Thursday, July 30, 2009

Writing Time

This was the time each day he'd set aside to write, so here he was sitting dutifully at his desk. Trying to write.

He thought he might look at some notes and vignettes he'd written over the years, see if they gave him any ideas. He was appalled by how terrible they were: heavy-handed, pretentious, desperately unimaginative. They tended towards the morbid – was that because the theme of death is so compelling, or did it indicate some dark fact in his soul? Perhaps a little bit of both: the theme was easy.

Distractions were unbearably tempting. E-mail. The news. He found himself scanning the New York Times home page, ostensibly for story ideas. Who was he kidding?

Time passed quickly, ruthlessly. 11:14. 11:27. 11:38. 12:04. 12:27. At one o'clock the time for writing would be over.

He wanted to write a short story. What makes a good short story? He tried to think of the great ones he'd read. Fitzgerald. The Diamond as Big as the Ritz. Now that's a story. Who can ever write a goddamned story like that?

Still he strained for ideas. It's a good story when something unexpected happens in a normal setting, he thought. Something appears out of the blue and everyone reacts to it with puzzlement, excitement, fear, and finally acceptance as their lives are changed forever. But what is it that appears? A motorcycle, he thought. A motorcycle appears. Where? In someone's living room. No, no. In their garage. What happens next? Someone rides it, trepidatiously at first. But then more confidently. The rider is transformed by his shiny, yellow motorcycle. People around town see him riding it. When they hear its snarling whine, they know he's coming. Then what happens? He gets into an accident and dies.

Terrible, terrible.

He thought about all the things that had happened to him in his life and none of them seemed like stories. It was all just a contiguous stream of more or less interesting events, no rhyme or reason. Is that the story? Is the story that the story's not a story? But how to frame it?

He killed some writing time by tidying up previous writing, changing a word here and there, adding a sentence or two. 12:43.

He felt determined and not entirely hopeless, in spite of the circumstances. On the face of it, there was no reason he could not write. He thought of embarking on a whole new project. An autobiography. The Autobiography of Nobody. Stick to the facts, start at the beginning. There, easy. It was deceptively encouraging to contemplate this massive undertaking. It was the smaller ones that gave him fits.

He reread what little he had written and posted it to his blog. 1:00.

The Autobiography of Someone Else - 13

On this occasion Mom and Dad wanted to take a walk with us. To parade triumphantly around the neighborhood, perhaps; to indicate to others that we were not just a happy family suddenly, but we were happier than them – we were taking a walk. Only the very happiest of happy people take walks.

Mom and Dad walked ahead of us, arms around each other's waists. Julie and I straggled behind. We were always a little bit embarrassed when our parents got along. If we were ill at ease when they were fighting, we were mortified when they embraced. It would have suited us best had they interacted like business partners, cordial and sexless.

I picked up a stick for a walking stick and I whapped it against the bases of mailbox and paper-box posts along the way until Mom fired me a scathing glare.

The Acquisition - 5

After the interviews we went to a dark, anonymous Midtown bar. Chris had martinis; Dave and I drank whisky. We tried to reflect upon the day's peculiar events, their absurdities and implications.

Only a few employees knew about the looming acquisition – the three of us, the CEO, some higher-ups on the West Coast. In the office the following day, everyone sat and tapped away at their computers like normal. Except nothing was normal anymore.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The rain came first in big drops, splatting on the deck outside, so few you could count them. I wondered if there could possibly be more hard rain, just as there had been nearly every other day, it seems, in this stormy summer. And not long after that it came, in dense ropes, growling thunder in the distance. Was this some kind of joke?

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Streak - 43

Evan sat on Thelxie's couch. She put her bag and keys on the coffee table and got on her knees before him, stroking his thighs. She unfastened his belt and looked up at him with a devious smile. Then she undid his button, pulled down his zipper, pulled his pants and boxers to his knees.

"I'm so rude!" she said suddenly, leaning back.

"Why?"

"I... haven't... offered... you... a drink!" she responded in singsong, punctuating each beat by flicking his erection side-to-side.

"Oh! OK."

Thelxie strode into kitchen and disappeared from view. He heard the opening of a cupboard, the dull thud of glass placed on Formica. He sensed a vibration at his right ankle. His phone. The caller ID said the number was unknown. Not quite knowing why, he answered.

"Evan? It's Joe. Where is she?"

"What? Who?"

"The girl."

"Joe who?"

"Joe, Joe, Joe. Joe Maines. From Special Player Relations. From earlier tonight."

"Jesus, OK. What do you want?"

"Evan, where is she? Where is Thelxiepeia?"

"Who? Thel– uh, she's... she's in the kitchen right now," Evan whispered.

"Get out of there immediately."

"What?! Why?"

"That will be made abundantly clear to you, Evan. Time is of the essence."

"Joe, Jesus. It's kind of inconvenient at this very moment."

Thelxie called out from the kitchen. "Evan, what do you want to drink?"

Evan moved the phone away from his mouth. "Whatever you're having!" he said.

"Vodka on the rocks OK?"

"Sure!"

"Is she offering you a drink?" said Joe with some alarm.

"Yes."

"What drink, Evan?"

"Vodka."

"Interesting. It would have to be colorless, then."

"What would be colorless?"

"The poison. Might be polonium... dioxin... compound ten-eighty, maybe." Joe seemed momentarily distracted, as though he were taking notes.

"What makes you think she's poisoning me, for Christ's sake?"

"Evan!" Joe said suddenly, returning his full attention to the call. "Do not, do not, I repeat, do not drink the drink."

"I won't."

"We have some intelligence that this is moo's M.O. Entrapment via flattery and oral sex."

"Moo?" Evan's deflating penis now rested on his naked thigh.

"Moo. M.U. Mujahideen United. The latest and greatest threat to our freedom and our way of life."

"You think this chick I'm with is a terrorist?"

There was a brief pause on the other end of the line.

"We're not sure. Moving forward, we're going to require all player sexual partners to be vetted by SPR. Lisa's consulting with us on this, by the way. So I am asking you to exit the premises without further delay."

"It's a little awkward, Joe."

"I'm sorry to ruin your blowjob, Evan," Joe said earnestly. "Pull up your pants and decline the vodka."

"Good fucking God."

"Make an excuse like you got religion. Like you forgot you had a wife."

"Alright."

"I'm sorry to ruin your orgasm. I really am." Joe really seemed to mean it.

"What about Kyle?"

"Matt got to him in the nick of time. Extricated the potential hazard from his lair."

"Wow. OK."

"Goodbye Evan. We'll brief the team before the game tomorrow."

Evan hung up just as Thelxie walked in with their drinks. He pulled his pants back on and stood up.

"Who was that on the phone?" she asked, a hurt look on her face.

"I'm sorry, Thelxie. You're a nice girl," Evan stammered.

She tilted her head sternly, exasperated in advance with what might come.

"It's just that, with the game tomorrow, and my wife, and my kid..." his voice trailed off.

"Get the fuck out of here."

"Yup. Right."

"You stars think you can get away with anything. Make a fool of women."

Evan nodded glumly, taking his medicine.

"You get up and leave when a woman brings you a drink. Hey, fuck you."

"I get it. Sorry."

"I wanted to fuck Kyle anyway."

"They all do," he muttered as he turned away.

"Fuck you!" Thelxie repeated.

Evan took one last glimpse of her as he closed the door behind him. She stood in the half-light of her foyer in her stocking feet, still holding their two drinks. Trembling with rage.

Friday, July 24, 2009

The Streak - 42

They all sat in silence after the jeremiad. Christiane Amanpour, on the phone from Cairo, attested to the legitimacy of the group and the seriousness of the threat.

"Natasha, there's long been a sentiment among radical Islamists that celebrities, particularly figures in entertainment and sports, are the very embodiment of Western decadence and blasphemy."

Meanwhile, a graphic displayed in the box over the anchor's shoulder: a spotlight shining on a silhouette with a question mark in its head. Below it were the words Celebrities Under Attack – Who's Next?

Kyle turned to Tania. "You'll protect me," he said. She smiled and rested her head on his shoulder, caressing his chest.

"My place is right near here," Thelxie told Evan. "Come over for a drink."

"Looks like we're splitting up," said Kyle. "You, come on over to my place." Tania took him by the arm.

They separated on the street, exchanging goodbyes as cheerily as they could. Evan walked with Thelxie to her building on 34th Street, a venerable Art Deco edifice in a nondescript neighborhood of warehouses and windy lots. The doorman, a dapper and cheery Hispanic man, greeted her warmly.

"Good evening, Miss Thelxie!"

"Hi Carlos!" She giggled self-consciously for having trailed in a guest.

"Hello sir," said Carlos, bowing slightly. Evan nodded back.

When they were in the elevator, Evan felt a moment of heightened reality, provoked by the sudden closeness of the walls, their forced proximity. Then she suddenly gripped him and kissed him on the mouth, and he felt a little foolish, like he'd forgotten this was the next thing they were meant to do. He reciprocated her embrace, caressing her back, her ass. Her mouth opened and she introduced her tongue, gasping, sighing. They stopped at the fifth floor with a bing.



Thursday, July 23, 2009

The Streak - 41

It was getting up near closing time. Each couple had engaged in small talk about death and terrorism; the group had twice responded to Kyle's alarm and gone, one at a time, on discreet coke-snorting excursions to the rest rooms. A contented lull had descended upon the group when Evan noticed a breaking news graphic on the TV. He asked the bartender to shut off the Stones and turn up the volume.

"... a videotaped statement by the leader of the group. British authorities have verified the authenticity of the recording, although they won't say whether the group itself was previously known to them as a terrorist organization. Again, if you're just joining us, a terrorist organization by the name of – let me make sure I get this right – the United Mujahideen in Jihad Against the Decadent West–"

"Natasha?"

"Yes Christiane?"

"Mu–"

"We have CNN Chief International Correspondent Christiane Amanpour on the phone with us–"

"I'm sorry, Mu–"

"I'm sorry Christiane, go ahead."

"Mujahideen United in Jihad Against the Decadent West."

"That's right. Thank you, Christiane–"

"Mu–"

"We will be – sorry?"

"Mujahideen United for short. Mujahideen United."

"Mujahideen United. Got it. Thanks, Christiane. And I want to get your reaction after we play this video. OK, this video comes to us from Scotland Yard, where authorities have assured us of its authenticity. This is the leader of United, of Mujahideen United, Aatif al-Ghauth. Let's watch."

A choppy, grainy video settled into definition, picturing an imperious-seeming Arab man sitting on a large pillow in a room bedecked with tapestries and urns. He wore a white keffiyeh and matching robe; a long, salt-and-pepper beard; and Buddy Holly glasses. He raised his finger in an admonishing gesture and spoke in faintly British-sounding English.

"This is a message to the devils of the West," he said. "It is true. We have killed your Mick Jagger."

He clasped his hands in his lap and stared fixedly at the camera for a moment, savoring the impact of his words.

"And we will kill more of your false idols, insha'Allah. Your most beloved role-players of Hollywood film, for example! And the exalted personages of your real television, of American Survivor, of Eight Plus Eight is Enough, of The Impossible Race." He raised his finger again, angrily this time. "Of Help Me Get Out Because I Am a Celebrity! Your infamous cooks, with their temples to gluttony in the most sinful of cities of sin. Your drivers of racing cars. Of racing motorbikes. Your models of sexually provocative shoes. Your overgrown boys who amass their fortunes in games of balls. We will strike in ways cunning and many. We will not abandon our jihad until you" – here he pointed directly at the camera – "abandon your idolatry."

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Streak - 40

The antiseptic blast of cocaine provided the desired effect and for a few minutes Kyle and Evan chattered and drank mechanically. Soon two beautiful, dark-haired women in tight, black dresses walked up to the bar, their faces flush and mouths fixed in the odd smirk that, it seemed to Evan, women always bore when they approached him like this.

"Hi guys!" the first one said, suggestively stretching out the syllable in "guys." Guuyyys.

"Hello ladies!" Kyle responded.

"I'm Thelxie," she said, offering a dainty handshake.

"I know you're sexy, but what's your name?" said Kyle.

Thelxie giggled. "Thelxie, Thelxie, Thelxie!"

"Say it three times fast." The women laughed; Evan rolled his eyes.

"Sexy Thelxie over here," said Kyle. "And what's your name? Sexy Sadie?"

Evan watched Kyle operate, feeling, as usual, admiration and disgust in equal measure. Kyle was made for this. He could say absolutely anything to girls. He had the mojo; it was a thing to witness. He could tell a girl he'd just shit his pants and she'd find a way to think it was adorable and sexy. Course, it didn't hurt he was a major leaguer.

"I'm Tania," the other said, offering her hand as well. "Wow, I can't believe we're meeting you guys!"

"No," said Kyle. "I can't believe we're meeting you ladies!" He smiled radiantly at his own charm. Everybody laughed again. Jeezus, thought Evan.

"Sorry about the game today," said Thelxie. She tilted her head and made the most extravagantly pitiable sad-puppy expression possible, her mouth an inverted U.

"And the game yesterday," added Tania. "And, you know," she added, her voice trailing off, "all the other games... and everything."

Kyle and Evan tensed up and shifted on their barstools. Just as Kyle could say anything to women, it had to be noted: they could say anything back.

"Thanks, girls," said Evan tersely. "We're trying to put it all behind us now." He rattled the ice in his glass by way of illustration.

"By the way, what's everybody drinking?" said Kyle, happy for the subject to change.

"Stoli Vanilla and Diet Coke," said Thelxie.

"Green apple martini," said Tania.

"That will match your eyes," said Kyle. With that remark he lay claim to her; doing so more out of expediency than preference. Truth is, they both were stunning. The women responded instinctively to Kyle's maneuver, subtly repositioning themselves in proximity to their designated men.

"You're a little quiet, Evan," Thelxie said. Her voice had a honeyed timbre, a little lower than you would expect, and a lulling musicality. Evan took his last sip of whisky and let the rocks crash on his nose.

"I'll perk up," he said.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rick's Last Day

The conference call had gone on for forty-five minutes or so. Rick sat in his office, swiveling slightly, holding the phone lazily an inch or two from his ear. Marty and Joanne were prattling on.

"Great idea, Marty. I'll take that as an action item."

"Thanks Jo. And when the RFP is ready for review, let's circulate it to everyone on the call."

"Will do."

"I'd like to get the dev team in on the ground floor. Maybe we can schedule an offsite with them?"

"I can reach out to Adesh and set up a date and location," Amy volunteered.

Rick didn't think that was such a good idea.

"Hey, everyone–"

"That's great, Amy," said Joanne.

"Hey, hey, hello, hey–"

"Can you get the testing department to attend as well?" Marty added.

No, no.

"Hey, hey! Hold on a second. This is Rick."

"I sure can try!" Amy said with exaggerated alacrity. Everybody chuckled.

"Guys! Listen to me! It's Rick!"

"Seriously, I will loop in Hui's team. Good idea, Marty."

"Hey, yo! Time out! Time out!"

"Great, great. Moving right along," said Marty with a happy sigh.

Why are they ignoring me? thought Rick. Sure, he was a troublemaker. He knew they saw him as the grouchy naysayer, the one with the bad attitude. But how many times had he saved their asses as the voice of reason? He had a right to be heard.

Rick was on his feet now, pressing the receiver into the side of his head.

"Hey! Listen! Hey! Listen! Listen!" he barked, trembling. "Listen to me!"

"Jo, any final thoughts? Anybody have any questions for Jo? Or for me?"

Rick supposed his tone of voice had caused Marty and the others to pretend they didn't hear him. He took a breath to compose himself and tried a different angle.

"Marty, if I may. I do have a question. If I could jus–"

"No one? No one?"

Rick felt like the floor was gone below him and the sky had fallen on his head. He really was a ghost. Somehow, no one heard him anymore. He placed the phone down on his desk and, still shaking, composed a brief resignation e-mail:

I know you all think I'm a fucking asshole. Well, maybe I am. But I'm not a fucking moron. You will all regret not listening to me, and that's a promise. Go have your stupid, fucking offsite meeting and waste everybody's time, and this company's dwindling money. I worked so hard on this project that it breaks my heart to leave. But apparently I have to. I can't stay and watch it get fucked up like this.

Best,

Rick


Rick put his boss, Marty, on the to line and cc'd all nine participants in the call. He added Adesh and Hui and some notables from sales, and clicked "Send." Then he packed his few belongings in his backpack: the picture of his dog, the Mets pennant, the coffee mugs. He walked out forever without even bothering to hang up the phone, which still burbled with the voices on the call:

"You know what, we'd better run this past Rick," declared Joanne.

"Absolutely, Jo. Rick, you're so good at keeping us in check. What do you think?"

Silence.

"Rick? Rick, you with us?"

"Earth to Rick," said Joanne. People laughed a little.

"Last call for Rick," said Marty. "OK, No Rick."

"I bet he has us on mute," said Joanne.

"I bet you're right," said Marty. "I'll shoot him an e-mail."

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Autobiography of Someone Else - 12

Suddenly the agony would end and there would be cookies. There would be ice cream. Mom and Dad would reappear, sometimes hand in hand, half-dead grievances buried in a shallow grave. The married couple reintroduced to the world. I was fool enough to fall for it.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Streak - 39

Evan and Kyle abandoned the table for the bar, having played umpteen games and more or less split them, angle of incidence and angle of reflection, gaining nothing and losing nothing but hours clocked in the vain struggle to reconcile intoxication with reality.

Kyle checked the time on his phone.

"OK, what's the point of that?"

"What?"

"You're checking to see what time the alarm's gonna go off."

"So?"

"What's the point of an alarm if you're watching the time?"

"Fuck off. Two more minutes," Kyle said contentedly, putting the phone back in his pocket.

"It's supposed to be like, a nice surprise."

Kyle only sighed. A few moments passed.

I was raised by a toothless, bearded hag
I was schooled with a strap right across my back


"Two minutes? Really?" Evan said hopefully.

"Really. Cheers."

They clinked glasses and drank in silence for a while.

But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!
But it's all right, I'm Jumpin' Jack Flash it's a gas, gas, gas!

The news played silently on the TV at the far end of the bar. The crawl said:

SCOTLAND YARD WON'T CONFIRM TERRORISM LINK TO JAGGER DEATH

"It wasn't masturbation. It was terrorism," Evan remarked dully.

"What?"

Evan nodded in the direction of the screen.

"They're saying terrorism. Not masturbation."

Kyle eyed the television disappointedly. "Pfff. Same difference."

Dah dah dah dah dadedah dah dah dah dah dah!

"Giddyup!" said Evan brightly.

"Go time!"

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Review

If you're reading this, what is it you're reading, really? This is the question Frank Allen explores in his latest short story, "The Review." Mr. Allen has produced a groundbreaking, jarring work of experimental fiction: a story that consists entirely of a review of the piece in question. No, your eyes don't deceive you. If you're reading this review, you are reading the work itself.

Where to begin? The story meanders somewhat in the second paragraph, as Mr. Allen searches for a foothold. Soon he finds it, paradoxically, by actually describing his peculiar literary struggle. In one particularly brilliant passage, he describes the brilliance of describing the current passage as brilliant. When in doubt, he seems to say, write about doubt. In other words: words can always, and only, be redeemed by other words.

"The Review" opens with a bang – a blunt declaration of the theme, the salient question at the heart of the work, followed by an ambitious claim to the scope and unprecedented nature of this literary exploit. One may fault Mr. Allen for immodesty – a charge that he later cleverly defuses by making of himself – but he backs up his boasts, especially in a stunningly acrobatic passage in the middle of the piece in which he effectively justifies his own immodesty by pointing out that he has just accused himself of it.

This is a story without characters – or is it? In fact, the sole protagonist is the work itself, struggling towards definition, passing through layers of meaning. It might even be said that the progress of the text from the first word to the last forms a story arc of sorts. Perhaps "arc" is the wrong word. Spiral? Moebius strip? No matter its shape, this journey is not for fainthearted readers. Do you need a reference point? Well, here it is: your reference point. And through it all, of course, there is an omniscient narrator: the reviewer. Me.

Vexing questions of "success" or "failure" tend to plague literature like "The Review." What is the author's intent? And if there is one, is it even valid? Perhaps the entire enterprise is solipsistic, tiresomely postmodern, nauseatingly self-referential. The tedious and predictable work of a pretentious – and evidently self-loathing – artist. There, it deserved to be said. But is the work any better, or worse, for candidly raising these criticisms? Mr. Allen is nothing if not fleet-footed: by posing the question that was just posed, he renders it moot; he transcends it. "The Review" is among those rare works that defy criticism; the author always seems to be a step ahead not only of the reader but of the critic. And this critic would be remiss in his duties if he did not give the author full credit for his accomplishment.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Streak - 38

The series of games proceeded in a haze, an odyssey of maddening frustrations and ephemeral glories: scratches, near misses, lucky shots and good ones, too. The dew on the surface of the whisky glass, the mirror on the wall. Kyle placing his bridge hand on the table, the bottom of his World Series ring clunking on the slate. Why do you wear your ring out? It's a chick magnet. Looks more like a dude magnet to me. Fuck you, No, fuck you, faggot, etc., etc. Rack 'em, break 'em.

Kyle went to considerable lengths to describe his recent investment in an obscure Chinese company that manufactured the majority of the T-shaped plastic bands that couple price tags to items of clothing for retail sale.

"You mean the security tags?"

"No, the little plastic tags. I mean the bands. The plastic things that connect the tags."

"And you're describing them as T-shaped."

"They have a T at each end. So you can't pull them out."

"Is that what they're called? T-shaped bands? T-bands?"

"I don't think so."

"I want to know what term someone might use for them who's in the industry. Like, 'Mr. Chow, I would like to order five hundred thousand T-bands from your factory. Please.'"

"Don't be racist."

"What's racist?"

"Mr. Chow."

"Mr. Chow is racist? He's a Chinese guy. His name is Mr. Chow. If he was American he'd be Mr. Smith."

"Chow mein over here. Ching chang chong."

"You're racist for thinking that's racist."

"You're gay for continuing this conversation. Take your shot already."

"Good point. So what are the T-tags called?"

"Bands."

"Bands."

"I don't know," Kyle grumbled. "Grommets. Something."

"Not grommets!"

"No wait, not grommets. That's the fucking tip of a shoelace."

"It isn't even that, you moron. The tip of a shoelace is a fucking aglet."

"Aglet, Jesus. Grommet, aglet, motherfucker."

"You're not even right about being wrong. When you know you're wrong, you're still wrong. You're double wrong."

"You're a double cocksucker."

"Your shot."

"OK, I don't know what they're fucking called. They probably don't even have a name. It's the one thing in the world, doesn't need to have a name."

"You invested seventy-five thousand dollars in a company and you don't know the name of the thing they make?"

"The fucking things are everywhere. They're so important, no one ever thinks about them. Have you ever thought about them? There's no need."

"I still am not sure I know what you're talking about."

"When you buy a shirt," Kyle continued exasperatedly.

"Nice shot."

"Thanks. When you buy a shirt."

"Julie buys my shirts."

"When your fucking personal assistant who you wish you were banging buys your shirts."

"Go on."

"She most likely has to cut this fucking thing to remove the price tag. I would describe it as a thin, grayish plastic band."

"T-shaped."

"On either end T-shaped!"

"Why on either end?" Evan drank deeply from his watery scotch.

"Have you been listening to a single word? So it doesn't fall out of the shirt."

Evan nodded dully. He felt his energy flagging. He wished for more cocaine, but the alarm wasn't due for another God knows how long. The buoyant airiness within his chest was deflating slowly, he could feel it. Eventually the world would rush back in with all its sorrows.

"I think I know the fucking things you're talking about."

"T-shaped."

"They're the things you have to cut off with a pair of scissors," Evan stated hollowly.

"Yes. Yes! Yes!"

"You're left with one half between your fingers as the other flutters to the floor."

"Often becoming trapped in the fibers of a deep-shag carpet."

"Never to be seen again."

"Those fucking things!" Kyle explained, jabbing his finger for emphasis. "Those fucking things!"

"You have invested in. Substantially."

Kyle eyed his angle on the 8 and crouched into position for the ultimate shot.

"I figure, fuck it, everybody needs clothes."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Underground

I scanned the stern faces of the people on the train. A busty Hispanic woman with a baby stroller, big hoop earrings and glittery letters across her chest. A business type, older, white, reading his meticulously folded Times. A family of sweating tourists, thin mom, fat dad; surly, Goth daughter in tow. A matronly black woman stood near me. When I met her wary eyes I saw in a flash that I was on the uptown 2, not the downtown. I got off at the next stop.

I didn't know where I was, but it didn't matter. All I had to do was either go under the tracks or over them to get to the train that went the other way. A splintery wall encroached into the middle of the platform, bearing obscure chalk symbols and warning signs, blocking the station name from view. I peered into a crack between the plywood sheets to find an arrangement of mysterious machinery – what looked like a motorized wheelbarrow, a box with tubes emerging from the top, a giant spool of cable – in the gray, dusty dark along the familiar wall.

I walked into the passageway that led to exits and connecting trains. A man played the didgeridoo at the near end while the dry rattle of a bucket drum echoed down the tile walls from farther down. Their accidental music, mournful and urgent, played to the involuntary audience in the middle.

I climbed some stairs. I descended some, too. I wanted to believe that if I melted into the stream of cheerless, purposeful travelers, then I, too, would have somewhere to go. We moved across mezzanines, down a ramp, through nondescript connecting chambers where Sheetrock and cinder blocks lay unattended in the shadows. The density of the crowd around me remained constant but the specific people seemed to evaporate at every turn, to be replaced by slightly different men and women wearing slightly different clothes.

I stopped at a candy stand and scrutinized it for a minute, reorienting myself in its happy, multicolored map. Blues and greens for mint and reds for cinnamon or berry; yellows, browns and oranges for chocolate. The Indian man behind the counter stared out impassively, resolutely still. I selected a metallic-blue pack of gum. Wintermint. On the front it said JUST BRUSHED CLEAN FEELING below the brand and MORE FABULOUS CLEAN FEELING! above it.

"Dollar twenty-five," said the man.

I only had a single dollar bill in my wallet and some change in my pocket. I managed to make the sum with a dime, a nickel and ten pennies.

"No penny, no penny!"

"It's all I have."

"No penny, no penny, no penny!" he insisted.

I defiantly placed my money on the change tray. He beheld it with disgust.

"Take, take!" he said, with a dismissive, backhanded wave. "Take penny!" He picked up a penny and replaced it on my side of the tray with an emphatic snap.

I swept the ten pennies into my palm under the candyman's sour gaze. And then I walked away, feeling the heat of his disapproval on my neck.

In a daze, I rejoined a stream of passengers heading down some stairs. Just then a train rumbled into the station and I was swept up by the sudden, frenzied rush. By the time I got down to the platform there were people jostling all around me, straining toward the open doors. The crowd parted grudgingly for the exiting passengers and then poured into the train.

Stand clear of the closing doors!

"Which way is this going?" I asked a woman whose shoulder was pressed into my chest.

"Uptown," she said.

I turned and elbowed my way out quickly, aggressively, muttering apologies all the way. Just as the doors were closing, I braced myself between them, holding them open for another fraction of a second with my forearms. I emerged onto the platform as they snapped shut behind me. As the train began to roll away, its squealing wheels played the first three notes of "Somewhere" from "West Side Story": There's a place.

There's a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us
Somewhere


I exited at the other end of the platform this time, determined to find another train or at the very least some turnstiles and a set of stairs into the light of day. But this path was more labyrinthine than the first. I kept moving forward, climbing all the stairs I saw and entering each passageway, hoping to stumble upon an unambiguous sign: Exit, Downtown, Transfer. But soon I felt I was going around in circles; everything looked the same: disarray, rubble, suspended repairs and reconstruction. An hour passed, maybe, or maybe two, or five – it was hard to tell in the cloistered unreality underground.

I came upon a fork. A safety orange arrow, painted on a plywood board, pointed to the right. I stood and contemplated it as shadowy figures passed on either side of me and turned unhesitatingly down the prescribed path.

"There are two ways you can go! Two!"

I looked around, petrified. A homeless woman sat by the wall to my left, her earthly belongings packed into garbage bags piled in a heap beside her.

"Uh, excuse me, which way should I go?"

"You wanna be a slave?"

"I'm sorry?"

"You wanna be free or you wanna be a slave?"

"Uh, I... I wanna be free."

"Look at the color of my skin," she said. "My people were slaves."

I nodded patiently. She pointed a curled, arthritic finger at me.

"But you is a slave to money."

"Yeah. I know. I'm sorry. But do you know how to get out of here?"

"'Sgonna be your downfall, yes it is," she continued obliviously, nodding to herself, her voice gaining a gospel lilt. "Praise Jesus, thass right. Thass the truth now, ain't it. Uh-huh."

"I know. I'm sorry. I just want to get out of here. Out of this station. Do you know which way to go?"

"Aw honey, you gots to decide fo' yaself now!" She erupted into a mad cackle that quickly deteriorated into an emphysemic cough. When it abated she spoke again, clapping to some unheard rhythm.

"Freedom or slave, baby, freedom or slave. Gots to make a choice now."

"I choose freedom," I said, hoping this would spur more concrete direction.

She stopped clapping and looked straight into my eyes. "Why then the only way out is in, honey. The only way up is down." She pointed to the floor.

"Thank you, ma'am," I said uncertainly.

I walked left, disobeying the sign, hoping this was the counterintuitive trick the woman was proposing, the one to solve the riddle. The narrow path, walled by gypsum and lit by construction lamps, meandered unpromisingly. But I was determined to see its end. At least this was different. This was something new.

I came upon an opening to a public space, people walking past in both directions. Maybe this is it, I thought. Maybe this is the way out. I came out to find the old homeless woman to my right this time. A jolt of dread shot through me. I'd emerged from where I'd entered.

The woman looked at me and smiled. "You didn't hear what I done told you, now," she admonished. "I ain't talkin' about no left or right! No right or wrong." Her eyes widened and she pursed her lips, watching me bear the impact of her words. "I'm talkin' about up or down. You wanna be free? You gots to go down, baby." Again, she pointed downward. "Way on down, now."

"Down?"

"Thass right. Get on down, now. Get."

I nodded solemnly and walked past her, retracing my original steps. My heart pounded and my head burned for what I was about to do. I descended some stairs, and then more stairs, and found myself back on the platform for the uptown 2. I walked to the front and crept gingerly along the edge. I examined the space between the rails, the bed of damp dirt and debris: cigarette butts and coffee cups, a plastic fork with missing tines. A double-A battery, a fragment of a pencil and a lollipop. A fat rat scurried under the third rail. A sign said: Do not enter or cross tracks. I peered into the tunnel. A red light burned bright in the blackness; farther in, there was a green one, too. Though I didn't want to enter, there was nowhere else to go.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Streak - 37

Kyle and Evan traded the bullet and ordered more drinks from the waitress. Evan rattled the ice in his empty glass and took a cube in his mouth, sucking off its water as it melted on his tongue. He was thirsty. He'd had a lot to drink but he wasn't drunk. Where did all the whisky go? Not to his head, apparently.

"Put me out of my misery," said Kyle.

Evan regained his stance behind the cue ball and knocked the 5 in the corner. He never tried to think too much about the leave. Seemed to him that when you play for the leave, you get a good one a third of the time and a bad one a third of the time. The other third, you're so worried that you miss the first shot anyway. Better to make your shot. This is how he played, anyway. We're not talking Minnesota Fats.

The 8 ball was perched on the lip of another corner pocket and the cue ball was around the middle of the table. Evan chalked up as he queasily examined the formation. He hated, hated, hated this shot. Looks like a five-year-old can make it but the risk of a humiliating scratch is huge. This shot would require English. Why do they call it that? Was it discovered by Sir Isaac Newton? Evan raised his stick a little and aimed for the lower part of the cue ball. How does this work? How can this not fail? He knew there was a trick to reverse English, just as there was a trick to a masse or jump shot; how was he going to remember which was which? How would the ball not fly into the air and knock Kyle square in the middle of his forehead, requiring seven stitches and embarrassing explanations to the press? How does anything work? If you think about it. How do we effect controlled changes in our environment based on our actions? Won't it go wrong? How does a man strike something with a stick and obtain what he wants, after all? How do we know how to use a tool? And who said we could use it, anyway? In a flash, Evan wanted to regress to prehistoric innocence, before the first fire was sparked from struck flints, before the first spear was buried into the heart of a startled caribou, before words corrupted the world. Back then, you didn't have to know what to do.

Evan shot. The cue ball departed properly, miraculously moving forward and spinning backward. But halfway down its path, friction prevailed. Its spin slowed and reversed, and it began to roll along like normal. It tapped the 8 ball into the pocket and, naturally, its momentum carried it in as well.

"God fucking dammit Jesus Christ."

"Rack 'em," said Kyle.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

The Streak - 36

The pool hall was playing the Rolling Stones, just like everyone these days. The bewildering death of Mick Jagger had left an ill-defined void in the collective spirit. Everyone knew they were supposed to mourn, but what, exactly? He played the girlish boy, the decadent fop, the satyr and the sprite; but who was the player? It was the non-death of an untragic figure, a kind of spiriting away. Could anyone fix him in their mind's eye? Like a star, he faded upon contemplation. If death meant nothing, this was the most meaningful death of all.

I met a gin-soaked, bar-room queen in Memphis
She tried to take me upstairs for a ride
She had to heave me right across her shoulder
'Cause I just can't seem to drink you off my mind


Evan went on a bit of a run. The 1, the 6, the 7. The 3. He was in that magic zone, drunk enough to loosen up but not too drunk to shoot. The ecstasy seemed to buttress his confidence. It occurred to him in a moment that he felt the opposite of depressed. He felt impressed, he thought to himself, thinking it was funny. Impressing himself. Ha. So be it. His chest felt inflated, as with helium; he thought he'd better be careful not to drift up into the slow-rotating ceiling fan like Charlie Bucket.

I bet your mama was a tent show queen
And all her boyfriends were sweet sixteen
I'm no schoolboy but I know what I like
You should have heard me just around midnight


His hands were sweating but he didn't worry. His run would end but he didn't worry. We're all gonna die but he didn't worry. Evan decided to play a little game: Can I feel bad? He thought about the most scarring events of childhood: the ignominy of bullies' playground taunts, haunting him back home to mama with tears and snot upon his face. He could not feel bad. He thought about his churlish teenage insolence toward his father, never redeemed nor forgiven even as the victim of it died of cancer; he could not feel bad. He thought about the lies he'd told his wife. He thought about the lies he'd told his son. He could not feel bad. He thought about the people who'd perished in that plane, how it must have felt to pitch brusquely to the side and arc down, g-forces lifting up their guts and the Bronx's patchwork of car washes, strip clubs and dilapidated brownstones rising from below; he did not feel bad but, rather, was embraced by a glow of pure elation. He thought about his double, out there doing God-knows-what in his name, and did not feel bad but felt a curious mixture of love and pity. He thought about the streak.

"You know what I think?" Kyle made a fist and shook it from his wrist five times in quick succession, the universal gesture for mock masturbation.

Evan had the 5 lined up but he rose up from the table to peer at Kyle. He tried to imagine what he might be getting at.

"I'm not sure what you're getting at."

"Mick."

"Mick? Jagger?"

Kyle repeated his obscene and derisive pantomime.

"You think Mick Jagger is a jerkoff?"

"No, no," Kyle said. He repeated the gesture once again, this time pointedly slowly, to convey irritation at Evan's dimwittedness. Then he lifted his fist above his head, which he tilted down onto his shoulder, and stuck his tongue out, playing dead.

Evan stared mutely at this morbid tableau.

"You think Mick Jagger killed himself and he's a jerkoff?"

Kyle released his pose and sighed heavily. "No, I think he did that thing. That hanging yourself, jerking off thing. That kids do in the suburbs. Auto-oxification something."

"Autoerotic asphyxiation."

Kyle placed one finger on the tip of his nose and pointed the other at Evan. Just then, his phone chirped out its cheery coke alarm from a nearby table.

"You're an idiot savant, my friend," said Evan. "An idiot, but a savant."

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Autobiography of Someone Else - 11

I lay on my bed and stared up at the galaxy. My dark blue ceiling was covered with the constellations: Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Orion, Gemini, Leo, Cancer and Cassiopeia. They glowed a pale green at night but somehow seemed more real when daylight filled the room and each star was revealed as muted and imprecise. My dad had painted them, painstakingly, with a National Geographic map for reference. My dad painted the stars.

This is what I did when my parents fought. I stared at the fake stars. I thought of the planets surrounding them, populated by howling beasts or, more often, some enlightened race: a world where death does not exist, with its glittering city of levitating streets and telepathic streams; everyone allied in the promotion of truth. I traced a route there in my imaginary spaceship.

My mother was a fury. Sometimes, suddenly, she would become extravagantly angry. Scream bursts of bitter, cutting invective between stifled sobs, pointing, trembling. The extreme amplitude of her rage, out of proportion to the here and now, made the true source of it seem far away in space and time. If she was yelling at my dad she was not his wife; she was every wife, punishing every husband who had ever lived for his selfishness, his profligacy, his laziness. If she was yelling at us she was not our mother; she was every mother, raging at every child ever born for its whining, its stubbornness, its ungratefulness, and not least the ravages it had committed upon her body. For its very existence, really. When you were on the receiving end of my mother's anger you got the feeling you were paying the price for some ancient and irredeemable sin. The sin of being, perhaps. The universe's fall at the moment of creation. It was a pure, abstract wrath; this had the curious effect of making it both more commanding and less personal.

I now heard her muffled shouts punctuated by the smashing of dishes on the kitchen floor. In spite of her enormous temper, it was unusual for her to break things. I somehow knew I had to exit my room and bear witness to this. My dad was pacing in the dining room, haltingly trying to reason with her, hands up in a gesture of pleading. My sister sat on the couch in the living room, body stiff, arms folded. Instinctively I sat with her.

"I'm scared," I said.

"Don't worry," she said. "Everything's going to be OK."

Friday, July 03, 2009

We walked up and down Monaco after morning practice, through narrow walkways, hilly streets. You could take elevators from sidewalk to sidewalk, as though the city were a giant building with no roof. We drank white beer; its slightly sickly taste is the taste of summer.

It's a pretty city, but forlorn, inert, insulated in space and time; dominated by the dreary, functional architecture of the sixties and seventies. A city with the means to change but no desire.

The Acquisition - 4

The day was punctuated by lunch in the conference room: scrupulously distributed white boxes containing a gourmet-style sandwich, a bag of kettle-fried chips, packets of deli mustard and mayonnaise, a dainty cookie. Meals assembled by gloved hands in a clean room. There was the requisite, tense small talk: Where are you guys staying in town? When do you fly back?

My last interview was with Vincent Shuck, a tall Dutchman with a cloudy accent. He conducted the entire interview beside the whiteboard of a conference room, dry-erase marker in hand. He asked me exactly one question: "How would you like your technology to be used?" I acquitted myself with a vaguely meaningful answer that I'm not sure he listened to.

Vincent turned to the board and drew elaborate diagrams and flowcharts. This product group, that product. Arrows from one node to another. From several nodes to one. The consulting services group. A Venn diagram. Synergistic opportunities. Vertical markets. Words inside boxes, words in a bullet-pointed list. Sales account managers. ROI. On the few occasions when he turned to me he fixed his gaze on my third eye. I nodded judiciously and strategically punctuated his discourse with affirmations: Uh huh. Yup. I see. Right. After forty minutes he capped his marker, apparently satisfied.

The Autobiography of Someone Else - 10

I rode home from Harry's and left my bike out on the lawn. I walked in and Mom and Dad were at it again. They'd been fighting for weeks now, every day or every other day. Today my dad was sitting on the ottoman beside my mother, who lay prone on the couch with her arm draped on her forehead, wilted, like someone suddenly stricken; like a fainted, dainty lady in a play.

My father spoke softly, with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped as though in prayer. My mother stared blankly back, blinking, her eyes raw from crying. You could imagine he was tending to her, like a doctor or a parent; you could imagine he was quietly destroying her, a devious courtier delivering some unfathomable insult to his detested queen. You could imagine he would kill her. Though they were at odds, there was an air of conspiracy between them: two adults in complex, intimate congress over a bewildering and irresolvable question. The rest of the world had fallen away and there remained only them and their precious problem. Was this not love?

Thursday, July 02, 2009

To the public library: past the street vendors with the American flag bandannas and pashmina scarves and the grow creatures in the water, a man offering his hand to a dog tied to a tree, a construction worker knocking mud out of his treads. In the men's room stall on a shelf above the toilet paper there's a lighter that's decorated with little red dice.

I sat at one of the long tables and spied the nearest power outlet, where another table met the wall. The coveted seats beside it were occupied by two women; I could look over one's shoulder at her screen. She was video instant messaging with someone. Her correspondent's face appeared dark and grainy in the frame, with the corner of a picture hanging on the wall behind her. She seemed young, attractive, optimistic. A friend on a student exchange program in Barcelona. I imagined that the woman here was similar, that the picture she transmitted to her friend was almost like a mirror, of a like-minded young woman, hair down instead of up, out in the world, practicing the cello, contemplating a career in molecular biology or law.

The woman across from her got up to leave and so I went over to take the open seat and use the available outlet. As I rounded the table I glanced at the instant messaging woman and saw that she was badly disfigured. Half of her face was swollen and dark red; not from an injury, it seemed, but from some longstanding deformity. The moment I looked at her she looked at me, somewhat mournfully, almost apologetically; it seemed that she was very accustomed to meeting people's gaze this way. I looked away, not brusquely but as normally as I could, trying not to betray reaction. I sat down and handed her my laptop plug. She smiled weakly as she took it, and fumblingly plugged it in. It was very, very hard not to stare at her face, not even to glance at it again, to scratch that prurient itch.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Streak - 35

"I'm going to pretend not to be pissed about that," said Evan after snorting from the bullet. "Your shot."

Kyle circled the table, peering at the balls with a stalker's keen eye. But it was plain that something else was on his mind.

"Are we going to talk about it?" he suddenly asked.

"It?"

"You know it. You know what it means."

"Aren't we talking about it now?"

"I always thought it was superstitious to talk about," Kyle admitted.

"You mean bad luck to talk about. You're superstitious; it's bad luck."

"That's what I mean. You know what I fucking mean."

"We spent all this time not talking about it. That fucking didn't get us anywhere. Now maybe we talk about it."

"Won't that make it worse?"

"How could it get any worse, man?"

"It could go on forever. That's worse."

"True," Evan admitted. "Forever is worse." He took a big sip of whisky. It tasted of smoke and sweat and seawater.

Kyle leaned over the table and set up a shot on the 14. "Forever is worse than now," he declared, and smacked his shot into a corner pocket.

"So when's it gonna end?"

"Fuck if I know. Tomorrow. It ends tomorrow."

"Who do we face? Jimenez? Becker?"

Kyle lined up his next shot. "Who the fuck cares who we face? We face Nolan Ryan."

"We face Tom Seaver."

"We face Sandy Koufax come back from the dead," Kyle said, dropping the 10 in the side.

"Sandy Koufax isn't dead."

"Are you sure?"

"Yeah. I think so. I'm pretty sure."

"How did we manage to live in a world where Mick Jagger's dead and Sandy Koufax is alive?"

"We got bigger problems," said Evan. "Tomorrow we face Royals ace Jesus Christ."

"That's right! They're starting Christ against us."

"What's the scouting report on Jesus?"

"Good fastball."

"Good breaking ball."

"Nasty slider."

"Lousy changeup, though."

Kyle's angle shot on the 12 missed woefully, knocking in the 4 instead.

"Easy to steal on," Evan continued. "Gullible. Trusting. Easily deceived."

"We'll beat him."

"We'll beat Jesus Christ."

"We're like David and Jesus is like Goliath."

"We'll slay the mighty Jesus and be heroes."

Evan and Kyle laughed hard, but not for long.

"Is it my turn?"

"Your turn."