Excerpt from Mortimer Little, a novel in progress by Mark Skalsky

The #38 Geary, San Francisco. Photograph by Paula Hendricks.

The #38 Geary,
San Francisco

Paula Hendricks

Mortimer was glad to see there were no others at the MUNI Inbound Shelter at Cole and Carl. He brushed off the end seat which had been made “bum proof” by the fact that it was only three inches deep and hinged in the middle so that a person would fall off it if they went to sleep. Mortimer longed for the halcyon days when it wasn’t necessary to make things bum proof but he was glad smelly, homeless people could be outsmarted. It wasn’t that he was heartless; in fact he felt sorry for homeless people, after-all he was on disability and one step away from the street. However, he was phobic of germs and bad smells. Even if he were homeless, he would make sure he kept himself clean.

He glanced up at the shelter’s digital readout. The next N-Judahs were arriving in 3 minutes, 13 minutes and 28 minutes. He reached into his pocket and pulled out two one-dollar coins. Muni rides cost two dollars and Mortimer was always prepared with the exact change. He was also prepared to be annoyed with anyone who tried to feed wrinkled dollar bills into the coin slots or those who paid their fare with lots of quarters, dimes, nickels and pennies, thereby holding up everyone in the queue. Why didn’t people think ahead? Why couldn’t everyone be as intelligent and as smart and as efficient as Mort Little? Well, they weren’t but that didn’t mean Mortimer Little had to be tolerant of the fact.

Mortimer pulled Camus’s The Myth of Sisyphus out of his black satchel and started reading. He had decided he was going to read every work Camus had ever written.  He was certain he had read Sisyphus as a teenager but doubted he remembered it well. So with Sisyphus he would begin. He opened the book and read the first sentence, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.” Mortimer smiled. He was going to enjoy this.

He leaned forward on the bus stop bench and craned his neck to the west to see if the N-Judah was near but there were only automobiles. He looked back up at the digital readout and in large red letters, the word, ARRIVING was blinking on and off. “Stupid MUNI” Mort muttered.

He buried his face in the book and was just getting engaged when a very ripe gentleman plopped down next to him.  Mortimer tried to keep reading but the rank smell prevented him.  To make matters worse, and with no warning what-so-ever, the homeless man reached over and grabbed the Camus out of Mort’s hands.

“Camus, Shamu,” the homeless man said as he stood and held the book up in the air. “Hah, Shamu was the whale’s name at SeaWorld. Bet he didn’t read this.” The homeless man laughed uproariously and Mortimer could see his rotten teeth, those which remained anyway. Mortimer furrowed his brow and gave the man, what he imagined was a very scornful look. The homeless man sat back down.

“Could I have my book please?” Mortimer asked in an unintended and far-too-plaintive voice.

There was no response. The man just sat there, thumbing through the book. Mort couldn’t help staring at the guy’s grimy hands and extra long nicotine yellow fingernails. Mortimer wondered how he could take back the book when it was now covered by so many germs and so much invisible grime.

The homeless man looked up from the book and stared Mort in the eyes. “So professor, what does the c in E=mc2 stand for?”

“The speed of light. Could I have my book back?”

“Okay, so ya do know a thing or two … maybe as smart as me, Professor Shamu. Do you mind if I call you Professor Shamu?”

Mortimer felt like saying “You can call me ass-wipe if you like. Just give me my book back and go to hell” but all he could manage was an embarrassed laugh.

“I like you, Shamu. Everyone knows the formula but not everyone can tell you what the C stands for. Light is right. Go on to the bonus round. Whoo boy, professor, you could win big. Win big.”

Mortimer shut his eyes and breathed out very slowly. He realized how little control one has over someone who no longer cares about hygiene, having a home and all the normal niceties of civilized life. The man was mental. The question was how to bargain with a crazy man. Mortimer kept looking at all the grime on the man’s hands and decided it was best not to speculate as to the source of that grime. He also decided he would just surrender the book when the man continued, “Mass times the speed of light squared. Pretty freaky, huh? You ever stop to think what that means?” He paused, just as a good teacher might do, but Mortimer had no intention of engaging this rambling mad man.

The man raised his right arm and pointed his long index finger with its grossly neglected nail directly at Mortimer’s forehead.  He made poking gestures as if to drive home his point. “It means that there is no such thing as time.” He paused again for emphasis, his eyes opened abnormally wide and staring deeply into Mortimer’s.  And then, as if triumphant, he continued on.

Take Betelgeuse … you know … the star in Orion’s shoulder. Three to four hundred light years away … a variable star … unstable … very unstable … it could blow any minute.” He slipped back into the rapid and unchecked pace he had used before. “Think about it, that light has been traveling for three to four hundred years. Fact is, professor, Betelgeuse could have gone super nova but ya think humans would know it?  No, they would not … no way … not until its light reaches us and we see it explode. Contemplate this, Shamu.  You could be looking up at a star that isn’t even there.  You get it? No time. No time. All is relative and anything relative contradicts itself. Negative X plus positive X equals zero, my friend. Betelgeuse can’t exist and not exist at the same time.”

The homeless man stood up, leaned over and pressed his face straight into Mortimer’s face. Mortimer held his breath. “It can’t!” The scream was so loud that Mortimer jumped. For a moment the man calmed down and spoke more slowly. “The only solution is to nix time. No time, no problem.” He looked deeply into Mortimer’s eyes and then in a haunting, slow whisper said “There … is … no … time.” He tossed The Myth of Sisyphus back into Mort’s lap and started laughing. He turned around, as if he were about to leave, and then, without warning he turned back to Mortimer and screamed, “The driver on the N is going to be a big fat black woman!” The volume and the subject matter embarrassed Mortimer. By then the man was turning in circles, his face red and slobber flying out of his mouth. He started laughing, laughing and spinning, spinning and laughing.


Mortimer wiped his book on his pant leg and put it back in his satchel just as the screech of the street car pulled him from this nightmare. He leaned forward to see if the N-Inbound was approaching but the screech came from the outbound N which was just emerging from the Sunset tunnel. The homeless man walked around to the rear of the MUNI shelter and started knocking on the glass. “Anyone home?” He knocked louder. “Anyone home? I said!”An eternity passed before the proper street car arrived at the stop.

Mortimer jumped to his feet and boarded. He completely forgot to deposit his coins. He was just sitting down when the driver screamed through the intercom, “Fare!” Mortimer went back to the driver’s booth and muttered “sorry” in a barely audible voice. He dropped his two one-dollar coins in the feed. He cocked his head so that he could see the driver through the bulkhead window. “I’m sorry. I was distracted.” The driver, a young, slight, Asian man ignored his response.

Mortimer took a side-facing seat near the front of the trolley. He opened his satchel and removed a travel-size bottle of hand sanitizer. He pulled a tissue from the satchel and doused it with sanitizer and in turn, rubbed the sanitizer on every possible surface of the book that the man could have touched. He dried the book on his pant leg and then studied the cover, checking to make sure no grime was visible. The book looked clean.

Mortimer sighed through his nose as he opened the book. He was thinking how grateful he was that the man had not boarded when out of the corner of his right eye he saw someone skipping up the aisle. It was the homeless man. “Oh shit” Mortimer mumbled to himself.

The man plopped down in the side-facing seat directly across from Mortimer. He had boarded from the rear door without paying but of course the driver, now concentrating on entering the Sunset tunnel, said nothing. The homeless man starred directly into Mort’s eyes but this time, silently. It was then that Mort remembered the man’s prediction of an over-weight, African-American, female driver, and just to signal that he wasn’t so gullible, Mort cocked his head toward the diver and darted his eyes to show the homeless man that his prediction was wrong. The homeless man raised his shoulders in an “oh well” gesture and smiled. Mortimer felt a tinge of pride, which surprised him as getting one up on an insane homeless man was not his idea of an accomplishment.

Thankfully, it looked as if the homeless man was calm now. Mortimer relaxed but then the trolley’s brakes squealed and the N-Judah halted abruptly in front of the handicap boarding platform just prior the tunnel. Mortimer glanced up to see what was happening. In all the years he had ridden the N it had never stopped at this platform. The doors opened and a very large black woman in a brown MUNI uniform boarded the N. As she swung open the café door to the driver’s cabin, Mort heard the effete Asian driver say, “Marina, I thought you had missed your shift.”

“Me miss a shift?” the woman laughed. “Come on, Norm. Have I ever?”

The driver got up from his seat and then leaned down to pick up his belongings. When he stood up he said, “She’s all yours. Have a good one.” He pushed his backpack against the driver’s door to open it, did the same to shut it and then hopped out of the N-Judah. The large black woman buckled herself into the driver’s seat and pushed a button which closed the doors.

Mortimer tried to not look back over at the homeless man but he couldn’t help himself. Even though the man was staring at his own lap Mortimer could see his gloating grin. And then the man snickered like a teenage girl. Mortimer opened the Camus and moved his eyes as if he were reading even though he knew he couldn’t concentrate. It was better than looking at the homeless man.


15 Responses to E=mc²

  1. zack says:

    congrats Mark. It felt right at home 😉

  2. Michele says:

    We are all just one step away from being on the other side of the line. Some of of just don’t notice how close they are. In this slice of San Francisco, I could relate to Mortimer’s reactions and actions.

  3. Lily says:

    It was fun having this view of SF’s muni through Mortimer’s eyes. The homeless guy is a great character. Hope we’ll see more of him.

  4. Mary Hillabrand says:

    Mark, as you know I haven’t lived in San Francisco since I moved to Mexico some years ago but this brought me right back. Mort is a likable guy and I think the homeless guy is gonna play a big part when the story unfolds. But, I don’t miss the N-Judah!

  5. Lori says:

    Great job Mark. That was excellent. I love Mort and his perspective. I can’t wait to read more.

  6. Lori says:

    Great job! I love Mortimer and the way he looked at everything. I can’t wait to read more. Congratulations.

  7. Julie says:

    Mark, A fun read! There’s nothing quite like crazy-ass SF!

  8. Sarah says:

    It is smart, funny and has great character development. It’s been awhile since I was able to get into a book after only reading the first chapter. Nice work! Can’t wait to read more.

  9. betsy says:

    The description of the homeless man was great. I could almost smell him. I really liked the Mortimer character and could sense what I thought was his generalized anxiety and unease with social situations. I hope to read more.

  10. Mark Skalsky says:

    Thank you all for your comments and feedback. I’m hoping to finish my novel, Mortimer Little, in the next six months. Hopefully, I will be able to land a publishing contract and enter the world of authors with published novels. I have always dreamed about holding a hard copy of my first novel. Little did I know that by the time I was ready to publish, hard copies would be so yester-year! Thanks all for your support and I promise to keep you all updated on the novel’s progress. It is my understanding that the next issue of Mnemosyne will have dreams as the subject matter. One installment from Mortimer Little is a dream sequence and I’m hopeful Mnemosyne will be able to use another chapter of Mortimer Little. If you enjoyed this one let the editor know that you would enjoy reading another chapter. Again, thank you for your kind words. It truly helps me to trudge on! — Mark Skalsky, Budding “Young” and Humble Writer

    • Hey Mark,

      We are definitely looking forward to Mortimer’s dream! For that matter, if you ever decide to eschew the decaying dinosaurs of big publishing and go it alone, we would welcome you into the Mnemo Press collective. Helen and I can help you to get your book printed (and e-printed). If you think you might be interested, check out the FAQs on the Mnemo Press site.

  11. Amy Strongoli says:

    Mark, I loved it! Only the two characters, a bus stop and a bus, and I’m hooked. The homeless man seems very intriguing. I’m very interested in what is up his grimy, smelly sleeves! It’s a wonderful snippet of what is sure to be a genuinely good read. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Leanne says:

    That was great, Mark! I was getting into it, so I’m anxious for more!

  13. Emily says:

    I love these characters. Finely drawn and excellent examples of what you expect of San Francisco but rarely see are so very San Franciscan.
    Thank you! I look forward to more!

  14. Laura Taylor says:


    This was a very enjoyable read. Familiar settings are always enjoyable but I particularly enjoyed the character developement which was done so swiftly…it pulled me right in. More!!!