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Sunday, January 17, 2016

=Fake Girls=

1. Graves, bad luck, and fat men

I won the lottery. That’s what I say when I’m at a party and someone asks me what I do for a living. And while they’re still processing that, I quickly excuse myself and head for the toilet. The only people I can't get rid of using this strategy are real estate agents and lawyers. They're always waiting outside the door no matter how long I take in there. I've amassed quite a collection of expensive-looking business cards this way. Most everyone else is only too happy to let me move on. Most people, unlucky themselves, don’t like lucky people. Besides most people are really only waiting for you to stop moving your mouth so they can start talking about themselves and telling them you won the lottery tends to stop them dead in their tracks. What are they going to say after that? After an initial and insincere expression of delight at your good fortune, you can see the resentment working in their eyes, the murderous rage. The question forming: Why him and not me? There's no acceptable good answer to this question except to fess up and admit, "Well to be honest, not me either." 

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not passing judgment. I’m just as self-absorbed and egocentric as anyone. And who can blame any of us? We're all in this together and all alone at the same time. Everyone’s a mystery to themselves and one lifetime just isn’t enough to figure it all out. I imagine that everyone dies asking more or less the same question: “What the hell was all that about?”

Maybe that’s why we try to keep living as long as possible.

What do I really do for a living? This is what I do: I sit on a park bench and wait for someone to come sit next to me. It could be anyone: a jealous spouse, a suspicious business partner, a blackmail victim, a dirty politician (as opposed to what other kind?), the parent of a missing child, the lover of a missing person—or the loved one who wants to stay missing.

I sit on a park bench and wait for them to come.
   
And they do.  You see, I provide a very valuable service.

What I do is solve problems.

Business is usually brisk. There is never a shortage of problems to go around.

Screwed to the back of the bench I’m sitting on right now is a little gold plaque dedicated to the memory of Edith and Ronald Kriefhoffen by their “loving family.” All the benches in this part of the park have these little plaques on them dedicated to someone or other. I’m sitting on a tombstone, basically, with no body underneath it. I look around at all these memorial benches. I could be sitting in an empty graveyard. What I’m reminded of is how desperately we all want to matter, how fiercely we all want to be remembered. What I’m reminded of is that we don’t really matter at all, how we won’t really be remembered by anyone.

It’s sad, when you think about all it entails, to be a human being.

In my line of work, I do a lot of waiting. When you do a lot of waiting, you have a lot of time to think. It’s an occupational hazard, like getting black lung is for a miner.

While I wait for today’s client, I feed the pigeons from a bag of leftover popcorn I bought for breakfast at Port Authority. Desperate and unashamed, the birds swarm around me like an impossible number of ex-wives. As I throw the stale kernels at them, I can only admire their enthusiastic celebration of voracious, opportunistic greed. Usually it’s ten, fifteen years of life down the crapper before you get to see this side of the people in your life.

I know what you’re thinking: misogynist, misanthrope, malcontent, mental case. But I don’t have enough interest or passion left for any emotional investment as strong as that.

I don’t hate human beings. Honestly, I don’t. I just don’t think I’ve ever actually met one.

#     #     #

Once a few years back, when I still thought of myself as quite the badass, I got into kind of a nasty situation that’s not all that unusual in my line of work. The circumstances aren’t really important. Suffice it to say, it was one of those affairs where you end up on your knees at three a.m. in an empty warehouse somewhere downtown, the barrel of a .32 automatic shoved rudely into your mouth, some really excited guy screaming something at you in Spanish. Everything is a mess, someone off to the side is going through your wallet, a pal of yours is sobbing for his mother, puke is everywhere, and you aren’t sure whether that’s blood or urine soaking the front of your pants. It’s times like these when you’re surprised, and later on, thoroughly appalled, to discover just what you’ll do to stay alive. That’s what this story, all stories, really, are about in the end. The kinds of things we do, day by day, to stay alive—even when there doesn’t really seem to be much point to life at all.             

#     #     #

He’s big the guy who slides in next to me on the park bench this afternoon. He’s more than big, he’s obese, morbidly so, the kind of guy whose legs are foreshortened by all the fat hanging over his waistband. His stubby, meaty thighs are spread out to make room for that prodigious sack of a belly, plopped down there like he’s expecting the birth of twin hippos, and he has that anatomically unique-to-fat men pouch of hard blubber under his exhausted belt that seems to make any kind of genitalia impossible. Not that I'm trying very hard to imagine his genitalia, mind you. It's but a theoretical consideration. Anyway, I’m about to tell this bloated wheezing bastard he has the wrong bench, that I’m waiting for someone and could he please go have his coronary on one of the other benches; he could even find one that doesn’t have a plaque on it yet, and claim it for all eternity. I’m thinking, This just can’t be the guy I’m waiting to see when from out of his wet fat mouth pop the magic words, “You Mr. Molloy?”

He sounded much fitter, much thinner on the phone. He also described himself as “of average build.” You’d think this was a blind date the way he misled me. I’m not Molloy, by the way, that’s not my real name, it’s just the alias I’m using this afternoon, but I’m the guy he thinks I am, alright.

I nod. “Mr. Knott?”

“Who,” he huffs, “else?”

He’s sweating, and not lightly, from the exertion of walking here from wherever it is he came from, but it can’t be any more than seventy-five degrees out. It’s only the third day of summer and I’m thinking this guy isn’t going to survive July. He swipes a handkerchief over his hammy red face, its features swallowed up by fat, distorted, smoothed over, so that he also has that generic fat man look. I really don’t mean to go on about it, I have nothing against the weight-challenged, in fact, I’m none too slim myself, but the amount of reality he’s displacing for his existence, it seems excessive, it seems significant, it seems downright selfish. I’m taking it personally. He’s late, too, I should add.

“You’re late,” I say.

He checks the time, stretching his short chubby arm as far as it will go, which isn’t far. But unless he’s got some kind of inconceivably complicated opthamological condition going on, he’s not going to be able to see his watch no matter how hard he squints. It’s on his other wrist. He grunts.

He says, “Subway fire,” as if he’s just saying that.

He takes out a pack of Camels, holds them towards me, his arm barely reaching across his prodigiously endowed chest. It’s like he’s wrapped up in a straitjacket of meat. It must be horrible, I think, to be such a prisoner of yourself.

“Smoke?”

I hold up a hand. “No thanks. I don’t smoke."

I try to say this as non-judgmentally as I can, even though, according to the anti-smoking lobby, anyway, armed with that cigarette between his fingers, he’s practically as dangerous as any mass-murderer.
            
He lights up, hacks horribly, all phlegmy and loose, as if his lungs were in the ongoing process of liquefying, and then he blows some toxic bit of tissue from his mouth onto the pathway that I try not to look at, afraid that it might actually get up and walk away all by itself. After a while, he settles into a nice steady wheeze, like a failing air conditioner.

“Asthma,” he explains, as if anyone asked.

I’m thinking, Look at all the ways we try to kill ourselves, little by little, every day. Yes, it’s true, we’ll do almost anything to stay alive; and yet, at the same time, we’re killing ourselves all the while. It’s so unbelievably fucked-up, like those mothers who love their kids so much they slowly poison them and then rush them to the emergency room again and again, (as if there were any other type of mother, right?  Ha ha.) As I sit there thinking these thoughts, I’m noting the sweat rings under the fat guy’s short-sleeved yellow shirt, a salty ring for each day; like gauging the age of a tree, you can calculate how long since it's been laundered. I’m noting the braided gold chain, circa 1977, around his thick, pink, rare roast-beef of a neck, the pudgy little hands, carefully shaved and immaculately manicured.

“I represent a certain gentleman,” he begins his spiel, violently swabbing his face with a handkerchief as if he were trying to wipe it off completely. He takes a gulp of air and continues his spiel by saying, “And this certain gentleman wants a certain matter looked into.”

I don’t say anything. This is all par for the course. The world is full of certain gentlemen who want certain matters looked into. If it weren’t, I’d be working at Radio Shack hustling double-A batteries or living under a cardboard box down on Sixth Avenue.  I wait patiently for the fat man to get around to the point.

He's going around it alright. The question is, will he ever get to it.

“The matter in question deals with a certain missing person.”

“Did a certain gentleman call the police?” I offer.

“The police won’t look for this missing person.”

“I see.” This is not surprising, of course. “Why not?”

“Only a few people know this person is missing. And the certain gentleman I represent is among them.”

“And I’m supposed to find out what happened to this person?”

“Well,” the fat man says, “there’s more to it than that.”

“Of course. How much more?”

“We want to know who she is.”

“I don’t understand. You want me to find a missing person and you don’t know who she is?” I make a comical show of looking around in the leafy trees as if I were seeking out a hidden camera. “Is this some kind of joke?”

“I assure you it’s no joke. There’s nothing funny about this at all. In fact, its all very, very serious. The certain gentleman I represent met this missing person on the computer. They conducted a rather –erm, well, intense, might be a good word for it—online affair. And then one day, poof, she’s gone.”

“You mean they never met in real life?”

“I think you’ve hit the proverbial bulls-eye, Mr. Molloy.”

“I’d like to meet this client of yours. Hear all this from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.”

The fat man briefly shakes his head. His waddle keeps shuddering an impressively long while after his head returns to the stationary position.

“I’m afraid that’s not possible. The certain gentleman I represent wishes to remain without a name, unknown, you know…” He looks momentarily stumped, like a fish suddenly deprived of its element.

“Anonymous,” I say.

“Huh? Say again?”

“Anonymous,” I repeat. “He wishes to remain anonymous. That’s the word I think you’re looking for.”

Blank looks from both of us, but I’m guessing for entirely different reasons.

“Forget it,” I say.

What I mean is to forget all of it, the whole thing, but the fat man thinks I just mean skip what I’d just said. So he goes on, explaining further, and he doesn’t say anything he hasn’t already said, which isn’t much.

“This certain gentleman wants nothing for himself. If the lady in question does exist and has broken things off of her own free will, he understands. He just wants to make sure she’s okay. This certain gentleman is just doing his chivalrous duty, you might say. He believes in justice, in love, in those kinds of things.”

The fat man gets points, in my book anyway, for saying all this with a reasonably straight face. I guess it’s a reasonably straight face, unless any sardonic expression that might otherwise mar his impassive features have been totally obliterated by lard.

“Look Mr. Knott,” I say, using what I’m certain is the fake name he gave me two days ago on a payphone near Columbus Circle. “This all sounds a little antic for my diet. I don’t like to work through third-parties. I’ve had some bad experiences with that sort of thing in the past. It tends to bring out the worse in people. At worst, what you’re describing has all the earmarks of invasion of privacy and harassment. At best, it sounds like a wild goose chase. Let me give you some free advice. More than likely, your employer has been had by someone pretending to be someone they aren’t. There is probably no such person as the woman he seeks.”

“Mr. Molloy,” he starts, and I know immediately that this exchange of “misters” signals in reality a degeneration in the general cordiality of our conversation, “What is a real person anyway? The certain gentleman who I represent has fallen in love with her. Doesn’t that make her real enough? What is the difference between invasion of privacy and the art of seduction? If this certain gentleman is concerned for her well-being, is it really harassment?”

I wasn’t exactly in the mood for a philosophical discussion on the nature of being, ethics, or erotic love, so I say, “I’m sorry Mr. Knott. I’m not interested.”

I get up. The fat man says, “You’re making a terrible mistake. I assure you.”

I shrug, “I’ve made plenty of those. It’s no big deal. I’ll no doubt survive to make others. But thanks all the same for the opportunity to make an ass of myself. I'll pass this time. Have a good day.”

“You’ll be hearing from me, Mr. Molloy.”

He says this last thing to my back, as I’m walking away, purposely heading out of the park in the direction opposite from wherever it is I’m really heading, which is probably the nearest gym, the fat man having temporarily inspired me to finally start that cardioexercise regimen I’ve been putting off for the last twenty-five years.  I’m fairly certain Mr. Knott meant me to understand what he’d just said as both a promise and a threat, which, when you stop and think about it, are often the only kinds of promises you can ever really count on anyone keeping.


Coming soon: 
Chapter 2: Fastballs, fake girls, & mornings-after

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