There are two components to success.
The first one is, never reveal everything you know.
* * ** * ** * ** * ** * ** * **
Halfway through the last seven-minute set, Nick sees the meaty hand of John’s seat neighbor land on John’s knee.
He should’ve known better than to sit apart when John is three sheets to the wind, even in a public place. It’s like he gives off asshole-attracting pheromones, thinks Nick. Like a sickly baby giraffe hobbling around a savanna filled with hungry predators.
Looking past the balding Mitch Hedberg wanna-be playing footsie with his mic cord, Nick observes John’s neighbor – a scumbag in a stained AC/DC t-shirt with the low sloping shoulders of a palooka – fold his beefy arms across his chest and nudge John with his left elbow to direct his attention to something small tucked inside it.
Nick realizes what it is, and he registers the moment John also realizes it. John looks up at the palooka, who then leans in to whisper something into the pinkened shell of John’s stuck out ear.
The blush spreads to John’s high cheekbones; he shows his even white teeth in an awkward smile and hangs his head as if exhaling a sigh or a sad laugh. Then Nick sees red as John gives the palooka a single nod and immediately refocuses on the performer, as if fearful someone might've noticed.
No one has, of course. Who would be paying attention to a skinny drunk kid bargaining cocaine for blowjobs up in the second row of a third rate East Village comedy club?
Besides Nick, that is.
The palooka leaves his seat. Chair legs scuff loudly on the floor in his wake as his entire row has to scoot back to let him out. Nick watches him head down the long narrow hallway towards the men’s room at the other end of the club. It is entirely dark there, except for the Christmas lights strung up around the edge of the ceiling.
John is still sitting with his head in his hands, elbows on his knees, looking somehow exhausted, ashamed, and defiant, all at the same time.
Nick rises from his seat and also makes his way down the row. Unlike the palooka, he does this smoothly and quietly, and his seat neighbors barely register his leaving. Once he is out of the house lights, he glances back at John. The younger man is still sitting with his head in his hands, forgotten cigarette trembling in the long fingers.
Nick walks down the dark hallway just as the palooka pushes open the door to the grimy single-man bathroom, and just as he reaches for the zipper on his baggy Levis, Nick ducks in after him.
The door shuts noiselessly behind them at the exact moment Nick’s right hand finds the light switch, plunging them both into rank claustrophobic darkness.
* * * * * ** * ** * ** * ** * ** * ** * ** * *
The puberty fairy arrived for every single one of Nick’s peers years before it realized that it missed his name on its list. At first it was funny to watch this and that friend suddenly shoot up to the ceiling apparently overnight, listen to them creak and croak their way through conversations, and rib them about their moustache fuzz. Then it stopped being funny. They say comedy is tragedy plus time; sometimes it's also the other way around. Eventually, you realize the joke’s on you.
In Nick’s case, things came to a head during a basketball game, when a charging foul sent him flying headfirst into the wall. The concussion served as an ironic wake-up call. Team sports, Nick’s reliable spiritual refuge almost since toddlerhood, were now a physical minefield. There is only so much a boy, no matter how skilled or quick, could do on any junior high team when he weighed less than a Golden Retriever.
Several days later, James, Nick's latest bodyguard, found him sulking outside under a tree with a yo-yo in his hands and asked what he was up to. Nick said flippantly that he was thinking of hanging himself, and did the man think this yo-yo cord would hold a dog-sized dwarf?
The joke bombed. The only way James agreed to keep this incident from Nick’s mom and - oh God no no no - his father was by getting him to agree to a full debriefing (this time Nick wisely held his tongue). Not that this debriefing took very long. The story of Nick’s troubles was even shorter than he was.
"What if this is IT?" sniffled Nick. "What if I stay a dwarf?"
"What if you do?" shrugged James. "You'll have to acquire some new hobbies, sure. But it's not the end of the world. Have you ever considered martial arts?"
"Hah fucking hah!" Nick jumped to his feet. "Imagine me trying to actually hit someone. What a fucking joke."
He was about to storm off when James held him back by the sleeve. “There are ways to overcome even a severe height and weight disadvantage,” he said. “I won’t say it’s easy, but it can be done. If you’re ready to do serious work.”
The next day, James took him to his own sifu, a surprisingly young East German who was shorter than many girls on Nick’s junior high field hockey team. Nick had his doubts at first, but when he saw sifu Alex take down a cocky 6’5 black belt from a competitor school with a twist of the foot and what looked like a casual flounce of one arm, he knew he was home.
And when the puberty fairy finally showed up, she knew exactly what to make of Nick.
* * *
The palooka retches and wheezes into the toilet bowl. Nick lets up the pressure on his windpipe just enough to let him articulate.
“I didn’t hear you?” he growls in the palooka’s ear.
“Fuck, bro, he’s all yours, Jesus fucking Christ let me go already, bro…”
Right answer, wrong attitude. Nick ducks the man under water again. The gurgling echoes slightly off the graffitied walls. It really is remarkably quiet in here, thinks Nick absentmindedly. Nothing at all percolates in from the stage. No laughter, nothing. Of course, the Mitch Hedberg wanna-be wasn’t really getting any serious decibels out of the crowd. Now, when Johnny was up there…
He lets the palooka up for a gasp of toilet air, keeping his arm bar in place and one knee planted firmly in his testicles.
“Let’s try this again.”
“I’m not gonna touch your fucken boytoy, bro...”
“Not gonna talk to him again, not look at him, nothing…”
“Aa-a-aand?” Nick lowers the pitch of his growl into a register not usually heard outside of zoos. The man twitches violently from the unexpected acoustic assault.
“Jesus fucken Christ, bro… What do you want, money? I’ll give you my money…”
Nick can’t help it: he snorts a laugh into the man’s ear.
“Do you want the coke, bro? Shit, bro, take the coke, just let me go…”
“No thank you,” Nick says. “I’m in the bulking part of my lifting cycle right now,” he adds, adjusting his position behind the man’s back slightly. If he is right – and at this point in his training, he usually is – the palooka should be feeling as though he was being crushed into the toilet by an amorous elephant.
“What do you fucken want from me then!?”
The palooka’s chest is heaving with little honest-to-goodness sobs. Nick almost feels sorry for him. Then he remembers John gazing hungrily at the tiny bag of cocaine the man had offered him in exchange for…
The man’s head goes back in the water before Nick can reign in his rage. This time he keeps him under long enough for the bubbles to begin dying down. It takes a supreme effort of will for Nick to pull him back out. After a second’s thought, he shoves the man’s chest hard against the toilet rim, then again, forcing it to expel the water he had inhaled. God dammit, he thinks, irritated with himself. Now he’ll have marks. Amateur hour.
Nick takes twenty seconds to re-establish breathing and slow down his heartbeat while the man retches.
“Do you have a wife?” he asks when it seems like the man can once more hear him. “No? Girlfriend Mommy still alive? Oh, she is? That’s wonderful. I bet you have her number programmed into that Nokia of yours. You strike me as a sentimental type. Most unrepentant shitheads usually are.”
The man wheezes something interrogative and coughs up some more toilet water.
“See, the way I see it,” continues Nick in a conversational whisper, “the cleanest way to deal with you would be for me to – ah, right there…”
He curls his forefinger and digs the knuckle into a special spot on straining sweaty neckflesh.
“You feel this? If I keep this up for ten seconds or so, you will be out of commission for about half a minute after I let up. More than enough time for me to take off your belt, loop one end around your neck and the other around that doorknob, turn you around, and break your neck. And while you’re still warm, your mom would get a call from her wayward sonny boy’s phone, and her little…” – Nick glances down into the ID pocket of the wallet lying flopped open on the dirty tile floor - “her little Gino would say something like…”
Nick flips back in his mind to the palooka’s normal speaking voice, when he had been asking John what he was drinking. God dammit, thinks Nick with sudden disgust, what the hell did I think was happening there? He probably zeroed in on John as soon as he saw him walk through the door: unfocused eyes, unsteady gate, jittery hands, the hollows under his cheekbones as he sucked down his Parliaments – a picture-perfect mark, tipsy and stupid and desperate for a fix...
Cutting off his internal stream of self-berating, Nick pitches his voice into a serviceable approximation of the palooka’s, adding in some extra whine for mockery:
“Hi Ma, it’s me, Gino, yuh son. I just wanna tell you, I fuckeen love you Ma, you know, with all muh fuckeen heart I do, but I just can’t do this no mores, you know? Tell everyone I love them, but I just can’t do it no more, I’m a fuckeen scumbag and all muh life I been a scumbag, no offense to ye, Ma, you’s a fuckeen saint. Anyways, I gotta go now. Light a candle to Saint Anthony for me, and have a Mass said for my soul, I love all yous.’
“See how easy it is?” he continues in his own voice again, not a bestial growl this time but a velvety purr. Experience showed that this voice of his upset larger men on a deeper and more lasting level than any other. “I phone your ma, I leave a little spiel in your voice on her answering machine, I hang up, and as you folks say, bada bing bada boom. You wanna I should do that?”
The palooka is still and silent in his grip, and for a second, Nick worries that he overlooked something and the fucker up and died on him. Then the wheezing litany of “leggo of me bro”s and “fucken psycho”s starts up again.
“How about this instead," Nick suggests. "I’ll leave you here for a bit, to ponder your life and your choices, and to tuck your weenie back in. Wash your face, smarten up, do what you gotta do, and then leave the establishment. You do not talk to anyone again – not the audience, not the talent. This, this right here is key. You don’t talk to the talent, you don’t touch the talent, and you sure as shit don’t try to deal to the talent, got it?”
The man gives a half-wheeze half-sob. Nick chooses to interpret this as an affirmative.
“And I’ll go back out there too. I’ll be watching you. And if you don’t manage it out of here without making a scene…”
Nick tightens his arm across the man’s throat again.
“…then I’m going to have to talk to you again, but this time outside, by the dumpsters. And who knows, I might just leave you in one of them. Or maybe even in both of them. Understand?”
The palooka nods, re-wetting his already sodden hair in the toilet.
Nick rises to his feet. The man does not move from his kneeling position by the toilet.
Outside the bathroom door, James is already waiting with his usual hangdog expression.
“He’ll be fine,” says Nick, peeling off the latex gloves and shoving them into his pocket. “Help him leave.”
“Please tell me you’re not going to follow him home.”
“Nah, we’re done.”
Nick scans the crowd. The Mitch Hedberg wanna-be just finished his set, to scattered applause and one half-hearted wolf-whistle that trailed off into a cough. John is not in his seat but to his relief, Nick sees him almost immediately heading to the bar.
He turns back to James. The heavy downturn of his aging bodyguard's mouth tells him everything.
“How long are you going to keep doing this, Nicky?” James asks.
“Until I don’t need to anymore,” says Nick, watching as John attempts to chat up the bartender, a tall black girl with her hair in a beautiful elaborately patterned wrap and a towel slung around one shoulder. Judging from her folded arms and the lack of booze on the counter, John’s charms are failing him.
“So what, you’re just going to follow him around until you’re both old and gray, jumping on every grenade? The kid makes trouble like normal folks make water.”
James sighs and tries to step into the restroom. Nick holds onto his sleeve.
“One thing. Johnny tells me some dude’s been coming around all the Georgetown parties. No one knows who he is: he’s someone’s cousin, he’s someone’s brother, he’s this, he’s that. And he’s been asking questions: how often does John come up here, where does he stay, he got a girlfriend up here or what, or maybe it ain’t a girlfriend, no judgment – you get my drift?”
"If my dad put you up to this," continues Nick, "you tell him that if he wants to talk to me, he better do it directly. I won't tolerate spying."
"I don't know about anyone being hired to tail John," says James. "Not saying there isn't someone, but your dad didn't run it by me."
Nick takes a few seconds to digest this.
"You don't know, or you're not allowed to tell me?"
"First I'm hearing of it. Hand to God."
For a few seconds, Nick is still and silent. James looks at him worriedly.
"Listen, Nicky," he says finally. "I know you want to help that kid, but you can't save a drowning man just by holding your hand out to him. He has to also grasp it in return."
"I'm not a lifeguard," says Nick. "I'm just a life-preserver. He's going to make it back to shore on his own. I just need to keep his head above water while he dogpaddles."
Clapping James on the shoulder, Nick heads to the bar, where John has finally charmed something pink and fruity-looking out of the bartender and is sucking on it with childish delight.
Baby!Mulaney's baby set.
[Spotlight comes up on the empty stage. A tall skinny young man in a blue button-up shirt jogs up the low stairs towards the microphone. He trips over the top stair, flails his arms, but at the last second keeps his balance]
[light audience laughter]
[Young man picks up the microphone and grins sheepishly into the crowd]
Well!.. I had an introduction prepared, but now I feel that it would be altogether superfluous.
Thank you, what a great audience. What a charitable [laughs once], merciful audience.
I know I’m supposed to compliment the audience at these things when I first come out...you know, to get you all feeling good about yourselves and not question too hard why you are drinking away your Saturday night in this god-forsaken dive...
[light audience laughter]
But I mean it. You are a great audience. There are actual people here tonight!
Yeah! That almost never happens! Usually at these things, lemme tell you, it’s just, like, you on stage, six other comedians in the front, one German tourist taking pictures of the exposed brick wall with his Leica, and a weed dealer who just finished his Corona getting up to leave just as it’s your turn on stage. So, like, genuinely thank you for actually being here.
I, uh, am doing well myself. I recently turned 21, and I’m pretty excited about that. I was hoping by now that I would look older but that didn’t happen.
I don’t look older, I just look worse, I think. I look the same as I did when I was 11, just stretched out and with bigger bags under my eyes. And longer feet [looks back at the stairs]
[light audience laughter]
I smoke, too, which is an unsettling sight I’m told, a tall child smoking. It’s like something you’d see in documentary footage of a Romanian orphanage, just, like, a cynical toddler with dead eyes and a filter-less cigarette in its pudgy hands.
I have a friend, let’s call him Leopold, I don’t want to use his real name, and Leopold likes to tell me, [lowers his voice to a husky baritone] “Don’t smoke, bro, it stunts your growth.”
[light audience laughter]
Which I guess is a fact that is true, except Leopold is five foot nine, and I’m six feet tall, and I’ve been smoking since I was 13.
[light audience laughter]
He also likes to tell me to eat more vegetables, and he’s always shoving peeled carrots at me, which is, like, almost embarrassingly Freudian.
He says carrots are good for the eyes, and again, my eyes are *fine*, and *he* wears glasses. Sometimes he misplaces them, and he asks me to help find them, and I just hand him back the carrot I didn’t eat.
[light audience laughter]
A little about myself. My name is John, and I’m an alcoholic.
[light audience laughter, a couple of voices say ‘Hi John!’]
My people right there. I don’t mean alcoholics, I mean comedians who also love using this gag. I mean, the alcoholic part is a given, with comedians...
[light audience laughter]
But I am indeed an alcoholic, which is fairly normal for an Irish Catholic like myself, but it is not something you hear college students say very often. They usually say they like to party.
But I’ve been drinking since I was 13. And you know, parties were not a requirement. What I'd often do is, I would steal money from my mom's purse and I would camp outside grocery stores, because in Chicago you can do that, you can buy liquor at grocery stores. And I would beg adults to buy me booze. And some of them did. And I would get wasted, right there in the parking lot.
So, at this point in my life, ‘party’ is what other people do around me while I’m getting down to the business of drinking.
[light audience laughter]
Yeah. They party, I raid the liquor cabinet, cry in the bathroom, pick a fight with some guy who has like two weight categories on me, and wake up in bed the next morning wondering why my cheek hurts.
I’ve actually been doing a lot more of that recently. Not drinking, although that too, but waking up in the morning wondering why various parts of my body hurt. And it’s not always the parts you’d expect either?
[light audience laughter]
Like, when I blacked out back home in Chicago – anyone from Chicago?
[at a nodding audience member] Yeah? South Side or North Side? South Side? Let me guess, University of Chicago? Hyde Park, right? Kenwood? [audience member laughs] Love that school, love it. Never even once considered going there. Nothing personal, I just needed to put some landmass between myself and my family.
Also, U of C is literally infested with assholes like me, you know? Like, every high school has That Kid, you know, the one that’s loud, and mean, and has had hard opinions on things since he was like ten? And they all end up at U of C, and get mugged on the Green line. [audience member laughs]
Anyway, where was I? Right. When I used to black out at parties in Chicago, or rather in the suburbs, that was, you know, I was like down the street from home. The most damage I could do to myself while blacked out would involve, like, a chain-link fence. Or a rosebush.
[light audience laughter]
But like, in a city, alone, that’s a different flavor of blackout. For instance, I’ve recently discovered something worse than waking up in the morning with no money… and that is waking up in the morning with more money than I started the night with.
[John mimics turning out pockets and counting]
$47 dollars? But I left the house with a twenty… huh! [makes a thoughtful face] So drunk me… found a way… to earn him some money. Enough to bring home a little somethin-somethin… after all the drinky-drinks!
[audience laughs and groans]
I mean, I am reasonably sure I wasn’t unloading crates at 2 o’clock in the morning. [lifts his arm, flexes his thin bicep]
To be honest, I’m a little offended on drunk me’s behalf. Like, really? $27 dollars? That’s my going rate? I need to work on my self-esteem.
Or my moves.
Or invest in a nice eye-shadow...plum or aubergine... [mutters, adjusts mic cord with his foot] I'm a Winter...
My friend hates that joke, by the way. Leopold, the one I told you about. He’s in the audience, and he’s hating every second of this bit.
I love him dearly. He’s four years older than me, and he’s Jewish, and he’s, like, everything I’ve ever wanted to be in life, namely an old Jew.
We have a great relationship, he and I. It is basically, as I’ve come to think of it, the relationship of a large, smart, loving, responsible dog and a retarded toddler.
And I feel bad for him! He never asked for this responsibility! He should be running free, chasing balls and gnawing bones! Instead he's following around some little punk who trips over things and tries to taste-test everything under the sink.
That's hard work! And it's even harder now that he and the punk live like four hours apart by bus.
Like, when we were back in college together, he could keep an eye on me, so that I don’t do something stupid, like go out with 20 dollars and wake up in the morning with 47. But now he's graduated, and he lives in New York, and I’m still in school in DC, so we only see each other some weekends.
Now all he can do is make sure that when we go out I don’t step into an open cellar door, or I don’t pick a fight with the wrong guy, or, I dunno, drink Michelob Ultra.
He’s always trying to get me to smoke weed with him, which sounds like negative peer pressure, except I know he’s doing it to get me to eat? You’re fooling no one, Leopold. You are just trying to fatten me up so I’d lose customers. [light laughter] He's jealous of my trim figure...
I call him Leopold, by the way, because I love true crime, it’s like my favorite thing, and Leopold was the name of one of my favorite criminals of all time. His full name was Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Junior, which is even more hilarious when you learn that in German, ‘Freudenthal’ means ‘joy valley’.
Leopold came from a wealthy German Jewish family, he had an IQ of 210, and at the time of the murder than made him famous, as a *teenager*, he already spoke fifteen languages. In 1924, while he was an undergraduate at the University of Chicago -
[to the audience member from before] -callback!
Leopold was sentenced to life in prison plus 99 years on top for the kidnapping and murder of a 14-year-old boy. And if you’re wondering why a child prodigy from a wealthy family would do such a thing, lemme tell you about his partner in crime, Richard Loeb.
Richard Loeb was a Catholic ne’er-do-well son of a prominent attorney, one of four kids, just like yours truly. He got decent grades, so he wasn't a total dummy, but that was mostly to keep his parents off his back. Again, just like yours truly.
But what he really loved above all things were booze and crime. I think you can see where I’m going with this.
Yes. Leopold and Loeb were best friends. Loeb was always bored, and always drunk, and always looking for something exciting and illegal to do, and whatever crazy shit he got into, he pulled his friend in right along with him. The thing that made them famous was the murder of Bobby Franks, a 14-year-old kid. Basically, they killed him out of boredom, for shits and giggles. Out of Loeb's boredom, mostly.
They thought they had committed the perfect crime, and there was no way to trace the murder back to them, except! When the police discovered the body, they also found a pair of eyeglasses next to it, and these glasses had this distinctive hinge mechanism, and this mechanism was sold in just ONE shop in Chicago, and only three people had bought a pair with it, and one of them was Nathan Freudenthal Leopold Junior!
I know, right?! So they got them, and of course they cracked almost immediately, because they were just two soft-bellied rich boys, and CPD does not fuck around. There was a very big trial, lots of newspaper coverage - crime of century stuff, although it was only that one kid. You know? It's just one kid! Like, a big dumb horse could've run him over that day on a public thoroughfare, and no one would've batted an eye! "Oh well, bury the boy... bury the boy."
Instead it was this gigantic media spectacle. Leopold and Loeb were defended by Clarence Darrow, of the Scopes Trial fame, and he got them life in prison instead of the noose. Leopold ended up serving about thirty years of his sentence, got out, and moved to Puerto Rico, where he lived out his life bird-watching and working in social services, which is just so sad, considering all he could've been? As for Loeb, he ended up shanked in the prison showers because he didn’t put out or something, whatever.
[light awkward audience laughter]
There are basically two lessons to be drawn from their story. The first one is, if you’re hiding a body, and things suddenly get blurry, maybe stop and ask yourself why? Don’t just get behind the wheel of your getaway car and drive home! [audience laughs] That’s not safe!…
And the second lesson is, if you are a smart Jewish boy from a good family, you should probably stay away from skinny sheltered Catholic assholes who drink, steal from their families, and obsessively read crime stories.
Sure, we may be cute and charming, but we’re also self-centered and immature, and - I'm sorry, Leopold - we don't put out.
And if you don't come to your senses, you might one day find yourself behind the wheel of a car with a blood-stained passenger seat, wondering where your life went so wrong… and why everything around you is so blurry…[audience laughs]
...and why the skinny asshole that ruined you is giggling and shoving a carrot in your face.
[audience laughs, applauds]
Thank you very much.
[audience cheers and applauds]
"What’s this?” Nick asks the bartender, reaching for his wallet.
“A strawberry daiquiri,” she says. "Light on rum, heavy on strawberries."
“I’m closing out our tab. How many did he have?” Nick slides a credit card over the bar.
“Just the one.”
Nick permits himself a small sigh of relief.
“Plus the shot of vodka he had when you got here, plus the two shots he picked up a few minutes ago and said he was bringing over to you. I'm guessing he didn't.”
Nick gives John a Look. John gives his straw a particularly loud suck and blinks innocently at Nick over gaunt cheek hollows.
While the bartender runs his card, Nick perches on the stool next to his friend without looking at him.
Nick thanks the bartender and signs the receipt without looking at the total.
Nick’s shoulder receives an awkward but affectionate headbutt. He fishes a twenty out of his wallet and hands it to the bartender with a smile while his left arm wraps around John’s slumping shoulders.
“Take care of your boo,” she tells him with a smile of her own. “He’s a cutey.”
“That’s right, I am!” John says almost indignantly into Nick’s shoulder, as though someone had been insisting otherwise.
“Come on, ‘boo’, let’s go say our goodbyes,” Nick says, slipping off the tall bar-stool.
“Hang on, I need to hit the restroom,” mumbles John and also stands up.
“Use the one backstage,” says Nick casually. “This one’s a mess. A dude was just sick in it.”
John looks down the hallway, and his eyes open wide at the sight of his erstwhile seat neighbor been led out by an older gentleman in a black windbreaker. They stop by the other end of the bar. The older gentleman helps John’s seat neighbor down onto a stool, steadying him when he wavers.
“What the hell happened to him?” asks John.
Nick shrugs. “Too much vodka?”
“Yeah, if someone had broken a bottle over his head… Why is he wet?”
Nick shrugs again and moos a blasé ‘iunno’ into the sweet dregs of John’s daiquiri.
The seat neighbor’s blurry gaze wanders the club searchingly from under the wet hair plastered to his forehead, passes over Nick, and stops on John, who immediately turns tail and wobbles off towards the small raucous gaggle of comics and straggling audience members slowly migrating from the stage towards the bar.
Nick licks a bit of strawberry pulp off the rim of the daiquiri glass and returns it to the bartender. He should probably go with John, say good-bye to Mike and everyone else, but that would mean turning his back to the palooka and James, who now sits apart and watches them both unobtrusively from behind a folded in quarter newspaper he’s pretending to read.
The palooka glances over Nick again, then back to the crowd, which has parted to welcome John. Nick asks the bartender for two bottled waters. By the time he has them, the wave of comedians has arrived to the shore of the bar, and the bartender is inundated with orders.
Nick pulls John away towards the wall, to let people through to their stools, says a quick goodbye to Mike and a few others, pulls John back towards himself (now that the show is over, John is trudging in place like a nervous colt, eager to bolt out the door), borrows a pencil to take down someone’s phone number (someone’s hosting, and he and John are invited), almost pokes John in the eye with the pencil when John leans over suddenly to look at the number, soothes John by rubbing his thumb over his cheekbone, returns the pencil to its owner, and finally gets them out the door into the New York night, fragrant with piss and bags of garbage moldering out on the curb.
It’s not him.
For starters, the old man’s too old, and secondly his voice is all wrong, nothing menacing about it, a bit hoarse maybe, but nothing like… Gino lets the old man help him up, - pride be damned, after what he went through, - and they head to the edge of the bar.
He glances at the door. There is no bouncer. Maybe he’s outside? Was there a bouncer when he came in? There wasn’t… Just some short fat mook checking tickets. Couldn’t have been him.
Gino sips from the glass of water the old man got him. There’s not enough clean water in the world, after what he’d been through, but it’s a start, until he can get home and scrub himself raw in the shower and gargle all the Listerine he’s got...
It’s just him and the old man at the bar now, and on the other side some short bug-eyed schlub in glasses, and next to him – well well. The fucking twink, pretty as you please. Probably needed a drink to steady his nerves – he still thinks they’re on for the trade, doesn’t he, thinks he’s due to perform in a minute, in exchange for the nose candy. The schlub is holding the faggiest cocktail Gino has ever seen, neon pink with an umbrella, which he’s currently trying to fish out with his tongue, a fucking disgusting sight. Besides them, there’s almost no one left but the performers, none of whom look like they’ve seen the inside of a gym in years, if not decades.
The twink looks at Gino, sees the sad state of him, realizes there will be no coke for him tonight, and prances off to get glad-handed by the rest of the comics. The schlub watches him go with huge light eyes, meaty lips sucking at the rim of the glass. Keep dreaming, Jewboy; he’s out of your league. Then again, thinks Gino suddenly, maybe that’s his manager or something. Maybe that’s how the twink pays him. Sounds like he pays a lot of his bills with ass.
Yeah, gotta be the manager, thinks Gino as he watches the schlub hustle around the twink, putting a water in his hands, cooing and chirping at him, straightening his jacket, schmoozing with the venue manager on his behalf, jotting down things in his little black planner. All the while the twink, drunk and bored, can’t decide if he wants to wander off and out the door or fall over. Finally, the schlub shakes the last hand, says his last cheery goodbye, and herds the twink out the door.
And then, right before they step outside, the schlub half-turns his head towards the bar, and for a split second, Gino can swear he sees something cold and hard glint at him from that big round eye. But only for a split second, and then they are out the door.
Must’ve been a trick of the light, thinks Gino and finishes his water.
Perhaps it’s the way John keeps slumping up against him as they walk. Perhaps it’s the fact that he is being unusually affectionate and keeps throwing his arms around Nick and trying to plant wet puppyish kisses on his ear. For whatever reason, Nick realizes they dove into the wrong subway station and therefore are on the wrong train, heading in the wrong direction, only after the thundering darkness outside is suddenly replaced with whooshing bridge posts and the gleam of lights from the downtown skyscrapers on the open water.
John picks this moment to open his eyes.
“Nick?” he asks in a soft drawl. “Why are we on the bridge? I thought we were going back up to your place?”
And Nick thinks back to the whole bloody evening - John's set, with its even more damning twist on the already familiar joke about earning money in his sleep, the palooka and his baggie of cocaine, and the fact that John is apparently being stalked at Georgetown by a stranger with who knows what sorts of intentions...
…and he makes the decision.
“We are going to my place,” he says soothingly. “Just not the one uptown. A different one.”
“You have more than one place?” Even half asleep, John sounds impressed. “Ooh la lah.”
“Sleep,” Nick tells him. “We’ve going almost all the way.”
John snorts into Nick’s shoulder, then yawns and settles in. As they descend into the subterranean darkness of Brooklyn, Nick begins to feel him snuffle lightly into his jacket.
* * *
Suspecting it will not be easy to wake John up to leave the train, Nick starts nudging him well in advance, before Sheepshead Bay. John groans petulantly into his shoulder at first, but then sits up and has a thorough squint around them, taking in the half-empty car spotted here and there with other couples dozing against each other and the occasional drunk stretched out full length across several plastic orange seats.
“Where the hell are we?” he mutters.
“Brighton Beach,” says Nick. “Come on, wakey wakey. Upsy daisy.”
“I’m not liking this,” states John, slumping in the seat and extending his long legs all the way across the car under the opposite seats. “This is how kidnappings start.”
“On a subway? That you got into with me voluntarily?”
“Yeah, about that – can you make it, like, a black cab next time? Or a limo? I wouldn’t mind being abducted in a limo.”
Nick stands and pulls him up by the arms. Eventually, John acquiesces and stands too, slumping against the “Do Not Lean on Door” sticker on the door. Nick puts a bracing hand under his shoulder, just in case. Usually John would make some kind of a snarky or flirty comment about Nick pawing at him, but right now his attention is captivated by the sights of nighttime Little Odessa drifting past the elevated train track: restaurants with signs in foreign alphabets, shops advertising imported groceries from Europe, boldly dressed – or rather undressed – women, men in track suits and leather jackets smoking on corners...
“’Mos-film’,” John reads out as they slow down on approach to the station. “’Ah-is that the letter pi?-pi-teh-kah’… an apothecary?.. what the what…”
When they exit the train, Nick is again distracted by John draping himself over his shoulders, and he chooses the wrong station exit, so now they'll have to cross Brighton Beach Avenue. Nick helps John down the tall stairway into the street and threads his arm through John's, like a Victorian gentleman, to keep him from jaywalking.
“Gotta be more careful here,” he says. “Drivers here will run you over and not think twice. Pretend you’re back in Chicago and be a good pedestrian.”
“This place does look like the L a bit… and a bit like Devon Street…” John muses, looking around. He seems mostly awake now, though it’s hard to tell whether his eyes are open or closed. “Ooh, can we go to a vodka bar?”
“No more vodka for you,” says Nick and leads him across to the island, and then at a faster pace to the other side.
A taxi slows down as they cross; the driver sticks his head out the window and yells out in Russian:
“Svoboden!” (“I’m free!”)
“Da nam nedaleko,” (“Nah, we’re close by”) answers Nick without thinking and almost bites off his tongue.
John stops suddenly on the sidewalk, almost jerking his arm out of Nick’s. Nicks stops as well, tense and unhappy.
"What the hell was that?" John asks. "Did I just fucking hallucinate?"
"No. I just told him we didn't need a cab, that's all."
"'That's all'..." John repeats with a mocking twist of the mouth as he looks around them. “Where are we going?” he suddenly asks, in a quieter but much more awake voice. “Where are you taking me?”
“To my place,” Nick says patiently.
“Your place?” John unhooks his arm and slips out of Nick’s grasp. “Your secret place on the outskirts of town? Why? To do what, exactly?”
The look on his face breaks Nick’s heart. He looks, Nick realizes, like a child who had been suddenly, and without any fathomable reason, cruelly hurt by an adult they trusted.
Please don't run, please don't run, please don't run, Nick prays silently.
“Well, you're very drunk, and you need to sleep, and I need to pick up some things I have here," he answers in a low, soothing murmur, raising his hands, palms outwards. "Johnny... I’m still Nick. Still the same Nick. You know me.”
“Do I?” asks John, voice cracking with hysteria.
“Yes,” affirms Nick. "You do."
The grimace of hurt on John’s face relaxes into mere confusion.
“I’ll tell you everything,” Nick goes on. “I promise. Just...not out here. Not in the street. Please... come with me.”
For a few seconds, John hesitates. Then he reaches in his pocket for his pack of Parliaments and shakes out a cigarette and a lighter. Nick watches him fight the spring wind as he tries to light up, and eventually steps up to shield the lighter with his own palm. John straightens up and takes a long inhale, his narrow eyes fixed on Nick's.
“Fuck it,” John says finally and blows out two thick plumes of smoke from his nostrils. “Someone's going to kill me one of these days. Might as well be you. Let’s go to your secondary location.”
John anticipates a schlep, but Nick stops them only a couple of blocks away from the subway.
“Here we are,” he says.
John looks around in confusion. One the opposite side of the street, ramshackle single-family homes are hiding in the dark behind lush century-old maples – or maybe they are elms, he’s no dendrologist. On their side, a tall construction fence conceals most of the block.
“Where is ‘here’?” John asks, looking up and down the sweeping single-stroke arcs and unfinished bubble letters of black and red graffiti tags on the rough plywood boards.
In lieu of a response, Nick turns to the fence, steps towards the board bearing what looks like either a pentagram or an unfinished ‘Anarchy’ sign, grips one side of the board, and pushes it up. A hole opens in the fence, exposing a way into the lot.
“What kind of weird Hardy Boys shit is this?” grumbles John, looking around to see if there are any cops in sight. “I’m not getting arrested by Guilliani’s Gestapo for trespassing.”
“It’s Bloomberg’s Gestapo now,” reminds Nick, stepping up and over into the hole in the fence. “Come on. No one’s arresting you. I own the place.”
Carefully lifting his legs, John ducks into the opening, stepping into a lot overgrown with high, dry grasses, man’s-height ferns, and thickets of shrubbery between the tall maples.
Behind him, Nick moves the slab of plywood back into its proper position. Then, to John’s surprise, he bends down and moves aside some weeds to expose a latch, which he locks. And then, to John’s utter amazement, he moves aside some more weeds and John sees a small plastic keypad. Nick punches in a string of numbers; there is a soft beep, and a small red light comes on in the corner of the panel.
Nick straightens up and nods slightly. “Follow me,” he says, as though John has any other real options at this point.
John makes his way through the tall grass, trying his best to step right behind Nick and avoid snagging a bunch of burrs on his clothes.
The house itself is not visible in the thicket until they are almost upon it, but at last John distinguishes its low, broad silhouette against the dark sky. Like all the other houses on the this street, it's a single-family home, small and unpretentious.
“Nice pied-a-terre,” he says, just to say something and break the tense silence. “You could bury half of Staten Island here.”
“It’s not a pied-a-terre.” He can hear Nick smiling as they go up the low steps to the front door. “It’s a dacha.”
“Like the thing Russian czars had? A second palace in the countryside?”
“Like the thing all Russians have, yes. A second house in the countryside.”
“Didn’t know Russians were so universally well-heeled.”
“It’s usually not a very fancy house.”
Nick opens the door, waves John in, and shuts the door, plunging them into chilly darkness. John hears him fumble for a switch; there is a click but no light.
Nick swears. “Ok, come with me,” he tells John, taking him by the hand. As if in a trance, John allows himself to be pulled along a dark hallway, at the end of which Nick pushes open a door. It’s a bedroom; John can distinguish a large bed and a dresser.
And suddenly, he knows beyond the shadow of a doubt what's about to happen, and all he can think is: please God, no. Not this, not *him*...
“Nick…” he says, hating the break in his voice which makes him sound like a terrified child. “Nick, please don’t do this…”
Nick looks at him, huge green eyes almost phosphorescent in the dark.
“Please…” John feels a sob rise in his chest. "Don't do this… I don’t want to...”
“Buddy…” Nick murmurs and enfolds John in a warm embrace. “Calm down. I just want you to sleep here, okay? It’s me, Nicky… don’t you recognize me?”
His eyes are soft and his voice even softer, and all of it is somehow worse than if he had spoken with hunger or hatred. John realizes he’s about to break into drunken sobs and hates himself so, so much as he shakes in Nick’s arms like an elderly Italian greyhound.
“I’m just going to go get a spare light bulb,” continues Nick, muttering soothingly into John’s hair, hypnotizing him into stillness and calming his heartbeat. “See, I haven’t been here for a few months, so I forgot it’s burned out. Honestly, I’m just glad there aren’t any leaks or anything. I haven’t been here all winter. I’m going to get you some linens and pajamas, and then I’m going to get a light bulb, and then I’ll get the heat going, ok?” John feels a kiss in his hair. “Ok, buddy?”
John nods into Nick’s shoulder. Nick releases him reluctantly and puts his hands into John’s hair. It’s a caress, to be sure, and yet a part of John knows full well that Nick is checking his pupils, and the wave of self-hatred rises again. More than anything, he wants to curl in on himself and die of shame.
Nick releases him and turns around to rummage in the dresser by the bed.
“I haven’t got any pajamas that would fit your stork legs, but this should be ok.”
He lays out some dark clothes on the bed. John picks at them and finds a pair of black pants of soft material and a black shirt with a red logo and the word “REMADE”.
“What is this?” asks John. “A band?”
“A club I used to be in,” says Nick. He finds a set of sheets next, and he and John fumble their way through making the bed. When Nick is reasonably sure that John can be left to his own devices, he leaves the room.
It takes John a few tries to finally undo the zipper of his jacket without breaking it again. There is a convenient chair by the foot of the bed, and John drapes the jacket over its back. He is unsure about taking off his pants, then remembers spilling some of the syrupy daiquiri on himself and gives in, heaping all his clothes on top of the dresser. Thankfully, it’s bare, no knickknacks or photos.
The shirt Nick gave him to sleep in is too wide in the shoulders but otherwise fits perfectly.
“How am I a smaller shirt size than you?” he wonders out loud, as Nick passes by the open door carrying a short ladder.
“I keep telling you to hit the gym with me,” Nick points out from the hallway.
John gets into freezing cold bed and cocoons in his blanket as be listens to Nick putter around, dragging and unfolding the stepping stool ladder. There is sudden light and an “eep!” - presumably Nick forgot that he left the switch in the ‘on’ position.
Nick walks past John’s door again with the step ladder. As he passes, he looks in.
“Good night. Bathroom is en suite, door is by the bed. You want anything else?”
John moos a vague denial and yawns.
The door shuts – not all the way, leaving a small sliver of cozy yellow twilight. John hears the stove igniter click several times, then there is a ‘whoosh’ of gas. For a while, he listens to Nick opening and closing cupboards, clinking dishes, rustling various cartons, and rattling something in a glass jar.
He is dozing when he hears Nick’s voice:
“…hey, it’s me. We’re at the dacha…. Yeah… Sleeping… yes, I told you. Listen, I'm going to need you to stand down for the night... You know I'm not going to... James.... James! I'll ping you in the morning, promise. I just need a few hours to myself... That is my personal business. Not yours, and not my father's... I promise... Yes, I'll be careful - come on, man, you know me... All right. Night night.”
John listens to the boot up sound of a computer, then some kind of beeping, and then the intermittent whirring of a fax machine.
Then there is paper rustling, a chair gets moved around, the kitchen light goes off and a smaller, dimmer light goes on. And then there is silence.
Before he drops off to sleep, John thinks:
'This time, it better work.'
John awoke from fitful sleep to soft, quiet darkness.
For a while he lay there looking at the low ceiling as his eyes adjusted, taking in the unfamiliar stain patterns. The gauzy curtains to his right glowed with soft ethereal twilight.
John leaned over and pulled them back. The dark sky was aglow with soft peach-orange city lights trapped in the thick clouds that had been blanketing New York all weekend.
John sat up, rubbed the crumbs of sleep from his eyes, and swung his legs off the bed, narrowly avoiding hitting the wall. His legs held under him, a welcome blessing; and the ache in his head pulsed with a steady beat rather than naval cannon-fire. All in all, not a bad start, and it got even better once John pushed open the door next to his bed and found a bathroom.
The mirror above the sink reflected a sleepy squinty mug with rat's nest hair and patchy stubble.
"Toshiro Mifune, comp sci major," muttered John as he opened the faucet. There was no hot water, and within a minute or so he was not only clean but wide awake.
It was obvious that he was in a single-family house, as proved by the gigantic overgrown backyard. That alone was worrying. Apparently, drunk John had decided to travel well outside of his usual New York haunts, and possibly out of town altogether.
Moreover, as his mirror informed him, at some point in the evening drunk John got naked and then redressed himself in the clothes of a stranger. Even more worryingly, the clothes more or less fit. Sure, the pants were a couple of inches too short, and the T-shirt hung off his thin shoulders, but they were unmistakable men's clothes.
Unprepared to deal with ramifications of this discovery so soon after waking up, John went back to the bedroom.
The clock on the wall opposite the bed showed almost half past two. John wobbled out of the bathroom, circumnavigated the bed, and stopped in front of the dresser heaped with clothes - his clothes, he realized. He leaned in and took a whiff. If regrets had a smell, it would be this: cigarettes, stale beer, and a hint of something fruity.
John took his pants and jacket and began to go through their pockets in search of clues to the night before this morning after. His findings, which he laid out in a row on top of the dresser, were as follows:
- a receipt from a bodega for a box of his favorite hazelnut biscotti (time of issue 20:37 pm)
- an Olympus DS 150 dictaphone with a cassette tape inside
- his wallet, empty of cash or credit cards but with a puzzling note scribbled on a shred of notebook paper:
"Hey Memento-brain, you probably woke up all confused and shit again. Play the Dictaphone. Hope you didn't forget to turn it on last night again, you dumbshit."
The handwriting was undoubtedly his own.
John took the dictaphone and pressed play. It rolled for half a second, stalled, and stopped. John pressed rewind and took it out to the kitchen with him.
The kitchen was clean, not so much with care as with disuse. John set the dictaphone on the dining table and looked around. The dish rack held one freshly washed mug and plate. Apart from two torn Earl Gray packets in the freshly lined trashcan, there was no trash. John opened and closed a few cupboards stacked with dishes and boxes of pasta, then went out to the living room, where a computer was set up on a lean-to desk - not a CRT but a swanky flat monitor with an ultramodern-looking tower under the desk.
The lean-to shelves above the monitor were crowded with books and knick-knacks: larger books on the bottom shelf, smaller ones above, and various tiny toys and action figures on the sliver of a shelf at the top: miniature classic cars, animals, and other surprisngly cute delights that seemed to have come out of a Michelin-star Happy Meal.
John leaned in to peruse the books.
The bottom shelf held exclusively dictionaries. There were several to and from Spanish, with various dialects represented; French; German (including one slim volume titled 'Introduction to Schwyzerdütsch phonetics'); and two very thick Russian and Ukrainian dictionaries, presumably intended for use by academics.
The shelf above it was crowded with much thinner and more closely stacked material. Many of these books were clearly printed on shoe-string budgets. Their covers were plain colored paper, a muted faded green or yellow, with the titles mimeographed onto them in black. The titles made no sense to John whatsoever: "Dim Mak"; "Ip Man's legacy"; "Throwing Hand Praying Mantis", "Wooden Dummy, pt 1"...
There were several DVDs interspersed between the books, all in plain cases with no picture inserts. Their titles, handwritten onto plain white covers, were also incomprehensible: "Chum Kiu, apps"; "Siu Nim Tao, apps"; "Biu Je, apps" - that last one carried also a large warning in red marker across the front: "DO NOT COPY".
John looked down at the shelf with dictionaries again. Two small and dark leather-bound volumes were wedged in between the massive Russian and the Ukrainian dictionaries.
John pulled out one of them and realized it was a photo album.
Jackpot, he thought.
Picking a page at random, he opened it, and frowned at the carefully arranged pictures of children in a state of partial undress. Not licentious pictures, John finally decided - just outdoorsy. All were boys, in swimming trunks or shorts, in T-shirts or bare to the waist, in sandals or barefoot. There was one of the whole gaggle huddled together in a green park over a tabletop game of soccer. The game had Slavic writing on it. There was one of them digging in the sand with little shovels on a crowded beach - tremendously crowded, in a truly third-world sort of way.
There were also pictures of just two kids or just one kid, on a swing or out by the docks gazing at a large warship. There was one shot of a boy in the elaborate blue costume of an eighteenth century nobleman, complete with lace shirt-cuffs and a powdered wig. The boy was in the middle of a courtly bow to his dance partner, a girl in an ever fancier and lacier pink dress. A middle-aged woman slightly out of focus behind them played somberly on a piano.
Sometimes the pictures had shop signs or street names in them, also in Slavic letters, and then something would almost surface in John's memory but then submerge again. He flipped a few more pages and stopped on a large picture that took up most of the album page.
It showed the same gang of four ragamuffins with arms around each other's shoulders, sitting in a row in the middle of a gigantic staircase whose height exceeded the scope of the camera. The picture was hand-inscribed at the bottom in fading pencil:
Полкан, Дрон, Кролик, Грек
John locked eyes with the boy center right, who was grinning from ear to ear under the welcome burden of friends' arms on his tiny shoulders.
Holy fuck, thought John, suddenly recognizing that wide sharp-toothed smile. That's Nick.
He flipped back to the start of the album. There could be no doubt - the smallest of the bunch, a.k.a the Blue Baby Courtier, a.k.a. the game-master of tabletop soccer, was a pint-sized Nick Kroll, all eyes and teeth and wild curls.
Taking a moment to relish in the almost physical pleasure of feeling his anxiety dissolve, John closed the album, set it back on the shelf, and pulled out the other one.
This time, he recognized Nick right away, despite his long hair. He was swinging a wooden stick at another young dude, who was a fraction of a second away from parrying with a similar wooden stick. Other couples around them were doing likewise. Most of them, including Nick, wore white shirts with small red logos in the front and the word "REMADE" on the back.
There were a lot more pictures like this: Nick in a white shirt, sometimes wielding a stick or a wooden machete, but often unarmed, caught in the middle of a spar or some sort of puzzling exercise where he and his opponent wrapped their hands around each other's wrists, as though at the world's most awkward middle school dance. Nick's opponents were many and varied, from a small brunette with a hawk-like nose similar to Nick's own to a tremendously tall and broad black man.
There were group shots here as well, at least a dozen, and all of them remarkably similar in composition. A small crowd of mostly men, mostly in white shirts, stood in two rows against a wall of some gym or studio, with several other men in black shirts flanking them. Up front, there were two or three chairs, the center one always occupied by a small wiry old man in a yellow shirt and the other two, to his side by men in red shirts.
Then John found a shot of the yellow-shirted old man with his arm around Nick's shoulders. John wondered for a second if they were related, and then wondered if that was a racist thing to think just because they both looked Jewish. In this photo, Nick wore a black shirt with the word "REMADE" now printed in red - the very shirt, John realized as he looked down on his chest, that he was wearing at this moment.
In his hands, Nick held in his hands a large piece of paper with his name hand-written in black marker under the printed words "Technician Certification", with smaller blurrier words underneath that John could not quite make out. In any case, the overall meaning was clear enough: the text overprinted two stylized silhouettes locked in hand-to-hand combat.
"You are full of secrets, Nicholas," murmured John as he set the second album back on the shelf. "But really, who amongst us isn't?"
On the kitchen table, the dictaphone whirred and clicked to a stop.
John picked up the dictaphone and pressed “play”.
The tape inside began to whirr.
Now everything hanged on whether drunk John had remembered to push the little lever on the side of the machine before losing what remained of his wits for the night. This was crucial. The machine could either record a hundred and sixty minutes straight, or it could wait to be activated by a certain decibel level of nearby conversation. John has already had mornings when he awoke to find the tape blank, and mornings when he awoke to find the tape filled with a hundred and sixty minutes of straight static and subway noises.
But this time, the fates were smiling on him. The first thing sober John heard on the tape was the closer from last night’s line-up, and while the beginning of the segment rang a vague bell, the end did not. Evidently, drunk John had done a splendid job of marking the moment when he started to black out.
“…so I don’t go to that bodega anymore.
*light audience laughter*
I bought a shampoo for my dog that said “spot remover”. I washed him, and he disappeared.”
*light laughter, groans*
I had a fight with my girlfriend. It was bad, but in the end, she came crawling back to me. She said, ‘Get out from under the bed, dickhead!’
*light audience laughter*
I won’t say my stand-up career is going badly, but the pawn shop down the street from me looks more and more like my apartment.
*several small laughs*
These are the jokes, people.
*several more laughs*
Sign at the suicide prevention center: “This window is closed. Next window, please.”
If I were a python, I would not eat one rabbit at a time. I would eat two rabbits at a time, a boy and a girl. Then I’d never have to eat again.
That’s all from me, folks. Thank you very much.
*loud rustling* *chair being moved*
*chair being moved*
John: “Can I have a Daiquiri, please?”
Woman: “Didn’t I just give you two vodka shots?”
John: *GROAN* “Pleeeaa-se?”
Woman: “You drank both those shots yourself, didn’t you? You little liar…”
John: “Did you hear that last guy’s set? It had its own separate two-drink minimum.”
Woman: “I’m sorry kid, your friend told me to cut you off after three drinks, and that was your second and third.”
John: “Look, I *promise* I only *look* eleven.”
Woman: “Uh uh. Your friend’s paying, he said to cut you off after three drinks, so you’re done.”
John: “You can make it mostly strawberries! I mean, look at me, I clearly need more fruit in my diet.”
Woman *sighing*: “Fine. Just quit it with the sad puppy eyes.”
For a few seconds after that, the playback was silent. Then the sound picked up again:
Nick’s voice, thought John with a small pang of feeling he preferred not to examine too closely.
Woman: “A strawberry daiquiri. Light on rum, heavy on strawberries."
Nick: “I’m closing out our tab. How many did he have?”
Woman: “Just the one.”
Woman: “Plus the shot of vodka he had when you got here, plus the two shots he picked up a few minutes ago and said he was bringing over to you. I'm guessing he didn't.”
A few more seconds of silent playback, then his own voice slurred:
Woman: “Take care of your boo. He’s a cutey.”
John: “That’s right, I am!”
Oy vey, thought John, what the hell did I do to make her think I was Nick’s boo? thought John with irritable trepidation. Christ, is there nothing I won’t fuck up when drunk?
Nick: “Come on, ‘boo’, let’s go say our goodbyes.”
Always the paragon of tolerance, aren’t you, thought John with vague irritation. Always the beacon of kindness.
John: “…Hang …*static*… the restroom”
Nick: “…backstage …*static*… a mess …*static*… sick in it.”
The conversation on the tape was becoming harder to discern, as if the voices were drowned out by an increased din of an approaching crowd. From that point on, John could only pick out stray words and phrases:
Man (Mike? wondered John): “… surprisingly good.”
Man 2 (might be Anthony, thought John): “… a new set? … heard this …yet…”
John: “…just finished...”
Mike: “…up to… ten?”
Woman (Jessi, decided John): “…so great. … graduate …half a set ready….”
Then even these snippets were drowned out by bar stools being moved and drink orders and the clinking of glasses.
A couple of minutes later, John began to pick Nick’s patter out of the general drone of conversation. Nick was fully in his element, bantering, taking down phone numbers, offering John a bottle of water, apologizing for almost poking him in the eye with something.
The man was born to schmooze, John thought.
After a lot of goodbyeing from the both of them, there were footsteps, a creak, more footsteps, and then the recording stopped again.
So Nick and I left together, thought John. So far so good.
The recording restarted with the growing noise of the subway. John pressed fast forward, then play, then fast forward again. Station announcements came through faintly through the sound of cloth rubbing against the mix in his pocket. DeKalb Avenue… Atlantic Avenue… 7th Avenue…
B train, thought John. So which stop did we get off on?
There is a sudden scratch of a key in the lock.
John froze by the table like a deer in headlights.
The door opened. Nick came in carrying two small bulging plastic bags.
“Hey, you’re awake!” he said, a little too cheerfully. “I bought some nosh, don’t know if you’re in the mood for pies. I got potato, mushroom and cabbage, meat and cabbage…”
“Where are we?” interrupted John.
“My place on Brighton Beach,” said Nick, depositing the bags on the table and looking John over. “How are you feeling?”
“Fine,” said John.
“Great!” Nick smiled his sunniest smile. “I’ll put the kettle on.”
“Do you have any coffee?” asked John, looking into the one of the bags, which gaped open to reveal a multitude of overstuffed wax paper packets, spotted translucent here and there with grease.
“I don’t,” said Nick. “But you shouldn’t be drinking coffee in the middle of the night anyway.
“Should you be eating meat and cabbage pies in the middle of the night?” asked John.
“Why are we here instead of in East Village?” asked John when Nick returned from the kitchen with plates.
Nick opened one of the bags and took out a crescent-shaped pastry. “This one’s got mushrooms.”
“I wanted to talk to you about something.”
“And you couldn’t have done it in a more civilized part of town?”
Nick sat down with a plate full of pastries and bit into one. For a while, John watched him chew.
“That joke of yours,” Nick said finally, swallowing. “About waking up with money.”
“What of it?”
“That actually happen?”
“Asked and answered, counsel.”
“So that’s a yes.”
John picked out a pie from the bags, bit into it, and made a face.
“Ugh,” he said, setting it down onto his pristine plate. “Cabbage.”
Nick took the pie off John’s plate and ate half of it in one large bite. “How many times did it happen?” through a full mouth.
“Waking up with money? I dunno, a couple. Why?”
“You don’t find it at all worrisome?”
“Nick, you’re digging too deep into this. I went out with friends, we all put money down to cover drinks, I probably swiped a twenty from the collection plate out of habit.”
“And no one noticed the plate was forty bucks short?”
“Well, you didn’t put your own twenty in, did you? And you swiped someone else’s. Ergo, forty bucks short of the tab. No one at the table noticed? Not the first night, not the nights after that?”
“Look, my ass never hurt the next morning, if that’s what you’re really asking.”
“Good,” said Nick unironically. “But it wouldn’t necessarily. Have you gone to Student Health to get tested?”
“You really do think I’m moonlighting as a rent boy, don’t you?” marveled John. “You really have that little respect for me.”
“It’s got nothing to do with respect,” said Nick. “It’s just that I know how you get when you are drunk.”
“Oh yeah?” John folded his long hands under his chin and leaned on them with mocking pensiveness. “How do I get?”
“Combative. Aggressive. But also… daring? Out to prove things to yourself and everyone around you. And I’m wondering if maybe you were trying to prove something on those nights too.”
John got up from the table. “And on that delightful note, I’m going to head on home. Back to your place, I mean. Your other-other place. If that’s all right with you.”
Nick reached over the table and held his sleeve. “Stay,” he said.
There was something new in his voice now. Something darker and almost commanding.
“What’s gotten into you?” he asked, sitting back down. “Did I do something stupid last night?”
“You don’t remember.” A statement rather than a question.
“Of course I don’t,” said John. “Hey, at least this time around nothing hurts…”
“What usually hurts?” interrupted Nick. “Not your ass, that’s great. Face? Knuckles?”
“Sometimes,” said John. “Once, it was an ankle of all things. Another time I smeared half the bed with blood from a skinned knee. Like, seriously skinned. Slide-into-third over asphalt skinned.”
“The people you were out with, did they ever say anything?”
“Nothing useful,” said John. “Usually just something along the lines of, ‘A friend of yours came by the bar and you left with him.’”
“A friend.” Nick licked his lips. “Do you know who?”
“But they didn’t recognize him?”
“That right there? This is why I brought you down here. I want to find out who that guy might’ve been.”
“You think it was the same guy who’s stalking me on campus?”
Nick was instantly on alert. “You’ve met him?”
“No, but he sure seems curious about me, doesn’t he? I feel like I’m his Bigfoot. He asks everyone about me, but never seems to catch me in person.”
Nick nodded, and sipped his tea.
“You’ve been asking me a lot of questions,” remarked John. “I have some of my own.”
"In good time." Nick finished his tea. "Get dressed. I have one of your jackets in the closet."
John was about to counter that Nick was not the boss of him, and how dare he, and where did he get off, but then saw the hard set of Nick's jaw and the deep frown in the middle of his forehead, and suddenly realized that this was not the time.
"Where are we going?" he asked meekly instead.
Nick smiled without mirth.
"A vodka bar."
“I thought you were against the idea of me drinking more vodka,” said John.
Nick was about to answer, but at that instant, an alarm went off on his wristwatch. Nick glanced at it, got up and went to sit down at the computer. John peered over his shoulder at the dark screens that began to pop up on the monitor.
Suddenly, a red-orange blob appeared on one of the screens, moved around a little, shrinking and growing, then disappeared.
“Ni-ick…” John drawled warily. “Are these infrared cameras? Why are you watching live footage from several infrared cameras, Nick? Are we about to be ambushed?”
“No,” said Nick absently, clicking from one screen to the next. “It’s just Lisa.”
“She’s a raccoon,” Nick clarified.
“Please, say more now,” John said drily.
Nick shrugged. “What else is there to say?”
“Well, let’s see. You have a secret house with an armed perimeter monitored in infra-red, and you are on first-name basis with a raccoon. Both these issues seem worth expanding upon.”
“It’s just a raccoon. She lives around here. I see her around from time to time. What’s the big deal?”
“No big deal at all!” John threw up his hands in a way that made it obvious it was a very big deal indeed. “It’s just a raccoon named Lisa, whom you are not dating. A raccoon you saw on your multiple infrared security cameras, that you have installed and activated, even though you don’t live here and haven’t been here in months. Sure. Makes perfect sense.”
“Did you know that guy yesterday?” Nick asked out of nowhere. His eyes were darting side to side a bit, as they did whenever he was gripped by a troubling thought.
“What guy?” asked John, flummoxed by the yet another derailment of Nick’s train of thought.
“The one you were going to buy coke from.”
“How can I possibly tell you?” said John. “You know I don’t remember shit from last night.”
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“That balding asshole with his mother-in-law jokes.”
“If you remember him, you should remember the coke guy. You remember coming to the club?”
“Yeah. C train. Mike was hosting. We came in, paid cover and went to say hi to him.”
“Yes. Then after that, we went to the bar,” prompted Nick. “Do you remember what you ordered?”
“A vodka tonic,” said John. “Some guy asked if it was good. I was like – it’s a vodka tonic, hard to fuck up.”
Seeing the look on Nick’s face, he raised his eyebrows. ‘That guy? That guy tried to sell me coke? I almost bought coke from that guy? Lord have mercy on my wayward soul...”
“So you do remember him! Great! Have you ever met him before last night?”
“I don’t think so.”
“He didn’t look familiar?”
“Well, a bit. In a way that all guys like that look familiar, you know? I couldn’t pick him out of a Staten Island line-up.”
Nick nodded for a bit, then stood up. “Okay. We’re going to go somewhere now.”
“The vodka bar?”
“Yeah.” Nick raised his hand and scratched at the back of his curly head. “But… like… look, just don’t freak out, okay?”
“Oh, I am SO going to freak out,” said John with audible relish. “After all this weirdness, you’re going to pile more weirdness on top, and you want me not to freak out? Out of the question.”
“Fine. Freak out if you want, but do it quietly.”
After a quick clean-up of the kitchen, which consisted mostly of Nick throwing out the wax papers and baggies their midnight feast came in, he had John put on his sneakers and jacket, and led him down a flight of stairs ending in a door. There was no light on the staircase, and Nick lit their way with a tiny but powerful pen-sized flashlight.
“Wait, let me guess,” said John as Nick unlocked the door holding the pen-light in his mouth. “It’s going to be nothing but rusty meat hooks, partial carcasses of your enemies, and suspiciously well-used barbeque equipment.”
However, the basement turned out to be filled with arcane-looking gym equipment. Some of it, like wooden dummies with stubby polished appendages, looked straight out of kung fu movies. Other stuff, like the black kettle-bells, made John think of turn-of-the-century strongmen in tight leotards and curling moustaches.
“My spidey sense is beyond tingling,” he pronounced. “I feel like I accidentally sat on my spidey organ while taking a shit, and now I’m getting up twenty minutes later, and it’s straight up on fire.”
“Hmm, don’t say that,” said Nick as he squatted on the floor, looking before him. John also looked. It seemed a fairly ordinary wooden floor. “It’s like with an audience. If you get them overexcited from the start, and they go too big too early, they’ll have nowhere to go from there.“
With that, Nick spread his arms and pressed down on two sections of unremarkable-looking wooden planks. The areas depressed, then rose up again as a thin metallic handles. Nick turned first one, then the other, stood up, and stomped between them. The two halves swung apart downwards.
A trapdoor gaped open in the floor.
“You were right,” said John dazedly. “I went too big too early.”
“Watch your step,” muttered Nick as he helped John jump down into a subbasement level. “And move ahead of me. I need to close the door.”
John watched him push the two halves of the door shut again.
“Trap doors always open outwards in movies,” he mused. “Why is yours an innie?”
Nick shrugged. “Easier to make unnoticeable, I guess.”
“What if there’s shooting?”
“What if there’s a bomb?”
“What if there’s a tank? What if there’s a nuke? What if there’s anthrax? I dunno, we die screaming. Keep walking.”
“I was just getting worried that Lisa the raccoon might start lobbing grenades at us. Fess up, did you cheat on her? Hell hath no woman like a furry scorned.”
“Not one of your best,” said Nick. “Seriously, keep moving.”
They were walking now through a low narrow corridor, if one could call it walking. Nick walked bent-legged and hunched over like a caveman and was making decent progress; it was obvious that he was well-familiar with this hallway. John, with his extra inches of leg length, had to walk in an awkward squat.
“Where is this underground railroad taking us, Canada?” John bitched after a couple of minutes. “My quads are burning.”
“Not much further,” said Nick. “And they wouldn’t burn if you hit the gym with me once in a while.”
“It wasn’t Lisa the raccoon out there, was it?”
“Too bad you can’t run on all fours,” said Nick, who was really making an evening of non-sequiturs. “We’d make better time.”
“Oh, is that how you prefer to make this commute?” asked John. “On all fours?”
“Yes,” said Nick simply.
“I would pay to see that.”
“You’d probably ask for your money back afterwards,” said Nick. “I’m told it’s rather unsettling.”
John leaned against the wall and winced, sliding down onto his ass. “Seriously, stop for a sec.”
Nick shone his penlight into the hallway in the direction they came from. “You get one minute. Breathe. Four breaths in, seven breaths out. Five breaths in, nine breaths out.”
“Sure,” moaned John. “Wouldn’t want to run afoul of Lisa. She probably brought her entire famiglia along to help her beat on you. Was that racist? I don’t know why I said famiglia…”
Spurred onwards by Nick, who now walked behind John and head-butted him along like an insistent ram, they made it to a dead end with another door on the ceiling. This time there was no cross-beam, but there was a visible deadbolt.
Nick put his penlight into his mouth and unlocked the deadbolt, pushing upwards. The door gave, the two halves springing open slowly and silently, as though automated. Nick gripped the edge of the floor and pulled himself up with one swift motion, extending his arms to help John up and out afterwards.
They were in a dark office. A fairly humdrum sort of office. John could see a desk with a dusty old computer monitor, stacks of manila folders, papers, and above it a pushpin board with bulletins and clipped yellowed Far Side cartoons. There was also a rolling chair and a row of tall metal lockers.
Nick walked over to the left-most locker, dialed a combo, pulled open the lock, and took several articles of clothing of the hangers, throwing one to John.
“Put this on. Leave your jacket here.”
It was a leather jacket.
John put it on. It was short in the sleeves and hung stiffly on him. Nick, meanwhile, outfitted himself in a black windbreaker and took off his glasses.
“Are you going to be okay without them?” asked John.
“These are fake,” said Nick. “I’ve got contacts in.”
He took a small case out of the locker, opened it, and took out a comb. Looking into the mirror mounted on the inside of the locker door, he began to brush his curls, slicking the comb with pomade from the same case. When he was done, he examined the result in the mirror. John examined him too.
“You look like… I don’t know who you look like, exactly, but if you lived in the '30s, Peter Lorre would have played you in the movies,” said John.
“Put this on.” Nick handed John a Mets baseball cap.
“Who wears a baseball cap with a leather jacket?” asked John as he put the cap on.
“Someone who doesn’t want to be easily recognized and has very distinctive ears,” said Nick.
They left the office via the front door, which led to a long-term parking garage. An elevator took them to level 3, where Nick unlocked a dusty black Audi.
“So how long have you been a Russian spy?” asked John when they pulled out into the street.
“I’m not a fucking spy,” muttered Nick as he checked back and side mirrors. “Tell me when we pass 14th street. I hate driving in the dark.”