I cannot afford an editor, so if you find any errors in the text, please inform me.
See Paris and Die
by George Right
So, that was the plan: to get into his car, leaving the apartment unlocked, and to drive across the country trying to visit as many states as possible until he runs out of money. Then, to kill himself.
He ran out of money in Paris, Louisiana.
Actually, that was unexpected. He thought he would be able to make it to Florida. Maybe to Key West. He could turn north instead to see some states he hasn't visited yet (never in his life, not just in this trip), but Key West would have been a good final point. A symbolic one, you know. Better than some nowheresville in the middle of Tennessee.
But he had to end in a nowheresville in the middle of Louisiana. Well, his plans never worked out, after all.
It was Dollar General store which made him stop. He needed to get some food and beverage (mackerel in brine, $1 for a 15-oz can; a loaf of bread, $1 for 18 oz; juice cocktail, $1 for 0.5 gal; $3 in total), and also he needed to relieve himself. When he got back into his Chevy and turned the key, the engine didn't start.
He tried several times with the same result. That can be called luck, he sneered to himself. At least it happened in a town, not miles away from any place. Of course nowadays people usually don't die due to an engine failure even in the midst of Louisiana swamps. They reach for their cellphone and call for help. But help costs money, especially like towing to the nearest city, and money was his Skin of Sorrow. However, even if the repair shop were right next door, the repair itself could kill him even more surely than towing. Even a battery change would have been bad, but he was sure the battery was not the case. He put a new one right before the start of his trip. So it was something worse, and that probably meant he would die here, in a small obscure town which name he hadn't even noticed yet.
But he needed to be sure. He returned to the store and asked the cashier (a fat black woman obviously bored for lack of customers) where the car service was. It was not next door, but it was next block (Jack's Garage, so she called it), and he decided he would be able to push his car there himself. It turned out to be not as easy as he thought, but possible. It took him almost half an hour and probably gallons of sweat. You are always sweating in Louisiana unless in an air-conditioned room, even if you are not pushing 1.4 tons of Chevy with your own muscles. At least the road was straight and flat. Luck again, sure.
He had to wait for several minutes in a small office which looked dim and messy (but was air-conditioned at least, and that was good) until a lank guy in oil-stained coveralls and red baseball cap with a yellow "J" on the forehead - most probably Jack himself - appeared from the backdoor.
"Hi, how are you?"
"A very stupid question," the visitor thought, "especially from a doctor, or a repairer, or a lawyer who definitely knows you are not good. Or from anybody else who just doesn't care."
"Not fine if I am here," he answered and thought that "here" might mean not just the garage but this town as well. Or maybe this planet.
"I see," the mechanic smiled. "So, what happened to your car?"
"You tell me," he answered, putting the key on counter. "It doesn't start."
"I'll check it and give you a call. May I have your number?"
He dictated but asked if he could wait here. He didn't want to plunge into hot and humid outdoors again.
"Sure, but it may take time. I need to finish another car first."
Jack returned to the garage, and the visitor sat in a plastic chair near a coffee table covered with car magazines. All magazines were at least five years old.
He leafed through them for some time but was not interested. That could be his last reading, he thought. Should be better than average, like the last meal, you know. These old magazines definitely weren't.
He decided that he was bored and cooled down enough to go outside again. He doubted there was anything worth seeing or visiting in this town (actually he was sure there was nothing), but... if that was the last place in his life, it might still deserve a look around.
He went out, approached his car which was still outside and took his crossbody bag from the passenger seat. If he stays here (whatever "here" means) longer than an hour or two, he may need some stuff. He may stay in a motel. Maybe even for a couple of days - why the rush?
The gun was inside the bag.
He walked along the narrow highway which was also the local main street. On the left, it followed a bayou; he didn't like the moldy and rotting smell coming from its murky stagnant water. On the right, one-story buildings stretched, mostly commercial but shabby - a pawn shop, a coin laundry, a dingy-looking bar, an abandoned gas station still showing 3-year old prices, a wine & tobacco store, a desolate supermarket building with hand-written "FOR RENT" signs in dirty storefront windows, and so on. Between these buildings, several cross streets branched out, all with unsuitably loud names: Washington St, Jefferson St, Lafayette St, Franklin St, and even Napoleon Dr (with "Montmartre Cafe" at the corner). All of them, as far as he could see without going there, looked identical: narrow, covered by cracked asphalt, with tacky plywood houses on both sides. Two churches raised their steeples over the roofs, but, while different in style, none an architectural wonder. Some big brown brick building loomed even farther, on the other edge of the town - maybe a school or a factory.
He passed First American Bank & Trust office (really a small one), a hardware depot (rather big) and eventually reached a large sign saying "The Eiffel Tower Motel. Vacancies." (What a stupid name, he thought.) The festoon lamps on the left side of the sign made the Eiffel Tower outline; they were off this sunny afternoon, but "Vacancies" were glowing red. Here the town ended.
He was not sure if he needed to stay here. What if a miracle happens, like Jack calling and saying: "It's just a loose connection, I can fix it right now for $50?" Then he could be in New Orleans this evening. But why the rush, again? Local prices are obviously better than in New Orleans, so it would be wise to spend the night here. And also, he wanted a shower right now.
He walked along the row of motel doors to the office. The black woman inside looked like a cousin of the Dollar General cashier (and maybe she even was).
"Hi, sweetie," she said in a deep raspy voice, staring at him with her yellow bulgy eyes.
At least she doesn't ask me how I am, he thought.
"How much is a room?" he asked.
"Have you booked it?"
"No," he answered and doubted anybody ever did. Who in the right mind would plan a trip to such a place?
"Forty per night. A/C and TV included."
Definitely better than New Orleans, but he hoped it could be even cheaper here.
"A bathtub?" he ascertained.
I could do it there if I had no gun, he thought. Or if the gun fails. Actually, he never tried it after buying it several years ago. He always thought he should go to a shooting range and always found a higher priority way to spend $10.
"What about breakfast?" he asked, knowing the answer.
"This is not a Hilton, sweetie. There is a small microwave in the room, and if that's not enough for you, go to Montmartre Cafe. It's just next block."
"You got an ID?"
He gave her his driver license, almost sure that she would handwrite his name in a thick tattered ledger. But she still had a computer on her side of the desk and started clicking the buttons. Then she turned around, took a key from a board behind her (almost every nail there had a key hanging from it) and tossed it on the desk along with his DL.
"Checkout at eleven. If you sleep longer, you pay for the next night."
There was no shower head in the bathroom, and he considered going back and demanding another room (damn, almost all of them were vacant, but she gave him the one without the shower head!), but he didn't want to get dressed again. Not before he stays in cool water long enough. The water also appeared to be not as cool as he wished, but it was still better than his own sweat.
He even started to nod off in the tub, but was awakened by a plain melody. After several seconds of trying to understand what it was and where he was, he realized that he was still on Earth, in a cheap motel, and his cellphone was ringing. He got out of the tub, splashing water around, and walked, still wet and naked, to the bed where he'd dropped his clothes (the phone in the shirt pocket). He had no intention to hurry, as if he knew that no good news could come by phone (or any other way), but the caller was patient.
"It's Jack from the garage. I've checked your car, and it needs a new starter. I don't have the one fitting your model. Your car is old, you know. So I have to order the thing. If it gets delivered tomorrow, I may fix your car tomorrow afternoon or maybe the day after. Is that OK with you?"
"How much?" he asked.
"Six hundred for materials and labor."
"OK", he said and hung up.
That was not OK with him. In no way it could be. It was far beyond the remainder of his credit card limit, let alone the money he actually had (which was only some cash in his wallet now; his bank accounts were empty). So, it will end here, as he had thought. He was not sure why he'd made Jack do the pointless job for which won't even be paid. Maybe, well, because he should not be the only one who gets the bad news? While the residents of this town probably don't get the good ones too often either...
He calculated his assets again. The remainder of his credit card limit allowed him one more night in the motel (if Jack wouldn't finish the job and demand the payment tomorrow) and some food... well, lots of food as he did not need gas anymore. Adding cash, he could eat even longer, and that made him consider for a moment continuing the travel by foot, but he immediately rejected the idea. Not in the summertime Louisiana, definitely. And after all, he should follow the plan, which was driving until he's out of money, not walking. Otherwise, he'll start finding more and more excuses for postponing the final point. They will not let him die of starvation nowadays, but he is not going to turn into a crummy hobo. Definitely not. Actually, he was homeless already, but one is not a hobo as long as one drives a car.
He checked time on his phone. 4:26 p.m. Probably a good time to go to Montmartre Cafe, as it can have more patrons later. It probably won't be crowded even then, but the fewer people, the better. He could stay in the motel and eat his mackerel and bread alone of course, but he wanted something better for his last meal, and saving lost its importance for him already.
It was still sultry outdoors; shadows became longer, but that didn't help much. He liked sun and warmth when he was living in upstate New York - but not that muggy hell. How people lived in this region in previous centuries when air conditioning did not exist yet, he wondered. Especially taking into account the strict dress code of that era, all that complex suits and long dresses... Maybe slaves felt themselves happier than their masters because they could wear less textile. The Earth is definitely not for humans, he thought. There is no place on this planet where a human being can be comfortable all year round - comfortable in a natural way, without artificial heating and cooling. Not a single place! Everywhere is either too cold in winter, or too hot in summer, or both.
Luckily he didn't need to walk through the whole town again. He passed the hardware depot, the bank office, and then reached Montmartre Cafe.
The cafe was empty; none of six tables occupied. A TV set hanging from the ceiling over the counter (probably fifteen or more years old) was displaying a sport channel, but the sound was muted (he liked it; he hated sports). The only person in the room was a woman behind the counter. She was white and lean, and even her hair was white (obviously dyed), set in a rather sloppy hairdo. Her face was narrow and long. At the first moment, when he entered from the sunshine into a darker room, she seemed a young girl to him, but when he came closer he saw she was probably in her thirties - within ten years younger than himself. "Martha", was embroidered on her blouse.
"Hi," she said, and that was all. No "how are you?", no "sweetie", nor even a formal smile. And that was good.
"Hi", he said and took the menu, but then suddenly asked: "Can you recommend something... special, but not too..." expensive, he wanted to complete, but recalled that saving was not an issue anymore. "... exotic," he finished.
"If you are looking for the real Cajun cuisine, you'd better go to Lafayette," she answered. "I mean the city, not the street. Not much of Cajuns here. Old Mouton was probably the last true one, but he died last winter. We serve so-called Cajun dishes of course, but... our boudin, for example, is just a pork sausage you can get anywhere. And you can call anything ' jambalaya', just add rice and meat."
"Do you always encourage your customers to go to another place?" he grinned.
"But you won't drive to Lafayette, will you? Not for today's dinner, at least. If you are stuck in Paris, you'll have to eat here, after all. And I didn't mean the meal here is bad. I just told you there's actually nothing special."
"Why do you think I am stuck here?"
"Because you are here. Nobody stays here willingly."
"Including you?" he grinned again.
"Including all locals, I think."
"Sounds creepy, like in a horror movie."
"It's just life," she shrugged. "If you were born in such a place and missed your chance to escape when you were young, you are stuck."
"Paris, you've said? This town is named Paris?"
"Do you have the Eiffel Tower?" it was a very stupid question, but he couldn't resist.
"We do. It's a motel one block from here."
And the name is not so stupid, he recognized. Every newcomer who asks about "the Eiffel Tower" will be sent to the motel.
"I know," he said. "I'm asking about the real one. Well, not real of course but a mockup. Paris in Texas has, for example. With a cowboy hat on top."
"We did," she nodded. "It was 30 ft high, but it collapsed eight or nine years ago, and the city council didn't find funds to restore it since then. Rust, you know. Rust destroys everything in this climate, everything metal of course. My last car was eaten by rust, and the previous one, too. And rotting does the same with wood."
"How many people live here?" he asked.
"665, by the last census."
"Nice number. You need one more for a perfect one," he smiled.
"With you, it will be perfect," she didn't return a smile.
"I am not going to stay here for long."
Wrong, he thought to himself. I am going to stay here forever. But dead are not included in census.
"Actually, that census is a decade old," she said. "I have no idea about the current number. Probably it went down. So, what are you going to take?"
"I never dined in Louisiana eateries," he shrugged. (Neither in other states during his trip, and mostly not during his life. He always considered it a waste of money.) "So I can give a try to your Cajun meal, authentic or not. If I can't compare, I don't care. How did you say, jambalaya? What is it made of?"
"Rice, meat, seafood and vegetables. In our case, beef, crawfish, onions, tomatoes and peppers."
"I don't..." eat meat, he was going to say, but recalled again that was not an issue already. Processed meat is a carcinogen, and red meat, too, but it would be very funny for him to care about his health now. "Never mind. Just don't make it too spicy."
"OK. Anything else? If you are looking for that Cajun stuff, I cannot serve you alligator meat, but gumbo is another classical dish. It's, well, chicken, smocked pork or shrimp in thick sauce."
"Shrimp", he chose. "Can you pack it? I'll take it to eat later."
"It's more like a thick soup, not a good stuff to pack. A crawfish pie would be perfect to take outside..."
"OK", he agreed, but she continued:
"... but you can come here later in the evening if you are not driving away right now."
"I guess there will be people here later," he said frankly.
"Nobody from the horror movies you've mentioned," she grinned. "No brutal locals sitting in a row and grumbling 'We don't like strangers here!' Just two or three old ladies and maybe the reverend John Philips of Holy Cross Church. Men usually gather in Bad Bat Bar."
"Thanks for info, but I am not going to come later. Nothing personal," he added.
"As you wish. So, jambalaya and crawfish pie, correct?"
"And that gumbo, too. I think I still can eat it here."
"OK," she turned and moved right, obviously to the kitchen door, but stopped: "By the way, do you have cash? My card reader doesn't work."
"I do," he answered but thought: damn again. He had only $30.17 in cash. Buying preserves, potato and microwaveable stuff, he could feed himself for almost a whole month for that sum, but would it be enough for a single order in an eatery? He still didn't look in the menu. But... let it be Martha's problem. Keep your prices low if you want to be paid. And keep your card machine working,
"Good," responded Martha to his words said aloud. "Hold on, please."
He remained alone and looked around. Actually, there was nothing to look at. Even the TV was showing commercials - the only thing he deemed even worse than sports. "POWERBALL," said the letters on five white and one red globes. "$700 Million Jackpot! Drawing Wednesday, 9:59 p.m. Central Time. You still have a chance!"
For sure, he thought. One of 292 million. If everyone in this country, including toddlers, buys a ticket, someone will win... How stupid people are to play such games. What grade did they all have at math?
Well, he had "A". And he is going to kill himself this evening, maybe the next one. Did this "A" help him much? Logic is a very good thing unless you are living in an illogical world.
He was even surprised a bit by his own calmness concerning his suicide. Actually, this desperate hole in the middle of sultry hell might be a perfect place to do it. In Key West, tender blue sea and soft beaches could make him regret. But not here, definitely.
Martha came back and put a big glass of ice water in front of him. "You have to wait about twenty minutes more for your meals," she said. "You can take any seat you want."
He took the glass and made several gulps. That was really good; he was thirsty.
"Surely I can," he responded. "But it's boring. Better tell me more about Paris. Is there anything worth seeing here?"
"I guess you know the answer," she grinned. "The town was founded in 18th century, but virtually nothing from that time survived. We have a so-called 'Historical Museum' here, but it works only on weekends, and it's just a single room with pictures on walls. Mostly copies of old photos, posters and newspapers. And some relics cased in glass like an Indian smoking pipe and a belt buckle of a Confederate soldier. Actually, I doubt they are not just a pipe and a buckle found among junk in someone's attic. And the Purple Heart of our only confirmed war hero Lucas Leroi, of course. Actually, he was not a hero. He was killed in the first minutes of D-Day, before even reaching the shore. He didn't make a single shot to the enemy. Just drafted, brought through half of the world and killed, locked with his mates in a floating tin. Nothing depended on him. Are rams at a slaughterhouse heroes?"
"Are suicides heroes?" he thought to himself. "Probably not. But are heroes suicides? Many in fact are."
"The best time for this town was in 19th century, when it was a diligence station," Martha continued. "When diligence traffic declined, so did Paris. And never recovered since then, I suppose. Now it's one of the poorest towns in the state, and Louisiana is not the richest state, you know. Google it if you need numbers. The only one I remember is for every four women living here there is only three men. Half of them working in the jail, and half drunkards."
"Jail?" he asked and started to understand: "So that big brown brick building on the other side of the town is not a factory or a school?"
"No, that's a prison, the main employer in the town. Some women work there, too - not as guards of course - but not everyone is so lucky. It was built during the Great Depression. Roosevelt's gift to Paris."
"Yeah, in crisis times building prisons is the best strategy," he nodded. "For one part of desperate people, it creates jobs. For the other, it creates a place to keep them."
"Exactly," Martha grinned."So, may I ask what brought you here? Obviously not pleasure, but nor business as well. Nor even family ties."
"My car conked out here."
"Sure," she nodded. "The only reason to make a normal man stop here. Were you in a hurry? I hope this delay won't be too bad for your business."
"No business," he shrugged. "I was... I am just traveling across the country."
"That makes me envy," she said. "I didn't travel much in my life, while I always wanted."
"No reason for envy," he answered. "I am going to kill myself tonight or tomorrow."
But no, he pronounced the last phrase only in his head. His aloud response was different, while also true:
"Actually, I am disappointed with this travel. It was boring. America is so big... and so uniform. Everywhere you see the same. Same roads, same houses, same churches, same businesses. Formerly, I suppose, they all had local specifics. But now they all belong to nation-wide networks. Everywhere you go you'll see Walmart, Target, McDonnald's, StarBucks, Dollar General and so on, you name them. Same gas stations with the same logos, only the prices differ from state to state. The prices, and at some point you notice that pines along the highway are replaced by palms, and that's the only differences."
"You are exaggerating," she objected. "I cannot believe that, for example, New England and California, Oregon and Arizona look the same. Different landscape, different climate..."
"Yeah, when you see the Rockies for the first time, you may think 'Wow!' But when you drive fifteen hundred miles along them, that's just boring. Too long to be interesting. That's why I never watch TV serials, nor read book series: they are too long to be interesting. Sure, there are places of interest, but the most well-known ones, like Niagara Falls or Mount Rushmore, are, well, just too well-known. And the rest of them, especially so-called historical sites, are all same still. We don't have ancient castles here, you know. A two-story house built in 19th century, a church built in early 20th but trying to mimic an older style. A war memorial glorifying people who killed people and were killed by them. And that's all. May be worth visiting once, but not several times in every state."
"So, are you on vacation?"
"No. I don't need any vacations. Haven't you ever thought how absurd is the very idea? People work all year long at a job they hate in order to have a couple of weeks of vacation. A month at best. The only time they really live. And many can't afford even that. I've read recently that one third in the European Union cannot afford even a one-week vacation trip. Not sure about America, but I guess the number is not much better here... Does this make sense? Such life? I think no. You know the myth of Sisyphus, don't you? Doomed to roll the same boulder up, again and again, every day without any logical end. The punishment in hell. But try to find any difference with so-called normal life of regular people."
"Not all people hate their job," Martha noticed, but not too confidently.
"Then they don't need a vacation," he snapped.
"So, what do you do for a living?" she asked.
"Breath, eat and drink," he grinned.
"I mean your job, you know. I guess you have one if you can afford traveling all over the country?"
I cannot anymore, he thought, and never actually could. But he said aloud only: "I am a writer."
"No kidding?" she looked at him curiously. "What is your name, you've said?"
"I haven't. You don't need my name, as you never heard it. None of my books was published. I was unable even to find an agent."
"Oh," she said and then added: "Sorry to hear it."
"Really? You are sorry? I don't think so. You probably think that this country is full of 'writers', 'artists' and 'actors' who work as waiters and cashiers because that's all they're actually good for. Because their talents exist in their dreams only. But that's not my case, believe it or not. I know that my stories are good. I don't suppose, don't believe, don't hope - I know it. I can compare them with those from bestsellers list, and I see mine are not worse. In fact, they are better than many bestsellers. But they will never become bestsellers. Do you know why? Probably because they are too good. From the literary point of view, but not from marketing one. I don't tell people what they like to hear. On the contrary, I tell them what they hate to hear. I tell them the truth. And you cannot sell the truth nowadays. All kinds of lie - for sure. Even the darkest ones, full of evil, monsters and pain. Because the readers know that's just a lie, invented for their entertainment. A puppet show. But when you show them the truth - the truth about themselves..."
"I think some well-known authors are rather misanthropic and still famous," she noticed.
"Yeah, yeah. That's what I'm talking about. That commercial misanthropy. It flatters people's vanity when they are portrayed as monsters. But the truth is that they are not even monsters. They are nothing; nothing, which does not matter. And I don't mean I'm excluding myself. I'm nothing as well, I just understand it. Misanthropy, you said. No, I am not actually a misanthrope. A typical misanthrope thinks: 'World is beautiful, only people are bad.' But that's nonsense again. The world is not beautiful, nor even ugly. I like blue color and hate brown..."
"Really? Me too!" Martha interrupted.
"...but does that mean that one wavelength is better or worse than another?" he continued, ignoring her remark. "Of course not. There are no such things as beauty, justness, meaning or purpose in the world. They all are just human illusions - and humans don't matter, as I've said, because nothing does. Do you understand, for example, that life is completely based on death? Carnivores kill herbivores, herbivores kill plants, and plants, in their turn, need soil which consists of decomposed corpses. Have you ever thought that all soil in the world is decomposed corpses and shit? The more, the better for life. Only rocks and sand are exclusions, but they are fruitless."
"I need to check your meals, " Martha said after a pause. She went out and returned several minutes later with a dish on a tray, full of something white, yellow, green, red and brown. "That's jambalaya. Gumbo will be ready a bit later."
"OK, I'll start with this one," he nodded and took a fork. He could go to any table, but remained standing at the counter. For some time, they both kept silence; he was eating, Martha stood looking at him.
"I've heard everyone can publish his book nowadays," she said at last. "There are companies in the internet which do it for free. You upload the text, and they sell it at Amazon, just like a real... I mean, like any other book. When somebody places an order, they print a copy and pay you."
He stopped chewing, swallowed and sneered:"Do you think I don't know? It's called print-on-demand. I've sold three books that way."
"Not too bad. And how many did you write?"
"I don't mean three titles. I mean three copies."
"Oh..." she didn't know what to say.
"Three printed, and about a dozen as e-books," he continued. "As you've said, everybody can publish this way. So they do. Do you know how many such titles are there at Amazon? Several millions. What is the chance to come up through this pile? To get noticed? No chance. People won't even give you a try. Even the market of titles published by publishing houses is greatly overcrowded today. Nobody is interested in self-published books. Let alone the fact that books in general lost the battle to TV and internet. Why reading something that requires thinking if you have Twitter instead? One hundred forty symbols. What an extremely stupid idea - to create a system which does not allow texts longer than 140 symbols? Who will ever use it - retards only? How can it be popular? But it is, you know. Everyone has Twitter today. I bet you too."
"Hmm..." Martha uttered, confused.
"Serials and Twitter. Too long and too short. Extremes meet, for the aim of both is the same - not to think. Serials are mental chewing, and tweets are mental nothing."
"So, you don't have Twitter?"
"Nor even Facebook," he shook head. "I hate social networks. Formerly, you didn't meet too many stupid people a day. Only those who lived near you. But now all stupidity of the world is just at arm's length, in your monitor."
"It might help you with selling your books," Martha noticed.
"There are almost two billion Facebook users in the world. Who will notice one more? Unless, of course, he wastes all his time reading and answering postings and comments of the forementioned idiots. Instead of writing. No, thanks. I've sold some more electronic copies from my website directly, but that's definitely not enough for a living."
"So what do you do to pay your bills?"
"I've tried all sorts of part-time jobs," he shrugged. "Mowing lawns, cleaning, delivery... Actually, it's not a problem nowadays to a find a job for a living. The problem is to find a job worth living. So, what about gumbo?" he changed the topic.
"I'll check it," she nodded. "Did you like jambalaya?"
"Not bad," he answered. Actually, he didn't feel much of the taste, concentrated on his thoughts. And he was full already, feeling no need for another dish. But, as he ordered it already and that was probably his last chance to try it... "Bring me that gumbo, and I'll tell you about my career in media business."
She walked to the kitchen again and returned with another plate full of goldenbrown bits in thick white sauce. "So, what about the media business?"
"So I called it. Actually, it was newspaper delivery. A kid's job, you may think. A boy rides his bicycle in sunny morning, throwing newspapers into the yards of his neighbors... Not at all. It's a nightmare. Literally, because it's done at night. Every night. No vacations. No days off. No weekends. Weekends are, actually, the worst days, because each newspaper gets an advertisement supplement weighting more than a pound. No bicycles of course, the whole cabin and trunk of your car is full with this paper shit. If you are ill or your car fails, it's your problem. You must deliver every night, or find somebody to replace you - which is hardly possible because nobody else knows your route - or be fined or fired. No exclusions for the weather either. I had to deliver to three hundred customers - which means three hundred separate houses - every night in rain, in thunderstorm, in snowstorm, whatever else. And you cannot just throw the papers from the window - you have to run to every porch, sometimes knee-deep in snow. You put the papers in plastic bags to protect them from elements, but nobody thinks of protecting you. Do you remember Sandy hurricane which hit New York? We had to deliver during Sandy as well, no kidding. When radio and TV warned everyone except emergency services to stay at home. Emergency services and newspaper carriers, that is. The only easing we got was 'come two hours earlier to have more time to deliver.' To finish no later than 6 a.m. as usual, or you are fined. For all that, you get about one thousand per month. Plus tips, of course. Yes, while customers usually don't see their carriers at night, they can give tips. That's done by phone, sometimes by leaving cash in an envelope on the porch. But guess what? - very, very few people do that. Yes, for that kind of work. For delivering their newspapers during a hurricane. Only Christmas makes some of them more generous. But only some of them. At least two hundred of my customers had Christmas decorations outside. All that Santas, deers and snowmen, many of them illuminated, flashing and moving all night long - I don't think that's very cheap, especially when done for many nights, not a single one. But only five or six of them gave me any tips. All the rest preferred to spend money for illuminating the peopleless night," he stopped speaking and moved on to his gumbo.
"Have you tried a better form of media business?" Martha asked. "I mean, writing for newspapers?"
"I have of course. But do you believe free press really exists? All of them are affiliated with somebody. Attack the Republicans, but don't touch the Democrats. Or vice versa. The newspaper I delivered was the most amazing: they were very anti-Trump before he was elected and became completely pro-Trump after that. I don't think it's fear, I think it's just new advertiser... There are also centrists of course, which means 'don't criticize too harshly anybody'. Be politically correct, which means, again, avoid the truth at all costs. Be positive. One editor sent me a spectacular rejection letter: 'Your writing is very good, smart and stinging, and I agree with you that our world is moving to the complete disaster. But you write it in a too depressive and contemptuous manner.' Perfect, isn't it? I should write about the incoming complete disaster in a joyful manner! I should write that idiots are idiots with the respect to them!" He chewed a shrimp and continued: "There are neutral local topics, of course. Do we need a traffic light at the crossroad of Elm Street and Schiller Street? When will the city council fund a new schoolbus? A 300-word article on the sixth page, without author's name. I wrote that, too. But they don't pay for that much. Far from that. And it's like... you know, painting a wall for an artist."
"Complete disaster?" she echoed. "I think it's not that bad still."
"You do? Here in Paris?"
"It's only Paris," she shrugged. "It's not the whole world."
"People are all the same anywhere," he made a wry face. "Some of them may have better education, or better manners, or more money - which means, more possibilities to do stupid and destructive things. But their true nature is the same. It can only be hidden under a thin unnatural coating of culture until the time comes."
"Do you know a fable? A bee and a fly are arguing about the same place. 'It's all flowers and nectar!' says the bee. "No," says the fly, 'it's all shit!'"
"You want to say that I am the fly?" he squinted.
"I want to say that everyone finds what he is searching for."
"Wrong," he snapped. "Your analogy is wrong. For a fly, shit is good. Just like nectar for a bee. So both characters of your fable are happy. I am not. I don't like shit, and I never looked for it. I just see it. Smell it. Live in it."
"And no nectar?"
"Well, I can tell you a fable, too. If you mix a pound of honey and a pound of shit, what will you get? The answer is: two pounds of shit. And, actually, it's not even a 1 to 1 proportion. It's much worse."
"Not the best topic for a table talk," she made a smile.
"You started it. But I don't care," he put the next shrimp in his mouth.
"I just wanted to say that there is always a place for hope."
"If you didn't escape from Paris in time, you are stuck in Paris," he quoted sarcastically.
"Yes, but... I still hope. Every morning I tell myself: 'Maybe today everything will change.' Otherwise, it would be too hard to get up," she made a smile again.
"It won't change," he said.
"Most probably it won't," she agreed. "But it may. You never know what can change your life."
I know, he thought. An 11-mm bullet. If the word "change" is appropriate here.
"You sound like all these stupid motivators," he grumbled. "Never-never-never give up, you can if you think that you can and so on. Bullshit. Do you think I didn't try? Or was not persistent? I stopped trying when the folder 'shit' on my computer, where I put the rejection letters, reached 500 messages. Including those from myself which remained unanswered at all... Hope is, actually, the worst thing. The basis of any deception is hope."
"So, you gave up?"
"So I gave up. And probably should have done it earlier."
"And what are you going to do now?" she looked at him anxiously.
"Take my pie and return to the motel," he muttered.
"Sure. Your pie. I'll pack it for you."
She went out once more and returned with a pie in a cardboard box. Then turned to her cash register and clicked buttons.
"Twenty eight dollars."
"OK," he gave her two tens and two fives. All money he still had.
"I have a gun," he suddenly thought, looking how she was putting the notes into the cash register boxes. "I can rob her. Or anybody else in this town. Jack, for example. Take his money and any repaired car. Maybe even kill him to win more time. Why should I care? I am going to die anyway! I have nothing more to lose! And why should I be the only loser?"
Never in his life he committed anything criminal, and he was surprised with his own thoughts. But not too much, actually.
"You won't be a lucky robber as you weren't a lucky writer, or lucky-whatever-else," he said to himself. "They'll get you sooner or later - probably sooner than later - and you may not even have enough time to shoot yourself when it happens. Just follow the initial plan."
"Do you want a Powerball ticket for change?" Martha suddenly asked.
"What?" he stared at her. "Didn't you listen to all I was talking about?"
"I did," she smiled guiltily. "But... seven hundred million jackpot, you know. Second highest in all history. The drawing will be tomorrow."
"The odds are one to almost three hundred million," he sneered.
"I know. There is also a second prize of one million. Still not too bad."
"And the odds are nearly one to twelve million."
"Sure. If you try, the chance is tiny. But if you don't, the chance is zero."
"Then why don't you buy all your tickets yourself?" he sneered again.
"I did it several times," she confessed. "Not all, of course, just one. I never won."
"That's the answer."
"I probably should have avoided playing at all, taking into account my family history," she continued. "My father was a gambling addict. Eventually he lost all his savings, then the money saved for my college, then this cafe. Then hanged himself. So that's why I work in the cafe, but don't own it."
"And you wish me the same fate?"
"No of course. That's why I never bought more than one ticket, and offer you only one."
"That awfully big jackpots is one more sign of people's stupidity and unjustness," he noticed. "Of the absurd of our world. Be smart and talented and get nothing, work hard all life long and get nothing, even be a Nobel prize winner and get about one million - but buy a $2 lottery ticket and get 700 million! Who actually needs 700 million, or even whatever will remain after taxes? Nobody does. That's too much for a single person with normal needs. Even if he buys a yacht, a plane and a mansion, that's too much. If they shared that jackpot between many winners - say, a million to each one, the bigger is the jackpot, the more winners - that would make at least some sense..."
"If you win, you may share the money with somebody else," she smiled. "Believe or not, I have a feeling that you will be lucky. Call it stupid if you want."
"It really is," he snapped. "Give me..."
''... my change,' he wanted to finish, but suddenly stopped. For many years he tried to save every penny and just followed the reflex that became ridiculous now. "Damn! I am going to kill myself tonight, what's the use of that two bucks?! I have absolutely nothing to lose already. But I still can win. As she said, the tiniest chance is better than zero."
''Give me this ticket," he finished.
She smiled again and gave him the ticket and the receipt.
"If I win I’ll share the prize with you," he promised.
"I didn't mean that..." she mumbled, embarrassed.
"I think you did, but never mind. Thank you. Have a nice day... as much as it is possible in Paris."
He put his pie in his bag and went outdoors.
Six hours later, in the dead of night, he was sitting on a bed in his motel room. A remote control lay near him, but the TV screen was black. He had been flipping through the channels for some time this evening, and the only one not stupid was Discovery, but even there the commercial breaks every 12 minutes made him mad at last, and he turned the TV off. An open box with a half of the crawfish pie (and lots of crumbs) lay on a small table near the bed. He could not eat more. He had absolutely no appetite; on the contrary, he had headache and heartburn. Maybe he should not have eaten too much unaccustomed food. He tried to sleep, but couldn't, and his headache became only worse. The A/C worked, and it was the only good thing, but it was old and very noisy, torturing his head even more. Eventually he turned it off to get some silence.
It was still more than 21 hours left to Powerball drawing.
He was idle and bored. He looked at the rest of the pie and wrinkled his nose. Everything is wrong, he thought. Even the words. Crawfish is not actually fish, and heartburn has nothing to do with heart. Lie is imprinted even in our language; lie, stupidity and ignorance. And our language is the very basis of our thinking. How can one think right if his thoughts are built with wrong words, and thus, wrong concepts? We eat crustaceans, because we call them "fish", but we are disgusted with their closest relatives - spiders and insects, which are much more similar to them than any fish... However, we don't eat jellyfish, while we eat jelly and fish. All this makes no sense, actually.
He took his cellphone which also lay on the table, charging (one more ridiculous reflex). He was not going to make any calls. He had nobody to call, even if it was the last call in his life. And he didn't want to have anybody. He just wanted to check the time. Still more than 21 hours left. Time virtually stopped. This night seemed to become endless.
He took the lottery ticket. A pink paper rectangle with six numbers. Six silly random numbers which will define if he should live or die. It was more than just stupid. It was... humiliating. The last world's mockery of him. To prolong his agony for 21 hours more - and to screw him up finally of course. 1 to 292 million? 1 to 11.7 million? How stupid he was to hope on such chances! He always scorned people for doing this - and now he is one of them? Very nice!
This illusive chance is not worth suffering one more day and ending like a wretch who implored for the last mercy and was rejected. He will keep at least his pride if he cannot keep anything else.
He unzipped his bag and drew the gun out.
It lay in his hand, heavy, solid and cool. It looked and felt so firm and reliable. Good that it was a pistol, not a revolver. He has chosen the pistol just because it was the cheapest gun in the store, but now he understood that a revolver would have tempted him to play Russian roulette. And to interpret survival - had he survived - as a "sign" that hope was not lost, while he understood as clearly as always that it was superstitious bullshit. But no such games with a pistol. If only it doesn't fail. He never used it after all. But he stored it carefully.
He clicked off the safety and pressed the barrel into his chin from below. To shoot in your temple is dangerous - you risk to survive. Shooting up and back from the below is the only guaranteed way.
He was not going to leave any message. Who cares? Definitely not he.
"If the phone rings right now, will I answer?" he thought and decided: no, he will not. No good news could come by phone. And who could call him, after all? Only some spammer.
The phone didn't ring.
He pulled the trigger.
The gun didn't fail.
"So, what's your conclusion?" Sheriff Marlow grumbled. "A suicide?"
"Sure," deputy Johnes nodded. "The door was locked from the inside, no traces of fight or anyone's else presence, he shot himself from his own gun, fingerprints and ballistics confirm. No notice left, but I've run a make on him already. The guy was penniless, literally. 17 cents, that's all we found. He was still using his credit card, but he was probably unable to pay the balance. No money, no job, no family and no home, as he didn't pay his rent in time. If that's not a motive, I'm Hillary Clinton."
"You don't look like Hillary," the sheriff agreed. He was not surprised at all. That was far not the first suicide he saw in Paris in last 35 years. Locals, more often, but strangers sometimes, too. The latter ones mostly in The Eiffel Tower motel. Where else can a stranger go in this town? Too bad for old Sally, of course - the room was a real mess. But not the first time for her as well. "So, case closed?" he asked and drew a cigarette from a pack.
"Yes, I think so."
"You think?" Marlow narrowed his lids, gazing at his subordinate. "Something makes your uncertain?"
"Well..." Johnes was confused, "I don't think it's really important... just a bit strange. I found a lottery ticket in the room... probably he considered it his last chance..."
"And when this chance didn't work, he beat out his brains," the sheriff nodded. "So what?"
"But the drawing will be only today. It's Powerball, they are played Wednesdays and Saturdays."
The sheriff lit his cigarette and puffed.
"Well," he said, tipping back in his chair (it creaked under his bulky body), "probably he decided he could not abide one more disappointment. What's the expected jackpot, by the way?"
"Seven hundred million. The second greatest in all history."
"Oh really?" Marlow leaned forward (the chair creaked again). "You should bring this ticket here. If it wins, we'll share the prize."
"But..." the young deputy was taken aback, "it's the evidence, duly executed already..."
"Just kidding," the sheriff grinned. "This stuff never wins. If I believed otherwise, I would go to Montmartre Cafe and buy as much as Martha can sell. And would probably end like her dad... By the way, have you talked to her? If the guy bought the ticket there, she may give us some additional details."
"Not yet, sir... he could buy it in any other place as well," Johnes answered defensively.
"Sure, but you'd better check. I don't think she'll tell you anything important, but... just for conscience' sake, you know."
"I'll visit her at the end of my evening patrol. Was going to eat her casserole anyway. Is this OK?"
"Sure. No hurry. It's just a suicide."
Four hours later Sheriff Marlow was still sitting in his office. The light was dimmed (only his cigarette glowed in twilight), and it was completely dark outside. He could go home already, but didn't want to stand up and walk anywhere. He just rolled slightly on his chair, making it creak. "Once this thing will break apart under me," he thought, "and maybe even kill me. If smoking doesn't do it earlier."
Nobody was waiting him at home anyway. His wife died two years ago. His son left Paris the next day after his prom. "Not a single day more I'll stay here," that was his last words. They did not communicate much since then. Maybe the sheriff should have adopted a cat. But he never liked cats. Cats are the serial killers of the animal kingdom. The only creatures - except humans, of course - which enjoy suffering of their victims.
The official telephone on his table rang. Marlow stopped rolling and took the call. It was Johnes.
"Just spoke with Martha," the deputy reported. "Nothing unexpected, just as you thought. She just confirmed the suicide version. He was an unfortunate guy who told her about his unfortunate life. She was upset but not shocked when I told her what he'd done. She said she was afraid he could do this. And by the way, the Powerball drawing is going right now! I'm watching it on Martha's TV. Do you hear that noise? Martha's customers are watching it, too. I guess they all bought tickets..."
"They do it every time," the sheriff sneered, "while there was not a single case of big winning here in Paris."
"Hope dies the last, you know."
"Nope," Marlow objected, "human stupidity dies the last. Hope would never survive it."
"I have the numbers of our dead guy," Johnes continued. "Martha doesn't, but I do. I've written them down. And... and... wait a moment... you know what? Our dead friend is the lucky winner!"
"What?" Marlow's voice suddenly became hoarse. "How much did he win?"
"The big seven!"
"Seven hundred million dollars?!"
Marlow's heart missed a beat and then quickened as if he was running for his life. Sweat sprang to his forehead. "Old fool!" he thought. "Old wise stupid jester! If I only took that ticket... maybe it's not too late yet? Evidence... to hell with evidence! We'll rewrite and backdate the documents... Johnes, of course, will demand fifty-fifty... that's OK if only he doesn't demand more..."
"Just kidding, sir," Johnes responded after enjoying a long pause. "He won seven dollars, and that's all."
"Damn, Johnes," Marlow muttered, "next time you want to kill me better use your gun. I don't want to die of a heart attack. Kidding in turn, of course. So, haven't I told you? Nobody ever wins here."
"You were right as usual, Sheriff."
Despite of the French background of the state, there is no Paris in Louisiana. However, places with this name (cities, towns and unincorporated communities) exist in twenty other US states.
The $700 million Powerball jackpot (758.7 at the moment of drawing) was actually played (and won) on August 23, 2017, while I was writing this story (the idea, however, came to me much earlier). It became the biggest lottery winning in history (the only one bigger US jackpot was shared between 3 winning tickets). The winner was from Massachusetts.
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