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The Episodes of Noon by Michael Chester



I park my car in a lot, put my cell phone in my waterproof jacket pocket, get out, and lock the car. About twenty or thirty people with placards and banners are milling around in the light rain, protesting on behalf of Machiavelli.

They want people to sign a petition.

I don't sign.

I walk to the restaurant, which has a big patio with a wrought iron gate. Because of the weather, nobody's eating outside.

I open the gate and enter the patio. Glancing to my right, I see a cactus with yellow flowers. It stirs, gives a shake, becomes a leopard, and paces across my path. I stop. It turns into a cactus again to my left. I watch it for a moment. Nothing happens. I go into the restaurant.

Several people are waiting to be seated. The hostess, a thin, dark woman with high cheekbones, says, "May  I seat you, sir?"

I say, "Me?" I react slowly to "sir." This is because I'm not a knight.

Maybe sensing this, she says, "May I seat you, squire?"

I laugh and say, "Sure."

She takes me to a small table by a frosted window.

I recognize the lean, aristocratic waiter who comes to my table as Dante Alighieri, the author of Inferno. As he tells me about the specials of the day, I sense that he is exclusively dedicated to his role as a waiter —and there's something sort of formidable in his manner. So I don't try to talk to him about his writing. Maybe he considers this job as a step up, and doesn't want to be reminded of his writing years.

I don't want any of the specials. I order egg-white frittata and iced tea. Dante says, "Very good, sir, I'm sure that you won't be disappointed in your choice." He heads for the kitchen.

I hear someone tapping on the frosted window next to my table. I open the window. Standing there is a woman holding a petition. She's wearing a T-shirt, which bears a legend in curving print across her breasts: MACHIAVELLI. And, in smaller, flatter letters across her belly: A GOOD MAN.

"Niccolo Machiavelli," she says, in a calm, soft, but very direct voice, "wrote The Prince, that book of ruthless power, as a guide for the Medici, right?"

"Right."

"No," she says, "wrong. It was an exposé, a Trojan horse. Think about it."

A fierce looking, dark- and shaggy-haired young man, standing behind her, shakes his head impatiently. He says, "Look, this bullshit doesn't matter. Just think nice. Think nice Machiavelli. Think thank you, Mr. Machiavelli."

"Sorry," I tell them. "I don't want to sign any petitions. I just want to eat lunch."

The woman hands me a flyer. "Here," she says. "This is what he said about himself. Sure, it's as if he already knew the word Machiavellian."

"Okay." I take the flyer, crumple it, and stuff it into my pocket. As I close and latch the frosted window, I'm left with the image of her calm, insistent gaze.

I look around the restaurant. The tables are crowded with laughing, talking people. There is a liveliness about this place. Somewhat quieter, but carrying on an intent conversation, the Pope and several baseball players in St. Louis Cardinals uniforms are sitting at a large table nearby.

After a while, I see Dante returning with my lunch, the egg-white frittata, on a platter decorated with brightly-colored concentric rings. A busboy has already brought my iced tea.

When I'm done eating, I leave a 20% tip for Dante.

"Dominus vobiscum," says a St. Louis Cardinal, blessing me as I head for the exit.

"Thanks, man."

Leaving through the patio, I watch the yellow- flowered cactus on my right. It does not turn into a leopard. I am relieved about this.

Under a streetlight, I take the crumpled flyer out of my pocket and read it.

But he who thinks this author can be wrung by malice, or be made to hold his tongue, I warn him: this man is malicious too—malice, indeed his earliest art, and through the length and limits of all Italy he owes respect to none.

I stick it back in my pocket and walk to the parking lot. It's starting to rain harder. The Machiavelli people are gone now.

I use the remote key to unlock my car, which gives its usual quick double horn beep as it opens.

Shots. One ricochets off a trashcan.

I'm looking at two lanky boys in baggy gang clothes.

The one with the gun says, "Sorry, man, we thought you was the Onyx Avenues."

"That's okay," I tell him.

They lope away across the lot. The gunless one yells back, "Watch your horn don't flip us off next time, man." His manner is amiable, informative.

I call back, "Thanks for the tip."

I get in my car, start up the engine, and drive slowly along the street, looking through the silvery drizzle for the protestors. In the next block, I see two straggling guys, looking wet and cold as they carry their placards, their jacket collars up around their necks, caps pulled low over their foreheads. I park and get out. "You want me to sign your petition?"

"Okay," says one of them, indifferent.

I sign the wet paper. There are only two blurry signatures above mine, the ink half washed out by the rain.

I ask them, "Where's the young woman with the T-shirt that says Machiavelli, a good man?"

They look at me blankly.

"And a kind of pissed-off, shaggy-haired guy with  her, who says nice?"

The same blank looks from these two.

"All right, goodbye." I get back in my car and head slowly into the rain (through reflected city lights) toward where the highway starts.



Michael Chester writes short stories and poems and has been published by literary magazines Bakunin and Möbius. He likes sailboats but recently sold his latest sailboat, Black Lab (named after his favorite dog), because docking fees were going up while his income was going down. He also likes chess and plays mostly against a computer, which usually beats him.


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