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15th of December 2018

Books



“Show Recent Some Love”

Audio: Sam Lipsyte reads.

At this juncture, in this environment, only an ogre could defend Mike Maltby, and Isaac was not quite the ogre type. Maybe more on the order of a jerk, according to Nina. As a human being, a woman, and his life partner, she added, she felt it was crucial that she make this distinction. All men, yes. But not all men in all ways.

Environment, climate—this was code people used for how you really ought to watch your mouth, not to mention your ass. This wasn’t passing weather. These were the new conditions, like dribbling ice caps, or jagged rips in the atmosphere. There was no quick fix, and no going back.

Ask Isaac, it was definitely for the best. History’s ceaseless cavalcade of dickheads was undeniable. A shame, maybe, that a few non-predator guys got mashed up in the gears of the thing, but, hey, wasn’t this an omelette-making enterprise? And compared with the atrocities going on since forever for everybody else? Please. Still, a tiny part of Isaac felt a nanosurge of sympathy for Maltby, who’d given Isaac his start, and had also been, weirdly enough, for a brief time, his stepfather.

But you just couldn’t pull the kind of shit Maltby had pulled in the executive suites of what had been, until a few months ago, Maltby Media Solutions. Even if you were Maltby. Especially if you were Maltby. Because it wasn’t about sex. It was about power. And sex. And probably a few other things.

Isaac had never been one of the Maltby bros. Mostly he detested them. That kind had always treated him like a weenie. Even Maltby had, come to think of it. Especially Maltby, who’d leer after Lenore Vinson, the vice-president of H.R., when she left the conference room, and look to Isaac for—what? Confirmation? Validation? Was this a parking lot?

“What’s your hot take on that one, kid?”

“Yeah, attractive,” Isaac might mumble.

“Moron. Attractive. Try the fucking Bronko Nagurski of punishingly luscious women on my payroll.”

Maltby was famous for his mastery of sports arcana, especially as it pertained to the leatherhead era of American football, as well as for his penchant for striking, counterintuitive analogies. They’d been a big part of his success in advertising. But Isaac wondered if Maltby’s string wasn’t a little played out.

Actually, Isaac had stopped wondering this months ago, after Maltby stepped down as chief of the company he’d sold to a conglomerate the year before. He’d announced he would spend time in contemplation of his mistakes, embark on a “listening and absorbing tour.” He would “marinate,” he said, in the complaints of the current and former employees who had accused him of lewd comments and handsiness in hallways and cubicles, this after years of rumored affairs with underlings and interns. There was also the surreptitiously recorded toast in which Maltby, out at a restaurant with his old fraternity pals, suggested that for women at his firm the road to good employee evaluations was “paved with spit-lubed tug jobs.” The shareholders made a suggestion of their own: remove Mike Maltby and rechristen the company Haven Media.

The story got heavy play on the trade sites, and Isaac, the ex-stepson whose career had benefitted from the mentorship of a monster, waited, perhaps irrationally, for the axe to fall. A few times he indulged in the literal side of the formulation, pictured the arc of the executioner’s blade, its glint in the noonday sun, and Isaac’s shaved head plopping into a basket, his final physical sensation slightly splintered wicker pressed against his cheek.

Nina wanted to know why he kept touching his face.

Isaac’s mother sat in her pilled peach robe in her rent-controlled living room and delighted once more in having been ditched by her second husband for a longevity consultant and part-time Pilates coach.

“Dodged a hurricane,” she told her only child. She sipped Cran-Grape and Stoli out of a plastic “Moana” cup left over from the birthday party she’d insisted on throwing for her granddaughter.

“You mean bullet,” Isaac said.

Anna patted the loose copper coils of her hair. She’d let herself go gray, once, a few years ago, for several weeks. Nearly been hospitalized for it, she liked to say.

“Don’t tell me what I mean. Does this moment resemble a bullet? All the craziness going on? Or is it more like a hurricane? How about you tell me?”

“It’s not just some storm,” Isaac said. “It’s the way things are now.”

“Thank God.”

“Right? I’m ecstatic about it.”

“I don’t completely believe you.”

“Well, you should. I welcome this more than anyone.”

“If you say so.”

“Hey, man,” Isaac said. “I have a daughter.”

“I know damn well you have a daughter. And don’t call me ‘man.’ ”

“Sorry, Mom.”

“Molly’s party was a big hit, don’t you think?”

“It was. Her friends’ parents e-mailed and said they loved you.”

“Why couldn’t they e-mail me directly?”

“We’re just all on these lists, Mom. From the school. But they had a fun time. Said you were a real . . .”

“A real what?”

“Nothing.”

“A character?”

“I don’t remember that term.”

“At what point do we become characters? It’s like we’re not real anymore. I guess it’s better than the alternative.”

“Being invisible?”

“More like . . . Well, as long as Molly liked the party.”

“She loved it.”

“Why isn’t she here now?”

“It’s a school night.”

“Why are you here?”

“You asked me to come move the bed so you could get the sweater box.”

“And did you?”

“Yes. Look, the box is right over there.”

“And yet,” Anna said, “you feel bad for old Mikey Maltby. You think he got a raw deal.”

“Can’t I feel bad for him but also think he got what he deserved?”

“So you came here for permission to feel things?”

“No, I came to move the bed.”

“O.K., then. Let’s do it already.”

“Dementia isn’t funny, Mom.”

“Who is Mom?”

“Stop.”

“He called me, you know.”

“Mike?”

“I told him I could give him a modicum of emotional support but not one iota of moral support.”

“That was nice of you, considering. You don’t dole out the modicums readily.”

“In the olden days, as I recall, you had your charming pigs and your not so charming pigs. Mike was on the spectrum there. We had some good times. He made me laugh. His days are over. But you pet the horse before you shoot it.”

“I thought he was a pig.”

“Well, you know, my mind is not what it once was. The Sudoku helps.”

“Though the vodka might cancel out the Sudoku.”

“I’d need to see a study.”

A homeless couple had set up camp on the large granite ledge that jutted from the wall of the church on Isaac’s block. It was the middle of June, and they’d laid out a narrow mattress with crisp-looking sheets. They looked to be in their late forties, about Isaac’s age, but maybe they were younger, prematurely aged by whatever substances he’d seen them inject—more than once, hunched against the church wall—into their arms, or hands, or feet.

The woman had indigo stars inked on her cheek and temple. The man was tall, with a frizzy ponytail and a crinkled, spotted face that might have been handsome once. He often went shirtless in the heat, and Isaac had to admit the old junkie was ripped. Who needed a gym membership when you could get the same results living the life of a destitute skag fiend?

Isaac chuckled to himself and imagined cracking that joke with Nina and some of her friends from college, or even out with his advertising chums, then winced.

Isaac didn’t know the names of the couple, but he’d come to call the man Stoma, because that was how he signed the announcements he wrote, or more accurately carved with a certain elegance into torn squares of cardboard, and propped up in his shopping cart. Tonight’s proclamation read, This is our stuff. Touch it at your peril. Trust me, I will catch you if you do. Everyone gets caught sooner or later and I can’t wait. Then you will see exactly what I am bringing to the table. —Stoma

Isaac appreciated the last sentence especially, took a photograph of the sign with his phone.

The couple were gone, but the bed was made with hospital corners and a thin brown blanket. They’d even stacked a few splotched and tattered paperbacks beside it. Beach reads.

The shopping cart was a jumble of plywood planks, busted electronics, empty plastic water jugs, and cushion foam. Isaac heard a grunt, turned and watched Stoma and Stars drag themselves over the chipped stone wall that circled the park across the street, trudge through traffic toward the ledge. They both wore canvas shorts and bleached-out polo shirts, and if you squinted, ignored the face tats and sun damage and drug scorch, you could picture them cavorting on a tennis court in the Hamptons. Or maybe that was the scene out there now. What did Isaac know? Maybe they were about to invite him for a set of Canadian doubles.

“What’s up, pal?” Stoma said, walked up to where Isaac stood, laid a swollen hand, pocked with small sores, on the shopping cart.

“Oh, hello,” Isaac said, and his tone, with its high, slight whine of riskless civility, made him, he figured, the more likely Hamptonite, as though he were greeting Stoma in some vacation-town supermarket, both of them just back from the ocean, relaxed, pleasantly melancholy, dawdling down aisles in salt-encrusted swim trunks for a twilight resupply of wine and fresh corn. Or was it the shopping cart that made him hear it like that?

“What are you doing?” Stoma said.

“I was just reading your sign.”

“Who said you could?”

“It’s a sign. Didn’t you put it up for people to read?”

“Not you.”

Stoma dropped into a shallow combat crouch, dipped his arm into the cart, rooted around in stereo parts and chunks of foam until his hand came up with a piece of metal pipe.

“You’d better go,” Stars said.

“Don’t talk to this yuppie cocksucker, Beth. He’s the kind of asshole that pushed all the decent people out of here.”

Yuppie. Cocksucker. Who still spoke like that? And who was still named Beth? Also, hadn’t this particular spot witnessed straight-up gentrification since the Dutch? He was pretty certain he’d read this in one of the real-estate brochures Nina worked on.

Still, what was Isaac going to say? That, in his estimation, the term “yuppie” had lost descriptive traction decades ago? That, as far as Isaac was concerned, no consensual sex act between adults should ever be stigmatized? How else to respond? Should he mention his belief that Beth was the drabbest diminutive of Elizabeth?

None of it would fly.

“Get lost, fucko!” Stoma said, waved the pipe.

Isaac backed off, pivoted, trotted around the corner to his building, to the safety of his lobby.

So it seemed there was, after all, a table, and Stoma, as promised, had brought much to it, including his rage, his suffering, his courage, and, most impressive of all, an efficient bludgeoning device. To the same metaphorical raised surface Isaac had brought nil, zilch, zero, nada. He was lucky to be home, to have one, a haven.

“What’s another word for ‘modern’?” Nina said, peered up from her laptop.

“Contemporary.”

“Too cheesy.”

“State of the art.”

“Too techie.”

“Fucko.”

“What?”

Isaac opened the fridge—dins recon. Nina was on deadline for copy about some new condos for oligarchs downtown. Luxurious this, artisanal that. Innovative living in a historic district.

He could do the air-chilled cutlets. With the kale in the crisper.

He noticed Molly on the sofa, most of her under the cushions, just her head, her phone hand, sticking out.

“Sweetie, what are you doing?”

“Be quiet, Daddy. I’m filming.”

She posted videos to her feed several times a day, and just this morning Isaac had noticed the exhortation she’d affixed to the latest ones: show recent some love.

“Would you eat bulgur if I made some?” Isaac said, to no one in particular. Maybe to God.

Later, he loaded the dishwasher, while Nina wiped the counter. Molly sat on a stool with her phone and an oatmeal cookie. She was making an instructional video about how to eat an oatmeal cookie.

“First, hold the cookie like this.”

“Molly,” Isaac said. “Grandma was really thrilled you let her throw you that party.”

“She was good at charades,” Molly said, stared into her phone. “But she dropped my cake. But it landed right side up, so it was O.K.”

“We heard,” Nina said, turned to Isaac. “Did you guys talk about Mike again?”

“He called her.”

“Really? Any news?”

“Why do you care?”

“I actually have mixed feelings. When he was your stepfather, and we were first dating, he was very kind.”

“He was always a big fan of yours. Told me I’d be an idiot to let you get away.”

“Poor guy. I mean, not really. He deserves to go down. His whole game was really pernicious and destructive. And just selfish.”

“Absolutely.”

“But he was very sweet to me. And helpful.”

“Yes. The same.”

“So, there it is. But now it’s up to men like you.”

“Up to us to do what?”

“To not behave that way.”

“But we don’t. That’s what makes us men like me.”

“Standing next to a villain and hoping people will notice the difference is not the same as being a hero, Isaac.”

“Who said I was a hero?”

“Nobody. I’m just saying. And don’t be certain they won’t come for you one of these days.”

“I’m not certain of anything. But I can’t figure out what it would be for.”

“I’m sure it’s something.”

“You are?”

“If you’re following along at home,” Molly said, “just lift the cookie to your mouth. Like so.”

“Anyway,” Isaac said, slipped the detergent pod into the plastic chamber in the dishwasher door. “I saw Stoma today. He got pissed I was reading his new sign. Threatened me with a lead pipe.”

“Sounds awkward.”

“Did you hear what I just said? A goddam lead pipe. It wasn’t awkward. It was scary as hell.”

“How do you know it was lead?”

“Does it matter?”

“You said lead.”

“What you’ll want to do now is bite the cookie. Chew the cookie. Chew it good.”

“Chew it well,” Nina said.

“Chew it well. Taste the oatmeal wellness.”

“O.K., maybe it wasn’t lead. Maybe it was iron. Maybe it was bronze. Maybe it was made of crushed diamonds. The point is the pipe, weaponized. Not the material.”

“Those two,” Nina said. “They are really toughing it out. And they work so hard with their shopping cart, and storing their stuff, and taking it out at night. Always busy. Like pioneers. I hope they find help.”

“Toughing it out?” Isaac said. “Come on. They are high all the time. They feel much better than we do. Oh, yeah, her name is Beth. Can you believe that?”

“What’s wrong with Beth? That’s a fine name.”

“I mean, sure, they have a hard life, but I see them just lounging on that mattress, too. Doing the Times crossword.”

“You sound angry about it.”

“We barely make rent.”

“But we do make rent. And we have rent. It’s like you think they’re getting away with something.”

“Just so you know, we’re only going to be able to afford one month of day camp for Molls.”

“I hate day camp,” Molly said. “I like night camp.”

“We’ve talked about this, Isaac,” Nina said. “It’s going to be O.K. I’m getting a raise.”

“Me, I wouldn’t mind just lounging on a mattress out in the sunshine and doing the crossword all day.”

“It would take you all day.”

“Funny. Still, you want innovative living in a historic district? Talk to Stoma and Little Beth Starface. They’ll lay it all out for you. Call your buddies for a photo shoot.”

“Calm down.”

“I am calm. I’m the calmest yuppie cocksucker on the block.”

“Excuse me?”

“Mommy,” Molly said. “Don’t call your buddies.”

“What?”

“I’ll film them. I’ll film Doug and Beth for you.”

“Doug?”

“That’s his name.”

“Sweetie, how do you know that?” Isaac said.

“I’ve talked to them.”

“Molly,” Nina said. “What do you mean you’ve talked to them?”

“They’re nice. They gave me—”

“They gave you what? What did they give you? Molly, did they hurt you? What did they give you?”

“A book.”

“What kind of book?” Nina said.

“I don’t know. It was boring. It was about these bad people chasing each other through an airport. I didn’t really understand it.”

“It’s a pretty lowbrow literary scene over by the ledge,” Isaac said. “I mean, it’s not exactly the fucking Bloomsbury group.”

Nina looked at him.

“Well, it’s not.”

Isaac spent the next morning writing up notes for a client meeting on Monday. His team was working on a promotional film for SisterBoard, a local philanthropy that arranged tech training for disadvantaged girls. He’d met with SisterBoard’s staff to plan the shoot, but some of them had caught wind of the Mike Maltby scandal and intimated they might seek another agency. Isaac begged them to hold off, assured them that the culture had really changed at Maltby Media Solu—Or, rather, Haven Media. That the leatherhead era of workplace harassment was over. That the monsters had been driven from the field.

“It’s amazing how rejuvenated the whole company is now that Mike is gone,” he told the SisterBoard reps. “An evil cloud has lifted.”

“Aren’t you related to him?” a woman said.

“I was his stepson for a while. Nearly twenty years ago. Those were dark times.”

“You mean . . . Did he . . . ?”

Could you throw somebody under the bus if that person was already there, mangled, beneath it?

“It wasn’t a pleasant period for me.”

That part was true enough, though it had less to do with his mother’s marriage to Mike Maltby than with Isaac’s protracted betrothal to Jägermeister, Adderall, and multiplayer video games. But that was then. This was now-ish.

“I’m so sorry,” the woman said.

“I appreciate that. And please give us a chance to make you a fantastic product. In this environment, especially, it’s important that we demonstrate what high-quality work we can do without the hindrance of men like Mike Maltby.”

After lunch, Isaac got an e-mail from Lenore Vinson, in H.R., asking him to stop by her office around five. It was Friday afternoon, the optimal pink-slip window. Why else would Lenore want to see him now? So this was it. He’d known it in his gut all along, felt foolish for thinking his fate was otherwise. Isaac scanned his work area, wondered what might be worth the effort of stuffing into a Bankers Box. Not the cactus. Not the mini-hoop. Maybe the poster from the old French movie, that bold illustration of a knight plunging head first off his charger, his face subsumed by the torrent of blood that poured out like a rich, red gush past the raised visor of his helmet.

Mike had given him the poster when he started. It was an iconic image, Mike had said, and he hoped its energy would fill Isaac with inspiration.

Inspiration was maybe not the word for what Isaac understood himself to be filled with as he stepped into Lenore’s office.

“I’m taking the Bresson poster,” he said, settled into the chair diagonal to her desk. “It was a gift and has sentimental value.”

“Taking it where?”

“Wherever I end up, I guess.”

“Are you leaving us?”

Isaac took a breath. “Am I?”

“Nobody’s asking you to.”

“Then why are we meeting?”

“I just wanted to check in. See how you were doing. It’s been a difficult time. I’m just trying to connect with everybody. Make sure people are O.K.”

“For the record, Mike’s behavior made me sick. And why did he always have to bring football into it? Red Grange. Walter Camp.”

“Who?”

“Never mind.”

“Isaac. Is there something you’d like to share?”

“Lots of things.”

“Then why don’t you?”

“Because I’m afraid if I share them I won’t get them back.”

“Interesting. Sort of.”

“He was only my stepfather for a few years. I didn’t love him like a father, or anything. I had a father. A good one. But he died. Still, Mike was decent enough to me.”

“And to your mother?”

“Not so much, after a while.”

“I see.”

“But he was always a good boss.”

“To you he was a good boss.”

“Right. To me. I should have been clearer on that. It’s a difficult time, as you said.”

“My advice? Going forward? Don’t be a bystander.”

“Thank you.”

“Of course. And your gratitude is noted. Also, don’t let SisterBoard get away. If you do, then it’s not really a workplace-culture issue. It’s a you-sucking-at-your-job issue.”

“Understood.”

He’d never wanted to be a bystander. Or an ally, really. Passerby was more like it. He should have kept moving, travelled light, just his laptop and his pills and a dream of oblivion. Jägermeister was widely available. But he never went far enough, just toggled between boroughs, and at some point he’d tarried, put down roots. Still, everything had turned out O.K. He had a job, a partner, a kid. He loved the last two, didn’t hate the first.

Going forward, he would be more grateful.

He hoped Lenore would note the uptick.

He almost didn’t recognize Maltby at first, thought maybe some sidewalk Bible loon had snatched at his shoulder outside the Haven offices.

“Isaac, it’s me!”

His former stepfather had grown not the wild beard of a hermit pariah but something severely groomed, pervy. His suit was pressed but his trademark white collarless shirt bore a yellow mustard stain. Maltby, a fit man who often conference-called from the treadmill, had always eschewed street meat, but he must have examined his books, his grim future as an earner. Or else he had just decided to screw it all, lunch on boiled wieners.

“Mike.”

“Isaac,” Mike said. “Come. Get a drink.”

“I can’t.”

“Just get one drink with me.”

“I don’t know if I can.”

Isaac looked back at the building to see if any Haven folk were among those streaming out into the warm evening.

“O.K., you don’t want to be seen with me out here. Fair enough. Meet me at McShane’s in fifteen.”

Mike knifed into the rush-hour crowd.

Later, when Nina asked him why he hadn’t simply blown Mike off, Isaac said something about friendship and honor and sticking by people who have stuck by you, even if it was just to help them comprehend their crimes.

But as he trailed Mike to the bar he sensed that curiosity might be an equal draw. How could this man still be showing his face around the city? It was so brazen, exciting.

They sat in a dark corner of McShane’s, a fake Irish pub frequented by nobody they knew, but which had become a secret hideaway for Mike over the years. Given the mood, the situation, it seemed to Isaac that they should be hunched over double bourbons, but Mike ordered a flight of craft ales. That counterintuition again. Four small pours sat before him, in their flimsy wooden raft, dutiful liquid lieutenants of varying shades of amber.

“I’m most intrigued by this imperial I.P.A. from Tremont,” Mike said. “The best ale in the country is coming out of the Bronx.”

“I still haven’t met another guy your age so into the fancy suds.”

“Are you joking? I was into beer before anybody. Since back in the eighties. I’ve told you this a million times.”

“It’s true, you have,” Isaac said.

“I was instrumental in creating the idea that all the commercial domestic lager was crap. You’d call it a meme now. I may have called it a meme then.”

“It is crap.”

“As you well know, that has bubkes to do with it.”

“Mike, how are you?”

“Terrible. But your mother has been a real rock for me.”

“She has?”

“We talk several times a day. She’s pretty much the only person in my corner. I should never have left her. But what about you? How are you holding up? How are things at my company?”

“Mike . . .”

“I know, it’s not mine anymore. Hasn’t been for a while. I should never have left your mother and I should never have sold Media Solutions to those pricks. Didn’t get nearly what it was worth, either. And, to be candid, I lost a lot of what I did get with dumb investments. Bad advice from maybe no longer such savvy guys. My problems started long before those ridiculous harassment charges. Though that’s what sent Talia out the door. Not that she wasn’t already packed. What are you looking at?”

“You have a mustard stain on your shirt.”

“Some tourist bumped into me. Can you believe it? That’s my day.”

“You didn’t eat a hot dog?”

“No, Isaac, I didn’t eat a hot dog. What’s wrong with you?”

“Nothing.”

“How’s your sex life?”

“Excuse me?”

“I hope you’re keeping Nina happy. She’s a wonderful woman. Bright and foxy. You’re very lucky.”

“My sex life is none of your business. Never has been.”

“Nina’s like the Knute Rockne’s Four Horsemen of Notre Dame of really vivacious, luscious women that I know.”

“What?”

“This Scotch ale is deeply overrated. Don’t care for the chocolate notes. It’s good to see you, Isaac.”

“I need to get home, Mike. To the four horsemen. Or one of them.”

“That’s good. Listen, buddy, I’ve been talking to Anna, and we both agree it’s time for me to respond to the madness. To be honest about my part in things, yes, absolutely, but also to put them behind me and get going with my professional life again. We think you can be a major help with this.”

“Excuse me?”

“I’ve listened and learned. I really have. I’m from another time. But now I’m ready to be from this time. And I need you. You can ease me back into some projects. Some freelance stuff. Don’t worry, I get it. Keep me away from the clients. Keep my name out of it. For now. I know this will take a little while.”

Isaac just stared for a moment. At the man. In his still very expensive suit. Clutching a small glass in his large, tan hand. “Are you insane?” Isaac asked.

“What do you mean? Didn’t you hear what I said?”

“Yes, Mike, I heard. Now hear this: you are done. Like the dinosaurs. It’s over. Whatever toys you’ve managed to collect you get to keep. But you don’t get to play in the sandbox again. Ever.”

“What the hell? Are you nuts? I gave you a life.”

“You gave me a job. And I turned out to be pretty damn good at it. And my success didn’t require daily doses of bullying and groping to fuel it.”

“Are you kidding?”

“I am not,” Isaac said.

Mike stood, tugged down on his suit jacket, slotted his empty flight glasses back into their holders.

“Listen, Isaac, I don’t know exactly who the fuck you think you are, but I’ll tell you what you’re not. You’re not a real person, all right? You’re not a dynamic individual. You’re not a font of creativity and innovation. No, you’re a weak, backstabbing pussy. And you want all those cunts over there to think you’re some kind of good guy, but the truth is you’re just too scared to ever let your feelings or desires show. And you’re glad to see me go down not because it’s about time the oppressors were punished but because it kills guys like you to see guys like me enjoy our fucking allotment of years on this planet. Because it is utterly impossible for you to enjoy yours. I never did anything so bad. I never forced anybody to do anything. And don’t tell me about power in the workplace. That’s all that exists in the workplace. That’s all the workplace is for. For some people to exercise their power to do what they want, to create what they want, to profit how they want, and to experience pleasure and joy, or at least a momentary cessation of anxiety, how they want. All kinds of people. All kinds of power. What the hell do you think capitalism is? Or America. And that’s the dark horrible truth. Maybe it’s too late for you to gain anything from this knowledge, but you would do well to make sure Molly understands. Because this world is getting more savage, more unforgiving, every fucking day. See you around.”

“That I very much doubt,” Isaac said.

Maltby’s shoulders sagged. He grinned. “Don’t doubt it too much, buddy.”

“Oh, yeah?”

“Come on, Isaac. Lighten up. Listen, you, Nina, Molly, and me are all invited to dinner at your mom’s house next Wednesday. I was supposed to tell you. But I forgot. Got all worked up. Sorry about that. We’ll continue this conversation next week.”

“You can’t expect me to break bread with you after that speech, Mike.”

“So don’t break bread. Just have dinner. It’s family.”

“You’re not my family.”

“Sure I am. The family of man.”

There was no way Isaac would ever sit down with that bastard again. Or not for a very, very long time. Not until Mike Maltby knew his own crimes as well as he knew the crimes of others. Because that was the disturbing thing. Guys like Mike were blind and stupid and egotistical and cruel and selfish, but they weren’t always wrong about people. Certain people. The Mike Maltbys of the world didn’t understand women, for example, but they understood the Isaacs, shared some of the same craven strains. They were just stronger, meaner.

Isaac gripped a pole, swayed on the uptown 1. He pictured himself swaying on the uptown 1 and weeping. After a few moments, he wept. They were man tears, white tears. But, if you licked them, were they not salty? He looked around. Nobody appeared to notice his misery. Good. He did not want to be a burden. He remembered what Nina had said about standing next to villains. It seemed obvious, but maybe not obvious enough.

Near the corner, on their ledge, Stoma and Stars, or Doug and Beth, were stretched out on their mattress under a tulip-patterned sheet. Doug perused a soggy paperback. Beth smoked something gooey off a swatch of tinfoil. Their shopping cart, nearly empty now, looked a little bent. There was still light in the sky but the moon hovered low and yellow over the park.

Isaac passed the pair without more than a quick glance, but stopped when he noticed the cardboard placard lashed with twine to the stop sign on the corner: Hey, Fuckos— Today is my birthday. I have lived fifty years on this shitball. You will not believe me, but I have no regrets. Sorrow, sure. But no regrets. I’m angry that some asshole stole our stuff. I will have my swift vengeance and it will be unpleasant, like a hammer from the sky, or a festival of blood and fury. Please help out if you can. —Stoma

“Enjoying my sign?”

“I’m sorry. Is it O.K. for me to read it?”

“I guess so.”

“I’m Isaac.”

“That’s great for you.”

“What should I call you? Doug?”

“Why would you do that?”

“I think you know my daughter. Molly.”

“I know a lot of people.”

“You gave her a book.”

Stoma pulled the sheet off his legs, slid from the mattress to the sidewalk. He was barefoot, seemed even bigger than before.

“Do you remember meeting me?” Isaac said.

“I don’t remember meeting you. But I remember wanting to bash your head in with a lead pipe.”

“Right. So it was definitely lead?”

“I don’t know, man. It was a pipe. Do you have a problem? Are we some kind of affront? I see the way you look at us.”

“I don’t look at you.”

“Every time. What if I stood in your bedroom and just watched you?”

“You’d get pretty bored.”

“What?”

“Nothing.”

“Are you a wiseass?”

“No.”

“Are you a dumbass?”

“Hey, what’s up with Beth?”

Stoma wheeled and Isaac pointed to where she sat on the mattress, the foil and a plastic lighter loose in her lap. She rocked back and forth, her eyes rolled up, a rope of spit hanging off her lip.

“Beth? Baby?”

She said nothing, pitched forward, as though about to tumble, righted herself.

“She’s fine. And how do you know her name?”

“I live around here. I keep my ear to the ground. Stop giving my daughter shitty novels.”

“Pardon?”

“How long do you think you guys can keep going like this?”

Stoma looked over at his sign, as though considering some tweaks.

“We’re not hurting anyone,” Beth said, still rocking, but with a new composure, her lips wiped, her eyes miotic, blue. “We’re not stopping anyone from living their dreams.”

“Just ourselves, really,” Stoma said.

“Don’t you want to get help?”

“We tried help,” Beth said. “It’s not very helpful.”

“But isn’t it hard? Your life?”

“Fuck yeah, it’s hard!” Stoma said.

His exuberance, the sharp shock of it, silenced them all. Beth began to nod again.

“Well,” Isaac said. “Happy birthday.”

Stoma lifted his sinewy arms. “Do I get a present?”

Isaac pulled a twenty-dollar bill out of his wallet, handed it over.

“That’s it?”

“I’m not rich.”

“Compared to us you are,” Beth said.

Isaac pulled out another twenty, gave it to Stoma, who folded both bills neatly and slid them into his jeans pocket.

“O.K., then,” Isaac said. “Are we even?”

It just sort of popped out of him. He had no idea what it could mean.

Stoma laughed, turned back to his mattress, slipped out the pipe. “Did you hear that, Beth?”

“Yeah.”

“He asked if we were even.”

“I heard him.”

Stoma took a few steps toward Isaac. “I think you’re right,” Stoma said. “I think the pipe is definitely lead.”

“Looks it.”

“How about this? How about I let you know when we’re even?”

Isaac eased himself sideways toward his building. Because he had a building to ease himself toward. To pass into. To sit in, a by-sitter, on standby.

Someday soon he’d be a character, like his mother, or Stars and Stoma. Like everybody else.

Either nobody was real or everybody was. That was the problem. Or maybe it was the solution.

Night had come. A car hissed by. Isaac swivelled back toward the ledge.

“Yes,” he said. “Please. Please let me know. I’d be really grateful.”

“Don’t hold your fucking breath,” Stoma said, and Isaac wondered what else exactly he was supposed to do. ♦

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