In A Hard Time To Come Nick Fuse has created a stylish and original black comedy in the guise of an action thriller. The ultimate victim of 20th century malaise, Robert Truilo, an aspiring novelist, inhabits a dreamlike universe where the ground constantly shifts and nothing is ever what it seems. Set in New York City in the 1980s, the story picks up Truilo’s trail a few weeks after his wife leaves him. Subject to alternating moods of confusion, depression, and puppy-like hope, Truilo becomes indirectly and unknowingly entangled in the affairs of the mad Dr. Brecker, who seeks a biochemical agent that can kill humans without affecting other species. Incorporating stylistic elements that range from Mickey Spillane to James Joyce, A Hard Time To Come is a rare find that spans the commercial and literary publishing worlds.
Excerpts from A HARD TIME TO COME
All excerpts copyright©1998 by Nick Fuse
"The trouble with you is you got no sensitivity, Karl. No feelings, like some kind of machine."
"Shut up and light me a cigarette, huh babe? This heap is a fucking bitch to steer."
She reached over his arm and fished in the breast pocket of his foul-weather military jacket for the pack, pulling the matches from the cellophane wrapper with pointed, magenta fingernails. She lit three matches before drawing smoke and, choking, dangled the filtered end before his open mouth.
"You're a regular cold fish, you know that Karl?" she said, knocking the cigarette against his lip. He took it without a word, staring straight ahead through the salt-stained windshield.
"I mean, not that it matters to me. I'm a warm human being. I've got plenty of heat for both of us, you know? I don't have problems expressing my feelings. I don't think I have any problems at all, except you. I'm not one to complain, but how do you think it makes a girl feel, night after night trying to get a little rise out of you, and you can't even get it up?"
"Shut up!" he said, reaching out blindly, and grabbed her face in his hand, nearly losing control of the van. When he brought his hand back to the wheel, thin streaks of blood clung to his fingernails, shining there like tiny drops of ice. He wiped the hand on his jeans and frowned as she sniffled quietly beside him.
"I'm sorry," he said almost gently. "Just shut the fuck up, will you? I've got a lot on my mind. I can't be thinking about sex all the time. I've got work to do. Okay?"
They travelled on in silence down a neglected road carved by a bulldozer through an impending mountain of snow-covered garbage, leaving only a narrow strip of sky above them to light the way. Invisible ruts frozen under the snow pulled the wheels off course as they slid in and out of them along with Karl's obscene mutterings. Fat gulls the color of dirty linen circled overhead, watching the bouncing van make its uneasy way to the river.
"I saw it on TV," she said, watching the birds through the windshield.
"On television. There's this lady doctor on television who takes phone calls from people with sex problems, you know? And she gives people advice and tries to help them out, with their problems or whatever. Like this one girl for instance calls up and says she doesn't know what to do because her husband won't make love to her anymore because, like, he can't for some reason, and she wants to know if the reason is because he was in Vietnam or just because he doesn't love her any more even though he says he does but he doesn't. Like he acts real mean sometimes and hits her when she tries to get romantic and then he goes out drinking all night with his friends and the doctor told her that the man has emotional problems and she should try to get him to see a psychiatrist if she really wants to save their relationship or else maybe she should just move out so she won't get beat up anymore because there's plenty of nice guys out there who wouldn't even think of hitting a girl."
He looked at her in disbelief, outraged, wanting to hit her again but concerned by the blood on her lips. "Wipe your mouth," he said, looking back at the road. "And don't go bringing up that Vietnam shit. What would you know about it anyway? The past is dead and it doesn't make a fuck of difference," he said, tightening his grip on the wheel. "Don't believe every fucking thing you see on fucking TV, and for Christ sake, shut up!"
They drove in silence into a large opening in the garbage and he wheeled the van around hard, backing up to a frozen dirt path until he could see the Hudson in the rear-view mirror, reflecting light. He opened his door and jumped down, going around to the back of the van where he jangled a few notes from the key ring before finding the right key and shoving it into the lock. She came around her side, wiping her mouth on the sleeve of her parka. Her breath puffed up like exhaust around her face.
"What happens now?" she asked, standing back as he opened the rear doors.
"Now we unload the merchandise and have ourselves a little barbecue," he said, smiling at her.
"A barbecue? In January? In a garbage dump? Is that what you dragged me all the way out here for? Come on, Karl. It's freezing!"
"I brought you along because I needed someone I could trust to give me a hand with this job, so quit gawking and get inside," he said, reaching into the van and pulling out a black plastic tarp. He walked a distance toward the river and spread the tarp flat on the ground with his boot, then looked back at her expectantly.
She took a few steps closer to the dark back of the rented van, trying to distinguish its contents previously covered by the tarp, and crawled inside.
Her screams echoed off the the metal walls, sending a pain through his head like a blast of cold wind. He caught her as she stumbled out the back of the van.
"Calm down. They aren't going to hurt you. They aren't hurting anyone anymore."
"But what are they? They look like -
"You mean they're dead?" she gasped, holding him tighter.
He let the phone ring ten times before he picked it up.
"Whoever you are, you're no friend of mine."
"Wrong again, Kreskin. I am your only friend."
"Do you realize I was this close to kissing Roxanne Riley?"
"Never mind. You ruined a beautiful moment. Now I'll probably never see her again."
"What are you talking about? Have you got a woman there with you? Can it be true? Have you come out of mourning at last?"
"What morning? What time is it, anyway?"
"One o'clock, old sock. Sorry about waking you up, I know how much you need the beauty sleep, but I just wanted to remind you about tonight. You haven't forgotten, have you? A cozy dinner here at our place, just the four of us?"
"Who's the fourth? Wait a minute, don't tell me. Your cousin Erma from Schenectady, right? The former Miss Industrial County, complete with virginity. Hardly any mileage."
"Cousin Erma happens to be married to an executive with Standard Oil, and is doing very well without you. That was some trick you pulled on her with those spoons. I think she's written me out of the will. What's the matter with you anyway? Don't you like girls anymore?"
"I'd prefer a woman with a little something on the ball, but I don't suppose you know any of those, except Debbie, of course. But then there must be something wrong with her if she's in love with such a fine figure of a man as yourself."
"You're pretty hostile for a man who's been sleeping all day. Have you been drinking again?"
"Only coffee. I think it's affected my nervous system. I'm sorry."
"Well, maybe you'd better have a drink then. We want you to be on your best behavior tonight."
"I hope you're not planning on fixing me up with that new model of yours from Massapequa, the one with marital problems? I haven't forgotten the last time, you know."
"Neither has she. She still raves about you. You shouldn't have called her a weasel-faced tart, though. That was going a bit too far."
"Not far enough, you mean. Christ, Stuart! Why do you do these things to me? I thought you were my friend. I thought you loved me."
"I do. We both do, you know that. I thought you were made of sterner stuff. I thought you were Mr. Lonely."
"Not that lonely. Let me tell you, Stuart. Nobody is that lonely."
"You are too cruel. But in any case, I didn't invite her. I think you're going to like this one. She's smart and pretty and if you don't mind my saying so, available. So we'll see you around four then? You can help set the table while I fill you in."
"Why do I get the feeling I'm going to regret this?"
"And you will spruce yourself up a bit, won't you? If not for me, then for Debbie."
"Sure. I guess."
"And try to cheer up. Nobody likes to sleep with a wet blanket."
"Is he gone yet?" she called from the bathroom.
The Doctor walked over to the young man lying slumped against the bed, his skin already darkening. "Not yet," he shouted as he lifted and rolled the boy's body under the bed, tucking the spread over his ill-polished shoes. "I am the savior," he said quietly to the corpse. "My gift is salvation."
He walked to the door and closed it loudly, putting the chain on.
"He's gone," he said to the bathroom door, and then went over to the bed to make sure the body remained hidden.
She appeared before him dressed in a white satin teddy, a bold red cross stretched between and under her breasts. In her hair she had pinned a tiny white nurse's cap that sat above her blond curls like snow on the peak of a mountain, he thought, and felt his insides start to shift. He tried to keep himself from laughing, but could not, and sitting on the edge of the bed he laughed until tears came to his eyes.
"Don't you like it?" she asked, obviously hurt by his reaction. "I picked it out especially for you at Frederick's on the way over." She twirled around slowly so that he could see the twin caducei riding high on her buttocks.
"I love it," he managed to say. "It is perfect."
"I thought you would," she said knowingly, and strutted over to the table where she lifted her glass to him.
"What about dinner?" he asked.
"Dinner can wait. How about dessert first?" She emptied the glass in one swallow, licking the drops from the rim with her tongue, and then hopped enthusiastically onto his lap. "So what do you say, Dan? Want to play Doctor?"
"I'm afraid nothing can save you now, my dear."
"I'm not afraid. I trust you, Daniel. I'm ready for the operation. Put me under!"
Her grip tightened on his shoulders as she started to convulse. He held her upright as her eyes watered and rolled in their sockets, careful to keep clear of the drool sliding down her chin. A gleam of surprise lit her face until her lids slid closed and her hands fell away from him.
He caught her before she fell to the floor and lifted her gently to the bed, laying her out on the bedspread, consulting his wristwatch as her skin changed tone. In sixty seconds she was the color of the sea, and after two minutes as dark as a lime.
"Excellent," he said aloud and slapped her thigh in merriment.
Robert turned the three locks on his Bank Street apartment door and sank into his easy chair, raising a cloud of brown dust. He hardly remembered the cab ride home, except that the cabby didn't speak English and refused to let Robert into the cab at the Airport until he flashed the money from his ticket in front of the windshield. Money was the universal language, Robert thought.
The airport seemed like a dream to him now, or more accurately, a nightmare. All he wanted was a few days of dreamless sleep on his familiar couch and a sunny day to wake up to. He fished through the creases in his chair, pulling out the bottle he had stashed there. He felt light-headed and dry, wired after his experience, weary but not tired. A drink was just the thing he needed, he thought, to put out the lights behind his eyelids. Otherwise they would keep him up all night.
He unscrewed the top of the bottle and was about to take a drink when he noticed a giant cockroach crawling out of his typewriter on the table next to him. He had never seen such a large cockroach in his life, though Claudia claimed to have seen monster roaches up to three feet long, depending on her state of mind. He felt no fear, no desire to kill, especially after his trying ordeal; but he felt ill-at-ease with this undesired company, finding himself unable to take a drink or look away.
"Greetings," the cockroach seemed to say, moving its feelers slightly. Robert swore he heard a voice in his head, sounding something like George Plimpton's.
"Kafka?" he said aloud, holding the open bottle tensely in his hand.
"Do not delude yourself," he heard the voice say. "I am only a cockroach. Nothing more, nothing less."
"Yes, I can see that," Robert said aloud, wondering if he might be on the verge of another mental breakdown. The cockroach sat motionless on the space bar, unconcerned.
"Well, what do you want from me?" Robert asked irritably. His head burned with pain. He took a drink, keeping a careful eye on the cockroach.
"Nothing," the voice in his head said. "A cockroach has no desires, and very few needs. We can survive for months without nourishment, for weeks without water. We neither want nor need anything from you."
"Then why are you here?" Robert asked, frightened by his own voice filling the room. He took another drink to calm his nerves. The cockroach remained on the space bar, watching.
"Why indeed," the cockroach seemed to say. "I could ask the same question of you."
"Me?" Robert asked, caught off guard for the moment, forced to think about himself.
"Yes, you," the cockroach said. "Why are you here?"
The more he thought about it, the more he convinced himself he had been seriously injured somehow. Had Sergeant Jim turned his brain to jelly? It certainly felt like it now. Or he could be hallucinating from advanced fatigue. He might even be asleep in his chair and dreaming this conversation. He took another drink to test his theory, feeling no sensation of warmth in his throat. The large size of the cockroach suggested fantasy, and it had not moved from the space bar since it crawled out of the typewriter. Why should he feel obligated to justify his existence to an imaginary bug?
He closed his eyes and very slowly opened them, hoping to make the cockroach disappear. It remained perched on the space bar, as if waiting for his answer. He decided on a hard line of denial.
"I do not believe you are a real cockroach," he said seriously. "You are merely a product of my imagination, brought about through stress and fatigue. You are not really there at all," he said, feeling satisfied.
"You may be right," the cockroach said. "Don't forget, you have injured your skull, and you have been drinking far too much alcohol lately, poisoning your mind, destroying your already limited powers of reason. But consider this: Whether you imagine me or not, I am here. You can see and hear me, can you not?"
"You are a cruel and heartless cockroach, taunting me this way," Robert said, feeling maudlin. "I could kill you, but I won't. I don't want to kill you, and I don't want to talk to you anymore. Please go away now," he said.
"You cannot kill us," the cockroach said calmly. "We have been here since the dawn of time, and we will remain long after you and your kind wither and die. We will survive. We will not go away."
"Is this really necessary. Have you no feelings?" Robert asked, irrational tears welling in his eyes. He cried for the fate of humanity and for himself, destined to spend the last of his days talking to bugs.
"We tolerate you because we must," he heard the voice say. "Soon you will be gone and another will replace you. It hardly matters. Your life is meaningless, in the grand design. Think about it," the cockroach said, turning and disappearing into the typewriter.
Robert stared at the typewriter and tried to hold his hand steady. He could not seem to raise the bottle to his lips. The telephone rang and he jumped, dropping the bottle to the floor.