Tropannos is a unique novel in the respect that it covers subjects almost too terrifying to face, yet what the reader leaves with is an enduring feeling that true friendships bind us, and when there is that bond, anything can be overcome.
This book tells us there is a person behind the curtain, and this person has no heart or humanity…and just like Tropannos protagonist, Kevin Conners, must face his moment of deciding what side of right and wrong he is going to stand on, many readers might relate this to their own lives as well.
Tropannos delivers on so many levels, and on so many topics, it is hard to believe this is all one novel at times, but in the end, it all comes together like a hand in a glove.
Ben Swisko stood at the light on Market St. and 2nd waiting to cross. Suddenly he heard screeching car tires, making that scary jarring squeal heard right before a car collision. Amazingly, the sedan’s driver, who had been caught off guard, was able to stop just short of a bad day, but Ben was still startled out of daydreaming about his upcoming project at work. He’d been deeply lost in thought.
This was immediately followed by a symphony of car horns coming from his right toward the Embarcadero, and what he saw coming straight down the middle of Market Street was a spectacle to be sure—it also explained what precipitated the near accident. Not that there weren’t countless sideshows happening on a daily basis in downtown San Francisco, but this was one of those “must stop and watch” scenes.
Ben was heading back to his office on Pine Street after lunch, but before he could cross over Market, his attention was captured and why not, this was not a sideshow, but the main event. The man was in the middle of the street, walking into oncoming traffic, raging at the top of his lungs at anyone or anything he encountered. Of course, that brought traffic to a grinding halt, and straight away there was a large pack of drivers who were about to engage him with equal rage.
As he drew closer to the intersection, Ben could see the man was clearly drunk—angry and drunk. But the weird thing was that he wasn’t one of the homeless and disheveled masses found throughout the city, especially downtown, he was wearing a suit. There were no cops in sight as he entered the bustling intersection and by now the honking was a cacophony of horns. Ben knew it would not be long before the police showed up and the real show began. He was jokingly thinking he needed popcorn for this one, when all of a sudden the man stopped raging at traffic and realized there were people nearby who did not have honking steel machines to defend themselves. Ever since he could remember, Ben seemed to have some sort of homing beacon that brought any and all of the city’s weirdo’s honing in on him.
It was his unfortunate reality that he stood six-five and actually looked even taller than that. People always guessed him to be six-seven, maybe due to the brown birds nest that arose off his head. His hair grew like weeds and it quickly added to his height if he didn’t keep it in check. That was probably why the man came right at him. Feeling uncomfortable with the upcoming confrontation, Ben braced for the coming tirade as the man made his way off the blaring street.
Not one second after he had cleared the roadway then the cars started zooming by, giving him no choice but sure death if he were to reverse direction. Right away Ben could see the man was handsome in a way he would never be, not that he was ugly, but his friends often teased that he looked like Penn Jillette, ponytail and all, not Ken from the Barbie fame, as this man looked.
As the man stepped up the curb, Ben took a step back from the light pole he was holding onto. The man squinted at him, apparently displeased that he stepped away and blurted loudly, “What, you think I’m a threat to you? Look at you, you’re like twice my size.” Ben didn’t answer. The stranger really was a good-looking man, tall at around six-feet, blonde, and fit. His suit was high fashion; he had money.
Ben had money himself, but he wore jeans, cowboy boots, and a blue button-up shirt that was designed to be untucked. He also wore glasses, whereas this man wore none. Ben was thirty-two years old and he assumed this man to be no older, so at least it was going to be a fair fight if nothing else. The man asked again in a drunken and elevated tone, “I asked you if you think I’m a threat to you?” Ben’s light turned green to walk, so he stepped to the man’s left as he exclaimed, “I think you’re very drunk.” He had just stepped into the crosswalk when the man turned and came toward him insisting, “I’m no threat. You don’t know what they did to . . .” He never finished the sentence as he misread the curb and face-planted into the street.
Feeling empathy for the man and not really being afraid of him, Ben helped him up and escorted him out of the street. The man was really inebriated, so he helped him wipe himself off and herded him into the coffee shop on the corner. He chose a corner booth and Ben noted the drunken man seemed to pour onto the bench seat. Ben had been there himself, as most males had—drinking too much was akin to reverting oneself into a child. Maybe that’s why people drank too much, he pondered; it was the only true way one could return to childhood.
The man finally righted himself and Ben offered, “I’m Ben.” No hand was extended. The man looked flatly at him and Ben wasn’t sure if he was so blotto that all reasonable communication and thought were lost to him . . . or it was something else. Ben noted that he had a scar on his chin, which stole from his overall perfect looks, as did the whites of his blue eyes being very beet red.
He counted out model as his career, that was until the first words out of his mouth were about vanity, then the possibility of him being an actor came to mind, “Name’s Kevin Conway. Are my teeth chipped?” The man had been touching his mouth and using his tongue to feel around, so he wasn’t surprised to see the inside of the man’s upper lip was bleeding. Kevin flashed his perfect smile and then jutted his face out so Ben could get a better look with the use of the lamp over the table. The restaurant had smoked windows facing 2nd Street, so the lamps inside were indeed needed for the job, but they weren’t bright enough on their own.
After careful inspection with his phone’s flashlight, Ben let him know it did not appear he had any chipped or broken teeth. That seemed to settle Kevin down enough to try to converse, albeit very slurred. Ben soon understood he wasn’t going to get much out of this encounter except being late back from lunch. Realizing that, he texted work and let them know he would be late and would explain when he returned. Then he recognized what Kevin needed, so he went and fetched a waitress who brought a large carafe of coffee, along with cream and sugar.
Kevin drank it cautiously after burning his already damaged lip on the first sip. But he kept at it and Ben saw that as a good sign toward some sobriety. With way more clarity of thought than Ben thought he was up to, he said, “Thanks for picking me up out of the street. Believe it or not, that was kind of a low point in my life so far. That and throwing up in Kendra Watkins car.” He took a sip of coffee with trepidation, “She was the hottest girl in school and I ralphed in her car senior year up on Mulholland Drive. She abandoned me right there.”
Ben looked the dandy of man over and said, “Bummer, I had zero dates in high school, so you beat me there, even with the barf story. I can believe that about lying facedown in the street, that is never a good feeling I imagine.” Kevin added, “I wasn’t threatening anyone, I just wanted to interrupt their perfect day with the thought that someone else wasn’t having that perfect day.”
He continued to sip the coffee. Ben knew it was going to lengthen this encounter but he had to know what would send someone so over the rails like that, so he asked, “Sorry, I know it’s not my business, but what happened?” Kevin paused before answering, “My firm just let me go. I thought I was being called in to be made partner, but instead I was told that they wanted an overseas attorney handling my overseas matters; that my services would no longer be needed.” Ben got it now, and he suddenly empathized a lot more. Although he was in the field of artificial intelligence, he also used to work in robotics. Robotics that oftentimes replaced people’s livelihoods.
That was the worst part about the advancements he was helping to create—they were putting a lot of people out of work. Couple that with outsourcing and Ben often wondered what all these people were going to do once their jobs had all been replaced. How were they going to survive? Ben asked sincerely, “Are you going to be okay?” He didn’t notice a wedding ring, but that didn’t mean anything.
Kevin thought about it, and Ben was fairly certain the delay was alcohol-related, “Maybe. I know some people . . . but this wasn’t supposed to happen to me. I was insulated, I had a niche; I thought I had people looking out for me!” As he said the last part his voice raised to almost his Market Street level, so Ben reminded him, “If you want to continue mellowing out in here, you’d better chill out or they’ll toss you for that.”
Kevin realized his inner-Hulk was raised whenever he thought about the injustice just brought onto him not two and a half hours ago. He said less excitedly, “This place is rigged.” Ben had to think about it before he answered, assuming correctly that Kevin was talking on a grander scale than their immediate environment, “You mean the whole game?” Kevin nodded, appreciating the fact he picked an erudite man to have his very public meltdown in front of, “Yes, the whole game. The whole game is rigged and they’re taking it all away from us right under our noses—and we’re clueless. The sad part is, until a little while ago, I was part of it. I helped companies plan their escape from the U.S. and set up business overseas.”
Kevin rubbed his nose like a lot of inebriated people tended to do before continuing, “And now I’m outsourced. Where does it end?” Ben often wondered the same thing. If his field were to continue, they would eventually replace everyone’s jobs. Surgeons, manufacturing, communications, driving, flying and probably at some point, even lawyering. He looked earnestly at the man and asked, “Do you have a family?” Kevin shook his head no, “I had no time. I often worked fourteen-hour days. The best I could muster this last two years was a couple scattered blind dates and some swipe rights off of Tinder.” Ben was single, as well, and like Kevin here was working hellish hours to meet one deadline to the next.
Ben was currently working on creating high-end lifelike sex robots that were selling worldwide at a pace their factory couldn’t keep up with. Of course, he didn’t work in the factory itself, he worked as an A.I. mentor at the main lab. Ben understood the loneliness factor of the life of such a man, and that was why he owned one of the bots he was helping to mold and design. It only seemed logical to own one of the very things he was in charge of training others to understand. A.I. was such new science and companies were scrambling for people with his qualifications, thus his three hundred and fifty dollar an hour salary.
He nodded understanding to Kevin, not wanting to get into his life about living with his robotic sex doll. When he tried to articulate it to someone, Ben became aware it was more than a stigma; it was downright embarrassing if the person on the other side of the conversation was against the concept. Like Kevin here, he once had crappy blind dates and hookups in his life, but now he had Sindia and all that was behind him. At least now his sex drive and curiosity could be satisfied in a safe, albeit not widely accepted fashion, but this was not the time for that conversation.
Ben felt more relaxed now that he and Kevin had gotten to know each other, so he inquired, “You live in the city?” Kevin responded snappishly, “Hah, right, me and Mr. Rockefeller are neighbors.” Ben felt a little guilty, as he lived not two blocks over and walked to work, but Kevin continued, “No, I live in Redwood City. Not much different than here price-wise nowadays, but I got in at a good time. I take Caltrain home.”
Ben needed to get back to work, so he asked without seeming like he was trying to lose him, “You okay to get on the train?” Kevin had drained most of his coffee and some coherence had returned, so it was no surprise that he answered, “Yeah, yeah, I’ll be okay. I think I’ll just chill here a while more. I gotta let my parents know at some point. My dad’s a probate attorney in Marina del Rey down south, I should probably call him.” Ben felt it was okay to leave, so he got up and reached out his hand to the man. They shook and Kevin said, “Thanks again . . . and let me have your number so I can buy you a drink sometime.”
Not having a problem with that, the two men exchanged numbers and Ben returned back to work leaving Kevin in the coffee shop, neither man realizing that their chance meeting was much more than that, perhaps serendipitous, if nothing else, it was the start of a close friendship. But from another perspective, it could be said that what was put into motion on that street in San Francisco would lead to a series of events that would become much bigger than either one of them could ever have imagined.
Peas & Carrots
There were runners at the corners, the Giants down to the Dodgers three runs to two in the bottom of the ninth, two outs. Kevin could see Buster Posey on deck and noticed he was chomping at the bit. The crowd was raucous as they always were when the Dodgers came to town, and Ben and him were on their fourth beer, so they were part of that crowd. The crowd noise was deafening as Brandon Belt drew a walk and Posey stepped up to the plate.
It had been two months since Ben and he had met and they had become quick friends. Both had multiple interests in common and both were the same general age. Soon, as they spent more time together in the city, people would frequently mistake them for a couple, as they were becoming quite simpatico. It became their running argument which one of them was the pretty one whenever one of these mistaken encounters happened. So far it seemed Kevin would wear the apron in their make-believe union.
Kevin had not found work yet, but he had landed several promising interviews. On the field in front them Posey took a ball on the first pitch. He received a nice severance package and was awarded unemployment, so he was not stressing yet. He had high hopes that a couple of those interviews would lead to offers. Ball two, the crowd was now one hundred percent on their feet . . . roaring.
The two had taken to going to Giants games and drinking copious amounts of beer, before, during, and after the game. So far, they had avoided any drunken Market Street tirades and just kept it merry, although Kevin was quick to point out the door was not closed on that option yet. Strike one, no abatement of crowd thunder. Kevin did okay with women when he gave it the effort; he was after all “a hunk of a dude,” but much to his amazement, his less graceful partner also attracted more than his fair share of the opposite sex. As it turned out, Kevin quickly learned that if he primed Ben with a few drinks, he was a natural wingman with girls.
On the next pitch Posey almost came out of his shoes he swung so hard. Strike two, the count now two and two. One of the main reasons they came to these games was for the girls, of course, and there were a lot of them. Kevin had been eying this cute brunette all night. She was one row up on the right and they kept shooting each other quick glances intermittently throughout the whole game. Now that she was standing he could see that she was, in fact, a very attractive girl. The fact that there was so much action on the field right now, but she still took the time to furtively look back made him excited . . . and her friend was no slouch either…ball three, full count. Crowd thunder was the best way to explain it. A full count—bases loaded, down by a run…it just didn’t get any more exciting than that.
The pitch came in and Posey nailed it. It was a rocket of a shot, but a line drive and it didn’t clear the wall, only hitting the top and bouncing back onto the field of play. With the runners moving on the pitch the Giants had an easy walk-off win, and the crowd erupted even more. If one had never been in such an environment, then in Kevin’s opinion, one had not lived. No one was bailing out quickly, and as Ben was spacing out over the crowd, Kevin saw his brunette catch getting away. He quickly elbowed Ben and the hunt was on.
Kevin knew this was not going to be a hard fight, as she looked over her shoulder before heading to the main aisle. And again as she passed his aisle, smiling to see him coming as well. She had a very nice smile to go with the lush, yet straight dark hair. He had not dialed Ben in, but this was their fifth game together and the simpatico thing was kicking in. Her friend was a ginger and Kevin already knew from in their short time together that Ben had an affinity for gingers. As they made their way out the main entrance, Kevin made his move. He would be the initiator on this one, catching up to the two girls and introducing himself and Ben.
Soon they were across the street at the brewery trying to impress a one Diane Lane and Justine Maxwell, two girls who worked in the city, Justine an attorney and Diane a sales rep for a major drug manufacturer whose main office was here. Both girls loved to go to games to see their favorite baseball boys play. It wasn’t long before the four of them were acting very lively and animated together, the mating ritual in full display.
Diane had hazel eyes that shone bright and intelligent. She also possessed one of Kevin’s weaknesses; those soft freckles on her face, mostly around her nose and eyes, and Kevin loved that. He wanted to throw himself at her, but he also really liked this one, so he restrained himself and just tried to have fun without pressuring himself. Their laughter was contagious and Ben seemed to enjoy Justine’s company as well. It was Friday night and they stayed until the bar closed.
Both men knew these girls were class acts, so no moves were made. They were Ubering to Justine’s place by the Panhandle and much to Kevin’s amazement, he got a kiss he was not expecting before she got into the Uber—a real kiss that sent his head spinning. He also noted Ben got such a kiss from Justine, who Kevin noted was only about five-six, so it was almost comical to see their embrace. After their car pulled off, both of them high-fived so hard Kevin’s hand stung badly. “Damn you big lug, you don’t know your own strength, almost broke my fucking hand.” They were both drunk, not buzzed; buzzed left in the seventh inning, so it was even more amazing that they didn’t blow that encounter.
It was a beautiful San Francisco night of about seventy degrees and neither of them wanted to Uber back to his place. They decided to walk and talk, so they headed up Embarcadero toward Market, the place they’d met. The streets had way more people than one would expect at this hour and even though Ben’s place was on their left, they passed it and kept walking and talking. They stopped in a sandwich shop to get something to nosh while they walked, the shop being smart enough to stay open twenty-four hours.
The people out at this hour were a mixed bag of lost souls, teens out past when teens should be out, tourists, and people like themselves, walking home after partying, doing whatever, and of course, the throngs of homeless. They turned around at Justin Turner Plaza and headed back. In between bites, Kevin said, “I heard one of the conversations you guys were having, your girl is a tax attorney. I heard you bitching about your tax brackets and surmised that you must make a lot of money, my friend, although your address also told me that.” Ben grumbled, “Yeah, those assholes rape me so bad, I really don’t know how it’s legal.” Kevin chuckled, “Well, Ben, technically, it’s not legal at all. I wrote a big paper on this in college. I basically proved tax brackets are unconstitutional.” They had recessed back to buzzed, so Ben gave a quizzical look before stating, “Then why do I pay so much fucking taxes?!” Kevin answered honestly, “Because the game is rigged. Remember when I told you that?”
They made it back to Folsom Street and turned up, but not before Ben gave five bucks to a panhandler who had seen better days, Kevin donating half the sandwich he couldn’t finish. They walked up the block to the glass monstrosity Ben lived in. Well okay, Kevin thought, Eternity Towers were not really an abomination. They were a beautifully sculpted glass vision, depending on how one saw things, but this was San Francisco, so they got labeled an eyesore right out the gate. There were protests, and marches, and environmentalists claiming the small corner park that was removed as part of the property plan was also a stopover point for migrating butterflies.
Kevin then spotted the butterfly garden that was part of the deal with the developers. There were two twenty-seven-floor smoked glass towers standing quite a distance apart from each other, but nestled between the two was a five-story, charcoal-grey glass, square building whose corners gave the access points to the towers. It held all their parking and amenities. Truthfully,
Kevin was a bit jealous—Ben was obviously very successful. His apartment had an indoor pool and the view from his twenty-fifth-floor pad was a postcard of the Bay Bridge side of the bay. Life was good for Ben Swisko. They got into his elevator and Ben pushed his floor. As they were ascending, he asked, “What was your paper based on?” Kevin replied, “Just one word: posterity.” Ben furrowed his brow as the speedy elevator opened its doors on his floor. “And how’s that possible?” “Well, first off, do you know the word?” Ben answered, “Of course, I know the word prosperity.”
They were still buzzed after all, so Kevin repeated, “I did not say the word prosperity, I said posterity. Do you know this word?” Ben thought hard, but answered, “I’ve heard it, but the meaning alludes me right now—probably the fucking beer.” Ben’s apartment looked like a page out of a modern furniture catalog. But it was more than that; his house was the most Avant-garde place he had ever laid eyes on, full of eclectic pieces that forced one into conversation about each, especially the many pieces of abstract art that embellished the walls.
Of course, they were still not good enough friends for Kevin to know what was in his walk-in bedroom closet…in due time. Soon they were out on the terrace and Kevin couldn’t get over the view. They had each grabbed a water bottle prior to coming out, so Kevin drank some to clear his throat before continuing, “Posterity means that we have the right to have children, basically, and therein lay my argument.” Ben said, “Ah.” Ben, like many other educated adults, did not like to admit when they don’t know a common fact, but Kevin was so aware of this single fact that he was an expert on people not knowing this word.
It was, in fact, in the preamble of the Constitution of the United States, but most people just read right over it and its greater meaning. Kevin said, “It’s in the preamble of the Constitution, so my argument was that tax brackets are a direct violation of the rule if they are any part of the equation that leads American citizens to not be able to afford a child, in essence, an heir. “You know that bullshit saying, ‘the more you make, the more they take’? Well, that bullshit saying is a constitutional violation right there—big time. Albeit it’s like one of ten intersecting hardships coming down the pike, it’s a factor in the total equation.
“If things keep at their current pace, then no one will be able to afford to have kids anymore, therefore our guaranteed right of posterity would not be achievable. Thus, if tax brackets are part of that, they are unconstitutional. Especially if you look at how, for example, a kid who grows up in Manhattan would never be able to afford to live where he came from. We are taxed for everything now—and most of it is taxation without representation. What do you think street parking meters are? Do we not pay state taxes to cover the streets? Now cities are involved, just like our boys at the IRS.” Ben inquired, “So what’s the answer?”
Kevin edified, “There needs to be a flat tax and more accountability in Washington. And then my kids could afford to have kids. What good is a system that rewards you for climbing to the top by crippling you with taxes?” Ben answered, “How come no one has tried to make the lawsuit?” “Because no one has the balls, I don’t know. I know many people have tried variations of what I’m talking about, obviously unsuccessfully. But none have tried to use posterity as their main argument, as the sole argument. Giving tax brackets their place in the overall picture of circumstances to create this perfect storm of the average person being priced out of parenthood is key to winning.”
They sat in silence for the next ten minutes and then they turned in, but not before each realizing that the prospect of that lawsuit would be mighty attractive, especially to Ben.
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