at some point. Trust me when I tell you if you don’t continue to produce, people will forget. And the public brain is filled with so much other shit, so over stimulated, forgetting is quick. Trust me, Quint. You are too talented for that. Not to mention I work on commission, so stop being so damn selfish,” giving Quinton an elbow to the ribs.

Troy was pushy but loyal to a fault. Not only was he the conduit for much of Quinton’s success, he was also the impenetrable gate keeper, creating a complex array of checks and balances, locks and booby-traps, to ensure that his client and friend’s identity remained a secret. It was not without the occasional prodding that, after maintaining anonymity for five and a half years, a coming out would be momentous, not to mention lucrative. But no matter how pushy Troy could be, he would never betray that trust and would work just as hard to keep him out of the spotlight as was his desire to put him in the spotlight.

Quinton half listened to Troy while watching a couple walk across the street, focused on how the woman rubbed the man’s back as they walked, and wondering what the gesture meant to both of them at that very moment. Flirtation? Compassion? Reinforcement? Insecurity?

“Did you know he met her in his class?”

“Who?” Troy asked.

“Allison, his wife.”

“Whose wife?”

“Reed Mitchel. The poet? The project you have me working on?”

“So, you are working on a project now? Not without getting through this contract.”

“He was about 30 years older than her. They met in his class. Jonathon interviewed some of his colleagues.”

Troy stared at Quinton with a look that said he didn’t get the significance, and didn’t much care for the specifics. “Not the first professor who took advantage of an impressionable college student.”

“That’s the thing,” Quinton replied. “She wasn’t a student.”

“You said she was in his class.”

“But she wasn’t registered, not in that class, not in any class. She was never accepted to that school. According to Jonathon’s notes, he checked the records. She wasn’t even auditing.”

“Never was a big mystery fan, but if it inspires you, consider yourself Sherlock fucking Holmes.”

Quinton stared up at the sky that was manipulated by the lights of the neighborhood and the other tall buildings that polluted the darkness. His eyes looked upon the pollution as if he were a cinematographer looking at his scene through a lens filter designed to blur reality so a dreamlike feeling could be conveyed. But wasn’t everything seen through one filter or another?

“I read interviews from three professors at the college,” he spoke to Troy without taking his eyes off the diluted night sky. “They were all consistent in their assessment of that relationship. It was bizarre. It came out of nowhere and suddenly was. He treated her like an object and she acted more like a mannequin than a human being.”

The words from the pages of Jonathon Thomas’ notes scrolled before his eyes. The amalgamation of sentences depicted a relationship that at the very least was an imbalance of power, the objectifying of gender, the acceptance of roles that are rooted in centuries of exploitation and dominance. What could she possibly gain from being his trophy?

Troy’s disinterest was as straightforward as any of his feelings, comments or actions. Such a contrast to Quinton, the agent lived completely exposed. He said what he thought, regardless if the words were funny or offensive, heartfelt or hurtful. His life was meticulously chronicled on social media. Troy was the quintessential example of modern life, free of the desire for privacy.

Quinton signed the contract while they finished off the slices and Troy drank a third beer. Troy handed the other three beers to a group of teenagers walking by and checked his pocket for cash.

“I need to get some sleep. Some of us actually have to get up in the morning and head to an office. You know, actually work.  Love ya, Quint.” Troy headed down Third Street.

Quinton opened Wikipedia on his phone, finding the page for the poet.

Reed Mitchel (born May 9, 1961) was an American poet whose work has sold over 5 million copies and has been translated into twelve different languages. The poet is most known for a collection entitled In and Through the Dirt, which was published when he was twenty-three years old.

Mitchel was the youngest writer to receive the Academy of American Poets Fellowship and the Kingsley & Kate Tufts Poetry Award. Prolific in his twenties, he published his first novel at thirty-four years old with lackluster response.

Quinton punched in Allison Mitchel, then Allison and her maiden name Loingseach, then Allison Loingseach and her home town. Nothing. Not even in the social media universe. Quinton smiled and thought, ‘she was more of a ghost than me.’

He set the phone on the curb. The throbbing was like a heartbeat in his hand and the aching rhythm pulsated through the veins to the elbow.  The gash felt bigger under the bandage, like it was expanding, like a crater opening in the ground from an earthquake. Maybe it needed a stitch. Maybe it was infected. Maybe he should head to the hospital tomorrow and get it checked. Quinton looked down, passed the crow tattoo on the inside of his forearm, to the bandage on his hand, and resisted the temptation to tear it open to see the gash. Better to undo the bandage when he got home.

He imagined the crow tattoo coming alive and chewing on the bandage to get to the open flesh. Then picking, little by little, eventually finding the soft, meaty part. Then devouring, stopping only to push its beak to the sky to swallow. Then picking on the bone.

Quinton stared deep into the black ink of the tattoo. The space around him seemed to darken, as if every building shut the lights off at once, along with the lights that lined the street, and the car lights, and any other residual illumination. As it faded, so did the sounds of South Street – the music, the voices, the traffic. Even the autumn breeze dissipated and left the air still.

Quinton stopped breathing for that moment, his eyes not leaving the black ink within the bird, submerged in the colored skin, the shadowy stillness on the periphery. Not blinking, his eyes began to water.

Breaking through the silence, subtly, like someone was gradually turning up the volume on one track only, Quinton could hear pecking and chewing. He raised the bandaged hand to his ear and listened. The sound was coming from underneath. He began to feel the sensation of two small, bony objects sorting through the flesh inside his hand. Tweezers with surgical precision. A beak.

Quinton closed his eyes and forced himself to take a deep breath. He held it for as long as he could and when he felt that it was right, he let it go. The sounds of South Street followed behind a long and controlled exhale. When his eyes opened, the lights of the city returned.

Anxiety crept in with a rapid heartbeat as he sat there on the curb facing an old woman and her pint sized dog. She stared back from the other side of the street. Quinton took deep breaths to relax the inner workings of his body, and counted to ten, three times, until the body calmed. He looked down at the crow tattoo. It was again nothing more than a carefully crafted drawing on the skin.

The experience was not foreign to Quinton. But it had been some time since the wakeful dreams had paid a visit.

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