Blinking and shaking his head, he looked around the near full room in a slow steady arc. On the lounge opposite, a pasty-faced chemical head lay sprawled, face tilted upwards, slack. His eyes were closed, every now and again someone would approach him and ask if he was alright, sometimes with a glass of water, which he drank in one long, ravenous gulp. A clump of girls were dancing together, rebuffing everyone who mosied on near them, giggling and clutching one another's arms in a way that Milton in his deepening depression as the night wore on and he became more, ah, to put it delicately, desperately horny, saw as obvious evidence of rampant lesbian desire. On the other side of the room a few guys with rainbow coloured hair were deep in conversation, gesturing emphatically with cigarettes that smelled remarkably green, and over at the bar the two bartenders were in a whirl of activities. A few neatly dressed guys with wet, slicked back hair danced self-consciously together, a wide space around them that nobody seemed willing to cross. He supposed that this was a cross-section of today's youth, a slice from each section, and most seemed to be out of their brains from drugs, alcohol or both. Where were the next wave of poets and artists and other such creative luminaries? Would the collective mind of a generation be destroyed by pills created in labs under grimy-haired slackabout's basements and insistent, droning beats? Perhaps this was also a worry of the parents of the generation previous to now, Milton didn't know, but when he looked around – or to be honest, in the mirror – he didn't see much beyond the next high.
Near his lounge two girls and a boyfriend were dancing slowly, not really to the music. They were all very drunk, laughing and having a good time, but it was one of the girls in particular who drew his attention. Red haired and bean-pole thin, she appeared to be having trouble standing or walking or doing anything, really. She kept laughing and stumbling, caught in the arms of the boyfriend, who would kiss her messily and hoist her back up for the next fall. In her left hand was a drink she had not yet managed to spill. With the sudden flash of inspiration familiar to so many drunk people, she balanced the glass on her hand, laughing and holding her arms out straight. Somehow, the drink stayed on, like a book on a table, solid, unmoving. Her friends clapped and she removed it, bowing and falling to the ground. With a giggle she got up and performed the trick again, perfect balance. To Milton's bleary eyes, this was some sort of a miracle, and also an indication that he needed to get out of here.
Outside, the air was clean and cool, a welcome change from the hazy, smoke-filled club. The crowds in the streets had evaporated in the intervening hours, only a few stragglers remained, as well as the ever-present homeless and drunks. A lone pizza-stall remained, half a pepperoni pizza glistening feebly in the dull yellow light of the bain-marie, thick gooey cheese melting in a slow descent onto the metal platter below.
Milton's footsteps were to him steady but to others vaguely haphazard; as he walked he counted out left right left right, telling himself over and over to remain stable, to walk straight, to appear sober. He was sure he was fooling everyone. Off to his right, standing just outside one of the newer, trendy bars was a woman of indeterminate age handing out little white coupons that allowed the bearer the privelage of a free drink – cocksucking cowboys they were called. A tasty drink, Milton had spent more than one poor Friday walking back and forth outside the bar, collecting unwanted coupons that more foolish (or perhaps richer) people had carelessly dropped.
He liked to play with these people, see what their prejudices were. On some nights they clamoured about him, handing him free drinks by the sheaf. Other nights he was ignored, the tiny squares of paper reserved for those with collars, or those with green hair, he never knew why he was rejected when it happened.
Leaning against a tree, he studied the woman. She seemed to be handing out coupons to the clean-cut portions of the male crowd. As always, females were targeted without prejudice; it seemed that they could hardly move at all in that area of the valley without being swamped by numerous offers to this or that establishment. Milton reflected on this. It seemed that even here, in a haze of alcohol and range of classes and personality types, breasts were the answer. If you had them, doors opened and invitations were extended. If not, well...
He watched her for a few more minutes to ascertain whether his initial assumption had been correct. It was, and he was in no collar tonight, but he thought he'd give it a try. He took a deep breath, focused intently on the way his feet were moving, focused his eyes and stepped towards her.
-Hi, free drink to Belushi's? She handed a couple of coupons to a guy in front of him, laughing and embracing his girlfriend, one hand placed firmly over her left breast. He kissed her cheek, whispered something that must've been witty, if her reaction was anything to go by, and tucked the coupons into his back pocket. The woman turned to hand another free drink to a passing girl, who ignored it.
Now it was Milton's turn. He was walking slowly, figuring that this way she would see him and be forced to hand him a drink. He looked at her eyes, which were looking elsewhere, waiting for them to flick to his. They didn't, and he walked past, almost bumping into a huge blonde wrestler-type.
-She ignored me! She did, didn't she? Why? Milton crouched down on his heels by a Jamaican-looking fellow with a multi-coloured Rastafarian cap and dark sunglasses. An opened violin case lay in front of him, filled with silver coins with here and there a hint of gold. Inexplicably, the man had a pair of bongo drums on his lap. Milton could see the man's marijuana stash tucked behind the hinge of the case, invisible to the passerby's but readily accessible otherwise. -Did you see that? I never get a drink from Belushi's.
-Ahhh, don't worry. Drinks aren't all that great. I can't be drinking here, you know? I gotta play music. The Jamaican man nudged the violin case importantly. -You pay for some nice music? He tapped the drums, one-two-three, starting a beat that sounded infectious.
-Sure, here. Milton threw a few random silver coins into the violin case, they clinked satisfactorily. -Making much money tonight?
-Nahhhhh. The man smiled a white smile, his face transforming momentarily into a thing entirely composed of teeth. He gestured at the money, -I brought most of this with me, for show. I just like playing.
-Fair enough. Milton nodded, settling himself down by the musician, who didn't seem bothered. He introduced himself as Jay, revealing that he was not, unfortunately, Jamaican. He had been raised in England, and had had pasty white skin until a certain drug-induced epiphany one cold december morning. He was lying in his dirty apartment, looking up at a Margaret Thatcher-shaped stain on the roof (-Everything be looking like old Maggie in Brit-ain, he told an ignorant Milton, who nodded), contemplating reality and deciding that cold, unfriendly London was not the place to be. The house he was living in wasn't even his, it was owned by a friend who dealt in the shadier aspects of home delivery services, so packing up and leaving wasn't too much of an issue. He scrawled on the wall a brief message of farewell, however, being as under the influence as he was, the message got to rambling and soon covered all four walls, the floor, bits of furniture and all but Maggie on the roof thanks to a ladder he borrowed from the man next door, a hairy-armed fellow who seemed more interested in scratching his forest of an underarm than wondering just why Jay thought it was necessary to indelibly mark his house. A brief visit to his parents afforded him all the money he could want, so naturally he traveled to Australia first class, spending the first year in the Sunshine State on the Gold Coast, drinking in the all-year summer rays and cooking his skin from tooth-paste white to a dusky amber that even Black-Man would have been proud of. Some mild and not entirely accurate research into the speech and behavioural patterns of Jamaicans later, and he was able to reinvent himself as a certified, bone-fide Jamaican from the tropical islands of sunshine and weed. A monthly stipend from his stiff upper-lip parents enabled him to work the streets most nights, playing away at his bongos, smoking with his friends and meeting all sorts of interesting people.
Milton listened to all of this with great interest. For the longest time, he had felt a similar desire for reinvention, but had been unable to actualise it so effectively – or to be completely honest, at all. Always in his mind was this desire to throw everything away and become what the true Milton was, the problem being that he hadn't exactly figured it out just yet. He presumed that this idea of the 'real' Milton would one day make itself clear, and until then, his primary goal in life was to not get killed until it happened. He explained this to Jay in mostly coherent sentences, only ocasionally laughing and blushing and correcting himself with the unabashed candour of the drunk. Jay on the whole was responsive and encouraging, even at one stage allowing Milton a chance to PLAY HIS BONGO, which was a success in terms of the two becoming friends, but musically, an abomination.
He sat there for some time, silent, watching the legs of people walking by. The slender, shapely legs of the females depressed him, the trouser-clad thickness of masculinity didn't help much either. The former he wanted, the latter he envied. A few times a pair of legs walked by in jeans, and he was confused as to which sex it belonged to. As according to the rules of this hastily made-up game, Milton was unable to look up to see whether the owner of the legs was a husky female or a effeminate man. On these rare occasions he found himself confused and unsure as to whether he should be jealous, envious, or some strange mix of both.
Jay collected a minor amount of money while he played away the hours, hammering at the bongos with unbridled enthusiasm. A wide, cheerful grin never left his face and his eyes were bloodshot. Towards four in the morning, just as the false dawn was breaking the cheerless monotony of night, Jay nudged Milton, informing him that he had earned enough tonight to buy a cheeseburger. Milton congratulated him on such providence, then promptly returned to leg-watching, a game that was rapidly losing the shine of newness and discovery.
Milton was no longer drunk, his mind felt cool and open, alert. The sun was beginning its slow ascent from the Below, the deep chill of a crystal dawn an unprophetic precursor to what would become an extremely hot February day. Jay ducked his head behind the open violin case, sucking deeply on his special cigarette and holding the smoke in for an impossibly long time. He blew it into Milton's face, who was not impressed, then together the two of them packed up Jay's gear.
-You wanna come get a burger? I got enough for two, Jay asked, patting Milton on the shoulder and handing him the heavy violin case, shiny coins rattling like dice in a yahtzee board inside. Milton agreed, positioning the violin case on his shoulders for greater support.
They set off to the nearest burger joint, carefully avoiding the burrito place nearby, the faux-Turkish green banners proclaiming 100% authenticity but affording at best only ten. Jay told Milton that it was a curse of the Valley that the beautiful people went home with the beautiful people, while the ugly people went home with burritos. Milton had heard this particular joke before, but he laughed, shifting the violin case about his shoulders to better distribute the weight.
The line was long, and varied. Directly in front of them was a man decked almost entirely in black leather and stiff metal chains, spray-painted red. His hair was a true rainbow of colours, in order and everything: COLOR COLOR COLOR COLOR COLOR COLOR COLOR. The space behind them was soon occupied by two giggling Asian girls, hand in hand, their small breasts all but hidden by the severity of their clothes. Milton pointedly looked away from them; he had no truck with 'the interlopers' as his father had called them. -Taking away all the good jobs, they are! His father would yell, sitting at the head of the wooden table that was the centerpiece of both the living and dining room, a combined, figure-eight shaped room that confused guests and amused those living within, playing solitaire with a grimace. He played a curious multi-version of solitaire that involved two new decks of cards, took two places up at the table, and was under no circumstance to be disturbed. His father would play the two games simultaneously, one turn for each then repeat, and when one of the games won, he would roundly insult the other 'player', a mysterious, unseen man named Fred who apparently had a wart on his nose the size of the Big Pineapple and was a quote unquote filthy Asian to boot. The winning game received a joker card, which would be placed face up just above the playing area, a cardboard badge of honor that remained on that side of the table into perpetuity. Once, while his father was out, Milton had taken the time to count the number of Jokers the left side of the table had – the clear winner – but got sick of counting once he passed a thousand. Now, when he visited, the beautiful wooden table that had once been the pride and joy of his mother was reduced to a glorified holding chamber for the bundles and bundles of joker cards, arranged into decks of 100 and carefully labelled as to date compiled, win-loss ratio required to achieve the hundred, and what emotional state his father had been in upon completion of said hundred.
From his father, Milton had received an abiding hatred for Asians which he found to be a distasteful attribute, but one that he was so far unable to rid himself of, and a distinct fear of Joker cards.
Jay handed him a warm cheeseburger wrapped in flimsy, grease-wet wrapping paper, and a medium coke swirling with ice. He accepted the meal gratefully; the two sat down at a recently vacated table that had a small pool of strawberry thickshake in the middle, a pool which Jay swore looked just like Maggie, only shorter.
-What's that, then?
-What? Milton asked.
-That, Jay said, pointing to his drink. Milton looked down at it. The drink was a medium, a size larger than Jay's, and was covered in garish green slogans and pictures proclaiming Milton the potential winner of all manner of prizes ranging from a car to another cheeseburger. All he had to do to perhaps win was to peel the sticker off from the centre of the drink and read what it had to say. Of course, even if he was not an instant winner, he might be able to win through judicious purchase of even more processed food with drinks, all in the hope of completing a certain Monopoly sequence of property, which would then be placed upon the thoughtfully provided place-mat, which had, naturally, been reduced to soggy shreds of paper from the moisture of the drink and the grease from the food.
-Open it then, Jay said.
-You can have it if I win, Milton told him, sticking his blunt fingernail under the sticky plastic and pulling. It was Park Lane.
-What? That's no free nothing. Jay slumped back disappointed.
-No, wait, Milton said, perusing the fragments of game rules he was able to decipher from the sludgy mess of place-mat. -It says here that if I find Mayfair, I win...a car!
-Well, you'd win it.
-I'd win a car?
-Sure. Just gotta get Mayfair.
Jay rested his head on the metal seat, looking upwards, eyes closed. -Which, do you suppose, is the rare token of the two?
-Mayfair and Park Lane, there's only two in the set. The prize is for a car, they are giving away five cars. This suggests that one of the tokens would be rare, and one would be dirt common so as to whet people's thirst, so to speak. Both coke and cards can sate a dehydrated man, apparently! Marketing genius. He opened his eyes to look at Milton, -Anyway, the trick for us is to ascertain which is the rare token. Would it be Mayfair? Too obvious, as Mayfair is the best in the game.
-But Park Lane would be too obvious, as that is what everyone would think. I can just see some dorky little fat kid tugging on his mother's hand, 'Look, Ma! I want a car and I got four Park Lane's already!'. The very inferiority of Park Lane suggests superiority, which then suggests further inferiority.
-Precisely. This self-same fat kid, who we shall style Bill.
Jay waved his hand. -I knew a fat kid in England called Bill. I hated him.
-My father's name is Bill...
-His name is Bill no matter what, Jay said firmly. -Now, Bill is collecting these tokens, and Bill is smart, in a high cholesterol kind of way. He knows that Mayfair is better in the game of monopoly, but he also knows that he is not playing an actual game, just a simulacrum. So the rules are changed, and maybe Park Lane is better. So little Billy has a Mayfair, and he thinks, 'well, they couldn't possibly make Mayfair the winning one', so he throws it away.
-He just throws it away? Just like that? Doesn't check?
-Sure, Bill is pretty stupid.
-I thought he was just fat.
-Fat people are stupid, sometimes.
-So he throws it away, then later to his horror, discovers that Mayfair was the winner, and that he had in his chubby little hands, a car.
-Even though he can't drive?
-Hmmmm. Milton pondered this a moment. -But wait – that doesn't prove anything!
-No, but we should think about it.
-Alright, what about this? Milton pointed to the floor.
-What about it?
-It's covered in empty cups, chip containers, burger wrappers. God knows there would be plenty more in the rubbish bin. And what about the waste in the actual store?
-What's your point?
-My point is, that with all this casual waste happening, the chances of the right token – Park Lane or Mayfair – being thrown away is pretty high.
-I fail to comprehend the existence of a person who would throw away a potential car.
-Why? A busy executive – Chris – he comes along, gets a coke on the run, drinks it, throws it away, unbeknownst to all and sundry, that coke contained a car, or a, Milton searched about on the place-mat – a Playstation or $10,000. Sounds too easy for me.
-This Chris sounds like a pretty busy guy.
-Oh yeah. Doesn't have time for anything. Gets home at like midnight, kisses his wife on the cheek, closes his eyes for exactly five minutes and thirteen seconds, then gets up and goes straight back to work.
-Must be a lot to do at the office if he is needed at at quarter past midnight.
-Oh yeah. Milton smiled and they both started laughing. Then: -Wait!
-What is it?
-Back when I was a kid, I used to work at one of these places.
-Sure. Most kids do. Thing is, we would throw away a lot of stock that, say, fell on the floor or whatever. I'm talking potentially hundreds of cups or chip boxes every month. Each one of those could have the precious winning token.
-So what you're saying is...
-What I'm saying is that some sort of unsuspecting staff worker could've accidentally thrown it away even before our young upstart Chris here could do so!
They fell into silence, Milton watching the legs of the passerby's – for some reason the game had caught on again – while Jay propped his chin up with two slightly bent forefingers and gazed, glassy-eyed into the distance.
-I'm wondering... Jay leaned forward, eyes intent. -I'm wondering, what sort of security was there at the store you worked in?
-Security? Milton frowned. -Not a whole lot. It was a few years back though, so things might've changed...
-Not a whole lot? What does that mean, exactly.
-Let me see. The doors were locked, sure, but if you managed to get inside nothing else was all that difficult to access, excepting the manager's area.
-They don't keep stock in there, right?
-No, no, it was off a way's, in a metal area near the freezer.
-Was that locked?
-No, the door could be closed, but it was just a latch.
Jay took hold of Milton's hands, lowering them down to the table. Milton, unaccustomed to male-male touching of any sort, felt uncomfortable, but said nothing. -Milton, my friend, I have a proposition for you.
-A proposition. These place would have lots and lots of boxes and cups waiting to be used, right?
-Yeah, hundreds. Thousands.
-And if we can manage to get in to a store, we shouldn't have a problem getting into the storage area, right?
-Dry stock, they called it. And right.
-You have any moral problems with stealing, Milton?