(Start from the Beginning: The Dead Writer)
(Previously: The Last Literary Dave)
Sophie Van Kleason sat in her wheelchair as Clark, hopelessly dull and unambitious Clark, made eggs and sausage in the kitchen. She’d kept the surname because it was good for the estate and it aggravated Clark, who puled incessantly about how he could not live up. He’d done it again last night and they’d had a fight. There hadn’t even been post-fight sex. So this didn’t augur well for the immediate future, not that she even knew if she even wanted one with this bespectacled, middle-aged, smoothie-drinking mollycoddle. But Clark was one of those easily malleable men, the kind of rube who still seeks approval over the age of forty instead of summoning any initiative from within, who believed in sticking around and keeping the peace. A predictable routine not unlike the way in which a dog futilely chases the mailman because he doesn’t have anything else to do other than to shit and eat and look adorable and perform treat-punctuated acrobatics for the human marks. But with Clark, there was no mailman. He had no new tricks. There was, in fact, nothing in his rudderless life to chase. His career as an urban planner had floundered. Sure, he still collected a biweekly paycheck, but he was also still sitting in the same cubicle he toiled in during his twenties, a time in which he still had the kernel of big dreams before the crushing tyranny of bureaucracy hammered out the bridge projects and the traffic corridor ideas that he had hoped to improve Myrtle Beach with. He never fought for a salary increase that matched his years of experience. He didn’t have the temperament to rock boats unless there was something to prove. And Clark Mannix couldn’t summon that hunger anymore. Sophie wasn’t sure if he had ever had it, which was another source of their dispute. Still, Clark had been the first normal man she’d been with since the milquetoast she’d shacked up with before Paul. And even when she had so many boytoys on the side, she still needed an anchor. Even a middling one.
When Paul had died, Sophie had been forced to reign in her kinky escapades. That’s what the publicity men had agreed upon. And Nick, after reluctantly plunging a sizable hunk of cheese into his mouth and soldiering his way through an allergic reaction, had invoked the fear of a fictitious deity to cajole her into cleaning up her act. It wasn’t necessary. Those disturbing videos, which Flogaast had somehow muzzled from public consumption, had scared her straight or, at least, momentarily hindered her from any further experimentation. She didn’t have the stomach to crush a man’s face with her feet after learning about Paul’s secret sordid life. He’d somehow exceeded her debauchery under her very nose. And so she was forced to close down her Fetlife account and circle the wagons. She had only been reflecting and reappraising her existence for six months when that car plowed into and threw her silk-smooth mass into the a roadside gorse bush and punctured her spine, paralyzing her from the waist down. And it seemed that her sex life was done. (She tried taking up with two of her remaining subs, but she dropped them after they fetished her wheelchair.)
While she was relieved to learn that she could still come despite not being able to move her legs, she hated the way her disability had curtailed her speed and her mobility when it came to applying nipple clamps or carrying out impact play. It turned out that she needed the running start of her legs to flog a lover with any significant marks. And it was absurd to be at their eye level when she was in the wheelchair, barking at her subs to call her “Ma’am” or “Mistress.” The power exchange relied a great deal on how much higher she stood above her subjects. And, yes, she supposed she could ask them to crawl on the ground. And she did. But that didn’t satisfy her.
So she gave it up. She allowed her once immaculate body to atrophy and grow flab in places she hadn’t seen enlarge since that binge-eating phase in college. Chris or Jim had learned about the drunk driver who had felled her on Kings Highway and, while Sophie never found out if his name was Chris or Jim (he had hoped that he would mention it again casually, but he never did, even when the two of them hung out with one of his close friends, who never once said his name), he was the only man who never mentioned the wheelchair or her dramatic corporeal decline. Somehow, he had remained starry-eyed, even if he was still terrified about their little arrangement going public, which was the main reason he had scurried away. Lose command of your legs and somehow the men who show up are weaker. It was just as well. The thrill was gone. She had never loved any of these men and they, in turn, were merely infatuated with her.
And then there was Rob Rollins, who had improbably and cruelly tried to uphold the membership contract — this as the Van Kleason fortune, such as it was, was tied up in a vicious estate battle between Van Kleason’s repugnant sister (a doctor: what the hell did that six-figure bitch need the money for?) and an equally unsettling FOX News-watching uncle who arrogantly and risibly believed that he was the next Steve Jobs at the age of sixty-two, but who had never closed the deal on any of the dusty go-nowhere projects in his garage — before Debbie Ballard had moved in with some hush money and another NDA for her to sign. And the transfer of bundled Franklins in a taped paper bag had significantly eroded their friendship, turning it into something seedy and transactional. Debbie had been a liberal, hadn’t she? Sophie laughed when Debbie insisted she still was. And the two former best friends kept each other at a distance. Then, sometime after this Ballard early morning meeting with the bills, Rollins was a Congressman. And then, just as Sophie was taking in this fatalistic twist of the knife, he was Senator. And she wondered if she should go public about what Rollins had done despite the NDA. Especially since Rollins had campaigned as a champion of disability rights, one of the main reasons he had won a narrow 800 vote victory (after a runoff and a recount) to secure his first Senate term in office. He (or, more likely, Debbie) had taken a page from Fetterman and revived “compassionate conservatism” as an alternative to Trump extremism. And when Debbie realized that the disabled represented a sizable bloc, she adjusted his campaign. And the warm-hearted images of Rollins hugging a woman with cerebral palsy had somehow stopped the journalists from looking into the dicey financing and stories of abuse from his fitness empire. It had been the right move. Show that you are not a eugenicist meathead by spending time with the people with afflictions. And people would focus on that rather than his actual policies. There was, of course, nothing “compassionate” about kicking low-income tenants out of a housing project in the dead of winter, but the constituents he had hoped to woo didn’t care about that and believed in him. Voters now only responded to cartoonish appeals to their feelings. And if Sophie hadn’t stayed silent, then Rollins would never have landed his win. There were 1.2 million disabled people in South Carolina. If she blew the lid open, she was confident that they would have showed up to the polls for that far smarter Filipino woman. And yet she hadn’t. Because she remained stupidly loyal to Debbie, who had, after all, spent so much time with her after Paul passed.
God, she hated that word. Disabled. As if she wasn’t able in other ways.
That’s when she met Clark on Hinge. He showed up to their first date at a seemingly unpretentious Italian restaurant near the water wearing aviator glasses and a bomber jacket, but there was nothing Top Gun about him. If anything, he had turned out to be the antithesis of Maverick. Needy, without confidence, a silent victim who didn’t even have the guts to declare victimhood in the same way that financially irresponsible titans manned up and declared bankruptcy after they shit the bed.
What Clark had was mindfulness, a quality significantly lacking in the other men she had tried dating, who all out to be wheelchair fetishists who wanted to check “Fuck a disabled chick” off their bucket list. But not Clark. He helped her get into her chair after she parked. He was intuitive to know that she liked to roll herself. He held the door open for her at the restaurant. That’s when she eyed the three short steps leading to the oak host station, with its smiling vapid twentysomething pressing square buttons on an LCD. Well, for Sophie, the steps may as well have been Kangchenjunga. There was no outdoor dining because the owner was an anti-vaxxer who believed in a 5G conspiracy. So this was the only way in. Three steps that she could confidently rush up only a year before. And Clark, feeling guilt over his role in selecting the venue, couldn’t stay silent.
“We want a table.”
The chipper twentysomething host, busy texting some equally vapid friend on his phone, laughed. He looked up.
“I’m so sorry. We don’t have a ramp. But I can tell you about our lobster bisque special!”
“You’re not getting it, pal,” said Clark. “You see that woman over there?”
The host waved a limp hello.
“Why yes! She’s very beautiful! Good for you!”
“Well, she’s going to sit at a table here. Right now.”
“Well, I’m sorry, but we simply don’t have one!”
Clark looked at the numerous empty tables on the mezzanine.
“Then what are those?”
“I’m sorry, but that section’s closed.”
“Open it. There’s enough space for a wheelchair.”
“I can’t do that.”
“Son, I work for the Myrtle Beach Planning & Zoning Department. So I know the law better than you can tie your shoes.”
Clark pointed to the host’s Payless Shoesource faux leather lace-ups. The host blushed at the Euclidean mess that he had somehow not tripped over. He swiftly kneeled to rectify it.
“Clark,” said Sophie from her wheelchair three steps below, “it’s okay.”
But this mild-mannered man, who was no superman, was steaming from the ears.
“I have a friends in the Health Department. I can shut this place down faster than an F-35C Lightning II hitting Mach 1.”
“Oh,” said the host, noticing the bomber jacket. “Are you some kind of pilot?”
“No,” snapped Clark. “I’m just an enthusiast. Open the section. And install a ramp by next week. Because if you don’t, I’ll also sue your ass for ADA non-compliance.”
And the host opened the section. Clark scooped up Sophie from her chair and carried her to the table, as if he had been waiting for years to lift up and carry some unknown future bride across the aisle. The need to marry was strong in this one. And, well, Sophie couldn’t deny that this was incredibly hot. And she allowed him to take her home. It was the best sex she’d had since before the accident.
Unfortunately, these dashing qualities, which had largely atoned for Clark’s dependably male mediocrity, had dwindled hard and fast after they had moved in together after a year. But Clark, a man hopelessly enslaved to his narcissistic mother, started to take on fawning qualities that she had recalled in her subs. And while he had spent one morning sobbing after a regrettable candle wax brouhaha, which also resulted in an emergency room trip for second-degree burns because he had not listened to her, the sex remained largely vanilla and she had only the emotional control left to keep her satisfied.
Clark placed the plate of eggs and bacon onto the table. She dug in with a fork.
There was no plate for him.
“Aren’t you going to eat?” asked Sophie.
“I’m not hungry. I already had a smoothie.”
Clark cleared his throat.
“I’m tired of living in his shadow.”
“Whose shadow, darling?”
“You know damned well what I’m talking about.”
“Oh, do you mean Paul? Well, he’s been dead for five years.”
“I know that. But I’ll never be him.”
She reached out for his cheek and pinched it.
“But, baby, you’re Clark Mannix.”
And the sour look on his face revealed that she had not been convincing enough. On the other hand, who in the hell could talk up Clark Mannix and keep a straight face? It would be like seriously suggesting that Emma Silverburg, the former Big Brother contestant who had turned to novel writing and who was now in the news for seducing underage kids, was a talented writer.
“Why don’t we turn on the news, darling? Maybe it will put all this into perspective.”
Clark picked up the remote, aimed it at the dining room flatscreen (one of three in the house), and fired up CNN.
“…believed to be part of a sinister fucking ring worse than Jeffrey Fucking Epstein.”
“They’ve started swearing on CNN too?” asked Clark.
“Declining ratings,” said Sophie.
“Yeah, but this is CNN. I thought Jake Tapper was better than this.”
“The Senator refused to fucking address the new motherfucking claims made in Breslin’s book, which will hit bookstores tomorrow.”
Sophie dropped her fork.
“Wait, is that…”
“Yes,” said Clark.
“The cunts and cocksuckers in the Senate Select Committee on Ethics have made no fucking formal statement on whether they will be fucking censuring Senator Rollins for his involvement. But the list of involved parties is really fucking long. They include several prominent members of the literary fucking world.”
“Oh no,” said Sophie.
“The recently deceased author David Fitzroy, who took his own life after sales of his trilogy A Codex to All Legends were lackluster — because, let’s face the facts, viewers, his work was fucking shitty — is reportedly in one of these newly resurfaced videos. And get this! He’s fucking a goat.”
Sophie grabbed the remote and shut off Tapper’s trap.
“Hey, I was watching that,” said Clark.
“Clark, I have to tell you something.”
Clark put his hand on hers.
“What’s the matter, baby?”
“There’s a very good reason why I still think about Paul.”
And he pulled out the outdated tablet and she typed in the password. And after he watched the horrible video featuring her husband, he was in the bathroom puking his smoothie up.
(Next: The Green Room)
(Word count: 26,875/50,000)