by Christopher Harris
My supersoaker was filled with cow piss. Bear Claw’s was filled with lemon pudding. Union Square smelled like wet bandages, steel drums clanged, I was so anonymous in this crowd of thousands I could barely breathe. We air-kissed both cheeks for luck, Bear Claw and I, and crossed East 14th Street. Vastness never felt so vertical. This was the furthest south in Manhattan I’d ever gone; I’d been in New York three days.
Inside a store called Forever 21, Bear Claw made for the G-strings.
But I got stuck watching a huge mural near the escalators. Two painted columns of words, side-by-side:
Duck Tape / Duck Tape
Jewlery / Jewlery
A Blessing In The Skies / A Blessing In Disguise
Perscription / Prescription
Aks / Ask
Laura Norder / Law And Order
Affidavid / Affidavit
Foilage / Foliage
Pass The Mustard / Pass Muster
Libary / Library
Bear Claw came back to get me. Her ski mask revealed a pair of angry eyes.
“Get over it, farmboy,” she said, over the blaring techno soundtrack in this fashionista depository. “They don’t mean to educate you about expressions you’ve misheard, they’re not saying something clever about the permeability of language, they just think these mistakes are cute, and should be giggled at, because: ‘We all make mistakes, and if anyone’s giving you crap about mispronouncing something, then what the fuck kind of sense of humor do they have? Why do they take everything so seriously?’”
“Wow,” I said.
We clomped ahead in our black espionage garb, attracting zero attention from a dozen Bridget Jones utopists matching shoe to blouse. A t-shirt display caught Bear Claw’s attention. She read from several shirts: “‘I’m Here About The Blow Job.’ ‘Drama Queen.’ ‘I Need A Boy To Do My Homework.’ ‘MILF In Training.’ ‘Non-Practicing Virgin.’” Then she said:
“Aw, hell no.”
She pumped and fired, and I did the same. The store didn’t react, and I wondered if attacks like this were now so common in big cities that the natives simply tolerated them. We doused t-shirts, ribbed tanktops, jeweled pants, tube dresses. Urine splashed and pudding plopped, and finally a customer noticed and hit the deck screaming, Bear Claw ran and I trailed after—a couple Scarfaces on the move in a target-rich environment—and now everywhere young ladies in blonde ponytails were covering ears with elbows and shrieking and we hit the underwear department bearing stinky-sweet destruction. It was fun. A heavy lady in an official-looking vest charged me and I ducked, she slipped in pee and tumbled into a Frederick’s Of Hollywood display. I squirted her Capri-exposed ankles. Then Bear Claw was hollering, “Let’s go!” and I sprinted behind her because she was the veteran here: she’d been in New York three full weeks. On the way out, I paused and spattered that mural: a big cow-tinkle X.
I wondered if it ever got below 100 degrees in New York. The heat dragged everyone outside: the weirdest, ugliest group of people in the world congregated on the streets, day and night, people who smelled like sauerkraut brine. Electricity flicked on and off, traffic lights flashed helplessly, taxis overheated, and Bear Claw said there should be a public shower on every street corner. Our next assignment was sentry duty at some posh place on Madison Avenue where no one ever entered or exited, and a doorman fell asleep with his body indoors and his head sticking out a tiny window, like he was a hunting trophy. Eventually T-Rex and Billy relieved us, and seemed to have no better idea what was special about this address than we did. I made sure not to look at Billy’s eyes.
At the house on 112th Street, an ugly boy named Jack was on the phone, with several recruits gathered around him. He said, “Hello, this is Brett Scapula, and as the official spokesman for the Columbus Christians for Life, I am bound to disavow the latest rumors about the arrest of our president, Haley Sucret. The police have not arrested him, they are merely interrogating him, so Mr. Sucret has not yet been charged with trafficking child pornography.” Jack held his receiver high. “No, I just told you that it’s not an arrest. They have him in custody, but your newspaper should not believe the persistent rumors of his arrest. Mr. Sucret is supposed to have funded a Web site called ‘NakedPageBoys.com’ but there is no charge. For now they’re simply holding him.” The recruits held their hands over their mouths to stifle laughter. “I’m phoning you to deny these rumors. Yes, that’s right. You’re welcome. We at the Columbus Christians for Life encourage your newspaper to please show consideration for Mr. Sucret and his good works. Goodbye.” Jack disconnected and everyone slapped his back, a kind of ruckus duplicated dozens of times daily in this, our home. Bear Claw and I climbed upstairs past several picture frames populated by newspaper headlines: “Video Gamers Have Stronger Hearts, Study Says” “Hot Boy-Band Members Actually Homeless Veterans” “I.Q. Points Inversely Linked To Longevity.” We ate tins of deviled ham and drank just-expired eggnog, and went to sleep.
When a pretzel vendor’s cart crushed my foot three days before, it was not quite my first New York pain. I’d just stepped from Grand Central Station with my chin up, reckless with hopefulness, listening to a teenager behind me telling his friend, “Yeah, Manhattan isn’t as big or impressive as they say, y’know? I mean, I expected it to be big.” Rays of fog covered the street, a marble building seemed to slide toward me, and I accidentally saw down the front of a young woman’s dress, all of which thrilled me so much I ached with what is meant by the sting and sweetness of life. This was a summer morning so splendid that the power it had over my senses was like the power of memory. A few moments later, thanks to that pretzel vendor, I heard my little toe snap, and I met T-Rex and Bear Claw in the Roosevelt Hospital Emergency Room, where they were trolling for Vicodin.
“That’s bullshit,” said T-Rex, a 5’2” Puerto Rican carrying his camouflage backpack hobo-style on a baseball bat. “They got the tits, they got the onion. They got the men staring up at them, drooling on them, giving them money. Who got the power in this situation? Who got it, the sad, pathetic men, or the beautiful and wealthy woman?”
Bear Claw shook her cornrows, towered over him as they artfully looted a sleeping old woman’s handbag. I was standing on my good foot ten feet away in a crowd of grumpy convalescents; no one in this E.R. said a word, no one woke the tiny old lady in her wheelchair. Bear Claw said, “It sure as fuck ain’t the stripper, man. I’m about damn sick of it, too. One more starlet leaking her sex tapes to help her career, one more fucking book in Barnes & Noble about life as a hooker, one more fucking cardio-striptease class at your local gym….” She lifted a pill bottle from the lady’s purse, palmed it, “Fucking Girls Gone Wild, I mean, fuck.”
“What you need,” said T-Rex, “is a little vaginoplasty. Clear that bad attitude right up.”
“I’m supposed to look at myself only through a man’s eyes,” she said. “’Ats the only way to get money, power, whatever. ’Ats how I get money in my garter.”
“They’re working their way through school,” T-Rex said, and as they moved down the hallway casually testing the locks of supply-room doors, I found myself limping behind, thinking, They talk like this. They really talk like this. “Half the strippers I ever met in Miami was sending themselves through college. Use the system that exists, circumvent it for your own, whaddayacallit, advancement. How you gon’ convince the world if you a six-foot black lesbian? Men like titties. It’s unfortunate.”
“Looks like we got ourselves an admirer,” Bear Claw said, and indicated me. I was pinioned in this narrow fluorescent corridor, pretending to look away, wearing a please-don’t-murder-me grin. “What’s doin’, white boy? You stub your toe working your internship at Clinton’s office up in Harlem? You sprain your ankle kissing ass over at the New Yorker?”
I said, “What’s the New Yorker?”
“Hunh,” said T-Rex.
Bear Claw said, “It’s the place where run-on sentences live. Who the fuck are you?”
“Nobody,” I said. “I just….”
“You either want some a these here drugs,” said T-Rex, shaking his pockets. But a white-coated hospital employee swaggered by, and T-Rex didn’t give his alternate explanation for my presence. Whereas I played the caricature of a guilty trespasser, these two strangers melted into serene congruity, some urban intelligence game I’d often imagined: everyone in the big city was onto something, everyone in the big city was a spy. They eased into an unused room and I felt invited. I followed these two scofflaws, watched them boost cotton swabs and tongue depressors, grinned because they were smarter than I, they were inside, and this was how I’d pictured it, just how I’d imagined my descent into the underbelly.
That night I sat with Billy on a rooftop in the 100s, at the base of a lambent 30-foot billboard advertising an online university, where a ravishing woman was seen to push her breasts together and purr at the thought of higher education.
“So you weren’t ‘typical’ as a lad, eh?” Billy said. “Not just another go-along Midwestern Republican tyke with your God and your country music and your mistrust of Jews and blacks?”
“There was some of that,” I said.
“So? Why did you tell T-Rex you want to join?”
“I didn’t fit in. It wasn’t who I was. I wanted to burn things and, like, jump off stuff.”
“Bullshit.” Billy was peeling paint off a stovepipe in whorls, shirtless and sweating in the heat. “Who fits in, man? You were intellectually lazy, which is to say you were American. Poor you. Stultified by affluence and safety, paralyzed by the size of the buffet. Of course, you sensed there was something wrong and terribly greedy about living like this, but it was too scary to actually do anything about it, so you loitered, crossed against the light, maybe even set off fireworks or painted over the L’s in signs that read ‘Public.’ Wow. What a rebel.” Above the traffic I heard a distant motorcycle.
“I left, didn’t I?”
“And came to New York. Fuck. You think stupidity isn’t valued in New York? You know the first job I did when I started living in the house? I invented an oil-painting monkey. I put on European accents and left angry voicemails threatening the American press not to steal this revolutionary painting monkey named Mr. Wigglesworth. I forged notes from buyers who said they’d be interested in seeing an exhibition. I wrote reviews about the ‘empathy’ and ‘genius’ in his abstract paintings of bananas, and I got Diane Sawyer’s people interested in a one-on-one with Mr. Wigglesworth’s trainer.”
He talked and talked and I—empty-headed, thirsty, unable to recall if this was really the same day I’d arrived—was slack-jawed at the requisite Oscar Wilde and Edgar Allen Poe stories, the rap about vegetarianism and term limits and Walt Whitman and rich old men from the Middle Ages who paid for their sainthoods. “Don’t you see?” he asked me, “Don’t you see how you totally bought into what they were selling you, the myth of perpetual American prosperity, the cycle that would never stop going up?” And then he kissed me, and he was on top of me, and my foot hurt, and my pants were around my ankles and I realized I’d forgotten to take my suitcase with me from the hospital, I closed my eyes, I couldn’t help thinking this was exactly what all my old friends would’ve told me to expect in today’s Gomorrah, that on my very first day I’d wind up homeless in the big city with someone’s dick in my mouth.
“Who did you used to be?” I asked Bear Claw. The day after our trip to Forever 21, they sent us to a midtown book-signing: a guy from Court TV had written about contemporary desperadoes: Scott Peterson, Robert Blake, Phil Spector, and so on. We sweltered outdoors in borrowed trench coats and stood near the back of the line.
“Sharon Barraclough,” she said. “Pissed-off teller who lost her job when her bank got swallowed by a bigger one. Dumbass bitch who thought her parents would keep loving her if they found out she was queer. Big dumb community college doormat who kept trying to please teachers who were about eight times dumber than she was, sitting there praising the same old tired essay about how someone’s mom died of cancer.” We saw a flash of hair and teeth from the table inside, and the crowd here grew denser. It was nearly time. “And why’d you come to the big city?” said Bear Claw.
“I killed someone.”
“Mm-hm. Did he deserve it?”
“You don’t believe me.”
“Well that’s right. I don’t.”
I had grown up, at least, to the point where I didn’t hang onto my mistruths beyond their usefulness. I smiled. “When I was a little kid, I was part of our church and my class at school. I thought I knew what togetherness was, or whatever. But now I know. These past couple days, now I know what it’s like to belong.”
“You stumbled into me,” she said. “Maybe makes a person believe in Fate.”
“Everyone at the house is so smart. I’m lucky you guys even let me in.” I was surprised to hear myself say this. “It’s other people,” I said. “It’s what I needed. Hearing them talk.”
“You got a mom and dad out there in the red states?”
I said, “Parents are, like, so 1998,” and got a nice hearty laugh in return. Amusing any of them, it seemed, was my purest form of joy.
“I guess we better get started,” Bear Claw said. “We need to go relieve T-Rex and Billy up on Madison Avenue again.”
“I heard about you and Billy,” she told me. “Don’t freak out. They all get new recruits to be their boyfriends, even the straight ones. It’s the rite of passage. They come to New York, they get their ideas about masculinity all fucked up. They go from thinking how cool it is to grind their ’board down a handrail, to thinking they’d better read a newspaper every once in a while or no one will talk to them, to feeling like a pussy for knowing who Bernie Sanders is. The one-monthers always wind up diddling the one-weekers. It doesn’t mean you’re gay.”
I turned scarlet, and said nothing.
Bear Claw removed a packet of instant camera film from her coat while I shuffled down an alley off 17th Street and reclaimed the life-sized cutouts someone had made up at the house. I stood the cutouts on the sidewalk—laserprint on cardboard—and Bear Claw did a carnival barker routine.
“Step right up, folks! Get your picture taken with O.J.! Free of charge! Now you can get your throat slashed by the Juice! Get popped by Beretta, or drowned like Laci! And it’s free, free, free!” I jogged behind the first cutout, stuck my head and hands through the holes, and vamped for the camera. The bookstore crowd took notice, smirked in the cool New York way: now they’d seen everything. Bear Claw shook her first photo and passed it around: a caricature O.J. Simpson swinging a machete and lopping off my head, which had formerly been attached to a hand-drawn woman’s body.
“That is truly sick,” said a young woman, admiringly.
Soon a dozen sweaty shoppers were handing me their copies of the Court TV book and stepping into the shoes of their chosen murderee. I smiled, and Bear Claw was sure to snap two photos per customer: one to give away, one for our private use. The thrill of these folks’ complicity, the guilty indulgence in their smiles, it got to the center of our merry operation, rang tinkly bells of nauseous recognition deep in my inner ear. Everyone is a lunatic, and nobody wants to enjoy the darkness as much as they do. Watching Bear Claw laugh and point and click, watching her shake hands with the hardcover-toting public, I could almost believe she didn’t hate them. So successful was our ruckus that a handsome dress-shirted man emerged from the bookstore, and people whispered and pointed that here was the Court TV anchor, today’s featured author, and he didn’t look angry at all, he looked puzzled and then pleased, tipped us five dollars and chose Phil Spector’s alleged shooting victim, sprawled on a cartoon mansion floor.
We arrived at the limestone building on Madison, one block from the city’s green heart. T-Rex and Billy were missing. We could see a grandmother foot-rocking a baby carriage near the front door, where she harangued a man about genetically modified rice in Udaipur. Then a Guyanese nanny stumbled into the heat, apologizing, and rolled the carriage ahead of grandma, over a sidewalk verdant with cigar butts and Starbucks lids, down East 72nd. The doorman, too, was missing from his post. A double-decker bus made conversation impossible for a few moments, and I looked at Bear Claw, who stared up at the stiff-chested townhouses and high-rises around us. I remembered her voice in Forever 21: Aw, hell no.
We strolled under the building’s canopy, waiting to be deterred. I touched the strange limestone exterior: sinuous bands of cyma moldings that looked like a series of giant parentheses. Above the front door, deer and storks were carved in marble relief. We got closer, and I put my hand on the doorknob. This was a game to see how far we’d go; I recalled standing outside my hometown’s library with friends, whacking each other with lengths of weather-stripping, harder and harder until someone quit. These doors were imprinted with a sequence of lizards. We walked inside the air-conditioned lobby.
Nobody. This neutron-bomb feeling lasted for several minutes, my throat was dry, Bear Claw walked out into a garden court, came back shrugging her shoulders.
“Could they have gone home?” I said. “Could they have gone to get something to eat?”
“Most of ’em aren’t reliable,” she said. “T-Rex, he’s reliable.”
“What are we even here for? Has anyone asked? Why do they have us watching—”
The elevator dinged.
Bear Claw threw her bulk against a wall. I couldn’t move. I didn’t know the protocol, didn’t know the penalty for getting caught in a building where you didn’t belong. I presumed I’d be sent to jail, or back to Kansas. I was a fraud, an imposter, my world had changed too swiftly for my limited intelligence and intuition, I put my forearm over my face and willed myself invisible.
“Oye, that’s a good tattoo, bro.” T-Rex emerged, pointing at his own elbow. “A little toad right there on your arm. Cool shit.”
“It’s a poison dart frog,” I said.
“We almost started the revolution without you,” said Bear Claw. “Where’d you little boys get to?”
“Word come down from Stronzo, to make a move when the target is acquired. Turns out the target was upstairs in his apartment all by his lonesome.” T-Rex held the elevator door, motioned us to get on.
“Who’s Stronzo?” I said.
“You know Wal-Mart, right?” T-Rex pressed ‘14.’ “Stronzo’s the guy who made that famous database they got. The one that tells ’em a lady in Tacoma gon’ need some really bad patio furniture next week. Computer genius.” There were more animals in this elevator: pheasants and foxes and rabbits. Nothing but prey. “You know what this dude paid for this place? This elevator opens right into his apartment. You know what he paid? Like 15 million at least.”
“Who paid?” said Bear Claw. “Who is it?”
“You’ll see, jani.”
The doors slid apart and revealed Billy in profile, testing how many Starbursts he could fit in his mouth. Candy wrappers were everywhere. I heard someone from the apartment’s far reaches shouting, “Is it Puffy?! Did Puffy put you up to this?!” Billy’s grin revealed a polychrome wax mess. The floor here was black marble, the wallpaper white flecked with black, the circular staircase was black-carpeted up to a landing painted white; it was a perfect coloration for us, we who saw the world so simply. Billy couldn’t talk. He rubbed his own cheeks impatiently, chewed, drooled a little, then pointed upstairs. We followed him, past a lavish sitting room and a library. My Gap t-shirt was soaked through. Bear Claw was dry.
I don’t know what I expected. Perhaps I expected a captain of industry whose eventual release would bring millions to our cause. Someone horrible: a tobacco executive, a jingle writer, a political pollster. But no, I suppose my suspicions, storming down that multimillion-dollar hallway, were nearly blank, since New York was the unfathomable place, the place where anything could happen. I had an erection that made it hard to stride.
The master bedroom had ten-foot ceilings and blue wall-to-wall, a canopy bed and a bookshelf populated by a television and a thousand DVDs. A man was tied to a chair in the middle of this room, his arms roped behind him. When the four of us entered, he turned and smiled.
“Hey,” I said.
It was Ashton Kutcher. There was no mistaking his chin or his backwards trucker hat. Bear Claw said, “Just what the fuck are we doing?”
A star who made his bones filming celebrity pranks couldn’t believe this was real. He grinned and said, “Did my cousin let you guys in here? Where’s the camera? I don’t see any camera.” Billy stomped forward and punched the prisoner’s face. His hat fell off.
“Shut up!” Billy said, spitting candy, shaking his hand.
“Wait a minute,” said Bear Claw. “Just hold it one fucking minute.”
“Stronzo said take him,” T-Rex said. “It’s all part of the plan.”
“So now we’re kidnapping people,” said Bear Claw. “We’re walking into people’s houses and beating the shit out of them for being idiots.”
“He’s not just an idiot,” Billy said, standing behind his captive, still slobbering sugar-goo. “He’s the idiot. He’s made $100 million off his idiocy. He’s royalty. He’s the antidote for 50 years of progressive education. And don’t give any speeches about how there’s a hundred guys ready to take his place once he’s gone. No one’s arguing that. No one’s saying you can reverse the course of idiot history.” He danced like a boxer behind Ashton, and threw sideswiping jabs at the back of his head, tousling his hairdo. “This is just for poetry’s sake, man.”
“We’re not gonna hurt him,” said T-Rex. “We’re not s’posed to hurt him. Hey, pendejo, don’t hurt him, right?”
“The cruel are trustworthy,” Billy said. “The compassionate are lying.”
I was behind Bear Claw, in her wake. I had very little idea why this was happening, only a vague notion what kind of connection this had to the pranks at the clothing store or the bookstore. But I surprised myself. I didn’t want to leave; I wanted to be right up close. No thinking, just adrenaline, and frustration and all the old bullshit of being alive was cleared away by uncompromising acts, my memory became smeared, my nostrils widened. Living a movie scenario (the hero tied up in the second act) that felt curiously comfortable, all I knew was that I didn’t want to think, and that a part of me loved seeing shabbiness come into Ashton’s face as he realized this wasn’t just a prank. “You,” Bear Claw said. “Pretty boy. Who lives here with you? When are they coming back?”
“My cousin’s back any minute,” he said. “You guys better take what you want and get outta here.”
“He’s lying,” said Billy. “His cousin left for the airport, isn’t that right, superstar? A whole bunch of suitcases and everything. No one else around, no security or anything. Just the superstar.”
“I got security,” Ashton said. “They’re coming by. Hey, there’s money in the safe. I can give you the combination.”
“Fuck fuck fuck,” said Bear Claw. “What are we supposed to do? What did they want you to do once you got him?”
“I called,” T-Rex said. “We’re supposed to wait.”
“All across this city,” said Billy, “the righteous are swarming, ensnaring the nation’s symbols of mediocrity and dunderheadedness, those who make a living playing dumb, those who forego nuance in favor of…well, like you, you androgynous putz playing dopes and horndog moppets, you minstrel-wannabe slack-jawed example to all the kids out there, you peace-sign-flashing, big-ups-giving, hip-hop-mangling, suburbia-slaughtering…” but Billy started to choke, on anger and Starburst residue, so he dumped a row of DVDs off these shelves, shouted, “Not one book! You don’t own one single book!” and walked into a gilt-edged bathroom to wash his face.
“Get Billy out of here,” Bear Claw told T-Rex. “Downstairs. Out of here.”
“It’s not like I haven’t heard it before,” said Ashton. “It’s just a job, man.”
Billy and T-Rex vacated, and I sat on the bed. Bear Claw scratched the back of her neck, pacing, cursing, laughing to herself.
“I don’t hurt anyone,” said our prisoner. “I don’t hurt…kids or whatever. It’s all fun. It’s just meant to be fun.”
“Stop talking,” I said. I didn’t know why.
“Stay here,” Bear Claw told me, and also left, to discover our next step, to phone this Stronzo, something. It was me and the movie star, a wedding ring fresh on his finger; Ashton didn’t tremble, he had the boundless hope that comes from beauty or privilege. I could feel him looking at me, calculating which of his stock characters would work best to make me free him. I was afraid and excited, overwhelmed, chaste, a little bloodthirsty. I’d seen a couple dead bodies in my time, out in the hinterlands. I wondered if Ashton had done the same.
He said, “So at this exact moment someone’s beating up Carrot Top?”
I smiled without wanting to. “I don’t know,” I said.
Time passed. Bear Claw was shouting downstairs, then for a while they were all silent. The apartment had a view north into the park and I had to see, I touched the hot window: there were trees and enormous patches of green and a distant reservoir, so wide and wild with the city’s jaws around it, ardently mongrel. I knew it was the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.
“You okay?” said Ashton.
“When I was young,” I said, “I was in the Young Republicans and the Young Democrats.”
“Everyone keeps saying I’m a Republican.”
“I’m so not political,” he said. I turned and my shadow sprawled across him, he was blinded as he looked at me over his shoulder. His eye was puffy, and I could see his hands were turning purple.
I said, “You have a red bracelet. What’s that for?”
“I don’t mean anything by living in this place. It’s not like I’m like, ‘Dude, I’m so much better.’ I don’t even live here, my cousin watches it for me. I just stay here when we come to New York. The paparazzi hasn’t found out about it yet. But I’m not trying to say I’m better.”
“I read about that,” I said. “That string: it’s that Kabbalah thing, right? Do you believe in God? Do you believe in life after death?”
“Okay, man. What’s your name? You’re officially freaking me out. Could you please stop talking about—” I leaned forward and loosened the restraints around his wrists, fingered his string bracelet, and he exhaled. “Let me go,” he whispered. “I’ll give you so much fucking money.”
I stood and said, “I used to believe. Seriously, I’m just wondering.”
Ashton closed his eyes. “I once had surgery and got a morphine drip and they screwed it up. I got too much morphine, and my heart stopped for like an hour before they checked on me. But I didn’t feel anything. I was dead, but it didn’t hurt. I was just out. I was just gone. So now I don’t worry too much about it.”
“You know what those guys downstairs say? They say you’re like death. Or anyways, you sell it.” I swallowed. “Making shows that puts people to sleep with little stupid smiles on their face.”
“Dude. It’s an act. Nobody’s supposed to believe it. What are they gonna do? What are they gonna do to me?”
I said, “I bet you don’t even read the New Yorker.”
“My hands still really hurt. And my face. Jesus, how bad is it?”
I left the bedroom and walked downstairs. Billy paced. T-Rex played hoops on a Pop-A-Shot rigged to return all the basketballs to him. Bear Claw was on a sofa, biting her thumb. “Every country has mostly stupid people,” Billy said. “But intelligence is something to be desired in India, in Japan, in Nigeria. It’s a way out. It’s the way it’s always been. Only in America do little kids shield themselves from appearing smart. The national facial expression is the hapless smile.”
“What’s he saying?” T-Rex said. “Is he shitting his pants yet?”
“We talked about God and death,” I said.
“Yeah,” said Billy, “he’s a regular Cicero. You know what I just heard? You can have your dead relatives turned into jewelry. They make graphite out of the carbon in cremated remains, and press it into blue diamonds.”
“A bunch of people are coming over,” T-Rex said. “We just hold tight.”
“What’s going to happen?” I said.
“Nothing,” said Bear Claw. Her voice was husky. “They’ll take some humiliating pictures, get him to sign a ‘Declaration of Cultural Irrelevance’ or something.”
“He’s seen us,” I said. “He’s seen everyone’s face.”
“You don’t know Stronzo,” said T-Rex. “By the end of it, they’ll be best friends. In a couple hours they’ll be heading out to Scores for 20-year-old scotch and lapdances, and our man up there’ll be paying.”
This was good news. I wanted to escape and live free, wanted to keep having adventures with these howling new friends. Also, there was the matter of shame: the shame of feeling good that I was helping cause this privileged pop idol to suffer. Knowing we’d all be pals afterward meant my pleasure in seeing Billy punch and berate Ashton was an act. It was permissible to enjoy giving a performance, even if that performance was cruel. Who would understand that better than a movie star?
“Maybe we should get going,” Bear Claw said to me.
“Well,” I said. “Is it okay if I hang around a little more?”
Billy put his arm around my shoulder. “Sure. He’s our secret weapon, this one. He and the superstar come from the same place, the breadbasket of our great nation. He can talk to him in his own language.”
“Okay, that’s cool,” said Bear Claw, but it didn’t seem cool at all. She got up, walked to the elevator. “I gotta go sleep. You kids have fun.”
I saw what a mystery she was to me, maybe because there was no possibility of flirtation between us, and that was how I’d related to women my entire life. “Seriously,” I said, leaving Billy’s side, wanting to talk to her alone, “you seem a little mad.”
“Not mad,” she said. “Just momentarily lacking in the clever department. All outta Vicodin. How old are you, anyway?”
“Which means,” as the elevator doors opened, “you don’t need a permission slip.”
I said, “We’re still partners, right?” but she was gone.
Ascending the stairs again, having told the others I was back in a tormenting mood, I imagined Ashton loose someplace on the second floor, hiding in the fireplace or one of the other bedrooms, tensed and palpitating, holding some MTV “Best Kiss” statuette high, preparing to indent my skull. The thought of a fight didn’t displease me; but no, he was still tied, head drooping, face soaked.
“Why do they call them permanent-press shirts?” I said. “Nothing is permanent.”
“Can I have some water?” said Ashton. I got him a cup, and held it to his lips. “The asshole. The one who hit me and said I don’t read. Tell him this building is where Holden Caulfield lived. It really is.”
“Y’know there are millions of us out there, picturing what your life is like. Wishing we had the money and the freedom and the attention.”
“A lot of people I know would be crushed if it turned out you were a human being like everyone else.” I sat Indian-style on the floor, near his legs. “They think I’m up here to smack you around some more.”
“Why are you up here?”
“Why else? I know there’s a good Christian in there somewhere. I’m here to take your confession, Ashton.”
“You’re kind of fucked-up, man.”
“You got about an hour before they start doing really bad things to you.”
“This is terrible,” said Ashton. “How can this be happening?”
I looked at him seriously, made him look back at me. “No one ever liked me,” I said. “No one ever liked me like those guys downstairs do.”
“Sure they do.” He looked wounded and sick, gaunt, hungry, genderless and terrible. He said, “Why’d you really ask me about God before?”
I reached to his wrist again and he flinched, but I didn’t tug, I just ran a finger over his bracelet. “I wanted to see if you wore this just because then the public likes you more, thinking you’re a nice religious boy.”
He grinned a little. “Yeah, that’s why, actually. It’s my agent’s thing.”
I said, “That’s hilarious.”
“You have to think about those things. You have to worry how people will take things. I mean, nobody cares if I get in a fight or get caught with a hooker or whatever. Well, my mom cares. But that stuff’s okay. But my agent would shit his pants if I ever said something about abortion or, I dunno, nine-year-olds stitching sneakers with their teeth in a third-world country. I’m allowed to be bad, though. They used to encourage me to go to bed with three different girls a week. ‘Ash, this is Gloria from Herbie Greenstein’s office? Herbie wanted to know if you made love to the Asian gal you went to the Harrison Ford premiere with. And hopefully you did it like Herbie asked, with a nice fill-light shining on her crucifix….’”
I chuckled. “I liked you in Guess Who. I knew I wasn’t supposed to.”
“What does that mean?” he said. “That’s pretty stupid. If you laughed, you laughed.”
He sighed anciently, shoulders slumped. He was probably thinking, Everyone’s a critic. The sun was just about gone; it was dark in here.
I stood and kissed him. He wriggled, but I had his hair—his famous hair—in a fistful and we clanged teeth, I was thinking about high school, standing around outside smoking cigarettes and ragging smart kids, jock kids, rich kids (and also kids we suspected were gay), feeling the crush of foreordination, knowing exactly what my life would be. Powerless boys made to feel potent by our control over our hearts: if we didn’t care, we couldn’t be disappointed.
The kiss ended, or, rather, Ashton was successful in breaking away. Very close to his face, I said, “Here’s the thing that I want. I want to stop feeling guilty. I feel guilty I couldn’t take care of my mom when one of her boyfriends was beating the shit out of her, and I feel guilty when there’s roadkill at the side of the road, and I feel guilty when some little kid is getting pushed around on a playground, and I feel guilty when they show someone on TV whose house is underwater, and I feel guilty I didn’t die over in Iraq, or in the World Trade Center, and I feel guilty about Jesus and the fact that I don’t really believe in him anyway, and I feel guilty I don’t have a job and I can’t buy any better clothes, and I feel guilty when people say wanting really cool shit like a cool car is bad and greedy because sometimes I want a really cool car, and I feel guilty that sometimes I don’t do the right thing even when I know it’s the right thing and I can’t figure out why not, and I feel guilty I’m not the one who’s tied up because I’m complete shit, I’m total and complete shit if you want me to be honest, and if anyone deserves to be tied up, it’s me.”
He didn’t spit in my face, and he didn’t make a crack about me being a fag. He understood this was some kind of intense reckoning for me, and perhaps he believed the results could turn the situation in his favor, that my sadness could set him free. I was thinking of all the scaled-down pranks I’d pulled in my Kansas life, just as Billy’d described them a few days ago, all the self-sabotage a young man could fabricate. How I’d been encouraged to detonate inward. How god-damned alone I was.
Finally Ashton said, “I could be your friend. We could hang around or whatever.”
I said, “Oh, gee, really?” and fluttered my eyelashes.
“Please,” he said. “Don’t let them do anything to me.”
I walked away from him, wiping my lips. “Nothing’s going to happen to you. It’s like you said before. You don’t have to worry.”
Our colleagues arrived wearing black hoods and dogis. They carried bags of camera and lighting equipment upstairs, too efficiently, making a silent studio of this bedroom in just minutes. They tapped my elbow and pointed to the door. As I left, Ashton was dry-heaving from fear.
I sat down in the living room and Billy massaged my neck. We watched T-Rex sink jumper after jumper until one of the ninjas poked his head downstairs and put a finger where his lips would’ve been. Billy softly said to me, “Have you read Emerson? ‘We lie in the lap of immense intelligence, which makes us receivers of its truth and organs of its activity.’”
“What does that mean?” I said.
“It means don’t believe anything anyone says. It means it would take the patience of a saint to tolerate people like this guy, people who lie and who take advantage of weakness in the rest of us, who refuse to listen to their own true natures.”
T-Rex flounced onto the couch, made a sandwich of me. “Narcissismo,” he said. “It don’t mean that at all. It means you want to have a good time, you trust what’s up here,” and he flicked a fingernail against my forehead.
“If I’m not supposed to believe anything anyone says,” I told them, “how am I supposed to believe what you guys are saying right now?”
“You’re not,” said Billy. “Here endeth the lesson.”
We waited. I thought, briefly, that too much clarity was as awful as too little, but I didn’t say this, I just removed Billy’s hand from my shoulder and watched the empty stairway. Finally, three of them came down, trailing orange power lines and green telecommunications wire. They opened a laptop computer, plugged in, and on the screen I could see Ashton still seated in his bedroom, blindfolded now, with the fourth ninja making preparations behind him.
“We’re good?” said one of these black-suited men. “We’re live?”
“Go,” said another.
The first man lifted his mask over his chin, and spoke into a microphone. “Ashton Kutcher. Here are the charges against you. You are a dispenser of cultural Prozac. You encourage young people to adopt the pose of blitheness, under which selfish insularity may grow, beneath which fear and loathing of genuine connection is encouraged to fester. You make us a nation of recumbents, you persuade us to ignore one another as we admire our own disguises.”
“What’s going to happen?” I said, and then on the screen I saw the fourth ninja lift a shimmering sword.
“Taliban-style,” Billy said. “Excellent.”
“Because you engender a world without passion, because your followers are cautious and overfragile and sweet and sad and skeptical, and worst of all because they become passive victims of circumstance who stay numb and accept their fates, because of all these things we hereby sentence you to death.”
“Wait,” I said. “This is crazy.”
“Ssh,” said Billy.
“No, hold it.” I tried to stand, but T-Rex and Billy restrained me. “You guys can’t just kill him. You can’t chop his head off. This is America.” The spokesman standing at the laptop faced me. “You have to admit, he’s allowed to be a jerk. That’s freedom of speech, right?”
“Executioner,” the ninja said, “you may do your justice.”
I saw the pixilated sword draw back and I wriggled loose, juked the black-clad conspirators and took the stairs three-at-a-time, heard someone screaming. I hadn’t ever spoken in my real voice, not once in my life. How awful, this atom of self-knowledge which jarred itself loose: the blackness of my heart, the terror I’d always barely controlled, the terror of being touched by another human being. In puddles of my own sick, at friends’ funerals, half-delirious and gushing nose-blood at the feet of a would-be stepfather…I’d never once been vulnerable, I’d never once allowed it. And I wasn’t vulnerable now. The worst of it, the most sickening part of the ten seconds it took me to get back into his bedroom was realizing how obligatory this was, how I was the unassuming hero, how I was the boy in that chair with his throat cut, how I was everything I ever feared I’d be: irrelevant, aberrant, ineffectual, unworthy. I’d arrived in New York four days ago; I’d found the keyhole to my utter inadequacy in four days.
And I was hailed by a rush of liquid, a mist of Ashton Kutcher set free into this $15 million house to find its truth beyond all the cuteness, beyond the horndog act. I didn’t equivocate. I leapt across the room and hammered myself into this assassin, drove him to the floor, heard the sword sing against a closet door, felt breath rush out of the big man below me. No, I’d never spoken in my real voice, but if I’d been able, I’d have said, If you’re worried stupidity is keeping people apart, if you’re incensed America wants us to imagine ourselves individuals with absolute free will and no connection to one another, why the superior act? Why call attention to your ultra-worthiness? But instead I wept, dumbly, as Ashton Kutcher’s feet flailed against mine and the man beneath me rolled and fought for leverage, something cotton had come across my face as I stayed on top of him, I saw it was the assassin’s hood which my tackle had knocked loose, I wouldn’t relent, I crushed my hip against his ribcage, but then a black hand pried itself from my embrace, crawled downward against my belly, and squeezed my balls so hard I thought I’d faint. I acquiesced and rolled off the killer. The bedroom fell quiet.
I curled and tongued the blue wall-to-wall. This wasn’t my real voice either.
“Look at me. Goddamn.”
Beside the canopy bed, the assassin wheezed. But no. It wasn’t wheezing. It was laughter.
It was Bear Claw’s laughter.
Then the movie star’s voice: “I’m fucking covered in fake blood. Can someone please get me a towel?”
To be dragged around like that. To be eaten by suffering. Bear Claw’s big stomach shook and she touched my face like a blind woman or, more accurately, like a mother.
“Ohhhhhh,” she said. She squeezed my cheek and smoothed my tears. “Ohhhhhhhhhh.”
Everything given. Everything stripped away. Even my innocent act. I knew nothing of myself, except how afraid I was of myself. A body’s worth of blood filled my face. I looked around without lifting my head or her hand, saw a dozen feet clomping, heard backslaps and a hoot, saw a floodlight accidentally knocked to the floor.
“People don’t just get in,” said Bear Claw, crawling forward, catching her breath, kissing my lips. “Just anyone doesn’t get in. We have to see you without your clothes on. We have to see how far you’re willing to go, how strong you are. But you’re strong. I bet you can feel it, how strong it turns out you really are. You did really good. Just wait’ll you see what we’re gonna pull next.”