Jon Wesick

Ramparts of Indifference

               Nobody mocked Ashley Allen’s name. If they did, they ended up with a black eye and a busted lip. It wasn’t enough for Ashley to simply respond. He was proactive when it came to protecting his moniker. Any kid who might find his name amusing or simply knew enough English to express an opinion, found himself flat on the playground and straddled by Ashley’s huge body.
               So, when the new kid showed up in Mrs. Fletcher’s class, Ashley cracked his knuckles in anticipation. During arithmetic, he studied the newcomer. With his crew cut, suit, and clip-on tie, it was clear the new kid had no experience in the rough-and-tumble world of playground politics. This dork was going to be a pushover.
               The call to action was so enticing that Ashley didn’t wait for recess. During the kickball game in gym, he felt the satisfying give of the inflated, red ball against his foot and set off running but he bypassed first base in favor of right field where the new kid stood.
               “What are you looking at?” Ashley shoved the newcomer who stumbled backwards and tripped over a rock.
               In a split second, Ashley was on top of him He made a fist and drew back his arm to pop the kid in the nose. This was the moment he loved most, the moment he saw the fear in a weakling’s eyes. The only problem was that the new kid didn’t react.
               “Allen!” The gym teacher yanked Ashley to his feet. “Principal’s office! Now!”

               An hour after the rest of class had gone home, Ashley sat at his wooden desk, watching the clock’s second hand move slower than a comatose sloth. The only sound was the scratching of Mrs. Fletcher’s red pen on student’s homework. In this tedium, Ashley realized he didn’t care if people made fun of his name. He simply loved how others trembled when he was around. Tears, pleas for mercy, or a quivering lip made the feeling even better but the new kid just didn’t care. Ashley made it his mission to break through that wall of apathy. Only then could he torture the newcomer for real.

               Ashley approached the new kid with a peace offering the following day.
               “Want some?” He broke off a piece of a Kit-Kat bar and held it out. When the new kid hesitated, Ashley took a bite. “It’s good. See!”
               David Kingsley did not see a treat. He saw obesity and tooth decay. Nevertheless, refusing would be rude.
               “Thanks.” Kingsley took the candy as if handling a live scorpion. In keeping with his world view, the initial sweetness left a bitter aftertaste.
               “More?” Ashley gestured to the last section.
               Kingsley shook his head.
               “Go on.” Ashley nudged Kingsley’s shoulder. “Finish it off.”
               Kingsley’s face grew red as he bit into the last piece.
               “You ever see ‘The Raid?’” Ashley crumpled up the wrapper and tossed it on the ground. “These cops have to fight their way out of a building full of drug dealers. It’s awesome. We can watch it after school at my house.”

               Ashley Allen lived in a neighborhood with no sidewalks. He led Kingsley through the overgrown yard, unlocked the front door, and entered the living room where pictures of Jesus and Elvis hung on the wall behind the big-screen TV. Ashley wasted no time before putting the DVD into the player. While the opening credits rolled, he retrieved a two-liter bottle of soda and bag of chips from the kitchen and set them on the coffee table by the plastic-covered couch.
               Kingsley did not see the appeal of TV and movies. All stories involved putting someone in a terrible situation and watching them fight their way out, or not. It was a form of cruelty that in his empathy for the characters Kingsley could never enjoy.
               Immersed in the gun fights, knife thrusts, and kicks to the head, Ashley didn’t notice that Kingsley spent the first hour staring out the window until his mother opened the door and set down a bag of groceries.
               “Ashley, would you help unload the car, please? Oh, who’s your friend?”
               “I’m Kingsley, ma’am. Let me help you with those.” Kingsley sprang to his feet.
               Ashley followed. He didn’t understand Kingsley at all. Why would anybody prefer carrying groceries to watching “The Raid?” His project was going to be a lot harder than he thought.

               The only law in fourth grade is the law of the jungle. Sensing an opportunity, a carrion feeder named Ricky Deacon swept Kingsley’s books off his desk and laughed like a hyena. Normally as the apex predator, Ashley would let such and incident pass but Kingsley was his experiment. He’d be damned if he let anybody else spoil it.
               “Pick those up!” Ashley shoved Ricky face down by the fallen books.
               “Ashley! Principal’s office! Now!”

               The next day, Kingsley sat by Ashley at lunch.
               “You might like this.” Kingsley handed him a DVD of “The Raid 2.”
               “Thanks.” Ashley turned the DVD over in his hands. So, the new kid actually though he was his friend. Maybe he could use that.


               The occupants of the McAlister dorm called the unlikely pair the Adverbs. No one could imagine a more mismatched set of roommates yet Ashley and Kingsley were inseparable. Ashley drank deeply from the well of life, partying until 2:00 AM and sporting a new woman on his arm seemingly as often as he changed his shirt. His grades didn’t suffer because, despite his childhood behavior, Ashley was brilliant. He’d even managed a full scholarship due to his shrewd judgment of the admission committee’s members. By the end of his sophomore year, a philosophy major named Janet Symborska spent more and more time attached to Ashley’s ulna until she monopolized his attention.
               In contrast, Kingsley held the world at arm’s length. When his head wasn’t buried in a chemistry textbook, he regarded human folly from behind his oversized glasses. Though temperamentally suited to being a hermit, his raging hormones had other ideas. It killed him to see his friend going through statuesque goddesses like a power mower through Kentucky bluegrass. To make matters worse, the sock on his dorm room’s doorknob most evenings sent Kingsley to the library until closing time. Ashley’s Janet period made matters even worse. When Kingsley finally brought this up with his roommate, Ashley said, “Yeah, these dorms are for suckers. We can do better.”
               “But I already paid my deposit for next year, Ash.”
               “You have until the thirtieth to get it back.” When Kingsley frowned, Ashley grabbed him by the shoulders. “Look Kings, I’ve got this. Okay? Just have a little faith and it will be great. You’ll see.”

               Kingsley didn’t see much of his friend that summer. While he struggled through his second attempt at organic chemistry, Ashley earned credits toward his business degree with an internship on Wall Street. United in their loneliness, Kingsley and Janet took nighttime rides to the quarries and spent hours chatting while the moon reflected on dark waters.
               “I was thinking of taking a philosophy elective. Is there anything you’d recommend?” Kingsley asked.
               “You mean like an intro?”
               “Yeah. Questions like what’s real and what it means to live a moral life have always intrigued me.”
               “Don’t waste your time.”
               “What do you mean?”
               “Because anything they’ll tell you before your third year is bullshit.” Janet lifted her dark, wavy hair off her neck to let the sweat evaporate and filled the Toyota’s interior with the scent of a woman’s pheromones. “Seriously, use that brain of yours on something useful instead. I used to lap up all that nonsense until I read up on Ayer and the Vienna Circle. Now, I’m a thorn in the side of the philosophy department. I put in too many hours to change majors so I spend all my time in class telling my professors they’re wrong.”
               “The Vienna Circle?”
               “Yeah. In a nutshell, they showed that any statement not tied to an observation is meaningless. You know, like in science. So, all that philosophical blather about God and the soul is just that, blather.”
                Kingsley realized that he was more than a little in love with her but she was Ashley’s girl so he kept it platonic. Their friendship grew throughout the summer while they waited for the great man’s return. After visiting the quarry, they often stopped at Guillermo’s, the pink-walled taco shop where brown-skinned women formed tortillas in their palms and fed them into the oven via a conveyor. Though they loved tacos piled high with grilled meat and cheese, Janet insisted they simply buy three tortillas for a dollar and leave the difference in the tip jar.

               At summer’s end, Kingsley sat on the mattress staring at the boxes that held his clothes and books. He had to vacate the dorm room by 5:00 PM and he had no idea where he would be living during the fall semester. To make matters worse, he hadn’t heard from Ashley in weeks. At 4:45, Kingsley hauled his boxes to the curb and turned in his key. It was too late to make permanent arrangements so he considered staying at a classmate’s place or splurging on a hotel. As Kingsley was about to call a taxi, Ashley pulled up in an MG convertible.
               “Sorry I’m late. Got held up on the I-5.” Ashley was tanned and the top-down drive had ruffled his hair. “Hop in.” He motioned to a random student and paid a him a hundred dollars to deliver Kingsley’s boxes to their new place with a promise of a hundred more on delivery.
               After a twenty-minute drive, Ashley parked in the circular drive in front of a stucco building as large as a hotel. As Kingsley followed his friend up the brick walkway and through the double doors, he expected they’d be sharing a three-hundred-square-foot room in the basement. When they entered a living room the size of a basketball court, Janet handed Kingsley a long-stemmed glass of champagne.
               “Welcome home, darling. Perhaps you’d like to relax in the hot tub before dinner.”
               “I don’t have any trunks,” Kingsley said.
               “We don’t worry about that here.” With a sway of her hips, Janet walked away to the professional kitchen to check on the abalone steaks.

               Left to his own, Kingsley would have had a hard time finding a date but his recent lifestyle upgrade and proximity to Ashley brought new opportunities. The first came that very Saturday at a party in the enormous living room. Due to Janet’s influence, the gathering wasn’t one of the raucous affairs Ashley was known for with semi-naked guests urinating in the potted plants. It was instead a classy affair like a literary salon. As Kingsley chewed his seared scallops, he noticed a woman with long, red hair and plastic-framed glasses staring at him from the deck opposite the swimming pool. Ashley’s loud paraphrasing of Joseph Campbell came from the living room.
               “And it’s painful and it’s horrible but by god you're alive and it's spectacular!”
               Kingsley set down his plate, drained his Argentine wine to steady his nerves, and approached the redhead.
               “My God! How do you afford this place?” the woman asked.
               “I had a paper route as a boy and invested wisely. I’m Kingsley, by the way.”
               “Cheryl.” She took his hand in her warm grip. “What kind of investments did you choose?”
               “Have you ever heard of Enron? How about Bernie Madoff?” Sensing an opportunity, he took a chance. “If you’d like, I can show you my portfolio.”
               “Ooh! I bet it’s a big one!” Cheryl took Kingsley’s arm and let him lead her upstairs.
               They engaged in some kissing and mild petting but nothing that would warrant an NC-17 rating. When Cheryl explained she was working on an MFA in creative writing, Kingsley said, “I could never get into stories.”
               “Doesn’t matter. Narrative is dead.” Cheryl reached for her glasses. “I’m blind as one of those cave fish without them.” She showed him one of her flash-fiction pieces on her cell phone. It was called “Bechtel Test” and featured two women discussing the best way to dissect a live female gorilla.
               “It’s…uh…definitely postmodern,” Kingsley said.
               “Oh, look at the time!” Cheryl straightened her blouse. “It’s nothing compared to your grand estate but maybe you’d like to stop by my place for dinner. Say Friday at 8:00.” She kissed him on the temple. “Bye, love.”
               The guests had left by the time Kingsley went downstairs. Janet was vacuuming, and Ashley hauled a container of empty bottles to the recycling.
               “Care to help us out, pal?” There’s a push broom in the closet. Go over the living-room floor.”
               It seemed like overkill but Kingsley cleaned with his friend until 1:00 AM. The reason became clear the following morning when a realtor showed up with potential buyers. Ashley explained after they left.
               “You know that movie producer who got convicted of rape? Well, this is his house or at least it was. Anyway, I made a deal with the realtor. We get to stay here for free as long as we keep it clean and agree to move out in a week if it’s sold.”

               When Cheryl greeted Kingsley at the door to her apartment that Friday, he knew he had it made. She’d arranged her hair in a kind of controlled chaos and wore a sweatshirt that left one rosy-skinned shoulder bare. After a lingering kiss, she ushered him to the living-room couch and returned with wine and two plates of squash ravioli. Kingsley never understood what the point of squash was but Cheryl sat close to him while resting her forearm on his thigh with her elbow brushing his pleasure lever.
               “Oh, time for dessert.” She cleared the table, returned with two lines of coke on a mirror, and rolled a five-dollar bill into a tube. “Guess you probably use hundreds, huh?”
               “Cheryl, I’m studying to be a pharmacist. If I used that stuff, I’d never be able to get a license.”
               She stared as if he’d defecated on the coffee table.
               “Oh well, that just leaves more for me.” She snorted the cocaine and wiped the powder from her nostrils.
               They slept together. It was pity sex or maybe I’m-high-and-it’s-too-much-trouble-to-kick-you-out sex. Whatever Cheryl’s motivation, Kingsley convinced himself their relationship could work if he pretended the cocaine incident never happened. It did for the time being. They slept together another two-and-three-quarters times before Cheryl uttered that bone-chilling phrase, “We need to talk.”

               They met at a coffee shop called The Bitter Bean. Kingsley sat behind his boring, black coffee while Cheryl delivered her tirade. She was as gorgeous as ever in purple yoga pants and a sports bra.
               “This isn’t working for me.”
               “What can I do?” Kingsley would have said anything to sleep with her just one more time.
               “It’s too late. I’ve found someone new. Unlike you, he makes me feel alive. Every day with him is a new adventure.”
               “I can be adventurous.” The words sounded false even to Kinsley.
               “No, you can’t. I thought I could break you out of your shell but you’re hopeless. All you care about is your precious pharmacy career. There are more things to life than your job.” Cheryl stood. As she left for a life that would include three stays in rehab and a death by overdose at age thirty-five, she paused at the door to say, “You need therapy.”
               Kingsley returned to campus where he ran into two dozen topless women carrying protest signs. A pair of shapely arms dragged him into the writhing mass of flesh.
               “It’s Free the Nipple Day, Kingsley!” Janet said.

               As Ashley’s best man, it was Kingsley’s duty to plan the bachelor party. Being Kingsley, he would have been hopeless so Ashley made the arrangements. Since their mansion was both better and cheaper than anything they could rent, Ashley sent Janet off in a limousine so the boys could have their fun. Ashley’s classmates dribbled in, took drinks, and talked about stock options and price-to-earnings ratios. A little after 9:00 PM, a white van pulled up and a dozen women in bikinis got out. Two muscly men in leather jackets followed.
               “Gentlemen, the entertainment has arrived,” Ashley announced.
               Music started. The women lost their tops as they circulated among the guests. One approached Kingsley.
               “No. No. He’s not for you.” Ashley dragged Kingsley to the microphone. “Gentlemen, I want to introduce my best friend in the entire world, David Kingsley. He’s been there for me since we were kids.” Ashley threw his arm around Kingsley’s neck and drew him close. “Kings, I promise you, buddy, I’ll always be there for you, too.” He kissed Kingsley on top of his head. “As a reward, I got you a special gift.”
               Someone cued “The Stripper” on the stereo as the spitting image of Janet exited the van. Shedding scarves and gloves, she danced toward Kingsley who stood paralyzed with embarrassment.
               A glass shattered. Heads turned to see an Asian woman rushing away. One of the leather men intercepted her before she could reach the gate. People in the next state must have heard the slap that knocked her to her knees.
               “Nothing to worry about, folks,” Ashley said into the microphone. “I’m breaking out the 1947 Cheval Blanc. Enjoy.”

               Janet would have preferred a civil ceremony but Ashley insisted on a church wedding with all the sanctimony that entails. The service was just like any other. When the time came to speak or forever hold your piece, Kingsley kept quiet. The beating at the bachelor party left him in turmoil but Ashley was his friend and he’d never seen him abuse Janet. Afterwards the guests returned to the mansion for the wedding dinner. Kingsley sat with Ashley’s mother not far from where the pimp had hit the runaway prostitute a week earlier.
               “Time flies so fast.” Mrs. Allen wiped a tear from her eye. “I remember when you were boys. Now look at you.”
               Waiters in white jackets circulated with plates of Lobster Thermidor and Fettuccini Alfredo for the vegetarians. When everyone had been served, Kingsley tapped a spoon on his champagne glass to get everyone’s attention and stood.
               “As Ash’s best man, I’d like to say a few words. Now, it’s traditional to embarrass the groom with stories of the past but don’t worry. I won’t mention Ash’s teenage obsession with sex robots or how a sheep named Betty seemed especially enamored with him in 4-H. I won’t talk about that transvestite bar in Tijuana or all those Craig’s List ads he responded to. Ash, I don’t know how you found a woman like Janet. You don’t deserve her. And Janet, I guess he’s your problem now. If everybody would raise their glass, I’d like to say that we’re all delighted for the both of you. Well, except for the stockholders of the sex-robot company and, of course, a few sheep.”


               With his new bride in tow, Ashley went off to Wall Street to seek his fortune while Kingsley attended a pharmacy program in Eugene, Oregon. After graduation, he got a job at a chain drugstore in Salem. The long hours of repetitive detail agreed with him because he knew of no alternative due to his boredom with people’s usual pastimes. Soon, he worked his way up to supervisor and directed three pharmacists and a dozen technicians.
               On a rainy, Thursday night in May, he went home and had a takeout dinner of stir-fried shrimp in black-bean sauce while gazing out the picture window. A diesel’s roar marred the tranquility as his neighbor Vern, dressed in a baseball cap and orange parka, dug in his yard with a backhoe. This was typical for Vern, who spent all of his spare time digging holes and filling them back in. A ringing phone shook Kingsley out of his reverie. Despite their pledges of solidarity, Kingsley and Ashley had fallen out of touch, limiting contact to the occasional Christmas card, which was why Kingsley was surprised to hear his friend’s voice.
               “Kings, it’s Ash.”
               “Where are you calling from?”
               “Cambridge, Mass. Been here for six months.”
               “How’s Janet?”
               “Don’t worry about her,” Ashley said. “She has a kid and is living the American dream in Dayton, Ohio. That’s not why I’m calling. Ever hear of a company called DesidoMorph?”
               “Is that stop sleep in Latin?”
               “See! That’s exactly why I need you. I just got appointed VP of marketing and need to assemble a team. We have a drug that let’s you go without sleep. It started out as a treatment for narcolepsy but word is the FDA is going to allow it to be sold over the counter. It’s going to lead to a productivity revolution and we’ll be in on the ground floor. Just think of it. You spend roughly a third of your life sleeping. Using our product will be like adding an extra twenty-five years to your life. Just think of what you could do with all that time. So, what do you say? Want to come out to Cambridge and get the Adverbs back together again?”
               “Why would you want to meddle with nature’s balance?” asked Kingsley who couldn’t imagine how he’d fill an extra eight hours per day.
                Kingsley declined. When he next saw his friend, it was on the news. FBI agents had raided his home and were carrying out boxes of evidence.


               Pistol at the ready, Kingsley waited outside the shipping container, made to resemble a home, while the other students bantered to cover their nerves.
               “Go!” The range instructor tapped him on the shoulder.
               Kingsley threw open the front door. Keeping a distance, he sidestepped to get a complete view of the entryway before rushing through the opening. Scanning to his right, he saw the image of a man holding a shotgun printed on a paper target. Kingsley fired two rounds into the target’s chest. In keeping with his training, he looked left and right before proceeding to the next room. Following a similar procedure, he dispatched a woman with a revolver and a man with a machete but spared a biker holding only a cell phone. As Kingsley inserted a fresh magazine, the instructor spoke from behind him.
               “You’re dead.” The instructor pointed to a silhouette of a man with a rifle near the ceiling.

               In many drugstores, pharmacists kept a pistol behind the counter. Kingsley’s was no different. When he took lessons, he discovered he excelled at competitive shooting. Since he didn’t care what people thought, he had no fear of embarrassment and thus kept a cool head under pressure. Now that he was retired, he spent most mornings at an outdoor shooting range near Tucson.
               After dispatching two-dozen paper bad guys, Kingsley drove back to the condo he shared with an Alaskan Malamute named Zeke. The dog was as big as a couch and had a face that perpetually looked like he’d just woken up. Obedience classes were futile since Zeke preferred his own ideas to other’s wishes. Nevertheless, he amused Kingsley with his howls, sneezes, snorts, and barks.
               Zeke greeted Kingsley at the door. After tail wags and frantic pacing, he returned with a paper plate in his mouth. Kingsley topped it with a corn tortilla and some of the jalapeño peppers Zeke loved. The dog carried the plate away and fell asleep atop the air-conditioning vent after eating. Sheltering from the midday heat, there was little for Kingsley to do. Back when he believed society could solve its problems, he listed to news shows on the radio but lately voters had taken to rewarding politicians who doubled down on stupid. With no hope of resolution, Kingsley found little point in wallowing in reports of human tragedies.
               Staring at the saguaros standing guard on the hillside, Kingsley thought back on his life. What was the point? All his decades of study and painstaking effort had left him alone and forgotten. He’d helped a few patients during his career, he supposed, but it was nothing a lot of others couldn’t have done. And after the merger, he’d lost his supervisory position and ended up reporting to some kid half his age. When the chance at an early retirement came, he took it and never looked back. There had been a few women but no children, thank God. He didn’t have the patience for them. His life was as arid as the desert outside. Maybe if he and Janet…
               There was a knock at the door.
               “Have you heard about Jesus?” A fundamentalist held up a pamphlet proclaiming, “Heaven is real!”
               If only Janet were here, she could give the fundamentalist the tongue lashing he deserved. Without her logical positivist philosophy, all Kingsley could do was say he wasn’t interested.

               When he learned Ashley was dying, Kingsley left Zeke with a neighbor and rushed to the hospice outside Chicago. Nurses had arranged pillows to prop Ashley up in the hospital bed and dressed him in a white, print robe. His skin was pale and mottled with purple bruises. He’d lost his hair and a plastic tube fed oxygen from a machine to his nostrils.
               “What does it all mean?” Ashley asked his friend.
               “If Janet were here, she’d say assigning meaning was just so much bullshit. The only things that are real are the sun coming through the window, breeze from the vent, and smell of rubbing alcohol.”
               “Janet.” Ashley waved his hand in dismissal. “So how are you, my friend? Did your life turn out how you wanted it to?”
               Kingsley shrugged. “Yours?”
               “It will if you’re happy. I realize all along that was my life mission. You see, time is a river. You can’t just sit on the bank and watch it roll past.”
               “I read a Scientific American article that said time moves at different rates depending on who’s watching.”
               “Be that as it may, you have to dive in!” Ashley coughed so hard that something broke in his chest. He winced and whispered, “Kings.”
               Kingsley took his friend’s hand and Ashley fingers dug into his palm. Ashley’s lips moved and Kingsley leaned closer to hear.
               “Make it stop.” Ashley loosened his grip and his arm fell to the bed.

Jon Wesick is a regional editor of the San Diego Poetry Annual. He’s published hundreds of poems and stories in journals such as the Atlanta Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, Metal Scratches, Pearl, Slipstream, Space and Time, Tales of the Talisman, and Zahir. He is the author of the poetry collection Words of Power, Dances of Freedom as well as several novels and most recently the short-story collection The Alchemist’s Grandson Changes His Name. http://jonwesick.com
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