3. Porn, aliases, and guilty consciences…
“Oh Christ,” I mutter, cringing like a dog expecting the rolled-up paper, just like I always do whenever the phone rings, “what the hell can it be now?”
It’s four in the afternoon and I’m trying to get some sleep because I’m driving the taxi tonight. I’ve had to pick up some part-time lately since business has taken a bit of a downturn.
Okay, “a bit of a downturn” isn’t exactly accurate. Let me be perfectly frank: Business has ground to something just sounding like the aftermath of a screeching halt. Even that's a euphemism. Let me speak plainly. I have no business. Basically, I’m doing nothing. I’m minding my own business, that’s what I’m doing, and no one, including me, wants to be doing that.
What’s happening to me lately is what tends to happen to people in my line of work when the last guy you worked for ends up disappearing off the face of the earth. Well, that’s not entirely accurate either. It’s even worse than that. Lately, the guy’s been turning up all over the place, but only one piece at a time. The last I heard they’d found a hand in Albany, a partial torso in a landfill out on Staten Island. They tell me a kneecap made it all the way to San Francisco. At this rate, his family should have most of him back to celebrate Hanukkah.
Under the circumstances, you’d think I’d have jumped at the fat man’s offer. You’d think that, but you’d be thinking wrong. You lose a lot of confidence in yourself when a client winds up scattered across the country like Osiris. Everyone else loses a lot of confidence in you, too. You try to learn from your mistakes and that case, as I recall, also began with a certain gentleman who could not be named. I swore to myself never again and here it was, again already.
It seemed like fate, alright. And just like everyone else, I was putting off fate as long as possible.
So here I am sitting on the couch, trying to remember who I am, where I am, why I am, head pounding, hung-over, afraid to stand up too fast, reluctant to stand up at all. And meanwhile the phone is still ringing. It’s saying, pick me up pick me up pick me up.
I usually leave the damn thing unplugged and let the answering machine take the aggravation. Yes, the bad news comes all the same, it sits there waiting for you to plug the phone back in. Bad news will walk through the sun from the other side of the universe to make its way to you. But I figure you might as well keep it waiting as long as possible. You never know, the world really may end tomorrow. I know I’d be kicking myself all the way to the apocalypse if it did and I ended up doing anything that I could have put off for eternity.
Anyway, I like to deal with bad news only when I’m good and ready, and on my own terms. That’s too say, when I’m not out of Zoloft and I’ve properly armed myself with a couple of six-packs or when I’m otherwise depressed enough to be reminded once again why it’s not altogether a bad thing that senility awaits us, that we all have that appointment coming up with the Grim Reaper, that life doesn’t go on forever.
True, too, that even though I forgot to unplug it, I don’t have to answer the phone just because it’s ringing. I could still let the machine pick it up. But knowing for sure that message is there, waiting for me, blink, blink, blinking, that’s like Chinese water torture, that’ll drive me nuts. So I pick up the phone just to get it over with, just to shut it up, getting ready to pretend my name is Malone if it’s a bill collector, and Riley if it’s practically anyone else.
“Yeah,” I say, like someone peering around a dark corner, all set to pretend I’m not surprised no matter what, “Who is it?”
I’ve gotten to my feet to do this, of course, crossed the small cluttered room to my desk, a.k.a a badly-scarred card table where the phone sits, along with a laptop, an old goose-neck desk lamp with a broken goose-neck, various unpaid bills, dried up pens, paper cups from Starbucks, Dunkin Donuts, Taco Bell, etc., and I’ve plopped down in a rolling office chair with a bum wheel rescued from a curb somewhere. It’s sunny out: I can see every stain on the shades, every mummified fly-corpse on the window-sill. I’m still in my boxers, you get the grim picture.
No preamble, no intro, Johnny Nomad starts right in: “What the hell did you turn Mr. Flynn down for? He told me you turned him down. What the hell did you do that for? What the hell were you thinking?”
I’ve already figured out he’s talking about Mr. Knott since that’s the only person I’ve turned down in the last thirty-six hours and, thinking ahead to a long night in the taxi, I’m already beginning to wonder if maybe I shouldn’t have turned him down, after all. I idly wonder if Mr. Flynn is the fat man’s real name, although I doubt it is, anymore than Mr. Knott was.
“Calm down,” I tell Johnny, “for crissakes calm down.”
“I will not calm down,” he says, “I cannot calm down,” he then repeats what he just said in a rapidly escalating tone up the scale to sheer hysteria, as if determined to prove it to himself. “I will not calm down,” he shrieks in an embarrassingly unmanly way, “I can’t I can’t I can’t!”
“Okay, you’ve convinced me. You can’t and won’t calm down. I concede the point. So don’t. Just tell me what the problem is. Tell me who Flynn is, or Knott, or whatever the hell his name is and why I shouldn’t have turned him down.”
“Meet me,” Johnny sniffs, “meet me at the One World Café. Everything is so fucked up.”
I say, “Okay, give me a half-hour. I’ve got to put my pants on.” I take a look around on the couch, the floor, the top of the fridge. “Christ, better give me the whole hour. I’ve got to find my pants.”
And when I hang up the phone I’m getting that wriggling- snakes-in-a-sack feeling that you get in the pit of your stomach when the last bus out of a town invaded by zombies pulls away from the depot and you really wish you were on it.
# # #
Waiting for a light to change on the corner of 23rd and Broadway, I suddenly have a feeling of déjà vu: three years ago, maybe, I was standing on this very same street corner. It was during one of those sudden summer rain storms, Biblical in intensity, that catch everyone by surprise, except for those Jamaican guys who appear out of nowhere just in a nick of time to sell you a defective umbrella for five dollars each. I had retreated into the doorway of a Gap to wait out the storm and watched the lightning reach out through the sky with bony lethal fingers, feeling between the tops of the skyscrapers.
Although the lightning was miles away, with each clap of thunder, I saw everyone flinch, and, I admit, me right along with them. Some atavistic instinct was at play no doubt, a genetic memory from the caveman days, but I couldn’t help feeling it was more than that, as if at the core of our very being each of us felt with the terror of superstitious certainty that of all the places the lightning could fall, of all the everywheres it could possibly strike, that lightning was God reaching down out of heaven to finger us out in particular. To strike us dead.
And that’s when it hit me:
What the hell is it that we all feel so guilty about, anyway?
# # #
Three naked Japanese women are shooting each other with plastic water pistols on Johnny Nomad’s computer when I arrive at the internet café. Oblivious to everyone around him, Johnny doesn’t hear me coming, totally absorbed as he is in the internet porn sites he’s cruising. He jumps about six inches when I tap his shoulder. These days we all jump about six inches when we feel a tap on the shoulder.
“Hey,” I say.
“Shit,” he says. “You scared me half to death.”
Johnny Nomad isn’t Johnny Nomad’s real name, of course. That’s only one of his screen names, but I met him online and that name seems more real than whatever his real name would be if he were ever careless enough to trust me with his real name. I suspect that when we first met online, still unsure if I were a psycho or a cop, he gave me an alias, and never bothered to correct himself. I know that’s what I did with regard to him. What you’re talking about here is extreme mutual paranoia. You’re also talking about taking sensible precautions. You’re talking about two people who’ve shared everything but bodily fluids and birth certificates, and we’ve probably come close to sharing the former on a lonely virtual night or two, and still we don’t feel comfortable giving each other our real names.
I point at the computer, all those wet Japanese cuties. “What’s with the water pistols?”
He shrugs. “Foreigners. They think we do crap like that over here, I guess. Lord knows where they get the idea. Ratking hacked me the password to the three-hundred-seventy-five sites linked to this host. Something for everyone. A whole site devoted to women in high-heels crushing bugs and rodents. Wanna see?”
I grab his wrist as his fingers start to fly over the keyboard. “No thanks. Maybe another time. Anyway, shouldn’t you be looking at this crap at home? You know, on your personal computer?”
Johnny Nomad shrugs. “Can’t. Computer is on the fritz. A virus, I guess.”
Johnny doesn’t look too good. He never looks too good, but today he’s looking much worse than usual. He looks like a guy who’s been awake in the same clothes too many days for no good reason. He looks like he’s been living under a volcano, or in the waiting room of an oncologist waiting for the bad news. He looks like he’s lost a lot of something important, blood or air, something that you need to stay alive: money, perhaps.
I suggest we take a walk; and that’s what we do, heading up Lexington Avenue, north, I think. Up the street we walk, going nowhere, because I find people are more likely to tell you the truth if they feel they are walking away from it at the same time. Johnny, I notice, has picked up a limp from somewhere, but I can’t tell if he’s faking it or not, and I don’t really have the time, patience, or interest to find out.
“What’s this all about?” I ask.
The story goes something like this: the Red Sox were having an unbelievable winning streak and Johnny kept betting against them. They’d be down by five runs in the ninth, two out, nobody up, and some weak grounder to second would go through someone’s legs, a broken bat single would follow, a mix-up at first, a bad call, a raccoon loose in left field, a homerun, and before you knew it, the Sox would win by three. Anyway, Johnny’s regular online bookie couldn’t carry his losses any longer so Johnny went surfing for another bookie. But that's only where the story took the proverbial turn for the worse. After that, it was online poker to recoup the losses from the baseball betting; then fantasy sports to recoup the losses from the online poker. The game kept changing but Johnny's luck didn't. Enter Flynn, a.k.a. to me as Mr. Knott, real identity, unknown, and this guy was like sugar on a turd, making the shit go down all the easier. The only thing you can predict with any accuracy came to pass. Johnny’s losing streak continued, got worse, and soon became a way of life. He was living in a house of cards, all of them bad, and the rent was way overdue. Now the big wolf himself, Flynn, a.k.a Knott, had finally, inevitably, come around to blow it down.
“I figured I’d be able to scam this guy out of the payment. You know, like I usually do. I mean, it’s the web, right? For all I knew, Flynn could be some wiseass thirteen-year-old computer geek. I figured, what’s the worst that can happen, a few hundred spam emails for penile enlargement?”
“Jesus,” I say, “why did you keep betting against the Red Sox in the first place?”
Johnny looks stricken. “They have to lose sometime, don’t they? Everyone does.”
“That’s the theory. What’s this business he wants taken care of, anyway? Someone missing. Do you know anything about it?”
“No,” Johnny says. “He just said he needed someone good and discrete. He also said something about morally ambiguous. I think he used the word unscrupulous.”
“And I’m the first person that came to mind?”
Johnny shrugs. “Sorry dude. Listen, I admit I fucked up big time. He promises he’ll discharge the debt if you take this on. Write it off as a finder's fee. I'm in the headhunter business now. And I heard you could use the work. I figured I could be doing you a favor. Listen, all you have to do is look into it: no strings attached. I’m into him for major money, man. Major money. I’m worried, I’ll admit it. Frankly, this guy doesn’t mess around. He sent me video files of the kind of work he does. And they don’t look altered.” Johnny shuddered. “People end up, you know, disassembled.”
I stare out into what is supposed to be the distance. But I’m really looking at an ad for a new musical about the Jonestown Massacre pasted to the side of a cross-town bus. The bus is loading a line of desultory looking passengers at the curb a few feet away. They look like they're boarding for an open grave. Last week, this same bus was advertising a "riotous new comedy" about Josef Stalin, "I Love Papa! Show Tunes & Show Trials." Critics hailed it as Gulagarious. It just goes to prove. If you only wait long enough, everything becomes a joke.
I say, “What the hell are you so scared of? I’ve seen Flynn, or Knott, or whatever the hell his name is. Just walk quickly up an incline. He’ll have an embolism. The guy needs a moving ramp to step up to a urinal.”
Johnny shakes his head. He looks very sad, very worried, very old, and suddenly very wise. Or maybe it's only wizened.
“No,” he says, sadly. “You got him all wrong. He’s fast. Unbelievably fast. I’m telling you, man, he’s cobra-fast. He’s, shit, I’m pretty sure he’s not even human.”
“Yeah well. There’s a lot of that going around nowadays.”
“So you’ll take the job. Tell me you’ll take the job.”
“I’ll see what I can do.”
But I already know what I’m going to do. I mean, all considered, what choice do I really have?
Coming soon: Ecclesiastes, old people, and the 2 rules of life...