9

CHRISTMAS IS HERE, IF THE CROWDS DESCENDING on the Macy’s in Herald Square are any indication. Which for me means that walking—the bedrock principle of my workday—is getting tougher. Bitter winds off the river pounce like Clouseau’s man Kato, knocking about the unprepared. Mini-tsunamis form by whatever angle of intersection causes rubber tires to launch numbingly-cold waves of ash-colored snow and gravel onto already icy sidewalks. Getting from point A to point B requires determination, concentration, and fortitude.

None of which is enough to bring me down. Then again, I’m high.

“The whole visit to Daphne, I think it transformed me. It just felt like I was doing the right thing. Like I had a place in the universe as a force for good.”

Or so I explain to Tana as 21 Jump Street goes to commercial break. She smiles brightly, unsure how seriously to take my epiphany. “You going to bogart that spliff all night?” I pass her the joint. “You’re not going to join the Peace Corps,” she asks, taking a puff. “Are you?”

“No,” I reply, taking the weed back from her. “I don’t know. I haven’t thought this all the way through. But it’s almost like my whole life has been leading to this point.”

“You have spent a lot of time in the food service industry. And delivering pot, you’re helping a lot of people.”

I nod gravely, examining the burning stick in my hand. “Food for the soul.”

“Uh-huh,” she says, reaching toward me. “Now share. Me hungry.”

Earlier that evening, I’d spoken to Larry Kirschenbaum about Daphne’s father. He gave me the name of a private investigator he thought might be able to help—an excop named Henry Head—but he’d probably charge me five hundred a week.

“Not a problem,” I responded a little too quickly, causing Larry to study me in a new light. Not respect, exactly—more like the instinct, earned from decades of defending criminals, that I might sometime soon require his professional services.

The truth was I could afford Henry Head, thanks to my ongoing business relationship with Danny Carr. I’d planned to reinvest the extra salary into my ongoing efforts to woo K. away from Nate. But so far it hadn’t mattered: I hadn’t seen her in the nearly two weeks since we’d mashed in the bar. In the rush to leave I’d forgotten to ask for her number. Ray thought he had it, but couldn’t find it, and suggested I “just drop by her place.” Which I did, once again feeling like a stalker, again with zero success.

That Friday night, I debark the elevator on Danny Carr’s floor. His assistant Rick is outside the office door, hovering over a fax machine.

“So if it isn’t the man of mystery,” he greets me.

“Howdy, Rick. The boss around?”

“Just finishing up a call. You guys gonna…” Rick places his thumb and forefinger in front of his mouth and sucks in, mimicking a toke.

“I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about.”

Rick smiles, or at least bares his canines trying. “So it’s like that, huh?” He turns his attention to the inbox on his desk. A minute later, Danny pokes his head out from his office.

“My new best friend,” he says, gesturing me in. “You can go, Rick.”

“What about the fax?”

“I’ll get the fax,” Danny replies. “Now get out of here.”

Rick gathers his things slowly, a man with something on his mind. “You decide about those tickets?” he finally blurts out.

“Yeah,” Danny says in a flat voice. “I don’t think that’s going to happen this time.”

“Ain’t no thang,” replies Rick. “See you on Monday, Boss. Don’t party too hard this weekend. Later days and better lays.”

Danny’s already on his way back into his office. I follow, closing the door behind me per his request.

“What a prick,” he says, already removing the vaporizer from his sin cabinet. “Wants my fucking Knicks tickets to impress some piece of tail from Staten Island. What a fucking waste of a human penis.”

Danny hands me the money, five hundred dollars already promised to Henry Head, who during our five-minute telephone conversation would guarantee no immediate results but assured me that “when you need a private dick, you can count on the Head.” I’d kept reminding myself that Larry Kirschenbaum had vouched for him.

“You want ’em?” he asks. “The tickets. I’m supposed to be on a plane to Saint Bart’s in…” He looks at his watch. “Right now. Come on, take ’em. They’re behind the Sonics bench. You can play bongos on the X-Man’s bald head. Don’t… You can’t do that, I’ll lose my tickets, but you know what I mean.”

It’s amazing, I tell myself as I exit the office with the tickets in my pocket, what you can accomplish by just not being a dickhead. And it only gets better: The elevator is waiting for me when I push the button. The uptown 2 arrives the moment I reach the platform. There is an open seat near the door. And when I finally reach the hotel with time enough to change—out of slavish loyalty to what I now consider to be my brand, the well-dressed drug dealer, I’m still wearing business-casual—I hear a familiar voice call my name. I spin around to see K.

“I thought I recognized that ass,” she says.

“Hey,” I protest. “I’m not just a sex object you can ogle.”

“Mmm. Too bad. I had fun the other night.”

“Me too. I tried to call you until I realized I didn’t have your number.”

“I’ve been superbusy,” she says.

“Life in the big city.”

We wait together for the light at Seventh Avenue. “Also…,” she starts, then trails off.

“Don’t tell me. You’ve got herpes.”

“Gross me out. No, I’ve got a boyfriend. And I probably shouldn’t be kissing strange men in bars.”

“I think if you get to know me,” I say, starting across the street, “you’ll find I’m really not that strange. And besides, there’s the whole thousand-mile rule.”

“That’s riiiight,” she says, catching up to me. “I forgot about the thousand-mile rule. I’m sure Nate would understand.”

“He seems like an understanding guy.”

“Only I can’t ask him tonight,” she adds, “on account of the band being in Cleveland. How far away is Cleveland?”

“Cleveland, Spain?”

By the time we reach the Chelsea, I have a date for the Knicks game. We agree to change and meet in the lobby in fifteen minutes.

“WEED MAN!” MY DATE CALLS to me from the end of the row. “You’re our only hope!”

“Yell it a little louder, Nate,” I reply. “I don’t think the whole team heard you.” One of the Sonics’ bench players turns around and winks at me, confirming they had.

I take some solace in the idea that he’s not trying to embarrass me as much as draw attention to himself—while I still don’t have enough information to judge his musical talents, it’s clear that Nate already has a rock star’s appetite for attention. He’s the only person in the Garden wearing a purple velvet Mad Hatter lid festooned with peacock feathers.

“I seem to have departed the manse without my portfolio,” he continues, his voice faux-preppie, a nod and a fuck-you to the millionaires who surround us, it seems. “Would you be so kind as to slap a twenty on me? The local stout runs five a pop.”

I wonder how badly we have to behave for Danny Carr to lose his season tickets. I give us a fighting chance.

After waiting for a half hour in the lobby at the hotel, staring at the art and evading Herman’s questions about poems I had no intention of writing, I’d foolishly climbed up the stairs.

I find the door to K.’s suite partially open. I knock and no one answers, so I cautiously push open the door. Nate walks out of the bedroom, cradling his cock.

“Wart or canker sore?” he asks, holding it up for inspection.

Nate’s dick is long, skinny, and buck naked, like everything else about him. Even from a distance I can see what appears to be a red blemish near the tip. But Nate’s not looking at his dick—he’s staring at the Knicks tickets, which for some idiotic reason I’m holding in my hand.

“The Knicks? Bangin’!” Nate turns toward the bedroom, mock-Ricky Ricardo. “Oh, Lucy… you have a vis-i-tor….”

K. emerges from the bedroom in a robe. Her eyes plead for forgiveness. Everything else about her screams freshly fucked.

“Need a date?” Nate asks, referring to the tickets. “I fly home early to surprise my girl only to discover she’s ditching me for the Isle of Lesbos.”

“Maybe if you warned me you were coming,” she says to Nate without taking her eyes off me, “I wouldn’t have made plans with the girls.”

“They always say they want more spontaneity,” Nate says, “Until you surprise them.”

“That’s only because your idea of a surprise,” protests K., “is to accidentally slip it into my ass.”

Nate grins like a well-fed cat. “You weren’t complaining for very long.”

“And they say romance is dead,” I deadpan, a major accomplishment given the nuclear explosions taking place in my brain.

“I like this guy,” Nate tells K., whipping a tentacle-like arm around my shoulder. “So what do you say, Weed Man? Boys night out?”

I look at my pager, amazed at the speed of my transformation from would-be cuckolder to cuckold. I know I don’t have any good reason to be angry at K., but I am anyway. “Why not?”

Who the hell walks into a room holding up tickets?

As Danny promised, the seats are close enough to smell the game. But smelling sweaty men hardly seems like a consolation prize. When Nate offers to buy me a beer with my own money, I pull a twenty out of my pocket, crumple it into a ball, and wing it at him.

“Classy,” he says, picking it up off the floor.

I try to lose myself in the action. The game moves both faster and slower than it does on television. Up close, the players jump and cut much faster than their freakish size (also more impressive in person) should allow. But the Knicks’ style of play, halting and deliberate and bruisingly predicated on fouling the opposition every time they drive toward the basket, seems to suck some of the joie de vivre from the room. Not helping is their coach, who calls a timeout every time the Sonics manage to string together two baskets in a row.

“You should see the asshole who usually sits here,” I hear a guy behind me say about my seats.

A backhanded compliment? Damnation by faint praise? Does it fucking matter? I am itching for a fight.

Only when I spin around, I see Liz, my favorite client from the Upper East Side. Her attention-demanding breasts provide support to something fuzzy and charcoal, too long to be a sweater but too short to be a skirt, allowing plenty of exposure for long, athletic legs wrapped in shimmery black tights and high-heeled boots. Her hair is moussed and tousled. A light layer of makeup helps her eyes to outsparkle the diamond studs in her ears, while the string of pearls around her neck make her look like she’s just stepped out of Vanity Fair.

“Hi,” I say.

“You know this guy?” says the man sitting next to her, the one I’d targeted for a fight. He’s in his mid-forties, wearing a brown suit and a Yankees cap to cover what I assume is male-pattern baldness. Liz’s mind seems to be cycling through potential replies. Or potential escape routes.

“Liz and I went to high school together,” I say, extending a hand. “The name’s Coopersmith… Biff Coopersmith.”

“Jack Gardner,” he replies, taking my hand tentatively, then crushing it. “High school? I could swear Lizzie said she went to Spence.”

“Mmm-hmm,” I say, freeing my hand.

“He means summer camp,” Liz interjects, “since Spence is an all-girls school.”

“Summer camp!” I laugh. “She was an absolute beast during Color War.”

“Coopersmith,” says Jack, rubbing his chin. “No relation to Casey Coopersmith…?”

“You know my cousin Casey?” I slap Jack on the knee. “He’s the best.”

“Casey’s a she.”

“Well, sure,” I say. “Since the operation.”

Liz, who’d been smiling wryly, allows herself a soft giggle. Nate returns with the beers and I make introductions all around. I don’t bother with my ridiculous new alias as I doubt Nate remembers my real name.

“You have a lovely daughter,” Nate says to Jack, nodding toward Liz and moving way up my admittedly short list of people I like. With a bullet.

“I do,” Jack manages through clenched teeth. “She’s thirteen and lives in Boston with her mother.”

“Good for you, old man!” says Nate. Now it’s his turn to slap Jack on the knee. “So the plumbing’s still in order then?”

“The plumbing is in excellent condition,” he replies with surprising pride. “I should know. I’m a urologist.”

“You’re a cock doc?” screams Nate, once again capturing the attention of the Sonics’ bench. “Brilliant! You probably get this all the time, but I’ve got this spot on my wanker….”

I look at Liz, expecting to see mortification. Instead she’s biting her lip, determined to keep the giggles from becoming guffaws. “I’m going to get a pretzel,” I announce, already on my feet. I’ve just planted myself on line when Liz appears behind me.

“Want to smoke a chonger?” she asks.

We settle on a service corridor off the upper deck. She pulls a joint out of her clutch. I do my trick with the Zippo. “You’re just full of surprises, Biff,” she says, blowing a cloud of smoke over her shoulder. “But thank you for not, you know, just blurting it out. It’s only our third date. Too early to tell him I have my own weed dealer. Your name’s not really Biff, is it?”

“Third date’s a biggie. You two done the wild thing yet?”

“The wild thing?” She folds her arms. Playfully. Maybe even flirtatiously. Then again, I misread the signs with K.

“I’m not judging,” I say. “We can’t control who we’re attracted to.”

“It’s not as if…,” she sputters. “I mean, he’s handsome….”

“Bald.”

“Distinguished,” she counters.

“Rich?”

“He is that,” she sighs. “Look, you don’t know me at all….”

“Not yet. But I do know this. You could be doing a lot better than the Cock Doc.”

Her cheeks redden. “That’s sweet of you to say.”

“I speak only the truth, milady. I know plenty of young bucks who’d be honored to lay their horns at your doorstep.”

“I have no idea what that means. Is that supposed to be some kind of metaphor?”

“Meta-what?!” I am already buzzed. “The truth is I don’t know what I’m talking about. My brain’s been running low on oxygen from the minute I saw you tonight.”

“You’re bad,” she says.

What happens next isn’t a kiss, exactly. She darts in, touches her lips to mine, and pulls away.

“It’d be a shame to miss the rest of the game,” I say.

Five minutes later, we’re making out in the back of a cab, destination Upper East Side. Arriving at her building, I peel off another twenty and tell the cabbie to keep the change. We fast-walk into the building, trying not to giggle at the door-man.

The charade falls apart in the elevator. We’re laughing. Tears stream down our faces. Then the tongue-mashing resumes. My hands are in tactile wonderland, sliding between the fuzzy sweater and the textured tights. I run my hand under her sweater, cupping her carriage. She moans and presses toward me. I risk a move to the front of her hose, gently tracing a line up her thigh. Two fingers pause between her legs. I can feel her wetness through the nylon.

The elevator opens and we stumble into the hall. Liz leads me by the hand to her apartment. She’s fumbling through her clutch for the keys. I try to kiss her again but she places a finger over my lips. She unlocks the door. Inside, a redheaded girl, fourteen maybe, looks up from the TV.

“You’re home early,” the redhead says.

“Everything okay?” Liz asks.

“Not a peep,” the redhead replies. She’s already putting on her coat.

Liz thanks her and hands her some money. Double-locks the door behind her. She turns toward me like she’s going to explain something, but my lips are already back on hers, my hands again finding their way below her belt. We fall onto the couch. Her hand slides inside the waist of my jeans as far as it can—I’m rock-hard and there’s not exactly a lot of room to maneuver. She uses both hands to rip down my pants and boxers—problem solved. My cock springs out. She squats in front of me and runs her tongue up my shaft, beginning at the base. Reaching the tip, she stands up, satisfied at the view from above. She retrieves a condom from her clutch and tosses it to me. I wrestle with the wrapper while she wiggles out of her tights. She waits for me to finish, hand on hip, a few threads of sweater to protect her modesty.

In the next room, an infant begins to cry.

Privately I’ve always considered myself to have some talent for measuring a woman’s mood. But the expression on Liz’s face is forcing me to reconsider. Not blank, but the opposite. Regret coexisting with pride, with hints of resentment, joy, frustration, shame, resignation, and curiosity. When it comes to emotions, women know how to paint with the full set of oils, while men are busy doodling with crayons.

Liz mumbles a few words of apology and exits in the direction of the intensifying wail. I sit on the couch and look at my raging hard-on, feeling ridiculous. So I slip on my under-wear, grab my pants, and beat a path for the door.

The wailing disappears—I can hear Liz whispering some-thing soft and reassuring. Just ditching her is starting to feel like the wrong play. I look around for a telephone: I can write down her number and call her later to apologize.

“Classy,” I hear Nate saying in my head.

I tiptoe into the bedroom. Having ditched the sweater, Liz sways bare in front of a vanity mirror. She’s nursing a baby, sex indeterminate at this distance. The scene in the mirror confirms I’d been right about the attention-demanding breasts. But I’d missed altogether on their target audience.

Maybe I hadn’t been totally full of shit during my last conversation with Tana. Maybe it’s not about scoring, but about giving.

Liz looks up at the mirror, catching me grinning like Buddha. I recognize her current expression: puzzlement. I wonder if she’s awed by what I imagine to be beams of pure enlightenment shooting out of my eyes, until I realize her focus is stuck on my lower chakras. I glance down at the source of the commotion. Not Buddha, but a boner, back at full mast. By the time I look up at her again, she doesn’t look so puzzled anymore. Something else entirely has moved in.

Still cradling the baby, she sits down at the edge of the bed and falls slowly sideways, until mother and child are horizontal. I sit beside her, resting my hand on her arm. She scissors her legs, an invitation to complete the circuit. Give to receive, I think as I enter her. Give to receive. I thank the universe for serving up such an excellent part for me to play.

Then I get to work. There is some serious providing to be done.

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