Tobias screws the top off a Perrier and sits. In front of him are two empty chairs and a view of New Jersey at sunset that almost makes it look livable.
“Ms. Dodd would like to apologize for the wait. She and Mr. Pearlstein will be in shortly,” the young assistant says. “If there’s anything I can do, sir.”
“Let me think,” Tobias says, admiring the shine on his shoe. “Get fucked and die?”
The kid blinks once and then backs slowly away, like he just crossed wires on the bomb he was sent in to defuse.
You have no idea, Tobias thinks.
Shifting from one buttock to the other he’s conscious of a faint tickle in the nether regions of his anus. He shifts again and the tickle intensifies which makes what’s going on under his suit impossible to ignore. What’s going on under his suit is a pink g-string with a matching garter-belt and some seriously interstellar black fishnet stockings with bows in the back.
But he seriously needs to cool it. If this thing is going to work out as planned he has to pace himself and exercise maximum control. This isn’t some bathroom in the Fresno Airport, after all.
He sips the Perrier and thinks about a commercial featuring bloated Sudanese infants aswarm in flies—powerful stuff; better, in fact, than the old stand-by of his mother and sister holding Easter baskets. Sure enough, the hard-on wilts against his thigh.
The idea came to him last night, in the Aston, this notion of merging the only thrills of his life: S&M and cosmic sums of money. How hadn’t he conceived of it years ago? The annual Compensation Review’s inherent structure—boot-licking of management followed by the conferral of massive treasure—was a masochist’s nirvana. It’s straight-up master-slave roll-playing but infinitely better for being real. What it lacked in corporal stimulation—Dark Victoria’s great specialty—he would make up for with the sheer power of his mind. He’s been practicing.
Still, Dark Victoria… The very thought of her dungeon—the hard, waffled rubber of her boot sole on the back of his neck and the taste of the sweaty stone floor and, always later, the nipple clamps and smotherbox and—the very thought of it makes his sphincter dilate like a pupil on MDMA. The hard-on is back, too, a talking zombie hard-on that can’t be killed. Me, killed? You’ve tried, you pathetic fuck. Libido-suppressant support groups? Saltpeter? Five beatings a day? Bring it on!
He crosses his legs tighter in an attempt to strangle it, which makes him smile a little, and summarizes the present challenge in his mind: answering Management with just the right balance of self-flagellation and resistance; too much of the former and he could jeopardize the bonus (surely not less than three million); too much of the latter and he won’t feel nearly humiliated enough to get off.
Their questions are always the same.
Are you pleased with your performance?
The correct answer is never yes. He’ll say no, absolutely not. He’ll cite the Greek loan package as one where, with greater forethought, he should have extracted fifty basis points more and stricter covenants on the subordinated bonds. It’s a colossal error, he’ll say, one he promises—promises—not to repeat. He’ll conclude by reminding them of the fee he did extract, which earned the bank eighty two million dollars and a mention in the Journal. Unspoken will be the understanding that, without his fee, the bank would have missed quarterly earnings targets; would have been subject to numerous debt and equity downgrades; would have found itself, in internal parlance, Stage Four Fucked. He hopes this answer is satisfactory?
What positive changes can we expect in your performance next year?
Again, there’s only one right answer: He’ll work much harder. It had been a mistake, clearly, to take off the week between Christmas and New Year’s. He’d like to apologize for that. Here he’ll pause, just for a moment, because he knows management keeps track of these things—flight records, electronic key swipes, email metrics: he knows—from a source—it’s all in the dossiers on their laps. So he’ll pause briefly and after an uncomfortable second Sandra Dodd will cough into her fist and marvel at Tobias making Delta Airlines Platinum before March. Same as last year.
One of them will hand him a piece of paper with his number. The paper will be folded.
Do you feel you’ve been fairly compensated?
This is the moment: he’ll unfold the paper, see the number and absorb the staggering hugeness of it. All the pain and awfulness of this dreadful meeting, vanished year and hateful career will be blown free in a shuddering release and he’ll say, “Yes, yes I deserve it.”
Tobias would like to bring it all into sharper focus—the two million they shafted him on, the drink he threw at the weasily assistant on the way out, the unreturned calls to Dark Victoria, the precise number of alprazolam he swallowed during five ATM withdrawals—he’d like to clarify all of this but the paddle strikes are making him black out. He’s never been hit harder in his life. Starbursts of red and green explode across his field of vision.
The first thirty or so felt pretty satisfying but this last round is too much. He can feel the fishnet grid scoring itself into his flesh.
The girl ignores the time-out code word and continues throttling him. The bathroom door is open and by straining his neck he can see her in the mirror: auburn hair pulled back tight from the freckled forehead and braided into a thick, preppy rope. Is she twenty five? Twenty even? Very quickly the throbbing in his legs and ass is replaced by a new horror as he studies her outfit, which is totally ersatz, the kind of thing you’d buy at a drugstore the day before Halloween. The description in the ad from the Voice was of a different girl, older, meaner: his type.
The girl pivots her heel and because his head is practically on the floor he glimpses the imprint on the sole: J. Crew.
“Dick Cheney! Dick Cheney!”
Before she can lower the paddle again Tobias wriggles off her lap and onto the floor. He pulls up his pants and moves to the desk by the window where the second half of her fee—fifteen hundred dollars—is stacked neatly in fifties. Next to the fifties is an open pack of cigarettes which he may or may not have bought earlier. He plucks one free and lights it, nearly gagging on the first draught.
“Um, you can’t smoke in here?”
“Fuck you. How old are you?”
Fleeced twice in one night! He tries to do the math on what three grand represents as a percent of his criminally low bonus but the numbers turn to gooey blobs in his brain. It occurs to him in general terms that, after taxes and the lawyer’s retainer and the closing costs on the house in Aspen—it occurs to him that the fifteen hundred dollars in front of him may actually matter.
He drops the cigarette and grinds it into the carpet. From the desk drawer he takes a blue pen and begins scrawling a note across one of the bills.
“What are you doing?” the girl asks.
“Settling up, Vanda.”
“Vendela,” she says, and then, more sure, “It’s Lady Vendela. You owe me fifteen large.”
He throws the pen in the drawer next to the Gideons bible and slams it shut.
“Fifteen large,” he says, tucking the bill into her flimsy bustier, “is fifteen thousand. That’s grown-up money. This plus the fifteen small should buy you a nice futon set back at Vassar.”
Tiffany doesn’t go to Vassar, she went to Bucknell, and it sucked. She left. She had to. Since then things haven’t exactly worked out as planned, but it’s only been a year. She’s done a few webisodes, a few auditions, gotten some minor praise (a guy with a clipboard said nice ass).
Lately, though, she’s over the city. She’s especially over skeevy American Psychos who want to short-change her. If this is what it takes to pay rent, screw New York!
Still, she needs the cash—all of it—or Seamus is putting her crap on the curb at midnight. What then? She can’t think of it or she’ll start to cry, although maybe that would be best?
“Sir? I’m sorry, I forgot your name. I’m—it’s just—we had, like, an agreement?”
He ignores her. He’s fussing with his jacket. The sleeve is inside out and he’s gotten tangled up inside it. While she cries he thrashes his arm around like it’s on fire.
“That money means everything to me. My sister is visiting and we’re going to be seriously homeless in, like, hours, unless I pay my landlord. Would you please just listen to me?”
Tiffany’s sobbing now but he won’t turn and face her. She watches, helpless, as he stabs his arm through the sleeve and moves towards the door. It’s triple-locked and he’s swearing at the door and there’s maybe five seconds left before he’s gone, five seconds before she’ll be forced to post the thing on Craigslist she promised herself she wouldn’t.
She wipes mascara from her eyes and picks up her purse from the bed, unzips it. The taser feels cold and heavy in her hand. The dead-bolt goes “click” as she fires two electrified darts into his back.
Tiffany’s sister Crystal has acquired a new weapon, a shoulder-mounted Bazooka-thing called a Proton Neutralizer, and she’s mowing down a vast army of advancing zombies, shearing them in half, their torsos erupting skyward geysers of fluorescent zombie blood. She’s putting her whole body into it, slamming buttons and yanking levers, moving with the game but also, it seems to Tiffany, with the frantic jig that’s pumping through Seamus’s bar.
Tiffany stands planted among a circle of shopping bags, cradling a Guinness she vaguely regrets buying. She’s trying not to stare at Crystal’s nose ring. It’s infected, probably.
“You missed one,” Tiffany says. “Over there.”
“Me needs his brains for later. Is that motor oil?”
“It’s called Guinness, sis.”
Tiffany hands her the glass. Crystal takes a big slug and it leaves her with a chalky mustache like the milk ones they used to make at home forever ago.
“Oh…my…god. That’s revolting.”
“It’s seven dollars is what it is,” she says, checking the bags at her feet.
“Seven dollars. You make that in, like, a millisecond at Morgan Sachs.”
“Morgan Stanley,” Tiffany says into the Guinness.
“Can I have another dollar?”
Tiffany pulls a mashed fistful of cash from her pocket, some of it fluttering to the ground like green leaves after a storm. Receipts scatter. She gathers them up and searches for a single.
“FYI I’m considering drama school,” Crystal says, snatching a ten. “Just like you, before you got into banking. But like, to be an actor you have to be poor first. It’s like, a requirement or something? Rob Pattinson was really, really poor.”
Tiffany begins to organize the bills and count them for the first time since the stairwell where she changed clothes and dumped the costume. She started with sixty fifties but now there are only twenty seven (twenty seven times fifty…math wasn’t her subject.) It’s strange, she thinks, how at first the more she and Crystal spent the bigger the wad got. She’d hand the salesperson a couple fifties and—of course she knew she was getting less back—it would seem like she ended up with more.
Twenty seven times fifty, carry the—she’d just overdone it a little. Maybe she’d spent six hundred? Seamus would understand that. She’d tell him the truth, hey, my kid sister’s in town and we saw this unreal jacket and, HA HA, of course it needed killer shoes and then, HA HA, another pair.
Reflexively, she turns towards the door and sees him, towering over the bouncer, muscles bulging against the soccer jersey, the pint glass looking like a shot in his hand.
“Hey, Tif, remember the Jacobsons?”
Twenty seven times one hundred, but half that. So…
“Hmm? Oh, yeah. Big house on the corner.”
“Yeah. So remember Alex? He used to shit in our yard and eat pine cones? He skipped like two grades and got into Harvard and of course his retarded parents came over to brag about it. Mom listened politely and then she was all quiet, like she was waiting for them to ask about you, but they didn’t! Mom goes, ‘Tiffany’s at Morgan Stanley, in New York, doing superbly.’ They just stared at her like you being a banker was the most insane thing ever. I was like, awkward much? So she said it again, ‘Superbly.’ It was so bizarre. But awesome too.”
It wasn’t her fault! Dammitdammitdammit! She needs to come up with something, some way—
She glances quickly over her shoulder and now he’s moving through bodies pressed four-deep to the bar, parting them like stalks of corn. She thinks he sees her but she’s not sure because one of his eyes is fake or just busted, she’s never asked. It might have been the broke one that saw her.
“Hey, watch the bags for a minute will you?” She slips Crystal another ten and pivots so that when he does see her she’s pretty sure he doesn’t think the bags are hers.
“Hello, love,” he says from somewhere near the ceiling. “Looking deadly, just bloody deadly. Refill on the black stuff? Aye? Tommy, two of the plain!”
They must have been poured for someone else because in a second he’s reaching over heads and pulling the glasses in like refugee children across a border fence.
“Ehm, let’s see—four to midnight? Right under the wire. To settled debts is it?”
And then it hits her. You’re an actress. Just lie.
“About that,” she says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear.
His office downstairs smells like fried clams and gasoline.
“Talk to me, dearie,” Seamus says from behind the desk. “What’s got you so upset?”
“I was ruh-ruh-ruh. Ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh. Ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh-robbed!”
She leans back and digs the cash out of her jeans and begins thumbing through it, making sure the hands are trembling just so.
“I was ruh-ruh-robbed,” she says again. She could use a script, but it’s the emotions that really matter.
“Aye,” he says, pulling a file of papers from a drawer. “It’s a good start. Keep going.”
She’s thinking of what she’ll say next when she sees, next to his desk, an alcove partially concealed by a tattered curtain. There’s a foot hanging off the end of a cot, just one and—
“You were saying, love.”
“We—I was on the corner, waiting for a cab. I’d just gone to the ATM machine. I had it all, everything I owe—owe—owed you.”
She bends forward as if to tie her shoes and lets loose a convulsive sob that rises gradually with little staccato pull-backs and then peaks in a long, plangent wail. She concludes it with soundless mini-sobs, the eyes crammed shut in abject misery, the mouth slack, a wave of drool cresting her lip in its move floor-ward. By any measure of her past work, it’s an extraordinary effort.
He wants to know where, where’d she withdraw the dough? She gathers herself, runs a sleeve across her nose and looks right at him.
“Southeast, Northwest, Southwest or Northeast?”
“The assailant. A minority?”
“Black. Definitely black. He had a pipe, too, or a wrench. And he was on a bi-bi-bi-bi-bicycle.”
Over again she goes! Jesus, where are the cameras? This is some of her best work ever. It’s all coming together in a way it never did for the webisodes. She was always a little too stiff, a little too self-aware, but right now it’s like she’s in some kind of zone and it’s all automatic, the tears and the body language and the breathing—she’s practically hysterical!
And yet she’s not getting the response she expected. He’s not moving, not making any sympathetic gestures. Where’s the Kleenex for god’s sake?
He says, “A good tool for the up-and-coming felon, the bicycle. The wrench strikes me as a little unwieldy, a wee bit of overkill for your everyday snatch-and-grab.”
Tiffany doesn’t know what to say.
“But back up, dearie. What bank had you drawn on?”
“It was a bodega,” she lies. Is there a bodega on that corner? Is there even a bank?
“Korean or Muslim?”
She stares at him, thinking that maybe this isn’t going as well as she hoped.
“Hard workers, don’t you find? I bet the shop was clean, too, wasn’t it? Probably a little Mexican there someplace, sitting on a milk crate washing the veggies, maybe outside, maybe in, the eleventh hour of a twelve hour shift, dreaming of his own bodega some day.”
“I shouldn’t have to tell you this,” he says, running a hand over his shaved head, “because you work at Morgan Stanley. Liquidity, flow of capital, opportunity cost. These are terms you deal with everyday. But I’ll say it anyway. It wasn’t you that got robbed, lassy.”
He shakes his head. “‘Twas the little Mexican, dreaming of his bodega. It’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? You get robbed, don’t pay me, I toss you out—”
“Seamus! I’ve got over a month’s rent here! It’s not nothing!”
“As I was saying, I toss you and your sister out on your arses, but now I’ve got no tenant which means no income which means I’m short the nut to the bank, the late fees add up, compounding my misery, I get depressed, can’t get out of bed, they’re stealing from me at the bar so—you see where this is headed—I decide I have to come in, it’s winter, I slip, bust a hip, bandjaxed for months I am, bed-ridden and missing the bed-pan, more bills, forget the principal I can’t even pay the interest, I lose the house, some genius at some agency downgrades the swap my mortgage was bundled into—you’re with me, I can tell—and five seconds later somebody whispers to the CEO at Morgan Stanley—maybe you know him—they whisper the word, Downgrade, that’s it, that’s all they whisper, it’s that powerful, and before they even get to the hard G he screams Limey!, which queers the deal on lending worldwide, too many deadbeats out there, always were but somehow it’s worse now, they’re Eastern European, or South-Asian, particularly untrustworthy, and wouldn’t you know it, the little Mexican had just put in a loan application for his shiny new bodega. Denied, adios, hasta la vista Dreamo Americano, but hey, the Koreans say, you best veggie man we have in long time.”
She thinks she is going to throw up.
“You’re evicting? In fucking February? You’re fucking serious?”
The tears come hard, but this time they’re real.
“Dearie, dearie, enough of the act. You’re a right awful actress.”
“What if I—” she says miserably. It had been there all along, this thought, latent and awful, a secret she’d been keeping from herself. She could do it, if it got her more time. She could close her eyes and imagine some boy from back home… Jesus, she could really do it.
“What? Speak up. And for feck’s sake, give me that cash.”
She looks down at it, the entirety of her net worth, twenty or so pieces of grey-green paper. She tosses it on his desk. She can do this. It’s just a matter of saying it now, of finding the words that will make him understand but whose ambiguity will allow her to forget them.
Seamus picks up the money, counts it out and puts a thousand in an envelope, wondering if Arsenal can beat the spread, thinking they can and regretting not placing the bet while Clarkey was still here, collecting. Thinking, too, has this gone on long enough? Has the lesson been learned? Strange…usually it was the boys who didn’t pay, who left the faucet running on an upper floor and absconded to points unknown.
Jaysus, look at her! Face like a like a bag of spanners or he’d tell her to hook for it. Feck it. Another few days, who knows, the parents would probably send her a check. And the locksmith charges triple after midnight…
“Agus do focan clab! Listen, there’s more here than I expected, which was, frankly, feckin’ nil. So I’m going against better judgment. Take a week. One feckin’ week. Aye?”
Tiffany pitches forward and sobs quietly in her hands.
He lets her cry for a moment and then says, “Enough. Go on. Go.”
She stands, shoulders heaving, her face veiled in frayed ropes of hair. She stumbles to the door, opens it and is gone.
Seamus kicks the cot.
The body shifts imperceptibly, groans and then, after a beat, begins to snore.
It’s the diabetes!, his sister had said six months ago. It’s his father leaving him so young! It’s the weather in this city! He’s got seasonal depression, dontchaknow.
It was all nonsense, all filler, all set up for Maureen’s punch line…
And how are things there, Seamus? How ya gettin along these days?
What could he have said? That it wasn’t him in the photograph, holding the big check, under the headline, Luck of the Iri$h!? So he told her the story—he’d played his birthday: end of story—and sent her a big chunk, more than he should have knowing where it would go and how quickly.
And still she kept on him about Donny.
You’ll see! Won’t be a minute of trouble! ‘Tis a good age, twenty-three. Remember?
He remembered, certainly. You don’t forget the year you lost an eye.
Have a heart!
What he should have said was simply no, but he’d hesitated and she’d sensed it and so she said Oh, Seamus, in a way that was utterly final, which it was. The kid arrived the next night, already reeking of Brooklyn, a backpack in one hand, a string-less guitar in the other. So he set him up in a one-room dive off Flatbush with the idea he’d work for his rent at the bar. That was the idea, anyway.
Seamus rubs his face hard, checks his watch, picks up the desk phone and dials her number in Detroit. He hangs up after the second ring.
He groans and rolls onto his back.
What a dosser, having a kip when he should be upstairs serving plains!
Seamus kicks the cot again, much harder, and the kid jerks up like a zombie in a horror movie.
“DONNY! YOU PLONKER! Wake the feck up, I got a job for ye!”
“What what what?” he says, rubbing his eyes like a little boy. “Jeeeeez.”
Seamus thinks of backhanding him—just a minor smack to clear the cobwebs—but he knows it’ll get back to Maureen and that’s the last thing he needs. He tosses Donny the envelope and the kid makes a half-assed grab for it but misses.
“Clarkey’s expecting you. Sunnyside. 7th stop on the 7 train.”
Donny leans over and picks up the envelope which is heavier than the one last week. As he does this all the blood in his cranium seems to slosh to one side like punch in a bowl.
“Same as last time. You need the address?”
Donny shakes his head, more in self-regulation than in answer to the question. As he does this he feels the warm vibration of his phone against his thigh. There’s no way he can make it to the train station feeling like he does but if Connie’s in the city she might pick him up and drive him there. He’d like to tell Seamus this—that he’s fucking an older woman who has a car and likes him enough to haul his ass into Queens in the middle of the night—but somehow he thinks Seamus would find a way to disapprove. Plus, it feels good to have a secret.
He sees Connie only in quick flashes as headlights sweep through the mall parking lot and into the front seat of her Cutlass Ciera. She’s wearing an old army jacket and under it a black Zeppelin T-shirt ripped at the neck which nicely exposes the swell of her chest. Between these flashes she disappears almost completely, present only in the faint tip of her cigarette that flares when she inhales.
She says, “I have a surprise for you.”
Donny throws a Baby Ruth wrapper out the window. It’s his third since she picked him up and he wonders about his blood sugar. He’s got his insulin kit with him, but he’d like to let the warmth of this feeling ride. He’s curious about the surprise—she’s had others for him already, a nice watch, concert tickets—but what he wants more than anything is to crawl into the back seat and sleep for ten hours.
Another flash. The pupils of her eyes are two little pin pricks. “You’re crazy,” he says.
He met her on the Internet before he came to New York. She was thinner in the pictures, and younger, thirty at most, but he doesn’t hold it against her. He’d lied too. After sex at his place—there was no privacy at her shared apartment downtown, she said—they agreed to come clean, now that everything was real. So she’d told him she wasn’t a sound engineer in a studio anymore because the studio closed. Since then she and her cousin Brad have been selling crap on eBay out of his house. The story about his uncle and the lottery was true, he’d said, but everything about the record contract was bullshit and, yeah, he didn’t have a ten inch dick, obviously. She’d laughed, a throaty, older-woman-laugh, and put a thick hand on his bare hip. Her nails were chewed to practically nothing. It was his first time and he wondered if she knew.
“Maybe,” she says, and he knows she’s smiling. She’s got gap teeth and he loves them.
“Can I see it?”
The coal goes red-hot and there’s a pause and then he’s enveloped in burnt menthol.
“It’s at Brad’s. Close by.”
He’s never been to Brad’s although she’s asked him there five or six times at least. Brad’s into classic rock too, she’s said, and has some rare Yard Birds 45s he might be willing to part with.
“What about the delivery? Clarkey is expecting me.” He rubs his thigh and is relieved to feel the crinkle of the envelope in his pocket. The bet doesn’t have to be at Clarkey’s until four London time—game time—but still, if he fucks this up…
“Trust me,” she says, and then her tongue is in his mouth, rooting and frantic, poking into every crevice as if searching for a hidden treasure.
On the sidewalk his legs move mechanically, bloodless, like prosthetics. He focuses on the horizontal seams in the frozen ground, keeping his hands ready in case he falls because the Ruth Bars are now fully operational in his bloodstream.
They turn in at a path and climb steps to a cement porch festooned with Christmas lights. There’s a tricycle in the corner and the pink streamers on the handlebars flutter in the freezing wind. Nobody answers after two knocks.
“Brad’s got kids?” he asks, trying to remember if she told him that, but she’s already pushing a key in the lock and stepping inside.
She leads him to the living room where a man stands with his back to them, strumming an electric guitar. He’s wearing headphones connected to an amplifier and his head is bobbing in a steady rhythm. The tinny sound of the strings (Donny recognizes it as the beginning to Skynyrd’s Saturday Night Special) echoes in the room which is empty of furniture except for three bean bags and a television on a makeshift platform of milk crates.
“Brad. Hey, Brad.”
Connie walks over and kicks him in the ass and he spins around and, seeing Donny, mouths to her, “Is this him?”
Brad says, “The man, the myth,” and shakes his hand. “Loved your demo tracks, bud.”
Donny isn’t used to attention like this, the positive kind. At the bar he mostly gets yelled at.
“Thanks,” he says, his eyes fixed on the guitar. “Is that—is that a Strat?”
“Who wants beer?” Connie says from the kitchen. “Donny, beer?”
Brad sits, ignoring her, and cradles the guitar on his lap. Donny pulls up a bean bag. “It happens to be,” Brad whispers, “not just a Stratocaster, but a 1973 Stratocaster, played once by Clapton. If you listen close—shhhh—you can hear it vibrating Layla.” He holds the guitar up to his ear.
Donny stares, dumbfounded at its beauty.
Connie rolls her eyes. “Brad, you’re so full of shit. Donny, Brad’s full of shit.”
“I’m full of shit, she’s right,” Brad says, taking a bottle from her. “Here, have a few licks.”
“Seriously?” He slips the guitar strap over his head and, hearing the soft hum of feedback in the headphones, strums the first chord. It’s a C in epic distortion, a catastrophe in sound waves, a plane crash in full stereo, and he can feel the back of his head tingle as something activates under his skull. He rips through the three songs from his demo tape, stopping only once to pound a drink with Brad, and then he’s on to Steppenwolf, The Doors, The Who, the joint Connie hands him making everything but the music disappear. He rages on the Strat for an hour, maybe more until he can feel his ability crest and then the stew of sugar and dope and alcohol in his blood combined with generalized exhaustion begins to menace his timing. His vision isn’t so good either.
“Fucking sweet, right?” Brad says.
Connie hands Donny a shot of something clear and he downs it automatically.
“Epic,” he says. He pushes himself deeper into the bean bag, leans his head back and closes his eyes.
It’s a game. Every time the HSN host says, “Once in a lifetime,” Donny has to drink.
“Something Point. Sunny Point? Dude, this shit is fucking strong. Can I get…?”
“Breezy Point.” Connie hands him an Oreo. “You said once it was Breezy Point.”
Brad wants to know if she just said Donny’s line yet again.
Donny shakes his head. “Nonononono.” Another drink and he’s puking. It’s that simple.
“I got a friend out there, now that I think of it. You know the street, Don-O?”
He can’t remember. “Marlboro? It’s a cigarette. Jesus, I am stoned like an Iranian slut.”
“Good one. How many fingers? What’s your name?”
“Donald Duck.” He quacks it.
Brad cracks up. “Did she just say my line? I’m drinking. Are you seeing this, you fucking cheaters. Senor Brad is drinking!”
“Pall Mall,” Connie says. “Kent. Doral. Old Gold. Camel.”
“Chesterfield. It’s Chesterfield,” Brad says. “Am I right? Am I?”
“Newport,” Donny says. “Yeah, Newport.”
The HSN host says she owns three.
“Smart, your uncle. Who wants to live in the city? Jesus, the rats there. Connie and I—”
Connie hits him. “I live there. Donny lives there. Seven million people plus us can’t be wrong.”
“His uncle’s got the right idea. No rats in Breezy Point.”
“Seagulls,” Connie says.
“Breezy Point. Is that private, over there? Like you flash an ID to get in or something?”
Donny thinks for a minute because he’s only been there once. It’s a small house, jammed up between its neighbors like bodies in a subway car. “No, it’s regular.”
There’s a noise, like a crying sound, coming from somewhere, he can’t tell, outside maybe.
“Who needs a refill?” Connie says. “Beer? Beer? I’m getting more beer.”
“Three orange whips,” Brad says. “So your uncle. Wife, kids, the whole enchilada?”
Donny shakes his head which is a bad move. The room begins to orbit around him.
“I’m a dog person myself. Cats, I’ll be honest, they scare me. It’s like they’re always plotting. Dogs are dumb. What you see is what you get. Your uncle got dogs?”
“One,” Donny says.
“Probably a little yipper. You said your uncle was a big guy, right? It’s always the big guys with the little yippers. You ever notice that? What kind of dog you say it was?”
“It’s a Rot.”
As shitfaced as he is, he knows he likes Brad and he’s glad Connie brought him here. It occurs to him that this thing he’s got going on with her might be long term. It might go the fucking distance, even, you never know. And if it did, he’d be glad mostly because of Connie, because of how they are together, how natural it is, but also because of Brad. They’d be good friends, he’s certain of it.
“I’ll tell you Don-O, if the big man upstairs smiled on me one day, if my ship came in and I won the goddamn lottery, I’d say sayonara to this rat-infested city, buy a dog and move to the beach.”
“You won’t believe this,” Donny says, wondering why he hadn’t told Brad earlier. “My uncle? He won it last year. Sixteen million, lump sum.”
“You don’t say.”
He wakes with a start and reflexively digs a hand into his jeans. In the dream she’d taken it all but he finds it’s still there, sealed in the envelope.
“Connie? Hey, Connie? Brad?”
No one answers. The room is littered with beer bottles, candy bar wrappers, plates of half-eaten food doubling as ash trays. Fruit flies meander through shafts of light like floating motes of dust.
“Connie,” he says again, but there’s no answer, no time to wait for one, he’s already at the door, fumbling with the lock but it’s unlocked and now he’s locked it and fuck, fuck, fuck, it’s open and Jesus Christ the morning sun hits him like a two-by-four.
He runs so hard to the avenue he has to stop twice, the second time to throw up. He raises an arm and in ten seconds he’s yanking open the door to a yellow cab.
“The borough of Queens, I need to go to the borough of Queens right now.”
“You’re in Queens. Where to?”
He pulls the envelope out of his pocket before he remembers that the address is written on his hand. He reads it to the driver. “Is that clock right? Please tell me that clock is right.”
He closes his eyes and feels the car accelerate and then they must be catching lights because there’s no braking at all, just speed. He closes his eyes.
What a dream. They’d slept on the beach, near Seamus’s house, and when he woke the money was gone, his pocket turned inside out. He went looking for her but there was no one on the beach except for Brad who was building a life-size sand castle of Connie.
“You messed up,” he told Brad. “You got her teeth wrong. Redo it.”
“Don’t you know,” Brad said, looking up at him, “that her teeth fell out? Those are dentures.”
“Hey. Hey, you. We’re here. Wake up.”
Donny opens his eyes. The cab is stopped and someone is tapping on the window.
“Hey. We’re here. Hurry up, I got another fare.”
He hands the driver a twenty, tells him to keep the change, and all he thinks as he opens the door and scrambles out is, I can’t believe I made it to Clarkey’s on time, I can’t believe I didn’t fuck this up.
“Thank you, thank you,” a hunched little man says. He coughs into his fist. “Big hurry.”
“All yours,” Donny says, closing the door behind him.
Romero gives him the address. It’s been years since he rode in a taxi but it’s also been years since he was this sick and there’s no way he could make it to the shop by opening time if he took the subway. The cab will be how much? Ten, maybe twelve he guesses. Not that it matters, because he’s in now, he’s committed, but he watches the meter anyway. The numbers climb so fast he can’t believe it. Every tick is thirty cents and what did the fare start at anyway, five bucks? It’s at ten and they haven’t even hit the bridge. He looks out the window, takes in the repeating parade of auto-repair shops, pawn shops, consignments shops, payday loan boutiques and when he looks back at the meter it says fourteen ten.
He rubs his forehead, figures it’ll be forty to the shop on Columbus, easy. Forty dollars. He can’t help but think how Milagra would have spent those dollars, the dresses she might have bought for Marisella or the new uniform for Hector. It’s only forty dollars but it matters. Every cent matters.
He slaps his thigh, hard, because he knows that if he’d left early last week and gone for the flu shot at the free clinic he wouldn’t be sick right now. In exchange for a re-soling and maybe a shine he’d have his health. So stupid! And who knows if he’s over the fever? It could get worse again, like yesterday, and then what? Pay Pano a day’s wage, as he had yesterday, to have him quit at four? The thought roils his stomach so that he rolls on his side and pulls his knees to his chest, biting softly on the gold cross that hangs from his neck.
They’re in Manhattan when he notices the envelope at the edge of the footwell. He reaches out and plucks it from the grime. When he squeezes it the thickness between his fingers makes his heart race. Very delicately he tears open the envelope and looks inside.
They turn onto Second Avenue where a tour bus is blocking the box. Cabs are pointing in every direction. People are getting out and walking. Romero peers in the envelope again and this time counts the money.
“Sir?” he says? “Sir?”
“We need to go back to Queens. To where I got in, please.”
It’s two hours after opening time when Romero finally makes it to his shop in Manhattan. Across the street he can see his competition is already bustling with business. There’s a line out the door, people holding bags sagging with shoes, and next to them a young man—the Kim’s son, he suspects—is handing out fliers to pedestrians. Because he was curious, and because he closes half an hour before they do, he walked over and took a flier from the boy last week. It read: EZ Shine, Grand Open, 2 shine for price of 1, tell your friend. Open Late! Open Sunday! We deliver! See you soon!
He unlocks the metal roll-up door, gives it a yank and then presses it over his head. He’s not careful, though, and nearly loses his balance on the slick ice coating the sidewalk. He wonders if he has salt for that and remembers that he’d asked Pano to buy some. Inside, there’s no salt so he takes a metal shovel and commences poking at the ice. It’s hard as steel and in a minute he’s in a full sweat. He keeps at it, though, until he’s created a narrow path to the front door. He flips over the “Closed” sign and goes in.
Pano has left the place a mess. There are open cans of polish on the counter and the glue gun is still plugged in which makes Romero shudder. The trash hasn’t been emptied and customer bags, which should be dated in thick black marker and stapled with an order ticket, sit open on the floor behind the counter. Once he has straightened the shop he opens the safe under his work bench and takes out a hundred dollars in small bills for the register. He places the envelope inside, next to the remaining cash, and closes it.
An old man enters, says, “I was looking for Social Security,” and leaves. Two kids ring the bell and run away. A woman pays for a pricey job Pano filled yesterday. The mail comes, bills, coupons.
Romero unpacks an order—black wingtip loafers—and takes a seat at the polishing wheel. He steps on the pedal and the machine shivers then hums to life. What was there to do, after all, but keep the money? He’d made every effort, hadn’t he? They’d circled the block several times. Twice, or maybe just once. But, he thinks, you’d gotten out and stood for a while in the exact spot where you’d found the cab, hoping—it felt like hope, anyway—the young man might be lingering and spot you. He picked up the other shoe. You’re lying, he thinks. You did it to free yourself from guilt. Why hadn’t you done the simplest thing and given the envelope to the driver? If the young man took a receipt he could probably find him and—
He puts the shoe into the wheel, severing the thought. “It’s God’s will,” he says aloud, and the words feel good so he says them again, and again, and again, until the memory of the young man seems to blacken and shrink as if he’d set fire to it.
Quite suddenly he feels much better, not just in his mind but his body, too. He’s no longer sweating and the congestion in his chest seems to have abated. He breathes in deeply and, for the first time in days he is aware of the smell of shoe leather.
He’s snapped from this reverie by the sound of the counter bell being slammed repeatedly.
It’s the woman from earlier. She’s not a regular but it doesn’t matter. He treats every customer the same, as if they were his last.
“Yes, yes. Hello. May I help you?”
“I’m here, hang on,” she says into the phone. “Do you know what these are?” she says, hoisting a new pair of black leather riding boots onto the counter. He’s seen boots like them, but never this nice. He turns one over, examines the imprint on the heel. They’re Italian, not English, which is unusual. The calfskin in his calloused hands is softer, smoother even than an infant’s.
“Beautiful,” he says.
“That one,” she says. “Yes. That one’s just fine. It’s THIS one that your partner fucking destroyed!”
The other boot looks OK until he sees the cauterized hole in the ankle. It’s roughly the shape and size of the nose on the glue gun.
“Laszlo, he’s looking at it. I don’t know. Here, you talk to him. I’m actually dying.”
She gestures with the phone but won’t let him take it. He bends awkwardly over the counter to speak into it and, as he does, she turns her face to the door.
“Hiiiiiiiii. Laszlo Gould here, Ms. Fox’s personal shopper at Bergdorf?”
“Hiiiiii. Quite a situation we have, don’t we?”
“Okeeee. So here’s what you need to know. I’ll speak slowly. Slooooow. Those Boots. Farinelli. Muy nice. They were. Purchased yesterday. By her. From me. New. Nuevo!”
“I see,” Romero says. “How much?”
“With tax, fifteen fifty. On sale from twenty three hundred, so you’re lucky, amigo.”
“Yes,” Romero says, as she pulls the phone back, “Thank you.”
She glares at him. “Well?”
“One moment,” he tells her. “I make it right.”
He unlocks the safe. In addition to the thousand in the envelope he’s got another three hundred in loose bills. He combines them and brings them to the front and counts them in front of her.
“Oh, oh great. You don’t even have it all!”
She does a little pirouette, staring at the ceiling, hands on her hips.
“I suppose the register’s empty then?”
Romero hadn’t thought of that. He opens the register and counts out another hundred, leaving only a few singles behind, and adds it to the stack.
She snatches the bills and begins to count them again. Amazingly, the little troll counted it correctly himself. “I’m coming Monday for the rest,” Jocelyn says.
“If you’re still in business, that is.”
He’s saying something but she can’t bear him any longer so she turns and rushes out of the little hovel still holding the cash in her hand. At the curb a good-looking man, about forty, stands holding a boy in his arms. The boy is a different race, dark as night, and for a moment the image of them in the blinding sun confuses her. Who are they?
Then, in a snap, she recognizes them: her husband and her son.
“Come, come,” she calls to them.
Tobias moves gingerly toward her.
“Back problems again?”
“Hamstring. I must have pulled it at the gym yesterday.”
“Very,” Tobias says, grimacing. “So did he compensate you?”
She holds up the bills which fan out in a light breeze coming off Broadway.
“Of course he did. The boots were ruined.”
“Ruined!” the boy mimics.
“Ruined,” she says, wrinkling her nose at him.
“What do we do with money?” Tobias asks the boy.
“Spend it! Spend it!” the boy shrieks. He reaches out and grabs at the money. Jocelyn flicks her wrist but not before he’s grasped one of the bills.
He looks at his parents warily, afraid he’s done something wrong, but they smile at him. Relieved, he studies the piece of paper. It’s very colorful, mostly green, but when he turns it sideways there’s blue writing at the top.
“Words,” he says, struggling to shape them in his mouth. “Get ffffffff…ffffff…fff.”
“Sound it out,” his mother says. “Sound it out.”
(1) Reader Comment
May 12, 2017
May 12, 2017
April 24, 2017
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