Disappointment

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

***

previously…

The ringtone I’d assigned to Sean McCoy was “Shower in the Dark” by Binary Mystery. The band was chosen because binary must have been his native tongue in the android factory in which I assumed he was assembled; the word mystery referred to the fact that I had no idea what the fuck he was about. The symbolism of the song itself was that it was free for download, and I didn’t want to put too much work into a goddamned ringtone.

“Why didn’t you shut that shit off, Max,” asked my editor, Myron Fogle.

“Because nobody ever calls me.”

“I call you.”

“Nobody who doesn’t ask me to do things that aren’t my job calls me.”

He frowned as he rifled through negatives in that sentence until he uncovered my point. “Your job is to do whatever I tell you to do.”

“If you told me to eat the Chrysler Building?” I asked. “Would that be my job?”

“Yes.”

“Checkmate,” I admitted.

He sighed, “I don’t like this either, Max, but word came from on high.”

Mr. Lloyd?”

Myron flinched, because he was Jewish, and his people were not in the habit of speaking the names of those at the top. And while Mr. Lloyd wasn’t God, he was pretty close. “Not quite that high.”

“So nobody gets struck by lightning if I pass?”

My editor took a deep breath and removed the reading glasses I was certain he only owned because he needed something to remove to show he was serious. “I really hate to tell you this, because you’re a cocky son of a bitch, and the last thing you need is validation.”

“It’s true.”

“You’re the only one who can get in there.” He explained, “When it comes to journalism, nobody’s security is tighter than Hollywood’s, yet you get through every time we ask you to.”

“I don’t do it because you ask,” I replied. “I do it because they because they don’t want me to do it.”

“These guys really don’t want you to.”

“I’m listening.”

“Total media blackout for three square blocks surrounding the entire Brook-Gareth Hotel complex. “Nobody gets in without an invitation, and those involve security checks.”

“Catering? Cleaning staff?” I asked. “Being Hispanic does give me an unfair advantage.”

He shook his head. “In-house.”

I ground my teeth.

“You have thirty-six hours. No interviews–just the names of the people there, the gist of the keynote speech and the identity of the one giving it, and some color. All you’ll need to do is get in, get out, and call Bill immediately so he can type it up.” He sat down at his desk, returned his glasses to their former position, glanced at his computer, glanced back, and said, “You’re still here?”

I called Sean back immediately.

He asked, “I’m curious as to your–“

“Busy,” I replied. “I’ve got to get into this super-secret-media-non-grata-political-fundraising-bullshit and so some stealth reporting and I don’t even know how I can get into the building without an invite…”

“I can acquire an invitation.”

“Excuse me?”

“You are alluding to the governor’s ball at the Brooke-Gareth Hotel tomorrow evening, are you not?”

“You’re invited?” I stammered.

“Not presently,” he replied. “Typically, I choose to avoid such events inasmuch as they tend toward the stuffy and pretentious.” Yes, I was aware of the irony, but I don’t think he was. “However, it will be a simple matter of a telephone call to amend my schedule.”

And so, the next evening, a tuxedo-clad Sean McCoy strolled up to where I leaned on the outside wall of the Brooke-Gareth hotel and asked, “This is the attire you have chosen for such a prohibitively high-security, high-class gathering?”

“I tucked my shirt in!” I said.

“You may wish to remain by my side for the duration of the evening, lest your goal be ascertained by those who do not want their greased palms exposed.”

I watched limo after limo pull up to the front door to be met by enormous, humorless security guards. “You’re probably right,” I told him.

Naturally I wandered off at the first sign of an hourglass figure in a strapless, backless evening gown. She was all class, and I was playing hooky out by the creek or whatever it was kids did when they played hooky. She belonged here in this nightmare of political tuxedos and greased hands. I, on the other hand, did not. Long story short, I was not even remotely in her league.

That never stopped me before. “Hi,” I said to the woman who possessed both the figure and the gown, “I’m Max.”

Sara,” she replied before she even saw me. When she did, she looked me up and down and smirked. “You’re wearing cowboy boots?”

“Yes, I am.”

“At a formal, fundraiser?”

“Yes.”

“You may be the ballsiest man in this building.”

“I wouldn’t go that far,” I replied. “Senator Bruno Sanchez is standing over there, and he’s running in the primary as a fiscal conservative.”

She laughed. “Ouch.”

“He’s not the ballsiest man in the building,” I continued. “That would be Councilman Marvin Hechtmann over there, who insists he’s the go-to guy for family values. Now, if you want to expand the field to both genders, then the ballsiest person in the room is Senator Vicky Southern, who voted against the last federal jobs bill and has actively been campaigning to repeal it. And when the money from it started rolling in, she signed the checks and went to all the photo ops, and–this is my favorite part–claims that the money came from a different spending package.”

With a grin, she shook her head.

I concluded, “On the other hand, I am wearing cowboy boots to a formal fundraiser.”

“You know the press isn’t invited here tonight.”

“What makes you think I’m the press?”

She flashed me a dirty but amused look.

I gave her a card. “You win.”

She took a look at it. “I was wrong,” she said. “You’re not a real journalist if you work at this paper.”

“I like you.”

“The feeling’s mutual.”

“Want to get out of here?”

“I can’t,” she replied. “It’s my party.”

“You’re the governor?”

She laughed. “I’m the social director. I’m the one who brought all this together.”

“Oh.” I asked her, “You want to find an empty room nearby and fool around?”

“You really are the ballsiest person in the building.”

“You didn’t answer my question.”

“There’s an old smoking lounge on the other side of the bar,” she replied. “No one knows it’s there.”

I don’t know how long we’d been in there, but I do know that I had my hand up her skirt when Sean turned on the lights.

“Max,” he announced, “you need to be aware that…”

Sara jumped off of my lap and began smoothing out her dress while I tucked my shirt back into my pants.

He groaned in frustration. “Is there any point in your life, Max, when you are not…”

Sara said, “Hello, Sean.”

His back stiffened. “Sara.”

“Are you his plus-one?” she asked me.

I shrugged.

She snorted and walked to his side. “You, of all people, should remember that the media is not, nor has it ever been, invited to gatherings such as this.”

“He is merely my companion,” he replied. “What he chooses to do with that status is his business.”

“Your companion? I was wondering how long it would take for you to realize that about yourself.”

“Aspersions about my sexuality? Mature.”

After she stormed away, I asked, “What the hell was that about?”

He rolled his eyes. “She’s my ex-wife.”

“Say no more.”

“I had no such intentions.” He pointed a thumb at the door. “Regardless, I have come to bring to your attention that the keynote speaker has nearly ascended to the podium. It might interest you to know that she is Andrea Gareth, heiress to this both the Gareth and the Brooke family holdings.”

“I need a minute before I can go out there.”

“Erection?”

I nodded. Nothing Sean said surprised me anymore. Nothing.

Ninety minutes later, I whipped out my cell phone the moment I stepped out of the media-blackout zone. “Bill, I hope you’re ready to type. We might be able to catch the first edition–”

“No rush,” Bill replied. “We’ve been scooped.”

I handed Sean the phone. “Take this,” I said. “I need to find a quiet place to throw up.”

“Evidently you have given Max news of an unpleasant nature,” Sean said to Bill. “Please clarify while he vomits.”

After several hours’ worth of hors d’oeuvres fled my stomach, he handed me back my cell. “A journalist for your rival paper, The New York Caller, by the name of Allen Dean had secured, by means which remain unclear, interviews both with the governor and Andrea Gareth, as well as an advanced copy of the speech she eventually delivered.”

“Allen who?”

Sean replied, “Unbeknownst to either of us, you appear to have acquired yourself an arch-nemesis.”

to be continued…

(… a look back, for perspective)

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…

Cracks

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…

Dedication

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

***

previously…

An infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of typewriters all picked up those typewriters and took turns beating me around the head with them. My throat had been forcibly removed and returned, inside-out and on fire, and my spine had been bent and twisted like a pipe cleaner in a kindergarten class. To make matters worse, my eyes were open, but all I could see was blackness.

Great. I should have known that gold-label tequila shots chased with cognac would make me go blind. Now I had to figure out where I was, how to get home, and why I was so cold.

In my hand, my cell phone buzzed. At least I had the foresight to keep it close. I put it to my ear and moaned.

Hey, man,” it replied, “what’s up?”

“You know,” I told it, “the usual.”

“Did you get the interview?”

“What do you think, Bill?”

“I think you got a good track record so far, but my money’s on your winning streak coming to an end sometime soon.”

“Today’s not the day for that, Bill.”

“So you got it, then.”

“Yes,” I said, “but at great personal cost.”

“Myron wants you to come in right away so he can take a look at it and I can double-check your sources.”

“Myron is always telling everyone what to do. Who does he think he is?”

“Your boss,” he said.

“Well I, for one, am sick of it.”

He sighed, “Look, are you going to get this typed up by deadline or not?”

“At the moment, I’m leaning towards not.”

“Why’s that?” he asked.

“Because I’ve gone blind, Bill.”

No doubt that dull thud in the background was the sound of his head hitting his desk. The loss of one sense really does sharpens the others. That might explain why I kept tasting sand and ketchup. Where the hell was I?

“How do you think you went blind?” he asked.

“Drank too much with the entourage.”

“Did you drink bathtub gin?”

“I can’t answer that question with any degree of certainty.”

“I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you haven’t.”

“How about moonshine?” I offered. “I hear that moonshine makes you go blind too.”

“You’ve been hanging out with Bedford-Stuyvesant’s most notorious rapper, not its most notorious jug band,” he said. “I doubt there was moonshine.”

“Then why can’t I see anything?”

“I’m a fact-checker,” he reminded me, “not tech support.”

“I believe in you, Bill.”

He sighed again. “All right. Are your eyes open?”

“Yes.”

“Is anything covering your face?”

I checked, and sure enough, my brown leather pea coat was draped across my head. “That seems to be the problem. I always said you could do it.”

“Don’t mention it.” He asked, “Are you going to be late again for work today?”

“I’ve got plenty of time,” I replied. “I don’t have to be there until nine thirty.”

“It’s eight forty-five.”

“Then I’m going to be late.”

“See ya, man.” He disconnected before I could say something else that might irritate him.

My vision restored, I set about determining my location. I could vaguely make out the smell of the ocean, meaning that I was either in Staten Island, New Jersey, or Coney Island. The fact that I was folded up in a rollercoaster car narrowed it down to the latter. Surrounding me, in various poses of unconsciousness, were rapper Chuck Weet, his three bodyguards, fifteen of his best friends, and about a dozen women of various ethnicities.

I love my job.

I reached Midtown Manhattan shortly before eleven, and, after purchasing some coffee and painkillers and finding a place to brush my teeth, I finally arrived at work, darting quietly past Myron’s office.

Just as I thought I’d made it into the clear, he shouted, “Max, get in here!”

I sighed and backed up. “Me?”

“Any other Maxes here?”

“There’s Ed Maxwell in sports.”

“Do I look like the kind of guy who gives out affectionate, frat-boy nicknames?”

He didn’t. In fact, with his balding, pasty head, rolled-up sleeves, loosely knotted tie, suspenders, a belly engorged by decades of cheap takeout, narrow glasses perched on his wide nose, and permanent scowl, he looked the opposite of an affectionate frat boy. If you ever saw him on the street, you’d say to yourself, “That guy’s a gruff-but-loveable newspaper editor.”

I replied, “Why do you keep asking me rhetorical questions?”

“Where’ve you been all morning?”

“There you go again with the rhetorical.”

“Answer the question.”

“Here, in the office,” I told him.

“How come I haven’t seen you before just now?”

“We must just keep missing each other.”

He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes; again, textbook editor. “Max, I don’t have the patience for this shit.”

“Coney Island,” I told him.

“And what, pray tell, were you doing at Coney Island?”

“Riding the Cyclone.”

“It’s the off season.”

“That explains why it wasn’t moving.”

He sighed. “Did you get the interview?”

“Yes, I did,” I replied. “It cost me a liver. I expect to be reimbursed.”

“Did you save the receipt?”

I shook my head.

“It’ll grow back, then,” he said. “So is it one of those beef interviews these guys like to give? Because we’re not going to print that shit.”

“Nope,” I said. “Family stuff.”

His jowls lifted, exposing his teeth. For Myron, that was a smile.

“Turns out there’s a Mrs. Weet,” I told him.

“Chuck Weet’s married?” he asked.

“Mother,” I replied. “You do know that’s not his real name.”

Myron rolled his eyes. “Rapper thing, I know. Mother got a name?”

“What kind of reporter do you think I am?”

“It’s my job to ask rhetorical questions. It’s your job to write it up. It’s Bill’s job to fact-check you.”

“Noted.”

“I have another assignment after that.”

“Another ninja interview?” I asked. “Because it’s going to take some time to heal from the last one.”

“Don’t call them ‘ninja interviews,'” he said, “it’s really obnoxious.”

“Right, Chief.”

“And stop calling me Chief.”

Biting my tongue, I shrugged.

“It’s a standard wank piece,” he continued, forgetting that this last part of the exchange had never happened.

I laughed. “Wank?”

“My boss is Welsh,” he muttered, “I pick shit up. And speaking of which—”

“Of shit?”

“Of wank,” he explained. “The paper is throwing a major birthday party tonight–publicity bullshit–the place is going to be crammed with celebrities. I need someone to take names, get some quotes, and provide some color.”

“Aren’t I a little overqualified to write photo captions?”

“First off, no,” he replied. “Second off, that reminds me, I’m assigning you a regular fotog, because I’m tired of all the ones in the pool playing ‘Paper, Rock, Scissors’ whenever your name comes up.”

“I’m assuming it’s the winner who gets to work with me.”

He didn’t answer.

“Whose birthday?”

“Mr. Lloyd’s.”

“So the owner of this newspaper is going to be using his own newspaper to throw a party to make himself look awesome?” I clarified.

“Wouldn’t you?”

I thought about it. “Yeah, all right, touché.”

to be continued…