To continue on the same theme, the first round of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction competition was last weekend and, with my usual masochistic zeal I entered. It’s only 1000 words, which isn’t much. The story I came up with isn’t much either but, who knows? Everyone else in my heat may have been unwell last weekend. Has anybody else heard of Australian Ice Skating icon Steve Bradbury?
One can always live in hope.
But not much hope.
The required prompts were Historical Fiction/A smokehouse/A hammock.
Has anybody heard of a significant historical event occurring in a smokehouse? No? Me either. Nevertheless there was this radical group of hippies who may well have been in the market for something to smoke in a section of realestate in West Pittsburg back in the 70s and 80s. Look up ‘The MOVE Bombing’
The most alarming part for me is that I’m claiming the time of my own youth as ‘historical’.
Angus Scott and I attended West Philadelphia High School until 1974 when, at the age of fourteen, circumstantial evidence connected us to a string of inappropriately suggestive graffiti on the walls of the girls’ restrooms.
“That’s not my work,” insisted Angus, when confronted, “anatomical accuracy has never been my strong suit.”
“I don’t even understand the joke,” was my defence.
We were both expelled.
During the following decade we supplemented occasional part-time employment with regular petty crime. We spoke on the phone whenever another nefarious idea came to Angus’s head.
He rang one morning during the first week of May 1985. “I’ve got something going. You want in?”
“Draw me a picture.”
“A picture?” he laughed, “Remember what happened last time? Nah. This one’s all about property investment. And a smokehouse. Twenty grand and you’re in for ten percent.”
“A smokehouse?” I enquired, “we’re venturing into smallgoods? Chicken, fish, cheese … that sort of thing?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Drop by my office later and I’ll fill you in.”
Angus had never worked from an office.
But I arrived at the address he supplied, on Osage Ave, that afternoon. The street was a minefield of broken bottles and discarded shopping trolleys. A man in a filthy overcoat was screaming unintelligibly at a burnt-out car. There was a terrible stench in the air.
The townhouse I found was essentially derelict, but a rectangle of cardboard had been nailed over the front door with the word ‘SmokeHaus’ roughly scrawled upon it. The door was open and I walked in. The ‘office’ contained only a hammock strung between two exposed beams, four bulging garbage bags, and a milk crate. I could see a set of toes poking out from one end of the hammock and plumes of smoke rising from the other.
“Jeeez, Angus.” I said, “could you have been any more obvious?”
His smiling face appeared from the smoking end of the hammock and he beckoned me over to sit on the milk crate. “Don’t worry about that,” he assured me, “the dope business is just a cover. The real money is in the real estate.”
He passed me the joint and, leaning casually over the side of the hammock, began to explain the whole thing.
“Are you familiar with my notorious neighbours?” he began by asking.
“No,” I said.
“MOVE,” he continued cryptically, pointing to his left, “one block that way. A pathetic bunch of wackos led by a certifiable lunatic going by the name of John Africa ….. an apparently charismatic, fundamentalist, anti-technology dickhead who’s attracted a bunch of young disciples clinging to his every word.”
“M-O-V-E? What does that even stand for?”
“Nothing. This idiot can’t read or write, let alone come up with decent acronym. MOVE just means move. As most people around here have done. To a better suburb. There’s only so much unintelligible quasi-religious bullshit played over loudspeakers at three in the morning that your average mom and dad can take. Never mind the rabid dogs and stench of rotting garbage. The authorities have been willing to turn a blind eye, until now. But he’s begun waving guns around and raving about overthrowing governments. So, he’s got to go.”
It was uncharacteristic of Angus to express such a community spirit. “I don’t get it. Where does The SmokeHaus fit into all of this?”
“That’s just a happy coincidence. The same confused, impressionable, disenfranchised teenagers that Africa attracts also happen to be enthusiastic consumers of the very merchandise I have recently acquired.” He pointed to the garbage bags. “John Africa and I are both in the ‘escape from reality’ business. But that’s not the point.”
“Then what is the point?”
“It’s all about property values. The world is in recession. Property prices are plummeting. But nowhere more so than around here. The MOVE circus has managed to drive local prices down below those experienced even in the more impoverished regions of the continent he named himself after. And I have some inside knowledge.”
I was, initially, disappointed. “So the pissy little dope operation is a coverup for an insider trading property scam? That’s it? You’ve bought this shithole in the hope of turning a small profit if and when your insider information proves correct?”
“Not just this shithole,” he grinned, “twelve shitholes. I own the whole block. And it’s not a matter of if and when. I can absolutely guarantee a property boom around here this time next week.”
He then furnished me with the remainder of the details.
What can I say?
He’d done his research.
And I had twenty grand to spare.
He climbed out of the hammock and shook my hand. “Where there’s smoke there’s fire,” he reminded me, as we parted.
There was a property ‘boom’ all right. History records that the Philadelphia Police Department, having declared MOVE a ‘terrorist organisation,’ warned local residents and then set off explosives on the site of #6221 Osage Ave on May 13, 1985. Due to an apparent gross miscalculation, 61 surrounding residential properties were destroyed in the resultant firestorm. The SmokeHaus was probably one of the first to go.
The SmokeHaus, and the properties in the block that surrounded it, were suspected to have been ridiculously over-insured. But such was the extent of the damage that questioning of claims was rendered pointless. The government, highly embarrassed by the whole incident, embraced a major new development project and vacant property prices skyrocketed as a direct result.
That’s almost forty years ago now.
A recent call from Angus came only last week from his beachside villa in Tahiti. “There’s a couple of opportunities coming up here on the islands that I’d like to share with you,” he said, “And the girls. You need to see the girls….”
“Yeah?” I responded, “Why don’t you paint me a picture?”
There was a thoughtful pause on the line. “Nah,” he said at last., “you’d better just pop over. Anatomical accuracy has never been my strong suit.”