Show of Hands

Show of Hands

4.3 3
by Anthony McCarten
     
 

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When a desperate car dealer advertises a competition with a simple premise — that each contestant must keep one hand on a car at all times, and the last one standing will drive away the owner of a new Land Rover — he sets in motion a chain of events that brings together an oddball group of individuals, each with a desperate need to win.

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Overview

When a desperate car dealer advertises a competition with a simple premise — that each contestant must keep one hand on a car at all times, and the last one standing will drive away the owner of a new Land Rover — he sets in motion a chain of events that brings together an oddball group of individuals, each with a desperate need to win.

For the contestants, this publicity gimmick represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a fresh start, a chance to break records, and to prove themselves in an unlikely test of endurance. It pits the patience of an elderly night watchman against the youthful vigor and carefully cultivated stamina of a high school track-and-field star. It sets a single mother who spends her life on her feet against a down-on-his-luck Mensa member who tells anyone who will listen that he's got the whole thing figured out. As the days and nights unavoidably carry on — and big talk and clever strategies backfire — the contestants' true colors come through in unexpected twists.

At once lyrical and suspenseful, and by turns poignant and hilarious, Show of Hands and its all-too-human characters are ultimately unforgettable.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Playwright, screenwriter and novelist McCarten elevates a deceptively simple premise to impressive dramatic heights in his second novel (after Spinners). The hook: a failing car dealer hopes to revive his business by sponsoring a contest in which contestants must keep their hands on a new Land Rover; the last person still in contact with the truck takes it home. Hopefuls include Tom Shrift, who is driven by a deep belief in his intellectual superiority and whose emotional detachment nears sociopathic levels, and Jess Podorowski, a mourning widow who endures daily verbal abuse as a parking warden and enters the contest to win a car big enough to fit a car seat for her handicapped daughter. Meanwhile, dealership owner Terry "Hatch" Back is going through an existential crisis and watches helplessly as his contest spins out of control. The endurance test becomes one of biblical proportions, with phases of violence, extreme weather, grief, absurdity and corruption. McCarten squeezes every bit of dramatic potential from the setup, giving readers a deeply satisfying narrative about dedication, connection and possibility. (Feb.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9781416586074
Publisher:
Washington Square Press
Publication date:
02/17/2009
Edition description:
Original
Pages:
240
Product dimensions:
5.30(w) x 8.20(h) x 0.70(d)

Related Subjects

Read an Excerpt

The Contenders

On the morning before the contest, Tom Shrift watched from his upstairs window as his neighbor mowed a little lawn, the man lapping back and forth until he had achieved six parallel stripes, which alternated in intensity — green and dark green — a tweedy warp that produced in Tom alternating feelings of envy and rage, envy and rage.

And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon En gland's mountains green...

Where were Tom's green mountains? Where were his feet to walk free? Quarantined in his fi rst-fl oor apartment, denied an outdoor space of his own (he'd wanted a small Juliet-style balcony, but his neighbor had successfully objected to the council), Tom observed this lawn painfully not his own, then opened his front window slightly, so that the canted glass lifted into his face a breeze strong with an exhalation of cut grass.

Loss, this was what he felt. Loss and deprivation. One man owns, another man craves — the craving far more passionate than the dull plea sures of ownership. How galling not to have when you were the type who deserved to have — yes, deserved.

He turned from the window. Three clocks told him he was late, was behind schedule already.

He must not let the petty feud raging between himself and his neighbor detain him today. He had a job interview downtown. He dressed quickly and with close attention, choosing a bold silk tie to augment a white shirt. Ready to do battle, he drove sharply, with the aggression that London's hustling, asphyxiating traffic required.

He parked hastily, found the building he needed, then rose, rose, rose up in a glass elevator traveling up the outer shell of the skyscraper. Immaculate in his suit, he soon sat before a corporate human resources drone — Tom's mortal enemy — the kind of specimen who, every where, stood between him and the life he deserved.

A transcript of this exchange would later read:

Interviewer: You've worked mainly for yourself.

Tom: Mm-hmm.

Interviewer: You prefer that? Okay. So, then, what's changed?

Tom: I had some bad luck.

Interviewer: You sold...I see, birthday cards. Cute.

Tom: I owned and ran a highly successful greeting card company, with contracts in four countries, whose hallmark was quality reproductions of art masterpieces. You have to know a lot about art and I do.

Interviewer: You've ceased trading?

Tom: I spent a lot of money trying to license images from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. I was cheated.

Interviewer: Any other reasons for the collapse? Do you bear any responsibility yourself?

Tom: I was lied to. Swindled, basically.

Interviewer: And but for that, you'd still be trading? Fine. Okay.

Tom: Look, where are you going with this? I lost a lot of money. Maybe I...

Interviewer: You...?

Tom: I may have been too ambitious, but that's all.

Interviewer: You want to take the world by storm.

Tom: I want the universe to know I've been here, yes.

Interviewer: A quote?

Tom: Forget it.

Interviewer: So, maybe you're not so good on the details. Are you still carrying debts from that time?

Tom: Let's just say it's made me available for this line of work.

Interviewer: You're probably more used to being on this side of the table, then?

Tom: Well...you said it, not me. I shouldn't...I shouldn't really be in this sort of situation.

Interviewer: Okay, so let's see. Single. Unemployed. Mm'kay. Kids?

Tom: No.

Interviewer: No kids...mm'kay.

Tom felt his hackles rise. Later, he would fume about why the guy had dwelled only on the negative. Praise me, you wanker! How come you don't read out "Member of Mensa" from my résumé? Praise me! How many job applicants have you seen lately who think of turning the dead Rus sian collections into beautiful daily things? How many, fuckface?

Interviewer: Forty-two years old. You don't look forty-two. What's the secret? Being single?

Tom: It's a secret.

Interviewer: A lot of our team are considerably younger than you. This is a high-pressure job.

Tom: I don't view youth as an advantage. I'm forty-two years old. I bring a lot to the table. My CV speaks for itself. Can we move on?

Interviewer: Would you...would you say you're a team player, Tom?

Tom: A team player? No. I wouldn't say I'm a team player. Can I ask — have you ever interviewed anyone before? Seriously. Just a question. Because having looked into your "team's" per for mance in the last two years, I think the last thing you should be looking for is "a team player."

He'd blown it. At this point the man told Tom he had "an aggressive character," before declaring the interview over. Tom was soon back on the street, inhaling the carbon air, and battling the crowds once more.

Reaching his car — he'd parked wantonly in a private parking lot behind the Odeon Cinema — he was horrifi ed to see a female parking warden standing beside it.

He ran. Oh please, no. He rushed forward, clasping his hands together, begging the small, white, uniformed woman with a small, pale, child's face to give him a break.

"Hey, hey...whoa, whoa. I'm here." Shouting, holding up his arms in surrender: "It's okay. And this is free parking, right? It's free parking. I use this all the time. Whoa, whoa, whoa. Stop that. I'm going right now."

Refusing to look at him, the parking attendant replied, "It's not free parking, sir."

"Where? Where is the 'no parking' sign? Where is it? Tell me. Go on. Tell me."

"This is not free parking, sir. This is..."

"Oh come on!"

"...this is private."

"Private?...Where? Where does it say 'private'? Exactly?"

"It's the property of Odeon Cinemas, sir, and is reserved for use by their staff."

"Since when?"

"It's a gated area, and I can only assume you accessed it by mounting the pavement on High Street and entering it that way, which is another offense."

"And this is your jurisdiction? Are you allowed to enter private property and adopt overzealous commission-seeking tactics? Oh, man. You people. I can't afford this. Okay? You want the truth? This makes a difference to me. I can't pay this. Please." He held wide his arms, cruciform: the Kensington Christ. "I'm serious. Give me a break here. I'm...I'm going through..." His arguments petered out. "I don't believe this...what a bitch."

Silence from the parking warden at this, a professional reserve.

"You're kidding me, right?"

The attendant continued entering her data.

"You're writing me a ticket? You're writing me...? I don't be — Fucking unbe — What are...you people? Blood-sucking leeches. Vampires....Know what you are? Satan's concubines!" At last he elicited a glance from her — he'd got through at last. He quickly exploited the weakness. "Should be ashamed of yourselves. How you live with yourself is a mystery. So...so how much is that for? The ticket? What's the fine?"

A level voice. "Hundred pounds. Unless you pay within fourteen days."

"And what's your cut? Your cut of that? Fifty percent? Exactly! No wonder you won't let anyone off. What a bitch. You people are the scum of the earth."

Barely audibly, the woman replied, "You're entitled to your opinion, sir."

Her handheld ticket machine then made a succession of brrrrrrrs and clicks before producing Tom's fine, which, when he refused to take it, she bagged and stuck to his windscreen. And with that, she was gone.

In a radical change to his plans — one had to react quickly in a big city — Tom drove straight for a garden-supply outlet near his home. With his blood still boiling he walked the aisles of the superstore, locating several plastic bottles of the brand of weed killer he wanted. On the label, a skull-and-crossbones symbol, plus the words extra strength. Yes. He was happy to pay the steep forty pounds they wanted for this toxic product — it was a very small price to pay to end a feud, once and for all.

With an extreme action in mind, and when he really ought to have been fast asleep in prep ara tion for the contest, he stayed up after midnight, waiting for his neighbor's noises to subside and cease.

At quarter past the hour he received an incoming call on his mobile phone. The LCD screen revealed it to be his aged mother. Grateful for the way modern phones alerted you to the identity of the caller, he turned the device off, screening the old lady out. Tonight was no time to go over all their grievances once more — her failures as a mother, Tom's as a son, et cetera. Only at 1:30 did he dare creep down the stairs and quietly open his door's triple locks — clack, cluck, click — before passing through the shared lobby and out of the communal front door into the night.

The city. Electrically aglow; the glow unable to rise beyond the monoxide lid of gases so that it bounced back. Down upon a lawn. Green grass. His enemy's field. And Tom was going to kill it.

And did those feet in ancient time Walk upon England's mountains green...

His feet tingled upon the cold wet blades, increasing his sense of trespass. Should he rethink this action? What future madnesses would this lead to? He looked toward his neighbor's darkened windows, hoping to summon the old enmities that had led him here — those tit-for-tat reprisals dating back two years now — hoping once more to envisage the leery face of his tormentor peering between the sun-browned curtains, those stupid, clotted facial features, that aggressive glare, but the window only gave him back himself — just Tom Shrift, a cat burglar with a watering can, forty-two, unshaven, a moonlit ghost.

Only the weight of the watering can drew him back to his mission, and with half a heart he poured the poison as planned. Killing grass. A terrible crime. Really a madman's response. The potion fl owed unbroken as he moved about the lawn until the can couldn't produce another drop. Now, he thought, as he slipped back inside and sealed the door again on his actions and on the city that held him captive, he could once more get on with his life, his real one.

The day before the contest had been a nasty one for Parking Warden 2061, Jess Podorowski. Of those people she'd penalized, more than the usual number had been especially vile to her, some saying terrible things, one man even shouting so loudly that his spit had fl ecked her face. Hatred, this she was more or less used to. But spit, that was uncommonly foul.

Throughout it all she'd been unable to answer back. The rules of her job were very clear on this point: she was to remain mute, withstand the abuse and tirades, silently go about her work, enter the correct details, press the submit button on her ticketing machine, issue the ticket and then walk away — in many ways, it really was the perfect job for someone like her.

She paused to stretch her lower back, her weak point. This job did her no favors in the lumbar department. Nine and a half hours took their toll. In her logbook she noted her position, details of charge notices issued so far. And that's when she looked up and saw him.

The sudden delight in just seeing his face again, coming up the crowded street toward her. Her heart received a small electric jolt as his name leaped back to her tongue. Her beloved. Maciek. How extraordinary, on the same street where she was working, the one face she most wanted to see. But then again, they had always had a way of bumping into each other in a crowd. From the very start, coincidence and chance had informed them that they were destined to be together.

The only problem: Maciek was dead. Two full years. So it didn't take very long for the approaching face to take on the blank meaninglessness of a stranger who bore less and less resemblance to her late husband, and then no resemblance at all.

Her heart collapsed. Tricked again, she shook her head, clamped her feelings down and went back to work. She must move on and not fall prey to sentimental delusions. More cars awaited her, standing in violation. She returned to her beat. Had to.

Jess Podorowski. Her vital statistics? Widowed. Thirty-nine. Five foot fi ve. Pale Slavic face. Her mother, a Polish immigrant from Lodz, her father from Milton Keynes. Born silent. Learned to cry three hours later, alone in the postnatal wing. As a kid, quiet, overlooked. Destined to be plain. Tolerated too much. Dwelled on things. Bit her tongue. And the reward for such meekness? To grow up taking hell from all quarters. The Lord works in mysterious ways, she prayed, as she walked the streets of West London.

Thank God it was Friday at least. At the end of her shift she hurried homeward in her civvies, catching the bus to her front door just in time to rendezvous with the Social Services minibus as it off-loaded her darling daughter, Natalie — little Nat, a tetraplegic cripple, eighty percent helpless, happy in her chair anyway: God bless this little girl, Jess prayed daily. God protect her.

Pushing Nat to the local Tesco Express for supplies, Jess then mobiled ahead so that her Polish mother, Valeria, the old-world matron, would come up to the street and help her get Nat down the wheelchair ramp to their basement flat's side entrance.

After a supper quickly consumed, and following the big heave-ho to get Nat into bed — a nightly contest — Jess joined her mother at the dining table. Lit a cigarette. Picked up a blouse, a button, a needle, a thread.

"Oh, put that out, darling." Val shielded her face dramatically from the smoke.

Ah Mumia, Jess thought, always the actress. Should have been on the stage. In her late sixties she remained a fierce ball of maternal energy. Tireless always in her ser vice to Jess and Nat, existing on two hours of sleep a night, Val sewed, baked her babka breads through the night, lit candles to the Black Madonna of Czeþ stochowa in her one-bedroom studio fl at above a betting shop, staying on call twenty-four/seven, on red alert, convinced her descendants weren't half as strong as she was, and that at any second she would be needed. And she was right. Her phone rang and rang.

"My lungs. It's starting. Oh no." She coughed. Coughed again, one hand on her chest. "Please — please — kochanie..."

"Mumia, there's nothing wrong with your lungs."

Cough, cough, cough. Jess sighed at these familiar dramatics. "Okay, okay, okay," she conceded, crushing out the butt in a saucer. Silence for a while then, enough peace so that Jess felt finally able to ask, "Can you — could you look after Nat for a day or two?"

"When?"

"Tomorrow, and Sunday, maybe Monday."

"But you're not working tomorrow or Sunday..."

"There's...there's a competition. A contest. To win a car. You have to put your hand on it for longer than anyone else. The winner gets a brand-new car."

"They give you a free car?"

"No. You have to win it. I've been thinking about doing it."

Valeria slowly shook her head. "This is crazy. Stand around? Two days? With your hand on a car, like a glupiec?" Val could no longer stand to watch her daughter's inept attempt to sew on a button correctly. "Let me do it. Give."

But Jess ignored her and took from her handbag the glossy Land Rover brochure she'd picked up from a car dealership in Olympia during her shift. "Look at it. It's big enough for Nat's wheelchair in the back. I could drive her to the new school. She wouldn't have to be a boarder."

"Natalie needs a home. Not an expensive school." Val's face settled into her old look of resistance.

"It's free."

"She doesn't want to live there, she wants to live here."

"But she's getting too heavy for me to lift in and out of bed, let alone the bath."

"We do it together. We manage."

"You're getting older, Mumia. How much longer can you manage on your own when I'm working?"

Valeria shrugged. Old guidelines came to mind. "You manage until you cannot manage and still you go on!"

But none of this was new. Both women had been over the same ground many times. Both knew that this special school in Hampshire for girls with physical disabilities lay beyond the daily range of the Social Services minibus that Nat relied upon at present. The alternative of using taxis would mean wasting all the precious Disability Living Allowance that kept them financially afl oat. Fortunately, the Local Education Authority had agreed to cover all Nat's tuition costs if Jess could somehow get her daughter there and back every day. The solution was a large vehicle that Jess could drive. Both women knew all these facts, but the argument was a drama they continued to rehearse over and over.

"With a car, she can go there and still live here. I just have to win this car."

"Jessie, you don't win things." Val reached out again for the mending. "And you're doing that wrong. Wind the thread around it."

Jess glared at her mother. Why, why did Valeria always have to be like this, one hand giving, the other taking away; always charging her tariffs and these deducted from Jess's nerves?

"Stop telling me what to do! Will you please just — " But she bit her tongue as usual. Forbade herself from speaking her mind fully. "I've got to do something, okay? I can't go on like..." She gave up. No point. Never any point. "You know — it's late. You should be heading home."

"Oh, when you need my help, fi ne. But when I want to say something..."

"Are you going to help me? Or not? Yes or no?"

"Who else helps you? Just me."

Jess, in frustration, tested the button too heavily — it popped off. The two women looked at each other, both pressed between love and frustration, between loyalty and unspoken fury. In the end Val reached over, took the garment and needle from her daughter and started to sew the button correctly.

Half an hour later, with fatigue brokering an uneasy truce, Valeria rose on her strong piano-stool legs, lifting her cardigan off the back of the chair.

"Call me when you arrive," Jess said, "just to let me know you got home safe. Three rings. I won't answer. "

"I'm fine."

"Three rings. Don't forget your shawl."

"I have it."

"Love you. Three rings, Mumia." Jess kissed her mother's cheek. Val was beginning to get that old person's smell: of stale air, of sour milk in a closed room. The front door closed, and Valeria, now shawled and hatted against the wind (protected also from more occult forces by a St. Christopher medal sewn into the hem of her coat), appeared briefl y through the kitchen window, rising, rising, up the wheelchair ramp toward street level.

Jess turned and stared at the uncleared table, the gravy-painted plates, the intersecting milk rings stamped by Nat's wet glass almost Olympic in configuration — and one word returned from the day gone by. It dropped now, dropped like a coin into a slot:

Submit.

The Contest
1

The contenders began to gather on the car dealership's forecourt two hours before the official start time. Among the first was a vagrant, fresh from sleeping under a bridge, whose very proximity to the yard's gleaming, multi-thousand-pound fleet seemed a breach of the peace and an act of vandalism.

Elsewhere, a solidly fat man came onto the forecourt pushing a supermarket trolley full of supplies: clothing, cushions, foodstuffs and very many cans of beer, all he'd need — or thought he'd need — to secure the grand prize.

Then came a third person, and then a fourth. Soon there were ten, next twenty, thirty, forty, by 8:30 more than eighty. Even the well-to-do had shown up, proving once again you can never have too much. By 9:00 a.m. at least a hundred and twenty people stood among a fl eet of unsold cars below the win a new car blimp bobbing high overhead, tugging on a fi xed wire. Ten minutes later this number had climbed to a hundred and fi fty, and soon beyond that, clockwise circling an opalescent blue and ultradesirable Land Rover the way dishwater swirls before it goes down the drain.

The owner of this Land Rover was Terry "Hatch" Back, from Back-to-Back New Cars (Olympia, Ltd.). He moved among the contestants, clapping strangers on the back, saying delightedly, "Hi. Thanks for coming," and "We're going to explain every thing soon," or "Hi. Welcome. Great weather," before returning to his assistant, Vince, who was just then trying to conduct a rough headcount.

"Numbers? Any idea?"

"Yeah. Too many." Vince shook his head. "More every second. What are we going to...I mean, what do you want to do? It's out of control."

By way of answer Hatch unhelpfully observed, "Something for nothing, it's incredible. People go mad." He ran a slow hand through a hairline with a pronounced widow's peak or vampire V, which, when joined with the twin receding arcs over the temples, produced the scalloped rim found on the head of a sharpened pencil. "Completely mad."

Vince, persistent in his concern, followed Hatch back to his offi ce, repeating three times, "We've got a problem here." But when Hatch went up to the large window and looked out at the bustling yard he saw only beautiful solutions to all his financial woes.

"I told you. I knew they'd come. I knew it!" The small, bunched fi sts at his sides fl exed alternately, two pumps augmenting the work of the heart. "And if it's like this already, then what's it going to be like in...in" — he glanced at his watch — "a whole hour still to go." He let go a laugh; an anxiety-discharging laugh. "I knew it! I told you!" Oh, the relief — the financial weight of the last two years lightening by the minute. "It's gonna be...look! Huge! Look! You can't buy publicity like this. Can't buy it." He turned back to his junior salesman. "Well, I can't. Maybe Coke or, or Shell or Tesco can, but..."

"But you are buying it," Vince countered. "Buying it is exactly what you're doing. By giving away a free car. All those people out there, you're paying for every single one of them."

This comment was ignored; Hatch refused to trade down his high mood. "Might even make the evening news at this rate. What do you think?"

But before Vince could answer, the dealership's third-tier salesman came in looking even more bewildered than he normally did. Dan, big-timbered, midthirties. As slow and muscularly overdeveloped as Vince was thin and nervy. (Neither of Hatch's two employees was a genius, and whenever Hatch asked either of them a question it was with no real expectation of a workable answer.)

"Dan, good. Close. Close the...great. Now listen. The press. Listen. When they come, okay, when they come...if they ask you for comment, for anything, refer them to me, understand? Refer them directly to me. I'll handle all the — "

Vince tried again. "But what are we going to...?"

"All the...all publicity. To me." Hatch tapped his own chest. "Understand?"

"But we still have to get the numbers down, Hatch. We can't stage it like this."

"Fine. Take care of that." Hatch rechecked his mobile phone. No messages. "But refer any journalists to me. Three things: publicity, publicity, publicity."

"I have an idea," Vince continued. "A ballot. To pare the numbers down to something manageable."

"Sure." And then the smile returned. "We get rid of a few but not too many. We want to make a statement here."

Vince held up pads of Post-it notes. "We write tickets. Forty, say. This is what I'm thinking. We limit the number to forty. Give everyone a number — "

But Hatch had already turned to look back at his crowd, this great, hoped-for, four-by-four-crazy crowd. "Something for nothing, ha! Look what happens."

Vince: "And we need to control this traffi c or we'll have the police down here."

"Fine. Great. Handle it. Let's get moving. This is gonna be great."

The two junior salesmen walked out, leaving Hatch at the window. "Excellent," he muttered to no one, and then, "Come on, my lovelies," and fi nally, "Look at them. Something for nothing, and just look."

When he saw his wife, Jennifer, and his four young children pushing through the crowd, he turned, sat and waited for them. His right knee bumped against the World War II ser vice revolver taped to the desk's underside — he had never used the gun, but if the current spate of sporadic vandalism continued, then he'd have no hesitation in frightening someone with it, sending out a message to the neighborhood underworld that he was prepared to defend what was his.

While he waited, he pulled close the brand-new megaphone resting horn down on his desk: fl ared at the base, the red lighthouse stripes hooping it; atop it a mouthpiece awaiting his fi rst instructions to the contestants outside. He gripped the loud hailer and flicked it on. It barked with electricity so that he held it again at arm's reach until the squeal of feedback died down. Only then did he move the contraption back to his mouth and speak experimentally, in a low, humid voice, the words: "On your marks, get set, go."

Tom Shrift slowed his car and from a distance eyed the bedlam on the forecourt. What a joke! For a second he thought, How unbelievably pathetic they all look, how sad, desperate, how tragic, until he remembered he was about to become one of them.

He'd come down early to get the jump on his fellow competitors, determined to win this free car, but he hadn't foreseen this. Who could have guessed: so many lost souls. Jesus Christ, the place looks like some compound for every Londoner in extremis. Riffraff. In bargain clothes. Unshaven men. Unattractive women. The struggling classes. Musclemen in their forties, potbellied, flip-flops on their feet. Level-headed mums in cheesy sportswear clutching water bottles, primed for combat. The old. The young. Workaday victims of brute reality. And now, here he was too, Thomas H. (for Horatio) Shrift, about to stand shoulder to shoulder with these have-nots, fight as they fought, hand to hand. He gripped the wheel of his misfiring Fiat Punto (he'd recently had to sell his beloved smooth-running Volvo). What a numbing and humiliating thought.

But Tom deserved to have once more. And when he'd won this car — and he was more or less certain of his ability to win it — then he'd waste no time in making up the ground he'd so recently lost. He'd bounce back. As he'd always done, he'd bounce back once again.

He turned off the car and angled the rearview mirror toward himself, checking whether he still looked like the type who could beat so many others. Yes, he didn't look a million miles from being such a person. His bushy eyebrows could use some attention, the odd hair curling into a sigma, but apart from this, he identified a well-groomed man, a man who mattered — or, at least, one who soon would. A special person. Living to some schedule of achievement. A man of unique skills. Tom Shrift still had that winning look — alert eyes, a decent smile, a wide jaw, below it a crisply ironed pure-cotton shirt and the broad shoulders of a tall man...yes, he was still the type to make a stranger think, I'll put my money on him.

With his forefinger he wet and smoothed down the eyebrow hair. Bachelors often missed such details. With no one to tell them, their breath offended, their underarms stank. Tom was careful not to fall victim to such traps, knew how to breathe into his cupped hands to test for bacterial breath. Perspiring heavily of late, displaying andropausal symptoms already, he washed perhaps too often, used aggressive amounts of aftershave and always took pains to deport himself as someone well loved. A fresh shirt every day. He shot the cuffs. Collars were stiffened by plastic strips. He simply refused to become pathetic. Below his now tamed brows, and separated by the long-profi le Shrift nose, were two brown eyes that showed on closer inspection to be hazel — the eyes of his mother.

Should he return her call, the one he'd refused to take the night before? A daily question. No, to hell with his parents. His father or, as Tom called him, "the Void," had walked out when he was under a month old, and Tom never had a chance to ask him anything. His mother, now in an old people's home, accusing him over the phone of betrayal, had been a reluctant mother, all his youth a selfi sh woman. Only now that she was old and lonely did he hear from her. Daily she tried to reach him, and more often than not he refused to take her call. She had done the bare minimum as a mother; now he would do the bare minimum as a son.

Just as he cleared his phone of alerts and messages, he now cleared his head. The car's mirror had told him that, in appearance, he had every thing he needed to go forward. If he had any problems — and he admitted to only one or two — they began when he opened his mouth. Provocative things always flew out. Fast-talking and sharp-witted, he spoke too candidly, couldn't stop himself. Perhaps he knew too much. Was this possible? A big reader (his small but immaculately kept bachelor pad was packed with books, the TV aerial sat on a pile of paperbacks, reference works jutted from the shelves, one corner of the broken couch rested on Churchill's intellectual labors), he refused to hide what he knew — why the hell should he? Why stay silent when a historical date is given in error, a piece of logic flabby, a quote falsely attributed, the wrong actor named in a movie? Who benefi ts if the foolish are allowed to go uncorrected?

And so he let rip. Tom had a head full of premium gasoline and out poured his knowledge: names, quotes, the pertinent facts. He couldn't resist setting people straight, or helping them out of a lifelong delusion. While this was damaging to his dealings with ordinary others, it was especially disastrous romantically. What woman wanted to be lectured? Told she was wrong, on the wrong track, and by a man so certain he knew what was right? Yes, he'd talked himself out of more fucks than he cared to remember, but what could he do? Dumb down, just to get a woman into bed? If this was the smart game, his mind was too rare a gift, and it wouldn't be sold short.

Back in his twenties Tom had sat a Mensa test, pitting himself against geniuses. The test confirmed that upstairs he was no dunce. Far from it. The score put him in the top one percent of humanity, among the elite! So how was it possible that a brainiac, that a true bel esprit, should be under such incredible pressure simply to survive — and be reduced to such solutions as this?

The Russians. Yes, they were to blame. Just back from St. Petersburg, a major business deal had gone sour thanks to them. Tom had excitedly fl own east, planning to license images from the Hermitage for use on his Masterpiece Cards — a young but sufficiently liquid business (he knew a lot about art too) — except that he couldn't convince the apparatchiks to release reproduction rights to the old Rus sian masters, or at least "not to an unknown." The Russkies screwed him badly in the end, suggested there wouldn't be a problem, made him front everybody's expenses and then dropped him like a hot potato. He now owed sixty-seven thousand pounds to his banks and credit card companies, more in debt every day. The barbarity of the business world was stunning, even to a natural pessimist. He'd thought himself a good businessman, but his IQ proved no protection against lies, sharp practices, low cunning and samovar tea that was surely drugged.

He started his car again. Ignoring the waving marshals who were turning vehicles away, he crept forward and found a superb spot in a residents-only lot for which he had the correct permit. But as he reached out to open his door he hesitated. How terrible to descend so low in society as to enter an endurance contest. Perhaps he could sell this old Fiat Punto instead? No, it would cost him money to have it destroyed. What else could he sell? His ideas? Ha, some joke — where were the takers for these? How about his extensive library of books, then? Sell them? Negative. Near worthless — who wanted the collected writings of Winston Churchill these days, especially with their margins defaced by his own verdicts of "bravo" and "big mistake!"? How about a regular job, then? Why not just try again to fi nd one? Strike that too. Yesterday's interview had confirmed once again why he must work for himself. So what was left? Sell his blood? Not tradable in Britain. And so, with Sir Bob Geldof not likely to stage a relief concert for him, he was stuck with this option — with this cheap, debasing, but richly prized option.

His eye rose reluctantly to the advertising blimp fl oating high over the dealership, the words vivid from this range: win a new car. Yes, he would do just that. Win it, then sell it quickly, netting him twenty to thirty grand. Lowering his eyes once again, counting the (hundred or so) people already swarming in the dealership, he decided he would send someone to oppose them. That person? Himself. One against the many, as usual.

And so, from his trunk he gathered up his gadgets, the provisions he'd need for this campaign — clothing, reading materials, a few medical supplies and personal effects, all meticulously selected and double-checked. He recalled the British military's term for urban warfare: FIBUA (Fighting in Built-Up Areas) or, unofficially, FISH & CHIPS (Fighting in Someone's House and Causing Havoc in People's Streets). Well, Tom was ready to fight in this built-up area now. He walked toward the car dealership with a full backpack, shaking his head, amused at the sheer mathematics of the task ahead.

Reaching the yard, he avoided eye contact. It was clearly already a case of every man for himself, and every woman too. No smiles. No nods of recognition. So be it. The war had begun, and he knew already that it would end up being a mental war. Yes, the fittest, most resilient mind would take the car. He'd done his research on this — read about how psychological these contests were. Minds cracked quickly under the strain of going without sleep, soon fell prey to delusions, absentmindedness and negative thinking. Yes, where you placed your thoughts was the big key, how well you marshaled their patterns, how well you prevented malfunctions and how deep the reserves of calming, steady, stabilizing thought. Well, he doubted this crowd could contain a tougher or steadier mind than his. Whatever qualities a person needed to outlast their rival, he had it, and in spades. His counteroffensive had begun. Copyright © 2009 by Anthony McCarten

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