If you look over my home page, it says I’m the author of three books – The Blackguard (available in April), The Book of Joshua (available in October) and The Potency (available in July). This isn’t strictly true. There’s a fourth book called The Cult of Benedict Arnold that I began as a 19 year-old freshman and “finished” at the wizened age of 22.
Taken as a whole, it sucks. The characters are relentlessly nasty, the plot doesn’t really make sense and I was under the impression, at the time, that using things like “setting” and “transitions” were signs of weakness. My friend Gina Akao said it gave her wrinkles. Looking back at it now, I think she was perhaps being too kind.
However, if I take some of the scenes out of context and treat The Cult of Benedict Arnold as a collection of short stories, there’s a lot of salvageable material. This, then, is the first of my attempts to do just that.
The Fish Market
Nestor went to the fish market early that morning. He’d always enjoyed the fishy smells, the salmon steaks grilled in lemon, cod weeping onto beds of ice, smoked eel marinating in soy and ginger. He also found the banter in a fish market – excepting the very high frequency with which one heard complaints regarding grandchildren – vastly more interesting than the pretentious bloviation on offer at the local cafes.
Nestor soon came upon two men we’ll describe as young, though by fish market standards that meant only they had yet to reach their sixth decade. The thin one grimaced and shook his head disapprovingly while the plump man waved his hands as if conducting a rebellious orchestra.
Nestor moved behind the men to get a closer look. That outdoor restaurant with the tattered awning seemed like a good place to sit and eavesdrop and get some of that lemon grilled salmon.
“I hate the way you squirm when we talk about this,” the plump one said.
“I hate the way you try to make everything black and white,” the skinny one said.
Nestor motioned that the owner should prepare a fish but did not turn his attentions completely away from the quarreling men.
“It’s not a case of black and white,” The plump one said. “It’s moral and it’s right and it is not up for negotiation.”
“How lazy are you to handicap your thinking that way?” The skinny one asked.
“How shiftless are you to just make things up as you go?” The plump one asked.
The skinny one waved as if to ward off flies.
“Why wouldn’t I? I’m more flexible that way, more adaptable. I can do more things that way. You, with your absolutes and non-negotiables, you can’t do half the things I can.”
He punctuated this argument by, as if to demonstrate his actual physical flexibility, stretching his long arm behind his back.
The restarantuer placed the fish, savory and pink, at Hamilton’s side. He took in the smells and salivated immoderately. However, as the plump one scrunched his thick eyebrows together and began to speak again, Nestor pushed it to the side.
“So I guess that means you are just a mercenary. You’ll never stand for anything. Sounds empty.”
The plump one looked like he’d just sniffed an open sewer.
“So?” The skinny one asked.
“So then what have you lived for?” The plump one asked.
“You haven’t even defined what success is.”
“Do I have to?”
The plump one shook his head and rested his forehead on his palm before answering.
“Yes, of course you do. If you don’t, you’re just a ship with a dead crew, drifting and drifting until some rocky shore puts you out of your misery.”
“That’s a grim image,” The skinny one said.
“Stop dodging the point,” The plump one said.
The skinny one made his jaw muscles flex outward. His neck veins, visible through his thin, pale skin got a little bigger.
“I might not be any good at it. Standards of excellence, standards – old, tired, ideals and the rest of the bullshit earnest people who don’t know how to laugh are always trying to shove down my throat.”
“Then make your own standards.” The plump one recoiled, as if at the pungency of his own words.
“I might not be any good at that either,” The skinny one said. “Don’t you ever worry about your utility?”
The plump one made a small, frustrated grunt before answering.
“Not as much as you do,” The plump one said.
“Why not?” The skinny one asked. “Useless in the service of an ideal is still useless.”
“I care about intentions,” The plump one said. “The ends do not justify the means if the means are evil.”
“What else are we going to judge the means by?” the skinny one asked. “Intentions are useless.”
“No they aren’t,” The plump one said. “They’re the only way to judge us fairly.”
“I disagree,” The skinny one said. “Results are the best way to judge us, fairness be damned.”
The plump one crunched his empty soda can and slouched back into his chair.
“How can you say such a thing?”
The skinny one leaned forward, eyes bulging at his companion’s temerity.
“How can you not say such a thing? When I look around at what impacts me it’s results, not intentions.”.
“You don’t get good results from bad intentions,” The plump one said.
“Sometimes you do,” The skinny one said. “I have three wonderful children because, 33 years ago, I took the wife of another man from him. And you know what they say about paving the road to hell.”
“Those things are just accidents,” The plump one said.
“So what?” The skinny one asked. “The results are what mattered in the end.”
“But without the ideals,” The plump one said. “You can’t even decide if the impacts are desirable.”
“Perhaps you’re right,” The skinny one said. “But I doubt it.”
Nestor, disquieted, looked upon his lukewarm meal as the two men rose to leave.