The Call That Never Came

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

***

previously…

I’d solved my first problem earlier today–I was no longer homeless at the start of the month. This, however, only exacerbated my second problem, which was how to transport my belongings from my old apartment in Brooklyn to my new one, which was within shouting distance of the Bronx. While I didn’t actually own much, the idea of schlepping it over the entire length of Manhattan was enough to make me want to douse it all in napalm and ignite it. That wouldn’t work, though, inasmuch as I couldn’t afford to replace any of it.

Solving unsolvable problems, though, was my specialty, and so I set my right brain to the puzzle while my left brain typed up the notes I’d taken from my Jane Plains concert review and feature from last night. Both sides were brought to a halt when the cell phone in my desk went off.

I should probably point out that this phone wasn’t mine. Some fuck-nozzle had dropped it onto the East Village after shouting a strange obscenity in my general direction. I’d kept it, because hey why not? I answered it for the same reason.

“The electronic device into which you speak is my property,” the phone told me.

“Finders keepers,” I replied. I had no intention of keeping the thing, mind you, but the whole experience that put it into my hand was kind of ludicrous, and I wanted answers. In my profession, I’d come to discover that adversity, if massaged properly, tended to produce answers.

“I find your immaturity to be unpleasant.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but the directness of the statement was kind of startling, and so I closed it again.

The voice continued, “I am prepared to negotiate for its release.”

“Why don’t you just buy a new one?”

“I would prefer not to follow that course.”

Are you a robot?” I asked sincerely.

“I fail to see the pertinence of that question.”

“So you’re not denying it.”

He sighed–or simulated a sigh; I had no way of telling. “Decorum dictates that I should utter your name in frustration at this point, but since I have not yet been made aware of it, I would prefer to bypass this and remind you that I am willing to exchange a great deal to repossess that cell phone.” He added, “I should probably make it known that I am remarkably wealthy. So what is it you want?”

“Okay,” I said. There was a lot I could use right now, I’ll admit, but none of that would clarify the situation that put me into this position of strength. You see, the man on the other end of this phone didn’t freak out that night when he saw me; he freaked out when he saw my best friend. When I asked her to explain, she absolutely refused. If there was one thing I hated, it was not knowing something. “I want you to tell me how you know Lisa Green and why you reacted that way to her.”

“As a businessman,” he replied, “the term I would use to describe such an offer is deal-breaker.”

“I thought you were going to give me what I want!”

“The word I employed was negotiate,” he told me.

“Don’t you want your phone back?”

“I am willing to purchase another.”

“Because you don’t want to talk about some girl?”

“Lisa Green can hardly be described as some girl.”

All right, I had to give him that one. But still… “That’s crazy!”

“Indeed.”

I massaged my eyes. “You drive a hard bargain.”

“Doing so is my livelihood.”

With a sigh, I confessed, “I’m moving from Park Slope to Inwood after work tomorrow, and I don’t have a car or any money.”

“Deal.”

“Seriously?”

“I require your current address, your new address, and a convenient time of departure.”

I grinned. “I bet your cybernetic arms can lift a lot.”

“Nonsense,” he replied. “I’ll be utilizing professionals.”

“But your cybernetic arms could lift a lot, though, right?”

“The information I requested, if you please.” After I provided it, he told me, “I will be present at your new residence when you arrive so that we may conclude this transaction, and subsequently, our relationship.”

“Thanks,” I said. “I’m Max, by the way.”

Sean,” he replied.

“Let me guess, it stands for ‘Synthetic Engineered Android… Ah hell, what does the N stand for?”

He hung up.

I shrugged. “That went well.”

to be continued…

(… a look back, for perspective)

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Walking on Eggshells

previously…
(…or start here)

The coolest thing about police interrogation rooms anywhere in the country is that they all look exactly like they do in the movies or on TV. There’s variety, of course–some have shackles, while others don’t, and their sizes differ, but that’s really it; they’re all decorated with a metal table and plastic aluminum chairs, and they’re all lit by unflattering fluorescents. Through the two-way mirror–also a prerequisite–I watched a uniformed policeman enter, legal pad in hand. Tradition dictates that he should have had a file folder as well, but this was the twenty-first century, and paper costs money and trees.

“So your friend in the other room told us the whole story,” he said.

“Are we really going to do this?” I asked him.

“Do what?”

“Well, there’s no Good Cop with you, and you don’t strike me as a Bad Cop, so I guess that makes you Mildly Irritated Cop.”

“Shouldn’t you be taking this a little more seriously?” he asked.

“Look, Officer…” I squinted at his name-tag. “… Reynolds. Do you know how many times I’ve done this?”

A hundred and two.”

“Seriously?”

His expression told me nothing.

“That’s really cool.” I reached into the pocket of my trademark brown leather pea coat and pulled out my notebook and pen, which, for some reason, they hadn’t confiscated. “Can I write that down?”

“Be my guest.” He clicked his own pen so he could record the upcoming conversation. “Do you know why you’re here?”

“Because some guy in a trucker hat got punched in the face.”

“And the girl…”

“Don’t call her a girl to her face,” I interrupted. “She hates that.”

“… woman with you, a Lisa Green, states that you were punched in the stomach.”

“True.”

“Did you happen to see who did it?”

“I did not,” I replied. “I’m assuming it was the same guy.” It wasn’t.

“That seems unlikely.”

“The bar was kind of crowded, and my attention was already occupied.”

“By what?”

I smirked. “By the ladies. The attention-getting ladies, if you catch my drift.”

If he had, he didn’t let on. Definitely Irritated Cop. “Why did you volunteer to come in to sign an affidavit then?”

“I didn’t,” I replied. “My friend did.”

“She gave us a description of a white male, age eighteen to thirty-five, dressed in blue jeans and a denim jacket.”

“That could be anybody.”

He rolled his eyes. “The victim said he didn’t know who assaulted him either, so he’s not pressing charges.” That was probably because he didn’t want to admit that a diminutive woman knocked him out with one punch. “That said, between you and me, were you the one who did it?”

I snorted. “If I had, my knuckles would be broken, and he wouldn’t have suffered a concussion. I’m a wimp, Officer.”

“I see.” He jotted that down. “So you think it was your companion?”

“She hits like a girl.” Well, a cave girl. Especially when somebody knocks the wind out of me.

“I thought you said she didn’t like to be called a girl.”

“There’s no reason that statement has to leave the room, is there?”

He shook his head.

“Then she hits like a girl.”

“Is that a no?”

“That is a ‘I can’t tell you for certain.'”

He stood and said, “Mr. Fuentes, we don’t want to take up anymore of your time.” What he meant was that he didn’t want me to take up anymore of his time, but calling him on that was a good way to get pepper-spray in my face. “You can go ahead and check out and go your own way.”

“Do I need to sign anything?”

“Only whatever Roger gives you when you check out.”

Roger?” I both grinned and frowned. “Is he ever not at that desk?”

“Not as far as I know.” Heading for the door, he recommended, “Stay out of trouble, Mr. Fuentes.”

That wasn’t likely. “Have a nice evening, Officer!”

He grunted.

After I’d been processed, I exited the building, only to be greeted by Lisa, who was leaning against a lamppost, lighting a joint.

“You’ve got balls of solid steel,” I told her, “going into a police station with an eighth of weed in your sock.”

“Being here with you after all these years,” she replied, “inspired me to act out.”

I chuckled. “Why don’t we head back to the Village and find ourselves bar without fisticuffs on tap.”

She held out her arm, and I wrapped mine around it. “Let’s.”

A quick train ride later, we wandered the narrow, vibrant streets of my favorite neighborhood in which to drink a lot. While contemplating a well-worn pub, a douchebag in a gray, three-piece suit, a black shirt, a white tie, and a camel-hair overcoat rounded the corner, thus lowering the tone. Something about the way he studied us with his expensive, horn-rimmed glasses and looked away as if we weren’t there made me want to break my knuckles on his nose. It didn’t help that he was informing his cell phone, “Our business partnership goes into full effect at the start of the next quarter. I suggest that, between then and now, you grant Mr. Franklin sole contact with my company, inasmuch as you can’t be trusted to …”

All of the color drained from Lisa’s face. “Wait a fucking minute! I know that asshole’s voice!” She then squeaked, “Sean?”

The douchebag turned back around, this time with his eyes wider than I’d ever seen anybody’s get. “Fuck me in the ear!” he replied before dropping his phone and running like hell.

“What the fuck was that?” I asked, intending the question for anyone who might be listening.

“Take me home,” Lisa replied.

“What… ?” I repeated.

“Take me home now.”

Since she was my best friend in the history of the entire world, I obeyed, but not before picking up the discarded cell and pocketing it. I loved myself a good mystery.

to be continued…
(… a look back, for perspective)

A Taste

Her broken-in jeans and threadbare shirt, through which he could make out a dark bra, clashed delightfully with his antiseptic decor. “Fancy,” she said.

“Yeah,” he replied, “fancy.”

“Must be nice being rich.”

“Indeed it is.”

She glanced around the apartment and asked, “Somebody actually lives here?”

He slung his jacket onto his easy chair, threw himself onto its matching slate gray sofa, loosened his tie, and kicked off his wingtips. “I fully intend to ignore your vague insult.”

“Nothing vague about it,” she told him. “Thanks for letting me stay over.”

“Think nothing of it. It’s a long cab ride to your place of residence.”

“I wish you wouldn’t use that kind of language around me.”

“Request denied.”

She grunted.

He pointed to a hallway. “The bedroom is through there. As I am, if anything, a gentleman, I will sleep out here.”

“And if I don’t want you to sleep out here?”

“Then you are welcome to use the sofa.”

“You are such a doofus.” She rolled her eyes. “Got anything to drink here?”

“If you’ll recall, I’ve been sober longer than you’ve known of me.”

“People have been known to change,” she said. “You did.”

“Not as much as you think.” He popped out his gold-plated cufflinks, tossed them into an empty ashtray, and rolled up his sleeves. “Besides, alcohol was responsible for these.”

It had been years since she’d seen the scars that ran down the underside of his forearms, and their presence almost seemed to comfort her. “You think it was the liquor that did that?”

“I’ve chosen to believe so.”

“Fair enough,” she sighed. “Mind if I have one?”

“Perhaps I should have been more clear regarding the absence of potables in this place.”

“I brought my own.” Sure enough, there was a stainless-steel flask in her purse. “Got any place to put this?”

“There are highball glasses in the cabinet near the refrigerator.”

“I thought you told me you still don’t drink.”

He shrugged. “I pretend.”

“You are so weird.” After pouring herself a few fingers of whiskey, she leaned on the counter, as casually as if it belonged to her, and took a long swallow, locking stares with him. They said nothing for what could have been hours until she asked, “Miss it?”

“Every day.”

“Still? It’s been, what, seven years?”

“In my defense, I enjoyed alcohol a great deal.”

“Fair enough.” She studied him for a moment. “Remember what it tastes like?”

He frowned in concentration. “No,” he replied sadly.

She strutted over to him, taking her time doing so. “Want a reminder?”

“Perhaps I should have been more clear regarding my sobriety.”

Propping her knee on the sofa next to him and steadying herself with a hand on his shoulder, she took a deep drink of the whiskey. Her lips brushed against his, and instantly he recognized the sour sting of the rye. He leaned hungrily toward her, but she backed away.

Without a word, she dipped a finger in the glass, traced her lip with it, and kissed him again. Eager for the flavor of the drink and of her, he licked and nibbled, causing her to moan.

“More,” he whispered when she pulled away again.

But when she raised the glass, he snatched it from her hand and placed it on the end table behind him, not caring that there was no coaster. Her hand, now free, stroked his cheek, drawing him in.

He brushed a lock of hair from her face. “More,” he told her again.

Atrophy

“You could really use some pussy, kid,” said Sean’s uncle.

“Bart!” Sean’s mother snapped, “Language!”

“Or cock!” said Uncle Bart, his hands raised in front if him in mock surrender. “I don’t care either way. Just do something to celebrate.”

Sean raised a forkful of seared salmon to his lips, but his mother’s hand secured his arm before he could finish. “Smaller bites, Sean,” she told him. “You’re almost thirty. You should know better.” She added, “And, regardless of his vulgarity, I think your uncle is right.”

“You agree with me?” Uncle Bart snorted. “There’s a first time for everything.”

Sean dusted the pink flakes off of his fork and decided to saw off a slice of asparagus instead.

His mother glowered. “I agree that a celebration is in order, Sean. You’ve made company history; nobody has been able to secure that account. Not even that creepy fuckface, Harima.”

Sean chewed, swallowed, dabbed his lips with a napkin, took a sip of sparkling water, and said, “It had not been brought to my attention that this client was the focus of an intercompany war.”

Uncle Bart grunted, “The way that fat bastard struts around, you’d think he owns the place.”

“He is responsible for over half of this company’s revenue,” Sean said, contemplating whether he should again attempt a bite of the salmon or go for a sample of the risotto. Based on his experience, the latter was normally a forgettable byproduct of the otherwise exemplary dish, but rumor had it that a new hire in the kitchen staff was a little more creative with sides than his predecessor. “Some of Harima-san’s swagger,” he concluded, “is duly earned.”

“I’m just saying someone needed to take him down a peg,” Uncle Bart insisted.

Sean decided on the risotto. What the hell; life is short. “I don’t put quite that much value on Schadenfreude,” he told them before he took a taste.

“This isn’t about Schadenfreude,” his mother agreed. “It’s about success.”

The rumors were true. The risotto now ranked above the asparagus when it came to the flavors on this plate.

“And success deserves a reward,” Uncle Bart added.

“Yes, it does,” agreed his mother.

“Evidently there is a second time for everything,” Sean muttered. More loudly, he said, “I find a 10 percent commission for an transaction of that magnitude to be sufficient reward.”

Uncle Bart shrugged. “Maybe if you threw in some pussy.”

“Language!”

“Or cock!”

“Bart!”

“It’s not like I can buy him a drink!” Uncle Bart snapped.

“That’s not even remotely funny, Bart,” his mother growled.

Sean groaned. “I am going to explain this in a manner I hope the both of you can appreciate: I am paid for a skill at which I excel, so anything less would be a disservice to the company. It just so happens that my talents were better suited to woo this potential client than Harima-san’s.”

Uncle Bart shook his head, and his mother rolled her eyes.

Ignoring them, he continued, “Therefore, the business I’ve just conducted will not be validated by another’s genitalia, nor by any other frivolous gesture either of you could concoct.”

Uncle Bart put his hand gently on Sean’s shoulder. “I worry about you, kid. You’re always so… I don’t know… glum.”

“There is no cause for concern,” Sean explained. “I’m not dour. I merely am.”

“It’s those pills you got him on, Amber,” Bart said. “They made him into a zombie.”

“They saved his life!”

Sean wasn’t particularly hungry, so he switched his attention from the table to the restaurant in general, specifically the men. Some were plump like caesars, and some were fit like movie stars. Most wore ties. All wore starched collars and polished shoes. Some even wore vests. Sean wore a vest and a tie. His color was stiff, and his shoes shone.

He noted that few ties made it over to the bar, and all that did were loosened. Sean’s remained snug.

He tried to ignore the women, particularly the ones in crowds, because the ghost of the last person he ever wanted to see tended to drift among them. But his eyes looked anyway and were immediately haunted by the uneven edges of her dirty fingernails, the threadbare scarlet of her favorite long-sleeved T-shirt, the sexy tangles of her hair, the denim-clad superiority of her strut, and wicked curve of her smirking lips.

Her apparition smelled like stale cigarettes and bourbon, and it whispered his name. Actually, though, it never used his proper name–it called him asshole, just like she did.

Whenever she possessed him like this, his fingers took the opportunity to act of their own accord. They dismantled one cufflink and had already begun working on the second when his mother’s hand clamped on his forearm.

“Don’t embarrass me,” she whispered.

“Then perhaps I should depart,” he replied, “before I do that.”

“Really,” she said. “Really?

“I could always remain here,” he told her, “but there is an itch in my wrists, and it is only a matter of time before it becomes unbearable.”

She released him, and he stood, reaching for his wallet.

“Put that away,” she said. “Uenishi-san told me the company should treat you for your hard work.”

“That was very generous,” he replied. “I’ll make it a priority tomorrow to express my gratitude.”

As he made his way to the coat check, he heard his uncle tell his mother, “Nice work with your kid there, Amber.”

“Bart,” she replied, “you know as well as I do what’s under those sleeves.”

“Still,” he muttered.

Sean didn’t hear the rest, because all of that was behind him for now. And the very instant his feet touched the sidewalk outside, he tapped a ten-digit number into his cell phone. “Deuce,” he told the voicemail that picked up immediately, “it’s Fancy-pants. I’d like to have a conversation.”

A few moments later, he received a text. He hailed a cab and read the contents of it to the driver: “Suffolk and Rivington.”

“Are you sure? That’s maybe a hundred blocks from here.”

“Eighty-six,” Sean replied as he slipped into the backseat. “And I am sure.”

As they drove south, Sean watched for her phantom in windows and doorways and on corners, but she didn’t show.

After about forty-two blocks, the driver cleared his throat. “You don’t really look like the kind of person who would hang out in that area.”

“And how would you describe the ‘kind of person’ who might ‘hang out’ in that area?”

“You know–young.”

“I am young,” Sean told him.

“I mean, acting young,” he clarified. “You know, with the funny clothes. And the hair.”

“I agree,” Sean said. “I am not that ‘kind of person.'”

The rest of the ride was silent.

Deuce waited on the corner of Suffolk and Rivington, a crumbled a paper bag in his hand. In exchange for it, Sean gave him a large wad of cash and twenty-five minutes of his time, during which Deuce boasted of and described his sexual conquests and the methods he used to achieve them. Eventually, he got bored and returned to whatever it was he did when he wasn’t selling drugs.

At long last, Sean had no family, no business, and no friends to crush him; he was truly alone. He smiled. “Hello, darling,” he said to the city that reared him. “It’s just you and me now.”

He’d wandered less than a block before his phone went off. He sighed and read the display. No name appeared, but the area code belonged to the client whose future transactions Sean had just secured. He looked at his watch. The person on the other end would either be very happy or very upset; only extreme emotion would prompt a call at this hour.

“This is Sean McCoy.” He waited for the phone to talk before replying, “Hello, Mr. Clark.” The phone barked, and he told it, “As a matter of fact, I am the agent who conducted the sale. If I remember correctly, you were present when negotiations began. I hope, in that case, your question was merely rhetorical.” He held the phone away from his ear. After a moment, he said, “We’re professionals, Mr. Clark. That kind of volume, tone, and language is unacceptable.”

The phone asked a question, which Sean answered, “Because it creates a sizeable profit margin, which is beneficial to my company, but does it in a way that your company is able to afford our rates comfortably and indefinitely. I thought that was obvious. Was this also rhetorical?”

It answered his question with a question. “I am indeed being condescending, Mr. Clark, because this phone call serves no purpose other than empty bluster.”

There was more such bluster, and Sean allowed it. “There is a contract, Mr. Clark, that was signed and notarized this afternoon.” Sean looked at his watch. “Technically yesterday afternoon, but only by thirty-three minutes.”

He resumed walking north while the phone, with a great deal of gravitas, told him something. Sean replied, “Given that your company is called Clark Industries and you are the majority shareholder, I had surmised that you were the owner, but I appreciate your clarification of that point.” He interrupted when it tried to talk again, “However, sir, you had explicitly given Mr. Franklin full authority to act and make decisions on your behalf, a duty he performed remarkably, if I do say so myself.”

As the phone went off on a lengthy rant, he crossed Houston Street into a neighborhood of bars and college students who laughed and flirted and huddled together. Her ghost was everywhere. This only strengthened his belligerence. “I would advise against that, Mr. Clark. The attorney my company has on retainer happens to be my mother, and she is nearly twice as ruthless in court as she was at home.” He added, “To grant you perspective, I should inform you that she was exceedingly ruthless at home.”

Sean stopped in his tracks with a frown, not caring that he was standing the middle of the road as he did so. “Yes,” he replied cautiously, “I am familiar with that television franchise.” The phone asked a follow-up question. “It’s been years since I’ve encountered it, but I seem to remember that the character in question was an artificial life form with no emotions that was baffled by humanity, but drawn to it nonetheless.” Amused, he resumed his journey, saying, “I can see the resemblance, Mr. Clark, but there is one key difference: While I do find humanity baffling, I am otherwise ambivalent toward it.”

He rounded the corner onto to First Avenue, scanning the area for taxicabs; it was late, and he wanted to enjoy some of the marijuana in his pocket before work tomorrow. Besides, it was really obvious how tired he was getting: the ghost he just saw on the corner didn’t look like the others that usually followed him around. This one’s hair was longer, its clothing fit better, and the last edges of its youth had eroded beautifully away. It was definitely time to bid his phone adieu. “Our business partnership goes into full effect at the start of the next quarter. I suggest that, between then and now, you grant Mr. Franklin sole contact with my company, inasmuch as you can’t be trusted to …”

Behind him, the ghost spoke. It said, “Wait a fucking minute! I know that asshole’s voice!”

He turned back around, and every single thing inside of him simultaneously froze and burned. She was not the will-o-the-wisp had been daydreaming of all this time. She was real.

“Sean?” she whispered.

Holy shit. She. Was. Real.

“Fuck me in the ear!” he replied before dropping his phone and running like hell.


What’s next for Sean?