He died with a thumb drive in his hand. In the dull light of the streetlamp the bright green of the device contrasted sharply with the pink and red of his frostbitten fingers and the white of the still undefiled snow on the sidewalk. I quickly pried the drive from his stiff fingers, hid it in a mitten, and trudged away from that deserted predawn side street.
I cut my hand on my keys as I hurriedly unlocked the door to my building. I relocked the door, stomped my jogging shoes on the dirty linoleum of the foyer, and gazed out at the snow which was still falling on the street, a street only slightly less seedy than the one in which he died. No one saw me.
As soon as I closed the door to my apartment, I placed my mittens and keys on a bookcase near the door and, flash drive in hand, hurried to my computer. The machine did not respond; I had to reboot it. As the computer started, I wiped the blood from my fingers and slowly took my shoes off. I saw the mess I’d made a mess of my apartment’s carpet. Cleaning it later would calm me, clear my head before I began to reflect on the contents of the device.
We called him John but I don’t believe anyone knew his real name. It seemed that he had been an integral part of our loose knit group from its inception but he only moved to our city less than three years ago. No one knows where he came from. He spoke his baroque English with an unplaceable accent. With his tall thin frame, pallid complexion, long wispy beard, matted brown hair, and receding hairline he looked like a Russian saint or prophet or a nobody.
The most distinctive thing about him, however, was his thumb drive. He never went anywhere, and having no fixed abode was always somewhere, without it. He kept it in a plastic bag the way a drug addict keeps his stash. His most characteristic nervous gesture was to feel for it, in his pants or jacket pocket, in the computer he happened to be working on, wherever it might be. Who could blame him? Though he never spoke of it, we had determined that the thumb drive contained his complete works.
He never revealed the contents of the drive to anyone. He wrote on the drive in libraries, so-called Internet cafes, at friend’s houses, wherever he could find an available computer with a port for it. It was said that he slept with it, even when he was with a woman, clenched tightly in his good right hand.
He seduced most of the women in our group, even some of the married ones, easily. Though the women seemed to regard them fondly the affairs rarely lasted more than a night or two. Once at a party I, an inveterate eavesdropper, overheard a small group of women talking about him. I approached them, brown alcohol in hand, wanting to find out what he had that someone like me, an ineffective womanizer, did not. I wasn’t coming on to them. They knew that. Still they would not tell me anything. The telling word I overheard, the consensus of their coterie, was pungent. They may have said piquant: it was hard to hear in that apartment.
None of those sirens ever saw what was on John’s thumb drive. Rumors about its contents ran rampant through our group. Some maintained that the drive contained a novel in progress, others that it contained stories, poems, fairy tales. A few in our group claimed that they could see traces of what he wrote in the computer’s memory. They claimed that he wrote in English in a simple evocative style that in no way resembled his rococo speech patterns. None of these cyber-sleuths could quote a single phrase.
A few months ago some members of our group started a webzine. John was asked to contribute a piece or, if he felt it was premature, to write a short introduction. I believe he was even offered space on the site to maintain a blog. He refused all these offers. As far as I know he never saw the webzine.
My contributions were rejected. I understood; I’ve always been a peripheral member of our artistic circle. I don’t have any benefactors. I have my ill-paying white-collar job to maintain. I can’t spend much time schmoozing, flaneur-ing, thinking deep artistic or revolutionary thoughts. Some of my work has been published, perhaps in forums as good and lasting as our webzine, but most of it lay dormant on my hard drive which was just coming to life.
I put the thumb drive in the port. While I waited for the computer to recognize it, I wondered what I would do with the work. I could become John’s editor, his Max Brod, or, if I felt daring and the style was similar enough to mine, I could pass the work off as my own.
I looked at the contents of the drive through the computer’s explorer, my personal Darien. Unlike John, the drive appeared to be neatly organized. There was a document called Introduction.txt and numbered folders that appeared to correspond to chapters. I opened the Introduction and began reading what our prophet wrote:
He died with a thumb drive in his hand. The slow-acting poison entered his bloodstream through a small cut in his finger…
Joseph Carfagno was born in Brooklyn but lives in Connecticut.