Herbert Horatio "Poppy" Blackwell was once a daring aviator, an illustrious movie producer, and a brilliant businessman. A Howard Hughes–like mogul, Poppy has become a recluse with paralyzing fears of infection. Cloistered in the penthouse high above his desert gambling empire, he is attended by a small army of maids and footmen and lawyers and physicians, who live in a state of constant surveillance as they cater to his eccentric, paranoid demands.
Herman Q. Louse is Poppy's valet, one of the many indentured servants who have racked up an insurmountable debt in his casino (and whose long-term memories have subsequently been erased). Louse's primary duty is to administer Poppy's medication: near-lethal doses of benzodiazepines. But as he goes about his carefully monitored business, he becomes aware of a growing conspiracy against Poppy and becomes his unlikely protectorthat is, until people start to point fingers at Louse.
Dark, disturbing, yet acerbically funny, Louse by David Grand is a vividly imagined tale, at once timely and unforgettable.
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By David Grand
PicadorCopyright © 1998 David Grand
All rights reserved.
THE EXECUTIVE CONTROLLING PARTNER
Poppy's Valium Librium Empirin #4 fills the brim of an unblemished vial. His syringe, capped by a short plastic nipple, rests on a puff of white gauze. A flaccid rubber tube coils into the shape of a circular maze. All the items are meticulously arranged on a hospital tray whose stainless steel reflects the dim red glow of camera surveillance lights. My hands are suited with rubber gloves. My face is masked. My hair is shaved from my head and arms. I smell of a sweet coconut-scented antiseptic.
"The nights feel longer, Mr. Louse," Poppy says as he wakes from a deep sleep.
"The days feel shorter."
"Which one is it?"
"It is night, Poppy."
"The nights feel longer."
"Yes, Poppy. They do."
Poppy breathes shallow breaths as I place his tray onto the corner of the western night table and bend over his body to search for a point of entry. As I hover over him, his forehead thickens into wrinkled folds of flesh. Within them, the folds contain clusters of what look like shattered pearls. The icy fissures cascade into tufts of a long auburn beard, greasy and patched with streaks of lint-gray. The slick hair languidly folds over his lips and jowls in such a manner that it's very difficult to read any form of expression on his face. If his beard should silently jostle around, I often imagine various affectations and looks, as, say, when one imagines life bustling about under the gaseous surface of a distant planet. I might perceive, for instance, phantoms of irony or bitterness or despair, a silent request whose message I feel individually responsible for.
Any kind of bodily motion shakes the few remaining hairs straddling his scalp; they shake and twist like antennae homing in on coded frequencies, always followed by his voice, his commands, which are delivered with a steady and stiff timbre. His eyes hide in the shadows of thick beetle-brows and high cheek bones. When they are visible, they are distant and shy, veiling his dictates with numb appraisals.
"Try here," he says, rolling over onto his stomach. With a looping brown finger nail, he points me down the shingled path of his body. My eyes travel the curves of the nail to his loin cloth. The elastic waist hugs the bones of his hips, which are distended and sharply angle into his legs. His skin is like moth-eaten velvet and shimmers like the phosphorescence of a crashed wave. I fear that a slip of the finger will puncture or bruise its cloudy sheen.
As I take hold of the back of his knee I begin humming the third movement of Mozart's "Requiem" in the key of D minor. I am to hum this as I search for a point of entry. Poppy's few remaining open veins appear and disappear and reappear. When I find a thin streak of blue that I think might take the needle, his tendons stiffen and his muscles contract. I uncoil the tube and tie it around his leg. Taut. Very taut. He likes to lose all sensation. He likes the rush that results when I release the tension. According to his last memo, I am to constrict whichever part of [his] body [I have] to in order to find the most functional vein.
The low moan of the chambers' ventilation system changes frequency as Poppy sighs from the back of his throat.
"Tighter, Mr. Louse."
I tie the band tighter.
He coughs a little, and then, as instructed, I take hold of the syringe between my forefinger and middle finger. I remove the plastic nipple from the tip of the needle and place it on the tray. I push the plunger with my thumb, stick the needle in the vial, and pull the plunger back up. When the liquid fills to the proper measure, I tap away the remaining air bubbles inside the tube. I say, "I am ready, sir." He doesn't say anything in response. Confirmation that I am ready is all he requires.
I am to rest my left forefinger at the point of entry. I am to insert the needle slowly so that he feels it enter. I am then to insert it as deeply as it will go. I place my left forefinger over an open lesion and slowly and deeply insert.
His leg spasms a little.
He sighs again.
I push the plunger down, but only halfway. I am to push the plunger halfway, then I am to pull back. This works to mix his blood with the compound, which is heavy on codeine, light on aspirin, caffeine, phenacetin. I wait a moment longer. Then I push the new mixture into his vein. I remove the needle as slowly as I inserted it and delicately replace it on the tray.
I remove the rubber band and recoil.
I stop humming.
Poppy's foot trails off to the edge of the bed. His chest falls into his pillows. He picks up on Mozart's melody from where I left off, humming a nasal hum.
I promptly step away from him toward a large picture window covered with long smooth sheets of aluminum foil. The window nearly runs the length of the western wall and has never revealed anything more than a dim reflection of Poppy's chambers—the bed, a nightstand, the television, and a sprawl of discarded newspapers, legal pads, and Kleenex that surrounds the bed's periphery.
I proceed around the sprawl of papers and under the low-lying ducts of the ventilation system. The ventilation system, which is heat sensitive, prevents mold and mildew from collecting on or within these papers' fibers, or between any ordinary crevices for that matter, in gaps of generally unseen and unimagined space. Poppy's chambers are so dry, in fact, that on occasion, a corner of an old Wall Street Journal has been known to curl up like the ear of a curious dog.
Over time, the debris deposited around Poppy's bed has shaped itself into small mounds resembling mountain ranges. Peaks and valleys, plateaus and plains, buttress against the edges of canyons and ravines made of uneven folds of newsprint. It is not hard to imagine that if water were to fall from the ceiling, creeks, streams, and rivers would flow into lakes and estuaries, and Poppy's bed would buoy up like a raft floating over the black-bottom silt of a swamp.
I close the door to his chambers so that it slams shut. This way he can hear the latch click and imagine my hand falling comfortably to my side. I bow my head, dim the lights of the long hallway, and walk with slow strides toward the kitchen.
The floors of the western wing, as well as the eastern, northern, and southern wings, are covered in gray linoleum. The red pulses of camera surveillance lights flicker and streak down the glossy finish. The illumination reflects off glass cabinets filled with Poppy's paper planes, of which there are thousands, each named for either Kathryn, Betty, or Jane, women whose holographic images adorn the medicine cabinets in the three bathrooms adjoining Poppy's chambers. Each woman looks down over her own province of scrubbed white marble. Each has eyes that can see to anywhere in her room. The heads turn as a subject crosses before them and nod when a subject kneels to the floor. The images, in their entirety, are equipped to glow in the dark; when they do, they cast a soft greenish hue onto the walls.
Kathryn is the youngest and most pouting of the three. Her hair is long and slightly drapes over her left cheek. Her eyes are round, but appear narrow because of the way her long lashes hang like parasols. Her face is wide, her lips are full and glistening and just barely parted. Betty is more severe, angling forward. Her hair twists into a tight bun. Her nose is raised to a height that affects snobbery. Her lashes curve up like the sharp edges of a porcupine's fear-stricken back. And then there is Jane who looks moribund. Poppy, of late, spends all of his time with this one. Her hair is bobbed and hangs in her face, which is fallen and disturbed and nearly violent. The corners of her mouth slightly arch; the rim of her nose slightly flares. Otherwise, her eyes are hollow; they are dark and hollow, fully indulged in the heavy mood of the shade.
The glass cabinets encasing Poppy's aircraft line the outer corridors of the entire thirty-third floor. They hold thousands of planes, each of whose creases was crafted by Poppy with much care. When the old man snaps one away with his brittle wrist, his expression constricts and he looks as though he calculates the angles of ascent, counts the seconds the wings remain aloft, contemplates the pull of gravity on the nose. I occasionally see him watch me lift a plane from the border of linoleum on the periphery of his chambers. As I pinch the fuselage and delicately place it on a silver tray, I can feel his eyes wince when the belly's fold touches my reflection in the metal.
A tall shaft of white fluorescent light emanates from the kitchen's doorway. The countertops, tabletops, and floor glow white. Everything glows and sparkles and turns at ninety degree angles. The sink, the refrigerator, the stove, all the appliances are polished, stainless and brushed steel—the cabinets, the preparation areas, the doors to the dozen pantries as well. The windows are spotless. The intensity of the kitchen's light forces the night into an opaque reflection of the room's glow.
I enter the "Medical Supplies" pantry containing Poppy's medical supplies. It is a small room unto itself—six feet wide and twelve feet long. White lacquered storage units with shelves and cupboards run the length of the walls on both sides. The bottom of the door is magnetized, as is the wall, so that when I walk in, the door remains ajar.
Next door to "Medical Supplies" is "Sterilization," a much larger room, a room almost the size of the kitchen, which is quite large, at least several hundred square feet. Mr. Lutherford and Mr. Heinrik, the sterilization attendants, share a shift, during which time they sanitize all of Poppy's utensils, pots, pans, pens, paper, sheets, smocks, masks, and an entire host of miscellany that is necessary to decontaminate before it enters Poppy's presence.
I open a cupboard on the wall that "Medical" shares with "Sterilization" in order to retrieve a Ziploc storage bag.
"Do you know him?"
It is Mr. Lutherford. Even muffled through the thin wall, Mr. Lutherford's voice is very distinct. As is Mr. Heinrik's. Mr. Lutherford's resonates from his barrel chest and is very deep and coarse. Mr. Heinrik's voice is soft and terse. The two men babble incessantly, constantly pushing the boundaries of authorized speech.
"Do you know him?" Mr. Lutherford repeats.
"No, I'm afraid not," Mr. Heinrik responds.
"You say he diverted funds?"
"More than you can imagine."
"I have heard laundering."
"There are a number of accountants under him, all under suspicion."
"Is there a name?"
"Yes, that's his name. Blank. Mortimer Blank."
"Never heard of him."
"He must be Internal Affairs."
"No further access then."
"I'm surprised they've disclosed as much as they have."
"It's too bad."
"Yes, too bad."
The two men pause for a moment.
"What is the news?" I ask through the cupboard as I dip Poppy's tray into a square pan full of rubbing alcohol.
"Mr. Louse?" they say in unison.
"Since when are you interested in the news?" Mr. Heinrik asks.
"Mr. Louse interested in the news?" Mr. Lutherford echoes.
"I'm only interested in wishing you two a good evening," I say, not really wanting to have anything to do with their conversation. Although I must keep up with the latest news, I like to stay uninvolved. It's my way. I merely like to let them know I'm here, listening.
"You'll be delighted to hear that there is nothing to report, Mr. Louse," Mr. Heinrik says.
"Tonight we are surrounded by angels such as yourself," says Mr. Lutherford.
"He'll have his wings any day now, no doubt. The first into Paradise."
"Just wanted to let you know I was here," I say as I remove a Ziploc storage bag from a shelf.
"As usual," they say in unison.
"Until later," I say.
"Yes, later," they say.
I click the cupboard closed.
Their voices disappear.
I retrieve the used syringe, place it into the Ziploc bag, and dispose of it in the incinerator at the very back of the room. The rubber tubing, which I wrap around Poppy's limbs, is to be left coiled and dropped into a separate tub of rubbing alcohol. The bottle full of his elixir is to be placed in a cupboard on the opposite wall, marked "Pharmaceuticals." I am then instructed to shut the door and go to my quarters.
My quarters are exactly twice the dimensions of the pantry. They are located near the northern corner of the eastern wing alongside the other quarters demarcated for domestic personnel. The walls are bare, painted white; the floors are covered in white tiles. I have a twin bed made up of a box spring and mattress. A skylight looks up to evening constellations. During the day it is covered with a scrim that filters out the brightness and the heat. It mechanically closes at daybreak and opens after dusk. Under the skylight is a desk, which is situated near the entrance to the bathroom, where I have my own toilet, private shower, cleaning supplies, wash basin, and incinerator. Red camera surveillance lights blink in all corners of the room and the bathroom.
There is a small hole in the wall near my bed through which I can watch my neighbor Mr. Crane, the maintenance engineer, and through which he can watch me. I rarely look in on him, however. I have no idea how often he looks in on me. Theoretically, we can look in on each other at any time, though never simultaneously. When this occurs, the hole turns black, and we therefore know the other is present. We must then follow the contract, which states: staff members must forfeit their voyeurism for the remainder of the day and/or night. This has happened to me and Mr. Crane just once. Usually he isn't in. Only on several occasions have I caught him at home, pacing the floors of his cramped quarters, reclining on his bed, getting ready for his duties. I will look through the hole when I am in search of entertainment. Thus far, however, Mr. Crane has provided me very little. Other than the fact that his head has an unusual oblong shape that casts conic shadows onto the wall, I find him very dull. He tends to sit on the edge of his bed and look out his skylight, even when there is nothing to be seen.
When I reach my quarters, I sit at my desk, do a check of the procedure as I glance down at the section of my contract regarding Poppy's tray. I am to keep this section of the contract laminated and in the upper left-hand drawer of the desk along with a syringe full of a drug with which, twice daily, I am to inject myself in the thigh. It slows my heart rate and makes me a little faint. I do not know what purpose it serves. All I know is that I am to inject myself with it once in the late morning and once at night. If and only if I am convinced that I have successfully inoculated myself, can I remove my gloves from my hands, the mask from my face, the smock from my body, and drop these things down the incinerator installed in my bathroom.
I take a few moments at the wash basin to allow the dizziness to pass as I look at my reflection in the mirror, wondering how Mr. Crane perceives me as he looks through his hole. I too am not a very handsome man and must seem as dull to him as he seems to me. I can surmise from the lines around my eyes and above my brow, from the few gray hairs sprouting off my chest, that I am, perhaps, in my midthirties. I have thin cheeks and a short chin. My nose is somewhat aquiline, but not exactly beak-like. My eyes are brown and almond shaped and my ears are unusually large. My body is fit, but not well-defined. My hands are somehow too large for my body and my thumbs are slightly deformed; they are bent at the joint, turning inward against my index fingers. Small bones protrude from the joints like warts, and are callused over from the motion of rubbing them against my palms.
Contrary to what my physiognomy would suggest, I am very adroit and have very keen hand-eye coordination. If I am able to present Mr. Crane or my anonymous observers any kind of thrill, it is when I hunt flies, the ones that find their way into our quarters through the air conditioning vents. We are required to hunt them; something I take great pleasure in, unlike Mr. Crane, who allows the flies to buzz around his quarters until they are nearly dead from boredom. He sits on his bed with his swatter in hand and makes exhausted and fake attempts to hunt his prey. I, on the other hand, find the hunt stimulating and take it seriously. One might assume that the buzzing and the banging against the walls and the skylight in search of freedom would make me feel uncomfortable. But not at all. Just the opposite. I look forward to their arrival. In fact, I await their arrival with great anticipation. I have in my desk drawer, beside my contract, a regulation fly swatter to be used on such occasions. I run and jump and crawl and feel a great rush when I finally corner a pest. Against what I initially believed when I first took up this avocation, there are many ways a fly swatter will weigh down upon its prey. I have caught flies by their hind legs, by a wing. I have turned many into one winged flies and managed, on a few occasions, to catch them by their remaining wing. I have felt great pride watching flies with no wings run and jump off their hind legs, only to land on their faces. I have splattered flies and decapitated them. To splatter a fly in one straight shot, I have discovered, isn't nearly as entertaining as breaking it down bit by bit, wing by leg by head. Since the first day I was escorted to my quarters, I have sent three hundred twenty-three flies down the incineration chute to the fire. I have killed flies on every wall, under my bed, in the shower, and the sink. I have even splattered one directly on the lens of a surveillance camera. I have had perverse thoughts of eating flies and more respectable thoughts of collecting them. I would like to label and pin them to rows of Styrofoam and catalogue them in wooden drawers. Of course, I would never be allowed. But I do relish the idea. I can't help but wonder whether if I had any concrete memories of the past, I would be fascinated with such things. But the fact of the matter is that I don't. I don't know why this is, or why it has to be. I have asked. I have asked and I have been ignored and have been dealt with. So I stopped asking after some time. Now, among other things, I chase flies when I am away from my duties.
Excerpted from Louse by David Grand. Copyright © 1998 David Grand. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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Table of Contents
(Found in Room 33D: Filing Cabinet),
(Found in a Safety Deposit Box in the City of N.),
1. THE EXECUTIVE CONTROLLING PARTNER,
2. THE EXECUTIVE CONTROLLING PARTNER'S HAGIOGRAPHY,
3. THE FIRST NIGHT,
4. THE FUTURE TRUSTEE,
5. THE BOX OF BUTTERFLIES,
6. HOUSE CALL,
7. PARADISE BEYOND PARADISE—DECLARATION OF PRINCIPLES,
8. THE MIDNIGHT MOVIE,
9. MR. SHERWOOD'S LOGISTICS DIARY,
10. THE VIEWING,
11. INTERNAL AFFAIRS VIDEO #993,
12. LAST WISHES,
13. HERBERT HORATIO BLACKWELL: THE UNTOLD STORY—FROM THE HIDDEN AUTHORIZED SCREENPLAY NOTES OF GODWIN BEELES,
15. THE HEAD OF INTELLIGENCE,
16. THE TRUSTEE,
17. INTERNAL AFFAIRS DOCUMENT #11874.M.BLANK,
18. THE CONTROLLER,
19. IN A HOT, DARK GLOVE COMPARTMENT SOMEWHERE OUTSIDE THE RESORT TOWN OF G.,
20. THE PRODIGAL SON,
21. THE FINAL FLIGHT,
About the Author,