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The Black Kitten, Part 5

The next day I saw two black Ford vans with New York plates pull up in front of the Victorian mansion.  They had no logos or anything on them, but the guys who got out were wearing gray coveralls and carrying toolboxes.  At first I thought they must be electricians–their hands were too clean for them to be any other kind of contractor–but then I saw them pull several small boxes out of the back.  My guess would be surveillance gear, cameras and whatnot.  It pissed me off a little.  If Mr. Rich wanted me to be his security guy, how come I wasn’t in on this?  I was about to go say something to Mr. Rich and maybe get my ass handed to me again when he walked up behind where I was standing on the town green.

“Calvin,” he said.  “I have a small job of sorts for you.”  He handed me one of his cards.  As far as a business card goes, it was weird.  I had some cards that I got from Kinko’s with my name and phone number and the great slogan, “Maintenance, landscaping, plowing.”  I got a thousand of them for ten bucks and I used to leave them posted on the bulletin board outside the yuppie organic food shop down route 41.  Mr. Rich’s were different, though.  His said, simply, Paul W. Rich in a fancy script with his cell phone number below that.  The paper was different, too.  Mine were the cheapest white card stock, but Mr. Rich’s felt rich, a creamy off-white that probably had some stupid faggot fancy name like eskimo vanilla creme or something.  They also had a texture that made them look like they were made out of stiff cloth.

“I want you to take this down to Greenaway’s Tailors down in Greenwich,” he said.  “Your clothing needs to be, shall we say, more appropriate to your position.”  I turned the card over and saw “Take good care of Calvin, per our phone conv.” written on the back.

“What?  A tailor?  I–”

“Yes, Calvin, a tailor.  Tailors make clothes, you know.  I’ll tell you how to get there.”  I decided to give no resistance.  Resistance wouldn’t do me any good, anyhow.

I hate to drive down to Fairfield county, especially the part right along the coast. You might as well be driving in New York fucking City, and I would rather get kicked in the crotch than do that.  But when Mr. Rich says go, I had to go.  I drove down route 7, which isn’t so bad until you hit just north of Danbury, and then it’s stoplights and idiots from New York shopping in Connecticut’s lower sales tax.  It gets worse the closer to Long Island sound you get, and by the time I finally found the stupid place, I was ready to hit someone, anyone in the face.

Greenaway’s Tailors is on a side road just off the main commercial drag, which is just as well.  I felt conspicuous as hell driving my old pickup with the plow attachment on the front and fifteen years’ worth of rust framing the wheels.  There were a few other trucks like mine around, and I noticed that every single one was filled with Guatemalans looking scared and out of place.  I didn’t blame them.  These fuckers wanted their yards looking perfect–a single dead leaf would probably send them to the hospital with heart palpitations–and they wanted the little dark men to keep them perfect and tehn fade out of sight immediately, if not sooner.

Anyway, I parked out front, hoping some asshole would give me grief for uglifying the neighborhood, but the street was quiet.  The tailor shop was in a large stone building with expensive-looking twelve over twelve windows.  I had installed some just like that in a big house, and they are a bitch to put in.  The doorway leading in was likewise, real French doors with brass handles, and I noticed that my hands were sweating as I pulled the door open.

An icy-looking blonde in a tight but severe-looking gray suit, with a short skirt and white stockings imeediately clicked up to me, her cold blue eyes giving me the up and down.  I looked down at myself and saw what she saw: a short, wide, tough looking guy with faded Levi’s, a frayed plaid shirt, and wolverine workboots.  At least I had brushed the dirt off my boots when I put them on this morning.

“Can I help you?” she asked, and I could hear the other, unspoken part of her question: “Or should I call and have someone toss your sorry ass out the door?”

“Uh, yes.  I, uh, that is, I have–”  What did I have?  I had a stupid business card, but I had no fucking idea what I was supposed to do once I got here.  I started to plan ways to hurt Mr. Rich when I saw him again.

“Yes?”  There was an edge in her voice as she reached up and touched the back of her neck.  This must have been a signal, because I saw two guys in the back get up out of the overstuffed chairs they were sitting in and start to move to the front of the store.

“I have this,” I said and handed her Mr. Rich’s card.  She wrinkled her little WASP nose and took it delicately, as if she thought it might be coated with cow shit.  When she saw the name on the card, though, her face lit up.

“Ah, yes!  You must be Calvin.  Please, come back here.  Could we get you some coffee?  A cappucino?”

I figured a cappucino would be the most trouble, so I said yes, I would have one of those.  The blonde led me to a curtained alcove, thrust the curtain aside with a dramatic flair that made her ass wiggle inside that tight gray skirt, and I thought she almost looked pretty, almost as if she wouldn’t give your dick frostbite.  “Mr. Greenaway will be in immediately.  I’ll get you your cappucino.”  She flashed another smile, raising her temperature to something almost human and strode off.

Mr. Greenaway was there immediately, and I wondered just what Mr. Rich had told these people on the phone to make them practically fight each other to be able to kiss my ass.  Mr. Greenaway was tall and slender, and even a jerk like me could see that the suit he was wearing was top notch.  You just wanted to take his jacket and curl up with it and take a nap.  I had never been to a tailor before, and I was a little weirded out by all of the measurements Greenaway took, and I was about to ask if he needed to measure my dick, too, but I remembered that I was representing Mr. Rich here.  He noted down all of the measurements in a little black leather notebook and disappeared into a back room.

Blondie reappeared with my cappucino in a real china cup on a saucer, and I sat down in the chair she pointed me to.  It was good coffee, and I managed to get past my earlier reation to her well enough to thank her for it.  Greenaway came back for a moment and said something like “eighteen and thirty-two” and Blondie jumped and trotted off to another part of the store.  I sat back and savored the cappucino, thinking how much nicer it was to be the waited on rather than the waiter.

Blondie came back with a pile of shirts, folded up and wrapped in cellophane.  “Mr. Rich specified that you would like several white shirts, and he also asked me to choose some colors as well.”  I glanced at them and nearly ruined the top one when I saw a tag that said it cost $250.  It took all my control to keep from spitting coffee and milk foam all over it.

“Um, that will be great.  Good.  Fine.”  How the hell do these people talk?  I felt like everything I said was bordering on the obscene.  I might as well say, “Sure, I’ll take all of these motherfucking shirts, and do you have one in fucking purple, you high-toned bitch?”  I didn’t, though, and I wondered if my short acquaintance with Mr. Rich was rubbing off on me.

Later that day, I was sitting at my kitchen table, wondering just what the hell had happened to me when I heard a car pull into the gravel drive.  The muffler sounded shot, so I made a bet with myself that it was my old man.  Never make a bet with yourself–even when you win you lose.  It was my old man, and, since he didn’t come around all that often, I was curious about what he wanted.

I went to the side door and stood there to watch him come up.  He slid painfully out of the pickup cab and slammed the door, probably harder than he needed to, but then that always was his way.  He turned and limped slowly to the door, letting me get a good look at him, not that I needed one.  Although he was only, what? sixty-five?  Not any older than that, for sure.  Anyway, he wasn’t all that old, but he had that battered face that comes from spending days outside during humid New England summers and frigid New England winters.  He was short and wide, like me, but the big muscles were slack and ropy now, and his thick hair was now almost completely white.

“Calvin,” he said as I stepped aside and let him come in.  He sat down with a big sigh and I got him a bottle of Coors from the fridge.  He drank down half without pause, set it down in front of him and looked sharply up at me.  “Heard you were talking to that new guy that blew into town earlier this week.”

“That a fact?”

“Oh, yeah.  That’s what I hear.”  He stared at me and I could see some of his old challenge still there, the kind of challenge that caused many a fight in the long years past.  Once, when I was sixteen, we went at it, and he hit me across the back with a two by four.  I pulled it out of his hands and broke it over his forehead, and since then our fights have been mostly shouting.

“Your sources are good, then,” I told him.  I knew he wanted me to say more, to tell him the whole story, and it was driving him crazy that I wasn’t spilling.  He needed to ask for it, though, was what I decided.

“What’s your business with him?”  There.

“Business.”  I paused, wondering if I should make him ask again, but I took pity on the poor old fool.  “He gave me a job.”

“Oh, yeah?”  His eyes lit up.  “Is he buying a place here, then?  Need some help renovating?”

“Yeah.  No.”  I wasn’t quite sure how to describe what I was going to do, so I paused again.

“Well, tell the goddamn story.  What kind of work is it?  Anything for an old guy like me?”

“No, it’s…complicated.”

“What, like electrical work?  You know I can do that shit.”

“No, not complicated that way.  The job…it’s not the usual kind of thing.”

He leaned back in the chair and made the motions of settling in to hear a story.  “Go on.”

What could I say?  It was all perfectly normal, but at the same time it felt all wrong, like a bit of carpentry that’s just a little off plumb and skews just enough that the level shows it but not enough to cause any serious problems.  I guess I should quit bullshitting around like this and just try to explain what happened.

After Mr. Rich told me I was his hired hand, whether I wanted to be or not, we walked down the road from The White Lily to the old Victorian mansion on the other corner of the green.  The Avon mansion is one of those big, rambling houses with lots of little rooms with odd, unusable dimensions–octagonal rooms and strange things like that.  The outside looks like it was built by a damnably talented carpenter who was maybe high on whatever passed for crack back in the 1890s.  To say that it had gingerbread molding is to say that New England soil has some rocks.  Every curlicue, deranged flower shape, and zigzag pattern you could imagine showed up on the outside of that house.  Not only that, with all of that fancy-work, there were lots of layers, nooks, and crannies, and each one was carefully painted in some bright color—emerald green, ruby red, amber, you name it.  People driving through town like to stop and take pictures of the place, which is one giant pain in the ass if you get caught behind them.  Up until a month or so ago, it had been a bed and breakfast, but the owners had enough of the cold winters and moved everything to Florida.

Mr. Rich strode right up the front steps to the large wrap-around porch as if he owned the place, and, before he told me, I knew that he did, in fact, own the place.  That figures, I thought.  This building had the same sort of prissy, fussy exterior that showed on the man, but, like Mr. Rich, the building was solid and toughly built inside.  He stopped at the front door and looked at me.

“This, Calvin, is going to be my new business venture,” he said.

“And I’m going to be your bouncer, right?”  I made a show of looking around, even though I knew the place well already.  I had replaced the furnace just two years ago.  “Don’t know how to tell you this, but it doesn’t exactly look like a place that needs a bouncer.  I mean, it doesn’t look like the velvet rope kind of place, now, does it?”

“Bouncer is your word, Calvin,” he told me in a schoolteacher sort of voice.  It wasn’t my word but his, but never mind that.  “This is going to be an elite little gathering spot.”  He pronounced elite “ayleet,” and I started to worry again about how I was going to fit in this “ayleet” establishment.

“It will be a private club, with a very select patronage.  Men who may need things done for them, who might feel more comfortable with the knowledge that this is a discreet, secure place, with a tough, no-nonsense security man on the premises.  That would be you.”

I turned and walked along the porch railing to the side of the house away from the street.  It could work, I thought.  Maybe.  But wasn’t there already a country club?  I know there are a lot of wealthy types up here, but I wasn’t so sure that this town needed another rich hideout.  As I was standing there I saw a young girl of come around from the back of the house holding something close to her thin chest.  She saw me standing there and she started like a young deer, but then she saw Mr. Rich behind me, and she looked reassured.  She had to be his daughter, then, since only blood kin could find him reassuring.

“Daddy,” she said in a small voice.  Now that she was closer, I could see that she was a little older than I had thought, maybe thirteen, and my heart broke a little bit more.  “Look what I found.”  She held up a small black kitten.  It made a tiny mewling sound and she stroked its ears softly.  “Can I keep it?”

I glanced back at Mr. Rich to see what he would say.  He didn’t strike me as the animal-lover type, and I couldn’t imagine his heart getting soft at the sight of a kitten.  His daughter, though, was another story.  His face softened and he said, “Yes, but you will have to take care of it.  This is not a joke.  Taking care of an animal is a real responsibility, and I expect you to do it well.”

“Yes, Daddy,” she said.  She smiled into the kitten’s fur and ran softly back around the house.

Mr. Rich’s face had returned to its usual state and he eyed me with that same sort of amusement–like he was watching a dog perform some sort of unusually civilized trick–that he normally used with me.  The smile he gave his daughter was real enough, but the one he gave me was cold, hard, and calculated.  “So, Calvin.”  He stopped and seemed to be at a loss.  He couldn’t very well ask me if I would take the job, since he had already told me I was taking it, so what was there to say?

“This fancy ‘ayleet’ club–what’s it called?” I asked, giving “ayleet” just a hint of a sarcastic twist.

Mr. Rich laughed, a large, honest laugh for a change.  “Oh, Calvin, there is more to you than meets the eye, isn’t there?”  He looked around as if sizing up the place.  “A name.  Yes.  I was going to call it simply ‘The Club.'”

“That sounds pretty stupid, if you ask me.”

“You may have noticed, Calvin, that I did not ask you.”  That quick glimpse of honest good cheer I thought I had seen a moment ago was gone, and the cold, hard son of a bitch was back with a vengeance.  He looked like he might like to hit me again.  “What, if I may deign to ask, would call my fine establishment?”

“The Black Kitten,” I said.

I got in my truck and drove into town, found a parking space, and walked up to the front entrance of The White Lily.  I looked at my watch as I started up the stairs and saw that it was just about nineteen minutes after I had hung up, or, really, after Mr. Rich had hung up on me.  That made me feel uneasy, I hate to admit.  He knew just how long it would take me to get there, which meant he also knew where I lived.  This guy just knew too much to make me feel comfortable–anyone who knows this much about anyone is either an IRS asshole or a crook.  And Mr. Rich didn’t have that g-man look.

The White Lily is a big colonial clapboard building, painted white of course.  It has all of the crap that the rich New Yorkers like to see when they get away to the wilderness of Connecticut.  There’s an old-timey sign hanging out front with a picture of a white lily painted on–very original, right?  The front has a big porch with several wooden rocking chairs big enough for the over-padded ass of the rich New Yorkers.  When you go inside, it keeps screaming “money” until you feel like you’re going to go deaf.  It’s all dark wood and thick carpets and heavy glass vases filled with more of those stupid white lilies.  Just to the right is a wide doorway leading to a big living room, or what would be a living room in a house.  Here I guess it’s a lounge or something like that.  Anyway, the back side of the room is almost completely filled with a huge fieldstone fireplace with a bunch of overstuffed armchairs and dainty little tables arranged around in front of it.  Hanging on the walls way up high near the ceiling are old rusty farm tools–saws, hoes, crap like that–and that always really pisses me off.  Real people used those tools, guys who did real work with their nads, and now they’re hanging up so some asshole with a hundred dollar haircut can pretend he’s some gentleman farmer.

Mr. Rich was sitting in one of the big armchairs off to the side, where he could keep an eye on the doorway.  He glanced at his watch and smiled, like he had known exactly what was going to happen.  I didn’t like that look, but I was starting to get the sick feeling that I was trapped in that famous maze with the bull monster at the center.  Mr. Rich was the bull monster, without a doubt.

I decided that I should take this bull monster by the horns, so I went up and sat down in the armchair opposite Mr. Rich without waiting for him to ask me.  He smiled again, and I felt another twist in my gut that told me he knew exactly why I was doing what I was doing.  I hate it when people think they have me figured out, especially when they think they are moving me just the way they want.

“So what’s all this about?” I demanded.

“Your employment, of course,” said Mr. Rich.  “Just as I told you on the phone.  You are not currently employed, am I right?”

I just looked at him for a minute, trying to make him feel uneasy, but it didn’t work.  I hate to say this: I was the one who blinked, dammit.  “I’m between jobs right now,” I finally said.  Then, for some stupid reason, I had to go on.  “My work is seasonal, so we’re in between summer jobs and winter jobs.  Once the cold sets in, things’ll pick up.”

“Indeed,” he said, and I got the feeling he was not really listening.  “How much did you earn last year, Calvin?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Your earnings, Calvin.  How much money did you make last year?  Gross or net, it does not matter.”

“Enough.”

“Indeed,” he said again.  I was beginning to hate his stupid little “indeeds.”  He reached into the pocket of his gray blazer and pulled out a pair of those prissy little reading glasses and slipped them on.  He looked at me over the tops of the glasses, which I thought made him look like an even bigger asshole.  He produced a piece of paper from somewhere and looked down at it.  I couldn’t quite tell what it was, but from what I could see, it looked like it had those blurry lines you see on photocopies.

“Eighteen thousand, two hundred and fifty-six dollars,” he said.  I felt my back go up at the mocking tone in his voice.  “Oh, yes.  And twenty-three cents.  That was what you earned last year.  Gross.”

He let the paper droop a little and I could see it was a photocopy of my tax form, and that was going just too fucking far.  I stood up and said, “Go to hell, you cheap fuck.” I got ready to make a dramatic exit.

Mr. Rich didn’t move, didn’t blink, didn’t do anything.  He just said, in a real quiet voice, “Sit.  Down.  Now.”

I sat.  What would you have done?  You know you would have sat down, too.

“I am beginning a new business venture here in town.  I am in need of someone local, someone I can trust, who can offer security to my guests.  The job will not be overly strenuous, and it will pay you three thousand dollars per month.”  He smiled, and, let me tell you, if anyone ever smiled at you like that, you’d piss your pants.  “That’s gross, of course.  We will make sure all federal, state, and local taxes are properly paid.”

“Security?” I asked.  I must have had a stupid look on my face, because Mr. Rich looked impatient for the first time.

“Yes, security.  You will provide the security at my new establishment.  Or, if you prefer, you will be my bouncer.”

“Three thousand a month to be a bouncer?”  I asked.  “What’s the catch?”

Mr. Rich laughed, and it sounded like a genuine laugh to me.  “No catch, Calvin.  Unless you consider working for me to be a catch.”

“You said earlier that you already interviewed me.  What if I don’t want to be interviewed or don’t want a job?”  I really wanted this job–the money sounded too good–but my pride pushed me to fight this at least a little.

“Oh, Calvin,” he said, “don’t let your good sense take a back seat to your pride.”  I must have jumped a little when he said that, a little shocked that he had seen through me so easily because he laughed again.  “Shall we go inspect the premises and discuss your duties?”  He stood up and started to walk towards the doorway.

“Don’t you want to know if I’m going to take the job?”

He stopped and half-turned to look back at me.  “And why would I need to hear that?”

Blah, blah, blah.  Same disclaimer as last time.  This is going to get ugly the deeper you get in the story, so if ugly bothers you, don’t even think about reading this.

I had no trouble waking up in time to call Mr. Rich the next morning.  What I did have trouble with was actually falling aslepp that night.  All I could think about was how he had knoecked me on my ass.  I didn’t even see the punch coming, so how had he done it?  The idea that this rich bastard, thin and weak as he looked, could knock me flat pissed me off.  Strangley, though, I didn’t have the urge to take him on again.  The guy was scary fast.

Partly because I thought he might get mad enough to track me down and punch me in the face again, and partly out of curiosity, I decided to call him.  If I have to tell the truth, though, the curiosity was the biggest part of it.  What the hell reason did he have to pick me?  And what kind of a job was he offering?

I dialed the number on the card he had thrown at me the night before.  “Calvin,” he said when he answered.  Not a question–he just knew it was me, which worried me a little, I have to admit.

“Yeah, it’s Calvin,” I said, “I’m calling like you asked me to.”

“And you’re punctual.  That’s a good thing.  I require my employees to be punctual.”

“I didn’t know I was your employee,” I said.  “There wasn’t any interview or anything else like that.”

“On the contrary,” he said.  Somehow he managed to make a prissy line like “on the contrary” sound less prissy and more…I don’t know.  Tough?  Mean?  Bad ass?  Whatever, he sounded like a guy who could say “on the contrary,” drink some fruity drink with an umbrella in it, and then shoot you in the teeth.  And then laugh about it.

“We interviewed last night.  I’d like you to come down to the White Lily, where I will fill you in on your new job duties.”

“I sure as hell don’t remember the interview.  All I remember is you sucker-punching me and knocking me on my ass.”

“Precisely,” he said, again in that not-prissy tone.  “That was the interview.  I’ll expect you here in twenty minutes.”  There was a click and the phone went dead.

But first, a warning.  Last night at my mystery book club, we discussed Cornell Woolrich’s novel The Black Angel, and we started riffing on the title and the noir genre.  We came up with a lot of goofy titles for noir novels, including, the horribly un-noir “The Black Kitten.”  I kept thinking about this, and by the time we had arrived home late last night, I had more or less written the first chapter in my head.  So, what follows is some trashy neo-noir.  Though the title is silly, I am taking the genre seriously, and it will be sordid, disgusting, and offensive.  If that sort of thing makes you feel uncomfortable, move your cursor up to the browser and click to go to another page.  If, on the other hand, you like noir, feel comfortable with its conventions, and don’t mind a story filled with characters you would not invite home, then read on.

I knew he was a gold-plated bastard even before he offered me the job, although it’s closer to the truth to say he just flat-out told me I was working for him.  Up here in northern Connecticut we see his type often enough, and you might say I’m just writing down a bunch of cliches right now, but even cliches have some truth.  This is the land of the second home, the big horse ranch for some financial type who wants to pretend to be a lord of the manor or play farmer for a weekend and then go back to doing whatever these rich assholes do during the work week.  The guy usually shows up in his big Mercedes, with his shellacked silver hair and a much younger trophy wife, a slim blonde bitch goddess with designer tits.

The only damned thing I remember my high school history teacher telling us as we sat in his overheated classroom, bored out of our skulls, was that the named of our town was the same name given to the promised land in the Bible.  I don’t know why god promised our town to these rich guys from New York City, but he apparently did, leaving us locals to wade knee-deep in horse shit, mucking out the fancy stalls–nicer places than some of us lived, actually–or plant a huge crop of blisters on our hands, heaving rocks to make sure the stone walls around the Lord’s Manor had the right ye olde New England look to it.  I’ve done all that and more.  I’ll plow your goddamn driveway, trim your goddamn trees, or fish a ton of soggy maple leaves out of your goddamn swimming pool.  Lately, though, I’ve had indoor work, courtesy–I guess that’s the right word–courtesy of this gold-plated bastard to beat all gold-plated bastards.

But Mr. Rich–yes, that’s his name, Mr. Paul Rich, and god have mercy on your soul if you ever forget that “Mr.”  Mr. Rich didn’t show up the usual way, or with the usual female company.  Instead, one day in the middle of the week he just appeared at The White Lily, the hoity-toity inn in front of the green in the center of town, with a pile of expensive luggage and his little wisp of a daughter in tow.  She was about thirteen, looked eight, and had a shy quiet smile that made you wonder just what kind of woman her mother was, because she sure as hell didn’t get that from her bastard of a father.  My own daughter would have been her age, so I took a liking to this little one despite, or probably because her old man was such a louse.  And her name?  I remember reading in my ex-wife’s People magazine some of the ridiculous names celebrities and other rich assholes load on their poor kids, things like Apple.  Seriously, Apple.  What kind of parent names her kid Apple?  Anyway, Mr. Rich’s little wisp of a daughter was called Tempest, and if ever a name didn’t fit a kid, this was the time.  When I heard her name, I went home and looked it up.  Turns out a tempest is a storm, and this little girl was definitely not a storm, unless..but I’m getting ahead of my story here.

A couple days after Mr. Rich showed up in our fair town, I was in Will’s Tavern, out on Route 42 south of the green.  It’s definitely a locals kind of place, a big red barn with a wide gravel parking lot and neon beer signs in the windows.  The rich bastards don’t much like the place because it spoils their lord of the manor fantasies, but as far as the locals are concerned, these guys can just pound sand.  It must have been about 7 o’clock or so when Mr. Rich walked in to the bar.  The place didn’t go quiet like in the movies, but you could feel a little shiver go through the room when people looked up and noticed him standing there.  He looked like he didn’t belong, and I got the feeling that Mr. Rich doesn’t like to look that way.  he belongs wherever he is, and that’s that.

Mr. Rich is a tall man, with short-cropped silver hair and a short, neat beared.  He is very slim, with sharp, jutting cheekbones and eyebrows and thin lip.  He was wearing a suit that night, which may have been part of the reason he looked like he didn’t belong, but there was more to it than that.  The suit was neatly tailored–even I could tell that–with sharp creases that hung gracefully on his frame.  The man looked like a walking knife–all silver and sharp.

He walked up to the bar and took the stool next to me.  The bartender, a good guy named Marlowe, was there immediately and asked him what he wanted.  Marlowe looked nervous, though, and you could tell he was wondering what the hell this guy wanted in his bar.  He was worried that this obviously rich guy would want something he didn’t have, some fancy brand of scotch or something like that.  Mr. Rich didn’t, though.  He ordered a Sam Adams on tap and drank down half of it right away before setting the glass down on the bar.  He turned around on his stool so he could look out at the crowd, which was a little thin for a Friday night.

He turned to me and looked me up and down.  It was a creepy look that made me feel like he had undressed me, looked me over, and found me wanting.  It wasn’t a sexual thing, though.  It felt more like a butcher looking over a hog he’s about to bleed out.

Now, I’m not your shrinking violet type.  My ex used to call me her tough little caveman back when she still had some nice things to say to me.  I’m not tall, but I’m broad and muscular.  Not muscular in the pansy body builder way, but filled out with honest muscle from hauling rocks and digging ditches and doing real work. Still, having this guy look me over like that made me nervous, and I must have sat up a little straighter on the stool and puffed myself out to make my muscles look bigger.

“You’re a tough, hairy little fuck, aren’t you?”  Mr. Rich said in my general direction.

It wasn’t quite clear that he was talking to me, so I thought about letting it slide.  SInce I was really the only tough, hairy little guy there, though, I figured it wouldn’t do to let it slide, so I said, “What’s it to you?”  Not the most clever line in the woerld, I’ll admit, but those guys in movies with the snappy comebacks all have some asshole write out their lines for them in advance.

“I’m looking for a tough customer,” Mr. Rich went on.

“Sorry, guy.  I don’t swing that way.”  I knew he wasn’t coming on to me, and I also knew that making such an accusation could get me a punch in the face, but I was frankly looking for some sort of dust-up.  It had been a bad week.

He didn’t get mad, though.  He laughed and said, “You always talk to strangers that way?”

“You always call strangers hairy little fucks?” I shot back.  I thought that was pretty clever, considering.

He turned and looked me right in the eye for the first time, and I got my first glimpse of what kind of guy I was dealing with.  Not just a gold-plated bastard, but solid, all the way through.  I felt a little uneasy, and my gut started to churn.

“I call it as I see it.”  He leaned in closer and spoke in a low, menacing voice.  “You need to learn your place, Mr. Little Hairy Fuck.  You need to know when you’re talking to someone who can make a difference in that miserable pile of shit you call your life.”

I had had enough of this rich bastard coming into my bar, my place, the place where all of us locals go to get away from teh rich bastards, and calling me names.  “All right,” I said, “let’s take this outside.”  I got up and walked to the door, not even looking back to see if he was following.  I pushed the door open, hard, and stomped out into the dusty parking lot.

When I turned around, he was right there, which I have to admit did surprise me a little.  Not that much, though, because I had started to see that this guy was someone used to kicking people around.

I took one step closer to him, my hands balled into fists.  For the past two months, I had been rebuilding a stone wall along one of the estates, so my hands were as strong and tough as they could get, with calluses on top of calluses.  I knew that all I need to do was connect once, and this guy, tough or not, was going to wake up in the emergency room.

The next thing I knew, I was staring at the sky, which was spinning around in a crazy way, making me feel sick to my stomach.  I could feel something trickling down my face, and I guessed it was probably blood.  I closed my eyes and when I opened them that bastard was standing over me, smiling.  It was not a friendly smile, but it was not really menacing, either.  It seemed to say, “All right, then.  I’ve put you in your place, so now let’s talk.”

“You’re working for me now,” he said.  He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small card, which he dropped on my chest.  “This is my cell phone number.  Call me tomorrow morning at eight.”  He leaned closer and looked into my eyes.  “Better make that eight-thirty.  Don’t make me wait.”  He turned and walked away.

And that is how I became employed by Mr. Paul Rich, solid gold bastard.

Summer Update

Although I started the summer with some moderate ambitions, things haven’t quite worked out the way I had planned.  In my racing, I did fairly well early in the season, but I haven’t finished a race in over a month now.  Because of some sort of as yet undiagnosed problem, I’ve been feeling sick and tired and end up in too much pain to ride as hard as I would like.  Unfortunately, this tends to happen even when I’m not racing, so I’ve been off the bike entirely for a week now.  With luck, I’ll kow soon what the problem is, and I’ll be able to get back on the bike in time for some late summer and fall riding.

Yesterday was beautiful and sunny, and, since I’m not riding, Dorothy and I decided to take a walking tour of Manhattan bookstores.  She had found this tour on another blog, and thought it sounded like fun.  We skipped the Brooklyn part of the tour, as that seemd overly ambitious, which turned out to be a smart idea: even without the Brooklyn part, we walked something like 7 miles with increasingly heavy backpacks.

Our first stop was a small independent bookstore in the West Village, and then we wandered a few blocks over to a mystery bookshop.  After that, we wandered through a street fair near NYU before heading to two more stores in SOHO, one filled with new books, the other with used.  Then, we headed north and east, across the Bowery to another small shop.

Here is what I took home:

  • The Writing Class by Jincy Willett
  • The Book of Air and Shadows by Michael Gruber
  • Parnassus on Wheels by Christopher Morley
  • The Haunted Bookshop by Christopher Morley
  • The Death of a Joyce Scholar by Bartholomew Gill
  • Living by Fiction by Annie Dillard
  • Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson
  • The Thoreau You Don’t Know by Robert Sullivan
  • Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

The back cover of my copy of The Likeness compares French’s novel to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, so when I realized that Dorothy had a copy (in hardcover, no less), I pulled it off the shelves and found myself immersed in one of the most odd, ambivalent, happy, and annoyed reading states ever.  I liked the novel a lot while I also disliked it a lot.  I’m not sure which side is winning, but as I think more about how the narrative is structured, and as I see what Tartt is doing (or trying to do) with time and the setting, I sort of want to reevaluate my response and see the problems as strengths, or at least as intentional authorial choices rather than flaws in technique.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The novel begins with a short prologue that lets us know that the narrator and the rest of his insular group of college students killed one of their own several years earlier.  Once this tantalizing tease is set up, the narrator jumps back to fill us in on his background and the events leading up to the murder.  Richard Papen is a native Californian who longs to get away from his working class parents and their sharply circumscribed lives, so he, on a whim, applies to Hampden College in Vermont (apparently based on Bennington, where Donna Tartt was an undergraduate in the 1980s).  Once in Vermont, Richard endures many of the typical fish out of water experiences that mark college novels, until he falls in with a strange group of undergraduates who are all studying classics.  The classics prof is a wealthy eccentric who tutors only a small handful of students, on his own terms, using his own private classroom, all while thumbing his blue-blooded nose at the college administration.  Professor Morrow exemplifies the classics, with his deep knowledge of ancient history, languages, art, and culture and a corresponding disdain of modern philistinism.  He is a complete aesthete, and probably completely amoral besides.

Richard fellow students are all immensely wealthy, or make a good, Gatsby-esque show of being immensely wealthy.  He nevertheless manages to fit in with the group as they lounge in overstuffed chairs and speak to each other in pithy Greek epigrams.  Soon, though, problems arise in the group as friendships show strain from unseen horrors.  Richard learns that four of the group had been experimenting with Dionysian ritual and had tried to tap into the ancient ecstasy recounted in some of their texts.  The ritual is successful, in a sense, but a sort of tragedy (more on the “sort of” later), and one of the friends not involved in the experiment, a blustery New England prepster named Bunny, begins to blackmail the students involved.  When the rest of the Greek students can stand Bunny’s increasingly unhinged threats no longer, they push him off a cliff.

This novel is not a mystery–there is no doubt who killed Bunny or why.  It is also not a mystery because the police do not suspect foul play.  However, the five remaining friends, with guilty thoughts tormenting them and straining their relationships to the suicidal limit, never feel safe despite the lack of police interest.  The psychological stress each undergoes provides the real narrative impetus, and in that sense it is a satisfying novel.  I found myself obsessed with their torment and Tartt’s narrative strategy to release small pieces of information at a time made me keep turning the pages.

But.  But, but, but.  For some reason I was frequently irritated by this novel.  Part of it was the tone, which felt all wrong.  It was fussy and condescending at times, lending an almost anachronistic air to things; I had trouble believing Richard would write this way.  It is true that he is writing years after the events, after he has become an English professor, but the tone still felt awkwardly posed, mannerist, and contrived.  The characters were also far too odd and eccentric.  Bunny, who comes from a New England banking family with a very expensive reputation to maintain, talked, I thought, too much like a parody of Fitzgerald.  Did any college student in the 1980s (when I presume this was set–the timeline is not clear, either, something else that annoyed me) call his friends “old boy” like a bluff, dense, country squire from a Dorothy Sayers novel?  And then there are the class issues.  Richard is very poor, but somehow immediately blends in with the rich preppy kids, wearing tweed suits and vintage ties (really?) around campus.  Furthermore, in their Dionysian experiment, the four rich kids accidentally kill an old Vermont farmer.  Because it is done in the spirit of aesthetic and intellectual curiosity, the murder seems like no big deal.  Their professor, when he hears about it, is more excited that they were successful in their attempts to reach some ecstatic peak than in the death of some poor farmer.  It reeks of noblesse oblige and makes me more angry the more I think about it.

It was a good, interesting story, but it has left me in turmoil as I fight myself about its final merits.