The Winner Takes It All

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

***

previously…

The light-emitting diodes filling my living room dried out my eyes. Well, to be fair, the marijuana wasn’t doing a very good job of lubricating them either, but I preferred to blame the television, which drained my soul and showed me nothing useful. I probably would have died there had it not been for my neighbor emerging from my bedroom, announcing, “Your window’s open.”

Blinking in gratitude, I mumbled, “It’s a beautiful night.”

“Anybody could come crawling inside,” she told me.

“Anybody’s welcome.”

Emma squinted at the screen. “Is that the Oscars? I thought those were, like, six months ago.”

I looked at my watch. “Three years ago, actually.”

“You know they have those every year.”

“I have to review those too.”

“Why?” she asked.

Hours ago, my editor, Myron, had the answer: “Jack Lagattuta.”

“Nobody talks to Jack Lagattuta,” I’d reminded him. “Last time I tried, I ended up smeared all over a movie set.”

“You’re going to have to try harder.”

“There are more humane ways to murder me,” I told him.

“Max,” he said earnestly, “we need to do something about your friend, Allen Dean.”

Allen Dean is no friend of mine,” I replied.

“Regardless,” Myron said, “he’s eating our lunch.”

“Well, I hope he doesn’t a peanut allergy, because I ordered Thai.”

He glared.

“Actually,” I added, “maybe it would benefit us if he did have a peanut allergy.”

He ignored me and paced behind his desk. “Up until this little twerp came out of nowhere, we had the best entertainment coverage in town. It’s up to you to turn this around.” With a whole lot of gravitas, he stopped moving and turned to me. “We need to scoop him on a grand scale.”

“Did you say scoop?” I laughed. “Does this mean I get to wear a fedora with my press badge sticking out of it?”

“No, you do not.”

“You never let me have any fun.”

“Nobody’s having any fun until we fix this!” he barked.

“Your plan is flawed,” I said after giving him a second to cool off. “He lives in Bel-Air, and he won’t take my calls.”

“You’re in luck,” he told me. “He’s going on tour soon, and he’ll be hitting New York around Thanksgiving.”

“A press tour?”

Myron shook his head.

“Then what kind of…?” It hit me. “Oh, shit. He’s one of those middle-aged white actors.”

“He’s one of those very wealthy middle-aged white actors, so he can front a blues band if he wants.”

“A blues band?” I moaned. “Oh, fuck.”

“While he’s here,” he continued, “I want an unscheduled one-on-one.”

“How?” I begged. “He’s locked up tighter than the president. Last time, his people actually pressed charges. Nobody presses charges, Myron. I was in jail for a week.”

“That’s why I’m giving you a month and a half to come up with a plan,” he concluded.

This is how I found myself immersed in talk shows and award shows, probing for the slightest weakness in the armor of Hollywood royalty. “Homework,” I told her. “Boring, pointless homework.”

She settled into the love seat beside me. “Last time I watched the Oscars, I got so bored I ended up seducing the guy I was hanging with.”

I picked myself up and moved to nearby the easy chair and attempted to fill the air with small talk. “Your boyfriend?”

“Not up to that point,” she replied.

My imagination started acting up. “You should probably go home.”

“Relax,” she assured me. “I was twenty-four. It was a different time.”

Ancient history or not, the subject needed to change. “And what brings you here this evening?”

“I had a really bad day, and when that happens, only two things make me feel better.”

“And?”

“I think you know what the first thing is.”

I froze.

“And Tyler’s working late.”

I bit the inside of my cheek. “What exactly are you trying to tell me?”

She exploded with laughter and covered her mouth to hold back what was left. “No, no, no, dude! My TV’s broken.”

“Since when?”

“Remember when we knocked it over?”

It came back to me. “After Gretchen and I had that blowout…”

“When you assaulted me with that amazing…”

I bit the inside of my cheek again, this time drawing blood. “But I thought you said it was okay. The TV, I mean.”

“It was only mostly okay,” she told me. “And it just now quit for good.”

“Crap,” I said. “Sorry.”

“It was totally worth it,” she replied. “But when I don’t have sex to turn to, I watch movies to unwind, so you owe me.”

“You know what?” I shrugged. “I could use the break anyway. What’s the name of the turd in question?”

On & On.”

“What’s it about?”

“It’s a period piece set in the eighties–a sort-of satire about the Cold War,” she told me.

“And?”

“Lots of running,” she admitted.

“Car chases?”

“Just one,” she replied. “At the end of the first act.”

“Explosions?”

“Not as many as you’d think.”

“Punching?”

Her eyes rolled before they closed, and a grin spread across her face until she interrupted it by biting her lip and sucking in a lungful of air with a helpless squeak. “Oh, God,” she moaned. “So… much… punching.”

I shook my head to dislodge the thoughts forming there. “You are a sick person.”

I can’t help what turns me on.”

We coughed and averted our eyes from each other.

“Look,” I told her after taking a deep breath, “I can’t talk to you about fucking anymore.”

She sat up. “Sorry?”

“You heard me.”

But that’s all we have in common,” she replied defensively.

“Em,” I told her, “I am as surprised as anyone by what I’m about to tell you, but I honestly think you’re one of the coolest people I’ve ever met, and I actually enjoy being around you with all your clothes on. Plus, you bailed me out of my little birthday breakdown last week. I mean, you listened to me. No one else really does.”

“You’re not making any sense.”

I cleared my throat and said slowly, “I’m okay being friends, but please no more talk about fucking.”

She frowned. “Why not? I thought you said we were friends.”

I grunted. “Because I miss it, Em.”

“You miss fucking?” she asked breathlessly. “You, of all people, haven’t been fucking?”

“Are you kidding?” I snorted. “I’m on a roll!” This much was true. Ever since she gave me the pep talk that night, I seemed to have developed some kind of homing system for women looking for one-night stands. “I miss fucking you.”

“This is awkward now.” She stood and sighed. “I think I should go home and watch this on my laptop.”

As she left, I whispered, “Yeah.” I rubbed my eyes and resumed my research with renewed vigor. I was going to find a goddamned victory somewhere.

to be continued…

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Current Events

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

***

previously…

Despite my best intentions, my mind took a long, gentle stroll. It found itself listening to Emma panting in my ear until she climaxed, causing that breath to catch in her throat, like a cross between a grunt and a hiccup–which is far sexier than that description makes it seem.

It watched her rock back and forth while her half-closed eyes stared urgently into mine, and her lips parted, and her hair freed itself, one curled, cinnamon lock at a time, from a loose ponytail.

It felt her fist pounding against my shoulder blade as she shuddered against me; her nails tearing the skin along my ribs.

It smelled our bodily fluids mingling with latex and lubricant.

It tasted her sweat.

It was a nice stroll, while it lasted.

That is, until my editor shouted my name several times. I returned to the present and replied, “Yes, Chief?”

Myron grunted. “Do I look like a fire marshal to you?”

I turned to my photographer, Gretchen, and frowned. I took my eyes off of her because I never experienced her the way I’d experienced Emma, but the part of me that wasn’t consistently irritated with her wanted to.

When I returned my gaze to Myron, he said, “Well?”

What the hell were they talking about when I was away? “No?”

“Do I look like a commissioner or a high-ranking lieutenant in a police precinct?”

“No.”

“The engineer in charge of a naval vessel?” he persisted. “The president?”

“No, but I did vote for you on that last one.”

“The head of a Native American tribe?”

Having grown up near an Indian reservation, I couldn’t find any humor in this.

“Then stop calling me Chief,” he concluded. “Do you understand me?”

“I do now.”

He asked, “Have you been paying attention?”

“Yes, I have.”

“Then what have we been talking about?”

Your aversion to the word Chief.”

“Before that.”

“I wasn’t paying attention to that part.”

“Gretchen,” he snapped, “grab that paper over there and hit Max with it.”

“With pleasure!” she replied, rolling up yesterday’s first edition and smacking me across the cheek hard enough to fill both of my eyes with burning white light.

“Jesus!” Myron yelled. “Not in the face!”

“Right,” she said, and, with an incredibly flexible swivel of her arm, flattened my testicles.

On the bright side, I wouldn’t be distracted by sexual fantasies for the foreseeable future.

Myron sighed, “I meant hit him on the shoulder or something.”

“Oh.” She raised the newspaper again.

“I think he got the point, Gretchen.”

She relaxed her shoulders and sighed, “If you say so.”

“Oh, what the hell,” he said, “one last time.”

“Hey!” I called out immediately before I lost all use of my right arm.

“Are you paying attention now, Max?”

“Yes, Chief.”

“Hit him again.”

She did–with a smile.

“All I was saying was,” he told me, “there’s an actor coming to town this weekend to cover the morning- and late-show talk circuit.” He scribbled on a notepad and tore the sheet off. “This is his publicist’s number. Have Bill set something up.”

“You never told me who it is.”

“Yes, he did,” said Gretchen.

“You never told me who it is when I wasn’t daydreaming.”

“I give up,” he groaned. “Gretchen.”

I flinched, and she raised the newspaper.

“Tell him,” he said.

“Oh,” she pouted. “Frank Beatley.”

“That has to be the worst name for an action star,” I snorted.

“People used to say that about Oleg Flatowicz,” he said, turning his attention to a page proof, “and now he’s the governor of Idaho.”

“Governor of Idaho’s not all that impressive, either,” I said.

You’re not a political reporter, Max, so you’re not qualified to make those kinds of judgments,” he concluded without looking up. “And Happy Birthday.”

“It’s your birthday?” I asked Gretchen.

“No,” she replied, “it’s yours.”

“It is?”

They both doused me with a glare that answered my question. “In that case,” I said, “thanks, Chief!”

She didn’t need to be told to hit me.

I hobbled out of his office and, this being the end of my shift, for the exit. “This can’t be right,” I said to an empty elevator, but a quick look at the date and time on my phone revealed that it really was October 6. “Well shit. It would be nice if I’d had some kind of warning. I’d have made plans or something.”

Once in the lobby and on my way to the street, I noticed that I had voice mail waiting. Bracing myself for my parents’ annual tone deaf singing, I tapped in my password and listened.

“Hey, Max,” said the voice that belonged to neither of my parents.

I stopped walking at the exact time my heart stopped beating.

“It’s me,” the voice continued. “Carissa. Happy Birthday!”

I definitely could have used some kind of warning.

“I know we haven’t been in touch for a while. Well, since, you know. I wanted to let you know I was thinking about you.”

I hadn’t been thinking about her at all. Honest.

“And I miss you. Call me sometime.” And she hung up.

to be continued…

Hold Your Tongue

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

***

previously…

Due to the increasingly electronic–as well as the decreasingly profitable–nature of journalism these days, the actual physical presence of my newspaper’s entertainment division consisted of an editor’s office and a lonely copyeditor’s cubicle. On the rare occasion that a reporter such as myself spent any significant amount of time in the building, he or she simply found one of the empty desks and computer terminals scattered throughout the news floor.

Based on the randomness of such a selection, I never suspected that my editor Myron would know where to find me, much less appear suddenly over my shoulder and shout, “Max! What the fuck is going on?”

I jumped a little bit, the momentum of my landing twirling me around to face him. With a calm that surprised me more than his sudden appearance, I replied, “You’re going to have to be more specific, Chief,” I replied.

Stop calling me Chief!”

I sighed, “Sorry.”

Myron reeled back to strike me down for my insolence, but lost his verbal balance instead. “What did you just say?”

With a glance at my cheap-looking watch, I asked, “What is it that’s confusing you, Myron?”

“Did you just call me Myron?”

“You know,” I told him, I was hoping to cut back on our usual banter. Evidently I failed.”

He breathed.

“Do you want to come back and try again?” I offered.

Max,” he grunted, “you mind filling me in on this fucked-up e-mail you sent me five minutes ago?”

“What’s so fucked up about it?”

“It’s got your latest fluff piece attached to it!”

“Did I do it wrong?”

His eyes bulged in frustration. “Deadline’s not for another four hours!”

“So?”

“You turned it in four-and-a-half hours early!” He clarified, “For you anyway.”

“I didn’t feel like staying late.”

“Since when?”

“Since today,” I replied.

Finally–something that made sense to him. “Big plans?”

“Not really,” I said. “Just felt like getting home at a reasonable hour.”

He opened his mouth to speak, but closed it. “Okay, then.” He added, “You have an appointment tomorrow with Annie Castle about her latest expensive bullshit extravaganza. You can pick up a screener from me on the way out.”

A couple of hours later, I headed straight home, stopping only at Myron’s office and a Chinese food place on the way.

My roommates, sitting on opposite ends of a loveseat, were exploring separate corners of the Internet when I opened our front door. In the creepiest unison, they sat up straight and swiveled their heads toward me. Cameron said. “You’re early.”

“I’m not that early,” I replied.

“The sun’s still out,” he told me.

“It does that,” I agreed.

Mitchell pointed to the bags in my hand. “Is that for us?”

“Mitchell,” hissed Cameron.

“I’m just saying it’s a lot of food!” he said.

“It’s not that much food,” I replied.

“It really is a lot of food,” said Cameron.

“I couldn’t make up my mind,” I conceded convincingly.

“General Tso’s chicken?” asked Mitchell.

“Chicken with broccoli,” I said. “Close enough.”

“Can I have some?” he asked.

“Mitchell!” hissed Cameron.

“I’m…” I said. “I’m hungry.”

“That’s really hungry,” Mitchell mumbled.

Cameron kicked him.

“Anyway,” I told them, “I have homework, and I want to get it over with.”

“Big plans later?” Cameron asked.

“Not really.” I shrugged. “Just felt like hiding in my room for the night.”

“Huh,” he replied.

I waved, locked myself away, and immediately exited through my window onto my fire escape. As I crawled inside my neighbor’s apartment, I announced, “Stop what you’re doing! I’ve got chicken with broccoli, lo mein, four condoms, and a screener of Seventh Chamber: Part 2.”

Dude!” She looked up from the comic book page she was inking. “You’re early.”

In one swift move, I dropped the bags onto the floor, plucked the pen from her hand, grabbed her wrist, and yanked her to her feet. “I needed time to warm up before the turd we’re about to watch.”

“Ah,” she moaned as I nibbled on her neck. My fingers assertively massaged her torso, and her hips responded by grinding into mine. “Wait,” she gasped, pushing me away.

I fanned my face with my hand and panted. “For what?”

“I have a date tonight.”

“Oh.” A grin exploded across my face after about a second. “That’s fantastic! Is he cute?”

She grinned and nodded.

“Who is he?”

“Some dude who works in the same building as me. Tyler. I see him in the elevator every day, and we went out to lunch a few times, and now we’re going on a date-date.”

I bit the inside of my cheek before asking, “Want to warm up for Tyler?”

She shook her head. “I think I want to be exclusive until I figure out what’s going on.”

“Got it.”

I know not everybody does it that way…”

“You mean me,” I clarified.

“Well…”

I think it’s obvious that you and I are different people.”

“True,” she said.

“Then you need to wrap up that art thing and get ready for that date-date,” I told her, “and I need to get back to my room and do something about this uncomfortable hard-on.”

“Sorry.”

“For what?” I asked. “The whole point of our arrangement was to keep you relaxed enough to find someone to sleep with you actually liked.”

“I meant about the hard-on.”

“That?” I said. “I have those all the time. I got it covered.”

She grinned her crooked grin. “See you around, dude?”

Jabbing a thumb in the direction of my apartment, I reminded her, “I live right there, Em.”

“My name’s not Em.”

“My name’s not Dude.”

I crossed her windowsill to the fire escape, crossed the fire escape to my room, and crossed my room to the rest of my apartment, where my roommates remained frozen to the Internet. “I’m going out,” I told them as I then crossed the rest of the apartment to the front door.

to be continued…

Cesspool

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

***

previously…

The door to the holding cell opened, and the officer on the other side told me, “You’re free to go, Max.”

With a yawn, I asked him. “Hey, Jason. What’s going on?”

“You know, the usual.”

“Really? Because the last time I was in, they told me you and the family went to Florida for the week.”

Rolling his eyes, he said, “Not much of a vacation when you got to stay with your in-laws, if you know what I mean.”

“Not personally, but I’ve heard things.”

“Lucky.” He shook his head. “You know the way out. Stay out of trouble.”

We smirked at each other.

When I got to the check-out desk, I said to the uniform sitting behind it. “Hey, Roger.”

“Hey, Max,” he replied. “Says here you were trespassing backstage at the Staplebitch concert.”

I shrugged.

“My daughter loves that band.”

“Your daughter has lousy taste in music.”

“That’s what I keep telling her,” he said, “but you know kids.”

“Not personally, but I’ve heard things.”

He handed me my belongings, I signed for them, and he told me, “See you next time, buddy.”

Upon exiting the building, I was greeted by my colleague and photographer, Gretchen, leaning on a lamppost, playing with her fingernails. Her voluptuous hair was tied up into a stringy ponytail, her pin-up-girl figure was hidden under too-large jeans and a T-shirt, her bright eyes were bloodshot and framed by the ugliest pair of glasses I’d ever seen, her lips were pale, and her smile was absent. I’d recognized her only by the sound of her gum-chewing.

“Gretchen,” I told her, “you look like shit.”

“You look like the shit that shit shits,” she replied.

I took a moment to comprehend what she had just said. Failing that, I closed my eyes and exhaled.

“We done?” she asked.

I nodded.

She strode off, and I turned on my phone to see what the world had been up to in my absence. “You have one new message,” the ethereal voice inside informed me.

“And I bet you a dollar I’m going to hate it,” I mumbled in reply.

“Max,” the first message growled, “this is Myron. You know, your editor? The one who keeps having to bail you out of jail? That Myron? I expect to see you in my office within a half-hour of you getting you out, and I expect you to have an interview for me with the notoriously difficult-to-interview it-band of the moment with the stupid name. If not, I will murder you, chop up your body, and throw it in a compost heap.”

Seeing as I’d failed to get said interview, I figured I should try to make a run for it.

“If you failed to get said interview, and you try to make a run for it,” the message continued, “I will hunt you down, then murder you, chop up your body, and throw it in a compost heap.”

Scratch that.

My phone went off while I was a dead man walking to the train, and I went ahead and answered it, given that I was too numb to give a fuck anymore.

“Am I talking to Max Fuentes?” it asked.

“Who wants to know?” I replied.

“I need you to confirm or deny the veracity of a recent news-related rumor.”

“And what rumor would that be?”

“That an exclusive, all-access, behind-the-scenes story about Staplebitch is not running in your paper this weekend.”

I’d never heard the voice before, but the cockiness of my arch-nemesis could not be mistaken. For starters, it rivaled mine. “Allen Dean,” I moaned.

“I also need you to confirm that I scooped you. Again.”

It didn’t even occur to me to ask how he got my number, because I was too busy informing him, “Dean, I am going to fucking kill you.”

He laughed and hung up.

I sighed, “Myron is going to fucking kill me.”

Forty-five minutes later, however, my editor sentenced me to a fate worse than death. I blinked. “You want me to do what?”

“Not you,” said my editor as he pointed a finger at my colleague and photographer, Gretchen, who had somehow gone home, showered, washed and blew out her hair, dressed, and applied most of her makeup, since I last saw her not all that long ago; “both of you.”

“I’m clear on who’s involved, Chief, but it’s what you want us to do that I don’t quite understand.”

“Go to a purity ball,” he repeated. “And you should probably stop calling me Chief. You’re already skating on thin shit.”

Gretchen snorted. “Max isn’t exactly pure, you know.”

“Well,” Myron continued, “it’s not your purity in question, but you’re still attending.”

“Yeah,” I said, “I’m not going to do that.”

“Since when did this become a democracy?”

“Since 1788,” I replied, “when the Constitution was ratified. Mind you, it excluded blacks, women, and poor people, but we’ve since made improvements.”

During the course of this back and forth, Gretchen produced a vial of mascara from God knows where.

“Max,” Myron said as he absently produced a mirror and held it up for her, “if you don’t shut up and do as you’re told, I’m going to physically kick your ass.”

“I’d like to see you try.”

“I’d pay money to see that,” Gretchen muttered.

“You’re young,” he told me, “but I could take you.”

“You’re probably right,” I admitted. “So, I totally forgot with all the banter, what was our assignment?”

to be continued…

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…

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…