Rats on Strings
Copyright 2011 by Guy James
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the author.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
The man stood at the end of the block. He was holding a cup of coffee in his hand and minding his food cart. From where I was it looked like the cart was filled with meat on sticks.
Then he, and his cart, were gone.
I turned to Kelsey and pointed to the spot where the man and his cart had been.
“Did you see that?” I asked.
The ground shook as a train passed beneath us.
“See what?” she asked.
We were walking south on Park Avenue, in the low fifties. I watched the steam leave my mouth and then vanish. I shivered, and tried to get deeper into my coat.
“I thought—I just thought I saw something, that’s all.”
What was that? The man and the cart had been there, I was sure of it. But how could they have been? People with coffee in their hands and a food cart to look after didn’t just vanish. I’m not sleeping enough, I told myself.
“You’re not listening to me,” Kelsey said. “You always ignore what I say to you.”
“I’m not ignoring you. We’re talking about it now.”
I didn’t know what she was talking about, but I didn’t like the tone of her voice.
Then a woman crossing Park Avenue caught my eye. She had something strange in her hand. I watched her. I looked at the thing she was carrying and something in me caught on fire. There was a flash in my mind, and at that instant it all changed. She had a—
“Hey!” Kelsey said.
“Who are you looking at?”
“Nothing, I mean no one.” I turned back to Kelsey.
Kelsey looked in the direction I had been looking, saw the woman, pursed her lips, and turned back to me.
“I think you should move out,” she said. “I can’t keep waiting for you to grow up.”
“What are you talking about? I was listening.”
“No you weren’t,” she said. “You’re a child-like moron.”
“What?” That caught me off guard. A child-like moron? “Where am I supposed to go? I mean, we picked our apartment out together.”
“You can find a place, or stay with your friends or something, I don’t know. I’ll give you your rent money back.” She moved her pursed lips this way and that, scrunching up her face. It looked like she was trying not to cry. She wouldn’t look at me.
“I don’t want it back,” I said. “You think I’m a moron?”
She sighed. “That’s not it. I feel like you don’t care.”
“But I do everything for you,” I said. “All I do is try to make you happy, I mean I go out of my way to take care of you.”
“That’s not enough. I just, I just can’t keep waiting, all my friends are getting married.”
“That doesn’t mean they’re happy,” I said.
She shook her head. “I’m never dating another guy my age again.”
“Good afternoon sir,” a strange and unfamiliar voice said, “would you be so kind as to spare some change for a soul in need?”
The owner of the voice was sitting on a standpipe. His hair was unkempt, his clothes dirty. He looked me straight in the eye. His eyes glimmered.
Couldn’t he see we were fighting? I ignored him.
My now ex-girlfriend and I kept walking. I looked back at the man. He was still sitting on the standpipe, looking at me.
I turned back to Kelsey. “Don’t you wanna try to work this out?” I asked.
“We’ve tried enough,” she said.
I searched my mind for something to say, something that would fix things. I could fix these fights most of the time. It was just a matter of saying or doing the right thing. Maybe a card or some flowers or a nice dinner. Maybe all of those.
Then I looked at Kelsey’s face, and I knew that nothing I said or did would change her mind.
We walked south some more. When we reached Kelsey’s block, she turned right, toward her building. She didn’t wait for me to walk with her. She didn’t look back.
That was how she ended our two and a half years as a couple. That was it.
I stood on Park Avenue, and watched her leave.
I stood there for a while, not knowing what to do. Then I turned around and walked north. I stopped in front of the homeless man who had called out to me before. He was still sitting on the standpipe. I felt bad about the way I had ignored him. I pulled out my wallet and gave him a few bills, catching a few dirty glances from passersby as I did so.
“Thank you kindly,” he said, and smiled. “It looks to me like you’re having a rough day.”
I nodded, and began to walk back to Kelsey’s apartment.
I moved out that same day.
I moved out into my firm. It was easy, because I didn’t have a lot of stuff. I had my clothes, my laptop, my Bloomberg Businessweek magazines, and my Russian Standard vodka. Kelsey’s apartment was twelve north-to-south blocks from my office, about a half mile. It took me four trips to move everything.
Kelsey had gone to a friend’s so I didn’t see her on my trips back and forth. That way there was no more fighting, no awkward encounters, nothing. I was grateful for that.
In my office, I stowed my things under my desk and in the hall closet. I spent most of my waking life there anyway, so moving in wasn’t that much of a change.
My stack of magazines was quite large. It took up most of the space from the floor to the bottom of my desk. I used to get rid of them on a regular basis when I went to the gym. I would take three or four with me, flip through them while I did my cardio, and then leave them there for someone else to read. But I hadn’t been to the gym in months. I couldn’t remember the last time I had had the time to go, and told myself that I would have to start getting rid of the magazines, even if I didn’t take them to the gym. The stack was just getting too big.
It was dark by the time I finished my move. I went to the break room and made myself a French Roast. The machine whirred, whizzed, and burped at me as it made my coffee. I knew the sound too well. It was like the voice of an old friend—a friend I could rely on. The milk we had in the office tasted like old clothes, so I took my coffee black. Then I set out on a lap around the floor as I drank my coffee. It was bad. I had taken the spicy French Roast instead of the regular French Roast by mistake. I drank it anyway.
I was the only person at the firm that Sunday evening, and it was good to be alone. I began to think of those characters in John Grisham novels. There was always intrigue, blackmail, or mafia in their lives. The books weren’t about boring, aging, no-name lawyers at big law firms in New York City. There was no novel anyone could write about me.
At least now I had an idea to work off of, I told myself. I didn’t expect it to work, and I wasn’t sure it could work. It probably wasn’t something Grisham would want to write about anyway. But there was something about it that made me hope. It felt nice to have some hope on a post-breakup Sunday evening at the office.
On my way around the floor, I stopped outside Mr. Pitchfork’s office. There was a cockroach on the ceiling just outside the door. It sniffed around with its antennae—or whatever it was cockroaches did with their antennae—and it made me think of Max. It had been a long time since I’d last thought of him, and it had been a long time since anyone at the firm had talked about him.
Max had worked there years ago. When he was a first year associate, he picked a fight with a ceiling cockroach in this very spot. I remembered it well. It was the kind of thing you didn’t forget.
The fight took place on a busy day at the firm. Everyone was in, and everyone was hard at work. On one of his trips back and forth across the floor, Max must have spotted a cockroach on the ceiling. Like this one, it was outside Mr. Pitchfork’s office. I was in my office at the time, so I wasn’t there to see how the battle began. Maybe Max wanted to show everyone that he wasn’t afraid of a cockroach. Maybe he wanted to show us that he could get the job done, at least as far as fighting cockroaches went. I heard a commotion, and I left my office to see what was going on. What I saw was a small circle of my bosses and coworkers, looking on as Max stabbed at the cockroach with a broom. Max’s sleeves were rolled up, and sweat poured from his brow. But the cockroach was wily, and it wasn’t about to let a lowly first year end its life.
Each time Max jabbed at it with his broom, the cockroach scuttled away. Max jabbed again and again, but each time the cockroach scurried just out of reach, as if it was mocking Max. Max and the cockroach danced back and forth for a while. Max came at the cockroach with his broom and the cockroach fell back. Then the cockroach came at Max and Max fell back. It went on and on.
After a while, it looked like Max was starting to take the battle close to heart. The whole department was watching, and some passersby from other floors had joined the crowd too. Most cheered for Max, but I heard someone say, “Poor cockroach.” I don’t remember who said it.
At last, Max swiped the cockroach with the broom. The swipe didn’t kill the cockroach, but instead flung it into Mr. Pitchfork’s office. From where I stood, I couldn’t tell if the cockroach landed on the floor, or flew, or what. There were shrieks of horror, and by the time I got in a position from which I could see into the office, the cockroach was in place.
It sat on a framed photo of Mr. Pitchfork’s wife, flicking its antennae at her face. There was some stifled laughter. I bit my lip but still felt a smirk creep onto my face. Mr. Pitchfork was nowhere in sight, and someone suggested that Max get the cockroach out of there while he still could.
Then Mr. Pitchfork came walking down the hall. He took in the crowd gathered around his office. People fell away as if pushed, and returned to work. I stood and watched as Mr. Pitchfork walked up behind Max, who was reaching for the cockroach on the photo.
“What are you doing in my office?” Mr. Pitchfork asked. Max froze. He didn’t say anything, but Mr. Pitchfork’s eyes followed the poor kid’s hand to the cockroach on the picture of Mrs. Pitchfork. Max began to stammer something. He was probably trying to explain what had happened. Then Mr. Pitchfork swung the door shut.
None of us ever saw Max again. Sometimes I wondered what had happened to the cockroach.
I stared up at the cockroach that was on the ceiling. Maybe it was the same cockroach. Thinking that it was made me smile.
I left the cockroach in peace, finished my coffee, and returned to my office. I closed my door, leaned against the stack of deal documents that looked the softest, and closed my eyes.
Images began to flash in my mind. I saw the man in the food cart, he was drinking his coffee now, and the cart behind him was full of donuts and fruit, alongside the meat on sticks. And I saw the woman crossing Park Avenue with the—
I caught myself nodding off. If it wasn’t for the cup of coffee, I wouldn’t have caught myself. That wasn’t the first time I had slept in my office, and it was only for a few seconds anyway, so it didn’t really count.
Sleeping in the office aside, I had a nice life as an associate. My firm called itself a lifestyle firm, and although no New York City firm was a lifestyle firm, mine was better than others. Or at least it was better than some others. The main problem with my job was that I could never plan anything. If I made plans, the plans would be broken. But while the hours weren’t steady and called for a lot of plan-breaking, they weren’t excessive either. Unlike many of my friends from law school who worked in big New York law firms, I had never worked more than ninety hours in a week, and I almost always got some time off on a Saturday or Sunday. That was in part because I lived just a few blocks away, so it was easier for me to sneak away for a bit, but it was true all the same.
Now that I was single, I thought, I could be a better associate. I could be the kind of associate that partners’ dreams were made of—the kind of associate with no social life to stand in the way of work. I would have nothing better to do but work. Because of that, it was better not to tell anyone that Kelsey was out of the picture. Even though the partners expected me to come in when they called, it was easier for them to pick on those associates who had no personal lives. If I let on that I was single, that would invite the partners to throw more work my way. I didn’t want that.
Thinking about work made me realize that I didn’t want to spend the night in my office. The thought of sleeping at the firm made me depressed, and I needed a shower. I had to find a friend’s couch to crash on. I picked up my BlackBerry and called Sanjiv.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey man,” Sanjiv said.
“What’s going on?”
“Same old nothing, you?”
“Is it ok if I shower at your place for a few days? Kelsey kicked me out.”
“What? Wow. Uhhh, yeah, sure. That should be fine. Are you guys really broken up this time? I mean you guys have broken up like a million times.”
“Yeah it’s for real this time. My stuff is in my office. I’m looking at it.”
“Sorry man, that’s rough I guess. Yeah, ok, come by whenever. I’m not doing anything.”
“Ok that sounds good.”
“We’ll have some beers,”
I hung up and looked back at my screen. I searched for apartments on Craigslist and found a few listings close to the office. I sent some emails to inquire about the apartments that looked promising.
Then I left for Sanjiv’s.
I knew Sanjiv from law school. We were the same year. Both of us had come to New York to live the big firm life. That’s what you did after you graduated from law school with loans to pay off. We called it Biglaw. It was a derogatory term. The loans were how the firms got us.
Sanjiv and I bonded in law school because we were both outcasts. Unlike the uncool kids who took advantage of law school as a place to redefine themselves, to move into the incrowd, Sanjiv and I were at ease with our lack of coolness. And we were both poor. Or maybe our friendship had nothing to do with either of those things. Who knew why people became friends? Some personalities just clicked with each other. We clicked.
On the way to Sanjiv’s, I stopped at the corner where the man with the food cart had been—if in fact he had been there at all. I looked at the sidewalk, the curb, the street, the cars parked on the street, the puddles, the building on the corner. They all looked normal.
But one thing was out of place. On the corner where I had seen the food cart man, just beneath the curb and half-submerged in a puddle of sludge, was a coffee cup. Not that there was anything strange about a coffee cup lying in a gutter. But this was no regular, run-of-the-mill coffee cup. It wasn’t any kind of coffee cup I had ever seen before, and I knew my coffee cups. It was a black paper cup, with a five-pointed star etched into it. Just a star, and no other markings I could see. I wanted to see more, but I wasn’t going to reach in and touch or disturb the sludge in which the cup lay.
Was it the vanishing man’s coffee cup? I couldn’t tell. I closed my eyes and tried to recall the scene from earlier that day. I must have looked strange standing with my eyes closed on a street corner—but not strange by New York standards. I could see the food cart, the man, the corner, and I could feel Kelsey walking next to me. I tried to focus in on the image in my mind—to zoom in on the man’s hand. But I couldn’t. I couldn’t make out the cup. I opened my eyes and looked back at the cup in the gutter. It could have been the food cart man’s, but I had no way of knowing. I stood there a little while longer, staring at it.
When I got back on my way to Sanjiv’s, I was sure about what I’d seen. The cup had a strange crispiness to it. It had the look of a cup that had been singed with care.
I got there at ten.
Sanjiv’s place was about a fifteen block walk from my firm. On the way, I got more dirty looks from strangers than was normal, on a per-block basis. They looked at me like I was a thief, and upon seeing me, many put their hands in their pockets, or clutched the bags they carried closer to their bodies. When I got to Sanjiv’s, I had a look in the mirror. I looked the same as I always did, as far as I could tell.
Sanjiv and I had a few beers and talked over an episode of Dexter, the show about a lovable serial killer who kills people that deserve it. His victims have it coming. They’re all bad.
At first, Sanjiv and I talked about my former relationship, but after I had had a few beers, I steered the discussion in a different direction. I didn’t want to talk about Kelsey anymore that night, and I knew full well that people would be bringing up my breakup for a long time yet. I wanted that night to be about something else.
“You know how we always talk about what a mistake law school was, and how we should have gone to med school instead?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Sanjiv said, “except we didn’t have the grades for it.”
I nodded. “Well, I have an idea that I think might get me out of law.”
“Oh yeah? How’s that?”
“Something weird happened today, while Kelsey was breaking up with me. We were walking down Park Avenue, and I had some kind of vision or something.”
Sanjiv raised his eyebrows. “Drug-induced?”
“No, I mean, I thought I saw something, and then I did see something, and then I had this idea. It just came to me.”
Sanjiv just looked at me, so I went on.
“I saw a man with a food cart, and he had a coffee in his hand, and then he just vanished. He just vanished, you know. I mean—”
“How much coffee did you have?”
“That’s not the point—”
“A lot, but that’s not the point.”
Sanjiv shook his head. He looked at the TV. Dexter smashed a plate in anger. Dexter’s new love interest was leaving him.
Sanjiv turned back to me and shrugged. “So what’s the idea?”
I told him. He listened, but he looked more and more dismissive as I went on.
“That’s stupid,” he said, when I had finished.
I could always count on Sanjiv to be honest.
“I know it’s a little out there, but I think I can do this. The way it came to me, it just seems to me that it’ll work—like I have to give it a try.”
“Yeah, well it seems to me like you were stressed out from working too much, and that you’re still stressed out from that, and from Kelsey leaving you. I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
“Look,” I said, “I want to start a business. I want to quit law and do my own thing, where I’m my own boss. I want to have free time. I want control of my own life. I want to stop carrying this around.” I took out my BlackBerry and pointed at it with an accusing finger.
Sanjiv nodded. “I know, I know,” he said. “But it’s a big risk, and it’s way out there. I mean, it’s not like you’re gonna deliver bread. That I would get. People like to eat bread, so you might get some business. But this—this is just nuts.”
“So is staying in law, so is never trying. I have to try to do something, and this seems like the right something.”
“If you build this business and fail, it sounds like you might be out a lot of money, right?”
I took a moment before answering, because I hadn’t thought about that yet.
“I think so,” I said. “But I’m gonna follow through on this. It’s the only good idea I’ve ever had. I think it’s once in a lifetime. And now that Kelsey’s out of the picture, now that I’m single, I don’t have to worry about supporting anyone. I can take a risk. I need to take a risk.” I paused and took a breath. “So…I guess you don’t want in?”
“No, I don’t want in, and I don’t think you should want in either. You have a good life. Maybe you don’t have as much free time as you want, but we went to law school to be lawyers. You can’t back out for something like this. Not that it’s too late to back out of law if something good comes along, but this isn’t it. What you’re talking about is crazy.”
Sanjiv shook his head again and looked back at the TV. We sat in silence for a few minutes. Then the door opened, and Sanjiv’s fiancée, Amberley, walked in, click-clacking her heels as she went.
“Hey guys,” she said, smiling. She got herself a beer and sat down between us. “Wow my night sucked, some gross guy threw his smelly boxers into my cage. I mean, like, who does that?”
Sanjiv laughed. “It’s a dangerous job,” he said, and gave Amberley a playful jab in the ribs. Then he pointed at me. “He’s single now.”
“Really?” Amberley asked.
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’ve got just the girl for you,” she said, and began telling me about her perfect coworker.
That was all I needed right then, a cage-dancer to date.
“Thanks,” I said, when she had finished. “But I’m gonna take it easy for a while.”
“Ok, let me know if you change your mind.”
Then Amberley told us about her night. While she talked, she took her pet bunny Freckles out of its cage for her cat Retro to play with. Retro swatted at Freckles. Freckles tried to get back into her cage. Retro swatted some more. And then, something strange happened. Freckles swatted back. We all saw it.
Amberley’s jaw dropped. “I’ve never seen her do that before,” she said. “She never swats back, she just ignores Retro or runs away. That’s so weird.”
Sanjiv and I agreed. Retro and Freckles kept on swatting at each other. They were at an impasse. Amberley let the two go at it and hopped in the shower.
Amberley’s boxer shorts story had put my business idea out of my mind. That was for the best, because after Sanjiv had weighed in on it, I didn’t want to think about it there anymore. I was going to go through with it no matter what he said. I was going to be stubborn.
Once Amberley was out of the shower, she made the couch up for me to sleep on. I thanked her, and she and Sanjiv went into the bedroom.
As I lay on the couch, I thought about what I had done so far in my life. I thought about all the schooling that I had been through. How was it that I was so educated and knew so little? I felt like I knew nothing of substance. My work knowledge I had picked up on the job, and it was just a set of arbitrary rules. Was there any more for me to learn now that I was in the real world? I tried, but I couldn’t think of any topics I cared to know about. I thought about how teachers had once held me rapt in my want for knowledge. I wanted that feeling back. I wanted to learn and be creative, like when I was a kid.
As I slept that night, developing a crick in my neck, I dreamt of Kelsey. In my dream, Kelsey was married to Dexter, the same Dexter from the TV show. Kelsey and Dexter had a bunny and a cat. They all got along. The cat didn’t swat at the bunny, and the bunny didn’t swat at the cat.
Work dragged on the next day.
I got a few emails in response to the ones I had sent in my apartment search. A few were ads that tried to get me to click on a credit score website. After clicking on a couple of these, I learned to spot and ignore them.
One of the emails that wasn’t spam intrigued me. Or rather the landlord’s asking price intrigued me. The listing was for a one bedroom going for only $1,500, which meant that something was wrong with it. But it was in a good location—only two avenues away from my office. It was a six minute walk at the most, and I liked to live as close to the office as I could.
I followed up and got another reply. My suspicion that there was something wrong with the place grew stronger when the owner emailed me directions and told me to go to Devil Bar on 56th Street, and to ask for Pat at the bar. It sounded sketchy, but I figured it was worth a look. Maybe I’d get lucky and find a hidden gem.
I also had an email in my inbox from Kelsey. My heart began to pound harder when I saw it. I opened it, and a hollow feeling crept into my stomach. It felt as if the air had been sucked out of me, and breathing in just made it worse. Kelsey wanted to know how I was doing. She asked if I had found a place to live yet. She said she was sorry she had made me leave without having a place to go to. She said she should have let me crash on the couch. She said I could still do that until I found a place. She said she hoped I was well.
The hollow feeling in my stomach had grown worse as I read. I reread the email a few times. It was just a few lines. I didn’t know how to respond. I didn’t know if I should respond. I deleted it. Then I clicked on my trash folder and pulled the email out. Then I deleted it again. Then I pulled it out again. My finger wavered over the mouse. I sighed and closed the browser. I stared out the window for a while, but I couldn’t shake the hollow feeling.
I had a lot of work that day, but not so much that I couldn’t spare an hour out of my day to look at the Devil Bar apartment. I needed to find a place where I could relax, or at least to find a place that wasn’t my desk. I didn’t like the fact that my usual joke about living at the office was taking on a whole new meaning, and I felt that if I didn’t push myself to move into a real apartment, I might never leave. I might end up living at my desk until I died. That was a depressing thought.
My appointment to meet Pat at the bar was for 4:30 in the afternoon. I would look at the apartment and then go back to work. I hoped the place would be decent enough for me to rent for a while, and that the owner would be flexible on the length of the lease term. I was desperate, but if the place was terrible I wanted to avoid being tied to it for too long. I put my game face on and tried to look cheerful. I didn’t need Pat seeing that I was in dire straits. That meant trying to push the corners of my frown up. There was no cheer in me at all.
On my way out of the office I ran into Bill. He saw me getting into the elevator and I froze.
“Are you going up?” Bill asked, pointing up with his thumb.
“No, down, sorry.”
Bill’s eyes narrowed and he looked me and up down. He was still looking when the doors shut. That was bad luck. That was bad luck because Bill was the “cool partner.”
Every law firm had at least one, and most had a team of them. We had our share too, and Bill was head of the “cool partners” at my firm. He was boss “cool partner” man. That was his unofficial title. Law firms needed “cool partners” to seduce new hires during the summer program, when the “cool partners” tricked summer associates into thinking that the firm was a great place to work. “Cool partners” liked to talk about work-life balance, vacations, fancy lunches, and the prestige that came with a career in law. If “cool partners” were trying to get a law student into the firm, they wined and dined the student in a single-minded pursuit to win the student over. They took the student out on a series of dates. The student and firm dated each other for a while, and the “cool partner,” since he was the firm side of this, was always on his best behavior. The “cool partner’s” courtship tactics did the trick most of the time. Young law students never saw it coming.
Bill played this role in our group, and in my firm as a whole. Unlike some “cool partners” at other firms, Bill didn’t wear board shorts or talk about surfing. We weren’t that kind of firm. But he did wear striped shirts sometimes and I once saw him wear jeans on a Jeans Day. Bill wined and dined summer associates as he tried to get them to join our group. Then he wined and dined new hires as he tried to get them to stay in our group. Bill was generous with his high fives, his questions about family, and his gifts. He knew how to win the associates’ trust, and the associates felt comfortable with him, like he was one of them, like he was their friend.
But, “cool partners” had a dark side. They played a dual role. Their job went beyond new hire seduction, and included constant associate surveillance. They were there to keep a watchful eye fixed on the associates who already worked at the firm, under the guise of friendship. It was their job to get in good with the associates and learn all they could about them. “Cool partners” were spies.
Once Bill felt that he knew an associate well enough, he wrote a memo. I saw one of these memos once. The memo was, at its essence, a long list. The list was nicely formatted. Bill had been doing this for years, after all, so he had had a lot of practice. The list defined the associate in terms of his most basic traits, fears, debts, and anything else that Bill thought was important for the firm to know, and that he had learned in his dates with the associate. The list even included food preferences, drugs of choice, relationship status, and as many likes and dislikes that Bill could get a handle on. Bill circulated the list to all the partners in the group, and sometimes to all the higher-up partners at the firm.
If an associate had been the subject of a list that stood out, the associate would, after a time, begin to hear the things he had said to Bill on their dates together. The associate would begin to hear these things from other people, with whom there had never been dates. He would then wonder if he had told these people his secrets. Then, after he’d heard them from people he’d never even talked to before, it became obvious that the firm social network had a leak somewhere. The leak was Bill.
It happened a lot. Once they got a sense of what was happening, associates that had been the subject of Bill’s memos kept a low profile. Those who didn’t came to learn of an updated memo that Bill had circulated. Bill loved to update his memos, and it was best not to give him any more to write about.
I never got to see the memo about me, even though I always wanted to. I knew it was out there somewhere.
I walked to the bar.
On the way there I told myself that Bill wouldn’t tell on me. Of course not, I had been at the firm too long, and he would have real work to do.
The bar was easy enough to find. A wax figure devil stood in front of the bar’s entrance. He beckoned at passersby with one well-cooked hand and held a beer in the other. He had the typical devil horns, moustache, and goatee. His face was singed a greasy red, like it had been fried in hot oil.
I tried to find a tail. There wasn’t one. Maybe the devil’s creator had forgotten that part. I preferred devils with tails, but that wasn’t a big deal. The wax devil made me feel a little better about life. I’m not sure why, but he did.
I walked past the wax devil into the bar. I walked up to the counter. There were two men behind it. They both turned to look at me.
“Hi, I’m looking for Pat.”
“You got us,” one of the men said, and he pointed at himself and then at the other man.
“We’re both Pat,” the other man said, and they both burst out laughing like it was the funniest thing in the world.
After they calmed down, one of them said, “Are you here about the apartment?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Oh,” one of the Pats said, “then you want him.” He pointed to the other Pat and started laughing again.
“I’ll go get the keys,” the other Pat said, and went into the kitchen.
“Ok, sounds good” I said. I took a deep breath. This was way more happiness than I was used to during the day, and it was making me uncomfortable.
“You want a drink?” the remaining Pat asked.
“No I’m good, thanks,” I said.
The Pats were making my head spin. They looked alike and had the same mannerisms. They both talked too fast, and they both pointed to each other too much. I was having a hard time following along in what they were saying to me, and I got the sense they were talking more to each other than to me.
I stood by the counter and waited with the remaining Pat. He was calmer by himself, and he looked hopeful, as if he thought he could succeed in selling me a drink if only I stood at the counter long enough. That would have been true if it hadn’t been a workday, but I had resolved in advance not to have any drinks.
As I waited, my eyes began to run over the liquor bottles behind the counter, then turned to the taps. I looked away. A man was sitting to the right of me, drinking a clear drink. He looked like he was about to fall off his stool. I looked at my BlackBerry. It was 4:37 in the afternoon and this guy was drunk. He was a quiet drunk, and he didn’t look unhappy. I watched him for a while. He didn’t look over at me, or at the Pat at the bar, or at the TVs. He just sat there and stirred his drink, sipped at it, then stirred it some more.
A few minutes passed while the keys to the apartment were being found. I saw the Pat that had gone to find the keys get them from one of the busboys. That made me think for a second.
“Alright let’s go have a look,” the Pat with the keys said.
“Ok,” I said, and began to follow Pat out. I looked back at the drunk man. He was still looking down into his drink.
I followed Pat outside and one door over. We went up two flights of stairs. Pat opened a door, and there we were.
“It is what it is,” Pat said.
He showed me around, and it was what it was. It was ugly.
“It’s fine,” I said, as I looked into a small closet with no door.
“No fridge,” Pat said, pointing where I was looking. The small closet had a stove and a cupboard. That’s when I realized that the small closet was a kitchen.
“Oh,” I said.
“It is what it is,” Pat said, and shrugged. He had a sad look in his eyes, as if he had been trying to rent this place for a long time. He looked hopeless.
“It’s really convenient to my office,” I said. “And it won’t take much work to keep clean.”
I found myself wanting to make Pat feel better about the place.
“It’s got new carpeting, and it’s above the kitchen so you don’t hear much from the bar,” Pat said, “I can turn on the music downstairs so you can see how loud it is.”
“That’s ok,” I said.
Pat sighed and his shoulders slumped. “It is what it is.”
“Actually, yeah, let’s do that. Let’s turn the music on.
“You got it,” Pat said, straightening up.
He trundled out the door.
A few minutes later the floor began to vibrate. I could hear the music, but it wasn’t as loud as I had expected.
Pat walked backed in.
“It is what it is,” Pat said, and looked at me. The place seemed to depress him.
I took another quick tour of the place and walked back over to Pat, who was vibrating in the center of the living room.
“There’s some vibration from—”
I cut him off. “I’ll take it. Can I move in today?”
We shook hands, vibrated out the door, and that was that. I had a place to live.
I walked out of my new building and took a right, heading back to work. I had declined Pat’s offer to celebrate my new apartment over some drinks. I had taken a rain check instead. As I began to walk back, I pulled my BlackBerry out of my pocket and saw that I had eight new emails. I had only been out of the office for twenty minutes. It wasn’t unusual to get eight emails in twenty minutes, and most of the emails were unimportant. But one was from Mr. Pitchfork.
The subject line of the email had only four words in it, and the body of the email was empty. The subject read, “PLEASE SEE ME ASAP.” I looked at the time the email had been sent. It was fifteen minutes old, so it was sent a few minutes after I had left the office. I had no idea what it could be about. I was a short walk from the office, and I was already on my way back, so I didn’t respond. I would see what Mr. Pitchfork wanted when I got back.
I walked back to Madison Avenue, walked through my office building’s revolving door, and got on the elevator. On the elevator, I got another email. This time it was from one of the associates I worked with, Tom. The subject line of Tom’s email was “hey” and the body said, “fyi – pitchfork is looking for you, he is not happy.”
Tom and I had started at the firm at the same time. We had shown up as scared, green first years, and had spent years sleeping in windowless conference rooms. Our shared misery had made us fast friends. Since day one, it had been us against the firm. And now, even though we were fast growing into the firm ourselves, we still tried to look out for each other. If Tom had thought it was worth taking the time to email me about Mr. Pitchfork looking for me, it couldn’t be good.
A nervous tension began to creep up the back of my throat. I had been with the firm for years, but I had never become comfortable there.
When I got off the elevator, I walked straight into my office and sat down at my desk.
My phone rang.
It was Mr. Pitchfork.
I picked up the phone.
“Hi,” I said.
“Come into my office,” Mr. Pitchfork said.
“Ok,” I said into the dead receiver.
I got up, feeling a little unsteady. I took a deep breath. That didn’t help. I walked down the hall to Mr. Pitchfork’s office and knocked on the open door.
Mr. Pitchfork looked up. “Close the door and sit down,” he said. I did. That was how it was most of the time. He said and I did.
Mr. Pitchfork was a little man in his early fifties. He had a crew cut. He always wore a suit and tie to work, even though our dress code was business casual. His shirt was always white. He talked very fast. He walked very fast. He ate very fast. He was scrappy and mean and made me think of Curly in Of Mice and Men. Like Curly, he lived to pick fights with anyone who was bigger than he was. In the Of Mice and Men in my mind, Mr. Pitchfork played Curly, and Mr. Pitchfork had to tone down his real life behavior to do it.
I looked across the desk at him and my eyes ran across the monocle—Mr. Pitchfork’s weapon of choice. It was in its holster. I remembered what Mr. Pitchfork used it for and shuddered. Unhappy visions began to dance in my head. I rounded my back, drew my arms in, and tried to collect my thoughts. It was hard for me to be coherent when he talked at me, and I was trying to prepare myself.
“You left the office in the past hour,” Mr. Pitchfork said. “Is that correct?”
“Yes,” I said.
“You left without permission.”
“I needed permission?”
“Yes, you must always have my permission. You cannot leave the office during work hours unless I say you can. You are not allowed to make decisions like that yourself. You have to have permission. You must always ask me. You—”
“Can I say something?”
“Yes, but it won’t change the fact that you are not allowed to leave the office during work hours without permission.”
“You don’t even know why I left the office.”
“It isn’t relevant. I don’t care. I don’t care. I don’t care,” Mr. Pitchfork barked. His rapid fire speech was starting to make me dizzy.
“You can tell me why you left if it makes you feel better. But it won’t change anything, not at all, not anything.”
“I left to look at an apartment. I need a place to live.”
“You can look on the weekends.”
“I’m here on the weekends too.” I bit my lip a little. I felt the anger building up, but I knew I had to sit there and take it. Just sit there and take it a little longer. Don’t say anything stupid, I told myself. He’s the boss. Did Bill tell him I went down in the elevator? Maybe. But I would never ask, and no one would ever tell me even if I did.
“That’s your problem.” Mr. Pitchfork reached for the monocle. He put his hand on it. He stroked it.
“I guess so,” I said, gritting my teeth. I wanted this to be over. I wanted to go back to my desk.
“It was very stupid of you to leave. You know how the associate keycards and BlackBerrys are wired. You know we know where you are. We know when you’re at your computer and when you’re not. We don’t need anyone to tell us you left.”
I slumped lower in my chair. Mr. Pitchfork loved to talk about his high-tech tracking gadgets. It was true, the associate keycards and BlackBerrys at my firm were wired to track us. The partners always knew where we were, and they knew when we left the office. If I had known this stuff existed when I was in law school, I would have devoted myself to pro bono, or to a small firm in the South.
All the partners tracked us. But Mr. Pitchfork derived a special pleasure from it. Even if my firm didn’t use tracking technology, Bill was likely to have turned me in. Maybe Mr. Pitchfork hadn’t checked the tracker, and it was Bill that had told him I was going down in the elevator. It didn’t matter. One way or another, I had been caught.
I didn’t feel too bad about getting this lecture. Mr. Pitchfork was known the firm over for the fights he had with associates when they left to grab a cup of coffee with a friend during work hours. It wasn’t personal, it was just how he was.
“I need a place to live,” I said again, the stupid, too-bold words leaving my mouth before I could stop them.
Mr. Pitchfork picked up the monocle. I shrank back in my seat. “I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care, I don’t care,” Mr. Pitchfork said. “You are in the wrong.”
“You don’t care? I don’t even have time-sensitive work right now.”
“That’s not relevant. You left your post. I pay you to be at your post. You can’t leave your post. Don’t you understand? What if a partner had been looking for you? What if a partner was thinking about coming to your office to talk to you? You need to be there. You can’t judge what the partners are thinking. You don’t know what the partners are thinking. And you can’t judge what is or isn’t time-sensitive. Everything is time-sensitive. You should know that by now.”
“Right,” I said, and sighed.
“You must always mind your post.”
Now that the monocle was in his hand, I knew I had lost. “You’re right, Mr. Pitchfork,” I said. “I should not have left, I’m just stressed out. I wasn’t thinking.” Then the dreaded, humiliating words left my mouth, “I’m sorry.”
Mr. Pitchfork’s face brightened.
“That’s right you weren’t thinking,” he said. “Go back to your office, that’s enough for now.” He put the monocle down.
“Alright,” I said, and left.
“I hope you don’t hate me, but you can if you want, but don’t be mad at me,” Mr. Pitchfork said as I walked out. I didn’t respond. He always said stuff like that. Mr. Pitchfork was the kind of guy that would berate someone and then top it off with a “don’t hate me.” Maybe it was a routine, or maybe it came naturally, but whatever its origins, it was scary and confusing. It was the good old shock and awe routine. One minute he would be the nicest nerd in the world, and the next he would be the cruel, scolding, monocle-wielding taskmaster who haunted your dreams.
I stomped back to my office and sat down at my desk. I was angry, but I didn’t need to vent to anyone. I had had talks like this with Mr. Pitchfork before. That was his way, and he wasn’t alone. Many of the partners at my firm liked to flex their flabby muscles. Mr. Pitchfork loved it.
Back at my desk, I opened up the email from Kelsey. I told myself I was doing it to distract myself from Mr. Pitchfork’s tirade. I thought about writing back. I looked at it for a while. What would I say? That I missed her? That I wanted her back? I knew I couldn’t crash on her couch. That would just make things worse. Once the hollowness had filled me again, I closed the browser. I’d get back to her later.
I moved in that day—the same day that Pat showed me the place. It took the same four trips that it had taken me to move from Kelsey’s place into my office. The trips were much shorter, and I was done with my move in an hour and a half.
It was 11 P.M. when I was done. I was tired, and the place was bare. That was fine by me, because there was no room for furniture anyway. I might get some later, I told myself, but I didn’t care to think about it then.
I stacked six magazines to make a small pillow and lay down on the living room floor. I hated carpeting, but I had to admit it was better for lying on than hardwood. I was cold, so I got up and took two towels out of my duffel bag. I lay back down on the floor, covered myself with the towels, and fell asleep.
I had no dreams.
The next day was it. I set my plan in motion. I wasn’t going to let what Sanjiv said get me down. I knew I was on to something good, if only because of the strange way it had come to me. I also knew how to start, so I did.
The first thing I needed to do was to hire someone that knew genetics—a genetics guy. So, I did the logical thing, and called up the only genetics person I could think of, James Watson. He won the Nobel Prize after he discovered the structure of DNA along with Francis Crick. Who else would I have called?
I dialed the Cold Spring Harbor Lab. But I didn’t reach James Watson. I did reach someone named Li Chin.
Li had an accent. It wasn’t light, but it wasn’t too heavy, so I understood most of what he said, most of the time.
I assumed Li Chin was James Watson’s personal research assistant. I told Li what I needed and described my business plan in detail. Li agreed that what I wanted to do could be done, and he was eager to help me build my product in exchange for a stake in the profits. That sounded good to me, and I told him we could discuss all of that in more detail when we met.
Li lived nearby, and came over to my new apartment later that same day, sometime around midnight. We greeted each other and shook hands. Li had brought over four large bags of Chinese food for our first meeting.
Li opened the bags and set out the food he had brought on the living room floor. If he was trying to win me over, he did. As far as Chinese food went, the food was superb. Li had brought over sesame chicken, General Tso’s, three varieties of fried rice, steamed and fried dumplings, scallion pancakes, Kung Pao chicken and beef, curry puffs, and pitted lychees for dessert.
We ate most of the food, and what was left I put on the windowsill. I still had no fridge, and I didn’t plan on getting one. I ate most of my meals at the firm, so there was no point.
“Oh that’s good,” Li said, when he saw me put the leftovers on the windowsill. “Good way to save money.”
I wasn’t sure if he was kidding or what, but I smiled and said, “Yeah, it works for me.”
“But soon,” Li said, “we’re gonna have so much money that we won’t know what do with it all. Then maybe you can get yourself a mini-fridge or something. Or at least a cooler.”
“I hope so. So you think this’ll work?”
“It’s pretty easy, very doable.” Li paused. “You mind if I ask you something?”
“How did you think of it?”
I told Li about the day Kelsey broke up with me. I told him about the man in the food cart.
“Oh, that’s a good omen,” Li said. He looked thoughtful. “Almost like those fortune cookies we give people. Very interesting.”
When I told Li about the woman that I had seen crossing the street and what she was carrying, Li began to nod so hard that I thought his head would fall off.
“Yeah, that’s really interesting. It’s like you saw all the signs that day.” Li paused. “I think this is the kind of thing you have to see through to the end, no matter what. It’ll end up being just like what the lady had, only better.”
“I’ll try, but I don’t know how this can work without a lot of money to back it up.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. If we put the work in, it’ll happen.”
“So you can get all the rats we need?”
“That won’t be a problem. I can get more rats than this room can hold.”
“Ok. How long do you think it’ll take?”
Li shrugged. “Oh, maybe…two, three, four months.”
“That would be perfect, the sooner the better. It’s good that you’ve done stuff like this at Cold Spring. I’m excited it can be done.”
Li looked at me. “What? What are you talking about?”
“You know, you do this stuff for James Watson all the time.”
“Don’t you work at the Cold Spring Harbor Lab, aren’t you Watson’s research assistant?”
“What? No, no. I work for my parents. We own a Chinese restaurant. The best one in the city.” Li beamed with pride.
That’s when I realized I must have misdialed.
“Hold on,” I said, and I went to check the number I had dialed the day before. Then I compared it with the number on Li’s Chinese takeout bag.
I had, in fact, misdialed. I had called Bamboo Bridge Panda Crossing Chinese restaurant, not the Cold Spring Harbor Lab. When I realized this, I felt my face flush.
“But you said you can do this, remember? On the phone when I called you?”
“Oh yeah, it can be done, and I can do it. I actually have a lot of experience with this kind of thing. Like we said on the phone, I’ll do it and take a cut of whatever action there is on the other side. I think it’s gonna be a very good business. A very profitable business. It’ll make my parents proud.”
Li went on and on in the same vein, and though I wasn’t quite convinced that he did, in fact, know how to do what I wanted him to do, I figured I should give it a shot. He was willing to work for nothing but a share of the profits, and it was time for me to take some risks. The arrangement seemed fair to me, and since I got the sense that the profits of our venture would either be huge or non-existent, splitting the profits down the middle seemed like the right thing to do. Li wanted to work, he was cordial, brought me delicious food, and he had access to an endless supply of rats.
That made me think for a second. Why did he have an endless supply of rats? Who had an endless supply of rats? Was there a link between the rats and Li’s restaurant?
If there were dots to connect, I didn’t want to connect them.
The work went fast.
As we made progress, Li began to live above the Pats’ bar with me. He moved in three weeks after I did. That had never been part of the plan, but we got along and our work went faster that way. I didn’t charge Li rent, didn’t pay him for his work, and was glad to accept the supply of Chinese food and rats that he brought. The Pats became aware of our arrangement, and the Pat that had showed me the apartment asked me if Li was living up there with me. I said he was. The Pat just shrugged and said, “It is what it is.”
The place was too small for two people, but the setup worked because our paths seldom crossed. I slept there, showered and shaved in the mornings, and was off to work before eight. I didn’t come back until nine or ten at the earliest. Li slept late, and had the place to himself all day. We only saw each other in the evenings, save for my morning passage through the living room, where Li slept. Best of all, when our paths did cross, Li and I got along as old friends.
One night soon after Li moved in, I came home early, at about eight. I found Li hard at work. He was absorbed in his task, and didn’t notice that I had walked in.
“Hey,” I said, startling Li. He almost dropped the rat he was holding.
“Oh, hi,” he said. “You’re back very early. They fire you or something?”
“No. It’s just slow, not much going on. And I was kind of curious if there was still an outside world.”
“Yeah, there is. You’re in it now, except we’re inside.” Li put the rat back in its cage with the others. “Hey let’s get a drink downstairs. The Pats have been asking about you and how come you don’t come down and drink with me more.”
“That’s nice of them. How’ve they been?”
“Good, you know, happy as ever. I like the bar. It’s very relaxed, you know? No snobs or anything, just nice chill drinking.”
“Yeah, it is what it is,” I said. “You think they suspect anything? You know, about this?” I pointed to the cages.
“No. I don’t think so. And I doubt they would care.”
Li got up, and began to primp in the mirror.
“You gonna change or what?” he asked. “I don’t wanna talk to the ladies with suit-man next to me.”
He waved his hand at me, pointing to the work clothes I had on.
“Ok, ok, but just one drink.”
“Come on. You need to relax. That’ll take more than one drink for you.”
“Thanks, I appreciate that. But really, just one drink. I have to come in early tomorrow.”
After I changed and Li squeezed a few bottles of gel into his hair, we went downstairs and walked one door over into the bar.
One drink turned into two. Two drinks turned into three. Three drinks turned into four, and so on. That’s why I didn’t drink. My job made it too easy to drink.
Li and I sat together at the bar for a while. The Pats were happy to see me, and that was nice. It was a slow night for Li as far as lady-killing went. There weren’t enough women there who measured up, at least not for him.
But, at long last, some time after my fifth or sixth drink, Li spotted his first mark. I knew it when I saw his eyes narrow, his nostrils flare, and his teeth flash. Li had come alive like a beast of prey.
I turned around to find the girl that he was looking at. She was easy to find. Like all the girls Li liked, she was thin, petite, had long hair, and wasn’t afraid to show some skin in public. She stood at a table in one of the back corners of the bar. By the time I saw that there were three half-full glasses of beer next to her own, Li was most of the way over to her.
I took a quick look around, picked up my drink, and got up to catch up to Li. By the time I caught up to him, he was at the table.
“Hey,” he said, and put his hand out for the girl to shake. “How you doin’?”
I was at the table, standing next to Li. I felt awkward tagging after him like that, but I wanted to make sure he saw the glasses on the table. I didn’t think the girl was alone.
The girl turned to Li. She looked him up and down. Then she took his hand and shook it.
“I’m Jackie,” she said.
“Very nice to meet you, Jackie,” Li said. His words sounded practiced. “This is my friend over here.” He presented me.
Jackie looked me up and down, just as she had done with Li.
Then she rolled her eyes and turned back to Li. “What is he a lawyer or something?”
“Oh, no, no, no,” Li said. “A lawyer? No. He’s a good guy. Not a lawyer.”
“He looks like a lawyer to me,” Jackie said.
She shook her head. Then she looked at the half-full glasses on the table and back at Li.
“Nice to meet you too,” I said.
“Oh,” Jackie said. “That was rude of me I guess. Sorry. Lawyers just scare me. They creep me out you know. I dated a lawyer once. But I don’t want to talk about that. He—”
Li interrupted her. “He’s a good guy,” Li said, pointing to me. “It’s not nice to accuse someone of being a lawyer. I don’t go calling guys lawyers for no reason. It’s kind of uncalled for, don’t you think?”
Jackie gave Li a resigned shrug and nodded. She took a deep breath, and said, “Yeah, you’re right, that was bad of me. Sorry.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Don’t worry about it.” I stepped to the side some and let Li and Jackie chat. I wasn’t interested in getting to know her, I wasn’t looking for anyone for me, and Li had found her first. They seemed to be vibing, so I walked back to the bar. I could talk to the Pats for a while and not feel like a third wheel. The Pats were on the level.
I sat down at the bar. I was feeling all the drinks by then, and I forgot about the half-full glasses on Jackie’s table.
“One more?” the Pat at the bar asked me.
He poured me another light beer.
“How’s business been?” I asked.
“Oh, you know, it is what it is. We’ve been getting a lot of kids in here trying out their fake IDs on us lately. Don’t know why. Maybe they heard we used to be lax on that stuff. We’re not lax anymore, that’s for sure. We’ve been turning away maybe fifty kids a night on Fridays and Saturdays.”
“Really?” I took two large gulps of my beer, and peered into my glass. It was half-empty already.
“I never had a fake ID,” I said. “I wasn’t cool enough, I guess. I barely even drank in college. Yeah, I was a huge loser as far as drinking went. I just never got that into it, you know? I still don’t drink that much, but it is tempting having a bar right—”
I heard a commotion, and Pat shot a sharp look behind me. I turned around to see that Li was surrounded by three guys.
“Hey,” Pat yelled in their direction. “Don’t make no trouble in here.”
Pat began to walk around the bar. I got up too, and crossed to where Li was. By the time I got over there, two of the three strangers were holding Li’s arms. They were broad-shouldered, hulking men, and looked like former athletes that had grown pot bellies. The third was a thin, sweaty, older man in a billowing blue and yellow Hawaiian shirt. He stood in front of Li and wagged a shiny, gold-ringed finger in Li’s face.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
No one reacted.
I raised my voice and said, “Let him go.”
Pat came up from behind me and stood next to me. I had struck my best Indiana Jones pose. Still, no one reacted to my request.
“Let the kid go and get out of here,” Pat said. “We don’t want your business here tonight.”
The thin man whirled on Pat and me while his goons still held Li. Li looked relaxed in spite of what was happening. He even looked a little bored.
“This Chinese was flirting with my girlfriend,” the thin man said. He pointed at Li and Jackie. “I don’t approve of that. I don’t approve of that at all. He’s gotta be taught a lesson.”
Jackie sat at the table and watched, enthralled. She didn’t look in the least bit worried about what might happen, and I thought I saw the glimmer of a smile touch her lips.
“You won’t be teaching any lessons in here,” Pat said.
“Fine, then we’ll take him outside,” the thin man said.
“You won’t be doing that either,” Pat said. “Now get out of here before I call the police.”
The thin man frowned and raised his finger.
I presumed he was about to wag it in Pat’s face, but before he could, Li squirmed free of the goons and gave the thin man a push from behind. It was almost playful the way Li did it. The thin man toppled over like a rag doll and somehow ended up in my arms. I hadn’t meant to catch him but my arms went out by reflex. The thin man pushed me away with disgust and turned around. Li stood there doing nothing, and the goons stood behind him, as if they didn’t know what to do next.
Then the second Pat was next to the first Pat, and the two Pats took the thin man by the arms and led him out the door. He didn’t struggle. The goons followed in pursuit, leaving Jackie behind. Now I could see that the thin man and his goons were wobbly. No wonder Li had looked relaxed. These guys couldn’t even walk a straight line to the door. They were big, but they were pumped too full of liquor to be a real threat.
I was starting to think that the showdown would end without incident when I felt a sharp pain in my ribs. I doubled over, and before I had time to get my bearings, I felt a blow land near my left eye.
I shielded my eye with my right palm while I clutched my hurt rib with my left.
“Die you stupid lawyer,” a voice said. “Die and bill it you—”
The sentence cut off in a squeak, and I turned to see that the voice had been Jackie’s. Li had picked her up by the waist and was carrying her out of the bar. She kicked and shrieked all the way out. All the shrieks had to do with how lawyers were scum and sucked the life out of everything they touched.
I slumped down against the wall by the table where Jackie had been sitting. Li came back and looked at me.
“It’s not too bad,” he said. “I’ll get you some ice.”
“What the hell did she hit me with?”
“Her bag,” one of the Pats said.
The Pats were back inside now.
“She must have had some rocks in it or something,” I said.
“Sorry about that,” a Pat said. “It looks like you’re the only one that got hurt. I’ll get you a drink.”
Before I could tell him I didn’t want a drink, he was at the bar. One more drink couldn’t hurt, I told myself. Not as much as the bag had hurt—that much I was sure of.
Li came back with some ice. He gave me the ice and crouched next to me. I tried to put the ice to my eye but kept missing. Li helped me place the ice and I winced.
“You ok?” Li asked.
“Yeah, I’ll be fine. She must really hate lawyers.”
“Don’t worry. It happens. I’ll buy you a drink.”
And before I could stop him, he was off getting me a drink.
I lost track of time after that, and things got hazy. The Pats brought me some more drinks, Li brought me some more drinks, and I sat there, propped up against the wall, and drank them. There was scotch, and beer, and rum, and vodka, and then the cycle repeated. Some of the bar patrons that had seen my beating brought over some drinks too. They told me that lawyers weren’t scum, and that lawyers made the world a better place, and even if they didn’t, they were people too. At least that was what I heard in my inebriated state.
At one point, there were two girls sitting on the floor with Li and me. They had each brought me a drink and told me what horrible people the girl,—what was her name?—the thin man, and his thugs had been. The room spun. They were nice girls. One was named Mindy. At least I thought she was. I couldn’t remember the other girl’s name no matter how hard I tried. There were four Pats then. Did one of the goons buy me a drink? No, the thin man and the goons were gone. Then there were six Pats. They were what they were. The room spun faster. I needed to go to bed to get up for work. Work was soon. In a few hours.
I shook some of the booze off and told Li and the two girls that I had to go to bed. The three of them just managed to get me up to the apartment before I passed out.
I woke up a few hours later and felt very awake. I felt wired. I got out my laptop, thinking how funny it was that my laptop spun and the room spun at the same time, yet they spun in different directions.
I decided it was a good time to email Kelsey back. It had been rude of me not to respond. She wanted to hear from me.
It took me a few tries to get into my inbox. I kept putting the web address in wrong. Then I couldn’t remember my password. When I thought I had remembered it, I put it in wrong at least five times before I got in. Then I couldn’t find Kelsey’s email for a while. At last, I found it.
I had also found a way to deal with the spinning. The dual spinning of the laptop and the room in opposite directions was troubling, and I had found that if I wobbled my head in a loose circle I could cancel out most of the spinning.
I opened Kelsey’s email and hit reply. I said that I was sorry I had taken so long to get back to her. I said that I missed her and that we had been very good together. I said we should try to work things out. I said we should get some dinner and talk things out. I said I hoped to hear from her soon. Then I topped it all off with an “I love you.”
I looked at the email for a moment. The bit of spinning that I still felt was making me queasy. I wished Kelsey was there. She would get me a glass of water—or Li, he would do that too.
Then I hit send and passed out.
The next day, I woke up in a heap on the floor of my room. I was parched and my head throbbed. My joints popped as I sat up—as I tried to sit up. Through the open door to the living room, I saw the rats watching me with their sympathetic rat eyes.
How could I have had so much to drink the night before? Where was Li? Did someone hit—I touched the skin around my eye. I winced in pain and drew my hand away. The room spun for a moment. Then it steadied, and I went to the kitchen and drank three full glasses of water. I stopped myself from drinking more. I didn’t want to overdo it.
I went to the bathroom and looked in the mirror. What gave it away? What was it that made it so obvious that I was a lawyer? At least now that I had a black eye I would look less like a lawyer. Did I want to look less like a lawyer? Why had she said the word “lawyer” with so much disdain? With so much derision? And why did I care? I didn’t know her, would never see her again, and she was—I assumed—drunk.
I kept on looking in the mirror. Was it in my eyes? In the pale skin? It must have been a bunch of things. Maybe it was in my body language. What if I couldn’t get rid of it? I felt panic lock up my throat. I put my hands on the sink and steadied myself. The panic passed.
I shaved. Then I stood in front of the mirror. What was I going to do about that black eye? There wasn’t much I could do. I got some ice and held it against the black and blue skin. It was tender, but the pain wasn’t as bad as I had thought when I woke up. It looked worse than it was, and the ice didn’t make it look any better. I got dressed and left for work.
I took the back way in and tried to avoid people. I made straight for my office, went in, and closed the door.
As soon as I sat down, the phone rang. It was Mr. Pitchfork. I picked up.
“Good morning Mr. Pitchfork,” I said.
“Eh,” Mr. Pitchfork said. “Can you come to my office please?”
“Ok, I—” He hung up. I cursed under my breath. That was not how I wanted to start the day.
I walked into Mr. Pitchfork’s office. He looked up, frowned, and waved his hand at one of the chairs. I sat down. He was on a call, so I waited.
I listened to a client yell at Mr. Pitchfork for a while. The client lived in a mansion on an island. The client was angry that his neighbor’s fence was half an inch over the property line, so it was on the client’s property by half a hair. The client was even angrier that Mr. Pitchfork couldn’t do anything about it. The courts didn’t care about stuff like that, it was petty. The client didn’t take this well. I picked up some new curses as I listened. I thought that at my age, I knew them all, but I was wrong.
After ten or fifteen minutes, the client was hoarse. He said he needed to suck on some cough drops, and that he would call back later. Mr. Pitchfork agreed, said that was a good idea, and got off the call.
“What an idiot,” he said. Then he turned to me. “What happened to your eye?”
I was caught off guard. “Uh, uh, I—” But I had taken too long to respond.
“Are you about to tell me that you walked into something? Or that you fell down some flights of stairs? Don’t bother. I’m not stupid. Do you think I’m stupid? Well I’m not.”
“I don’t think you’re stupid.”
“I didn’t ask for your opinion. You represent this firm. You represent me. You can’t go around looking like you have fights in bars. What if a client saw you looking like that, what would he think? What kind of lawyer walks around with a black eye? This isn’t criminal defense. And even then it’s not professional.”
“You’re right,” I said.
“Don’t get in bar fights, and put some makeup on or something.”
“I wasn’t in a bar fight, and I’m not going to put makeup on.”
“I suggest you rethink the latter.”
“No.” I got up and walked out.
“Don’t hate me,” he called after me. “I’m not stupid!”
Back in my office, I fumed for a while and thought of ways to get revenge. An image formed in my mind. I imagined my hands gripping Mr. Pitchfork’s throat, squeezing it. His face turned purple, and then, with a most glorious pop, his head exploded into a mass of confetti. I didn’t know why it was confetti, but that was all I could ever imagine Mr. Pitchfork’s head exploding into. Most of the confetti was brown, with small red bits mixed in.
After a time, I calmed down. I called Mr. Pitchfork and told him I was sorry. He took the chance to repeat what he had said about bar fights. He told me not to fight in bars. Then he said it again. And he told me that if I wanted to fight in bars I should go work for the government or something. I told him that was a good idea. He liked that. Then he told me he wasn’t stupid, and that we should be friends. Then he hung up.
I slammed the phone down. I was tired of dealing with this not stupid man who wanted to not be hated—whatever that meant. I needed the job, and I would have to deal with the putdowns until I went elsewhere. I had been dealing with the putdowns for years.
I sighed and told myself it wasn’t me, it was him. It was them—all the partners. And as true as that was, it didn’t keep me from thinking that maybe it was me. Maybe the bullies were right. Maybe I was supposed to be more like them. I had been at the firm for years, and I had not yet turned into one of them. I had no future there.
Li and I had our share of fights. They were all Li’s fault, and they all revolved around women. Living with Li in that small apartment was a constant fight over women—over Li’s obsession with women.
Li was quite the lady’s man. That was fine by me. Good for him, I thought. But Li wouldn’t let me alone to enjoy my misery of singledom. I wanted to wallow in my depression, and Li was always trying to get me downstairs to meet some women in the Pats’ bar. I gave in sometimes, but my heart just wasn’t in it those first few months after my breakup.
When Li entertained his ladies in our apartment after a night at the Pats’ bar, I would go walk up and down Second Avenue, and just stare at the buildings. People stared at me doing my staring, and I could see they thought I was crazy.
I made sure to come back late enough that Li and his ladies had either left or were passed out in a heap in the living room. Oh, and it was always multiple ladies. Li said that picking up one at a time was no longer a challenge, and it bored him. He aimed for three, and often succeeded.
Li’s lady-killing was impressive, but he was inconsiderate about it. It wasn’t fair of him to host late night get-togethers on work nights, when he knew I had to be up early the next day. A quarrel was in the cards from the very beginning.
One night, I came home and there was Li with three girls who looked to be 18 apiece, passing a joint around and laughing as if laughing was a behavior they had never tried before. The four of them looked like a set of insane dolls with jaws set on breaking off their hinges. They shrieked and hawed and squealed and I wanted them dead. I was exhausted, I had had a bad day, and I wasn’t in the mood to watch happy people enjoying their lives.
I kicked all of them out, including Li. Two of the three girls—the blondes—cried. The third girl, a brunette, stood with the others in the hallway, and looked at me with a cold rage in her eyes.
Li tried to reason with me.
“They’re models,” he said, as if that explained everything, and made their wild late night revelry ok. “And these two blonde ones,” he added, “they’re sisters.”
Li’s eyes spoke of my cruelty in denying him his romp with three models, two of whom were related. I rolled my eyes and slammed the door shut. The rats squeaked. I heard Li say, “It’s ok,” followed by the sound of footsteps down the hall.
I looked at the rats in their cages. They had stopped what they were doing to watch me.
“At least you guys can behave,” I said. “Sleep tight.”
They squeaked in reply.
I picked up my laptop and sat down on my bed. I checked my email. I had an email from Kelsey. I felt the air leave my lungs when I saw it. It became hard to breathe. She had sent me a reply email. But what was she replying to? I began to read the body of the email. She said that I couldn’t say stuff like that anymore. That we were done and that I was just making things worse. What was she talking about? I scrolled down and read the email below hers. It said it was from me.
Then, piece by piece, it came back to me. I had written that email. I had written it drunk. I had drunk-emailed her. Was that worse than a drunk-dial? Yes, yes it was. Lawyers were supposed to know better than to put things in writing. I read over my email. I came off like a huge sap, but I had meant all the things I said.
I sighed and scrolled back up. I read what Kelsey wrote me in response. She said that we couldn’t talk to each other as if we were still together, or even as if we might get back together. She said that bridge was burned, and we were both better off. She said she did miss me, and it would be better for the both of us to cut off all contact with each other. She said she had taken my number out of her phone and that I should do the same with hers. She wouldn’t contact me again. She said that maybe in a long while, after we had each had time to get distance from each other, we might be friends. She also said she had started seeing someone new. She said she was telling me that in case it helped me to move on. Someone new? It had only been a few weeks. I gritted my teeth. She signed off with a “Good luck and take care.”
I didn’t know which hurt worse—that Kelsey was seeing someone new, or that she had taken my number out of her phone.
I put my laptop to sleep and lay down in bed.
Then I lay there, feeling guilty for ruining Li’s night.
Li came back the next day. It was business as usual, except from then on he limited his romps to five or fewer girls per week. He must have been mad at me, because he stopped bringing me scallion pancakes. But, knowing how much I loved those pancakes, Li ended this punishment after only two weeks.
We began to live in peace again, as we had before.
Three and a half months later, by the time we finished designing and creating our product, Li had put his cavorting on hold. He couldn’t muster the energy to go downstairs, and had his sister deliver food from their restaurant so that he and I could survive.
We were both burnt out, crispy shadows of our former selves. But the effort had been worth it. It was almost March, and the rats were ready.
The store would be on Fifth.
Li and I agreed that we had to have a storefront on Fifth Avenue. Money was the problem. I had dealt with commercial leases at work, and I knew what the price ranges were. The market wasn’t great when Li and I began looking, but we were still talking over $1,500 per square foot.
We needed at least 1,000 square feet to make things work, so that would mean forking over $1,500,000 a year in rent. The way commercial leases worked in New York, there was a base rent amount and an added rent amount, that together, made up the total rent for the year. That rent was paid in monthly installments. There were also taxes, maintenance, and insurance costs that figured into the monthly base rent.
The added rent amount was made up of a certain percentage of sales. That way, the landlord got a set amount of rent every month and a cut of the store’s sales. As a rule, the landlord’s sales cut didn’t come into play until the store hit a profit threshold. So, for example, the landlord might get a 1% cut of all sales over $1,000,000, a 1.5% cut of all sales over $2,000,000, a 2% cut of all sales over $3,000,000, and so on. This added rent and the base rent were open to negotiation before leases were signed.
For our store, the added rent wasn’t going to be a problem. If we did hit millions of dollars in sales, we could deal with giving the landlord his cut. It was the base rent that was the problem. We just didn’t have the funds to make a year’s worth of lease payments. We didn’t even have the funds to make it through a few months, and commercial leases for a term of less than one year were unheard of. If we were able to scrounge up all of our savings, Li and I could pay for one and half months of rent for the most basic of Fifth Avenue storefronts, and then we’d be broke.
But, we couldn’t even get in the door if we didn’t make a security deposit. The typical security deposit ran at three months worth of rent. Along with that, we’d also have to make the landlord believe that we were going to make good on our promise to pay rent for the term.
It seemed the dream was over. We could try Madison Avenue, or Sixth Avenue, or even a side street, but that wouldn’t have the same effect as having a store on Fifth Avenue, for the entire world to see. We needed money, either our own or that of some rich backers. But we had neither.
That meant that we needed to find a back door, to pry it open, and to sneak in.
Li and I found a spot on Fifth. It was open, and it was perfect. It was just a few blocks from Central Park, and the street in front of it teemed with life. I looked it up online, and it turned out that the previous tenant had gone bankrupt when the market for polka dot leggings dried up. That made sense to me.
Li and I scoped the place out every chance we got. We were tormenting ourselves looking at the prime space, wanting it, and knowing that we couldn’t have it. Li kept telling me that where there was a will there was a way, and he pushed me to set up a meeting with the landlord. I both wanted to and didn’t want to, because I was afraid to deal with the rejection, but I gave in to Li’s request.
The landlord’s name was Mel Bernstein, and he agreed to meet with us over sushi, and only if we paid. He wasn’t kidding around either. Mel picked out the most expensive sushi place in Manhattan, MushiSushi. Once I saw the menu, I knew I wouldn’t be eating anything more than the $80 miso soup, and even that would be only for appearances.
I had to drop Mel’s name just to reserve a table for a Monday lunch, and even then the wait was two weeks long. If you were a mere mortal without Mel’s or a like name to drop, you could find yourself on the waiting list for months, maybe even years. And once you got to the front of the line, the restaurant reserved veto power. You might get all dressed up, show up at the place, and if you didn’t hold your nose quite high enough in the air, the non-Japanese host would say, “You. Ah. Dissa-missed-ah!” And that would be the end of your night. The host and wait-staff would chase you around the restaurant with paddles while the approved diners were encouraged to throw food at you. I had seen this happen on TV and watched it on YouTube, and it was apparent that the staff of MushiSushi took sadistic pride in minding a place filled with empty tables, while the restless elite drooled outside, waiting to be paddled.
I dreaded the lunch, and Li telling me not to worry made me worry even more. I thought about faking sick to skip it, but I couldn’t do that to Li.
I thought the lunch was going to be a complete waste of time, but Li kept telling me we couldn’t leave any stones unturned, bridges uncrossed, paths untried, and so on. He was full of sayings like that, as if he’d been spending too much time with a book full of them.
The day of the lunch came, as all dreaded things do. I wore a suit and tie to work that day, and on my way out I told my coworkers that I had a pro bono client meeting. That was as good a way to end a conversation as there was at my firm, so I didn’t get any follow-up questions. But I did get hateful glares. Pro bono was something you talked about in your interview, not something you did. In real firm life, the way it was lived at my firm, pro bono just took away from the hours an associate should be billing to paying clients.
I met Li at 12:30, two blocks north of my office, and we walked to the restaurant to meet Mel. I was shocked to see that Li was wearing a suit too. It was out of character for him, and that made my stomach flutter even more.
Mel was waiting for us in front of MushiSushi when we got there. He was wearing suit separates and bright green loafers, and a big cigar stuck out of his mouth.
“Hey kids,” Mel said. “Glad to see you didn’t chicken out.”
Li and I each shook hands with Mel, and I stuck my hand out to Li, who took it, shook it, and followed up with a bow. There he went again, taking my awkward gaffes and turning them to our advantage.
Mel chuckled and said, “You two will fit right in here.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant by that, but it made me more nervous all the same.
The three of us walked up to MushiSushi’s door, and I braced myself for public shaming. I had heard rumors that MushiSushi had taken their shaming ritual to a new level, going beyond mere paddling.
“Why don’t you do the honors?” Mel asked me. He gave me a wry, cigar-twisted grin. “Go for it kid.”
“Ok,” I said.
Then Li and Mel watched as I rang the gong five times, like MushiSushi patrons were supposed to do.
“Maybe they’re not home,” I said, feeling hopeful.
Mel rolled his eyes.
Then the door began to open.
The door gave way to a long hall. The lights weren’t on, so the three of us had to grope our way along the walls. Mel insisted that Li and I go first, and I ended up with the honor of leading the pack.
As I crept through the dark, I felt as if I was about to fall into a dark chasm. It was pitch black, and quiet enough that I could hear my heart beating. I reached back every few steps to make sure Li was still there.
“You guys still there?” I asked.
“Don’t speak,” Mel whispered.
I obeyed, and kept on creeping.
All of a sudden, bright lights came on and I had to shield my eyes. We were in front of a podium, looking up at it. Behind the podium was a young man in a suit. He wore a sparkling silver tie and he had a microphone in his hand. The three of us just stood there in front of the podium. I wasn’t about to say anything.
“Mr. Mel,” the man said into his microphone. “We have been expecting you.”
His voice rang through an unseen speaker system, and was followed by a round of recorded applause that startled me. I still saw no restaurant, just a narrow entryway leading to the manned podium.
“Yes, hello,” Mel said. “Long time.”
“Yes, too long,” the man said. “Will you be dining alone today?”
Li and I looked at each other, then we turned to Mel.
“No,” Mel said. “That’s alright, they can eat too.” He gestured to us.
“Them?” the man said. “Are you sure you do not want me to flush them, Mr. Mel?”
Mel looked like he was lost in thought, then said, “Nah, that’s ok.”
“As you see fit, Mr. Mel. But if you want me to flush them at any time, you let me know. I would love to flush them. I would love to very much.”
I had no idea what he was talking about, but Li didn’t look surprised in the least. I was ready to make a break for it, and I began to feel as if I might not leave this place. I didn’t know why, but I was overcome by a feeling of dread.
“Thanks,” Mel said to the man. “I’ll let you know.”
“As you wish,” the man said, “this way please.”
He led the three of us to a wall, pressed a hidden panel, and the wall opened up.
Then he ushered us through the hole in the wall, but not before giving me a dirty look—a dirty look filled with foreboding.
Through the wall was a dark room. The room was a seating area. It was a very dark seating area, and I wondered how we would be able to see our food.
The microphone man showed the three of us to a table and went back through the wall. The wall closed up after him.
We sat down, and I began to gawk at the surroundings.
We were in a dark room not much brighter than the passageway to the podium. There were seven black marble tables arranged in a semi-circle around a glass enclosure that spanned the height of the room. I couldn’t tell what was in the glass box because it was even darker than the seating area. There were dark figures moving about three of the other tables, and I guessed that there were people at those tables, but it was too dark to know for sure.
“What did he mean about flushing us?” I asked Mel. He was a dark figure lit up by the embers of his cigar.
“Never mind about that,” he said. “I’m starving.”
I wasn’t hungry. There were no waiters in sight, but then I couldn’t see much of anything.
“Thank you for meeting with us,” Li said to Mel.
“Yeah, yeah, let’s eat first,” Mel said. He was looking back and forth as if he was waiting for something to happen, as if he could see just fine.
Then a figure came out of the darkness and dropped three hot towels on the table. The figure came close enough to me that I could tell it was a woman. She wore a body stocking with a diamond pattern cut out of it. Then she was gone.
Li and I wiped our hands with the towels. Mel glanced at his towel, took his cigar out of his mouth, and stuck the burning end into the towel. It made a faint sizzle. Then he took a new cigar out from inside his jacket and put it in his mouth. A lit match appeared in the darkness next to Mel, and the hand holding it brought the match to Mel’s cigar for him to light up. Then the match and its hand were gone. The towels were gone too.
Our waitress came back and set food in front of us. At least I guessed it was food.
“Isn’t there a menu?” I asked.
“Don’t say that word,” Mel said. He said it so fast that the cigar fell out of his mouth and he caught it in his hand. He avoided the lit end, but the cigar went out on the table. “That’ll get you flushed.”
A hand appeared out of the darkness with another match. Mel picked up his cigar and put its end to the flame. He blew out a puff of smoke, and the match with its hand vanished again.
“What is this flushing thing?” I asked.
“Don’t ask that!” Mel said, and he almost dropped his cigar again.
Mel turned to Li. “Doesn’t he know anything about this place?” Mel asked.
Li was sitting at the table in silence. He was, as always, at ease.
“He’ll be fine,” Li said.
I didn’t think so. There was something off about the place, and I wanted to get out of there.
I looked at the food that had been brought to us. I had no clue what it was, but it didn’t look like any kind of sushi I’d ever seen. I was about to ask Mel what it was we were supposed to be eating, but I thought better of it. Questions, I had gathered by then, weren’t allowed.
Then, all of a sudden, the middle of the restaurant lit up, and all talk, hushed though it had been, ceased.
I looked at the glass case.
In the middle of the seating area, inside the glass case, was a huge flat screen TV. It was set in the back of the case so that everyone in the restaurant would have a good view of it, no matter where they sat. Light was coming from the screen, which had turned on with no warning. The screen was white, and I couldn’t look at it head on. It was too bright in the darkness. Instead, I looked around the restaurant, and aided by the light from the screen, I was able to make out some gaunt, pale faces, sitting atop skeletal bodies, throughout the restaurant.
The diners picked at the golf ball-shaped food on the tables in front of them with their spindly fingers. I didn’t once see any of them put the food in their mouths. They didn’t look like people who ate.
I looked in the middle of our table and saw what our waitress had put in front of us. It looked like a mass of little rice balls. They looked gooey, and I connected the fishy smell in the air to the rice balls. I picked one up and brought it to my nose. It stank. I picked it apart with my fingers, and sure enough, in its middle was a piece of something that smelled like seafood. I couldn’t figure out what it was, though I stared at it for at least a minute. I almost asked Mel what it was, but then I remembered the rule against asking questions.
Then the screen flickered, and all movement around us stopped.
An image popped up on the screen. It was the microphone man that had led us through the wall. Two people—a young man and a young woman—stood in front of him. It seemed they wanted a table. Then the sound came on.
“Hi,” the young man said to the microphone man. “Two for lunch, please.” So they did want a table.
The diners leaned forward in their seats. Mel leaned forward too. He looked pale and gaunt like the other diners. I hadn’t noticed that until that moment.
The young woman on the screen smiled and pressed her side into the young man next to her. The two looked happy.
The microphone man glared. “Did you call ahead?” he asked the young man. From his platform behind the podium, the microphone man was looking straight down at the couple. His neck was bent backward to the most extreme angle at which he could still see the two with his fierce, downcast eyes.
Mel and the other diners leaned closer. They were on the edge of their seats. I looked around, confused. I shot a puzzled glance at Li. He nodded at me and made calming gestures with his hands. His hand gestures said, “Relax,” but the rest of his body said something else. Li was chewing on his lip, tapping his foot furiously, and he looked like he was holding his breath. A nervous Li made me very, very uneasy.
“No, just walking in,” the young man said, a little deflated. The young woman on his arm took half a step back, as if she could sense something wasn’t quite right.
“Just walking in?” the microphone man said, disdain filling his tiny voice. “Just what kind of a restaurant do you think this is?”
Now the young man took a full step back, leading the young woman with him to do the same.
“Excuse me?” the young man said. “This is a sushi place, no?” He half turned to leave, turning the girl with him.
“This is not a sushi place,” the microphone man said, spitting the word “place.”
“What?” the young man said, shaking his head. “Whatever, let’s get out of here.” He and the girl began to walk away from the podium.
Then the passage went dark, and the young woman gasped.
“What’s going on here?” the young man said. “Hey! The lights are out. Where’s the door? We’re leaving.”
At this point one of the diners fell out of his seat. He had gotten too far along the edge of his chair. I was the only one that noticed. The diner that had fallen stayed on the floor, his eyes never leaving the screen. The screen was dark now. I stole a glance at Mel. He was staring at the screen, rapt like the rest of the diners. His cigar was bitten through and forgotten on the table.
“You have brought great shame upon yourselves,” the microphone man’s voice boomed. “You have dishonored yourselves.”
“Let us out of here you psycho,” the young man said, his voice loud but trembling.
The girl joined in now. “Let us out,” she said. “You can’t do this.”
I fought to swallow, but it was all I could do to stay in my seat. I was sure I would be flushed if the diners around me could see the panicked state I was in. I didn’t know what it meant to be flushed, but I knew I didn’t want it. I looked at Li. He was shielding his face with his hands. When he saw me, he put his finger to his lips, motioning for me to keep quiet. I didn’t know why I was playing along in the madness, but I was.
The restaurant went pitch dark.
There was a thump, a yell, a shriek, and the dim lights came back on. Then the glass enclosure in the middle of the restaurant had two people lying in it.
They got up.
I couldn’t see the couple’s point of entry into the case. There were no openings that as far as I could tell. Maybe there was a trapdoor somewhere behind the screen.
The two looked unharmed, but they weren’t pleased. As soon as they got up, they began to pound on the glass and yell. It was obvious that they wanted out.
Then the diners got up and crowded around the case, peering in at the trapped couple. Mel got up too, and walked to the front of the crowd. Li got up and motioned for me to follow.
“What are they doing?” I asked Li in a whisper. “I feel like I should call the police or something.” I knew about the shaming at MushiSushi, but they had just dropped these kids into a cage.
Li shushed me. We walked over and stood at the back of the group. I looked into the enclosure and saw that the couple had calmed a little. They stood with their hands pressed up against the glass, watching their captors. Their eyes burned with fear and rage.
“What are your names?” The microphone man’s voice asked.
The young man answered, but not with his name.
“Now, now,” the microphone man said. “We don’t put up with that kind of language at our fine dining establishment.” There was a pause. “Apologize.” There was another pause. “Apologize, now.”
The young man did nothing of the sort. “Let us out of here,” he yelled. “You psychos are going to jail.”
At this, the diners crowded closer, and the young man and young woman moved away from the edge of the case, taking their hands off the glass.
The couple began to move backward toward the screen. They looked down and exchanged confused glances with each other. I peered over a diner’s bony shoulder to get a better look at what was going on. The couple was standing on something that looked like a conveyor belt.
Then the conveyor belt started to move. It spanned the length of the enclosure and ended at the screen. The couple had to walk on the belt or they would end up against the screen.
I had a bad feeling about the whole thing. I wanted to help the trapped couple, to make the belt stop, and to prevent whatever was about to happen. I wanted to let the couple out, so that they could go find lunch somewhere else.
But I just stood there and watched. I did nothing. I was scared about singling myself out, and a part of me wanted to know what was going to happen next.
Then the screen behind the couple flickered, and it was raised up. Beneath it was a pool of brown, granular-looking mud.
Shock and panic flashed across the trapped couple’s faces. They began to walk faster and pressed themselves up against the glass at the far end of the enclosure, away from the mud. They began banging on the glass, begging to be let out. “Let us out, please, help us!” No one paid them any mind.
I shot a nervous glance at Li, and he patted me on the shoulder and whispered, “Relax, it’s all part of the show, really.”
What show? This didn’t look like any kind of show to me. It was real. But how could it be? We were in the middle of Manhattan, during the workweek. Li must be right, I told myself. I hoped that he was.
Then some of the wait-staff came out and began to herd Li, me, and the other diners closer to the main attraction. The wait-staff rolled out shiny step ladders and set them up all around the glass enclosure. Diners began to climb the ladders. That’s when I noticed that the top of the glass enclosure wasn’t flush up against the ceiling. There was a gap of about three feet from its top to the ceiling. It was just enough so that the kids couldn’t climb out or reach the diners, who were peering in from the tops of the ladders.
The conveyor belt was speeding up. The diners began to laugh and point at the trapped, now-jogging couple.
“Look at those poors,” one of the diners said. This comment was followed by a round of haughty laughter.
“Look at them go in their rat cage,” another said. “They’re going to die in their filthy poverty, and then we can eat minced poor soup.”
“I bet their meat isn’t tender at all,” another said. “They work too much!” That put the diners around me into an uproar. Many of them whipped out camera phones and began to snap pictures of the couple.
The conveyor belt sped up even more. The couple was frantic now, and had to run to stay in place. They tried to jump to get hold of the top of the enclosure, but they couldn’t, and had to run to make up ground on the conveyor belt. As they ran, they looked over their shoulders in confused terror.
The microphone man’s voice rang throughout the restaurant again. “It is time for us to give back,” he said. “It is time for us to feed the poors.”
At this, the couple in the case looked even more confused and frightened. I must have shared their look, because the young man in the case pointed an accusing finger at me.
Li nudged me aside.
“Wake up,” Li whispered. “You have to play along like the others or we’ll end up in there too.” He pointed into the case, but he didn’t need too, I knew what he meant.
I moved over and tried to act natural, like this was something I did all the time. Li pointed at his nose and chin, and I remembered to raise mine. I made sure to look down the length of my nose at the trapped couple, at the wait-staff, and at everyone around me.
I scrunched up my nose and made a face like I smelled something quite horrid. That made me feel that I was doing a good job of fitting in. I told myself that it was just a game, and that the couple wasn’t going to die. It was just a game for silly rich people to play, and no one was going to get hurt.
Then the wait-staff came out in full force, carrying ornate buckets. They were straining under their loads. When they came closer, I could make out that the buckets looked like marble. Marble buckets? That would explain why the wait-staff strained to keep their smiles on while they lugged those things about. But what was in the buckets?
As the wait-staff made their way around the place, the diners reached into the buckets and took out small circular objects. They filled their hands with the things and then began hurling them at the couple in the enclosure. The objects the diners flung came apart and stuck to the unhappy, running couple.
The fishy smell in the air got worse.
The diners roared and yelled, “Die poors,” and “Fall in your filth,” and “Eat that you poors!” It was clear to me that they had done this all before. The heckling was too well-practiced to be spur of the moment.
Then one of the waiters made her way over to me and offered me her bucket. I hesitated for a second, then reached in and made my hand close around the objects in it. I pulled some out with a squish. They were sticky, gooey rice balls, and they looked just like the ones our waitress had put on our table before. I began to wonder if they had ever been intended as food. Maybe they were just a taste of things to come, a teaser of sorts.
I looked away from the waitress, remembering not to thank her, and I turned back to the scene in the enclosure. The couple was close to falling, and they were panting hard. There were tears streaming down the girl’s cheeks, and the boy was on the verge of tears.
They weren’t yelling anymore, they were just trying to stay vertical while fending off the flying rice balls.
Most of the diners held camera phones or cameras, and they took pictures of the miserable couple in the enclosure. These diners held their cameras in one hand while they threw rice balls with the other. They hollered and hooted and flung their balls and flashed their cameras. Their arms looked like dead branches brought to life by snootiness.
I felt dizzy and out of breath all of a sudden, like I was about to keel over. I put my hand against the glass to steady myself, and I was hit by such a wave of nausea that it took all of my strength to keep from throwing up. I knew that if I did throw up, the jig would be up and I would certainly find myself on the conveyor belt, covered in sticky rice, unidentifiable seafood, and mud.
I couldn’t have that. I made myself focus. I raised a ball, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw it. Li wasn’t throwing balls either, and I had only seen Mel throw one or two. They were both just looking on, and the diners and wait-staff were focused on the conveyor belt, so I held on to my balls, hoping no one would notice. In the midst of this insanity, I wondered how long it would take to wash my hands clean of the gooey fish smell.
The girl in the case lost her footing first. Down she went. The diners screeched with joy and their cameras flashed brighter. The boy cried, “No!” and tried to reach behind him to grab her. In his attempt to save her, he lost his own footing. Down he went. The diners were in an uproar. And then—plop! The girl fell into the mud, screaming as she tried to protect her head with her hands. Plop! The boy fell into the mud too.
I unclenched my teeth and rasped out a sigh of relief. It was mud, after all. They weren’t melting, they weren’t dead, they were just dirty. The couple lay there, spent and panting. They just barely raised their hands to shield themselves from the flash of the cameras, which couldn’t flash fast enough. The diners erupted into wild applause and redoubled their ball throwing efforts.
“Wallow in the mud you fat, hungry pigs!” someone yelled. Fat? The kids weren’t fat, but compared to the gaunt diners, anyone would be chubby. I heard subdued squeaks of shock coming from the mud-covered couple, amid the plop and squish of the rice balls.
I began to feel relief sweep over me. It was just a mean game. Everything was going to be just—
Someone pushed me, and I stumbled toward the case. When I had regained my balance, I turned and saw that the diners were backing away from something, and they were pushing against me in the process. Through the tangle of gaunt limbs and torsos, I found the source of the tumult.
There was, in fact, a fire. It was coming from a metallic object that lay on the ground. One of the diners stood over it, clutching his blackened hand and moaning in pain. A waiter was there in an instant. The waiter put out the smoldering object by emptying a bucket of rice balls over it, smothering the tiny fire. A waitress then rushed over and examined the damaged diner and applied lotion to the diner’s hand.
“There you are, master,” she said. Then she withdrew something from her pocket and gave it to the diner. It was a camera. She then reached into the smoking pile of rice balls with a towel, and withdrew the source of the flames. It was a charred camera.
“I’m so sorry,” she said. “It seems to have overheated. I’m so, so sorry. I will make sure we get all of the pictures off of it for you, and of course, you dine on the house today.”
The diner didn’t say anything. He just gnashed his teeth and poked at his damaged hand with a tentative long-clawed finger. The waitress began to say something to him—probably another apology—and he stopped her with a hiss. She cleaned up the rice ball pile and went away.
“This happens all the time,” Mel said. “I mean a camera bursting into flames. Sometimes they snap pictures so fast that the cameras can’t take it. Camera phones are worst of all.”
“Oh,” I said.
“But they’re prepared for that here. They usually just stamp them out. I’m not sure about this whole rice ball mess. I’ve never seen them dump rice balls to put a fire out. Seems like such a waste.”
What was he talking about? A waste of rice balls to put a fire out?
“They’re very well-stocked with fresh cameras though,” Mel went on.
“I hope so,” I said. I didn’t know how else to respond.
Now that the scene was over, pallid faces turned back to the enclosure. The couple was cowering in a corner of the mud pit, holding each other. They were splattered with mud. The girl’s tears left clean streaks in her mud-stained cheeks. They both looked terrified and relieved at the same time.
Then the diners made a last ditch effort to cover the couple with rice balls. The last of the rice balls stuck to the couple, fell apart, and plopped into the mud. It was a terrible mess.
“Eat your dirty rice, you poor pigs wallowing in your poor mud.” someone said.
“Yeah,” someone else chimed in. “Why don’t you build a hut out of it?”
A chuckle passed through the crowd, but the energy from before was gone. It was like the life had been sucked out of the room. The sick game was over. The enclosure went dark.
We all returned to our tables and sat down again. The diners around us still quivered with excitement. Mel did too, but he had more control over himself than the others.
Mel must have seen the look of horror on my face, because he shrugged, looked down, and said, “That’s how we are.” He poked at his broken cigar, which was still on the table. “What did you think it would be like?”
“Are they…” I trailed off.
“Oh yeah, them, they’re fine,” Mel said. “Paid off and sworn to secrecy. Don’t worry about them. It’s not like we fry them up and eat them or something. We’re not monsters.”
“They could’ve had heart attacks in there or something.”
“You worry too much,” Mel said. “Let’s pay and get out of here. It’s coming time for my appointment. I’m seeing a specialist today.”
“Are you sick?” Li asked. “I bet I can recommend some herbs to heal you right up.”
“What? No, I’m not sick. I’m seeing my cigar specialist. You know, my cigar adviser, whatever you call him.”
Li nodded. “Oh nice. That’s very wise.”
I shook my head, feeling dazed. A waitress appeared, as if she had heard Mel’s request to pay, and handed me a bill. How did she know to hand it to me?
There was a tally of the number of rice balls Mel had thrown. Apparently he had thrown more than the two that I had witnessed. They were $1,000 a pop. Lucky for me, there was a special that day—the first three throws were on the house.
I felt nothing as I paid the bill. I had to put it on two credit cards for the charge to go through. It was a good thing Mel had warned me in advance about the possibility of my card being denied, or I might have been flushed myself. Who knew with these people? Were they even people?
Once the bill was settled, we got up to go. I was glad to get out of that place. As we left, I kept wiping at my hands. I had left my unused rice balls on our table and washed my hands, but it hadn’t helped. I was wiping my hands on my pants, but there was a stickiness left over from the rice balls that I couldn’t get off.
Back on the street, Li and Mel talked. They talked business, but I was too shaken by what I had just seen to join in. I saw gaunt, tight-skinned faces closing in around me at every street corner. I felt rice balls squish and stick against my skin. I felt mud splattering me—mud filled with fishy rice balls.
I needed a shower. I needed a drink—two drinks. I was trailing behind Li and Mel, trying to make myself keep up with what they were saying. It wasn’t easy as I kept looking over my shoulder to see if anyone was in pursuit—any of them. I spun full around a few times, and after three or four blocks, I had calmed enough to stop looking over my shoulder. I made myself take measured deep breaths, but I still felt like I was running out of air. I took my jacket off but that didn’t help either. My panic felt like an asthma attack. By the time it subsided, I was far behind Li and Mel.
I caught up to them when they were stopped at a crosswalk, waiting for the light to change. Li and Mel were talking about something, but I still hadn’t joined the conversation.
I shuddered—those rice balls had been so sticky. I wiped my hands on my pants again, although I wasn’t sure at that point if I’d even touched the balls. Maybe my memory was erasing itself to protect my mind.
Mel nodded his head at someone across the street. Li followed Mel’s gaze, then Li nodded and I thought I heard him say, “Easy.” Li could always find something to talk about with strangers. I looked across the street and tried to see who they were talking about. All I saw was the lunch crowd throng, fed and on the trek back to the office.
Then the light changed, and as we began to cross the street, I realized who Mel and Li had been talking about.
Li walked out in front of Mel, and made a direct course for a tall woman who was crossing the street from the other side. Mel put his hands in his pockets and slowed his pace. I slowed my own pace behind Mel.
Li made as if he was going to walk straight into the woman. She had to stop. She tried to go around Li to his left. Li stepped to the left and blocked her path. She tried to go around Li to his right. Li stepped to the right and blocked her path again. She tried to go around Li to his left again. Li stepped to the left and blocked her path yet again.
Then Li was saying something to her, but I couldn’t hear what it was. She looked hesitant, but said something back.
By that point, Mel and I had crossed the street, and we were looking back at Li and the woman. They still stood in the middle of the crosswalk. We were behind the woman, and we could see Li’s face. He looked stern, but the woman was laughing.
The light for the cars turned green, and Li grabbed the woman’s hand and pulled her to our side of the street in a run.
I got a closer look at Li’s new friend. She was tall, had an angular body and flawless skin, and there was no doubt in my mind that she was a model. Right now, all she could do was laugh.
Mel’s eyebrows shot up. “He wasn’t kidding,” Mel said, as he watched Li.
“About what?” I asked. “Was he telling you about his skills with the ladies?”
“Yeah, his skills with the ladies. Huh. Can you believe that? I didn’t believe it.”
Mel looked at Li and the woman, who had now locked arms and were all but prancing down the street in front of us.
“I still don’t believe it.” Mel paused. “Did you guys set that up? Is that woman a friend of yours?”
“What? No. Li is actually really good with women. It was a huge problem when he moved in with me. I could never get any sleep.”
“How does he do it?”
“I dunno, he’s tried to explain it to me before. I think he’s just had a lot of practice. At first I was shocked at the kind of women he brought back to our ugly apartment.”
Then Li and the girl skipped over to us.
“Hey guys,” Li said to Mel and me, “this is Samantha.”
Li pointed to the woman he had just met. They had stopped right in front of us, panting a bit from their bouts of prancing and skipping. We shook hands all around, made our introductions, and chit-chatted for a minute or two.
“Hey, I have to go,” Samantha said. “I have to get back to work or I’ll get in trouble. It was nice meeting all of you.”
Then she turned to Li and said, “Wanna do something soon? I’m free tonight, if you’re not busy I mean.”
“Maybe,” Li said. He smiled.
“Can I give you my number?” Samantha asked.
Li offered Samantha his phone, she took it and entered something into it.
“There,” Samantha said, “now you have my number and email. Let me know about tonight.” She gave Li a fawning smile.
“Ok, cool, thanks,” Li said, and took his phone back.
Samantha skipped away, looking back over her shoulder at Li as if mesmerized.
“How do you do that?” Mel asked Li when we resumed walking.
“Oh, you know,” Li said.
“No,” Mel said, “I don’t know.”
Then Mel pulled Li aside and whispered something to him out of earshot. Li whispered back, and they stood whispering to each other while I watched. They pointed to me a few times. The whole thing was pretty rude, but it seemed that Li had his end of the conversation under control, and I wasn’t going to call Mel out on his rudeness.
Then they began to come closer, and I heard Li say something about Mel’s storefront.
Mel shook his head. “Oh yeah, that.” Mel’s eyes narrowed, and the awe that Li had inspired went out of them.
They began walking again, and they weren’t telling each other secrets anymore, so I tagged along.
Li and Mel were talking about the store. We needed that store. I tried to make myself focus on the business at hand. I reminded myself that I had suffered through MushiSushi—and paid that huge bill—for a reason. But I was still in a fog.
I shook my head and blinked hard. That helped to throw off some of the stupor, both from seeing that couple abused in the enclosure and from seeing Li prance up and down the street during the lunch rush. I was at last able to focus in on the conversation.
“You guys will have an LLC,” Mel said, “and when you can’t pay the rent, you’ll just walk away, and I’m screwed. Why would I want to get into something like that if you don’t have someone to back you?”
“We just need a shot,” Li said. “This can make loads of money, and you can be a part of it.”
“There’s a reason you can’t get a startup loan,” Mel said. “I don’t know if you’ve tried that already, but I know that you won’t get one.”
“It’s because most people never think outside the box,” Li said. “They don’t want to, but there’s a lot of money to be made thinking outside the box. All the money that used to be inside the box is gone. And if it’s not in the box, it’s gotta be outside of it. We can get that outside the box money.”
Mel laughed. “You’re quite the charmer, but I’m not close-minded. I think that from an objective standpoint, your business is a bad investment.” Mel paused. “But there’s a wild card factor here. It’s one of those things that’s so crazy that it’s hard to predict what’ll happen. This is Manhattan, after all. Anything goes here.”
I snapped out of my trance. I needed to get in a word or two.
“It can take off,” I said. “Really. We have the highest of wild cards here.”
Mel nodded. “I know you can’t make the rent.” He let out an abrupt chuckle and pointed to me. “It was such a kick to see you in that place just now. You looked like you were about to puke the whole time. Like you thought they were gonna kill those kids or something.” Mel laughed harder now. “You know what, I think we can make a deal. We can come to some terms, and I won’t make you go back to Mushi. I promise.”
“That’s perfect,” Li said. “Don’t worry, we’ll make you proud as hell.”
The three of us agreed to meet again—on more neutral ground. Any ground would be more neutral than that MushiSushi. We planned to meet on Friday night in the Fifth Avenue space that Li and I wanted to rent, to discuss terms. Mel insisted on using his lease form, and I said that was fine so long as I could attach some riders.
Then the three of us went our separate ways. I couldn’t believe Mel had agreed to negotiate with us, knowing how little money we had. Li had been right in his sayings about doggedness. As shaken as I still was, I was glad that we had trod this path, or however else Li would have put it.
Li and I met Mel in front of the store.
“Hey kids,” Mel said.
We all greeted each other. Then Mel took out a large keychain from his fanny pack. He tried four keys on the door with no success. The fifth key worked. He opened the door and led us inside.
It was 8 P.M., and I had left work early for this meeting. It was important that we work out a lease if we could, and then I would go back to work.
The space was big, and seeing it from the inside confirmed what I had thought. It was perfect for Li and me. The layout was just what we needed. The sidewalk in front of the store was wide, and it was in a hotspot just a short distance away from Central Park. This part of Fifth Avenue was always teeming with tourists and wealthy locals.
Being in the place made me want it more, and it made me feel worse about the whole thing because I thought there was no way we could get it. Even though Mel had said we could work something out, the more I had thought about it, the more I knew we couldn’t. Li and I just didn’t have that kind of money, and I didn’t see what terms we could come to. My hope of landing the store was a dim, fading ember. It was kept alive only because I knew that Mel, judging from our lunch experience, was a little out of his mind. That made him unpredictable. Maybe he would be crazy as a landlord too—crazy enough to take Li and me on as tenants. I hoped that he would be.
Mel stood by the door while Li and I explored the space. The main room was about two thousand square feet, and there was a smaller back room, under one thousand square feet. That was it. Li and I nodded to each other, then went back over Mel.
“So you guys like it right?”
“That’s good,” Mel said.
He took a cigar out of his pocket, unwrapped it, and stuck it between his teeth. He lit up, and puffed on the cigar, blowing some smoke signals above our heads.
Then Mel sighed and turned to me. “Ok, let’s talk terms.”
Mel and I got into it. Li paced around in circles while Mel and I talked. We agreed to a discounted base rent that would kick in after three free months. Getting a few months for free was standard in New York commercial leases, but Li and I couldn’t manage the security deposit on the place. Mel let that slide too. Rather than putting down the standard two to three months, we would put up half of one.
The discount had a price. Mel would get a large cut of our gross sales, much more than the standard one to two percent. But Li and I agreed to it, and we left ourselves with the option of coming to better terms later, if our business succeeded. I didn’t think giving Mel a large cut was a bad deal. Any profits were still only in our minds, and giving Mel a large share of imagined profits, if it meant getting a shot, was worth it. The way I saw it, Li and I were getting the better end of the deal.
Once Mel and I had agreed to lease terms, he said, “There’s one more thing, but that’s just between Li and me.”
“Oh,” I said. “Ok, I guess.”
Mel looked at me.
“What?” I asked.
“Can you step outside so Li and I can have a minute alone?”
“What? Uhh, yeah, sure, I guess.”
I walked to the door, opened it, and went outside. At least it was a nice evening. I paced back and forth in front of the store and watched Li and Mel. What was this all about? I could see they were talking to each other, and Mel had a very focused expression on his face. Li talked and made gestures with his hands. Mel nodded once in a while. What were they talking about?
I gave up trying to figure out what was going on in the store and let the events of the past hour sink in. Was it true? Would Li and I really have a place to grow our business? This could be a game changer for us. I was elated. I kept pacing back and forth in front of the store. I felt lighter, and I smiled to myself. A man passed me in the street and saw me smiling to myself. He looked away and sped up. Once he had passed me he shot a nervous glance back over his shoulder at me. I was still smiling. The man sped up even more.
Then something strange happened. In the store, Li took Mel by the arm. He led Mel to the center of the room. I stopped my pacing to watch. Li and Mel didn’t look in my direction, even though they must have known I was just outside. Then Li said something to Mel, and gestured with his free hand. It looked like Li was measuring out a beat. Then Li began to skip. He pulled Mel along as he went. Mel half-walked and half-skipped as he tried to keep up with Li. It looked like Mel hadn’t skipped in a long, long time. But then who skipped these days besides kids and Li? They stopped in one corner of the room. Li kept a firm grip on Mel’s arm and turned him around to face the middle of the room. Li began to pull Mel along again, and the two of them made their way across the room’s diagonal. Mel did a better job of skipping this time. He was getting the hang of it.
Why were they doing this? The skipping session went on for fifteen minutes. Li kept time with his free hand before they started on their skips across the room, and kept up his hand-waving throughout the skips. They went back and forth across the room, and I saw that Mel had made a lot of progress by the time they stopped and invited me back inside.
Mel was panting. “Give me a minute,” he said. “I need some air.” Mel walked out of the store, catching his breath.
I turned to Li. “What the hell was that about?” I asked.
Li put a finger to his lips. “I’ll tell you about it later,” he said.
I rolled my eyes. “Ok, fine. No one ever tells me anything.”
“You worry too much. We’re good now. We’re set.”
“You worry too much,” I said.
“Oh, good comeback, very clever.”
Mel came back. He pulled the key ring out again. I thought he was going to lock up. Instead, he took off one of the keys.
“It’s all yours,” he said. He put the key in Li’s outstretched hand. Why hadn’t he put it in my outstretched hand?
“Go crazy,” Mel said. “And don’t forget to call me.”
“I won’t forget,” Li said. “Thank you again.”
Mel walked out of the store, waved, and began to walk up the block.
Li put the key in my hand. I wrapped my fingers around it. It was an ordinary key. But it meant I’d have the chance to run my own life, to make my own way. In my store—in my store, I could decide how I dressed, who I worked with, how the place looked, and what we sold. I could decide to close up shop and go have dinner with some friends. Or I could hire people to mind the place when I wasn’t there. I could take naps in the back room. The back room was much bigger than my usual nap area beneath my desk. I could even leave the store and take naps in my own apartment if I wanted.
I knew I was going a bit far with these daydreams. With my own store to run, I might be just as busy as I was at the firm. And I would still be at the beck and call of clients, albeit different ones. They would still dictate what I did, and I would have to serve them well if I wanted repeat business, or if I wanted good word to spread. But the store would be mine, and there wouldn’t be anyone above me to tell me what to do. No one would tell me how to run things, how to look, or how to plan my life, except if I asked. That was worth the financial risk.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s go crazy, just like Mel said.”
Li nodded. “Wanna move in tonight?”
The firm could wait.
We moved that night.
Li’s and my stuff fit in the back room of the store, with room to spare. After all, the back room was almost twice as big as our apartment above the Pats’ bar. The hardest part of the move was getting the rats over. They would have had to be moved at night in any case, and it was better that they get to the store as soon as possible, so that they could get used to their new home.
Li and I moved on foot, carrying our things on the first two trips, and the rats in their jangling cages on the last two trips. With all our things out of the place above the bar, it didn’t look much different. We had left it unfurnished except for a wireless router and my mattress. Li had slept on a small mat that rolled up, and he had an extra one that I planned to use at the store. I made a mental note to tell him that I intended to use it. I also made a mental note to tell the Pats that we had moved out. My lease wasn’t up for another five or six months, but maybe they’d let me out of it. That wasn’t so important now anyway, the place above the bar was just about free compared to the store, and maybe it was best to hold on to it, in case things with the store didn’t work out. But I didn’t want to think about that.
Once we were all moved, I realized that there was no shower. There was a sink and toilet off of the back room, but no shower. So the first thing I planned to do with the store was install a shower—nothing fancy, just something with hot running water. Li suggested that I should check with Mel before putting the shower in, and he was right, but I didn’t want to deal with that. For now, since I had already jumped the gun, I’d use our old apartment like a dorm shower. I wasn’t going to walk back and forth in just my towel and flip-flops—I would bring my duffel bag to change—but it was the same concept. It suited me fine.
Li and I left the windows papered over that first night. Even with that bit of privacy, I felt exposed with the street just a few feet away, and with only a quarter inch of glass separating me from the outside world. I had wanted to plan out where things would be that night, but Li and I were both tired after our move so we decided to hash things out the next day. Li did give me one of his mats and I set up in the back room. He wanted to sleep in the main room, by the window. No one would see him because of the paper in the window, but I still thought it was a bit strange. Li was Li, and he did as he did.
When I lay down in the back room, my mind began to race. I thought about where we would put things, our timeframe for opening, the rats, my job, Kelsey, the lease—we hadn’t signed it yet. I couldn’t believe I was about to sleep in a store on Fifth Avenue—in my store on Fifth Avenue. I felt like I could do anything, like anything was possible. I was drunk with thoughts of what could be.
As I lay in the back room listening to the rats squeak and scurry about, a thought dawned on me. I was past the point of no return. The rats were no longer rats. Now that they were here, in the store, they were something else.
The next day, I stopped at my old place and then went to work. I couldn’t wait to have a shower put into the store, so that I would no longer need to make pre-work shower stops.
Li stayed at the store to begin setting up. He was going to work on the basics that we needed to get done as quickly as possible.
At work, I drew up the riders to the lease that Mel and I had agreed on, signed them, and sent them to him. He countersigned and sent them back to me by email within minutes. I doubted that he even read them. Neither of us ever got compiled originals. We had our agreement and that was good enough.
Technically, the deal wasn’t done until money changed hands, so I began the process of wiring Mel our deposit that day. I hadn’t planned for the transfer in advance because until the previous day’s talk with my now-landlord, I didn’t think there was going to be a lease in the first place.
But things had changed, and I needed money fast. I took a quick look at my savings and cashed out my retirement accounts. What was previously my retirement fund would go into the store’s operating account. Then I went to my bank and had most of my savings wired to Mel’s account. The bank staff kept asking me if I was sure and if anything was the matter in my life that I wanted to talk about. I wondered if that was part of their job. Was that professional? Yes, I decided that it was. They were trying to keep my money at their bank.
The worst part about the money wiring was that my bank had changed its color scheme. I liked the old light blue and white wallpaper. Now the wallpaper was orange and red and annoying. Who had decided to throw out a good thing and replace it with something worse? Change wasn’t always good, and it was definitely bad in this case. It was obvious that the new color scheme sucked.
Mel had our deposit by the end of business that day, and the deal was done. How Li and I would pay rent was still a distant question then, because we had three months until our first rent check was due.
I was much closer to broke. But, assuming our operating expenses didn’t get out of control, we might be able to scrounge up enough to pay our first full rent payment, which would come due on the first day of the fourth month. After that first monthly payment, there was no way Li and I could scrape together enough to pay rent from then on—unless our product came through.
Parting with my savings wasn’t at all as painful as I had expected. There was a cold feeling to it, but not a bad feeling. The money was gone. It was done.
I left work early that day and joined Li at the store. We had plans to make. We made list after list of items that we needed to stock and to set up the store.
In our first week as storekeepers, we revamped the place. Li did most of the groundwork, as I had to be at the firm, but I tried to do my share. I placed orders from work and helped out as much as I could when I went to the store—my new home—after work.
We put a shower in the back room, along with two large, makeshift closets. I would no longer have to go to the apartment to get ready for work. That meant more time at the store. In general, I would have preferred to live out of a duffel bag, but I had to keep my work clothes in mint—and pressed—condition, hence the closets. We also put a small fridge in the back room, to keep drinks and snacks and leftover scallion pancakes. Then we had the floors in the show room done so that they shone.
The displays were put in the next week. Li spent a lot of time with the rats to get them used to their new home and to the displays. They loved him, and taking care of them was like second nature to Li. I could never get the kind of rapport he had with the rats. He was the master of the rat connection, my very own rat-whisperer.
“Why do they love you so much?” I asked Li one night after work. I was a bit jealous. “How do you do that?”
Two rats were dancing about in his hands. The rats looked happy as could be. I could never get them to do that for me.
Li looked up. “You know. You gotta be open to the rat, and the rat will open up to you. That’s really all it is.”
I shook my head. “What?”
“You know,” Li said. “Be one with the rat. If you focus, you can do it.”
But they were rats, I thought. What did it mean to open up to a rat? To be one with a rat? Li got animals on a whole different level. I wasn’t there.
“They don’t like me the way they like you,” I said. “I mean I don’t think they hate me, but they see me as a source of food at the most. They actually like you.”
“Come here,” Li said. “I’ll show you.”
I went over to Li and sat down next to him.
Li smiled. “Look at these rats.” He gestured to the rats in his hands. “Look deep into their rat eyes.”
I did as Li said. The rats stared back at me. Then they backed up closer to Li.
Li took one of the rats in his left hand and the other in his right. He raised them to my face.
“Look,” he said.
I looked deeper into their rat eyes.
One of the rats raised its rat brows.
“Now,” Li said. “What do you see?”
I shrugged. “A rat? What am I supposed to see?”
Li sighed in frustration. He put one of the rats he was holding back into its cage. Then Li took the remaining rat in both of his hands and raised it to my face. “You have to look harder. Look in the eyes. Really look!”
I tried again. For a second, I thought I could feel something as the rat and I stared into each other’s eyes.
Then the rat looked away, and that feeling—whatever it was—was gone.
“See,” Li said. “You had it. You’re not good at it yet, but you had it for a second or two.”
“I guess, that was weird.”
“You’ll learn. They’ll all like you then. And you’ll feel that connection.”
“Sure,” I said, and got up. Li could be weird sometimes, but I couldn’t help feeling that he knew something I didn’t—that he was right about whatever it was he was trying to make me see.
The week after that, the rats had settled down in their new home, and so had I. By that point, Li and I had a rough idea of where everything in the store would be, and we began to prepare for opening. We finished up the inside of the store and put up our sign. We scheduled a grand opening for a Saturday night two weeks away, and put up ads for it in our windows.
We took all the paper off the windows, but we kept the rats out of sight, behind a set of screens that looked like they were from the set of some Samurai movie. Now all we had to do was make sure the place was ready to open on the scheduled Saturday, and that people would show up to the kickoff.
Li kept on sleeping in the window, even after the paper was taken off. I saw passersby point to him sometimes when I got up to check on the rats, but most passersby were too engrossed in our ads and sign to notice Li. I took that to be a good indication of things to come.
By the time our opening night rolled around, it had taken us less than six weeks to get ready for business. That had to be some kind of record. By then, I was so sleep-deprived that I would sometimes get lost on the way to and from my office.
On the day of the grand opening, when I was on my way to work, I passed my office and kept on walking. I walked for more than twenty blocks, thinking all the while that the street was looped and that I would circle back to where I had to go. I wasn’t sure what happened after that, but I woke up at my desk. When I raised my head from my desk, some papers came up with me. They were attached to the side of my face with drool.
I pulled the papers off and looked at them. My heart sank. They were original signature pages—to notes. The ink was diluted and smudged to the point where the signatures on two of the pages were unrecognizable. I looked at one of the notes. It was for forty million dollars. That wouldn’t go over well. I thought about what to do, and not coming up with a solution, I put some other papers on top of the drool-covered ones—best to let it be until the client asked for them. Maybe I’d be fired before then, and there was no need to submit myself to a scolding before the need arose.
I wiped the drool from the side of my face with the back of my hand. My hand came off wet and inky, so I wiped at both my hand and face with a napkin. More ink came off. Then I looked up and saw that my door was open, so I got up, shut it, and locked it.
I returned to my desk and got under it. I set my alarm for 7 P.M.
I was going to make the store’s debut no matter what.
And I did.
There was a lot to clean the next day.
The debut had been a hit. At least as far as I could remember—I had had too much to drink, and the store still spun a bit, even after my coffee and shower.
I closed my eyes to steady myself and watched the spinning blackness behind my eyelids. After a few moments of disorienting darkness, the spinning slowed, and I felt better.
I opened my eyes and tightened my grip on the broom. I looked around and smiled. As bad as my body felt, I couldn’t have been in higher spirits. The kickoff had been a hit.
Then I noticed that as Li cleaned, he kept shooting nervous glances in my direction.
“Is everything ok?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Li said, “it’s all good.”
Then Li looked away. Something about the way he was acting seemed wrong.
“Are you sure nothing weird happened last night?”
“Last night?” Li turned pale. “No, no, the party was a big hit, perfect.”
I wasn’t sure if Li was telling the truth, but if something had happened, I couldn’t remember it. I let my suspicions flit away. The grand opening had been a hit—of course it had.
Then it happened.
She pushed the door open and walked into PocketRat.
I stopped sweeping. Li looked up from whatever he was mopping behind the counter.
She wore six inch, leopard print heels. From the way she wobbled, it seemed she had never walked in them before.
She tottered over to the counter. I was getting more and more nervous by the second.
I swallowed. “Hi, and welcome to PocketRat,” I said with a squeak.
“I want one,” she said.
That made me even more nervous.
“Great,” I said, my voice shaking. “How about I walk you through our PocketRat Owner’s Guide and then I can help you pick one out?”
She took her sunglasses off, uncovering half of her face.
“Just make it quick,” she said. “And don’t leave out any accessories.” She rolled her eyes and looked off into the distance. Was that a pose? There was no distance to look into here, she was just staring at a wall. Then her pose ended and she leaned on our counter and began to tap her leopard-heeled foot against it.
I was sweating now. “Of course, you got it,” I said. “So, the first thing you need to know is that—”
Then she turned away. Li had appeared.
“Hello,” Li said to her, and took the PocketRat Owner’s Guide out of my hand. “Welcome, welcome.”
“Hi,” she said, and smiled.
I wiped some sweat from my forehead, relieved that Li had taken over.
“I’m Li,” Li said. “And this is my partner here.” He pointed to me.
Then he smiled, took the woman’s hand, raised it to his mouth, and kissed it. The woman blushed.
“I’m Stacy,” she said, and giggled. “Your rats are very cute.”
“They’re pocketrats,” Li said.” “Let me show you.”
“I like that one,” Stacy said, pointing at one of the smaller pocketrats in the display.
“Yeah that’s a good one,” I said. Li and Stacy both looked at me, then turned back to each other.
“Let’s have you meet him,” Li said, and took the pocketrat Stacy had pointed to out of the display, setting it in Stacy’s cupped hands.
“He’s so adorable,” she said. “Those big eyes and big ears.” She looked at Li. “Will you show me how to take care of him?”
“Of course,” Li said, and led Stacy and her new friend to another table. “Pocketrats need to eat a special diet.” He pointed to a box of cheese. “This is our special cheese formula. It’s a house blend, made just for the pocketrats, with their particular nutritional needs in mind. It keeps them healthy and strong.”
Stacy looked at the box.
“Regular food is bad for them,” Li said. “It could even kill them.”
“Oh no,” Stacy said. “I don’t want that, he’s so cute.”
“Don’t worry. The food isn’t very expensive, and we deliver it to your home at no extra charge.”
“I’m gonna take such good care of you,” Stacy said to the pocketrat.
“Here,” Li said, “is our premiere pocketrat accessory. Let me show you how it works.”
Li took a little pocketrat-sized unicycle out from behind the counter and set it in front of Stacy. Then he pulled a tiny whip out of his pocket.
“Just put him down right here,” Li said, motioning at the pocketrat and patting a spot on the counter.
“Ok,” Stacy said, and put the pocketrat down.
Li held the pocketrat in place and cracked it with the whip. Once, twice, three times, four times.
“Don’t worry,” Li said. “It doesn’t hurt him. He likes it.”
Li kept on whipping. After the sixth or seventh blow, the pocketrat got up on its hind legs, mounted the unicycle, and rode it around in a circle. It kept on riding for about a minute, dismounted, and tried to get the whip from Li. Li was quicker.
“You’re not done yet,” Li said to the pocketrat, tucking the whip back into his pocket.
“Oh my God,” said Stacy. “Oh my God. Oh my God. I can’t believe that. That is—that is awesome.” She clapped and picked up the panting pocketrat.
“He really likes to show off for you,” Li said.
“I want one of those bike things,” Stacy said. “And some whips, so my friends can try too.”
On hearing this, the pocketrat Stacy held ran up her arm, down her back, and down her leg. It stopped at her leather print heels, and went no further.
Then the pocketrat dragged itself back up, and perched atop Stacy’s shoulder.
“Very good,” Li said. “Come with me to the register. I’ll ring you up.” Li paused. “At $20,000, you’re getting a great bargain.”
Stacy and Li walked to the register together. I tried to control my shaking. I couldn’t believe it. We were about to make our first sale.
While Li rang Stacy up and leashed her new best friend, a man walked in. He looked Eastern European.
I braced myself.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hi,” I said.
“You have map?”
“What? A map of what?”
“Map of—map of to go to Park, to go to Columbus, you know Columbus?”
“Uhh, no, I don’t know Columbus.”
“No, sorry, we don’t have maps, we don’t have maps of anything.”
“What you have?”
“Uhh, we sell pocketrats.”
“We sell—we sell pocketrats.” I pointed to the pocketrats frolicking in the display.
The man nodded, licked his lips, and smiled.
“For to eat?” he asked.
“What? No, no, for pets.”
“Pets? For to eat?”
“You try?” He motioned like he was putting something in his mouth, then pretended to chew.
I took a step back. “No.”
“Is good meat.”
I didn’t know what to say to that. I needed help.
“Hang on,” I said. I turned toward the register. Stacy was walking away with her new best friend and Li was waving goodbye to them.
“Hey Li,” I said. “This guy wants to talk to you.”
Li was good with stuff like that, so I let Li handle all the pocketrat-hungry tourists from then on. He had done a great job with the first one, after all.
Li tried to convince the man that our pocketrats weren’t food, but he still heard the man out. The man was hungry, and he described the flavors that he was looking for. Li nodded, took some notes, and asked the man to hang out for a while and have a look about the store.
I didn’t like that. I didn’t like the man’s eager lip-licking and mouth-smacking when he looked at our pocketrats. I made sure to watch him while he was there. Li, looking unconcerned, picked up his cell phone and made a call. Ten minutes later, a young man walked in with a bag of takeout.
The food was in a paper bag inside a plastic bag. The plastic bag was steamy and wet-looking, so the food must have been hot. Li took the bag and the young man left. Li brought the bag over to the hungry foreigner, sat him down in our small lounge, and let him feast on the takeout. The foreigner must have liked the food, because he inhaled it, thanked Li, and left in a hurry.
He promised Li that he would tell all his foreign friends about our store.
Then it all went wrong.
After that fateful day when we sold our first pocketrat, unremitting waves of tourists began to pummel the store with a terrifying might.
I had envisioned a high-end store. I had envisioned a place where rich people could come and give me their money. Instead, we were attracting tons of tourists. The tourists liked to look at the pocketrats, but they never bought any. The rich elite—those with the need for pocketrats—were making their way into our store at the slowest of trickles, and I was sure they were being turned off by the ever present tourist mob. If there was one thing I knew, it was that rich New Yorkers did not want to rub elbows with tourists.
Two weeks after the store’s opening, Li and I had come to a fork in the road, and we had to make a decision.
We had closed up for the night, and I was wiping tourist slobber from the displays while Li was consoling the pocketrats.
“It ok,” he said to the pocketrats, “those hungry tourists won’t eat you. I won’t let them.”
The pocketrats squeaked in hopeful agreement.
Then Li turned to me. “We need to change our approach. We’re running a circus now, and we need to figure out a way to charge for tickets.”
I groaned. “Our image has gone to hell. We’re not getting any more pocketrat buyers in here, and the tourists aren’t buying anything. All the tour buses are dumping people at our store. It’s like there’s some secret underground tourist network and they’re all telling each other to come here.” I thought for a moment. “Could that one guy that you fed have done this to us? I mean, these people who come in, they all point at the pocketrats, smile, smack their lips, and rub their bellies.” I shuddered. “What is that?”
Li looked thoughtful. “There’s an old Chinese saying that we put in some of our fortune cookies.” Li paused for dramatic effect. “It goes something like: When life throws a screwdriver at your head, you gotta catch it and screw someone else.”
I looked at Li.
He was exactly right.
As nauseating as it was, we had to take advantage of this.
“You’re right,” I said. “We have to roll with the punches, we have to give them what they want. We have all these people coming in here to look at the pocketrats, there’s gotta be a way to take their money while they do it.”
“I’ve looked into it already,” Li said. “I’ve got orders for maps, rolls of film, PocketRat postcards, and a coffeemaker all queued up. I figured you’d go for it, but of course you’ve gotta confirm.”
I sighed with resolve. “Yeah, let’s do it.”
After we had turned away hundreds of decaffeinated, map-less tourists with empty cameras, the time had come to give in to reality. After our initial sale, the pocketrats just weren’t moving. What the pocketrats did do, whether they were selling or not, was get tourists into the store. We had a tourist attraction on our hands. The line to get in circled the block, and there was no going back.
By the end of that first month, we had sold two pocketrats and thousands of tourist trinkets. So it seemed the balancing act could be done. The amount we made wasn’t going to be enough to pay rent, but we were almost halfway there. We still needed things to pick up in the next two months before our rent kicked in if we were to survive. There was no way that we would maximize our pocketrat sales with all the tourists we let in, but it was the tourists that were now fueling our business and spreading the word.
We had become the talk of the town among non-English and broken-English speakers, and the tour buses kept on coming.
Our store became a low-end, high-end mix. It was mostly low-end, with high-end, pocketrat buying possibilities. I decided that I could live with that. I had to live with that if I wanted to have a shot at running a store full time. At the time, I was still working as a lawyer and keeping my double life a secret from my transactional law peers. I was itching to get away, but the store wasn’t working out the way I had hoped. I thought that maybe with more time there could still be a way.
Li still hadn’t gotten anyone to help him mind the store, even though we talked about it a lot. I didn’t know how he was managing, and it was clear that he would have to hire someone soon. He had my full confidence in his discretion, and I likely wouldn’t have been available to screen anyone anyway. I left the hiring decision entirely to him.
Once we accepted the influx of tourists and began to cater to it, I became concerned about my immune system. I found myself wondering about all the foreign plagues I might catch and it made me a little uneasy. Li prescribed his chicken and rice soup for this. He swore that it kept him plague-free year round. I liked the soup, but I also began to supplement my diet with vitamin C and extra oranges. It was better to be safe than sorry.
In our seventh week, we got a surprise visit.
I had just finished selling three maps to a group of German tourists. I had convinced them to take a map of the five boroughs, a map of Manhattan, and a close-up map of Central Park and Midtown.
It was Saturday, and I had come in to mind the store because I was able to get away from the office for a few hours. I found that I enjoyed selling maps to tourists much more than selling pocketrats to the rich. I felt less pressure doing it. I wasn’t any good at selling the pocketrats—that was Li’s talent—and there wasn’t much demand for them anyway. But selling maps to Manhattan-awed tourists—that I could do.
The German tourists took the three maps, paid me a little under $25 for all of them, and asked me if I had any rolls of film. I smiled. I certainly did. After buying some film, the Germans took a final look around the store, took a few more pictures of our displays, and walked out the door.
Then the mayor walked in.
Sven was 6’5”. When he opened the door, all movement in the store stopped, and all eyes turned to him. Sven was known the world over for his leading role in Sven the Zombie Slayer, the highest-grossing movie of all time. After setting records both for sales and for movie violence, Sven the Zombie Slayer launched its star into affairs of state. People wanted Sven to lead them, and Sven obliged. Sven ran for mayor of New York, and he won in a landslide victory. After becoming mayor, he starred in two more blockbusters, City Hall of Blood and Mayor of the Damned, and I heard there was another one in the making. I had no doubt there would be zombies involved, and I couldn’t wait.
Sven’s real name actually was Sven, just like the name of the character in the movies. The movie producers had found a real life Sven who was a perfect match for the fictional Sven—at least as far as looks were concerned. Maybe all Svens were cast from the same mold. I had never met any Svens before, so I didn’t know.
Li and I knew him by sight. We each owned multiple copies of all of his movies. I had the books that the movies were based on, and a couple of movie posters too.
I looked over at Li. For once, he looked as speechless as I was.
Sven spoke first.
“I have heard about your new business,” he said. “I like it. You are bringing lots of new money to the City. That is good.”
Sven walked over to one of our displays and watched the pocketrats playing in it. He tapped the glass. The pocketrats scurried away from the tapping and formed groups. They did the little pocketrat dance that Li had trained them to do in response to tapping. Sven watched, and when the pocketrats were done, he said, “Very nice, what else do they do?”
Li showed Sven some of the other pocketrat tricks, and just like everyone else so far, the one Sven enjoyed the most was the whip and unicycle combo. Sven’s eyes lit up when Li whipped one of the pocketrats, and his eyes got even brighter when Li handed the tiny whip to Sven, and Sven got to do the whipping himself. The whipped pocketrat rode around in a circle on its unicycle, slowed, stumbled off, and took a bow.
“That,” Sven said, “is amazing.” He seemed awestruck.
Then Sven scooped up the pocketrat with a large hand and petted it with his forefinger. The pocketrat sat there, calm but panting.
“I was not planning on buying one, but—well first we have to talk about something. I am here to discuss the concerns of the City with regard to your business.”
Sven put the pocketrat down. He looked serious now. “There are health and safety issues with a business such as this, and it is my job to make sure that certain standards are abided by.”
A small crowd of tourists was gathering around Sven as he spoke. They fiddled with their camera settings and took pictures. Li shooed them away from time to time but they always came back.
“We’ll do what it takes to meet your standards,” I said. “The pocketrats have all their shots and we’re in the process of finding a vet to check on them every week.”
“That is good,” Sven said.
He pointed at the displays. The pocketrats weren’t dancing now, they were looking at Sven with wide-eyed, big-eared curiosity. “You have all of their health documents?”
“Yes,” I said.
“That is good,” Sven said. He paused. “There is something else.”
Li and I waited for Sven to finish his dramatic pause. I could see that Sven was serious about his speechmaking.
Sven looked from me to Li and back again. Then Sven looked around the room at the crowd of tourists that had gathered. The flashing of their cameras made Sven seem even taller. At last he took a deep breath, puffed out his chest, and spoke.
“I am concerned for the physical fitness of these animals,” he said, pointing at the displays. “They look happy and healthy in their frolicking, that is true, but I think we need to put them on an exercise plan. They need a disciplined training program. I want them to jog and sprint and lift weights.”
Sven paused. Li and I said nothing. We waited for Sven to go on.
All of a sudden, Sven looked behind us. Something behind our displays had caught his eye.
“Are those yours?” Sven asked Li. He was pointing to a pair of twenty pound dumbbells that lay on the ground just outside the door to the back room. Apparently, it was obvious that the dumbbells weren’t mine.
“Yeah,” Li said. “I work my bi’s and tri’s every day.”
I rolled my eyes. Li was obsessed with his arms and he was always finding opportunities to talk to me about his arm training. His biceps and triceps this and his biceps and triceps that. I realized that the situation could get out of hand.
Then it did.
“You like to work out?” Sven asked Li.
Li nodded, smiling. “I love it.”
“Yes, pumping up is the best feeling in the world. There is nothing better.”
Li nodded again. He nodded with so much force that it hurt my neck to see it. I took a step away from the two of them.
“It is a very wise practice,” Li said. “Look at this.” Li reached into his pocket and pulled out a tape measure. He took off his hoodie, pushed up his sleeve, flexed his bicep, and measured it.
“18.5 inches,” Li said, beaming with pride.
I took another step back.
“That is excellent,” Sven said, smiling. And then Sven took off his jacket and let Li measure his flexed bicep through his shirt. The shirt almost ripped as Sven flexed and Li took the measurement.
“21.5 inches,” Li said. His voice was filled with awe. I had never seen Li so happy.
Li and Sven went on with their private chat. No one else existed for them now. It was just the two of them, their biceps, and their triceps, so ten in all. They went over to the door of the back room and talked to each other for a while. Then Li and Sven took turns lifting Li’s dumbbells. They compared technique and gestured as they spoke.
I manned the register while all of this went on, but I didn’t have to do anything. None of the tourists dared disturb Sven and Li. And none of them dared leave the store either.
After forty minutes of what I guessed had been a talk about biceps, triceps, and their love of the pump, Li and Sven came back to where I was standing. They laughed and slapped each other on the back. That was typical Li—making instant friends with a complete stranger.
“So,” Sven said, still laughing, “Just like you need the right equipment to build your biceps and triceps,” he nodded at Li, and Li nodded back, “your animals need to have the right equipment with which to train. The City will build a track for these animals. And it will build weight training equipment that they can use.”
Sven paused and looked thoughtful, then he went on. “You cannot put your animals into a bench press for a man. It has to be a bench press for a rat, or at least for a very small man. I will make sure they have enough rat bench presses and pull up bars, and the track.”
I had been puzzled ever since Sven had walked into the store, but now I was at a complete loss. Weight training for pocketrats? A pocketrat track—a pocketrack? Pocketrat bench presses? Pocketrat pull-ups? I failed to see the big picture.
“It won’t cost much to make,” Sven said.
My ears perked up. That was the endgame. That was the big picture.
Sven went on, “I have overseen projects like this one before. The price will be low and the maintenance costs will be low too. Best of all, the production will be quick. I want these rats to get in shape as soon as possible. All I need from you two is a small commitment fee. It is only a nominal fee, and then we will set up all of the training equipment for you, and set up any further payment plan.”
Sven smiled a broad, muscular smile. Then Li did too, and I had no choice but to do the same. The three of us stood there, grinning like idiots.
Then we shook hands all around, and Li showed Sven out.
“So what do you all think of this working out business?” I asked the pocketrats in the display.
The pocketrats scampered away in reply, avoiding eye contact. I got the sense they weren’t thrilled about the exercise routine Sven had planned for them.
We paid Sven’s fee. What he called a nominal fee was $15,000, and that was after he took on a pocketrat of his own and knocked the fee down some. But what could we do? He was Sven—Sven the Zombie Slayer. After putting in the training equipment for the pocketrats, Sven signed off on our business. I got the sense that Li and I wouldn’t be bothered, so long as we made Sven’s payments and upgraded the pocketrats’ equipment when Sven deemed the time had come to do so.
Unfortunately, the equipment brought some problems. The displays shook more after Sven’s equipment had been installed. I didn’t know why. The equipment didn’t take up much space, and it wasn’t very heavy. And anyway it was in the middle of the displays. It should have made them more stable. I thought maybe the pocketrats were doing it. Maybe they were shaking the displays more on account of having more muscular pocketrat bodies.
Or maybe the pocketrats didn’t like the fact that we were suggesting they needed exercise, and they were shaking the displays in protest. I thought that was the most likely explanation. Whatever the cause, Li had the cases reinforced with stronger edge panels, and the shaking stopped.
But the shaking wasn’t it.
Two weeks after the equipment had been put in, word got around.
Word got around to the wrong people.
A group called RAPT showed up in front of the store one Sunday. I counted eight of them. They wore shirts that said: “Rats Are People Too.” That’s what RAPT must have stood for. The shirts bore the logo of a happy cartoon rat munching on a wedge of holey cheese. The RAPTs held signs that said “End Rat Abuse” and “It’s a Rat not a Pet” and “Shut Down the Rat Circus.”
They stood there with their signs and tried to give out fliers. They didn’t come into the store to talk to us, and after watching them for a while, Li went out to them. I followed close behind him, sensing trouble.
Then I got ahead of Li, beating him to the RAPT member that seemed to be in charge. “Can we help you?” I asked.
“Yeah man,” a floppy-haired, barefoot boy said. “You can help me by freeing the rats. Free the rats man. Rats are people too.” A cheer rose up behind him from the other RAPTs. I saw a sign that read “Rats Are Better Than Us!”
I sighed. The floppy-haired boy made me think of a surfer I used to room with in law school. Both he and my ex-roommate looked like they didn’t eat for days at a time. Looking at the floppy-haired boy in front of me made me hungry. It made me want to eat some steak, medium rare.
“We treat our pocketrats very well,” I said.
“Yeah, we give them all that a pocketrat could want,” Li added.
“And how would you know what’s best for a rat?” The floppy-haired boy asked. “Are you a rat?” The RAPTs behind him laughed. They cheered once more, shaking their signs.
Li must have seen his chance, because he said, “You say that rats are people on your shirt. If rats are people and people are rats, then of course we know what’s best for the rats. Because we are them, and they are us. What do you say to that?” Li stared him down.
The floppy-haired boy looked down. He seemed to be turning over what Li had said. I thought it had been clever, and nodded at Li to show that I approved.
“That’s not the point, man,” the floppy-haired boy said at last. “No man, that’s not the point at all, the point is freedom—rat freedom. We want rat freedom, yeah, rat freedom.” He shook his sign and the other RAPTs cheered and shook their signs too.
“How long are you gonna be here?” I asked.
He ignored my question. Instead, he said, “Hey man, how would you like to live in a cage? How would you like to be locked up all the time, with giants looking into your cage telling you when to eat, and when to sleep, and when to lift weights? Yeah man how would you like that?”
I wanted to tell him that was what it was like to be a lawyer, except that no one made me lift weights, but I figured saying that would not have helped.
Our conversation was going nowhere. I found it hard to believe that the RAPTs were there. I found it hard to believe there was such a group in the first place. I made a mental note to check out their website at some point.
“Don’t block the store,” Li said to the floppy-haired boy. “We have a business to run. You probably don’t know anything about that.”
“Hey man, this is a sidewalk man. It’s a public street, man, alright?” He gave us a grin of triumph.
“Come on,” I said to Li. “Let’s go back inside. It’s not worth it. They’ll go away soon.”
Li and I went back inside the store.
Li began to pace back and forth as he watched the protesters outside. There was a snarl on his face, and it was growing deeper by the minute.
Then, all of a sudden, Li said, “I’m gonna spray them,” and before I could stop him, he had brought the fire extinguisher out of the back room and was marching toward the door.
Then I did stop him. I caught his arm and turned him around. He glared at me.
“Let it be,” I said. “I’m serious. Think about it. This is good for us. They’re promoting us, for free. When someone gets their fliers, that person is gonna want to know what our store is about. It’s a free ad.”
Li let out a frustrated sigh that was half-growl and said, “I don’t like it.” He put the fire extinguisher down. He crossed his arms and stared out the window. “Clowns,” he said.
As the day went on, the crowd outside grew large. Li kept on grumbling about the RAPTs. He must have said, “I hate hippies,” and “Clowns,” a thousand times that day. But we kept on getting people in the store, and it seemed to me that we got the same amount of people that we always did on Sundays, no more and no less. The RAPTs had no effect on business that day.
One of the RAPTs had pushed some of their fliers under the door. I looked at the top flier in the stack. It said “Shut Down PocketRat” at the top. It went on to say that we abused our pocketrats and provided RAPT’s contact numbers and website. I thought the whole thing was great. RAPT was getting the word out for us. Li stayed mad for most of the day, but I did manage to convince him that the protest was a good thing for us.
At 4 P.M., the floppy-haired RAPT got out a megaphone. He got up on his skateboard and curled his toes around its edge. The board inched this way and that as he spoke.
“Now we will show all you New Yorkers what goes on inside this evil store.” Someone in the crowd reached up and gave him a high-five. Then he went on. “We have a skit for you that will tell you all you need to know. This is why we gotta work together and shut this place down. Please watch ok?”
The crowd was so big at this point that most passersby didn’t stop to watch, probably because they wouldn’t be able to see anything. But a few latecomers did join the crowd every now and then, replacing the occasional onlookers who left.
“A skit?” Li said. “That’s all we need—a hippie skit.”
I laughed. I couldn’t help it, it was getting good.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s watch.”
Li and I walked to the window to see what the RAPTs were about to do. Li brought the fire extinguisher, and I didn’t stop him this time.
We watched as the floppy-haired boy put on a hat. The hat had human-sized rat ears on it. It was a rat hat. Then he put on a fake rat nose. Then he finished his costume with a rat tail that buckled around his waist like a belt. Then he put the megaphone back to his face. He bumped the rat nose with it by accident. Maybe he hadn’t done a dress rehearsal.
“Behold,” he said, “I—am—Ratman!” The RAPTs shrieked with approval. Some of the non-RAPT crowd cried out too.
When I heard this announcement—this proclamation—I was overcome by such a fit of laughter that tears began to stream from my eyes. Li didn’t think it was funny at all. He looked at me and shook his head, then he turned back to the scene on the street.
“Behold,” Ratman said, “behold the laughing man in the store. Do you see him?” I laughed harder. I couldn’t help it. “Do you see him? He is the bane of my existence. He is the rat abuser. He is the boss of my life, and he keeps me in a cage.” The RAPTs booed. Some of the non-RAPT crowd booed too, but others cheered.
“Behold,” Ratman said, “this is what evil boss man makes me do.”
The crowd got quiet and watched.
“This is gonna be good,” I said.
“I hate hippie clowns,” Li said, and shook his head.
Ratman got off his skateboard. He put the megaphone down on the ground. Then he got down on the ground and began to do pushups. Each time that he went down, his rat nose brushed the pavement and his rat tail flopped back and forth behind him. The crowd that had formed counted for him. “One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. Eight.”
Ratman stopped to adjust his rat ear cap, which had begun to slide down his face. Then he got back to his pushups. “Nine. Ten. Eleven. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. Fifteen.”
He put his knees down to rest for a few seconds, fixed his rat hat one more time, then kept going. “Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty.”
Ratman got up from the ground and fixed his rat hat again. He adjusted his rat tail, which had begun to twist around him so that it stuck out of his side instead of the back of him. Then he disappeared into the RAPT pack. He was gone for a moment and then he came out with a unicycle.
“Those men in there,” he pointed at Li at me, “make those poor rats ride on these.” He pointed to the unicycle. The crowd booed. Li shook the fire extinguisher in Ratman’s direction. Li looked menacing, as if he was about to go on a spraying rampage.
Ratman went on. “Not only do they put rats on bikes, but the bikes only have one wheel, like this one. They’re one wheel bikes!”
Ratman strode into the middle of the crowd, carrying the unicycle.
“Make room for me, make room for me,” he said.
The crowd parted and made a wider circle around Ratman. Ratman got up on the unicycle. It looked like he had done this at least once before. The wheel wobbled and Ratman waved his arms around to keep balance, then he began to pedal. He rode round and round in a circle, flapping his arms as he went. The third time that he circled, he began to chant,
“This is rat abuse!” The crowd picked up the chant right away.
He circled a fourth time. “This is rat abuse!”
He circled a fifth time. “This is rat abuse!”
He circled a sixth time. “This is rat abuse!”
He circled a seventh time. “This is rat abuse!”
“No more,” Li said, “I’m spraying him.” Li started for the door. I was trying to decide whether or not to stop him, when, all of a sudden, Ratman grabbed his rat tail, and shoved it between the spokes of the unicycle.
Ratman went flying off his unicycle. His arms were outstretched and from his mouth came a battle cry. “Waaaahhhh!”
But if he had planned to launch himself into our store, his aim was off. He veered to the side, scraping some onlookers’ heads with his bare feet. He went hands first into the storefront next to ours, where fur coats were sold. Splat. He fell into a heap on the street.
The crowd let out a painful “Oooo,” and deflated. The excitement that had been in the air just seconds before was gone, and some onlookers began to leave.
Li had stopped in his tracks when Ratman went airborne. After the splat, Li and I both went outside to have a look at the damage. The side of Ratman’s face was scraped, there were some spots of blood on his hands, and he looked dazed.
“That’s what you get you clown,” Li said.
“We should call someone to get him some help and get him out of here,” I said.
“He doesn’t need help,” Li said. “He needs a good kick to the head.”
Ratman picked himself up. He dusted himself off and found his rat hat and rat nose. He put them on. He adjusted his rat tail, which had made its way all the way around him during his fall. Then he found his skateboard. He climbed on top of the skateboard again. He wobbled more than he had before. One of the RAPTs handed him his megaphone. Ratman wiped at his scraped face. Then he ran his hands through his tangled hair and began to speak again.
“That,” he said, “is what the cute rats in that store have to go through all the time. They are whipped—these men,” he raised a shaking finger at me and Li, “these men whip them and make them ride around in circles. That, I tell you—that is rat abuse. We must band together and shut them down. We must shut them down.”
Ratman’s high-pitched, shaky voice wasn’t holding the crowd any longer. People had lost interest, and were melting away from the cluster that had formed. Maybe it was because they thought Ratman wouldn’t be able to top his flight through the air. Maybe they didn’t care about the RAPT cause.
Li and I went back into the store and watched Ratman and the RAPTs pick up their things and begin to walk south on Fifth Avenue.
Li and I were standing at the window watching the last RAPT disappear from sight when Ratman came back. He skateboarded to the front of the store and pointed a finger at me and Li. He still had all his rat gear on. He mouthed the words, “I’ll be back.”
He may have been about to mouth more but then Li ran out of the store with the fire extinguisher. I followed him out, and watched Li chase the skateboarding Ratman down the block with white sprays from the extinguisher.
When they turned the corner I heard Li yell, “Take that you hippie clown.”
Then they were gone.
Some time after the protest, the RAPTs sued us.
Their complaint alleged rat abuse and brandishing a fire extinguisher with intent to spray. Li closed up shop for a few hours and showed up for the hearing, but he didn’t have to do much. The case was thrown out. I thought it was thrown out because Sven helped us in some way, but Li told me the judge couldn’t care less about what we did with the pocketrats, or about the supposed brandishing of a fire extinguisher at some hippies. The way Li told it, when the RAPT group made its arguments to the judge, he just rolled his eyes and threw them out. Then the judge called Li to the bench and shook his hand.
“He told me to keep up the good work,” Li said. “And he said I speak good English.”
“Wow,” I said. “Was he old?”
“Yeah, an old man. Nice guy.”
I paused and looked at Li. “Do you think we’re done with those guys?”
“I don’t know. But if they come back, I’m ready.” He pointed to the two new fire extinguishers he had bought for the store. “I got the big ones. They won’t run out as fast as last time.”
I nodded. “No harm done anyway. I bet the publicity only helped us.”
“Yeah, publicity’s solid. Wise too.”
Then a man wearing tattered clothes walked in. He looked lost, and babbled at us in some foreign language.
Li and I made sure he left with a full set of maps, one large coffee, and three PocketRat postcards.
My group got a new hire soon after the suit was dismissed.
We started a new first year associate. His name was Alex Murphy. I met him and talked to him for a few minutes before he had to go back to his computer training. He seemed like a nice kid.
Nice though he was, Alex had no idea what he was getting himself into. Like most first years in our department, he wore suits for the first two weeks, even though we were a business casual firm. At the end of that two week period, after much teasing from seasoned associates, the suit came off. This was how it went for all the first year associates. They came in scared and made sure to err on the conservative side. Then they became more relaxed, a little less formal, and began to fit in.
But Alex took it a little too far. It wouldn’t have been too far if he was in a different department or at a different firm. But he was in my department, at my firm.
And he was about to meet Mr. Pitchfork’s monocle.
I saw the whole thing. I had been through it myself, as had most of the male associates in my department, and I thought I had handled it better than Alex did, but I couldn’t be sure.
It began while I was pacing in my office, waiting for work. I was minding my post, being a good little associate.
Mr. Pitchfork was making his rounds. He was waddling around the floor, poking his head into each of the associate offices as he went. Even though he had the gadgets to tell him where we were at all times, he liked to make sure we were there, just in case one of us was tech-savvy and could outsmart the gizmos.
Mr. Pitchfork would glance in and say hello, ask about billable hours, give out a new assignment or two, flap his arms, and waddle off to the next office. The best place to be when he made his rounds was seated at your desk with a blank or sad look on your face. The sad look was preferable. That’s what he liked to see. And if you had bags under your eyes, all the better.
I saw him coming but I didn’t stop my pacing. Mr. Pitchfork knew that I was a pacer. He had lectured me about it twice, but he had given up after two tries. Some fights weren’t worth it, even for him.
While Mr. Pitchfork was making his way down the hall, it seemed that Alex had decided to get some coffee. He knew not to go outside, because I and the other associates had told him not to, so he was on his way to our floor’s coffee station when he crossed paths with Mr. Pitchfork.
I stood in the doorway of my office and watched the whole thing. I had just enough time to knock on Tom’s door so he could come out of his office and watch it with me.
“Good morning Mr. Pitchfork,” Alex said on his way to the coffee machine. There was too much cheer in his voice—way too much.
“Hi,” Mr. Pitchfork said, in a slow, creepy whisper. Then his eyes narrowed. He focused in on Alex’s face. “Come here, Alex.”
“Sure,” Alex said, and backtracked to Mr. Pitchfork.
They stood facing each other. “Come closer,” Mr. Pitchfork said. Alex did.
“A little closer, please.” Alex obliged.
Mr. Pitchfork peered up at Alex. Alex wasn’t very tall, but he towered over Mr. Pitchfork. Mr. Pitchfork looked at the left side of Alex’s face, then scuttled over and looked at the right side.
Then Mr. Pitchfork whipped the monocle out of his left jacket pocket. He took the monocle out of its holster. He brought the monocle to his eye and then began to examine Alex’s face again. Mr. Pitchfork looked at the left side, and then at the right side.
Then he took a caliper out of his right jacket pocket and put it to Alex’s face. Mr. Pitchfork made his measurements while Alex stood there, shocked and trembling. It looked like Alex was too dumbfounded to move or speak.
“You didn’t shave today,” Mr. Pitchfork said.
He put the caliper away. He holstered the monocle and put that away too.
Tom and I looked at each other. In a way I was enjoying this, and that worried me. The firm was shaping my mind, and that couldn’t be avoided. I would never have a monocle though, or a caliper. Not me.
Alex looked confused. “I skipped today,” he stammered.
“You must shave every day,” Mr. Pitchfork said. “And it looks to me like you might need to shave twice a day. You have thick facial hair.” Mr. Pitchfork rolled his head this way and that, still looking at Alex’s chin and jaw line.
“Ok,” Alex said. “I will. Sorry.” His eyes were wide with fright.
“You have to look professional,” Mr. Pitchfork said. “This is a law firm. This isn’t a dot com. What if some clients were to walk through here and see you like this? This isn’t a dot com. Did you think I wouldn’t notice? I’m not stupid.”
The truth was that clients weren’t allowed to walk around in the back offices. The back offices were for employees only. The back offices were in the back for a reason. They were ugly. The carpets looked like they were a hundred years old, the little paint left on the walls was peeling off, and the lighting was almost non-existent.
Before I came to the firm, I had thought lighting was important for lawyers. I was very wrong. At night, we sometimes had to work with flashlights. But there were perks too. We had a nice dinner allowance, and a good cafeteria. And we had heat during the winter, so we didn’t have to type with gloves on like they did at other firms. I focused on the perks. I had to.
“Ok,” Alex said again. He looked scared now.
“Back in my day,” Mr. Pitchfork said, “I wore a suit to work every day, and if I had my way, I would change this firm’s dress code back to business formal.”
“Right,” Alex said, and the lecture went on a little longer. Mr. Pitchfork told a few more “back in my day” anecdotes, Alex nodded and agreed with each one, and after a time, Mr. Pitchfork began to waddle away to bother some other associate.
In an apparent afterthought, Mr. Pitchfork turned back to Alex, who was still standing in the hall with his empty coffee cup.
“Don’t hate me,” Mr. Pitchfork said. “But you can if you want to.”
Then Mr. Pitchfork was gone.
Alex stood there a little while longer. Then he went back to his office.
He never did get that coffee.
“‘Til it’s one A.M.—”
I was humming when Alex knocked. I was humming “Skid Row” from Little Shop of Horrors. I liked the song, and I couldn’t get it out of my head. I had woken up humming it for the past three days, and I would sing it to myself the whole day through. As much as I liked the song, one part of it had begun to bother me. The song began:
Alarm goes off at seven
And you start uptown
You put in your eight hours
For the powers that have always been
‘Til it’s five P.M.
Then the song went on to describe how much it sucked to live in skid row.
When I was a kid and heard this song for the first time, it vibed with me. I thought it was pretty terrible to get up at seven and to put in eight hours of work, five days a week. Now those lines annoyed me. Now, working nine to five was a distant, fading dream. I didn’t think I could ever get there. To be free from my digital tether, to go home before dark, not to be called back, not to work weekends—it all seemed ludicrous.
So I made some changes to the lyrics. I changed, “You put in your eight hours,” to “You put in your last hours,” and “‘Til it’s five P.M.” to “‘Til it’s one A.M.” That made the song work for me. That week, it played in my head over and over, with no end in sight.
I stopped spinning in my chair and looked up. Was Alex waiting for me to tell him he could come in?
“Hey,” I said. “Come in.”
Alex came in, taking small steps.
“What’s up?” I said.
“Mr. Pitchfork asked me to help you with the chocolate shop lease,” Alex said.
“Oh, ok, go ahead and sit down.” I got up, walked to the door, and closed it. Then I sat back down and dug through some stacks of documents until I got something that Alex could help me with. I told him what to review and how to review it. Alex nodded a lot. He also said “Ok” a lot. He seemed glum, and kept rubbing at his stubble.
“You know,” I said, “Mr. Pitchfork had the same talk with me, and with all the other male associates here, it’s not a big deal, that’s just how he is.”
“You got the eyeglass thing too?”
I laughed. “The monocle? Yeah, we all got that. The caliper’s new though. I bet his wife got it for him. She’s a lawyer too.”
“Oh, makes sense.”
Alex sighed. He looked like a man resigned to his fate.
“Yeah it makes a lot of sense. There are some bullies here, but as long as you do your work and keep a low profile, you’ll be fine. There’s too much work for you to worry about your job. We need you here.”
“Yeah, we’re way understaffed.”
“That’s good to hear, I’m a little worried about my loans.”
“That’s normal, but you’ll be fine. Mr. Pitchfork has problems with a lot of people. Your problem is that you’re too tall, too slim, too tan, and too cheerful. But I guess you’re not quite as cheerful as before.”
Alex smiled for the first time. “Yeah the tone of this place totally changed after that lecture. It was just so weird. So he has issues?”
“Yeah, he’s always picking on tall people.”
“I can’t do anything about that.”
“No, but you could gain fifty pounds, he’ll like you much better then.”
Alex laughed. “And I guess I should stop getting sunshine and cry in my office?”
“That’s a good start,” I pointed at my pale skin, “this is what your skin should look like, sickly and transparent. And if you can look like you haven’t been sleeping, even better. You need to look sleep-deprived and frantic. That’s the look that gets promoted here.”
“That’s what it’s about.”
Alex looked uneasy.
“Don’t worry about it,” I said. “No one expects you to be here for more than one or two years.”
Alex shrugged. “I feel pretty creeped out. But I’ll be shaving every day from now on.”
“That’s a good idea.”
Alex got up and turned to leave. “Hey,” he said, turning back to me, “when do you want this review done?”
I sighed. “I’m supposed to tell you its due tomorrow morning and that it shouldn’t take you more than two hours. It’ll take you at least two days. And I don’t need it. Not tomorrow, not the next day, not ever. But do it, bill it hard, and look stressed out about it.”
Alex nodded and gave me a wan smile. I looked at him and couldn’t help but think that he might be another Mr. Pitchfork one day. Most of the other associates didn’t agree with me, but I thought that the nicest person, if he stayed at a firm like mine long enough, could become a bully. There were nice partners. There were. But they were few and far between. Though many of our bullies had unhappy home lives and bones to pick, anyone could take being a boss too far. Alex might have the power one day, and when he looked back on his own treatment, he might let that power go to his head. He was so normal now.
Had I become meaner over the years? I was sure I had. Bullying trickled down.
“But,” I said, “don’t worry about it, It’s all gonna be fine. Really. There’s a lot of work to go around right now, so you’ll learn a lot, and then you’ll be able to leave for somewhere better.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right. Thanks for the talk.”
Alex stood up. He opened my door and walked out. Then he half-ran back to his office.
That was a good touch.
I had a dream that night.
It began in my apartment above the Pats’ bar. It was morning. I got up out of bed and dressed for work. Then I went to check how I looked in the bathroom mirror.
I had a full beard.
After the shock subsided, I knew what I had to do. I had to shave it off. All of it. So I opened the mirror to get my razor, but it wasn’t there. I looked everywhere, but there were no razors to be found. I would have to get one at the corner store and come back to shave.
I rushed out the door and down the stairs. I burst out of the building and began to run to the corner store.
My run died at once. I froze. My jaw dropped. The street was teeming with people on their way to work, and all the men had beards. The beards were long, and some of their owners even had to carry the beards over their shoulders to keep them from dragging on the ground.
I shook my head, tried to keep my gawking under control, and walked to the corner store. All the facial hair around me kept me from resuming my run.
In the store, I went down the aisle where I knew the razors were. I had bought some there before.
There were no razors there now. In the place where the razors had been, there were beard combs. I tried the other aisles, but I still couldn’t find a razor. I felt my throat begin to close up, like a slow panic setting in. I had to shave before work or, or—it was better not to think about that.
I went up to the man at the counter. His beard was on the counter.
“Good morning,” I said. My voice cracked. “Do you have razors?”
“Do I have what?” the man asked.
“Razors? Do you have razors?”
The man stroked his beard with one hand. “What is razors? You mean raisins? We have packs of raisins. They’re good, very fresh.”
“What is razors? What do you mean what is razors? A razor for shaving my face.” I pointed to my beard. “I need to shave this off before work.”
The man looked puzzled. “Why would anyone ever do a thing like that? Like shaving cheese? Do you feel ill? Maybe you have a fever. Here, I have some fever reducers. They’re good, very fresh.” The man put some pills on the counter. “But not as fresh as the raisins,” he added.
“No, I don’t have a fever. I need to—” I decided there was no point. I walked back out onto the street.
I stared at all the beards walking by. Maybe I could show up to work like this, I thought. I didn’t see one clean shaven man on the street. Maybe no one did shave. Maybe I did have a fever. I considered getting those fever-reducers, but after feeling my forehead and deciding that I didn’t have a fever, I set off for work.
Every man I passed on the street had a beard, so I began to think that it was ok. I began to think that it had always been that way.
I got to the firm, took a deep breath, and walked in. I went up the elevator to my floor. All the men in my department had beards. Even Mr. Pitchfork had one. I passed by Tom’s office and saw that his beard was on his keyboard. I came closer and saw that his beard was hitting the spacebar. I walked around and looked at his screen. He was typing. He was typing with his hands and his beard.
Then time sped up. There was an office meeting. It was revealed to us that we were about to take on some new hires, since we were so understaffed. Beards went up and down in approval. Six new hires arrived. Then time slowed to a normal pace again.
The new hires were different. They had more facial hair than the rest of us. They were strange. They liked to work behind closed doors, and they held secret meetings that the rest of us couldn’t go to. When I did see them, they were jumping up and down on their chairs and banging on their keyboards. I could hear them hooting and jumping and banging on things all day long.
They did these things because they were monkeys.
It worked out well at first. The monkeys billed like they were born to do it. Their work was perfect. They churned out deal after deal and loved to work nights and weekends. They were better at the work than we were.
Then it all went sour. The monkeys began to charm the clients. They wined and dined our clients and began to gain control of the source of our business. The rest of us—the humans—had all been ok with the monkeys doing the job better than we did, but this was different. The monkeys were on track to take over the department. Rumors started to go around that more monkeys were coming soon. They might take over the whole firm.
Something had to be done, and Mr. Pitchfork came forward to save the day. He had a plan and he asked all of us non-monkeys to meet away from the office so that he could brief us. We couldn’t hold the meeting in the office because the monkeys were always there, and they might overhear. So we were to hold the meeting at Mr. Pitchfork’s house in the Hamptons.
The dream sped forward and dropped me into the house. Mr. Pitchfork welcomed us in. A servant came out and offered us drinks. I declined. Mr. Pitchfork told us that a spread had been prepared for us, and was ready out back. That’s where we’d have our meeting. We gathered around Mr. Pitchfork and it became clear that we expected him to lead us out back. Mr. Pitchfork just stood there, looking uncomfortable. He said he didn’t know how to get there. He called to a servant and asked her to take us out to where the meeting would be.
We followed the servant, and Mr. Pitchfork followed us. He nodded in approval at the things he saw around him. He poked at the walls, picked up vases, and examined knickknacks. It looked like he was taking the place in for the first time.
We sat down around a large round table. The spread was wondrous, but no one touched the food.
Mr. Pitchfork began to pace around the table.
“Thank you all for coming on such short notice,” he said. “As you all know, the monkeys have begun to take over the firm. We don’t know how deep their influence runs, but that doesn’t matter. The fact is they are taking our clients and you can all be sure they will push us out. And even if they don’t, I will not stand idly by while they take my clients.” He paused and raised a finger. “They will not take my clients. I am still head of the group, and if you all don’t go along with my plan then you will be out of here. Not that you wouldn’t go along, because you all want the monkeys out too, don’t you?”
Everyone nodded. I found myself nodding too. What everyone knew and no one would admit, was that the monkeys not only did the job better than us, but the clients liked them better too. There was little doubt that given a choice, the clients would pick the monkeys. Our pride was at stake.
Mr. Pitchfork went on. “I have been working day and night to come up with a way to get them out.” He paused for effect. “And I have found it.” At this, a small cheer rose from the group. I found myself cheering too.
Then I reached for a chip on the table, dipped it in some fresh-looking guacamole, and popped it in my mouth. It made a loud crunch and some heads turned to look at me.
Mr. Pitchfork gave me a harsh look. “How can you eat at a time like this? What’s with you these days?”
“Sorry,” I said. “I thought the food—”
“Never mind, are you with us or are you with the monkeys?”
“What? With you guys, of course.” My voice was a whisper. The chip was good, and the dip was even better. I wanted another one, but I didn’t dare reach for one now. Maybe I could grab one just when he paced past me, but then the crunch was so loud. I sat on my hands.
“Let’s move on,” Mr. Pitchfork said. “Here’s how we’ll do it. As a condition of working at the firm, we’ll require that our employees all remove their beards.”
At this, fear and confusion swept across the faces around the table.
“I know what you’re thinking,” he said. “What do you mean? Why would we do that? We’re not wheels of cheese. I know. I know all of that, I’m not stupid. Don’t you see? It’s just to get the monkeys out. But we have to make it sound as if it’s more than a pretense.” He paused. “And I have found a way to do just that. Get ready for it.” He paused again. Then he pulled something out of his pocket.
“A razor!” I said, pointing to the razor in his hand. “So there are razors here after all.”
Everyone turned to me and looked at me as if I was crazy.
“A what?” Mr. Pitchfork said. “That’s not what it’s called at all. And anyway, I made it so I will be the one to name it.” He harrumphed. “Are you ill today? You look a little under the weather. Do you want some fever reducers? I have some, they’re very fresh.” Mr. Pitchfork reached into his pocket and pulled out a small bottle of pills. Then he put it on the table in front of me.
He shook his head. “Where was I? Ah yes, let’s move on. This,” he pointed to the razor, “I call this the de-monkey tool. I’ve made one for each of the men in our group, and I will put the new no facial hair rule into effect starting Monday. Those who do not comply, will be fired.”
Just then, Mr. Pitchfork passed in back of me. I took the chance to reach for one more chip. I got it, but Mr. Pitchfork turned just as I was in mid-dip. Damn. He bore down on me with his eyes and I let the chip go. It sank into the dip like a sad little chip.
“So,” he said, turning back to the table, “are you in, or are you out?” A cheer rose up from the table, and then Mr. Pitchfork was passing out de-monkey tools to all of us. I took one in my hand. I looked at it and knew it was a razor. I knew what it was for, but some of the men around me had a lot of trouble with the concept. After hours and hours of discussion, the confused men decided that the only way they could remember how to use the thing was to tuck it into their beards. So they did.
Then we all thanked Mr. Pitchfork and left the meeting. A servant led us out, and then went back inside, probably to fetch Mr. Pitchfork. I took a car back to the City with two other men. Their de-monkey tools stuck out of their beards. Mine was in my pocket.
Then the dream sped up once more. I was back at the office. My beard was gone. I walked around the office and saw that the monkeys were packing up their things. All the other men had shaved, but the monkeys refused. They wouldn’t touch the de-monkey tools. The de-monkey tools had worked.
Once the monkeys were gone, Mr. Pitchfork made us carry him around the office on our shoulders. Then he made us make him a trophy and bake him a cinnamon cake.
The dream continued on fast forward. Mr. Pitchfork was on CNN telling the anchor about his de-monkey tool. It had caught on fast. Beards fell all over the City. Monkeys held protests. They took their battle all the way up to the Supreme Court. The Court ruled against the monkeys. The de-monkey tool, the Court said, did not target monkeys, in spite of its name.
Once they had lost in the courts, the monkeys began to leave the City en masse. Work product got much worse, but the people didn’t care so long as the monkeys were gone.
The monkeys went back to the forest. They left because they were monkeys, and monkeys, as a matter of principle, would never shave.
I woke up from this dream with a sore throat. I got up, drank some water, and shaved my face. I looked at the razor in my hand and thought of the monkeys in my dream. I thought of the way they had left after their case had been decided. There were no riots. There were no uprisings. The way the monkeys left it seemed as if they saw the bright side of living in the forest. Maybe they wanted to go back. Maybe they belonged there.
I put the razor down. The “de-monkey tool” was a stupid name for it.
I got dressed, drank some more water, and left for work. I walked to the firm, all the while rubbing my face to make sure I had shaved every spot of it.
They had set up by the time I got there.
The Sunday after the monkey dream, I got to the store a little after nine in the morning. Li and Mindy were ready for the first customers of the day. The coffee was brewed, the pocketrats were happy, and the tourist trinkets were polished.
“This place looks great,” I said, looking around.
“Thanks,” Li said. “Mindy is very good.”
Mindy was one of the girls who came over to comfort me and Li the night that I was socked in the eye for being a lawyer. Li and Mindy had started dating, and for the first time since I’d known him, it seemed that Li was settling down. He didn’t seem like the type at first, but Mindy had brought about a change in him. They looked happy together.
Mindy had begun to help out with the store of late, along with her friend Tia, and I was glad of that. Li needed the help. Even the three of them, together, had their hands full. I suspected that Li had been too proud to ask for help, and that it was Mindy that had convinced him that he couldn’t run the place alone. Whatever the reason for Li’s initial reluctance, there was no trace of it now. I saw a strong team in the three of them.
“We figured you’d have to work today,” Mindy said. “We weren’t sure if you’d come by.”
“Looks like you guys are all set up already,” I said.
They both agreed and kept on at their tasks. Mindy was wiping down the displays and Li was tallying up some invoices. I stood there, not knowing what to do with myself.
I looked down at my shoes and checked my BlackBerry. No urgent emails. I tapped on the displays and said hello to the pocketrats. Then I looked through the different tie patterns we had for them. Li had added ties to the pocketrat ensemble, and it turned out the customers really loved seeing pocketrats put on ties—especially ugly paisley ones. Ties and unicycles sure made for a packed house.
I checked my BlackBerry again. Still no urgent emails, and Li and Mindy kept on busying themselves about the store, so I looked down at my shoes again.
I was about to go for a stroll up Fifth Avenue when a voice said, “Do you want some coffee?”
I looked up. It was Tia, and she was holding a cup of coffee in front of me.
Tia seemed to know Mindy from way back, and sometimes I suspected she was that other girl who came along with Mindy to sit down with me and Li and my icepack. I couldn’t remember and Li wouldn’t tell me. He kept telling me to look back into the depths of my mind, and I would see. I didn’t want to embarrass myself by asking Tia or Mindy, so I didn’t bring it up.
Tia and Mindy looked like complete opposites, except they were both tall. Mindy’s hair was blonde, her skin was tan, and she wore cowboy boots. Tia’s hair was raven black, her skin was as pale as could be, and she wore hipster boots. That day Tia was wearing one of her typical all black outfits—black shirt, black jeans, and hip black boots.
Tia and Mindy had opposite personalities too. Mindy was the outgoing extrovert, and Tia was quieter and seemed to be in her own world most of time.
I was a little startled by the way Tia had snuck up behind me. I hadn’t noticed that she was in the store.
“Uh, sure,” I stammered, and took the coffee cup from her. I smelled it. It was raspberry truffle, one of my favorite coffee flavors, as much as I hated to admit it to self-proclaimed coffee purists.
She smiled at me. “Li told me it was one of your favorites.”
“It is.” I took a sip. Tia had brewed it to perfection. “Wow, this is really good.”
“Thanks,” she said, and ran the fingers of her left hand through her hair. “I’m pretty handy around the kitchen, and the coffee pot in this case.”
“You’re very awake for this early in the morning,” I said. I always said the wrong things.
“I was excited to come in today, so it was easy to get up,” she said. “This place is so different.” Tia rose up on the balls of her feet, reached for the sky, and stretched.
“I appreciate it, and the coffee’s amazing,” I said. Then out of nowhere, I channeled Li, “Wanna go for a quick stroll with me? I need to get some air.”
“Sure,” she said, and we walked out onto Fifth Avenue together.
From the corner of my eye, I thought I saw Li grin.
We walked north and took our time. It was still early enough in the day that the street wasn’t swamped with tourists, and it felt nice to walk on Fifth Avenue while being able to see more than a few feet in front of me.
As we walked, Tia sometimes got ahead of me, and each time that she did, my eyes were drawn to the tattoo on her upper back. It peeked out over the top of her shirt, but I couldn’t tell what it was. It looked like it might be the top of a flower. I wanted to ask her what it was, but I didn’t. I didn’t want to be rude, and I was afraid she might show me. I didn’t know why that scared me, because I did want to see it.
I let Tia ask the questions instead. She asked me where I grew up, where I went to school, and what my parents were like. I answered her questions and asked her the same. She answered my questions and thought of others to ask me. It was a fun little sidewalk interview.
We crossed the street and walked around the outer edge of Central Park. Then we went inside. It began to drizzle once we were in the park. The rain made me feel clean, and I felt like I could walk with Tia for a long time. Then, Tia’s questions turned to PocketRat, as I thought they might.
“Li says you’re the brains behind all of this,” Tia said. “How did you dream it up?”
“That’s not true,” I said. “I had the initial idea, but Li made it all happen, he got us past a lot of roadblocks, especially with breeding and training the rats. I couldn’t have done what he did. I mean do you see me in the store? I’m just in the way all the time.”
Tia turned to me and raised her eyebrows. “You’re too nice, tell me how you did it, was it like some divine flash of insight or something?”
I said nothing for a few minutes as we kept walking. Tia seemed to be waiting for an answer, but she didn’t prod me. I was trying to figure out what to say, then I stopped figuring and decided to tell her the truth.
“Do you really wanna know?”
I told Tia about that day in November, with the coffee man and his food cart, the woman crossing the street, and Kelsey dumping me. Tia’s eyes grew wide as I told her the whole story, and once I was done, she didn’t say anything for a while.
After we had walked in silence for a time, we stopped in front of a pond. Tia turned to me and said, “That’s some real heavy stuff that came together for you.”
“The food cart man makes sense to you?”
“Sure, I mean, here you are, selling hundreds of coffees a day.”
I hadn’t thought of that.
“Wait, are you saying that man with the food cart was me? But he was Middle Eastern.”
“Right. But he also wasn’t there.”
I nodded. “I guess.”
“The whole thing meant something, or was supposed to mean something, for you. I mean the way that day went, with your ex breaking up with you and in the middle of that breakup those things appear. It’s like you were supposed to be paying attention to them. I mean, the woman who had the—”
Just then Tia pushed me down. A baseball whizzed by a few inches from my head. The two of us landed on the grass.
“I saved your life,” Tia said, sitting up and giving me a triumphant grin. “Now you owe me.”
The baseball landed with a thud some distance away, and bounced and rolled out of view.
I laughed. “Thanks. Now I’m in your pocket.”
Then we helped each other up and brushed ourselves off.
“What was I saying?” Tia asked.
“Something about that day when I decided to try this whole thing out.”
“Oh, right. I just mean you’ve gotta follow through on something like that, and you are.”
“I’m still waiting for it to work out.”
Tia looked puzzled.
“We’re not quite making ends meet yet,” I said. “What I want is to be able to quit my job and do this full-time.”
Tia nodded. “Let’s have dinner tonight,” she said. “I’ll cook.”
I was a little thrown off by the sudden change of topic.
“Uh, sure,” I said. “Sounds good.” I couldn’t help but think about her tattoo.
We began to walk south, back to the store.
Then Tia took a cigarette out and lit it. I liked the way her cheeks dimpled when she inhaled.
She let out a puff and gave me a shy smile. “I’m trying to quit,” she said.
I nodded. “What are we having for dinner?”
Tia looked up at me.
“Steak,” she said, “and anything else you want.”
When we got back, the store was mayhem. Tia and I had to push our way in through a hot, sweaty, overexcited crowd. Once inside, we tried to find Li and Mindy, but we couldn’t at first. Then Tia and I got separated from each other in the mess. She made it behind the counter and began to make some order out of the chaos. I was carried by the sea of people in the opposite direction, to the back of the store, where I was helpless for a few minutes until I managed to squeeze around the room and behind the displays. There I found Li, Mindy, and Tia. They were all frantic behind the counter.
They couldn’t take the crowd’s money fast enough.
Bit by bit, I got my bearings and began to help. Our store was overflowing with Japanese tourists. Most of them wore I Heart NY t-shirts and had two cameras slung about their necks. Some had three cameras. They weren’t the disposable kind.
There was a lot of Japanese being spoken—so much that I’m surprised the four of us behind the counter didn’t pick it up by osmosis. The Japanese tourists who weren’t speaking Japanese were eager to try out the English they had picked up from their pocket guides. They looked in their guides and tried out their phrases on us, but we just followed their fingers when they pointed to what they wanted. Mindy was handing out maps, postcards, rolls of film, and camera cleaner—another item we had added of late. Tia was filling and refilling coffee cups. Li was running back and forth between the register and back room to restock. I was trying to keep tabs of who had paid and who had yet to pay. I was doing a clumsy job of this, so I gave up and let Li, Mindy, and Tia take over. They had much more practice at this than I did, and it showed.
I found a new task for myself.
Our pocketrats were in a frenzy, and I tried to calm them down by distracting them with their cheese. Then I got the tourists to quiet down by showing them the unicycle trick. Above all, the Japanese tourists were fond of our tie selection, and when I had one of our pocketrats try on ties, the tourists were held in rapt stillness by the big-eared pocketrat picking out his tie for the day.
The pocketrat picked out a green and yellow paisley tie that made me think of vomit, and put it on. Then he climbed onto his unicycle. He pointed to the whip and I obliged. I gave him a few gentle whips and he rode his unicycle up and down the length of the display. He stumbled on his dismount, taking a few steps when he landed and almost tripping, but he caught himself. Then he took a shallow pocketrat bow.
When I looked up, the tourists’ jaws were on the floor. They were speechless. Then there was a raucous round of applause, and the tourists clamored for more coffee and maps and went wild on the PocketRat postcards.
Tia gave me half a hug and pecked me on the cheek. I was proud of myself for having done something useful, and it seemed that she was too.
After a few minutes, the buying frenzy had calmed to a churn, and some of the tourists began to turn back to me.
“More show!” one of them yelled.
“We want more circus!” yelled another.
The others shrieked at me in Japanese. I assumed they wanted to see more too.
Then I thought of something.
I took two fresh pocketrats out from the display and set them on top of it. Then I brought out our tie selection and set it in front of the two pocketrats. One picked a burgundy and beige paisley tie that sent a wave of nausea through my body. The other picked a solid, dark blue tie.
I took out two pocketrat unicycles and set them next to the pocketrats, who were finishing their tie knots. When they were done dimpling their ties, the pocketrats climbed onto the unicycles and rode in place. Then I took two whips and pointed to the end of the display. The pocketrats looked to where I was pointing and seemed to understand what I wanted them to do.
I gave each pocketrat a few light whips and off they went. The tourists went wild. The pocketrats raced up and down the display, their ties streaming behind them as they went. The crowd grew louder and louder, screaming in Japanese.
The blue-tied pocketrat began to pant harder than the other, and his pedaling slowed. It looked like his tie was bothering him, like it was choking him a little. He reached up to loosen his tie, and lost his balance. He flew off his unicycle with a fearful squeak.
As I dove to catch him, the crowd’s roar reached its climax.
I caught the blue-tied pocketrat. He was scared and panting, but otherwise unharmed. I helped him loosen his tie and put him back on the display. The other pocketrat had dismounted and was taking its bows. It was out of breath too. The pocketrats shook hands, and once they had taken their ties off, I put them back into the display. They needed their rest.
We hit a new record of film and camera cleaner sales that day, and we ran out of postcards. By the time we closed shop, we were all spent.
After that day, the tie races became our main attraction. People came from far and wide to see pocketrats don ties and compete for display domination.
It was never clear which of the pocketrats won in the races, because they did most of their riding around in circles.
She buzzed me up.
It was nine thirty when I made it to Tia’s building. It was a late dinner, but it was the earliest we could do. We both needed some down time away from work. I brought a bottle of good Traminette over. I found Tia’s door and knocked. Tia opened the door. She was wearing a t-shirt and jeans.
“Hi,” she said. “Come in.”
“Hey.” I walked in and offered her the bottle of wine. “I brought some wine to go with the steaks.”
“Thanks. I’ve started cooking already, so we should be all set to eat pretty soon.”
“That sounds good. I’m starving. Do you want some help?”
“No thanks, I’ve got it under control. You can hang out, have a look about the place, whatever you want.”
I followed Tia into her kitchen. We chatted some more. She did, in fact, have things under control.
I felt that I was starting to get in the way of Tia’s cooking, so I left her alone and gave myself a brief tour of the living room. Tia lived in Williamsburg, and it showed. Her place was filled with hipster art and odd, stylish trinkets. There were posters on most of the walls. On the posters were people I’d never heard of clutching microphones and musical instruments. Her bookshelf was full of books in odd shapes and colors. I didn’t know any of the authors. I picked one up and leafed through it. It read like poetry and I tried to remember the author’s name for later, then gave up. Tia joined me and took me around the place, pointing to trinkets and posters. Most had to do with indie bands she liked.
“It’ll be ready in a minute,” she said, and went back into the kitchen.
After Tia brought the food out, we sat down to dinner at a plain black table in the living room, set with plates and utensils. In the middle of the table was a vase. Some gnomes were carved into the vase—or maybe they were elves, or dwarves—who could tell the difference? The gnomes danced and frolicked around the glass. Some had flowers in their hands, and others had cakes. In the gnome vase was a single flower. It was a sunflower. The sunflower had a thick stem, and it reminded me of something that I couldn’t shape into a thought, like a feeling from another time. I tried, but couldn’t place it.
We ate and drank wine. The steaks were just what I needed. For our sides, Tia had made mashed potatoes, steamed spinach, and some mixed roasted vegetables. The food and wine warmed me up.
“This is really good,” I said.
“Good, I’m glad you like it.”
“You know, you might be able to do this for a living. I have a friend who’s a chef, and his steaks don’t quite measure up to yours.”
“Thanks, I’m in school for it right now, actually. That and fashion design. I’ll see how I do.”
“Cool. That sounds interesting. Way more interesting than what I did in school, just business and law.”
“But now you have a business, so that worked out, and law hasn’t been that bad, has it?” An impish grin flashed across Tia’s face as she brought her wineglass up to her mouth. The bottle was running low.
“I’m gonna need a few more drinks if we’re gonna talk about law.”
Tia laughed. She got up and took a bottle of wine out of her fridge. She set it on the table. It was a Riesling.
“Li’s told me some about your boss and how you sleep at work sometimes, and I think I get all of that,” Tia said after she sat down again.
I nodded. “Yeah it can be rough sometimes, but people get used to it.”
“I guess what I really want to know is…would you do it over again? I mean would you go to law school and go to a firm? To your firm?”
I looked at Tia. Her head was tilted to the side and she held her wineglass in just the right way. Was there a right way to hold a wineglass? If there was, she had it down.
I tried to think of an answer to Tia’s question and felt myself hesitate. “Uhh, I feel like that’s hard to answer. People always have an answer to that. They always say they would do something different. But the truth is I had to try working at a law firm to know what it was like, to know how I feel about it.” I paused. “If I had the chance to do it over again, I would still go to law school, and I would have even more fun. I loved law school. College and law school are once in a lifetime.”
“Yeah? I guess it doesn’t feel that way when you’re in it. At least it doesn’t feel that way for me right now, you know? The exams and teachers and everything, I’m not a fan.”
“Maybe the grass is always greener.”
Tia looked thoughtful for a moment, then she said, “What about the people? Are lawyers all as bad as I hear? I mean you seem pretty normal to me. Do you have an evil dark side?” She gave me a mischievous smile.
I laughed and took a gulp of wine. “Yeah I’m all bad deep down.”
“You know what they say, power corrupts.” I laughed. “I’m not there yet, so I haven’t quite crossed over to the dark side. That happens when you make partner, but it comes sooner for some.”
“So there are bullying bosses, like Li’s told me, I get that, but do you think law has more bullies than other professions? I’ve had some bosses that were unfair no matter what I did. They’d always find something wrong and yell at me for it. Or they’d talk down to me all the time. There’s no need for people to be like that. It’s just uncalled for. It doesn’t accomplish anything.”
“I agree. And I’m not sure bosses in law are any worse overall than bosses in other fields. But I do think there are a lot more bullies in New York law than in law in other states.”
“Why do you think that is? Polluted air?”
I laughed. “I don’t know. I think New York law attracts a certain kind of person, and I think New York law changes people into a certain kind of person.”
“So the monsters are both made and born.” Tia nodded. “I see.”
“Exactly. It’s something worth getting away from.”
“I’ll cheers to that.”
We raised our glasses, clinked, and drank in time.
“On a brighter note,” Tia said, “it looks like you’re moving away from all that law stuff. Maybe you can regain some of your lost humanity. Not that you’ve really lost any I don’t think. You seem pretty un-monsterish to me.”
“No, I think it’s too late for me.”
Tia jabbed me playfully. “It’s not too late, just look at the store you’ve set up. Totally not a store owned by a monster. I see the way you care for the pocketrats, and I see the way you love making the customers happy, even though you make this big show of despising tourists. And I love working at your store. I think you might too.”
I liked working at the store, and I liked that Tia worked there too. Which one of those had she meant?
“I’m glad you like it. I would love to work there full time. I would love to take an early morning walk in Central Park, while it’s still empty, then go open the store. It feels like home. At least it does lately…it probably helps that I sleep there a lot of the time.”
“That’s a nice feeling.”
We didn’t say anything for a while.
Tia broke the silence. “I think you’re gonna quit law soon.”
I laughed. “Why do you say that? Do I have the glint of hope in my eyes?”
“Because I think you’ve found something that you like to do, something that’s just right for you. I think everyone has something that’s just right for them. No matter what it is, it’s right for that person, you know?”
“Maybe. It’s a nice thought, that’s for sure.”
All of a sudden, Tia’s eyes grew wide. “Hey! Weren’t you about to tell me something at the park today, just before that baseball almost took our heads off? Something more about the day you dreamt this all up?”
“Oh right, yeah.” I thought for a moment. “So the day I hallucinated the food cart man, and saw that woman crossing the street, the one with the—”
Just as I was in the middle of my sentence, a phone rang. The ring was so loud that I flinched. Tia jumped up and got her phone from the kitchen.
“Sorry,” she said, “The volume on this thing is all messed up. My mom and I have been playing phone tag all day. This’ll be quick.”
I nodded. “Sure.”
While Tia was on the phone, I polished off the wine. Just after I had done it, I thought it may have been rude to finish it without Tia.
Then I played with the stem of the sunflower. Watching my fingers play with the sunflower made me realize just how buzzed I was, so I stopped, afraid to break it and the gnome vase. Where had Tia gotten such a nice flower?
I heard Tia say, “Yeah, that’s him,” and “Yeah, yeah, that’s the place.” Then after another minute or two, Tia said good night and came back to the table.
“Sounds like you guys were talking about me,” I said.
Tia looked embarrassed. “Yeah, a little. Sorry.”
“No problem. All good things I hope?”
Tia looked away, no longer smiling. “Actually, my mom was reading that article, you know.”
Tia looked more uncomfortable now. “You know, about your debut.”
“I never read anything about it.”
“Yeah, I never got around to it I guess, what’d it say?”
Tia sighed. “Nothing good.”
“No? I thought the thing was a hit.”
Tia’s gaze fell on the empty wine bottle. “The article in the paper said you were doing some drinking.”
“Yeah, that’s true. I was wasted. Totally gone. I was so nervous going into it. I even thought about blowing it off. Li had to stop me from running off. So I had some drinks. I don’t remember much else. Li told me it went really well. I guess it didn’t, huh? So Li had been acting weird that day after all. I thought he was up to something. Do you have a copy of the article?”
I didn’t believe her, but I wasn’t going to prod her on it.
“Ok,” I said. “What did the article say?”
“Are you sure? You won’t be mad at me if I tell you?”
“Why would I be mad at you? You didn’t write it did you?”
“No, of course not.” Tia paused. “You sure?”
“Yeah I wanna know.”
Tia took a deep breath. “Ok, some of the papers said you were barely able to stay on your feet, and…” Tia trailed off.
I sighed. “Ok, that’s probably true, what else?”
“That just a few people showed up and your pocketrats ran around and did some silly tricks. The article basically said that you were a cheap sideshow.”
“Ouch. I didn’t know it was that bad.”
I looked at my empty wineglass and considered the sunflower.
“Look,” Tia said. “None of that matters, you’re doing really well now. Who cares what some loser journalists say?”
Tia sighed and looked away. “Yeah…there were a few articles.”
“Six that I know of.”
“What? All bad?”
Tia nodded. “One of them said you were the very kind of thing that was wrong with New York City.”
I couldn’t help laughing at that. “Wow, nice.” I shrugged. “Whatever, it’s publicity, I’ll take it. The articles certainly haven’t stemmed the flow of tourists.”
“Probably because they’re in English,” Tia said, and we both laughed.
“The pocketrats are a big hit with foreigners, for whatever reason. There’ve been a few rich locals who took them up as pets, and as long as business picks up a little—who knows? I might even retire from the law thing, like you say.”
I thought for a moment, and as I looked into my glass, I did feel hurt by what the papers had said. And I was confused because I thought the debut had gone really well. Why had I thought that?
For a moment, I wondered if I needed to cut back on the drinking.
“You know,” I said, “it’s weird for me to think of the pocketrats as products anymore. When I first got into this, they were just a way I might make money. But Li showed me something. He’s got a way with them. I feel connected to them now, and now we screen their buyers to make sure they get good homes. They’re special, and I feel like they trust me to look out for them. Weird right?”
Tia looked at me for a while. “No, that’s not weird at all.”
We sat for a while, neither of us saying anything. Then we decided to open another bottle of wine. We filled our glasses and sat down in front of the TV. She told me about her favorite books while trashy TV shows played in the background.
Soon she had curled herself up in my arms. We stayed up past 2 A.M., watching shows about prison inmates, bounty hunters, and competing cupcake chefs.
Then we went to bed.
It buzzed at me and I woke up.
I checked my BlackBerry. I had six emails from Mr. Pitchfork.
The most recent one, sent at 7:03 A.M., read, “This is completely, utterly, and TOTALLY unacceptable associate behavior.” My heart sank. This was a bad start to the day. I checked the time. It was 7:12 A.M.
I scrolled five emails up.
The first one, sent at 3:11 A.M., read, “PLEASE SEE ME ASAP.”
The second one, sent at 3:39 A.M., read, “YOU ARE NEEDED IN THE OFFICE.”
The third one, sent at 3:55 A.M., read, “WHY HAVE YOU NOT RESPONDED?”
The fourth one, sent at 4:24 A.M., read, “ALL THE OTHER ASSOCIATES ARE HERE.”
The fifth one, sent at 4:51 A.M., read, “THERE IS A FIRE TO PUT OUT AND IT IS YOUR JOB TO BE HERE TO DO IT.”
Mr. Pitchfork was a big fan of all caps.
Wait, where was I? I looked around and realized I was neither in my apartment nor at the store. I looked around. There was a girl next to me. It was Tia. Then I remembered the previous night. It made me forget about all the stupid emails for a split second. My head hurt a little. I realized that I wasn’t in Manhattan. I was in Williamsburg. I cursed under my breath.
Then I got out of bed and put my clothes on. My getting up had woken Tia, and she got up and put on some coffee. When it was ready, we sat down and drank our coffees together.
“Look at this,” I said, and showed Tia the emails Mr. Pitchfork had sent.
“Now I feel like I’ve met your boss.” Tia shook her head. “I guess you gotta get going huh? I’ll see you tonight?”
“I dunno, my schedule is always up in the air. I can never plan anything.” I got up and finished the rest of my coffee. “Thanks, the coffee helped. I feel brave now.”
“Sure. Do you at least get vacations?”
“Yeah, I get vacations, but I’m not allowed to take them.”
Tia nodded as if that made sense. She walked me to the door and pecked me on the cheek.
“Come see me soon,” she said.
Tia smiled. She kissed me again, on the lips this time.
She locked the door behind me.
I took the subway back to the store, changed, and then walked to the office. I didn’t rush. I didn’t care. The emails kept on coming and I ignored them. Maybe I was still feeling the effects of the wine and the home-cooked dinner. Hanging out with Tia had made me feel a lot better about life. I felt like I had regained some perspective on what was important.
I got into the office a few minutes past nine. When I got to my floor, I could tell something was wrong. It was too quiet. The air was thick with tension, and sweat, and dust. But there was no one around. And it was so quiet.
I gulped and walked into my office. I sat down at my desk. I logged on to the system. I checked my email. I looked out the window. I spun in my chair. Then just when I was about to get up to get an iced coffee, my phone rang. The call was from the conference room on my floor. I let the phone ring three times. Then I picked up.
“Hello,” I said.
“Please come to the conference room at once,” a voice said. Then the line went dead. I guessed it was Mr. Pitchfork that had called, but the voice sounded strange, like it was strained or hoarse, so I couldn’t be sure. I put the phone back, took a deep breath, and walked out of my office.
I began to walk toward the conference room, which was on the other end of the floor. This was it, I thought. They would cut me loose. What else could it be? That’s the way they did it there—the awkward conference room ambush. But I knew what I was walking into. How much severance would they give me? At least two months. I could think of a few things to do with that money. I could go on a vacation. I could get some sleep. I could see the outside world.
My chest loosened and I felt like I could breathe deeper than I had been able to in a long while. But at the same time that my breath filled me with hope, nerves stabbed me in the gut. What would I do now? Sure I had the store to run, but it wasn’t making money yet. What if it failed? How would I make a living? What would my parents think when I asked to move back in with them—when I did move back in with them?
I took a deep breath. It was better to be fired, I reminded myself, than to quit. To quit was to leave the severance money on the table. It was better to be fired.
The walk down the hall was a long one. I felt like I was walking in slow motion. I looked into each office that I passed. Offices that once held friends. Offices that were now empty. It was strange to see them so empty. It was also strange not to hear someone yelling or crying or printing or stapling. The place was so bare it seemed almost normal. It was so bare it seemed good.
My long walk ended in front of the conference room door. It wasn’t the windowless conference room that I had come to love—the one that smelled of gas and rot, where I had spent countless hours of my life. It wasn’t that one. I stood in front of the nice conference room. The door was closed. From inside the room, I could hear creaking. I knocked—three short wraps. The creaking stopped, then nothing. I stood looking at the door, not knowing if I should open it or not.
Then someone did it for me.
“Come in,” he said.
Mr. Pitchfork put out his hand in a gesture of welcome. I walked through the door. The whole department was seated around the conference table. Two seats were empty—one at each end of the table.
Mr. Pitchfork pointed to the seat at the head of the table that was farthest from the door. “That’s your seat,” he said.
I obeyed and walked to the chair. No one dared look up at me. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the table. Why were they all in here? Since when did they fire people in front of the whole department? This was a bit much. Maybe they wanted to scare the junior associates. They’d obey better if they were scared. That made sense. I got to the head of the table and sat down.
“Good, good,” Mr. Pitchfork said, and he remained standing next to his end of the table. “Now, I called this meeting for two reasons.”
I tried to make eye contact with anyone at the table, anyone at all. But they weren’t game. They looked like dried fruit pulp. I took my BlackBerry out of my pocket and scrolled through my messages. It was a habit. That’s what we all did at meetings. But at this meeting, it was just me. I put the thing back in my pocket.
“First,” Mr. Pitchfork said, “we need to set up a system to deal with late night fire drills. Second—” he glanced in my direction, “—well, let’s…let’s talk about first things first.” He cleared his throat with a squeak. “A system needs to be put in place—a way to deal with late night fire drills. When the alarm sounds at night, we can’t sleep through it. Our clients count on us to be there for them, and I’m not willing to lose a client. We need them just as much as they need us.” His voice squeaked again and it seemed that he noticed this time. He took a few swigs of diet soda. Where had he pulled that from? Then he holstered it in his belt, next to the monocle and caliper. So he had gotten a tool belt. Good for him.
He went on. “One of you,” he paused, “one of you has been kind enough to tell me what it is they do at other firms to deal with these late night emergencies.”
Tom turned to me. It was a slight turn, and was that, was that a shrug? Had it been him? I looked around the table. If the frowns were any deeper they would have been on the table.
Mr. Pitchfork went on, excitement entering his voice. “This person shall not be named. The point is not who it was that told me, the point is that I now know how to run these drills.”
He paused and looked around the table. “From now on,” he paused again for effect. It was coming, I had no doubt he had found a new way to reduce our personal time. His eyes shone with a vile might.
“From now on, you will live in shifts. You will sleep in shifts. You will eat in shifts. You will visit the restrooms in shifts. No client shall suffer on my watch. We will mind our posts better than we have ever minded them before.” He smiled. “I’ve drawn up a schedule and a buddy system. It’s quite fair. I’m not stupid.”
He opened the folder in front of him. From it he pulled sheets of paper that he passed around the table. One got to me. It had all our names on it. It was, in fact, a sleep schedule.
“Get to know this well,” he said, pointing to one of the schedules that he had kept in front of him. “It tells you when to sleep and when to be on the lookout for a fire drill. If you’re on call, it’s your job, in the event of an emergency, to wake your buddy, and then the two of you can decide to wake the rest of the group.” At this, there were groans and shocked faces around the table.
“I thought we were here for—” someone began before Mr. Pitchfork cut her off.
“Now, now. We’ll get to that in a few minutes.”
Did he look at me again? What was he talking about? What was up next?
“Keep in mind,” he said, “I pay you, and I pay you to work. In my day, I lived at my desk and learned to love it.”
Then he went on and on about how he had had it so much worse in his day, and how great the associates had it today, and how lazy modern associates were. I tuned out. I had heard this speech a thousand times before. The sleep schedule was nuts, but what was the second part of the meeting going to be about? I had a bad feeling it had to do with me.
All of a sudden, Mr. Pitchfork whirled on the three first years at the table. “There’s just one more thing before we get to the next part of the meeting,” he said.
He licked his lips as he eyed each trembling first year. The first years shrank back in their seats. It looked like they were holding their breath.
“And you,” Mr. Pitchfork said, “there’s one more part of the buddy system that applies only to first years.” He smiled. “Because you guys are so important to us, and because you do so much of the groundwork, I’m making a slight change in group policy.” He licked his upper lip with a flick of his tongue that brushed the bottom of his nose. I squirmed.
“One of you must always be in your office during the workday, and that includes Sundays.”
The three first years winced, and some more senior heads shook. I sighed loud enough for everyone to hear. It was bad enough the first years shared a small office. Under this new directive, they would have to spend even more time in it. Some of us at the table had been at the firm the last time Mr. Pitchfork put the same rule into effect. Half of the department had left in the week that followed that announcement. Most of those who left weren’t even affected by the rule, they just didn’t want to work in the place that our firm had become. Morale had hit a new low then, and it had taken years to get the morale back up to where it was now, swimming in a middle layer of muck.
“What?” Mr. Pitchfork asked. “I did it. It’s not so bad, and it’s not open to debate anyway.” He turned away from the first years and shrugged. “There’s three of them, after all.”
He turned back to the three first years. One looked to be on the brink of tears. “The partners need one of you here at all times during the day in case something comes up. All that means is that you can’t all go to the bathroom or canteen at the same time. That’s all. No big deal. If each of you has conference calls or meetings at the same time, I might look the other way, but try to make sure that doesn’t happen very often. Do you understand?”
The first years gulped and nodded.
“Good,” Mr. Pitchfork said. “I might whip you into shape yet.” He paused. “Now let’s get on to the next part of the meeting.”
Mr. Pitchfork looked at me. Did his eyes just get sad? He looked back to the group. “We are also here today because one of our dear team members needs our help.”
He pointed at me and said, “It’s time the team heard about the problems you’ve been having.”
My breath caught in my throat. “What?”
“We’re here to help. And you’ll help us too. We’ll help you get through the hard times, and you’ll help us all avoid the pitfalls and wrong turns in the road that got you to where you are now. This will help everyone. We’ll all grow and become stronger as a team.”
“What are you talking about?” I looked around the table. No one was going to help me out.
“Don’t be coy. Just tell them. Tell us. It’s time you said it.”
“What are you trying to do? What is this?”
“You know what it is.”
“This is your intervention.”
There was a pause. I let it sink in. Then it became apparent I was to speak next.
“My intervention?” I pushed my chair back from the table. “Like on TV?”
“No, of course not. This is real, and it’s going to help all of us. Let’s talk about it. Tell us about the drinking, the drugs. Tell us.”
“I don’t do drugs, or drink, not much anyway—I mean I don’t drink much. I don’t do drugs at all.” Why was I being accused of drug use? Was someone trying to sabotage me? I had never seen anything like this happen in our department before.
“It’s become apparent from your behavior of late—the bar fights, the habitual lateness, your daily disappearances from the firm. There’s no point denying it. Just admit it. We can help you. We’ll work through this.”
I didn’t say anything for a while. I felt sick with hatred. Then I took a deep breath, and took care to enunciate my words. “The only problem I have is you. You’re the one that needs an intervention.”
My words filled the room with ice. No one dared speak, no one dared move, and no one dared breathe.
I got up, opened the door, and walked out.
Life at the firm changed. The meeting had done it.
After the meeting, Mr. Pitchfork emailed the group a list of the main points he had made in the conference room, and he required that we print this list and tack it up on our walls. In the email, he also forgave the way I had acted. He wrote that he wasn’t stupid, and that it was clear to him and should have been clear to everyone else that I had acted the way I did because I was drunk and high. He wrote that he would try to help me, and maybe there would be another meeting when I had made some progress.
Morale at the firm plummeted, and two of our juniors left in the week after the meeting. Two weeks later, the group seemed to stabilize some, and it was more or less business as usual, except that the associate leashes had tightened.
Mr. Pitchfork was much happier after the meeting. When he did his rounds, he bounced up and down the hall, whistling show-tunes as he went. It seemed he never made the connection between his reigns of terror and associate flight. Whenever he instituted a new set of requirements for associates, they began to fly out the door, landing at firms that were more low-key. Maybe he wanted to weed the weak ones out of his department. The ones who weren’t going to put up with his mandates. The ones with families and social lives and some internal sense of justice. The ones who weren’t fit for the firm.
But maybe that wasn’t it at all. Maybe he was just oblivious.
Friday was winding down, and I hadn’t had much work that day besides drafting profuse apology emails to clients, in which I apologized for my inability to read their minds. These were standard emails, and we had more forms for client apologies than we did for actual contracts.
I was spinning in my chair thinking about how nice it must be to be a client when I heard a scream. This wasn’t too unusual, but it was followed by a thud and more screams, so I got up and left my office to investigate. The screams were getting quieter and less frequent, but I was still able to follow them to their source.
They were coming from the first years’ office. I took a peak inside and saw one of the first years sprawled on the ground, pinned down by security. I thought that was very interesting, because I had never seen our security people do anything before. They picked the first year up and dragged him away. Tears streamed down his cheeks as he was dragged past me.
Mr. Pitchfork appeared out of nowhere. “Break it up. Get back to work. There’s nothing to see here. You all have work to do, clients to please.”
I looked behind me and saw that I was part of a small gathering of onlookers.
“What happened?” I asked.
Mr. Pitchfork glared at me. “Nothing. He just wasn’t a good fit for this place. Now all of you get back to work.”
Back at my desk, I picked up the phone and called Tom. Then, figuring that was a bad idea, I hung up, got up, and walked next door to Tom’s office. He nodded at me. I closed the door behind me and sat down. Then we began to whisper.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Apparently,” Tom said, “that kid figured out a way to unscrew the bolts on his window, and they caught him just as he was opening it.”
“I’m surprised they stopped him.”
“I know what you mean, now the information could get out. He can tell others how to do it. If he had just jumped, they could play it off somehow, make something up.”
I sighed. “It’s getting worse here, huh?”
“It comes and goes in waves. We’ll be ok.”
“Yeah, we’ll be fine.”
I went back to my desk and resumed spinning in my chair. We always joked about how the windows couldn’t be opened. Now it made me uneasy to think about that.
Counting the kid who had unscrewed the window, that made three associates that had left the firm since the meeting. But new associates took their place right away. There was always a fresh supply of eager young blood. There were always new associates who needed to pay off their debts, and to be prestigious.
One of the new hires we got after the meeting had more than $230,000 in debt. That was a record for our group.
I wasn’t sure, but I thought I saw Mr. Pitchfork drool and smack his lips at every mention of this new hire’s name.
I tried to put all of that out of my mind. I thought about how excited I was to mind the store that weekend, and maybe I’d get to see Tia. Maybe I’d take her out on a proper date, if I didn’t have to work.
Then Alex appeared in the doorway.
“Can I come in?” He asked. He was holding a large stack of documents in his hands and looked as if he might fall over.
“Yeah, sure,” I said. “You wanna put that down?” I patted an empty spot on my desk. “Just don’t leave it here,” I added.
Alex gave me a grateful nod and set down the stack. It was five or six reams tall, so not very big by firm standards.
“You’ll get stronger,” I said. “The paper cuts are the worst part.”
“Yeah, they are.” Alex showed me his hands. They were cut up pretty good.
“You should show Mr. Pitchfork. He’ll like that. That shows you’re a hard worker, you know, the blood, sweat, tears, and all that.”
“I think I’ll pass.”
“Ok, so what’s up?”
“Merlin gave me some changes to make to all these documents. Do you have any idea what this says?” Alex asked.
He put a huge stack of papers on my desk and pointed to some pen marks on the first page.
“He made comments to this whole stack?” I asked.
“No, just to the top four documents, and the rest of the stack is off the same four forms. I have to put in the comments for the whole stack, and I have to put them in by Sunday, except I’m not allowed to ask him about it until Sunday, when I’m supposed to be done with this.”
I nodded. “Sounds about right. Let’s see.”
I was relieved that Alex wasn’t there to ask me about the attempted window escape. I couldn’t ease my own mind about it, and I didn’t know how I would start explaining it away to someone else.
I squinted at the pen marks on the top page of the stack.
The pen marks were in blue, red, and green. At least Merlin made it easy to find the comments. There were triangles, half-circles, crescents, dots, squares, half-squares, and other shapes, but I couldn’t make out anything that looked like language.
“So what’s the problem?” I asked.
Alex just looked at me.
“Ok, bad joke,” I said. “Is there a key to this or is this supposed to be English?”
“Merlin said I should be able to read it, and if I can’t I should ask his secretary to help me. She couldn’t.”
“These are just shapes and lines and dots. Sorry, I don’t know. You can try to do your best and guess at what the comments should be.” I thought for a moment. “Here. I’ll do my own mark-up of this and you can just work off of that. But don’t tell him I did it. At least then you can make some changes next to the shapes he made, and chances are he can’t read his own writing either.”
“Ok, that might work. I appreciate it. I mean I really don’t know what to do with this.”
I made some comments to the documents while Alex waited, then I gave the stack back to him.
“We need to have a penmanship class for lawyers,” I said. “My handwriting has been getting worse and worse ever since I got here. Even when I try to write neatly now I can’t.”
Alex shrugged. “I wonder why that happens. Merlin could definitely use a class like that. Thanks for helping me out.”
“You got it, and you’ll probably get yelled at no matter what you hand in, so don’t worry about it too much.”
Alex thanked me again, took the stack of papers, and left.
He came back a few minutes later. He seemed to consider something, then he said, “What religion is he anyway?”
“Merlin? No one knows. It’s not one I’ve heard of, and no one will ask him about it. He can’t work on Fridays, Saturdays, or Tuesdays, and he can’t work between 11:20 A.M. and 12:20 P.M. on any other day. We think he meditates or something.”
“So he can just dump work off on other people when he needs to celebrate whatever it is he celebrates?”
“Yeah, pretty much. I try to avoid working with him. But you don’t have a say in that because you’re so new. As you’re here longer, you’ll have more control over who you work with.”
“Working with him makes me not want to be here longer.”
I nodded. “Do you have a lot of loans—I mean if you don’t mind me asking?”
Alex sighed. “Yeah, I’ve got loans. Nothing crazy though—a hundred fifteen thousand.”
“That’s not bad at all—could be much worse.”
I was able to get away from the firm for a few hours that Saturday, so I went to help out at the store
I was feeling worse than ever. Even though it was the new hires that were taking the brunt of the night shifts, the new sleep schedule was taking a toll on me too. I had had to respond to emails from the new hires all through Friday night. Most of the emails asked me to explain Mr. Pitchfork’s late night requests. It was as if new ideas for assignments popped into his head better at night than during the day.
At the store, my sleep-deprivation rendered me mostly useless. I stuck to sweeping the floor, feeding the pocketrats, and restocking the shelves—tasks that required little thought or agility.
In the afternoon, our landlord walked in. Mel looked different. It was in the way he held himself, in the way he walked, and in the way his eyes looked. He looked changed. Or maybe it was the beautiful younger woman he had on his arm. She did wonders for his appearance.
He gave me a quick “Hi,” introduced the woman—her name was Rosa—and walked over to Li. I didn’t listen in, but I could see the introduction being made and Mel shaking Li’s hand for too long. Then Mel patted Li on the back hard enough to knock the air out of him, and turned back to me.
“You’re doing great,” Mel said. “Keep it up.” Then he and Rosa were out the door.
But we weren’t doing great, so why was he being so nice? He should have been kicking us out. He wasn’t getting a percentage of our sales because the sales were still too low for the percentage to kick in. It would probably never kick in. And we were late on rent, which, by now, we were supposed to be paying. It was the fourth month.
I walked over to Li.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“I think you know. What have you been up to with Mel? What was that business with skipping back and forth?” I had meant to get to the bottom of that for a while, but it kept slipping my mind.
“Oh, uhh, Mel, he wanted some lessons. That’s all.”
I looked at him. “And? What’s the rest of the story?”
“You know. Skipping is good for health—good for the heart, the lungs, the legs, even the abs. It’s a very wise activity.”
“Ok, ok, but don’t spread this around. He wanted some help with the ladies. To find a girlfriend. And it looks like he did.” Li grinned.
“That’s why he’s so nice to us, because you’re his private tutor?”
“He’s nice anyway, but he asked me for some lessons, so we did some lessons. Mel is a wise man to think he can learn from a young person.”
“Maybe three, four times a week.”
I looked at Li for a while. He smiled and nodded, but didn’t say anymore.
“Thanks,” I said. “I appreciate that.”
I left the displays and went to the front of store. I looked out onto the street. People were walking along Fifth Avenue. Most were in a rush.
While I watched, I saw a group of tourists pass by. I could tell that they had been in the City for at least two days, because they rushed along to keep pace with the locals. Everyone sped up in New York. Life shortened. The City put people on notice of their need to hurry and to push others out of the way.
The seasoned tourists’ looks of awe were starting to look more like scowls. Their eyes darted more, and they stuck their elbows out. They were changing. They still looked odd, but not as odd as tourists just stepping off the bus. If they stuck around long enough, they would look like everyone else. They would vanish into the throng. Did they feel the change in themselves? No, it was probably too subtle a thing to be felt as it happened.
And yet most of the people who passed, despite their scowls, darting eyes, and puffed elbows, took a second look at our store. Even the locals looked.
A group walked in.
Li and I had been handling the steady flow of customers by ourselves while Mindy and Tia were restocking the inventory. It was good to switch things up like that, even though I still wasn’t that comfortable at the counter. Customers made me nervous.
When I saw this group, I started to sweat—more than I usually did each time a group walked in.
At first I thought it was a group of young women. But then I saw that at the center of the group was a swarthy man. There were seven in all. They all wore tight clothing and the women were showing a good amount of skin. The man was too. The women rotated about the man like spokes in a wheel, fluttering their eyelashes at him as they went. The man’s hair was slicked back, and judging from the grease fountain of his tanned skin, I guessed that he didn’t need to use any slicking products in his hair. He wore a Charlie Chaplin hat lop-sided on his head. It was more on his ear than on his head. I couldn’t place what he was supposed to be, and then he was at the counter.
Li and the grease man exchanged strange looks. I thought I saw some teeth bared, but if it happened it was so fast that I couldn’t be sure.
Then the grease man turned to me. “Yo,” he said.
“Hi,” I said.
“Yeah, yeah, give me—” He looked back at the group of women around him and muttered something under his breath, like he was counting, “give me six rats, yeah, and make it snappy, pack ‘em up nice and tight yo.”
“They’re not rats,” Li said. “They’re pocketrats, pocket-rats, pock-et-rats.”
I looked down into the display. The rats had parted around where the grease man stood. They sniffed and retreated and sniffed and retreated.
“Yeah, yeah, whateva yo, let’s pack ‘em up.” He looked back at me and snapped his fingers twice. One of the girls behind him giggled when he did that.
Then the grease man raised the hand that had just done the snapping, and wiped his brow with it. He looked at the grease on his hand, brought his hand up to his nose, and inhaled deeply.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “Oh yeah that’s good.” He winked at me. “Come on yo, let’s do this.”
“Ehh,” Li said. “We have to do a background check first. We have to make sure you’re good to animals. ID please.” Li opened his hand and extended it to the grease man.
“Nah yo, nah, nah. You don’t want no ID, you want this.” He reached deep into his tight jeans and withdrew a stack of hundred dollar bills so large that I almost lost my balance. I wondered how it had fit in there.
Then the grease man snapped his fingers, and each of the women took a turn stacking hundred dollar bills on the counter. The stack the grease man had taken out of his pants was stained with grease. The other stacks were less so. I wanted the money, but I didn’t want to touch it.
He must have seen me eyeing the cash, because he grinned at me and said, “They like to hold it, you know?” He looked me up and down. “Nah, nah, you don’t know.”
“You can’t be disrespectful like that in here,” Li said. “You say you’re sorry and let me see some ID.”
“What yo? Nah, nah. Look at this.” The grease man took another swipe at his brow. He brought his sweaty hand over to Li. “That’s my ID yo. 100% man.”
Li drew back from the hand. “You need to take a shower. No pocketrat for you. You can’t take good care of one.”
“Yo I can take care of all of these rats. Just pack ‘em up.”
“No. No pocketrat for you. But maybe you want a map, or a roll of film, or some postcards?”
“But, I mean, yo, but…I…yo?”
The grease man was losing his cool, he was sputtering to a halt, and the women he had brought with him seemed to be snapping out of whatever trance they were in.
“But, but, yo, yo?” the grease man said, pleading with Li.
“No, you get out of here and don’t come back,” Li said.
Then the girls did snap out of it. “Come on,” one of them said. “He can’t make the cut to get a pocketrat. We can do better.”
One of the girls winked at me, and then they were all gone.
The grease man didn’t even try to stop them, he had deflated, and he was just standing over the display, greasing it with his hands. Then he belched, stuffed most of the hundred dollar bills into his pants, and ran toward the door. Just before he ran out, he turned and yelled, “I’ll be back yo, you’ll see.”
He left a short trail of grease-stained bills behind him.
“You did a good job with that,” I said to Li. “You always know what to say to people.”
I was glad Li had gotten rid of that guy. I had been creeped out by the grease man as soon as he pushed our door open with his greasy hands.
“That was weird,” Mindy said, and Li and I turned to see that Mindy and Tia were standing at the door of the back room, watching us.
“Did you see that clown?” Li asked.
Mindy and Tia nodded.
“What a creep,” Tia said. “Good luck cleaning the counter, I can see the handprints from here.”
“He stank too,” Li said. “like a cologne factory. Not wise. Very not wise.”
“Hey,” Mindy said. “I have an idea.”
I eyed the grease prints on the display. I was hoping someone would decide to clean them off before I felt the need to do it myself.
“What’s up?” I asked.
“Well, you know how most of the people who buy pocketrats are men? And they usually have their wives or girlfriends with them?”
“Don’t you see? It’s like a status thing for men—how many pocketrats they can take care of. Remember that guy that bought one for his girlfriend and another for his wife?”
“That’s right. Ok, so what are you getting at?”
“We should target them.”
Mindy sighed and shook her head. “No, the men.”
“Let’s run an ad, or a few ads. We’ll make a campaign around it.”
I smiled. “I like it.”
Li and Tia liked the idea too, so we ran with it. Li invited some of his model friends, and they brought their photographers. We made posters, and shot a thirty second commercial.
The posters featured a suited and sunglassed Li, looking off into the distance. He stood against a New York City backdrop. He had two leashes in his hands. On the end of each leash was a pocketrat on a unicycle. Each pocketrat was wearing a tie. One of the ties was an ugly blue and grey paisley, and other was red with flying elephants on it—my favorite pocketrat tie. Each pocketrat looked to be pedaling hard. We had done that effect by having the pocketrats pose on propped-up unicycles, grit their teeth, and accept a sprinkling of water on their coats. Behind the pocketrats were Li’s two admirers. They were both models. One was a blonde and one a brunette. They looked at Li with a longing that they could just barely contain. The blonde was scratching at her chest with her long fingernails. The brunette was biting her lip. Li took no notice. There was no tagline.
The commercial was just like the posters, except there was movement, and there were more models, all of whom fought for Li’s attention. Video made it easier to show the lust that the models felt for Li. Li was very good at playing his part. And he ought to have been. He did care for the pocketrats, and he did date models. There wasn’t much playing to it. The commercial made it onto Spike TV. They took it on for free because they liked it so much.
Mindy’s idea had been brilliant, and while it was hard to measure how much business we got from the campaign, we did get a ton of inquiries about it. This was especially true of the posters we put up in the windows, probably because a lot more people walked past our store on Fifth Avenue than watched Spike TV.
The people who came in to ask about our posters all wanted to know one thing. They wanted to know if the number of pocketrats a man could support really was the best measure of his worth.
As Li and I crept over into the fifth month of our lease, it became obvious that we were in trouble. We had been able to pay Mel about half of what we owed him for the fourth month, and technically we were in breach of our agreement. Mel didn’t seem to care. We didn’t hear from him. According to Li, Mel was somewhere in the Maldives with his new girlfriend. That was all well and good, but the situation had the potential to end badly.
What if Mel’s new relationship didn’t work out? He might feel inclined to come back and kick us out, as was his right. Li and I still needed to make good on the rent, and it just wasn’t happening. Running a profitable store was much more difficult than I had imagined. I heard Sanjiv’s voice in my head more and more often. He had been right, I had made a terrible, and costly mistake.
One Saturday night in that fifth month, Li and I were cleaning the store after we had closed. We had gone over figures after closing, and our numbers looked as bad as ever. Li was sweeping, lost in his own dejection. I had given up on my cleaning duties. I was sitting by the window, watching the street, agonizing over the numbers. I couldn’t figure out a way to make it work. It wasn’t going to work. It was over, but I didn’t want to admit it.
As I looked out onto the street, a thick mist settled over Fifth Avenue. Wasn’t the Manhattan air too polluted for that? And it was so thick. The mist was so strange to me that all I could do was sit there, hypnotized by it. I wanted to call Li over to see but I couldn’t make my mouth work while I watched.
I don’t know how long I sat there staring into the street. After a time, I called out to Li, who was somewhere in the back of the store.
“Li,” I said, my voice was hoarse and the dryness in my throat surprised me. “Come here, you gotta see this.”
The mist was at its thickest now. I couldn’t see across the street. I couldn’t see the street. I couldn’t even see headlights.
“What is it?” Li asked.
I turned away from the window and saw that he had a broom in his hands.
“Look,” I said, pointing to the window. “Look at this.”
“What? Look at what?” Li waved the broom.
I turned back to the window. There was no mist. It was as clear a night as could be.
I got up from my perch by the window and stepped out onto the sidewalk. Then I walked into the middle of the street. There was no trace of the mist. The air was dry.
I looked up. A bright moon shone down on me.
There were no stars.
That was the night the dreams began.
The first dream wasn’t so bad.
It began on the beach of some unknown island. I was lounging in a hammock, listening to the waves lap at the shore. The birds flitted and fluttered about. I took a sip of each of my two piña coladas and looked out over the ocean. There was nothing to be seen, nothing to tarnish my calm.
Then I heard a squeak.
I sat up. The waves had become more forceful. They no longer lapped at the shore, they rolled at it.
I tried to get out of the hammock and fell out onto the sand. I got up, brushed myself off, and rooted my bare feet in the sand. I still didn’t feel steady. The waves were rolling harder. They reminded me of a tape stuck on fast forward, only the fast forward was getting faster.
I walked to the shore on unsteady legs and spotted a fancy coffee table standing on the wet sand. I walked over to it. It was made of solid, dark wood. It looked heavy, but I didn’t try to move it so I couldn’t be sure. I just got the sense that it was heavy.
The waves just reached the table’s legs, and went no further. The waves were violent now, but there wasn’t much left of them when they got to the table. They gave the table’s legs a small, but fierce, caress.
The table’s surface was horizontal, even though it stood on sloping sand. That made me wonder if two of the legs were deeper in the sand than the other two, or if two of the legs were shorter than the other two. I didn’t check.
On the table were three flat, square dishes. On the first was a carved, wooden bowl, filled with guacamole. On the next was a large helping of long tortilla chips. I guessed those were for the guacamole. On the last was a young coconut with a straw sticking out of it, but no pretty umbrella.
I walked closer to the table and licked my lips. The waves were in a frenzy now, but they still didn’t affect the table beyond wetting its legs. The wind blew water in my face and it made me worry about sea water getting into the dishes on the coffee table.
I reached for a tortilla strip. I could already hear the guacamole-covered crunch it would make when I bit into it. I could taste the goodness. I thought about how long it had been since I had had some good guacamole. Kelsey’s mom made some really good guacamole dip, and I didn’t foresee any of that dip in my future. But that was ok. I could learn to make my own dip, and that didn’t matter now anyway, because the dip in front of me looked scrumptious.
As I was about to close my fingers around a chip, it moved out of reach. I wasn’t sure if the table had moved away from me or if I had moved away from the table, but I was sure that I wanted that chip.
I reached for it again, and my fingers closed on air again. And again. And again. And again. Frustrated, I saw that the sea water had begun to get into the dishes, no doubt over-salting the table’s treats. This strengthened my tasting resolve, and I tried some more.
After a time, I had had enough of trying to dip a chip in the dip, so I reached for the coconut instead. Success! I was able to grab it with both hands. I had triumphed over the coconut. If I couldn’t have my guacamole-covered chip, at least I’d have some fresh, thirst-quenching coconut water.
As I was about to close my lips around the straw, a pocketrat popped out of the coconut. As if that weren’t enough, it was wearing a hat with a straw sticking out of it. I had almost put that straw in my mouth. What a tricky little pocketrat, I thought, and I noticed that he had some coconut flesh in his mouth.
Then the coconut thief ran up my arm, leaving a trail of coconut water behind him, and perched on my shoulder.
“What are you doing?” I asked him. I was peeved, and I expected a response.
He said nothing, but pointed into the distance with his cute little paw. I looked in the direction he was pointing. There was a boat there, struggling to make its way through the turbulent waves. The boat leaned this way and that, and each time it did it looked as if it was about to tip over. Waves swept over its sides, and water must have been filling it. But it kept on, making its way almost parallel to the shore, on a slight course toward the beach.
Then I remembered the dip. Maybe I still had a shot at it. I reached for it again, and as I did so, I realized that I, the pocketrat on my shoulder, and the table of tempting dishes were all moving. We were moving in the same direction as the boat. But how could that be?
“What’s going on?” I asked the pocketrat on my shoulder again. I was more concerned than I had been when the pocketrat crawled out of the coconut, and it showed in my voice.
“Where are we going?”
The pocketrat didn’t answer, but pointed to the boat with one paw and pointed down with the other. To top it all off, he stuck his tongue out at me.
I looked down to where he was pointing.
There were pocketrats everywhere, and they were pocketrats on steroids. They were about twice the size of regular pocketrats—still not very big—but their muscles bulged. It was clear that these pocketrats had devoted a lot of time to Sven’s equipment. I wouldn’t want to find myself alone in a dark alley with any of them. Weighed down by all of those muscles, they weren’t quite as cute as regular pocketrats. I wondered if they would be able to ride a unicycle without breaking it.
The juiced up pocketrats beneath me were holding me and the coffee table up above the ground. I didn’t know how they had snuck under me without my noticing it, but they were there. There was another large group of these muscled pocketrats in a long cluster further down the shore. Those pocketrats were tugging on something. As I got closer, I saw that they were tugging on a rope, and the rope was connected to the boat. They were pulling the boat in to shore.
The pocketrats beneath me were galloping in the direction of the group that was pulling the boat in. It was a slow motion pocketrat gallop, weighed down by me and the table. I didn’t know why they would want to carry the table too.
“What’s going on?” I asked the pocketrat on my shoulder. “Where are you guys taking me, and who’s been giving out the ‘roids? Was it Sven? Was it Li?”
The pocketrat said nothing. He was sitting on my shoulder now, no longer pointing at anything. He stuck his tongue out at me one more time, and then seemed to lose interest. He put his chin in his hands, looked out over the water, and blew some air out of his mouth.
I got the sense that the pocketrats under me were turning the world, like pocketrats on top of a pocketrat wheel. But that couldn’t be, they were showing off enough as it was.
Between the two large groups of muscled pocketrats were other, normal-sized pocketrats, smattered about the dunes. Some of them milled about, as if they didn’t know what to do with themselves. Others did pushups, maybe because they were trying to put on some muscle. The ones doing pushups stole covetous glances at the well-muscled pocketrats.
Yet smaller pocketrats swam in the ocean, watching my dream drama unfold. They had curious pocketrat eyes.
After a while, all the movement stopped.
“So now what?” I said to the pocketrat on my shoulder.
Still no response.
I was in front of the boat now. The pocketrat groups parted, forming a path for me into the boat. The pocketrats who didn’t form a part of the pocketrat road ate all of the guacamole, tortilla strips, and coconut meat. I watched all of this, suspended in the air and helpless. That wasn’t nice.
Then the juiced up pocketrats put me down and watched me with narrowed, muscular eyes.
“So you want me to get into the boat? Ok, ok, I get it. Here I go.”
I stepped into the boat. In the boat were four photos next to one of the oars. One of guacamole, one of tortilla strips, one of a coconut with a straw in it—the food in the photos was whole and uneaten.
The last photo wasn’t like the others. It was of a sewer grate. I looked at it, tilting my head, wondering what that had to do with anything. I reached to pick it up, and at that moment, the pocketrat on my shoulder got up and slid down my arm, plopping itself onto the photo of the grate.
And that’s where the first dream ended. That’s where the first dream always ended. I had this dream night after night, for two weeks straight. I didn’t think much of it at the time, and simply chalked it up to stress. The only thing I changed in my routine was the amount of dip, chips, and coconut I ate.
In that two week period, I ate excessive amounts of chips, dip, and coconut. I had guacamole at every meal, in between meals, and as meals. I smeared it on everything, and I dipped everything in it. Whatever guacamole-drenched food I ate, I washed down with coconut water. It made me feel like I was on that island, with turbulent water and anxious pocketrats. Why I was chasing the nervous, confused, and uncertain feeling that I had had in the dream, I didn’t know. What I did know was that the food was delicious, and there was no dangerous hammock in sight, so I went with it. I gained twelve pounds in two weeks, and it was good.
By the time the dream changed, my face was fat, and my coworkers had begun to comment on it. Most of the weight I gained had gone straight to my cheeks and chin—the worst places of all. So I made myself cut back on the dream island foods and hoped that would do the trick to slim down my face.
When I began having the second dream, cutting back on food became easy to do.
The second dream began in Midtown Manhattan, a few blocks away from my firm.
I wandered around some, and tried to get into Kelsey’s building. I tried a few different keys, but none of them worked, so I turned around and left the building’s foyer.
As soon as I stepped foot on the sidewalk, a group of tourists mowed me down. They were merciless.
In what must have been their rush to see the sights, the tourists knocked me onto the ground and trampled me. They were loud, spoke a foreign language, and didn’t help me up. One of them was wearing cleats, probably because he had just finished playing some European football, and he was kind enough to dig his cleated foot into my back.
And, on top of all that, while I was being trampled, my mouth and tongue had come in contact with some pungent, squishy, unknown substance on the ground—maybe some halfway digested or decomposed food matter.
I tasted it, and it tasted like New York City.
When I finished throwing up in the gutter, I looked around to see where the tourists had gone. I was going to throw a brick, or at least some four-letter words in their direction.
I couldn’t find any bricks, but I did locate the trampling tourists’ trail. I began to hobble after them, massaging the cleat imprint in my back as I went.
I was almost caught up to them and was about to let them know what I thought of their kind when I stopped dead in my tracks. I forgot about the painful cleat imprint in my back. Had I been carrying a brick, I would have dropped it.
The tourists had stopped. They were all gathered around a steam vent—a big one in the street on the west side of Madison Avenue, between 48th and 49th. An orange and white plastic cylinder covered the top of the vent, put there by the City to direct the steam skyward. Or maybe the cylinder was there so that cars didn’t get stuck in the vent, so that they didn’t get sucked into the City’s dark underground. Who knew? For all I could tell there wasn’t a steam vent below the cylinder at all, but a gaping hole into the pit of the world. I wasn’t going to be checking under there, ever.
The steam that left the top of the cylinder didn’t disperse skyward. Instead, it lingered, caressing passersby with its wispy tendrils. The steam must have been made up of the air and moisture that built up in New York City’s underground—in the tunnels, dark chasms, and the many unknown City armpits. The stuff had to escape somewhere. It chose subway grates, manholes, and, of course, gaping holes into New York City’s subterranean nowhere.
The steam had a peculiar—and very particular—odor. Sadly, it can’t be described in a way that would do it justice. The steam had a flavor too, and when you smelled it, you tasted it. One whiff of the stuff and it permeated your being, filling you with its curious power. And then, as quickly as it had come, it was gone.
The spine-tingling, life-changing aroma of the steam came from its encapsulation of New York City’s essence. As the steam formed, developed, and traveled beneath the City, it picked up the various smells, flavors, and moods of all of the City and its people. The steam came to know the place, and when you inhaled it, you understood all there was to understand about the City, if only for a moment.
I came to know all of this through the dream. It was a subtext or something—like something I just got from being in the dream.
The tourists were gathered around the vent, and they had all gone quiet. There was no funny language to be heard. The street was mostly empty, save for groups of tourists scattered here and there. I looked for Manhattan locals—for their familiar strides and looks of disdain. There were none in sight.
I stopped searching and turned back to the tourists gathered around the vent. They were in a state of pure ecstasy. They couldn’t get enough of the steam. Two of them, a man and a woman, had climbed over the barricade around the vent and were hugging the orange and white cylinder, sliding their hands up and down the plastic.
The cleat-wearing tourist—I remembered my injury when I saw him—was rolling on the ground, embracing the tendrils of steam that floated down from the top of the vent. The tendrils embraced him back. When I saw that, my urge for revenge dissipated. The rest of the group was in a broken circle around the vent, and they chased down the wisps that came out of it. When they caught up with some steam, they snorted it up in a fury. Once the steam wisp they had chased down was gone, they chased the next wisp, and the next, over, and over, and over again.
I couldn’t look away, so I watched them for a while. After a time, the vent let forth a great belch of steam that spilled over the vent’s top, swayed, and fell onto the sidewalk in a cylindrical heap. It lost its neat shape as it enveloped two confused tourists, a man and a woman, who were fumbling with a waterproof map of New York City.
These two weren’t part of the first group. They were just a pair of confused explorers. The steam made its way into their nostrils. Their nostrils flared, and then their eyes widened. They didn’t look lost or confused anymore. They looked different.
The two of them turned to the vent, and began to stagger toward it. The woman had the map, and it hung unfolded from her left hand, as if it was trying to get away while its wide-eyed owner dragged it along. The man and woman weren’t yet at the vent when I came around to have a closer look at them. The man was shuffling, doing a funny little dance, and the woman lurched along, dragging her left leg behind her.
Just when I was starting to get bored, they made it to the barricade around the vent.
Then I felt a slight pull around my waist, and looked down to see a cute, cuddly pocketrat pulling on the leg of my jeans. The pocketrat had a leash around its neck, but no hand held the leash.
I looked back over at the vent. The pulling came again, and then I felt my ankle pinched.
I looked down at the pocketrat. What did he want? He looked up at me, then scampered behind my feet and rolled a small glass bottle to me, knocking it against my shoes with a dull clunk.
The pocketrat looked up at me again. What did he expect me to do with that? The pocketrat prodded the bottle, looked at me, looked at the bottle, and prodded it again. Then he pinched me again and scurried off, going south on Madison. He was muttering something.
I picked up the bottle and examined it. It looked like those old thick-glassed Coca-Cola bottles, but there was no swirl to it. There were no markings on the bottle at all, and it didn’t look right to me.
The glass was thick and cloudy, and the bottle had no cap.
It was empty.
On impulse, I tucked the bottle into my inside coat pocket, jamming it in with my glasses case. Then I looked back at the vent.
The two once map-absorbed tourists had now joined the larger group encircling the steam vent. The man was rolling on the ground next to the cleat-wearing tourist. The two of them did their wriggling best to embrace the tendrils that floated along the ground about their bodies. The woman had climbed over the barricade and was caressing the vent. Her map lay on the ground outside the barricade, unfolded and forgotten.
Each time I had this second dream, I would wake and feel for the bottle in my coat pocket. I found nothing but sheet and blanket. I didn’t sleep in my coat, of course.
The dream left me feeling incomplete each time I had it, as if I had just been about to do something important, but I no longer remembered what that was. Then I would have a drink of water, go back to sleep, and repeat the same dream sequence again, complete with my waking up and fumbling once more for that thick-glassed, cloudy bottle.
After some weeks of this, that cute cuddly pocketrat that had rolled the bottle to me could take no more of my dim wit.
That was when I began having the third dream.
In the third dream, I was jammed in the back of a cab. The cab was in Midtown, and I was wedged in its backseat between three tourists, two to my left and one to my right. The three of them were having a violent conversation, talking as if I wasn’t there.
“Oh my God,” the first one said. “I love New York City!”
“I can’t believe we’re really here!” the second one said.
“Let’s go look at the tree at Rockefeller Center and brush up against real New Yorkers!” the third one said.
“You know,” the second one said. “I’m gonna live here one day.”
“Me too!” the other two blurted out at the same time.
After I threw up all over the back of the cab, I tried to get to the door, to get out. I clawed and clawed at the door, but I couldn’t climb over those damned tourists. I couldn’t breathe, so I tried to calm myself down by taking slow, controlled breaths, in and out.
That helped. I regained some presence of mind with which to plan my escape. Once I had calmed down a little, I took greater notice of my surroundings, and moved the ongoing screams of New York City worship into the background.
All the vomit that I had vomited was nowhere in sight. That was a good thing, since I couldn’t see a way out of the cab, and being locked in a cab without vomit is better than being locked in a cab with vomit. And it had been a lot of vomit. A lot.
There was a thin haze in the cab, as if some fog had made its way inside. It was a smelly fog. Then a tendril found its way over to my nose. The smell was gut-wrenching, like New York City’s unwashed underbelly, and it brought on another wave of vanishing vomit.
I collected myself and adjusted to the putrid odor. I realized that the fog had a mind of its own—it was a smart, smelly fog that could find its way. And find its way it did, straight into the tourists’ nostrils. The three of them inhaled it in spurts. Each paused mid-sentence while taking a pull, then resumed conversation. I saw their chests expand each time they inhaled it.
As interesting as all of this was, I still wanted to escape. So I pinched my nose and made another frantic grab for the door handle with my free hand. But my hand closed on fog.
I looked outside. I looked to the left, to the right, behind the cab, and in front of it. The end of our path was clear.
We were moving on a slow course into Rockefeller Center.
The dream streets differed from their real counterparts in that they all had the tree at Rockefeller Center as their final destination. I couldn’t see any cars moving away from the tree, just going toward it, like we were.
There was no mistaking it, we were moving toward it. Into it? It felt like a bad carnival ride.
And then we were too close.
I looked up at the gruesome monstrosity of Christmas tree and what looked back at me was the most evil tree in all the land.
I blinked first, averting my gaze from the tree’s black, burning center, and refocused my attention on its outer limbs, where the glare was more bearable.
Demons danced on the limbs. They were imps the size of six year old children, but they had red and black stripes and were charred from their horns to their pointy tails. Their pointy tails were longer than their legs. Each imp wore a soot-covered, burnt I Heart NY t-shirt. They beckoned us toward the tree with their wagging, charred fingers. They beckoned everyone. And everyone came. That’s when I understood that the cars around me contained people from all over the world, people that the imps had called. Mesmerized by the imps in their t-shirts, the people came and jumped into the tree’s fiery center, never to be seen or heard from again.
Then, fear filled me as our cab began to tip forward, into the tree.
It was getting hotter, and I knew it was time for me to get off this ride. I had been too busy staring at the dancing, t-shirted imps to notice the change in the cab, like a frog brought to a slow boil. And it wasn’t just that it had gotten very hot. It was that the cab had filled with steam. The whole car was rotten with the stuff.
I choked and clawed my way about the backseat of the cab, looking for a way out—any way out. I couldn’t find one. I felt the car tip again, and I knew this would be my end—swallowed by the tree in a stinking bubble.
Then I saw my driver for the first time. He, or rather it, was a collection of pocketrats. They were standing on top of each other and holding on to each other, swinging this way and that to steer the car, which at this point needed no steering. As soon as they spotted me spotting them, the jig was up. They disassembled, falling into a pile on the driver’s seat. Most—there were eighteen in all—looked guilty, and avoided making eye contact with me. But a few looked defiant, and sat or stood with their little arms folded, glaring at me.
Then we all fell into the tree’s burning abyss, trapped in our pungent bubble of a taxi forever. Even as we fell, the tourists never stopped blabbering about New York City’s wondrousness.
The first twenty or so times that I had this dream, I woke up during the cab’s fall. And each time I woke, I found myself clawing at the bed and sheets, trying to free myself. I could still smell the rancid cab, and the tree’s impish horror was too vivid to forget.
Then I would spend the rest of the night pacing and drinking tea, unable to sleep, and not wanting to. Every time I closed my eyes I saw those nasty little imps, or, even worse, the tourists with whom I’d been trapped.
After some weeks of this, I had become so sleep-deprived, and my enjoyment of life had decreased so much, that I made an appointment to see a sleep specialist.
I despised going to doctors much more than the average person, so by making that appointment, I was admitting that I was in real trouble.
That night, the night before I was to see the doctor, my dream changed. Most of it was the same. The smell, the tourists, the pocketrat driving machine, the imps, the tree, they were all the same.
One of the worst parts of repeating this dream was that it was always the same, night after night. And unlike that fun movie with Bill Murray where he repeats the same day over and over again, I didn’t have free will in this dream. I just repeated the same sequence of futile actions each time I had it.
But that changed that night.
I was cramped in the back seat. The cab smelled. It smelled bad. The three tourists were next to me.
The dream was beginning the same way it always did, but this time, I understood my role. I couldn’t fight it anymore. I had to go with the flow. So when the cab began to fill up with the disgusting, suffocating fog, I reached into my coat pocket, felt around, and pulled out a bottle. It was a thick-glassed, cloudy looking bottle, like the one the pocketrat had rolled to me in previous dreams.
I heard a pocketrat-like cheer rise up from the driver’s seat, and, bolstered by the pocketrats, I began to swim the bottle through the fog. Once it filled with the vile vapor, I covered the bottle’s opening with my palm, trapping its new contents.
Then I leaned over to look into the driver’s seat. The pocketrats had disassembled. They were doing some kind of tribal dance, holding their noses and making swimming motions through the fog. I smiled. The dance looked familiar, but I couldn’t place it. The fog had thinned out a little.
“Oh my God,” the first tourist said. “I love New York City!”
I cringed, swallowed hard, and plunged the bottle into the tourist’s mouth. He gave a start, then let out a long, contented sigh.
I reached into my coat pocket again and pulled out another thick-glassed, cloudy looking bottle. I swam this one through the air as I had done the first one. Then I covered its opening with my palm.
“I can’t believe we’re really here!” the second tourist said.
I cringed once more, and jammed the bottle into this tourist’s gaping mouth. The glass scraped against her teeth. I winced, but she didn’t notice. She inhaled and let out a long, contented sigh.
I looked up into the driver’s seat again. The pocketrats were now high-fiving each other and doing flips. If they were any indication, and I guessed that they were, I was on the right track.
I had one more tourist to silence. I felt in my coat pocket once more, fished out a bottle, swam it through the now-diminishing fog, and stuck it into the third tourist’s mouth just as she finished saying, “Let’s go look at the tree at Rockefeller Center and brush up against real New Yorkers!”
There was no scrape of teeth this time, but she did let out a long, contented sigh, as the other two had.
The cab stopped.
The air was clear.
I leaned over to look in the driver’s seat. The pocketrats had gone.
No they hadn’t, they were scurrying about the backseat, running amok. Then I discovered their pocketrat-like scurrying had a purpose.
The pocketrats were running about the back of the cab in three teams, one for each tourist. Each team ran up the legs of one tourist and explored the tourist’s pockets. The pocketrats pulled out wallets, bills, spare change, jewelry, and even some funny-looking foreign money. They retrieved the tourists’ valuables, piece by piece, and ran up my legs with each item, depositing it in my lap.
Before long, I couldn’t hold on to all the loose change, gold rings, diamond earrings, and rumpled bills. I began stuffing my coat with the loot, in place of the bottles. When I thought my coat could hold no more, the pocketrats’ treasure retrieval slowed to a trickle and stopped. Once they stopped finding valuables, all three groups of pocketrats assembled, high-fived each other, and scampered out of the now-open door to my left. One turned back and gave me a thumbs-up, along with a look that said, “Damn you’re slow,” then ran off.
I unwedged myself from my seat between the tourists and saw, to my horror, that they were no longer talking, moving, blinking, or even breathing. They had become eyeless mannequins—plastic ones. Each one had a thick-glassed, cloudy-looking bottle sticking out of its mouth, and each wore an I Heart NY t-shirt. Their plastic skins were sooty and crispy in places, and it looked as if they had been prodded with hot pokers.
I stared for a while. Then I closed my mouth and jostled the two that were between me and the door.
I got out of the car.
My coat was heavy, and the air was clear.
The dreams stopped. I had seen what I had to see, and I was able to sleep again.
On a Sunday morning after the dreams stopped, when I didn’t have too much work and didn’t feel like going to the store, I took a car from the office to my parents’ apartment in Brooklyn. I was alone in it, the driver seemed to be human—but who could tell?—and the car didn’t smell like that infernal fog, just cigarettes.
The ride to Brooklyn was a series of sudden stops and starts, punctuated by long spells of honking. The driver would curse, bear on the horn for a while, then turn around to give me a toothy grin, like he wanted a pat on the head. He did this every chance he got. If the honking was the driver’s effort to get a bigger tip out of me, it succeeded. I hated him for honking so much, but he did it to please me, and I couldn’t bring myself to ignore that. He was trying to make a living, after all.
When the ride was over, I got out of the car, walked up the steps, and used my key to get in.
I walked into the apartment, and my parents came into the foyer to meet me.
“How was your trip?” My mom asked. She smiled, and I could tell that she was happy to see me.
“Fine,” I said. I put my backpack down.
“You look like crap,” my dad said.
“Thanks,” I said. He always greeted me with something like that. He either said I looked pale, or green, or fat, or tired, or depressed—and so on.
‘When was the last time you slept?” he asked.
“Yesterday,” I said.
“You look like you haven’t slept in days, weeks maybe,” he said. “And you’re getting fat.” There it was, right on cue.
“Yeah,” I said. “Thanks.”
“You look good,” my mom said, and she hugged me. Just as I could count on my dad to say something negative, no matter how good the situation, I could count on my mom to say something positive, no matter how bad the situation.
“You look like you’re losing weight to me,” my mom said. “How are you doing it?”
“I dunno,” I said.
And then what happened every time I visited, happened again. It was one of the best parts of being home. It was what made my parents’ place still feel like home, even though I hadn’t lived there in over a decade.
“We have meat,” my dad said. “We have chicken and turkey and beef and fish. I’ll get it out for you.”
“That’s ok,” I said. “I’m fine, I’m sure I’ll have some later, thanks.”
“We also have potatoes and sweet potatoes,” he said. “And rice and oatmeal.”
“I’m fine,” I said. I was pacing up and down the foyer, walking in and out of the kitchen as I went.
“How about an apple?” he said. “Do you want a persimmon?”
“What about some steamed broccoli?” my mom said. “Or an omelette? And we have walnuts and almonds and an open avocado. Do you want me to make you a salad?”
“No thanks,” I said. But then I relented. “Ok, I’ll have an apple, but only if you stop asking me if I’m hungry, I can get something later, really. And I’ll get the apple myself, you know I like to get things myself.”
“Ok,” my mom said. I had appeased them. I gave the same speech in response to their trying to feed me every time I was there, and they needed me to remind them every time. I appreciated the home cooking and their desire to take care of me, but I liked to serve myself. I didn’t like to be fussed over.
I got the apple, took a long, hard look at it, and took a bite. It was crisp, had just the right amount of sweetness, and made a satisfying crunch when I bit into it.
“That’s good,” I said with surprise in my voice.
“Of course it’s good,” my dad said. “It’s organic.” And then he went on to list all of the other organic food items we had—the list covered most of the food in the house. I walked over to the refrigerator and opened it. I wanted to see if my dad’s claims about all the food they had were true. They were. It never ceased to amaze me how much food my parents were able to fit into their small refrigerator.
I kept on apple-crunching and chatting with my parents for a while, but my mind kept wandering to the task at hand—the canning and bottling of tourist happiness. What was a good name for this stuff? Names were so—
“What have you been up to?” my mom asked.
“Just working,” I said. I hadn’t told my parents about the store, and I didn’t plan on it, at least not then. It was a good thing my parents didn’t read the papers.
“They still got you working those long hours?”
“And weekends still?”
“Yeah, I know.”
“Well are you seeing anyone, you know, after the thing with Kelsey?”
“No, and yeah, I remember the thing.”
“I have a friend,” she paused, “and she knows this girl—”
I cut her off. “No, mom, I’m not interested.”
“She’s very pretty.”
“Do you have a picture?”
“Not interested, I’m taking a break from that stuff.” Was I taking a break from it? What about Tia? I didn’t know what that was yet, I told myself.
My mom looked at me. “You know,” she said, “we’re very proud of you and what you’ve accomplished.”
That made me a little uneasy. It always did.
“Thanks,” I said, “but there’s nothing to be proud of yet, when there is, I’ll let you know.”
My dad lightened the mood. “We have chocolate,” he said. “You want some?”
I devoured the ginger-infused chocolate bar my dad put on the table in front of me. As I ate it, I realized that the time I had to spend at my parents’ apartment was running out. Soon I would be called back to work, or I would have to go back to check on the store. I had come there to think, to take a walk in my old neighborhood and refresh my mind. I needed to get my mind out of the fog it was in.
“I’m gonna go for a walk,” I said. “I need some fresh air. If I get some coffee do you guys want some?”
“Ok,” my mom said.
“No thanks,” my dad said.
“Hazelnut?” I asked.
“Yes, please,” my mom said.
I pulled a small notebook and pen out of my backpack and left. I went to the coffee shop at the end of the block. It was called La Petite Café. The French was wrong, but the coffee was great. La Petite Café was a small mom, pop, and son café. I got some raspberry truffle coffee. I walked outside and took a sip. It made me feel like I was home.
I walked, and walked, and walked. And walked. But I got nowhere. All I needed was a name for this new product. But I couldn’t think of one that wasn’t terrible. There was “NYC Vapor,” “Eau de NY,” “NY Steam,” “Essence of NY,” and so forth. They all stank.
I gave up, finished my coffee, and went to the grocery store. Even though my parents’ kitchen was well-stocked at the moment, I didn’t know when I would be back again, so I decided to pick up some groceries for them. It had been so long since I’d done anything for my parents—it had been so long since I’d even had a day off to go back—that it was the least I could do.
I went back to La Petite Café with my bags of groceries and got some hazelnut coffee for my mom. I shifted all three bags to my left hand and took the coffee in my right. Then I started back, being careful not to spill the coffee or drop the bags.
On my way back, I stopped, and stared into the gutter. There was something—there was something poking at the back of my mind. What was it? I could almost feel it and—
My phone rang. I set my bags down and dug my phone out of my pocket, spilling some pennies onto the ground as I did so. I stared at them. I never carried change, where had the pennies come from?
Then I remembered my phone. I looked at its display. It was Li.
“Hey,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“Have you seen the news today?” he asked. “You know what happened?”
“You should come by the store. We have to talk.” Li sounded anxious.
“Ok, I’ll be there soon. And I’ve got an idea on something else we can sell.”
“I like the sound of that. More money to make. That is wise, but we have to talk about something first. Come by when you can.”
“Yeah, ok, see you soon.”
I put the phone back in my pocket. I looked at the pennies for a little while, then I picked up my bags and went inside. I didn’t want my mom’s coffee to get cold while I stared into the gutter.
Back in my parents’ apartment, I ate some more of their food. I had my product name, and the food was delicious.
I left to go talk to Li.
After I walked out of my parents’ building, I checked the spot in the gutter where I had dropped the pennies, and they were gone. That was no surprise, as the people in my parents’ neighborhood snatched things up as soon as they had the chance.
I got on the subway to go back to the City. I knew that by doing so I was exposing myself to every germ, both known and unknown, to man. I got on anyway.
It reeked, and there were no seats. That was strange, because there were almost always seats this far into Brooklyn. Because I couldn’t sit, I had to take hold of one of the subway poles. It had to be done. It was that or fall.
I took hold of one of the poles in the center. As luck had it that day, my palm closed on a patch of invisible slime. I winced and drew my hand away. Damn. I looked at the muck on the floor and wished I had risked falling into that instead of gripping the slime.
But there was no time for hindsight. I needed to get that stuff off my hand fast. I knew that it was making its way into my bloodstream, and the longer I waited, the more likely the damage would be permanent. I had to get it off. I had to.
I looked around the subway car in desperation. I was breathing hard now. I was no longer holding on, and I was gripping the forearm of my affected hand with my healthy one. I thought about taking my shirt off and using it as a tourniquet, but maybe that wasn’t necessary yet. After all, my palms were thick-skinned from my keyboard at work. I squeezed my forearm hard and looked for something I could wipe my hand on.
There was only one thing to do. I stumbled to a set of doors and stopped in front of it. I took my affected hand and wiped the slime off on the rubber parts of the doors—the parts that closed on each other. That did the trick, getting most of the stuff off my hand. My breathing began to settle, and though I was still shaken, some sense of calm began to return to me. I was going to get through it. I was going to survive.
I leaned against the doors for a few more stops, and then a seat opened up. I sat down and took my hand sanitizer out of my pocket. I squeezed half the bottle into my slimed palm and let it sit there for a few minutes. Then I rubbed my hands together until all I could smell was the alcohol, and all I could feel in my hands was a cold tingle. It felt clean.
Now that I had done everything I could do about the slime, I tried to figure out what the smell in the subway car was. That was always a fun game, as some of the most complex New York City odors lived in the subway system.
I looked around the car, and noticed, for the first time, that people were staring at me. Maybe they thought I had overreacted with the hand sanitizer. Maybe they wanted to mug me. Maybe both. Maybe the hand sanitizer had made them want to mug me. Maybe that was what they wanted. I looked around at them, and I didn’t see one person who didn’t look capable of a mugging. Comforting that was not.
But I still couldn’t place the smell. It was a combination of turnips, body odor, paint, and some kind of seafood—maybe shrimp. It was musty and sharp at the same time. The longer I tried to place the stuff, the harder it became to focus.
I was halfway to my stop by then, and I figured that if I couldn’t place the smell there was no point in continuing to breathe the stuff. So just after the train crossed into Manhattan, I got out and switched cars.
My new car smelled a lot better, like cheese and old newspapers. I had hit the jackpot. I sat down in a corner seat, folded up, and closed my eyes.
A new smell roused me. It wasn’t pleasant. I looked up and to my right, finding the source of the smell right away. A large homeless man had walked in with his belongings. He was standing just a few feet away from me.
We made eye contact. He looked sad. I looked away.
On our next stop, he turned to me. “I’m sorry,” he said, in a deep bass. “I’m going to take a bath soon. Please excuse me.”
“It’s fine,” I said. “Really, it’s fine.”
And then he got off the train. He had only ridden next to me for one or two stops. He must have been self-conscious. I had never had a homeless guy explain himself to me before, and was surprised he had felt the need. I watched him standing on the platform as the train pulled away from the station.
I wondered about that bath he said he was going to take. I wondered where he would take it.
The first thing I did when I got to the store was wash my hand. I got most of the remaining slime off, but not all of it. I gave up after a few minutes. I thought about going out for some grease-cutting carpenter’s soap, but there was no guaranty that would do the trick either. The remaining slime would just have to live with me for a few days. If I was lucky, it would get bored and find a new host sooner.
“You got subway hand or something?” Li asked. He was watching me rub at my hand with a paper towel.
“Yeah,” I said. “It’s so disgusting.”
“The tourists might want to shake that hand,” he said. “You should keep it in mint condition.”
I shuddered at the thought. “It’s funny you should say that.”
“Well, it’s kind of got to do with this new product I want to talk to you about.”
Then, all of a sudden, I felt dizzy, and I couldn’t regain my train of thought.
I knew what it was right away. I was sure that Li had dressed himself that day—he was argyle from head to toe. His sweater, pants, socks, and tie—yes, he wore a tie over his sweater—were all argyle. None of the argyles matched. He looked like he was part of a multicultural, multi-colored, color-blind Christmas commercial. The clashing colors and patterns were making me seasick.
I looked away, but I still caught some of his outfit in my peripheral vision.
“Do you think you’re wearing enough Argyle?” I asked.
“The ladies love it,” he said. “Oh, I got argyle frames, too. I’ll show you.”
“No,” I said, but he had already gone into the back room.
“Look at these,” he said, when he came back. There was wonderment and pride in his voice.
I raised my head to look at the frames, then averted my eyes.
“My stomach can’t take any more of this,” I said, stifling a belch.
“Ok, ok,” he said. He took the glasses off.
“You gotta change,” I said. “I can’t talk to you like this.”
Li looked down at his outfit then back at me.
I felt like I was turning green, and I must have looked it too, because Li said, “Take it easy, don’t puke. I already spent an hour cleaning Russian tourist puke—some lady that got sick on the bus, then in here. Threw up borscht all over the place. I’ll go change, hang on.”
I felt a little better as soon as Li and his mesmerizing outfit were out of sight, although the mention of borscht barf had almost put me over the edge.
I sat down behind the counter and began leafing through some of the magazines we had lying around. They all had to do with business, entrepreneurship, rat-rearing, marketing, money management, and so on. After a few cursory glances, I tossed them back in their pile with another stifled belch.
Li came out of the back room wearing a dark t-shirt and blue sweatpants. It was a big improvement. He had kept his argyle-framed glasses on, but I chose to overlook it. The frames, by themselves, weren’t enough to make me throw up, but they did keep me from making too much eye contact with Li.
“Looks like a slow day today,” I said, taking in the place.
“Oh no,” Li said, smiling from ear to ear. “We sold two pocketrats today.”
“Wow,” I couldn’t help but smile back. “I don’t know how you guys do it.” I paused. “Alright, let’s talk some business.”
“Let’s have a drink first,” Li said. “Mindy,” he called into the back room, “two vodka sodas please.”
“Sure,” Mindy’s voice called out.
“Why the drinking?” I asked. “To celebrate the pocketrat sales?” I thought about the $40,000 we had made that day, and that didn’t even include food and supplies. It was a nice thought.
“Uhh, yeah,” Li said, nodding. “To celebrate.” Li looked uneasy.
“Are we drinking to soften a blow that I don’t know about?”
“Blow? What blow? I don’t do that. You can ask your lawyer friends for that.”
Then Mindy padded out of the back room in her bare feet, trailing the bottoms of the plaid bathrobe she was wearing. It looked like it was a dress-down day. That was fine by me.
Mindy went about making our drinks. Li watched her, a pleased smile traveling back and forth across his face.
Mindy brought us our drinks, said, “Here you go,” smiled, and went back into the back room.
“Thanks,” I called after her.
I took a sip of my vodka soda, it was mixed just right. I took another sip.
“What’s she up to back there?”
“Catnapping, she’s very tired.”
“Is Tia in today?”
“No, she’s studying for an exam. On Greek cooking, I think.”
“Interesting. You and Mindy doing alright without help?”
“Yeah.” Li shot a glance at the back room. “I had her in the window today,” Li whispered.
“You what?” I said, choking on my vodka soda.
“She hung out in the window in her robe. We got a lot of men in here. A lot. Maybe all the men in Manhattan. We sold out of maps.”
I was about to say something negative, but it was hard to argue with results. “Did you order more?”
“Yep, two times the previous order. It just keeps scaling up.”
“Good call.” I downed the rest of my drink.
Li looked uneasy again. “So…” he began, “there’s something you need to see.”
Li grew more serious. “You know you’re a funny guy? How come you never watch the news or read the newspaper or something? You never know what’s happening in the world.”
“I hate that stuff.”
“Your parents didn’t say anything? You were in Brooklyn just now right?”
“They didn’t say anything.”
“You know news is free on the internet these days, right?”
“Yeah Li, I know, what is it already?”
Li shook his head. “Here.” He picked up the TV remote. “I’ll show you.”
Li turned the TV on, tried a few news channels, and stopped on one showing a reporter standing in front of our store.
“That’s us,” I said, and walked over to the front of the store to look outside.
I tilted my head this way and that, looking for the cameras. I looked back at the TV to see if I was on it, but I wasn’t. The reporter wasn’t outside either. That confused me.
“She’s not here now,” Li said, sounding exasperated. “The camera crew was here in the morning. With a camera you can record and then play things back later.”
That made sense.
“Oh,” I said, and sat down under the flat screen. On the TV, the reporter was pointing behind her, saying, “PocketRat has yet to comment on the degree of its involvement.”
What was she talking about? Involvement with what? She kept saying things but they were all so vague I couldn’t get a handle on what was going on. The vodka soda had relaxed my mind a bit too much, and her talking like a lawyer didn’t help.
Then I saw the headline scrolling underneath the reporter. It read, “Renegade chef serves up pocketrats at $150,000 a plate.”
I read it again.
I read it one more time.
I remembered that first tourist, who, it had seemed, wanted a bite of pocketrat.
Then I read the headline again.
I turned to say something to Li, but I couldn’t think of anything. I closed my mouth, and turned back to the TV.
Chef Claudio stood by the table. He looked unremarkable, save for his pointy, waxed moustache.
His full name was Pierre Jean Claudio Giovanni. At least that was what he told us. I got a strange feeling when I looked at him. There was something familiar about him, as if I had met him before. I wasn’t sure what it was, but it felt like some slickness or slipperiness that I had already come across. It was an off-putting déjà vu. I couldn’t place it.
Li and I were accompanied by two lawyers that we had hired just for this meeting. I knew both of them from law school, but they had changed a lot since then. Their personalities had been stripped away, and they no longer seemed like individuals. Maybe the same had happened to me.
Chef Claudio had come alone.
We were all in a modern hotel penthouse at an undisclosed location in Long Island. It looked like the inside of a spaceship to me, except I imagined that spaceships weren’t so roomy. We held the meeting in an undisclosed location because Li and I didn’t yet know if we wanted to be associated with Chef Claudio, and we didn’t want the media to know that we were talking with him.
Chef Claudio sat down at the table to face us.
“I want to make a deal,” he said. “An arrangement to benefit all of the parties involved.” His voice had the faintest hiss behind it, and it made me uncomfortable. Chef Claudio looked at Li and me. Then he went on, the light glinting off his moustache as he spoke. “I don’t have the raw stuff with which to make my dish—I’m sure you’ve heard about its eager reception by my…customers?”
“Yeah, we’ve heard,” I said. So you’ve been faking it, and putting us in a negative light in the process?”
“Look,” Chef Claudio said, “I am an artist, and food is my paint. The pocketrat is a new color for my palette.” He paused. “I need some of your little friends to work my craft. Don’t you like art?”
“Sure I like art,” I said, “and I like food. I’m just not sure this is a good move for our business. I mean, what would pocketrat pet owners think if they discovered we were selling our wondrous pocketrats to be eaten?”
“And,” Li began, “why shouldn’t we sue you? For libel or slander or something? Yeah, that’s right, the lawyers told me.” Li pointed to our lawyers, who were sitting at the table, expressionless and unblinking.
Li went on, “You can’t just go around saying you cook pocketrats. People will think we’re in bed with you. We’re not in bed with you.”
Chef Claudio put up a hand. “Look, alright, I got a little ahead of myself maybe, but think about the money involved here. My rat flight waiting list is nine months long. Think about the money we can make here, if we work together. What do you say? I will give you $40,000 per rat. Twice what you make in your infrequent pet sales. That is a very fair offer, considering how much of my own creative strength I put into the preparation of my dishes.”
Was this guy serious? He was going to charge $150,000 per pocketrat dinner and kick us back just $40,000? Without even considering the negative effects dealing with Chef Claudio would have on the business, that didn’t sound like a good deal to me. Li and I had already discussed all the possibilities with each other, and with the lawyers. The challenging part of the calculation was estimating the damage to our reputation that would come of side-dealing with Chef Claudio.
What if the public found out that we were selling our cute and cuddly pocketrats to a chef who prepared them to be eaten by strange, rich food snobs? What would happen to all the goodwill we had built up? Could the pocketrat still be a status symbol? Could it still attract the crowds of tourists that it did with its tricks? And worst of all, could Li and I live with the knowledge that we were killing off our beloved pocketrats? We loved those little guys. Mindy and Tia had freaked out when they heard about pocketrats being eaten. They didn’t even know that Li and I were meeting with Chef Claudio, and I knew they wouldn’t react well to a deal with the “artist.”
I had had mixed feelings about meeting with Chef Claudio in the first place, and I realized that I had been overcome by greed. How could I have ever considered letting that guy cook my pocketrats? Even if he gave us $75,000 per pocketrat, even if that meant financial freedom at long last, I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t. We had a good thing going with PocketRat—even if the business ultimately failed—and making a deal with Chef Claudio was a greedy, morbid chess move that could destroy everything. The longer I sat there, the more convinced I was that Chef Claudio would topple our business, even if I didn’t care about the pocketrats at all.
Pocketrat performances and pocketrat pets derived their value from the pocketrats’ stage talent, rarity, and prestige. Pocketrat ownership provided people with an entertaining pet, bragging rights, and an instant increase in sex appeal. Chef Claudio’s pocketrat dish likewise derived its value from the public’s high esteem for pocketrats, and also from his clientele’s strange desire to eat a cute, cuddly performing animal that they might be mistaking for an endangered species. It didn’t matter that pocketrats were neither endangered nor a discrete species. The value of pocketrat ownership and of pocketrat performances would likely both plummet if our customers found out we were selling pocketrats to be eaten in a rich cream sauce.
If nothing else, the potential pet owners and gawking tourists would be creeped out. And if the demand for pocketrats as pets dropped, the hunger for pocketrats in a rich cream sauce would surely be put out. That hunger, after all, was fueled by the taboo desire to eat a prestigious, exalted pet and performing phenomenon. So if we went along with Chef Claudio and the public found out, our income stream from pocketrat sales, and tourist trinkets, and potential income stream from pocketrat meals could all disappear. Objectively, my love for the pocketrats aside, that wasn’t a risk we could take. I wasn’t going to eat the pocketrat that laid golden pocketrat eggs.
Looking at the greasy Pierre Jean Claudio Giovanni sitting across from me, I knew that meeting with him to do anything but announce our intent to sue him had been a mistake. I felt dirty for meeting with him in the first place. How could I have considered it? The longer I sat there, the more certain I became that the people who would pay up to eat pocketrats were the same spindly creatures who dined at MushiSushi. I felt red with shame.
It seemed that the long silence had made Chef Claudio uncomfortable. He was drumming his long-nailed fingers on the table.
At last, he rolled his eyes and said, “I want a certificate of authenticity, for each ra—pocketrat, signed by both of you, that I can present to each of my discerning food connoisseurs.”
Chef Claudio smiled, looked at Li and me, and waited for us to speak. We sat in silence for a while, and Chef Claudio’s smile faded, becoming a subtle frown.
I was disgusted and wanted to get out of there.
“We can’t do that,” I said, my voice low but steady. “There can be no public exposure connecting us with you. And when we leave here, the first thing we do is disclaim any connection to you. Our pocketrats will not be served as dinner, and if you don’t want to hear from our lawyers, don’t make any other false claims about the meals you sell. Do you understand?”
Chef Claudio’s frown became a mustachioed grimace.
“So why did you call me here?” he asked through clenched, yellow teeth. Then he stood up, looking hurt. “You don’t understand,” he said, and slapped his palm on the table. He winced and withdrew his hand, bringing it up to his lips. “You don’t understand what it’s like to be an artist.” His voice cracked, and he seemed to be on the verge of tears.
“Sorry,” I said.
“You go to hell,” Li said to Chef Claudio. “You go cook there.”
Chef Claudio rolled the tips of his moustache, rolled his tearing eyes, and rolled on out of the room, without another word.
That made me nervous, because he didn’t seem like the kind of person that would let an argument go unless he had the last word.
I pointed at the moustache grease left on the table where Chef Claudio’s hand had smacked it. The lawyers looked where I was pointing and nodded. That made me think of the grease man—that guy that had come to the store with all those women orbiting him—and I realized who Chef Claudio reminded me of. Now that he had walked out, I couldn’t take another look at him, but I was sure that he and the grease man had similar features. They had the greasy skin in common, that was for sure.
“You engaged in the correct course of action,” one of the lawyers said, startling me. “My colleague and I are of the same mind. Entering into a transaction with Chef Pierre Jean Claudio Giovanni would not have been in your best interests or those of your company.”
I turned to look at the lawyers. I hadn’t been paying any attention to them for a while, and saw that their faces were purple, like those bluish purple potatoes that my firm served for lunch sometimes. Their ties must have been cutting off all the blood flow to their heads. How could they breathe like that? There were red friction lines on the skin just above their collars. One of the two had some blood staining the top of his collar. It made my neck sore just to look at it, and I touched my neck to reassure myself that I wasn’t wearing a collar.
“You guys might want to loosen those ties,” I said.
The lawyers didn’t respond to that. Maybe they didn’t understand my comment. Then they turned to each other and nodded. They got up, moving in time. Like robots, their arms and legs swung to the same unheard tune. The two purple-faced lawyers walked a straight line to the mini bar, removed a lot of small, clinking liquor bottles, and marched out the door, perfectly in sync.
“How do they breathe like that?” I asked Li after they had walked out.
Li shrugged. “You remember that girl that hit you in the eye in the Pats’ bar? She said lawyers don’t breathe, but that they only smell money. So I said to her, how can that be? How can lawyers smell but not breathe? And then she said that lawyers were like sharks that swim underwater, that don’t breathe but do smell blood. So I said to her that sharks do breathe, through their gills, and then she said that lawyers were like vampires—”
“Thanks,” I interrupted. “I get the picture.”
Li got up, walked over to the mini bar, and peered inside. “Those lawyers were thirsty. They cleaned out the bar.”
I sighed, looking at the empty mini bar. “Sounds about right.”
Li and I left the room. I thought of the poor soul who would have to clean that disgusting moustache grease off the table. That made me think of my lawyers greasing their gears with the room’s liquor. I made a mental note to deduct that from their bill.
When we got back from our stupid secret meeting at our stupid secret location, we found Tia and Mindy minding the store. Neither Li nor I were going to let on where we had just been, and I hoped never to hear or think about it again. I wanted to forget that I had ever given cooperating with Chef Claudio any thought. Watching the pocketrats scamper about made me feel worse about the whole thing.
It was Sunday night when we got back, and I was tired and a little depressed. But I wanted to tell the team about my idea. After we closed up shop for the day, I gathered the group together and told them that there was something I wanted to discuss. Tia and Mindy were leaning on the counter, and Li was pacing around the displays. They were tired and ready to go home, but they looked willing to hear me out.
“So, I’ve been having these dreams,” I said, and it came out as a stammer.
She put on a fresh pot to brew.
Before I had finished talking, Tia had gotten up and started the coffeemaker. Li and Mindy nodded in approval, and I was bolstered by their willingness to stay late to discuss my idea. Their faces told me that they thought I was on to something big. Or at least that was what I chose to see in their faces at the time.
“Ok, so let me get this straight,” Mindy said after I had finished. “You want to bottle the stuff that comes out of the grates and the sewers…and sell it to tourists? Along with the coffee and maps and postcards and camera film?”
I nodded. “Not the liquid sewer stuff, though,” I said. “Just the steam.”
“Uhuh,” Mindy said, and nodded. She seemed to be deep in thought.
Li took a sip of his coffee. “I think it’s very wise,” Li said. “Very, very wise. Tourists are gonna eat that stuff up, and it sounds like it will be cheap to make.”
“Yeah,” I said. “We just need a cheap way of bottling the steam, and we shouldn’t let on that we’re doing it. Better let the City officials find out on their own. They will in time anyway. I’m sure if it’s a seller they’ll want to tax the hell out of it.”
“Maybe Sven will come talk to us about it,” Li said, a hopeful smile appearing on his face. “Sven likes to help us out.”
“You’re obsessed with that guy,” Mindy said. “It’s a little creepy.”
“It’s a lot creepy,” I said.
Li shrugged. “No, no, we just have a lot in common. Sven is a very wise man. He’s the mayor, after all.”
“Right,” I said, and turned to Tia. “What do you think?”
Tia hadn’t said anything since I began. She had only brewed coffee, poured it, and handed it to us. She had a blank expression on her face, and I was afraid she might not be on board with the idea.
“Yeah,” Li said. “What do you have to say? What do you think?”
All eyes turned to Tia. Tia turned to us. She sipped her coffee. Tia opened her mouth, then closed it. Then she opened her mouth again, and closed it. And again. We kept watching her.
At last she said, “I think—I think that might sell even better than the coffee.”
Then she went outside and lit up.
We had no clue where to start. At least not when it came to making the product. How would we gather the steam? What would we gather it into? How would we bottle it? Who would do the gathering and bottling? And where?
After we had agreed to give the idea a go, we broke for the night. It was well after midnight and we all had to get up early.
I had to get up and dress up like a lawyer.
They had to get up and open the store.
The four of us met the next night to hash out logistics. I left work early and went straight to the store, getting there at about 9:30. Li, Mindy, and Tia were waiting for me.
“Hi,” Tia said.
She handed me a cup of coffee.
I was glad to accept the warm cup. I took a sip and perked up a bit.
Li locked the door behind me and then the four of us sat down on blankets behind the displays. Most of the pocketrats had gone to bed, but some watched us as we talked. I got the feeling that they knew exactly what we were up to—that they understood us better than we did.
In other words, I was tired. I drank the rest of my coffee, and it became easier for me to focus on what was being said. Li, Mindy, and Tia were talking about where the bottling was to be done.
“What about a truck and warehouse somewhere cheap?” I asked, eager to join in. “We get the steam on the truck, and take it back to a warehouse in Brooklyn, or Queens, or New Jersey for bottling. We have a devoted bottling plant there, and a truck, and whatever other equipment we need to pick up the steam and put it on the truck.”
“We’ll need a whole crew for that,” Mindy said. “We’re stretched thin here as it is, I mean, you know.”
She yawned. It caught on, and all of us fought off yawns of our own.
“Yeah, we are,” I said, and yawned again.
“You ok?” Li asked. “You want some green tea?”
“I’m great,” I said. “And no thanks.”
“We need to keep costs down, of course,” Tia said.
“We can make it a small operation,” Li said. “Local, cheap, and fast. We’ll run it out of the store. A faraway warehouse won’t work because we have no one to run it and manage it.”
“Fine, I agree,” I said. “You’re right, we don’t have the time to oversee shipping and bottling in another borough. We need to be close to the store at all times, and we should start on a small scale anyway.”
“And we—I mean you guys—can’t afford to pay rent somewhere else in Manhattan, in addition to this place,” Mindy said.
“I guess it’s gotta be here,” Tia said. “In the store.”
We talked more. As we talked, more and more of the pocketrats went to sleep. The four of us were getting tired too. By the time midnight rolled around, we had the basics down, and we all had our short-term marching orders.
We had agreed to make the product on-site, so that we could avoid transport and oversight issues, and to try out a small batch first, without putting too much money into it. At this point, we needed to figure out what kind of equipment we needed to gather and bottle the steam. We knew it had to be compact, and it had to be something each of us could understand. We decided to hit the web and do some research. Li, Mindy, Tia, and I would each research on our own and then get back together and compare notes.
We scheduled a team meeting for Thursday night that week. That gave us two full days to get our thoughts together.
I wasn’t able to make the meeting on Thursday night because I had to work late. I told Li to go on with the meeting without me, and I would have them fill me in when I had a chance.
The partners needed me and the other associates at the firm to close multiple deals. The closings were scheduled for Friday, but as usual, the odds of closing on time were low.
Alex walked into my office at 3:20 A.M. He looked haggard. He had a cup of coffee in each hand. He set one of them down on my desk, pointing at it and then at me.
“Thanks,” I said.
Everyone was offering me coffee lately. I took it. I needed it.
“Can I talk to you?” Alex asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“Do you mind if I close the door?”
“Go ahead.” He did. “What’s up?” I asked.
I was having trouble keeping my eyes open. I blinked hard.
“Well, do they really need us here this late? I mean, is this a real deadline?”
“Yeah, more or less. They tell us to be here so we have to be here. That’s just how it is.”
Alex nodded. “Right. Look—” He paused. “That’s not what’s bothering me.”
“Ok, so what is?”
“Well, it’s this stupid fire drill crap.”
I perked up a bit on hearing that. “What do you mean?”
I had an idea about what he meant.
“I mean, I hate when they compare this crap that we do to firefighting. We’re not putting out any fires. Mr. Pitchfork told me this was to be my first real fire drill. I wanted to punch him in the face. I mean he acts like lives are at stake, but we’re just paper shufflers.”
We sat in silence for a while. Then I said, “It’s a good thing you didn’t—punch him in the face I mean.” I sighed. “You’re right. You’re right, and I hate it too.”
“Thank God, at least you’re still normal. I’m starting to think that law transforms people into creatures of the night, and not the cool ones either.”
I felt myself smile. This kid reminded me of me when I started, except I had kept more of this stuff to myself.
“We all turn into monsters,” I said. “That can’t be avoided. But as far as fire drills, I hate the expression too. It’s not right for us to pretend that we’re saving lives. But you can guess why they do it. It’s so they can feel important. It’s because what they do—what we do—is so meaningless.”
“A lot of new associates love the expression. Most do, I think. It makes them feel good about what they do, and about doing this nonsense for the rest of their lives. They don’t know any better. But when partners and senior associates do it, it’s shameful.”
“It’s disgusting.” Alex smiled for the first time since he had walked in. “Thanks. I feel a little better.”
“Good, don’t let it get to you too much. You can work here for a few years and then take what you learn here and go elsewhere. You can go somewhere more humane, somewhere where people realize that work is not the most important thing in life.”
“Yeah, I don’t see myself staying here for very long.”
“You shouldn’t,” I said.
“Are you gonna be here much longer?”
I paused. I didn’t know if he meant at this job or that night. I said, “I’m here until I pass out. Then it’s dreamland. What about you?”
“To the bitter end, I guess.”
“Hang in there.”
“Thanks. You too.”
“Yeah, good talk.”
Alex nodded, and walked out. I looked down and saw that my coffee cup was empty.
I got up and walked to our break room. I refilled my cup with water—I was getting thirsty from all the caffeine in my system—and got back to work. But my mind kept coming back to what Alex had said about fire drills.
I wanted to send Tia a text message to see if she was still up, but I didn’t want to wake her. I had done enough that I could go home for a few hours of sleep. But the thought of going home and having to come back after only three or four hours was too depressing. I looked at my BlackBerry and felt alone.
Some time around 4 A.M., I began to nod off at my desk and hit my head on it. That wasn’t professional. The blow woke me and I managed to crawl under my desk. Once I was settled on the floor, I wiped at my face with my hand to check for blood. There wasn’t any. I swatted at a dust bunny, then I passed out.
I woke up at eight the next day. I had an awful taste in my mouth, and for a few seconds, I had no idea where I was.
There was a knocking somewhere. I began to get up and almost bumped my head on the underside of my desk, but I was quick to realize I was under it, and flinched away to safety. I crawled out and stood up. I felt a sharp pain in my head. The knocking came again. Someone was knocking at my door.
I did my best to shake the sleep off. I pressed the palms of my hands into my eyes. I hopped up and down in place a few times. I shook my head about. I combed my hair with my hands. Then I went to the door and opened it.
Behind it stood Mr. Pitchfork, his hand drawn back about to knock again.
“What’s wrong with your face?” he asked.
He cut me off. “And what’s wrong with your hair? Don’t you comb it when you get up? You look like some kind of homeless—like you work for the City or something.”
“I, uh, I slept here. I haven’t had a chance to clean up yet.”
“I don’t care where you slept, you can’t go around looking like that. And you shouldn’t have slept last night in the first place. There was too much work to be done. There were fires to put out. I didn’t sleep. None of the other associates slept. What makes you think you’re special?”
“I didn’t say that.” I couldn’t think of anything better to say. I never could when I was in the midst of these talks. But later—later was when it all came to me. All the right lines always came later, after the chance to say them was gone.
“Go wash up in the sink. And brush your teeth.”
“Ok, ok, take it easy.”
“Take it easy? We have work to do, there’s no easy here. We have veritable conflagrations to put out.”
I sighed in disgust. “No, we don’t.”
Mr. Pitchfork blinked.
“No, we don’t,” I said again. My voice was slow and calm. “What we do here just doesn’t matter. It’s not important. No one will remember it. No one will remember us. No one will remember me. No one will remember you. There is no meaning in making banks richer. We don’t save lives.”
Mr. Pitchfork looked me up and down. “Have you been drinking again? Are you back on the drugs?” Now it was Mr. Pitchfork’s turn to sigh. “I thought we had all turned that corner together. Come into my office. I have a new set of pamphlets. You need to have some more firm support. After all, we care about you.”
Mr. Pitchfork walked back to his office. I stood in my doorframe and watched him go. He always had that bounce in his step. He hadn’t heard a word of what I had said to him. I had gone too far, and I was surprised at what had come out of my mouth.
I hung my aching head and walked to Mr. Pitchfork’s office. He motioned to a chair. I sat down.
“You know,” he said, “I’m not stupid. I can tell when someone is on a drug rollercoaster. It’s ok. You’ll get through this. There have been a lot of lawyers at this firm who’ve gone through the same thing. You’d be surprised at how many people here have been found passed out drunk and high under their desks. It’s just part of the job.”
He rummaged through the pile of papers under his desk and fished out two pamphlets. He offered them to me and I took them.
“Those are for you,” he said. “They’ll tell you what you need to do, where you need to go, and who you need to talk to. I think I understand why you didn’t go along with the intervention we tried earlier. You’re shy about your drinking and drugging. This—” he pointed at the pamphlets, “—is more private. I know you didn’t mean any of the things you said back there. You’re just drunk and high.” He spoke in a comforting voice now.
“Thanks?” I said. It came out as a question, and it was.
“Oh, and, about your head, did that happen when you fell asleep at our desk? You hit your head on it?”
“That’s happened to me too,” he said. “I have just the thing.” He pulled out a helmet. It was a bicycle helmet with “Lawyer of the Year” stamped on it. He offered it to me, and I took it. I put the pamphlets in it.
“That,” he said, “has saved my life more than once. You can use it for now, and I’ll order one just for you. Make sure to put it on any time you’re here past midnight. It’s worked wonders for most of the partners here. Now you know how we do it.”
I sat there. I blinked. I looked at the helmet. I turned it over in my hands. The pamphlets fell out of it. I blinked again. I picked up the pamphlets, turned the helmet over, and put the pamphlets back in it.
“I’m very thirsty,” I said. “I’ll have a look at these pamphlets. Thank you for your help.”
I got up and walked back to my office. He had given me head gear. I was stupefied. I put the helmet on my desk. I threw the pamphlets in the trash. I closed my door. Then I crawled back under my desk, told the dust bunnies that I had missed them, and went to sleep.
I had a smile on my face.
“He gave me a helmet,” I said. “He said it was his secret to success in law. Without it he would’ve busted his head open on his desk, countless times.” I paused. “That’s what he said, really.” I couldn’t help smiling.
“He did not give you a helmet,” Sanjiv said.
I reached behind the display and took out the helmet that Mr. Pitchfork had given me two days earlier. The pocketrats screamed in fright when they saw it. I handed it to Sanjiv. He took it and turned it over in his hands and stared.
“Lawyer of the Year?” he said. “I can’t believe it.”
I smiled. “Believe it. You’re looking at it.”
“Have you thought about looking for a new job? I mean your firm doesn’t sound healthy at all.”
Sanjiv put the helmet down on the counter. He wiped his hands on his jeans. The pocketrats had parted to either side of the helmet above them. They looked at it with fear in their eyes and wouldn’t cross the divide it made in the display.
“They don’t like that thing either,” I said, pointing at the divided pocketrats. I sighed. “It’s not such a bad job, but of course I’ve thought about leaving. That’s what I’m trying to do here.”
“I still can’t believe what you’ve got going. This place is pretty cool. The rats are cute, and those weirdo tourists can’t stay away. Maybe you’re on to something.”
“Looks that way, but we’re not quite there yet. Hey, where’s Amberley? I thought you were gonna bring her by too.”
He shrugged. “She’s gotta work today. I guess cage-dancing is getting bigger here. She’s got a lot of work lately.”
Sanjiv and I caught up some. He was doing well. When he left, he stood outside the store for a while. He stared and stared. After a time, he joined the stream of passersby and vanished.
After we closed shop, Li, Mindy, Tia, and I got down to business. It was time to compare notes for our new project. For the most part, we had found all the same information in our research, and it turned out we were all on the same page as far as what had to be done.
We made a plan, we went over it, we revised it, and we went over it again. We made multiple lists of the supplies we needed, and ordered the supplies that same night. When all the parts got to the store, we would begin.
If an idea could smell, this one smelled like hope.
We did the work at night.
Li and I wheeled the storage tank on a folding hand cart, and Mindy and Tia wheeled the gas compressor in a stolen shopping cart next to us. Mindy had stolen the shopping cart. Where she had found one in Manhattan I didn’t know.
We stopped at steam hotspots, tightened our gas masks, and filled the tank with steam. We looked for the strongest plumes spewing from the street, and focused our efforts on sucking those dry. The Manhattan nightwalkers never gave us a second glance.
It took about an hour and two steam hotspots to fill our tank that first night. Then we turned our carts around and wheeled them back to the store. The four of us brimmed with anticipation.
“Who wants to fill up the first bottle?” Li asked.
“I want to!” Tia and Mindy said at the same time.
I laughed. “We’ve got two takers,” I said. “But who’s gonna try this stuff first?”
As soon as I said that, the mood changed.
“We should leave that for the customers,” Mindy said, reaching for her gas mask, which now hung down her back.
“Are we sure this stuff is safe?” Tia asked.
“Very safe,” Li said.
“We don’t really know that,” Tia said.
“I’ll try it first,” I said. “I mean I’ve been breathing this stuff my whole life. What’s a larger, more concentrated dose gonna do to me?”
“He’s a brave man,” Li said. “Very wise.”
“I dunno,’ Tia said.
We walked the rest of the way in silence.
Back at the store, we set the tank down in the back room, next to our newly acquired vacuum bottling machine. The room was littered with boxes full of bottles, bottle caps, and labels. There was a label maker already broken in with the first set of 100 labels.
Li and I hooked the tank to the bottling machine.
“You two wanna go at the same time?” Li asked, looking at Mindy and Tia.
The bottling device could do three bottles at a time.
“Ok,” Mindy said.
Tia nodded, looking paler than usual.
“Ok,” Li said. “You fill them up, and we’ll watch.” Li took a step back.
The room was quiet now. Mindy and Tia each took a fresh bottle out of the box next to the machine. Mindy looked sure of herself, but Tia’s hand trembled. They placed the bottles into the machine. Then Tia checked that the magazine of bottle caps was in place. She nodded and gave us a thumbs-up.
“Yeah, that’s good,” Li said. “Now push the button.”
I bit my lip and realized I had been holding my breath. I breathed out and was taking in a ragged breath when Mindy pushed the button.
Tia was already halfway across the room to join Li and me when the whirring began. The machine whirred and began to hop up and down.
“Is this normal?” Mindy asked. She was backing up away from the hopping, whirring, bottling machine. She didn’t see the box behind her. Her left foot caught on it and she began to fall. Li lurched forward to catch her.
Just at the moment when it seemed Li and Mindy should collide, the room was filled with a blinding white light. Then the place went dark.
Some things or people knocked about in the dark and then there was silence.
“Everyone ok?” I asked.
“I think I’m blind,” Mindy said.
“You’re not blind,” Li said. “I caught you. We’re all good.”
“I think I’m ok,” Tia said.
The lights in the store took their time getting back to full strength. There was only a faint flicker of light at first, and it solidified and strengthened little by little.
I rubbed my eyes and walked over to the machine. Its metallic gleam was muted in haze. I parted the haze with my hands and saw them. The bottles had been filled and capped. They sat on the machine’s ready tray, winking at me. I picked them up. They were cold.
When I looked up, Mindy, Tia, and Li were standing around me, their wide-eyed faces painted with hungry smiles.
“What?” I asked.
“You know what,” Mindy said.
“You made a promise,” Li said.
I shrugged. It was true.
“Ok, ok.” I picked up one of the bottles and gripped the cap with my free hand. I twisted it, and the top popped off with a satisfying sizzle. The steam began to leak out of the top, tendril by tendril.
Someone gasped, but I was too focused on the task at hand to see who it had been.
I brought the bottle up to my nose and, after exhaling as much air as I could, took a long pull on the bottle. I emptied it in seconds.
I put the bottle back on the machine’s tray and stood there.
“Well? Do you feel anything?” Tia asked.
“I think I can feel it traveling around,” I said.
I could feel something whirring around in my body. Then the whirring stopped.
I shook my head. “Nothing. I don’t feel anything.”
“Nothing? What do you mean nothing?” Mindy asked.
“You probably just inhaled the most toxic substance on the planet,” Tia said. “And you don’t feel anything? Maybe it burned out all of your nerve endings.”
“No, I feel fine. I mean I can still feel things. I think.”
I took a few deep breaths, walked the length of the room, and swung my arms about. I did feel fine.
“That’s good though,” Li said. “Tourists won’t die from it, and they can imagine whatever they want.”
“What happened with the lights before?” Tia asked.
“Maybe next time we should get a new machine,” Li said, “not a used piece of junk.”
“You can’t beat eBay,” Mindy said.
“You can if you get something that works,” I said. “I’ll call an electrician tomorrow. Let’s try to bottle a full batch now.”
The machine worked fine for the next half hour that we used it to bottle our first batch. Mindy and Tia bottled, and Li and I labeled. Then we crated the bottles that were ready for sale and displayed a few in prominent spots in our window, under signs that we had prepared for the unveiling of Scents of NY. The name had been inspired by the pennies that fell out of my pocket, into the gutter outside my parents’ building.
The signs read:
Get the Complete Scents of NY Experience—a combination of scents including: broken glass, urine, garbage, hot dogs, elbow to the face, claustrophobia, cleaning product, bicycle delivery boy, diesel, wet cigarette, old beer, yellow snow, conceit, burnt coffee, immigrant, taxi honk, vomit, horse, fried horse, homeless man, cardboard, movie theater seat, boxed-in, cheap cologne, runner, gutter, Botox, pizza, City tour, falafel, too-fragrant laundry, parking ticket, end of the line, miniature dog, bus, fried nuts, backing up dump truck, yellow taxi, dumpster, Wall Street, yellow mud puddle, hahalash, Empire State Building, and of course, subway…and many more!
Don’t Leave the City Without It!
After everything was ready for the unveiling, we locked up and went our separate ways. Li and Mindy probably went to Mindy’s.
Tia and I went back to her place. I had planned on staying at the store that night and sleeping next to the pocketrats, but there was something about those steam bottles that made me uneasy. And of course I enjoyed spending time with Tia.
That night, I had the most vivid dream of my life.
In it, I was flying high above the City, like Superman. I was zig-zagging among the buildings, trying to fly faster—as fast as I could without hitting a building—when I saw something flying next to me. It was a pocketrat. A flying pocketrat? Would that have made it a pocketbat? I didn’t know the answer to that question.
It had wings—no they weren’t wings—it was in a glider, and strapped to the top of the glider was a unicycle. I wondered how the glider could still work with a unicycle on top of it, but then dismissed the thought. It was happening, and that was that. The gliding pocketrat’s tie flapped wildly in the wind. It was hard to tell what the pattern on the tie was. I guessed it was some kind of paisley.
We flew next to each other for a while. The glider must have been motorized, because the pocketrat had no trouble keeping up with me. I didn’t see a motor, but the glider did leave a trail, like a skywriting plane.
We flew until we got to the outskirts of the City, and it was as if we ran out of fuel when we reached the imaginary border there. When I tried to fly further away, I would just stop and float in place at that border. I couldn’t will myself through it. So I turned back, and saw that the pocketrat was circling close by, waiting for me.
I accelerated back toward the center of the City, with the pocketrat jet-gliding at my side.
The first batch was too strong.
At least it was too strong for tourists. The first tourist who tried a bottle of our new product leapt through the door onto the sidewalk. He forgot to open the door. Glass sprayed everywhere. He ran around in a tight circle on the sidewalk outside the store, careening into passersby. Then he fell down and lay still. The flow of pedestrians didn’t stop or even slow, but found paths of least resistance around and over the fallen tourist.
A wave of panic hit me.
“Is he dead?” I asked.
I turned to Li, Mindy, and Tia and found pale faces staring back at me.
We all walked to the door and looked at the guy on the ground. His eyes were wide. His face was blank. Then, all of a sudden, he sprang to his feet like a ninja and flew down the street. He went north toward Central Park, and bumped into people as he went. He was wearing a pair of purple and green cleats.
The four of us let out deep breaths.
“We need to dilute that stuff,” Tia said.
We closed up the store while we cleaned up the broken glass, and, on the spot, we made a new rule. From then on, the steam could only be used outside the store. After we cleaned up, we took the crates of bottles into the back room. We couldn’t sell any more of that potency. Then we reopened and continued to sell all of our wares except for the steam.
Once we had opened, Tia and I left Mindy and Li to mind the store and went in back. We let off half the contents of each of the first batch of bottles and then resealed them. I was concerned that all this steam wafting out from the back room would make the customers crazy, but we would just have to see. Tia made two signs to put up over the crates of bottles. On each sign was the shadowy image of a face with a bottle pressed to its nose. A thick orange line ran through the image. They were done in marker and in a hurry, but they looked great. There would be no more in-store steam use.
We came out from the back room to rejoin Li. It had taken us about an hour to let off some steam.
The store was a madhouse, and the bottles were taken apart as soon as I had set them down. Li and Mindy were sweating, trying to keep up with the mob at the counter. The pocketrats were in a frenzy, and their now-reinforced displays shook. Tia and I joined Li and Mindy at the counter and tried to restore some semblance of order.
Then the electrician came. I met him and hurried him off to the back room. I explained what had happened the night before with the bottling machine and left him to investigate. Then I went back to help mind the store.
When at last we had managed to push the last tourist out of the store and lock up, the place was bare. We had sold everything—besides the pocketrats of course.
This had never happened before. Maybe it was the steam. We were all exhausted, and speechless.
“Hey,” I said. “Did you guys see the electrician?”
“What electrician?” Mindy asked.
“The guy I showed into the back room.” I pointed to the back room’s open door.
They all shook their heads.
I crept to the door of the back room and peered in. Then I turned around and made come here motions with my hands, so that the others would come and see. They came over and peered in too. Li smiled, shook his head, and went back to the counter. The pocketrats were upset, and he had been trying to calm them down ever since we closed. He went back to cooing at them and telling them everything was going to be fine.
Inside the back room, the electrician was passed out on top of some empty cardboard boxes. The boxes had crumpled under the weight of his stout body. His snoring was so loud that I wondered how we hadn’t heard him earlier. Apparently, Mindy had no interest in this either, and went to join Li. Tia and I looked at each other, nodded, and began to tiptoe over to the electrician.
We stopped when we were over him. He just kept on snoring. He was hugging something. Whatever it was, he had a tight grip on it. I pulled on one of his arms to get a better look at the thing. He muttered something, but didn’t wake. When I had pulled his arm over enough, I saw that it was an empty steam bottle. I pointed, Tia saw it, and she gasped.
I picked up an empty bottle and began to prod him with it. After five or six prods, which were becoming successively harder, the electrician’s eyes rolled open.
“What?” he said. “Where I am?”
He looked startled, and that’s when I realized he had an accent.
“Uhh, you were checking our electricity,” I said. “Remember?”
“What? Oh. Oh yes, yes.” Then he looked down at the bottle he was clutching. He frowned. “I remember going here, I remember checking wires. They were fine. Nothing wrong with them. Then I saw this bottle. I picked it up. I just had a feeling about it, you know? And then it got cloudy.”
“Ok,” I said. “So the electric is all fine? Nothing wrong with it at all? What about the blackout?”
The guy sat up and shook himself. “Wires are perfect. There’s no sign of anything wrong. If something happened, I can’t explain it.”
He insisted that I pay him in steam. That worked for me. I filled up ten bottles, labeled them, and asked him to spread the word. He said that he would. Once he had gone, Tia and I rejoined Mindy and Li. They were busy consoling the pocketrats, who still had not calmed down.
“That guy—the electrician—one of these bottles knocked him out or something, and he’s got an accent,” I said. “Maybe all foreigners are susceptible to this stuff.”
“It looks that way,” Tia said, and shrugged. “Might as well profit from it.”
I nodded. “Guess so.”
I looked at the displays and saw what was happening for the first time. My heart sank.
“What’s wrong with them?” I asked.
“Don’t know,” Li said.
Mindy was close to tears. “We have to do something, we have to help them.”
Something in my brain clicked. I was really on that day.
“I think I know what’s bothering them,” I said.
I picked up one of the empty steam bottles strewn about the place. I held it in my hand, and took slow steps toward the display. With each step, the pocketrats shrank back, becoming more and more agitated. I came closer, and when the pocketrats had no more room to back away, they began to scream. I hid the bottle behind my back, and the screams stopped. The pocketrats didn’t start playing or anything like that, but they looked a little calmer. I brought the bottle back out. The pocketrats drew back and the screams resumed. I hid the bottle again. That was enough testing.
“It’s the bottles,” I said. “We need to hide them.”
Everyone nodded. I thought I saw the pocketrats nod too. We picked up all the empty bottles and crates and took them to the back room. That did the trick. The pocketrats were back to their normal selves, playing, jousting on their unicycles, lifting weights, and doing handsprings.
“I’m so glad that’s all it was,” Mindy said.
“Yeah,” Li said. “But what are we gonna do with the steam now? Deal it from the back room like shady drug pushers?”
“Maybe there’s a fix for this,” Tia said. “A compromise of some kind.”
“Like what?” I asked.
“Maybe we can just partition the steam off from them,” Tia said. “Like how you hid the bottle behind your back. Maybe they’ll be fine if they don’t see that stuff.”
“Ok,” I said. “Let’s give it a go.”
“No,” Mindy said. “Let’s wait a while before we try that. I don’t want them to get traumatized.”
We all agreed that was a good idea, so we waited for about two hours. While we waited, we played with the pocketrats and caught up on trashy TV.
Then we made a three-sided fort of posters facing the displays. I put a tarp over a crate of steam bottles and carried them into the fort. The pocketrats didn’t react at all. That was good.
“Let’s get some paper bags,” I said, “like they have for wine bottles. We’ll bag these bottles up and sell them covered up. I think that’ll do the trick.”
My proposition passed, and from then on, we were able to sell Scents of NY without freaking out the pocketrats.
The pocketrats hated the stuff. I felt there was a clear reason for this, but I couldn’t place it. It swam around in the back of my head, but never made it out of the depths.
I thought the tank we had filled would last us for months. I was wrong. The stuff went fast.
After we diluted it and forbade in-store use, there were no more steam-related incidents. At least there weren’t any that we were aware of. The demand for the steam was growing out of control, but that was a good problem to have. We couldn’t bottle it fast enough. A few days after we introduced it, we began to run out of steam while tourists still clamored for more. We were leaving money on the table, and needed to find a fix. We needed to expand production. That meant more tanks, more bottles, and more time spent gathering, bottling, and labeling. That meant we were short-handed.
We bought another, bigger tank, and increased our incoming bottles, caps, labels, and ink. That would let us sell up to one thousand bottles a day, if only we had the people to prepare the product. The four of us were all overworked already. Even if we weren’t, I was away from the store most of the time, and Li, Mindy, and Tia were busy enough selling the rest of our stuff and our current load of steam.
So I called Boris, a high school friend that I met up with every other year or so when we could both manage it. I suspected that he might be out of work, and he was. We spent a few minutes catching up. It had been a long time.
He wasn’t too interested in working in general, but he was intrigued by what I was doing with the store. So he came over, and after we caught up some more, I explained what I needed. He wasn’t a big fan of the pocketrats, but he was game to help out with the steam, for a cut. I agreed.
Boris would work through the night, filling up our tanks and bottling. Then he would pass out on a cot by the steam bottle fort and sleep through much of the day. He was a night person, so it must have suited him. It suited me because I trusted him. And it helped that he could haul the tanks around with no help. With Boris as our new partner, our lives became easier.
After a couple weeks on the job, Boris called me when I was at work at the firm. I spun away from my computer and picked up.
“Hey, what’s up?” I said.
“Hello. It is me, Boris.”
“How’s it going?”
“Not bad. What about you? How is work?”
“That is too bad. I have to tell you something.”
“Sure. You quitting already? Is Li wearing all-argyle again?”
“No. And yes. He is wearing some—his pants.”
“Oh I hate those.”
“It is ok. Listen, I have been keeping a list. You know that section of the store where you put the bottles, to hide them from the pocketrats?”
“I put a list there, an order list. So that people can order more steam for later, for delivery.”
“Oh, ok.” That was an interesting idea. “Any takers?”
“Yes, a lot of people. I have made a database.”
“Yes, there are many outstanding orders now.”
“Over four thousand now.”
“Four thousand?” My heart had jumped into my throat.
“Yes. I was thinking about setting up a secure order site on the internet. That way these people can pay us and we can track their usage. I think the steam will spread more that way, through word of mouth, if we can get more distribution.”
“I’m guessing the people who’ve left their names with you live in foreign countries?”
“Yes, most of them are in Europe, but a lot are in Japan too. Do you want to know the percentages?”
“No, that’s fine. Who will pay shipping and what do we make per bottle?”
“They pay the shipping, and we make the same per bottle as with sales in the physical store. But this way these people can buy more when they get back to their countries, and anyone from anywhere in the world can order too.”
“That sounds great.” It did sound great. “And you know how to set all of this up?”
“Of course, I am Russian, remember?”
“Right. Ok, just make sure the proceeds go into the business account.”
“How long will this take to set up?”
“It is done, I just wanted your approval before I launched the site.”
“You’ve got it.”
“Good. I will need maybe one person to help with packaging.”
“That’s fine, use anyone you want that you trust. Just make sure they are good to the pocketrats.”
Four thousand orders for steam delivery?
That sounded like a lot of packaging.
At long last, I was sure.
We were churning out close to one thousand bottles of steam a day until the taps ran out. Our backlog of orders was in the thousands, and the website was attracting more and more attention. It was time for me to play a bigger role. It was time for me to start wrapping bottles with Boris.
I left work in the middle of the day on a Wednesday. I wasn’t seen on my way out. I went to the store. By the time I got there I had two emails from Mr. Pitchfork asking why I wasn’t at my post. I ignored them.
“What can I help with?” I asked my crew when I arrived.
Li, Mindy, and Tia were bustling about the place amid the buzz of tourists.
“You quit yet?” Tia asked.
“No. But I’m done for the day.”
“Ok, I think we’re all ok, but Boris has a lot of packaging to do still. It’s unending, and I’m not sure you’ll like it.”
“That’s just what I had in mind. I’ll give it a shot.”
Tia hurried away to deal with a customer.
I went over to Boris. He was sitting behind a now-expanded billboard fort. It looked like there had been an explosion of packing materials and labels and bottles. He and his laptop had been at the center of it. I saw that the tourists picked up ready to go bottles from a different part of the fort, so they were in no danger of breaking their necks on all the packing materials. The part of the fort the tourists visited was stocked with sealed, wrapped-up bottles of Scents of NY, so that the pocketrats couldn’t see what they were.
I tiptoed into Boris’s lair, careful not to step on any of the stuff littered about, and we shook hands.
“Are you here to help?” he asked.
“You got it.”
Boris showed me how to pack up the bottles nice and tight so that they wouldn’t break on their overseas trips. I began to help, and got into a rhythm. Boris checked off paid orders on his laptop as he and I did the packaging. It was nice to sit on the floor and pack things.
While I was sitting there, I overheard what the tourists said about Scents of NY—not a whole lot. As it turns out, my anguish over a name for the steam had been for nothing. Most people just called it the steam. That was it. And it made sense, it was easier to remember, and easier to say—so much for my obsessing.
A few hours passed, and I began to slow down. We did need someone else to come in to help us with the packaging, as Boris had suggested, and we might need to devote a larger space to the outgoing steam. But we could talk about that later.
I got up and made myself some coffee. It wasn’t as good as what Tia made, but I didn’t want to bother her while she was selling to customers. I spent the half hour before closing pacing about the store, trying not to get in anyone’s way.
Just as we were getting ready to close up, a woman walked into the store. It was the woman—the woman from that fateful day that Kelsey kicked me out.
The woman looked just as she had the first time I saw her. She was carrying a teacup in her left hand. The pinky of her left hand was extended so far that it didn’t look like a real, live human pinky. It was white as porcelain—matching the teacup—and was so long that it could have doubled as a pointer.
In the teacup sat a tiny poodle. It whimpered as it tried to stay balanced in the teacup, away from the edges. It looked like the tiny dog was trying not to look down.
The pocketrats had all gone quiet when the woman walked in. Most of them slowed to a resigned milling about. Others froze in place, and began to watch the woman and her teacup with an intense curiosity. Some pointed and whispered to each other.
Then the woman placed her teacup on the counter. It made a light clink, and the poodle ducked down into the cup’s shallow middle, covering its head with its paws. After a moment, the poodle peered out and over the edge. When it caught sight of the pocketrats—that were for the most part subdued and motionless—it shrank back into the center of the cup, shivering and shaking its head.
Li went to greet the woman at the counter.
“Hello,” he said. “How are you today?”
“I’m well, thank you, and you young man?”
“Me too, how may I help you?”
“I would like to find my wonderful Alexander a friend. He has just become so lonely it’s dreadful. I can’t stand to see him in such a pitiful state.”
Then she bent down to the teacup and gave the poodle a gentle pat on the head. “Isn’t that right Alexander?”
Alexander gave her a wide-eyed nod.
“Oh,” Li said. “I see, very good.”
“He’s just a little bit shy, my little Alexander is.”
“That’s ok, our pocketrats have many different personalities. We’ll find Alexander a good match.”
“Alexander doesn’t like to get out of his teacup in public.”
“Ok, we’ll bring out some pocketrats to meet him, and he’ll tell us if he likes them or not.”
Li brought out pocketrats one by one, walking them around the teacup. The woman watched and nodded in time with the pocketrats’ marching.
The poodle was afraid of each pocketrat that Li brought out, hiding deep in its teacup when each one approached.
Then Li must have had an idea. He brought out our set of pocketrat ties, showed the ties to the poodle, and then let it sniff each one. The poodle got excited about a tie whose color matched its fur, and went so far as to forget its fear and peek out over the top of its teacup, in pursuit of the favored tie. Li took the tie behind the display and gave it to a pocketrat, out of sight of the poodle. The pocketrat put the tie on. Then Li brought the pocketrat out and walked it around the teacup.
The woman smiled. “It seems to me that Alexander has chosen his new friend.”
Li nodded. “I think you’re right. Your poodle is very wise.”
“I shall call him Henry. Do you think that’s a good name?”
“Yes, it’s a good name, a very wise name for a pocketrat.”
As if to seal the deal, the poodle climbed out of its teacup. It trotted over to the pocketrat and sniffed at it. The pocketrat patted the poodle on the head.
Then, all of a sudden, the pocketrat backed up, took a running start, and vaulted onto the poodle’s back. Li raised an eyebrow at this, but the woman didn’t react. The poodle didn’t seem to mind, and walked up and down the length of the display, giving the pocketrat a poodle-back ride.
“Can I take him home tonight?” The woman asked. “I would hate to make Alexander wait now that they have become such fast friends.”
“Of course,” Li said.
Then I tuned out of the conversation. I saw Li give the woman the pocketrat care manual and a few months’ supply of pocketrat food, a few of our postcards with our contact information, and a pocketrat carrier. Then he saw her to the door.
I went to the door and locked it, looking down the street after the woman. She had put the teacup and its contents into the carrier with the pocketrat.
“That was her,” I said, announcing it to everyone. “That’s the woman I saw that day. I’m sure of it. I remember the teacup and the way she carried it with her pinky out, and the nervous mini-poodle.”
I waited for a response. Li and Mindy just nodded, as if what I had said was the most obvious thing in the world.
“That was her?” Tia asked. “The woman with the teacup dog?”
Yeah,” l said. “The woman with the teacup dog.”
Tia didn’t say anything for a while. Then she said, “So this whole thing has come full circle. That’s gotta mean something.”
“What do you think it means?”
“I dunno, I think that’s your call.” Then Tia began to clean up.
I looked outside. The street had darkened, and it looked like it was going to rain.
After Mindy and Li had left, Tia and I set up on a couple of sleeping bags and watched TV with the pocketrats. They were fine now that we had a big fort to hide the steam. They pointed to it sometimes, whispering to each other, but they were no longer agitated. It was ironic that the bottles all bore the PocketRat seal of approval, featuring a grinning, tie-wearing pocketrat giving a thumbs-up.
There was nothing good on TV. I flipped through the channels and picked a movie about a half-dinosaur, half-shark that was eating people up. Tia wasn’t a fan, so we switched to a cooking competition. Neither of us could ever get enough of those.
I turned to Tia. “Something’s getting to me,” I said.
I pointed to the fort. “Why do people want that crap? I just don’t get it. It’s crap. Why do they buy it?”
Tia looked thoughtful for a moment, then she said, “You don’t have to understand why people want a thing. You just have to give it to them.”
“You’re right, but it just bothers me, you know?”
“Yeah, but the money will make it alright.”
We curled up and watched the chefs run around on the TV. The camera zoomed in on a female chef just as a bead of sweat dropped from the tip of her nose and landed in the maple-soaked venison she was making. She won the competition.
Tia and I watched a few more episodes of cooking competitions.
Then we fell asleep to the soft pitter patter of rain.
I took slow steps down the hall, and stopped at the door to my office. I unlocked my door and walked in. The place felt even more like a cave than usual. It also felt like someone else’s cave, no longer mine. I took a quick look around and walked back out. I walked down the hall to Mr. Pitchfork’s office and knocked on his half-open door. I walked in without waiting for a response.
He frowned up at me as I closed the door and sat down.
“What is it?” he asked.
I looked at Mr. Pitchfork’s frowning face.
“This is my last day at the firm,” I said. My voice was calm, and every word felt right.
That was not what I had planned. I had planned on sending a formal memo to the partners. I had planned on giving the required two weeks notice so that they could phase me out of the deals I was on. I had planned on doing things the polite way.
“What?” Mr. Pitchfork said. “What did you say?”
“I said this is my last day.”
The room was very still.
“You can’t do that. No, no, no, no. No you can’t. You have to give notice. You can’t just up and leave one day and leave your post. You can’t leave you post. You can’t do that.”
Mr. Pitchfork went on. He yelled and flailed his arms and I imagine he would have paced back and forth in his office if the floor had not been covered with documents. He just yelled and flailed in his chair.
For the first time, I felt bad for him. Maybe it was seeing him trapped in his chair by the walls of paper around him. Maybe it was that the flailing made me think of a drowning person. He was drowning in paper, and I wasn’t going to be next in line.
I got up, said a quick “Goodbye,” opened his door, and left him to flail.
It was not what I had planned, but it got the job done.
Next I stopped by Mr. Perrey’s office. I hadn’t talked to him in a while, mostly because we hadn’t been on the same deal in a long time. He was the reason I had come to the firm, and if all the partners had been like him, I might never have wanted to leave.
I knocked on his open door and peaked in. He was playing on Facebook and had music on in the background. He looked up at me.
“Come in,” he said. “What’s up?”
“Hi,” I said. I paused. “Sorry, I uh—”
“You’re leaving,” he said. “I know. Pitchfork called me as soon as you left his office. He’s screaming his head off in there. But I didn’t need him to tell me. I thought you’d leave sooner or later, and frankly I’m surprised you’ve been here this long. This isn’t the friendliest place lately.” He gave me a rueful smile. “I’d like for you to stay, but it’s up to you.”
“Thanks,” I said. “I’ve learned a lot here, and I’m glad I did this whole law thing for a while. Really. I have mixed feelings. You know I like the work.”
“Yeah, I know. It’s cool. So what’s next on your plan? A long vacation? Or do you have a job lined up?”
I paused. I hadn’t thought about that. In the memo I had planned to write and send, I wasn’t even going to mention what the next part of my plan was.
“Maybe a vacation, I hadn’t thought of that. But, well…the truth is I’ve started a business.”
“Oh, that’s great.” He looked like he was really happy for me. “What kind of business?”
“I’m not sure you’d believe it if I told you.”
I began to tell him but before I could finish, he said, “That’s you? PocketRat? That’s so cool.”
“So you’ve heard of it?”
“Sure, I mean with that ad, wow. I stopped by there once a few weeks ago. Interesting place. Nice people behind the counter, gave me a tour. There was a line stretching down the block to get in when I left.”
“That sounds like a good day.”
Mr. Perrey was quiet for a moment.
“Let’s do lunch,” he said. “I mean it, let’s keep in touch.” Then he leaned in and whispered, “Just between you and me, I’m not gonna stay here much longer either. The group is getting too high strung. It’s getting to me.”
“I bet,” I said, but I was surprised. Mr. Perrey was as high up as you could get in our group, at least as far as I knew. He could set the pace and turn things around some. Maybe he didn’t have as much of a say as I thought, and maybe he really did want to go somewhere more low-key.
“I’m gonna clear out,” I said.
I stood up and offered my hand. Mr. Perrey put out his own and we shook.
“Best of luck,” he said.
“Come by the store sometime. We’ll have some coffee. And you’ll have a chance to see the new product.”
“Sounds like a plan. Take care.”
I went back to my desk and began to pack up my things.
Wait, what was I doing? What things? Paper clips? Law journals? Closing CDs of the deals I had done? To hell with that crap. That part of my life was over. I put post-its on everything and wrote “Please Incinerate” on all of them. I put them everywhere, on documents, on my computer, on my phone—I hated that ringing monstrosity—on my chair, on my sleeping bag, on my pillow, on my closing binders, on the organizational charts on my wall, and even on my Bloomberg Businessweeks.
When I was out of post-its I stopped. My heart was beating out of my chest, and it felt good.
I passed by Alex’s office on my way out. He was sitting at his desk, scraping at his face with a razor. The razor had an orange, plastic handle, and there was a package full of them on the floor by his desk. In his other hand he held a BlackBerry. He nodded at it again and again, as if he was reading something. His lips were parted, his eyes were glazed, and his movements were slow. I waved to Alex, but he didn’t look up.
I took the elevator down for the last time and walked out of the revolving door. It felt strange to leave work while it was still light out. New Yorkers rushed around me, brushing against me. They hurried to grab a bite to eat, to get back to their jobs, to go to their doctor’s appointments, to get their coffees and to meet their friends. They were all moving very fast—too fast.
I realized that in my rush to get out of the building I had forgotten to say goodbye to Tom. He’d understand. I’d get in touch with him soon.
I walked over to Park Avenue and turned south. I had no destination in mind. I thought about the store for a moment and then the thought was out of my head.
I walked south.
The air was crisp. I didn’t have the rush I thought I would have after quitting. I didn’t feel much of anything, except that there was a strange sensation in my body, like my blood had begun to flow more freely—like my heart had started to do its job again. I knew I was free, or at least freer. The clients to whom I was now beholden were my own, not a partner’s. That was something. That was a step in the right direction. I knew I had what I wanted, but I couldn’t feel it yet. It was just a concept, and it would take time to work its way down from my mind into the rest of me.
Then the homeless man with the bright eyes was there. I remembered him. He was sitting on the same standpipe that he had sat on the previous year. He looked at me and his eyes flashed. I could tell that he remembered me.
He stood up. “Could you spare some change today, sir?”
I felt light-headed. I pulled my tattered wallet out of my pocket and handed the man three twenties and two singles. That was all I had.
He tipped his hat. “Thank you and God bless.” He sat back down.
I turned and began walking away.
The ground shook as a train passed beneath me.
All of a sudden I walked into something and hurt myself just below the knee.
It was a standpipe, just like the one the homeless man was sitting on. But it hadn’t been there a second ago.
I pointed down at the standpipe and turned back to the homeless man. “Did you see that?” I asked. “That wasn’t there a second ago, I’m sure it wasn’t.”
The homeless man smiled, but said nothing.
I stood in front of him for a minute, and when it was clear he wasn’t going to answer, I turned away.
Then I started walking.
I knew where I was going.
I called her and told her what I had done. Tia told me that it was wonderful, that I was free at last.
Then I heard a man’s voice in the background, and felt a familiar stab of jealousy. I asked her who that was and she told me that her dad was visiting her. I felt foolish at once. She invited me over to meet him, and I accepted.
I ate dinner with Tia and her dad at a small Mexican place in Midtown that only the locals knew about. I had chips and guacamole and almost a whole pitcher of sangria. I didn’t feel like anything else, and I could now drink on a work night.
Tia and I walked her dad back to his hotel. He shook my hand, hugged his daughter, and then left us for the evening. Tia and I wandered around Midtown for a while, and when we had breathed enough of the fragrant City air, we went back to Tia’s apartment. Over a bottle of Cayuga White, we talked of the future. We talked of new products, new store locations, vacation spots, children, retirement, everything. Tia made me feel easy, like everything had fallen into place.
I woke up at 4:23 A.M.
I stroked Tia’s hair.
She rolled over and hugged the sheets. The sheets were rumpled—that was right.
I left without waking her.
We would see each other soon.
Back at the store, I wrote it down.
I took an invoice out from under the counter and scratched my new idea into it. I folded the invoice up and stuffed it in my front pocket.
Then I walked around the displays and watched the pocketrats. Some played and some fought. Some slept and some paced. Some feasted and some measured their waists with tape. Some laughed, some argued, and some scurried about in the midst of some unknown pocketrat task.
One pocketrat stood at the edge of his display. His paws and nose were pressed up against the glass. He watched me as I walked over to look at him. We locked eyes, and for a long moment, the room spun.
Then he looked away and the room steadied. He went to his cot, knelt by it, and stuck his paw beneath it. From under his cot, he pulled out his tie, and began to put it on.
I took a few steps back. I put the coffee on and laid out some maps and postcards and rolls of film. Then I went to the window and looked out at the street.
With my hands and face pressed up against the glass, I watched the City stir.
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