Captive Audience

Another Exciting Adventure in … THE GRIND
(Act I: All Wounds)
(Act II: The Status Quo)

***

previously…

Behind the open bar of my media-mogul boss’s epic birthday extravaganza, the man froze. I plucked two glasses of scotch from his hands and gulped down one of them. The other I would savor, because it was not likely this bartender was going anywhere–not while the plump lips and dexterous tongue of my vain, vacuous, and voluptuous coworker inadvertently simulated fellatio on one very, very lucky buffalo wing. After an eternity, Gretchen let out a tiny groan and pulled a naked bone from her mouth.

If you’re curious, that exact turn of phrase did not pop into my brain at random.

Suddenly, her head jerked around, as if it had been smacked by a thought that had been hurled across the room by a slingshot. “Oh! Did Myron tell you?”

Myron was my editor, and I hated it when he told me anything. “Possibly,” I replied, “but I tend to tune him out.”

She punched me in the shoulder before stuffing a wad of bubblegum into her mouth. “Max Fuentes,” she said between chomps, “you crack me up!” And she laughed.

That laugh.

“I’m your new photographer!”

What? “That’s,” I said. “That’s,” I said again. “That’s eventful.”

“I know, right?”

The tiny devil sitting on my left shoulder whispered into my ear, Who do we kill first: Myron, Gretchen, or us?

On my right shoulder, the angel whispered, Man, I wish I were that chicken wing. Or that barstool. Or that black, satin bra. Or …

“What do I pay you for?” I asked them.

“To take pictures,” Gretchen replied.

“I need to take a walk,” I told her.

“Do you want me to tag along, Max Fuentes?”

“No.”

“Okay!”

I plunged into the crowd. The last thing my sex drive needed was more revving. That would be like dropping a three-stage Saturn V rocket into an already souped-up muscle car. I steered myself out of doors, where my inevitable explosion would kill the least number of people.

But then something yanked on my emergency brake, and the last thing I said before all the breath left my body was, “Oh my.”

From her regal bearing, to her shimmering, green cocktail dress, to the way her almost black hair swept over her face, to the eyes that were such a deep blue they were just about violet, everything about this woman in front of me was sultry.

I blinked. “Hi,” I said to her, “I’m Max.”

“My name’s September,” she replied.

I’ll take it from here, the devil on my shoulder told me.

All yours, the angel told both of us.

I told her, “Between the alcohol and all the music, I could have sworn you just told me your name was September.”

She took a coy sip of her martini and let out a chuckle.

“No nickname, then?” I asked. “Like Seppy? Or Tember?”

She shook her head.

“Um.” There was no way I could tackle this entire conversation by myself. Desperately, I tried, “what’s your connection to Mr. Lloyd?”

“My date did some graphic-design work on one of his websites.”

My spirits fell. “So which one’s your date?”

She pointed. “He’s over there, dancing with his boyfriend.”

My spirits rose.

“And what brings you here, Max?”

“I came here, specifically to this tiny little space where I’m standing,” I said, “to inform you that there are about a thousand puns I could say about your name, and that I will not use any of them, and that restraint is a great sacrifice on my part, so you should take it as a gift, like I brought you flowers or something.”

“Really.”

With a well-oiled snap of my wrist, a business card was in my hand. “Give me a call if you ever feel like thanking me.” Without another word, I resumed my trek to the front door, because my knees were only moments from failing.

Since I just didn’t give a fuck, I lit up a fat joint the moment my feet hit pavement sucked the whole thing down during a brisk walk around the block. Mellow, I returned to the entrance, only to find my editor sharing a cigarette with fact-checker, Bill Cunningham.

“Is this a great party or what?” Bill yelled at me. “It’s a fucking blast!”

Oh, the devil on my shoulder moaned, not Bill.

Come now, said the angel, he’s a confused young man in need of friendship and guidance.

He’s an asshole, replied the devil.

Well, there’s that.

Bill pointed to his companion. “Have you seen the tie on Myron’s head?”

“I like to cut loose at these things,” Myron admitted.

“Well,” Bill said, “It’s really fucking funny. Because it’s on your head, instead of on your neck.”

“Hilarious,” I replied.

“You look like you’ve been taking bong hits,” Bill said to me.

“Is this a great party or what?” I replied.

“This party sucks!” Bill declared. “I can’t believe I’m forced to attend a vanity ball for the fucking rich media fuck who built a statue of himself in his hometown. How self-absorbed can one man be?”

At this point, what little color existed in Myron’s face vanished as he observed something behind the still-ranting Bill. I followed his stare and sobered up at the sight of Mr. Lloyd, the rich media fuck in question, strolling toward us, right out of a bad comedy.

Mr. Lloyd measured six feet, five inches. Bill, on the other hand, stood only five feet, six inches; so when Bill realized we no longer watching him, he turned to face what we were watching and received an eyeful of Mr. Lloyd’s chest.

Bill said, “Well here’s the king amongst his peasants.”

“I’m going inside,” I told everyone.

After a few minutes, Bill came back in and headed for the bar, but I grabbed him before he made it.

“Look,” I growled, breathing deeply to avoid saying something I might regret, “I know I’m not your boss, but you’re a vital part of my team, and now, more than ever, I need you to stay sharp. Lord knows I’m going to have my hands full with that over-privileged, under-qualified, unwelcome airhead, Gretchen. So do me a favor, Bill: next time you’re going to go off on someone, look behind you to make sure they’re not standing there.” To illustrate that last phrase, I turned around, only to see Gretchen.

She didn’t shout, cry, or storm off in fury. She just stated in a clear voice, “I begged Myron to let me your photographer because I thought you were cool and a good role model.” And with that, she disappeared into the crowd. I wish she’d shouted, cried, or stormed off.

“The good news,” I said with a shrug, “is I don’t have to pretend to like her anymore.”

I turned back to Bill, but he’d been replaced by a wide-eyed September. “You have no soul,” she snapped before stomping away.

It’s true, said the angel on my shoulder.

Yeah, said the devil, it kinda is.

to be continued…

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Another Exciting Adventure in … THE GRIND
(Act I: All Wounds)
(Act II: The Status Quo)

***

previously…

In the first fifty-six years of his life, Mr. Lloyd assembled a media empire with the tenacity and humility of Xerxes. And so, at the dawning of his fifty-seventh year of potential conquests, he threw himself the kind of party the gods would envy from the heavens. Among the guests were various A- and B-list celebrities and every New Yorker on his payroll. Most of the latter showed up to hobnob with the former. I showed to hobnob with the open bar.

Etiquette demands that attendance at these kinds of gatherings be a desperate race to show up last, yet my tardiness, while impressive, could not compete with that of the upper crust. That left me alone with an open bar, an inattentive bartender, thumping speakers, and nothing to do. I spent the first half hour attempting to drink the place dry and praying for a familiar face.

And that’s when, through the dense musical fog, I heard a tapping. I knew that tapping. It was the sound of fingernails–slightly too long to be practical; slightly too short to be inconvenient–rapping on the bar. I froze.

Next time I prayed, I’d make sure to be more specific.

The scent of chewing gum stung my nostrils as I listened to molars squishing it, over and over. This stopped long enough for air to stretch the inside of the bubble being blown. It popped, the noise stinging long enough for me to be mesmerized by the sound of it slurping back into the mouth from whence it came. This was followed by twenty-eight knuckles cracking, one by one. Until finally … that laugh.

That laugh.

I pondered the idea of making a break for it, but there was an open bar behind me, and I’d be damned if I let that gum-chomping, knuckle-cracking, braying banshee deter me from that. I inhaled, exhaled, and steered my attention to the fingernails and the gum and the knuckles and that laugh.

That laugh.

All of the life drained from my voice as I said their name: “Gretchen.”

With earnest, exuberant eagerness, she squealed, “Hey, Max Fuentes!” It wasn’t a flirty eagerness, either. I knew when I was being flirted with, and this wasn’t one of those times. She seemed genuinely happy to see me.

That was half the problem. From what I could discern, she had not a single malicious bone in her body; she was just really annoying. She was far from the most annoying person, I knew, either. The reason I couldn’t stand being around her was the tension between my head, which had little patience for her type of simplemindedness, and the rest of me, which wanted to copulate with her, like, a lot. She couldn’t help the way she looked, with her face that was roughly 50 percent teeth, framed by grinning, cranberry lips and garnished with a delicate nose and bright, emerald eyes. Her hair came straight out of a shampoo commercial, and her body straight out of a men’s magazine.

She was gorgeous, and she knew it. That much was apparent by the way she perched her glorious body on the barstool next to mine, squinted into the mirror behind the counter, and tossed her hair. “What are you drinking tonight?”

“Nothing.” I kept myself from looking at her, and that took work; it wasn’t often one got to see a sight like that.

“Why not?”

“I can’t get any service here.”

“I can help!” She leaned over the counter and waved.

The bartender appeared out of nowhere. “What can I get you?”

“What’ll you have, Max Fuentes?” she asked.

“Scotch and soda,” I replied, “hold the soda.”

“Funny,” the bartender replied in a voice that indicated that it really wasn’t. He returned his attention to Gretchen’s blouse.

“That sounds yummy!” she said. “I’ll have the same thing, only with the soda! Do you have buffalo wings?”

“Coming right up.” He brought the drinks right back, and I didn’t leave a tip.

I put the scotch to my lips and accidentally noticed that her bra was black satin. I swallowed the remainder my drink and tried to change the subject. “Is that you I smell?”

“Is it awful?”

Actually, I kind of liked it.

“I put something in my hair,” she continued, “something that’s not supposed to go in hair!”

“Mayonnaise?”

“What?”

“Motor oil?”

She laughed and punched my shoulder. “Lotion!”

“Really?” I asked, hoping she was being sarcastic. Then I remembered: Gretchen is vapid. “Lotion?”

“Yeah!” She leaned closer and suffocated me with her hair. “Smell!”

I needed to be more careful how I prayed.

The bartender returned with the chicken, and he asked her, and only her, “What else can I get for you?”

She replied, “I think Max Fuentes needs another drink!”

He groaned and walked away with my empty glass. I reluctantly returned my attention to Gretchen, only to discover her lips and tongue wrapped around a wing, cleaning off the buffalo sauce that coated it. After returning the bone to the plate, she dabbed her chin with a napkin, sucked on her fingers, and asked me, “Want any of this?”

I saw that the bartender, carrying my scotch, was equally hypnotized.

“I need two more of those, pronto,” I told him, dropping a wad of cash into his tip jar. “And get one for yourself.”

“Right away, sir.”

to be continued…