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Author’s Note: The following is a collection of five short stories about “The Thin Man,” which were written over the past few months. This post completes his Singapore chapter, which sees him wash ashore after an extended period on a submarine, take a corporate espionage gig out of necessity, and land on his feet although he probably doesn’t deserve to. The Thin Man is my protagonist. I don’t want to say hero. He is a kind of avatar of my own character if I had no ties to the material, social, or familial world. They say “write what you know.” I’ve spent a lot of time at industry events, in hotels, and in bars, so that’s what I’ve written about. All of the original pieces as well as Andrea pieces (my heroine) are over at kyotokibbitzer.com. I hope you like the work.

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Dedication:

For Eyes. Long may you bat baby


Part I:

Here comes a regular
Paul Westerberg
It’s predicted to rain on landing/ I predict we’ll have a drink
Paul Westerberg

Once upon a time in the lost city of Atlantis, a thin man rolled up looking a little the worse for wear. This was probably only to be expected; after all he had been sequestered on a submarine for a period of 22 years, or was it 27. After that long at sea, who can really tell?

It was approaching Halloween, and the proverbial Spooky Lady’s Sideshow was in full effect. The barmaids were called Eyes and Baby, their real names we presume. Or was she Baby Blue? In any case, the thin man and Eyes made eyes, in an innocent way, at least so the story is told.

Groggy as the thin man was, he had had a specialized role down then on the sub. You see, he was a bit of a mechanic, a card shark. Now, a card shark can work clean as well, and the thin man worked clean down there on the ocean floor. He saved his best moves for away games, just like Mike McD in that film Rounders. That’s an oldie but a goodie!

In one corner of the bar stood a pool table, where, of course, the nine ball is always on. The thin man could play a bit, although Eyes sized him up quick. A game was proposed, a game for two players.

But of course no game is really ever between two players alone. Baby Blue was watching—tough to tell her rooting interest. And the bar as a whole, the field so to speak, was tuning in to the frequencies of the game as the regulars made small talk and the travelers weak-tea passes at the local girls. Local girls are no push-over; sometimes folks get the wrong idea on that end. Certainly Eyes and Baby Blue could take care of themselves.

The game began; the thin man potted a few easy balls. Eyes surged back, she’d been around more than she looked. She was an expert at drinking what the punter was drinking. That’s a key part of the art of the barmaid, an underrated profession at the best of times.

The game was nine ball, what else? Eight ball is for rookies, a southerners game. The thin man hailed from the north and he knew a thing or two about sequencing. It goes with the territory of an undersea mechanic, after all.

The thin man was beginning to feel a bit ill–the combination of sea legs, Eyes’ Eyes, a cheeky Cognac or two, and the unfortunate wafts of burning tires from the docks (it all goes down on the docks, as is told). He carries on nonetheless, and takes a two ball lead when Eyes surges back, tying it up with only the 9 ball to go. It’s a touch and go situation. The skeletons muse over the action with as much interest as they can muster from beyond the great blue veil. The couple on the rail stops sniffing whatever they are sniffing, and ask the thin man to join them for a round. No time for that nonsense. Sea legs and beady cat eyes aside, the game is the game.

A couple of desultory shots bounce about as the players size each other up. Baby blue leans in; the skeletons whisper sweet somethings, even the bartender sneaks a peek. Everyone is getting paid, except the thin man. He is just there for the action.

Eyes edges the nine right up to the pocket, leaving the thin man a clean shot. He leans in from the left and drops it, silky smooth like. Baby claps and Eyes bats. Game over, though the thin man knows that Eyes could have had him the whole time. She was just being hospitable. A good host for a weary traveler.

Elevator music plays soft in the bar as a dandy and a courtesan dilly and dally. Jack and Jill went up a hill. It’s an old story.

The thin man has a date with a pretty lady later, not exactly a lead, more of an assignation. Promises are promises though; the clock on Eyes and crew is ticking, regretfully. The thin man always did like the locals; heck, it’s part of the travelers creed. After all, everybody is local somewhere. Time to extricate himself. See her around.

The thin man bids his goodbyes and staggers out into the night. His coat and his hat are still in his possession, all he needs really to get through the night. He picks up a walking stick from the side of the road and issues a thanks to the one who left it in place. This will help him with the uphills; the downhills he has always managed fine. The spirits are about and the air filled with magic and mystery. The thin man tugs on his cap, keeping his head down. Others may prefer to waste away with Margaritas and Mojitos in the lazy afternoon, however the thin man has a new assignment. Kicks off at 8 AM sharp. Time to get a move on.  He pretty lady is lost in the night.  Gotta cede that one, not for the first time.

He had to leave most of his belongings on board ship, and he carries only the stick and the clothes he has on him. A beggar man approached him earlier and the thin man was able to make a wee bargain, a pot of soup and coffee for the beggar in exchange for his pockmarked and moth-eater coat. Anything is better than nothing, muses the thin man. Another traveler’s rule.

Without an inn for the night, the thin man has but one option, a local church. After all, churches are supposed to offer food and shelter to the poor man, and the thin man, underwater respiration skills aside, has rolled into town pretty destitute. An old man opens the church door. A place for the night, the thin man asks? Nothing like that, however we do have a cellar, says the gatekeeper. That will do fine, replies the thin man.

The cellar turns out to be a taxidermist studio, with eagles and bison on the walls. It is what is is; the thin man muses, and falls into a deep dreamless sleep.

Upon waking, the room is transformed. No more heads of the dead, instead he awakes in a cloister with pure light steaming in through the window. The clarion call of church bells, the Nine Taylors if you will, ring out across the square. Not a bad deal, thinks the thin man. A peal is better than a deal after all.

Part II:

The cry of a peacock, flies buzz in my head/ ceiling fan’s broken, there’s a heat in my bed/ street band playing “Nearer My God to Thee.”
Bob Dylan

Dateline Singapore: Late Fall During the 200th Anniversary of the End of the Great War:

This little country, such an unlikely success story, such a strange winding of forces. The Thin Man has been on land for two weeks and his sea legs have mostly subsided. His stomach is still in limbo; years of gruel below the waves have seen to that.

Now there is nothing more that the Thin Man wanted after washing up here earlier in the season then a long weekend. Say, five years. Five years in the hammock, five years frolicing with the lovely ladies at the bar with the occasional flyer over in Macau. Five years out of the swim of modern capitalism, if you can even call it that. Five years clean. That was the dream. Twelve days in and the Thin Man was looking for work, the money gone in a haze of long days and longer nights. Wine, women, song, and a speedboat ride or two will add up quick. C’est La Vie partner. That’s what comes from burning holes up to heaven, in the words of the bard.

The Thin Man is a gamer, and is constitutionally unable to categorize situations as problems. No problemo senor, no worries mate. Instead, he has a few issues. The first being, he is barely employable. It turns out that a few decades on the ocean floor running the house game prepares him for casino work, underground games, and giving blood. That’s about it; he wants no part of card games and giving blood makes him nauseous. Also, he has a limited quantity. So, he asked around, kept his ear to the wind. A shipmate turned him onto a broker of services of sorts, the kind of individual who specializes in assisting upstanding institutions with their shining mission statements and their CSR campaigns navigate the grey areas of competition and market position. The broker, like all of his kind, couldn’t give a shit who he was pimping as long as he got his 8% commision. It was he that took the Thin Man’s data points and turned them into a resume which accentuated the high stakes, low reference point nature of his previous work. A bite came back within 36 hours. The broker knew his lane, apparently.

The man from Company X introduced himself as Alejandro, and Alejandro came bearing work. “What sort of work,” asked the Thin Man. Alejandro’s smile was thin as a razor. “The best kind, the kind where you get in and out.”

“I deal cards,” replied the Thin Man, “I’m not a safecracker.

Alejandro’s smile widened fractionally. “Of course not. We are a respectable company with a 400 year history. This work is simple. The company is in negotiations around a merger with Green Group Ltd. They are playing hardball and we need to know their real intentions.”

“Basically you want to know if they are bluffing?”

“Precisely. And who better than an operator such as yourself to find this out?”

“And what do I have to go on?”

“The Green Group will be having a party at the Swissotel downtown tomorrow night. There will be 200 guests. You will infiltrate the party and get the lowdown. That is what you British say yes, the lowdown.”

The Thin Man was not British but it didn’t matter. “Yes, that’s right. OK, book me a room on the club floor. I’ll need a new suit, a haircut, and a cell phone. How’s $500 a day for expenses and $20,000 for the job?”

Alejandro eyed him carefully. “What about the broker?”

“That’s your end,” said the Thin Man. My end is $20,000.”

“Deal. Don’t fuck up.”

“I don’t intend to.” And with that the conversation was over. The Thin Man had acquitted himself well, but only by the grace of god. Several things were running through his mind:

i) was $20,000 a lot or a little for a one-night stint of corporate espionage? Alejandro had bit right away so perhaps he was underselling his services. Or, Company X was desperate;

ii) 200 people at the party and the Thin Man knew not a one of them. He’d have to research, chose a few likely targets. Two weeks of carousing and there wasn’t a lot of research energy to spare. He’d need to make minimal and efficient moves;

iii) he had no bank account. His severance had been paid in cash and he did not intend to stay in Singapore forever, however appealing the locale. He’d need to get legal sooner rather than later. The very thought fatigued him, so he grabbed the Handy phone the hotel provided and headed to the bar.

Dateline Singapore, that evening, around 17:07.

Well apart from the things that I touched/ nothing got broke all that much/ and apart from the things that I took/ nothing got stolen babe, and look.
Matthew Houck

The Alligator Pear is the poolside bar at the Swissotel, and the Thin Man figures tomorrow’s party will be at held around the pool. Thus, this visit is classified as reconnasaince. This visit is billable, baby. A single couple lingers over a menu across the way. “What’ll it be?” asks the bartender? “Do you have any eggnog” asks the Thin Man, more out of habit than preference. The bartender gives him a sideways look, as if he is not sure who the joke is on. “No sir, I am afraid we only serve eggnog during the Christmas week. How about one of our signature Manhattans?”

Manhattans, they taste like mouthwash.

“Sure a double Manhattan. And pop an egg in it would you?” This time the bartender doesn’t even blink. “Of course, sir. One Manhattan with a raw egg.” The drink is served and the Thin Man knocks it back straight. It is as disgusting as an adult beverage can be. “Perfection,” says the Thin Man. “I’ll take a double martini with a sprig of Rosemary please.” As the barkeep makes his second drink the Thin Man turns to survey the space. Despite knowing no one and nothing about tomorrow evening’s party, he has a few advantages. First, event spaces are inherently permeable. More on this later. Second, he has nothing to lose. Nothing whatsoever. The $20,000 is what you call a titular payment. Hypothetical. His sainted mother has long passed; his poor dear widowed sister may as well exist in a different century. The Costa Rican chick who claimed he’d knocked her up in ’04 was probably still out there, but he had no confidence in her presentation of events. He was only on shore for 48 hours and months under water tends to take a few miles off a guy’s fastball. She was sweet, but it was probably a hustle. So like I say, nothing to lose, and therefore easy to underestimate. That’s what the Thin Man is counting on. He’d better; the bastard’s precious little else.

The martini is served and the Thin Man takes a deep drink. Three men approach the bar, lanyards around their neck, ties beginning to come undone, voices high. The Green Group, thinks the Thin Man, excellent. He takes a deep breath and turns his head slightly to the right, cementing his presence in their field of vision without being at all threatening or intrusive. “Can you fuckin’ believe Bill?” asks one of the men. Pulling up sick on a day like this, the company going to shit?” “I think he’s faking,” says the second man, a lifer in his early 50s. “He’s always been weak like that. Looking to cover his ass.” “Fucking wanker, if you ask me,” replies the first man. “Pussy.”

The Thin Man looks up at the men and smiles. He sympathises. He will be their good friend tonight. Corporate espionage, he decides, is like everything else. It’s just a matter of intention.

Read the rest of this entry »

debord-guide1Matthew Thomas, Kyoto

This post originally published at classicalsympathies.com

In the comments section for my earlier post “On Staying in Business Hotels II: A Ballardian Perspective,” Mr. Andrew Inch introduces the concept of “psychogeography” in relation to Ballard: “His vision of the ignored edges of urban life, and the sinister presences that inhabit these spaces seems to reveal a deep engagement with the psychic impacts, and psychotic tendencies of late modern capitalism. Business hotels certainly fit squarely within the Ballardian imagination.”  Andrew points out that psychogeography is also a fitting description for Walter Benjamin’s method, if it could be called that, and indeed Benjamin’s rambling and unstructured yet somehow systematic exploration of European cities, Paris, Naples, Marseilles, will be the subject of a future series of posts.

This post, on the other hand, will put a period on Ballardania for the time being by offering a run-down of some of the highlights of Re/Search’s “J.G. Ballard: Conversations.”  We will also investigate the intersections between the Ballard material and nuggets from the inimitable 1981 film My Dinner With Andre. For readers who wish to follow up on Ballard, Re/Search has issued a whole book of Ballard quotes.  Also, The Complete Short Stories are available in two volumes, and are the best place to start digging into Ballard.

Re/Search’s 350 page book of Ballard on the phone is, admittedly, for fans only, and in these conversations Ballard runs true to form by going around and around on his pet “obsessions.” Occasionally he falls into outright repetition, but for the most part each conversation sheds new light on already familiar ground. The striking thing about reading Ballard, whether in novel form or here, is the degree to which Ballard’s interests intersect only casually with my own. Running down the list: swimming pools, beach resorts, and gated communities; Ronald Reagan; plastic surgery; the evolution of sexuality through technology; car crashes, airplane crashes; William Burroughs–none of these topics keep me up nights.

World War II; deserts; Miami; obsessed scientists on a futile quest–we’re getting warmer, but still not really where I live. The collaboration and complicity of the individual in the media landscapes and power structures that surround them; turning conspiracy theory inside out to ask not what they do to us but what we allow and even facilitate–this is interesting territory, but the thing is while I have no especial interest in gated communities, in plastic surgery, or in Miami, I like to read Ballard hold forth on all of the above topics and more–not because I am interested in them, but because he is.

Most of the conversations recorded in the book are between Ballard and V.Vale, the publisher of Re/Search books (a U.S. imprint) and apparently Ballard’s biggest fan.  At one point, Vale and Ballard discuss the feedback loop between popular culture images of professions and how members of that profession or group behave in real life:

V. VALE: “I saw a magazine article describing the search and seizure of a Mafia home in which a huge collection of books and videotapes on the Mafia was found.  The final comment of the article was, ‘They’re looking to the movies to learn how to act.'”

BALLARD: “Right; the actual Mafia gangsters are watching the movies to learn how to get ‘in style.’  It’s terribly funny that” (307).

It is, of course, far from surprising that would-be gangsters would model themselves off of The Godfather or The Sopranos; and we have come to almost expect this kind of synergy between image and action where a person’s authenticity is established precisely through the degree to which their behavior corresponds with their fictional counterparts.  But before we conclude that this kind of modeling is confined to those living on the fringes of legality and respectability, we should recall the part in My Dinner With Andre where Andre Gregory and Wallace Shawn discuss the redundancy of the theater in an age of constant performance:

ANDRE: “You know, that was one of the reasons that Grotowski gave up the theater. He just felt that people in their lives now were performing so well that performance in the theater was sort of superfluous, and in a way obscene.”

WALLY: “Hum!”

ANDRE: “I mean, isn’t it amazing how often a doctor will live up to our expectation of how a doctor should look? I mean, you see a terrorist on television: he looks just like a terrorist. I mean, we live in a world in which fathers, or single people, or artists, are all trying to live up to someone’s fantasy of how a father, or a single person, or an artist, should look and behave! They all act as if they know exactly how they ought to conduct themselves at every single moment. And they all seem totally self-confident.”

There is pure gold here, but…what exactly is a doctor supposed to look like?  Do we know a doctor when we see one based on the fact that the doctor’s physical appearance and bearing conforms to a pre-existing “doctor” ideal, or is it more that the setting and trappings of the medical situation–that is, where we encounter a doctor in his or her professional guise–give the man or woman in question a sort of aura of doctorhood which is quite separable from raw physical image?  I think perhaps the latter, which is what Ballard suggests in what is my favorite quotation in the book: “People take you at face value.  Any role that people see you in they will accept, by and large.  That seems to be a rule of life” (127). When we encounter someone who appears to inhabit a certain role by dint of the trappings of that role–uniform, badge, necktie, the contextual paraphernalia that surrounds the person–all of these add up to a kind of fait accompli of identity. Read the rest of this entry »

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