William Fitzgerald Becomes A Reluctant Optimist

Work’s been dry lately. Not so much that people are better—in William Fitzgerald’s experience people never change much for the better or the worse—but that no one seems to care about the old things one way or the other. He calls the people in his little book and they laugh at him. Go ahead, they say, let it out. Who cares? Take out an ad in the paper. He tries, he does, but none of the journalists he knows can be bothered. Corruption, incest, addiction, who cares. That stuff won’t even make the back pages.

He’s got money stashed away, so it isn’t like he’s going hungry, but it puts him out of sorts. The time is suddenly in joint with him, and for William Fitzgerald that’s deeply uncomfortable. People are beaten in the street, the wealthy roll through poor neighborhoods with long guns poking out the windows hunting sport, and no one cares. His storehouse of sins is suddenly worthless, common goods, after a life spent collecting vileness.

He is at the corner of 12th and Broadway when traffic stops and a crowd comes growling up towards him, armed with bats and manhole covers, glass bottles and cigarettes. There is blood in their voices, old blood, blood of the old world, and William Fitzgerald, dry old vampire that he is, shudders at the scent of it. He does not join them, but as they pass he picks a stone up off the street and follows.

William Fitzgerald Finds His Way

You are short and straight as a kitchen knife. You have been, at one time, keen and deadly, but these days you are comfortably dull, nicked with long use and experience.

So you mythologize yourself.

You paint a liar’s face in the mirror, hangdog honest as inveterate liars always are. You remember — it was a day like this, sunny and dry like they all are — when the scales washed away from your eyes and you found yourself standing on the weedy steps of your office, ankledeep in cigarette ends and fallen leaves, the key already in your hand and in the lock, with no clear memory of walking there or leaving the apartment.

You have always been home again.

The key still works. The stairs are just as you remember them, though perhaps just that much narrower. The late afternoon light is the color of weak beer pouring in through your windows. Even the picture of the angel over the safe is still just the same, the same ball of fire and eyes and wings against a windswept and overcast moor.

You sigh happily and settle into your chair, lungs full of the nearly-forgotten tang of charred coffee. There’s still a half-bottle of cheap Midwestern scotch in the bottom desk drawer. The weak-beer light reflects from chimneys, airducts, high-rise windows from downtown, the bright metal of the cars in the street. You spread your arms wide, in ownership. Your city. Yours.

William Fitzgerald Attends A Funeral

There was no body; in its place was an unadorned block of bronze with a name laser-etched into the side. William Fitzgerald passed in front of it without seeing. Dead people held no interest for him except as the living gave them value. Whatever secrets and old shames the name represented, they weren’t to be found in this collection of ashes and bones fragments. He had known the man as a hypocrite and a murderer, but he passed no judgments; the man had paid fully and punctually until he died, and in his blackmailer’s soul, that was the only virtue that mattered.

No one spoke to him, of course. Here, as at all gatherings, he was a human nullity, one more mourner unremarkable in his ugliness. Half the family were clients of his in one manner or another, not that any of them recognized him outside the familiar squalor of his office. These big families, these big old families, they were his bread and butter. There was always something they wanted, always some further degradation, and William Fitzgerald was a born pander.

In his own way he mourned the corpse. It may have been a monster made human only through unassailable wealth, but there had been blood there. The survivors, for all they paid him the tribute that vice owed to virtue, were alien in their cold and abstracted cruelty. They saw people as he saw people — resources to be mined down to the bedrock and abandoned — and William Fitzgerald looked on the world of which he was the true inheritor and mourned.

William Fitzgerald Is In At The Kill

William Fitzgerald was there when they killed Lee, not that he did anything to stop it. That wasn’t his job. He remembered their faces though, the mouths especially: strangely peaceful, which he didn’t see very often in his killers. Grim sometimes, happy often, but seldom peaceful. They might have been buying asparagus.

He was passing by the Fox when Lee came out, just one more ugly face in an ugly crowd. Someone shouted something — it might have been hey, might have been wait — and then Lee went down. There were five of them, maybe. He wasn’t under any delusions that his memory for these things was any better than anyone else’s, but he thought five. Two of them were standing on the corner in front of him, strangely peaceful, beatific as they gunned Lee down.

The young one caught his eye as they left and smiled. For a second William Fitzgerald felt the curtain pulled back, saw himself waiting in the wings, and knew himself complicit. Then they were gone.

But he remembered their faces, the mouths especially.

William Fitzgerald Is Found Wanting

They were rioting downtown, had been for months, one long sustained battle with the police, tear gas launched into crowds, garbage can lids against beanbag rounds, park benches torn up for barricades. William Fitzgerald was restless and dissatisfied, his grubby soul as unsettled as the city during that long, warm winter. Revolutionary times did not suit him; their despair was too operatic, their hopes too apocalyptic. People bunkered down, entrenched themselves within the unbreachable walls of their virtues or their vices, and that was bad for business.

Most of the work that came his way had the stink of the political about it, this reformer disgraced, that police chief encouraged to overextend herself. The most recent of his clients sat across from William Fitzgerald, the pure fire of his convictions burning in his face. We’ve spent too long building this society, the young man assured him, we can’t let the socialists tear it all apart. He drew out that word, socialists, long and lingeringly, the way another man might have breathed cocksucker.

William Fitzgerald let him have the impression that he agreed with him.

It was very important to him that William Fitzgerald agree with him. They’re being manipulated, of course, just like the undereducated and the gullible have always been manipulated by totalitarian regimes. They swallow the lies they’re spoon-fed, the useful fools, regardless of facts, regardless of logic. Still, they’re dangerous, even if they’re good little robots.

None of it mattered to William Fitzgerald. Politics was politics, and money was money.