6. Bad dreams, paranoid delusions, and breakfast in hell…
It was all a dream. That’s what’s supposed to come after seeing the kind of thing I just got done seeing, but it’s not a dream, because I haven’t woken up; in fact, I can’t get to sleep. I finally made it home sometime just before dawn; the guy who car-jacked me in front of Lincoln Center drove me back in my own cab and lord only knows where it is now, but I’m not worrying about that for the time being.
I stand in the dim hallway outside my apartment and put my key in the lock and I’m expecting the police to be there already, waiting for me when I open the door, but they aren’t, not yet, anyway.
I take a quick look around the place; it’s the kind of fleeting look you take when you don't really want to see anything, like when you’ve already committed to a restaurant, seated, halfway through the fricassee, and you don’t want to see that cockroach scurrying across the wall. It’s the kind of fleeting, sidewise glance that says, I’m happy living alone, that lump in my armpit is just a swollen gland, no love is perfect, money isn’t everything.
That’s the kind of cursory see-no-evil look I’m taking now.
The place isn’t tossed, that’s for sure. It’s not ransacked. As crappy and disorganized as it looks, you can tell that much. But was that stack of books by the ratty armchair really toppled? That desk drawer, I don’t remember it being partially opened. The favorites list on my computer screen, I never leave that pulled down, do I? Even the cushions on the chairs don’t seem quite right somehow. Maybe it’s just my imagination. It’s hard to say. Until something goes very wrong, how much do we really notice of the places we spend our lives in, anyway?
Even taking me out of the equation, the apartment has the general feeling of a place that is being observed. I go to pull down all the shades but, of course, all the shades are already pulled down. I realize it’s even worse than I thought. The sense of being watched is coming not from the windows, but from inside the apartment; that is, if it’s coming from anywhere at all.
Paranoia. I have a feeling it’s going to be with me from now on like a newly developed sixth sense.
I’m making a silent vow: no matter what, I’m not saying a single word out loud about anything in this place. For all I know, the tape recorders are running, the bugs planted, the authorities banking that I’ll incriminate myself. I’m silently warning myself: If you stub your toe, don’t even say ‘ouch’.
But after that, as for a plan of action, I’m lost. What would be the sensible thing to do? Think, I’m thinking, think. If this were a movie, and who's to say it isn't, what would the audience be thinking the main character should do, instead of all the dumb irrational things he always ends up doing?
The answer, of course, is obvious. Right now is the time to call the police. Right now, if I’m ever going to call them at all. Any delay whatsoever and it’s going to be too late; any dilly-dallying, and I’ll end up looking guilty as hell. Any hesitation whatsoever and the very first question the police will ask me when they eventually come around—and they will eventually come around—will be, Why did you wait to call the police?
But what cop is going to believe the story I have to tell them?
To put your faith in the police, that’s always a risky proposition even under the best of circumstances. And these ain't them.
When they finally show up, you are always the first person they suspect.
Cops are just like the rest of us. And that's the scariest thought of all. Lazy, in a word, that's what they are. They don’t want to work any harder than you or I do. I mean, if you can get away with loafing on the job, don’t you? If you can ignore that file, transfer that call, stall that project…well, in short, why should the cops be any different? Why not just arrest the guy right at hand? Why go looking for trouble? If you really think that just because a lack of conscientiousness can send an innocent man to prison for twenty years is any more likely to get a cop off his ass to do his job the right way, then you, my friend, don’t know diddly-do-squat about human nature.
Anyway, there’s always the slim chance that I won’t be connected with any of this. So why complicate matters? Why go charging right into the lion's den? Why not wait? Be patient? See what develops? Etc. Etc. The upshot of all this treacherous rationalization is predictable: I do not pick up the phone. I do not dial 911.
Right from the start, I start doing everything wrong.
Asked to define his life and teaching, a famous Zen master replied, One mistake after another.
That’s my life in a nutshell.
One mistake after another. But without the enlightenment at the end.
What I do instead of calling the police is this: I go to the closet and take down a Nike sneaker box marked “Old Receipts” and remove a bottle from my Xanax stash. I shake out three or four 1 milligram pills, dry swallow them like the good panic disorder graduate I am, and sit down on the not-quite-right couch and wait for them to make me not care enough about anything to fall asleep for a few hours.
I need a discontinuity of consciousness really badly right about now.
I need an oasis of oblivion.
Two hours later, I’m improbably still awake. It’s possible I’ve fallen asleep in the meantime, but if so, I don’t remember. I don’t remember sleeping and I don’t remember waking up. I’m still sitting on the couch, trying to remind myself not to say anything. I’m wondering if the Xanax I took somehow lost it’s potency sitting in the closet for however long it’s been sitting in the closet. I’m wondering if they were even Xanax at all.
I’m waiting for a reaction from the pills, the police, the fat man, Mr. Franklin, something. But nothing happens.
I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, I can’t sleep anyway so I might as well wake up the rest of the way. I’m thinking, Let’s go get some coffee.
Two blocks away there’s a twenty-four-hour coffee shop and that’s where I go now, sitting in a booth by the window, my hands only shaking when I force myself to stop compulsively shredding my paper napkin.
I’m thinking, if I call the police now their second question will be asked all in italics and full of pretend disbelief and it will sound something like this, And then you went where? To a coffee shop?
The waitress arrives and I ask her for some coffee.
Then I ask for some eggs and toast.
Then I ask for some potatoes, some ham.
“Give me a side of pancakes too,” I say.
For some reason, I’m suddenly, inexplicably, extremely hungry. Hungry isn't the word for it. I'm ravenous. It's like I'm eating for two or three people, like I've got a tapeworm inside me.
Maybe I’m just imagining it, but right before the waitress walks off to take the order at the next table, she gives me this little, You don't fool me. You’re a murderer and I know it look.
I blink and the look is gone.
I blink again. She's gone.
I drain the first cup of coffee. A different waitress sleepwalks passed my table, pours me another, and I drink that one, and half a third one, too, before I slow down. I force myself to stop pulling apart what’s left of my napkin for the fifteenth time. I wish I had a cigarette and I don’t even smoke.
I’m keeping an eye on a TV that is sitting on top of an empty refrigerated case of what would probably be pie wedges if there were anything in there at all. I’m keeping my other eye on the door but since it’s the only door in the place I have no idea what I’m going to do if someone comes through it who means me harm. I don’t see my face on the television, or the face of Trina T. I don’t see the beach where she was killed. I don’t see anything, really, except a row of boxes representing the weather for the next five days and there’s a big bright smiling sun wearing dark glasses in each and every one.
Good news, the weather man chirps, there's plenty of sunshine ahead!
Clanking my breakfast down in front of me, the waitress gives me this look that says, So you think you got away with it, don’t you? I wouldn't bet the house on it, buster.
What she says out loud is, “Can I possibly get you anything else?”
I say, “No thanks.”
I look down at the assembled plates and I’m not exactly certain, but I’m pretty sure what I’m looking at is not quite what I ordered, but I’ve decided not to make a fuss about it. People in my position, they don’t start arguments about the toast.
Whatever was going through my mind when I thought I was so hungry, that’s not what’s going through my mind anymore. I’m cutting things up with my fork but mainly just for show, mainly just to be doing something. There are a few other people in the coffee shop mostly hunched over coffee at the counter, staring up at the television, taking the occasional bite or sip of something or other. One other booth is occupied by someone behind a newspaper and another by four old geezers updating each other on who among their rapidly diminishing circle of acquaintances is dead, who is dying, and who is still clinging, by fingernails, to life.
Are they all in on this together? Are they all plants? Is it really so unreasonable to suppose this is some kind of sting?
One of the old men says, “Frank passed.”
Another says, “Oh no. Well, that’s a shame.”
“Who?” hoots a third.
“Yeah,” the first old man says, “Woke up with diarrhea and feeling weak. Wife took him to the hospital. They sent him home with a bottle of Kaopectate. He died that night.”
“Who?” says the third old man again.
A fourth old man, chewing eggs, weighs in. He says, “Quick at least.”
“Nah,” the second old man says, “He was sick for months.”
If you loop this conversation back, change the names and physical ailments, splice it with talk about Atlantic City, politics, daytime television, and the weather, and let it play continuously, what you have is pretty much the soundtrack of what it's like to be old. What I’m listening to is the way our lives all end, and that’s only if we’re lucky, if we don’t die much sooner. This is where you end up when you’ve worn out your welcome in the world.
The waitress comes back, wearing a wry look that says, They’re going to get you; you’ll never get away with it, you know that, don’t you? It’s just a matter of time, but what comes out of her mouth sounds more like, “Is everything okay?”
“Yes,” I say. “Yes everything’s okay. Why wouldn’t it be?” I see the weird look on her face and enthusiastically add, “Thank you!”
After she leaves with the plates, nearly as full as when she brought them, I pick up the spoon and look at my warped but still recognizable reflection. Maybe I should have shaved before I left the apartment. I probably should have stepped into the shower. A change of clothes, I’m thinking, and I might not look quite so much like a guy who just shot a transsexual ex-fighter to death on a beach in Jersey less than five hours ago. What I’m doing is trying to figure out what someone who hasn’t just shot a transsexual ex-fighter to death on a beach in Jersey less than five hours ago looks like. What I’m trying to do is remember what it’s like to look innocent. I’m trying to think of what a good answer would be to the question, "And then you did what after you left the coffee shop?", when the police finally show up to ask, which I’m figuring they will, oh about any second now.
* * *
Back at the apartment, an e-mail tells me where the cab is. It’s in a parking garage near Times Square. The e-mail is from an account I don’t recognize. The subject line says: Your Cab is Here, Mr. Molloy. And the body of the text is the address of a parking garage near Times Square and instructions to look under the left front wheel well. The instructions also tell me to look in my wallet for the claim ticket. The instructions tell me to drive home carefully. They say, Have a Nice Day. There's a smiley face. It's winking.
I feel a bit sick seeing this e-mail. I know that whatever is going to happen, it’s only just begun. I know that whoever is behind all this, they must know a lot about me. It’s one thing being kidnapped and setup for murder. It’s quite another to have your super-secret e-mail address hacked.
I find the claim ticket tucked between my driver’s license and a spare ribbed black condom that’s meant for Sooki. Someone’s been in my wallet, I think, as I stare numbly at the ticket. Someone's been in my wallet, putting stuff there. I pat at my clothes, vaguely, not sure just what I’m looking for, but bugs come to mind, wires, hidden microphones, fake buttons, suspicious nodules.
I’m thinking about this again while I stand in the shower, my clothes from last night stuffed into the kitchen trash bin. I look suspiciously at my hands, my forearms, the insides of my elbows. Maybe there’s a nanochip or something like that implanted under my skin. It’s possible, isn’t it? I check my fingernails, the backs of my knees. It occurs to me that I haven’t literally looked between my toes in decades. There are so many places on my own body that would make excellent hiding places for whatever.
In jeans, t-shirt, and lightweight jacket, I hit the streets behind mirror aviator shades, going for that “just part of the scenery” look, an urban chameleon, one of ten thousand passersby, that kind of thing. I walk down the stairs into the subway, catch a train to Times Square, find the parking garage on 46th and Broadway, present my claim ticket.
The parking garage guy takes the ticket, stares at it, hands it to another guy who looks like his younger brother. They’re both so strikingly good looking they could probably be pop stars in Bollywood or Nepal or wherever the hell they come from. The younger brother takes the ticket and disappears into the dark concrete esophagus of the garage. The older brother is staring at me as if he’s waiting for me to say something, almost like he’s daring me to start a conversation.
I say, “Was I the one who brought the car in?” I realize how crazy this sounds, so I correct myself, “I mean, was I here when I came in before?” and I can sense immediately that I’m making the situation even worse. So I say, “Will twenty dollars cover it?”
He says, “Five hundred dollars.”
He keeps staring at me.
Guided by the breakdown of prices per hour, half-hour, night, day, half-day etc. on the sign posted just over his right shoulder, five hundred dollars simply doesn’t seem mathematically possible even if I've been parked in this garage since the days of the pharaohs, but this doesn’t seem the time to review our multiplication tables. I take out five crisp Ben Franklins that weren’t in my wallet the night before, hand them over, and he stuffs them in his pocket without comment. I consider that those five Franklins were put there precisely for this exchange.
“Keep the change,” I say. “Ummm, by the way, was there anyone with me when I dropped the car off?”
He nods slowly.
He nods, No.
He’s looking at me strangely. He’s looking at me like he’s trying to remember me for later when the police question him and whatever he’s going to remember about me is probably not going to be good. So I put my hand in front of my face and start fake-coughing and walk off a little ways to where the cab is going to come screeching its way out of the bowels of the parking garage in about ten seconds. I can already hear its tires squealing around the tight bends.
“Well,” I say, “Well…”
I don’t finish the sentence until I’m in the cab and I’ve driven all the way down to Second Avenue. Even then, I don’t finish it.
Up next: Chapter 7: Jiffy bags, urban warlords, and the rarest of all disasters