by Michael Hogan
Morning. Cellphone. Ringtone:
Sedaka with a vermilion hat. And what the hell kinda’ name is that? Hungarian?
It’s Marnie. Fire of my loins. Nails, chalk and graphite, the dulcet tones and musical stylings of Ilse Koch. Marnie: My first wife, only wife, former wife. Say it soft and it’s almost like braying. Marnie in high dudgeon: On the rundown: Tomorrow afternoon at Bearden, Christmas Pageant. Leah: She’s your daughter; she’s only ten for Christ’s sake. She’ll be a wise man.
Christmas. I think: What happened to Halloween?
I say: “I’ll be there.”
“You won’t disappoint her?”
“I will, I mean I won’t. I’ll be there; I will not disappoint her.”
“Of course we won’t sit together. Henry will be there.”
“How nice for him.”
“He noticed you missed two payments.”
“Well, I noticed and told him.”
“Of course you did.”
“It’s a court order, Joseph. We made an agreement.”
“When I was employed and before you married a billionaire.”
“He’s not quite a billionaire. Anyway, all of that’s irrelevant. We made an agreement, the court approved it, and you owe me.”
“So here’s a new agreement: You pay me what you owe me or forget your time with Leah this Christmas.”
“Right now you have Leah from the afternoon of the 25th till dinnertime of the 26th. But if you don’t pay up…”
“I’m taking her to The Nutcracker. I already got the tickets for chrissake!”
“Henry will take her.”
“It’s sold out.”
“Nothing’s ever sold out for Henry.”
The click. The phone in hand. The rise, dip, rise and fall of anger. Breathe.
Four weeks to Christmas. Thanksgiving still in the eaves. God, I hate this place. One room. Type of place they find you ten days after you die. The odor. And things you don’t want to see in your obit: “And, of course, all the cats had to be destroyed…”
Had the place on 63rd for years. A rental in New York, impervious to recession, rebate, crash, natural disasters, terrorism, the Bush Family or The Muslim Brotherhood. Prices rise like Jesus over Carmel. Going, going… Sublet it to Raymond C. in September. He’s got nothing but money. Uses it now to rendezvous with his mistress from Hunter.
I went looking for cheaper digs. The Brooklyn realtor called this place funky with old world charm.
I said: “Funky with old world charm.”
“That’s what I said,” he said.
“But what you mean is dangerous with a water closet.”
“It’s an apartment.”
“It’s a room,” I said. One room and a hot plate.
“It’s 750 a month,” he said.
“I’ll take it,” I said, and two weeks into it I’m fighting off depression with light bulbs and vitamin D. Doc said he couldn’t prescribe more Zoloft till I pay him for the last thirty office visits, which were free when I was a Wurlitzer Prize wannabe.
I get another call. Voice is fucked up. He says: I’m so and so, and I want to start an e-zine. He says I need a good writer to help me get it off the ground. I look around the room. I hate this place, and who is this guy? How did he get my number? How do you spell so and so? He says he’s a UFO guy with a trust fund. He says he wants an e-zine about aliens. He says he wants it current, wow-and-now, immediate, wants it to pop the bubble, to pin skeptics’ wings to cork boards, wants it to controvert incontrovertible truths, because the people don’t know what they don’t know. After all, John Lennon saw one, Regis Philbin saw one, the Mayor saw one, three hundred law students taking the New York state bar exam saw one, and those TexMex jarheads east of Roswell got nothing on the good citizens of Gotham.
I say: “Sounds like you got a hell of a story to tell.”
He says he does, but he’s no writer. He’s got no clue about point of view, active voice, verbs or the diminishing returns of one too many modifiers.
“Well, you need some of those,” I say.
We go back and forth with it. Maybe he’s crazy, but crazy people can still write checks. I think: Hey, what’s the big deal? I take a bus to Cadman Plaza, take the train to South Street, change for the uptown, scout out the old neighborhood and see what this midtown mogul wants to do and how much he’s willing to pay.
So, I make the trip, get off at 63rd and spot my favorite bar, a neighborhood thing when this was my neighborhood. It’s almost 1:00 so I figure it’s late enough to make it respectable. I can put off the whole AA debate for another week. I sit at the bar and shake hands with Patty Ryan. Himself. He pours me the usual, and we talk a little nothing, just a line of words that signify something like friendship, though, to be honest, to be fair, it’s not.
“So what’s the future hold for ya then?” Patty says.
Patty remembers me as the investigative reporter, a Woodward and Bernstein clone for the new millennium, standing proud in the after glow of those awful decades when I was just a kid: Nixon in San Clemente as bitter as a guy can be just to prove he’s a guy ’cause he thinks bitter’s got to be one of those colored balls on a guy’s DNA.
I investigated. I reported. Yeah, I did that and more. Bush in Crawford, Texas. That sad woman: President Bush, please tell me why my son had to die. Too hot for McLuhan-cool media, but she had a point: Neighbor on your left throws a rock through your window, so you burn down the house that belongs to the neighbor on your right. Bush logic. Cheney-world. Rummy, the arrogant prick. Neo-cons. Say it soft and it’s almost like praying. Make you want a take a shower and swallow soap. They even nominated me for the Pull-it-off-Wurlitzer Prize (that Palm Beach divorcee with her trumpet), but they gave it to a former classmate who did something in Iraq that got him killed or wounded or something like that.
So, I tell Patty about the e-zine guy.
“E-zine,” Patty says, “and what the hell is that when it’s ta’ home?”
“It’s a magazine,” I say, “electronic, you know, like on your computer or iPad or whatever else they’re making people wait in line for.”
“Jesus Christ Almighty,” Patty says, “you know, Mr. Buckett, this whole fookin’ thing’s outta control. Nothing exists anymore. Used to be if you wanted to listen to music you’d go to the music hall and they’d trot out these men in penguin suits with their brass and wood and skins. But they were real, livin’ and breathin’ real, blood and offal real, each and every one of them, and after that, say your wife’s got the grip, and you can’t get yourself to a music hall, well, you’d go out and buy yourself a vinyl frisbee with the fookin’ Beatles or U2 or Midge Ure, but the fookin’ thing was real. You could hold it in your hand, and if you broke it — well, that was that. Same with the tapes and the little silver things they got. But now, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, you don’t need a bag to carry the shite you buy ‘cause it’s in the fookin’ air for chrissake, and all you gotta do is find some kind of window screen where it can show itself when it has a mind to.”
“He was one of the Live Aid guys — with the Irish lad.”
“For certain he was.”
“Funny name, Midge Ure.”
“I think it’s Hungarian.”
I walk to Park Avenue. Average day. Too many people, snow in the gutters, ice plates on the sidewalk. Santa with a four-day stubble under a fake beard swings the ding-dong. Next to him a pale girl, too thin, hollow eyes, a little match girl, plays “Adeste Fidelis” on a little keyboard. I drop a five into the bucket. She notices and says thank you. Santa’s oblivious. Busy time of year. Too much on his mind.
I enter the building, take the lift to 16. Find the door, enter and see this guy with the hair plastered down like paint over his forehead.
There’s a lot of “yes” and “no” and “what” before we get to where I find out who he says he is and what he wants to do.
“Ever hear of MUFON?” he asks.
“Heard of ‘em.”
“I’ve been abducted four times a year since I was 30. It’s the single unifying thread of my adult life. I know how far outside the mainstream this places me. There are people who think I’m crazy…”
“I’ve endured all of that and more. But I know what I know, and what I know tells me there’s things in heaven and on earth that are unknown to all of us.”
I like the guy. He’s okay. Sure he’s got the skinny neck of a Diane Arbus fanatic, but he’s wounded too, and honest about it. I ask him what he wants from me, and he tells me about his trust fund and this e-zine thing, how he wants to spread the word about aliens and what they want with us — what they want to do to us.
“What do they want to do to us?” I ask.
“We’ll get to that,” he says.
After we toss around some ideas for the e-zine, we settle on terms. They’re very generous terms. He opens a desk drawer. Takes out an envelope. Shows me a grand in cash. Ten Bens, so freakin’ crisp they could cut my thumb off. He says it’s a good faith thing. Then he puts the cash back in the drawer.
He says: “You begin tomorrow, and the money’s yours. You can make your own hours, free to come and go as long as you get enough pages put together every two weeks to slap another mag on the market.” We shake hands. His grip is strong and damp.
Afternoon. I debate the walk to Rock Center, maybe catch some SNL newbie on ice, under Prometheus or Apollo, the gold giant the rich guy thought about when he sunk his skating rink. I visualize the scene and feel the snow on my face: six pronged flecks, like an itch that melts away, and then my mind’s eye recalls Himself, Patty Ryan, and the dark oak panels, the brass bar, the light on glass bottles, the tinkle of cubes, the false promise of warm conversation. I know it’s bullshit, but knowing it’s bullshit and contending with the gravity of desire are two different things, like two trains leaving Chicago in opposite directions at different speeds. I head back to the bar, order a shot and a beer and help myself to the larder by the back wall. It’s free.
Late afternoon and Santa Stubble Claus ducks in for a shooter. He’s not a happy guy. Ringing that bell, standing in the cold and the damp and the storm that’s about to ice the city. I tell Patty to pour him a drink. Patty shakes his head to warn me off, but I’m expansive, newly employed, a few bucks in my pocket, a grand tomorrow, a Pull-it-zer finalist.
“Go ahead, give ‘im one on me,” I say, and Patty shakes his head and does just that.
Santa takes the drink and downs it with one gulp. No recognition, no acknowledgment or thank-you-very-much. One gulp and the back of his hand over the phony white beard that needs a washing. So, there you have it: Give freely and never look for a reward. Don’t let the right hand know what the left hand is doing. Dateline Jerusalem: Jesus endorses schizophrenia. Calls it charity.
Santa downs a few more and starts to rumble about this or that. There’s an accent. The voice is rough, crude, Eastern European, Soviet bloc, iron curtain voice with hints of clans and family feuds. The rapid eye movement of the shifty and shrewd.
Door opens and in comes the little match girl with the portable keyboard slung over her shoulder. “C’mon,” she says. It’s not English, but it’s universal. She’s been freezing out there, and it’s time to go. Santa whips around knocking his glass. He slaps the girl so hard she falls back.
Patty yells at the guy. I come around the bar and help the girl up. Patty jumps the bar, grabs Santa by the throat and tosses him out. He tells me to take the girl to the back. I’m gentle. I’m kind. I talk in a low voice. I try to reassure her. I tell her we’ll protect her. I help her with her coat. Underneath she’s wearing a Bearden sweatshirt. I tell her my daughter, Leah, goes to Bearden. I tell her tomorrow they’re having their Christmas Pageant. I tell her I’m going because I said I would. I ask if she’s ever gone there. But she doesn’t say a thing, all the time her big eyes watching me, judging me, assessing the who, what, where, and why of it all. She’s older than she appears. She could be twenty. But she’s so malnourished. “Are you okay?” I ask, and she stands up and scrambles out of the place.
“What the hell was that all about?” I ask.
“It’s the fookin’ holidays, Buckett. They can be hard for some people.”
Next day. Way too early. I take a cab to midtown. A luxury, but I figure why not. I’m employed. Gonna put out the best e-mag in the country. We’ll have aliens and abductees and doctored photos, conspiracies up the wazoo. Christ, we’ll have Harry Fookin’ Truman in the Oval Office signing off on memos about E.T. over Capitol Hill circa Fifty-something. Oh yeah. We are going to kick some alien butt.
I get to the office too early. I don’t have a key. I debate going back down for a coffee and buttered roll, but the office door’s ajar. Lights are on. Somebody’s getting on it, getting’ the word out. We’re being invaded; we’re being abducted. That book — To Serve Man, it’s a cookbook!
In the office a thirty-something woman, basic New York professional, with the short hair, straight, severe, thick eyeglass frames, large and round, more competent than confident, everything in place, is agitated, upset. No time for introductions because two guys in black suits, white shirts and those Secret Service skinny ties brace me with twenty questions before I can take a breath.
“When did you last see him?” the first Dick asks.
“Riley. Riley Canning-Malley,” the second Dick says.
“The editor, the owner who runs this place,” Dick One says.
“What do you want with him?” Dick Two asks.
“You and he have some trouble?” Dick One asks.
“And what are you here for?” Dick Two asks.
“Money? Is that it?” Dick One asks.
“He’s a parasite,” Dick Two says. “Look at him. They always come back for more.”
“What? To admire your handiwork?” Dick One asks.
I don’t say a thing. I mean what’s a guy to say? After awhile they get tired of the twenty thousand questions game, and I get a chance to say what I know about Riley Canning-Malley and his e-zine.
Kara, the woman, Riley’s confidante, colleague and squeeze, finally tells me what the huff-a-puff’s all about: “I got a call about three,” she says. “It was Riley. He wasn’t making sense. He said he’d been kidnapped. And that was the word — ‘kidnapped’ — not ‘abducted,’ but ‘kidnapped.’”
“Doesn’t sound like some space cowboy thing.”
“He did say ‘kidnapped.’”
I said: “Kidnapped is what humans do.”
In the back room the Dick Twins go crazy on the forensics crew. There were smudges on the windowsill, but they’re gone now. As for the window, it’s got a clean cut, a perfect circle, large enough for a thin man if you broke his collar bones.
Six hours into it, just before noon, I volunteer to go for coffee and sandwiches. Dick One says okay, but Dick Two vetoes the idea. Then I tell them I have to leave for my daughter’s Christmas Pageant. They look at me like I’m from Mars. I say: “You know, Christmas. Kids. Charlie Brown, mangers, shepherds, all that stuff.”
Dick Two asks where’s the pageant.
“That’s a fancy school,” he says.
“Bearden,” Dick One says. “Costs a goddamn fortune.”
“I went there,” Kara says.
Dick One says: “I told my little girl, I said: Booth shot Lincoln whether I pay a fortune for Bearden or send you to P.S.72 for nothing.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Dick Two asks.
“I went to Bearden, and I loved it,” Kara says.
“Okay, then,” Dick Two says to me. “You can go, but don’t leave town anytime soon.”
Another cabdriver. This one’s wearing the pale blue turban, huge, silk, wrapped around his head like a mushroom cap. Out the window, I see nothing, made blind by vague memories: The dulcet tones… Nothing’s ever sold out for Henry.
Halfway uptown I break the ice: “How’s it going?”
He answers with the Peter Sellars “O, most pleasant experience” from a late 60’s movie with the Love American Style feel: over saturated color, Claudine Longet during Andy, before Spider. O, most unpleasant experience.
He drops me at Bearden, the expensive place Henry pays for, though it was my name that got her in.
Front doors, entrance, bridge of freakin’ sighs. Abandon all hope… I hated school. Inside: smell of leather and lemon wax. Wood everywhere, old, polished. I imagine twenty-two coeds stepping down the spiral staircase in classic cable-stitch from Talbots. Doesn’t happen, though. This ain’t the sixties, seventies or eighties. I’m a man out of time. An alien.
A too-thin Rita-meter-maid-sergeant-major directs me to the auditorium. I sit in the back. Mid-show, angels tell shepherds about a baby in Bethlehem. Shepherds overact to the breaking news. Dateline Bethlehem: Surprise, fear, then the pointing and compulsion to leave their flocks and walk across the stage to the cardboard stable. Three wise men enter stage right. Leah’s the shortest. She carries the frankincense. Somebody must have lit the coal in the ciborium; the smell begins to fill the place. My daughter steals the show.
After the show I visit with Leah and her mother and her step dad. Leah’s great. The cutest girl in America. She’s got rouge on her face and charcoal over her eyes. Her smile is dazzling, and it kills me the way something so precious kills me just before I surrender to something I don’t feel very often because this human condition wasn’t made for paradise.
Leah’s step dad, the famous Henry, for whom there is always a ticket at the box office, asks me how I liked the show, and I thank him for the soft-ball question with the self-evident answer. Good small talk all around. He’s a hedge fund guy. Survived ’08, but got a nervous tick from it all, just over his lip. He’ll be going along fine, and then it’ll happen. He tries to pay it no mind, except for the fact he knows it shows and that someone might want to ask about it.
Leah’s mom shifts her weight from one foot to the other, a nervous thing. She’s thinner than she was a year ago, and the smoking continues to take a toll. She coughs like an asbestos worker, and she’s got early-croc under her thyroid eyes.
I make my apologies; I have to leave. I’ve got some important things to do. I don’t know when I’ll be free again, anxious and hoping I don’t begin to sweat, because my former wife knows me too well, knows that I’m unemployed and that unemployment’s the trigger that drives me to places I’ve been before and hoped never to see again.
“I stopped by your place last week,” Marnie says.
“Oh, really? Was I home?”
“No, you weren’t.”
“Explains why I didn’t see you, then.”
“There was another man there.”
“You must mean Raymond.”
“Yes. He was entertaining some very young woman.”
“That would be his mistress.”
“So, now you’re renting your apartment by the hour?”
“No, dear. Raymond requires much more than an hour.”
And with that I’m about to leave the happy family, two-thirds of which used to be my family, one-third of which still carries may last name, when Marnie says, “Well, then, since you’ve become such an entrepreneur I expect there will be no trouble with that little thing we talked about.”
Her eyes are dark, the jaw’s set, she shivers like a snake.
I think: Ten Bens; ten whens; ten nevers.
I ask: “Were you born cruel, or was it just something you picked up on the road of life?”
Outside, with the early setting of the pale sun, it’s almost dark. I start down the street and catch a movement out of the corner of my eye, the place where the fairies live and play and runaway. My grandmother used to say that. God love her; she was nuts.
I keep on till I hear footsteps behind me, light steps, small feet. I turn and see her, the little match girl with the Bearden sweatshirt under her cloth coat.
“Sir,” she says.
“Yes, I remember you. Are you alright?
“Is it your father? Has he been hitting you?”
“He’s not my father.”
“No, sir. He’s Ukraine from Brighton Beach.”
“Okay, so he’s your guardian then?”
“No, sir. He’s my jailer, and I am prisoner.”
“Jailer and prisoner, sir.”
“I see, or I think…”
“No, sir. You don’t see, you cannot see, because it is more than person can see, but must see with eyes to know what he is doing.”
I take her to a diner on the corner of Third. We enter and sit in a booth. She orders hot water and a lemon. I offer to buy her a meal, but she says no. I don’t want to ask her to repeat herself, but I need to know more. I ask her where she comes from, and she tells me from a village in western Soviet Union.
“You mean Russia,” I say.
“I mean what I say,” she says.
“How did you get away today, to meet me outside the school?”
She tells me about a circus, about how the men who train the elephants from birth will tie their legs to a post in the ground with a steel chain. “Baby elephants can’t break steel chain,” she says. “And when elephant grows huge, he can break chain in second, but won’t do it, because he thinks he cannot.”
“Okay,” I say.
“I’m grown elephant who breaks chain. Now, will you come with me?”
“Of course,” I say. “Where to?”
“Where we are.”
“Where is that?”
“Where the queen lives.”
“Yes, sure, do you have an address?”
She reaches into her pocket and pulls a label torn from some Russian language magazine. It says Boris Zelnikova with an address in Queens.
I offer again to buy her a meal, and she declines again. I hear the accent. It could be anywhere east of the Vistula: Polish, Russian, Ukrain, wherever. She is so pale I can see the blue veins under the skin tracing complex patterns.
We take a cab. She says she’s never been in a cab. She looks out the window as we cross the Manhattan Bridge. We arrive at the address. She’s nervous. She looks all about. Is someone watching? Has someone followed us?
I tell the cabbie to wait. I tell her to wait in the cab. She grabs my arm to hold me back. I tell her it’s safer if I go alone.
I ring the bell. I hear one sound from inside and then nothing. I ring it again. Nothing. I shake the doorknob, expecting to return to the cab to get a key. But the door’s unlocked. Baby elephants can’t break the chain, full-grown elephants won’t. I enter.
Place is dark and smells of all the waste, shit and piss of a state prison. I hear footsteps overhead. I hear a low moan. I move to the back. Nothing there. Ratty old furniture, a kitchen with nothing on the counters or in the cupboards. The trashcan’s empty. Overhead more footsteps.
I start up the stairs. I call out: “Is anybody there?” Of course there is, but I want them to know I’m here too, that I’m coming, that I’m about to see whatever it is they’re hiding. And that’s when I put it together. Boris, the pig-Santa, Brighton Beach, Russian mob, a little girl who can’t speak English, sex traffic, girl trade, bad mojo all around.
I reach the top of the stairs. Down a hallway there’s a closed door. I try to open it, but it’s locked. I knock and call out. There’s a moan; someone’s crying. More footsteps like the chitter-chat of a trapped mouse, scurrying this way and that. I call out again; I tell them to open the door. I check the doorknob. It’s loose; the lock is pathetic. I slam the door with my shoulder. The wood splinters. I hit it again. The door swings open. The room is black. Windows boarded up. Bad air and the awful stench. I trip over a mattress. Two skinny legs wrapped in a sheet. I look for the person. It’s a young woman. I look around the room. There are seven or eight women here. I’m not sure at first, so I count again. Eight and the girl in the cab makes nine.
Two days later I call a friend in the DA’s office. I ask him who’s investigating this thing. I tell him I hope the INS don’t screw up the case against Boris. Boris has got to pay. My friend tells me nothing’s easy when it comes to “this kind” of prosecution, to the law, to the Russian mob, to illegal aliens, even if they have been abused.
I say: “What do you mean ‘this kind’ of prosecution?”
“You know what I mean.”
“So, what are you telling me?”
He says: “They assigned these two detectives, Grimsby and Malick.”
“Let’s just say they’re not the most reliable.”
“What do you mean?”
“They say they can’t find Boris.”
“What? I could find him in a day.”
“They say he went back to Ukraine.”
“No way; those guys never go back.”
“I’m only telling you what they told us…”
“They’ve been scared off or they’ve been bought off.”
“I’ve got some people making inquiries.”
“Yes — ‘inquiries’.”
“Well, that’s just great. ‘Inquiries’ is one of those ‘form-a-committee’ words that tells me what’s really going on here.”
Week goes by. Two weeks. Three weeks. Sleigh bells. Hear those crazy sleigh bells. Rudolph, Der Bingle, George Bailey and Donna Reed in a Buffalo suburb, and what happened to those women in Queens?
I call Birdy Lambert. He owes me. He pokes around and tells me what he knows: INS sent the whole crew back to Romania or someplace like that. They’re free, at least that’s what the Romanian government says, but their travel’s been restricted. Maybe someday they’ll get back to their homes, but it will be up to Romania, since it was the only country that would take them in. He says: “They got red tape we never thought about.”
I ask him about Brighton Beach. He tells me Boris has been there from day one. He’s a low level guy who tried to move up with the sex trade guys. “But now he’s just a fuck-up. All they’ll let him do is shake down some locals. He’s a bag man. He’ll always be a bag man.”
“He’s a bad guy, but you know that. He beats up women, old women, young women, kids who don’t know better, and some old guys without teeth. He’s a bully.”
So, Boris is still in Brighton Beach, and the cops can’t find him. INS got involved and fucked it up. The DA says it’s ongoing, but it’s ongoing with inquiries and an asterisk, as in “forget about it.”
As for my job with Riley Canning-Malley, the UFO guy, it went like this: Two weeks after he disappeared he surfaced naked in the middle of the night in a parking lot in the South Bronx. Cops took him in and did a psych eval. Some crazy Ph.D. from Bellview said Riley was sane, in touch with reality and all the other words they use for the rest of us they let roam the city unattended. Week after that he calls me and asks me to meet him in a diner on 86th street. I go there. He’s sitting with Kara, his lady friend, Bearden alum, the professional with the Shindig-dancer glasses.
“I was abducted,” Riley says.
“I thought you were kidnapped.”
“Abducted. Four times a year. This was number four.”
“Abducted, then. So how are things on Saturn?”
“They’re coming,” she says.
“I’m going,” I say.
He grabs me by the arm. “I’ll pay you.”
“Whatever you ask.”
“Cab fare. Cost me thirty to get here. Thirty to get back. Sixty, no, make it seventy.”
“You’ll write for me, then?”
“You’ll take your meds?”
“He doesn’t need meds,” she says.
“Everybody needs meds,” I say.
That night when I got back to the one room, I zapped some frozen stuff in the tissue box microwave from Goodwill, put the radio on and went to bed.
I always put the radio on when I sleep. I’ve done it for years. Used to be the right wing talk shows for puffy boys, the soft bastards who talk too much and hide in their studios, always trying to pick a fight and then letting somebody else do it for them, somehow making money off the effort. Puffy boys. Rush Limbic’s a puffy boy. William Randolph Hearst was a puffy boy. I don’t know about Pulitzer.
At night when I sleep I plan things, and when I can’t sleep, I build things in my head. I’ve done that my whole life. First thing I built in my head was a pirate ship. Did it when I was five. Hardest part was how to get the wood to bend to make the hull smooth. At five you make assumptions about things like wood. As I got older I built other things, more complex things. I learned about electricity and wires and forces and vectors. All that stuff: physics, order and aesthetics, the line and the curl. Newton and his calculus. Leibniz and his German sense of humor. All those lines with the little curly thing to measure the slope of some fat guy’s life after you hook him up to enough AC/DC to fry him slow over a bucket of coal — slow because you want him to have enough time to think about what he’s done and why it’s only right that he pay for it. And isn’t that what we all need, a little time to think about what we’ve done and why it’s only right that we pay for it?
Christmas eve day I head out to Brighton Beach. I’m wearing one of those Russian bear-in-the-woods hats, a Karamzov Brother moustache and those thick sex-offender glasses with the frames that cover half the face.
Birdy Lambert’s reliable so I know the score, the schedule, the timing, the place. This shit takes a little effort, but, hey, you want something done, yadda yadda yadda…
Things are set up. I plan things when I sleep, and I build things when I can’t sleep. Sometimes I really build them. Sometimes they really work.
Brighton Beach. Salt in the air, and the streets are filled with old snow. I hang out at a tea house with the bright red curlicues and doilies and twenty samovars on a shelf. The place smells of cabbage and onions. The waitress is big, one of those shot putters they sent to Mexico City in 68, the ones who had some trouble with the pesky gender thing.
It’s mid-afternoon. I sip the tea. Black, strong, too strong, really. But very hot.
Stubble Claus comes in about four. He’s still in his Santa suit. He struts around for awhile, carrying his red bucket. Then he nods to the back room where he and the shot put queen disappear through split curtains. I stand up. There’s only one other customer and she’s so bundled up she could be dead as well as alive. Either way she’s frozen solid and doesn’t bother to look.
I stumble into the back room and spill the tea over his hands. He screams. I take out the syringe, jam it into his neck, and it’s like Born-Fucking-Free when they put the lion down. I turn to Svetlana. I say: “Deese man been screwing my Boss, screwing you, screwing me. New man come next week. Have a nice day.”
I drag him through a back door to an empty lot and the rental car. I toss him in the back. Of course I’ve got a gun.
The place: What can I say? Not much. I can’t say where it is. I can’t say how I got it. I can’t say how long I’ll have it. All I can say is what Boris saw when he woke up.
He was in his Santa outfit. He was disoriented, but then who wouldn’t be? And he was pissed. Really pissed. He did the usual push-pull with the leather straps tied to his arms and legs. As for the chair, I’d made it special for the event. The legs were taller than usual, so there was room to put my bucket under the seat. As for the seat, I’d rigged it up with this device. Thing was, if Boris got up, the release of pressure on the seat pad would trigger the geek-approved-unibomber-endorsed incendiary device and blow Mr. Boris into so many sloppy pieces that if they ever make a movie of the whole thing, the special effects guy will have to toss a can of lentil beans in my face to make it look real.
“Hey, Boris? You hear me?”
“Yeah, you mother…” And Boris laid out the words he’d picked up here, there and everywhere. But, of course I had a gun. And words don’t hurt all that much.
I took this tree limb cutter with the super long handles and from six feet away I laid the blade on the top of his hands. I debated whether I should take a finger or two just to assert some authority, show the fucker who’s boss. But I’m not a cruel man. I’m an angry man, I’m a pissed off man, I’m a man of severe intent and intermittent sorrow. But I’m not a cruel man. Then again…
I opened the blades and set them like scissors about the tip of his pinky. I snapped them shut. They worked. It was just a nick. A quarter inch. A drop or two. Nothing much. No, I am not a cruel man.
When he stopped screaming, I said: “So, Boris, here’s the deal. I’m going to let you go, okay, but first I gotta do two things. Number one, that bucket there — not yours, mine, I’ve already taken care of yours — well, that bucket there is filled with coal, and it’s for you. That’s right, Santa, a bucketful of coal for you for Christmas, because you’ve not been a very good man. Fact is you’ve been a monster. And you know that. But why argue the obvious when I’m the jury around here, and I’m persuaded.
“So, we got a bucket of coal that I’m going to place under your ass — briquets, really. Got a good deal on the bag. I mean who’s buying briquets in December? Well, I soaked the little turds with lighter fluid, and, as you might expect — one match and they’ll go up in flames.”
I lit a match and tossed it. The bucket went up in flames.
I said: “Now let’s wait till they die down some. And then we’ll see what we’ll see.”
I went on to explain the whole explosive device thing in the seating pad, though I couldn’t tell if he understood what I was saying. I even did a pantomime on another chair where I got up and made a loud explosion sound and vaporized myself — a truly difficult method acting exercise.
Anyway, I think he got the picture. After the flames died down and the briquets were white and red with heat, I pushed the bucket under the chair. No flames, just the heat, which put Boris in a difficult situation. He could sit there and roast to death or get up and blow himself away.
I watched him for a while. I saw the anger turn to worry, turn to fear, turn to desperation. Then with the tree limb cutter, I snapped the leather straps on his wrists and ankles. His first impulse was to stand up, but halfway to vertical he sat back down again. Language barrier? Not anymore. Boris knew the score.
Later that day I dropped off the rental, picked up my stuff from the one room in Brooklyn, counted the money in Boris’s bucket, wrote a check for Marnie and checked the departures for Toronto on the 27th. I love Toronto. City of donuts and really big coats.
Christmas Day afternoon: I go to pick up Leah at Henry’s Pleasure Palace on Central Park West. The maid, Consuelo, who always smiles as if we share a secret regarding Marnie and her husband, ushers Leah to the front door and tells us to have a good time.
We watch the show and after the show we take a horse cab through the Park. It’s cold and Leah’s bundled up, resting under my arm. I hold her and thank God for miracles.
“I liked the tree,” she says.
“The way it grew and grew?”
“The way she got as small as the mice.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s another way of looking at it.”
“And I liked the part where the Prince takes her away.”
“When they fly away?”
“Yeah, when they fly away.”
“In a pirate ship.”
“Not a pirate ship,” she says.
“No, because the Prince isn’t a pirate. He’s a prince.”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”
“And they fly away in a ship that can fly.”
“The Prince’s ship.”
“Yeah, the Prince’s ship.”
“Flying can be cool,” I say.
“Yeah,” she says. “Flying can be cool.”
* * *
AUTHOR’S NOTE: Mid-life and the trajectory of Joe Buckett’s shot at fame, money, power, status and position flattens with a cough, a sag, a lag, unemployment, one enlarged prostate and a touch of sciatica. His marriage? Over. His career? Put a fork in it. His faith in systems, bureaucracies, government, the courts, those august creatures of state and church, instituted by a society, concerned for its citizens, to provide help and assistance when help and assistance are needed? Yeah, right. Even his minimal expectations for his fellow man? Forget about it. Welcome to the dark night of the soul where one man confronts one universe and fashions his response to the void. Most go under. Most surrender to a life of sedentary solitude. They become voyeurs, spectators, plugged into some screen, obsessively following sports, soaps, soft porn or the latest from Hollywood, the fluctuations of a market in which they play no part. But Buckett is a rare exception to the rule. Buckett acts. Once a man of letters, thought and commentary, Buckett acts. Life has hurt him into action.
There are vigilantes hailed as heroes and vigilantes hailed as monsters, the assessment dependent on the mark’s evil. It’s a thin line between Charles Bronson and a serial killer. Buckett walks the line, but he never kills a man just to watch him die. There’s wit in it. Reason. Humor. Context. Street-righteousness. A Modest Proposal: What’s so funny about peace love and understanding when everybody and everything has decided to fuck you? Well, nothing’s funny when the world is a joke. The only thing about Buckett that makes him different than the rest is that he takes the next step. He becomes the hero in his own production. Daydreams of revenge, served hot or cold, become real in time and space. The guilty suffer mightily. Rough justice manifests. And Buckett sleeps better than he used to. – MH
After practicing law for twenty-five years and writing screenplays (several optioned and produced, one starring Danny Aiello), Michael Hogan now lives in Cleveland, Ohio, where he writes fiction. His two earlier novels were critically acclaimed: Man Out of Time (Random House), described by Booklist as “witty and irreverent, Hogan’s offering makes you hope he has more stories to tell”; and Burial for the Dead (Thomas Dunne), which David Maine called “an impressively vicious, disorienting fever-dream that’ll keep you guessing–and most of the time your guesses will be wrong.” His two new novels, Dog Hills and Sistine, are available now from The Rogue Reader.
COMING SOON: Buckett’s List, Hogan’s latest novel starring anti-hero Joe Buckett, will be published by The Rogue Reader in 2013. Find more from Michael and sign up for exclusive content from The Rogue Reader here. You can also connect with Mike at Facebook.com/TheRogueReader.