They were saying that all appointments were canceled, indefinitely, that it was the end of everything, but why would they assume that? The subway was running again, for example, parts of it. So people must have been going places, meeting other people. So there were still meetings. So maybe my meeting was still on. I found the lawyer’s card and tried to call his office, but cell service was fucked, still, after like a day. I didn’t know what to do. I couldn’t even ask Yuri for advice, because the phones. What if this meeting was still happening and I wasn’t there? What if everybody showed but me? The lawyer had stressed over and over how important it was that I not miss it. Nobody’d told me it was canceled, technically, according to the letter of the law or whatever. So I put on my shoes. It didn’t start for a few hours yet, but I had nothing to do, and there was fuck-all on TV that day, that’s for sure.
Broadway was frozen, like a screenshot. Nobody on the street. It was cool at first, actually, having it all to yourself like that, like one of those end-of-the-world movies. But then I saw an empty bus with its doors open just sitting in the middle of an intersection, and I started to feel a little creeped out, so I cut west into the park. Saw people there, at least, a few people out with their dogs, just standing there like drugged lunatics while the dogs chased each other around the grass. Then further on I could hear voices, loud voices. There’s this playground in that part of Riverside, at the bottom of a steep hill, all fenced in. And that’s where everybody was, it looked like the whole West Side in this little enclosed playground. It was packed, people were up against the fences, it was like a detention center for kids or something. Parents were in there too, on the fringes, talking to each other, while the kids just ran around screaming like usual. Well, not quite like usual: it was a Wednesday at eleven in the morning, but nobody had school. That’s probably why they were having so much fun. Technically I am still not supposed to be in playgrounds, I think, but it was so packed I figured who’d even notice, and I squeezed my way in.
I had the day off too. It didn’t make a ton of sense to me, but I wasn’t complaining. To make my meeting with the lawyer, I’d been deliberating between taking an unpaid personal day and calling in sick; the paid sick day was obviously the smart way to go, but one thing about me, I am actually a pretty bad liar. Even on the phone, Yuri tells me, my poker face sucks. I took up a position near some parents who were talking with their arms folded and with the look on their faces that everybody on TV had, which I would describe as sort of gray. “Someone in my building,” this one dad was saying, “used to go out with someone who was a broker at Marsh and McClennan.”
It was so loud in there, like mayhem. The kids were going nuts. I think they were really into having all the adults lined up, watching them.
“I was in the kitchen,” this other mom says. She was super hot, actually, with a ponytail through the hole in the back of her baseball cap, and tights like for running, and this really toned milfy thing going on. Black hair. “Josh was home sick from school. He’s watching Sesame Street, and I’m in the kitchen, and they break into Sesame Street with a live news feed, for God’s sake. He starts yelling.”
“Jesus,” I said, just to get her to look at me.
“Right?” Her ponytail swung away from me in the sunlight. “It’s just like, no sensitivity at all. I’m Julie, by the way. I feel like I’ve seen you here before. Are you Teresa’s dad?”
My mouth opened and kind of stayed open, and she started to frown a little bit, and so I turned and squeezed myself through the crowd until I was outside the gate again. I went back up the path toward West End and on to Broadway and kept going downtown. It was probably about noon, and I was hungry, but nothing was open. Why?
Even though the day off helped me out I was actually somewhat torn about it. I knew we were all getting paid, and would get paid until the lab reopened. There’s no way they’d use a national tragedy or state of emergency or whatever to dock our pay, I mean granted they’re Columbia University, so they’re assholes, but they’re not insane. They care how things look. So fine, whatever, a paid holiday. “Safety concerns,” they said, which made me laugh. You really think somebody somewhere wants to cross the world to blow up some random research lab? To bring down, what, the evil cosmetics empire? We get the PETA people, for sure, but that’s a whole different order of magnitude. They mostly just carry signs, and they yell their little gay rhyming chants that are actually the funniest shit. If they were ever going to shut us down, that would have happened years ago, those clueless douchebags. Holding up their pictures of rabbits with no eyes or whatever.
But now the whole city had lost its mind and that was that. Everyone thought someone they’d never met was suddenly coming for them, had been planning it for years. Pretty arrogant, if you think about it. Who gives a shit about you, really? Not that many people.
What made me pissed about missing work was that work was where I saw Yuri. He’d started as a lab tech about a year after I did, but that wasn’t how he made his real money. He always had clean credit card numbers for me. I don’t know how he got them. All those fucking Russians know each other. Sometimes he charged me, if he felt like being a dick about it, and sometimes he just threw one my way for nothing, because he said I was funny. I needed at least one, the last one he gave me was getting flagged now when I tried to use it. I thought what with the whole patriotic air or whatever, this would be a good time to catch him in a non-mercenary mood where he would lay one on me for free, but as long as the lab was closed I wouldn’t see him, and the guy changed his cell number like every two weeks.
The lawyer’s address was all the way down on West Forty-eighth Street. His name was Greg Towles. I was just saying that second bit like “towels,” which I wasn’t sure was right, but every time he called me now he’d just say, “It’s Greg.” A few months ago he’d met me for lunch at a diner near the lab; he explained what a class action was, and asked me if I wanted to be a part of it. I said would I get my money back or did that mean I would have to split it with a bunch of other people. He said I’d get my money back and probably more besides. I said what’s your fee, and he said zero, my fee comes out of the money you win, so I thought what’s to lose, other than a day of work to go downtown and get, what do you call, deposed, and now thanks to this Tragic Time I wasn’t even going to get docked for the day.
All of a sudden the little voicemail chime goes off on my phone in my pants pocket—I must have walked into some zone that had service restored—and I stopped on the Broadway median to see if maybe it was Yuri, or Mr. Towels, but no, it was from my mother, hysterical as usual. Freaking out right along with everybody else. She should have known better—she’s lived in Bayside her whole life, for God’s sake, you’d think she could remember on her own that Manhattan is a big place. I’d sent her an email to let her know I was fine but she never checks her fucking email, it’s too complicated, you might as well ask her to tune up her car. She couldn’t put it together herself that I lived all the way up on 131st Street, miles from everything, and so obviously nothing had fallen on me and I wasn’t dead. It was true that when the wind was right, like it had been last night, even up on 131st you actually got that burning smell, to the point where I’d had to get up and close my window. It was almost worth telling my mother that story just so she’d maybe have a stroke from it and be paralyzed and not able to dial her fucking phone anymore.
I was deleting the message, looking down, and walked smack into some huge dude on the sidewalk outside La Caridad. Completely my fault, I just bounced right off of him. And those were the weirdest moments to me, actually, the scary moments, because no one was acting fucking normal anymore, everyone was all like, are you okay? All the time. Over nothing. Are you all right? So where normally this guy—who was wearing a tank top, who had a neck tattoo, who looked like he would maybe welcome the opportunity to get into a little beef with a rude stranger—might have at least made an aggressive remark to test me out, instead he just puts his hand on my shoulder, really gently, and he says, like he was the one who’d been looking at his phone while crossing the street, “Sorry, bro, you okay?” I did not like it, man. I did not like the way people were acting. This was New York. People were always looking for an excuse to go off on you. They were hoping for it. Now it was like being in this cult. It creeped the shit out of me. But I didn’t dare do anything but smile back at this guy, because he was pretty ripped, and it’s like they say, be careful what you wish for.
Beautiful out, one of the ten best days of the year, like the weathermen say. But it was a ghost town. In the windows of the locked stores, and especially on the upper floors where the apartments were, you were just starting to see that thing of where people put up flags, or else just taped pictures of flags to the inside of their window, some of them just cut out of the newspaper, some of them just black and white.
The lobby of the building on West Forty-eighth was humongous. Ceilings like four stories high. Completely empty, except for a few security guards, and two of them were right on me. They actually ran, or at least the young one did. The fat one tried. To be fair I didn’t look like someone who was in that building on legit business. Especially after walking eighty-some blocks. I understood their reaction, is what I’m saying. They positioned themselves right in front of me.
“What’s your name, sir?” the first one said. The younger and faster and more dickish one.
What’s my name? What the hell kind of useless question was that? Did he think maybe he’d recognize it?
“Who,” said the older guy, “are you here to see?” They both wore these matching maroon jackets, like suit jackets. It looked pretty gay. I told them I was here to see Greg Towles. He’s a lawyer, I said.
How the fuck should I know? I just thought it was a big building and this guy Towles had an office in it. It was probably on the guy’s card, but if I reached into my pocket right now one of these jumpy no-necks would just shoot me dead. The older guy had sweat on his face. Everybody was on edge. The other guards were looking at us. Maybe the old guy was the young guy’s father, and he’d gotten him the job, I thought for a moment, but no way, if it weren’t for the Team Gay jackets they didn’t even look like they were from the same country.
“Rice and Powers?” the dad asked me.
That sort of rang a bell. I nodded.
“They’re closed today,” he said. “In fact everybody’s closed. There’s not an office open for business in the whole building.”
Then why did you bother asking me where I was going, I felt like saying, but instead I just asked if I could call upstairs to make sure.
“No,” he said. “What, do you have a package for him or something?”
I held out my empty hands. I was getting irritated now.
“Try again tomorrow,” he said, and gestured with his fat hand toward the door.
So then the same long fucking walk back home.
I went through Central Park this time, just for something different. In at the south end, out at the north. Fucking empty. On a day like that. Everybody was all frightened, but really that was just a way of trying to make the whole thing more about themselves, which it wasn’t. Either you were actually there when it happened or it was something you watched on TV, period. But whenever something major happens it’s like everybody wants to insist on their little piece of the suffering. People had no idea what was coming next, that’s true I guess—when something as fucked up as that happens, something you weren’t even imagining, it wakes up your imagination pretty good—but still, they were just overdoing it, I’m sorry. Get over yourselves. You weren’t there, it didn’t happen to you. Plus you know anything built that high is going to come down sooner or later, one way or another.
But it was that other weird thing going on, that whole kumbaya, brotherhood-of-man thing, that made me way more jittery than anything else. Like when I exited the park at the top, just near the foot of that hill behind the cathedral, there was a line outside this one restaurant with its lights on, and when I got up there and heard people talking, it turned out that the owner, who had just reopened, was letting everybody eat for free. He was standing there on the sidewalk, and people were fucking hugging him, and he was crying. Little skinny bearded dark-skinned guy. He looked kind of Arab, so maybe he was just thinking this was a good way to discourage people from killing him. “Come in, my friend,” this guy says to me when he catches me staring through the window at the people sitting at the tables. “Fourteen years I have been in this location. These are my neighbors. I would do anything for them. You, you are my brother, you look hungry, no place to sit right now but I bring you, wait right here.” I was starving, it’s true. But the whole scene creeped me out something fierce, so when he went through the door to the kitchen I started walking again and kept going until I was back in my apartment.
Not a whole lot to eat at my place. But there was no way I was going out again. I’d walked enough. In the freezer I found a Swanson’s chicken TV dinner and stuck it in the oven. I buy four or five of those things at a time, telling myself they’re for emergencies, but then I eat them all in like two weeks. Still no message about work tomorrow. I called the lab and got through but no one answered. Nothing but news on TV. I wasn’t hungry anymore but I still felt restless. I guess “restless” would be like a polite word for it. I definitely, definitely needed to unwind somehow.
Here’s the problem with porn: if you get too into it, like I probably was, then quality starts to become an issue. I mean, when you’re a kid you watch it and it truly doesn’t matter what it is—it’s all basically the same, you’re seeing stuff you’ve never seen before, the fucking Victoria’s Secret catalogue does the job just fine for you. But then you get a little older and more sophisticated. And you start noticing things. If you’re me, you can get a little caught up in whether or not it seems real: I mean none of it’s actually real, but you can still suspend your disbelief or whatever. They can at least make the effort. And that’s good enough for me. I mean it sort of has to be. Let’s just say that pursuit of the real is what’s gotten me into hot water before.
I won’t say I was an addict or anything, but you do get kind of used to ending your day a certain way, and this had been a bitch of a day. But, as with everything in this life, if you want the good stuff, you have to pay. This is why I needed the credit card numbers. The last card I got from Yuri had been declined last time I tried it. I tried it again now, stupidly, and no go. Behind me the TV kept showing people crying. Great. Even though I knew better, I went to one of those free sites that promises Spy Cam Videos or whatever. This guy is sleeping in a bed and some chick comes in, and it’s okay for like the first thirty seconds, and then I realize I can see the shadow of the boom mike on the girl’s ass. Are you fucking kidding me? I’m supposed to not notice that? I felt like throwing the monitor out the window, but instead I turned it off and went to bed and did not sleep very peacefully at all.
In the morning there was an email from the lab. Closed for the rest of the week now. I was able to get through to Towles’s cell phone, but it went straight to voicemail. Voicemail at his office number too. So I sat and thought. I figured if your work got canceled for one day, circumstances beyond your control, logically everything on your schedule would just get pushed forward a day. Everything at the same time, just twenty-four hours later. So I didn’t see what other option I had except to go back down to Forty-eighth Street again, at two, in case the meeting was on.
How all this got started is that I got hit by a bus, a city bus thank God, one night like six years ago, not too long after I moved to Manhattan. I stepped off the curb, I had the light, I was in the crosswalk, and the M104 just makes the turn on Broadway and cold flattens me. I was drunk, for sure, so drunk I actually don’t remember most of it, but in the eyes of the law or whatever that didn’t matter, because the bus driver, some fat black chick, was at fault. So there’s this fucking lawyer beside my bed at Metropolitan Hospital practically the moment I wake up. Not Towles—this was way before that, and this guy was like something Towles would flick off his shoe. He has a camera with him, right, and he’s taking pictures of me while I’m asleep. If I could have got up, I’d have decked him. But then he says who he is and he shows me the pictures, and Jesus, I looked like shit. Most of the skin was off my face, my arms, my hands. I had a broken pelvis too, but that wasn’t quite as visual, I guess, and this bottom-feeding motherfucker just wanted to get some photos while my wounds were still fresh, before there was any healing going on. He said his name was Bond, which I thought was hilarious, and he would take thirty-three percent of whatever he got for me.
I felt stupid for not having thought of it myself already, even though to be fair I’d been unconscious most of the day: Run down by a city bus? Lawsuit! As long as you don’t die it’s like hitting the Lotto. The whole thing was such a slam dunk they never even finished picking a jury. Three hundred and sixty thousand dollars, though of course a third of that came off the top for old Mr. Bond. He earned it, don’t get me wrong: he got the business about me being drunk excluded, and man, you should have heard him, it was like he was arguing for his own life. He asked me, right before we signed, if I wanted the driver red as a condition of the settlement. I said nah, why bother, let her run over some other lucky asshole and make him rich too. She’s like accidental Robin Hood, this mama.
So I don’t know if you’ve ever had a lot of money, but it fucking weighs on you. I mean you can have a thousand bucks and feel pretty smart, but when you’ve got $240K just sitting there doing nothing, it can make you feel pretty stupid. I was at the lab then, but it was before Yuri was working there. The only guys I had to talk to were basically morons, and they started getting in my ear, you know? You’ve got to invest it. You’ve got to put it to work for you, otherwise it just sits there and gets the shit taxed out of it until it’s gone, either you grow it or it dies, it’s the American way.
So fine. I’m on the internet a lot anyway—that’s one thing I’d done with all the money, I bought a decent computer for once, with a DSL connection, and a new TV too—and I go on Ask Jeeves and I ask for advice on how to invest money in the stock market. It sounds incredibly naïve, I know, and it was, but at that point my two choices were pretty much Ask Jeeves or Ask Those Ignorant Dicks You Work With. I go to a few of these top sites, and before long I start getting these emails, addressed to me personally, from someone who clearly knows I’ve got some money to my name. His name is Garrett Spalding, and he wants me to go in on a fund, a private fund—that’s all he kept calling it, a fund—where I had a guaranteed return on my money each year of nine percent. Probably more—he sent these annual reports I couldn’t read, but the upshot was that he was some kind of stock-picking genius, he just needed enough of a stake from a handful of select clients so that when he called the big banks to make a trade, they’d take his call. Nine percent minimum was his guarantee, good times or bad, bull market or bear.
So you are smarter than me and can see where this is going, probably. I sure couldn’t. I kept ten grand and gave him the rest, and that was pretty much that, I never heard from the fucker again. A total con man. A good one too. Not that I made it very hard for him. I never even met him face to face, if you can believe how stupid I was. I did have one meeting, in an actual office, with some underling of his, because of course a legit stock-picking genius like him was way too much of a big shot to meet with every single new client. I swallowed it all. Now I wonder if the underling wasn’t just him all along. Secretly laughing his ass off. I mean he was a pro. Those fake-ass annual reports couldn’t have been cheap.
I won’t say I felt relieved—I was pissed as hell about getting clowned like that and for months I kept trying to pick fights when I was out, just so maybe while getting my ass kicked I could land one punch on some face and pretend it was Garrett Spalding’s— but I will admit that, in a weird way, just going back to living paycheck to paycheck made me feel less stressed, because I was okay at that, it’s what I know. Four years go by. And then out of nowhere, I get a phone call from Towles the lawyer. Young guy, not too much older than me. I don’t know how these fucking guys keep finding me, but what the hell, the last lawyer worked out pretty good for me, right?
“We found your contact info in his records. You aren’t the only one he’s done this to,” Towles says. “He’s defrauded a lot of people out of a lot of money over the years. Millions.”
“You’re suing him?” I said. “So you’ve found him? You know where he is?”
“Not exactly. He’s fled the country, we think. But we’re starting to learn where some of his assets are. And legally that’s all we need.”
“This fund thing. Does it even exist?”
“Well,” Towles said, “yes and no.”
Whatever. I just heard the part where it didn’t cost me anything. And who knows, maybe I get my money again.
Towles said he still didn’t know how many people would be joining me, because he was still in the process of uncovering how many people this Spalding guy had ripped off over the years. The more the better, he said, though it also seemed to me like the more of us there were, the less money I’d get back. But a suit like this had to have what he called name plaintiffs. He had five of us so far, and he wanted to go ahead and file the suit, it wouldn’t prevent other names from being added later, but he thought it was very important to be first out of the gate and so he wanted to go ahead with the five of us, five ordinary, non-institutional investors, five idiots retarded enough to hand their life savings to a con man. He set up a meeting at his office where we would all get together and agree on strategy and be deposed. That was the meeting that was supposed to have taken place that Wednesday afternoon, except I was the only one committed enough or dumb enough to still show up for it.
So now it was Thursday and I walked again, because the walking helped level me out. It always does. I had a stop to make first, at the post office. It’s a condition of my probation that I have to send pay stubs to my officer every month, and I have to send them registered mail. Whatever, I’m used to it, and it’s almost over anyway. The only drag is that the Morningside Heights post office is the worst post office in the world, and of course I can’t base that on having visited every PO in the world or even in New York. I am basing it on the fact that it is impossible to even imagine any place more aggravating. The people who work there are the stupidest, laziest, slowest, fattest, most sadistic people you have ever encountered in your life. They must recruit from all over the city to find these people. I hate them. Everybody hates them. But not half as much as they hate you back.
I get there today and it’s crowded, like always, but it’s as quiet as a church. People are just standing in line. And eight of the ten customer windows are open. That has literally never happened. The day before Christmas you might see like five of them open at the same time. Then there are these little conversations. Usually the only time two strangers start talking in a post office line is just before some kind of shouting match starts, maybe with some mild shoving or, once in a thousand times, an honest-to-God fight, between two women if you’re really lucky. I’ve seen one or two. But now people are kind of whispering to each other, and I realize these are people who don’t even know each other, and the little bell keeps going off nice and regular—62, 63, 64—and suddenly this one whisperer a few people in front of me starts crying, and the woman she’s talking to puts down the tube mailer she’s holding and puts her arms around her.
“What’s eating her?” I say, out loud apparently. This old guy in front of me turns and gives me a funny look. Then he sees I’m just holding a regular envelope.
“You look like you’ll be quick to finish,” he says. “No reason to spend all day in line. Why don’t you go ahead of me?”
What the fuck was wrong with everybody? I mean I knew. I’m not a complete idiot. I’m not saying I didn’t know what the cause and effect were. I’m just saying something about it seemed put on to me, performed. The cause was real, but the effect was fake. Or maybe the other way around. I don’t know how to say it so it makes sense.
The lobby of the building down on West Forty-eighth seemed a little more normal than yesterday, less haunted looking, more going on. I saw the same two security guys, but not before they saw me: their eyes were right on me. They stayed where they were, though. The younger guy said something into his walkie-talkie. I went up to reception and told the girl I had an appointment with Mr. Towles at Rice and Powers. Then I sort of held my breath while she called upstairs, because I wasn’t sure what I’d just said was strictly true anymore. I didn’t feel like getting thrown out of anyplace, especially with everybody so tense. The phone call went on for a while, way past what would’ve been needed for somebody to just say “Send him up.” I tried not to look at the security guys to see if they’d started moving in my direction. Then all of a sudden, hallelujah, the chick at reception hands me a Visitor pass and points toward one of the elevator banks.
It was still pretty empty, not like usual, you could tell, and I rode up to the twenty-seventh floor all by myself. This Rice and Powers joint was a palace. Lots of leather chairs. Lots of phones blinking but you couldn’t hear anything. There was one other guy waiting in reception, rugged-looking dude, wearing a tie but otherwise dressed like he was there to fix something. He nodded at me. I went to the girl and said I was there to see Mr. Towles, I had an appointment. She said what time, and I said what time is it now? She was fucking hot, by the way, like model hot, so hot it probably made me a little irritable, especially when she spoke to me in that way hot women speak to invisible guys and said would I mind just having a seat. She pointed to the chairs, like I wouldn’t have worked that out myself, like a creature like me might just sit on the floor unless someone explained things to him. I took one of the leather chairs that faced the picture window, looking downtown. And that was the first time, other than on TV, that I could see the actual smoke. That’s how high up we were. It was wild. And when you looked up from it, you were looking pretty much straight into the blue sky, which was pretty unnerving too, like, empty as it was, something might suddenly appear out of it.
“Excuse me,” I hear, and it’s the other guy in reception, the one who nodded. I raise my eyebrows. “You’re here to see Mr. Towles? Sorry, I couldn’t help overhearing. It’s pretty quiet in here.”
He was only a few years older than me, probably, though he looked like a dad, like somebody’s dad. Very fit and tan, but not like someone who goes to the gym all the time. Like someone who’s outside a lot. But I was psyched when I realized what he was doing there.
“I have a meeting,” I said.
He stood, walked two steps forward—still kind of half- crouching, like he didn’t want to get all the way up—to shake my hand, then backed into his leather chair again. “Mark Firth,” he said, then he left a kind of pause, like I was supposed to tell him my name, which I didn’t. “I have a meeting too. Or I’m not sure if I still do. I had one scheduled for two days ago, but then, well.”
“Where are you from?” I said. “I’m surprised they let anybody into the city at all.”
You live in New York for a while, you develop a sense for when people are from someplace else. “I got here Monday night, if you can believe it,” he said. “I’m down from Massachusetts. I left my car up in Wassaic and took the train in from there. Mr. Towles had the rm put me up in a hotel. It was only supposed to be for one night, but now I don’t know.”
“Sweet,” I said.
He gave me kind of a look, like he was worried maybe I was making fun of him. But I wasn’t. “It’s possible to make the drive here and back in one day,” he said, “but it’s about four hours each way. I would have done it if I had to. But Greg was very generous about it.”
“I should have said I was from somewhere else,” I said, just trying to be friendly. “Free hotel room. That’s the shit.”
“So you’re from the city?” Mark Firth said, in a strange, kind of careful tone, like it was a big deal. “You live here in Manhattan?”
“So, um, is everyone—did you know anybody? Do you know anybody, I mean, who’s missing? Everyone close to you is okay?”
Everyone close to me? I actually misunderstood him for a second, because I said, “No, man, I was nowhere near it. I live miles away.”
He nodded, his head down, still looking all somber.
“It’s all so unbelievable,” he said.
I guess. He seemed pretty shaken up. I was waiting for him to start in on his own personal story of where he was when it happened, but he didn’t.
“So you don’t know anyone,” he said. “Anyone who worked down there.”
“Man,” I said, “do I look like someone with a lot of friends in high nance?”
He choked out a little laugh. “And you—I mean I guess I shouldn’t assume we’re here for the same reason, Mr. Towles has more than one case to work on at the same time I’m sure—”
“Garrett Spalding?” I said.
His shoulders sagged.
“Yeah,” I said, “me too. How much did he fuck you out of?”
“Oh,” Mark Firth said, “I’m not really sure if—maybe we’re not supposed to talk about that?”
I didn’t really care, I was just hoping that there’d been someone out there even stupider than me. If he didn’t even want to say how much, I figured it must have been a lot. “Whatever,” I said, “we’re all on the same team, right? Team Gullible.” He smiled, kind of sickly. “Let me ask you this, though: did you ever meet him? Because I’m not sure I ever even met the guy, and I kind of regret it. Not to mention that it makes me feel like an even bigger idiot.”
Mark dropped his head. “Believe me,” he said, “it’s worse having met him.”
“No shit?” I sat forward, and he kind of sat back. “You met him?”
“I had him in my home.”
“You had him in your home?” I said, too loud for sure, and so when the hot receptionist pointed at us and some other little pale guy in a suit started toward us silently on the carpet, I figured it was to tell me to behave myself.
“What did he look like?” I said. “Did he have like a, like a—”
“You’re here to see Mr. Towles?” the suit said. He was balding and he had no chin.
“Yes, sir, that’s right,” Mark Firth said, polite as hell. He stood up again and said his name. “Do you happen to know if any of the others are here?”
“I don’t believe so,” the guy said. “Of course the depositions would all have been scheduled for different days and times.” I couldn’t tell yet if he was another lawyer, or just an assistant with a really positive opinion of himself. His head reminded me of a lightbulb.
“Well then, can we go in the back and see him now, if we’re not waiting for anybody else?” I said. “I came a long way to be here, and my fellow plaintiff Mark here came a lot further than I did.”
“I’m afraid not,” the little guy said. “He isn’t in.”
Great. “When do you expect him in?” Mark said.
“I’m not sure,” the guy said. He looked more and more rattled, the more he talked.
“What are you talking about, you’re not sure?” I said. “Where is he? We didn’t just wander in off the street, we’re here because he told us to be here. I had to take a day off work.”
Something in the little lackey dude seemed to crack, and he sat down in the seat that was more or less between us, so that we were like three sides of a square. Mark and I gave each other a look and sat down too. “These are frightening times,” Lightbulb Head said. “A lot of our staff isn’t in today. A lot of the lawyers too. Even though we’re officially open for business again. Some of them have friends or relatives who aren’t yet accounted for.”
“Oh my lord,” Mark said.
“And no one really knows what’s going to happen next,” he said. For some weird reason he had taken out his phone and was just kind of fondling it. “No one knows if whatever is going on in the world right now is over or not. So my point is that it’s not that unusual, not that hard to understand, that Mr. Towles and his wife have apparently left the city for a while. He has family somewhere on Long Island, and he’s gone to be with them.”
“So you don’t know when he’ll be back,” Mark said. “Or where he is, exactly.”
“A lot of people are panicking,” the guy said.
“Long Island,” I said. “And so us working folks are supposed to what, stay here and take our chances?”
The guy stared at me. The more impatient I got, the more he looked like he was about to cry. We sat there in our little open-ended square, on the fancy furniture that was just waiting-room furniture but that was ten times nicer than anything I’d ever owned. Just for the waiting room. I’d never really seen the inside of an operation like that before. Some people live in a world made of money. You think you know it, but you don’t know it.
“I don’t blame him,” Mark says, his voice as soft as the other guy’s. “It’s hard to be away from your family at a time like this. You want them close to you.”
Chinless reached out and put his hand on Mark’s arm, which was so inappropriate. Everybody was putting on an act, but not for each other, it was more like they were their own audience, if that even makes any sense.
“So can we still go inside then, since we’re here?” I said, and stood up. “Get deposed or whatever?”
The lackey looked miserable. “I’m sorry—”
Mark’s cell phone rang.
“Sorry,” he said. He pulled it out and muted it.
“I was just saying how sorry I was that only the two of you, out of six? I think it was six. That the two of you were scheduled when you were scheduled. I know it was hard to make it all the way down here. I know we all want life to go on just like before.” And the motherfucker is at-out crying now. I just felt furious, for some reason. “But there’s no way we can take depositions without Mr. Towles here. And he isn’t here. And he’s left no word when he’ll be back. So I don’t know what to tell you except go home and be with your families and we’ll be in touch just as soon as there’s further word.”
“Or we could try again tomorrow?” I said.
“Or you could try again tomorrow, though I would definitely call first. I’ll be here, that much I can promise you.”
He walked us to the elevator. He was acting like a funeral director. I was just like, buddy, do you know what kind of horrible shit happens to people you don’t know every day? But then he gets even weirder. “Do you,” he says, “have a dog?”
“Hell no,” I said, but he was looking more at Mark, who was nodding.
“I just get overcome,” the guy says, “thinking of all those thousands of pets, dogs especially, just waiting by the door. Just waiting. I know it’s crazy, what happened to those people is so awful, but I get fixated.”
The elevator came, thank God. Mark and the guy did that thing where you shake hands but then you put your other hand on top of the pile of hands. Then we were in the elevator, going down in silence.
“Dogs!” I said finally. “What a fruitcake.”
We walked side by side through the giant lobby. I saw my security-guard pals and waved, but they were looking at something else. We stopped on the sidewalk and looked up, and just then some kind of military fighter jet went over, the only planes that were flying then, those first few days. It happened a lot, but you never quite got used to it. Every time one went over, you’d see people on the sidewalk freeze.
“It just feels like nothing will ever be the same,” Mark said.
And for some reason I just felt it all come spilling out of me right there: all this hate, like it had been building for days. Why at this guy, at fucking small-town Mr. Clean? I don’t know. I could mention that he looked an awful lot like the guys who used to kick my ass all the time for no reason in high school. Stick my head in the toilet and what have you. And now he’s pretending we’re brothers. Not pretending—he believed it. He believed that that was what he thought. He was just so clueless about himself that it fucking pissed me off. Or maybe what I was really mad about was thinking that I did have something in common with him. Look at him. He’s a rube, a sap, a greedy fucking imbecile, and I’m just as bad as he is. And he’s just as bad as I am. There’s your fucking brotherhood of man, am I right? Anyway, I suddenly had had it with this Mark guy. I wanted to restore the distance between us.
“We’re all New Yorkers today,” I said.
He nodded, like I had said something very wise. He put his hand over his eyes to look down at me, like a visor, like a salute.
“Are you hungry?” he says to me.
Yeah, I’m hungry, you condescending douche, but I do know how to feed myself. Some people look at me like I’m some kind of unfortunate. Because maybe I don’t look a certain way. I have a job, I have my own place, I live a life, fuck you, you know? That well- meaning sympathy is the worst. It makes me crazy. You be you, and I’ll be me. You know damn well it’s just about making yourself feel superior anyway. Like in case the building you’re in falls down and it turns out there really is a God or something, you want your ass covered, you want to be able to make your case. Good luck with that.
“You know, this is silly,” I said, “but everything just seems like—it could be our last day on this earth, you know?”
He put his hand on my shoulder and squeezed. He was fucking strong, this Mark.
“And we’re sort of thrown together by fate, you and me, and this is such a bizarre time, it feels like the world might be ending—”
“What hotel do they have you in?”
“What hotel?” He jerked his chin in the general direction of downtown. “The Marriott. Right on Times Square. Just a few blocks from here. Do you know it?”
“I’ve seen it,” I said, “from outside.”
“It’s quite something.” He paused. “They evacuated the whole hotel. They made us all go stand in the street. Just stood there for a couple of hours, watching the news on that giant video billboard, and then at some point they just said we could go back in.”
“This is going to sound kind of gay,” I said, “but I don’t really feel like being alone right now.”
He invited me over. I knew he would. What everyone in New York was suddenly trying to act like—neighborly—this hick was actually like that 24/7. Probably he was a churchgoer. He had a lot of wrong ideas about himself, you could see that. Anyway, it was only like a five-minute walk and we were there. The Marriott has this rooftop restaurant that spins around while you eat, which sounded awesome to me, but of course that had been closed since Tuesday and was unlikely to be up and running any time soon. “Room service?” I suggested. He seemed reluctant but I asked at the desk and room service was technically back in operation but not fully staffed, so it might take a while, is what we were told. So many of the kitchen and hotel workers were illegals, and there was no easy way to get ahold of them to tell them to come back to work. They’d come back when they felt it was safe, I guess. Mark’s room was all the way up on the nineteenth floor. The lobby elevators are made of glass, so it’s like watching yourself go up in a rocket or something. Revolving restaurant, glass elevators—the whole place is designed to make you piss yourself.
I could tell he was uncomfortable. He handed me the room service menu and then called down to the front desk to ask if all the trains upstate were running on their normal schedule, and I guess the answer was yes. Maybe he wanted to pack up and go home right then, but he was Mr. Polite, and brother, I wasn’t budging. This place was sweet.
The second he hung up the room phone, his cell phone rang again. “Hi, honey,” he said. “I was just about to call you back.” He looked at me for a second, without meaning to, and I understood he wanted some privacy, but I didn’t really feel like giving it to him and anyway where was I going to go?
I smiled at him and mouthed, “It’s okay,” which seemed to puzzle him.
“Just came back from there,” he said. Little pause. “Well, sort of. Towles wasn’t there.” Littler pause. “Nobody seems exactly sure.”
I looked at the art on the wall, which was abstract, like a picture of nothing, like they were afraid of getting sued for accidentally reminding you of something.
“No, for God’s sake, no, he wasn’t killed or anything. He was nowhere near all that. He’s just taken off for the suburbs somewhere. His family’s there. Just to be safe, I guess.”
“I’ll just go into the bathroom,” I said, like it was to be nice to him, but I didn’t close the door all the way, so I could still hear him. “I am safe,” he said. “I’m perfectly safe, as safe as you, that’s not what I meant.”
Sometimes you can learn a lot from snooping out a person’s bathroom. But he’d only been living there two days. He had this grungy leather toiletry kit like a kid would have, a kid at camp. The only interesting thing in there was a prescription bottle of Vicodin, which I was like, what? I had it halfway into my pocket—not for me, but stuff like that might be valuable to Yuri or to someone he knows—but when it shook I could hear that there was only one pill left in it. So I just put it back.
“They did?” he said. “Well that’s—I mean that’s sweet, but—”
The bathroom itself was nice. So clean. I don’t want to say why I was so struck by that. Huge mirror. Huge tub. People live lives where they stay in different rooms like this all the time. That’s got to be the best. Anonymous and cleaned up after.
“I know, but who would organize a thing like that? What did you tell them about why I was here?”
I wondered why he didn’t tell her I was right there with him, especially if he wanted to get off the call, which it kind of sounded like he did. I walked back out and lay down on his bed. I just smiled. I don’t know, there was something about the guy, you just wanted to provoke him. He looked like some reformed bully. It was like drinking in front of somebody who’s in AA. Part of you is curious to see what he’s like drunk, right? How bad it would get.
“I should go,” he said. “Room service is here.” A lie! I hadn’t called them yet! “No, if she’s outside, just let her play. Tell her I love her and I’ll see her tomorrow.” Little frown. “I’ll just have to come back here another time. No, I know. Me too. I love you. Me too. See you tomorrow.”
He looked at me sheepishly, that’s the word. I think he probably wanted to lie down too, but he wasn’t about to stretch out next to me. I make people nervous, I don’t know why, so I just try to enjoy that quality about myself when I can. He stood by the window. All day long I’d been way higher up than I’m used to being. It didn’t feel that different.
“My wife,” he said. I nodded. “She was telling me that they had a candlelight vigil at the Town Hall last night. For me. For my safe return. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.”
He stared out the window at all the neon and the blue, and he dropped his head.
“Everybody was totally shocked to hear I was in New York City, because I hadn’t even told anybody I was coming here. I mean Karen knew, of course. But we agreed not to mention it to anyone else. Because I actually haven’t told anyone, not even the rest of my family, about the whole Garrett Spalding disaster. Because I was ashamed of what they might think of me. And now they’re all out there holding candles and praying for me. I feel like kind of a low person right now.”
“What’s she look like, your wife?” I said.
He was really making an effort to roll with it, with this whole particular interaction, you could see. And then he does exactly what I’m hoping he’ll do, he pulls out a picture of his wife and their daughter from his wallet. The wife is just like you’d figure a good-looking yokel like this would wind up with. Country girl. Great body, not fat but nice and curvy, lots of long, naturally shaggy hair. Great, full mouth. Outstanding tits. The kid just looked like a kid.
“You have a lovely family,” is what I said.
He smiled, a little sadly. He didn’t ask me if I had a family. He could probably tell. “I’ve been very lucky,” he said.
So I did it up with that room service, man. The prices were ridiculous. I know Mark disapproved, but it was all free, right? I mean it was all on Towles the lawyer, and even then it’s not like it was coming straight out of his pocket, and did I mention that fucking office? You think a few extra apps or a bottle of cognac is going to break that place? Come on.
We ate like kings. Once the food was there, and it was too late to do anything about it, he gave in and enjoyed himself a little. He even had a beer, while I had three and figured I could carry the other two home with me. I could tell he was worried about getting in trouble with Towles. But who knew if we’d ever see that paranoid asswipe again, unless we wanted to go out to the Island buddy-movie style and track him down. I started flipping around on the TV, still all just news, but then it hit me: pay-per-view! I’d heard about it but I’d never seen it. He was just sitting in the chair not saying anything. I looked through all the sad-ass vanilla porn trailers just for fun, but I wasn’t really tempted: porn is meant to be watched alone, not with another guy in the room, regardless of whether you’re beating off to it or not. That’s why porn was invented, to give everybody something to be alone with.
“So where do you live exactly?” he says. “The subways and buses are running now, right?”
“So was your wife pretty mad at you?” I said. “About the money. She looks like the fiery type.”
“Well, yeah. I mean, it’s—not that I mind your asking, you know, but it’s kind of personal.”
“Sure. You’re right. I mean, it’s just I don’t have a family myself. So I get curious. Especially now, right, when we’re still in danger, maybe, for all we know. So yours might be like the last new story I ever hear.”
He went right for it. He told me the whole thing. He’s a contractor up in Massachusetts someplace. He restores old houses. It’s some kind of a summer town, where rich assholes from New York or Boston buy vacation homes. All that money in his face all the time, so he gets kind of envious and he starts to put his money in the stock market. And he’s actually pretty good at it for a while, or else just lucky, and his wife is all proud of him, just dropping to her knees and blowing him all the time (okay, I added that last part, but it’s his fault for showing me the picture). Then he decides he’s got to move up to the big leagues, and he starts shopping around for an investment manager—because he figures that’s safer!—and he’s looking around online and in some fucking chat room he comes across somebody raving about this guy Garrett Spalding. He gave the man everything. Didn’t even tell his wife he was doing it. Now they’ve got debts up the ass and they had to call off having a second kid.
And get this: “Can I confess something to you? After everything happened on Tuesday, part of me was a little relieved, because Karen’s whole attitude changed, she was just like, forget about all that, forget about our problems, it’s just money, none of that seems important anymore, all that matters is that you’re safe. But I know that feeling might not last forever. I don’t know, maybe that’s why I don’t feel as scared about being away from home as I probably should. I actually feel kind of safe here. In a weird way. But it’s disrespectful to say so.”
There might have been more than that. But the cognac was open and I was pretty drunk at that point.
“Your daughter, though,” I said.
He smiled. “Yeah, fortunately I think she’s too young even to be scared. No idea what everybody’s so worried about. I know they gave her the day off from school, and she was mad about that.”
“What? They canceled school all the way up there? Why?”
He shrugged. “School’s closed all over the country, I think. The country is under attack.”
“But that’s so fucked up!” I said. “I mean you live in the middle of nowhere, right, you said? Out in the woods basically?”
He looked a little startled, like he didn’t get what was upsetting me.
“Why would anybody want to attack you?” I said.
He just sort of made a neutral face. “Who knows what they want,” he said. “Or even who they are. They just hate us. They hate what we stand for.”
“What we stand for? Jesus. Why does everybody suddenly think it’s like Judgment Day or something? You know what most people’s judgment of you is? Their judgment is that they couldn’t give less of a shit about you. You don’t exist to them. But people would rather think that they’re hated. It makes them feel important. Anyway, to me it’s conceited as fuck.”
I don’t think I was making myself too clear. “It’s getting late,” he said.
He wanted me to go. It’s not like I didn’t see that. But I loved it that he couldn’t just say it. Who was this guy? Why didn’t he just throw me out? You know he wanted to. And you know he could have, even if I’d been sober. But he was being such a fucking pushover. Big handsome guy with his hot wife. I couldn’t let things go his way.
“It’s crazy,” I said, “all the different things that had to happen to bring you and me together. All the coincidences, I mean. Because we don’t seem like guys who would normally be hanging out.”
“Absolutely,” he said. “It just goes to show you.”
“I mean, the whole tragedy. But also what brought you here in the first place. The fact that the same guy ripped us both off. Different as we are. The fact that we still went out and showed up for that appointment, we still cared that much about our own money even while thousands of people were dying.”
“Well, I guess,” he said.
“Even the fucking lawyer pussied out of it. Not us, though. We want that fucking money back. You got to want it. You can’t let a terrorist attack stop you. That’s what we got in common, man. We’re selfish.”
“I guess at a time like this, our differences don’t seem so—”
“Selfish and greedy and naïve,” I said. “That’s not a winning combination.”
“Listen, I’m getting pretty tired,” Mark said. I think I’d maybe fallen asleep myself. I opened my eyes. At the foot of the bed the huge TV played silently. Same old shit, on a loop. Nobody wanted to let go of it, of what had happened. It made everybody feel important.
“Yeah, me too,” I said. “But, Mark, I’m scared. I don’t think I can go out there. Not at night. Nighttime is the worst. It’s like ninety blocks back to my apartment. Do you know I walked to Towles’s office and back, the whole way? Both days. I just can’t deal with crowds right now, enclosed spaces. I can’t deal with not being able to see what’s coming out of the sky. The buses seem like prime targets. Like in Israel. And the subways? Forget it. I can’t even think about it.”
I tell you, I got so into it I started crying a little. It was hilarious!
“I’m so scared right now. I don’t know why I’m telling you. They’re talking about bombing, about world war. It’s just, you never know: is this my last night alive? We’ve been through something together, man. I don’t know why people hate us. Why there’s this kind of evil in the world. But I just have this feeling, like you said, like nothing will ever be the same. On my way downtown yesterday, I passed this playground, and it was full of kids, and I just can’t stop thinking about them. It’s like, they’re so innocent, and they’re going to have that ripped away from them. I want to find some way to stop it, you know? To stop them from ever know- ing about what happened. But you can’t stop it. It’d be like turning back time. They’re not afraid of anything yet, of anything real anyway, but man, I’m so afraid for them right now—”
And that is how I spent my first-ever night in a king-size bed on the nineteenth floor of a luxury hotel. For free.
Best bed I ever slept in, but still, I tend to wake up early. It was dark. He was sleeping in the chair, his face propped up by his fist.
The TV was still on, with the sound down. Very carefully I rolled to the edge of the bed and stood up and listened. Fucking quiet up that high. Can’t hear the street at all. That must be why people like it. His phone and his wallet were on the table beside his chair. I took his MasterCard and the photo of his wife and kid, pocketed them, and put everything back the way I found it. I knew he wouldn’t come after me. He could have gotten my address from the lawyer, maybe, but then he would have had to explain why he wanted it. Instead he’d just convince himself the whole thing was his fault anyway. Which it kind of was.
I rode the subway home. Even under the usual roar you could hear a quiet. Just a bunch of numbed-out people, on a train in a tunnel under the street, letting themselves be rocketed around to wherever they remembered somebody expected them to go.
I got straight online and guess what, fucking Mark Firth’s card was declined, everywhere I tried it. Two possibilities. One, he’d already reported it stolen. Two, it was useless because he’d maxed it out anyway. I wanted to laugh but it didn’t seem that fucking funny.
I took off my shoes and lay on my bed with my hands folded and what I wound up fantasizing about, bizarrely, was the money. All of a sudden I really wanted that shit back, and then some. I wanted punitive damages, I wanted pain and suffering. I wanted the fact that my pain and suffering were obviously fake to be the punitive part.
And then before I knew it the day was gone, and it started to get dark. I guess I was so bored and frustrated that I was in a kind of trance that made the time jump by without my even knowing. I’m sure I slept some too. But mostly I was just in a bad state of mind. I know I meant to call Towles’s office again, just for the hell of it, but somehow I forgot even to do that.
Nothing to do, nowhere to go, no one to talk to. What a fucked-up world, I thought, that had put me in this spot. I don’t like idleness. It works on me. I think too much. Everything starts to connect. This is what’s gotten me into trouble in the past.
I made another one of those chicken TV dinners. I dicked around online for a while but that just made everything worse, everything I was locked out of. Those sites I like, you knew they hadn’t stopped posting or changed their routine in any way just because some building full of stockbrokers and other assholes fell down somewhere. They were still uploading fresh, new, authentic-as-shit clips every day. And there’s so much of it that things generally only stay up a few days before they’re taken down again, sometimes for legal reasons, most times just to make room for the new. So I was missing things, things I wouldn’t have the opportunity to see ever again. It drove me fucking crazy.
So in the end, I took the big risk, I made the big mistake, I did the one thing that night that’s really fucking self-destructive for me to do. I admit it. I went back out on the roof. Basically I’m the same guy now as I always was: I get worked up and I need to get off somehow in order to settle down again. But I’ve learned to channel it. Thank God for the fucking internet. Because this is how I got into trouble in the first place. You know how long it took me, after last time, to get that job at the lab? Getting caught out on the roof again would put all of that at risk. I’d have nowhere to go but back to Bayside to listen to my mother cry like I’m not sitting right there. Which made it incredibly stupid of me.
But on the other hand, who did I hurt? I mean ever? You think I don’t know how to avoid being seen? It’s like my middle fucking name. And if you don’t see me watching you, if you don’t even know I’m doing it, then what fucking difference does it make to you?
Anyway, if I got caught I figured I could claim post-traumatic stress or whatever. Why should I miss out?
I walked up to the fifth floor—on the outside edge of every step, to cut down on squeaking—and when I tried the roof door it was open, just like it always was back when, just like the old super hadn’t been red for not locking it. In the middle of the roof there’s an exhaust vent, and I walked across the tarpaper as quickly as I could and flattened myself against it. If you make a sort of tight circle around it, you can see through windows in a total of five other buildings. One is some Columbia housing, like fifteen stories. The lower-floor windows especially are so close you could almost reach out and open them, but people leave their lights on, their blinds up, they don’t have a clue. I used to see people every night. There was a high school girl in the high-rise, she was the best, my downfall in fact, though she was probably long gone by now. Couples fucking, mostly in a really boring way but still, when it is on the real it is always oh so stimulating no matter what they look like. Other guys beating off too, sometimes, which doesn’t exactly do it for me—but then also, this one woman who used to sit on the couch in front of her TV and just rub one out with a dildo or a vibrator or something, damned if I could see. That was the absolute best. I would have given anything to be able to hear her, but there’s always a lot of noise rising up from the street and she was too far away.
I made a circle around the vent, looking in every lit window, feeling my heart pound even worse than I remembered. Then another circle, and another one. Then I just stepped away and stood in the middle of the roof, on top of my building, under the stars. I couldn’t believe it. There was nothing out there. Everyone— everyone—was just watching their fucking TVs, and on every TV was the same thing, like the whole city was the window of an appliance store or something. Shadows of people’s heads in front of the TV news. I just stood there and stared. I saw a new light go on and some nice-looking chick in a t-shirt and shorts, but then she just sat at her kitchen table not moving, and I realized she just couldn’t sleep, that was all it was. How long was this shit going to go on? When were people going to drop it and go back to acting like nobody was watching them? They were all still alive. They were all still their own nasty selves. They’d forget, because that’s what people do, they forget what they feel. They go back to being animals. They go back to being savages.
Monday I went back to the lab, and I’ve never been so happy to go to work in my life. I was twenty minutes early. “You okay?” everybody kept asking me, and I got paranoid I looked sick or something, until I saw they were asking everybody that, first thing. “You okay?” Jesus, yes, I’m fine. Enough.
Then Yuri saw me, and I tried to act cool, but he just smirked. That shit never works with Yuri. “Somebody looks a little tired,” he said with his dumbass accent. “I tell you what. Meet me in the break room at ten forty- five. Uncle Yuri is feeling generous, in this time of national mourning.”
“Not you too,” I said.
He clapped me on the shoulder, then he leaned over and I thought for a second he was going to kiss me on the cheek. He puts his lips almost against my ear. “Fuck these people,” he whispers very softly to me. “Fuck this whole country in its big fat ass.”
The end of that same week, I’m on my break at work and I see I’ve missed a call from Towles. “You’re back,” I say when I finally get through to him. “You know I came looking for you. I’m not the one who missed our meeting.”
“So I heard. “
“So now I have to get another day off, but when do you want to do this?”
“We have a problem,” he says. “Not with the suit, which will go forward. With you as one of the name plaintiffs. You’re in the registry. I don’t know why you didn’t tell me that, though I also can’t fathom why my staff didn’t turn it up before now. Anyway, you can understand that this is not what we want, public-image-wise.”
I was seething, for a minute. But he explained to me that I’m still part of the whole class action, I’ll still get my money back if he wins. This just keeps my name out of it. Cool with me. Just as soon keep my name to myself anyway.
Maybe two weeks later, maybe less, I’m in the Morningside Heights post office again. I’ve got my envelope and my registered-mail form all filled out. It’s quiet in there. And crowded, twenty people at least waiting in line, in spite of which only two of the ten windows are open. You can see other employees walking around back there, of course, doing fuck-all, talking to each other, scratching their asses. But God forbid any of them should speed things up for us by opening a third window. Probably against union rules, right? We’re all staring at that light with the green arrow on it, waiting for the little bell. It’s like hell on earth in there. But nobody says anything. Then a woman leaves the second window, the guy at the head of the line—some older guy wearing a suit and sneakers, bald on top but with this scraggly white Bozo hair around the sides—starts forward with his package, but instead of the light going on, the woman behind the counter puts up her next window please sign and gets up and walks away.
You can kind of feel the air go out of everybody in line. But then the guy in the suit, halfway between the front of the line he’s just left and the shuttered window, says out loud, “Are you kidding me?” Maybe it wasn’t that loud, but it sounded loud.
Nobody made eye contact with him.
“Are you kidding me right now?” he says.
And then he just goes off! He drops his package on the counter and he starts banging on the window, pounding on it. “Hey!” he says. “Hey! I see you back there! I can see all of you! Can’t you see us? What is wrong with you people?”
The woman behind the one remaining open window all of a sudden shuts hers too, and disappears. Now it’s ten closed windows. Like war.
“Is this any way to run a goddamn business?” the guy yells. His face is dark red. He turns to look at us, but no one will meet his eye. “You disrespectful government vermin! I demand that you open up these windows right now! I’ve lived in this neighborhood for twenty-eight years! I will not be treated this way! None of us will! Come out of there, you coward, you lazy fucking bitch!”
They had to call security. Two of them, it took. He was still yelling when they dragged him out to the street. Jesus, it was beautiful. Some woman in line accused me of laughing, but I wasn’t, I swear. I just felt this huge sense of relief. There we go, I thought. Thank God. Finally!