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Manhattan '05

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Manhattan '05
Eric Brach
eric.brach@ gm ail.com
April 29, 2010
UMI Number: E P 6 1 5 6 3
All rights reserved
INFORMATION TO ALL USERS
The quality of this reproduction is dependent upon the quality of the copy submitted.
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and there are missing pages, these will be noted. Also, if material had to be removed,
a note will indicate the deletion.
D iss erratic n Pub! sN og
UMI EP61563
Published by ProQuest LLC (2014). Copyright in the Dissertation held by the Author
Microform Edition © ProQuest LLC.
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unauthorized copying under Title 17, United States Code
ProQuest LLC.
789 East Eisenhower Parkway
P.O. Box 1346
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M a n h attan '05
By
Eric Brach
This novel is subm itted in fulfillment of the final project requirem ents for the
University of S outhern California, M aster of Professional Writing Program .
A p p ro v al
Faculty
fJ?/)
Date:
Williams
A pproved:
t__________
Program Director - Brignde Mullins
Date:
j \ o j(Q
MANHATTAN '05
-
1
1-
Aeli.
It all started on a spring New York day early in the Year o f Plenty. The economy
had freshly recovered from its dot-com binge, and was still far from decimating itself
against the bricks o f the housing crisis. Cash moved fast within the slick film between
the bubbles, and the air in Manhattan pulsed with the scent o f money to be made.
In his seat at the analyst's desk, Aeli Kleiner should have been at the drop-dead
center o f the boom. All around him, it seemed, his peers were taking in huge sums and
doing their absolute best to spend it. All of it. But Aeli seemed to be doing his best just
trying to keep up.
By 7:45 on this Tuesday morning, twenty-five year old Aeli Kleiner could be
found sitting hunched forward at his desk, muscles tensed and neck taught. He had
already raced through his third cup o f coffee and his second near-debilitating trip to the
stalls in the men's room. His knee bounced like it was pushing the treadle on an old
sewing machine, and he cracked his knuckles as well, waiting, desperately, for the trading
MANHATTAN '05
2
day to begin. The opening bell was still an hour and a quarter in coming, but sweat had
already begun to pool in Aeli’s philtrum, coating the depression under his nose with a thin
sheen o f salty, liquid fear.
Aeli begged for nine o'clock. Once the markets opened, all the prep-work - the
mentally taxing research, the tight-deadline analysis - would be done. The stress and the
reports and the frantic outlining, would fade from view stepping back to cede center stage
to the hyperkinetic sessions of monitoring capital movements, estimating, calculating,
and executing orders that allowed him to slip into a beautiful, frenzied catatonia. During
market hours, Aeli retreated into automation, his higher brain easing as his corpus
performed its simple repetitive, duty: move the money. Wait. Move the money. Repeat.
He pressed buttons, and multiple millions o f dollars leapt between accounts and
positions, forward and back. Time, trips to the toilet, even simple Maslovian needs like
food and warmth faded from though: between nine and four, Aeli was a living recreation
o f von Kempelen's Mechanical Turk. Although Aeli now and then caught himself
nervously scratching at his scalp during these stretches, the market hours brought only the
most basic, natural stress o f responding to sensory stimuli. See, recognize, act; that was
all he did. The fear of losing eight figures worth of the firm’s money, and therefore his
job, and therefore his apartment, and therefore his whole life as he knew it, faded from
view.
But until nine o'clock, and from four P.M. on, the nagging voice in the back o f his
mind ran on loop, a three-word mantra that nearly never left Aeli’s head as he stared at
MANHATTAN ’05
3
spreadsheets reporting shifts in the markets:
Don't fu ck up. Don't fu ck up. Don't fu ck up.
As he stared at his computer monitor and tried to will his work finished, the glow
of the screen illuminated his features: black hair that never sat straight, a head that
bobbed above a skinny frame like a buoy tossed about in saltwater. Tortoise-shell glasses
behind which he was comfortable enough.
A set of teeth that had nervously fixed themselves, tight and hard, across the
bridge o f his tongue.
fMWe foresee multiple actionable opportunities on the horizon to monetize our
broad mindshare among users industry-wide...'" Aeli rolled his neck and exhaled deeply,
looking away from his copy o f the report. "What the hell does that even mean?"
After rubbing his palms down his cheeks, his ring and index fingers framing the
sockets of his eyes, Aeli glanced down to the empty coffee cup next to his keyboard and
considered getting up to refill it.
He hated coffee. Took it with sugar and milk, and plenty o f both, to mask the
taste. But he drank it all the same, accepted it as another unavoidable part o f the job.
Like the fifteen hour shifts. All part o f the glory of the business.
Aeli watched the clock flip to seven forty-eight. There was no time to get another
mugful. A rumble deep in his stomach told him to take another trip to the bathroom,
deadline be damned, but he ignored that, too. As much as he wanted to go - for the
moments o f solace and quietude he could take in the huddled recesses o f those stalls, as
MANHATTAN '05
4
much as anything - he didn't dare. Because he knew that somewhere amidst the highvaulted ceilings, the low-partitioned desks, and the eggshell-white walls o f this
warrenous spread o f an office, lurked the hulking form of the Badge. And the last thing
Aeli wanted this early in the morning was a tete-a-tete with the Badge.
The Badge: Jeffrey Badger. Asshole senior project manager extraordinaire. If
Aeli were in charge of the company's business cards, those five words would have stood
out, raised-printed and in big, block type. Coupling all the personality o f a steroidshooting body builder with twice the soul-munching swagger - and a haircut as expensive
as most people's watches - the Badge, Jeffrey to everyone who addressed him, was the
absolute last person Aeli wanted to see.
At least until he finished his reports.
Aeli scanned the broad, open floor: he couldn't see the Badge, but that didn't mean
he wasn't out there. Woe to the analyst cornered by the Badge before finishing a report
he was working on. As he tracked the bobbing bodies for his telltale streaked-blond coif,
Aeli noticed that the desk pushed back-to-back with his was empty, and briefly, he
wondered where Tom could be. He and Tom had joined Furman Bach in the same
incoming class - Tom came in from Dartmouth, and Aeli had gone to Penn - and Aeli had
spent most every weekday of the last four years (along with a fair number o f his
weekends) with Tom just a few yards away. Tom had still been hard at work the night
before when Aeli clocked out at nine-thirty; Aeli hoped he hadn't been in the office so
late that he'd slept through the alarm this morning. Wherever Tom was, he ought to
MANHATTAN '05
5
hurry. The only thing worse than not finishing a report for the Badge was being M.I. A.
when he came strutting by.
Aeli shuddered as he recalled the last dressing-down he'd seen dished out. A
junior-an tried to turn in a half-assed report. The Badge was so unimpressed that he
actually ripped it apart, page by page, and threw the pieces in the guy's face like confetti.
Except for the expected earnings spreadsheet. That, he balled up like a donut and dunked
it deep into the kid's coffee.
Once, a poor, female summer intern accidentally called him "Jeff." He screamed
at her until she broke and took off run-walking down the hallway to the women's room in
tears. And rumor was they'd even been sleeping together at the time.
Clearly, keeping his head down and getting his business done was in Aeli's best
interests. However, as much as he wanted to stay focused on the task at hand, as much as
he hoped to be able to get his work done well before the start o f the trading day, Aeli's
efforts were interrupted by the sound o f a disembodied groan that wafted in his direction
like the spreading stench o f a fart.
"Ughh."
It was a guttural moan, not far from a death-gasp and decidedly stemming from
nearby. For a moment, Aeli wasn't even sure that it was real: he figured he must have
imagined it, that it was a hallucination brought on by over-consumption o f caffeine.
Until, that is, it was followed in short succession by a thump that sounded distinctly like a
head slamming into a metal desk.
MANHATTAN '05
6
Aeli's eyes slowly traced a line down the side o f his monitor, following along the
surface o f his workspace and past the edge o f the table touching his, coming to rest at last
upon a brown, leather mass about the size o f a brick that peeked out from behind the
black plastic garbage can resting on the floor.
For a moment, Aeli wasn't sure what it was, but as the brick-thing shifted and
caught a glint o f the halogen lights overhead, there was no mistaking it: the tan-colored
mass was a polished, gleaming penny loafer.
And there was a foot inside it.
Pushing back his ergonomic Aeron chair, which had been supplied to the
company at a much bandied-about discount price, Aeli lifted himself to his feet. He
peeked over the top o f his computer screen to see if any of his hundreds of co-workers mostly male - were looking.
All he saw were the backs o f hundreds of heads, blue pinstripes and taut business
suits.
No one else had noticed; it was all on him. Two thoughts fought for primacy in
Aeli's mind. One: someone - something - was definitely underneath the desk touching
his, and he ought to at least have a look. The other: he was damn sure that if he got up
from his desk and the Badge came by, he would throw a fit when he didn't find Aeli there.
Cautiously, Aeli began to lower himself into his seat and return his attention to the
report. This was not the morning he wanted to get himself fired. But when sounds once
again began to emanate from under the desk - sounds not unlike a ten-pound hammer
MANHATTAN ’05
7
making contact with a muted gong - he couldn't ignore them anymore. Swearing to
himself, Aeli stood up, walked around the twin tables, and peered down into the space
between the grey vertical columns o f drawers lining the legs o f the next workstation*
He knew what he would find before he even looked. And sure enough, placidly
piled there amidst the tangled wire o f computer cords and surge protectors on the
dustless, carpeted green-blue floor as if it had been waiting for him, was an unmistakably
human form pressed headfirst against the side o f the charmless furniture. Without getting
down on his hands and knees, he could only see as far as the person's crotch, but there
was no question who it was.
Aeli cleared his throat.
"Tom?"
Though he received no verbal reply, the lumpy, misshapen mass definitely moved.
So Aeli turned his head to the sky and shoved his hand in, hoping he was aiming high
enough to hit shirt and not something else.
His fingers wrapped around the shoulder of what felt like a rattan shirt, and he
shook. "Tom," he repeated. "Get up." But he didn't budge.
Fuck. It was already almost eight o'clock. Besides leaving the guy to hang
himself out to dry - and Aeli wasn't willing to do that - there was only one solution. And
Aeli didn’t look forward to doing it.
Briefly, he considered trying to pull Tom out from under the desk. But the guy
was big, a burly ex-lacrosse player - he had to have fifty pounds on Aeli at least. The
MANHATTAN '05
8
likelihood o f getting him up using anything other than his powers of his persuasion was
near nil.
The voice in his head changed its song. Get back to work, it said. Back to work,
back to work, back to work. But Aeli couldn’t, though he knew he ought to. He checked
over his shoulder one more time; he didn’t see the Badge, and still, no one seemed to be
looking. So, dreading the thought that someone might catch him doing what he knew he
was about to do, Aeli, sighed, dropped down to all fours and poked his head underneath
the desk.
He found himself staring at a a checked shirt in eggshell and forest and a rag of
wavy blond hair.
Aeli nudged the top o f Tom’s head. ’’You all right?” He received another pained
moan in response. "You wanna come out o f there?" he cajoled. "Come on." Still, the
felled giant - a whimpering hunk o f meat, coiled underneath his own desk - ignored him,
managing only another hard slam o f the back o f his head against the metal columns
framing the desk legs.
Aeli glanced at his watch - 8:02. He really had no time for this. Slowly, he
coaxed Tom’s head away from the wall, as anxious to get him out to see if he was all right
as he was to get up from the floor, fast. He had just pulled Tom’s face forward and was
about to force him to open his eyes when he heard a loud thwacking sound echo off the
desk directly above behind him.
It sounded unmistakably like papers hitting a table.
MANHATTAN '05
9
Hoping desperately,that it might be anything - anyone - other that what he
assumed, Aeli froze like a child caught in the act, as if his stillness would cause the threat
to move along. But when the voice called down to him, confirming and realizing his
fears, it was all Aeli could do to keep from micturating across the front of his slacks.
"You two would get your work done faster if you spent less time making out
under the furniture. You hear me?"
Slowly, Aeli backed out from under the desk. He gathered himself and brought
himself to his feet, and as he looked up, he found that he was - o f course - positioned
directly before the withering gaze o f the Badge.
The sound o f the Xerox machine rushing out copies seemed to be the only noise
in the world.
"So are my numbers done, or what?"
Aeli pushed a thin, gritty ball o f saliva down his throat.
"Ah, they will be soon."
He averted his eyes, avoiding the Badge's stare by fixating on the Bloomberg
machine in the comer. The Badge had once told him that if the building caught fire, he'd
try to carry that to the stairs long before he even considered coming back to check on
Aeli.
Jeffrey Badger nodded, sucked on his lip, and took a half a step closer. Less than
a fist of space separated them. "Listen." His voice dropped a register. "I can't fire you
for being in love with each other, but I sure as hell can if you don't get me my
MANHATTAN ’05
breakdowns within the next
10
he checked his watch - "half an hour. And if they’re not
ready by then, I’m going to roast you on a spit and pay some hobos to eat you."
The Badge stepped back and straightened his lapels. Aeli didn't dare exhale.
"When you're done, get to work on that shit, too," and he pointed to the pile o f
papers - corporate earnings statements, by the look o f them - atop Tom's workspace.
"And clean up Dartmouth before the floor opens, too, will you? We're trying to run a
brokerage here."
As the Badge turned and walked away, Aeli let his body go slack. He didn't care
that all o f his co-workers were staring at him, no longer face-forward on papers and
screens. The Badge had gone, and Aeli was alive, and he heard Tom come up from under
the desk. "Sorry," Tom mumbled, and somewhere a few desks away, Aeli heard a phone
briefly ring.
"Glad you're back," Aeli said, and as he turned and got a good look at his co­
worker under the halogen glow, he saw what the Badge had meant. Tom looked like he'd
just come out of the business end o f a hand-ground sausage maker. His hair for starters,
was as disheveled as the mottled fur of a cat on the losing end o f an alley fight. But more
than that, it was his face - it just looked, simply, off. His skin, and chunks of flesh,
seemed to be bulging out in spots from his forehead. It was as if sticky bits o f him were
falling off from his cheeks.
"Jesus," Aeli muttered. And as he spoke, one o f the hunks - a ragged, pus-white
gob - actually did break off and fall. Aeli felt a gag rise in his throat on a raff o f bile, and
MANHATTAN '05
11
he had to force it back. If he'd eaten breakfast, it would have come up right then.
"Tom, what the hell - ?"
"Huh?" Tom brushed the back of his sleeve across his face, and another one of
the chunks fell off. A tiny fleck o f green stuck to the spot o f his skin where his nose
bridged into his cheekbone.
"Oh, that. Don't worry, it's just tuna fish."
Aeli was certain he'd heard incorrectly.
"Tima fish?" Tom nodded. Aeli swiped a last lump o f it off from his temple.
"What's it doing on your face?"
He brought his finger back under his nostril and inhaled deeply. There was no
doubt about it - he knew that smell. It reminded him of his mother's kitchen on the
sadder Friday afternoons o f his youth.
Tom pulled his chair over and slouched down into his seat, leaving Aeli to stand
above him, amazed. "I fell asleep on it."
It took a moment for Aeli to process this information. "You fell asleep. On top of
your sandwich?"
Tom nodded.
"On the floor."
His head continued to bob up and down.
Aeli considered this. "Jesus."
"Yeah. The Badge has had me here for a while. Since six." Tom pulled himself
MANHATTAN '05
12
back to his workstation while Aeli consulted his wristwatch. Before he could comment,
Tom added, "Six yesterday," and then mentioned for good measure, "A.M."
A twenty-six hour stretch. Wow. No wonder he'd fallen asleep. Wordlessly, Tom
passed over Aeli the stack of forms that the Badge had left for him to work on. Mutely,
Aeli, too, struggled back to his desk, stunned that he'd just seen the titan of his cohort
felled, and covered in mayonnaise to boot.
As the minutes ticked by, Aeli forced himself to focus; his stomach rumbled, but
there was assuredly no time for the bathroom now. Without question, Aeli Kleiner
considered himself the most anxious person in New York for the nine A.M. opening bell
to ring.
MANHATTAN '05
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2
13
-
Alyssa.
Generally speaking, weekday mornings are not prime see-and-be-seen times along
Central Park West. Darlings o f the society page don't breeze by in limos, and oddlydressed foreigners in fanny packs and lycra spandex have yet to rouse themselves from
their shoeboxes o f Manhattan hotel rooms. The American Museum o f Natural History
has not yet opened for the morning, and even tour buses, at this hour, are sparse.
There isn't usually much of note on weekday mornings along Central Park West.
That’s why, when Alyssa stopped short along the 71st street intersection on her scramble
south to work, she was surprised to find that there was indeed something to see.
It wasn't a clown, or a street vendor. Nor was it an interesting piece o f artwork, or
a clever graffito. No, as Alyssa dodged rush-hour pedestrian traffic along the sidewalk of
Central Park West, she stopped dead in her tracks because she found herself staring at the
tip o f a turgid horse's penis.
Many other, prissier girls might have been put off by this. Alyssa was resolutely
MANHATTAN '05
14
not.
She'd actively chosen to walk this morning; she was outdoors and enjoying the
weather on this unseasonably warm early April day, rather than riding the train. She was
breathing fresh air, too, instead o f being sardined between a punk kid nodding in time
with the music blaring out of his headphones; a rude, pudgy office temp commuting in
twenty-dollar sneakers; and a businessman who insisted on hanging from the ceilingmounted arm-bar and reading a Wall Street Journal held six inches from his nose.
She was happy to be out and above ground, and that was a good thing - after the
B-G station at 72nd street, there were no more subway stops until all the way to
Columbus Circle. But when Alyssa saw it - that is, the horse's penis - her commute came
to an abrupt halt.
The flat slap of her flip-flops crashing against pavement faded into the whirling
chaos of the morning rush, and the swarm o f people around her, too, dissolved into a
pointillist horde. One bespectacled, suited man then another became mere specks of
gray: patriarchs o f the Upper West Side and their comb-over coifs transmuted into a drab
mix o f black and white. Brown daubs dabbled at the gray: what was once the color of
those men's haircuts was now a tone echoed only by their battered leather briefcases.
She didn't take special notice o f any of them, and if they did o f her - or o f it - they
didn't show it.
That was a shame, really. It was amazing. Long. Pretty damn ridiculous. No
one else stopped, neither the blue-suited power-queen, hidden from the ravages of the
MANHATTAN '05
15
world behind a four-hundred dollar pair o f sunglasses and the plastic lid of a venti coffee
cup, nor the pair of pram-pushing mothers, who kept their green-eyed offspring decked
out in color-coordinated parkas.
Actually, they were more likely nannies, Alyssa realized. Scotch and Irish hires
whose job it was to escort the budding scions of the upper west side. Their stonewashed
jeans gave it away. Those little kids' clothes probably commanded a higher price than the
ladies' weekly paychecks.
Alyssa investigated the sun-soaked carriage driver waiting resplendently in the far
lane with his black cape and top hat and crop. His hansom cab and its oversized wheels
gleamed white in the morning sun. When he shook the reins, the blaze along the nose of
the massive, harnessed stallion shook with it, bouncing back and forth as the animal
stomped its forelegs.
Its appendage shook as well.
For a moment, Alyssa leaned against a lamppost and stared. But when she finally
pushed away to resume tromping toward her office, she found she hadn't yet quite gotten
that tickling image out o f her head. So she turned back. Alyssa kept walking, but like a
modem, phallic Orpheus she stole one last glance, and therefore wasn't really looking
where she was going when she barreled straight into someone.
Given how crowded the sidewalk was during the morning commute, she shouldn't
have been surprised. In fact, she should have counted herself lucky just not to have
slammed into another lamppost.
MANHATTAN '05
16
Alyssa snapped back like a rubber ball tethered to a cup. Strong hands took hold
of her shoulders and steadied her; it wasn't until she regained her footing that Alyssa was
able to look at who she'd walked into.
Christ, but he was tall. Her eyes climbed upward, gaze reaching toward his face.
She must have hit her forehead against his clavicle.
"Sorry."
He stood well over six feet; already smiling, he showed off laugh lines that
framed his eyes. They shone hazel, with clear veins o f gold. His brown hair stood up
straight, as if glued into rows, like growing, dark winter wheat. Or maybe - the image
flashed across her mind and she was at the cusp of snickering, despite herself - asparagus
stalks.
"No worries," he said, his voice a rich baritone. "My mistake."
Looking up at him, marveling at his height, Alyssa once again became aware o f
the pavement beneath her.
"You okay?" he asked.
Alyssa took a deep breath. "Yeah," she said, "okay." And though she seemed to
be having trouble formulating her thoughts, she did manage to check herself from looking
back yet again at the horse. Nodding, her brown ringlets bounced off o f her cheeks,
leaving a gentle kiss o f her shine-in styling foam across them.
She stepped back, out of his grip. "Sorry. I'm OK, yes. Thanks. I'm sorry." And
she started to leave.
MANHATTAN ’05
17
But before she could disappear into the throng, he called out to her.
"What’s your name?"
Alyssa stopped. She turned around.
He smiled, the gold in his eyes glinting as gentle hints o f laugh lines traced the
cheekbones o f his face. "I’m Christian,’’ he said, and pointed at his chest like a pin
attacking a balloon.
"I’m Christian," was all he said, but that was enough; in that moment, Alyssa’s
demeanor changed. Alyssa knew the rules, and the rules said he wasn't supposed to talk.
Immediately, Alyssa went on the offensive. She had to. It wasn't her fault. A few
moments ago, she had been bemused, gleeful; the very rare and truly memorable sight of
a horse's raging undercarriage added a spring to herself. But as soon as the boy
introduced himself - the second Christian offered his name - Alyssa's mood turned sour.
Her puckered lips curdled around her teeth, and Alyssa went on the attack.
"Well, Chris-tian", she half-sang, over-enunciating as if speaking to a
kindergartner caught with stolen blocks in his coverall pocket. "Do you always harass
random girls that you meet in the morning on the street?"
She was being rude, and she knew it, but it wasn't because she'd bumped into the
guy. Bumping into someone, in Manhattan? It was nothing. Rote. The kind o f everyday
happenstance that washed away as easily as shampoo. But to bump into a guy, and have
him do anything other than ignore it - and worse still, act not embarrassed or rude, but
actually conciliatory - that was a cause for concern. It was a worst-case scenario, an
MANHATTAN '05
18
encounter calling for suspicion. For derision.
Alyssa had learned the rules to New York City living long ago. In the book on
single girls, the chapter on chance encounters with strange boys reads as follows:
If XY = dismissive, then XX = safe.
But if XY = friendly, then XX = engagement o f defense systems.1
When Christian introduced himself, Alyssa was surprised. But she responded
strongly, and felt nearly certain that any moment he would slink away cowed, with his
head bowed. Perhaps, he might lob a nasty name in her direction, muttered just loud
enough that she would hear. This would allow the boy to walk away feeling righteously
angry, yet still virile for having fought back.2
True, unless drunk the girl is inebriated, in which case, the girl may seek attention.
In those special circumstances, the rule reads:
If XY = dismissive, then XX = angry, grasping, or flippant, at XX's discretion.
But if XY = friendly, then XX = happy, sated.
In other words, the single girls' proper response to unknown male stimulus may at
times be the exact converse of its usual state.
This is the tortured logic o f the single girl in New York.
With past experience as her barometer, Alyssa calculated the breakdown of the
likelihood o f potential responses she was apt to hear as follows:
■
■
H
■
■
*
N ot technically a nasty name, but common nonetheless.
Bitch: 34%
Cunt: 21%
Fuck you*: 18%
Whore: 12%
Other 15%
MANHATTAN '05
19
But that's not what happened.
In her head, Alyssa had already turned and taken four strong strides toward 70th
street. But in the time she spent savoring the vision o f this strange boy left dumbfounded
and standing there - cute, yes, with his hint of a poochie gut that some girls, not her, but
some girls, found adorable - he did the unthinkable.
He spoke back. Civilly.
"Look," he said, shocking Alyssa out of her daydream. She hadn't moved, and the
light had already changed; a passing yellow cab honked as it dipped around a man in a
navy suit who'd stepped, blindly, off the curb. The man, who missed being hit only by
inches, presented the cab driver with the finger.
"I'm sorry for running into you. You looked so happy a second ago, and I must
have knocked you out o f it." Alyssa waved, but he pressed on. "If you'll let me make it
up to you, a friend o f mine is hosting a happy hour tonight." The boy paused just for a
moment before adding, "Open bar."
As quickly as Alyssa's mood had changed earlier, it shifted back again. He might
be a stranger, b u t...
"Happy hour? Open bar?"
It's hard to say when abracadabra and open sesame phased out, but at some point,
"happy hour" became magic words to the urban single. "Open bar" even more so.
Meeting someone - anyone - for happy hour was always acceptable behavior. There were
plenty o f people to meet, discounted alcohol - what was there not to like? And if "happy
MANHATTAN '05
20
hour" was nice - just a simple trick, like picking four aces - "open bar" was impressive. It
was making the Statue o f Liberty disappear.
"Perhaps I was a bit brusque," she offered.
So what if it was still twenty minutes to nine? It was never too early to think
about having a drink.
Christian smiled and pulled a cell phone out o f the folds o f his jeans pocket. His
eyes - blue - locked in on hers as he raised his thumb to the keypad. "So," he asked her.
"My new friend. W haf s your name?"
In the span o f the next fifteen seconds, Alyssa gave Christian her name and phone
number, and within fifteen seconds more, they drifted apart. Alyssa didn't get his
number, but it didn't matter: either he'd call, or he wouldn't.
Alyssa was looking hot that day. She was pretty sure he would.
To be fair, it wasn't an Annie Hall encounter; that much was for sure. But that
chance run-in - along with fix-ups, or via friends, or friends o f friends, or through a pick­
up in a bar, or a booze-fueled party held in a dinky closet of a one-bedroom Upper West
Side walkup, or a coke-fueled party held in a thirty-plus story building filled with young
lawyers and Wharton graduates, or a bar mitzvah, or a wedding, or the occasional run-in
at the odd, sparsely-attended Friday night service - was still a perfect example o f how two
people might happen to meet in New York City.
MANHATTAN '05
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-3 -
Christian.
Though he did wake up naked - and next to a nice Jewish girl - Christian's day
didn't kick off with a merry eyeful of sex organs, human or otherwise. Rather, it began
when a nagging alarm roused him from a dream about being chased by a dinosaur.
A velociraptor, to be specific. He'd had recurring nightmares in middle school
after repeated viewings o f Jurassic Park. Those dreams transmuted into youthful sex
fantasies involving the pre-teen girl playing Lex.
Groggily, Christian lifted his matted head from the soft cushions they rested on.
Wet rivulets of drool glazed his spittle-soaked cheek and the pillowcase below his ear.
"Sorry," mumbled a voice. As he covered the puddle, a graceful arm reached over
him to click off the buzzing clock, bringing with it a pair o f bare breasts heaving against
his chest that was far more effective in rousing him than the electronic bleating in his ear.
Christian allowed his eyes to crack open into slits. He was, for the moment, happily
trapped under the languid, rustling pressure o f a woman's body full flush against his. The
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alarm's switch audibly clicked and the beeping, mercifully, stopped.
Falling back to his pillow, Christian felt a girl's lips graze his, gently. There was
the one soft kiss, which was followed by the hard thrust o f a dousing-rod tongue.
She was aggressive, strong in the morning, not at all like the docile paschal lamb
that she'd been the night before. But then, he reminded himself, she'd been passive - a
turtle on her back, a starfish - and starfish always tried to feed on their groggy prey in the
early hours.
The girl trapped his earlobe between her lips and her tongue, and Christian felt
teeth and wet heat clamp down on him. She, he realized, was trying to get him up for a
morning round. He forced himself to keep his eyes shut, forced himself to keep his eyes
at his sides and his hands down. Christian was resolute: he was going to lie there and not
respond until she got the picture.
He didn't appreciate being woken up. By anyone. Even for sex. You had to
break them o f their bad habits right away, from the beginning, or else they'd walk all over
you.
After failing to pull either his ardor or body from slumber, the girl pulled away,
and Christian followed her as she rose and walked across the room. Through dim slits, he
gazed upon her, and though the room's shades were drawn, his pupils adjusted to the
vague theory o f light filtering in.
From his prone position, Christian evaluated her as he watched, a hybrid o f
peeping tom and athletic scout. He traced the girl's naked path in relief past her lavender-
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painted walls, and when she walked in front of the mirrored closet, Christian watched her
doppelganger in reflection. The girl bounced on her tiptoes, her nipples lobbing in the air
like popping com in an oiled pan as she reached for the neck o f a terry cloth bathrobe
hanging from a peg against the door. She stmggled. He didn't offer to help.
At last, she managed to free the yellow robe and drape herself inside it. It slid
across her bare skin like a smooth massage, and she pulled her black hair out from under
the collar with the practiced hand o f a baker pulling dough. "Sleep," she said. She
glanced once over her shoulder at him before leaving the room, and as she did, Christian
lowered his head back onto the stacked pillows. He did his best to avoid the wet spot.
He assumed he'd soon hear the telltale sound o f water slapping against bathtub
tiles. Instead, Christian woke thirty minutes later to the touch o f the girl's hand on his
shoulder. Dressed now in a tan business suit with her heavy black hair crowding her face,
she grazed his chest as she told him to stay as long as he wanted, and to lock the door
behind him. When she left, kissing him as she backed away, Christian did roll over
again. He even went so far as to close his eyes. But this time when she left the room, he
made himself stay awake.
Once he heard the door click shut outside, he counted to forty. Then, Christian
threw away the covers.
He was alone. The moment he was certain o f it, Christian began stalking naked
through the girl's apartment.
This was not the first time he'd feigned sleep to be left on his own the morning
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after. He relished being free o f the awkwardness o f having a stranger watch him dress, of
trying to make small talk while losing his balance with a foot caught on the inside o f his
pants leg. How much better to have a new place all to himself than to have to suffer
through that?
Like a monarch assuming reign over his dominion, Christian waltzed his way
across the girl's room, taking inventory o f her things . He got up and kicked her heavy
down blanket across the floor, attacking the gamey goose smell that arose from its folds.
He poked around in her drawers, and even inspected the stack of movies she kept piled
high against the back edge o f her dresser: chick stuff. Romantic comedies. Movies about
ice skating. He moved on to the photos hung up with tacky blue putty to her walls: the
girl with a pair o f older ladies, the girl surrounded by a family and a white-haired father.
The girl snuggling up against an over-sized black dog.
"Borer," he mumbled, shaking his head. "The girl is a borer." Taken all together,
it had to be true. Hell, she had her own name hanging from the wall, spelled out in five
block letters that dangled from thin metal cords. He flicked the "A" near the middle. She
hadn't seemed like a Borer when he'd met her last week down at the casino, but there it
was. Incontrovertible evidence.
Christian had a theory about girls - a number, of them, in fact. Most were
imparted by his uncle. Some, like the ones he'd been told on the day o f his high school
graduation - three months o f summer fun before heading up to Ohio State - were more
mottoes than anything. Never go to bed with your shoes on; never fall asleep with a
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cheeseburger resting on your chest. Never date anyone who lives more than twentyseven minutes away.
"Any farther than that - that's not cool. But twenty-seven minutes?" Christian
mumbled, reaching around the pressboard dresser to crank up the girl's window-unit air
conditioner. "That's cool." It, like so much o f his uncle's wisdom - don't ever gamble
against someone named after a state - was a line from a movie. Christian first heard it
when he caught his uncle slapping a waitress' ass at the Bowl-Mor Alley in Dayton. He
had broken that rule the night before, true, but it was still a good benchmark. Besides,
he'd only broken it for the evening, so it didn't really count, and he hadn't even been
thinking of it.
The female theory Christian was dwelling on as he shuffled through his latest
conquest's mementos regarded where she fit among the different types o f women in the
world.
See this graph:
E
F.G.
P.G.
W
S C.G.
B.
I
MANHATTAN '05
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The x-axis is the wild-sane meter, and the y-axis measures propensity toward
extroversion. All women can be put in one o f these boxes.
Girls in the top right quadrant - the extroverted wilds - are the Party Girls.
They're always up for just about anything. Stay up all night snorting coke and loungehopping? They'll quaff down $15 cocktails in seconds and they won't bat an eye at the
disco powder. Eat a fistful o f ecstasy and screw in the shower? Grab the condoms.
Done. Crash a costume party while passing by on the street? Do straight shots of
Jagermeister in a bar? Run out on a check just to see if it can be gotten away with? Sign
'em up: their names go first on the list.
These are the girls that Christian loved, and in his experience, they tended to be
blond and young. Also, as Christian would readily point out, these girls were usually
quite hot, and knew it. If not, they were in possession some other trait that made them
particularly desirable to men: a penchant for exhibitionist bisexuality, say, or tattoos
peeking out from under hems o f clothing. However, these girls also needed constant
monitoring, and like very finicky houseplants, required endless tending to. Their yen for
affirmation was a double-edged sword, because while their attention-grabbing eventually
drove most o f their suitors insane, it was the very same yearning that fueled their
willingness to do the outlandish things that made them attractive in the first place. The
impetus that made them throw chunks o f sidewalk through their paramours' windshields,
for instance, was the same one that made them shed their tops in the middle o f Cancun's
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beach week.
On the flip side of the horizontal, in the top-left corner, were the extroverted
calms: the Fun Girls. Fun Girls wouldn't do the ridiculous things that Party Girls would,
but they were always up for beers, shuffleboard or a ball game. The big secret to them
was o f course that, deep down, they all had vaginas. Nothing quite shocked the guy
friends o f a Fun Girl like finding out that the best-buddy gal they used to play one-on-one
with in high school had just railed some dude she met at a bar.
Next came the Crazy Girls: the ones who were introverted, yet decidedly insane.
They were just as deadly as snakes - they might actually stab someone during an
argument - and as such, nature usually colored them as a warning. They had no need for
camouflage; they were out to kill, and if a guy planned to handle one, he had to be on his
toes. The barista at Starbucks, for instance, with the dyed firebird hair? Textbook Crazy
Girl.
It's important to note that, as odd as regular Crazy Girls are, there's a subset as
well. This kind o f Crazy Girl lays low, not showing her colors until it's time to strike: she
is known as a Creeper.
"Generally," - Christian's uncle was quoted as saying over a few Miller High Lifes
- "a Creeper will start out looking like a Party Girl. She'll dance on tables, making out
with strangers and whatnot. And she seems real fun until, over time, her petals unfold,
and she slowly reveals herself to be absolutely batshit."
At first, only subtle hints whisper to this girl's true nature - an implacable
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fondness for whiskey, say, or a proclivity for playing pool in bars all night long. But over
time, it comes out that she's prone to crying jags, and her best memory o f her last
boyfriend was when she broke into his apartment just to make him dumplings, then
disappeared for two weeks "just because."
If a girl sneers through a pierced lip when she pulls an order of espresso, watch
out: that girl's a Creeper Crazy.
Two weeks ago, Christian met his girl back down in Atlantic City. At the time,
she seemed like a Party Girl, though he suspected she might be a Crazy Girl. He stepped
to her cautiously because o f that, but he assumed, regardless, that she was actually, at
least, a right-sider. An extrovert. Someone to have fun with. He had no time to draw out
left-side women, and when he first spotted her amidst the flashing lights and neon, she
was leading a pack of ladies in high heels and dresses through the aisles o f the Borgata.
"Bachelorette parrrrrrrrty!" She'd been screaming at the top of her lungs while
stumbling across the casino floor, somehow managing to drown out even the constant
ping-ping-ping o f the slot banks. At the very least, she looked like someone he had to get
to know better. So Christian swooped in to talk, never suspecting that the next time he
saw her - after fitting her into his next trip up to New York and making plans for a night­
time visit - that she'd end up being one o f the plain-Jane, bottom-left Borers that Christian
could never get along with. She'd just been drunk, it turned out: a little more out there
than normal, but still a settle-down, relationship girl at heart. That was it.
When he came to realize what she was - it was the crap on the wall that clinched it
MANHATTAN '05
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- Christian got himself ready to go. He walked, still naked, to the bathroom and peed.
He didn't feel like carving out a half hour to shower, so instead, he washed his hands,
then his penis, in the white porcelain sink.
It wasn't the first time: sinks all over the place had received the blessed
communion o f his junk.
Christian strode out o f the four-story apartment building just after eight in the
morning. His mouth, still gummy with the taste o f last night's vodka, was heavy, sticky;
his tongue felt like he'd been licking a shag carpet all night. It had been a long evening,
and daylight was rough on him: it took him a moment to figure out where exactly in the
city he was. Eventually, a young coed in a purple NYU sweatshirt gave it away.
He strode through the avenues south o f Washington Square: Thompson Street,
Sullivan, then MacDougal. Taking in the unpeopled, fresh smell of the early-morning
Village, he lorded past the waking smoke shops and newsstands, kicking loose pebbles at
the Turkish joints still hinting at the previous day's o f falafel. Birds flitted in the trees
and hopped, unabashed, before empty stoops. Mexicans power-washed the sidewalks in
front of as-yet-unopened trattorias. Christian tipped his chin to one in all white as he
ambled leisurely past.
Stepping around the open cellar grates in front o f the world-famous Blue Note,
Christian knocked by a handball court, where he saw a small Asian boy with fingerless
leather workout gloves taking apart a man in Adidas workout pants. Every three seconds,
the pink rubber ball slammed against the wall with a hard staccato: thwack! thwackI
MANHATTAN '05
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Thwack! And after every couple o f slaps, the kid hit a shot that sent the man running,
spending, missing, and cursing. He kept score in chalk on the poured cement floor.
Christian wondered how such a tiny person could hit the ball with such force.
Though his stomach growled, Christian kept his eyes on the game. The
glimmering lights o f the McDonald's across West 4th did nothing for him. He was
hungry, sure; he'd even taken a peek through the girl's fridge before leaving, though all
he'd found was a plastic bag o f peanut M&Ms in her freezer. A limp Egg McMuffin,
though, was not going to cut it, and the only other place that looked open was Joe's
Famous Pizza on the other side o f 6th Avenue. He'd read about that place, heard it was
good. But it was too early in the morning for a slice, and besides, he was in New York he could get pizza back in New Jersey. No. What he needed was a bagel.
Sesame. Slathered with cream cheese.
Christian pushed into the subway, letting the hot wind rush up toward him as he
slipped into the mouth o f the tunnel. He took the A train north to Columbus Circle,
trying, the whole way, to keep his eyes focused on the ads for the Borough o f Manhattan
Community College that flanked the walls o f the train, desperate not to stare at or even
touch any o f the multitudes pressed up close against him. But it was no good. When he
at last emerged at 59th and Central Park West, it was with relief, and he felt, he realized, a
sudden understanding for pigs fighting for room at a trough.
He set out heading north in what he believed was the direction o f H&H Bagels he'd never been there, had only heard o f it - but it took him quite a while to get there. For
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one, it was some twenty blocks away from the Columbus Circle subway stop. Also, he
ran into Alyssa.
When he first spotted her, she was leaning up against a lamppost. By herself. He
saw her smile, and immediately, Christian was drawn to her mouth. He got closer, took a
better look - he was too new to the City to care about its social norms, and too
accustomed to chatting up strangers. She had pretty teeth, he noticed, marred only by one
tiny snaggled chip in a center tooth along her top row. Those teeth lay mostly, but not
fully, hidden behind lips curling gently under a Semitic nose.
He liked pretty mouths. Jewish girls, too. Christian decided to talk to her. He
wasn't really a believer in fate; didn't think flying birds were loosed souls setting off for
heaven. But no sooner had he gone to approach her than Wham. She walked right into him. It was perfect.
"My mistake," he said, and that was all he had to do. He talked to her on
autopilot, saying anything he could come up with, which wasn't hard. He charmed.
Cajoled. Lied. And when it was done, he left, heading again in the direction of H&H.
As for the bagel shop - well, his efforts to get a Manhattan breakfast went perhaps
a little less smoothly. But in the greater scheme o f things, that didn't much matter: he
casually walked off into the streets o f New York City, his cell phone one number heavier.
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-4-
A ell
It had grown dark, but only just, by the time Aeli left his office that day. A few
weeks later, after daylight savings had passed, and it would have been light outside still.
Aeli prepared himself in the marble-tiled lobby, pulling his fingers inside his
leather gloves and wrapping his knit red scarf under the collar of his coat. He nodded to
Dave, the large, bald night doorman perched behind the desk, but Dave failed to respond.
Was Dave ignoring him? Aeli suspected that someone had been stealing egg rolls froiti
his Chinese food on nights when he worked late and ordered delivery.
On his way out, Aeli stopped to ogle the odd fresco painted on the beech-paneled
lobby wall. Featuring a topless, radiant goddess being lifted out o f the water, a brass
plaque identified it as "The Birth of Eunoe." In the painting, the woman was held aloft
by a well-muscled, topless black servant. On closer inspection, Aeli noticed that the
servant looked not dissimilar to Dave.
Surreptitiously, and with a casual glance over his shoulder, Aeli gave the picture
MANHATTAN '05
33
the finger. Then, he stepped out into the welcome embrace of the early Manhattan
evening.
The weather was surprisingly fair. No April mistral smacked Aeli in the face as
he pushed through the glass revolving doors. Within minutes, he stripped off the scarf
he’d just struggled to put on, and after that, the gloves as well. He began ambling south walking, in light o f the gentle air, rather than fighting through crowds on the subway.
Besides, he'd be on that ever-crowded, surely steamy Lexington Avenue 4 train soon
enough.
Aeli's stomach had started whirling the moment he saw the Badge tromping down
the hallway, jabbing a finger at the air like an courtroom lawyer. It was just quarter after
four - too early to start thinking of the Asian markets, and too late for crossing-session
trading. Aeli began to panic - what had gotten him so enervated? Whatever it was, it
made Aeli tense. The closer the Badge got, the more sure Aeli became that it had to be
something really bad. He began to panic - in fact, Aeli thought he might actually retch,
like he had at the county fair when he was eleven.
He'd eaten two com dogs before mounting the Tilt-A-Whirl, and then rode it three
more times in a row. When he finished, he felt disoriented and queasy, and Aeli stumbled
around for the next ten minutes before finally voiding his lunch all over the hay-strewn
parking lot.
He could never eat com dogs again after that.
With the Badge looming, Aeli looked down, trying to stare at his computer screen
MANHATTAN '05
34
hard enough to become invisible. But it was no good. Within seconds, the Badge was on
him, and Aeli could have sworn that he smelled fried batter.
"Hey."
The Badge clamped his hand on Aeli's shoulder. Aeli pressed shut his eyes,
anticipating the pinching squeeze of fingernails even before they even dug in.
As he felt his muscle tense under the Badge's viselike grip, Aeli heard something it sounded like a small stack o f papers - drop onto the surface o f the desk.
"You want these?"
He opened his eyes.
Sitting on his workspace were a pair o f Yankees tickets held together with a paper
clip.
"I can't use 'em," the Badge continued, quickly releasing his grip. "Got a hot date
tonight. This smokin' chick - Jesus, she could be a model. Anyway, thought you losers'd
enjoy 'em."
Aeli reached out to pick up the stubs, and gingerly, he inspected them. They were
the corporate seats, right behind home plate. Their face value was in the three figures.
"Wow," Aeli began, not believing the gift bestowed on him. "Thanks, I
"Fifty bucks," the Badge interrupted. "Each."
Aeli blanched. He looked over the top o f his screen to Tom, who seemed to be
very pointedly looking down, as if seeking out a new, foreign letter on his keyboard.
Aeli turned around to face his boss. "Ah, the Ba-... Jeffrey. I'm not sure..."
MANHATTAN '05
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The Badge smacked Aeli in the chest with the back o f his hand. "Nah, kid, I'm
just messing with you. Enjoy'em. Fuck off early." He nudged his head in Tom's
direction. "You and Chicken of the Sea." Then, without waiting for a reply, the Badge
walked away just as determinedly as he'd come.
Aeli gaped, slack-jawed. He was still fondling the serrated edges o f the tickets
when he realized what had happened. Tom mumbled his displeasure - "Leave it up to
that guy to be a dick even when he's passing along a present," he said - but Aeli didn't
care. Within half an hour, their computers were shut down and both o f them had packed
up for the day.
Aeli was already making plans to buy beers at the game in the second, fourth and
fifth innings - no hot dogs - when Tom sprung it on him that he wasn't planning to go.
"What are you talking about?" Aeli asked. "Free seats! Behind home plate!" He
gaped at his co-worker, incredulous.
"Yeah," Tom said. "Enjoy ’em."
"Enjoy them? Tom, we've got
Tom held up a hand. "I'm going home. I need to shower, and go to sleep." As the
lines on Aeli's face curled into a frown, Tom ran his hand through his hair. "Don't give
me that shit. I woke up this morning in the office. With celery on my face. You hear
me?"
They stepped into the elevator, and as they sped downward toward the lobby, Aeli
knew that Tom was a no-go. He took a last, ineffectual stab - he really wanted to go to
MANHATTAN '05
36
the game with Tom, he said; the two o f them together had earned the tickets - but there
was nothing he could say to change Tom's mind.
Aeli thanked him, said he would bring along a friend instead and wished him a
good night's rest. But as Tom left, Aeli realized the sinking truth o f it: he had never been
in the company box before, and was worried about how to act.
He tried to push his uncertainties out o f his mind as he began to pick his way
down Park Avenue. It had been quite a while since Aeli had been outside walking at this
hour, and he'd forgotten what Manhattan felt like flushed with people. It was amazing.
Hordes o f faceless strangers jockeyed and jostled into each other - Aeli saw a high-heeled
woman in a Hermes scarf nearly push an older, slower lady to the ground. Disgusted, but
amazed, he jabbed his way into the crowd, instinctively moving his hand to the rear of his
coat to protect the wallet in his back pants pocket.
Moving on, Aeli skirted the looming pillars at Grand Central Station: there, he ran
into tramping kids with backpacks walking three abreast during rush hour. Quasi-local
commuters towed wheeled luggage that waved in their wakes, and twice, Aeli's toe caps
were crushed by their cases. Silently, he cursed them all. "Tourists," he muttered, by
which he meant, "Screw you, all o f you who don't live within the four boroughs o f New
York City." Staten Island, because it wasn't connected by the MTA, didn't count, at least
according to Aeli's logic.
As he continued south, he meted judgment on anyone who didn't adhere to his
codes o f sidewalk etiquette, and relished the opportunity to do it. He looked down on
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everyone whose blithe ignorance to the needs o f people who needed to get somewhere in other words, his own - he deemed a nuisance. Never mind that he himself grew up on
Long Island and could hardly be called a local; never, he told himself, was he as blind to
his surroundings as the folks he watched. They reminded him of people who carried their
umbrellas low in the rain, nylon covers just barely above their heads and metal
protrusions jutting out and ready to stab. His whole life, Aeli carried a deep and abiding
fear of getting poked in the eye by a low-flying umbrella spine, and in foul weather he
found himself glowering at people who held them insufficiently high enough to ensure
clearance.
Passing Lexington and 37th Street - ten blocks south o f the diamond district, and
well east - Aeli spotted a jaywalking row of Hasidim, all dressed top-to-tails in the
standard orthodox outfit: black hats and black pants, pressed white shirts, and dangling
side curls that matched the fringes dancing beneath the ends of their clothes. Normally,
he would have hardly looked twice, or thrice, except these pious men - there were five of
them, in all - to a person sucked iced 7-Eleven Slurpees through neon straws. He was
curious: what were they doing? Where were they going? And wasn’t it some kind of
sacrilege to drink those things? He didn't ask (though his mother, he knew, would have;
his grandmother would certainly have, too). He didn't want to interrupt them, and
besides, he could see at least what flavor Slurpees they were drinking: cherry. One of
them had spilled a fat blob of it down the front of his Oxford.
It might have been the thought of food, but slowly, Aeli noticed the afternoon
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smells o f midtown creeping up around him. Peanut sellers set their wares out for sale:
hot roasted almonds, coconuts and cashews, all coated in the same sticky-sweet honey
glaze. Their aroma tempted his empty stomach - after the tuna incident, Aeli had not felt
the urge to send out for lunch - but he held off buying anything, suspicious, as he had
trouble recalling a single time when a street vendor's product ever tasted as good as it
first smelled.
He recalled his mother telling him that the food was better in her youth. "Back
when I was a girl," she'd said, "we ate bags and bags. Roasted chestnuts in wax paper,
mostly. And then we'd go skating in Central Park. It didn't matter what time o f year it
was - we went ice skating in the winter and roller skating in the summer.
"But that was before there was dieting," she sighed. And times, clearly, had
changed. The last people Aeli had seen roller skating in Central Park were as obviously
gay as a Broadway starlet's retinue; those men who didn't go topless altogether seemed to
prefer shirts made o f loose mesh weave. As for street snacks, far greater numbers of
people now opted for Tasti D-Lite - that suddenly ubiquitous thirty-calorie, chemical ice
cream impostor - than anything sold from a cart.
As he skirted the last o f the nut-sellers, Aeli spotted his destination. Its looming
broadside stood out from as far as a block away: 155 East 31st. Windsor Court, the
address for upwardly mobile young urban professionals, was the grandest in a sea o f
massive peach monstrosities that stretched upward from Murray Hill like the purgatory
mount formed after Lucifer's fall from grace.
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It was also the building that Ben Parnell called home.
Ben Parnell was Aeli's oldest friend. The two had known each other for ages,
ever since attending Saturday School together at Temple Beth Sholom. Theirs had been a
conservative synagogue, a lofted palace o f worship most notable for its frontpiece: a
sloping green lawn that led from the highway to the recessed building.
The edifice's second-most memorable feature was the large, brassy plate that ran
the length of the anteroom to the main worship hall. It featured a sequence of named and
dated memorial plaques, at the top o f which sat a plastic-wrapped sconce with an
inscription in bronze: "The light o f those who have passed is never extinguished." Aeli's
grandfather - dead the month of his 72nd birthday - had a place on that wall. Whenever
Aeli and Pamell ducked out o f their religion classes - which they did frequently - they
used that front hall as their soccer court, kicking around a crumpled wad of paper in that
cavern o f cool slate tile while talking about their future pro baseball careers.
After being bar mitzvahed and continuing in Hebrew school through their
confirmations, the two stayed friends, despite living in different districts. They attended
baseball games together, and rode their bikes to the movies; they even went to the same
summer camp. In fact, Pamell received his introduction to sex - a hand job from a mousy
early-bloomer named Ally Reese, a girl both boys had professed interest in - in Aeli's
bedroom, at a party held at Aeli's house while his parents were away. And though the two
attended different colleges - Aeli had made it into the Ivy League, whereas Pamell found
him self shuttled off with the rest o f the tri-state area's intelligent but un-legacied Jews to
MANHATTAN '05
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the University o f Michigan - they were lucky enough to get back in touch when they both
ended up with jobs back in the city: Pamell, at the world's cushiest lab at Columbia,
where he spent his days dicking around and delaying taking the MCAT for as long as
humanly possible. And Aeli at his financial firm, which he held as occupying just a few
rungs above a soul-sucking, feces-soaked circle of hell.
But at least it had provided him with the tickets.
As Aeli prepared to cross the intersection eastward toward Ben's building, he
espied a graying blonde woman in a business suit standing at the crosswalk. Next to her,
a Chinese man in his twenties or thirties waited, his square face framed by spiky black
hair and glossy, silver-rimmed glasses. Both carried laptop computers slung in dangling
shoulder bags, and both held ongoing conversations through blinking Bluetooth headsets.
Staring at them - he, checking his watch, she, flattening her blouse as they watched the
lights - it stmck Aeli how odd it was that these people were literally close enough to
touch, and so similar in their manner as to seem destined for each other, but each was
oblivious to the other's presence.
The crossing signal changed from red hand to white pedestrian, and the fleeting
thought disappeared from Aeli's mind.
He walked to the front of building 155, noting the change o f asphalt to cement
underfoot and then cement to brick as he crossed from roadway to sidewalk to semi-circle
driveway. Aeli stepped through the revolving door, nodding to the desk clerk as he
strolled in. He half-expected to be stopped - he had grown accustomed to being stopped
MANHATTAN '05
41
and asked to identify himself every time he came, which irked him, though he bore it but this time, the clerk ignored him and let him skirt right past the front tables to the
shiny brass elevator bank.
Aeli stepped out a minute later onto the landing of the fourteenth floor. He turned
right, passing one plastic potted plant and three other apartments before stopping, at last,
at 14D. The plastic nametag under the magic eye read "Hershk. / Lieb. / Pam."
He hit the buzzer.
"Just a minute," called a voice from inside, and after a brief pause, Aeli heard the
knob turn. His hand was already held high, ready to greet his brother from another
mother, but when the door creaked open in front o f him, Aeli was surprised that his friend
Pamell wasn't standing behind it. Instead, Aeli found himself face-to-face with a
stranger: a tall guy, broad, with stubble on his face and spiked brown hair gelled into
rows.
Aeli lowered his hand jerkily, embarrassed. Quickly, he snuck a peek at the
number on the door, thinking briefly that he must have ended up in front o f the wrong
apartment. But it read 14D. Aeli blanched, trying to come up with an explanation for the
gaffe.
"Ahh," he fumbled.
The stranger cut him off, turning his back on him as he retreated into the recesses
o f the apartment. "Come on in," he said, and without so much as a handshake or
introduction, stepped away from the threshold, leaving the entrance wide open behind
MANHATTAN '05
42
him.
Aeli walked in, and from the moment he entered, he was sure, at least, that he had
the right place. Parnell's apartment sprawled. It was done in all white, except for black
leather couches, and the beechwood floors that accented the big-screen television and
see-through glass coffee table. There were no posters or decorations on the walls, just
floor-to-ceiling windows: the apartment seemed to belong to a world o f men's magazine
photo spreads, and Aeli felt the twin gentle waves o f envy and unease wash over him like
they always did when he came. For some reason, he never knew where to put his hands
at Parnell's. It made him feel uncomfortable in his own socks.
The stranger led himself to the loveseat next to the window. At the very least, he
seemed at home. Kitty comer to him sat a boy draped across the couch, half-dozing.
Shuffling over to stand awkwardly before him, Aeli see why he was so tired: on the
coffee table, next to his knees, sat a pile o f peeled, shredded label paper and six green
glass beer bottles, all but one already empty. That final wounded soldier was still half­
full, and the visible remnants o f its logo in the heap identified its contents as imported,
pricey, and high-octane.
Aeli poked at the boy's ankle with his toe. "I can see the lab program is still
kicking your ass."
Slowly, the drunk napper opened his eyes. A spark o f recognition crept across his
features in a ripple.
"Aeli!"
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Pamell sat up, shook off his stupor enough to stand, and gave Aeli a hearty hug.
When he stepped away, Aeli got a good look at him: he was one hot mess. His dress shirt
lay untucked and rumpled, and he looked as if he hadn't shaved in a while.
"I took two days off," he said before settling himself back onto couch. He didn't
bother to introduce the fellow who'd opened the door for him; he just kept one eye on the
sports highlights show on TV and held out a two foot-tall glass pipe to Aeli. "Bong hit?"
When Aeli pled off, Pamell shrugged and plucked a white lighter from between
the fort o f empty bottles on the table.
"Let me get one o f those?" The stranger across the room reached out before
Pamell even put the bong down, and Aeli watched through squinted eyes as Pamell
exhaled a thick cloud o f white smoke. He squeaked out a chirpy cough, then packed the
bong again and passed it, with the lighter, to the boy.
"So," Pamell said, motioning at last for Aeli to take a seat. "What's up?"
Aeli settled into a spot on the far side of the couch and thrust his hands deep into
his pockets.
"I got tickets for tonight's Yankees game. Against the Red Sox. Right behind
home plate."
"What?" Pamell sat straight up. "Today?"
Aeli nodded. "Yeah. From work. I was gonna surprise you, see if you wanted to
go. But I didn't know you have houseguests, so
"I'll go."
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The words passed through Aeli's prefrontal cortex some seconds before he
realized who had spoken them.
Not his friend, but the stranger.
Aeli turned and examined the boy, who was busy drawing in a massive, gurgling
tube of milky smoke. He moved his hand to the top o f the mouthpiece, covering the
chamber and holding Aeli's gaze while Aeli looked on. "What time is the game?"
The couch supports suddenly seemed to start digging into Aeli's back, and he
leaned and squirmed against the leather. He looked at Pamell - his friend was disheveled
and an utter mess - and then back at the stranger, who stared at him from under arched
eyebrows.
Aeli cleared his throat.
"Seven. But, I've only got the one extra ticket, so
The boy cut him off for a second time. "No big deal. I'll get one off a scalper."
Aeli nodded, hoping for help from Pamell that, by the looks of things, seemed far
from coming. His palms began to slicken. "Mmm. Yeah. See, the thing is, these are our
corporate seats, so we probably wouldn't even end up in the same section?"
The stranger shook his head and flicked at air again, as if he were waving away a
blackfly. "No big deal. I'll sneak up. Just give me ten minutes heads-up to get ready."
Aeli watched him lower his face back to the glass tube as if the matter settled, removing
his hand from the opening o f the mouth piece as he as he inhaled the marijuana smoke.
Aeli turned yet once more to Pamell. He noticed now how his friend's head had
MANHATTAN '05
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lolled off to the side and that he appeared to be drifting to sleep once more. "Ben," he
said, in a tone he hoped came out sounding more casual and unperturbed than it felt. His
friend looked over and raised an eyebrow. "Let me talk to you for a sec?
"I've got something I want to show you," he continued. "Let's go to your room for
a minute."
Ben, to Aeli's great relief, nodded, slowly, and got up from his seat. Aeli led the
two o f them out o f the living room - he wasn't sure, but he thought he caught the new guy
following them as they left.
With Pamell behind him, Aeli followed the narrow passage down the apartment's
back hallway, flipping switches on the walls as he passed. As the lights clicked on, they
illuminated a pair o f cavernous, empty rooms with open doors.
"Where are your roommates?" he asked.
"Shahar's at Beth Israel, I think," Pamell answered, "doing a double rotation. And
Mark - I guess Mark is at Elise's."
It was as if Pamell had hit the apartment-sharing lottery: with one roommate an
intern at a hospital and the other almost always at his girlfriend's, he practically always
had the entire three-bedroom apartment to himself. The total cost for this outsized living
arrangement - which included a doorman - came in at just below what Aeli paid for his
studio on subway-less First Avenue. Tme, Pamell would eventually, in theory, be
someday slammed by medical school as well. But for the moment, he was sitting pretty,
and Aeli suspected that Parnell's parents paid half of the rent - at least - as well.
MANHATTAN '05
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Lucky son o f a bitch.
They stepped into Parnell’s bedroom, and Ben immediately flopped down into his
desk chair. ”So, what did you want to show me?"
Aeli sat on the bed and shook his head. "We can’t take that guy along. I have two
tickets, not three." He paused, then added, "Not to mention, he seems like kind of a
dick."
Ben, leaning back as Aeli cut straight to the point, splayed his legs wide out
underneath him. "Who? Christian? Nah, he’s a good dude."
Aeli watched his friend become engrossed by twisting the swivel chair in circles
back and forth with his feet. "Jesus," he said, "are you going to be able to pull it
together?" Ben just nodded; Aeli doubted it, and he huffed as he exhaled loudly. "How
do you even know this guy, anyway?"
Pamell turned toward his desk, fumbling past a framed photo o f his long-time,
long-distance girlfriend, Amanda. He nearly knocked over his black frosted-metal lamp
as he reached for a perpetually half-solved Rubik's Cube.
"We met in Atlantic City," Pamell said.
Aeli rocked back on the mattress. "At the tables?"
Pamell, Aeli noticed, seemed to be avoiding eye contact. He kept fiddling with
the puzzle until he at last gave up and put it down.3
3
Aeli had often tried to teach Ben how to solve the Rubik's Cube - generally while
high - but Ben didn't have the attention span. The proper solution, in simplified
form, is as follows:
1) Start with one face o f the cube. Note the color o f the center square. Align the
MANHATTAN ’05
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"Yeah," he said, though Aeli perceived, or thought he did, a note o f what sounded
like uncertainty. "He's a good dude. He took me out. Made sure I had a good time."
Pamell got up, and put his hand on Aeli's shoulder, just as the Badge had done to him
earlier. "And now it's my turn. Don't worry about Christian. He'll buy a ticket wherever
and just sneak up. He's good people."
Aeli remained unconvinced.
"And if they're full?"
"It's a weeknight." As Pamell rebuffed Aeli's protests, he could feel himself begin
to cave. He only issued one request: that Pamell ensure his friend would not do anything
bad at the stadium.
Ben furrowed his eyebrows and raised a comer of his lip. "Like what?"
Aeli inhaled sharply.
"Anything that could get us to get tossed. Or embarrassed?" He didn't mean to
center row to that color, then do the same to the perpendicular central column,
creating a complete "X" shape, or cross, in that color.
2) Solve the comers o f that same face by moving the proper pieces into position.
A t the end o f this step, one whole face should be correctly completed, plus, the
adjoining rows o f all the other faces. If the adjoining rows are not arranged in
matched, solid-color lines, that means the comer pieces are out o f place, and they
must be repositioned until they align.
3) Flip the completed side face down. It's primarily done. Now, align the middle
rows o f all the four perpendicular sides (saving the face-up side for last).
4) Create a solid-color "X" shape, or cross, on the face-up side.
5) Then, finish the puzzle.
MANHATTAN '05
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say it, but he blurted it out. "These are my company’s seats."
Parnell told him not to worry; he said Aeli ought to relax. Finally, Aeli gave in
and allowed him self to be led back down the hall to the living room.
Once there, he found Christian hunched over the coffee table pressing a credit
card flat against the glass surface. He pulled the card away to reveal a small mound of
blue powder, like dyed sugar.
Aeli’s face puckered instinctively, as though he’d bitten into the zest of a lemon.
Christian looked up and waved to the two boys.
"Oh, don’t worry, it’s not coke or anything. Who does coke any more? Naw, this
is just Adderall. It’s nothing to worry about!" Christian pressed his thumb to his nostril.
The bottom o f his septum was marked with a thin strip of blue as if it had been outlined
with highlighter. "It’s prescription."
He took a bill out o f his wallet and begin rolling it up into a straw. Before Aeli
could say a word, Parnell had already clapped him across the back and walked swiftly
toward the table.
"See?" he said. "It’s just Adderall. Prescription! Nothing to worry about," and he
settled back onto the couch. As Parnell bent over, joining Christian, Aeli felt the knot
return to his stomach. Once again, he could have sworn he detected the smell o f fried
dough in the air.
Five minutes later, the three of them were out the door, headed together to the
game.
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-5 -
Christian.
By the top o f the second inning, Christian had settled in comfortably to the VIP
section behind home plate. Only a few rows of seats, a thin mesh screen and fifty or so
feet stood between him and the batter’s box. He was close enough that he could see into
the pitcher's eyes and catch the hitter's back feet pivot as he set up to swing. He also was
close enough, and possibly seated centrally enough, for his face to be broadcast on T.V.
This pleased him greatly.
They'd taken the subway to the game, joining the crush on the Lexington Avenue
northbound when they transferred to the 4 at Grand Central, Christian studying the map
the whole way. When it squealed to a stop on the elevated tracks o f the 161st Street
station in the South Bronx, Christian, Aeli, Ben, and a few hundred thousand or so other
fans pushed their way out of the crowded cattle cars and onto the wooden-trestle
platform.
Christian jostled down the stairs, determined to be at the front o f the pack. Aeli
MANHATTAN '05
50
had led them to that point, but the rush of oxygen three stories up that hit Christian when
the doors released re-invigorated him. His hands and elbows shot past the twill of
strangers' custom satin jackets as he brushed past them on his way to the turnstiles. From
behind, a man wearing a Yankees cap braced by yellow plastic headphones kept him
moving along. He lost the two others, and as he waited for them at the subway exit, a
weathered Latino man tried to sell him coal-warmed pretzels from a stolen grocery cart.
When at last they emerged from the crowd, he asked them for the section number
to their seats. Then, Christian let them go toward the gates of the stadium all by
themselves while he set out alone to search for a scalper.
In situations like this, Christian preferred being by himself. First of all, it was
easier to navigate a crowd without having to keep track of other people in his wake.
Second, when he found a likely ticket seller, he wanted to be able to talk to the man by
himself, without a crew o f onlookers gawking shadily. Sideways glances from unknowns
drew attention and often made strangers nervous. Christian knew this from experience.
Third, there was the issue of being rushed. He didn't want to be pressured into accepting
a bad offer when the right play was walking away.
Finally, there was the matter o f hangers-on with loose lips. One time, Christian
and a friend were haggling over a bag from a stranger and trying to come to terms on
price. The guy wanted sixty, and Christian offered half that. The man conceded first "Fifty," he'd said - and Christian knew he had him. But then, his buddy's girlfriend - who
shouldn't have been there at all - opened her mouth.
MANHATTAN '05
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"Forty-five."
Christian had nearly turned and slapped her. The girl wasn't involved; she had no
right to be talking. But once she got caught up in the deal, and spoke - once she offered
forty-five - that was it. The guy wouldn't go any lower. He could have gotten the price
down to forty, at least, he knew it, but by that point, it was too late.
Afterward, he spent half an hour trying to convince his friend to make his girl
chip in the difference. So Christian was happy to cut through the parking lot alone,
scouring the night air for the right buy.
Two minutes to game time, he found it.
One man standing apart from all the others waited under a small, scraggly tree
that had somehow been allowed to survive in a poured-concrete dirt box busting out of
the pavement. He held a sign reading, "Need Tickets" - a sign with no punctuation, one
that seemed to read "/N eed Tickets," but really meant "Hey - You Need Tickets?"
Christian approached.
"What have you got?"
The man shuffled, eyes darting as he scanned for cops. "What do you need?"
"Something cheap."
He put his sign down and pulled a wad of tickets from his jean jacket pocket. He
riffled through a few before proffering one in the upper level with a face value of thirty
dollars.
"Great," Christian said. "I'll take it. Here's a twenty."
MANHATTAN '05
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The scalper shook his head. "No way."
Christian stamped his feet. "Look," he said. "The game's starting. And there are
a lot more people out here that still have tickets than there are buyers left.
"I could go to someone else," he offered. "Just think about it for a second. At the
end of the night, which would you rather be holding onto? The useless ticket? Or twenty
bucks?"4
A roar rose from the direction o f the stadium as the Yankees, hidden from view
inside the confines o f their home turf, trotted onto the field. Within a minute, Christian
was striding toward the entrance with the stub in his hand.
After passing his ticket to the blue-jacketed gate attendant for scanning, Christian
shot through the press o f people heading to the upper level ramps and darted to the first
4
Christian also knew that this offer of twenty bucks was fair, despite the ticket's
face value. One theorem o f ticket reselling is:
lA A < B < X
AA
Where A = published ticket price, and B = actual price paid by a scalper, because
season pass and multi-game block purchasers - which scalpers generally either
were, or bought their tickets from on the secondary market - were sold by teams at
a discount.
Therefore, at a tender price of C, where
VtA < c < a
(i.e., 2/sA, or in this case, twenty bucks), both buyer and seller can walk away
happy, with the buyer having saved money off o f box office prices and the seller
turning a profit on his investment.
Only suckers paid a premium for scalped tickets.
MANHATTAN ’05
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concessionaire he saw. He bought himself a pair o f hot dogs, which he covered with
chopped onions, relish, and mustard. Then, he skirted the paths leading toward the rafters
and walked down the tunnel to the field level seats.
As soon as he emerged, the sights and smells o f the ballpark assaulted him - the
lush green infield grass, the peanut shells trampled underfoot. The washed, mottled red
clay dirt, the sticky heat o f cheap draft beer; the chalky white o f the bases and lines. It
took him back to nights in Columbus when he saw the Clippers, the minor league feeder
team for the Yankees. The games were always so sparsely attended that anyone could sit
in the front row right behind the dugouts. No questions asked.
Christian loved going there as a kid, and all the Yankees greats had come through.
Once - and he swore this happened, though no one else in his family could remember it he saw a young rookie hit his first home run in the park. Everyone in the stadium stood
up and started waving dollar bills, and bat-girls came by to collect their money in hats,
like in church.
The fans were tipping the players. Christian was apoplectic.
An elderly usher with gray hair spilling out o f his ears imposed on Christian's
nostalgia. Luckily, the wieners defended Christian against his approach: as he ambled
past, he deftly avoided the ticket-checker like a baserunner dodging a swiping tag. He
lifted the food busying his hands and shrugged. "Can't dig out my ticket right now," the
gesture said. " What can you do?" Other people pushed behind him, and the nodding old
man was forced to let Christian through unmolested. He galloped down the stairs two at
MANHATTAN '05
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a time to meet Aeli and Ben at their seats.
When he got there, Christian had them each scootch in one to make a space for
him: "I got long legs/' he said, commandeering the aisle. With a huff and a sigh - and an
aside that Christian would have to be the one to move up and out if someone did come by
- Aeli slid over, and Ben followed. Christian considered telling the kid to lighten up - if
his company had two spots, after all, they probably had four, and if they had given one
pair to him, they probably weren't going to use the others. But he held his mouth. No
reason to push the guy and get into an argument. Not now. Besides, the seats were
amazing.
A Boston player grounded into a double play just as Christian was getting settled,
ending the top half o f the inning with the stadium erupting in cheers. As the crowd began
to quiet down, he overheard a girl's voice behind him.
"So that's one double bourbon and coke and one vodka martini with a twist?"
Christian looked over to see a young woman in a skirt kneeling in front of two
older businessmen. Her poofy brown hair only partially obscured the notepad and pen
she balanced in her lap.
"Guys!" Christian slapped Ben with the back o f his hand. "Did you know we can
order drinks here?"
Aeli nodded. "Yeah. They do waitress service in these seats. But I think it would
be better if we just got our own drinks,. I'm not sure whether or not this bills directly to
the company."
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Christian hadn't listened to a word. He'd already made up his mind.
"Hey!" he blurted, leaning out into the aisle. "Maybelline!"
Aeli slunk down in his seat.
The woman demurely nodded to her other customers, then slowly stood to full
height. She took two measured steps towards Christian, sucking on her lip before she
spoke. "That's not my name. Sir." She pointed to a pinned brass name tag above her
breast. "It's Marie."
Christian ran his eyes down her black business jacket and skirt, all the way to her
pumps. He cocked his head and lifted his jaw, making his lone dimple pop out on his left
cheek. "I know," he said. "I just called you that because you've got such pretty eyes." A
ten dollar bill found its way onto her tray. "That's for you."
The girl glanced down at the money and opened her mouth, but Christian pressed
on before she could say anything, like a train engineer opening the throttle.
"We're gonna need three beers - you know what? No. We're going to need three
gin and tonics. Something nice. Gilbey's." He turned and gestured toward Aeli and Ben.
"Do you like Gilbey's?" But before either had a chance to answer, Christian kept pushing
on again.
"That's it for now. Three Gilbey's gin and tonics. And thank you so much.
Marie.
Christian watched as Maybelline's cheek gradually flushed. She found her voice,
stammering, "W- we don't actually have Gilbey's
MANHATTAN ’05
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"Christian." He reached out his hand. She shook it. He patted her on the
hipbone. "Don't worry about it. I'm sure whatever you pick will be fine. And thank you
very much, again." He settled into his seat and turned to watch the next inning begin.
He waited until the girl was gone to glance at the other two: they both stared at
him, mouths agape.
"That was awesome," Ben slurred, and even his friend Aeli looked impressed.
Over the next three innings, Maybelline kept herself close at hand. She attended
to Christian's requests and even brought the boys a round on the house in the fifth in
commiseration when the Red Sox went up one off a solo homer. When Ben at last got up
to hit the bathroom, against remonstrations about breaking the seal - once you started
peeing during a bender, you couldn't ever seem to stop - Christian decided that it was
time to get in good with Aeli.
"I tried to get a bagel earlier," he lobbied. It was his way o f reaching out. You
had to talk to these Jewish kids on a level they could relate to.
Christian told Aeli about everything that had happened to him that morning. How
he met Alyssa. How, afterwards, he walked all the way to H&H bagels at 80th and
Broadway, because he'd heard it was the best.
When he'd entered, the smell o f yeast coated the hot air inside so thickly he didn't
just smell it, but felt it - the aroma heavy, coating his nostrils and lungs like red wine
holding to the inside of a glass. The ground had been so littered with poppy seeds that
when he walked, he slid across the surface like he was on rollerblades, or slipping on a
MANHATTAN ’05
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floor covered in marbles.
"There was no line when I got there, but that wasn't even the crazy thing. Trying
to get a bagel was nuts. I just walked up and said, 'Let me get an everything bagel with
cream cheese/ you know? But the girl behind the counter shakes her head at me. 'Sorry,
we don't sell that,' she says. 'Sell what?' I ask. 'Bagels with cream cheese on them,' she
says. Can you believe that? What kind o f bagel shop doesn't sell bagels with cream
cheese? Not to mention, they had a whole rack o f the stuff in these glass refrigerator
cases along the side wall: orange juice, apple juice, lox and cream cheese. Tons o f it, in
all these flavors: blueberry, green onion, plain, low fat, freaking walnut. And she's telling
me they don't serve cream cheese!"
Aeli nodded, his eyes fixed on the game. "Yeah. H&H won't sell their bagels
any way but plain, with nothing on 'em. That's why not a lot o f people won't go there any
more."
Christian took a slow pull o f his gin and tonic and bit down on his tongue. The
hitter in the on-deck circle swung a weighted practice bat. He'd been all ready to tell Aeli
about how he paid a buck and a quarter for a dry bagel and ended up throwing the last o f
it into the garbage. Best bagels in New York? Screw 'em! Instead, he just counted the
minutes until Ben to came back, which he did at the top o f the sixth.
"Get you boys another?" Maybelline had become a mainstay o f their section,
practically one o f the gang. Christian ordered a pair o f drinks, one for Aeli and one for
himself, and Ben insisted on ordering another, too, despite the fact that he was tottering
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on his feet and shrouded in a faint, acrid odor,
"I can't believe these are your work seats," Ben said after she ambled off.
"Remember when we used to sneak up here when we were little?"
Aeli nodded. The oversized television screen announced the evening’s paid
attendance at just over 39,000.
"Yeah, work," Christian said. "What is it you do?"
"I'm in finance," Aeli said, not turning away from the field. "Investment
banking."
Christian's ears perked up. "Lot of good guys in banking. I'd love to meet some
of the folks you work with."
"Why?" Aeli asked, waking up for the first time in the evening. "Most o f them
are douchebags."
"Maybe," Christian shrugged. "But what about your boss? He can't be all bad.
Gave you these seats, right?"
Aeli offered Christian a look that could have wilted a fresh head of lettuce. "My
boss is the biggest douche o f them all."
Christian dropped it. They had something to watch, anyhow: the Yankees began
to rally in the bottom o f the sixth, just as the air turned cool. After two strikeouts, they
followed up a four-pitch walk with a double to left field, putting two runners on. The
crowd started to jeer and heckle, and Christian watched the Red Sox pitching coach trot
out to the mound - along with the catcher, the first and third basemen, and the two Latino
MANHATTAN '05
59
middle infielders - to have a conference with the pitcher.
"This guy used to be big," Aeli said, speaking to no one in particular. "Then his
wife divorced him a year or two ago, and now he’s got no money."
"We ought to start a bank, then," Christian said, remembering the minor leaguer
he’d seen the crowd tip out. "Overdraft protection for baseball players. You can set up
the back end. We’ll fund it by getting the fans to pay money directly into the accounts of
the players they like.’’ His speech quickened; he could feel himself catching hold o f
something good. ’’We’ll keep the cash in a trust, to be paid out at our discretion. That
way, it’s not an asset, just untaxable gifts, and the courts can’t touch it even if their wives
dump 'em.
"Sounds moronic," Ben droned. Christian wanted to dispute him, but Aeli didn’t
say a word to get his back. Well, screw those two. If patrons at a minor league game
were willing to give dollar bills to an unknown kid, wouldn't fans o f a big star player be
willing to kick in a couple o f bucks in case his life went to pot? Christian was sure they
would, and if he organized it, surely it would be OK for him to take five or ten percent off
the top.
On the spot, he decided that Aeli was small-time, and that his next idea, he’d take
to someone higher up the ladder.
The Red Sox coach ended up leaving the starting pitched in after the umpire
forced the game to resume. That decision blew up in his face when the next hitter stroked
a 2-1 pitch through the hole between second and short, rolling one into the gap and
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putting him on first with a two-run single that gave the Yankees their first lead. Christian
missed it - he had been busy wondering whether there was some way he could get a copy
o f the game tape to check for himself on T.V., maybe use it in a commercial spot for his
funding service in the future. That was too bad, but it was only because he wasn't
engrossed in the game that Christian managed to see what happened to Aeli after the hit.
A man directly behind them who’d paired his tan business suit with a gaudy navy
tie stood up and cheered with the rest of the crowd when the two runs scored. He also
high-fived the white-haired guy next to him, swinging his arm, and with it, his whole
torso, when he did. This sent a massive spray o f foam and suds sloshing from his
sixteen-ounce cup, specifically, in the direction o f the row in front o f him, toward Aeli's
seat.
Which was how Aeli became covered from head to waist in the best beechwoodaged lager that Anheuser Busch had to offer.
Christian saw Aeli freeze in shock as the beer drenched him; instantly, he sprang
to his feet. He tugged at the jacket o f the man in the row behind them, who was still
oblivious to what he'd done.
"Hey." The man looked down at them. "You spilled all over my friend. Look at
him. You got him soaked."
The man saw Aeli, and his face drained o f color. "I'm so sorry," he said. "Let me
get you a napkin, or something - hey!" He flagged down Maybelline, who happened to
be walking down the aisle to offer last call service before the alcohol cut-off at the
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seventh inning stretch. "Can we have some napkins?”
”Yeah,” Christian said. "That'd be good. And it'd be nice if you bought him a
drink, too."
"You're right,” the man said. He peeled off a fifty from a money clip and gave it
to Marie. "Let me buy these guys all a round?” Whatever they've been drinking." He
patted Christian on the shoulder. "And I'm sorry again, huh?" Aeli was an afterthought.
Christian accepted the drinks, and Aeli reluctantly sat down. He didn't say
anything, but they both knew: he wouldn't have been sitting there in the first place if
Christian hadn't come along.
But then, Christian decided, he wouldn't have gotten a free drink, either.
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62
6-
Alyssa.
It took five thousand years of Jewish history before the matriarchs were added to
the Hebrew prayer praising the founders of the faith.
When Christian left Alyssa waiting until nine P.M. to call her, she was fit to kill.
By the time he finally did ring her up, she'd long given up on him. After work,
she went to yoga instead o f drinking; she checked her cell phone one more time after the
class in case he called while she was in down dog, but he didn't. So she rode the subway
home, showered and changed, and searched for some excitement in the fridge.
She found hummus with garlic, pita chips, and a few cans o f diet soda. Not
exactly a party.
Alyssa had already put on her fuzzy slippers and yellow Emory sweatpants,
turned the TV up loud and resigned herself to ordering Chinese delivery by the time her
phone lit up with a 609 number she didn't recognize.
She reached for the remote control to mute the TV. "Hello?"
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"Alyssa?” The voice on the other end of the line came through choppy, like there
was static, or a lot of background noise.
"Yeah?" she said.
"It's Christian," said the voice.
Slowly, Alyssa stood up, dumping the remote on the couch. "Christian." She'd
missed the
m ute
button and hit c h a n n e l
up
instead, but she let it be and began to pace
around her apartment. First, Alyssa completed a pair of laps around the coffee table and
the little area rug beneath it; then she expanded her circle to include snippets o f the
hardwood floor. "/ thought you were going to call me," she wanted to say, "I thought we
were going fo r drinks." But she didn't. Instead, she strolled toward the windows facing
the street, waiting for Christian to speak first.
The one word - "Christian" - hung in the air until he broke. "Hey," he said, "about
before. That's my bad. My friend bailed on me, so there wasn't anything going on. I was
going to call you, but I ended up trying to track down something else to do instead, and it
kind of fell apart."
"Mmm," she replied.
"I'd say, 'let's do something tomorrow' or something, but thing is, I have to work."
Work? A 609 number meant Jersey... Maybe he just grew up there. She could
handle that. But if he actually lived there... if he was a bridge and tunnel guy...
"Maybe we can do it another time?"
Was he with another girl? Was that what it was? Alyssa was about to poke - in a
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roundabout way, o f course - and find out what he'd been doing since five, why he didn't
call her earlier. But just then, the buzzer to her apartment rang, and she had to walk to the
door to go get it.
"Hold on," Alyssa said into the receiver, and she crammed the phone into the
smooth crook between her shoulder and her neck. She spirited past her little breakfast
nook - though seldom did she eat breakfast, or any meal, anywhere in her apartment
besides her coffee table - and brought her lips to the grille o f the intercom.
She pushed the button marked t a l k .
"Hello?" she said.
"Chinese food!" called a disembodied voice.
"I'm here," Christian said.
"Not you," Alyssa said into her phone; she pushed again,
She punched the
door
talk
"Come on up."
button in the middle o f the console.
"I can't," Christian said. "I'm on my way back home." Alyssa was just adjusting
the phone again, pressing it against her ear, when, a roar erupted from the TV speakers.
It drew her attention, and Alyssa looked on as a ravenous pack o f sports fans lunged after
a baseball hit into the bleachers while a pinstriped Yankee trotted around the bases.
The sounds Alyssa heard over her cell phone seemed to track the televised chaos.
"What's that noise?" she asked, cracking her front door for the delivery man and
stepping back toward her couch.
"Just a subway train going under me; I'm standing over a grate," Christian said.
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"Home run for Alex Rodriguez!" cried the announcer on the TV.
"Look, I've got to go," Christian hurried, "But I'll call you to do something soon,
OK?"
She wouldn’t have let him off so easily, but she didn't have time to ask questions;
a knock was quickly followed by a voice calling from Alyssa's front door.
"Chinese food?" Alyssa had to hang up and answer.
Alyssa opened the door to a squat Asian man in a white collared shirt who stood
panting just outside the apartment threshold. It was a three-flight walk; he had to be
tired. She smiled, and he proffered her a brown paper bag with the top stapled shut,
stuffed inside a white plastic sack.
"Hello," he said. "Seventeen thirty-nine."
Alyssa took the bag, spun around and put it on the long table in her breakfast
nook. She picked up her leather handbag behind the door, out o f which she extracted her
purse. She zipped it open and retrieved her wallet.
"How much?" she asked, but before he could answer, a short girl with brown hair
and a giant rock on her finger breezed past both of them into the apartment.
"Hey, Sis," she called, smacking Alyssa on the butt.
"Seventeen thirty-nine," he repeated.
"For chicken with broccoli?"
The man lifted a yellow carbon copy o f a receipt - handwritten in Chinese stapled to the bag and fluttered it in the air like a magician at a show. "Eleven ninety-five
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for chicken broccoli!" he garbled. "Plus two fifty for soup! Dollar fifty delivery charge!
Tax!" His smile disappeared; every sentence, he delivered with emphasis, authority.
Every word, he shouted like a demand.
Alyssa was not up for a fight - not from her regular Chinese place, not in front o f
her sister, and not after twelve hours of walking, work, yoga, getting stood up and
changing into her sweats. Now was not the time to channel her inner bitch. She dug
through her billfold and thrust a twenty at the man.
"OK," she said. "Fine, thank you. Good night!" She pushed shut the door, only
half-making sure she didn't hit him in the back on his way out.
Alyssa's sister lowered the volume on the TV, then began flipping through
channels.
"You're watching baseball now?"
"It was an accident." Alyssa took the Chinese food to her kitchenette.
The cooking space was big, by New York City standards: big enough for two
people to stand side by side, anyhow, and bigger than a lot o f the other ones she'd seen in
her friends' one-bedrooms downtown. She dug through her cupboards and grabbed a
ceramic plate, then grubbed around through her drying rack for two bowls that were, at
least, clean enough.
"You want any?" she asked.
"Chinese food?"
Alyssa carried the bowls and plate in one hand and the bag o f food in the other,
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walking laden like an upper west-side Gunga Din into the living room. She pushed a
stack of season-old magazines - Marie Clare, Time Out NY - away from the comer of the
glass table and lined the plate and bowls along its edge. Then, she sat down on the floor
and began pulling out the contents o f the delivery bag.
The container o f soup, a tall cylinder of clear plastic, she put on top of the coffee
table. Next, she withdrew a black-bottomed tray with a steamed-over lid; she opened it
to reveal a serving o f plain, steamed chicken and broccoli with brown sauce served on the
side. Finally, she removed a white cardboard trapezoid of rice adorned with a fresco of a
snarling red dragon, nostrils full o f smoke and breathing fire.
Celeste stopped channel surfing and settled on a waggish sitcom. Alyssa stuck
her whole face into the bag like a pearl diver pushing through ocean, feeling the heat of
the air inside it as she peered at the remains: crisped noodles, a fortune cookie and heaps
o f extraneous individual packets o f yellow, orange, and brown sauces. Her sister hated
when she did that; Alyssa knew that, and she cherished it.
"Bitches forgot my chopsticks," she said. She upended the bag and shook out a
plastic spoon and fork.
"So what are you doing here?" she asked her sister, picking up her utensils and
spooning rice into one o f the bowls.
"Good to see you, too." Celeste popped a piece o f chicken into her mouth; when
Alyssa offered her the fork, she waved it off. "I already ate."
"Alone?" Celeste turned to the TV to ignore her sister and her cocked eyebrow.
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’’Confucius say, why no dinner with lucky new fiancee tonight?”
Celeste shrugged. "I don't know. He's working late. I was walking home; I
thought about a movie but decided I'd drop by. Actually, I'm surprised you're not entertaining." Alyssa frowned; Celeste tipped her head toward the kitchenette. She
followed her sister's gaze to a pair of her panties - lavender - that lay draped and dangling
from the dark haildle of the oven.
"Oh," Alyssa said, "those weren't dry."
Now it was her turn to ignore Celeste's judging expression. She got up and
stomped to the kitchen to pull her underwear off the range, which she did with an audible
snap. "It's not that," she said. "I just got sweaty. I went to yoga. I decided to take it easy
tonight."
That was actually halfway true, so she didn't feel bad about saying it. She had
decided to take it easy, after all - just not until after the decision was already made for her,
after the day had closed without word from Christian. She had planned to try to bring
along Jamila, a mussy-haired black girl from work whose bra always showed through her
shirts. That way, she'd look extra-good, by comparison: Jamila was cute, but not quite
cute enough. She even ate a really small lunch, which made it OK for her to have
Chinese food for dinner.5
5
Lunch that day had been a tupperware container o f carrots (120 calories) with Lite
Ranch dressing dip (80 calories - eh, more like 150 if she was being honest with
herself about serving size) and a turkey sandwich on lo-cal pita bread with a thin
spread of mustard (300 calories).
She also brought a cup of Golden Grahams cereal as a snack (200 calories, at 150
calories for a 3/4 cup serving - damn General Mills for never listing an actual
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Also, she had kicked ass at yoga. With the exception o f the one girl in the red
strapless shirt, the one who did the ’advanced’ pose every time the instructor mentioned it
- and Alyssa was sure she’d seen her leading a class once or twice before, anyway Alyssa had pushed herself harder than anyone else in the room. That poor girl in the
fuchsia leggings, the one who had been right next to her, hadn't had a chance.
Not that it mattered. It wasn't like she was still thinking of him or anything. It
was just that she hated having to change plans last-minute.
As Alyssa crunched on a broccoli spear, the TV show broke for a commercial
message about life insurance. This prompted Celeste to start talking about her upcoming
wedding, including all the ins and outs of the planning she had to do for the ceremony
and which apartment she was going to end up living in. Slowly, Alyssa tuned out - it was
exactly the kind o f conversation she didn't feel like having. She thought it was weird,
too, that her sister still wasn't living together with her fiancee. But, whatever. It wasn't
her life.
Celeste's fiancee had proposed to her over dinner at the ridiculous, $300 perperson sushi bar in the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle. Alyssa had met a boy
there once - actually, had had a really good date there. Not at the sushi bar, but at the
massive Whole Foods in the basement o f the building.
person's serving size on its nutritional charts), most of which she didn't eat on the
grounds that she had plans to meet a boy later. Or thought she did.
The 700 or so calories she'd consumed were a little less than half her target for the
day.
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She'd avoided looking at it as she passed it on her walk that morning - that
grocery store played host to too many stacks o f kale and bittersweet memories.
It had been one o f her last good dates with Israel; they were going to cook dinner
together. It was just before they'd started fighting. The two o f them giggled, bouncing,
between the red and yellow Holland peppers and the leafy, dripping stems o f carrot
stalks. They played tag between the aisles - no running allowed - during a hectic
afternoon sales rush, with the smell o f fresh dill coating the air between particles o f cool,
vegetable-crisping mist, and Alyssa nearly bowled over an old woman. She dodged at
the last minute and knocked over her shopping cart instead. O f course, she had to stop to
help her pick up her stuff; she re-loaded into the woman's basket tinned fruits, a few
plucky cucumbers, and two billowing packs o f organic, biodegradable adult diapers.
Alyssa had had to bite down tight on her tongue to keep from laughing in the
lady's face.
As they grazed the rest o f the sprawling store that afternoon, Israel partook of
every sample on offer, from the gross - freshly-macerated carrot-a^ai puree: thick, with a
nauseous grey-purple tinge - to the surprising, to the outright odd. The two of them
ended up buying simple American cheese, ground beef and a bag o f buns that, even for
New York, was absurdly overpriced. They didn't even finish making dinner that night
before they'd had each other's clothes off.
He'd been in med school. She was sure she was going to be the first one married.
It blew her mind that Celeste was the one with a ring.
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Alyssa dunked a piece of chicken into the salty brown sauce and watched her
sister watch TV. When she found a good guy, she decided, she was going to get one who
stayed around. She let Celeste rattle on about her man, and concentrated on not eating
any more than the next five bites.
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-7-
Aeli.
"So there isn't anybody special in your life right now?"
It was a setup. That much was obvious. But what was he supposed to do - clap
his hand over his mouth and wait for the end o f lunch?
Aeli shook his head and fessed up. "No." He brought a glass o f diet soda to his
lips, waiting for the other shoe to drop.
"Well, you should go to temple more."
And there it was.
Aeli lowered his eyes to the table. Two open-face sandwiches - one, sable and
tomato on the top half of a bagel, the other, nova lox and cream cheese - waited on his
plate. The flesh o f the sable, oily and gray, sat ringed inside the orange skin o f the fish,
which peeked out from under the thick slice o f ripe fruit like a child hiding under the skirt
o f a tablecloth. The nova, for its part, covered the cream cheese and rolled over the edges
o f the everything bagel like a tubby man’s stomach pushing over the top of his pants.
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He’d spent his entire childhood fleeing from both tomatoes and smoked fish.
Now, he found himself rather fond o f both and eagerly ate them whenever opportunity
arose. In this manner, Aeli’s appetite for tomatoes and fish tracked rather closely to his
attitude toward girls.
It was an unfortunate fact that, even at $19.99 a pound, smoked fish managed to
work its way into his life with a far greater frequency.
"Mother, let him figure out his own life, okay?"
"I’m just saying." Aeli’s grandmother shrugged, and her brooch pin - a blingedout dramatic mask studded in semi-precious stones that always struck Aeli as a
reasonable facsimile o f Liza Manelli, pre-addiction - reflected the ceiling light. "He
ought to go." She reached out to Aeli with a weathered, purple-veined hand, strong, but
fragile as the petals o f a new tulip. "You should find a nice Jewish girl, is all."
If she was to be believed, it was a source o f constant conversation among
residents o f West Lakes: why didn't Aeli, lone son o f Leslie and Martha Kleiner - a
lawyer and doctor, Jewish power couple extraordinaire - have a nice Jewish girlfriend?
Aeli’s grandmother talked about him all the time. Over games o f canasta and bridge, she
and her coterie discussed their grandchildren and, squirreled-away quarters and dimes
changing hands along with the luck o f the cards, played matchmaker with their kin the
way little children play house with Barbie dolls.
He loved his grandmother, but he'd forbidden her for years from actually setting
him up with any relatives o f her friends. She was allowed to talk, to dream, and to push
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and wheedle - all of which grand dame Ruth Kaplan would surely have done, whether
with his blessing or not - but after the first, disastrous arranged date when a still-teenaged
Aeli's fake ID was confiscated while ordering wine for the college-aged granddaughter of
his grandmother's neighbor, actual set-ups were explicitly out o f the question until further
notice.
O f course, it didn't keep her from trying.
As the conversation drifted away from topics involving him directly, Aeli let his
eyes wander, marveling at how they'd managed to fit five place settings at a square table.
None of the seats felt stacked on top o f each other; everyone's place seemed comfortable
and ample. Similarly, the smells o f catered appetizing seemed to blend harmoniously, the
earthy scent of kasha varnishkes - bowtie pasta studded with steamed, shredded barley
that had the mouth-feel o f dried sawdust shavings, a reminder o f Easter European
privation - merging with the brackish and proud northern aroma o f pickled cuts o f herring
to form a perfect union.
The room, too, was the same - a mish-mash o f opposites that somehow seemed to
work in tandem somehow. His grandmother had lived alone in these planned seniors’
apartments for five years after his grandfather passed; now, she shared it with Herman, a
widower who brought with him little, though he had an extended family o f his own. How
all these incongruous elements - five seats and four sides, pasta and fish, dead husband
and live-in lover - fit together, Aeli could not understand. But in the apartment, they did.
Were forced to.
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There, on the floor, the odd zebra rug from his grandmother's old house still had a
place in the office nook, but its hokery and rawness seemed to Aeli strident against the
refinement o f the Degas and Chagalls on the wall. On a sidebar, a gag Golf Magazine
cover portrayed a twenty year-old photo o f his grandfather holding a three-wood; just two
yards away from it, a framed placard commemorated the hole-in-one his grandma's new
man had stroked on the local course. It seemed to set the two men in odd, obvious
competition, but no one ever commented on it, and Aeli was baffled by how that was so.
Was it just him, he wondered? Did nobody else get it? His whole world seemed
couched in opposites. They were Jews, nominally - they lived in New York, they ate
bagels; yes, they were Jews - but they never went to temple, didn't even believe in God!
The first two commandments, the founding tenets o f their faith - I am the Lord thy God;
thou shall have no other gods before me - they flaunted every day. Success in business
and love, or more accurately, familial reproduction; that was what they worshipped.
What was he supposed to make o f it when his Grandma told him to go to temple to find a
girl?
Aeli checked in on the discussion. It was still dominated by the women. Aeli's
father, like Ruth's boyfriend Herman, had attained a pointed, monk-like muteness
through, and Aeli couldn't blame either o f them. He allowed the chatter to once again
drift into the background o f his consciousness and he cast his focus on the view past his
grandmother's shoulder, into the world beyond the sliding glass door behind her. Like a
seagull making a break from the shore, he scanned the clouds trolling across the sky in
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the distance. Gradually his gaze fell to the golf course - more properly, the three golf
courses, somewhere amidst which sat Herman's Hole - that stretched out across the
grounds o f the West Lakes living community.
Out there, the patches o f grass stood like proud regents, guarded by rows of sundappled American elms that split adjoining fairways, shaded the cart paths, and
maintained order. Aeli found himself wondering whether the tenants appreciated just
how much he would love that green instead o f his view of central-air systems on rooftops
from the cell he reported to each morning.
It was that thought - the recognition o f the lack in his own life o f that freedom,
among others - that brought Aeli's attention back.
"Why?”
"Why what?" His mother asked.
"Why -" he turned to his grandmother, "and I'm asking just in theory - why do you
think that I should go to temple to find a girl?"
In the moments that followed, everyone stopped eating. His grandmother put
down her fork. His mom sighed and reached for her glass o f water, and the men - Aeli's
father and his whatever-you-call-him: step-grandpa or new-grandpa or grandma's
boyfriend, or just Herman - sat quietly, as always.
Perhaps it was because they’d married in.
Aeli had come to the meal determined not to get drawn into talk about his love
life; now, he was offering it up. But with the question on the table, nobody seemed to
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want to address it. He pressed forward.
"Why do you think-"
"Sit up straight."
Aeli corrected his posture to his grandmother's satisfaction.
"Why do you think I should go to temple more? Because I don't see the
connection."
"Don't push him," his mother muttered, prodding, and Aeli had to bite tongue to
remind her that he wasn't be pushed. He asked.
His grandmother, once again, reached out for Aeli's hand. "I don't buy green
bananas any more. I'm saying you should go to temple more because a good looking boy
like you, there's no reason you shouldn't have a girlfriend."
She gestured to Herman, who remained mute, his hands folded across his yellow
cardigan. Never mind that the thermostat was set somewhere near eighty - in the
complex, the cost o f utilities came included - in the apartment, in this apartment, Herman
was always cold.
"That's how I met Herman, you know. Through temple."
"But," Aeli said, "you never go. He goes to temple. I know he goes to services
on Saturdays; weekdays, too. But you don't."
"Well, no," she admitted, "but my friends set us up." Her eyes brightened, the
green-blue swirl of her irises flashing against the blush o f her cheeks. "And they knew
him because he goes to temple!"
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This was the closest to a real answer Aeli was going to get; for the moment, he
had to accept it. Shortly thereafter, the plates were cleared to prepare for dessert;
everyone else took the opportunity to break away. Aeli's mother stepped out to make a
phone call; Herman shuffled off to the john. Ruth went to the kitchen to go get ice
cream, and Aeli's father followed her in, having insisted on doing the dishes and refusing
to take no for an answer despite his general aversion to housework.
Smart guy, Aeli thought. Way to get out o f the line of fire.
His pocket buzzed as his grandmother re-entered with three gallon-sized Breyer's
containers on a brass tray. He slipped his hand to his pocket and pushed a button along
the side of his cell phone; he'd check his messages later.
"I have good ice cream," she sang. "Vanilla, Cookies and Cream, and Rocky
Road." Aeli's grandmother set the tray on the table and sat down. "What is it that you
want?"
"Nothing," he said, patting his stomach for show. "I'm full. Thank you, though."
"No," said his grandmother, batting at his shoulder like a kitten swiping at a ball
o f yam.
"I mean, what are you looking for? In a girl?"
So that was it. Once the plates were cleared, once people's waistlines and legs
had taken time to spread out, his grandmother would latch on to the leitmotif prior and try
to strike again.
"Nothing. I don't know. No one in particular. Dad, can I help you in there?"
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He craned his neck, trying to see around his grandmother's up-do. "No, it's all
fine in here." His father's voice, Aeli would have sworn, sounded cheery as he scrubbed
flecks o f pickled matjes herring and cream sauce off o f plates in the scalding hot water
with his fingers.
"Really?" his grandmother pushed. "All right. But you can tell me if there's some
one."
"I will," Aeli said. "Thank you."
"Because I'm not trying to push you," she continued, "you know that. I just think
that if you go to temple, maybe you'll go out more, maybe you'll meet someone. And
maybe this time she'll be a nice Jewish girl. Instead of... you know."
"Yes," Aeli said, silently praying for her to stop.
"I'm talking about that dumpy shiksa you used to date. With the big
Aeli's
grandmother held her hands to her chest and shook her shoulders toward him, the front of
her blouse rippling grotesquely.
"Hah?" Herman picked that moment to shuffle back into the dining room,
looking like a man awakened from a dream by the ringing o f an angry telephone.
"What's going on?"
"Nothing," Aeli’s grandmother said, "I was just about to serve the ice cream.
You'll have Rocky Road."
Aeli was glad for the interruption, glad to be spared from being exposed to where
he knew the conversation had been headed. He remembered one time back in grade
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school, when his grandmother had picked up him and his friends for a play date on a
Friday afternoon. Somehow, she'd gotten on the topic o f Paris, where she and Aeli's
grandfather had gone on vacation years before.
"These African girls ran around on stage - their melons! You wouldn't believe
them! So big!" Even as a child, he sensed something to be embarrassed about - the
sexuality, the race thing; he wasn't sure what, but it was bad - and he remembered
slouching into his seat, smelling the musky odor o f the interior leather, and trying very
hard for the rest o f the ride to focus on the passing landscape of shoe stores, mini-malls
and burger joints.
His parents returned, politely declined dessert, and had coffee while Herman ate.
Aeli's grandmother gave him a dish o f Cookies and Cream - "Maybe you'll change your
mind," she'd intoned while scooping it for him ("Don't push him," his mother replied;
they were dancers, those two, slipping back and forth like string sections teasing phrases
to each other in a concerto).
She pinched him lightly on the cheek, and the smooth feeling o f the webbed space
between her middle and index fingers instantly brought Aeli back to the times he'd spent
in her den - rolling around on the floor, on the zebra-skin rug.
"You're my bubelah. I want only the best for you, you know that."
"I know."
"I want you to be president someday."
"I know."
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He waited suitably long after the meal ended to excuse himself, pleading work
obligations back in Manhattan, and after hugging each member o f his family goodbye
walked down to the parking lot outside his grandmother's place.
He'd planned to take a little break, catch some air before grabbing a taxi back
home, but once outside, he decided to linger. All the cars caught his eye; they were
hardly even cars: they were more like a fleet o f boats.
And those cars, he realized, were the currency o f the residents o f West Lakes
apartments and their offspring.
The parking lot was a domain of behemoths, a concrete ocean chock with moored
dream ships. Half were Detroit cruisers. Here, a fleet of Cadillacs in charcoal with jetblack cloth roofs; there, Chryslers in maroon or taupe with peach-colored, luxury-edition
tops. His own grandma had one. And her boyfriend - his new grandfather; he relented drove one as well. The others were all foreign in make, and predominantly - interestingly
- from countries whose governments acted none too kindly to people o f West Lakes'
religious persuasion in the past. Beemers gleamed in the soft April light; Mercedes Benz
Kompressors reigned from handicapped spots below shading elms; and powerful Porsche
two-seaters with brakes so powerful that they didn't cower inside o f wheel wells but stuck
out, were painted deliberately in a diffident, visceral red, clamored for attention.
It wasn't hard to pick out who owned what. The grandpas and gam-gams and
nanas and pop-pops all drove the American cars, Aeli was sure o f it. Their visiting kids
and grandkids sported the foreign rides, and the smaller models - the speedboats to the
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elder's yachts. Even without prior knowledge of the predilections of America's Jewish
population - which he had in spades - it would have been clear. The license plates were a
dead giveaway. All the domestic luxury cars sported front and rear tags in green and
orange: the stamps o f the retired, vagabond, summer returnees living half the year now in
Florida. The blue plates bearing the name and outline of New York were affixed only to
foreign rides.
The least showy were the Axis-power Lexuses. The muted silver of their chassis
blended well with their dashboard-mounted DVD navigation systems, which, with touch
screens and reverse-drive activated cameras, helped save their operators from having to
crane expensively-moisturized necks during those instances when they couldn’t find a
valet and were forced, unceremoniously, to back into by spaces themselves.
Aeli realized that each car was a physical embodiment of what its owner had
dreamed o f in his working twenties, and he shuddered. Old people grew up in the forties;
Cadillacs were king. Younger generations, in the sixties through eighties, when imports
became high-brow.
He took pause. Was this what he was killing himself for at work? Really?
Dulling his brain against the whetstone o f electronic finance so that he could one day
drive a flashy car?
He told himself it couldn't be true. And what about his father? He'd made senior
partner in a law firm that had been founded by exclusive, white-shoe men. Until Isaac
Kleiner arrived, they’d practiced the professional equivalent of what in real estate was
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called red-lining: white protestants only on this side o f street, please; everyone else can
sort through what's left. He worked a hundred hours a week, forcing himself through the
quota system to the top, and for what? Leather seats and an eight-cylinder engine?
Aeli kicked a pebble and traced its path down the asphalt. It rolled north, in the
direction of what a faint, distant sign noted as tee 10 o f one o f the complex’s golf courses.
Just past it lay the service road, and beyond that, the highway.
It was, in fact, right at West Lakes that Nassau became Queens, that the suburbs
of Long Island officially transmuted into the outer boroughs of New York City. Where
718 gave way to 516, where metered rates on yellow cabs doubled. Where the word of
the mayor stopped being law. Where the New York Post lost ground to Newsday and the
Daily News.
If he walked directly north to that road and turned left, it would take him to his
apartment. If there, he turned right, then to h- - his parents' place.
He stopped himself before thinking, "home."
Aeli forgot the pebble as a pair o f old men struggled through the lot, hunched over
under the rays o f light slashing their way through leaning oaks and poplars. Their wives
led the way, and their posture, in contrast, was triumphant, almost regal: the dominance
that comes only from escaping at last underneath the thumb o f someone else. Their
bodies had held up better, longer; now it was the men's turn to rely on the women to take
care of them: to do the driving, to watch for traffic. To remind them in the mornings
what needed to be done.
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Looking back to the entrance o f the apartment building behind him, Aeli watched
a frail senior in a balding overcoat wobble by the door. The man bent over his cane as he
saw this through rheumy, saddened eyes: a silver-haired biddy pulling their Lincoln into
the roundabout. She parked just next to the curb to make it easier for him to toddle
forward and grasp the door handle on the passenger's side.
Suddenly, the afternoon felt heavy with shame.
When gusts o f wind shot through the lot, Aeli stuffed his hands into his pants
pockets. Early green buds spun up from the ground like dervishes, the vegetable
kingdom's version o f the devout dancing for the joy o f God. But Aeli missed it. He was
oblivious as the swirling scattered leaves were lifted from the ground and tossed into the
air, back and forth, back and forth, like a game of catch played between invisible
brothers. And he missed it, too, when one side o f the wind broke, and the cyclone listed,
leaving the leaves to trundle back down to earth.
When Aeli stuck his hand in his pocket, it reminded him to check his cell phone.
As nature leapt around him, he focused on the tiny LED screen: he had a text message
from Parnell.
"Purim in April party in 2 weeks,” it read. ”U going? Got a costume? A date?"
Aeli closed the mobile and slid it back into his pants, too late to enjoy the
quietude. No birds' chirrups filled the air; instead, the hollow thwack o f a golf ball on a
titanium club echoed from a tee hiding behind one the buildings. Instead of the rush o f
wind or patter o f leaves, the squeal o f brakes applied gently to slow-rolling tires - and the
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occasional, distant honk o f a waiting driver tapping her horn - held steadfastly to their
crowns as the only noises to be heard.
"There be girls?" he wrote back.
Minutes later, a reply: "Ya."
"All right, Grandma," he said to the air. "You win." He wrote Parnell back a brief
reply, then walked to the building entrance to wait for a cab.
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8
86
-
Christian.
Christian awoke to the grating sound o f rain thrashing against his windowpane.
The window opened a story above the skinny alley out back that, between its rusting
dumpsters and piles of dented cardboard boxes was barely wide enough to fit a car
through. One large plastic collection bin leaked a pink, fetid ooze through a knee-high
hole that had been chewed through some time before Christian's arrival.
If glass sprouted from concrete, Christian's alley would have been the most fertile
ground in all o f New Jersey. It was littered with broken and splintered, shattered, stealthy
shards, and its recycling bins were picked clean save for beer and wine. The state sold
those without a nickel deposit, thus making the Millers and Mickeys, Hurricanes and
Hefeweizens, Buds and Bartles & James - so enticing, each, to transients when they were
full - wholly worthless when they were empty, true discards for the Wednesday morning
trash pickup to collect.
That day, Christian drew itchy legs from under his comforter and pressed his feet
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to the floor. Immediately, his aching arches complained, and he quickly slipped into a
pair of ratty sandals. Once, when he played midfield at Carver High, they'd been his
after-game soccer shoes. Now, for lack o f alternative, they served double duty as his
house slippers.
Checking through the slats of the blinds to his lone bedroom window, Christian
was confronted with what looked to be the first of many gray days. The New Jersey
shore, with such potential for beauty when it chose, could turn into a raging cunt-whore
on a dime - and this morning, it had. The coast spread its legs and let raging Atlantic
winds rush through its gridded avenues, drawing out winter nastiness through spring and
making the land feel barely habitable. The water was no better, swirling trash down from
Long Island and up from the Chesapeake into a foamy shit sundae studded with six-pack
rings, plastic bags, prophylactics, and floating fish turds, leaving old rot-wood and
seashell shards for sprinkles.
He plodded to the kitchen. It was cold and dirty. White once, the cabinet, floors
and countertops had long since taken on a patina o f grime. Memories o f old water
glasses, plates and coffee mugs marked indelible rings in all the flat surfaces - table, tin
sink, floor - and stains dappled the drawer handles, the cupboard, even the nubbled
ceiling. A drunk or mystic might have walked in and claimed sight o f the Virgin Mother
in oil splatters above the stove.
Sniffing the carton o f milk in the fridge, Christian plucked a bowl from atop the
pile o f dirty dishes in his sink. With a spoon salvaged from the drying rack, he fixed
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himself a breakfast o f chocolate cereal and took it with him to the couch in the living
room. It was old, vinyl, and also off-white. A squat prep station-cum-bar, stocked only
with the dregs o f the cocktail world - triple sec, vermouth, and a plastic jug o f cheap gin sat to his right. As he ate, he crunched loudly to drown out the noise o f Sesame Street,
which blared through the walls from his neighbor's TV.
After breakfast - and after stripping down and brushing his teeth in the shower Christian picked the previous day's clothes off the floor and threw them into his: and
overflowing cardboard box. Then he began thumbing through his closet for an outfit.
Christian's closet was a doorless cubby. With an entryway just thirty inches wide,
it was little more than a vertical coffin. Upon entering, he yanked at the chain that
dangled from the bare bulb in the room's center - Christian never, no matter what the
hour, walked into his closet without switching on the overhead light. It gave him the
creeps something fierce.
The closet overflowed with apparel, duffel bags, old sports equipment. Jeans, a
digital scale and a filched black woolen cap lay piled in a comer. He pushed aside a
sweater and plucked a vacuum-sealed plastic sac reading "HANES” from atop a stack of
four resting on a shelf.
Christian opened it, unfolding the top shirt and pulling off the pieces o f scotch
tape stuck to its shoulder straps before putting it on. What to wear today?
He ran his fingers across the French cuff of his favorite starched blue pinstripe. It
was part of his outfit for Trey, the young scion o f privilege. But Christian glanced back
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toward the window, listening to the rain insistently slapping at the ground. No. Trey
wouldn't play on a weekday in a downpour. Perhaps - and he moved on to a red-checked
flannel - Dirk, the union man on a week's vacation? He rifled through more choices: a
charcoal sweater, a pair o f black slacks, Alfonse; jeans with holes in the knees, a
turtleneck, Zachary. Khaki shorts. Loafers. Black patent leather. High-tops. Low-tops.
Sneakers. Flip flops.
At last, Christian opted for a pair o f board shorts, sunglasses cocked high atop his
head, and a simple T-shirt screen-printed by one of the waterfront novelty stores. He took
an old canvas pullover to wear as well - the rain at the shore in April was cold; not Ohio
cold, but cold enough - and before leaving, brushed his hand against the soft linen o f the
white pants he'd bought to wear in the summertime.
With the unwashed bowl from breakfast back in its place atop the mess in the
sink, Christian walked out o f his front door with an umbrella clutched in his hand.
Cautiously - the sandals he wore had shit for traction, and he knew it; he couldn't even
count the number o f times he'd nearly eaten it while humping down the steps from his
apartment in the wet - he made his way down to the ground-floor awning. Flipping open
the canopy o f his umbrella, he began making his way to work.
He left his apartment complex at the comer o f Baltic and New York - "Ocean
Palms - Majestic Living!" touted the sign cemented into the ground - and headed
southeast, out the parking lot and toward the water. At the intersection, he had to stand
and wait in the cold rain for the light to change. A 504 bus flashing "VENTNOR,
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VENTNOR" pulled up just inches away from the curb at the comer. Christian had to
jump back to avoid getting splashed by the tires. He was pissed.
As the hydraulic system hissed, the bus listed slightly and the door opened to the
street. Christian's anger abated as he found himself face to face with what had to be the
oldest driver in the history of the New Jersey Transit system.
A gray-haired Asian man sat behind the wheel, working the lever next to the coin
box. His few flecks of facial hair traced the bottom half o f his face like cat-claw scars.
His pupils shied behind yellowed corneas, and Christian no longer raged at the man for
splashing the puddle - if anything, he was impressed that the guy had managed to find the
bus stop at all.
"Getting on?" the man asked.
Christian demurred. Normally, he wouldn't even consider it. A buck and a
quarter to ride six blocks? No way. If it took him all the way to work, that might be
another story, but to pay to ride a third of the way there, just to get off and hoof it again?
It was a sucker's bet.
But, today, it was raining. He hesitantly stepped on, thinking it might be worth
the money if only to keep dry. Once he caught wind o f the bus's other patrons, though,
the wetness seemed far less perturbing. Someone in the first six seats - the ones parallel
to the length o f the bus, the ones reserved for the handicapped and the elderly - smelled
terrible, like Cheerios smeared with rotten eggs. He caught sight o f the rivulets o f
precipitation forming artificial rivers in the pleats o f the center aisle and stepped away.
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The median age of the 504's passengers was somewhere in the fifties. The riders'
overwhelming emotion looked to be an amalgam of boredom and regret. Faces dropped,
stares locked onto the dribbling droplets of rain on ashy windows.
"No thanks," he said. "I'm good." He backed off the transit vehicle. From the
center doors, two other people disembarked: a boy and a girl, both carrying bookbags and
wearing pullover sweatshirts reading "ACCC." The boy's head was shaved; the girl wore
dreadlock hair extensions. After the bus pulled away, Christian followed the pair across
the street, and with water battering their eyelashes and brows - the umbrella didn't do too
well against rain that gusted in sideways - all three trundled together in the direction of
the charmless, boxy building looming before them: Atlantic Cape Community College.
Christian picked up his pace as he walked on toward Atlantic Avenue, silently
taunting the other two as they turned off toward the school. A dead end place like that?
He couldn't see the point. They were never getting out of this town. As he traipsed
along, the wind picked up, and he began to wish the buses did run all the way south to the
casinos. It was nearly a mile from his front door to Bally's, where he was due to work.
His schedule was largely under his own control. He bunched and staggered his
days on and off, and split them across a number of casinos. He even took a series o f
extended breaks - half by choice, half to maintain cover - visiting some casinos often and
avoiding others for weeks at a time. It made it all the easier to remain anonymous; it also
facilitated taking easy trips to New York.
Christian pressed on to Indiana Avenue and there hung a louie, stepping around a
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green-jacketed bag lady in a fisherman's cap at the comer. As he walked down the nearempty sidewalk toward Bally's, Christian passed a beater pickup truck, then behind it, a
yellow V W microbus that was so covered in stickers its actual paint job hardly shone
through at all. There were rock bands, sloganeering political endorsements and bumper
stickers. T-shirt manufacturer logos, national flags, drug references, and restaurants.
Wahoo's Fish Tacos, with a marlin leaping across the restaurant's name, did double or
triple duty on the chassis. Only the car's cream-colored hardtop was unadorned.
Christian immediately took to liking this ride, despite it not being at all his type.
He could tell that it belonged to an authentic person. Someone making his own way. Not
a phony.
Further along, he saw a Cadillac DeVille - old, from the eighties, or maybe earlier
- that was twenty feet long, the size o f a boat and with fins like a skiffs rudder. Its paint
job was o f that sparkling silica-laden blue that caught every ray o f light and kicked it out
in all directions. It had a ragtop - white, like the upper section of the VW bus he'd just
passed - and this, too, was a car Christian knew he could get behind. He walked on, and
to the rhythm o f the rain, began to extrapolate an elaborate past and persona for its owner.
He would be an older guy, with skin like leather, the kind o f man who wouldn't
leave the house without a hat on. He'd dress himself in nice silk shirts, which he'd trade
for a merino mock turtleneck - in taupe - when it got cold. Perhaps he might wear a little
bit o f jewelry - gold, tasteful: maybe a bracelet, a ring, and a single chain or two - and a
suit, always a suit, even if it was worn around the elbows. He'd know all the cocktail
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waitresses at his favorite gambling hall, and they'd know him as well.
They would know he liked to drink scotch with ice, not Southern Comfort out of
the bottle, or mixed with RC Cola.
He'd have a long but dormant dalliance with one o f the older skirts, one that
would manifest itself in flirtations and innuendo. No matter who he chose to take home,
he wouldn't father a kid out of wedlock and then split, leaving his woman alone and his
child to bounce between relatives.
He'd listen discriminately to Frank Sinatra and Bobby Blue Bland on LR
By the time he'd decided where in the country would be from, Christian reached
the water. Before stepping into Bally's, Christian detoured to the railing at the nape o f the
beachfront to take a quick look at the surf. He was disappointed. The rain splash against
the trash-soaked beach, and Christian marveled at the way the sand, like a parasite, could
suck up all the moisture the sky could give and still clamor for more. He had to close his
umbrella, despite the rain, because o f the fierce-whipping wind, and even the seagulls,
unwelcome as they normally were, seemed pitiable. They fought hard against the
onslaught and fared poorly: those few out were forced to fly so low to the ground that a
well-placed leap could have knocked them out o f the air.
When Christian stepped inside the casino, he instantly felt better. One thing he
loved about these places, they always felt just right. Hot summer, cold winter, wet spring
- it didn't matter, however lousy the world was outdoors.
The north side o f Bally's was empty, but loud. Trumpeting buzzers o f whizzing
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slot machines fought the spinning money wheel's flipping paddle for primacy, but there
was no one to declare a winner - the north casino floor was as empty as a ghost town with
a dust storm blowing through. A few bored hosts and croupiers in vests were left to
stand, eyes pleading, amidst rows o f abandoned felt tables and stools, but they were it.
Their area was deserted.
In contrast, the Wild West section was live. Weekends, all the casinos filled out:
people came in crowds, and they were fine to walk right in and gamble anywhere. But on
weekdays, especially shitty weather weekdays, the expansive halls always seemed
thinned out. Sometimes even the slot sections were abandoned - except, that is, for
places like Bally's Wild West. The hokey shit, people just gravitated to it when the
casinos were empty; it gave them something extra to do: stare at animatronic 49'ers while
they went catatonic in front o f Pan-For-Gold progressives.
Usually, the groups made straight for the card and dice games, and some o f the
more sociable singles did, too. It was mostly the loner solos who hit the last-ditch slots.
No matter what advertisements made it look like, nobody ever rolled to the slots with
friends crowding around one buddy to watch.
The blue-hairs loved it best. With nothing else to look forward to but their
routines and the hope o f hitting it big, they could be counted on to be in their same spots
come rain, shine or resurrection o f Jesus. Could you blame them? All their relatives
dead or moved away, and only soap operas, bingo, or this to choose from - where else
were the pensioner biddies going to go?
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Christian made directly for the money change windows near the back-left wall.
The stalls at these booths were the only ones covered with shined metal slats, like at an
old-time bank, instead o f plexiglass, and Christian wondered if Bally’s brass wasn’t
maybe afraid o f a robbery. A pair o f men in neon track jackets occupied some o f the
women staffing the cage, and Christian listened in. They were trying to get comped
lunches; they didn’t know that they were talking to the wrong people. He left them,
coming to rest alongside the door next to the exchanges - the one marked
only”
’’e m p l o y e e s
- and waited for a pit boss to find him. If it were his casino, he figured, he might
consider changing the fa 9ades, even if it did mess with the theme.
But then, anyone who walked into a casino with nothing more than a loaded gun
and a plan had more to worry about than bulletproof window polymers. The NJ Casino
Control Commission hadn’t booted the first owner o f this place for his hidden ties with
the Happy Rainbow Hug-Along Gang.
Christian had heard a story from Maurice, the old night janitor who'd been around
Atlantic City since what he called, "the days when this used to be a nice town" - Christian
couldn’t imagine when that would have been. The story revolved around a man who’d
actually had the stones to try to hold up the place back in the seventies.
The guy walked in with a plaid suit on and snatched a bag o f cash. Big surprise,
the security team got him down before he even made his way out the front door. When
they dragged him down into the sub-basement, they found a note in his front pocket. "No
disrespect intended,’’ it read. "I only want to work for you. This was just to show to you
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that I've got the balls to do whatever it takes."
They just laughed at him. Nobody even bothered to call it in to the police. Just in
case, the muscles took his letter and passed it along to the higher-ups in the chain of
command. They waited thirty minutes for word, and when none came - so the story went
- they beat on him for three and a half hours. He had been turned into barelyrecognizable hamburger before they took mercy on him, shooting him at last in the back
o f the skull with a .32 Colt.
That wasn't the end o f it, though. After he was dead - and this was the part that
really got to Christian, which he supposed was the point - they scooped clean his ocular
sockets, threw him in a burlap sack, and buried him off to side of the Garden State
Parkway with a pair o f $500 chips where his eyeballs used to be.
Lesson learned: you don't mess around in A.C. Hell, Christian would never have
stuck around this town if Cliff hadn't set him up right.
"Christian?" A neckless, red-jacketed pit boss with a black tie clipped to his shirt
stood before him.
He nodded, and the pit boss inserted an electronic key card into a slot in the
employee door, leading him into the changing room.
An older woman snapping loudly on bubble gum sat waiting behind the cage door
in a cardigan, watching the cash-changing girls. The pit boss passed him off to her and
left; she welcomed him into the sidebar o f the cash room with an arm around his
shoulder. As he pressed his cheek to hers, he noticed the faint aroma o f menthol on her
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breath.
"You're still smoking those Slims, Julianne?"
Julianne huffed and twiddled her nose. The facial tic at once brought the
weathering o f years back to her face: all the makeup caked and creased in the ridges o f
her skin. "Yeah. I meant to quit, but my daughter just got kicked out o f her place again.
With her around, I need ’em." She had Christian pass her an empty plastic bucket the size
of a squat Super Big Gulp and began to fill out a slip for Temporary Cash Disbursal. "So.
You going for some kind o f polar bear award, walking in here today in just that?"
Christian glanced over to the four aging cashiers working the front windows, and
watched one change three hundred bucks cash into chips. "Nah. I took the limo."
Julianne turned back to Christian. She held the small bucket, now laden with
gleaming coins, in her hand.
"Here ya go, hon. Eighty dollars in quarters. Don't play more than one line at a
time. And
"And keep my Player's Club card in the machine. I know." He leaned in and
pecked Julianne on the side o f her face, her skin feeling against his lips like the smooth
plastic covers o f the three-ring binders that he used back in ninth grade. Her rouge left a
greasy feeling upon him, and the smell of the Aqua Net in her hair flooded his nose.
She looked at Christian through sly eyes. "Ok, ok. That's enough flirting for
today. You go get 'em."
Christian took the money and let himself be led by a baton-toting security guard
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out the rear o f the cash booth. They emerged in a concrete-walled tunnel where the
bricks were painted all white, except for a gray tide o f paint that rose chest-high like a
low-budget wainscoting. It smelled like a mix o f sugar and bleach.
Wordlessly, he stepped ahead o f his escort and turned left, walking out the door unmarked, unidirectionally locked, pulled shut after he'd left - that deposited him into a
hallway just between the main casino floor and a bank o f dimly lit restrooms. From
there, he and his ten-pound bucket headed in the direction o f the greatest noise: the loud
binging and clanging of bells and coins that rang from the center of the Wild West slot
bank.
Even the men's rooms in this section followed the Wild West theme. It struck
Christian as unnecessary and more than a little discomforting that painted old claims
prospectors peeked out from mine shafts to stare at casino visitors while they wetted
down the urinals.
Christian scanned the layout to find a good spot to sit. Ideally, it would be in a
part o f the floor that was empty, yet visible, so all the other potential players would see
him at a machine and join in.
Slot machines. Jesus, they were hardly better than a Monte scam. The table
games all had house edges, but at least they could be fun. At least there were people to
meet and talk to at those. But the slots were wholly solitary, and damn near total rip-offs.
And that's where he came in.
All slots, Christian knew, were programmed to keep between two and twenty-five
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out the rear o f the cash booth. They emerged in a concrete-walled tunnel where the
bricks were painted all white, except for a gray tide o f paint that rose chest-high like a
low-budget wainscoting. It smelled like a mix of sugar and bleach.
Wordlessly, he stepped ahead o f his escort and turned left, walking out the door unmarked, unidirectionally locked, pulled shut after he’d left - that deposited him into a
hallway just between the main casino floor and a bank o f dimly lit restrooms. From
there, he and his ten-pound bucket headed in the direction o f the greatest noise: the loud
binging and clanging of bells and coins that rang from the center of the Wild West slot
bank.
Even the men's rooms in this section followed the Wild West theme. It struck
Christian as unnecessary and more than a little discomforting that painted old claims
prospectors peeked out from mine shafts to stare at casino visitors while they wetted
down the urinals.
Christian scanned the layout to find a good spot to sit. Ideally, it would be in a
part o f the floor that was empty, yet visible, so all the other potential players would see
him at a machine and join in.
Slot machines. Jesus, they were hardly better than a Monte scam. The table
games all had house edges, but at least they could be fun. At least there were people to
meet and talk to at those. But the slots were wholly solitary, and damn near total rip-offs.
And that's where he came in.
All slots, Christian knew, were programmed to keep between two and twenty-five
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cents for every dollar put into them. That twenty-five percent was a state mandated cap,
too; if not for that, some surely would have kept more. The exact odds depended on the
machine and the casino, but they were still always worse at the slots than for any other
game. It was the big payouts, the million-dollar progressives touted in LED numbers
above the displays, that lured the marks - but those were irredeemable sucker's bets all
the way.6 Still, it was Christian's job to make sure those suckers took that bet and kept on
taking it. And if he sat down, and others followed - well, then his job was done.
He found a nice perch - a Triple Lucky 7's machine halfway down one row, third
from the center lane. It was close enough to the entry doors that he was sure he'd be
spotted; not coincidentally, it was also far enough from the middle of the Wild West area
6
The casinos, for obvious reasons, didn't go out of their way to mention it, but the likelihood of
winning one of those progressive jackpots was far closer to zero than the odds of a one-handed
man playing Major League Baseball.
Case in point: a standard slot machine has three spinning wheels. Each wheel has a number of
spots - for example, thirty-two - on which it can stop spinning, and something occupies each of
those spots: cherries, diamonds, blank spaces, 7's in various colors, the word "BAR,” etc. With
three 32-slot wheels, the odds against hitting the jackpot are one to 32 x 32 x 32 against, or one in
32,768. When the top of a payoff chart lists a whopping 5,000 coin payoff for hitting the three
blue diamonds, or the three rainbow 7's, or whatever, sure, it looks good. But by paying 5,000
credits for a 1 in 32,768 wager, what that machine is really doing is paying odds six and a half
times below true.
As for the big progressives, they hit so rarely that they might as well not even exist. Sure, they
touted payouts in the millions, but almost always on wheels with more than 32 stopping points, or
even on 5-wheel slot machines. Does the average gambler know what the true odds are of hitting
the jackpot on a 5-wheel slot machine with 32 stopping points? No. But Christian did: one in
thirty-three million, five-hundred fifty-four thousand, four hundred thirty-two. That's 1 in
33,554,432. Easy to remember, actually, because the numbers come in pairs before dropping off a
cliff: 33 55 44 32.
Any person on earth is more likely to get hit by lightning, or a bus, or a stray piece of Skylab
falling into the atmosphere than they are to hit a progressive slot jackpot.
As for one-armed Major League Baseball players, there had been two: Pete Gray and Jim Abbott,
putting the odds of making the pros with only one limb somewhere around one in 10,000. It was a
better bet, and the payout was far sweeter.
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that Christian wouldn't have to hear the infernal, endless trickle o f water running down
the fake gold-panning river while he played.
Christian slipped in his Players' Club card and began to feed the slot.
The Club card was great, one o f the few truly bankable* tangible benefits o f the
job. The clothes thing was nice, too - doing what he did, the casinos needed him to be
able to play a lot o f roles; it was only natural that he should get sixty, even eighty percent
off in the shops in all the casinos, and that was a huge boon. But the Club card, beyond a
shadow o f a doubt, was by far the biggest perk o f his job.
Some people called it "promotions." Cliff called it "play-acting." He just called it
being a slot shill.
As a slot shill, Christian's job was to make gambling look fun. To that end, he just
gambled as if he lived the wins and didn't care about the losses. It wasn't difficult,
because it was more or less true: he took buckets o f quarters from Bally's, Caesar's, and
the Tropicana, among others. Then, with a large smile plastered across his face, he
slugged them into machines. It wasn't his money, after all; the casinos gave it to him, the
thinking being that if people saw him wagering, they'd be inspired to do the same. It
seemed to work.
Because the casinos wanted to make sure that he was actually playing with their
money and not keeping it* they gave him electronic Players' Club cards that tracked all of
his wagers. O f course, he wouldn't have done something so stupid and risky as to fuck
off and steal the cash, least o f all for the few bucks worth o f scrap metal they fronted him.
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Regardless, every time he worked at a casino, the M.O. was put his card in before he
started slotting coins. At the end o f his shift, when it was all gone, he'd head back to the
cash office with an electronic paper trail that showed that he’d gambled away what they'd
given him. If there was any money leftover - which there sometimes was, but hey, that
was the law of averages - they'd take it back and log it on one of the TCD's they'd just
filled out.
For this, Christian was paid fifteen bucks an hour, cash. Naturally, this was not
his primary source o f income, but it was a good jumping-off point for his real work.
And, o f course, there were the perks.
Again, the house always checked the dollar total on Christian's accounts before he
left. But what they didn't do - and Christian was amazed by this; he was unsure if it was
a tacit benefit o f the employment or a simple oversight, but either way, he knew better
than to ask - was zero out all the points he accrued for his hours o f house-sponsored
gambling.
In addition to tracking gaming habits, the Players Club cards Christian was forced
to use awarded points to bettors for playing. The points were equivalent to frequent flyer
miles; they could be cashed in for free meals, free rooms, and more. Christian plopped in
up to sixty hours worth o f quarters all around town on busy weeks - that much gambling
bought him a mountain o f redeemable credits pretty damn quickly. Whenever Christian
decided it was time to impress one or another out-of-town visitor, it was an easy feat: he'd
just flash his Players Club card, redeem a few points, and boom: comped junior suite.
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With every quarter, his point total grew. And after missing on nine or ten straight
spins of the wheels, Christian hit his first winner of the day: two Triple Lucky symbols,
good for a ten-coin payout. The metal hit the tray at the bottom of the machine hard,
slapping against the aluminum drawer as the whizzing bell called out his win.
The Players Club point counter in his head lurched forward in lockstep. Just then,
the cell phone in Christian's pocket began to buzz: it was a text message from Ben in the
City.
"You coming up next weekend?"
Christian closed the cell and slipped another quarter in to the slot machine, then
pressed its
spin
button. He nearly always hit the button now instead of doing it the old-
fashioned way of pulling the lever. He tried that once for a whole day; the next morning,
he awoke with a throbbing pain in his shoulder so intense he couldn't even lift his arm in
the shower.
The wheels turned, and then stopped on three purple sevens for a payout of a
eighty credits. Back to back wins. The bells before him began to ring, and a light atop
the machine signaled like a flashing, errant police beam: the odds against this were high.
"Nice."
Christian turned to find a woman - thin and slack, dressed in a saggy Champion
sweatshirt - smiling at him through teeth stained with fuchsia lipstick. Her eyes bore the
panting aspect of dogs watching their dinner bowls being prepared.
He smiled weakly, nodded, then reopened his phone. "Dunno," he wrote.
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"Things here are pretty good. What's up?"
A pit boss - balding and stern - came by to check on the suspicious second win.
When he saw Christian and the woman, he offered a curt nod. "Excellent play," he said.
Then he walked away.
It wasn't until after the red jacket left that Christian noticed the woman had moved
a seat closer. "What's your name?" she asked.
His phone buzzed again. "Just a second," he said, and he checked his mobile's
screen.
"Purim in April," it read. "Party of the year. Tons of J-hotties. You want to be
here for this." He closed the phone.
"Ross," he said, and when the woman extended her puffy hand - for him to shake
or kiss, he didn't know - Christian pulled out his Players Club card and scooped his
winnings into his plastic bucket. "Why don't you try this machine?" he said. "It's getting
hot." Then, he got up and left.
He knew it was the opposite of what he was supposed to do, but he couldn't help
it - the old cougar made him uncomfortable. It wasn't until he'd settled in at a new station
- a "Metal Slug" four-wheeler on the far side of the casino floor - and accepted a CocaCola from a brunette waitress named Betsy that Christian took out his phone and texted
Parnell back.
"Next weekend," he wrote. "OK. I'll be there." He sipped his soda and then
pressed SEND.
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For a moment, the Med nylon smell of a just-run vacuum cleaner caught his
attention, and he wondered if it was still raining outside. He'd long since dried off.
When the moment passed, Christian inserted his card and a quarter. For old times'
sake, he reached around the side and pulled the slot machine's lever.
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-9 -
Alyssa.
The W. Jonathan Ball Center for Rehabilitation Services - Ball’s Rehab, to those
who worked there —was nowhere near Alyssa's Upper West Side apartment,
geographically or by social structure. Unlike her cozy walkup, which sat on an east-west
side street straddled at its ends by a efficient, Korean-owned cleaner's and a sandwich
shop that offered excellent paninis, Ball's enjoyed the far less tony confines of Hell’s
Kitchen. Visitors to the city didn't stop there, and nobody looked for apartments in the
neighborhood unless they were very young, very bohemian, or seriously down on their
luck. The only major landmarks, such as they were, were the Harlem River dock
buildings and a standalone McDonald's that sported a beautifully ornate frieze mural and
a serious rodent problem. It was also, on occasion, a meet-up point for irregular platoons
of streetwalkers.
This did not bode well for Ball's clients.
Ball's itself - located at number 694 Tenth Avenue, a road frequented mostly by
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speeding delivery vans and trucks fresh from the Lincoln tunnel - occupied the converted
apartments directly above the New Food King takeaway, a Chinese restaurant where
patrons ordered and paid for their meals through a revolving plastic window two inches
thick. The location was nothing less than terrible - and not just because of the pervasive
odor of wok grease that worked its way through the floorboards. In addition to the fried
rice aroma and the dark allure of the fast food cooze coven, the W. Jonathan Ball Center
offices were just half a block south of the intersection of Tenth Avenue and 49th Street.
At the northeast comer of that intersection sat Adriatic Discount Wines &
Liquors. Yes, Alyssa's rehab center was less than a block down the street from a liquor
store. And most of her clients had to walk right by it just to make their way to their
appointments. That Alyssa was only sometimes stood up by her still-recovering clientele
was, actually, remarkable.
After an seemingly interminable span spent watching the minutes tick by, Alyssa
lolled behind her desk, gazing at the scene through her window: a curved row of rocky
outcroppings bursting forth from the ocean like stiff peaks of meringue on a pie. It didn't
fit for western Manhattan, but then, interior offices like hers didn't feature actual glass
panes that opened up to the outside world. What she called her window was in fact an
unframed poster of the Hawaiian islands, an aerial shot of a small archipelago off the
coast of Molokai. When Alyssa focused on the photo for long enough stretches of time which she did when she was, as on mornings like these, stranded - it reminded her of
skipping pebbles across the surface of the still pond in the park down the road from
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where she grew up. In the summertime, she used to aim her tosses at the nesting ducks,
startling them out of their spots in the water.
Her photo hung over her left shoulder, just under neath the ventilation ducts.
Despite being encased by brick, she was lucky to have a good office, away from the front
entrance to the Center. A series of grey, lockable metal cabinets with sharp edges traced
the left wall, crowding toward the middle of the room - Alyssa had hit her head once,
when she was still new, and since then, she always made sure to give their corners a wide
berth. A clock hung inches from the ceiling on the facing wall, and the dividers directly
behind and in front of her were adorned with inspirational posters.
"Thanks a lot, Jeanine." The voice of another of the clinic's clients echoed in
from the hall. As he walked out, his heavy footfall identified him: Lippy Tom.
Alyssa checked the time again: ten thirty. Jeanine was a good case worker;
Alyssa liked her well enough and thought she did a good job. She sat in the office just
across the hall, and Alyssa could tell whenever Lippy Tom was in by the squeaks his
work boots coaxed from the soft spots on the carpet. He didn’t call himself Lippy Tom he introduced himself to everyone, smiling, as Tom, nothing more - but Alyssa called
him Lippy because of his enormous grin, which was ninety percent upper gumline. He
flashed that fleshy ridge unreservedly to everyone when he said hello, despite the fact
that they he had strikingly unhealthy gums. They were brown and speckled with pink,
like a robin’s egg dipped in a bath of industrial offal.
Alyssa made up names for everyone who came in. She had to, just to keep them
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all straight in her head. Between the eight case workers, the client load at any time might
be as high as a hundred and sixty. To remember who each one was, she had to rely on
these little tricks, taught to her by her school-teaching sister. Hence, Lippy Tom.7
"See you again next week." Alyssa listened in as Lippy Tom excused himself
from his counselor's care. She didn't doubt he would at least be back; he seemed more
committed than most to getting his life in order. But whether or not he would follow his
program - whether or not he would stay clean - was anybody's guess.
Certainly, her ten o'clock no-show wasn't keeping up to the task. Her actual name
was Adele Masters; Alyssa called her Mrs. Brown. Mrs. Brown always came in - when
she came - wearing exclusively late-fall. A blouse in ecru, a jacket in mocha; chocolate
pants, open-toed sandals with taupe straps. Her wardrobe was studded with recognizably
expensive duds, and Alyssa wondered why she wasn't at one of the more upscale
rehabilitation clinics: a nice office building, say, in a posher zip code, one that didn't take
indigent cases. Probably, she was afraid of being spotted by someone she knew. She
never said it, but Alyssa smelled a deep well of shame around the woman's twin
addictions of gin and pain-killers.
Most o f them had it. Plus, anyone who never left the house dressed in anything
not the color of poo had to have deep-seated problems.
She anagrammed client names into Scrabble racks to keep her game up. Lippy
Tom became TOMLIPS, which made ILMOPST, arranged alphabetically. That
could be MILEPOST, for a fifty-point bingo, if there were an open "E" on the
board.
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The main purpose of Ball’s was recovery - getting people clean from addictions to
alcohol and drugs. The first step for most of Alyssa's clients was to break them of their
habits, and even if she couldn't get them off the streets at the outset - a secondary goal
that required constant coordination with the city's housing agencies - the opportunity for
them to disrupt any of their usual cycles, including even laying down their heads
somewhere fresh, often helped, at least a little. For one, they wouldn't be sleeping with
the same enabling friends, if they had any. They also wouldn't be able to easily visit their
same liquor stores or dealers. It was a gradual process, but it was a start. No one ever
managed to fully kick a serious dependency by themselves, though. Ball's offered the
necessary support system, baby steps: tools to stop abusing methamphetamines and crack
cocaine; help in finding a clinic. Methods to help them learn not to associate money and
downtime with the need to drink - a lesson that, if Alyssa was honest with herself, she
herself had not really absorbed.
Alyssa allowed herself to stare at the clock still more, wishing for five P.M. It
was nearly the weekend, and she already had her outfit for the party on Saturday picked
out and hanging from the ladder in her loft: a black skirt, a black, lacy bodice, and a
child's toy plastic wand topped by a light-up star.
She reminded herself that she had to swing by the ratty McDo's before checking
out at the end of the day to pick up a gold cardboard crown.
With her eyes on the wall clock - the same ugly, industrial-looking rotary model
that she'd had to endure through years of Jewish day school back in Chestnut Hill - she
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counted the time in Hebrew. Ten forty-five. Reva I'achad asar. As little as she needed
the language these days - which was very little - she could still remember how to tell
time. She remembered some swears as well: damn, hell, balls.
Cous was slang for a lady's private place, which made eating Mediterranean
funny. Cous cous - pussy pussy. That one got some mileage. Zayin b'ayin - "Z to the
A," in English - meant, more or less, "here's a dick in your eye." What did it mean for
her, she wondered, that she spent twelve years in grade school, four in college, and two
more getting her Masters after that - not to mention all the effort spent learning a foreign
tongue - just to while away her time telling penis jokes to herself while waiting for
absentee pill-heads to validate her day, and by extension, her existence?
If her eleven skipped out on her like her ten o'clock had, she'd be left to twiddle
her thumbs for another hour until lunch. And she couldn't just up and leave - the clients
owned her time. Cases often came in a half hour late or more - they weren't the most
responsible bunch to begin with, and for some, their access to wristwatches was, to say
the least, limited.
With nothing else to do but wait, Alyssa set to cleaning her desk. She
straightened her paper clip box and crumbled a leftover cream cheese-smeared wax paper
bagel wrapper from the morning - 450 calories - into a ball, pitching it toward the
garbage. It bounced off the rim, landing on the floor. Close enough. She left it there.
Now what?
As Alyssa sat, the lumbar support of straight-backed chair digging against her
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kidneys, she thought of her bed and how good it would feel to sleep nested underneath
her covers. She imagined laying, warm, ensconced in her pillows, with the white down
duvet nestled gently across her until at last the noon call of coffee coaxed her awake.
Ringed in by softness and shielded from harsh light, she would snuggle up with her
stuffed dog Muttsy - or a boy, maybe - and forget about missed appointments and
alcoholics, callous sisters and semi-functional cokeheads, and the need to put in hours of
work in an airless cage surrounded by stuccoed walls.
Alyssa pulled up a game of computer Solitaire and allowed herself to slip into
mindless near-stasis until the knock of metal on wood at her office door demanded her
attention.
A man wearing a rumpled, button-down dress shirt with short sleeves from which
forearms emerged like ribbed cans of coffee hung draped across the entryway. One of his
hands rested against the door, his gold wedding band pressed flat against the balsa wood.
"Can I come in?"
Alyssa closed the game on her computer screen and nodded for to her boss to
enter.
He stepped inside, smiling disarmingly, and the rest of his body came into view.
Alfred wasn't fat - Alyssa gauged him to be two-hundred pounds, two-ten at most - but he
certainly had room to lose, if he were motivated. As he entered, he cocked his head, his
just-balding pate reflecting the light of the fluorescents in twin oysters of bare skin atop
his brow. There, his forehead waged war against the receding front lines of his short,
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mottled hair.
Gingerly, Alfred lowered himself into one of the two cushioned seats in front of
Alyssa's desk. Even sitting, he was massive, and even from across the table his frame
encroached on her personal space.
He pressed his fingertips together in front of his chest, then, like a Venus fly trap,
opened them. "I wanted to talk to you about your upcoming performance review."
The muted workspace seemed to consume and compress Alyssa, a hot kiln firing
and drying supple clay.
One odd aspect of Alfred was his voice: it didn't match his stature. It was
pinched, not at all gravelly - more than anything, it was like the sound of a record being
played accidentally at too high a speed. His posture, too, seemed at odds with his size:
Alfred often held his shoulders forward, making them tense and constricted.
"It's unusual to make serious decisions like this semi-annually, but..." He trailed
off, and his body language hinted at unease. Oh, God - was she being fired? "Perhaps it
might be fruitful if we discussed it in advance of the official inquiry?"
Alyssa sharply inhaled, and she felt her buttocks involuntarily clench, just like the
instructors in yoga class always suggested. She never had been able to do it on purpose.
She voiced her fear - was this it for her? - and Alfred squirmed in his chair, which
must have been doubly uncomfortable for a man of his size. He glanced once over his
shoulder. "I'm saying
he lowered his voice to a whisper - "that there's potential for you
to get a raise. I want to talk to you about it outside of work. Soon. Tonight, if possible."
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All the pressure flooded out of Alyssa's body; she couldn't stop a smirk from
creasing the lines of her face. A raise. Hell yes. "Absolutely," she said. I'm absolutely
free tonight."
"Excellent," Alfred said. "Excellent." His teeth flashed white from behind dark
lips. "How about Puglia's, on Hester - you remember the place? I'll meet you there at
eight." Before she could respond, Alfred was already out the door; it wasn't until she
could no longer feel the echo of his footsteps reverberating down the hall that her fresh
glow slowly faded to dusk. "Puglia's" he'd said. On Hester. "You remember the
place?"
She remembered. Staring at the blue desktop of her computer screen, Alyssa's
eyes began to glaze over. A pen rolled off the table, but she didn't get it - instead, she sat
immobile, in disbelief. Puglia's. Remember? A raise. Potential. Holy. Fucking. Shit.
At last, she dug out her cell phone from her little purse, which Alyssa kept in her
the bottom drawer of her desk. She didn't hide it because she didn't trust her clients, or
because she didn't trust her co-workers, but because it was always better to keep
electronics and valuables out of sight. Eternal vigilance, after all, was the price of
integrity.
Also, she didn't fully trust her clients. Or her co-workers.
A story had gone around a few years back about a counselor who had left a
squeeze bottle of Purell hand sanitizer on his desk. He didn't notice it had gone missing
until someone walked in on his client in the visitor's bathroom: he was guzzling it straight
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from the container. The viscous gel had a 62-percent ethyl alcohol content - 125-proof,
one and a half times as strong as vodka - and the client had snagged it to get drunk off of.
Plus, there was always Etty.
The one person in the office that Alyssa didn't like, it was as if Etty had a bonus
clause written into her contract based on how much of other people's lunches she could
sneak. One time, Jamila caught Etty with an entire ham and swiss sandwich that she'd
made, herself, at home. Etty tried to play it off like she'd mistaken it for her own food,
but really, everybody knew. And she knew that phones and wallets couldn't be drank or
eaten. Nonetheless, Alyssa, just to stay on the safe side, kept her valuables hidden away.
This partially explained how the clock managed to reach ten fifty-eight - just two
minutes before Alyssa's next scheduled appointment - before Alyssa could punch out a
text message to her friend Reva in Boston.
"Got a date tonight," she typed. After a pause, she added, "I think." Then she
pressed
se n d .
In less than a minute, her phone began to vibrate. She picked it up andrread the
screen. "Nice."
"Mmm," she wrote back. "But." Should she tell her? "With Alfred."
It only took another moment before her phone buzzed twice in quick succession.
She read the first message.
"Your boss?"
Then the second.
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"The one who tried to make out with you at the Christmas party?"
Alyssa sighed. She put the phone down without responding. Seconds later, her
intercom rang.
"Alyssa? Your eleven o'clock is here."
"Great," she said. "Send him back."
Alyssa turned her phone off and put it away just as the swishing sound of a poplin
jacket announced the arrival of her first client of the day. He entered dressed in a
windbreaker, brown short pants that barely reached the midpoint of his thigh, and white
socks that ran well past the crest of his calf. It was more reliable than the groundhog, and
had been for all of Alyssa's two and a half years working at Ball's: when Benny came in
wearing tube socks and undersized Bermuda shorts, spring had arrived.
"Benny," she said. "How goes life today?"
Benny settled into the chair Alfred had just vacated, sweeping his hand across the
part in his silver-brown hair. He was fully oblivious to the drama to which he'd only
barely missed being a witness.
"Well, I went to the laundromat," he began, and that was Alyssa's cue to relax.
Once Benny got talking, he didn't stop. She pulled out a pen and her notebook and
settled in.
As she logged data about Benny's week - Alyssa was nothing if not meticulous
with client notes - Alyssa thought of Alfred and the text message. Tried to make out
with. That's what she'd told her friends had happened, wasn't it? After all her co-workers
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had left.
Puglia's. She couldn't believe it. His wife must be out of town again.
"And then, my super said he would try to fix the leaking refrigerator, you know?
But he didn't do it on Tuesday, so he said he would try Wednesday. But when
Wednesday came around..." Alyssa wrinkled her brow and nodded, letting Benny get it
all out. There was no one else to listen to him - sometimes, that was what her job boiled
down to. He told her about his place, and his job - he seemed to be so much better than
he'd been just four months ago, when he had been a sniffling, sniveling, twitchy mess.
Did he have a lady in his life yet, she wondered?
And what about Alfred? Did Alfred have other ladies in his life, besides Alyssa
and his wife?
Once the questions started coming, they didn't stop. The floodgates were open;
they gushed out like the downtown levies. Would Alfred go for her if he weren't married,
or was this dalliance just a little thrill for him? How many other girls had he had cheated
on his wife with? Did anyone at work know?
Had he slept with anyone else in the office?
Alyssa didn't know any of the answers; she didn't even know if he was actually
interested or just pursuing her because he thought he could. For a moment, this troubled
her, until she realized another truth: she herself wouldn't have been interested at all if
Alfred weren't already married.
Somehow, that fact comforted her.
MANHATTAN '05
As Benny rolled on, Alyssa pushed aside her idea for Saturday evening's outfit.
Already, she was sorting through her closet in her mind, laying out a new set of clothes
for tonight. The Saturday night party would be excellent, of course. But it simply
couldn't be helped: Friday would have to come first.
117
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118
10-
Aeli.
Nine thirty at night on a Saturday, and the whole single city stood at the ready in
their apartments. Boys preened in front of their sinks, brushing teeth and checking hair.
Girls smoothed out tube tops and slipped into black pants, blending in blush and
underlining their eyes. Guys sprayed on cologne and slipped on their watches. Gel
found its way into hair. People everywhere prepared themselves to go out and meet new
potential mates face to face.
But not Aeli.
On this April Saturday, Aeli sat quiet and alone in his darkened apartment,
waiting. He was nervous. Anxious. He had been ready to go out hours earlier. He knew
he was going to be late. He hated the ten o'clock principle, that tacit social norm that said
thou shalt not leave thy house to attend any party before the clock strikes double digits,
and he wished that he could flaunt it. Plenty of folks were already out and having fun, he
was sure, wrapping their hands around apple martinis and flirting. Aeli wished he were
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one of them, but he didn't care to go out alone. So he found himself riding the depression
in the center of his couch, a laptop computer resting upon his knees as he waited, lights
out, for the hours to pass. As was so often the case with Aeli, the glow of the photons of
his computer screen illuminated his facial features.
At least he was flirting. After a fashion.
"PumaGrlNY," he typed, "you are so right. I, too, love the fresh-churned taste,
the wholesome, creamy aroma, of this gallon of Tuscan brand milk."
And there he paused. He felt a patina of grease coalesce on his palms. His breath
began to quicken. Was he being witty enough? Was he properly coy? He erased what
he'd written and started again.
"PumaGrlNY," he tapped out on his keys. "You must be reading my mind... I,
too, have been burned in the past by inferior, off-brand dairy products. The memory still
stings my soul. Thus, it is with a great sense of satisfaction that I gaze upon this handselected, delightfully clear, 128 ounce-gallon of Tuscan whole milk."
His fingers danced across the plastic squares. "Woe to the man who buys any
other! A pox on those who walk to the store!"
A grin found its way across Aeli's features as he banged out a poem in rhymed
couplets:
I once had a glass o f milk / / knocked it over, it tipped and spill't.
I wet to my fridge, it I hoped to replace / but there was no more at my place
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So what did I do? Did I go to the store /N o ; I went to the internet fo r more!
And what did I fin d there that so warmed my heart? / This gallon o f milk! I
clicked yes: add to cart!
Shakespeare it was not, but it was good enough. He dragged the cursor over and
clicked on POST.
Music from the apartment next door began to thump through the walls, the hum of
heavy bass vibrato in his ears. Aeli tried to tune it out, focusing on the reflection of light
from the screen. Staring at the blinking cursor, he began a new post to attach an extra
line.
Not soda, not cola, neither juice nor wine -
Aeli was still shuffling around in his head for a useful rhyme to "wine” when a
knock at his door derailed his train of thought. Like a squirrel, his whole face darted up
from the screen. He paused, frozen, as the knock rang out again.
Pound pound pound. "Aeli," the voice called. "Open up. I can hear you."
Finally.
"Coming."
Aeli switched on the light, then scampered straight into his bedroom, checking his
outfit one last time in his full-length mirror. Blue, stretchy athletic leggings? Check. A
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red, lycra-spandex banana hammock? Check. Superman t-shirt across his chest and
cardboard fast-food restaurant crown on his dome? Check and mate. He stuffed his
house keys and wallet into the front pouch of his underpants and straddled, careful not to
lose the package in his shorts, to his apartment door.
The hallway of Aeli’s building never quite suited him. The walls were painted in
a prickly, pasta-cream stucco that he, frankly, didn't care for. The carpet, too, seemed off,
with its checked hues of maroon and chestnut, and the blue-green paint coating the
doorframes of each apartment entrance made one grand Easter-on-excrement palette of
the whole affair.
Luckily, Aeli didn't see much of it. Because when he opened the door, he was
confronted with the twin visages of Parnell and his obnoxious friend from the baseball
game two weeks earlier. Both bore the marks of men on a mission: pricey jeans, black
shoes, and seventy-five dollar blue button-down dress shirts with cuffs rolled halfway up.
Neither resembled the man who'd smiled back at Aeli from the mirror just
moments before.
Aeli's tongue suddenly made its presence in his mouth known, drying like a
wrung-out chamois cloth. He stared at the scene in front of him, unable to determine
which threw him off more: that Parnell had brought Christian along, again, or that he
appeared to be decidedly out of costume for what he had explicitly told Aeli was a Purim
party.
"Uhhh..."
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He didn't know what to say. Parnell, too, stood mute. At last, it was Christian
who broke the silence.
"Great outfit! You look ridiculous. Love it. Why are you all dressed up?
Doesn't matter; it's... wow. Nice."
He stepped through the doorway and into Aeli's apartment, Aeli barely getting his
hand up in time to press palms with the boy as Christian blew by him into his place. He
trailed along behind him a pervasive and aggressive odor of cologne, like a spice trader
cutting through the desert. He also carried in one hand a cardboard six-pack of bottled
beer, of which one was missing from the carrier, absent as a lost front tooth in the smile
of a child. Once inside, he immediately opened a second.
"This is a great spot," he said. "Not quite as posh as your boy's, bot not bad." He
settled himself into the still-warm depression on the sofa that Aeli had just vacated.
Parnell stepped in and closed the door behind him. Stiffly, he and Aeli shared a
handshake, followed by a chest-bumping, back-thumping, one-armed hug. They pulled
apart, and Aeli sized up his friend.
"So, you're not dressed."
Meekly, Parnell held forward a four-pack of alcoholic energy drinks in tall,
aluminum cans. He pulled one from the plastic rings - it was shaped like an alkaline
battery, complete with a copper-colored top - and passed it to Aeli. Parnell hadn't even
tried to answer the question before Christian jumped in.
"Yeah, Ben mentioned that - what's this all about, this costume party?" He put his
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123
feet up on Aeli's coffee table. "I decided I didn't have anything good, so I'm just going
natural-style."
Aeli ignored him, holding his gaze on Parnell.
"I, ah - yeah, Christian came up and didn't have a costume. I didn't want to wear
one and make him to feel out of place."
Aeli glared. "So now I look like an idiot."
"Naw," Parnell said, "you look great." He smiled wanly and clapped Aeli on the
shoulder. Aeli noticed he wasn't looking into his eyes.
Begrudgingly, he popped open the can that Parnell gave him and took a sip. It
tasted like children's cough syrup mixed with vodka and Orange Crush. The acrid and
over-sweetened flavor did nothing to soothe his bubbling anger.
His mind went straight to his closet. For a moment, he considered running back
into his bedroom and changing into plain blue jeans and coming out like it was no big
deal at all, like it was all a joke. Hah hah, OK, now I'm really dressed, let's go to the
party. But he made himself stand firm.
"Why are you all dressed up, again?"
Letting Parnell off the hook, for the moment, Aeli turned to answer - turned to tell
Christian all about Purim, about the Persian and Babylonian Jews in the sixth century B.C
and their persecution at the hands of the king's vizier. About how an evil plot to
exterminate them all was waylaid by a clever man and a queen who was secretly Jewish but he froze. Because when he looked over at the spiky-haired guy sitting on the couch,
MANHATTAN '05
124
Aeli saw him pawing through a men's magazine he'd left sitting atop his coffee table.
And right next to it lay the open laptop computer.
Fear shoved all other thoughts aside as Aeli recalled what was on the screen at
that minute. "Please," Aeli thought. "Please don't let him pick it up. Don't even let him
look at it."
"It's Purim," Aeli said. "It's, ah..." What was it again? It was a defeat - no, that
wasn't right. It was a punishment... Aeli couldn't think straight. What was he going to
do? He was going to take the laptop and move it.
He began to walk to one side of the table, but Christian stretched and moved his
legs to the other side, cutting off Aeli's path.
"And that's why you're all dressed up?"
Trying to seem innocuous as he did it, Aeli doubled back and circled around the
other way.
"Well, not really. See, Purim was in February, and we celebrated it then. But it's
this big party for Jews in the city, and so they're having this re-Purim thing. Purim in
April." He was almost there, and Too late. Christian had put the magazine down and picked up the laptop.
"What the hell is this?"
Damn it.
Aeli's heart fell as he watched Christian's eyes dance across the screen, taking in
the web page of the online store and the paean Aeli had composed. After seconds that
MANHATTAN '05
125
seemed to pass over weeks, Christian at last looked up.
"Ben," he said, "you've got to see this." And then to Aeli, he pointed at the
computer and said, "You're buying milk on the internet?"
Aeli's brain searched for a plausible excuse to explain what he'd been up to,
hoping to divert their attention before anything went too far. "No," he said. "I'm just you know how online stores have comments boards where you can write about the
products they have for sale? Well, I was checking it out, and
But by that point, Parnell had already walked over. He took the laptop from
Christian and began scanning the page.
"Are you - ?"
An uncomfortable silence grew in the room, and Aeli tried to fill it. "No, you see,
they have this page on this internet store for this gallon of milk - and it's crazy, because,
you know, why should there be a comment board for milk? And why would anyone be
writing about milk online?"
Christian leaned in. "But you are."
Parnell lowered the laptop, and his eyes locked onto Aeli's.
Crap, Aeli thought.
"No," Parnell said. "He's not buying milk. He's hitting on girls. Online."
Aeli swallowed. "No, you see, it's funny, and I - there are already like a thousand
comments on this thing, you know?" He heard himself try to justify what he was doing,
but it was too late. Christian may not have figured it out right away, but Parnell had
MANHATTAN '05
126
clearly seen it exactly.
Christian took the laptop from Parnell and began to read. "Holy shit...
'PumaGrlNY. You must be reading my mind. I, too, have been burned in the past..."’ He
put the computer down, atop the magazine on the coffee table. "Dude, you're trying to
pick up a girl on an internet message board? About milk?"
Aeli had never quite accepted how absurdly pathetic it sounded until somebody
said it out loud.
"No," he lobbied, feeble. Christian pressed the point.
"Why would some faceless girl want to hear your thoughts about milk?"
I! J
!!
"She's not even going to read it," he continued. "She's probably ugly."
"It's not that," Aeli said, "I
"She might not even be a woman," Parnell added.
"All right!" Aeli said. "Can we get off it? I was screwing around on the internet
while I was waiting for you two." He closed the lid of the computer with a slap, and at
that moment, the shamefulness and lonesomeness in what Aeli had been doing - typing
veiled notes to strangers, without even the fortitude to be forthright about it - paled in the
shame and annoyance at having been caught. He drowned it with a long swig of his
energy drink - he knew it would probably stain his teeth orange. But by that point, he
didn't care.
"We should move, anyway," he said. "The thing was supposed to start at nine-
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127
thirty."
Christian ignored him, lifting himself off of Aeli's couch and beginning a slow
circuit of the apartment. "So, Ben, tell me about this thing again?" He ran his hand along
the top of Aeli's television and kept on, moving from the entertainment center to inspect
three framed pictures that rested on the apartment’s side table: one of Aeli and his
parents; one of Aeli with his college buddies, all dressed in suits and toasting the camera;
and of Aeli's old dog that had passed. The last one, he picked up and studied.
Aeli wondered which was a more obnoxious character trait - the way this
Christian guy touched everything he owned, or the way he casually ignored his presence
even when they were having a conversation.
"Because it's awesome," Parnell offered. Aeli took Christian's spot on the couch.
"A, they do a reading about the story, and everyone gets wasted for it. Before and during.
I t's like church, if you could drink as much of the wine as you wanted. And B, people
wear costumes. It's like Halloween."
Christian turned, putting the photo down as Parnell kept on.
"And you know how girls dress on Halloween."
Taking this new information in, Christian sauntered over to the torchiere floor
lamp and began twisting the dial. Click, click, click click - the light shut off, then
switched on again, segueing from low, to medium, to high. Then it turned off again, then
went back on.
"And that's why he's dressed up like Superman?"
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128
Aeli shifted in his seat. "Actually, it's King David. A lot of people dress up like
people in the story or Jewish heroes. You don't have to wear a slutty kitty-cat outfit."
Christian’s eyes flashed, and Aeli wasn't sure if it was just the flicker of the everchanging light or something else. "It's like that?"
Parnell shrugged. "Not for everyone, but for some. Close enough."
Christian walked over to the bookshelf, where he thumbed through Aeli’s
assortment of tchotchkes - foreign candies and stacked pairs of novelty sunglasses; old
textbooks and beach rocks that guarded years' worth of hoarded back copies of
magazines. Christian put his beer on a shelf next to a row of ocean-weathered sandstone
nubbins and began to thumb through the coarse spines of the print materials.
"Damn," he said at last. "Wish I had a costume."
Vindicated, Aeli decided to let Christian mess with his things. Let that show
Parnell a thing or two. He half-hoped Christian would make it past the trash and to his
collection of respectable, grown-up reading material: not just textbooks and sex books,
but religious publications and travel guides, a small smattering of novels and a few learnto-speak-language-X’s. The Tao Te Ching, the Old Testament, and a Baha'i reader called
"Some Answered Questions" shared space in one row. At the bottom waited his
feathered, creased review guides for his Series 7 and 63 exams. But if he didn’t, that was
fine.
And he didn't. Christian finished his little circuit, picked up his beer and lifted it
just shy o f his lips. "Well, let's get going," he said, checking his watch. "It's past ten, and
MANHATTAN '05
we don't wanna be late for this."
Christian slapped his hands together, and Aeli muttered under his breath. "We
already are." But he was glad the focus had turned from him, and so killed his alcoenergy beverage in silence. He left the empty cup on the coffee table and stood up,
shutting off the lights in the apartment just before locking the door behind the: three
unmarried men prepared to join the throngs of young Turks already enjoying the single
city night.
129
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